We’re halfway home when the conversation stalls.
Tommy is looking out the window. It is dark and the rain is pouring down, the traffic growing heavier as we pass the airport.
“Cat got your tongue?” I say, glancing in the rear-view mirror. Gone only a week and he is different again. Taller, leaner, wearing clothes I’ve never seen before.
“Can I ask you something?” he says.
I smile. This is one of my mannerisms, asking if it’s okay to ask a question. “Sure, what’s up?”
He sighs — another shared trait — and his eyes find mine in the mirror. “Promise you won’t get mad?”
He uses this tactic whenever he wants to tell me about another toy or game or pet his father has bought him. “I’ll try,” I say, still smiling. “But you know how I feel …”
“It’s not that.”
He sounds so serious for a nine-year-old. I dream sometimes about how different he might have been had I made a better choice, like his friends who all come from unbroken homes. Maybe he would smile more. Maybe he would sing. Maybe he wouldn’t worry so much about being early or late or on time.
“Okay — what’s up?”
The traffic picks up and we are moving quickly along the estuary now, only two more stoplights and one bridge before home. I left Mark to tend the chicken and the fire, to make sure the lights on the tree are blinking red blue green, red blue green, red blue…
“I’ve been thinking maybe I want to live with Dad.”
We are rounding the long curve by the golf course when he says this, the last big intersection before the last bridge, and when the light turns yellow I cannot seem to move my foot onto the brake and truth is I am going too fast and the roads are wet and I do that thing my father always told me not to do, especially when driving–I hesitate. And then the light is red and we are flying through it and someone honks but does not hit us and I am trying to make sense of what my son has just said but it cannot possibly be true, why in the world would he, how could he say that? It is Christmas for God’s sake he could not have said what I think he just said and why can’t I seem to breathe?
“What?” I finally say, trying very hard not to sound angry or deranged or hysterical, all of which I will undoubtedly feel minutes, hours, days from now.
“I just … Dad and I were talking … and he thought that maybe, for a while … we could see …”
And then there are flashes of blue and red in the rear-view mirror and it takes me a moment to realize they are not Christmas lights and that just figures, doesn’t it. Highway patrol out even on Christmas. I turn right at the next corner and pull to the curb.
“Shit! Shit, shit, shit!” I yell, pounding the steering wheel.
Tommy has heard me swear before, especially in the car, but he senses this is different. “Are we in trouble?”
“Sort of. Probably.” Shit. Shit. Shit.
I glance in the side mirror. The police officer — a woman of some size — hitches up her pants and walks toward the car. The word “waddle” comes to mind, but I quickly discard it. Maybe she has an eating disorder, low self-esteem, body-image issues related to some unspeakable childhood trauma. Maybe that’s why she became a cop. Maybe we’ve passed one another before, in the polished hallways downtown where my ex and I have spent so much time the last few years.
I take a deep breath and roll down the window.
She nods but is all business, and then some. “License and registration please.”
I fumble in my wallet and the glove box. Offer the insurance card, just in case.
She walks to the back of the car and starts talking into the radio on her shoulder.
I try to remember how long it has been since that last glass of wine. I cup my hand and blow my breath into it, sniff.
“Tom, you have any candy?” He shakes his head. I reach for my purse again, try to remember if I felt a stray peppermint or piece of gum when I was looking for my wallet. But the cop is already back at the window.
“Kind of ran that light back there, eh?”
I feel like a five-year-old trying to lie to her mother. “It’s so wet out,” I stammer. “I didn’t want to hit the brakes too hard.”
“Going a bit fast then?”
Oh, the temptation to argue, to make her see things my way. Do you have any idea, I imagine myself saying, the bombshell my son just dropped? Do you have any concept of what this means? But I say nothing, shrug my shoulders and sigh, hope this latest mistake doesn’t end up costing too much.
She looks at me with regard, and for a moment I think she is going to point out more flaws or shortcomings. Please don’t, I think. Please just let me be. Then she hands me her book and I realize I am supposed to sign it but my fingers are trembling so much I can barely write.
“Have a safe Christmas,” she says, ripping out the ticket and handing it to me.
I nearly thank her but fortunately have lost the ability to speak. I roll up the window and lean my head on the steering wheel. I don’t want to cry. I don’t want this day to be ruined. Somewhere down the street there is Christmas music and I remember that I forgot to tell Mark to start the potatoes. What time did my sister say she would be over? Thank god she’s bringing dessert. Did I clean the toilet, Swiffer the floors, light enough candles to fill the house with cinnamon and vanilla?
“You okay, Mom?”
I turn and look at him. There is just enough light from a nearby street lamp to see his eyes, big and dark and round, and it occurs to me that he is scared, that I of all people am scaring him. “Do you really want to live with your dad?” I say, my voice cracking.
He does not blink, nor do I. We sit that way for minutes, hours, forever. He looks away first. “I don’t want you to be mad.”
It starts to rain again, a sudden deluge on the roof that sounds like mortar fire. I am not mad, I want to tell him. I am heartbroken, terrified, guilt-ridden, pulverized … this is the nightmare, come to life. Like the day he walked into the kitchen and said, face all scrunched up like he’d smelled something bad, “Why did you steal me from Daddy?”
The juice I’d just poured him splattering bright red all over the linoleum.
“Did he tell you that?” I said, hands shaking as I knelt down to sop up the mess.
He nodded. “He says you wouldn’t let him see me for a long time after.”
That was his father all right, always twisting the truth. I tried to sound reasonable, calm, motherly. “Your dad and I used to fight a lot,” I finally said, fingers turning sticky. “I thought it would be safer if you and I lived somewhere else.”
He glared at me from the doorway, hands on those little five-year-old hips. “What did you fight about?”
