Caring Christopher

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#34 Nothing says happy birthday like cold pizza and a black eye


The pizza is already cold when Jagger finally arrives for Christopher’s birthday. The moment he walks in, I hear Chris gasp, so I step out of the kitchen to see what’s going on. Jagger has a huge black eye, he’s holding his arm close to his body in a funny way, and his neck is covered in… Wait… What?

“Are those hickeys?” I ask incredulously, moving over to examine him. “Okay, boy, start talking. Where have you been, who did you get into a fight with, and who is the girl?”

He rolls his eyes. “It’s not a big deal, Abby. You should see the other guy. I was crashing with this girl I met at Aston’s 30th birthday party, and then it turned out she already had a boyfriend, and he wasn’t too happy with me shacking up with her, so we got into a bit of a fight. I won, in case you’re wondering. Broke his fucking nose.” He grins, looking proud of himself. “Won the girl too. She broke up with him.”

“Okay, sit down and take off your coat and shirt,” Chris orders, slipping right into doctor mode. “I need to make sure you didn’t break anything, or bruised your ribs.”

Jagger rolls his eyes. “Jesus, overreact much?”

To everyone’s surprise, Yoah gets off the couch where he was playing a game with Davy and steps up so he’s facing his older brother.

“You’re a fucking asshole,” he tells Jagger, his eyes shooting fire.

“Language!” Chris and I roar at the same time.

“We all know it’s true,” Yoah says vehemently. “Mom died and you just take off! You promised you’d be there for me and Davy! But you’re not. You’re so selfish! Chris and Abby try so hard and you don’t even care. They lie awake at night, worried about you. So do I. We’re all worried about you, and you just act like a complete asshole!”

Oh shit. I had no idea Yoah was angry at Jagger, but I totally get where he’s coming from. Part of me is happy that Yoah is finally speaking up, because he’s been eerily silent ever since Dorothy died, hardly talking to me and Chris. The only person he was talking to was Davy, because he feels responsible for him. Maybe this is what Jagger needs to finally come home. He doesn’t seem to care about me and Chris worrying about him, but I know he cares about his brothers.

“Yoah…” Jagger looks at him with regret in his eyes. He takes off his coat and allows Chris to help him tug off his shirt, which looks like it hurts his arm. “Look, I’m sorry,” Jagger tells Yoah softly. “I didn’t mean to abandon you or anything.”

“Well, you did,” Yoah spats. “You’re just like Dad.”

“We don’t even have the same father,” Jagger says, wincing when Chris examines his arm carefully. “So which one of those assholes are you talking about?”

“Both,” Yoah replies, taking a step closer, looking menacing. “They’re both stupid, selfish criminals. At least yours is dead. Mine is in jail and he doesn’t even write me letters or anything. You’re just like him. I wish you were dead instead of Mom!”

“Yoah!” I exclaim, grabbing his arm because I’m afraid he’s going to lunge at Jagger. “Don’t say that. I get that you’re mad, but we all grief in our own way. Jagger needed a break.”

Yoah rounds on me, his expression softening a little. “We all need a break,” he says, sounding a million years old instead of just 9. “You and Chris still take care of us, and Davy and I still go to school and we don’t get into fights or anything. Jagger is the only one who is being a dick.”

Chris and I lock eyes, silently agreeing to stop complaining about his language. Now is not the time. Besides… he’s right, in a sense. I do get why Jagger is acting this way, but if I were Yoah, I’d be flipping mad as well.

“Yeah, you’re all friggin’ superheroes,” Jagger grunts, his face ashen from the pain as Chris presses on his chest and stomach to assess the damage to his body.

Davy is crying by now, and I sit down on the couch with him, pulling him onto my lap. He snuggles against me, his body relaxing slightly. Poor kid.

“I’ve not being doing all that great either,” Chris says honestly, moving on to look at Jagger’s black eye. “Abby kept it together for the both of us.” He looks at Yoah. “You’re a smart kid. I’m sure you noticed I was walking around like a zombie until a few days ago.”

Yoah nods, but remains silent.

“And you haven’t been talking much since Dorothy passed away,” Chris goes on. “That’s the way you cope. You shut down. I tried to go with my life like nothing happened, which didn’t work, you stopped talking, and Jagger acted like… well, like an asshole, like you said. Davy cries himself to sleep at night, and Abby…”

“I’ve been through enough crap to keep it together so I can be there for you guys,” I say with a shrug. “But trust me, when no one is home, I cry sometimes too. And I kick things. I scream. I just haven’t been doing it when you guys are home.”

“See, we all hurt, and we deal with it in our own way,” Chris explains to Yoah. “Jagger’s way isn’t the best way, but neither is you not talking to anyone, or me being a zombie, or Abby feeling like she has to keep it together all the time. It will take time for all of us to be okay again, and even then we will have bad days.”

“Yoah is right,” Jagger says, struggling to get his shirt back on. “I’m an asshole. I’ll move back in tonight. I promised Mom I’d take care of Davy and Yoah. Anyway… what’s the verdict, doc?”

“I don’t think anything is broken, just severely bruised. I’m taking you in for X-rays first thing tomorrow morning, and then I’m dropping you off at school, because you can’t keep skipping classes, Jag. We’ve been going easy on you, but we need you to return to school, to move back here, and-”

“-to stop being an asshole,” Yoah finishes. He no longer sounds angry, luckily.

