The Ones We Choose
If loneliness were a color, it would be the deep purple of my eight-year-old’s shirt as he walks solitary laps around the school track. Before opening the car door and letting the playground sounds crash over me, I watch him, wondering how I can fix this, or if my chance had passed long ago.
With the ache of worry that seems to always chase me, I grab my purse and slam the door, hurrying toward the picnic tables where other students are bent over board games.
“Hey, Dr. Robson,” the woman in charge of the after-school program says, offering me the sign-out book. It’s the third week of school. I should know her name by now, but my brain is stuck in a three-word loop: Miles is lonely.
“Please, call me Paige.” I sign Miles out, and she looks toward the track. My eyes follow. Miles rounds the far corner, no bigger than a matchstick.
“We set up some games, hoping he’d be interested,” she says. “He was very sweet, explaining the periodic table as he played chess. But when the game was over, that was it for him.”
I try again to remember her name, this woman who cares enough about my child to help him make friends and settle into his new school. “Thanks anyway,” I say. “He takes a long time to warm up to people.” His lack of friends shouldn’t bother me.
It’s how I was as a kid, more interested in books than people. But somehow it’s different when it’s your child walking alone while other kids play, marking the time with laps, clocking the minutes until he can go home.
The woman smiles, sympathy softening the edges of her mouth.
The weight of her pity bears down on me. “There’s hope though. I’ve convinced him to go on the dads’ campout, and we’re buying supplies this afternoon.”
“That’ll be good,” she says. “Maybe his dad can do a better job of helping him find friends than I can.”
I look back toward the track and watch Miles approach. He sees me now and breaks into a slow jog. He’s still far enough away that I could explain, say there is no father, just me, an anonymous sperm donor, and my boyfriend, Liam.
But I don’t. Somehow it feels like a betrayal to share the details of Miles’s life with a woman whose name I can’t even remember.
“I hope so too,” I say.
I glance at Miles in the rearview mirror as we head toward Camping World. “You looked more excited when we went to the dentist last month.”
Miles’s eyes meet mine. “You weren’t forcing me to spend two nights in a tent with my dentist,” he says.
“I’ll make sure to add a couple hundred dollars to your therapy fund,” I joke.
“Can I start now?” he mutters.
Liam greets us at the entrance. “Looking good, Dr. Robson,” he whispers in my ear as he bends to kiss my cheek. Miles’s eyes skirt away from us. Even though Liam and I have been together for over a year, there are moments when Miles’s resentment crowds everything else out. In some ways I understand. It’s only been the two of us for most of his life. In that sense Liam is an intrusion, an unwanted guest, no matter how carefully I try to balance my time between them. But I want Miles to accept Liam. To not fight so hard to shut him out.
“Hey, Miles,” he says. “Ready to shop for our trip?”
Miles gives Liam a steady stare but says nothing, and I brace myself. Miles and I have had several arguments about this trip already. I think it will be a great chance for Liam and Miles to bond, away from me. Maybe meet some of the other kids at his new school. However, Miles thinks camping on the beach with Liam is just short of child abuse. But my mind traces his solitary laps around the track, his shoulders braced against the heat of the mid-September sun, and I pray the weekend will give him a friend to walk with. Just one.
The inside of the store is enormous, a cavernous space lit with bright fluorescent lights. We stand next to a display of canteens and try to find our bearings.
“Okay,” Liam says. “What’s first on the list?”
Miles looks at the crumpled paper in his hand and says, “Tent and guylines.”
“They don’t waste any time, do they?” Liam says. “Straight to the big-ticket items.”
“Why do people say that?” Miles asks, his love of wordplay edging his reluctance aside. “Did they used to pay for things with giant tickets?”
Liam laughs. “The bigger the ticket, the more it’s worth. You’d need a ticket the size of a football field just to buy a car. Imagine trying to fit that in your pocket.”
But Miles lets the sentence hang in the air and instead studies the list in his hand. “Do you think we could get air mattresses too?”
Liam shifts easily. “I’m not letting my delicate body sleep on the ground, that’s for sure.” He pauses in the middle of a wide aisle to read the signs suspended above us.
Liam’s body is anything but delicate. Though lean and narrow, he’s tall, towering over the tops of the aisles, able to survey the store like the captain of a ship.
The briefest hint of a smile outlines Miles’s mouth. I collect these moments, like coins in a piggy bank I can pull out and count, evidence that things aren’t always so hard between them.
Miles continues, his voice warming as we walk, enthusiasm sneaking in despite his best efforts. “Nick says there’s a dirt bike course. Can we do that too?”
