Two by Two
When London was three and half, the three of us went on a picnic near Lake Norman. It was something we only did once. Vivian packed a delicious lunch and on our way to Lake Norman, and because the day was breezy, we stopped at a hobby store on the way to buy a kite. I’d picked the kind of kite that had been popular when I was a kid; simple and inexpensive, nothing like the kind of kites that avid enthusiasts would dream of flying.
It ended up being the perfect kite for a child. I was able to launch it myself and once it rose high, it seemed as if it was practically stuck to the sky. It didn’t matter what I did; I could stand in place or walk around and when I handed London the kite reel and secured it to her wrist, it didn’t matter what she did either. She could pick flowers or run around chasing butterflies; a nice couple had a small cocker spaniel, and she was able to sit on the ground and let the puppy crawl over her while the kite stayed fixed in the air. When we finally got around to having lunch, I looped the string around a nearby bench, and the kite simply hovered above us.
Vivian was in a buoyant mood, and we stayed at the park for most of the afternoon. On the way home, I can remember thinking to myself that times like this were what life was really all about, and that no matter what, I’d never let my family down.
But here and now, I was doing exactly that. Or at least, right now, it felt that way. It felt to me as though I was letting everyone down, including myself.
It was Wednesday, day three for Vivian at work, and I was on my own with London.
As I stood with London outside chiropractor number two’s office, I felt almost as though I were shipping my daughter off to a foreign country. The thought that she’d sit in the waiting room with strangers made me uneasy; the newspapers and evening broadcasts had led modern parents to believe that the bogeyman was always lurking, ready to pounce.
I wondered if my parents ever worried about Marge and me like that, but that thought lasted only a split second. Of course they didn’t. My dad used to have me sit on the bench outside an old tavern he occasionally frequented while he had a beer with friends. And that bench was on a corner of a busy street, near a bus stop.
“You understand that this is an important meeting for Daddy, right?”
“I know,” London said.
“And I want you to sit quietly.”
“And don’t get up and wander around and don’t talk to strangers. You already told me.”
Vivian and I must have been doing something right because London did exactly as she was told. The receptionist remarked on what a well-behaved young lady she’d been during the meeting, which soothed my anxiety about what I’d done.
Unfortunately, the client wasn’t interested in my services. I was O‑for-three at that point. At the restaurant the following day, I upped that to O‑for-four.
Forcing myself to remain optimistic, I had my best presentation to date on Friday afternoon. The owner of the spa—a blond, quick-talking woman in her fifties—was enthusiastic and though my sense was that they were already doing well, she knew who I was and was even familiar with some of my other campaigns. As I spoke with her, I felt relaxed and confident, and when I finished, I had the sense that I couldn’t have done any better. But despite all that, the stars weren’t aligning for me.
Not only did I fail to set up any meetings for the following week, I’d gone O‑for-five.
Still, it was date night.
When there’s nothing to celebrate, celebrate anyway, right?
That wasn’t quite true, though. While I hadn’t had any work success, Vivian certainly seemed to be lighting things on fire at her new job. She’d even been able to line up a musical act, a band from the eighties with name I recognized. How she’d pulled that off, I had not the slightest idea. I’d also spent more one‑on‑one time with London, and that was definitely a great development.
Except . . . that it didn’t feel all that great. With the constant running around from one thing to the next, it almost felt as though I was working for London instead of enjoying time with London.
Was I alone in feeling that way? Did other parents feel like that?
I have no idea, but date night was date night, and while London was in dance class, I swung by the store and picked up salmon, steak, and a nice bottle of Chardonnay. Vivian’s SUV was in the driveway when I got home, and London jumped out of the car, calling for her mom. I followed with the plastic bag holding the goodies for dinner, only to see London zipping back down the steps. Vivian was nowhere in sight, but I heard her calling out from the bedroom.
London raced that way and I heard Vivian say, “There you are, sweetheart! How was your day?” I followed the sounds and spotted Vivian and London near the bed, upon which lay an open suitcase, already packed, along with two more empty department store bags.
“Getting ready for tomorrow, I see.”
“Actually, I have to leave tonight.”
“You’re leaving?” London burst out before I could.
I watched as Vivian put her hand on London’s shoulder. “I don’t want to, but I have to. I’m sorry, sweetheart.”
“But I don’t want you to go,” London said.
“I know, sweetie. But when I get home on Sunday, I’ll make it up to you. We’ll do something fun, just you and me.”
“Like what?” London asked.
“It’s up to you.”
“Maybe . . .” I watched as London’s mind sorted through the problem. “We can go to the blueberry farm? The one you took me to before? And pick blueberries and pet the animals?”
“That’s a great idea!” Vivian said. “Let’s do it.”
“And we also need to clean the hamster cage.”
“Your daddy will do that for you when I’m gone. But for now, let’s get you something to eat, okay? I think we have some leftover chicken and rice I can heat up. Can you wait for Mommy in the kitchen while I talk to Daddy for a minute?”
“Okay,” London answered.
