I got out of the car, pausing to acclimate myself to the heat after the cool of air-conditioning, and walked towards the house, my arms full of groceries. I nearly tripped over a baseball bat lying in the dirt next to the front steps.
“Darn, Christian!” I said, and fumbled for the house key. Perching a bag on my left hip, I struggled to open the door. I heard my dog Garnett scratching furiously at the other side. The afternoon rains had ended moments earlier, but the heat and humidity of the day still clung in the air.
“Christian!” I hollered and crossed the threshold into the tiny house I rented on the grounds of a plant nursery in rural Florida. I flung my purse on the couch and glanced into the living room on my right. The room was narrow with windows facing west, and was full of light. I noticed that Garnett had torn apart her toy squirrel; the remnants of its torso lay scattered across the Harry Potter throw she had lately claimed as her own. The bookshelf in the corner held a glass of milk and a pile of cookies, half-eaten. The television was on, tuned to the Nickelodeon channel on which Hey Arnold was playing, one of Christian’s favorite cartoons.
Satisfied that nothing was amiss, I adjusted the temperature on the A/C unit, turned into the small kitchen, and started putting the groceries away while Garnett sat and watched. I smiled at her, still a puppy. She had big dark eyes that were fringed by tiny dog lashes and a narrow snout. She gave me the impression of a seal. When we picked her up from the shelter on Christian’s eleventh birthday, her reddish-brown coat was filthy and resembled the dark soil of Florida farmland, but once she was bathed, the auburn shade shone through and we named her after Christian’s birthstone. She was our first pet, and of such a sweet disposition that she soon became the baby of our family. We spoiled her accordingly.
I fed Garnett and then moved to the sink and washed the produce, staring out the window as the cool water ran over my hands. The view from this part of the house was lovely. I could see past the oak tree in the center of the driveway to the foliage of the nursery and the large meadow that lay on the other side of the small dirt track leading into the property. The sun was beginning its descent over the woods on the western edge of the property and the sky was ablaze with fiery color. I smiled at the beauty in front of me.
Christian appeared from the doorway of his bedroom, a shorter, skinnier, 12-year-old boy version of myself: his olive skin a shade darker than my own, his light brown hair curling at the ends, and his brown eyes looking back at my own. He wore boxer shorts and a t-shirt, his favorite outfit for home. I noticed he had picked off the scab from his left shin, the fresh patch noticeably pinker than the sun-darkened skin that surrounded it. Garnett ran up to greet him, licking the place where his scab had been. He held his index finger against his lips to shush me, the telephone in his other hand.
“I’m talking to my dad,” he said in a voice loud enough to carry over the blare of the television.
“Sorry!” I mouthed back.
I gathered the ingredients needed to start dinner, trying my best to eavesdrop on his conversation without him noticing.
Christian’s conversations with his father always put me in a state of mild anxiety and hypervigilance. Given Chris’s history of absence and neglect, his calls made me nervous. I knew from the recent wave of phone calls that Chris had been talking to Christian about flying him to California for a few weeks over the summer, an idea that Christian viewed with mixed feelings.
“If I go to California, I don’t want my dad to be drinking all the time,” he confessed to me after their last phone call as he climbed into bed.
“The next time you talk to him, maybe you should bring it up, and tell him how you feel,” I answered.
“I asked him,” he replied. “He promised he didn’t drink anymore.” He didn’t say whether or not he believed Chris, but I could tell by his body language that he wasn’t sure. He then let out a big sigh, too big for a boy who should be looking forward to spending time with his father.
“If he’s upset, it probably means he hasn’t stopped drinking, and if that’s the case, you don’t have to go to California to stay with him. I’ll make up an excuse for you.”
He gave me a half-smile, and lay back in his bed, tucking Garnett in with him. I stroked his hair back from his forehead, kissed him goodnight, and turned off the light on my way to bed, offering a silent prayer that Chris wouldn’t let him down.
They had last seen each other the previous summer, on our annual visit to California to visit family and friends. Christian had spent the night in San Jose with Chris and his grandfather Frank, where Chris was living at the time. As far as I knew, the visit had gone well. I suspected that Chris drank during their visit, because he always drank in his free time. I also knew that Frank would’ve done his best to distract Christian if his dad was drinking too much. If anything had happened to upset him, he never mentioned it to me.
