Things He Should Know

map Things He Should Know

by mahreensohail Sohail

Published in Issue No. 186 ~ November, 2012

Photo by Michael Barrett


Gloria told me she was pregnant when I was seventeen and she was sixteen. She said ‘I’m pregnant’, just like that – no preface, no warning. I’m pregnant – and there was a baby between us where there had been nothing before. Gloria was so small when we had sex, she was like a bird; I was afraid I’d break her. When she said “I’m pregnant” I saw her splitting in two and I wondered how will she manage?

She told me in her house. There was a sofa in that room that had a red wine stain on it. Jesus Christ I haven’t thought about that in years. That wine stain is why he exists. Gloria was beautiful when she drank. She had this brown hair that turned shiny when she was drinking; it felt like the world was crowded around her face. Or maybe that was because I was usually drunk with her. She sipped red wine like a lady pretending to be a whore and Jesus Christ that night, we were sitting there and she was sipping the red wine on that ratty old thing and she looked like sex. I couldn’t tell where her lips ended and the wine began so I fucked her and it wasn’t great. Tell him sex is great but that’s not all it is. It’s awkward most of the time, sexy sometimes, funny too, but maybe not exactly great. It’s something else is what it is.

I remember her giggling in the dark afterwards, flushed, still awkward, those curls greasier now, but still glowing.

And so she said ‘I’m pregnant’ two months after we spilt the wine. When her father found out he was so mad; he told me if I didn’t marry her he would kill me. But he didn’t have to say that because I knew what was what then, I said okay even though I was terrified but I knew I was doing the right thing and that matters when you’re seventeen.

But kid, listen to me, beginning something right doesn’t mean you end it right. I know that now.

How old are you? He’s twenty five too.

Listen to me, this is important.

Look at you kid – you think you want to help people but I thought I was marrying Gloria to help her too. I wasn’t. Doesn’t work like that. I was trying to save myself, to be something more than what I was. At seventeen I hadn’t done much you know? Kids nowadays have school, college, plans – but I didn’t – it doesn’t matter.

Listen. He was born and I wasn’t there. I didn’t see him for six months because we split way before he was born and Gloria was still mad that I’d left – even though – but it doesn’t matter anymore anyway. I had to leave you know? Get out, breathe.

She let me see him six months after he was born and he was small. Smaller than I expected and he had my widow’s peak. God, the women used to love it. Gloria loved it once too but I lost my hair. Tell him he’ll lose his hair too. Boys take after their fathers.  You probably take after yours – that nose can’t be an original. I’m joking, I’m joking. Jesus.

Do you love your father kid?

There’s no reason to look ashamed about saying yes – he was probably around a lot more huh?

No I don’t want any fucking water.

Listen to me.

I’m dancing around the issue – I’m telling you things I shouldn’t tell you, that don’t concern you. This is not the point. He was a baby and then he was a boy. He was six when I saw him next and I’d been living in Chicago, waiting tables, just living you know? I spent six years there before I could get back to Jersey to see him. There’s no excuse but life gets in the way. I was young and still able to fuck women, to drink and spend money – and the truth is he wasn’t my kid because I didn’t know him and he didn’t feel like my kid. I was livin’ the life, trying to get the youth out of my system. I went back for my mother’s funeral.

So he was six and I was finally home and it was him and Gloria versus me but it didn’t feel like that then because I’d been alone all along. Tell him I didn’t love him until I saw him that day when I visited. How could I? I’d never known him; he was just some kid out there and I was a kid too and my heart was too full of love for myself.

I drove to Jersey from Chicago, took me thirteen hours and I didn’t tell them I was coming. My own father didn’t know I was coming back for my Mom’s funeral. Hadn’t seen them in years, but it was the right thing to do – to go back. Even back then, I still wanted to do the right thing.

Gloria’s house seemed smaller – frayed; I’d worn it down over time in my head. I sat in the car for two hours; just looking. Sometimes looking’s enough.

