“Cow,” I said, holding up a flashcard.
“Cow,” Nicky repeated. He’d just turned two and had recently discovered speech.
“Sheep,” I said, holding up the next card and annunciating carefully.
He was brilliant. I couldn’t believe he was mine. Farm animals, household objects, vehicles, tools—he drank their words like water and, in just under a week, had nearly quadrupled his little-kid vocabulary of Mommy, Grandma, peas, hello! Some things he couldn’t say yet were his t‘s, anything with more than two syllables, and Daddy.
He didn’t have a reason to learn that one.
I found out I was pregnant my first semester of college, but before that?—I studied math. Numbers were black-and-white; clear answers and concrete goals. They came with formulas and blueprints, an if this/then that to follow. 1 means one and 2 means two. Not like words, where everything is open to interpretation.
Like, look at this word:
What the hell does it even mean?
For Christmas, I’d wanted to get Nicky those green plastic army guys. You know, the ones that come thirty to a bag? I remembered my brothers playing with them when we were kids and all the imagination that went into the game—the strategy and comraderie and excitement—but my mother’d been there and had given me this lecture via Jane Pauly on Nightline concerning the negative impacts of war toys on children. Mom’s got a whole brainful of those lectures stored away: the one about leaving Steve, the one about leaving school, the one about waiting tables—one for every decision I’ve made from having a baby to having a perm, and every time she delivers I tense up, want to tell her, Hey, Ma, it’s my life, all right?—but she’s being really nice letting us stay at her place and all, so it’s best to suck it up and buy the friggin’ flashcards already.
“Shark,” I said, heavy on the k.
“Shark,” he repeated, reaching for the card. He has big hands for such a little guy. Big feet, too. If you’ve ever seen puppies you know he’s gonna be huge someday, some NFL halfback or something, but for right now he is small and fearless and that combination makes him fragile.
“Par-a-keet,” I said. That was a hard one. You could see him thinking about it, his little forehead wrinkling up. It was then that I noticed he had a red and green ribbon stuck to the side of his head, like maybe I’d missed it during Christmas morning clean-up. Funny how it could be the middle of January but you still couldn’t get away from Christmas. The house down the block still had all its lights up, like eight thousand of them to be precise, red and green and white twinklies and Day-glo Santas and plastic reindeer on the roof. Those people had some Christmas spirit—let me tell you—and then there was the janitor lady at the Y, this tiny Mexican woman, like fifty or sixty years old. Whenever I played racquetball I saw her, walking around the building with a squirt bottle and a rag. She’d see a speck of something on the floor and stop, bend over painfully, squirt the spot like a thousand times and rub, rub, rub. She wore these battery-operated earrings that blinked on and off—one red, one green—and a red and green sweatshirt that said I AM THE CHRISTMAS SPIRIT in big block letters across the front. Then, on the back, it said AND SO ARE YOU! She wore it every day, two weeks past New Year’s.
It made me feel better to see it, like maybe Christmas still had a chance.
There’d been a card hung on the Christmas tree, in between the blinky lights and strung popcorn. Inside it was a check, and a note from Steve asking to see Nicky.
This was the first I’d heard from him in nearly three years, since I’d first found out I was pregnant. “I can’t handle that right now,” he’d said, and then he stood up and walked into the bathroom. “What should we do?” I asked, following him, watching as he turned on the shower and climbed in the tub, fully dressed in boots and jeans and Carthartt jacket, the water soaking him, splashing on the floor. “Steve,” I said, not sure how to react. “What do you want me to do?”
His eyes were closed, his face upturned into the spray. “Get rid of it,” he said, more to the showerhead then to me, the pounding of the water almost drowning out his voice, weighing down the material of his clothes ’til I knew he was too heavy for me to hold up alone, so I walked out of the bathroom, got some Hefty bags, and packed my stuff. I thought about our plans: college and marriage and house and kids, this fitting into that; clear end goal. Steve stayed in the shower that whole time. The water must have been freezing by the time I finished, his skin like a prune—but that was his choice. He let me walk out of that apartment—his choice. He didn’t contact me, not once, not even when I called him at two a.m. from the hospital. “It’s a boy,” I told his voicemail, but he didn’t come. He didn’t call. He made his choice. Now, the choice was mine.
