The Angel and the Skank
A couple of months back, my wife gets on a plane to spend a week with her best friend from childhood. Back at home, me and the boys go a little wild, as we tend to do when Mom's not around to police things. We eat what and when we want, leaving the spoons and pans we use for cooking in the kitchen sink (without washing them, since we know we'll be using them again) and the spoons and pans we use for banging on the kitchen floor. Change our underwear and diapers when we feel like it, leave 'em where they fall; if Quincy, age 3, declares while noodling on the piano that "I wanna be naked butt!" and then sheds his drawers, that's where they stay, next to the pedals, along with the pair(s) he dropped there the day before, and the day before that — as a testament. We go to sleep when and where we feel like it. As a convenience, we leave every bed in the house unmade, because, you know, there's no telling when somebody might want to jump in, or on, this or that mattress.
I don't preside over complete anarchy. We are not animals. I get the boys nourished, dressed, bathed with enough regularity that their hygiene won't call attention to itself either way. Get Quincy off to preschool and his 1-year-old brother, Casper, ready for the nanny. And I take care to gauge what's going into the ears and eyes with as much care as I gauge what's going down the gullets. That's why I make sure the boys are soundly asleep — Quincy on my left and Casper on my right — before I flip on the tube to catch an old episode of Deadwood.
Damn, how I love that show, its baroque obscenities, its unabashed celebration of "f---ing" (the word) and f---ing (the act). Toward the end of this particular episode, I notice something in my peripheral. A subtle motion. An angling: Quincy's head, assuming the 45-degree left-to-right downward tilt that signifies rapture. And absorption. The boy isn't anything close to asleep. How long ... ? He's upright, alert, soft-eyed, still. His palms are pressed together in his lap, as if in prayer. His hair, as ever — since I've never allowed it to be cut, and never will — is a psychedelic white cloud of curls.
I will provide no cue, no indication, I think. Nothing to remember.
I mute the tube. Though the boy's head reassumes an even plane, the eyes remain affixed on the screen. I click the power button. The picture vanishes. We sit silently for a time in the weak light that comes in from the street. The eyes remain on the blackened screen.
"Hey, Q," I whisper. "What's up?"
Time passes. Has he heard me? At last a tiny, faraway voice.
"I need to tell you something, Daddy." His eyes are still on the screen. "Daddy, your balloon is going to pop."
My balloon? Whatever.
"Don't worry, sweet prince," I assure him. "My balloon is safe."
The next afternoon, while Casper naps, Quincy and I read in the living room. I'm halfway through Frank Rich's column when Q claps his book shut, points a finger at my head, and grins.
"Hey, you f---in' man!"
No cue, no indication, nothing to imbue the word with power.
"What's that, Q?"
His execution is gorgeous, full of music and joy, with a heavy landing on the "f"("fffffff---in'!") that constitutes its own syllable.
It's true, my son. It really is the funnest word in the world.
"What was that word you said, Quincy?"
"Hmmmm. I don't think that's a word." I return to my Times. Over the edge of the page I glimpse that tilt of the head, that knowing grin.
"Yes, it is a word, you fffffff---in' boy!"
When Casper wakes, we head off to Barnes & Noble to pick up Philip Roth's latest. It's not as easy to find as it should be.
"I wanna see the birds," Quincy announces shortly after we arrive.
Next door, at Pet Smart.
"After Daddy gets his book."
"I wanna see the birds."
"Duly noted. Hold on a minute."
"The birds! The birds!"
"You know, Quincy, patience is a virtue."
It is then that Quincy decides to free the beast from its cage.
"FFFFFFF---in' boy!" he hollers. Three times in a row.
He not only understands the abstract music of the word, but how to employ it. My boy!
Those who stare (everyone) can't be blamed. Who's ever heard the F-bomb out of the mouth of a 3-year-old? All those eyes, all those pointed thoughts, the silent and screaming imperative to do something, register as an unpleasant pressure in my ears. Quincy, for his part, greets all those eyes with a rousing take on "The Muffin Man," replete with a little skip-step. His notes are pitch perfect, though the lyrics are a bit off ...
Here comes the FFFFFFF---in' Man!
The FFFFFFF---in' Man!
The FFFFFFF---in' Man! ...
Now here's the thing: Mine is an extreme temperament. Always has been. In the face of great emotional or psychic pressure, I either do or I don't. There is no deciding. There is the ghost and there is the machine, and when the crap starts flying, the machine takes over with one of two programmed responses: either a pointless, pyrotechnic, Tourette's-like display — or psychic vapor lock, an utter freezing up. Both are invariably out of proportion to what needs to be done. This tic, this flaw, explains why I've lost an impossible number of terrific girlfriends, why I could lop off a couple of fingers and still count my good friends on one hand, and why I wound up in a profession that involves me staying home. Alone.
So here in Barnes & Noble, it's a foregone conclusion that my balloon won't weather this trial. The only question is whether it's going to pop or slowly hiss itself away. (Quincy's clearly placed his bet on the former.)
