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Grown-Up Words

By Bethany Cox

Essay

blackboard-thinking-of-love

His name was Jeremiah and he was in my preschool class. He was five years old, tall for his age. His parents were divorced and he had an older brother, which meant he knew words like ass and hell. Once he accused me of saying the f word during story time.

“I said fox, Jeremiah.”

“It sure sounded like fuck,” he countered.

My finger pushes into the number two hole of the round dial on the wall telephone that hangs in the kitchen. I have to stand on this chair to reach it. Sometimes when I pick up the receiver I hear my neighbor talking. My mom says I have to hang up when that happens, but I don’t always do that. I listen because I hope I will hear a secret.

When Secretary Sebelius says that Plan B could pose health risks for teens, is she really thinking straight?  After all, Dr. Megan Evans, in RH Reality Check, writes, “Tylenol is over-the-counter and far more dangerous with far more potential for adverse outcomes. Oh, and pregnancy in a ten- to 11-year-olds also has far more adverse outcomes than a small, but effective dose of Plan B.”  Wise words.  In fact, according to the Guardian, for every 100,000 American women who give birth to live babies, 16.7 of them die.  And that’s not to mention the damage that post-natal depression can cause.

Evans’s grounded, intelligent point will doubtless be ignored by many.  Witness that since news of the Plan B decision broke, parents have been stating how brokenhearted they’d be if their own daughter didn’t ask their advice before taking Plan B.  This, they argue, supports Sebelius’s decision.  But the ruling isn’t just about parents who adore their kids.  It is also about young people who come from abusive families and are afraid to turn to their guardians for support.  It’s about those who live in the middle of nowhere and can’t drive themselves to the doctor.  It’s about those who have been date-raped and can barely think straight.

And it’s also about all of us, regardless of sex, gender and age, because when you control human sexuality, you control intimacy, life and the body itself.

I’d be surprised if that wasn’t a power trip.

Given these recent events, my political fantasy world has gone wild.  I mean, what if young people felt so afraid of pregnancy that they decided to stop screwing the opposite sex, but decided, instead, to all start having same-sex relationships.  “Don’t risk pregnancy,” they’d shout, “be gay!  There are fewer risks!”  I bet parents and politicians would be hitting the roof, showing their true homophobia, and Plan B would be in the bubblegum aisle sooner than you could say FDA.

Or what about if all the heterosexual under-seventeens who live in states where sex toys are illegal each ordered a vibrating rubber duck from Good Vibes, figuring this was safer than partnered sex without Plan B?  This could prompt the Vibrating Duck Revolution of 2012.  Fifteen year-olds throughout America would be sinking into their bubble baths, pledging their virginity to their rubber ducks.  And what would the police do?  Storm into these bathrooms and arrest these young rebels?  I’m not being entirely ironic when I say they might. I’m sure families, religious leaders and politicians would go nuts.  There’d be complaints about police pocketing ducks that weren’t theirs to pocket and there’d be anti-masturbation posters everywhere.  “We do not have evidence to prove that vibrating ducks are safe for under-seventeen’s,” the politicians would announce.  “Further testing is needed.”

See the mad place this is sending me to?

If Plan B is safer for an eleven year-old than Tylenol and they can also buy condoms in the bubblegum aisle, then the decision on Plan B is definitely a political one.

So.  What’s Plan C?

 

 

A Final Note:  This is the final installment of Hot Topic.   I have so enjoyed writing at TNB and receiving all your wonderful comments.  Thank you all so much for reading!  I will still see you all on the TNB site, as part of the community.  In the meantime, please do keep up with me.  I blog, most days, at www.lanafox.com.

Be safe, be proud, be you.

-LF

 

We sit at my grandparents’ long dining room table, the worn green tablecloth unfurled, revealing years of red wine stains. My mother places a cassette recorder in the middle, trying to get it exactly center between the roast beef and the string beans, presses ‘play’ and ‘record’ at the same time. Nobody pays it much mind as the plates are passed, the gravy ladled over lumpy mashed potatoes, the pearl onions in cream sauce we all fight over. Father, we thank thee for this food. Bless it to our use.

The scene is cut from of the movie of our lives, a table full of cameos. There is my great-grandmother, her hair bobbed and dyed its purplish-blue. There is Uncle Bobby next to Aunt Kerri, who cuts his meat into bite-sized pieces. There are my grandparents at the head of the table, my grandfather inspecting a bottle of Cabernet. Beside him is my father, busting Bobby’s balls. “Does she tuck you in at night, too, asshole?”

I am two and my mother asks me if I want to sing. We pick “Frosty the Snowman,” but I can’t remember all the words, so we switch to “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.” Uncle Chuck makes me stop when I start again unprovoked a few minutes later. “No singing at the table,” he says.

Dinner conversation is entirely normal, everyone expecting perfectly well to be exactly where they are. On the tape, my mother is preoccupied with how much I’m eating and when I’ve eaten enough to be excused. My father and grandfather talk about wine.

“Did you know they’re making more wine in California than anywhere in the world?” my grandfather says. He is trying to impress my father. He thinks my father has connections to the mob, or at least knows people with connections to the mob. He assumes that men with connections to the mob know about wine. My father responds politely, says, “Oh yeah? No kidding, Doc.” He knows about wine, but pretends my grandfather knows more. It is a move of deference, an acknowledgment of the thin ice beneath my father’s presence at the table. His voice treads lightly.

At two, I have recently learned a valuable skill. I shove a final spoonful of peas into my mouth, and my mother releases me from the table so that I can show everyone my amazing discovery. “Jump?” I say to my family.

“Jump, Aunt Kerri?”

I circle the chairs. My grandfather, whose sternness occasionally breaks with his affinity for me, says, “Her mind is always at work.”

“Her mouth is always at work,” my great-grandmother says.

“Jump, Uncle Chuck?”

“Jump, Daddy?”

My father laughs, but not at me. “Yeah, right, let me just break my hip,” he says to the rest of the adults. He knows they are watching him. He was away for a while, and now my mother has let him come back.

When I listen to this tape with my mother and my husband two and a half decades later, each of us clutching a glass of wine, I recognize everyone but that tiny voice, my voice. I don’t know how I discovered jumping, or how I really felt about peas, but I’ve heard my grandfather talk about wine my entire life, and I know the sound of that silver on that Corelle ware, that collective, civil laughter periodically breaking up the silence of our eating. I know my uncle’s chiding and my mother’s assessing of my plate. But like my own, my father’s voice startles me, like somebody spliced the tape with a recording from someone else’s house.

