Between Mom & Jo

Ages: 12 and up
Print Length: 232 pages
Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers (December 17, 2007)
Publication Date: December 17, 2007
Sold by: Amazon Digital Services LLC
Language: English

Jo promised Nick they’d always be together. So did Mom. And when you’re a stupid little kid you believe what your parents tell you. You want to believe that your life will be good and nothing will change and everything — everyone — goes on forever. It’s not until later that you find out people are liars, forever is a myth, and a kid with two moms should never be put in the position of having to choose between them.

Mom and Jo

I slam through the front door. Jo must be home already because the CD player is blasting through the house with the bass turned up so loud the dirty dishes in the kitchen sink are rattling. Mad as I am, I catch a whiff of Mom's smelly soap. Her laugh reaches my ears and I think, Good, they're both here.
The bathroom door is closed, but I don't care. I burst in. “Why did you do this to me?” I scream.
Jo says, “Geezus, Nick. Ever heard of knocking?” She and Mom, who are both in the bathtub naked, slide down below the bubbles so I can't see them. Like I never have. They take baths together all the time. I used to bathe with them until I got too big.
Jo raises a bubbly arm. “Is school out already? What time is it?”
“I hate you! I hate both of you.” I slam the door in their stupid ugly faces.
Out in the backyard, I find Lucky 2's chewed-up football and fling it as far as I can. She scrambles to her feet and hobbles over to retrieve it. I throw it again. She brings it back. I throw it again. She brings it back. The next throw I make sure she has to weave around the wheelbarrow and the soccer net, then clamber over the rock wall into Mom's strawberry patch. Lucky 2's wheezing and foaming at the mouth as she drops the football at my feet. Just as I'm about to launch it again, Jo wrenches it away from me.
“Stop torturing her,” she says, flames shooting from her eyes. “What is wrong with you?” She slams the football to the grass, where Lucky 2 paws it and collapses with a moan.
Mom comes out the back door, her hair soaked and stringy. She's got a robe on and she pulls the belt tighter. The expression on her face is half worry, half mad.
I kick the leg of the picnic table and mutter, “I hate you.”
Jo grips my arm hard. “Don't you ever say that. Don't you ever say that to either of us, you hear? We do not hate in this house. Now what's this about? What happened?”
I whirl on them. “You're freaks. That's what. Everybody says so. And you made me a freak too.” My face burns like it did at school. I was just playing trucks in the dirt with Matthew, minding my own business, when those big guys showed up at the kindergarten fence.
“Hey, Nick,” one of them called to me. “Come over here. We want to ask you a question.”
I ignored them.
“Come on, Nick. It's an easy question.”
Matthew said, “You know those guys?”
“No,” I replied. But I had a bad feeling.
Matthew told me, “Just go see what they want so they'll shut up. I'll come with you.” We both got up and brushed off our pants.
When we were a foot away from the fence, one of the guys curled his fingers around the chain link, smiled, and said, “So, Nick, we were wondering…” He couldn’t finish because he was laughing. What was so funny? Another one went, “We were wondering if you had a dick.” They all sniggered.
I knew he was trying to trick me, so I said, “No.”
The first kid arched his eyebrows and sobered up fast. “You don't have a dick, Nick?” He turned to his buddies. “Nick doesn't have a dick.”
They were howling now. Matthew whispered in my ear that a dick meant a penis. I felt stupid and shouted at those guys, “I mean, yeah, I do.”
The serious guy said, “Are you sure? Maybe you should check.”
Matthew grabbed my sleeve and tugged. “Let's go. They're being nasty.” Over our shoulders, he sniped, “I'm going to tell Mr. H you guys are perverts.”
That made them laugh louder. “Ooh, we're real scared.” The serious guy smashed his face against the fence, glaring at me. He snarled, “Especially since the real pervert is your mom, Nick. Or should I say moms.”
My whole body froze. I tried to speak, but couldn’t. I wanted to say something, yell at them, charge, beat the fence so they would go away.
The guy's eyes bored into mine. “That's right, Nicky,” he went. “Your moms are freaks. And so are you. Dickless Nicholas. Hey, that's a good one.” He elbowed his buddy to the left. “Dickless Nicholas.” They both fell to the ground laughing. The guy cupped his hands around his mouth and hollered across the playground, “Dickless Nicholas,” indicating me. They all took up the chant: “Dickless Nicholas. Dickless Nicholas.”
I ran into the classroom and hid in the closet.
Jo is looking at me funny. “Why did you have to be this way?” I yell at Mom and Jo. “Why did you have to have me?”
Mom's face drains of color, like I stuck a knife in her belly. I don't care. How does she think I feel?
Jo clamps a hand over my shoulder. “What happened, Nick? Tell us.”
I shake loose from her grasp. I want to tell, but I can't with Mom standing there. She might cry.
The phone rings in the house and Jo says, “That better be the school.”
Mom murmurs, “I'll get it.” She heads for the house.
Jo looks at me. “Well?”
“What's a pervert?” I ask.
Jo's jaw clenches. She lowers herself to the picnic bench and pulls me close to her. “Did somebody call you that?”
“No. They called you that.”
Her face hardens.
“They called me Dickless Nicholas.”
Jo sucks in her lips, but can't hide her grin. “Oh, Nick.” She tries to hug me, but I push her away. “Come on,” she says, “it's kind of funny.”
