Thursday, February 24, 2011

Guilt - fridayflash

My son Sam at the beach last summer.

Two friends. Eleven-year-old boys, playing video games in the den.
A mother in the kitchen, making spaghetti for supper. Listening to the boys.
“DIE, DIE, DIE!” shrieks Jason. “NO! No-no-no-no-NO-OH CRAP!”
Karen winces when she hears a controller being dashed on the hardwood floor.
“Jay-SON,” she hollers. “You know better than to treat your stuff like that!” 
He mumbles something.
“Pardon me?”
“SORRY!” he yells.
Karen shakes her head. Kid has two volumes: marble-mouthed mumbling and screaming. 
She scouts out the condition of salad supplies in the crisper and decides they’re worth throwing together. She chops up some carrots and lettuce while the canned sauce burbles on the stove.
“Almost suppertime,” she calls out. “You might wanna think about putting the game away and washing up.”
She hears Davey say, “Your mom’s nice.”
Karen smiles and listens hard to hear what her son might say next.
“I guess,” says Jason.
“She’s not mean like my mother,” says Davey.
“Sometimes she is. Remember when she wouldn’t let me go to Andy’s birthday party?”
“Yeah,” says Davey, “but it’s quiet here. She’s not always on the phone yelling at your dad, or crying and stuff. It’s wicked at my house sometimes. And wicked at my dad’s. All they do is fight. Even though they’re not even married anymore, they fight.”
“I hate divorce,” Jason says.
“Yeah,” says Davey. “I’m never getting married. Never. I’d have kids, though. Just boys. Maybe six or seven.”
“You’d have to have an even number because of games, or they’d fight ‘cause someone would have to wait their turn,” says Jason, always thinking.
Karen listens as she cooks. She’s glad she doesn’t fight with her ex the way other people do. She has always tried to get along with Rick, for Jason’s benefit. She never says a bad word about him to her son. She even has photos of Rick and his new family hanging in the hallway. She remembers when she was first separated, a psychologist saying divorce is the hardest thing a kid ever has to deal with. Harder than death, because you can understand a parent dying and leaving you, but how can you explain a parent just up and leaving you behind?
Karen left Jason behind.
She didn’t want to and she had a million reasons why. 
She had no money for a lawyer and he did.
She had a criminal record and he didn’t. (When she found out he was cheating, she hit him and he called the police.)
He had a new home, a new wife and a new baby on the way; she was renting a studio apartment in a scuzzy building downtown.
The one piece of legal advice she got was this: “You could spend $40,000 and the next 10 years fighting for Jason. And you would lose.”
Rick might have been the one screwing around but when it came time to sort out custody issues, Karen was the one who got screwed.
Years later, things are OK. Jason lives with his father and visits Karen on weekends. Rick’s not perfect, but he’s a good dad. Jason is doing well in school. He has friends and seems well-adjusted and happy. 
A day doesn’t go by that Karen doesn’t miss her son, or feel guilty about leaving him behind. She lies awake on the nights he is not there, hugging her pillow, seeing his freckled face bright in the imaginary moonlight. 
She suffers the looks of people who think, “How could a mother not fight for her son? What kind of a person is she?”
She is in a better position, financially, than when she was first divorced. Her criminal record is clear. She often thinks about going to court to get custody of Jason.
But she takes comfort in the cold light of her original reasoning. Jason is happy the way things are. He is happy. Happy! Why on earth would she want to mess with that? Just so that she can keep him close to her? Just so she can prove she’s a good mother to teachers and members of the PTA?
She puts salad dressing on the table. The milk pitcher. Some parmesan cheese. 
She is about to call the boys for supper when she hears Jason say, “You’re lucky your parents fight over you.”
Davey makes some kind of blarghing, choking sound. “You are wacked! There’s nothing good about the way my parents fight over me. You’re ka-wazy, dude!”
There’s quiet for a moment.
“Wha?” says Davey. “What’samatter?”
“Why didn’t my mom fight for me?” Jason says through tears. “Aren’t I worth fighting for?”


  1. I like this voice and tone, and along with the POV this feels different than much of your work, and I think you really pulled it off. I could feel the heaviness of this guilt, and the worry about how to do what is best for the child and not as a reaction to the guilt but because that is what would be best. And feeling like a bell has been rung that can never be unrung. It all came through. I hope Karen learns to understand how important her unconditional mother's love is to her son, no matter where he puts his head down at night.

  2. Oh man, heart-wrenching stuff. When it comes to kids, we can almost always second guess our decisions. And in a way, this poor lady is held to a higher standard of parenting than her married counterpart because all of her kids problems will be blamed on the divorce. Her still married neighbor's kids will also have problems, but they will have the luxury of blaming the media.

    I loved how you approached this story in present tense. Very effective.

  3. Best part was that I left the living room where we were playing videogames to read this.

    Sure you're worth fighting for, Cathy!