“Jump, Grammy?”

My grandmother takes the bait, as she always does. We move into the background and begin our game. “Ready? One, two, three. Jump!” she says.

There are a few indications of the year. The California wine, my father and Uncle Bobby discussing Hill Street Blues. Someone asks my mother what she got for Christmas and I hear her fork clatter onto her plate.

“I got a microwave!” she says, and I picture her arms shooting into the air, her face scrunched with happiness. It’s a gift from my father, something to help around the house, and it’s expensive for 1984, my father writing out his love in a check. I do not mean this cynically. This is how he makes us happy. It is the only way he knows.

I thank my grandmother for jumping with me by making her an imaginary cup of coffee on my imaginary stove. The women prepare Jesus’ birthday cake—a large sheet of ice cream and cookie layers from Pat Mitchell’s. They light the candles and we sing “Happy Birthday” to Jesus. As the only grandchild, I get to blow out the candles.

While we eat, my father tells a story about Christmas Eve. “So, we’re coming back from church last night,” he says. “Kathy and I are horsing around up in front, teasing, you know. Well, Amy’s in the back, and I don’t know, maybe she’s tired. Anyway, she thinks we’re fighting and gets all upset. We’re up there laughing, and she’s back there going, ‘Mommy, it’s okay, Mommy, don’t cry.’”

Everyone laughs. My mother laughs.

Nobody is rude enough to point out the obvious—that I have barely seen my parents together and can’t recognize the subtle difference between my mother laughing and crying. That this is my first and only Christmas with my father in the house, and I have been told it’s only a trial.

I finish my first piece of Jesus’ cake and ask for a second. “More?” I say. There is a pause while my plate is inspected. “Christ, Amy,” my father says, “are you even chewing?” Everyone laughs again.

The tape is an hour and a half long, and this is as much as my father speaks to me, using me for a little levity around his in-laws, a little lightness to dispel whatever skepticism lingers around the table. Why does my mother record this Christmas and no others? Does she know my father will be gone again before the next? Does she know Aunt Kerri is about to discover that Uncle Bobby fools around? Does she know Alzheimer’s is wending its way down the pathways of my great-grandmother’s brain? What prompts my mother to borrow her friend’s cassette recorder and bring it to Christmas dinner this year?

“I don’t know,” my mother says when we listen to the tape. “I guess I just thought it would be neat to have someday.”

I listen to myself eating a second piece of cake, my mother complaining about the chocolate ice cream dripping down my chin and into the neck of my knitted pink sweater. No matter. I grip my spoon in a fist and shovel. It’s like the cake won’t be there if I look away for even a second.

“Jesus, Amy,” my father says. “What, are you going to jail tomorrow?”

 Planes used to fly over our house. A couple of miles away was an airfield called Hawarden, where there was a massive British Aerospace factory; they made Airbus wings, which were then flown to France in a bloated transporter called a Guppy, to be glued onto Airbus bodies.

(Hawarden — just say “harden”.)

I was raised proper, by which I mean a proper appreciation of language in all its splendor. Our family did not exclusively fawn over the most flashy words, nor the most humble. We took delight in using descriptors of all stripes, including those reserved for the bawdy house. Within the panoply of adjectives and expletives, I learned at my mama’s knee how best to decry, offend, verbally defenestrate.

We practice our art with caution but devotion. It’s too easy to rely upon the ugly but poignant “Fuckwad,” so we reach for more interesting ways to express distaste. “Blithering, emo, wuss-tastic fuckwad” is, to my ears far more interesting, and importantly, more precise. “What is the fuckwad doing?” Blithering. It’s all right there, sewn up in a tidy package. “What kind of fuckwad is he?” An emo fuckwad, who aspires to such far reaches of wussiness that he’s wuss-tastic.

I guess it’s always been this way. I got damned to hell by my best friend in second grade because I said “damn,” a bit of irony that was lost on me since I neither knew what “damn” meant, nor what this place called “hell” was all about. Was it near Mount Olympus? Did Zeus live there? If so, I really wanted a date with Cupid, the Roman hunk of “Cupid and Psyche” fame and Eros’ doppelganger. I was only eight, but I knew hotties when I read about them. Plus, he had wings. That’s pretty awesome.

Once my son Milo was born, I valiantly razed my language to the realm of modestly offensive, and then further into the dull confines of Vanilla Soft Serve Ice Cream once we belatedly realized that Milo had a real knack for language too. Instead of wusstastic-ness, I have become enamored of completely antiquated charmers like “Sweet Fancy Brown!” and “Good grief!” I don’t say “Gosh” or “Gee whiz,” but the words “Criminy,” “Dangit”  and “Oh, crumb,” feature often in my mild expletives.

And let’s face it, expletives help. You drop your groceries: what do you do? Thank the heavens for giving you one more challenge in your already ridiculous day? No. You curse, blurt, spit, and then you pick the frozen strawberries up and move on. If I couldn’t do that, those groceries on the ground might just send me around the twist, and I would lie down next to them tearfully, wondering how I used to manage to get through my day at all.

But I’m not stupid. Not very, anyway.

I know that there’s a time and a place for everything, and first grade is probably not the place for a seven-year-old to be yelling “Fuck off, ______!” at his friend who had just told him to go to hell. I realize this is probably a little raw for the playground out of the mouths of babes. I really do.

So after telling Milo that it was inappropriate and he wasn’t allowed to say words like that, I created a mutual disciplinary response to the elegant but perhaps misplaced use of “Fuck.” (I mean, syntactically, Milo nailed it: “Fuck off!” was the perfect response to someone who just told him to go to hell, and if he was fifteen it wouldn’t have raised any alarms.)

So I created the “Potty-Mouth Pot,” the bank into which we must pay our debt to the gods of expletives and curses. It’s a blown glass jar displaying our shame for all to see: Milo owes twenty-five cents for every use of the span of “grown-up words” (which linguists might argue are a badge of the truly immature); I owe a dollar.

Why the disparity to the potty-mouth pot? Because to teach the lesson well, I figured that we needed to identify who was winning the contest and who was losing. Each dollar bill was so much easier to separate from the quarters my son reluctantly placed in the jar that we could, by taking a quick glance, estimate the winner.

This is also known as “hubris.”

