Claire Polders

“Others said no,” my son tells me over tea at my house. “Others stood up for themselves.”

The trial lies years into the past and nothing makes sense yet. Life went on, naturally. My son couldn’t stop life from happening to him, but the self-knowledge he needs to be in charge is lacking. Or perhaps it’s self-confidence or emotional maturity or existential wit—a devil has swallowed his soul.

He looks like he’s been drinking, something stronger than tea and for a while. His cheeks are inflated. I touch his hand, not daring to take it into mine until I do. He leaves it there, limp, then offers a squeeze in acknowledgement. I fear his body is acting again, performing the role it was assigned by someone who isn’t him.

How many selves has he betrayed? How many times has he felt himself die?

It started when he was eleven or twelve. A clueless boy. A curious mind. At the time, I worked long days, trying to prove my independence after the divorce. Only in the weekends did I distract myself with the promise of passion. Or the reality of it. There were nights I brought home a man and found my son in his bed wearing his daytime clothes. I never woke him to ask why he hadn’t bothered to undress. There were mornings I fried eggs for three and my son refused to eat his share, wouldn’t even sit at the table. Because of jealousy, I told myself. Standard teenage behavior.

How often did he evade my eyes or leave my questions unanswered?

For years, I was the mother of a healthy boy who loved judo. So much so, that he went on judo training camps and spent entire afternoons with his black-belted master. Alone.

We drain our cups. I pour more tea. We each have a life or the pretense of one.

“Other kids said no,” my son tells me again, his mind skipping like a record. “Why did I not say no?”

I feel like lashing out, scratching the walls, dragging the master pervert from his pen, pummeling him with my bare hands until he falls to my feet, bleeding.

Instead, I summon my tenderness and put a trembling palm to my son’s inflated cheek. Such a big boy he is now, a man, muscled and unshaven.

The sun breaks through the clouds and floods the room with light. I close my eyes.

I always closed my eyes when I felt my desire sear through my veins. During these rare moments, I lived on my skin and not in my head. I lived in a free place of bodily pleasure, blind to a world in which boys fought to forget they had bodies at all.

I bite my tongue until I taste blood. I can’t surrender anymore to my own lust, not like before. I can’t forget the conflict between my joy and his agony.

“Other mothers knew,” I tell my son. “Other mothers knew.”


Claire Polders is a Dutch author of four novels with a debut in English on the way. In 2016, Denver Quarterly nominated one of her stories for a Pushcart Prize. Her short prose also appeared in TriQuarterly, Green Mountains Review, Okey-Panky, Folio, SmokeLong Quarterly, Tin House (The Open Bar), and elsewhere. You can find her at