Stories

Boundaries – Michael Hoarty

        Jane and I make a promise to do this like adults, to not lose any friends, to not become hateful towards one another. Above all, we do this for our son. Our separation is to be carefully and gracefully undone. We hire a blonde woman as our therapist. Our therapist tells us that resources will be provided, support will be given, but we were to trust her. That was an important part in our onboarding session, “you have to trust me, which might be a little difficult sometimes.”
        We make a spreadsheet where we write in friends we’re okay with losing to the other and friends we’d like to keep between us, and there is no dearth of difficult decisions. Our therapist tells us we can keep all of our friends. “Proceed as normal, as if you didn’t even separate,” our Therapist says. “Be jovial, be kind with each other. Be honest. Everyone will think everything is normal.”
        Our son is named Kyle. He has the size and gait of a small child despite a 50 year old face. The plainest way I can put it: he looks like a naked rat. His ears are the largest part of his body by a sizable margin. His nose has been half-missing since birth, existing as a mesh of thin cartilage. His teeth are small, sharp stumps. He doesn’t know how to speak. He hisses and bites. He was birthed from a well of flesh we found in our backyard after following her screams. We couldn’t find him a good home, so we raise him together. Not everybody knows about our son. Judgmental friends in the past have run fast and far when they met him. When friends find out and react poorly, we cut them out of our life and we make them sound insane to our mutual friends. We don’t like keeping him a secret, but we have found a way to strike a balance between taking care of Kyle while still ensuring a healthy social life. Plus, Kyle loves his cellar! When we leave, I put in lots of cheese and magazines for him to chew on and he gives me a frail hug with his poor little paws.
        We’re open about our feelings towards one another, we spell out resentments. Our therapist tells us to swap chores for a week, meaning I do the dishes. When a plate slips out of my hand and shatters, Jane gives me a hug, says, “I’m angry, but I understand.” We say things like “my executive functioning is in a poor location, can we talk about this later?” How fun it would be to weaponize those tactics, not that either of us ever would. We’re doing this right.
        I have a sneaking suspicion Jane will want Kyle, full custody, no lawyers or arguments. This is my preferred outcome (along with a guarantee that she’ll pay for any law related fees he may accumulate throughout his life), so when she suggests joint custody, I posit that we should find a healthy way to settle this disagreement. She stops me when I imply that she takes better care of Kyle than me, that my emotional labor has more than made up for any lack of attention I’ve paid towards the boy. Our therapist suggests that, should we do joint custody, whoever has to leave the house (her, I will ensure this) will have to buy a nearby house and, from there, we can build a tunnel for Kyle to traverse through. Having a boy in a cage out in public is frowned upon these days.
        How to break the news to Kyle? Our therapist suggests we tell him the truth using as many metaphors as possible, but our tongues get tied. We explain things may get confusing around these parts, but we both love him very much and are committed to loving him for as long as he lives. He pants, cries a little, digs his claws into the wall even after we tell him to stop. “Let him have his angst. Nurture it,” our therapist implores.
        Kyle begins to tear the cellar apart. He digs holes and eats the rats they invite in 2-3 bites, sucking on them as if they’re straws. He starts humming a lowly, mournful howl at the sky, sitting on our roof. Jane tells me we need to do something, the neighbors will see soon, after all. I go on the roof and put my arm around Kyle. I encourage him to do whatever he needs to do, but to do so quietly and out of sight. He groans an understanding. I remind Jane about what a custody deal has to look like. Our therapist says that some understandings must be agreed upon without anyone related to the law in any capacity finding out. We have to reach a verdict about Kyle privately.
        Our friends are so understanding in regards to our separation. We have them over for dinner, Jane makes a delicious roast and I toss together a salad and some charcuterie and decorate the house with banners that say “we will always <3,”custom-made at a Party City. At the dinner, we clank our forks to our wine glasses and toast to our separation. We direct our friends to never choose a side. There are lots of hugs from all, and at the end of the night, I catch Jane flirting with Larry, a friend of mine from the local pool hall. When I tell her how this breaches a boundary, she says she will find somebody else to love instead, and we make an agreement to not sleep with any of our friends without consent between the two of us prior to any moves being made.