  4. Powerful stuff. I dig your voice in this. I went from remembering how I used to get in trouble for being rough on the video game controllers to getting caught up in your ending. Very well done!

  5. Oh man! The title let me know something was coming but I didn't expect that sucker punch at the end.

    Perfect tone, perfect POV, and you nailed the characters, tough in such a small space--but you are a natural at characters and voices.

    Loved this: Karen shakes her head. Kid has two volumes: marble-mouthed mumbling and screaming.

  6. This is skillfully done, pitch perfect modulation from the gentle but spot on observations of boys with their toys, through the boys' view of the world (need an even number of kidsso always competitors on the console), through the Mum's push-me/pull you feelings over being separated from her son, to the denoument that delivers a killer blow to all that's gone before.

    Like I say, pitch perfect

    marc nash

  7. Oh, your ending was cruel, cruel, CRUEL! So sharp, Cathy, well done!

  8. Such a poignant, and well told story Cathy. I too love the voice in this, and how sharply you portray each character. Well done!

  9. Wow, this was a great story... the dialogue was spot on for me. What an ending... sad but so often true in this world today.

  10. Guilt is the number one word in a mom's vocabulary. A great story, and the end sure does twist the knife, but that mom made the best decision for her boy. You really underline the difficulty of this situation.

  11. The voice is so REAL. It's all so FELT, from the heart, genuine. This one just blew me away, Cathy, especially the turn at the end. That had to just tumble Karen's carefully worked out equanimity. Great work.

  12. Awwwww honey, sometimes our hardest fought battles are deep inside invisible, many of my military girlfriends going through divorce had to make these hard choices too, for all of those reasons. In each case their exes were manipulative abusive, and threatening harm to them and/or their children. I worked with men and women many times in these situations, many times during the marriage the father really spent little time with the children, but only when the issue of divorce came up did they realize what they were losing and resorted to using their children as tools of manipulation and terror (because that is what many men are socialised to do in this world still) rather than creating a climate of love and stability for their children to aid them through the divorce process. Many of my friends left for fear (real fear) of their children being harmed (many of them were harmed). They fought, they fought, but decided, based on the information they had in those moments - to let go and then to always be there for their children, like you are for Sam and Gus. And they are. KAren is my cousin too. I love you and miss you, your words are searing and real. White Women still on avg earn 66% of what men do, woman of colour even less. Any woman in an abusive relationship has many many difficult issues to consider, choosing whether to leave /or stay is soul-destroying and the vast majority of women post-divorce have a significantly reduced income and survival means. I hope KAren can cut herself some significant slack.

  13. Damned if you do, damned if you don't. Tough subject matter very thoughtfully presented Cathy.

  14. This was beautifully done. What's a parent to do? What's better for the child - fighting in front of them or having them see you lay down and not fight at all? Brilliant.

  15. No one is more cruel than a child. Because no one is more helpless than a child.

  16. 6-year-olds and divorce are things I deal with on almost a daily basis. You wrote about it so beautifully and in such a heartbreaking way. Powerful post.

  17. Heart-breaking and gorgeous -- written with such an accessible, easygoing style no matter how heavy the subject matter...

  18. Ooh, the guilt she'll feel now will be worse but maybe it will make her fight for custody or at least get the current agreement amended. Beautiful writing, the present tense really worked well with the subject matter and tone.

  19. The ending had such an edge that I still feel it. You can feel the emotional foundations suddenly crumbling.
    Adam B @revhappiness

  20. Incredible story... You captured the internal conflict so well.

  21. Yeah, a gut-wrenching story to be sure. And a complex situation. A parent can make the best choice for their child yet still appear the villian. One hopes the child will come to realize that when they are an adult themselves.
    The dialogue between the boys was fantastic, Cathy. Realistic and revealing.

  22. Wow! This is such a tough story. It makes me want to hear more.

  23. It's such a tough situation - the dad can walk away and it's deemed to be perfectly normal, but if the mum can't stay for whatever reason, she's deemed abnormal. Hopefully she can patch things up with Jason.

  24. Powerful story. Wonder what her next move will be? Fight or try to get Jason to understand? It'd be interesting to see.

  25. Ohhh, it hurts! I can't imagine Karen's pain in hearing this...

    I'm with Eric. I'd love to see what comes next.

  26. That last line was a verbal stomach punch. This was a heart breaker.

  27. Very touching and sad story. Its one of those things that a child cannot understand fully until they are an adult and have a more well-rounded view of things. Karen just can't get a break.

  28. Brilliant as ever...

    Maybe she'll have the courage to fight for him now - or explain why she couldn't before.

  29. Brilliant story, and ouch! what an ending. I'm divorced, and although we share custody, I've always tried hard to get along with my ex for my kids' sake. I read this going 'yeah, I'd do that' until I got to the end, and then whoa! Damned for doing, damned for not doing. Very hard...

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