Suzanne Bittle is not a stupid woman. People get confused sometimes because she’s a crier and a woman and southern and a pinterest obsessed baking fanatic. But she’s not stupid. She may talk slow, but she doesn’t think slow.
When she was a girl in Madison, Georgia, the world was a different place. It felt smaller, and the possibilities weren’t exactly immense. There were things you did, and things you could never do, and everyone knew which was which. Things you could do as a woman in the 80’s in rural Georgia—go to college, be a cheerleader, get a degree in Education, become a teacher, get married, have children, and spend your whole life within 50 miles of where you were born. Things you couldn’t do—get a degree in Math, play football with the boys, wait to get married, maybe not have children, maybe have books instead, maybe move somewhere far, far away and make a different life. There are people who are brave enough to do something different, to buck the trends, but Suzanne hasn’t always been one of them.
She’s not disappointed about it. Not exactly. She has a solid husband, and two wonderful sons, and a job teaching other young boys and girls in rural Georgia how to dream a little bit further than the county line. It’s a good life, and she is proud of what she’s accomplished, but it isn’t what she’d dreamed about.
Richard Bittle is the kind of man that other women would give their right arm to marry. He’s handsome, strong, a hard worker. Yes, he’s obsessed with football, and he’ll pour over High School stats, and College Stats and Professional Stats until he has them memorized, and yes, he’ll fall asleep in his pancakes some mornings because he’s been up for 36 straight hours writing plays, but Suzanne doesn’t mind. It’s not her passion, but it’s a passion, and she loves him for it. She loves to watch him with the students—how they glow when he praises them, how carefully they listen to his instructions. And the smile on his face when the team scores could light up an entire stadium, and for her it did. It’s why she fell in love with him. His joy and enthusiasm have always been so beautiful to her. She would give anything in the world to see that smile turned on her older son. She would give her right arm. But it never has, and she doesn’t think it ever will. And so she gives Dicky more love than she knew she had inside her. She tears herself open and scoops out every last lick of affection, and pours it over him. It doesn’t quite make up for it, but it’s the best she can do.
It doesn’t help that when she had Jamie four years later he practically came out of the womb carrying a football. Eric takes after her—he’s short, but strong, lithe, but with a backbone of steel. Jamie takes after his father. Jamie is tall, and broad, and very stong. Jamie plays football. Jamie has hordes of friends around at all hours. Jamie is a man’s man, even at 14 when Dicky goes to college. Suzanne drives Dicky to school, and Richard stays home with Jamie. Moo maw offered to watch over him, but Moo maw can’t run with him. She can’t be his spotter, help him keep up with his conditioning.
“It’s Dicky’s first year of college, Richard,” she says.
“And of course you should drive him instead of having him fly.”
“You should come.”
“The season starts in two weeks. Jamie needs to be ready if he’s going to make Varsity as a freshman.”
“It’ll be three days—“
“I’m staying here, Suzanne.”
And that, it seems, is that. It’s not really a surprise, but it stings to see the smile Dicky forces onto his face when he hears. He understands. He’s not stupid, her boy, and he’s no more surprised than she is. It doesn’t stop her from wishing, but wishes can’t help her carry Dicky’s things to his dorm, and wishes can’t help her loft the bed, and wishes don’t keep her company on the long, lonely ride back to Georgia. But the Beyonce CD Dicky left in the car helps. She listens to “If I Were a Boy” and she has to pull over to the side of the road for a few minutes. Football, football is the other woman. Football is the other parent. Football, football, football. She thinks sometimes that she secretly hates football. She goes to Jamie’s games anyway. She cries when he gets tackled, and she cries harder when he makes a beautiful throw.
She loves when the team wins. Richard is always so proud, so happy, when they win. He’s affectionate, and excitable, and they inevitably end up tumbling into bed at the end of the night, and having sex. And he’s still big and strong, and it makes her feel as safe as it always has. And he’s happy, so happy. She feels like a girl again. She feels like the teenager she was when they met, and everything seems to be brimming with possibility. And when she wakes up there are errands to run, and uniforms to wash, and practices for both the boys, and she remembers that the possibilities aren’t endless anymore. And then she heads to the kitchen, and Dicky is making French toast, and Jamie is making a mess trying to wash the dishes for her, and that it’s enough.
When Dicky turns seven and decides he wants to be a figure skater, she’s afraid that maybe she made a mistake. Maybe it won’t actually be enough. Dicky quits Pop Warner, and takes up skating. It’s a tense two years, but when Jamie turns five he joins a team, and once again there is peace.
When Dicky is twelve he comes home with a black eye. He tells her that he fell at practice, but his skating coach just shakes her head. Suzanne never does find out who beat up her baby. He stops baking with her after that. And the whole family is thin, and wan until they move to the next school district over.
Richard gets a job as the head coach at a local college, and Suzanne ends up teaching Math, because there is an opening. And Jamie makes friends as easily as he always has, and Dicky, Dicky quits figure skating, and joins a hockey team. He makes friends. He starts baking again. And things are beautiful. He brings home a friend from school, Jacob, and she can hear them late at night, laughing and talking well into the wee hours.
