In the New York Times article “Divers Find Body of Toddler Snatched by Alligator at Disney Resort,” it was the word “unwitting”—used by an apparently sympathetic lawyer to describe the victim and his family—that really changed how you imagined Alton’s birthday in Gatorland. Changed it to the point that you couldn’t eat your Harvest Grain ’N Nut® Pancakes, which Darren ate after finishing his own Double BLT and Elise’s Raspberry White Chocolate Chip Pancakes.
“Is something wrong?” Darren asked you. Then a minute later, “What’s wrong?” and “What’s bothering you?”
You kept trying to give him a look that adequately conveyed, “I’ll tell you later,” but he just kept staring, kept asking questions, confusion crashing his eyebrows towards each other, shaking his head like he’s never met anyone so irritating and secretive and unknowable, as if you don’t painstakingly include him in every thought, every decision, not that Darren even really listened.
Darren started talking up Gatorland to the kids. “How many alligator’s do you think we’ll see today?” and “Do you think you’ll be scared?” You went to the bathroom for some refuge. When you got back, Darren said, “You are acting super weird,” just like that, totally in front of your kids and without regard for anything.
“Sorry,” you said, so off guard that it probably didn’t sound super sincere.
Despite all that, you tried to focus on delivering your message without getting upset. After you’d buckled the kids in you said, “Darren?” and he said, “Yeah?” and you said, “Come here,” and he did, but the rental mini-van’s two automatic sliding doors were still closing so you didn’t start talking right away and he made this impatient gesture, pointing his hands skyward, shrugging, his lower jaw jutting and his mouth open and you just wanted to say, like, “Close your mouth,” or “Trying to catch flies,” or something hurtful, but instead you just said, “I can’t do it.”
“Go to Gatorland,” you whispered.
And Darren made a disappointed-to-the-point-of-injury face and you realized that at that angle the kids could see him. Elise said, “What are you guys talking about?” the question muted, but not garbled.
“What’s wrong Dad?” Alton asked.
You felt like laughing.
When Darren was done taking a deep breath, he said, “It’s that kid at Disney, isn’t it?”
“I told you, I bet Gatorland—”
“Can you please lower your voice?”
“Fine,” Darren hissed. “But Gatorland’s gotta be the safest place to see gators—alligators—because that’s like their whole business. Disneyland is too busy dressing people up as Elsa or fucking Goofy or some shit.”
“It’s Disney World.”
“Disneyland is the one in California. You said Disneyland.” Even you didn’t know why you were being so annoying. “I’m sorry. I can’t… I can’t go to Gatorland. Can’t take the kids to Gatorland.” Darren looked so frustrated. “I’ll make it up to you,” you promised.
You nodded, yes. Which for people who are unmarried, or people married differently than you—whose marriages function differently, like maybe they don’t have kids or something—‘I’ll make it up to you,’ meant you were committing to at least a blowjob.
“What are we going to do for Alton’s birthday, then?”
“Right.” You pulled out your phone. “There’s like twenty amusement parks around here.” You searched ‘amusement parks orlando’—or rather ‘amussment parks orlamfo,’ but the phone knew what you meant. You went to the usatoday.com article “10 best theme parks in Orlando” that you had read while researching the trip and even as the page loaded you knew where you should go. “Legoland,” you said, maybe a little too loud.
Elise said, “What? Legoland?” the rental van’s windows not muffling her disappointment. “You said we’re going to Gatorland?”
Darren was smiling at the kids, so you turned and looked at them. Alton’s eyes searched your face for clues about what was happening, then searched his dad’s, then searched yours again.
Elise looked at you and said, “Can we get going?” exactly like you’d say it so you laughed and Elise could tell you were laughing even though you covered your mouth and turned away. That pissed her off so she shrieked, “Stop it,” then asked, “What time does Gatorland open? I want to be there when Gatorland opens.”
“They’re going to be disappointed,” Darren said. “So disappointed.”
“Alton will be excited about Legoland.”
But Elise said, “Oh, no! Dad, can we go to Gatorland? Can we please go to Gatorland?”
