First in a new series!
Sex and the Single Dad Book One
The Lonely Dad’s Guide to Love
Alex is a single dad at twenty-two, getting by (but barely). Daniel arrives at just the right – and, somehow, just the wrong – time.
Alex can’t fall in love with Danny. Danny’s… Not going to let that stop him.
For Alex, there are three defining moments in his life.
The first, an ordinary Tuesday afternoon in October during his freshman year. His music teacher calls him to one side and tells him about the advancement program for gifted musicians. He adds, smiling, with the kind of irreverent casualness that means it’s a big deal that Alex has a place. Alex, hands folded neatly on a fake-beech desk, the plastic whorling chipping away at the corners and letters scratched in ballpoint pen like scars, stares at the poster of Miles Davis on the wall. Mr Compton talks about college paths and scholarships. Alex, fifteen and barely able to acknowledge anything beyond the next weekend, glows the whole way home. So buoyed with pride is Alex that, like Elliott, he’s waiting for the front wheel of his bike to lift and point him straight to the stars.
The second comes in the faculty office of the University of Michigan. Three faces set above three identical half windsors, sports jackets in pale colours and faces-like-his-dad’s smiling at him across modern oak. Alex, seventeen now, wears his big brother’s suit and a tie he borrows from his grandpa. Everything itches but the smile hurts his face, pinched into the corners of his lips like badly executed plastic surgery. He’s done it. A full scholarship. Everyone tells him his future’s bright, that there’s nothing between him and the world now.
The third arrives some time later, a hospital room that smells of antiseptic and, inexplicably, green. A bundle placed into his arms that he wasn’t expecting but adores nonetheless. Some people say ‘accident’, but Alex, twenty, will never say anything but ‘surprise’.
Three moments, spanned across half a decade. Alex thinks three might be his lucky number.
* * *
“Listen,” Alex says, the earpiece of his phone fizzles and cracks and he hopes it doesn’t choose today to die because, God only knows, there’s not enough cash in the checking account to replace it, “I understand what you’re saying it’s just — I could do with some help, you know?”
He’s packing a bag as she replies, tone clipped with barely repressed irritation. Hat, diapers, sippy cup… He doesn’t need to listen to the actual words she’s framing to get the idea.
“Becca, c’mon, please,” he pauses to pinch the bridge of his nose, “well, what do you think I need it for? Food! Heat! Fucking shoes!”
“What? No! Of course he didn’t repeat what I just said, don’t be ridiculous —” he pauses to raise two fingers to his temple, thumb flexing as he mimes blowing his brains out across the kitchen counter. He checks the fridge, fumbles for a pen and writes milk on the notepad by the door, “— look, can you pay for the shoes or not? No? Okay, fine, whatever. I’ve got to go — what? Oh, sure. Dexter, come here, buddy,” he holds the phone out towards his son, “say hi to mommy.”
It shouldn’t hurt, the way Dexter’s eyes light up. The way he flexes fat little fingers like he can hug the disembodied voice through a speaker shouldn’t invoke the sensation of stepping into an open elevator shaft. But it does. Daddy is boring, the harbinger of broccoli and bedtime and limited television. Mommy is made entirely of Disney movies and play barns and trips to the park. Alex would like to repeat — again — that this is not the way he imagined things working out.
“Okay, little guy, say goodbye,” he says. Dexter’s lip wobbles, his fists clench and he teeters on the brink of a temper tantrum. Alex is about fifteen different kinds of done with this shit for one morning. He whisks the phone away regardless — they were late ten minutes ago, now it’s just bordering on seeming early for tomorrow — and ends the call. “Yep, we’ve got to go, he starts daycare today. Thanks for, well, nothing, I guess.”
He thumbs the end call button before she can object. The bowl of oatmeal on the coffee table is conspicuously empty while Dexter is suspiciously clean. Investigation can wait until some other time. He shrugs on the jacket that was worn out a year ago and shoves on his sneakers. “C’mon, my dude. Time to go.”
Across the room, Dexter plants his feet (in the outgrown shoes Alex paid thirty dollars for six weeks ago — seriously, is it normal for a kid’s feet to grow that fast? Should he be referring him to the doctor so they can check for elephantiasis?) and shakes his head. “No.”
