Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Have One--"Thank You Ashley Madison" excerpt


Friday, May 3

     “Hey Brenda, hope your day is going well,” Golf Guy texted. “We should probably reschedule. Now raining and colder over here. Are you okay with that?”

     “Yeah, that’s fine. Do you have a date or just want to get back to me?”

     “What is your Monday or Tuesday like?”

     “Monday afternoon is good. Tuesday is bad.”

     “K, I will get back to you about Monday.”

     “K.”

     I rode BlackJack.

     “How’s your writing going?” Golf Guy texted.

     “Rode my horse. Did you freeze today?”

     “Yes, it was pretty cold today. How was riding?”

     “Rode inside. I want to see you do the splits.”

     “It’s not pretty.”

     A text from Tom popped up. “I’m gonna stay at Dad’s until Thursday.”

     I drove home from the barn intending to write but laid down for a short nap. At seven, the time Jody was picking me up, I woke up.
     “Shit,” I muttered. I bolted for the bathroom and began brushing my teeth. The doorbell rang. I ran downstairs and let Jody in.
     “Sorry, I just woke up. Thought I was going to nap fifteen minutes but went long. Let me throw a different shirt on.”
     Jody and I headed into town for First Friday. We walked into a chiropractor's office to meet Jody’s friend, Little Kit, munch appetizers, and listen to acoustic guitar.
     “Mitch wanted me to tell you he’s two doors down having drinks with two women,” Little Kit told Jody. Mitch, Jody’s stalker ex, and Little Kit have been friends since grade school. We left the chiropractor and headed for Chili U where Jody and Little Kit wanted to drink. We passed the restaurant Mitch was in and Jody slowed down and looked through the window.
     We sat at the bar at Chili U. The church ladies from last First Friday were there again. Ann walked over.
     “My ex calls me all the time telling me he wants to get back together,” she slurred. “I tell him there’s no way. Not after what he did. I just found out about two more affairs. He had five. He says he’s taking me back to court to change the settlement. I tell him, ‘Fine, see what happens. I’m so much happier without you. I’m going out all the time.’ We’re fighting a lot.”
     “Why do you engage? Why do you tell him what you’re doing and how you feel?”
     Ann looked at me and shrugged.
     “I don’t want JB knowing what I’m doing, and I have no interest in him. I keep our conversations brief and on what we have to discuss.”
     Ann nodded. “I should do that.”
     “I’m excited about my new life. Get excited about yours. You have a do-over. You don’t have to worry about him cheating anymore.”
     “But I’m lonely,” Ann said. “I don’t want to wind up alone.”
     “How do you feel about looking over his shoulder the rest of your life? He had affairs with five women. You think he’s going to change? You won’t find someone nice if you get back together with him. And not to be a bummer, we’re all going to die alone.”
     Ann looked deep into my eyes and smiled. “There was a reason I was supposed to run into you tonight.”
     Ann gave me a big hug, plopped down on a stool, and began flirting with a dude who looked like George Lopez. Jody was flirting with one of three guys who had southern accents. I felt my phone vibrate.

     “How are you?” Golf Guy texted.

     “Getting a sore throat from talking in a noisy bar. How about you?”

     “I coached baseball practice, then grocery, now doing some work emails. Not very exciting.”

     “It’s nice being with friends, but I don’t know about this bar thing. Got your kind of night planned for tomorrow.”

     “You seem very nice.”

     “You, too.”

