by Tamuira Reid
It's hot out. We're by the pool.
“Shh – baby, we're talking. I'm talking to your father.” Mama slaps my butt playfully, not hard like when I ate all her thyroid pills. Not hard like when she's scared.
I climb onto her lap. Papa watches us from the pool. It's shaped like a peanut. He never really swims, just stands there in the water looking distracted. His elbows rest on the edge, big plastic cup in one hand, a cigarette in the other. Mama doesn't smoke, but she's got the plastic cup too. She closes her eyes when she takes a sip. Closes her eyes a lot.
I don't know it now, but he will kick these bad habits one day. Quit drinking and stop buying Winston's. He'll call me up to tell me how he threw his pipe into the ocean. I'll laugh at his story while I light my own cigarette, trying to picture him standing over a cliff, flinging his most prized possession into the cold winter waves.
Papa tells me to beat it for a while, he needs to talk to mama. She grabs me tighter, wet chest pressing into my back. He stares at the two of us for a minute, his brown eyes looking into our blue eyes, the father looking at the mother. The father looking at the daughter. A year from now he'll look at the pictures of us on his desk in his new apartment twenty minutes outside of town. He'll pick us up every other weekend and take us to the mall for corn dogs and soda, and wonder when his heart begins aching where he went wrong. How seventeen years of marriage went down the drain, and why the tears on her face and long vacant stares weren't enough to make him feel bad. He'll write a letter the following spring from inside that same apartment, and it'll start “Mien Liebe”, my sweetheart, and my mother will read it and think, and hurt, but not hurt enough. She will tuck it away in a wooden box under the bed, and only pull it out ten years later to show to her daughter in a single nostalgic moment.
Papa is still staring from the pool shaped like a peanut, and my sister has her goggles on. She can hold her breath under water. She sneaks up to daddy and wraps her arms around the hairy part of his belly. He takes another sip and tells her to get off him, no goddamn horseplay, this is a serious time. She's so pretty. Long blonde hair and a red bathing suit. The baby cries from her bouncy seat in the doorway, and mama winds it back up again.
Papa is drying off. He's wearing the blue shorts and they're all bunched between his legs, and he can smoke without using his hands. He can drive like that too – no hands or anything. Balancing a hot cup of coffee between his knees. One time he ran over a gopher that shot out of the lawn and into the street like a bottle rocket. He told me not to tell anybody and I swore I wouldn't because, like he said, mamas are sensitive about that kind of thing.
When they are both remarried and semi-happy, their past just a “fart in the wind” as my sister will put it, my parents find some sort of solace in a shared cup of coffee. “The girls ready yet?” “What do you think?” she'll reply and they'll both laugh. “Got a fresh pot?” “Just about to put it on and she'll scoot past him, squeezing into our small kitchen. Every other weekend pick-ups become their every other weekend visits and they both look forward to them in their own silent ways.
The sun looks like a giant orange sitting in the sky and mama keeps squeezing me. I love you baby, she whispers in my ear with that damp, sweet breath. Papa says he's taking all his books with him. And maybe the antiques, too. You can't leave me with nothing, mama says, and he tells her I'm not – I'm leaving you the kids.
And out hearts they beat as one
No more love on the run …
The baby kicks her feet out in front of her, laughing and clapping and mimicking her two older sisters, seated on either side of her. The mother drives, thumbing the steering wheel to the beat, turning-up the volume because this is her favorite song. Because Billy Ocean is a great singer and it's nice out and it's spring and life is about to get better.
The passenger's side is empty; children are safer in the back. Forgotten bits of Cheetos and Trident gum wrappers have fallen into the crack of the seat and the old Chevy Blazer smells like mold; like swim meets and rainstorms and family vacations that started out with a bang.
With the windows rolled down and the radio playing, it's not so bad. They look normal, she thinks. Things will be fine. She watches the passing families as they coast by, families packed so tight they look like microwave popcorn bags about to explode all over the Interstate. Exploding sedans and minivans and RV's overflowing with babies and beach balls and small blue-haired ladies who still smoke and curse and need some excitement. Cars overflowing with blankets and towels, ice chests stocked with lunch meat and cold beer. Car with a mother and a father. The fathers always driving, a long tanned arm stretched out the window, cigarette in hand, ash blowing into the back seat. The mother always organizing; her purse, the maps, the kids.
