Jeremy T. Wilson
Our daughter’s off at a sleepover, her first, so my wife and I decide to have sex in her bedroom. This counts as thrilling for a Friday night. We don’t have a lot of sex, and by a lot I mean what I think is normal, and by normal what I mean is at least once a week, a goal most people can accomplish (can’t they?), but one, for whatever reason, we haven’t been able to sustain over the years. No blame.
We tumble clumsily into her room, our pent up passion manifesting itself in our sudden inability to manipulate buttons. The fish tank gurgles on the bookshelf, and the goldfish goggles its eye at us like that disapproving goldfish in all the Cat in the Hat books, and pretty soon our bare, middle-aged asses are spread atop her Hello Kitty comforter. And there is something illicit about all this that makes it more fun, and that feeling is one you don’t come by that often as an adult, I mean, unless maybe you’re on drugs or you’re a serial philanderer or something like that, but I’m not either one of those, although there was that one time I slow danced with a colleague at our office Christmas party (not naming names) the year K was pregnant and didn’t feel like coming, and I guess I was pissed she wasn’t there and scared we were about to have a baby, and I guess I might’ve held on to this woman a little too long after the song was over (“Last Christmas” by Wham!) and maybe I tried to get her to take me home with her, but she didn’t, and she didn’t report me to HR either (lucky for me). Later I told my wife all about it for some reason, and after she spent the next two nights at her friend’s apartment, we cleared the air and had some long talks about trust and fear and what constitutes cheating (I learned it can be emotional and/or physical), and here we are still together (lucky for me) fumbling all over each other in our daughter’s bedroom like teenagers with a curfew.
And I wonder if this is something Frida will be doing in here when she’s a teenager, when there will likely be a different comforter and the fish will be long dead, replaced by a dog. No, not a dog. Frida is scared to death of dogs. She’s scared of pretty much everything really. She can’t even watch normal kids’ movies because they typically put the protagonist in some kind of peril (basic storytelling), and she can’t handle the peril. She gets visibly anxious and makes us turn it off. She can’t sleep without her nightlight and her favorite stuffy Rex, a plush T-Rex she’s had since she was two, her stuffy before anyone else. Neither of us think she’s going to make it through the night at this sleepover (even though she’s got Rex with her), which is another reason I’ve got my face between K’s legs.
And I want our daughter to be tougher than this, to face her fears and learn that it’s okay to be scared, that you can’t always run away or turn off the movie. My father made me watch The Shining when I was her age. Because I was an only child (like Frida), he was obsessed with making sure I wasn’t coddled, that I was tough, almost to a pathological degree. One of his favorite brands of torture was to drape me in a catcher’s chest protector and smash line drives at me to teach me not to be afraid of the ball. Bad hops caught me in the eye, the throat, but when we walked home from the park together, the bat slung over his shoulders, I could tell my bruises made him proud.
I ask K if she thinks our daughter will be up here doing this with some random boyfriend in a few years, and she surprises me by grabbing the back of my head and saying, “Don’t stop.” And so I don’t stop, and I have never heard her make the sound that she makes. It’s like a roar and a moan, and it’s loud, like she suddenly has permission to roar-moan like wildlife because no one will hear. Our daughter’s not at home! It’s like she’s reclaiming this space with her sounds. I hope the neighbors hear. I hope they’re jealous.
She pulls me on top of her. “I don’t care if it’s a boyfriend, or a girlfriend, or whatever,” she says, her heavy breath halting her words. “I just want her to be comfortable with sex.” K has been buying her books about sex since she was three, board books that demystify the stork, early readers with cartoon nudes and labeled body parts, and I have to admit I learned a lot about a vulva this way. I was worried we were shoving all this information down Frida’s throat too early, like she’d end up being hypersexual, addicted to pornography, burdened with some bizarre fetish, because she loves these books so much. Now they’re getting more graphic. The latest one actually shows a couple in bed together, still a cartoon, but it explains how the penis goes inside the vagina (yes, it’s all very heteronormative, but the book does make a point to say that this type of retro-sexual intercourse is not the only way to make a baby), and while I’m thinking about all this, I am doing retro-sexual intercourse, or I guess I should say “traditional,” because we are pretty traditional when it comes to this stuff, but then K sticks her finger in my asshole, which is something she’s never done before, and it feels incredible, and I’m afraid she’ll never do it again, and I’ll be too afraid to ask her to, and she’s talking to Snoopy now, and she’s saying some pretty raunchy shit to Snoopy, asking Snoopy if he likes watching us fuck, and if Snoopy wants us to do it doggie style, and oh, yes, Snoopy, you filthy fucking dog, and I’m not sure where this is coming from until I look over and see my daughter’s big pile of stuffed animals in the corner (sans Rex) and there’s Snoopy staring at us through his black eyes, and this is all hilarious, and so I start to laugh and she starts to laugh, and soon I am making my own epic noises, a groan-laugh hybrid, and I am coming and groaning and laughing with a finger in my ass, and we are both charged and joyful and made of electric dandelion fluff, and maybe this is what makes it some of the best sex we’ve ever had since we got married.
