My bedroom connects to my bathroom by a sliding door. The bathroom also has a normal door that opens onto the hallway. My mom puts a big dresser in front of the sliding door, so I can’t use it. I fill the dresser with model trains. On top is a ukulele made from an empty tissue box, a used toilet roll, two rubber bands, and tape.
My dad lives in London, where he works for a TV company. He manages all of their reality shows. Big Brother Norway, Survivor Sweden, Amazing Race Belgium, you get it.
Right now I hate my dad. My dad’s a good guy, all things considered. Someday we will text a about politics and the Dodgers. He will send me recipe photos from his Bon Appétit magazines. We only talk through the daddy door. Here’s how it works: he goes into the bathroom through the hallway door and I open the sliding door, leaning over the dresser on my tiptoes. “Talk to me through here,” I say, “Don’t be you.” He tells me stories while I curl up in my racecar bed. We never touch. I never say, “I love you too!”
In his stories we become dogs. He’s Sparky the Spaniel and I’m Wanko, a mutt of mysterious origin. We live together in a giant medieval castle and outwit nefarious villains. One time I ask my dad, after a story ends, why Sparky and Wanko don’t use machine guns. “Because Sparky and Wanko are Jewish dogs from ancient Long Island,” he says, “That’s just not our way of doing things.”
“Your times up!” I shout and slide the daddy door shut.
My mom doesn’t have a mommy door and she doesn’t use the daddy door either. I let her in the regular door because she loves me more than anyone. She’s good at giving love. When I tell her that, she shrugs and says, “You’re an easy kid to love.” That totally isn’t true. I’m a weirdo. I have long bushy hair that goes past my shoulders. I exclusively start conversations by reciting facts about trains. I walk around smiling like a stupid person whistling through my gap tooth. There’s a reason I don’t have many friends. Actually, I don’t have any. My kindergarten teacher tells my mom, “Socializing will always be a challenge for him.” I’ll sure prove her wrong. Genetics make it so I’ll get really tall and good at sports and once I cut my hair short I’ll be pretty handsome too. Turns out when you’ve got all those things going on people want to like you for absolutely no reason.
Our house is on a through street. All day cars whip by on their way to Ventura Blvd or the 405 Freeway. The street is wide, with deep gutters and storm drains grinning like monster mouths ready to swallow you whole. During a heavy rain, our trash cans tumble down the gutter, onto other blocks and the lawns of other people’s houses. The morning after, we walk around with our neighbors like everyone’s dogs have gone missing. We flip through piles of marooned bins to find the ones spray-painted with our house number. We wheel them up the hill, my mom managing two, me struggling with one.
After the next storm we don’t find them. My mom whispers, “Shit fuck shitty fuck shit.”
Other than the trash bin issue my mom and I like our through street. I’m not the type of kid who likes catch. We play “go away car.” Here’s how it works: my mom and I sit on a big rock in our front yard and I pick dirt clods from our flower bed and throw them at cars speeding by. If I hit one we yell “go away car!”
Life isn’t perfect for my mom. Spending all her time with me gets tiring. I do “crazy shit,” like crying for hours when the porcelain cat falls off the top of the fridge and shatters, watching the same rented movie from the strip mall blockbuster every night, slamming my forehead against the outside stucco until I bleed, spitting out broccoli. Even if I’m not crazy and this is all normal kid stuff, it’s no fun being alone with a child all day everyday. You want to have adult conversations and receive adult responses. Sometimes she tries to call her friends and they don’t answer. On those nights, we cuddle in bed and she talks to me about loneliness and missing my dad and the life she dreamed of as a little girl. She taps her finger on the center of my forehead: “No matter what happens ever, nothing is stronger than this.”
Have I mentioned how tiny my mom is? She’s one of tiniest people ever. Probably not even ninety pounds and wiry all over. Her tininess helps me out a lot because it lets her do things designed for kids. Like at the mall there’s this train that drives around the play area. I see it when she takes me for smoothies and movies. I’m afraid to ride alone. The conductor leers in his loose overalls and the other children turn their fingers into guns and go “blam blam blam blam.” My mom rides with me in our own separate car. I wrap a palm around her finger. I wave to the nice people by the pretzel stand.
Her tininess also makes me think she’s adopted even though I don’t know the word “adopted.”
My mom is nothing like her parents. She usually doesn’t talk about them. She just says, “We have a complicated relationship.” She calls her mother “depressed” and her father “a republican.”
