Fun Family Anecdote

Late at night, our gaps filled in by liquor, we are transformed into kind and patient spouses. Chairs scrape on uneven bricks. Bug torches glow and lights shaped like hot peppers swing above, imparting a halo of light that blurs Gwen’s edges. I often wonder, but have never asked, if she sees me through the same forgiving filter.

“We can disappear.” These three words, spoken out loud—finally!—wedged between second and third cocktails, open the floodgates. “Get away from all this.”

I circle my hands expansively, hoping this maneuver encompasses everything relevant: yard, weedy patio, vinyl-sided house, objects inside said house.

“Really?” Gwen’s response is not so much contentious as indignant. “You’re gonna make all of us disappear? How do you plan on getting the five of us out of here, hotshot?”

We are employing our secret marital voices. The exact vocabulary of our scheming mustn’t leak through the windows—especially Youngest Child’s, drafty and showing the first signs of rot. Better they assume the parents are murmuring about mutual love, planning the next family vacation, rehashing Middle Child’s chances of making Varsity in the fall.

“Besides, we got rid of the minivan!” 

Practical Gwen! Predictable Loveable Gwen!

“How would we . . . with five of us?”

A song comes on that was popular in our volatile, sexy courtship days. We have danced to it many times—herky-jerky, disconnected, barely touching—as was the style.

“Not five of us.” Gulping back my words now, possibly to the point of being inaudible. “Not really.”

“OK, four then!” Short, snapping syllables. “He’ll be off at school. On his own. I have a feeling it’s going to stick this time!”

“Just two. Only two. Only Us.”

We’re reaching the point of No Return; the embryo of my plan, under wraps so long, has been revealed.

“Oh, shut up.”

This is jockeyed between us all the time, playfully, never really meant. Gwen straightens in her chair, already sensing the possible genius of it all.

Weeks later, we find ourselves in the same spot. I lean forward on my elbows, in my most earnest Marriage Pose, coaxing participation out of Gwen.

“Think about it. What do we need? I mean, really need? What is in this house that we really need to live?”

She tilts her head back and sucks in night air.

“I wouldn’t bring many clothes at all.” She gazes straight up, as if the stars will help catalog her wardrobe. “I hate my clothes. I could get new ones, maybe.”

“For sure, babe. This will be good for us. Stripped down to the essentials.”

The continued use of subjunctive, these coulds and woulds and maybes, does not escape my attention. I stick to simple future tense. “You will finally be able to paint.”

I clasp her hands and sway them in short arcs, as if I can remind her how it feels to hold brushes, to create so quickly, so definitively. In college, she painted in oils: craggy landscapes with solitary, barely discernible human figures.

Packing will be the easy part. We’ll leave so much behind: detritus, flotsam, jetsam of childrearing years. This being the point. One of the points. One point of many.

The leaving becomes an exhilarating new project for our marriage, even when major logistical gaps become apparent. Disappearing, even in the heart of night, will not be easy. Sleep in this home has been tenuous, a hit-or-miss proposition, for years. Middle’s medication is known to cause night terrors. Top Child falls asleep with a laptop on his stomach, dark splattercore movies running one after the other. Gwen wakes up sweating at odd hours, wrestling off covers, spreading like a starfish, emphasizing the exhale of every breath. Dissipating unfamiliar and vexing heat. “Fucking hot flashes. One more woman thing.”

We often work on jigsaw puzzles on vacation. This is possibly our most-agreed-upon family tradition—open on the first night, spread pieces on a picnic bench or table, connect more bits every night. In our most successful year, all five of us contributed to the Doors of New Orleans collage. Gwen and I working together, constructing this vanishing, is beginning to feel like a complicated and satisfying puzzle.

We must leave by the end of month. Top Child is theoretically heading back to school, though he hasn’t expressed any enthusiasm at the prospect, obtained housing, registered for a single class. Definitely not a done deal. He speaks of college in sweeping, sometimes grandiose statements: how great it will be to have a career, to be On His Way. He may be operating under the assumption that job offers are handed out alongside diplomas.

“I suppose he will have to grow up fast.” I sense Gwen coming around to the idea. “He is getting better at controlling himself lately.”

Top Child is tall and strong—in the right circumstances, capable, and very protective of his sisters.

The plan is solidifying our marriage. Sex is happening—the extended sort of screwing, elusive since those first studio apartment days, unconcerned with tempo or angle or getting to the finish line.

We cash out our savings. Half to cover emergencies on the road; the other half will be left behind. At least two months for them to work out details: paying mortgage, utilities, making a go of it.

“They’ll have to adult, that’s for sure,” Gwen offers during another patio conference, so close to the proverbial finish line. I feel we have been over this concept, adulting, before. Ad nauseum. In spite of parenting books, advice columns, and brief stints in family counselling, neither we, nor circumstances, have insisted anyone grow up.

