by Maureen F. McHugh
I. Naturalistic Narrative
Cheap pens. My marriage is not going to survive this. Not the pens — I bought the pens because no pen is safe when Mark is around; his backpack is a black hole for pens — so I bought this package of cheap pens, one of which doesn’t work (although rather than throw it away, I stuck it back in the pen jar, which is stupid), and two of them don’t click right when you try to make the point come out and then go back. It’s good to have them, though, because I’m manning the phone. Tim, my husband, is out combing the Buckeye Trail in the National Park with volunteers, looking for my nine-year-old stepson, Mark. Mark has been missing for twenty-two hours. One minute he was with them, the next minute he wasn’t. I am worried about Mark. I am sure that if he is dead, I will feel terrible. I wish I liked him better. I wish I’d let him take some of these pens. Not that Tim will ever find out that I told Mark he couldn’t have any of these pens.
The phone rings. It’s Mark’s mother, Tina. “Hello?” she says, “hello, Amelia? Hello?” Her voice is thick with medication and tears. Tina is a manic-depressive and lives in Texas.
“Hi, Tina,” I say. “No word yet.”
“Oh God,” Tina says.
Get off the line, I think. But I can’t throw Mark’s mother off the phone.
“Was he wearing his jacket?” she asks. She has asked that every time she’s called. As if sheever noticed whether or not he had his jacket on.
“He did,” I say, soothing. “He’s a smart kid.”
“He could have just turned his ankle,” she says. “They’ll find him.” I offered this scenario a couple of hours ago, but she’s forgotten I suggested it, and she thinks she is comforting me. I allow myself to sound comforted. She says she’ll call back in an hour. I’m convinced he is drowned. I can see it; the glimmer of his white hands and face in the metallic water. I can’t say it to anyone.
What will happen to my marriage? When a child dies, divorce is pretty common. Two people locked in their grief, unable to connect. But I won’t grieve like Tim, and some part of me will be relieved. I’m honest with myself about this. The secret in our marriage will slowly reveal itself. He will learn that I didn’t love Mark, and how can you love someone who didn’t love your only son?
When I married Tim, Mark was only six. He was the child of a dysfunctional marriage. He was prone to angry outbursts. He was resentful. All they had were plastic glasses, and I bought cheap glass tumblers, but Mark didn’t like them. He wanted “their” glasses. I made the dinners, and I hated the lime green plastic cups. I wanted to sit at a nice table.
It was a classic stepfamily drama. It’s in the books. I compromised. I used the ghastly plates from his mother, the ones with country geese on them, but insisted on the glass tumblers. It was our family table, I explained. A mix of old and new, like our family. Mark hated everything I cooked. I used the same canned sloppy joe mix that his father had always used, and Mark sat at the table, a blond boy who was small for his age, crying silently into his sandwich. He hated sloppy joes.
His father couldn’t stand to hear him cry that he was hungry. I sat on the bed in the master bedroom. Maybe I should have given in. It was hard to decide. He was six years old, and he didn’t have a bedtime, didn’t dress himself for school in the morning. He lay on the floor crying while I put his socks on. I made his father put him in bed at nine each night. Before we’d married, Mark had terrible headaches, so terrible that his father had taken him to the hospital and they’d done CAT scans. After we got married and we started eating at a regular time and he had a bedtime, the headaches disappeared.
I should have given in on the green glasses. But why should I have had to eat at an ugly table, when he had taken all the joy out of the dinner anyway? When it was always a screaming battle? What was I supposed to do? When was it important that he have his own things, and when was it important that he not get his own way?
The phone doesn’t ring. That’s good, because when it does, it will be Tina.
When they say they have found his body, I will comfort Tim. I’ll just comfort him with my hands. I’ll just be there. Not talking. Just there. Like something out of Jane Eyre. Actually, I’ll get impatient, because I finally have him to myself and yet Mark will have him. You can’t compete with the dead. I always thought that if we were married long enough, eventually we would get that time that people without children get when they are first married. We’ll be fifty-year-old newlyweds going out to see a movie on a whim and not worrying about child care.
