How To Cut a Lemon

How To Cut a Lemon

Vector seamless watercolor pattern withhand drawn lemons. Different type of pieces. Ideal for food packaging design

By Joelyn Suarez

In the days after I gave birth to my son, Mosley, we spent most of our time skin-to-skin. I lay on the hospital bed, surrounded by pillows, my hospital gown untied and opened so that my chest was exposed to the crisp air-conditioned room. Mosley’s mouth suckled on my breast until he tired from the motions and he dozed off in my arms. I propped him up so I could examine his face while he slept. His lids were puffy with lashes. barely visible, his nose tiny and nostrils wide, his perfect cupid’s bow and puckered lips sucked in by chubby cheeks. He was born with a full head of hair, straight and black like mine, and peach fuzz from the nape of his neck to the top of his thighs. I spent hours watching him sleep, brushing his hair back with the palm of my hand, kissing him in the sweet spot under his chin. In those moments, I thought: I could spend all my days doing just this. Three months later, I still feel that way. Sometimes I lay awake in the late hours, Mosley in his sleeper beside my bed, and I watch him in the dim light of the television. I notice his wispy lashes slightly curling at the tips, his brows thickening, and his cheeks growing more full every day. He has lost some of the baby hairs framing his face, though much of it has stayed, and lengthened past his small ears. He has Jonathan’s ears, mouth, and chin some of my favorite attributes of his. Most nights I doze off with my glasses on, so the moment that my eyes open in the morning, I can see him clearly.


When my sister and I were too young for school, we lived in a townhouse with my parents on the south end of San Diego. I remember the homes were crowded together. Our driveway curved around a corner, and winded down a small hill, like a maze outlining our neighbors’ outer walls. We lived next door to a couple, in their 60s, who loved to garden in their tiny front lawn. They had pots of plants lined up with various fruits and vegetables. On one of the sunny afternoons that my parents slept in, coming down hard from a high, my sister and I decided to venture out. We found our elderly neighbors tending to their mini-garden, and went over to explore the scene.

“What’re you doing?” My sister asked the wife.

“Just watering these plants here,” she responded.

My sister and I hovered over her to watch.

“Where are your parents?” The wife asked.

I wonder if the wife had noticed the swarm of people buzzing in and out of our house late into the night. I wonder if she ever bumped into a face of a fiend at our front door when she was approaching or exiting her own. I wonder if she caught Mom or Dad for neighborly conversation while they were coked out and fidgety. Or, perhaps, she was just wondering what two very young girls were doing outside alone.

“They’re asleep,” my sister, answered, “Can we have some lemons?”

“Sure.” The wife handed over two lemons.

My sister collected them with both palms and we ran back towards our house.

“Let’s cut these!” She said to me. Her face was small and round with eyes that overwhelmed her other features. Her pointy, crooked teeth hid behind an innocent smile; and her straight, tame hair was tucked neatly behind her ears.

She dragged one of the bar stools to the other end of the kitchen counter and we sat opposite of each other. I remember we didn’t bother to turn on any lights; all we had was the light of the sun creeping in from the slanted blinds. The kitchen had an L-shaped counter covered with white tile and grout in between. My sister grabbed two butter knives and handed one to me.

My parents had recently discovered I was left-handed, but I still didn’t know right from left. I knew I couldn’t cut a straight line, no matter how much I pressed my tongue to my top lip for focus. Mom and Dad decided it was because most things were made for righty’s, including the basic hand-eye coordination that I didn’t possess.

I was shaky with the butter knife. It made me nervous sitting across from my sister and having to mirror her motions. I watched as she held the lemon steady with her left hand and the knife with her right. She touched the knife to the center of the lemon and began to cut down slowly. The peel was hard, too tough for her little fingers. She brought the knife up and out a few times to repeat the motion over again. Her movements were precise and her lemon cut cleanly in half.


