“Can I have a drink?”
I trudge over to the fridge to pour him his orange juice. But not too much. Just a splash, or else he’ll be up in the middle of the night to pee. Or even worse – he won’t wake up at all and tomorrow morning will be a fresh hell of wet sheets. Not like it would be the first time. And I shiver just thinking of what his mother would say. She’d definitely never let me hear the end of it.
I give him his orange juice and he takes it without looking at me.
“Thank you,” I prompt.
Jeez. The kid’s a comedian.
“Okay, sport, drink up. It’s time for bed. For reals this time.” I reach out my hand for his cup. It’s his favourite – the one with those yellow guys from that animated movie. I can never remember what they’re called. He was obsessed with that movie for, what was it?...like, a month, or something. We must have watched it on DVD at least 50 times. And it never got old for him. Each time, laughing like it was the first time.
I’ve always loved his laugh. Full-throated, expansive, unrestrained. I’ve always been jealous of his laugh. My laugh sounds more like a grunt. My laugh is an ogre sleeping under the bridge; his is a unicorn with a rainbow shooting out if its ass.
He finally gulps down the last of the orange juice and hands me the cup. One of the yellow guys looks up at me reprovingly with his one half-lidded eye.
Hey, don’t judge me, yellow man.
I look up and the kid is looking at me funny. I realize I must have been staring at the cup a little too long, the kid watching me watch the cup. I roll the cup in my hands so the one-eyed yellow guy is now staring at the floor. “Okay, buddy. March.”
“Wait, Daddy. Can I have a story?”
“A story? I don’t know, buddy, it’s really past your—“
“Pleeeeease, Daddy? I promise I’ll go to bed right after.”
I sit down next to him, the cup still in my hands. He rests his hand lightly on my knee. I feel his heat, the warmth of his body next to mine. He’s a kiln, drying and hardening this clay boy into permanence. His easy lopsided grin looks up at me expectantly.
“A story, huh?” I rack my brain for something. I should probably just get up and get a book from the shelf, but it’s so far, it’s on the other side of the room, and besides his hand keeps me down, an impossible weight in something so small. I have no idea why but I feel pressure to tell a good story. I’m actually anxious about what bedtime story I tell him. The idea strikes me as so ridiculous that I laugh (grunt) to myself. The ogre under the bridge stirs in his sleep.
“Uh, well…Once upon a time…”
“’Once upon a time’? Daddy, this isn’t one of those stories, is it?”
“Hey, you want to tell this story?” He throws his head back and laughs, and I’m covered with rainbow unicorn poop. I love it. It smells like marshmallows and summer. “Anyway, as I was saying…” I raise an eyebrow at him, expecting him, daring him to interrupt me again. He smiles widely and gestures for me to continue.
“Once upon a time there was a king. He was a good king, and his subjects loved him. But he was very lonely. He had no queen, and no children. And most of all he really wanted children, especially a son, so that the prince could take over as king after he died. So, he decided to have a great ball so that he can find a wife. Beautiful women came from far and wide to the ball, in hopes that the king would choose them to be queen. The king talked to them all, but none were quite right. Some were beautiful, but not very smart. Some were smart but not kind. Others were kind but not beautiful.
“The king was very sad, because he really wanted a son. But none of these women seemed right to be the mother to the son he’d always wanted. So, after the ball, and after he’d said goodbye to all of the ladies, he sat down on his bed and cried.”
“Daddy, why was he crying?”
“Well buddy, he was sad because he couldn’t find the person he was looking for.”
“Like that time when we were at the mall and I went to look at the toys and I turned around and you and Mommy were gone and I cried until you found me?”
I smile at the memory. It’s amazing what distance time allows you. I certainly wasn’t smiling that day. We were frantic looking for him. Yelling his name over and over until we found him near the toy trains. “Sure, sport, kind of like that. Anyway, uh…where was I?”
“The king was crying on his bed.”
“Right. So...the king was sitting there crying, when suddenly he felt a hand on his arm. He looked up and saw the serving girl who cleaned up his room and brought him his food. She had heard him crying and came to see if he was alright. She hugged him and listened to him and over time, the king began to love the girl. She was beautiful, and kind, and smart. So they got married, and the kingdom loved her and everyone was happy. And then, one day soon after they were married, they had a son. And the king was so happy. He finally had everything that he had always wanted.
“But one day, the serving girl, who was now the queen, and the prince went out for a ride in the royal carriage. They were having fun, when another man, a bad man, crashed his carriage into the one with the queen and the prince.”
“Why did the bad man do that, Daddy?”
“Well, buddy, the bad man was on his—uh...he wasn’t looking where he was going. He was looking somewhere else, when he should have been looking in front of him. And because this bad man wasn’t looking, the queen and the prince got hurt. Like, really big ouchies.”
“Did they get a band-aid?”
“Well, the doctor tried lots of things to help them. Band-aids and lots of other stuff. And finally the queen got better. But the prince didn’t. He fell asleep for a long time. And then, one day...he...he...” I suddenly become aware that my cheeks are wet. What the hell? It was just a story. A stupid story.
“Did the prince wake up, Daddy?”
“Uh...” I swipe at my face self-consciously. I’m suddenly acutely aware of his eyes on me, searching, waiting. “Uh, yeah, sure, buddy. He woke up. He woke up and they hugged, and they all lived happily ever after. The end.” I rub my eyes again, my face hot and red. “And now it’s really time to get to bed. You promised.” He hugs me tightly around the neck, and I hug him back. He hangs there a moment, and I enjoy the weight of him on the back of my neck. And just like that, he’s gone.
I stand up and rub my eyes, itchy and red not just from tiredness, but also with the surprising emotion I felt during my improvised bedtime story.
“Who are you talking to?” I turn around to find his mother standing in the doorway, wearing her nightdress, watching me intently.
“No one,” I reply. “Just telling myself a bedtime story.” She stares at me a moment longer, eyebrows raised questioningly, worriedly. She absently scratches at the faded scars that cover her arms, her neck, her face. You can barely see them anymore, unless you know to look for them. I only see them now. Tiny pink mementoes.
Her eyes fall to my hands. “Whatcha got there?” Her tone is playful, but underneath I can hear the concern and mounting alarm. I follow her gaze and am half surprised to see I’m still holding the cup. I turn the cup so the one-eyed yellow person looks back up at me. The tang of orange juice is already fading from my tongue.
Hey again, yellow man.
“Just a little drink before bed,” I reply.
“In that? Where did you even find it?”
“In the back of the cupboard, behind the good china. We must have forgotten to put it in the goodwill box. I’ll take it over in the morning.” She takes a step toward me, slowly, carefully, as if approaching a wild animal. Gently, oh so gently, she takes the cup from my hand.
“That’s okay,” she says. “Maybe we can keep this one.” I nod mutely. I can’t even think about talking for fear my voice would betray me. “Come on,” she whispers. “It’s time for bed.”
“Yes,” I think. “It’s time for bed.”She leads me by the hand. Before stepping through the door, I take one last glance back at the empty sofa.
Good night buddy.