I’m so tired I rub toothpaste on my face instead of lotion. That’s how the day starts, at 6:30, with Colgate in my beard, smelling minty fresh in an almost sarcastic way, welcoming me to yet another morning of being bullied by my 3-year old, who pushes her way into the bathroom and plops on her mini-toilet and asks me to read to her while she uses it.
So there I sit, crashed on the floor, while the young princess brings the heat. And I don’t mean princess in a metaphorical way. I mean, she’s wearing a princess dress. Her long blonde hair is tangled and matted in all sorts of crazy angles and the whole thing makes me wonder whether this is what it would be like to live with Courtney Love.
Regardless, this is the life of a dad, and there I sit. Plenty of time to wash off the toothpaste later. Plenty of time to sleepwalk through all of the obligations of domestic responsibility, but for the next few minutes, this will be the highlight of my day.
“Daddy, George,” says Ava, looking at up at me. That would be Curious George, her spirit animal.
“Daddy, read!” she says, impatient, about to chastise her lazy butler, and I start at the beginning: “This is George …”
As a recovering alcoholic and addict, I’m no stranger to the bathroom floor. I freebased bad ideas for years. I know it sounds strange, but these are the moments of being a parent that mean the most. Oh, sure, there are those “hero parent” moments when you have some sort of poignant shard in time, just a beat, before another tantrum or tirade erupts. But I don’t like the moments that are supposed to be valuable, memorable. Maybe it’s the novelist in me, but I dig the weird and uncomfortable times, finding beauty in the confusing business of being alive.
Take yesterday, just another morning stop at the grocery store after dropping Ava off at day care. I made my way to the egg section, where I’m spending the equivalent of college tuition on organic eggs, one dozen at a time — don’t get me started — and I’m probably muttering that sour sentiment while I walk down the aisle, until some 19-year old stocking Cheetos laughs at me.
To recap: A teenager. Stocking Cheetos. Laughing in my face.
In ye olden days of the bathroom floor, this would not have ended well for the lad, but I am, well, not reformed exactly, but I don’t punch as many people as was the custom.
I stop and say to Chips, “What?”
“Back pocket, dude,” he says, using a bag of Cheetos as some grotesque prop to point at me, making this even worse. Then to accent his pity, he says that last melodious syllable one more time: “Duuuude.”
I pat a paw back there to see what he’s talking about and that’s when I find them, feel them. The cotton fabric. The embroidered edges. A sewn-on princess. It’s a pair of my daughter’s Disney undies, hanging out of my back pocket. Like a red or blue bandanna from a gang member’s jeans, from one of those ’80s flicks set in Compton, the colors marking an affiliation. But I’m no Blood, no Crip. No, I’m a parent. That’s my street gang.
“Thanks,” I say to Chips, bunching the undies up and cramming them down deep. Am I embarrassed? I’m too tired to be embarrassed. I’m too — if this makes any sense — in love to be embarrassed.
When my marriage to my first wife was ending, when she couldn’t issue any more ultimatums or cry or pray or scream anymore, when I’d barricaded myself behind a wall of disappointments, she said to me: “You should want to be more.”
“More than what?” I said through a small hole in the wall. I couldn’t hear anything. I’d filled my ears with drugs.
“Be more than this.”
At the time, all I could make out was a guilt trip, another futile route for her to try to get through to me. I resented help, thinking it was for suckers. I was in my late 20s, and I was going to write bestsellers, was going to teach at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Most likely, I’d buff a Pulitzer or four. I was going to bungee jump with Salman Rushdie — and maybe we would let Toni Morrison come along, assuming she could remember the Secret Genius Handshake.
Keep in mind that writers have to actually — wait, what’s that thing they have to do? — oh yeah, write. And any extraordinary junkie can’t be bothered with something that might get in the way of the next high.
I got lucky. My health failed. I needed heart surgery.
Did you hear me say I was lucky?
That’s maybe the only thing I know for sure in the muddy morality of planet Earth: If you get sober at 33, you are incredibly lucky, even with the heart surgery. Yes, I torched a first marriage, and I have to live knowing it was my fault. In rehab, though, I sat around people in their 50s and 60s, disasters tattooed on their faces, a whole army of aches scattered around them. People whose children detested them, and not a day goes by that I don’t recognize the splendor in Ava’s never knowing that part of me. Forget scuba diving with Rushdie; my only remaining goal in life is to never let Ava meet the madman who squats in my heart, hoping I’ll indulge his awful appetites.
I’m 40 now, clean for seven years. I got so lucky, in fact, that I get to sit here with toothpaste on my face, sprawled on the bathroom floor in a whole new way, in the best way.
She is done with her business and stands up, wildly batting at the toilet paper, so it’s streaming all over the floor. I wish you could see her. I wish you could watch the toilet paper fly. My second wife, with whom I work daily to destroy any new walls of disappointment, would wander in and flop down next to me, and we’d watch Ava in awe. I mean, she’d make me collect every last shred of toilet paper later, but she’d co-sign this overindulgence.
Ava keeps spinning the roll, keeps laughing, and the whole bathroom floor is covered in a layer of toilet paper like fresh snow.
And if it was a thing, if this was a thing that anyone actually did, or if there was simply more leg room in our small bathroom, I’d lay back flat, swing my legs and move my arms to make the most amazing toilet paper snow angel the world has ever known.
“Enough, Daddy?” says Ava, with another maniacal shove of the roll, another flurry of snow falling on us. “Is this enough?”
It is. It is. It is.
Joshua Mohr is the author of five novels, including “Damascus.” He’s also written “Fight Song” and “Some Things that Meant the World to Me,” as well as “Termite Parade.” His novel “All This Life” recently won the Northern California Book Award. He is the executive editor at Decant Editorial and his first book of nonfiction, a memoir called “Sirens,” is due out in January 2017. Find him at joshuamohr.net or on Twitter: @joshua_mohr.
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