by Becky Tuch
The first phone call came on a Wednesday evening. The guidance counselor at Michael’s school. Disturbed, he said he was, by some of Michael’s recent in-school behavior. He referred to Michael as your son and then, moments later, your boy. As if to remind Gloria of to whom he belonged, of her maternal responsibility. As though a mother might for a single second forget such a thing.
Mr. Fisher, as he had introduced himself (Gloria pictured not a fisherman but an actual fish, puffed up and blue, fat lips puckering toward its bait), had heard from another student, a very reliable student, one of their best, that Michael, just last week, had punched a boy in the face just after homeroom. It wasn’t the first time that Michael had displayed–he paused, cleared his throat–aggravated tendencies. A meeting ought to be scheduled. Between Gloria and himself. And, of course, with him there, your son.
“You punched a kid?” Gloria asked after hanging up the phone. “He deserved it,” Michael said with a smirk.
Gloria didn’t smile, but hesitated before saying whatever it was she was supposed to say next. Michael’s room smelled boyish–farty and damp–but his appearance was disarmingly adult. He’d been lifting weights for months now, guzzling a glass of whole milk and raw eggs each day for breakfast. His neck was thick, his chin dotted with stubble. His head was completely shaved, the only hint of his beautiful thick curls in the dark swivels of his brow.
“What happened?” Gloria asked.
“It was stupid, Mom. The guy was a punk.” He laughed a little, flashing his sharp canines.
“So you punched him?”
“The kid stole Eric’s wallet. I chased it down and he wouldn’t give it back. So I hit him.” “Why didn’t you tell a teacher?”
He rolled his eyes. “Because they’re all idiots, mom.”
Gloria didn’t disagree. She was a teacher. Her own students probably thought she was an idiot. Most times at work she felt like one.
“We’re going to have to have a meeting with him.” Michael shrugged, no big deal.
Gloria looked at him over the rims of her glasses, considering saying something more. His father had expressed concern a few weeks ago when Michael had first begun shaving his head. It was one thing for him to have the short hair, Donald said, but he had a whole look now, a black flight jacket, 18-hole Doc Marten combat boots. Did Michael know what he looked like? Did he know the history of his own family, what it meant that his very own grandparents had fled Germany because of people who dressed like Michael now dressed?
But when Gloria mentioned it to Michael–Your father’s worried–Michael had just rolled his eyes. When is Dad not worried? He’d said, which had made Gloria laugh.
She never questioned his clothing choice. Never told him he couldn’t shave his head.
What was Gloria supposed to do anyway, take him shopping, tell him what he could and could not wear? He would laugh in her face. He would stuff it all into his backpack and change into whatever he wanted the moment he got outside. He was sixteen years old. Sometimes it seemed as though he didn’t even belong to Gloria anymore. He belonged to whatever lay out there, waiting for him.
Besides, Gloria wasn’t inclined to worry about Michael. On the contrary, she marveled at him. Nine years old when Gloria and Donald divorced, he had gone and found a family out in the world. Last year he fell in love with the bass guitar and now practiced with his band nearly every
night. He went to shows in the city. He’d recently found himself a job in the East Village delivering tacos. He had more friends than Gloria could keep track of. Unlike Gloria, who spent every afternoon of her adolescence, reading novels in the bathtub and feeling sad, Michael was hardly ever home at all.
“It’s fine, Mom,” Michael said now.
She had probably been staring at him, something she did often, losing herself in her thoughts as she gazed into her children’s perfect faces. Michael, even with his shaved skull, had grown into a dazzlingly handsome young man. Gloria loved the shape of his head.
“Just tell me when.”
He flashed her another quick smile, then turned and picked up his bass, plugging it into its amp so that soon the familiar guttural rumble thrummed through the room.
Gloria said, “I love you,” and Michael closed his eyes, feeling the music, then nodded back at her. He loved her too. She knew this. She pulled shut his bedroom door and let go of the doorknob.
She went downstairs. It was a Monday night in the winter of 1989. Gloria still had a load of laundry to finish, a lesson plan to revise, papers to grade. Plus there were the nightly rituals of Buddhist chanting, yoga stretches, and chamomile tea, recommended to her by her therapist, in the interest of keeping bad thoughts away.
