Aaron glanced up when the spoon hit the floor, and for that second Katherine’s boy was all Ken: something about the angle of his chin and the blank, unguarded look—not quite surprise, just the neutral face of an involuntary response. Then she bent to pick up the spoon, and when she rose and looked at him again, he was back to himself: some portion of her, some portion of Ken, some portion just his own.
“Hey buddy, your oatmeal’s almost ready,” she told him.
“‘Kay,” he said, and dropped his head to concentrate on the toy cars he was lining up on the counter.
Katherine turned to the stove and lowered the heat. When Aaron was first born, Ken had said, “I wonder whose he’ll be.” She was sitting up in her hospital bed, exhausted, bloodied, her episiotomy barely stitched and still throbbing, and Ken had told her, chuckling and patting their new son’s cheek, “He looks like a scrunched-up alien.”
“He’s beautiful,” she’d said, and snuggled Aaron closer. Honestly, he was a little funny-looking, but the nurses had promised it was just the usual newborn awkwardness; he’d smooth out and—a black nurse had informed her—darken some. Whether that was meant as reassurance or warning to the young white mother of a biracial child, Katherine didn’t know.
Then Ken said it: “I wonder whose he’ll be.” Meaning, she guessed, whom he would take after, as though it could be just one or the other of them. He could be hers, or he could be Ken’s, but he couldn’t be theirs. And it was at that moment she knew, when before she’d only suspected, that they wouldn’t be raising this child together.
“Mommy?” Aaron said, interrupting Katherine’s thoughts.
“What, honey?” She dropped the spoon in the sink.
“I don’t feel good.”
So she turned off the heat and abandoned the oatmeal and took his temperature: 101.2. Then she got him back into his pajamas and put him to bed—she was glad for the activity, actually, the distraction of it—and called his dad.
“Hello?” Ken answered. He sounded like hell.
“Ken? How are you? It’s Katherine.” She touched her sternum and took a deep, ragged breath. She realized she’d hoped to find in his voice some of the strangely intimate friendliness from the other day, when they’d talked and sat together at the second-grade spring open house.
“Terrible.” He coughed.
“You think it’s the flu? Seems kind of late in the season.”
“I don’t know,” Ken said, and Katherine could hear his wife in the background asking who was on the phone. “Just Katherine,” he told her.
“Hey, I don’t mean to be rude,” Ken said, “but Susan and I both feel rotten. What do you need?”
“Oh, just…” Katherine blushed, and she was glad Ken couldn’t see her. “Aaron’s sick now too, so I think he should stay with me.”
“That’s fine, thanks. Poor kid. Tell him we hope he feels better and we’ll see him when we’re all well.”
After they hung up, Katherine walked the few steps to the living room and looked out the window, through the wavy glass that scrambled the view across the street.
She had wanted to go to the beach today. She loved the beach in early spring, long before the tourists came. She loved the desolation. She loved the hostility of the whitecapped water and its imminent, but avoidable, danger. She loved the smell ofLake Michigan, a mix of earth and cold and a pleasant fishiness. She even loved the still-wintry wind. It was embarrassing to admit, but she’d been eager for some time alone to think over what had happened between Ken and her at the open house, whether something had changed or she only imagined it might have.
Jesus, she must have imagined it—just Katherine, he’d said. But he was sick—and he’d said it to his wife. Katherine felt herself blush again. She turned from the window.
She’d wanted to go to the beach, but Aaron was here with her on a Sunday, sick in his bed. So she straightened up the apartment and made her bed and sorted laundry. She braided her hair and unbraided it and painted her toenails. Then she checked on Aaron, who lay fetal with his face mashed into the pillow. She kissed him and felt his forehead—warmish but not burning.
“Mommy.” He woke and held a hand out and she took it.
“Shh, honey. Go back to sleep.”
“Stay with me,” he said.
“All right, for a little bit, but I want you to close your eyes.”
He scooted over to make room for her on his twin bed, and she lay down on top of the covers. He closed his eyes, and she watched him. This boy, with the black eyelashes on the brown cheek, built skinny like her with her cheekbones and her chin, he was hers.