At three months old, Mosley has learned to recognize Jonathan and me. When he gets sleepy in the afternoons, I put him in his bouncer that sits close to the floor, and I rock it with my foot from the couch. Sometimes I hum him a lullaby, and other times, I just watch his eyes glaze over. I see him fighting his tired feeling by trying not to blink. He’ll keep his eyes on me for as long as he can. His lids get heavier, until he can no longer carry them, and his eyes finally surrender to sleep. Mosley does this when we are out as well; he looks for my face for focus when the scene is overstimulating. Recently we were at a birthday party with my siblings and a bunch of other unfamiliar faces. The music was blaring from an outdoor speaker and children ran laps around the backyard. I carried Mosley in his Baby Bjorn and rocked him back and forth. I kept the top clasps unhooked and held his head in my hands, so that he could see all around. My older brother hovered over my shoulder and snuck kisses from him when he could, but Mosley kept his eyes on me.

“He’s staring right at you! Does he always do that?” My brother asked.

“Yeah, when he gets tired, he just stares at me.”

“He must love you so much.”


I never took my eyes off of her. I held the lemon in my right hand and the knife in my left. I didn’t look down to see if my initial incision was at the center of the lemon, like my sister’s. When she brought her knife up, I followed, and when she sliced down, I did too. I watched the strain in her face and fingers when the knife hit the hard peel. I felt it too, but eventually it subsided. I moved my knife in a sawing motion. I fixated on my sister’s movements. Soon, I was no longer imitating her. I sawed back and forth without lifting the knife.

By this time my sister had cut her lemon into quarters. Her eyes met mine with a proud grin, and I returned a giddy smile. She looked down at my lemon and her smile faded into shock. I watched her eyes widen and her shoulders shoot back. I was still smiling.

“Joelyn, there’s blood! There’s blood everywhere!” She screamed. Her words didn’t register at first.


In the middle of the day, I remember my parents telling my sister and me that they were going to take a nap. Maybe one of us would object and plead for a few moments of playtime, but we never won. The two of them went to their room and shut the door behind them, while my sister and I were left to entertain ourselves. Maybe they napped for an hour, perhaps less, but as a child, it felt like an eternity. I brought out my stack of white printer paper and my special pen the one with the multicolored ink that changed colors when you pushed down different levers. I tried to draw the perfect girl, a mix of Princess Jasmine, Esmeralda from The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and my mom. I always started with the eyes. I drew one almond-shaped eye on the left center of the page. If it wasn’t perfect, maybe too small or the lines were shaky, I started over—and over and over again. Sometimes I went through a whole stack of papers before I had an entire face drawn.

“What was wrong with this one, Joelyn?” My dad lifted one of the sheets with a single curved line near the middle of the page.

“I don’t know. It didn’t look nice.”

“My daughter, the number one paper waster.”

I made sure not to look at him or even crack a smile. You don’t even know how to do art, I thought to myself.

“I don’t care. I have a lot of paper,” I said, pointing to the stack.

“You should. You know how many trees you’re wasting?”

I rolled my eyes: What do trees have to do with it? The tip of my tongue pressed my top lip and I held the pen firmly on the page. The first eye was good, the second too, but this time it was the nose that sucked. I tossed aside the umpteenth failed attempt, and looked to another clean blank page in front of me. I swiped my hand across the sheet and could feel indents from the last drawing. I held the sheet up into the light and saw the two eyes and sucky nose engraved into the paper, and the one behind that, and behind that. I balled up these blank sheets and tossed them aside too. My dad laughed and shook his head at me. I wanted to tear up every single piece of paper I had. Go back to sleep.


“You’re bleeding!” My sister screamed from across the table.

I looked down and saw that the lemon had been sliced in nearly the same spot multiple times, while my middle finger lay mangled beneath it. The grout between the tiles was stained red and there was blood pooling off the edge of the counter. My breaths became short and panicked. I lifted my hand and the middle finger dangled. A sliver of bone peeked out from the open skin. I could feel my entire body tremble with fear.

“I’m gonna die! I’m gonna die! I’M GONNA DIE!” My voice got louder each time.


