in disguise

We are traveling in a little tribe tonight – my friends and their daughter; me, my daughter and the boy. We drive out to Warren in the van and go to the store with the shiny, sparkly things. The boy spends his time in front of a low table covered with costume jewelry rings. A rhinestone-encrusted skull. A bright pink flower. He puts one on each finger, runs over to me where I stand, absently caressing the scarves. “Do you recognize my fingers, Mommy?” he asks as he wiggles them in front of me. “They’re in disguise.”

After, we all pile into a booth at spot nearby, and order pasta and beer while the boy busies himself at the pool table in an elaborate game, the rules of which are unknowable to the rest of us. He walks around the table’s perimeter, slides the cue ball back and forth across the green felt. His face registers delight each time he reaches down and extracts it from the pocket into which it has fallen.

It is dark one night when I get up from bed. I cannot sleep and wander out into the living room to find my father sitting on the couch by the light of a single desk lamp.

He sees me right away, says, “Hey bunny,” and gestures for me. I climb up next to him. Spread out on the coffee table in front of him are neat rows of tiny white balls that have been rolled up from bits of tissue paper. “I’m saying my prayers,” he says, although I have not asked. “Do you know what this is called?” I shake my head. “This is called the rosary. Each little bead is a prayer and you say each prayer until you’re done with all the little beads.”

He goes on: “I used to have real beads,” he says, “but I lost them. So now, I make my own.”

My mother’s tortoise-shell reading glasses are on the coffee table, alongside a glass with just a bit of amber liquid left in it. There is a little fabric doll that she brought back from Mexico years before. The doll’s hair is made of black yarn and is braided in two long plaits with a bit of ribbon trying each end. There are blue loops of yarn on the doll’s white face. To represent tears. Why, I remember thinking every time I saw it, would anyone want a doll that is crying?

He asks me if I am having trouble sleeping and I nod. Bad dreams? Even though it is not nightmares keeping me awake, I say yes, because it seems a reasonable response and the one that he expects. He kisses my head, whispers into the top of it: Go away bad dreams, and don’t come back.

“Do you want me to tuck you back in?” he asks. I say yes and so he does.  

The boy falls asleep on the ride home. P. follows me home in the van so we don’t have to wake him twice. When we get to the house, he is awake but confused. He walks in small circles on the front lawn while we transfer the car seat. Inside, he takes off his coat and his shoes. I head upstairs to get his things ready for bed. I hear him running after me, and in the hallway, he stops me.

“Mommy,” he cries, his eyes filling with tears. “I am so sorry that I didn’t want to hug you this morning.”

I had asked him for a hug when he got up, but he was coy and ran away when I reached for him.

“I wanted to tell you,” he says, his voice quivering, “that I changed my mind.”

We hear the front door creak open and we both run downstairs, shouting “Daddy!” We weren’t expecting him so soon. W. tells him about the trip, and about how he was in disguise. “No one could recognize me,” he says, glancing sideways at me to see if I am paying attention. “Not even Mommy.”

When I come downstairs from putting the boy to bed, M. is in the kitchen and the coffee is made. There are still a few more gifts to wrap, and I work on those. “Stay in there for a few minutes,” I tell him, and I hurry to put the last few things I’ve bought for him in boxes. He’s put some music on, something we used to listen to a long time ago, and for a moment, it stops me short. Like seeing a photograph of yourself from a time you can barely remember. You, but a different version. You have to look close to be sure. 

My father was tall and lanky. When I was small, he carried me up on his shoulders and I would grip his hands so tightly as he walked. He would make a big deal of ducking down under tree branches or through doorways. He’d wobble a little, say “hold on tight,” and breathe a huge dramatic sigh once we were clear of the particular threat. “You OK up there, bunny?” he’d ask, calling out loudly as if I were very far away. “You still there?”

Yes.

Still here.