I’m lying in bed listening to my parents fucking. Whatever. Do they think I can’t hear them? Hell, the walls are thin as paper, my room bumps right up against theirs; it’s not at all like in our real home where we are separated by rooms and rooms and stairs and several walls. Not at all like at home where we can all have our privacy, where I can read until early morning if I want, leave my light on if I want, and no one even knows. I think I’ll hate this place for sure, if I have to listen to them doing that all the time.
I hear my parents whispering, my mother says Oh, honey, that feels so good, and my father says, Am I inside you deep enough, baby? It’s enough to make you barf. But still I continue to listen to the rustling of the covers and the moans of my mother and a long deep sigh from my father which I am sure I will get to know even better over the following months in this tiny apartment. It is a sigh that he only uses in the bedroom with my mother, while her noises, the ones that come from her, seem familiar all the time, the combination of fury and joy that seems to be in every word she speaks, every move she makes. She moves so quickly from anger to happiness that I can’t keep up with her. I bet that my father can’t either.
I know what they’re doing from movies my mom thinks I don’t watch. Mom likes to tell a story about me to her friends, about what a good boy I am, how I was at a friend’s house and we were just about to watch an R-rated movie and I called her to tell her that and to ask her if it was okay. She asked me the title, said she knew it, thought it would be okay, but then when I came home she wanted to talk about the film and she said she would remind her friends what the rules were in our house and how I should try to abide by them when I went out. She uses words like that, abide, and I have learned their meaning. But I no longer abide.
My parents got this idea to go to Paris, an adventure they said, while my dad writes his book and my mother does whatever it is she does. It sounded scary at the time, but cool, too, and now I like it pretty well. I mean, it’s different and that’s okay. I miss my old friends but I’ve made new ones and we have a pretty good time just hanging out on the Champs de Mars or eating at various cafes. I couldn’t say much about what we do, just hang, but it’s fun.
But I hate this apartment and the fact that I can lie here and listen to my parents fucking and talking like this:
He can hear us, you know. He’s still awake.
Maybe he’ll learn something.
That’s not funny.
What do you want me to say?
I don’t know. It just bothers me. I wish he were sleeping.
If we waited until he was asleep, you’d be asleep, too.
I ride the Metro. That’s the thing I like best about living in Paris as opposed to Johnstown. I like to ride the Metro alone, with my friends, down to the Champs, go to McDonald’s, the movies. The hamburgers are smaller here, all the portions are, but the movie screens are bigger and the theaters always have something playing I want to see. I like to rollerblade at the Trocadero, like to head all the way down one Metro line or the other, walk to a friend’s, stay out late.
If I try to read in bed like I used to, my parents see the light and tell me to turn it off. So it follows that they must know I can hear them. In this dumb, tiny apartment, I even see them sometimes. I’ve spied my mother naked from the shower when she forgets to close the bedroom door all the way. It feels like Mom and me, we bump up against each other everywhere we go and my mother rolls her eyes and says Get outta my space, kiddo! forgetting she is in my space, too, forgetting that I am more than a whole head taller than she is. She doesn’t like that, now that I have grown so much taller than she is. She looks at me sometimes and says: How did such a big kid like you come from my body? Whatever.
I remember looking at him when he was a tiny baby, lying in the plastic tub we had put in the sink. There he was naked and I remember thinking: that tiny little penis I am about to wash will some day be inside a woman. The thought terrified me. Now he’s huge and nearly grown and I haven’t seen him naked in years and I have no idea what goes on in his head sometimes, never mind in that body that I used to know so intimately.
My mother gets on me all the time. About my fingernails, my toenails, my hair, my teeth, whether I have attached the rubber bands to my braces, why I insist on wearing the same pants day after day, and why I don’t wear a long-sleeved shirt now that it is getting cold. She doesn’t like it that I leave my coat on the floor when I come home, although I tell her I am just going to wear it again tomorrow. She buys me stuff for my pimples and then watches over me to see if I use it properly. She examines my face in strong light and says Hmmm, I think it’s getting better, and Are you using that stuff I got you? She tells me all the time to take care of myself. She seems to hate that I stay on the computer messaging my friends for hours. She wonders if I am wasting my life. She buys me fat books to read and then wants to discuss them. She handed me One Hundred Years of Solitude and said: This book changed my life. She does stuff like that all the time. She doesn’t like the films I choose to watch and is always trying to steer me toward something else when we go to the video store.
