Dadland

by Tamuira Reid

“My daddy stays in that building? Not a house?”

I'm glad it looks more like an office building and less like a hospital. My son has lived in a city long enough to know what a hospital looks like. This is a slate rectangle, with a line of tinted windows overlooking the parking lot. I imagine faces behind those windows, smashed up against the glass. I imagine his face among them and stop looking at the windows.

Oliver dangles his feet from a carseat in the back. He's nervous. I'm nervous. The Los Angeles evening glitters outside our car.

“It's like Dadland.

“What?”

Dadland. Like Disneyland but no rides. Just daddies.”

It has been two years since he's seen his father. He's four. Exactly half of his life has gone by.

We wait for him to come out. When he does, we'll get an hour to play family before we return him to the nurse who will dole out his nightly meds, now open your mouth and lift your tongue, please. Good.

I wonder what he'll be wearing. I've scrubbed Oliver down and we both look nice. New jeans. Clean shoes. Like we're going to church not war.

_____

I share a bed with my sister. Cute when you're ten, but not when you're my age. Oliver doesn't have a room, he has a corner. In front of a closet. It's New York, which means every square inch of our apartment is an experiment in strategic furniture placement. But we are teaching the kid to have grit. To appreciate a minimalist approach. The beauty in paper plates and pirated cable television. The mouse in the kitchen doubling as a first pet.

A mother and an auntie. Two women who love him to death and show up at every open house and music class and playdate in the park. Two women who Instagram every haircut, gummy smile, new pair of glasses. But we are no dad. There's a placeholder where dad should be. An ellipsis. To be continued. It's kind of like watching the weather report – and today with a side of dad.

“He's at the store.”

“He's been there a long time,” I say.

“It's a big store.”

And this is the story he has been telling himself. When his preschool teacher or well-meaning neighbors ask. When his best friend points it out. Where's your daddy?

At the store. Works for me.

_____

There's a tap on the window and I jump. He's here. It's time. I tuck my heart away and put on my game face.

He opens the door, slides in slowly next to our son. I watch in the rearview mirror as they look at each other.

“Are you my dad?”

“Yes.”

Pause. “You like trains? I like trains. I brought like five trains. You can hold one.” Oliver pushes his glasses up onto the bridge of his nose, smiles and hands over Thomas, his favorite. I've never even held Thomas.

He is docile and timid, broad shoulders sitting rounded and hunched atop his 6'5 frame. I don't know which version I prefer. Eyes lit and firing and angrily alive. Or this listless giant soaked in his own sadness.

_____

Impossible, I always tell people, to pinpoint when it started, when words went from breathy whispers to knives hurled at one another across a dark space.

We tried to drive the crazy away but it had us by the throat, slept where we slept.

When it was finally over, when we had said all that could be said and three thousand miles of country sat between us, when he realized that my mind was made, for real this time, G, it's done, I boxed up his gigantic shoes and CD's and self help books he never read. But I left the winter coats hanging in the closet because I needed the reminder. That it had all really happened. That the three of us somehow, someday would survive this.

_____

We decide to leave Dadland for a land we're more familiar with – Yogurtland.

I grab a table by the front and watch as they slowly sample the different flavors. An older woman smiles at them, what a lovely doting dad, I imagine her thinking. He has him up in his arms. He held him like that as a baby on the subway too, tucked away like a football. He would go to the ends of the earth for that kid. If he could.

“An asteroid killed the dinosaurs, dad.”

“Yeah? That's a big word.”

“I like the big words. You have big hands.”

“Like baseball gloves.”

“Huh?”

“Baseball –”

“I play soccer.”

“Oh.”

Red velvet, cookie batter, raspberry cream. Little plastic cups to fill in the gaps.

“How's, uh, summer school?”

“It's farm camp. So many animals.”

I interrupt to explain that I thought it would be a good idea to put him in an outdoor camp for the break, a special hippie compound in the redwoods. Ideal for a city kid who only sees most animals in picture books.

“You like it?”

“Yes but the fucking chickens ate my fucking sandwich!”

With this, Oliver takes to a corner of the floor with his brontosaurus, pretending the sticky tile underneath him is molten lava. And we are suddenly very alone. We both fidget in our seats. His hands shake as he lifts the spoon to his mouth, a side effect of the Lithium.

“So, how is it there?”

“It's a crazy house, T. How do you think it is?”

“Crazy?”

“Yes, genius.” He laughs.

“When are you getting out?”

“I want to be in his life, T. I am going to get better. I need him.”

Don't.”

I leave the table and go to where Oliver plays on the floor. He's mumbling something about lava and chickens and how the yogurt was too cold to eat.

“Let's go, baby,” I say, and quickly lead him outside by the hand.

_____

“Hey,” he gently pulls me by the arm to face him. Even with the wear and tear of mental illness, of nights he told me he spent sleeping out on the streets before he was hospitalized, even with the blanket of meds he is under, he's still ridiculously, undeniably beautiful.

“Thanks for making the trip. You didn't have to.”

“I know.”

“And T?”

“Yeah?”

“I'm –”

“Me too.”

Oliver waves goodbye as we speed out of the lot, and keeps waving even as I merge back onto the highway and the other cars fold us into their mix.

“Dad's so handsome, mama. My dad is so big.” I nod because he is those things. And a lot of other things that wont matter until the dinosaurs have been fed and all the trains have left the station.

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