How to Cope When Your Son Eats Paper

Stand outside Mrs. O’Callaghan’s ninth-grade classroom. Lean against the concrete walls and curse the impulse that convinced you to wear four-inch Michael Kors heels to a parent-teacher conference. Twirl your Me-to-We beaded bracelets on your wrist and suddenly fear that your chunky highlights are uncool. Wonder why you care about your son’s tree-hugging English teacher thinking you’re cool. Care anyways.

            Step into the room and frown when Mrs. O’Callaghan offers you a sticker.

            Ask, “What’s this?”

            Listen as Mrs. O’Callaghan says, hesitation brimming at her lips, “Oh. Well, it’s a sticker. For you. It has medical grade glue so you can even stick it to your car.”

            Thank her, then read it. It says something about being proud of your child. Consider if there’s space on your back bumper. Maybe it’ll fit between the logo of Julianna’s soccer team and a slogan about loving golden retrievers.

            Active-listen to Mrs. O’Callaghan as she speaks. Her voice shakes and the beads around her neck rattle. Ask her to repeat herself when she says Hunter eats paper.

            “Oh, well, last week,” Mrs. O’Callaghan will say, “he ate David Lee Roth’s autobiography.”

            Blink.

            She will say, “He, um, tore out each page and just…chewed them up. I asked him to stop, of course. I took away a merit point. Don’t worry, he didn’t eat the cover. It was cardboard.”

            Thank the teacher for her time. Hobble out of the room. Slip your shoes off your feet and walk barefoot back to the car. Don’t wince at the feel of the parking lot’s gravel on your skin.

            Drive home and wonder if McDonald’s has any keto options. Turn on the radio and hum along to Romeo Delight. Turn it up louder. Sing along. Turn it up loud enough to feel the bass pounding in your shoulders. Scream something that might be the lyrics. Pull into the driveway. Turn the radio off. Sit in the car for two minutes. Realize you were crying. Fix your Avon mascara while gawking at yourself in the rearview mirror.

            Toss your Michael Kors heels onto the shoe rack and call out that you’re home. No one will reply. This is normal. Aidan is in the living room slouched in a position that doesn’t look humanly possible. Your husband is still at work. Julianna is at her bearded college boyfriend’s apartment. Hunter is in his room, where he will stay unless you ask him three times to come downstairs.

            Step into the living room. Do not roll your eyes to see yet another Weird Al video playing on the TV. Aidan stumbled upon Amish Paradise last week on his iPad and developed an obsession. Be grateful he has interests aside from slamming the opposite team’s heads against the boards in hockey.

            Pull open the mirrored fridge and realize you forgot to go grocery shopping. Send a text to your husband. Pour yourself ice water. When an ice cube falls from the tray and onto the floor, kick it under the fridge. Everything evaporates.

            Ask Aidan if he had a good day. When he shrugs, go upstairs and change out of your nice turtleneck into your casual turtleneck.

            Knock on Hunter’s door, ignoring the “KEEP OUT. GENIUS AT WORK” sign taped to the white wood. Knock again. Knock a third time and turn the handle just enough to make him respond.

            Open the door. Step over a pile of unwashed t-shirts and into the room.

            Ask him why.

            When he says, “Why, what?”, say that you know he eats paper. He will blush and mutter. Do not try to understand what he says. It will hurt your feelings.

            Say, “Paper is probably bad for intestines.”

            He will shrug and squirm at your softness. He is too cool to care. He is strange. Think about gooey wads of glossy book pages sitting in his stomach. Struggle to believe he really swallowed them down.

            Say, smiling, “What did David Lee Roth ever do to you?”

            Hunter will not answer, but he will say, “It was a good book. It was happy. I wasn’t trying to eat it. I just wanted it inside me.”

            Leave him alone.

            Fourteen minutes later, flip through your folder of takeout flyers. Pour yourself a glass of cooking wine and try to catch the light in its bubbles.

            For a second, a ray of light will beam onto the alcohol. Swallow it down. Catch it before it has a chance to dance away. You think you understand Hunter.

            Aiden ate at hockey practice.

            Ask Hunter if he’s hungry for dinner. He will say yes, and even sit with you at the table to eat. This makes you glad. He is not so hard to understand after all. Maybe you’re breaking through. Maybe he’s just hungry.

Sarah Priscus writes in Ottawa, ON, Canada, where she studies English and Theatre at the University of Ottawa. She has previously had fiction and poetry published in The Fulcrum, Likely Red, Luna Luna Magazine, Rookie Mag, Atlas and Alice, and Every Day Fiction.