My grandparents live outside San Francisco. One weekend they surprise us, pulling up to our driveway in grandpa’s maroon Lexus. My mom turns my dad’s unoccupied office into a guest room. The guests use the master bedroom. I love the guests. My grandpa teaches me things about planes and trains and my grandma bakes secret cookies called “cowboy cookies” that really are just oatmeal raisin. Someday I will have a “complicated relationship” with them too. My grandpa behaves like “an emotionally abusive racist” and my grandma will be “dead.”
But that’s a different story. All that matters now is that they fill my life with simple joy.
My grandma hunches forward and talks slowly. She’s rounded and bumpy. My grandpa oozes everywhere like a giant ball of dough. When we play on the floor he needs a knee-pad so his joints don’t crumble.
My mom argues with her parents in whispers. The whispering gets really loud and I hear all of it. It starts off about how she thinks my grandma needs something called “Prozac.” Then it becomes about how my grandpa thinks it’s an extravagant waste of my dad’s money to hire a weekly housekeeper. Then it becomes about the undocumented status of the housekeeper’s residence in the United States.
My grandpa eats dinner by himself on the couch reading the paper. I look back at him from our table. He sinks into the cushions, his thighs rounding out like waxing moons, his fingers thick and powerful. He places a glass of water on the coffee table, goes to bed. In the morning he silently gathers my grandma’s things. Leads her to the door. Says, “Allocation of resources…ungrateful…see you at Christmas.” I run after them. I grip his khakis by their stapled hems.
That night while my mom and I get ready to sleep it starts to rain. A torrential humid thundery rain. A rain you rarely find in Southern California. She’s showered and wearing boxer shorts, a long t-shirt. She pulls her hair up in a bun. Her face, tan with wide pores, glistens. We lie in her bed watching The Animal Planet. It’s a show called Animal Cops where pseudo law enforcement officers rescue dogs from abusive homes. My eyes flutter shut. My mom springs up yelling “Shit shit shit the cans shit shit shit the cans.”
We’re outside, rain falling in sheets, washing rivers down the gutter. No cars rush by on our through street. The sky is dark. There aren’t any streetlights. The cans—green, blue, and brown—pile up sideways on top of each other. They inch down the hill, scrapping on the road. My mom sits me on the really big rock and says “watch me like we’re playing go away car.” She hands me a cordless phone, “If I yell your name run inside and dial 911.”
She jumps down into the gutter. I get wet while the wind howls. Spray kicks up above my head and the murky rush goes scud scud scud against the bins. She slips, drops down onto her knees. She grapples for the cans. They hit her. I start screaming and crying. “I’m okay!” She says, “It’s gonna be okay!” She flips the first bin up onto the lawn. Then the second not long after. She stands and reaches for the third. I think okay I guess this isn’t too bad. Then more water comes, heavier this time. The gutter is slick and sharply slanted. She falls hard on her stomach. The current pulls her and the bin toward the giant storm drain and for a second I lose sight of her. My little boy body quivers. I can’t be a person in this world with my mom gone. The rain strikes me. I don’t feel it. My skin moves on the inside. The bin turns. I see her hanging on, gasping, clawing big handfuls from the front lawn, her legs from mid-thigh down wedged within the storm drain. She grits her teeth and groans. Mud slicks between her fingers. Murky gutter sludge froths around her mouth. She releases one arm and torques her body back, using the free hand to stretch for the full can. Slowly, she flips it over the curb. She crawls up from the gutter, flops out on the lawn, muddy all over, soaked, scrapped, bleeding, huffing and grinning like a mad woman.
“Baby you and I are fighters. You and I are winners.” She slaps her chest with a balled up fist. I yell like I’m wild. I jump on her. She hugs me tight. Rain pours all around us.
She calls her dad and tells him what happened. When my dad visits home I tell him too. Her dad, says, “Whatever you say honey,” and hangs up. My dad stays standing in the daddy door and tells another story. It’s a story that’s like all the other stories, only with small changes to make it this particular story told on this particular day. I’m Wanko. He’s Sparky. Etc.
Afterward I hug him in the hallway. It makes him happy. I repeat, “Mom almost died.” He pats my head. “Sure she did.”
He stops using the daddy door. He stops telling me stories.
But my mom and I keep talking about our night with the trash cans. We tell our story all the time. We say it so much that now, years later, both our dads remember being there. Sitting beside me on the big rock, watching.