Real Family

Ginger had never thought of these things happening to Ethan and her. In her mind they happened to people who lived in rural trailer parks in Arkansas or West Virginia, people who left their children in rooms with uncovered electrical outlets and fed them food that had a shelf life of a decade and didn’t bother strapping them into car seats. People with troubled histories, faces ringed like tree stumps with years of failing. People who never thought about whether they wanted children or not, instead leaving family to fate.

“We’ve done everything right,” says Ginger.

“No one’s suggesting that you haven’t.” Dr. Blum catches Ethan’s eye, points at the box of tissues in front of him. Ethan pulls one out then shoves the entire box into Ginger’s lap where it dangles for a moment before falling and landing between her feet.

Ginger stares at the box. It’s so light she cannot feel its weight through her shoes. She realizes she’d taken it for granted, being a parent. She’d always assumed it would be easy; she’d believed she had an innate talent for it. “We’re not supposed to be here.”

Dr. Blum checks her watch. “I’d like to schedule some time with Robert and the two of you over the next several weeks. Fortunately, there are more options today than there were thirty years ago.”

“Well thank god it’s not nineteen sixty-two,” mutters Ginger and gives the tissue box a kick.

 

As Ethan drives Ginger home, she reconsiders dinner.

“Cupcakes,” she says. “Maybe I’ll make cupcakes.”

Ethan drums his fingers on the steering wheel. “I think Dr. Blum can really help us.”

“Did I take the chicken out of the freezer this morning?” Ginger pulls a pencil and small notepad from her purse, taps the eraser end against her lips. “I just can’t remember.” She waits for the car to ease to a stop before she writes. Yogurt. Half n’ Half.

“Why don’t we just order pizza tonight?”

“Pizza?” Sea salt. Crushed red pepper. “I bought chicken. But I could make pizza instead, if that’s what you want.”

“Not make it. Buy it. I thought that maybe you might want a break from cooking for once. We could get a movie, chill out together.”

“I bought chicken.”

Ethan reaches across the car, his fingers fumbling under Ginger’s thick hair. He begins to massage the back of her neck, something he hasn’t done in a while. She groans. “Things don’t need to be perfect all the time.”

Ginger stiffens, shakes off Ethan’s hand. If he weren’t working so much. If he were around more. If he’d try it her way for once. “It’s not about being perfect. I like to cook. And if I left the chicken out—“

“—Fine.” Ethan slaps his hand back on the steering wheel. “It was just a suggestion. Forget it.”

For several minutes they ride in silence, Ethan shifting the gears roughly, the car bucking, suspending Ginger forward, thrusting her back. The seatbelt she is wearing locks, catching across her collarbone, pinning her in place. The next time Ethan shifts only her head moves back and forth with the jerking motion, the rest of her forced to remain still.

They pass by brightly colored Victorians, a community garden, the playground from which she’d earlier had to drag her screaming child. Ginger turns toward Ethan. His appearance stops her short. Fine hairs have begun to sprout from his ears; the skin around his jowls sags slightly, resisting the inevitable tug of gravity. Ginger reaches out and begins to stroke his cheek with the back of a finger.

“You look tired.”

“No. Not tired.”

Before Robert, it had been their Friday night ritual. They alternated topping and movie selections; one week his, the next hers. She used to fall asleep with her head in his lap, the movie flickering blue against the backs of her eyelids. You’re missing the best part, he’d whisper, teasing, his warm hand resting on her belly bursting with pizza and beer.

“Okay,” she concedes. “We can order out. Pizza is Robert’s favorite.”

Ethan glances at her. A smooth downshift. “You sure?”

“You’re right,” Ginger says. “I could use a break. We both could.”

“Great. I’ll get beer on the way home.” At the next stoplight, Ethan leans over and pecks Ginger on the cheek.

 

While they wait for the pizza to be delivered, Ginger shows Robert how to frost cupcakes. When he’d come home from work, Ethan had stared at the plate cooling on the kitchen table for several minutes, his briefcase and sports jacket dangling at his sides. Then he shook his head. “We still need dessert,” Ginger rationalized, the hand mixer she was holding poised over a bowl of frosting. “Tell me they’re made from a box,” Ethan said. She didn’t mention she’d spent the afternoon organizing the refrigerator and freezer, marinating meat and chopping vegetables in anticipation of the next four days’ meals.

Ginger finishes mixing the frosting while behind her Robert waits, kneeling on a chair at the kitchen table, his fist gripping a butter knife. She is sometimes asked by strangers if Robert is from Guatemala or Mexico. She knows it is obvious to everyone else that he is not her biological child; Ginger is the physical embodiment of her namesake. But she doesn’t mind; she thinks Robert beautiful and covets his thick dark hair, the waves in it, his doe lashes.

She sets the bowl in front of her son. Robert dips his knife into it and roughly smothers first one and then another cupcake with frosting. Ginger pauses before leaning over him so that her chest presses against his back. When he does not flinch, she bends still further, puts her face to his head, closes her eyes, breathes in his scent of bubblegum and sweat and sour milk. She runs a hand along his arm. Recently he has begun to reject her affection, shoving her off of him, batting at her hands. But tonight Robert doesn’t seem to notice her touch, so engrossed is he with piling more frosting on the cupcakes, his tongue taut, pushed against one corner of his open mouth. She smiles, relieved, and remains standing so that her body drapes over her son’s.

“Here,” she says. “Let me show you.”

“I can do it,” insists Robert. But he doesn’t push her away.

Through his shirt she can feel his breath and heart. It always surprises her, the quickness, the rapid flutter. At seven he is still a child, still her baby. At seven he is still only a fraction of who he will be one day; his opinions and ideas, his personality even, not yet fully formed.

“I know you can,” assures Ginger even as she takes a cupcake from Robert’s hands.

Maybe people are always works in progress, she thinks. She swirls the frosting around so that it creates a pink mountain peak. Her son squeals, dazzled. Maybe she and Ethan—everyone, really—are only shadows of what they will be in two weeks, two years; two decades.

“It’s my turn,” Robert growls, pushing Ginger’s arm away. “Ma-ma. It’s. My. Turn.”

“Relax, monkey. Here, let me help.” She places her hand over his. “Relax your arm. That’s right.” She begins to guide him around so that the frosting swirls just the way she wants it to. “See? Isn’t that better?”

But Robert’s eyes have shifted away from their task and now watch the hand that envelopes his own. He presses the tip of his index finger to the white bandage she wears. “I did that.” His tone is flat; it is a statement of fact.

Ginger looks into his eyes even though he refuses to look back. “Yes. But it’s okay. It was a mistake.”

“Does it hurt?”

Ginger wrinkles her nose. “Not really,” she lies. What had surprised her was the sensation not—as she’d expected—of her skin ripping, but of it cracking open, like the shell of an egg. But that was hardly as shocking as what came next: she’d slapped Robert with the back of her hand hard across his cheek. It was in self-defense, she’d told herself afterward. But this only made her feel worse.

Robert eyes the dab of frosting on the edge of his knife and places the tip into his mouth.

“Don’t do that, sweetheart. It’s dangerous.”

The knife slips from Robert’s lips; his dark eyes meet hers. She thinks he is about to say something, but then she thinks his look says it all. She runs her fingers over the bandage covering her hand.

“You didn’t mean to do it.”

Robert shrugs, dips the knife once more into the bowl of frosting, licks the tip.

The doorbell rings.