Chapter 20: And So It Goes
December 21, 2018
"Let's get a move on Fredward!"
I walked toward the small room in our apartment that served as my office, shaking my head. We weren't due to leave for another five hours, but Sam was excited. I didn't blame her-I was excited too. Christmas vacation was here and that meant we were headed to Willacoochee for a visit. It had been a tradition since the year Jax was old enough to travel. With our busy schedules, it was one of the only times we got to take a vacation as a family. Family. Even after six years the word brought a smile to my face; once upon a time I wondered if it would even happen.
"Jax? Jax!" Sam was walking through the apartment calling out for our son. "Freddie? Is Jax in there with you?"
I looked over my shoulder and saw a small shadow behind the door. Swiveling around in my chair I laughed as Jax's face peered at me from behind the door. One finger to his lips, begging my silence and the other hand holding the Assassin paint pistol his mother had passed to him last year. They'd had a running game of Assassin since he was five. Other people found it strange but for Sam and Jax, it was quality time.
"Daddy," he whispered, loud enough that I'm sure Sam heard him. "Don't tell mama I'm in here, K?" With that he ducked behind the door again.
"Freddie?" I heard Sam approaching and tried to put on a straight face.
Sam poked her head into the office. Even after all this time, I never got tired of looking at her. She was still just as beautiful now as she was six years ago. She'd grown out her hair and it now hung in loose blond curls to the small of her back, the way it did when we met in kindergarten. I'd always loved her hair.
"I can't find Jax." She had her hand behind her back, likely concealing her weapon.
"Haven't seen him. But hey, come here for a second." I said, trying to pull her attention to me and away from the door, giving Jax time to sneak up on her.
She walked into the room and sat down on my lap. I pulled her face toward me and placed a kiss on her lips.
"We don't have time for that Freddie, Carly's expecting us, I need to pack and I still have to find our kid." She said, pulling back with a smile on her face. "The kid we'll be leaving here if he doesn't turn up soon." She called out into the room, for Jax's benefit.
I put my free hand behind Sam's back and beckoned Jax from his hiding spot.
A small popping sound filled the room and Sam's eyes went wide, her hands going to her back. When she pulled them back there was a telltale red paint smear – red was Jax's color.
"Gotcha mama! I'm the king!" Jax ran from behind the door and started his infamous chicken dance, ducking his head and flapping his arms.
Sam looked at me with narrowed eyes.
"Didn't know where he was, huh? Traitor!" she punched me lightly on the shoulder and crossed the room to wrap Jax in her arms, tickling him until he begged for mercy.
I loved these times, surrounded by the two people I loved most in the world. Hearing their laughter made everything right with the world.
"Alright, King Assasain, let's get ready to go. If we're late Aunt Carly will not be happy." She put Jax down and took his hand heading out of the room, "And now I have to change my shirt." She looked over her shoulder at me and I just shrugged my shoulders, turning back to my desk.
I laughed to myself as gathered up my research notes, placing them beside the computer on which I was writing my dissertation. I wanted to put things in enough order that I could find them easily when we returned from Georgia next week. I felt the excitement building; a whole week away from school and deadlines and the difficult balance of work and family. A whole week to just enjoy the people I loved and fill up on all the ridiculously delicious food J'Maw Maw was sure to fix in army-sized portions.
That was no doubt one of the reasons Jax loved going to Georgia so much. Not only did he spend a week being spoiled rotten by his great grandmother but he got to take part in one of his favorite pastimes: eating. Jax looked a lot like me, from his brown hair to his smile, but in most other respects, he was a duplicate of his mother. With his curls and bright blue eyes he could be horribly undisciplined, would snatch anything that wasn't nailed down if unstopped, and played pranks better than most adults I knew. And he loved his creature comforts. Nothing pleased him more than a ham sandwich (with extra ham) and a long nap cuddled with his bear Charlie. No one could doubt it—he lived up to the first half of his last name. The one saving grace, according to his Grandma Marissa, was that he had my intelligence and curiosity.
