We Need To Talk About Ben

She opens his backpack with a frisson of shame. She’s been a diplomatic spy, a princess, and now a general, but going through her own child’s belongings feels scummy, a low blow.

She’d brought him into the world with high expectations, at a time that the world felt on the cusp of better things. Breastfeeding, teething, toddling. Sure, she’d missed first steps for conferences, booked 3 shifts of nannies for interstellar trips to negotiate peace. Or plan for war. But just as planet after planet chose its own economic interests over allegiance to ideals, so too had her ability to really tune in to Ben’s world. It was clear now, how her questions – how was school? Did you eat lunch? Would you like to invite any friends over? – had been insufficient.

Of course she wasn’t the only parent in the mix, only the most judged. Ben’s father had been less connected when Ben was a baby, willing to take him but never having to be asked to give him over, each session of daddy-care coming with a series of inexplicable laundry – diaper on backwards, giving in to the ‘more more’ for 5 entire bananas within an hour – and the weight of being the one who has to find all the answers. She already was the go-to person for an entire galaxy of would-be heroes, and so perhaps it was inevitable that once the scoundrel wore off it was the added questions that made the relationship sag. He headed out for a contract and never really came back, the stretches between FaceTime sessions getting longer and longer until she realized she didn’t know which planet he was circling and didn’t actually care.

But that had made for a resurgence of fatherhood, when he did return to find a child that walked, talked, could learn to shoot and reenact the Kessel Run. This was the golden era of daddy-worship, when she had been only an impediment to Ben’s ability to joyfully jump off the couch pantless, and every arrival of her now-ex sparked the same light in her son’s eyes as fireworks. She truly delighted in that bond, her own relationship with her deceased biological father mired in toxic memory, and told herself that Ben would circle back.

But he didn’t, he spiralled down, and by the time he was in middle school she knew that his hollow one-word answers to her questions were masking – well, everything. But by then the habit of quick connection, the pause before eating, the brief interlude at bedtime, had also become a slick surface over which her concern could only skate.

So now she is picking at the crumbs of his day, peering into the recesses of his pencil case. A small dark crystal, a crumpled phone number. Knowing she’s now committed, she opens his notebook and find exactly what she had feared: blueprints, plans to turn loathing into empire. Not self-loathing, a thing she would know how to address, but screeds on everyone in his way: women, peacemakers, diplomats. She recognizes herself in it but knows that he would be furious to have her think it was merely her against whom he rebels. The rebel’s rebel a dictator.

He reminds her of her father, who reminds her everything she has been fighting to commit to history.

The help then needs to come from the world of men and so she calls her brother. Hi, how are you. Sorry I haven’t been in touch. Look, Ben needs a – a break from things here. Oh? Oh great. When can we – okay, I’ll let you know when we’ve booked our trip. Thank you. Thank you.

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