Why Tether

Jen Silverman
Illustration by Tung Chau

The idea of keeping a child alive baffles me. I burned out on it. The summer I turned eighteen, everybody I knew started trying to kill themselves and didn’t stop until we were all twenty-four or twenty-five. I was a camp counselor for young teens for two of those summers, and that may have explained some of it: all the precocious kids away from home for the first time, imploding. But it was the same with my friends: the phone calls late at night, trips to the ER, razors and guns and pills and nooses. I called cops in another state once, for a friend who left me a goodbye voicemail and then tried to hang himself. Not sure whether he wanted to be saved or whether he remembered how rarely I checked voicemail, but the cops retrieved him from his parents’ garage nonetheless.

I’m in my late thirties now. Over the past decade, I’ve made a series of new acquaintances: calm and pragmatic people who have reasonable conversations during which we weigh both sides and make a determination. No revelations that veer into the uncomfortably personal, no cries de coeur that are incandescent with self-loathing. Their apartments are landscaped with simple but sophisticated furniture from non-Ikea sources; they have therapists, and refer to them casually, in passing. I find it calming to go back to my apartment at night and never once worry about their happiness or their safety.

In the past few years, the people I know have begun producing babies and vanishing into wormholes of diapers, mucus, and misery. They always tell me that they wouldn’t trade their children for anything, but then in the next breath, they admit that they haven’t slept in seventeen months and their marriages are disintegrating. Parenthood, I have observed, is the practice of ultimate unconditionality. Unconditional sacrifice, unconditional acceptance as everything you cherished about your life falls to pieces. There is something beautiful in that, admittedly. Something that suggests a higher level of evolution. But I have used up my penchant for unconditionality. I don’t know how to summon it again.

What I know is that when I imagine being responsible for a life, I think: no human can really protect any other human. You can call the cops to get your friend out of his garage, but he’ll just finish the job a month later. I already learned that.

We’re perched at the end
of a swanky bar, and Jerome is starting his second martini when he pops the question he’s been building up to all evening: namely, whether I will have a child with his husband.

“You don’t even have to . . . do the deed,” he says, delicately. “Although Kevin is bisexual, as you’ll recall, if that would appeal to either of you. But we’ve been learning quite a bit about IVF, and there appear to be a multitude of ways in which your eggs and Kevin’s sperm could . . . interact.” He makes a gesture with both hands, like a vague handshake. I imagine—briefly, convulsively—my eggs clasping hands with Kevin’s sperm. Kevin is a former dancer; his sperm would be very agile.

I have always been selfish, and with Jerome, I am the most selfish of all. If it worked out to his ultimate good, that doesn’t make me kind.

When my silence stretches out, Jerome gets nervous. “I realize it’s something that you probably need to think about,” he adds. His Northern Irish accent is much softer than it was in college: lilting but with far fewer layers. In the days before Kevin, it used to make the boys go crazy. But when Jerome is anxious, like now, the orchestral force of his full accent seeps back in. “But Kevin did say it had . . . come up, so I thought perhaps you might have guessed what I wanted to talk to you about?”

“No,” I say, honestly.

“You and Kevin didn’t…? You didn’t have a wee chat?”

“No?” And then I rethink. “We were wasted and I was jamming him into a cab and he said we’d have beautiful babies if we had babies. Which is a thing that gay men say to me frequently, these days, to be honest. And most of the time it just means they had fun hanging out.”

“Oh,” Jerome says. “Well. I can see how there would have been a misunderstanding.” After a moment: “Of course I will respect any disinclination you feel. If you feel a disinclination. But if it helps to know, we haven’t just been going around wildly propositioning our female friends. We thought—I thought—specifically of you.”

“Why me?”

“I’ve known you half my life now,” Jerome says. “Longer. And you’re very healthy—you hardly ever get sick!—and you’ve always had good grades, and I’ve met your mother and you’ll certainly age well . . .”

“This is a great pitch so far.” I fish the olive out of my martini and eat it.

“And you’re kind,” Jerome says.

