Sunday, September 6, 2009

Short Story: Shared Border

by Harry Cheadle

I was in the middle of folding my shirts into boxes when my stepson walked into the bedroom, a rare occurrence. He stood there, big-eared and too tall for his body, like he had scheduled an appointment. I folded another shirt and laid it into the cardboard box to see if he would say anything. When he didn't, I said “Hi Stephen.” That sounded like the wrong thing to say.

I have to tell you something,” he began. “I figured I should, because I don't know when I'll get another chance to. I never really liked you. The past couple of years I tried put up with you because you seemed to make Mom happy, but I guess that wasn't even true. I wish I could say I'm sorry you're going, but I'm not really.”

He kept his hands dangling at his sides during this speech, which was the longest thing I can remember him saying to me. He stared at the bedside lamp. “I just wanted to make sure you knew,” he said.

I knew,” I said.

The boxes I was packing were going into my new apartment, where I live now. It's a two-room place overlooking an arterial lined with an uncommon amount of restaurant supply stores. A neon sign across from me advertises a store selling neon signs. My wife, or whatever you want to call her now, lent me the car so I could move my things. It was a nice gesture, and it got me out of her house faster.

It really was her house, a house she had bought with her first husband. It was her son, too. By the time I arrived, he was bent on acquiring a private, adult-free life, not adding more parents. He would spend the hours after school at coffee shops, movie theaters, friends' houses anything to keep him away from home—not that I was too concerned over his absences. They gave me time with his mother, my wife. We would make dinner together with the radio on in the background, talking, not talking, occasionally trading PG-13 kisses over the cutting board. This is so domestically blissful, I thought at the time. It's a shame Stephen's coming back.

One night, when we were lying in bed, she said, “I'm glad you're here. I think it will be good for Stephen, having another male around.”

Yes,” I said, although I wasn't sure what she expected me to do with him. Have a catch? The occasional heart-to-heart, man-to-man? Whup him when he did wrong? Tussle his hair playfully after Little League wins? Counsel him through his first shaving, car accident, love? My notions of fatherhood were a movie montage.

In any case, I didn't have a role model resume. I had no knowledge to pass on. My job was going door to door convincing people to give money to causes I felt lukewarm about. Before that I'd worked on a succession of boats, gutting fish for twelve hours, then sleeping and dreaming of gutting fish. I had slept with his mother once while she was married; after her divorce, I received a letter in her elegantly legible cursive: "I 'm not fun to be around any more, not like I was. I can't stop worrying. I have dreams where I have to take apart complex machines, but I don't know where to set the pieces down.” For that letter, I moved across three states and into the middle, suddenly, of a family unit.

One night I caught Stephen smoking a hand-rolled cigarette on the back porch. I could see the glowing orange tip, the outline of his body.

“What are you doing?” I asked.

Having a smoke.”

Tobacco or weed?” I asked, recognizing the smell from a previous life.

A little of both. It's a spliff,” he said, smirking in the dark, probably figuring I didn't know what a spliff was.

I'm going to have to tell your mother,” I said.

She knows already.”

I think what he wanted was for me to hit him, or yell at him, or drive his mother to tears, to transform into some terrible stepfatherish figure he could at least have a reason to hate. I think I physically touched him half a dozen times in all of the years we shared a home, and those mostly by accident during encounters in the cramped kitchen, the narrow hallways. He would suck in his gut as we passed, putting as many inches of air between us as he could.

By the time he was borrowing the car at nights to engage in whatever eighteen-year-olds engage in, we had established a relationship like that of European countries sharing a border, or of two men living in a boarding house.

I did end up at his high-school graduation―this was right before my wife delivered her ultimatums, before we had those serious talks that never seemed to end, only trail off. I applauded when he crossed the distant, over-lit stage and shook the principal's hand. We went out for dinner afterwards and joked about the gaudiness of the stage directions, the triteness of the class president's speech, the relief he felt at finally leaving the school and the town.

I don't think I'll see my stepson again. I'm not sure about my wife. She said she'll sell the house, move to a nearby island. She always talked abstractly about living in a cabin surrounded by empty land, selling flowers and calligraphy and antiques by the roadside, devoting herself to reading and gardening. I hope she does all of that. I hope it makes her happy, whatever the word means. Stephen will fly back from his college for the holidays and they'll have a two-person family reunion. Hugs, an exchange of gifts, long discussions on the back porch about her changed life, his changing life. I wonder if they'll talk about me.

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