Apr/May 2022  •   Fiction


by Jo Stein

Upcycled, mixed media artwork by Keely Jane

Upcycled, mixed media artwork by Keely Jane

I was 43 years old. So when the latex burst, I wasn't worried. Statistically, I figured I had a one, maybe two percent chance of getting knocked up. With those odds, most women my age would take the love without the glove. Not me. My friends used to say that I'd be the only 80-year-old on birth control. Funny, right? But however I counted, it all added up to the same thing. I was late. Fucking late. How could I have been so stupid? CoffeeMeetsBagel. I'd kept it honest: Recently separated Mom likes Diet Coke, food, books. Fake extrovert. Hates climate change. Likes mischief.

Jesus H. Christ.

We met at Fiction Coffee on Hall Street, in North Dallas, a non-threatening rendezvous to size up interest. There was plenty to go around.

He arrived on a Harley, wrapped in tight jeans and a leather jacket. Tasty eye candy, and I was feeling peckish. He was just the right shade of shifty. Jet-black hair, hazel eyes, a scruffy beard. A bad boy, but not bad enough to scare me off. You ever hear the phrase, If it's too good to be true, it probably isn't? He was carrying a copy of Love in the Time of Cholera. Smooth.

There were others at the cafe: women in spandex sipping lattes, guys with dogs. He squinted my way, and I held up a can of Diet Coke. Smiling, he came over and handed me the book.

"It's one of my favorites," he said. He'd written the date inside the cover. What if the meet-up was a disaster? He clearly didn't think it was going to be a disaster. Maybe he'd bought a dozen copies to give away. Or maybe he didn't care.

"You have great hair," he said.

"Thanks." Always Medusa-style, red and messy.

He looked pretty young.

"Bruce, how old are you?"

"Thirty-three," he said. Yowzers. I didn't give my age, and he didn't ask. Maybe he was just being polite. Maybe he'd call me Mommy. Guys are all over the map these days. I could easily be with someone much younger, but, long-term, there'd be the weird family introductions and meeting all his little biker buddies. His last girlfriend could have been half my age. He interrupted my reverie, asking if I wanted to ride his beast. Well, okay, then.

It was spectacular. No bagel, no coffee, just a sunset ride through the North Dallas Twistys. We shared a drippy towering ice cream cone and the best sex I could remember.

After the condom broke, he held me close and cooed. I'm not even kidding. Bruce was a construction worker, well-read and divorced. Twice divorced, he said. No kids. The first marriage, he said, was a drunken lapse of judgment. He didn't drink anymore.

When I was ready to leave, he asked when he could see me again. I said I'd call. I never did. If it's too good to be true and all that.

A month later, on the first Monday in October, I'm watching "Morning Joe" and screaming, "Screw Greg Abbott!"

"Mom, why are you mad?" My sleepy boy stood in the doorway, his head crowned with a wild shrub of brown hair.

"Sugar Beet! Good Morning." Alex, in his favorite footy pajamas with rockets firing in all directions, plopped himself on the floor.

"Why are you yelling?" he asked, twirling a fidget spinner.

"Because," I said.


"I just don't like him," I said.


"The governor. Greg Abbott."


"So many questions so early in the morning." I scooped Alex up, tossed him on my bed. It was a king-size that made me feel lost at night. I tickled him until he giggled and screamed.

When he came up for air, he was back at it. "Why Mom? Why did you say, 'Screw Greg Abbott?'"

I sat next to him and for a moment played with one of his small, perfect hands. He had my fingernails, short and wide. I thought about the parenting book I'd been reading. Rule One: Don't overshare. But I could discuss that dipshit governor without making it personal, right?

"He's telling women what they can and can't do with their bodies," I said.

"Is that bad?" Alex said.

"Well, he's not telling men. That doesn't seem fair. Imagine if Greg Abbott told you what you could and couldn't do with your body?"

"Like my jewels?"

"Yeah. Exactly," I said. "Like your jewels."

Alex was making it personal, not me.

"I'd be mad," Alex said. "I'd be really mad. Is dad mad at Greg Abbott, too?"

"I don't know, Alex." I gave him a kiss on his belly. "You need to get ready for school. It's raining. That means rain boots."

"I don't want to."

"Alex, you're seven. When you're seven, you have to do things you don't want to do."


"Alex! Don't be disrespectful."

