It’s the little things.
“You’ve changed,” Dave says. He curls his hands inside his pockets, and stomps his foot against the crunchy snow. A full moon climbs into the sky behind him, arching atop the fancy restaurant, Le Tetou. It’s cold—he thinks, and watches John fumble with the car key for the third time.
“Really? I think I stayed the same.” John balances the leftovers on his knee, the slivers of steak wrapped up into a crooked aluminum swan. Dave had wanted to take him to the nicest restaurant in town, since he hadn’t seen his best friend in five years. The overdone steak and limpid spinach of Le Tetou couldn’t compare against the food he’d eaten in the five years of traveling across the states; the bright fruits fresh from trees, the stew stirred against the backlit light of a cottage, a three-layered cake with soft chocolate curled on top. But he had forgotten about how he missed the company, and his stomach still ached from laughing when John tried to stuff five loaves of appetizer bread into his mouth.
He thinks John looked different. When he last saw him, five years ago at the gray-smelling airport, John had still been a gawky boy, all big teeth and long knobby limbs always dangling. He had grown into his limbs, now muscular and moving with purpose, without any trace of the adolescence. But Dave could still recognize him, underneath the sheen of adulthood. The same wide grin, sitting impossibly large on his face, and the same snort at the end of a cheesy joke.
Dave had missed his best friend. He missed him on rainy days in board-peeling barnyards, on quiet nights lying inside abandoned houses with clacking shutters, on misty mornings standing on wide cliffs and staring down at the rolling fog. But he’d never missed him quite so much as when he was standing there, inches away from him, watching John’s cheeks flare up red in the cold.
“I guess,” Dave finally says, once the door unlocks with a smart tick. “It’s the little things.”
John hums without understanding. The driver’s seat squeaks against his huddled form, and the radio comes alive with a crackle, lit green with a soothing woman’s voice telling them about late night music. Dave watches the stars flicker against an unfamiliar blue. The rounded rooftop of Le Tetou cuts across the sky.
“Nothing’s changed, Dave,” John says. “Hey, maybe if I drive fast, we’ll make it home before my daughter’s bedtime and you can meet her.”
Nothing’s changed—Dave thinks, houses flying by on the street. Nothing’s changed except the little things.
John has become one of “those” parents.
Dave huddles on the couch, flipping through a photo album. Dad Egbert perches near the fireplace, rubbing his wrinkled hands in the wispy flames. Occasionally, Dave sneaks another long peek at him. Dad Egbert had changed, since he last remembered. More wrinkles and varicose veins, gray thinning his hair. He could still remember the tall and strong Dad Egbert, standing ominously at the door, after catching him and John flipping through a particularly hot and heavy Sears catalog. But pangs of memories settle uneasily in his stomach, and he flips through the sheer pages again.
John’s become the parent who bookmarks everything about his child. The handwriting sprawls across page after page, documenting apparently Casey’s every breath. “Casey’s milk!!!” John’s words yell at him, a blurry picture of warmed milk attached with drying tape. “Casey sleeping!!!” “Casey in her crib!!!!” “Casey laughing!!! Or farting and looking like a laugh?”
During his travels, Dave had taken picture after picture. Snaps of photographs from his camera hanging low around his neck. He flipped through them on his beaten-down computer, which had always been cradled protectively in his suitcase and wrapped in a loud shopping bag. Once, overlooking a field of corn, he spent five days taking the perfect photograph before visiting a cheap tourist attraction site and buying a postcard. But John’s fuzzy pictures, in dim lighting and no concern for lines and curves and placement, were better than anything he’d ever taken.
And Casey seemed like a nice girl. He still had to wrap his head around John having a daughter, but she seemed nice. Her pixelated happy fart smiles beamed from the pictures, small fingers waggling in soft blue baby clothes. When they came to Dad Egbert’s house to pick her up, Casey had fallen asleep already. He’d only seen her small form curled up in Dad Egbert’s lap, the wrinkled hand resting atop thin, silky hair, before John rushed forward, hurried whispers to his father.
It must be Grandpa Egbert, now.
He barely has time to feel uncomfortable in his own thoughts before John patters down the stairs, big feet still loud against the creaking. Dave could remember sneaking down at nights, stealing snacks from the refrigerator and bringing them upstairs to watch movies underneath a blanket fort. He half-stands, and John half-sits, and then John laughs.
