By: Patrick Reichard

The Cliffhanger Dilemma

Let’s say you are holding two loved ones over the edge of a cliff, one on each arm. If you had to drop one in order to save the other one, which person do you save? Mom or Dad? Brother or sister? Spouse or kid? Kid 1 or kid 2? Do you drop both because the choice is too equal? People try to say that they would use their super-strength adrenaline to pull both up. That’s a cop-out. You have to choose. For me, the answer is easy: Mom, my brother Dan, and spouse. I have an answer to the kid question, but I’m not going to write it down. Though, if the situation arises, I know what I’m doing.

It’s my “spouse” answer that gets most people. Most people choose the kid over the spouse. When we were married, my wife didn’t hesitate to answer “kid.” She had good reason, too. I’ve already lived my life, and it’s been great, truly. I’ve loved and lost. I’ve danced at prom. I debated in the high school state championship tournament. College was like a four-year sleepover with my best friends. I’ve read books that have transformed me, and I’ve written about the darkest ventricles of my heart. I’ve seen the Grateful Dead in concert. I’ve taken all kinds of drugs. I’ve had beautiful one-night stands. I’ve eaten meals at three-star Michelin restaurants. I’ve kissed the Blarney Stone, drank wine on the Spanish Steps, rode gondolas in Venice, had a Turkish massage in Istanbul, prayed at the Western Wall, ascended Masada at dawn, floated in the Dead Sea, beheld the Great Pyramids of Giza, drank mojitos at Hemingway’s La Bodeguita del Medio in Havana, hiked a volcano in Nicaragua, stood on the floating islands of the Uros on Lake Titicaca, climbed Machu Pichu, boated down the Amazon River, flown over the Nazca Lines, took the Philosopher’s Walk in Kyoto, and descended into the pit of the Terracotta Warriors in Xi’an. I dreamed of being a college professor, then became one. I’ve taught thousands of students. I got married. I had kids. I’ve won championships as a college tennis coach. I’ve had drinks with famous writers and actors. I made one woman laugh so hard that she fell on the floor, and I made one woman cry so hard that her eyes swelled shut. I’ve had my heart broken too. I’ve been rejected. I’ve been dumped. I’ve been cheated on, and I’ve cheated. I’ve lost precious keepsakes. I’ve almost died. I’ve said things that I can never take back. I’ve hurt people. I’ve lost friends. I’ve buried loved ones. If my wife dropped me down the side of the cliff to let my body smash and slowly disintegrate among the rocks and surf below, I would understand why; my daughters have done none of that shit.

My answer was the odd one. When we were married, I would have definitely chosen Sophia over either of my kids. Here was my rationale: she was young; we could always make more babies. At that time, she did most of the work in raising our children. She set up the doctors’ appointments and administered their medicine. She cooked, cleaned, and did the laundry. She bathed them and set out their pajamas. I loved her too, more than I loved myself or at least more than I loved my daughters. Plus, I wouldn’t be able to raise two girls by myself, especially as a grieving widower and the one who caused her death. What do I know about how to care for and braid my daughters’ long hair? What do I know about getting your first period or what to do about cramps? If a boy breaks their heart or harasses them, I’m more likely to enact revenge upon him than I am to console her. At that point, I wasn’t ready to be a single dad. I’d drop the little girls. I’m sorry, Tess and Emily, but I would have chosen your mom.

First Thanksgiving

The first November after Sophia left me, she got the girls for Thanksgiving. She said, “I’ll give you Christmas. I know how much that means to you.” Because of the way the parenting time calendar was, she would have the girls for ten consecutive days. At that point, it would be the longest time I would go without seeing them, except for the two weeks after the incident. And it was their first holiday without their dad.

A week before the holiday, I sent Sophia a message asking her if I could FaceTime with them on Thanksgiving. I would be with my brothers and sisters and their families at my parents’ house as a single person for the first time in ten years. She never responded. So I sent another request and then another and then finally another on Thanksgiving Day. She read the messages but never responded.

That night, I was lying in my high school bedroom, the smallest one, with only one bed. My friend Megan sent me a text message with a photo from Facebook. It was of my daughters sitting at Sophia’s family table. They were seated next to Jared, and Sophia was next to him with her hand on his forearm.

