Are two really better than one? Sometimes they are and sometimes they aren’t. I have two moms and two dads, while most kids only have one of each. They don’t have to stay with one couple for a few days every week and then with the other for a few more. When they come home, it’s always the same place, the same mom and dad, the same brother or sister if they have one. Others, like me, have two homes, two moms, two dads and two families. It isn’t like two scoops of ice cream, two video games or two friends. More isn’t necessarily better. I never knew what to expect when I went from Mom’s to Dad’s or from Dad’s to Mom’s. I always heard what I had missed. Good or bad, it might seem good to Dad or Mom and bad to me, or the other way around. When Dad told me that he and Millie, my other mom, were going to have a baby, he thought he was telling me something nice. So did Mom when she told me that the baby she was going to have with Rex, my other dad, would be a little boy. Well, the twins Millie had already had with her ex-husband were all the little sister and brother I could stand. Maggie, whom Rex had had with his ex-wife, was a nice big sister and I didn’t want to take a chance on another little brother and sister. Dad and Millie expected me to be delighted, Mom and Rex did too, so I was delighted. That was my first lesson in hypocrisy.
My second was Mom’s devious curiosity about Dad and Dad’s about Mom. When I came to one from the other, he or she asked me how I had been. What each really wanted to know was how the other had treated me. Each was encouraging me to tattle on the other and confirm his or her suspicions. For instance, Dad suspected Mom of keeping me from playing with other boys, while she suspected him of keeping me from doing my homework. He thought I was spending too much of my time on music at her house and she, too little at his. Their subtle questions always led to a less subtle remark implying that he or she had been right to leave her or him, such as:
Dad's classmates at ZU confided in me that they had kidded him about being so romantic about my mom. That my mom, who had always been hard to please, surprized them because she thought my dad was so cute. The pictures I saw showed that Mom had been pretty, a lot prettier than now, while Dad looked like a guy you could have a lot of fun with. If that’s what girls mean when they say a guy is cute, he wasn’t so cute any more. You know what I think? Mom and Dad were disappointed in each other because they weren’t as attractive as they had been before me. They were older.
What would I have done without Maggie? Since she was ten and I was only eight, I could ask her questions I couldn’t ask anybody else. Rex neglected her because she was big and homely. He had liked Mom when she left Dad for him, but she had “lost her looks” when she had had Florin. I asked Maggie:
Maggie made a face. She called Rex “a church-choir Romeo” because he had met both her mom and mine by singing in a choir with them. He did have a wonderful voice, a barytone.
Maggie: “I bet his next girlfriend is singing in that choir with him already.”
She said Rex was lucky to be so handsome, but his vanity ruined it. I saw what she meant: instead of looking at us, he turned his head so we could admire it. He couldn’t pass a store window without slowing down to check his dark, wavy hair and making sure they were all in the right place. Would he have stopped to comb it if Mom had let him? When he saw a pretty girl, he "undressed" her as Mom complained.
You might have thought Florin would keep them together, but Rex didn’t care about him any more than he cared about Maggie. What did keep them together was music. Mom has a good voice too, they were singing together while she
3 ©played the piano, listening to music and discussing it, still going to concerts though not as often. Mom still cared about Rex enough to cook for him, do his laundry and keep house without any help from him. How did she manage? A dermatologist has to see patients all day long. GrandMom was saying that Mom needed a man like Rex to take care of just as a groom needed a beautiful horse. Yet Mom wasn’t neglecting me, she was treating me as well as Dad was. She accompanied me on the piano when I played my recorder and sent me to Mrs. Adams for lessons. Rex never took any interest in me except when I played my recorder. Maybe I was helping to keep him and Mom together.
There never would have been any me if Mom hadn’t made love with Dad. He’s a mousy little man who combs his hair straight back in a “ducktail.” His buddies kid him because this hairstyle was in fashion when their fathers were teenagers. He ignores them, never smiles or laughs and keeps “busy” doing “smart” things. Nothing could be worse than “dumb” and that’s what he used to call me sometimes, but Mom told me I was “more intelligent” than him. As far as I could tell, “smart” was getting more for less at other people’s expense and letting them know it by the expression on his face. Dad was always getting something free or cheap, never giving any tips, never paying a bill until it might get him in trouble... You get the idea! How could he have any buddies? Well, he does, they meet him for a drink every day after work and they bore each other until he shows up. Sometimes he even finds an excuse to skip his turn to pay and that only makes them laugh.