As I closed the drawers in the desk and set the cover over my computer, I smiled as I heard Sam and Jax singing 'Jingle Bells, Batman smells' in Jax's room. Jax was just like me – he loved all things related to Christmas.
I settled back into my chair, arms crossed over my chest and allowed my mind to wander. Something about this time of year always made me think about the last few years, and how my little family had come together six years ago. No one sets out to become parents at 18, yet Sam and I made the best of our situation, and we managed to thrive. I suppose few relationships survive near-death experiences anything like ours.
The summer Jax was born was a difficult one. Sam and I had to settle into parenthood and Carly leaving for Georgetown only made the transition more difficult for Sam. She made herself busy, taking care of Jack, spending time with my mom – and even working to rebuild her relationship with her own mother. But I knew she was lonely.
My mom was a godsend during that time. She reached out to Sam and did her best to ease the loneliness she was feeling. Over a few months they developed a friendship that was a mystery to me, but they were both happy and that's what mattered. I thought my mother would despise having a baby in the house, simply because she always loved quiet and order, and because deep down, she still thought it was the height of irresponsibility to have a child as we were leaving high school. But she loved being a grandmother, whatever the precise circumstances. And her tendency to dote and to obsess rubbed off on none other than Sam. No one seemed to get near Jackson without passing a cleanliness inspection. It felt like my hands were permanently coated in that Puremm gel—I silently cursed my mother for having those wall dispensers everywhere in the apartment. I was grateful that Sam never managed to find Mom's stash of anti-tick soap.
At the end of August, it was time for school to start and I began my classes in computer science and engineering at the University of Washington. Since it was to the north of downtown Seattle, Bushwell Plaza wasn't far from the campus, and I didn't always have to spend long stretches of the day at school, unless I needed to use the library—and new parts of its collections seemed to come online every week. Otherwise, I worked from home, and got to spend a lot of time with Sam and Jax, even if I always seemed to have a book or my pearPad in one hand wherever I went.
Compared to most newborns, Jax slept fairly well after the first few months, so at least I was rested reasonably well enough to keep up with my classes. I continued with the odd consulting jobs, so I was contributing to the household as well.
Sam quickly got into a routine with Jax, and turned into an excellent mother. True to her word, she was about as different from her own mother as humanly possible. She was a very doting parent. Her love for Jax was obvious and tangible, she spent hours fussing over him and even … I could barely believe it … reading to him. Even if a couple of times I caught her reading him grilling recipes from cookbooks—that was surely more for my benefit than his.
After all the drama we'd endured prior to Jax's birth, it was nice to settle into normal life. Some people might have called it boring, but I dared them to live through what we had and not welcome a 'boring' life. And anyone who knew Sam could attest to the fact that just her presence was excitement enough. It was a honeymoon phase I guess you could say; and it felt like it lasted a long time. Sam's pregnancy, the time apart, the fear of losing Jax during delivery, Carly leaving; the stress of those situations had seemed unbearable, but it brought Sam and me closer together and now we were both confident in our places in each other's lives. We were in this for the long haul, come hell or high water. We had our fights, as we always had, but we realized that most of the time we were simply two combative people, and nothing ever threatened the relationship. We seemed to fight about silly things but agree on the most important decisions. At the very least, we didn't take each other for granted.
The future-our future-was assured, but not official. I mentioned it often and Sam always smiled and told me not to rock the boat. I understood her point of view. In her mind marriage made a mess of relationships, but in my mind, I just wanted the world to know she belonged to me. Finally, one night before Jack's first Christmas, I once again brought up the question of our future together. I told her that I wanted to build the rest of my life around her and Jack. She smiled, kissed me, and changed the subject. I tried to stay quiet and not push her and eventually, to my amusement, she started to drop hints of her own that she was ready. Typical to our relationship, as soon as she started with the hints I stopped mentioning marriage all together. We held out another year, playing a game that we knew we'd both win in the end. When I gave her an engagement ring the night before Christmas during my sophomore year, she burst into tears and let me put it on her, whispering in my ear 'what took you so long, nub!', then ran across the hall to show Carly.
