'I am Here, We are Here'
We drive in silence, but there's the squealing of tires in my head from a minute ago. Becky and I had had a fight and we had left, Martin and I. My son's staring at me and I keep staring at the road. We had planned to spend the night at Becky's big comfy farmhouse, but that had gone to shit. We drive past cow pastures, circumcized silos, over the Middleton Bridge that shudders as we bound across. It is a good twenty-minute drive back into town. The sun has begun to nestle between the tree limbs on south hill.
The car feels too small. Maybe he has judged me already. I can't really blame him. It is not a small car, this Nissan Maxima with harsh velvet seats, grease stains on the shoulders of front seats, the low, menacing odor of spilled chemicals from when I didn't shut a bottle of pipe dope tightly and it melted in the summer heat. I keep having this thought that if the goddamn engineer had just designed the seats a little wider, a bit more space between the heat of our cheekbones, a couple degrees more periphery for our eyes to traverse in order to glimpse the other...I don't know. Any second Martin will push back, peek his head through the vapors of gloom and demand an explanation. And I won't be able to give him one, not one he'd like anyway. He'll just get one from his mother when she has him next week anyway.
"So what was the problem Dad?" He's thirteen. I look at him and keep driving. Thin clouds migrate across the horizon. He wants an explanation and with all the shouting back there I can't blame him, but I also can't answer his question, just like I couldn't answer it when Dina and I were together. I thought about leaving many times, just driving off to leave them both for a fresh start, back to New York, to Portland, Oregon where I went to school, but now I am here, we are here, together in this car. He's biting his nails now. He's a slender kid with a large brown mushroom of hair. He has my rough eyebrows. A sprinkling of freckles are scattered across his nose from when he went to Florida last spring.
"Stop biting your nails," I say to him. "It's a bad habit," I say, "I used to do it myself." We pass an Exxon station and a hitchhiker leaning on one of the pumps, thumb extended.
"Dad, I've been biting my nails since I was five." He sounds impatient, impatient for adulthood, for the time when his father will respect his bad habits. "I do it all the time," he says. From the corner of my eye I can see him looking straight out into an unblinking road.
"What do you think of Becky's kids?" I ask him. It might not be too late to go back and make things right with her.
"They're cool," he says, "but I don't think they like me very much." He looks at the floor, strewn with greasy wrappers and empty coffee cups.
"That has nothing to do with you," I say and he crunches styrofoam with his sneaker. "They have their own problems," I say, "If they aren't always nice to you its because they don't like me and they don't like me because I'm with their mother."
"Because of Jethro?" Martin asks, hurt feelings forgotten. Jethro was Becky's last husband and he treated her like shit. Up until very recently that is all the explanation I cared to hear.
"That's a lot of it," I say.
"What else is there?"
I open my mouth, then close it.
"Nothing," I say. My sigh tumbles slowly along the windshield.
"Fine," he says, crossing his arms, "don't tell me." His feet grind more trash into the floor.
I turn on the radio, searching for a clear signal in the rural wilderness.
"Turn it to 660 AM," Martin commands me.
"What's on there?" I am already turning the dial.
"The Knicks game," Martin says. He drums his hands on the dash. "They're playing the Pacers." The game is surrounded with static breath, but the announcer's voice comes through faint but clear.
"Ewing puts it in and the Knicks are up by four!"
Martin pumps a fist and I say, "All right." The crowd jostles in the speakers. The announcer is intense, his voice crisp and efficient.
"If the Knicks win this game they'll have the best record in the Eastern Conference," Martin says.
"Really?" I say, "How did they get so good?" I haven't really followed the Knicks since before Dina and I were together, but Martin listens to games on the radio religiously and often he is able to drag me into the act.
"We won 15 games straight back in March," He says. "It was nearly a new record."
"That's right," I say as Reggie Miller hits a three. Martin whispers, "Fuck," under his breath.
"I don't know why Starks can't do a better job on him." I say
"He's too small," He says, "Miller's got four inches on him. Also, no one comes off screens from under the basket like Miller. Nobody." I like to hear my son talk this way, the expert analysis he apes from sports talk radio whose murmured conspiracies I hear on the other side of his bedroom door late into the night. Sometimes he calls up the shows and talks to one of the hosts. It's rather impressive. He says to the host, 'I wanted to talk about the Knicks' bench depth." He says, "I wanted to discuss the possibility of a trade for Mark Price." He quotes obscure percentages and statistical trends. One of the hosts even gave him a nickname: Whiz Kid.
