Read The Break by Tom Barbash
Read The Break, taken from Tom Barbash’s Folio Prize longlisted collection of short stories, Stay up with Me.
It was her son’s second night home for Christmas break, and the mother had taken him to a pizza place on Columbus Avenue called Buongiorno, their favorite. The boy was enjoying all the attention. The conversation revolved around him and his friends. He was talking about someone in school who had lost her mind, a pale, pretty girl who’d been institutionalized and who sent a scrawled-over copy of The Great Gatsby to a friend of the boy’s. In the margins, she had pointed out all the similarities between the character’s situation and what she believed to be hers and that of the boy’s friend. She had earmarked pages and scrawled messages. YOU ARE GATSBY, she wrote on the back of the book. I AM DAISY.
The boy’s mother pictured the girl in a hospital ward, aligning her fortunes with tragic heroines, ripping through the classics with a pen. At least, the boy’s mother thought, the insanity was literary. They were taking school seriously, she thought, and she liked that her son seemed to have some compassion for the woman (more than she did; she was simply glad it wasn’t he who’d been the target).
She liked the person he was becoming, liked the way he treated others. He’d had a girlfriend in the spring and then another over the summer and the mother had liked how he opened doors for them, how he listened to what they said, and how he talked of them when they weren’t around. Now both of those were over and done with. She didn’t know much about how they’d ended, only that he’d kept in touch with one and not the other. From time to time the boy glanced toward the front door of the restaurant at the hostess station. The hostess smiled over at them. The boy’s mother was getting used to this. Her son had begun to fill out in the last year, his sophomore year at college, and had become the sort of young man women smiled at, and not only girls his age. Recently one of the mother’s friends saw a picture of him in a T-shirt and jeans and had said, “Look out.”
The pizza was good and the boy ate a lot of it. The mother looked over and caught the eye of the hostess. A good ten years older than the boy, and not what you’d call pretty. Though thin and busty, she had a somewhat pinched nose and a dull cast to her eyes. The mother imagined that she often went home with men she met at the restaurant. The girls the son had dated were smart and pretty and charming. This woman was not. Her son didn’t seem to notice her but was talking about the coming summer and how he wanted to travel around Eastern Europe, Romania maybe, or Hungary. He’d work half the summer and then take off. He wasn’t going to ask for any money, he said. “How’s the book going?” he asked the mother.
She had been writing a book about Hollywood in the 1950s. She told him about the last three chapters, one on the advent of television and the other two on the end of the studio system. He asked good questions, made suggestions. He was funny. He was her friend.
He left for a moment for the bathroom. The mother watched the hostess watching her son as he crossed the room, as though he were a chef’s special she was hoping to try. The hostess walked back toward the kitchen. The mother couldn’t see either of them now. It’s nothing, she told herself.
But then she was peering around the partition to see what was happening. The hostess was lingering eight or ten feet from the men’s room. How incredibly pathetic, the mother thought.
The boy stepped out. She said something. He said something. Then he was back at the table.
“Should we get dessert?”
“What did that woman say to you?”
“I saw her say something.”
“Oh, you know, How’s it going? How’s your meal?”
She was acting like a jealous wife, she thought.
“I think she likes you,” the mother said, though not encouragingly.
The boy smiled, then changed the subject.
They stopped at an ice-cream place on the way home, a store the boy had worked at three summers before. Back home they watched the second half of Anatomy of a Murder on TV, then the mother said she was going to sleep. The boy stayed in the family room to watch more TV.
The mother read for a while. She thought of calling her husband, but then didn’t because she would probably bring up the hostess, then feel ridiculous for doing so. She’d make it a bigger deal than it needed to be. It had been a nice night, she thought. They’d have a few weeks of these and then he’d be gone again, and she’d be alone in the house. She liked his company, and lately she’d been starting to understand that this was the reward for all the work you did, these years of friendship. You watched them become the sort of people you wanted to know.
In the middle of the night she heard voices and she wondered if he’d turned the volume up too loud. She walked back to the family room. The doors were partially open. She peered in and there was the hostess, her shirt off and one of her considerable breasts in her son’s mouth. Her son’s shirt was off, and his eyes were closed. The hostess was straddling the boy’s lap, her chin resting atop his head as he nursed and nuzzled.