The first day went predictably. Chastened by my admonishment but also soothed by the admission that I too suffered the curse of cursing, Milo and I paid our first debts to the pot together. He was testing the boundaries of our agreement. Did “Damn” fit the requirements? Yes, but “Dam-age” did not. He paid a quarter for “Damn” but not “Dam,” and he was terribly proud of finding the workaround.

I symbolically paid my first dollar into the kitty. (“What’s the kitty?” he asked. Same thing as the “pot” in poker. Now we’ve introduced gambling terms.) Even though I hadn’t said a single blue word, I felt I should make the point that I would be fair and honorable in the contest, that he could count on me for holding up my side of the bargain. If he had to pay, so did I.

The next dollar I shelled out was when I was on the phone: I said “Damn” to someone and Milo shrieked “YOU OWE A DOLLAR! YOU OWE A DOLLAR!” I gamely paid up, neatly folding my dollar and placing it in the jar.

Then he said “Hell,” and I had to wrestle him for the quarter he was loathe to part with. He cried as he let it tinkle to the bottom of the jar, separated from its mate by only two single bills, and Milo begged me to change the rules of engagement. His bereft display confirmed my impromptu but cleverly crafted lesson from which he was suffering the consequences in a real and tangible way.

Depressed over the loss of a third quarter, Milo bemoaned our arrangement to his father as he was going to bed one night.

“Don’t worry,” Lars said. “Mom will lose. I guarantee it.”*

Aside from the fact that I married the male version of Mata Hari, this information was enough to give Milo a renewed sense of purpose and hope.

He mastered his reliance upon potty words with the zeal of a convert. After his third quarter went in the pot, he was done. Not a single verboten word has passed his lips, though he has danced playfully around acceptable substitutes.

I have not been so fortunate. It turns out it’s mitochondrial. While I have, in general, turned an about-face on the real dirt-bombs, I seem incapable of eradicating the basic building blocks of interesting language: damn, hell, crap are so intrinsically bonded with my molecular material that they are woven into the fiber of my tongue. I cannot, apparently, get rid of them. Like herpes, or gout: there for the duration, like it or not.

My son has learned valuable lessons, too. He has learned the skill of secondary hearing, which eluded him until now. I used to beg, scream, shout, dance in front of him, block the television, pull his socks off–whatever it would take to get his attention. Now I don’t need to worry. If he’s engrossed so deeply in a book that I could throw a hockey puck at his head without him flinching, all I have to do is drop my guard and talk like my DNA tells me to and I have Milo’s undivided attention. “Potty-mouth!” he shouts with delight as if being revived from a coma. “You just said a bad word! Pay up, MOM!”

He has three quarters in the bottom of the Potty-Mouth Pot. I have at least thirty bucks in there. But who’s counting?

Don’t answer that.


*Let’s get one thing straight: I’m not even the star player on the potty-mouth stage. Grandma, from who I learned everything I know, talks like a trucker with a fatal case of gutter-tongue. Even now, with her adorable Grandma walk and her devotion to baking holiday cookies, she blasts the room with language dripping with so much ooze it’s amazing people let her into nice places. Colorful, descriptive, eloquent and utterly demented, she shames all pretenders to the potty-mouth crown with their pedestrian lack of creativity.

So I found it both charming and ridiculous that after Grandma heard about my struggle to reign in my gutter mouth, she paid up one lowly quarter to Milo in the interest of making a good impression…even though she had outshone my every utterance in front of the boy in two short hours over dinner.

A quarter.



We were supposed to move into our new house that summer. Our old house was already sold, but then we found out construction had fallen behind. September, they told us.

I was six and didn’t really understand what was happening. All I knew was my mother was suddenly packing all the time, and we were getting on a plane to stay with relatives in California, my father left behind.

This upset me more than anything. “Why can’t Baba come with us?” I’d ask.

“He has to work,” my mother would tell me in her gruff way: Stop fussing.

To save money, we stayed with my uncle in his two-bedroom apartment in Berkeley. It was a tight squeeze. My grandparents were already living there, which meant my aunt and uncle in one room, my younger brother and I in the other with my grandmother, and my grandfather and mother in the living room.

There wasn’t much to do there. My uncle would take us to the playground, and we’d always come home with our shoes full of sand, which we once dumped in the middle of the living room till finally the adults got smart and told us to de-shod at the door.

In the evenings we’d watch Chinese soap operas with my grandmother. That summer’s was set during imperial times – everyone decked out in colorful silk robes, the men’s hair as long as the women’s – and focused on a brother and sister with a fierce rivalry for their father’s kingdom.

In the final episode, the sister kills herself on her father’s grave. One moment she’s muttering something in Mandarin, the next she’s plunging a knife in her gut, blood trickling artfully from the corner of her mouth. Her two faithful followers promptly follow suit.

This scene both repulsed and fascinated me. I couldn’t stop thinking about it and felt the compulsion to act it out, over and over. I’d kneel at my grandmother’s bed, comb in hand, mutter some gibberish, then stab myself with the comb. I’d let a bit of drool run out of the mouth before keeling over.

Our relatives knew my brother and I were bored. One brought us a plastic bowling set, which we happily played with till the downstairs neighbor complained. The downstairs neighbor was always complaining about how noisy we were. Once he appeared at the top of the back steps, rumpled-looking in pajamas very much like my father’s. I thought it was strange that he was still in his PJs during the day. Maybe he worked nights.

* * *

My aunt’s house in San Jose was bigger and nicer, but also more dangerous in a way. My mother scolded me more often at my aunt’s. I’m not sure why. She and my aunt, who was older, didn’t have a rivalry, but my mother cared very much about Big Auntie’s opinions, and Big Auntie had a lot of them, like surely I touched the cake box because I was greedy and wanted cake before it was served, when really I just wanted the red string that tied the box together.

I always cried when my mother scolded me, which prompted another scolding, which made me cry more. So when, upon spotting my teary eyes and red nose, an aunt or uncle asked, “Aw, do you miss your baba?” I seized the opportunity: Yes, I was crying because I missed my father, not because I was a crybaby.

I really did miss him. At our old house in New Jersey, I’d wait outside for him to come home from work. Sometimes it seemed to take forever. Once I was staring at some ants on a tree, thinking, Wouldn’t it be nice if Baba called my name right now? And at that moment I heard it: “Little Gem! Little Gem!” That’s just my imagination, I told myself, but then suddenly it was real. There was my dad, walking his long loping walk from the bus stop.

I talked on the phone with him sometimes, which wasn’t like talking in person. I’d get shy and clam up. Much later I’d find a card I had made him: “I miss you, Baba!” half English, half Chinese. It disturbs me that I have absolutely no memory of making that card.

