Pulled From the Soup

Boy using laptop
Photo by imgix on Unsplash

I start with baby steps. I gather the mismatched socks under the bed and a small mass of viscous cough drops spit back into wrappers and left on the bedside table. I pick up the towel dropped on the floor before Blaze left for spring break with his dad.

Over drinks the night before my friend Kittie, voice emphatic with wine, talked about the connection between order and joy, the same way she used to talk about the connection between chakras and joy. Always joy.

“In a weird way, I have more body confidence since I hikidashi-ed my underwear,” she said, referring to some Japanese cleaning philosophy she saw on Netflix or TikTok or one of those places where people spend free time. “It looks so sleek and cool in the drawer, I feel better dressing.”

I don’t want to know what she means. I don’t have the time or mental energy to think about the parts of me no one can see. Or the parts people can see. It’s all a chore.

When she suggests I do the same in my son Blaze’s bedroom, I snap.

“Fuck joy. I just want to go to bed.”

On her way out she persists. “That’s what I’m saying. You’ll feel more peaceful.”

***

I got the call from school three weeks ago, midmorning, just before a meeting at work. At the word incident, my body tensed. He’d punched another boy. Shoved a chair at a teacher. His temper had sharpened since school started. We were working on it with a therapist.

“He threatened to bring a gun to school,” the principal said.

Not possible. “You’re making a mistake. We don’t have guns. We don’t use guns.”

“It doesn’t have to have come from your house.” I could picture the principal at her desk, her thin straight hair boxing in her pinched face. “Kids surprise the adults in their lives. Every day.”

“But Blaze …” I start. The connection I feel to him grows more tenuous every day. If there’s a thread, he’s pulled it taut. A slight move on my end registers as a tug on his end.

“Because he made that threat, we have to suspend him,” she said.

When I hung up I was angry at everyone: his friends; his school; his dad, living on the other side of the country, in the writers room at a celebrity talk show; his therapist who says the word confidentiality every time I ask about Blaze’s mood. They were either complicit or ignorant. They were failing my troubled kid.

I canceled my meeting.

***

In Blaze’s favorite horror film, the phone call comes from inside the house. In real life, he’s made contact with a horror outside the house, but inside his laptop. I’d always worried about him stumbling upon sex online, fetishes his young brain wouldn’t understand. Instead, he’d found young men promoting excessive fitness involving icy showers and intermittent fasting. As if they could make their lives better by transforming into the heroes in the games they played. They wanted the women in their lives to be docile, the homes orderly and traditional. Not so different from Kittie and her underwear drawer.

He’d changed since the divorce. I started a new job, mining data analytics for a local political campaign. Besides the numbers, which I understood, this meant dinner with donors, drinks with donor connections, people I seldom understood. I filled the freezer with pizza, pierogis, pot pies. He ate them alone.

“Does everything have to be in pastry?” he asked, tapping the microwave.

His cheeks had grown pale.

“Why don’t you invite friends over?” I asked.

“I have friends,” he said. “But they don’t live close.”

I vowed to eat at home more often, bought ingredients instead of frozen foods. Intentions calcified in the slow cooker. One Tuesday I got home early and I suggested we go for burgers. He sat slumped against the passenger door in the front seat of the car, swallowed by a jacket designed to look like army fatigues. Public radio reporters discussed violence in a neighboring town plagued by unemployment and starved of decent jobs, decent grocery stores.

“It’s evolution,” he said.

I squinted at the road ahead. “What does that mean?”

“Do you not know what evolution is?” he asked.

“I know what evolution is. It’s a gradual process. What you’re saying sounds very different. Hateful,” I said.

“Right. Next you’ll talk about justice.”

“Justice is a good thing. I built my career on justice.”

He snorted. “Metrics aren’t justice,” he said, picking at the peeling leather of the armrest.

The boy who wouldn’t kill spiders in the shower had been swallowed by the stranger sitting next to me.