“Yes,” says Alex, already halfway across the living room. The clock on the wall informs him that time is not favoring him by moving backwards just this once. “Daddy’s gonna be late for —” he pauses, Dexter held aloft and at arm’s length as Alex eyes him suspiciously. Slowly, he brings him closer, nose pressed to the padding of his cotton-covered and diapered rear end. The stench is ungodly. “Oh, come on, dude. Seriously?”
* * *
Alex has got this.
If he walks fast — okay, if he runs — and takes the shortcut through the park, he might make it to work on time.
Alright, realistically, that ship sailed ten minutes ago, but he could yet attain still-late-but-early-enough-to-avoid-losing-an-hour’s-pay. The stroller thumps over every bump in the sidewalk as he darts through a group of yoga mommies in sweatpants completing the early morning Mommy and Me class. Dexter howls, the kid is puce, wilfully ignoring the puffing shh-shh-shh noises Alex is wheezing around an impending asthma attack.
Alex hasn’t got this, not at all, he’s lying to himself and everyone around him, but he’s willing to fake it til he makes it. That’s been his life motto for the past year and a half and he’s not ready to give up on it yet. Probably. He’s pretty sure he’s not ready to give up on it. Today, at least.
“I know,” he’s talking on the phone again, the handset jammed between his shoulder and ear, both hands curled around the handles of the stroller, “seriously, mom, don’t worry about it. I know, but we’re gonna be fine, you know? Look, I’m almost at the daycare center now, I’ll call you tonight, ’kay? Let you know how he — okay. Yes. Love you, too, mom. Gotta go. Mom, I — I gotta — yes, mom. O — okay, I — mom, bye.”
It’s not until he’s at the door of Lullabye Daycare, unstrapping Dexter from the stroller and groping to shove his hat someplace safe, that Alex realizes, stomach lurching and heart kicking basslines against his ribs. He forgot the fucking diaper bag.
They linger, father and son, two heads of dark blonde hair and two pairs of serious blue eyes considering the bank of buttons and buzzers by the front door. Alex has never felt closer to crying than he does right in this particular moment. He presses a kiss to Dexter’s soft little cheek and reaches for the buzzer labelled ‘office.’
“Well, buddy. Shall we get this over with?” Dex tugs a lock of Alex’s hair over his eyes, blinding him entirely, then shoves a finger up his nose.
The voice that crackles over the intercom is bright, the perky presentation of a saturday morning TV show host. “Good morning, can I help you?”
“Yeah, uh. Dexter Nowak. Uh,” he bites his lip and tries again, “I mean, it’s not Dexter speaking right now,” he considers slamming his face into the brick wall, but suspects death wouldn’t be instantaneous, “I’m Alex. His, uh — his dad. Dexter’s dad. Alex Nowak.”
If there was limerence and karma and cosmic balance, a sinkhole would open up right now and swallow him whole — pausing precisely long enough to allow him to deposit Dexter safely on the edge. Instead, the voice chirps again, “Okay, hi! Come on in.”
So, with no alternative option available, that’s precisely what he does.
There’s a lot of people inside. A confusing crush of moms and dads and perky daycare workers in cobalt blue polo shirts emblazoned with the company logo. Social interaction has never been Alex’s strong suit but since Becca left, since the apartment reduced to Alex, a mostly non-verbal eighteen-month-old and endless repetitions of the Teletubbies, things have become close to unbearable.
There were friends once, people he could hang out with. He supposes he thought they were mutual and that, like a timeshare condo, they’d split the social side of things down the middle. But Becca told her side of the story first and Alex kept quiet for fear of losing Dexter and the invitations to hang out dried up like summer rainfall. He still isn’t sure what it is, exactly, that she told them but, like, no one’s called Child Protective Services yet, so he assumes it can’t be too bad. It’s fine, though. Really. Friends are probably overrated.
Dexter reaches out for the mural on the wall.
His chubby fingertips brush the stylized cartoon of a winged sheep set against a backdrop of swirling stars, “‘S’at?”
“The sheep?” Alex asks softly, fingertip tracing the lines of the wings. He smiles. “You like the sheep, buddy?”
“Mr Nowak?” the voice from the intercom has a face; dark hair, dark eyes. She’s pretty in a hipster way, tall, her dark ponytail swishing behind her. She’s not the manager he met when he visited. “Hi! I’m Vicky, I’m one of the managers here at Lullabye and you,” she pauses to touch Dexter’s cheek, her perfume sweet and delicate. Dexter buries his face in Alex’s neck and sinks the sharp little nails that Alex keeps forgetting to trim into his cheek, “you must be Dexter!”