Jonathan and I moved into our new apartment three months before Mosley was born. It’s a cheaply renovated two bedroom, two bathroom in an undesirable neighborhood of San Diego known as El Cajon. The complex is small with 12 units total. We get two assigned parking spots and the rent is manageable. Jonathan wasn’t entirely convinced by the place, but I pushed for it. I think he would have preferred a room in his dad’s cozy, upscale track home in Carlsbad. However, I wasn’t willing to live under anyone else’s roof when the baby arrived. Jonathan’s family was kind; I just didn’t know what to expect with motherhood, and I didn’t want anyone witnessing a meltdown. Besides, I relatively like our place. The fresh coat of paint may be peeling, but it’s a thousand square feet of our very own space. When I was pregnant, it was the best feeling to come home, take off my clothes, and blast the air conditioning. I loved getting off from an early shift and napping on the couch when the complex was quiet, because the neighbor kids were still at school or daycare. At the time, I don’t know if I felt safe or was too pregnant to care.

It wasn’t until Mosley was born that I gained a heightened cautiousness. I began to think differently about the sweet old man that lives a few doors down. I see him throughout the day, crouched by the dumpster, smoking cigarettes. He wears plaid pajama pants and a sport coat. Sometimes when I pull into the complex at night, I find him walking in the middle of the parking lot, unaware of my headlights or the sound of my car behind him. I inch forward, with each slow step he takes, to get to my assigned spot in the front. A part of me grows impatient, while the other part wants to wait for him to shut the door of his apartment before Mosley and I get out of the car.

At night before we all go to bed, I’ve picked up a new routine. I open the front door to check that the security gate is locked, then I lock and chain the front door, and stare at it for approximately five seconds. I walk to the kitchen and look at the stove and say “OFF” aloud,five times for each knob linked to the burners and oven. I touch the freezer and fridge with one hand, then shut off the lights, and go to the bedroom. Jonathan thinks it’s silly, but we’ve been safe so far.


I was too afraid of the sting that cleaning the wound might cause, so I hardly ever let Mom or Dad come near me. I kept it covered until the puss was putrid to any nearby nose. Nonetheless, my finger healed within a few weeks, and a thick scar took the place of the cut. Every morning, a voice came over the loudspeaker and instructed everyone to put their right hand over their heart and stand for the Pledge of Allegiance. I rubbed my thumbs over the inside of my middle fingers. One side was smooth, while the other had a sliver of raised skin where my scar was—I knew this was my right hand. I finally had a way of distinguishing right from left.

The scar served other purposes as time went on. It became a trigger for my OCD as a child. I rubbed my thumb over it once, then twice, then 29 times until it felt right. If I had to overcome a fear, like walking into another classroom to deliver something from my teacher to another, I touched the scar to remind myself that I would survive. I had survived my first major injury and I would survive twenty unfamiliar fifth-grade students staring at my unfamiliar face when I entered their classroom. I worried those students might find all my faults in our twenty-second encounter; they might notice my pigeon-toed walk and whisper to each other about it through recess. I rubbed my scar and faced my fears. The worry never left, but the anxiety subsided just enough to get the task done.

Today the scar still remains on my right middle finger. It never faded or flattened. It has become less about what I thought, as a child, to be a “near-death experience by a butter knife” and more so a lesson in parenthood. A lesson about the kind of parent I do not want to be, as well as a realization that mistakes are inevitable. I used to look back on my childhood and pinpoint our parents’ faults. Although many of their mishaps were avoidable, as a new mother, I have a better understanding of the struggle to make the ‘right’ decisions. I look at my scar now and can laugh. I know that kids get hurt. If Mosley is anything like Jonathan or me, he’s going to take some tumbles. Sure, I have urges to be the overprotective mom, breathing down his neck with hand sanitizer and hugs, but that’s just not realistic or healthy. I have to blink every once in awhile. I have to look away. I have to work; and I have to show him that his mom is strong and independent. I want to teach him to be strong and independent. I want to teach him how to cut lemons.


