Saturday, January 31, 2009

The Pinata

As a child his peers seemed to regard him as an acquaintance at best and lacked the basic civility that is a prerequisite of friendship. He was more of a sycophant than a friend and often they treated him with animus. Sometimes their cruelty was gentle. On more than one occasion his “friends” had offered him candy, toys, and even money to go home and let them be. Other times, there was nothing gentle about it at all.  

One day when Ren was nine years old he was passing time with a neighborhood boy he considered one of his better friends, Christopher, or Chris as he was called back then. They'd had sleepovers, shared trite, youthful secrets, and their mothers, especially Ren's mother, seemed to take a particular pride in their friendship. She could often be heard telling people, including Chris' mother things like

"You know Chris is just so pleasant. He is one of Ren's best friends and it is just so wonderful to see them play." The neighborhood was nestled amongst large oaks and pines. Chris' father had recently built him a tree house with a ladder to get up and a rope-swing to get down. The fort was the envy of all the neighborhood kids.

The afternoon was crisp, cool in the shade, warm in the sun. Ren had spent the night and they'd spent most of the morning digging up the yard for some sort of magical river they had divined in their imagination. When Chris' father came outside he was incensed at the series of trenches that had been ripped through the half-acre landscape.  

“I spent two days building you that fucking tree house and what do you do? You dig up the whole goddamn yard! That's the 'thanks' I get uh?" He proceeded with a vituperative scolding that did not stop at his initial grievance but continued into a captious laundry list of shortcomings. To his father this was but a symptom of a much bigger disease: Chris' inherent idiocy and thoughtlessness. Within a minute of the diatribe, something inside Chris had died. He fell silent in embarrassment and shame. The light in his eyes dimmed as the curtains of his imagination closed.  

Chris walked crestfallen towards the tree, climbed up the ladder and sat up there feeling small. Unfamiliar emotions slithered through him. Poison was being manufactured in his heart. Following suit Ren climbed up the ladder without a word, took the rope swing between his legs and lept from the platform without a word. As he swung back he could see Chris climbing down the ladder and as he swung out a second time he saw Chris on the ground looking upwards with a long, sturdy stick in hand. His eyes had a focused determination as they locked onto Ren's swing the way a cat's eyes lock onto a bird's flight. The quiet air felt heavy like it was hinting at suffocation. Ren suddenly felt uneasy and confused. He swung silently though, as boys do not have words for such feelings. As he approached the nadir of his second swing out, he felt his inertia met with blunt force. Time slowed. He was bewildered wondering what he had hit. A murder of crows bolted outward and upward from the tree as if to avoid the same fate.  

When Ren's swing approached the far end of it's pendulum the pain and the horror began to set in. There below was Chris, stick in hand, readying for another strike. Ren's body swooped down and met the stick with its full velocity. As the rope lost momentum the swings lost their rise, setting him up to be an even easier target. But he was still moving too fast and too high to jump and so for a third, fourth, and fifth time he was beaten. Amongst the truculence oak leaves fell softly to the ground.  

Ren could hear the stick breaking the wind and he could hear the solid smack it made against his small, proud body, the percussion of violence that he would never forget. It was the sound of betrayal, of anger wrapped in friendship. This was the sharp painful contrast of being loved and being hurt by one single source.  Ren's clear, blue eyes welled up with tears. His beautiful long eyelashes yielded to the weight of his sorrow. Ren was speechless and oddly so was Chris. Finally, Ren's heart broke open spilling sour and bitter candy.

Memory is a Funny Thing: A Memoir of Masculinities in Reaganite Suburbia

It is a fact, but nonetheless has the quality of a rumor- something heard but never seen, known but not understood. The fact is this: my father has cried twice since I was born, 31 years ago. If there were other times only he is aware of them. I know of these two times only from the testimony of my mother who speaks about it only to trusted company as if she was the lone witness to some secret government experiment, as if to speak of it could be dangerous. My mother found herself the third angle of an obtuse triangulation. She stood between my proud father and I, his pugnacious progeny. She was the peace broker and thus bore the brunt of both of our own selfish tragedies.

The first time in my life that he cried was on the night before I went to school wearing my mother's concealer make-up. It was1982 and I was seven. A lot happened that year. My father’s father died after forgetting who everybody around him was - everybody, even his wife and his kids. My father’s brother currently suffers the same fate of forgetting, and so too might my father, so too might I. My mother, a nurse-in-training at the time, sat alone with my grandfather as he died. She knew death was close. In high school she had been a poet and her mother had been a closeted artist. So, using her words, my mother painted him a picture to die by. She described the lake house in Wisconsin that he owned. I have only a few faint memories there, but it was his personal Shangri-La. It was there that he smoked his pipe, went fishing, and loved his wife. It was also there that he watched his son, my father, do hotshot fly-bys with a plane owned by the United States Marine Corp. That was about 1961 and in a matter of months my father would stand at attention on an aircraft carrier for 12 hours next to that same plane. He was waiting, like the rest of the country, to see if Cuba and the U.S. were going to start a nuclear war. It may have been one of his proudest moments. History is complicated after all.

