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School Boy

A son goes off to college, and a mother is left behind

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He’s gone and you told yourself you wouldn’t, but his number’s on your speed-dial, you’re pressing “2” gently, gently, not all the way, since you told yourself you wouldn’t. Instead you punch the “NAMES” option on your phone and his initials, “JSG,” appear, not one letter of which you share, since back then you didn’t change your name. Your mother said you’d regret it; what were you thinking?

What are you thinking? After 17 years, he’s gone.

Seventeen years, eight months, two weeks, four days. His desk’s been defoliated, the vineyard of wires, gone. Laptop, gone. Cell charger, camera charger, gone. Not gone; missing, plundered, raided. In the closet, three hangers linger, like sparse hairs on someone who shaved in a hurry. He’d packed in a hurry, a limp duffel kicked to one side, ties writhing where they dropped. By the sink, only a smear of toothpaste, a cartoon ghost. You pick up his pillow and the feathers whisper, pathetic.

It’s 7:45 a.m. and no one’s grinding coffee beans. No one’s running late. You think you’ll make some espresso, but there’s a gap between the blender and the toaster; he’s taken the machine. The dog is quivering by the door, overdue to go out. Words drift like buoys into your mind—silent, blinds, housepainting. You’ll be using them more. What you’re hearing, that faint scratching in the wall, is vermin. They’ve finally got your attention.

10 a.m.: Near the phone lies your grocery list: milk, Lysol, oranges, hummus, pastrami, soap. You cross out hummus and pastrami.

1:30 p.m.: You knew it would be hard but not this hard. It’s the phone and you answer on the first ring. “Is Claudia there?” Wrong number.

3:15 p.m.: Your laptop sits on your desk, and a winking cursor seems to say: find a pretext, that’s what pretexts are for. You’ll email him, just to say that Rafi, his doubles partner, phoned from Costa Rica or that you’d be glad to send on his bank statement, maybe he’d like to pick it up? You’ll write, “Call whenever,” and when he calls, if he calls, you’ll fake a breeze, tell him you’re planning a trip to Rome. He won’t know you haven’t done the dishes—yesterday’s.

You. Told. Your. Self. You. Wouldn’t.

You knew it was coming, all through the summer. He was barely around, avoiding your gaze, texting through dinner. Then into the haze, off with the guys: bowling, hoops. You invented errands you couldn’t possibly enjoy—replacing his printer, buying a screwdriver small enough to repair his hard drive. You begged him to teach you how to download photos and upload music, how to video-on-demand. Meek and humbled, you coaxed him to reminisce—Yosemite? Ein Gedi?—no dice. He’s taken them along with his poker chips.

4:40 pm: Your friend Robbie’s going through it, you’ll phone Robbie. She picks up on the first ring. “Hello?” she says frantically. “Is it you?” “No, honey,” already sorry you called, “it’s me. He got out of the car and barely looked back, I could have been a fender.” You won’t cry. You’re crying. “There must be a number we can call.”

“I guess it’s my number,” she says, her voice pinched and dry.

The truth is you’ve been through it before with his brother. One day you were a woman just shy of 50, vigorous, prime; the next, an eggshell, a crust. You thought it wouldn’t be so bad this time. Sidling up to this thought, in a dark, hooded sweatshirt, is another: you’ll go through it again.

5:30 pm: The car door slams; the garage door closes. “Did you hear from Jason?” your husband asks, “Because I just spoke to him in the car. He asked for advice on physics courses but I think he just wanted to talk.” Your daughter, fresh from the orthodontist, slumps at the table rubbing her gums, watching Scrubs on her iPod.

It all comes back. Jason is three, his older brother’s first day of school. The nametagged boy is out in front and running for the bus. No hugs, no waving goodbye; just up two steps and gone. You’re left with the healthy bag of lunch.

“Jason, a carrot?” He halts and sulks. “Cheer up,” you say gamely, “someday you’ll be a schoolboy too.”

“Sure, someday,” he mutters. “But now I’m just a houseboy.”

There are no more houseboys, except in movies. They wear starched white jackets and come from far away. They are always home. From the wall, from out of the veins of the house, comes a familiar sound.

You answer on the first ring.

Esther Schor, a professor of English at Princeton University, is the author of Emma Lazarus, a biography published by Nextbook press.

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School Boy

A son goes off to college, and a mother is left behind

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