My son burned down the house today. Adam did it deliberately, and I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised. He’s only been taking the pills for nine days, not nearly long enough to have any real effect. I can picture him, first dousing the living room rug with the lighter fluid that Ted keeps in the garage for summer barbecues, then twirling gleefully in circles, striking matches, casting them impishly about.
He’s asleep now on a roll-away cot across the room, his eight-year-old thumb stuck stubbornly in his mouth, his blonde curls matted against his damp forehead. He looks so angelic, pretty enough to be in the JC Penney Christmas catalog. We’re staying at a Holiday Inn two miles off of Route 104, about a mile from our house, or what’s left of it. Ted, my husband, doesn’t know what’s happened yet. He’s been in Chicago all week at a sales meeting. I have tried his cell phone at least a dozen times, only to get voice mail. I have tried to call him at his hotel seven times now, the last time twenty or thirty minutes ago. Each time the hotel operator tells me he is not in his room I feel my anger rise another ratchet. He should be here with me. I shouldn’t be dealing with this alone.
I have no idea what time it is. The clock in our hotel room is broken and my watch is back at the house. The television is on, the volume turned down. Adam is snoring lightly. The sound of his breathing is out of sync with the faces flickering across the screen. I am half watching an old episode of “Gilligan’s Island.” Gilligan, Ginger, and The Professor are picnicking on the beach. In the distance, a tropical storm kicks up her heels. Trouble is moving in. The wind flirts with the cast, picks Gilligan’s hat off his head and sends it scurrying across the beach. Ginger jiggles coquettishly after the hat and the wind lifts naughtily at the hem of her skirt. Her lips form a perfect O. The Professor raises his eyebrows in response. Suddenly, the camera cuts to a shot of the beached Minnow, reminding us again that they are stranded, that there is no escaping this storm. I look about the hotel room. I, too, am stranded. There is nothing to do but wait it out. A commercial cuts into the action on the television, and I dial Ted’s hotel one last time. There is still no answer in his room. For a fleeting moment the thought of another woman flashes across my mind. No, Ted isn’t like that, I tell myself, or is he? a small, unwanted voice whispers in the back my head.
Ted doesn’t travel much. When he does, he likes to go out on the town, have a few beers. He doesn’t get to do that much around here, not in the sleepy lakeside community we have chosen to live in, not with Adam and the trouble he’s been causing us lately. He is probably out with the guys, tilting back a few. Or down in the hotel bar, listening to some third rate piano player sing the blues.
I try Ted’s cell once more, then the hotel again. The hotel operator asks again if I’d like to leave a message. I give her the area code — 716 — but stop short. There is no number on the phone. “That’s okay,” I say. “I’ll try again later.” I turn my attention back to Gilligan, who is clutching the sturdy trunk of a lone palm. Abruptly, the camera cuts to his sailor’s cap still jitterbugging across the sand. “Damn you,” I say out loud to no one in particular. Then I start to cry.
I was down at the A&P picking up a carton of milk, a box of Tampax, and one of those 25 pound bags of dog food for Zorro when the fire started. Adam was watching TV when I left. “Want to come?” I asked.
“No,” he said, without taking his eyes off the television. I shrugged my shoulders. I would be gone 20 minutes, tops. What could happen in 20 minutes? It was easier to leave him with his cartoons than to pick a fight and make him come. Besides, it would be faster without him.
Kip McCann, a neighborhood boy who works at the store after school, helped me carry the bags out to the car. As he opened the car door, two red fire engines streaked by, speeding down Cortland Street towards Evergreen Lane, the street where we live. “I wonder where they’re going,” I mused.
“Dunno.” Kip balanced the dog food on his hip. “You want these in the backseat, Mrs. Grigson?”
“Sure.” My eyes strained after a third truck that went zooming by. “Must be something big.”
Kip closed the back door for me. “I wonder whose place it is?” he said, pocketing the two quarters I’d dropped into his hand.
I soon found out. It was mine.