     I asked one of the southern guys where he was from.
     “South Carolina,” he said.
     “I was horseback riding in North Carolina last fall. Maggie Valley. It's gorgeous.”
     “Gorgeous but really redneck,” he laughed.
     “I was in Asheville, too. I could live there.”
     “Yeah, Asheville’s gotten really popular. Real estate’s gotten high, but you can still find places just outside it. I’m Mike,” he said, extending his hand.
     “Brenda,” I said, shaking his hand.
     “Hey,” Ann shouted at Mike. “You told me your name was Tim.”
     “Yeah,” the Mexican said. “You’ve been calling yourself Tim all night.”
     Mike shifted uncomfortably. Ann pulled a large plastic freezer bag full of oyster crackers out of her purse. “These are delicious,” she said, shoving the bag in front of Mike and me. “Have one. I bring them when I go out drinking. You have to see how good they taste.”
     “I’ve had oyster crackers before,” I said.
     “Not like these.”
     “Oh, I’m pretty sure I have.”
     She shoved the bag closer to me. “Have one.”
     I took a cracker and popped it in my mouth. Mike looked at Ann disgustedly.
     “Forget about him,” Ann said flipping her hand at Mike. “He doesn’t live here.” She turned and started talking to Lopez.
     “She’s having a rough time,” I told Mike. “She’s usually not like this.”
     His face softened and he nodded. “What did you think of the food at Cataloochee Ranch?”
     “It was good. They put out a huge spread every night: ribs, steak, chicken, a big table full of homemade pies and cakes.”
     “I wouldn’t think someone from Chicago would like the food there. Not fancy enough.”
     “We’re known for pizza and hotdogs.”
     Mike laughed.
     Jody walked up behind me. “Hey, you want to go?” she asked.
     “Sure,” I said. It was almost eleven. “Nice meeting you,” I told Mike. “Bye Ann.”
     “Hey, you don’t want to talk to this guy either,” Ann said pointing at Lopez. “He’s married. He’s one of those guys.”
     I shot Lopez a disgusted look and left with Jody.
     “The guy I was talking to told me he didn’t want a relationship,” Jody said on the way home. “He said he’s separated but won’t divorce his wife. He wants her to have health insurance. He offered to take me for a motorcycle ride.”
     I felt subtly sad about the night and was glad to get home and into bed. I plugged in my phone and saw Golf Guy had texted.

     “Sounds like you had a fun night.”

     “It was fun,” I lied. “But weird.”

     “I’m glad for you.”

     “Feels strange having every other weekend to myself. But I’m liking it.”

     “Glad you had fun.”

     “Going to watch ‘Sons of Anarchy’ with my dogs now.”

     Golf Guy sent me a picture of his son with his dog. I sent him pictures of Sammy, Sully, and BlackJack.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Church Of Brenda--"Thank You Ashley Madison" excerpt


Thursday May 2

     I gave a lead at a recovery meeting I don’t normally attend. Their format was to have a speaker read from a twelve-step magazine, comment on the story, and invite everyone to join small discussion groups.
     “Look through these magazines and choose a story, no big deal,” a woman said, pointing to a pile of magazines.
     I picked up a magazine, quickly leafed through it, chose a story about finding spirituality outdoors, and sat behind a table at the front of the room to read. The story was about a guy who couldn’t connect with God in church but felt something greater than himself in nature. After attending a sweat lodge ceremony, he sensed the divine in nature more acutely.
     “Sitting in a church doesn’t do much for me either,” I told the group. “But I’ve been moved to tears in nature. I love to ski. The mountains, to me, are divine. I was riding a chairlift in Breckenridge with my friend, Abby. We got off and I got all choked up and said, ‘Look at this Abby. God is here.’ Abby narrowed her eyes at me like I was whacko and skied off.”
     Everyone started laughing.
     “Another time, I was skiing the back of Steamboat with my sister. One of the chairlifts runs through thick pines and Gray Jays were swooping out of trees and landing on people’s outstretched hands. I turned around on the lift and looked at the people behind me. A man had a bird on his hand. I got off the lift and waited for him.
     “‘Are you feeding the birds?’ I asked.
     “The man gave me a handful of peanuts. ‘Stick out your arm and they’ll eat out of your hand,’ he said.
     “Feeling like Snow White, I skied down, got back on the lift, and offered my sister some peanuts. She made a face, shook her head, and said, ‘Birds freak me out.’”
     Everyone laughed again.
     “I put the peanuts in my hand and extended my arm. A Gray Jay swooped down and landed on my hand. It was magical. I started crying.
     “One night, I went out on my horse,” I continued. “We were riding in the woods before dusk and it was dark when we hit the last half-mile to the barn. BlackJack and I were getting eaten by mosquitoes. I signaled him to start running and he took off. The fireflies were out. We ran through glowing swarms of fireflies, their iridescent green lanterns swirling around us. I couldn’t stop saying thank-you to the sky when I got off. I was crying then, too.
     “I don’t like church," I concluded. "I blend yoga, my twelve-step program, and a little bit of Kabbalah with a bit of my christian upbringing and call it the Church of Brenda. You can join if you want to.”
     Everyone laughed hard at that.

