How to Be a Stepmom to the Son of Your Ex and His Dead Wife

The crucial bonding experience that is driving lessons
The crucial bonding experience that is driving lessons Photo: SolStock/Getty Images

My boyfriend, David, is organizing his sock drawer when I say to him, “You know, it just hit me: If we end up staying together, you will go down in history as the love of my life.” I lean back and position myself on the bed — fan out my skirt and fluff my hair — so that when he turns around and says it back to me, I’ll look worthy. But he doesn’t follow the script. Instead, he says, “Aww,” like he just saw a little baby with hearing aids. We’ve been together for four years.

I was probably fishing for a little reassurance since that evening we were going to dinner with Jessica, an old friend of David’s whom I find completely petrifying. Not only because she’s a yoga/healer person for whom David always makes time for long walks when we visit her hometown of Seattle, but because she used to do massage on Hannah, David’s wife, before Hannah died of cancer eight years ago.

Jessica is in town for an acupuncture conference, and we are going out for Indian food. It doesn’t feel like something I should be going to, but David insists.

Jessica is attractive. She’s not what a girlfriend wants to see when she’s feeling a little jealous. The naan hasn’t even hit the table and Jessica is reaching over and giving David little massage‑y squeezes. “Oh, hey,” she says. “Thank you for visiting me in my dream the other night! It was a really fun place to see you. The only tough part was waking up!”

Did she miss the part where David introduced me as his girlfriend? Am I so far from the type of woman that she imagined David being with that she’s making a move on him right in front of me? I’m sure David must be as irritated by her New Age hooker talk as — “Wow! That’s so cool.” He jumps right in. “I wonder if your dream happened while I was meditating, because I can go to some pretty deep places. Wouldn’t that be wild?” David is the most stressed-out meditator I’ve ever seen.

Back at home, I vow not to say anything negative about the night. I get hit by a huge realization that I don’t want to have: It’s not Jessica I’m jealous of. It’s far more vulgar. It’s Hannah. David can’t tell me I’m the love of his life because I’m not the love of his life. Of course I’m not. Hannah, his wife for 13 years and mother of his first child, is the love of his life. In fact, even if they ever discussed David “moving on” after she died, I would hope he told her, “I will try to be happy for my sake and for our son Jack’s sake. But you will always be the love of my life. No matter what.”

Two weeks later, I wanted to give Jack, David’s son, his first driving lesson. Committing to teaching Jack to drive meant that if something happened, like, oh, David and I broke up before I got back, he and I would still have our thing. Plus, David didn’t want me to teach Jack to drive. He felt that he was a young 15 and not ready. I thought doing it anyway would show Jack that I was a cool girlfriend who rebelled against authority. No matter what happened with David, I wanted Jack and me to have a relationship. Of course I couldn’t replace his mother, but maybe I’d end up being the one adult in his life who tried the hardest to be there for him in a non-​mother‑y yet mother-wannabe way.

You can’t be a part of a kid’s childhood for any extended period of time and not feel some sort of investment. Well, you could, but it would take a deep commitment to alcoholism and other modes of forgetting. My attempts to learn about Jack’s life are answered with “your face.” Examples: “Do you think you’ll try out for baseball?” “Your face will try out for baseball.” “Does Jaxon have a girlfriend now?” “Your face has a girlfriend now.” It’s your standard teenage response, which I happen to find hilarious.

The driving lesson took place on a very wide residential street in our neighborhood. For 30 minutes, I’d covered the basics: driving in a straight line and slamming on the brakes when I yelled, “NOW! NOW! MOTHERFUCKER! NOW!”

Maybe it was my stress over leaving on a trip, or the fear of Jack hitting the gas pedal instead of the brake and slamming into a palm tree, but I wanted to tell Jack how deeply I cared about him. How after four years together, it wasn’t just his dad I had a connection with; it was him. I wanted to tell him the story about working with his mother’s best friend, Nina, on a comedy show in Seattle. About how Nina would give all the writers updates on how Hannah was doing after she got sick. About the day she came into the middle of a pitch session, her eyes puffy and red, and told us how Hannah had accepted the fact that she was going to die, but what she couldn’t accept was the fact that she was going to leave Jack and David.