"I'm not. You always say I'm being disrespectful when I don't do what you say. No one in third grade wears rain boots."

"That's not true, Alex," I said.

Fifteen minutes later, when the school bus honked, Alex dashed out with a donut and no boots. I stood by the kitchen window, waving. Alex didn't look back.

I turned on the stove and sat down on a stool by the counter. I faced a grey wall with the photos. You and me, and baby make three. Something like that. For weeks, I'd been itching to take them down, but I thought it would upset Alex.

The tea kettle whistled, and I poured the hot water into a cup. I stirred in two spoons of instant coffee. I wasn't a paralegal. I was a caffeine chemist. He'd stopped laughing at my jokes a long time ago. What a dick.

I took a few sips, and nature's perfect drug boosted my resolve. I got the step stool, gathered up the past, and went down to the basement to box the photos. Hiding in the corner was the perfect replacement. I dusted off the framed print and carried it upstairs. I had bought it when I was in college, when possibilities felt infinite. Matisse's Blue Nude, the cobalt blue oozing reflection and enlightenment like a clear skyline, the feminine body inviting pleasure and passion.

I felt giddy hanging it on the wall. I sat down to my coffee, then felt a little dizzy, then nauseated. I hurried to the toilet. Puking put things into perspective. The reality was my already complicated life had reached a new level of knottiness. Decisions had to be made. And quickly. If I had a fortune cookie, it would say, "Travel is in your future." Greg Abbott had made me an outlaw. I couldn't tell anyone what I was planning without making them accomplices.

After a couple of Tums and a shower, I dressed and headed out, loading my current podcast, The Guilty Feminist, for the drive to Fort Worth. The law firm was sending paralegals to computer training over the next two weeks. We couldn't all go at the same time and leave the attorneys helpless. In spite of all the bullshit, the job was a godsend. For the last six years, I'd been a stay-at-home mom because that's what he wanted. When the marriage sank, I needed a lifeline and an income. Paralegal work was about as humdrum as any pink-collar job. You're not a lawyer, and you're not a secretary. You're pretty much a robot, making travel arrangements, organizing witnesses and experts. At least the secretaries get to flirt with clients or partners.

My friends had suggested real estate, which I finally agreed was probably a better fit. I was midway through an online licensing program. In the meantime, since the law firm paid the bills, if they wanted me at computer training, I'd be at computer training. I was on the highway while the Guilty Feminist shared about what she wore to the Women's March.

My cell phone rang a little before 9:00 AM.


"Mrs. Sherman?"

"This is Jenny Karasick. Who's calling?"

"This is Principal Baker. We, ah... we have a situation at school. You need to come in."

"Is Alex okay?"

"Yes, he is fine. He is in my office right now. I'm also going to reach out to Alex's dad."

"That won't be necessary," I said.

"Well, I think it's something his father should be privy to," The principal said.

"We're going through a divorce right now and are only meeting through our lawyers. It would be awkward."

"Yes, I understand. But this is about your son. His father needs to be there."

"Principal Baker..."

The line went dead. Jesus Christ. I called to cancel my training slot and turned around.

Alex's elementary school was a sprawling, one-story complex surrounded by fields and playgrounds. Kids, costumed in their school uniforms and face masks, were out on the blacktop playing kickball. Others sat in a circle on the manicured green lawn and listened to a teacher read a story. I entered the building and in the lobby stood face-to-face with my husband, the Dick. His name was Richard.

"What are you doing here?" I said.

"The principal called. You look good."

"Don't start. Please. Here, take this." I handed him a mask. "You barely call Alex. You forget his birthday. But for the principal, really, you appear?"

"The principal said Alex needed his father, Jen."

At that moment, Principal Baker opened his office door and stared at me. We'd met once before, and he'd given me the same look. It was last year when Alex told his first-grade teacher she wasn't allowed to give homework on Rosh Hashanah.

"Alex, you can't expect your teachers to stop school just because you have a holiday," the principal had said.

"But you stop school because of Christmas and Easter."

"That's different. Those are holidays everyone celebrates."

"I don't," Alex had said.

Then I'd gotten a call saying Alex had been disrespectful to the principal.

"If it's rude to be truthful, then I guess my son is guilty, Principal Baker," I said once I'd learned Alex's offense.

Looking at the man's smarmy face now, I knew whatever happened next, it wasn't going to be pleasant.

