I was a bad dad yet again. On Wednesday night I hunted for Valentine's Day cards for Chet's first-grade class. Ava, at nine, said she was too old. All the drugstores in my New York neighborhood didn't have anymore of those kitschy packs that haven't changed since the '60s: puppies with freakishly large eyes and elongated tongues, blushing little girls in pigtails crossing their legs and their arms. I would have settled for Bart Simpson or Spongebob but everyone was out of everything. Chet said forget it and I was relieved. I figured this being a New York City public school not everyone would have made batches of homemade Valentine mini-scones wrapped in homemade organic paper like the super moms at Ava's star-studded private elementary school back when we were living in L.A.
I was wrong. Well, they weren't as homemade or as organic but everybody but us brought in something. After school, Chet, bless him, didn't berate me, seemed much less embarrassed by our lapse than I was. It's funny, he can flip out, hurl his body to the floor and make like Curly in a shrieking, teary, bicycling circle on the floor, because I decided on spaghetti instead of macaroni and cheese, but being the only cheapskate on Valentine's Day didn't phase him.
And then Ava, who hadn't wanted to do anything special, now asked me what special plans I'd made. I told her every day was Valentine's Day with us but Chet just groaned and said Mrs. Willner the music teacher tried to pull that one too.
Although I'd written a long Valentine to the kids that I was trying to place in the Times or NPR, I hadn't even gotten them a card of their own. The essay is very sweet but not anything a first and fourth grader could understand. In it I say that even after my wife leaving me and after all the romantic misadventures since then, I'm still an incurable romantic. It's just that now I'm an incurable romantic about my kids. The debt that I owe them can't be repaid by chocolates and a card.
Nevertheless, I had to do something. We eat out at restaurants several times a week so that wouldn't be special at all. That's when I had the idea of actually cooking something for them. Ava is addicted to French fries so as I entered the subway I had the bright idea of cooking hamburgers shaped as hearts and her favorite frozen steak fries. Once home Ava helped and shaped the patties. We three ate on the dining room table instead of the kitchen table for perhaps the second time ever. It's usually just the place where they do their homework. I pulled out the cloth napkins and we sipped lemon-lime flavored seltzer in champagne flutes. We held hands and each said a sort of grace. Theirs were quasi-religious copies of what their grandparents say down in Atlanta at Thanksgiving. Me, the Zen Buddhist, I just told them that I loved them very, very much and always would, even when they're screaming and yelling and driving me nuts. Sure, it was all very lovely, but also a little sad. I keep telling myself that we don't need another person to complete our little family and usually, I swear, we don't. But there at that big round table, too big for just the three of us, with Ava east, Chet west and me holding down the north, I felt that someone, somewhere was missing.
Trey Ellis is the author of Bedtime Stories: Adventures in the Land of Single-Fatherhood.