Tonight, I am feeling the same way I did shortly after Josiah came to live with us full-time four years ago. Josiah in need. Like the boy Denver with the match box car. And I was not patient. I was not loving. There was unfinished business.
It was four years ago when Cheryl’s daughter slipped me a personal check for a thousand dollars. That night, as usual, she left for home without her son. And I placed the check on my bureau in one of the two small bedrooms on the main floor of our house and went to bed to maybe dream about it as I might dream, again, about it tonight—Joe, Cheryl, me…and the little house we dance in.
But there was no dream, at least not one that I remember. In the morning I get ready for work, thirteen-year-old Josiah gets ready for school and Cheryl moves into the small kitchen. That’s where the dance begins. The kitchen is about ten by eight feet, if you don’t count the counters, and she makes herself coffee at the sink which is angled into a corner. Soon Joe is standing in the middle, cold feet the size of boats on the tile, his Simpsons cotton pajama bottoms getting too short. His voice is lower than it should be, almost hoarse this early in the morning. Cheryl turns from the sink, takes her cup to the opposite side of the kitchen, to the microwave above the stove. Joe steps back, yawning, hair a mess. There is the whir of the microwave, then she’s back to the sink as if she’s made a giant oval pass in a single move. There is his voice again, saying something at an improbable pitch for a boy his age. And then I step onto the floor.
This house seemed very large when we first bought it four years earlier in 2003. But then everything seemed large after our one bedroom apartment in Brooklyn. Now it has settled in to be the cottage that the real estate agency called it: nine hundred square feet on the main floor, nearly nine hundred in the nearly finished basement. We didn’t have enough furniture to fill it and went shopping for extra beds, a sofa for the TV room downstairs, chairs and lamps to fill spaces that looked blankly at us for weeks. Now we all live in the kitchen, it seems. Like the designated emergency gathering spot for airline crews outside a hotel, it is the space we migrate to when we aren’t sure where else we should be.
After twenty years as a flight attendant, I’m on furlough, looking for full-time work in some other industry. Meanwhile, I’m adjuncting at two local colleges. Cheryl is making lunches for me and Joe to the immediate left of the sink at the bread board above the utensil drawer which is where I’m trying to get for a spoon. She’s half way through cutting a tomato, and swings the lower half of her body for me to the left. And Joe moves back by the far wall next to the door that leads to the basement. He has an itch on his back and both arms are wrapped around himself trying to get at it through one of my T-shirts that, despite his lank, has shoulder seams dropped half way down his arms. I merge the spoon into my Spoon Sized Shredded Wheat and move to the opposite side of the kitchen—to the door leading to the dining room, but I stand there and eat. We all stare at each other for a moment, and then the dance starts up again.
I consider it a small victory when I began to think it was no longer an imposition to have Josiah in our home full time, but that I was getting something from the experience completely unexpected and filled with a kind of haphazard grace. But the conversations in my head with his mother, my daughter, really my step-daughter, continue anyway: furious, sarcastic, mean. Always I return, a bit sheepish, to the only fact I need to hang onto, a fact I share with those who ask: she is unavailable to her son. That is all. Unavailable.
So Josiah lives with us in this cottage in a Salt Lake neighborhood known as 9th and 9th, far away from the life we had in New York, and as he grows the house continues to shrink. As he moves through its tiny rooms built in 1950 in what was originally a Dutch enclave of the city, it trembles under his weight but somehow holds as he jumps the last four stairs to the basement with a mighty thud that rattles the new windows we finally had cut into the foundation—for more light in this little house with gray wood shingles for siding. And even downstairs where it is carpeted and slightly more spacious and where we congregate in front of the television for yet another viewing of Die Hard or Pirates of the Caribbean, we navigate around each other in a series of complicated steps: step back, twist to the right, step up, fold to the left. Move around grandfather Daley’s leather-strapped trunk serving as a coffee table for Cheryl who is sashaying through with a basket of laundry. Perform a two-step on the way to the office around a pile of videos being organized in the middle of the floor by Joe. Bow to your partner, one, two, three. . . .
And then there are the cats. How soon we have filled this little house that once seemed so capacious compared to the jigsaw puzzle of an apartment with boxes of Christmas wrap carefully stored with Cheryl’s framing equipment under the bed. The owner of this little house before us, a young man, actually had a punching bag hanging from the door jamb leading into the office downstairs: room to throw a punch, for God’s sake. Now, Cheryl and I share an office and Joe has his own inner sanctum with Jimmi Hendrix in skin tight pants posted on the door and the cats like a credit card ad. They’re everywhere you want to be.
Not unlike my daughter, or so it seems, whose absence is everywhere. In fact, from time to time she still makes a phone call or sends an email to inform us of something all people should know about twelve year olds–a summer program that would be good for Joe (and that we will have to pay for), how important it is that a child understand the “natural consequences of his behavior,” a new book out on Attention Deficit Disorder. I can hear the television in the background, the raucous laughter of her boyfriend, 9 years her junior; the categorically fecund breath of the university where she is a hot shot undergraduate “single mother” at 34. She graduates this June.