“I guess I’ll see you later, then. Whenever you come back. It’s been great seeing you, Dave!” John hugs him, tight enough that Dave can feel his ribs pressed upon him and the heartbeat resounding from his fingertips.
“Yeah. Sure.” Dave shrugs, easing himself out the door. The night hits cold against his skin, and he stares out at the night, rows of the same houses standing like a maze of corn.
“Maybe you should take a scarf—here—” John wraps a blue knitted scarf around his head before he has the chance to refuse. The wool smells warm, and like John.
“Thanks. I guess.” Dave shrugs. “I’ll give it back to you tomorrow.”
“You’re coming back tomorrow?” John’s mouth falls open, an inch agape, and Dave realizes John hadn’t expected him back. He remembers, then, the small feeling inside his heart, realizing he can make John laugh hard enough to squirt milk out of his nose. They’d been kids, then, but the feeling curled hot against his throat.
“Yeah. Still gotta meet your daughter.” He turns away before John’s bright smile can hit him on the face, and before anyone can see his own small grin, tucked away in a secret nook inside the scarf.
“Yeah. That’s right. They call me Dabe Striber, born and raised. A lot of fools call me Dave. They don’t know jack sh… shoot.” He bites down hard on his tongue, and wipes his sweaty palms down on his jeans. He once had to cross a steep ravine in the blazing sun without any safety rope. But that was nothing compared to the small girl sitting in front of him, face still messy from her meal. John, that forgetful bastard, had to go into the next room to fetch more baby pictures, leaving them alone in the kitchen.
She sits on her high chair, small hands pounding against the platform, and Dave fears the small fingers. She’s bigger than her pictures, the child with soft hair and round cheeks. But she had force, and demand, bright flaring eyes and a wide grin, like John. She had his smile, he thinks, and eyebrows. He’s nervous because she’s small, and John ruffles around photographs in the next room. Damn the photographs. Leave them, he wants to scream at John. A million scenarios flip through his head, all with Casey in grave danger and him, leading idiotic antagonist, unable to save her tiny, small form.
He’s thinking about a vicious blood-sucking infected bat suddenly flying into the room when she interrupts him with another, louder, “Dabe!”
“Dabe, yeah. Don’t wear it out.”
“Dabe, Dabe, Dabe, Dabe, Da-abe-”
“Well, sh… shoot, kiddo. Just between you and me, I’d let you wear it out. Need another name for me anyway. Maybe I’ll take yours, how about that? Got at least something respectable to fake on my credit card bills. Dabe sounds too much like a Dabe.”
“Dabe!” Her face brightens, tiny fingers banging on her tray.
“Yeah, you’re right. I should keep it. Too late to change it now. Dabe Striber’s almost salvageable, if you don’t think too hard. Now, Dave Strider, that’s a lost cause.”
“She doesn’t understand you, you know,” John says, and Dave jerks away. His face burns hot even when John drops three more cumbersome albums onto the counter. He’s not used to the architecture, since John had bought a new house. The door where John emerges sits squat behind him, in his blind spot, and he mumbles something distant as John flips open another book.
“You should be careful,” Dave says, “about what she eats. Stuff these days.”
“I know, Dave.”
“And that chair. It might be too high.”
“It’s not, Dave.”
“Close the window, you never know what kinda shi… shooty animals could come in.”
“Are you worried about her or something?” John peers up, glasses dropping against his broad nose. A hint of a grin plays across his face, and Dave can’t have that. Dave crosses his arms, his movements slow and deliberate, like building a wall of Dave.
“Nah. Worried about you, since you got your head in the clouds with all these pictures. Fu… Fuddy duddy, you spent two hours today looking through these sh… shooty books. And more importantly, you made me look through all of them.”
“You don’t have to look through them,” John says, distracted with sorting through the albums. His thin fingers slide over from a purple cover, to the blue, opening them and peeking inside before shaking his head.
“Maybe I won’t. Just talk with Casey here. She has more brains than you. Tons more brains,” he tells Casey, and she giggles with food smeared over her mouth. “What was her first word, anyway? She’s talkative.”
“What? Oh, I don’t know. She wasn’t with me then.” John isn’t wearing shoes, just socks, curling up his toes against the stool. Dave looks to the tower of albums that records lost time, and leans forward with his elbows against the clean countertop.
“Let me see the next one,” he says, and John grins. He ends up spending another five hours flipping through pictures, Casey still calling for his alter ego in the sweetest voice he’d ever heard.
