The first one since “The Love Field Incident.” Penny was having her first Girl Scout camp-out. I was having interrupted sleep and cold sweats, staring down the barrel of two and a half days of “just us and Bernard.”
“I think this’ll be a great opportunity. We can focus on him, help him feel loved, a part of things, of us.”
Shu said this and then looked at me.
“I think so, too!” I piped up. Then I went to the drug store bought a box of blush wine, and a box of Midol PMS Extra Strength, which has an itty-bitty bit of tranquilizer effect, especially if you wash it down with a tumbler of blush.
Never even had to open the box. Bernard refused to come to Plano. He refused to speak to Shu on the phone, refused to return emails or text messages. So, Shu sent the boy a $50 Starbucks gift certificate, “Just to show him, you know, that I’m sorry for my part, maybe encourage him to see his part.”
Oh right, I said to myself Bribe, but I did not say anything to Shu.
Bernard did not either. He never responded to the gift one way or the other, but no doubt he used it. So, Shu called Deborah the ex-wife, who suggested that what would really tickle Bernard was one of those electronic reader things that you download books on. So, Shu bought one for each kid, setting aside Penny’s until Christmas, “So she doesn’t feel pandered to.” I told Shu do not put my name to Bernard’s reader thing because I thought that that would be pandering, but Shu went ahead and told them to put “with love, from Dad and Vashti” on the card.
No response from Bernard himself, but word came from his therapist that “Bernard is feeling especially vulnerable just now, and still very deeply embarrassed about his behavior at the airport. He doesn’t feel safe right now.” I coughed. It was a genuine cough and not a commentary of any sort, but it made the therapist pause. We were on the speaker phone (not my idea, not at all). She said, “…Unless, Shu, you might come to Houston for a joint session in my office.”
So, of course Shu went. He’s a good father. And two weeks later, on visitation weekend, he went to Houston again. And on and on and on this went, until it was a regular thing that I was spending every-other weekend alone while Shu flew south “to help Bernard process.” I thought this was unfair to me, but unlike some people, I wanted to help things along, even if I didn’t agree with the direction they were going. I kept my mouth shut, to everybody but Tee. At first it helped me to call Tee and blow off steam, but then he started answering the phone, “Why hello, Vash-Tie Doormat,” at which time I stopped bugging him with my problems and began bottling everything up and keeping it corked nice and tight.
After a three-day family therapy weekend — one that included Shu, Bernard, Penny, the grandparents, the ex-wife and her husband, but not the cook/girlfriend — Shu came home excited about “a real break-through with Bernard.”
And sure enough, after another $50 donation to the Starbucks card, the boy sent Shu a two-line email: “I am ready to try again. I would like to come to Plano this weekend.” As reward for his capitulation, each parent pitched in $600 to buy Bernard the laptop computer that he’d been lobbying for. (Although Shu’s mom told me later that Deborah only participated in the laptop because she was desperate for a break after having Bernard at her hip for months on end.)
I did not and still do not think that it was right for the boy to reap rewards for bad behavior, but I kept the peace. I reminded myself daily that I was the adult and Bernard was only a child, and that I needed to be willing to work at helping the boy get over himself. With time, I told myself, Bernard would come around, and things would work themselves out, and we could all co-exist, and maybe even one day learn to enjoy each other. I said as much to Tee. He just rolled his eyes and said, “Vash-tie Doormat, you oughta get your eyes checked. Because that big red flag? Getting bigger and redder ever day.”
It was set. Finally.
Both children were coming for the weekend. Shu bought tickets to the Ripley’s Believe It or Not/House of Wax Museum (Bernard’s favorite), and to The Dallas Children’s Theater (Penny’s favorite). But then Thursday night at 8:16 p.m., Deborah called to say that Bernard was “quite agitated, veering towards panic.” Deborah really, really hated to ask this of both of us, but “Would it be possible that just this first visit back could be just you and the kids?”
I didn’t wait for Shu to ask, I didn’t want to see it in his face that he wanted to ask, I went upstairs and packed a bag. Shu said “No,” but his expression said yes and thank you. He tried really hard to get me to stay at some fancy spa hotel, but that sort of thing is not for me. (One, I do not like people I don’t know very, very well touching my body, and two, to be absolutely frank, I cannot sit in a tub of mud that has touched other people’s private openings.)
“Whatever, baby, whatever you want, I’ll do it, let me do it for you.” Shu was sincere, concerned, intent, studying my face in that way that makes me love him so much and hurt so bad at the same time. He said, “You’re not thinking about going to your father’s house.”
“God, no. I’ll stay with Tee and the girls.”
WHOOSH. Concern was gone, and there was something else in his face. Miffed. Shu was miffed. For most people, miffed is not a great big deal, but as Shu gets real angry only about once a year, his “miffed” is comparable to anybody else’s “about to throw things.”
