You and Peggy don’t agree on many things, but the communication strategy for this whole mess might just be the worst of it. Waiting for the gray of dawn to fall into your bedroom you are having tough time with all of it. And you want to cry, cry like a baby without having to pretend everything will work out. But you cannot risk Damian hearing you. You want him to know the things he will need to know, but even you are not ready to have the discussion just yet. How does it get to this point?
Peggy drove out to State College last night to spend the weekend with her parents. Explanation of your impending separation is her sole agenda item. “With intent to divorce,” you hear Peggy’s voice project into your thoughts. Fifteen years of marriage will do that for you. Peggy told you as if it were a done deal, that this would be good practice for your weekend visits. You want to scream at the insinuation that you need to practice being a father. You have more than carried your own in that regard. You are considering a stronger stance – maybe Damian should move with you – but your lawyer is doubtful. Seems that most courts think that fathers are less capable caregivers. You know that your case could be made, but not without some serious collateral damage. Something you would like to avoid. For the kid’s sake, if nothing else.
Damian, that one focusing element in your lives, is ten, almost eleven. Good kid, too. Still very trusting and genuine, though you expect the next several months will suck all of that out of him. He has strong facial features with locks of curly black hair atop his head. He is starting to take an interest in girls, or maybe they are starting to take an interest in him. Either way he refuses to get his mop of hair cut. Never bothered you, though. You have always encouraged his individuality. Unlike Peggy, trying to homogenize him into the pages of a Pottery Barn Kids catalogue. Soon he will slink into the room sleepily and fall down next to you. He will have forgotten that Peggy will be away. Might as well get that one ready now.
“You know how sometimes it feels good to be with your parents?” you inquire.
“Well, it’s like that even when you’re older. Mom just wants to spend some time with her mom and dad. Does that make sense?”
“Uh-huh. I miss her though.” What about me? A strained voice whispers in your ear.
“She’ll be back Sunday night. Meantime, me and you’ll have a wild boy’s weekend. Right?”
“What will we do?” he asks.
“Well, the Eagles play tomorrow. I thought we’d get a pizza delivered and watch the game together. What do you think?”
“What about today?”
“Today? I don’t know. Any thoughts?”
“Maybe.” He seems surprised somehow that you have made this suggestion. “Anything else?”
“I need to run to Home Depot. But that won’t take long. I need new hoses for the washer.”
“One is ready to burst. Has a big bubble in it.”
“Over time things get worn out. It’s a good thing Mom saw the bubble before it gave out. It could have caused a ton of damage.” These words form slowly for reasons you do not immediately fathom. Damian does not seem to notice this.
“Can I see it?”
“Can I see the hose?”
“When we go downstairs.”
Every conversation with Damian has become like walking on eggs. He is too smart not to know something is wrong. A point that you have repeatedly reminded Peggy. He is also too innocent to know what is amiss. The plan has been mapped out. Mostly by Peggy. In February you are moving to an apartment in the city. Something reasonable and reasonably near the office. As to not spoil Damian’s Christmas, you – both of you – would not tell him until the beginning of the new year. Peggy has a therapist all picked out, despite the fact neither of you has any idea how he might respond to the news. “No matter, therapy will do him good.” She states things like this with an irrefutable certainty, another thing that irks you.
You have lingered too long in the shower. Damian has subtly let you know this by flushing the toilet in your bathroom, siphoning the cold water from your shower. Sorry I forgot, he shouts merrily as he heads down the hall. You are left exposed to the cool air as you wait for the tank to refill, returning the needed cool water so you can rinse the suds from your graying hair. (Peggy has the habit of doing her business near every morning while you are showering, flushing without regard to your plight and offering a meaningless, daily apology of her own, leaving you – literally – steaming.) You quickly finish and dress for the day ahead.
“A Quarter Pounder with cheese?”
“And orange soda.”
“Not on my watch.” This expression, one you might have used with him a hundred times, now staggers over your lips. Again you hope he does not notice.
“Mom lets me.”
You repress the urge to shout that you are not mom. “Does she now?”
“Sure. All the time.” You admire his poker face.
“Maybe you are confusing the words ‘soda’ and ‘juice.’ Could that be it?”
He is smiling at you. “Oh yeah. Juice. Thanks, Dad.”
“Busted,” you laugh. Damian laughs with you.
Damian pretends to be bothered by the Home Depot trip. This was supposed to be a ‘wild’ boy’s weekend, he nudges. He gets impatient when you start singing along with Tom Petty on the radio. Free Fallin. You turn off the music with a sincere, though reluctant, apology. Once in the store, everything changes, however. He has decided what he would like to do with his day.