Megan asked me in the text, “Is this the dude?”

Advice

Everyone was giving us the same advice: you have to let your anger go. They said, “You can’t keep bringing up the past. You have to figure out a way to move forward.” Our co-parent counselor said it. The child representative said it. Even in arbitration, the mediator said it. She was a former judge in family law. She even wrote a book about it called The Good Karma Divorce and gave us each a copy. I found the charge for the book on our bill. I read a few chapters before arbitration to prepare. The gist was this: you have to get to the point where you start to feel empathy for your former partner, even when they act cruelly toward you. You need to reframe those actions to think, “Wow, imagine what kind of pain she’s in to do something like that to me.” The child representative agreed and told us to kill each other with kindness.

My college roommate Eric is a therapist in Waco. I told him that Sophia was in psychotherapy, going four days a week while we were still together. He was surprised that type of counseling even existed. He thought it was only for rich people in Manhattan. He said the problem with psychoanalysis is that it tries to fix the past, and you can’t fix the past. In his practice, he tries to find out what triggers people, so they can better respond. He asked me to start noticing the things that cue my stress and advised, “Instead of reaching for a drink, you should go for a walk.” But when you have two little girls sleeping upstairs, you can’t go for a walk. Once I’m done bathing them, putting them in their pajamas, reading stories, brushing their teeth, singing them songs, and giving them hugs, I need a drink.

The mediator stressed that we have to put our differences aside for the sake of the girls. We have to look back at our marriage and appreciate the good moments that we had together. He said, “If you aren’t ready to do that yet, just look at the two beautiful daughters you have.” They made us pull up photos of the girls on our phones and pass them around so all the lawyers could see too. I even looked at the photos on Sophia’s phone and was tempted to see what else was on there.

Everyone says this to me: your daughters are beautiful. They are, objectively speaking. But I cringe when I hear it, and not because we should be emphasizing their other, nonphysical qualities. I cringe because they look exactly like their mother, and she knows it. It’s a point of pride for her. I know they are beautiful; I don’t need anyone else telling me that.

The mediator said it: your daughters are beautiful, and you got two beautiful girls from this marriage. I’m supposed to think of this as a blessing, that if I had to do it all over again, I would because of Tess and Emily. But the truth is I wouldn’t. If I had a time machine, I would go back in time and prevent myself from marrying Sophia. I’m sorry, Tess and Emily, but if I could redo it, you would not exist. I would have some other kids, and they would not be you.

Glasses

After Thanksgiving, the lawyers called a meeting to set some rules for making calls and interacting with each other during the divorce. We had all the lawyers there (all of them charging an hourly rate): my lawyer, his associate lawyer, her lawyer, her associate lawyer, and the child guardian. I had about a thousand things to say to Sophia. But I had forgotten everything I wanted to say because she was wearing glasses.

I wasn’t sure what was going on with her because I hadn’t seen her for months, so I really didn’t know if she had some medical condition that suddenly required glasses. The meeting went on, and she asked me for more parenting time with the girls. I said no.

At the end of the meeting, I asked her if her glasses were prescription ones. She said, “I really don’t feel like talking to you,” and left with her lawyers.

My lawyer stayed behind with me and tried to explain what the next steps in the divorce would be. I couldn’t concentrate on anything he was saying. I asked him, “What was up with those glasses? Her vision was always perfect.”

“Listen, man,” he said, “she’s on her journey now. Your best bet is to try to not think about it.”

But I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I called my mom and my sisters and my friends and told them all about the glasses. No one else thought it was a big deal. But I couldn’t sleep because I was thinking about those glasses.

Greta

Greta is my best friend Scott’s daughter. She has an abiding love for me. She was born the same month that Sophia and I started dating, in the fall of 2007. So I measured our relationship by how old Greta was. She was almost two when we got engaged. Greta was with Scott and me when I picked out an engagement ring at a jewelry store in New York. She was three when we got married and was a flower girl in our wedding. She was four when Sophia got pregnant with Tess. When Greta heard the news, she was inconsolable. Her mother Christine made us come over to reassure Greta that we would still love her even with a new baby. Her mom was laughing about how hard Greta was taking the news. But Greta knew something that no one else was willing to admit, that Sophia and I would see a lot less of her once we had a child of our own. Greta was almost ten when Sophia left me.  She’s eleven as I write this.