Joelyn Suarez lives in San Diego, CA with her fiancé and son. She will be receiving her MFA in Creative Writing from UCR Palm Desert this month. Her essay “Home” was featured in NoiseMedium magazine as a part of their premier contest. She is the Nonfiction Editor for The Coachella Review.

Calamity Ben

Calamity Ben

WO Calamity Ben Art

By Laura Jackson Roberts


Fear Itself

“Abnormally fearless,” the doctor tells me. “Your son is abnormally fearless.”

I’m sitting in the pediatrician’s office listening to the sounds—howls, mostly—coming through the walls from other examining rooms. Somebody’s getting a shot. Abnormally fearless. I can see my reflection in the mirror on the wall. She’s nodding and she looks a bit concerned. Is her mouth twitching just a bit? She stops looking at me and blurts: “Yes! See how he’s on that stool, trying to reach that electrical outlet? That’s what he does all the time!”

The doctor sees and he’s smiling, but it’s not a good smile. Almost frozen on his face, it’s hiccupping somewhere between pity and regret.

I pluck two-year-old Benjamin from the wheeled stool as he spins around, and tuck him under my arm like a suitcase. He kicks his legs. “My husband and I don’t know what to do.”

The pediatrician is a good doctor. He helped us in the past, when Ben needed a rabies shot after a bat encounter. He’s going to help us now.

But when he opens his mouth, he stammers. “Just….just….” He stops, regrouping.

Now my own mouth opens in anticipation, because the advice is coming. I’m going to be able to breathe again, to sit on the toilet without worry that I’m missing an electrical fire or a mauling. The floods will stop. And the structural damage. This beautiful man is going to give me the gem for which I’ve been digging. I don’t have to live like this, because there are men like him, who have framed diplomas on their walls and stethoscopes in their breast pockets.

The smile on his face evolves into a genuine grin. “It’s probably going to get worse. Just keep him alive.”

Ben is my second child. A number two always surprises, because they never follow in the footsteps of their older sibling. Like many second children, Ben is a fun-loving attention-seeker who is far more outgoing than his Type-A brother, Andy. Andy is thoughtful, reserved, and loaded with common sense. Ben hasn’t a drop. In fact, he shows a startling lack of fear.

The word “fear” comes from the Old English word “fær,” meaning “calamity, sudden danger, or peril.” Babies are born with two: loud noises and falling. These applied to Ben for a few months, but he soon morphed into a ballsy doppelganger. While Andy never stood on the kitchen table—it was the place for eating—Ben didn’t see it that way. To him, the table was not a facilitating tool for consumption, but a challenge worthy of Mallory and Irvine. He climbed because it was there, and moved ever higher, ever closer to danger.

My husband and I would not understand our tiny creation for many years.


Pub Crawl

“Was it dark beer or light beer?” asks Poison Control.

I am so ashamed.

Ben is nine months old and it is a bright April day in the hottest year we can remember. His chubby legs are utterly delicious and he has reached that splendid explosion of personality a parent waits for. He babbles in his own language as he practices his hop-along crawl. And he’s achieved the pull-up.

The beer bottle was in the cup-holder of a plastic Adirondack chair. Ben sat in the grass around me, poking at dandelions and eating bugs, and this was okay because I was an experienced parent who didn’t get riled up over minor things. But I did have to pee, and Ben couldn’t go far in the ninety seconds it would require, so I ducked into the house. When I emerged, still pulling up my pants, I caught sight of my son. He had pulled himself to his toes, leaning against the seat of the chair. The beer wobbled as his sausage fingers reached. And then, as I stared, his hands found the bottle and he tipped it to his mouth. But he didn’t spit out the bitter brew.

My baby swilled that beer like a fat little frat boy.

The voice of Poison Control Guy breaks through my recollection. “Ma’am? Are you there? Was it a light beer or a dark beer?”

