“Get out of my room.”
I cross my arms. We stare at each other.
“$275,” I say. “It’s going to cost $275 to replace your retainer.”
“So? So—do you have $275 to replace your retainer?” I ask my son, exasperated at his indifference.
“No,” he replies, dismissing me. He begins to shove his earbuds back into his skull.
I slap them out of his hands.
“HEY,” he protests, snatching them off the floor. His fingernails are painted black, the nail polish chipped around the tips.
“I’m talking to you,” I explain, growing more infuriated because I have to talk to him in his filthy room. “Tell me, son. How many more times are you going to throw away your retainer? It just sits on your lunch tray. When you’re done eating, pick it up. Put it back in your mouth.”
He glowers at me.
“And if you accidentally throw it away,” I pause for dramatic effect, “then fish it out of the trash.”
“I’m not going through the trash!” He’s offended at my suggestion.
“You need your retainer to keep your charming smile, big and straight and white.”
“That’s how you like your men,” he mutters.
I pretend I don’t hear him. If I process that last remark, it might be his last. “I don’t wear my retainer anyway. Who gives a shit.”
“I do,” I say as evenly as possible. “I give a massive hairy shit. And so does the bank that loaned us $4,000 to pay off the orthodontist.”
“I didn’t even want braces.”
I walk out of his bedroom. I slam the door. I stand outside of it.
I have no words for this gangly wreckage of a person—this middle schooler—this pile of lanky bones, his mouth set in a perpetual sneer, his eyes baleful, rolling in disgust. What happened to my sunny baby, my precocious toddler, my delightful little boy who brought me dandelions?
I feel his closed bedroom door with my hands, a door now pulsating with a jackhammering technobeat. He’s playing the latest video game. Headphones on. Hunched over his controller. Room dimmed around a ridiculously large monitor. In moments, he will be screaming at friends he’s never met in person. This passes for a social life: to creatively curse while murdering make-believe zombies in digital alliances.
I lean against the wall outside his closed bedroom door and listen to his invective.
The words coming out of his mouth are shocking. Did he pick up that language on the bus? If not the bus, then most likely at middle school. Its hallways were full of Dr. Seuss characters, necks and legs too long, odd clothing on the fringe of fashion, round faces poxed with acne, voices shrill and crackly.
At drop off, I had seen the packs of 7th grade boys bray with laughter over idiocy. Someone stepped on a ketchup packet! Someone crushed up Smarties and snorted them! The 8th grade girls look as feral as Floridian divorcées, filing their nails, searching for someone to verbally eviscerate.
No wonder my son preferred spending his time with faceless friends in an online apocalypse.
I slide down the wall and sit on my heels.
I don’t know what to do with him.
I hear my father’s voice in my head. Teach the boy consequences. Teach him to take responsibility for himself. Teach him how to be a man.
“Sure, dad.” I say out loud. “I can’t even get him to use deodorant.”
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I’m embarrassed at having to leave work early.
“I have to pick up my son,” I say.
My boss understands. Kids, what can you do?
In elementary school, I picked him up when he had pink eye or head lice or threw up after eating too much Play Doh.
“The principal will see you now,” an administrative assistant says, in a gentle voice that I feel I do not deserve. I am a mother of a brawler. A son who has no self-control. A son who cannot verbalize his thoughts, choosing brute force instead of using. his. words.
We walk into an office. The principal stands, greets me, shakes my hand.
My son is there, slinking further into his plastic chair.
“So what’s this about?” I ask gamely, hoping I come across conciliatory and respectable.
“There was an incident at lunch,” the principal says, not wasting time in formalities. There are a lot of parents waiting in the lobby.
“A scuffle by the trash cans. A few of the kids were pushing each other. But your son won’t tell me what happened.” The principal frowns.
“Son, what happened?” I ask.
“We’re going to have to suspend your son for three days. As fighting is a serious infraction, the altercation will be noted on his permanent record.”
“I understand,” I nod. “Three days is the school district’s zero tolerance policy. I get that. But let’s be clear here. There is no such thing as a permanent record. Don’t make my son think his future is in jeopardy.”
I stand up as the meeting is over. My son looks at me, then the principal, then back at me.
“Let’s go,” I say.
He picks up his backpack and follows me closely out of the building.
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“Burgers or chicken tenders?”
“Chicken tenders,” he replies.
I queue up in the drive-thru.
“It wasn’t my fault, Mom.”
“It’s okay,” I say. “It wouldn’t be middle school without a little pushing and shoving. Try to stay above the fray. There’s a lot of hormones percolating in the hallways.”
“Yeah,” he agrees.
“You want a milkshake, too?”
“Yes!” he says, authentically smiling, wide enough for me to see he’s wearing his retainer.
“You still have your retainer,” I remark, paying the cashier, handing him a bag of hot greasy food.
“I almost lost it again,” he says, eating a long french fry. “I threw it out with my lunch tray, and when I reached into the trashcan to get it, Ronny Anderson dumped his tray on me.”
“Did he do it on purpose?”
“Yeah, Ronny’s an asshole.”
“Why do they call it a retainer, anyways?” He takes a long pull from his milkshake. I resist the urge to warn him about brain freeze.
“Well, a retainer is a thing that holds something in place.”
“Like you. You’re a retainer.”
“I hope I’m not an overpriced piece of plastic.”
He laughs, downing a chicken tender in one bite.
“Besides,” I continue. “I’m not supposed to hold you in place. I’m supposed to help you grow. So grow. Grow up.”
“I’m trying to,” he says. “It’s not like I’m growing down. Hey, you could buy us another milkshake and we can grow sideways…”
I laugh. Then to his delight, I circle back around to the drive-thru.