He was Ken’s too. Katherine closed her eyes. He was theirs.
At the school open house on Thursday, Ken had waved from the table of punch and cookies, then crossed to her, taken her elbow, and tapped Mrs. Reynolds, Aaron’s teacher, on the shoulder. “Hello,” he said, shaking the teacher’s hand. “We’re Aaron Caldwell’s parents.”
Mrs. Reynolds smiled. “Certainly,” she said. “I remember you both.”
It was weird, his introducing them like that, as though they belonged together, as though they were the Caldwells, though really, Katherine thought now, she could have spoken up and introduced herself as Katherine Culpepper; the omission had been at least a little bit intentional.
And after that Ken had stuck beside her all night, sitting with her in those child-size chairs, getting her another cup of punch, touching the small of her back as they searched the art projects on the walls for Aaron’s name, even brushing her ear with his lips when he leaned over to whisper that Mrs. Reynolds’ lazy eye was kind of giving him the creeps.
Katherine had always gotten on just fine with Ken; they’d had an amicable breakup, but the other night it had felt like he was flirting with her. She’d gone along because she hadn’t known how to protest, and because she’d enjoyed being with him among the other parents—all those married couples—so much so that she’d barely thought of Susan; she hadn’t wanted to ask Ken where his wife was, and he didn’t offer the information.
Of course, Susan was probably just working late, but still.
Katherine peeked at Aaron. His eyes were closed, but when she started to sit up, he reached for her arm. “No, Mommy, stay. I need you.”
She lay back down and turned on her side toward him. She could see Ken in him, and she could see herself, but sometimes when she saw Aaron with Ken and Susan—when they met her at the door of their house or when she came upon them at the park or the grocery store—god, it broke her heart how they looked like a family. Ken’s skin was very dark, but Susan was herself biracial, so they could conceivably have produced her brown-skinned boy. She hated to think how the four of them together looked to strangers: like a black family talking to some white friend they’d run into.
But it was great they all got along, great that Ken had married a nice woman. Better a good stepmom for Aaron than a bad one.
It could be so much worse. What if they fought or Ken had wound up with someone horrible? Or what if he’d tried to win full custody by claiming he was more stable (he was married, he owned a nice house)?
Katherine sighed and looked around Aaron’s room. One wall was the inside of the pitched roof, which made some of the floor space unusable for lack of head space, and all the furniture was mismatched. There was no closet, just a dresser and a hook over the door.
Ken had three bedrooms, a bath and a half, and a big backyard, but the only time Aaron had ever complained about Katherine’s apartment was last year when the hot water heater in the building broke and he’d had to take cold sponge baths for a few days. But even then he never told her he’d rather be at his dad’s. That is, his dad and Susan’s.
Jesus. Susan. Practically the first thing Susan ever said to Katherine was, “In small towns, there’s such limited class segregation. I mean, you’ll see really nice homes next door to falling-apart ones. And everyone uses the same schools and stores and everything.” That was four years ago, when Ken got engaged and invited Katherine over to meet the woman who would become Aaron’s stepmom. The three of them had been drinking wine, all polite and awkward, when Katherine asked Susan how it was she’d come from theDetroitsuburbs (Katherine could never remember which one) to tinyMarksville,Michigan. Before answering the question, Susan had burst out with that line about small towns, and Katherine had wondered if she meant there was some limited class segregation going on right that minute in Ken’s living room. It was hard not to take offense to Susan.
But Katherine’s apartment did have its charms: the wavy old glass in the windows that annoyed her sometimes for impeding her view, but that Aaron loved for the same reason; the overgrown garden in the side yard where they had their own plot of tomatoes in the summer; the building’s gingerbread trim and peeling pink paint.
There were a lot worse places to live. The apartment was decent and safe.
If she and Ken had stayed together, though, would she be living with Aaron and him in a three-bedroom house? Maybe not. It seemed like breaking up with her had given Ken a boost. He’d found a better job, gotten married, and bought a house. (Why was he flirting with her now, then?) In the meantime, Katherine had stagnated. She’d held him back.
So what was holding her back?
