Phonesy Johnson’s child, Phineous, is such a DICK! the blog’s caption read. He wants to play ball, but Dad is CLEARLY so busy reporting to GOD that he cannot spend these 30 minutes providing his undivided attention. Phucking Phin! And there I was, the “Phonesy Johnson” of the post’s photo, looking a little like David Duchovny. On a grassy field, my track pants bunched at the crotch and my phone was pressed to my ear. The weak extension of my left leg indicated I had just kicked a ball to my kid, who was only partially visible.
The blog’s next post was a picture of a tall guy about to throw a football. He was looking down at a cell phone in his right hand. Busy Ben’s kid is such an asshole. He always wants to go to the park. Baby Butthead Beauregard, always nagging, “Dad, come on, let’s play ball.” But Busy Ben needs to close deals!
The pictures and posts of other dads continued as I scrolled.
I mean, can you believe this guy’s son, Shooter? The audacity—always wanting his dad to pay attention during soccer games. Shooter’s dad is THERE, isn’t he?!? He’s AT the game. When did these kids get so entitled? ‘Rah rah’, Shooter’s dad shouts once in a while.
Toddler Bo Peep had the audacity to forget her hook on Halloween for the school parade. What could Daddy Peep do except walk it to her class slowly while scrolling? She’ll get it when she gets it. The dad was looking at his phone, wearing a windbreaker and jeans, and was walking on a tree-lined sidewalk carrying a giant hook. I laughed out loud, then looked around the master bedroom as if someone could hear me. There was burning behind my eyes.
I text my buddy Seth. Who is this blog chick?
It was from Seth that I found out that I had gone viral, that there were memes about me from this site. I racked my brain to think of which one of Serena’s friends might be behind it. None of the other dads were recognizable, but whoever did this website was local, someone who could get the pictures of us.
Seth’s text back said Told you, man. No idea. Lisa doesn’t know either but I’ll ask again.
The distance I had from knowing what was going on so that I could put a stop to it was excruciating. Serena had told me to ‘just laugh about it.’ I asked her what point the person behind the blog was trying to make. She kept saying that there was no way we could figure that out, when we didn’t even know who it was, and kept interrupting me every time I called the blogger a woman.
I’m a good dad. I text Seth back. How dare she suggest I’m neglecting my kid or whatever?
I waited for the three dots from Seth. But nothing. Pissed, I pounded my fist on the home office desk, got up, straightened out my track pants, and went downstairs. “Colin! Yo, Col. Colin!” There was silence. Nothing from my kid or my wife. The calendar on the fridge had ‘Kyle’s B-day Party, 3pm’ written in Serena’s girly handwriting. I scrunched my mouth, trying to remember if we’d had a conversation about me meeting them there after I’d done some work at home. It was unnerving not knowing my own schedule. In my own home, the one I bought, everything felt not mine. The gray sofa in the living room with a striped blanket on the back of it: when did we get that? The fireplace, with its pinecones in clear bowls perched on the extension of the mantel; did we even make fires? This food on the kitchen counter: a loaf of bread, a crinkled sack of organic blue corn chips with an oversized clip the shape of a clothes hanger sealing it shut, who eats this? I put my fingertips to my eyes and rubbed hard, and then I scraped away some unearthed sleep.
“Stop!” I said to no one. The dog had died last year, a giant ordeal that inundated Serena and Colin and included picture-taking, Facebook posts, and, for reasons I didn’t understand, visits from friends who wanted to say goodbye to Louie in his final days. If Louie were still alive, a walk would be good right now. I wanted to see if there was a game on, but I couldn’t be in the house, where I’d be tempted to check the blog again.
I text Serena. Stoked about the bday party. Remind me of directions/loc?
The response, ten minutes later: Party nearly over. Don’t bother.
I left quickly, grabbing my bike, and I rode for an hour, feeling in my pocket the buzzes of multiple message notifications from guys texting that they had seen my meme. There was also a text from Serena about dinner. I’d laughed at my friend Drew after he’d gotten married and started to get these kinds of instructions from his wife. What I’d teased him about, specifically, was his resignation: he was on auto-pilot to domesticity. I’d backed off when he’d shrugged, looking tired and saying “She runs the house. Less for me to think about.” Here I was now, years later, a lackey myself, on assignment to pick up fresh mint, specifically from Whole Foods, in an exact shaped container.
“Are you excited about our steak noodle salad with peanuts and mint?”
Colin and Serena were at the kitchen island. No, I wanted to say to her. It’s dinner, that’s all. Dinner. Second, I would have continued, why do you phrase everything like I’m the audience member and you and our child are the stars? Third, I might have added, are you going to ask how I’m doing after the day I’ve had with the blog?
