Paternity Leave by Harold Legaspi
Harold Legaspi is a Sydney-based author who is currently completing the Masters of Creative Writing program at The University of Sydney. His writing has appeared in The Kalahari Review, Verity La, The University of Sydney Anthology 2016, among others. He has completed the final draft of a first novel.
Lucy just stands there in the kitchen. She’s frying bacon and eggs with a vacant look while I sit with the kids, forcing them to eat their breakfast. Lucy had slept at the opposite end of the bed last night. Now she won’t even look my way, even though I’m wearing a new shirt that bursts in the seams and shows off my pecks. So for the umpteen time, I wipe my son’s face and pour my daughter some orange juice so she could swallow the bacon. And here we were, pre-packaged and nuclear like in those ads that you saw on Netflix about breakfast cereals or free-range produce.
I don’t even know what to say to her in the mornings. I keep silent, reading the paper and turning to sports for news. Panthers flogged the Sharks 25-to-1, or so I read, not that that meant anything to her these days. She was into footy when we first got together; now I’m not so sure. The upshot is: I won some money in the footy tips at the office. I swear to God, if my team wins this year, I’ll marry her again. She won’t join us for breakfast today. She keeps flipping those damn eggs and adding strips of bacon on our plates. As I am leaving, she picks up my suit jacket and places it on my shoulders. Then she hurries me out the door and kisses me on the lips.
At the office, some clown in accounts named Larry hounds me to raise a purchase order so that my bills could get paid. He has one of those faces scrunched up real tight, which morphs into a snarl the moment he turns away. It didn’t register that he could have raised the PO himself or dealt with my secretary for the insignificant sum. He thinks he’s real clever and confronts me about my 500 percent budget overrun, right in front of the GM. So now I’m the bad guy, and Terry’s the one exercising control, with all the rest of them cost-cutting at Oden Financials.
At the lifts, Terry stands next to my secretary then asks for my pen. As we descend to the ground floor, he writes a note, which he hands to my secretary. Terry gives me my pen back then makes a quick exit as the lift door opens. My secretary reads the note beside me and bursts into a fit of laughter. When I ask him what it says, he stuffs the note in his suit pocket and downplays what he read. Next thing he’s giving me that sordid look like I’m the one with something to hide. In a flash, he scuttles away. I don’t even know what. All I know is that Terry has it in for me, bad.
Meanwhile, I have a pile of insurance claims to sift through and stamp. I roll in-and-out of meetings, file in hand, drilling the experts in investigations. They are a funny lot. A calculating breed of bored actuaries and fraud analysts. One of them, Barry, won a Fields medal for his ‘contribution’ to stochastic partial differential equations. He says it has something to do with statistical mechanics, but what, I’m not quite sure. We tend to leave Barry be. He plugs away in his other dimension, with all his mathematical modelling and in jest we nod confounded.
We lock the doors while our meetings are in progress. Having the doors locked gave the impression that our work was vital; that we couldn’t be disturbed. I’m sitting there running my fingers through my slick hair trying to get a straight answer. What if we slipped up? What if the client staged their accident? What’s the probability of depleted reserves? At what point did bacterial growth render all stock obsolete? We turn our heads to face Barry. Barry gives us a blank stare.
At lunch, I got to thinking. I pull aside Ted, my mate from sales, and talk shop for a bit. Then we talk hypotheticals about our missus. I begin to set the scene:
“It’s mayhem at this restaurant. I’m there with my wife. The kitchen, which is in the middle of the room, is in full swing. The chefs are screaming abuses at the waitstaff, and there are lashings of ginger tea. Factory-line style dining tables surrounded them, with cushions on swivel chairs. The dining space is an oval shape with clean lines and a garden landscape.”
“What are you eating?” asks Ted.
“That doesn’t matter. What matters is that a guy walks into the restaurant with his wife and he’s looking real dapper,” I say.
“Why does that matter?” asks Ted.