I remember watching sunlight light up the garbage lining the street. It looked amazing– chip packets, old bicycle wheels, cans of coke all over the street, it reminded me that people were alive everywhere – and all I could think was how fucking beautiful. The sun set over the garbage and the only reason I got out was because I was starting to get cold in the car. The heat wasn’t working. I walked out of that car to the door and rang the bell, and I swear to God as I waited for someone to open it, I heard Gloria’s voice from the past, her voice saying over and over and over again, ‘I’m pregnant’.

He opened the door. Thing is, he looked nothing like me except for the widow’s peak which made him look as if someone had thought about splitting his face in two, but changed their mind at the last minute. And he was white – like he’d never seen the sun. I smiled so my mouth stretched but it hurt to smile and he looked at me with open, scared eyes because the kid didn’t know me, didn’t know his own fucking father, can you believe it. Can’t blame him though can you, he’d last seen me when he was six months old.

They were green. His eyes.  Like my mother’s.

The heart breaks harder when it isn’t expecting to be broken and mine wasn’t; I didn’t think I’d mind. I was hard by then. I’d spent too many years bartending and waiting tables in rough neighborhoods in Chicago to not be hard. I knew what was what in the world, but he didn’t know me and I wasn’t expecting that. And it hurt, I won’t lie to you.  Gloria walked up behind him and she put her hand on him like she was protecting him, holding him back see? I could see her fingers resting on top of his bony shoulder. I can still see them now. They looked so natural resting on his body that I knew she’d stood like that with him before.

But I got over it. I spoke to him. I said Hello. I don’t know if he remembers; in that doorway, with that old blue sorry excuse for a door and Gloria at his shoulder like some fucking soldier.

I knelt down and I took his hand, and I smiled and he smiled back and Gloria hardened. But it was me and him touching you know. It was a moment, I’ll tell you that.

I came back the next day.

I was going to take him to the fair. I woke up with a hangover because I’d visited my friends in the area the night before. Hadn’t seen them for years and the useless shits hadn’t changed much. But tell him I was excited about seeing him again that day. I didn’t care about the hangover. That’s important.

I picked him up and he looked excited too. I bought him an ice cream cone and I walked hand in hand with him. We bought tickets. I smiled at the world and said I love you again and again and again with my whole fucking being. It felt good kid. You should try it sometime.

He wanted to go on the Ferris wheel. But I was still queasy see, still a little hung over, though I loved him. You ever been hung over kid? There’s my boy, of course you have! No, no I don’t want any water. Shut up.

The fair was some crap little affair. Cheap you know, dirty but he was excited and he wanted to go on the Ferris wheel, but I told him I couldn’t, on account of the nausea, and I said that he could go on alone. I said it nicely, told him it’d be fun to have a cart of his own. So we stood in line and I bought him a ticket and then we stood in line again for the Ferris wheel and as our turn got closer and closer and closer he looked more and more upset. And finally, when we got to the end he looked like he was going to cry; and I held his hand and knelt down and said what’s wrong and he said I’m scared. He sounded six. I felt ancient but I couldn’t move, I was lazy and not a father.

But I said, you’ll be fine, I smiled and nudged him through the small gate, and I tried to ignore the widow’s peak pointing down at his eyes like an arrow. I tried not to look. Has your Dad ever done that kid? Well, I did that. He sat in a cart, alone, and the wheel started moving and he got farther and farther away from me and none of it mattered. None of my imaginary I love you’s, not the ice cream, nothing. He looked like he would die up there, he got smaller and smaller but I could still see the tears like they were fucking lakes on his face, under his eyes, and I wanted to scream, to  split myself open telling them to stop the damn thing, to close down the fair, to stop the world – he was crying, but I didn’t– we were just a man and a kid after all – and he went round and round and round, loneliness on a spin, can you imagine? And each time he passed I smiled and looked away, aware of my crime but too lazy to do anything about it

Tell him that when I dropped him home, he didn’t say goodbye.

