WE DROPPED OUR LAST CHILD OFF at school and drove a thousand miles home. The school was a university. The buildings were massive, concealing the children’s futures within thick, enduring walls of brick and concrete. The parents filled the student dorms with objects: blankets, shoe racks, handheld vacuums, tiny refrigerators, coffee makers, as though propelled by memories of their own sorrowful need. They wanted to prepare their children; they did not want the children to want anything. Then the parents left.
She was the second of two. We stood with her outside the dorm, and it sounded like a war was going on inside, but she laughed and identified it only as joy. Lights spangled on and off in the old buildings. The shabby buildings sat there, their red brick dull in the evening light. She wanted to vanish inside them; that wanting was a gift. She stepped toward the dorm, said goodbye, and that was that.
We drove home, a thousand miles, our hearts tender as glass.
We opened the door to silence, and we went to the second one’s room. It looked like someone had ransacked it, taking her posters, her jewelry boxes. It looked like violence had been done. The only thing to do was make the bed, tucking in the edges carefully, because I did not know what else to do.
Twenty years ago, we brought the first child home. We held him, and the silence before us then was the deep, vast thrum of all we didn’t know. We were here, suddenly parents. The silence weighed down the air like boulders on silk. And then, of course, he cried.
Soon the children bounded up and ate food and broke things and cried out in the middle of the night. There were toys they wanted and discarded; they ate candy that made their teeth blue. There were screams and slammed doors and arguments and many sentences that froze in the air, glittering meanly, and that I wished I could grab and smush under the bed, embarrassed. The times I had not been able to help, when they asked, or didn’t, the times I had been on a call, the times I was too tired to listen.
I stood, listening to the wild, quiet drone of their childhoods, finished.
I walked into the living room and there was a third child sitting in it. On a chair. I screamed. He startled and looked at me with brown eyes that seemed like a baby’s, new. He had dark hair, like me. He was curled in a chair, clutching his body as though he were cold. His arms were thin as a deer’s legs.
Who are you? I asked.
Who, I said, chilled. How did you get in here? I’m calling the police.
Stop joking. Stop. You know.
Where are your parents?
I live here, he said. There was softness around his eyes. Then he said, terrifyingly, Mom.
I did a quick look around the room, but obviously he was talking to me. Me. I was his mother. Suddenly, I knew it. I had given birth to him, clearly in some sort of haze, and then I had forgotten him. The others had taken everything. They stumbled into the world, glossy and beautiful and greedy, distracting us for years. I did not realize the house was this large, or, for God’s sake, had this many unswept corners.
He scratched his knee. His shoulders wilted a bit, unburdened. He was wearing an old T-shirt I recognized from our son’s closet. When had he snuck in to grab it? He smelled a little rancid, of sour, damp cotton.
I wanted to say, I never had you, but it seemed a terrible thing to say, looking at him, and there was the nagging feeling I always had as a mother, that I had forgotten something, and here it was. I had forgotten this child. There was the low, rumbling fear of forgetting: forgetting to pick someone up at an activity, forgetting to buy the gold stickers for the art project, forgetting to pay the registration fee, forgetting to give someone their lunch, forgetting the dentist appointment. I was a supreme artist of forgetting. Not just the children, but my husband, the person I wanted to be with during this life. I had forgotten to pick up his toothpaste, his favorite ice cream; I had forgotten to ask him about his concerns; to be fair, he had not remembered mine either. The house was a vault of stale air and missed opportunities.
I looked at the child. He did seem familiar. I could see that his mouth resembled my mother’s, that precise red blossom. His long, dark eyelashes were like my father’s. I trembled, bracing myself for years of concealed love, or something, to tumble down upon him. I sensed it, gathering deep inside me, a giant, sodden, fluttering chaos-haul of trash. The immensity of it would bury us—or so, perhaps, I hoped.
He walked with me to a corner of the garage and showed me a pile of rags and a baby blanket. It was neatly arranged. He said he had slept here for ten years. I shivered. This child, my child, had been sleeping on rags while we raised the others. I had not taken care of him. And now here he was.
I want my own room, he said.