I can’t think about any of it.
This is the last moment of my marriage. Or maybe my marriage is already gone.
I have the sudden urge to get up and go out and get in my little beat-up eight-year-old Honda that I bought with my own money, and drive. I took the freeway to my first job, working in an amusement park for the summer when I was sixteen. I hated the job, and I hated to be home. I used to get on the freeway headed north and think that I could just keep going, up to Detroit, across to Windsor, Ontario and up to Quebec, where I would get a job at a fast food place and learn to speak French.
The doorbell rings. It’s Annette, the neighbor down the street. I like Annette, although I have always suspected that she disapproved of Mark and, therefore, of Tim and me as parents. Annette has two daughters, and when we all moved onto the street her daughters were five and seven while Mark was eight. Mark and the boys next door run around in hunter camouflage playing war and spying in windows.
She sits and has a cup of tea. Annette is a working mother. Here in the suburbs there are working mothers and there are housewives and there is me. I’m an architectural landscaper, and I work out of my home.
“Funny that Tim is the one out wandering the wilderness,” I say to Annette.
“Yeah?” Annette says.
“Well,” I say, “Tim hates the outdoors, hates yard work, hates plants.” Tim is an engineer. Computers are his landscapes.
She laughs a little for me. “You’re holding up really well, you know that?” she says.
Of course I’m holding up well. If her daughter was out there, Annette would be devastated. If Tim had disappeared, I would be incoherent. I wish I was incoherent about Mark.
The phone rings. I pick it up, expecting to hear Tina saying, “Amelia?”
“Amelia?” says a man’s voice.
“Yes?” I say, only realizing afterward that it’s Tim.
“We found him,” he says. “He’s okay. A little bit of hypothermia and a little dehydrated. We’re going into the clinic to have him checked. Can you meet me there?”
Tim sounds normal.
I start to cry when I hang up the phone, because I’m terrified.
An eight-legged essay is a Chinese form. It consists of eight parts, each of which presents an example from an earlier classic. Together, the parts are seen as the argument. The conclusion is assumed to be apparent to the reader. It is implicit rather than explicit. It’s not better or worse than argument and conclusion, it’s different. It is more like a story. This is not an eight-legged essay. If it were, I would use examples from the classic literature. Once upon a time there was a girl named Cinderella. Once upon a time there was a girl named Snow White.
We enter into all major relationships with no real clue of where we are going: marriage, birth, friendship. We carry maps we believe are true: our parents’ relationship, what it says in the baby books, the landscape of our own childhood. These maps are approximate at best, dangerously misleading at worst. Dysfunctional families breed dysfunctional families. Abuse is handed down from generation to generation. That this is the stuff of 12-Step programs and talk shows doesn’t make it any less true or any less profound.
The map of stepparenting is one of the worst, because it is based on a lie. The lie is that you will be mom or you will be dad. If you’ve got custody of the child, you’re going to raise it. You’ll be there, or you won’t. Either I mother Mark and pack his lunches, go over his homework with him, drive him to and from Boy Scouts, and tell him to eat his carrots, or I’m neglecting him. After all, Mark needs to eat his carrots. He needs someone to take his homework seriously. He needs to be told to get his shoes on, it’s time for the bus. He needs to be told not to say “shit” in front of his grandmother and his teachers.
But he already has a mother, and I’m not his mother, and I never will be. He knows it, I know it. Stepmothers don’t represent good things for children. Mark could not have his father and mother back together without somehow getting me out of the picture. It meant that he would have to accept a stranger whom he didn’t know and maybe wouldn’t really like into his home. It meant he was nearly powerless.
That is the first evil thing I did.
The second evil thing that stepparents do is take part of a parent away. Imagine this, you’re married, and your spouse suddenly decides to bring someone else into the household, without asking you. You’re forced to accommodate. Your spouse pays attention to the Other, and while they are paying attention to the Other, they are not paying attention to you. Imagine the Other was able to make rules. In marriages it’s called bigamy, and it’s illegal.
