When Ricky learns to walk is when Ren learns to run. Coincidentally.
Ren learns to run, learns to close the screen after smoking out the bedroom window, learns to never take an eye off his ceramic valuables. More than once he’s left with a knee or temple throbbing bruised from so quick a dive to catch Ricky up in his arms before his curious little hands can thieve a glass cup off the living room coffee table, a hot pan too close to the stovetop's edge.
“You don’t have to worry so much. Babies are very resilient,” Stimpy tells him over and over, whenever he comes home to a panicked husband and placid son, whenever he wakes to find Ren hasn’t slept a wink out of fear of squishing the baby between them who’s just decided he can’t sleep without his dads anymore; Ren tries to keep the thought in his head when he worries. Sitting on the edge of his tall wingback chair, hands folded and sweating, he doesn’t worry when Ricky, one month away from his first birthday, wobbles up and grasps at the wood lip of the TV stand to keep himself standing. Ren watches the whole scene unfold, first with eyes widened by the joy of fatherhood, then all too quickly he’s jumping to his feet to grab Ricky up off the floor where he’d fallen right down to his butt again.
Stimpy breezes into the room at the first sound of crying, and Ren, sniffling and blubbering with his unbothered son gathered up tightly in both arms, sobs, “We can’t let him try to walk anymore, Stimpy! He almost hurt himself!”
It’s around the same time that Ricky offers to the world his first real words, a mumbly little ee-dyot as he clings onto Ren’s pajama pants in their cold December kitchen. Ren pauses pouring his coffee to stare down at him, wide in shock and pride before he blinks it away to leer tempestuously down at his one-year-old. “What did you just call me?”
In Ren’s memory, it’s hardly as bad as when Ricky’s grown a little older, just enough to kneel on the living room carpet and make his little chewed up army men fight one another. Ren peeks over the top of his newspaper after hearing something garbled like, “Eedyot, eedyot, stupid, shtewpid smelly fat cat! I will keel you!”, and watches the contemptible soldier beat the Shinola out of his cadet.
“Stimpy,” Ren pokes his head into the kitchen to say just immediately following. “Stop watching those violent cartoons with Ricky. They’re rubbing off on him too much.”
(Though it doesn’t change close to anything. Ren still pulls himself out into the living room when he wakes up past noon and finds his son and stupid husband six inches from the TV screen, Stimpy gagging on cereal milk to point and cackle, “Funny!” at Muddy Mudskipper’s vicious strike of a mallet over someone’s skull. Ren still kicks Stimpy in the ass afterward when he’s rinsing bowls and spoons in the kitchen sink and shrugs, “Whoops. My relentless leg syndrome is acting up again.”)
January of 2004, before any such memories were ever made, way back when Stimpy slept four hours a week and Ren slept none- it’s January of 2004 and Ren is making good on just exactly that zero hours of rest quota, forty five minutes deep into standing in the kitchen rocking his wailing infant when the door just beside them pounds. Ren wouldn’t admit he flinches at the sound, but it isn’t another moment before he’s balancing Ricky on a shoulder to cinch tighter his red fleece robe and move to yank the front door open. He catches hardly a glimpse of the visitor before he’s spitting, “Who the hell are you to knock on my door in the middle of the night?”
Who the hell they are is foreign to Ren, though he might recognize the tall burly intruder as the bulldog from the apartment next door. “I wouldn’t have to knock on your door in the middle of the night if you’d shut that fucking kid up! We’re trying to sleep here! It’s three in the goddamn morning!”
Ricky’s still bawling when Ren shifts him tighter into both his arms, clutches him and rubs his back the same way he’s tried for the past hour. A searing pain shoots up Ren’s nerves when he grinds his chipped back teeth. Red hushes all across his knotted face. “Hey, don’t you think we want to sleep, too? What do you think, I want him to cry? You think I want to be up all hours of the night trying to calm a screaming baby when I have work at six AM?! Do you think I don’t wish everyday that I had just taken a second to throw a condom on?! Nooo, I had to be too horny from watching the Wham! documentary on PBS!” Ren licks all his sharp, frothing front teeth. “Do you even think about other people before you go knocking on their doors? Maybe I should give the guy next door a break, it sounds like he’s already dealing with a lot right now, I’ll be a kindly neighbor and lend him some patience and compassion. But instead you come barging in here and make everything worse! Are you even a purebred? Show me your papers, come on, right now!”