I want to ask who Nick is, but Liam speaks first. “I don’t know about that, my friend. If you get hurt, your mother will kill me.”
Miles’s expression shifts, his lips pinching into an angry line as his gaze darts away from Liam. And just like that, the tenuous thaw is over.
“Liam’s right,” I say. “No dirt biking.” I reach out to smooth Miles’s hair out of his eyes, but he pulls away.
“There are lots of other things we can do,” Liam says. “Like surfing.”
“You’re the surfer,” Miles says, his voice tight and hard. “Not me.”
My gaze travels between them, tension heating the air around us.
“I could teach you,” Liam continues.
“If you fall off a surfboard, you hit the water,” I say. “If you fall off a dirt bike, you might break an arm. Or worse.”
Miles stops in the middle of the aisle and crosses his arms over his chest. “I don’t even want to go on this trip. The least you can do is let me do the one thing I’m actually looking forward to.”
“Miles,” I warn.
Liam shoves his hands into his pockets, trying to hide his hurt. “That’s cool. I totally get it.”
“Why do you have to talk like that?” Miles’s voice is rising, drawing the attention of other shoppers. To me he says, “He’s not even a dad. He says that’s cool and no worries. Dads don’t say those things. They have real jobs. They drink coffee. They go to the bank.”
“I mostly use the ATM,” Liam says, and I want to elbow him in the ribs. He should know joking with Miles right now is not going to help.
“Liam has a job,” I say.
“He plays video games.”
“No, he programs them. Most kids would think that’s cool.”
Miles huffs. “Great. Now he’s got you saying it too.”
I turn to Liam. “Can you find the sleeping bags?”
“No problem,” he says, looking both worn out and relieved to escape.
“Don’t bother, because I’m not going,” Miles calls after him.
I wait until Liam disappears around the corner and then turn to Miles. “Come with me.”
I lead him down a row of tents, a small city, set up and empty, and pull him inside a red nylon one where the light is warm and dim and everything takes on a pinkish hue.
Miles looks around the small space. “It’s like being inside a
bubble,” he says. But when he catches the expression on my face, his smile fades, realizing we’re not in here for fun.
“What’s going on with you?” I ask.
Miles shrugs, looking out the tent’s window, which opens onto a cinder block wall.
“Miles.” I stare at him, waiting for him to look at me. When he does, I say, “This isn’t about dirt bikes or Liam saying cool. For whatever reason, you’ve decided you don’t like him, though I can’t imagine why. He’s always gone out of his way to show how much he cares about you.” My sister’s husband, Henry, went to college with Liam, and when Liam moved to Los Angeles from New York five years ago, he instantly became part of the family. But looking back, Miles never really interacted with him. Times when we’d all be together, Miles would step around him, rendering Liam irrelevant with his silence. And when I started dating him, Miles was forced to be more obvious with his contempt. “Why won’t you give him a chance?”
Miles doesn’t answer.
Finally, he crumbles, his anger falling away. In a small voice he says, “Why did you do this to me?”
“Do what?” I brace myself, expecting him to rail on Liam and blame me for making them take this trip together.
“At school, everyone talks about their dads and all the things they’ve done.” Tears shine in his eyes, and he swipes at them. “I’m the only person who doesn’t even know who his dad is.”
I sink to the ground, pulling him onto my lap. All his sharp edges dangle over the sides, but he curls into me, fitting into the space that has always belonged to him. I wrap my arms around him.
This is what they don’t tell you at the sperm bank, as you sit in
a small office with your genetic counselor, thinking you can pick a donor and then forget about him. That someday, you might find yourself hiding inside a tent at a camping warehouse, trying to explain to your son why you dropped him into a fatherless life. I think of my own father and wish I could tell Miles that even when you know who your dad is, there are still thousands of ways he can fail you.
“We’ve talked about this, Miles. So many times. I wanted to be your mom, and that was the only way.” I squeeze him tight and breathe in the scent of him—sweat and shampoo and something that’s uniquely Miles. I can feel the tremor of tears he’s trying to hold back. “Hey now,” I say. “It’s us against the world, remember?”
“Right,” he says, though his voice is flat and heavy.
I think back to the year I turned thirty-eight, to the yearning that pushed me to find my way to motherhood on my own terms. I knew Miles was out there waiting for me. How I got to him was just a detail. “I know it’s hard,” I finally say, because I have to say something.
“No, you don’t!” he says. “I shouldn’t have to make up stories about who my dad is or take other people on dad campouts because I don’t have one.”
