Yuvi Zalkow’s stories have been published in Carve Magazine, Glimmer Train, Narrative Magazine, Rosebud, and others. His debut novel (A Brilliant Novel in the Works) is about a writer unable to write a novel. http://yuvizalkow.com
I move the Darth Vader action figure next to the lemon on the kitchen table where I’m sitting with my ten-year-old stepson. It’s breakfast. Which means I cooked him fried eggs and forgot to make myself anything. But I’ve got Darth Vader and a lemon. My stepson looks at me in that way he can look at me when I’m being me at my most me.
I got him the Darth Vader action figure as a Valentine’s Day gift because I knew it might sway him toward the original movies. I refuse to talk about any of the movies that came after that first trilogy. I tell him that the new movies are worse than bags of poo. My stepson tolerates my obsessions because of my accessible metaphors and because I bribe him with high-quality action figures.
I start breathing all Darth Vadery. I move Darth Vader up to the lemon. With my best attempt at a James Earl Jones voice, I say, “You have failed me for the last time, lemon.”
Vader’s movements are awkward—even though he is Dark Lord of the Sith, he is also only three inches tall—and so the lemon is watching carefully for weaknesses, in case it comes to that.
“That’s MY Darth Vader,” my stepson says. And he takes away the key character in my scene.
My stepson is big. He comes from a family of big goyishe men who played football in college and wear size fifteen shoes. I come from a family of hairy, little Jews who have back problems and whine to their therapists for sport. He almost weighs as much as me and sometimes I forget he’s still just a baby—that baby face of his, with those fat, chunky cheeks. Not a facial hair within five years of his face. Last week, I bought my first ear hair trimmer.
“Maybe it’s your Vader,” I say, “but it’s MY lemon.” And I pull the lemon off the table.
“Lemons are evil,” he tells me.
“So is Vader,” I say. I’m always pleased when I can keep up with his smack talk.
He’s in a phase where everything is evil. Vegetables are evil. Bedtime is evil. Chores are evil. Romantic moments in movies are more evil than anything else in the world.
My wife enters the kitchen. “Honey,” she says to me, “can you take him to school?”
She works. I’m unemployed—haven’t found a computer gig in two months—so I have extra time. But what I wanted to do after breakfast was reformat the solid state drive in my laptop. Start over. Just the best songs and software on there and get rid of the rest. Reformatting a drive seems more amusing than taking the boy to school across town.
“Sure,” I say to my wife.
“Yay!” my evil stepson says. He gets up and he kisses me on my bald spot, the spot which is now my whole head, and then he goes to the bathroom, still holding Vader, preventing my brilliant scene—full of tension and family turmoil—from proceeding. I was getting ready to reveal that Darth Vader was actually the lemon’s stepfather.
“Yay,” my wife says, just like the boy, but more quietly. She kisses me on the lips and then she follows the boy out of the kitchen. I like her morning kisses, the kiss before a meal and before any toothbrushing. They taste like morning, before the day becomes cluttered with anything else.
Every month, I do a little bit more. She’ll ask me to pick him up or drop him off. Or sometimes, I’ll just volunteer. To take him to basketball or a birthday party.
He used to be with his dad and his dad’s girlfriend a lot more. When I first started dating my wife five years ago, we were free from the boy half of the time. During our adult time, we drank too much and ate too much and played hooky from work too much. Our life was perfectly too much half the time. But we noticed that it was getting more difficult for the boy to switch houses so often—he cried when he left; he was detached when he returned. This was about three years ago, I had just moved in, we had just married. And my new wife said, “What do you think about keeping him with us most of the time?” I told her that it would be a tough adjustment for me but agreed it would be better for the boy.
She assumed that meant I was all for it.
At first it felt like the boy was in every corner of every room at every hour. I was gasping for air. I kept fantasizing about waking up in some stranger’s house with a tremendous hangover, some one-night stand situation with the horror of wondering who was sleeping next to me. I wanted anything but waking up at home, with my lovely wife next to me, with more custody than I could handle.
My wife comes back in and sits at the table with me. I’m still sitting here even though I don’t have the whatever-it-takes to make myself breakfast. In one hand, she’s holding Darth Vader; in the other, a brush. She brushes her long, wet hair and the sound of the brush untangling her hair makes me long for long hair. Or any hair. I’m wondering what she is doing with Vader. She asks me about my plan for the day.
Since my wife doesn’t care about solid state drives, I focus on my other projects. I tell her about my plan to touch up my résumé, to broaden my job search. I tell her that Intel is hiring again and I say it with a touch of interest in my voice.
