We’re driving over a bridge expanse, and the cable-stays are lit periodically with lantern effects. This means I see Cayde in occasional relief as we pass beneath the lights. Every three hundred feet or so, I catch glimpse of those brown eyes, the wrinkled brow he’s affected from me. We’re sharing the back seat—the back BACK seat of the mini-van—while Jenn drives. Cayden finds something novel about riding so far to the posterior: he enjoys the wrap-around glass of the rear-window, the seat that is proportioned to his measurements but not mine. I’m knotted a few times over, legs straining to find approximate repose among the middle seats. This is a cantilevered bridge, so tension seems appropriate.
“Daddy: what’s 6×2?”
Here we go. In Cayden’s world, ‘what’s 6×2?’ is a conversation starter, the equivalent of a ‘how are you,’ or, ‘how about this weather we’re having?’ We’re heading out of Napa, passing over whatever waters fuel the ‘C&H’ sugar factory east of San Fran. We’ve had Thomas Keller’s ‘Ad Hoc’ for dinner and I’ve yet to shed the cardigan, blazer and tie I wore for the occasion. It’s increasingly warm at the back of the van. I can’t impress upon Cayden why it is I’m so dressed up, Ad Hoc being a bucket-list restaurant of mine. I actually saw Chef Thomas Keller today, just a few doors up the street. We had stopped the van momentarily so I could take a picture of The French Laundry, Keller’s famed four-star establishment. He was on the back patio in chef’s whites addressing the service staff. (This is my version of a celebrity sighting). All of the linemen and souxs—they had their arms crossed behind their backs, blue stripes ringing their coat-sleeves like culinary admirals. The van idled. I didn’t dare shoot a photo of Keller—he garnered applause from his staff beneath a vine-strung pergola—and it felt more appropriate for me to just document the middling flax garnishing the ‘French Laundry’ nameplate instead.
Hey: Keller won the Bocuse d’Or. I just make a mean risotto. Back to the van.
“Daddy: what’s 6×2?”
“12. You know that.”
And so on. The bridge is soon over and so are the base-ten questions. Cayde escalates the math. He is fond of the numbers ‘42’ and ‘68’. Usually, he wields them in a rather magnanimous fashion, the numbers representing his immense ‘like’ of something. As in: “Daddy, I love you 42 68 eleventy BILLION.” Which is always a nice affirmation to hear: a Euclidean thumbs-up of sorts. But tonight, it’s ‘what’s 42×68?’ Like a challenge.
I remove my tie and cardigan. My belly’s warm. I’m not used to eating so much, so late. But despite the food and the IPA flight, I answer correctly. I’ve forgotten my calculus over the years, but not my arithmetic.
“2856. Hey, Cayde: why all the questions?”
‘6000. Seriously, Cayde—the questions.’ We’re passing through green hillocks, now nighttime grey. Oak trees fast become street signs. I rest my head against the back seat.
“Daddy—you know all the answers.’
I pointedly look at Finn who’s snoring in his chair, sleep masking his almond eyes. No, I don’t.
Silence for a while.
“I just wanna know all the answers before I’m in first grade,” Cayde announces. This seems a reasonable timeframe. Why not. That’s when I knew all the answers too, by virtue of there not being that many questions.
I drape my arm over Cayde’s car seat and we’re passing by the Lafayette Reservoir. Were it daytime, the oak trees would signal something of return passage into the East Bay. The BART line reaches this far and the trains pulse in steady whoosh left of the road.
“Dad-DEE!” Cayde’s looking to find comfort against the constrains of his seat belt and he fingers me as the source of his unrest. “You’re making me uncomfortable!” It’s not me, of course: it’s the car seat and its tangle of straps.
But this is how Cayde sees me these days: I am at once the source of all answers and the wellspring of frustration. Everything is my fault. I can only reposition myself in what is already an uncomfortable position.
“Cayde: well—here.” I loosen Cayde’s seatbelt and hold him in the back seat. He’s comfortable enough to fall asleep in my arms, bucked forward, while my arms strain against the weight of his sleeping body. Cayde snores, eventually, in tandem with his brother. By the time we pull up to my aunt’s house—where we’re staying this vacation–the loropatelum blossoms are asleep and Cayden’s asleep. It’s a short climb up the stoop, then everyone’s in bed. My arms are decidedly sore.
I drift off last. Just after Finn rattles his toy keys one last indiscriminate time and Cayde confirms he is still asleep by rasping a few quiet snores.
Everything is my fault. I think these things as I try and sleep. When I’m not the ‘go-to arithmetician,’ I’m simply ‘to blame’.