He never does ask about Casey’s X-men origins, because he knows John would tell him. Even in high school, John would tell him anything if Dave tore the right words from the air. John didn’t keep secrets, but he kept sadness, and he told Dave with bitten lips and head swinging low, until Dave wished he could shove the words back into the sky again. But lying down on the couch, Casey’s surprisingly heavy weight on his chest, he does ask an important question that’d been on his mind.
“When I left,” Dave says, watching Casey spit up on his clean shirt, “I thought you wanted to be a comedian.”
“Oh. Oh, yeah!” John wiggles his feet within his black sock, the heel badly patched together with fraying threads. “I forgot about that.”
“You suddenly decided to be an office man like your father?”
“Nah, it’s just a job. I mean, it’s not a bad job! It pays.” John’s fingers accidentally pass through a hole in his other black sock. Even though he sighs heavily, his fingers wiggle up at Dave, like happy little worms. “Just not that well.”
“Thought you just liked the suit get-up, looking dashing in your GQ cubicle setting.” Not that Dave was complaining. He always thought John looked nice in a suit, and he could still taste the prom punch on his lips, drinking and sitting next to John on the frigid bleachers, the scoreboard standing tall next to them.
“I don’t look good in suits,” John says, a little shyly, fingers quick against the knot pressed against his throat. “It’s just office dress code. I know what you mean, though. Whoda thunk! John Egbert, going to the office for a good day’s work.”
“I always thought you would make it big-time. As a cheesy as f…frick comedian.” Dave presses his hands across Casey’s ears, but she giggles with all her teeth, not unlike her cheesy father. “You got really good reviews, last I heard. They called you the old timey-wimey genius. ‘It’s like the guy came out of a corny commercial, and I loved every second of what he’s selling!’ that kinda stuff.”
“Shucks. They didn’t say that.” John slicks down his hair, which obediently spring back up after he’s finished. “I dunno, Dabe, it just wasn’t the life for me. I mean, I loved doing it! God, I was terrible, and the hecklers were really hard, and it was hard just to get a job, but once you got it, it was great. The best feeling in the world. Really. I loved making everybody in the room laugh.”
“Then why are you working nine to five?”
“I don’t really know… I mean, I never really thought about it! I guess I just found something more important.” John lifts Casey into the air. Dave feels like a weight had been taken from his chest, but it leaves behind a strange pit of loneliness.
“You can stay in the house, if you want! Just lock up when you leave. I have to get to work, and Casey has to get to daycare. Don’t you, Casey?”
“I got,” Casey says, and John kisses her on the forehead. Dave sits up, already reaching for the remote. His shitty hotel provided more channels than John’s limp television cable, but he never feels like leaving immediately. He spins reasons from the air, like the couch needs his ass print, or he likes using John’s guava-smelling soap, or he likes sliding down the stairs. Today, he doesn’t bother fabricating a reason. He watches Oprah, slumped nearly double in his seat, and wonders if John still comes up with jokes in his head, at night, when nobody’s looking.
“Dabe!” Casey’s face lights up, reaching for his face. He kneels beside her, letting her eager fingers find his hand. Despite the raw stitches crossing her arm, her strong grasp on his wrist never flinches.
“Hey, sweetie. How are you doing?” Dave plays with her fingers, touching her soft pads with his calloused ones. “Heard you were a good girl today, and didn’t cry once.”
“I didn’t, didn’t, didn’t…” Casey stumbles over her words, too much to say with too little time. The rest of her sentence comes out in excited mumbles, and Dave figures she gets it from hanging around him too much. He waits for her to finish her sentence, which he can always tell by her nose-scrunching giggle. That, she got from her father.
“Better than your daddy here, right? Bet he cried a lot.”
John sits on the other end of the couch, fiddling around with Casey’s colorful playset. He still has the yellow plastic ring looped around his hand when he looks up, and the uneasy grin comes to his face a second too late. When Dave first got the call, that Casey had been to the hospital, he nearly yanked the phone from the wall. Since he came into town, he had never wakened up before afternoon. That day, he sped out of the hotel at six in the morning with his door still unlocked.
He thought John was taking it well, considering his little girl had to have stitches. John seemed fine, except his eyes occasionally strayed to the wall, and his pale hands ran around the toy without thought.
