For lunch we ate hot dogs from a cart and brought them into the little arena to watch the alligator feeding.
Sammy crawled up on my lap. “Mommy, look!” he cried out, pointing to where a man dressed in a safari type outfit, khaki shorts and matching short-sleeved collared shirt, had entered the gate housing a small dark pond. “Where the gators?” he asked, chewing on his fist as he spoke, spreading the mustard from his hot dog up into his nose. Tanner reached out and wiped his face with a napkin.
“You gotta watch the pond buddy,” Tanner said, pointing to the water. When the trainer tied a piece of red meat to the end of a rope, attached to a long pole, the audience of around twenty people went quiet. He pushed the pole out over the water and shook it so that the rope and the meat dangling from it danced in the air. In less that a second, several alligators rose to the surface in a series of splashing and thrashing, opening their strong jaws and climbing over one another to get to the meat. The largest of them all was the one who was successful, clamping his razor sharp teeth around the meat, snapping the rope, and disappearing back under the water as quickly as he’d appeared. Tanner and Sammy clapped and cheered along with the rest of the audience but the entire thing felt unsettling to me. The trainer was provoking beasts kept in captivity.
It felt wrong.
There was enough trouble in the world; there was no need to go looking for it by dangling bait in front of a hungry beast with sharp teeth.
Tanner nudged my elbow. “The feeding show never was always your favorite.”
Either that has changed or Ray was a really good liar.
I shrugged and looked down to Sammy who was still on my lap, clapping so hard his hands would miss each other every so often and land on his chubby arms. He looked back at me and smiled, mustard crusted around the corners of his mouth. I didn’t care if it left me with a bad taste in my mouth, if it made Sammy smile like that, it was alright by me. “Nah, it’s great.”
On the way back to the car, Sammy walked between us, grabbing both of our hands. We swung him back and forth as he shrieked in delight, my stomach doing a little flip every time I knew his smile was a result of something I’d done.
“You know, we had our first kiss here. Right in the parking lot. We actually couldn’t afford to go inside so we set a blanket on the grass by the fence to watch one of the shows until we were told to leave by security,” Tanner said, his eyes squinting as a low hanging cloud rolled away from the bright sun.
“We did?” I looked around to the lot crowded with families and searched for something familiar, something that would snap it all in place for me.
But it never came.
When Sammy’s little legs got too tired to keep walking, Tanner lifted him and carried him on his shoulders as we made our way through the parking lot. When Tanner’s hand sought mine out, I could already see where the truck was parked. The happiness radiating off of the boys was infectious as they listed all their favorite parts of the day. I didn’t want to ruin the amazing day we’d had by pulling away and again reminding Tanner that the girl he loved wasn’t his anymore. So for the twenty or so feet to the truck I let Tanner hold my hand.
And for all twenty or so feet, I thought about King.
After we’d left, I was surprised when instead of taking me back to my house, Tanner passed it and instead pulled into the driveway of his parents flamingo pink house.
“What are we doing?” I asked as Tanner pulled continued down the long winding driveway to the back of the house.
“I live in the pool house out back,” Tanner explained.
“No, I mean why didn’t you drop me off?”
“I figured you might want to give Sammy a bath, read him a bedtime story, help me put him to bed,” Tanner said, parking the truck right outside a smaller but still bright pink version of the main house. The windows of the truck were only slightly lower than the roof of the pool house.
The truth was that I wanted to do all of that and more. I didn’t even have to think hard on it to know that what I really wanted was to keep Sammy with me. Have him sleep in his room down the hall from me, have me be the one who he wakes up to in the morning, and who rocks him to sleep at night.
But I wasn’t going to push anything. I was still the girl with the brain injury. Of course no one would trust him with me full-time when I don’t even remember being a mother in the first place. But I didn’t have to remember being Sammy’s mom to actually be his mom.
Because he remembered me. And looking in the rearview mirror, into Sammy’s identical eyes, I knew that nothing else mattered but being everything to that boy that he wanted me to be.
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