Listen: if I discipline Cayden, I am told I’m “breaking his heart”; if I dare raise my voice in those heated parenting moments, my portrait is drawn with fangs in chalk on the sidewalk; if I make one mistake in doling out consequence, use one poorly chosen word, I’m the guilty one. I’m the one that needs reigning in.
“Cayden: this is your own damn fault!” (This may be about relinquishing the iPad or refusing a bath, just something that has escalated into a pitting of wills and the earning of consequence).
“No! It’s YOUR fault Daddy!” And as I play into this exchange, it becomes my fault. Like, 48 62 eleventy billion my fault. Because my voice is raised and my chest is tight, and I’ve let loose a gratuitous curse and I’ve forgotten the cardinal rule that he’s just testing my boundaries to make sure I’m still in charge and that he is safe. Guilt becomes something free-floating—this has probably gone too far—and, as words are exchanged, that guilt is quickly lent substance. It becomes almost palpable. I’m screwing it up again.
Listen: I’m too angry, I’m damaging him.
I prop Cayden up in the back seat of the mini-van as he sleeps and I’m suddenly apologetic as the lights illuminate his face in periodic fashion. I remain awake. ‘Didn’t mean to bark at you, Cayde, when you fell into the garden bed outside Ad Hoc. You certainly fucked up your Easter linens, though.” (For chrissake: he was being a BOY. Simply, and without the thought of reigning it in. Keller’s not gonna miss the loss of a salvia sproutling ). There’s a smile, then a frown, as we pass beneath lamp after lamp: it’s a nickelodeon of changing expression. When his eyes flutter, I hope he takes a picture of the moment before fast dissolving back into sleep.
It really is the car seat that hurts him. I’m propping him up so he can sleep comfortably. I hope he realizes that this my small sacrifice to him, and—as he passes into Nod—I hope this will somehow sustain him. At least till morning.
I know what’s ‘6×2’. And I saw Chef Keller today. Can’t all be bad.
Later, at the Best Western in Mariposa, I watch the traffic pass on the 41. I’ve sat myself down curbside with a plastic cup of juniper ale. The cars pass and their brake lights are something beautiful: streaks of red down the highway. The sky is not what you’d might expect crowning the Yosemite Valley. It’s muddy and flecked with very few stars. Not exactly what I was hoping to show Cayden. The Milky Way is still something he hasn’t seen save for the telegraph points present in our San Diego sky, the stars that barely suggest the galactic sweep hidden beyond our view. I remember the first time I saw the Milky Way in its full splendor, the moment it really hit home that we were looking outwards through the cosmic arm of a giant spiral. The stars set slowly in their great arc as satellites traversed the same curvature–just more quickly–and there was the sense that orbits were relative, and circular.
Cayde will not experience that this trip. Circularity instead comes in the form of a highway–the 41—whose curves prove unkind to Cayden’s stomach. There are mad loops through the redwood forest; I get to experience, first-hand, what a PB&J looks like, homogenized, and strikingly pink in a barf bag.
“Daddy—my stomach hurts.”
“It’s cool, Cayde: don’t worry.”
For the second time, we’re alongside the road. Cayde tries to cough up in a bed of pine needles. I’m pissing unceremoniously against a redwood. “No worries, Cayde. Take a breath, dude.” He does. “Look, Cayde-snow.” There’s a dirty patch alongside the road, stained brown. He jumps in it. I point to a sign pinned to a tree. “Apparently, bears have been here, Cayde. That’s what the sign says.” Stupid me—Cayde jumps back into the van. His stomach proves ok until we get back to the motel.
The tree line outside the motel is grey and any idea of expanse comes in the form of a full-service Vons at the end of a switchback highway, two blocks down from the Best Western. We pick up a turkey breast, some crackers, and some libations. Cayden gets a ‘Lunchable’. Ask him: he will tell you this is the highlight of his vacation. Didn’t matter that he experienced both the Yosemite and Bridalveil Falls, his joyful face wet with mist. End all, he gets a Lunchable, and—after having survived the 41, and after surviving his dad’s lectures to “really quit climbing over every gravestone and rock and fence in Lower Yosemite, Jeezus Christ”—Cayde is delighted. He gets Skittles and some processed ham in a plastic tote. He gets to swim, too, at the Best Western, 45 minutes from Yosemite. He’s on Cloud Nine.
We’ve marched up to the pool. The Mariposa Best-Western is terraced and the pool is hard to find. There are at least five staircases leading up to the “indoor spa”. Purple honeysuckle fashion the stairwells. This really is a fun lodge. Above our headboards are kitschy paintings of Half-Dome (resembling rounds of Camembert more than anything else) and the pool is an indoor oasis ripe with chlorine blossoms and murals of pine trees.
