Your mother calls after breakfast and doesn’t even ask if you’re in town.
“Oh no, I thought Jay was doing better.” She tsks and I picture her pursed lips.
“It’s a roller coaster,” I say.
I load the dishwasher as she monologues. I scrub last night’s wine glass with the expensive brush you gave me for our anniversary. I dry off the counter and find a half-eaten pack of cheese curls behind the toaster. I shove one in my mouth and slowly, carefully bite down so she can’t hear me.
“Thank you, Karen. We love you,” your mom says, and I choke.
“Oh yeah, of course,” I say, clearing my throat. “Us too!”
Your mom sends her love, I text you after hanging up.
Oh shit. What did she say. I finish making your son’s peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Cut off the crusts. BBQ chips, the baked kind so his mouth doesn’t feel greasy. Baby carrots. Two cheese sticks and a pouch of apple sauce. A kid’s taste buds even though Jay’s 6 inches taller than me now.
Hello? you text.
I add a can of Coke to piss you off. It’s how I won him over after I moved in. Sugar and caffeine his real mom didn’t allow. But I snuck him sips every time you left the room. Not a second mom, but a junk food dealer. A secret-keeper. Like when I found the half-crushed pack of Marlboro Lights in his backpack and didn’t say a word. Instead smoked those last four cigarettes at the kitchen table with the window open, so gross and perfect after years of following your rules, and then smiled and sipped my coffee when he walked in the next morning and stopped, sniffing the air.
On our way to the hospital yesterday, I bought two Coke floats at Burger King and he started to cry.
“I’m sorry.” He wiped his running nose on his sleeve.
“Never be sorry.” I held up my cup in salute.
He touched his drink to mine, a toast, and sipped, staring out the window as we pulled onto the exit ramp. The giant Domino Sugars sign, lit up even at lunch time, towered over the water and slowly-moving cranes. Cargo nets swung in the wind, their huge containers still tiny in the distance.
“I hate that sign more every time,” he said.
I continue to ignore you as I search for an extra pair of socks. He hates the grippy hospital ones. The missing Calvin and Hobbes book, his favorite, is under his bed. Dog-eared and thoroughly loved, like a teddy bear for twelve-year-olds.
“I forgot my book!” he yelled on the phone this morning and I swore, on my life, I’d find it for him.
I turn off his lamp and pat his pillow. They wouldn’t let him bring it this time. New hospital rule, even though the pillows there are flat and make crunching noises every time he turns over.
What the fuck, Karen, you text.
I put the book and lunch bag by the front door and look for my car keys. I refuse to be responsible and use the key hooks when you’re away. Jay and I eat cereal and gummy worms for dinner and tell you we had pasta. Last week he texted you that I roasted a chicken, laughing at the shocked emoji you sent back. Showed it to me and I warned him about lies that go too far.
“What if she asks me to make one?” I insisted.
It was so gross. Never let her do that again, he texted you.
“See?” He grinned.
I head out to the car as my phone buzzes. It’s you calling. I don’t answer, instead whispering accusations and shit talk at you across six states. Then not whispering. Then shouting. Punching the dashboard. Grabbing the steering wheel and trying to rip it the fuck out.
You haven’t kissed me in eleven months.
“Did you ever use to kiss?” Jay asked once and I shrugged. I didn’t tell him about lightning striking in the parking lot, like out of a movie, about running away and you catching me, holding me tight to you. About hard kisses that bruised my lips.
Hannah Grieco is a writer and advocate in Arlington, Virginia. You can find her online at www.hgrieco.com and on Twitter at @writesloud.
Artwork by: Daniel Iván