Yesterday afternoon I met Caroline at the curb in front of her office. Jay was in the backseat munching on a strawberry fruit leather—his reward for not pummeling his brother after naptime. Wally was straining around the edges of his hood for a glimpse of his mama. I held open the driver’s side door for Caroline, gave her a kiss, and then set off at a run: 5.6 miles to home.
Running feels different depending on when in the day I go. In the morning it’s a jumpstart to the day. At lunch it’s a break in the action. In the late afternoon, with everyone around me heading for home, running makes me feel like I exist apart from the world.
The route I took yesterday is one I’ve come to know well since we moved to Ann Arbor. The first two miles run through campus. I dodge undergraduate boys in pajama bottoms and girls in shiny tights. Then I dip into quaint Burns Park, where the professors live, cross a busy commercial road, and turn right into our neighborhood.
From here I could be home in eight minutes but instead I detour into County Farm Park. I first ran here in September, when we’d bring Jay to play on the playground and the sun didn’t set until almost 9pm. Today the trails are covered with snow that fell the night before, and has since been packed hard by dog paws and cross-country skies.
The light is fading. My feet thud softly on the ground. As I hurtle through the woods the scene at the curb with Caroline starts to feel as far away as last night’s dreams.
But then I’m home, breathing hard, sweating despite the cold. The smell of thyme greets me as I walk through the door: leftover chicken reheating on the stove.
Caroline and the boys are downstairs playing on the family room floor. “Three-pointer,” Jay yells. Then he sees me standing at the top of the stairs. “Daddy, are you muddy?” he asks.
“Not today,” I reply, and head off for a shower.
Then we settle around the table. Caroline pours wine. Jay and Wally sit in their facing booster seats, wearing their dueling bibs. “Is the chicken still hot?” Jay asks. Caroline tells him to try it. He touches the tip of his tongue lightly to a piece of thigh meat. Caroline and I wait in suspense. “It’s only a little hot,” Jay announces cheerfully, and proceeds to stuff the food in his mouth.
The chicken is on its third night but it’s as good as ever. Wally eats crackers. Jay studies his pearl onions. Most weekday nights don’t feel quite this good.
Then Wally starts to cry.
“You think he’s broken?” I ask Caroline.
She checks her watch. 6:30pm. “Irreparably” she says. She takes a last bite of her chicken, rubs the cracker off Wally’s face, and whisks him off to bed.
It’s just Jay and me at the table now. This is when I usually get up to do dishes but I don’t feel like it tonight. The endorphins and the ibuprofen and the wine make me feel like I’d be happy to sit in my chair for the rest of my life.
Jay sees I’m not going anywhere. He tells me he has a pair of pretend goggles (which is surely meant to compensate for the fact that we put his real goggles in the trash on Sunday, after he cut their strap into pieces with his scissors). I lean an elbow on the able and tell him that I do, too. We talk back and forth with our hands cupped around our eyes.
“Do you know where Fred is?” I ask him.
Mischief sparkles in his eyes. “He’s right over there,” he says, pointing to a spot halfway across the table
“But what’s he doing?”
“You tell it,” Jay replies.
I furrow my brow. After a second I say, “I think he’s driving a Zamboni.”
We talk in funny voices with our goggles on, about how Fred’s not supposed to be driving the Zamboni on Tuesdays. Except we call him Fwed not Fred. “Ohhh Fwed,” I say, making myself into a high-pitched scold. “You’re not supposed to be dwiving the Zamboni on Tuesdays.”
Jay laughs and laughs. He points towards Fred. “Look, look, he’s driving the Zamboni on Tuesday again,” he says.
I roll my eyes in mock exasperation. “Ohh Fwed…” I say, and we repeat the skit an octave higher.
Every now and again I have moments with Jay when the categories that normally define our interactions disappear. Most of the time we’re father and son: I take care of him; he needs me; and that dynamic is latent in everything we do together. But last night, for a few minutes, that construct fell away. What was left was the most basic thing of all: There we were, just two people sharing time.
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