***

“We should ask him to leave his laptop downstairs when he goes to bed,” I said to his dad, on my way to pick Blaze up from the principal’s office.

“We can trust him. If not, he’ll just sneak around,” he said from the rehabbed shipping container where he lived when not hanging out with twentysomething comedians. Life was a laugh for him.

Blaze was waiting in the hallway. I didn’t have to sign the usual dismissal form. The principal nodded at me as she spoke on the phone. We hurried to the car.

I hit the brakes hard at every intersection, my foot weighed down with anger.

“Can we stop and pick up snacks if I’m going to be home every day?” he asked.

“This isn’t a vacation. It’s a suspension. What were you thinking? Where would you get a gun?”

“I didn’t even say that!”

I turned toward him to show him I was serious. Or to see if he was. His sweat and hormones filled the car. His face looked sunburned, or like it did when he was a toddler and he’d been crying. The taut thread loosened. I could feel his sadness in my chest. I wanted to believe him.

“Why would the principal call me in the middle of the day if you didn’t make a threat that scared people?”

“Mom, I swear!”

I turned off the radio. There was enough angst in the car.

“She’d call in the middle of the day because that’s when we’re at school. Do you think she’d call in the evening? When she’d rather be drinking wine and watching TV?”

His sarcasm broke the spell.

“Where would you get a gun?”

“It wouldn’t be as hard as you think.”

He sat in silence for the rest of the ride.

I made spaghetti for dinner, browning ground turkey while I listened to a podcast, a conversation between a celebrity and a self-help author on feeling hard things. These women had chefs, trainers, cleaners. Did they feel hard things? My knife banged on the cutting board as I chopped an onion to the rhythm of them cooing the words vulnerability and courage over and over. My eyes started to water, and I couldn’t stop it. Blaze felt hard things. I didn’t know how to help him.

After dinner, still sitting at the table, we called his dad. I held the phone between us. Blaze stared at the table.

“We don’t handle our feelings with violence,” his dad said from outside the house.

“Dad! I didn’t do it!” his voice cracked. He was wearing a fleece jacket from a camping trip before school started.

“We believe you, Buddy,” his dad said.

I nodded, not really feeling the agreement my head indicated. I suggested some father-son time might help. They made a plan for Blaze to spend spring break with his dad.

Before school started, Blaze’s therapist suggested a getaway, to lure Blaze from screens and the people he interacted with online. So we went camping. We shared a week drinking purified river water and dehydrated packets of food. Sitting by a fire eating indistinguishable mush each night made us feel untamed. We rented a canoe and he carried it, upside down over his head, the back end bobbing up and down behind him as he walked. Our roles reversed then. My boy, no longer little, had the strength my aging body had lost.

We bought the fleece the day we went white-water rafting. Blaze fell overboard as our raft spun through churning water. I can still see his frightened face, the foam curling around his head.

The guide called the spot a hydraulic. In orientation he warned this was the water to watch out for. It can pull anyone or anything into it.

“So listen closely, lean when I tell you,” he said, demonstrating how to lean left or right on the raft. “If your friends or family wind up in the soup, grab the top of their vest, straighten your arms and fall on your back. They’ll land in the raft on top of you.”

I pulled him to safety that day. He let me hug him for an extra minute as we caught our breath, my arms swollen with triumph. We each got a fleece to celebrate and to still our chattering teeth.

***

Alone in his room, after cleaning the clumps of cough drops and dust, I move on to the top drawer of his dresser. Ski passes on wire hoops, hair bands, an old busboy apron: all of it into the garbage. We passed on our beliefs through tokens, like the Stan Lee cologne, the Nerf gun, and the Star Wars wallet. Masculinity fortified by superpowers and weapons.

I find the fleece in the next drawer. I run my finger over the mountaintop logo embroidered on the chest. I picture him last summer, cheeks like ripe fruit and hair sticking to his forehead. Still a boy.

I fold it and leave it on his bed, to remind him of the day I pulled him from the soup.

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