Big boy writing.
I had a salty grandmother who said that if you want to know where you stand with a man—and how you stand together—even as you’re flopping around—listen to what he says before he pumps you one, by which she meant when he’s about to emit inside of you.
Shock value, trolling—none of it’s as new as Twitter sometimes has us believe. Then again, she came from a home where her family thought she was crazy because she played Charlie Parker records loud and he was black and bebop wasn’t Berlioz, which was as far as her bookish, proper parents preferred anything to go.
I didn’t exactly relay that wisdom to our daughter Courtney, either before she went to college, or now that she is back home in this time of global quarantining and the watching of time passing. She and her father are the game players of the family. They play in the evenings, a form of homeopathic blunting of time’s edge, so that it can pass over you, not cut through you, as time tends to do, ironically enough, when it seems as though it’s standing still.
Sometimes I feel like evenings are made of paper and you need to burn them to begin what is next, and games can be like matchbooks that way. Foremost among them for us are Connect Four and word games—the possibility of a pun never tempted James Joyce so much as my husband, Matt. I’m the watcher and comment-provider, feet tucked under me on the couch, mint tea in my New York City Ballet mug with its craquelure patterns on the inside I know so well and yet necessarily observe anew with each cup I drain, while Courtney shakes her head, like I am a tea-aholic, which may be true. It’s my favorite kind of head shake in the whole world, as I once told Matt, who laughed my favorite kind of laugh, and said he agreed.
They play a game called Green Glass Door, which Courtney figured out when she was six-years-old, but they still enact the familiar refrain, even if our daughter does not want to be here with us, and Matt and I have what we have right now because she is in our presence.
“Behind the green glass door,” Courtney will begin, “there is zooplankton but no copepods.”
Then Matt takes up his part.
“Behind the green glass door, there are paramecia, but no amoebas.”
“Wrong,” Courtney will say.
“Okay, there are velociraptors but no allosauruses.”
“No, there are allosauruses but no velociraptors,” Courtney says, and with another example or two, the game will fizzle, for that evening, decommitting us from the past. The striking of the match. Tomorrow it will be Matt’s turn to run the game, and Courtney’s role to pretend she is still figuring out how it works, which is the whole point of Green Glass Door, and why the game is over, undone, as soon as you know what it means. One might say that the moment you get there, is when it ends. I can imagine the comparison my salty grandmother would have drawn, “Koko” blasting away on the gramophone.
I had different games with my dad. He sold belts, which allowed me to say to my high school friends that my dad was in leather, a joke I’d trot out because I was scared of my friends. It always seemed to cleave a chuckle or two off the good old humor tree, though my arbor wasn’t exactly abundant. My friends were funnier, smarter, prettier, the kind of girls teachers referred to as young women when dilating to a third party on a recent achievement—the homework writing assignment that ended up as an op-ed in the local paper, the summer internship at the indie press hardly anyone had ever heard of, but with a tranche of awards.
They had mastered dichotomy, too, these girls who’d be crushed if they had to go to Amherst instead of Brown—meaning an extra therapy session that week for one of their mothers, which at least broke the monotony of calling the cops on the Mexican illegal who had a leaf blower on before 8 AM in the neighbor’s yard.
They doubled as administrators of technically perfect blowjobs, with the concomitant skill of being able to execute them in litanies of locales, no matter how challenging—be it at the movie theater, under the coat pile at a party, in front of a friend as a drinking game dare, or in a funeral home, as when Dennis McLaren’s brother wrapped his car around a tree and it came to resemble a glass-sprinkled boomerang the likes of which Goliath could chuck.
“It hurts real bad,” he had reportedly said by way of blandishment, in a backroom with surplus caskets, though perhaps the term is oxymoronic in the grand scheme of things.
Cassie, the young woman, who ended up at Columbia, said she could even taste more salt than usual in his seed, though she called it jizz, this not being a paper, like one she wrote on Faulkner, which employed the word “seed” a good fifteen times, as she noted proudly. Boosted salt quotient gets associated with tears, not the extra school cafeteria hot dog. You trend to romance when life feels hard, even when your own life isn’t hard, even in matters of emission.
My dad and I watched reruns of old Westerns after his back gave out and he couldn’t work while my mom collected gratitude and pay stubs as a nurse, the sort of person for whom the latter could never rise to the level of the former. Sometimes gratitude comes too late. When my dad was dying, I didn’t think about the way he had been at my wedding, as he leaned in as we walked down the aisle and said, “That you will be happy is more happiness than I could ever need.” Or the hunting trip we took once—which would have caused me to be ostracized from my friends, had I told them—when he was about to shoot a ring-necked pheasant and I said no, it was too beautiful, and he took another look, pretended to squint and said, “Damn, if you aren’t right,” kissing me behind my temple—which was always my dad’s spot, even when I was a baby, my mom said—and home we went.
When her school closed the dorms and Courtney had to come home to Matt and me, she asked us not to collect her at the train station. Said she didn’t want to put us at risk. I have asthma and Matt hasn’t really breathed right since he punctured a lung playing hockey in college, around the time we met. I think she wanted the calming nonchalance of setting down her bags in the hall, saying, “Mom, dad, I’m home,” as bereft of fanfare as when she was in high school. Behind the green glass door, there is sufficiency, even if there is not contentment. Comfort, if not happiness. Happiness has a time and place—even when it exists, you don’t necessarily take it everywhere.
In college I’d been dating a kid named Murray who was the back-up goalie on the hockey team. This was no Harvard, no Yale, no school where any of my friends went—same friends I never spoke to again, of course, though the way I would have framed it in my mind at the time was same friends who were never going to speak again to me. I had a scholarship to a state school. The hockey was club level, so if you were the back-up goalie on a team like this you weren’t much more than vaguely upright. You’d see these fliers on campus looking for bodies to join the team because the roster was perpetually a few players short. But I liked this kid a lot. It was a time I thought I was beginning to understand love, like that moment in seventh grade algebra when at last comes that click of understanding that allows you to forevermore solve for X, and boom, you got it, a slice of your world is figured out.
He was goofy, a horny little dude who one minute would meet me outside of one of my classes with this half-dead rose he’d gotten from a convenience store or a scrap of Matthew Arnold love poetry he wanted to try on me, then the next be asking me if over Christmas break, when I was in New York and he was in South Carolina, I could send him some photos of my body in the mail, with maybe some pubic hair clippings. This was before iPhones, and the kind of stuff I discovered by accident on Courtney’s phone when I scooped it up once to order a pizza, which motivated me to get her on the pill even more than I felt like saying boys are fucking pigs and please be careful to whom you show what, because you never know where it might go. I was impish that way, too, though. You have respect for the spirit. After all, I exported a lot of shavings to South Carolina that December.