Every time May stares into Peter’s eyes, she sees it all.
She goes past the dark shade of brown, back, way back, back to the day he'd stood in her doorstep, drenched, hugging his backpack.
She remembers the rain pouring outside, and the light tap of it on her windowsill. The phone ringing in the middle of the night, and Ben running outside without his umbrella.
Most of all, she remembers the twist in her heart when he comes back, hours later, with him.
A seven-year-old kid with big ears, but shoulders too small for the coat Ben had wrapped around them.
His hands are clutching to it, and he's on the verge of tears, but stubbornly bites his lip to forbid their release.
She doesn’t have a maternal bone in her body. They’re well into their thirties with Ben, and she loves him with all her heart, but that’s enough for them. Sure, she smiles at babies in the subway, who doesn’t? She’s not a monster.
She doesn’t have a maternal bone in her body, yet when the tears finally roll down Peter’s cheeks, her heart splits right in half, hit by a wave of emotion she doesn’t fully comprehend. All she knows is, one second she’s staring at him and the next she’s crouching down, hugging him tight as she whispers as many sorry and I’m here, we’re here now as he needs to hear.
The worst of it is, he’s not even her kid. She’s just… a placeholder, someone there to wipe his nose, to sign his permission slips. She’s not his mother, and she’s not trying to be.
So they do their best with Ben, to raise him, to give a magic kiss on every cut and every bruise. To go to his chess tournaments, and not fall asleep. To tuck him in bed, and to run back into the bedroom for every bad dream he has.
And when she holds him close to her chest, rocking him back to sleep, she wonders when it started happening. How, when she thought she’d only ever have enough space for Ben, Peter had dug his way in, and built himself a tree house in her heart.
As she glances at the solar system he’s doing for school, she realizes she’d give it all to him. She’d build entire planets, satellites, goddamn constellations if need be.
A whole galaxy for Peter to evolve in so long as he’s, one day, happy in it.
She’s never loved a child this much, and by the time he’s twelve, she knows she never will.
It doesn’t matter if he’s not hers.
They almost make it. They almost heal, become the family Peter needs by his side.
Then, he comes back one night, his sweater tainted red, face pale, and her whole world collapses around her.
She can’t do it alone. This was not part of the deal. Ben promised her they’d raise him together. But Ben’s not here anymore, and she can’t do it, but she has to.
To Peter, she shows strength, forgiveness, love.
To the empty space next to her in bed, she shows the rest of it. The tears, the muffled sobs and the raw, gaping wound in her chest.
She doesn’t understand. One moment, she’s making lasagna, and the next, her fingers are fumbling around Peter’s tie as they put Ben in the ground. She finds her nephew’s hand, in the overwhelming storm, and holds on to it like a lifeboat.
She needs to be strong, she needs to be there for him, but, as Peter finally tells her that night, he’s not seven anymore. He’s fifteen, and she can count on him.
So he’s the one who comes in in the dead of night, when she wakes up in a sweat only to realize that no one’s there, and no one will ever be again.
He’s the one who brings home kraft dinners, and puts a blanket on top of her when she finally passes out on the couch.
She’s lost Ben, but she has a son. A wonderful, smart, kind kid who doesn’t care when her mind gets lost every once in a while. She sees so much of Ben in him.
And so, this is how she heals. She finally realizes Ben will never be fully gone, just like Peter’s parents won’t either. All of them live in the crinkle of Peter’s eyes, in the burnt risotto he scrunches his nose at but eats anyway.
Ben’s love, the most important part of him, lives on in all of them.
It’s Thursday afternoon when she realizes something’s off. Her stomach drops the minute she turns on the TV and the Staten Island Ferry appears on screen.
Peter was supposed to be back hours ago, but it’s still early enough in the day that it could be a coincidence. He could be late.
He’s been late a lot, lately.
She knows about him sneaking out, she’d just figured he was hanging out with Ned. Or a girl, maybe?
