When It’s All You’ve Got, Call It Love

Burt was a flirt. He’d flirted with me constantly when we did theatre together in high school. He’d flirted Tonia away from Ronnie back then. When I returned to Minot I seemed to end up hanging out with Burt more often than not. We were in shows together at MRP, and if we weren’t acting, we were backstage together, or traveling with a show together, or working together to build a show. We played D&D, took the kids to the park. Nick and Monica thought he was their own personal toy. 

I found myself falling for him. We went on a few dates, shared a few kisses, and then he took up with a town ‘escort’. I was floored. I was angry. I was hurt.

Had I read too much into his flirting?  Had he led me on? Was he seeing her while seeing me? I was relieved I hadn’t slept with him, but what did SHE have that I didn’t?  Don’t answer that. Tonia said she’d dated Burt and he wasn’t worth any excess emotion on my part. Yes, he was a big flirt, and was great at paying so much attention to a girl that she could believe she was his world. But he was flighty and had a short attention span, and as soon as he actually caught someone, he was desperate to let them go. 

Tonia was right: just a few years after Burt dropped me for an escort, he managed to steal away his best friend’s fiance. He actually married her before panicking and fighting his way out of the relationship. His best friend never spoke to him again. The last memory I have of him is physically pushing him away from me outside the Mouse House because he was trying to get close to me again.

Tonia and I went out dancing and met up with some of her friends: Barb, Nita, Barb’s little sister, and some guy named Dan. Dan had the sweetest smile and a very unfortunate home perm. Tonia teased him about it all night, telling him if he’d only come to her, he wouldn’t be spending the next few months growing out a bad perm. He took the ribbing good-naturedly, and made sure to dance with each of the ladies at the table.

We all went for breakfast afterwards and I ended up in Dan’s car on the way to the diner. He was quiet, but not silent. Friendly without being pushy. He gave me his number. I called him a few days later, to see if he’d be out again that weekend. He agreed to meet us.

Tonia couldn’t drink anymore: she was pregnant. But she continued to go out with Dan and I until I moved in with him about two months later. I hadn’t divorced Rocky. I had put him out of my mind. Dan knew I was married; he knew I had kids. From the first car ride Dan and I took together, we couldn’t seem to tire of talking to one another. He’d call up and tell me to bring the kids over, we’d grab some pizza or McDonald’s or Taco John’s and watch a movie together.

In no time and with no planning, Nick and Monica had  a roomful of toys and their own beds at Dan’s and if we stayed late, we’d just spend the night. Soon, most of our clothes were over there and we were looking for a bigger place. Dan let Tonia cut off the bad perm and he turned out to be pretty cute without the bad hairstyle. Whichever car was at the end of the driveway when one of us left for work was the car we drove. Dan watched the kids while I was at work or rehearsal and they started calling him ‘Dandy’ and after a while, we just never went back to Joyce’s.

Rocky finally realized I wasn’t coming back and began threatening to come get the kids. I got a lawyer and filed for divorce. Rocky decided to fight the divorce so we had to go to court. He came to town and stayed with Sean. I remember the judge was not very impressed with Rocky and his insistence that I be made to go back to Germany with him. The judge finally said he didn’t care what Rocky said or thought; he was not going to force a woman to stay in a marriage she didn’t want to be in. I didn’t even have to talk about being afraid of Rocky or that horrible last year with him. 

When Rocky realized the judge wasn’t going to make me come back, he demanded custody of the kids. Denied. He never even got to explain to the judge what a horrible mother I was. I think the idea that children belong with their mother–however sexist and damaging that might be-helped the judge decide in my favor. But I also believe the judge just began to deeply dislike Rocky while he was insisting I come home.

Dan and I found a 3-bedroom house in foreclosure for sale at a great price and we bought it. Rocky went back to Germany with orders from the judge to return everything that belonged to me, Nick, and Monica. It felt like everything came together at once: we signed for the house in time for my furniture, dishes and books to be delivered, along with Monica and Nick’s toys. We got all of our stuff out of Joyce’s house and Dan’s father got us a fridge and stove. I bought fabric and made curtains and bedspreads. Dan wallpapered and painted the kitchen.

