After dinner everyone repaired to the back where the pool was lit and ringed with burbling fountains. A stand of bamboo rose overhead. The couches and chairs were thick with deep cushions. It had been a magnificent dinner. Five couples. The ladies all dressed up and looking good. Moms on a night out– wanting to flaunt it, but with the old energy redirected. Sexiness in a glass vitrine, on display but not to be touched. The guys were generally fit and in shape to a degree just shy of compulsion; when I went to the fridge to get a mixer I had been amused to see, amidst the beer and tonic water, a single bottle of Muscle Milk; I wondered when the host worked out. He struck me as a dawn at the gym guy.
At the dining room table the couples had sat apart. Now, underneath the swaying bamboo, we reconfigured as pairs. Arms were cast across the shoulders of the wives, or came around the waist to grab a little ass. In the other hand was a drink. We sank into the deep couches, enveloped. That’s when the confessions began. Mostly is was kiddie stories. We were all school-parent friends. Our kids were all in the same class, or had been. The parent’ friendships had outlasted the children’s.
Now the strain of worldliness that had prevailed at the dinner, when the pre-game booze was hitting hardest, mellowed and blurred. Permission was granted to get loose and get into it. So we started to get into it. Uproarious laughter. Tiny betrayals. Invariably one half or of every couple sat blushing and mortified, as though on TV, as the domestic exploits came pouring forth from their spouse.
The boy goes in the play pen and I think, “Where did I read about the person who came from Europe and was so disappointed with the conversation in America? The emigre who wanted dialog and debate, and was frustrated by the ‘serial monologs’ that form American dinner chat?”
Oh that’s right, it was Christopher Hitchens.
The blizzard of eulogies and recollections in the wake of Hitchens has now come and gone. Its deposits linger. He was English, not exactly European, but by the time of his death he had become nearly American. The eulogies, though, reminded us that Hitchens was a brother from another planet: Swinging Oxford and London.
Hitchens’ lament about the nature of conversation struck a chord with me. I also paid attention to what was left out–his children. They were mentioned, of course, and eulogies are supposed to be about the person who died, not their offspring. But I began to wonder about his relationship to his children as I perused the accounts of his energy, his productivity, and – above and beyond everything else, as though it were the root from which his talent sprung – his revelrous boozing.
Katie Rophie’s account sticks in my memory, probably wrong in the facts but not spirit: They did a television talk show together and afterwards he took her to the Carlyle for drinks and spirited conversation. At 10:30 in the morning. It lasted through the afternoon.
There was something sexual in these accounts of marathon sessions of talking, arguing, debating, carousing; each correspondent reported being left staggering, seeing stars, weak kneed, gasping with amazement at their own courage to have risked the one night stand – or the all day romp in a hotel bar – and been so rewarded.
What I was thinking was: What about the kids? The closest I ever came to a Hitchens romp was one day at the Royalton Hotel. It was lunchtime. I was in the company of English people. It was the mid-nineties. Burrowing amidst the cool purple lobby with the funny Phillip Stark furniture was a burly beast. White shirt open at the chest, he moved quickly, a rare bird. Everyone I was with started chirping, “Hitch! Hitch!” A kind of boozy mating call. He put his hands out in front of him, a kind of “No Mas,” and headed deeper into what was then the aviary of New York magazine life.
Children were the furthest thing from my mind. If I had paused to think, “What else might we all be doing at this very moment?” I could have babbled on for hours before the idea, “playing with your children,” would have occurred to me. It was so absent from my thoughts that me and a monkey would have arrived at the answer at bout the same time. Conversely, now that I have children such revels seem a luxury of time and energy beyond my means.
Not so for Hitch. His libidinous needs regarding company and conversation seem to have extended well into his years of parenting. About which I cast no aspersions. He was a superman of journalistic productivity, and he may well have been a champion dandler, player of games and maker of puzzles, too.
The Hitch memory dump, its intensity of eulogizing, was enormous, but it was nothing compared to that other convulsion of loss and mythologizing, possibly the most widely shared, globally communal event of the autumn of 2011–the death of Steve Jobs. In this instance the issue of children and child rearing was more explicit: Jobs was a workaholic who regretted that he had not spent more time with his kids. But we were left to balance this regret with the thought that these kids were left with the legacy of a hard working father who found a kind of spiritual redemption in his work. He transcended mere money making while at the same time making a boat load of money and becoming a secular saint.
It was noted that he was not a philanthropist. But then maybe he was going to get around to it? Hadn’t that been the case with the first digital robber baron, Bill Gates, who eventually transformed into a Superman of Philanthropy? Yes. But also, with Jobs, his work itself was seen as a kind of philanthropy, an act of beneficence.
But what of the kids?
What strikes me about having little kids more and more is how weird it is that the sense of discovery and creation – for the little emerging people, and for us, their progenitors – is so mingled with feelings of loss. Not their feelings of loss, but ours. The anticipation of the moment when they are no longer children, which alternates between being something dreaded and pined for. It’s acceptable to express this feeling as a half joking wish. Oh for the day they can entertain themselves! Dress themselves! Wipe their own ass!
