Just A Boy
Aaron got a camera for his birthday.
It had been on his list, albeit towards the bottom. A “low-priority” item, he had notated next to it in his cramped scrawl. Wish lists were usually saved for Christmas, and this one came of the opportunity to type in his free time at school. His class had gotten a day in the computer lab for good test scores, but he had already beaten the games that the machines offered. Instead, in word processor, he created a list of what he wanted for his upcoming birthday on the white screen while his classmates around him instructed a snake to eat numbers, and a pixelated man to explore different rooms in a haunted house.
“It’s just 1s and 0s,” he explained to Jeremy during lunch period, through a mouthful of chicken patty. Jeremy shrugged, poking a cold, limp green bean on his plastic tray.
“Whatever. It’s better than reading Shakespeare for an hour.”
Aaron agreed, for the most part, though he didn’t mind Shakespeare. He didn’t say that out loud.
He liked the computer lab. He liked the collective hum from the machines, the late spring sunlight that shone through the windows on the far wall, catching dust particles floating in the air. He liked the occasional tap of keys, and the exasperated breath from a classmate who had just lost their game. He liked peeling the sides off of the continuous paper at their perforations after watching the dot matrix printer press his words onto the white page, each line of black ink a labored screech.
Their teacher, Mrs. Harvey, sat in the corner of the room grading papers on the one wooden desk that didn’t have a computer on its surface. She had told the class earlier that day that she was an accomplished typist, and she used to be a secretary for a marketing firm in the city before she switched to teaching. “It’s better here,” she had told them, smiling. She had on dark pink lipstick. It was shiny and matched the flowers on her dress. “And when Mr. Harvey and I have a baby, it’ll be easier to raise him.”
Aaron wasn’t sure what that meant, why it would be easier to raise a baby as a teacher than a receptionist, but he didn’t raise his hand to ask. He didn’t raise his hand much, preferring to sit towards the back of the class, filling in correct answers and watching the clock tick closer to 3:00. He had pieced together, from information that his teacher told them through the year, that Mrs. Harvey had met her husband at the marketing firm, because he still worked there. He also pieced together that Mrs. Harvey had been talking about having a baby for quite a while, but the couple was still childless.
“That happens,” his father shrugged that night at the dinner table. “Sometimes it takes a while to make a baby.” He glanced at Aaron’s mother over his glasses. “Sometimes you try for years before it happens.” He put a helping of mashed potatoes in his mouth, and then looked at Aaron, gesticulating with his fork. “And sometimes, it happens on the first try. Sometimes it’s on accident and you’re a teenager and then your life is screwed up forever.”
His father had driven the point home the whole year, since he caught Aaron flipping through one of his Playboys. It had earned him a lecture, his father closing the door to his bedroom behind him while Aaron’s red face burned, his skin hot over his whole body, the magazine, hastily thrown onto the duvet next to him.
“I won’t go into details, son. You seem to know what’s going on with all this,” he gestured to the glossy pages on the February issue. “But be careful. This is the only life you have, and if you screw it up…” he drifted off, glancing around Aaron’s bedroom, at the miniature solar system dangling from the ceiling, his model of the space shuttle, to the most recent posters to be tacked onto his walls of Sonic Youth and Archers of Loaf.
“Got it, Dad,” Aaron had said, his palm on his forehead. He couldn’t meet his father’s eyes. He still had the waning tension of a deflating erection underneath the pillow in his lap.
“You’re going to feel like a big man next year in high school, but keep your head on straight.” His fingers found the corners of the magazine. “And if you do decide you’re going to be a big man, be careful, okay? Protect yourself.”
“Dad!” Aaron buried his face in both hands, pressing it forward onto the pillow. He could hear his father protest, continuing his lecture, but he cut him off. “I know, I know, okay? I’ll be smart. I’ll protect myself, okay? I’ll use condoms.”
There was a pause from behind him in which his father said nothing, and then, “Actually, only use one at a time.”
Aaron groaned. His father continued. “Son, do you have condoms?”
He could only see the brown and yellow stripes on the upholstery of the pillow in front of him. He shook his head. “Not exactly something I need yet.”
His father sighed. “Well, you never know. I’ll get you some, okay? That way, just in case…”
He trailed off, this time, not continuing his thought.