“You hated it there. All those cubicles and middle managers. You were miserable.”
“Well,” I tell her, “I would be working for an old manager that I kind of like.”
She stops brushing her hair and gives me that look of hers. That look which precedes all the Great Mistakes I’ve ever made.
When I worked at Intel, I’d get depressed on Saturday mornings because it was only forty-eight hours until I’d have to go back to work. I’d have nightmares in the form of detailed PowerPoint presentations with sub-bullets underneath sub-bullets underneath sub-bullets. But the idea of not having a job has gone from thrilling to terrifying because of this family that I’m supposedly, or possibly, or maybe, probably, responsible for. Suddenly, nested sub-bullets don’t sound so terrible, if they come with health insurance.
My wife, she kisses me again, and says, “I’ve got to get ready.”
She’s still gripping onto Vader, like it’s her toy. I’ll never make any progress with my Vader/lemon scene at this rate.
The boy is singing a song about toothpaste while brushing his teeth. Something like, “Mr. Toothpaste Man, how I love to hold you in my hand,” and he sings it with the emotion of an overly sentimental love ballad.
The boy can be awfully sweet. When I left town for ten days on business (when I had a business to leave town for), my wife told me he cried on some nights when he missed me. He left me heartbreaking I-miss-you voicemail messages that I still can’t delete. I admit I have real feelings for the boy. I miss him when he’s not around. When I found his favorite kind of sour candy at the airport on the way home, I was so excited to give it to him that I walked out of the store forgetting to pay until the security guard explained to me the rules like I came from a galaxy far, far away.
It can’t be a bad feeling for my wife to see that her son likes me. And I like him too. And I like her. And she likes me. It all works out. Except that my wife and I are in a phase where sex is not that easy.
And by not easy, I mean that it stopped happening.
I can fantasize about sex with her no problem. When I can’t sleep, can’t read, can’t concentrate on anything—which is most of the time—I can still fantasize. My fantasy sex life of our real sex life is incredible. We’re stars. We’re beyond the stars. We’re like Han Solo and Princess Leia when they realize what they feel for each other. It’s that good. And it used to be that good in real life in this galaxy close, close to right here.
But when we approach each other these days in real life, on those days when we have the time and space to approach each other, my thoughts are filled with the madness of parenting. She takes off her panties and I’m reviewing how I didn’t assert myself with the boy. Or how she let him get away with murder. Worse than murder: He didn’t clean up after himself. In my head, every mishap is a sign that the kid is going to grow up to be a murderer. Worse than a murderer: He’ll become lazy with an inflated sense of entitlement.
I’m convinced I see all the signals, his issues, what will screw him up when he’s an adult. Even when my wife and I are tipsy and horny, my mind won’t let up. I’ll take my pants off, put on that album that turns us both on, I’ll even grab some sex toys from under the bed. It starts with perfect, fabulous ease, as if we carry nothing other than this pleasure. “Do you want more?” I’ll say to her. “Yes!” she’ll say. Her exclamation mark really meaning something exclamatory. And then I’ll remember that the boy promised to clean up his dishes before he went to his dad’s house. And he didn’t. He didn’t! “My God,” she says. “Why did you stop?” And I tell her why. And soon, pretty soon, very soon, too soon, without saying anything, her pants are back on. She puts her shirt on and pulls that long hair out from inside her shirt. She does it with her back to me. And then I’m alone again.
When my stepson comes back into the kitchen, he’s still in his underwear. He lies down on the kitchen floor, with his head right on our dirty floor, on the crumbs that I was planning to clean up.
“Come on, silly man,” I say to this boy on the floor. “Get your pants on and let’s go to school.”
He doesn’t get up. He tells me about his manga, those Japanese graphic novels that I can never pronounce correctly. Mahnga, Maynga, Moonga. I listen to his story. And forget my planned lesson on cleanliness. The boy has charm.
He demonstrates Judo moves or karate moves or something, swinging his arms in the air and saying, “Two palms! Four palms! Eight palms! Sixteen palms! Thirty-two palms! Sixty-four palms jutsu!”
I don’t know what he’s talking about but I’m still tempted to explain the pattern behind the numbers. How they’re powers of two, how that pattern is a fundamental facet of computer programming. I want to tell him the beauty of exponents, how quickly they become too large.
Instead, I say, “How about you finish that jutsu when you’re dressed and in the car?” All my dialogue has turned into parenting talk. Trying to inject responsible behavior into every sentence.