She smiles now as she passes these other cars, sometimes she waves or nods her head, proud that she's the pilot of this vehicle, this well-oiled machine, that she doesn't need a man to drive it, that she's a pretty good driver, that she doesn't need a man at all. Everything looks different. The sun burns into the side of her face.
“Turn it up!”
“Yeah! Turn it up. Louder!”
She dashed by me in painted on jeans
And all heads turned ‘cause she was the dream
In the blink of an eye I knew her number and her name yeah
Ah she said I was the tiger she wanted to tame
The oldest daughter is eleven. She's tall and blonde and pre-pubescent cool, but not too cool to enjoy the song. She pulls her long hair into a ponytail high on the back of her head, and pops in a fresh piece of gum.
The middle daughter is seven, seven and a half. She's not as cute or smart or as socially inept as the other one, but sings better and louder, closing her eyes and belting out the chorus even though she doesn't know where the Caribbean is. She'll look it up later, when she's alone in her room, in the atlas her father gave her for Christmas, the one with the smooth blue cover that is too heavy to bring to school.
The youngest daughter is a mess of chubby limbs and chocolate-stained lips, a slash of black hair covering one of her big dark eyes. In the three years she's been on Earth, she's managed to choke on a marble, break a Tiffany lamp, and say things like “dog” and “shoe” and “no, but thanks anyway”.
I lose my cool when she steps in the room
And I get so excited just from her perfume
Electric eyes that you can't ignore
And passion burns you like never before
It's time, she thinks. Do it now. While they're happy.
She turns the music down and drops her speed to forty. Cars honk and pass her but she doesn't care. She doesn't even see them.
“Whatcha doing, Ma? Put it back on!”
“I need to say something first – to tell you something first.” Her chest feels tight and constricted, like the time in high school when she ran the mile in seven flat but couldn't breathe for a week.
“What's wrong, Mama?”
“Your father and I are getting separated.”
I was in search of a good time
Just running my game
Love was the furthest
Furthest from my mind
“Did you hear me? Girls? I said your father and I are getting separated.”
“Is that like divorce?” Middle daughter asks, eyes still closed in anticipation of the chorus.
“Yeah mom, are you getting divorced?” Oldest daughter asks, loosening her ponytail and blowing a bubble bigger than her head.
She turns the radio back up a smidge and flips off her sandals, the pedals feeling warm and somehow reassuring beneath her feet.
“No one said anything about divorce. Just, just a separation of sorts.”
“You mean you and Papa will be living in different houses, right?”
She pauses for a moment as the truth hits her fast and hard like a truck.
Now we're sharing the same dream
“You're sad mom.”
“Aren't you guys sad?”
“No!” they scream, singing and pinching each other, Gatorade and slushies spilling all over the tan seats.
“But, I mean – did you hear what I said?”
“How can we be sad when this song is on? It's such a good song! Turn it up!”
They won't understand the impact of her words or the velocity that they carry until this song and many others come to an end. That separation does mean divorce and fathers aren't always meant to stay.
But for now it's spring and it's hot out and everything looks different. She cranks the volume, tears drying like balls of salt on her cheeks.
His car doesn't smell much better than Ma's but it's prettier – green and smooth, rolling down the old dirt roads and poorly paved streets of Manteca, California like the supped-up low riders in Mexican movies. My sister hates this car. Calls it a boat and ducks her head down till we get to wherever we're going.
He stuffs more tobacco into the bowl of his pipe when we're waiting at the stoplight. I think there are two stoplights in this town. Maybe three. He fills the already stinky car with the candied stench of pipe smoke and pats me on the head, calling me sweet thing and I wonder if he likes his new house, when I can come see it.
It takes too long to get to the mall, about forty minutes of boring gray highway and fields covered with black and white cows, spreading over the grass like domino pieces. A farmer rests in his tractor, swinging his legs over the side of the seat, picking through the basket of strawberries in his lap. We always listen to George Winston or Neil Diamond and talk about the Niners, about poetry, about my mother. I tell him about her new boyfriend, the muscled-out Italian from Santa Cruz, and he acts like he doesn't hear me, stepping over my words with his own.