Garnett nuzzled against my legs and brought me back to the present. Christian returned to his bedroom, still on the phone. The kitchen faced his room, so I shuffled about putting dishes away and tried to listen in. Everything seemed to be going fine, so I relaxed a bit and started preparing dinner. Suddenly, I heard Christian yell.
“No, Dad. I didn’t mean it like that...no, I just wanted...” Christian’s voice was pleading. “Dad...I’m sorry!” he cried.
I stopped chopping vegetables and walked to his room. Reaching the door, I could hear Chris’s voice on the other end of the line, high-pitched and shrill. Christian sat on his bed. His face was red from the effort of trying to get his father to listen to him. His left knee was shaking, a nervous habit he had inherited from me. He saw me and shook his head to keep me away from the phone. I ignored him, grabbing the phone from his hand as he struggled to retrieve it from me.
“Mom, no!” I brushed past him and yelled into the receiver.
“Chris! What’s going on? Why is Christian crying?”
Chris’s voice dropped into the familiar whine he used when he wanted to justify his behavior.
“I don’t need him telling me what to do or how to live my life!” He raised his voice, “I’m a grown man and his father. He needs to show me some respect when he talks to me...is that how you’re raising him out there?” The accusation hung in the air between us. I hesitated and inhaled deeply before answering.
“Go to hell!” I yelled and hung up the phone.
When I turned to face him, Christian was sobbing. His face was wet with tears, snot was running down his nose, and his hands were clenched into fists at his side. He muttered between clenched teeth, “Jerk!”
“I hate him!” He screamed and ran out of the room, then out of the house, with Garnett racing behind him.
I followed him outside and watched as he picked up the discarded baseball bat.
“Christian! What happened?” I yelled, but he didn’t answer.
He ran ahead, muttering to himself, with the dog on his heels. He headed toward the nursery, the bat swinging the air in front of him. I scanned the property to see if any customers were around. The grounds were empty. I started after him. He stopped just before he reached the greenhouse. I watched as he found his target: a tall wooden light pole at the greenhouse entrance. It was the only sturdy object around. The windows of the greenhouse were sheets of plastic and the area in front of it was covered in potted plants. Christian took the bat and swung, the wood splintering off the pole when the metal bat connected with it.
I reached him, and did a quick assessment of the possible damage a 12 year-old boy who was small for his age could inflict. Not much, as I noticed small wood chips falling to the ground when he connected. I stood back and let him swing.
“Asshole!” Swing, crack!
“Never loved me!” Swing, crack!
“Drunk!” Swing, crack!
The pole splintered more with each swing, the wood chips piling on the ground in front of him. Garnett seemed relieved that I had arrived and stood alert at my feet, looking up at me after each swing, as if to ask, “You gonna let him do that?” We stood there, the dog and I, and watched him take out his anger on the wooden pole. It took a while. I didn’t try to stop him.
When he finished, he let the bat drop. His shoulders sagged and his head was down; he started crying. I came close and pulled him to me, feeling the heat of his anger on his face, and held him while he cried.
“Mommy, why doesn’t he love me?” he asked between sobs.
“He does love you, baby,” I squeezed his hand.
“I hate him!”
“Don’t hate him,” I said. “He’s the one missing out on having such a great son.”
He wiped his eyes and then his runny nose with the back of his hand. “I asked him not to drink when I go to visit him, and he started yelling at me.”
“Well,” I said slowly, trying to think of the right thing to say, “you don’t have to go visit him this summer. I didn’t think he’d get so mad and take it out on you. It wasn’t fair, and he should know better. I’m not going to send you, so don’t worry, okay?”
He nodded and reached down to pet Garnett. He picked up his bat, and his eyes widened as he surveyed the damage he had caused. He took in a sharp breath.
“What about the pole? Do you think David will get mad?” David was our landlord and the nursery owner.
“I’ll think of something,” I answered. “If he says anything, I’ll tell him Garnett did it.” He looked up at me and smiled.
“Garnett must’ve been pretty mad to do all that!” He patted her on the head.
We laughed and walked back to the house.
“I have an idea,” I offered. “Why don’t you call Uncle Josh and invite him over for dinner tonight? I’m making chicken tacos. Your favorite!” I did my best to sound cheerful.
He rubbed his belly, “Yum.”
