This is Chapter 9 for my attempt at National Novel Writing Month. Enjoy!
After his trip to Chicago, Collin would have his sons during the entirety of their Christmas holiday. They would open presents at his mom’s house first in La Crosse. Then they would drive up north to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and spend the rest of the time with his father in Ironwood, Michigan. His father still lived in the hometown where both Collin and Lyla grew up. Most of Lyla’s family still lived in the area too. Collin was unsure if he would visit Lyla’s mother and her side of the family. However, Lyla had said in an email not to take the boys over to see her father. Her reason, “He is drinking again.”
Collin was unsure why Lyla had agreed to give up the boys for the two recent holidays. Collin had them for Thanksgiving, and now he had them for Christmas. Actually, he had some ideas.
– – – –
First, when they were together, most of the holidays were spent with Collins’ family. Lyla had an on-and-off relationship with her family, so Collin’s family was more stable and less dramatic. Second, she needed money and was picking up extra shifts at the nursing home. Third, she was likely becoming a Jehovah’s Witness. Collin’s mom still went over Lyla’s place to see the boys and knew what was going on there. About a month ago, Collin noticed Tony’s car parked at Lyla’s home every time he went to pick up the boys. She must have allowed him to move in. Then his mom mentioned something about Lyla converting her religion. The last two developments made Collin’s blood boil.
“Guess who is living with Lyla now?” Collin asked Raf. Raf wasn’t surprised.
“Guess who is becoming a Jehovah’s Witness now?” Collin asked Raf later. Raf was a little surprised by this.
“What are you going to do?” Raf asked.
“I’m not a Jehovah’s Witness.” Collin answered. “I guess it’s on me now to celebrate birthdays, Christmas, and any other prohibited holidays with our sons.”
What Lyla did with her life was starting to matter less and less to Collin. He had no say in the things that he felt affected the boys in a negative way. All he could do now was focus on the kind of relationship that he wanted to forge with them. Lyla stepping back was an opportunity for Collin to step forward.
Still, the tidbits that his mom would drop about Lyla’s life would sometimes eat at him like drops of acid.
One weekday at his mom’s, as he was watching TV after the boys had gone to bed, his mom mentioned how she went to a Tupperware party that Lyla had hosted.
“Mom!” Collin snapped. “I’ve been through way too much to hear you talk about being friendly with Lyla. Do you ever think about how that makes me feel?”
“Son. What do you want me to do? How would you feel if you father’s mom had cut me out of her life after the divorce?” His grandmother and mother did have friendly relationship leading up to and following the divorce of his parents. Still, his father’s actions were largely what precipitated the divorce.
“I’m not friendly with her because I’m not trying to hurt you. I’m friendly with her so that I can have access to my grandsons, so that I know that they are alright.”
This was a hard argument to swallow, but Collin swallowed it. It did require him to put on his coat and go outside for about 10 minutes for no reason. Then come back in the house and brush his teeth immediately. Collin was trying to do this less and less nowadays. However, sometimes a stressor would trigger this response.
– – – –
Collin’s plan for Ironwood was to take the boys skiing. They had never gone skiing before, and he wanted to provide them with this experience. Additionally, he was testing to see how he handled traveling alone with the boys. Before, whenever he had done traveled with the boys, Lyla was with him. He would often defer to her to tend to the boys’ needs, especially when they were younger, while he drove. However, now Collin would be the sole parental authority on this trip with his sons, and it might test his patience and fortitude as a father.
– – – –
Day-to-day life had gotten bearable for Collin. While he was in Wanetta, he had Raf, his friends in the community, and his colleagues at work to keep his mind occupied. The entire time he lived in La Crosse with Lyla, Collin did not make one friend! After the two weeks in Wanetta all the bartenders at Al’s knew his name. Yet, several months after the dissolution of his relationship with Lyla, he was still doing the slow work of untangling aspects of the life that they had shared and intertwined.
For example, Collin had to update all his contact information on the university’s HR page. When one of the forms asked whom his emergency contact was, Collin realized that Lyla would never be there for him again. He took a deep breath, mourned, and wrote in his mom’s information.
Spending time with his sons also provided Collin with a reprieve from focusing on his feelings. At first, it had been difficult because being with them was so enmeshed with memories of their mother. When Collin was at rawest, the time he spent with them was like pressing on an area where an organ had been removed—it made his pain more acute. However, as Collin kept pressing on his emotional sore spots, gradually he built up a numbness that made pain abate into a dull throb. He could live with the throb, as long as his sons didn’t mention the going-ons at their mom’s place.