And Darren said, “Your mother doesn’t think it’s safe.”
To which Elise said, “Mumma, ugh, oh, you’re just so stupid. That’s just so stupid.” Elise started crying.
You looked hatefully at Darren and said, “Thank you,” as quietly as you could and still make sure that he heard.
“I’m not a liar,” he said.
You were thinking, ‘When I suck you off later I’ll bite your dick,’ when Alton said, “I don’t think you are stupid, Mum.”
“Thank you,” you said.
“I think someone’s tired,” Alton said to his older sister.
Elise shrieked, “I’m not tired, I just love alligators. Alligators are my favourite animals.”
“What about cheetahs?” you asked.
“No!” Elise replied.
“Can you find out how I get to Legoland?” Darren asked.
When you didn’t answer right away, Darren said, “I can do it.”
“No. No. You have to drive.”
You didn’t believe Google that it would take 51 minutes; it took over an hour because there were so many cars on the highway veering unpredictably for exits they realized too late that they needed to take or blasting impatiently past too slow cars. Darren liked to drive at exactly the speed limit when he could, though he stayed in the right lane no matter how slow the families or grandparents in front of him were going and when you made even a hint at a suggestion about how he drive—“We aren’t getting off the highway for another thirty minutes,” say—he would come back with something like how he was wondering about the number of people who died annually in car accidents versus alligator attacks.
At Legoland, the kids wanted to eat again as soon as you were past the gate. After you’d taken a picture with the Lego brontosaurus outside of the Market Restaurant, Darren said he was still full from breakfast. You grabbed his arm a little too tightly, pulled him towards you and whispered a little too loudly that you were going to see if they could do something for Alton’s birthday. Darren stuck his middle finger in his ear and wiggled it, but he didn’t complain, just said, “Alright, but I’m not eating anything.”
In the restaurant, they told you that you had to book a party in advance. You told them that you didn’t want a party, just a cake or something and maybe some people to sing. They did all that, but there was no candle on the cake and it was super awkward and Alton seemed super confused—he’d gotten up on his knees to blow the candles out and all these people were looking at him, but there was nothing for him to do. One of the other diners clapped and that seemed to relieve the tension for Alton, but you heard people murmuring about the conspicuous absence and one elderly woman with some southern accent said to you, “That’s just awful that they couldn’t find a candle for your lovely boy there. Just awful.”
When you complained to the manager about the candle, the manager apologized, but reminded you that they were out of candles. You cried. The manager clicked his tongue like maybe you were crying on purpose or something. He apologized again and said, “Let me see what I can do.” While Darren was finishing off everyone’s meals, your server came out with a red Legoland balloon for Alton. The elderly woman pursed her southern lips and shook her southern head. You stood up to go and Darren, his mouth stuffed with Elise’s French fries, said he’d meet you and the kids outside.
You tied the balloon to Alton’s wrist, of course, but of course it came undone and drifted up, up, up and away. And while Alton wailed and buried his face in your belly, some dad leaned down and said to his kid, “Oh, lookit. Someone lost their balloon.”
Darren came outside just then and said, “Didn’t you tie it?”
You said, “Of course I tied it.”
Alton said, “You didn’t tie it well enough, Mumma.”
And you thought, Thanks Darren.
And you thought, You’re welcome Alton.
And you thought, You wouldn’t have that balloon if it wasn’t for me, Alton.
And you thought, Happy Birthday.
What you said was, “Why don’t we split up for a bit?”
You took Elise to the Cypress Gardens area because you’d read a bit about Legoland in your pre-trip research and discovered that it was on the site of some old, very famous theme park that opened near the end of the Great Depression and that had some legitimate claim to popularizing stunt waterskiing, but that was a theme park essentially centered around plants, that even offered guided rides through manmade canals to look at plants. You took Elise’s picture with a Lego southern belle and then got some passing French Canadian tourists to take a picture of you and Elise and you mercied them in your rusty français then en francais aussi asked them where they were staying. In English they told you that they spent half the year in the Tampa Bay area, that he was a retired baker and she was a retired teacher and that they loved it here, but that they missed their children and grandchildren. Then the man smiled, flashing gold from three teeth and rubbed Elise’s head, flashing gold from three of his massive fingers.
