“Queen Me” by Margaret Donovan Bauer

BLAST, TMR’s online-only prose anthology, features prose too vibrant to be confined between the covers of a print journal. Margaret Donovan Bauer’s “Queen Me” offers a candid perspective on remarriage and the challenge of parenting someone else’s children. The essay was a finalist in our 2021 Jeffrey E. Smith Editor’s Prize contest.  

 

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Queen Me

by Margaret Donovan Bauer

When I met Andrew’s children for the first time, Griffin, age seven, came into the room sobbing, followed by a sheepish-looking Aidan, five, stopping a few feet behind his brother, waiting to see what would happen next, remaining silent as Erin, who had only recently turned ten, reported Aidan’s offense. All this before Andrew had a chance to introduce me. I was surprised that Griffin did not seem embarrassed to be crying in front of a stranger.

Andrew and I had been dating a month or so by then, and he had told his children about me, but this was the first time I visited him during a weekend when he had his kids, the first time any woman he was dating had shown up while they visited their dad’s house.

I look back and realize how telling that moment was: Aidan guilty, Griffin crying, and Erin reporting. At the time, all I could think upon seeing the children in person for the first time was, They’re so young. But given my track record with men, I wasn’t really concerned. Regardless of the rose-colored glasses I wore during the early months of our relationship, deep down I assumed I would not be around longer than a few months of these children’s lives, so it didn’t really matter that they were so young.

I do not have children of my own, and I was not looking for father material in my search for love. I hadn’t planned not to have children. Fortunately, I divorced before making the mistake of tying myself to an ex-husband I never wanted to see again after I finally escaped him. A decade passed. I didn’t remarry. A few more years, and then I was forty, childless, and recognizing that I was fine with that. Children were not the gaping hole in my life; I was on a quest for a life partner. I was not averse to dating men with children, though I had not liked the son of one man I was deeply in love with, a problem for me that he was largely unaware of (yet likely still a factor in our failed relationship). I’d found the child of another lover an inconvenience to our affair, as we had a long-distance relationship, and his joint custody meant me seeing him only one weekend a month. In truth, distance was probably what helped that particular relationship last as long as it did.

As I say, I did not have a good track record before I met Andrew, and I was afraid to hope that his warm smile, which reached into and flowed out of his big brown eyes, would not grow cold at some point when he decided that the things that attracted him to me in the first place were suddenly character flaws I needed to work on. What would it be this time? “Too ambitious”? “Too career-focused”? “Too many opinions”? What would he decide I was too much of?

***

Following that portentous first encounter with Andrew’s children, during every other weekend of our first year together, when his children visited from their home ninety minutes away, Griffin would at some point melt down into one of the temper tantrums he was prone to, sometimes over a minor physical offense to his person but usually over losing a game or simply not getting his way. He either cried unabashedly or erupted into an unrelenting and inescapable temper tantrum until he wore himself out from screaming. As telling as my introduction to Griffin—he crying over some minor offence and unembarrassed by being caught doing so by a complete stranger—was Andrew’s ability to wait these tantrums out, largely unruffled. Sometimes he would pick up the stiffened, screaming boy from whatever central living space Griffin had chosen for his eruption and move him into a room with a door that could be closed between him and the victims of his ear-piercing outrage. Other times, however, he just let Griffin stand in the middle of the room we were all gathered in and scream while I cringed from the noise, usually saying to me, “There’s nothing I can do once he gets started.”

I would spank his little butt, I thought in response, but I knew it was not my place to propose an alternative to his annoyingly calm response. Griffin’s temper tantrums were disturbing to all, but Andrew’s inaction was infuriating to me, at least. While this incredibly patient man could resume normalcy as soon as the screaming stopped—sometimes even while it was still going on in the background—I’d be on edge for the rest of my visit with him and his children. I envied Andrew’s ability to remain calm in the midst of such thunderous chaos, but I also viewed his not being perturbed enough about it as a problem: Why couldn’t he see that not everyone could so easily recover from Griffin’s jarring temper tantrums and resume a pleasant evening as though nothing had occurred? I was shaken, even angry after these episodes, outraged by Andrew’s response as much as by Griffin’s behavior. Griffin had no reason to care about my discomfort, but Andrew should have.