“Huh. Okay. Um. Wow.” Shu said, scrubbing his scalp with his fingertips. Pause, pause, pause. Shu is the king of the Long Thoughtful Pause. This can be very annoying, especially when you are angry.
“Okay, well, Vashti… Um… No. No. I have to– This, uh…” Pause. Pause. “This really doesn’t sit well with me.”
I went back to throwing things in a suitcase. “Tee is my best friend.”
The look deepened. The miffed look, not the concerned look.
“He’s like my brother.”
“Rightrightright, sure, I know that.” Pause, pause, pause. “But. I don’t think that -”
“You don’t trust him? Or is it me? You don’t trust me.”
“I didn’t say that. I never said that.” Shu said. Pauuuuse. “I guess, if you really want to…” Pause, pause, pause. “I have no right to ask, I know, it’s just….”
Delta Airlines could have parked three jumbo jets in that space. Finally, he spoke. Shu said, “It’s inappropriate, Vashti.”
INAPPROPRIATE?! WHO’S LETTING AN 11-YEAR-OLD BOY RUN OUR LIVES?
“Inappropriate?” I said. My voice was wobbling like a 70-year-old soprano.
“In how it looks.” Shu said. He tried to touch, me but I took a step back.
“Well, Shu.” I said, my eyes super-focused on his, my hands down by my sides and flicking my fingernails across my thumbnails. “How does it look?”
Pauuuuuuuse. I am by nature a silence-filler, especially in stressful situations, but I did not trust myself to speak without losing my mind to the point of barking like a dog, so I walked away and focused on repacking my bag, very, very neatly.
Shu followed. He said, “It looks like….like you’re with him, instead of me. Like you’re, you know -”
“Cheating on you.”
“Yes. Of course, I know, but to other people – ”
“Like who, Shu? Who’s watching us?” I asked. “Who is thinking this?” I was furious, so angry that I had to consciously work my jaw so I wasn’t hissing at him through my teeth.
He slapped his thighs. “You know what, Vashti? Whatever. Do whatever you want to do, and that’s fine.” Shu said. “If you want to go stay with Tee, that’s just …great. Perfect. Do whatever you want. Fine.” He walked out of the room. I sat on the bed, grabbed a throw pillow and crammed the corner in my mouth and bit down hard.
In the end, we compromised. I hung out with Tee and the girls during the day, and at night I had a very nice room in a very nice hotel in downtown Dallas with a great bed, a great view, and a great bar in the lobby.
Two weeks later, visitation time again. Bernard came, I went to Tee’s and then the hotel at night. This went on and on until Thanksgiving. Shu put his foot down. I would be a part of the Kraus family holiday, no matter what. So, we drove to Houston.
Shu’s mother kept my wine glass full, but still, by Sunday night, I had a full understanding of the term “impending nervous breakdown.” Two solid days of being the target of Bernard’s not-so-subtle insinuations about broke down all of mine.
Like when we were playing Monopoly for hours (I was winning) and Bernard comes up with, “Really, any adult who doesn’t have a college degree is just stupid.” Shu pointed out that not everyone had the money to afford college. Bernard said, “That’s why God invented community college.” All this started not five minutes after Penny had asked me where I went to college and I told her that I didn’t.
After the Thanksgiving meal, which I cooked at my insistence and everybody raved over (I brine that turkey, and cook it upside down), all the adults were sitting at the table talking and enjoying the tasty (but store-bought) chocolate torte that Shu’s sister had brought, Bernard walks in, stands behind my chair and says – apropos to nothing being discussed at the table – “My mother would never eat that. She wears a size zero. Even when she was pregnant with me, and my sister, she only wore a size four.” The room went deathly quiet. It was very apparent that nobody was looking at me.
I do not wear a size zero. I do not wear a size four anywhere on my body.
On and on it went like this throughout the weekend, Bernard taking potshots at me, quoting statistics – sans references, mind you – about how only children are more likely to die in accidents, about how “marriages that start with people living in sin are sixteen-point-four times more likely to fall apart after less than two years,” etcetera. Whenever anybody praised my coffee, Bernard said that coffee from a can was “stale, lifeless, and non-organic” whereas the Starbucks’ blahbittyblahblah blend that he’d brought with him (which to me tasted like burned beans but of course I said nothing) was “lively, fresh, and 100% unpolluted.”
It really was like being back with my father, except that Daddy never had money or a Mensa membership to drop into every third sentence of a conversation.
I took so many brisk walks that Thanksgiving that I lost two pounds. If it had not been for a very beautiful and scenic neighborhood to enjoy, and Penny’s sweet presence, I would have completely lost my mind. That weekend, not only did I develop acid reflux, I began grinding my teeth in my sleep for the first time in my life.
Shu did not defend me, or discipline Bernard. Instead, he spent an embarrassing amount of time praising me when Bernard was around. This was about as helpful as you might imagine.
