For ten years my stepsons made sure their mother and I didn’t cross paths at hockey games, debate tournaments, their senior ring masses. My husband didn’t speak to his ex-wife. He communicated through the boys, or he sent her notes. My stepsons had been raised Catholic, but she found a supportive, noisy church and she had them re-baptized. She was an x-ray technician who got home from the hospital and went to bed. When the boys came in from school, the house would be dark, the dishes unwashed. They did homework and fixed cereal, or walked across the highway to McDonald’s. Their father and I had them half time, and at our dinner table they wolfed down their father’s home-cooked meals, talked to him about box scores, and flexed their wit, quipping lines from Jim Carrey movies.
I went along with being incognito because there’d been overlap and it was easier to be hidden than to look their mother in the eye. Also, her ex-husband and I had had our own son. My teenage stepsons couldn’t deny a little guy with bangs and light up sneakers. They held up their shirts and showed him how to pop out a beer belly. He thought they were hilarious.
This was my second marriage. I’d eloped the first time and left college with incompletes. For years I had dreams where I parked in front of the drab Liberal Arts building, which in these dreams presented as a white marble, a twenty-story tower. In a reverse sad Rapunzel scenario, my favorite prof never leaned out the window. I’d tiptoe up the stairs and loiter in the hall, not sure which classroom was his, wondering if he still believed in me, and if he did, could he remind me why?
For my oldest stepson’s graduation from college in 1996, we’d traveled to Pittsburgh. His mother and I were kept two city blocks apart. “Why are we still doing this?” I asked my husband. Not, “When does this stop?” I sweated through my silk blouse at the chance of bumping into her. I held my son’s small hand. I thought: We are also the family here, near certain inside the safety of my own heart.
Four years later, we were at the middle son’s wedding reception. It was held in the home of the pastor of the church that had prayed for my husband to repent. Members came up to congratulate him. A string quartet played Bach’s Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring. His ex-wife sat in the living room, yards away. The house wasn’t big enough. Still, my stepson looked composed and handsome beside his bride, a woman ten years older with a young daughter from her first marriage. Our son, ten then, asked his half-brother if he could meet his mom. “All-righty then,” my stepson said, grabbing a breath, and he took him over. His dad and I followed, drafting behind them.
“Well, hello,” his ex-wife said, extending her hand to our son. “I’ve heard about you.”
“I know!” he said.
She laughed a little.
“It’s a good day,” I said to her.
She looked tender but she didn’t break.
“They make a happy couple,” she said.
My husband kissed her on the cheek and said, “We all did a good job.”
That same year I went back to finish college, and my favorite prof was there to remind me why he still believed in me. I hung my diploma in our den in the grid of family photographs and achievements.
Pia Z. Ehrhardt is the author of FAMOUS FATHERS & OTHER STORIES. Her fiction and essays have appeared in McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, Oxford American, Rumpus.net, Guernica, New World Writing, and Narrative Magazine. She lives in New Orleans, where she’s a visiting artist at New Orleans Center for Creative Arts (NOCCA).