What the Ex Broke

by Charlie Stephens

          My girlfriend Simone and I have been dating for a little over a year. We met at a mutual friend’s backyard dinner party, which felt very romantic and charming, as opposed to clicking and swiping a screen to find a lover. Not to be judgmental. Whatever it takes.

          Her ex is an old, washed-up—but diehard—punk rocker.  I know this because her son, Mateo, who is nine, talks about his dad constantly during the weeks he’s with Simone. She’s a clinical psychologist and believes her ex is a narcissist, fully aware that just about everyone throws this armchair diagnosis around these days. But in her case, she knows exactly what narcissism entails, and is not using the term lightly. On our third date, at a little Italian cafe downtown, she explained her theory: that her ex actively, though subconsciously, tries to convince his kid, and everyone else, to idolize him by bombarding him with epic monologues on the subject of his own glory. 

          “He believes it is possible to spin each of his many failures into a conquest, where every public slight he is forced to endure becomes the inspiration for a passionate soapbox speech about the personal injustices he experiences,” she explained as the waiter brought the wine list. “Nothing, of course, is his responsibility.”

          According to Mateo, his dad cries at the end of every movie they watch, but also threatens to beat him with a leather belt occasionally. Then his dad cries about that, never hits him, and promises he never will. Mateo adamantly adores him even when explaining all this, which I think further confirms Simone’s narcissist theory.

          Simone is great because almost nothing is too precious to her, and she doesn’t believe things should be sugar-coated for any reason. She just lays it all out there in the open. When I first slept over, I went to the bathroom and the door knob fell off, then I noticed the whole door was completely knocked out of shape, hanging on the paint-peeled frame at a strange angle. 

          “Oh that,” she said. “My ex broke it during one of his rages a few years ago.” 

          Then she showed me how to put on and turn the door knob so it stayed in place, and we went back to bed and had more sex. We have a lot of sex when Mateo is at his dad’s house. Week on, week off, it has become a rhythm between two extremes. What I’ve learned is that things just aren’t very sexy when a child is anywhere nearby, even with the door locked late at night. Even when Mateo’s running around the neighborhood and won’t be in for hours, I just can’t do it. I’m not sure how to get over this. I jokingly started calling Mateo the little cockblocker but not within earshot of course. Kids these days hear everything it seems, and the whole ugly, brutal world exposes itself to them in an onslaught. 

          At Saturday dinner last week, Mateo was going on and on in his little kid way. To be honest, neither of us was listening too closely because, like his dad, he has really mastered the art of the monologue. But he got our complete attention when we heard him say, “Bukkake”.

          “What?!” we both asked, thinking he got a word wrong from one of the Japanese Godzilla movies he watches and rewatches with his dad. 

          But no, it turns out he knows exactly what bukkake is. This got us into a whole conversation with him to please talk with us about what he’s seeing on the internet, how porn is not real sex, how it distorts and leaves out emotional intimacy, about its performative nature, about its oversized body parts, but he only just turned nine. It’s hard to know what exactly is getting in there. What can he understand with complexity, being so far removed from romantic love, from adult or even adolescent sexuality? Foreign concepts. 

          All this prompted a new rule of only being online in the living room, but it seems like a drop in the bucket. Having a child and sharing custody with an ex means half a kid’s life—more probably—is just out of one’s hands, and parents actually have very little control over how their children will turn out, as painful as that is to admit. 

          “I wonder if Mateo got onto one of his dad’s online porn sites somehow,” she wondered out loud as she headed out the door to go meet a friend. Once she left, I sat alone on the couch, feeling sick to my stomach.

          Spending more and more time at their house, it has become clear how many things have been broken: the handle on the refrigerator door, a wall in the laundry room, even a burnt area near the front door entrance. 

          “It absolutely builds character,” says Simone with a matter of factness that seems to be the work of many years of successful personal therapy, but I’m left unclear on whether she’s talking about herself or the house. 

          Mateo’s behavior increasingly disturbs me but I try not to say too much. Lately things really haven’t been going very well at all. There’s nightly bedwetting, ear-shattering tantrums, and steadily-growing egotism. At his soccer game just this afternoon he angrily complained that no one passed the ball to him, and then started screaming his head off, erratically stumbling around the penalty area like a rabid dog. 

          “BUT I’M THE BEST!” he roared, right before storming off the field in an astounding fit of rage, middle fingers stabbing the air, and spittle flying, “I’M THE FUCKING BEST!”

          Witnessing moments like this throw me into a deep, anxiety-infused, existential panic. Then I try to calm down. Tonight, after Mateo went to bed, Simone and I had a talk. I think she could tell I was still upset by what happened at the soccer game. 

          “If he’s going to grow up to be a narcissistic sociopath, he’s going to grow up to be a narcissistic sociopath,” she said in her matter-of-fact way.

          Then she asked me what I think she should be doing differently, with the first hint of defensiveness I’ve ever noticed in her voice. But it was just a rhetorical question because she knows I have absolutely no clue. 

          “We are doing our best,” she said. “What else can we do?” 

          She is probably right. She knows about things like this. 

          Lately though, I haven’t been sleeping well at all. I wake up with my stomach churning, sharp and acidic, thinking about Mateo getting older and bigger, and what he might do. I feel him under my skin, his personality like pepper spray in my eyes, and me clawing him away and begging for relief. Sometimes, even when I’m alone in my car now, I hear him in my head, angrily acting out, destroying any sense of peace I might have mustered. 

          But then I take a deep breath and try to calm down. I want so much to be more like Simone, and to share her belief that everything will work out.

          Over and over she tells me it’s better to not hold anything too preciously. 

          “It’s best to be in the moment, to stay calm, and to not get too worked up,” she reminds me, giving my tense shoulders a little rub. I look down at my hands when she says this, trying to feel it, trying to believe. I desperately want to trust that everything will be okay. But when I look up, all I can think about is what or who is going to break next. I make a fist without wanting to, fight the urge to punch the wall, and take the deepest breath I can.

About the Author

Charlie J. Stephens is a queer fiction writer living in Northern California. Charlie has lived all over the U.S. as a bike messenger, wilderness guide, book seller, and seasonal shark diver (for educational purposes only). Charlie's work has recently appeared in Original Plumbing (Feminist Press), The Flexible Persona, The Forge Literary Magazine, Gravel Literary Magazine, Rappahannock Review, Not Your Mother’s Breast Milk, and Nothing Short of: Selected Tales from 100 Word Story (Outpost19 Books). Charlie is currently working on a collection of short stories, as well as their first novel. More at charliejstephenswriting.com.