“There’s something not quite right about him. He’s got one of those flowers in his suit pocket, and he dresses real neat. He’s looking around the room, while his wife peels off her scarf. Next thing, the guy is taking a seat beside my wife, to her right. I’m plonked on her other side beside her, to her left, at the end of the line.”
“Wait, wait, wait…So where’s your missus?” asks Ted.
“She’s bang, smack in the middle, in between this fella and me,” I said.
“So, where’s his wife?”
“She’s ducked off to the ladies. Gone to freshen up, who knows? Just pretend she’s not there,” I said.
“So?” Ted looks at me wearing a wry grin.
“Anyway my wife, well, she’s looking real sumptuous, and she smells real clean like someone you could trust. It’s an open kitchen, and everyone’s on show. The food is being dished out in rhythmic synchronicity. Then, the guy next to my missus asks her to pass some wasabi,” I said.
“Well, it’s open plan isn’t it? You’re mingled together with strangers,” says Ted.
“The thing is, he’s right there, next to my wife and he asks her with this comforting grin that seems real inviting and friendly. My wife cackles, which turns to a smile, and she’s handing it over. She goes to fix her hair then shifts her eyes back to me discretely,” I said.
“So what do you say to her?” asks Ted.
“I have her attention again but only for a split second, because now the guy next to her is asking for soy sauce. She smiles again, showing off her perfect teeth. She has a killer smile. A smile that could solve the energy crisis coz it’s real warm. I feel their chemistry. And although I’m not the jealous type I feel rotten. Her eyes are only meant for me,” I said.
“What do you do?” asks Ted.
“Well—I lose all my appetite,” I said.
Ted eggs me on. He’s like, “Just tell her, ‘If you ever, ever do tha—.’”
I cut in, “she’ll be all like, ‘Do what? Pass the wasabi and soy?’… She’ll be saying crap like ‘Now we’re even or that I’m the one paranoid.’”
Ted rolls his eyes and says, “You, my friend, are under the thumb.”
“I almost got up to thump the guy next to her. But that’s not the sort of guy I am.”
“Did she say anything to you on your way home?” asks Ted.
“Not a word,” I said.
Ted thinks I give in too easily. He’s been married for fifteen years since he turned twenty-one. He has a real housewife of Sydney – always dressed to the nines; she wears a headscarf on sunny days and prances around with Chanel, her Chihuahua. Ted says marriage isn’t for everybody – especially not the gays. He’s real conservative like that, like Fred Nile. His family think he’s God’s gift. He got into the property market before the boom and made a killing. Now he drives a red Corvette. Ted’s mad. He’s always mad about something or someone, but never at me. Once Ted’s neighbour deliberately poisoned their orange tree. Ted built a fence between his neighbour so quickly they couldn’t even get a word in. Then he stuffs an invoice in their mailbox quoting some arcane piece of legislation saying they had to pay half. Because that’s the kind of guy he is.
At the water cooler, a bunch of guys are talking about some new recruit. They say she’s in IT, a real fox. The guys are saying she’d be all like “show me how to do this and show me how to do that…Where do you find this and what’s the deal with that?” Quid pro quo, Y’know. Well, that got them going. The guys are pandering to her every need. They say she’s got one of those pencil skirts that’s real tight around the waist. Her bust so firm it reminds them of rockmelons. Real jugulars. So they be all like “I’ll show you how it’s done good and proper…Why certainly miss, it’s my pleasure.” They say she’s a real man-eater. You show her this and that, and she’ll get real close so you can smell her perfume. Then she’ll purse her lips and flick her hair to reveal her slender neckline. They’re all like, I would. They’d all reach over there and grab something. Why the hell not.
On the drive home, I’m the bad guy, again. I’m on the hands-free with my folks who remind me it’s Lola’s birthday. “Why did Y’all miss church last Sunday? … Go see a doctor about that ulcer.” Yap, yap, yap. My folks, they’re trying to kill me. No, seriously, they mean to cause me pain. I look in the rear-view mirror and see a dead bird squashed on the motorway. I see its entrails, bits of red, bits of brown and bits of feather. I’ll end up like that bird if I stay on the phone too long with my folks. No really, my folks, they are going to kill me.
