by Chris Arnone
Runestone, volume 4
Lauren opened the car door before Eric had even put it in park. If she stayed in the cramped Honda one more second, she was going to say something she’d regret. She slammed the door and stood in the late-August Tennessee sun, letting it lay across her bare neck like a python. It felt good, slithering away the stale, chilled air from the car. The summer sounds were even better. The locusts were an atonal chorus loud enough to drown out the cars and 18-wheelers barreling past. Right now, she preferred the bugs and the traffic to Eric’s nasal, basso voice. As if on cue, his door opened and Lauren made a bee-line for the ladies’ room, the one place she knew he wouldn’t follow her.
She braced herself for urine smells and rusty stall doors, but was surprised to find the I-40 rest stop bathroom was well-kept and smelled faintly of bleach. There were no feet under locked stall doors. The pristine row of sinks were bone dry. The world went mute once the bathroom door hissed to a close. The empty bathroom was a welcome bastion of solitude to Lauren. She went to a sink and grabbed a few paper towels, adding water to make them into a cool, wet cloth to blot her face.
“I guess this isn’t enough for you anymore, is it, Eric?” She asked the woman in the mirror and bit her lip. She hadn’t cried today and was determined to keep it that way.
“We’re in the middle of nowhere,” a voice said from behind Lauren. Every day, that voice sounded more like Lauren’s mother, but she would never tell her daughter that. Madison stood just inside the doorway, leaning against the wall with her dreadlocks atop her head. Lauren wondered when Madison’s recent obsession with sneaking into rooms would end.
“Did your dad see you come in here?” Lauren asked, looking at Madison in the mirror.
“Maybe. Probably. I don’t care.” Madison looked at her feet, finding great interest in the bathroom floor. “Why are we stopping here? There was a McDonald’s three miles back.”
“I know, Madison. I just need to take a moment. Your dad and I both do.”
“Wasn’t that the whole point of the trip? A break from everything?”
“Partly. We also haven’t had a family vacation in a few years. We’re past due.”
“Yay.” Madison’s tone was flat. “Branson. The hillbilly Las Vegas.”
“Hey, Vegas isn’t all that. Besides, we thought you and your brother could use a good, old-fashioned road trip. My dad used to load the whole family up in the car every summer. We saw so much. Grand Canyon, Mount Rushmore, those big trees out in California that you can drive a car through-” The roaring of locusts interrupted Lauren’s story. The hydraulics on the bathroom door were still easing it closed. Madison was gone.
Lauren sighed and took a long look in the mirror, wondering how she had wound up here. “Of course, at least once a day my mom and dad would have a screaming match in the car, followed by hours of uncomfortable silence. I always told myself I wouldn’t have a relationship like that. Good one, Lauren. Nicely done with that.”
She took a deep breath and pushed it out, visualizing her frustration flying out along with the air. She basked in the relative silence of the ladies’ room for a few more seconds, then turned on her heels and plunged back out into the Autumn heat, barely pausing as she pushed the door aside.
Eric was leaning against the hood of the car, his arms crossed over his chest. The engine gently ticked. “Done with the temper tantrum, Ms. Perfect?”
Lauren’s guts twisted. She swallowed a response twice as nasty as his taunt. She wouldn’t let him have the satisfaction of baiting her. “Where is Tate?”
“He went inside for a snack. There’s vending machines inside.”
“Did you give him some money?”
“No, he just-” Eric’s stubble vibrated as his jaw clenched and unclenched.
“You didn’t let him…ugh,” she began, detouring for the main lobby of the rest stop.
“He’s fine. He’s not alone. No one is going to see your precious children running amok in there,” Eric called after her.
Lauren spun back on him. She felt the blood rush into her face. “You could at least say her name.”
“I need to take a piss.” Eric hauled himself up and marched off to the men’s room, not even looking back at his wife.
Lauren let him go. For a moment, maybe two, she thought about following him. She imagined barging into the men’s room and really having it out this time. Then what? Where would she go? They were three hours from home, from her sister, or her mom, or anyone else she knew. Getting an Uber home would cost more than her mortgage. On the house. The house she owned with Eric. A life well and fully entangled with a man she was beginning to despise. “Fuck.”
Lauren glanced at her bare arms to make sure the sweat hadn’t frozen to her skin when she stepped into the lobby. She firmly believed that air conditioning kept civilization civilized, but this cold bit at every exposed inch of flesh. It even nibbled at the covered parts. Just like the bathroom, the place was immaculately clean, smelling of lemons and a hint of bleach. Lauren wondered if there was a well-trained cleaning crew or simply a lack of use. In a world of airplanes, smart phones, and Skype, what use was a rest stop or a long road trip?
