Coming Home

Fiction / Jared Yates Sexton

:: Coming Home ::

After weeks of nego­ti­at­ing, my wife Vanes­sa final­ly agreed to let me come home. I’d been holed up in a Best West­ern on the oth­er side of town, get­ting my din­ners from the dri­ve-thrus and wash­ing clothes in the sink. Half the time I spent camped out on the bed, drink­ing until I couldn’t drink any­more. The oth­er half was with my girl­friend Macken­zie, whom my wife had dis­cov­ered via a moment of absent­mind­ed­ness on my part. That could be for­giv­en, my wife said. Every­thing could be washed over and for­got­ten about, I could come home and be with my fam­i­ly once again, if only I said good­bye to Macken­zie and that time in my life.

All things con­sid­ered, it seemed like a rather sweet deal, but some­thing about giv­ing up that girl didn’t sit too well with me. Vanes­sa said it was a typ­i­cal have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too sit­u­a­tion.

You can’t have me and Bradley if you want to be with that girl,” she said over the phone one night. Bradley was my four year old son. “It comes down to this,” my wife said. “Either go run around with that slut and sow what­ev­er oats you’ve still got, or come home and be a hus­band and a father. You can’t have both.”

But I want­ed both.

There was some­thing won­der­ful about sit­ting down for roast and veg­eta­bles with the fam­i­ly, drink­ing a glass or two of wine, help­ing with the dish­es, and then mak­ing up some excuse as to why I had to go back to the office—papers to grade, class­es to prep—and then chok­ing the life out of the evening by crawl­ing bars with Macken­zie and her hot-tem­pered friends. It was the best of both worlds, the per­fect com­bi­na­tion of ice and fire that made my life so very enjoy­able. When I was at home, lis­ten­ing to Vanes­sa go on about what­ev­er Bradley had done that after­noon, or Bradley talk­ing about the back­yard and the ani­mals and insects who lived there, I was per­fect­ly con­tent, but I still longed to be out and about, my arm wrapped around my pret­ty young girl, the music pump­ing from the speak­ers while we found a dark cor­ner and grind­ed against one anoth­er. When I was there, her thin, jeaned legs pump­ing against mine, I found myself excit­ed about the cul­mi­na­tion of it all—the ride home where I would dart about in an effort to avoid the author­i­ties, my sneak into the house and into bed with Vanes­sa, who I knew would be ready for some mess­ing around if only I sucked, ever so gen­tly, on her ear­lobe.

I don’t think you under­stand,” I told Vanes­sa. “You have to know I love you, love you both. This isn’t a mat­ter of that.”

Well,” she said, “what’s it a mat­ter of, then?”

Of free­dom,” I said. “Of choice. Of tak­ing life and sculpt­ing from it that which you want.”

That didn’t sit too well with her, though. Vanes­sa wasn’t one who appre­ci­at­ed abstracts, things of ques­tion­able weight and appli­ca­tion. She scoffed at the idea and said that maybe it was her fault, maybe she should’ve known bet­ter than to get involved with a man of let­ters. “It’s so hard to get you to take any­thing seri­ous­ly,” she said. “It’s like mak­ing Bradley choose his lunch.”

My son was the rea­son I final­ly relent­ed. I was lying there at the Best West­ern in mid-August, pick­ing through a tray of super­mar­ket sushi, when I real­ized that the boy need­ed his father around. He was a sen­si­tive soul, took after me of course, and with­out inter­ven­tion his moth­er could have done irrepara­ble dam­age to his sus­cep­ti­ble psy­che. I mean, here was a lit­tle boy who chose long walks over tele­vi­sion, who cried at the sight of a par­tic­u­lar­ly beau­ti­ful bird. His emo­tions and sen­si­tiv­i­ties were a gift to me, but some­times they wore on Vanes­sa to the point of con­tempt.

He needs to stop suck­ing his thumb,” she was fond of say­ing. See, Bradley was a thumb suck­er. If left unchecked he would’ve sucked on his thumb from here to eter­ni­ty. But Vanes­sa was wor­ried about the med­ical prob­lems, the looks from oth­er par­ents, the inevitable notes from his teach­ers he would come home with after he start­ed school. “Just imag­ine what peo­ple are going to think,” she would say.