Bad thoughts always came, though, no matter what you did. When they met with the guidance counselor the next week, Gloria cringed at the sight of him, this nebbish man, balding, with rows of even yellow teeth that looked fake. A man from her very own childhood, one of the many strangers who had crowded her living room the week after her father had died, Jews from her parents’ temple, cologne-y cigar-smoking men to whom Gloria and her sister were forced to serve kugel, whom Gloria was instructed to shake the dry palms of, to kiss on the cheek as they entered and exited.
This man simply glanced up, as if surprised to find Gloria and Michael there in his office, then nodded toward two plastic chairs on the other side of the room.
“Right,” the guidance counselor said and hunched over the files on his desk. “So this behavior of your son’s.”
“Michael,” Gloria said. “His name is Michael.”
“You must understand, we have standards of excellence here.”
Gloria shifted in her chair. She hated this sort of talk, hated bureaucracies generally. She wondered if it was a mistake to even agree to this meeting at all. Gloria had not liked this school since the day, three years ago, when Michael announced he wanted to go there. It was the best math school in New York City, the most competitive public high school in the state. Gloria never pushed; Michael had insisted.
But then came all the paperwork and appointments, IQ tests and placement exams.
Thirteen years old and Michael was cramming with stacks of books on the kitchen table, red lines running through his eyeballs. Some mothers would be proud, she knew. But Gloria didn’t give two licks about academic perfection. The more tense and worried she saw her son becoming the more Gloria dreaded his getting accepted and then attending.
Are you sure? She’d asked him over and over. You’re sure you want to leave Brooklyn, go to a public school in Manhattan? You’re sure you want to be in that competitive environment?
Mom, he’d said, stop asking me. I know what I want.
“I understand,” Gloria said, because what she understood now was that she wanted this meeting to end, that nothing good would come from this.
“We have a no-tolerance policy for truants. And violence of any kind.” “Of course,” Gloria said.
“Your son has been spending time with some students who might not be the best influence for him. Eric Marhsall, Johnny Sullivan…”
At the mention of his friends’ names, Michael snapped to full attention. His breathing seemed to quicken.
“I know,” Gloria said. “And?”
“And…” Gloria said. “They’re his best friends.”
“Those boys are trouble,” the guidance counselor said. “And we would suggest Michael not spend time with them.”
“Those are his friends,” Gloria said again.
She wanted to kick the guidance counselor in the teeth. How could Gloria ever deny her son his friends? She who’d spent every day of her high school years coming straight home to a mother who daily withheld affection, whose older sister was slowly losing her mind, who knew more than anyone how loneliness was a war fought with oneself and it was a war a girl could die from. How many dark nights Gloria had spent as a girl, as a teenager, as an adult, in desperate want of a single friend?
She could never take Michael’s friends away from him. She didn’t care if they flipped over cars or incited riots. She didn’t care if he flunked out of high school altogether, let alone if he fell short of their absurd standard of excellence. All she ever wanted of her children was that they be okay. That they find ways to be okay like Gloria never could. Something better than a high school diploma, more reliable than happiness itself, more true. Friendship.
“Consider this your final warning,” the guidance counselor said and it was unclear whether he was talking to Gloria or to Michael. But then he turned and bore his beady brown eyes right into Gloria’s face. “You’ve got to control him, you understand? You have got to control your son.”
Gloria, too flustered to speak, nodded hastily, then gathered up her purse and stood, her legs feeling so unsteady she thought she wasn’t sure she would make it to the door. She hurried out, not turning to see whether or not Michael was behind her.
Outside, as they stood in the glare of the winter sunlight in the front of the school, Gloria clutched her pocket book tight to her chest. Her whole body seemed to be shaking.
“Michael,” she said. “Do you want to break out of here?” “Mom?”
“Go to a different school. Transfer. Go to private school. Get out of Manhattan.” Her throat was raw, chafing as she spoke. “We can find a way. We can make it work. I’ll borrow from my mother. This place…” She looked at the dense brick wall. “It’s poisonous.”