It’s worse than parenting: It’s step-parenting. Similar to real parenting, it seems like the craziest thing on earth to do. It would never add up on a spreadsheet. But unlike real parenting, you’re so aware of the craziness. Your mind can’t stop from calculating the pros and cons of the experience. Perhaps you’ve even got an actual spreadsheet sitting there on your drive with the calculations.
And sometimes the pros can feel like cons. For homework, he wanted to know the definition of indefensibly. He said that even Google didn’t know it. So I explained it to him. A minute later, he forgot. I explained it again. And I showed him how to use Google more effectively. He was appreciative. We bonded, like we often do, but the bond doesn’t dig into my bones the way it does with my wife. Even while bonding, I can still be fantasizing about hiding in a cave on an icy planet to get away from the burden of guiding him.
I envy her. The way she can get up every day and not even think about whether she’s in for the ride. She’s in. I see how it works with her. He does one sweet thing and every difficult thing he’s ever done gets deleted from her consciousness, at least for a time. I don’t have this. Every day I revisit that calculation, I scrutinize whether it’s worth it. It’s like when Han Solo has to decide whether or not he’ll help Luke Skywalker destroy the Death Star. He does in the end. But he almost doesn’t. The big difference with me is that my transportation isn’t the Millennium Falcon, it’s an old Subaru Legacy with two big cracks across the windshield. And I don’t have a giant Wookiee to help me get through the hardest stuff. And Princess Leia doesn’t have kids from a previous marriage.
. . .
The boy and I get in my car and we’re off. We’re running ten minutes later than I want to be. It’s rainy and cold and the clouds make the morning feel too dark.
“You drive slower than Mom,” he tells me, “but that’s fine. Because I have a new song for you.”
I want to explain to him the danger of driving too fast in these conditions. He should understand Newton’s first law. But I can’t get this out before he starts singing a song about Pokémon that doesn’t quite make sense to me. “Oooh, you’re my best friend! In a world we must defend! Pokémon!”
Just before getting married, my wife told me that if we were stranded on a lifeboat and the boat was too heavy, she would do whatever she could to save her son. In other words, the Jew goes overboard. This didn’t surprise me—I assumed any parent feels this way. What caught me off guard was when she asked, “What would you do?”
I said, “I would do the same thing.”
For my wife, the conversation stopped there—she was satisfied with my answer. We could move on to other things. We went grocery shopping, or we went to a movie, or we went off to work. But for me, I was calculating all the combinations and permutations of lifeboat emergencies. Suppose that exactly one person has to go overboard, and suppose that I voluntarily jump out of the boat: Would I do it because I love him or because I love her or just because I don’t want to deal with step-parenting alone? The rules for drowning are simpler.
. . .
We get to his school and I say, “I believe this is your stop, Darth Stepson.”
He says, “Indefensibly it is, young Padawan.”
We hug in that awkward way that people hug when they’re sitting in the car together and then he runs into the school quickly to avoid the rain. I drive off in the wrong direction for no good reason.
Sometimes I think about driving in the wrong direction for hours, for days, forever. I wonder if it would be less lonely out there—alone in the middle of nowhere—because in the middle of the chaos of a family, there is something so galactically lonely about being the step-guy. I’m in the family but I’m also outside of it.
I fantasize about driving off into the distance, freeing myself from everything I’m not properly tied to in the first place.
But then I realize that if I really intended on doing that, I would have to leave a proper note on the kitchen counter. So that the boy could see how a person leaves a clear and concise note before running out on their family.
The boy keeps telling me that I should rewatch the newer Star Wars movies. He says that some of them are pretty cool if I give them a chance. He says, “Don’t you want to know why Darth Vader turned evil, or what happens afterwards?” I think it’s finally time to give in—he’s indulged me by watching the old movies who knows how many times—but in truth, I don’t want to know what happens in the past, or in the future. Sometimes there’s no additional data that can prepare you for what you have to deal with right now.
There’s this moment I can’t get out of my head from The Empire Strikes Back. It’s that last moment, after Luke has lost his hand and Vader tells him he’s the father and Luke drops into a deep shaft and then hangs from some antenna below Cloud City. That moment is why I can watch the movie over and over again even after my stepson has fallen asleep with his head against my shoulder. To see that desperate man hanging there, alone, confused, hanging by his feet, almost given up, but not quite, still hanging on, surrounded by the great, vast, empty sky.