LET ME SAY RIGHT UP FRONT that motherhood is not for everyone. I found this out too late, of course, since I am a mother, and a bad one it seems, despite the fact that I would starve on a raft in shark-infested waters without benefit of sunscreen to save my son, who I love more than anything and anyone in this world, from harm. It’s just this shooting thing, which is definitely not an example of good mothering, I agree. But there were circumstances, believe me, and they were pretty goddamned extenuating. I have been a great mother, and what thanks do I get? A slap in the face! No, a slap in the face would have been so much kinder. This was the worst kind of insult, the most horrible thing he could think of. Really, when you stop and think about it, the little prick brought this on himself. As you can see, I’m conflicted. But I am clear on one thing: I hate the Internet, and I rue the day we got a computer, in fact several computers, two PCs and a Mac, which displayed our family’s problems to the world.
Okay, so I’m not your average mom. Honestly, I’m a lot nicer than many mothers I know. In the case involving Benjy, which is the only time I ever resorted to violence, I must say in my own defense that I was slightly drunk (not that being drunk is a good thing), when I mistakenly (I see now that it was a mistake, but at the time it seemed so appropriate) pulled the trigger on the gun that dispensed the bullet that struck him as he was running home late at night, hours after his curfew I might add which is why he was sneaking in the back way through the woods behind our house.
On the bright side, according to this particular 14-year-old doctor, Benjy will definitely recover, although he may limp. Of course, Benjy will always hate me for it, but I’m his mother so he probably would have hated me anyway. Now, at least he’ll know why if someone asks (“Oh yeah, she shot me!”), which is better than spending years in therapy searching for some deep dark reason like not being breast-fed (which in case you care, he wasn’t) or finding me in bed with his soccer coach, which may or may not have
Anyway, it takes two to tango as they say. The boy’s father, my husband, Mayor Carl Whitman of Cove Harbor, New Hampshire (that’s how he says his name, no matter who asks, he’s got to do the booming politician’s voice and say the whole damn thing) and I had already created a child before we realized that we had major differences. For example, just to pick something at random, I am heterosexual. Finding out for sure that Carl is not exactly a homo erectus made me a little, shall we say, upset? I mean, the gays are fine in big cities, but here in our little town, it’s another story.
Situated on the southern end of Lake Winnepawpak, Cove Harbor is one of those close-knit communities where the neighbors make it their business to know yours. I had spent the summer before college there as a counselor at the Morningstar Camp for Girls. Back then I thought the town was a little too redneck, but when I returned years later for a weekend getaway with friends, its small-town appeal struck me as charming, and right then and there I decided to make it my home. With my brand-new college degree in English literature, I quickly found employment as a night-shift copy editor on the local paper, and worked a few days a week at a popular cafe as a way to expand my social life. Soon enough I met Carl and that was all it took for me to plant roots.
Truth be told, things were fine in the early days of our marriage when we had some of that “chemistry,” and he still is quite a looker if you ask me. After graduating from law school, Carl started out as junior partner with the town’s leading firm and was already laying the groundwork for his first campaign as city councilman. Right away his busy schedule left me with plenty of lonely nights, unless I wanted to attend those endless chicken dinners, which I didn’t and in fact couldn’t, since my little catering business—I’m an excellent cook, let’s face it–was just starting to take off. But I wondered what women do if they’re not dating. And then it hit me: They have children!
Carl thought it was a great way for me to keep busy, with the added bonus of furthering his political career. (“A cute kid gets votes,” Carl always says.) Luckily for us I conceived right away, since we didn’t have that much time to spend trying. I had what my doctor described as a “normal” pregnancy—if anything could be called normal when there’s an entire person growing inside your very own body, consuming all you eat and demanding its own menu to boot, kicking your bladder so you feel like you have to pee every ten minutes, hiccupping at inconvenient times, and generally making itself known on a daily basis. Benjamin arrived three weeks early, apparently brought on by my “nesting” activity of washing the kitchen floor with a toothbrush and a Brillo pad. My labor lasted two days and was ultimately hampered by the baby’s refusal to come out, despite my screaming for several hours. (Even the labor nurse told me to “get a grip,” which I thought was unnecessary.) Finally the doctor went in with a pair of forceps and yanked the baby out like a stubborn splinter.
