Dennis read a lot of stay-at-home-mom blogs. After the university fired him — or, rather, in the parlance of the academy, “found that its staffing needs had changed,” meaning an adjunct could do what he did cheaper — he tried to load up on as much info as he could, printing out the long blog entries and highlighting relevant portions in colorcoded ink. The mom blogs made stay-at-home parenting out to be some sort of warzone, part Vietnam, part Wild West, part Lord of the Flies. Dennis readied himself for this war, armed with highlighted pages and de-escalation techniques fit for hostage situations.
But his son was deflatingly facile. Simon was 6 now. He took care of himself, even wiped his own ass after using the bathroom. This was nothing compared to Dennis’ memories of life at home with Simon as a baby, a time that glowered in his memory as a series of panicky, joyful snapshots: admonishing in-laws, diapers piled like munitions, tiny fingers finding trouble in objects as innocent as an untied shoelace, a packet of fish food, a half-full cup of water resting on the table beside Dennis’ cell phone.
Now Simon was easy to keep occupied. He had kindergarten in the morning, then a single coloring book or Disney film could take him through the whole afternoon. Add to that all the other pastimes in Dennis’ arsenal (building blocks, plastic figurines, trips to the park, pretending to be action heroes out in the yard) and the boy was simply never bored. When his son was otherwise occupied Dennis filled his time with household chores: sweeping, mopping, cooking, scrubbing, cleaning gutters, trimming trees, washing laundry. It was a novel thrill to take care of his son and his home so closely, so personally. It felt almost spiritual, to commune this deeply with the life he’d chosen, like the couples on reality TV who moved to some sustainable farm somewhere to live off the land.
Still, his wife insisted he shouldn’t have fired the maid, and the look on her face told him he was foolish to think of this arrangement as anything but temporary. No, they didn’t need the second income, not when they factored in the saved costs of childcare, cleaning, handymen, etc. But he would be bored, he was bound to be bored.
“How could I be bored?” he asked her. There was so much to do, so much that needed to be done, that he now considered it a wonder he had ever held down a full-time job.
“I thought we paid people to do those things because we didn’t like doing them,” she said.
“How would we know when we’ve never tried?” He was annoyed that she seemed intent on puncturing his optimism. In his long hours at home, he’d begun to wonder if people weren’t ultimately indifferent about how their energy was spent, as long as it was spent. Put a man in a room with an arbitrary task, maybe some complicated knot to untie or a jigsaw puzzle to assemble, and wouldn’t any reasonable person be happy at the end of eight hours as long as he’d made reasonable progress?
When she suggested gently he might be rationalizing in order to avoid some sort of anxiety, maybe insecurity at being a man stuck at home, maybe just old-fashioned anger at the university that fired him, he got short with her. “I told you,” he said, “they didn’t fire me, their staffing needs changed.”
“You’re getting defensive.”
“I am not.”
“Are so,” she said, and stuck out her tongue. He tried not to laugh but failed. She was herself quite skilled at de-escalation.
The internet held countless descriptions of ways for him to fill his time, to be a better stay-at-home mom. (Though calling himself this had started as a joke, he read enough mom blogs that it became natural for him to think of himself this way.) There were new recipes to try, new kids’ shows to DVR, new timeout methods, better parks further away with greener grass and safer swings.
One day when Dennis couldn’t sleep, he lay beside his wife, thumbing through the web page bookmarks on his phone. One of his favorite mom blogs had an entry called “Yes Day,” an activity designed to build trust. It came from some kids’ book. You were supposed to set aside 12 hours, scheduled in advance with your child, where you would say yes to everything they asked for.
“You’re crazy,” his wife said the next morning. “Out of your head. You need to get out more. The house will be left in rubble. I’ll be at the morgue, identifying bodies.”
“Give Simon some credit,” he said.
“He’s very mature for his age.”
She made a face. “I wouldn’t trust you with a yes day.”
So he didn’t try the yes day, not at first. He wanted to be the best stay-at-home mom he could, and that meant keeping the go-to-work mom happy. But soon he was running out of ideas of how to improve the household. The gutters could not be cleaner, the floors more spotless, the light fixtures less dusty.
And then there was Simon. Dennis loved Simon deeply, of course, but he was the docile type of boy he had never understood, not even as a child himself. His eyes scanned the world the bored way someone else’s might scan a take-out menu. Dennis had the sense that he could tell Simon to do pretty much anything and he would comply, as long as Dennis framed it as a question. “Why don’t you go watch TV? Why don’t you color for a bit? Why don’t you go sit quietly in a room with the lights off until Daddy thinks of something better to do?”