Madison was leaning against a bulletin board plastered with posters and fliers from the Tennessee Department of Tourist Development. Nearly a third of it was dominated by an image of Dolly Parton hefting an acoustic guitar over her shoulder like a battle-ax, but Madison was entrenched in her smart phone. That eyeballs-to-screen fixation annoyed Lauren, but it annoyed her more that she could never tell what Madison was thinking or feeling when buried in that device.
Tate, at least, was blissfully unaware. He was crawling around on the floor, moving between the dozen or so vending machines and checking for spare change. He was humming a tune in his little voice. Lauren was certain she knew the song, but couldn’t place it now.
“Did you guys get anything to eat?” Lauren scooped Tate up off the floor, amazed that despite the smell of bleach, her son’s hands were grimy from the floor.
“No,” Madison said without glancing from her phone.
Lauren evaluated the wall of vending machines. Giant bottles of Coke, Pepsi, and Dr. Pepper shined with droplets of water, backlit in their ice baths. Rows of salty, sweet, and unhealthy snacks rested in rows, awash in florescent light and awaiting a few dollars to fall into the hands of hungry tourists. “Oh, they have white cheddar Cheez-Its. You love those.”
“Mommy, can I have Reese’s?” Tate pointed a grubby finger at the orange package of his favorite candy.
“Well, that depends on-“
“That’s more like it. Yes, you MAY have Reese’s.” Lauren looked over her shoulder to her daughter, still engrossed in her cell phone. “Can you take your brother into the…”
Madison’s eyes darted up from her phone, locking on her mom. Her jaw clenched and her eyebrows knitted together in a little bump, but she said nothing.
“Right. Sorry.” Lauren turned her attention back to Tate. “Okay, you’re coming with mommy to the bathroom to wash your hands.”
“But I don’t want to go to the girl’s bathroom!” Tate was learning to whine, much to Lauren’s chagrin.
“Mommy doesn’t go in the boy’s bathroom, so we’re going to the girl’s. I promise nobody will see you in there. Nobody is here but us.”
“Why can’t daddy take me to the boy’s bathroom?”
“Daddy is busy.” Lauren hitched Tate up on her hip, wondering when his growing weight would outpace her time at the gym, and dug her wallet out of her purse. “Here,” she said, handing it to Madison, “Get some snacks and drinks. No Cheetos, though. I don’t want orange fingerprints all over the car.”
Madison took the wallet and turned her attention to the array of vending machines. Lauren readjusted Tate and started for the doors back outside.
“Mom?” Madison said. Lauren turned, instantly worried at the serious tone.
“Thanks for not making me take him,” Madison said.
“I wouldn’t dream of it. Just be patient with me sometimes, okay? I’m still adjusting.”
“I think he’s trying, honey. I really do.”
“He sucks at it.”
Lauren wanted to argue, but she worked herself up to lie. “Maybe that’s part of trying instead of just doing. Maybe we just have to suck for a while until we figure it out.”
“Maybe.” Madison hinted at a smile. “You don’t suck at this.”
Lauren had to bite her lip again to hold back tears. She forced herself to smile. “Thank you, honey. We all just need a lot of patience right now.”
Madison nodded and looked back to the expanse of plastic-wrapped snacks. Lauren watched her daughter. Her daughter. She was growing up right before her eyes, no matter what the world threw at her. She was still a teenager, but Lauren could see the woman Madison could grow to become. Strong. Independent. Fierce.
“Mommy, why are you crying?” Tate asked, putting on his fake sad face, remarkably similar to his fake innocent face.
“Oh, because girls are silly sometimes! And your sister is so awesome.” Lauren pushed opened the door with her rear. Sweat leapt from her pores as the summer heat rolled back over her. “Let’s go get you cleaned up.”
“It’s hot, mommy.” Tate put his hands to his face like the kid from Home Alone, a movie she realized her young son had yet to see. It was a new expression for him, one he didn’t know how to use.
“I know, baby.” Lauren wondered how settlers had done it, how they had come into Tennessee in the summer and thought it was a good place to settle down and live. The heat and humidity were oppressive to the point of distraction. Rattling locusts and the stench of molten asphalt hung in the air. It took her a few moments to recall why she’d come outside.
“Tate, baby, get your hands off your face.”
“What’s in Bran’s son?” Tate asked, wiping his hands on his jeans.
“Don’t wipe your hands, baby, we’re going to the bathroom,” Lauren hitched him up farther. “Branson is in Missouri, the next state over. They have all kinds of music shows and go-karts and these cars that can go into the water like boats.”
“Yes, and the bottoms are glass, so you can see the fishes in the lake.”
“That’s silly, mommy.”
“Do you know what they’re called?” Lauren tickled her son as she asked.
Tate shook his head, grinning.
“They’re called ducks. Do you want to go on the ducks?”
