My Boys

Our house is currently being painted. Before school, Cayde slips out the door, then reappears.

“They’re Argentinian!” he says in a high whisper, almost conspiratorially. He disappears again and soon I hear Cayde’s excited jabbering, and the painters’ bemused response. There are a few deep chuckle. When I go to check on Cayde, he’s standing with feet planted on the lawn, clutching his backpack straps, recounting yesterday’s ‘conferencia de sciencia’, and how there’s a scourge of pez leones—lionfish—in the ocean. Only tiburones can eat them, he explains, and there are fewer sharks in the waters these days.

The painters have their brushes holstered in plastic buckets, smiling.

“He speaks good Spanish,” they say. I don’t want to give Cayde a big head, so I smile, nod, and meet their eyes in response.

Cayde disappears at the Mexican grocer often, then reappears with tortillas in hand. He’s learned that his blonde crown coupled with an adept tongue results in bounty: a free bolillo, pats on the head.

Parent/Teacher conference is delayed a day, the meeting before Cayde’s having gone long. We had to reschedule. Cayde’s English teacher offers a hug of apology when we do meet, though I warn against it: I reek of penguins. She hugs me anyway—a good and earnest embrace—and remarks that penguin hugs may well be the best. The hug and the fact of her nose ring has her ahead in my book.

During any and all Parent/Teacher conferences, I physically ball up: I lace my ankles tight, I cross my hands in my lap. Much of my upbringing has me wanting to succeed, needing the pat on the head, which is why these meetings necessarily stop me. I want automatic success for my kid. At the same time, I furiously don’t. Cayde, meanwhile, randoms praise from the fabricante de tortillas, else this morning’s Argentinian painter, and so easily. I know the news from his teacher will most likely be good, but I dislike forums where judgment is du jour and where often I’m suspicious of the judges.

Meaning: all discomfort is mine. Cayde’s coast is clear.

Cayde’s English teacher has two rings on her right hand ring finger: one of copper leaf, and one that looks like white gold. She has on silver nail polish, which bridges the difference, and she smooths out Cayde’s papers and projects purposefully, pointing out the academic things she’s supposed to point out. There’s red ink on the evaluative papers, but she says: ‘That’s just my advice. I tell the kids I’m only giving them advice. Teaching is not correcting.”

Words come up: ‘Seminar’. ‘Smart’. ‘Hasty’. ‘Distracted’. The phrase: ‘I-know-this-already’.

Cayde is very cued in to the fact that I skipped a grade in elementary school. He wants to as well, but his English teacher forces a full stop. “He’s doing everything kids do at the end of the third grade already, but I’m not going to give him an advanced score on his report card—maybe later. I want him to keep performing well at a third grade level. I want him at three, not looking toward four.”

In which case, I want to hug this teacher again.

Cayde talked to the Argentinian painters this morning, then remarked he forgot to ask them their names, something he’s forgotten to do for two weeks. A sign, I worry, that he’s encroaching on over-confidence and missing the point that having smarts is necessary avenue to having heart.

“Hello. How are you?” is the most important sequence of sentences one can utter. Waiting for the response, and patiently, is even more important.

It’s the one most essential lesson I seek to instill in Cayde: make your brain and heart one organ, Kid.

(Yeah—I like that he’s smart. I enjoy that he kicked the first goal of the soccer season, and that he has the best punting ability on the team. I like that he can now stump me at twenty questions; I love that he’s a good big brother…)

Cayde’s Spanish teacher pipes up and shows me his essays. “He does this, he has a voice.” Cayde gets high points for conceptual thinking, low scores for grammar, and I welcome the mixed-bag humility. I love that he misspells things and gets the tenses all wrong. I really want the mistakes.

Spanish teacher: “He’s bilingual, though. He wasn’t deterred by my accent (she’s Puertoriqueno); he gets my jokes.”

Understanding a joke is the highest mark of language apprehension. Taking a joke is not on the same ladder, but still equally—differently—difficult.

Spanish teacher presses her palms to the table, chipped manicure. “I give him a four here.” She points to the report card, and I have to adjust my scratched bifocals, because all my glasses are scratched, and I can only see out of the bottom of my lenses.

She pauses. “He really knows science. And in Spanish! He knows the concept, he explains it to the rest of the class. I’ve worked eight years here. I’ve never given a four.” She brings her voice down: ‘He is such a joy’ she whispers. She taps again on the report card. ‘A four.’

I don’t like numbers. But what the English teacher said erased the arithmetic: “He had problems with his homework, but given guidance, he took advice well.” This is the best thing a parent can hear.

“He knows he can learn by taking advice, and he does.”

