by David W. Landrum
Justin Corbett parked his car in front of the ranch-style house he and Cynthia bought when they were together, which she still owned. He kissed Syrithe. She smiled and said she would wait for him. As he walked down the flagstones, he could see Cynthia standing in the door and, in front of her, his daughter Emily.
He always felt tense when he came for Emily. Each time he looked into his ex-wife’s eyes, he felt tense, empty, and judged. He noticed Cynthia’s hair, long, parted down the middle, and the plain brown dress she wore. He reached for the door handle but before he could grasp it, his daughter opened it and sprang for him. She ran up and threw her arms around him. He felt her weight and warmth. Emily was ten. He marveled at how age ten seemed so close to adolescence.
“How’s my sweetie?” he asked.
“I’m happy I get to spend a whole week with you!”
He looked up at his ex-wife. She asked if he could come in a minute.
“Syrithe’s in the car.”
“Syrithe!” Emily gasped. “She’s here?”
Emily sprang for the car. Justin caught her.
“Let’s go inside first. You’ll have lots of time to talk with Syrithe.”
They went inside. Emily made her impatience apparent, rocking and fidgeting as Justin turned to Cynthia.
“Here’s her bag,” she said. “Her assignments for the week of school she’ll miss are in the folder.”
“I’ll see she gets it all done. Anything else?”
“I don’t think so.”
“How are you these days?”
“Daddy!” Emily rocked, alternating her feet, hands on her hips.
“Hang on, honey. Just one minute.”
“Do you have enough money for her school things? Let me know and I’ll increase the stipend.”
Cynthia looked tired. She had lost weight. The dowdy ankle-length dress she wore made her look sad.
“She wants a cell phone.”
“She has a cell phone. Remember, I got her one and a plan.”
“An iPod, I mean. I get all these electronic devices she wants confused.”
“We can get them this week. That will save you all the trouble of getting them yourself.” He added, thinking his last statement had come out wrong, “I know your job keeps you busy.”
Cynthia did billing for the city water company.
“I’m not sure I want her having all that stuff.”
Timothy took his daughter’s hand.
“We’ll see. I can’t keep Syrithe waiting. I’ll have Emily back Sunday afternoon.
Cynthia nodded. Justin again noted the tired, harried look on her face. He turned and walked to the car, Emily bounding beside him.
They drove away, his daughter and his girlfriend chatting. Emily, charmed with Syrithe’s Scottish accent, asked her what it was like to be an actress and if she would be appearing in any new movies. The two talked on and on as they boarded the plane for L.A. and as they ascended.
“You’re visiting your father,” Syrithe said after a while. “I think you ought to talk to him a little.”
Emily smiled sheepishly and turned to him.
“She’s a lot more interesting than me,” he joked. Emily playfully slapped his arm. He had her two weekends out of the month and a week in October (plus a month in summer—he also could have her Christmas day).
“Is not. You’re cool. All the kids at school want to know if you’re coming out with a new CD.”
He gave her details of the recording his band had worked on the past month.
“You can hear it before any of your friends do.”
“Will you buy me some clothes?” Emily blurted when he finished.
His daughter had on a short denim skirt with an embroidered pattern on it, a white blouse, pink socks, and black shoes.
“Don’t you have enough clothes?”
“Not the kind I want.”
She glanced at Syrithe and admired her blue minidress, boots, and the scarf with which she had tied up her hair. Emily turned her attention back to her father.
“Mommy wants me to wear geek-girl outfits.”
“You don’t look like a geek-girl.”
“I don’t now. This is the coolest outfit I have. You ought to see what she makes me wear to school.”
Syrithe said she planned to go on a shopping trip the day after tomorrow. Soon Emily and she were engaged in an intense and highly technical conversation about clothing. Justin sat back as the plane began to descend.
When Emily was asleep and Syrithe gone for a meeting with the executives who produced her TV show, Justin poured wine and remembered the old days, before he and Cynthia broke up.
Cynthia leaned heavily, especially in their last year together, toward green living, simple lifestyles, localism, and every practice connected to that set of beliefs. She turned the back yard into a garden. They became “summer vegetarians,” as she put it, living mainly on what she grew or purchased at the farmer’s market. She composted their garbage and cut down their trash so sometimes they did not generate even one bag of refuse per week. Justin approved of these practices, helped in the garden, turned the compost pile, and avoided disposable items that would generate waste. Cynthia’s slight turn toward being a luddite bothered him a bit. She often suggested they turn off the power for a day to see if they could get along without electricity and, particularly, without electronic devices. He withstood this and other turns into ventures he thought too weird and radical.
Her localism and eco-consciousness had not split them up. It was his meteoric success as a singer that had disaffected her—the success that came as suddenly as a swarm of locusts and, for her at least, with as much devastation.
After years of playing bars, state fairs, weddings, local dances, an agent listened to his demo CD, liked it, and sent it to some stations that promoted it. Overnight, everything changed for Justin and for his family.