She hopes that’s what it is, but deep down, she knows.
She knows the second he steps in, cheeks stained with tears, inexplicably wearing a tourist tee-shirt and hello kitty pajama pants.
Her anger deflates as the tears roll, and she hugs him, trying to shove the nagging feeling that something’s not right, far, far down.
Right now, Peter doesn’t need her to ask questions. So she runs her fingers through his hair instead, looking at the picture of Ben hanging on the wall behind him.
The more Peter grows, the more similar they get, and it worries her. She remembers Ben, when they first met. How polite he'd been, and oh so charming. Yet, at the first sign of injustice, his blood would boil, and he wouldn’t hesitate to speak his mind or fight for what was right. She’d always loved that about him.
His moral compass. That and his warm brown eyes. The dancing was just a plus.
She wonders if Peter’s ever experienced love. She hopes he will. She wants to ask, sometimes, when he closes the bedroom door as he’s talking with Ned, or blushes when he mentions one of their classmates.
He’s had crushes before. She’s seen it, the panicked look on his face, the stammering as he timidly asks her about conversation starters.
Her name is Liz, she learns in between two bites of their Pad Thai. She’s tall, she’s sweet, and leads their decathlon team. She nods approvingly, as Peter seems to be physically unable to keep his mouth shut and describes her at lengths. The corner of her lips tip up, as she remembers the excitement of it all.
So she helps, in little ways. She picks both him and Ned up to drive them to parties they won’t enjoy, but try to anyway. So she tries, too.
She teaches him about dancing, and boy does he have bad rhythm. It could be funny if it wasn’t so tragic. She teases him, and he teases back. Her cooking never got better after all.
When he comes back from homecoming, he doesn’t cry. He doesn’t have a girlfriend either.
What he does have, however, are cuts and bruises, and a red and blue suit.
Her heart stops beating.
She wants to scream, at the top of her lungs.
As he turns towards her, jaw set, eyebrows knitted together, she almost breaks down in tears. The silhouettes of the two men in her life overlap for a second, and the wound she’d thought had healed rips wide open.
All she wants to say is that he cannot do this to her again. That she can’t lose him too, and that they both know she will.
She doesn’t understand, or maybe the problem is that she understands entirely too much.
Unlike Ben, and perhaps very much like her, Peter knows the pain he’s causing, and he feels terrible about it.
One right doesn’t balance a wrong. And there are so many things that went wrong in this family.
He promises he will always call. He will always come back. She tries to believe him, but she’s been burned before.
They’re invited to Tony’s wedding, and she thinks that maybe she could give him the very generous gift of not letting her hand meet his face in a rather forceful manner. Instead, he does something that surprises them both : He apologizes, vouching to do better, and slips a gadget in her hand.
A nanny cam.
She promises herself not to use it, or rather, to only use it when all other options are exhausted.
And she doesn’t need to.
Because Peter is back in class, like he said he would, he turns seventeen, he’s going on a school trip. Ned and him both forget to pack sunscreen, but somehow manage to get an unhealthy amount of Twizzlers to go through customs. Go figure.
Those three weeks are the longest of her year. The apartment already feels too big for the two of them, and she cannot keep the ghosts away by herself.
She’s lucky that her double shifts at the hospital keep her busy enough that most of her nights, she falls asleep right after having called Peter. He seems to be having a good time. She can hear the smile in his voice, and she can’t wait for him to be back so she can grill him about the trip.
She eats in front of the TV, which she’s aware he would hate, but she needs the presence. It’s quiet around her, and it makes her think, and feel in ways she hasn’t allowed herself to in years. But Peter’s gone for now, and soon he’ll be off to college.
It’s Sunday when she finally decides to do something about it, and the cemetery is quiet, red leaves forming a wet pile beneath her feet.
She breathes in. Ben always loved New York in the fall.
She swallows the knot forming in her throat, her hands shaking as she gets closer to her destination.
It has nothing to do with the weather.