She stepped back out and closed the door.
“Shit,” she heard the boy say.
The mother was surprised by what she felt then— not embarrassed, even for him. She felt enraged and invaded, as though someone had broken into her home and stolen something valuable.
“Can you come out here a moment?” the mother said. He walked out, his hair messed, but his pants still on.
“I’d like her to leave.”
His eyes were on the ground. He looked ashamed, and she knew she wasn’t being entirely fair here.
“And keep your voices down.”
She tried to pinpoint what it was exactly that bothered her about the hostess because she wouldn’t have minded if it were her son’s girlfriend over. She was neither a prude nor a moralist.
There was something about her son picking up a stranger and bringing her back, and using a dinner out with her to do it, that made her feel used and betrayed.
Then she thought: He’s nineteen. He can do what he likes.
She heard the two of them leave through the front door. Her son was walking the woman home, she supposed, which was the right thing to do.
Around twenty minutes later he’d returned. He didn’t knock on her door to complain or apologize. He went to his room and closed the door.
They said nothing about the incident at breakfast the next morning. They read different sections of the paper and talked about what classes he was taking in spring.
The next day the mother was walking to the subway and she passed the pizza place. The hostess looked up from her seating list and saw her through the window. They made eye contact. The hostess smiled, affably and unappealingly (one of her teeth might have been gray). The mother kept walking.
The mother made dinner that night, rosemary chicken and steamed vegetables. The boy was going out with some friends afterward. The mother knew the friends, Oscar, whose father was a producer for Nightline, and Kevin, a math major at Dartmouth who always smelled of coffee. The boy was not home by two o’clock, nor by three. At around four he returned. She thought better of confronting him. There were things she wouldn’t know, and that would have to be okay. Still, she dreamed that night that he’d brought home two women, strippers, and they had tied him to the leather armchair in the family room.
She said nothing the next day. Her work was going slowly. She tried to keep her mind on Howard Hawks and Elia Kazan, but her thoughts kept returning to the hostess. She had altered the atmosphere surrounding the boy’s time home. And now the mother was having trouble meeting her self-imposed deadlines. She went by the restaurant the following afternoon after the lunch tables had cleared. The hostess was refilling hot pepper and grated cheese dispensers.
“Do you know who I am?” the mother asked, when she stopped by.
“You’re Phillip’s mother.”
She didn’t like her using his name, though of course it would have been strange for her not to know it by now. “Yes,” she said.
“I’m Holly.” She said it as though the mother had heard all about someone named Holly.
“He’s nineteen, you know.”
“It’s none of my business.”
“No, I guess it isn’t. Can I get you a table?”
She talked with her husband that day. She didn’t tell him what she’d seen, simply that Phillip was dating a hostess from Buongiorno’s.
“So I don’t like it.”
“Don’t be such a snob.”
“You haven’t seen her.”
“What’s wrong with her?”
“You’d know if you saw her,” she said. Then added, “She’s easy.”
“How do you know?”
“I saw the two of them.”
“You saw them.”
“Do you want me to talk with him?”
“No. I just wanted to know what you think.”
“I think it’s fairly normal, don’t you?”
