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Something Happened 11
If things are not so good, if she is not happy that day with me, my daughter, or herself, she will flirt belligerently. She will usually frighten away the man (or men) she flirts with (they almost never hang around long enough to flirt back) because she doesn't know how; her approach is threatening, her invitation to seduction a challenging attack, and there may be something of a scene if I don't step in quickly enough. It will always be with some man she knows and feels thoroughly safe with (she doesn't really want to flirt at all, I suppose) and usually one who appears to be enjoying himself and bothering no one. (Perhaps he seems smug.) It is saddening for me to watch her; I do not want other people to dislike her.
She will challenge the man openly, sometimes right in the presence of his wife, with a bald and suggestive remark or enticement, sliding her hand heavily up his shoulder blade if he is standing or squeezing the inside of his thigh if he is seated; and then, as though he had already rejected her, turn taunting, vengeful, and contemptuous before he can respond at all. As neatly and promptly as I can, before much damage is done, I will move in to rescue her, to guide her away smoothly with a quip and a smile. I never rebuke her (although I am often furious and ashamed); I humor her, praise her, flatter. I want her to feel pleased with herself. (I don't know why.) "You're just jealous," she will accuse defiantly, when I have led her away.
"Damned right, I am," I reply with a forced laugh, and sometimes I will put my hands on her intimately to help persuade her I am.
"You'd better be," she'll gloat triumphantly.
We have had better times together, my wife and I, than we are having now; but I do not think we will have them again.
Dinner, my wife says, will be ready soon. My mood is convivial (so many times when I am home with my family, I wish I were somewhere else) and I decide, magnanimously, that tonight (at least) I will do everything I can to make them all happy.
"Hello," I say as my children assemble.
"Hi," says my daughter.
"Hi," says my son.
"What's the matter?" I ask my daughter.
"Nothing," she says.
"Was that a look?"
"It was a look, wasn't it?"
"I said hello, didn't I?" she retorts, lowering her voice, maliciously, to a tone of unconcerned innocence. "What do you want me to do?"
(Oh, shit, I meditate pessimistically, my spirits sinking, what the hell is bothering her now?) "If something's wrong," I persist tolerantly (feeling myself growing incensed), "I wish you'd tell me what it is."
She grits her teeth. "Nothing's wrong."
"Dinner's ready," says my wife.
"I won't like it," says my boy.
"What's bothering her?" I ask my wife loudly, as we move together into the dining room.
"Nothing. I don't know. I never know, Let's sit down. Let's try not to fight tonight. Let's see if we can't get through just one meal without anybody yelling and screaming and getting angry. That shouldn't be too hard, should it?"
"That would suit me fine," says my daughter, emphasizing her words to indicate that it might not suit somebody else (me). (She has not looked at me directly yet.) "It's okay with me," says I.
"I still won't like it," says my boy.
"What does that mean?" I ask.
"I want two hot dogs."
"You can at least taste it," argues my wife.
"What?" asks my daughter.
"You can't keep eating hot dogs all your life."
"If you want them, you'll get them," I promise my son. "Okay?"
"Okay?" I ask my wife. "No fights?"
"Amen." I conclude with relief.
"What does that mean?" my boy asks me.
"Ole." I answer facetiously.
"What does that mean?"
"Okay. Have you got it?"
"Since when?" intrudes my daughter.
"Ole," my boy replies.
"No, it doesn't," says my daughter in her soft, weary monotone without looking up, attempting (I know) to keep the bickering going. "Ole doesn't mean okay."
"If you were in a better frame of mind," I josh with her, "I would threaten to wring your neck for that."
"There's nothing wrong with my frame of mind," she replies. "Why don't you threaten to wring my neck anyway?"
"Because you wouldn't realize I was kidding now, and you'd probably think I really wanted to harm you."
"Can't we have a peaceful meal?" pleads my wife. "It shouldn't be so hard to have a peaceful meal together. Should it?"
(I grit my teeth.)
"It would be a lot easier," I tell her amiably, "if you didn't keep saying that."
"Forgive me," my wife answers. "Forgive me for breathing."
"That's right," says my wife, "swear."