As the weeks and then months went by, I realized how Andrew’s calm was calming—if not to Griffin, at least to me. He was such a contrast to my stressful career and volatile colleagues. Andrew’s comfort within himself contrasted significantly with his son’s need to win. For once, I was dating a man who didn’t find my often single-minded career focus a challenge to him; it wasn’t unwomanly in his eyes, or emasculating. To his children, he was a devoted father, but so too was he committed to and supportive of the other relationships in his life. He was a man who enjoyed weekly long telephone conversations with his mother and who had close male friends, some that went back decades and others already developing among his colleagues in that first year of his new job in our shared community. And now me. He seemed totally committed to me. Even as the months passed, he did not seem to be trying to change me into some room-for-improvement version of his own dream woman.

Still, I was surprised to find myself buying a vacation home on the Pamlico River with this man before we had been together a whole year. Our purchase meant that he would put his house on the market and move into my craftsman house near the university where we both worked. By this time, I had been divorced and living alone for fifteen years. I was horrified when I realized what I’d done, allowing Andrew to sell the house he’d bought in the suburbs, which had enough bedrooms and bathrooms and even a playroom for his children, knowing that my relationships with men tended not to last. Though I was still very much in love with him, my experience suggested that it wouldn’t last. My parents had divorced after twenty years together, after all, and though I’d had several years-long relationships, they had all ended.

And yet, just a few months past the one-year anniversary of meeting each other, after settling in to spend the summer months at our new river house, Andrew’s children would join us for their eight-week summer stay with their dad. There were enough bedrooms and bathrooms and even a playroom for his children at our co-owned summer home. Anticipating the first lengthy period with Andrew’s children moving into my space—even as Andrew and I were just beginning to share “permanent” space—I worried that I might have made a huge mistake.

But not for long.

***

In early May, Andrew and I moved into our river home for the summer, and soon the children came for a weekend visit before their school let out for summer and they would join us for two months. At the river house, they found the familiar furniture that had been in their dad’s home. His big leather couch faced the river, leaving plenty of floor space behind it, where the living and dining rooms merged, since we had set the dining table in the kitchen, where we had a wide view of the river. That empty floor space ended up being the kids’ preferred board-game playing area in the afternoons while I cooked in the kitchen.

During this first test visit, at Sunday lunch, just a few hours before their dad would take them back to their mom’s, we sat around the same pine table that had been at Andrew’s house, Andrew at one end, Erin and I on either side of him, my chair facing the river view that had sold the house to us; Aidan next to me, Griffin across from Andrew: largely our regular places, it would turn out, though Erin and Griffin tended to jostle each other for the seat next to their dad. I have no recollection of what prompted my frustration at that particular meal, but I was not yet at a place in my own head where I felt comfortable in the role of disciplinarian to another person’s children, and Andrew must not have reprimanded them for whatever had bothered me. Mimicking his calm whenever he dealt with Griffin’s temper tantrums, I picked up my plate, saying, “I’m going to take my lunch and eat on the deck.” A few minutes later,  a concerned Andrew joined me. I told him I was not sure if the whole summer living with his children was going to work for me. Maybe I should just move back to my house in town when they came for the summer and visit on the weekends they went to see their mom.

And then he did the exact right thing, asking me, “What can we do to make this work? What is it that you want me to do differently?” I don’t remember my answer. I just remember my relief. He did not explain to me how, not being a mother, I could not understand, as I’d often heard (still hear) from parents—particularly annoying when it comes from someone whose child you’re expected to take care of occasionally and even learn to love. Maybe Andrew was different from the men I’d previously been involved with. We agreed that this was our house even when the children were there. Andrew would take cues from me in the future so that we would present a united front to them.