Aside from his ears being flattened Benjy appeared strong and healthy, but they took him away to the neo-natal unit as a matter of hospital policy. The first time I saw him–he was about six hours old–he was red-faced and screaming, and I asked the nurse what was wrong. Her answer haunts me to this day: “He’s fine, he’s just mad as hell that he’s stuck here instead of going home with you. In all my years of nursing babies, I’ve never seen one with a temper like that!” So the way I see it, things went awry on Day One, and I’ve spent all the years since trying to make up for dragging him out before he was ready, despite the fact that my doctor said there is absolutely no way to keep a baby inside when it’s on the move. Still I wonder, was it those damn Brillo pads?
Right from the start Benjy and I bonded. I was determined to be the perfect mother–always ready with a hug or a Band-Aid or a story or whatever he needed. Except for the breast milk, which Carl thinks is the root of the problem and the obvious reason why Benjy did what he did. Lord knows I tried to breast feed, but it just didn’t work; it was painful for me and frustrating for Benjy, who had trouble “latching on” and so often went hungry. I tried for almost three weeks, definitely the worst three weeks of my life, what with a screaming baby sucking at my sore nipples and Carl standing by with a disgusted expression, muttering that I was “doing it wrong.”
“And how would you know the right way, Mr. Know-It-All? Do you even have breasts?” I shrieked.
“No, obviously I do not have breasts, but I do have eyes, I can read, and I’ve been reading about breastfeeding on the Internet.”
“You and that damn Internet! Maybe you should see if your precious computer can breastfeed our baby,” I said, exhausted and close to tears.
“All right, so quit if you can’t do it! Go ahead and feed him formula! Take those pills so your breasts can go back to a normal size already, this is embarrassing.”
“I think my mother took some pills to dry up her milk or something, don’t you know?” he asked. “Aren’t there pills?”
“I never heard of any pills. You just stop nursing and the milk stops coming in. And suddenly you’re embarrassed by my breasts?”
“Well, they have gotten sort of Dolly-Partonesque, which is distracting during a press conference,” he said.
“Carl, I promise if you ever even have a press conference, I will bind my breasts with duct tape and the only big boob will be you!”
When I finally switched to a bottle, we were all happier: Carl got to feed Benjy, Benjy thrived, and my breasts gradually deflated to their normal D-cup size, but not before Carl had snapped a photo of me half-naked as I was getting out of the shower, a towel wrapped around my waist, to record me at my biggest-breast moment.
Things went well after that rocky start. Carl’s natural charm took him from the city council to the mayor’s office on the eve of his thirtieth birthday, my business was exploding, and Benjy grew up healthy and strong with an incredible aptitude for separating eggs–by age six he had made his first lemon meringue pie—and seemingly destined to be the next Wolfgang Puck. As the youngest mayor on record in our state, Carl started showing up everywhere, especially after Northern Living magazine named him one of “New England’s Brightest Political Stars.” He had that certain something, and people loved him.
By then I was starting not to, but who had time to notice? Besides running my catering business, I had begun taping Let’s Eat!, a weekly cooking show that ran on a local cable station. And motherhood is pretty demanding, considering all the activities I attended with Benjy: swimming and karate classes, basketball and soccer games, Little League, guitar lessons and horseback riding, all of which I dutifully watched, waved at, and rooted for, and to which I brought cupcakes, mini-pizzas, and home-made doughnuts.
And really, just taking him to the orthodontist took a year out of my life! Turns out that while I had been doing these things, Carl had been doing men, but I was so busy I barely had time for a romantic relationship, had my husband been so inclined. Everybody loved Benjy on sight, so it was years before his terrible temper resurfaced, since he only got angry when he didn’t get his way and he pretty much got his way all through his childhood. His earliest problems were kid stuff; in elementary school he started stealing gum and Lifesavers and the occasional can of soda. These treasures were found in his school backpack or stuffed in a jacket pocket. Despite our repeated punishments, no TV for a week and such, his behavior worsened. By the time he entered junior high Benjy was a full-blown bully who instilled fear in the other boys who looked up to him, literally—he was almost six feet tall in the seventh grade. Still, he was loving to us and seemingly remorseful every step of the way, until he met Theo, a high-school dropout who hung around the school waiting for the students to be dismissed so he’d have something to do.