Don’t count on him for fun at supper, unless you like hearing somebody brag about all the smart things he did that day and the disapproval of everybody who saw them. Although Millie knew when to nod or chuckle, she was only listening to her five-year olds. Mom called her a ďfat catĒ once when she was removing some spots on my pants that Millie had neglected. Millieís eyes did look like a catís
when she was admiring Mitch and Midge. I half expected to see a furry tail waving behind her. One of them would say something obvious as if the rest of us didnít already know it and the other would repeat it as if we hadnít already heard it. Or one would start saying it and the other would finish it. Did we need to be told that the soup was too hot? That one of the bulbs in the light fixture over the table had burnt out? Did we need to be ďbrought up to dateĒ (Millie) the next evening when we could all see that it had been replaced? The twins had given Dad a chance to brag of getting a used bulb from the janitor of the building where he works who was going to throw it away.
You must be wondering why Dad and Millie cared about each other. I did too, until I guessed what they had in common by two things that were happening. One was Millie shrieking in the middle of almost every night I spent at Dad’s. She didn’t sound like anything hurt, on the contrary, she sounded like she was feeling real good. It lasted ten minutes and then, a few minutes later, the toilet flushed. The other thing was the kidding Dad was getting from his buddies when no women were around. One would wonder:
They would all guffaw, except Dad. Then another one would clench his fist and jerk his forearm up four or five times whistling each time. The others would howl with laughter, slap each other on the shoulder, get tears in their eyes. Except Dad, who had a funny little smile. Though proud of his whistle, he knew better than to brag about it. I was listening. What kid couldn’t put those two things together? We were seeing animals mate on TV and even human beings in movies we weren’t supposed to watch.
Why are parents afraid to let their kids know about sex? It seems pretty futile to me. Millie was giving the twins a bath once when she asked me to bring her some soap she had forgotten. There they were in the tub facing each other, Mitch with his little stick and Midge with her little hole. Does it take a genius to see that big sticks fit in big holes? Since babies come out of the holes, sticks have to squirt
something in there to get them started. The fun adults have doing that might be mysterious if some kids didnít have a little of it themselves playing with each other. I guess Mom left Dad because thatís all he expected of her and she expected a lot more of him. Rex came along and ďswept her off of her feet.Ē I was surprized how fast Dad found Millie, maybe he had been keeping her in reserve. He got all the sex he needed from her. When I said ďsex,Ē Millie chuckled, Dad smiled, Rex frowned and Mom gave me a talking-to. Do adults have kids (1) because of the fun they get from sex? (2) Pride in showing everybody that they are having fun? (3) The pride they have in kids? (4) The fun they have with kids? There was a lot of #1 in Dad and Millie, #2 in Dad and Rex, #3 in Mom and Millie #4 in Mom, Millie... and Dad with his kids.
Dad wanted me to be like him and Mom, to be different from him. I was the rope in their tug-of-war. They were having fights, which Mom always won, but that didn’t settle anything. Instead of taking me home one day after school, she drove me to an apartment she had just rented. Dad naturally resented her taking me away from him. Now they were fighting over the phone about how to divide their property between them. The one thing they agreed on was my recorder, which Dad let me have. Mom surprized him by her determination, not only to take everything that belonged to her, but also to frustrate his attempts to outsmart her. He tried to get even by refusing to agree to a divorce. Why waste money on that? He had her where he wanted her until Millie refused to move in with “a married man.” Dad looked all the dumber because he had tried to outsmart Mom.
Her lawyer gave lots of smart reasons for more alimony and his, lots of others for less. They finally persuaded Mom and Dad to agree on the usual percentage. I said they must have earned a lot of money by disagreeing, which made my grandparents laugh. By then, Mom and Dad had also agreed that I would stay with each of them half of every week.
Before Mom introduced me to Rex, she told me he was the kind of man she should have married in the first place: refined, cultivated, talented. Yet he was
in no hurry to marry her. Maggie told me he never would and my grandparents said:
Mom doesn’t like hearing “I told you so!”, especially from her parents, and, besides, she didn’t want to give Rex up. At supper, she was always suggesting things they could do together and he, regretting that he had to meet a client. Maggie and I were giving each other “knowing looks.” Supper at Mom’s was even less fun than at Dads. Except once when Florin, who was getting some of the food Mom was feeding him in his mouth, pointed at me and said “Fi Fi!” All four of us laughed and everybody has been calling me Fi Fi ever since. I never liked Felix.