Soon, a first test, after we’d set ground rules for the household so that I would not spend my precious summer months, when I was freed from teaching, cleaning up after Andrew’s children, whose stay-at-home mother allowed unmade beds, picked up clothes from wherever they’d been tossed, and didn’t mind toys left out around the house and strewn all over the floors of her children’s rooms. In our house, toys would be returned to closets when not in use. Clothes were to be placed into hampers, shoes put away in closets. Beds would be made before the kids left for swim-team practice in the morning. Upon returning from the pool, as well as after baths, towels would be hung up. Breaches of these simple rules lost them an hour of television or computer games—and we only allowed the use of electronics after the evening meal together, preferring to encourage the children to play outdoors, so those couple of hours of screen time before bedtime were precious to them.

The very first week, when I found a towel and swim trunks on the boys’ bathroom floor, I shook the wadded-up trunks out from the towel and held them up to the other pair, which had been hung over a towel bar. The smaller pair in my hands and presumably the towel they were with clearly belonged to Andrew’s youngest. Exiting the bathroom into the children’s playroom, I reminded Aidan what the infraction meant for his after-dinner activity. His shrug seemed an acceptance of the consequences of his carelessness, but when Andrew returned from work several hours later, his six-year-old suddenly dissolved into tears and climbed his daddy like a tree, sobbing as if he’d just been spanked, though he’d been perfectly happy just minutes before as we were all gathered in the living room, putting together a jigsaw puzzle and taking turns pairing up for checkers on the empty dining-room floor space behind the sofa. “What did you do?” Andrew asked the boy, recognizing the crocodile tears. I was puzzled myself but then recalled the earlier incident, so I relayed the crime and recalled the punishment. “Well, I guess you’ll remember to hang up your towel and trunks tomorrow,” Andrew said as he placed his son back on the floor. Failing to move his father, Aidan resumed the cheerful demeanor that had preceded Andrew’s arrival. A for effort, little man, but this win is mine, I thought. Your dad and I are, indeed, a united front, a “parental unit.”

“Queen me,” I said as I jumped one of Griffin’s checkers, placing my checker into the king zone.

Griffin, incidentally, never had a problem following the house rules. I believe he found them a welcome change from the hidden land mines in the house where the children lived with their mother and her mercurial husband. So while I might have been stricter about household pitching-in than their mother was, they had a clear idea of what my expectations were for household chores and what behaviors would set my temper off, while they could never (still cannot) predict their stepfather’s loud volatility, which often erupted into punishments involving hefty amounts of yard work.

Overall, it was a good first summer, but it did have its moments.

***

“I’m going to love you no matter what you do,” my father’s mother told him. He often shared this particular life lesson with his children. “But,” she would add, “I’m going to try to raise you so that others like you.”

My chance to pass this parental wisdom on to Andrew’s angry middle child came during that first summer at our river house, when Griffin had one of his temper tantrums while Andrew was not home. My (per)version of my dad’s shared lesson came about following another game of checkers with Griffin, at a time when we were the only two at home. Distracted by a call from Andrew to see if everything was okay, I was not paying attention—certainly not strategizing to win—when I took a triple jump that included Griffin’s only king. “Queen me,” I said as I hung up the phone, not noticing the scowl that had emerged on the little boy’s face.

“You can’t do that,” he said, loudly, startling me out of my distraction.

“Why not?” I asked.

Louder: “It’s not fair!”

Purposefully calm and quiet: “Do you want to look it up in the rules?”

Apparently not. He flipped the checkerboard over, and as checkers scattered, he jumped up and ran upstairs. My calm evaporating, I followed, yelling for him to “Go back downstairs!” and “Find every checker!” He kept going, and when he tried to escape me by seeking refuge in the boys’ closet, I crawled in right behind him.

Get out!” he screeched.

“Right after you. You have a mess to clean up. Then you can come sit in here if you like, and I’ll give you your privacy.”

A bit quieter, but still outraged: “You know I hate to lose.”

“Nobody likes losing, Griffin,” I answered. “But what’s the big deal? It’s a game of checkers.” Silence. “What is a big deal is that nobody likes you when you act like this.”

Not tactful, I admit.

In spite of Andrew’s insistence that there was no reasoning with Griffin during a tantrum, I continued, “I don’t get it. What does it matter if you lose a game every now and then? Your parents are going to love you no matter what you do.”