When she finally stops, her chest grows tight, and she almost regrets coming there alone.
She’s told herself many lies over the past year. Too busy, too tired. It's too far.
The cold, harsh truth of it is, she’s not sure she wants to confront the fact that she’s still there, breathing, and he isn’t.
She lets out a shaky breath.
‘So… Peter’s gone, and I finally have the house to myself.’
She laughs, feeling almost ridiculous, talking to a grave like she’s in a Shakespearean drama.
‘God, this feels weird… I kind of wish you could talk back, but we both know this isn't how it works.’
‘So Peter’s out of the apartment, just for a while, and it’s so empty up there! I got used to not having the time to think. About you, I mean. And for a while, I think I was relieved. But now…’
She watches the grey sky above her. Her head hurts.
‘I need help. I don’t know what to do. I know you always told me I worry too much, but look at where I’m standing now! I win! I was right to worry, and it sucks. This is a really crappy way to win an argument, Ben.’
As soon as she says his name, out loud, she realizes it’s the first time since they buried him. The lump in her throat gets bigger.
‘I’m so… mad! I’m mad at you both, and mad at myself for being angry in the first place! I know it’s selfish to want to keep him safe, at my side… But it’s not fair. It’s really not. I didn’t ask for this, you brought him home. You brought him home, you said we were going to do this together, but now it’s just me. And I don’t know if I’m doing enough, or too much, and he’s growing up and God. He even talks like you sometimes.’
She takes a long breath, the air hurting her lungs on the way down.
‘ You were supposed to be here for this.’
The tears roll down her face as she quiets down, her fists rolled up into balls. She’s so tired of pretending, for their sake, that she’s okay. She hasn’t been okay since the day Ben left the house to get those eggs, grabbing his Yankees cap and the keys on the counter.
‘You hate baseball, why did you even have that cap?! I meant to ask you, and then I forgot, and now I won’t know. Serves me right.’ She laughs, a sad, strangled sound.
He’s not there, she admits to herself bitterly. She won’t get an answer, because she’s staring at his name, at the wet leaves covering the ground where he’s in, and she doesn’t feel him there.
‘You know what’s messed up? Sometimes, when I can’t sleep because he’s out God knows where, I think about how, if you hadn’t left that day, if you’d stayed, he wouldn’t be doing what he’s doing now. And I hate you for it. But you just had to leave us, and Peter’s going to leave too. And I’ll visit both of you, and yell, but no one will be there to listen.’
She kicks the leaves around in anger, and falls to the ground. She hasn’t allowed herself to be upset in a while, so she lets it happen. Every wave of ugly emotions, one after the other, her fingers digging into the ground as she tries to steady her breathing. It soothes her.
Her index touches something resembling glass.
When she looks down, she realizes there’s a bottle safely tucked under the leaves, half buried into the ground. She picks it up, only to notice a piece of paper rolled inside of it. When she unwraps it, her heart skips a beat.
She recognizes that handwriting.
I’m going away for a month!! Ned’s already googling the Lego store in Paris to see if they have exclusives to bring home. Typical. I know I haven’t dropped one of these in a while, but I’ve been busy with classes and friends (I don’t remember if I mentioned MJ in the last one. Did I mention her? She’s our new team captain, and she’s scary. You’d like her, I think? I’m not sure. She reads a lot, and I feel like you’d both fight each other because she has pretty strong opinions about… everything. Anyway. She’s great. Just like Ned. They’re both great. Did I tell you he’s going to ask out Betty during the trip?)
I’m doing better at school by the way, and May’s also doing better, I think. She doesn’t stare at the frame in the kitchen that often. Her cooking has improved,too. She made pierogies from the box the other day and they weren’t burnt! (the sour cream was way over the expiration date though, but don’t tell her I said that)
We miss you,
She smiles, her heart too full to be mad at either of them anymore. She places the letter back in the bottle, leaving it there ready for its next recipient.
They’re going to be okay.
