Joint Custody

Chapter 1: BAY

(from Joint Custody, © 2002-2024)

Chapter 1
Chapter 2
Chapter 3

       So one day you have to move out of your house. No big deal. You can take all your stuff with you, and you’re only moving someplace else in the same town so there’s not as many problems as when you move to a new city or something. You’re still going to the same school and stuff. You get to help pick your new house, and you get to be in charge of how to set up your room. Doesn’t sound too bad, does it? Well, there’s a catch. A big one.

       You’re not moving to one new house. You’re moving to two new houses. And you have to get two of everything . . . big things like your bed and little things like your toothbrush . . . and everything you don’t use every day has to be stored at one of the two places. You have to spend equal time between the new houses, and there’s two different fridges and two different TVs and two different everything else, and you’ve even got your dog going to one house and your pet rabbit to the other one. And you’re supposed to call both of them “home.”

       If you asked a grown-up to do this, they would say, “You’re crazy!”

       But I’m a kid, so when I say this sort of thing I get a pat on the back or a shoulder shrug from some grown-up who thinks it can’t be all that bad.

       Welcome to my life. It’s called joint custody.

       My parents divorced when I was six. Now I’m eleven and a half, give or take a few days depending on when you asked me. Neither of my parents wanted to lose their son, probably because I was the only one they had to fight over, and since they couldn’t decide who would get me a judge had to force them to be nice and share.

       So they share me. There’s nothing nice about it, but they share me. And I guess it’s all fine for them. But now, not counting the year when everything was getting figured out, I’ve been living with this joint custody thing for almost five years. And after five years of bouncing back and forth, always forgetting things at the other house, always missing Rudy when I’m at Dad’s and missing Piper when I’m at Mom’s, always explaining to my friends where I’ll be which days . . . after all this time, I still never feel like I’m home. Never.

       It’s Mom’s house or it’s Dad’s house. It’s not my house. I picked the wallpaper at my room at Mom’s, and I let Dad buy me the football phone for my room at his house, and both of them usually have food I like and there’s two kinds of video game systems, but no matter what I still feel like I’m a guest, no matter where I am. Maybe it’s because of my bag.

       I’ve always got my bag. It’s always got a couple favorite clothes in it, and usually I carry school books and homework folders between their two houses, but the main reason I carry it is so that I always have certain things with me. The things I don’t have two of. I have my sketchpad, and my camera, and my two favorite books (Peter Pan and Precious Gems), and my roadkill photo collection. I also have two things in a secret pocket. I have a baggie full of money I’ve saved, in case I ever have to run away and find my own home someday. And I have my tiny stuffed beanbag tiger named Fritz—nobody can know I carry him around, or I’d get called a baby.

       I pretend that Fritz is writing the story of my life. That’s why he always has to be with me, so he’ll know what happens. Even though he’s in the coat closet when I’m at school, or in my bedroom if I’m playing video games in the living room, he’s still kinda with me. I know that Fritz isn’t alive, but if I pretend he’s watching me and recording what I do, I behave better. And I also pretend that when something unfair happens to me, he’s the witness. One day people will read his biography and see how I stood up and told the truth, or said “sorry” when I was supposed to, or got the blame for something I didn’t do but didn’t rat the other guy out. He’s my cameraman and sorta guardian angel. With no camcorder or angel wings. And he’s a beanbag. Oh well. He’s the only one who’s seen enough of my life to be able to write my biography, besides me.

       Well, and maybe this girl I know. Her name’s Marz. It’s a nickname, and I like that because I have a nickname too. Her real name is Marcella but she never uses it, just like I never use my given name. This girl has just kind of always been around. Before my parents split up she lived on my street, and once I caught her drawing a picture of me while I was climbing the tree in the front yard. When she got older she stopped drawing pictures and started taking photos. Yeah, of me.

       I don’t know if she’s a stalker, or if she’s obsessed with me, or if she has a bunch of favorite people or does it to everyone, but it seems like every time I finally forget about her, there she is, taking my snapshot. She used to run away after she did it, but when she figured out I wasn’t going to chase her she just started doing it and going about her business. I wonder what she does with all those pictures of me. I just hope they’re not on a dartboard somewhere.

       She took a picture of me today, while I was taking a picture of a dead armadillo. Usually she won’t take my picture if I’m with people, but today I was with Anthony, who goes by Tony, and Michael, who goes by Mike. Us guys have been doing this for years: scraping dead animals off the street to make the world less gross for people on the road. Once upon a time this community guy used to pay us for it, but when that ended we just kept doing it. Tony and Mike like to poke dead things with sticks and yell “Ewww!” I just do it because I feel like I’m serving justice somehow. These poor animals get hit suddenly and they’re dead and there’s nothing they can do about it . . . and then they lie there in the sun for days or weeks, with their guts all over the road, getting grossed-out looks from the people who walk by. But I think of them as being murdered—killed by careless people who probably didn’t even notice they took something’s life. They deserve a trial and their killers should be brought to justice, but that isn’t going to happen. So I do what I can. I take a picture of the crime scene, and I record where and when we bury them, and I “pay respects” to them every year when their days come again.