Still nothing.

“But nobody but a parent likes a sore loser,” I finished undiplomatically. Definitely not as kind and loving as what my grandmother said to my father. I don’t know if my rationale got through, but his anger did not evolve into one of his screaming rages.

I won’t say this was Griffin’s last temper tantrum, but he did eventually outgrow them, and Griffin was the one of Andrew’s children who, unbidden, would seek me out to say good-bye when it was time for the children to leave after a weekend with us, by which time, I was usually ready to resume my child-free life and had found a quiet place alone and away from the chaos. And he was always the first to hug me when they arrived. He still, almost twenty years later, cannot stand to lose, but I like to believe that I got through to him that day and that he accepted my candor as a positive characteristic in this woman who was going to be a part of his life.

 

***

Margaret Donovan Bauer grew up on the Bayou Teche in south Louisiana and now writes mostly memoir, mostly from her home on the Pamlico River in eastern North Carolina. The Rives Chair of Southern Literature at East Carolina University and author of four books on southern writers, she has served as editor of the North Carolina Literary Review for twenty-five years.

 

 

“Hockey Forever, or for as Long as It Lasts” by Jenny Shank

BLAST, TMR’s online-only prose anthology, features fiction and nonfiction too lively to be confined between the covers of a print journal. In “Hockey Forever, or for as Long as It Lasts,” Jenny Shank writes about her son’s passion for a sport and what it’s like to see her child finally find comfort in his own body.

 

Hockey Forever, or for as Long as It Lasts

 

By Jenny Shank

 

****

When my son Sam is five, we try soccer. Sam skips around while the opponent, unchallenged, scores. When Sam swims, he sinks. At tennis, he flails. In kid yoga, he clowns. In gymnastics he can’t copy the instructor’s movements. When Sam is six, I coach his T-ball team. He heaves the ball with a weird sidearm and drags the bat instead of swinging it. He’ll learn, I think. But throwing and catching are so hard for him that he’s mad. He flings rocks in the outfield and knocks down bats in the dugout. Kids call “Sam!” in disgust, the way Jerry Seinfeld used to pronounce the name of Newman, the nefarious postman. I love baseball. But after two seasons, I hang up my coaching hat. I coach my daughter’s basketball team too, but I don’t even attempt that with Sam. I’ve seen him try to dribble.

Eventually, after years of searching, we learn Sam has sensory processing disorder of the sensory-seeking type. That means he has to move—run, push, climb, and play—as frequently as possible, or else his self-control disintegrates. Often kids with this type of SPD are athletically accomplished because they are so motivated to practice.

But Sam also has dyspraxia, a lifelong neurological problem that impairs coordination and working memory. The occupational therapist charts his manual coordination at the second percentile, his fine-motor coordination at the third, his body coordination at the fourth. He has trouble following multistep instructions. I always thought he had good balance, but the OT finds that when Sam closes his eyes, he falls over. His proprioception is hampered. He only knows where his body is in space while he’s moving. He has to work ten times as hard as other kids just to sit, walk, write, or tie his shoes. These simple tasks demand intense concentration. But when Sam doesn’t get enough exercise, he causes havoc, hitting us and throwing things. Fate relishes a cruel combo. Fine. He plays outside, alone.

One day, a hockey game on TV captures Sam’s attention. My husband, Julien, perks up. Hockey was his sport. We take Sam to an ice rink. Sam is fascinated with the Zamboni. He studies its every slow swoop, the ice glistening, refreshed behind it. We sign him up for Learn to Skate. He goes every Saturday, year round. He doesn’t tire of it. He asks for a birthday party at the rink and rides the Zamboni like a young Canadian prince. We sign him up for Learn to Play Hockey. He can’t follow complicated directions, but he loves to play. Finally, when he’s seven, he joins Mites, the youngest level hockey team. Every time we ask if he wants to continue, he says yes. Every day he asks, “Do I have hockey today?”