So, my mother described a lake, a boat, a sunset, and all the people who had joined my grandfather there. The doctors had been wrong about one thing. Yes, he was going to die, but he would not die without a memory. At that moment, this man who didn’t recognize his own son, much less his son’s wife, shed one tear. He probably couldn’t tell the difference between the picture my mother was painting and heaven, and truly, there may have been no difference at all.
I do sometimes wonder if that was the first time my grandfather ever cried. Even that night, my own father did not cry. However, he was not unaffected. One week later, whatever rivers of rage or sorrow that had been dammed up inside found themselves a chink. Stone and water rushed through the night with destructive abandon. I don’t remember the details of the argument we had that night. I don’t remember how it started, how it proceeded or how it ended. I don’t even remember his hand slapping my face. I remember my parents being alone in their bedroom afterwards and me, lachrymose and abandoned. According to my mother however, I was not alone in my tears.

In that house there was this gigantic brown chair that I loved to sink my small body into when watching television. After their time alone in the bedroom he came out and was noticeably calmer. He asked me to sit with him in that chair. I sat on his lap and he wrapped his arms around me. I remember this more like a photograph, without sound and without motion. The next morning my mother put her beige make-up over the fingerprints on my cheeks.
The other big event of 1982 was that my mother, finally pregnant after months of not conceiving, miscarried. I was the first to know that I had a sibling on the way, and the last to know that this little cosmic package had been marked “return to sender”. I remember very little about that event. One moment comes to mind however: at seven years old it was still my ritual to wake up, get dressed, and find my parents. I could see the glow of the bathroom light in their bedroom. I approached, eager to see whichever parent was in there. My mom, still in her nightgown, was on the toilet hunched over, her face red-hot with tears. Again, I remember this more like a photograph- without sound, without motion. Somehow, I later connected that scene with her loss, with our loss.

Eleven years later I found out that this was not just a sad fluke but a more permanent condition on my mother’s part. The way I found out was a tragedy too. I needed socks. All I wanted was a pair of socks and each and every pair of mine were dirty. My father would surely have some socks I could wear. Having just returned home from a flight, his clothes were still packed. I shuffled through one bag and found not just socks, but also a pack of condoms. A few weeks later I found my mother again bent over, her face red-hot with tears. This time she was not pissing out a fetus. She had angry suspicions and was beside herself with heartache. For reasons I still cannot understand, I involved myself. I told her about the socks, and the condoms. She became oddly calm and said only this: “Well, that settles it- we haven’t needed to use condoms in over eleven years”.

The second time in my life that my father cried was shortly after his mother died. I was in Mexico with a woman who I thought I knew, but barely knew. So it goes with young love. My grandmother, like her husband before her, also forgot who everyone was during the years proceeding her death. She however was apparently not satisfied with just losing memories, she created new ones too. One night, for example, she called her neighbor saying that men were robbing her. No evidence could be found that this was true. So off to the nursing home she went. A year passed and then we both got ready for our trips. I was going to Mexico and she was going to heaven. I think she had a better time but we still haven't talked or traded photographs. I wasn't with her in the moment she died as my mother had been for my grandfather. However, I was there very near the end. I knew this would be the last time I’d see her with any lightening at all in her brain. So, I told her what any grandson should tell his grandmother: that she was wonderful and caring, that she spoiled me silly and I loved her for it, that I was glad she had been my grandmother and glad she had raised my father… and probably some more true things that I don’t now remember. And guess what? Despite no longer knowing my name, she cried one tear too. I wrote down what I had told her in the hospital room and decorated it with a bit more eloquence and fact. This was her eulogy, to be read by my father at her funeral. So about two weeks later, while I was climbing the pyramids of my girlfriend’s ancestors, my father read my farewell, bit-by-bit, tears sneaking out between each sentence.
My mother has since read this story and her only response is, in a sad, hopeless tone, "memory is a funny thing". The implication was that she does not remember these events in the same way that I do. Maybe my grandfather did not cry on his deathbed. Maybe the Cuban missile crisis wasn’t my father's proudest moment and maybe he did cry more than just two times in the last 31 years. Again, this is only what I have heard but not seen, known but not understood. And yet, I still find it fit to call fact, at least in the mythology of my own life. What a subjective world we live in.