Something Happened 30
with consternation; his face is like a crossword puzzle; he cannot understand what he has just done, simply by offering cookies, to cost him a friend and make for himself a young, new enemy who wishes to injure him. He looks about wanly in pleading confusion and tries to smile.
(I don't like cops.)
(Except when they're around to protect me.)
I do not talk about any of this even to my wife, who, as she grows more lonely, old, and disappointed, is turning, like her sister, into a sour conservative who is opposed to happiness. (She is going to vote reactionary this year. I won't talk politics with her. I don't care how she votes.) I keep my own counsel and drift speechlessly with my crowd. I float.
I float like algae in a colony of green scum, while my wife and I grow old, my daughter grows older and more dissatisfied with herself and with me (I see other girls her age who seem perfectly fine. Some are prettier. Others act more sure of themselves. At least they are doing some of the things she says she'd like to do, including getting laid, but never even tries. And get better grades. What do I care what grades she gets? I do. And I have to pretend I care very much, otherwise she will feel I am not interested in her at all), and my little boy grows up tortured and puzzled, uncertain who, beside himself, he is supposed to be (or who, if he thinks like I do, himself even is. Go find him. Go find me. Lost somewhere deep inside his small self already is the smaller boy he used to be, the original article. Or is there? If that is not so, if there is no vanished and irretrievable little me and him so starkly different from what each of us since has been forced to become, if there is no wandering, desolate lost little being I yearn for and started from so far back in my history who took a sudden, inevitable lurch into some inaccessible black recess at a moment when I must have been staring the other way, for I am unable to pinpoint the moment, and left me disoriented all by myself to continue willynilly on my own--then how the fuck did I ever get here? Somebody pushed me. Somebody must have set me off in this direction, and clusters of other hands must have touched themselves to the controls at various times, for I would not have picked this way for the world. He has never been found. Lost: one child, age unknown, goes by the name of me. And I can't keep looking back for sight of him to ask him hopefully where did you go and what did you mean. He would be too young still even to know what I was talking about--he was just a kid when he left me, he is younger than my own child--let alone succor me with the wise, experienced knowledge I need from him. What will I talk about to so many of those lined, ruddy faces with bloodshot, puffy eyes if Green does permit me to make my three-minute speech in Puerto Rico this year? I'll need jokes, quick jokes--ha, ha, ha--a few at the beginning and a very good one at the end, ha, ha, and all in only three minutes. We might just as well float like algae in colonies of green scum for as long as the tides will continue to carry us, and when they no longer support us, then what?) or which of the many dangers he pictures are real and which are merely hideous and fantastic daydreams. (Drowning is real. Being plucked from bed by a hook from an opening in the sky while lying helplessly asleep is not.) They are more than merely daydreams; they flood his consciousness at night in the darkness when we think he is asleep. Leaving a night light on makes no difference. It is impossible for us ever to know with certainty whether he is asleep or awake. If we peek in on him to check, he will often pretend to be asleep in order to avoid having us criticize him for being awake. I feel, without any real cause for believing so, that he always hears my wife and me make love or at least knows when we have done so. My daughter, at least, makes sure we hear her when she is up. She runs water or plays records or barges in on us without knocking to settle something once and for all. Not him. He is stealthy. I used to want to rumple my daughter's hair too, pat her head affectionately or touch or kiss her cheek or throw a hugging arm around her shoulders, but she began to shrink away from me as she grew up, kidding at first, I thought, and I would always pretend to be hurt. And then those times came when I began to comprehend that she was no longer kidding, and I no longer had to pretend I was really hurt. I really was hurt--and now I pretend I am not. Something took place, I felt, that made me awful to her, incited her disapproval and inspired her to overlook no opportunity to show it. There were times I felt she was after me in revenge. I don't know what it was I did or didn't do, and I still don't know what to do about it or even if there's anything I ought to try. Soon she'll be away at college. I feel awkward when I have to touch her. She recoils from me, as though the tiniest physical contact with me would disgust her, or flinches, as though I were going to inflict pain. I never hit her! The most I have ever done, the most I ever do now, is shove her roughly in the shoulder when