Something Happened 28
He says nothing in objection as he submits, but I know that he is nauseated too: his gut is constricted, his limbs are tubes, and he fears he may yell for help and embarrass us all (and I am so shaken to see him this way that I can scream in agony for him. I could not bear it when he had his tonsils out and I saw the tiny, crescent crust of dried blood looped out the bottom of his right or left nostril. I'm not certain which. My mind is no longer clear on such details, but that doesn't matter. There was a ringing in my head when they wheeled him back into the room, and my wife had to spring to me quickly to grip me by the arm and lead me to a chair, or I think I might have fallen). I hope he does not have to have a tooth pulled until he is old enough and hardy enough to bear it without my support, bear it much more courageously than I would be able to bear having one of his teeth pulled out now. I am so glad he no longer seems as frightened of me as he used to be, not even of my yelling or my acidulous sarcasm when I am feeling unhappy or suffering from a headache. (I remember some of the things I used to taunt and bully him about, like giving money away or being afraid to try to dive or sail or ski or ice skate, and I am saddened by shame, for a minute or two; I find it remarkable that he has been able to forgive me and forget, if indeed he has forgiven me, for maybe he remembers too. I think he remembers everything. He may even remember which nostril of his it was that bore that staining crust of blood when he was transported back to us inside the hospital room, but I don't want to ask him because I don't want to remind him of that deep and shattering trauma I suffered when he had his tonsils and adenoids pulled and clipped out and from which I am not sure either one of us will ever recover fully. He suffered too and did not want to stay in his own room when we brought him home from the hospital with his throat that hurt so much he could not speak or smile without pain. When he forgot and cracked a joke in a slow, croaking voice and began to smile he was stunned by the sharp reminder of pain. We made him return to his own room. It was a pretty room with decals on the wall and a hi-diddle-diddle mobile hanging from the ceiling in the center. In the hospital, he was thirsty when he woke up, but we could not give him water until all the ether fumes had evaporated. He would vomit, they told us. So we didn't. His eyelids were blue.) I thank God that he no longer seems to include me among the clouded swarms of demonic, treacherous, sneaky, heartless, creeping, climbing, crawling, brutal, blood-spilling, overtowering crooks, kidnappers, ghosts, and murderers that infiltrate his dreams (and mine) and of whom, just about all his small life, I understand now, he has been in such profound and enervating dread. (He sensed these malign phantoms and villains rather than saw them, he said when we brought him home from the hospital with his cut throat, but he could hear them also at the same time. Lying awake listening for noises, he would hear the same creaks and footfalls we all do; but he would imagine human beings coming to get him, scaling stone by stone the outside wall of our apartment building, boring downward from the roof toward his bedroom, descending from an opening in the sky to the sill of his fragile glass window. Their faces were hooded or shaped in shadows they carried with them like shawls.
"And how. So lovable."
We were enchanted by his novel unselfishness; we talked about him with gusto to other people, feeling fortunate and superior because he was ours and we were able to do so. We fished for envious praise from other parents, soliciting, collecting, devouring, and waxing fat and glib on good comments about him in corpulent self-esteem. (What a vain and vainglorious, hypocritical, and egotistical prick.) And even then (indisputably now), if we had been asked to pick between a child who liberally gave away his pennies, nickels, and dimes that he did not want or need for himself and one who would always hoard them only for his own use, we would have chosen exactly what we had. We liked what we had.
(So why did I try to change him?)
Why did we proscribe and threaten and interrogate? (Why did we feel so affronted?) Why did we not chortle and prattle complacently to him also (as we did in conceit to our friends) because he gave those pennies, nickels, and dimes away, instead of only criticizing and reprimanding him and extracting reluctant confessions and recalcitrant vows? (If I were him--he, I know--I think I would hate me now. Why can't I leave him alone? Why can't I leave it alone, even now?) And, of course, most contemptible of all, we did give him his penny, his nickel, or his dime the very next time he asked for it (he was invariably right about that, too, and we were invariably wrong), and his dollar or his dollar and a half for the movies, although we generally could not refrain from giving him something of a sermon with it. (Waste Not, Want Not. He could anticipate our catechism with unsettling accuracy and frequently would recite the words right along with us, especially if our daughter was present, for she could join in with him. I begin to perceive what a stereotype I am only when I realize how often my daughter and my boy can predict and mimic my remarks with such verbatim precision. Have I really become so calculable a bore to them without my knowing it? I smart secretly when they succeed in aping me and do not forgive them easily. I forget, rather than forgive. I do not like them to ridicule me.) And we knew we would give him the money he wanted the next time he asked, even as we were declaring to him that we would not. So why did we confound and torture him (put him through the wringer) and make him stand there and take it? Why did we make him feel, perhaps (and perhaps intentionally), like something bizarre, different, like some kind of freak?