“Dad? I’ve got it!”
“What we can do while Mom is away.”
“And that is?” you ask, but you can already guess, as his gaze is fixed on and eight-foot tall air-filled snowman.
“Let’s decorate the house for Christmas.”
“Buddy, it’s barely November.”
“Who cares? This is awesome.”
It has been a while since you’ve seen that glow in his eyes. “Yeah,” you say, “who cares?”
“Really! Let’s do it. And do it up right too! Best ever.” This is so wrong you almost picture Peggy stopping whatever it is she is doing at the moment, instinctively racing to the car to intervene. But, alas, she is four-and-one-half hours away; if the Nits are playing at home it’ll be five and a half – at best. Much progress could be made in that amount of time.
“Can we get the snowman?”
“And the Rudolph.”
“Really?” He does not allow for a reply, “Awesome.”
You are both laughing to the point that you are drawing the attention of near everybody in the store, even those supposedly learning how install a chair rail. You have fully loaded a cart for Damian with outdoor lights of various sizes and colors, as well as several good quality electrical cords. You push a lumber dolly loaded with lawn decorations, including two white-light reindeer with bobbing heads. You were in the checkout line when Damian realized that you had failed to get the new washer hoses. You and he are far too noisy at this discovery, but every face you see seems to enjoy the irony of it all. If only they knew. The thought makes you laugh louder still.
Peggy and you were never really much for decorating the outside of the house. The inside, thanks to her expert touch, resembled a Crate and Barrel holiday display. Your first year in the neighborhood, you made a weak effort at outlining the porch beams in colored lights. The effort paled considerably to the efforts made by those around you, to Peggy’s embarrassment. You, reasonably enough, thought that all efforts were worthy. Peggy pointing out the deficiency in the end caused you to never want to decorate again. Let her, you remember thinking. That was six years ago. Nothing more than a wreath purchased from the local Boy Scout Troop and eight faux candles outwardly announced your spirit of glad tidings. This year would change all of that.
Every time an item is scanned, Damian announces the total cost of the sale. When it finally ended – just over seven hundred and eight dollars – the clerk is singing along with your son. You slap your Visa card onto the counter, holding back a fresh run of laughter. Inflatable Rudolph – forty-five dollars; outdoor Christmas lights and hooks enough to outline your house and shutters and two young apple trees – four hundred and seventy dollars; oscillating garage door shadow display – thirty-seven dollars. Seeing the look on your soon-to-be ex-wife’s face – priceless! You want to shout this out to the store. Or at least tell Damian; he’d think the knock-off humor was funny—except for the bit about the ex-wife.
Damian is more focused on this task than you have ever seen him with anything. He has a linear side that you would have never assumed, having navigated the disaster that is his bedroom. He is fixated on keeping the spacing of the lights spiraling up the apple tree trunks at an exact three inches. He has taken full responsibility for the tree trunks and lower parts of the branches – one in green and one in red – as you work your white-light magic on the house. He calls you off the roof when the higher branches need wrapping, but barks orders from the ground like an Irish foreman. The two of you are shouting pleasantly back and forth in the cool afternoon breeze. You warn him too often to be careful on the ladder despite the fact that he has jumped from branches higher than the six-foot aluminum A-frame. Because he is having such a good time he does nothing more than reply, Okay. The sun is hiding behind the house when you have attached the last icicle strip to the westward eave. Before you can see to the lawn ornaments, Damian coaxes you back to Home Depot for some more red lights. It looks stupid this way. I’ve gotten all of the main branches except this one. People will laugh. You are trying not to do the same. Though the branch in question is in the back of the deepest set of the two trees and well obscured, you agree, giving an accepted hair tousle and praising the amount of hard work put into the undertaking.
Back at Home Depot, Damian finds the necessary lights as you eye a reindeer-driven sleigh complete with Santa. You tell him you think it would look perfect suspended from the low roof to the higher. Cool, he agrees. You stop at Wendy’s on the drive home and break the news – over some deep-fried chicken strips – that the balance of the decorating will have to wait until tomorrow. You can tell that the strenuous day is catching up with him; he doesn’t even fake protest. Before the Eagles game, right? After breakfast you both will be back at it you promise, although you are certain you will be sore as hell tomorrow. At home, Damian showers then falls asleep on the sofa watching a Harry Potter DVD.