     “How are you?” Golf Guy texted later.

     “I’m good. How was teaching?”

     “Was pretty good until about one, then got pretty cold.”

     “Looks like a coat and hat day tomorrow if it doesn’t rain. Guess we’ll see how it goes. Even when the weather is lousy, I’m grateful I don’t sit in a cubicle. I could if I had to, but I think it would kill me.”

     “Well said. I am grateful every day and feel lucky that I love what I do. What are you up to?”

     “Writing. Working on my book. I’m fortunate to do what I do, too.” Twenty minutes went by. I suspected Golf Guy was googling me.

     “Are you aware of my published book?”

     “Yes ma’am. I would like to read it.”

     “I’ll give you a copy tomorrow if we’re not rained out. You’ll learn more about me than you want to know.”

     “Then I won’t read it.”

     “If you wrote a book, I’d definitely read it.”

     “I can barely write. I watched your interview on that father something show.”

     “I hated that show. Felt like I needed to shower afterward.”

     “You seem to be a very strong person.”

     “I guess. I’m going to die one day. I don’t want to live a bullshit life.”

     “I have a confession to make.”

     “Go for it.”

     “I came up to you in the dome that day because your butt was perfect. Pretty shallow right?”

     “I’m glad you did.”

     Golf Guy sent an emoticon with gritted teeth. Then he sent one that looked demented.

     “And that means?”

     “Just being silly,” he texted. “Want to hear something else silly?”

     “Yeah.”

     “I can do the splits.”

     “Cool.”

     “Pretty weird, right?”

     “I haven’t done them since last summer. Didn’t warm up because it was 95 degrees out. Lowered down to the ground and pop, pop, pop. Hamstring.”

     “That sucks. Your golf swing is going to end up being very good.”

     “You think? Have you always been able to do the splits? Regular or Chinese?”

     “I can almost do them, and I’m not sure of the difference. I’ve always been very flexible.”

     “One leg back, one leg forward: regular. Legs out to each side: Chinese.”

     “The former.”

     “Okay, now I have to do the splits again.”

     “Don’t hurt yourself.”

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Someone Like You--"Thank You Ashley Madison" excerpt


Wednesday, May 1

     Tom has had a lingering stomach virus for weeks. He feels fine for four or five days then queasy again. I took him to the doctor and Tom was told to eat bland food for at least one week to get his stomach back to normal.
     “I have six or seven patients with this,” the doctor told Tom. “They’re all about your age.”
     Tom’s queasiness re-flared up the first time on the day JB and I divorced. JB picked Tom up after school, Tom threw up, and he didn’t go back to school the rest of that week or the beginning of the next. I fed Tom chicken, rice, chicken noodle soup, bagels, bananas and apples. Tom went to JB’s and ate pizza and chili dogs. Tom came home feeling lousy and I put him back on his special diet. But three days later, he was back at JB’s eating donuts. I’d given JB explicit instructions what to feed Tom weeks ago. When Tom was with me, he didn't vomit. I crossed my fingers when Tom went to JB’s today.

     “Tom’s stomach is acting up again,” JB texted.

