|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.
“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?”