Money poured in. He acquired a manager who had him organize a band and go on tour so he could capitalize on his success and not became a one-hit wonder. In the next three years, a steady stream of number-one tunes and top-selling CDs firmly established him as a fixture in the pop music scene.
He basked in his newfound success. Cynthia sometimes seemed to appreciate the cascade of money enriching their household but then said it seemed obscene to have so much and occasionally suggested they set up a “graduated tithe” that would give most of it away by percentages. She complained that their newly found wealth militated against a simple lifestyle. This irritated him. More seriously, she angrily rejected his suggestions they live in a way that was more in keeping with his status as popular rock singer.
Emily was all for it. Cynthia said she wanted their child to “understand simplicity.”
On tour, the inevitable happened. He slept with groupie girls and women who managed the venues at which he played. His sexual relationship with his wife was a good one, but he got the idea she sensed he had other company in bed. They grew farther apart and finally divorced. Justin provided generously for Cynthia and for his daughter. He saw how unresolved tension over simple living had carried over into the relationship of her and Emily.
He waited for Syrithe, to return, though he saw that her influence on Emily, as far it related to Cynthia, was probably not exactly good.
He enjoyed being with his daughter. They went to amusement parks, to the beach, the movies, to his recording studio. She and Syrithe went shopping and returned with piles of expensive, top-of-the-line children’s garments. Emily modeled them, putting on what she termed a “One-Girl Fashion Show for Father.”
Afterward, as they ate a trifle Syrithe had made, Emily said, “Daddy, I want to come live with you. Mom is driving me crazy.”
“She makes me wear those funny old dresses to school—ones like she wears. She won’t let me wear shorts or jeans. And she gives me weird lunches.”
“Weird lunches? Like what?”
“You know: rice cakes and sandwiches on home-made bread.”
“Those things are good for you.”
“I trade them for Lunchables and potato chips.”
“It’s not that bad, is it?”
“Yes, Daddy it is that bad. All the kids at school know I’m your kid and think that’s really cool, and then I have to dress like a geek-girl and put up with her tree-hugger boyfriends.”
“Your Mom has boyfriends?”
“A couple. They come over and we eat tofu-snapper meals and they talk about sus-tain-a-bil-ity.” She emphatically pronounced each syllable of the word, her voice full of contempt. “And when those dumb-ass Wittis girls come over she makes me put on a full skirt and ties my hair up in a bun so I’ll look like them. I hate it!”
The Wittises were friends of Cynthia who lived a Mennonite-like lifestyle on a farm outside of town. Their goal was to be self-sufficient. They had eight children (six of them girls) whom they homeschooled. The way their children dressed, all of them could have been extras for Little House on the Prairie.
“I don’t like you saying ‘dumb-ass.’ It is not a nice word.”
“I hate them,” she shot back, her expression hard. “Mom wants me to be friends with them. I think she wants to pull me out of Haworth and start home-schooling me.”
He heard her voice quaver and saw she was crying. He enfolded her in his arms. She sobbed and shook.
“I don’t want to be home-schooled. I don’t want to be away from my friends and by myself all day. I know you give Mom lots of money, but we live like we’re poor. She won’t let me get an iPod or a TV or a computer. I had to beg and beg before she would even get me my own cell phone. Please, Daddy, can’t I come and live with you? I hate living with Mommy!”
Emily wept wildly. Justin knew part of it was pre-adolescent tension, but he also sensed real hurt and fear in her voice. He patted her.
“Take it easy, honey. We’ll talk more about it.”
“No!” She raised her face from his shoulder. “Parents only say that when they want to put something off so kids will forget about it. Mom does that all the time. I won’t forget about it. I don’t want to stay with Mommy anymore! She’s driving me crazy!”
She collapsed into tears again.
Syrithe, who had been at work, showed up just then. She took Emily in her arms and soothed her. After getting her calmed down, she got to her bathe and put her to bed. The house grew quiet. Syrithe came into the living room.
She’s asleep. Poor little thing.”
“What else did she say?”
“She told me she could be the most popular girl at school if her mother didn’t run interference by dressing her oddly and by some other things she does. Is that true?”
“I think so.”
“She’s quite upset about it—and I mean that, Justin. I think it’s not just an annoyance to her but something that is causing her real psychological distress.”
“Popularity is such an important matter with children her age. Don’t you remember?”
“Can she live with you?”
“I gave Cynthia custody.”
“Living with her mother is doing her harm.”
Later that night, lying next to Syrithe, he remembered. Her simple lifestyle had served its purpose in the old days. He worked low-paying jobs by day and played bars at night. Cynthia’s frugality and insistence on a no-frills lifestyle helped them live comfortably despite a small income. Their house, smelling of spices like the food co-op where they were members uncluttered and plain, was a haven for him after long gigs played in front of surly audiences. Cynthia wanted more children but could never get pregnant a second time, despite the herbal treatments she took and recommendations from midwives and from the home-birth crowd. He often thought they might have succeeded if she had been willing to go to the doctor, but she favored holistic medicine and shunned standard medical treatment. He wondered if things would be different if they had had more children.