I was playing my recorder better and learning more difficult music. Mom and Mrs. Adams complimented me on my progress, and, putting his reading aside, Rex was listening. Occasionally, he asked for a piece he liked or suggested how I could improve it. Maggie appreciated my music too, which improved her relations with him. On the other hand, nobody at Dad’s liked it, although he didn’t object when I played it. Millie made a nasty face, sent me to my room and told me to close the door. Even after I had finished playing and came back downstairs, she was still in a bad humor. My recorder hurt her ears and the music I played bored her. Dad retorted that the twins hurt his ears too and, giving her a you-better-not look, he told me I could play downstairs. The next time I played, the twins came marching in beating their toy drums out of sync with me. Let them get away with that? I kept on playing as if I couldn’t hear them. Dad gave Millie a you-better look and she shook her head at the twins. They stopped and Midge made a great sigh followed by Mitch. Millie was looking at them with catlike sympathy.
Millie looked at Dad, who was reading The Vigilant: “No, it isn’t fair, Mickey.”
Dad looked at her over the tops of his glasses: “Beating drums in the house isn’t just unfair, it’s dumb.” He returned to the sports section.
When I had my ninth birthday, Dad brought me home, where Millie and the twins met me at the door, singing:
Grinning, Midge took me by one hand and Mitch, by the other. They led me to a big box wrapped in shiny orange paper and tied with a wide green ribbon in a big bow. I opened it as they watched breathlessly and found an electric guitar with a mirror finish. It distorted my face as if to make fun of me. Smiling, they were all asking me didn’t I like it? The two little hypocrites were dancing around me.
“ I already have a recorder.”
All four of them wanted enthusiasm and I didn’t have any to give them.
“Maybe I could take it back and exchange it for something else... like a flute?”
The smiles vanished.
Disgusted: “Slur and twang!”
I felt obligated to try the guitar while staying with Dad and Millie, but I played my recorder music on it. At first, they pretended not to mind, but their partience was running out and, soon, Millie asked for
Poptrash? After the trick they had played on me? Nothing doing! I began to slur and twang Mozart and Haydn. You should have seen their faces! They were writhing with the pain in their ears and yet none of them dared to protest. Even Dad had outsmarted himself. Yet I was going to mangle Bach too as soon as I learned some. When Mom, Maggie and Rex saw my guitar, they burst out laughing. Seeing me and each other in the mirror finish kept them laughing. Slurring and twanging Mozart and Haydn laughed tears into their eyes. Fun warmed the relations between Maggie and Rex and between Rex and Mom. Laughing likewise, Mrs. Adams taught me some Bach to play on my guitar, so I could treat Dad and his family to some slurry-twangy counterpoint. After ten or fifteen minutes of that, Dad proposed a smart compromise, which Millie accepted at once. I could play my recorder to my heart’s content, once I had played the latest tunes on the hit parade with my guitar. This concession amounted to a fifteen or twenty minute routine once a week. It kept me up to date on the hit parade, for what that was worth.
Miffed by his guitar fiasco, Dad wanted to outsmart Mom and he saw his chance in Little League Baseball. If I played with the Sheffield Shrikes, I would have less time for my recorder. He had seen how eager kids are to impress their parents, how hard they try to hit the ball, get on base, score runs, throw and catch the ball, put somebody out and, above all, win. Win! Did anything else really matter? Maybe I would do as well as the other kids if he was cheering for me. I saw that parents use their kids for entertainment and some even try to train them for a career in sports. Well, I didn’t want to hurt Dad’s feelings, so I went along with his project. I did warn him that other kids didn’t want me on their team
because they didn’t think I could bat, run, throw and catch. With a little experience, he reassured me, I would learn, have fun and make friends. Don’t kids need fresh air, exersize and friends? He had thrived on a plenty of all three at my age. I had looked shrike up in my dictionary and found a picture of a bird with a bill curved like a scimitar. He was perched on a branch beside another bird he had stuck on some thorns and he looked proud of himself. I asked Dad how a baseball team could be named after such a mean bird.
I didn’t argue with him.
Mom said she was going to shrike Dad over this Little League nonsense. When she gives him a tongue lashing over the phone, he feels so helpless he can’t even hang up. I told her there was no point in shriking him because it wouldn’t stop him from making me play baseball during his half of the week.
“ No, I’m going to play so badly they will throw me off the team.”
“ ZU is good enough for me.”