The sun was barely visible above the treetops, and I could hear the cicadas droning in the air. The heat of the day had weakened with the afternoon showers and the humidity levels had dropped noticeably in the past hour. The late spring evening would be a cool one.
Later that night, it took all of my willpower to resist calling Chris and telling him off, but I knew it would be a waste of time. I lay in bed for hours, unable to sleep, thinking of Chris and our time together. We met when I was barely 18 and he was 21, the brother of one of my girlfriends. We started dating shortly afterwards, spending our time together partying and going out with friends. Dating was fun, we were young, and I was eager to assert my independence from my grandmother who had raised me. When my grandmother suddenly passed away less than a year later, I moved in with him. We shared a house with his father, sister, and best friend. I went from being a carefree teenager to a grown woman in a matter of months.
I wondered again how I could ever have had a child with him. I should have known he wasn’t ready to be a father, but in my youth and inexperience, I ignored the signs. Chris drank every day, but I was raised in a family where most of the men drank daily. I told myself it was okay because he wasn’t mean or abusive when he drank too much, unlike the men I grew up around. Chris was different; he has a happy drunk. When I got pregnant the following spring, I thought he would slow down his drinking. When he didn’t, I convinced myself that when the baby was born things would change. Much to my disappointment, they didn’t. Chris continued to drink, even more heavily now that the pressure of having a family sank in.
When Christian was six weeks old, Chris was arrested for a DUI and hit and run. His behavior didn’t change, even after going to jail, losing his driver's license and attending court-mandated programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous. I began to understand that Chris’ drinking wasn’t a harmless pastime of youth. He was an alcoholic. With the realization, something inside me shifted. Chris had let me down. I didn’t recognize it at the time, but my anger and disappointment over his DUI was the beginning of the end of our relationship. It was something I could never tell Christian. Instead, I had made excuses:
“Your dad loves you, Christian. He just doesn’t know how to show it.”
“Your dad loves you, Christian. He just doesn’t know how to be a father.”
“Your dad loves you, Christian. He just needs to get his life together, and then he’ll come around.”
And so on. I said all of these words praying that they were true, for Christian’s sake.
When he was young, Christian would look up at me with a trustful expression and nod his head in agreement. I would hold him in my arms and stroke his hair when I said these things. As he grew older, he became more difficult to convince. Instead of agreeing, he would shrug his shoulders and change the subject. He wasn’t buying it.
Since we had moved to Florida three years earlier, Christian didn’t mention his father often. Neither did I, unless there was a reason to. We were busy in our own lives, 3,000 miles away from Chris and his drinking. I was grateful for the distance, for Christian’s sake. It meant he wouldn’t grow up with painful memories of his father’s drunken episodes. I was determined to protect him as much as I could, but Chris was his father and he had rights, too. As long as our custody agreement allowed Chris visitation in the summers if he paid for the airfare, I had to send him. There was nothing I could do but hope that Chris would change his mind.
I rolled over and noticed the time. It was 2:30 in the morning, 11:30 pm in California. Still time to call Chris and give him a piece of my mind. As tempting as the idea was, I had to ask myself what it would accomplish, other than fueling our mutual resentment of each other. Besides, this was a problem between Christian and Chris that I couldn’t fix. As much as I wanted to shield my son from being disappointed in his father, it wasn’t a part of his life that I could control, only monitor and hope for the best.
I lay back on my pillow, drained. It made me sad that Christian felt the way he did about his dad. I also felt bad because Chris hadn’t changed his ways. For myself, I was tired of feeling guilty over having a child with the wrong man. As I drifted off to sleep, I decided that I would no longer make excuses for Chris’ behavior.
After the day in the nursery, I never had to explain again.
It wasn’t a special occasion. Or maybe it was, because anytime we are together it’s special: an investment in our relationship, our therapist says. My carnivorous husband had made dinner reservations for a fancy vegetarian restaurant because he knows it’s one of my favorites. I was ready to cancel our plans, though, because it was a long drive. A big effort for a meal. And I was tired. It had been a long day of cleaning the gutters, sweeping leaves, and vacuuming followed by a hike. We could save money and stay in and drink Taylor Fladgate and play Settlers of Catan. But he convinced me we should go.
So I got dressed up. Or did I? I had leggings on. The kind normally paired...