“It’s not bad,” he tries to tell John. “Trust me, I’ve got scars. This doesn’t even cut it.” It’s true—the light stitching on Casey’s forearm couldn’t compare to his years of strifing, combined with accidentally falling down the stairs. He had been a clumsy child, and a clumsy adult. He had never gotten into a losing fight, and he could flash step his way down a building, but he still manages to nick himself shaving every once in a while.
“Yeah, I know.” John finishes the puzzle. “I took the day off from work, so I guess I’ll make lunch.”
“Tuna fish!” Casey holds up all ten fingers, and John touches her head before he disappears into the kitchen. Dave praises her on the choice (“aw yeah, delicious tuna fish”) and they eat their sandwiches in front of the television. Dave thinks he’s a loud and obnoxious participant, shouting the answers at Dora while waving his sandwich, but Casey gazes up at him with admiration and John sits on the chair saying nothing.
Dinner’s a quieter affair, and when Casey refuses to eat her vegetables, John doesn’t say anything. Dave flash-steps the carrots into her mouth, and she refuses to talk to “mean Dabe” for another hour after dinner until he coaxes her love with some pictures from his travels. He shows her the breath-taking sights of dark caves with crawling moss on the sides, lakes stretching out to sleep against damp redwood trees, a beating city emblazoned with light and decadence. She likes the picture of the world’s biggest wall of twine the best.
Dave tells her that it’s his favorite, too.
“She’s smart,” Dave tells John, over a cup of coffee at nine in the evening, Casey asleep in bed. “Seriously. Not just being biased or shoo… shitting you here, she’s brilliant. Her IQ must be through the roof.”
“Yeah,” John says, staring out his window.
“Maybe you should get some sleep, too.” Dave drinks his third cup of coffee, smacking his lips. “It’s been a long day.”
“Telling you that you look tired, dude—”
“Well, even if I did look tired, it’s none of your business! You don’t even know what I look like when I’m tired! You’ve been gone for five years, remember? You didn’t even send me a letter in five whole years! Is it really that hard to pick up a phone and give me a call! Not that it matters, because you weren’t even here. You weren’t here, so you don’t know, and I know you think it’s all my stupid fault but it’s not my fault, she got up in the middle of the night and I told her not to do that, I told her, okay! So shut your stupid mouth!” John buries his face into his hands, and Dave doesn’t take another sip of his coffee.
“I don’t think it’s your fault,” he says. John turns his face away, but Dave can see his reflection in the window. The inky night reflects a ghost image, John’s drawn face, before it disappears into John’s hands again.
“Dude,” Dave says, and tries again. “Dude, seriously. Kids do shoo… shit like that all the time. Shit, man, my brother and I, we used to fight everyday, all day. I almost got stabbed by the refrigerator billions of times just because I wanted some orange juice. Broken legs, nose, arms, you name it.”
“I know.” John finally turns to face him again, but his eyes and nose are flamed in pinkish red. “I know, and I put stupid band-aids on you a million times, but it’s different now. Because she—I tell her, I tell her, Dave, not to run down the hall! And she runs down the hall! She’s a good kid and she’s smart but what if she hits her head one day, and not just her arm? I try to watch out for her, but maybe I’m not good enough.”
“That’s bullshit and you know it.” Dave kneads his fingers down his bright yellow mug, happy painted tiger face beaming up at him. “You’re a great dad. You haven’t changed a bit since I last saw you. You cleaned her diapers, you watch out for her, you play with her all the time.”
“I’m not a great father,” John murmurs. “I don’t even have a pipe.”
“Trust me, you’re a great dad. She loves you, won’t stop talking about you when you’re not around. She’s in really good hands.”
“Funny,” John says, finally cracking a small smile. “She’s always talking about you when you’re not around.”
“What does she say about me? She says I’m cool, right?”
“Really, Dave? Jeez…”
Dave thinks the kitchen is small, but comfortable. John’s leg brushes against him every now and again, and he likes to watch John’s long fingers settle over his pink mug with a smiling painted giraffe. He’s missed these days, sitting next to John, not saying a word. The silence rests comfortably around him. In those small pockets of quiet, he’s never asked what John was thinking. For some reason, he thinks John likes these silences, too.
“Hey,” John says, “You must be racking up a whole lotta debt staying in the hotel.”
“Not really. It’s pretty cheap.”
“Well, it’s still money. And I have an extra room. I want to keep an eye on Casey for a while longer, but I don’t get a lot of days off from the office, and it might be asking a lot from my dad, and I dunno. I mean, it’s not until next week that my days run out, but, yeah.” John studies his coffee. “You don’t have to say yes, if you don’t wanna.”