She even found a term for it. Stereo­typ­ic Move­ment Dis­or­der. She looked it up on the com­put­er and found pic­tures of man­gled jaws. She would stand over Bradley as he put his thumb into his mouth, or when she came across him, and say the words slow­ly, as if chant­i­ng them. Stereo-typ­ic-move-ment-dis-or-der. Bradley, ever the angel, would look up at her with this hap­py expres­sion, his tiny thumb dis­ap­peared by his lips. “We need to get this checked out,” Vanes­sa said. “We should see a doc­tor and get this tak­en care of.”

How could I have left poor Bradley alone with that? How could I have aban­doned him and spent the rest of my days order­ing watered-down drinks at dives and pubs, try­ing des­per­ate­ly to make small talk with Mackenzie’s bohemi­an friends just so I could con­tin­ue get­ting into her hip-hug­ging pants? I couldn’t, that’s how. There was a deci­sion to be made, a real, adult deci­sion that I had to come across if I want­ed to help raise my dar­ling son in an envi­ron­ment that some­what resem­bled san­i­ty.

So I came home. I packed up my wrin­kled clothes and books and drove the five miles to the sub­urbs and pulled into my dri­ve­way for the first time in two months. It looked the same. Noth­ing was different—no new paint scheme, changed locks, noth­ing. I car­ried my bags up to the front door, knocked, and Vanes­sa answered. Bradley was at her hip. He smiled while she did not. They moved to the side, I walked in, put my bags by the couch, and then the three of us sat and watched a tele­vi­sion show about a judge who solved mys­ter­ies in his spare time.

After din­ner that night, as we were scrub­bing dish­es in the sink, Vanes­sa asked me if I’d bro­ken things off with Macken­zie. “Have you done it yet?” was how she put it.

Tomor­row,” I said. “I’ll dri­ve into town and do it tomor­row.”

I don’t like the idea of you going to see her,” Vanes­sa said. “I shouldn’t have let you come home.”

Don’t wor­ry,” I said, wrap­ping one of my soapy arms around her waist. “It won’t take long. And then this whole sor­did episode will be behind us.”

Vanes­sa looked at me through squint­ed eyes. I could tell she didn’t trust me, didn’t believe what I was say­ing. There was a dis­tance there I’d grown used to since she’d found a let­ter Macken­zie had writ­ten in one of my coat pock­ets. It hadn’t nec­es­sar­i­ly been roman­tic or lov­ing, but there was enough on the page to let her know that I’d been, for lack of a bet­ter term, run­ning around. “We’ll see what hap­pens,” Vanes­sa said. “We’ll see if you do the right thing or not.”

After putting away the dish­es I went and took my first sat­is­fac­to­ry show­er in weeks. The unit at the Best West­ern had rarely kept hot water for more than a few min­utes. I scrubbed and soaked and grabbed a fresh tow­el as I stepped out. In the mir­ror I looked at the scruff I’d grown out of neg­li­gence. From the cab­i­net I took a can of shav­ing cream and lath­ered myself. A set of new razors, unopened from the super­mar­ket, sat in the cab­i­net as well, and I removed one and ran it under the hot water. When I was fin­ished I rec­og­nized myself again and ran my hands over my smooth cheeks.

Vanes­sa was lying on our bed when I exit­ed the bath. Instead of her usu­al slip, a rose-col­ored num­ber that hung tight­ly over her thighs, she wore a pair of paja­ma bot­toms and a t-shirt. I had no hope of start­ing any­thing, whether I sucked on an ear­lobe or not, but I cud­dled up to her all the same and tried to work my mag­ic.

You’re not going to get any­where,” she said.

It’s worth the try,” I said.

It’s not,” she said. “Besides, I need some­thing from you.”

Oh?” I said, drop­ping my tow­el on the floor.

Don’t get too excit­ed,” she said, reach­ing for a mag­a­zine on the night­stand. “I need you to talk to Bradley. Tonight. Get him to stop it with the thumb.”

