We’re shifting gear towards the kid’s bedtime and I’m still befuddled by this dark mood that’s held me captive for the past few days. Even though I can acknowledge the impact it’s having on me, and the distance it’s creating between me from my family, I have been unable to rise above it, or to let it go.
It’s only now that the mist is finally starting to clear but, depressingly, what it reveals is the potentially bonding moments with Reservoir Mum that have now become near misses and the rewarding exchanges with the boys that were lost forever while I was wading through this murky reverie, alone.
As Archie and Lewis are changing into their pyjamas I’m facing the bathroom mirror cleaning Tyson’s teeth and stealing a glance at my reflection, regarding the solemn laxity in my cheeks, the furrowed brow, and I have to lean in to take a closer look. It feels like I’m making eye contact with a stranger and as Tyson wrestles with my arm to stop me fluoride-polishing his eyeball I have the most absurd realisation; I miss myself; I like who I am but I’ve haven’t been around these past few days.
Once I’ve apologised to Tyson and redirected the brush towards the appropriate orifice, I take a moment to call myself a dickhead, to shake my head in.
‘You moron,’ I say to the mirror, and the laughter that follows is like a rebirthing experience. All at once, and just like that, the stranger is gone from the mirror.
‘Tyson,’ I say, putting the toothbrush down and taking his face in my hands. ‘Hello!’
‘Hello Daddy,’ he says, before pointing to a scratch on his elbow. ‘I’ve got a sore.’
‘I can fix that,’ I say, removing the brush attachment from the electric toothbrush to expose the metal prong and scratching my own elbow with it.
‘You have to go to the huckspital?’ he asks.
‘No,’ I say, as I pick him up and wander down the hall, pausing to swing open the door to Maki’s room, ‘because I don’t want to get fixed Tyson. I want to be just like you… ’
Reservoir Mum is feeding Maki to sleep and whispers, hey, a little angrily when we barge in because it’s usually a ‘no-go zone’ here at bedtime but I need to see him, now that I’m back, and after kissing RM on the top of the head I lean down to fill his gaze with the image of his smiling Daddy so that it fires across his synapses as he falls asleep; erasing the stranger before it becomes a permanent fixture in his budding consciousness.
‘Maki! Hello!’ I say, only leaving when I hear him giggling his delight around RM’s nipple.
I perform several flips and throws with Tyson on the way down the hall and when we enter his room I’m holding him by the ankles, so that he’s hanging upside down behind my back, laughing so loudly that I’m certain Maki will still be smiling; that RM will be rolling her eyes but happy.
After we read The Gingerbread Man together and discuss his demise at the snip-snap trickery of that cunning fox – for the one thousandth time – we face each other with our heads on the pillow.
I trace my fingers around his ear and across the back of his neck as his eyelids rise and fall and finally close and then I’m up to place the doona over his shoulders and following the muffled sounds of Archie and Lewis talking in the kitchen.
‘Dad,’ Lewis says, bare-chested, continuing a recent trend of wearing PJ bottoms only. ‘This is my best paper plane ever. Watch.’
He aims the papery point towards the ceiling and throws it like he’s writing a love letter with a quill. It soars; ducking and rising before skidding to a halt on the floor three meters away.
‘That is your best plane,’ I say, awed, remembering how he sat at the table with me just a few months ago producing only angry crumpled balls of paper.
‘And watch this, Dad,’ Archie says, smiling knowingly, as his launches his plane as hard as he can. When it nosedives towards his feet and splats on the ground with all the grace of a raw chicken fillet we laugh. All three of us.
‘Who’s plane is the best?’ Lewis asks.
‘It’s impossible to pick a favourite,’ I say. ‘They’re two very different kinds of planes with unique qualities.’
Lewis frowns. ‘But you have to pick the best.’
‘Well,’ I say. ‘If you need a plane that glides effortlessly through the air over a long distance doing perfect dips and dives before landing softly and without incident, then yours is the best. But if you need a plane that flies for less than a second before tumbling out of the sky and crashing to the ground, killing all on board, then clearly Archie’s is best.’
When the boys run off down the hall and disappear into their own rooms I suffer a brief but telling panic. I am overwhelmed by a sense of them growing up and away, and that combined with the guilt of wasting these past few days, leads me to a feeling of relief when I follow Lewis to his bed to see him sitting there cross-legged, still six years old, outwardly unaffected by my virtual absence.
‘Hello,’ I say, sitting down and facing him.
‘G’day Dad,’ he says. ‘Dad?’
‘Do you know why I love doing this?’ he says, before tilting his head back and shaking his long hair over his bare back.
‘Because it tickles your back?’
‘No, because it makes my back feel nice and keeps it warm,’ he says. ‘It’s one of the reasons I want to grow my hair really long. And do you know the other reason?’
‘Because you want to look like Michael Bolton?’
‘No,’ he says again. ‘Because everyone at school says, your hair is so cool.’
I lay him back and lean in for a goodnight hug, say, ‘Your hair is cool,’ and then, after a few deep breaths. ‘I’ve missed you too, Lewy.’
He puts his arms around my neck and squeezes hard and as I’m walking out the door to say goodnight to Archie, says, ‘Dad? Who’s Michael Bolton?’
‘He was a singer,’ I say. ‘Kind of like Justin Beiber. But with longer hair… and a much nicer perm.’
I have only one foot inside Archie’s room when he says, ‘Can you do Kermit again?’
‘Yeah,’ I say, clapping my hands together and dipping my chin to perform my best impersonation of Kermit the Frog, singing, ‘It’s not easy being green. There are so many colors I would like to have been like yellow… or purple or… green…’
It’s as we’re both laughing at my lyrical stuff-up that I remember Archie’s stifled laughter at my description of his paper plane, and I realise he’s made one of those imperceptible shifts towards maturity; lately he’s been getting my sarcastic, dry humour and we’ve been sharing in it, laughing together and stealing sideways glances. Time has opened us up to a new way of connecting.
‘Hello, Arch. I’ve missed you these past few days,’ I say, with my face against his neck.
‘Huh? I’ve been right here,’ he says.
‘I know mate,’ I say. ‘But I haven’t.’
I’m almost out the door when he says. ‘Dad? What’s your favourite color.’
‘Hmm…’ I say, as I spot RM tiptoeing up the hall.
I grab her in a hug before she ducks in to Lewis’s room and my inner self is churning with an untraceable joy that’s so transformative I know – without even looking in a mirror – that people can see it. ‘Probably aqua,’ I say, loud enough for Archie to hear.
‘What’s aqua?’ RM says.
‘Archie,’ I yell. ‘She doesn’t even know what aqua is!’
‘Huh?’ Archie shouts back.
She calls me a weirdo but then hugs me with an intensity that only encourages me further. After pressing my hips into hers and doing circle-work on her pants I whisper, ‘I hope you’re hungry because tonight I’m cooking up a storm. How do you feel about… mashed genitals?’
‘Oh my God,’ she says. ‘Look who’s back…’
‘Yes,’ I say, as I release my hyper-playfulness for a more genuine hug. ‘Hello.’