When she was two years old, I was pushing her in one of those baby swings at the park across the street from her house. She was smiling and laughing at me. Sophia wanted to join in our fun and came up from behind me, wrapping her arms around my waist. Greta, suddenly mad, pointed a finger and yelled, “That’s my Patrick!”

Proposal

One of my go-to password recovery questions for my secure accounts is “What is the city where you were engaged?” The answer is New York. I bought the ring with Scott and Greta while Sophia spent the afternoon shopping with Scott’s wife, Christine. Greta was two and caused a scene in the fancy jewelry store on Fifth Avenue. She was running around and putting her messy hands on all the shiny glass cases, all while these happy couples were drinking champagne and looking at rings together. Neither Scott nor I could do anything to calm her down, so all three of us were put in the manager’s office. That day, Greta probably convinced a few of those couples to remain childless.

The whole evening was planned out. I had invited her friends and mine and got twenty tickets to see my brother star as Candide at the Met, opposite Richard Kind. Her mom came too and brought her new boyfriend. As our friends arrived at my parents’ place in Chelsea, I made up some poor excuse to leave with Sophia to walk down the street to the Hudson River. As we got to a small park at the water’s edge, I got down on one knee and opened the box to reveal the ring. It was .75 carat, way more than I could afford. I put it on my credit card. I started breathing short. Even though I had rehearsed a few proposals, I stumbled through it like this: “Sophia, will you do me the honor of being . . . or by taking my hand in . . . would you make me the happiest man by . . . will you marry me?” She let out a sharp cry. I waited for an answer. With tears in her eyes, she took the box but didn’t touch the ring. I was still on my knee. “So the answer is yes?” I asked, truly not sure if I had sealed the deal. She nodded and said yes, softly, and I stood up. She put the ring on. We hugged, and then we kissed.

She was too emotional to return to the party right away, which was already going on, my friends and her friends, all drinking champagne that Scott bought. We walked around Chelsea Piers and came to the driving range on 18th Street. We walked to end of the pier, where all the golfers were smashing balls straight at us, but they all fell harmlessly into the protective netting. We just stood there, admiring the ring. “It’s so bright,” she said, and moved it back and forth on the underside of her finger with her thumb.

“The jeweler told me that you have to clean it regularly, and they gave me a polishing cloth,” I said.

Marriage/ Divorce/ Remarriage

Sophia and I dated for four months before we had sex for the first time. We dated for a year before we moved in together. We lived together for six months before I proposed. We were engaged for a year and a half before we married. We waited a year before we started trying to conceive. We had Tess two years after our wedding. We had Emily two and a half years later. Sophia left me when Emily was two and a half.

She met Jared on July 27 of 2016. She had sex with him two weeks later on August 15, our seventh wedding anniversary. She moved in with him on August 22.

We were divorced on September 5, 2017, Tess’s sixth birthday. She married Jared two days later. She posted it on Facebook. I didn’t see it because she had blocked me. My niece told me about it.

Bedtime Stories

A month after Sophia left me, I was reading bedtime stories to Tess. She had just turned five. I was probably reading The Berenstain Bears, her favorite books, though I found them to be insipid. The father is always a hapless goof, and the moral of the story is always explained through some pithy speech from Mama. In the middle of the story, Tess stopped me and said, “Daddy, you were not being very nice to my mommy.”

“Who told you that?” I asked.

“My mommy did.”

“I was always nice to your mom,” I lied.

“No, you weren’t. You threw my mommy down the stairs.”

“No, I did not,” I said firmly this time.

“Yes, you did.”

“No, I never did that. That’s not nice. And you should never do something like that.”

“Yes, you did. You threw her down the stairs.”

“Tess, I didn’t do that. I would never do that. Let’s just finish this story and sing songs.”

“OK, Daddy.”