I have to. The most my wife ever does is start to slap her face when they're fighting, but makes her motion slowly enough to enable my daughter to block or avoid the blow; my daughter can inflame my wife to such anger almost at will and then reduce her to hysterical, muddled weeping. I am always stricken with bewilderment for a moment by my daughter's unexpected flashes of alarm. I am always contrite and flooded with such immense guilt and shame because my daughter thinks instinctively that I intend to hit her--or reacts as though she does. Is she waiting tensely, has she been waiting tensely all these years, for some tremendous blow from us? Does she honestly believe, when I flick my hand out to brush a loose eyelash from her cheek or a crumb of food, that I intend to hit her in the face? Or is she, as I frequently surmise now (perhaps irrationally), merely pretending, consciously and diabolically simulating such terror because she understands how keenly it shocks and saddens me? She is cunning enough for all of that, I think. It runs in the family: she gets it from me: don't I sometimes let my wife suffer through her strangling, moaning nightmares now by making no effort to rouse her from them? And glory in my advantageous position as I watch and listen? Don't I often exaggerate the agony of my own horrible dreams and feign to be more deeply entrapped in them than I am in order to make her labor longer, harder, and more compassionately to wake me from them? I do not understand my daughter any longer and I cannot cope with her successfully or make it possible for her to cope with me. So I try not to try. I wait, and hope for things to run their course. I do not understand my son, either. He is too young to be so magnanimous. He gave cookies away also. That was also the summer he tried to give cookies away to another kid and almost got a punch in the nose in return.
"Here, yon can have a cookie," he said to the little boy who had dropped in to the summer house we had rented to play with him while we were all still having breakfast.
The boy gulped it down in a twinkling. Then the boy gazed hungrily at the remaining round chocolate cookie, which my boy was rolling about contemplatively on the tablecloth as he dawdled over his glass of milk. With a flicker of surprised recognition, my boy took note of the hungering stare.
"You can have this one too," he offers. "Here."
The boy stiffens as though offended and pulls back with a look of hostility. Suddenly, to my own amazement, he is enraged and befuddled and shakes his head in vigorous resentment.
"What do you mean?" he demands.
"Why? Don't you want it?" My boy pushes it part way across the table to him.
"You had it in your mouth."
"No, I didn't."
"It fell on the floor."
"No." My boy is taken aback and sounds defensive and apologetic. (He looks like he's lying.) "It's dirty," the other boy accuses.
"It isn't. I'm not lying. You don't have to take it."
"Why don't you want it?"
"Because you want it. Don't you? I had some."
The other boy is furious, too flustered anymore to trust himself to speak, and his face turns fiery as he sits there in hatred and continues shaking his head adamantly. My boy whitens. The fists of the other boy are clenched and raised, and he is ready to fight; but I am there, sitting forbiddingly (ready to fight too, I feel. If he tries to hit my boy, I believe I will take his arm and break it). He sputters in tonguetied, gagging wrath, shoves the second cookie roughly back across the table so it falls over the edge, and gallops out of our house, his mouth writhing and his downcast eyes almost spilling over with steaming tears of bellicose frustration. He feels, somehow, that he has been made a fool of. My little boy is blank
"You can't give things away, not so generously," I explain for him, with a weak, sympathizing smile.
"Why?" he asks.
I shrug. "I don't know. People get suspicious."
"I don't like bugs," he complains. "I don't like it here. Do we have to spend the whole summer?"
"We do. I don't like it here either."
"You go to the city."
"I have to. I'm glad we didn't send you away to camp. I'm glad you're here when I come out."
That was also the summer in which my boy was having a difficult time of it (my boy has always been having a difficult time of it, it seems, and my wife and I are finding it more and more fatiguing) in the play group in which we enrolled him to insure that he would have fun and much to do with other kids during the day. At the beginning, he was very happy there and eager to go. He was astonished and overjoyed to find himself among so many other boys his own age whom he considered his friends. Boisterously and proudly, he would point them out to us when he came upon them on the boardwalk at night or at the beach or in different parts of town.
"That's my friend," he would announce with elation. "That's my friend. I know him. I know him from play group. That's my friend also." Sometimes he would wave and they would rush to greet each other or they would bump shoulders wordlessly in recognition as they passed. "That's my friend also from play group," he would continue every time. "That's my friend too. He's older."
