Not Leaving Without My Boy
Words By Joshua Britton, Art By Karen Besant
When I see my boy again, he’s potty-trained. I have mixed feelings about this. On one hand, I want to be a part of his milestones. On the other, it never sounded like fun.
In chronological order, the reasons they locked me up in the first place:
1.I knocked groceries out of a stranger’s hands at the store. 2. I said the f-word to a pastor in his church.
3. I broke my brother-in-law’s nose.
4. I beat up a guy outside 7-Eleven.
That last one I don’t think I would believe if they hadn’t shown me the footage from the surveillance camera. I half-suspect the video was doctored up with CGI, though, and I was framed. The dude was twice my size.
I do remember punching my brother-in-law, though.
“I don’t think it’s anything to be proud of,” Seth says. “Jason is family and all, but when I think of that piece of garbage he made, I’m embarrassed to be related to him.”
“Seth!” his wife scolds.
We’ve finished eating and are sitting around the table, trying to recreate the family-centric life I’d had before the accident, and before the so-called piece of garbage. Everyone is making an effort to show I’m still part of the family except Seth, who’s talking like I’m not there.
“I’m sorry, but that’s just the way I feel,” Seth says. “And I know you agree with me.” He gestures towards his parents. “I’m sick of everyone tip-toeing around him like he’s the only one suffering.”
“I guess you didn’t learn compassion in seminary,” I say, getting up from the table.
“What is the matter with you?” my mother-in-law says to Seth. To me, she says “Please stay.”
“Sweetie, it’s time to go,” I call. Robby comes bounding from the living room.
“You don’t have to leave,” my mother- and father-in-law say at the same time.
“She was my sister,” Seth continues. “Not just for a few years, but my entire life. And no one feels sorry for me.”
Seth’s wife continues scolding while I do my best to ignore everyone and get Robby’s shoes and coat on.
“And that…thing of his?” Seth goes on. “That’s what did it. That’s what killed her. You, Jason,” he points at me. “You should be ashamed of yourself, making up something like that.”
“Back off,” I warn. I brush past him and grab my keys from the table.
“You’re not the only one,” he repeats. “I don’t think I’ll ever forgive you.”
“Read your Bible,” I say, getting in his face. “Then say that. And climb off your high horse.”
He is not intimidated. “Enjoy your blood money,” he says.
I pop him. He jolts back several steps and falls down. He starts bleeding right away. No one is upset with me. Even his wife is reluctant to come to his aid.
“Ok, honey, you ready to go?” I say.
Robby holds on to my hand as we walk outside and I strap him into his car seat. Within a week a guy will bump into me outside of 7-Eleven. I will send him to the hospital, and then I will be committed.
I am moved into an apartment close to my in-laws’ house. It is also close to where they work and go to church, and where I used to go to church. They can keep an eye on me this way. I’m not allowed to drive but at least it’s not far from the grocery store.
Some of my best memories happened here: coming home to it at the end of our honeymoon, pretending to care about the color of the drapes while all along letting her get what she wanted, so many great talks, so much laughing, coming home from work to her embrace, receiving the phone call when the contract was finalized, how proud she was of me, where Robby was conceived.
This is cruel and sadistic, but my own parents were in on the decision, so I’m not too bitter.
“We didn’t bring everything,” my father explains to me as I move in. “You and I can drive back to your house sometime and pick some more things up, if you want. But I know you like to watch movies, so we brought your TV. And I know you’ll want to read, so we brought your books.”
I don’t know if I’ll ever go back. They left my couch and bed and other furniture down there. Someone has scrounged up a recliner, though, and a single bed for the bedroom.
“I don’t mind making another trip down there,” my father repeats. “With you.”
It’s not so bad really, and I handle it ok. Without my wife’s touch, the inside doesn’t resemble our honeymoon cottage from years ago.
The day after I move in, my father-in-law shows up at the door and invites me over to see my boy. It’s part of the arrangement. My in-laws have Robby and I can’t show up unannounced. They will also drive me to my sessions and check up on me once a day. I’m not under house arrest, but it’s sort of like a halfway house, like I’m out on parole and can’t go too far and have to be back by a certain time.
We enter and I can hear him on the other side of the house. He’s reading books with his Grandma. He has most of the books memorized but not all of the words sound right. He has trouble with his consonants. I cross the house. He looks up at me and smiles.