The thing about being a parent is that it’s possible to become hugely adept at pretending everything is just fine. As Dexter whines into his ear, Alex rearranges the puzzle pieces of his face into a honed parody of a smile and coos encouragement. Alex can go from reticent social pariah to Barney the fucking Dinosaur if his son requires it. “Oh wow, come on, my man. Say hi?”
Dexter shakes his head, hot tears staining Alex’s jacket as he fists his hands into denim like he knows what’s coming and can stop it within nothing more than the force of the towering will crammed into his tiny body.
“I — I’m sorry,” Alex stammers, face too hot, “he’s just — I know I said he was, like, happy on the forms and stuff, and he is! Really, he is. He’s just — he gets, you know, kinda shy.”
Vicky smiles and tilts her head to the side, assessing him. Alex hopes he measures up to whatever this childcare professional expects to see, that he scrapes over the line into ‘adequate parent’. There are moms and dads here in business wear, on their way to real jobs in actual offices. Alex isn’t even sure his Bowie shirt is clean, but it was cleaner than anything else that came to hand while he dressed Dex with one hand and wrote the grocery list with the other.
“He’ll be fine,” she assures him softly. Alex’s chest hurts — he’s not sure if this is because he hopes she’s right, or because if she is, that means he’s lost the one person who needs him. “Come on, I’ll take you along to Danny’s room, introduce you to the gang.”
They walk the corridor of chaos; abandoned jackets and bags and ‘please-don’t-go-mommy’ tears. Alex has approximately twenty feet of brightly colored, plasticated flooring to consider if Danny is a nickname for Danielle or Dana then Vicky is swinging left. Alex tries not to wince as Dexter’s fingers twist into his hair and tug fiercely. “Please make daddy look good, ’kay?”
“Danny, come over here.”
Alex stops, surprised. His eyebrows are raised, his mouth hanging slack enough that he’s aware of it, “Oh! You’re — you’re a —”
— dude, his brain supplies, helpfully. But, he’s like, ninety-nine percent certain he can’t actually say that, that there are like, equality laws and stuff and he really doesn’t have the cash to risk getting sued. So, instead, he stares, wide-eyed. He manages, somehow, to close his mouth, though. Danny — short for Daniel, obviously — grins, copper eyes twinkling. Two pennies, tossed into a wishing well for good luck.
“A guy? Yeah, last time I checked!” he offers with the kind of shrug that suggests he gets that a lot. Alex tells himself not to feel embarrassed — this is beyond the realms of normality, he’s allowed to be at least a little surprised — but, judging from the surface temperature of his face, his brain isn’t going to acknowledge that. “So, you brought your little brother in for his first day? That’s super cute, man. Seriously.”
“I’m — I mean, I’m his —”
“Danny…” Vicky rolls her eyes and gives the word at least a dozen syllables. Danny smiles wider and Alex is hopelessly stuck somewhere between wanting to hate him and wanting to… do other things to him.
“His dad, I know,” Danny laughs and it’s not an attractive laugh at all but Alex wants to hear it all the time, “I’m just playing with you, dude, come on in.”
(Academically, Alex knows that he has the capacity to develop a crush on anyone that smiles at him like that; the super in his building, the barista at Starbucks, his mom’s best friend Pam. Academics, however, seem several state lines away from the buzz on his skin, skittering like electric shocks by the way Danny’s eyes crinkle at the corners. Alex is either crushing, or in the early stages of a heart attack.)
Alex swallows and pats a hand against Dexter’s rump, for no other reason than to stop himself blurting out something stupid. “This is Dexter. Dex. Is what I call him, mostly.”
Objectively, Danny is a handsome man. Far more handsome that Alex is mentally prepared to deal with at this hour of the morning. His dark hair and olive skin look good next to the navy polo shirt and black cargo pants that are already streaked with something pink and sticky. Play doh, Alex identifies absently. As though he feels the weight of the gaze on his thigh, Danny reaches down and brushes it away with long, tanned fingers. Fingers that don’t wear a wedding ring or the telltale pale indentation of one slipped off for work.
Why is Alex looking for a wedding ring?
