Teen Mom

Kim Samek | Fiction

The peg leg falls off, so she has to find glue. It’s not just any glue—she needs a special one that can hold body parts together. Only a few stores carry this kind. She goes to the first one, but they are out. The second store has some, but the can is dented so she doesn’t trust it. The third store has what she needs but it’s marked up. Supply chain issues. The glue costs a fourth of her paycheck, but she takes it.

Back home, she calls the mother over to help. It’s been a few years since they’ve spoken—the mother usually stirs up shit she could do without. But she can’t glue her leg back on herself. It is a cost she is willing to accept. The mother comes but insists on bringing her own glue. She got it from a Thai grocery near the uncle’s house. She says it will work better than any glue recommended by doctors. The mother doesn’t trust doctors. It has been years since she has seen one. Just thinking about them makes her lip twitch. They can’t get past this disagreement over which glue to use, so the mother pretends she has plans and rushes off to a fake dinner.

There are other people who might help her. Maybe that doctor she went on a date with last week. R u up, she texts him. It’s an emergency, she adds. He doesn’t answer. He probably gets that all the time, she thinks. She opens her Tinder to find a new doctor. Later, she matches with a podiatrist and sends a few flirty texts before explaining her predicament. He is sympathetic and tells her the glue won’t last. He says she needs some special screws. Very funny, she writes, but he says he is serious. He sends her a link to a set of heavy duty peg leg screws. She tells him she’s broke after going all-in on the glue. Later that week he comes over with a bottle of wine and gives her the peg leg screws wrapped like a gift. It takes him only a few minutes to twist the leg back in with these screws. She is impressed with his competence. She could use a smart man like this in her life, but when she kisses him, she feels nothing.

She spends Friday night on the couch, the peg leg foot propped on the ottoman. Now that her leg is reattached, she is scared to walk too much in case she trips again. She can’t stop thinking about the moment her leg fell off. It’s only natural to dwell, she thinks. She’s glad there’s a marathon of Teen Mom on. Watching the show makes her feel less alone. She was a teen mom herself, though at eighteen, she just qualified for the status. She was a high school senior at a college party when she met the dad. He didn’t attend the college either. He had been kicked out of the school for throwing a sofa off a balcony, but he didn’t tell her this until after he impregnated her. She wasn’t planning to see him again. Then the laws changed and she missed her period, and now they are forever intertwined. She found it more difficult to be a mother than she expected. When her son was two, he yanked on her leg so hard that it broke off, and then he ran around the apartment gleefully waving it. I took the leg, he screamed. I got the leg! Toddlers, man. That’s how she ended up with a peg leg. It took some getting used to. People said she didn’t handle the accident well. She spent the next few weeks hiding from the baby, fearful he would do it again. According to her therapist, she developed an “adjustment disorder.” She was a good mom, though. She fed him well but kept a distance. The father got wind of this situation and said she wasn’t fit to be a parent so he took custody of the son. He quickly discovered he wasn’t fit either and moved the baby to Greece to be closer to the grandmother and the great-grandmother. The son is now ten. She hopes he no longer rips off limbs. She still misses him.

Tinder fills the void. There is an infinite supply of men to chat with. She has a sharp wit and an excellent face. Enough to book many dates:

One: The guy used to front a band she’s vaguely heard of, but he’s older now. He mentions his father every time there’s a segue, and also when there isn’t one. His father never believed in him—even after his song made a Pepsi commercial. She says she is sorry he was treated this way, but he replies his father was probably right. Nothing came of the commercial. The money is spent. The band has broken up. The musician is working paycheck to paycheck. He wears the same black jeans to his office manager job that he once wore on stage. She listens to him as they sip on mint juleps in the summer heat. After she is buzzed, he suggests driving her up to a murder house in his old convertible. She’s into it, though mostly she likes listening to good music with the top down, speeding through the Hollywood Hills with the wind in her face. She has never ridden in a convertible before, especially not to a murder house. She figures her life will never be more glamorous. It’s fully dark out when they pull up. Like all murder houses, this is a place where a husband has killed his wife. He wonders if there is still blood on the ground and draws his finger across her thigh toward her crotch. She hops the fence and peeks into a window. There are Christmas presents in the corner. A clown hangs from a rafter. There’s a can of Spaghetti-Os on the ground. This is someone’s idea of a joke, she thinks. She asks if he has planted these items. The musician smiles and kisses her with lips that are too big for her face—lips that kiss from her nose to her chin—and she decides he is not the one for her.