It was nearly two years since the mother and father had decided to undergo a trial separation. The mother had believed it was her decision, because he had fought it. But once they’d gone through with it, he had more easily adapted to the new set of circumstances. Now the husband lived in Seattle, a few blocks from the fish and vegetable stalls of Pike Place Market. The mother had spent time there in graduate school, and then again two years ago when they’d decided to travel around the Pacific Northwest. She hadn’t known then he’d been thinking of moving there, once the boy left for college. He was the one who was supposed to be exiled, but while he had landed within a lively social circle, the mother had found it hard to find any sort of community. She had been the less social of the two and now she was in his town with his friends. There were three or four people who stuck closely by her, but most of their friends had stopped calling or inviting her to parties. Not that she would have gone, necessarily. She hadn’t been feeling particularly social. She was abstractly aware of the toll the separation had taken on her. She’d been needing a glass of red wine or two in the evening to get to sleep, and some nights she couldn’t resist calling him, knowing it was the West Coast and he’d still be awake. She wouldn’t talk about their problems, she’d simply talk of her day and matters outside of them and then listen to his advice, or she’d ask about his life out there and he’d tell her, as though they were new friends beginning to learn about one another. Her work meanwhile had flourished; she’d finished one book, started another, and had begun contributing magazine pieces. There were many times when she thought to herself, I love my life, but they were all times when she was alone and wrapped inside her writing, or reading, or out on a long sumptuous walk in Central Park. She had grown to respect and learn from solitude, something she’d had little of in the past. Another good thing was that she’d become closer to her son. In the past she’d felt like a supporting actress to her husband’s incessant starring role. Now when the boy came home it was easy, like having a great roommate. He cooked sometimes, or at least set the table and did the dishes. They talked about everything, except the boy’s father. She knew they were still close, but the boy seemed to understand the competition between his parents. He’d made the mother feel as though he was on her side without ever really taking sides. She pictured her husband’s life out there amid Starbucks and Microsoft. He was working now for a software company in new product development. He had stock shares. He had a kayak and a mountain bike. He was fifty, and he still looked thirty-five. She was forty-five and looked it. She imagined her husband with a younger woman. And when she pressed the boy after his visit west for Thanksgiving, he affirmed there was someone younger who the father was occasionally seeing. Someone thirty.
Friday night they went out to a movie together, a black comedy her son had been talking about for days, and afterward they walked the fifteen blocks home. The boy had laughed throughout, but now she was dissecting the story, explaining how it could have been better. She was pointing out inconsistencies in the plot, and funny parts she’d found more depressing than funny, until she saw that she was essentially ruining his experience of it.
“I guess it did kind of suck,” he said.
“Don’t you ever just go to a movie to enjoy it?” her husband asked, when he called that night. This had been a favorite argument of theirs.
“Sure,” she said. “But I don’t enjoy crap. I wish I did. I’m tired of disliking things.”
As she went to sleep that night she heard her son slipping out. Without thinking of what she was doing, she threw on her long coat and boots and followed him, her nightgown underneath. The night was cold and mostly empty. A homeless man slept at the door of a dry cleaner’s. A few bankers or lawyers scuttled home for a few hours’ sleep; others, ties loosened, were out having late drinks around window tables of the neighbourhood eateries. Most of the stores were decorated for Christ - mas with lights and Santas; the Gap had a reindeer in a down vest. A thin man with small wire-rimmed glasses waited while his dog watered a bare tree. The boy walked by the restaurant and picked up the hostess. When she walked out the door, they rounded a corner and kissed hungrily, illicitly, like adulterers in a bad movie when they’ve sneaked from the dinner party into the kitchen. Having seen him in love before, and sweetly, it was odd and depressing to see him this way: as a man with an impersonal libido.
He talked animatedly to her as they walked. About what? the mother wondered, and then she realized he was describing a scene from the movie they’d been to. He stopped in the middle of the block to finish, the streetlight above him casting his gestures in long, graceful shadows. The action sounded so much more compelling in his words than it had been on the screen; he had in fact added details and lines of dialogue that improved it. He was similar to his father in that way. Anything that happened sounded better coming from her son. It occurred to the mother that he was better suited for enjoying the world than she was. The boy laughed and the hostess just watched him. She kissed him seductively, her hands running from his chest to his shoulders. And then she did something that made the mother queasy. She ran her hand between his legs. It happened so fast the mother wasn’t sure she hadn’t rubbed his thigh or grasped for something in his front pocket.
“Helloo,” the hostess said.
He’s a college sophomore, the mother wanted to say. He still plays knock-hockey with his friends who come over, still collects rare stamps.
