Let’s call her Rebecca—Rebekka, rather. In her twenties, she had her name legally changed to give it a unique spelling. Or I could just refer to her as the kids’ mother or Andrew’s ex-wife. Sometimes I call her other names, too.
The first time I “bonded” with the kids’ mother was during her daughter’s championship swim meet the summer after I’d started dating their father in the spring. He served as a timer and lane judge during the meet, so his daughter’s mother and I sat together poolside in fancy lawn chairs Rebekka brought with her. Andrew’s sons stick around only briefly before running off to play with other children there.
Rebekka is one of those people who comes to such events prepared: in addition to the chairs, she has a cooler of drinks and all sorts of snacks, something for anyone’s tastes, all of which she shares generously with me and anyone else who stops to chat. I brought a hat, sunglasses, sunscreen, and a novel—maybe a chair, for myself, if Andrew suggested it, or I might have assumed there would be chairs around the pool and not thought about how many people would be there. This is all new to me; I don’t have kids. An outside observer would certainly be justified in judging me the more self-centered of the two of us, but it is on this day that I will begin to understand for myself why the Colorfinger song “Separation” reminds Andrew of his ex: “what you say, what you do, where you go / Everything I loved about you was just for show.”
Rebekka and I talk friendly enough, the “What do you do?” back and forth kind of conversation. She already knows I am an English professor at the university where her ex-husband works in a science department, so I give her my more specific response, “I teach Southern literature.”
She was an English major in college, she tells me, but I am surprised when she adds, “I specialized in British literature,” which is articulated, in fact, with a bit of a British lilt in her speech. Later I remark to Andrew, “You didn’t tell me Rebekka had a master’s degree.”
“She doesn’t,” he responds, puzzled. “What made you think that?”
“She mentioned her area of specialization. Undergraduates English majors don’t typically specialize in a particular literature.”
“She’s just pretentious—and likely intimidated by you,” he suggests, but I am skeptical. Rebekka is a beautiful woman, once a lingerie model, Andrew told me, far too early in our relationship for this detail not to be disconcerting. I had not yet met her, and I knew that I have four years on him, three on her. I am over forty while neither of them has reached this milestone. I’m thin, but all over thin, leaning toward scrawny as my body ages. Definitely not lingerie model material.
Her hair is long and thick, with a single stunning grey streak down one side. She could use a little more chin, but since I could use a little less, I am sympathetic. Like her, I got my chin from my dad, which is unfair since he could hide his under a beard. I’ve seen a photo of her father, and her inheritance could be much worse: he had no chin and made no effort to hide the absence with a beard.
Anyway, Rebekka struck me during our day together as a very self-confident person, and I was impressed by how organized she must be to have thought of, not to mention prepared, so many things to bring at such an early hour—earlier for her since she drove ninety minutes to get there. The children are with their father for the summer, so the swim team his daughter has joined is in the town he has moved to, giving up his tenure-track job in another state to be close to where his ex has moved their children (to live with the man she ended her marriage for). In response to my later remarking upon all of her impressive preparations for the day, Andrew quotes the Colorfinger song, emphasizing the phrase “just for show.”
So back to the long morning of the swim meet and chatting with Rebekka during the intervals between her daughter’s events. When Andrew gets a break from his lane judge duties he comes over to check in on how I am doing with his ex, whom of course, he knows better than I do and remembers as the “bitch possessed” in the song he played for me to prepare me for meeting her early in the summer at a birthday party for one of their sons. But as I say, Rebekka and I had gotten along okay through the endless morning. I was taking full advantage of her “showy” snacks and drinks, which saved me from the concession stand. When Andrew joins us for his break, the three of us talk amicably until their ten-year-old daughter walks up, says something—I don’t remember what—and her mother turns to her child’s father and says in a tone heavy with condescension and disgust (and that almost British clip), “Won’t you correct her when she speaks with a Southern accent? She sounds so ignorant.”
The look on that man’s face is sheer panic as his eyes dart to mine to gauge my reaction to her insult. I take an actual step back in my surprise at such outright rudeness. Was she deliberately disparaging my heritage? You can certainly hear Louisiana in my accent, and of course, I’ve just told her that very morning about my interest in Southern literature. Are you going to kill her right in front of my daughter? Andrew’s wide-eyed expression asks. No, I message back to him, but I can feel my eyes narrowing in on Rebekka, thinking in her direction, But payback’s a bitch, baby. A glance at their daughter’s humiliated expression as she looks furtively around to assess whether any of her new friends with their own heavy Eastern North Carolina accents have overheard her mother, and I add towards her, I’ll get her good enough for both of us, Sugah.
