Joint Custody

Chapter 2: VANILLA

(from Joint Custody, © 2002-2024)

Chapter 1
Chapter 2
Chapter 3

       Dad gets me every other weekend. That includes Fridays. On those Fridays I go to school from Momís and then Dad picks me up. He also gets me for a couple months out of the summer, and if my mom wants me on any of the days heís supposed to have me, she has to tell him. Not that she actually says anything to him. She tells me to ask him. Iím the messenger boy.

       Sometimes I try to make them talk. I donít do that because I think theyíll get back together or anything. I didnít like the fighting and home life is better now that itís not there, except that it isnít home life. I grew out of believing theyíd get back together a long time ago. But I want them to at least talk. There must have been a time they got along or they wouldnít have been able to have me. Either something changed or I was a mistake, and I donít like to think Iím a mistake.

       I do get mad that they canít they pretend theyíre grown-ups sometimes. It bothers me when they fight over me like spoiled brats. ďYou tell your father that he had you last Thanksgiving,Ē or ďGet your mother to go to Parentsí Day.Ē And they always use the word ďyour,Ē like they canít say ďmy ex-husbandĒ or whatever. Like they have to pound into my head that the only reason they even think about each other anymore is because they have me.

       So sometimes I mess up the messages on purpose. Maybe if Iím bad enough at being messenger, theyíll have to talk. Use the phone, write a note, even send an e-mail. Talk to each other. But I guess itís more important to them to keep pretending. Maybe thatís why Fritz the tiger is the only one who knows everything about me. Nobody talks to each other around here, so why should I?

       Right now Iím waiting for Dad to finish the dishes so he can take me back to Momís. He usually takes me back sometime on Sunday nights, so Mom can deal with waking me up for school. Heís never been as good about being on time as Mom, and Dad was easier to trick into letting me play hooky . . . which they found out when I overdid it. So, school nights belong to Mom.

       Weíre in for a surprise when we get there. At least I hope we are. Mom wanted me home earlier than usual, about six oíclock, because sheís going out and Iím supposed to be left with the baby-sitter. I purposely messed up the message and told Dad it was seven oíclock that I was supposed to be home. It wonít wreck her night I donít think, but itíll make her mad. Maybe if weíre late enough, sheíll call him. But probably not. Probably Iíll just get one of her lectures, cut short by her hurrying out the door, hollering last-minute instructions. I can get out of trouble because the lateness will be blamed on Dad. I donít feel bad about lying to my parents. Iím not a bad kid but they donít deserve a son who acts like an angel, so I donít. I lean back and put my feet up, and stare at the TV without really seeing it.

       I watch lots of television during weekends at Dadís. Itís kinda like Iím the boss when Iím there. Dad buys me stuff and lets me have my way all the time, and since thereís not really anything else to do I do ask for special stuff a lot. I know itís mean, but sometimes when he tries to crack down on me like a strict dad, I give him a look and say, ďWell, Mom lets me do it.Ē He doesnít want to look stricter than Mom. Iím supposed to like him better because heís Dad. I donít pull ďMom lets me do itĒ very often, which is probably why it works. If I donít overuse it, itís a good way to get what I want, especially since I know itís not like heís going to call and ask her.

       So I usually get whatever I want for dinner, usually pizza or take-out or sometimes we eat at a restaurant, and then thereís almost always a movie. Sometimes heís bought me a new movie, sometimes we go to the video store and rent one, or maybe rent a video game and sit in front of the screen together. We have fun learning the video games and beating each other, but he doesnít really talk to me. Sometimes I wish he would, and sometimes I donít care because I donít have much to say. So I just deal with it, and I play with my dog Piper, and I get on the computer and sometimes I go out with my friends. Sometimes thereís a weekend trip, but not often. And thatís Dadís house.