He took so much pleasure in having them, as though he had never before conceived it possible that he could be on sociable terms with so many people. He was radiant when any came to the house looking for him; he would entice them inside to show them off.
("This is my friend," he would say. "These are my friends."
My daughter was that way too when she was little, still is with boys, but much more subtle and blase in the manner in which she takes pains to let us see or find out about a boy she wants us to think is interested in her. I wonder what in the world my wife and I ever did to our children to make them believe we thought they would never be able to make friends. I'm not sure anymore that we did anything, that all of it is our fault.) It was almost as though he could not contain quietly all the intense happiness he was experiencing.
It did not last. It ended early for him. Things soon began happening at that play group to disquiet him, and before long he was as reluctant to go there as he is now to go to gym and Forgione. He welcomed the foot races and the guessing games and play-skits indoors on rainy days; but there was rope climbing there too (but only for the older boys, we were able to find out) and a trampoline in view that he was leery of (so was I. And so was my wife. I don't know what my boy thought because I did not want to generate any apprehension in him by asking, but I know what I thought: I was afraid he might go bouncing up all the way to the surface of the moon, bump his head, and come bouncing back down to that trampoline on the back of his neck with his spine broken and both his legs and arms paralyzed--I just did not want him to have to try it), and far in advance he was tormented by the deep-water swimming test he was told all the boys in his age group would have to pass before the summer was over and be given lessons to pass. (He didn't even want the lessons. There were also constant rumors of jellyfish in the water, and sea lice and horseshoe crabs.) There were rumors of boxing bouts and wrestling matches; he spied a pair of boxing gloves on a hook in a shed and believed he would have to fight (although there never was any boxing or wrestling. There never was anything dangerous there for the children. It was a good day camp, I guess, as far as good day camps go, but I soon found myself detesting it because my boy began having difficulties there). New games were introduced quickly that my boy did not understand and other children from previous years there did, and no one, not the counselors or any of his friends in the play group, took sufficient time to explain or was tolerant and considerate of his blunders when he made them. He was too shy to ask any question more than once, even when the reply he received was incomprehensible or incomplete; he was doing things wrong consistently. The counselors were busy flirting with each other. (That old stewing concupiscence was germinating hotly there too. The girls wore knitted T-shirts; many wore no bras, and even the tiny-titted ones looked good. It's so much sweeter when you're young, so much hotter, so much more fun. I wish I had that frenetic heat back now instead of this sluggish, processed lust I put myself through and frequently have to make a laborious effort to enjoy.) I hardly blamed them, although I blamed them like hell at the time when their negligence affected my own boy. (I remember my own scalding, urgent drives and fits for two summers in the woods as a camp counselor near a camp with girl counselors just across the lake. There were many activities the two camps did together. I really didn't give a fuck about the welfare or development of any of the kids, so long as they didn't drown, get scarlet fever or polio, or kill each other with ropes or rocks. All I had my entire soul concentrated on for most of those summers was reaching some bold and naughty juicy slut of an experienced girl from town or the other camp who would meet me on the ground in the woods and make me come fast. So I wouldn't have to do it myself. Oh, how I always wanted to come. I used to enjoy doing it to myself in those days as much as I enjoyed it any other way.) He felt himself sinking steadily into disgrace. He was less and less able to figure out what to do. He faked limps at play group in order to be excused from activities he was not utterly positive he understood and began complaining at home at breakfast of nausea and sore throats. (It was like it is at school now. There was no beginning, it seems, and there might be no end.) One morning he retched and seemed to throw up the very little he had eaten because he did not want to go. We took his temperature, and he had no fever. We made him go. (It was wrong of us to make him go. I know that now, and everybody we talk to about it says it was wrong. But nobody has been able to tell me what would have been right.) I wandered by there secretly later that day to observe him, and I was jubilant at what I saw. It was a relay race, and he was ten yards ahead, my joyous little boy (I was so proud to spy him), carrying a heavy medicine ball in his arms that he had to deliver to the next runner on his team. He was laughing; his giggles rang out clearly over everything; he was laughing so hard as he ran that he was faltering in his stride, and his knees wobbled and buckled; he was reeling with greater and greater outpourings of laughter and soon staggering and almost falling, doubled over with his deep, choking blasts of irrepressible merriment, as he leaped and stumbled and lumbered and galloped through the sand, slowing down steadily, intentionally, it appeared, for he was motioning heartily to the fat, wheezing, unhappy little boy he was racing against on the other team to hurry and catch up, so they could laugh together and run the rest of the way side by side, as though he had something funny he wished to reveal to him before they got there.