“That sounds good,” I said. “What’s up, Col?” I turned my body toward him quickly, in a kind of lightness. Action, I thought. I just took action. So easy.
Colin looked up at me. “Hi Dad.” His hair was matted into a dome on top from when his hat had been on his head; blonde waves pushed down near his eyes. Two awkward front teeth were suspended in his open, breathing mouth. I thought of SpongeBob Square Pants.
“Are you brushing your teeth real good at night?” I asked. Colin stared. “Just asking, bud. I went to the dentist the other day and got busted for not flossing. Who wants that kind of abuse?” I tried to make a goofy face at him, but I could tell the joke was too mature, and the pang in my chest signified that I should have known better.
“Did you give them the new number?” Serena asked, back turned toward me as she jarred a pan back and forth on the stovetop, her jerking arm movement making its way to my animal brain. There was never time for handjobs anymore.
“Number? Who’s ‘them’?” I was talking to Serena’s back.
She sighed and turned to me, a shocked look on her face, like I told her I had eaten the counter. “The. Dentist.” She drew out the ‘s’ and lowered her head as she said this, and I swear my dick shrunk. “We changed insurance last year—”
“Yeah, I know.” I smiled, trying. “It’s my employer’s plan we’re on, so I do know—”
“But you have to give the dentist the new information. Your boss doesn’t just, you know, do that for you.”
I narrowed my eyebrows, then looked over at Colin, who was watching everything. “Can we discuss this elsewhere?”
“No. I’m cooking us dinner. I can’t exactly leave this area.”
“I still don’t know who made that post,” I wanted to say, to get her to stop. In the bathroom before dinner, I had checked the blog. There were no new reader comments, but my picture was still up.
Serena turned toward the island and started an awkward task of scooping the precious salad into pre-staged plate-bowls. Whether or not to ask if she needed help, start helping without asking, or stay out of the way was a riddle I had approached daily for years and I faced it now. I should say the food smells good or start setting the table or get us something to drink. I should do something right now, but then again, that could mean me getting in her way, picking the wrong silverware, or interrupting her focused task.
In the beginning, our predictability thrilled me, but both our behaviors were softer. Dinners were prepared with an enticement: I made this for you. I wanted to make this for you. Flirting, bashful eyes. I didn’t always know how to respond with words, so I relied on my enthusiasm for what she offered. I reciprocated her actions by tuning into her like a radio, listening to the topics I found interesting, because they had to do with her. There were no strings to those dinners. She didn’t remind me about insurance or a party we’d be attending three months from now. The calendar wasn’t a third wheel. We’d trusted one another to be the adults we first met, the individuals who did something internal and unique and electric for the other. This current version of us is worn and leathery.
When I began asking Colin about the birthday party, I sounded like a character from a TV show. Colin played his part, too, mumbling one-word answers through sloppy bites of noodles, giggling at his food mess instead of really talking to me. Normally, I would scold him automatically, use a stern voice that needed little effort for me to command. But, now, motivated to kill off Phonesy Johnson, I cocked my head to the side and smiled. “Funny guy. What are you, a Spaghetti Guy?” Colin froze and his lips turned upward in a smile. My stomach dipped. I did that.
Quickly, I shoveled a heap of the noodles into my mouth then started to repeat the question, the words jumbled and muffled. No doubt I looked like a total tool. But maybe my wife would smile too, and it would be worth it. Colin’s laugh was explosive, and he used his hand to put a single noodle into his mouth, letting it hang on his bottom lip. It made me uncomfortable to see him disheveled, and I felt an instinctive pull to stop the activity. Serena took care of that by ending the game through a single recognizable look, the dash of her mouth signaling a fatigue from the activity. To her, we were both children. “‘K, bud,” I said. “Spaghetti Guy is dead. Rest in peace.”
“Let’s not talk about death, ok? He’s a little young for that.” Serena looked at Colin, not me, when she spoke.
“What about Louie?” I asked. Serena sighed and poked at the veggies in her dish, spearing a limp string of cabbage. Watching her bring the fork to her lips, I noticed a crease near her mouth covered in a thin film of concealer makeup. She’s in there somewhere, I thought. I stared into my bowl. Four peanuts were clumped together in a shallow pool of sauce. I scooped them up, using my thumb to navigate them onto the spoon. My kid and wife didn’t notice I was still eating, and they began pushing themselves back and up from the table, Serena pointing out the items Colin was to extract.
It was clear that Colin was going to have a disaster trying to gather all the bowls at once, and a moment of irritation at his illogic passed when I told myself, He’s ten. I looked at his hands, tiny starfishes of soft skin against the fancy dishware. There was a pull in my chest. “Hey bud, let me get some of those for you. You don’t have to carry everything at once.”
