You hold your boy as he sobs. The bottom stair you’re sitting on is hardly big enough for the both of you. He can’t explain through tears why he’s so upset about the friends that let him down. His nearly 100-pound frame is pulling to run away. Whatever happened, it’s still too fresh to talk. He cries and chokes in frustration. But he still wants to be held, or he gives in only because he knows you won’t let him go hide under a blanket upstairs in his room with his tablet and videos. Not yet.
You hold him wondering if it would be better to just let him go, recalling how on the same stairs once when he was almost two he giggled as he crawled up one then two then three, then looked back because he knew you were there ready to catch him. And he had lunged and climbed and laughed and lunged as you pretended to be shocked and said in a silly voice, “No, baby! How can you do that? No, baby. No babies allowed on the stairs!” And he climbed all of them and sat on the landing above, laughing in triumph before holding out his arms for you to crawl up, too, to hold him and praise him.
Now ten, sobbing in your arms where he did and didn’t want to be, heaving with anger and frustration, it is all a mess, all impossible, after a misunderstanding that has crushed his patience after two years of pandemic senselessness. About ten more seconds of being held is all he can take, then you let him go and he runs upstairs without a word or a look back, escaping his friends, and you, and the whole mess of the outside world where a million people in the country will soon be dead, an agonizing fact among many others you won’t mention to him.
You drink later on when the house is quiet, knowing this will probably spoil whatever sort of tomorrow you could’ve had. On the vortex of the staircase you and your son blur, age two then ten, thirty-nine and forty-seven, passing each other up and down the steps. Not long now and he’ll be older and gone. Walking, crawling, falling, laughing through years past and those ahead. Silent. Heaving. Bereft. The squeaking of the wood like echoes of all that’s gone unsaid for one throttling reason or another.
Wavering and sipping alone with your phone as midnight nears, you tap pieces of this day and other days onto what feels more often than not like the blurry screen of your life, your cheeks wet with the now-easy tears of weeknight despair. Across the room the staircase and the cheap worn carpet await your slow ascent to bed when you finally stop tapping and sipping. How well the place knows you and says nothing. It will not matter to this one-hundred-year-old house if the boy ever understands, or cares, how much you loved him. How much was tried and how much failed. The silence over the stairs seems to say, if he does or doesn’t, so be it. The parts of life that matter are not up to us. But if you somehow get a chance to really try more than once with someone across a span of years in a place they’ll remember, then perhaps some joy will live on to cherish.
It’s so late. Slivers of ice and diluted whiskey slide over your tongue. You remember he has a dentist’s appointment tomorrow. Early. And it’s your turn to take him.
Matthew Jakubowski (he/him) is a short story writer, novelist, and experimental essayist based in Philadelphia. His novella, “In the Shadow of the Jesus Lizard,” was a finalist for the 2022 Clay Reynolds Novella Prize, from Texas Review Press, judged by Renee Gladman. He recently started writing novels for kids, and, despite kind warnings from well-meaning people, he skateboards as often as he can. Visit mattjakubowski.com for links to more of his work and the occasional blog post.