by Amada Matei
I watch as my son scampers onto the playground, stops at the swing set, and touches his forehead to its wooden beam. I bite my lower lip until I taste blood. He holds his head in that awkward position for about five seconds, just long enough for me to notice and cringe, then he joins the other children in playing tag. I already regret my decision to bring him here, but being cooped up in the house is no way to live.
A few moments later, he kneels to the ground and taps his forehead to the soft, brown turf as if he were a Muslim praying towards Mecca. The other children stop, stare at him with impatience, then resume their play once he is back on his feet. His forehead feels the seesaw, the metal fireman’s pole, and the plastic sliding tunnel.
My instinct is to do what I normally do: I reprimand him by smacking his forehead with the palm of my hand. But today, the other mothers are watching. Chasing him down to thump him on the head seems like a lunatic move, even by my standards. Perhaps this is my moment of clarity.
“Which one’s yours?” asks a mom sitting on the green bench besides me. She’s a size two at the most, curly blond hair, and not one wrinkle under her hazel eyes. Her Coach backpack sits neatly on her lap.
“The boy in blue. Logan,” I say.
“I love this age. Mine’s Caroline. The spunky one in pigtails. She amazes me every day. She counted to a hundred at breakfast today. First time without stopping.”
I force a smile and take in her lilac aroma; my Suave body spray feels a little less fancy. I decide I hate this woman and her pigtailed kid. Logan stops running and stands by the swings as if conflicted who to chase down next. He flaps his arms while rocking his body back and forth like an ostrich ready to strike. He looks at nothing in particular, just keeps flapping. I think maybe he’ll catch a breeze and take flight this time. Caroline slows her pace, stopping herself a moment before Logan rocks forward into her. He does not seem to appreciate the near calamity. He just sways and flaps. He is mesmerized by something two feet ahead of him. Caroline stares at my son, appears bored by him, and trots off to the rock wall where two other little girls are already climbing.
“Is Logan in pre-school?” The Coach mother asks.
“Yes. Just started last month.”
“We just started this year too. Although we had her tested. She really should be in first grade. She reads on a first-grade level. But my husband is afraid she’ll get lost among all the tall kids. Better socialize her with kids her own age first. Just have her skip kindergarten instead. I think she’s already bored. Can Logan read yet?”
“He’s learning his ABC’s,” I say. I want to say something else. Something clever, like studies have shown early readers do no better in life than late readers. But I didn’t think of it fast enough and now it’s too late.
Coach mom gives me a nod and half smile. “Most boys are slow to mature. Don’t worry, he’ll catch up.”
Logan bends down and examines something. He then stands back up and kicks it. He stomps it with his left foot. Logan jumps with both feet and loses his balance on the way down and lands on his butt. My son wails and runs to me with limp arms swaying by his side. He places his head on my lap. I push him from me. I am disgusted with him. Then I am disgusted with myself.
I turn to peek at Coach mom expecting her to smirk or roll her eyes or give me a patronizing look. Instead, she gives my son her full attention. “Oh no!” she says in a baby voice and digs into her Coach backpack, pulling out a moist towelette. She extends her manicured hand to my son and he takes it. She pulls him closer and begins wiping the dirt away from his palms, while she inspects it for scraps or cuts. “No booboos. All clean.”
Logan stops crying and bends down toward me, wiping his face on my Kmart jeans, snot trailing from his nose. “He’s not the most coordinated,” I say, feeling compelled to explain as if children don’t normally fall on their butts while clowning on playgrounds.
“That’s what boys do. They’re goofy. They fall.”
“Stop crying and be a big boy,” I say to Logan even though all his tears have been transferred onto me and he is no longer crying. Coach mom pulls out a pack of tissues, removes one and hands it to me. I sense she already knows I came ill prepared. I thought of nothing to bring to the playground, while Coach mom most likely has an apocalypse preparedness kit in her bag.
I accept the soft tissue and wrap it around Logan’s wet nose. He sucks the snot in like a vacuum cleaner. “Stop sucking it in. Blow it out.” He makes snorting sounds with his nose.
“Pretend you are blowing out birthday candles with your nose,” Coach mom tells him. He blows perfectly and fills the tissue with green ooze.
“Go back and play with those nice girls,” I say.
“I k-k-k-k can’t climb the w-w-w-wall.”
“Go,” I try not to shout but it comes off as shouting. Logan meanders back and stops at the gray climbing wall, touching the red and yellow pegs with his forehead. The girls have climbed the five-foot wall forwards and backwards three times by now. They run off to the swing tire and Logan remains standing, assessing the top of the wall. He looks defeated.
I feel a rain drop. A few more splash on my head.
“Caroline,” Coach mom calls out, cupping her hands around red lips. “It’s starting to rain.” She motions for her child with a wave. Caroline complies and runs to her mother, who pulls out a bottle of hand sanitizer and a light purple jacket.
