The Daily Puzzle of Not Having an Emotional Breakdown

Watching his three-year-old niece try to put together a puzzle, it struck Liam that her external reaction about things not “working out” easily—as if by magic—mirrored his own constant internal one. Which he was no longer “allowed” to give in to in his unwanted role as an “adult.” Ally, instead, screamed and shouted in a fit of rage every time the piece she thought would effortlessly fit together with another one did not; it absolutely refused to bend to her will. And it made him yearn for the too-brief period when he was a child, therefore “permitted” to have a response as visceral and unabashed in its absurdity as Ally’s. 

Ever since her brother had been born, just months earlier, Ally had been acting even more temperamental than usual, perhaps sensing the threat to her erstwhile ability to be the center of attention. It was a palpable mood shift that Liam couldn’t help but take note of in his stead as her babysitter. It used be that his sister (and Ally’s mother), Francis, was able to care for her, but when Justin was born, it became clear that she would need to go back to work (which would “oh so generously” provide Justin and other newborns with an onsite nursery) in order to secure the bag necessary to feed two constantly open, whining mouths. Crying out incessantly for more, more, more.

Although Liam had never offered to take care of Ally before, despite living just one neighborhood over in St. Paul, he could feel that he was soon going to be asked to do so after Justin’s birth, and decided to simply go forth and make the suggestion that he ought to fill in as caretaker for “the time being.” Which usually meant something like “forever” (or until Ally became a teenager). Francis’ husband, Darrin, didn’t seem to like the idea much. It meant that he had to acknowledge that Liam wasn’t just his wife’s “deadbeat brother” (for “deadbeat” was the way all non-bestselling authors were viewed by those who worked “real” jobs). He had a “use.” Worse still, he would need to be paid for that use. Granted, he would be amenable to giving a “family discount” for his services. 

A fact he was starting to both loathe and regret as the days passed and every new puzzle (each consisting of no more than twenty pieces) was grudgingly put together by Ally, who was utterly averse to exercising her brain in any kind of significant way. Thank “God” Liam came along to prompt an alteration in her cerebral trajectory, otherwise she would have happily sat in front of one of the many screens available to her without a second thought. Plus, Liam could scarcely think of anything else to do with the little bitch. Or, at least, not anything that would be as important to the improvement of her cognitive function and problem-solving skills. He was only doing what was best for her in the long run. Why couldn’t she see that? Why couldn’t children be born fully formed? As Liam was convinced that he was. Sure, he had his occasional flare-ups as a child, but they were never as over-the-top as Ally’s, in his opinion.

Watching her have a meltdown about the pieces not fitting, he could feel the tinge of misogyny rising from within him, thinking to himself that a little boy would probably never be this fucking dramatic about something not going his way. How, in contrast, all little girls knew exactly what they were doing when it came to throwing tantrums to get the attention they desired. And, often, more tangible things than attention. For Liam certainly found himself giving in to her demands after she went on a long enough crying jag. 

He supposed that’s how he ended up taking her out one afternoon to get an ice cream after abandoning an eighteen-piece puzzle depicting some saccharine image from Beauty and the Beast (for she could only be motivated to do these puzzles if they were going to unveil a beloved Disney image to her in the end). Even though it was the dead of winter in motherfucking Minneapolis. For the demanding diva specifically wanted to be taken to La La Homemade Ice Cream and Luncheonette. And, unfortunately for Liam, he couldn’t use the excuse that it would be closed by the time they arrived, for the establishment stayed open until eight. The accommodating bastards thus gave ample time for Liam to drive there from Frogtown, where Francis lived. Much to her racist husband’s chagrin, for he hated Asian people, and it was a neighborhood made up mostly of Vietnamese and Chinese immigrants and/or their progeny. Hence, the “affordability.” And yet, with a name like Frogtown, Darrin had probably hoped it was filled with nothing but French people. Alas, the anglicization of everything in the early to mid-twentieth century meant the French language (therefore an interested-in-staying French population) was all but stamped out of Minnesota. Along with pretty much all culture that wasn’t “mono.” 

But such things didn’t matter to or even register with Ally. She didn’t have to think deeply, or worry about anything at all. Definitely not Minnesota demography and definitely not paying for things. Children being protected for so long from the knowledge that they’re extremely expensive creatures. And yet, who can be blamed for their cost but the parents, for having them in the first place? Even so, why should Liam be the one to have to absorb some of that cost, too? The whole thing was eating at him as he cranked up the heat in his car, which meant using more gas than necessary, angering him all the more over this unwanted outing that he capitulated to solely for the sake of shutting Ally up. And all because she was too fucking dumb (fine, “unformed”) to finish a puzzle without it sending her into an emotional tailspin. 

Just like the one Liam suddenly found himself succumbing to upon approaching the counter at the shop and finding out they didn’t have the flavor he wanted. Had so been looking forward to. It had run out, dried up. Precisely as his patience did in that very instant. And as he pitched a toddler-outshining fit, Ally looked on in something like horror-fascination, vaguely wondering, somewhere within her sparsely dendritic brain, if that’s how awful she looked when she created such displays. 

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