But unstated is the problem of generations–questions occur to you that you wish you asked your own parent or grandparent. You couldn’t have conceived of the question before and now it is too late. Or, more basically, just wishing your own grandparents could see the kids now, just to see the continuity, the little echoes of appearance of temperament, habits of mind. Missed opportunities, the sealed off possibilities, the certainty that these omissions – the unasked questions – will be replayed in your own children’s lives.
But what of the other loss? Of your own personality? Of your time? Of the things you might have done with the time you no longer have? Work and play. Playing and Reality.
My baby boy sits, or more accurately stands, in the colorful playpen, his little fingers curling over the top, his head wobbling unsteadily as he peers at me sitting a couple of feet away, typing on the funny machine that so engages his father and also his mother. I look at him. He smiles. He lights up! I look back at the machine. We go back and forth like this, but after a while he’s had enough. His stamina for standing gives out. He crashes down, a face plant amidst the toys. Weeping and crying. I put him on his feet, give the prisoner a view, and go back to work. Why is being in the playpen a bad thing? I think. What, we need free range children? He’ll be better off just because he has a whole room to crawl around in looking for wires and quarters and stealthy, forbidden things to put in his mouth?
Eventually his tears win out. I pick him up. He needs a change. Instead of putting on a new diaper I take him on an adventure. To the lovely tableau still languishing in bed, in sheets, Mother and daughter, I announce, “I have a surprise!
I make them close their eyes.
“OK, open them!”
A full moon of butt hangs above their faces. Laughter. They grab him, pull him down. I grab the phone and play cinematographer as the butt roams free – free range baby butt – amidst the family. Kissed, prodded, grabbed.
It bring me back to the thought I woke up with, in which I revisited the scenes from the previous night–the five sets of couples arranged in pairs by the luscious pool, the soft New Orleans breeze stirring the bamboo, the settling into stories. I drifted from that scene to J.D. Salinger’s story “Uncle Wiggly in Connecticut.”
Of all Salinger’s glorious nine stories I always had a certain resistance to that one. Was it because its protagonists were two women and a baby? Was it that, per his generation but certainly not mine, the women were outrageously young? That they were still in their mid or even early twenties and were already banished to what seemed – to my eyes when I first read it – like the Siberia of the diminished expectations that is the synonym for being a parent?
That morning I had lay there and thought of the story for the first time in years. I thought about the boozy outbreak of tears by that young mother as she stands above the crib peering in. The note that is struck – as I read it, as I recall – is one of intense regret and apology. But then I hadn’t read the story in a long time. I remembered that last scene to mean that the mother was somehow apologizing to the kid for being such a drunk, unhappy mess. Her life so unrealized!
But maybe she was also grieving the lost life, the one that might include lengthy discussions about sex, politics, Orwell, Kissinger, over multiple lunchtime bottles. Or maybe the chance to be such a ferocious perfectionist that you invent products that charm and dazzle the world, helping them and yourself in the process, creating a looking glass through which you can see and hear other humans, but never touch them.
None of that for crying mother in Uncle Wiggily. The best the young mother can do is to receive a visitation, as though she is in a hospital, from her equally boozy, bratty friend, who has some time at lunch. And even that is fleeting. It’s not enough. A spring shower on parched land.
In the pool the other day I was yelling at my daughter, who had gotten in a race with another little girl she had just met, “Get away, get away from her!”
I had visions of two swimmers,grabbing each other to avoid drowning. The other parent, a mother, was trailing along with me waist deep in the pool.
“I know, mine has the same problem.”
“She always wants touch,” I said. “She just wants to touch another body at all times. It drives me crazy.”
“I know. It’s a phase. Then they grow out of it and you miss the time when all they wanted to do is touch you.”
Now, a glance up at the playpen. It’s empty now. The naked butted boy is in the custody of the authorities. His first word was “mama” except it wasn’t a word, more like a physical gesture of the mouth that resembled sucking: “Mamamamama.” I hear it now in the next room.
Alone at last. I can have a moment. I stare at still, empty, colorful square of the playpen, with its little butterfly smiling on the exterior wall. Now its emptiness sings out to me. He was just in there, available for observation, interaction, touching. I availed myself of smiles. We had a conversation of sorts. But my head was elsewhere. He’s gone now.
I often wonder if it is a morbidity to be so aware of how fleeting everything is or if it is a kind of enhancement, a stimulating drug that pushes one’s attention into the whirring blades of the ongoing moment, to use a title of a Geoff Dyer book. Dyer’s book is about photography. A medium in which we capture moments and in so doing distance ourselves from them. I thought again of J.D. Salinger’s story “Uncle Wiggly in Connecticut.”Without knowing why it I went to the bookshelf to look for “Nine Stories,” wanting to test my memory of the story against the reality. Within “Uncle Wiggly,” I was sure, was some suddenly essential wisdom I could not live without.
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