It is clear she worries about me a lot, although my father doesn’t seem to worry about me at all. He says: Boys will be Boys, or stuff like that, and then tells stories about when he was my age. When I was fat for awhile before I started to grow and get even taller than him, he tried to tell my mother that he was fat, too, for a couple of years, before he thinned out. He told her: It will be all right. It’s all right now, of course. Dad and I both knew it would be. But now my mother tries to fatten me up by piling food high on my plate and giving me a look when I don’t eat it all. She gives me as much food as my father who cleans his plate every evening no matter what she puts on it, and even runs his bread around the clean plate so that it shines. I don’t understand how he can eat all that food and then have cheese and even dessert; I just don’t get that hungry. But Mom wonders why she has heard that teenage boys eat their parents out of house and home, and Why am I not like that? She herself just pushes her food around her plate, eating tiny bits and drinking lots of wine. She is always on a diet.
Sometimes when I look at my mom I think she is beautiful but sometimes she looks old and plain. If she is dressed up to go out with my dad she can look really sharp, but if she is just hanging around the house in sweatpants she looks sort of like a teenager, but like an awful one.
When my son was a little boy and I would dress up to go out, he would come up to me and run his hands down my stockinged legs and his eyes would light up with delight. He would say Your legs are so smooth, Mommy, and I would have to show him that what he was feeling was nylon and not flesh. But he loved the nylon better than the flesh. He would watch me make up my face or get dressed and he would say You are so beautiful, Mommy. He would finger each piece of jewelry as though it were hidden treasure he himself had found. Even now he still continues to notice every new thing I buy, from the tiniest pair of earrings, to handbags and shoes. He comments on each, while his father only raises an eyebrow, as though he were apologizing for, once again, having missed the new thing.
I can’t figure Mom out. One moment I am the love of her life and the next she is screaming at me for something or other that I don’t even know I did.
But she does make me laugh sometimes; she’s forever making dumb, really dumb jokes, or puns or wordplays, and then she cocks one of her eyebrows at me to see if I get it and then she laughs and laughs at her own jokes, and then I just have to too.
But Mom also makes me cry. Or she makes me want to. I don’t really cry any more. I just don’t feel like it. I yell instead. My mother says I must rein in my anger, I must control my temper, I must count to ten before I speak. When I yell at her I see pain in Mom’s eyes, but in my father’s, all I see is mute horror, as if he can’t believe I am really his son. That doesn’t count as Boys will be Boys, I guess. It makes me a little sick when my parents look at me like that, but I can’t help myself! My parents are so stupid sometimes. Sometimes when Mom yells back at me I want to hit her. I can see she wants to hit me, too, but she is afraid of me now that I am taller and weigh more than she does. It is odd being so much bigger than she is. When I walk toward her, mad, she backs off and puts up her hands. It makes me feel very strong and very afraid.
If I thought being a wife was hard, being a mother is a killer. It seems okay, expected even, to fail as a spouse, but if one fails as a mother, there’s hell to pay. Everything your child does, good or bad, is blamed on the mother: did the child bond? Was she nurturing? Did she yell too much or not enough, discipline properly or arbitrarily? How much did she tell him about sex and drugs and her own experiences? Too much, not enough? How did staying together or splitting up affect the child? Has she been a good mother? If so, is she responsible for her child’s success? If not, is she responsible for the child’s failings? Has she been overindulgent or stingy? Has she given her child a value system he can take with him?
I had no idea when I gave birth that children were born with their own personalities, and all we do as parents is to manage that existence as best we can. We cannot turn our children into anything, or prevent them from becoming who they are. All of who my child is is my doing, and none of it is my fault.
My mother tells me all the time how handsome I am. She tells me all her friends cannot believe how beautiful I am. That is the word she uses. Beautiful. I am not beautiful. If I were really handsome I would have a girlfriend, and I don’t. My mother says it is because I am too passive, but then at the same time she tells me that if it were not for her, she and my father would not be married. She says: I chased your father. I chased him until I caught him and I told him he just had to marry me. My father nods. This is true. He tells me that some day a woman will chase me. My mother tells me not to wait and count on that. And then she tells me not be too aggressive either, to remember that when a girl says No, it means No. And not to force myself in any way on a girl. As if I would or could. She tells me to be gentle and kind and to treat women as well as I would my own mother. Then, she cocks her eyebrow and says: Well, perhaps better than you treat your mother. I am supposed to laugh at this but also to take it seriously.