“Hey sweetie,” I say. I crouch down and invite him into my arms. “How’s my little guy?”
“It’s dada,” my mother-in-law says. “Say `hi dada.’ Go give dada a hug.”
“Can I have a hug, honey?” I say. “Come here.”
“It’s been a few months,” my father-in-law says. “He’s probably a little confused.”
“Give him a minute to get used to you again,” my mother-in-law says.
I spread my arms out, still inviting a hug. “How’s my little sweetie guy?”
Robby doesn’t budge from my mother-in-law’s lap. He clings to her a little bit.
“He’s just confused,” my father-in-law says again. “He’ll come around. He just doesn’t understand.”
Robby resents having had to watch me get carted away in a police car. He resents having been passed around by strangers in uniform as they figured out what to do with him.
Between the life insurance and the royalties, I’m not going to have to work for a while. I watch a lot of movies. I watch the long movies, the kind with built-in intermissions, like Once Upon a Time in America, and Gone With the Wind, and Novecento.
My father-in-law stops by Sunday morning to take me to church, but I’m still in bed. I don’t want to face the pastor.
After the accident I don’t go home for a month. My mother-in-law is working the church’s silent auction fundraiser. She’s also volunteering to watch Robby, to give me a break. She says the auction isn’t really work. Plus she loves parading her grandson around.
Robby and I get there after the silent auction has already started. She’s on the far side of the room and doesn’t see me so I figure I’ll pop in and out. But the pastor stops me at the door and says everyone needs to pay admission.
“I’m just dropping my boy off,” I say. I’m holding Robby in my right arm. “His grandma is right over there.”
“I’m sorry, but you’ll have to wait here,” the pastor says.
“But I’m not here for the auction.”
“Everyone needs to pay admission,” he repeats.
I don’t like this guy. I used to listen to him every Sunday morning, but he doesn’t know who I am, even after he did the funeral. And he called Robby “Bobby” in the eulogy.
“Just, God, get out of the way,” I say.
“Excuse me?” he says, taken aback.
“Why don’t you go stand way over there for ten minutes, all right?” I say. “Then, when you come back, I’ll be gone.”
He stares and doesn’t say anything.
“Back the fuck off!”
I push my way past him. I put Robby down and he races towards his grandma. She didn’t see what happened and doesn’t know why he’s upset. I should leave, but I’m feeling rebellious, so I stick around to talk with my mother-in-law for a minute, and I look at some of the items up for auction before seeing the pastor coming, pointing at me, followed by a couple of big guys acting as bouncers. So I bounce myself.
My brother-in-law, Seth, stops by to see me, unannounced, saving his parents from a day of checking up on me.
“I don’t blame you,” he says. “I’m so ashamed of how I acted. We’re family, Jason, you and me, so I’m going to stick by you. I hope you’ll do the same.”
Seth tells me what he’s been up to in the months since I broke his nose. He is now a part-time church youth leader.
“I needed therapy, too,” he says. “I had some anger I needed to sort through. I was angry at God. I didn’t understand His will. I was short-sighted. I was seeing someone for a while, too, like you were. We prayed a lot together. It really helped. Do you want to pray together?”
“Do you want me to refer you to my guy?”
“I have a guy.”
I enjoy my sessions. I’ve always loved talking about myself, but no one wanted to listen before. Now they listen. Nobody blames me for acting the way I did. It was wrong, but they understand. I always wanted to put family first. Maybe I lost sight of things. On the verge of swelling to a family of four, instead we are a family of two.
Some old friends stop by. I’ve seen Joe twice. He says he knows someone who is dying to meet me. She teaches at his school. I tell Joe I wouldn’t mind meeting her. I could use being adored.
I don’t have a car but after we talk for twenty minutes she says she’ll pick me up. We go to a comedy club called the Loony Bin. The sign says Escape Reality. I haven’t laughed so much in a while.
She’s a laugher, too, as it turns out. She laughs at all the comics’ jokes. She laughs at my jokes, too, even though I’m not funny. She asks me tons of questions. She wants to know everything about me. She worships me.
We go to bed together. She doesn’t stay the night because she hasn’t brought anything and she has to get up early the next morning for work. She stops by the next morning, though, at 6:30, on her way to school, and we do it again. At the end of the school day, she calls, and says she’s coming over. I haven’t gotten out of bed, so I crawl out to take a shower and make myself presentable, but she’s calling from my doorstep and showers with me. She stays the night and the weekend. It’s crowded on my single bed. She gets dirty looks when my in-laws stop by to take me over to see Robby.