Ours is the second house from the end on the left-hand side of the street. As soon as I turned the corner, I could see the fire. Instinctively, I pushed the gas pedal to the floor. Black cotton-puff clouds of smoke sprouted from our roof. Two fire trucks blocked the drive. The porch was gone. I froze. “ADAM!” I screamed, leaping from the car. “ADAM!”
Then I saw him. He was sitting squarely in the middle of the front lawn, watching intently as the flames licked away at our house. His arms were wrapped tightly around Zorro’s thick collie neck. He was mesmerized. When he saw me, he came darting over. “I did it mom! That’s my fire,” he exclaimed excitedly, bouncing up and down on one foot, his left toe hooked behind his right calf. “I made the house burn down.” There was a gleam in his eye that chilled my heart.
I gathered him in my arms and hugged him hard, thankful he was alive. “Oh, Adam!” I shook my head, hugging him tighter, feeling his little boy body go limp under my squeeze. Then I let go, not knowing what else to say.
A gloating grin broke out on his face. “Am I a bad boy?” he asked pointedly, daring me to respond. “Am I bad, bad boy Mommy?”
I didn’t know what to say. Adam has always been a difficult child. If nothing else, however, he is an honest child. Ted says that I’m not firm enough with him, that I let him get away with too much. Maybe it is my fault that Adam is like he is. Maybe Ted is right.
The fire was still raging. I watched in horror, thinking of everything inside the house: Ted’s model boat collection; my clothes and books; Adam’s baby pictures; our wedding album. I rushed towards the door, but my entrance was blocked. Two more squad cars careened to a stop at the curb and suddenly the place was swarming with people: the police, the fire department, the neighbors. Adam sat in the back of one of the squad cars, clearly pleased with all the TV-like action, and answered Sgt. Jenkins’ questions. Yes, he started the fire. Yes, he called the police. Yes, he knew it was a bad thing to do.
Sgt. Jenkins returned Adam to me, shaking his head. He looked at me sadly. It was exactly the kind of look I give Mrs. Kroger whenever I pass her and her Downs Syndrome daughter Mary out walking around the block. A look of pity. A look that says “I’m sorry,” but secretly thinks “thank God that’s not me.” For a split second I was mad at the world: mad at Adam for starting the fire; mad at Ted for not being there; mad at Sgt. Jenkins for looking at me like that. I corralled Adam and Zorro into the backseat of the station wagon. Zorro was limping, his tail singed lightly. We dropped him at the vet. Then we drove to here, the closest hotel I could think of.
We had dinner in the hotel restaurant, a place called The Purple Frog. I ordered a steak I didn’t touch and nursed a neat shot of bourbon. Adam had a plateful of fried clams and two orders of French fries, which he promptly drowned in ketchup. I watched as he pounded at the bottom of the bottle of Heinz with the palm of his hand. Waiting for the flood of red, he hummed that Carly Simon tune, “Anticipation.” Without warning, his food was swimming in the gloppy red stuff. Adam smiled happily. Then, between forkfuls, he told me about the fire.
We’d had a fight that morning, but then that was nothing new. We fought most mornings. This particular fight centered on how Adam never picked up his toys. I told him he better learn to put away his things, or else — Adam parroted my “or else,” mimicked the way I rattled my fist. “Listen young man,” I said, “you do as you’re told or I’ll get rid of all your toys and you’ll never see them again.” That morning’s words came sharply back to me at dinner. This was Adam’s way of getting back at me.
“I was mad at you, Mom,” he said, shoveling another forkful of squiggly clams into his heart-shaped mouth, “You were a bad Mommy, so I got rid of all your toys, just like you said you’d get rid of mine.” His face was flushed and he was smiling. It was all I could do not to slap him.
At least he’d had enough sense to call the fire department promptly. We’ve got one of those phones with 12-number memory, with both the Fire Department and the Police Department pre-programmed. All Adam had to do was hit the button next to the tiny blue flame. The fire marshal told me he sounded calm when he called. “My name is Adam Grigson and I burned down our house. We live at 16 Evergreen Lane,” I’m told he said.
