Monday, February 25th, 2008
“I haven’t strangled my son, raised my voice, or even just slapped him around a little. I imagine I would be a shoo-in for Father of the Year.”
Trey Ellis has spent the past 15 years exploring nearly every form of prose imaginable to a writer. In 1989, just out of Stanford University, he wrote The New Black Aesthetic, a seminal essay on state of black popular culture in which he discussed a number of new African-American tastemakers, such as a then-unknown Chris Rock. He went on to pen three novels, including Platitudes, Home Repairs (optioned for the screen by Denzel Washington), and most recently, Right Here, Right Now, which won the American Book Award in 1999. He has written for The New York Times, Newsweek, Playboy, The Washington Post Book World, and Salon. He’s also written a number of screenplays, and was nominated for an Emmy for the screenplay for HBO’s The Tuskegee Airmen, with Laurence Fishburne and Cuba Gooding, Jr. He was recently commissioned to write his first play, for the Lincoln Center Institute. He is, naturally, also blogging at The Huffington Post.
At just 44, Ellis has few written forms left to explore. Now, he offers his most personal production yet, a memoir. In Bedtime Stories: Adventures in the Land of Single-Fatherhood, we drop in on Ellis as his beautiful wife leaves him and his two children, both under the age of four, catapulting Ellis through the looking glass of Mr. Mom-land and L.A.’s lush dating scene.
Ellis says he was inspired to finally tell his own story, in part, after reading a parenthood story of a different kind. “I was going through a series of unfortunate events and it dawned on me, especially after reading Dave Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, that there was a way to write a literary novel about my real life. The events were consuming me anyway so I really had no choice but to express them as art.”
Bedtime Stories includes footnotes, bits of a James Bond screenplay, imaginary magazine articles, not to mention Internet porn, Brazilian hookers, and, like Eggers, a narrator who at times directly addresses the reader.
Ellis worked on his memoir for more than four years before its publication earlier this month. Why so long? “I began the book as a proposal four years ago and an editor liked it but said that at the time my story was too fresh, I didn’t have the distance to elevate the story to literature. At the time, I was offended; I know now that she was absolutely correct.”
“I was living a life in search of an ending,” offers Ellis. “By the end I was tempted to rob a bank or run naked and screaming into a mental hospital to give the memoir a big finish. Instead, I learned some amazing lessons about myself. At 44, I finally grew up.” —Larry Smith
Sure, I got some pity right after she left us, but not nearly as much as I deserved. You’d have thought that all those moms at my daughter’s preschool would have been lining up with casseroles for a newly single dad like me, but no. After I put Ava and her baby brother, Chet, to bed, more often than not I ended up either microwaving a Healthy Choice hospital-quality frozen dinner or nuking whatever was left from what Lucia, Chet’s nanny, had fixed him for lunch that day, washing it all down with a few juice boxes (they’re so small!) on the couch in front of HBO. Taxicab Confessions is one of my favorite shows, with cameras hidden all over the back of a taxi giving us a glimpse into the real lives of late-night drunken tourists. I often fantasize about having cameras installed all over my home so people can see how I live, see what an attentive father I am. Over the course of the season, viewers would also discover the other hurdles I’ve vaulted: my cranky kidneys, the deaths of my parents…it would become the breakout reality show of the season. In my fantasy, emailed (re)marriage proposals would soon be spamming my inbox.
BEDTIME STORIES: “Daddy! Daddy! Come quick! (Season Premiere)
“Daddy! Daddy! Come quick!”
As fast as a fireman, and not yet fully conscious since it is 4:15 in the morning, I trip toward my kids’ room while trying to hop into the legs of my sweatpants. Their bathroom light is on and inside it looks like Aerosmith just stayed there: wet, unspooled toilet paper hanging from the medicine cabinet, an entire bottle of deliriously overpriced Mustela baby shampoo puddled on the toilet seat cover. My (almost) two-year-old son is standing in the middle of the wreckage looking confusedly at me. I only learn later, after interrogation, that his sister had to pee in the night and forgot to shut the bathroom door with the child proof plastic bulb over the knob. She then went back to bed, only to be awakened a little later by her brother’s celebration. Why Chet was out of bed at four in the morning I don’t know and never will. He still holds the pot of hair gel that he generously applied to all parts of his face and much of his hair. Devo had less product in their hair. Trying to wipe away the goop only applied it more evenly, so I gave him a warm bath, and by a little after five I was back in my bed, ready to be up again at seven to get Ava to preschool.