I look out the window and think of the kids. Little Angelica and Max on the couch, trawling through Tyrannosaurus-Rex YouTube clips. Having them loose on their playpen with Play-Doh, mingling the reds, the purples and the greens. My folks ask me about our future plans for Angelica, going back and forth in rhetoric. The cars pile up in front of me on the exit of the M4. It’s bumper-to-bumper. Everyone’s being so God damn slow. I just want to get home to play with my kids.
My mind wafts. On my dashboard, a gyrating Hawaiian girl with a grass skirt and a floral wreath stares right at me. She remains topless and grinning with all grass covering her itty bits. I bought the Hawaiian girl on our honeymoon before the kids arrived. It was just the two of us back then, on American soil, and we went berserk. Lucy and I did it like rabbits. Every night, we did it, with champagne and strawberries and saxophone music. We had Careless Whisper on repeat. The Little itty skirt had been on my dashboard ever since.
I must get out of this traffic jam. I make a bad joke to my folks about some distant cousin that has claimed genetic ancestry to our family name. What am I supposed to do, welcome him to our home all of a sudden? We might be free on the weekend in a couple of months time, but he’ll have to wait it out. Apparently, he’s a thespian of sorts; a real artist. “What’s he got that you don’t,” I hear my folks ask me. He’s got an audience, that’s what, like he’s real entertaining. He’ll come around, play pranks on my kids like he’s on show or in front of the camera. Lucy’ll be there seething like I’m the bad guy in this, and all weekend it’s going to be pranks, iced tea and cucumber sandwiches. Dad will be complaining about an itch on his belly. Mum will drill him about his methods till he turns blue.
I play with the kids after speaking with Lola, long enough to know the names of their new friends in school. I learned about Mr Shawn’s antics at school – he pulled faces, and found out the kids planted a lilly pilly in the playground. Little Max, who is almost three, darts his eyes to the fan in the hallway. He says something quirky like, “Dad…Fan…Os-cill-a-ting!” He’s so smart; some day he’ll know more than me. I just wish he wasn’t so darn hyperactive! Little Angelica, who is four and a half, got a real gold star. She turns up to class with a butt that’s nappy free. She went all the way to the toilet holding Mrs McFarlane’s hand without pooping her pants. Next, I hear a thud in the sun-room then discover my little guy with the boxes all stacked up. He’s at it again, climbing the mantlepiece to reach the lolly jar, coz he’s craving sugar in pyjamas. I find him up there, one hand elbow deep in the Gummy Bears and the other stuffing Jelly Belly beans in his mouth.
“Don’t kid yourself,” says Lucy, “It’ll only be for a little while.” She’s doing that raised eyebrow thing in front of her vanity mirror. I swear I can physically feel the power being taken away from me. She wants me to apply for paternity leave so I can babysit the kids during school holidays. She says it’s like a very “Scandinavian thing” to do, and we all know they live better. “All their dads do it. It’s their law,” she harps, “You’ll be a latte papa.” The longer I think about how little I’ve accomplished in the office, the more I freeze up. I’m running stagnant. Either my boss will chew me up and spit me out, or my wife will tear me to shreds. I reach over and pop the door shut so that the kids won’t hear. “Oh, honeeey.” I’m in my underwear, and I turn to face her, but she has her back where my manhood ought to be. She’s facing the mirror. So I lie down and caress the dooner, which by the way has a very high thread count. I nestle my head on her pillow and purr; come, come. She applies on her lotion with that smouldering look, and I picture her in the open air under the roof of the sky. She’s that twinkling star; the brightest and she burns. When I forget how I got here, she’s that light, cosmic and I see. She lies on the bed where we sleep – my favourite destination. It’s finally dark, and I’m home. The only place where I couldn’t say no.