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The Playground with Dad
by Doug Patrick

Dad loves taking me to the playground. After he lets me play on my own for a while, he tells me what to play with – Mom never does that. Mom just sits on the bench and talks to the other moms. She’s nice, but not fun like Dad.

I’m playing duck, duck, goose with Molly and other kids when Dad wants to play. Molly’s really good at being the goose, she always catches me. I’d never tell Dad that, though. Me and her always play together. Mom thinks she might have a crush on me, but I don’t know.

All I know is that she looks sad when Dad takes me over to the rock climbing wall. He says enough of those kids’ games and tells me to climb, so I do. When I’m done, he says, “Not fast enough, Manny.”

He always says that. I’m not very good at rock climbing, but Dad says I’m not the worst. I can’t imagine how bad the worst person is. I wonder what they look like. Dad thinks they’re probably a girl in a wheel chair. He laughs, so I laugh. Dad’s funny.

I try climbing again, but faster. I don’t think I did much better because when I finished, Dad rolled his eyes. I’m not sure what that means, but once I rolled my eyes to Mom and she got mad at me, so I’m guessing it’s not a good thing.

Dad says it’s time to give up on rock climbing and takes me to the slide. One boy throws himself down it. Dad says I need to explode down it just like him. So when I get to the top, I make a really loud explosion sound and slide down, then I look at him to see if I did good. He tells me to stop making those damn sounds with my mouth and to just go down the slide like a normal boy. I watch Molly go down the slide after me. She’s really good at it – almost as fast as boys are.

I get back to the top of the slide and try once more, but I make the explosion sound again on accident. Dad throws his arms in the air and says, “Jesus! This boy, I tell ya.” But he isn’t talking to me. He’s talking to his imaginary friends. He always talks to them when we play on the playground. I bet they’re also dads. I wonder what their kids are like.

Dad sits back down at his bench because he’s frustrated (he taught me that word). I try doing the slide one more time, but he’s looking at his phone again. I wonder if the imaginary dads ever look at their phones. Probably not. Their sons are probably better at the playground.

I sit next to him and say, “Sorry, Dad.”

“What am I gonna do with you?”

I think for a long time. “I don’t know.”

He laughs, so I smile. “Alright. I’ll give you another chance, son.” He puts his hand on my head. “You can at least do the monkey bars, right?”

I say yes even though I’m not sure. The monkey bars scare me, but I don’t tell Dad that.

When we get to them, I go on my tippy toes and grab onto the first blue bar. I swing to the next one, and then the next one, but then I get stuck. Dad tells me to come on. I try to grab the next one, but I can’t reach, so I just dangle.

The sun is really hot and I start sweating. For the first time, I’m glad Dad made me get a buzz-cut. I wanted to keep my long hair, like the kind rock stars have on TV, but he said no. He said boys don’t have long hair – unless you’re John Lemon. But I didn’t think lemons had hair. Or names. Dad’s goofy sometimes.

“Stop smiling, Manny. Are you even gonna try? A real man would get to the end.”

I go for the next bar again, but I can’t grab it. I start wishing I was a monkey. Maybe Dad would like me more then. I’d be able to get to the end of the bars, at least.

I drop to the ground and fall. Woodchips stick to my knees.

After I get out of the way, Molly goes. She jumps to the third bar right away and swings her way to the end no problem.

Dad kneels down next to me and says, “You really gonna let a girl show you up like that?”

I shake my head no and tell him that I’ll do it right next time because boys are supposed to be good at playground stuff. Girls are good at dolls and baking cookies.

I get back to the start of the monkey bars and Molly lines back up behind me. She puts her hand on my back. She does that a lot when I’m in front of her.

“Oh, look, Manny. She’s challenging you.” Then Dad turns to his imaginary dad-friends and says, “Just like a woman.”

So I jump to the second bar and start going fast. “Left, right, left, right,” Dad cheers me on. He claps and it sounds like firecrackers. I watch my shadow as I go along. It looks really cool – like a superhero. Like Spiderman.

Then I look back up and miss a bar and my hand slips.

“Oh my god, Manny. You can’t do it, can you? Jesus – Hey, little girl,” Dad sees Molly going again (he knows her name, but he never calls her it), “Can you get off? My son’s gonna go again.”

Molly acts like she can’t hear him even though he’s talking loud.

“Little girl. Off. Now. It’s the boy’s turn.”

But Molly keeps going to the end.

“You’re really not gonna listen to me?”

Molly finishes and then runs back around to the start. I’m about to follow her, but Dad holds me back and says no. He watches Molly and licks his lips. His foot is tapping a million miles per hour. Molly looks at me.

“Do you need help learning the monkey bars, Manny? I can teach you,” Molly says.

“No. He doesn’t need help. How about you show some respect like a nice little girl and get down from there. Now. Manny needs to go again.”

Molly looks at Dad, then back at me. She’s not sure what to do, so she just jumps again – this time, to the fourth bar. For some reason, this makes Dad really mad. He whispers in my ear to go to the car, so I do.

There’s a thump and then Dad comes up behind me and grabs my hand. We start walking really fast. I look back and a mom is standing over Molly. She’s laying on the ground under the monkey bars, crying. I want to go back to see if she’s okay, but Dad keeps pulling me. The mom yells, “Are you serious?! Where are you going? Get back here right now!” Dad doesn’t look back. I don’t know who that lady was talking to.

* * *

When we get home, I go to my room and play video games. The phone rings and Mom answers it. It’s Ms. Jacobs. Mom is really excited to talk to her at first, but then she gets sad and her voice gets shaky and angry. “Okay, thank you. I’ll handle it now.” She hangs up and calls to Dad who’s in the basement watching football.

They yell back and forth for a long time. I try to keep playing games, but Mom and Dad get too loud. Dad says he can’t have his son losing to a girl, dammit. And Mom says that shouldn’t even matter – she says he’s acting like a psycho.

They keep doing this for a long time until Dad gets fed up. I hear him call Mom a bad word (worse than damn) and then slam the door. She starts crying. I go downstairs and hug her. I ask where Dad’s going, but she just cries harder.

* * *

Dad isn’t around as much anymore. Mom says he got a new apartment because we didn’t have enough space for everyone, but I know we have plenty of room.

One day, when I’m at Dad’s new apartment, I ask him why he doesn’t live with us anymore.

He says it’s because that’s what Mom wanted – for me to not see my Dad as much. Looks like Mom isn’t as nice as I thought she was. Why do girls have to ruin everything? 

Doug Patrick is a student at Skidmore College where he studies English. He writes for The Daily Quirk, an online magazine.