Rush’s “BU2B” goes off in my head.
Jan looks at me funny. “Do you hear that?”
“Hear what?” I ask, swallowing hard.
“Someone’s playing heavy metal music.”
I slam my hands over my ears, somewhat concerned that they’ve suddenly become amplifiers, but more worried about what just happened in the kitchen. I’ve known for a while that Dad isn’t a fanboy of Mom’s liberal wardrobe—but it’s always been a quiet insecurity, something mentioned in passing or hinted at through various humorous observations during Family Jogging Day. I’ve certainly never heard my parents argue openly about it before. Neil Peart’s lyric is apt: “I was brought up to believe the universe has a plan.” And now that plan has been altered forever. How long have these arguments been going on? Does this mean Dad’s going to start sleeping in the guest room? Is Mom going to unfriend him on Facebook? Oh, God, will I eventually have to choose between the two of them in some kind of twisted American Gladiator revival custody battle while wearing a Spandex singlet and brandishing a pugil stick?
Ahh! I can’t stop thinking about Spandex!
“You’re freaking out again, aren’t you?” Jan asks.
“BU2B” recedes in my mind, is replaced by the more subtle background hum of a thousand well-worn what-if’s. “I’m not used to seeing my parents fight.”
“It sounded more like they were just talking.”
“Oh, they were fighting. Some parents yell and throw things. Mine tidy up together.”
“That’s not so bad. Mine shout at each other and then have very loud sex after.”
Roused by the keyword “sex,” Ernie shifts behind us and rasps, “That’s so…fucking…Czech.”
Jan frowns. “Did you hear something?”
“Just various background gasses,” I reply, catching his sarcasm and smiling briefly before yielding to worry once again.
Jan notices this, and pats me on the shoulder. “Everyone’s parents fight. That’s what parents do: fight and have sex.”
“Who’s this Mr. Nakayoshi anyway?”
“He’s my dad’s boss, my mom’s highest-paying customer. He comes over for every little sprain or headache just so he can hit on her. We only put up with him so that he won’t fire my dad. And I’m designing a Web site for him.” I pause. “I should sell the admin password to his enemies.”
“Why doesn’t your dad just quit if his boss is so bad?”
“He needs the job.”
Jan nods knowingly. “My dad would probably torch his store if he could stand to lose the money.”
“It’s not the money.” I think for a second. “Well, it is the money, I guess. Mom and I make more than enough to cover all our expenses. Dad’s income is what goes into the savings account, or pays for any miscellaneous stuff. He’ll never admit it, but staying with Mr. Nakayoshi is his way of keeping his pride. He makes less than us, he took my mom’s surname when they married, he does all the cooking—not that I’m saying any of that is uncool or anything. I just think my dad’s having a hard time with it. Like, he wants to be this modern-day, trendy dad who lets his business-minded wife head the household with him as support, but his old-school upbringing won’t let him live it down. His job is what makes him a father and a husband, and not just some dude living in my mom’s house.”
“That’s deep,” Jan says—the universal response to something heartfelt and meaningful that you’ve only partially understood.
I sigh and gaze through the crack in the door once more. My heart sinks when I see Mom and Dad are now tag-teaming the dining room with Windex, damp washcloths, and a mop. They’re not exactly looking in our direction, but they will be when they see me and Jan struggling up the stairs with Ernie draped over our shoulders.
“We need a distraction,” I whisper.
“I have an idea,” Jan whispers back.
“Take off your clothes.”
I face Jan, narrow my eyes. “That’s your idea? Get naked? Really?”
Jan looks genuinely surprised. “It’s late. You’re supposed to be in bed, right?”
“So, you pretend you just got out of bed. You take off your clothes and go into the kitchen for a drink of water. You keep your parents distracted—tell them you had a bad dream or something—and I’ll sneak Ernie upstairs.”
“Why do I have to be naked?”
“You don’t have to be naked, just undressed.”
“No, undressed means you’re in your underwear.”
“No, ‘in your underwear’ means you’re in your underwear. ‘Undressed’ means undressed, as in the opposite of dressed.”
A rare flicker of frustration tousles Jan’s pixelated features. “Just strip down to whatever it is you usually wear to bed.”
It’s not the most eloquent idea, but it’s an idea, and since I don’t have a better one, I sigh and take off my socks and pants. Even though I’ve still got my Oxford and boxers on, I’m grateful for the darkness.
“Here.” I hand my clothes over to Jan. “Bring these with you upstairs.”
He takes them hesitantly. “Wow. Do you always sweat this much?”
“Only when I’m doing urban crossfit.”
A blank stare from Jan.
“You know,” I add. “The eighty-two-foot-tall Donkey Kong platform thing. Biking across town with you and The Fatness. Fleeing from Axe Cop—never mind.” I peek across the hall again. The moment my parents step out of sight and into the kitchen, I open the door full and motion for Jan to follow me out.
Almost immediately, Dad steps back into the dining room, resuming his mopping.
I flinch backward, shoving Jan (carrying Ernie again) into Mom’s studio once more—and inadvertently nestling my backside in his lap. Just behind the threshold, safely in shadow, we both freeze in a stationary twerking position that’s absolutely not as exciting as it sounds. I’m essentially the meat in an awkward sandwich. The first slice of bread would be Dad, across the hall and in the dining room, yes, but standing directly in my line of sight should he decide to look this way at the exact moment a freak power surge coaxes the studio lights to full brightness. The second slice of bread: pixelated crotch.
Jan clears his throat. “Uh, Theo?”
I step forward hastily, and my weight causes the floorboard—which has never, ever creaked before tonight—to do just that. Again I jerk backward and into a butt-crotch position.
(Dad looks up momentarily, but doesn’t seem to see us.)
Jan clears his throat some more. “Yeah, it’s happened again—”
Sweat now streaming down my face, I step forward, the floorboard creaking something fierce, and continue toward the dining room with conviction—not because the timing’s right or anything, but because the universe will implode if I play snuggle-butt with Jan’s lap a third time. Plain and simple.
I cross the hall, step into the dining room, my brain desperately rehearsing numerous convincing out-of-bed scenarios to tell my parents when something happens that defies all explanation: I slip and fall. Now, at ripe old age of twelve, I’ve pretty much had this walking thing down for over a decade, on a variety of surfaces, both wet and dry, in and out of shoes. But tonight all it takes is a single bare foot placed incorrectly on a slippery wet tile floor, and suddenly I’m flailing toward the dinner table at Mach 6. I lash out with my arms to grab the nearest chair, the intention being to right myself and avert any further embarrassment. Instead, my shirt catches on the chair at about the same instant my legs go flying out from under me. In what has to be the most acrobatic fail of the year, my upper torso somehow shimmies right out of the shirt, resulting in my being deposited face-down onto the floor in nothing but my boxers and a slick, lemon-scented sheen of total shame.
Dad stops mopping and, after a lengthy pause, asks, “What on Earth are you doing, Theo?”
“Having a bad dream,” I reply.