“Yesss!” Tate’s hands were back on his face. Lauren thought that was a pretty good use of the expression.
“You don’t need to take him in there.” Eric’s voice came from behind her as she was opening the door to the ladies’ room.
“I’m right here. I’ll take him.” Eric reached out his arms for their youngest. Tate reached out for his father in response.
“I’ve got him.” Lauren turned away from Eric.
“Nobody else is here, Lauren. No Pam Delaney to show up. Your mother of the year award isn’t in jeopardy.”
Lauren spun back to face him, “You really need to work on your apologies.”
“I’ll apologize to her. What did I do to you?”
“That’s my daughter. You hurt her-” Lauren began.
“Oh, here we go again,” Eric said, throwing his arms up in supplication of the blue Tennessee sky. He walked out into the middle of the parking lot and bellowed to the asphalt and painted white lines, “God forbid I do anything to anger the children of the PTA President, the high queen of Gatlinburg moms, mother of my own children!”
“Eric!” Lauren turned Tate’s face away from his father, fighting to not yell.
Eric turned his attention back to his wife. “They’re my kids, too. I have the right to be their father, to discipline or to be angry with them. I’m trying to raise them, not impress my friends with my unparalleled parenting skills.”
Tate began to whimper in Lauren’s arms. She shifted him to the other side. “It’s okay, baby. Daddy is just upset, but not with you.” She turned her attention back to Eric. “This isn’t about me, Eric. You can’t call her by that name.”
“I made a mistake. I will apologize to her. I’m trying here-”
“It’s not that easy. I had two sons one morning, then came home to a daughter wearing my oldest son’s face.”
“She needs our support right now, Eric. She nearly died-“
“He played football and talked about motorcycles and asked me about the Navy,” Eric whispered, not hearing her. “Then one day I went to work. Just another Tuesday. I had my coffee and you got both of our boys ready for school. Jeans, t-shirts, sneakers. When I come home, Mason is wearing makeup and a dress. Madison. Sorry. No warning. You took the day off work and took him shopping – her shopping for girl’s clothes! You kept it all from me.”
Tate was truly crying, burying his face in Lauren’s shoulder. A wet spot was growing before his eyes and she struggled to hold him as he shuddered. She wrapped him up with both arms, trying to distribute his weight, and bounced on her heels. “She is going through something that neither of us could ever understand, Eric.”
“You’re right,” Eric said, “I’m going through something, too. We have a daughter in there, but we lost a son. I’m trying to be there, to be supportive, but I’m mourning a boy named Mason.”
“Apples and oranges, Eric. I didn’t do this to you. I’m working through it, too,” Lauren said. Tate was sobbing, and she shifted him again and bounced on her heels, trying to soothe him.
“You’re working through it? You don’t talk to me about it, don’t warn me, don’t discuss it with me. And unlike you, I’m processing this without help.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Lauren’s triceps shook from the effort of holding her crying son, burning up into her shoulders. She knew Tate was too big for this, but she couldn’t let him down now.
“You have your office. You have the moms. Your PTA meetings, book club, softball games, and lunches. All you do is talk about how strong you are, what you’re doing for our daughter and how-” Eric began.
“You’re angry that I have friends? You don’t-” Lauren cut him off.
“Fathers talk, too!” Eric cut back. “It’s a small town. I go to work and hear all about how my wife is so strong, so supportive, so modern. Because it’s always about you, not about Madison.”
Lauren opened her mouth, but the only words flaming up in her mind weren’t fit to speak in front of Tate, who was already a mess. She spun on her heels to go back inside. Here it was, time to finally hash things out. Eric opened this can and she was damn sure he wouldn’t be the one to finish it. Before she could get to the corner of the building, Madison came from the other side, tears ready to leap from her eyes.
Lauren sat Tate down on his feet and urged him toward his sister, “Madison, take your brother inside and please stay there until I come get you.”
“No.” Madison’s voice was tight, quivering, and her eyes were locked onto Eric. Tate wobbled toward his sister with arms outstretched, and his cries started up anew at the rejection.
“Honey. Please go back inside and let me talk to your father.”
“I want to hear this,” Madison pulled her brother close and he clamped onto her leg. “I’m tired of being sent to my room and just hearing you two fight through the walls. You don’t think I hear what you two say about me?” The tears gave up their perches, drifting down Madison’s cheeks.
“I just want to help. I want to make things easier, and I need to talk to your father…”
Madison didn’t wait for the end of the sentence. She pulled Tate to arm’s length and bent down to eye level. “Hey, buddy. I’m going to talk to Daddy now, so go stand by Mommy, cover your ears, and count to 100. I have a surprise for you if you do that. Okay?”
Tate’s cheeks were wet and snot dribbled down his lip, but he perked up at the surprise. He nodded his head and wiped his nose.
