Spelling Test

by Sarah Sturgis

It’s summer and we’re playing soccer with a red rubber ball in the front when Max starts to do the thing he does when I’ve scored more goals than him. It’s the same frustrated look he’d get when he was a baby; his smile shrinks into a squinched-up line, and he pushes his breath out of his nose. Sometimes little drops of snot fly out and it takes some serious mindfulness on my part to keep from laughing because he looks like Elmer Fudd. I love him so much.

I’ve never been for letting my kid win just for the sake of him winning. Sometimes I’ll go easy on him, but I’ve been around those kids who can’t lose, and they’ve got another thing coming. Where does he get this competitive streak? I will lie awake tonight to the barely perceptible sounds of warm breezes on our carless street and ask this to Sam’s side of the bed. Were you competitive like that? Did you grow out of it? I will whisper this.

Now, frowning, Max takes the ball and kicks it against the side of the house where I said it was okay for him to do that. When he’s really angry, I tell him, Go to the ball wall, Max. And from the living room or my room or my shower I hear this recurring rubber thud, and I know each kick is multiplying the ball marks that in some lighting look like large animal tracks, something that’s scurried quickly up the white stucco, trying to flee.

Sometimes accompanying the ball sounds are the sounds of Max whimpering, and if I’m not outside with him like I am now, I don’t know whether or not to run out there and hug him, so I stay on the couch grading papers, or in the shower rinsing my hair, or in my bed masturbating, because I need to throw something against a wall sometimes too, but I’m a 39-year-old woman, I can’t do that, so I orgasm instead, panting into a pillow, whimpering after sometimes, echoing.

Max is still kicking and pouting. Go ahead Max, it’s okay to be upset, I want to tell him and don’t. I look across the street at Roy and Jean’s blue house, squinting to see if anyone is moving around in their living room. A year ago I couldn’t have done this, because the hedge that grows in a rectangle around our property had grown so tall you could only see the top two feet of our house—the rest was obscured by green. It was Sam’s idea to trim it, but I loved our hedge.

“It makes me feel safe!” I said. I pushed the dishwasher to quiet mode and sat beside Sam on the couch. “It’s like a fortress for the three of us.”
“Babe,” he said, “it protects us from nothing. Whenever I pull up, I think, Shit, it looks like we have something to hide.”
But we don’t. That’s the beauty of it. We’re just tucked away, safely inside.”
“Just once. Just to see. I’ll cut it down four feet and it’ll probably grow back in a day.”
“Four feet!” I cried, tipsy from two beers, and Sam covered my mouth with his hand and I bit it and then he tickled my right armpit and we were flirting now; his laptop had fallen from his lap to the side of the couch. We had to be quiet because Thursdays are school nights and Fridays are spelling tests and Max had been having some test anxiety. He’d begun to misspell words he’d known how to spell the year before. Max was seven.
“Fine, cut it down, cut the whole thing down,” I hissed through Sam’s fingers. “But we have to do something first.”
I grabbed a quilt from the linen cupboard and I threw it down on the front lawn and I pulled Sam down beside me and we were so giggly, trying to be quiet. I felt like we were fourteen.
“Look,” I hiss-whispered, “No one can see us.”
I love you, Sam mouthed to me, And I’m cutting this fucking hedge. I burst out laughing and he covered my mouth again, his thin body was pressed against mine, shaking with stifled laughter.

Max is sitting on top of the ball now, deliberately plunked down just far enough away from me so I can’t reach him with my arms or a toe of an outstretched leg.

“What are you thinking about?” I say.
“I hate this age,” he says. His cheeks are flushed. His freckles are Sam’s.
“What do you hate about it, bud?”
“All of it. I wish I was young again.”
“You’re eight, Max.” I try to say it gently. “You’ve got your whole life ahead of you.”
“My whole stupid life. I don’t want it.” He’s bouncing on the ball harder now, slamming down on it with a real force, and I try to remember if I’ve ever seen one of these red rubber things burst.
“Well. I want it,” I say. And this is selfish, and my Max, he knows it. “What age do you want to be then?”
Max jerks his shoulders in a quick shrug. He’s really red in the face now. I can see dirt under his fingernails and a fine half-ring of summer grit around his neck.
“Two, I guess.”
“Two? Two years old?”
“Yeah. I didn’t have to worry then. And I could walk.”
“Yeah, well, I like you now. Back then you made no sense—‘A goo goo ga ga mama dada mama.’
“Dumb,” but his smile is coming back.
Come,” I say, “Or do your bouncing for a few more minutes. But I’m getting dressed and we’re doing dessert before dinner tonight.” I think I see his face soften just a little more.

