I got to have custody of Lizzie for Valentine’s Day, and that afternoon we were just sitting on the couch in my apartment watching old reruns of Barbaras the Pirate, that live-action adventure show from late night ‘90s TV. Lizzie had just started middle school, and I realized it was probably too mature for her, with how people’s throats were being slit onscreen, or with all those suggestive moments, like how Barbaras licked his teeth every time he saw a woman in one of those low-cut brassieres. But it had been a pretty horrible day for Lizzie, even as middle school days go, so that when I picked her up from school she curled right into the footspace in front of her seat, so none of the kids in carpool would see her cry. Earlier, she’d had asked a boy, Frankie, to be her Valentine, and he told her sorry, he liked talking to her and borrowing her homework before class, but he couldn’t like-like someone who was fat and pimply-faced.
So we watched TV together, sharing the big bowl of last night’s popcorn I hadn’t been able to finish on my own. At one point, Lizzie looked over to me and told me she thought she was in love with Barbaras the pirate, and I would have laughed except she said it with this look of, I don’t know, empty longing, with her eyes no longer watery from before, but her little pimply face that I loved still puffy from the tears. I realized laughing at her would have been like rubbing her face into the rug, and if I did in that moment she might not ever like me, or want to come see me again. So I let her have that, and we went back to watching the show in silence, our hands ruffling through the bowl of popcorn next to one another, with me paying more attention than ever to the pit-stains on Barbaras’ little purple vest, and his greasy red beard, and the way he giggled when he wrapped some old admiral’s waist with rope, then tossed the man overboard to keel-haul him along the ocean floor.
“Do you still love Mom?” Lizzie asked.
And, oh jeez, here we were on a question I wished I never had to answer, or at least had more time to think of a good lie for. But I felt like we were having a good moment there, me and Lizzie, and I wanted to be straight with her in a way I wished others had been straight with me. So I said, “No.”
But that didn’t feel like enough, so I said, “It’s hard to keep going on loving someone who doesn’t love you anymore. And you can still love them for a long time, but eventually, with nothing coming back, it goes away for you, too.”
“Oh,” said Lizzie. We went back to watching the show, where Barbaras somehow had dragged an alligator into the governor’s bedroom. The pirate was clutching his belly, laughing, as the gator bit into the elderly man’s leg. Then Lizzie asked me if I ever loved Tiffany.
And, well, I thought it was important to be honest with her, really honest, so I said, “Yeah, I think so. Anyway, there was a week or so when I was saying that, right?”
Lizzie said yeah, she remembered that, and she looked deep into the popcorn bowl and picked around the hard, unpopped kernels. “Poor Tiffany,” she said.
Onscreen, Barbaras leaned in so far for his close-up that his tongue left a wet streak along the glass, and I started wondering where she was then, Tiffany, and if she had found someone who was good to her.
Lizzie stared at the television and let out a little sigh. “Does Grandma love Grandpa?” she asked.
And, well, shit, this would have been a very nice time to lie to Lizzie, if I wasn’t sure she didn’t already know. I knew how, on those visits, Grandma enjoyed talking with Lizzie, keeping her granddaughter at the kitchen table long past bedtime with milkshake after milkshake, and with those tall, tall glasses of Port for herself. Across the room, Barbaras squinted out at us, and the way he tugged on his beard, he might have been sizing me up and gauging how I’d answer.
“No, your Grandma doesn’t love him,” I said. “Your Grandpa didn’t believe that anyone could ever only love just one other person. It was really important for him, um, to love a lot of people.”
Lizzie was taking all this pretty hard. She sat there so hunched over on the couch that I could imagine her sinking right down into the crack along the back of the cushions. There’s something to this fucking Valentine’s Day holiday that stomps on the throat of people when they’re hurting, and it’s easy to forget how it starts even when we’re kids. I wanted to sort things out for her, kind of in the way I had sorted things out for myself.
So I did my best to explain why so many people divorce, or why people who say they love each other hurt one another, sometimes really badly, or how sometimes your love just runs out, or else the person who loves you might find someone who is nicer. I tried to say how, as best I could, even old married couples don’t love each other sometimes—but that’s okay—or how young couples don’t realize how happy they are, how lucky they are, because only the people who don’t have anyone can really know, can really see how even those young people’s worst days are made better—buoyed—you know, when they’re greeted at home by that little smile of the other person sitting on their couch, watching TV. How even if you don’t get that, it can be all okay, how someone doesn’t need another person to live.
And this was very hard for both of us to hear, and through the window there was snow falling, with great big flakes sticking to the glass, and Lizzie and I hugged one another on the couch. We knocked over that big bowl between us, the popcorn kernels spilling into our laps, and I kissed her on her forehead again and again, on the oily spot right below her hairline. And I felt so hopeless for her, and for myself, but so much more for her, and I held her, and held her until finally with a crash Barbaras pushed loose the glass of the TV onto the floor, and he writhed himself out, leering, and rose to his full, imperial height.
Standing there with the feather of his hat curled against the ceiling, with his thick chest covered in hair—he reached across the room, cradling Lizzie out from my arms, and took her from me. My Lizzie, laughing and crying and sprawled over his shoulder, he carried her back, down into the bowels of his ship, and he took her away.