Darren and Alton went on some rides, including one near the entrance that lifted them high above this former swamp to look out over the highway and subdivisions and lakes. As Darren described the view to you, you recalled the view as you’d flown in, remembered thinking how persistent nature seemed to be in the face of Floridians’ dogged determination to pave it over.
You thought of the sinkholes that open up and swallow people in their sleep.
Darren pulled out his phone and showed you a picture of Alton on all fours screaming in the open jaws of a Lego alligator. “Thought of you,” Darren said.
You wandered around together and took pictures of the kids with some people dressed as Lego figures, then you and Darren decided it was time to head back to the hotel.
“That was fun,” Darren said when you got into the mini-van. “Wasn’t that fun?” he asked the kids.
They both shouted, “Yeah,” like you guys were in some commercial or something and you felt immediately grateful to Darren, suddenly willing to forget what a shit he’d been, but for some reason you said, “One hundred dollars worth of fun?” like you were testing him maybe, seeing how he’d reply. “One hundred American dollars? Each?”
“Aw,” he said, “we can’t think like that. About money.”
“We’re lucky,” he said, backing the van out of the parking spot.
It was true, you were lucky, and sometimes you even felt lucky, though for some reason now wasn’t one of those times and you had suddenly channeled your immigrant grandmother’s spirit and started calculating all the day’s costs, like as if that was going to help anyone, or like your grandmother enjoyed anything like the security that she and your parents had gifted you. You breathed in through your nose louder than you meant to.
“What’s wrong?” Darren asked.
You shook your head, but you’d started crying out of nowhere. Second time today.
“Whatever,” Darren said, exasperated.
“It’s nothing,” you told him. You didn’t turn around to see if the kids had noticed you crying because you didn’t want them to notice when you turned. You tried to find them in the side mirror, but the mini-van’s windows were reflecting too much bright Florida sun.
You ate at a T. G. I. Fridays and Darren complained of being full after draining his pint and cleaning his plate of burger and salad. Then he finished Alton’s French fries and grilled cheese and Elise’s chicken fingers. You felt that by not finishing your Caesar salad he was maybe trying to make a point about your second margarita or maybe waste generally or costs or something, but you knew that that particular anxiety was your grandmother haunting you.
When the bill came, Darren smiled softly and winked at you and you didn’t know what he meant to mean by it, but suddenly you remembered that you had promised him sex, had promised you would make up for the fact that you had not gone to Gatorland. Darren was a good man and a good partner, but right then, in T. G. I. Fridays you decided that because he had never given his body up to grow someone else’s body, had never split in two, had never pushed something out of himself that felt like a part of himself that he had to watch grow further away from him and go farther away from him, had never experienced profound, rapid, temporary physical changes, had never experienced profound, rapid, permanent physical changes, as you had twice now, that he was not capable of, was not forced to experience, the same type of love, the same type of giving, the same type of selflessness that you experienced. That he could still get sulky about losing a silly opportunity that would subject your children to dangers that were profoundly unnecessary considering that he carried a device in his pocket with which he could easily and at any time access fantastic videos of alligators and show them to Elise and Alton without putting them in harm’s way, that you would need to reward his sulking with the sex, was all too much for you.
You excused yourself again and went and sat in a bathroom stall again to try and think about something else.
Back at the hotel, Darren took the children to the pool. You fetched Alton’s gifts from the corners of your suitcase. Once the gifts were laid out on the bed Alton and Elise were sharing, you found the matching lacy underthings you had tucked into the bottom of a small inner pocket of your luggage. In the bathroom, you undressed and put on the fancy bra and panties and looked at yourself in them to make sure that they were fitting correctly over all your mounds of flesh, that the pink ribbon running through the dark grey fringes was visible where it was meant to be visible, was lying flat too.
As a teenager, you’d hated your body. Now you missed that previous incarnation, that fresh—that first—arrangement of your adult self. But staring at yourself then, you saw something useful—not to Darren, but to your children. You saw something powerful and valuable. And it looked sexy to you.