“Can I go now?”
“This is your room,” his father said.
“That’s fine. I don’t care.”
His father chuckled. “Yeah, go, we’re done here.”
Aaron tossed the pillow to the floor. His father was staring down at the pale skin of the woman on the page when he closed the door behind him.
But he now understood the reasoning behind his father’s concern. His father had gotten into trouble in high school, or more, had gotten a girl into trouble. Aaron only found out about it the year before, when visiting his Aunt Rosie in Florida. He had awoken early in the morning, before the rest of his family. They were staying at Rosie’s house. She had an in-ground pool in her backyard, with palm trees and plastic lawn chairs around the edges. He went through the sliding screen door, sitting on the concrete, letting his feet immerse in the tepid water.
“You’re awake early.”
He didn’t see her before he heard her voice. He whipped his head around. Rosie was lounging on one of the chairs, a book spread on her stomach. Her curly red hair was long and spread out voluminously behind her. In lounge clothes and without makeup, she looked much younger than thirty.
“Sorry!” he said, pulling his feet out of the pool. “I didn’t know you were out here.”
“It’s okay,” she laughed. “Stay.” She placed a bookmark between her pages, setting it to the side. She sat forward, cross-legged and erect on the chair. “How’s it going?”
Aaron liked speaking with Rosie. She didn’t talk down to him. She was smart, and funny and quick with her responses. She asked about school, and prodded his answers, asking about individual boys he was friends with, and what classes he liked, and what was his favorite part of the day. They covered the computer lab, and his thoughts of signing up for the club that deconstructed older models of PC machines, before her tone changed.
“So, Aaron, while you’re down here…” she trailed off, glancing at the patio door, but there was no movement behind it. “I doubt your dad wants me to tell you this.”
“Tell me what?”
She looked at the door again, and then peeled herself from the plastic chair, sitting next to him on the pool’s edge, so that one leg was curled beneath her, and the other, dangling in the water. She took a deep breath. She was smiling, but she looked nervous. She had a thick bridge of freckles across her nose, adding color to her otherwise pale skin.
“Tell me what?” he repeated.
She looked at the glassy surface of the blue water when she spoke. “I’m not your aunt.”
Rosie glanced towards his face. His heart suddenly pounded beneath his white t-shirt.
“I’m your sister.”
He felt a ringing in his ears. He asked, “my sister?”
“Well,” she shrugged. “Your half-sister.”
He shook his head, looking away from her pale face to the pool.
“Our dad and my mom got pregnant in high school. He wasn’t about to raise a baby, and my mom’s family is Catholic. So…” she was looking at the pool now too. She raised her hands. “So here I am.”
“But who’s your mom?”
She smiled, tilting her head at him. “She’s a nice woman. Who also wasn’t ready to raise a baby at 15.”
“But then who raised you.”
Rosie tucked a strand of curly red hair behind her ear. “My mom’s parents. My grandparents. They’re both dead now.”
“Oh. I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay, it was a while ago.”
She turned and put her other foot into the water. It rose to the bottom of her canvas pants, touching where they were rolled at her knees, coloring the fabric a darker shade of brown. There were freckles on her shins, too.
“So, why are you telling me?” he asked, after a minute of staring into the swaying palm trees against the white, cloudy sky.
“You don’t think you deserve to know?”
“I guess so,” he shrugged. “But you said my dad doesn’t want me to know?”
“Well, not exactly.” She tilted her head in the direction of the palms. “I think at some point, he was going to tell you. But parents get carried away protecting their kid and protecting themselves, and it’s never exactly a good time to explain something like this.”
He nodded. He looked at his own legs in the water, a deep bronze, even though it was early enough in the summer. Dark hair had begun to sprout over his skin recently, matching the wavy dark hair that was growing long and shaggy around his head. He didn’t look anything like Rosie, except for the shape of their nose, which had a similar flat, wide bridge.
“When did you find out?” he asked.
Rosie grinned, though this time, it was strained. “I was a little older than you are now. It was by accident.”
“What was the accident?”
“I saw my birth certificate.” She grimaced. “My parents – well, grandparents, said they couldn’t find it. And I needed it for a school trip. Our class was going to an archeology site in the Mexican deserts. If I didn’t find my birth certificate, I wouldn’t be able to go.”