One Sunday as Collin was driving the boys back to their mother’s place after spending the weekend with him, the boys started laughing about playing Wii with their mother and Tony. This was the game system that he had bought for them and left at their mother’s place when he had left.
“Sons,” Collin said, “Your mom really hurt me. I would appreciate if you didn’t talk about what goes on at her place around me.”
The boys were quiet for the rest of the car ride home.
“I’m not sure that was the right call.” Raf said. “My kids blab about what goes on at their mom’s place all the time. Yeah, it hurt when we first split, but I wanted to keep a dialogue open with them.”
“Raf,” Collin countered, “When you split, your kids stayed with you and visited their mom. It was slightly different.”
“Maybe,” Raf concede, “But I still think you’d get more mileage out of having them spill all the secrets of their mom’s place.”
Collin wasn’t so sure of that. When his parents first divorced, his father was always trying to pry information from Collin and his brother about what took place at their mom’s. This got worst and more uncomfortable when Collin’s mom started dating and any mention of her boyfriend— eventually Collin’s stepfather—would teeter his father’s emotions.
Why the fuck did you care? Collin thought. You were the one with a mistress the entire time!
No, Collin did not want to use his sons to pry into Lyla’s business, so the boys didn’t go into any details about what was going on with their home life, and Collin wouldn’t ask what life was like at Lyla’s, sans their father.
– – – –
December in the Upper Peninsula was cold, snowy, and dark. Collin was prepared for this. He spent his formative years growing up in this manner. He was comfortable with negative degree weather, with driving through now storms, with season affective disorder.
Collin’s dad lived in a large house on the US 2 highway that was the main thoroughfare of the town. Also, the highway hugged the belly of the Upper Peninsula and ran all the way to Mackinaw City, the connection between the Upper to the Lower Peninsula of Michigan. At night, you could hear cars and semis driving by at odd intervals, rumbling the house. Collin and his sons arrived at his father’s place in the evening after a five-hour drive. It was already dark. The Matrix was filled with the bags for the three of them and extra items of winter clothing. There were also empty paper bags and snack wrappers on the floors throughout the car.
Collin made the boys collect their garbage before turning them loose into their grandfather’s place. After the long drive, they needed to run around and explore the big empty house where his father still lived. Collin would carry in the bags for everyone. He would also linger outside for a bit and smoke a cigarette. After the long drive, he needed the nicotine.
His father had been living at the same house since Collin started high school, when his father and his girlfriend at the time bought the house together. It was big enough for the couple, his three sons, and her son and daughter. However, their relationship ended when Collin graduated from high school, and eventually, he and his brothers moved on from the small town. Now, his father was left in the oversized home by himself.
Collin considered the legacy of solitary life that was his inheritance on his father’s side. His father was single, and so were his two uncles and one aunt. Only his father and one uncle ever married and had children. The other two didn’t bother and occupied their lives in other ways. Collin had this tendency in his DNA as well. If he wanted to see a movie, and no one was interested in going with him, he would go see the movie. Why not? If he wanted to accomplish a life goal, and his partner did not want to be supportive, he was going to accomplish the goal to the detriment of the relationship. Why not?
When Collin finished bringing in the bags from the car, Collin’s father was sitting in the living room with a space heater blasting heat towards him. The boys had already hauled out a tote of toys that was kept around for young guests to play with when visiting. They were odds and ends from the childhood of Collin and his three brothers—Robotics, Lincoln Logs, Hot Wheels, GI Joes, and Star Wars monsters. It was an odd amalgamation of 20-year-old toys but was quite fascinating to young, creative minds.
“Dad.” Collin greeted.
“Son.” His father answered.
Collin sat in a recliner near his father. They talked about road conditions during the drive, where and when Collin and the boys stopped for gas or breaks, and what his father had been up to. His dad kept himself busy with work and his involvement in the local tribal communities, which he worked for. Collin was glad that his dad kept busy, that he had people who looked out for him and who he looked out for. In another 30 years, Collin’s life might fit into the template that his father had established.
For dinner, they all ordered take away from Don and GGs, the restaurant a couple blocks down from the house. Everyone had hamburgers, except for Ryk, who ordered chicken tenders. Collin went to pick up the food. He went to restaurant a little early to wait for the food and order a beer. His dad was a teetotaler, so there was no alcohol to be found in his house at all. While drinking his beer, Collin looked around to see if there was anyone he recognized. People were back in town with their families visiting family that still held on in the area. There were people, but Collin did recognize anyone, so he drank his beer and watched the news on the television above the bar.