“Kindness is nurture, not nature. You and Kevin could raise a rock to be kind. And—your information is out of date, I haven’t been kind in years.”

I wait for Jerome to contest this point, after which I will think less of him. But Jerome is the person I love most in the world because he doesn’t try to bullshit me. He got a law degree, which he now puts to use by executing a neat argumentative turn.

“Certain personality traits are inherent,” Jerome tells me. “Like aggression, for example. So actually, while nurture does shape behavioral systems and of course is responsible for the tools a child may have, genetic predisposition is also a factor. And your genetics are excellent across the board.”

I give Jerome just a second to think that his argument has been a success, and then I cut back to the part that interests me. “When was the last time you saw me do something kind?”

“Come on,” Jerome pleads. “What kind of a question is that?”

I don’t say anything. I just look at him with my eyes and lips drawn narrow—the way I always look at him when I’m daring him to do something he doesn’t want to do.

“Okay,” Jerome says. “Okay.” He stares determinedly into the middle distance, and I watch the angles of his face as he thinks. I know his face the way I know my own, with the same familiarity and occasionally the same sense of ownership. I remember watching the face of eighteen-year-old Jerome, as he thought, and it feels comforting to think that Jerome thinking will always just look how it looks, no matter how deformed we become by age and change.

“You’re an adjunct,” he declares, with satisfaction. “With pay like that, teaching is basically volunteer work. And volunteering is inherently kind.”

But when I say, dryly, “Nice try,” he doesn’t press it. The silence extends, neither of us uncomfortable inside it.

“Okay!” Jerome says, at last. “Do you remember in college—I’ll never forget this—do you remember the time that Tim Cavanelli’s cousin jumped out a window? And broke his legs—both of them—and you drove him to the emergency room and then you stayed with him all night? And Tim and I came in the morning—Tim had just heard the news, and the whole drive over he was like, I can’t believe she stayed with him all night! She didn’t even know him.” Jerome turns to me, triumphant. “That,” he says, “was kind.”

I take a moment to eat the olive out of his martini as well, remembering the rush of an ambulance through the night, that kid moaning, his face paper white, his hand clammy, we were holding hands—he’d been thrashing his arms around and I took his arm and then somehow we were holding hands. What had I felt right then? I think an overwhelming compulsion to help, a compulsion that, like any addiction, was larger than myself. The Cavanelli cousin and I never spoke after that night. But I’d wanted him to live.

I realize that Jerome is watching me with his sharp lawyer’s eyes.

“You’re mistaken,” I tell him. The toothpick snaps in half between my fingers. “It had nothing to do with kindness.”

. Though there were others who lived—ultimately a number of others—Jerome was mine. I thought of him in those crass, ridiculous terms—mine. When I told him to do things, he did them.

We met freshman year. He wasn’t out yet, although it didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure it out. He was straight from Catholic school in Belfast and completely out of his depth, whereas I came in like a tank from New Jersey public school, ready to kill. In the college cafeteria I said, “Jerome, this way,” and he sat with me in the back. If he stood up to get seconds, I said, “Jerome, bring me some too.” In our second semester I told Jerome to sign up for the Comp Lit class I wanted to take, and he did, and we sat together in the two seats jammed between the door and the trashcan. Everybody knew those two seats were ours. By sophomore year, we were living together in co-ed suites, with two other friends. By junior year, we swapped those two friends out for two different ones, but our bedrooms still shared a wall. By senior year, Jerome tried to kill himself and I said No.

No Jerome. That’s not happening.

So he didn’t follow through.

The details get fuzzy over the years, and frankly, that’s the one I don’t try to remember. If I did, if it were to come back to me in bits and pieces, I would have to remember the part where I told him I don’t think I can do this without you.

The carpet rough under my bare knees, and Jerome folded over the plastic dorm trash can, throwing up an unholy sludge of pills and vodka. You don’t get to leave me behind.