“I don’t want to leave this school,” Michael said.
She reached for him, pulled him to her. He ducked his head, pushed her away. For the past few years, he couldn’t bear to be seen in public with his parents or even his sister. When they had to go out on the street for some rare group errand, Michael walked three paces ahead of all of them.
Somehow even this made her prouder of him. His sense of himself. His confidence. His eagerness to separate, to be out in the world. “See you later, Mom!” he would call to her as he thundered down the house steps. “I’m going to band practice!” “Sleeping at Johnny’s!” “Heading to the city.” As it should be. As Gloria always hoped it would be for him. “I love you, Mom!
“I don’t want to control you,” Gloria said.
Michael looked at her, his brow cinched. “But the guidance counselor said–”
“Fuck that asshole.”
“Mom,” he chided, blushing slightly.
“I don’t ever want to control you. Do you understand?” She peered into his eyes. It seemed important that he not just agree with her now but that he really, deeply understand. That Gloria did
not own her son, that children were not the property of their parents.
No doubt if her own mother had understood this, they would have never sent Gloria’s sister away, dragging her screaming out of their brownstone in Queens, taking her to the hospital where she stayed for weeks, getting the electroshock therapy that would flash her sparkling insides white, turning Norma, wild-haired and brilliant Norma, into a nothing, an empty, a mere thing, like all the other useless things inside their useless home.
“If you want to stay at this school, you can. If you want to leave, you can.” “Okay.”
“Do you hear me? Do you understand? Michael, do you–?” “Mom.”
She was getting frantic. Working herself up. But then there was Michael’s hand, on her shoulder, daring to touch her out in public in spite of how it embarrassed him.
“I’m nervous,” Gloria admitted. “I’m always nervous.”
“I know you are, Mom. Don’t worry. It’s going to be fine.”
She reached for his skull, the shaved head, the bristly hairs rough against her palm, and pulled him toward her. He ducked just long enough to let her kiss the crown of his head, then pulled away. With a gentle release of her taut fingers, she let him go.
“He needs therapy,” Donald said over the phone. Gloria laughed.
“I’m not kidding, Gloria. There’s something troubling him. He can’t keep doing this.” “This?”
Her ex-husband sighed, the Most Exasperated Man on Planet Earth. “He stays out all night. He says he’s coming over and then doesn’t come over. I never know if he’s at your place or mine. He doesn’t call. He’s hanging out with–”
“I know exactly who he’s hanging out with.” “And?”
“He’s doing better than I was at his age. Better than you were.” That had been the one thing that had always connected her to Donald, how miserable they had both been in their childhoods, Gloria with her dead father and ice-cold mother, Donald with his here-but-gone parents who were always working, fearing Nazis long after the war. Neither Gloria nor Donald had ever had any true friends. Neither had one ounce of the rebellious courage that their son had.
“Gloria, I’m worried about him.” “Then you take him to therapy.”
On the other line, her ex-husband went silent. And in the silence it became clear just what it was he wanted. For Gloria to be the one to take Michael to therapy. For Gloria to deal with this, to fix it.
But how could she, when she didn’t even see what was so wrong?
“I’m not taking him to my therapist. If you want to do this, he can go with you,” Gloria
“I don’t understand you,” Donald hissed. “You’re so resistant to any kind of professional
“The professionals are jerks. They don’t know anything.” “Gloria, you have been in therapy since I’ve known you!” “Exactly. And look at me.”
Donald sighed. “This is our son we’re talking about.” “Then you deal with it,” Gloria said.
In the background on Donald’s end, Gloria heard a woman’s voice, then laughter. She hung up the phone.
It wasn’t that she didn’t care about their son. Of course not. Michael and Sara were the only parts of the world she actively did care about. She would give her son her left hand if he needed it, her eyes, her heart, her brain.
Donald, on the other hand, only made her angry. He had no idea what it was to be the
custodial parent, the one whose house the kids lived in permanently, the one whose schedule could never suddenly change, the one constant in the children’s lives, while Donald–married again, with the addition of two new sons brought in by Andrea, his third wife–merely picked up the kids for a couple days a week, took them to McDonalds, took them to the arcade, watched movies with them, then dropped them back off, leaving Gloria to manage all the logistics and emotions of their lives.