“Well, I’ll leave you to get settled in,” Vicky smiles at Dexter, urged from the safety of Alex’s shoulder by the pandemonium of preschoolers exploding around them. “Have fun, Dex!”
They consider one another, Alex and Danny, caught in the midst of children shrieking and tugging at Danny’s polo shirt. Danny holds his arms out expectantly and, for a moment, Alex almost steps into them. Then he remembers — he’s holding his son. That’s who Danny is reaching for. His cheeks are now roughly on par with the surface of Mordor and he’d like, very much, to die right now.
“Can I?” Danny asks.
“Oh, sure,” Alex says, in the same second.
Danny’s hands brush his chest as he slides them under Dexter’s arms. Alex feel empty — hollow, lost and aching sore — as he watches a stranger take hold of his son, sick with the knowledge that he won’t hold him again for another nine hours. Dexter, surprisingly, seems relatively okay with this, wide eyes pinned on Alex.
Dexter has no idea what’s coming, however, so Alex bites his lip then smiles a smile he’s sure will crack under the slightest pressure.
“Okay,” Danny begins, Dexter on his hip, “I’m the educational lead at Lullabye, we have ten kids in this room. That,” he points to a pile of, Alex had assumed, children and soft toys, something twitches beneath them and another face, another male face, appears, “is Dillon, he’s my right hand man and,” he drops his voice, like he’s letting Alex in on a conspiracy, “he’s sort of a legend with pipe cleaners and googly eyes.”
“Hi,” Alex waves, fingers wiggling like a toddler. He immediately feels stupid. Stupider. Why doesn’t he just point out the nearest firetruck or ask Dillon if he can see the really big doggy just for good measure?
“Hey, man!” Dillon retreats back to the stuffies. “Nice to meet you.”
Danny pauses, his smile widening as he nods to Alex’s jacket, “Uh, you’ve got a little — a little something…”
Alex glances in the mirror over the sink. Oatmeal. All over his fucking jacket. At least now he knows where it went. “Oh, for fu — uh, I mean gosh darn it. He’s , uh, probably gonna be hungry…”
He scrapes at it with his fingernails but it’s already set like concrete. Still, at least now he has a reason to toss it into the washing machine, something he’s been meaning to do for a couple of weeks. Months. Whatever. There’s a thin, leather bracelet around Danny’s wrist, two delicate straps woven and peppered with beads. Then there’s ink, so much dark ink, twisting up his forearm and disappearing under his sleeve. Danny tries very hard to think straight thoughts.
“Don’t worry about it,” Danny smiles, different now, softer, “will mom be doing pick up?”
“No,” there’s a rock lodged dead center in Alex’s chest, hot and hard, “it’s just — just me and Dex. Most of the time, anyway. Mom lives, uh, she lives in Chicago. His mom, not — not my mom. My mom lives in — in Ann Arbor, which is a lot closer than Chicago but, like, you don’t care about that,” Alex would like to stop talking but apparently he can’t, “I should go — get to work, you know?”
“Okay, you gonna say goodbye to daddy, Dex?” Dexter, hearing the words ‘goodbye’ and ‘daddy,’ screams like he thinks Danny intends to butcher him and harvest his organs. Instinctively, Alex reaches for him but Danny brushes him away.
“Just go,” he advises, nodding towards the door, “call in ten minutes if you like, I promise he’ll be totally settled in. They always do this the first few times.”
Alex hesitates, feet lead-heavy and frozen. Working full time really hasn’t been so bad when his mom was doing to the childcare part. Leaving Dex with grandma is fine, it’s normal. But grandma has used up all of her compassionate leave and her boss’s patience and, Alex reminds himself, grandma has a mortgage to pay. He blinks hard and makes a wish that he won’t cry like a jackass in front of stupid Danny and his stupid-pretty eyes.
“Yeah,” he whispers, pressing a kiss to Dex’s forehead and feeling his heart shatter like glass at the desperate way his son tries to cling to him, “have — have a great day, little buddy. Daddy’ll be back real soon, ’kay? Love you, you know. My best boy.”
Dexter is sobbing and Alex isn’t far from joining him as he untangles tiny hands from his collar and moves towards the door. Danny’s still smiling — sympathetic now — bouncing Dexter as he shushes him softly. “He — you need to sing the diaper song when you change him, okay? I wrote the words on the form but it’s basically just Space Odyssey with the prominent nouns changed to ‘poop’, you know? Poop control to Major Poop?”
