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Sometimes it’s enough just to know that he exists. In the next town over, maybe. Living out his days repeating simple phrases. Paper or plastic? Down the hall and to the left. Please come again. Or somewhere exotic. Hawaii, roasting pigs for tourist-infested luaus. Paris, critiquing the best champagne the country can offer. Alive, anyway. That’s all that really matters. It’s not that I ever plan to look for him, track down his name, call him up after all this time. He wouldn’t recognize me even if I did. Or believe me, probably. I doubt anyone told him when it happened.
That’s not to say I don’t like it, the living alone. Mom is company enough, I guess. She does what she can. Cooks dinner twice a week, when she doesn’t have to work nights. Still insists on doing my laundry. She loves me enough. And we get along.
It’s Thursday, and cloudy. The sun is hiding, and the sky drizzles halfheartedly every time it remembers that the new tap-dancing weathergirl told us all about downpours this week. It tries not to let her down, but it keeps forgetting what it’s supposed to be doing. Or it’s exhausted. You know: long week. Every week is long. But it does its best. Not quite enough to get me out of track practice, though.
Mom wants to see a cheerier me, in shape for once, out of the house. She says running characterizes effective and efficient people. That’s who she wanted to be, before I showed up. Now it’s the person she never was and never had. So I try. I only let myself skip one day every week. The worst day. Even driving up and down nameless streets for an hour beats trying to make it a few hundred yards. Drive for two hours sometimes, so I can tell her I went for coffee after. With friends.
I skipped yesterday. Can’t leave today. Panting a little bit more every time my shoe hits the ground. Coach told me to find something to focus on. Breathing, steps, the runner in front of me.
I stopped counting at step 437. Now I try to keep track of my shoes. Funny how they never fall behind me. They run better than my feet. Doesn’t make sense, of course. Something feels sharp in my side again. Nagging. Don’t stop. Breathe in. Breathe out. Watch the shoes. The left one is spattered with paint. Art class? The sharpness grows. Breathing hurts. My feet start plodding. They cannot keep up anymore. I cannot keep up anymore. A runner passes. Breathe. Step. Enough. Breathe. Watch says 12 minutes. I can do that. Done more. Step. Squeeze my side. The shoes come slow.
I barely have the energy to slam the door when I get home. She’s not back yet. Drop my backpack on the kitchen floor. It slides to a stop. What to do. Food. Open the fridge. Close it. Maybe spaghetti for dinner. Easy to boil. The pot looks clean. Can’t find the lid. I put some water on the stove anyway, walk over to the couch, and collapse. Doesn’t take long to doze off.
I hear the door open and click shut again. Scuffles as mom struggles to take off her boots. I used to offer to help her with them, but she prefers to do it alone. Says if she can’t take off her own boots, the Lord only knows how she managed to raise me. I don’t think kids and boots are really the same, but I let her get away with it. It’s good for her.
The second shoe clatters a bit as it hits the linoleum floor. Fourteen seconds to look presentable. I sit up, run my fingers through my hair to wick off sweat. Bend over. I’m busy untying shoelaces when she comes into view.
“Hi honey. Been home long?” Her shirt is slightly askew. Mascara is smudged under her wide brown eyes. Bear eyes, I used to call them.
“Nope, just got in, actually. Long day. How was work?”
“Oh, you know, the usual. Customers are picky. But—” she attempts the ridiculous jig from last year’s commercial. “We do our best to keep them satisfied! And, as certain managers are happy to point out, our sheets are less stainable than Bed, Bath, and Beyond’s.”
“. . . Less stainable?”
“Hey, buster, I don’t know what it means either. It does sell, though. How was school? Mind if I sit?”
I scoot to the edge of the couch to give her room. “School was fine.”
“The guys still giving you trouble?”
“No. I guess they found better things to do.” I can feel her eyes searching my face and body for the truth. Don’t look up.
“See? I told you it wouldn’t last. Who was right?”
“You, like always.”
“Right. And track?”
“Good. . . . I started making spaghetti, by the way. Water should be boiling by now.”
“Great, honey.” She wanders into the kitchen, and her voice starts echoing a little on its way over to me. “You know, just for future reference, they invented pot lids a few months ago just so you could do things like make pasta. I’m sure you’ve seen the infomercial.”
“Couldn’t find it.”
“Really? It’s right here, honey. You must have been a little out of it from all that running, eh?”
“No, running was fine. I just didn’t see it.”
“Make it through today?”
“Yeah. Coach said I was making progress.” I stopped with only 9 minutes until the end of practice, anyway. Close enough.
Mom’s head popped out from behind the kitchen wall.
“Really? Oh, I’m so proud of you. I knew you could do it!”
“Yep. I really think I’m getting better. Everyone says so.”
“Fantastic.” I finally let myself slouch. Her head retracts back into the kitchen. Starts humming. I slide down on the couch until I’m practically horizontal, debating whether to let silence take over.
“. . . Hey mom?”
“Yes, sweetie? Dearest son of mine?”
“Can—can I ask you something?” She slowly walks into view, wooden spoon in hand. Apprehensive.
I don’t know what to say or how to say it. Don’t know what I want to know. I try to start simple.
“Why don’t we ever talk about him?”
“No, I mean it. Neither of us can pretend he never happened. . . . I mean, I know he sort of screwed you over and left you with me, but—”
“Left me with you? That was the only good thing he ever did.”
“How do you know? Did you even know him?”
“Oh, I knew him once. . . do we have to talk about this now?”
“What, so you can bring it up again when it’s convenient?”
“Not what I meant, you know that. It’s just. . . the pasta’s almost ready. . . it’s hard for me. . .”
“And it’s easy for me, having to live without a father?” My voice is louder than I wanted, too rough. Mom pales, stares at me. Dumb.
I sink further into the couch, hiding hands under my legs. Head down, body down. Invisible. But that’s what I wanted, I think. To shock her. Or myself. One of us had to be shocked. It’s been too long.
Look over. She’s still standing there, with that spoon. Arms as limp as half-cooked spaghetti. Her eyes reflect too much light. Glassy. Hollow. I can see faint lines across her forehead. She averts her gaze, straightens her shirt.
“No. I’m sure it isn’t easy,” she mutters. Walks back into the kitchen.
I sit a while.
“. . . Come eat, honey. It’ll get cold.”
Get up, walk to join her. I take the plates from her hands, and pile spaghetti high on each of them. Place them on the counter. She doesn’t move quite right, rigid and floppy in the wrong places. We lock eyes. I inch over, reach my arms out around her. She smiles a half smile, teeth hiding behind lips. Unsure.
Her arms come out too, pull me in close. She rests her head on my shoulder. We stand together. Sometimes, I guess, it’s enough just knowing he’s out there.
We separate, sit down. Pick up our forks.