At sixteen, Theo Grimes was already bad news, and came from a family of bad news. His father was doing time for armed robbery, an older brother was a known drug dealer, and his alcoholic mother had been in jail for disturbing the peace, most notably for frolicking nude in the fountain outside of the courthouse during the town’s annual Oktoberfest. (Actually, I marveled at her ability to go nude so late in what was a very brisk autumn that year.) Carl and I had a good laugh about it, and still permitted Benjy to spend time with Theo, thinking that a glimpse into a better world might encourage Theo to lift himself out of poverty. But despite having dinner with us and even spending the night at our home, Theo was not being lifted, Benjy was being dragged down, cutting classes and coming home with a glazed expression which we later learned came from early drug experiments compliments of Theo. Fortunately Theo was arrested for pickpocketing an undercover policewoman and carted off to the juvenile detention center, giving us hope for Benjy when we enrolled him at the upscale Welles School, an “emotional growth” high school for messed-up teens. Judging by the tuition rates, we assumed that Benjy would at least be breaking the law with a better class of people.
It was about this time that I read that many teens keep online journals detailing their exploits. That was news to me, but once on the scent, I perused Benjy’s computer which he always left on, and started reading it every day after he left for school to find out what he was doing all those times he said he was going “out” to “hang around.” I hit pay dirt with a posting by Harley Drake, a schoolmate of Benjy’s who posted email conversations on his blog, “DrugsRUs.” One in particular caught my attention:
Worm: so what have you been up to?
Drake: just hangin’–smoking and drinking, you know, the usual. you?
Worm: same mostly, but I’ve had to cut back on my drinking since i almost got alcohol poisoning last weekend
Drake: shit man, what happened?
Worm: well i was drinking vodka and propel fitness water which apparently gets you pretty fucked up, some stupid shit about eloctrolytes or something, which i didn’t know
Worm: so i drank enough to get me normally fucked up but i got completely shitfaced and ended up naked and puked on Stoner’s bed
Drake: how did you manage to wind up naked?
Worm: well there was a Ridge High graduation party at Stoner’s and he has a pool which i was standing next to saying i was going to go in but i wasnt planning to then someone pushed me in so then i took off all my clothes which were wet
Worm: funny this was when my parents came in to pick me up, i refused to put clothes back on and was talking to them naked
Drake: well thats what happens when you drink vodka and propel fitness water
Worm: yeah i know that now, from now on I’m gonna stick to plain vodka
To my horror, I realized that on that particular night I had delivered Benjy to that same pool party! I wondered: Did he do the fitness water-vodka thing too? I was sick at the thought that I knew so little of his life, this boy who had once been my world.
Somewhat depressed, I went to the kitchen and came up with a new recipe for my signature dessert, Fool’s Pudding, this time omitting the vanilla and using bittersweet
chocolate instead of semi-sweet. It was definitely an improvement, and so I decided to add it to my permanent recipe file that I kept in a kitchen cupboard above the refrigerator. It was there that I kept my most important papers, things that were meant for my eyes alone. Pulling it down from its perch, several papers drifted down with it, among them The Photograph.
There I was in all my motherly splendor, proudly displaying my huge breasts full of the milk of life. The photo had gone from one hiding place to another, since it could not be kept in any family albums for fear Benjy or some visiting in-law would see it. I wanted documentation of my Earth Mother days, even if I had failed miserably in giving my newborn the milk of life, and had finally stuck the picture up there with my recipes thinking it was safe. Now there it was on the kitchen floor, and as I picked it up the phone rang. Rushing to answer it, I absent-mindedly stuck the photo into the pocket of my apron.
It was Marty Zane on the phone, Cove Harbor’s Chief of Police. “Marlene? I’m sorry to bother you, but I think we should sit down for a talk, you and me and Carl. That boy of yours has gotten into a bit of trouble, nothing too bad, but, well, nothing too good either.” He sounded apologetic, adding, “you know kids these days.”
“Well, young Officer Tate stopped him the other night, he was apparently driving and you know better than I, he has no driver’s license, and well, Tate says they were all on something, drunk or stoned, I’m not sure yet. But I know your Benjy, and he’s a good kid. He’s just fallen in with a bad crowd, and I want to turn this around before it gets worse.”
“Oh God. You know, I heard something about this from one of the other mothers, but I wouldn’t let myself believe it.”
“Well, it’s true. But don’t go off the deep end about this–let’s just see what we can work out. Nobody down here wants to see the mayor’s son in hot water.”
“Let me talk to Carl and see when he’s free. And thanks Marty, we need all the help we can get.” Tossing my apron onto the kitchen counter, I ran out to see Carl in his office, and that was the beginning of the end of our happy family.
Andrea Rouda blogs at The Daily Droid.