It is 7:30. Six-year-old Benjamin has quietly climbed the ladder of his bunk bed. His sister has been asleep on the lower bunk for half an hour.
It has been a bad night, with Daddy traveling and Mommy frustrated and Benjamin throwing up – “Just a little!” – on his bedroom floor and the daily lice check because it’s going around and I don’t even know how we got to swimming lessons this afternoon. I have not been an A-list parent tonight. Not even a B-list. I have yelled, I have dumped water instead of carefully rinsing, I even have threatened to take away books.
But now it is quiet. Zachary is in his room, neck-deep in the latest Rick Riordan book. I could leave him there till morning and he’d only notice if the pages ran out. I climb to the top bunk and lie down next to Benjamin for his nightly story.
“I’ll tell you a true story tonight,” I say, because I’m fresh out of ideas after the big panda bear saga I just finished.
“Tell me about when you were a child,” he begs earnestly. I shoot for a story about school, but he protests: “Tell me about being at home.” He cannot picture my home life because I have so carefully sidestepped it over the years.
I tell him about a big snow-dinosaur that my sister and I built in the front yard. It’s not enough, so I tell him about my grandmother, how poor she was and how much she loved me. But that’s not what he wants to know.
“Tell me about when your stepmother walked you to school. Was she nice then?”
“I took the bus.” Asshole, I think to myself. He isn’t asking that and you know it.
“But sometimes at night, did she lie with you? I mean, if you wanted her to? Did you want her to?”
“No, baby. She was never nice to me. She didn’t like me, and I was scared of her.” And there it is, out in front of my six-year-old, because not telling him is worse than answering.
“What did she do to you?”
“She just wasn’t nice.”
“Like all stepmothers?”
“No, some stepmothers are nice.”
“Yes, she was mean like Cinderella’s.” Let him think I picked lentils out of the hearth. Dayenu.
“Now tell me about middle school. Can you remember that better?”
“Honey, I remember my childhood fine. In middle school, I lived with my aunt and uncle.”
“Were they nice to you?”
“A little, not very. But they weren’t mean.”
“Show me with your hands how nice.” I show him with my hands.
“Now, tell me about college. No, tell me about your father. Was he nice? Is he alive?”
“Yes, he’s alive.”
“Then why can’t we see him?”
“Because he let my stepmother be mean to me. If Daddy let me be mean to you all the time, would he be a nice father?”
“No. But what did they do?”
“You know how Daddy and I get frustrated sometimes and we aren’t so nice? But most of the time we try our best to be good? And you know that we always love you?”
“Well, they didn’t try to be good and love me.”
“Oh.” He is quiet – uncharacteristically, I might add.
“Benjamin, I want to tell you something. When you are a child and no one loves you, there’s a hole in your heart. Not a real hole, but a hole where the love should be. And you grow up with that hole there.”
“Show me where the hole is.”
“Not a real hole. An imagined one, a loneliness. But you know what happened to my hole?”
“You had me?”
“Yes. I had all three of you. And my hole filled up.”
“But if you grow up and there isn’t anyone to love you, then you always have that hole,” he muses.
“Yes. That’s why we all have to try to love people the best we can.” I hold him close, feel those cheeks, kiss the forehead. I climb down the ladder to sit on the futon in his room until he can fall asleep, keeping the monsters at bay by the light of the half-opened closet door.