(Published in The Weekly Knob)
The boy is seven years old, and he calls for his father every time the apartment door opens. He is old enough to know that the majority of the time, the door is opened by the strangers, different each week, that his mother houses in the spare bedroom for extra cash. But he keeps calling, out of habit, as a prayer, for his father, waiting for the one time in ten, the one time in a hundred that it actually is his father.
When it is finally his father who opens the door, the boy races to the door and stands shyly as his father takes off his shoes and enters the living room. The boy used to run headfirst into his father’s knees and hug as tight as he could and cling as his father tried to walk, but then one time his father said, “Son, you are getting too old for this. Calm yourself.
Your father is tired.” And then the boy was embarrassed that he was showing his father such wild affection, and he was embarrassed for his father, and so he stopped clinging and hugging and instead silently stood and watched as his father stepped, heel-toe heel-toe straight to his bedroom. It was always the same afterwards. The door shut and locked, the thump of the briefcase on the ground, the faint tapping of thumb on smartphone glass, the rainfall splattering of the shower, the click of the lights turning off.
Although sometimes, his father comes home really late at night, past midnight. His mother usually puts the boy and his sister to bed around 9 or 10, but his mother does not know that the boy stays up most nights, straining his ears, waiting for the open and close of the apartment door. There is no sound he knows better. His ears burn listening for his father in the dark. If I listen harder, maybe he’ll feel it, maybe he’ll come home.
And tonight, it is Sunday night and the boy is in bed and he can hear the sound of his younger sister snoring softly, and he lies on his stomach with this chin on his elbows and waits. His father was gone all weekend and would be coming home tonight, he definitely would be coming home tonight, because his father had left his briefcase in his bedroom (the boy had checked repeatedly yesterday and today) and his father would need that to go to work tomorrow on Monday.
And the boy knows also because his mother is waiting for his father. He knows she waits for her husband to come home when he is gone for days at a time. She always preps herself. Some nights she incorrectly guesses that he will come, because she styles her hair and perfumes her skin and powders her face and sits by herself in the kitchen until late at night, waiting for the husband that rarely comes home.
Tonight is the same. She has combed her hair carefully and put a thick coat of white makeup on her face to cover the bruising and the stitches and dabbed a little pink color on her cheeks and lips. She wears a yellow blouse that his father had bought for her one time when they were all on vacation, when they all used to go on vacation. That was before his sister was born, and the boy was very young then, but he remembers walking hand in hand, mother on the left father on the right, on the sand, in the water, up the mountain. Always the three of them.
The door opens, and his mother calls for his father, and the boy hears his father speak: “Why are you still up? It’s very late.”
His mother whispers, quietly, “Where were you this weekend?”
“I had some work I had to take care of. Do you think the money for this apartment comes for free? How do you think we pay all our bills?”
“Please, I didn’t mean to fight. I made you dinner. Please sit.”
“What is it? Can you at least heat it up for me?”
“I didn’t know when you would come. Here, take some water while I turn on the stove.”
“Oh, are those your new teeth? They look all right. Better than the old ones. Now they’re straight and white. Much better to look at.”
“They’re a bit uncomfortable, but the dentist said it will take some time getting used to.”
“Give it a week and you won’t even notice they’re in there. Top and bottom?”
“And — what did you tell them?”
“That I fell down the stairs. Like we agreed.”
“And they believed you?”
“I think so.”
“Are you lying? If they find out what happened then I could go to jail and then where would you get the money for the kids’ school and for the apartment and all the money you send back to your family?”
“No, no, I was convincing, I said that I tripped wearing a new pair of heels and fell down two flights of stairs. They didn’t ask more questions.”
“Okay, good. Is the food ready?”
“Here, be careful, the bowl is hot.”
“Pass me the salt. It tastes like nothing.”
“Bring me a drink, will you?”
“I put a few bottles of soju in the fridge. Would you like a glass?”
“No, just give me the whole bottle.”
“This house is a mess. You stay home all day and you can’t even clean up after your kids.”
“They’re your children, too.”
“They ask for you. Your son, our son, he asks for you all day.”
“He needs to grow up. He isn’t a little boy anymore.”
“And our daughter, she barely knows what you look like. Please, at least for our children, please come home.”
“This apartment is a mess, I can’t even walk without tripping over a toy or a book. Maybe if it was more comfortable for me to come home to. And what’s that old shirt you’re wearing? Looks like you didn’t even want me to be home.”
“I’ll clean up, if that’s what you want. Maybe you should stop drinking.”
“You know what? I like the fake teeth more. I don’t mind looking at your face now. It’s not as ugly anymore now that your teeth are not crooked and yellow. But I hate that shirt. Come on.”
The door to the boy’s parent’s bedroom slams open, and the boy wraps himself tightly in his covers and thinks that maybe it is better to wish for his father to come home than for him to actually come home.