The Other Man
I always let them down gently but firmly. A quiet place with a quick exit. Sometimes I have their belongings already boxed up—his blues records, his T-shirt I liked to sleep in, the earrings he bought for me on a business trip—so they don’t have to go through an awkward epilogue. I chalk it all up to It’s not you, it’s me, and use some varying formula of daddy issues plus fear of commitment plus you deserve better. I tell them they will find the perfect woman. I wish them nothing but the best. And once I am home and the door is closed and locked behind me, I pour myself a good drink.
The first question men ask when I break it off : “Is there someone else?”
I pat their shoulders. “No, of course not.” I smile reassuringly.
I want to tell them the truth.
A couple of them have met the other guy in my life. My son, Thaddeus, is seven. He’s sweet as a candy apple when he wants to be and a little jerk on the bad days, but all parents experience a piece of heaven and hell wrapped up in something that can barely peddle a tricycle.
When Thaddeus’ father and I got divorced, Thaddeus was only a year old, and I promised myself I wouldn’t be the “revolving door” house. We split custody, which I assumed would make it easier for me to kill the loneliness. But I immediately plunged myself into finding another partner. I came close once or twice, in the form of intense rebounds.
There was the Musician, a gentle man with the loveliest voice, who tried to get my son to eat salads. We made it almost ten months.
So far, none of them have been the right fit for either of us.
Thaddeus was born without his right hand. He’s different. Special needs. On IEP reports and insurance forms and checks from the state, he’s permanently disabled. A condition that can never be fixed.
Aren’t we all screwed up, said the Water Park Designer.
In the world of single motherhood, there isn’t a lot of time for relationships. It’s like trying to watch two TV shows at once and keep up with each plot. How can I possibly come home after a full day of work, medical appointments, occupational therapy, park playdates, grad school, and cook meals for my kid and for someone else, cuddle with a lover, make meaningful conversations, and have sex?
For dinner tonight: quesadillas, just the two of us. Thaddeus practices holding a cup between his stub and his good arm. He paces the kitchen while I assemble the first quesadilla.
“Only cheese?” He asks.
I nod and flip the tortilla. “Plain and simple, how you like it.”
Thaddeus repeats it in a sing-song voice. “Plain and simple.”
I dated the sure cases of quick implosion. Much older men, men who didn’t want kids (“they impede vacations”), ex-boyfriends passing through town, the newly widowed who bawled in my arms, the separated husbands–still angry and lost–the men who just needed a good preening and a road map to get them back on their way, away from me.
The terms “amelia,” “anomaly,” and even limb “difference” sound much more pleasing than the word “disabled.” But I can’t help use it all the time. It’s like a red light in the intersection of a sentence. It has meaning, it has consequence. People just stop and nod. They don’t need me to explain much more.
There’s a chance it was genetic. I remember how, after Thaddeus’ diagnosis, his father and I held our hands together in the ultrasound office, scooting closer, studying each other’s palms and fingerprints for the first time.
I shuffle spiders out of corners, finish client reports, fold another load of laundry, repaint the flaked white trim long into the night. In the morning, the Spiderman lunchbox sits flap-open on the counter. Jar of peanut butter. Clean knife. At 7:10 am every morning I make his lunches. The man who spent the night is already gone. He didn’t even know there was a second bedroom, door closed. The backpack is stuffed, the prosthesis is carried or worn, and through the car window, I watch my son blow me a big, public kiss as the kids rush around him to beat the class bell. On the weeks when Thaddeus is at his father’s house, I sit on my back stoop alone, overlooking the garden, and watch the cardinals burrow themselves hungrily into sunflower heads. I shower and go to work.
This past autumn, on a five-day romp through Boston, I met a man. Perfect on paper. Handsome and funny, he bought me a beer before a Red Sox game and he fed me oysters afterward. I flew back to North Carolina, but we stayed in touch. Made plans. Direct flights and long weekends. I met his parents for Christmas dinner. We lounged like cats—smart, mature, romantically-compatible—on the sun-drenched couch of his living room. Each time I would come home to Thaddeus, refreshed and focused. The Boston Engineer made me feel beautiful, we texted excitedly about the latest TV episode we watched, and he even laughed at my funny stories about my son’s antics. We didn’t talk about Thaddeus’ disability. We talked about everything else.
