By J.R. Gerow
She wakes him up and carries him out to the car with his head buried in her shoulder, straddling her ribcage and watching sideways through the veil of hair for his father, but he doesn’t come after them. Only one set of footsteps spurring down the gravel driveway, the lights all on in the house, and when she buckles him into the backseat her expression is, despite herself, irrepressibly afraid. He surveys her for meaning as she fixes the buckle, tightens to an uncomfortable degree, puts her hands on him, holding each cheek and begging with her eyes for some kind of understanding. She wants in his face to see the kind of serene, universal consent that only children can give because their love is sufficiently simple. She wants him to be okay.
She sees what it is she wants to see.
They sleep that first night at a forty-dollar motel two hours outside of town. She gets a room with a single bed – can’t even think of him lying apart from her now. In her arms, pulled tight against her street clothes, he is wary of her, like some stranger is walking around in his mother’s skin, unnatural behavior. He sleeps shallowly. For the first time in his life, he doesn’t dream at all.
That fall is a new school district. She worries that being resocialized will bring out the pent-up resentment. She waits for him to say things like, I wish I was with dad dramatically and slam doors, like the kids do in movies. She encourages him to talk without trying to coach any particular response, which tends to lead her to overexplain how any number of contradictory expressions of feeling are all acceptable, which only tends to leave him confused about her motive. She watches a lot of movies about parents and children, reads the right books. He is aware of her needing something from him without knowing what.
He doesn’t think about his father as much as anyone assumes he does. He never will.
When he’s thirteen she buys him a mountain bike. He doesn’t have anything to do but he’ll stay out on it all day, way past dark, circling other people’s neighborhoods, tracking nothing.
Early teen years, they watch all the same television shows together because it isn’t quite unnatural yet. This is increasingly important to her. She takes careful note of the little fragments of private vocabulary that arise between them, like the kind that evolve out of a marriage. She delights in the smallest morsels of his approval, laughs generously at his jokes. She knows she’s helping build his confidence, his sense of empowerment in a world that she was so afraid would stunt him.
She develops the skill of being coyly silent about the things she dislikes in him. Emo metal, for instance. His greasier friends, physically and temperamentally. The hip token phrases he’ll repeat in response to every question for six weeks and then never again. This ability will metastasize over the long term into silences about the things she earnestly disapproves of, that hurt her.
He gets into drugs in a casual way. He gets into a girl whose parents unknowingly supply her out of her father’s prescription. She doesn’t want him to meet her family, doesn’t want to meet his. They fuck in the back rows of parking lots and the secluded brush of golf courses at night and she makes him feel so lonely that he mistakes it for needing her more.
He dreams of flying constantly for a while, but it fades by his mid-twenties.
Her new husband doesn’t like him much – doesn’t like the democratic dynamic between mother and son generally. Awkward attempts at establishing bonds – computer games? Fishing? Well, does he like golf? – grow quickly dispirited. Like teenagers do, he squanders this time worrying about himself, as if every moment spent in pursuit of something other than sex or status were cosmically devaluing him. Doesn’t think to ask the man any of the important questions – where he came from, how things went for him, in the long view, or what he still wants most. He’ll be middle aged himself before, looking back, this is realized to be an error.
He’s seventeen. She takes him out in the car because it’s easier to talk there. What’s happening with you. Well, no shit, your grades made that apparent. Yes, but I want you to act at least a little like an adult about it! And he opens the door and she slams on the brakes and he waits just a moment while the ground is still going by at forty miles an hour. Makes sure that he actually jumps out while the car is still moving a little, for effect. Walks straight off the side of the highway and into the woods. She is screaming at him in a panic. He wants to stalk away quietly, but he has to hustle soon to outrun the sound of her following, stumbling in the dark shouting after him, for forty-five minutes, until she’s afraid the car battery will die and leave her stranded.
He comes home in the morning in the back of a police car.
He’s gone to public university and this begins their year of silence.
The important work for her is in repairing. This is her genius. People break things and she puts them back together. It kept her five years too long in a marriage. Months on, there are a series of short, unsolicited emails asking for his advice. She divulges things about her marriage – some true, some made up. She talks to him like this, and just as sparingly as she can, because it will make him feel needed. She doesn’t bother inviting him home, she knows he’ll come when he’s willing. They have Thanksgiving dinner and almost don’t fight. It’s the best it will be for a while.
She moves to a smaller town after her husband’s job. Her already scarce world, shrinking by stunning degrees. She starts picking at her novel again.
In a few years, he’ll be bringing back an Asian bride – a cute, baffling thing who’s never seen country like this before, who plainly wants to meet his parents a lot more than he wanted her to – and a little while after that they’ll start bringing around kids. They don’t feel like real grandchildren, not quite, and she’s ashamed at this. She still looks at him sometimes and has difficulty recognizing her son. He’ll make money like the dollar is going out of fashion, and grow sick of filling his house with garbage. He’ll accept at that point in his life that it’s going to be boredom one way or the other but the only kind of boredom that feels good is the kind that reminds him of his childhood: riding in circles, tracking nothing, the center of a universe, loved.
At night, Mark lies beside her big-chested, belly fuzz creeping out between a t-shirt emblazoned with the logo of a radio station and pajama pants that would seem to predate the internet, on his side and facing away from her because they’ll both sleep better this way. He doesn’t cook save for grilling, doesn’t particularly care for her television shows, doesn’t read the Economists that pile up on the coffee table, doesn’t care to leave the rust belt. He doesn’t know about the devotions that defined her twenties – the dream of that novel, or living off of a motorcycle with just a rucksack and her notebooks, of getting on a ship in California with a six week contract to cook for some Antarctic research expedition and never getting off. He is her best friend.
There is something to be said for that, she thinks. It’s happiness. If there is happiness, what else.
She has a dream of flying sometimes, but not like the ones she had as a girl. She is not afraid. She’s just trying to hold onto the earth.
About the Author:
J.R. Gerow lives in the Bronx.