“Come on. Come on, come on, come on.” Claudia spoke to herself with butterfly-wing words, the kind that floated without the hiss of a whisper or the aggression of a murmur, the kind whose delicate timbre could be drowned out by the caress of hand on skin. These were words that she intended to be scrubbed out, to dissolve, to be filed into an imaginary complaint box her creators would ignore. But her subsequent tone had to be sugary-sweet, almost insincerely so, so as not to scare the tyke or hurt her chances at this high-stakes game she was playing, for which the reward was Charlie being able to pee without her direct involvement. It was damn spectacular as far as rewards go.
Charlie vocalized his confusion regarding the intricacies of his own sphincter as “Mrrrrpph.” Like, the kid’s nonverbal, but it’s possible to train both ends of the digestive system simultaneously. Not that Claudia was any more comfortable. Except in specific contexts, this being one, other people going to the bathroom is something people generally avoid as much as possible. Bathroom voyeurism is three fetish message boards and a Reddit account away from horrifying smut. It would be weird to induce situations where you watch other people go to the bathroom.
But learning’s a marathon, not a sprint, and this similarly disgusting process with the bodily fluids and chafing needed spectators. “You can do it, Charlie! Go, go, go!”
“You’re doing great, Charlie! Mommy believes in you!” A nonverbal child may be like a non-fluent speaker, Claudia assumed, in that they couldn’t synthesize a response due to weak vocab and syntax but could get the message’s gist through context and body language, possibly also some words representing memorable concepts like yo or fiesta or queso. That’s why she was speaking in third person. She also carried treats, often the sad probiotic-otter-pop yogurt that comes in clear plastic tubes, and gave them as a reward to make Charlie more memorable, switching up the snack so he wouldn’t start thinking that yogurt tubes were also named Charlie. Staring at the plastic potty might put her off yogurt tubes forever, even if her son didn’t make the connection.
Two unproductive minutes later, unproductive bowel-wise, Charlie let out a shriek. The shriek was un-transliterate-able but along the lines of “aaWwwaAAAAAAAIIIIIIIII.”
“Oh, is someone getting a little fussy? What’s wrong?”
Too late, Mom. The tantrum-train had left the tantrum-station and was careening towards Tantrum City at 56 mph; it would be ten minutes before it passed Claudia’s 35 mph train to Calmtown. (Calculate the distance in miles of track between them if you need something to do during quarantine.) Shoving the ducky in his face wasn’t going to get him those two minutes back. Claudia was so occupied with her ducky ruse she didn’t notice the column of light appearing and disappearing on the back wall, nor feel the heat of a third body in the room.
“Mind if I help?”
“Gaaah!” She turned around to find her husband standing in the doorway and grinning down at her.
“I heard someone crying in here.” There’s this weird quirk some parents have where they refuse to directly attribute childish actions to their child and do so without using passive voice. But personally, hearing a parent walk into a room and announce ‘crying is happening in here’ would make my damn week. “You want me to take care of it? Let me give you a break.”
He grabbed Charlie’s armpits. “Alright, little man, c’mere.”
Charlie found himself being lifted by a massive being. A sim the size of an adult limb couldn’t appreciate exactly how massive a being his father was, but also couldn’t avoid being roasted alive by the heat his sheer bulk generated: his shoulders could not only support a stack of tortillas, they’d be kept warm enough to fold. Point being, only a mythical figure radiated that type of power. He was a puzzle, something to figure out. His mother was transparent; keeping her happy was simple. No splashing in the toilet and no feet on the couch.
“Wanna give Daddy a hug?”
Sure; Charlie leaned into the radiator. Claudia had been squatting on the floor, calves flush with her thighs, and now she twisted left while steadying herself on the tub. This was the first time Charlie’d found himself looking down into his mother’s smiling eyes.
She cooed, “Awww, look how adorable my boys are.”
“You’re durned right! Photo moment right here.” Where ‘durned’ came from is anyone’s guess.