        A planned concert to see The Moody Blues is canceled, the sound of romance in their music will sting. Jane asks if she can have a ticket, and I tell her I sold them. “Music can be about friendship too,” she says. “We have a deep connection. It’s just different now.” Our therapist has said those very words. Our therapist tells us to congratulate each other, in fact, give each other a hug, for we have been charting rough waters with aplomb. Our therapist tells us we’re one of the least toxic couples she’s ever met.
Kyle cuts up the hammock in our backyard and mangles a number of hummingbirds who were unlucky enough to drift towards our feeder. We punish him: this means taking away his cheese, his blanket, and his clothing. He has to be locked in his cellar for a full 24 hours and we program alarms to go off every hour, ensuring he won’t sleep. It’s tough love, but we’ve tried everything and eventually you just have to do whatever it takes. This punishment is how he learns. At night, his clicking snores travel through our floorboards, tapping at the wood.
        Someone from child services stops by, and we do what we’ve done for past instances of a similar nature: played dumb. We talk about feral wild cats in the neighborhood, geese with grudges, strange children who we let play in our backyard because we’re afraid of them. The trick is to talk as if you don’t even know what a child is, to restrict the officer’s sanity. She asks for a quick glance around the property, we allow it, and when she asks what’s in the cellar, we tell her it’s a private mausoleum of urns from deceased ancestors, a sanctuary. “If you must go on, we will certainly open our doors to you, but we do try to keep the spot sacred.” The officer had seen enough. We are good at hiding Kyle, shrouding his trace of existence.
        “They’re on our trail,” I say, my voice trailing into a hint I pray Jane is able to grasp.
        “He’s worth it,” she says. I can’t tell if she picked up on my hint or not.
        “It will be very hard if he is moving between the two of us.”
        Her voice breaks before she can say anything. “Take him, please.”
        “What?” I have to stop myself before an incredulous “no.”
        “You can look after him.”
        “You would do a far better job,” I say. “I wish,” I manually break my voice, “I wish it could be me.”
        “I can’t lie like you do,” she says. “You’re more protective. I wish this wasn’t true.”
        I say my hint out loud. She is aghast and insists on my silence when I try to provide bullet points. Then she says we can talk about it in the morning. “It’s a lot to think about,” we agree. This is the hardest night I’ve had to spend away from her, forget about the intrusive lucid fantasies of her lovemaking with other men, forget about loneliness, no, I want to be by her side and not have to wait for her answer. She might get suspicious. She would never call the police on me, at least I don’t think she would.
        We get coffee with our friends Harry and Elizabeth the next day. It’s part of a series we’re planning, where we get coffee with our friends individually, or together if they’re a couple. The idea is to synchronize them to our new life as separated and single, to the new ways we operate. The goal is to have your friends realize neither of you has changed an inch. We play Settlers of Catan and drink lattes. There’s lots of laughter. Jane is noticeably tense, but I think she’s hiding it well. At one point, it’s just the two of us, and I ask if she’d like to continue our talk. “What talk?” she asks, and when I remind her, she shakes her head. “Oh. No. We’re not going to talk about that yet, no.” She says the same thing when we meet with Jaime, when we meet with Christian & Annie, when we meet with Clark.
        “We don’t have to do it, let’s leave it at that,” I say.
        “No,” she says, and for a blissful second I’m convinced she’s about to tell me she’s in. “It’s something we should talk about. I’m just not ready yet.”
        Our friend Derek knows about Kyle. He’s one of the only, and it’s because Kyle showed his face and body during a visit once. He knows the score, he knows to keep the gossip low to the ground. There have been no leaks, as far as I can tell. It’s nice when you have to hide something that people will sound insane describing. He asks us what we’re doing about him. “We’re killing him,” Jane says as a joke: Derek has such a dark sense of humor, it feeds right into it. We all laugh and Jane tells him that we’re going to share the love between us. Tears well in her eyes and we ask Derek to leave. It was the first post-separation-friend-synchronization to be a failure.
        I meet him by the docks, like we arranged. He’s portly, wears loose leather. I bring photos of Kyle and he eyes them with a microscope. He makes phone calls and speaks in languages with which I’m unfamiliar.
        “When would he be ready?” He asks. I promise him next week, he promises $5,000 upfront. Much more to come.
        I am good at cornering people. I tell Jane I’ve hired somebody. I make it sound like a done deal.
        “But that’s not what you pitched,” Jane says, aghast. I tell her she wasn’t listening correctly. I tell her this involves us getting money. We can split it 50/50, like the healthiest of divorcees.