And yet, and yet, here's another thing. The next thing. I don't know how to describe it except to say that my balloon begins to rise. Up it goes, to a height of about 10 feet. Then it stops. I am below it and it is above me. Yet somehow the reverse is also true. I'm also up there, an observing specter. There are my boys. There is their father. There are all those amazed strangers. This warm third-person hoveringness is not unlike what people who undergo near-death experiences sometimes describe.
A man who looks like me, but isn't, lays a reassuring hand atop my older son's pretty head.
"Q," he says with a rueful smile, "you know better." Then in an aside meant for the boy, he turns to a 60-something woman several feet away, her face a mask of alarm and scorn, and shrugs, "His mother has a filthy mouth."
Some tone, some message inside or beyond the words themselves — You are my son, you are my boy, you are all right, there's no reason to panic — passes into the boy, dissolving his rage.
I ought to be shocked. This capacity for calm flies in the face of everything I've ever been and felt. But it's been available to me now for more than three years — since Quincy's birth. Until he, and his brother in turn, showed up and drew it out of me, I'd have scoffed at any suggestion that it was there, dormant. But it was. It's been growing, too, in both frequency and strength.
Nobody who knows me believes me when I try to explain this, by the way. They know the story on me. Even my wife, who lives with it, who has seen it time and again, who benefits from it, doesn't quite buy it. But then, how could she? She knows the story on me better than anyone.
So here it is, the story on my wife and me. I'll start with her.
When Dana was a very young girl, her cousin ran away for two weeks. Several days into the search, Dana underwent a clarifying moment. Sitting with her aunt and uncle, beholding their terror and grief, she made a vow.
I will never cause such grief. I will be ... good.
An astonishing ambition: not just to act good (which is merely goody), but to be good, intrinsically. But she did it. Anybody who knew her as a child, or a teen, or a young adult, or who's in her life now, can give you the story on Dana. Hell, anybody who just meets her can tell you her story. With that great big beautiful pie-plate face of hers (her college nickname: "Pumpkin Head"), she's as emotionally open and generous a human being as you'll ever meet. The woman radiates a goodness (a goodness less sweet than deep) and a motherliness that neither competes with nor diminishes her sex appeal.
People want to be near Dana. It makes them feel, and want to be, good. There's an iconic childhood picture of Dana that I had framed a few years back, when she was out of town and I felt like reminding myself why I missed her. In it, she's 4 years old. She's seated, clasping her hands, leaning forward, and in that smile, in that befreckled, beaming-moon face of hers, is a look of such giddy and innocent embrace of everything it beholds that it breaks your heart. It now greets visitors as they enter our home.
She's a priest, you know. An Episcopalian.
Now the story on me: unpleasant child, ferocious temper, quick with the coldcock. In church I pocketed cash from the collection plate. On the soccer field my bag of dirty tricks inspired parents (opponents, teammates, and once, even my own mother) to howl for my ejection. I was told, so often and so unanimously, that I had a "dirty mind" that the words took on prophetic power. (College nickname: "Greasy." Reasons: legion.)
And the story on the two of us, on our marriage? A saint-and-skank affair, an opposites-attract relationship that draws its sustenance not from amity but from tension. ("Baby, you put the 'o' in holy," I told her the day she was ordained. Her response: "Jesus.") My contradictory needs to be good enough for her on the one hand and to corrupt her on the other, create a constructive friction — a self-replenishing source of light and heat. That's the story, then: Without my loogie-hawking antics, my endless self-indulgences, our love would wither.
Funny thing about these kinds of stories. Once they start, they're hard to stop. They acquire momentum. They metastasize. Which is to say that other people began to expand the story of our marriage — The Angel and the Skank — to include our children years before we actually had children. In the decade preceding Quincy's birth, how many times was I subject to the punchline, "God help us when Corsello becomes a father"? Not even half the number of times someone quipped, "Has that child been baptized?" or "Doesn't the court injunction say 50 yards minimum?" whenever I took somebody else's baby in my arms.
Good jokes, all of them. I laughed every time. But were they just jokes? Of course not. Like all stereotypes, these jokes were based on a there there — that's what made them funny. That there presupposed a clear picture of what kind of parents Dana and Corsello would be. Dana, a called person, a person who knew exactly who and what she was, who always knew the right thing to do in any situation, would be the patient parent, the nurturing and responsible parent, the parent who creates structure in the lives of her children. Corsello, forever steeped in his own self-regard and studied ambivalence, prone to temperamental surges, would be the fun parent, the one who lets the house descend into a Fresh Killsian dump of pizza, poop, pans, and Deadwood profanity when Mom's out of town for the week. Fun, but ... not a real parent. Because, as anyone familiar with the story could tell you, Corsello is a congenital flitter and flee-er, a man-child with the attention span of a 3-year-old. Capable, in love and work, of inspired bursts, but no good for the long haul. The unglorious day-by-day commitment that comprises 95 percent of good parenting (and, more generally, good love) would fall to Dana. When the going got tough, Corsello would do what he always does when the going gets tough: blow up or freeze up.