The room smells like semen and fish food. We don’t clean out the tank nearly enough.
Frida’s got drawings on her walls of stick figure outlaws with curly moustaches trapped behind thick vertical bars (she’s been obsessed with jail lately), other drawings of her friends trying to climb an enormous cake with ladders, a color-by-number of Frida Kahlo (her namesake because K loves Frida, and we both love the name). Cut paper snowflakes from last Christmas are still taped in her window. Her bookshelf is full of books organized by color. The room has become hers, not ours, the one we made for her, and this evolution happened so slowly it was hard to notice. She’s got a small cardboard box on her dresser, painted in rainbow colors and slapped with stickers (hearts, stars, emojis, puppies), and I have no idea what’s in it, and I want to look in it, but I know she should be allowed to have this thing, this private thing, whatever it is. I want her to have her own secrets, and I want to protect these secrets, to keep her room the way she wants it, her sanctuary, a place she can always come and slam the door when she’s pissed at us and put on her headphones and tune out the world. She’ll never know about the time when she was seven and her mom talked dirty to Snoopy and stuck her finger in her father’s anus.
There is a lot we don’t know we don’t know.
When she’s in here with her boyfriend (or girlfriend) of the future, I wonder if her little decorative box will still be here, or other vestiges of her seven-year-old self, and if she’ll tell these future boyfriends (or girlfriends) what’s in the box and how it used to mean something to her.
“Don’t you want to know what’s in the box?” I ask.
“The one on the dresser.”
K gets to her elbows and looks at the dresser. “It’s sand.”
Last summer we went to Florida for a week. Frida had never seen the ocean. She was scared of the waves and wouldn’t get in the water. She stepped on a shell and cut herself. She got sunburned because the sunscreen we had was expired, and her eyes swelled up like she’d washed her face with wasps, and we went out to eat and all the other tables were staring at us like we were monsters: how could we have done such a thing to this precious girl? (Strangers don’t forgive each other’s mistakes). She had fried shrimp for the first time and loved it, but then threw up later because, surprise!, she’s allergic. We drove up to Marineland, and that was fun, but other than that I thought she hated the trip.
“I didn’t know she’d brought home sand.”
“We all brought home sand.”
“But she did it on purpose.”
“Yeah. She put it in a water bottle and packed it in her suitcase.”
K shrugs and sticks her tongue in my ear and soon we’re trying again. But I’m distracted. I feel guilty now. Even though I didn’t look in the box, Frida’s secret is out, and the secret is only sand.
Later we’ve left her bedroom and are enjoying cocktails, getting ready to settle in to a movie that has taken us literally a half hour to decide what we we’re both in the mood to watch, when we get a text from her friend’s mom that says Frida is scared and would like to come home. We told her this would be okay. Probably encouraged this safety net too much. K’s rule. When she was growing up, her parents told her they would always come get her no matter where she was, drunk at a party, on a date with a guy who wanted to show her his dick, in jail waiting to be bailed out, no matter what, they’d come get her. She called them once from Montana. She did not grow up in Montana. That might’ve been the one time they let her find her own way home. I don’t like this rule, but here I am going to save my daughter, and all she has to do is call.
Even though we’ve left her with her grandmother or her aunt, Frida’s never been left at a stranger’s house, and it must feel like that to her, strange and unfamiliar, even with some of her other friends there. Where do they keep the cereal? Why do they buy off-brand Kleenex? Why are they listening to smooth jazz? What if I get sick in the middle of the night? And I start to understand how all of it might be pretty scary for her, but I also want her to learn to face her fears, to be tough, because that’s part of life, right? The thing is, as much of an asshole as he was, my father did make me tougher (thanks, Dad!), and I wish I was more like that, not an asshole, but a father who could make his daughter tougher, teach her that she can’t get rescued all the time, and I know I’m not supposed to hit line drives at her and tell her to suck it up, but I want to hit line drives at her and tell her to suck it up. Let us watch our movie and sleep in, please. We are so tired. And you have so much of your life left, and we are so much closer to the end of ours.
