The tsunami of five-year-olds, flooding Room 12 of Winnie the Pooh Kindergarten, can’t hide my Joseph. He’s dressed in his favorite red-striped t-shirt–his candy cane shirt. When he sees me, his face lights up and he jumps to his feet yelling, “Mommy!” Usually his dad picks him up. But today isn’t going to be Daddy’s day.
He runs over to hug my legs. Then he proudly leads me, his mom-on-a-leash, to every wrinkled book and mangled toy he thinks I’ll find important. The chaos of this place is so different from the monotony of my world that I find it comforting. Joseph thrives in this environment as I wilt in mine.
It’s only when his attention wanders from me and he squats down to stack his mess of wooden blocks that I grab his arm and explain we need to go. A middle-aged woman stands waiting for us near the exit, holding Joseph’s faded denim school bag–probably filled with glue-glittered projects to update the art already hanging on the refrigerator.
Before we leave, a skinny boy with unruly red hair rushes up to Joseph and stuffs something into his hands. He tells me with authority, “He forgot this.”
Joseph thanks him and shows me a cheap tin button with a fold-over tab and a scratched picture of a Hot Wheels car. “I let Evan borrow it this morning.”
He reaches into his school bag and pulls out a purple car with an oval body and a futuristic, bubble windshield. It’s the car from the button. I remember when my husband gave him that car; the button had been packaged with it. “Tomorrow we’re trading cars,” he says.
I have no reply. I’m not ready to think of tomorrow.
I lead us out the door and into the arid New Mexico heat. It’s not even the kind that makes you sweat so you can cool off; it’s the kind that makes you feel there’s no air left in the world. And the fumes from the coal-fired turbine generators, housed near the kindergarten, leave me with a metallic taste I can’t get rid of. If you combine the heat, the smell, and the unrelenting invasion of sand permeating the environment, you’ll get the idea of how joyous it is to live on an Army base the size of Rhode Island.
I cram Joseph into his car seat and drive our Ford back to our military-issue neighborhood, its drab, utilitarian, tomato-colored 1950′s ranch houses all lined up anonymously. This is my husband’s world. An officer’s world.
It didn’t have to be this way; he should have worked in my family’s business to pay for graduate school. But no, he wanted the military life where clarity is black and white–order or be ordered. He took me far from my family, my friends, and my clarity. I plan on testing his convictions to see if he’ll change for me as I tried for him.
And if not for me, then perhaps for Joseph.
Michael, my youngest brother, is sitting on the tailgate of a U-Haul parked in our driveway. He’s tall, lanky and so freshly minted to adulthood that he’s still sensitive about being viewed as a kid. He thinks he’s the wildest of my brothers so he’s easy to manipulate, something my father is really good at anyway. I don’t know how Dad got him to drive the 800 miles to fetch me, but it took me only one call asking for Dad’s help before Michael told me he was coming.
As soon as I pull open the Ford’s door, Joseph jumps from the car. “Uncle Mike!” He stops short of running into my brother’s arms. “Why are you here?”
Michael looks at me; uncertain.
I kneel down to Joseph’s level. “We’re going to stay with Grandma and Grandpa.”
His eyes grow wide. My mother always showers him with gifts. He can barely stand still. “How long ’til Dad gets home so we can go?”
I take a deep breath. “He’s not going with us. I am… we are… going to Chicago. He’s staying here.”
He teeters from foot to foot. His voice is strained. “He’ll be scared. I was… when you went away.”
He won’t look me in the eyes. It was a voluntary psychiatric stay, not a holiday–a temporary escape to help me accept the lonely olive drab that surrounds me. I quote my doctor, only this time it isn’t a lie. “I’ll take care of you. You’ll be okay.”
He looks at me like he’s trying to understand what I’m saying. Failing at that, his shoulders slump and he looks down at his shoes. I’ve seen this before. The prelude to a tantrum.
Only this time there’s no whining or stomping. Instead he softly says, “How will he know I love him?”
The question is a stab to my heart. I fall to my knees and hug him. I’m no longer hiding my tears. He tries to wiggle out of my arms, but I hold him tight. I’m sure if his father wants to find us he’ll know where to look. “I’m doing what’s best for both of us. You’ll see.”
“But… I want to say bye”
“Go inside now, and wait until we’re ready to go.”
“No buts.” I release him and open the front door. “Go inside. Mind me.”
I stand outside, waiting for the taxi I called to take us to the airport. Michael waits, alone, in the U-Haul he’ll be driving to Chicago for me. He doesn’t want to speak to me right now, but he won’t leave me alone either.
Finally it’s time to go. I walk into the house. Joseph sits in the corner holding his small car, looking at the faded brown suitcase resting by the front door. “Are my toys in there?”
“Some. The rest are boxed and in the van. It’s time. We’re going now.”
He jumps to his feet and runs to the master bedroom. I follow, expecting to have to drag him out. Instead I watch him place the tin car button on his father’s dresser; he puts the matching car in his pocket. “Now we can go.”
David Siegel Bernstein lives within the shadow of Philadelphia with my wife, Michelle and consults as a forensic statistician. He has been published in numerous print, podcast, and online magazines. A board member for the Philadelphia Writers’ Conference, he leads the Words-in-Progress writers group, and contributes a monthly article to the Abandoned Towers Magazine Blog titled: Science for Fiction. For more information check out DavidSiegelBernstein.blogspot.com.
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