Thomas was fourteen when he boarded the plane to St. Louis that May. Spring had been difficult — he’d been in trouble at school, I had just given birth to a half-brother he openly resented, and my new husband and I were struggling with what felt to me like an ever increasing storm of marital problems. For a brief period, in the days leading up to Thomas’ departure, I was even relieved at the prospect of having him gone for a bit.
We’d always been close. Thomas favored me over his father, in appearance as well as in temperament. We shared my grandfather’s blue eyes and sense of conviction, the latter of which — in all three of us — too often took the face of a hard, bald stubbornness.
But it was that same conviction that led us to marvel at the world and to, at least sometimes, give abandon her due. Once, when Thomas and I were living in Scandinavia for a year while I was finishing research, I happened upon him at a distant and improbable bus station, many miles from our tiny flat near the university. We were accustomed to catching the bus and to meeting up in town or at small cafes in the afternoons. Bussing was de rigueur since we didn’t have a car, and the cafes with their rich cakes, coffees, and hot chocolates were our routine respite from the increasingly dark days of winter in northern Europe.
It was only by chance that day that we’d wandered in unison. For weeks, I’d been seeking the location of a bookseller who was rumored to be harboring a modest collection of eighteenth-century letters that might prove of interest to my work. He had a small country house outside of the city, I’d finally learned, and — on a whim — I chanced my luck at either finding him or proving once and for all that his existence was only a myth.
I knew the city routes well but had seldom traveled to the countryside on my own. In the gray dim of the late afternoon, I had walked from the library to Hlemmur, the main bus station, and had again confirmed my route — checking the stops I’d noted on my pocket map against those on the large map mounted on the station wall. Number Ten would carry me well beyond the suburbs, to the outskirts of the interior and the lava fields that Thomas and I had decided were nothing short of lunar. A brief stop and then I’d transfer to Fifteen and the road to the barren region where the bookseller reportedly lived a half-mile walk from the bus’s last stop.
After nearly an hour’s travel, including an unnerving climb up a gravel road that led through the mountains, the bus approached my first stop: an isolated café where a few travelers stood inside eating pylsa,, Icelandic hot dogs, the unofficial fast food of the country. I startled. There among them was Thomas, leaning against a wall and fidgeting with the small book or map he held in his hands. He’d looked up at the approaching bus and we recognized one another immediately. As the distance closed, I pulled my knees beneath me and kneeled high in my seat, leaning and twisting for a better view through the bus window. I could see that he was smiling. My guy will never, ever win at poker, I thought, because he will never be capable of disguising that smile. I climbed off quickly.
Already at age twelve he was conscious of coolness, so while he’d clearly been pleased to see me, he waited casually inside while I practically tripped in my haste to get to him.
“MaMa!” He greeted me in Icelandic, the accent sharply on the second syllable. God I admired him, my beautiful boy, standing there at ease among the leather-skinned, seasoned backpackers and the broad-shouldered sheep farmers. Those kinds of men could be intimidating, but not to my Thomas. His confidence commanded respect. Wearing a traditional wool cap and now speaking Icelandic better than I did, he might have been one of them: a tall, lean farmer’s son or a day student returning home to the country after school. His smile and his MaMa were enough to encourage me.
“Thomas! What are you doing here?” I spoke rapidly in Icelandic, a sort of game we played, testing one another’s skill at the language.
“Nothing much,” he answered fluently, then confided that he too had come from Hlemmur. He’d been eyeing the route map for a while and wanted to see how far this line would take him. Enjoying the surprise, I looked at him for just a moment too long.
“You’re weird, Mom . . .” He was quick to announce this apparent truth if I broke any of his rules of mom-conduct, including this one: unless we were engaged in an openly declared staring match, I should not meet his gaze for any fixed period of time. Forgetting my objective and failing to note that my transfer was signaling departure, I hugged him, fully anticipating the reproval that followed: “Really weird.”
I laughed. I’d accepted the truth of E.S.P. a long time ago. After countless inexplicable coincidences between us and the many occasions when he had literally read my mind, there was no other explanation.
“No. We’re connected,” I teased, but we both knew I meant it.
“Maybe.” He quickly looked away, pretending to be annoyed. But the smile gave him away.
So much had changed between us since that afternoon in Iceland. By the time I took him to the airport that May, he rarely called me weird anymore, and I missed the affection the word was clearly meant to veil. I felt lucky, in fact, when he said anything to me at all.
He’d seemed happy when my husband and I married and had even thought it kind of “cool” that he and his step-father shared a passion for skateboarding. For a brief while, they got along well, building ramps and staging jumps together. Thomas pulling the tricks, my husband capturing them on video. But it didn’t last. After each visit to his father’s, Thomas returned more distant. When he spoke to me, he was frequently hostile, accusatory, angry. His accusations made it plain he’d been told that my husband was the enemy, that he represented a betrayal against Thomas’ father, and that I was selfish, disloyal, and worse –could not be trusted: a series of incendiary untruths set ablaze by an angry ex-husband who was fueling fresh aggression in response to my happiness.