I wanted to hug him. Arms emerged out of my sides as though they had been chopped off. I held out my hand, and he grabbed it—with that small, perfect hand. His hand in mine lit up my arm. On the drive home from the college, I had felt my body dim, even though I knew better, even though God knows I had numerous other activities to pursue, even though I had made eager, sputtering lists of all my plans for when they had left.
I felt his back rising up and down, breathing. In other bad news, I had forgotten his name. I wanted him to tell me without me asking. I looked for a hint, initials, saw them scrawled on the edge of his shirt: CB.
Are you hungry? I said. C.
No, he said. C?
Your nickname, I said, watching him.
I guess so, he said.
C, I said.
He lunged forward and wrapped his arms around me, ferocious, fingers lurching into my shoulders, like he was slipping off a cliff. I held him, tight. I craved that desperation, that need, like an evil drink. My children had not held me like that for some time. This was now how they held their friends, boyfriends, that same clutching. I knew it was right and just, and I did not want them to clutch my hand forever, I did not. But what was it like now to live in that forever?
I thought it was over, that brief, elastic falling in love, shaped one way around an infant, another as the child began to walk, stretching to contain the children as they began to walk and run and leave you. The endless, tender flexibility of that parachute. That parachute now taut, I was not sure how to stretch it, form it, where to put it. I listened to his heart beating, slowly, a dark sound of thunking, beside mine.
I want food, he said.
I didn’t know what he liked, so I gave him everything. A peanut butter sandwich, apples, tuna, cookies. He grabbed a handful of tuna, and I had to show him how to use a spoon.
He piled food on my plate. Here.
I’m not hungry, I said.
Yes, you are, he said.
Our daughter called.
I am fine, she said.
We stood, awkwardly, holding the phone.
Do you need socks? Do you need a coat? Do you need Kleenex?
I hate the meatloaf, she said. My roommate tripped on her shoelaces and fell out a window. She’s alive, but barely.
Well, I started, for the first thing—
She hung up.
The extra child was used to slinking around in the darkness. He had done it so skillfully for so many years. It was strange for him to be out in the light, to be seen. He needed outfits. I took him shopping for clothes. He looked to be about ten, but he clung to my hand like a toddler.
How about this?
I held up a gray sweatshirt.
A pair of sneakers that were an otherworldly orange color but sturdy and a good price.
The mall was neon, electric, with a sparkly roaring, a noise I barely noticed, but that startled C; he put his hands over his ears. He looked around, blinking, at all the items in the clothing store. He was, oddly, not a demanding child. Anything would do, any piece of clothing was an improvement. The chipper salesmen were like new seedlings. They did not realize what they were really selling. They glided through the store with their bright smiles, so helpful, what are you looking for, but as they knelt before us, urging feet into shoes, we knew what they were really hawking here. Time. The briefness of our time together. Everything we could gather to avoid it. The mall a giant box of distraction. The roaring in the mall and inside of me.
I bought him the most expensive pair of shoes.
He said yes. He agreed with the clothes I showed him; he agreed with the hamburger we bought at the food court; he bit into everything with a tiny, terrible sigh of relief. His agreeableness scared me. The others had been appreciative in short flashes, those moments when the entire house lit up like a bomb with their joy, but what I remembered, what resided in me, were the times the house dimmed with their sorrow, when friends were mean or when they didn’t understand algebra, the times when the world slapped them around and we couldn’t help, the times when everyone stumbled around and no one could see anyone else. He took everything, he was agreeable, and I offered him what he asked for. Thank you, he said, thank you, thank you, and I was suspicious.
My husband didn’t seem that surprised at the arrival of the third child. He had always thought the house was a mess, and now here was the rationale. Now that the third child had revealed himself, there were no more suspicious crumbs in corners. He was glad to be proven right.
He’s asleep, my husband said. Come over here.
We grabbed the darkness and cocooned it around us. We crawled through it with that wet hunger and hardness and stealth. Those waves we grappled onto, the foaminess. Our hands grasping our bodies; we loved that shared reaching, the long soaring; we felt young even if we were not; we gave each other that gift of blindness. Of forgiveness.