Sam learns to play hockey in a dingy one-rink facility that looks like it smells like an armpit. The water fountain breaks, and tiles fall from the ceiling. The rink’s semipro team usually seems to lose. Expectations are low all around, which always works best for us.

But the year after Sam joins Mites, his hockey club demolishes the armpit rink and celebrates the grand opening of a new facility, modestly titled the Sport Stable. They should have called it the Taj Ma-Hockey.

This immense, gleaming building contains three rinks. Lavish banners emblazoned with the club’s every achievement for the past four decades hang above the ice. There are basketball courts, three indoor turf fields, and a weight room, used for something called “dryland training.” A big-screen TV blares in the lobby. Smaller screens, mounted everywhere, list locker room and rink assignments. There’s a sporting goods store, a coffee shop—the espresso kind!—and a bar. Each of these amenities boasts its own hockey-themed name like Sticks! They host “Wine Nights” for “Hockey Moms,” the flier for which cracks Sam up every time he reads it. The Zambonis are new here, covered with ads from local merchants, race car style.

Monarch, the Sport Stable’s home-ice high school team, immediately wins the state hockey championship when they relocate from the armpit rink, as if channeling the Stable’s grandeur. The Sport Stable employs a vast, impressive coaching staff. The director once ran USA Women’s Hockey, leading America to two world-championship gold medals and a silver Olympic medal.

When Sam is almost nine, he tries out for Squirts and makes it, just barely. Squirts, the division he’s aged into, is more demanding than the Mites. We worry the place is too intense. Five hockey sessions a week seems extravagant, insane. But dyspraxics can’t learn without repetition. And when Sam comes home with sweaty hair, I know the evening will unfold gently, free of SPD meltdowns. No other sports appeal to Sam or lie within his range. Hockey is all motion, no waiting.

Only hockey. This, or nothing. With trepidation, we bring Sam to the Taj.

He’s a little awkward on the ice. His puck handling lags. He can’t always copy the fancy skating moves the coaches demonstrate. Sometimes he holds the stick with just one hand. It takes him forever to learn a crossover. In games, he hangs back, all his aggression dissipated by the Zen of ice gliding. But he can basically do it. He skates and shoots and passes. The exercise strengthens him and regulates his system, like lulling all the bees inside to calm with wafts of smoke.

There are over eighty kids on different Squirt teams at the Sport Stable. We counted when the rosters were posted, to determine how much cover we had. There are three Aidens and a Caden on his team. We should have named him similarly, for camouflage. Still, maybe the coaches don’t even know his name and Sam can enjoy his dazey hockey bliss-out in peace, without sticking out as particularly unskilled, making his way to the top of next season’s cut list.

As the season starts, Julien asks me if Sam knows what offsides is.

“Sam likes the sensations of hockey,” I say. “He doesn’t care about the gritty specifics.”

I make a practice of trying to understand Sam’s sideways brain. Sam likes the ice, freshly glossed. The slide of his skates over the smooth surface. The little curls of ice his blades shave off. The cool air rising off the rink. The cavernous ceiling of the arena. The stick in his hand. The clatter of the pucks and sticks against the ice. The majesty of the Sport Stable. The happy bustle and good vibe there.

 

When the expensive Boulder Bison jerseys arrive, Julien spreads them out on the carpet in our living room. They are shiny and regal with an embroidered bison patch. Julien ties the laces at the throat, smooths them with his hands. He doesn’t even have to speak for me to know what he’s thinking. “I would have loved this when I was a kid,” he says.

For a moment, each of us silently reflects on his gothic-horror childhood with a schizophrenic mom, which involved no music lessons, sports teams, fancy jerseys, birthday parties, or motherlove.

“It isn’t fair,” I say.

“If I’d had coaches like Sam’s, I would have been a pretty good hockey player.”

Julien started hockey at twelve, on a rough-iced indoor rink in New York whose shed-like enclosure was so flimsy that once someone flung a stick and it broke through the siding to reveal the light of day. “I started too late,” he says.

“You would have been great,” I tell him.

“Sam can’t even appreciate this.”

“I know,” I say. “Aren’t we lucky that we can spoil him with things he can’t even appreciate?”

