Your mom actually likes her family. I was just thinking about that. It was the first thing I loved about her. I loved how simple it seemed, and how much it made me ache.
See, we met at a bar. Tried to light this conversation together. The phrase people usually use, obviously, is, “We struck up a conversation”. But I don’t think that’s quite right. Because it brings a match to mind. That sudden, beautifully pungent burst of flame as you strike it. There was nothing sudden or beautiful about the way Amy, your mom, and I began. I was too guarded and unsynchronized. Too awkward. Like somebody fumbling as they pull a match out of the box, sweating with the effort.
Eventually, we struck. Or she struck me, I think.
Anyway, she started talking about her family. I’m an only child, so I’m always curious about people who have siblings. Seem like aliens to me. And I was shocked when she told me she had four.
“Four?” I echoed. The bar was crowded, so we were close together. Breathing each other’s breath, shouting into each other’s ears.
“I know,” she said. “It’s a lot.”
“And you all get along?”
Amy nodded, enthusiastic. “Oh, yeah.”
I didn’t believe it. “You never have, like, heart-breaking fights or, or falling-outs or anything?”
“No.” She shook her head, surprised I could even suggest such a thing. “I have twelve cousins, too. We fight. I mean, we’re family. But we’re all really close.”
This was too much. “But none of you stop speaking? Spread gossip? Ban each other from holidays?”
“We all love each other.”
I leaned back on my bar stool, taking it all in. Like speaking to a Martian.
I kept flipping through a mental list of all my extended family. Trying to find at least one relative I still spoke to willingly.
Amy smiled so earnest it hurt. Her eyebrows twitched down. Like she was thinking something serious.
I leaned forward again. “You must have some alcoholics.”
She laughed. “We have to?”
“Drug addicts, then. Or wait. You guys Catholic? Midwesterners.” Maybe they just didn’t talk about their problems.
“No and no,” she said. Her eyebrows twitched again. Her eyes moved over me, searching.
I frowned. “Nobody’s a, a crazy narcissist? In rehab? The mafia? Nobody screams at each other during Christmas? Nothing?”
“We’re just a happy family.”
I looked at the ceiling. “Fascinating.”
“And you?” she asked.
I smiled. “Oh… Where to start…”
Her eyebrows twitched, and stayed down. For a long time, until I was done.
About a year later, we were driving down this road through the woods. The road looked out over a gorgeous valley. But it was night. The valley was darkness.
There was one other car on the road, following us at a good pace. I kept glancing at it in the rearview mirror, growing more anxious. My hands twisting around the steering wheel. Finally, Amy turned to me. Asked why I was being so fidgety.
“I hate being on the road at night with just one other car,” I told her. “Feel like I’m being followed.”
She snorted. “Don’t be ridiculous.”
“Doesn’t it make you nervous, though?”
She shrugged lightly in the dark. “Why should it?”
“Well. Lots of creeps out there.”
“Nobody is following us,” she said. “Look, why don’t you pull over, then, so they can pass?”
“If I stop, they’ll stop. That’s their plan all along. I know it’s kind of ridiculous. But… You never worry about that kind of thing?”
“I find it comforting,” she said. “If there’s one other car on the road with me, I feel better driving at night. Being alone is what freaks me out.”
“I find being alone comforting.”
Amy pointed out the window at the valley. A few orange dots of light broke through the shadows. “When you see that,” she said, “how do you feel? Because I see those lights and I know they’re cozy little homes nestled into the woods. I think it’s reassuring. To not be alone.”
My voice came out sharp-edged, angrier than I meant it. “Well. I feel the same way about one solid shadow. One big, like, blanket. Those lights down there could be anything. They could be a, a shack. Filled with cannibals. In the middle of nowhere. Like a colony. A cult.”
“What cult?” Her voice rose in answer to mine, and I snapped, “Any fucking cult.”
That snap cracked the car in two. We looked away from each other. Drove in silence.
The road widened into two lanes. The other car passed us by.
I started laughing. Amy did, too. Because I knew how it all sounded. We just laughed and laughed until we cried. And then it was just me crying. Pulled over onto the shoulder. Her arms around me. Between the sobs, I saw things. A Home that was a cozy place, not some tense, tight-jawed ordeal. I saw siblings and extravagant Christmases. Family portraits that were candid instead of staged. I saw darkness and sudden, matchhead light. I saw a shadow unknown and deliciously, finally, with Amy — broken.
I mean, Jesus. She actually liked her family.
“Hush,” she told me as I cried. “Hush.”
That was when I knew you probably deserved to have her.
I hope you get that love. I hope your mom can help me keep that going. Because with everything I grew up with, I wasn’t sure which kind of family I was going to allow myself to allow you to be in. Amy helped burn some of that fear away. But only some.
I guess that’s my point.
Floating from somewhere down the hall of the ward comes the sharp and sudden sensation of a burning match. He hears the pop, flare. Smells the sting of it. Startled, he turns. Sniffs. Tries to find the source.
But there’s no one there. Nobody but him. And the children asleep on the other side of the glass.
Sam Rebelein is currently an MFA in Creative Writing candidate at Goddard College. His work has appeared in Shimmer Magazine, Dark Moon Digest, and Every Day Fiction. He lives in Brooklyn.