Loren woke to find his mother kneeling beside his bed in the dark.
“Wake up,” she whispered. “We have to go.”
The boy pawed at his eyes.
“Your father kicked us out,” his mother said. “Now pack your things, we have to go.”
She stood and padded silently from the room.
The boy thought that the encounter had been a dream until he heard his mother open his brother’s door down the hall moments later.
He found his suitcase open on the floor by his bed. He packed his clothes and comic books. Thinking again, he took out the comics and filled the space with school things.
No time for kid’s stuff, he told himself. You’re going to have to be a man now.
With his mother pulling the car out of the driveway and his little brother and sister dozing in the backseat, he asked again why his father had kicked them out.
His mother stared straight ahead into the lightening dark and said, “He doesn’t want us anymore.”
As they drove away, he glared at their trailer sitting up on the hill with his father sleeping somewhere inside, and the boy tried to set fire to it with his eyes.
They stayed a couple weeks at his aunt’s house in Jersey. During the day he’d play in the wooded lot next door. His mother instructed him to hide whenever cars drove past so that no one would wonder who this kid was creeping around when he should be in school.
One afternoon some of the neighborhood kids saw him as they were getting off the bus. They shouted and pointed as though he was some kind of rare woodland beast, or maybe the Jersey Devil.
During his time at his aunt’s house he began working on a code of conduct. A man needed such a code, he reasoned.
How else would he know he was being a man?
He worked on it in secret day after day and night after night, scribbling the rules of life into a green, spiral bound notebook. The more he thought about it, the more endless they seemed.
Never make your mother cry; Always be brave; Learn kung-fu or karate; Be the best in the world at something; Always be strong; Always be patient with your brothers and sisters; Never lie; Meditate; Make enough money to take care of everyone.
Yet, as simple as the rules appeared, he could never seem to follow them.
He wasn’t great at anything, he was terrified about the future, he didn’t know how to make money, and no matter how hard he tried to take care of his brother and sister, he kept finding himself snapping at them and being mean.
What he discovered was that the harder he tried to be a man, the angrier and meaner he got.
He’d hide for hours in the wooded lot next door, loathing himself for his failure, feeling certain that something within him was deficient and degenerate.
Still, he continued working on his list, endlessly rearranging and modifying the rules.
Wear good suits; Speak at least five languages, maybe six; Be nice to people, but never take shit from anyone; Learn how to kickbox and how to track animals and how to live off the land with nothing but your own hands; Always put everyone else first; Take care of everyone.
The list grew and grew until, late one night while he was sleeping on the living room couch, he woke to the sound of his mother’s muffled voice. He was facing the back of the couch but could hear her in the kitchen behind him.
“I’m taking the kids to Florida,” his mother sobbed. “I can’t come home anymore. I can’t.”
The boy lay there hoping that it was some other woman in the house, but when he rolled over he saw that it was, indeed, his mother sitting on the floor with her back against the refrigerator and the phone to her ear.
He realized then that his father had never kicked them out. She’d simply left, and she’d lied to him.
Their eyes met. They watched each other in silence.
He rolled back over.
His mother hung up the phone and ran to him. She fell against his back and cried. The hot tears felt sickening through his shirt and he observed with a sort of detached horror the sheer revulsion and hatred he felt for her and for everything in the world.
Over and over again, she sobbed, “Forgive me.”
He didn’t want to forgive her. He didn’t want to forgive his father. He didn’t want to forgive God or the absence of God for the life he’d known in his thirteen years.
He only wanted to hold on to his rage.
His little brother and sister slept on the floor only a couple feet away. He didn’t want them to wake to that scene, so he looked over his shoulder and said to his mother, “I forgive you, now go to sleep.”
“I don’t believe you,” his mother cried.
The boy rolled all the way over and looked into her eyes. “I said I forgive you, now be quiet or you’re going to wake up the kids.”
She cried for a few more moments, stood, and left, her sobs and moans fading off into the hallway darkness.
That night, watching a cradle moon through the window, he decided that he didn’t need to work on his manly code of conduct anymore because there were actually only two rules in the world to live by.
Two rules, and two rules only.
Never cry, no matter what, and never trust anyone–not even your mother.