My boy was still laughing (his face and teeth and mouth were all gleaming) when he handed the medicine ball off to the next boy on his team, who, instead of running, flung it back at his feet, and a whole surly gang of enraged people, it seemed, including some of those tall, sun-tanned counselors in white T-shirts, descended upon him like ferocious animals and began screaming and swearing at him. (A few were soon screaming at each other and shoving. My heart stopped and I was frozen to the spot. I could not believe it.) It was a mob scene. My boy was aghast. He did not know how he had sinned. He did not know what to do. As he stood there dumbfounded, twisting grotesquely in bewilderment, a bigger, broad-shouldered boy with black hair and a furious face charged up to him out of the swirl of others like a bull gone berserk and rammed him viciously in the chest with the hardened heels of both hands. My boy fell back a few steps (his knees were buckling again), turned white as a sheet (Oh, God, I thought--he's going
to vomit, or faint. Or cry. And make me ashamed), and waited limply. He did nothing else. He stood there. He did not speak or protest, or cast his eyes about. He did not even lift his arms to protect himself or hit back as the other boys made ready to run at him again; but he did not look as though he intended to flee or beg for help. (I shuddered and thought that I might puke.) The other boy rushed forward again and slammed my boy in the chest with his open hands, then stood daringly with his fist poised high in an open challenge to my boy to begin fighting back. Again my boy staggered backward a few steps from the force, recovered his balance, and just waited. He would not fight back; he would not defend himself; but he would not run away, and he would not ask anyone for aid or pity. That much seemed clear; there was defiance in his stillness. For a fleeting instant, I was enthralled by the dignity and courage I sensed he was showing just by holding his ground and waiting for the next battering charge. He would not move to save himself. (I do not move to save myself.) For a second, I could actually make myself feel proud. But that wasn't enough. I wanted him to have more guts. (I wish I had more guts.) I heard myself rooting for him to strike back.
"Move, you dope!" I pleaded to myself. "Why don't you move, you dope!"
And then, with a numbing, devastating shock that made my head feel faint, I saw that his eyes were red and swollen and brimming with tears and that his lips were bloodless as ashes and quivering. And then I understood why he did not move: he could not move. He was paralyzed. He was devoid of all power and ability to act or think. He could not even panic. He did not move because he could not move. He did not speak because he could not speak. He did not hit back because he could not hit back. He did not cry out or cast his gaze about for help because he couldn't: the thought was not there. He had no voice. Here was that bad dream of mine coming to life. Here was onrushing death and degradation bearing down upon him once more in the senseless, stupid action of a little, slightly sturdier boy (looming suddenly in this situation as large as a giant) whom my boy recently tried to give two chocolate cookies to (it was the same one. Or maybe it wasn't) and he could not move (neither could I) to avert it or mouth the words necessary to call attention to it and release himself from that lifelong, terrifying nightmare of mine. (I am there, and someone can get me--I am dead already because I cannot free my feet or yell for help--I am speechless too--although I feel I want to.) He was affixed. He was frozen to his spot too (as I was frozen to mine). He was fossilized, flat, brittle, and destructible. He was already dead if anyone wanted to kill him. One of the play group counselors (in slow motion, it looked to me) intervened just then to save him (two counselors, actually, the second a chunky blond girl with big breasts. Breasts seem to be growing bigger and bouncier on young girls these days. They seem to be growing them bigger on older girls too and middle-aged women. In summer, the beaches hang with them. I like breasts, until I begin to see so much of so many of them. I used to like them more) and get things going again, and I realized I'd been holding my breath just about all the time and that all my muscles were tensed for violence (and arrested by the urge to use them). I realized that if that other little boy, whom I already hated, had charged at my little boy one more time, I might have lost control and stormed into that children's play area like someone roaring and insane and smitten him dead right then and there. (Or else, in a reaction away from that impulse, I would have murdered my boy.) If I found that I was able to move myself at all. (I will never know if I was petrified too.) I left when they were all playing again.