It's cold outside, but warm under the covers with Nicole, the perfect kind of day to spend in bed. I ain't really been sleeping so much as just laying 'round, drifting in and out of thoughts.
Nicole is pressed hard against me, the way she sleeps every night, using whatever part of me is closest for a pillow. This morning it's my chest. She's twisted 'round me like one of them fuzzy Koala Bear pencil things that our daughter Tina likes so much.
I tighten my grip on her, rolling her under me slowly. I got a plan for how I want this morning to go, 'specially since it's been a coupla days since we last had sex. Work and running around with the kids have been kicking our ass. I'm craving any scrap of alone time with Nicole I can get.
I kiss her softly behind her ear, then her forehead, then her chin. She stirs against me, arching her back and pushing her body up into mine.
"Good morning, baby," she mumbles without opening her eyes.
I begin rubbing small circles into her back. She smiles a little, stretching her lithe body.
"What's the occasion for all this pampering?" she asks, mischief evident in her voice.
"The kids ain't up yet," I lean down to whisper in her ear.
"What do you have in mind?" Her grin widens.
"I gotta coupla ideas," I lower my voice, using that deep rumble I know gets her every time.
Sure enough, she lets out a tiny gasp, running her hands over my naked chest.
She drags her fingers up, past the list of all our kids' birthdays tattooed right over my heart.
Her hands eventually find their way into my hair. I know it's a mess; it's getting longish, and sticks up all over the place in the mornings. But then again, her hair's all over the place too, floating around as though it's being pushed by a breeze, like a halo 'round her head.
We got over tryna look pretty for each other all the time a while ago. Comes with the territory of being a parent. We gotta look good for work, her in her heels, me with a workout regimen that ain't quit even though I'm retired. We got our roles in the public eye, our parts to play.
'Specially now that I got my gym. Gave it my family name, Conlon Fight Club. It's the one thing I know I'm good at, fighting, and I'm happy to share the experience with other folks. We don't train the big wigs so much as kids who are looking for their shot. If they've got the drive, I'll help them hone the talent. Got all sorts of kids in there, some from privilege, most from the wrong side of the tracks. It's my small way of helping, giving these guys an outlet. Wish I had it when I was a teen.
The gym gets a lotta attention. Always got reporters in there doing stories. The only one I'm ever real happy to see is Nicole. She's still coaching me through interviews, a damn decade after us meeting.
But at home, it's just her and me. She knows my every dirty secret, seen me at my worst, like the time Eddie brought home strep throat last Christmas and knocked us all out one by one. I've seen her with morning sickness, the flu, so dog tired that she looked like she's been spun around in a tornado. She's seen me bleeding, bruised, dirty from lawn work that never seems to be finished.
Four kids are constant work. They're like little hurricanes, whipping 'round in a pile of dirty laundry and messy hair and homework and projects and finger paints and too-small-shoes-that-fit-last-week and temper tantrums. It's like a damn circus some days.
Eddie, our oldest, is a good kid at heart, but he's got my temper and talent for getting in trouble on top of my looks. Wish I had a dollar for every time I've been in the principal's office with him. Used to yell 'til I was blue in the face, but it don't matter. Ed's gonna be Ed, no matter what we do. So we got him in every sport imaginable, tryna burn off his energy in a productive way.
Ten years old and he's already a helluva wrestler. Got that Conlon blood. Someday he might follow my footsteps and fight in the UFC. We'll see. He sure has the potential. Pop wants to train him in boxing. There's always that possibility too. Even though I love all of my children equally in their own way, Eddie holds a special place in my heart 'cause he reminds me of myself when I was younger. Knowing my son looks up to me makes me a better man every day.
Nick is our next son. He's as calm as Eddie is wild. Patient, like Nicole. Even looks like her, 'cept his skin is just about my color. He don't mind fighting, but he ain't too passionate 'bout doing it either. He's only a year younger than Ed. Loves to come to the gym with us and just cheer us on, talk to other fighters. Swear that boy speaks like a goddamn adult. He's too smart sometimes, got a talent for sarcasm like his mother.
He's just a ball of charisma, charming whoever he comes in contact with. Gonna be a ladies' man one day, I can tell. Him and Ed are close, even though they fight like puppy pitbulls when Nicole and I turn around.
Tina is 5, just starting kindergarten. She wants to be older, just like her brothers. Follows 'em around, tryna get 'em to play dress up and dolls and tea parties. Most of the time she can charm Nick into it, but I've seen Eddie clacking Barbies with her a coupla times. I don't say nothing. I like that they get along.