It’s hard to say yes to an unasked question, but Dave hides his smile behind his coffee mug.
“Sure, I’ll stay here,” he says, and nearly spills the hot drink over his shirt when John hugs him. He’s forgotten how John’s bear hugs nearly fracture his ribs, but he doesn’t mind being reminded.
“Okay, be good for Dave, okay?” John leans down to kiss Casey on the forehead. She giggles and jumps up and down, ragged bunny flopping around in her arms. Dave yawns, scratching his stomach, and he’s taken by surprise when John leans over to kiss him on the forehead.
“And you be good for Casey,” John says. The kiss is over in a second, but Dave’s wide awake and suddenly shy, hands stuffed in his pocket and face burning.
John closes the door behind him, and Dave can hear the car start down the road. Casey leans against the window and waves good-bye, but Dave can’t share her enthusiasm. The car sound rings with strong finality, like John won’t come back until the end of his job. And he’s left alone with a child who forgets her own injuries within a month.
“Okay,” Dave says, clapping his hands together. “Let’s eat lunch—Casey?” He turns around, but she’s already gone. Somewhere in the other room, he can hear giggling and something valuable crashing to the ground in the tinkle of his money. It takes him an hour to wrestle her to sit still for lunch, and another hour to clean her face after she covers her face with sandwiches.
He once ran a marathon by accident, through a winding street down to an open field and across a rippling brook. By the end of it, he could barely wheeze into his cup of water. By the end of Barney, he thinks Casey could have taken first place. John must have been a miracle father to keep up with her energy. She bounces off the walls and crawls up the ceilings, and he’s found her hiding in a cabinet three times in one day. Her crayons leave a mess on the table, and she screams with laughter high enough to break the glass. He was never this young, he would swear, if he had enough energy.
She only sits still for two things: her television shows, and his pictures.
“Where?” Casey slams her hand down on the photograph.
“Over on the east coast. This was in a forest, somewhere. Think I ran out of food.” Dave picks up the picture, squinting at the trees with black bark and flaming red and orange leaves, their branches caught on leafy fire.
“You’ve gone to lots of places.” Casey stares at him, mouth slightly open. He can see her small teeth, and he smiles back.
“Guess I have.”
“Why did you go?”
Dave counts the glossy pictures, fingerprints dusting the covers of roaming landscapes and tepid cities. He doesn’t have an answer. Sometimes, when the rain slants just right, he remembers the day of flipping through Jade’s postcards, and remarking that he could take better pictures than that. The day must have been sunny. He was certain it was sunny. Or it was foggy. He just remembers the light playing off John’s face, lying on his back. They crowd together on John’s small bed, and John says he should go take better photographs. John tells him that he knows Dave can take the best photographs, and then he tries out his new joke. The answer doesn’t seem satisfactory to him, that he left because of a bad joke about frogs crossing the road.
“I guess I was looking for something.” The pictures slide out of his hand, settling down on the scribbled coffee table. Casey stares up at him, and he’s struck by her eyes, sharp and full of character.
“Did you find it?” she whispers.
He answers by resting his hand on her head, and John opens the door. She flings aside the cushion, screaming for her daddy, and she clutches at him tight. John makes dinner for three, and tells Dave to eat all his spinach. Casey eats all the food on her plate, and sticks her tongue out at him across the table. When they finally settle in the living room, plates piling in the sink, Casey toddles over to the iPod and selects the song.
“It’s my new favorite,” she tells her father, resting her head on his stomach.
“Yeah? Who’s the band?”
“You’ve prob’ly never heard of them,” Casey recites. Dave pretends he doesn’t see the dirty look John throws him, and he washes the dishes in repentance while John reads a bedtime story to Casey. When John climbs down the stairs, Dave finds himself radiating towards the door.
“Where are you going?” John asks.
“What?” Dave stares at the door. He’d forgotten that he was staying with John, but John doesn’t give him enough time to explain. In a swift move, John has his arm around Dave’s head, pulling him back to the sofa.
“You’re not going anywhere,” John says, laughing. “You’re with us now.”
“Yeah.” Dave rests his hand on John’s arm, but doesn’t throw him off. They sit together and talk for hours. When Dave finally goes to sleep in a familiar bed, he can’t remember a word they said, but he remembers the way John rested his ankle on Dave’s leg.
