The Slow Breakup
Kelly’s SUV is packed with seventh-grade boys going to their first school dance. Their bodies reek of too much competing cologne, a chemical stench that barely masks the greasy smell of their fast food dinner and puberty-induced body odor.
Lake, her son, sits in the passenger seat and shouts conversations to his friends in the back. He is jittering in his seat, buzzing with palpable excitement.
“Lake,” Kelly says, placing a hand on his bouncing knee. “Calm down.”
Kelly smiles at the memory of her and John picking the edgy name for their only child. They named him in the hopes of offering a uniqueness that his peers wouldn’t have. The joke was on them though; now she chauffeurs kids named Ryder, Storm, Kale, and one pimply boy named Bronson Money, who shortened his name to Bro Money. Naming Lake after her husband John would have been the more unique choice.
After picking up Bro Money and stopping for fast food, Kelly still has a thirty-minute drive to the private Christian school the boys attend. She stops at a red light and examines their faces in the rearview mirror. They are such good kids, all joyfully doing the work of God through school-sanctioned service projects—feeding the homeless, caring for the blind, protecting animals, and never letting their manners drop by forgetting to answer with a “yes, Sir.” All of these young men are primed to be better than the generation before them, to not repeat the mistakes of their parents.
“Aced my Algebra test and got the new Gucci kicks,” Kale says, propping a new, but muddy, Gucci sneaker on Kelly’s console.
“Sick,” Lake says, stroking the laces. “I’m wearing a cologne that smells like the Gucci kind. Smell.” He thrust his arm at Kale.
Not for the first time, Kelly is saddened at her inability to buy Lake the things he wants. This pack of boys collect brand names, live on sprawling horse properties, and carry two phones at a time for reasons she can’t understand, even with their explanations.
The only saving grace is the school uniform; on regular days, the boys are starched into button-up shirts, blazers, khakis, and ties. Usually, everyone looks the same. It’s strange to see them dressed in their own unique clothing for a school dance.
Kale must not have reacted to Lake’s cologne the way he wanted him to, because Lake blushes into a deep shade of purple that Kelly had never seen before. He digs into the pocket of his cargo shorts and pulls out a hood ornament.
“It’s from a Caddy,” he says, brandishing the ornament for the boys in the back to see.
“Sweet! That pulls $40 on eBay,” Storm says. “Jack like ten more of those, and you can get a designer belt.” The boys laugh.
“Lake, did you steal that?” Kelly asks. “How did you—”
“Relax, Mom. I pried it off a junker when we were getting burgers,” Lake says, dropping the ornament on the floorboard.
“You stole?” Kelly fights to remain focused on her driving. She clenches her jaw, the raw ache of her bad tooth forcing her attention on the road.
Lake shrugs and rolls the ornament under his foot. “It was just some junker,” he repeats. “You gonna tell Dad?”
It sounds like a dare. Kelly doesn’t reply. She hates the silent treatment, but finds it useful when dealing with Lake because the alternative is yelling at him. When he turned thirteen, like the flip of a switch, she was dealing with a new person—someone angry, insecure and unhappy with the blessed life he was provided. Kelly knows how to parent the tantrums of toddlers but doesn’t know what to do with this adolescent angst.
“Guess you’re not answering me now,” Lake mumbles.
At the next red light, a frail man brandishes a weathered cardboard sign, waving it halfheartedly in their direction. Kelly digs change from the console and hands it to Lake, who rolls down his window. “God bless you, Sir,” Lake says to the man as he gives him the change. Lake quickly grabs the Cadillac hood ornament and adds it to the man’s bucket. “You can sell that for a few bucks,” Lake says.
Kelly’s fog lifts and her heart swells. Maybe she shouldn’t worry. Maybe the material difference between Lake and his peers isn’t important. What is important is that he’s becoming a good person, someone who serves others and has a sense of morals, even if it takes practice to act the right way. She reaches across the console and strokes Lake’s soft jawline. He slaps her hand away, the loud pop hanging in the air.
“You said you wouldn’t embarrass me,” he hisses.
At the same time, Bro Money yells in the backseat. “Fuckin’ lowlife’s gonna spend that on booze.”
“Sorry,” Kelly says to Lake.