I bent down and picked up my tow­el. “Why?” I said. “What’s the harm? Let the boy suck his thumb.”

He’s four,” she said. “And it’s time that he stops and gets over the whole thing.”

Maybe he enjoys it,” I said.

Enjoys it?” Vanes­sa said. She set the mag­a­zine down on her chest and breathed in so deep that it raised into the air. “I don’t care if he enjoys it, it needs to stop. Go and talk to him. You’re his father. Do some­thing.”

If I hadn’t just returned from exile I would’ve put up more of a fight. For months we’d been hav­ing that par­tic­u­lar argu­ment and I’d always stood firm. When­ev­er she got after him for the suck­ing I’d say some­thing like, how about we just calm down, or who real­ly cares? It’d led to con­flict after con­flict, prob­a­bly more so than any oth­er sub­ject besides Macken­zie, and I knew that if I caused a fuss that night I could’ve gone ahead and booked my room again at the Best West­ern. So, instead of pick­ing an argu­ment, I threw on some clothes and made my way to Bradley’s room.

He was lying there on his bed when I walked in. There was a light next to him that had a rotat­ing shade with ani­mals cut out of the sides. It threw shapes on the walls, shapes like giraffes and bears and rhi­noc­er­os­es and every­thing else you could imag­ine, and he was lying there in the half-dark, his thumb plopped in his mouth.

There’s my boy,” I said to him from the door­way.

Dad­dy,” he said, remov­ing his thumb long enough to speak.

How’s the weath­er in here?” I said. “Too cold? Too hot?”

He laughed and mim­ic­ked some­thing I’d read to him in a sto­ry before. “It’s juu­u­ust right,” he said.

Just right,” I said. “Good, good. You know, it’s good to be home again, sport.”

Okay,” he said and smiled. He plopped his thumb back into his mouth. “Where’d you go?” he said.

Away,” I said. “Just away for a lit­tle bit.”

He rolled over onto his side and touched the shade of the lamp. “But you came back,” he said.

I came back,” I said. “Lis­ten, your mom wants me to talk to you about some­thing. About you suck­ing on your thumb. She’s said some­thing about it to you before, right?”

Right,” he said.

About how it’s not a good thing to do?”

Right.”

About how big four-year-old boys shouldn’t suck on their thumbs?”

Right.”

Okay then,” I said. “Then you know?”

Right,” he said again.

Well,” I said. “That means you’re going to have to stop.”

Sure,” he said.

I walked over to his bed and pat­ted the lump that was his leg. He smiled big and bright despite the dig­it stuck between his lips. I sat down and touched his hair. “I remem­ber when my mom made me stop suck­ing my thumb,” I said.

Grand­ma,” he said.

That’s right,” I said. “Grand­ma. Grand­ma sat me down one day and said I couldn’t do it any­more. Said I was too big.”

Were you sad?” he asked.

Maybe,” I said. “That’s too long to remem­ber. But she was right. I was too old to suck on my thumb. Lit­tle kids suck on their thumbs. Lit­tle kids who don’t know any bet­ter.”

I’m a lit­tle kid,” Bradley said. “I’m still just a lit­tle kid.”

You are,” I said. “But you’re not that lit­tle any­more. You’ll be going to school next year, won’t you? Are you still going to be suck­ing on your thumb when you go to school?”

Bradley thought about it a sec­ond. He rolled his head back on his pil­low like he was real­ly search­ing for an answer. The suck­ing action on his thumb stopped as he gave his sole atten­tion to the ques­tion at hand. Final­ly, he nod­ded. “Yes I am,” he said. “I’m going to suck my thumb for­ev­er and for­ev­er.”

I said, “Well, how can I argue with that? If you’re going to suck on that thumb for­ev­er and for­ev­er.”

For­ev­er and for­ev­er,” he said.

I brushed the hair from his eyes and looked at him bathed in the light from that lamp. It was a great thing to see my boy after all that time, to final­ly sit there and take stock of my son. He was a beau­ti­ful crea­ture, soft and vul­ner­a­ble, frag­ile in a very real sense. I want­ed to pick him up and hold him like an infant for the rest of our lives, hold him like that until I just col­lapsed one day from the weight of his grow­ing frame. “Tell you what,” I said. “You keep suck­ing that thumb, tonight and tomor­row. After that, though, we’re going to have to put an end to it. I don’t think Mom­my would be too hap­py if we didn’t.”

