The Motherhood of Boys

I spot them right away. Huddled together with their elbows in one another's sides, behind the far tennis court - the only one unoccupied. They pass joints oblivious to the consequences of so openly smoking in such a public place. They talk loudly, pass bottles of generic brand Jack Daniels, yell at each other to "fuck off, motherfucker."

"There's one, Daddy!"

Archer scurries toward the court, dragging a bag of tennis balls behind him and Hal follows, me as caboose, pushing Fable with bottle propped against her tiny folded hands. It's late. 8:30, maybe 9:00 but we promised Archer tennis so here we are - the four of us playing hooky from bedtime under the bleed of white lights.

Archer picks up his racket, poised for play.


"I'm ready Daddy," Archer says and I sit down. My son's shrill voice clouded by a heated argument about "whether or not Tony Hawk invented vert" taking place behind me. The words of boys I've never met but know too well.

... ... ...

In high school I lead a double life. By day I was blonde and popular, the host and producer of our High School television show, organizer of Battle of the Bands, ASB commissioner, Homecoming Queen. I lived the southern California cliche - my first car a convertible Cabriolet with cow-print seat covers, my first job, a beach shack sandwich shop where I served sub-sandwiches to bleached-haired surfers clad in bikini top and cut-offs. I was an honor-student with a side-job writing angst-ridden poetry for a best-selling book series and even though I spent the majority of my mornings hosing down the chocolate-syrup spelling "SLUT" "WHORE" and yes, even, "DIE BITCH" off my driveway, I was the poster-child for lucky, normal, have-it-all teenager. I was THAT girl...

Freshman Homecoming, 1995

...Except, not really. I went home and became someone else. Associating not with my fellow ASB-members or honors students or popular boys but in a crowd completely different: an all ages collective of boys lost, their wounds gaping without bandages, battle-scars from years of being abused, abandoned, told they were mistakes, or worse...

They found a gang in one another and spent all their time together on skateboards, suburban vagabonds with duct-taped sneakers who lived in guesthouses and one-room studios in the basement of chiropractic offices. In a way, I was romanced by their underworld, their carefree lifestyle, the way they bled and broke without crying. I came to them bearing bandages.

"Let me in and I will dress your wounds, tuck you in, love you past morning..."

Some were drop-outs and drug addicts, many of them motherless. Fatherless. Futureless. To me they were beautiful, hiding depth and introspection under baggy pants and shoelace belts.

"I know you're hurting. That's why I'm here. I will take care of you. You need a mother? Call me, 'mom'... So what if I'm only sixteen, seventeen, eighteennineteentwentytwentyone... I am here for you. Lean on me."

It started as rebellion. I wasn't supposed to get high behind liquor stores with dudes who "showered" in the ocean. I wasn't supposed to fall in love with the kinds of guys who streaked through strip-malls, got arrested, passed out in gutters with one shoe on.

But it turned into something else. I became codependent on their phone calls - on being some kind of savior, an adolescent superhero who snuck out through her bedroom window to attend to the fallen. I was their beck and call girl, queen of the lost boys, an addict myself to the kind of attention they gave me in return for my care and sweet-nothing whispers.

Around them, I was confident, secure, felt like I was worth something. Like I belonged. That’s the thing about high school. Everyone feels misunderstood, like an outcast. Even girls like me.

I spent much of my teenage years with two faces, two wardrobes, two very separate groups of friends that only ever intermingled on accident.

Halloween, 1998

After graduation, I started a new life rooted in old ways. The boys were men, now, but hardly. And I worshipped them, cooked for them, cleaned after them, shuttled them around, skate-spot to skate-spot, let them crash on my couch, in my bed, lent them money I knew I'd never get back, told them over and over that I loved them. Felt it. Believed it. Would have done anything for them and did for many years.

"I'm saving them," I thought. "I'm saving them all."

But even in my early twenties, I was too young and naive to understand what it meant to parade around the boulevards with badges of martyrdom like girl-scout patches on my denim jacket.

... ... ...

"This weed is bad."

"Do you want me to smoke you out or not?"


"Then shut the fuck up!"

