I awoke before the children, roused by murmurs in the sun room.
It was a little before eight.
The day after Christmas.
Bernard and Bucky were talking in low voices—or at least, as low as Bucky’s voice gets—as they had coffee and traded sections of the Times.
It was a quiet adult moment between them.
They had no doubt been up since sunrise.
I lay in bed, listening as I had as a child, when my parents took us camping. My brothers and I were tucked in as the grown-ups stayed up to talk around the campfire.
I would be frustrated that as the eldest, I had the same bedtime as the babies. I quietly played with toys, making them talk about whatever it was that made the grown-ups laugh.
On this morning after Christmas, I had to pee. I knew that once I left my bed, I would be summoned to the sun room to join the grown ups.
I did not want to disturb them, but my bladder got the better of my discretion.
“Is that you, Jefferson?” Bucky called as I flushed.
“Yes, it’s me,” I said, washing my hands.
“We have the paper,” Bernard responded. “And coffee is on the stove.”
“Thanks. Y’all sleep well?”
The jig was up. I was awake for good.
I poured my coffee and made my way to an empty chair between them. They talked to me about the day’s news even as I first read the headlines.
The kids came downstairs as a group. They slept in the same room, so they woke as one.
We put out breakfast.
The uncles and aunt arrived. We made more coffee. We toasted more bagels and put out more lox.
It was around ten as everyone settled into the morning.
Lucy remained in her room. She was sleeping in.
Except I knew: she was not asleep.
The children knew this. We all knew this.
Lucy hasn’t slept later than seven thirty in all the years I’ve known her.
Lately, she complains of even less sleep. She awakes before dawn and can’t relax.
During our relationship, if she woke too early, she would wake me and talk. She needed someone to listen. My drowsy responses of “uh huh” and “hmmm” lulled her to back to slumber.
I complained that I was not a morning person. She woke me anyway. I offered my sleepy lullaby.
Lucy knew there were plenty of adults to watch after the kids, including their father. She was not required to make an appearance.
Around ten thirty, she was in the kitchen, fully dressed. She had put her bag by the door, fully packed.
“Jefferson, some of the gifts you gave the children are piled in the center of their room. You will need to pack them for your apartment.”
“Good morning,” I said. “You want some coffee?”
“I’ll make my own, thank you.”
“The kids are fed.”
“I’m aware of that.”
“Okay.” I took my third cup of coffee to read the Metro section.
Lucy had her coffee as she packed gifts.
“Mom, are we leaving soon?” Collie asked.
“Yes, very soon.”
“Good. This place is creepy.”
“We’ll be home soon,” she said.
“Mom, I packed my Hello Kitties,” Lillie said. She held a Hello Kitty shoe box filled with stuffed animals. She looked down and began to list their new names. “Here is Fashion Kitty, Mommy Kitty, Birthday Kitty, Cheetah Kitty and her twin Tiger Kitty . . .”
“Lillie, those all go to your dad’s apartment. He got them for you.”
“He didn’t give me all of them. Some came from Santa, and some . . .”
“Please put that box by the door for your dad to pack.”
“But Mom . . .”
“Lillie, I need you to do that, and then help me pack your other gifts.”
“Okay . . .” Lillie put the box of toys on the floor and followed her mother.
I put down the paper, and swallowed the last of my coffee.
“I’d better help here,” I said to Richard.
“You’re excused,” he said, eyes on the Op-Ed pages.
Lucy soon had the children dressed and ready to go.
“Lillie,” she said. “Go put on your new purple sneakers so we can leave.”
“I want to wear the Hello Kitty sneakers Dad got for me.”
Mother and father each knew their daughter needed sneakers. But since mother and father aren’t speaking, each didn’t know that the other had taken care of the need.
“Lillie, please put on the purple sneakers.”
“Dad, can I wear the Hello Kitty shoes?”
I wasn’t getting between them.
“You need to do as your mother says. The purple sneakers are cool.”
Lucy packed another gift. “Fine, wear the shoes you want.” She mouthed me the words: I want to go.