In the dim light of the public hallway, he watches his neighbor lift both hands in front of him and begin his steady backpedal. “Christ, I’ll- I’ll just leave you alone, uh, good luck with the kid thing. Happy New Year.”
He’s vanished just as Ren latches the door on all three locks. Turning from them, he lets his breath roll in its hot strokes from his nose, buildup of sweat on his neck sticky and unbearable until he’s distracted back to a look of shock to find his hardly month old son curled up asleep against his chest. Ren doesn’t breathe again until Ricky’s laid back in his crib.
By January 2005, Ricky is a year old and Ren prays they’ll be able to hold onto the new apartment they’ve moved to long enough to not traumatize him with the same house insecurity he’s got. The bulldog next door helped them carry boxes down to the trunk of the car and shook Ren’s hand as they left, and were it not for his mutt-like stink Ren wouldn’t’ve even recognized him. In their new apartment, they’ve likely got neighbors, too, though they don’t acquaint until the snow’s already melted into spring and Ricky’s skilled enough to pull himself up and toddle to the front door when a knock sounds on it, barking his tiny lungs blue the whole way. Ren, half asleep on the couch, shakes himself up enough to tip his beer back up from spilling and to watch Stimpy bounce over and pull the door open.
“Guten abend!” he trills, eyes up and down the woman in the doorway who Ren, too, shoots awake just to lean forward and prick his gaze all over.
She, the lithe and angelic stretch of a cat, tucks shyly a strand of blond hair behind an ear. She, the beauty that is a stranger of six feet tall and pink toe pads, nods and smiles and says to Stimpy, “Hi there, I live across the hall, um, I think I got some of your mail today.”
A thin stack of envelopes presents itself from her paws to Stimpy’s, where he glances it all over before chucking it over a shoulder and offering the woman his broadest, tongue-iest grin. “Why, thank you very much! I don’t know what the world would be like without nice people like you.”
“Oh, ah, it’s nothing,” the lady says, and the blush that forms on her kind face is what yanks Ren up to stalk toward the door. “I, uh, heard some barking earlier, do you have a dog?”
“Oh, no, that’s just my son,” Stimpy says, bends to gather Ricky up from where he’d hidden behind his legs. As if instinct, he turns to hide his face in his father’s warm shoulder. “Say hello to our nice new neighbor, Ricky.”
Deeper nudges his wet little nose. Their nice new neighbor giggles. “How cute! I love kids, I actually work at a daycare down the street. My name is Rosalie, by the way, I’m just across the hall if you ever need a babysitter.”
Stimpy’s mouth opens with an inhale to reply, but Ren’s got himself pressed up in the door between them just in time to interrupt. “No, thanks, he doesn’t need anymore feline role models in his life. Goodbye now, good to see you, never come again.”
The door slaps shut in her bewildered face. Stimpy’s still got a hold on their fussy baby as he follows the smack of Ren’s feet on the tile. “Ren, what’d you do that for? She was really nice to us.”
“You know how I feel about salesmen,” Ren says without looking back to him, and Stimpy tries, “But she wasn’t-”, but Ren’s already spinning on his heel to stuff a finger up sharply between them. “Do you really think she just wanted to be nice? Nobody offers free help to strangers in this day and age. She stole our mail to have an excuse to get in here and break our family apart. Don’t be so naïve anymore.”
“Huh,” Stimpy breathes, hardly blinks away from Ren’s red hot stare until he bends to place Ricky down on the rug within the mess of toys he’d abandoned to chase the knock on the door; Stimpy lifts back up, clasps his hands together and bounces his sweet voice over, “Did you take your medicine today, Ren?”
Ren can do null but glower.