She exhaled and closed her eyes again.
When she woke, Aaron was looking at her. She smiled, and he smiled too. Oh, this boy. She touched his eyebrow with her thumb, and his lids fell slowly shut. Oh, this boy, she thought, this boy with the black eyelashes on the brown cheek: I love him so much. I love him so much it scares me.
The last thing Katherine wanted to do on a Saturday morning—or ever—was go to Ken and Susan’s. She’d rather have slept in or read the paper. She’d rather have had a root canal.
But Ken called yesterday evening and said that when Susan picked Aaron up from school he’d flung open the car door, yelled “Stranger danger!” in a surprisingly stentorian voice—”stentorian,” that was a Ken word if she’d ever heard one—then karate-chopped the back of the passenger seat all the way home.
Katherine had laughed and said, “At least we know he’s better,” an attempt to draw Ken out, the Ken who’d flirted with her at the open house. (Was she nuts? Did she just imagine that?) But he didn’t laugh; he just cleared his throat and said, “We tried to talk to him but he wasn’t in the mood to be serious, so I thought we could have a family meeting tomorrow.”
Katherine stifled a groan, but she agreed. She hated how Ken called these periodic get-togethers “family meetings.” Ken wasn’t her family. He never really had been. And Susan sure as hell wasn’t either. But here she was on a Saturday morning—a sunny, warmish Saturday morning in April; you didn’t get many of those—making the familiar six-block walk for a family meeting.
Katherine’s purse fell off her shoulder, and as she hoisted it back up she felt the magazine inside graze her hip. After hanging up with Ken last night, she’d regretted laughing, so she went sifting through the stack of Newsweeks that overflowed a basket in the living room. She found what she was looking for in an issue from last October, a long article about a blond eleven-year-old kidnapped inTallahassee whose remains were discovered eighteen months later outsideSt. Louis. In a sidebar were stories about seven black children who were still missing. The blond girl’s name and face had been ubiquitous for the year and a half before her body was found, but Katherine had never heard of these other kids.
When she’d first read that article, six months ago, it had seemed unreal, merely sensational, but now she needed to show Ken and Susan she understood stranger danger wasn’t laughable; it was serious—especially for black kids. But she wasn’t sure how she would bring it up or what she would say.
Katherine looked at her watch. She was going to be a few minutes early, so she dragged her feet for the last block and a half, which gave her a chance to examine the houses as she went. Most were decent and modest—ranches or halfway-fixed-up small Victorians. There was one lovely old home on the National Register of Historic Places, and she slowed down to blind herself a little with its new copper roof.
But there were also several junky-looking ones, with taped-up windows or dirt yards or rotted siding. And the worst was just three houses from Ken and Susan (limited class segregation). Katherine stopped in front of it. The cinder blocks that held up the porch sank into the ground so there was a six-inch gap from the bottom of the front door, and the lawn was all mud puddles that seeped onto the sidewalk. The front windows were boarded up, and orange fungus sprouted from the roof. The house and yard appeared to be covered in a layer of water so thick with filth it had become slime, impenetrable by the sun and impervious to evaporation. This house has drowned, Katherine thought.
When she got to Ken and Susan’s she stood for a moment on the sidewalk to study their home’s tidy asymmetry—the tri-level represented a low point in American architecture—then climbed the steps to the porch and rang the doorbell, ignoring her ex’s standing invitation to just come in.
Ken answered the door, and Aaron was right behind him. “Mommy!” Aaron took her hand to pull her toward the living room, and Ken followed them.
“Susan’s on the phone with her mom,” he said. “She’ll be just a minute.”
In the living room, Katherine sat at one end of the couch, and Aaron hopped up to lean against her. Ken sat at the other end, and they smiled at each other over their son’s head.
“Hey buddy,” Ken said, “why don’t you tell your mom about our vacation?”
Katherine had already heard everything she cared to know about the upcoming summer-break trip, but Aaron slid off the couch, ran to the bookshelf, and returned with a tour book: Walt Disney World and Orlando.