"I didn't mean it that way," I tell her harshly (lying, of course, because that was exactly the way I did mean it). "Honest, I didn't. Look, we all agreed not to argue tonight, didn't we?"
"I know I did," says my daughter.
"Then let's not argue. Okay?"
"If you don't shout," says my daughter.
"Ole," says my boy, and we all smile.
(At last we have agreed about something.) Now that we have agreed to relax, we are all very tense. (Now I am sorry I'm there--although I do enjoy my boy. I can think of three girls I like a lot and know a long time--Penny, Jill, and Rosemary--I would rather be with, and the new young one in our Art Department, Jane, who, I bet, I could be having dinner and booze with instead if I had taken the trouble to ask.) None of us at our dining room table seems willing now to risk a remark.
"Should we say grace?" I suggest jokingly in an effort to loosen things up.
"Grace," says my boy, on cue.
It's an old family joke that really pleases only my boy; and my daughter's lips droop deliberately with disdain. She holds that scornful expression long enough to make sure I notice. I make believe I don't. I try not to let it rankle me (I know my daughter often finds me childish, and that does rankle me. I have a bitter urge to reproach her, to shout at her, to reach out and hit her, to kick her very sharply under the table in the bones of her leg. I have an impulse often to strike back at the members of my family, even the children, when I feel they are insulting me or taking advantage. Sometimes when I see one of them in the process of doing something improper, or making a mistake for which I know I will be justified in blaming them, I do not intercede to help or correct but hold back in joy to watch and wait, as though observing from a distance a wicked scene unfold in some weird dream, actually relishing the opportunity I spy approaching that will enable me to criticize and reprimand them and demand explanations and apologies. It horrifies me; it is something like watching them back fatally toward an open window or the edge of a cliff and offering no warning to save them from injury or death. It is perverse and I try to overcome it. There is this crawling animal flourishing somewhere inside me that I try to keep hidden and that strives to get out, and I don't know what it is or whom it wishes to destroy. I know it is covered with warts. It might be me; it might also be me that it wishes to destroy) and, succeeding in stifling my anger beneath a placid smile, say: "Pass me the bread, will you, dear?"
My daughter does.
My wife sits opposite me at the head (or foot) of the table, my boy on my left, my daughter on my right. The maid pads back and forth without talking, delivering bowls of food from the kitchen. My wife spoons large portions out into separate plates and passes them. We are silent. We do not feel free any longer to converse without inhibition in front of our colored maids. (I am not even certain of this one's name: they do not stay with us long anymore.) "The salad is good, Sarah," my wife says.
"I did what you told me."
I am not comfortable having our maids serve us our food at our places (neither are the children), and I won't allow it (even though my wife, I suspect, would still prefer to have it
done that way, as it was done in her own family when she was a child, as she still sees it done in good middle-class homes on television and in the movies, and as she imagines it is also done at Buckingham Palace and the White House). I am not comfortable being served by maids anywhere, even less so in other people's homes (where I am never certain how much food I am supposed to take, always have difficulty manipulating the serving forks and spoons from a sideways position, and am in continual anxiety that I am going to bump the meat and vegetable platters with my shoulder or elbow and send them spilling to the floor. Of course, that's never happened--yet). I suffer the same discomfort even when they are white (the maids, I mean, not the friends. I don't have any Black friends and probably never will, although I do see more and more pretty Black girls these days that whet my appetite. They're all out of reach for me by now, I guess, unless they're Cuban or Puerto Rican).
"I think it's good," my wife says. "I hope it's good."
"I won't like it," my boy says.
"That's enough," I tell him.
"Okay." He retreats quickly. He cannot stand it when I am displeased with him.
"What is it?" my daughter asks.
"Chicken livers and noodles in that wine sauce you like with beef. I think you'll like it."
"I won't," mumbles my boy.
"Will you at least taste it?"
"I don't like liver."
"It isn't liver. It's chicken."
"It's chicken liver."
"Please taste it."
"I'll taste it," he answers. "And then I'll want my hot dogs."
"Can I have mine?"
My wife and I watch with bated breath as my daughter pokes at the meat solemnly, almost lugubriously, with her fork and touches a small piece to her mouth.