"And Miller buries another three!" The announcer declares.
"Fuck!" Martin yells, punching the dash, "Fuck!"
"Hey!" I say loudly, "What have I told you about these temper tantrums. It's a game, Martin."
"No," he says, gritting his teeth.
"Martin, I'll turn the radio off," I say. Out of nowhere it comes, this anger of his, sometimes even tears. One time I showed him an article by Peter Vecsey where he ripped the Mets apart for their dysfunctional clubhouse. I thought it was quite clever. Martin got halfway through and then, without warning, tore the paper into furious, small pieces saying,
"Fuck him! I'll fucking kill him!" I should have told him to write a rebuttal, but I tend to have these constructive thoughts long after fact. At the time I merely yelled at him for ripping apart the Sunday Times, which cost $3.50.
"What is your problem?" I say, "You know what, get angry all you want, but I won't tolerate you destroying things. This isn't your property, you need to get that through your head."
"Will you just let me listen to the game?" he says. His mouth is buried in the neck of his shirt and his nostrils are flared.
"Fuck," I say, "Go to the gym if you're so angry."
"You're always telling me to go to the gym."
"I know a guy down at the Y who can show you a few things," I say, "It would be good for you."
"What's the point?"
"Well, it would get you out of the house for one thing. You'd meet some kids your own age."
"They won't like me."
"How do you know?" I say, "How do you know that?"
"Because that's what I know. I have no friends, Dad. Don't you realize that? I have no friends." He wipes his face violently with the neck of his shirt. Now I've done it.
Martin has been saying this to me for a solid year, but even now when I hear it I get an uncomfortable fuzzy sensation at the top of my nose. It is a hard thing for a father to hear and what's worse, I can see why he is shunned. He's so in his head, so ready to peel back the layers of the world, of appearances. He does it obliviously, without realizing how threatening it can be to others.
"I have no friends, I'm an outcast," he says. He brings in a violent breath.
"But you had friends," I say to him. I'm trying to gently bring him back to the ground. "Then you got rid of them."
"They were losers, Dad." His hands clench in fists on his knees. This, I don't understand. I don't understand this at all.
"How are they losers?" I say, although I've heard the answer many times.
"Nobody likes them, Dad," he says. I can feel the earnestness in his voice. Choking.
"Who cares?" I say.
"It matters, Dad." I have no response. I don't understand how my son comes to place such a high value on popularity, acceptance from a bunch of kids, most of whom will end up re-populating the gas stations in upstate New York. I find it cowardly and demeaning, this misguided envy. Fuck it if I can help it.
"Can we go go-karting, Dad?" he asks suddenly. I don't hear him for a second.
"There's a go-karting place we're gonna pass in about five minutes," he says, "I've seen it on the way back from Becky's before." Perspiration makes his face shiny and pale, the roots of his proceed starkly from his skull. He's letting his hair grow long so, most of the time, it's in his eyes. He seems so pale and exposed.
Nonetheless, this is sudden. Go-karting is something planned, an activity reserved for birthdays, for weekends spent in beige motel rooms. What kind of father takes his kid go-karting on a whim?
"I don't feel like go-karting," I say and it's the truth. I want a hot bath and an apologetic phone call.
"Then can I just go, Dad?" It has gone darker and my son's voice seems blunted by the faded gray of the upholstery, by the steering wheel that feels like a spine in my hands. The shadows are sharp and angled, decorations of a patient, wandering night.
"Why don't we do it some other time? Its getting late," I speak tiredly, I can feel my esophagus begin to crinkle with dryness like a used brown paper bag.
"Dad," he says to me. "Dad," he says. Quietly, almost whispered as though to say it any louder would jerk the wheel violently from my hands and send the car wailing out of control.
Once long ago I yelled that I would leave and never come back and Martin came up to me, barely reaching my waist, and said, Dad, you don't really mean that do you? I don't remember how I responded or even if I stayed or left. I just remember what he said to me and how he said it and it feels like Martin is seven all over again as he speaks to me now.
From the corner of my eye I can see a sliver of fog expand and condense upon the windshield, where it meets my son's breath. I think something to myself, a sentence of words which makes me exhale heavily as I process its meaning: I am the only friend my son has in the world. That is what I think to myself. Overdramatic, yes, unappreciative of the bland terror of real suffering, but it is about my son and he is a child, my child.
"All right," I say, looking to make sure he appreciates my acquiescence, "we'll go."
