He wished he had never started.
Always, in that split second, whenever he hit “send.”
It had begun innocently—or so he told himself. The boy always left his cell phone around. Or more to the point, it always fell out of his pocket: between the cushions of the couch, from when he slouched in front of the TV, between seat and door in the car, on the dining-room rug beneath his chair. He knew the boy didn’t get many texts, or have many friends, but he told himself, as the boy’s father, he should check that phone. So, when he saw it lost among a pile of the boy’s clothes, he picked it up and ran his thumb across the screen.
There were only a handful of texts, dating back to when they first got the boy his phone, and they were all to and from the boy’s mother, his ex-wife.
The boy’s texts were all need-based: “Where r u?” (“Main entrance.”), “Forgot my lunch!” (I’ll bring it. 1 hour.”)
The first time he had done it, there was a text from the mother from the night before, and it had gone unanswered. “Don’t stay up 2 late,” she had written.
If he was ever questioned about it, he would say that he had done it, started this whole business, trying to be nice. But, in fact, he answered that text because it annoyed him. She was busy being the parent, even though he had the boy for the weekend. As if he couldn’t be trusted. And here was the rub—he couldn’t. He had no idea when the boy went to bed last night. When he himself had gone, the boy had still been where he always was, in the gray glow of the computer screen playing a game.
“Good morning¸ Mom,” he tapped out and hit send.
She had answered immediately¸ which scared him a bit. But of course she would. If the boy had made any kind of overture to anybody, that would have been big. Even he knew that.
“Hi sweetie,” she wrote, and so it began.
And it worked, in that he did not get caught. He didn’t do it a lot. He wasn’t stupid. But when the boy came on his weekends, he texted the mother, pretending to be the boy. Since the boy was never away from her overnight otherwise and because he was not allowed, even if it had ever occurred to him, to send texts from school, it didn’t seem strange to her that the boy only texted her when he was with him. And the boy never checked his own texts. If he was his usual, unresponsive self with her, when they were face-to-face, back in reality, well, she would accept that. It’s not like anybody understood the boy.
He didn’t know why he kept doing it, and that made him feel a little queasy. But he would send a text and then wait, phone in hand, for the reply. Of course, he made himself look good in the texts when he could, having the boy say what a good time he was having or mention, casually, what cool thing his dad was doing with him. It even affected that—what he did with the boy. He began to make plans, have his secretary look for things and buy tickets: to a monster truck show, a Blue Man Group show, they even went to a dog show.
Maybe it was because things weren’t going so great for him. He had gone on a handful of dates since he left, mostly girls, he could only think of them as girls, who were much younger than he. And truth be told, they scared him a little¸ made him feel awkward. Like the one who took him to a rock concert with her friends. He didn’t like standing with his feet gummed to the floor by a film of beer. He didn’t like standing the whole time, period. He didn’t like having to shout into her ear and then not be heard anyway, and he didn’t like the way the inner workings of his ears buzzed deep in his head for hours afterwards.
The older women weren’t better. He hadn’t ever, as a young man, had all this “success,” all these dates, but something about them now wasn’t right. The two or three women his age, all gussied up, mouths brightly smiling but eyes looking hunted, both he and she trying to say smart things, present themselves well, like they were in a tough job interview.
And he had grown to hate his new place, a townhouse he had furnished, all in one go, in a single trip to a furniture store, all chrome, black leather and dark wood. The townhouse itself had no good windows. Every room was dark, something he had not noticed when he saw it with the realtor, a woman his age, who wore a tight red dress and high heels, like she was going to a cocktail party, with whom he had had one particularly grim date.
The townhouse had quickly developed a bad, stale smell; its surfaces were all either sticky or dusty. Nothing but crumbs in the refrigerator, that and an old quart of milk, dating back to when he had moved in, that should be thrown out but instead had been shoved to the back, the sight of which bothered him every time he opened the door.
