Going Off-Script: On Re-Defining Co-Parenting.

With every visit, you more closely resemble the man I recognize: tall enough to provide shade but slighter of frame than you’ve been for a long while. You’d gotten larger in these last years, enough so that on those rare occasions when I consented to your request for an embrace, you felt unfamiliar inside my arms.

But I suppose this was because there were other reasons you were uncomfortable there.

To celebrate our daughter’s third birthday, you came to town two days afterward, at 7 am on a Saturday. We’ve been warmer with each other for weeks, having little choice but to bond, trapped as we were under an avalanche of bills: reopening closed off corridors en route to an escape, outrunning, outwitting, repaying, rejoicing.

(Maybe love among people like us is just leading each other through labyrinths, is just doubling back after you’ve left.)

At the airport, you asked for a hug. “No,” I said. “Maybe later.” There are the confidences shared struggle restores — and there is affectionate touch, which is earned in other ways entirely.

Even so, I am surprised at our ease, surprised to find not even a hint of the old anger, my insides untightening with you near, rather than winding themselves into ulcerous knots, willing you to leave.

Listen: I am very different. I have loved and lost another. I’ve a life you no longer know and having new things to hold aloft excites me. Even the pain is new; even that is an odd relief. I am still collecting the parts of myself I’ve sloughed while risking fresh affections, still accepting that some things cannot be reclaimed, still wondering if, both with him and with you, the problem is me.

Do I drive you all away by being too writerly, too willing to retreat onto pages, where all the comfort, confessing, caressing and madness occurs in a place apart, when it should performed in person?

Only you know how far I can be from timid. Only I know how dark your days have been. My own days were darkest when something of you sat stirring in me, curling into the girl we gaze at today, in abject awe. Five months is a long time to grow a girl alone. A long time wondering over my worth. A long time spent listening to others’ whispered predictions. He’ll come back, they said. He’s a good guy.

They meant that when you did — and I suppose I always suspected you would — I should be grateful to have you. I should coerce you into marriage so both we and our child could suffer the delusion that neither you nor I would ever leave again.

But I’ve liked the leaving. I’ve liked flitting to spaces away from you — and relearning each other on return. This is the foundation of our friendship.

Before the girl, it was I who did the leaving. I’m sure it was unfair to insist that you were not allowed. But the baby meant you owed me; I knew the script. “Good men” dive headfirst into fatherhood with women they claim to love. It is only the cowards who need time, only the villains who leave.

If I had listened to you, looked at you, limb-walked far enough out that your words were not drowned in the chaos of the he-never-loved-you winds, I may have understood that we would always find ourselves here again: at ease and okay. (But would we have salvaged something worth sustaining? Would we have avoided the avalanche?)

Our daughter is wary when you appear, seemingly out of thin air: on screen, in person. She turns her head away; she tucks her chin. She needs to be coaxed out of an instinct to close herself off.

Of course, she has inherited this from me. It occurs to me now that I do her no favors by not appearing open with you.

This time, I sang her the refrain of a song she understands. Like you, she understands better in song. “Grow-own-ups! Come baaaack,” I cooed. And she turned to you and offered her first hug, ten minutes into your stay. She would sing it to us again throughout the day. It would rend our hearts.

What is rote for us is insurmountable for her. Perhaps love among families like ours is to stop sojourning toward other loves and to settle here. Maybe the only happiness we deserve is hers.

You were only here for two days. On the way back to the airport I said: I don’t want to get back together. You said you understood. And there is something different in these rides away now, a wistfulness, a reassurance.

It has been twelve years. You always come back.

I left the car this time, walked around to your side, offered an unsolicited embrace: brief and fairly far apart, but an offering. You are thinning out again: a recollection in my arms. “All right,” you said to yourself. “All right.”

Maybe the truest love is a resignation. Maybe it is resisting the pre-written script. I do not know.

But here we are. Here we are.

Going Off-Script: On Re-Defining Co-Parenting.