* * *
We stand in line behind a group of rugged teenagers, boys slouching against the fence, the gleam of tanned arms set back atop it, the large box light peering its wormholed glow down upon from a large metal pole which I can reach out and touch. White tank tops and rippled muscles, revealing the occasional shoulder mole. Two of them have girlfriends who lean against their chosen mates, knees locked by short, tight leather skirts. There is one with blond hair and one with pink hair. A party from the other night is being discussed. I can tell it makes Martin nervous. Dusk swirls around us and I have the urge to look behind me. The cars zip around the track, turning sharply, swinging wide, pulling tight; a kind of dance.
"That kid got himself twisted, yo!" He's got a tattoo of a blazing sword on his arm, which quivers as he involuntarily flexes a bicep.
"I was gonna curb stomp that bitch!" another says, followed by a long pull of a cigarette. His girlfriend giggles. The clamp of fingers at her side makes her squeal. "You're gonna burn your hair, bitch," he says. Pink does not seem to mind being called this. She motions with her finger for the cigarette. Instead an arm reaches up to her face with the smoking white stick and puts it to her lips. She draws soundlessly, sexily.
There are two minutes left before the next group. The announcer is old and he too smokes a cigarette, right arm tucked all the way into his shirt up to the wrist. It looks comical. I put my hand on the small bony shoulder that squirms immediately out from underneath. He is embarrassed by my stale, fatherly presence. A few of the group look at us briefly, find us uninteresting and look at each other.
"That girl was cheating on him with Derrell," Pink is saying to Blond. She talks through hard red lipstick. Her breasts poke defiantly through her jacket and I am scornful of her.
"Yeah." They all fall silent for a second, like a group of actors suddenly frozen upon the stage, a dropped line somewhere. Then one them laughs and they all laugh, a joke moving batted between their eyes. One of them has two missing teeth and he twists the rubber of his nose, snorting. I lean over to Martin.
"Yo, man," I whisper in his ear, "can you dig it?" I want to have a joke with him, to make our own circle, but he looks at me sideways and rolls his eyes away. I am hurt and burned. My own son feels more allegiance to a bunch of punks than his own father. I lean into his ear again and whisper harshly, "Are these the kind of kids you find cool?"
"Shut up, Dad," he says quietly. They are. It is frightening to realize this.
I have to do something. Here and now, thrust logic between my son and this malingering sense of worthlessness that clings to him, or maybe he to it. I grab him by both shoulders, twist him around and squat down so we're right at the same level.
"Martin, these kids are morons," I say to him very seriously. He looks away when I say "moron" but then he looks back like he's just realized he forgot something. His shoulders shift in my grasp, tremble, sigh. Martin is pretty small and I hope he grows a few more inches. "Sure, they were popular in High School but that's as good as it gets. Look at them. They're bored out of their minds." Martin looks at them and frowns.
"They seem pretty happy to me," He says softly and in truth they do look happy, shoving each other affectionately, laughter given freely back and forth between them. I look for a new angle.
"You can really do something with your life," I say. "Why spend it worrying about what other people think of you?"
"What's the point of doing something with your life," Martin says, "If nobody likes you enough to appreciate it?" I stare at him speechless. I actually gasp for air and laugh.
"You dope," I say warmly, "That is so utterly backwards I can barely believe it." Martin glares at me, but at least now I have his attention. "People respect you and want to be around you because of what you do, not the other way around. You don't accomplish things just because you're popular. You become popular by accomplishing things." I'm already starting to see flaws in what I'm saying, but I keep going. This could be important. "Who comes to a place like this on a Friday night when they're twenty-two years old?" I say. "Someone who can't find anything better to do with their time, that's who." Martin shrugs, but I sense that I've struck something in him, some part of his past that hasn't thought itself into a corner. He's smart enough to know that the appearance of something is not always equivalent to its contents, even if he's not ready to take a good honest look at the necessity of constructing an appearance for himself.
"I don't know," he says, "They all accept each other. The guys have girlfriends. They laugh at each other's jokes. I want that."
"Sure," I say, "That's fine. But make a few distinctions about whose opinions you care about. I'm not even saying these fellows are beneath you. I'm saying that you are so different from them that it's pointless to make comparisons."
"I just feel like there's something that I don't know about people," Martin says, "Like I missed a class about it or something."
"Well, for what its worth I think your mother and I could have provided you with a better model for keeping appearances," I say. "At my old job, they used to say, 'Fake it till you feel it.'"
