“There are some things you’re never supposed to say: I don’t like sex. I am afraid of my son”: a short story by Auckland writer Ruby Porter

The first incident was at the zoo. This was back when your husband still loved you, before you had to remember to say ex-husband, that little prefix like a silk pin: something you might step on when you walk the carpet barefoot. The fries in your hand went flying. But you didn’t cry out. Still in shock. You took your son and sat him in front of the fur seals. For a minute, there would be none. Then one would shoot out of the salt water blue, straight towards you, its body turning jelly at the last moment, curving away from the glass, boneless. It was only when you noticed your reflection that you realised you were still holding the empty carton, cardboard concave between thumb and forefinger. HOT CHIPS HOT CHIPS HOT CHIPS in red and yellow writing.

Later, you held each other and cried. “I’ll never hurt him again. I promise.” Peter had your chin in both hands, yours were already searching his body, as though you’d lost something, as though you might find it in his pockets. Kissing in the carpark, wet and feverish. Gearstick getting in the way. The afternoon light was a knife, cutting the windshield in two. Hayden was silent in his booster seat.

You got that car in the divorce. You didn’t even like it – it’s a vomit-green SUV, too big for the city, bought in anticipation of kids who were never born. But that doesn’t matter when you’re dividing assets: it’s not about what you want, it’s about what you can get. It’s about lawyers with fat ties and legal bills in pristine envelopes and ending up with a car you always hated, just to spite a man you used to love. And now you drive it to your pain specialist, Mr Pratt. You sit outside his office, torque the rear view mirror, apply more Bobby Brown concealer along your chin. Once you are inside, he will hold up a laminated diagram of a male body and ask, “Show me where it hurts.”

Everywhere. It hurts everywhere.

You will leave with a prescription for more paracetamol, more ibuprofen. He doesn’t believe you. He knows you are lying but he is wrong about what.

There are some things you’re never supposed to say: reading is boring, I don’t like sex. I am afraid of my twelve-year-old son. Not afraid for them, that’s the flesh on any parent – scratch the arm of any mother and you’ll find it, even the new-age ones, the ones who won’t admit it. No, you are afraid of Hayden.

He was only three when he bit your hand at the zoo. He had finished his chips and he wanted some of yours. It wasn’t a normal bite; he latched on and wouldn’t let go. Your initial reaction was to shake your hand, but you thought, I can’t shake my son. No one was looking, not yet, but they would. Peter held Hayden’s collar and jerked him backwards. You both bucked. Hayden’s teeth didn’t loosen. You don’t remember the feeling of those teeth, but you do remember an adolescent girl shoulder-tapping her mother, pointing in your direction. You remember hating her. You remember a teacher, in an inappropriate spaghetti-strapped sundress, diverting her class towards the orangutans. You remember a boy watching while ice cream dripped down his hand, and behind him, a zoo keeper, trying to decide whether he should intervene. Bring out the cage; throw the net. Inject dog tranquiliser into the neck with a three-inch needle. Even the otters baking on rocks turned their lazy heads. Peter couldn’t stand it, the attention. He braced his hands at either side of Hayden’s head, and opened his jaw like a stiff hinge. Then he stood back, his fingers still in Hayden’s mouth, prying it wide. Hayden was crying in pain. “Stop,” you said. “Stop!” But Peter wasn’t moving. “Get your fucking hands out of his mouth!” Your own hand was bleeding, in the dotted curve of a sewing pattern. Stitch here. Your skin as thin and crinkled as tissue paper.

Hayden didn’t cease crying until he was in front of the fur seals. Looking back, you don’t know whether they were already his favourite animal, or whether you chose that spot for other reasons. Steps to take you underground. Light and noise blocked out. A cool, quiet bunker. The image of his little face in profile – sandy curls in big eyes, small bump on the bridge of his nose, lips slightly parted, not moving, not at all – still comes to you sometimes. Surfaces from the depths, swathed in that iridescent blue.

The fur seals became your altar. You’d take him there to pray. When he kicked Julie’s son, Wilson, at Wilson’s fifth birthday party, you picked him up and drove straight there. When he wouldn’t stop clawing at your legs while you prepared a roast for Peter’s parents, you left the potatoes on the stove and strapped him in the car. You used to make bargains under your breath. Please God, fix my son, and I’ll never lie again. Please, I’ll start giving to charity. Make it stop and I’ll come back to church. Hayden would press his forehead up against the glass, leaving a greasy ghost of himself each time. But his serenity never stuck around above ground. Maybe God couldn’t hear you, down there, below concrete. Maybe he’d stopped listening.

“You’re lucky it’s just one pot. You could’ve burnt the bloody house down!” Peter was most angry, you knew, because you’d arrived home to his parents already on your porch, hands making visors to peer into the front windows. He was most angry because you fed them Chinese from up the road. “Mum doesn’t like Asian food. She was being polite. You shouldn’t be rewarding him.”