The upshot was a constant feeling that every time Dennis sat his son down in front of a movie or went to the same old park one more time he was letting him down. If there was ever a point at which it was novel to have Dad at home, exciting even, that point was past. Dad was a feature of the house now, his fussy fingers at his son’s shoelaces, always double-knotted so they wouldn’t come apart. A feature like the scented candles in the bathroom, or that rattling sound the dryer made that Dennis couldn’t figure out how to fix.
He told himself it was silly to expect anything else of the boy: He was 6, and of course he accepted the world as it was presented. Little to no questioning or reflection. This was something to admire, not admonish. And like he had told his wife, there was so much to be done, he should take good simple comfort in the fact that he now had the time to do it.
He sometimes wished his boy would throw tantrums, the way kids on TV did. Then, he thought, he’d really have something to show; he could think up some bit of fatherly wisdom to impart that would settle his son’s temper. But instead he increasingly spent his afternoons flipping through an app on his phone, pinning recipes while his son watched TV.
“What’s this one about?” he’d occasionally ask as some smiling cartoon flitted across the screen.
“Shhh,” his son would say.
So one day after his wife went to work, Dennis sat Simon down at the kitchen table and explained the exercise. That’s what he called it, an exercise. He could tell from the look on the boy’s face that Simon did not understand. He was probably thinking about sports at first, or jumping jacks. But once he started to understand his eyes went wide.
“Anything?” he asked.
“Almost,” Dennis said. He explained the ground rules. Nothing illegal, nothing that would endanger either of them, no asking for more “yes days,” no asking to overturn the above ground rules. Dennis had read on the blog that ground rules were good, and these were the four he’d settled on.
Simon looked at him suspiciously, like Dennis was playing some sort of trick. “Why?” he said.
“Why ground rules?”
“Why yes day?”
Dennis bit his lip. He wasn’t sure what to say. He was fairly sure Simon would not understand the word ennui. So instead he said, “My mommy blogs said I should.”
“I want tacos for breakfast.”
“Ask it like a question.”
“Can I have tacos for breakfast?”
Dennis realized almost immediately he should have set a spending limit. First thing after taco breakfast (with a side of gummy worms), Simon asked if they could go to Disney World. Numbers started spinning in Dennis’ head. Florida was on the opposite coast. Plane tickets, admission fees, a hotel room, his wife’s ire — the costs were too high.
And anyway, it was a logistical impossibility. They’d never make it there before closing time, not with the time difference. Dennis explained this to Simon. “You don’t really want to spend your whole yes day cramped on a plane, do you? And then not even get there in time?”
“We could ride the plane today, and go to Disney tomorrow.”
“But tomorrow’s not yes day, remember?”
Simon frowned. “You’re saying no.”
Dennis put his hand on his son’s shoulder. “Listen,” he said, “I’d say yes if I could, but I can’t. You can ask me if you can flap your arms fast enough to fly, and I have to say no. But it’s not because you don’t have my permission. Sometimes, Simon, the world says no.”
There. Fatherly wisdom. This was working already.
Simon shoveled a handful of gummy worms and loose taco meat into his mouth and crossed his arms, chewing thoughtfully.
“I want to stay home from school.”
Dennis felt relief spread up from his toes, like stepping into a warm bath. He’d seen that one coming, skipping school was a given. “Ask it like a question,” Dennis said.
By mid-afternoon, Dennis was thoroughly disappointed. “Anything,” he kept telling Simon. “Anything at all, anything possible.” But all the things Simon asked for were food-related. Can I eat ice cream and watch cartoons? Can I have another soda? Can I eat doughnuts for lunch?
Dennis sat beside him with a pile of bills that needed to be paid. He went through and verified the amounts, made sure there were no price increases or overage fees. The cartoons droned on in the background. He felt the day slipping away. He’d hoped this would be a day Simon might remember forever, like a fairy tale but better, Simon the king of all things household, and his father to thank.
He looked over at his son, wet pupils pinned to the TV screen.
“Simon,” he said, “It’s almost two. Isn’t there anything else you’d rather do?”
Dennis shook his head. He looked down at the bills scattered across his lap. “You don’t know how special a day like this is. These days don’t come much once you get older. A day where you get everything you want.”
