Sonya Larson

God is Love is Love is Love

His lover suggested a lunchbox, plastered with spaceships and trucks, and at that moment Donald wished he’d come alone. He had brought along Morris to shop for his daughter, sensing that if he was going to mingle the two of them—like two unknown chemical compounds—then he’d better provide a distraction, something to focus the disaster. And so: here was Target. Morris was kind and eager and Donald felt weirdly responsible for him as he disappeared down the aisles.

“How about some Springsteen?” Morris shouted from somewhere unseen. “They’ve got your favorites. All that driving into the sunset…”

“No, no, no, no,” Donald muttered. He wandered after the voice, concentrating on the white tile of the floor. Molly was his only chance at a daughter. He needed to think.

He found him in Home Appliances. “How about a Dust Buster?” said Morris, examining a travel-sized one in a box. “This could also be for kids.” He shook it by his ear, assessing its durability. Morris was from an almost-poor family in an almost-poor neighborhood; he was a man of practicalities. Last Christmas—their second ever—Morris gave him a battery charger and a rain poncho. Batteries and a poncho. Why should Donald expect more now?

“She’s six,” he said. “She needs something memorable. Something unique.”

“Unique…” said Morris, scanning the shelves. “Like a car alarm?” He was grinning, being funny, but Donald couldn’t laugh about this. Not about his daughter.

Morris quieted. “Okay, okay,” he said, squeezing Donald’s arm. Donald held his fingers there—the rough, warm grip of them. “I know that you’ll pick something wonderful,” said Morris, and he left to look for alarms-for-the-lawn.

Donald wandered the perfume aisle, feeling sick. He might as well have been shopping for a pen pal. Living apart from his daughter gave him only a Greatest Hits knowledge of her tastes; his efforts felt hopelessly obsolete. Finally he stood before the bins of jellybeans—who doesn’t like food?—and selected the most exquisite flavors. He eased the bag into the glove compartment and drove them to her school.

There she was. His Molly. Standing in the parking lot like a chessman, rotund in her coat and thick scarf wound under her eyes. She pried open the back door and rolled onto the seat with a cold gust of air. Donald twisted to watch her, past Morris in the passenger seat, his smile aching his face. But she didn’t look at them. Just pulled at the scarf, revealing her hardworking cheeks. Donald reached over the shifting column and offered her the jellybeans, feeling more of a lover than a father. His continuous trying.

“What are these?” she said.

“Juicy pear and toasted coconut,” said Morris. “Your dad picked out each and every one.” He winked at Donald.

Which was irritating. Donald turned away and looked squarely at his daughter. “You remember Morris?” said Donald.

“Hi Morris,” she said, examining the jellybeans that hung limply in her hand. Donald wanted her to tear it open, to swallow them hungrily, but she only slid them in her backpack and zipped the zipper. She lowered her head to the seat. She closed her eyes.

Okay: no beans. Didn’t want to spoil her dinner. A good kid—he should be grateful. Donald faced the windshield and drove speedily to his suburban stucco, far from his ex. It was no Faye’s Playland, sure, but there was the park nearby and the neighbor’s dog and the garage he was proud of. They could have their own fun, couldn’t they? Their non-Tyco Toys, non-Faye fun!
He got everyone inside. “What shall we do first?” he said. “Boggle—your favorite? A round of Pictionary?”

Molly dropped her backpack and sighed. “Mom says I’d better nap,” she said. “After that I’ll come down and we can play Boggle then.” Donald forced a knowing nod. That made sense. That was logical.

She dragged her little body up the banister as Donald called up. “Just yell when you’re ready for scampi alla lilli! With fresh Roma tomatoes! From the garden!”

“Maybe she would’ve liked the car alarm,” said Morris in his ear. He saw Donald’s face and corrected himself, frowning. “Relax, Father Donald.” He rubbed Donald’s shoulders, kissed his cheek. “Practice relaxing.”

“Don’t call me Father,” said Donald. “It makes me sound like some sort of priest.”

“I’m sorry,” said Morris. “I would never insinuate such a thing.” Donald felt a smile in the kiss touching his neck. It made him want to cry—Morris soothing him like this.

In his study Donald leaned over his desk. He’d written letters without sending them, bought books without giving them. He was out of touch with his daughter; there was no need to make it obvious.

The term was coming out, which made it sound like a party. A liberation. But if it had been that easy, he would have done it so much sooner. Before finding himself with a wife and a daughter and a job researching T-cells. Donald loved them all: that was his problem. He loved their home. He loved Bruce Springsteen. When Molly was a baby, Faye would make videos of her thrashing giddily with wrapping paper, his “Thunder Road” record playing in the background. They could watch the videos ceaselessly; they were parents seized with love. It shook him alive, this happiness like a drug.

He was accustomed by then to almost-truth, to seventy and eighty percent truth. After a while that began to feel like the real thing.

One day Donald showed off a video of Molly to everyone at the lab, his bosses and students gathered around the television. “What a peach,” said the man over Donald’s shoulder. Donald twisted to see a slim-cheeked man from Distribution, delivering new pipets. “Do you mind if I watch? he said. Donald pulled up a stool, though the man wasn’t wearing proper lab slippers. “You can’t wear those in here,” Donald told him, watching the man’s smooth forehead gleam under the fluorescents. The tiny goosebumps disappearing up his sleeve.