Later, when Michael came downstairs, Gloria asked him whether he wanted to go to therapy with his father. If there were things he wanted to talk about.
“What,” Michael said, “Like, my feelings?”
“Right,” Gloria said. “I think I’ll pass.”
“Wonderful,” Gloria said. “You’re cured.”
There were other things, too, weighing heavily on Gloria that year. Winter turned to spring. Gloria walked to and from her job in Bed Stuy. She received parking tickets for always forgetting the correct days to move her car, or else parking her car and forgetting where it was. Her bicycle was stolen, not once but twice. At her school, an adult literacy center where Gloria’s students were mostly West Indian immigrants, there were meetings after meetings. Darnel was not meeting his reading requirements. Bernice had become pregnant and dropped out. Lucien insisted on wearing a hat in class even though hats were forbidden, and one afternoon Gloria, angry and tired and not thinking straight, approached him and then flipped his hat right off his head. Phone calls were made. More meetings were held. She was in trouble, and then she wasn’t.
In April it rained and rained. She walked in a long clear parka, stiff around her torso as though she was wrapped in saran wrap. She walked and walked. She did not think of her children. She did not know what she was thinking of. Her father. Norma. A visit she still owed her sister, who lived alone in Queens. An apology letter she still wanted to write to Norma. How the words caught in her throat, making her feel permanently choked. How might things have gone differently for all of them if Gloria had just stood up to her mother, said no, inisted Norma never get sent away to the doctors? Or if her father never died, if that giant sun of her childhood had never been so suddenly blotted out? Would she have known happiness? What would that even mean?
Some days the sidewalks were black with rainwater. The sky was gray all morning and afternoon. Still, birds chirped. Brooklyn birds, used to all kinds of weather, shitting wherever they pleased. To live in a city was to live with the ugly beauty of nature, the fact of pigeon shit on windshields and rooftops.
She wanted a husband. Why was it so easy for Donald to remarry, not just once but twice? Gloria had been going on dates on and off for over five years now. She met men through personal ads in the newspaper. Men who liked hiking, biking, reading, museums, travel. But nothing stuck. She would feel her lips twisting, sardonic words coming out of her mouth. She saw her posture stooping, heard herself describing her childhood to these men, felt sadness descend. The men never called. She missed her father. She missed unconditional love, something that ought to be a birthright.
Only her children were perfect. On Sunday mornings, she saw Michael and his friends, all passed out in his bedroom. She never knew what time they came home. She went to bed herself at nine pm every night, trusted Michael to take care of himself, to mind his curfew, to call if he was in trouble. He never called. But there he always was. All of them. Lanky boys; muscular boys; white boys. Boys with thick dark hair; boys with shaved heads like Michael’s; boys with tattoos; boys with their shirts off. Boys.
There they were, sleeping late on Sunday mornings, three or four of them stretched along the floor, then two of them in Michael’s bed. She didn’t like to spy. She respected the privacy of her children. But this she allowed herself, a slow pulling back of the curtain along the glass door that separated Michael’s bedroom from the living room. A glimpse at their sleeping faces.
In this way, she could see the two of them: Michael and Johnny, sometimes a third boy but always those two, laying in bed together, deeply asleep, Johnny’s arm slung over Michael’s body. It wasn’t sexual. At least, Gloria didn’t read it that way. How could it be, with all of them there together? Somehow, she sensed she knew what it was. The deepest, purest love. The love of brothers. Of best friends.
In all the chaos of that spring, this was what she saw with clarity. The love her son had for his friends, the love they had for him. The way that love kept him safe, protected him.
Because if you did not have that kind of love, Gloria knew, then you had nothing at all.
Then, though, came summer. Then, though, came Sara, one hot Saturday morning, barreling down the stairs and slapping a pile of papers onto the kitchen table. “What are these?”
“What are what?” Gloria asked.