BEDTIME STORIES: Chet Leaves a Present (Episode Five)
I wake up to discover both kids naked and scampering happily around their room. They look like rare, almost mythical forest mammals that I feel privileged to be glimpsing in the wild. At first the vision compels me to smile. Then I start to wonder what has become of Chet’s diaper and notice two little brown stains on his tiny bed. Not too disgusting. I’ve seen worse. A quick wipe with a wipe, a spritz with the Spray ’n Wash, and I pitch the sheets into the dirty clothes. The diaper itself I discover under his bed, miraculously immaculate.
I give the kids a bath, fearlessly washing, conditioning, and detangling Ava’s dramatic mass of hair like a junior José Eber. Their naked splashings, Ava’s queries—Daddy, why can’t I marry Chetty when I grow up?—all make me feel like the luckiest parent in the whole wide world. Those boring, ordinary, two-parent households have to share indelible moments like this. I get to greedily hoard them for myself without having to compromise with a significant other who might feel that maybe kids shouldn’t be encouraged to see who can burp the loudest or play Wiffle ball in the middle of the living room. In my house I am the tsar. Trey the Terrible.
I am smiling at these happy thoughts as I walk back into their bedroom. Suddenly I stop. Just next to my foot, on the carpet between an overturned baby stroller and a naked, headless black Ken doll with amazingly ripped abs, looms a mountain of turd nearly as large as my son. I pull Chet out of the bathtub and bring him to the cairn of shit. I don’t think he ever looked cuter.
Do not take your diaper off.
Do not leave piles of crap all over the…
It is getting too complicated, so I mid course correct to get back on message. Do not take your diaper off. I haven’t had a dog since I was five, but I have seen people training them, so I model my tone of voice on theirs. Chet just smiles and nods , his thumb as always plugged into his mouth, his index finger hooking his nose.
“Mommy- Daddy, Mommy- Daddy.”
That’s what he called me when he first started talking, a little over a year after she left.
I love it. I loved it in the moment and I love the anecdote it instantly became. I imagine, thanks to my show, that all the world has witnessed me heroically cleaning up the crap and spraying carpet cleaner on the carpet; that all the world has observed that I haven’t strangled my son, raised my voice, or even just slapped him around a little. I imagine I would be a shoo-in for Father of the Year. Being black wouldn’t hurt my chances either, since American men of my race are more renowned for our absence than our presence.
I even fantasize an elaborate and televised ceremony, warm and funny speeches, my (feigned) embarrassment at all the attention. I imagine my kids at my side, spit-shined and radiating the pure joy of the well-parented child. Bill Clinton on behalf of the Children’s Defense Fund gives me the award, as golden and as weighty as an Oscar.
Five years later I’m still waiting for that award. Instead, that night, after giving the kids a bath, brushing their teeth, telling them a story, and singing them a song, a loneliness so great it threatened to swallow me whole would swell inside me. Every night before going to bed myself I would re orient Ava on her bed and pick Chet up off the carpet. He was too big for a crib but flopped around too much to stay in his toddler bed, even with a guard rail, so I had moved his mattress to the floor. More nights than not I’d find him sleeping face down on the carpet, sometimes as much as five feet from where I’d first laid him. I’d carefully work my arms under his warm, chubby body, and he’d squirm, groan, and smack his lips yet rarely wake up as I gently placed him back on his bed. Sometimes I myself would lie down on the carpet, breathing in the warm silence of their room, tempted to sleep there all night.
READ Trey Ellis’ six-word memoir.
Excerpted with permsission from Bedtime Stories: Adventures in the Land of Single-Fatherhood (Rodale).