     “I’m not surprised. He doesn’t eat the food he’s supposed to with you.”

     “Okay. He had soup last night, toast for breakfast, eating soup now. He has had dairy though.”

     “He’s not supposed to have dairy. I asked you to feed him certain foods. You aren’t. He has voice at six tonight.”

     “I cancelled. Didn’t want to but he threw up.”

     “Great. Do I need to tell you what he can eat again?”

     “No.”

     “Hey Brenda,” Golf Guy texted, “might be able to see you around two on Friday for a little while. Would that work?”

     “Yeah. Guessing it’s a no go if it’s raining?”

     “Correct.”

     “If it’s iffy, will you confirm?”

     “If it’s iffy we will talk.”

     “Okay. Thanks. Goodnight.”

     “You need to help me find someone like you who isn’t married.”

     “I got divorced a week ago.”

     “Wow, sorry to hear that. You okay?”

     I’d already told Golf Guy I was divorced. What the hell?

     “I’m great,” I texted. “It was a good thing.”

     “Okay, good, I’m happy for you.”

     “What about you?” I texted.

     “I’ve been divorced four years.”

     “How was that? Bad?”

     “No, it was a good thing. Married fourteen years and we just grew apart. No spark left. We get along well because the focus is our kids.”

     “I was married for twenty-one years. Unhappily for lots of reasons. Glad it’s over.”

     “I’m glad you are in a better place now.”

     “Me, too. It feels good to have scraped him off me. Sounds terrible, but it’s true.”

     “I’m sorry you were in a bad place for a long time. People change.”

     “They do. I feel bad for my kids. We can swap stories some time. Bet mine will top yours.”

     “Sounds like it might. Sleep well.”

     “You, too.”

Saturday, April 7, 2018

Be Careful--"Thank You Ashley Madison" excerpt


Tuesday, April 30

     “I met with Tom yesterday,” Ryan, Tom's school social worker, told me. “Playing you and your ex against each other, that’s normal. I did that with my parents when they divorced. But it’s the first time Tom told me he was sad. The fact that he said that concerns me. In the past, he always said he was fine. And he seemed fine. I’m his track coach. I’ve seen him laughing and joking with his friends.”
     “Keep meeting with him, okay?” I said. I’’m trying to find a therapist. Do you have a good referral?”
     “There’s only a month left of school, but I’ll keep meeting with him. I’ll send you referrals if he needs to see someone this summer. If one of your friends refers you to someone good, let me know.”
     Whitley and I met for lunch. I hadn’t seen her since I fell apart in her office after learning JB’d raided our 401K.
     “You look great!” Whitley smiled and hugged me. “Congratulations on the divorce.”
     “I feel good,” I said.
     “It’s a relief, I bet.”
     “Huge. I didn’t know how unhappy I was, until now.”
     “You’ve been unhappy a long time. It’s good to see you smiling. Really, you look fabulous.”
     I rode BlackJack through the woods for a couple of hours. It was warm. The sun was shining. I was grateful to be alive, to have a horse, to be in nature, to be free. Then Angie and I met for sushi.
     “I’ve been thinking about the red string,” I told Angie. “I’m interested in wearing it, but it seems superstitious. Why would a red string make any difference to God? Wouldn’t God protect you regardless?”
     I’d been contemplating wearing the red string Kabbalah students tie around their left wrists for protection.
     “Talk to Yosef about it,” Angie said. “I carry extra red string in my purse. Talk to him. When you’re ready, I’ll put it on you. Do you carry the pocket Zohar?”
     “No.”
     Angie dug around in her purse and pulled one out. “Here,” she said. “Put that in your purse. It’s for healing and protection. I feel better now that you have that.”
     I told Angie about Golf Guy.
     “Be careful,” she said furrowing her brow and looking at me intently. “Really. I don’t want you catching something.”
     “I won’t put myself at risk.”
     “I did when I was first divorced. Thank God I didn’t get anything.”
     My phone dinged.
     “Let me know if you have any time Friday afternoon for me to look at your swing,” Golf Guy texted.