I used to blame myself for Adam’s troubles. Countless nights, I have lain awake wondering what it was I’d done to make Adam this way. In those middle-of-the-night hours, I tossed and turned, trying to pinpoint exactly where it was we’d gone wrong. At the least provocation, Adam may burst into tears. If Ted is present, Adam will run to him, his lower lip protruding, saying, “Daddy, Daddy! I hate Mommy!” From the shelter of his father’s arms, he’ll look coldly back at me and say flatly, “I hate you. I really hate you.”
Usually, we’re having a quiet dinner or sitting in front of the television, like any normal family, when the outbursts hits. There is never any warning. Almost always, I am the target of Adam’s anger. Of course, I am the one who is with him all day. But Ted isn’t totally exempt. Sometimes Adam will hiss, “I hate you Daddy! I hate you Mommy! I hate you both!” On his worst days, he simply says, “I wish I was dead. I wish we were all dead.” When he gets like that, I don’t know what to say or do.
Sometimes when I see stories on the news about kids who’ve killed their parents, I think to myself, That could be us. That blue-eyed son smiling at the television cameras could be Adam. Those stories never fail to shake me up. It always takes a day or two to reassure myself that, of course, I am wrong. Adam is merely going through a stage. He will outgrow these tantrums. He is perfectly normal. He will grow up to be a pillar of society. Why, he could even be president! Or shoot one, I think blackly to myself as I dimly recall the three early warning signs of a serial killer: cruelty to animals, bed-wetting, pyromania.
The knock at the door jars me. Room service. I hardly touched my steak earlier and am famished, so I ordered fried mozzarella sticks and a double bourbon on the rocks. Not exactly a nourishing meal, but exactly what I want. The waiter sets my tray down, nods thank you as I sign the check. I sit at the desk in the corner of the room and sip my drink.
I take out a clean sheet of hotel stationery and write in bold print: Things to do tomorrow.
1. Call Ted
2. Call insurance
3. Check on Zorro
4. Dr. L.
The cheese is cold and greasy but tastes good going down. I consume all six sticks in quick succession, then turn my attention to the bourbon. Judging from the preliminary damage report, we may be here for awhile. If we are to hunker down and set up camp, we will need supplies. I start a second list: Things to buy tomorrow.
1. New toothbrushes
3. Chocolate chip cookies
I drain my drink. Slowly, I look around the room again. At the dark wallpaper, the heavy drapes, the silent TV screen. At Adam sleeping so innocently in the corner. I try not to think of the house, of all our possessions gone. The rocker Ted bought me when I was pregnant with Adam. The antique dresser that was once my great-grandmother’s. Ted’s computer and box of back-up disks.
I glance at the phone. I decide to try Ted one more time. He is still not in. I ask the hotel operator what time it is. 2:37, she says. 3:37 East coast, I translate. Where the hell is he? Suddenly, I am very angry at him. Angry at him for not being here. Angry at him for the way he always blames Adam’s behavior on me. Angry at him for the way my life has turned out. I break into soft tears.
At least this is today and not two or three weeks ago. That is of some consolation. It was only a week ago, a fortnight after what we’ve jokingly come to call “the Samson and Delilah thing,” that I began to understand about Adam.
There was an incident at school triggered by a classmate of Adam’s named Melanie. I know the little girl in question. She is the only child of our town’s only dentist, a confident, somewhat snippety, pretty girl with long, carefully coifed red ringlets that her mother ties back daily with matching satin ribbons. One day the child will undoubtedly be homecoming queen, head cheerleader of our little town. She will have perfect teeth, attend Brown, her father’s alma mater, marry well. I am sure of that.
We’d had a break in the weather, a warm air mass moving down from Canada. Even though it was late November, Miss Sullivan, Adam’s third grade teacher, had sent the kids outside for recess. She was new to the school system and believed heartily in fresh air and sunshine. I’d met her once at one of those parent-teacher nights. I’d liked her.