I have always been selfish, and with Jerome, I am the most selfish of all. If it worked out to his ultimate good, that doesn’t make me kind. I couldn’t have known that he’d find fulfillment in entertainment law, or that impulsive, wistful Kevin would blow into his life like a tumbleweed, or that they’d get married and get a weekend home upstate but not too far upstate.

It could so easily have gone the other way. He could have remained depressed and stymied, corrosively lonely and without any sense of his own potential, and I would have demanded that he stay alive for it anyway, just to keep me company. If you call that kindness, there’s something wrong with your head.

I spend the rest of the weekend after drinks with Jerome obsessively thinking about having his child. Kevin’s child. Our child. I have planned not to think about this—in fact, to pack it away deeply and never take it out except as an ironic anecdote: Hey, remember the time you asked if I wanted to fuck your husband? But it’s like a winter chill; I can’t seem to shake it.

I fall asleep reading on my couch on Sunday afternoon—something that is rare for me, not a nap taker or a Sunday relaxer—and I have a vivid dream. In this dream I am pregnant and nearing the time when I’ll have to squeeze the baby out of my body. I can feel in my stomach and pelvis that the baby is getting increasingly heavy, gravity pulling it down toward the earth. It wants to come out, and soon—within the hour, maybe. In the dream I’m nervous about the pain, and the mess, and a little frustrated because I don’t want to go to the hospital, I want to go to dinner. Jerome comes over to fetch me; “The timer went off,” he says, when I ask how he knew the baby was due. We stand on a street corner while he hails a series of yellow cabs, but every time one stops, he waves it on. “We need one with a baby seat in the back,” he insists. All of a sudden, a new life unfolds before me: one in which I will have to pass up three out of every four yellow cabs. I feel wild with rage like a trapped animal, and I start to cry, a hysterical, furious sobbing that I’ve rarely experienced in my waking life.

Not even God, I think morosely, is willing to sign up for parenthood.

I wake up shaken. Cold December twilight filters through the west-facing windows. It’s only four p.m., but the darkness is swiftly spreading. I get up to pour myself a glass of water and then I pour wine instead—Nebbiolo, still open from last night—and I go into the small second bedroom that I’ve converted into an office. I flick the lights on and stand barefoot in the center of the room, blinking at the flood of brightness, taking in my desk, my chair, my books, my laptop. I replay the dream in my head. Was there any part of me that felt anticipation? I’ve never been able to tell the difference between anticipation and terror.

I wander through the rooms of my apartment, flicking all the lights on, letting the glare devour each room before I move on. I have a built a life in which I fix my own leaky faucets and drafty windows. When I owned a car, I was the one who changed its tires; if I buy shelving, I am the one who assembles it and drills its brackets into the wall. I often go on vacations alone and what’s more, I like going on vacations alone. I would rather watch a movie by myself midafternoon in a near-empty movie theater than try to sync my schedule to someone else’s so we can experience the same thing at the same time. It isn’t that I dislike people, but rather that I have resigned from the messiness of pack life. And a baby is the epicenter around which a pack forms.

I don’t believe in God. But if I’m wrong and there is someone up there, His care—like mine—must be highly conditional. Down here on earth there are wars, illnesses, hatreds of every kind and flavor, grievances large and small, inflictions ranging from petty thefts to tsunamis. None of it holds His attention long enough to step in and put a stop to anything. Not even God, I think morosely, is willing to sign up for parenthood.

It was my friend Mason who tried to hang himself in his parents’ garage, in our third year of college, over Thanksgiving break. This was after the voicemail he left me; this was before I called the Massachusetts police and he got carted off to a psych ward outside Boston. I went to visit him on a crisp fall afternoon: his fifth day there, and the first day they allowed him to have visitors.

He looked better than I expected when the guard let him join me in the small sunny courtyard. He seemed oddly healthy, like he’d been eating well and finally sleeping enough. He perched on the edge of a wooden picnic table, kicking his unlaced sneakers. Following my eyes, he said: “They took the laces.” Then stood, demonstrating how his baggy jeans slid precariously: “And my belt. They think I’m gonna hang myself. Again.”

Are you gonna hang yourself again?”

