I wasn’t a picky eater as a child, so I’m not thrilled when Charlie comes over every other weekend and refuses to eat things I wish he would, like the eggplant parmesan I cooked tonight. It’s practically lasagna, right? He loves lasagna.
“I’ll fry you some turkey dogs if you at least try the cauliflower.”
His face twists in melodramatic horror. The kid could have acted for D.W. Griffith.
“Ghost broccoli? Gross!”
Kathryn finishes tossing the salad. We’ve only been seeing each other for six weeks, and this is her first time with my nine-year-old son. Kathryn’s wonderful, and I want her to feel the same about me. Parenting like a stand-up comic dealing with a heckler isn’t my best strategy.
She sets the tongs in the bowl and picks up her wine glass by the stem. I always notice how a person holds a wine glass. I don’t judge; I notice.
“Ghost broccoli,” she says. “That’s pretty clever, Charlie. Did you make it up or did you hear it somewhere?”
He shrugs, trying to hide that he’s pleased, but a little smile happens.
“I don’t know. Made it up, I guess.”
My son’s not usually a wordplay kind of kid, so I have my doubts about his claim. But I’ve never heard “ghost broccoli” before, so who knows? I make a mental note to Google it later, though as usual I’ll probably forget.
“You know how cauliflower’s really good?” Kathryn says. “Put some soy sauce and parmesan cheese on it. Want to try that with me?”
Charlie’s not stupid; he knows he’s getting played. But he’s also getting attention.
Looking at the floor he says, “I guess.”
His second “I guess” in thirty seconds. I almost mention it, but not wanting to second guess yet again my actions as a parent, I keep quiet—though I smile at my unintentional pun. Second guess…très witty, bucko.
“What’s so funny, dad?”
Kathryn’s waiting for my answer too, with a soft smile of her own. Somehow I get the feeling she knows exactly why I’m smiling. That’s impossible, obviously, but I like it.
I pick up my wine glass, by the stem. “Just playing a little guessing game with myself.”
Charlie squints at me. “That’s weird.”
“What’s wrong with weird?” I tell him. “Normal’s boring.”
Of course like most kids—hell, like most everybody—Charlie wants to fit in. Normal is safe. Don’t I want him to be safe? I think of the “Keep Austin Weird” tee shirt Charlie’s mother bought me during a business trip to Texas the year before he was born. I wonder where it is, if I even still have it. I wonder if it still fits.
Kathryn asks, “Have you heard of the golden mean, Charlie?”
“My mom says don’t be mean.” He glances my way. “Dad too.”
I wonder how tough our divorce is on him, this shuttling between parents. I have nothing to go on. My parents’ fortieth anniversary is next month and I’ve hardly ever even seen them argue. Charlie didn’t sign up for any of this. Then again, none of us signed up to be on this planet in the first place.
“The golden mean is different,” Kathryn says. “It’s when you find the perfect balance between things.”
“That doesn’t sound mean,” Charlie says, but I rejoice in his tone: he sounds like he trusts her.
I do, too. Not even two months together, and I’m pretty sure Kathryn is The One. But I thought that about Charlie’s mother.
For Christ’s sake, will you stop acting like a seventh-grader and just use Laura’s name?
“So, you’re having some cauliflower.” I try to make it a statement, not a question.
“It’s good to try new things,” Kathryn says, eyes smiling at me over her wine glass. Given her bedroom inventiveness to this point, speculation about what new things she has in mind makes me glad Charlie sleeps like an anvil. Kathryn’s not staying here tonight—it’s way too soon for Charlie to experience that—but he’ll be in bed at 8:30.
“You’re not my mother,” he says.
My heart plummets. “What did you tell us about being mean?”
“That’s not mean, it’s just real.”
“Of course it’s real,” Kathryn says, gripping her glass in both hands.
Yes, it is real, as real the trembling edge to my lover’s voice and the sudden, shameful certainty that her happiness means more to me than my son’s.