"It's good," she says without enthusiasm and begins eating.
My wife and I are relieved.
(My daughter is somewhat tall and overweight and should be dieting; but my wife, who reminds her endlessly to diet, makes such things as noodles and serves large portions, and my daughter will probably ask for more.) "It's delicious," I say.
"Can I have my hot dogs?"
"Sarah, put up two frankfurters."
"Can I have the bread back?"
I give my daughter the bread.
"I've got some good news," I begin, and each of them turns to look at me. I am still brimming with excitement (and conceit) over Arthur Baron's conversation with me: and in a sudden, generous welling of affection for them, for all three of them (they are my family, and I am attached to them), I decide to share my joyful feelings. "Yes, I think I may have some very important news for all of us."
The three of them gaze at me now with such intense curiosity that I find myself forced to break off.
"What?" one of them asks.
"On second thought," I hesitate, "it may not be that important. In fact, now that I think of it, it isn't important at all. It isn't even interesting."
"Then why did you say it?" my daughter wants to know.
"To tantalize you," I kid.
"What in hell does that mean?" my boy asks.
"Do you have something?" my wife asks.
"Oh, maybe yes," I tease her jovially, "and maybe no."
"To tease us," my daughter exclaims to my boy with mockery and distaste.
(My daughter makes me feel foolish again. And again I have that powerful, momentary, spiteful impulse to injure her, to wound her deeply with a cutting retort, to reach out over the dining room table and smack her hard on the side of the face or neck, to kick her viciously under the table in her ankle or shin. I can do nothing, though, but ignore her and try to maintain my facade of paternal good humor.) "Then why don't you tell us?" my wife inquires. "Especially if it's good."
"I will," I say. "All I wanted to say," I announce, and my spirit turns manifestly arch and tantalizing again as I pause to butter a piece of bread and take a bite, "is that I think I may have to start playing golf again."
There is a thoughtful, puzzled, almost rebellious silence now as each of them tries to figure out before the others what it is I am waggishly withholding from them and presently intend to disclose.
"Golf?" asks my nine-year-old boy, who is still not certain what kind of game golf is, whether it is a good game or a bad one.
"Why golf?" asks my wife with surprise. (She knows I hate the game.)
"Golf," I repeat.
"You don't even like golf."
"I hate golf. But it may have to be golf."
"I bet he's getting a better job!" my daughter guesses. (In many ways, she is the smartest and most devious of all of us.) "Are you?" asks my wife.
"What kind of job?" My wife's reaction is suspicious, almost morose. I know she has assumed secretly for several years that I have been longing for a different job that would take me away from home more often.
"Selling what?" asks my boy.
For an instant, my boy is confused, almost stunned by the riddle of my reply. Then he understands it was meant as a joke, and he bursts into laughter. His eyes sparkle, and his face lights up joyously. (Everybody likes my boy.) "Do you mean it?" probes my wife, studying me. She is still unsure whether to be pleased or not.
"I think so."
"Will you have to travel more than you have to travel now?"
"No. Probably less."
"Will you make more money?" my daughter asks.
"Yes. Maybe a lot more."
"Will we be rich?"
"Will we ever be rich?"
"I don't want you to travel more," my boy complains.
"I'm not going to travel more," I repeat for him, with a trace of annoyance. "I'm going to travel less." (I begin to regret that I brought it up at all. The questions are coming too swiftly; I can feel my self-satisfaction ebbing away, and an army of irritations mobilizing too rapidly for me to keep track of and control. I am already replying to them with my slight stammer.) "Are you going to start talking to yourself again?" my boy cannot resist baiting me mischievously.
"I wasn't talking to myself," I declare firmly.
"Yes, you were," my daughter murmurs.
"Like last year?" my boy persists.
"I was not talking to myself," I repeat loudly. "I was practicing a speech."
"You were practicing it to yourself," my boy points out.
"Will they let you make a speech this year?" my daughter asks. "At the company convention?"
"Oh, yes," I respond with a smile.
"A long speech?"
"Oh, yes, indeed. I imagine they might let me make a speech as long as I want to at the company convention this year."
"Will you be working for Andy Kagle?" my wife asks.
