ZEX by Mary Mandeville

Editor Carrie Ivy, Editor's Choice, March 14th, 2016

"...any child from a meth environment had been sexually abused."

tree in spring by matty byloos to accompany essay by Mary Mandeville


In the nine months since he moved from the last of five foster homes to our home, attempts to hug my newly adopted seven-year old earned me a slap, a punch, and sometimes a kick. I didn’t want to give up but I didn’t want another fat lip either. I decided to focus on activities we could do side by side and let affection develop over time.

Brandon sat on the edge of the raised garden bed, straight brown hair sparkling in the sun. He peeled leaves off a stick of bamboo to fashion a make-believe sword. Maybe it was family genetics, maybe drug effects or lack of nutrition, but he was just a waif of a boy: though seven he wore four-year-old size blue jeans and striped polo shirt. His tongue stuck out as he concentrated on his task. I turned away and gripped a gigantic dandelion.

“Let’s play zex!” His squeaky voice piped up.

I yanked so hard on my dandelion I almost fell over backwards.

“Excuse me?” I turned as he raised his freckled face toward mine. “Play what?”


That’s what I thought he’d said.

Though his case file was silent on the issue of sex abuse, it took him an hour, sometimes two, to fall asleep at night and when he did, his eyelids stayed half open. Occasional nighttime tantrums devolved into screams of you can’t do this to me. His rage could have been due to simple lack of experience with a structure like bedtime, or maybe not. One psychologist suggested that between the effects of methamphetamines on adults and the statistics on abuse, it was best to assume that any child from a meth environment had been sexually abused.

“How would we play this … zex?” I tossed the dandelion onto a growing pile.

He leapt to his feet and his bamboo clattered to the patio. “If we put a hankie over here,” he thrust his butt out and patted a back pocket, “it means we’re looking for girls.”

I might have inhaled a bug.

“If we put a hankie over here,” he patted his other back pocket, “it means we’re looking for boys.”

In the years since, I’ve wished I could press rewind on that moment and hear it again. He could not have said that.

Except he had.

His eyes were bright and tone of voice lively as if he’d suggested, let’s play hide ‘n seek, or let’s play Battleship, or let’s play tag. My mouth hung open for a couple beats while my brain searched for words.

“If we find these boys or girls,” I brushed my gloved palms together to shake of the dirt, “what are we going to do with them?”

“Zex.” He put his hands on his hips. “You know.”

I wanted to hear it from him, not put words in his mouth or scare him into silence with my freaked out tone.

I waited.

His cheeks turned hot red.

“Humping?” He gyrated his hips in case I wasn’t familiar. “And all that?”

I could have asked for clarification on all that, but I chose a different direction.

“Why would we do this … this … sex?”

He slapped both palms against his forehead. “Urrh! For money!”

I stared at the little boy a few feet away from me. With his skinny child-body and round face, he radiated innocence. I longed to scoop him up in my arms, let him rest his head on my shoulder, fall asleep safe and sound. Maybe now I understood his kicks and punches. I stammered something about how grown-ups don’t have sex with little kids, only as I said it I realized, of course I was wrong; sometimes they do. I told him he was safe here, then immediately wondered if he’d heard that before and found it suspicious. I told him I’d be glad to play a different kind of game with him.

He snatched up his bamboo and without a word, strode across the grass slicing at the air. This boy I hardly knew, but who was now my son, tucked his pretend sword through his belt loop, reached up and swung onto a branch of our mimosa tree. He climbed the limb and disappeared through the trap-door of the tree house we’d built for him.

Had that pint-sized swashbuckler just suggested sex with me? In retrospect I think it was a test. He’d spent the previous nine months fighting off touch, probably wondering when and where one or the other of his new parents would want to play zex with him and finally decided to simply get it over with.

My little pirate still had lots to figure out about who to touch, and who not to, and when and how. We’d deal with some serious transgressions in the future. But between the two of us, the question of zex seemed put to rest that afternoon. A tiny door to trust cracked open.

That night I read him a story, tucked him in, and sat in the rocking chair beside his bed for over an hour. When his eyes were finally at half-mast, I started to tip-toe out of the room. He thrust his skinny arms out from under the covers and grunted at me, “unh.”

“You sure?”

He replied with a fleeting nod so I bent over and received nothing more and nothing less than one quick hug.

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Header image taken by Matty Byloos.

Mary Mandeville writer NAILED MagazineMary Mandeville is a Portland Oregon partner, mom, and animal rescuing fool. She’s a chiropractor and a writer whose essays have appeared in Voice Catcher, Brain Child, and the 2015 anthology, She Holds the Face of the World. Her work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and won honorable mention in the Hip Mama/Unchaste Readers’ contest. She is at work on a book-length memoir.


Carrie Ivy

Carrie Ivy (formerly Carrie Seitzinger) is Editor-in-Cheif and Co-Publisher of NAILED. She is the author of the book, Fall Ill Medicine, which was named a 2013 Finalist for the Oregon Book Award. Ivy is also Co-Publisher of Small Doggies Press.