“Logan,” I call out. “Let’s go. It’s raining.” Logan looks away. I shout louder. He is either ignoring me or is lost in Logan’s world.
“Caroline, pumpkin. Go tell that little boy that his mommy is calling for him.” Caroline skips back out with her purple jacket zipped up and hoodie on. I watch her tap Logan on the shoulder and she guides him back to me. I imagine Caroline at home as a perfect helper. I bet she keeps her room clean and places her dirty laundry in the hamper without being asked, and feeds the pets all with an indelible smile on her face. Her mom probably pats her on the head, and takes her out for ice-cream, and they read together in the park before puttering around at the mall in matching outfits like sugary imbeciles.
“We need to go,” I tell Logan.
“No. Not done playing.”
“Yes, you are. It’s raining.”
“D -d-d don’t care.”
“I said let’s go.” I grit my teeth. I want to shake him, but I control myself for the sake of the onlookers. I don’t know how to convince him without shaking him. Sometimes I think I can shake the normal back into him. So far that hasn’t happened.
The raindrops get fatter and wetter.
“Nice meeting you,” says Coach mom. “But we have to run.”
I wave with one hand and grab hold of Logan’s arm with the other. I tighten my grip as he pulls away. He paws at me with his free hand and lunges at me, butting his head against my forearm. His head is like steel and I know he’ll leave a bruise.
I smack his forehead. I do it repeatedly. The sound of my hand clapping against head fosters my anger. Every slap is harder and meaner and at this very moment I believe this discipline will somehow relieve his addiction of hugging every fucking thing with his bony head. I know people around us are now looking. I don’t care. I hate myself at this moment. I keep hitting anyway.
Logan keeps his head down, protecting his face until I finally stop long enough for him to look up at me with those pitiful, giant brown eyes. He has no idea why I am enraged and this enrages me more. His misunderstanding of me feels defiant and deliberate, as if he exudes innocence to strategically mask his baneful comportment. I hate myself.
I strike his arm with my fist, and he finally lets go. I grab the same arm and turn him around and scold his butt with the palm of my hand. I do it again and my hand stings. Logan is wailing. People stare. Coach mom runs to us and puts herself between us like a boxing referee. She pries my white knuckles off Logan’s arm. He hides under the bench.
“Stop it,” yells Coach mom. “That lady is calling the police. You need to calm down.” She points to a fat woman with a cell phone to her ear.
“I tried to stop,” I whisper. I breathe deeply to swallow my heart back into my chest. Logan is cowering and crying under the bench, keeping his forehead to the ground. He picks his head up one inch, then taps it back to earth. He does it again. And again.
I hate myself more. I kneel to him and wrap my arms around his skinny middle to pull him out. He resists, balling himself up like a pill bug.
“Let him lie there for a minute. Walk it off. You both need space.” Coach mom sounds like my therapist, calming voice and intelligent. I hate her more. I let her guide me towards the swing set. I am panting less.
Seconds later, I escape from her hold and run back to the bench on my hands and knees, and I stuff myself under the bench with my son. “I’m so sorry. So sorry.” I caress him and pet him.
His whimpers are softer now. I love my son. He’s like a puppy nipping at my ankle until it bleeds and I have no choice but to kick him away. I kiss his head. I hear sirens in the distance.
“Sick ass bitch,” I hear someone say. People are still watching. I feel them closer.
The police officer has her brown hair rolled into a neat bun near the top of her head. Her bullet proof vest looks funny on a such a small woman. “I understand special needs children can be stressful, especially when you’re a single parent. My son is fifteen years-old and he’s still a challenge.”
I tell her I love my son. She tells me she knows. She calls children’s services so I can get some good resources and find ideas that work and get support; that’s what she explains to me. I think I might lose my son and I feel slightly giddy. Then I realize I might lose my son and I start to cry.
The officer places her hand on my shoulder and tells me a social worker will visit my home in the morning and I’m free to go. I take a deep breath knowing I escaped arrest because my son didn’t show visible injuries.
“It will get better,” she says.
“When? I’m still waiting.”
“It will get better. You can’t stop until it gets better.”
I hate it when other people make sense.
That night I sit by Logan’s bed and read him a book. He darts his forehead towards the page until his skin feels the paper. He has to do that to every page. I take deep breaths and we finish the book and I tuck him in. I bend down so my forehead touches his forehead.
“I love you,” I say.
“I’m sorry mommy. W-w-w was I bad?”
“No. I was bad. But I will get better. I won’t stop until I get better.”
I love my son.
About the Author:
Amada Matei lives and works in Cleveland, Ohio. She supervises a child abuse hotline while writing in her spare time. This is her first short story.