His teacher says we need to have them read to us. “A book a day at least.” I have not been doing this. Judging by the other parents’ shifts and murmurs, I am not alone. We are all folded into the small desks with our knees bent up to our shoulders. Mrs. P smiles. “And one more request. Please, please teach your children to tie their own shoes.” Groans now. Giggles.
Tee and I look over the sign-up sheet for parent-teacher conferences in November. We are the only twosome negotiating for a time slot. At every other desk, it is just one mom or dad – mostly mom – checking the schedule. Divorce comes with a handful of unexpected side benefits. They’re pretty expensive and probably not worth what our son has to pay for them, so we guard them with our lives. Tee and I both attend every event. We used to argue over who gets to chaperone the school trip until we realized we could handle it together. We have already set a theme and divided up cake- and game-duties for a birthday party over a month away.
“Geez, I can’t get here at 12:30 on a weekday,” I say. All of the morning and afternoon appointments are filled. Tee and I have our calendars out. “There’s a unit meeting on Monday I can’t miss,” he says. Our negotiations are stalling the process for everyone. Another mom takes mercy on us and offers us her 8:15 slot. She stays at home mom and lives right near the school. She’s our new favorite person. Tee and I put up a symbolic fight for about three seconds before erasing her name and squeezing our two onto the blue line.
The teacher introduces the parents to the Spanish teacher and the weekly schedule. Then the bell rings for us just as it does for the kids. Parents scatter. Tee and I are alone in the hallway, engaged in the eternal yet forever interrupted conversation about raising our son. Other parents might be doing this at home with each other. Maybe they’re not doing this much at all. Tee and I talk. We talk in corridors, over phones, between meetings at work. Scraps and patches. We find compromises lightning fast now without even discussing the values beneath our positions. We are a million miles apart but right on the same page.
One of the things I miss and don’t miss in the slightest is having Tee in my home and private space, thinking with me about raising our son. I don’t know what I’m doing 95% of the time. Now, I bumble around in isolation. I ache for another set of eyes while knowing my ex husband’s presence wouldn’t actually help. I don’t understand the way he sees. We have decided to be in complete agreement on all things practical and to cross our fingers that we won’t bump too hard against the Whys of our choices. There are walls between us that we still don’t know how to scale.
Tonight, in perfect alignment, we are the envy of our friends and neighbors.
“So, do you have him read to you?” I ask.
He smiles a little. “Nope. We still do our three books and sometimes he points out a word, but. . .” he shrugs.
“I guess we should start.” I’m thinking about the inevitable struggle with Bug. Like just about every other human on the planet, he resists change.
“One a night?” Tee asks.
I nod. “I’ll start tonight.”
Bug has already had his bath when I bang through the door. He and my mother are sitting on the sofa looking through a picture book about spies. Bug slumps off to the bathroom to brush his teeth while I hear the run-down of the evening. Good dinner, chip on his shoulder, won’t talk to her about anything. I don’t bother telling her again that this is his personality right now. His attitude hurts her feelings regardless. I saw the other truth, though. They had been leaning in together, close and quiet in the orange glow of the lamp. Maybe it was only three minutes. Maybe we have to take what we can get.
She heads out and I brace myself. “All right, kiddo. Bed.” No slush time tonight. I just know this shift in our routine is going to drag us down to first gear. My nights with my kid are precious but they are so very long. It’s been years since Goodnight Moon. These days, three books and three songs can fill an hour, easy. If Bug has to read? We’ll be bumping along on the shoulder, me craning my neck for the exit ramp. The dinner dishes are heaped in the sink, the lunches are not made, the dog has to be walked. . .
Clearly, Bug’s not the only one who dreads change.
Right here, right now. I tell myself.
“Okay, Buddy. Tonight, you get to read one of the books out loud to me.”
“I’ll start tomorrow,” he says.
“Tonight,” I say.
“Next week? Please? Wait! I know. I’ll start when I’m seven.”
“Baby, you practically are seven. And Mrs. P didn’t say to wait a day or a week or anything. She said now. You’re teacher said it, so even Mommy has to do it.”
Bug deflates. I read two from the pile then root through it again and pull out one of the shorter ones. It is from the library and neither of us has ever seen it before.
“What’s this?” he asks.
“I don’t know. What does the title say?”
“Oh, Mom! Come on.”
I point to the first word on the cover and wait.
“H-h-hondo. And. Fuh – what’s that?”
“Hondo and Fabian,” he says.
We open the book. He reads the first line. Not a single stumble. He reads it just like any old reader would do it. I have to hold back the wave of Wow that surges up in me. If I don’t keep my cool, he won’t keep going. We turn the page. His voice rolls smooth right over the next line. Then the next. Hondo and his friend Fred are playing in the waves. Fabian the kitty is playing with the toilet paper. Bug is giggling. I use my fingers to cover parts of a long word and he pieces together “chicken.” Then, just like that, Hondo and Fabian are asleep. We close the book and I turn to Bug.
“You just read to me, baby. You just read a whole book!”
“Yeah, yeah. Whatever.”
“Whatever your own self. I had no idea you could do that! Look how all your hard work and practicing is making it so you can really-for-real read.”
“Could you just sing please?”
My mother is right. He does have a chip on his shoulder tonight. It’s no different than just about all the 182 nights I have with my flinty boy. That’s not nearly enough squares on the calendar to waste any one of them on wishing he were different, wishing any of this were something else. I pull the pillows down behind us and curl into him. He pushes my hand off of his side and twists away.
“Old Mr. Johnson had troubles of his own.”
“Will you rub my back?” His little voice. His one concession to attachment. I lift his shirt and trace my nails down his spine. His muscles roll as he hums a little laugh.
“I’m really proud of you, baby,” I whisper. “You’ve worked really hard. It’s going to be so fun reading together.”
Bug doesn’t say anything. I pick up the song’s drifting thread.
“He had a yellow cat that wouldn’t leave his home. . .”