Despite the sink water running and the distance from the table, Serena heard the exchange and whipped around, turning off the faucet in one graceful move. “Kev, no. Don’t help him. He needs to earn his prize.” Colin froze, and my eyebrows furrowed at her. “Put them down.” I didn’t know if she was talking to me or my kid.
“Colin, tell your dad about the wheel.”
“Um, it’s like this round chart that, like, I get a sticker on a place on it if I do something around the house, and then, if I get all the stickers, then I get to have an ice cream.”
I looked over at Serena, who was beaming.
Was I supposed to know about this, or have contributed to this? Should I have? There was no point in posing those loaded questions now, and there was nothing I wanted less than to continue to talk about the chore wheel, so I winked at Colin. “Good job, buddy.”
He flashed me the SpongeBob teeth and mumbled a thanks.
I held the back of a dining room chair. “Ok, then what can I do to help?”
Serena began wiping down the fridge for unknown reasons. “Look around. What needs to get cleaned? If something needs to get done, take care of it. Or do you need your own chore wheel?”
My wife: did she always talk to me like this, or were we both more aware of me right now, hot and blazing, because of the blog? Phonesey Johnson the Husband, too?
“Hey bud, finish up your chore, then head to your room. I’ll meet you there for some Fortnite.” That lit my kid up, and my stomach fluttered. For one single second, it was me and him, and I was doing everything right.
Serena sighed behind me. After a beat, she said, “What do you want to do to fix this?”
I cocked my head to the side. “What…part? Fix. What do you mean?”
Serena pointed a finger downward and waved it toward me then back to her in succession. “This communication problem we’re having. Where you’re not listening to stuff about our kid.”
My eyebrows crinkled. “No. False. I am listening. And, at least I saw that our kid was watching us fight, and got him out of being around that. Don’t say I’m not concerned about him.”
“I didn’t say not concerned—”
I put my hands up. “Let’s stop right there before we do the thing where we ride a carousel of semantics, back and forth about a word or misinterpretation, and ignore the actual problem.”
Serena faked a dramatic confused face. “Oh, right. I forgot that our discussions have to end with you being right, so let’s go ahead and have the conversation so you can make sure you point out my flaws. Silly me for not wanting to do that. Let’s go, yeah!” She took the blue and white dishrag and twirled it over her head like a lasso. I wanted to laugh, to just go over and grab her and hug her, bury my face in her neck and take her to the bedroom to forget all this. I wanted to reset through humor and sex, two things I thought would carry us through marriage effortlessly when I was dumb and younger.
“I don’t even know where to start to defend myself with that.”
“Then don’t defend. Just admit.”
“Stop. Just stop! Do you have any idea, or care or concern, what my day has been like? That blog has, like, fucked with me.” She looked at me blankly. “The blog, remember? Hello? The blog about what a douche dad I am?”
“Kevin, you need to take a breath or walk away or something. You are so heightened right now.”
“Do not. Talk to me. Like a child. I am not your child. I am your husband!”
Serena’s voice was gravely and barely above a whisper. “What do you want from me?”
“Now? Or in general?”
“I want you to give a shit about this blog.” Her mouth opened like a cave and her eyes popped. She was about to interrupt me. “I want you to give a shit that other people think I’m a deadbeat dad. You saying that you think this is completely fucked up would help me believe that you don’t think that yourself. Every time you don’t defend me, or when you say it’s not a big deal, you put yourself on the blogger’s side.”
Serena started jabbing her fingers dramatically on the counter, punctuating each word. “Who. Cares. About. What. Other. People. Think.”
Completely in this now, I couldn’t slow my pace. “You do, Serena. You care so much. It’s disgusting, actually.” Now, she stood up straight and turned away from me, undoubtedly to go to Colin, or to her phone, or anywhere but with me. “Don’t walk away. That’s bullshit. Stay here, you’re in this. You’re my wife. Stop showing me you care more about our son than me.”
“You have got to be kidding me right now. Seriously. You’re butt hurt about the post, you come in here, out of nowhere to try to participate in parenthood, all of a sudden trying to make up for literally years of bowing out, hiding, acting like fathering is a…a costume that someone threw at you that doesn’t fit. ‘Oh, what do I do with this? Jeez, no one showed me how to put this on, so I’m just at a loss.'” Her arms and knees splayed to the side, as she bounced from toe to toe.
“Hey!” She stopped the idiotic dance. “Fine! Fine. I’m not going to argue with you about this. I’m not going to stand here while you point out all my bad behavior. You could be here all day, I get it. Besides, that blogger already did that.” Serena rolled her eyes. “And, obviously, I can see how annoyed you are with me being annoyed with that post. Let me guess, you are upset that you have tried to get me to be a better dad all these years and then it takes this anonymous woman—person, unless, of course, you are the blogger yourself—for me to actually get up and take some action.” I hadn’t had the suspicion until this very moment, and the words came out independently from my brain.