Nope,” Bradley said. “I don’t reck­on Mom­my would be too hap­py.”

I fixed his cov­ers and flipped off the lamp. I left him there, in his bed, and returned to my own. Vanes­sa was there still, flip­ping through her mag­a­zine and pay­ing lit­tle atten­tion to any­thing at all. I laid down next to her and pressed my face against the skin of her arm. I inhaled and smelled all those won­der­ful female smells, the clean­ness and the per­fume and soap, and I inhaled again and again.

What’re you doing?” she said.

Remem­ber­ing,” I said.

For a while I fell asleep and dreamed I was back in the Best West­ern. I think I was eat­ing some fried chick­en out of a box and mashed pota­toes from a Sty­ro­foam cup. The TV was on, but I couldn’t watch any­thing. The dream went on like that for a very long time, it seemed, and I just remem­ber think­ing to myself, how’d I get back here? What am I doing? And, just as I was think­ing that, Vanes­sa woke me up. She was climb­ing atop me and reach­ing into my paja­ma bot­toms. When I opened my eyes there she was, her hair cas­cad­ing over my eyes, her breath ragged.

I missed you,” I said, still half-asleep.

Instead of answer­ing she just con­tin­ued. I tried to speak again, say­ing this and that about hav­ing regret­ted every­thing I’d done and all the harm I’d caused, but regard­less, I couldn’t get an answer. Vanes­sa was too busy with the act, with paw­ing and grip­ping at me, push­ing her face into my shoul­der and moan­ing and sob­bing inter­change­ably. I moved my hands up and down her body, look­ing for an appro­pri­ate place to rest them. I leaned up, in the dark, and did the only thing I could think of doing. I took her ear into my mouth and gen­tly tugged on it with my teeth. I did what I had done so many times before.

 

The next day I was sick with wor­ry and regret as I walked to Mackenzie’s apart­ment. I thought of ear­ly on in the rela­tion­ship, the first few times I’d skulked over there in the mid­dle of the night, and how ner­vous and aroused I’d been. I had prac­ti­cal­ly been shak­ing when she answered her door with a smile so love­ly that it ter­ri­fied me. We sat on her futon in the liv­ing room and lis­tened to records for over an hour before I worked up the courage to lean in and get that first and fate­ful kiss. With­in fif­teen min­utes we were fum­bling toward the back bed­room and strip­ping each oth­er of our clothes and mash­ing our mouths and lips togeth­er as we fell into the sheets.

The mem­o­ry was enough to shake me. I reached to knock, but couldn’t make myself fol­low through. Again, it was August and the sum­mer heat bled into me and caused a man­ic sweat to break out. The plan that had seemed so sim­ple the pre­vi­ous night—say hel­lo, tell her the affair was con­clud­ed and that I was giv­ing things with Vanes­sa anoth­er go, wish her luck and love and hap­pi­ness, and say goodbye—had all but unwound com­plete­ly. I didn’t know if I could do it any­more, if I could say good­bye to one of the few peo­ple I’d ever loved and lust­ed after, and I thought of alter­na­tives, of writ­ing a let­ter like an old-fash­ioned cow­ard and slip­ping it into her mail­box, or call­ing when I knew she’d be out and leav­ing a cropped and imper­son­al mes­sage. I was nav­i­gat­ing these pos­si­bil­i­ties, search­ing for some kind of method, when the door opened.

Stand­ing there, look­ing out, was my Macken­zie. She smiled at me, but it was less the smile I’d grown used to and more of a mis­chie­vous glare. To my sur­prise she was wear­ing her puffy win­ter coat with a fur-lined hood. It took a moment to remem­ber again that I’d found myself on her doorstep in the throes of August and not Decem­ber or Jan­u­ary.

I tried to begin my plan, to say hel­lo and then good­bye, but all I could man­age was, “It’s near­ly a hun­dred degrees out.”