I also cried when Big Auntie made fun of my feet, which were apparently so wide and strange-looking, she had to do so daily. Finally, she promised not to tease me anymore. But one day she couldn’t resist.

The waterworks promptly started. My aunt laughed.

“Big Auntie’s sorry!” she said in a mocking tone. “Big Auntie’s bad!” She slapped her own arm.

Her husband had had it up to HERE. Silently seething, he picked me up and brought me into the bathroom. He sat me on the counter, and with a warm damp towel, cleaned the tears off my face. He never said a word, but I knew from then on he was on my side.

While Big Auntie teased me mercilessly, my uncle in Berkeley was too indulgent, or so my mother thought. He and my aunt always let me into their room, even the time my aunt got drunk accidentally on some kind of soup and lay in bed with a splitting headache.

I was very interested in the idea of my aunt being drunk. The only drunks I had seen were on TV.

“Did you walk funny?” I asked her when she was feeling better. “Did someone have to carry you?”

No, she had walked fine on her own. I was disappointed.

Once on a trip to an amusement park, my uncle said I could have one toy from the store.

“Any toy?” I asked.

“Sure,” he said. “But just one.”

He thought he was being strict. Little did he know, my parents never bought me toys for no reason. My head swam. Of everything in the store, what did I want? Not a yo-yo, not another stuffed animal. No: I made a beeline towards the dolls. A beautiful bride doll in an enormous white dress.

“Can I have this?” I asked. I held my breath. It would be okay if he said no. I was used to hearing no.

“Sure,” he said.

My mother was furious. How could I rope my uncle into spending so much on something I didn’t need?

“Don’t worry about it,” he told her.

I did. Somehow, some way, I knew I’d have to pay for that doll.

* * *

When we finally went home that September, my father met us at the airport. I was so happy to see him. “Baba, baba!” I cried, running across baggage claim. My brother followed me, as he followed me everywhere back then, though it turned out he didn’t recognize who we were running to.

Our house still wasn’t done.

We divided our time between two families. I already knew Glenn and Yvonne, one and two years younger than I was. I loved playing with them. They were both good-natured, though Yvonne cried more than I did, and liked to tell the story of how their hamster made a great escape and chased Yvonne to the top of the leather arm chair in the living room.

At the other house, the girl’s name was Blossom, which to me even then was strange. She was older than I was and played the violin terribly.

We waited and waited for our house to be done. My mother spent most of her time yelling at Reggie, the guy in charge of construction. He had red hair, wore the sleeves of his dress shirt rolled up, and always looked put upon, at least by mother.

“Reggie!” she yelled at him on the phone. “Reggie!” when we went visited the site. “Reggie!” when September came and went, and the house still wasn’t done. “Reggie!” when the leaves changed. “Reggie!” when the weather got colder and condensation collected on the long windows in the living room at Glenn’s house, when it was dark by the time my mother drove me home from school.

That November we finally moved in.

* * *

My mother spent a long time decorating. She was a genius, really, in furnishing our house on a budget. She found some clear plexiglass display cases for dirt cheap, which she used for her plants and flowers in the sun-drenched living room. She found on sale figurines and knickknacks that looked weird on their own, but worked placed together on the mantlepiece.

For months my room had just a bed, rug, and desk. I didn’t care. At least I had my own room. Then one day that spring, I came home to find it completely decorated.

I had new white dressers, a tall one and short one, plus two bookcases my father had made, one large and one small, rather rough-looking, but they worked and were painted white too. My stuffed animals sat on the lower dresser while on the taller one were a few ceramic figurines and, behold, the bride doll.

I had almost forgotten about her, but there she was, resplendent in her faux satin white ballroom gown, her sleeves as puffy as ever, her train halfway down her back. There was her long brown curling hair, her huge eyes with specks of pink and gold, her cloth hands folded demurely around a pink and white bouquet.

For several minutes, I stood in the middle of my room, agog.

“Little Gem!” my mother called from downstairs. “Start your homework!”

I sighed. At the time I didn’t realize the effort my mother had made, that, despite her protests, she had kept the doll, lovingly packed it for our trip from California, then displayed it for me.

The doll is still around now, more than thirty years later, in the room of yet another house. While everything around her changes, she stays the same – still beautiful, still braced on what will surely be the best day of her life.

My parents married because of music.

They met at a mah-jongg party in Berkeley in 1967. Having come from Taiwan to study, my father was pursuing a PhD in molecular biology while my mother had just finished her Master’s in accounting.

At the mah-jongg party, they chatted and felt a spark, my mother’s liveliness a good contrast to my father’s more serious nature. But he didn’t ask her out. Nor at the next mah-jongg party, nor the next. Nor at a barbecue on campus.

“Are you sure he’s interested?” my mother asked the friend who hosted the original mah-jongg party.

“Yes!” her friend insisted. “My husband says he talks about you all the time. It’s Ai Li this, and Ai Li that. He’s just shy.”

Sometimes at get-togethers my father played the guitar. Finally, one time my mother asked, “How does that thing work anyway?”

My father brightened. “I can show you,” he said. He had been waiting for an excuse to spend more time with her. But, one thing: “Do you have your own guitar?”

She shook her head.

“You’ll have to get one,” he said. His, apparently, was too high quality for a novice.

She took out a precious $50 and bought a used acoustic. After they got married, she gave the instrument away.

To say they fell in love is a stretch. Maybe my father did. “The first time I met your mom,” he’d tell us, “I knew right away she was my match.” My mother would shrug.

While she was in grad school, she knew a young man interested in dating her. He was from Taiwan and nice enough, but he was studying to be a social worker.

“A social worker!” my mother cried, appalled. “What kind of money could he make doing that?” She hadn’t come to the States to be poor like they were in Taiwan, a family of seven surviving on her father’s meager teaching salary.

My father’s career choice seemed stable, if not highly lucrative. Plus he was tall. Surely they’d have a lanky kid or two.

They married in 1969, two days after Christmas. To save money my mother borrowed her friend’s dress and they held the reception in a church basement. There was no music, but there was lots of food.

* * *

When I was a kid in New Jersey, my father would still play his guitar once in a while. It was the same one from California, only now with the edges held together with masking tape.

“I left it in the window during a hurricane,” he’d tell us woefully. “So stupid.”

He always played the same song, “Spanish Romance.” To this day whenever I hear it, I think of my dad.

