When Peter Left the House

When Peter Left the House

Emmanuel Mauleon

Peter left the house as I was slipping a screwdriver into the flaked hinge of an oyster, bracing myself against the corner between the stove and the wall. He yelled goodbye as the screen door slammed shut. My head jerked up and my right hand slipped from the shell and brought it right into my abdomen in a perfect simulation of an auto Hiemlich maneuver.[1] And just like that, our youngest son was out.

The house smelled of Peter’s unused cardboard boxes—that hand-chapping dryness. Smelled like the acrid-sweetness of unlicked envelopes. Smelled of my grandfather’s unkempt attic office, which had been stacked with yellowed papers. With what must have been a first-model Xerox huddled in the corner, which smelled of burnt toner, browning each page as it made facsimiles. He smoked pipe tobacco, which smelled woody as well—damp, thick—like sinking molasses cookies, sweating in the pouch he kept rolled on the arm of his chair.

And Josh was taking Peter’s departure in stride. To him, an empty nest connoted a return to walking around in his underwear, no longer afraid of uninvited teen eyes. When Annie had her first sleepover, Josh grabbed a box of Triscuits and spent the night in the garage, sleeping in the back seat of our old station wagon.[2] He spent the night reading old letters and cards from our relatives we kept in storage, which we secretly hoped might succumb to water damage or get slowly eaten by mice. “Oh,” you’d say, “. . . well, yes, those photos of Ester and Iris were so lovely. Unfortunately, we’ve got this mouse problem.” Trading cards of sad, sweatered children. When I first fought with my sister-in-law Anne (Annie’s namesake), I felt the awful satisfaction of throwing away a picture of her smiling family perched atop a set-drawbridge, with cotton-white foam snow draped over their children’s shoulders in a simulacrum of fresh powder. When Josh first opened that card we laughed for several minutes, deep belly laughter, clutching each other for support in the kitchen.

Josh said he spent that night sleeping in the garage because his greatest fear was that one of Annie’s friends would think he was “a pervert,” and so he figured, “out of sight, out of mind.”[3] I told him that perhaps sleeping in the car in the garage with a box of Triscuits was not exactly cultivating the image of normalcy he wished to present. He said the last thing he needed were our children’s friends spreading gossip.

Josh goes by Josh, but is named Yusuf. Yusuf is an uncommon name in Des Moines. The sort of name that invites scrutiny.

Peter, nineteen, is our youngest (a surprising but happy accident). And there’s Annabel—now twenty-nine, and living in a suburb of Chicago called Libertyville, a strange enclave of second-generation immigrant families who had managed to reach middle-class status. She told me recently she’s trying to want to have a child.

I heave, my oyster-fist buried in my stomach, vomiting and hiccupping in the same breath, which causes my nose to burn with a green, rotting smell, like hot, wet grass trimmings.

Peter is off to school to study urology.[4] I hesitate to ask what sparked this career choice.[5] He graduated high school at sixteen, finished his college degree in three years while living at home, and believes it is time to “grow up” by moving into student housing.

Children—even adoring, kind, well-behaved children—will ruin you. What do you call a familial breakup? At least with divorce there is ceremony, there are papers to sign, things to divide. Fights. Secrets, unsaid for years, become taunting shouts. Abandonment. Betrayal. No one expects their best friends to be so eager to leave them.

Parenting’s delights are all voyeurism. You derive all your pleasure from furtive glances, hovering a few steps behind your small daughter, alighting at her pleasure. Before you came to this country, a dog was vermin, black and demonic. But how can this be so, when you see Annabel’s young face giggle the first time she sees a dog on a walk? Josh agreed, and so on Annie’s fifth birthday we struggled to wrap a whining beagle[6] into a box, perforated with holes, an afterthought. Josh, anxious, poked bendy straws through the back. “Like a snorkel,” he said.

When your children leave, you become familiar with new time zones. New phone numbers. You start keeping the ringer on, the cradle resting on your bedside table. “Just in case.”

Josh bought us two dozen oysters—discomforting in a landlocked state—and a bottle of champagne.

“He will be back to visit soon, but we should celebrate tonight.”

And, “We can finally make love in the afternoons again.”

He says this with an accompanied wink, because he knows I hate the phrase “make love,” which reminds me of old films and the timid sex of my first marriage.

I stare at the warm sick pile on our kitchen floor—the slick, pink medallion that slipped atop the mess—a tiny cadaver from the shattered shell in my hand.  I am astonished that it opened and see that the screwdriver handle remains speared through, puncturing a beautiful opalescent button, ragged and star shaped. Josh walks in, slowly taking in the scene. The warm, rotten-grass scent has given way to the sour sting of bile, and slightly salty hints from the five already shucked oysters resting on a plate with ice tray–sized cubes.

“He’ll be back home soon, again.”

My vomit, for him a sign of maternal anguish. Not the balled-up fist to the gut.

“No, it’s not that,” I say.

“He’ll be back soon.”

And so I have Josh clean the floor as I dip my tongue as a practiced spoon, slipping one oyster after the next off of its silver-smooth platter—a tongue running across the roof of a rippled shell—into my mouth, satisfied.

[1] Henry Heimlich not only invented his namesake maneuver, but he also invented a valve that drained blood from the lung and chest cavity, which makes you wonder if this was the result of many poorly administered or exuberant thoracic thrusts. How does one do trial runs of this sort of thing?


[2] The station wagon remained perennially parked as a makeshift couch. The last time it moved was during Annie’s first attempt at her driver’s license, which ended about forty feet from our garage door as the brakes failed, the engine shut off, and—while in neutral, braced against the shoulders of Annie, Josh, and our neighbor Tim Russell—ran over Tim’s foot, causing two metatarsal fractures.


[3] “What if I try to give Annie a goodnight hug? I can just see them whispering that I am some sort of pervert.” Josh had the misfortune of being reprimanded at work several times for innocent actions that were misconstrued as lewd or threatening, including once moaning because of a Charlie Horse in his foot during a staff meeting. This left Josh on high alert.


[4] Four months in, our phone calls have become an uncomfortable stream of facts: “Mom, did you know that the science behind circumcision is still quite skeptical of any real benefits?” “Mom, did you know that kidney failure can lead to foamy, bubbly urine?”

[5] Peter’s fascination with urology began when he heard one classmate threaten to “break your dick” to another in middle school. Peter wondered if this was physically possible. It is.


[6] Jupiter, who lived to be thirteen.

Emmanuel Mauleón was born in Puebla, Mexico, grew up in the Twin Cities, and currently lives in Los Angeles. He studied Creative Expression & Social Justice at both Gallatin at NYU and the University of Minnesota, and holds a degree in Painting from the Rhode Island School of Design. He is currently pursuing his J.D. at the UCLA School of Law, concentrating in Critical Race Studies in the Law. 

Illustrated by Nusha Ashjaee.



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