(Some crass intervention like that might’ve been a dealbreaker two or five or ten years in the past. Stimpy would say something benign and caring and Ren would rip his hat and tie off after a shit day and promise he’d have his things packed by tomorrow, don’t talk to me that way! don’t insult me! They’d fall asleep facing opposite walls and wake wrapped up in each other’s arms, and Ren would scratch his ass and yawn and go about his normal day. Stimpy would say, “Good morning, buddy,” and Ren would yawn, “Morning, pal,” and accept the kiss on his lips with hardly a flick of the newspaper as Stimpy went on his merry way to start mixing pancake batter. But Ren doesn’t do that anymore. Ren glances over at the spitting image of himself playing with plastic Hot Wheels on the living room floor, and goes off to nudge the bathroom door open and cough on a handful of useless, dry prescription drugs. Ren’s a good dad. Ren’s a dad).
“Oh, Reeen,” calls out to him one time, the very perfect second he stomps through the front door. He’d have time at least another day to sing out, “Daddy’s home!” if it were a good day and “What’s for dinner?” if it weren’t. But this is a Thursday in the great big year of 2009, well past nine at night when he at last gets home from his factory shift, cracks his spine in cacophonous twists on his way through the apartment. “Yeah, yeah, I’m coming.”
His feet aim him toward the sound of his husband’s beckoning voice, convincing himself halfway that he’s probably got quite the surprise awaiting him, oh ho ho yes, fingers the bedroom door open just as his eyes are rolling back and bottom lip biting; all at once he’s sapped of the sultry drool to find the bed vacant of any fantasy, only the connecting bathroom to welcome him into searing ceramic light. It washes over Stimpy, poised at the bathroom sink in his itchy green pajamas, and Ricky, freshly five and a half standing on his big boy stool beside him, toothbrush clutched and waiting in his tiny hands.
“Daddy!” he yelps, whipping both arms up and sending his toothbrush flying. Ren lifts one eyebrow, though nonetheless grabs him up against his chest and lands a fat wet kiss on his face. “What’s all this? He should be in bed by now, what’s it, nine:thirty-eight?”
Stimpy hops down from peeling the toothbrush off the ceiling to hand it back to their boy, grins all his white, white, white teeth. “Ricky’s been waiting for you to get home so you could brush your teeth together.”
That’s all it takes for Ren’s expression to go as sour as his breath. “Oh, ah,” he itches his lip, “It’s that time of the week already?”
“Mhm,” Stimpy loosely nods. Ren trades his clutch on Ricky, who clamors back onto his stool, readied, for the toothbrush Stimpy forces into his hand. He grunts mildly. There’s no protest here, not to the generous squirt of Colgate or the gloved hand that rubs encouragement on his back. In the mirror, Ren’s eyes have got their bags all packed, opens his mouth slooowly to stick the toothbrush in and, in the mirror, looks at the twinning vigor of Stimpy and Ricky scrubbing their pearly whites with all the joy in the world. Ren’s eyes water when the bristles assault his deepest cavities.
“There, now aren’t we all handsome and clean?” Stimpy smiles once they’ve all spit and rinsed and wiped. The medicine cabinet slams and Ren is standing in its reflection again, disgruntled as all get out, molars throbbing. Ricky sits in Stimpy’s arms, and even in his minty state of pouting Ren can’t help his heart from thrumming to look over at his son in his teddy bear print pajamas smiling bright bright white despite how crooked and gapped his teeth all are- Ren thinks that the one trait he’s sorry to have passed down to him, teeth that look as if he’s taken a frying pan to the face even worse than his own, but at least he’s got hope for his adult ones to come in right, at least they aren’t the color of egg yolk.
Ricky loses his first tooth thirteen days later, which proves to Ren that all that brushing was in vain.
Leant over the coffee table, he itches the top layer off a one dollar lottery scratcher with the broken off tab of a soda can, cigarette clutched in his teeth that he jumps to stub out at the sound of little feet sprinting into the den. “Daddy! Daddy! Daddy! DADDY!”