(For a penny and a nickel or a dime.)
To teach him, we told ourselves, a lesson.
(What was that lesson?)
(We never found it. We didn't even look.)
"Have you learned your lesson?" I would catechize him further the next time he came to me for money.
"What is your lesson?" I would make him recite.
"I shouldn't give money away."
"Will you give it away?"
"I want gum, Daddy."
"Do you promise?"
"What do you promise?"
"I won't give it away."
"What will you do with it?"
"On me. I want gum, Daddy. Don't you understand? I just want some gum now."
"If I give you more than one penny, what will you do?"
"Buy more gum."
"And if I give you no pennies, what will you do?"
"Buy no gum."
"But you had pennies yesterday, didn't you? If you didn't give them away you wouldn't have to ask me for any today, would you?"
"Suppose I spent them yesterday? I'd have to ask you for some today anyway, wouldn't I?"
"I suppose you would. But do you understand now why you shouldn't give money away?"
"Why? Why is it wrong for you to give money away?"
"Because," he begins--and his eyes gleam suddenly in anticipation and he finds it is impossible to resist giving the impish reply that comes to his mind--"because," he repeats, with a reckless, mischievous laugh and decides to plunge ahead with his joke, "it makes you and Mommy angry."
What a nice kid.
I am so pleased. And I have to laugh along with him to let him know the risk was a good one and that I am not going to make him pay for it.
We have brisk, Socratic dialogues, he and I, on just about everything (the lines fly crisply in rhythmic questions and answers), and we both enjoy them. (With my daughter, I have arguments and demoralizing discussions that tend to become overladen with personal imputations and denials, even when she starts out discussing, objectively and dispassionately, life and its meaning or her friends or mine. She has many comments to make about the people my wife and I know, as though they were any of her business.) I am Socrates, he is the pupil. (Or so it seems, until I review some of our conversations when I am alone, and then it often seems that he is Socrates. I know I love him. He loves me. He is nice. I am not.
"You're nice, Daddy," he exclaims to me frequently. He hugs me a lot.
"You know, Daddy, you're really nice sometimes," even my daughter remarks to me every now and then.
So maybe I'm not really always as bad as I think I am. I enjoy being praised, by anyone, even by members of my family. It makes me feel important; I grow expansive. Nobody is good always. Everybody is good sometime.) And there is no predicting it what directions our words will fly, for there is no telling in advance what closely guarded observations of his might suddenly spring to his tongue and flash out almost involuntarily, or what preoccupations, deliberately, after tense, inner centuries of concentrated brooding and speculation, he might choose without preliminaries to bring out into the open. (And once he does decide, there will be no deterring him.
"Did you have to fuck Mommy to get me?" he has asked.
"That's not why," I told him.
"Why we did it or why we got you."
"It's how, though, isn't it?" He doesn't seem to like the idea.)
He won't take chances he doesn't have to. (Neither will I. Except with girls, and even then I tend to play it very safe.) He has never, to my knowledge, been in a fist fight. (I wouldn't get in one now either unless it was clearly a matter of life or death. The apple has not fallen far from the tree.) He has no taste for bullying or beating children smaller or weaker. He tries as best he can to avoid associating with anyone he's afraid of, even at the cost of giving up activities he enjoys or forfeiting the companionship of other children he likes. He does not know what to do when an older or tougher or even smaller kid shoves him or shouts at him or when a roving band takes away his bicycle or his baseball bat (as did happen to him in the park in the city on successive days that first time I was away at the company convention in Puerto Rico; maybe that's why he still does not like me to go away anywhere in an airplane, although I would not have been there with him in the afternoon anyway to protect him and his bicycle and his baseball bat from that gang of Puerto Rican kids one day and Negro kids the next, so maybe it is not. Other parents, mothers, were there, and they couldn't. Everything is so much more confusing than it ought to be). On the other hand, he is capable of acts of great courage and emotional strength that leave my wife and me flabbergasted. (We compliment ourselves on these, too.) He will sit still and docile if a doctor or dentist tells him he is about to hurt him and submit without flinching (though white as a sheet, or sallow, and with the tips of his fingers trembling) to whatever he has been told has to be done to him. I will flinch for him. I feel dizzy and am compelled to look away in terror and nausea when his slim arm is bared by a doctor working speedily to inoculate him or take blood. I see on his face in a doctor's or dentist's office that same sickly pallor I recognize now from mornings when he has to face Forgione later in the gymnasium or give an oral report in one of his classes (the whole impression I have of his person when he looks this way is one of phlegm. His total substance is phlegm. But he is certainly not phlegmatic. Ha, ha).