I finished the story, sang five songs to her because she was five years old, and walked downstairs. I went out the backdoor and went into the garage. I closed the door behind me and started screaming. I wanted to smash everything I owned.

 

Tyrese and Chyail

Sophia told all of our neighbors that I threw her down the stairs. She even told the little kids. She told Tyrese, age fifteen, and his niece, Chyail, eleven. She even told Dewon, who was only eight. That summer, I’d spent a lot of time with Dewon gardening in my backyard, since Tyrese was too old to work with me anymore.

Tyrese wouldn’t talk to me when I moved back in. He walked right past me in the park and didn’t even turn his head to look at me. I had known him since he was five, and I loved this kid like a son.

Chyail came over to the house and wanted to know about Sophia. She sat down with me in the living room. I’ve known her since she was two, so this was not unusual.

“So, when’s Sophia coming back?”

“She’s not coming back. She’s in Bridgeport now, across the highway.”

“I like Bridgeport.”

“It’s nice,” I said.

“So, she ain’t gonna live here no more?”

“Nope. She has a boyfriend now.”

“I knew it! Oh, I knew it!” she said, proud of herself. Chyail must have been talking to her mother and grandmother about this situation.

“She said that you threw her down the stairs.”

“She told you that?”

“Yeah.”

“Well, I need to tell you that it’s not true.”

“Yeah, that’s what she told me and Tyrese.”

“It’s not true. I wouldn’t do that.”

“Yeah, I figured.”

“I’d like to talk to Tyrese about this sometime.”

“OK, Patrick, I’ll tell him that you wanna talk.” Just like that, she got up and left.

Potty Training

During arbitration, Sophia’s lawyer asked me if I was hitting the girls. Sophia chimed in about some story about Emily putting her hand out while she was sitting on the toilet. Sophia asked her why she was extending her hand. Tess explained that Dad sometimes hits Emily’s hand. Sophia said that she didn’t know if it was true or not. I reassured that it wasn’t true. I said she probably just needed a hand getting off the toilet because she was too small. I asked why she was bringing this question up in arbitration. If I thought she were hitting the girls, I’d probably broach the issue with her immediately. I wondered if she was trying to undermine Tess’s credibility because she had reported to the child therapist a lot of damning things about Sophia’s parenting choices. Her lawyer made me agree that there would be no corporal punishment. The truth is that I have slapped Emily’s hand before. This girl would run onto the Dan Ryan if I didn’t. But I never hit her while she was on the toilet. What kind of potty training is that?

Pick up/Drop off List

Sophia asked me if she could keep the girls for Wednesday, November 9, 2016, because her mom was visiting from Maine, though it was on my regular parenting time. I told her no because it was my birthday. Sophia kept the girls home anyway, though she didn’t tell me she was doing that. It was the day after the election of Donald J. Trump.

I went to pick the girls up after school, but they weren’t there. I was frantic. I called my lawyer. He said he’d take care of it. He sent an email to her lawyer, threatening to call the police if the kids weren’t brought to school within the hour. Sophia was at work downtown and left immediately. I knew this because she was still parking her car across the street, despite the fact that she was still pursuing an order of protection against me. I saw her get into her car. I was jumping rope in front of my house, a nervous habit I started during the divorce. I saw her texting for a few minutes as I worked up a sweat. She didn’t see me. She just sat there in the driver’s seat. She finished her texts and turned on her car. She started to turn down my street, then she saw me, and turned her car quickly in a different direction.

I finished jumping rope and put jeans on. I gave her some time to drop the girls off. I got into my car and drove back to school. She was still there, dropping them off. I saw her. It was the first time I stood next to her in two months. Emily was in her arms and practically leapt from her arms to mine.

I got them in my car, and we started to drive to SkyZone for my birthday celebration. On the drive there, Tess said, “I don’t like it when Jared does pick up and drop off.”

“What? Jared doesn’t do drop off and pick up,” I said.

“Yes, he does,” she said.

“Tess, are you telling me a story?”

“No, I don’t like it when Jared does drop off and pick up.”