The question brings me to a halt.
"A little something like that," I stammer evasively. (The fun goes out of my family guessing game, and now I am sorry that I started it.) I laugh nervously. "It isn't definite yet. And it's all a pretty long way off. Maybe I shouldn't even have mentioned it."
"I'm glad you'll be working for Andy Kagle," my wife asserts. "I don't like Green."
"I didn't say I'd be working for Kagle."
"I don't trust Green."
"Don't you listen?"
"Why are you snapping at me?"
"I don't want you to be a salesman," my daughter exclaims with unexpected emotion, almost in tears. "I don't want you to have to go around to other people's fathers and beg them to buy things from you."
"I'm not going to be a salesman," I protest impatiently. "Look, what's everybody talking about it so much for? I haven't got it yet. And I'm not even sure I'm going to take it."
"You don't have to shout at her," my wife says.
"I'm not shouting."
"Yes, you are," she says. "Don't you hear yourself?"
"I'm sorry I shouted."
"You don't have to snap at everybody, either."
"And I'm sorry I snapped."
My wife is right, this time. Without my realizing it, I have moved from optimistic conceit into a bad temper; and without my being conscious of it, my voice has risen with anger, and I have been shouting at them again. We are all silent at the table now. The children sit with their eyes lowered. They seem too fearful even to fidget. I am guilty. My forehead hurts me (with tension. Another headache is threatening). I am numb with shame. I feel so helpless and uncertain. I wish one of them would say something that would give me a clue, that would point the way I must follow toward an easy apology. (I feel lost.) But no one will speak.
I pounce upon an energetic idea. I whirl upon my son without warning, shoot my index finger out at him, and demand: "Are you mad or glad?"
"Glad," he cries with laughter and delight, when he recognizes I am joking again and no longer irate.
I spin around toward my daughter and shoot my index finger out at her.
"Are you mad or glad?" I demand with a grin.
"Oh, Daddy," she answers. "Whenever you make one of us unhappy, you always try to get out of it by behaving like a child."
"Oh, shit," I say quietly, stung by her rebuff.
"Must you say that in front of the children?" my wife asks.
"They say it in front of us," I retort. I turn to my daughter. "Say shit."
"Shit," she says.
"Say shit," I say to my son.
He is ready to start crying.
(I want to reach out instinctively to console and reassure him and rumple his soft, sandy hair. I am deeply fond of my boy, although I am not sure anymore how I feel about my daughter.) "I'm sorry," I tell him quickly. (I have the shameful, shocking apprehension that if I did put my hand out to comfort him, he would cringe reflexively, as though afraid I were going to strike him. I recoil from that thought in pain.) I turn to my daughter. "I'm sorry," I say to her too, earnestly. "You're right, and I'm sorry. I do act like a child." Now it is my eyes that are down. "I think I want another drink," I explain apologetically, as I stand up. "I'm not going to eat anymore. You go on, though. I'll wait in the living room. I'm sorry."
They continue eating after I leave, their voices subdued.
I do such things to them, I know, even when I don't intend to. But I cannot admit this to my wife or children. My wife would not understand. I cannot really say to my wife: "I'm sorry." She would think I was apologizing. My wife and I cannot really talk to each other about the same things anymore; but I sometimes forget this and try. We are no longer close enough for honest conversation (although we are close enough for frequent sexual intercourse). She would respond with something as vacuous and frustrating and galling as "You should be," or "You didn't have to snap at everybody," or "You don't have to shout at me that way." As though my snapping or her snapping at me (she can snap too), were any part of the problem. She would say something exactly like that; and I would be brought to a stop again, as though slapped sharply; I would be stunned; I would feel abandoned and isolated again, and I would sink back for safety again inside my dense, dark wave of opaque melancholy; I would feel lonely and I would be brought face to face again with the fact that I have nobody in this world to confide in or reach toward for help; I would miss my mother (and my father?) and my dead big brother, and I would begin daydreaming once again about some new job with a different company that would take me far away from home more often. Someday soon someone may be dropping bombs on us. I will scream: "The sky is falling! They are dropping bombs! People are on fire! The world is over! It's coming to an end!"