Three Bouquets

Image courtesy of www.redbubble.com

Image courtesy of http://www.redbubble.com

Bobby carefully placed all three bouquets next to him in his usual booth at California Pizza Kitchen.  “His” waitress, Lori, caught his eye and smiled while she was taking an order for a family at the four-top by the kitchen.His kids were to arrive any minute, according to the email that the court-appointed guardian sent last night.

Taking a deep breath, he touched the fake carnation in the miniature plastic vase. He mindlessly shook the pepper so that the red flakes rained on the table from those perfect little holes in the top of the jar.  Even after all the preparation, he felt like an infantryman hiding in a foxhole, waiting for mortars to light up the sky.

Per court order, he wasn’t allowed to have his phone on once the visit started, so he checked his texts one last time.  There was one from Tamara: “Love you and waiting up for you.”  The one-line kindess from his wife pierced the armor he wore for protection.  He didn’t want to be loved right now; he had to protect the beating heart buried beneath his chainmail.

He watched the entrance for the three faces he knew by heart, but no longer recognized.  Hate had changed those faces, distorting them into something Bobby could no longer claim as his.

Bobby sensed that Lori knew this was not a routine visit, because she never came by to chit-chat.  Wordlessly, she had put the food on his table: cheese pizza for Bobby, Jr.; mushroom for Marc; chopped salad for Rena; and nothing for Bobby.

He stared at the bubbling cheese as it congealed.  He had been preparing for this since their visits started to deteriorate.  Lately, none of them would even look at him; they turned their backs on Bobby to study Fox News on the screen above the bar.

Once he came across Bobby Jr.’s Twitter account, Bobby saw the tweet that catapulted him out of denial with brutal finality: “I h8 my dad. We wish he’d leave us alone.”

So Bobby had called off the lawyers. Court orders couldn’t make them love him anyway.  Even if he won in court, new battle lines of alienation rose up stronger each time.

His doctor told him he would have a heart attack if he didn’t stop torturing himself with these visits.

So he bought each a goodbye bouquet.  Bobby knew their mother had poisoned them against him.  The flowers were a fragrant counterpoint to the scorched earth between them.

By 8 pm, Bobby knew they weren’t coming.  Lori boxed the food that his kids weren’t going to eat.  He scooted out of the booth after leaving a generous tip, hoping to God he would never return.  Lori stopped him on the way out and whispered, “You’re a good man and a good father.”

Bobby walked out into the summer air.  He pulled out his phone, texted Tamara, “Leaving now. C U soon,” and let himself cry all the way home.

read to be read at yeahwrite.me

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69 thoughts on “Three Bouquets

  1. PAS is such a tragic ordeal.
    My heart completely goes out to your friend, who very obviously loves (loved?) his kids more than himself. I can’t imagine how hard it would be to have to make the decision to take yourself out of their lives, only to have them do it themselves (on account of outside influences, of course.).

    I honestly am very jealous that this didn’t take you a week to write. I think it is beautifully expressed, and quite painful to read, while showing that your friend is a hell of a man and father.
    I don’t find it flat at all. You did a great job!

    • Thanks! It’s a horrifying story that makes me hate our court system. I think there is a bias against fathers. Perhaps that was well earned, but some good guys are suffering.

      Ugh. Makes me sick.

      • I completely agree that there is a bias. Apparently according to some American friends of mine it can even vary from State to State.
        Divorce doesn’t have to be such a terrible thing, it’s all on the parents.
        I know that despite the huge challenges that Pat has gone through with his ex-girlfriend, we got off on the lucky side of the separation scale.

        Back to the positive side, if a tribute was what you were aiming for, you sure did a great job.

  2. Breaks. My. Heart. Being divorced isn’t easy for anyone, but a child’s relationship with one parent is just as important as the other one. Oh, there is so much I could say here… OM, written beautifully. Thank you for sharing. Love and prayers to all involved.

    • Yes, I think that’s right– love and prayers. Of course I only know one side of the story, and I try to always remember that. My job isn’t to smear anyone or judge, but merely to support the sufferers when I can.

  3. Beautifully done! I love the way you used technology as a plot-mover, and usually I don’t like the use of texts/emails/smart phones in fiction. It works here, and it shows both the good and the bad of it: how a sweet text can give someone a little boost, how it can be used to spy (“came across his Twitter account”) and how it can hurt.

    • Awesome reference. It was hard to imagine sitting in front of pizza and not eating it. That’s how you know it was creative nonfiction because I have never done that.