As I understand it, this is what happened. Out on the playground, the kids had picked sides for a game of bombardment. As is usually the case, Adam was the second to the last child to be chosen. There is a fat girl named Celeste who is always picked last. There is some consolation in this for Adam, though I imagine not for Celeste. The game started. Red rubber balls flew back and forth across the net. The children deftly darted this way and that, dodging the flying red orbs. The rules of the game are simple. If you get hit by a ball, you are out. Inside of five minutes, half of the class was “out.” Adam was still “in.”
What happened next depends on who you listen to. I have heard Adam’s side of the story; the teacher’s side of the story; even Celeste’s side of the story. As best I can reconstruct, Melanie tossed a ball that may or may not have grazed Adam’s thigh. “You’re out, Adam!” she cried gleefully. “Adam Ant is out!” Adam Ant is a nickname the kids have given him. My son hates it, with good reason.
“I am not!” Adam said.
“Are too!” she taunted.
“It didn’t hit me.” I am told my son stubbornly replied.
“It did too. It hit your leg, you ding dong!”
“Did too, Ding Dong!” Melanie pushed her flawless freckled face up against the net and stuck her tongue out at Adam.
“It did not,” Adam repeated.
“Did too, Ding Dong!” Melanie crowed. The refrain caught and soon Melanie was leading a chorus of “Did too, ding dong! Did too, ding dong!” The other kids joined hands and danced in a circle around Adam, chanting louder and louder and louder.
Suddenly, Adam broke the chain and dashed in tears from the school yard. My heart aches for him just thinking about it. Balls flew again and the game continued, without my son, as if nothing at all had happened. Adam must have headed straight for the teacher’s desk. The room was empty and I imagine he had no trouble sneaking out the pair of scissors. Back on the playground, he walked sheepishly over to Melanie, his shoulders down and his hands clasped behind his back. “I’m sorry, Melanie,” he said, shrugging his shoulders. “Maybe I was out. Maybe you were right.”
“Of course you were out,” Melanie snapped. “The ball hit you fair and square Adam Ant. You’re such a ding dong!” She turned quickly on her patent leather toes, sending her pretty ponytail swishing through the cool November air.
I am told Adam was still smiling when he brandished the scissors. “I am not a ding dong,” he said evenly as he neatly clipped off Melanie’s long ponytail.
Melanie screamed. Some of the girls giggled, others gasped. Two boys lunged at Adam, grabbing for the scissors and then pinning him to the blacktop. Another pony-tailed girl ran for the door, her hands protectively covering her head. “Miss Sullivan, Miss Sullivan!” she screamed. “Adam’s gone bonkers!”
By four o’clock that day, I was sitting in the principal’s office with Miss Sullivan, the principal, the assistant principal, and the superintendent of schools. Melanie’s long, loose locks were laid out across the desk, a not so subtle reminder of what my son had done.
“Adam is a troubled child, Mrs. Grigson. A deeply troubled child,” Miss Sullivan began.
“This isn’t the first time we’ve had an incident,” the principal stepped in. “He doesn’t get on well with the other children. He antagonizes them. We’ve tried talking with him. Miss Sullivan has talked to him. I’ve talked to him,” the principal continued in a preachy sort of way. I knew all this, of course. Adam has brought home three letters this fall which I have been required to sign and return. The third one Ted wadded up in a ball and tossed at the trash can. “There’s nothing wrong with my son,” he said angrily, missing the basket.
“I’ve been patient with him. I really have,” Miss Sullivan offered softly. “I’ve tried everything.” I felt suddenly like a disobedient child being scolded for something I had done. Any minute now, I fully expected to be instructed to write “I am a bad mother,” on the blackboard one hundred times. “I’m sorry,” I said. “I’m very sorry for what Adam did.” I said what I had to say, played by the script, but deep inside, my anger simmered to a slow boil. What right do they have to do this to my son? To brand him like this? I thought. Suddenly, I could see down the years. Nine more years of urgent calls from the principal’s office; of scribbled notes about bad behavior on mediocre report cards; of that same look of pity from a parade of faceless teachers. Suddenly, I hated them all.
On the way out the door, the assistant principal pressed a card in my hand. “She’s a doctor. Call her. She might be able to help.” She smiled at me sadly.