She wasn’t looking at him. He hesitated before asking, “Where did you find it?”
“In the safe, where they kept all their important papers.”
“They didn’t know you knew the combo?”
“No,” she shook her head, her red curls bouncing down her back. “They figured I was too young to sort out something like a safe combination.” She shrugged. “Which is kind of why I want to tell you. Your dad- sorry, our dad, thinks you’re too young to know. But you’re not.”
“No,” he nodded. “I’m not.”
They sat silently, pushing their legs through the pool, watching the water change around their bodies.
“What happened when you found your birth certificate?”
“Well,” she took a deep breath. “I confronted them. I asked if it was true, which was a dumb thing to ask, since of course my birth certificate was true. And they said it was. And they explained how my parents had been too young and that my aunt Cathy was actually my mom.”
“Were you mad?” Aaron reached his hands forward, absent-mindedly trailing his fingers through the surface of the water. It cooled him up his arms, to where his shirt was starting to stick to his skin in the Florida humidity.
“I was. I was mad they never told me and that my mom went along with it. I was mad for too long.”
“How long were you mad?” he asked.
“I’m not sure exactly.” Rosie squinted as the sun briefly appeared from behind the thick clouds, and almost as quickly, disappeared. “Years. Long enough that I didn’t speak to my grandparents until after I graduated from high school and my grandmother got cancer.”
“Shit,” Aaron said, and then quickly caught himself. “I’m sorry.”
He meant the apology for the swear word, but Rosie took it for her grandmother. “I made up with them when she got sick. He died not too long after her.” She paused. When he didn’t answer, she added, “A lot of information?”
He shrugged. “Where did you go when you weren’t speaking to them?”
“I moved in with Cathy – my mom. Moved down here, got used to the humidity.” She motioned to her bushy curls, smiling. “And I went to college for cheap and met Ben, so it all worked out.”
Aaron nodded, submerging his tan arms to the elbow, his back bending to reach into the pool.
So Rosie was his half-sister, the teenage lovechild of his stern, older father, who frowned over B+ tests and watched, but didn’t cheer, during his football games.
“What about my dad?” he looked to her, and then corrected himself. “Our dad.”
She glanced towards him, then to the door and back to him, squinting again briefly in another burst of light.
“My parents gave me his number and information. I mean, my grandparents did, right around the time I found out about everything. They had been sending him letters the whole time, just a couple times a year, but letting him know how I was.”
“Did he write back?”
“He did,” Rosie nodded. “I read some of them. They kept them. It was neat, and weird. He told them in the letters about when he first got the job at the bank, and then when he met Libby. I got to follow along his life, reading the letters.”
Aaron nodded, frowning to himself. “Was I in them?”
Rosie nodded too, turning towards him again. “Yeah, but only a little. He and I began having a relationship when you were a baby, when I moved in with Cathy, so the letters stopped. But I gather it took them a while to get pregnant, which is probably why you’re an only child.”
“Right,” he said. “But I’m not.”
He gestured between the two of them, and Rosie grinned. “Right.”
They were silent again, both watching as a plane roared overhead, and then disappeared into the plump white clouds that hung above the palm trees.
“Was it weird meeting my dad for the first time?”
“Of course.” Rosie smiled, but it was wide, her teeth showing. “How weird is it to meet a dad you didn’t know you had?”
Aaron could not imagine it, and he certainly couldn’t imagine meeting his own father for the first time. His father seemed to be born of routine, the cogs of his life turning as if they had always been there, and always would. He couldn’t imagine his father being particularly nervous or particularly charming.
Later, Aaron’s father was angry with her. They didn’t mention it all day, until dinner that night, when Rosie confessed that she’d told him as they finished the last scraps of a roast. Aaron thought his father’s anger seemed almost like embarrassment, and he wanted to tell him, it’s okay, I have a sister now, but instead he licked the salty grease off of his fingers, watching his father’s face turn red, yelling at Rosie that it wasn’t hers to tell.
“Of course it’s mine to tell!” she laughed, not rising to his anger. “It’s my life, it’s my story!”
“It’s my life and my story!” his father countered.