My mother disagreed, and we fought about it all Christmas: there’s my kid on the floor in his footed PJs unwrapping farm animals under the tree, and there’s my mom and I yelling—I yell No and she yells Yes and I yell, “I’m not going to let Nicky get all attached and then get ditched.” Hard enough for me to go through. I’m not letting it happen to him.
“Don’t screw this up, Pammy,” my mother said. “Don’t keep screwing up.”
I got so mad then, I wanted to rip her eyeballs out. I wanted to accidentally spill hot water on her like I do with the customers who get grab-assy at the restaurant. I’m telling you, I didn’t think I’d be able to hold it together, so I grabbed my gym bag, spilt over to the Y, and slammed racquetballs. Something about nailing that ball with the little paddle always cleared through the goop in my head.
Bam whack bam whack jingle all the way.
I was toweling off when the janitor lady came up to me with a photo album. I watched her earrings blink red and green while she opened it to the first page. “My son,” she said, big smile, full of pride. The photo was of a guy my age dressed in military fatigues. “Afghanistan,” she said, and tapped the picture. “My son,” she kept repeating as she flipped through the rest of the album: her and her son dancing at a wedding, eating dinner, hugging on an airfield. She said some things in Spanish and I nodded and smiled, and she nodded and smiled, and then I rushed home to hug my kid.
The next day, she came up to me again after my game: same earrings, same sweatshirt, same photo album. “My son,” she said, holding up the very same army photo she’d shown me not twenty-four hours before. “Afghanistan.” I wondered if she’d forgotten that she already showed it to me, or if she wanted me to see it again, like maybe I’d missed something the first time—who knew? Not me, not that day, or the next day, or the next, ’cause every day I played racquetball she came up to me with the pictures, the My sons, the eyes all full of pride. I hadn’t seen that look for a while—not from my mom. We hadn’t talked since our fight at Christmas, but after the fifth day of looking at the janitor lady’s pictures, I wanted to be done, to make nice, to be It’s a Wonderful Life, so I got dressed and took the bus down to Michigan Avenue. I hadn’t done any serious shopping since Nicky, but Steve’s check was in my pocket and my mom was in my head. Snow was falling soft, people were bustling about with shopping bags, red and green lights adorned the lamp posts—it was about as Christmas as you can get in January—and I thought of the janitor lady’s sweatshirt and laughed. I am the Christmas spirit, I said to myself, and walked right into Saks and used Steve’s money to buy my mom the watch she’d been eyeing in the catalogue, some fancy-schmancy gold thing. The saleslady wrapped it up in red and white paper with a big red ribbon, and I went home skipping. I felt Christmasy and light and happy—Deck the halls, everybody! God bless us, everyone!—right up until I walked through the front door and saw Steve sitting in the living room with Nicky on his lap.
Time stopped for a second.
I saw how much they looked alike: same shaggy hair, same eyes, same chin. “It’s mini-Steve!” everyone says when they first see Nicky; then they look at my face, turn red and backpedal, trying to get their feet out of their mouths, because they suddenly remember that Steve didn’t want this little boy.
Nicky snapped me out of it. He jumped to the floor, ran to me, yelled Mommy, Mommy! Too perfect, too innocent. “Hi, Pam,” Steve said, and I couldn’t tell what he wanted from the look on his face but it wouldn’t have mattered anyway. He could have had the best intentions, he could have had a change of heart or found the Lord or any of a million things—I didn’t care. “Not like this, Steve,” I said, pointing my finger at him as I bent down to pick up my son. “Not like this.” I turned and walked out of the house, to the car, bending to strap Nicky into his car seat. My hands were shaking and I was having a hard time with the buckles. I heard the front door slam behind me, heard the footsteps, heard her voice at my back. “He has a right, Pamela,” my mother said, and I gave up on the buckles and whirled around to face her. “Maybe he does,” I said. “But you sure as hell don’t. You say whatever you want about my life, mom. You tell me I’m a fuck-up, you tell me I’m a waste, but you don’t let that man near my son.”