“Thank you for taking him.”
“No problem. Hey, buddy, c’mon, let’s go around the house.” Charlie didn’t mind the lack of options presented to him. Over his father’s shoulder, he watched his mother untwist herself as they left.
Charlie found himself in a room he’d been in many times before, one he continued to analyze as his knowledge of colors and shapes expanded. There was a lot of what his flashcards called Blue splattered all over the place, a Yellow painting, and that plant was Green as plants often were. That crap on the wallpaper, bed, and rug, though—that such shapes existed suggested to Charlie that the flashcard makers did the easy ones first and then said screw it and went to lunch. In five years he’d learn the concept of a three-martini lunch and in fifteen he’d learn it wasn’t normal.
“Do you know where we are?”
“That’s right, we’re in Mommy and Daddy’s bedroom. But there’s not a lot here that’s interesting to you. So to the living room we go!”
He’d seen the living room before, but not from the shoulders of giants. Independent attempts to view the room from this elevated vantage point were maternally discouraged because they involved feet on the couch. Some things made more sense from up here, like why paintings didn’t usually go on the lower half of the wall and why his parents weren’t as into flooring imperfections as he was. His dad was improvising a blurb for every object in the room. This is the T.V., this is the coffee table, etc., things Charlie only partially understood because his little mind was being blown at familiar objects being smaller.
“See that? That’s Daddy’s chessboard. It’s too hard for you to play with right now. You’d probably just eat the pieces. Maybe you can play against your Daddy when you’re older. It’s not like we’d expect the other kids to give you much of a challenge, right? Both of your parents are pretty smart.
“This is Daddy’s guitar. Daddy got it signed by Dusty Starlight when he met her backstage in the V.I.P. lounge. Not that you know who she is yet.
“That’s Daddy’s microphone. Daddy used to be a comedian, but he gave it up so he’d have more time for you and Mommy. See the rug underneath it? That’s one of the job rewards Daddy got before he got really famous. You’ve got a famous daddy. You’ll learn all about that when you’re older.”
“Haaa-bah-ahba.” Charlie’s torso was flush with his dad’s and his right hand extended straight outward. Though he wasn’t yet insecure about how much his elbow was bending when he pointed, his arm looked puppet-like in his inexperience, the elbow locked in a way that would be uncomfortable or aggressive for an adult to perform, with their toddler-length limbs and all.
“Yes, that’s daddy’s guitar.”
“Wooooo-ah-bah.” This time the pointing was more forceful.
“Oh, that’s Uncle Xiyuan’s violin. That’s where he practices.”
The running-water sound in the background suggested Claudia was washing her hands, and a much more immediate drip connected Charlie’s mouth to his father’s shirt with a thin cord of spittle. The spittle hung down in a draping parabolic arc as Charlie was moved to arm’s length.
“Alright, Mommy’s done. Let’s get you back down.”
He could only communicate his refusal to go back on the ground floor by fussing. But he was already there by the time he realized what was happening, so it looked like he waited a scripted comedic beat before contorting his face into a raisin and howling.
“Okay, okay, okay.” His father picked up a block. “Here. Block. See?” His mother was still shaking droplets off her hands as she sprinted into the room. Block was looking pretty good, though. Charlie took the block from his father’s hand and lobbed it in the direction of another. The older sim properly stacked it. The betrayal having been forgotten, Charlie picked up and threw another block, and, to his delight, his father placed it atop the other two. He continued throwing and squeaking, so engrossed with his father’s game that he missed the affectionate look shared by his parents, one on the floor, one leaning on the bar next to the deck entrance.
The blocks worked their magic and Charlie’s dad snuck off to join Claudia at the bar. She stopped shuffling around her mixers to smile at him.
He pulled up a stool and rested a forearm on the bar. “How’d you enjoy your break?”
“Cleaning a potty isn’t much of a break.” She maintained a coy smile while shaking a cocktail mixer with one hand.
