Ethan is a strong willed, spoiled brat ten year old.
It wasn’t entirely his fault though, his parents were to blame. They’d indulge in his every whim not thinking twice about any repercussions. Things like staying up late, using curse words, watching inappropriate television shows were just a fraction of the nonsense Dave and Cindy would allow this child to do. And the attitude on this kid. Even Grandma and Grandpa wouldn’t have him over. There was just no handling that boy. He was out of control.
I know Ethan’s father Dave from work. Our shifts always matched so we became friendly, gossiping about coworkers and sharing stories from our childhood. He’s your typical nice guy and easy going push-over. The one thing that stood out however was how tired he always looked. The two large and dark circles under his eyes sunk his entire face down like a melted candle. He was such a mixed message. A super nice guy trapped in the shell of someone on the edge. One day I got up the nerve to ask him about it.
“My God Damn kid” he confessed, almost exhausted to even say it.
This is where I first learned of Ethan, Dave’s only child. I had no idea he was even married. He never mentioned his wife much less his kid. We talked a bit during one lunch hour and he let the floodgates pour open. Each word he spoke was backed up by an intense sense of relief, albeit dipped in doom. It was story after story of all of these insane demanding things he had been catering to. Bottom line, his kid sounded like an asshole.
I ever so politely tried to give some parental advice, like just lay the law down and ground him. But as Dave explained it wasn’t that simple. This kid was in complete control of their lives and he and his wife Cindy had a hard time drawing the line. I offered up some of what works with my ten year old son Riley, how I find a middle ground and teach the basics of compromise, and then ground his ass if it doesn’t work. The only thing Dave heard though was that I have a boy the same age as Ethan. It seemed all he wanted was for Ethan to have friends. And this is what led to an invitation for a birthday party. Ethan was turning ten.
At first I dragged my feet for a few days. I’m not usually one to fraternize with people I work with always keeping them at arms length. But Dave just wouldn’t let it go asking me about it everyday for weeks. He wanted at least ONE kid to be at his son’s birthday party. I eventually caved in, if nothing more than I felt really, really bad for him.
My son Riley kept asking me whose party it was as I parked the car. We’d arrived for the big party.
“His name is Ethan”… I must of answered him at least four times.
We were in a different part of town, one that he wasn’t familiar with. It was an older, rougher neighborhood so I get why he was asking. He wasn’t used to the broken sidewalks and dead grass lawns that lined the streets.
Dave’s wife Cindy answered the door looking just as tired and worn out as her husband. Her eyes were stuffy and bloodshot, I could tell she’d been crying. She graciously invited us inside and into the family room, ground zero for the party festivities. I can’t exactly explain the feeling I had seeing her, a strange mixture of concern and anger. I couldn’t wait to meet this little brat.
The room was decked out in loud and bright birthday party trimmings. Large platters of assorted chips flanked deep bowls filled to the rim with multicolored M&Ms. A long table was lined with liters of soda as a six foot submarine sandwich lay across the center. Balloons floated to the ceiling and streamers hung from almost every piece of furniture. In the corner another table was crammed with presents. It had almost everything a spoiled kid’s party could have, except guests.
Dave came in and greeted us. He was especially excited to see my son Riley. Finally, someone for his son to play with. I felt awkward only having a card to give even though a twenty dollar bill was inside. I placed it among the pile of presents noticing they were all from “Mom and Dad”.
“So, where’s the birthday boy” I asked, curious as to the whereabouts of this controlling runt.
“We’re having a little problem…” Dave began.
“He won’t come out of his room”, Cindy blasted, finishing his sentence.
Dave and Cindy couldn’t seem to agree on why Ethan was upset and holed up in his room. They did their best to have a polite disagreement but it quickly spiraled into a full blown shouting match. It was one of those classic domestic disagreements that ended with a patented “THIS IS NOT MY FAULT!!” etc, etc.. It was a harsh thing for my son Riley to see. He’s been around for our share of marital disagreements but never anything close to this level.
The doorbell rang ending the dispute. Or at least putting it on hold. Cindy stormed off to answer it. Dave did his best to put on a smile. He offered us some food and looked down to Riley.
“There’s a balloon man out back” he said.
Curious, I looked out the window and saw one very bored middle aged man making a wiener dog out of a balloon. At his feet were at least forty different balloon objects telling me that he’d been here for quite some time.
Before we could make a decision Dave’s parents entered the room along with his younger brother Dan. They all had grim looks on their faces and took seats around the room, except Dan, he went right to the food.
“Who are you?” Dave’s Mother asked Riley with absolutely no expression.
Riley looked to me for the answer.
“We’re here for the party” I replied in my most friendly and optimistic of voices.
Right then her face contorted into a deep and disturbing frown and she began to cry, her lower lip quivering with each bout of tears. Dan came to her side and looked directly at his big brother Dave.
“YOU SEE WHAT YOU DID?!!” he shouted.
They began arguing, just as brothers would, loud and demeaning. It wasn’t long before Dave’s Father joined in, then finally Cindy. Riley and I were stuck in the middle of a family dispute of epic proportions. They threw at each other every possible insult one could think of. And it all centered around Ethan.
Dave’s Mother suddenly broke out into a hysterical monologue. It silenced everyone as she spouted things like “IT’S HER FAULT!!”, pointing her finger at Cindy and scolding Dave for “LIVING IN THIS EVIL PLACE!!”.
This was enough for me. I was getting us out of there. I reached over to grab Riley’s hand but he was gone.
“RILEY??!!” I bellowed out over the shouts.
I desperately called out for him as the shouting match continued in the party room. His faint reply echoed from somewhere in the house. I bolted out of the room and called again. He was upstairs.
As I made my way up I noticed a few family pictures lining the side walls. None of them were of Dave and Cindy. They looked out of date and dirty, hanging there like ancient relics. Within the faded sepia tones of the photos, I could see they were all of a little boy.
Once I reached the top I heard small noises coming from the room directly in front of me. I called out again.
“In here” he replied.
I opened the door to a room crammed with every toy a kid could imagine. From turn of the century train sets to the PS4 connected to a large 4K Sony flat screen and everything in between. It was a time capsule of toys that were untouched with almost everything new and sealed in it’s original packaging. There was a perfect order to it all. Board games, action figures, video games, all organized and seemed to center around a perfectly made twin bed, framed in turn of the century black rod iron. Riley sat on the floor, front and center, in complete awe. And so was I.
“GET OUT OF HERE!!!” Cindy screamed at us from behind.
I took Riley’s arm and we headed quickly down the stairs. Cindy followed behind us…
As we reached the bottom, all of the doors in the house slammed shut in precise unison! I looked up to see the chandelier slightly rocking back and forth. A slight rumble vibrated through the house like a distant thunder. We all stood there in silence.
“I’m so sorry, baby…,” I heard Cindy lowly mutter, still standing behind Riley and I.
I looked back. Her sad and tired eyes pierced into the pit of my stomach. Has it been ten years of this madness? I looked over at Dave and put on my most polite face. I thanked him for inviting us and hurried Riley and myself out the front door.
Outside, Dave’s parents already had the car started. I could see his Mom sobbing uncontrollably from the back seat. Dan gave the house a good once over before he got in the front, defeated. They pulled out of the driveway and sped off. I scooted Riley across the dead lawn towards our car.
“Dad. LOOK!”, he was looking back.
“Is that, Ethan?”
“Where?” I asked.
“Right there”, he pointed up to the second story window.
I saw nothing. I took his hand, continued to the car, and didn’t look back.
As we drove home I wondered what kind of parental advice I could possibly provide Dave when I see him at work on Monday.