“No, it's not!” I scream at her.
“Okay, I'm sorry.” She grabs my wrist and hangs on.
I'm afraid I might burst into tears and I don't want to. I'm not a baby.
“They're just words, Nick. They can't hurt you.”
She's wrong. They hurt plenty. On the inside where you can't see the gash. Where you can’t stitch it up and the scar doesn’t show. But the hurt doesn't go away because the words keep cutting and reopening the wound. Pervert. Pervert.
“So call them something back,” Jo says. “Like fartface. Or boogerbrain.”
I smile a little. “Mucous membrane,” I suggest.
Jo makes a face. “You watch too much Discovery Channel.” She stands and tousles my hair. “I need a drink. How 'bout you?”
“Where’s my dad?” I blurt. Those guys made me wonder again.
That makes Jo stop. “You don’t have one,” she says.
Jo considers that for a minute. “Why is the world round?” she asks.
“Because it is.”
“Right. It is what it is. Now I really need a drink.”
“Make mine a double,” I say.
Jo smirks. “Don’t let your mom hear that.” She bends over to give me a pony ride. I think I’m too big, but I jump on her back anyway.
Mom's hanging up the phone as we gallop into the kitchen. Jo drops me in the window seat and heads for the fridge. “Mr. Hasselback got Matthew to tell him what happened,” Mom says. Her eyes meet mine and she looks…sad. Helpless. “They have a pretty good idea who did it — these fifth graders who've been harassing the little kids lately. Mr. H wants to talk to his kids, but he's not sure what to tell them. Or how. He wants to know what we want him to do.”
“Tell them the truth,” Jo says.
“No!” I cry.
Jo shuts the fridge and tosses me a Coke. She pops the top on her beer.
Mom says, “You’ve already had two.”
Jo mutters, “But who’s counting?”
Mom sighs.
Jo glugs. She swipes her mouth and says, “So, what'd you tell Mr. H?” She leans against the kitchen counter.
“I told him we'd get back to him.” Mom scrapes out a chair and sits at the table. Jo loops a leg over the chair cattycorner from her. She drinks her beer, wiggling her eyebrows at me. Mom must've switched off the CD player before answering the phone because it’s quiet. Too quiet. She winds a strand of damp hair behind her ear and says softly, “I told you this would happen.”
Jo goes, “And I told you we'd deal with it. Nick” — she twists to face me — “you have two moms.”
“Duh,” I say.
She cricks a lip. “You know we're gay, right?”
I roll my eyes.
“And you know what gay means, right?”
Mom cuts in, “He's only five, Jo.”
“Five and three-quarters,” I say.
“He understands.” Jo tips her beer. She swallows. “You know your mom and I love each other, right? And we love you. That doesn't make us perverts. That makes us happy and it makes you lucky to have so much love in your life.”
“Yeah, right,” I mumble. “I’m so lucky.” I study my shoes. There's a drawing of Lucky 2 on the left sneaker. I did it with Magic Marker this morning. I'd started to draw my new fish on the other shoe, but art time ended.
I flinch. “What?”
Jo widens her eyes at Mom. “Forget it, Jo,” Mom says. “He's not ready.”
“Yes, I am,” I tell her. “I know I don't have a dad. Kenny DiPoto doesn't have a dad either because his dad got knifed in jail.”
“Geezus,” Jo breathes. “What kind of neighborhood is this?”
Mom's still staring at me. “Go on,” she says. “What else do you know?”
I pick out a chunk of mud from my tread and flick it on the floor. “Lots of kids don't have dads. Nobody else has two moms.”
“See how lucky you are? Double the pleasure, double the fun.” Jo swigs the rest of her beer. She chucks the empty can over Mom's head into the trash, then heads to the fridge for another.
I sip my Coke.
“Just because nobody else in your class has two moms doesn't make it bad,” Mom informs me. “Or wrong. It means you're different. It means you're special.”
“Yeah, right,” I mumble again. Dickless Nicholas. That's so special.
Jo pops the top on her can and foam oozes out the drinking hole. She sucks it up fast.
“Look,” Jo says, setting her can down hard on the table and swinging into her chair, “if you want, you can tell the kids you have a dad. His name is Joe.”
“No,” Mom says, louder than she needs to. “We promised we'd never do that. We wouldn’t lie.”
“So what?” Jo says. “We just ignore it? We don’t talk about it?”
Mom’s eyes fuse to Jo’s beer can. “I didn’t say that.”
“He's going to have to learn how to fight, Erin. To defend himself. Because this is just the beginning. Even if we’re open and honest, he's going to have to live in the real world. You know that.”
“No fighting.” Mom repeats it to me, “No fighting.”
Jo tells her, “I had to fight. Every day of my life I had to fight.”
“Nick isn’t you,” Mom snaps. Her face changes and she swallows hard. “There are other ways.”
“Sure,” Jo says. “Ignore it. Turn the other cheek. Let everyone use you as a punching bag. Then it kills you from the inside. They get you coming and going, Erin.” She takes a long draw on her beer.
This talk is scaring me.
Mom turns and blinks at me. “I'm sorry, Nick. I'm sorry we did this to you.”
“We didn't do anything to him,” Jo snarls. “We gave him life and love. A happy home and a loving family. He has everything. Everything that counts.”
“I don't have Xbox,” I say. “Matthew has Xbox.”
Jo and Mom pause a beat. Their eyes meet and they crack up. I think — hope — that means they'll get me Xbox. Jo reaches out and places her hand over Mom’s on the table. Mom takes a deep breath. Jo lifts Mom’s hand and kisses it. “What do we want Nick's teacher to do?” Mom asks.
Jo says, “Nick, what do you want to do?”
I don't even have to think about it. “Find those kids and kill them.”
Jo shrugs at Mom. “That works for me.”