My brother and I learned the piano. For years we banged our way through Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart, till our parents were positively sick of whatever we were playing. They liked to watch musical variety shows: Lawrence Welk, Sonny and Cher, Donny and Marie, The Barbara Mandrell Show. I admired the Mandrell sisters because they could sing and play so many instruments – acoustic and electric guitar, lap slide guitar, the fiddle – except for the youngest who could only play drums.

None of us could carry a tune. I wasn’t bad in music class, but failed as a soloist, despite my wanting more than anything to be able to sing like the girls in Annie. My parents sometimes warbled Chinese songs as they did housework, but mostly kept their operatic pursuits to themselves.

* * *

The first fight I ever witnessed between my parents was when I was four. Hearing yelling, I came into the kitchen and found my father eating alone, every dish of food upended on the floor.

“Where’s Mommy?” I asked.

“In the bathroom,” my father said, continuing to eat. (Why was he so insistent on finishing his meal? Was he that hungry, or just a creature of habit?) “Be good and watch TV.”

Later, unable to keep away, I tiptoed up to my parents’ room. It was dark and the bathroom door was shut. I heard my mother crying and my father whispering to her.

I don’t even know what the fight was about. My mother could be overly sensitive and prone to silent grudges, followed by explosive rants. My father could be stubborn and impatient.

Another fight is known as the Chicken Argument because my mother threw, in anger, a whole raw chicken at my father. Horrified, I promptly burst into tears.

Inevitably they fought at the mah-jongg table. Back then it was their main activity. They’d play almost every Saturday, well into the night. My mother was one of those annoyingly skillful players who didn’t care about winning, while my father played nervous and lost hand after hand. Needless to say, Mom liked mah-jongg while Dad didn’t.

Again, what they fought about, they only know. I only remember how embarrassed and uncomfortable I was, overhearing them and their playing partners trying to get my mother to calm down and my father to stop baiting her.

At that time, a commercial for a divorce lawyer often played on TV. At the end, the gray-haired man would say, “Isn’t it time for a change?”

“Maybe it’s time for a change,” my mother would intone darkly.

“No!” I’d cry. I had read It’s Not the End of the World and The Divorce Express. I didn’t want to be like those kids.

My father would remain silent, either having not heard, or choosing not to.

Much of his frustration was silent then. Once during an argument with my mother, he punched at the air three times, he who’d never raised a hand to anyone.

* * *

This isn’t to say my parents never got along. Sometimes they did, too well. Once I was woken in the middle of the night by a high piercing call. I was only twelve, but I’d seen enough Cinemax movies to know what it was, and lay there trying to fall back asleep as wave after wave of horror washed over me.

But it wasn’t over. At dinner the next day, my brother, who was nine, asked, “What was the matter with you last night, Mom? Did you have a stomach ache or something?”

Faces burning, my parents stared down into their rice bowls. I held my head in fresh dismay while my brother (the poor kid) pinked, realizing his mistake.

* * *

The worst fight my parents ever had was after a mah-jongg party. I was in college and had a friend over. We were sleeping when my mother started screaming.

I couldn’t understand her, except for curses like asshole (si pi yan) and prick (hun dan). She shrieked them over and over.

“What is that?” my friend asked from her sleeping bag.

“My parents are fighting,” I said hollowly. I was eight years old again, and my mother was throwing a raw chicken.

“Oh, that’s all,” my friend said, and went back to sleep.

To her it wasn’t a big deal, but to me it was like the end of the world.

The next morning I found out why they had been fighting. While they were playing, my mother began to sing along with the stereo. Soon, one of the other players, a man, joined her. Together they sang, his better voice masking hers. As they finished, my father said, in front of everyone, “Ai Li, you really shouldn’t flirt with him.”

Dead silence. Even the music on the stereo had stopped playing. Thankfully, the round ended and they had to mix the tiles, the roar drowning out everyone’s embarrassment.

For the rest of the evening, my mother didn’t speak to my father. He tried to joke with her, but she’d only murmur a response.

Afterward, in car rides home or that very morning, I’m sure people gossiped about what happened, the way they, and my parents, did whenever any drama ensued. Like the time a woman threw her chips at my mother, after losing yet another hand, or when another woman, rumored to have mental illness, accused someone of making eyes at her husband, then called her a cunt.

“He was just jealous,” I told my mother.

“That’s what he said,” she said, red-eyed. “He still shouldn’t have said that.”

Things seemed to worsen after my brother and I left for college. I couldn’t put my finger on it – an air of unhappiness, of tension. My father began staying home while my mother went to play. He’d mow the lawn, work on his paintings, or read. He’d play his guitar, “Spanish Romance,” again and again.

* * *

My last year in college, my parents started singing karaoke. “Give it a try,” their friends said one weekend. They had their own machine.

My mother did, badly yet unembarrassed. Then my father, more hesitant but better.

“You’re pretty good!” the friends said. “And you didn’t even practice.”

My father was pleased, gaining confidence as each person gave the mike a whirl, some not bad but most just awful.

“I still say you were the best,” the friend told my dad.

After the evening was over and my parents were driving home, my father turned to my mother and said, “Maybe we should get our own machine.”

“Maybe,” she said. She had seen him brimming with confidence, had noticed he was more open and talkative afterward. “I’m sure we can find an inexpensive one.”

After they had their own set-up, my father became a karaoke aficionado. They joined two clubs, and he took his practicing seriously. He sang a little every day while my mother waited till the last minute and rehearsed just hours before the get-together. My father liked both Chinese and American singers. His favorites were Bette Midler (“The Wind Beneath My Wings,” “The Rose”), The Carpenters (“Close to You,” “We’ve Only Just Begun”), and Sarah MacLachlan (“Angel”). Occasionally he sang a duet with my mother (“Endless Love”).

“I know I’m not the best,” he liked to say. “But I work hard.”

He was indeed one of the better singers. He didn’t overdo it with impossible-to-reach Celine Dion notes, or undero it by mumbling into the mike. He stayed within his range, sang modestly, and with feeling.

“Who’s that?” a childhood friend asked during a Christmas party at my parents’. “He’s pretty good.”

“That’s my dad!” I cried, beet-red, more embarrassed than proud.

How good, or bad, you were didn’t matter, only that you had tried. People would always cheer, and in that way, everyone was a winner.

* * *

My parents aren’t perfect. They still bicker occasionally; once in a while, my mother still explodes at some invisible slight.