But this is not what I do. I put on my shoes. K tells me to wear a jacket, but I don’t need a jacket. It’s spring (what counts for spring in the Midwest), and I am determined to treat the night like it’s spring no matter what it actually feels like. The friend’s house is only three or four blocks away. K tells me I should drive, but I want to walk. She says that Frida will not want to walk when I get there and this is likely to upset her all over again, and this definitely makes me want to walk, because it’s not about Frida all the time, okay. It can’t be about Frida all the time! She has to learn this lesson, and we are doing a poor job of teaching it to her, and I know I will probably have to put her on my shoulders for some of the walk, and she’s getting too big for this, too heavy, and I’m told that one day I will look back fondly on when I was able to put my daughter on my shoulders, and I will become one of those people who approaches random couples with babies and tells them to enjoy it because it goes by in a blink and they grow up so fast, but right now I do not care about any of that, and I would gladly have her at an age when she can lock herself in her bedroom with some boyfriend (or girlfriend) rather than have to carry her home on my shoulders from a sleepover because she’s scared.
The night is cool and quiet. I should’ve worn a jacket. I can smell the blooms, but I’m not the kind of person who has ever known how to identify the smells of plants or trees or shrubs, so I have no idea what is blooming, but it smells like everything is blooming.
I remember to walk on the side of the street that’s opposite the house with the scary pit bull that’s always barking like he wants to eat your face. This is probably why Frida is afraid of dogs. I’m sure the dog is nice (I’m no pit bull hater), but sometimes I forget he’s there, and I’ll hear him galloping across the lawn, his paws thudding in the earth, his ferocious jaws snarling and snapping as he comes skidding to a stop at the fence and lets loose these vicious barks that seize my chest and my crotch, like I can sense if he was able to jump his chain-link fence he would sink his teeth into my nuts and I would slowly expire. Every time we walk by this house we try to remember to cross to the other side of the street so we don’t get him all riled up, and I don’t know who lives in the house or why the dog seems to always be outside. Maybe not in the middle of winter. We don’t do that much walking in the winter.
I pass by on the opposite side of the street and don’t hear a peep from the pit bull.
Frida’s already waiting at the door, and she’s got her little bag packed, and she’s wearing pajamas patterned with snowflakes, and she’s got her little backpack on, and she’s got Rex in her arms and her friend’s dad tells me the girls were all about ready for bed when Frida starts “working herself up into a good cry.” This seems an oddly colloquial way to say this, and I feel like he might be making fun of the situation, calling into question her fear, our parenting, not taking all this seriously, and I am the only one here who’s allowed not to take this seriously.
“Where’s Mommy?” she asks.
I’m hurt. I’m the parent who has tied my shoes and walked the three or four (probably five) blocks in this spring chill to rescue her from this invented peril. Mommy is at home drinking a boulevardier. Give me some credit! But I don’t say any of this. I tell her Mommy is at home and that’s where we’re going. I thank the friend’s dad whose name I can’t remember, and we shake hands, and he says we should get a beer sometime, and I say, “Yeah, sure,” and I know we will never get a beer anytime, but I’m glad he thinks I’m beer worthy. Maybe I’ll need to call him one night if K and I are in a fight, and I’ll say, hey, buddy, can I take you up on that beer? And I’ll have to call him “buddy” the whole time until I can check his credit card or somebody else comes along who knows his name.
Frida and I hold hands and she starts to cry again as we walk home. It’s okay, I tell her. I assure her that she’s strong for trying, and it’s okay to be scared, and if she ever needs us to come get her from wherever she is, we always will, and my father would never have said any of this stuff, but I say it, because this is parenting.