“Deal,” Jagger agrees, extending his not-bruised arm to Yoah so they can shake hands. “Thanks for taking care of Davy, dude. You’re a way better brother than I am.”

“Chris and Abby took care of Davy and me,” Yoah says, walking over to me and snuggling against me as well, smiling when I kiss the top of his head. “I just… helped.”

“You always do more than just help, Yoah,” I tell him, ruffling his hair. “Don’t think I don’t notice all the little things you do, like make your bed and help with setting the table, and clean up after all of us. I wouldn’t know what to do without you.”

He glows with pride when I say that, and I realize I have been neglecting to compliment him lately. Things have been so fucked-up that I sort of forgot about positive reinforcements and all that parenting stuff I should have been doing. I’m basically their mother, which is quite different from being a nanny. I’m not just the one to pick them up from school and make them brush their teeth. I’m also the one raising them, and that’s a first for me. I know I’ve been doing okay, but I could do better. I will do better.

“Oh,” Jagger says, chuckling. “I almost forgot. Happy birthday, Chris. 46, right?”

Chris smiles and puts an arm around Jagger, and I can’t help but admire how good he is with all three kids. He always praises Yoah because he knows he needs to feel useful and appreciated, he cuddles and kisses Davy, who is very sensitive and needs physical reassurance quite often, and he makes a show of making it clear to Jagger that while he’s not happy with his behavior, he’s still welcome here, that he’s wanted and missed. Christopher is the best damn father I’ve ever seen.

Again, I feel that all too familiar stab in my heart when I realize that if he stays with me, he will never have kids of his own. Sure, he’s already 46, and he’s going to adopt at least two of the three boys in the next few months, but that doesn’t mean having biological kids can’t still be in the cards for him. Lots of men have kids when they’re older. Not with me, though. Never with me. I can’t help but worry he will resent me for that eventually. Not now, not in a few weeks or months, but maybe in the long run. He’ll wish he hadn’t fallen in love with the girl who can’t give him healthy kids, who is going to forget his name and have to be put in a group home like my mother.

Maybe I should take him to meet Mom soon, so he can see what it will be like in twenty years or so, when I’m at the stage she’s at now. He needs to know what he got himself into. I owe him that much.

“Let’s reheat your pizza,” Chris tells Jagger. “We were about to watch a movie. Davy gets to pick today.”

“It’s your birthday,” Yoah says with a frown. “You should pick.”

“That’s really sweet of you, Yoah, but I’ll watch a movie of my choice with Abby when you guys are in bed,” he says. “So… Davy? What will it be?”

Davy pretends to think about it, but we all know what it’s going to be. “Home Alone!” he exclaims, cheering for his own pick. He loves that movie and now that we’re getting closer to Christmas, I put all my old DVDs in Chris’ bookcase for the kids to pick from. Home Alone is Davy’s favorite by far.

To my surprise, Jagger sits down on the coach next to Yoah, patting his lap. Yoah looks at him with a frown, but decides to forgive him after a few loaded moments, snuggling with his brother under the large blanket I throw over all of us. Me and Davy are on the other side, leaving space for Chris right in the middle. He hands the reheated pizza to Jagger before settling in, his arms around the four of us.

“Best birthday ever,” he says with a deep, content sigh. I can tell he means it. Even with Jagger all banged up, Yoah cursing, and all of us working though Dorothy’s death, this is a lovely family moment, and I can tell the stress Chris has been battling slowly leaves his body. He’s been pretty much back to his usual calm self the past few days, which makes the ache in my heart ease as well. When he hurts, I hurt. And when he feels good, the load I’m always carrying on my shoulders feel slighter too.

Yoah puts on Home Alone, and we all watch, yelling at the scream and talking along with our favorite lines. Halfway through, Chris kisses my neck softly, making me shiver. I turn my head to give him a peck on the lips, and he sighs against me happily.

“Barf!” Jagger comments. “Old people kissing!”

“Hey, you’re the one covered in hickeys,” I shoot back immediately.

“What are hickeys?” Davy asks innocently.

“Red spots on your neck,” I explain. “Jagger got them when he was fighting with someone.”

“Yeah, fighting,” Jagger says, grinning. “Wrestling, even. It got really… heated.”

“I’ll have a talk with him later,” Chris whispers in my ear, too low for the boys to hear.

“Tell him there are condoms in his nightstand,” I reply quietly. “And I put some pictures of nasty STDs in there too.”

Chris grins and kisses me again. “I love you so much, you weirdo.”

“Love you too.”

“Me too!” Davy adds, looking up at us from my lap.

“Ahw, we love you too,” Chris says, ruffling his hair. “And the two of you,” he tells Yoah and Jagger. “I might be getting sappier with old age, but I really do love all of you boys.”

“Really fucking sappy,” Jagger grunts, rolling his eyes, but even he can’t hide the small smile that curls up the corners of his mouth. He may act all tough and devil may care, but he’s just a 16-year-old boy in the end, not sure what the fuck he’s doing with his life and how to work through his grief. We’ll get him there. If anyone can do it, it’s me and Chris. I’ve never had so much faith in another person before, and the fact that Chris trusts me just as much makes me feel more confident about myself than ever before.

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