I decided to call the school to verify this. The school principal called me back said that Sophia had indeed added Jared to the drop off and pick up list. I asked the principal how it was possible that she could add him without my knowledge. She said either parent is allowed to add anyone to the pick up/drop off list. I said that I should have been informed. She said she had assumed that Sophia had told me. I said she knew we were going through a divorce and I need to be informed of these changes. She said they would inform me of these changes in the future. I said OK. I hung up the phone. I got out of the car with the girls still inside. I was standing in the parking lot of SkyZone, and I just started screaming. People gawked at me. I didn’t care. I just screamed.

“Joy”

One Friday night, I took the girls to Zoo Lights at the Lincoln Park Zoo on the north side. I picked them up after school, when it was already dark. It was three weeks before Christmas and snowing lightly. I packed all the things I might need: food, water bottles, an extra diaper, and each a change of clothes in case one of them had an accident. I had never been to Zoo Lights before. I had heard it was a great thing for kids: outdoor light displays, Christmas music, hot chocolate, and zoo animals. The problem was that it was outside, and Tess and Emily were five and two.

Despite my aching heart, I was determined to do it. I had taken them to things like this dozens of times by myself, like pumpkin or apple picking, swimming or sledding. The girls were tired though, and they started crying in my car on our way there, thirty minutes of this. I played kids’ songs. I bribed them with candy. Nothing worked. I gripped the steering wheel hard and crawled through the packed Friday Chicago traffic. I parked the car and had to pay $20, which I could no longer afford. Admission was free.

I got them out of the car, and Emily was still crying. She ripped off her hat and coat, then dropped down to the frozen asphalt, crying and rolling around.

I can’t do this, I thought. I can’t do this. I can’t do this. I started hyperventilating, tears stinging my eyes in the cold. No one was helping me. No one else was in the parking lot. There was one man at the entrance watching us.

“Fuck it,” I said. “We’re going home.” I put them back in their car seats. Then, they started howling. Not a protest cry, really howling, like I just cancelled Christmas.

“I wanna go to Zoo Lights! Daddy, you said we were going to Zoo Lights! Daddy! Daddy!” I got in the car, fastened my seat belt, turned it on, and put it into reverse. “We’ll be good! She’ll put her coat on,” Tess said. This was not an empty threat. I really just wanted to go home, but they begged me.

I parked again and got them out of the car. I put their coats, hats, and mittens back on. They were wiping their tears away. “Carry me.” I picked up Emily. “Carry me too.” I picked up Tess in my other arm. Cradling them like trophies, I walked past the man standing at the entrance. He didn’t say anything. But how could he not be impressed with the way I flipped that scene?

Even with hot chocolate, they were cold, so we spent most of the time at the indoor exhibits, watching the sea lions through the aquarium glass. They darted through the water, reached the end, rolled over, and darted back in the opposite direction. After that, we found this indoor climbing maze for kids. I let them in even though Emily was probably too small. They went in and didn’t want to come out. It was already way past their bedtime, but I didn’t care. I let them climb all over it. When it reached the point of absurdity, Tess came out, but Emily was in the heart of the maze, and it was too small for me to pull her out. She refused to budge, so I had to employ some other moms and their kids to coax Emily out of there. Everyone clapped when she made it out.

For our last stop, we went to the gift shop, even though I knew I wasn’t going to buy anything. They gave us these complimentary 3-D glasses. You had to look at the tiny Christmas lights to see a superimposed image. Each one was different; some had Santa Clauses or snowmen or candy canes. I put mine on. On the corona around every light on the display tree was the word JOY.

It’s a Wonderful Life

Every Christmas, the Music Box, an old theater in Chicago, plays It’s a Wonderful Life right before Christmas. The theater is always packed with families. As an opening act, a person plays the old organ on the left side of the stage and leads the audience in Christmas carols. Then Santa comes onstage and the kids go nuts. It’s really cute. It is.

My friend Scott organized the outing the year Sophia left. I didn’t have the kids that weekend, so he bought a ticket for me, and I went with him and his kids. They fought over who got to sit next to me. I sat next to James, Scott’s only son. He wrapped his little arms around my arm as the movie started.