Probably not, he thought. Success had pried him away from her. A marriage could be sustained only if there was mutuality. His success as a singer spoiled the togetherness they had known and cherished. Living in different worlds had split them up.
He missed her at times and missed the way they had lived. But the pull of the celebrity lifestyle and of doing the thing he loved to do—playing music and making millions of dollars doing it—overruled sentimentality. He would never go back to her. Whatever attractions the old life held, it could not compete with what he had now.
He supplied her with money, though if what Emily said was true, she did not spend much of it. He wondered if she gave it away to the charitable organization she admired. She had her convictions and her tofu-snapping boyfriends.
Justin was not certain about how to deal with the issue. He and Cynthia had gotten a no-fault divorce. He had not contested custody and was satisfied with the arrangement they had, though often he felt an ache at the absence of his child. She wanted to stay with him. Maybe, he thought, Cynthia would agree to give Emily more time with him. The worried, bothered look on her face had bothered him. They would work something out and do it in a way most beneficial to Cynthia.
The remainder of the week flew by. Justin invited the children of his band members and other friends to visit Emily so she was not stuck with him all the time. Syrithe had filming to do, but when she was off she took Emily shopping again and let her visit the set of the hit TV drama she starred in. Emily had her picture taken with the other cast members. She met Miley Cyrus. Paparazzi snapped pictures of her, Miley, and Syrithe. The photos were posted on Yahoo. Emily’s friends saw them and called her on her cell phone.
She basked in his world of glamour, comfort, and wealth. Justin thought of the contrast between what he had and what she experienced at home and began to grasp the seriousness of the issue. When he drove her home, she was quiet. They pulled into the driveway.
Cynthia came out to meet them. Emily kissed her mother, who seemed startled and dismayed at the way Emily was dressed—a magenta minidress and silver boots. The trunk of his car was stuffed with similar gear; he had also bought her an iPod and a Macintosh. The three of them carried her new gear up to her room. Justin activated her computer (he had set up a wireless account). When he asked if Emily could establish a Facebook page, Cynthia nodded. Once he had her started, the two of them went downstairs. She told him they needed to talk.
They sat at the kitchen table. She wore a long denim skirt and cambric shirt. Her brown hair hung down her back. She wore no make-up. Even with the years of intimacy that had taught him to love her body and face, she looked painfully thin and weary.
“Emily wants to live with you,” she said.
“She told me.”
She ran her fingers across the tabletop, a habit he remembered from their married days.
“Would you be open to that?” she asked.
He collected his thought and answered.
“I would be more interested in how you feel about it.”
“I think it might be better for her.”
“What about you?”
“What do you mean?”
“She’s you’re daughter. You’re her mother.”
“That doesn’t seem to matter much to her at this point.”
“It does matter to her, even if she won’t admit it. She’s heading into adolescence—into womanhood. She needs you to guide her through all that.”
“For me to do that there has to be a relationship. I think it could happen if she lived with you and visited me, but not the other way around. And you have your girlfriend—Syrithe? You two lived together, don’t you? She would be there for Emily.”
He did not know what to say to her.
“I think we should reverse the arrangement so she can live with you and visit me. It will work that way.”
“Cindy, are you sure?”
“I’m sure. She is too enamored of the world you live in. She resents what I try to make her see and she hates the way we live. I can’t take it—and it’s folly to think she’s going to accept the values I have when the pull of the things you can offer her is so strong.”
“I didn’t try to do this”—
“I know you didn’t. I’m not blaming you. I know you wouldn’t do something like that. It just happened. You can’t sustain a relationship when you don’t have anything in common. That’s what happened to us—now it’s what happened with Emily. I’m not accusing you of anything, Justin. I’m probably the one who caused it because I won’t let her live like she wants to live.”
Tears spilled out of her eyes. He took her hand.
“You don’t have to give her up. You can let her have her way more and let her stay with me more often, can’t you?”
“It’s too late for that. But if I let her live with you, she’ll have a place in her heart for me. She will stop shutting me out. I can’t bear that, and the only way I can think to open things up again is by letting her stay with you. It’s the only thing I can do.”
He nodded, again noticing her thin and haggard she looked. He had at first wondered if she were ill or had cancer or some other wasting disease. Now he saw it was from psychological stress.
“I’ve thought it through. There’s no other way. We’ll work it out with the lawyers.”
“We don’t need the lawyers if we both agree.”
She nodded. He knew her well enough to read her signals. She did not want to talk anymore.
“I’ll go home. Why don’t you tell her tonight? She can stay with you the rest of the week and then she can move to my place. L.A. isn’t that far from here. I’ll make sure she comes to see you a lot.”
“Cynthia, are you sure you want to do this?”
“I have to. She’s my child. I want what is best for her. I want a relationship we can sustain. I don’t want to spoil it so in the end she and I have nothing left.”
Silence came. Outside, the sky had darkened. They sat, saying nothing, as the shadows deepened. They could hear the faint sound of Emily clicking the keys of her new computer in her room upstairs.