When he was born, you told your wife—told yourself—you’d teach him to be a man. A real man, not the kind on the cover of magazines or the kind you hear about in bars. Through his wails, you whispered.
“I’ll always be there. I’ll always help you.”
You watched him grow from a baby into a toddler, defiant and angry. Watched him learn to run, to climb things he shouldn’t be climbing. Watched him learn to speak, learn to say no. You held him when he fell, kissed him when he didn’t want to go to bed. You watched him become a person, no longer this alien creature that you had to mold into a human. He was you, only smaller, better.
You rewarded him when he was good, sent him to his room when he was bad. That time he stole Halloween candy from the bucket before bed, you took away his favorite Ninja Turtles toy. You still feel bad that you forgot to give it back, but you did it for the right reason. To teach him. To help him one day become a man.
You played baseball with him out front when he got older, watched him throw a fit when he struck out. You taught him that success was what he defined, not other people. And he understood.
Three days after his eleventh birthday, you stood on the neighbor’s front porch, telling him he better be sincere.
“We get one chance to right a wrong,” you told him. “One chance to come back.”
You watched him apologize for throwing rocks at the neighbor’s cat, but you didn’t see the sincerity. You let it slide. He was just a boy. Just did something dumb.
“Boys,” you said to the neighbor. “I don’t know what gets into their heads.”
You and the neighbor shared a laugh, shook hands, righted the wrong. Your son saw you leading by example. You were a man, teaching him to be a man. Always do what’s right.
You watched him breeze through math in junior high, told your wife he was going to be a whiz. Going to be a scientist. Maybe he’d go to Notre Dame, get a full ride. You told her he’d be at the top of his class when he finished high school.
But he wasn’t. You got the calls from the office. He’d skipped again. He was on academic probation. You found him drinking one of your beers in his room late one night, and you tore into him. You yelled, you threatened. You did everything your father had done with you, because, goddamnit, maybe you weren’t teaching him how to be a man after all. Maybe you didn’t know a damn thing. Maybe you needed to do what you never wanted to do.
And it worked. He went back to school, brought his grades up, finished high school with a B average. You’d done your job. Maybe he didn’t get that scholarship. Maybe he wasn’t going to Notre Dame or NYU or anywhere else. But he’d made it through high school, and he knew right from wrong.
He lived at home. He didn’t need college, and that was all right because you’d seen what he was growing into. Something good. You’d seen him with his girlfriends. He respected them. Held the door for them. Never pushed himself on them. He was a man.
You saw him with his friends. They talked politics and poverty and social issues. They wanted to change the world. It didn’t matter that none of them had jobs at twenty. Didn’t matter that none of them went to school.
They were men. He was a man. You’d done your job.
And then last night, he came to you, blood on his white t-shirt. Crying. He’d done something, he couldn’t tell you what. But he did tell you. He was tired of not having money. He was tired of sitting around and talking. He was tired of the world getting what it wanted while he let it pass him by. He broke into the big house two blocks over—the one with the Audi parked out front and the Navigator in the garage. He’d gone for the jewelry, but he didn’t know the owner was home. Didn’t know the owner had a gun. He reacted with the gun he brought along.
But you didn’t know where he’d gotten a gun. From his friends, maybe. Or the gun show. Didn’t matter. He had it.
He shot that man in the chest. Watched that man die. And now he was crying into your shoulder, telling you he didn’t want to go to jail.
And you were crying. You didn’t want him to go to jail. You didn’t want to think about that man, that man’s family, the blood, the bullet. You just wanted to look your son in his eyes and tell him you loved him. He’d made a mistake, but you loved him. You didn’t want him to go away.
You packed him a bag, kissed your wife. Told her you had to run an errand. You helped him change into clean clothes, kept the bloody shirt and dirty jeans. You loaded him into the front seat of your truck, and you drove.
You flashed your passport at the Nogales border crossing, waited. Looked at your son. You nudged him and handed his passport out the window as well. Two minutes later, you were in Mexico. Thirty minutes later, you were lost. You handed him his bag, told him to go. Told him you loved him. Kissed him on the top of his head.
When he climbed out of the truck, he cried. He walked. And you left.
On the drive home, you thought about men. Men don’t run. They stand up for what’s right. You taught him that. You taught him to be a man. But you didn’t care about him being a man that night.
All you cared about was him being you.