I started crying during the first scene. I had to get up during the movie and go to the bathroom several times to clean my face and calm my breathing. Finally, I just left halfway through the movie and sat in the entrance, where a bunch of mothers were with their fussy babies and toddlers.

Scott came out a few minutes later and said let’s go home. He said that Christine would bring the kids home after the movie. We walked back to his house. It was still light out and snowing but surprisingly warm. He put his arm around me as we shuffled through the snow and the Christmas shoppers on Southport. My breathing heaved over and over, until I couldn’t hold back. Pedestrians stared as we walked against them.

Natural Consequences

During the fall semester right after Sophia left me, I had to take a leave of absence from my graduate school program. But I kept teaching at Prairie State because I had to do something. I was teaching a creative nonfiction course there, and I told my students that I was going through a divorce. I didn’t know how else to teach them under the circumstances.

One of my students was an older man named Bill. He was a retired teacher and was writing a memoir about his deceased son, his only child, who died while he was away at college about twenty years ago. It occurred to me that I was the same age as his son would have been if he were still alive.

In his memoir, Bill was writing about his son’s upbringing. Bill kept writing this refrain “natural consequences” about the little punishments for the bad behavior of his son; it was part of their parenting philosophy: natural consequences.

His son died when he slipped off the icy roof of his dormitory, where he and his friends would hang out and smoke cigarettes. In our workshop, I suggested the title “Natural Consequences” for the piece.

“No,” he said, “I thought about that, but that title implies that his death was a natural consequence.”

Tyrese

Eventually, Tyrese came over to talk to me. He sat on a couch opposite the couch where I sat down. He looked out the window to his right; his view was of the plastic siding on the house next door.

He was fifteen years old.

I told him that Sophia left me. I told him that she had a boyfriend. I told him that I didn’t do what she said I did.

He said, “OK.” He paused. He continued to stare out the window. I wanted him to look me in the eye. “Patrick,” he said, “she said that you threw her down the stairs.”

“I know. Tyrese, I was arrested. I went to jail. We had a trial, everything.”

“It’s just that you can’t do something like that. To Sophia, to your wife.”

“I know, but I didn’t do it. There’s a lot more to the story. But I need you to believe me about that one thing.”

“OK, Patrick.” He glanced at me.

“I mean, we had a trial about this, and I was innocent. She lied about everything.”

He stood up. “We’re cool.” He shook my hand weakly.

After that day, he stopped coming by. He was getting too old to visit with me anyway.

The Mom and Dad Video

Both before and after our separation, our daughter Tess liked to watch this video that we played at our rehearsal dinner. My mom made the video, which wasn’t exactly a video but more like a slideshow of photos of our separate childhoods and then photos of our dating life together. The video was set to the Beach Boys’ song “God Only Knows,” one of our songs. It starts with the conceit, “I may not always love you.” Supposedly, this was the first pop song to ever mention God in the lyrics.

Tess loved the photos of us as kids, and after school, she would say, “I want to watch the mom and dad video.” After the separation, she seemed to be surprised by the photos of us together.

One time after the movie, Tess said, “I miss my mom.”

I said, “I miss her too.”

Puppet Shows

After Thanksgiving, the lawyers made us do nightly FaceTime calls. The girls hated it; it interrupted their playtime and got boring. Asking a five-year-old and a two-year-old “How was your day?” isn’t interesting. “Fine,” they parroted back every night.

So I got a puppet. He was a wolf. I would talk to the girls for a few seconds, and then Wally the Wolf (I named him) would come into the frame. Emily shrieked in fear, and Tess laughed. After a while, they spoke only to Wally. Then I got more puppets: a hedgehog and a sock puppet. I would prop my phone up on the kitchen counter and make the puppets converse and fight and kiss. It was hard for me to keep their voices distinct. The girls didn’t want to hang up, and neither did I.

Juggling

I would always know how bad I was doing by how clean the floors were. If the girls slipped on them while wearing their socks, I was thoroughly depressed. If the floor collected dust bunnies and had Cheerios all over the place, I was doing OK.