At the hospital, the parking garage is a maze. I follow arrows to the stairs and down past the walkway to the front entrance, which is nearly inaccessible from the street. The walkway is planted with geraniums paid for by the hospital auxiliary, and the center of the front drive is an abstract statue surrounded by the ubiquitous mass of daylilies, Stella d’Oro. The building front is all angles, and the entrance is a revolving door. How do they get wheelchairs out a revolving door? But angled so that people like me won’t see it right away is a huge sliding door for accessibility.
The elevators are nowhere near the receptionist. I am trying to decide how to compose my face. I can’t manage joyous. Relieved? I am relieved, but I’m not, too. Mark doesn’t handle stress very well, even by nine-year-old standards. Things are going to be difficult after this. We’ll get calls from the teacher about his behavior at school. I pass a Wendy’s (in a hospital? But then it seems like a pretty good idea) and the gift shop and turn left at the elevators.
Mark isn’t in a hospital room; he’s asleep in some sort of examining room in a curtained-off bed. Tim is sitting on the edge of the bed wearing his baseball cap that says “Roswell Institute for UFO Studies.” I bought him that as a joke.
“He’s okay,” Tim whispers. “We can take him home whenever.”
“Are you okay?” I ask.
“I’m okay,” Tim says. “Are you okay?”
I say I’m fine, and we float becalmed in a sea of “okays.”
We hug. Tim is six feet tall.
“I think in some ways you were more worried than I was,” Tim says. “I know you care a lot for him. I think more than you know.”
I smile a lie.
Mark is sleeping like a much younger child, abandoned to exhaustion. His mouth is open slightly, and he has one fist curled next to his cheek. Tim picks him up, and he stirs to rest on Tim’s shoulder but doesn’t wake.
We walk through the lobby; the happy family, the family that brushed disaster and escaped.
3. Fairy Tales — Beauty and the Beast
Before Mark gets lost, we are living in another town. We are both employed by the same firm. I am studying architectural landscaping. The firm that employs us is a large company that sells many different products: detergents and diapers and potato chips.
In March they call our division together and say that the company will be restructuring, but that they don’t intend to lay anyone off. As we walk out of the cafeteria where the meeting has been, Tim says, “That means layoffs for sure.” I laugh, and he starts calling headhunters.
They lay one hundred and fifty people off four months later. They ask some of us to stay during the transition and offer Tim and me positions as contractors with a rather lucrative bonus for staying until December 31.
Tim finds another job in September, and moves four hours away.
After Tim has gone, on Fridays Mark and I go out for pizza. Mark is seven. We go to a pizza place where the middle part of the restaurant is shaped like the leaning tower of Pisa except that it’s only three stories tall. It’s called Tower Pizza, and the pizza is mediocre but they have a special children’s room where they play videos of Disney movies on a large screen TV.
It is snowing, so it must be November or so. The video is of Beauty and the Beast.
“This sucks,” Mark says. “They always show this one. I hate this one.”
“Do you want to sit in the regular part of the restaurant?” I ask.
“No,” Mark says. “This is okay.”
He wants a Mountain Dew because it has the most caffeine. “Caffeine is cool,” he says. “When’s Dad coming home?”
“Late tonight,” I say. “First pizza, then we’ll get a video, and you can take it home and watch it, and we’ll wait for your dad.”
“I wish Dad were here now,” Mark says.
“So do I,” I say. “How was school?”
“I hate school,” Mark says.
“Did you have gym today?” I try to ask specific questions that will elicit a positive response. “How was school” is a tactical mistake, and I know it as soon as I’ve said it.
“Yeah,” he says. “I’m not hungry.”
If I take him home, he’ll be hungry five minutes after we get in the car, and nothing I have at home will be what he wanted. What he really wants is his dad, of course. “Just have some pizza,” I say. “You’ll be hungry once you taste it.”
He doesn’t answer. He’s watching the little broken teacup dance around. “Can I go over by the TV?” he asks.
“Sure,” I say.
I read my book while he watches TV, and when the pizza comes I call him. Pepperoni pizza. I don’t really like pepperoni pizza, but it’s the only kind that Mark eats.
“How much do I have to eat?” he asks.