No, it’s not,” she said. “It’s freez­ing. Freez­ing cold. You’re out of your mind.”

She let me in then and point­ed at the win­dow A/C unit that sat just behind the futon where we’d shared our first kiss. The plas­tic frame was lying on the floor and the wires were stick­ing out like wild hairs. Next to the frame was a grab-bag assort­ment of screw­drivers and ham­mers.

Your air-con­di­tion­er went out?” I said.

Uh huh,” Macken­zie said, wip­ing a thick bead of sweat from her brow. “Try­ing a lit­tle bit of the ol’ reverse psy­chol­o­gy to help the sit­u­a­tion.”

It was typ­i­cal Macken­zie. She was a child of whim­sy, a delight­ful cock­tail of fan­cy and dis­or­der that filled my cup when it’d run over with cyn­i­cism. She dressed dif­fer­ent­ly, rely­ing on hand-me-down sweaters and blous­es, and accu­mu­lat­ed pierc­ings and hair col­or­ings when­ev­er it pleased her to do so. That win­ter, when I’d first met her and gone to her apart­ment to lis­ten to music, she’d con­struct­ed a fam­i­ly of snow-peo­ple out­side her door and dressed them in her win­ter clothes. The puffy jack­et she was wear­ing had been thrown around the shoul­ders of the small­est one, the child of the fam­i­ly, I sup­pose. I’d asked her why and, with a shrug and a smile, she’d told me that chil­dren were our future.

Do you want me to take a look it?” I asked, point­ing at the air con­di­tion­er.

Knock your­self out,” she said. “I’m just going to sit over here and enjoy some hot choco­late.”

And I’ll be damned if she didn’t. She sat right there on her futon and held a steam­ing cup in her mit­tened hands. I took off my coat and rolled up the sleeves of my shirt and got to work. I didn’t know the first thing about air con­di­tion­ers, not real­ly any­way, but I got down there on my knees and messed with the wires and tried every­thing I could think of. I’d do this or that, but noth­ing ever hap­pened when I hit the pow­er but­ton.

That’s okay,” she said, fin­ish­ing her mug. “You gave it your best shot.”

I said I was sor­ry and went into the kitchen and got a glass of water. The cup I grabbed from the cab­i­nets had Alvin from Alvin and the Chip­munks on the side. I guz­zled down that water and tried my best to cool off. It was eighty degrees in that apart­ment, though, and I couldn’t get my breath.

Let’s go some­where,” I said. “It’s awful in here.”

You sure?” she said. “I hear it’s going to sleet today.”

Through the win­dow by the door I saw a cou­ple walk­ing down the side­walk hand-in-hand. They were dressed in thin under­shirts and wear­ing shorts and san­dals. In the dis­tance the air crack­led with humid­i­ty. Then, look­ing back to Macken­zie, I saw her sit­ting there on that futon, hud­dled up and play-shiv­er­ing, look­ing just as hap­py as could be.

You’re a fun­ny gal,” I said.

You think so?” she said.

I do.” I walked over to the futon and sat down like I had that first night. Macken­zie nuz­zled into my shoul­der and then came near to my face. I thought of what I’d come there to do, how I’d meant to see her in the door­way and tell her that things were over between us, but in the moment I couldn’t help it. She looked so cute then, so mag­i­cal, that I leaned in and kissed her as soft as I could man­age.

Hey,” she said, after­ward. “You want to get in some long-johns and hop into bed?”

Tempt­ing,” I said. “Maybe we should go out, though. Find a place where the air’s not boil­ing.”

Macken­zie shed her win­ter coat and ran her hands through her sweaty hair. “Don’t know what you’re talk­ing about,” she said, walk­ing over and grab­bing her keys off a kitchen counter.    