It occurs to him slowly, because he’s a slow person. The thought enters his head when he’s brushing his teeth over the sink, toothpaste dripping onto the porcelain. He doesn’t have to shave, but he runs a razor over his thin chin anyway. In the mirror, standing shirtless, he examines his drawn face and pale skin, remnants of a late night and needing to be awake in time for John’s pancakes. He’s always been thin, thinner since his traveling, but his bony shoulders have started to fill out, though he can see his collar and ribs still stick out.
There’s a sound out in the hall, and he sticks his head outside to see John with his face full of shaving cream dancing out on the boards. Casey stands on his feet and laughs, and they dance around in a spinning circle. Dave snorts, and shuffles back to his bathroom, since it’s too early in the morning for this. He envies John’s constant need to shave, and he’s seen the bristly shadow on John’s face when John’s running sloppy and late. John’s body is more filled out, and he likes it. He likes John. He yawns in the mirror, and finishes washing up.
John’s making breakfast in his boxers and a pink apron, Casey clutching to his leg. Dave scratches his balls through his pajama pants and John scolds him, just in time to scald himself with the batter. Dave leans against his elbow and watches John dance around to put his hand under cold water. He likes John’s hairy legs sticking out from the boxers, and he doesn’t think he’s ever seen John more attractive than when he’s standing half-undressed by the sink. He likes John. Dave yawns again, and tells John to hurry up with breakfast.
Before John leaves, he tells him that he’s left cake in the refrigerator. Even though John protests against every comparison with his father, Dave can tell what he inherited. John’s propensity to giving his daughter cake was always worrying, but Casey seems to have inherited a languid approach to baked good. She rolls her eyes, and goes back to playing with Dave’s vinyl records. She’s broken at least one, and cried about it for days. For some reason, it matters less to him now than it did five years ago. He’s wondered what changed, but he’s too busy chasing Casey around the house to pursue the thought.
John comes home late at night, and they eat dinner together. They take turns doing the dishes, but Dave’s managed to trick John into doing them for most nights. He’s wondered who’s the being tricked the most, though, because in return, he’s stuck with taking out the trash. He doesn’t mind it, but whenever he opens the bins, something new pops out. Sometimes, it doesn’t pop out immediately. Sometimes, it pops out from the bag. Sometimes, when he opens the door. John smirks, the stinking pranking master, and Casey’s a good actress for resisting to giggle until Dave’s covered in party glitter. It’s a good thing Dave likes John, or else he wouldn’t stand it.
So it’s not until night that he realizes it. He’s staring at the ceiling, stretched out, when he thinks—he likes John.
And finally, he knows what that means.
They go to the amusement park. John holds Casey’s hand so she doesn’t get lost, and Dave does the same with John’s hand for the same reason. Casey quickly gets jealous, and scurries between them to hold both their hands. John suggests Dave to go ahead and ride on any of them, and he’ll stay with Casey. Five years ago, Dave would have been hopping on the most whirling ride with the shortest line. Now, he’s never looked more forward to tiny spinning teacups.
The teacups were better than he’d even hoped, even though he needed to scrunch his legs inside the cup.
It comes with John goes to buy cotton candy for Casey, because Dave wanted some to steal from her. They sit on a quiet bench, shaded by a squat and friendly oak tree. The red balloon bobs up and down from Casey’s wrist, and she swings her shoes back and forth. She seems tired now, especially since they had to get up early. Dave makes sure she’s drinking her water, and leans back to watch the bobbing yellow booths swindle people out of their money.
“Dave,” she says, the first time to say his name correctly. “Are you on a date with daddy?”
“What? No.” Dave crosses his legs, then uncrosses them. “Did he say anything?”
“N-o… But you two should date. And then get married. That’s what they do in movies,” she says. Dave wonders what movies she must watch with John. Probably Disney. John eats up that Disney shoot like no other.
“Nah, kiddo.” He pats her head. “Would you really be okay with it? If me and your dad started dating and stuff.”
“Yeah! I think it’d be cool.” Casey stares at a teddy giant bear hanging from a booth. “I think he’s lonely sometimes.”
“Your dad’s not lonely. He’s got you.” But Dave thinks, if John had been lonely, it must have lasted for five years. It feels like prying into John’s life, so he doesn’t ask Casey anything more. But Casey swings her head the same way John used to do when he’s talking about sad things, and Dave wonders what made Casey say that. The little things, he thinks. Once a year, maybe Casey has to say things twice to get his attention when he looks out the window. Or maybe when John burns his finger and runs his hand in the sink too long. Casey’s smart. Smarter than himself, anyway, and Dave watches the Ferris wheel curve against the sky.