She’s only the second girl I’ve ever been with.
The obsessed fan thing gets old after a week. I start hating her and break it off.
I meet Anthony. We go out to eat and have a nice time. I see Joe and his wife at the restaurant. Anthony gets up for the men’s room.
“I never heard you mention him before,” Joe says.
“This is a date,” I say. “So be cool.”
I can barely handle Joe’s reaction and I’m thankful his wife is out of earshot.
Anthony drives me home and we shake hands when I get out of the car.
The next week he brings a six-pack over and we watch Monster. When it’s over I lean in to kiss him and he pulls back.
“What are you doing?” he says.
“Aren’t you gay?” I say.
“Yeah. But you’re not.”
Anthony leaves and I drink the beers he’s left behind in the refrigerator. I’m a lightweight and I get drunk. I walk over to my in-laws’ house. It’s dark and all the lights are off but their cars are in the driveway so I know they’re home.
“Let me in!” I shout. “Let me in! I have a right to be here! You have my son and I want him! Give me my son and I’ll leave!” I pound the door with my fists. “Goddammit, you can’t do this to me! Fucking open the door and let me in! He’s all I have! Give him to me! Robby! Can you hear me? Robby! Come to dada! Come to your dada, sweetie! Fucking come to me! I’m your fucking father! Motherfuckers! He’s mine! He’s fucking mine! Open the goddam fucking door!”
I pick up a rock the size of a softball from the garden and fling it through the kitchen window.
I’m in church and the pastor I said the f-word to shakes my hand and says that it’s good to see me and “Bobby”, and that the door to his office is always open.
“As long as you pay admission,” he says, laughing, daring to joke about it.
“It’s Robby,” I say, but he’s gone, too far to hear me.
I go with my mother-in-law to get Robby out of Sunday school and then everyone has dinner together, like the old days, almost.
“Here dada,” Robby says to me. I’m sitting at the dining room table. We’ve finished eating.
“Books,” Robby says.
“Yeah?” I say. “You want dada to read to you? You want to read about the duckies?”
I sit down on the floor, Robby sits on my lap, and we read about the duckies. My mother-in-law is smiling. She gets her camera and takes a picture.
Robby and I run around in the backyard. I pick him up and swing him around. I put him on my shoulders. He climbs on my back like I’m a horse. I tickle him and he belly laughs so hard he gets the hiccups. At least one person watches us at all times.
At first, my father-in-law insists on driving me home when Robby goes down for a nap. That’s the rule. But it’s a nice day so he lets me walk.
I walk into the grocery store to pick up a few things. Someone’s cart is blocking an entire aisle. Instead of giving her attitude about it, I wait patiently for her to move. It’s inconsiderate of her but I’m not getting into trouble again. That’s what happened before.
This guy grabs a handful of things off a shelf. I’m going down the aisle with a cart and he backs up without looking and I run into him with my cart.
“Watch where you’re going,” he says to me.
“Where I’m going?” I say. “You’re the idiot walking backwards.”
“Excuse me?” he says
I step forward and bat the groceries out of his hands. I chuck eggs at his chest. Then I leave. Everyone blows it way out of proportion. Nothing would’ve happened, probably, if my mother-in-law hadn’t seen me go into the store and was just catching up to me to see how I was doing and all that good crap. That was horrible luck, but I’m over it. People are self-centered, and that’s just the way it is.
Besides my time with Robby, my sessions are the most fun I have. After each session, I feel like the doctor is my friend, and I want to ask him to hang out later, or maybe go to a ballgame on the weekend. But I know it’s his job to be my friend. He sure is good at it. I think he genuinely likes me. I think all my doctors have liked me. We have good discussions. I open up to them and we make each other laugh. I never lose my temper, either. The whole time I was locked up I never raised my voice and never hit anyone or anything, not even a wall or a pillow. In the beginning I was a little frustrated because they kept showing me the surveillance video, and they kept saying the person in it was me. It looked like me, but I feel like I would remember something like that. Finally I told them that I sort of remember it, but it’s blurry and I don’t remember too many details. That satisfied them a little.
I look at my books. If I read something I’ve already read, then I know I will like it. If I read something new, I might not. I don’t know what to read.