  4. Oh, honey – this is fantastic! Absolutely riveting! And so painful – you captured the pain, regret and longing beautifully. Worth staying up late to write – congrats!

  5. This is fascinating. Not your typical voice but I was drawn to the details that are still “you”. One of those was this heartbreaking line: “court orders couldn’t make them love him anyway”. LOVE the texts with Tamara – those two small spots tell me this is a great guy in a terrible situation. A beautiful tribute post – you did them justice.

  6. Wonderfully written, OM! I’m in tears because this man could have been my husband, who has suffered the ugliness of parental alienation. His calls were ignored. His emails were not returned. The response to a letter he put in his 7 year old’s mailbox saying “Please write me back, I will check your mailbox tomorrow at 4.” was a letter from his ex that said “She doesn’t want to see you. Leave her alone.”. He was even left standing on his daughter’s front porch on a day he was supposed to pick her up. No one would answer the phone or the door. He finally got a call from the stepdad saying to leave because he wasn’t going to see her. It’s heartbreaking, unfair for the child and just plain dispicable behavior.

    • Exactly! YOu are the Tamara. It kills me. If I had to watch Jeff go through that, I think I would die a little each incident. Your husband is so lucky to have you on his side.

  7. Mama, I have a few questions about your characters. I fell asleep thinking about the possibilities, and you’re onto something here. Even within 500-1000 words, with a little practice, you’ll make a fine microfiction writer.

    You’ve listed the whats, and people who’ve gone through losing touch with their kids or who can imagine it are able to fill in the blanks of your story with their own. I’m just not sure if the whys are on the page.

    Why flower bouquets for children? Does that hold special meaning for the family? It would be cool if one of my unanswered questions was the kids have been long dead and this poor Bobby keeps coming to the same diner to wait for them and the flowers symbolize his unending grief.

    But the Twitter message lets us know that’s probably not the case. Why does his kid hate Bobby? What happened between him and the kids? How does the server know he’s a good father? What makes her think that, especially when the reader finds out the flowers are goodbye bouquets and he was planning to break up with his kids over pizza? I can see why they stood him up.

    Why did she serve the food before everybody arrived at the table? See, I’m thinking Bobby ordered it because he thinks his dead kids are at the table with him. Or something sad like that. The Twitter keeps throwing off my theory. Maybe the kid meant he hated his stepdad, but 140 characters plus dumb kids lead to all sorts of misunderstandings.

    Side question: Why did the court bother to order him not to use his phone at the table? Does it double as a lethal weapon? Does he surf porn in front of the kids?

    You’re off to a good start with this sympathetic, yet weirdly flawed protagonist. Flesh him out, tell his story in parts. When was the last time he’s had a bath? I’ll bet not for weeks. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

    • Holy crap you just gave me all this feedback for free? Awesome questions. I didn’t think of those. It’s half a story of a friend and half from imagination. My kid is melting so I will think this over and revisit. Thank you!!!!

    • Well, someone’s children are severely neglected today because I am noodling over this story. I love the “I eat pizza with dead children” angle. I wish my imagination was going there. I guess it is now. He brought the flowers because his shrink told him to leave them with something sweet, something that symbolized growth and goodness. He also wanted to leave behind the bitterness. His therapist also told him to sit shiva for the death of the destructive parts of the relationship, but he thought that was too drastic.

      The kids hate him on lots of levels: first, they are being poisoned by a sick, alcoholic, custodial mother who never remarried and never got tired of fighting Bobby. She told them he didn’t pay support when he always did and she redoubled her efforts at alienation when Bobby got remarried to a younger woman and they had two children of their own. They hate that they can’t push him away– he’s tenaciously fought for them for 5 years. The irony and complexity is that of course now he is letting go. But he’s conflicted. Should he prioritize his health and his youngest children? Should he keep showing up when the three alienated children want him to die, won’t talk to him and often times don’t show up for visitation? Not easy questions.

      Lori has been at the CPK for over a year watching teh visits unfold. She watched the kids spend their time texting, watching TV and ignoring Bobby. She watched Bobby sit there alone when the kids ran out. She thinks he did all he could, even though she knows less than 10% of the story. Less than 5%.

      The court did order that Bobby couldn’t have his phone. Only the children could bring and use their phones. The Ex-wife had that added to the Court order because she was paranoid that Bobby woudl record the visits or be in touch with his wife, which she forbade the best she could. A court order helps. Spouses try to control one another through the courts in these situations. Bobby was ordered to come alone and not use his phone. And you’re right, viewed from one angle, it seems like you don’t break up with your kids over CPK just because they are assholes. Your kids should be able to find unconditional love in you no matter what phase they go through. Plenty of “happy” families have kids that don’t speak or pay attention at the dinner table.