They went and had a drink at a nearby tavern. The mother watched through a window as the boy ordered drinks at the bar and brought them back to the table. It had gotten colder out, the wind had hardened, and the mother thought briefly of returning home. She was driven by curiosity, or perhaps by the impulse that causes some people to watch cars crash into each other, or fires overtake homes. At the same time she felt protective of the son she’d raised. She supposed fathers went through this all the time with their daughters— the sudden and alarming realization that their offspring had become eye candy for the masses, not simply for the right boys, who would be scrutinized and carefully selected. The hostess leaned ahead, resting her assets on the table before her. She was making girlish facial expressions, attempting to present herself as his age, which she definitely wasn’t. She wasn’t old. She was between their ages. The same age, the mother thought, as the woman who dated the boy’s father. She imagined the two of them in Seattle after the boy graduated, double-dating roommates, sisters perhaps, who would argue when they were together in the women’s room who would get Dad and who’d sleep with Junior.
At the moment she’d decided to head home, she heard her name called. She turned and started walking, but the voice followed. “Elaine. Elaine, is that you?”
She stopped then; it was Joyce Taft, from the fifth floor of her apartment building.
“I thought so. Are you all right? I saw you standing out here. It’s awfully cold out.”
“Yes, I’m fine.”
Joyce was examining her, as if hunting for clues to explain this behavior. The mother wondered if the neck of her nightgown was showing above her coat. She thought she should say something else so she said, “I just came out to clear my head.”
Joyce nodded and the mother understood she would soon become a story Joyce would tell to a halfdozen people in the building: She’s been like that ever since Warren moved out.
“I’m heading home, if you’d like company,” Joyce said.
The mother looked at the window; they were walking toward the front cash register.
“Thanks, sure,” the mother said.
He was back home at around five. The mother and the boy didn’t see each other until the early evening.
That night as they stood in the kitchen, she managed to get him to say he’d been seeing the hostess.
“I don’t want you to see her again,” she said.
“Because I don’t.”
“I like her.”
“You like her.”
“I do,” he said, as though defending a great principle.
“Is she your girlfriend?”
“What is she?”
“She’s a friend. Am I getting the fifth degree here? Do I need a lawyer present?”
“You can do what you want.”
“I’ve had a good week.”
She didn’t know what he meant by the comment.
“Go ahead and screw her if you want,” she said, unfortunately, pointlessly.
Her boy did a strange thing then. He started crying.
He didn’t go out that night or the next. He watched TV on his own, or read in her study. He wasn’t friendly or particularly unfriendly.
After three nights of this, the mother asked, “What happened to the hostess?”
“Nothing,” he said.
“I blew her off.”
And that was that. He went out with friends that weekend and for a few nights did nothing. She’d walk by the hostess and draw looks and then she stopped walking by.
One day on her way home she felt the hostess following her.
“What did you tell him?” the hostess said.
The mother turned and faced her. The hostess had on a thick navy turtleneck sweater over tight black jeans. She had a small stack of Buongiorno’s menus in one hand, as though to remind the mother of where she’d just sprung from.
“I told him I didn’t want him seeing you.”
“Because I don’t want him to. He’s nineteen, what are you?”
“He’s just a kid.”
“No he’s not.” She raised her eyebrows. “Believe me, he’s not.”
The mother’s hand jumped out and slapped the woman. The woman slapped the mother back, and then they were yelling at each other and swinging their arms. A waiter and the stout old manager ran out to break it up.
“Pathetic bitch,” the hostess said beneath her breath.
She had always imagined a life for her son that would exceed her own: more travel, better clothes and food, a little land maybe, near a body of water; an unimpeachably bright, elegant, and decent partner, whom the mother could imagine as a daughter, the one she’d never had, for whom she could now buy sweaters and stylish scarves and sign the gift cards Love, Elaine. But what if what she wanted wasn’t what he wanted? What if this hostess was what he wanted? Her awful little apartment, her abject little life. And what if they had children and they looked not like him at all but like her? She pictured two children, four and six with the hostess’s face, those small dull eyes and those sunken nostrils.
It occurred to her the hostess would tell her son about the incident. She’d describe the mother as crazy, and the boy might agree.
She called the boy’s father and there was no answer. It was eleven thirty New York time. She tried again at one and reached him. After a little banter about her writing, he asked, “What’s up?”
“I hit her,” she said, surprised at her own disclosure. “And she hit me back.”
The line went silent, and the mother considered telling him she was joking.
“You hit her?”
“Yes. It was a mistake, okay? But she hit me as well. The people from the restaurant broke it up.”