I cleaned the floors because I didn’t have anything better to do at night. I didn’t keep alcohol in the house anymore because it was too dangerous. I was tired of watching TV because every time I turned on Netflix, I could see which shows Sophia was watching with Jared.

So I taught myself to juggle. We always have tennis balls lying around the house. I just started trying to do it but would drop all of them after three throws. Then I watched YouTube videos and practiced my technique. It took a week before I got good.

One night, when Sophia called me for our nightly FaceTime, I showed the girls my new skill. I propped my phone up at an angle that would show me standing in the kitchen, with the overhead light as a halo over me. I could see their faces beaming up at me from the phone. I started doing it, and I could hear Tess say, “Wow.” Then I dropped all the balls and they laughed hysterically. So I started doing it intentionally. I would juggle for ten seconds, singing that circus music song, and then drop them all over the kitchen, continuing to move my hands as though I were still juggling.

Order of Protection

Even after the trial concluded, Sophia pursued an order of protection against me. Still, every morning, she parked her car across the street from my house. I asked her why she was doing that, and she didn’t respond. Eventually, she explained: “Reasons for my choice of parking spot include zone permissions, convenience to the green line, and safety.” The judge never granted the order.

Doll Houses

Every night before bed, Tess and Emily play with a dollhouse in their room. I was never sure why Sophia didn’t take this with her when she moved out. They played with it for months and would always perform the same action: putting the babies to bed in their cribs. I paid little attention to the house itself until one morning when I was picking up all the pieces to the house—chairs, beds, cribs, etc.—I found that there were only three people in the house: a pink baby, a blue baby, and a dad. I don’t know what happened to the mom.

During the Christmas season, my mom gave the girls a toy crèche, with a little Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus. Tess would place these figurines into creative arrangements, sometimes with Jesus in his crib on top of the manger where the angel usually goes. One day I looked at my phone and found pictures of her latest arrangement. It was Jesus in the middle, Joseph on one side, and Mary on the other, but Mary was turned toward one of the shepherds, who was also in the manger. Tess had taken 105 photos of it.

The Sophia Poems

During my first year of graduate school, I took a poetry-writing course. I like writing poetry and I teach poetry, both literature and creative writing poetry at my college. But I got into graduate school, a program for writers, on the strength of my fiction writing. I wanted to take this course to test my chops in a way that I hadn’t since undergrad, fifteen years prior.

I loved it, too. I started finding inspiration for my poems everywhere. If I had an idea, I would take out my phone and start recording lines. My poems were about my teaching, Sophia, my daughter Tess, who was a year old at that time. I liked writing these poems so much that I even considered changing my focus to poetry. I asked my advisor about this possibility. She talked to my poetry instructor, who said that I must be a very good fiction writer.

For my final portfolio, I put together a collection of ten poems that I called The Sophia Poems:

Three-Legged Race

 

That’s what you called it, our first date,

going on a run together

I laughed at the idea of our legs bound together.

 

I think about this when I am away from you—

on a jog by myself,

or driving home on a rainy November night.

 

Sometimes I think of it when I see a woman

with no ring on,

and she looks back at me,

 

Or when you put tampons on my grocery list

(I know your brand)

and at the mall, when I sling your red purse over my shoulder.

 

I think of it when I buy a plane ticket

to see your mother,

and carry your luggage as well as my own.

 

Or when I am sick or depressed or exhausted,

and you bring me a blanket,

make me homemade pizza and do the dishes afterward.

 

I think about it when I have to work late,

when everyone else is gone,

and we write another mortgage cheque.

 

And in my careless moments, ordering a round of drinks,

though I should go home

and split a bottle of wine with you.

 

Still, with arms around each other’s shoulders,

syncing into a rhythm,

we hop forward, our eyes both looking ahead.

 

I see the two-legged ones over there,

smiling when we stumble;

they don’t know what fun we’re having.

Growing Old Together

You used to say to me, “I want to grow old together.” I always got confused by the romance of this sentiment because I don’t want to grow old, with you or anyone else.

Patrick Reichard is a professor of English at Prairie State College in Chicago Heights, Illinois, and a student in the Program for Writers at University of Illinois at Chicago. He lives on the south side of Chicago with his two daughters.