He had nothing to eat in his house, couldn’t fix himself anything, not even a cup of coffee, though he had bought the most expensive coffeemaker at the William-Sonoma next door to the furniture store. He would have had to learn how to use it.
He couldn’t get comfortable on the leather sofa in the living room, where there wasn’t good lamp to read by, just a very bright overhead light that threw harsh shadows.
When he had finally gotten the cable company in to set up the TV, he sat watching the channel the installer had left on. It was some sort of talk show, with the camera panning over an audience of women who responded visibly to what the people in front of them were saying. The people were talking about why their marriages had failed. One man had left his wife when she turned out to be terminally ill with cancer. A woman had dumped her husband when his business had failed. Adversity, said the expert who was up there with them being interviewed, can make a marriage stronger or it can destroy it.
It was their son, he suddenly felt, when things didn’t go right with their son, that had done it for them. Nothing could be easy, the way it was supposed to be, could it? Could it? That was what he had found himself screaming at the son one evening – thank God his wife had not been home to witness that.
He had been trying to get the son to dress to go out for dinner. The wife wasn’t home, so they were going to go out somewhere. It was already late and he was hungry. The boy came down in a ridiculous outfit, ill-fitting, contrasting patterns, dirty, no shoes. He kept sending him upstairs again and again to change, but the boy could never get it right. And he was overweight and his skin was bad and his hair was greasy and stuck up all over the place. He was just … lumpen.
The other kids in that wealthy neighborhood where they used to live: they were so beautiful, every one of them physically graceful, perfectly and expensively dressed, with clear skin and perfectly tousled hair.
And then there was their son – who was nearly his height, with his dark hair, and had his bad eyesight (which he had always thought he got because he studied too much, but maybe it was genetic). The boy’s hair was not tousled, it was dirty and weird. There was no charm, no grace to the boy. He never even looked clean. His shirts didn’t stay tucked, white pockets always stuck out from his pants, his shoes were always untied. He walked like his body hurt.
His son couldn’t approach a stranger or even someone he knew, look them in the eye and say hi. And he didn’t know what to say when they greeted him, just looked furtively at the ground and kind of rocked where he stood.
This all made him, the father, feel mental.
It started way back. A colicky baby, one who couldn’t be comforted, didn’t coo or smile or babble, one who always had some kind of skin rash, a baby who did not sleep and was not cute.
They got called into conferences, starting when the boy was two. Two! In nursery school.
When he came home early enough, which wasn’t often, he’d try talking to the baby, he would, even though he felt like a fool and would really much rather be nursing a drink and reading the paper. But the baby didn’t respond back, didn’t even seem to realize he was being spoken to.
He saw his wife doing it. She’d be on the floor, staring into the toddler’s eyes, talking, talking, talking, slowly and emphatically. She’d tell him that was what this therapist or that book recommended. Sounded like a bunch of bullshit to him. But when she said the boy needed home visits from a therapist, he didn’t balk. When she said he needed to be in a special school, privately he was concerned. He wanted the boy to go to the prep school, that conduit to the Ivies, in their neighborhood. But then he watched the boy, one rare Saturday morning, when he took him out to the park. Other boys—cute as a television commercial—were kicking a soccer ball around with their dads. Clearly, they knew and were following the rules. They chattered away at their fathers and ran around like tight little springs. Then he looked at his son, who couldn’t even kick a ball, or swing on a swing, who had not said a single word to him during this whole outing, already filthy from sitting in the mud in a weedy corner of the park, digging with a stick.
Which school the boy went to was his wife’s call, he decided. Dealing with the boy was her thing.
Though there were times, when he was angry, when he told her it wasn’t even a thing. What did she do all day, he wanted to know. Eating bon-bons and shopping, he asked, even as he knew, looking at her, getting older and frumpier, hair going gray and frizzy, that she wasn’t going to the gym or the spa or shopping. He even told her, once, that it was her fault the boy was the way he was. She did something wrong when he was a baby. He didn’t know what since he wasn’t there, but it must have been something. And this hovering now: how did she know that IT wasn’t what was causing the boy to be so backward?