“I don’t know what to say. Let it go. It’s his life. Jesus, Elaine, you hit her?”
“I didn’t call to be upbraided.”
She dreamed that night the hostess was pregnant and that she’d given her son a disease.
She didn’t see the hostess in the restaurant window after that. One day she saw in the doorway the manager who’d broken up the fight. She asked him what had happened to the hostess.
“We let her go,” he said.
“Over the incident?” the mother asked.
“Yes, of course. We don’t condone that kind of thing. I hope you and your husband will come back and eat with us again,” the man said.
Two days later she met with her editor. They went to lunch to talk about the new pages, which were about the failed-birthday-party scene in East of Eden (the moment that launched the late 1950s and ’60s youth culture, she postulated) and the influence of the Beats and the French new wave, and when the mother returned to the office, she found herself speaking at great length on all these subjects with the receptionist, a sophomore at Bowdoin College in Maine, an English major, with green eyes and lovely teeth, who wanted someday to be an editor. She had read the mother’s last two books.
“What I loved about them both was how personal they were. Whatever you’re writing about it’s as if you’re speaking to one person, to a good friend. That’s what you make the reader feel like. You made me feel like it. I felt smart reading your books; smarter than I usually feel, anyhow.” She laughed.
There were still ten days left in her son’s vacation.
“Do you have a boyfriend?” the mother asked.
They would go to the movies and then get Indian food. He was doing her a favor, the mother said, because the girl might end up editing one of her books someday. The night started slowly, but before long the boy was telling his stories, and the girl listening, then telling a few of her own. The mother prodded them both with questions. They had much in common, she thought. But there were enough differences for them to learn from one another. When the girl excused herself to go to the restroom, the mother said, “Is this awkward? I mean my coming along like this.”
The boy smiled, “No. It’s kind of fun really. It’s like being on the Charlie Rose show.”
“I’ll head home after this and you can do whatever you want.”
On their walk back to the apartment the girl asked more questions of the mother, how and where she worked, which authors she liked to read. Many of them the girl too had read. What was gratifying was how well the boy held his own in the conversation. He was never entirely an intellectual, but he was smart, and inquisitive, and there was reason to believe he’d grow into an interesting, expansive adult, given the right company. Already they were laughing easily at each other’s jokes. And besides, there was nothing wrong with the fact that the girl was a knockout, at least by the mother’s standards.
Christmas Eve the mother filled the boy’s old red-and-white stocking with candy he wouldn’t eat, a book, and two CDs she knew he wanted. The next morning they listened to Christmas carols and opened their gifts. She encouraged the boy to open his father’s gifts in front of her. There was a beautiful blue ski parka, to accompany the skis she had bought him (they’d worked this out weeks ago on the phone) and, as a surprise to the mother and the boy, a laptop computer.
She had been outspent again, but she didn’t mind.
She had given him something better.
They saw each other the next three evenings, and they were planning on going to a New Year’s Eve party at a SoHo restaurant that the girl’s high school friends had rented out. The mother got them theater tickets for a show on December 29, and this time she resisted going with them. She would go to a late movie by herself so that they could get settled in the apartment after the show. Part of this, she knew, was an attempt to make up for getting in his way with the hostess, but he’d someday understand, or maybe he already did.
It had turned out so well, she thought. He seemed happier. The girl could visit him at school. And the mother thought there were advantages to having a girlfriend at another college. First of all, long-distance relationships were often the most romantic. Second of all, they left you more time for your friends and your schoolwork. Relationships in college were difficult to maintain. There were so many distractions, and those distractions were healthy. The boy was on an intramural basketball team and played bass guitar in a band. It didn’t matter that by his own admission the team wasn’t very good and neither was the band. She didn’t want him to have to give up anything.
The night they went to the theater, the mother went to a late showing of a trite Tom Hanks movie that was set in her neighborhood and made it look like a decent place to fall in love. When she returned, she was pleased to hear the sound of the stereo, of the two of them staying up late. She peered in before she went to sleep at midnight, and they were together on the couch looking at an atlas. The boy was showing her where he planned to travel over the summer. The mother pictured them in a curtained train compartment, rolling through the Romanian countryside, poring over a guidebook.