       Tony and Mike would probably pee their pants laughing at me if they knew that’s why I do it. I don’t know if they’d laugh harder at this or Fritz the beanbag tiger.

       I’m a vegetarian.

       I have been for three years, but my parents haven’t noticed yet.

       So today, at the murder scene of a very stinky armadillo, I’m down on my knees taking a picture and Marz comes zooming by on her little pink scooter, blonde pigtails flying. I don’t know how she can take my picture one-handed, while she’s moving, but I look up while she’s passing. I don’t say anything and neither does she, since we both know this is normal. But this is the first time Tony and Mike have seen it, and they freak out.

       “Hey man, Marz thinks you’re hot,” says Mike.

       “I am hot,” I tell him, pretending not to get it. “It’s a Florida summer. Duh.”

       “She’s gonna go take that picture and put it on her mirror and practice her kissing on it.”

       “Oh, whatever, Mike. That’s stupid.”

       “You’re stupid.” He hawks a loogie right onto the dead armadillo. My chest and arms get all stiff when he does that. That’s really disrespectful! Who spits on a corpse? I remind myself that I will probably break my camera, and my fist, if I hit him.

       “How do you know she wasn’t taking one of you guys’ pictures?” I ask them. I turn away politely and breathe through my mouth while Tony slides the shovel under the armadillo pancake.

       “She was aiming right at you, man.”

       “If you say so.” I’m pretending I didn’t really notice or care. He doesn’t have to know she’s been taking my picture since we were seven.

       “So what do you think of her?” Tony asks.

       “Who, Marz?”

       “No, the dead armadillo.”

       I roll my eyes. “What about her?”

       “If she kissed you, would it be throw up or kiss back?”

       I definitely wouldn’t throw up if Marz kissed me. But I probably wouldn’t kiss back either. Probably I’d give her a really confused look and run away before she could take a picture of my confused face. I can’t tell my friends that, though. Probably either way I answer, they’ll think it means I like her.

       “I don’t know about you,” I say, “but if a dead armadillo tried to kiss me, I wouldn’t be worried about kissing back.”

       Mike smacks me on the back while Tony finishes shoving the roadkill into a trash bag.

       “You’re a sick freak, Bay.”

       Yeah, I probably am.

       That was one of the only things my parents agreed on: I had to have an interesting name. Mom’s name is Sarah and Dad’s name is Tom (surprise!), and every name in the family for generations has been on the all-time top thirty. I’ve got an Uncle Gordon who had the least common name in the family until I was born. All of my cousins have names like Amy, Jason, Jennifer, Brian; dime-a-dozen names, names that are followed by a last initial half the time because someone in the class has the same first name. My parents actually shared a belief when I was born: An unusual name would be good for a kid. It would make him “an individual.”

       But they couldn’t just make up a name—no, that would be too creative. They had to please our Irish ancestors—“We thought it’d be nice if we chose a name that came from the Emerald Isles themselves!”—so they dug a label for me out of a dusty old baby name book. Forget taste, forget if kids would tease me; as long as it was something neither of my parents had heard of before, it was a possibility.

       So, everyone calls me Bay, but my full name is Bainbridge Kavin Cassidy, which sounds to me more like a screwed-up place than a person. Actually, my first name is attached to several places that I’ve looked up: A city in Georgia (and the college that’s there), a city in New York, and even a Bainbridge Island in Washington. Some people don’t believe it’s my real name. Other people believe that it is and understand totally why I’d rather be called Bay, even if that’s the name for a body of water, a type of herb, and a particular kind of window.

       If I’d been a girl, my name would have been Phallon Trevina.

       Yeah, my parents don’t care about teasing.

       Maybe I should get a baby name book. I’m running out of names for armadillos in my notepad. This one has to start with T, because I do it in alphabetical order and there have been nineteen other armadillos since we started this. I can’t call the animals “squashed critter #20” in my head because I need names to remember them by, so when I name them I try to get a feeling for if it was a girl or a boy and I give it a name. I’m in trouble next time I find an armadillo, because there just aren’t too many names that start with U. But if I find a baby name book, I can name it any of the names, because it isn’t like the dead animal will have to live with the name the way kids do.