“Thank you,” I said. Then, for the umpteenth time, I apologized again to the well-meaning contingent for what my son had done. “It won’t happen again,” I promised.
Once I was out in the car I glanced down at the card. “Marianne Lawrence, MD.” A psychiatrist. I crammed the card in my coat pocket and drove home, my hands tightly gripping the steering wheel. My child does not need a shrink, I thought angrily. My child is not crazy.
That night over a dinner of steak and baked potatoes, I told Ted what had happened. Casually, I mentioned that I was thinking of taking Adam to a psychiatrist.
“Jesus, Jill, what’s gotten into you?” He looked at me like I was the crazy one. “All that boy needs is a little discipline,” he said evenly. Ted golfed with a group on Saturdays, a group that included Melanie’s father. I think the prospect of that weekend’s tee-off was troubling him nearly as much as Adam’s behavior.
I must have dozed for an hour or two. I sit up and cross the room to the heavily draped window. I crack the thick curtain. Outside, the sky is an empty slate, the color of dirty cellophane, so typical for upstate New York this time of year. In the parking lot there are three cars, including ours, and two Jeeps. A filmy frost ices the windshields. Strapped across the front grill of the Jeep parked directly below our window is a hefty deer. His head is caught back against the hood, his eyes wide open, frozen with fright. I have forgotten it is hunting season. I have forgotten, for a moment, where we are and why we are here.
Across the room Adam flops his body like a fish out of water. He flops again, then sits up in bed. “Mom?” he says sleepily. “Mom? Where’s Zorro?”
I close the curtain and go to him. I sit on the edge of the cot and wipe back his damp brow. “Zorro is at the vet’s. We’ll visit him later, okay?”
“I’m hungry,” he says.
Judging from the pale light filtering down outside, I decide it must be near seven. “Then we’ll have breakfast,” I say. I get out the room service menu. On the way back to Adam, I flick on the television. “The Today Show” beams in. A face I don’t recognize tells me it is Thursday, December 2nd, and that it is 28 degrees in Rochester. I sit on the bed, take Adam in my arms. Together, we scrutinize the menu. I decide on the “eye-opener” — coffee, juice, and pancakes with genuine Vermont maple syrup. Adam wants butter pecan ice cream and more French fries. I indulge him. I don’t want to rock any more boats, not today. I dial room service and place our order, imagining the kitchen chuckling at our request.
“Mom, I burned down the house, didn’t I?” Adam is sitting up straight now. His pajama top is askew. He is not smiling.
“Yes, honey. You burned down the house.”
“I was a bad boy. All of my toys are gone, just like you said.”
“Yes, honey. Your toys are gone.”
“Am I a bad boy?” He dares me to answer him.
I hug him hard, not knowing what to say, and bury my nose in his sleepy-smelling hair. What I want to tell him is, yes, he is a bad boy, but it’s not his fault. How can I blame him for the way he is? Breakfast arrives in record time. The waiter looks skeptically at first our order and then the two of us. I don’t think a tow-headed boy in Superman p.j.s and a haggard middle-aged woman wearing an oversized Buffalo Bills shirt bought in the hotel lobby is what he was expecting. I sign the check wordlessly, adding a better-than-average tip. He takes it, shrugs his shoulders, and leaves the room.
Adam dips a French fry into his ice cream, then sucks it clean. A dribble of butter pecan runs down his pointy chin. “So, Mommy. What happens now?” he asks. “Where will we live? Will you buy me new toys? What about Daddy? Does Daddy know what I did?”
The day after the playground incident, against my husband’s wishes, I took Adam to see Dr. Lawrence. Her office was in downtown Rochester, a half hour drive from where we live. I didn’t tell Ted we were going. We just went. The receptionist greeted me pleasantly enough. “The doctor would prefer to see Adam alone,” she said flatly, handing me a clipboard. “You can wait here and fill out these forms.” She took Adam’s hand and walked him past me through a door and down what looked like an endless corridor. Thirty minutes later Adam reappeared. The receptionist handed me his coat. “The doctor would like to see Adam again tomorrow,” she said. “At eleven o’clock.” I nodded numbly.