When I look at my son all I see is wonderful possibilities, all I see is his beauty and his youth, all I see is what can be, but he seems only to want to live in the now and that frightens me. He can’t seem to get beyond his weekend plans or his anger or the fact that he has been thwarted in some way. Once in awhile, after a fight, I’ll see him look at me as if he wants to apologize but just can’t. It makes me sad for the passage of time, and makes me ache for the little boy I held for so many years.
Half the time it seems that Mom never stops talking. Ever. She gives me what she calls “life lessons,” warnings, advice. She says that she is always here for me, that she will always listen to me, she tells me that I can tell her anything, that if I just tell her the truth, nothing could be so bad. She says lying is the very worst thing — worse than anything I could ever do would be lying about it. She expects me to tell her everything. And the thing of it is, I practically do. Although I don’t think she believes I do. I tell her the important stuff but it seems that mostly she likes to hear accounts of my days at school, what grades I make, the names of my friends. She likes happy stories, the ones that I come out well in.
I always feel as though I’m missing something when my son talks. I always feel as if there is something he isn’t telling me. I all too well remember my own fifteenth year and what I tried and how I behaved and what frightened and excited me. When I try to tell my son those things, he rolls his eyes and says: Mom, I’m not like you, you know.
My mom and dad are totally mad at me right now. The other night a bunch of friends and I hung out at the house and went up the chambre de bain on the top of the apartment building, the little room that maids used to live in but we keep empty, and we tossed firecrackers out the window. It was fun as hell, but a neighbor complained and told Mom and Dad and now they are royally pissed off and I’m grounded for, like, the rest of my life. Whatever. They can’t do that. They just can’t. It was no big deal, really, and they are making such a fuss about it. Unbelievable, like I had murdered someone or something.
This isn’t funny, Robert.
I never said it was, Mom. But you’re overreacting.
If anything, your mother and I are under-reacting! What you did was serious, son, very serious. You could be in jail right now.
Jeez, Dad, gimme a break.
Honey, what on earth were you thinking when you went up there? How could you think that you wouldn’t get in trouble? That you wouldn’t get caught?
I guess I wasn’t really thinking, Mom.
That’s for sure! Your mother and I come home from a movie and find Mr. Lepers waiting for us! Waiting for us in the foyer! We thought . . . God knows what we thought. But then to have him tell us that a couple of guys from across the street came to the door and banged to be let in and were threatening to beat you up? That is something I never want to go through again.
Aw, Dad, that wouldn’t have happened. The guys were just mad . . .
And rightly so, Honey. You were throwing firecrackers at their building. Someone could have been hurt badly.
Mom! They were just little poppers, no big deal.
A few days after that conversation Mom sat me down and had what she called The Talk. She said it was long overdue. It wasn’t about sex, she knows I won’t listen to that, it was sort of about Ruining Your Life With One Bad Choice. She said that life is all about choices and that if someone makes a really bad one, it could screw up things forever. She had lots of examples, some from when she was a kid, some from the newspapers or friends or wherever. Kids who were in the wrong place at the wrong time, who drove drunk just once and then killed somebody, stuff like that.
So now I’m grounded for life. Or until my mother convinces my father to lift the death sentence. It’s not that I don’t think I should have been punished, but they always take it too far. No big deal, though, they’ll back down and things will be back to normal.
I’m still shaking from that confrontation. From the fact that such a small, dumb thing could have changed his life forever. What if he had been beaten up? What if someone had called the police? What else is there about his life I don’t know? Next year when we return to the States, my son will be old enough to drive a car and he’ll want to drive all over the county and I’ll be worried sick. People will look at him and tell him how tall and grownup he is, just like they used to look at him when he was a very large two-year-old with a huge vocabulary and think he was five instead of a toddler. Just like they expected mature behavior then, they’ll expect it from him now because he’s been living in Europe and he’s had so many “experiences,” and what will I be able to say? I can’t tell him that he is still a child in a man’s body, that his temper tantrums are just more dangerous now, that he has lousy judgment (throwing firecrackers off the sixth floor! Really, he could have killed someone!), that he looks good on the outside but that inside he is still my little boy. I can’t tell them any of that. All I can do is try and continue to protect him. And to tell him to take care. To take lots of care.