She was eating lunch and reading the paper. Donald was due to take Sara any moment. She hated to say she was counting the minutes, because the truth was she wasn’t any happier when the kids were gone, even as she waited and waited for time to herself. The truth was that once Sara was off with her father, Gloria spent the entire time missing her daughter and counting the minutes until she came back. But for these moments, just before he arrived, all Gloria could think was that she couldn’t wait for her daughter to go.
Maybe that was Gloria’s problem, one of them anyway. Always wanting that thing that was missing. Which sometimes meant wanting that thing that you already had, though while you had it you didn’t enjoy it because you were missing something else. It was a problem of not being centered, not being the center of yourself. And yet, somehow, also being extremely self-centered. She did not understand these things. She did not understand how happiness worked.
“These,” Sara said.
Gloria glanced over the newspaper. She expected something about the comic books Michael used to love. Or flyers to some music shows he was in or invited to. She expected something that would not cost her much attention.
THERE IS BUT ONE MASTER RACE, said the pamphlet on the top. Then more words, in bold capital letters.
PREPARE FOR THE RACE WAR.
THE ZIONIST GOVERNMENT SHALL BE DEFEATED. WHITE PRIDE FOREVER.
And then in the center of the page, an unmistakable symbol, one that clamped down on the heart of every Jew like a wrench, grinding its flow to a screeching halt.
“Jesus,” Gloria said, and pulled the papers closer.
“These were under Michael’s bed. He’s got, like a hundred of them.” Gloria thumbed through the pages. She swallowed. “Fuck,” she said. “Is Michael a Nazi?”
“No,” Gloria said firmly. “Why does he–?”
“I don’t know,” Gloria admitted. She felt her eyes then staring into Sara’s, as though it was her daughter who might be able to explain.
“What should we do?” Sara asked.
Gloria started again at the papers. She pushed up her glasses. It was unreal. Surely someone just handed these to Michael at some show. And he kept them because he didn’t know what else to do with them. And they were just junk, like all the other junk that piled up in his room. Sweaty socks and torn up homework sheets and broken pencils.
“I mean, we’re Jewish,” Sara said. “That’s’ right,” Gloria said.
“Dad’s parents survived the Holocaust.” “Yes, they did.”
“Why would Michael–?”
“Sara, I don’t know.” Gloria swallowed. “I’m sorry.”
They stared at each other. Then, after a moment, a car was honking outside. Donald. Sara turned to get her backpack. Gloria followed her to the hallway, turned on the light, pulled her daughter in close for a hug.
She whispered, “Don’t tell your father about this.” “Seriously?” Sara said. “Why not?”
But Gloria couldn’t answer her. She didn’t know why she’d said that. Only, she sensed it had something to do with not wanting Donald to know he was right.
Motherhood. She had never felt inept at motherhood. Had never questioned her instincts. It was the one thing, the only thing, she had ever known for sure. She tried to be a good teacher, but knew she really wasn’t. Her marriage had failed. Her dates ended awkwardly and badly. She had been a terrible sister, letting Norma get sent away like that.
But as a mother, her instincts had always felt true. The week Michael was born, Gloria had lain in bed and read books, nursing him on her side, lying him flat in the patches of sunlight, staring at his squinty dark eyes and his thick dark hair. She took naps beside him, and it was the happiest week of her entire life, even happier than when Sara was born, as by then she and Donald were already so fed up with one another.
Michael had been named after Gloria’s father, who had died suddenly when she was just eleven. And it was during that week of his birth that Gloria had felt certain that her son was the reincarnation of her father, a man who also had been perfect and had only become more perfect in death, whose dark brow and hazel eyes and thick dark hair Michael had inherited. Gloria fed her son and she inhaled him and never questioned a single thing she did with him, not that week, and not for a moment after.
You’re nervous, people used to say about her. But you’re not a nervous mother. And she knew that of all the things people said about her over the years, this was the truest.
The house was quiet. Darkness fell outside. Gloria sat on the living room sofa. She watched dust motes scatter in the beam of light and then fade as the light disappeared. Her stomach growled but she couldn’t seem to stand up and walk to the kitchen. Her body shifted on the cushion, letting out a cat-like squeak. Michael had broken one of the springs jumping on the sofa as a toddler. She’d never had it fixed. She had never had the time, or the inclination.