       At Momís itís different. Thereís not a lot of TV unless I have a baby-sitter, and she doesnít like me eating a lot of junk food so no pizza for me. She makes sure I do my homework and I actually have chores at her house. I think she thinks sheís the perfect parent and my dad is the neglectful, worthless slob. But thereís a lot she doesnít notice too. Like that when she brings home deli stuff I always slip the meat under my plate and later into the garbage when I have to clear the table. I feel bad that I even have to do that. Even if I donít eat it, that animal still died to be my dinner, and thatís just as bad if not worse ícause Iím wasting it. But I canít tell my parents that Iím not eating meat, because I know theyíd say a growing boy ďneedsĒ these things and monitor me really closely to make sure I did eat it from then on. I couldnít stand it if they made me eat it again. I think I would puke all over the place. I really wouldnít be able to swallow it, thinking about all the roadkill Iíve picked up and how any animal, no matter how stupid, would run away from a murderer just like I would. But my parents would blow it off, say it was psychological, just like they did about the knot in my throat. If protein is really that important, maybe they should just make me eat more beans. I wouldnít mind.

       On the car ride over Dad doesnít say anything. I wonder sometimes if heís happy to get rid of me after the weekendís over, but then I remember that he probably wouldnít have fought so hard for joint custody if he didnít really want me. I know he loves me, but he doesnít talk to me enough. I wonder about weird things, like whether if I were a grown-up or he were a kid, would my dad and I be friends? I donít know if we would. But thatís not how family works at all. It just makes me sort of confused and a little sad that I donít really know who my dad is. Heís just Dad. He likes football and good food and the color green, and I guess he likes the song on the radio right now, because heís singing to it in his scratchy voice. Heís still singing when he drops me off.

       I go in the house and find Mom, but sheís not angry at me. Sheís actually not even ready yet. I figure out pretty quickly that she must have told me six oíclock because she meant seven, and just knows my dad too well. I watch her take the curlers out of her hair, and I sulk. Grown-ups play games too. The doorbell rings so I go to get it.

       I think eleven is old to have a baby-sitter. But I also think being alone in Momís house after dark would be a little scary, so usually I donít give her any trouble about it. When I turn twelve, maybe then I will. Anyway she gets me baby-sitters pretty often when she has a date.

       My dad hasnít bothered to start looking for a new wife. It took my mom a long time to start dating again. She started again about a year and a half ago, and before she did it she sort of asked for my permission. It was weird, but I liked that she talked to me. She said that she was okay with just us as a family and Iíd always be enough for her, but she also told me she was a woman and sometimes got lonely for the company of a man.

       I didnít really get that, and I wonder why a lot of adults seem to think not being married is the same thing as having a disease. I donít feel like I need the company of anyone, and I canít imagine growing up and all of a sudden feeling wrong if thereís not some girl being ďmine.Ē Adults really are bizarre sometimes. My own mom goes out looking for dates. I think as soon as she finds one that fits all her little rules, sheíll pick him for a new husband. That to me is the weirdest thing. They go out looking for someone to marry! Just someone, anyone within reason. And then when they find someone they can stand, they talk about how special their love is like it was a miracle that it happened, when really they were out looking for it.

       Once my mom talked about ďunconditional love,Ē when she was trying to make sure I understood both of them still loved me. She said parents always love their children no matter what. That means that no matter how rotten I am theyíll always have to love me. And if a woman has a baby, sheíll automatically love it no matter how much of a jerk it grows up to be. I think thatís how adults are messed up. My mom has this other kind of weird love falling into a hole where thereís supposed to be a husband, and sheís out looking for a guy to put there just to block the hole. As soon as thereís a guy there theyíll talk about how they donít know how they lived without each other. And it could have just as easily been some other guy, just like if my mom had waited another month to have a kid and ended up loving Phallon Trevina just like she loves me. It makes it seem like love doesnít really mean much of anything at all. Itís special, but anyone can get it.

       Like I love my dog Piper, and I donít think Iíd want another one if she died or something. I love Piper because sheís Piper, not just because I sit around wanting a dog to love. Same thing with my rabbit. At Momís I have my rabbit Rudy to play with. Rabbits are not the same kind of company that dogs are, but theyíll still play with you and theyíre fun to feed and pet. Their cages are not fun to clean (which is why itís another one of my chores), and itís really hard to stop them from making bunny poop pellets if you take them indoors, but I really like having Rudy around. And my baby-sitters always like him.