“We have provided for them,” I remind her. “So much. So long.” This comes across as more plea than assertion, which is not my intention. “They have not wanted for anything.”

Here is an identified portion of the problem. One I have assumed we agree on. Entitlement.

Our children have not occurred as expected. They are not what anyone would have predicted. Gwen and I brought a wide array of traits to the table—good and bad, fully acknowledging certain personal flaws—but it is unclear how they added up to these three human beings. Each combination seems mathematically impossible. None of them is bad in a bad seed sense; they have simply proven themselves incapable of living lives uninterrupted by crisis.

“I wasn’t like that,” has become a common phrase when debriefing our progeny’s misadventures. Also, “We wouldn’t ever have done that,” and “What the hell did we do wrong?” Have reviewed every choice we can remember: when to start allowance, how hard to push at the church thing, whether to hold Top Child back, so big and young for his grade.

They can sell all unnecessary items—so many!—for an additional month of paying bills. Middle, maybe even Youngest, knows how to sell and buy things online.

We tuck a new Will and Testament in Gwen’s underwear drawer, where children have always known to look for clandestine and important things. Will look past unopened boxes of cereal for days at a time, wailing at lack of breakfast food, but can sniff out bags of weed and bottles of massage oil soon after they enter the home.

A fallback option, a contingency: leaving behind contact information for Child Services. At least two governmental agencies are responsible, legally, for neglected minors.

Neglect is probably not the right word, I feel the need to clarify, not in a strict moral sense. This is a fresh start for everybody.

I arrange a taxi the night before. Will pay cash, bringing cash for the bus. A bus can take a human being halfway across the country in two days, anonymously.

The taxi is ready to back out of the driveway—sensing, even smelling, Freedom!—but Gwen is suddenly not in the adjacent seat. I may have been watching the house too carefully. My plan, all along, has been to hold home in field of vision for as long as possible.

Trying hard, and failing, to remember the first time I regarded its siding. We were impossibly young, a second baby on the way. No memory of the visiting, the touring, the inspecting, or the making of the decision: Buy This Thing. I absolutely do not recall the original color. Forgetting this old life already, if such a thing is possible. Feeling empty and light.

Gwen’s absence is confirmed when I see her face next to the kids in our picture window. The warp of the glass and the shine of the streetlights make their faces, four white ovals, quiver as if the window is shaking, as if they are encased in water. The impression is one of visiting the aquarium, ogling them like a happy narwhal family.

I am having difficulty reading Gwen’s expression. Resignation? Relief? Both are possibilities. Satisfaction more likely; her own plan so well-executed. Impossible to feel anger, displeasure, even disappointment. Admiration only.

Youngest is under Gwen’s left arm, rubbing at the crust that gets into her eyes every night; even with the distortion and pulling away of the taxi, confusion is plain to see on her face. She bites at her lower lip—has been known to do this to the point of bleeding. Middle is curled into Gwen’s other arm, craning her head up towards Mother, checking whether she is supposed to be angry or sad. Top Child’s face is twisted with what I believe is pure unfiltered hate. He looms over his mother’s shoulder, glaring at his deadbeat father or the taxi or whatever is discernible to him in the early morning dark. Intense feelings tighten his features, strengthen his soft face. He is handsome like this. Experiencing an ill-timed swell of pride.

The driver floats a questioning look via the rearview mirror. He is tapping at the brake, eager for his own escape from this horrible scene.

The four of them are breathtaking like this, perfectly still, perfectly spaced in the window.

There’s plenty of time to formulate, trudging up the driveway, the creation of a humorous family memory out of this—a story to recite on our next long-awaited, long-deserved, vacation. Remember the time Dad suffered prolonged delirium, the cause of which is still unclear? How he almost left? Possibly, considering his confused state, never to return?

The driveway is longer than expected, dominated by spiderweb patterns of cracks. Few uncracked surfaces remain. The driveway could be disintegrating under my feet.         

Artist’s Statement

I began noodling with the idea for “Fun Family Anecdote” in response to a newsfeed blip on the discovery of a cluster of long-abandoned children. They were doing quite well, not raised by wolves, not one bit Lord of the Flies. There were no details available on the parents at that time, but of course my imagination couldn’t help going there. What could have transpired, for the parents to break this most inviolable of bonds? The most horrifying answer I came up with was that they had simply lost the will, been beaten down by the details. What if, in interviews with the authorities, they couldn’t produce anything more than a shrug, a bewildered look?

From there, the narrator took over. Our most shameful thoughts and impulses left to run rough-shod. It isn’t a particularly redemptive story, but it was fun to write, in an evil glee sort of way.

Colby Vargas is a full-time educator and part-time writer in the Chicagoland area. His work has appeared in Annalemma, The Louisville Review, and most recently, Storm Cellar.