"Mr. and Mrs. Sherman."

"I go by Karasick now." I smiled curtly. Alex was in the principal's office, sitting in one of the wooden chairs, his pants too short for his dangling ankles. Shit, one more task I'd neglected.

"Alex, are you okay?" I rushed over and gave him a hug.

"Mom! I'm sorry. I don't understand what I did wrong."

"What happened?"

"I don't know. Mrs. Lamberti got mad at me. And then she sent me here," he said.

"Alex, what made Mrs. Lamberti mad?"

"Maddy Lopez was bragging how her dad had met the governor, and all I said was 'Screw Greg Abbott.'"

The principal cleared his throat.

"Alex!" I said.

"And everyone looked at me. I don't think they know what Greg Abbott is doing."

The Principal and the Dick looked at me.

"What is the Governor doing?" the Dick said.

"Dad!" Alex ran over and hugged his father. He started crying.

"What's going on buddy? What's the Governor doing?"

"He's telling girls stuff about their bodies and making unfair rules, and it's not right."

"Alex, why don't you wait outside and let me talk to your parents?" Principal Baker said.

It wasn't really a talk. It was a dressing down. The principal said Alex had told him I screamed "Screw Greg Abbott!" every night. That wasn't true. It was just this morning. The principal went on, saying Alex had told him the governor was making me sad and that I'd talked about moving to New York to my sister's place.

The Dick threw up a concerned look. What an ass. He knew I couldn't take Alex out of state.

"Alex needs to learn he can't just parrot his mother," the principal said, "and you need to think before you speak in front of a young boy. Children are very impressionable, Mrs. Sherman."

"Karasick. The name is Jenny Karasick."

"Not yet," the Dick said. He had been dragging his feet for months.

"The boy's paperwork still says Mrs. Sherman," Principal Baker said.

Jesus Christ.

"Look, your son is going to have a hard time if he keeps this up. Governor Abbott is popular in our district. Most of the parents here voted for him. Don't you think you need to think more about your son and less about yourself?"

"I'll take care of it, Principal Baker," the Dick said. "It won't happen again."

Well, look here. The absent parent comes to the rescue. I couldn't scream at him as I should have. I felt like I was shrinking. Anger muted my voice. They turned to face one another, and their conversation faded to soft white noise.

Then they stood like twins and shook hands. I rose and followed them into the main office.

"Alex, your parents and I think it's best if you go home for the rest of the day and reflect on what you said. I want you to prepare an apology for Mrs. Lamberti and your classmates."

"I don't want to go home."

"Well, we've decided what is best," the Principal said. Alex's eyes went from me to his father and back to me.

"That's not fair. I didn't do anything wrong. I only said what Mom said!"

"Alex," the Dick said, "let's get your things." Alex went silent. You didn't argue with the Dick. We had both learned the hard way.

The Dick walked us to the car. Alex got in first, leaving the two of us face to face. I waited a moment. Then, like corn kernels in a hot pan, Dick popped.

"Jenny, you gotta know when to shut the fuck up, God damn it. He's a kid. He can't hear you talk like that."

"All right, all right."

"I mean it, Jenny. I'll take him."

"Oh, really, Dick?" I laughed out loud. "You're gonna raise him?" He leaned in and I stepped back, like a magnet, repelled. "Back off!" I screamed.

"Don't you tell me to back off!" His face was red, and the vein on the left side of his forehead bulged.

"Watch it," I said and slid into my car, "or I just might let you have him. And then where would you be?"

I couldn't tell if he heard me. A voice inside my head yelled, Floor it, and I did, until the school and the Dick were out of sight.

When we got home, Alex went to his room. I left him alone for a while before knocking.

"Alex? I know you're angry. I'm sorry. It's my fault. The principal is right, though. You can't talk like that at school. You can't say screw about anyone."

"You did." Alex came out of his room. His face was blotchy, and his eyes were red.

"Yes, and I shouldn't have. It's not a nice way to talk."

"I don't understand. Why did you let the principal send me home?"

"The principal makes the rules, Alex."

"But if Greg Abbott is bad, why can't we say so? You told me."

"He's the governor, Alex. I should have been more respectful. You have to be more respectful."


"Because!" I yelled. "I have a job, Alex. You can't keep going to the principal's office. I can't miss work every time you open your mouth. You got to help me out here, Alex. I can't do this alone."