        “If we can agree on this, I’m certain there’s nothing that can phase us,” I say. She’s unhappy.
        Her intent changes when we’re having another friend-synchronization-experience. It’s Alyssa, who we debated inviting. There are losses who must be cut, and in the interest of this new transparency between us, I am told she never was very fond of me, not that I need to be told this, she always made it quite plain. I tell Jane she’s welcome to keep Alyssa as a friend, I can sleep at night if my wife has one (1) person to whom she can bring complaints of my baggage. Maybe two. There are other names I have in mind. I agree to be a part of the FSE with Alyssa because Jane tells me this will make her happy.
        During our tea time, Kyle makes himself visible through the window. He’s just standing there, snarling, snot hanging out of his nose. His shoulders rise and fall like a rickety elevator. He has trouble on his mind. I don’t gesture to him, I don’t acknowledge him with anything other than a stern stare. Alyssa is facing me, thank goodness, and she’s locked in a conversation with Jane about meatloaf recipes. Kyle lifts up a wood-carved blade and starts to make stabbing motions towards the window, snarling like the sick little shit he is, and he starts knocking on the window and screaming at the top of his lungs.
        We can’t get our story straight. We try to pretend like it’s nothing, completely normal, that we chased a gigantic rat boy into our cellar by throwing clumps of pine straw and rocks at him and luring him with bowls of celery. We try to pretend like we’re watching him for somebody, that’s what we land on, and she walks away in utter disbelief.
        “Fuck,” Jane says. “Okay.”
        The Man comes to visit Kyle and examines him closely, every inch of his body is carefully reviewed. He gives the boy tranquilizers and takes samples of his blood. He says he’ll put him on the market tonight, $10,000 starter bid. He assures us we will receive more. An article in the New York Times implying that scientists have more sample humans than they know what to do with dampens my hopes. Meanwhile, Jane says she still isn’t sure. She asks if it’s too late. I lie and say it is too late. Then I say, “unless…” We go home agreeing to review our boundaries tomorrow morning over breakfast.
        The Man tells me he’s having trouble finding sales. “Recession,” he notes with a shrug. “Don’t worry, we’ll find him a home one of these days. There just might need to be some patience involved.”
        Jane tells me to stop it all. She has the hyper volatile energy of someone who realizes they’ve made a huge mistake.
        “I know it’s not too late. I know you have the power to stop this,” Jane says. I continue to lie and say my hands are tied. No matter how many times I say it, she insists otherwise.
        She promises so many things, she promises everything except for handling Kyle full time. I bring this up to her. “I still think we could make joint custody work,” she offers.
        “You know what happens if he stays with me, at this point,” I say. This is a serious violation of boundaries, I am aware. I believe I have eclipsed the need for boundaries. I say this aloud. “Maybe we need lawyers after all,” we say to each other in near unison.
        Our therapist can’t know about this. “No, I will not make an exception,” she states plainly when we ask if we can ask her about a crime that may or may not be about to take place. I don’t like her jotting down notes. “I sense the boundary violations in the room,” she says. “I sense so much pain. It was never here before. Do you intend on hurting each other?” We shake our heads. “Do you intend on hurting anybody else?” My wife says no in a defiant manner, thinking that she’s getting her way. Ha.
        The prick who serves me papers while I buy cigarettes is the reason I go home to the cellar. Jane is away, at one of her book clubs. I go in and see Kyle. He shrinks at my sight. He’s always looked pitiful, but never in a way that has gotten through to me until now. His eyes are so large, his paws so dainty. He hugs his tooth-ridden teddy bear. He knows what’s about to happen, and he only fights it with a sad squeal when I hold him against the wall and smother a pillow over his tiny body. A baby-tinted cough and 30 seconds of silence show me I have achieved what I want. I drop his corpse and leave it resting there. I can feel regrets in my stomach, but I vomit them back up again.
        Jane comes home and I tell her everything. I cry, and the tears are real. If nothing else, I’m missing out on a lot of potential money. Jane cries too, wails, in fact. She is histrionic. I shape up and start rubbing my hand on her shoulder, she repulses until I apply persistence. I kiss her on the forehead. She stops to sob.
        “Honey, honey,” I say. “No more lawyers. No more fights. It’s done. And you’re going to thank me.”
        The way she stares at me gives me a feeling of what Kyle must have gone through whenever we looked at him, and for a brief second that goes away as quickly as it came, I wish I could have him back.