♦♦♦

It’s 2019. My friends text. If they called, I think I might be more honest with them about what I need. Responding to a text gives me too much time to rationalize that I don’t need anything, that Max and I are doing as good as we can be, when in reality sometimes I really want someone to watch him, and sometimes I want a nice meal delivered to us, one I didn’t have to put the effort into calling and ordering and paying for. The only person who calls is my mom, but she has been drunk for twenty years, and I didn’t even invite her to the funeral because I knew I’d be embarrassed. My therapist called this “self-preservation.” I call this “fucked up.”

Somehow, in the forefront of her inebriated mind, my mom remembers Sam is gone, and when I answer the phone she bawls and then becomes tender and says she can’t imagine how I must feel. It always ends when she cry-screams to me that I never let Max see her, which is only a slight exaggeration. I answer her calls once a week, on average. My therapist calls this self-sabotage. I call this progress. To me, it’s worth it—for the moments before she accuses me of keeping her grandson from her. She gives me what I need. My therapist does this too, but I pay her. So it feels different.

At our wedding in Ojai, the air overcast and citrus-sweet, my mom was hammered. During the ceremony, she kept crying out, shouting things about her only daughter leaving. “No one knows her like I do. No one!” Sam held his hand up in a just-a-sec gesture to the officiant, and took a big step toward the first row, leaning over to my mom and said, “I love your daughter more than anything, Michele. Anything in the world. Do you know that? Know that. And I love you, too. Thank you so much for being here for us.” And he smiled a real smile. Then he popped back over to me—so nimble he was—all of this and he never let go of my hand.  I used to think he did it for my mom, to give her peace of mind. But now I know he said those things to my mom for me. So that I would know. He was going to stand up for me. He was going to make me feel safe.

The exact moment Sam disappeared came when I was driving Max home from baseball practice. Max was really upset because his coach kept having him practice in the outfield, but he didn’t want to play that position. He wanted to be first base. He’d always wanted to be first base, ever since his book report on Lou Gehrig. I never asked Coach Curtis Why isn’t my kid first base-y enough? I was waiting for Sam to help with that sort of interrogation.

Was it better that Max was upset already? Or was it worse. Most days I ask myself this. I think, maybe, he would have suffered just the same that night when the police came and knocked on the door, like they could feel my panic from the station, which was increasing in the fifteen-minute increments of my unanswered phone calls. Maybe it would have hurt just as bad if he’d had a great practice. If Coach Curtis had been putting him on first base from day one. But then I think: maybe it would have been worse. Harder. To go from a good night to the worst night. Maybe it was good then, that it was already a shit night, that Max was pouting in his room as I put dino chicken nuggets on a plate for him.

The policemen were warm, and said they were sorry. They said there wasn’t much of the body. They said to have someone else go identify him. They said it would be too much for me. What I thought about when they said all this to me was how I wanted to have another son, another one of Sam’s sons. We were going to try again soon. Sam wanted a girl so much, but I didn’t think I’d be good with a girl. When I was pregnant with Max, home alone, I used to rub my incredible stomach and say, “Be a boy, be a boy, be a boy.” And somehow, Max listened.

♦♦♦

 I’ve been wearing the same bra for over a year now. Besides sport bras it’s the only one I wear. I don’t remember where I got it and the brand and size have been worn off the tag. One of the great mysteries of my life. Another is when I will buy a new bra. I put it on and I like the way it feels, stretched out a bit, and lived in, and I pull on a dress light enough for this August heat and I grab my purse and keys and walk outside and Max is there, lying on the grass, eyes up to the sky, not moving when he hears me open the door.

His spelling has gotten worse. His text anxiety not so much anxiety anymore, but an ambivalence. I know this is depression. We still study together, Mondays and Thursdays. Sam used to make up these songs, or new lyrics to already-songs, and sing them with Max to help him remember. To “Bingo” once: S-H-I-R-T! S-H-I-R-T! S-H-I-R-T! A shirt for little Max-y! I’m no good at this shit. Give me flashcards. I learn visually. When was the last time I sang? I don’t care about his scores this year. There should be a law. If a parent dies, you pass that grade. No questions. I wonder if Max remembers these old songs.

“Froyo?” I say, looking at his small, still body. “Cupcakes? Ice cream? We could see if there are new flavors.”
“Don’t know,” he says.

I don’t either, but I can’t tell him that. I’m thinking about the different kinds of happiness I’d see come over Max when he’d see Sam or me. With me, it’s relief. I am of comfort. With Sam, he was bright. He was so happy. I’d even been jealous of the way he runs to the door when Sam comes home after a conference. Ran to the door. I want him to hold onto some semblance of hope. I want him to know I am having a hard time too. That the despair is shared. But I worry he will worry about me, then. So I lie down beside him in the sharp grass and watch as the clouds swim across the almost-night sky. No one can see us, like this. The hedge is high again. The leaves are dark green around us on all sides. From inches away I hear my son, breathing.

 

 

 


Sarah Sturgis is a writer, artist, and educational therapist in Los Angeles. She’s a true extrovert. She loves her friends, her partner, her family, and reading.