“That’s okay,” Bro Money says. Kelly hates how it sounds like she is apologizing for donating to the homeless man, but the moment passed, and she can’t correct Bro Money now.
Lake’s green eyes curve into an annoyed squint, just like the face he made as a baby, like the infant face of his sister before him, the baby Lake had never met. Kelly wonders if the girl resembles her brother, with dark curls and long, elegant fingers. Maybe Baby Girl has Kelly’s green eyes, the only physical feature in common between Kelly and Lake. The baby would be eighteen by now, probably out on her own at some fancy college, but not too far from home, because she might miss her parents. Kelly imagines they would have a close relationship after a happy childhood. Honking abruptly interrupts her thoughts, and she realizes she was holding up traffic at a green light.
“Shit, Mrs. Sterling,” one of the boys shouts, “You slowing the whole damn lane up!”
Kelly twists in her seat to face the laughing boys in the back, angry that she’d let the bad language slide earlier. She probes at the aching molar with her tongue, considering what to say. “What goes into your mouth does not defile you, but what comes out of your mouth, that is what defiles you. The things that come out of the mouth come from the heart, and these defile you. Matthew fifteen—”
“Mom!” Lake says, grabbing her arm. “You said you’d be chill tonight.” The unexpected contact, the warmth of her baby’s hand on her arm, stops Kelly from reciting the verse number. She remembers how Lake used to hold her hand in the school hallway, his slightly sticky fingers rhythmically squeezing hers.
“Sorry, Mrs. Sterling,” a boy from the back calls, and then quietly adds, “My mouth is going to defile Sadie Jacobs tonight.” The boys laugh, and Lake shoots Kelly a warning look.
“It’s bad enough that you wore that; you don’t need to be so momish,” Lake says.
Kelly glances down at the t-shirt that Lake had made her in Kindergarten. A series of his handprints form a flower on the front, under which his crooked handwriting spells, “Happy Mother’s Day.” The shirt is threadbare in places, as are the maternity pants that she still wears because the waistband is forgiving of both post pregnancy stomachs and middle-aged sprawl. She suddenly wonders how John could still be attracted to her, before a more horrifying thought presses.
“Are you embarrassed by how I look?” she asks Lake.
“Hey, Lake! Annabelle or Annemarie tonight? Get that candy—they’re thirsty AF,” someone from the back shouts, before Lake could answer.
Kelly fights to remain quiet, but she hopes they are talking about literal food and drink. She can’t imagine her sweet baby, just a few years out of Spiderman Underoos, doing anything sexual.
“Don’t know, can’t tell them apart,” Lake says.
The boys laugh, and Kelly whispers to Lake. “Are those the Robertson twins?”
“If you choose to dance with one of them, be respectful. Learn to recognize the twins as individuals. Remember, leave room for Jesus. Your arms should be—”
Lake turns up the volume on the radio. Kelly trails off and pokes at her throbbing tooth with an index finger. Her eyes blur with tears, a byproduct of the excruciating pain that now shoots up the left side of her face. The fuchsia lipstick she’d smeared on in a rush this morning stains her finger, and her thoughts jump to Baby Girl’s father, how they’d made out in the back of his car in eleventh grade, his face and neck smeared with the same signature shade of lipstick.
“Lift your ass, Kelby,” he’d said, his Dorito breath hot on her face. “You’re getting the seat all wet. My dad will kill me.”
Kelly, her jeans and underwear around her ankles, had been too stunned at the misnomer to fight back. They were neighbors, she was literally the girl next door, and he’d known her since Kindergarten; there was no way he didn’t remember her name. Kelly knew it was a tactic he used on the less popular girls to put them in their place, but never on her. She pushed her shoulders against the seat and lifted her butt. He wiped the leather with his t-shirt and hissed the wrong Dorito-flavored name into her face again, “Thanks, Kelby.”
The boys howling with laughter at something on Bro Money’s phone snapped Kelly back from her reverie. She wonders if she should pull over and see what they are looking at, be a reliable chaperone. But the thought saps all of her energy and she suddenly wants them out of the car, wants this ride to end. She knows this dangerous headspace. When she is this exhausted, this sort of weary, she wants the truth to come out.