“Aw, c’mon. Don’t be like that.” Although it wasn’t visible from Charlie’s perspective, he narrowed his eyes before he spoke.
“I’m just playing with you. Thanks for helping out.”
This seemed to placate him. “Good kid. Well-behaved.”
“He is, isn’t he?” Claudia didn’t look up from the drink she was pouring.
“Look at how good he is with the blocks. He’s gonna be a genius. Hope he gets my looks too!”
Charlie chose that time to cram one of the blocks into his developing mouth. Twenty-three years later he’d tell a style influencer, at a party, unprompted, that that sort of thing helps your immune system.
His mother finished the drink and swung herself to the spectator side of the bar. The stools were backless because it was better for long-term posture; it preserved the natural curve in the lumbar. “And you were able to calm him down so fast!”
“Ah yeah, it’s the dad’s job to be the fun one. You’re so squeaky clean, I thought you would appreciate being the bad cop for once.”
“What?! We’re both fun!”
“I’m not the one forcing him to pee into a monster’s mouth.”
She lowered her voice so the edge would sound like normal whisper harshness to any third parties who were half-listening while distracted by plastic. “Ah, and you didn’t even try to do it. Let’s see how perfectly you can potty train him next time.”
“Relax!” Delivered with the ‘a’ drawn out, the way you’d expect from a drama major. “I’m just teasing you because I know you can take it. You’re still cool with that, aren’t you?”
“You can’t call me the ‘bad cop’ and expect me to be fine with that.”
“And I thought you could take a joke better than this.” He was leaning toward her so that his face wasn’t visible to Charlie. “C’mon, we’re new parents. We’re both doing a thousand things wrong. If the divide-and-conquer thing works, it works. Right?”
“What can I say? A kid and his dad have a special bond.”
Through the pause in which Claudia stroked the condensation off her glass, Charlie tried to smash the carpet flat with a blunt object. That rug would have been soaked with urine if his mother hadn’t been quick on the uptake. She glanced toward him.
“Why is Xiyuan still living here?”
“Why are you bringing that up now?” He looked past her. “Oh, you must be looking at his violin case. I’ll tell him to put that away.”
“No, I’m serious. We have a family now. It’s a little weird that your college roommate still lives with us.”
“Why? He just holes up in his art room and comes downstairs for fifteen minutes a day, tops. He watches Charlie. He’s not bugging anyone.”
“I’m just saying it’s a little weird.”
“What’s your problem with him? Just let me know what’s wrong so we can fix it.”
“Look, he’s a sweet guy, but, he just—I don’t know, he just seems a bit uncomfortable that I’m here. It feels like he’s enjoying the bachelor life and I’m ruining that. But things have changed. We have a kid, he has a girlfriend, and he has to move out.”
He waited for Claudia to take a sip of her drink before responding. “But you and Xiyuan are friends, right? Do you want to kick him out yourself? Or do you want to make me do it, when I don’t want to in the first place?”
“I guess not.”
“But you know what, if it’ll make you happy, I promise that as soon as he gets married, I’ll ask him to move out. Sound good?”
“Dunno. He hasn’t talked to me about that yet.”
“What if he never does?”
“Give the guy a break. He’s gotta be a catch for someone. And by the way, maybe we should be the ones to move? He’s lived here longer than you.” He was angled towards Claudia, who was squared on her glass and maintaining a posture the backless stools were supposed to help prevent. He watched her for a beat. She still didn’t look up. “Fine. I promise. As soon as he gets married. You can trust me on that.”
What neither of them realized was that the thumping had stopped. Charlie had been watching. He’d been watching his father, the cool cuke, animated as any Saturday morning host, never losing his smile, never breaking character, as his mother the grouch growled into her drink. But he couldn’t say anything. It’d be weeks before he could add even ubiquitous toddler words like ‘blue’ and ‘cow’ to his repertoire.
He tossed a block to his parents. This time, no one picked it up.