Breath & Shadow
A Journal of Disability Culture and Literature
Breath and Shadow
Volume 14 Issue 2
A temporary perspective
By Ann Chiappetta
She felt her son watching her and asked, “what is it?”
Josh shrugged as if to say, no big deal, but didn’t reply. Sloan tried again, wishing that engaging Josh wasn’t such a workout.
“It’s a head, right?”
“Yeah, it’s a head. The teacher called it a bust.”
Sloan nodded, hoping for Josh to say more. He didn’t.
“Did you have a model?”
She knew a little about the art program in the middle school, having toured the art room on back to school night. Art had been a way for Sloan to excel in school and she encouraged Josh to participate.
“Yeah,” he said, not even glancing at the piece.
It was really a sorry looking thing, she decided. The thought was just making way for another when Josh’s reply brought her brain up short.
“It’s supposed to be me.”
Sloan blinked. Even with her poor sight, she couldn’t deny what she was holding. Her throat grew tight as she realized the impact this made not just in her mind, but also in her heart. She examined it even closer, re-tracing the lumpy, hairless dome, the mismatched eye sockets and the barely detectible nose and lips. She felt no ears or chin. It was, she had to admit, ugly.
“Sweetie, you don’t look like this.”
Josh turned away and logged onto his computer.
“Josh, do you think you look like that?”
“No,” he said, his attention on the monitor.
“Then why did you make it look like that?”
“I don’t know. I just did it ‘cause I didn’t want to get a zero.”
He started playing a game.
Sloan sighed and left the room, leaving the sculpture on Josh’s desk, trying her best not to overthink the black and ugly thing her son created. She started dinner, her mind going to other things.
A week later Sloan found the little black head in Josh’s garbage. She plucked it out from under the used facial tissues and held it, then put it on the book case in the living room. She made a mental note to keep an eye on it and see if it found itself in another trash can in the future.
“Oh, Josh,” she said as she rubbed her temples, a sure sign of worry.
It was so hard, trying to pull him out of his shell. His only social interactions were with the damn video games, or on rare occasions, with some of the boys at judo. Middle school could be a tough time, she knew. But as a mom she couldn’t help worrying about things like bullying or drugs or God forbid, molestation.
Then there was the troubling thought that somehow Josh was embarrassed to tell anyone she was going blind. Could her disability be responsible for her son’s social reluctance? Talk about your gut-wrenching guilt trips. Of course, she could never ask him if this was happening, and even if she did, he would never tell her the truth. And then there was the biggest weight on the guilt train—the lack of a father.
Sloan still seethed when she thought of Emilio, the rat bastard. He’d bailed years ago, but it still felt as if it had only just happened.
She’d come out of Josh’s room that evening and began washing out his bottle before going to bed. Emilio entered the narrow kitchen and handed her an envelope. She dried her hands and took it.
Sloan opened it and realized it was a few hundred dollars, a large amount of money now that she had lost her job and they were living on only one income. She looked up at him, confusion on her wholesome face.
“Emilio, I don’t understand …”
“I’m leaving,” he said without emotion, like he might tell her it was four o’clock or there’s ice cream in the freezer. “It’s all I can give you until we get a divorce.”
“What do you mean?” she asked, her entire body going numb.
“I can’t be with a woman who is handicapped. A kid is hard enough, but a blind wife?”
Sloan felt the blood drain from her face and she dropped the envelope to steady herself on the lip of the sink.
“Hey, it’s not you, it’s me. “he said. “I need someone who can keep up with me, you know, driving, working, the bills, things like that.” he didn’t even attempt to pick up the dropped envelope and went in the fridge for a beer instead.
Sloan’s legs turned to rubber and she fought thee impulse to simply slide down to the floor. Every word he said felt like a cut in her skin.
He went on, “Hey, you’re still pretty and young, Sloan, you’ll find someone who can handle being with a blind chick.”
He reached out to tap her on the chin, usually an endearing gesture. When his finger got close, she slapped it away.
“Get out,” she said, tears brimming in her eyes. “Get out and don’t ever come back.”
Emilio smiled, and she hated him in that moment. He stooped to pick up the envelope and placed it on the counter before turning away.
“Have a good life, Sloan,” he said. “I’ll send you some money for the kid,” he said, picking up his duffle bag and leaving.
Thirteen years later, Emilio communicated exclusively through his attorney. And while he made sure the child support checks came on time and never bounced, he did not want or ask for his son. The abandonment still hurt deeper than Sloan wanted to admit. A part of her couldn’t help thinking it was her fault. If she could see, Emilio wouldn’t have left and Josh wouldn’t be struggling. She finished cleaning and sat on the couch. Now Josh was floundering and she didn’t know how to handle it. All she ever wanted was for Josh to be happy, to not have to face the reality that his father never wanted a child, and, worst of all, a wife with a disability. She didn’t want to face it, either, she realized. The little black statue made it clear to Sloan that she had to find a way to talk to her son.