Still, we waited for a knock. Still, we had to be quiet. We listened for him. But there was nothing. He went right to sleep.
At the day’s first light, he was at the kitchen table, waiting for breakfast. Now that he was a citizen of the house, he was up at dawn, ready for anything. Plus, he wanted to be served. I was up, getting ready for work, and I poured some cereal in a bowl for him. How grateful he was for that gesture! He smiled at me, a smile that no one had seen for years. His teeth were strangely white and perfect, like a presidential candidate’s. I will admit that his gratitude was a magnet; every morning I awoke and it drew me to sit with him.
I enrolled him in school, which meant I lied. I leaned across the desk to the vice principal and said that he was a long-lost relative who had been found. We lied to the pediatrician, telling her he had just been sent to us, which was not terribly untrue. The pediatrician, sodden from overwork, was surprisingly gullible. Everyone wanted to just move him along. C was in good health amid a flood of cases of strep throat and whiny parents; the pediatrician signed forms; C slipped through.
C was eager for the lunch box, the backpack, wanted to select the right one. He held each one tenderly in his hands as though it would inform him about his future and then chose one with a photo of a family of giraffes. I packed three peanut-butter sandwiches and five cookies for his lunch, for he was concerned about becoming hungry during the day, as though the school day were a much longer journey than it was.
Walking through the school doors, he slipped into this new world as though he had been buttered and slid down a chute. I was here, my children grown, away, and it was as though I had been laboring for years in a rusty factory of parenting. Now, the world of parenting involved standing on a deserted landing strip, scanning the empty sky. I had stories and advice and I felt like a pro. I was oddly calm. I regarded the newer parents rushing in, worried, worried about everything. Their hearts beat so furiously with worry that I could almost see them through their coats.
We did not know the other parents, as he was much younger than our other children. Hello, they said, eyeing me. Are you new to the neighborhood? they asked.
The daughter called, crying. The roommate who fell out the window was back and had become extremely controlling about any socks dropped on the floor. Plus, the daughter hated philosophy. The professor was a terrible explainer. Plus, he was mean to her.
The first thing to do is, I said.
She hung up.
The son called. He and his lab partner in chemistry had dated for three weeks now and she was his ideal woman. He got the top score on his anthropology exam. If his girlfriend got pregnant (though she wasn’t), they thought they would keep the baby in the top drawer of her dresser in her room. All would be fine.
The first thing to do is, I said.
He hung up.
C woke up early, was dressed and ready to go, walked briskly to school, came home and did his homework. We received notes from teachers. He makes me glad to be a teacher. What a student! Such a great learner! Like a sponge.
How easy he is, we marveled, strutting. Maybe we are pretty good at this.
We sat, the three of us, at the dinner table, sawing away at our food. My husband and I, oddly quiet. We were glad that C had something to say. C talked about what he had learned that day. He had consumed his giant lunch, every crumb of it, and each day he was slightly taller. He did not look eight anymore. He was ten. Eleven. Each day he seemed older, each time he returned home he seemed bigger, there was a swell of muscle on his arm, his pants were shorter, his new shoes stretched and split.
Each night, we sat around the dinner table and he told us what he had learned in a crisp, oddly articulate voice. He sounded not like a boy but like a television commentator. He read and read. He was done with the fifth-grade curriculum within a couple weeks. He was speeding through A Tale of Two Cities, telling us the plot in specific and somewhat arduous detail. We listened to him and were awed by his focus and energy, which surrounded us like an unseen light we could feel hot on our arms.
How was your day? he asked.
What? my husband asked. It was a shocking question. We just shoved through our days like quarterbacks, trying to get through, with as little bruising as possible, to the other side.
How was your day? Good, bad, middling?
My husband cleared his throat. I hate everyone, he said. Now I’m here.
C’s eyebrows lifted. He seemed disappointed by this answer.
Oh, he said. Well, tomorrow make it better.
He turned to me.
How was your day? he asked.
My coworker refused to work. I had to do everything she didn’t, I said.
He looked baffled.
Why do you let that happen? he asked, coolly.
What was he talking about, let? This was life writhing through capitalism. It was a dreary, opportunistic slither. We did our best.
