Issue 200, Spring 2012
Day after day I went through the paternal motions, testing my son while he tested me, trying to teach him not only to do what I said, which seems like a given, but also to see and taste the world in certain ways, with an ideal in mind, a purified vision of the best way to live reduced to a rudimentary, five-year-old version: good eye contact with others, a sustained gaze, not just looking, but giving an indication of having seen—a head nod—and maintained long enough to show respect and not too much fear. I wanted to be assured that he wouldn’t end up painfully shy. (He didn’t.) I feared he’d grow into one of those in-the-corner wallflower types, dainty and delicate, brooding, ponderous, sad as a young kid and then sullen when he hit the teenage years and then, as an adult, deeply depressed. (He didn’t.) I wanted him to open up to what was before him. So, I suppose, part of me—in the yard that afternoon, as I followed him up the hill—was happy that he was resisting my commands and remained slightly beyond reach. While of course, another part of me was ready to pounce on him as soon as he turned at the top and headed down to the retaining wall again.
You’re in the chair little man, right now, get inside quick, the chair is waiting!
I prefer a gentle pushing against my will—I was thinking in the yard that afternoon, as I got near the top of the hill. By the time I got to the top, he had turned and was jogging slowly north toward the Thompsons’ Scotch pines—the hiss, the high-up touch of wind in the crowns. Then he made a tight loop, wobbly with his legs in his jeans, with the cuffs rolled up, and his coat flapping (he refused to zip up, but I let that go), and, after glancing back at me, he pumped his arms up and down and screeched.
To my right, the river beyond the wall stretched at least three miles across, with the ebb tide and the flood tide meeting in the center to form a sheen of calm. The autumnal brown and gold leaves on the Westchester side threw long reflections that blended with the sky. Ah, glorious, I thought. Ah, a lovely and perfect fall afternoon. The sublime nature of taking care of my boy on one more bygone day. There was a deep, submerged loneliness in my chest as I stood feeling the wind, which was lifting, growing firmer and stronger from the north, bringing with it the first hints of winter—along with the sound of the birds, who had flown deeper into the Thompsons’ trees. Oh the beauty of knowing that on that day I’d instruct the boy on how to listen carefully and establish proper eye contact, and on holding his little wee-wee straight when he peed into the bowl, and how to hold his fork and to take care with his chewing. Part of the glory of the moment, I think I thought, was in the pristine clarity of the innumerable potential teaching moments—Christ, I still despise that phrase!—that would bloom in the next few hours, as the light waned and the wind continued to lift and the remaining leaves twisted loose from their stems and were brushed away, skittering across the lawn, lying there, waiting to be blown away by the crew who would arrive midmorning on Saturday, four or five men, and lean down into the roar as their earmuffs snuffed them into a different kind of solitude. Evening would fall, and the lights on the bridge and across the river would throw themselves onto the surface of the water, appearing one by one as the sky faded, and then, safely inside the house, I’d look out the window and feel the fantastic unleashing of the pure, frank wistfulness that used to come to me at that time of day, and I’d feel, ahead, the future in one form or another, without which I could not endure the task. At some point in the future we’d be alone in the house and Gunner would be off at college, or married, and days like that would be sucked into a vortex—what other way to think of it?—of retrospect, with just a few memories of day-to-day tending: car-seat buckling, food feeding, punctuated by more pointed memories of trauma: stitches in his brow (lacrosse), asthma attack (holding him through the night, his tiny chest heaving against my palm), his separation problems at the preschool (me in the window watching him clutch hold of the old, scratched-up piano bench, his mouth wide open in a scream, his face bright red and shiny). It was only with that sense that I could survive those moments, I think I thought.