Tina's got wild, light-colored hair that sticks up out of her ponytails no matter how hard we try to brush it down. She's a wild child, always coming home from school with punch or paint staining her pretty clothes. That girl loves pretty things but can't keep 'em clean. She's plucky and curious, always touching and poking and prodding and asking me and her mom how things work. Think she might be an engineer or scientist one day.
The baby is Layla. She's just coming up on her terrible twos. She has her mom's dark, curly hair, my coloring, my eyes, my mouth, her mom's nose. Looks like the perfect combination of both of us, more than the rest of our kids. She likes to laugh, likes to toddle after her siblings, likes to dance to music and seeing her mom on the television. She likes to lay down on the floor with me and watch Monday Night Football.
She also likes throwing tantrums and getting into everything. And it's her cries that we hear just as I start kissing my wife.
Nicole sighs, throwing me a sympathetic look. Ain't no use tryna ignore it. Layla screams loud enough to wake the dead.
Sure enough, 'fore we can even get the covers back, Nick comes in, holding her. His hair is sticking up and he's got his race car slippers on.
"Mom," he's whining and it ain't even 8 in the morning yet. "Layla smells."
He ain't lying. Potty training is slow going with our youngest. Nicole snatches her up and drops a kiss on both of their heads.
"Thank you, Nick, for getting her up," she's got on her mom voice. It's syrupy, sweeter than her television voice or her bedroom voice. It disappears quick though when our kids act up.
Nick jumps on the bed, wiggling his way in 'til he's sitting right on top of my legs. I lift 'em up so he goes rolling back into me, squealing in delight. It ain't much longer that him and Ed are gonna be little like this. Gotta take advantage of it while I can.
Nick squirms around, tryna get me in some kind of wrestling hold Eddie musta shown him.
Nicole smiles, pulls herself out of bed. "Be good you two," she gently admonishes and she goes off to deal with Layla.
No chance of that. It ain't long 'fore Eddie's in on the action and we've completely demolished the sheets on the bed. The fighting stops though when Nicole walks back in the room and throws a look that's more effective than her yelling could ever be.
I fix the sheets and Eddie and Nick go about the task of getting Tina up. That girl could sleep through an earthquake. Soon enough though, our whole brood is up, still in their pajamas, waiting for eggs and pancakes, our Saturday morning ritual.
I'm concentrating on making Mickey Mouse shaped pancakes when I hear the kids start shouting real excited.
It's starting to snow, the first of the year. Ain't quite Thanksgiving yet, but we're already starting to get winter.
All four of their little faces are pressed to the window, leaving smudges. I don't bother making 'em stop. It ain't worth the struggle.
Nicole smiles at me over a plate of scrambled eggs. She sets it down on our kitchen table.
"What should we do today, guys?" she asks real happy.
They all stop, contemplating the question like it's some kinda all-important thing. They compare notes, suggesting things like the park or the zoo. Tina throws out Disneyland, but we quickly shoot that one down.
We're saving that trip for Christmas time anyway. The whole family, both sides, are coming. Kids don't know yet though. Can't have 'em too excited, too soon.
"How 'bout we do nothin'?" I suggest around a mouthful of syrup and blueberry pancake.
"Stay in our pajamas, watch movies, eat snacks and wait for there to be enough snow to play in?" Nicole asks. She makes the idea sound way more appealing than I did.
That's exactly what we do. There's a whole stack of kids' movies on the coffee table. We go through the motions of voting for which one to watch first, settling on the gender-neutral Toy Story 3.
The guys at the gym would laugh if they saw me now, laying on the couch, laughing at shit animated Barbie dolls are saying.
If someone had told me 15 years ago that this is where I'd end up, I'd have laughed in their face.
But as I listen to my kid's little voices laughing and feel Nicole playing with my hair, the way she always does, and see the snow falling down and feel the warmth in my house, I feel like I ended up exactly where I wanted to be.
I've lost track of how many I've had by now, pages and pages of good memories I've written here in my book, how many baby pictures and crayon drawings of my family I've glued in here. I read my books every once in a while, to remind myself how lucky I am.
"What are you thinking about?" Nicole leans over to whisper in my ear as Nick and Eddie argue over whether we should watch Tangled or How to Train Your Dragon.
"This chaos we live in," I say, reaching down to pull Eddie off Nick. Nicole shakes her head a little as I become the temporary bad guy, putting in Tina's choice of movie, the Princess and the Frog.
"It's crazy, isn't it?" she asks as I settle back on the couch, drawing Nicole into my lap. Eddie and Nick are pouting, but they'll get over it. Tina's twirling around, she's so happy and Layla is yelling at the top of her lungs just to hear her own voice.
"Nah," I pull her face to mine for a deep kiss to a chorus of juvenile "ewwwwwws!"
That's all folks! Thank you again so much!