Standing there in your underwear, you grabbed your makeup bag, a gift from your mother-in-law, and you put on red lipstick. Then you put on eyeliner and eye shadow. And blush. You tied your hair back in a way that Darren said once that he liked, but once you’d but your clothes back on—an Old Navy V-neck and some Old Navy cargo shorts—you looked in the mirror again and decided you didn’t like your hair that way, so you put it back down then went and lay on the queen-sized bed you and Darren were sharing and you looked at the gifts you’d wrapped for Alton. You sat up, went to Alton and Elise’s bed and rearranged the gifts then lay back down.
Alton was excited about his presents, though he was still too young to seem excited about individual presents, or each individual present anyway. You weren’t sure that you got him enough and maybe that was because there were no presents from any of his grandparents. Or maybe you were feeling cheap suddenly, the shadow cast by your grandmother’s spendthrift ghost. But why ever it was, your anxiety about it forced you to lie and say that you had another present at home, a present that had been too big to bring.
Darren seemed to know you were lying, but you managed some trick with your face, some configuration of mouth and eyebrows that made him nod and give you a covert thumbs up.
Elise brushed her teeth with Darren supervising. You brushed Alton’s teeth. Elise wanted to watch something on the room’s big flat screen. Darren told her no, which was the right answer. You were grateful someone else was being the bad guy. Through your shorts, you adjusted the crotch of your fancy underwear with your thumb. You turned off the light and sang to your children.
Darren put on his pajamas and brushed his teeth in the bathroom. You lay in the bed beside your children and waited for their breathing to drop into their easy sleeping rhythms.
When Darren lay quietly down beside you, Elise was sleeping, but Alton was still tossing and turning. You ran your hand down Darren’s stomach and whispered to him to turn towards you. He was already hard by the time you ran your nails through his pubic hair, his cock warm against the back of your hand. You had just started tugging on it slowly when Alton said, “Mumma?”
“Yes?” you said, your voice strange. “Yes?” you repeated, attempting to compensate.
“I need to pee again.”
“Okay. You know where the bathroom is,” you told him.
Alton hopped out of bed.
Darren tried to undo your shorts. You grabbed his wrist. “Wait.”
Alton turned the bathroom light off when he was done, then complained that it was too dark. Darren turned the bedside light on for him. Elise groaned and rolled over, but did not wake up. Once Alton had tucked himself in, Darren turned out the light again. You reached back into Darren’s pants and held onto his penis and occasionally brushed his scrotum with your fingertips to keep him awake and interested. You thought about getting him off right there, then masturbating when he fell asleep, but you wanted him to see what you were wearing.
Once Alton’s breathing calmed, you got up, grabbed Darren’s hand and pulled him into the bathroom. You closed the door and told him to get undressed. “Oh my God,” he said as you stepped out of your shorts and pulled your shirt over your head. He stood close enough to you that the tip of his cock left sticky, translucent slime on your belly.
It all didn’t last as long as you needed it to. After Darren peed, washed his hands and apologized a second time, he went to bed. You sat down on the toilet and waited for Darren’s spermless semen to ooze mostly out then wiped yourself with a wet white facecloth. You put a white towel on the floor, draped another white towel over your shoulders and drew yourself a hot bath. While the tub filled, you sat hugging your legs, the towel pulled up over your head. The warm smell of your body, of your moistness, accented by Darren’s spunk spoiled, or at least sullied, the comfort of your little tent.
Darren was asleep when you lay down beside him. A sliver of streetlight snuck past the corner of the curtain. Your husband’s mouth was open and his arms were crossed above the hem of the sheet, one hand tucked under the pillow the other hanging limply beside the opposite shoulder. His breathing was nearly deep enough to be a snore. You lay on your belly, your right hand between your legs, your left pinching a nipple. You closed your eyes, turned away from Darren and set your mind to taking care of one last thing.
Duncan and Gambier Island, July 2016
Emoji sequence: Lauren Ferranti-Ballem
Story: Lee Sheppard