       This baby-sitter is some girl Iíve never seen before. I kind of feel shocked when I see her because she reminds me of Marz, except with different, shorter hair, and of course sheís kind of a grown-up. I say kind of because I think sheís probably not even twenty yet. Teenagers are a little bit old to me, but theyíre not grown-ups. Theyíre still kids. I wonder if itís okay for a kid to watch another kid. I let the girl in, looking at that weird smile I know Iíve seen on Marzís face, the orangey freckles and big cheeks and thin lips. I donít pay attention to her telling me her name because Iím looking at how her hair looks like thereís pink icing on it.

       My mom comes up behind me, suddenly smelling like a date because she put her perfume on. She puts her hands on my shoulders and invites the baby-sitter in, and she introduces me to her. She says the girlís name is Nillie.

       ďNellie?Ē I say, thinking I heard wrong, but she says no, her nameís Nillie. Thatís a weird name, I think, but I donít say it because itís not like I have some average name myself. Iím still looking at her hair, not saying anything. It looks like she dipped her hair in rose-colored frosting, or like a cotton-candy plant is growing out of her head. I probably look stupid just staring, like a deer in headlights. Iíve never found a roadkill deer. I hope I never do.

       My mother just bustles on as if everythingís normal, showing Nillie the dry-erase board where sheís written her cell phone number and a bunch of stupid things like my bedtime. I can usually get baby-sitters to ignore the bedtime rule, unless I hate them so much that I actually want to go to bed. Mom rattles on about how Iím not allowed to watch the adult channels (duh), and she scribbles down when sheíll be home and takes off, leaving me there with Cake-Head Girl.

       I finally relax for a second and let the baby-sitter follow me into the kitchen. I tell her Iím getting a drink and I say she can have a drink too, so she acts like a good guest and helps me get the ice. We have these cool ice cubes that are actually plastic fish with frozen water inside. She thinks that is really funny for some reason, and when I get her lemonade she says something that a grown-up would never say. She says it looks like maybe the goldfish ice cubes went pee in the cup.

       I start laughing at that. I canít stop. Especially when she starts drinking the lemonade and saying how yummy it is, yummy goldfish pee. I decide I like this Nillie person, even though she is definitely no grown-up. Maybe thisíll be more like having a friend over instead of being baby-sat. I tell her I made the lemonade myselfóthatís a lie, but not much of one, because I make lemonade all the time. Just not this particular batch. We have a lemon tree out in our backyard, and she thinks thatís awesome so I show her where it is. While weíre out there I decide to bring Rudy in so she can see him.

       We drink our lemonade and take turns petting Rudy while he makes pellets on the newspaper weíve spread out. I tell Nillie I got him for Easter one time. My mom was furious because my grandma didnít ask if it was okay for me to have another pet before she just got him for me, and Mom was going to make me find another home for him. But I really wanted to keep him, and then my grandma died like a week later and I managed to keep my rabbit by naming him Rudy after my grandma (whose middle name was Gertrude) and saying he reminded me of her. Of course she couldnít say no then.

       For some reason Iím telling Nillie all of this stuff. She calls me clever when I tell her how I tricked my mom into letting me keep the rabbit. I start rambling on again. I donít know what got into me. I tell her how I donít understand why Easter has anything to do with rabbits, and what eggs have to do with it. I mean, Easter is supposed to be a celebration of when Jesus came back from the dead, so where do the eggs and rabbits and chocolate come in?

       ďYouíre a smart kid, to wonder about that stuff,Ē Nillie tells me. ďMost adults donít even notice that it makes no sense.Ē

       ďAre you an adult?Ē I canít help asking her.

