She cancels their Friday night visit. She has to stay late at her job. That’s what she tells the dad. The tone of his voice suggests he doesn’t believe her. She holds on tightly to the lie, offering up details about the imaginary project she’s responsible for. The pressure and the deadlines. He doesn’t care. He had plans with his girlfriend, and now, those plans have to change.
“Can you bring him first thing in the morning?” she asks.
“That depends. Will you be home?”
His question is not unreasonable. He’s stood outside her door before, knocking. With their son in one arm and a shopping bag filled with overnight clothes in the other. No answer. She can’t be counted on.
Fuck you, she thinks. You don’t get to judge my life, now that yours is going so great. Everyone’s life is great compared to hers. She believes this.
But right now, she is optimistic. She has money to pay a debt with some extra and a bullshit excuse to leave work early. As soon as she irons out a few details, her situation will improve. She’ll get what she needs and be able to think straight. Come up with a plan to make everything better. Everything. She believes this, too.
Early Saturday, she makes it back to Queens with only moments to spare. The previous night, she should have left where she was before it got too late to leave, but she was very high and couldn’t move. Mostly, that’s just how things go. She doesn’t think or talk about it.
She runs the last eight blocks as fast as she can, in shoes not meant for running. Her throat burns in the freezing cold air.
Please don’t let his car be out front. Please, he can’t see me in yesterday’s clothes. Please don’t let them have come and gone already. Please, I just need one more chance.
She does not recognize any of these thoughts as prayers. They’re just part of the begging that goes on whenever she’s in trouble.
The child unpacks dinosaur pajamas, pants and a shirt, colored pencils and books. None of his belongings are kept where she lives. He is a visitor in his mother’s life, and she in his.
She admires his new coat. “This is nice,” she says. Together, they struggle to undo the top button.
“Look at all these zippers!” he declares with pride. Demonstrating their usefulness, he reveals the contents of pockets filled with tissues and Chapstick, a tiny race car.
She reaches for one that runs the length of his sleeve and gives it a tug.
“That one doesn’t do anything,” he says. “It’s just for show.”
He stares at cartoons right next to the mattress where she’s dozing on and off. Every ten minutes or so, he leans over her sleeping face.
“Mommy,” he whispers loudly and waits.
He pinches her eyelashes with his little fingers. She swats his hand away.
“What are you doing?”
“Pulling your eyelids awake.”
“So you can watch me watch TV.”
“Stop,” she groans. She is suddenly sick to her stomach. She gets to her feet and barrels into the bathroom, cupping a hand over her mouth.
Oblivious, he relocates himself and his toys to the hallway. He continues his work, arranging Ninja Turtles on the linoleum.
“Mommy, come and see my setup.” He hums the theme song from his favorite show as he carefully prepares Michelangelo and Rafael for battle. He explains what each turtle is doing and why. Every move they make is important. They rely on one another.
“Mommy. Mommy. What are you doing, Mommy?” He presses his lips into the crack of the bathroom door.
“I’ll be right out,” she tells him.
She flushes the toilet and splashes water on her face. She trips over his splayed legs and crawls back on all fours to the blankets.
“What stinks in there?” he asks.
“Nothing,” she says.
“It smells like throw up.”
“It does not.”
She races to pick him up from the birthday party he was invited to that afternoon.
“Don’t be late,” he tells her when she drops him off.
“I won’t,” she snaps back. But she is.
He is standing on the sidewalk, holding a goody bag and a ceramic dish he painted that reads “Grandma.” A man is locking the door of the storefront where the party was held. A young couple loads their car with balloons and tattered decorations, a case of leftover juice boxes. All the other children are gone.
“Where were you?” He is almost crying.
“Home.” It’s true. Even there, she loses track of time. Every time.
“You only had this one thing to do, and you couldn’t even,” he scolds, as if their ages are switched, and she is the six-year-old. He sounds exactly like his father.
They walk back to the basement together in silence. He will not hold her hand when they cross the street.