Two: They meet at the Dresden. The guy is running for office. He doesn’t think he will win, but he made it a goal to become president when he was a kid, and he doesn’t want to disappoint his young self. He flashes her his new teeth as he orders their dinner. They are good teeth. She wants to ask him how much teeth like that cost. She can see that he is sizing her up as a prospective First Lady. She is impressive from the bust up. She has thick, flowing hair, a nice smile, she can speak well. She used to do ballet, so she knows something about posture and grace. If only they could remain sitting at this table forever, she could be a Mrs. President. At the end of the night when she stands up, he sees her peg leg and it is over. She has flunked his test.

Three: The guy is German, twenty-two, his first time away from home. He lives in an old Victorian house with eight strangers in a mansion-turned-boarding house. He is a person with no past, someone who prefers the company of strangers. She can’t quite explain what is so off-putting about this polite, soft-spoken man, but as they eat soy chicken nuggets at a charming vegan cafe, she fears bodily harm and texts the musician instead. What R U doing? she writes. I’m about to get murdered, I think. The musician says he is free. Be right there, he texts.

She and the musician visit a murder house not far from the last one. The musician pulls up Wikipedia to see what happened. He says legend has it the husband strangled the wife because she developed a condition that made her grow shorter every day. Shorter? she asks. He nods. By the time he killed her, she was only nine inches tall… He claimed it was an accident. His finger was the size of her neck… It just slipped. She realizes he seems too familiar with the details of this story, which he’s presumably just read for the first time. He confesses to writing articles on fake murder houses for fun. He says he has written over a hundred fake entries. She laughs nervously. He wants to know if she is impressed by his creativity. She shrugs. She doesn’t like to inflate a male ego. He goes in for another kiss, but she steps back. She still doesn’t like him like that, though she likes going to murder houses with him. It is their thing. He says they cannot have a “thing” if they are not a couple.

She is lonely after these dates. They are empty carbs. They have done nothing to fill the void. The son is gone. She rarely sees him. She wonders if she can talk the father into moving back home, but he is having one of those midlife crisis kinds of lives, living on a nearly deserted island with a girl he met in Thailand. The son is the one who took her leg, yet she can’t be whole without him. She thinks maybe if she gets rid of the peg leg he’ll come back to her. She is sick of being a broken person. When she got this peg, everything went to shit. Later that night, she twists off the leg and chucks it into the river, expensive screws and all. There is no going back now, even if she has a made a mistake. She watches as the current carries it away, past the barge, around the bend. Then a strange thing happens: her flesh leg grows back. It looks just as it did before and works fine too. She never thought she would have her old body back, never thought she could run joyfully down the street again. She jogs back to her apartment. No more glue, no more screws, no expensive medical appointments. She is a full-flesh human.

Her plan works. The son gets wind she has her leg back. He comes to visit. He is tan and buff. He tells her he is less scared of her now that she has two legs. She doesn’t tell him that he’s the one who took her leg in the first place. This is what motherhood is all about. She has learned a thing or two already. The father pretends to look at his phone in the corner of the hotel lobby. He acts like she needs to be supervised around the son, but their court order ended a long time ago. She is older now. She no longer has any adjustment disorders. She could do this, she thinks. She could be an Adult Mom. She asks the father if she can take the son to ice cream just the two of them and is surprised when he consents.

She and the son sit on the patio and get to know each other. It feels like a first date. The last time she saw him, he was seven or eight. The son seems mature now, well beyond his years. He talks about literature, about Prince, the Flaming Lips. He speaks fondly of Lisbon and Sicily, places she has never been. It feels strange to know less of the world than her son. She doesn’t know where the baby went. They can start over, she thinks. He’s just now getting to the meat of his life and perhaps he won’t remember the first twelve years. She encourages him to persuade the father to stay in L.A. but the son says he likes Greece. He swims in the sea every day, even when it’s cold. But we have an ocean, she reminds him. We have crabs and whales and clams. Before he can protest, she leads him to the car and drives west.