       ďDepends who you ask. Iím only seventeen.Ē

       Seventeen. Thatís only like six years older than me. When Iím that old, Iíll be taller than she is now, though itís almost impossible to think about being that tall. And Iíll probably have a beard by then. And maybe a girlfriend.

       So Nillie starts telling me that she knows where the eggs and rabbits came from. I actually donít understand some of what she says when she starts telling. I think she thinks sheís talking to somebody her age, but since she called me clever I donít want to prove her wrong. She says that eggs and rabbits are symbols of ďfertility,Ē which means having lots of babies. Yeah, rabbits do have lots of babies, and eggs are like baby chickens unless you eat them. I eat eggs even though Iím vegetarian, because they havenít turned into animals yet.

       When I tell her I donít see what having babies has to do with Jesus either, she says it doesnít have anything to do with it because itís part of a celebration that came before Jesus was born. I always knew that if Jesus was born there had to be a time before it, but I didnít really think about what that time was like. If Jesus was born at a particular time, then before it happened, there was no Easter or Christmas or anything. Nillie tells me that people celebrated other holidays back thenóholidays about fertility. But in some places the new Jesus holidays werenít allowed, so they had to hide at first. They could hide some of their holidays if they just pretended they were the same as the ones that were being celebrated already.

       Later, when Christians wanted everyone to share the Christian way, they just started putting the old symbols into their new holidays so that people would think they were the same thing, and further down the line the Christian holidays were the popular ones and the fertility holidays became the ones that had to be hidden. So itís basically like theyíre forgotten memories of these ancient ways, and a lot of people donít even know it.

       While sheís telling me all this stuff Iím just kind of staring at her. I donít know what it is. I keep thinking maybe Iím looking at her hair, but now I think maybe Iím looking at her because she definitely looks like Marz. And Iíve never seen Marzís face real good, because sheís always moving so much and most of the time when I see her half of her face is covered by a camera. While sheís talking sheís been petting my rabbit, but when she stops for a second and sees me staring at her she asks what Iím looking at. Not in a ďHey you, whatíre you lookiní at?Ē tough way, but like she really just wonders.

       So I tell her Iím looking at her icing hair, and that I like it. And also I tell her she looks like someone I know. She says she gets that a lot because she looks a bit like some music artist Iíve never heard of. But I tell her that I mean someone I know in real life, and I tell her who it is.

       ďHah! No wonder. Yeah, Marz is my little sister,Ē says Nillie.

       ďI didnít know Marz had a sister,Ē I say, though thatís like duh because I really canít remember a word Iíve ever said to her, if Iíve said anything at all. At least now I know that all of Marzís photos of me arenít up in a shrine in her room or something, or else her sister would have recognized me.

       ďMarz has two sisters,Ē Nillie is saying. ďThereís me, and then our baby sister Lulu.Ē

       She goes on to tell me that she got her hair done that way because her favorite color is pink, and that her best friend dyed it for her. Then she asks me how I know her sister.

       ďI guess I donít really know her,Ē I admit. ďIíve just seen her around school.Ē I donít want to tell her Marz takes my picture all the time, in case itís a secret like I have a secret about my roadkill. ďSheís never been in my class or anything.Ē

       ďNot many people are in Marzís classes,Ē Nillie says. She tells me Marz is in ďspecialĒ classes because she doesnít read well because she has this thing called dyslexia. I donít think I knew that kind of reading problem existed. Iím silent for a while after that because Iím thinking how terrible it must be to not be able to read. I donít read all that often, but after I finish a book I always wonder why I donít read more, because I love doing it. Nillie tells me that Marz has special tutoring by herself for about half the day and the rest of the time she takes her math and other classes with the ďspecialĒ teachers who understand how to teach those things to students who canít read. She takes P.E. and art and music with regular kids, though. I wonder why Iíve never been in any of those classes with her. But maybe this next year. Thereís only a couple weeks left of the school year now so weíll be changing soon.

