Mikey slides down the big slide at Chuck E. Cheese’s, giggling and squealing. He lands in Joe’s arms, and Joe gives him a bear hug, enveloping the tiny body from all sides. Joe gives the best hugs. I miss those hugs.
“You’re so brave, Mikey!” Joe says, and points to the top of the slide. “Look how high you climbed all by yourself!! I’m very proud of you.” The structure which Mikey scaled has several levels with twists and turns, some of them made of sturdy plastic with clear windows, others floppy and covered in faux leather, barely held together with flimsy nylon nets. When I was a kid, it wasn’t uncommon to find lost socks or bits of dry shit in the nooks and crannies of slides just like this one.
I walk over to Mikey and Joey. “That was amazing, honey! I’m so proud of you!” I say as I lean toward Mikey, peck his cheek and give his sandy brown hair a quick tussle. He is flushed and beaming. He stretches out his arms to the side, puts one around Joe’s neck and the other one around mine, and pushes our heads together with his, in a three-forehead knock… In a three-person hug.
Mikey doesn’t really understand Joe and I are no longer together, and will never be again. He doesn’t understand, because us being apart is all that Mikey has ever known.
Joe’s new girlfriend Kiley is standing a few feet away from us. I am grateful she’s giving us space. I really like her, actually, which makes it very hard to hate her. Sure, she’s fucking the love of my life, but she didn’t break us apart; Joe moved out all on his own when he could no longer take the despair. Kiley is young and glows with the aura of good things coming her way, and I can see why someone like Joe would be drawn to her — heck, I am drawn to her — after what he and I went through. I like that Joe’s serious about her. If — when — Mikey has a stepmom, I think it will be OK if it is Kiley. I feel a tiny ball of warmth in the pit of my stomach.
“I’m going out for a moment. You guys OK without me?” I touch Joe’s arm on my way out. He looks up at me briefly, way too briefly, and nods, then turns his head back down toward Mikey. Mikey’s nuzzling in the crook of his dad’s neck. It won’t be long before he’s ready for bed.
As I pass by Kiley, I motion that I’m going out, then, with my lips and two fingers, that I will get a smoke. She smiles broadly and gives me a thumbs up.
I am outside Chuck E. Cheese’s and it’s dark. An evening birthday party for a three-year-old because we threw it together at the last minute.
A whiff of smoke is coming from around the corner, and I decide to walk over.
Chuck E. Cheese is leaning on the side of the restaurant, his giant stuffed head tilted up to expose a smoking mouth. The lips, jawline, and neck belong to a young man with soft, brown skin.
“Mind if I join you?” I ask.
“Not at all,” Chuck E. says. “I like having company when I smoke.”
“Me too.” I light my cigarette and take a long drag.
“You here for a birthday party?” Chuck E. asks.
“Yeah. It’s a late one. Sorry.”
“Why are you sorry? Don’t be sorry. You’re paying good money.”
“I suppose.” I look down at my feet. “But that means you have to be here late to do…this.” I motion in the general area of this outfit.
He laughs heartily. “Yeah. Well. It could be worse. I could be trapped in a smelly mouse costume.”
I can’t help but snicker.
“So, how old is your kid?” Chuck E. continues.
“He’s turning three.”
“Oh, that’s a fun age. I have a niece that age.”
“It is. A fun age, I mean.”
“You don’t seem too happy about it.”
I shrug. “Not really feeling the joy.”
“Oh? How come?”
“There were supposed to be two of them. Twins.”
Chuck E.’s hand with a lit cigarette stops in midair. “Fuck.”
“It was such a mess. We lost one, and I almost died, and I won’t be able to have any more children…”
Chuck E. pulls off his head and tucks it under his arm. The face of a thin young man with a long nose and big kind eyes wears an expression of horror and pity. “I… I am so sorry, ma’am.”
I look at him and press on. “And he just moved on, you know? Joe, my husband.” I can see the kid is uncomfortable, but I don’t care. There is so much pressure in my chest, I couldn’t stop myself now even if I tried. “He decided he was done with his grief, and my grief, with everything. Just left me alone to sit with it all, and moved on.”
“Ma’am,” the boy says, “I, uhm…have to go back inside. I was on a break.” He extends a paw and puts it on my shoulder. “But I’m really, really sorry.”
I smile faintly. “Thank you.”
Chuck E. puts his head back on, hops in place and rolls his shoulders, like an athlete before a game, and goes back inside.
I take my time finishing the cigarette. I pop a piece of gum into my mouth, then stretch my lips a few times, practicing for a smile.