She glances at Lake, his midnight hair shining in the ambient light from the dash. Baby Girl was born with the same mass of raven hair, despite Kelly’s mousy brown coloring, and despite having a different father than Lake. Kelly shakes the thought, afraid that Lake can read the premarital deflowering on her features and report them back to John.
Kelly had met John during their freshman year at Wilson, the small private Christian college where women enrolled to find husbands and men attended for more serious degrees that promised careers. John had believed Kelly a virgin, and she didn’t correct his assumption. He wouldn’t have been able to handle the truth of Kelly’s high school experience; he’d wilt at the notion that Kelly joyfully fucked the popular boy until he remembered her name and shouted it in the middle of orgasms. If Kelly confessed that she’d become pregnant her junior year, carried Baby Girl to term and gave her up for adoption, John would deem her unclean, even though she’d refused an abortion like a good Christian girl. Sometimes doing the right thing didn’t stain you as much as doing something wrong.
“Holy shit! It’s The Box,” Lake says, cranking the volume on the stereo.
Kelly reprimands him for his language, but she can’t hear herself speaking over the music. The console screen displays the song that plays, The Box by Roddy Ricch. It seems to be playing from one of the boy’s phones in the back, not from the radio. She’s only ever heard the radio edited version, and even that was a bit risqué for middle school boys. But she promised to go with the flow, so she clamps her mouth shut as the boys rolled down the windows and shout the explicit version into the wind.
“Took her to the forest, put the wood in her mouth
Bitch don’t wear no shoes in my house
The private I’m flyin’ in, I never wanna fly again
I take my chances in traffic
She suckin’ on dick no hands with it
I just made the Rollie plain like a landing-strip
I’m a 2020 president candidate.”
Kelly’s chest burns like she’d smoked a pack of cigarettes—another habit she’d hid when she met John. She’d read somewhere that having a son was like going through a slow breakup, and suddenly she understands. Lake still looks like the infant that had depended on her, his baby-fat cheeks smooth to the touch, his long eyelashes, dark and full, fluttering against his face the same way they fluttered against her skin when she cuddled him. He’s still her baby, but now the rosebud mouth that she nursed is shouting, “suckin’ on dick no hands with it.” He’s pulling away, had been the whole time.
She’d known other slow breakups. At first, Baby Girl’s father had seemed unbothered by news of Kelly’s pregnancy. For weeks he’d been even more attracted to her, probably because of her swollen breasts. He didn’t offer solutions or make plans with Kelly beyond the carnal. As her belly grew, he called less often, slowly leaving her to understand that her body housing the baby in between them wasn’t sexy anymore. The last time she saw him was in the mall when she was seven months pregnant. She was gripping her lower back and fighting off nausea from the variety of food court smells. He walked toward Kelly with an arm draped around another girl, a rail-thin freshman. Kelly stopped and stared, barely resisting the urge to shake the girl and warn her away. He didn’t bother to wave, only made brief eye contact, and dipped his head, a minimal nod of acknowledgment to the mother of his child.
Kelly turns down the music and clenches her jaw, sending jolts of pain through her face. The boys quiet as if suddenly stunned that an adult had been driving the entire time. They examine their phones without talking, but even this action irks Kelly. She suspects the boys are talking about her via text, and each new chime puts her on edge. But hadn’t she grown accustomed to that as well? The small town she grew up in was a hotbed of gossip, and becoming a pregnant teenager sent whispers roaring around her.
Hadn’t she made big mistakes, learned her lessons early, and turned out okay, despite everything? Kelly pushes her chin to the side to crack her neck and reminds herself that her mistakes never stopped haunting her. When she first met John, she’d used all of her extra energy hiding her experience, hiding her past. She’d been a mother pretending at virginity. The fear of getting found out by John had waned over the years, but obsessive thoughts about her lost Baby Girl stalk her nonstop. She doesn’t wish these obsessive thoughts onto Lake.
“Have fun at the dance,” Kelly says, pulling into the school parking lot. “When it is over, I will be at—”
“That girl’s wearing a half-shirt and a mini skirt!” Bro Money interrupts.
“T and A,” Lake shouts. The boys in the back laugh as they exit the SUV.
“Lake!” Kelly says, grabbing his arm. “Where did you learn that?”