When Peter comes back, something’s different. He assures her he’s the same size as he’s always been, but he seems taller somehow. He’s stopped fidgeting with his sleeves, rolling them over his forearms. She’s almost certain she’s heard him laugh on the phone on two different occasions, and it doesn’t sound like Ned on the other side.
She doesn’t ask about it.
There are times where she watches him turning around, opening his mouth to say something, and ultimately deciding against it.
‘So, I was thinking of inviting a friend over.’ He tiptoes one night, pushing his food around with his fork.
She raises an eyebrow.
‘A Friend? As in, other than Ned?’
He shifts in his seat uncomfortably and she sees it. The slight curl in his lips, the pink tint in his cheeks. His eyes betray him most of all: They’re two shining beacons of light, and she can almost see the flame dancing behind them.
Ah, to be in love for the first time.
He runs a nervous hand through his hair, and she tugs at the hem of his sleeve to settle him down.
‘I don’t need to know everything, Peter. You can invite anyone over, I’m just surprised, is all.’
She wants nothing more than to ask every possible question going through her mind, like if him being so startled has anything to do with the girl standing next to him on most of their school trip pictures.
She makes no comment on the arm snaked around his shoulders either. Instead, she gets up, ruffles up the hair he’s tried to comb over, and disposes of their plates.
Besides her, Ben’s picture smiles, a horrible fishing hat on. His eyes are shining like Peter’s.
She doesn’t think about announcing herself as she enters her own house, and in hindsight, she should have known better.
‘You’re an idiot.’
She stops dead in the hallway, her eyes flying to the calendar hung on the wall, a big ‘MJ’ circled with red on it.
‘Please. That’s like, your favorite thing about me.’
She hears a laugh, a small snorting sound, and she stills completely. This is definitely a date, and she’s definitely crashing it. Mentally cursing her twelve-hour shift, she lets her bag drop to the floor as quietly as she can and takes off her shoes with one hand. There’s a small chance they can all get away from this unscathed, and if it involves her crouching behind their couch like a teenage girl, then so be it.
She breathes in deeply. Peter owes her for this, big time.
‘Peter, you can breathe, you know.’
‘I know, I know.’
There’s a shuffling sound on the couch, and May prays to whoever might be listening up there to please let her go to her room before she learns what Peter kissing his possible girlfriend sounds like.
There is, of course, no such God.
Because that’s precisely the moment her leg decides to have a cramp, and she yelps out in pain.
‘What the hell?!’
‘Oh my God- May ?!’
She gets up, waving a hand at the two teenagers sitting on the couch in front of her. Peter is red as a beet and the girl who she can only assume is MJ is staring at her in horror, her cheeks slightly pink. And as soon as she realizes May is looking at them, she scoots away.
There is no way to come back from this. So May does what she knows best. She takes the hit like a champ.
‘So. I’m going to make some tea, and then I’m going to go to my room and finish that crossword puzzle, or, you know, what people my age who don’t hide in their own house do.’
Peter’s head sinks back several inches into his shoulders as MJ just studies her and for a second, May feels like she’s been subjected to some kind of test. Then, the girl walks towards her, presenting her hand.
When she smiles, May can tell she’s not used to it, and she wonders why. Maybe when MJ’s more comfortable with her, she’ll ask.
‘Hi Mrs. Parker, I’m MJ. I’ve heard a lot about you.’
May grins, and offers her hand in return.
‘It’s very nice to meet you, MJ. I hope next time I see you I won’t have lint on my knees and hair like a cuckoo’s nest, but I can’t promise anything.’
‘That’s basically my everyday look so... be my guest.’
May laughs, the sound surprising both Peter and the girl. She turns to her nephew.
‘Peter, mind giving me a hand?’
He answers with a strangled voice :
‘With tea ?!’
She blinks, taking in a slow breath.
‘Yes, Pete, with tea. Get on with it now, I’m sure MJ will be delighted to stay by herself in the living room, where I’ve hidden various baby pictures of you.’