And so it began. What did people think? This man Morris: a new friend. Someone Donald lunched with. Someone who volunteered in the lab. Like an intern Morris would linger late, idly helping to wash eyedroppers in the industrial sink, complaining only later that the chemicals smelled like death. They talked of parents, the Iraq surge. The intricacies of preferred toothpastes. They met in a quiet coffee house, far from the lab and full of strangers. Soon everything was discussable. How Donald fell in love with Faye, how he wasn’t sure about Faye. How he wasn’t sure about anything anymore. Morris listened.

When Donald spoke of Faye, of Molly, sometimes he could hardly breathe. But then Morris would reach over and thread his fingers through Donald’s hand. Rested them on the table like it was nothing, like no one would care.

Some moments needed nothing else. These cups of coffee. These tall, clear windows.

Before long their connection had a grip to it. Donald would gaze at Morris in a way that made him impossibly sad. He listened to Bruce—songs so pure, so transcendent, flying over car lots and porches at sunset, waiting for a girl. “I don’t get it,” said Morris. “The dusty beach roads? The Chevrolets? That’s my turf. And all these Mary’s and Wendy’s? You don’t even like women!” But Donald didn’t care. So much range of feeling he’d learned from Bruce Springsteen—the isolation, the backyard longing. The wind-whipped desire, drunk on a motorcycle.

He waited until after Christmas. Then he told Faye. The words, as he uttered them, seemed to harden in the air. She laughed, and then she crumbled. She opened the door and ran barefoot into the snow.

She called it a lie—the Most Destructive Lie of the Century. But it was anything but. It was a lifelong, straining, coming-of-age Truth.

But Donald didn’t feel liberated. Instead his new life worried him—it added stress. It made him apologize around the office. “Excuse me,” he’d say to a desk he bumped. “I’m sorry,” to a box of beakers. Trying to see Molly was like a game; she was a two-year-old behind doors, an invisible presence through the phone. Some days Donald would wander the corridors at night, out to the frigid parking lot, to the last remaining car, his car, dreading coming home to his life. He’d heave himself over the finish line of his doorstep, throw off his boots. To make dinner seemed impossible. A thing that could kill him.

And yet, here was Morris. Coming over with Chinese takeout and a toothbrush in his pocket. How would you like to feel perfect for a little while? Here’s this person.

Donald could have stood outside her door all evening. But finally Morris insisted on Pictionary, calling through the wood, and Molly finally emerged blinking from her room. Donald made carrot-currant casserole, staying in the kitchen. “Carrot-currant casserole,” said Morris at the living room table. “What am I drawing? Not that.”

“Teeth!” Molly shouted, squirming. She was perking up. Morris had that effect.

“Bingo!” he said. “Huge, ugly, scribbled teeth!”

Donald listened over his chopping knife. Even after Morris, his love for Molly was the only kind that scared him– she was almost too bright to look at. He was safer back here, shoving carrots down the garbage disposal. Through the chugging of the sink, he could hear her saying, “This giraffe card is the best card. I’ve drawn this card I don’t know how many times.” Where had she come from? Who thought of her?

She described the best animals, and the best animal crackers—the cinnamon kind that they had at church.

Donald flipped off the disposal. “Church? What? ” His voice was too loud.

“Pastor Walt and Judith give us the animal crackers. For learning all the songs.” She opened her mouth and sang, her voice a crinkled tin bell. “‘And I will raise you up, on eagles’ wings….’”

She recalled the words, her eyes rising to the ceiling, as if her tiny body was preparing to levitate.

“Hey,” Morris stopped her. “I can sing for you.” He held his pencil like a microphone. “Mary or Janie, get in my Chevy, yeah yeah yeah, something like that!” He crossed his arms. “See? Plenty singing here. You don’t need church.”

There was only one thing to do: call Faye. Donald pulled the telephone into the hallway, Morris standing to rush Molly to bed. “Did you put her up to this?” Donald demanded. “Are you taking her to Bethany Lutheran?”

“Right now I’m making tuna salad,” came her snide, shriveling, intolerable voice. “Hang onto yourself.” Faye faded under the sound of sinkwater. Donald could see her now, stacking the plates from the Wash side to the Rinse side, that ridiculous system. But he would not be deterred. He asked about this pastor, about Sunday school, any hidden youth groups or Bible camps. When did Faye decide this? How? Why? Was it those covert Christian rock bands? He hated covert Christian rock bands.

“This wasn’t our plan, remember?” said Donald. “Separation of church and state?”

“This isn’t about church and state,” said Faye. “This is only church and your daughter. And anyway, Donald, she needs community right now. Stability.”

Guilt sunk through him like a stone, her flat voice rattling him. When their lives became complicated, Faye’s statements became heavy and swift, as if to obliterate all objections in its path. She spoke without blinking: a demure, insistent robot.

“Stability—I get it,” said Donald. “None of this has been easy. But Faye–”

“Molly devised the idea of going to church on her own.”

“Devised? On her own? That’s bullshit, Faye.” Anger bloomed inside of him.

But she only sighed static into his ear. His blows didn’t matter like they used to. “Your expectations,” she said. “They get in the way of everything.”