Issue Thirty-Nine - Winter 2022

Variations on a Theme

By Cati Porter

“Think I just heard another FUCK YOU PORTER,” I text my husband upstairs.

It is early, unlike most of the other times we’ve heard them. I fiddle with the undone ribbon on the waistband of my pajama bottoms, sip the too-hot-for-this-90-degrees-before-ten-a.m.-crap coffee. The soundtrack is a steady stop and start of morning traffic, but the words rise up over the misery song of our busy-at-all-hours avenue.

“Are you sure?”

“No,” I answer, because we live downtown.

“Do you want me to bring you up some coffee?”

“Yes please.”



It has begun to punctuate our days. It is as much ellipsis as exclamation mark; as mundane as the gargle of a GMC pickup through the slow yellow light, the red siren of an ambulance, the repetitive tinny clack of a shopping cart over century-old sidewalks.

Sometimes, as it happens, I’ve just stepped out onto the porch, so that I witness it, that howl, bellowed out the rolled down window of a passing car — nondescript black compact sedan, the bend of an elbow on the passenger side window, the blur of a grin as they speed away. It trails behind the car like a contrail. We apologize to the neighbors.

I wave my arms at them like someone in distress, scream, “HEY!”


Our sons still live with us at home. Our eldest, now twenty, quit both of his part-time jobs early in the pandemic. He fills his days watching anime with his live-in girlfriend, composing songs with an 8-track in his recording studio, aka his closet. Our youngest we’ve reluctantly transferred into the “educational options center” to finish his senior year, out of the high school that was his brother, father, and grandfather’s alma mater. You take what options you can.

Days and nights bleed together. He plays Fortnight. Grand Theft Auto. Gun games, games we swore we’d never let him play when he was a grade schooler, but there comes a time when you can no longer impose your own priorities on your offspring. This lesson comes with experience, and with only two children, clearly we haven’t had enough.

I hear them all whooping on Discord: disembodied, disjointed. Once, I was the room mother, the one who knew all the friends, who they too half-jokingly called “mom,” but in the last years of high school, his friend group has expanded to include kids I will probably never know.

When he isn’t gaming, he’s shirtless in the kitchen in boxer shorts or high-water pajama pants, refrigerator doors open wide like he is gazing in at Zuul. These are the moments that give me comfort, the ones that feel relatively normal, in between which others prickle like a burr between ankle and sock, when he’s making irrational demands, melting down. There is just too much time. We fill it buying replacement PlayStation controllers when his fail, curbside pickup at Best Buy. We take seriously his request for an RV to park in the driveway, as he spends hours reading the listings on Facebook Marketplace, Craigslist, searching for external living quarters where he can come and go as he pleases without fear of exposing us, grateful for the temporary truce. And of course there is also school. With a little luck, he’ll be graduating in May.

Things will be better then.


For myself and my husband, our one big weekly excursion becomes taking a scenic drive, and for that, we need gas.

And so it is that we find ourselves rounding the corner on the side street behind the post office, heading toward the gas station, and our youngest son passing us going the opposite direction, on his way back from a supposed Wendy’s or Del Taco run. A small, reasonable concession on our part. The scene unfolds in slow motion as I raise my hand and wave at him and he stares back, slack-jawed.

“Someone just ducked down in the passenger seat.”

“Did you see someone? That can’t be.”

“I think maybe.”


We call him on it. Yes, he had picked up a friend — a girl — no, just a friend —bought her drive through, and now he is taking her home.

We let it go, for now.

Later. He is out for “a run” and again, we’re out for a drive, decide to cruise past the church parking lot where he tells us his Civic is parked. The car is not there. Again, we call him.


“Where are you?”

“Out for a run on Victoria.”

“No you’re not.”

He caves. He is out for a walk with the girl in her neighborhood.

So, we compromise. We let them walk together, masked and socially distanced, outside. We let him skateboard, masked, outside. He has already been doing it in secret. What else could we do?

Not enough.

He continues to scour listings. To appease him, we too research RVs with showers, toilets, kitchenettes. We read about black water tanks. We measure the width of the driveway between the fence and the low-hanging hundred-year-old bargeboard eaves, contemplate all options.

And so it is that, come July, he goes to live with my sister. In her thirties, a florist without the luxury of working from home, she’s agreed she can spare the room. There he can resume life as he knows it. Our house is suddenly much quieter.


One day, not long after high school graduation, our eldest son pulled up in front of the house. His car — actually, our car, that we purchased for his use, which, I guess I may as well just say it, is his car, because no one but him drives it— had boxes and bags, clothes still on hangers, piled up past the windows, his girlfriend in the passenger seat.

“Can she stay with us? For just a few days, while she figures out what to do next?”


Where else did she have to go?

In the before-times, as we sometimes call it, our eldest son would go visit her. They’d bake cookies around the holidays, marathon cookie baking days where she carried the load of mixing flour-sugar-butter-whatever. She’d bake with her mother, her sister, her niece and nephew, and with him, our son. Then one day, she couldn’t go back home.

On a good day, which is practically any day, the whole house top-to-bottom smells of baked goods. In the cupboard, apple-cinnamon muffins. Strawberry-puree-infused cupcakes with strawberry frosting. Almond pound cake. Lemon squares. From scratch.

When we run low on supplies, she just adds the items to the list, and, voila, the cupboards are no longer bare.


You know, intellectually, that your kids are different. Yet, the differences between our two sons at this point in time are stark. Our oldest, now twenty-one, has his girlfriend, and together, they are enough. Neither has left the house, except to pick up food delivery from the porch or spend time in the yard. Not once has he asked to see his friends, despite steady pressure.


It is our anthem. Our theme song. A badge of honor. It means we are staying safer at home. To them, it means they have lost him. I’ll never know if it is out of bitterness or spite or love, but it has become something we can count on.

I begin to listen for it, like thunder, but it’s a mistake to think we can count out the beats to measure the progress of the storm. We never know when the next will come.


For the second night in a row, I am sleeping in my youngest’s bed while my husband sleeps alone in ours, in the other room. I am trying to keep them safe. The mattress is bare, having been stripped of its stale bedding only a few weeks before, fifteen months after our son went to live with my sister. I don’t bother to make up the bed. There are no pillow cases. The only blanket, a kid-sized night-sky blue microfleece blanket emblazoned with stars, stuffed in a drawer for a decade until last night when I called it back into service.

The room has a door that opens onto an upper deck. I leave it cracked in spite of the California July heat. Beneath the looping track of unrelenting weekend traffic, I pick up another steady soothing rhythm, like an analog watch held to the ear. Tree frogs? Can’t be. Crickets? Maybe. It surfaces in the silence between relays as cars race from one green light to the next.

Every now and then I check my phone. I reload the page, re-enter my birthday: “Results have not been released yet.”

I listen intently in the unpunctuated dark. It’s been weeks since we last heard them.

Would you believe, I actually miss it.

Copyright Porter 2022