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Manipulative Behavior--"Thank You Ashley Madison" excerpt.


Monday, April 29

     “Hi Brenda,” JB emailed. “Hope you are doing OK. I know what's going on with Tom is very upsetting. 
     “I am just going to tell you what I am hearing and observing. Making no judgments about anyone's actions or veracity.
     “Tom does seem depressed. It doesn't feel like an act, but you may see it differently. I asked him if it was about the divorce. He insisted no. I also apologized to him for the break up of the family.
     “He insisted his sadness is because of how you talk to him. He says it is too negative and critical. I've told him repeatedly that things get better when he starts getting his stuff done consistently. Even after owning up to his lies he's sticking with this point. 
     “I am just telling you what he is telling me. This morning it was tough to get him moving and almost impossible to get him to eat anything.
     “I think I will call the school social worker today and give her a heads up. 
     “FYI, math is back up to a B. Still waiting to see what happens when he gets credit for whatever he has turned in late for Spanish. Social studies is tough because he failed the biggest test. There is one on ancient Rome coming up. If he aces that his grade will improve.
     “As far as quitting the band goes, I told him if that is what he wants, fine. I did insist that he do it the right way, and not just drop them like a hot rock. I suggested, assuming he gets privileges back in 2 weeks, that he offer to do Libertyville Days with Gamma Ray, then he can quit. They may say no thanks, but at least he will have made the offer. He should also thank Terry for all he has done for him since second grade. I hope you agree with this approach. It's about moving on in the right way, without burning bridges.
     “Please email me his schedule details. I also would like to have Tom call you tonight just to say hi.”

     “This is about the divorce,” I wrote back. “The boys believed you to be an honest trustworthy pillar. Knowing you're not who you portrayed yourself to be has messed them up. On the surface, they try to look like they're fine but they are not. They have been betrayed. Their trust is shot.
     “I yelled at Tom about his awful grades. He told me later that he called and texted you to get back at me. The shocking way he lied, said I punched him three times, knocked him down, was hiding in the closet. While he was texting you he was at the driving range, an international food fair, playing miniature golf, batting in batting cages. This is deeply disturbing.
     “When I told Tom he was going to your house for two weeks, he was taken aback and did not look happy. I felt bad but started thinking maybe it would be good for the two of you. Then I thought about your obsession with porn and dating websites, how you're not there when you physically are, and changed my mind.
     “I don't want this to be a punishment for Tom. If he wants to stay with you and something good is coming out of it, great. I hope that's the case. But if he wants to come home he can.
     “Tom and I’ve been working with a school social worker. It’s a he, not a she. Tom had a few appointments with him that didn't go anywhere. Tom didn't talk much and kept insisting he was fine. I have asked several people to help me find a good child therapist.”