But they’re better. They’re balanced. They both have something they’re good at.

Sometimes my father still sits out of mah-jongg, but often the parties have both mah-jongg and karaoke. He likes being the DJ, changing discs and adjusting volume and frequency as people take their turns. Sometimes they ask his advice.

He discusses voice techniques with my mother, who mostly nods, the way she did when he was teaching her guitar. Maybe she’s only pretending to listen, but it doesn’t matter. The music is still holding them together.

Sharks

By Robin Antalek

Essay

The fall I was fifteen my mother had surgery that would hollow out her insides, scoop them clean like a wide mouthed spoon against the split open flesh of a watery honeydew melon and keep her in the hospital for ten days. This was back before insurance companies got involved and surgery actually meant you recovered in the hospital. Children were discouraged during visiting hours and while my father might have been able to sneak me in, he was too disoriented by the absence of my mother for that long, to even consider what I might need.

The doctor had told my father that my mother would have to take it easy for a month after the surgery and somehow my father equated this with the purchase of an electric clothes dryer. Pre-surgery, my mother hung our laundry on the clothes tree out back: an aluminum contraption with a center rod spiked into the ground like a beach umbrella. The actual lines criss-crossed at the top in the shape of a square, reminding me of the God’s Eye’s I was forced to make during my brief attendance at Vacation Bible Camp out of yarn and popsicle sticks. It was an oddly inefficient design, poorly engineered, that usually toppled under the weight of the wet clothes listing severely to the left or the right if things weren’t balanced just so causing the entire process to begin again, this time with cursing.

I went with my father to Grant’s Department store where my old fifth grade math teacher from Saint Ann’s also worked part time in the appliance department. While my father perused the dryers, Mr. McGowan brought up the subject of monthly payment plans, obviously aware of our financial situation since he had been on the committee that had expelled both my brother and me into the world of public school and the glories of smoking in the bathroom, for non-payment of tuition. Of course they had messily hidden the money issue beneath my mother’s vocal support of Roe Vs. Wade, but I knew the truth. After a few Old Milwaukee’s, my parents could be very forthcoming on a variety of subjects.

While I pilfered candy from a dish by the salesmen’s desk, I noticed my father flinch as he looked at the price tags, finally arriving in front of an avocado green dryer that had the lowest price. It was a basic model, Mr. McGowan exclaimed, his complexion ruddy, with broken capillaries that spread across his cheeks like the silvery threads left behind by slugs. It would do the job for the little lady, he said as a last resort to sway my father.

If my mother had been here she would have turned and walked out. As a matter of fact if my mother knew my father was even considering this she would have called him a fool. There was no way that I could even tell her about his idea: My father hovered over me when he called her room every evening after dinner and handed me the phone. Her voice would always start out strong and then dwindle down to a thready whisper. Every call ended with me saying I love you and my mother repeating it back only it sounded like she was on the moon not the hospital ten blocks away. I hated the phone calls and besides, they were so not the time for telling the truth. I knew that by the fake tone my father took every time he announced into the receiver, “here’s your girl! Like my mother had just won the grand prize on Let’s Make A Deal.

But I could tell my father wasn’t going to budge on purchasing the dryer with money we didn’t have. Servicing the pools of southwest Florida paid the bills, my mother’s job as a nurse provided a little extra, but without her income there was nothing left over. In his lifetime my father had been a pilot and an engineer but for some reason was now devoting his life to a fledgling pool business. I was just beginning to figure out that there weren’t enough Old Milwaukee’s in the world to get that truth out of him. Pride was not even going to allow him to consider a payment plan and we left Grant’s Department store with a handful of candies I’d swiped and Mr. McGowan’s beady little eyes boring into our backs as we bid a hasty retreat out into the buckling heat of the asphalt parking lot.

 

An idea landed in my lap innocently enough. At the very end of the town pier, an old wooden structure that extended out into the Gulf of Mexico like a multi legged sea creature, there was a group of guys who fished for shark after midnight. For obvious reasons, the town discouraged shark fishing. Once the sharks established a feeding area, it would be hard for the sharks to distinguish between a bloody hunk of chum versus the tasty thigh of a tourist.

But the shark fishing continued because the meat was just exotic enough for area restaurants (tasting just like chicken, no lie, albeit a little chewy, so more like conch) and the remainder of the shark: the jaw and the teeth, could be cleaned and dried and sold to the tourists – an entire jaw from a six foot shark could bring ten dollars, maybe more. The way I saw it: five jaws equaled an avocado green clothes dryer. I was no sissy. At my father’s urging I had been baiting and cleaning fish for years. I had cut the jaws out of sharks that had turned up on shore after the red tide. How hard could this be?

The opportunity arrived when, aided by Old Milwaukee’s and exhaustion, my father turned in before eleven o’clock. By eleven thirty he was sound asleep and I was on my bike headed to the pier, his heaviest fishing pole and a bag of tackle strapped to my handlebars. When I got there, I propped my bike up against a piling and walked to the end of the pier with the pole. I was wearing a t-shirt of my brother’s and it rattled around my torso like a sheet in the wind, baring more of the body I was trying to hide, to be invisible among the guys. The pier was empty except for the glut at the end, guys passing the time with a cooler of long neck beers, their fishing poles held loosely in one hand or leaning against the railings, a deep bucket of bloody chicken parts in a tall white plaster bucket – dripping over the sides and trailing off towards the bait table like a bad crime scene. The air smelled like pennies. A few of them glanced my way, seemed to take in the pole and the plastic bag of tackle I clutched in my fist and dismissed me with a smirk.

I walked over to the railing and looked down. It was obvious that for the amount of lines in the water some of the guys had more than one pole going at a time. The tables were empty, the wooden board of the deck glistened from the bait buckets, not a catch in sight. The water lapped against the pilings and made a clucking sound. Occasionally, a cigarette butt would arc over the side and land in the water below, the hiss of the flame as it extinguished forever lost in the wind.

I hung over the railing for a while getting up my nerve. Hoping a shark would appear and make me less obvious when a guy sidled over to me and hoisted his body at a dangerous angle over the top railing of the deck so that he had to look back up at me. When he had my attention he said, “You think a shark is gonna come up and bite cause your cute?” I simultaneously frowned and laughed nervously. He was older than me, but not by much. I was pretty sure I’d seen him around school last year, but not this current year. So he either graduated or dropped out. I was guessing the latter. He offered to help me and before I knew it he had taken the pole from my shaky hands and threaded a bloody mass onto the hook. He squeezed it in his fist, allowing the juice to run down his arm in thin cock-eyed rivulets. I took the pole from him like I did it everyday and arching back, I cast the line over the side. He raised an eyebrow, but said nothing as he wiped his bloody arm against his t-shirt.