“So,” I said, after London had left us alone, “you’re off tonight.”
“I have to head out in half an hour. Walter wants me and a couple of the other executives to do a walk- through with the manager of the Ritz-Carlton, to make sure it’s getting set up the way Walter expects.”
“The Ritz-Carlton?” I nodded. “Is that where you’re staying?”
She nodded. “I know you’re probably upset. Just so you know, I wasn’t thrilled with knowing I’d be gone two nights either. I’m just trying to make the best of it.”
“That’s all you can do,” I said, forcing a smile.
“Let me go spend a little time with London, okay? I think she’s upset.”
“Yeah,” I said, “okay.”
She stared at me. “You’re angry with me.”
“No, it’s not that. I just wish you didn’t have to go. I mean, I get it, but I was looking forward to spending some time with you tonight.”
“I know,” she said, “me, too.” She leaned in for a quick kiss. “We’ll make up for it next Friday, okay?”
“Can you zip my bag for me? I don’t want to wreck my nails. I just got them done.” She held up her hands for me. “Is the color okay?”
“It’s great,” I assured her. I secured the suitcase and pulled it from the bed. “You said you have a walk-through tonight at the hotel?”
“The whole thing has turned into a really big deal.”
“Atlanta’s four hours away.”
“I’m not driving. I’m flying.”
“What time’s your flight?”
“Shouldn’t you already be on your way to the airport? Or at the airport right now?”
“We’re flying on Walter’s private jet.”
Walter. I was beginning to hate the sound of his name, almost as much as I hated the word errands.
“Wow,” I said. “You’re moving up in the world.”
“It’s not my jet,” she said, smiling, “it’s his.”
“I knew you could pull it off all by your lonesome,” Marge said. “You should be proud.”
“I’m not proud. I’m exhausted.”
We were at my parents’ place by eleven on Saturday, and the day was already sweltering. Marge and Liz sat across from me on the back porch while I recounted the week I just spent in all its hectic detail. London was helping my mom make sandwiches; Dad was, as usual, in the garage.
“So? You told me yourself you finally felt like you were hitting your stride on that last presentation.”
“A lot of good it did. And I’ve got nothing lined up for next week.”
“On the bright side,” Marge said, “that should make it a lot easier to get London to all her activities, and you’ll have more time to cook and clean.”
When I glared at her, Marge laughed. “Oh, lighten up. With Vivian starting work, you knew it was going to be a crazy week anyway. And you know that whole it’s always darkest before the dawn thing? I have the feeling that dawn is right around the corner.”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I was thinking as I drove over here this morning that I should have been a plumber like Dad. Plumbers always have work.”
“True,” Marge said, “but then again, there’s a lot of crap involved with it.”
Despite my mood, I laughed under my breath. “That’s funny.”
“What can I say? I bring joy and mirth to everyone around me. Even whiny little brothers.”
“I haven’t been whining.”
“Yes you have. You’ve been whining since you sat down.”
She absently picked at the armrest before answering. “Maybe a little.”
After lunch, and with the day only getting hotter, I decided to bring London to the movies, one of those animated ones. Marge and Liz came with us and seemed to enjoy it as much as London did. As for me, I wanted to enjoy it, but my thoughts kept drifting to the previous week, which made me wonder what on earth might be coming next.
After the movie, I didn’t want to go home. Marge and Liz seemed content to hang out at my parents’ place as well, and Mom ended up making tuna casserole, something London regarded as a treat, what with all the white flour in the pasta. She had a larger than normal portion and began to doze in the car on our way back home; I figured I’d get her in the bath, read a few stories, and spend the rest of the night zoning out in front of the television.
But it was not to be. As soon as she got in the house, she trotted to see the hamsters and I heard her voice calling to me from upstairs.
“Daddy! Come quick! I think something is wrong with Mrs. Sprinkles!”
I went to her room and peered into the cage, staring at a hamster that seemed to be making an attempt to push through the glass. Her room smelled like a barn. “She seems fine to me,” I said.
“That’s Mr. Sprinkles. Mrs. Sprinkles isn’t moving.”
I squinted. “I think she’s sleeping, honey.”
“But what if she’s sick?”
I had no idea what to do in that case and opening the lid, I scooped
Mrs. Sprinkles into my hand. She was warm, always a good sign, and I
could feel her begin to move.
“Is she okay?”
“She seems fine to me,” I said. “Do you want to hold her?”
She nodded and cupped her hands; I put the hamster in them. I watched as she brought the little critter closer to her face.
“I think I’ll just hold her for a little while to make sure.”
“All right,” I said, kissing the top of her head. “But not too long, all right? It’s already almost bedtime.”
I kissed her on top of the head and headed toward the door.
“Daddy?” she asked.
“You need to clean their cage.”
“I’ll do it tomorrow, okay? I’m kind of tired.”
“Mommy said you’d clean it.”
“I will. I just said I’d clean it tomorrow.”