     Tanya and I met for breakfast.
     “Tom’s manipulative behavior is textbook,” she said. “I’ve seen it in my divorced friends’ daughters and my own daughter when my husband died. You did the right thing calling Tom’s bluff. You can’t let him get away with that. But it will probably happen again.”
     “JB sent me an email this morning telling me Tom seems really depressed. He could barely get him to eat anything this morning. I’m feeling really bad I sent Tom to stay with him for two weeks.”
     “You need to let him know you still love him and that he can come home any time he wants.”
     “I’m going to pull him out of school and take him to lunch.”
     Tom walked into student services at lunchtime and looked at me warily. I gave him a bear hug. He bear hugged me back and I felt the tension leave his body. We bought chili at the Picnic Basket and ate it in the park.
     “I hate what happened,” I said. “I know I can be harsh and hurt your feelings. I’m very sorry about that. You, however, can’t lie and throw me under the bus. A lot of things are bothering you right now. A lot of things are bothering me. In a lot of ways, we’re in the same place. I’m stressed. I blew up at you. I get scared for you. I want you to be able to do whatever you want in life. You’re so smart and talented. I don’t want doors shut because of bad grades. When you develop bad work habits, they follow you around. And I don’t want staying at Dad’s to feel like a punishment. He’d like you to stay with him at least a week, but I want you to know you can come home whenever you want. Okay?”
     “I’ll come home after a week,” Tom said. “I’ve been talking to my friend Andrew about starting our new band. We know a drummer.”
     “Great. You know how much I love you, right?”
     “Yes,” Tom said with a smile.
     “What track events did you decide to do?”
     “I’m going to do the long jump.”
     “You can jump really far?”
     “Yeah.”
     “Cool. I can’t wait.”
     Tom seemed in good spirits by the time I dropped him at school. Later, I taught yoga and drove to the barn.
     “How was your day?” Golf Guy texted as I parked
     “It was pretty good. How was yours?”
     “Pretty busy, just got done coaching my younger son’s baseball game.”
     “That could be fun, or not. Going to ride my crazy horse, which can be fun, or not.”
     “Coaching 10 year olds is fun and frustrating. Where is your stable?”
     “Off Milwaukee and Casey. You ride?”
     “No. But I have a couple girlfriends who have horses. Sounds crazy, but horses have always scared me a little. I fell off one when I was little.”
     I laughed at his text. He was letting me know up front who he was. Guess I’m the cliche divorcee flirting with the golf pro.
     “My horse almost killed me last year,” I texted. “You wouldn’t want to get on him. But I kinda like the adrenalin.”
     “Have you had him a long time?”
     “Almost five years. I cut cows on him.”
     “I’m embarrassed to say I have no idea what that means.”
     “I take him to a cattle ranch in Marengo and move cattle around.”
     “I see. Sounds amazing.”
     “It’s a blast.”
     “Have fun.”

Saturday, March 31, 2018

Punched Him Three Times--"Thank You Ashley Madison" excerpt


Sunday, April 28

     Tom wants to quit The Rayys. He said he's been wanting to for months.
     “Why?” I asked.
     Tom shrugged. “I’m just sick of playing with them.”
     “Is it Stan?” Tom and the bass player don't like each other much.
     “I’m tired of hanging out with them. I want to play with other people.”
     “Being grounded from your band was good, I guess.”
     Tom nodded.
     “Cool.”
     We drove to my mother’s and the three of us played miniature golf. While Tom was jumping across water features and hitting balls, he was texting.
     “Who are you texting?” I asked.
     “Dad.”
     “Tell him you’re playing miniature golf and you’ll text him later. It’s your turn.”
     We moved onto the next hole.
     “Hey Mom, I’m up here,” Tom shouted. Tom scaled a fake cliff and was waving from the top. He started texting.
     “You’re not supposed to be up there,” I yelled. “Get down before they see you. Play. It’s your turn again.”
     We finished the round and hit baseballs in the batting cages.
     “It hurts when I hit with this metal bat,” my mother said, shaking her hands.
     “Yeah,” I agreed. “A vibrating jolt goes through my hands every time I hit.”
     We drove back to my mother’s house and she served dessert. Tom said he didn’t want any.
     “Is something wrong?” she asked him.
     “Yes.” Tom swiveled his chair toward me. “You!” he said, glaring at me. “I’m still mad at you for what you said and I’ve been texting Dad and I want to go to his house. He’s picking me up when we get home.”
     “Oh really. Well, he can keep you the next two weeks.”
     Tom’s face fell.
     “Yeah,” I continued. “You can turn your grades around at Dad’s. I’m sick of dealing with your school work.”
     We drove home. On our way into the house, I held out my hand. “Let me see your phone,” I said. Tom looked sick. He handed it to me warily and took several steps back. I began scrolling through his texts. While we were playing miniature golf, Tom had texted his father that I’d punched him three times yesterday. He said I knocked him to the ground and he'd hidden in his closet. JB had texted, “Are you okay?” and Tom wrote that I was screaming at him.
     “You little weasel,” I hissed at Tom. “You manipulative lying little creep.” I threw the phone at him. It smacked his chest and fell to the ground.
     “Well, you did punch me,” Tom stammered.
     “When?”
     “Well, not yesterday but about a month ago.”
     “I never punched you. I shoved your shoulder. You texted your father that I punched you three times. You told him I knocked you to the ground, that you had to hide in your closet. Those are horrible lies.”
     I unlocked the door to the house and swung it open. “Get inside and pack your bags.” Tom went upstairs to his room. I sat in my office. I called JB. I got his voicemail. Of course. Only texts and emails for JB. Coward.

