(Content Warning: mentions of drug use and self-harm)
We hear the pump, pump, pump of your rapid heartbeat amplified by the Doppler. Your mom and I are nervous. The doctor’s gaze is focused on the monitor; your garish, fuzzy body seems to pique her interest.
Something’s wrong. I know it.
Your mom’s hand tightens around mine, her fearful clutch squeezing my fingers. Her face is frozen, her eyes wide, a stretched-out expression that could easily be confused for awe.
I look to the screen, note how you seem to be sitting, legs crossed like a tiny Buddha. The doctor still hasn’t said a single thing which ends up being very revealing, answering the one question that I already know the answer to.
“Joana?” Our doctor’s a high school friend of your mom's. “Is everything okay?”
She looks to us, gives us the rundown of your current situation in the same tone one offers their condolences. Your doctor tells us not to worry.
“Your baby is healthy,” she says.
“Tommy. His name is Tommy,” your mom returns while nearly sobbing.
The doctor rambles on, and I feel it, the pressure, a wretched tug coming from the center of my chest.
In a couple of weeks from now, they’ll wheel your mom over to the surgical wing for a c-section. I’ll scurry down the halls by her side up until the designated painted line.
“Sorry, sir,” one of the nurses will say, “we can’t let you go any further.”
They’ll take your mom away past the double doors, and I’ll catch a glimpse of her, nervously crying, shortly before you're born. I imagine the doctor will have some difficulty reaching into your mother’s cavity and pulling you out into the world, that it’ll be a complicated process made for delicate, nimble hands.
The first time I’ll see you will be from a distance, behind a glass panel in a sea of crowded newborns. Your leg will be wrapped up, layered in a series of overlapping ribbons, supported by a splint. You won’t move as much as the other babies, but I’ll look to your chest, and I’ll notice that you’re breathing.
“Do you want to pick up your son or daughter?” one of the nurses will ask me while I’m hovering outside the nursery. “Which one are they?”
I’ll point to you, the distinctively different child from the rest of the herd; the baby boy with a twisted leg, with stiffened joints who’ll need to go through several surgeries during the first years of his life.
“I don’t know if that’s a good idea. Maybe I shouldn’t?” I’ll respond.
“If you want, I can help?” the nurse will offer. “Do you and your wife already have a diagnosis?”
“She’s not my wife,” I’ll return while nodding in affirmation. “Minor Arthrogy-something.”
“Just a fancy word for problems in a few joints and limbs. He should be fine.”
“Well, he’s still just a newborn,” she’ll answer with a chuckle. “Life can be tough for anyone. In fact, all the babies in there should be fine.”
“And what if they’re not fine? What if they have a problem?”
“Then I guess that’s just another side of life.”
You said that you’ll be coming over today for dinner, so I had to make a run to the store. I grab some of your favorite things, bright red raspberries, Twizzlers, whipped cream, and strawberry ice cream. I think on a menu for tonight while pushing the cart down the aisles, remembering everything you loved to eat from when you were a child.
You thought my vegetarian lasagna was the bomb —a family recipe passed down to me from your grandma— but now I really don’t know what I should cook. I see portobello mushrooms, Parmesan, short-grain rice. I think of crafting a risotto, something different to entice you.
Part of me wonders if your resurgence will end with you asking me for money. Get the fuck out, I’ll shout if that’s the case because I’ll help you, Tommy, but not with that, I can’t sustain, I won’t sustain you throwing your life away.
Throughout the day and all through dinner, I’ll think about asking you to come back. I can offer you your old room, a place to sleep and eat, comfort. I’ll wake up early to prepare you breakfast, —so I guess I should buy pancake batter and bananas?— I’ll take you to physical therapy, find you a psych, throw the idea of you going back to school around. I’ll tell you stories about when you were a child, talk about your mother, plan vacations that one day in the future —a very distant future— we’ll one day take. We’ll do all of this together, you and I, for a couple weeks.
I’ll fight it, Tommy, your urges. I'll support you against your demons. We’ll struggle, have subsequent moments of peace, you'll possibly relapse again, then sneak into my room, take all the money I have in my wallet, and leave.