This is what she can do as a mother. Make a phone call.
There is a conversational arc that I travel in my head with my daughter. It is the same every time, and it comes across as self-righteous and angry, a litany of her crimes and of my woes. It ends with “tough love” demands that start with “And you will . . .” And I am the good father even though I’m hard and demanding, which is my job, damn it all, to make sure my love for her is earned, not granted as with her mother. After all, the world works that way. You have to earn the love of the world.
This is how the conversation actually goes. We are in the park the previous summer which is between our cottage and the house that Josiah does not want to live at. We are at a picnic table. I have asked for the meeting. She is smoking, nervously, and I don’t just want to tell her what’s on my mind, I want revenge, right there under the towering cottonwoods next to her bike which she rides rather than a car which is ecologically irresponsible but which she drives (the car) or rides in whenever she needs to go to Costco, or is late getting to an exam up on the hill, or needs to picked up to go bowling with her son in an arranged date we’ve made so that she actually does something with Joe at least once a week.
It actually doesn’t matter how the conversation goes. It only matters how it ends. Me pounding the table with my fist and raising my voice so that someone walking by looks at us. Her saying something like, “this relationship costs me too much” as she tries to juggle her cigarette her bike and the notes she has brought with her regarding her complaints of me and her mother. And she is leaving. If there were a door, and she had an extra hand, she would be slamming it in my face. But it is I that want revenge even though it is disguised as prescience. “You need to take care of your son for yourself as much as for him. You need to be his mother for your own sake, not his.” But she is gone. I will apologize two days later, but the damage will have been done. Revenge only triggers her spite.
That was last summer when dinner could be taken on the back deck. Now we are back inside, in the 8 by 12 dining room off the kitchen. There is a seam between the dining room and the living room where, incomprehensively, there appears to have once been a wall. Impossible to imagine one more wall sectioning off another part of the house that is already . . . so . . . small. We sit at this table for everything right now–dinner, breakfast, homework, model car making. My laptop sits here since two of the four shelves collapsed under the weight of books in Cheryl’s office where I’ve migrated since we moved Joe out of the guest room upstairs and into mine. This is my daughter’s fault as well, somehow. The collapsed book cases with my books and papers on the floor. When my books are on the floor, I can’t seem to get anything done. Another convenient excuse–along with the TV just outside the door next to Joe’s Game Cube with spider cords spread eagle–not to write in the morning before I go to work.
I consider not cashing my daughter’s check. If I do, don’t I legally accept the terms of the transaction, and in turn, the arrangement? But we need the money. It’s expensive having a grandson without child support from anyone and who the state doesn’t acknowledge is living here.
Whenever I attempt to tell the story of how we moved back here to be closer to our grandson after his parents’ divorce and how we are now raising him, it doesn’t sound convincing. Why are we being so co-dependent with the mother? Why aren’t we putting our foot down? Why aren’t we claiming our grandparent lives? Why don’t we go to court?
Why is our house suddenly so small? Why do we put up with it?
It’s now eighteen months into my furlough, the summer after my conversation in the park with Joe’s mother. Our little family of three manages to go on vacation, my first in over two years. We drive across the high desert of Utah, down through the appropriately named and plunging Virgin River Canyon to Las Vegas and into the San Bernardino mountains and land on Hollywood Boulevard. Universal Studios will claim our lives for the next two days. We are out of the house but into a single motel room in little Thailand. One bathroom, one television, one short fuse. Joe has the impossible task of exulting in movie-land while still maintaining “cool.” It’s not unlike my dilemma. How do I love this boy but not feel taken advantage of? To love him, to care for him, doesn’t that mean that I’m absolving my daughter of any responsibility? Am I not telling her by my actions that it’s okay what she is doing?
We’ve been on the Jurassic Park ride. We’ve visited the Backdraft exhibit . . . thrilled at the spills at Waterworld, eaten ribs the size of mine at a Flintstones’ eatery. And I hate this place. It represents everything that is wrong with our culture. Gluttony, living vicariously through movies, the materialism approaching hedonism of an America that must, I’m convinced, fire the imaginations of an Islamicist suicide bomber. At least Vegas doesn’t presume that you care about how the illusions we feed off are created. Joe is ecstatic. High on sugar, going ballistic over every “Back to the Future” ride—twice. He’s pushing and pulling me. Demanding this and that. In a frenzy that he’ll miss something. In short, he is a 13-year old en extremis, every angle of his body jutting out above over-sized feet. He’s in that place where he likes to slug me in the arm.
Finally, the Blues Brothers are in front of us. A half hour review of their songs built around the bare bones references of a long-lost narrative from the 70s. It’s live, and I’m enjoying the music, the singing. And I can tell Joe is jumping out of his skin, craning to go over here, busy something over there, head out for the Terminator 2 pavilion to don 3-D glasses to see the governor of California in leather. The Blues Brothers show appears to be winding down, it’s hot—LA is insufferably hot in July. And Joe starts pulling on me. “Let’s go. Let’s go.” Now he’s pushing me, this kid almost my height with elbows the size and hardness of a squash racket.