It had been established early on that any talk of Hannah in front of Jack that was not initiated by him was forbidden. I told him anyway. When I got to the end — “and, Jack, at that moment, I can remember so vividly, even though I’d never met you guys, thinking, ‘Give them to me, Hannah. I’ll take care of them’” — Jack didn’t move. He sat staring out the window. A teenage warrior, blank of emotion.

“Maybe that wasn’t a great story for you to hear,” I finally said. He got out of the car and waited for me to turn it around so he could drive it back down the street. The quiet in the car for the rest of the lesson was very loud. I was so desperate to know what he was thinking that I considered offering him 50 dollars if he told me how hearing the story made him feel, but he was with me the last time I took money out of the ATM. He knew I’d have to “wait for a few checks to clear” before I could make good on my bribe.

I’m convinced that I’ve ruined my relationship with Jack and probably with David. I realize I will never be a “wife” or a “mother” to them because those titles have already been taken. Who knew that being part of a family would matter to me so much?

In the dressing room after a show, my phone rings. It’s David. “Something horrible has happened.” He sounds completely hysterical. My first guess is that he left the clothes in the dryer. Or that he lost his water bottle. “Jack crashed your car,” he says. “He stole it and he totaled it. Oh my god, I can’t handle this.”

The words “crash” and “Jack” stun me. I cannot stand to think of him in pain. David finally lets me know that Jack wasn’t injured. The car smashed into the gate of a Jewish preschool. When no guardian could be contacted, they put him in juvie. Why did I have to be the one who was teaching him to drive? Why didn’t I just buy him some condoms or something?

The next day, a detective calls me to ask if I want to press charges. In a way, this is the moment I’ve been waiting for. A chance to show David and Jack what I’m willing to do for them. If only there was a way to videotape myself and talk on the phone at the same time. “No, no. Of course not.” “You’re not doing him any favors by not pressing charges. Are you his stepmother?” “No, no. I’m the girlfriend.” “Oh, okay.” He says it like now it all makes sense. As if I’m only not pressing charges because it’s hard enough to get a boyfriend’s teenage kid to like you without pressing charges. I hang up.

In Los Angeles, Jack’s day in court is endless. Waiting for the trial to begin is almost as traumatic as the trial itself, because we’re stuck doing nothing but sitting and worrying that the judge will send him to a work camp. At the beginning of the trial, the judge asks for the family of Jack Thane to please stand. David stands up and I stand up right next to him. It’s the first time that anyone has officially called us a family. Eventually, Jack is released and we all walk out together into the blinding Los Angeles sun. Jack hugs his father and then, unable to look at me directly, tells the concrete sidewalk, “I’m sorry.” I can’t look at him either, so I tell the sidewalk to tell him, “It’s okay, Jack. It’s really okay. Now, let’s eat.” We find a Jamaican restaurant a block away from the jail. Jack tears up at lunch from the stress of what’s just happened.

Jack moved to Boston to go to college. We had a baby, Leo, repainted, and added a screen door. Our apartment contracted and doubled in size like a mini universe.

When David and I split I wondered: Is Jack my “ex” stepson now? No. That’s awful. In fact, Jack’s the only one who intimately understands the impact of what happened. In a way, he’s the only witness to the family that was lost. Jack and Simone, the babysitter David ran off with, are the same age. Maybe that’s gross, yet kind of “my dad’s still got it!” David was an amazing father to Jack; I’m not going to ask him any questions where he feels pressured to trash-talk his father. I have plenty of friends who love to do that. My text “Miss you, Jack. Don’t get too high at work” sounds like I’m hinting for him to call me so I can talk about Simone and David. It is. That’s why I’m worried it sounds that way. Jack’s been living in Boston since he graduated high school. Jack and I talk on the phone now more than we ever used to. It’s been a year since I’ve actually seen Jack’s face. I miss that face. “Your face misses my face,” as Jack would say. My text was halfway done — “You’re still my stepson even if” — and I have to throw the phone on the taxi seat and stare at the horizon to let the nausea pass.

Excerpted from MISS FORTUNE: Fresh Perspectives on Having It All from Someone Who Is Not Okay by Lauren Weedman, to be published on March 15 by Plume, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2016 by Lauren Weedman.

How I Learned to Be a Stepmother