“Nah, I’m over it. This is a waste of my goddamn time, being in here. Never been so bored.”

“I should’ve brought you some magazines.”

“My mom is coming, she’s bringing me a novel.” Mason rolled his eyes. “Hopefully nobody thinks about how you can just slit your wrists with paper.”

“I don’t think you actually can.”

“No,” Mason said, ominously. “You can.”

Mason’s mother, when she arrived, was a whirlwind of activity. She presented him with a paperback, disappeared to talk to his doctors, returned with three bottles of water she got from a vending machine, encouraged us all to stay hydrated, and even reached out to tug upward at Mason’s sliding pants. I’d never met his mother before; I’d imagined tears, recriminations. Instead, she was proactive and blasé. At one point Mason made a crack about the psych ward and she said to me, “It runs in the family.”

“A dark sense of humor?” I asked.

“The looney bin.”

At the end of the visit, a beefy but soft-spoken attendant came out to collect Mason, and his mother and I were left alone together. When the doors had closed behind him, his mother sighed. It was a sigh that seemed to come from a place deep in the earth, working its way up through her entire body. She brushed her dry, straw-colored hair out of her eyes, and we sat in silence at opposite edges of the picnic table. I didn’t know if she was waiting for me to say something, and I searched my mind for what I might say. Was this the part where we bonded, or where we parted ways?

Into the silence, Mason’s mother spoke. “He shouldn’t have done that to you.”

“I’m sorry?”

“He left you a voicemail, didn’t he? And then you called the cops?” I nodded. “Well. You saved my son’s life, so—thank you. But he was incredibly selfish to do that to you.” I started to say something awkward and polite, maybe something about how he was in a lot of pain, but she cut me off: “He’s young so he doesn’t understand now—but you damage a person with a thing like that, a call like that in the middle of the night. He should have called me. Mothers are already damaged.”

She stared into my face. I, too, must have looked so young to her. I must have sounded so earnest when I said, “I was just glad I could help.” Or maybe she heard what I was saying under it, which was that I needed to be needed, that my whole short life had become framed around being needed, that usefulness can feel like power when it’s all you have.

She didn’t say anything for a long time, and then she patted my arm in a way that felt both condescending and forgiving, and then we left, and a month later Mason was dead; he washed down a bottle of Oxy with a handle of vodka; and it was much later, years later—when the phone ringing in the night could still send me gasping upright, heart hammering; when any missed call would prick a cold sweat over my body; when every time I said goodbye to someone, even a casual acquaintance, some small part of me whispered This could be the last time—it was only later that I began to understand how right his mother had been. She had seen it all so clearly.

New York issues a blizzard warning—high winds, deep snows—and Jim Gilson tells his wife that he has to pack a day’s worth of meetings into the late evening and then comes over to my apartment. We fuck, which is normal, but then Jim suggests running to the corner store for groceries, which is not. “I’ll cook,” he says shyly.

We’re lying in my bed, the sheets kicked aside, and I lift my head to look at Jim. “Like . . . dinner?”

“Yeah.” His tone is casual but I can feel his hope. “Why not?”

“Well—when’s your train? Isn’t your wife expecting you?”

Jim flinches just a little when I mention his wife. “I said tonight would go late. In case there are cancellations tomorrow.” He hesitates and then, “Something simple and quick. I make a mean pasta puttanesca—no pun intended.”

This makes me laugh, and when I laugh, I feel him relax. Jim tries not to talk about his wife when he’s with me. He feels guilty about the cheating; he worries that eventually it will be too much for me, and I’ll end things. What he doesn’t understand is that I find the fact of his wife to be hugely comforting. If there is a call in the night, it will go to her and not to me.

Jim ends up making stir-fry, and I perch on the stool by the stove watching him cook. He hands me a glass of wine, then pours another for himself as he stirs chicken into chopped green peppers and onions, then adds a splash of soy sauce. The pan hisses and the warm, rich smell of cooking meat fills the kitchen.