“Good night, you two,” she said.
And her son blew her a kiss.
When she woke again, it was two thirty or maybe three and the music was playing still, or again. She went to get herself a glass of water. They were talking, and though she still felt hazy and half asleep, she realized it wasn’t the girl’s voice she was hearing. The girl was gone, and somehow he’d managed to get the hostess to come over for a nightcap. Tag team. Here come the reinforcements. It gave her a terrible sinking feeling. She retreated into her room and tried to remind herself that it was his life and that he was over eighteen and could do what he wanted. But the more time passed and the more she thought of the two of them in there, the angrier she got. Not merely on her own behalf, but on behalf of the girl. It was so ugly and pointless what the boy was doing, so soulless. She tried to go to sleep again and forget it all but she couldn’t help placing herself in the girl’s shoes. She might be thinking of the boy right now, and of the countries they’d visit together. And tomorrow when they went out again, the boy would tell her nothing of what he’d done with the hostess, nor would he seem different.
She wouldn’t abide this. Not in her house, and not with a woman she’d come to blows with, no matter whose fault it had been. She walked to the study and threw the doors open.
“I want you to get the fuck out of here,” she said.
But there was no one in the room except the boy. He was alone watching TV. There was a bowl of ice cream before him and a can of 7UP.
He seemed not angry then but frightened, the way one might feel while watching a spouse put her hand through a glass door panel, which her husband had watched her do. It happened in the period when she’d thought he’d been screwing around. He hadn’t, though he admitted he’d come close once. The boy never knew anything of this.
Now he was walking toward the mother. She was crying soundlessly, and she felt as though she might never stop.
“My God, Mom, what’s going on? What’s this about?”
On the TV the woman, Barbara Stanwyck, was running her fingers through Henry Fonda’s hair. The mother had seen the movie a half-dozen times, but she’d managed not to recognize the dialogue.
“I thought . . .”
“I know . . . I know,” he said. He said it as one might say it to a child who’d thought she heard a ghost.
She didn’t have to explain anything, she realized; he knew her better than she did right then and maybe he had for a while. Her son. It was as though her irrational behavior had promoted him to the role of the wise and clement adult. And while she felt significant pride in this, she feared now that he’d plan to spend his coming vacations in Seattle, or Europe, or Colorado. He was unlikely to spend another Christmas in New York with her.
“Come on,” he said, as though reading her thoughts. “Let’s watch the rest of this.”
“All right,” she said, and she let him fill her in on what she’d missed. Before the end of the movie, he fell asleep. She turned the TV off and threw a blanket over him.
It was four now, one o’clock in Seattle. There was an off chance he could still be up, but of course there was no guarantee he would be alone. She imagined calling him, and him consoling her with his new girlfriend in bed next to him, and afterward, he’d say, “She’s still having a rough time of it.” And it would even score points with the woman who would see how gracious and tolerant he was. She thought then about the hostess, because it was she who had started all this. What was it the mother had hated so much? She was no criminal, and she hadn’t treated the boy badly as far as the mother knew.
She had simply seemed too desperate, too lonely, too hungry. Her needs were too naked. The mother could imagine someone like that consuming her boy, swallowing him up, before he had the chance to see the world and become the person she knew he could be. He snored softly now, with the beginnings of a cold, she knew, because when he was a child it would begin that way: a mild sawing sound, a sniffle the next morning, and a temperature the following night. She would douse it with soups and juices, and she would secretly enjoy the days he was too sick to go to school and had to stay home with her. It was in the time they’d first moved to the Village, in that odd little apartment on Tenth Street with the stained-glass window and the false fireplace they bottom-lit to resemble embers, and the acres of built-in bookshelves, and the café down the street where they’d listen to bad poetry, and the tiny crowded market where she’d buy bread and fish. Her husband would be reading in bed, waiting for her. She would watch her sleeping son for ten minutes or twenty, and marvel at all his possibilities, a life that young, so full of wonder and unstained hope.
A deeply humane, witty and highly acclaimed story collection that 'belongs to the tradition of the classic American story' Independent on Sunday