I’m relieved. I explain that Cayden is very much me, just blonder and with those better parts of Jenn that lend him temperance.

I confess: ‘knowing it all tempts…’ and my ankles are still crossed in perhaps embarrassment: knowing it all, all these years of knowing it all have proved the exact opposite, the exact opposite of how I’d like to be perceived or accepted.

“It tempts arrogance,” I suggest.

The English teacher says ‘no.’

‘He’s just very excited to be learning, and to know things.’

The Argentinian painter greets me at the door because I have no choice: he’s painting the door. He has a moustache and meaty hands. He sees my guitar in the front room, says: “You play?” I confess: not much anymore. But it’s a great guitar, with a solid mahogany top.

“You like Pink Floyd?”

“Eh.”

“What do you like?”

I’m at a loss and reel off some names; I don’t know what I like anymore. At a certain age, and as I tell Cayde, asking about favorites is a useless exercise: life is too big for favorites.

Finn wanders to the door with a fistful of cereal and says, earnestly: “Ah-po-te-ba.”

The painter smiles, his moustache dividing.

“This guy: he is my friend.” And he gives Finn both a hug and a high-five.

“You–you are my friend, Little Man,” and Finn says his syllables; I have my coffee and the painter-man his brush.

“Your son—he speaks perfect Spanish. And this guy. In my family, a kid—especial. You know? Especial, muy. This guy—he my friend. “

I tell the painter that Finn used to be a secret. I tell him I told my friend Leah about him, and that she looked at me stonily, and said from behind sunglasses: “my nephew has Down Syndrome and he is the light of our family.”

At the Parent/Teacher conference, the Spanish teacher showed me an illustration Cayden had done, and it was a red and orange picture of the sun; the moon was in pencil and very small.

 

“You see? This. He knows perspective. This is why the four.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Angle of Louis

In sleep, and with the bed a twist of sheets, with my body longer than hers but while our feet remain touching, my chest meets her shoulder at the angle of Louis, which is where there would be an asterisk if the heart had one, above and to the right, that sternal place where the head is most vulnerable to remove from the body should it be removed, the angle of Louis being the aim of the guillotiner; in sleep, though, where the remove of head from body is the aim of the willfully guillotined, the determined sleeper, the angle is simply where my shoulder rests against hers, borrowing something; our bodies are a fact of the bed, the twisted sheets; also a tomorrow-fact when we will make the bed and separate, just never completely.

On Being Dad

You inherit a fierce type of love when you become a parent, different fierce when you are a dad and there is not the organic love of having tethered your child by an umbilicus, nor having felt your body change while itself growing a body. Being a dad is being a different type of parent by default.

I pick up my oldest from school on Wednesdays–his Minimum Day–when at one o’clock the queue circling his school is doubled-up, parents double-parked in complete disregard of transit laws. Everyone is there, stubbornly braked and singly there for their kid it seems. I’m shy to break the law these days so I always circle the school, which is perched over downtown and the ocean. Mexico is to the left and the ballpark is in view, occasionally transmitting neon things on the big screen: all this coastal architecture of suspended cranes and high-rises, steel and outdated brick. I always remark the sky—have to—this almost-genetic imperative to see what the sky is offering the pavement on this day, whichever day.

And never mind the change in weather—though I prefer afternoons of high nimbus and when the sky is a Crayola-blue—I look forward to picking up my kid everyday. Especially on Wednesdays when he’s home early and I’m the one to gather him from class. I didn’t grow him, perse, I was not his avenue into this world, but he’s me in part; and more importantly he takes that piece of me and makes it better because he is that kid who’s remarkable, who could’ve invented the rainbow or something and wouldn’t be any less remarkable than he already is.

I see his blond head at the curb, which is the cue for my heart to do it’s jump-thing. It’s the jump-thing every time, because seeing him is recognition and love at once, and there’s that emotional spike, that adrenaline, when chemicals understand they must be employed like fireworks when I rest eyes on him, him my kid.

Tard

The New Guy is not a new guy, in the sense that he’s done this line of work before–raising penguins that is—which is certainly a strange thing for anyone to have on their resume. New Guy has a decade and a half on me, having raised some of the birds I now give geriatric medications to, back when the penguins were in quarantine and freshly arrived from Cape Crozier; before my arrival, even, into the world. NG is cantankerous to a fault, though he also has a penchant for tossing around rattle-throated niceties on the regular.

Me: Thanks for helping me with that.
NG: Hey–anything for a pal. I’d take a bullet in the head for you.

Me: What’s up, friend?
NG: Aloha, mi simpatico!

(Which is the sort of mashed-up patois that makes NG him).

For lunch, he invariably has yogurt, a piece of fruit, and a cigarette.