We eat at my small kitchen table. Jim finds tapers in the bottom of the junk drawer and when he lights them, my walls glow and flicker, transformed into a Dutch Masters painting. Jim is a good talker, bright, funny, and self-deprecating. Conversation has always been part of this whole thing, this affair—although never too personal and never future oriented. But tonight the rules have shifted, so I don’t immediately shut him down when the talk shifts from his job to his kid.

Danny is seven, and he doesn’t want to play baseball or hang out with his school friends, he just wants to do ballet. He pirouettes around the living room, he uses the furniture for barre. Jim and his wife aren’t sure if this means Danny is gay, or if he just wants to be a dancer. “It’s hard to know if anything is a marker of anything, or if it’s just whatever it is,” Jim says. But his wife is worried that Danny is closeted and suffering in silence, so they’ve tried to pave the way for a potential coming out. His classmate Lisa has two moms, and they’ve taken that opportunity to talk to Danny about how family comes in many variations—sometimes you have two mommies and sometimes you have two daddies, etc. But Danny didn’t seem interested in any of that, maybe because it was already obvious to him. He just wanted to talk about dance.

“So we signed him up for ballet class,” Jim concludes. “My wife suggested we sign him up for counseling but . . . I don’t know, he’s seven. And honestly, he seems fine. I don’t know, what do you think?”

“What do I know? He sounds fine.”

“Parenting is either much trickier than it ever was,” Jim says, “or much simpler.” He divides the last of the bottle between my glass and his, and we tap our glasses in a cheers-to-that.

I hear myself say, before I’ve planned to do it, “My best friend asked me to have a kid.”

Jim nearly chokes on his swallow. “Who did?”


“Jerome with the husband?”

“Yeah, well, exactly. He asked if I’d have a kid with him and his husband.”

Jim considers. “With or for?”

Taken aback, I consider as well. “I think either is on the table. Depending what I want.”

“So you’re thinking about it?”

“I don’t know.” A light draft from the kitchen window makes the candle-flames leap. Jim leans his head on his fist, looking at me. “What?” I ask.

“No, nothing. I guess—you’ve never talked about a kid before.”

“Yeah, well, Jerome never asked me before.”

“Sure but . . . I mean, I didn’t know that was a thing you might want.”

“Well,” I say, a little too sharply, “there’s no reason you would know that, is there.”

Jim’s face falls and I know I’ve hurt him again, the way I always hurt him when I remind him of the solid parameters to our illusion. Sometimes it feels good to hurt him, like I’m trying to teach him something. This time it just feels sad, and I’m sorry that I said it.

“I don’t think I want to parent,” I say, softer. “As a verb, I mean. But Jerome and Kevin, they would verb. And parent as a noun . . . something about being a parent sounds . . . I don’t know. I can’t tell if I’m being offered the best of both worlds or if this is actually just a terrible idea that I was never cut out for.”

Someone else might be tripping all over himself to say that of course I would be a good mother, but Jim is quiet, and I like him for it.

Finally, Jim asks, “Do you think I’m holding you back?”

“What, from popping out a kid with two gay dads?”

“No,” Jim says sadly, even though he gives me a half smile. “From having a thing that you can actually have. From making plans.”

“No,” I say at last, “I don’t think you’re what’s holding me back, Jim.” And I can tell from his expression of relief mixed with pain that he didn’t want that answer as much as he did.

The blizzard gets stronger after Jim leaves, and for a while I wait to see if he’ll come back. But he doesn’t and the winds whip tighter and tighter past the windows as the snow piles up on the fire escape. Right before eleven, the power flickers and then goes out, and when I press my cheek to the cold window and crane my neck, I can see that the entire block has gone dark. The radiators had been clanking and thundering, but now they are ominously quiet. I relight the candles from dinner and the walls shiver, shadow-shapes rounding and distorting the room.

I think about going to bed; when I wake up, the power will probably be back on. But I’m not sleepy. My brain keeps looping back on itself, the same thoughts chasing themselves endlessly.

