Steaming Coffee by Dan Derrett
Mondays always start so clean and crisp.
There are neat stacks of white paper in rows, and a full calendar and freshly brewed coffee. There are smiling people, refreshed from the weekend, and I have to do lists and emails that are unread, waiting all clear and hopeful and new in chronological order. I’m holding a healthy sack lunch in a recycled bag in one hand as I enter the break room to greet a colleague, and there is a smiling receptionist who greets me. I make my way to my office, stack my briefcase near my coat, and lay my gym bag next to my door. It’s morning, and I’m ahead, and there’s a new list to tick off.
But by Friday the scene has changed drastically. My gym bag is overflowing with sweaty clothes and wet towels which I have neglected for two days but serves as a useful tool for keeping unwanted others out of my office. The briefcase is stuffed with crumpled drafts I took home with good intention, and the emails are half-read, half-answered, blinking angrily. I’m working on about twenty cumulative hours of sleep for the whole week, and my lunch will consist, if I remember to eat, of whatever might still be left in a vending machine or my bottom drawer stash. By 3:30 on Friday I am slumped over the slop piles at my desk, peering over the week’s morass of requests, motions, and deadlines. I’m starting to shuffle the leftover piles into “on fire” or “already smoldering” for the Monday morning charade, and my colleagues are all doing the same.
This was exactly the scene when my cell phone rang this Friday. I sprang to life believing it was from friends who wanted me to come to happy hour. Every Friday I beg and hope and will it to ring. My excitement was dashed when the caller ID blinked “school” back at me. I answered immediately, hoping it wasn’t an injury but knowing it was probably a behavior report. As I heard the patient voice of my son’s saintly teacher, I knew it was the latter. I had one hand on a pile of hand-written notes and I noticed my palm starting to sweat, melting the blue ink.
I shouldn’t sweat like a Pavlovian Mom when the teacher calls, but Coop, also known as NAFOD – which in military speak stands for “No Apparent Fear of Death” – has had trouble dealing with his world lately and it usually results in a phone call from school. Bottom line, Cooper believes he’s the world’s youngest SEAL. Everything he does is a mission, and everyone he encounters is a threat “in his world.” He actually uses that phrase: “in my world,” as if the rest of us are just spectators. And we are. When my husband was still in the desert, I attended three parent-teacher conferences in the first six weeks of Kindergarten. I reasoned the difficulty then stemmed from only getting half as much discipline. Now, with my husband home, it’s even worse: he’s now getting twice as much discipline.
The teacher’s words shocked me back to reality, breaking my train of thought on the discipline express. “I need to let you know what another parent reported to me today. I thought you’d want to know. I’m sorry.”
I looked at the piles on my desk and wondered who had the rougher week. My money was on the teacher. I didn’t try to talk. I just waited quietly until the awkward silence forced a response from her.
“He told another boy that there are places where ladies get naked and men pay to see them.”
“I – I – he – he …”
I attempted to articulate a response but after some stuttering all I managed to say was, “thanks for letting me know. We will discuss it.” I wanted the conversation to be over so badly. I imagined my kid, in his camo, huddled football-style in a circle of six year-old boys on the playground, imparting his vast knowledge of naked ladies. This was the very definition of ring-leader. Was he really going to be that kid? I assumed he would not be invited to any sleepovers in the near future, which I thought was a good thing. I hate sleepovers.
Knowing Cooper, he told that kid. The one who had no older siblings. The one who had never seen a naked lady, not even his own mom. The one who had told his mother within two seconds of being picked up at school what men can do for money in some places.
The teacher tried to make me feel better by saying “I’m sure it was an inadvertent exposure, like something he saw on the television or the internet.” I started to agree with this sound logic until I wondered what she must think of my television and internet selections. Then, in the continuing uncomfortable silence, the actual “inadvertent exposure” came when she concluded with, “because in all my years I’ve never heard a kid his age say anything like that.”
Wonderful. I really needed that happy hour call, now.
Later as I picked up the kids we sat stoicly once everyone was loaded up, and I was very serious. I wore my very serious mom face which I reserved for very important conversations. The radio was off and I wasn’t chatting about the day. The engine was idling. There was a moment of silence. My son looked at me gravely and was uncharacteristically quiet as well, sensing that the seriousness in my demeanor should concern him. I waded into the naked lady waters with a straightforward, “I need to ask you a serious question.”
These are the words of guilty man, I thought. We had been down this whole denial road before. I was skipping the part of the cross-examination where he turned the tables on me. I was going for something more direct, more pointed.
“Yes, you. Today Mrs. Hutchin called me.”
“She says you told another boy something that really worried her. Do you know what that might be?”
I was giving him the chance to come clean. He looked at me and blinked. It was that moment where he was making a decision about the merits of volunteering the truth versus the risk of playing the game a moment longer. He finessed his way through the first question by using the tool I utilized for Santa Clause questions: answer a question with a question. So he tried it a second time.
“What did Mrs. Hutchin say?”
“Objection. Nonresponsive. I asked if you know what that might be.”
So there it was. This was going to be a longer conversation than I had hoped. It was going to be a conversation not just about naked ladies, but about honesty and integrity and becoming a man. And of course, it was going to be had by me, a woman, because his father was gone on a trip. Again. I sighed and took a shortcut.
“She says you told another boy about naked ladies. Know anything about that?”
I was bracing for the answer. This was the moment. The only thing standing between me and my boy’s naiveté was the weight of the words he was about to speak. It was truly the end of the innocence. I felt a tear well up in one eye.
“Well Yeah. You know, mom. Naked ladies. Dancing ones, too.”
The innocence wasn’t just gone, it had been rightly trampled upon. I wanted to gasp and let my mouth hang open and press my manicured fingertips to my chest as if I had been offended by such a statement. But he wasn’t smirking or even looking up at me. He was fiddling with a piece of paper, folding it perfectly into a precision aircraft.
“No. I don’t know. Enlighten me.”
That’s when I got his attention. He heard the sarcasm and realized there was something strange going on. He rolled his eyes, as if to say that I knew very well what naked ladies were, and let the air push out of his mouth in a loud, “huhhn” before continuing. Then he took another deep breath, and he began to sing:
“There’s a place in France where the naked ladies dance. There’s a hole in the wall where the men can see it all. But they really don’t care ‘cause they’re in their underwear.”
Olivia snickered, covering her mouth as if it would somehow hide her audible laugh and smiling eyes. “Where did you hear that song!?” I demanded, looking at the snickerer. The response was his golden ticket straight out of trouble, and probably the one and only thing he could have said to form a viable defense:
“Nana taught it to me.”
My own mother. The beloved Nana. The one who has them believing in fairies, watching out the back deck for wolves to protect the Elven village presumably living in the woods behind our house because of the notes they leave us. Nana. The one who feeds them brownie mix for dinner. Nana. The one who encourages them to paint in their brand new white shirts and tells them to become Democrats despite what their parents might think. Nana. The one who lets them taste wine, “just a sip, just a sip, just to taste …”
I’m on to you, Nana. This is not the end. I’m so totally on to you.
By the way, I’m giving Mrs. Hutchin your phone number.