Instead of fighting back, instead of countering lies with truth, I said nothing. In leaving Thomas’ father, I’d ended a long history of violence, and it shamed me to acknowledge that past, that I’d made a terrible error in marrying so young, that I’d been a victim of domestic violence, that I still needed the protective order, that I still double checked our locks each night.
I hadn’t yet recovered enough to talk openly about it, but denying Thomas access to my perspective was a serious mistake. He needed to hear the truth from me. Not all of the details, of course, but he’d seen enough to deserve at least some answers. He all but begged me to arm him with meaning and understanding, defenses he might have used to shield himself against the turmoil that had been ignited within him. Instead, I left him exposed. I offered no answers. No defense against the terrible rewriting of our family history that took place each time he visited his father’s house. And in the end, in protecting myself, I failed him.
We arrived over an hour before Thomas’ flight was scheduled to depart. Because he was traveling alone, I obtained the pass needed to walk him to the gate, and we unceremoniously left my husband and the baby waiting in the main terminal. Wordlessly we passed through security and caught the tram to his departure gate. Once there, I spoke calmly to the flight attendant, provided the unaccompanied minor paperwork, and perfunctorily described Thomas’ father, who was scheduled to meet the plane. Thomas sat beside me in the waiting area, even though he could have avoided me altogether by taking a seat in another row of chairs. That wasn’t his style, though; even as a child, he was never really childish that way. He’d had a sense of honor, one that still compelled him — that last time — to sit beside me in the airport.
When the gate attendant finally announced the early boarding call for first class passengers, families with young children, and children traveling alone, Thomas stood and moved toward the gate.
“Honey!” I caught his forearm and pulled him toward me. He looked in the direction of the gate, out the window, at an old woman arguing with the attendant checking the boarding passes, at anything or anyone that wasn’t me. I knew he ached to get away, to make a clean break, but I ignored this.
“I love you, darling. Be safe. And call me when you get in — just let me know you’re okay? All right? Love you.” I was pathetic. I’d delivered the same formulaic lines a dozen times –just like every other divorced mother who sends her child to visit his father for a holiday or a summer vacation. At least historically, Thomas had indulged me, had promised to call (and had called), and even though he hadn’t always told me he loved me, it was understood that he did. But I could no longer read him. My boy, once generous with his emotions, volunteered nothing. I fought with all of my strength not to sob, not to break one of his rules, not to embarrass him, but I began to cry anyway.
“Yeah,” he answered without looking at me. Then, mechanically, he withdrew his forearm from my grip and was gone.
My husband and newborn were waiting at the top of the escalator in the main terminal. By the time I reached them, I was sobbing loudly. My husband grabbed me and pulled my head — my swollen, ugly face, now a contorted mess of snot and tears — against one shoulder. He lifted our son onto the other and held me there for a long time while passengers and loved ones and pilots and businessmen and all manner of strangers passed us by.
Thomas never called. Yet in spite of that sign and scores of earlier ones — indications that in literary works would have been criticized as inelegant efforts at foreshadowing — I did not yet grasp what was happening.
The possibility that Thomas would accompany his father to a lawyer’s office and sign change of custody papers had never occurred to me, but he did exactly that merely weeks after the moment he’d stiffened when I’d reached for him in the airport and well before I’d fully registered the act’s significance. The maneuver was crushing in its unpredictability. The documents arrived at our door one evening, only two days after Thomas’ return from his father’s. Interrupting the family barbeque we held in the back yard, the sheriff who delivered them was sheepish, eyes downcast. He advanced them to me uncomfortably, like a stiff packet of starched shirts from the cleaners, the plastic wrap concealing a defect the counterperson hoped I wouldn’t notice.
Thomas is attached to both parents but elects at this time to live with his father. Henceforth, he is to be released to the custody of his father until such time as . . .
I must have understood what was happening, but it didn’t seem possible. “I can’t sign for this,” I choked.
“Ma’am, I’m sorry, but you’re gonna have to.” The sheriff, heading off what experience must have told him would be a scene, handed the papers to my husband and explained that I would have to sign. My husband glared at him and, sensing the futility of the situation, quickly forged my signature and thrust the pen back into the officer’s hands. Before the man could object, the door was closed.
But it was too late. I had seen Thomas’ father sitting in a parked car in front of the neighbor’s house, just beyond the distance required by the protective order.
