I’m standing there in my kitchen staring down at my son Henry’s imitation Walmart LEGOs scattered across the linoleum like a car crash in the desert.
They stand out, of course.
They’re hard to miss, right? It’s the first thing I noticed when I walked back in here from kissing my kids on the tops of their heads, smelling their chlorine hair, saying goodbye as they climbed in their mom’s car, and split for her house. Henry’s choice of LEGOs for this little art installment are the bigger kind you tend to buy for 3-year-olds because you know damn well that if you get him those small LEGOs he’s going to end up putting them in his mouth. And let’s face it, when LEGOs find their way into a kid’s pie-hole that’s like a $378 trip to Urgent Care just to be told that he’ll return them in a day or so wrapped up in one of his little boy turds.
Henry must’ve been playing with them out here in the kitchen right at the moment when I was telling him and his big sister to put their shoes on because we were heading over to the public pool for a while. That’s where their mom was going to meet up with us, to pick them up for their first night in her new house 20 miles down the valley, at the far end of the road.
I look at the LEGOs and something snaps in my chest. It gets the waterworks going, not that that’s saying much these days. I’m pretty good at duct taping sad beauty to almost anything I come across and I’ll be the first guy to tell you that that’s not a talent or whatever. It’s not even very useful, to be honest. It’s more like a tic, it’s as if I have this cheap machine strapped to my brain that just turns itself on at random times, probably 50 times a day.
I can be passing a pile of dog crap on the sidewalk and the Sad Beauty Machine kicks on and I end up thinking too long and deeply about how that dog is probably really happy that he gets to eat all the leftover meatloaf scraps or whatever that his old lady owner gives him. Then, I think about how one of them will probably die before long, leaving the other one all lonesome and blue. Then, I feel the sad beauty of their existence in my heart. Then, I step into the road and almost get run over by an Amish buggy.
That’s how the Sad Beauty Machine works, you see.
And tonight, it’s running with a full tank of gas. I look at the LEGOs and I think about how much I’ve been looking forward to this night for a while. Having three young kids is pretty tough work, but I had no idea what was coming my way. You can’t know. Your marriage ends and you have your kids all by yourself and then you finally get to find out what the hell you’re really made of, man. I’ve had them for a bunch of nights now, as their mom was finding her own home to set-up shop in, and so the chaos and the overworked energy that comes along with single-parenting had reached a point where I was ready for a break. From them, from everything.
Then, she found her house and tonight Violet, 5, Henry, 3, and Charlie, 4 months, would all finally get to go sleep at Mommy’s new place. They’d finally get to go hang out in their “new house,” their “other home.”
I envisioned myself snapping the cork out of a nice bottle of wine, fixing up a little dinner, maybe watching some Bizarre Foods, or even a movie. Hell, I still haven’t even seen Lincoln or Django Unchained. I’m way behind on the world, I am. Maybe tonight, with the kids finally gone, I could finally start to catch up. The whole notion of it all just flat-out turned me on.
Then this happened … these ridiculous LEGOs. And I’m staring at them now going on three or four minutes when I ought to be rooting around for the corkscrew or moving across the floorboards in my birthday suit to check out the Pay-Per-View flicks on the TV, but no; something is holding me in this spot. I start feeling my stupid tears again and I know exactly what’s happening, but I’m powerless to block it. Or maybe I don’t want to block it.
Maybe I want to feel this way, huh?
It’s possible. I don’t know. Maybe sometimes I turn on the Sad Beauty Machine myself just so I can crawl inside some specific moment and hang out there a little bit longer than I’m really supposed to.
Maybe I want to be standing here in this kitchen all by myself, the only bag of flesh and bones in a joint full of kid ghosts and phantom diaper whiffs, the false echoes of laughter and crying and fighting and “Daddy, can I have a drink of OJ?” colliding up in the air above my head where the ceiling fans whip them around and around and around until I can’t even tell what the hell is real and what isn’t anymore, same as all my days these days.
It doesn’t matter though, I guess. The kids are gone and I get it. They are probably having popsicles and crawling all over Mommy’s lap and not thinking about me all that much right now and that’s how it ought to be. I know that. I shove my tears back up into my face and get myself together. They’ve been gone from here maybe 18 minutes total now and I need to get my ass in gear. I’m supposed to be dancing off the walls, you know? I’m supposed to be ecstatic about all this well-deserved, much-anticipated time alone. There’s no doubt that if this entire thing was a Hollywood movie there would be this whole hilarious montage scene of me eating pizza from the box on the couch and cheering at some ball game on the tube and me drinking cans of beer in the tub and me sliding across the floor in a dress shirt and my underwear like young Tom Cruise in Risky Business, so what’s wrong with me? Why am I not feeling any of it?
Eventually, I snap out of the daze and I turn around and head back up the stairs to walk around up there, I don’t know why. Maybe I’ll grab a shower in peace, without small hands and voices breaking down the door for once. Halfway up the steps, I run into Triceratops Without a Tail. He’s Henry’s. Or Violet’s. I can’t remember who claims him as their own. But it doesn’t matter because there he is, sitting on the steps, his plastic eyes picking me apart like a state cop.
Sometimes you turn that Sad Beauty Machine off, man, and it it just flips right back on again.