 

When­ev­er Macken­zie and I weren’t run­ning around with her hedo­nis­tic friends or mak­ing love, we went to this art the­ater down­town. It was a won­der­ful lit­tle place, and won­der­ful­ly air-con­di­tioned, so we snuck in some bot­tles of booze and camped out in the back row. The movie itself wasn’t any­thing too spe­cial. It was a cheap­ly made short film with a lot of sym­bol­ism and tons of unsigned artists pro­vid­ing the sound­track. The sto­ry con­cerned this young, beau­ti­ful cou­ple who were run­ning away from their fam­i­lies. There was no end to the scenes where they drove through the coun­try­side, say­ing noth­ing and lis­ten­ing to moment-appro­pri­ate songs. I don’t think Macken­zie or I real­ly appre­ci­at­ed the movie, but we held each oth­er there in the the­ater and took turns draw­ing off our boot­legged hooch.

When the cred­its rolled we returned to the heat and the set­ting sun, drunk and hap­py. Near­by was this cafe that a cou­ple of Mackenzie’s friends owned and oper­at­ed, so we got a table on the porch and ate sand­wich­es and drank home­made wine. The tem­per­a­ture was let­ting off a bit, and it was com­fort­able enough that we weren’t sweat­ing or curs­ing the weath­er.

At one point I said, “This is nice.”

It is nice,” Macken­zie said. “The very def­i­n­i­tion of nice.”

That’s exact­ly what I was just think­ing,” I said.

You know what they say,” she said between bites. “Great minds, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera, ad nau­se­am.”

I laughed hard when she said that. I couldn’t help it. She was the fun­ni­est girl I’d ever come across. I’d spent so long at that point try­ing to dis­tance myself from her and solve the Vanes­sa prob­lem that I’d lost sight of that fact. I was remind­ed, though, that August day, how much I tru­ly adored that girl, and I start­ed remem­ber­ing the fan­tasies I’d car­ried around for so long then, of the two of us mov­ing to the coun­try some­where and rais­ing beau­ti­ful chil­dren of our own in a home filled with music and art. I thought of her stand­ing at the altar, a pic­ture of beau­ty and health and free-spirit­ed­ness, a daisy or a sun­flower poet­i­cal­ly tucked behind an ear or woven into her long hair.

Well then,” I said, “can you guess what I’m think­ing about now?”

She took a drink of her water and grinned. “Was it about how you came over to end things?”

I tried to deny it, to pre­tend like that’d nev­er been the case, but couldn’t.

I haven’t heard from you in over a week,” she said. “And for the last two months you’ve been show­ing up in wrin­kled clothes and smelling like booze and a hotel. You think I can’t fig­ure out where you slept last night?”

It seemed I was caught red-hand­ed. There was no expla­na­tion, no ali­bi or man­u­fac­tured sto­ry to offer. “I told her I was going to say good­bye today.”

That’s what I fig­ured. That’s what I fig­ured was going to hap­pen all along.”

Real­ly?” I said. “It’s been that obvi­ous?”

Macken­zie drank her water again and turned her plate on the table. Some­one near­by said some­thing into a phone and a car honked its horn. “He always goes back to his wife,” she said. “It’s a sto­ry as old as time. Every­body knows it, if they’re being hon­est with them­selves.”

Huh,” I said.

Huh,” she said.

Right then I did the only thing I knew to do. I reached across the table and grabbed her hand. I rubbed the pad of my thumb over her skin and knuck­les and wrist and looked at her. “You know I love you,” I said.

I know,” she said.

One of the friends who owned the restau­rant came out onto the porch then and talked to us. Her hair was strange, in that half of her head was shaved and the oth­er spiked like a mohawk. She and Macken­zie dis­cussed some­thing that’d hap­pened at a bar the night before. They laughed, both of them did, but Mackenzie’s looked forced and fab­ri­cat­ed. Every time her face lit up, I could tell it was mask­ing tragedy. I want­ed to inter­rupt, to ask if she want­ed to take off right then, like that cou­ple in the movie, and head west to some new town and new life. I had enough mon­ey that we could’ve made it a good ways, maybe found some hotel like the Best West­ern and hun­kered down until we found work. Then maybe we could have the house in the coun­try, the kids, rooms full of songs and love.

I didn’t, though. I got to think­ing about Vanes­sa and Bradley, the two of them prob­a­bly sit­ting in the din­ing room right then, pick­ing over their cool­ing food, and it stopped the pro­pos­al dead in my throat. Instead, I paid for the sand­wich­es and the wine and drove Macken­zie back to her apart­ment.

