Her big brown eyes looked up at me, anxiously, and her shoulders were arched slightly forward. In the background, the bouncing of basketballs kept time to the beating of my heart, only, with that question, that backbeat had kicked up a notch, into dribble mode.
Corb and I had just picked up the kids at the Y. Good Friday had been a day out of school for the kids, which meant that, for wont of a babysitter, the kids had been dragged, kicking and screaming, to spend eight hours in a smelly gymnasium in Wrenthem. Forced to endure squishy peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and watch videotapes of well-worn Disney musicals made before Eisner ruled the Magic Kingdom. Thank God, Josie had driven them in this morning. I wouldn't have been able to endure the whining.
And I had gotten out of work early, and after a little afternoon bump bump with my guy, I was ready to take on a night with my babes. Take out, video games...the night loomed before us like one great big tabula rosa. If they were lucky, I'd even play the bee game, where just one song from their lips turned me into a giant killer bee. Scary stuff.
But now, even scarier...sleep over? Ashley and another girl invading our sanctum sanctorium?
I tried to tap dance and buy myself some time. "What's that, sweetie?" I asked, trying not to let the stress show.
"Can Mia sleep over tonight? She said her Mom wouldn't mind, but she'd have to drive over and give her clothes."
I looked over nervously at Corb. "What do you think?" I asked.
From the basketball court, I could hear Tiger shriek, victorious. He was a shark at Knockout, and was taking on all comers today, as he did every day, and kicking their asses, it seemed.
Corb shrugged. "Fine with me, Ted."
Fine with me, huh? I looked into his ocean blue eyes, concerned. "You sure about this?"
"I don't have a problem," said Corb. "Just as long as we clean up like crazy before her mother drops by the apartment."
I felt Ashley tug at my shirt. "Can she, Dad?"
Well. Well, anyway. What was the worst that could happen?
I finished fluffing out the wrinkles in the blue down comforter that covered the bed, and stopped for a minute, to admire, as I always did, the neat Southwestern theme that ran through the little bedroom. It's my favorite room in the apartment, partly because so much of it consists of personal selections on my part. The bed, the bureau. My eyes traveled over to the bureau, which was covered with snapshots and framed pictures. My senior photo. Pictures of Nana I picked up after the funeral. A framed polaroid of Corb, standing in front of a water heater in an elementary school, only five years old. Ashley and Annie, both many years ago, sitting on my lap, as I stared sadly into the camera.
A creak at the doorway broke my concentration. Corb was standing there. "The sink's clean," he announced.
"Good, good. Even though we don't know when her mother will get here. And seriously, Corb, she could just call up from the parking lot."
"I doubt that." Corb looked over at me and crinkled up his eyes. "Thank you for cleaning the bathroom, sweetie."
"You don't need to thank me," I grumbled. Silly boy. "I live here, too." From the other room, I heard Tiger yell, "Jump!" and a squeal from the girls. Ah. Video games
"Yeah, I know, but..." He moved forward, and shut the door. "Thank you."
I moved forward. It's amazing what a closed door can do. I moved a hand to his chest, and gently squeezed his nipple rings. "Well, if you're really grateful...there may be a way that you can pay me, you know..."
He drew his arm around my waist, and smiled, that broad, confident smile that always makes me melt. "How's that?"
"Mmmm, you can think of something." I stood on my toes, to even up the score, and moved my lips close to his, at the same time moving a hand up to feather his soft blond hair with my fingers.
We kissed. My free hand reached down to squeeze Corb's waist, then moved down to brush against the bulge in his pants. I gave it a gentle squeeze, and he breathed in, and then--
"Daddy, what are you doing?"
I pulled away from Corb, feeling a sinking ship in the pit of my belly. There, in the doorway, stood Ashley and her friend Mia. Ashley had a weird smile on her face, while Mia was looking down at the ground.
"Daddy?" asked Ashley. "Why were you kissing Corbett?"
From the other room, I could hear Tiger's voice, above the tuneless drone of the video game. "Dad was doing WHAT?"
I felt a bit dizzy, as if the oxygen had left the room. "Well, the thing is, uh, honey, I, uh, uh...well, it's really not what you think, it's...I, um..." I looked over to Corb, searching for a life preserver, but he just stood there, mute, his face flushed red.
Ashley stood at the doorway, still maintaining that weird smile. Waiting. Expectantly. Mia, too. Waiting for an explanation.
Tap tap tap. This is your moment in the spotlight, big guy. Your turn to shine, to make it all good again. The little lady's waiting, don't let her down!
"Er, ah, um..." I stammered. "We were just playing a game, you see...a funny game...kind of like..."
Ashley interrupted, angrily. "You were kissing Corbett!" she shouted. Her friend, totally embarrassed, turned and started walking away. In the other room, I could hear Tiger asking her what was going on. "Why would you be kissing him?"
I stood there, feeling like a deer caught in the headlights. "Well, honey. Um, you see...it's like..."
"I'm his partner, Ashes," said Corb, softly, not looking at me. "We love each other."
Ashley looked at him. Then, she looked at me, dumbfounded. "I HATE YOU!" she screamed, racing out of the room, and into the big bedroom. I could hear the door slam, and then loud sobs, not a bit muffled by the closed door.
I looked over at Corb, helplessly.
"It had to happen sometime," he said, softly.
The whole scene had taken on an eerie, otherworldly quality, as if I were about to burst into fireworks at any moment. "I'd better go, to...ummm..."
But suddenly, there was a knock on the front door. Great. Mia's Mom. Perfect timing.
"Can you get that?" I asked, and sat down on the bed. Jesus. What was Josie going to say? I told you so? You should have been honest with them earlier? It was only a matter of time?
I listened to the voices in the other room, feeling like a bit player in my own life. I heard Ashley's sobs. I heard Corb's soft voice. I heard a woman's husky voice. "What's going on here?"
Corb sounded apologetic. "Ashley's a little upset."
Mia's voice. "Ashley I caught her daddy kissing his roommate!"
A pause. "What?"
Rome burning. In ruins. A synthesized drone from the video game, sounding vaguely like a fiddle. I sat on the bed and clutched at the soft green blanket beneath me, seeking salvation.
It was time to face the music. First, I'd have to talk to Mia's mom and see if she still wanted her daughter to sleep over, and then--
I looked up from the green pattern on the blanket and looked over at the doorway. Ashley was there, a huge smile on her face, snapping me out of my day dream. "Yes, honey?"
"When are we going to have Chinese food?"
I grinned, trying to shake away the angel's breath of that alternative universe. "Good question. What are you in the mood for?"
The next day. At Ashley's therapist. Josie and I sit together, in uncomfortable vinyl chairs, flipping through outdated issues of Time . Ashley is in the doctor's office, angry with us, because I won't be sleeping over the house, on the night before Easter.
"How was your night?" asks Josie.
"It was great. Really great. No problems." I sigh and shift my weight. "And yours?"
"Well. Let's not talk about THAT."
I look over at her. She always looks so tired, lately. "What do you think about her asking whether Andrew was going to sleep over tonight?"
Josie wiped a strand of brunette hair out of her eyes. "Well, I don't think it's easy," she said. "Andrew and I talked about that. You can pass Corb off as a friend, but with Andrew...I mean...they just know..."
I shrugged, feeling tense. "I know, but what can we do about it?"
"I don't know...I'm just saying...it's not fair."
The door to the ofice opened. John appeared, outside. We got up to make our way into the office.
I know it isn't fair. I know it isn't.
It's time to move out of the headlights.