The look on my son’s face was undisguised disgust. Hunched over in the noisy diner, Ben shook his head, his mouth twisted in a scowl. I offered a wan smile to our waitress as she replenished my coffee, wishing I were somewhere else.
“Honey,” I said, reaching to touch his sleeve. He jerked away and turned to face the window. “Dad and I are really trying to understand.” I was glad Roger wasn’t here. Our impish Benny. He used to have nice friends and act in school plays and strum an ironic ukulele. “We were just surprised.” I accidentally sighed. We’d had variations of this conversation so many times, over so many seemingly mundane things. What were we even talking about?
Ben abruptly slid out of the booth and rose to his full towering height. He bent down and leaned in close. I took in the blackheads on his nose and the pastrami on his breath. Softly, with a pause between words: “Fuck. You.” I lowered my head.
He walked out the door for three years.
On Tuesday morning, I received a text from Ben, a selfie without any message. Reflexively, I murmured, “Oh, my God,” before registering what it was. I was home alone when my phone buzzed. I sank to the kitchen table and studied his pursed lips, still trying to find the boy who had given affection so freely. When it rained, he used to cup his hand to his little cheek and tell me, “I’m protecting your kiss from getting washed away.” The photo from this stone-faced Ben — his adult blue eyes still identical to mine — was a close-up with no background clues. It meant nothing more than, I’m alive. You could think of it as an olive branch. Or a slap in the face.
I decided not to tell Roger. We’d finally reached some sort of equilibrium where we no longer spoke about Ben. We had even told a couple we met on vacation that we didn’t have children. They nodded absently over their dinner menus while Roger and I locked eyes in psychic agreement: Yes, that’s where we are now; we just acknowledged it out loud. Later that night I cried over my son, determined it would be the last time.
Nobody tells you how to stop caring about a child. Pediatricians and parenting “experts” train you to look for signs of ADHD, allergic reactions or autism spectrum disorders, but not what to do if your kid turns out to be an asshole. Roger and I talked ourselves in circles about what had gone wrong.
“Did we work too much?” Roger would ask, the implication being, did I work too much? He had some antiquated ideas about household responsibilities but didn’t seem to mind that I brought in the bigger paycheck.
“No, but did you show enough interest in his life? Go hear the band ever?” I would return blame.
“It’s the goddamn mother.” Roger would finish, victorious, knowing the jibe was asinine and would hurt me the most. When we decided to have a child, we had needed a surrogate. I hadn’t carried my baby. I sometimes wondered if Ben felt extra, irrational animosity toward me over this biological fact, though he was cruel to Roger, too. Back before Ben disappeared, we once received a terse email from him: “You guys are not welcome in my home.”
I have imaginary conversations with the parents of school shooters: Marjory Stoneman Douglas, Sandy Hook, all the way back to Columbine. I feel like I have something in common with them, even though I really don’t. But I want to know: do you still love your sons, even after what they did? In the novel, We Need to Talk About Kevin, when the young killer’s mother discusses finding a good lawyer and preparing a defense, her relatives are aghast. In my memory, they can’t understand how she could choose to help her child, try to make his situation a little better. Mother him. I think about that scene a lot.
That evening, Roger came home all wound up. “Did you get this?” He held up his phone, the screen showing Ben’s photo.
I snorted. “He must be doing some kind of divide and conquer thing. Or who knows. I can’t believe you sat on it all day.” I kept to myself the quiet peace it had brought me to know my son wasn’t dead.
“Were you going to tell me?” Roger poured his first whiskey.
“Where do you think he is?” I asked, ignoring the question and our agreement to exorcise Ben from our lives.
“Well, let me tell you!” Roger’s face was flushing. “I had I.T. at work figure out the geo-tagging or something and they traced the picture to… Can you guess?” His jaw was pulsing.
My brows went up. “What, you found out?” I wasn’t sure what I was hoping for. “Is he okay?”
Roger paused before answering. “That picture was taken fifteen… miles… away from this kitchen. In Bluffdale!” He slammed his tumbler down so hard that it broke in five big pieces, slicing his palm. “Goddamn it!”
I leaned against the counter to steady myself. Circles of Roger’s blood began to dot the floor around my feet. The familiar physical sensations of Ben’s longtime betrayal came racing back to me: nausea, throat tightening. How long had he been so close, for Christ’s sake? I pictured teenaged Ben, tanned and gangly, life-guarding at the Bluffdale pool, girls giggling at his feet. He was proud of his first job, not even embarrassed to be seen with his parents sometimes. Laughing in the sun, like a family.
I grabbed Roger fiercely, burrowing my head into his chest. “You think he’ll come? Will he call?” I looked up. Roger just closed his heavy eyes. We remained in our embrace, still and silent. After a moment, I found some gauze in the junk drawer and wrapped his hand tight to stem the bleeding.
Natasha Mileusnic is a financial communications professional specializing in investment research content. This is her first work of fiction.