When I came downstairs the first morning of summer break after seventh grade, my father was pouring gooey pancake batter into a skillet. He called them flapjacks.
“It’s your first day of freedom,” he said, smiling when he saw me. “What might the plan be?”
“Play video games, maybe,” I said. “And shoot some hoops probably.”
“Perfect,” he said. “Useless and unproductive. The way summer should be.”
It wasn’t that I had anything better to do. My best friend and one-on-one opponent Alex Kim had moved to Georgia that March. As for other school friends, word got around pretty quick at Bridgewater Middle about why the high school math teacher, Mr. Walsh, my father, was suddenly jobless. Not long after he was let go, I overheard Jackson Palermo at lunch say, “I hear he fucked her right on top of his desk.” Others whispered in class, glancing in my direction. The guidance counselor, Mr. Leeman, called me in once for a “quick chat.” He asked me how things were at home.
“If you mean does my father sexually abuse me, you don’t have to worry about that,” I said defiantly.
Teachers left me alone after that, and then the school year was over. Life was supposed to become useless and unproductive. Freedom, my father called it, a chance to try new things. I watched him flip flapjacks at the kitchen counter with a batter-caked spatula, wearing Mom’s old apron. I wanted to ask if he felt free.
“I’ll be upstairs on the job hunt all afternoon,” he said after he finished cleaning the dishes. “I’m trying a different approach. They’ll never let me in a high school classroom again, so I’m thinking of taking up something unexpected.”
“Like beekeeping?” I said.
“Very, very much a possibility. I’d put that in my top three, definitely.”
He left me for his office. He spent most of his days up there, printing job applications and filling them out. When he still had his [End Page 37] tenured teaching job, he’d organized his life into Excel spreadsheets. “7:45AM—Make Cam his breakfast.” “8:15AM—Leave for school.” “8:30—Arrive at school.” “9:12—Homeroom.” Even right after he got fired, he came downstairs every morning dressed for work: collared shirt, solid blue tie, his hair gelled up in front, preppy, so he could be “relatable” to his students. But three weeks of being home all day by himself and the dressing stopped. I was the only student he had.
Now some mornings he trudged downstairs looking like an unmade bed, his hair always lying near-flat in black and silver wisps. That was probably around the time he understood this new life of ours was real, long term. He called his white T-shirt and plaid boxers the “uniform of the unemployed.” I suggested it might be nicer to say “full-time dad.”
“Just wait until I’m a world-famous beekeeper,” he said. “See what I wear around the house then.”
My mother had been a teacher, too. Second grade at Liberty Corner School over in Bernards. My parents first met in an education class at the College of New Jersey. Since she taught elementary and he taught high school, they figured combined they had the skills to educate a whole kid.
When I was twelve years old she left for work one morning and veered off a part of Route 78 where there was no guardrail. Could have been highway hypnosis, my dad surmised later, or that she took her eyes off the road for just a second. We’d never know for sure. He picked me up from aftercare that day and didn’t tell me until we were home, the two of us standing in our driveway, alone together the way we’ve been ever since.
“There were 37,261 other recorded traffic-related deaths last year,” my father, the still-then math teacher said, shaking his head. “Such a statistic.”
That same night I had a dream that the Liberty Corner School principal called and asked me to deliver the...