Ben, Rosie’s husband, clamped his mouth shut and began colleting plates from around the wooden dinner table. Behind him, the sun had dipped far enough below the palm trees to shroud the pool deck in darkness through the sliding glass doors.
“It’s important to me to be truthful in my life. I don’t want to raise my child in a dishonest household. I’m not ashamed or sorry for anything, and you shouldn’t be either.” Rosie’s face was flushed as she spoke. She sat back, staring at the placemat in front of her.
His father blinked. He swayed slightly, his eyes moving from the glass of water in front of her to her torso. “Child?”
The red on her face spread. A smile crept across her cheeks. Ben returned from the kitchen, standing behind his wife, squeezing her shoulders.
“Yes,” she said. “Our child. I’m pregnant.”
The anger dissolved instantly. Aaron’s father hugged Rosie, his mother hugged his father, and she had tears in her eyes. “Oh Bill,” she whispered. He kissed her on the forehead, then turned to Rosie, and kissed her on the cheek.
“I’m going to be a grandfather!” this time, his father’s face was red.
“Yes, you are.” Rosie nodded, beaming, her hand over her stomach. “And I wanted Aaron to know. I don’t want him to be some distant cousin. He’s an uncle, and should get to fill that role.”
The next summer, as usual, Aaron and his parents headed to Rosie’s after the school year ended, two days after his birthday. This time, though, they didn’t daytrip to Orlando for the amusement parks, or bring a bottle of whiskey and sour mix. They came with large bags of gift-wrapped baby clothes, boxes of toys and children’s books that had once been Aaron’s.
“These are for Thomas,” his mother said, unloading yet another massive package from the car, smiling at the bundle wrapped to Rosie’s chest. She put the box on the cement and walked towards her to sniff the baby’s head again. “Oh, he’s so wonderful.”
“Thank you, Libby,” Rosie said, beaming back.
They didn’t stay as long at Rosie’s house. Every summer that Aaron could remember, their visit with Rosie lasted for two weeks, but they were packing the car again after five days.
“Why so soon?” Aaron asked, when his father came to the guest room to see how his packing was coming along.
“I told you, Bud.” He lifted the duffel bag on the bed. “We don’t want to intrude too long. They have a baby. They have a schedule.”
Aaron didn’t bring up that Rosie and Ben seemed to like the help, or that he was happy to wake up early to spend time by the pool with Rosie and Thomas, who seemed to be the only three people in the family that were early risers.
“I don’t think I’m as photogenic as him,” Rosie said on their second to last morning. She held her son over the blue water. It was a brilliantly sunny day, the sky already warming the white patio grounds early in the morning. Thomas was shiny with sunscreen, and Rosie had a floppy hat on her head.
“You look good, too,” Aaron smiled, raising the camera to his face. He snapped a few pictures, and then leaned back, getting one of just Thomas, with his feet dangling in the water, and then, when she wasn’t looking, he took some of Rosie, a close up of her face while she concentrated on swinging her son over the pool.
“You never burn, do you?” she looked at him, glancing at the brown tank top on his torso.
He shrugged. “I don’t think so.”
He clicked another picture, the lens pointed at the tops of the palms against the blue sky.
“That’s a nice camera.”
“Thanks,” Aaron pulled it away from his face. “It was my birthday present.”
She watched him fiddle with the settings, and then asked, “Is it what you wanted?”
He glanced at her, grinned, and looked back to the camera. “I wanted a Nintendo.”
He heard her laugh. “You’re probably better off with a camera then.”
She laughed again. “Every boy your age can play Nintendo, but you are the only one who can take pictures.”
He looked at her again. Her curly red hair was pulled back into a ponytail, the end of it fluffing up past where it was tied. Her light blue shirt was stained with spit up and sweat. She was a little thicker than in previous years.
“Do you like having a kid?” he asked. He sat down next to her, placing the camera at his side and his feet in the water.
“I do,” she said, rubbing the top of Thomas’s bald head. “I love it.”
He wanted to ask her if it made her angrier at their father for giving her up, for not raising her himself. He wanted to ask her what she would tell Thomas to do if he got a girl in trouble in high school. But he didn’t. And later, as they said their goodbyes, she hugged him tightly, Thomas no longer wrapped against her body, but in Ben’s hands.