I have watched babies before, on the subway or in the grocery store. There’s something mesmerizing about how alien they are, nearly prehistoric. Either they ignore you with the haughtiness of small prophets, or they stare you down, cold and steady. They come from a place beyond all human knowing; the strangeness has not yet been stripped off them. To be responsible in any way for shepherding a creature like that into and around the world is an undertaking almost religious in its folly. When Jerome calls me, to see if I’ve lost power, I leap into the conversation as if it’s one we’ve been having all evening: “I can see that people do it, have kids I mean, but how does it not just destroy you utterly? How are you not a complete shell, drained of all life, constantly waiting for disaster to strike?”

Jerome, true to his nature, catches up with me quickly. “I don’t know,” he says. “I haven’t done it yet? But I think . . . maybe it does destroy you a bit. And you are always waiting for disaster to strike.”

“But that sounds horrible,” I say. “How can you want to sign up for that?”

I can hear Jerome’s smile in his voice. “I guess I don’t see the difference between that and now,” he says. “We’re already slightly destroyed, day by day, just by the fact of being alive on this planet. We already wait for disaster to strike. So I think, when disaster strikes, I would like to have a life that is full of things that aren’t disasters—a life full of things tethering me to the earth, so that I can remember why I want to get through whatever sorrow is happening.”

“That’s why people get pets,” I say. “That’s why people buy houses.”

“True,” Jerome says. “Different people need different tethers.”

“What happens if you don’t have a tether?” I ask, and I think that I’m making a point, but then I realize that I’m asking a real question, that fear is pouring out through the channel of my increasingly tightened throat. “What happens to those people?”

I think about Mason; I think about the kids from summer camp; I think about the friends who never made it through their twenties. Would a tether have manifested itself for them eventually, if they’d just hung on? Or had they been people for whom none could ever exist?

“Hey,” Jerome says, his voice soft on the other end. “Are you OK?”

There has always been Jerome, I think, steady and indispensable, woven into my life in ways both deliberate and unconscious, so fully entangled that half the time when I watch movies I have his reactions alongside my own. Any piece of news or gossip always makes me want to call him, so that he can immediately know whatever I know. But now I think: what if anything ever happened to him? I would incinerate on the spot; I would turn to salt or ash. What is the point of a tether if it is just a line to the weakest place inside of you? How can we keep going when all we do is accumulate what it would devastate us to lose?

“Are you still there?” Jerome sounds worried now.

I sit down on what I thought was a chair, but it wasn’t, just a collection of shadows, and my ass hits the floor. I drop the phone, and it skitters across the hardwood and hits the wall. I hear Jerome’s voice sharp with alarm, calling my name. I crawl over to the phone and pick it back up.

“I’m fine,” I say, “I dropped the phone.”

“I’m coming over,” Jerome says.

“Jerome, no, it’s a blizzard. Are the subways even running?”

“I’m coming over,” Jerome says. He hangs up.

I think about calling him back and telling him not to come, warning him of all the things that could happen to him on his journey—slipping on ice, cracking his head open, pneumonia, stumbling into a snowdrift and languishing there—but Jerome would just come anyway. I know him like my own dogged heart, like the scaffolding of my bones. So I sit on the floor, my back to the wall, the leaded glass panes rattling in the windows when the snowplow goes by. The candles are almost burned down, now, and the silence is a softness.

Outside, the world is transforming itself into an unknowable place, one where the edges are round, the warmths are cold, the dark is a whiteout glare. Somewhere out there, Jerome is bundled into his jacket, shouldering his way against the wind. How often I imagine the end of my own happiness. How often I am terrified and call it something else. The snowplow goes by again, the vibration moving from my hands into my shoulders and teeth. I sit very still and wait for Jerome; I will not shift or swallow, I will not blink; let me fall under the spell, whichever one it is that everyone else has mastered.

Jen Silverman is the author of the novel We Play Ourselves, the story collection The Island Dwellers, and the poetry chapbook Bath, selected for publication by Traci Brimhall. Silverman also writes for theater, TV, and film.
Originally published:
April 25, 2022


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