We were home.

I had easy pregnancies and terrible labors. Tonia had horrible pregnancies and relatively easy labors. With her second baby, Tonia had pre-eclampsia, which caused her hands, feet, and legs to swell. She suffered persistent nausea and headaches and easily became short of breath. She became short tempered and irritable. We still spent a lot of time together, either at my new house or Tonia and Mike’s new house or over at Joyce and Jerome’s. 

About the same time Dan and I got our house, Mike and Tonia bought some land in a new development north of us. Mike wanted to build a big garage so he could work on his race car. They bought a brand new mobile home to live in until they could save up for a loan to build themselves a house. Joyce and Jerome immediately bought land about a block away and moved their doublewide over there to be close to Tonia and AJ.

The three cousins–Nick, AJ, and Monica–played together all the time. They even went to the same daycare. AJ started going through a biting and pinching phase. No one seemed to want to do anything about it. AJ would bite or pinch Monica or Nick hard enough to leave bruises. If I chastised AJ, Tonia would get angry with me for trying to control her child. Joyce told me it was a phase all kids went through. She told me how her little brother Mark, who was between Tonia and Sean in age, used to bite Tonia hard enough to break the skin. I asked how they’d stopped him and she said they quit visiting until he’d grown out of it.

Nick and Monica didn’t bite. Monica had tried pinching a few times until Jerome tricked her into pinching herself and she decided that was no fun. I started spending less time with Tonia and AJ. AJ still bit and pinched whenever the cousins were together. I told my kids the next time AJ bit them, they should bite back, just as hard. Nick told me biting wasn’t nice and I agreed, but I told him once someone bites you, all bets are off and you should bite the hell out of them.

Tonia asked me, Nick, Monica, and Joyce to meet her for lunch out at the Hacienda, Mike’s restaurant. I drove out there in Dan’s Trans Am. Joyce, Tonia and I sat at one end of the table so we could talk, while Nick, AJ, and Monica colored together at the other end. AJ came and stood at Tonia’s elbow and whispered, “Nicky bit me.” Tonia started yelling at Nick and I told her, “Don’t. If I can’t reprimand your kid, you can’t reprimand mine.”

“Your kid just BIT my kid!”

I asked Nick what had happened and he said, “AJ bit me. I bit back, like you said.”

Tonia was on her feet. She said Nick was lying; AJ never bites. I looked at her and Joyce and said I’d been telling them for WEEKS that AJ was biting and not one of them had done anything. Tonia said if AJ bit, then Nick had bit first. I told the kids to get their coats; we were leaving. We started walking toward the door and Tonia shouted across the restaurant: “Good! Leave! Don’t come back!” I kept walking, herding Nick and Monica in front of me. I got them into the car and turned around to find Tonia and Joyce had followed me out to the parking lot. It wasn’t like Joyce had come out there to mediate or get Tonia to come outside. She just stood there and watched as Tonia yelled at me.

Tonia told me not to bring my kids back around; they weren’t allowed to be around AJ any more because they were spoiled brats. I yelled back, “Well, if they’re spoiled brats, they’re MY spoiled brats because I raised them–ME, alone. But AJ has three parents and not one of them can make the kid behave! You didn’t even raise them yourself!”

Tonia flew at me, her hands claws. I slapped her hands away and looked at Joyce, just standing there. I said “Take your pet back inside.” and Tonia came at me again. I grabbed her by her shoulders and pushed her face down on the hood of the car. She was pregnant; I didn’t want to hurt her. I held her nose to the hood and I said, “This is done. I will not stand here and be abused. You won’t hit me, because we are done. Go on back home with your mommy, who loves you best, and forget about me and my kids. We are out of your lives.” I got in the car.

As I drove away, I could see them in my rearview mirror: Tonia standing in the parking lot, still shouting at me and crying. And Joyce standing there with her arms crossed over her chest. She wasn’t comforting her hysterical, pregnant, favorite child. She was just standing there, watching me drive away. 

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