We stand with our backs to the cul-de-sac waiting for our parents. Zac sits with a thud and begins to drive his tractor on his Buddha belly, then up his arm, then onto Esmé’s leg. He rumbles happily. BURRRRMBRMBRM. He has more motor sounds than words. Esmé shakes her leg and Zac tilts backwards, almost saves himself, then falls flat on the ground with a fat FLAP. He starts driving his tractor among the clouds. I fix Es’s shirt collar. The tag was sticking out. Today is the first day of school and we are going to be late.
Through the kitchen windows I watch mum and dad. They run in circles. “Do they have their lunch boxes?”
“Yes, Basil, for the last time, yes.”
“Okay, I’ve got the camera – wait, no film – oh, here it is. Alright, got the film.”
“And you’ve got Sean’s bag?”
“No. Yes. Where?”
“Here.” And they burst out of our little townhouse. They weren’t arguing but it was close. Only dad is smiling. We are standing shoulder to shoulder the way they had set us for our annual picture. Except for Zac who is still turtled and gurgling merrily. Picture perfect.
Mum grabs Zac. I smile. Esmé smiles and we hold up our fingers for which grade we’re going into. Es holds up two fingers. I hold up four, but dad corrects me and I put down one. I’m two years older than Es but she’s a gifted little snot and is already in grade two. We smile bigger and mum lowers Zac into the frame too late, and all we get is his tubby belly and half of his grin. But we don’t have time to take another.
Mum chucks Zac into the car and her tires squeal on her way to work while dad gets his bike rolling. Esmé and I clamber on. She gets the handlebars and I get the flat back fender where I sit side saddle and hook my arm around dad’s waist and bag for support. Sometimes we walk, like when the hill gets too steep, but mostly we ride. I liked riding till last year when Nathan pointed out riding side saddle was for girls. Now I don’t like it so much.
At school the yard is already empty. Dad kisses our heads and walks Esmé in while I run to class. Nothing is happening yet so I get caught and scolded for being late. On the first day too. I can hear Nathan’s laughter from the back. I can almost feel him say, dumb Canuck. I look for a seat and catch Payton’s eye and burn red. I’m told to sit alphabetically so I do. Then I’m told to stand up so I do. The entire class stands beside our desks and we pledge allegiance while staring at the ceiling, our shoes, each other. I stand straighter and try to say the words like I know them. Nathan knows the words. I peak over my shoulder at him and Payton then look back at the flag. I suck in my fat stomach and try to remember to do that for the rest of forever. Nathan doesn’t have a fat stomach.
At recess, Philippe and Anton are already getting a game of mega tag going. I join in. The twins dip and straighten as they speak. They look like a pair of fish bobbers as they explain why it’s so mega to the group. I try to run as hard as I can and I still can’t outrun anyone so I’m always it. I hate tag. I only win when I convince everyone to play in the old playground. The playground is wooden and tall and I know its every secret, but it’s far away from school so when the bell rings we have to run across the tennis courts and both fields to get back. We are late and everyone blames me. I hate tag.
At lunch I stay in the library and read my myths.
The day ends and dad comes from the university to pick us up. Esmé spends the entire time on the handlebars leaning back or twisting around to tell him about her day. I sit side saddle sadly. I think about this and spend the rest of the time home worming my tongue around it till I’ve forgotten tag and my fat stomach. Seansitsshideshaddlesally-SeansitsSIDEsaddleshadlySeanshitsside-
The floor is my kingdom. Today is Saturday and the entire living room was flooded with Lego pieces for me to sift through and build. Build build build. Castles mostly but also space stations and the walls of Troy. My parents think I’m going to be an architect. Zac farms in circles around me, his tractor making a ROOOMRUMRUM with his little cheeks rippling.
When mum says fuck we all hear it. Fuck. “Fuck you, Basil,” she says. She storms out of the kitchen and upstairs. Zac is startled and I can see him about to cry. I stick my tongue out at him. He hiccups, but still his eyes are wet. I brrrum at him. He BRRRUUUMs back and begins another circuit around me. I get up and check the kitchen. Dad is standing still, his back to me, head bowed. The argument was about money. It was always about money.
“Fuck” hangs in the air like smoke. The taste sticks to the roof of my mouth.
In the living room Esmé has come downstairs and is holding Zac. She looks scared and is holding tight. Zac bubbles happily and tries to do barrel rolls in his sister’s arms.
“What’s happening, Sean?”
I don’t know. “I don’t know.”
“Is Mum mad at Dad?
Yes. Very. “Yes. A little.”
“What’s going to happen?”
Nothing. “Nothing is going to happen.”
“How do you know?”
I don’t, but I say, “I know. I just do.” I don’t lie well enough and she starts to cry silently. Zac stops bubbling and is quiet too. Esmé’s tears crawl over her cheeks to her chin and when they do I reach forward and wipe them away. “Don’t let them touch your clothes, they’ll know you were crying.” Esmé gets it and wipes her cheeks. Zac hugs her and mashes his chubby face into her shoulder. Super hug. They stay like that and I play Lego for a while.
I hear the kettle boil and go into the kitchen. Dad is taking the whistling kettle off the stove. The house is too small for him and he bends like Apollo’s bow. His head doesn’t touch the ceiling but his posture, so straight and solid before, is pretzeled. He sees me staring.
“Would you like some tea, Sean?” I stare at his shirt and shake my head. It’s a rowing shirt from his McGill days. It ain’t canoeing baby! His cuffs are wet from were he wiped his eyes. He puts the tea bags in the pot and we wait for it to steep.
“Is ‘ain’t’ a word?”
“Everybody says it.”
“But it’s wrong. People say a lot of things that are wrong.”
I tongue the roof of my mouth were the word sits. Fuck. It tastes sour.
Dad makes the tea and I look back into the living room. Zac is tired from hugging so hard and has fallen asleep. Esmé is taking him upstairs to bed. Her cheeks are dry but her eyes look puffy. Dad puts in two lumps of sugar. Then the milk. Then the tea. Then stir. A pause.
My father looks like a Greek god. Tall, dark hair, muscular. I’m small and pale and slow at running. He can’t know I’m not a god like him. He stares into the tea. Before it can get cold I take it from him and bring it to mum.
I enter without knocking. She’s sitting at the desk, her head bowed. Her cheeks are wet too. I put the cup on the desk and muscle my way into her lap. She thanks me for the tea in between sips.
“Did you make it?” I shake my head no. When she is done she cuddles me, which she hasn’t done since Zac was born. It feels warm and nice except where her wet cheeks make my forehead cold. When she thinks I’m asleep she whispers to me, “Your father doesn’t love me.” I don’t have the words to tell her she’s wrong. The argument was about love. It was always about love.