(Shifting gears now…) me as the incredible hulk

Mr. McGee, don’t make me angry. You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry.” —David Banner

When you call the dad of your child’s schoolmate to find out if his kid is coming to your kid’s birthday party this coming Friday—since he didn’t RSVP, and your child has begged and begged for her friend to be there, and instead of letting it die like it should, like you’d planned to let it, you follow up, because you want your daughter to have The Best Birthday Ever—when that dad says, yes, his daughter will be at the party, and then adds, “You need to call me on Thursday night to remind me,” take notice. This is foreshadowing.

This is the dad, after all, who spent an entire school year using you by pulling up in his black Mercedes and expecting you to walk his kid the rest of the way to school; by calling to ask that you pay his field-trip fee because he’d forgotten to pay it and was “too tired to drive back to campus”; by asking you to watch his child moments before his on-the-calendar-for-months parent/teacher conference, which you do, only to find out later that he was a no-show. He is unreliable and predictable all at once.

You need to call me on Thursday night to remind me.

Bullshit. You wish you hadn’t called and know you should retract that invitation right then and there. But you feel sorry for his kid, so you decline to be his secretary. “See you Friday,” you say.

OK, OK. Here’s where I have to admit that I didn’t make this call just for Ruby. I am not that altruistic. I can, and frequently do, say no to my child. Like when she wants a fourth sugary topping on her three heaping flavors of fro-yo. “Oh, you have got to be kidding me,” I say, pointing out that she already has Jimmies, white chocolate chips and mini peanut-butter cups. I draw the line at gummy bears.

But where, oh where, to draw the line in this abusive relationship?

I needed to know how much it would take before I would burn down the house and walk away forever. I needed to see if Mr. McGee (not his real name) could actually be a responsible adult and drop his kid at the house at 11:30 a.m. on party day. And so: The call.

Friday morning found me Swiffering my floors and waiting for the Scrubbing Bubbles to do their bathroom-cleaning magic while Ruby and my best friend’s daughter played in the backyard. I was prepping for the onslaught of 11 6-year-old girls, who would show up to trash the place and clog the toilet with absurdly large, scientifically improbable kid poo, when Ruby passed through the living room.

“Faith?!?” she said, looking out our picture window.

I looked up from the pile of dog hair swirling at my ankles, and there was McGee’s daughter standing on our front porch. Alone. Nothing but sunshine and the empty street behind her. It was 10:20 a.m.

My heart began to beat faster; my skin was hot; I could barely see. I was—as I’d learned days earlier in a parenting workshop led by the esteemed Mary Sheedy Kurchinka—entering the “red zone.” This is fight-or-flight stuff, the physiological response to which can include elimination. Parents, if your kid suddenly stops in the produce aisle at Henry’s and pees for no reason, you can be assured she is no longer in the “green zone.” Fortunately, I didn’t wet my pants.

Instead, I met Faith on the porch and calmly asked where her father was. “He had to go to work,” she said. I stood speechless for a few seconds, looking up and down the street as if I could will her father back with my gaze. I wondered if he’d just pushed the child out of his car as he rolled by, talking, as he always is, on his cell phone.

Just as Faith stepped over the threshold to our home, McGee tried to drive his fancy car past my house very fast, without stopping. He’d made a U-turn at the end of the block.

“MGGEE!” I yelled at him. He stopped his car and smiled at me, as if to say, Oh, hey! Funny running into you here! And that’s when it happened. My clothes may have remained intact, but no question: I became The Incredible Hulk. And a little bit Owen Meany.

“IT! IS! TEN-TWENTY!” I shouted, pointing to the spot on my wrist where a watch would be if I wore one. “YOU’RE MORE THAN AN HOUR EARLY! THAT IS NOT OK, MCGEE! THAT IS NOT OK!”

“I’m sorry,” he squeaked. “I have to go to work.”

“THAT IS NOT MY PROBLEM! YOU’VE TAKEN ADVANTAGE OF ME ALL SCHOOL YEAR! I’M DONE, MCGEE! THE PARTY ENDS AT 3! DO NOT BE LATE!”

Then, in slow motion, I picked up one of the chairs on our front porch and broke it over my knee, tossing the splintered legs and shredded rattan onto the walkway in front of me.

You know, our public school system could be flush with money, and that money could be well managed and effectively allocated, and teachers could be revered instead of vilified, and the glut of tests—forced upon America’s kids like Betty Draper forces Sally to eat her Thanksgiving dinner—could be done away with. And yet, the insurmountable problem of sorry-ass parents will remain like radioactive fallout choking the life out of the rest of us.

This was my thought as I turned to walk back inside but was stopped by three catatonic little girls with six very wide eyeballs. Blinking. Blinking. Blinking.

“Well,” I shrugged, as I recalibrated in the green zone. “At least I didn’t swear.”

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