As the first game approaches, Julien worries that Sam still might not understand offsides. “If he screws this up, his team will be mad at him, because he’ll keep getting penalties.”

Julien wants me to show Sam a video because I am the Sam whisperer. Or the closest thing we’ve got to it. “I coach baseball and basketball,” I tell Julien. “I don’t know hockey.”

“Hockey is really simple. There are only like three rules.” Julien looks terrified that the coming game will hold the charlatanry of our parenting up to the light.

I can’t convince Sam to watch Julien’s video, but I draw a misshapen hockey rink on a piece of paper. Are they oval? In any case, there are three important lines, I think. (There are actually five.) “Look,” I say to Sam. “The puck always has to cross this line first, before you can skate past it.”

“Okay,” he says.

“If the puck leaves this area—” I have no idea what any of the lines are called, so I just point, “You’ve got to skate out too, or the ref will whistle at you.” And your dad will have an aneurysm, I don’t add.

“Okay,” he says.

The first game comes. Sam’s team wins because one kid scores five goals. Sam doesn’t do anything spectacular, but he doesn’t get called for any penalties. It is a joyful relief.

In the third game, Sam scores a goal. A very Sam sort of goal. Julien witnesses it and texts me. “Sam may have scored. Trying to figure out what happened.” Clearly, to the average spectator, it didn’t look like your orthodox goal. But I’d be surprised if anything Sam ever does is orthodox. Sure enough, on the team website, Sam’s name is credited with a goal. I ask Sam about it.

“I was trying to get out of the way, because I thought Aiden was coming to get the puck,” he says, his brown eyes growing wide as he tells me the story. “But he didn’t come get the puck. So I just kind of put my stick down, and somehow it went in.” Sam is still surprised about how his attempt to flee resulted in a goal.

Getting out of the way is one of Sam’s prime survival techniques. He knows his hands don’t work as well as the other kids’ hands. I have seen him, in a game of dodgeball in which all the other eight-year-olds were boldly vying to catch and throw, instead run, evade, and hide, staying well clear of all the action, until he was the second-to-last kid standing. Because he can’t throw well, he can never win, but he can at least delay losing. I like to think he gets this from my grandpa Harry, an infantryman who survived a 120-day span of various battles in World War II in which he was engaged with the enemy for 99 of them. Nazis shot him twice in four days, but he survived.

Later, Sam reads the tag on his jersey and confronts me. “It says OT Sports. Did you put me in an occupational therapy league?”

“No, that’s just the brand name. It stands for overtime, probably.”

“Look at me,” he says. He’s watched a video on YouTube about how to tell if people are lying to you. “Your eyes are wide. You’re lying.”

“I’m not lying. You’re on a regular hockey team.”

Sam plays four games. The season is underway. We think maybe he can skate through, unnoticed.

One evening after practice, Julien and Sam arrive home and realize that Sam left his new fleece jacket in the locker room. Sam screams. “It’s going to be lost! Stolen! I’m never going to get it back!”

Because of his SPD, Sam’s nervous system is always cranked to eleven. The slightest derangement of the universe triggers his fight or flight response. When Sam freaks out, he breaks things and throws things. Food hits the floor. Chairs crash. He’s ripped a hole in the window screen, broken the fence, trashed a photo he didn’t like of him and his sister. After years of effort, he doesn’t bite us anymore and hits us less, but his freak-outs are still alarming. The more exercise he gets, the fewer freak-outs occur. We finally learn they aren’t personal. And Julien and I will do anything to diffuse them.

Though it’s late and he hasn’t had dinner, Julien leaves to fetch the jacket. When he returns, I can tell something is wrong. He looks shaken but tells me he’ll talk about it later.

When the kids are in bed, Julien whispers the story to me. “I thought the jacket would still be in the locker room, but Coach Jill had it. She asked, ‘Are you Sam’s dad?’ I felt like I was falling.”

“So she knows his name,” I say. These coaches are good.

Julien nods. “She told me, ‘I’m having trouble reaching Sam.’”