      Good point about the food. The idea I was setting up was that every Monday night they had visitation and the kids always ordered the same food. Lori knew this because she was always their waitress. (Monday nights are slow.) She knew that the kids wouldn’t talk to their dad, and only spoke to order their food from her. I was picturing clock work: Bobby comes and the kids follow shortly thereafter and the food comes. Same thing every week. But you are right, there is a hole there. I couldn’t see it.

      The bath question made me laugh. It’s awesome to get this kind of feedback. I am super grateful.

  8. My parents divorced after 29 years of marriage — I was 24. This post reminds me of the (many) conversations I’ve had with my mom where I’ve said, “He’s my dad and I’m not going to hate him just because you want me to hate him.” Many hugs for the protagonist.

      • It isn’t just that it’s harder, it’s that they don’t have the gift of perspective that a 24-year-old would have. Not that it doesn’t hurt at any age.

      • The kids in the story are 17, 15, 11. Hard ages for the best of situations, according to parents everywhere. Tangled family trees make it harder to do what’s already hard: grow up, individuate, discern. So tough.

  9. So sad. I can’t imagine hating someone so much that I would poison their kids against them. And I can’t imagine a person so hateful that she would make them hate their father. Especially one that wants to be part of his kids’ life. And yes, there is definitely a court bias against fathers.

  10. That was heartwrenching. Made me tear up. Such a great piece and really wonderful to read. I was waiting to see what would happen the whole time. Amazing the story you can tell with just a few words :)

  11. I like that I’m sitting here wondering who was correct: was he an awful dad or a great father? Or is he really both at once? And who’s judgement should I hold in higher regard? I’ll be thinking about this one for some time. Ellen

    • So that was my biggest struggle. To honor the fact that I don’t know both sides. No parent– in any situation– is all good or all bad. I know for myself I can be kind of awful and kind of amazing and I am not in a stressed, alienated position vis a vis my children. Thank god. I was thinkin that Lori was privy to months of visitation where she saw Bobby trying to connect with the kids, while they ignored him and sneered or didn’t show up. These visits were all the court would allow but the kids often didn’t show. He fought to force them, but then, realized it was a Pyrrich (sp?) victory. Hard to cover all that in 500 words, but to be honest, not sure more words would have let me do all I wanted.

    • Right. The story arc that feels familiar to me is a deadbeat dad. I was going for something different though it hard up pull off. I am sorry to hear your experience. Simply awful.

  12. If you wrote this as quickly as our twitter session yesterday would suggest, I’m amazed. Rarely do actual tears form in my hardened eyes when I buzz through the grid, but I ached, ached, for this man.

    • I was scared to go with fiction because I’ve never done it. Strange how it would make me feel more vulnerable than real stuff from my life! It got to be midnight so I went with it.

  13. This was really sad. Life can be so ugly and painful. Poor your friend. :(

    I kept wondering why, specifically, the kids in the story hated their dad so much. I got that his ex said horrible things about him and poisoned them against him but kept feeling like there had to be more to it than that. Like maybe he got drunk and yelled at his kids David Hasselhoff style one time and his ex just took that and ran with it. Or he was in one of those uber-traditional relationships where women handle the children and any kind of emotional articulation so when he got divorced he had no clue how to interact with his children. Curiousity: I haz it.

    I have this friend who married a divorced guy who didn’t have custody of his kid from his previous marriage. When they were dating he’d tell all of these stories about the horrible, horrible things his ex did to him. Demanding more child support, changing around visitation at the last minute, not returning his calls, saying terrible things about him to their daughter and half the town. The whole Awful Divorce Enchilada.

    It was to the point where I was like, “Wow. Either this guy married the Harpy Queen or he’s being a littttttttttle bit selective about the information he’s telling us.” It turned out he left out a key detail: The ex was undergoing chemo for breast cancer. ::: face palm ::: Oddly I think I would have been *more* sympathetic towards him if he’d mentioned the breast cancer right off. It would have felt more like he was complaining about an actual person and an actual horrible situation rather than creating a good v. evil narrative.

    Anyway… I really liked your post. Keep on gettin’ down with your bad self!

  14. I was creeping on your responses to other comments and I am so with you on posting something light and fluffy next week.