I couldnít commit my little crime for a few weeks because Coach kept me on the bench, where I belonged. But then one of our best players broke his wrist when the Stringly Stingersí second baseman tripped him up. He was rounding second on the way to third on a hit to right field. The umpire threw the second baseman out of the game and the Stingersí coach protested as if he were in the Big Leagues. I guess he was claiming that our star had kicked his second baseman in the ankle. The Stingers played dirty because they came from a dirty part of town! Coach had to replace his shortstop and he wasnít about to put me there. Instead, he moved his center fielder to shortstop, his left fielder to center field, his right fielder to left field and sent me to right field. The Stingers didnít have any good left-handed hitters like our injured star. So there I was out in right field where nothing ever happens until you get good and bored. Although I didnít have to show how bored I
was, I looked around and watched birds, airplanes and clouds passing over. I guessed that the Stingersí coach would tell the first left-hander who came to bat to hit the ball to right field any way he could get it there. Sure enough, a lazy fly dropped between our first baseman and me. Although I was paying more attention than I let on, I acted at first as if I expected him to go after it and then as if I suddenly realized I had to get it myself. I ran, picked the ball up, bobbled it (what a show!) and threw it well over his head. By the time our catcher had retrieved it, the runner had reached third base and all of the other Shrikes were... well, imagine how they were! They were yelling at me. Coach walked out to right field like a cop approaching a car he had stopped and gave me that kind of talking-to. I pretended to be humiliated and felt great.
Coach and the Shrikes gave up on me, so I decided to shake them up when I had my turn at bat. They knew I was right-handed, but I went to the right side of the plate and waited for the pitch with the bat on my left shoulder. Coach called time-out, came around behind the umpire, yanked me away from the plate and, glaring at me, demanded:
“ I just thought right field would be the best place to hit the ball.”
“ That’s why I wanted to see what I could do left-handed.”
I knew what that kind of OK meant, so I went around to the other side and laid the bat on my right shoulder. I was hearing snickers from the Shrike bench behind me. I missed the first two pitches by frantic swings, which made the Stingers laugh and the Shrikes jeer. The third baseman told the pitcher:
The infielders moved up close and the pitcher tossed me a slow ball underhanded. Having choked up on the bat, I swung at it before it reached the plate and drove it bouncing toward the Shrike bench. You should have seen them jumping out of the way! Two of them fell down.
Though furious, they couldnít believe I had done it on purpose. The Stingers were smarter. They stopped grinning, looked at each other and the infielders backed up to their usual positions. The pitcher threw a fast ball, I hit it pretty hard and sent it bouncing between second and third. Surprised, the shortstop made a desperate lunge, caught it in the webbing of his glove and fell down. Watching as if I didnít know what to do, I only started running when he stood up to throw the ball. I was halfway to first base when the first basement caught it. For the first time that afternoon, the players and the parents on both sides fell silent. I felt sorry for Dad. The Shrikes lost the game of course and, judging by the way they were looking at me, they didnít like it. Nobody said another word to me until after the ninth inning, when Dad came to take me home.
“ ... I like ping-pong alright.”
He bought a second-hand table, set it up in the basement and we played a little while every evening I was at his house.
We never played any games or kept score, we just the hit the ball back and forth. My idea.
When I went back to school in the fall, I wrote a composition about shrikes, for which my teacher gave me an A. In my conclusion, I said that anybody who resembles a shrike had nothing to be proud of. Maybe she shouldn’t have read that passage to the class, because some of my teammates ambushed me during recreation and shoved me around. When I get good and mad, though, I use my fists like Mom uses her tongue. That was the last time I had any trouble with Shrikes. It was like a divorce.
Now be patient, because this is going to be complicated. Itís a kid-sharing schedule:
Unfortunately, it was even more complicated than that because of expected and unexpected complications, such as an appointment, a meeting, a trip, an invitation, an illness, an accident, a whim... anything and everything! To adjust my schedule, Dad and Mom usually discussed it over the phone, although Rex and Millie were often involved. When Mom and Millie tried to settle something, they turned it into a personality conflict and Millie could handle Mom. Dad and Rex had never met or spoken to each other yet. I had heard Mom and Dad try to settle so many conflicts over the phone that I could tell whether they were agreeing or disagreeing by the tone of voice at my end. At peace, Mom purred and Dad hummed; at war, Mom scolded and Dad stuttered. Sometimes, they got so mad at each other that, when they finally thought they agreed on something, they were fooling themselves. That was how I met Judy.