He hates crowded parking lots so we usually have to park far away and walk in. Casey always walks way far ahead of us, her hair swishing against her back, hands on her hips. She's getting her boobs, I tell my father, and she turns around and spits at the air by my face. She's embarrassed, I think, so I don't really get mad.
The plan of action is this: we have two hours of our every other weekend visitation to spend here shopping and eating and sitting by the fountain, the one people throw pennies in and then walk away. When this is all over, we grab one last corn dog at Hot Dog on a Stick then head for the stage near the Mervyn's to watch the Punch and Judy show, two puppets that basically beat the crap out of one another and make kids like me laugh.
We star out at the candy store where we're each give our own plastic bucket to fill with the sugar of our choice. Casey gets cherry flavored gum in the shape of a cigarette and I get malt balls or Gobstoppers, things that fit into my pocket, and Mia looks for Twizzlers or red Vines, things she can suck on for hours and then wipe all over her clothes. Papa passes on all of this, opting for a strong cup of coffee, black, and some time by the fountain, alone. I unwrap the first of many candies and shove it in my mouth, watching our father watch us. He looks thin and white and sad, the silver-green veins slithering around like snakes under his skin. He smells less like aftershave and more like his car these days, like something old and forgotten, and I don't think he's washed his socks in a while.
“I live by a great little Schezwan restaurant,” he told me last week after Mama took us Trick or Treating and he came by to raid our loot. Carina was a Solid Gold dancer and I was a ghost, but really I was just a ratty old bed sheet with eyeholes, blindly making my way through a sea of GI Joe's and He Man's, princesses who'd already lost a crown or a wand.
We sat out on the front porch together, me with a fruit roll-up and him with a couple of Winston's. It was nice out; skies mostly sunny, the valley wind finally dying down. Sometimes when it got really windy we could smell the fumes from the sugar plant a few miles away. Smelled like there were a bunch of outhouses dumped over right on our front lawn.
“It's when they plop all your food onto a big iron grill and cook it right there in front of you.”
“You know, I've got a nice foldout in the living room. Real comfy. And cable television. So when you visit it out to be just like –“
He squinted his eyes toward the sun, his face collecting shadows.
“Yeah, sweet thing. Like home.”
Papa digs deep into his pockets and produces fist full of pennies, the worn copper gleaming like gold.
“Don't throw them all at once, girls.”
“Use a little discretion right pop?” Carina says, her feet an even shoulders-width apart, expertly closing her eyes and releasing a single penny into the air, hurling it through time and space until it hits the water with a quiet thud, sinking to the bottom.
Discretion. I wind-up like a baseball pitcher and throw three or four in at a time. Fastballs. Maeghan's tired of this game and lets the pennies fall like rain from her fingers, laughing as they roll all over the ground.
“Shit happens!” Carina told me when I asked why our parents were getting divorced. “Get over it. Move on. And stop knocking on my goddamn door!”
“If shit happens,” I pressed, “then why're you crying?”
She shoved me hard and I hit the wall. It hurt. More inside than out.
“I'm not crying. I'm just tired, you asshole! Now beat it!”
Everybody was crying and the house felt cold and dry, like a big empty church, and I thought about the restaurant Papa told me about, what I'd order if we ever went there.
It's getting ready to start. Corndogs. Check. Large lemonade with four straws. Check. Good seats. Front row. Check.
Punch and Judy have slick wooden faces and painted-on features and Punch is brunette and Judy is blonde. They're ugly and mean and funny as hell.
Punch ducks as Judy throws a powerful left jab at him, sending her into a series of vicious twists and twirls. He comes back with a serious bonk to the top of her head and her skirt flies up so she hits him in the nose.
Maeghan's sitting in Papa's lap, sound asleep, and he looks tired too, his eyes heavy and body slack. But when I look over at him he quickly turns and smiles, and I smile back, wishing he wasn't so bored. All the kids cheer as Punch sends a roundhouse kick to Judy's mid-section and she come sin with a quick right to the side of his face. I clap and scream “Judy! Judy!” knowing Punch is down for the count.