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