And this is what I mean. Tell him that however much you love someone, however much something means to you, it doesn’t work out. A  Ferris wheel happens and you’re done. It’s over. And he doesn’t realize this now, he’s young. But it’s going to hit him someday. Whatever you do, whatever your intentions, you fail because somewhere along the line, life reminds you that it’s a bitch.

And this is the truth.

Tell him not a goddam person in this whole world really cares. He’s alone; I’ll be gone soon – and his mother, well we’ll both agree she’s a piece of work – do you know after we’d been married for a week she started crying. She’d wake up crying, telling me she didn’t love me, that we shouldn’t have gotten married. She’d tell me to leave the room. Imagine your wife waking you up at four in the morning, in a house that’s cold as fuck on account of no heating because neither of you makes enough money and you’re both young enough to believe that you can make it through the cold and imagine that she’s yelling at you to leave, to leave the bed, the house, her life, your kid!

She was sorry in the mornings – but it doesn’t matter now anyway. It’s history and I did leave.

She’s to blame too; not for all of it, but for some it.

But that’s women for you. Look at Janet. You asked about her didn’t you? We’d been living together for five years until one day she just woke up and started babbling about the color of the walls. I met her one night when I was bartending and took her home and she just never left, attached herself to me. Now she tells me that she feels lonely – that I’m not giving her what she needs. How can I? I’m stuck here inside myself.

Jesus there’s nothing to be sorry about – this is not the time for politeness kid. Grow up. Listen. Janet left. That’s all there is to it. We slept in the same bed for five years and she felt alone. I know but I don’t blame her because I felt it too kid. It haunts me, I want to crawl out of my skin, touch someone else, anyone else, believe in God or some shit.

He’s studying political science, can you believe it? Gloria wrote a letter asking for money for his college a couple of years ago – the only one she’s ever written – and I didn’t have any to give. Never was able to hold on to money. Some people just can’t deal with it.

But maybe that’s just an excuse and anyway it’s a useless degree – fucking snobbery packaged in an eighty thousand dollar tuition bill – nobody will teach him that skin can’t touch skin and be one. But I’ll teach him that. That’s my job see? Tell him he can screw a woman, but his cock and her vagina are separate okay?

Tell him not to let anyone ever tell him it’s any different. Tell him he’s alone so he has to start fucking marshaling his armies okay?

Listen to me. Jesus Christ, no don’t call anyone, I’m not crying. Tell him that he has to do something with his life, because if he doesn’t I will always be that man standing at the bottom of the Ferris wheel twenty years ago watching his kid’s  terror grow and grow and too  selfish, too fucking small to do anything about it. Tell him he will always be that kid – the one who learnt how not to love, who not to love on top of the world and I don’t want to be, I fucking cannot be the person who taught him that anymore. We will be shameful, tongue tied cowards for the rest of our lives, the worst possible versions of ourselves – unless he breaks through see? He has to change, to touch the world, to not be me.

If he has a kid, tell him to look into his eyes instead of at his fucking forehead.

I drove back to Chicago the morning after the fair; I didn’t even stay for the funeral. Tell him that every minute, every second in that car on the way back I wanted to die of shame. Tell him I stopped at a rest stop off some highway in Ohio and locked myself in the toilet and cried – fucking howled – my eyes out. Tell him there was a man in the cubicle next to mine and he left quietly when he heard me crying. Tell him that if he ends up being the sort of man who falls apart in toilets that he has to make sure that the person next to him – the person fucking peeing in the next stall – wants to ask him what the matter is.

Tell him that the night before I took him to the fair I went home, drunk you see. I sat in that empty hotel room for hours. And I remembered the way his mother – Gloria – had stood with him in the door as if she owned him. Tell him my hands shook on account of the alcohol as I held them up in front of me. I was such a fool. I held them up to a six year old kid’s – my kid’s – shoulder’s height. I bent my fingers like this, practicing for when I’d be able to put my hand on his arm the next morning.

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Fulbright Scholar and MFA candidate at Sarah Lawrence College. Creative Writing teacher in Queens, Astoria.
  • Paul Beckman

    A wonderful, powerful and in-your-face touching story.