     “Tom wants to spend the next two weeks with you,” I texted. “He says you’re picking him up this afternoon.”

     I assumed this would be news to JB. Getting Tom was not on his agenda. There was nothing about it in their string of texts. JB didn’t respond.
     “I’m going out for an hour,” I shouted up the stairs. “Hope you’re all ready to go to Dad’s.”
     I drove to a recovery meeting. Four guys were outside smoking.
     “Hey,” Chuck said with a big toothy grin. “How are you?”
     “Not good,” I answered. “My twelve-year-old is playing my ex and me against each other. Could I bum a smoke?”
     A bony hand offered me a Pal Mel.
     “Thanks.” I inhaled deeply.
     We went into the meeting and afterward, Chuck pulled me aside.
     “My son doesn’t speak to me anymore,” he said.  “Your sons, they don’t trust anyone anymore. Finding out their father is not the man they thought he was—that’s a deep betrayal.”
     “Blake isn’t talking to his father right now. Tom’s the only one JB’s got. Tom’s got to be feeling a lot of pressure. Poor kid.”
     My phone buzzed in my purse.

     “My phone was dead,” JB wrote. “Do you want me to get him?”

     I called JB and he actually answered. I told him to get Tom. I explained what was going on.
     As Tom was leaving the house with JB, I said good-bye but didn’t hug or kiss him. Hugging and kissing didn't feel right. But I felt horrible not doing it. Tom hung his head and walked out the door. I started crying.

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

He Doesn't Like Being With You--"Thank You Ashley Madison" excerpt


Saturday, April 27

     JB had Tom Thursday and Friday and he dropped him off while I was eating breakfast.
     “Did you eat this morning?” I asked.
     “We stopped for donuts,” Tom said.
     “Those aren’t on your bland diet. Remember what the doctor said Monday?”
     “My stomach feels totally fine.”
     “Uh, huh. Did you have a good time with Dad?”
     “We ran errands. That’s about it.”
     “Were you on the computer a lot?”
     “Yeah. Pretty much.”
     “Any pop-ups you didn’t want to see?”
     Tom looked me square in the eye and nodded.
     “What?”
     “Every time I type in www, match.com pops up.”
     I rolled my eyes. “You should say something to Dad.”
     Tom shifted uncomfortably. “I want you to.”
     I grabbed my phone.

     “I don’t want to ask you again to clear your computer history before Tom uses it,” I texted.

     “I did,” JB texted back.

     “He was complaining about match.com popping up every time he typed www.”

     “I wasn’t aware that was happening. The history is clear. I’ll figure it out. I’m sorry.”

