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.