Grown-Up Words

By Bethany Cox



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.

I loved him. He was typically awful, especially wild-eyed during lunchtime, but his moments of sweetness were so unexpected and gentle that they landed like a feather in my hand, a small softness. Sometimes, in quieter moments, he’d whisper I love you. Once he looked up at me and asked “Do you have a son?”

“No,” I said.

He shook his head. “You’re not a grown-up unless you have kids. Wait,” he said, perking up. “Do you drive?”

“Yes,” I said.

There were two basic requirements for grown-up status according to Jeremiah:  driving a car and having children. He looked reluctantly proud of me for accomplishing at least one of these but then, seeming to think better of encouraging my complacency, he shook his head.

“You need to have kids,” he said. “You need to have a baby so it grows inside your belly like this.” He touched his hand to my stomach, gently. “Then when you go to the doctor he’ll take the baby out. And you’ll have a son. You’ll be a mom.”

“Someday,” I said apologetically. “Maybe. Maybe I will.” I paused. “But not all grown-ups have kids, you know. Some grown-ups choose not to have kids.”

“Grown-ups,” he said, like he knew something I didn’t.

* * *

I was twenty-six. As a teenager I thought I’d be married and have children by twenty-five. Surveying my non-married and childless friends, twenty-five seemed an age typically marked for this. But we passed it by, some of us lamenting the fact but many of us noting that we still felt so damn young. Thirty was the new age to be scared if you wanted marriage and children but didn’t have it yet. No, thirty-five. No, forty.

My mother was married by twenty-two. By the time she was twenty-six she was working on her third baby, my sister. I see pictures of my mother, young and poised and cheerful. She’d wanted to be an actress, a dancer, a singer. Then she was a mom.

She says having children was the best choice—for her the only one worth making. Sometimes I hear her singing. But I haven’t seen her dance in years.

I spent my early twenties feeling privileged, traveling alone, wandering through foreign countries, drinking too much and fooling around with handsome boys like the one from Prague. Oh, that boy.

I walked with him for hours and then days down the snowy streets of Reykjavik, talking about my life, his life, revealing everything. There wasn’t sex, merely the soft fooling around of two teenagerish adults, strangers to each other’s bodies. But there was snow everywhere and I quoted a line from a book about “the silence of snow,” trying to impress him. He said my American accent was “enchanting,” that my breasts were the most beautiful he’d ever seen. Perfect, he said. I was still so young. After a week of this, I never saw him again and I didn’t care to. Every woman should have this experience at least once in her life. Better if it’s twice.

I wish I’d known how young my mother was when I was a child. I wish I could have said, “Hell, mom. You’re too young for this. Take a break. Go dancing. Go for a walk down some snowy path and see where you end up.”

* * *

Jeremiah was my favorite student. You’re not supposed to have favorites, but you do. The favorites for me were never the good kids. As a child, I was the good kid in class. Quiet, smart, complacent. But as a teacher, I liked the opposite of myself as a child. I liked the rebels. Jeremiah was a five-year-old Jim Carrey. He walked into my classroom owning it more than I did, making faces, performing. The other kids loved him. He was popular, as far as preschool popularity goes. He was a pain, but he was fun.

I liked his mom too, even though I judged her for Jeremiah’s cursing, his sometimes outlandish behavior. Still, she was always questioning what the children were being fed for lunch and I liked that because we were feeding them a lot of tasty crap like buttery macaroni and cheese, which was my favorite. But Jeremiah didn’t eat it. Jeremiah brought lunch from home. Sandwich, apple, carrots. Cookies sometimes. Only sometimes.

As a teacher I liked looking in on the lives of the families. I thought I would be the sort of mom who packed her child’s lunch. You know, a little overprotective, concerned about her kid’s health. I thought how on the weekends we’d go hiking and sailing. How every so often we’d have a junk food day and just go crazy on ice-cream and chips and salsa. That’s the sort of mom I would be. Caring, loving, a little annoying and a lot of fun.