“Thomas didn’t fly home . . .” I remembered, now panicked. “His father drove him back!” This was hardly a revelation. Suddenly I seized the detail’s importance. My legs were shaking. Then I felt the arms of my mother, who was spending the week with us to help with the baby, enfold me as my legs gave out. We both turned just in time to see my husband, who had run to the deck — the grill flaming dangerously high in his absence — lose his grip on the long-handled grill spatula. As we watched, the salmon he’d scraped from the burning grates fell and shattered upon impact, like glass, in a spray of countless searing shards.
That Thomas’ father would perpetrate something like this, a cruel trick that abused his son and sent us all back into the bowels of family court, was not surprising. But that Thomas would willingly participate in the scheme was incomprehensible. Yet it was true. He had gone with his father to the lawyer’s office the day he came home, and I had even confronted him when a minor inconsistency in his homecoming story was somehow too overwhelming for me to ignore.
“You must be tired, honey.” The visibly new Cardinals baseball hat he had held made me uneasy. It was at odds with his identity as a skater, and he’d never even liked baseball.
“Not really. We stayed in a hotel last night and drove straight here today.” He’d sounded good, if a little rehearsed, and I had been grateful to see that he was in a decent mood.
“Are you hungry?” The question was a rhetorical one. He was always hungry, and he knew I missed cooking for him when he was gone.
“No.” I hadn’t expected that answer. Then he keyed up: “Did you see they got that mural finished?” He’d followed the progress of the painting in town for weeks before his departure and had been genuinely sorry to miss the final stages of its development.
“A few days ago; there was even a little article about it in the paper. I saved it for you.” I should have been relieved that he was making an effort at conversation, but that he’d seen the mural hadn’t made any sense to me. Why would he and his father have driven downtown? Our house was the first exit off the highway. Driving into town would have taken them miles out of the way. “When did you see the mural?”
He had been staring through the half moon opening that formed where the hat’s straps joined at its base, and I hadn’t given him time to answer before I continued, “I thought you came straight home?” I strove desperately to sound natural. It was a trivial point, but
I had intuited that something was wrong and already my throat was tightening: “What were you doing in town?”
He rarely lied to me, and I’d always felt incredibly lucky to be able to place so much confidence in an adolescent son. I knew how several of his friends’ parents suffered over their boys, but Thomas was unusual among his friends. He talked openly with me, and, perhaps holding himself to the standards of the fictional characters he admired most (Aragorn and Legolas), he was remarkably trustworthy.
“I DON’T KNOW. OKAY?” We both knew he was lying. Then he had disappeared up into his bedroom and we hadn’t spoken since. But now I understood. They hadn’t just driven downtown; they’d driven downtown to the lawyer’s office. That explained how he’d seen the mural and it explained why he’d lied to me.
Barely avoiding the spray of scalding fish, Thomas tensed his jaw. He’d been watching the scene unfold from his remote position on the deck.
“You lied . . .”
He passed by me without responding, walked up the stairs to his bedroom, collected the bag he must never have unpacked and another obviously readied in advance, descended the stairs, and stepped toward the front door, a bag hanging from each hand.
“You can’t take those!” An irrational attempt to stop him, my words arrested him momentarily. He released the handles, and the bags — of no consequence to his mission — fell to the floor. Then he walked out the door, across the front lawn, and down to where his father was waiting on the street.
The bit of financial stability my husband and I had managed to secure would not withstand another costly court fight. I was willing to risk everything anyway, but when a temporary agreement returned Thomas home again a week later, I knew there was no point in trying. He was unrecognizable.
The psychology of it all was obvious. He’d been manipulated and used by a sick father, but the act had been so callous and so brutal that I was no longer able to separate the two of them. And once he was gone, not even the six-hundred-mile distance he’d placed between us could match the emotional divide I forged.
Betrayed — a jilted mother — I could not reach out to pull him back. Instead, I began sealing myself off from him. Methodically, I cleaned his room; I folded his clothes; I packed away his things. And as I did each of these things, I hardened against him. I formed an excision layer, one that separated me from a son who, now irreversibly linked to his father, threatened my ability to survive.
My mom extended her stay, but eventually my dad needed her at home, and when she was gone, the house grew still. I found myself alone, a void, a face with a thin, flat line of a mouth. I was hollow and hollowed, in a state of silent sterile emptiness. In artificial, perfunctory ways, I functioned. I nursed the baby. I got dressed. I slept with my husband, and my husband — even my family — thought I was doing well. I was managing, right? The baby was healthy. The house was in order. I could fake fine when I needed to.
But I wasn’t fine. When I ventured out strangers would stop me to smile at the baby. Invariably, they asked if he were my first. My reply alternated. On good days, I had another, older son. On difficult days, he was my only child. And then I became more artful in the lie: “This is our first,” I’d say, referring to my husband if the baby and I were out without him or gesturing to him if he’d joined us. It is the truth, I rationalized to myself, but I was burdened by guilt. Would a good mother deny her child?