Lillie was pleased. She won a battle.
I laced the shoes on her feet, en route to her mother’s house.
Lillie won the battle, but lost the war. I’d probably never see those shoes again.
Lucy packed the car. The children were dressed.
The children were packed into the car.
The rest of us gathered on the front porch.
Lucy drove off as we waved.
She had to come back when her sister called to say she had forgotten Collie’s coat and gloves.
Lucy’s sister called again later, when we found she had forgotten Jason’s trumpet and a bag of gifts. She was well on her way. We made other arrangements.
She burned rubber to get the holiday fast into her rearview mirror.
“Well, it sure is quiet now,” Bucky commented, as I packed the rest of the children’s gifts.
“We will have you back to normal in no time,” I said.
Lucy may have forgotten a few details, but she was focused on one thing.
Each of the gifts associated with me was assiduously edited from those she took home.
It didn’t matter what the children wanted to play with in the moment.
If it came from her family, it was packed.
If it came from me, it was abandoned.
I put Lillie’s box of carefully packed Hello Kitties into a bag.
Bernard and I loaded his rental car. We were driving back alone.
About an hour after Lucy hauled ass, we said our goodbyes.
Bernard was especially tender with Bucky. I followed suite.
When we were well underway, talking about the weather and the road, I scratched the scab.
“We were lucky this year,” I said, adjusting the satellite radio. “We missed the traditional Christmas day fight between Lucy and Bucky.”
“Well, that was predicted,” Bernard said as he drove. “So it could be avoided.”
“What do you mean? They do it every year, like clockwork.”
“Yes. So I told them that when they think they are going to fight, they should each leave the room.”
“Very wise. I noticed Lucy left the room on me a lot, too.”
“Yes, she did. But last night she didn’t, and you two got into it.”
Bernard was in the next room as Lucy and I had our fireside chat on Christmas. He could hear every word.
“Were we so loud? I really tried not to argue . . .”
“It’s not you, Jefferson. It’s not even her. You two are going to disagree for a while.”
That’s pathetic, I thought, watching the cars.
“I think she is crazy when it comes to me in ways I don’t understand.”
Bernard kept his eyes on the road. “I don’t recall her mother ever being so distasteful when we broke up. Maybe that is true, and maybe it’s my selective memory.”
I sighed, like a diva. “I want a selective memory too.”
Bernard chuckled. “It’s a blessing and a curse. But the thing is, you have to remember, she is really trying and she is in a lot of pain.”
“I know that, Bernard. You know, she wanted this divorce . . .”
“And I fought it . . .”
“And she got what she wanted.”
“I know. But all that doesn’t matter. She’s really unhappy.”
“Yes, she’s miserable. And she only has you to blame.”
I watched the vineyards pass. “I get that. It makes no sense, but I get it.”
“It doesn’t have to make sense. It’s the way it is.”
I had set the radio to classic rock of the 1960s. Eric Burden sang.
“I’d much rather it made sense.”
“It would be better. But this is how it is. The good news is, you don’t have to deal with her again for a year.”
“What do you mean? I deal with her almost every day.”
“I mean, you don’t have to be in the same house, under the same roof, until next Christmas.”
We passed a tree farm.
“I don’t think that is such a good thing, Bernard. If she dealt with me, we would come to some understanding. So long as she refuses to talk to me, she can go right ahead creating some monster version of me, separate from reality.”
“Yes, but . . .”
“So long as we aren’t talking, her anxieties are her guiding influence. I’m not the living, breathing father of her children. I join her mother as one of history’s great war criminals.”
Bernard laughed sardonically.
“You know, I have offered to go into therapy with her, if it helps. This is just unwarranted bullshit for the kids.”
“Look, we survived this Christmas,” Bernard said. “See how it goes next year.”
We passed a Veterans of Foreign Wars post. There was a tank parked outside, resting on a concrete platform. Holes had rusted into the bottom of the tank.
“Hey, Simon and Garfunkel,” Bernard said. “Haven’t heard that song in a while.”
“Me neither,” I said, turning up the volume.