We married the following June, with Carly, Spencer, Melanie, and a load of Youngs who had flown clear across the country from Georgia for the event. The wedding was 'colorful' to say the least. Sam's Uncle Carmine had gotten out of prison two months prior and it was a sight to see when the giant of a man with his big voice and intimidating frame was reduced to tears when Sam asked him to walk her down the aisle. They were a motley crew, the Youngs, but they loved each other and they accepted me into their family just like one of their own.
Sam planned the wedding with my mother – something I'd begged her to go along with. My mom was tickled pink, Sam – not so much. In the six months between the engagement and the wedding, she threatened to force me to elope more than once, but, miraculously we made it down the aisle with no bloodshed. And even Sam said it was a beautiful wedding – though she was a bit less than pleased with the 'frilly daffodil dress' Carly, Melanie and my mom had talked her into. Taking it off was the first thing she did when we arrived in Hawaii for our honeymoon – which got no complaints from me.
We moved into married student housing after the honeymoon. It was time to have our own space and there was an excellent pre-school on campus that Jax was able to go to a few afternoons a week. I thought the time away from Jax would be good for Sam. She could have time to herself, and do the things she wanted to. As it turned out, my big idea pushed us right into the middle of our first crisis as a couple.
Three months into Jax's preschool debut, Sam said the words that every husband dreads hearing…"I'm getting bored." Without Jax in the house she had nothing to occupy herself with. She'd been so dedicated to taking care of him those first couple years that she said she felt she'd lost something of herself. She wanted to be something besides just Jax's mom and my wife. I didn't blame her but I'd be lying if I said it didn't sting, mainly because I felt that I should have noticed sooner and pushed her to pursue something that was just for her. She told me that when she was in Georgia while pregnant with Jax, she had the idea of writing a book for teenage about her experience. She said that she'd read a lot of books about pregnancy but none of them really talked about what it was like to go through it as a teenager. I raised the idea of her pursuing that, an idea she shot down outright.
"Whose going to read anything I write?" she asked.
"Lots of people!"
"You're only saying that because you love me."
"I do love you…but that's not why I'm saying it." I held her on my lap, "Sam, you have always had a lot to say. I think you could really make a difference."
She looked at me with disbelief and nothing more was said on the subject, until three months later when I came home from class to find Jack fast asleep and Sam furiously typing away on the computer. Sam had always been skittish when it came to taking chances. As confident as she seemed on the outside, the idea of being successful was always hard for her to grasp. I knew that if I said anything I might spook her so I kept quiet, watching over the next six weeks as she spent her days, and eventually late nights, typing and scribbling furiously in a notebook she wouldn't let me read.
Those six weeks were hard. She was sleep deprived, cranky and more often than not we ate dinner in the dining hall. I didn't say a word to complain; somehow I just knew that she was on to something and I wanted to support her. Six weeks later my silence paid off and Sam emerged from our office at two in the morning, her face shining in spite of her exhaustion. She walked over to me on the couch and dropped a stack of paper on the coffee table in front of me. Her manuscript was finished. I helped her send it to every literary agent on the west coast accepting unsolicited submissions. Within a month she'd been contacted by an agent in downtown Seattle, a mother herself, who believed in Sam's talent; she'd been an iCarly fan herself. Six weeks later her agent found a small publishing house that agreed to publish it on a royalty-only basis. It was no best seller, but people did buy it, and it was funny to look up "Samantha Puckett-Benson" on Horizon to see the entry for You'll Forget the Pain and Other Myths of Motherhood and its ranking.
