He takes his work clothes every Saturday because they are bulky and greasy, but also because my mom has rules. Rules my step-dad—with his laid-back nature—follows without complaint.
I pass him standing on the back landing as he walks out the door, black garbage back in tow. He stops to ask if I’d like to come along. I like him. Something about him makes me feel safe and free to be me. It was this way from the start.
I remember the day my mom took me to meet Brian for the first time. She was pulling my hair into tight pigtails in my aunt’s kitchen, jerking my head back with every brush stroke. She’d come to fetch me from my cousin’s to meet the new man in her life. I had already met so many men. Men I told off with words bigger than me once my mom was out of earshot.
My mom was feeding my aunt short factoids as she brushed. He’s a parts engineer at the railroad. He’s kind. Shannon will like him. Once my hair and her fresh coat of lipstick were in place, we made the short drive to meet my step-dad-to-be.
As we pulled into the driveway, he climbed the stairs up from the basement suite. Tall—so tall. Skinny. Plaid shirt. Worn, baggy jeans. Long hair that fell around his jaw line. An eager, melty-warm smile that held my hurt in its hands. I sat small in the passenger seat and watched him come. My heart turned to him as he approached. By the time he reached my door, I loved him and he me.
Even after the wedding, I call him by his first name, much to my mother’s protest. I am adamant. I refuse to call him Dad until I’m sure he’s not leaving, I tell her. I will never be sure. My heart fully belongs to him, but it is not reckless. His love for me is brimming and unreserved. He never asks me to call him Dad and never hints that it is important.
We are at the laundromat and Brian’s green work shirts are soapy and spinning. There is a corner store next door that sells gummy bears for one cent each. We leave the machines and the spinning to go on a candy adventure. It is my job to carefully count out 100 gummy bears while Brian pays the clerk.
I carry the small, brown paper bag as we walk—I bounce—back to our corner of the laundromat. We settle into our black, steel-rimmed chairs, and I open the bag. I take out two fresh bears and hand one to Brian. I watch him bring it close to his face and look the bear in the eye.
In one swift movement he bites off both arms and makes the voice of the helpless bear, “My arms!” I laugh and bite the feet off mine and do my own suffering-bear impression. I watch his eyes as he giggles at me. We continue to eat handfuls of gummy bears limb by limb, becoming the voices of the whimpering bears at each loss, until they are nothing but heads we swallow to finally smother their desperate cries.
We get bored of this method of torture. I see Brian’s eyes twinkle as he thinks of something new. He smiles and, with an upward jerk of his head, motions for me to tilt the bag toward him. Giddy that our game isn’t over, I comply. He takes a bear from the bag, and with careful precision, places it under a leg of his chair. As he presses down with the weight of his body, shifting left, right, right, more left, we scientifically observe how much pressure and movement it required to dismember the gummy bear. I am forever his.
Brian and I became so close in those early years that we easily pass hours of time sharing space. He carries a child’s heart in his chest that draws me in. One summer evening, while Mom put fresh sheets on my bed, Brian and I find ourselves on the front porch—me in my pyjamas, he in his typical, post-work, cotton, plaid, snap-button shirt—talking about the day.
I remember the sound of birds chirping in the two over-sized pines in our front yard and the mosquitoes buzzing too close to my ears. My stray hairs dancing in the soft summer air. And the full feeling in my heart. Mom popped her head out the door to say my bed was ready, turning suddenly cross, ordering me inside. Years later she admitted to feeling envious of the affinity between Brian and me. You never talked to me like that, she said.
As time passes, my mom makes decisions that rip away our seams. How long must a mother live for her child? Her guilt and shame build a wall, and I lose her as my refuge. Brian defends her, and I lose him as my refuge. There is no room for my neediness, so it dresses in religion as rebellion. I am called a judgmental, self-righteous, zealot. Brokenness takes up a room in our house. Tucks us in at night.
My hurt turns cold and quiet. I become a judgmental, self-righteous, zealot. I oppose my mother with my whole being. This terrifies her, it terrifies me, and it terrifies Brian. He becomes my mother’s saviour, sacrificing himself in the process—as it is him, in part, for whom I fight. I punish Brian by denying him affection, conversation, eye contact.
My relationship with Brian becomes purely business. We are a fixture in each other’s lives and connections are predetermined by routine; he packs my lunch, I report back on completed chores. He shuttles me to church and youth group. He calls me for supper. Some nights around the kitchen table, something accidentally makes Mom laugh and Brian and I turn silly to stretch it out, to feel the heaviness of our distance abate, if only for a few giggles longer. When Mom laughs, really laughs, a lost hope wraps itself around my little family and pulls us in close again.
In these moments, I—and, I suspect, Brian—reminisce about the laundromat gummy bears. Our hearts’ memories transport us back to that place of joy where the brokenness is part of a distant future. We remember what we once were but will never be again. There is a sense of thankfulness that we experienced such a gift of love at all. The unlikely meeting of two willing hearts.
And so, we laugh. Mom laughs. We prolong it until we can’t.