"That sounds dumb."
"It's not. You should be more open to new ideas if you feel so stuck."
"But I've tried it," Martin says, "It doesn't work." This is contemptuous, a smug smile is slowly creeping up the side of his face and I'm sure he doesn't even realize it.
"So you've seen it all then?" I say. My voice is cold. The line starts moving forward and I'm whispering harshly in his ear, "Maybe if you were a little more fucking receptive to what others say instead of being so convinced of your own opinions--" I don't even finish. I see sword tattoo and his pink dame peering back at me. .
"Shut up, Dad." Between clenched teeth, he's looking at the pebble that he's isolated from the others on the path and pushing forward with the rubber toe of his sneaker. He is an uppity little punk. My son is an uppity little punk.
"You go on ahead," I say.
I pay the mutton-chopped attendant, who grunts and hands my son a ticket. Martin walks to a lime green speedster and straps himself in. The motors of the karts—hijacked from lawnmowers—are still on and they mumble and growl impatiently. The group of locals are in karts all around Martin. Planning an ambush? Sword tattoo is next to my son and I have to crane to see the top of Martin's head. It is nearly dark, the sky in sullen retreat, just barely blue at the fringes. A roar of motors, a scratching of rubber, treads squirming on the asphalt. They are off.
I begin to sweat, in an instant I am taking long healthy breaths; the air is tar-stained and good. There is a difference to the world, an ease of occupied space not there before, a feeling of uncloggedness. I can think about something other than how my son sees the world and how he sees me. I can think about my fight with Becky without wanting to put my fist through a window.
It began with a trifle, as all real fights do. She had begun to tell me her plans to renovate the living room of her house. Her friend Andy Metzler, an architect, came over to give her what she called "creative inspiration." She pulled me into the living room: a high ceilinged, carpeted space with a landing looking down on it from the second floor; and began to talk. Her eyes were wide-awake, creaturely, glancing back and forth as though expecting a visitor. This was uncharacteristic of Becky. Her large Midwestern hands gestured in wide loops, mapping beams for an archway, measurements of a skylight. Her voice carried each new idea upwards to a climax then declining smoothly into a tranquil space for the next one to build momentum. She seemed in a trance. She moved to the farthest corner of the room, as though to give me space to take it all in, spun around to face me and said:
"What do you think?"
Sometimes it's better not to have an opinion. When someone asks you what you think, nine times out of ten, it's asked in the hope of affirmation, the desire to see their thoughts validated outside their own head.
I knew what I had to say to Becky, a simple "I think it's great," but it was how I had to say it that made me stop. Because it wasn't how I felt and women can sense this. I thought her plans were ill-conceived given her financial situation. I thought that the living room already looked cozy and inviting. She stood in the corner, small and blurred in shadows, her smile growing tighter with each moment I tried to think, the simplicity of my response shrinking to a mere shell. Finally, I decided to simply put a question to her.
"How much do you think it will cost?" I said. I tried to make it sound neutral, as if the idea had just randomly surfaced amidst a swirling of otherwise positive thoughts. She had begun glaring at me before I finished.
"I don't know," she said finally. There was nothing more. After dinner was over I tried to come up behind her and stroke her hair. She jerked free of my grasping hands and moved into the kitchen. She started doing the dishes and I sat at the table and watched her. When she finished, she walked into the living room and I followed.
"Didn't you see how excited I was?" she asked, whirling around to face me. A candle flickered next to her on the mantelpiece. Shadows in the room yawned and slithered across the walls.
"What makes you want to do this?" I said finally. "What's wrong with things the way they are?" It was one of those fights where the lines had already been drawn and we had waited by them, tense and motionless, planning what to say, anticipating the other's response, plotting counters, new accusations, filling to the brim with the words of war.
"I want to invite people here!" she shouted. "And right now I feel ashamed inviting people into this house the way it looks."
"What's so bad about it? I like it here." I said. I felt like she was somehow talking about me, that she was ashamed to invite people to meet me. I kept repeating, "What's so bad about it?"
And she had screamed, "Why do you have to take what I love and turn it to shit when you see that I love it?" I had called for Martin and we had left, scared out of walking, but too proud to run.