What we thought would be a hobby had far reaching consequences. Sam had written the book as a way of finding something that was just her and she'd succeeded; we didn't expect it to go much further than that. But a small public radio station in Seattle noticed the book, and asked Sam to do some segments on teen issues. At the same time, we produced some webcasts, some recorded and some live, where Sam talked about her book and answered questions that girls sent her online. It was hardly the elaborate production that iCarly was, but Sam also showed she could deliver more substantial material than "What Am I Sitting In?" She worried no one would watch, so it was a lot of fun telling her mid-webcast during her third show that #teensasksam was trending on Twitter. Between the webcasts and the guest radio spots Sam was again elevated to local celebrity status; it was good to see her happy.
After my junior year, I got a summer job as a facilitator for the New Electronics Research and Development Camp. I'd applied to attend the camp back at Ridgeway, but Sam had managed to sabotage my application, not wanting me to be away for our first summer as a couple. This job was my second chance at something that had been my dream since middle school and Sam was very blunt about what she would do to me with a milk carton if I let N.E.R.D. Camp get away from me again, so off I went for a month.
It was a nightmare being away from Sam and Jax. Until that point I'd never spent a night away from them. But I was excited about the opportunity, the things I was learning and the connections I was making. I was working with some of the brightest young minds in the technology field and it felt really good to know I was making a difference.
The head of the camp turned out to be a professor from N.I.T., and he remembered his department offering me a scholarship. Over several conversations, I had the chance to explain my situation, and why I had wanted to remain in Seattle for Sam and Jax. He understood, being a father himself, and asked me what I wanted to do after I finished at UW. I told him that I wanted to pursue my doctorate but wasn't sure what I wanted beyond that. He explained to me that in most scientific fields, one's reputation depended primarily on a graduate degree – what you studied and where, and he asked me to think about N.I.T. some more. In particular, he asked me to consider their doctoral program. It was a chance at something amazing but Sam and Jax did and always would come first. I couldn't even consider uprooting them from everything they knew. I didn't tell Sam about the opportunity right away, not wanting her to feel guilty at the thought of me passing on N.I.T. twice to be with her. To me it was a sacrifice I was more than willing to make, but Sam would never see it that way. But the things we need have a way of forcing themselves into our lives, and a few weeks later a chance encounter would set us on a course for Washington, D.C.
Right around that time, the radio show that Sam contributed to hosted Charla Winfield, the head of a Washington-based women's talk-show empire, who had just started her own cable network and was touring the country to promote her latest book. Despite Winfield's success, she was once a teenage mother, and she had in fact read Sam's book. They had a long conversation about their mutual interests after the interview, and Charla asked Sam if she ever thought about moving from web broadcasting to television. Sam was very interested when Charla pitched an idea for a show on her network aimed at teen girls, though it turned out that the show would be produced at The Charla Channel's studios in Washington. Sam said that she couldn't leave Seattle while I was still in school, but Charla left her contact information and asked Sam to think about it some more.
When she told me about the opportunity, I came clean about the offer from N.I.T. At first she was angry that I'd kept it from her but she understood eventually and we were both amazed at the perfect timing. As I prepared to graduate from UW, the heavens were pointing us all toward Washington. And this time I wouldn't arrive in Washington D.C. alone, pursuing only my dreams. I had Sam and Jax with me, both of us chasing the passions in our hearts. N.I.T. admitted me into its doctoral program in computer systems engineering with a full fellowship, and Charla's people made good on their offer for Sam to co-host a weekly segment for young mothers.
The last piece fell into place thanks to my sister-in-law. From birth Sam had told anyone in earshot that Jax was a genius, like his dad. Most people chalked it up to her being a doting mom who was Jax's biggest fan. The teachers at his preschool initially told us that Jax was hyperactive, a diagnosis it was hard to reject. But Sam was insistent that he wasn't hyper – he was bored and too smart for what they were trying to teach him. At her insistence, the school had him tested and when the tests came back his IQ registered at 181, well beyond anything I had ever scored. Jax was exactly what Sam had said he'd be – an evil genius. An adorable kid with a winning smile, a penchant for misbehaving – and a genius I.Q.