Her body rose, finally, and moved itself up the dark stairway, her hand along the banister and then, when she let it go, surprising her with quick unstoppable tremors. She walked to his bedroom door, pushed it open with the tips of her fingers. Her heart pounded violently. She pulled the door shut, backed away, went into the bathroom, sat on the lid of the toilet seat, placed her face in her hands. Then she stood, walked back to his room, pushed the door open again and stepped inside.
Where to rest one’s eyes. The room was a mess, clothes across the floor, cassette tapes underneath the clothes, wires hooked up from the bass to the amp. And then, on the wall opposite, hanging from ceiling to floor, an American flag. When had he hung that? Had she seen it and not noticed? She stared now. How different the flag looked to her just then. Grotesque and vile, a symbol of something she barely recognized.
Were they right, those men? That guidance counselor, her therapist, her ex-husband? All these men with all their opinions about her son. Telling her all this time that he was in trouble, getting into fights, needing help. But she hadn’t been able to hear it, could not believe it. Even now, it seemed there had to be some explanation that made sense. That it was a silly phase he was in. Some experimental thing he was going through. What sort of Jewish boy would become interested in this nonsense?
She walked to his dresser, pulled open the drawer. Downstairs a gate creaked open and shut and Gloria jumped. But after a moment, there was nothing.
The drawer: Nickels, some papers for school, scattered guitar picks, notes in scribbled
girls’ handwriting that Gloria glanced at but did not read. She turned to the records along the shelf, opened the sheaf of one, placed the record on its player, set the needle down, then changed her mind before starting up the music. She lifted the needle off, scratching it–Michael would kill her if he knew!–then plucked the record out, placed it back in its cover, stuffed it onto the shelf, fumbling, her hands still shaking.
No. This was wrong. All of it was wrong. She should not be here in her son’s room. She felt the hot sun burning at the window, condemning her like a scornful parent. She had no right. She made her way to the door.
But then stopped, again. Christ. A Skinhead. A Nazi. He needs therapy, Donald said. He has aggravated tendencies, the fish man said.
Well for fuck’s sake, Gloria thought, who didn’t have aggravated tendencies? Certainly Gloria was aggravated, had been nearly all her adult life, and most of her child life too. And often there didn’t even feel to be much of a difference anyway, between the child one and the adult one, all of it a blur of painful incidents, one shame to be either faced or avoided, again and again and again.
She sat down on his bed, ran her hands over the mattress, remembered shopping with him for the mattress after his old one had been too worn down. They entered the store and Michael knew what he wanted right away. He sat on the mattress, bounced on it a few times, decided he liked it and was ready to go.
Are you sure? Gloria had asked. Because there are softer ones over there. Firmer ones that way. I like a firm mattress. But maybe you like a softer…
I like this one, Mom. It’s fine. Let’s get it.
But there are others. What about that one…? She wanted him to be happy with the mattress he purchased. She didn’t want him to regret what he got. Gloria was always regretting what she got. At least once a month she made some stupid trip into the city for a blouse or a pair of shoes and then, one week later, made the same trip into the city to return the blouse or shoes which fit her differently once she got home or which seemed suddenly too expensive once they were in her own possession.
Sometimes inside the stores she had so much trouble making up her mind that she ended up not buying anything at all, the clothes a tangle of hangers and price tags and size stickers come loose all about her feet. And she would climb over it and rush out of the dressing room with her hand to her forehead, mumbling apologies to the girl, usually a black woman who would smile and say it’s no problem even though it was a problem, Gloria knew it was a problem, to move through the world this way, trying things on, unable to choose, leaving a mess, working your thoughts up into an egg-whipped frenzy, hating the sight of your face under the stark fitting room lights, hating your body, wanting only to leave and never return even though, just one hour ago, caught up in some other misery, it had been this very thing, shopping, that you’d thought would lift your spirits.
That was Gloria.
Are you sure? She asked Michael, and by the look on his face she knew it must be annoying him all this asking. Because she did that too. Repeated herself. Over and over and over. Like she was stuck on a carousel, and the only way to get off was a hard jolt. Mom! Enough! I said it was fine!