Danny’s grin widens. “I will. Hey, don’t forget to ask Vicky for the webcam code. You can watch him all day if you want to,” he turns away, Dexter on his hip, hands straining towards Alex over a broad shoulder. Alex wants to warn him that Dexter can, and will, cry so hard he pukes but he doesn’t want to have to find a new daycare on the first day. “Aright, Dex, my man. Tell me, what are your thoughts on dinosaurs?”
Alex closes the door behind him, deadening the sound of Dexter’s desperate sobbing but not drowning it out completely. It follows him down the hallway and Alex is sure he’s the worst dad — worst human being — in this or any other universe. At the office, Vicky hands him the login codes for the daycare webcam and tells him he can find Dexter in the Jellybean Room. Alex makes it out of the front door, across the street and two blocks closer to work before he breaks down.
Embarrassingly, he’s still sort of sniffling when he passes through the staff door at XO Sports & Fitness, blinking away tears as he struggles out of his jeans and shirt and into the pseudo referee shirt and poly-blend sweats he wears five days a week. They even make him wear a whistle like they think it’s charming and cute rather than humiliating and assholey. It sits against his chest, hanging from his lanyard with his name badge and security pass.
Alex has often questioned if it’s wise to place the tender windpipes of employees between coked-up sneaker thieves and access to the stockroom. No one has ever given him an adequate answer.
“Good afternoon,” Jon, observes, like an asshole. Jon was way cooler before he got himself promoted to floor supervisor. Then again, Alex was way cooler before he became a single parent so they’re pretty much two for two. Yeah, he can make sports references. He doesn’t understand them but he can make them. “Late again?”
It’s on the tip of Alex’s tongue to bark back no fucking shit, Sherlock but he likes paying rent and having food in the refrigerator, so he smiles, tight and professional. “Dex’s first day at daycare.”
Jon’s look rests squarely in the middle of sympathy and not really giving a shit. To be fair, that’s Jon’s facial expression at least eighty percent of the time. Alex gets it, sort of, it’s hard for Jon to imagine the impact one tiny kid could have on his ability to get his shit together and get to work in the morning. But he’s trying, clearly, as he shrugs, “Try to get in early tomorrow, make up for it, you know?”
He means he won’t dock Alex’s pay which is sweet of him. But there’s about as much chance of Alex making it in early tomorrow (or any other day before Dexter graduates high school) as there is of him painting his ass blue and streaking across the Crisler Center. He nods, though. Better than laughing hysterically.
He eyes his watch and counts down the hours until he can boot up the arthritic computer in the lunch room and see how Dexter is doing.
* * *
That night, after pick up and dinner smeared onto every surface tiny hands could reach, after playtime, bathtime, storytime and bedtime comes daddy time. It used to be mommy-and-daddy time, two sets of exhausted eyes staring blankly at the same TV screen. Sure, Alex still felt so tired he honestly wondered how he continued to function, eyes gritty and head nodding onto the couch cushions.
But at least he didn’t feel quite so lonely.
He picks up Dexter’s toys, lays out their clothes for the next day and spends a little time staring out of the window. The town of Henderson ticks on around him, quiet, in the way suburban towns are in the evening. It’s not like he was ever a party animal, even before Dexter, but —
The sigh shudders through him like shockwaves, shoulders shaking with the intensity of it. He’s still not sure he did anything wrong, not really. Ill-advised, perhaps. Misleading, almost certainly. But, wrong? No, he’s not willing to accept that just yet, that the very fibres that make him into a whole are somehow woven incorrectly. That shit is for bible camp.
Sometimes, Alex feels as though he’s on a ferris wheel, that his feet only brush solid ground in fleeting heartbeats before he’s whisked away once more. Not that he’d change it, please understand, not when he can stand and watch the way the hallway light shafts across his sleeping son’s face in the glow of a bedroom illuminated by an Elmo night light.
He touches his fingertips to the glass and looks up at the sky. It’s cloudy out, the stars invisible, but Alex makes a wish nonetheless. In fact, he makes it three times.
Three always was his lucky number.
* * *
Sex and the Single Dad Book One: The Lonely Dad’s Guide to Love will be available 10.01.19!