MJ’s smirk turns into a full grin, and May thinks, no, she knows, that she already likes the girl.
As she turns the kettle on, she feels Peter’s stare burning a hole between her shoulder blades. May tenses up.
‘Just so you know, it’s not what it looks like.’
‘And what do I think it looks like, Peter?’
‘We weren’t doing anything wrong! We were just talking.’
May turns towards him, eyes soft, her hand cupping his cheek.
‘I’m not mad at you, Peter. I’m mad at myself.’
He stares back at her, confused.
She throws her arms in the air, her Sicilian blood choosing this precise moment to resurface.
‘I just wanted you to have a nice date, and I completely forgot about it, and now I’ve gone up and ruined it!’
‘I told you, it’s not a date!’
The tip of his ears turn pink, and she represses the urge to pull him into a hug. Sweet, innocent Peter. Who still writes letters to his uncle. Who takes care of her, and learned to cook when she couldn’t. Who blushes when asked about the girl standing in the living room. Who apparently turns into an idiot when he’s in love.
‘Peter, she’s wearing your shirt.’
He scratches the back of his head, and she stifles a laugh.
‘It’s okay if you don’t want to talk about it, you know.’ She says softly, trying to mask the sadness in her voice. He’s entitled to a little privacy, especially when it’s not a matter of life and death, or swinging off the Chrysler building.
‘No, May, it’s not that, it’s just… I don’t want to get my hopes up.’
He frowns, and she squeezes his hand with her own.
‘Oh, honey! If only you could see what I see...’
‘What do you mean?’
She shakes her head. Some things he needs to figure out on his own.
‘Okay, so. I’m gonna go to my room now, and you’re gonna bring this cup to your girl, and I won’t come out until it’s dinnertime. Does that sound good?’
He shakes his head.
‘May, this is really not necessary…’
‘Well not with that attitude, that’s for sure!’
She spends the rest of the afternoon safely tucked away in her room, her favorite podcast playing in her ears. What if it’s too silent out there? God, what if it’s not?
Either way, she doesn’t want to know, which is why she’s listening with the volume all the way up.
There is a soft knock on her door, and she takes one earphone out.
‘It’s uh, It’s MJ. Can I come in?’
May sits up.
‘Sure, is everything okay?’
MJ stands in her doorway, looking mildly uncomfortable, shifting her weight from one foot to the other.
‘Yeah, everything’s fine. Peter just went to the bathroom and I, uh, I wanted to make sure you were okay. About earlier.’
‘Oh MJ, don’t you worry about me! I just felt bad about walking in on you two-’
‘We weren’t doing anything!’ She answers immediately, and it takes everything May has in her not to laugh.
So they’re both idiots.
‘I know, MJ, I know. Will you be staying with us for dinner?’
MJ looks like she’s about to faint, which is surprising because she answers.
‘Um, sure… My dad’s working tonight anyway so… yes. Absolutely. Thank you.’
Peter suddenly barges in behind her, making her jump, and if he thinks May’s not noticing the hand on MJ’s back, he’s a damn fool. She rolls her eyes as her nephew asks, slightly out of breath :
‘Everything okay here?’
MJ leans imperceptibly into the touch, her face a fortress when she answers :
‘Your aunt was inviting me to dinner.’
His face, however, is an open book.
‘Oh. Oh. Well that’s uh, that’s great. I mean, do you want to?’
MJ just stares blankly at May, like she’s so done with Peter’s… everything, and May turns her head away, trying to hide her laughter.
‘Yes, Peter, I’m not an animal. I know basic politeness. Besides, I’m starving.’
May gets up, and as she passes Peter, she winks.
‘I like her. You should invite her more often!’
So he does. Most of the times when May’s out working. But the few times she’s in, she can always tell by the way Peter straightens out his shirt right before the doorbell rings.
It’s adorable, and it melts her heart.
