Getting what I wished for...
(A slice of Nathan's life as a new Dad.)
If you’d told me I’d get to live with the man who's finishing up Hadi’s bath time right now along the hallway from our bedroom, I would have laughed it off, part of me dying inside, I wanted him so much. Wanted a family with him even more once I met Jamila and her brother. Never thought I could have either.
I also never thought I’d want to call my parents and tell them the truth, but here I am, almost at the point of giving in to that urge, because three months into being a dad, I’m beaten. Outclassed by a two-year-old, with no clue how anyone does this night after night and stays sane.
Jamila’s bedtime routine is a shitshow, pure and simple. Carnage from start to finish. The thought of listening to her scream is about as appealing as getting mortared, so I pace our bedroom with her asleep against my shoulder rather than put her down and risk another barrage.
She's quiet for now. Silent, which is something I never thought I'd learn to love the sound of. Not when I used to associate it with how Luke was around me.
Before, his silence was a key in a door locking me out of his life. This evening, it’s my anchor. The last tether on my patience, like now, because knowing that he just paused at our bedroom doorway, ready to switch places with me if I need a breather, gives me the strength I had no idea wrangling one toddler could sap.
Luke folds the damp bath towel he carries, gaze landing on the phone in my free hand, but he says nothing.
He doesn’t have to.
His face shows me plenty, sympathy right there on its surface now that reading him is easy. It’s also there in the way he crosses the room on quiet feet while Jamila’s breaths hitch and catch, her face tear-stained and snotty. He’s silent as he wipes her. And maybe he’s more of a magician than he let on in his career talk because he only has to stroke her ebony hair and she turns, still sleeping as she faces me, and fuck, she’s gorgeous when she’s not bawling, eyelashes fanning as dark as the eyes that always melt me, her cheeks rosy.
I can see Luke thinks so too. Love lingers in his eyes as he asks, “Need some help?”
I nod, but Luke kisses her cheek first followed by mine, and murmurs, “More people than me can do that for you if you ask them.”
I do ask, once he goes downstairs with Hadi.
“Hey, Mum. You got a minute?”
I speak as quietly as I can, face turned away from a little girl who I know weighs next to nothing and yet tonight feels heavier than all of those stones we left on top of High Tor.
“It’s Jamila. She’s so tired after supper, but she’s started to fight her bedtime. Fights Luke at bath time too. Fights her brother for breathing near her. Even fights her teddy bears and dollies. Hurls them across the bedroom. But she fights me the most,” I admit, phone between my ear and one hunched shoulder, trying not to wake my bundle of rage whose face is still so flushed with anger the heat of it seeps through my shirt. “It’s like she hates me.”
“Oh, sweetheart, no,” Mum says. “She loves you.”
“That’s what Luke says.”
I know it’s true. Know that I’m one of her few precious people like Luke is too.
“He says that her fighting me so hard is good,” I add quietly, swaying even though I’m sure she’s conked out now and won’t wake. “That it means she’s testing to see if I’ll leave her to fend for herself—”
I stop, aware that I’m on speaker and that Mum and Dad could interpret that as an accusation, but we’re beyond that. Talked it through and dealt with the fallout. Stood shoulder to shoulder with each other to confront the man who should have treated me like Luke does every child who washes up at Glynn Harber. Wrenched an apology from him and drawn a line so we can move on, but every so often some of the fallout rises to the surface and tries to sink us.
“I didn’t mean—”
“We know what you meant,” Mum says. “Did you… Did you call us for some advice?”
I shake my head as if she can hear me, and that’s a habit I still need to break. I’m not at boarding school now, having to hide what scares me. I’m this little girl’s de facto father, so that means speaking up and being honest.
“No. I didn’t call for advice. I…” What I really need from them comes out in a rush. “Tell me I’m doing okay, yeah?” And fuck, my voice thickens out of nowhere. “Tell me I won’t get it wrong and break her.”
“Oh, darling.” Mum’s quiet for a long moment, and maybe we’re not quite as done with the past as I thought because she sounds choked too, but she pulls herself together. “I think she must be starting to feel safe with you. Really safe. She must be certain that she can show you all of her biggest feelings, sweetheart. The good, the bad and the ugly, and still know you won’t leave her. That nothing she does could make you. She’s starting to believe it, that’s all. Learning to trust you, but that means pushing boundaries.”
“Yeah? That’s what Luke says too.” Hearing Mum echo him does something to me. Roughens my voice even more, and prods at an ache in my chest as sharp as the PTSD flashbacks that have threatened since this change in Jamila’s behaviour. “You really think so?” I ask as I spy Luke through the bedroom window, settling on the garden bench to read a bedtime story to Hadi where his sister can’t scream so loud he won’t hear it.
The phone slips, so I reposition, Jamila grumbling in her sleep until I sway more and whisper, “He says she’s revving up to something called an extinction burst. Says she’s getting closer to exploding like this for the last time. That she’s breaking a habit and doing that is harder for her because she doesn’t have the vocab yet to tell us how she’s feeling. That’s what she’s fighting, Luke says. A habit, not me.”
This time, Dad asks, “What habit is she breaking?”
“Being too scared to make a sound.” She shifts in my arms, thumb finding her mouth, and man, her eyelashes are so thick I could stand here and count them forever. “She was scared for so long.” My arm tightens around her because I’ll never know what she saw before I found her, or after, but I’ll spend the rest of her life making sure she’s safe. Protected. Loved so much, forever.
The rest of her life.
And just like that, that ache under my ribs has an extinction burst all of its own.
The pain intensifies, everything she and Hadi went through lodging in my heart, and I accept it.
Will hold it there so they don’t have to feel fear any longer.
Then it’s gone completely. Done with. Over, and I guess what Luke must have known this whole time—I can do this. Can take whatever these kids dish out because I’m not alone in knowing that bad starts don’t have to describe a whole life story.
“Talk to us if you need us,” Dad says. “Never stop, Nathan, okay?”
And I won’t, not now they’re another second chance Glynn Harber’s gifted.
I say goodbye to my parents, the call ended but not our desire to build bridges, which I know is why Luke walked away this evening instead of taking over.
Fuck, I love him—I couldn’t stop back then. Can’t now either, like I can’t stop watching him with Hadi. The bedtime story Luke took him outside for is over, but Luke doesn’t stop speaking to him, everything about him is expressive from his face, which only gets this mobile around children, to his hands.
Hadi mirrors every gesture, and I can’t read his lips but I see that his mouth forms the same shapes as Luke’s, copying this man who teaches him English by asking the name of everything he sees in Arabic.
But that’s how Luke and Hadi bonded, switching roles as teacher and student, giving our son the power to lead instead of follow, although that’s what Hadi does next—follows Luke like a shadow across the garden. Stops like Luke does next too, and even though their backs are to me, I can guess his expression as Luke crouches, pointing out a fox curled in the last rays of evening sunshine.
Hadi curls too, wraps his arm around Luke’s neck, leaning on him, and that’s enough to make Jamila’s weight turn feather-light in my arms because that’s what we want: both children trusting we’ll always support them.
I take Jamila into the room that I used to sneak out of after hook-ups that were never casual to me. Now it's a kids’ haven, a woodland Cameron painted from floor to ceiling, animals peeking between branches that Jamila will point out tomorrow, sunny after this storm passes, and I’ll be here to name them.
I lay her down. Pull up her sheets. Lean in to kiss her and tell her good night like Luke does in both Arabic and English. Then I'll go downstairs to join the rest of our family.
But for now, I'll sit by her bed for a few minutes longer and love her.
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Con Riley © 2022
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