Some of our worst crises happened when the schedules were changed for something expected and then something unexpected necessitated another change. The crisis of the four moms, for instance. Mine insisted on attending choir practice on Thursday evening with Rex. She couldnít take Florin with her because he might yell or worse, but she trusted Maggie to babysit with him and Maggie could use her cellphone for anything she couldnít handle herself. That was fine with me because I saw more of Maggie. If she stayed until Mom and Rex came back from choir practice, though, Rex had to take her to her momís a few hours later than she was supposed to go. Her mom didnít like that, so she took it out
on Rex, who complained to Mom. Besides, Rex didnít like Mom holding on to his arm at choir practice to show everybody that he belonged to her. One Thursday before supper, Mom told Rex that her parents had agreed to sit with Florin. He could take Maggie to her momís after supper, come back, pick her up and take her to choir practice with him. Although she had a car of her own, she insisted on going with him. Embarrassed in front of Maggie, he agreed. He, Maggie and I were waiting for Mom to serve supper when the phone rang. Fearing trouble, Mom came running, grabbed the receiver and took it into the kitchen. A few minutes later, she returned looking pale.
Mom, who didn’t seem to hear, put the receiver back and sat down. Then she said: “Mom cut her finger on a can. Dad’s taking her to the hospital. He doesn’t think she will lose it, but she’s sitting there listening.”
“ Dad said there was no point in our coming to the hospital. He promised to call me on my cellphone as soon as he found out about the finger.”
Both of us were thinking that he could finally score a point.
After a lot of fuss, Mom let me talk her into it with a little help from Rex. Greeting Dad and thanking him took all of her courage. Dad and Rex met and shook hands for the first time. Rex and Mom dropped Maggie off on the way to choir practice. Dad and I had a good time together, while Florin was crawling around on the floor. For once, he never said “dumb” or “smart.” The only one who didn’t like his “good turn” was Millie, who scoffed at my “bright idea.” Thanks to a surgeon in Mammoth who specialized in hand surgery, GrandMom didn’t lose her finger.
Our scheduling crises didn’t always end so happily. The more Millie’s belly swelled, the worse she treated me. She was telling me to do things for her and, if I didn’t do them promptly and exactly as she said, she scolded me. When I brought her the wrong casserole from a cabinet too low for her to reach, she called me “dumb.” Hearing one of his two favorite words, Dad laughed:
He was reminding me of Mom’s good humor when she was pregnant. Millie’s was all the worse because she wanted a little boy and Dad was going to get the little girl he wanted. I couldn’t have cared less as long as it didn’t resemble either of the twins. Millie, who worked for the Division of Motor Vehicles, had already begun her twelve weeks of maternity leave. She had two more weeks to wait for the date of birth predicted by her obstetrician. An insurance agent, Dad had arranged to take a few days off. The twins would stay at their dad’s for a week and I, at Mom’s for a week. All three of us would spend the following week with Millie and Dad, before resuming our usual schedules. So everything was ready.
Mille had stopped screeching in the middle of the night. A week before the date set by her doctor, though, she screamed and it sounded more like rape than sex. Looking like a ghost, Dad came and told me he had to get her to the hospital fast, so I had to take care of the twins. They were already behind him in the hall, scared and bewildered. I remembered what Dad had told me once:
Here’s what happened five times that night: I persuaded the twins to go back to bed, went back to bed myself, went to sleep and woke up again when I heard them moving around. Once for a glass of water, once for the bathroom, once for a barking dog, once because they couldn’t sleep and finally to call their mom on the phone. They had already dialed a wrong number when I got there. Imagine how the guy they woke up felt! I reminded them that Dad had promised to call as soon as he had any news. They didn’t want to talk to him, though, they wanted to talk to their mom. They kept whining until I called the hospital and finally reached Dad, who sounded tired and irritated, but not at me. Millie’s birth pangs had ceased, he said, and she was feeling better. Since she wasn’t going to have the baby now, she might have to wait until the date set by her doctor, but she would be staying at the hospital a while just in case. Although I told the twins all that, they kept pleading with me to let them talk to their mom. Since they were jumping up and down, I sent them to the other two phones so they could ask Dad themselves. He told them their mom was asleep and needed rest.