“Honey.” I pull back and smooth the hair off his forehead. “There are lots of different families. Remember Nina from your old school, who has two moms? Or Reggie, who lives with his grandparents? No one is going to care that Liam isn’t your dad. What matters is that Liam wants to do this stuff with you.”
Miles presses his lips together, gearing up for what he wants to say next. “I have a dad. Why can’t I know who he is?” His voice carries the weight of his tears, the words thick and wobbly.
I exhale. “Because those are the rules, and I agreed to follow them.”
“I never agreed,” he whispers, his soft words slicing through me.
I didn’t see this coming. I expected questions, not blame. I expected curiosity, not this ragged pain that seems to be coming from Miles’s deepest place. I did everything the donor websites told me. I met all of Miles’s questions with accurate and age-appropriate answers, never hiding the truth and revealing more as he got older and his questions clarified. I felt righteous in my honesty, as if I were paving the way for the more evolved adult I imagined Miles would grow into. He changed the boundaries of my life. Being his mother has pushed me to be less selfish, to take myself less seriously. To have fun; to be silly. He’s all I ever wanted. It never occurred to me that I might not be enough for him.
“I love you,” I say, and wait. When he doesn’t pick up the line, I tug his ear.
He sighs. “I love you more.”
I give him a final squeeze and finish it off. “Not possible.”
We find Liam standing in front of a wall of sleeping bags hung like curtains, about fifty choices that all look the same to me.
“What do you think?” Liam asks. “What kind of filling do we need? It gets cold out there at night.”
A salesperson with a red polo shirt, black polyester pants, and a name tag that reads Eric zeroes in on us. “Hey,” Liam says, drawing Eric closer. “Which of these bags would work best for a beach campout?”
Miles has wandered to the far end of the row, to a display of lanyards, and is letting them cascade through his fingers. I tune
out Liam and Eric and watch my son. Sometimes it shocks me, to see this version of myself from the outside. Apart from his green eyes and untamable cowlick that sticks out over his left ear, Miles is a carbon copy of me, from my brown hair and lean frame all the way down to the sprinkle of freckles across his nose. If I blur my vision, I might be looking at my younger self. The only thing missing is the Shaun Cassidy T-shirt.
“Hey, you guys.” Liam yanks my attention back. “This guy went to college in New Hampshire and hiked the entire Appalachian Trail alone. I think we’re in good hands.”
Only Liam would befriend this kid—not to be polite, but because he’s interested.
Eric rubs his hands together. “I can outfit you guys, no problem.”
“Don’t forget the bear repellant,” Liam says, winking at me.
Miles rolls his eyes. “We’re going camping in Malibu, not the Rockies.”
We wander down a wide aisle of lanterns and flashlights, and I look at the list, overwhelmed and silent. I should make Miles apologize to Liam, but it’s easier to drop it for now. Liam grabs a torch and turns to me, his expression serious. “I’m sorry, Paige. The tribe has spoken.”
“You’re ruining my reputation as a serious scientist and scholar,” I say, taking the torch and returning it to the others.
“Oops,” he says, though he doesn’t look sorry. He wraps his arms around me, and I sink into him. I’ve never let anyone love me the way Liam does. I was perfectly happy keeping the important
things—my career, my son, my family—separate from the men I dated. But Liam snuck in the back door. I never imagined I’d fall for a guy who surfs, whose job requires him to be up on the latest video game trends. But I’d never met one with such a whip-smart sense of humor, who somehow knew how to balance the seriousness of his job with the playfulness of life. Liam loosens my strings and loves me despite the fact that sometimes I get too wrapped up in work, or with Miles. He’s thoughtful, remembering details about me that he pulls out months or years later, like a magic trick just for me. Several years before we began dating, I mentioned in passing a preference for rainbow-sprinkled cupcakes from a bakery downtown. The morning after our first date, while I sat at my desk fuzzy from lack of sleep and the warm tickle of new love heating my chest, a box of cupcakes with rainbow sprinkles arrived at the lab—one for me, one for my lab partner, Bruno, and one to take home to Miles. For the girl who loves rainbow sprinkles.
It’s a side I wish Miles would acknowledge. I give Liam a gentle squeeze and pull away, watching Miles in front of a display of lanterns designed like old-fashioned oil lamps.
“I thought I had him with my riff on big-ticket items,” Liam whispers. “But I’m running low on material. By the end of the trip, I’ll only have got your nose left.”
Liam’s words carry an edge of defeat. This trip is doomed to fail. There will never be room for Liam, because apparently Miles is saving himself for someone else.