We got to the door­way and I tried to say my good­byes. I kept telling her that I loved her, that I cared more than she’d ever know, and then I’d turn to leave but just stand there. At one point she was cry­ing, and I was cry­ing, too. She asked if I want­ed to come inside and clean up and I did just that. In the bath­room she dabbed my face with a washrag and made sad attempts at jokes. I told her she’d make a beau­ti­ful moth­er some­day, and the both of us sobbed.

We went into the liv­ing room again, and I looked at the win­ter coat draped over the arm of the futon and the air con­di­tion­er with its guts spilled all over the floor. She sat down, and I sat down next to her. There wasn’t music, not real­ly a sound at all save for the neigh­bor­ing apart­ments and their ten­ants milling about, but it felt then just as it had that first night, like the world was burst­ing forth with new oppor­tu­ni­ties. She kissed me this time and I kissed her back. We hummed a song that’d played that first night, a sad lit­tle tune. I told her how I wished I could have it all, how I want­ed her and Vanes­sa and Bradley, and she stroked my hair and brought me in close to her chest.

I laid my head there, and I thought for a good long time. For some rea­son I remem­bered my moth­er, too, stand­ing in the kitchen in the house I grew up in, and the way her hands smelled like dish soap and steam­ing hot water. You’re grow­ing up, she’d said, pat­ting my cheek and turn­ing her head ador­ing­ly. There’re things you’re going to have to do, she’d said.

I thought about that and Vanes­sa and my boy. From where I was I could hear Mackenzie’s heart quick­en­ing and then slow­ing. It made a shoosh in my ear. Shoosh. Shoosh. Shoosh. And then some­thing hap­pened. I felt the tip of my thumb breech­ing my lips and head­ing for the roof of my mouth. I let it. I closed my eyes and let every­thing flow around me.

 

From the Writer

:: Account ::

A lot of the time I come up with sto­ries because of some ran­dom piece of knowl­edge that floats by like so much flot­sam. This par­tic­u­lar effort start­ed after I got curi­ous about thumb suck­ing. It’d hap­pened after I’d watched a friend of mine argue with his lit­tle boy as to why he couldn’t suck his thumb any­more. The reg­u­lar answer—“you’re too old”—wasn’t work­ing, and my bud­dy soon had to resort to the old stand­by of “because I said so.”

But after watch­ing this inci­dent I want­ed to know exact­ly why con­tin­u­ing to suck your thumb was a bad idea. Obvi­ous­ly I knew it was, but I need­ed to find out in case I ever had to match wits with a five-year-old. That’s how I came across the term “Stereo­typ­ic Move­ment Dis­or­der” and all of the dam­age it can cause.

My curios­i­ty sat­is­fied, my thoughts tend­ed toward the kinds of actions peo­ple have to quit for much more abstract pur­pos­es. I thought about grow­ing up, matur­ing, and the sac­ri­fices nec­es­sary to lead a healthy and kind life. From that I found my pro­tag­o­nist (a too-smart-for-his-own-good aca­d­e­m­ic), plot (caught cheat­ing, he has to give up his affair in order to return to his fam­i­ly), and ten­sion (will he give up a girl­friend who’s made him hap­py?). The voice was a left­over from a pre­vi­ous sto­ry I’d tried to write a few years ear­li­er that’d nev­er gained trac­tion. Some­how, when I com­bined all those ele­ments, it blend­ed togeth­er into one cohe­sive unit. 

 

Jared Yates Sex­ton is an Assis­tant Pro­fes­sor of Cre­ative Writ­ing at Geor­gia South­ern Uni­ver­si­ty and serves as Man­ag­ing Edi­tor of the lit­er­ary mag­a­zine BULL. His work has appeared in pub­li­ca­tions around the world and has been nom­i­nat­ed for a pair of Push­carts and The Mil­lion Writ­ers Award. Sex­ton was also a final­ist for The New Amer­i­can Fic­tion Prize. His first book, An End To All Things, is avail­able from Atti­cus Books.