But Michael never got angry at her. Never yelled at her. It was Sara Gloria bickered with, Sara who would stand at the top of the stairs looking ready to pull her own hair out. Mom! I said I’ll be right down! Relax! It was Sara who seemed more intolerant of Gloria’s behavior, reminding her mother all the time to say Excuse me or Thank you as Gloria rolled down her car window and shouted out to anyone on the street who would listen that she was trying to find Ocean Avenue, could anyone help her?
This is fine, Mom, Michael assured her about the mattress. She stared at him over the rims of her glasses. It seemed unbelievable that anyone should be able to make up their mind so quickly. That anyone should be so calm. So clear. So at peace with his own desires.
That was Michael.
Gloria ran her hand across the white sheet that stretched over his mattress now. His pillow was still indented in the shape of his head. His bald head. His beautiful head.
Is it okay? She asked him. Is it okay?
He had placed his hand on her shoulder. Mom, it’s fine.
And it was always that way. Michael, are you okay? Michael. Michael. Mom. I’m fine.
She laid down on her side, rested her head on his pillow. It smelled of sweat and aftershave. She pulled his blanket up over her shoulder. And she slept.
The second phone call came two nights later. In her confused state Gloria thought it was a police siren. She reached for her glasses, looked at the clock, the darkness outside.
It was Donald.
“What’s wrong?” Gloria said.
She had not yet talked to Michael about the flyers. He came home late and then they both left early in the morning, for work and school. She left notes for him on the kitchen table. They should talk soon. She missed him. Could they talk? And he left notes back. Sure, Mom! Talk to you soon! Later this week, she kept thinking, they would have a conversation. He would assure her, tell her it was all nonsense, a misunderstanding. Really, mom. Not a big deal.
“He’s in the hospital,” Donald said. Gloria gasped.
And then there came the rest of it, relayed in slow, unreal details, the sentences twisting like a child’s puzzle in her mind. On the street. After a show. Michael and his friends. Some other boys. A tussle. Punks and skinheads. Tompkins Square Park. Bottles. Drunk kids. An iron pipe. Michael’s head.
Gloria covered her mouth, holding back a scream. “They’re running tests,” Donald said.
Gloria’s heart pounded in her throat.
“Do you want to come with me to the hospital?” Donald asked. “I’m leaving now.” Sara was there, at his house, and his wife was home.
Gloria began to say yes. But then she thought No. Then, again, she thought Yes.
It was just, the thought of seeing Michael laying there with his eyes closed, with his head bashed in, oh god, she couldn’t do it. It reminded her of the time she was riding her her bicycle with him in his toddler seat in the back, and she had hit a curb, and knew he’d toppled over, and the moments of suspension where all she’d thought was “I can’t look, I can’t look, I can’t look.”
But she did at last look, of course. She huddled over him, lifted his tiny warm body, turned him to her, and saw the blood on his forehead, and immediately raced back home to nurse him. He hadn’t needed stitches. He had been all right. She’d had to look at him. She was his mother and he was hurt. But it had terrified her to do it.
“I can’t,” she heard herself say now. “I can’t look.”
But in the next moment she was telling Donald to come for her, and then she was out of her bed, putting on her clothes, moving softly down the stairs where she would pace in the living room until Donald pulled up outside. Together they would drive over, in silence, she knew, thinking only of their son, the world suspended on a pin, as they braced themselves for the sight of what he had become.
Becky Tuch is a writer and teacher based in Pittsburgh, PA. Her fiction has been honored with fellowships from The MacDowell Colony and The Somerville Arts Council, awards from Glimmer Train, Moment Magazine and Briar Cliff Review, and has appeared in numerous lit mags and anthologies including Tikkun, Post Road, Salt Hill, Literary Mama, Best of the Net 2016 and the forthcoming New Voices: Contemporary Writers Confronting the Holocaust. Her nonfiction has appeared in Salon, McSweeney’s, Virginia Quarterly Review online, and elsewhere. She is the Founding Editor of The Review Review. Learn more at BeckyTuch.com.