Forty minutes later, they are standing at the edge of the Pacific. Someone offers to sell them a popsicle for eight dollars. When she questions the price, the guy shrugs and says supply chain issues. She buys one despite this price gouging. Do you think I could be a good mom, she asks. The son looks away. She wonders what the father has told him about her. But it doesn’t matter because she has made a mistake. Several cop cars arrive. A police helicopter circles over her head. She realizes she forgot to notify the father that she was leaving the ice cream shop. She wasn’t planning to kidnap the son. It was an honest mistake. But the relationship with the father is strained and she could see why he would think she was attempting to run off with their kid. She tells the cops she is the mother of this child, that she just wanted him to see the ocean. Soon, the father arrives. He runs up and hugs the son as if they had been apart more than two hours. The son looks relieved to be in his father’s arms. The cops get called away to a high-speed chase. She sits on a rock, teary-eyed. Maybe she doesn’t know how to be an Adult Mom yet, even though she is thirty years old. But she tells the father she will work on it.

The son comes to visit again a few years later. It is summer break in Greece. She is relieved to get another chance. This time he brings her a present: a lock of his hair. He tells her he’s sorry he ripped off her leg and now he is old enough to understand he did a bad thing. He feels this lock of hair is restitution, even though it isn’t the same. She tells him not to worry. She is as good as new, two perfectly functional fleshy legs. In truth, the new leg is not quite right. There’s an ache just over her knee. It was small at first but has grown worse in time. Is this what sadness feels like, she wonders? The father permits them to spend an entire day alone together. He is going to “sightsee” with his girlfriend, though she suspects they will not leave the hotel room. He tells her she can keep the son all summer if this visit goes well. He is not too worried—he says has planted an AirTag on the son and will get notifications if they head for the border. She tells him she wasn’t planning on kidnapping him anyway. She thanks him for this opportunity. Nothing would make her happier than keeping the son all summer.

She takes the son to the arcade, then tries to segue into an apology. You know I had you young, she says. I tried my best to be a good mom, but there were things I didn’t know. I’m sorry I lost my temper sometimes. I was just a kid myself. But I want to be an Adult Mom now. I would like to have a good relationship with you. Can we start over? He tells her not to apologize. He says she can make it up to him by buying him beer. She knows she should say no, but he makes a reasonable case: in Greece everyone his age is drinking it. But this is America. We can’t break the law today, she tells him. Maybe tomorrow, okay? I don’t want to upset your father. He could take this all away. He nods but doesn’t say anything. He has never seen a pinball machine before. He uses up the entire roll of tokens without scoring a point. As they move between arcade games, people mistake them for twins. She has a young face because she rarely smiles or frowns. She reminds herself that she is eighteen years older than him, thirty-three to his fifteen.

The son uses up his tokens. He seems embarrassed he is terrible at games. She wants to tell him she loves him no matter what, like this is some kind of mother-son romcom or something. Maybe we could just take a walk, she says. Okay, he mutters. They leave the arcade. It’s starting to get dark. She has just a few hours left with him. She needs to make the most of it. The son is a stoic guy. It’s hard to tell if he likes her. Her leg twitches as they walk. There is a part of her that is still afraid he will yank it off again, even though it’s been thirteen years and he’s apologized. Neither of them is the person they used to be. How would you feel about staying in L.A. all summer, she asks. He shrugs. We can drive out to the ocean for some swims. Or maybe you could get some new American hobbies. He shrugs again. They can hear a baseball game nearby. The stadium erupts in cheers. She can’t afford tickets, but they decide to walk to the top of the hill to see if they can look in. She thinks if she can’t make the son fall in love with her, then maybe he will fall in love with America. But on the way they pass a burned-out shell of a car and some people with no homes. The son has never seen anyone without a home before. He wants to know more about how this kind of thing happens to people, but she is unable to provide an explanation that satisfies him. By the time they get to the top of the hill, her leg hurts so much that she never wants to go for a walk again. The fireworks light up the sky, just as they sit down to rest. He looks up at them in awe. The father texts to say he is running late. He wants to know if she can keep the son all night. She tells him it’s no problem.