Once there, Cayde swims ecstatic; Jenn tows Finn in a slow circle. Finn kicks occasionally and laughs; Jenn laughs too, and I’m situated at a poolside table scrolling through my phone. It’s an indoor pool and the air is heavy with a bleachy smell. I should be swimming, too, but it’s 7 pm and I’m content to watch my family suit up while I remain in my road-clothes. Cayden has a face reserved just for swimming, and he’s wearing it now while he navigates the pool in floaties.
“Daddy!” Cayden has nothing really to tell me—he just wants me to look at him, and I do, as he splashes about. His smile is precious.
I wave to Cayde. I probably look fairly stupid in long-sleeves what with the humidity fogging the windows. Jenn’s in her bathing suit, and I like the view: Finn’s tugging about, hut-hutting that laugh of his.
This kid appears. Left of my shoulder.
“Your phone is broken.” (My screen is fractured—let’s call the kid astute).
“Yes–yes, it is.”
“Really broken. Not my fault, you know.”
The kid has hair combed to the left and he sports a pouted belly. He’s pointing to my phone, and I register his eyes. They’re blank, but I know there’s something going on upstairs. I figure autism.
“Nope—not your fault.” My feed is stalled on a meme featuring Kate Upton. There’s ample breasts involved, perhaps not appropriate. I slowly turn my phone upside-down.
“I didn’t break your phone, y’know.”
“I know.” I make what I hope is a compassionate face. “It fell out of my pocket—shattered.” I shrug.
“It’s not my fault—it’s your fault. I didn’t break your phone.” I’m not sure if this is an accusation, and I really don’t know where this is coming from. I hope he didn’t see that photo of Kate Upton’s tits. He’s probably all of seven.
“It’s your fault.” He’s not being mean. He’s in fact smiling, but de facto I feel the guilt precipitating again. Like the pool water beading the windows, the chlorine heat finding certain register, the poolside greenery dripping a little.
The kid has vacant eyes and he’s really close to me.
Andy’s dad collects Andy.
“What’re you doing?” He smirks my direction. “C’mon, Andy.”
I look towards Finn hoping that Andy’s dad follows my gaze. He doesn’t.
“G’night Andy,” I say. I collect Finn in two towels. It’s a long walk from the pool to our room.
Finn gazes up at me. Huge smiles as we negotiate the myriad stairs. I get lost, then find my way again. We pass by a ‘permanent’ building, the only building replete with wind chimes in all of the Best Western. Chickens and doves compete for coop-space in a makeshift construct. Chimes clang; a dove does its neck-thing and coos. I wonder who lives here.
“C’mon, Finn.” There is beaded water decorating his forehead. He pumps an arm in response. He’s happy. He’s always happy.
I wonder about Andy. And I can’t help but think, at his prodding, that—really—it is all my fault. Like the pool water finding form on the under-lobes of philodendron leaves, guilt just precipitates, finds home. Doesn’t matter what I have or haven’t done; that guilt I always feel when disciplining Cayde becomes something real, and it finds deposit in recollections of my guiltiest moments.
I’m sorry I yelled at you, Cayde. I’m sorry for yesterday. I’m sorry for this ever-present red plastic cup, the lack of stars, and this highway which is long and too curvy and which makes you throw up. Sorry, Cayde. It’s all my fault. Tomorrow we’ll do better. Sorry I punched a dent into your wall at age 2 and that you actually remember that.
Once I put Finn to bed, Cayde marches into the motel room. Sans trunks, he is naked and beaming. His penis is uncircumcised, small in the cold, and he’s laughing and flexing his arms.
‘Really, Cayde?’ I don’t protest too much. Just roll my eyes. Cayde giggles and bounces around. He bounces off the beds in total abandon, naked butt testing the mattresses, little tidbits flapping around.
‘Cayde: get dressed.’ Bounce.
‘Please get dressed.’ Cayde takes two more bounces before saying: ‘OK, Daddy.’
It’s predictable. As Cayde pulls his shorts up, there comes the question: ‘Daddy, what’s 6×2?’
I would usually say ’12.’ This time I say: ‘nothing, Cayden’. Don’t worry about the math, Kid.
We go to bed. We’re asleep beneath a bad mural, and—with everything my fault—causality arcs the way of satellites Cayde hasn’t yet seen. Circular and relative. If this is all really my fault, and the night sky is mud: well, ok.
I kiss Cayden a good night. Let it be my fault. The stars will be out tomorrow.