I know their skate-tricks by sound. The click of the board on the cement. The grinding wheels and bending trucks. The "fuck!!!!" when the trick is missed. The limping and the getting up and...

A lighter flicks on and several of the boys crowd around it. They inhale and exhale all at once, through the fence they recline against. The smoke swirls against my cheek, against Fable's stroller. I pull up the shade, push her as far away as I can while still hanging on, rocking her to sleep. Back and forth and back and...

"What time is it, dude?"

"Who the fuck cares?"

... ... ...

One night a friend pulled up his sleeve to reveal my name carved with a razor into his arm. It was the first of the many wake-up calls I needed to climb out of my woman-hole and pursue a new kind of life.

Ten years I had spent combing the streets for bloodstains to follow home, offer up bandages and therapy, a warm bed, a warm body and for what? People don’t change unless they want to.

Just because I offered rafts and life-vests didn’t mean I was going to save anyone from drowning.

But these are my people!

These are NOT your people.

"You can't just carve people's names into your arm!"

"Why not?”

I looked around the mildew-stained basement apartment, surrounded by razors and dirty spoons - empty bottles of pills and stashed like buried treasure under heaps of unwashed clothes.

What the hell was I doing there?

"I have to go now," I said.

I cried the whole way home.

Months later I would meet Hal and months after that I would become pregnant and months after that an unexpected visit would lead me to lock doors, screen calls, build a wall around my family, change my life, cut everyone off.

"I'm sorry but I can't be your mother anymore. That job has been filled indefinitely."

I had abandoned them just like many of their parents had done. Except unlike their parents, I wasn't their parent.

I wasn't their mother.

I had an actual son. A little boy I would do anything in my power to protect. A boy I wanted nowhere near the people of my past. The boys of my youth and yesterday.

Still, it hurt. I missed them. I still do. Those that have gone and those that remain estranged. I have dreams where we're all together again - passing cigarettes behind the old AMC theatre, watching movies on mute blasting Clash City Rocker.

But I changed, thank God, instating a zero policy for emotional offenders and drug addicts and the lost boys of Neverland. Because I've been there before. I spent far too long there. No more taking care of those that refuse to take care of themselves. No more trying to save the world, one "I love you" at a time. No more hitchhikers. No more room in the car.

In the end, the only person I saved was myself.

... ... ...

These days I can spot them from a mile away. I know their voices before they speak. Their musty smell before they're close enough for me to take a whiff, the way their hair would feel if I touched it. Ten years ago, I might have bummed a light, sat with them in the gutter in my tiara and red dress. Ten years ago I felt confident around them. Beautiful and intelligent and special. Ten years ago I was all of these things if only I would have known. I see the girls that hang on the outskirts of their circle. I see myself.

I tell Archer I love him a thousand times a day so that he knows. Because so many don't know.

"I love you. Did you know that? I love you so much it's insane how much and I--"

"Stop saying that, Mommy. You're hurting my ears."

... ... ...

“Did you see that, Mommy? I just hit the ball very far.”

I watch Archer play tennis against the chain-linked fence that separates us from them. I am tempted to turn around. To acknowledge their backs against mine, to take swigs from their bottles and mourn friends gone and years lost and love unrequited. Part of me will always want to hug them and help them and apologize for failing them, abandoning them without explanation.

I wish I could have saved you. I'm sorry I could not.

But an even larger part of me wants to tell them to get lost, boys. I’m afraid of them and what they might offer my children.

For the first time since we arrived at the tennis courts, I turn around. I glare at them and sneer and judge and think terrible things. I want them away from my children. I want them to disappear with their safety-pinned backpacks and dirty hoodies and paper-bagged alcohol canisters and wounded limbs. I want them to Go. Away. Now.

They glare back at me, roll their eyes, and mumble something about me being a "dumb lady" while casually exhaling smoke in my face.

I say nothing, turn my back to them and face my son clutching his tennis racket, my husband rooting him on. I'm not one of them anymore.

And then I pray. I pray to whatever god will listen to keep my children as far away as possible from these boys. Because I've been there. And I came very close to never coming back.