He set the book on the floor and Katherine leaned over to watch him turn pages while he narrated: Pirates of theCaribbean, the haunted house, Cinderella’s castle. Ken scooted toward her and whispered in her ear, “If I could get away with it, I’d send you to Disney hell in my place.” He tapped her on the knee, once, and then a second time.
“Who says I’d want to go?” Katherine bit the inside of her lip. Maybe his fingertips on her knee were no different from the way she might touch her mother.
No, he was flirting with her again; he was. It was hard now for her to stay annoyed with him—for calling a family meeting or for using the word “stentorian.”
They leaned toward each other, heads almost touching as they peered over Aaron’s shoulders at the book. She considered pulling the magazine out of her purse, though she still didn’t know what she would say about it, and then Susan walked in.
Katherine sat up quickly. Susan smiled and settled into the chair across from them. “It’s nice to see you, Katherine,” she said.
“Nice to see you too.” Katherine leaned away from Ken. Susan had on dark tailored jeans and a pink twinset, and her understated feminine Afro was neatly cropped. In her ratty jeans and sweater, Katherine was getting that baby-sitter feeling, the way she did sometimes at Ken and Susan’s, like they were the real grown-ups and Aaron belonged to them.
The two of them looked like Mr. and Mrs. Black Middle Class—Mr. Math Teacher and Mrs. Paralegal. Katherine’s work as an office manager was still pretty middle class, she supposed, but Ken’s and Susan’s jobs seemed more…deliberate.
Her own job was all right; she didn’t hate it, but she had no big ambitions, no real professional goals. She hadn’t “lived up to her potential,” whatever that meant, but she had no energy anymore for her potential. The job was the result of a half-hearted associate’s degree in business, whereas Ken and Susan had each pursued something specific. Katherine’s whole life felt like a series of decisions that had added up to something she never would have intended: not this life, not exactly.
“Hey, buddy,” Ken said to Aaron. “Time to start.”
Aaron reshelved the book and came back to lean against Katherine on the couch. She put her arm around him.
“So, we’re going to talk about stranger danger, right?” Ken asked.
“What is stranger danger, Aaron?”
He sat up straight, and Katherine had to move her arm. “It’s when someone you don’t know—or it could be someone you know, but I doubt it—tries to hurt you or take you. Or touch your privates.” He giggled, covered his mouth, then took his hand away and resumed his serious expression.
“Right,” Ken said. “And what did they tell you about it in school?”
Aaron took a deep breath and looked out the window behind Katherine. “Um, they said it’s not very many people, but some grown-ups want to do bad things to kids, so you have to be careful. And tell your parents about anything that happens, and your teacher or the principal.”
“That’s good. Anything else?”
“Oh yeah, we had a play, and kids went up and said what they’d say if someone tried to do something to them.”
“What did the kids say?” Susan asked.
“‘I’ll tell my mom,’ ‘Let go of me.’ Uh… ‘Stop!’” He shrugged.
It went on like that for a while—what was stranger danger, let’s name some ways to be careful, remember it was okay to kick and punch if someone tried to grab you, and so on. But it all felt futile. If an adult wanted to grab a seven-year-old and make off with him, the kid probably wouldn’t be able to prevent it.
Aaron shifted to lean his whole weight against Katherine. God, he was so small. She circled his wrist with her thumb and forefinger.
She thought about the magazine in her purse. But what could she say? You have to be extra extra careful, Aaron, careful in ways your mom doesn’t think do any good, more careful than most of your friends because the media and the police don’t work as hard when black kids are kidnapped? But that still didn’t feel like the point she wanted to make.
Katherine looked at her boy with the black lashes on the brown cheek, gravely considering the serious business of stranger danger. There was no way he could really comprehend this—and neither could she, honestly—it was just something you learned in school, like math and kickball.
After about half an hour, when it seemed to Katherine that the family meeting should have been winding down, Susan asked, “Have you ever heard of using a password?” and Aaron answered, “Who goes there!” as Katherine said, “A password?”
“I saw it on the news a few years ago,” Susan went on. “It’s for if you have to send someone the child doesn’t know to pick him up from school—”
“That will never happen,” Katherine said.
