A couple of summers ago we were hanging out with another couple whose boy was about a year younger than our girl at the time—she was three, he was two. The boy was under his daddy’s watch. There were three steps up to the wood deck on which we were sitting. The boy went up, toddled around, went down. Back and forth. Daddy in tow. The rest of us sat around chatting. I luxuriated in the privileged condition of having a three year old who could be counted on not to topple over at any moment. A lovely summer evening. Some fish on the grill, etc. Then the little guy took a tumble down the deck stairs. Three of them. Bump, ka-bump, bump. There was a pause. The silence was the worst part. Had the father looked away? Did he have his hands outstretched but the tyke eluded him? Did it matter? One silent beat passed and then the kid erupted in shrieking cries.
The husband scooped up the boy and started walking away. Fast. The image that remains most vivid to me is the nape of the father’s neck as he hurried away. You could feel the tension in his neck and head, the way he held the boy tight while whispering to him. This picking up and walking made perfect sense except, perhaps, for the speed with which he was walking, as though literally wanting to distance the kid from the stairs.
Then I realized the man was hurrying away from the tsunami of verbal abuse that was rushing towards him in the form of his wife. She had tossed off a volley of curses before she even got to her feet. She cursed him some more. Finally, she began to jog after her husband and son, yelling. I think she said, you idiot!’ a couple of times. And, “What is the matter with you!” She said these phrases over and over salted with curse words. I shrank down. Then I rallied to my feet, wanting to help. But there was nothing to do. The kid would be fine, I was sure. The rest was for them to work out.
Women, I ask you: when your husband does something stupid that transcends mere bad form and actually endangers your child, what is your reaction in that very moment? How violently do you begin to denounce the man? Do you do it at the time? Is there a visceral outpouring of loathing and rage? Or does it take a while to build, and only finds expression when the height of real concern is passed and you can grasp the depth of what might have been, had the worst not been averted?
Surely I am not the only guy for whom the most memorable scene in Kramer Vs. Kramer, the Uber-text of marriage dysfunction cinema, is when Dustin Hoffman is rushing back from the playground with his bleeding son. All he did was let the kid play on the monkey bars. But even at fifteen I knew that the dad had both done nothing wrong and also that the dad was totally screwed. The plot point was to play a big role in the legal drama of the movie, but for me the scene is not about divorce. It’s about marriage. Hoffman running with his kid wasn’t thinking about lawyers. He was thinking about blood.
Here is what happened a year ago, when I was the man rushing away with a screaming child in his arms.
It was one of the first parades of that Mardi Gras season, held in a grim suburb, not New Orleans itself. We attended out of eagerness and also, when you have a little kid and there is a parade, why not?
My daughter was on my shoulders, wriggly and cranky. I was irritable. My wife was six months pregnant. Something came flying off a float. I confess here, for the first time, that it was a football. A little football. I raised two hands. It went over my head. Bad throw. I remember the guy who threw it, a kid, maybe fourteen, an expression on his face along the lines of, Oh, sorry dude.’
My hatred for him is entirely irrational and deeply felt.
My hands momentarily in the air, I felt a strange movement on my shoulders. A kind of ferocious twist and writhe, like a very dry fish was perched up near my neck, wanting to get off. Then a lightness. Dead air. A slapping sound. Highway pavement looks weird when you can stare at it. It’s meant to be rushed by. You should see it in a blur.
Now I saw each individual rock that had been larded into the concrete. Some were the size of golf balls, and jutted up. A tactile, three dimensional injurious nightmare into which my daughter’s face had just collided. Her pretty face.
As I bent down I saw the million tiny errors of mood and judgment that allowed me to make the huge error of lifting two hands to catch a toy football flying overhead. An uncatchable pass.
Blood. Blood from the mouth. But tears, too, and screams, which was also good in a weird way–it meant life, energy, continuity. I picked her up and started to run. I had to get away from the scene. I had to get away from the hard stones jutting up out of the asphalt. I had to get away from the drops of bright red blood on the ground. From the noise and crowds. I had to get away from my wife.
An angry mother, in this context, is not quite the same species as the Emergency Mom who, in a moment of crisis, is possessed of super human strength and can lift cars off the ground. An angry mother telling someone who has tried to steal her cab when it’s raining to screw off, in turn, is a different animal than a mother who has just witnessed their husband doing some dumb ass thing that has resulted in harm to their child. I suppose it’s fair to ask–why is anger the most prominent emotion in such a moment? The answer, surely, has to do with how some people process anxiety and fear. But it’s also about betrayal. She counted on you, relied on you, trusted you. And you, literally, dropped the ball.
There is something about a wife’s public upbraiding of her husband that is its own category of spectacle. It’s special kind of anger in which the intensity of the rage meets a kind of updraft driven by license to express it. Of course wives yell at their husbands for doing stupid things in the privacy of their own home all the time. But the public displays have an extra edge. So many strange currents at play: the wife is vindicated that there have been actual witnesses to the stupid, careless act. The wife is furious because she has is embarrassed to be revealed as someone married to a bad father.
As I ran I made what I thought were consoling noises to my daughter. I put my screaming daughter down in the shade. I saw blood on my white shirt, on the shoulder and sleeve. I was weirdly calm. The driver of the car always takes the close calls better than the person in the passenger seat. “It’s all right, you’re OK,” I said, and tried to see if it was true. To the extent a kid can be OK while crying with a mouth full of blood, she seemed OK.
From far away and right next to me I heard my wife say, “How could you!”
A friend arrived, a doctor. We all knelt and did an inspection. The kid had her teeth. None were even chipped. There was a cut on the inside of her lip, and a smaller one the outside. “Don’t worry,” my friend said under his breath as we walked to the car.” My wife would be giving it to me much worse.”
We went to the emergency room. We are a family that goes to the emergency room. I am always reluctant, sometimes yelling about it. This time I shut up. The doctor’s were jovial. No stitches.
A year later the story is part of our lore. My daughter tells a version of it herself, now and then. I am very still whenever it comes up. Anything I say or do can be used against me. It happened. I am sorry. We survived. When my daughter smiles you can see, in the corner of her lip, a tiny white dot.
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