Well stop it! he said. Just stop.
He spoke so that it seemed he did know everything in the world. We regarded him, moved and afraid. That certainty of the young, residing within him like a brightly wrapped gift.
I’m your mother, I said. Don’t speak to me like that.
There was, of course, a shift. The moment he saw us and did not want to be us. The moment he saw us and we switched from beautiful giants to tiny, unfortunate rocks to be kicked. We were trying so hard! But we were, of course, found wanting. He was watching our movements like a director directing a play with terrible actors. He wanted us to have different lines.
I saw him watching us and wanted to tell him I understood the watching, I did, and ruffle his hair in a kindly way. But no. His gaze was like a mouth trying to eat the world, to nourish himself with what he needed. He was trying to be different. He was trying to be himself.
Each night, he sat at the dinner table, a little larger, more muscular, and yes, sweatier, the beastly sweat of an ox. We opened windows, as we felt too shy to say anything, so as not to insult him, even if he was our child. He consumed his meals in a few gulps. He ate everything. He wanted more.
He was especially mad at me. My various failings, big and small, they seemed to personally injure him. He sat forward and his eyes glowed with the serene, cold hunger of an alligator’s.
Come on, he said. Just stop. Walk faster. Don’t eat that bread. Tell the person who won’t work to work. Stop being depressed. Just tell her.
We had been through this, with the others, but, again, it was surprising.
Don’t talk to me that way or go to your room, I said.
Now, a few weeks in, we swerved from tenderness to fear. We got through dinner quickly and warily bussed our dishes. We kept an eye on him as he soaped his dish. We were watchful, light on our feet in case of sudden movement. I thought of, in an emergency, hitting the smoke alarm for a fire we could not see. Oddly, C wanted to help clean up. He moved around the kitchen briskly, wiping down counters, sweeping the floor, but his grip on the sponge was fierce and he was scrubbing the stove a little too hard, and we watched him, wondering what he wanted to erase.
Goodnight, we called as he went to his room. You okay? Do you want anything?
He slammed his door and the house shook.
My husband locked the door to our bedroom. We couldn’t call the police, for what would we tell them? His mere presence in our household appeared to be a crime. Maybe he would calm down and read something. We locked the door while we tried to figure things out. A locked bedroom door was an invitation to each other. We were stiff, afraid at first to move.
Now we were not protecting him; we were hiding from him.
I thought I heard knocking. I jumped.
He was not knocking on the door. He was shattering something. There was shattering; we jumped up and opened the door a tiny bit and peeked out. It sounded like a dish and then there was another dish and he was yelling at all of it, but what? What was he saying? Were we supposed to punish him?
Was this the punishment for all we had not done?
Now we pushed a dresser against the door. We waited.
His anger was one-note, directed, enormous. His anger pulsed through the house, a bomb. He hit walls, there was that pounding, we could not call the police, we held each other and locked the door, and I felt his rage invade me, lighting me up, a hunger coiled deep. I understood it. C was a person in the world, with all of those awful realizations: that he was sealed within himself, that he would age, that we were parents, solid, muscular, but also worn like cardboard, paper-thin. What was he knowing? What could we offer him, with our chewed-up, hopeful hearts?
We waited. We love you, I said to the door, hoping he would hear it. We were hiding. The darkness surrounded us like glue and, somewhere, we felt the sun rise.
Somehow, I slept, and when I woke the next morning, I did not know what we would see. When we stepped out of the bedroom carefully, the dishes were cleaned up, swept. He was out of the house. He had poured his own cereal for the first time. The kitchen stank of his sweat, an entire locker room of bitterness, so strong we could taste it. The kitchen sparkled. We wandered through the gleaming, pristine landscape of the kitchen, fearful, searching for his anger. Peeking inside cabinets, shutting them. Nothing.
Clutching our coffee, we waited for him to return.
That night, I worked late, the frenetic, meticulous way one does when reluctant to go home. There are times when no parent wants to face their child, when their demands and general unwonderfulness feel like a cloud made of lead. I was nervous about what I would find. I stopped at the supermarket and filled my cart with peanut butter and jelly and milk, as we were low. In front of our house, I paused and gazed at the lights glowing within, not knowing what resided there, if these lights denoted happiness or someone who wanted to explode the world.
