I find my son's "NOW YOU KNOW" cards all around the house. It started as a school project, but Riley and his friend Marc haven't stopped making and trading these cards since their assignment ended three months ago.
On the bathroom sink, there was an index card this morning:
KILLER WHALES ARE ACTUALLY DOLPHINS.
OTHER WHALES ARE DUMB.
Splayed across the hamper were three:
20-30 PEOPLE DIED BUILDING THE BROOKLYN BRIDGE.
ONCE, SPIDERMAN TRIED TO GIVE UP HIS POWERS, BUT GREW 2 EXTRA ARMS INSTEAD!
ALL OF OUR HAIR, BESIDES WHAT IS STILL UNDER THE SKIN, IS DEAD, BUT IT CAN CARRY 12 TONS OF WEIGHT.
THINGS THAT WEIGH 12 TONS:
- 2 ELEPHANTS
- 6 1/2 CARS
- 136 MEN
- 161 WOMEN
- 52,910 GOPHERS.
From the time school lets out on Thursdays until early Sunday morning, Riley is at his father's house, but his words, his fascinations, are all over the place. I read every index card I find in the evenings, and sometimes when I run out, I go to Barnes & Noble and pick out information books for him: The Big Book of Insects or Baseball's Most Surprising Moments.
Near Halloween, I got:
THE BIGGEST PUMPKIN WAS 2,009 POUNDS.
IT WAS YELLOW.
THINGS THAT WEIGH 2,009 POUNDS:
- 10 MEN
- 12 WOMEN
- 134 REGULAR PUMPKINS
- 200 CATS
- 4,018 GOPHERS
For Christmas, I got him The Guinness Book of World Records. I don't think he's ever heard of it, and I'm excited to see him curl up with it, penning down the things that surprise him most. When he was four, before he entered kindergarten and when Dan and I were still together, I felt as if I knew Riley more than anyone else in the world. His world was the world he had with us, with me.
Dan installed and repaired the electrical in people's houses, but I worked from home, doing online surveys, product reviews, and some minimal secretarial work as a virtual assistant, so we almost never needed a babysitter. I was able to do my work and keep an eye on Riley as he watched TV, played with trucks and his Leapfrog Explorer's Tablet or dug in a patch of dirt in the backyard. There were days when he was bored and asked me question after question, but he didn't often bother me while I worked. To help, sometimes I set out activities for him: jigsaw puzzles, or paper airplane instructions and printer paper, or coloring pages. And I always took an hour for lunch and let him tell me made-up stories or what was happening in his Leapfrog game or just how many ants he counted outside or what new insect he discovered.
After Riley started kindergarten, and I was alone with my tedious work, my days peeked when I was able to close my laptop and pick him up at the bus stop two blocks down from our house. I realized during our walks and drives home that Riley might tell me thirty new things in a day but that Dan might not even speak one sentence to me. It was the year after Riley began school that Dan and I split up, but we spent the whole year circling around our unfamiliarity with each other.
In the mornings, I would feed Riley Cheerios and read the paper as he read the cereal box. He often drew a mustache, monocle, hat, or Mohawk on the cartoon bee. Sometimes, he'd x-out its eyes and draw a tongue flapping out of its mouth, like the face on the Yuck! stickers. Then I'd sing the bunny loop song as he tied his shoes, and Dan's alarm would ring as Riley slipped the straps of his backpack over his shoulders. I would open the door as Dan's steps echoed into the upstairs bathroom, steer Riley onto the porch, and as the sound of the shutting bathroom door echoed I'd walk out the front door, pull it closed.
It was always like this. Dan and I would avoid each other, and I'd hog time with Riley to fill in the part of us that was gaping. After a Saturday Spaghetti Night dinner of listening to Riley tell us about Mickey Mantle and about a lion he saw eat a zebra on the Discovery Channel, I filled a plastic cup with water from the Britta while Dan scrubbed spaghetti sauce off the dinner plates. As quiet as cat paws on carpet, Dan said, "I don't know you," then turned the water on high, blasting off a hardened noodle.
When he tipped the plate into the drying rack and moved onto the next plate, foam from the soap clinging unnoticed at his elbow, I left the room. Riley was on his bed drawing a figure eight repeatedly into a notepad, watching as a canyon formed slowly beneath his pen. He didn't look up when I walked in, and I didn't say anything. I laid down on his bed, with my head at the foot, watching him until I fell asleep. In the morning, I woke up facing the lump of his feet under the covers next to me, and I left the room to shower before waking him up for school.
