Friday Favorite: Mothers and Sons

When I created Emily and her son, Max, I never realized how much emotion I felt for her situation.

At half past one in the morning, Emily Brenner heard the door to her apartment creak sharply once, then fade a slow whine as the person fought to make no noise.

She held her breath as she laid in bed, praying for guidance, wondering if a confrontation would do any good this time.

Slow footsteps padded on the carpeting outside her bedroom, a practiced edging around the noisy spots in the floor.

Emily hated this. This tension, this waiting, this nervous energy—it was familiar, and not in a good way.

She swung her covers back and made no effort to be quiet. It was false confidence, she knew, but it got her through the door and into the moonlit hallway.

“Where’ve you been?” she said.

Max was standing in front of his bedroom door, half facing away from her, but she didn’t miss the eye roll. He had a hand thrust into a black nylon backpack she didn’t recognize.

“Out.”

“That’s not an answer.” It was her standard response, usually delivered with an icy practicality that could make even the toughest students surrender and tell her what she wanted to know.

But Max wasn’t her student, and her voice was far from cold. Emily was terrified to push too hard, like their relationship was an already straining rubber band and one quick thrust would send Max shooting off into the world, alone.

So her comments sounded weak, even to her ears. Instead of putting him in his place, she would plead and cajole, hoping for a glimmer of a response, something to show he still needed her—that he still wanted her.

And all she ever got was what she got now: disdainful muttering under his breath, laced with profanity that was only slightly louder.

He was looking to provoke her, she knew.

“Tell me where you were, Max.” Her voice was soft. “It’s one thirty in the morning.”

“I’ve got a watch. Thanks.” He jerked his arm out of the bag, a silver key glinting in his hand. He thrust it into the lock.

That had been a surprise, to come home one day and find he’d installed a deadbolt on his bedroom door. She should have had a locksmith out that night, but he was already furious about his lack of privacy. She left it, thinking maybe he would see that she was trying, that she would give him some freedoms.

Instead, he saw it as an opportunity to stretch that rubber band a bit farther.

This was the third night in a row he’d come home so late.

“Are you in some kind of trouble?” she said.

“Don’t be stupid,” he snapped, his voice full of an adult’s conviction. He swung his head around to look at her. His hair had grown too long, again, and it hung over his eyes. That was her fault: she’d asked him to get a haircut three months ago. “I’m just sick of putting up with this bullshit.”

Me too.

The words came to mind with frightening clarity, but they wouldn’t move to her lips. “I’m worried about—”

“Whatever.”

Then he was through the door and the lock was thrown.

Emily moved to stand there, resting her hands against the wooden panels. She’d done this when he was a baby: stood outside his bedroom door, her ears straining in the late night silence, desperate to hear each breath. She’d been convinced he would stop breathing the instant she failed to listen for it.

Now, fifteen years later, she mourned those moments, when nothing more than the simple sound of his breathing had been reassurance.

He was moving around behind the door. Papers rustled and something heavy slid across the carpet. The bed creaked as he sat down.

Then she heard the fractured notes of a guitar badly out of tune. She hadn’t bought it for him, but it had appeared a month ago—and though she hated to admit it, she was terrified he’d stolen it somewhere. Max had no idea how to play, but he picked at it every night. She assumed he was trying to teach himself.

She could hear his frustration through the notes, as if his fingers put emotion into each pull on the strings.

Emily put her forehead against the door and sighed.

The guitar abruptly went silent. She heard his breathing, quick and angry.

“Jesus, Mom! Go away.”

Emily hesitated.

Then obeyed.

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