Whether or not Carter liked his parents was never in question until he turned sixteen. Life up until then; the fairly privileged upbringing, the weekends with his mom and dad, the good home-cooking and the memorable, luxury holidays, had been as happy a time as Carter could care to remember. There had never been a moment really, before the weight of the teens fell upon him in its debris shower of red marks on his skin, embarrassing vocal range, hair where there shouldn’t be and girls, never a moment when he had felt unhappy or unsatisfied with the level of parenting attained by Eric and Millie Carter.
As a youngster, his mother had taken him for walks around Greenbury Park. The mall, the movie theatre, the Walmart; him in his olive-green pushchair and her in her light blue skirt, headband and cardigan. Millie had that look of a nurse; especially of a woman who worked around other women, and who would meet regularly with them outside working hours to share knitting patterns and discuss cheap literature. It was a look she carried well, and Carter could even remember one particular assistant in Walmart, a wide-smiling, crusty old fool, who had constantly flirted with her whenever they had gone for groceries together. It was, Carter reckoned, the reason she had always brought him along. They had made a great team. As soon as the creep strolled up, with his ‘Morning there, Miss. Carter!’ all lined up on his rancid tongue, Millie’s hand would slip down from the handles of the pushchair onto Carter’s shoulder where he sat; never roughly, simply as a signal that he was coming. Carter would then bawl loudly and apparently spontaneously, stopping if the assistant was distracted by serving other pretty ladies, but starting up again the instant he turned back to his mother. And Millie would of course have to excuse herself from conversation with the old guy, to fuss over her shopping cart, and tend to four-year old Carter with a stuffed bunny. It was all for show. Carter had never held any affection for the bunny. As soon as they were out of the store, and loading up the car, they would share a smile, at having pulled it off yet again without a hitch.
Eric Carter had had three jobs that his son knew of; a junior bank manager in a local outlet, the regular manager of a bigger branch downtown, and finally a senior bank manager and financial advisor at one of the biggest banks in America, which was based in Washington State. This ascent through the world of banking had nothing nepotistic or underhand about it either. He was simply a talent, noticed by the bosses and then by the bigger bosses, and then by the men in designer suits, and then, most crucially, by the men who discarded designer suits in a heartbeat. Modest and romantic though this may sound, what it really did was give him lots of excuses to be called away at short notice, to leave his pretty wife and young son alone to lick their lips in anticipation lest they may underestimate the joy of his return. Where would daddy be working now? Will we have to move? What if we ended up in Miami? Or the Caribbean? In fact, they never moved, but lived for all of nineteen years together in that detached house in Greenbury Park, on a pleasant, leafy crescent. The affluent young family, its contented bread-winner, his charming wife who volunteered at the local hospice and his adorable little boy.
The fact was that it all really was that harmonious. Though his work sounded positively monotonous, Carter reckoned his father to have been one of the happiest people he had ever known. The man had so wanted the life that he made for himself, and, for him anyway, it had all turned out perfect. He had been able to buy the house he wanted, and the car, and tend his garden and play with his son at weekends. He got on with the neighbours, had gone to ball-games and for drinks with some of the guys. There had never been a desire to leave Michigan for the big city lights and penthouses. He was happy to commute if he had to, and work from home when he didn’t. Carter didn’t reckon that there were many people in the world who had life turn out for them as perfectly as it had for his dad. And up until sixteen, that is, 1987, his wife and son seemed happy and content in his perfect world.
But Carter, who remembered now with some regret, was growing up. At sixteen, having an absent dad for long periods and just a mom for company became confusing to him. Did his old man not care about him? Why did his mom stick around? There were plenty of other men on the block, and some of them weren’t even creeps. Perhaps that was why he spent most, if not all his time with his friends, skateboarding around the mall, shoplifting from Walmart, going to wild gigs with LSD, ketamine and cannabis, as well as other substitutes. It wasn’t that he was a trouble-maker. The old ladies who lived nearby would still always say hello in the street, cops never seemed to bother him and he was never banned from any of the places he and others stole from. But he knew himself that some of the things he was doing were wrong, and this bothered him. This was not what his parents had in mind. And where was his dad, the man he could ask about drugs, and sex, and general behaviour? Not there.
It got to the point where, when his dad did come home late one night, only his wife was up to greet him, his son having locked himself in his room, deliberately, so as not to meet the man he so wanted at home. When his dad had knocked timidly on the door to his room a little later, Carter had nearly quailed and opened up, but didn’t. The man had to learn. He heard his dad’s footfalls as he went back downstairs, and had suddenly felt awful, thrown open the door, run out and hugged Eric Carter, who, still in his chief-exec suit, had recoiled ever-so-slightly, but hugged his son back. By way of an apology, they had gone fishing that weekend, and played soccer in a field afterwards. That wasn’t the problem though. The problem was when it happened again and again and again, and the apology-trips stacked up, and Carter became more and more disillusioned towards the thought of actually forgiving his father.
In the present, he tended to look at it this way. So the man hadn’t been a particularly attentive father. This had, in no small measure, rubbed off on himself. That much was certain. But the man had worked, toiled, put food on his table, paid for his schooling and his cadet academy place, while all the time having to spend days, weeks, months away from the home and the family that he loved. He had been, in that respect at least, a good father.
He had said as much to Shanade, who had of course twirled her hair absent-mindedly with her forefinger, as she had always done, bored at his meaningless ramblings about feelings and other drivel. This had never annoyed Carter, only infatuated him towards her all the more. He often wondered whether he had actually fallen in love with Shanade at the time. Certainly to him, as a teenager, it had felt like a kind of love. He had adored her. Every waking second had been spent thinking about her. When he wasn’t around her, Carter had tended to become sullen and nonchalant, especially if it was for any extended period of time. Only when she was in his arms, or indeed he was in hers, did he feel properly alive. Which was strange really, as he never got the impression that she felt the same. None of the guys at his school who had tapped her ever did. There was a self-superiority about Shanade. Her’s had been the richest family in the area; she was the daughter of a perfume magnate, and for that reason always smelt as good as she looked. And she had looked amazing. Carter reckoned that no other girl of seventeen could possibly look like Shanade had. That perfect jaw line, the high cheekbones, dark eyes and slightly fly-away blonde hair; she was the cutest thing you ever had the pleasure of laying eyes on. But it wasn’t even the way she had looked. Even her vainest ex could tell you that much. It was her mannerisms; her steel. The way that she would clench her little fists in frustration, fold her slender arms like a corset around that body, the way her expression would hardly seem to change, but her mood could still be detected by that tightening of lips, brow and jaw. It had been like knowing a doll moulded into a perfect caricature that any teenage guy would lust over. And she had just so happened to live in Greenbury Park, several blocks away.
But he hadn’t loved Shanade. No, he was better than that. Although her attitude was stimulating at first; that permanent annoyance sexy over stifling, it had started to get on Carter’s nerves after three months. As a teenage boy, he had wanted something more serious than holding hands, casual sex and the occasional late-night party. Unfortunately, he also told this to Shanade. She would have made a great interrogator for the CIA, Carter reckoned. It had been difficult to keep anything from her, even without her having asked him something. That had been it. She had told him that she was getting bored in their ‘relationship.’ At the time, Carter had been slightly relieved, thinking it was just him. This sensation had lasted all of three hours, until he realised that he had just lost the happiest feeling he ever had in his life. Oh, he had little girlfriends, and lost them, before this point. But only Shanade he remembered to this day, only her. She had become an idol; a mere thought, in a way like Dante’s Beatrice, though nothing so numinous. An object of perfection for him to aspire to for the rest of his days. But not his one true love.