Of course. She wants what she can’t have, unable to appreciate what’s right in front of her, upset because the wrong parent picked her up, upset because we won’t take the skin off her hot dog, because the crayons are broken, because the iPad is out of power, because the blueberries are sour, because we ran out of those little round cheeses that come bound in red wax that she balls up and leaves squished in our couch cushions, because she left the lid off the Play-doh and it all dried up, because we won’t buy her that two hundred dollar Lego set, because Christmas is over, because it didn’t snow, because it did, because her friends can do cartwheels and she can’t, because the piñata won’t break and when it finally does all the other kids get the good Laffy Taffy and she’s stuck with banana, because the bathwater is too hot, too cold, just right, because we won’t read an extra book before bed, because we read the wrong book before bed (one she picked out!), because we ask that she wipe her own butt and wash her hands after she goes to the bathroom, because of the nasty nail polish we put on her thumb so she’ll stop sucking it, because the mac and cheese is literally mac and cheese, not her preferred shells and cheese, because her roller skates don’t fit anymore, because the fish aren’t getting any bigger, because we won’t let her chew gum, buy lip gloss, get her ears pierced, wear pajamas to school, because she has to ride in a booster seat, has to wear rain boots in the rain, has to eat one fucking green bean before she can have a whole chocolate bar for dessert, and it’s all too much isn’t it?
She asks to get on my shoulders and I say no. She starts to cry even harder, and we are in the middle of her crying and me getting pissed about what I’ve had such a vital part in creating (this sheltered and entitled safety junkie), when I hear the galloping paws, and Frida wraps around my leg before the first bark rips through the night, and the dog is at the fence, its muscled neck and snout furious we’re alive. Frida’s buried in my thigh, and the dog won’t stop barking, and we’re both afraid of this dog and we should not be afraid. This night has been swallowed by fear. And we will learn to beat this fear. Because there is nothing to be afraid of.
I start to talk to the dog in my sweet puppy dog voice, “You are such a sweet little dog.” And I shush him, “Shh, shh, sweet puppy, you’re so sweet.” And this puppy dog voice does not seem to be working, because he looks like he wants to yank my arm off and share it with his friends. Slobber explodes from his jaws with every bark, but he will not touch the fence, will not try to jump over it, and I wonder if it’s electrified or if he has a shock collar, and I try to peel Frida off my leg, but she is not having it.
“He’s sweet,” I tell her. “Don’t be scared.” But she won’t let go, still crying, still saying Mommy, and I know this dog is harmless, all bark, probably just wants to play, and you can’t go through life being scared of every little thing, Frida, and so I finally manage to pull her away, and I hop the fence (not electrified) to show her how life is full of surprises.
I get my arms in the way before the dog can latch on to my nuts. It knocks me down and sinks its teeth in my forearm, and it’s like no pain I’ve ever felt before, and its jaw is locked tight and it’s staring at me like the fool I am, and I’m screaming, and Frida’s collapsed on the sidewalk on the other side of the fence, her face in Rex’s soft plush, and she looks like she might be passed out, and I want to pass out, to forget I’m here, to will this into the world of dreams, nightmares.
Floodlights pop on, and a man runs out of the house with a bat. “Otis! Abstain!” he yells, and Otis lets go of my arm and runs to the man. The floodlights behind him cast his body entirely in shadow, a hulking silhouette that looks and sounds a lot like my father. He’s holding that bat like he’s been smacking line drives, and I want to hug him and ask him if he’s proud of me for staying in front of the ball, but I’m bleeding, and I am certain I’m about to die and that Otis has punctured some vital vein or artery (whichever one is more vital) and my daughter is going to witness it all, and this will be her lifelong abiding trauma, but still, she shouldn’t be afraid. Those will be my last words to her, don’t be afraid, Frida.
He stands over me with the bat cocked, demanding I tell him what I’m doing here, why I’ve “trespassed.” And that’s exactly the word my father would’ve used. He was always trying to smooth out his rougher edges with what he thought was elevated speech, somebody better manifest me a grilled cheese! And I want to tell him thank you for making me tough and introduce him to his granddaughter and ask him if he’d like to come home and watch a movie with us, eat some popcorn, have a cocktail, but he is so angry. He was always so angry.
“Why have you trespassed on my property?” he asks.
There is no answer. I’m here because I’m here. I’m here because I’m a man trying not to be scared.
And it wasn’t there before was it? Rex is in the yard now, Frida’s tattered T-Rex, her true protector. She’s tossed him over. She’s standing up, lifting herself off the sidewalk, wiping tears from her cheeks, coming to the fence to give the man an answer.
Jeremy T. Wilson is the author of the short story collection Adult Teeth (Tortoise Books) and a former winner of the Chicago Tribune’s Nelson Algren Award for short fiction. His stories have appeared in literary magazines such as The Carolina Quarterly, The Florida Review, Hobart, The Masters Review, Sonora Review, Third Coast and other publications. He holds an MFA from Northwestern University and teaches creative writing at The Chicago High School for the Arts.