Imaginary Sons

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December 15, 2012 by The Citron Review

by Jessica McCaughey


In a house like that, you were lucky to have such a big bedroom, almost an apartment in itself. I could almost forget about the drunk roommates downstairs playing poker, the kitchen with its missing floor tiles, dirt in the spaces between. I remember the stained couch, maybe 20 feet from the bed, and the way I never understood why your father always seemed to be alone up there, smoking cigarettes and watching the television. That night, when I opened your bedroom door and saw him, I wished him away, but was too timid to ask him to leave.

“I’m going to bed now,” I said, standing still for a moment in his peripheral vision.

“All right,” he answered, and turned the volume down two ticks on the stock car race.

I feared you would become him. When we would visit his house, so many years ago, I would look at the way his hands shook around that muddy travel cup. The way he stared for hours at his parrot sqawking, “rock and roll, rock and roll,” its white feathers coating the torn carpet of his living room. I imagined you sitting in the same space twenty years in the future, your hair thin and gray, watching something terrible on TV and ignoring the girlfriend of our future son, and I would shudder.

I am surprised I fell asleep with him sitting ten feet away, but I did. And of course—of course—I assumed it was your hand that rubbed my hip as I drowsily shifted from stomach to side. Only when I heard an unfamiliar voice say, “Don’t worry, baby, I’m here now,” did my eyes open, my body tense. The guy’s breath smelled like rum, and his hand moved up my back. I recognized him as the loudest, drunkest friend of your roommate.

I pulled my arms up in front of my chest, palms open, out, as if directing traffic. Stop. And I saw your father quietly leave the room.

He walked downstairs and told you, “I think there’s somebody in there with Jessy.” I imagine him standing by the table, waiting for the hand to end, and looking at your cards over your shoulder before telling you, though, of course, I can’t be sure.

I have forgiven myself for all of our wasted time, and I will likely forgive you some day too. For the comment about my weight that day we rode horses. For the bad birthdays and lack of affection. These thoughts of you are like a bad garbage smell after the bag has been taken outside, inconsistent but lingering.

But I can foresee a time when perhaps they won’t be. Sometimes now, I still consider my future son, although you are no longer his father. And even in my imagination I try to be realistic; my son will not be flawless. Someday he might treat a girl, hopefully just one, poorly. Maybe he’ll cheat on her, or maybe he will only invite her over and ignore her, playing video games all night, but even as I watch him act so selfishly, I will know that this boy is not all bad. Most likely, I will realize that his parents, too, have fucked him up in some way that he will, but has not yet, overcome. And in that moment, watching him, I hope to have a generous flash of you, and sense the garbage stink dissipating around your memory.

But just as I forgive you, just as this pretend boy will remind me that not everyone who acts selfishly is entirely evil, I will consider my love for this imaginary son, and I will hate your father more than ever, more than I did even then, struggling in your bed, the static in my t-shirt and my leggings sparking, watching him leave me there to fend for myself.


Jessica McCaughey teaches writing and English as a Second Language at The George Washington University and George Mason University, respectively. Her work has appeared in The Colorado Review, Phoebe, The Best American Travel Writing (2011), The Chronicle of Higher Education, and The Boston Globe Sunday Magazine, among other publications. She lives in Arlington, Virginia.


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