She doesn’t miss the way they look at each other over the breakfast table. She doesn’t miss the little pink bruises on Dicky’s neck. She isn’t stupid—she has eyes. So now she knows. Well, she’d always known, but now she’s seen. Dicky and Jacob go out into the garden after breakfast, and Suzanne cries into the washing up. She isn’t upset with her son, but she knows this place. She knows down in the very fiber of her being how harsh people can be when you’re different. And Dicky is different. And all the lovely things about Dicky that make him different, are all the lovely things about Dicky that make her adore him, and will make other people hate him.
He comes home from school with a bloody nose this time. She tries to pull the story out of him, but he just shrugs. Instead, she hears Jamie yelling at him when he gets home from school the next day. And then she knows. Because Jamie knows. Because apparently everyone knows. That Jamie’s best friend’s older sister called Dicky queer, and Dicky looked to Jacob for help, and got a fist to the face instead.
Dicky doesn’t bring any friends home for any more sleepovers after that.
Suzanne is relieved, and she hates herself for it.
It’s not that Dicky is an unhappy child. He’s always been her upbeat boy—he sings in the shower, and dances around the house, and gets good grades, and tries hard. All the younger cousins love Dicky the best, and he’s happy. She knows that for the most part he’s happy. But he doesn’t have hordes of friends the way her Jamie does. His calendar is full, but it’s hockey practices, and baking classes, and his cousins’ ballet recitals. He never says anything, but she can never seem to stop watching him, and she sees how he bakes tray after tray of cookies for his brother’s friends. And she watches him carry them downstairs, laughing and happy, only to see him retreat to the kitchen, wringing his hands and looking lost.
At least he doesn’t come with bloody noses anymore. Instead he starts bringing girls over. They don’t seem to do very much, but her Dicky is quire charming, thank you very much, and he seems to have a never ending supply of pretty young belles that he’d clearly rather bake with than kiss. She knows this for two reasons—one, he would rather bake than do almost anything, and two, she walked in on him kissing a girl once. They were on the couch in the living room kissing, and Dicky was staring off into the distance, hands limp at his sides.
She cried that night when Richard drew her down to him and kissed her. A kiss, she thought, shouldn’t be something you suffer through. And she kissed and kissed her husband, and fell asleep with itchy eyes and salt streaked cheeks.
Suzanne sometimes wishes that it had been her plan all along. It would be nice to be able to say that she just knew what to do—just knew how to help her son. But she didn’t know. Some days she still isn’t sure. Jamie is so easy to parent—he’s a good kid, with decent friends, and pretty mundane problems. Yes, she caught him smoking a cigarette with a buddy at 13, but she tanned his hide, and let him cry and cough, and he’s never come home smelling like smoke again. And sometimes he has to be convinced to take out the trash, or finish his homework, but mostly he’s a sweet kid who does what he’s supposed to. Dicky has never done what he was supposed to. Oh sure, he went to school, and got good grades, but he took poetry, and music and art classes. He did a Science Fair Project about baking. He only went to football games to support his brother and father. And he didn’t like kissing girls. And somehow that one thing was enough to turn a beautiful happy boy into a sad sullen teenager.
When they started looking at colleges his Senior year, Dicky seemed pretty determined to please his father, and head to Georgia State just like a long line of Bittle’s had. It would be better, she thought, than their small town. And she could see him on weekends, and bring down new recipes for him to try. And it would be stifling, and he would never feel comfortable. And half the Professors would know his father, and he would never, ever step out of that shadow.
She did her research.
She started ordering brochures from schools well away from Georgia—far enough away that no one would know his father, far enough away that he would never be worried to see someone he knew. Schools with a lot of liberals. Schools with a lot of gay kids. Kids like her son. Boys who might smile at him, and make his heart hurt the way hers always had for his father. Boys he might someday kiss with his eyes closed.
He almost went to Georgia State anyway. He was so nervous, so afraid to upset his father, and so excited to have finally found a foolproof way to make his father happy if even for a minute, that it was clear he didn’t think he had a choice. So she gave him a choice. She brought him to Georgia State, and talked about how they could come down on the weekends, how he could come home every week for football games. And then she cashed all of her frequent flier miles, and got them two plane tickets to Boston and a rental car. She was all ready to rave about Samwell—she had pretty buildings picked out to take him too, bakeries around town that had good reviews. She didn’t have to. All she had to do was step out of the car with her son, and set foot on campus. All she had to do was watch as her son took in the boys and girls laying in the sun reading, two girls cuddled up until a tree on the quad, two boys kissing in front of a dorm. She watched her son watch those boys laugh—one pulling away, claiming he was going to be late to class, but coming readily when the other boy towed him back in for one more kiss. She watched her son, and saw the yearning.