It also frustrates her to no end. This has to be the slowest burn she’s ever seen. Slower than 18th-century romance novels.
Slower than her own romance with Ben. And God knows he was slow to pick up on the clues.
Which, according to how MJ’s legs are currently sprawled over Peter’s lap, is a family trait.
They’re watching TV, and by watching she means both of them staring longingly at each other at regular intervals, making sure the other doesn’t notice.
May doesn’t mind, but she’d like to know if she’s supposed to invite her to their Thanksgiving dinner, and Peter is giving her nothing . She said she didn’t have to know. But she’d like to know, and she’s pretty sure MJ would like to know, too.
As Spider-Man appears on TV, she suddenly wonders if MJ’s aware of her nephew’s double life.
She waits until the girl’s gone home to finally ask.
‘Does she know?’
Peter drops his half-eaten slice of pizza on his plate and gawks at her.
‘MJ. Does she knows you’re, you know…’
She holds out her wrist, a bad imitation of Spider-Man’s signature move. His shoulder drop, and he stays silent for a moment.
‘Yeah, she does.’
Now it’s May’s turn to open her mouth in shock.
‘You told her?!’
He shifts around, biting his lip.
‘Pretty sure she figured it out on her own before I did, but yes, I told her on the school trip. Kind of had to, really… How do you explain Spider-Man swinging from the tower of Pisa?’
He shrugs it off, or tries to, at least.
‘I’m actually surprised she’s the only one who found out-’
‘You told her.’
She puts her fork down, and studies her nephew carefully. To anyone, he wouldn’t look any different. To her, it’s almost clear as day.
‘Wow. You really do love her.’
Peter blushes, and he lets out a small sigh.
‘Yeah… I do.’
May beams. This is big.
Peter has had crushes before. But he’s never outright admitted he’s loved anyone.
‘And does she know that ?’
Peter looks mortified, but he answers nonetheless.
‘May. She was wearing my shirt . I sure hope she doesn’t think I lend my clothes out to every girl I see on the street.’
She laughs, ruffling his hair.
‘Aw…My little boy, becoming a grown man!’
‘Ugh this is exactly why I didn’t tell you before! Look at you, you’re tearing up!’
‘No I’m not!’
She absolutely is. Because Peter is in love, and the girl he loves most definitely loves him back.
‘So… what you’re saying is, I should start knitting Christmas sweaters for her too?’
Peter winces, and gets up to hug her. Kissing the top of her head, he pleads :
‘Please don’t. I love you but there is one thing you’re worse at than cooking, and it’s knitting.’
‘Gosh, I really must be the worst spinster out there.’
She means it as a joke, so she’s surprised when she feels a lump in her throat. It dawns on her, for the first time maybe, that she’s going to be alone eventually. She loves Peter, and he loves her, but he’s growing up. He’s grown up.
And it’s time to let him go.
‘I don’t even have a cat! Should I get a cat?’
She feels his breath on her hair.
‘I’m sorry, May.’
‘For not telling you. I didn’t want to make you sad.’
‘Please, Peter! I’m not sad! I’m the opposite of sad, I’m so happy for you! I’m just…
She takes a deep breath before adding:
‘ I miss Ben. Seeing you so happy…We’ve always wanted the best for you, and it reminds me that he’s not there to see it.’
Tears roll down her cheeks, and he hugs her tighter. Damn it, she’s a mess, and she’s ruining this moment for him.
‘I’m so sorry, Peter. I’m happy, I’m really happy for you…’
‘He sees it, May. He sees it all, through you . Remember what he used to say when he couldn’t find his glasses?’
‘So, every other day then?’
He chuckles, and she leans into his hug.
‘You watch him for me, May. Be my eyes.’
Months later, she thinks about it again.
Peter is handing out ornaments for MJ to put on their tree, his hand squeezing hers every time, a small smile passing between them.
And as he turns back to her, May smiles.
Every time May stares into Peter’s eyes, she sees it all.
She hopes Ben does, too.