He was 900 miles away, which, I figured, would give me plenty of time to fall in love with him and warm up to the idea that I could slowly bring two special men together in my life. After years of flitting away so quickly, this time–I told myself–I would stick around because I could. No pressure to jump just yet. It was going to happen. After I opened my heart to this man, I would finally have a normal triangle family with love and acceptance.
“Will I ever grow a hand?” Thaddeus asks.
He has crawled into my bed again at 5am, shaking off a bad dream. He traces my face with his stump. His eyes are big, the shade of blue that makes you feel like you’re sailing paper boats on an endless day. The first girl to break his heart—what will she look like? Will she let him down easy as she can? Will she have his things already packed?
“You won’t grow a hand,” I tell him, and hold him so he’ll fall back asleep. “But I have extras. I can help you whenever you want.”
One afternoon, I was on the phone with a friend. My relationship with The Engineer had just ended on an amicable yet bittersweet note. The distance is just too much, he said. It’s not fair to either of us. I had cried a lot more than I expected.
After consoling me about The Engineer, my friend and I talked about what it was like to raise our sons. At one point, we started talking about Thaddeus’s disability, what teenage life might be for him. I tried to spin the positive as I always had, going on and on about prom and guitar lessons and driving the car.
“But you can’t know that,” my friend said. “None of can know exactly what Thaddeus is going through. You’ll never be inside his head. No matter how close you are to him, you’re not him. You have all your parts of yourself.”
The first girl to break Thaddeus’ heart probably won’t know what she’s doing. She’ll appear more fragile than him. Maybe it will have nothing to do with the fact that he can’t tie his own shoes or cut a steak, or that she is tired of standing on one side of his body, the only one with the fingers that interlock with hers.
Lowering myself onto the couch, I stared at the coffee table in silence.
“Hey,” my friend said over the line. “You still there?”
“Yeah,” I replied. “Still here.”
We talked a bit more, then hung up. I sat and contemplated my friend’s words. Still here. It dawned on me that not once had I ever used the phrase me time, it was always non-mommy time…a worn groove of a joke among my friends. Not once had I left the word mother out of the description of myself. Resumes, social media, cocktail parties. My identity as the mother of a disabled child floated around everywhere.
When I had found out I was pregnant, my sister had said, “This is the best and longest companion you’ll probably have.”
The way she blurted it out, like it wasn’t coming from her but from somewhere else we couldn’t possibly imagine, and why she was saying that a tiny bean of a something growing inside me was going to be a better person than my husband didn’t make an ounce of sense.
Will I ever fall in love and be able to hold it? I’m scared. I’m scared that the answer may be no in the end, so I guess I should just say, I don’t know.
What I do know is right now we have tee-ball practice.
Thaddeus and I walk a few blocks to the recreation field, I’m lugging the teeball set, he’s skipping along and whistles while I set it up. Try-outs will be here in a month and I want him to have a fighting chance. We practice throwing and catching with a trick of flipping the glove from hand to underarm; we do rolls, pop-ups. Then batting.
My son swings and connects, it’s not the satisfying crack of a wooden bat but a THUMP of two plastic toys, and the ball whizzes past my head with startling ferocity. “Okay, now you run!” I yell. He hesitates. “Run!”
He drops the bat and throws his all into a sprint, rounding first, then second and third, reaching home. But he doesn’t stop. He runs another lap, pumping his fists, his stump and his full hand blurry with speed. He runs another. As he circles, his face is lit up. He’s laughing. I tell him to keep going, heck, we’ve got all day. I stand on the pitcher’s mound, and for a moment I wonder what it would be like to see a third person in this field, someone on the horizon, holding the plastic ball in their hands, and what it would be like if I could wave them infield, my arm moving in a way that already felt warm and familiar, gesturing for them to come closer.
- Catherine Campbell’s stories appear in Arcadia, Atticus Review, [PANK], Fwriction Review, Drunken Boat, Prick of the Spindle, and other journals. She was recently shortlisted for the Masters Review and nominated for the Pushcart Prize. http://www.catherinejcampbell.com
On the shore near the quayside, the water churned. The ferry was no longer running. Inside the car, I studied Sgt. Millspaugh’s face as he fiddled with the radio. One Japanese station after another played “I Want to Hold Your Hand” until finally, a static-distorted FEN broadcaster’s voice reported:
A typhoon passed over Okinawa last night. Torrential rains set off landslides killing 48. Power lines are expected to be down on Kyushu after 2300 hours. All military personnel are on alert and dependents confined to quarters . . . On a wider scope, there are unconfirmed reports that U.S. planes attacked North Vietnamese patrol boats in the Gulf of Tonkin today.