     I turned to Tom. Let’s check your grades on Power School. If they’re good, you won’t be grounded anymore.”
     Tom looked sick.
     “Am I not going to like what I see?” I asked.
     “Well, I have a few bad grades.”
     Tom trailed me upstairs. We sat at the computer. He had two “Ds” and a “U.” “U” is middle school's new “F.”
     “What the hell?” I shouted. “I thought you cared about being in the band. Do you not give a shit?”
     Tom stood next to me swallowing hard and blinking.
     “I really hoped for something good here. I hate micromanaging you. I hate it. I know you did the work because I saw it. But you didn’t turn it in. You’re still not turning stuff in. Why?” I was screaming. I didn’t want to lose it, but I had. “You need to establish good work habits. Losers never establish good work habits. You want to be a loser? You want to set a pattern of failure? If you keep flunking, you’ll be a loser.”
     I hated  myself. Tom’s eyes were wide. He was swallowing hard. It was JB’s frozen deer-in-the-headlights look. It repulsed me.
     “I want to lift your grounding,” I shouted. “I wanted to come up here, see decent grades, and tell you you could play with your band. Now you’re grounded for another month. I don’t want to look at you. Go downstairs.”
     Tom stomped down the stairs. I went into my bedroom and sat at the end of my bed breathing hard. I heard Tom talking on the phone. He was probably talking about me to JB and I didn’t care.
     An hour later, I walked into the TV room where Tom was laying on the couch with his cell phone next to him.
     “I’m sorry I yelled,” I said. “I worry about you. Blake didn’t establish good work habits in middle school and it followed him through high school. Now he’s attending a university that takes anyone. You’re both smart boys. I want you to be able to go to any school you want.”
     Tom continued laying on the couch looking sad.
     “Instead of grounding you for another month, why don’t we look at your grades in two weeks. If you can turn things around in two weeks, you won’t be grounded.”
     “Okay,” Tom said. He sat up, the sad look gone.
     “Do you have homework?”
     “Yeah, I should probably go do it.”
     “When you’re done, we’ll get out of here and go to the driving range,” I said.
     “I’ll do it now.”
     Tom went upstairs to his bedroom.
     “You done?” I called up the stairs later.
     “Yeah.”
     Tom didn’t come down so I tromped upstairs. He was laying on his bed looking sad again.
     “What’s wrong?”
     “I don’t like going to Dad’s.”
     “Why?”
     “He never does anything with me. He’s on his computer the whole time. All he does is work.”
     “I think you should say something to him.”
     Tom sighed.
     “You want me to do it?”
     Tom nodded. His eyes teared up. “I feel neglected when I’m over there.” He turned his face into his pillow.

     “Tom is tearful, telling me he feels neglected at your house," I texted JB. "He says all you do is work. I’m guessing you’re on your computer for other reasons as well and not paying attention to him. He says when you do do things, it’s errands. He says he doesn’t like being with you.”

     “Ok,” JB texted. “We should talk because he was texting me an earful today about not liking being with you and complaining about how you bad mouth me in his presence and how that bothers him and other things. He's playing us off each other. Which is one of the things that happens. He also said you hit him today and called him a loser. Not saying I believe it all but that's what I'm getting.”

     “I'm sure he wasn't liking me,” I texted. “I was yelling about his grades. I told him if he kept flunking he’d be a loser. A couple of months ago, I shoved his shoulder during a similar blowup. As for bad mouthing you, I bite my tongue until it bleeds. The stuff about feeling neglected, Tom asked me to tell you.”

     “I'm sharing what he told me,” JB texted. “That's all. I felt you should know. I am going to work on spending more quality time with him. Last weekend we spent a lot of time doing schoolwork. And he aced both tests I helped him study for by the way. Yesterday was Friday and I had a lot of work to do in the morning. Took afternoon off. We went for a run. Had lunch and ran errands, including going to Best Buy to get him a phone. I made dinner and we watched the Hawks.”

     I walked into Tom’s room. “Dad said one of the errands you ran was getting you a phone. He said you watched the Hawks game, too.”
     “He watched the Hawks,” Tom answered. “I was on the computer.”
     “Let’s get out of here, go to the driving range.”
     Tom jumped out of bed. We grabbed his clubs and had fun. When we returned, Tom was extremely chatty.
     “My friend Andrew plays bass,” Tom said. “We’ve been talking about playing together.”
     “You should have him over.”
     “And a friend of ours plays drums. I want to start up a band with them."
     “That would be fun, change things up some. Be good for you to jam with other dudes.”