We knew then that the school he was in wasn't equipped to handle him. What few programs Seattle's public schools had for extremely gifted students had been eliminated during a budget crisis at the start of the decade, and we couldn't afford a private school when I was still in college myself. Sam vented her frustrations to Melanie, hoping to score some sympathy from an early education major. Mel did more than sympathize. One of her professors was involved in a project setting up a charter school in the District of Columbia. Melanie had us send her Jax's test results, and the teacher called us to invite Jax to attend the Mount Woodley Charter School – a school that, while new, was already garnering praise and recognition for its cutting edge techniques in the education of exceptionally gifted children and the success of its students. We were ready. It was time to go.
I graduated from UW. Sam is going to make me tell you it was summa cum laude, with a B+ in a course in Soviet-era Russian films the only thing keeping me from a 4.0 average—I made sure Sam never learned the name of the professor who gave me a B. Just in case he had allergies.
Less than a month later, we packed up and headed for the East Coast. It was bittersweet. My mother had become an intricate part of our lives and I think Sam was just as sad as I was to leave her. But it was time to move forward and find out what life had for us. We arrived in D.C. and moved into an apartment in the Family Housing Complex at the National Institute of Technology. Two years later, we're still here. I've completed my comprehensive exams, and I mostly divide my time between working in my lab, teaching a section of Introduction to Computer Science (I'm a celebrity teacher, marginally because some students remember iCarly, but mostly because Sam Puckett-Benson from Charla is my wife), and writing my thesis in the apartment.
Sam loves D.C. While she loved being around her friends and family, Seattle bored her over time, and she loves our new surroundings in Washington. She makes fun of our nerdier neighbors, comparing them to my old high school train club in Seattle and saying she has to shield Jack from them in case their dorkiness activates the latent Benson genes inside him.
She likes the lively neighborhoods within walking distance of the campus, especially a nationally-famous hot dog restaurant called "Glen's Chili Bowl" she learned about from Allen Brickton, who hosts Guy vs. Grub on her network. She even went on the show and passed one his notorious pig-out challenges by eating a dozen chilidogs with onions in fifteen minutes. Some things never change.
And best of all, Carly and Melanie are back in our lives. After graduating from Georgetown, Carly took a job as a congressional staffer to one of Washington's senators while she looked at law schools. Melanie remained in town after college to teach in a private school, and even had the President's youngest daughter in her class. The two of them were very doting aunts who spoiled Jax rotten, and Sam and I loved them for it.
We're happy. Our little family is together, our friends are with us, and we both have pretty bright prospects for the future. Not bad for two kids who 'ruined' their lives by having an unplanned child as teenagers. As Melanie said to me one evening when she came over to visit her sister and nephew, getting pregnant may have been the best thing that ever happened to us. Without it, Sam and I might not have gotten back together, I would have gone off to N.I.T., and Sam would have been left alone with her mother in Seattle.
I don't even want to think about that—how a small turn of events could have led Sam and me away from each other forever. My life is a complicated equation; one that would never have made sense without Sam in it. She and Jax are my life, and regardless of how we arrived at this place, I wouldn't change it for the world.
My wife's voice brings me back to reality and I take one last look at my desk before officially closing up my office for the holidays. I walk to the bedroom and grabbed our suitcases to take down to the car. We would be picking up Carly, then Melanie, followed by a long day's drive down to Willacoochie, where we could spend another Christmas week with J'Maw-Maw and the in-laws. She always insisted on having her granddaughters and great grandson there for the holidays. Our whole gang went, too; we'd even be stopping in Atlanta to pick up my mother and Spencer at the airport. Everyone seemed to enjoy J'Maw-Maw's hospitality, what she cryptically called her "southern comforts," at Christmastime. I'm glad she likes large crowds for the holiday, because tonight she'll learn that she's going to need to set out one more high chair next Christmas…