The thirty-four days of Mother and Father’s divorce felt like thirty-four excruciating weeks. It felt even longer on weekends, depending on what sort of breakfasts I shared with my mother at the dining table all alone in utter, galling silence. One of her chief concerns at the beginning, my curriculum, then came my appetite. I proved to be a lot tougher than she had realized. Meanwhile, the ten-pound weight loss she had suffered thus far to her own detriment appeared in full display from her cheekbones to her stomach. She would water the indoor snake plants several times on her days off if I failed to remind her not to repeat this process. I had to deal with the most critical ingredients missing from her once palatable recipes.
Mother had sole custody of me. This was the deal—her nonnegotiable plea. A part of me had been convinced that she was able to read my mind like a dental x-ray: I wanted to live with her since day one. However, it turned out to be a different story altogether when it came to Benji. Benji was our three-year-old Labrador that, at last, came to grips with the missing spirit that the creature sensed no longer lived around the house. Benji missed Father a lot more than I could imagine; he sat by the door many late afternoons waiting for the prick to come home. After a prolonged shouting match in the courtroom, my father’s sneaky lawyer had conceded: Mother would allow the prick to take the dog just one week a month.
On the first weekend of December that year, I tagged along with my mother on a rather misty morning to Lake Ida Park. The prick was supposed to honor his part of the deal there for the first time. With full daylight still yet to come, she activated the windshield wipers and headlights to steer the car out of the driveway. When she put on her turn signal to enter the park right before the railway, I shifted in my seat to get a better angle of her sullen face in the rearview mirror to see if the bitterness had disappeared. It had not. On the contrary, it worsened after we climbed out of the car.
That fenced section of the park, where dogs and dog owners tussled, cuddled, and exchanged stories of the week, stood the size of a small soccer field. Almost a dozen good folks of Delray Beach had already occupied it in the puffy gray clouds.
Mother stretched her thin-looking arms and legs while I fidgeted around the car, contemplating whether to accompany her in her twenty-minute run or just wait for Father and Benji’s arrival.
“There’s no point in forcing you to tag along if you don’t feel like it,” she said.
“Don’t you want me to?” I asked, instead of encouraging her to shout or even curse a little. I knew she wouldn’t budge even if this would have made her feel better. “It’s not like you were gonna leave me alone at home anyway.” This happened to be the case these days, I figured, unless I was in the middle of an essay or had a math test coming up.
“What do you want me to say?”
“All you gotta do is say it, Mom—that you want me to.”
“Want me here, don’t you?”
As the introvert I took her for, my poor mother had always preferred this boring park to the gym. She found all sorts of excuses for not going to the gym, including the constant need to wipe down equipment before using them.
Distracted by the three scattered runners coming up the sidewalk, she did not grant me the slightest smile. The runner up front, a man in his late thirties but more heavyset than Father, looked straight at me through the space between my mother’s legs. I had crouched before her to tie my Jordan shoes. Then, when the third man—who happened to be my seventh-grade teacher—got closer, my mother dashed to the driver’s side of the car. She opened the door forthwith, pretending to search for something that wasn’t even there. This was part of her cunning tactic to avoid Mr. Carson’s infectious smile and his cordial exchange altogether. At that moment, I realized the hard truth I had suspected all along about her. Despite the bold talk and sense of resignation that she had nothing to do with my father anymore, she was not ready to move on.
With sadness in my eyes, I watched my mother wave back at Mr. Carson with her flip phone pressed tight against her ear. After Mr. Carson glimpsed her one last time, believing that she was indeed on the phone, I wondered if he thought about asking her out on a date. I noticed he had become nicer to me in class ever since he learned about my parents’ nasty breakup. But I still didn’t know what to make of him.
“What happened to that other dog?” I asked, forcing my mother to remove the phone from her ear.
“What other dog?”
“Don’t you remember? Didn’t you say you were gonna get another one by now and let him have Benji?”
She fell silent, except this time, she forced herself to crack a thin smile at herself. I reached over and gave her a big fat hug—the only thing I could do for her this instant out of pity or whatever she felt that had nothing to do with the remotest manifestation of blitheness. What could I say? I understood her plight: my father was her college sweetheart, although there had been other lovers by the time they got married one hot summer’s day several years later while vacationing in St. Petersburg, Florida.
“Is there any way you could make it to my basketball game next Friday? Dad already said he’s not gonna be there.”
“What are you again? Captain?”
“Uh-huh. A pretty good one, too. Better believe it.”
“I bet. All right. I’ll be there if I’m not tied up at—”
Father showed up in his brand-new convertible at seven o’clock sharp. He pulled up next to the SUV, looking all sick and stodgy—a constipated look on his face that made him appear at least ten years older. “Hey, Austin.” I ignored him, at first. For him to reach me where I positioned myself next to mother, he would have to walk across the passenger side of his car, brushing past her, which I believed he would have found even more awkward.
All the prick received from me, since I found myself sizing him up and down to see if there was any other transformation in him, was a shrug of my right shoulder. Still, I wondered what he made of my new, faded undercut pompadour, which resembled nothing like his stupid haircut. The last time we had seen him, Mother suspected his so-called hot girlfriend let him attend a critical business dinner with the wrong attire. Now, I could tell that there was something else wrong by just looking at him—only the left side of his face shaved in full. Of late, I wondered what else he had messed up, what other good manners he had forgotten.
We stood there, arms folded over our chests, glaring at him. I thought of him as just some asshole I didn’t know any longer. I did not even notice Benji’s absence until my mother made her most severe inquiry.