I had never prepared a meal for other people before, but the twins didn’t complain about my breakfast. What a mess they made, though! Millie wasn’t there to stop them. I surprized Dad who came home expecting to get breakfast himself. I had handled a crisis that would have stumped a kid five years older! Although it was a school day, he asked me to stay home and take care of the twins so he could go to work. He looked so tired I asked him if he shouldn’t take the day off and get some sleep. Surprized to hear that from me, he said he had lots of appointments with customers he didn’t want to be put off. His company had just raised its rates, so he was afraid they would leave him for another one. I didn’t suggest calling the twins’ dad because they weren’t speaking.
I had a time of it keeping or more often getting the twins out of trouble. How could two little kids have done so much mischief? The worst happened while I was studying to keep up in school. All I heard at first was the murmur of their voices in Millie and Dad’s bathroom, which persuaded me that they were behaving. But, when they shrieked with laughter, I went running and found that they had been using toothpaste to model “statues” of Millie, Dad and me. I didn’t recognize any of us, so they took turns proudly identifying each one. You should have seen Millie pregnant! They had been sticking and cutting the statue of me with her fingernail file and scizzors. Voodoo! They must have learned it from TV. They had squeezed both of the tubes in use empty and both of those in reserve too. Millie and Dad used different kinds, so they had green and blue streaks on their cheeks, hands, clothes and even in their hair. They looked like the Amerindians you see in kids’ books about the Wild West. But how could toothpaste have gotten on the mirror unless they had smeared it on? Well, what was I going to do? Not call Dad, who was tired and busy! How could he have coped with the mess in the bathroom after all the rest?
I resigned myself to giving the twins a bath and cleaning the bathroom up. I knew I would get wet, get toothpaste on me and, if the phone rang, how could I answer it without dripping on the floor? Dad would want to know how I was getting along. And what if Millie called? I didn’t even want to think about that. Yet the twins liked to take baths together, so they stripped and got in the tub even before I had filled it. Because of their cooperation, I was hoping I could get the job done before the phone rang. But then, they started splashing each other and, although they pretended not to be aiming at me, they were. I gave both of them a good slap, they hollered and said they would tell their mom. But they stopped splashing, so I scrubbed away. Everybody knows that toothpaste doesn’t dissolve in water without friction. After a few minutes of relative calm, Midge squirmed and giggled.
Exasperated, I pulled the plug. “Don’t you know weewee is dirty? You have to do it over there.” I nodded at the toilet. “Don’t tell me your mom let’s you do it here!”
I washed the tub, filled it up, the twins climbed in and I started scrubbing them again. I was brushing Midge’s hair when the phone did ring. If it was Dad and I didn’t answer, it would scare him. If it was Millie, I had better not answer, but how could I tell? Aware of my predicament, the twins were watching me. Since the phone kept ringing, I told them to stay in the tub, wiped my feet and ran for the nearest phone. Millie’s voice iced my blood:
“ Dad asked me to stay home and take care of the twins.”
“ The company raised the rates, his customers are complaining and he doesn’t want to lose them.”
The twins were standing beside me with towels over their shoulders dripping on the hardwood floor.
Shaking with impatience, they were sprinkling the floor around me.
“ They are soaking wet and dripping on the floor.”
“Just a minute,” I told Millie and covered the receiver with my hand. To the twins: “If you want to talk to your mom, go back to the bathroom, dry yourselves off and get dressed. Then go to the other phones and you can talk to her.”
They ran back to the bathroom, leaving more drops behind them. I put the receiver back to my ear, but all I heard was dial tone.
Was Millie going to call Dad, catch a taxi home or both? I called him, but his secretary said he was on the phone. I hung up and headed for the bathroom, avoiding the trail of drops on the floor. Hearing Mitch giggle, then Midge, I ran the rest of the way. He was rubbing her weewee with his towel while she squirmed and giggled, but I guessed that she had started it. ‘Millie’s going to blame me for that too!’ I thought. I took the towel away from him, sent them to their room and told them to put some clean clothes on. Although I didn’t have enough time to finish washing the toothpaste out of their hair, maybe Millie should see that for herself. I knew I couldn’t wipe the floor dry, clean the bathroom up and wash the twins’ clothes before she got there. I decided to do the floor, but rags didn’t wipe it dry, so I got a roll of paper towels from the kitchen. I had wiped almost all the way from the phone to the bathroom when I heard the front door open.
Millie looked so mad I wondered if she was going to have her baby then and there.
“ Rags didn’t”
“ I didn’t”
“ I didn’t”
The twins who had been waiting for the right moment, came running and reached for a hug.