I opened the door, very slowly, ready for mayhem. But C appeared to be the only one home, sitting at the table, which was clean and perfectly set.
What is happening? I asked.
Hello, he said. I thought I’d set things up.
I walked in and lowered myself into a chair. C folded a napkin with great care.
I defrosted some chicken, he said.
He did not seem to be apologizing, just growing. This, too, was unnerving. The chicken sat on the counter turning wet. I said, let me show you how to cook it, and he stood beside me, watching. I handed him a fork, and he moved the chicken around in the pan a bit.
The other children floated somewhere; he and I stood together here.
I waited for the anger to crawl out from under a rock. I was oddly eager for it, its buoyant life and clarity; you could not mistake it for anything else. He sauteed the chicken with unusual tenderness. We put it on a plate and sat at the table, and I unfolded a napkin. He regarded me with a slow, careful glance—almost clinical.
I picked up the salt and shook it onto the chicken. I noticed his eyes; they were watching my hand. They detected something. I set down the salt and glanced at my hand, which appeared like a normal hand to me.
What’s wrong? I asked.
It has some spots. You’re older, he said.
His directness unnerved me.
Well, yes, I am, I said.
I covered one hand with the other, suddenly self-conscious.
I need more clothes, he said.
We can go get some this week, I said.
That night, I was about to go to sleep when I went to check on C in his room. I opened the door and peeked in. How small he seemed, quiet. He clutched his pillow, shivering.
That night, my husband kept our door locked. We trembled at any sound, we waited for the shouting, we waited for something to shatter.
But there was nothing.
Our daughter called to say she was fine. She was fine. She was crying so hard we could not understand what she was saying, but it was nothing. We didn’t need to know.
What. Tell me.
Honey. Slow down.
The long useless stretch of arms, of branches unfurling, stretching toward air.
The air troubled by the sound of your child weeping.
What can we do?
But she did need some new sneakers. Could we put money in her account for that?
Back at the mall. I was slightly stung by the hand comment, accurate as it was, and to throw around my clout, I wanted to buy him whatever he wanted. He was eager for new clothes, and he could not fit into the ones he had found, so here we were, walking through that dull, flat light, that roaring. He had had enough with the kids’ clothes, the T-shirts with trains or animals on them. He walked through the aisles swiftly, focused, and he passed the junior-size outfits to pause at a rack of button-down shirts. He picked out a light-blue one, removed his T-shirt, and slipped the shirt over his shoulders. Then he stepped back and gazed at the mirror. He could not take his eyes off himself. He was in love with this, a semblance of authority, this crisp, new stranger. He was growing up. I felt pride rush through me, that warm light.
This, he said.
He seemed nervous and excited as he dressed the next day, turned around and examined himself as though about to meet a beloved. What was the event? Who was he meeting? He had a sense of mystery and a new, quiet dignity about him. He asked me if his tie looked correct, and I was glad that he wanted my opinion. I said yes. He headed off to school in his blue button-down shirt, his face sharp with expectation, lunch in hand, walking.
That day, he came home late. We kept looking out the window, nervous, waiting. He had never been late before. Setting his backpack on the table, he sat down. He had trouble meeting our eyes. He did not want to look at us.
What now? What had he done? Where had he been? There was another feeling I noticed in him: he was not angry—it took me a moment to identify his expression, and then I recognized it as guilt. He went to bed early. I heard sounds in his room—not breaking, but something different—organizing. Packing.
The next morning, he was up early. We heard him bustling around, preparing an egg, the smell of hot butter and yolk. When we joined him at the table, he had set it again, was shaking salt onto a fried egg.
I need to tell you both something, he said.
There’s been a mistake, he said.
Alarms went off, familiar and not familiar.
I am in the wrong family, he said.
I thought I lived here, but I did not. I’m sorry for the inconvenience, he added.
He stared at me coolly. The word inconvenience, of all words.
But. Wait. Weren’t you here? All these years? You said you were here. Somewhere.