“The dog is—”
“What? Is he okay?” she asked, wondering what could have happened to Benji since the dog was in perfect condition and health when she had handed him over to the prick a week ago.
“Don’t worry. He’s with Libby. I left him with Libby.”
My mother squeezed her eyes shut. For a split second, I saw her head twitch about over her shoulder. The panic and frown on her face soon unwound. Still, his explanation would have to be not just impressive but sensible enough to escape the wrath of her uncivil tongue before returning into the arms of his much younger lover.
More than anything, he wanted to break the deafening silence. He just didn’t know how to begin. I could tell this much where I stood, watching the tip of his tongue lick the corners of his dried mouth. Then, when he stooped with his hands over the door of his car and kept his eyesight away from my mother, I took the liberty to rejoice in whatever agony he was experiencing because I knew now that he was in real trouble. The question was would my mother be kind and even receptive to the prick’s feelings and worries.
After clearing his throat, he straightened himself to look her in the eye. “Look, Rose, I just need to talk. Don’t worry about Benji. I’ll bring him by later in the afternoon. But for now, please, hear me out.” He arched his back again an instant before removing himself from the car for good. “I just need to talk to you. That’s all. People still do that, don’t they?”
“Don’t you have someone for that?”
“You don’t understand. It’s not the same thing. Can hardly hear myself whenever she opens her mouth. And I’m telling you that gibberish doesn’t stop until she falls deep asleep. Jesus Christ. Sometimes I can’t even breathe.”
My mother could only shake her head in total bewilderment, glancing at her watch. In a single-loop drawstring, she tied her sweat shorts and gestured for me to follow her onto the sidewalk as she turned her back on him. But before I could take off, setting my mind up on the run, my father whispered something of utmost fascination in my ear.
On our way home, it amazed me how hard my mother tried not to think of my father since this would have made her even more incensed whether she liked it or not. First, she phoned one of her girlfriends—the one who had assured her that she was better off without him—then another, letting the phone ring again and again without success. Then, she hummed “Jingle Bells” and other familiar songs, recounting her childhood birthday stories to me. I partook in her circumvention as best I could. Yet, while I sat there, one true thing arose in my mind, a vivid desire unlike any other that dominated my thoughts for the rest of the drive: the original Xbox 360 that my father claimed he had been thinking about as my next Christmas present.
“Are you okay, sweetie? You sure seem quiet,” my mother said when we drove past city hall. “Thanks a million for going with me,” she then said after we got home. She refrained from slamming the door when she caught me watching her. An ivory millipede scrunched under her shoe on the natural stone pavers that led straight to the front door. Her attention had diverted to the damp lawn, wetting her shoes to investigate what looked like cigarette butts. She picked up one of them at once and aimed her anger at me. It was as though I must have had something to do with this or known, at the very least, who was responsible for the mess.
“I think you’re wasting your time. For all we know, it could have been that landscaping guy.”
Startled by her own insinuation, sense of incredulity, her face softened. She threw the cigarette butt away and said, “Ah, you’re right. What am I thinking? Forgive me, sweetie.”
“Well, that’s what you need to do for Dad.”
I mustered a deep breath. “Why don’t you give him another chance? People make mistakes, Mom. Nobody’s a saint.” I hastened into the house without waiting to see her reaction. For the first time since my father moved out, the idea of destroying the old Marvel collectible cards he had given me when I was ten now vanished. I played with the cards while rewatching a basketball documentary as part of my homework for my upcoming basketball game.
By the time my father arrived at the house with Benji, it was past five o’clock. He wore an old baseball cap that he had not worn in years. My mother had just finished baking two dozen chocolate chip cookies and writing two personalized letters to send to some less fortunate kids overseas she had been sponsoring for as long as I could remember. Assuming she would tell my father to go to hell, I had decided to taste not a single one of the warm cookies. I resisted the vanilla semi-sweet chocolate smell that intoxicated the kitchen and dining room, grabbed my basketball, and went to play outside.
From the parking lot, Benji spotted my mother first. Mother had been sitting in her hammock chair on the wood patio on the south side of the house, her hair all drawn over her shoulder, lost in thought.
I stopped shooting hoops, letting the ball run its course opposite to the garage so I could deal with Benji’s excitement. The creature had missed me a lot more than mother. Good God! Benji brought up his paws on my shoulders before my knees could even reach the ground, making my face crinkle with his tongue.
My mother tried her best to produce that same awful look she wore on her face that morning, but it came out wrong at every attempt. I found the expression on her face now a lot harder to read. In any case, I sensed it was that of a face of someone caught between a rock and a hard place.
As for my father, I could not tell how optimistic he was despite his constant gaze on my mother. But what in the world was he thinking? Why did he not bring some flowers with him to increase his chances? Even I knew that trick. But then, after I followed him past the front porch to the patio, I realized he had given the situation some thought, after all. Before opening his mouth, he sank to his knees with his arms wrapped around Mother’s legs. His tearful eyes and the remorse showed in them did all the talking and beseeching that needed to be done.
My mother broke into tears. I watched her pluck at my father’s hat, then clutch at his lapels. The baseball cap fell over with the words “St. Petersburg” embroidered on it. Benji barked in confusion. I laughed until my stomach hurt.
Soidenet Gue is an emerging screenwriter from Florida. He has a penchant for writing about dysfunctional families. His work has appeared in Rigorous and is forthcoming in Drunk Monkeys and Hare’s Paw Literary Journal. When not writing, he enjoys watching movies and reading.