“Write to me, okay?” she said, squeezing him again.
“I mean it. Or call. Or come visit for as long as you want, if they drive you nuts.” She pulled away, squeezing his arm. She glanced behind them, but their father was busy making faces at his grandson and shaking Ben’s hand. “Seriously. You’re always welcome to come here.”
Aaron nodded. He promised he would write. He shook Ben’s hand, patted Thomas lightly on his soft back. Then, they were back on the road.
“That has got to be the cutest grandson anyone has ever seen,” his father said repeatedly as they continued their trip south. Aaron made a noise with the back of his throat, his gesture of agreement, and slumped his head forward onto the cool glass window on the backseat door. The air condition was blasting, and when they drifted out of the sunlight, goosebumps sprung up on his arms.
“You were that cute once, you know,” his father said from the front seat, glancing at Aaron as he looked over his shoulder to change lanes.
“I’m still cute, Dad,” he mumbled.
His mother chuckled from the front seat.
The next morning, his father’s good mood had not broken. He continued to talk about all of the things Thomas could do – which were limited to sitting up and smiling. He didn’t even mind when Aaron helped himself to a cup of coffee, which he had never tried before at home. His mother raised an eyebrow at him, but his father just said, “Any coffee he has in the Keys will be way better than up north.”
Aaron grinned at his father, and declined milk and sugar.
“Suit yourself,” his father shrugged, taking another bite of toast.
The smell of the coffee enticed him, something bitter and sweaty and nutty. He was surprised at how much he liked it, the heat that seemed to percolate on his insides.
“That’s my boy,” his father said, raising his own mug. He glanced behind him to a table of young teenage girls, grouped together in their bikinis, giggling. He looked back at Aaron and smiled, then squeezed his wife’s arm. “What do you say we go play tennis, let him get up to no good?”
Aaron rolled his eyes, feeling his face flush.
“Mm,” his mother said, eyeing up the girls across the patio. Aaron rolled his eyes again, making sure she noticed.
Once he was alone, he poured himself coffee until the silver pot that stood on the table was empty. He felt his heart thumping in his chest. The breeze rustled through his long wavy hair, against the damp spots on his t-shirt. He peeled it over his head, letting the wind rush against the skin of his torso. The girls across the patio rose to walk towards the beach, but he didn’t watch them to see there they went.
The camera – he thought. It would be a good moment for the camera. The early morning waves rolled in, spreading bright blue against the sand. Joggers speckled the water’s edge, and a few tanners were already out, their towels cemented in the ground, their books spread open in front of them, their skin lathered and baking in the morning sun. But the camera wasn’t necessary, he decided. He would rather stay outside and enjoy the morning. He thought of Rosie, the other person who would appreciate the early morning, who would sip coffee and take in the day before it grew too hot and noisy. But now that she had a kid of her own, she wouldn’t be coming with them down to the Keys.
The birds in the palm trees above him chirped at each other, one fluttering down to the table to nibble at crumbs leftover from the morning’s toast. Aaron pinched the last piece of pineapple out of the bowl in front of him. The juice dropped into his hand, dribbled down his chin, leaving a sticky patch in the course hair that was beginning to sprout through his peach fuzz. He licked it from his fingers, so sweet that it prickled against his tongue. There was nothing left to eat, but he wasn’t ready to rise from his wooden chair, preferring to watch as the waves across the beach continued to roll in, their bright blue swimming up to the shore.
At home, up north, he knew that the Atlantic waves were crashing angrily, tugging feet from underneath, the current invisible beneath the cold, dark surf. But here, the sea was as warm as bath water, and it flirted with the white sand, tickling the edges of dry land and retreating playfully into its bright expanse. It was hard to tell the difference, from Aaron’s view on the patio, of where the deep blue of the ocean rose up to meet the brilliant, clear sky.
Gabriella Schrier lives in the Philadelphia area with her manfriend and their two large dogs. By day, she is a mild-mannered marketing specialist, who enjoys live music, running (both for distance and after her nephews), and craft beer. Her favorite time to write is in the morning, with fresh pots of coffee. She is working on her Master of Arts in Writing Studies at Saint Joseph's University. This is her second publication.