“ . . . and that was the second day of testing, Dad. Forty-five minutes! I’m glad it’s over.”
“Me too, Collie. You really had to buckle down for that monster. You done good, son.”
“Yeah, I know. Thanks.”
“So what are you doing tonight?”
“I thought so. Can you pass the phone to one of your siblings before you plug your brain into that gizmo?”
“Sure . . . hey wait, Mom wants to talk to you.”
“All right, thanks. I love you, son.”
“Love you, Dad. Here’s Mom. Bye!”
I poured another cup of coffee.
“Hey, Lucy. How are you?”
“Fine. Did you get my note about Lillie and tennis lessons?”
“Yes, and I think that sounds like a splendid idea. Let’s do it.”
“Good. Maybe it will help her get out some of her aggression. Let me ask you: does she hit you?”
“Hit me? Well, no, never.”
Lucy dropped her voice. “She hits me all the time. She hits me, she yells at me, she refuses to do what I tell her . . . it’s really out of control.”
“Huh. Well, no, we never see that kind of behavior.”
Lucy exhaled. “Lucky me. Okay, I’ll get Jason so you can talk to him. Bye.”
It’s a shame that talking with Lucy is so fraught with submerged hostility. I am always reserved and studiously casual in our conversation, for fear of being dragged into a fight.
If I were more daring, I might have offered some insight into why our daughter is so angry at the mother who struggles to control her while whispering that she’s not as smart as her older brothers. I might have drawn a connection to Lillie’s resentment of Lucy for sending her father away.
Like any child her age, Lillie has ways of asserting herself.
I felt for Lillie. She must be really pissed.
Yesterday, on the walk home from school, Lillie complained that she was hungry.
“We can have a snack when we get home, baby,” I suggested. “How about hot chocolate and popcorn?”
“Do you have any cheese pretzels?” she asked.
“No baby, I don’t even know what those are, really.”
“I do,” Collie chimed. “I have cheese pretzels. Mom packed them for my snack today, but I wasn’t hungry then.”
Lillie turned to him. “Give them to me.”
“No,” Collie smiled. “I’m saving them for my snack tomorrow.”
“Dad! Make him give me the cheese pretzels.”
“No, dear, those are your brother’s cheese pretzels,” I said. One more block until we’re home, I thought, and it’s frigging cold. Please don’t start.
“Ha! I don’t have to share,” Collie smirked, skipping slightly.
“Dad! He’s not sharing and he’s being mean.” Lillie’s eyes welled. I took her hand, both to comfort her and to keep her walking.
“Collie, don’t tease your sister. Lillie, stop begging for the cheese pretzels.”
“It’s not fair,” Lillie cried.
Half a block to go.
“Come on, kids, let’s make the light,” I urged, picking up my step.
“Whee!” Collie called, running ahead.
“Stop running!” Lillie shouted.
I ushered the kids inside, reminding them to kick off their shoes and drop their coats with their packs.
I went to the bathroom and put away my sweater.
When I returned to the living room, Collie was setting up his homework. Lillie stood next to him, growling and glowering.
“Dad, can you please maker her stop?” Collie asked.
“Lillie, come help me make popcorn,” I said. “Come on. Let’s go to the kitchen.”
Lillie didn’t budge. She kept the evil eye trained on her brother.
“Lillie,” I repeated. “Let’s go make popcorn.”
She didn’t move.
“Lillie, you can not bother your brother when he’s doing homework. Now, come on, let’s make popcorn and get you started on your homework.”
Nothing. She was a brick wall.
I leaned forward. “Lillie, this is not acceptable behavior. You must leave your brother alone.”
Her stare never deviated.
There are times I question my abhorrence of corporeal punishment.
“Lillie, I am going to make popcorn. When I return, you and I are having a talk.”
I was in the kitchen when Collie rushed by. Lillie followed, growling.
“Dad, she won’t stop!”
“Lillie, you have gone too far,” I said, calmly but firmly.
This would not end well.
Collie took a seat at the table. His sister leaned against him, growling.
I put a bowl of popcorn on the table. “Okay, now we all have a snack. So let’s calm down and get ready to do homework.”
Lillie took a single piece of popcorn and flicked it at her brother.
“And that’s it,” I said, taking Lillie by the arm. “You can’t be with people right now, so you are getting a time out.”
“No!” she shouted, crying suddenly. “It’s not fair.”
“It’s not fair for you to misbehave,” I corrected. “And when you can be with people, I will come back for you.”
I put her in my room. “No TV. Nothing. You can not behave that way with people.” I closed the door.
Lillie began to wail as I walked away.
“Geez,” I said to Collie, taking a fistful of popcorn.
“She’s like that all the time with Mom,” he said, opening his math notebook.
“That’s annoying,” I said, tossing a piece in my mouth. “I mean, she’s a tad old for tantrums and time out.”
“Yeah, she hates Mom,” Collie said casually, taking up his pencil. “You’re lucky. You can control her.”
“Maybe the secret is in not making her feel controlled,” I said. “Like, she hates it when you tell her what to do, right? But when you want her to do something, you make it seem like a good idea. Right?”
“I guess so,” Collie said.
“At least I have one good child,” I said, scruffing his hair. “You’re my favorite, you know.”
“Yeah, right,” he smiled.
Lillie’s tears subsided. I checked in on her.
She was sound asleep, deep under the covers at the foot of the bed.
That night, after dinner, Lillie asked me to paint her nails. She asked for green glitter on her fingernails and deep purple on her toes.
With her hands spread on newspaper, she was my captive.
“So what happened today, Lillie?” I asked.
“Nothing.” Her eyes watched the brush turning her nails green.
“Not nothing,” I said, blowing. “You were out of control. Was that scary?”
“No.” She blew on her nails.
“I think it is a little scary to be out of control like that,” I said, dipped the brush back in the polish. “When you get like that, and you can’t be with people, you should remember to go someplace quiet to calm down.”
“Collie was being selfish.”
“Well,” I said, holding her pinky still. “Sometimes things will seem unfair, and that’s how it is. But it never helps to be out of control. Right?”
“Yeah, right, whatever.”
“All right.” That was enough for now. “Okay, now let’s see those toes . . . ew, baby, your feet stink.”
She giggled. “Do they? They do not. You’re kidding, right?”
I coughed. “Can’t . . . breath . . .”
After I tucked the kids in bed, I poured a bourbon and sat at my computer. It was my time now. I was ready to clear my head and write until my eyes drooped.
I turned. “Lillie, it’s bedtime.”
“I know, but, Dad? My thumb tastes weird. I can’t sleep.”
“Is it the nail polish?”
“Yes.” She looked at her hands.
“Can you try sucking on a knuckle, like this?” I put a knuckle in my mouth.
She copied me. “It doesn’t work.”
“Can you try sucking on a toe? Like this?” I lifted her into my lap and put her big toe in my mouth.
“Dad!” she giggled. “No, that won’t work. My toes are purple too.”
“All right. Let’s clear that thumb nail.”
“Can we paint it again before school?”
“Of course. Remind me in the morning. Now, come with me to the bathroom.”
Soon, Lillie was back in bed, sucking on her thumb.
“Good night, baby,” I said, kissing her cheek. “You’re my favorite, you know.”