We drove home in silence. I didn’t ask Adam what had happened and he didn’t offer. The next four visits were just like that, with me waiting in the waiting room and Adam not speaking during the thirty minute drive home. When I finally did meet Dr. Lawrence, she was not at all what I’d expected. She was gray and grandmotherly. Perched on the end of her narrow nose were a pair of pointy, peach-colored glasses. She wore a flowered cotton house dress and flat, sensible shoes. She looked like she should be in the kitchen baking pumpkin pies for the holidays, not telling me what was wrong with my son.
One day about a week later, it was Adam’s turn to wait in the waiting room. I was escorted down the hall, admitted to the inner sanctum, and introduced to Dr. Lawrence. “Sit down, Mrs. Grigson,” she said, gesturing at a high-backed leather chair. “Please, have a seat.” She sat behind a secretary style desk in an identical leather chair. Toys were scattered about the floor and books lined the walls. A photo collage of children rested on the desk. I wondered if they were her children, or if they were patients. “I will come straight to the point,” she said. “Adam is manic depressive.”
I looked at her blankly. We knew, of course, that Adam was difficult, but manic depressive? Manic depressive was dangerous, and it didn’t go away. I knew that much. “I don’t understand,” I stammered, still standing.
“Sit down, please,” she repeated. “Let me try to explain.”
“Adam is manic depressive. He is not a happy child.” Her words were even.
“I don’t understand,” I stammered again. “I’m a good mother. Ted’s a good father. There is no mental illness in either of our families.”
“Mrs. Grigson,” she tried to interrupt me.
“Adam’s never wanted for anything. He’s got his own room, a new bicycle, more toys than any little boy. We took him to Disneyworld and Epcot last year. Ted takes him fishing in the summer.” I was babbling. “We’re good parents. This is just a phase. That’s what his pediatrician says. It will pass, like the bed-wetting, or the measles.” Suddenly, I was angry at her, too. I was angry at the world.
Dr. Lawrence listened patiently as I let my torrent loose. She nodded her head kindly on occasion, punctuating my sentences with silent understanding. Finally, I ran out of words.
“Mrs. Grigson, let me try to explain,” she started again, back at square one. “Adam is manic depressive. There are terrible mood swings. He is not happy.”
This time I listened.
She took out text books with genetic trees branching out. She talked about recessive traits and probabilities. She said again that it was nothing either Ted or I had done. “It’s like the color of his hair or eyes or how his bellybutton goes in or out,” she explained. “It’s genes, a combination that shouldn’t have come up, but it did.” I listened silently, my head swimming. “He is not happy. He’s probably never been happy. He doesn’t know what happiness is,” she said quietly.
Listening to her, I felt a tremendous weight being lifted off of my shoulders, but I also ached horribly for Adam. For the first time, I began to understand how terribly sad this little blue-eyed son of ours was.
She talked about drugs that, while they couldn’t make him happy, could at least alleviate some of the pain, shorten the wingspan of his mood swings. “He’s like a tree that’s been beaten down by the wind. We can’t straighten that tree — we can’t make Adam happy — but we can stop the wind.” She took out a prescription pad and scribbled the name of a drug I’d never heard of. “Start him on it tomorrow. We’ll build up the dosage gradually. It will be at least three weeks before you see any difference, but it will help. You’ll see.”
I stood numbly. She came around from her desk and hugged me lightly. “It will be okay, Mrs. Grigson. We can help Adam.”
On the way home, we stopped at Baskin Robbins for ice cream. I bought Adam a double dip of peanut butter and butter pecan, his favorites. Leaving the doctor’s office that day, I vowed to buy ice cream for Adam as often as I could. I vowed to do whatever I could to make him happy.
When we got home, I called Ted. “Meet me at Antonio’s for dinner. Seven o’clock,” I said. Then I called a baby-sitter. Antonio’s is where Ted and I go on special occasions. It is expensive, but it has good food served in generous portions. It is here that we came when Ted got his new job. It is here that we came when we closed on the house. It is here, in fact, that we came when I found out I was pregnant with Adam.