I dropped Nicky off at the playroom at the Y and went into the racquetball court, all clean lines and open space and echo. My son—my son—mine—mine—I repeated the word with every ball I hit—mine—mine—mine—and when could this be over? When would it be easy? If there was just some formula, some blueprint, some clear way of knowing how many steps away I was from the solution?
After who knows how long, I dropped the paddle and stood there. My arms ached, my shirt was drenched, and I sat down on the floor of the court and cried. It had been coming for a while, that cry. So I just let myself do it, didn’t try to control it, made a lot of noise: sobs and gulps and weird gaspy sounds and I didn’t even know she was there until she was rubbing my back—rub, rub, rub—for God knows how long ’til I was all juiced out, dry like the desert—and then she handed me the photo album. “My son,” she said, tapping the picture. It was of her and the son in a restaurant together, with a red and white checkered tablecloth, eating pizza. They were laughing. I remembered then when I was younger, when there wasn’t any money to go out to eat ’cause my mom was taking care of my brothers and me all by herself. She’d pack the five of us into the station wagon, go get a pizza, and drive somewhere interesting to eat it, like the parking lot at the airport to watch the planes. The harbor, to watch the boats. The bus station, to watch the people.
It wasn’t Charlie Trotter’s, but she’d tried.
It was late by the time we got home. I slung Nicky’s sleeping body over my shoulder like a sack of salt and carried him inside. I was on the way to his bedroom when I saw her, my mother, asleep in an armchair in front of the television. Some late show was on, casting colored lights across the dark living room and her slumped body. I stood there for a minute, watching her breathe, and wondered how I’d gone so far away without really going anywhere at all.
I woke up the next day with a plan. First was taking Nicky to my cousin Stephanie’s. Next was the Y. I found the janitor lady on the steps, squirting and scrubbing at some speck. I saw her back first—YOU ARE, TOO!—in big green letters, and I ran up the stairs and sat down next to her. “Look,” I said, in a very great rush. “I don’t know what happens next. I don’t know how any of this is going to end—what will happen to your son, or to mine—” She blinked her eyes. Her earrings blinked. I couldn’t stop talking— “I needed some … I don’t know… instructions, so I went to the bookstore and there’s this self-help section with all these books on parenting but none of them tell you what to do, no if this then that, just words—words and words and words—and all you can do with words is try your damndest to figure them out.” I knew she probably didn’t understand a word I was saying, maybe she didn’t even know who the hell I was, but what I did know was this: I was the Christmas fucking spirit. I took her hands between my own, pressed the red and white package into them, kissed her on the cheek, and left.
When my mom got home from work that night, I was waiting.
“Come on, mom,” I said before she even got her coat off.
“What are we doing?” she asked as I steered her outside and into the car.
“We’re going to try something,” I told her, looking her full in the face before starting the car. “We’re going to try Christmas over.”
We picked up a pizza and I parked on the street in front of that house with the crazy lights. They blinked and flashed and cast colors across the boulevard, and my mother and I chewed on pepperoni and had an hour away from our lives. We didn’t talk much, but we laughed a little, and I imagined that if somebody took our picture right then and there, it’d be one I’d want to show people.
“My mom,” I’d say, tapping the photo. “My mom.”
When I woke up the next morning, Nicky was sitting on my bed, staring at me, waiting for my eyes to open. “Parakeet!” he said, delighted with himself, and I’m telling you, I nearly started to cry.
He was trying, and that’s the best that any of us can do.
Megan Stielstra’s story collection, Everyone Remain Calm, was a Chicago Tribune Favorite of 2011, and her essay collection, Once I Was Cool, is forthcoming May 2014. Her work has appeared in The Best American Essays 2013, The Rumpus, PANK, Other Voices, and elsewhere. She teaches creative writing at Columbia College and is the Literary Director of the 2nd Story storytelling series.