“It was a Corona.” I am holding him now as he tries to squirm away. He smells like a brewery. His onesie is soaked and the front of his diaper has absorbed all of the liquid that spilled down his round belly. Ben is alternately sniffing and licking his palms, and every few seconds he stares down at the beer bottle and strains to reach it.

Poison Control Guy says, “Oh, good!” with audible relief. “If it was a Guinness, you’d be on your way to the ER right now.”

“Oh.” I can think of nothing else to say. My infant has a taste for pale ale, and this wasn’t on my preparedness list today. “Is there anything else I should do for him?”

“Watch for signs of drunkenness.”

I stammer. “You…want me to watch my baby for signs of drunkenness?”

“Yes ma’am,” he says.

I watch Ben. He lurches. He drools. He slurs his words. He takes a few tumbles. He is either drunk or a regular, sober baby. I can’t tell. Have I averted disaster or invited it in?


An Episode in Which…

It’s noticeably quiet, but the rational part of my brain tells me that shit can’t possibly be going down because I’ve only been out of the room for the length of time it takes to pull a toothbrush out of the shower drain with a pair of tongs. Ben has done this before, so I’m a self-taught expert. The key is to visualize the angle of the trap and if I’m lucky the bristles will be at the top. Crap. I’m not lucky today. The bristles are down in the trap, but I get it out anyway.

Double crap. It’s my toothbrush this time. What is that? Slime? Can I just dip that in alcohol and keep using it?


I recognize the sound of a twenty-five-pound body on the landing in the kitchen. How did he get downstairs? I follow the sound, but he’s perfectly safe and…

Why are his hands blue?

Why are his lips blue?

“Ben, what is on your hands?” He looks at them, then at me. “Ben! What is on your hands and mouth? Were you playing with something blue?” Food coloring? Magic Marker? 

“Ben! Why are you blue?” I’m certain he’s going to show me a blue marker, or maybe an open baking drawer. It’ll be cute—there will be flour on the floor and maybe some little blue food coloring handprints around the kitchen.

But the kitchen is clean.

While I’m having a frenetic moment of worry inside my own head, he toddles off into the living room. He sits on the floor next to the fish tank, where I have been tending to a pair of angelfish who are suffering from a parasitic infection. Fish medicine is blue.

Benjamin’s mouth is blue. I see the boxes he’s dragged over to use as a stool. I see the discarded squeeze bottle. The child-proof cap has been gnawed off.

Toxic! In case of ingestion call a poison control expert and seek immediate medical attention.

Poison Control Guy is kind to me again. More importantly, he doesn’t remember me. He has a gentle tone, which somehow eases my physical anguish but can’t quite touch the mental component, the reality that my child guzzled fish medicine while I was in the bathroom with a set of kitchen tongs trying to un-wedge my toothbrush which that same child shoved into the drain.

I’m instructed to hydrate Ben, to dilute the poison. He should be okay, but I must watch closely for vomiting. Poison Control Guy calls me back in an hour, and again in two hours, to check on the boy.

The UPS guy asks me if Ben has eaten a smurf.

All babies have escapades. A tumble down the stairs ends in maternal and infant tears, or a swallowed substance triggers a frantic call to poison control. But as the tiny human grows, he learns that putting things into his mouth results in a bad taste and a belly ache. Ben either never learned or never cared, because he was abnormally fearless. Something inherent and primitive was missing: the fear.

But Benjamin is fearless. He won’t preserve himself.

It’s up to me.

Can I get a punch card for this?

The West Virginia Poison Control Hotline is 800-222-1222. I have it on speed dial in my phone, and posted in the kitchen, and the bathroom.

“Poison Control. How can I help you?” he asks.

Oh my God. It’s the same guy. This is his full-time job. He sits in a chair and answers the phone every time I call him.

I hesitate.

“Hello?” he says again.