On the drive back home from the store, I can’t help but peer into every alley. I look beside every dumpster or pile of garbage bags. Sometimes I imagine finding you out here on the streets, limping with your arm out, holding yourself up against brick walls. Other times when my eyes skim through the newspaper, I’ll avoid the obituary, divert my gaze from the heading and images of a newly found body, terrified that it’ll be you lying dead.
When you were a boy, you had a curiosity with your own leg, observing it like a creature, something unsettling or sleeping, merely bound to your skin. By then, your mom and I hadn’t talked in months, and she would soon dissipate, blend into the background of your family history, leaving you behind with me.
The first time I started noticing your self-destructive habits was when you were seven. How you balled up your fist while in your bedroom and bashed it several times against the side of your thigh. I intervened when I heard the knocking, treated your self-inflicted wounds as if they were mine.
When you were ten, you told me about the bullies, how they mocked you by taping make-shift peg legs to the side of their jeans and slurring their words like pirates. They wouldn’t choose you for kickball —not leaving you last, just not choosing you at all— and at recess, you’d be left alone, sitting on the bleachers.
The counselors suggested sports, something you could do that wouldn’t require running. Swimming, they said, unbeknownst that you feared water after a near-drowning incident one summer.
“I’m sure we can find him something to do,” your last counselor said. “A hobby, something to distract him, occupy his time.”
At sixteen, the bleachers became crowded, drenched in boys and girls who smoked. One of them offered you a cigarette, I bet; one of them probably soon after offered you a joint. You made a few friends, and that made me happy. I didn’t necessarily like your crew, but they did stand beside you, walking at a slower pace for you to follow —Tommy, I hate every one of them because I’m sure they got you into using, that they contributed to your having problems.
The interphone’s ringing, so I stop chopping the scallions and dart to the panel by the entrance.
“Dad, it’s Tommy. I have a problem.”
The first thing I want to do is run down the stairs, the second thing is to ignore you, the third is to cry. I head down a mental spiral of what could be happening, thinking your outside with bloodshot eyes, yellow teeth, and a sugary substance over your gums.
“The building’s elevator isn’t working. I need help getting up the stairs.”
I let out a deep sigh of relief.
“Don't you ever scare me like that again,” I return. “Don’t move. I’m coming.”
A year after I found the first pack of Marlboros in your room was when I became sure of your addiction. At that time, you weren’t hiding your smoking anymore, and the scent of nicotine stained our apartment’s walls. One day I encountered a half-full box of cigarettes —I was surprised by the fact there was still half the amount— and as I looked into the pack like a telescope, I noticed a small white clump wrapped in tissue paper in the form of a pebble.
You arrived home shortly after, sweating profusely, claiming you had to walk due to missing the bus. I told you to shut up, so blinded by my rage that even if you were telling the truth, I couldn’t believe you.
I pointed to the table and asked you to explain.
“It’s not mine. I’m just holding it for a friend,” you answered, laughing.
You tried to cut through the living room, but I grabbed your arm in a craze. You pushed back, set yourself free, and fell to the floor, spraining your wrist in the process.
I hunched forward to give you my hand, and that’s when I saw it, the fabric of your pants slightly elevated, showing me dashes and seams etched into your skin, layered on top of your surgical scars.
“What the fuck is that, Tommy?”
“Nothing,” you said, tugging down the cuff of your pants.
“It’s nothing,” you returned, agitated. “Get away from me!”
I’m using up all the stove's burners; one to saute the mushrooms, one that’s cooking down the rice, another one for the raspberry sauce I’ll spoon over our dessert, and the last burner keeping the stock warm.
The gurgle from the pots and pans wards off the silence. You’re leaning against the kitchen’s doorway, watching me chop the parsley, the knife running close to my knuckles, nearly grazing the top of my fingers.
Does this trigger you? I think to myself.
“Do you need help, Dad?”
I divert my eyes to glance at you, the beautiful boy you’ve become. Tall —though a bit too skinny—, with a laid-back rockstar demeanor and so strong.
I look to the knife, to the cutting board, hoping that I’ll find the answer on the kitchen counter.
“No, I think everything is okay,” I answer. “Wait, how about you help me out and set up the table?”
Part of me wants to keep you busy but away from the sharp objects. I want to make sure you’re safe, sleeping okay, eating, and away from the drugs too.
“Call me if you need help with anything,” I say.
“Chill out, Dad. I’m not a baby.”