I walk to my in-laws, uninvited but in my right mind, to see Robby. This is against the rules but I’ve been good and I deserve it. No one comes to the door, though, or answers the phone, and there aren’t any cars in the driveway. I sit outside the door for a long time before giving up and walking home.
On the way home I walk through the cemetery. I find the plot, sit down, and stare. I don’t cry, though. It’s worse than crying. It’s all the emotional turmoil of crying without the actual release. It’s numbing. And it’s most of the time.
My father-in-law stops by every Sunday in hopes of luring me to church, and for the third Sunday in a row, I’m ready when he rings the doorbell. I’m a model son-in-law.
I notice people’s stares. I’m not used to them. I’m not sure if they stare because they feel sorry for me, because they think I’m a ticking time bomb, or because of my celebrity status, like they can’t believe I can show my face in a church. Someday I will go to a church where nobody knows me.
The pastor goes out of his way to say hello to me again. He asks about “Bobby” and I don’t correct him. He says I’m fortunate to have such wonderful in-laws, and I agree. I talk for a little bit with someone I knew in college while my mother-in-law fetches Robby from Sunday school. We’re still lingering outside the sanctuary when Robby sees me.
“Dada!” He races for me and I time his arrival perfectly, picking him up and lifting him high over my head. He giggles and then belly laughs.
“How’s my little sweetie guy?” I say. “How’s my boy?” I hug him tight and give him kisses on the cheeks.
My in-laws look happy, pleased, even proud of themselves.
“I thought I would take Robby out to lunch,” I say. “Some father and son bonding time. Just the two of us.”
“You know you can’t do that,” my father-in-law says.
“What’s the big deal? I’ve been good. We’ll just go right down the street here.”
“Don’t do this,” he says. His smile is gone now. “If you want to be re-evaluated, that’s fine, we can arrange for a re-evaluation this week. But it’s not going to be today.”
“Who cares about that,” I say. “You’re as smart as those guys. You know what you see. I’m fine. Robby and I are great together. Nothing’s going to happen if he’s with me. I at least have that much control.”
“He was with you when it happened,” my mother-in-law says.
I still don’t totally believe that it actually happened. The guy was twice my size. And I’d punched very few people in my day.
“Come on,” I plead. “You don’t know it’s going to happen again. I feel great. I’m perfectly fine.”
“I’m sorry, Jason, but we have to say no.”
“This is ridiculous,” I say. I put Robby down and he clings to his grandma’s leg. “He’s my son.”
“And he’s our grandson.”
“This is fucking ridiculous!” I repeat. Some remaining church lingerers gasp.
“Don’t say that, Jason. That’s not who you are.”
“I’m a grown man. I can do what I want.”
“All right,” my father-in-law says, trying to coax me outside. “Let’s go.”
“I’m not fucking leaving without my boy!”
“I’m sorry,” the pastor says, walking up behind me. “I need you to watch your language and keep your voice down.”
“We have this under control,” my father-in-law tells him.
I glare at the pastor. “What’s his name,” I say, pointing at Robby. I reach out and snatch Robby’s arm, yanking him over to me. Robby starts to cry. I give the pastor my most violent look. “What’s his name!? You fucking idiot!”
“You’re not helping yourself,” my father-in-law says calmly.
My mother-in-law tries to take Robby back. “Jason, you’re hurting him!” she cries.
“You are going to have to leave!” the pastor says, more sternly this time.
Robby is crying and people are staring. I let go of Robby’s arm and he buries his face in his grandma’s lap. There are marks on his arm where my grip had been. My father-in-law gently guides me around to face the exit. But I pull away, pivot, and nail the pastor in his face.
It’s a half hour before church. It takes less than five minutes to walk there. We’ve been packing up our tiny apartment and there are moving boxes everywhere. My wife weaves her way into the kitchen and sits at the table. I set her breakfast down in front of her and kiss the top of her head.
“Are you feeling all right?” I ask.
“I feel like a lucky wife,” she says.
“How’s our little Robby boy?” I say. I pat her rounding tummy.
I sit down on the other side of the table and admire her. This is what I want. This is the way it is supposed to be.
I’m back now. Some of the faces are the same, but not everyone remembers me. I’ve had some visitors. My parents have come a couple times, and Joe once. My in-laws have come also. They say I can see Robby when I get out. That’ll be a few months.