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After the Breakup, the Kids Are All Right

Henry falls asleep in his car seat. I watch it happen in the rear view. He fights it the way all 3-year-olds fight it, his chin dipping down toward his tiny bird chest, bumping it for just a moment before he regains enough consciousness to pull his head back into the world.

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His eyes open wide for a split second before the tired squint takes over again. And then, as the satellite radio jazz plays low, lulling him, messing with his little boy mind, his chin takes the dive once more.

It’s fascinating to watch, really. I love how hard kids will battle exhaustion. All that playing and running around like a maniac and screaming and non-stop talking about anything that pops into their brain, it burns up gas quick and hard. But still the dude will not go quietly.

Sometimes he drools, but not this afternoon. This afternoon, I race down through these cornfields and one-horse towns that line the valley on the way to my daughter’s elementary school and I watch my boy lose out to what has to happen. After the seventh or eighth time, his head stays down. Thelonious Monk is on the radio; I make a mental note of that, you know, for my future parenting needs and all.

And so it goes.

They cry at dusk some nights for their mom. But I make sure I stop what I’m doing and stand there beside them when that happens.

In the parking lot of the school, I replay yesterday and the day before. I slide the Honda into one of the short-term spots they set aside for parents picking up kids and I put it in park then shut her down. I drag the stroller thing out of the back and move around to unclick Charlie’s whole baby seat from its base. He is now 6 months old. His face is all tucked up under the swarm of blankets I have covering his fat possum body. They’re not for warmth; it’s not even all that cool, to be honest. They’re there to prop his bottle of formula up when we’re traveling.

I reach in and unclick Henry’s seat belt and I lift him awkwardly but as gently as I can from his slump. I haven’t washed his hair in a few days and for a quick second I smell his mom all tangled up in his blonde. Her perfume is unmistakable. She must have been kissing his head yesterday when she was with him. Lucky bastard. It’s an unexpected heart punch here in the school lot.

I carry Henry in my arms and he’s not light but what else can you do, you know? I use my one arm to hold him tight, his head resting on my shoulder, and with my free hand I steer Charlie’s stroller. Sometimes when I do this, I sense other parents clocking me, watching me out of the corner of their married eyes. I can feel them peeling back the meaning from the scene of us trucking up the sidewalk past the buses sitting there waiting in the afternoon sun.

Single dad? Widow? Unemployed uncle?

Male nanny?

Whatever. I feel pretty good managing my small army train. I feel a little proud. I’m proud of us, of me and of my kids. We’re together when they’re with me and we’re apart when they’re staying at their mom’s. I thought that that might destroy some part of their souls or something, but I was wrong.

They have been rolling with so many punches now with such youthful grace and courage.

Kids are tougher than hell, I’m finding out, and I should know, I suppose. I’ve got three—5, 3 and 6 months—and they’re so young to have been jammed into this whole marriage implosion thing. But that’s the way shit goes. They cry at dusk some nights for their mom. They say they miss her. But I make sure I stop what I’m doing and stand there beside them when that happens.

We talk a bit. I usually say I miss Mom too and that does the trick mostly. Back to the cartoon or the popsicle. I never push the issue. Some experts might say you have to draw it out of kids, all the sadness of a mom and dad that aren’t together anymore, but I don’t buy it. They have been rolling with so many punches now with such youthful grace and courage that I wish I could suck some of whatever it is they’re made of out of their garter snake spines with a long-ass needle. I could make a mint if I could market that kind of beautiful strength and spirit. Everyone would get hooked on it. I’d be the pusher of sparkling eyeballs to a world full of beat-up zombies.

Kids come pouring out of the school. They shoot by me and my sleeping son like I’m just another raft trying to fight the current. Somehow we always make it through though. We bust into the lobby by the main office where the torrent subsides a little.

We wait against a wall. The other teachers or the helpers or whoever all of these adults are moving around, directing kids toward doors and buses and the nurse’s office or wherever, they look right through me. I jam us up against the wall and I wait for one of my favorite parts of my day. It happens if I get there by 2:48 p.m., within seconds really. It’s a double-sided line, tall fifth graders on one side and the squat kindergartners on the other. There’s typically about eight or 10 of each and they all hold hands, every big kid helping guide one of the little kids to the library to wait for whoever picks them up.

The sight of it melts my guts. I am smitten with my daughter as she rounds the corner, her hand in a young guy’s hand, her eyes taking in the whole lobby spectacle but never spotting me.

Today it’s just me and them.

I let them hit the library and then I wait another minute or so, boosting Henry’s body up a little as he slides down my frame. We are all here now. Well, most of us are. The three kids I helped create in this world, they’re all here, though two of them are out cold. And I’m here, the daddy dude. One half of the creation force. Mom isn’t here, of course. She’s working and it’s not her day today so she doesn’t need to be here. She probably would be if she could be though, I know that much; we’re the same when it comes to that, believe me. She’d be here to gather up her baby Violet from her third Tuesday of Kindergarten, and then we’d all be here, together, the five of us moving upstream through all of these waist-deep rapids of afternoon happiness.

Not today though. Today, it’s just me and them. And I feel that weirdo pride shoot out through my veins again while I’m standing there waiting to fetch my girl. Is that a strange thing to feel at a time like this?

I don’t know.

Maybe it’s normal.

Maybe I even kind of like it, huh?

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Maybe I have this thing inside of me, some kind of soul engine that regenerates itself with this whole kindergarten pick-up or something. Maybe it’s all meant to be in a way: the nap fighter and the pre-crawler under a heap of blankets and the little girl with a glint in her eye moving slowly down the hall, her hand safely tucked up in her trusted escort’s hand, and these primo parking spots right out front the building.

Primo freakin’ parking spots reserved just for me, the guy with the sleepy kid in his arms. The guy with barely perceptible smile coming into the cool shady lobby on a mission that cannot be denied.

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