“But what if it’s making Mrs. Sprinkles sick? I want you to clean it now.” Not only was she not listening, her pitch was beginning to rise, and I wasn’t in the mood to deal with it.
“I’ll be back in a little while to get you ready for bed. Put your dirty clothes in the hamper, okay?”
For the next half hour, I flipped through the channels, finding nothing whatsoever to watch. More than a hundred channels and zippo, but then again, I was cranky on top of being tired. Tomorrow, I’d be scooping poop from a hamster cage, my client list was hovering at zero, and unless there was some sort of miracle, it would remain that way another week. Meanwhile, my wife was flying on private jets and staying at the Ritz-Carlton.
In time, I rose from my spot on the couch and went back to London’s room. By then, her hamsters were back in the cage and she was playing with her Barbies.
“Hey sweetheart,” I said. “Are you about ready for your bath?”
She answered without turning toward me. “I don’t want to take a bath tonight.”
“But you got all sweaty with Nana today.”
I blinked. “What’s wrong, sweetheart?”
“I’m mad at you.”
“Why are you mad at me?”
“Because you don’t care about Mr. and Mrs. Sprinkles.”
“Of course I care about them.” In the cage, both of them were moving about, no different than any other night. “And you know you need a bath.”
“I want Mommy to do it.”
“I know you do. But Mommy’s not here.”
“Then I’m not going to take a bath.”
“Will you look at me?”
She sounded almost like Vivian as she said it and I was at a loss. London continued to send Barbie rampaging around the Barbie townhouse; the doll seemed on the verge of kicking over the furniture.
“How about I get the water going, okay? Then we can talk about it. I’ll put extra bubbles in there.”
As promised, I added extra bubbles to the water and when it was ready, I turned off the faucet. London hadn’t moved; Barbie was still raging through the playhouse with Ken by her side.
“I can’t make breakfast,” I heard her make Barbie say to Ken, “because I have to go to work.”
“But daddies are supposed to work,” Ken said.
“Maybe you should have thought about that before you quit.”
I felt my stomach tighten, certain that London was mimicking Vivian and me.
“Your bath is ready,” I said.
“I told you I’m not taking a bath!”
“Just come on . . .”
“NO!!!” she screamed. “I’m not taking a bath and you can’t make me! You made Mommy get a job!”
“I didn’t make Mommy get a job . . .”
“YES YOU DID!” she shouted, and when she turned, I saw tears streaming down her cheeks. “She told me that she had to get a job because you’re not working!”
Another father probably would have been less defensive, but I was exhausted and her words stung, if only because I felt bad enough about myself already.
“I am working!” I said, my voice rising. “And taking care of you and cleaning the house!”
“I want Mommy!” she cried, and for the first time, I realized that Vivian hadn’t called today. Nor could I call her; the event was probably in full swing right about now.
I took a deep breath. “She’ll be here tomorrow and the two of you are going to the blueberry farm, remember? You want to be all clean for her, don’t you?”
“NO!” she shouted. “I hate you!”
The next thing I knew, I was marching across the room and seized London by the arm. She began to struggle and scream and I dragged her to the bathroom, like a bad-parent video on YouTube.
“Either you get yourself undressed and into the bath, or I’ll undress you. I’m not kidding.”
“GO AWAY!” she screamed and after putting her pajamas on the countertop, I closed the door. For the next few minutes, I heard her alternately crying and talking to herself while I waited outside the door.
“Get in the bath, London,” I warned through the door. “If you don’t, I’ll make you clean the hamster cage all by yourself.”
I heard her scream again; a minute later, though, I heard her climbing into the tub. I continued to wait. After a little while, I heard her playing with her tub toys without the anger I’d heard earlier. Finally, the door opened; London was in her pajamas, her hair wet.
“Can we dry my hair tonight instead of leaving it wet?”
I gritted my teeth. “Of course we can, sweetheart.”
“I miss Mommy.”
I squatted down and took her in my arms, breathing in the sweet-clean scent of her soap and shampoo. “I know you do,” I said, and held her close, wondering how a father as messed up as I could have managed to help make something so wonderful, even as my little girl began to cry.
I read her the story of Noah and the ark as we lay in the bed together. Her favorite part, the part I had to read a second time, was when the ark was finished and the animals started to arrive.
“Two by two,” I read aloud, “they came in pairs, from all over the
world. Lions and horses and dogs and elephants, zebras and giraffes . . .”
“And hamsters,” London added.
“And hamsters,” I agreed, “and two by two, they boarded the ark. How will they all fit, the people wondered. But God had a plan for that, too. They made their way onto the ark and there was plenty of room, and all the animals were happy. And two by two, they stayed in the ark while the rain began to fall.”
As I was finishing the story, London was fading. I turned out the light and kissed her cheek.
“I love you, London,” I whispered.
“Love you, too, Daddy,” she mumbled, and I crept quietly from the room.
Two by two, I thought to myself as I made my way down the stairs. London and me, father and daughter, both of us doing the best we could.
Even then, I felt like I was failing her, failing at everything.