       Iím eating up this stuff about Marz because I know Iím really curious about her. I ask Nillie if their parents both live with her and her sisters, and she says they do. I bet Marz feels like sheís really home when she goes there, especially with this cool sister of hers. I wonder if Iíll ever see what itís like over there but I donít think it would be okay to ask my baby-sitter if I can come over sometime just for the heck of it. Just so I donít have to say anything meaningful, I tell Nillie that my name is short for Bainbridge and ask her whether her name is short for anything, because it sounds like a nickname.

       It looks like Marzís parents had the same idea my parents did about giving kids weird names. Nillieís name is actually Vanilla! And her baby sisterís name is Tallula, which is where they got ďLuluĒ from. And since Marzís real name is Marcella, I guess her parents must have a thing for names that end in ďla.Ē I hope they never have a boy, I canít think of any names for boys that end in ďlaĒ and donít sound girly. I tell her that and she says they might have had to name him something Arabic if they wanted to fit the system. If they ever have another sister, she says her name will be Twyla. I kinda like that too. I wonder what my parents would have named my brothers and sisters.

       Nillie and I put Rudy away and end up watching a movie. We eat peanut butter cream cookies and I notice she licks the filling out, like I do. Definitely not a grown-up. I wonder if people make a choice to turn into grown-ups one day or if it happens over a long time. It doesnít seem to me that Iíve ever seen a grown-up licking the filling out of any cookie, but then almost all kids do. When do people change their minds about how theyíll eat a cookie? I almost ask Nillie what she thinks, but I decide she probably wants to watch the movie without having to listen to a blabbermouth little kid.

       After the movie she makes me go to bed on time. This is where I stop liking her as much. Here I thought we were kind of friends and then she plays grown-up with me. I guess my mom told her to so itís not really her fault, but I canít help sort of being mad at her. Iím glad now that I didnít tell her some of the things I was thinking. I remind myself that there are some things I can only tell Fritz.

       In the dark in my room, I feel my way to my bag and take Fritz out. I donít sleep with him because I know once in a while Iíd forget him, or maybe someone would find him. But before I put him back in my bag, I decide Iíll just hold him for a little bit and think about my day, and let him absorb it for his biography of me. I canít see him with no light, but I can picture his little yellow eyes and I can feel his washcloth-texture fur. Heís sitting there like the pile of beans he is, and heís writing my life story. Nillie is still watching TV. Itís on low but I can hear it. I tune it out, and tune out my annoyance at her, so I can think about Trisha the armadillo. Today is also the death date of one of the two cats in my book. Anne the cat, she was, and we found her at the side of the road with her tongue all stuck out. Most of them somehow get on the side of the road. I donít like thinking about how they might have gotten there. I wonder if someone misses Anne or if she was a stray. Either way, I miss her, even though when I met her she was already gone.

       I put Fritz back in my bag and get in bed, but I canít sleep. I know it must be pretty late to still be awake when I hear my mom come home. I hear her paying the baby-sitter and asking the questions about how everything was. She thanks Nillie for coming out and then the door slams again.

       My mom comes into my room then. Iíve never been still awake when the baby-sitter leaves, so I wonder if this is normal. Anyway I decide itís safest to pretend to be asleep, and I start faking very even, deep breathing. Maybe sheíll notice I havenít drooled on my washcloth yet and sheíll know I couldnít be asleep. But then again she doesnít really seem to care about how I canít swallow, so maybe she doesnít pay attention to the washcloths. She sits down on the edge of my bed and moves the covers around on me.

       I keep pretending Iím asleep, but when she kisses me on the forehead I kind of want to stop pretending and give her a hug, and ask her if sheíll be going on a date with whatever guy that was again. But I just keep ďsleeping,Ē making a fake sleepy noise to convince her. She smoothes my hair and gets up, and for some reason she closes my closet door.

       At the doorway she stands there for a second and finally says, ďGoodnight, Bay,Ē and then she leaves it open a crack and goes off to do whatever grown-ups do while kids sleep. Iím in the middle of wishing I didnít have school tomorrow when I suddenly fall asleep, and I end up having a dream about something with pink icing.

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