“Uh, yeah.” I have to think fast. This is my tenth call. There was the beer and the bleach and the fish medicine. There was the Comet and the toothpaste and the Resolve Carpet Foam. There was the child-proof Tylenol, and the little packet of desiccants in a new shirt pocket that specifically said “DO NOT EAT” in bold letters. They should have rewards points for frequent callers. Nine poisonings and the tenth is free.

I wasn’t stupid. I didn’t leave booze and bleach out on the floor. In fact, it was quite the opposite: they were behind closed cabinet doors, with child-proof locks. They were six feet up in the air. They were supposed to be safe. But they weren’t. They weren’t safe from the tiny tornado. His fat fingers worked at those child safety locks, or broke them completely, and he climbed like a mountain goat. From the toilet, to the sink, and up on tiptoes to the top of the bathroom cabinet. And today, while I was speaking with the lawn tractor service man…today was not my fault. The tractor guy left the dirty oil filter out, right on the ground.

“What’s the child’s name?”

Poison Control Guy is going to recognize me.

“Aye. The lad’s name is…Scott.” Oh damn. I’ve affected a Highland brogue so as not to be detected. “The wee one tossed back a bit of motor el from the lon trahkter’s el felter.”

“He drank from a used oil filter? Oh no. How much did he swallow? Do you know?”

“Weel, it’s on ‘is lips and his got a bit on ‘is tongue.”

“Alright,” he says. “I’m going to need you to hydrate him thoroughly. Motor oil is toxic, but it sounds like he probably spit most of it out when he got a taste of it. Hydrate him and watch for vomiting and fever. I’ll call back in an hour to check on him.”

I promise that the lad will be hydrated and monitored. And I wonder how this has happened again, his tenth poisoning, when I have tried so hard to be vigilant. Rather than proving myself worthy of the sacred title of “mother,” I have revealed my ineptitude time and again. The task of raising this child has proven me to be a failure. It seems my arms just aren’t long enough to keep him safe.


Curious George Flips a Switch

We had ribs for dinner last night, and the kitchen isn’t so clean. In fact, my husband put rib bones in the garbage disposal, and it sounds like the engine on a Piper Super Cub about five minutes after it’s crashed into a barn.

I’m flummoxed by the rib bones, which have splintered into shards now, and have begun to work their way into the mechanism of the disposal. Luckily, my wrist is narrow enough to reach down into the hole and fish these wretched little time-wasters out, piece by piece.

I can hear Ben. Trains. Living room. He’s alive.

When I think I’ve retrieved all of the rib bones, I reach under the sink and turn on the garbage disposal. Horrible noise. Damn. More bones. I turn it off and find another piece. Turn it on. Horrible noise. The pattern continues as I turn the disposal on and off repeatedly. When it stops sounding like mangled metal, I’ll know it’s clear.

I’m feeling around for that last rib bone when I hear the grinding. It seems I hear it before I feel it, and then my fingers blaze with scarlet pain. Thankfully, evolution has given humans quick reflexes. I pull the hand out and stare at it for a few milliseconds before I release the scream. It’s a long scream, a primal scream. It’s the scream of a hand in the garbage disposal, a thing of horror movies and unimaginable what-ifs.

And while I’m screaming, there is Benjamin at my feet. He’s crept up quietly beside me, and he’s watched me turn the disposal on and off and on and off. He’s seen the switch. And he’s gone for it. His hand is frozen on the switch, and his face is frozen in horror. When he hears my scream, he jumps as though there are electrodes in his butt cheeks. Then he too begins to scream. We’re both standing in the kitchen, looking at each other, screaming. For a brief moment I swear that I see a hint of fear.

As my adrenaline tapers off, so does my howl. And then I begin to yell. Ben falls apart, running from the room as fast as he can, tripping over the dogs’ water bowl and upending a potted plant. Dirt spills out everywhere, mixes with the water, and congeals to a soupy sludge. On the uneven floor it all slides to the west and runs under the refrigerator. I can hear him sobbing in another room.