– – – –
The next day, Collin got his sons up. There were pasties waiting for the boys. Collin had gotten up early, as he was wont to do, and went to the pasty store (yes, there is such a thing in da U.P.!) and bought for pasties everyone. The plan was to feed the boys and take them to one of the several ski hill before noon for a half day of skiing. Collin would rent skis and hopefully teach them the basics of skiing.
The boys were good. They were always good with him. There were no meltdowns, no tantrums, no major conflicts. Collin told his sons what to do, and most of the time they did it.
Boys, time to brush your teeth. They brushed their teeth. Boys, get your things on, we’re going. Where are we going, dad? You’ll see. Guys, time to eat. What are you hungry for? What are our options? Culvers or Wendy’s. Culver. Culvers.
Raf had said that Collin was more martial with his parenting style. Maybe he was now. But the plan was to build a scaffold of behaviors in his sons, and as they got older, remove those scaffolds because they had solid character.
Per Colllin’s plan, he and the boys arrived at one of the ski hills in the area (there were several). They rented skis, and they played around on the bunny hill until the boys could stand, walk on flat ground, ski somewhat down an incline, get up from a fall, and stop. When the boys did this several times, Collin decided that he would then take the boys on the chair lift up the hills to some of the intermediate hills.
At this point, Collin noticed that the steeper incline and the more variable terrain was challenging the boys. They kept falling and having difficulties getting up. It is easy, watch! Place your skis together, turn on your side, push yourself up. Collin would demonstrate this several times, yet this action would baffle his sons.
They weren’t getting it. And Collin, surprisingly, was getting frustrated and raising his voice. He was sounding like his dad when Collin was younger.
Where was this impatience coming from? Why did he expect his sons to become proficient in skiing on their first day on the hill? No, if Collin wanted to ruin skiing for his son, he should keep yelling at them every time they fell down and flailed about like turtles on their backs. If Collin wanted his sons to have fond memories of ski trips with him, he would need to soften approach and be more patient and encouraging. Also, he could push them a little, but not like a drill sergeant. Show them a way down the hill and wait for them to follow.
This is what Collin practiced the rest of the day on the hill.
– – – –
Collin spent the entire week with his sons at this father during a variety of winter activities. It was expensive, but he wanted to do these things with the boys. He needed to do them. Skiing, snowtubing, watching movies. He even took the boys over to Lyla’s grandmother’s place, so they could open presents. The family was civil but didn’t address the elephant in the room. Also, they kept bringing up Lyla around him, and some of the relatives were cold towards Collin.
Really? Collin thought. I’m not the one who is shacking up with some bozo and converting to his goofy religion.
That would be the last time Collin ever spent time with Lyla’s family.
For New Year’s Eve, Collin, the boys, and his father spent time with an Indian family that his father knew who lived off reservation. The adults played card games; the children played games on the Wii. There were snacks but no alcohol. Collin would go into the New Year sober, clearheaded, fully aware of the pain that lingered in him
The week with his sons had kept him busy, but even though there were spans of joy that he shared with his sons, there was also a pain and loneliness that carried the entire time, that he kept hidden like the pack of cigarettes in his jacket. This was the first Christmas that Collin spent without Lyla in over a decade, and he was trying to make the experience about his sons, not about him or their mother.
Collin had been putting one foot in front of the other for past month just trying to find his way out of the darkness that subsumed at the end of the summer. Now he was beginning to see a little bit of light, and he realized that he had not been wandering by himself in his fugue state, his sons had been following him, watching to see where he went, learning from him.
If Collin wasn’t getting better, he had to better for two people that counted on him the most–who knew nothing of having your legs chop out from underneath you, being betrayed by someone they trusted. Maybe one day they would experience the same pain firsthand and understand what their dad went through. But, in the depth of their despair, maybe they would remember how he picked himself and staggered before he was able to eventually continue with his life. Maybe this would be the impulse that would kick in for them when their life seemed drained of all purpose.
This would be their inspiration. This would be Collin’s inspiration.
– – – –
Collin dropped the boys off at their Lyla’s after a five-hour drive from Ironwood. He waited for the boys to make a couple trips to carry their bags and presents from their relatives into their mother’s home. He gave them one final hug and told them to enjoy the rest of the evening before school the next day. Then he made the final drive to Wanetta.
When he arrived in Wanetta, Raf was sitting in his house. He was drinking a beer and relaxing after spending the winter break with his children as well. The downstairs was in a slight disarray, but it felt good to Collin to be back, to see his pal, to drink a beer, and to debrief about how he was doing.
“Everything go well in Ironwood?” Raf asked.
“Yes, it did.” Collin said. He talked about what he did with his sons. Then he asked Raf what he did with his children, and not once did Collin feel the need to bring up Lyla or talk about the pain that she had caused and was causing him.