NG: I’m gonna go smoke in the ‘Sitting Section’ now.

Else,

NG: Well, off to the Leper Colony.

He smokes cheap tobacco while reading the news on his phone. We confer often on Salon.com’s recent offerings, else what is published on The Daily Beast, Slate, Atlantic, Alternet. He eschews social media but is savvy to the left-leaning politico blogs. We both have grey hair and progressive tendencies, why I’m his chosen simpatico. The guy knows his Sanders; he also know his music, and we relate about—maybe—that Kate Bush song which just came on the radio (The ‘Hounds of Love’ being his Desert Island disc), or The Waterboys’ ‘Life of Sundays.’ His ears prick when there are certain mechanical resonations in the building.

“Hear that? That’s the first three notes of ‘Love Cats.’ Y’know: that Cure song.”

The other day, we were leaving work, and he was singing a ‘Jim Carroll Band’ tune, ‘singing’ being the chosen misnomer for reciting tunelessly: “Those were the people who died, died/ Those were the people who died/ All my friends/ They died.’

“Hey! I love Jim Carroll” I say, punching him on the shoulder. “Didja ever see ‘Basketball Diaries’?

NG was shouldering a khaki backpack and holding an almost pitiable cupcake in his hands. He was off to see his new friend, this elderly woman who, by his definition, walks around like a ‘fucking upside-down ‘J’. He had found her toppled over on the street the other week, walker awry, and with a goose egg forming on her head.
NG: “She was on the sidewalk and everyone was gathered round not doing a goddamn thing. She was saying, ‘Help me up’ so I just helped her up.” NG shrugs at this point in the narrative.

He helped her up, and drove her to the nursing home down the block where, by her estimation, the people running the joint are assholes—them and her goddamn son. No one allows her to smoke despite her at least seven and fiercely independent decades on the planet. Her husband’s already in ashes—why not allow her to ash on these latter and last days, when she’s in a neck brace after back surgery and also a bump-headed curiosity on the sidewalk.

New Guy and her have a pact and sneak smokes in the stairwell. She doesn’t talk much, by his report. But he brings her chocolate and cigarettes, and much-needed company, certainly.

“I liked Basketball Diaries. Think I read the book, too.”

I’m usually the guy who champions the book over the movie, but I admit to not reading the novel; me and NG chat about DeCaprio films and how I prefer his earlier work.

I dunno,” NG drawls, “I’ve never been disappointed too much by recent.”

“Loved Basketball Diaries, and the one where he’s Rimbaud. He grew a jaw, and then I didn’t like his films so much.”

He interjects: “Oh-but then there was that Gilbert Grape crap.”

“I love Gilbert Grape! He was great in that!”

And NG is holding that cupcake and poised to exit work, and I like leaving work with him so we can exchange parting remarks about the RNC and bitch about the middling mammal that is Trump’s hair, as well the lower-echelon crustacean which certainly owns Trump’s brain-stem. We have this thing.

NG owns a truck with Hawaii plates, windows always cranked open to air out the upholstery, I suppose; and before walking out to our respective cars, he voices:

“Gilbert Grape. Proof that any actor can play a ‘TARD.”

A co-worker in the room cackled immediately. “Right?” she encouraged. “So true!”

I considered bristling.

The night before, and in company of a family who also parent a child with Down Syndrome, we discussed the ‘R’ word.

“I can handle ‘retarded,’ was the shrug, ‘Just not retard.’ There being a difference between a watered-down adjective and the direct epithet.

I used to do a great Corky impression years ago. A party trick, when ‘Life Goes On’ was on TV. I would say, smirkedly, after rolling out full-Corky: “I’m going to be cursed with a Down’s kid,” never realizing how awful I was with such tongue-rooted insensitivity, my failed language, the fact that I would have a child with Down Syndrome, and that it would ultimately be so much more a blessing than a curse. I was foolish.

I was a dick.

(Me and the New Guy have grey hair. We are old, him more than me).

‘Tard,” he said. I didn’t correct him, or my co-worker exactly. I’m only corrected by virtue of my own situation, and what I’ve learned in first-person. The words bother me, but I can’t legitimately re-shape anyone else’s lips.

I said: “Please mind my Son.” The only thing I could say. It was not a reprimand, but NG ceased talking, and the laughing stopped.

Me and the NG walked out together and he was still holding the cupcake for his new friend, the broken lady; we were still simpatico. He confessed he was socially retarded. I was convinced he was correct—I didn’t like how he said it at all–but let it be and patted his shoulder good-bye while he left to go give an old lady a pastry while I left to pick up my kid, there ultimately being some kinduv kindness.