I began taking long drives. At first they must have appeared purpose driven. A newborn will sleep in the car, so I loaded the car and drove. But I soon began to fantasize about disappearing, and I thought obsessively about driving over the edge of a distant quarry.
For a while, the physical demands of the baby righted my body even when my mind fled, and though I had calculated the impact of my absence on my husband and young son’s lives, I managed to avoid driving anywhere alone. But when I fell to a near irrecoverable low and was ill enough that I might have tried to prove the accurateness of my warped calculations, my husband finally caught on, threw what he figured we needed into a bag, and drove all three of us away. We ended up at the beach, without diapers or swimsuits.
“It’ll be okay,” he promised.
“I don’t know,” I answered. “I can’t breathe. I can’t do this.”
“You can do this, babe. You can.” He was a good man, and he tried so hard. He handed me the baby, and I dangled my little one’s legs in the waves. The baby laughed and kicked while the surf tickled his feet. We stood there for hours and hours, and for a little while I forgot.
Then, on the heels of months of internal disquiet, I struggled with bouts of open mourning. In the first weeks after his brother’s birth, Thomas had accompanied me on nearly every outing. He’d figured out the front-pack when I found the straps too confusing and far too difficult to negotiate for the first time in the parking lot of the grocery store. It was Thomas who’d strapped me in and then helped me tug his brother’s chubby, warm legs through the holes, Thomas who’d pushed the cart and carried our purchases to the car. Now I avoided the grocery store because I found myself sobbing in the parking lot, or, worse, in the aisles when I instinctively reached for an item bought solely for him.
I missed the crack of his skateboard on the driveway. I longed to fold his laundry and to buy him socks. Once in seventh grade he had begged me to read The Hobbit aloud to him so that we could talk about it together. We had always read together, and I was desperate to know what he was reading now.
But I didn’t call him during the school year, and he didn’t call me. We were together only briefly over Christmas break. I didn’t buy him a single present, and I had been so uneasy about the visit that I arranged for us to spend the few short days at my parents’ house.
We’d picked him up from the airport and never explained why we took the interstate north instead of south. He hadn’t noticed until hours into the trip, and then he’d been vocally angry, demanding that we stop so that he could call his father. But I was emboldened by the fact that I had nothing to lose. Incurring his anger, or even his father’s for that matter, no longer held any consequence. Why should I care? I’d lost what mattered most already.
Nearly a year passed. I’d begun to draw my husband into long dreaded conversations about our future, about divorce, about custody — subjects he refused to speak about seriously.
“Babe, I am different.” He’d repeated the line at least a hundred times. He was right, of course. There was no violence. He was kind and brilliant and a wonderful father, and I loved him. But I had to talk about it — all of it — the what-ifs and the worst-case-scenarios, and I persisted in the terrible line of inquiry until I had exhausted every possible situation my again fertile mind could imagine. With characteristic academic vigor, I invented details to scenes that never had — and never would have — occurred, planning my responses to actions he’d never take and describing the defensive measures I’d take against him in advance should he ever, ever plan to do anything that might hurt our family.
Very late one evening, perhaps tired of defending himself against hypothetical accusations or perhaps realizing that I could not rest without tangible reassurance to pacify my tortuous abstract wanderings, he did something concrete. He drew up a tiny contract. It was brief, written on the back of a crumpled hardware store receipt he’d left on the bedside table. In it, he promised never to hurt me, that we’d never get divorced. Above all, he added the clause that finally quieted me: that if we did get divorced — something he swore emphatically in speech and in writing would never happen — our son would remain with me.
And having let Thomas go and having played out every possible ridiculous and terrible scenario with a husband whose patience was indescribable, I was okay.
Nearly two years later, Thomas called. He wanted to come home for the summer. When the call ended, I didn’t celebrate. I smiled tentatively and even frowned a little. What I felt for him was unfamiliar. He was a stranger: to me, to my son, to my husband. We’d moved out-of-state and he no longer had a room in our home. I’d long since begun to shop just for the groceries we needed, not for him.
When I picked him up at the airport, I was greeted by a tall, lean young man. He’d gotten his GED and planned to study physics. A skeptic, he questioned the world with the ripening yet unrefined cynicism of a would-be philosopher. He was still cool for sure, certainly in the fashionable young adult sense, but too in the distance with which he held himself. Yet he was anxious to know us and to know his brother, and he was fascinated by the ability of his small sibling to hold his mother transfixed.
He stayed beyond the summer. There was no discussion, no question; he didn’t ask us and we didn’t inquire. The summer ended and quietly he stayed. But I felt the unspoken decision profoundly, and, even if I never acknowledged it to him, I held it in my hands like a small stone, like a Grecian pebble — a ballot. He’d made a choice, and I then I made one too. I chose to believe in him again, to believe that he had chosen me, that he had chosen the truth, and that one day things would be okay for us both.