I thought this was the right address, but, he said. Apparently not. Houses look
We sat, frozen, trying to figure this out.
He paused and said, I made some calls.
So, wait. You weren’t here?
I wandered here. But, well, this is funny. This is actually not where I am supposed to be.
I stared at him.
Now that he was not who he said he was, I gripped the table, eyeing him and wondering what he wanted. Or what to feed him, or so much.
But we are your family. You lived with us.
I felt again an enormous rising inside me, a dismantling, and that peculiar vanish-ing of my arms.
I did, he said, and thank you for all of your service. He said this with irritating primness, as though he’d gotten this phrase out of a book. Service. What was he talking about? This was not a word we had taught him. He glanced at us and I could see the love in his eyes, I could. But now he wanted to go.
Is this—I wanted to ask. Is this?
Thank you all for your service. I have to go.
He was just a child. But he was a determined one, and he was one who had shown up in ways I could not explain. He now said we had no claim on him. The other family was waiting, eagerly. They were great! He had an address. They were now setting up his room, which involved throw pillows and posters.
Can’t we call them? Can we check? You are a minor!
He shook his head. He had shot up quite a bit overnight. He was taller than we were. Maybe he wasn’t even a minor! Who was he, and what were we?
Now I wanted to call the police but for different reasons—I could not keep track of all the possible crimes going on here now.
You hate us, we said. Is that it?
No, he said, firmly. Stop that. I just need to go.
He didn’t want to look at us. Something about us filled him with shame. Or did he want something more? We had raised him, in this brief period, to want to get out there. He wanted to see the world. Snow-capped mountains. Blue water rising on a beach. A dim bar. Someone’s lips.
He picked up his backpack and a tote bag with his clothes in it.
Thank you all, he said, as though addressing a convention. But it was just my husband and I, standing in the living room. He had an almost gentle, tolerant look about him, us standing before him, melting. He had liked us, in his way.
By the way, you bought me too many shirts, he said. He left a couple of shirts on a chair. He folded them, as evenly as he folded the napkins, a surprising new skill. When he hugged us, I thought I felt that clutching, that grip he had held us with just a couple months before. Or perhaps I just imagined it. How could a child blow through your house, conjuring all these feelings, and then just go?
We hugged him back, a quiet, fierce knot.
Call when you can, we said. We want to hear from you.
Then he was off.
We went to the window and watched him walk out and out and out. His walk was crisp, and his heels hit the sidewalk full of hope. We stood, my husband and I, alone, in the house. The air-conditioning blew its low, flat chill onto our arms.
I saw the shirts he had left. I took off my shirt and slid the new shirt on. My husband watched me. I buttoned it, slowly. He had left us this, a gift.
We were aware of each other. We were aware of the sun rising and the changing quality of the light. The light suffusing the street where he walked, lighting it up, and as the day went on, draining. Pale. I heard my husband breathing. There were our children floating in their lives, they were away and in their orbits, and I understood that while, yes, in some way they had left us, they were moving on to what they needed to do. C had understood that, someday, we would leave them as well.
I clasped my hands together. My vanishing arms. Each day took us farther away. Each day, we were closer to leaving them.
The children, I think, knew this.
I buttoned the blue shirt he had left. It was, I realized, a gesture of kindness. He wanted us to be dressed up for the future. He wanted us to look neat. He wanted us to have something of his, that he had chosen, and did not want us to move along this life without that. My heart burned with his sweetness.
I walked to the window at our street. I noticed the rush of sunlight, the way it lit up the windows, the houses, the lawns, the way we were all held in its blossoming and waning light. There was the sidewalk, a shining ribbon, there was the brightness glinting across the green leaves, there were the tops of cars, glimmering, and there was all the beauty he was going to, all the light he wanted to gather in his thin arms.
I looked at the sun as it stretched out across the day. All of us, located somewhere, in its bright gaze. My husband touched my shoulder very gently; and we stood together at the window and watched him walk and walk and walk.
Karen E. Bender is the author of four works of fiction; her collection Refund (Counterpoint) was a finalist for the National Book Award. A new collection is forthcoming in 2025.
Image courtesy of Sean Foster, via Unsplash.