“Two pieces,” I say.
He sighs theatrically.
After pizza we stop and get a Christmas movie about a character named Ernest. We had seen the first Ernest movie, the Ernest Halloween movie, and the movie that involved the giant cannon and the hidden treasure. Ernest is terminally stupid, and this is supposed to be funny. At least Ernest is an adult, and there aren’t the usual clueless parents in this one.
“Will you watch it with me?” Mark asks.
“Okay,” I say. I sit with him and read my book and wish I could go to bed. By Friday I’m so tired I can’t think. Tim will get home about eleven. It’s seven thirty. I have three and a half hours, and then he’ll be in charge.
“Can I have some popcorn?” Mark asks.
“You just had pizza,” I say.
“I’m hungry,” his voice rises.
“No,” I say. “If you were hungry, you should have eaten more pizza.”
“I wasn’t hungry then,” he says, “but now I’m hungry.”
“Why is food always a battle with you?” I say because I’m tired.
Mark starts to cry.
I slap the tape in the VCR and go upstairs. I sit on the bed. I think about going downstairs and saying I’m sorry. I think about smacking him.
The phone rings, and I run for it. It’s Tim.
“Amelia?” he says.
“Where are you?” I say. He should be about halfway home.
“I’m not even out of town yet. My car broke down,” he says. “I’m at a BP on Route 16. You remember the Big Boy where we had breakfast? It’s right there. I had to stand on the highway for half an hour. It’s snowing like a son of a bitch.”
“Can they fix it?”
“Amelia,” he says, exasperated, “it’s almost eight, and there isn’t a mechanic here. I have to call a tow truck and get it towed to a garage and then see. I can’t get home tonight.”
You left me. You left me here with your child. “Okay,” I say. “Will you tell Mark?” Otherwise he will blame me. Seven year olds blame the messenger.
“Sure,” he says, resigned.
“Mark?” I call. No answer, although I can hear Ernest on the TV. “Mark?” After a moment I say to Tim, “Hold on,” and I go downstairs. Mark is sitting on the couch, deaf to the world. “Mark!” I say loudly.
He starts. “What!”
“Your dad is on the phone.”
He jumps off the couch and runs for the kitchen phone calling, “Dadddyyyy!” It is artificial. It is the behavior of a child raised on sitcoms. It sets my teeth on edge.
I go back upstairs and hang up the extension.
Mark is sobbing when I come back downstairs. He hands me the phone and runs and throws himself face down on the couch.
“Amelia?” Tim says. He sounds tired. He is standing out in the cold; he doesn’t know how much the car is going to cost him. I’ve been a shit, of course. “I’ll call you tomorrow,” he says.
“Okay,” I say.
I go in and I rub Mark’s back. After a while he turns his tear-stained face toward the TV and watches, and I go back to my book.
Saturday morning I sit on the steps while he tells me about the car. The phone cord is stretched from the kitchen to the foyer.
In a tiny, whining little girl voice, I say, “You have to come home.” Mark is watching cartoons, and I don’t want him to hear me crying. “You have to come home.”
“I can’t,” he says. “The car won’t be fixed until late today, if at all today.”
“Can’t you rent a car?”
He hasn’t thought of that. “I don’t know,” he says.
“You have to come home,” I say. I whisper. I can’t think of anything else to say. Who am I? Who is this insipid woman whose voice is coming out of my mouth, begging, sobbing?
“I’ll come home,” he says. “I’ll call you back.”
When he comes home, I can’t talk to him. I’m afraid that if I open my mouth, toads and beetles and worms will pour out, and I will say something. Something irrevocable.
Mark has been lying on the couch. At one point he was screaming because he said he wanted his daddy and he wanted him right now, but his father was only about halfway home. Well, only about halfway to our home. His daddy doesn’t live here anymore. The house is up for sale. We will leave at the end of December.
I wanted to tell Mark that if it wasn’t for me, his daddy wouldn’t have come home this weekend at all. But I don’t say anything. I close my mouth so that no ugly thing will come out.
I am good. I am trying hard to be good.
