I watch the swarm of bodies on the television and all I can think about is Jeremy and the text he sent me this morning: “Going to DC, Mom. It’s the day of reckoning. The heroic struggle is on. Stay safe.”
He was supposed to be on his way in to work—that’s what I thought when I put the neoprene with his lunch on the kitchen table. This, of all things, feels like the day’s betrayal.
“This is a serious situation,” the news announcer says as the camera pans over a sea of angry faces. The U.S. capitol has been placed on lockdown as protesters surround the building…”
I pick up my phone and tap Jeremy’s picture. “Are you part of this?” His silence over the following minutes, as I watch people in shoving matches with neon-vested police kicking over metal barricades, seems like a confirmation.
I text my husband at work. “Are you watching the news? Do you know Jeremy’s there?”
“Watching,” he replies before the light fades from my phone screen. “Let’s hope he has some sense. You ok?”
My finger hovers before swiping, “No.”
“Stay put,” Gerald replies. “I’ll come back as soon as I can.”
“No need,” I say because I’m not sure if I want a witness to the things I’m feeling, the things I might do. “I’ll be fine.”
I’m glued to the couch as I watch events unfold. “...an unprecedented assault on our democracy…” the voice says as I watch men climb scaffolding and risers.
Everything else can wait—the dishes, my Zoom meeting. I am waiting. My heart is waiting to beat.
I scan the crowd, afraid to see Jeremy, afraid my friends or Gerald’s co-workers or our pastor will see Jeremy. If they do, I have to know it first. I know this control is a false illusion, but I cling to it, my fists clenched as tightly as those the mob raises in the air. Please don’t let him be one of the close-ups, the angry faces, the wrinkled noses, open mouths.
Between the bits of commentary I hear the protesters’ chants: Traitors! Treason! a heavy baritone chorus of Break It Down! as bodies thrust forward.
A woman's hoarse voice rises above the fray. She must be close to the camera operator. “Our house! Our house! Our house!” She shouts the refrain with an abandon that crackles like hot grease.
It haunts me as I look around our own house, at the tan couches upholstered in faux suede, electronic foot rests, throw pillows with images of hummingbirds and dragonflies, all shimmering wings. It’s a cozy family room, meant for board games and puzzles. Not this kind of worry. The kids’ old school pictures still hang on the wall over the upright piano. It’s a very normal house, and I’m surprised when I tune in to the little voice inside my head. I don’t deserve this, it insists.
This is a normal, loving home, but Jeremy is not smiling in his senior portrait. His delicate jaw has a determined set under that wisp of an auburn beard. His gray eyes are hard, like a cold ocean under a white sky. Looking now, I can see the disdain in his gaze.
“You’re going to make me take part in this normie ritual?” he’d grumbled on picture day.
“You bet!” I told him. “I can’t remember the last time I got a good picture of you.” I’d handed him a comb because I knew he would only swat my hand away if I attempted to run it through his shoulder-length waves.
He had the kind of thick, full-bodied hair I had always wanted. He could have been handsome, if he’d smile sometimes. If it weren’t for the acne. If he would just throw his shoulders back with some confidence. Of course, I didn’t say any of that aloud, to him. I wanted that perfect picture. “Will you try to smile?”
He shoved the comb into one of the deep pockets of his baggy cargo shorts and shrugged. I shrugged, too. At least he had put on the light blue button-up shirt I’d laid out on his bed. At least he was humoring me.
I’d been happy to see the picture. Only now, as my gaze wavers between the dark-clad bodies spilling down the capitol steps—bodies pressed against bodies, their writhing undulations punctuated by flags—and that picture of my steely-eyed son, somewhere among them now, do I dare to ask a difficult question: When did my expectations become so low?
We moved when Jeremy was in the eighth grade. Maybe that was the start, when we left his friends (and possibly even his childhood) three hours behind. Kids that age are vicious. My younger daughter was able to blend in to the sixth grade. All of her peers were new to middle school. She was no different entering those heavy blue doors for the first time. But Jeremy struggled. He had always been on the quiet side—thoughtful, I called it. He did not make friends. Our living room had not been full of teen-age boys, yelling at video games in cracking voices like I had imagined. I didn’t keep a freezer full of pizza rolls.
Jeremy spent most of his time alone on the computer. Maybe that was my mistake—not pushing harder for him to join karate or soccer or something. A robotics class. He played games and watched people play those games on YouTube. At first he’d mutter into a headset, a thin tendril keeping him connected to friends back home. I wasn’t thrilled, but was it worth rocking the boat? I don’t know. Eventually the friends faded away. The games became his friends. And the people he found online.
Then finally in high school he made a friend—a real person. I never liked Dustin, really. He had this thin, scornful sneer. Everything he said somehow felt ironic. But I loved him for making Jeremy feel accepted for once.
Then there was the joke—a misunderstanding. He and Dustin were looking at memes on their phones over lunch and this girl overheard them and reported them for offensive content. Jeremy was suspended and had to write an apology.
“It was ironic, Mom,” he insisted. “These snowflakes can’t handle it. I have the right to freedom of expression. The Leftists can’t handle it when people disagree. They just suspend you. Suspend the Constitution is more like it.”
I remember how he lit up with righteous indignation. His pale cheeks flushed; his eyes were alive. Is it so bad I was just happy to see some light?
He was interested in history, in politics. For a few months he joined the debate team before declaring one day, “They’re all just a bunch of useless cucks.”
Jeremy was born three days after the massacre at Columbine High School. I cried ugly tears that day, my nine-month-pregnant belly heaving under my ragged breaths. I was so afraid to bring him into this world, inhabited by shocked students who hug each other with limp bodies and pile teddy bears and roses beneath wooden crosses. I was so afraid of the world he would face. I would look into those little gray eyes, stroke his impossibly soft hair-fuzz and will him to stay that small and safe forever.