Sometime in the next year or so, I learn how odd Rebekka’s attitude toward Southerners is. After one of the children remarks to me that their mother is not Southern, I ask their father about it—in front of them (I have not forgotten my planned payback). Andrew informs us all that Rebekka was born right in the middle of North Carolina, in the same town her mother still lives in. This is news to his children, who were apparently told by their mother that she, like their grandmother, is from Germany. I am surprised as well. She doesn’t “sound Southern.” Though I realize that the not-quite British intonation I’ve heard in her speech reminds me of the inflection affected by American actresses in old movies.
To my delight, Rebekka’s correction-by-humiliation does not work on her daughter, who has the heaviest Southern accent of the three children, though still hardly discernible to me. I only notice it because her brothers occasionally mock something she says. “Mamá,” as the children call their mother (she insists upon the French-style accented second syllable, though in these kids’ mouths it sounds more like MuhMUH than Mamá), has evidently expressed her disdain for her daughter’s slight drawl in front of her sons often enough to inspire them to tease their sister about her Southern accent. I’ve noticed during occasions that bring us together with Andrew’s ex that joining in on Rebekka’s passive aggressive belittling of one or the other of them, is how the children seek MuhMUH’s approval—or deflect her disapproval onto one of their siblings.
By the summer following that swim-meet experience with the children’s mother, when the kids come for their eight-week visit with their father, they will join us in the home Andrew and I have bought together where the Pamlico River and Chocowinity Bay meet—wide water, I call it, a view to inspire my writing, though with three children around, I question how much peace could there possibly be to facilitate that writing? I need quiet and solitude, and summer months, when I do not have to teach, usually provide both for long stretches of time. I wonder, with three kids around, if I will be able to write.
Andrew, a scientist who needs a lab for his research, cannot work from home, and anyway, he has child support payments that require him to teach summer school. He hires a college-age daughter of a friend to take his children to the pool on weekday mornings (his older son has joined his daughter on the team this year, and his youngest is taking swimming lessons). And then, as often as possible, they either remain at the pool after practice to hang out with their new friends or go somewhere else—library, estuarium, or movie in little Washington; the Fossil Museum in Aurora; the sitter’s own home downriver in Blounts Creek. These tiny communities offer simple but new adventures for these “city” (by comparison) children. I don’t know what all they do after swim practice, and I don’t care, as long as they stay out of the house most of the day and do not interrupt me when they do come home.
I settle myself into my upstairs study, sitting at my desk in front of a window looking out at the water, to work on my next book project, reaching over every now and then to pet whichever of my two cats is sitting in the cat perch under the window. If the kids and the sitter return earlier than I wish—due to bad weather, lack of ideas about what to do next, or squabbling—they know: if the door is shut (which it is, as soon as I hear them), they are not to disturb me. She is still in charge; I am unavailable for comment.
Typically, they get rowdy at some point, and I look at the clock and realize it is time to start cooking dinner, that their father will be on his way home. I emerge, free the sitter to leave, and solicit the kids’ help in the kitchen, send them off to read, or insist they go play outdoors, whichever seems best for the mood I meet upon descending. Part-time mother is not a bad deal. I can do this for eight weeks in summer. And sure enough, when their father arrives home each evening, I am able to reassure him truthfully that he still has three children. Success, as I measure it.
During the summer with us, the children visit their mother every other weekend, the interim for Dad visits during the school year. So when they return on Sundays after such visits, I ask over dinner about their weekend, finding a way to bring their mother’s boyfriend into my inquiries: “Did Bubba go with y’all?” I might ask if they mention a trip to the beach. They answer with puzzled expressions. Their mother’s boyfriend’s name is—let’s say Nathaniel—it’s a name usually shortened by friends, but, not unlike Rebekka changing the spelling of her name, Nathaniel insists on his full name with his acquaintances (family, friends, everyone)—never Nat or Nate. Rebekka, however, has taught her children, from the moment she moved them into her lover’s house, to call him Papá (again with the French accent). Interestingly, Andrew tells me, she tried to get them to call him Poppa, instead of Daddy. Maybe Daddy was too Southern for her, I think. They had already transitioned to calling Andrew Daddy, his preference, by the time I came along a couple of years after their parents’ separation.
