It started with a request, one I've heard before, from Raphael.
"I want a picture of my biological dad," he said, "I don't know what he looks like."
Max tried to help him.
"Here's what I remember about him," he said, evenly, as though he were explaining mixed fractions, "he was sort of pudgy, with a round face, and lots of dark dark hair. And he was usually scruffy, here," he rubbed his chin, "like he was growing a beard."
"I want a picture."
And so Clay brought down two boxes of pictures that I had exiled to the garage, and eventually I opened them up and let them spill out. I hid in the only place I can go to get away (a little) from the family, the floor between Sophia's crib and Jennie's bed. It is not enough room for the mess from my former life, but it is all the space I could find.
He liked taking pictures, my ex, so there are hundreds of them. Envelope after envelope, many with descriptions written in his cartoonish lettering to describe what is inside - "Tre turns one. Playing in the pool." I rifled through them all. Our wedding, pregnancies, my babies sleeping on his chest.
It has been eight years since we have been a family. He left eight years today. And most of the time I willfully forget the life I lived before. But there it is, now strewn on the carpet in a space too small to make sense of it.
Of course it is hard to look at him, to see the pictures of us in love, and worse, of my sons and him in love. But what struck me this time was me. How young I was. I look like a child, and not in the vital and glowing way either. I am soft and unformed and unguarded around the eyes. I had no idea what this story we were spinning was going to become. Good Lord, I was inadequate. No wonder he...
Let's not go there.
It also bears mentioning that it was five years ago yesterday that Clay and I went on our first date. On that day he told me that he loved me and that he intended to marry me. On our first date! I looked at him and thought, either this man is a scary stalker...or the love of my life.
He turns out not to be a scary stalker.
"Does it bother you?" I asked him, "Raphael's fascination with his biological dad?" He shakes his head, which is always his answer when I ask him if something bothers him. But his voice is calm and sure.
"It makes sense that he would wonder. And..." he picks his words carefully, "...I'm not threatened by him."
And of course. How could he be?
I found a picture for Raphael today. Not only a picture of his biological dad, but one of newborn Raphael, one day old, in his arms.
"That's me?" He stared at it, delighted. "And that's my dad."
I prefer "biological dad", because it is an accurate description, but also because it is a snub, should he ever hear it. But I did not correct him. I sat there, surrounded by the archaeological remains of that life, while Raphael stared at a picture of a man he hasn't seen for eight years, and called him dad. Tre and Max hovered, picked up pictures here and there.
"It's hard for me, guys," I said, tears threatening, "we were happy once. You need to know that. Your biological dad and I were happy once. And then it all...broke. And it was so awful at the end, and everyone was hurt."
"I wasn't hurt," Raphael said. He was four months old, after all.
"But it hurts now, doesn't it? Trying to figure it out." He nodded. "And I'm so glad to have the life I have now, to be married to your dad...but it's hard to look at these pictures and remember."
"Maybe," Max pushed a stack of pictures away from him, "it would have been better if you had just never married him. If you had married our dad the first time, and never had to get a divorce."
I am struck dumb by this, because he doesn't seem to understand that I couldn't have had them without him.
It seems I still can't have them without him.
I gave Raphael a frame for his picture, and he set it on the ledge in the living room. Clay came home from work and saw it.
"Oh, you found one for Raphi, huh?"
And I crumpled, just folded into his chest and wept.