Why couldn’t things just be right?
In quiet moments, he knew he wasn’t a nice person, which was why he avoided having quiet moments. He was harsh and competitive and driven. He couldn’t keep a secretary for more than a few months. The last one had left, in tears, on the third day.
But he was right to be the way he was. Look at where all that nastiness got him. He was at the top of the heap at work. A lot of people had dropped out. But not him. He ran things and he made a lot of money. Being an asshole, not suffering fools, was necessary to be a success.
And would the wife even have married him if he hadn’t had some chance at success? And would there be any therapists and any special school—$40 grand a year—without his money?
No. He was what he was and he was right to be.
But, still, he texted her. And it did occur to him that he could just call her—as he held the boy’s cell phone, a call was just one button push away. But he couldn’t. During their last fight, which the boy was present for, he screamed at both of them, he threatened to leave. And she had just said, very quietly, “Go, then.” And he had had to, then, hadn’t he?
He read her replies to the boy, who she always called Sweetie or Honey, sometimes Boo Boo or even just Boo, with a hunger. Encouragements, ever-patient reminders, little “thinking of you” sentiments, decorated with emoticons. He thought, if he was still with her, that he would tell her, shout at her, that he had never had any of this, growing up—it was laughable to think of either of his parents doing anything other than yell at him—and he had turned out just fine, more than fine.
One weekend, he had seen his son pull a textbook and a notebook out of his bookbag and sit down at the dining-room table. He knew that the kid had never done that, not on his own, before. He came over to watch. He looked at the work, which was stultifying easy, over the boy’s shoulder. The boy misspelled something, and he pointed it out. Well, it was misspelled, wasn’t it? What was he supposed to do? But the boy had sat for a moment, looking at the notebook, then shut it and shoved everything back into the bag.
“No,” the father said. “Keep going. You were doing good.”
But the boy just carried the bookbag up the stairs.
He stood there, squeezing his eyes shut.
And, then, one day, he was found out.
He had just texted her. It was pretty late at night. The boy was in the next room, killing zombies on the computer. He had texted, “Good night, Mom.” She didn’t text back; she called. He jumped and dropped the phone. The ring was loud and there was a picture of her on the screen—a very unflattering shot that the boy must have snapped; she was looking away, unaware she was being photographed.
She didn’t leave a message.
Then his phone began ringing in his pocket.
He considered not answering, but then thought, in that split-second, that that would really give him away.
So he answered, like he didn’t know who it was.
“It’s been you, hasn’t it?” she said.
“What?” he stammered. “Who is this—“
“You know who this is,” she said. “You just texted me from Josh’s phone, didn’t you?”
He briefly considered denial. Not too briefly, though. The silence grew unbearably long.
“Yes,” he said finally.
“You asshole,” she said, then paused. “It’s been you all along, hasn’t it?”
“Was it ever him?”
He was startled to hear a cry from her. It was her turn for a long pause.
“I will pick him up at the regular time tomorrow,” she said finally, and hung up.
He went in to stand behind his son, watched him shoot a zombie in the chest at point-blank range.
“That was your mom on the phone.”
The boy didn’t respond.
“She said to say hey.”
Another zombie charged the boy, who shot it in the head. Blood and brain splattered all over the screen.
The son pushed away the keyboard and spun around in the chair, nearly knocking his father in the knees. He did not make eye contact. He waited for a beat, eyes downcast, as if unsure what might happen next. Then, he heaved himself out of the chair and fled the room.
Cheryl Ursin is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Houston Community Newspapers, and the restaurant guidebook Gayot’s NYC Restaurants. She is currently a contributing writer for the Buzz Magazines in Houston. This is her first published piece of fiction.