She takes the son back to her apartment and makes up a bed for him in the living room. When she wakes up, she sees he got into her beer. He doesn’t seem drunk, but she frets the father will find out and ban her from seeing him again. She makes an extra-large breakfast to soak up the alcohol. She chases him with a pitcher of water and some breath mints. The son is starting to relax in her presence. He kicks back with the bacon dangling from his mouth. He chugs the orange juice. He flips through the TV channels as if he can watch them all at once. He has never seen more than three TV channels before. Finally something she can offer him. She tells him if he stays for the summer, she will get him his own television. And beer? he asks.

Later, they meet with the father in a well-lit public parking lot. She is worried the father will get a whiff of the beer that is surely emanating from the son’s pores, but he doesn’t bother to check the son over. He has a satisfied look on his face. He must have had a fun night with the girlfriend. She is jealous. Did I pass the test, she asks. We didn’t go anywhere near Mexico, she tells him. The father nods. He knows exactly where they went, thanks to the AirTag. You can have the boy for the summer, he says. My girlfriend is tired of parenting. She wants a break. She drives the son to Target so they can get mother-son bonding supplies. They stock up the fridge with American snacks like corn nuts and Cheetos, though the son says they have every kind of Cheeto in Greece, plus flavors she has never heard of like ketchup and fruitcake. She snaps some pics of their faces smushed together, then sends the photos to the mother. Look who’s a mother again she brags. You were always mother the mother writes back.

It feels like a party at first. They have a good time at the amusement park, the skate park, the water park, the kite park. After a few weeks, they run out of parks and there is just conversation on the couch. She tries cuddling up to the son, but he shoves her away. Ew, he says. I don’t touch people, he says. Don’t be weird. He scoots to the far side of the couch. She used to think that getting her old leg back would fix her problems, but it didn’t. Then she thought reuniting with her son would do the trick, but the void is still there inside of her. She loves her son in an indescribable way, but she no longer believes that motherhood can fulfill her.

After summer ends, the son returns to Greece to start high school. She jumps back on Tinder and books six dates. All of them are a bust. Later, she texts the politician. Now that she has both of her legs, she would like a second chance to be a Mrs. President, but he says he got married a couple years ago. Next she tries the musician. She sends him a link to a new murder house she has heard about, out in the valley. He tells her he is no longer interested in visiting murder houses and then ghosts her. She makes six more dates, but none of them stick.

But there is more to life than Tinder. There is even more to life than being a mother. There is being a person. She needs to find meaning somehow before it is too late. She is well into her thirties, yet she has never had a real career. She enrolls in acupuncture school with the thought that if she learns how to heal other people, she can heal herself.

The son spends the next summer with the mother and then decides to move in with her for good. The father’s girlfriend is getting on his nerves. She doesn’t want him around anymore. He decides to finish high school in California. Now that she has her acupuncture practice going, she can afford a bigger place. They like living together when they have space. He likes coming home to dinner after a long day at school. She thinks the son might live with her forever—well into his thirties at least, seeing how much he likes her snacks, and she envisions an Odd Couple life for the two of them—but he shatters this fantasy when he decides to go to college two hours away. At least he won’t be far. She drops him off teary-eyed. It’s hard to believe that her son is eighteen—the age when she got pregnant with him. She still feels like she is that age. She has the same face, the same legs. Once a teen mom, forever a teen mom, she thinks. But she has come a long way. She has healed many people. Her Yelp reviews are good.

A few years later, the son brings his new girlfriend over. He says he met her on Tinder. He tells her he might propose. She likes the girlfriend but worries they are moving too fast. Even though it is a happy occasion, she feels sadder than she’s ever been. Her knee is throbbing. She can hear the son and his girlfriend making out in the bedroom. She pulls out her needles and sticks a few of them in her leg. She has never performed acupuncture on herself before. It doesn’t work very well. Her leg still aches and the needles can’t reach her void.

Later, she decides to seek treatment from a professional—someone more experienced. The acupuncturist starts by sticking needles in her forehead and then moves down toward her leg. This is it, she thinks. She hopes when the needles come out there will be no more pain, no more sadness. She loves her son and she loves her job. There is no reason to be sad. As the lady starts on her leg, she worries the needles will be no match for the wooden peg, but then she relaxes, remembering that the old leg is in the river, carried out to sea. She is no longer the broken person she once was. She just has to believe it.