The sun has vanished in the sky and all that holds back the night is a dying, darkening shade of blue at the edges of a few distant clouds. My son is a speck at the other end of the track, zipping around a hairpin turn, coming back on the inside of a broad curve towards the starting line. Large lights stretch their necks high over the track. Their rays petrify the dusty asphalt. As he heads back towards me, my son passes one of the boys who stood in front of us and as he zips past where I stand on the fence, I can see the side of his face, the tug of a smile beneath his helmet. He's compact and focused, an invisible crowd chanting his name as he thunders down the straightaway. He's going to be okay, Martin is. He hasn't vanished too far into his own head to avoid being a kid. All the loneliness, the self-pity, it can still vanish from him faster than a cat whose just been out shivering in the cold, but has forgotten and wants to go out again. Right then and there I decide to drive back to Becky's with Martin after this is over. To tell her how much I really do like her ideas and that she's right: there's nothing wrong with changing your appearance so the world will love you a little more. I feel clean, replenished with this decision, tense with the pureness of possibility.
Martin's at the far end of the track again, zipping over the track like a water bug. He takes the hairpin turn a little too wide and the guy who he just passed swings in behind him. As they hit the long turn I see Martin looking back over his shoulder. Several cars before Martin pass the starting line and Muttonchops walks out onto the track holding a sign that has the words "Last Lap." Martin swings around the final turn to come back on the straightaway. Again, he takes it too wide. The guy behind him slams into the back of his kart and it makes a noise like a gunshot. My son's head wrestles with his shoulders. Slamming on the brakes, the other kart moves past. He's just sitting there in the middle of the track, a thin cloud of soot rising from the back of the kart. I look at the attendant who moves a toothpick languidly in his mouth, then back at Martin.
"Are you all right?" I yell to him, "Are you okay?" He looks at me and nods, but he's still just sitting there. This is awful. "Go!" I scream and I'm jumping up and down waving my hand across my body. I'm ready to jump out on the track and kick that guy in the face as he crosses my path. Just kick him right off his kart as it's moving.
Martin's moving forward, slowly, slowly. He looks behind his shoulder every five seconds. Karts pass him, whooshing past and I remember when Martin was three he dropped one of his micro-machines in the middle of 8th Ave and tried to run back into oncoming traffic to get it. Only this time I can't run back and snatch him to the side.
By the time he's on the far side of the track, everyone else is pulling into the pit. He's alone out there, crawling his way back. I want him to hear my voice, just to know I haven't left him, but I have no words and he's too far away. Instead, I look at the cars in the pit and find the guy who hit my son. He's taken off his helmet and laughs with the friends on either side of him. The attendant moves the toothpick across his lips with his tongue. One of the boys points out at Martin and the other two laugh. The attendant has to wait until the last kart has stopped before letting people get out of their karts. Sword tattoo climbs out of his kart and walks through the gate. He takes two steps past the fence and I step in front of him, blocking his path, cutting him off from his crowd.
"What the fuck was that?" I say to him. He stares back at me with dark sleepy eyes, close enough to smell liquor, wet and sweet, on his breath
"Excuse me?" He tightens himself quickly, but he knows what I'm talking about. He looks past me at his friends and I flash a quick glance at them too. They're hanging back, apprehensive and sulky, shifting in and out of the light.
"You know what I'm talking about," I say loudly. I'm trying not to shout but the effort is causing my left leg to shake. Its down there jiggling like a paint mixer. "You were riding his ass and then when he slowed down you rammed him. He's thirteen years old. What the hell is wrong with you?" I see Martin. He's reached the gate and his head is dropped.
"Dude, it was an accident."
"Accident, my ass. I saw you right there. You were trying to intimidate him and when he made a mistake you hit him. Getting the best of someone ten years younger than you. You should be real proud."
"Whatever, man," he says and steps past me. I turn to follow and see his friends. The girls have their arms defiantly crossed on their breasts. I look at them all, teeth grinding. I finally shake my head and turn away. My son is at my side and I hear his breath, long and resigned.
"Dad, what did you have to do that for?" I put my hand on his shoulder and he doesn't pull away. Out in the parking lot, the eyes of cars and pickups gape like dead fish. It's dark now.
"That asshole," I mutter to myself, "That fucking asshole." A pair of lights sputter into being and gravel hisses as they peel out in a boxy station wagon, bouncing over the embankment and onto the road. Martin is tugging at my side.
"Dad, you shouldn't have done that. It was probably just an accident."
"It was not an accident." We've started walking back towards the car. There is a pressure in my head like yelling. The car is smelly and silent driving home. Every once in a while I look and see my son exhaling deeply, close to his window so that a circle of glass films outward and then slowly shrinks backward to a speck and gone. There are no messages on the answering machine when we arrive home.