The white metal breadbox with its crooked top falls down from the old refrigerator, its top torn off completely, more twisted than ever. She lifts it with her fingertips to avoid any further damage. Her son has done it again; he often leaves false traces behind or stages scenes to imply he is out of control. The house is empty, however, and her breathing becomes lengthy and deep.
“Nobody’s healthy in this sick world,” he always says. He wants her to believe he’s not fit for the world, no matter how well she’s tried to raise him, or what tools she’s given him. God is her witness, she’s tried hard. She’s gone as far as consulting two psychologists, although people should handle their own problems in her opinion, and never mind if she sounds old-fashioned.
He challenges her.
She finds a torn paper, an abandoned single headphone and a cigarette butt in the aluminum sink, picks them up like gifts. The pulsing in her neck is annoying. He says he lives fully, free and wild. In his thesaurus a full life means life in the drains, giving in to lethal pleasures. No, he cannot forgive her loneliness. She might have been absolved if she had invented a story about his father, but he’s the only child of a mother and an anonymous sperm donor.
She isn’t worried about her boy, her sad, angry boy and his threats. Usually, she isn’t. He’s a good student, he plays the guitar, though badly, and he’s able to have friends he never brings home.
“I called you,” she tells him every night.
“There’s no signal under the bridge,” he says.
She’s been under the bridge overlooking the highway and found plastic threads, metal cans, and burnt spoons. Stringy people looked at her with bloodshot eyes. He’s vigorous in comparison.
“Go. Die young,” she tells him, regrets it, and says it once more. He opens a warped smile when she’s hurting. Once, she went on screaming for hours.
She bends down to collect the bread crumbs. They are scattered over the tiny square tiles with dark spaces among them like a word problem or a message. She doesn’t approve of his conduct, though she can’t disapprove of his age, sixteen, the age of restlessness and provocation. Every afternoon he puts on his ragged boots, pulls down his shirtsleeves and stomps out toward the road, readying to inject himself with poison. It’s not death he wants. He’s too hateful of her to give in and stop playing. Her veins pulse harder.
He says she didn’t have the right to have a laboratory baby. Oh yes, he has his own constitution, a bill of rights. She gathers the bread box, an inheritance from her parents’ house, what a safe place it was, and she thinks about the time under the bridge. Yes, yes, she’s guilty of a moment of weakness. She remembers elation, forgetfulness erasing the pain from her inside trails. It felt almost as sweet as driving his little red tow truck from his knees to the wall and back, to the sound of his baby-laughter. Before she got pregnant she sweet-poisoned herself too, but she stopped. She’s a hard-working woman, has always been.
She will calm down on her own, since psychologists are worthless. Hers were so pedantic about charging her in the end of each session, it made her think about the money she was spending, and what they’d do with it, which was probably everything she couldn’t afford to do.
She straightens up, discovering that he’s back, already sunk into the green couch like always.
“Hello,” she says in a sing-song tone, adding an edge of irony to prevent attrition. She approaches him and rests her hands on his shoulders, verifying he’s safely there, rediscovering his elusive presence. Her previous qualms dissipate into his strong, young self and the definite life in his body. The softness of his cheeks betrays his vulnerability, so she offers him words.
He’s silent, accepting.
She caresses his shoulder as she used to do when he was much younger, and she ruffles his hair. His checkered shirt is yielding under her hand, over his relaxed muscles. He can be friendly, see? She’s judged him harshly.
He’s listening to her chatter with half a smile, and she knows kids don’t give a full one to their mothers. She doesn’t ask what happened in the kitchen, only says they’ll go buy bread, cheese and lettuce, if he wants a sandwich. Her fingers sink into his hair and dress themselves with his black curls. He’s been gone but not away, and he’s back. He must be enjoying the tickling in the roots of his hair despite himself.
He asks “what’s up?” like he’s interested. She takes in the voice of this mature son. It echoes like sounds under a bridge. His finger taps on her elbow as if he’s singing to himself. She notices dirt under his nails, then his fingers shake against her own. His eyes are focused somewhere beyond her, and the skin underneath them is black. She takes a shallow breath. His nose; is it bleeding? There’s a scent of rot from the damp soil.