Dear Mr. and Mrs. Friehoff,
Mark is a bright child, fully capable of doing the assigned work. He is often a charming child. He has quite a sense of humor. However, he has poor impulse control, does not stay in his seat, talks out inappropriately in class, and hits other children when he is frustrated. His grades reflect his inability to control himself.
He has been referred for screening through the guidance office, however, I don’t think that Mark suffers from hyperactivity or ADD. He is maturing emotionally and physically more slowly than he is intellectually. Children mature at different rates, and this isn’t cause for alarm.
Please call me to set up an appointment. I’m best reached between12:15 and 12:50 or after school…
5. Authorial Intrusion
It is important to note that this story is a story of particulars. Most stepchildren live with their mother, so the situation in this story is unusual, although not unique. There are three common reasons why a court will grant full custody to the father, and these are: 1) abandonment by the biological mother; 2) significant and documented mental instability in the mother; or 3) a history of substance abuse in the mother.
The greatest threat to stepchildren is the adult partner of the biological parent. Boyfriends account for a large proportion of child abuse. I would cite the source on this, but I read it inMcCall’s or Better Homes and Gardens while I was waiting at the HMO to have my prescription filled, and I didn’t feel right taking the magazine. Stepmothers account for a significant proportion of child abuse cases, too, I’m sure.
What isn’t documented is the affect on the child of living with someone who does not physically abuse or neglect them, who is apparently a decent, caring parent, who goes through all the forms of parenthood without ever really feeling what a parent feels. This is not abuse, it is just fate. If anyone is at fault, it is the adult, but how do you force something you don’t feel? What is the duty of the adult? What is the duty of the child?
Tim calls home from work at four. Mark gets off the bus at three thirty. “Hi Sweetie,” Tim says. “How is everything?”
“Okay,” I say. “Mark got a two.” Mark gets a note every day at school rating his behavior on a five-point scale from poor to excellent! Two is one notch above poor. Call it fair.
“What did you say?” Tim asks.
“Just the usual. You know, ‘What happened? Are you sure it’s all Keith’s fault? Did you have anything to do with it? Is there anything you could have done to keep it from happening?’ That stuff.”
Tim sighs on the other end of the phone. “What’s he doing now?”
“He’s supposed to be doing his homework,” I say. “I think he’s playing with the cat.”
“Oh. Let me talk to him.”
“Mark!” I call down the stairs. No answer. There never is. “Mark? Your dad’s on the phone.” I listen for a long moment. Just about the time I decide he hasn’t heard me, Mark picks up and breathes, “Hello?”
I hang the phone up gently. I sit on the bed beside the upstairs phone and wonder what they are saying. I smooth the wrinkles out of the crimson bedspread. I want to tell Tim about the school open house, and if I don’t tell him now, I’ll forget to tell him tonight. I’d forgotten every evening all last week.
I pick up the phone, and Tim is saying, “…and don’t upset Amelia.”
“Okay,” Mark breathes, as if this is a familiar litany.
“Tim?” I say.
“Amelia,” he says. “Okay Mark, hang up.”
“I wanted to tell you about the open house Thursday.”
“Mark,” Tim says, “hang up.” I hear the strain in his voice.
“Okay.” Mark hangs up with a clatter.
I chatter about the open house, about how I keep forgetting to tell him. Tim promises to be home in time. “I’ll pick up Mark and then we’ll get some fast food and go to the open house.”
“I’ll go with you,” I say.
“If you want,” Tim says. “You don’t have to go.”
“It’s okay,” I say.
“You really don’t have to,” Tim says. “He’s my kid.” Before he finishes, I hear someone say something in the background, his manager, probably irritated that Tim is spending time on personal phone calls. Tim cups his hand over the receiver and says something. “Gotta go,” he says to me.
“Okay,” I say. I stay on the phone after he has hung up, listening for a moment to the empty air.
7. Pillow Talk
At open houses you don’t get to talk to the teachers. You just sit with a bunch of other parents, and the teacher tells you all what school is like. In a month there will be parent-teacher conferences. Tim grimly writes down the dates for the open house in his organizer. I suspect it will be a familiar experience. “Mark is a very bright boy, but he has trouble staying in his seat. Did you know he cries very easily?”
