“Can I please stay at my daddy’s?”
“You’re with me tonight, buddy.” His backpack is weighing down my shoulder. One of the four books he’s checked out of the school library is a hardback Harry Potter, which we happen to have at home. “What do you like about your dad’s house?”
“I like my bunk bed.” His hair falls over his face as he drags himself along the sidewalk. “Daddy lets me play toys before bed.” My son’s pace diminishes in inverse proportion to my edginess. I open the car door for him and wait, forcing my face calm. Finally, Bug piles in, lobbing his lunchbox across the back seat before harrumph-ing down in his booster.
I climb in and start the car. “I sort of remember someone playing legos on the bedroom floor at our house before bed every single night. Maybe that’s some other little boy.”
He doesn’t take the bait. “Why can’t I go to daddy’s?”
We edge into a tiny gap in the tight string of red taillights lined up outside his school. It is so dark now. We were scaling the monkey bars at park before dinner just weeks ago. Was it years ago? “Our house needs you,” I tell him. “You have to come around to help all the rooms remember you. The dog, too.” Traffic is at a crawl. We have to wait through three turn signals to get to our street. I grip the wheel and babble on, cluttering the car with my major-key noise. “Our family isn’t complete unless you’re there.” Bug puts up a half-hearted argument and then falls quiet.
I weave around to discussing his new daily book – one after dinner but before bath and bed. His teacher wants him to practice reading aloud then and re-telling books on his level.
“So I get four books every night?” he says.
“Yep. You’re one lucky kid.”
In our complex, I pull into our spot and collect the backpack, phone, and keys. I open my door and start to get out but Bug is still in his booster. He doesn’t move to open the door. I turn and see him gazing off and slightly down. He is fiddling with the buckle of the seat belt and chewing on its edge. The clock is ticking past dinnertime. A surge of impatience crests. I order my shoulders lower then settle into the pause, letting my boy have this long minute to be exactly where he is. I reach back and stroke his leg. The sweatpants are fleecy. Cozy.
“What’s going on, Bud? Are you feeling something right now?”
He shrugs. “I’m homesick,” he says.
This is a new one. “Homesick. Boy, I know how that feels. Do you want to have a little cuddle and a book on the couch when we get in?”
“Okay.” He lets go of the buckle and collects his lunch box.
Outside, black night already, a fingernail moon. Bug stops in his tracks. “I can see the rest of it. The round part.” I glance up. The shadow of the moon’s full belly is hidden under a purple shroud. The shape is clear but only if you look a little bit away.
Bug is already up the stairs with my keys in hand. After banging open the door, he clomps right past the dog and into his room, kicking his shoes off in the corner. I give the pooch her momentary fix of head-scrubs and ear-flaps before joining Bug. He is on the floor with a Tupperware of little rubber bands. Three elastics are looped over his fingers.
“Do you want to do this instead of reading?”
“Yeah. See? This is how you do this new way.”
I sit down and pick up three of the bands. “Is this the fishtail you told me about?”
“Uh-huh. And you use your fingers like this. The bottom one goes – see – over the top.” He shows me and then watches me once through to make sure I do it right. Pink, blue, purple, pink, blue purple. Dinner is still just an idea. The clock pants and strains at her leash. I open my grip and let her run.
Bug and I sit together in the low light right in the doorway. We are half-speaking, half-turned away from each other. I-66 rumbles in a nearby distance. We each come to a decent wrist-length of woven elastic. We help each other stretch the bands wide to loop the finishing hook around to the other end then slip on our matching bracelets. When I get up, he follows me like a shadow. I am unaccustomed to his need for nearness. “Help me choose something to bake,” I say. He sits with me as I scroll through internet for a cake-mix-halloween-candy recipe I can use for tomorrow’s office baby shower. He hugs my leg like he did as a toddler then stays right at the bar to plays legos. Dessert goes in the oven and broccoli comes out of the microwave.
After dinner, we fall onto the couch with books. He reads Henry Builds a Cabin and re-tells how the bear (who he only half realizes is Henry David Thoreau) sits in the sunshine outside his new walls, calling the clearing his library. Bedtime has already come and gone. I restrain the urge to rush Bug through tough words. “Staircase.” “Shingles.” He leans into me as he finishes. “Then it starts to rain and he wears his house.” He smiles and looks up at me before a cloud crosses his face. “I still feel homesick.”
“I think it’s pretty neat that you are inside your home and you feel homesick at the same time. You have two homes that are yours. You can love them both and miss them both sometimes.”
He slips his arm through mine. “Still.”
The breath of my ever-growing task list is hot on my neck. Dishes in the sink. Dog needs walking. Lunches need packing. I force a pause. “What helps when you feel homesick?” I ask.
“Reading books in your bed. Extra cuddles. And staying with you all night long.”
I laugh. “Oh, baby. I don’t know about that. Neither of us will ever sleep.” I get up. “Listen. Let’s get your clothes changed and I’ll wash up.” He disappears into the back and then comes sashaying back into view.
“Mommy, you forgot dessert!”
I toss the sponge on top of the pile of dishes. The last of my restraint goes with it. “You know, it would be much more useful if you said, ‘Mommy, what can I do to help,’ instead of just telling me what I forgot.” He stops in his tracks and his face collapses in. I can’t unsay the words. The closed, angry boy I know so well appears before me just like he’s been here all along. He plods over to his stool and disappears inside his legos.
My tone is the too-familiar grit texturing our compressed days. The rough edge of my stress and clock-watching abrades my boy little by little, snap by snap. It becomes a day then a week then it just is. It is us, it is who we are together. I scour my boy flat and square-edged. I cannot press my fingers in to get a hold, to reach him. My attempts slip off.
How much of my son’s chilliness is protection from mine?
I shut off the water and watch Bug at his legos. Homesick. Herein the place I worked so hard to secure, the place with a room of my own and one for my son, I carry my own version of the affliction. It is a faraway sort of sensation cleaving low into you. You can hear echoes across a divide whose depth you can’t quite grasp and whose other rim you can almost-but-not-quite touch. Over in that before, all the hopes and plans and comforts live on. There, nothing has been tested. Nothing has been upended and the crew hasn’t come to break down the set and expose it for the plywood and clever lighting it was all along.
I can barely wrap my hands around the space where this ache resides. How can I possibly expect a seven-year-old vocabulary to capture it?
Maybe for all his usual stubbornness, for his fire and ice, this boy is not so tough. Maybe he needs me to be his safe place more often than not. My son took a risk by sharing his homesickness with me. Can I be the grownup here? Can I let him be small?
I leave the dishes, rehearse my new lines silently, and bend to him. “Listen, Buddy,” I kiss him on his head. “I’m sorry I snapped just now. That wasn’t fair. Why don’t we try again. You ask for dessert with a ‘please,’ and I’ll respond in a different way.”
We practice. We share double helpings of cavity-inducing, yellow-cake-Milky-Way treats. We sit close. After brushing teeth, I let him choose the books and climb into my bed for reading and songs. He falls asleep halfway through Baby Beluga, and I stay there until he is deep down. The cool blade of the sickle moon slips in between the blinds. I slide my arms under my boy like he’s a newborn and carry him to his bed. There, we curl around each other, breathing each other’s breath, drifting in our own in-betweens, alone together.
“Can I please stay at my daddy’s?”