“I get it, honey, I really do, but I’m going to need you to help me out here. You’re the man of the house now and I need you to start acting like it.”
I bite my tongue inside my mouth and let a furious breath escape through my nose.
“Yeah. Okay, mom. I’ll be there.”
“Thank you honey, I’ll talk to you later. Good luck at your game today.”
I hang up the phone and throw it across the room. Since the house is empty, I also let out a scream. It’s not as if it would matter, though. Sometimes I feel like everyone could be standing in my room looking right at me, and if I screamed they’d just shrug it off. “Did you hear me?” they’d say after I stopped. “I asked you a question.”
When I was 16 my parents got divorced. At least that’s when they made it official. I had watched them fade away for years, pretending everything was fine. I’d watched them roll their eyes at each other with hate rather than flirtatiousness, and I’d listened to all of their silence. For a while I just thought that’s what marriage was, and it confused me why everyone made it out to be something to look forward to. But then one afternoon my dad came into my room. “Son,” he said. His tone was casual. Like he was relieved but trying to hide it. “Your mother left.”
I shrugged my shoulders. I was 15. My mom left all the time. Sometimes for a few hours, sometimes for long weekends with her friends. “Okay,” I said, “when is she coming back?”
He blinked twice. “She’s not.” He patted my shoulder, but gave no indication if it was for comfort or to simply end the conversation. I sat down on the couch, wondering if I was sad. I sat there until the sun went down and my stomach growled and my dad had pizza delivered to the house.
“It’ll be okay,” he said as he sat down in the recliner with two slices of pepperoni, and then he never said another word about it.
We split time between the two of them now. Me and my two younger sisters. They were 4 and 8 at the time of the divorce. And even though I knew they were sad, sometimes it seemed like they hadn’t even noticed. Maybe they’d grown numb to it like me. Maybe they thought this what all families were like.
My phone rings again, this time it’s my dad. He says he needs me to pick my sisters up from my grandma’s house.
“But dad I—”
“—Hey, I’m telling you that I need you to do this for me. I can’t afford the time off of work.”
I knew his schedule. I knew he’d be off in time to get them. He wanted to drive downtown to see the woman I’ve heard him talking to on the phone. I open my mouth to call him on it, but the only thing that comes out is, “okay.”
“Good man,” he says. “I’ll see you this weekend, good luck at your game today.”
I hang up the phone and throw it back onto my bed. I’d quit the basketball team over a year ago and neither of them had noticed. They just looked at the schedule online, wished me luck and wiped their hands clean of a parenting chore well done.
I clench my fists hard, letting my fingernails dig into the skin of my palm. I feel like I’m fading away. I sit down on my bed and pick up my phone to text my friend Peter. I tell him I have to be late tonight and he immediately calls me.
“What do you mean you’re going to be late? I’m going on first.”
“I know,” I say, “but I have to pick up my sisters from my grandma’s and then I have to take them to dance class because my mom has a job interview in the city.”
“So by late you mean you’re missing it all together then.”
I sigh out a deep breath. “I’m really sorry, man. I promise I’ll come to the next one.”
He pauses. I feel sick to my stomach for bailing on him. I’d been the one to convince him to sign up for open mic night in the first place.
“I really am sorry,” I say to fill the silence.
“I know, man. I know. Hey listen, have fun at tap class. Make sure you point those toes and twirl and shit.”
I laugh and it feels good. “Don’t worry, I’ll be putting those little girls to shame.”
I hang up the phone and put it in my pocket. “4:00,” I say to myself as I look at the clock. The girls went to school on my mom’s side of town. A good 20 minutes from my dad’s house. But even though my mom had enrolled them there to be closer to her, she still had my grandma—who lived on my dad’s side of town—pick them up every day.
“She doesn’t mind,” my mom said when I asked her about it. “It gives her extra time with the girls.”
“Why can’t you do it, though?” I said one day when I was feeling bold. I only asked because I had seen the tired look on my grandma’s face in the evenings. She was reaching an age when a five-year old’s pace was just out of reach. I thought it would help my mom notice, but nothing seemed to do that. Instead her face twisted in anger and she rolled her eyes. “Well don’t you sound like your father.”
I grab the keys to my dad’s beat up old Honda. He’d given it to me after the divorce with another pat on the back. It would take me 40 minutes to get across town in evening traffic, and the girls’ dance classes were at 6. I call my grandma and tell her I’m on my way, then I walk through the mostly empty house, through the living room where my mom and I used to do puzzles on the carpet and my dad and I used to wrestle on the couch, then I walk out the front door, locking it behind me.
At the dance studio, I sit outside and watch the cars go by. The girls have classes in neighboring rooms and I can hear the music from both vibrating through the walls. “Good!” I can hear one of the teachers say. “Let me see you smile!” says the other. I wonder if the girls are smiling, but I don’t turn around to look.
When we’re back in the car on the way home, my sisters go on and on about their day and I do my best to listen and ask questions and laugh whenever a story or a joke calls for it.
“Was your day fansmastic too?” my five-year-old sister asks.
“Yes,” I say, feeling lighter, “very fansmastic,” I smile at her in the rear-view mirror and she smiles back and covers her face with her hands.
When we pull up in front of the house, my mom’s car is in the driveway. I can see her sitting on the couch through the living room window and I grip the steering wheel tight.
“Mommy’s home!” my youngest sister says.
“Yeah,” I say, trying to be cheerful, “yeah she is.”
The girls charge up the walkway into the house and my mom greets them both with a hug. I walk in slowly after them and offer her the same, but don’t feel the same warmth in the gesture.
“I’ve got homework to do,” I say.
“Okay, honey,” my mom says with a smile. “I love you.”
I smile my lips into a flat line. “Love you too.”
I shut my door behind me and fall into another bed that doesn’t feel like mine. The comforter is cold because the window was left open and a single sock sits on the edge of the mattress.
My phone makes a noise signaling a text message. I pull it out of my pocket and light up the screen with a push of a button. It’s a video from Peter. A recording of his performance, I assume. I grab the headphones sitting on my end table and plug them into my phone, then sit up against the bed frame and click play.
“Hello,” he says timidly, “my name is Peter. This is my first time at an open mic night.” A few people applaud, including the person recording, who I assume is Peter’s sister, Michelle. “A friend of mine encouraged me to sign up, and I’m bummed he can’t be here to see me crush this.” He laughs awkwardly, which makes me laugh under my breath. “Anyways, this one goes out to you buddy. You’re going through a maze of shit right now, and I just want you to know that I know. Keep on.”
I feel a knot in my stomach and I fidget a little, then Peter starts playing a song I don’t recognize. It’s sad and slow. He sounds good even though his voice cracks a little in the first verse. Suddenly, I become still. It’s as if he’s stopped singing and is just sitting across the room talking to me.
“I know you,” he says with an encouraging nod, “I see you.”
Without being able to stop it, I turn on my side and cry.
Listen to the song here