"Why didn't you call us?" I asked. "Why didn't you tell us, instead of trying to come into our room? We thought you were just lonely. Why didn't you call me instead of just lying there and being scared? I would have sat with you. Or Mommy."
"You would have told me I was imagining it."
"You were imagining it."
"I hear animals too. That's why I didn't call you.")
There was that one unreal period when he began to believe that I was not really me!
(Who else I could be he was not able to say.)
He began to suspect that I was no longer really me but someone vicious masquerading as me who had penetrated his household disguised as me in order to trick him and take him away from me. (Was he goading me? He was too small.) It was not possible to disprove him; every denial, every reference to reason and fact was part of the deception. Of course I would say everything I did say if he was right. I only proved him right. I could not prove I was me.
"Why should I want to?" I asked. "Why should anybody want to?"
"I don't know."
"Why should I tell you I'm me if I'm not?"
"To trick me."
"Why would I want to do that?"
"To take me away."
"Mommy too. To get me."
"Why would we do that when we've already got you here with us now anyway, haven't we?"
"I don't know."
"Do you think we already did get you and took you away and brought you here?"
"I don't know."
"I guess we did do all that anyway, didn't we?"
"I don't know."
Now, at least, he does know I am me and feels a bit more secure about that. (Or else understands that it makes no difference, for, if I am not me, he has to adjust nonetheless to whoever else I am. He is in my clutches now, in either event, and must remain--no one will rescue him--until he grows old enough, if he survives, to go away. When my own tonsils were taken out I awoke in pain at night in a darkened hospital ward with no parents there and no nurses. Everything was dark. There was only darkness in that very strange place. I could make out forms. Nothing moved. And thirst. God--what thirst. I was racked with thirst. I felt I would die if nobody gave me water, and nobody did. Nothing was there, except the eerie outlines of other beds that might have been empty. Nobody came until morning. The night was endless. I knew it would never end.
"Give him water," a doctor with a brown and gray mustache barked crossly at the nurses in the morning. "Give him water."
That's the last I remember. They had forgotten.)
I think he believes me now, more readily than he used to, I think he feels a little bit more at home with us, I think he trusts me more. (At least he knows now that I am me, although neither one of us is all that positive who that me we know I am is.) I think he does trust me more now, for he is not as submissive and dependent as he always used to be and has confidence enough sometimes (in me? Or in himself?) to say no to me, to refuse to do or say something he is asked to, although he is still extremely cautious about tempting anyone's wrath. He will not always give me answers about himself to questions I ask. He has never shown anger to me or my wife and hardly ever to my daughter. Is it possible he has never felt it? No. What does he do with the anger he feels? Ventilates it in dreams. And I'll bet he has been saving a lot of it up too, the way other kids accumulate comic books or bubble-gum cards. I'll bet he must hate me at times. (I think I would hate him.) I know he baits me on occasion, but usually as a lark, when we are feeling good toward each other.
"I am going to give you something," he says to a kid in my presence, with a sidelong glance in my direction, "and you don't have to give me anything back. Okay?"
(I suppress an outraged and admiring snort. I cannot believe that this impertinent little rogue of mine will really do what I sense he's going to.) "What?" The other little boy is not sure he has understood.
"I am going to give you something," my boy repeats slowly, making certain I am attentive, "and you don't have to give me anything back. Okay? Something you want."
"What is it?"
Dubiously, the other boy nods.
"It's something you want."
And, to the other boy's astonishment, my boy pushes upon him the nickel he has just wheedled from me to buy more gum.
I am incredulous.
"Now, Daddy," he starts right in the instant we are alone, with his clenched hands on his hips and his head cocked to one side indignantly, in perfect imitation of me, then shakes a finger at me, again in extravagant mimicry, and launches into talk too rapid for me to interrupt. "I want you to behave and listen to me so you don't do or say anything to embarrass me here because you don't understand and I am the boss and I don't want you to and I will punish you if you do and punish you if you don't do what I want you to so you better not or I will smack you too and no television for a
week because I say so do you hear and is that clear? You're laughing!" he explodes with a grin. "I can see you're laughing, Daddy, and I don't want you to pretend you're not and make believe you're angry at what I did and then forget you're making believe and really get angry. You do that sometimes you know, Daddy. Don't you?"
"Are you finished?" I ask, with my hands still on my hips. "That's a mighty long speech for a little piss-ass like you who sometimes hardly talks at all."
"Are you mad?" he inquires uneasily.
"No, I'm glad. But do you think just because you made me laugh I'm going to let you get away with what you did?"
"It was mine."
"It was mine before I gave it to you."
"It was mine after you gave it to me. Don't embarrass me in public."