“I want to watch cartoons,” Simon said.
“I just think you should think about all the possibilities.”
“Can you be quiet?” Simon said.
After nearly an hour of silence — an hour Dennis watched his son spend wandering from one end of the house to the other, going out to the yard to poke the ground with a yardstick, practicing finger paints on the bill stubs Dennis had left on the kitchen table, gnawing on the eraser end of every pencil in the house one by one, staring under the fridge for a long while after he thought he saw a spider crawl under, then eventually deciding it was a food crumb or piece of leaf caught in some draft of air from the vent — Simon finally spoke. “What’s for dinner?” he asked.
Dennis made the universal choking sign, because didn’t know how to communicate he wasn’t able to speak. He figured that was close enough.
“You can talk now,” Simon said. Then, remembering: “Can you talk now?”
Dennis said dinner was whatever Simon wanted, and Simon just shrugged. Dennis looked at his watch. Two fifty-four. Three and a half hours until his wife got home, nearly nine until bedtime.
Soon his son was on the floor, cross-legged, yawning. “What do you want to do?” Simon asked.
Dennis laughed dejectedly. He rubbed his eyes and said, “I don’t know. This isn’t supposed to be so hard. I want to go outside, I guess. I want to go to the movies. I want to remember the last time your mother asked me that, and I want to be the type of person who’ll eat gummy-worm tacos with his son instead of being too embarrassed.”
Simon shook his head. “They weren’t gummy-worm tacos,” he said. But he stood up and stretched, looking mildly interested.
“Ask it like a question,” he said.
Dennis smiled. “Okay. Can we go outside?”
Out on the front porch there was sun on Dennis’ face, and it felt good. He should have been used to sun on his face, he was always taking Simon somewhere and it was always sunny, but this sun felt extra good. He took his shoes and socks off and walked onto the lawn. He squeezed his toes like a fist.
“What now?” Simon said.
But Dennis was at a loss. It was hard to remember what to ask for, when life said no so often. He found himself wondering what his wife would do. What her yes day would be, and would he be in it. He suspected he would, but maybe, like him, she wouldn’t know what to ask for either.
“Can we go to the movies?” Dennis said. “No, wait, can we watch a movie? No, wait —”
When his wife got home, the house was not in rubble, but it was somewhat altered. She first noticed it when she opened the garage, which was now littered with Christmas decorations, though it was the middle of August. A tree in the center prevented her from pulling all the way in. There was tinsel strewn about, and instead of a star on top was an upside-down plastic jack-o’-lantern bucket designed for holding Halloween candy. There were boxes under the tree, but they looked like things from their attic — boxes of old clothes, photo frames, one of the exercise machines they’d bought and never used. Were these meant to be presents?
Inside, Simon was watching cartoons. Candy wrappers littered the floor around him. The white walls were covered with tic-tac-toe boards, mostly cats’ games, drawn in permanent pen. There were also toys on the ground, but they predated Simon — things from his father’s childhood, old Power Ranger toys, a Stretch Armstong that appeared to be bleeding some dark liquid from a punctured arm.
“Where’s your father?” she said.
Simon shrugged. “He kept asking questions, and I kept saying yes.”
She found him in the bedroom, in her pink bathrobe, eating ice cream in front of the TV. She hovered in the doorway. She had been ready to yell, but he looked too downtrodden. There was a grayness to his face that seemed to stretch beyond the stubble of his 6 o’ clock shadow, pooling in the space around his eyes.
“I ran out of things to ask for,” he said, without looking up at her. “Now I’m eating ice cream.”
“You wrecked the walls,” she said.
“I’ll put a fresh coat of paint on tomorrow. We’ve got extra white in the garage.”
She nodded warily. “What’s with the decorations?”
“I was trying to invent a new holiday. I’m still hammering out the details.”
She sat down beside him and took the spoon. She scooped some ice cream into her mouth and tried to taste everything that was there. It made her think of their first date, when they ate orange sherbet for dessert at a French restaurant. She didn’t like sherbet but had been afraid to say. Now, she wanted to think, she would have said.
“You can find a new job,” she suggested. “Do you want to find a new job?”
Dennis shrugged sullenly. When they went to collect Simon, he was curled up, asleep on a chair. Dennis shook the boy awake, and hated himself for the pleasure he took in disrupting the silent contentment that had been on the boy’s face a moment before.