If I recorded my last year with Dan on "NOW YOU KNOW" cards, I might have written:
WHEN I LAST REMEMBER US SPEAKING:
- "POTATOES," ME, IN THE KITCHEN, LAST NIGHT
- SOMETHING ABOUT CEREAL, ONE OF US, IN THE GROCERY STORY, THREE DAYS AGO
- "HUH, NEEDS BATTERIES," DAN, A FEW DAYS AGO, WHEN RILEY'S RACING CARS STOPPED ON THEIR TRACKS
ACCORDING TO "THE 7 STAGES OF MARRIAGE," THE TYPICAL MARRIED COUPLE SPENDS ONLY 4 MINUTES ALONE TOGETHER EACH DAY BECAUSE OF:
- HOME AND FAMILY RESPONSIBILITIES
MARRIAGE IS A VESSEL OF SILENCE AND WAITING.
Every day I wondered what would be lonelier: three days without Riley, or seven nights of feeling alone, despite the fact that Dan was sitting right next to me. I'm still not sure of the answer. With Riley gone three days a week, and at school most of our Monday through Wednesdays together, I became really bored with online work. It was watching Riley that kept me sane through the work, so after the divorce I got a full time job at the checkout counter at ALDI. The "NOW YOU KNOW" cards have become something I look forward to. They're helping with this transition, and I can't imagine how I'll feel when Riley loses interest in them, just like I can't imagine how I'll feel when Riley becomes embarrassed or annoyed at the attention I give him. When I get home and he isn't there, each index card makes me feel like I still know him more than most people know each other.
There are days when I collect "NOW YOU KNOW" cards in my pocket, carry them through the house, take them to work, rub my fingers around their corners when there are no customers at my register at work or when I'm watching TV before bed. I read his lists out loud, let the excitement in their syllables curve around my cheeks and tongue.
GIRAFFES ONLY SLEEP BETWEEN 10 MINUTES AND 2 HOURS A DAY.
IF I HAD 8 EXTRA HOURS A DAY, I'D:
- MAKE 5 SODA VOLCANOS AND SET THEM OFF AT ONCE
- DIG A 30-FOOT HOLE IN THE BACKYARD
- BECOME A CARD CASTLE BUILDER
GOPHERS CAN DIG 150 FEET OF TUNNELS PER DAY.
150 FEET EQUALS:
- 2 1/2 BOWLING LANES
- 25 GIRAFFE NECKS
- 50 GARTER SNAKES
- 1125 CENTIPEDES
A single-father friend of mine told me once that in weak moments he wishes his ex-wife disappeared, became untraceably gone, the moment they decided their marriage was over. He said he wants his daughters and son to himself and that he doesn't want to see his wife when they switch custody. Though neither Dan nor I had ever cheated on each other throughout our slow progression towards divorce, when he began smiling more and taking Riley to amusement parks, camping trips, and even the Crayola Experience, I felt somehow that he deceived me by holding this joy and adventurousness from me. Dan and I used to take trips all the time—hiking, camping, exploring Boston, DC, New York City, Chicago—but we hadn't gone on one trip after Riley was born.
When Riley tells me of his trips with his father, it seems incredibly possible to me that Dan and I are both similar to who we were when we met and fell in love, that perhaps something of what we had was salvageable, but that it no longer felt like it, because we'd forgotten how to speak to each other, got so used to each other's silence, and that's all there was left. When I drop Riley off, Dan does his best to only look at his son, even if we're exchanging something important about Riley's grades or an eye appointment or whether he's eaten. When Dan drops Riley off, I do the same thing.
Unlike with adults, Riley has no filter integrated into his conversation yet. It's possible to always know what he's feeling. Downstairs in the kitchen, I find two index cards propped up against the microwave:
FAVORITE FOODS MOM MAKES:
- CHICKEN PARM
- VEGETABLE LASAGNA
- HAM AND POTATOS BUT MINUS THE CARROTS
- CHEESY NOODLES
WORST FOODS MOM MAKES:
I guess I should be flattered that the "worst" list is shorter than the "favorites" and that he felt confident enough to let me know, and most importantly, that he was young enough not to have noticed the way his father and I hold our emotions and our opinions back from each other, that he learned honesty despite his parents' silent division.
If Dan and I wrote our own "NOW YOU KNOW" cards, to trace what we learned about ourselves after the divorce, I imagine they'd read almost identical:
I AM NO MORE OR LESS LONELY THAN I WAS A YEAR AGO.
THERE IS VIRTUALLY NO DIFFERENCE BETWEEN AN END AND A BEGINNING.
I STILL HAVE RILEY.
I STILL HAVE ME.
Title graphic: "Educational" Copyright © The Summerset Review 2014.