       Mike is in the lead of our funeral procession. It doesn’t look much like a funeral procession because he’s swinging the bag and singing a filthy song he heard on TV last week. Tony, in front of me, is smacking his gum, carrying the shovel and keeps tripping over his untied shoelaces but not stopping to tie them. I’m looking at the ground with my hands in my pockets and my bag over my shoulder, trying to think solemn thoughts for my armadillo. I imagine us all in black under the hot sun, singing some hymn as we carry the modest coffin to its final resting place. Too bad, though; this is definitely not a funeral procession. This is a collection of stupid kids running into the woods to dig a hole, where we’ll dump the stinky lump and kick dirt on it, probably with a few shouts of “eww, nasty!” or “blargh, it stinks!” I hope that wherever this armadillo’s spirit is, it at least knows that someone cares that it died, and that it lived.

       We don’t find any more roadkill today, so the hole gets dug, the body gets dumped, and the boys go home. I pretend I’m leaving, but I come back, of course. The other guys can’t watch me do this. I give them enough time to clear off and then I return to the burial site.

       I think about the armadillo as I look at the sad little mound, and decide it was probably a girl—that’s just the feeling I get. I have no way of knowing if I’m right, but I just get a sense of it when I try. This was a girl armadillo, so I name her Trisha and record her in my book under “Armadillos.” It’s the thickest section because armadillos are the most popular of all roadkill around here, though squirrels are a close second and we’ve found a lot of raccoons and small rodents too. There have been two cats and once a dog, a couple of birds, some turtles, several snakes, one rabbit, and twice it was something that got squashed so badly we couldn’t tell what it used to be.

       I leave room for Trisha’s picture, and record her death date and burial site, and where we found her. Now that I have her death papers recorded, I take a moment to mourn her passing, and then I carefully step away and spit into the grass. Unlike Mike, I don’t spit because I want to look tough.

       When I’m eating or drinking, I can swallow just fine. The rest of the time, I can’t swallow, because it gets stuck. It first started happening when my parents were fighting over how they would equally share their possession, I mean their son. A knot appeared in my throat and I couldn’t get it out. So it just stayed there. I told a doctor once, but he said that if I could still swallow food and drink, it was “psychological” and it would pass. I even told him I don’t swallow when I sleep, I just drool all over the pillow, but he didn’t really care. I realized then that if adults don’t know what to do about a kid’s problems, they just decide they aren’t important and they’ll take care of themselves. So I just learned to stop bothering them with my problems, and started covering my pillow with a washcloth and carrying tissues around to spit into for when I’m not outside. After all, swallowing isn’t really important.

       When they were together they fought over how to raise me all the time. When I first started acting weird when my parents were splitting up, I got lots of special visits to counselors, and they told me over and over that the divorce wasn’t my fault. I know they’re supposed to say that, but that’s really all my parents fought about. They’d fight about my nutrition, or argue about whether some television program was too adult for me, or shout about what my bedtime should be until long after I’d crawled under the covers myself. The counselors all said that they were fighting because they had different ideals from the start, and the fights over how to raise me were only a “manifestation of a larger problem,” so they said to me when I was five, like I’d understand then, like I really understand now. The fact is, I don’t think they had anything else to argue about before I got there.

       I did mention the lump in my throat, and my stomachaches, to my counselors. They tried to comfort me, and really they did a pretty good job even though they were paid to make me feel better. But they didn’t really listen to anything I said. They said everything I felt and thought was “the usual,” just very normal reactions to having your world rocked. But I think my problems went a little deeper.

       I didn’t worry that I’d wrecked my parents’ marriage. They were the ones who decided to have me. It wasn’t my fault I was born. What bothered me is that my parents had made such a huge decision to get married and have a kid, and then they realized the whole thing was a mistake. And it bothered me that thousands of couples every year were making the same mistake.

       It scared the crap out of me because these were adults, mature people, and they still made these mistakes.

       I’d thought that as a kid you learn from your mistakes and you make fewer and fewer of them, until you’re almost perfect when you grow up. But the divorce—and what I figured out because of it—turned that upside-down. I found out that people grow up and still make these terrible mistakes that tear their lives apart and make their children homeless with two houses, which is a lot worse than misreading the directions and getting a minus-twelve on a vocab page. I thought, hey, if grown-ups can make those kinds of mistakes, what kind of world do I live in?

       Sometimes I make a minus-twelve. I haven’t done it in a long time. But what if as you get older, your mistakes always just get worse? Until they turn into roadkill and mistaken marriage? What if when you’re really old, older than my parents, you can make mistakes that blow up the world or something?

       I don’t think about it very often, because my brain can’t handle it. But it’s enough to put a knot in anyone’s throat.

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