    This post reminded me of the “pop-pop” characters we get in the hospital: old men who can’t take care of themselves anymore. They end up in the hospital and then they can’t go home. Hospital staff curse their families for not taking care of them, but we have to remember we are only seeing part of the story. Maybe these men were real pieces of work. On the other hand, no one deserves to die alone and confused. I feel that way about your protagonist. I’m not really concerned about whether he was an awful man before. I still feel for him. Maybe he can’t have a relationship with his kids and maybe he doesn’t deserve a relationship, but I can still feel his pain. I think that is because you did such a great job developing him as a character. Well done.

    • Yes. What a great analogy! It’s true. It’s the shadow side of the story that is hard to write but so fascinating. For sure, next week I am going unicorns and flower wreaths.

      Still craving French fries!

  15. At the risk of making this all about how your story got me all emotional weepy-like, I’m just going to say nicely done. Good comments on here too. I won’t claim to have thought of what others thought of, but I was nodding a lot and thinking I want to see you flesh this out and broaden the story. Now I sound like your high school creative writing teacher. Forgive me – this is two posts of yours I’ve read in one day that make me want to gush a bucket of comment on you and I’m way too under-caffeinated to do that coherently. (See what happens when you meet me? Comments get downright stupid!)

    Main point: Good job. Well done.

  16. This is a great little snippet for a larger story. So, I am wondering if we are looking at the story from Bobby’s perspective, but in reality he was not a present dad? Maybe he was only a weekly pizza dad and therefore was not around his kids? Why does he not have shared custody of his children?
    It is hard to tell of that with only 500 words.
    However, you are thinking of a very compelling story, one that many people could identify with in so many levels. You are speaking of a real, raw, human experience that in a sense”wounds” those involved and there is rarely complete healing from that.
    I hope you expand this story :)

    • Great questions and I agree. I would have to tell the story of the hatred– how it came to this scene. Glib allusions to poison are insufficient. Love the feedback.

  17. What Reedster said. While we were all tweeting about fighting with topic choice and the entry deadline, you managed to pen a story that delivered a sharp punch to the gut!?! Like Erica stated, there are so many questions that come out of this fiction piece that begs for continuation and exploration. My heart hurt for him. Well done, you.

  18. You really made me feel for this man, and for the whole family. I count my blessings every day that I did not have this kind of experience with my parents. Well done. And you have gotten some great feedback in your comments…yay for you!

  19. even if all those details don’t make it into the story, your characterizations will be richer for thinking through all the possibilities. I’m wondering about the flowers, too. On the one hand, it’s lovely. On the other hand, it’s a sign of a father who misjudges his children. Kids? Flowers? Kids=candy, toys, or even cold hard cash. So how well does this man know his children (not well, b/c of his wife); and how can you play that aspect of his character? My mother’s second husband had a wife who did exactly to their children what this woman did…terrible. Took years for him to repair those relationships–and for the kids to see what a poisonous bitch she is.

    • We had a friend whose ex wouldn’t let his new wife come to their daughter’s funeral, so he stayed home from his own child’s funeral. Fortunately his other children, also adults, did make amends with him before he died of cancer a few years ago. Families break your heart.

      • Dude. I don’t care how hot your next wife is, you can’t skip a child’s funeral. You just can’t. (OOps, now I can imagine someone coming up with a scenario where that would be the exact right thing. THing is, I just can’t imagine it. Maybe that means I should STFU, but I am not sure.)

    • Now I am totally laughing because the flowers were symbolic to me, the writer, but the context of a dad giving them to teenagers and pre-teens doens’t work for the story. But really, what would? I would like to think of a way to have the flowers be real– I wrote the line about the scorched earth, but it’s different to be symbolic and to also be real in the story. IT may be a long time before I tackle fiction again, but you guys have helped me think this through as I should.

  20. This was amazing. It has me in tears for this man. You just described the effect of PAS (Parental Alienation Syndrome) which is a real syndrome and which my sister is on the receiving end of. I have to say – your best post ever. And – for me personally – it helped that he took control and got them those good bye bouquets so at least there was some end to all that pain. Really well-drawn, the whole thing! PS: If I remember correctly, I did not see you in your cowgirl hat when we were at Blogher…?

  21. Jeez, I just lost a comment to my own blog. To Ado, I forgot there was a name for it: PAS. That’s exactly what I am talking about. It sounds too horrible to be true. Doing that to children– it’s tragic. I feel for your sister. I can’t even imagine. I would end up being one of those lunatics that kidnaps her children and flees to Iceland. Because that would be better than PAS. Hopefully, I will never confront this. Anyway, I didn’t have my cowgirl hat….it stayed in my suitcase. I was worried people wouldn’t be able to see over it in those crowded panels.

    Also, I still can’t leave comments on your blog….might I be trapped in your spam filter?

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