He was small. He was a late talker. We red-shirted him, gave him the gift of time before starting school. As the years passed and shootings became common news across the country, and Jeremy went through active shooter drills at school, I always pictured him as one of the shocked students. I never pictured him as one of the angry boys in the trench coat.
No, I admit as I scan the channels, looking for a glimpse of his face, of the back of his head, of his camo backpack. If I’m honest, the thought did cross my mind, but it was always so fleeting and easy to brush away. This anger, this aggression, was just a phase—a toxic byproduct of a cruel world. I’ve always thought I could love him through it. We got a puppy. Maybe that's the problem. I thought I was enough. My heart is pounding and the corners of my eyes are tingling and I want to run away from this feeling of clarity.
Jeremy retreated deeper into his own world, into his computer. I’d hoped things would change for him after high school: fresh environment, fresh faces. He’d take a gap year, find some purpose in a job, maybe meet a nice girl, take some classes at the community college.
He felt like part of something when he got his job at the hardware store. He’d talk about his “brothers” there as he took sloppy mouthfuls of mashed potatoes that flaked into his wild beard. They’d hang out after work. Never at our house, but Jeremy had friends. He had a job. I had hope.
There are so many Jeremies at the capitol today. I watch them surge as one body, a battering ram against metal barricades. They smash windows with flag poles, and their eyes look like Jeremy’s. With their flag poles they shatter my delusions about Jeremy like they do to the capitol windows. I feel them crumble and it cuts me.
“They did this to us. We were good, law-abiding people and they did this to us!” one young man says into a microphone that’s shoved in his face. He has a close-cropped black beard, a checkered flannel shirt, and fire in his eyes. I hear Jeremy in his vitriol, in his righteous indignation. Is this how people see Jeremy, I wonder?
“We have visual evidence,” the anchor's voice-over declares as the image on one side of the split screen shifts. “Some protesters have made it inside the capitol, made their way around security. Senators have been evacuated.”
I watch, numb, as a line of people moves through the rotunda—red and gold drapes, marble statues, heavy black boots over the checkered tile mosaic. Most of them hold their phones aloft like torches. They pause for selfies.
I grab my phone from the coffee table.
Jeremy hasn’t posted anything on his Twitter. At least he has the sense not to associate these images with his name, his profile. I realize that’s a low bar.
It occurs to me that he may have more—that the account I’m privy to is the sanitized, mom-friendly version of Jeremy—the blue button-up shirt he’d put on for me.
“Things are happening quickly,” the announcer says while on half of the screen bodies continue to swarm under the flags—American flags, Confederate flags, Don’t Tread on Me, Keep America Great, all whipping in the cold wind against a white sky. On the other side of the screen, protesters breach the blue carpet of the senate chamber, pull papers from the heavy desks like they own the place. They fly through the air like a blizzard. Our house! They chant again.
I wonder which side of the screen Jeremy is on. Either way, I know my boy is on the wrong side of history today. His colleagues wear black skulls, red hats, black spiders.
I want to turn off the television, but I can’t look away, and anyway the voice inside my head has shifted. I deserve this, it says. This—this viewing—is penance for all of the ways I’ve let my expectations slide. Yes, I need to see him, to see if he’s safe. I scan every face visible in the crowd, and I see him everywhere, in so many young men’s faces. Seeing his anger in context, I finally see Jeremy.
“Here’s a disturbing image of Capitol Hill police bringing out a victim who is bloodied…” the anchor narrates and I see him on a stretcher, holding his head. My stomach sinks as anger, guilt, and a growing concern mingle into a nauseating cocktail inside of me.
As clouds of gas curl through the white sky (tear gas, bear gas, flash bangs, pepper spray, the disembodied voice drones), I think of the six-year-old boy who would crawl into my bed during thunderstorms and cuddle his warm body into mine, resting his head in the crook of my arm, those auburn curls tickling my cheeks as I softly sang him back to sleep.
I can’t. I will burst if I think anymore. Someone has been shot, people have been trampled. I have to stop thinking and do something.
The vacuum cleaner drowns out the voices as I watch the still images pan across the screen. They’re looting the capitol. Papers litter the blue carpet of the Senate chamber. Someone is carrying the speaker’s podium through the rotunda, a smirk on his face that reminds me of Dustin. They’re taking selfies with the likenesses of Andrew Jackson; more smirks because as far as they’re concerned strength means domination, and they are showing the world they are strong. They could not get away with this stuff in their own houses. I think of their mothers.
The vacuum cuts angry, fast strokes over our carpet. I’m not thinking about my feelings. The whir of the vacuum drowns them out as I think about the things I’ll clean out of Jeremy’s room today—the flags, the posters, the campaign buttons pinned on the khaki vest. As soon as I can look away.
And then the president is speaking. I don’t turn the vacuum off; I’ve never had much use for the guy. Besides, what could he say to make up for this? Too little, too late. He’s already taken so much from me, from all of us. So by the time the vacuum cleaner hits the baseboard and I shut it off, I catch his closing statements out of context: “We love you, you’re very special...Go home. Go home in peace.”
I collapse onto the couch as the whirl of anger and guilt and concern makes me dizzy. It’s compounded by the realization that I’ve never agreed with that man more. Despite the anger, the self-righteous destruction, I love my Jeremy and I want him home.
Hands over my eyes, I send out a silent message to my son, willing it to travel to him like swirling gas through the white sky:
We love you. Go home.
In our house you are loved, but in our house we have rules.
Jeremy, you are not a victim.
Jeremy, no one did this to you.
You can fix things, but I can’t fix you, not even with love.
Even so, come home.