Reaching the top of the yard, I became aware—in a kind of intuitive parenthood tracking mode—that I’d already given him one warning and release and another solid warning. It’s possible, I think I thought, that in the pleasure of running downhill, he had forgotten my first warning, which he never really let sink in, distracted by the sound of the birds in the trees (because he had turned to look at them), so that the second warning came to him as a first warning of sorts. I jogged behind him and kept the shadow/father distance and gave him space to decide what to do, wondering again if he’d just weave partway down, having absorbed my warning and then my second warning, which in theory nullified the first warning and showed my hypocrisy at not simply drawing the line and taking him inside, but figuring that another chance was warranted because it was possible that in his delight he simply forgot that first warning, but, on the other hand, I think I thought, this time he has at least two warnings echoing in his head, and so I held back on shouting to him again: If you run too close to the wall, it’s the chair. Instead, I stayed quiet and thought about how just that morning I had gone down and looked out the window at the river and thought it was strange that in the last two weeks Sharon had come home late each night, arriving after dinner, appearing in the driveway with perfectly fine excuses, saying the train was late, or there was traffic on the bridge. (Did she not know that I could see the bridge and the traffic, and looked at it in a habitual manner most days, glancing over there when I went down to the shore to examine the wall, worrying over the fact that it was crumbling, wondering how much weight the grass and sod and soil made pushing against the structure while, at the same time, worrying over the potential cost of repair, imagining the mason digging it all out, building some kind of temporary support wall, laying new rebar, framing it up, and then somehow getting a cement truck—Concrete, Sharon corrected me when I verbalized my worry one night. Not cement, it’s concrete—down into the yard?) Other excuses she gave included irate clients, or long-winded partner conferences she had to attend because she was hell-bent on making partner as soon as possible. I’m hugely aware, I said, of the weird feeling I have about you and your work in relation to me and my position here as at-home caregiver, and sometimes I have to admit, I sit at the window and follow you to work in my imagination. Now don’t get me wrong, I cherish this time with Gunner and I’m happy to be doing this, but, still, I feel strange about it at times, I said, while she pursed her lips and fixed me with her gaze, which included really fine, deep, dark, big eyes in a face that was smooth with lean cheekbones and a fine, fine nose. A fucking Helen of Troy face, I used to think. The kind of face that would start a war if you let it. And it did, eventually. I’d like to start a war, I used to think, seeing her face. I want to start something big and historic in her name. I want a monument to be built in honor of the torment her face creates in my fellow men. (I think I sensed—those mornings of window gazing—that she was being sucked into Manhattan. The pull of it was apparent to me in the jaunt, the sway of her hips as she skipped out to the car each morning. It appeared in the way she held her chin softly in her fingers, playing them out in a thoughtful manner as she listened to me describe my day while a slight—albeit graceful—incomprehension filled her eyes. All that beauty gave her a density that was prone to the pull of the city, I thought, I think.) Those mornings, with Gunner upstairs asleep—the soft sea-hiss snooze of his breath coming through the baby monitor—I sometimes had that deep, sensual foreboding that came when I thought too much about the short term and the way Gunner’s days, still fresh and new, his life just starting, stood logarithmically in relation to my own thirty years. A day was one small fragment of my life, and a day for him was a much larger piece of the pie. One day now is a big hunk of his five years on earth, I used to think, I think.
On those mornings, with my cheek against the glass, I imagined the soft rub of her attaché against her leg as she waited on the station platform, filled with a communal sensation of being in on a secret—a united sense of waiting to head to a common destination, and then on the train, with the attaché at her feet, the prim way she’d hold the paper, while over her shoulder old boat yards—bright blue tarps—and track detritus roared past and the river itself stayed calm and passive, blue on one day, gray on another. At the window, I anticipated the solitude of the upcoming day with Gunner for company, maybe some playtime with another kid and his mother, who would stand awkwardly as the erotic charge failed to form between us, and because of that fact we’d feel even more awkward, aware that it should form, if not a spark then at least a slight vibration of some sort as we watched and, on occasion, shouted instructive bits of information: Be careful now, not so hard, be nice, share, be good, Gunner, let her play with that. Annie, come over here and let me tie your shoe, not so hard. Or larger, more philosophical comments that covered the gamut from sharing to being kind to each other to the way the trees look against the sky, always pointing things out as a way to teach looking, to make sure they were seeing, and then, other times, encouraging them to find deeply imaginative modes—this happened mostly with a mother named Grace, who would instruct the kids to imagine elaborate pizza parlors, saying, Why don’t you cook some pizzas for me and Mr. Allison (Call me Bob, I’d say, please call me Bob) . . .