“Going there gives me a chance to think.”

But Peter was already turned away from you, on the other side of the bed. His back looked like rock in that light, newly carved, smooth and immoveable.

You weren’t just rewarding Hayden. You’d started slapping him, too. Gently, on his bottom, never so hard it left a mark, never so hard that Peter knew. “Think how much worse Hayden would be if we set that kind of example,” he’d say. But you’d both been hit as kids, you both turned out fine. And Peter wasn’t home with him during the day. He didn’t have to deal with the hurtled train sets and the baked beans overturned on the floor. He didn’t have to deal with the punching and the scratching, the nails dug into palms at the supermarket. He didn’t have to deal with Hayden, constantly.

When Hayden was five, you visited Kelly Tarlton’s. He wouldn’t stop banging on its Perspex walls. Each shudder made them seem thinner, the weight of the water above your heads, greater. A pimply employee told you it would scare the fish away. No one would get to see the fish. You wanted to hit her, but you hit him instead. Hayden started crying. Peter picked up your son, Hayden’s face wet and bright in the crook of his neck, and walked straight out.

“Humiliated,” he said in the car. “I’m so humiliated to be married to you.”

Once, Hayden turned from the glass to look at you. The water was empty, in that moment. The light was the only thing in it that moved. It cast itself on the stone like a spider’s web in the breeze, delicate and wavering. “What kind of animal would you be?” He didn’t wait for your reply. “I would be a seal.” You hated yourself for it, but the image of seals that came to you wasn’t these tame swimmers, with their silken bodies, their oiled skins, slipping in and out of sight. It was the kind you see on the Discovery Channel. Seals fighting in the shallows, their necks entwining like lovers, their bodies thrashing in the waves, their mouths open to the sky.

You took him to see an autism specialist when he was six. You didn’t admit it, but you were hopeful for a diagnosis.

Peter was begrudging from the start. He thought it was too expensive, he thought Hayden was a normal young boy. He sat in that waiting room, elbows out, hands clasped in front on his belt, head tilted backwards, foot tapping Morse code on the worn carpet. Refusing to make small talk with you or to pick up one of the glossy magazines. Hayden crawled under his chair. The clinic was meant to look cheerful, with its strings of paper people and an illustrated alphabet chart, but it looked sad instead. 

A woman too young to be anyone’s doctor shuffled you into an office. Hayden sat quietly in a plastic seat, legs making circles in the air, lips turning red from the lollipop she gave him. You felt like he was cheating you, playing some sort of game.

“He’s not usually like this,” you said. “We have problems whenever we go out. Not just when we go out. Daily. Mealtimes, bedtimes, getting him to school. It’s not normal. It can’t be.”

She gave you only curt little nods and a patronizing smile.

“If you point at something in the distance,” she replied, “does Hayden look at it?”


You were speaking as if he wasn’t in the room.

“Have you ever wondered if Hayden might be deaf? Does he respond to his name?”

“No. Yes.”

“What age did he start talking?”

“Eighteen months.”

“And what age did he first smile?”

“Six months.”

“Is he sensitive to light?”

“Look, no, but―”

“Does he look you in the eye? Hayden, can you look me in the eye?”

He did, of course, he gave her the longest, most insufferable stare, his eyes glistening in the fluorescence.

Afterwards, you swore she was incompetent. “She looked twenty-three. You can’t finish a med degree by twenty-three. She was clearly some kind of student.”

Peter just turned up the TV, or went back to the newspaper. You knew he was savouring this. He had been right all along: it was you who was incompetent.

Two years later and you were divorced. It’s not worth going into. You tell yourself you won’t turn into your parents, but you always do. You gained weight like your mother and wouldn’t let him see you naked. He started working later like his dad. You stopped cooking, he stopped talking. You deleted files off his laptop, hid his favourite cologne, cut holes in the sleeves of his best shirts. He simply walked away. At the time it felt instant. One night he was on the couch, the next it was carried out by sweaty movers. But in reality, you had been leaving each other for years.

You know the separation affected Hayden, but if you’re honest, he’s a character actor playing a bit part in your memory of these months. Out of focus, at the edge of the shot. Divorce was the distraction you needed from Hayden’s tantrums. Driving past Peter’s apartment again and again. You borrowed Julie’s car and sunk low into the seat, so he wouldn’t see you out his new double-height windows. You can’t say where Hayden was in these hours; maybe with Wilson, maybe at school. Maybe he was in the backseat. Whenever you try to picture him, the camera pans away. The only thing you can say about Hayden after the break up was that he seemed withdrawn. He didn’t cry but he didn’t want to be around you crying. You kept to your separate rooms, more like flatmates than mum and son. He still wouldn’t listen to you, but you gave up the battle. Picked up his toys, let him play his Xbox all weekend, fed him chicken nuggets every night. Didn’t need to hit him once.