“It’s Peggy. I left two messages this afternoon. Just calling to check on Damian.”
“Already? Is he sick?”
“No. Just tired is all.”
“We did some work in the yard today. He’s fine.”
“Can you get him?”
“Let him sleep, Peggy. How are your parents?”
“They’re broken up. I’m afraid they don’t know what to do.” Welcome to my world, whispers the strained voice.
You say nothing.
“I guess they’ll get used to it soon enough, though. They’ll have to, really,” Peggy says.
“I guess so.”
“Are you sure he’s asleep.”
“I’m sure. Have a safe drive tomorrow.”
“Never mind. I can tell you later.”
Damian bounds into the room. He wants to finish everything now. It is seven o’clock . Give a guy a break, Dame. Cook me some breakfast or something. Of course he cannot cook. He offers to ‘make’ you some Cheerios, an offer you respectfully decline. After a quick – and flushless – shower, he agrees to a Bob Evans breakfast. The balance of the morning will be dedicated to finishing the decorations. Over breakfast you share another idea. Tonight, after dinner, the two of you move the fire bowl to the front yard and light a fire. Together you can take in your festive handiwork while waiting for Peggy to return. Damian says he cannot wait to see her face. Me either, pal. Me either. Damian wants S’mores for the fire. Excellent suggestion, Dame!
The ascending Santa proves trickier than you imagined, but eventually he and his team are heading for the upper roof. Rudolph and Frosty are anchored in the front lawn and bobbling in the wind. Damian has positioned the oscillating shadow wheel perfectly, projecting a Christmas tree, a flying sleigh with Santa silhouette, and a trumpeting herald across the garage door. Wires are secured and duct taped at the point they cross the walkway. You put your arm on his shoulder and tell him, maybe more sincerely than you have ever spoken to him, that you are proud of him. He pats your shoulder and tells you that this is the best Christmas ever. And it’s not even Thanksgiving, he adds with a laugh.
The Eagles drub the Cowboys as the two of you eat Papa John’s. You are glad finally to have some down time. You allow Damian to drink Coke as you drink Michelob. You both are laughing at anything and everything, feeling free. Damian is more concerned with the progression of the sun than the football game. Every now-and-again he peeks out the curtain to measure the impending darkness. Is it time yet? Three, four, five times. The Pats are on the late game, but he will not let you concentrate. You take a glimpse outside, rub your hands excitedly together and announce that it’s time to get a fire started. Damian grabs the S’mores ingredients and races to the door. Maybe this really is the best Christmas ever. You insist he put a jacket on. You don’t want Mom to be angry with me, do you?
You were never one much for S’mores; sweets of any sort actually. But Damian likes making them, so you eat every other one. Dan Lipzowski, he who formerly presented the neighborhood’s most ornate holiday offering, is walking his Labradoodle. He stops by your fire with a thinly veiled look of disgust. “Bit early for all this isn’t it?”
“It’s six thirty , Dan. Dark enough this time of year.”
“I mean the season.”
“My Dad and I worked all weekend. Doesn’t it look great, Mr. Lipzowski?” interrupts Damian.
The man’s face softens, you fear in pity. “Sure it does, son. Never seen one look better. Just usually not in November is all.”
“My Mom is coming home soon. She’s gonna love it I bet.”
“It’s quite the display, Damian,” he offers before heading down the road, a soft grumble in his wake.
You and Damian sit wordlessly listening to the crackle of the firewood. Could Lipzowski know? Is that why he made that face at your son? Could Peggy have told his wife? Could the entire neighborhood know? How the hell can it be acceptable that this Labradoodle-owning nobody is made aware of your impending separation-with-intention-to-divorce before your own flesh and blood? Before Damian? Damn her! And all of the pain she has inflicted on you. She can play all the games she wants. You will fight her at every turn. And to hell with the collateral damage! She may win, but you will fight. He is your son as much as he is hers.
Staring at the embers, you smile. You are just waiting for her headlights to stream down the hill. Whatever else happens this moment will be yours. She will never touch it.
“Dad? Dad? You okay?”
“Huh? Oh, sure. Smoke in my eyes is all.”
“You think Mom is gonna like it?”
“Would I have done it otherwise?” you ask. “She’s gonna love it.”
“Yeah. This is the best Christmas ever.”
“And it’s not even Thanksgiving,” you laugh.
Peter Cunniffe was raised in Delaware County and has spent most of his adult years residing in Chester County. He is currently completing a collection of short stories related to marriage set in the Philadelphia region.