So she didn’t actually have to sell him on Samwell after all. They still visited the bakeries, of course, but really, they might as well. She knew they weren’t going to be spending a lot of time sharing bites of baked goods, trying to figure out the ingredients for the next four years. She watched her son bite into a pastry, the powdered sugar topping flying up to coat his nose. She watched him collapse into giggles. Maybe more than four years, she thought, swallowing the lump in her throat, maybe this is forever. They bought matching Samwell sweatshirts before they left, and Dicky wore his every day. She couldn’t bring herself to wear hers, but she looked at it, and thought of the wonder on his face on the quad, and the helpless giggles later that day, and knew she was doing the right thing.
When she dropped him off at school that fall it was already a little easier. You get used to things. Suzanne is intimately familiar with that. You can live with plenty of things if you give yourself enough time to just get accustomed to them. You can even learn to love them sometimes. This isn’t one of those things—she could never love being so far away from Dicky. But he’s the dearest person in all the world, and she can get used to the distance if it means he’s happy. He is happy, she reminds herself, bringing Dicky’s forgotten Beyonce CD into the house with her. She plays it when she showers, and she always sings along.
Dicky is ecstatically happy at Christmas, and the hug he gives her before he leaves is tight enough, and enthusiastic enough that she imagines she can feel it for days after he goes back to school. And after that it’s almost easy. She misses Dicky—Bitty, now it’s Bitty apparently, but she has other things to worry about. Jamie is in high school now, and he wants to go out with friends all the time. His computer breaks twice, and when she takes it in to be fixed they tell her it has something to do with cookies—cookies from pornography websites, apparently. So there’s that to deal with. And Richard has started doing yoga because it’s apparently all the rage with football players. She tells him that ballet is too, but yoga, it seems, is far enough. And there’s school—she has a full load of classes, and she is finally a coach in her own right. Well, a math team coach, but it counts. And Dicky is happy. And there are some days where she doesn’t miss him as soon as she wakes up in the morning and has to cook breakfast alone. Sometimes she makes it all the way through the day without missing him, but she can never seem to adjust her baking, and dessert always comes with an extra portion sitting forlornly on the counter until Jamie or one of his friends scarfs it down.
The concussion gives her a scare—of course it does—but Hockey is a contact sport. Just like football, she tells herself. And it seems strange to her that she never worried half so much about Jamie getting hurt because he never seemed quite as fragile as Dicky. But Dicky comes home with a couple of bandages, and he’s leaner, and stronger—he lifts her up when he hugs her (and then immediately winces). And her boy isn’t a boy anymore. Dicky—Bitty is a man. Sometime in the last year when she didn’t have her eye on him, her son went and became a man. The concussion actually ends up turning him into a bit of a heroic figure, and Richard and Bitty, her two grown men, share concussion stories late into the night. It’s easier to let him go that fall. The light always seems to fade from him when he stays in Georgia for too long, and she has always said she would give anything for him to be happy. It would appear that even includes him.
He seems sad, when they’re skyping the following Spring. Not Georgia sad. Not I disappointed my overbearing father sad. Maybe heartbroken sad? Suzanne asks him about it, but he doesn’t seem inclined to tell her. He just says that the Seniors are graduating, and things won’t be the same. Sometimes, she tells him, the best thing that can happen to you is the thing you most dread. He looks at her curiously, but he doesn’t ask how she knows, and she doesn’t volunteer to tell him.
Something is different when he barrels into the house in May. He sweeps her up in a hug, and he’s glowing. He’s as happy as when he won his first figure skating competition, as happy as he was sneezing on powdered sugar, as happy as he was making eyes at a boy across the breakfast table for the first time. She pulls away from him and cups his cheeks.
“Oh, Dicky! I’m so happy for you!” she crows, “Tell me all about him.”
And he freezes. And the color drains from his face. And she is kicking herself because for all of the years that she’s known, they’ve never actually talked about it. He’s never actually told you, she growls at herself.
“You knew?” he whispers.
“Of course, I knew, sweetheart. Have you forgotten what a smart woman your mama is?”
“But you never said. . .”
“I didn’t know if you were ready. And now, now I want to know everything about the boy that has made my boy so happy. When do I get to meet him?”
And her Dicky blushes to the tips of his ears.
“You’ve already met him. It’s… He’s Jack.”
And suddenly she can see it. She can see that big hulking Hockey player holding her Dicky—Bitty in his arms. And she can imagine his eyes shining for her son, just the way her son’s are now. And she can imagine him looking at her son the way Richard has always looked at her, and she has to squeeze her eyes shut to keep the tears from falling.
“Good choice. He’s very handsome, isn’t he?”
“Mama!” he shouts. But he’s laughing, and he’s grinning at her, and this might be the happiest she’s ever seen him.
“Well he is!” she forces out between peals of laughter. “And you had better tell me everything about this boy. “
“I will, mama,” he says, linking their arms together. “I just don’t know where to start.”
Suzanne smiles. Anywhere, she thinks; I already love this man for giving you the one thing I couldn’t. I already love this man for making you smile in a way that could light up a whole stadium.