Sgt. Millspaugh let out a deep sigh. “Well, kiddo, looks like we’d better outrun this storm. Don’t worry, I promise to get you back to the base in time for your surprise birthday party.”
I was thirteen. Up until then I had not been afraid of many things. I had been on a swim team since I was nine and was teaching Sgt. Millspaugh’s two kids to swim. I was their favorite babysitter, so when Sgt. Millspaugh’s wife decided to take the children to her parents’ home for Obon, I was invited for the adventure.
Sgt. Millspaugh had driven down a week ago. The plan was to put me on a train back to the base while the family spent another week with the grandparents. And then it began to rain.
Using the narrow winding coast highway, we skirted Kinko Bay. The vehicle swayed on its shocks as the typhoon squalled ashore, washing debris up on the pavement. Sgt. Millspaugh navigated around rocks and pot holes. The car jounced and pounded. Then two successive waves engulfed it and the engine died.
“Yoko, take the wheel.”
Sgt. Millspaugh leapt from the car to keep it from backsliding into the sea. I flung open my door and landed in water that took me to my knees. Lightning flashed, and I got a brief glimpse of Sgt. Millspaugh’s hands cupped like a megaphone, but his voice was lost in the storm. He bent forward and began pushing the car. I pushed too. I stumbled over the unstable bottom. I trudged through deep sand, intent on pushing the car onto what was left of the asphalt. Salt water stung my eyes, and I swallowed a gulp as a wave slammed me against the rear bumper.
My heart beating like a kettledrum, I was consumed with a nightmarish fear that the next wave would carry us out to sea. I felt myself being dragged back, and for an instant I was tempted to let it take me. Then the engine started and the car lurched forward, leaving me straddling a large rock and Sgt. Millspaugh gone. A second later he reappeared, eyes wild like a drowning man. Adrenaline surging through my exhausted body, I grabbed one end of a tree limb and extended it to Sgt. Millspaugh. I hung on with more strength than I ever knew I had. Finally, he clambered onto the rock, and we scrambled up an embankment. Crouched before the force of the wind, my hair plastered to my head, the wind shoved me across the pavement. Sgt. Millspaugh opened the car door, and I fell inside shivering. Huddled together with the children in the back seat my teeth chattered until I clenched my jaw.
We had driven for only a few minutes when Sgt. Millspaugh put the car in park and yelled at me.
“Give me your overnight case.”
He rummaged through it until he came up with my bar of Lifebuoy soap. He thrust a flashlight into my hands and once again we were out in the storm. Under the car I aimed the light where he pointed. I smelled gasoline. A moment later, I watched as Sgt. Millspaugh drug the soap across a tiny hole in the gas tank several times. After inspecting it with the flashlight, he gestured to get back in the car.
“That ought to take care of it until we get some fuel tank sealant.”
We rode silently, engulfed in the noise of the storm for another hour. The children fell asleep, but I could not. I kept wondering how long before the gasoline would leak again. It was after midnight before we reached a small village in the mountains. Sgt. Millspaugh parked under a sheet-metal awning that ran alongside a gas station. He rested his head and arms on the steering wheel and began to shake all over. I wanted to thank him for saving our lives, but I couldn’t form the words. A moment later he cleared his throat and turned to look at me. “You know, kiddo . . . I can’t swim.”
He turned forward, leaned his head to one side and fell asleep like I’d seen so many G.I.s do. As he snored, I thought, I’ll never be able to sleep like that. My thoughts turned to the grandparents in their matchstick house in Shinjo. Had they survived? My own family didn’t yet know I had survived.
And then it was dawn and a Japanese station attendant was tapping on the windshield. I rubbed my eyes; the lids felt dry and gritty. The sky was turning apricot and smoke gray as light flooded into the world, and I realized I was thirsty. Sgt. Millspaugh looked scruffy with his day’s growth of stubble.
We filled our tank and started up a steep mountain; streaks of pink and saffron-yellow appeared overhead. A white mist rose from the valley below.
For hours the drive was beautiful— steep cliffs, gorges, rushing waterfalls, terraced hillsides of tea bushes. Lordly osprey glided lazily overhead inspecting our progress home.
- Nancy Ryan Keeling is the author of Estrogen Power, a full-length collection of poetry. Her short stories have been published in numerous journals. Her art and photography has been exhibited in Texas museums.