This meant she thought he was goofing off. There’s always the risk that someone will interpret Sam’s slow progress and intermittent attention as insolence or laziness.

“I panicked,” Julien says, “but I used my Toastmasters skills.” He’s been going to club meetings for years and has finally conquered his fear of public speaking. “I tried to tell her about him. Maybe you can e-mail her?”

“Sure,” I say. Most adults who interact with Sam eventually turn to me for an explanation of his being.

I Google Jill. She placed fifth in the 1986 U.S. Figure Skating Pairs Championship.

Of course.

She is an expert, a professional. She has the snapping eyes and elfin, tousled haircut of a go-getter. She might not understand us bottom dwellers, clinging to the underside of hockey like barnacles to a swiftly moving ship. I met her once, when I was five minutes late getting Sam from practice. He was trying to be a tough guy but wavering near tears. “He was really worried,” Jill said, with an alarmed look.

Julien presses his hand to his forehead. “When I was talking to Jill, I felt overwhelmed with sadness and shame.”

“I go through that too,” I say. “For me it was worst when we found out he couldn’t read.”

If it’s possible for a person to be made of books, then I am made of books. Reading is my love, my profession, my therapy, my life. When I enter a house with no evident books, I’m suspicious of it. I stick close to the exit. So when it looked like reading might not come to Sam, I despaired. I wept. And then I worked. I brought him to specialists and found him a reading tutor. I hired an occupational therapist for his handwriting. I spent hours every day searching for books he might like and reading with him. I took more jobs to pay for it all.

Somehow, I taught him to read.

“The sadness is part of this,” I tell Julien, “But you don’t need to feel shame. This is nobody’s fault. Think of how brave Sam is, to go out there on the ice, when everything is so much harder for him.”

“But are we crazy? Signing him up for this elite hockey club?”

“He wanted to do it. He tried out. They let him on the team. We’re hurting no one by taking up the last spot on the lowest team.”

When Julien reads the e-mail I write to Jill, he cries, even though he rarely cries. I don’t know if he remembers how often he told me, when I was crying over the reading thing, that it was going to be okay. Julien had trouble learning to read and nobody even noticed, much less helped him. One day he picked up The Hobbit and that was all it took. He painstakingly worked his way through Bilbo Baggins’s quest, the sentences making more sense as they accumulated behind him.

Every year we discover some new, basic thing that Sam can’t do. He can’t open the snack wrappers in his lunch. He can’t cut pancakes or carve soap with a knife like the other Cub Scouts. We become grievously alarmed. And then we work on it.

I hug Julien. “Sam doesn’t have a terminal illness. He’s just terminally Sam. He’s doing better than a lot of kids with SPD.” SPD often accompanies more serious concerns—autism, chromosome disorders, early onset puberty.

Sam’s condition, by contrast, seems almost comic, like a wise guy was sitting around a bar deciding what maladies to dole out and went, “Oh, I’ve got a good one! This thing where you have a compulsion to play sports but you’re no good at them!”

Jill never answers my e-mail, and I take that as a good sign. She’s sensitive enough to know something is different about Sam and compassionate enough to want to help him. Still, it’s clear we can never hide out among the normals. We will always be caught.

Sam will play hockey for as long as he loves it, for as long as the team lets him, for as long as we’re willing to haul him to the Taj five times a week. It won’t solve everything. It won’t take all the despair away. But when he’s on the ice, in motion, Sam’s padded legs crouched as he glides, the cool air moving across his neck, he can feel where he is in the universe for once and go quiet inside. So, for a moment, I can rest quiet inside too.

****

Jenny Shank’s novel The Ringer won the High Plains Book Award. Her stories, essays, satire, and reviews have appeared in the Atlantic, the Washington Post, the Guardian, Prairie Schooner, Alaska Quarterly Review, McSweeney’s, the Toast, and Barrelhouse. Her work has been honorably mentioned by The Best American Essays, the Pushcart Prize anthology, and her mother. She teaches in the Mile High MFA program at Regis University and the Lighthouse Writers Workshop in Denver, and she tweets @jennyshank.