I stare at my hand. It’s still there. It’s actually still there. Oh, it took a hit—it’s purple and gnarly-looking, to be sure. A few of my fingernails aren’t so much damaged as they are gone. Lucky for me, garbage disposals are designed to grind, not to slice. We all imagine they slice, but there are no blades. Just grinders. I’ve been mashed like a Yukon gold.

He tried to mutilate me.

This thought settles into my head for twenty seconds, and though I can still hear him bawling, I don’t think I can move. I continue to stare at my hand. Ten fingers. Holy shit. I carried this child for nine months, I gave birth to him and loved him. I let him barf on my shoulder and now he’s tried to de-finger me.

Finally, I’ve got the wherewithal to wonder where he has gone, and I find him in the next room, crying toddler tears of regret in the corner. He comes to me with a soaking face and wails, “I’m sorry Mommy, I’m sorry I did that!”

I tuck my flaming fingers into the folds of my shirt and use my good hand to wipe his tears. The horror which flickered across his face evolves so quickly into remorse that I’m not sure it was there at all.


The Little Engine That Had No Choice

At the park, I chat with a woman supervising her three-year-old daughter. Our kids run from slide to rope ladder to swing. We follow them, conversing, knowing we’ll never see each other again. I am tired, deep in my heart. The weight of being Ben’s caretaker is putting knots in my shoulders. It feels like keeping suicide watch in a room full of firearms, and my safety record sucks.

Eventually, the woman asks me the question I’ve been expecting. She tries to be casual. “So, what’s that on his head?”

“That bruise shaped like a pear? He fell.”

Every child falls, and boys do it with aplomb. “It sure is bluish,” she says. “Glad he’s okay.” She looks at me out the side of her eyes. “How’d that happen?”

I don’t sugar coat my answer. “He launched himself down the stairs.”

“Oh.” There’s a pause. She looks hard at my son, who is climbing the rope ladder in his bare feet—God knows where he’s put his shoes. Her daughter stands on the ground and looks up as Ben hangs on with one hand and leans backwards over the abyss. At least there’s a rubber mat on the pavement.

“My daughter sometimes jumps on the new couch. It makes me nuts. Is that…stair-jumping thing….is that something he normally does?”

“Yes. It is.” I want to say something about Ben’s pediatrician and the abnormally fearless, but I don’t.

She bites the inside of her lip. “Is he still in diapers? I think I smell something. Maybe it’s my kid.”

Was I really going to have to do this? “No, it’s his shirt,” I reply.

This woman can’t contain her curiosity. Not that I blame her. “His shirt?”

“He found a bottle of deer repellant and sprayed his shirt a few times. It was in a bag on the backseat. I bought it at the garden store and he reached it from his seat on the way over here. You should smell my car.”

She gapes.

“It’s dried blood and putrescent egg solids.” I add, and grin because it’s so damn vile.

She’s repulsed. And she’s starting to think it’s time to get her kid away from mine. Up on the apparatus, Ben lets out a howl and holds his thumb. I coax him to the edge beside the fireman’s pole and he throws himself into my arms. Something electrical shoots up my back and I grunt hard. This child is breaking me down. My vertebral column is giving up.

My new acquaintance approaches me. “Is he okay?” she asks. “What’s that on his thumb? Is that a rope burn?”

Oh great. This, now?

“No,” I answer, deciding to being honest. “That’s a regular burn. He got up on the counter and made himself toast in the night.”

Under my breath, I mutter, “I’m just trying to keep him alive.”

On our way home, I wonder what special combination of genes came together to form this unusual child. His father and I are prudent, logical first-borns. His brother worries constantly about things like an escaped bull on the playground, and a colony of flesh-eating ants nesting in his jack o’lantern. Andy is always on alert. The boys have an unequal distribution of fear, with none left for the younger. My husband and I are paying the price for our roll of the genetic dice. We’ve created abnormally fearless, and now we have to raise him.

Now we have to save him from himself.


The Inmates Are Running the Asylum

Ben is on that spinning stool in the doctor’s office again. He’s going to make himself sick. He knows how to vomit on command, so it won’t be a taxing performance. And he’d love to be able to show the pediatrician the extent of his intestinal pyrotechnics.