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Nobody got beat up. Not that time, anyway. Jo went to school with me every day for a week, though, and stood at the fence. I’d see her out the window during art, story time, snack time. She’d be posing, posturing like a tough guy. Yeah, Jo’s real tough.
What you see on the outside isn’t always what you get on the inside, especially with girls. I learned that the hard way.

When I first started writing, I had no idea it’d be ten loooong years before I’d make enough money to exceed the poverty level. To pay my fair share of living expenses, I took a part-time job in a school working with special-needs kids. They weren’t physically or intellectually challenged; most were falling behind because of absences, learning styles differences, dysfunctional families, or emotional burdens children should never be forced to bear. (Define “Normal” was inspired by the strength and resiliency of these amazing kids, but that’s another story.)

One day I was in the teacher’s lounge eavesdropping on a group of teachers. Parent-teacher conferences were coming up and one teacher said, “I made these special certificates for any of the fathers who come. What if both of Nick’s moms come?”

Another teacher said, “I know. I was going to teach a family unit and now, with Nick in my class, I can’t.”

Why not? I wondered. For years this simmering anger grew in my gut. Why can’t you teach a family unit because one of your students has lesbian parents? What if a kid had bi-racial parents? Would that be okay? Would a single-parent family be acceptable? What about a blended family, or a kid who lives with relatives or in foster care? Are those families ones you could validate as a “family unit”?

Twelve years and that snatch of conversation never left me. To get it out of my head, and to explore my feelings about alternative families, I knew I’d have to write a story. One story became many stories and their interleaving became the book, Between Mom and Jo.

The challenge of writing queer literature for mainstream audiences is two-fold: First, finding the universal truths that any reader can relate to (our commonalities), and second, embracing our extraordinary differences. Not special—out of the ordinary. A child of gay parents has unique issues to deal with—in his family, extended family, at school, in a society where he’ll be called upon to defend his parents at some point in time. Overcoming misunderstanding, oppression and bigotry give our stories a particular depth. I always consider sharing our stories an opportunity to expand a reader’s knowledge of the range of human experience.

In Between Mom and Jo I wanted to answer these questions: Is the bond between a boy and his mother different from the one he forms with a father? If it is (and I believed it was) what would happen if a boy with two mothers, whom he loves equally, is put in the position of having to choose between them?

To feel Nick’s love for each of his mothers and experience how the three of them function as a family, I wanted readers to grow up with Nick. When I began, all I had were random vignettes—Nick with Erin, his biological mom, Nick with Jo, his heart mom, Nick with Mom and Jo, Nick at school, Nick at home. One day this vision of a watermelon seed taped to a sheet of scrapbook paper provided the flash of inspiration I needed to pull the book together. The intricate structure is somewhat experimental, since it requires readers to empathize with a three-year-old Nick in the beginning, and to stay with him until the end of his journey at age 14. But I always trust young adult readers to explode all the myths about their reading habits.

Between Mom and Jo earned me my first ever Lambda Literary Award (yay). I’d love if it you’d give this book a read and drop me a note to let me know if Nick should be allowed to have any more pets. (You’ll have to read the book to get that joke J.)


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