Bernard finally crossed the line at On The Border, which is a chain Tex-Mex restaurant that I love. Shu unfortunately let this slip in front of the kids, so Bernard spent the entire lunch nitpicking about everything. The décor was “overdone,” the food was “inauthentic,” the service was inept, the other people at the table next to us “smell like old sweat.” Bernard sent his food back so many times that by the time he was finally ready to eat, the rest of us were finished. So, Bernard shoved his plate back and refused to eat at all. He refused the waiter’s offer of a doggie bag, saying “Really. You think I’d bother to take that home? Really.” Then he picked up his coffee thermos and exhaled very loudly. Penny, Shu’s parents and I made conversation, quiet chitchat, all of us aware of the ticking bomb at the table. Penny asked about my family, and I told her that it was just Daddy and me. She asked about Mother, and I told her how Mother had died when I was about her age.
“How tragically blue-collar.” Bernard said, under his breath. Shu’s father called him down for it, and maybe his voice was sharp, maybe.
Bernard reacted big. He exploded. He yanked the napkin off his lap, stood up and shoved his chair hard against the table and hissed at us. “I was joking! Christ! Remember jokes?!” and then he marched through the restaurant and went out, slapping both hands against the glass door. After a few minutes, Shu scooted back in his chair and rose with a big sigh, saying “I better go check on him.” I pushed my plate away and watched in silence as Penny devoured everything on Bernard’s plate and then wiped out the last of the chips and salsa.
It did not take long before there was no more grin-and-bear-it left in me.
“I don’t like this, Vashti.” Shu said. “I mean it, okay, I really don’t like this.”
“Neither do I.” I finished packing the car with Christmas presents for Tee and the girls and closed the trunk.
“You can’t spend Christmas with him and his kids. It’s not right.”
“Nothing is right, Shu.”
“Stop, Vashti.” Shu hung on the car window as I backed down the driveway, “Talk to me, baby, please.”
What could I say that I hadn’t already said? What except what I couldn’t bring myself to say which was How in the H-E-L-L can you manage adult employees when you can’t manage your own child?
“Penny cries when you’re not here when she comes.” Shu said.
Well so do I.
“It’s Christmas, Vashti.” Shu said. “We have to work through this. How can we work through it if you’re not here? If you keep running away-”
“I am not running away.”
“You are running out on us.”
That made me so mad, I spoke my mind. “Why don’t you try talking to Bernard like a parent instead of being all fake and “hey buddy!” Be honest! Say what you’re thinking – just like you’re talking to me, right now — why can’t you just be honest, just be yourself, with your son?”
Shu was leaning on the car door, looking down at his feet. He didn’t speak for a long while, and when he did, it was so quiet I could barely hear him.
“…I want him to like me.”
Tears. Shu did everything but pull his t-shirt up over his head to try and hide them, but I saw tears. I put the car in park, killed the engine, got out and put my arms around while he cried, which does not come easy to that big man.
“…Vashti, I’m sorry.” He said. “I’m not good at being a father.”
“Oh, bull. Penny loves you. She worships you.”
“I don’t like my son.” Shu whispered, his face wrecked, pain and guilt all around and through him. “What’s wrong with me that I don’t like my own son?”
I couldn’t say It’s okay – nobody likes your son. So, instead I said, “You’re trying to be a good parent to a difficult kid. That’s hard.”
“It is. And I don’t know what I’m doing! Not a damn clue.” Shu said, falling back against car, his arms across his chest. He wiped his eyes with the pad of his thumb. “Where Bernard’s concerned, I don’t know anything.”
“Well. Maybe just… step up. Be the dad.” I said. “Be yourself, and- There’ll be times when he won’t like you, no matter what you do, but maybe he’ll learn to trust you, and respect you…?”
“You’re right. Okay. Okay.” Shu wrapped me up tight in his arms and kissed my head about fourteen times before he said, his voice still unsteady with emotion. “Please, stay with me.” He said. “I love you. I can’t do this without you.”
That Christmas, and believe you me I have had some very bad Christmases in my lifetime, was hell. Finally, the holiday was over – the half with Shu’s children, anyway. Shu and I were supposed to go to Superior Tire Company’s big New Year’s Eve party, and I’d been so looking forward to getting all dressed up and seeing Shu in his tuxedo, but all that teeth-grinding that I’d been doing brought on a headache that required two prescriptions to reach “tolerable.”
By 7:30 p.m., I was passed out in bed. Shu was worried about leaving me, but he had to go to the party. It was business, he’d be gone just long enough to make an appearance, he said. At 4:30 a.m., I woke up to the sound of loud gunfire and people hollering, and ran down the hall to find Shu and his brother, sitting in front of the T.V. drunk and in their underwear, playing some online war game. Shu pulled me over into his lap and felt my forehead, and worried that I had a temperature. He belched slightly, and I smelled beer.
It was the best moment of the whole holiday.