“Hey, Miles.” We turn to see a boy walking toward us, his father following behind. I don’t recognize them, but it’s still early in the year. I wonder if this is who Miles mentioned earlier, but the boy’s smug expression tells me it’s not.
He points at Liam. “Is that your dad?”
It’s an innocent question, but his voice carries a hint of menace beneath the surface, as if he already knows the answer.
Miles stares straight ahead. “No.”
Before I can say anything, Liam steps in. He reaches out to the father and shakes his hand. “Hey there. I’m Liam. You guys going on the campout too?”
The boy turns to Miles. “You have to go with a dad. It’s a dads’ campout.”
Outraged, I turn on the boy’s father, waiting for him to discipline his child. But he only gives an uncomfortable chuckle and says, “No need to be so literal, Ethan.”
I step in front of Miles, as if to shield him. “Not all families are alike.”
Liam reaches a hand out to steady me, but Miles is already pushing past us, his small face twisted in anger and humiliation. “You see? People do care. You’re the only one who doesn’t get it.” He tosses the flashlight he was holding into our cart and runs down the aisle, disappearing around the corner.
Ethan’s dad shifts from one foot to the other, his eyes darting around the store, looking for an escape. “Sorry about that,” he says.
“It’s a little late for sorry.” I turn away from them and go after my son.
I find Miles waiting by the car. He’s not crying, but wet tracks line his cheeks. My sister, Rose, always says, There’s no way to raise a child without a few broken pieces.
“I’m not going on the trip,” he says.
“Okay.” I watch him, waiting to see what he’ll say next.
“Can we go home now?” he asks.
I think of Liam, still somewhere inside the store, carrying with him the weight of Miles’s words, along with hundreds of dollars’ worth of camping gear they’ll never use. We’re supposed to go to dinner, but the thought of dragging Miles through that charade seems pointless. I dig my phone out of my purse and dial Liam’s number.
He answers on the first ring. “Is he okay?”
I glance at Miles, who stares out across the parking lot. “I think we’re going to take a rain check on dinner.”
“Come on, Paige. Seriously? What about all this camping gear?”
“I know. I’m sorry,” I say, feeling terrible. “But I don’t think either of us would be very good company.”
Liam sighs. “No, I get it. It’s fine. Should I call you later?”
“Sure,” I say.
After I hang up, I stare at the phone in my hand, the pressure of always having to choose sitting on my chest like a pile of bricks. There is no right decision. One of them will always lose.
Liam calls as I’m getting into bed. I love when he calls late at night, when his voice can be the last I hear before I drift off to sleep. We don’t get too many nights together, instead having to find stolen moments during the week when Miles is at school or at Rose’s. But these late-night calls bridge the gap and connect us even when we can’t be in the same room together.
“Sorry about bailing on dinner,” I apologize again.
I think about our silent drive home, the way he’d stared out the window, lost somewhere inside his head where I couldn’t reach him. “Quiet,” I say. “Sorry about the trip.”
Liam sighs, and I can feel his frustration through the phone. “I don’t know how to get through to him. No matter what I try, it doesn’t work.”
“It was wrong of me to push it.” But that’s not the whole truth. It was wrong of me to force Liam into a space Miles wants to hold for someone else.
“Don’t blame yourself. It was a good idea,” he says. “Hey, on my way home tonight, I passed a Mazda Protégé broken down on the side of the road. So of course, I thought of you.”
I laugh. Two years ago, before we were together, I was at a wedding downtown for one of my colleagues, and at the end of the night, my car wouldn’t start. I was exhausted and didn’t want to deal with a tow truck, so I’d called Rose and Henry to come get me. Liam had been over and was getting ready to leave for the night, so he volunteered to pick me up.
“That was the best detour I ever made,” Liam says.
I close my eyes, thinking back to a time when I was satisfied with all parts of my life—leading an important study on a national stage, raising a smart and engaged son—I thought I could do it all.
“When I drove up and saw you standing out front in that green dress looking so beautiful and so pissed off . . . I still owe Mazda a thank-you note for making such shitty cars.”
I remember my panic and then the relief when Liam pulled up, giving me a smile that lodged itself inside my heart, where it slowly grew into something more.
“I still want to be the one you count on,” he says.
His voice is like velvet, and all I want to do is let it carry me to sleep.
“I love you, P,” he whispers. I roll over on my side, the door to my room open so I have a clear view down the hall and into Miles’s room. He’s nothing more than a shapeless lump under the covers.
“I love you too.”