. . . again, at the window those mornings I felt the power of the city—all that culture and commerce compacted, hemmed in on all sides by water, held in to create a force powerful enough to radiate out all the way to our house, to the plot of land and the town itself, which, I imagined, was just at the edge of the force field, catching the last bits of energy before it was absorbed by the parkland to the north, the heavy stone palisades and trees on my side of the river, and, on the other side, the wide-open land and dirt roads and split-rail fences and horse stables and large estates in northern Westchester. (The field slides further up on that side of the river, I thought at the window. There are fewer obstructions to dull its power over on that side.) At the window, I imagined Sharon entering her firm’s building near Forty-second Street, the glossy lobby with the security man up front watching as she swiped her card and the glass partition zipped neatly open and she felt a grandness that came from her ability to pass through, while behind her messengers and visitors waited to sign in at the desk, looking somewhat distracted, holding on their faces the placid perplexity of the scrutinized, some part of them worrying the idea that a day might come when suddenly, on a big delivery or an important appointment, they’d be denied entry.
During those morning window sessions, I imagined Sharon as she entered a loaded elevator with her colleagues and felt that New York elevator pride that comes with squeezing close without annoyance, moving up into a money-making venture of some sort, lifted into the coffee smell of the office space, the brief hello at the reception desk . . . I imagined . . . the lovely entanglement in a web of selfsame need, risk, and obligation. Behind me in the kitchen the coffee maker burbled and coughed.
We’re riding on an apex, I thought standing in the yard that day, I think. We’re on a pivot. On one side is her career and her lively step out the door, while on the other is this deep solitude, with the birds still chirping madly, startling each other into a frenzy of noise, each one simply responding to the others and the others responding in kind. The afternoon light was starting to wane slightly over the water, catching riffles far out as the smooth, wide, glossy patch near the center began to swirl itself away and waves worked themselves in, lapping the retaining wall. Then the birds seized up for a second, turned themselves into a fury of flapping, papery in nature, like long skeins of tissue being shaken out. I noticed all that as I turned to look at Gunner again. It’s not that I feel sorry for myself in any way, because I cherish these moments with my boy, delight in being with him. I relish the line I have to walk between being loving and soft and coddling one second and, the next, having to reestablish my command, or, better yet, my guidance—a towering figure in his little mind—over his development at that particular point in time, I was thinking, I think. Love isn’t in the actual grab and heft of body when he comes out of school and runs into my arms, crying with glee. No. Love is the moment just as he comes out of the schoolhouse door, standing amid his friends, and searches for my eyes. Love is in the second he sees me, and I see him, dressed in one of his outrageous outfits, bright startling coats, weird hats, drooping strange pants (because we took delight in taking advantage of the fact that at that stage he had no idea what he was wearing, no sense of having to fit in, and we could get him dolled up—Sharon’s words—as cute as a button). That’s what love is, I thought each time I went to the school to pick him up. Then, as I lifted him and felt his weight, the purity of the moment vanished and I would smell the stale, tart odor under his collar while he smelled, I suppose, the smoke and coffee on my breath and something else that later, at some point, perhaps even in memory, he would recognize as the first hints of decay.
The birds flew over the water and got about a quarter of the way across the river and then, suddenly, swooped in a wide arc back around toward the Thompsons’ trees again, catching up with each other in a teardrop, diverting me from Gunner, who, when he caught my attention again, was striking straight for the wall and the water. His tiny, shrill cries mixed with the wind. In the compressed intensity of the moment, the birds were gone. The tide had shifted, heading down toward the city.
You’re getting the chair, I said, stop. No more warnings, I yelled as I charged down the hill. He was way ahead of me, of course, and in a moment he’d be at the wall and starting—naturally—his tiptoe tightrope walk along the structure, testing his own sense of balance and fear as it relates to the drop and the water below. (In the summer I’d lower him down to the beach, feeling his shoulder and joints and tiny chest at the tip of my fingers. Then we’d sit on an old pickle bucket and fish.) In a moment he’d be looking back at me, I was thinking, the wind in my hair, feeling, as I moved, a good, manly sense of dominion over everything. This is mine, I was thinking, I think. This is my chance at glory of a sort, perhaps I was thinking. I don’t remember. But he was at the wall, wobbling along, and then he tumbled backward, throwing his arms up in the air.