I’ll always see you as that newborn, that child wired and incubated on the other side of the glass. I’ll look at you, standing tall like a tower, and wonder just how long it’ll take before you start crumbling down.
I once woke up in the middle of the night, in August or September. I felt the need to simply stand up and go to the bathroom —I sometimes think it was divine intervention. I didn’t know you were there, that you had overdosed, that you needed saving.
The door wouldn’t open all the way back, its edge smacking, pushing against your defected limb. I squeezed through the opening and rushed to your side.
Your lips were dry, crusted, and dirty with a mixture of murky dribble and dust from the bathroom floor. There was a puddle, running from the base of the stall down to your clothes, a peach-colored pool that smelled so vile that almost caused me to hurl.
I tapped your cheek, forced open your mouth, slid my thumb and index finger under your lips like retractors, noticing your flared gums. You wouldn’t open your eyes. You didn’t twitch or say a single thing.
I repositioned your body, opened the bathroom door, left you lying there for a few seconds while I ran to the phone.
“How long has he been down, sir?” the person on the other line asked.
“I don’t know. Please, I just found...”
“Turn him to his side. We’re on our way.”
“Please, hurry. I don’t want my son to die.”
The table is set quite nicely, with two plates, forks, spoons, and paper napkins —and no knives.
You see me darting to the dining room and back to the kitchen, trying to place everything I’ve made for dinner.
“Here, let me help, Dad.”
“No, Tommy, I’m fine. Just sit right there and take a load off. You must be tired from walking up those stairs.”
“I’m good. After all, you did basically carry me,” you say in a mocking tone.
“Are you still going to PT?” I ask, making my way back into the dining area with a salad bowl.
“Yep, still going. Gotta keep the leg limber.”
“Good, that’s good.”
I think about asking you to move back in. I want to ask for the details of where you're currently staying. I think about getting myself a glass of wine, but I’m not sure if I should —if I could even offer you any.
Maybe I’ll ask about your love life, are you seeing anybody? We could talk about the news, the weather, anything.
“So, what have you been up to lately?”
“Nothing much, same old.”
What’s the same? Are you still getting high, using drugs, cutting yourself?
“You know, trying to find a job, hanging out with the gang. Oh, and I…”
Here it comes.
“…’m thinking about taking my college entrance exams.”
“That’s great, son!” I return smiling.
If I ask you to stay, will you? You don’t have to live here; just stay the night, have breakfast with me?
I look at you, how you’re wearing a long-sleeved jacket despite the lack of a nightly chill. I notice how it’s buttoned to the cuff, going way past your inner wrist.
“Are you sure I can’t help out with anything?” you ask as I run back to the kitchen.
I hear the sound of you dragging back your chair against the hardwood. “No, I’m fine, just getting us something to drink. What will you have?”
Don’t say a beer, don’t say a beer, don’t say a beer…
“Got any coke?”
“What?” I blurt out.
“Some coke, Dad! If you don’t have any, some juice or any other soda will do.”
I grab two glasses, a carton of juice, and a bottle of root beer that was left abandoned at the back of the fridge. I wrap everything around my arms and chest and make my way back to the table.
“Man, everything looks great, Dad.”
“Thanks, Tommy. I made it just for you.”
“Well, ain’t I special? This way I’m going to have to show up more often,” you say, spooning the risotto, mounting it into a small dune over your plate.
I’ll scooch my chair closer to the edge of the table. I’ll watch you roll your eyes back exaggeratingly as you savor each chew. I’ll fill both of our cups while you eat and compliment my cooking.
We’ll keep up this routine during most of our dinner. We’ll talk, we’ll maybe laugh. By the end, I’ll say I’ve missed you, and you’ll reply with your routinely me too. I’ll serve you dessert, three large scoops, and you’ll say that you shouldn't eat, that you’re super full.
Our dinner will be a success, and I’ll be nervous just like that first day. I’ll tell you that you really need to call more often, and you’ll explain that you’ve lost your phone. I won’t ask any questions, I’ll let your answer slide. I’ll hint that you should maybe stay the night, and you’ll refuse, using some half-baked excuse.
“What’s up? Why are you looking at me like that?”
“Nothing,” I say, pulling the chair back before I sit. “Dig in! I hope it tastes okay.”