That screaming voice of his- that’s hereditary from the Cat side, Ren’s sure. Licking at his mouth, he catches Ricky when he throws himself forward huffing, clasping both hands together like a vise. “Lookit- I got a secret.”
“A secret, huh?” Ren cuffs, tapping a finger at his little knuckles. “Well, let’s see it. Hand it over.”
The broad length of his grin gives it away right there, but Ren still pretends to be surprised when he opens his hands and shows him the front tooth hiding within.
“Wow, a whole tooth,” he smiles. “You’ll be a rich man come morning.”
Despite still the vim of his smile, Ricky is careful to close his hands round his prize again and keep it safely locked away. “I’m gonna get lots of presents now, ‘cause Saint Wizzleteats is gonna come now and steal all my teeths! Wow!”
“No, no,” Ren tuts, wags a thin finger at him. “You’re confusing yourself, Saint Wizzleteats is for Yaksmas. When you lose teeth, you get a visit from the Incisor Spider. He builds your new grown-up teeth out of webs in your mouth whilst you sleep.”
Ricky’s little puppy mouth settles into confusion. “But Dad told me I’ll get a bajillion presents for when I lose my teeth.”
Dead vexation plants its roots on Ren’s face, holding his son gentle at both wrists, glances over his tender head at the doorway Stimpy’s all the sudden roaming through. “Oh, yeah, Dad told you that, did he?”
“What’s that, honey?” Stimpy sniffs once he’s closer, close enough for Ricky to spot him and go racing over to share the secret in his hands a second time. Delight fills Stimpy’s kind eyes. “Oh, Ricky, your first lost tooth, how wonderful! It’s even horribly bloody, I’m so proud of you!”
“Now I gonna get presents under my pillow when I wake up tomorrow, huh, Dad, like you said?”
Pride gleaming in his closed eyed smile, Stimpy nods, patting his hand between their son’s lifted ears. “That’s right. Losing teeth is one of life’s greatest celebrations.”
“It’s a wonder how Santa is going to be able to afford all those presents,” Ren grits through his teeth. “And how he’ll be able to pull them all out of his ass in the next eight hours.”
“No need to worry, Ren,” Stimpy assures. “Old Saint Wizzleteats is magic, he always keeps his promises.”
“Did he promise to bash your skull in tonight?” Ren gripes, grabbing his scratch ticket up off the table to blow the grit off and examine it. A groan pelts the air around him, falling back into the sofa cushions with a hard slap over the eyes.
(Ren just about gags when the sun next rises and Ricky’s hopping all across their bed with his arms full of new Matchbox trucks and baseball cards and foil wrapped chocolates, showing off the black gap of his gummy smile the whole way through. Over coffee, he asks Stimpy how the hell he managed, and Stimpy fills his mug to the brim and tells him he ought to believe in magic more often).
Before Ricky ever loses a tooth, learns to walk, says a single word, Ren makes up his mind that he’s absolutely head over heels in love with his son, and the exact moment it happens lives solidly in the pinkest ridges of his brain. To place the most specific pin he can, it’s just after 2003’s Halloween, November something but he’s certain it’d been a Saturday because he’d been working his ass off at a corner store in November of 2003, and the corner store always got its shipments of the white chocolate candies that Stimpy liked on Saturdays; he knows he pocketed four or five bucks worth of them on his way out, and they were melty by the time he got in the front door of their apartment, but Stimpy was beside himself anyhow. Always is with Ren’s bare minimum gestures. Ren watched him unwrap a chocolate and eat it as he mumbled, “Looky, I’m just about finished with this. What do ya think?”
From his place on the couch, blanket lain over his lap and life-swelled stomach that Ren had hardly taken his eyes off of the last eight months (that made it real, really real, realer than the plus sign on the first test and the POSITIVE on the next four, realer than every morning of hwarfing in the bathroom and every night of laying his uncertain hands on it to feel without a single breath the little flutters of movement inside), Stimpy lifted in both hands the smallest piece of clothing Ren’d ever laid eyes on, a soft handknit onesie woven entirely in pink.