Josh stepped onto the bus and took the first available seat, doing his best to block the noise. He looked out the window and mentally tried to close out the chattering, rap music and laughter. Today was a good day, he wasn’t being harassed and he was glad to be left alone. His mom was having a cow about the clay sculpture he’d brought home last week, as usual. Why couldn’t she understand that it was just a stupid project? He had just poked a few holes in it to satisfy the teacher. Art wasn’t his thing. What he really wanted to do was apply for the ROTC program and one day become an Army officer. But if he told her that, she’d really have a cow. She worried way too much about him. But, he needed her signature to get in the program. His Uncle Jerry and his other Uncle, Ken, had both served in the military, and so had his grandfather. Josh had to figure out a way to get her to sign.
Kids his age weren’t thinking about the future, not like he did, anyway. Josh wasn’t a nerd or a jock or a band geek. He didn’t really fit into any group, and that was fine with him. He preferred to hang out with some of the guys from judo, either after class or online. Most of them went to private school, which obviously his mom couldn’t afford, although he’d love to switch. The public school was full of idiots, and while everybody laughed at them, they annoyed him.
The bus turned onto the street leading to the huge middle school. It resembled a castle, complete with four pointed turrets and a grand staircase to the main doors. Tonight he would talk to his Mom, give her the recruiter’s number. No matter how she reacted, he needed to convince her.
Sloan ordered Chinese take-out, a treat since being on a fixed income. Josh loved eggrolls, and his smile upon seeing the containers made her day. After clearing the dishes and stowing the leftovers in the fridge, Sloan noticed Josh watching her.
“Josh, what is it?”
“Can I talk to you?”
“Sure, honey.” She put her hands in her lap to hide her nervous fidgeting.
“Mom, now that I’m in eighth grade, I’ve been thinking about what I want to do after high school.”
“You mean, like college?”
“Kind of, not really,” he said. “Mom, I want to join the military.”
Sloan stopped fidgeting, shocked. This wasn’t how the conversation should go, she thought. He was supposed to say something different. Mom, I want to learn all about computers. Or, Mom, I want to run my own business. But the military? Sloan must have looked confused because she saw the barest flick of an eye roll from her usually respectful and stoic son.
“The military?” she said.
“Yes, the Army, Reserve Army Training Corps, actually. It starts in 9th grade.”
Sloan didn’t know how to respond. Part of her was relieved and the other part wasn’t happy at all.
“That means you’ll be going away a lot.”
Not until after high school,” he said. “Besides, Juan and Mark are joining ROTC, too,”
“Sounds like you’ve done your homework on this one,” she said. “I’ve tried my best to raise you to make good decisions and be practical.”
They sat in silence at the dining table. Sloan couldn’t help finding the irony in what was clearly her own inaccurate thinking. Josh wasn’t even thinking of her as an embarrassment or of himself of the only son of an abandoned single mother who was going blind.
“It could be dangerous,” she added. “I’ll worry.”
“Mom, it’s what I want. There are kids who get all screwed up just crossing the street.”
Sloan shook her head in defeat, there was no arguing with the invincibility of youth.
Sloan entered the parade grounds, her right hand in the elbow of the female army officer in full dress uniform. The woman was her guide for the ceremony. Sloan’s guide dog was off duty for now, heeling at her side.
“Ma’am, you must be very proud of your son.”
“Yes, he’s worked very hard. I can’t believe he is Valedictorian.”
“I hear his grandfather was a West Point graduate, and graduated in the top ten, too.”
Sloan smiled, sending up a mental high five to her Dad. Until Josh entered the Army, she’d never thought much about her Dad’s career. Now she had gained a better sense of pride and joy realizing just how much Josh had accomplished. It was his calling, like it had been for past generations.
After the ceremony, Josh swept her up in a big bear hug. She tried not to cry but a few tears rolled down her cheeks. She found his hand and put something in it. He looked down, surprised.
“Mom,” he said, looking at the little black head he’d made all those years ago. “You really need to explain this one.”
“I want you to know that until the day you told me you wanted to join the Army, I was so caught up in myself and my own problems. You don’t know this, but I kept that ugly thing to remind me that self-doubt is bad, and self-pity is the worst.”
Josh looked at her with a very serious expression, but said nothing, so she went on. “I want you to take it and make it a target and blow it up.”
“Mom, I get what you’re saying.” He laughed, and she could sense his broad smile. “it would be a pleasure.” He put the head in his pocket and placed her hand on his arm. “Now, Ma’am, it would be my pleasure to escort you to the refreshments, because I can’t wait to show you off.”
Two days later Sloan got a text from Josh. It read:
Done. One shot. Proud to be your son.
Ann Chiappetta M.S. is an author and family therapist living in New York. Her writing has been featured in many small press publications and collegiate journals. Ann’s nonfiction essays have been printed in Dialogue magazine and her poems are often featured in Magnets and Ladders. Ann’s poetry is also included in Breath and Shadow’s debut anthology, “Dozen: The Best of Breath and Shadow,” which was released in 2016. Her first collection, UPWELLING: POEMS, is available in both e book and print formats. To purchase her book or read an excerpt, go to www.dvorkin.com/annchiappetta/ . To read Ann’s blog, go to www.thought-wheel.com/