The first time Hayden really scared you was when he was 10. You were driving down Dominion Road in the middle of summer. The heat was choking; you felt it at your neck like a hand. Your air con was broken, but you kept the windows up so that no one would hear your yelling. You remember nothing, not what you were arguing about, or where you were going, or where you’d been. But you remember that it came in a moment of silence: your mouth dry from screaming, a headache on the horizon. You remember being ready to drop it, whatever he’d done. Just to hold onto this quiet, cradle it right to your lips and inhale.

Then he hit you.

You think he was aiming for you jaw but he punched your throat instead. Your head struck the driver’s door, the car swerved to the centre line. You felt like you’d been winded, but maybe you were simply holding your breath. It took you a few seconds to hear the honking and pull over to the dotted yellow line. You were parked up outside a Thai restaurant, cheerful and orange. Laminate menus in the window – all words, no pictures – and a red and blue LED display which was faulty, stuttering. Open, pen, Open, pen. Inside, a family of six sat around a Formica table, everyone talking at once, fighting for the crunchy remnants of larb, the oil-slick noodles. In the hairdressers next door, a lone woman was wrapped in shiny foils. You shook as you cried.

Hayden looked straight ahead. Then, he turned to you and said, “You dumb bitch, this isn’t even a park.”

“Do you want to go see the seals?”

The words escaped like a reflex, or else like a thief. Something visible, alive, that you both studied with caution.

“Why the fuck would I want that?”

You think, sometimes, of those serial killer documentaries they play on channel Four. The first five minutes are always dedicated to their childhood. A list of warning signs – the dead pets, the abused sister. The loner on the playground. The mother who didn’t love him, or didn’t love him enough.

It takes you two hours to put on makeup before appointments with Mr Pratt. You start with a green concealer, then a flesh-coloured one.

You wear long sleeves and tights under your skirts, even in summer. If there are scratches on your hands, you tell a story about the neighbour’s cat. He never laughs at those. He never laughs at much.

His office is clinical, a white so cold it’s almost blue, a box of surgical gloves by the bed. Except for the chairs which are low and brown and padded, like a counsellor’s. There’s always an excess of chairs in the room. Mr Pratt says sit down and you have to choose.

He has a face that would suit smiling. Lines around his eyes, white stubble on his chin. Hairline receding at two points, gradual race to the back of his skull. He looks at you over the top of his glasses, memory metal frames. They always fall by degrees down his nose. You imagine, if he smiled, the tips of that nose would rise. It would become round and flared. The wrinkles at his temples bunched like petals. You can picture Mr Pratt as a grandfather, bobbing a child on his knee, letting them play with his glasses. You imagine, if he smiled, he would have teeth slightly wonky, two big ones at the front pushing the others out. But he never opens his mouth wide enough for you to see.

He does, however, put his hand on your knee. “It’s time you leave him,” he says. “There are agencies who can help.” His hand slips a few inches higher to your thigh. “You know, good men do exist.”

He gives you the script for more paracetamol, more ibuprofen.

You have Hayden’s bag packed, waiting in the boot. You are waiting on the porch. You see him bowling down the other side of the street, a branch in hand. He runs it against fences; twigs bounce off each picket in succession. When he crosses the road, you gesture to the car. “Where are we going? Can’t I just take a piss?”

“You can piss at Dad’s.”

There are grazes on your knuckles from last Monday, when he pushed you into the carpet. You feel Hayden looking at them, too, mounted on the crest of the steering wheel. 

Peter is standing outside on his step, wearing a tie you bought him. The air smells of jasmine from his neighbour’s garden. It all feels wrong. The day is too sunny, the drive was too short. Hayden hoists his bag out. It’s heavier than he expects; it slams onto the concrete and his body folds with it. Knuckles paling around its straps. You get into the SUV you hate and you drive away. You make sure not to look back. Even with the windows up, you can still smell the jasmine.

Somehow, you’ve ended up at the zoo. The drive isn’t a blur, it’s simply been erased, a blank disc. The teenager who sells you your pass can’t be much older than Hayden. He has a lip stud that he pushes in and out with his tongue. “We’re closing in an hour,” he says. He mumbles his words so that an and hour become one. Annour.

The way to the fur seals is muscle memory. Past the café, past the otters. But when you arrive at that sunken pool you find it empty. The grey stone seems whiter than ever, jutting out in slabs, stark and unnatural. It looks like the faked ruins of a castle, or the start of a playground. The sign on the glass says, This enclosure is closed for cleaning. “Where are the fur seals? Where have you put them?” you spurt at a keeper, then realise it isn’t a keeper, only a man in a black t-shirt. He just turns away.

* ReadingRoom short stories appear every Saturday with the support of Creative New Zealand *

Ruby Porter was the inaugural winner of the Michael Gifkins Prize in 2018, with her debut novel Attraction. She is a tutor and PhD candidate at the University of Auckland

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