“He’s not lonely because he got me, but then he’s double not lonely because he got you, too,” she says, smiling. “I like you, Dave.”
“I like you, too, Casey.”
By the time John comes back with the cotton candy, Dave’s been swindled out of five bucks but won a teddy bear that’s bigger than Casey. She gets fussy a few hours later, and she falls asleep on the drive home, head resting on the teddy bear. Dave leans against the driver’s seat, and watches John fall asleep out of the corner of his eye. It’s the same drool and the same stupid face he remembers, but everything’s suddenly different, now. He’s seen rainbows crossing over a meadow, waterfalls dashing against rocks, a small rustic town with cottages built stone after stone. But he doesn’t think anything’s compared to watching John fall asleep with his hair half-matted down from the window.
“Oh, twenty bucks!” John grins with all his teeth, like Casey does, and Dave snorts into his scarf. He never did return the scarf from the first night he arrived into town. But he snorts because John still hasn’t caught on that Dad Egbert sneaks twenty bucks into the linings of all his jackets when John isn’t looking. John usually refuses money when Dad Egbert offers cool cash to him, so Dad Egbert passes it along Dave or Casey. It’s a system, and for whatever reason, John seems to believe he always forgets twenty bucks in his pockets.
“What are you getting Casey?” Dave finally asks, fingers numb from the cold.
They stand in the snow, outside a toy store. A little red train sails smoothly across the tracks, the fake coal cart wiggling into the tunnel. Fancy Santas stand inside, and Dave squints at them without saying anything. He figures it’d ruin John’s Christmas spirit, and break John’s Christmas dilemma of being the best father ever to Casey. Night has already fallen and they’ve been to enough toy stores to make Dave have to rest his tush on pink rocking horses while John paces back and forth.
“I don’t know! You’re already getting her a bike, and I don’t know.” John chews on his lip.
“Come on, I’m cold.” Dave walks backward in the snow, and John trails him. He stops, though, staring up at the lights decorating the store window. Fake green stubs line the sides, and John stops to touch at the felt.
“I think it’s pretending to be mistletoe,” John says, pointing above them. “I mean, it’s hard to tell, but…”
“Are you asking for a kiss?”
“Would you mind if I kissed you?” Dave’s heart beats fast underneath his three layers of coat, hands stuffed in his pockets. He didn’t mean for it to come out like that. He’s thought of the perfect opening for the days, the proper way of touching John’s wrist, the perfect escape plan for when John says no. But the snow sprinkles on John’s dark hair, and John’s face flushes with red. Dave stares down at his feet, and tries not to run. His mind flips through twenty incidents where he’s been put on a spot, but none could match the twisted feeling inside his stomach.
“Um,” John starts, and has to stop again, fingers playing over his mittens. “Um, no. I guess I wouldn’t, mind. If you did.”
“Okay.” Dave flexes and unflexes his fingers, and stares at the tiny train whipping around the track. “What if I keep on kissing you? For a long time, serious, no-shoot sort of way.”
The train has a small golden insignia on the side. He tries to read it, but the writing shrinks away from him every train loop. He wonders if it’s the toy company’s name, or if it’s the tiny company that owns tiny trains and sends them out with tiny goods throughout the world. He can almost read three loops in the gold, and a small scribble at the end, trailing off. He’s probably got it all wrong. The words probably mark the goods.
“I don’t mind,” John says, in a small voice. “If you keep kissing me.”
“Oh.” Dave turns away from the fake cotton snow, staring down at the real snow blanketing the sidewalk. “Cool.”
It’s John who kisses him first, their noses brushing raw against each other. After a second, John leans back, and their hot breath roll out like smoke from their lips. Dave’s afraid to look anywhere other than John’s ear, bright red even against his dark jacket, and he leans forward to kiss him again, and again, and again.
They break enough for John to buy a science kit with fumbling fingers, and they hold hands on the way home. Sometimes Dave turns to kiss him on the ear, and sometimes John kisses him on the nose. He thinks they both have bad aim for the mouth, but it doesn’t matter, not when John kisses him in front of their house.
It’s Casey’s first day of school, and Dave can’t stop snorting on their drive home after dropping her off.