After a while he lit a cigarette and cracked a beer, offering me the first swig. I took it, keeping one hand on the pole, and drank deeply until my throat felt funny from the foam and I handed it back. I noticed the others were starting to pay more attention to me because he was, although I wasn’t sure it was the kind of attention I wanted. The wait for a shark went on forever, the only sounds in the dark were of a beer being opened or the strike of a match followed by sulpher as it skunked the air. When it finally happened the guy whose line it was reacted quickly and quietly. He braced himself in a wide leg stance as he strained to bring up the shark. The muscles in his calves shimmied and quivered. Others moved in to help him, peering over the side, offering encouragement in muted voices. When I think of it now they reminded me of nurses in the delivery room, administering direction in low, firm voices, that didn’t interfere with the real work at hand.

When he finally pulled the shark in, the sleek gray body was scarred in the pale underbelly, it’s body, supine against the planks of the dock, shuddered like a child at the end of a temper tantrum, the hook and line still imbedded deeply in its throat. Out of water the shark continued to thrash but it was clearly losing the battle. By the time I turned back to my father’s fishing pole it was gone, along with the guy who had baited the hook. Whether he had taken the pole or it had slipped over the side in the confusion of the moment, I’d never know. In a panic I ran to the end of the pier, to my bike, intent on getting home and into my bed before my father knew I was gone. As I pulled out of the parking lot, I swerved as headlights illuminated the road from behind. I glanced over my shoulder quickly and caught the outline of a familiar truck and behind the wheel my father, his face all pale angles in the light of the moon, his mouth an angry grimace, his brow furrowed in worry. Instead of stopping to accept my inevitable punishment, I continued pedaling as my father trailed slowly behind, ushering me home.

 

In the driveway as I dropped my bike, he stayed in the truck. I could feel him watching me as I slid open the glass door on the carport and walked inside, careful not to look back and meet his eyes. I lay in bed too afraid to sleep, face and teeth unwashed because I was scared of the consequences if I left my room. I considered the fact that he wouldn’t tell my mother because then he would have to admit to the plan of a dryer and she would have been furious, still it didn’t make me feel any better about losing his best fishing pole.

What I didn’t know then was that in the morning my father would wake me early with a gruff announcement of breakfast. After eggs and toast we would take a ride to Ace Hardware where he would purchase a bag of cement and then he and I would spend the morning beneath an aching sun digging a deeper post hole for the clothesline and then filling in all around it with the pebbly gray concrete. I would hold the post steady with both hands as he poured the cement. Sweat dripped down my forehead and the tip of my nose causing my face to itch but I wouldn’t release a hand from the pole afraid to move, afraid of disappointing my father again.

 

 

My stepfather–who we’ll just call G.–sat across the dinner table from me. My mother sat to my left, silently pushing her food around the plate. I assumed this was because she’d discovered G.’s latest affair and was dealing with it in her usual silent denial. G. discussed what he’d be doing if it were his sophomore year in college instead of mine, Things I Would Have Done with Your Opportunities being a favorite topic of his. I’d only come to town to retrieve a few things I had left behind when I moved into my apartment, and I was eager to get back on the road as soon as possible.

It was early October, 1998. I was 19 years old.

G. was a Machiavellian bully of a parent, though one who preferred to intimidate psychologically rather than physically. My mother moved him in when I was six, and the ink was barely dry on her divorce decree before she married him. As the only boy in the house, I received the brunt of his attention. Everything was subject to scrutiny: my clothes, my taste in music, my prowess with girls, my lack of interest in team sports—all measured by some unspoken standard of masculinity I perpetually failed to live up to. That I earned a black belt in karate at sixteen made no substantial impression. I grew up in a state of quiet but pervasive fear, only finally escaping when I went off to college. I deliberately chose a university elsewhere in the state and came home infrequently.

Though not typically violent, G. hit me three times before I reached the age of 10. Once hard enough to make my gums bleed.

He largely ignored my little sister. This is the only reason she survived this period of our lives.

I finished my meal, but when I went to clear my plate my mother took it instead. “I’ll get this,” she said. “You just relax.”

Alarm bells went off in my head. Each family member was responsible for his/her dirty dishes, an inviolate rule for as long as I could remember.

She cleared not just my plate but the entire table, portioning the leftovers into Tupperware containers with astonishing economy of speed. G. sipped at his beer and made a show of appearing nonchalant. Some weird, nervous energy encoded his body language, and I found it vaguely threatening. Every lizard-brain instinct told me to flee, but before I could conjure an excuse my mother returned to her seat.

“There’s something we need to tell you,” G. said. “It’s about your father.”

My father? My father had become persona non grata years ago. During the divorce he battled viciously in court to avoid owing child support, a prolonged conflict which left my sister and I with smoking blast craters marring the landscape of our youth. When the courts decided against him, he abandoned his children in favor of his new wife.

“We’ve never been completely honest with you,” my stepfather continued. He stared me straight in the eyes, his poker face rapidly abandoning him. “But we think it’s time you know the truth. You’re not really his son. You’re mine.”

Mine.

The world fell away from me like a free-fall ride at an amusement park.

G. grinned as though he’d won a fucking prize.

My mother said nothing.

When I didn’t respond, G. kept talking: about his affair with my mother; about the anecdotal evidence that “proved” I was his biological son; how my various aunts and uncles had been aware for years. Something about how this would “free” me from the pain of the divorce.

I wasn’t really listening. I felt like a  freshly branded cow, a smoking MINE seared into my flesh. My heart beat against the ragged edges of broken feelings: betrayal, violation, confusion.

And so much anger. I wanted to glove my fists in the grinning bastard’s blood.

“I have to go,” I said, grabbing my leather jacket off the chair. No one tried to stop me.

Here’s where I lose the plot a bit. Everything was scattered, my head as big a jumble as a bag of Scrabble letters. I drove aimlessly, circling around the freeways, taking whatever off-ramp or side street presented itself. The city seemed both starkly real and yet grotesquely unreal, as though I’d stumbled into some Twilight Zone simulacrum of my life.

I stopped at payphones, attempting to get in touch with my friends, but it was Saturday and they were all out. I left them rambling, nonsensical messages.