“God, Mom!” Lake says, shaking off her hand. He watches his friends run up the sidewalk and into the gym. “You’re such a hypocrite.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Kelly asks.
Lake assumes his most annoying sarcastic teacher voice. “Hypocrites appear good and virtuous, but it’s all false. You’re concealing your real self behind all this Jesus bullshit.”
Kelly is momentarily proud of Lake’s knowledge of the word hypocrite. “How do you know that?”
“It was a vocab this week in Language Arts. I’m not an idiot,” he says.
Kelly drums her fingers on the wheel before pushing the child lock button. For once her overprotectiveness works in her favor too.
“This is bullshit!” Lake yells, tugging at the door handle.
“Your internet time is gone. After your behavior tonight, the punishment should be much worse,” Kelly shouts, spittle flying.
“I already found all I needed anyway,” Lake mumbles.
A powerful tingling runs through Kelly’s hands and feet, as if they suddenly fell asleep. Could he know about his sister? She fights to swallow, but her mouth is too dry. She tries to convince herself Lake is talking about something different.
“Are you looking at porn?” Kelly asks, even though she knows he wouldn’t do that.
Lake rolls his eyes, the whites flashing in the dim light. Kelly clamps her jaw shut, focusing on the pain shooting from her tooth and up the right side of her face; it is somehow more bearable than the confusing look on her son’s face.
“I sent in one of those spit tests for science lab. A DNA test,” Lake says.
Kelly floats somewhere outside of herself, somehow not even feeling her tooth anymore.
“You register online, and the results show all of your relatives. Turns out I have a half-sister,” Lake says, “and there’s no way Dad knows.”
He looks triumphant and smug, and for maybe the first time ever, Kelly wants to hit him. It’s pointless to deny that she’s been lying to John. Lake knows his dad and his strict values just as well as Kelly does. Instead, she exhales hard and leans back.
“Your breath smells like shit,” Lake says. “Get that rotten tooth removed.” He makes brief eye contact and dips his head, a minimal nod of acknowledgment to the mother he’s disgusted with.
The echo of the familiar gesture infuriates Kelly, and she pants with rage. “I’ve lived lifetimes before you were born,” she says, “and you only know about one of them. You might think you’re worldly and that you understand things that are larger than you, but you don’t. You’re still just a kid.”
“A kid with power,” Lake says. His eyes are hard, and his jaw set in a way that Kelly has never seen before; she’s staring at a stranger. “I want a phone and a later curfew. Don’t make me tell Dad.”
Kelly studies Lake’s traitorous face, and despite her anger, her hand drifts up to softly stroke his velvety earlobe, as if she’s making sure he’s still there, that she’s not dreaming the whole encounter. “Did I do this to you by hiding my past? These demands, the way you’re coming at me, it’s so vile. I’ve never known you capable of blackmail. You must be very upset because you are normally such a sweet—”
Lake slaps Kelly’s hand away for the second time that night. “Don’t make me tell Dad,” he repeats.
Shaking, Kelly studies Lake’s infuriated green eyes, eyes that he had the audacity to steal from her. She wonders again if Baby Girl has the same gaze, but more understanding. She feels a hot tear trail down her cheek and hides her face in both hands.
“Mom?” Lake whimpers in a way that would have made Kelly hug him minutes earlier.
Kelly removes her hands from her face and pushes the master button, rolling down all of the windows. She waves Bro Money away when he steps out of the gym and looks toward the car for Lake. With a shaking hand, Kelly turns the radio up loud enough that the parents with their children on the sidewalk stop to look at her, dismayed. “Let’s go home,” she says, suddenly exhilarated. “I’ll tell your dad.”
Melody Sinclair graduated from the MFA program in Creative Writing at Regis University in Denver, Colorado. She has been published at Heavy Feather Review, Bull: Men’s Fiction, Avalon Literary Review, Adanna Literary Journal, Prometheus Dreaming, Donnybrook Writing Academy, and 303 Magazine. She’s won the Denver Women’s Press Club Unknown Writer’s Contest and is on the Fiction Reading Committee for Carve Magazine. Melody lives in Highlands Ranch, Colorado, with her husband, dog, and two kids. www.melodysinclair.com