Unfortunately for “Rebekka and Nathaniel”—but to my amusement—these Southern children cannot say Papá, and when they refer to “Papá,” it sounds like “Bubba,” with the accent on the wrong syllable—BuhBUH. The hilarity of this to their father and me prompts “Bubba” to be the computer password we set to assure no game-playing after bedtime. Later we will refer to the child Rebekka and BuhBUH eventually have together as “Baby Bubba.” And always we refer to Nathaniel as Bubba, to the point that before we go to any of the kids’ events, I ask Andrew to remind me of Bubba’s real name.
Finally, one Sunday night after the children’s return from a weekend with their mother, when I ask my inevitable dinner-table conversation question involving “Bubba,” the older son inquires in response, “Why do you call him Bubba? His name is Nathaniel.”
“I know; but I thought his nickname was Bubba,” I say, with affected puzzlement.
“Noooooo,” he says, clearly wondering how I came to that conclusion.
“But that’s what you all call him.” I respond. Their father stays out of this exchange, pushing back from the table, perhaps unconsciously, quietly amused by my feigned ignorance.
“No, we call him BuhBUH.”
“Yes, I know. So, should I not call him that? Doesn’t he go by Bubba with everyone?”
“No,” says the boy, still puzzled.
“If it’s his nickname, why not?”
“But it isn’t his nickname.”
“Of course it is. His name is Nathaniel, but y’all call him Bubba,” I respond in my most innocent, one might say bless-your-heart voice. Andrew is about to burst from suppressed laughter.
“No, we don’t. We call him BuhBUH. It’s French, for father, so why would everyone call him BuhBUH?” he explains to his father’s ignorant girlfriend.
I want to ask, in loyalty to their actual father, Why would you call him Father? You have a father. But instead, I say, pretending to be puzzled. “Bubba is not French for father.”
“BuhBUH is French for father,” he insists, quite frustrated with me by this point.
“Honey, I’m from Louisiana. Father, in French, is—Oooooooh,” I reply, as if understanding is just dawning on me. “You mean Papá?”
“That’s what I said, BuhBUH.”
The kids’ father can hold in his guffaw no longer. It is his turn to baffle his children, who do not understand why he is laughing. Or perhaps they think laughing at his obtuse girlfriend is rude. I quietly try to explain that I was hearing “Bubba with the accent on the wrong syllable,” though I know it is too much to ask them to remember that when they recount this hilarity to their mother, as I am hoping they will.
When you think about it, I really could have been doing Rebekka a favor, albeit unintentionally, trying to teach her children to say Papá with a “p” rather than a “b” sound. But they never did hear the difference, to my bemusement—and amusement. It’s over fifteen years later, and the boys, young men now, still call Nathaniel BuhBUH, though the daughter, openly hostile towards him, refers to him as “Nat,” at least when mentioning him around us. I don’t know what she calls him to his face.
But my intentions were not so noble as they would have been if I had been trying to help the kids not sound ridiculous in their mispronouncing of Papá. Quite the contrary: I admit I just wanted this dinner table conversation to get back to Rebekka. I assumed the children would find my Bubba/Papá misunderstanding silly enough to relay to their mother: “Do you know what Margaret thought we called BuhBUH?” And with that question, Rebekka would know that I know she has a Bubba for a boyfriend. Payback’s a bitch, baby.
For in truth, Nathaniel has turned out to be such a Bubba, and Rebekka knows it (as does her daughter, for quite a while, and now her sons, who resisted acknowledging their mother’s terrible choice for a long time). Even Rebekka must have realized by now that she left the incredibly reliable, supportive, and kind man, now in my life for over fifteen years, for a Bubba.
Also, however, truth be told, we cannot “break the ties that bind [our] life” to hers, as the singer longs to do in “Separation,” the song that reminds Andrew of his ex-wife. I already knew, given my own parents’ divorce, that once you’ve had children together, you are bound forever. We will continue to have to socialize with Rebekka and Bubba. I was fortunate not to have had children with my ex-husband or any of my own subsequent bad choices, but for Andrew, his children are, of course, three blessings that came out of his marriage. And therefore, our lives will continue to include Rebekka, from birthday parties to graduations, to weddings and grandchildren’s birthday parties. But every now and then, I get the best of that “bitch possessed” (to use my favorite phrase from a song), not just for my own enjoyment, but also avenging my stepchildren—and their father.