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Will the Real Adult Please Stand Up?

by Charles C. Cole

I was returning our kids back to my ex-wife. The subway platform was at capacity, reminding me of a massive stockyard I once saw along the desolate highway in western Texas. Nothing for miles followed by a lot of standing still, nose to tail, going nowhere fast.

As usual my oldest, Braden, was all teen-aged insolence, either distractedly texting his friends or contradicting my every casual utterance with an attitude as hard and sharp as Damascus steel. My daughter, Jillian, the miracle child who was supposed to keep my marriage together, ten years younger than her brother, held my hand so tightly the blood nearly stopped flowing to my fingers. I had to force her to release and reattach to my sleeve so the feeling would come back.

Jillian, my saucer-eyed princess, cried most of the way on our journey back, weeping silently like a stone statue.

“I’m sorry, Daddy,” she said, having once again placed the blame on her little shoulders. “I didn’t mean to tell Mom that Miss Jean called.”

“Easy, Jillie-bean. We’ve been over this. It was Daddy’s fault. I made some bad decisions. But you, my little angel, are not one of them.”

“I was supposed to keep you two together, Braden said. Guess I wasn’t very good at my job.”

I glared at Braden. “It’s true,” he said. “I heard you during one of your late-night brawls.”

“Your mother and I don’t brawl.”

“Whatever,” Braden allowed.

“Not everything we collaborated on turned out as expected. Creating you two has been a blessing for both of us. You represent why we got together, all the love that kept us strong for so long. I guess we hoped watching you two grow would distract us, remind us of the good underneath the not so good, keeping us on the right track. Then Miss Jean happened.”

“Is Miss Jean a bad person?” Jillian asked. “Can a bad person be pretty?”

Braden snickered.

“Believe me or not, I’ve never met a bad person. Sad people, yes. Angry people, all the time. But, contrary to what you may have heard, Miss Jean was just lonely. Her husband, who was also a good friend of mine, died after a long battle with cancer, and she hoped I could make her feel better.”

“My dad, the Good Samaritan,” said Braden, without looking up from his smart phone.

“Did you make it better?” asked Jillian.

“A little. I tried. She wasn’t ready.”

“Hope she’s hot in the sack,” said Braden. “Hope she’s worth this whole mess.”

“Braden, you’ll never believe me, but we didn’t ‘do anything’ for a very long time. I’d hold her until she cried herself to sleep.”

“What a waste!” Braden scoffed.

“It was nice to be needed” I explained. “Mommy never needed anyone to take care of her.”

“What about now that you’ve got a place to yourself, when Jean can come by whenever?” asked Braden, not letting go.

“We’re not talking. She left the firm, moved to Florida and is living off her husband’s life insurance.”

“Guess that backfired,” snickered Braden.

Jillian exploded. “What does that even mean, Braden? You’re not helping!”” She shoved his chest with both of her tiny hands. Braden dropped his phone. His eyes went wide like the first time he’d seen me use a power tool.

“What the hell?” He scooped the phone back up and brushed it off, checking the display carefully. “You are so lucky it didn’t shatter.”

“Braden, be gentle!” I said. “It’s only a phone.”

“It may look like a phone, Dad, but this thing is my lifeboat. All my friends, the ones who don’t come by anymore because they can’t stand hearing Mom bawling her eyes out, they still include me in what matters to them because they can reach out remotely, without walking into the sticky divorce-fest that is my life.”

“Divorce-fest?” I echoed.

“Dad, you live by your phone,” said Braden. “Please explain to Little Miss 1980 how your office would go out of business without real-time interfacing with you corporate road-warrior types.”

“Staying connected has its advantages,” I allowed, “but it’s not for everyone. When you join the real world—”

“I am in the real world, Dad. Does this look like Narnia or Wonderland or Middle-Earth?” Braden was hyperventilating like a stampeding Pamplona bull.

“I’m just saying it’s not easy keeping a work-home balance,” I explained. “Sometimes people are better at it than others.”

“Like you when you only had one apartment instead of two,” Braden offered. “And only one significant other instead of two.”

“That’s not fair,” I said. “I never had two significant others. I had three, the two of you and Mommy.”

“One down, two to go,” said Braden. He was particularly adept at shoving the guilt-edged knife in, but I hoped we’d be closer one day, just so long as I heard him out now.

“Braden, sometimes you’re not a nice person,” I said, wishing I’d kept my mouth shut.

“Learned from the best.”

“I’m glad you consider your mother the best,” I said.

“Hey!” Jillian cried out.

“Daddy was joking, Jillie. I apologize.”

Braden whispered, “This is the part where you ask for something expensive in exchange for your loyalty.”

Jillian thought for a moment. “Is having a divorce erased expensive?” she asked.

“I said expensive, not impossible,” said Braden.

“Listen. Before the train comes, I want to thank you for not taking sides, for not shutting either one of us out. I hope you never have to go through this, because it sucks. One last huddle. Not everyone can say, ‘I love you’ like sneezing, as easily as your grandmother, but you can mean it in your hearts, without saying it.”

“Dad,” said Braden, suddenly choking up, “I miss our old life!”

I pulled them close. They closed their eyes, but they didn’t shove me away. That’s when I knew, somehow, we’d make it.

Copyright © 2020 by Charles C. Cole

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