“Honey, I’m sorry I called you-” Eric began as Madison started him.
“What do you want from me?” Madison cut him off, “I’m finally happy. I finally feel like the real me and you can’t even look me in the eye!”
Eric, as if on cue, cast his eyes down and away.
“I’m still your kid. I still like watching baseball and playing Words with Friends with you. I still want to play football. I want you to teach me how to ride a motorcycle. I still have the scar from my tenth birthday from when I knocked over the BBQ grill. I want to go to FSU and I want you to show me all your old stomping grounds from when you went there. But this is me, the real me. I don’t want to…”
Eric mumbled something Lauren couldn’t make out. She crept up closer, wary of what might happen, Tate gripped her hand.
“What?” Madison said.
“I said I’m trying. I am. I’m sorry.” Eric looked up and tears welled in his eyes. “Yesterday, you were waiting at the bus stop when I drove to work. You were looking away, wearing jeans and my old FSU shirt. For just a second, I saw Mason. I saw my oldest son standing there. He’s gone. You’re here and I love you, but he’s gone. I don’t know if that’s the last time I’ll ever see him. I don’t know what to do with that.”
“Mason is gone,” Madison blurted. There was no sympathy in her voice and it broke Lauren’s heart. For the first time since the transition, she believed Eric, but their daughter didn’t seem to care.
“I know,” Eric said.
“Why can’t you be more like mom?” Eric flinched at Madison’s words like a blow had struck his cheek and his chest simultaneously.
A sense of clarity washed over Lauren, a sense of purpose that surprised her in its reassurance. Without taking her eyes off Eric, she held her purse out to Madison, “That’s enough. Take your brother and go to the car. I’ll be there shortly. Go ahead and get the air conditioning running.”
“Please.” The one word was more forceful and simultaneously loving than a because I fucking said so in the middle of a bear hug. The purse was promptly relieved from her hand and she heard the footsteps of her children walking away from her.
“What are you doing?” Eric said.
Lauren silenced him with a look. She breathed the muggy air in once, twice, thrice, before she heard her children get in the car and start it. “I’m leaving. I’m getting in that car with Tate and Madison and I’m leaving.”
“You can’t leave. You can’t take them. You can’t turn my kids against me,” Eric said, his voice shaking.
“There are people you can call. You’ll be fine.”
“Lauren,” Eric’s eyes were pleading, so Lauren focused on his quivering chin to steady herself. She pointed over her shoulder at her children.
“Those two mean the world to me. They mean the same to you, but you can’t do this to her. I know you’re trying, but you are going to drive our daughter to cut herself again.”
Eric looked past Lauren to their children, his breath shuddering in his chest.
“Those are my children. I don’t care if they’re boys, girls, or something in between. They come first. Always. Since the day Madison came out of me, they come first.”
“I love them, too, Lauren,” Eric stuttered, his eyes wet.
“I know you do, but until you’re ready,” Lauren put a gentle hand to his chest. She instantly regretted the move and pulled it back, “You can sleep somewhere else. Live somewhere else.”
“Lauren-” Eric began, but Lauren looked away, refusing to give in.
“If you can’t be a father to our daughter the way you were when we had two sons, then there’s no place for you in this family.”
“You can’t make that decision.”
“I just did.”
“You aren’t taking my children from me, Lauren.”
Lauren looked into Eric’s eyes, both fighting back tears. For more than fifteen years, she’d loved him and couldn’t believe that she was going to leave him here, three hours from home. But she remembered the slits on Madison’s wrists. She was willing to never look in this man’s eyes again if it meant Madison lived and thrived.
“They need their father,” Eric continued.
“I agree. Once you figure out how that works, you know where to find us.”
“And what are you going to do? Tell all your friends how you were strong enough to kick your failing husband to the curb for the sake of your transgender daughter?”
Lauren locked eyes with her husband and set her jaw. “I’ll do no such thing. This is hard enough without those harpies.”
She took a long look into Eric’s eyes. She saw past the anger and frustration and saw the boy that grew into the man she knew and loved. She saw the clenching of his jaw change, his breathing deepen, and moisture under those brown eyes. She took his hand and gave it a gentle squeeze. Then she turned and walked to the car, afraid she would lose her nerve if she kept looking at him.
She knew her daughter and son were looking back at their father as Lauren guided the Honda back onto the highway, but Lauren was lost imagining the looks on the other mothers’ faces when the time came to recount this story. Pam Delaney would sure look cross.
Chris Arnone is studying creative writing at UMKC and makes his home in Kansas City, MO with his wife Christy and their cats. Aside from writing and reading feverishly, Chris is an author, poet, occasional actor, and even manages to hold down a day job. He is a co-founder and co-producer of Bohemian Cult Revival, a Kansas City theatrical burlesque and variety production company.