"I hate Principal Baker. And I hate you."

"Well, I hate the Principal, and I hate you, too."

Alex ran out of the house, slamming the door. Five minutes later, our neighbor Sally O'Connor called to say what I already knew. Alex was there playing with her daughter Rosie. The kids had been best friends since they were toddlers. Rosie had an older brother and sister.

The O'Connor house was big and modern with a swing set in the backyard. Our house was small and dated. When the Dick and I were pregnant, our house felt quaint and cozy. Now all of it, the house, the mortgage, the lawn, the neighborhood, the kid, was hideously claustrophobic.

At 7:00, I walked over to get Alex and Sally opened the front door. Rosie sat sobbing at the kitchen table. Alex was in another chair, staring blankly at the O'Connor's photo wall.

"What happened?"

"Rosie, let me talk to Jenny, please," Sally said. Rosie left the room.

"What's going on?"

"Tell your mom what you did, Alex," Sally said.

"I crushed Snickers."

"What?" I said.

"He murdered Snickers," Sally said, "Rosie's pet snail," her voice rising, "with his foot. You need to take him to a psychologist, Jenny."

"I'm sure it was an accident," I said. "Alex?" My boy sat silent.

"He stomped on Snickers," Sally said. "This is not normal behavior. I wouldn't be surprised if Rosie is scarred for life."

I wanted to say Rosie was already doomed. It was a building trauma. It would gather speed in the teen years and the force of a runaway truck in adulthood. She'd be objectified and hate it, and she would love it. She'd feel guilty for caring about her looks, but not enough to stop. She'd fall in love, have a kid or two, and wonder what was the point of all that education, all those tennis lessons, all that travel abroad? All that work just to be tethered to a house and a man. Maybe she'd be lucky, find a career she loved, only to run herself ragged with regret as she juggled the job, the family, childcare, birthday parties, doctor appointments. And then have men decide what was best for her own body and her own child.

I swallowed an ugly taste rising in the back of my throat and said nothing.

"Alex? How could you do such a thing?"

"I don't know. I want to go home."

I told Sally I would call her tomorrow, and Alex and I left.

"Alex, I'm sorry I yelled earlier. Do you want to talk about what happened?"

"No. I never want to talk about it. Ever, ever."

"Alex, you can't just do whatever you want just because you feel bad. You did a horrible thing to Rosie. You killed her pet, Alex. That's not okay. You're going to have to write a letter of apology to Rosie and Sally. I can't make this disappear for you. This is a big deal. Alex. No television for a week, and no playdates until I get those letters. Am I clear?"

Alex didn't say a word. He just looked at me, his small perfect hand forming a fist. My lips trembled. I felt my grip slip away. All I could muster was, "Go to bed."

Walking away, Alex delivered one more blow, "I want to live with Dad."

I headed to my room, sucker-punched and exhausted. I cried until I escaped into sleep, where I found myself at my husband's new place, a fancy-pants downtown highrise with a pool on a roof deck overlooking the city. I was sunbathing in a gold bikini, and my tummy was tan and taut. Damn, I looked good. Dick walked towards me. I smiled, delighted to see him. He smiled and pulled up a chair close to me. I reached into my Coach bag and handed him a gift. It was wrapped up in a hand towel with a red bow.

He pressed it curiously and then untied the bow. He opened the towel, and his face soured. In his hand was his scabby, shriveled weenie. Dick looked down the gaping hole in his crotch and then turned to the stump in his clenched fist. But then he just put it back into place.

"Hot Diggity," Dick exclaimed and turned to me with an ugly smile. I could smell him. He charged at me, and I stumbled backward. I got to the edge of the roof and started to fall.

When I woke up, the clock said 3:00 AM. A Dr. Seuss line lingered from the dream: One dick, two dicks, red dick, blue dicks. Why was it always about the Dick?

Groggy and dehydrated, I wiped my eyes and took a drink from my water bottle before heading to Alex's room. I wanted to see my boy in sleep, without the rage. I put my hand on the doorknob. It was locked.

Twenty minutes later I had packed a bag and was out the door. I sent the text from a gas station about an hour outside of town: I'm gone. Alex is yours now.

I checked Google maps. In two days, I'd be in Brooklyn, but it would just be a few more hours before the bomb went off, shards of emotion flying in all directions.