I shook my head. “It’s hard to explain.”
“What did you fight about!” he said again, stomping his foot.
That stubbornness, that relentlessness — like the dimple in his chin it’s all mine. “A lot of things, sweetie.” I sighed. “Grownup stuff. It’s complicated.”
“Like what?” he said, still scowling.
“Tom … okay, okay.” I tried to think of the least of his father’s offenses. “Okay. Once your dad got so mad he threw all the Christmas presents at me.”
His eyes went wide. “The Christmas presents?”
“Did they break?”
I nodded again. “A couple.”
I could see him trying to make sense of this, trying to sort out the truth. “That’s not okay,” he finally said.
I refilled his favorite Batman cup, this time with milk. “You’re right. It’s not.”
He looked at me with those big brown eyes — his father’s — then took the cup and headed back into the living room to watch cartoons. He never asked me about it again.
“We better get going,” I finally say, wiping my eyes. “You know Mark. He’s probably ready to send out the troops.”
Tommy stares out the window and says nothing, surely wishing he was anywhere but here. I start the car and head for home, wishing I was anywhere else too. Or better yet, someone else entirely.
The house is warm and cozy — there’s a fire in the fireplace, a football game on the TV — but the chicken smells overdone.
“Where were you guys?” Mark says, coming in from the kitchen wiping his hands on a towel. “I was getting worried.” I try to smile, to tell him it was traffic, the holidays, the rain, that crazy bastard still fucking up my life but instead I snap, “What happened to the chicken?”
He is used to moments like these, most often after Tommy comes back from his father’s.
“It’s fine. A little dark in a couple of spots but just the skin and we don’t eat that anyway, right?”
Oh, how I want to argue, to set the record straight.
“That’s not the point,” I snap again. “It’s Christmas dinner, not some backyard barbecue.”
Tommy and Mark follow me into the kitchen. The chicken, still covered in the roasting pan, is sitting on top of the stove. I rip off the foil. The breast is dark brown, the wingtips black. “Damn it!” I yell, pounding my fist on the counter.
“It’s just a chicken,” Tommy says.
I glare at him. I know he is right but … “That’s not the point!” What I mean to say is I should have reminded Mark the oven cooks hot and the recipe calls for the bird to bake at least 50 minutes at 425 but he should check it at 40 and turn it down to 350 and then 5 minutes later turn it off and take it out. What I should say at this point is “my bad.”
“Mom got a ticket,” Tommy says to Mark, and I know he is trying to be helpful but there’s a little thing called timing, kiddo.
The doorbell rings and I cringe. My sister has a habit of arriving early — says she gets so excited she can’t help it — but we haven’t even had dinner yet.
“It’ll be all right,” Mark says, and I wonder how he knows what I am thinking, if in fact he knows much more than I give him credit for.
“You’re early,” I say when I open the door.
“It’s Christmas!” she sings, handing me a store-bought pie and three bottles of wine. I can see she’s already had some and apparently plans to have more.
“Uncle Pete!” Tommy yells, jumping into his arms.
“Hey little man, look what Santa brought!” From a bag pulls out what appears to be an official NFL football.
“What’s that smell?” my sister says, wrinkling her nose, and I look at Mark.
“It was dinner,” I say.
“What’s this?” Pete says, eyeing the mini trampoline by the Christmas tree that Tommy hadn’t noticed yet.
“Cool!” Tommy says. He looks at me. “Can I?”
I nod, and he sets it in the middle of the hardwood floor we refinished in the fall. “Here?”
I nod again. He takes off his shoes and socks and begins to jump, tentative at first then higher, arms fluttering like a penguin, a butterfly, an angel. Finally smiling.
“Wine?” my sister says, and I nod and pull her into the kitchen, thinking I will tell her what that bastard is up to but then I remember — how could I possibly forget? — that Tommy’s father is one of Pete’s oldest friends, that in fact he is the one who introduced us, that for a very long time they refused to believe me when I told them why I left, when I tried to explain to them all he had done. We’ve had an unspoken truce ever since. In fact here we are, standing in my kitchen sharing a decent but not overly expensive bottle of Chardonnay and toasting to another Christmas.
“Uncle Pete, watch this!” Tommy yells from the other room, and just as I take another long sip there is a crash and I am flying through the kitchen doorway yelling “what the ???” only to see Tommy standing in the middle of that stupid trampoline I’d thought was such a good idea when I bought it, Pete standing behind him, both looking at a pile of broken glass. It’s a moment before I realize it is the antique vase Mark gave me our first Christmas together.
“No!” I yell, stomping my foot, making the dishes in the hutch rattle. “No…” I kneel next to what is left of the vase, jagged pieces of cobalt blue streaked with crystalline pearls, like falling tears.
“Thomas,” I whisper, looking from him to Pete and back again.
I pick up the football, see it is autographed by one of Tommy’s favorite players, stand and flip it back to Pete. “Whose idea was it?” I demand, moving across the room, mindful of the broken glass.
Tommy does not answer.
“Whose idea was it?” I say again, loud enough that my sister steps back and Mark steps forward. I am standing in front of my son now and with him on that trampoline we are eye to eye for the first time and I can suddenly imagine him all grown up.
“Whose idea was it?” I scream, and likely we are the only ones in the room who know what I am really asking.
Outside a voice begin to sing “Hark the Herald Angels” — the Boy Scouts are caroling, I hope they did not hear me — and Tommy’s lip begins to quiver, silent salty tears tumbling down his cheeks and then I realize I am crying too. I cover my face and plead into my tired hands please God please just let this nightmare end.
“Don’t cry Mom. Please?” Tommy’s hand on my shoulder, his voice in my ear. “We can fix it.”
And when I open my eyes, for one perfect moment, he looks absolutely nothing like his father.