The hardest part was trying to explain to Ted. Adam has always been a bright child. He walked and talked at ten months. At two he could identify, and correctly spell the names of, twenty different dinosaurs. When routinely tested for I.Q. in the first grade, he scored in the shadow of genius. Ted was convinced, has always been convinced, that Adam’s problem is discipline. Over a bottle of burgundy I broached the subject. “I took Adam to see Dr. Lawrence,” I said. “We’ve been a few times.”
Ted raised his eyebrows. Then he took my hand from across the table. “What did she say?” he asked softly. It is at moments like that that I love my husband most. He may not always be there, but he is when it counts.
Quietly, I related what the doctor had told me, emphasizing, as she had, that it wasn’t our fault. “So you see,” I explained, “it’s nothing we did. It’s no one’s fault.” Of course, on one level, it was someone’s fault. One of us had the bad grace to bring faulty genes to this union. Over our appetizers, my husband and I eyed each other warily. I know I was thinking about his crazy Uncle Lou in Chattanooga, and I bet my wacky cousin Mary crossed his mind. But what did it matter? It shouldn’t have happened, the combination shouldn’t have come up, the odds were against it, like snake eyes. But it did, and Adam is our son.
Looking at my husband across that red-checkered tablecloth, I wasn’t so sure if it was a good or bad thing that Adam was an only child. We’d debated recently having another child. Ted and I are both only 37. I thought fleetingly right then and there about suggesting we reverse our decision and try again. We could start that very night. But I didn’t. Instead, I flagged the waiter and we ordered two espressos. That night, my diaphragm firmly in place, we made love fast and hard. In the morning Adam crawled into bed with us and the three of us watched Road Runner cartoons.
I collect the breakfast dishes and stack them on the tray. I’ve nearly forgotten. Adam’s pills. We are almost up to full dosage, to the point where we should see a difference. I shake two pale yellow tablets from the bottle and hand them to Adam together with the last swallow of my juice. “Here,” I say. “Take your pills.” He dutifully does. “How about a bath?” I ask next. Adam nods his head excitedly. I run the water.
While Adam is bathing, I try Ted again. “Hello?” he says sleepily.
I’ve forgotten it is an hour earlier in Chicago. “Adam burned down the house yesterday,” I say as calmly as I can. “We’re fine. We’re staying at the Holiday Inn off of 104. Zorro’s at the vet. He’s okay, too.”
“What?” Ted says, rightfully confused. I can picture him sitting up in his hotel bed, his chest bare, fumbling for his glasses on the bedside table. “What the hell happened, Jill? What are you talking about?” Suddenly, all of the tears I didn’t cry yesterday come pouring out. I tell him everything.
I’ll be on the next plane,” Ted says. “Kiss Adam for me. I love you both.”
Adam comes out of the tub smelling squeaky clean. He is wrapped in a big fluffy hotel towel. He is smiling. “Can we go see the house today? Can we see my burned up toys?” I don’t know what to say to Adam’s request. I have never known what to say to Adam. All I’ve ever wanted is to make him happy, and I don’t know how.
He disappears back into the bathroom. When he comes out again he is wearing his Superman underwear and the towel is draped across his shoulders like a cape. His blonde curls are drying, his blue eyes sparkling. He bounces up and down on the bed and sings out, “It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s Superman!” At that moment, he looks like any other eight year old. He looks happy.
I try to take him in my arms but he wiggles away. He looks me straight in the eye. “I burned down the house, didn’t I? I’m a bad boy, aren’t I?”
I hug him tightly. “Daddy’s coming home today,” I say. “When he gets here we’ll go visit Zorro. We’ll go to Baskin Robbins later, too. I’ll buy you an ice cream cone.”
He sticks his tongue out at me. I close my eyes. “Sometimes I don’t hate you Mommy,” he says, wiggling out of my arms.
And for a moment I believe everything will be just fine.
“Snake Eyes” was first published in The Bridge in their Summer/Fall 1994 issue.