Serena shifted into her left him and tilted her head, her body saying Come on. Really? I knew I could believe her; it wasn’t her. There was a miniscule shift of relief in my body. Why didn’t it feel good to know her so well, to know that these patterns were our secret language, ours and only ours?
“You know it’s not me. You know that. And, I never said you needed to be a better dad.”
“You didn’t have to say it. Your actions did. They have.”
She sighed deeply and released a breath to the ceiling. “You are a good dad. But, it’s only when you feel like doing it. That’s what pisses me off—”
I put up a hand. “I have to stop you. I do.” My hand went to my heart. “I get that it looks like I step in and out of this.” I swept my hand around in front of me to indicate this as the home, parenthood, my family. “I get it. I’m not going to stand here and make degrading statements to you about careers and work and money and how my time is spent outside this home, because we are both too smart for that. I will tell you this, though.” I paused and waited to see if she was tuned in. She stared back at me, eyes hard. “I know you guys—moms, other moms— get upset about the whole invisible labor thing….but, it’s not all on us. Dads. Husbands.” My heart raced. Serena took a step back as if I was attacking her physically. Her nostrils flared. I knew it.
“You have got to be kidding me.”
“Hey, I literally said it wasn’t you specifically. I see it all the time with men, dads. I hear about it. It’s the way it’s all set up. There’s this…domestic situation with the kids that excludes us. I’m not mad about it, I’m just trying to discuss this as a possibility with you. Because we are married and on the same side. I mean that.”
Serena’s mouth slackened a tiny bit, but her eyelids drooped in anger. She licked her lips, then pressed them together several times. Next, a series of head nods. “I think it’s great you’re talking about invisible labor. Did you read an article about it? Went online and became an expert at the issue? One of your bros convinced you the whole thing is made up by a bunch of angry, bitter wives?”
“So, do you remember what I just said about us being on the same side? I meant that. Are you on my side right now?”
“On the same side? You want to talk about the same side, Kevin? What side were you on this morning, when Colin and I went to the birthday party? The side where you were too worried about that blog to even care about what we were doing or our existing plans? Great side!”
“Mom, can you guys keep it down? It’s kind of getting loud.” Colin was at the bottom of the stairs. Serena and I exchanged a glance, a nanosecond of silent communication that restored so much hope in me despite the recent erosion. Then, she went to him, held him close, a softness that I couldn’t remember feeling myself.
“Baby, I’m sorry. Everything is ok. Sorry for being loud. Did we worry you?”
Colin looked at me. I smiled at him.
“No, it’s ok. I’m just waiting for Dad to play Fortnite with me. What’s taking so long?”
Serena looked at me, and I noticed her blouse was slipping from her shoulder, revealing a sports bra strap. There were freckles near her neck I hadn’t noticed before. Have you seen a dermatologist lately? I could ask the question later. About twenty seconds of complete silence passed.
“Daddy is trying to solve a mystery, honey.” Serena looked at me with a small smile.
“Can I help?” Col’s teeth again, now biting over his lower lip from the brazen request, genuine youthful curiosity overridden with an intuition that there was something to be done, something that needed fixing. How much did he know, biologically, about what he’d be expected to say or do in his life; how his life would be filled with predisposed assumptions? Was I all he had to learn from? By not being there, even when I was there, was I the wrong guy?
There was still time, I supposed, right then and there, to loosen my own grip on my role.
“Dad?” Colin repeated, when no one answered for a moment. “Can I help?”
I looked at Serena, then realized I didn’t need permission. I knelt down, all three of us on the same level.
“Actually, buddy, yeah, that’d be great. I could use a helper.”
Colin smiled and blinked several times, then put a hand on my shoulder. His touch was small but shockingly heavy, like he was leaning all his weight on this single spot.
“Dad, I think I know how to help. First, you have to get a notebook to write down all the clues. Then you have to use binoculars to see stuff far away. You also need an invisible ink detector.”
Serena said “Let me know when you two find the evil woman responsible for all this,” and rose from the ground slowly, a delicate crack in her left knee when she straightened up completely. I started to defend myself, but she was already heading up the stairs, conceding her control of this moment. Perhaps this was how our family was at its best: divided into camps.
I turned to Colin. “Ok, bud. I like that. You’re right. First, get your tools.”
“But I don’t have those things.”
“Oh, ok, no problem. I think we have some paper in the kitchen, we can write our clues on that.” I was exhausted already, from this effort, and caught myself going for my phone.
But Colin grabbed my hand instead. “Yeah!” he said, pulling me, leading us to our task.