Eventually, running low on gas and inertia, I found myself at the beach. The early autumn days were still running late, and the evening sun was just setting. I sat down on the sand to watch it, jacket pulled around me like a turtle shell. It was just another sunset, the exact same image I’d seen countless times, and yet so stunningly beautiful that for a moment I was able to forget about everything. One last explosion of color before the world finished turning to gray.

My crappy little 35MM Kodak was in my jacket pocket, and I snapped a few pictures.


Later I would pick myself up off the beach, drive back to school, and with the help of my friends, begin the process of reassembling myself, fearing for years afterward that crucial pieces were irretrievably lost.

I would not speak to any member of my family, save my sister, for months.

I would learn that G. had been threatening to leave my mother for his current mistress; she had hoped that allowing him to openly claim me as his offspring would prevent him from leaving her. But G. would move out before Christmas, and they would be divorced by springtime.

And before graduation, I would publicly–and cathartically–disown him.

But those events were in the future, still waiting to happen. For now I just sat there, alone on an empty shelf of beach, watching the sun slowly dive into the Pacific as bit by bit the earth carried me away from it.


I recently finished The Thing About Life Is That One Day You’ll Be Dead, by David Schields. As the title suggests, it’s a kind of essay/meditation/memoir about getting old. What the title doesn’t tell you is that in it, Schields addresses at length his relationship with his father.

His father, the story goes, is a 96 year old ubermench, more active and able-bodied in his 9th decade on this planet than the author is in his 5th. There is hubris and exaggeration in this claim, but it’s a psychological portrait as much as anything else: we can forgive his conjuring of childish pride.

Schields packs the book full of his own observations about the changing human body—his own, and that of his father—and with memories of being youthful and active and flawed, and he combines all this with scientific trivia about the aging process. Did you know that for women ages 50 to 78, it takes 1 to 5 minutes for vaginal lubrication to follow sexual arousal? Now you do.

It was an interesting read, but one thing kept standing out, nagging me, not letting me completely buy into the athletic drive of Schields’s prose: he mentions his mother all of three or four times, and she died when he was in adolescence. That is to say, here’s this book about death and family, and Schields almost actively seems to avoid one half of his parentage.

Obviously, all authors create frameworks to work within. In the broadest sense, if you don’t put limits on the scope of your book, you will never stop writing. But even without the absurd extreme, I can fully sympathize with the need to single out one parent and ponder the specific relationship you have with that person, especially if that person is exceptional, as Schields’s father surely is.

So what was the problem? Why couldn’t I get past it? Strangely, once I’d finished the book, this issue stayed with me longer—or at least more potently—than the book’s ostensible topic. And the answer didn’t come to me until I was going back over a manuscript that’s taking up permanent residence on my hard drive.

Here it is: most of my characters have only one parent. I’ve made this “choice” again and again in fiction, from short stories to novels. There is a relationship between the protagonist and his or her mother, or father, but rarely both. It can play a role central or peripheral to the narrative. It can be a healthy, supportive relationship, or it can be sick, broken or in some way stultifying. But either way, it’s just the one.

On face, this smacks of a failure of the imagination. Am I simply unable to create two interactive parental figures? Not that that isn’t difficult—making fictional characters interact in a way that seems natural requires super-human feats of imagination and stamina—but I think this difficulty is only part of the problem. The other part has to do with my own parents, and maybe (dare I generalize?) with parenting in general (yes I dare).

One of the defining moments in my relationship with my father happened when I was 16, and masqueraded as quite familiar familial interaction. He’d asked me to straighten up an area of the living room I’d left strewn with photographs, and I’d done so with the snide indifference I’d been actively cultivating. The result wasn’t so much a “tidy” area as it was a mess someone less messy might have made

When he returned (he seemed, those days, to be always returning), he reproached me for not having done what I’d been told, and I countered with something like a phoned-in Socratic method: “Exactly how neat,” I asked in so many words, “would this area have to be for you to think otherwise?” I moved a few pictures closer to the center of the stack. “Is this neat yet?” I moved a few more closer. “How about now?”

He looked me straight in the face, held my gaze for a moment, and said, “Oh, you’re really good, aren’t you.”

The fact was, yes. Or rather, I was getting there. I was challenging him to define his terms: something he’d done with me since I could speak. Something I practically associated with the word “father.”

Something my mother never did.

A small thing to appear so large in hindsight, no doubt, but who’s to say which events are formative?

Anyway, it was—as 16 is for most of us—a time full of epiphanies. It was around this time, to the point, that I became a witness to a strange truth of long-term, dysfunctional partnerships: couples become polarized. Surely you have some experience with this, whether from watching your parents, or from watching your own marriage/partnership. Each person slowly looses dimension, slides into more or less rigid roles within the relationship.

Who knows why this is? Is it easier? Is it comforting to slouch into expectation? Whence the inclination toward binary? This is a much bigger question than can be tackled here, but the urge is, well, urgent enough for me to feel comfortable including it here as a “given.” A rule patiently waiting for exceptions to prove it.

In the end (though, truly, relationships long dead by any reasonable standard persist nonetheless, a shadow of themselves, a parody), a dichotomy takes over, leaving each person to endlessly enact only a fraction of what might be their normal, fleshy attitudes and behaviors. The disciplinarian and the permissive. The emotionally available and the remote. For every role there is a counter-role, and my parents had so many that though they walked and talked like otherwise dimensional adults, their every action became flat.

Thankfully, they divorced when I was in my early 20s, and a number of amazing things happened. My father lost his disciplinary edge. My mother began expressing personal needs. On both sides, they began to take shape as if inflated by the air in the space between them. Which makes me wonder about this trend I now see in my work: is it because my parents were not, when together, real fleshy people, that now I have no model for real parental interaction? Is it because I’ve only had two real people for parents since they’ve separated that this division is projected into my own fictional worlds?

Perhaps this is the kind of question that is more useful as a point of departure than it is a device meant to fuel the answer machine, but I’ve been keeping an eye out since first having these thoughts, and a surprisingly high percentage of novels and stories I read feature one or another central parent without the other. They do so, furthermore, without any real textual justification for that absence. Is the real fiction that most parents are ever really together in the first place?

My girlfriend Erin is reading the The Thing About Life now, and in speaking about it recently with someone else who’d read it, we were asked what we liked more, the autobiographical parts or the science trivia? “The autobiographical stuff,” I said, “without a doubt.” Erin thought about it for a moment, then said, with certainty, “The trivia.”