“What?” John asks. “Why are you laughing?”
“Dude,” he says. “You’re one of ‘those’ parents. You can’t deny it, I saw you weeping like you spilled your last bag of Doritos when you had to stop hugging Casey. She was already done with you, dude, she wanted to make friends and she had a bogus daddy still blowing his nose on her backpack.”
“Okay, first, don’t compare Casey to a bag of Doritos. And second, really? Are you really saying that?” John stares at him, gaze interrupted by the swinging pink dice hanging from their rear-view mirror.
“Yeah, I am. You checked out the teachers, you checked out the school, and I saw that lunch you packed her. You got your dad’s genes for cooking way too much, she can’t possibly eat it all. And I saw you write ‘I love you’ in ketchup on there.” Dave shakes his head in mock sorrow. “You’re one of ‘those’ parents.”
“I can’t believe I’m hearing you say that. You, the guy who spent the entire last week picking out her first day outfit! You’re the one who’s one of ‘those’ parents, jeez!” John drags his hands over his face. “There were so many department stores and so many dresses and shoes and accessories and oh, God, Dave, the accessories.”
“Hey, she had to look styling. There’s no shame in that.”
“An entire week, Dave!”
“You stayed up three hours last night to choose it! And this morning, you woke up three hours earlier just to do her hair.” John slumps in his seat. “You’re one of those parents, I know it, God.”
“She looked great.”
“She always looks great.”
Dave had to concede to that. He wasn’t one of “those” parents, no matter what John said. He had only gotten up early because Casey had already been wiggling between them on the bed, so he needed to take the time to do her hair. And if her hair took an hour and Casey fell asleep again in front of the mirror, then that was because he had reached a tier of hair-dos that needed more time. It wasn’t his fault that his last touches made them run late, and he had to jump into the shower with John. Or that he insisted on shampooing John’s hair because even John needed to look presentable to the teachers. Or that his elbow somehow jammed into John’s eye in the cramped tub.
Though Casey looked far better, John wasn’t too shabby, either. Dave had somehow managed to comb his hair down, though it rustled up at every bump of the car. They needed to make a good presentation, for Casey’s sake—
The thought hit him harder than his elbow slammed into John’s eye. He had become one of “those” parents. “Those” parents were him.
He was mournfully turning the car when John spoke up again.
“Are you really sure I should do the thing? I mean, I’m not that great.” Some nightclub was doing an old-fashioned jig, reliving the good old days sorta schtick, and John had applied on Dave’s insistence. He had actually gotten accepted, much to John’s dismay.
“Yeah, dude. It’s just for a few days, and who knows, it could jumpstart your career.”
“It’s a small role, Dave, jeez. But I dunno if I should do it. I need new material, and it’s been years, and I don’t know.”
“Hey.” Dave parked the car, and it fell quiet without another stutter. The fuzzy pink dice smacked his eye when he turned, but he kept his somber expression. “I’m a shit photographer.”
“What? No, you’re not! The magazine already accepted some of your entries and it’s great, you’re great, you took really good pictures—”
“Five years ago, I took shit pictures. And you told me I took great ones.” Dave rests his palms against the steering wheel, in front of their small white house. “If you know why the frog crosses the road, then you’re golden. You can’t fail. I’m swearing this, up and down, you can’t fail. Casey’s going to be there, I’m going to be there, if we can get your Dad away from his prestigious business club yachting expedition, he’ll be there. Because you’re good.”
“Dave, jeez.” But John fiddles with his hands in his lap, trying to bury the grin on his face. “You haven’t changed a bit.”
“You’re the one who didn’t change. Shit, son, thought you’d grow up after five years.”
“You didn’t change! I thought traveling across the world would make you stop laughing at fart jokes! You are just encouraging Casey, you know.”
“You couldn’t change even if you tried, dweeb. I know you’re the one who taught her that joke in the first place.”
John shakes his head, and then leans over to kiss him. He likes John’s still shy kisses, teeth banging against his own. It’s the little things, he thinks. It’s the new house, and the daughter kissing them on their cheeks. It’s the way the bed uncomfortably fits three and the way John bakes a different cake every week, and the way Dave’s pictures line the stairway, fading from deserts and oceans to Casey running in the park and Casey on John’s shoulders and Casey on Dave’s back. But Dave’s given up deep thoughts, rolled them up with the socks in the drawer, and he replaces them with kisses to John’s lips.