But I wasn’t a mom. I was an underpaid teacher. I was an okay teacher, but it wasn’t my calling. Still, I loved my students and wanted the best for them. Young children bond quickly to their teachers and it’s nearly impossible not to love the affection, and to want to return it. The preschoolers were always trying to kiss you, hug you, tell you they loved you.

But there were rules. We could hug them but not kiss them. Sometimes—a lot of times—I broke the rules. I told them I loved them. I kissed them on their foreheads. I thought of them as my babies. Maybe I was too attached. I loved them. But they weren’t mine.

* * *

My mother says I was born to be a mom. She says she could tell by the way I talked to my dolls as a kid, by the way I nurtured children younger than I was. Today I feel so young and old, hopeful and hopeless at different turns. Growing up is to accumulate and also to lose—experience, memory, time.

Now my mother has multiple sclerosis. She’s stopped driving and spends her days reading up on health tips, fiddling with new recipes. Her memory isn’t great, although it hasn’t been in years. Still, she calls me, suggesting names I could give to my imaginary children. She has some great ideas, but I don’t tell her that. I tuck the names away into the most secret part of my heart.

Why did I travel? Why did I keep going? Why didn’t I marry that boy from Prague and settle down into some snowy corner of the world?

Sometimes I think I traveled to make life harder. It’s one of the things the privileged do to discover life outside of ourselves—a harder life, a more enlightened life. I thought in leaving I would know more than what my parents knew.

For a while I lived in the country of Georgia, fell in love there, got sick, had perpetual diarrhea, slept with a coat and a scarf wrapped around my head in the winter. It was so cold. I wanted to learn from it. But it was a romantic hardship. I knew I’d be leaving at the end of the year. I was trying on lives. It didn’t matter where I went. The hardest things were always loneliness, loss. Leaving was worse than any diarrhea.

But my mother didn’t need to leave to find a harder life. It was all just there. Beauty, love, money troubles, death. And her children. Her beautiful, perfect children.

* * *

So what happens next? I meet a man who finally kisses me again and he’s handsome and sweet, but I’m scared of him. I’m quiet and he says I don’t talk enough, that he doesn’t know me.

I find it hard to imagine myself ever telling another man that I love him. Marriage feels like an impossible, disappointing fantasy. And yet when he touches me, I can’t help but think of Jeremiah’s small hand on my belly.

One night I dream of a tiny plant, wild and green, growing inside me. I do want children, someday. This someday hovers slightly above everything else in my life. I tell my mother not to talk about it anymore. I’m done with it, I tell her. What happens happens, I say. What is meant to be will be.

I have pregnant friends. Married friends. Engaged friends. Bellies and rings are everywhere. But me? I walk around with a belly full of nothing more than late-night cheeseburgers and worry and love for the people I care about. It’s a bit like indigestion, really. How I can’t call my parents enough or tell them I love them enough. Because my words are small and the belly of love is enormous, the older I get the more I want the people I love to know it.

My parents don’t hide the fact that they want to be grandparents. In the evenings they watch television and hold hands and when I visit them I no longer think I know something they don’t.

Here’s the truth: I think I might be falling for the man who kisses me but I try not to think of it because thinking of it makes me want to vomit. Saying I love you is easy when you’re a kid, but a grown-up I love you has consequences. Marriage, commitment, potential regret.

Still, I can’t help it—I have a desire to bake him a cake. It’s a childish thing, I know. But sometimes I think Jeremiah might be right—I might not be a grown-up. For instance, I haven’t told a man that I love him in several years. Now when I think of falling in love I don’t think yes but oh fuck.

Sometimes I think of Jeremiah. How he knows too many grown-up words. The most important ones.

“Fuck,” he said to me once. “I love you.”

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BETHANY COX lives in Portland, Oregon, where she writes, wanders, and volunteers with the non-profit Write Around Portland. You can find her at www.riskdelight.com

4 responses to “Grown-Up Words”

  1. Sylvia Hering says:

    Powerful and insightful.

  2. Stephen says:

    Great essay Bethany, you’re a very talented writer. If you ever do have a son in the future, name him Perry in case he grows up to be a doctor.

  3. Laura Bogart says:

    This really resonates with me, Bethany. Thank you so much for such a raw, tender piece.

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