“What makes you think it’s a girl?” Ren barked, halfway bitching only for the sake of it, halfway frozen in the terror of the idea. It’d been one thing to be expecting a baby within a month, a whole goddamn child, the least God could do for him is give him a son so he can at least guess what he’s doing in raising him.
Stimpy laid the fabric back over his tummy, smile soft, knitting needles clicking together idly. “Pink isn’t just for girls, Ren. It’s the most handsome color I could think of. Just like your eyes.” Fingers tapped the top of his abdomen. “I want our baby to be as much like you as possible.”
“D’you…” and he swallowed, “D’you really think he’ll be like...me?”
“Of course,” Stimpy nodded. “I’ve always dreamed of raising a whole litter of puppies and kittens just like us.”
Ren remembers his throat burning dry. Ren remembers clutching his chest, biting a fingertip blue at so...blessed a thought. They’ll really have a baby, huh, a little baby boy with his wit and Stimpy’s smile, if he comes out perfect. They’ll teach him right from wrong and when to utilize both, tuck him in with kisses after Ren’s gotten to exercise his mastery of performing storybook voices, do everything his own father failed to and everything Stimpy’s taught him over the decades of knowing him, so much love that their child won’t know even where to put it all. Ren’s heart throbbed against his hand. He only knew his eyes had begun to water so much when two hands clasped him at the face, held him close and reminded him just what that heinous little four letter word meant to begin with.
Ricky George Michael Höek comes into his life twelve days before Christmas, which makes for an inconvenient future overlap of birthday and holiday gifts, as well as a convenient excuse to get out of driving the fifty miles to see his parents for the holidays (“Yeah, Mom, you understand, we really ought to stay in, get some rest. Tell Dad he can feel free to mail me a check, though. ...What? ...Yes, that’s really the name on his birth certificate, I framed it and everything, it’s on the mantel. …’Silly’?!” ).
Thirteen days before Christmas, Ren wonders what kind of man lets his child push him around, the phenomenon surrounding parenthood that turns one into such a pussy. Eleven days before Christmas, Ren picks up a little crocheted cat doll and starts weeping the same minute, and maybe it’s then that things begin to click into place.
Within the same week, Ren Höek is sitting up in his living room chair while Stimpy sleeps, and in his own limp arms, Ricky does, too, and every minute or so Ren against his will joins them. He loses count of how many times he knocks himself awake, each time readjusting his hold to ensure it could never fail. A pacifier’s still hooked on his fingers when he decides to stand up, impossibly itty bitty fragile baby close up against his heartbeat as he takes the five minute shuffle toward the bedroom door a meter away. Stimpy’s sleeping yes, just like he deserves to, but there’s something in Ren’s blood that aches to see it be true. Sooner or later he’ll have to be comfortable with watching their baby all on his own, rocking and feeding and holding him all delicate, though that day doesn’t quite set in until Ricky’s, oh, what, just about college age, perhaps; not to say Ren dislikes the pounding way his heart goes on every time he looks at the son who’s just like him, the inconsolable love in his wrists when he tries then to lay Ricky in his crib and is met with whiny protests each time. A huff settles in his shoulders, yet he’s resilient, he likes to think, self sufficient enough to lay down in his own bed just beside Stimpy’s glowing warmth and settle Ricky right on his chest, one hand strong and protective on his little tailless rear. Though he just barely dares, Ren allows himself a quiet exhale, stiffly turns his neck for the nightstand clock that reads five AM and twists back to let the gentle breaths of his lover tempt his very cheek.
That might be what Ren pictures if he’s ever asked to define the word love. That and every other second he gets to spend wrapped up in so much of it, red hot and bleeding, soft wet ardor that that stirs in the lockhole of his heart.
(Ren wakes the next afternoon to an empty bed and a Polaroid tacked to the fridge of him sleeping with Ricky right on his chest like that, pacifier hooked on a finger, crocheted kitty cat tucked into his shoulder. Maybe that’s love, yeah, that’s all it should ever aspire to be).