“Or if someone comes to the door, for example, and Aaron asks what’s the password and they know it, he can let them in. If they don’t know, he wouldn’t.”
“I don’t think this has to be so complicated,” Katherine began, but Aaron interrupted her.
“Yeah, a password!”
“Well, maybe you could do it just for fun, but if my mother comes to the door to pick him up and she’s forgotten the password, then what, you don’t let her in?”
“The password isn’t for family—at least this is what they were saying on the news,” Susan said. “It’s for friends or neighbors the parents trust but whom the child might not be very familiar with.”
Katherine wanted to tell Susan that was fucking ridiculous, but she’d sooner say “fuck” to Aaron than to her. Susan was only thirty, her own age, but she made Katherine feel like a kid with her perfect twinsets, her well-kept home, her orderly marriage. Even her blackness—her blackness—made Katherine feel like a kid, deficient, unequal to the task of raising this boy. And now Susan was pushing her dumbass password idea on Aaron, Katherine’s son. Stranger danger was serious—she got it; she understood—but did Susan really think a password would be any protection?
“I want a password,” Aaron told them.
“What do you want it to be?” Ken asked.
“Stranger danger!” Aaron bellowed in what Katherine imagined was the same voice he startled Susan with yesterday.
“No, Aaron, come on,” Ken said.
“Two-wheeler,” Ken repeated. “I think that would be okay. Katherine?”
“It’s fine, I just don’t see how we’ll ever use it.”
Aaron turned to her and put his hand on her cheek. “Mommy, it’s for just in case, okay?”
Katherine took Aaron’s hand away from her face and kissed the palm before putting it in his lap. How could she argue with him, in front of Ken and Susan? “Okay, okay, the password is two-wheeler,” she said. Aaron would probably just forget about it anyway.
“All right, everyone,” Ken said. “anything else?”
Katherine just shrugged.
“I’m all set,” Susan said.
“Okay, Aaron,” Ken prompted him.
Aaron hopped off the couch to announce, “This Caldwell/Culpepper family meeting is adjourned!” and went racing off in the direction of the front door. “Who goes there!” they could hear him shout down the hall.
Katherine decided this was her last opportunity. She pulled the magazine out of her purse and opened it to the page about the missing black children. “Listen,” she said and handed the magazine to Ken, “I didn’t know how to bring this up, but…”
Ken read for a few seconds, and handed the magazine to Susan, who looked at it and exchanged a glance with her husband.
“I think this is something Ken and I should talk about later, Katherine,” Susan said.
Without me, Katherine thought. She felt like the baby-sitter again, and she found herself saying, “I think it’s something Ken and I should talk about, Susan. Aaron is my son” before she even realized she was going to. For Christ’s sake, Susan suggested the stupid password, but Katherine was the one trying to prove herself?
Susan only looked at her, expressionless, and Katherine held her stare for a few seconds before Ken jumped in. “Can we borrow this?” he asked. “We’ll read it and get it back to you and then we can all talk.”
“Fine,” Katherine said and stood up. They could eat it for all she cared. “Aaron!” she called, and he came running back to the living room. “I’ve got to go, honey.”
“Okay, Mommy. I love you.” He hugged her, and ran to the front door. Katherine followed him down the hall, and Ken and Susan followed her.
They clustered in the entryway. “Thanks for coming,” Ken said, and then he touched her again, on the elbow this time.
Katherine moved her elbow almost imperceptibly into his hand. She didn’t look at Susan. “See you,” she said. She pulled her arm away and stepped out onto the porch.
Her purse was lighter now, but there was no satisfaction in that, as she hadn’t said what she really thought, which was that the focus on the raped and murdered girl, and even on the missing black kids, was a little…distracting. The murder was horrendous, and the lack of attention paid to the kidnappings of black children was unfair, but still, the alarmism, the emphasis on freak incidents was so lavish, when what they really had to fear, she suspected, was something more insidious, more incremental.
The stuff parents worried about mostly had to do with keeping kids alive, but what was far likelier than murder was resignation to a life that wasn’t bad, exactly, but that no one would choose.
In other words, Katherine thought, she didn’t want Aaron to turn out like her.