It’s time to make him cry. I’ve done this before. It’s easy to do. First, you grip him by the neck with one hand and take his upper arm with the other. You start walking him somewhere, away from where he was pulling you. You get your mouth very close to his ear, behind him so that you have the psychological advantage. He can’t see you. He can only hear and feel you. He may attempt to wriggle free, but you have eighty pounds on him. He may attempt to say something back, but the grip gets tighter to shut him down.
When he’s completely overpowered, you can actually let go and he will do exactly what you say because he’s so devastated that he can’t control the shaking. Nana has moved away, furious with me, then resigned, perhaps to the situation, at least at the moment. She knows that I will only try to defend myself to her and will be angry with her for taking Joe’s side. As if there’s a war going on. Or something.
Now that I have made Joe cry, I can become the soft-spoken psychologist that I have learned to hate. And like the soft-spoken psychologist, the conversation is designed to make sure that the patient (Joe) knows that my intentions are good, but that he’s just pushed me too far. That my bad behavior is not my fault, but his. Look good (the parent at Universal Studios quietly decompressing with a visibly distraught teenager on the wheelchair ramp going up to the Vaudeville theater), get what you want (revenge for the way my life is going), don’t be at fault (he made me do it).
It will be a long time before Joe trusts me again. His Papa is explosive, like the man whose name shall remain obscured, and does denial like his mother. The trip home allows me to mentally disappear into the Mojave Desert and Joe to venture further into Hollywood on the portable DVD player he has in the back seat. He has some good moments after Papa’s blow-up in front of the Blues Brothers pavilion. A competition of swimming underwater in the hotel pool. A retro lunch at Hard Rock Café. A calming moment at an aromatherapy salon, the two of us plugged into the bubbling bright liquids of jasmine, of lavender, of citrus. But the incident is a failing on my part that makes me want to run away from this boy, just as others in his life have done. To run back to the choices I thought I was making. To be childless, to be an artist, to be in control of what happens to me. To not have to go to Universal Studios.
Back in the little house we dance in, we are gearing up for another school year. There are school fees, clothes and shoes to buy. We need a new bed for Joe. He’s outgrown the daybed we folded out for him before he migrated over full-time. We are getting ready to take a mortgage out on the house. And there is the appointment coming up with the orthodontist who will require a couple thousand to be paid out-of-pocket: at least one thousand from each of his parents, neither of which have offered. Until now. My daughter’s check is here, waiting to be acknowledged, redeemed, cashed.
So there is the check and the myriad failings of my daughter it represents, sitting on my bureau. The latest of her failings is that she has turned me into an abuser of my grandson. Joe trusts me less, of course, digs his heels in more when I do anything other than agree with him or let him have his spurious, adolescent way. I am one who overpowers and shames, one who digs in his heels as well. Someone who wants to win, and who propels every conversation, every interaction into a competition of sorts. A sick contest between an adult and a child.
I have become the very thing I have learned to despise in my daughter.
The first day of school and we are dancing again. Joe is eating eggs, bacon and toast which I have made for all of us before the start of a new year, to start us all off on a good foot. I am standing at the stove, the frying pan spitting and hissing, and Cheryl comes up behind me with her coffee. I shift to the right even before her hand rests gently on my back to signal her arrival. She opens the microwave to warm her cup, and pats me twice so that I know she’s retreating backwards in a modified tango to our internal rhythm. I step back into my space for two beats. Then Joe comes into get juice out of the fridge which opens into my other hip which bumps it back just enough to send it closed as he turns to the counter with the jug, looking for a glass, which Cheryl gets for him since she’s now standing at the counter wiping up crumbs. From above it must look like a beehive—bees frantically filling in cells, intimate, humid. Or it looks like the choreographed chaos of a street scene in a musical. These are steps both comforting in their familiarity but terrifying as well. This is the little house we dance in, and will dance in it forever it seems. Constrained, constricted as we are but somehow calmed by kinetic familiarity.
“We need a bigger house,” I say to no one in particular and flip an egg. “I think we should look for something with a bigger kitchen at least. Maybe something on the other side of the park.” Joe stops short, a half-filled glass of juice in his hand. He is a different boy than he was last summer when he followed the patron saints of the American dysfunctional family, The Simpsons, as they waddled away from signing autographs with their four-fingered yellow hands at Universal. He had tagged after them like a puppy as they disappeared after the photo op behind a fence, and he stood, as if in jail, hands on the vertical bars, his pale forehead pressed into the cold steel, his cheeks still stained with dried tears. Now, standing with his juice held half aloft, he is something of a cross between The Beaver (a TV boy sanitized from irony) and a mountain-bred surfer dude (coolness bordering on oblivion).
“No way!” he growls as only a man-boy can growl. “We are not moving from this house. I love this house. This is our house. You’re going to give it to me when you die.” And then he grins. And those four thousand dollar braces go a-glint in the kitchen light, and I have a stab of gratitude for the slip of paper signed by my daughter and sitting on my bureau less than a simple, modified foxtrot away.