Mark likes the novelty of having us at school. “Do you want to see the gym?” He leads us purposefully through the low-ceilinged halls. The hallways always seemed so big when I was a child. He takes us to the art room. He likes art. He has a papier-mache fish on the wall. It is huge and blue and green, with an open mouth and a surprised expression. A big, glorious fish.
“It’s great,” I say. “It’s really neat.”
Mark is bouncing on his toes, not appearing to have heard me.
Tim says, “Mark! Stand still!”
I touch Tim’s arm. “It’s okay,” I say. “He’s not bothering anything.”
That’s who Mark is, and maybe we should ease up on him a bit. Asking him to be still is asking him to do something he’s wired wrongly for.
I will try, I promise myself, to give Mark spaces where he can vibrate a little.
At home that night Tim, and I crawl into bed. We haven’t made love in a month, and I don’t suggest it now.
“Do you mind if I watch the weather?” Tim asks.
I turn on my side with my back to him and try to sleep. The news flickers when I close my eyes, like flames. Like…something. I don’t know what. I want to cry.
“Do you ever feel pulled?” I ask.
“Is this a talk?” Tim says. It’s a joke between us. He says the worst words a wife can utter are, “Oh Tim, we have to talk.”
“Do you feel pulled between making me happy and making Mark happy?”
“Sometimes,” he says.
“Are you afraid of me?” I ask.
“Afraid of you?” Tim says. He laughs.
“Not that way,” I say. “I mean, afraid about how I’ll act with Mark. Afraid I’ll be mad at him or something.”
Tim is silent for a moment. Finally he says, “I’m afraid you’ll get so tired of my rotten kid you’ll run away.”
I am thinking that I cannot live like this. I cannot be the one that everyone fears. I am thinking that if I leave, Mark will have been abandoned again. I am thinking that I am coming to understand Mark, like tonight, at the school, in ways that Tim cannot. And Mark needs that.
I am thinking I am trapped.
Think of it like a prison sentence, I tell myself. In nine years, Mark will be eighteen and he’ll be gone.
I despise myself.
We are meeting with a counselor, as a family. It’s Tim’s idea, based on the teacher’s note about Mark possibly being an ADD child. It seems to me that ADD is a description of personality. The therapist is a woman named Karen Poletta. I like her; she’s middle-aged and a little overweight. Professional with kids without being a kind of mother figure. I like her gray hair: straight, smooth, and shining. I like the way she looks right at me.
By the year 2010, there will be more stepfamilies than, than, what is the right word, natural families? Nuclear families? Normal families? It’s a vaguely comforting thought. I can imagine an army of us, stepmothers, marching across the country. Not marching: creeping. I can’t imagine us marching.
I am saying some of my concerns. “I don’t trust myself,” I am saying. “I don’t trust my reactions.” Tim is watching me. Karen Poletta is watching me. This is a session without Mark, who is at my mother’s. I look at the bookshelf with the Legos and the puppets. Family counseling. I’m glad she hasn’t had Mark do anything with puppets. “I don’t know if I’m being too strict, if I’m just getting mad. I don’t know if, for example, I’m letting him stay out too late in the evening because I don’t want him around because it’s quieter when he’s not around. So I try to see what the other parents do, and do what they do.”
Karen Poletta looks thoughtful. “How is that different from a biological parent?” she asks. “Particularly when you have a child like Mark, who is a difficult child. You’re not the only parent of a difficult child who wants some relief. I think some of the things that you think are because you are a stepmother are stepmother issues, but some of them are just parent issues.”
It’s not, I think, it’s not the same. I don’t love him. I don’t like him.
Karen Poletta is talking about how much better off Mark is with us than with his mother. That sometimes things aren’t perfect, but they are good enough. That Mark has a safe and stable home.
There’s air in the room, and I realize I am taking deep breaths. Big, gulping breaths.
“But he needs a mother,” I say, interrupting.
“And he doesn’t have one,” the therapist says. “But he has a father and a stepmother.”
It is what we have.