“ I didn’t”
Dad appeared: “Didn’t what? You didn’t give him a chance to answer.”
Dad: “What’s that in their hair?”
“ Your toothpaste. They were using it for modeling clay.” To Millie: “It was all over them and that’s why I gave them a bath.”
Six eyes focused on the twins, who were looking at each other.
Dad: “If they were mine... ”
I couldn’t resist: “You would tan their hide.”
The phone rang and, although nobody wanted to answer it, kept on ringing. Finally, Dad picked it up assuming he was needed at the office, but we soon realized that it was Mom. She was scolding him and, every time he tried to reply, she interrupted him. She was mad at him because I had missed school. Hadn’t she always suspected him of neglecting my education? Her scorn paralyzed him like a spider’s venom, letting him survive so she could eat him alive:
Struggling to get a word in edgewise, he didn’t even hear her. Finally, she snatched the phone from him:
“Get ready for school!” Dad told me.
He dropped me off in time for lunch.
Mom picked me up after school. I never heard how her duel with Millie had gone. Maybe the two knights had hacked away at each other without cutting through their armor and eventually collapsed from exhaustion. I stayed at Mom’s until Millie had her baby. Taking me to see Fragra, my baby sister, Dad reminded me what newborn babies look like and urged me to be enthusiastic. That was easier than I had expected because the least little compliment made Millie radiate with joy. What a Madonna!
“ Yes, isn’t she?” said Millie. Kissing her: “So cute, so cute... I could eat her!”
Eat that bow-legged pink sausage? My stomach turned. Millie’s kisses scared poor Fragra into wailing a scratchy little wail that tore her tiny mouth open. Millie rocked her, cooed at her and then bared a great breast, much bigger than Mom’s, and raised Fragra’s head up to the nipple. Her tiny lips closed around it and soon she was sucking away. Dad started to rush me out of the room.
“Hey! Where are you taking him? Fragra’s his little sister, isn’t she?”
Millie couldn’t have treated me so kindly unless she had changed her mind about the toothpaste disaster. I was glad the twins weren’t there. Watching, I remembered how embarrassed Rex had been when Mom let me watch her nurse Florin. Although he had looked like Fragra, they had agreed on how cute he was! Cute! What does that mean?
As soon as we got used to a new situation, it changed and a change in one of my families always caused changes in the other. We were always adjusting and none of our adjustments came easily. Maybe growing up in such a network of family relations would have prepared me for a career in electronic engineering, but that never tempted me. I was dreaming of an old-fashioned family of my own with just one wife and a few kids, all of them ours, and a marriage that lasts all our lives. Like Momís parents, who are happy together despite a few fights, which
they laugh away. They are always shaking their heads over the complications of Momís life and yet they admire her ability to cope with them. Before he retired, GrandDad worked in the scheduling department of Azure Airlines. A few delays kept him busy in good weather, while many delays and a few cancellations exhausted him in bad. Even when he came home late, though, he didnít have to do any more scheduling and he could relax. He wondered if the scheduling conflicts at home didnít trouble Mom even more than the ones at her office. She dismissed this concern with a smile and a shrug, but GrandMom and I agreed with GradDad. I used to hope that, when I grew up, I would only have to worry about making a living and not about living.
Fragra changed everything in Dad’s family and even some things in Mom’s. Once she had become a real human being, I was playing with her and talking to her, although I wonder how much she understood. I never said any baby talk to her, because I agreed with Dad: it was dumb. Millie, who couldn’t have cared less about what we thought, was always baby talking to Fragra. No matter what you said or how you said it, Fragra focused her pretty little gray eyes on you, smiled and laughed and kicked her little bowed legs. She loved to grab your finger and shake it. It was about the same time that Florin stopped amusing me and started getting on my nerves. He was already standing up and walking like his ancestors a few million years ago. I guess he started talking sooner than they did because somebody was talking to him, Mom in particular, although she didn’t use any baby talk on him. He was calling her “Ma Ma”, Rex “Da Da” and me “Fi Fi.” Maggie was “Ga Ga”, which made us all laugh. But nobody laughed when he was running around on his jerky little legs, grabbing everything he could reach, throwing it on the floor and laughing like a Tartar. What a gleam he had in his little blue eyes! So Florin was dumb and Fragra was smart. Saying that hurt Mom’s feelings, annoyed Rex, amused Maggie, pleased Dad, delighted Millie and irritated the twins who were jealous. I wouldn’t have made a good ambassador.