Kids are howling in the next room. I hear a tired mother’s voice. Ben is no longer on the spinning stool. Crap. He’s on the scale. It’s broken. He actually broke the doctor’s scale. Am I going to have to pay for that? Maybe they won’t notice.

I’m sitting on a chair in the little room, staring at myself in the mirror. My reflection just looks back at me. She looks like me from last year, listening to the abnormally fearless diagnosis for the first time. It doesn’t yet thunder in her head like a mantra, like a warning. On her side of the mirror, she’s still wondering how to fix it, rather than how to accept it, as we do on my side. I miss my own fearlessness, but it no longer fits my body, no matter how many times I try it on. Everything about motherhood worries me now.

Perhaps when we begin a parenting journey for the second time, we’re all abnormally fearless. With the first child, we battle. We slay the dragons of ignorance and sleep deprivation. We triumph and find patience and earn our smug-parent stripes, imagining how easy another child will be. But each child is a blank slate, one who pays neither mind nor homage to his predecessor. And my reflection doesn’t know this. She’s sitting there wondering why the Andy-rules don’t apply to Benjamin. How can she tweak this little blonde problem, this tiny boy, so that he fits into his proper place, where she can steer him along with one hand?

Benjamin won’t be steered. The only hands on the tiller are his own. I’m in the boat, but I’m sitting up front, and I just can’t get control. Do I claw my way to the back and take over, or do I keep a watchful distance? Would it matter to Ben what I tried to do either way? Is my only job to stay the course?

I don’t know how to raise this child.

Ben’s poking around in the garbage can. He pulls out a discarded tube of….ew. Lube? Is that rectal thermometer lube? Christ on a kayak. I snap at him, haul him out of the rubbish, and mentally prepare my questions for the doctor.

When he walks in, he’s a new face, a new partner in the practice. Damn! He’s going to think I’m a delinquent. Our other doctor gets it; he knows I’m trying. He told me to keep the kid alive and I need to see him so I can stand up and point at the little garbage weasel and shout, “He’s alive! You told me to keep him alive and I did and now I need you to tell me how much easier it’s going to be!”

The new pediatrician is ridiculously handsome. I watch Ben receive an examination. I watch him jump up and down and tell the doctor his name and his dogs’ names and where he goes to preschool. And I watch him begin to swing from the broken scale in the corner while the doctor takes notes. It makes a wretched clang and I pull Ben off, because it’s time to receive my assurances that this is just about over. I’ve put in a solid year of life-saving duty, of vigilance. I’ve dropped the ball many times, but the boy is in one piece and there’s minimal scarring and no major head trauma. Almost all of our pets still have tails and we’ve developed a healthy relationship with our plumber. Ben even has his own Facebook fans. They call him “Calamity Ben.”

“Do you have questions?” the doctor asks.

I take a big breath. “Last year the other doctor told me that Ben was abnormally fearless and that I just had to keep him alive. I’ve been trying and he’s still diving off of furniture and picking up snakes and throwing knives. He’s not afraid of falling or traffic and he takes off his life jacket and throws himself in the pool. I keep calling Poison Control. It’s been a year from hell. Is he going to stop soon?”

This pediatrician doesn’t bat an eyelash or miss a beat. He flashes me a Ken-doll smile.

“Keep him alive for another year,” he chuckles, and touches my shoulder. “You’re doing fine.”

Author’s Note: I’m often asked if Benjamin’s stories are the truth, and I reply, wearily, that they are. As of this morning, he has a black eye on the left side of his face, permanent marker on his nipples, and no desire to live gently. For some reason, I was chosen to be his mother. He and his brother are the loves of my life.

Laura Jackson Roberts lives in Wheeling, West Virginia with her husband, Shawn, and sons, Andy and Benjamin. Recently published on Matador Network, she is an MFA student at Chatham University in Pittsburgh, focusing on humor in nature.