My dad used to say to me, "Never be ugly in your own head."
Even at the time it occurred to me that you could only say this to a boy and not a girl, because a girl would think she wasn't pretty on the outside and this is how she made internal amends, whereas a boy would look at it as having to do with how he thought, viewed the world. When we played catch in the backyard and my dad would throw me grounders, sometimes I'd come up too soon and the ball would go through my legs, so the next one he'd fire at me as hard as he could, saying "mental discipline,” before that cloudy white sphere even left his hand, which meant something similar.
I'm a gentle man, if not a gentleman, but that may also mean I'm a timid man, and I don't want the fuss. My cardiologist talks of stressors.
"That's what's doing it to you," he says, eyes like beryls that have caught the sun in that “look how clear and deep this is” way that quarry water does. I'm not confused, though I still answer the way I do anyway, because rhetorical deflection is part of my process of gradual acceptance.
"Getting up first to make the kids breakfast every day? I don't get home that late."
"That's a stressor," he says, as if he's hit the clinching point, or won at bingo. I know he's right, and four hours of sleep isn't a ton, but when I got six as a kid, my dad said, "How many do you need?" in that voice which says that the answer for me, just then, was six. You’re supposed to get stronger.
"You're not going to die like this," my cardiologist continues, "but you're not doing yourself any favors."
Then he takes one final look for that particular visit at my EKG results just in case he overlooked anything suggesting I may in fact be due for a coronary after all, before saying, "Okay, we're good." I feel like I should tip him, but it’d be like in those movies where the guy who would be me has to ask, “Can I give you anything?” and it’s awkward, so I shake his hand instead.
But I’m pretty sure I have become ugly in my own head. For instance, when I see two people arguing on the street, and it looks like one is especially violent and might attack the other, or pull out a gun and commence to murdering, in my head I say, "fuck 'em up." If I'm watching a movie with the kids, and a man becomes sexually aggressive—he’s not taking that no for an answer, let's put it that way—I inwardly intone, "fuck 'em up."
I recently saw a gull who was in possession of a dead, blood-soaked squirrel. The gull put the squirrel's body on the ground, and looked up at me like it was saying, "You want to go?" It was going to eat this squirrel, tear this bleeding flesh some more, at its own pace. The gull even did this kind of gull-strut around the body. I nodded at the damn bird, as I thought, that's right, "fuck 'em up."
When my wife moves away from me in bed, but not with intention, like she's sending some message, but because it's become her natural response over time to my touch, I think "fuck 'em up." When my daughter didn't get into Amherst and asked me to take the cars out of the garage so that she could play street hockey there like she used to, I sat at the kitchen table and listened to the blade of her stick come down again and again on the cement, and that tennis ball fly off the walls for an hour. Then I listened to her cry through the door, knowing she was sitting cross-legged on the ground. And again I thought, "fuck 'em up" before I went out to the garage and sat behind her, my legs in a V-shape, one on each side of her, because I can't sit cross-legged, rubbing her shoulders and saying nothing, and certainly not that there were other schools.
I watched death grab my mother with a hand that showed no hesitation, my mother who ran three miles every day at sixty-four and who I would cite as my best friend if I had to pick one, but not in some Norman Bates style, and was gone via COVID ten days after her sixty-fifth birthday.
I thought about how I had serenaded her the the previous year with her favorite Beatles song, the one we used to sing together when I was a kid, before I had sisters, and it was just me and her and it was raining outside so I couldn't go out and play. "Will you still be sending me a Valentine?" was the part we loved the most, I think because we were imagining each other later on, and that was still something we would do when I had kids of my own. I’d send my mom a card, and every year, my answer to the song was “yes,” because that is what happened. I thought about that hand, coming down to pluck her away, as though she were an impurity, and I thought, "fuck 'em up."