When I played with Fragra, Dad was always looking over my shoulder instead of reading The Vigilant. If Millie needed something for her, I rushed to get it. Her attitude towards me and the twins had changed entirely. She was relying on me to keep an eye on them, so I didn’t let them get away with anything. When I saw they had swiped a ballpoint and some paper from my desk, she let me lock my room while I was at Mom’s. She even made Dad give them a spanking. Unsatisfied with a few whacks and screams, she ordered a followup. They were screaming so loud it made Dad mad and he hit them harder. Looking around for sympathy, they got none. From then on, they had a lot of respect for him, but they blamed that whipping on me. They were whispering to each other and watching me resentfully.
Imagine my surprise when Millie asked me to play my recorder for Fragra! I tried a few tunes softly and, sure enough, she was staring at me as if I were a bud that had bloomed. Pleased by Millie’s change of heart, Mrs. Adams transcribed some of Eine kleine Nachtmusik for the recorder and taught me how to play it. At first, Millie and Dad liked Fragra’s happy reaction to the music better than the music itself. The more I played it, though, the more they liked it. Millie asked me to leave my door open when I practiced in my room, then she invited me to practice in the living room. When I played there, Dad raised his eyes at first over The Vigilant, moved it next over beside him and finally dropped it on the floor. Mozart had converted him along with Fragra and Millie. The twins hated him because they blamed him for depriving them of their mom’s partiality. I was playing him when they marched into the living room beating their drums like football musicians at halftime. Millie gave them a withering look and pointed:
Midge: “But Mom, we were playing with Fi Fi!”
Mitch: “We were just beating our drums to his music!”
Midge: “Doesn’t his music need rhythm?”
Mitch: “It’s cold outside!”
Mitch: “If we stop beating our drums,”
Midge: “Can we stay in stay inside?”
Three minutes later, they were back asking if they had beaten their drums and paraded enough. They had to come back two more times before Millie let them stay, but no more drum beating in the house!
Dad was hiding his scepticism behind The Vigilant.
I tried the Nachtmusik on Florin, which puzzled him at first, but then he ran and got his kidorg, an electronic toy that Rex’s sister had given him for Christmas. Rex had hidden it in a closet, hoping he would forget it, but he had looked for it and found it. A yellow plastic football, it had speakers in either end, an abbreviated keyboard on one side and blue buttons on top. Each button activated a different sound: a buzz, a whirr, a rustle, a rattle, a ping or a whistle. Florin had discovered some fiendish combinations and, although Rex had tried to teach him how to play some tunes, he preferred the noises which he manipulated with diabolical skill. He couldn’t drown my recorder out even when he turned the volume all the way up, but his noise, which would have made the twins laugh, spoiled my music. Rex, Mom and Maggie’s efforts to silence him only inflamed his zeal. Rex finally took the kidorg away from him and he screamed for two minutes according to Rex’s watch. When I started playing Mozart again, Florin ran to an empty easy chair, used a footstool to climb up on it, grabbed a cyclamen in a vase on the table beside it and held it up to his nose. The vase tumbled, the water flowed across the table carrying the other flowers with it and they spilled on the floor. Yet he was sitting in the chair sniffing the flower as if nothing else mattered. Rex yanked him out of the chair, gave him a whack that made a loud noise, although it only left a red spot on his fanny, ran with him to his high-sided bed and left him there bawling; Rex would have shut the door if Mom hadn’t shook
her head. Finally, I could play my kid music to a teenager and two grownups, but they only applauded politely. They found that the transcription had spoiled Eine kleine Nachtmusik.
Although we returned to our previous schedules, life at both of my homes settled down to a new routine and rhythm with milder exceptions and crises. A real-estate agent, Rex was selling houses, Dad was selling insurance, Mom was examining and treating her patients, Millie was enjoying the last weeks of her maternity leave before going back to work at the DMV. She had already arranged to leave Fragra in the same crèche as Florin, which Mom had recommended to Dad. Maggie and I were going to school. Mom and Rex were going to choir practice on Thursday evening and singing in church on Sunday. Dad was having a drink with his buddies after work before going home for supper. Millie was screeching for joy again in the middle of the night. I was making so much progress in playing my recorder that Mrs. Adams scheduled me to play both solo and in a trio with a pianist and a violinist in a recital. She and other music teachers organized one every spring for their pupils. I didn’t do too badly, in fact I got right much applause, but I was surprized to see Mom sitting with Dad instead of Rex.