I'm not complaining. This is just something the human brain does, this reducing of the infinite complexity of other human beings into single, straight narrative lines. And the fact is that, without ever really thinking about it, Dana and I seem not only to have accepted but embraced the premise of The Angel and the Skank. Partly, this is because the story is (kind of) endearing, and makes for merry conversation at parties. But mostly it's because, after a certain age, it's just too time- and energy-consuming to attempt to present one's self and one's marriage, in all their complexity and self-contradiction, to someone who isn't your spouse. Who can possibly process all that data anyway?
Then our babies came along and yes, they changed everything. Obviously they changed the way we spend our time. We saw that one coming. But the sheer pressure of their presence did something we didn't expect; it challenged and, in some important ways, debunked the premise of Angel and Skank. As with everyone who procreates, we discovered that who and what you are prior to parenthood by no means guarantees what kind of father or mother you'll be. In a way, fathers and mothers are like soldiers; no matter how well prepared, there's no telling whether they're fighting or fleeing types until the bullets start flying.
Without Quincy and Casper, I could have spent the rest of my life lazily (and happily) accepting and living out the cartoonish reduction of two souls that is Angel and Skank. Now that they're here, that story is starting to wear real thin. So you know that bit a few paragraphs above where I said I wasn't complaining? Well, F that. I am complaining. Because I've been slandered, Swift-Boated as a dad even before getting into office, so to speak, and it's time to set the record straight. I am as capable as the next guy of straight-up responsibility, respectability, goodness; and my halo-headed wife is as prone to the flaws of the flesh as the next gal. Our friends are going to have to stop disbelieving Dana when she tells them that the reason I stay home with the boys 19 nights out of 20 is not because I'm "whipped" but because I feel like it. And they are going to have to stop disbelieving me when I tell them that Halo Girl, in addition to being a shopaholic, is perfectly capable of ending a debate about whose turn it is to get up with the baby by snapping, "Eh, (epithet too skanky to print)."
There's nothing complicated about it, really. This probably has something to do with the fact that in the first year or two, there's nothing intrinsically complicated about parenting. It's demanding, of course. But the challenge is quantitative, not qualitative. There are no decisions to make, only things to do, most of them mundane.
The test — of our parenthood, of our "story" — was immediate. From the instant he burst, ululating, from the womb, Quincy was a ferocity. His first gesture was an emphatic, arcless jet of urine into the face of the doctor who'd delivered him. He refused to eat. He refused to sleep. He found no position or location comfortable. Even the maternity ward nurses, those old pros, found the frequency and volume with which he expressed his displeasures to be "remarkable."
Now when I say there's nothing complicated about it, I'm saying this: I did it. The tedious, torturous work of getting up and staying up, night after night, week after week, doing what had to be done: I did it. In the first week or so, my ability to do it went without saying. The novelty — a boy! a wonderful, rowdy, screaming, suckling, pooping boy! — created its own momentum. But even as I did it, a subterranean fear began to rise, slowly and surely, to my surfaces. Corsello's a flitter and a flee-er, good for a show now and then, but incapable of the long haul. I knew the story. Everyone knew the story. When the novelty wore off, when the boy was no longer headline news, when the well-wishers and casseroles stopped coming, the oppressive mundanity of it all would force Corsello to snap. Or freeze.
I don't know what else to say except ... it didn't. I didn't. I just ... did. Quincy didn't start sleeping through the night until he was 2, and throughout that time, I did. And Dana? She did, too. She did. But can I be frank here? Not to the degree that I did. When it came to taking the boy for walks or drives from 3 to 5 in the morning, she didn't quite have what I'll call an aptitude. To her the burden of being endlessly pooped, in every sense, was just that: a burden. To me, it turned out to be something else. Something more. And, oddly enough, that more has to do with sin.
This is no story: In this life, my greatest sin — born of a mealiness of conviction and, sometimes, outright cowardice — is that of things left undone. I won't detail this sin here, except to say that my awareness of it takes form as a shrill and sinister voice, as ever present as the Brownian hum, that tells me that there is something else, something more, I should be doing.
Something else. Something more.
Yet on our first nights back from the hospital with Quincy, when everything fell to me (Dana was recovering from the Cesarean), a different voice, calm and quiet and persistent in its own way, came into my head as I bathed and swaddled and comforted and fed bottled breast milk to my boy: There is nothing else I can be doing. There is nothing else I should be doing.
Despite the "I" in that thought, it felt external in nature, less a voice from within than a blessing from above.
There is nothing else.
There was a hallucinatory disproportion to this voice vis-à-vis Quincy's. The boy's shriekings sometimes went on for hours. (In ensuing weeks and months, there came to be a fairly predictable point, around the half-hour mark, where his mother would snap "I CAN'T TAKE THIS ANYMORE!" and flee the house.) But the louder and longer he shrieked, the less I could hear him, and the more clearly I tuned in to that mantra.
God, the immunity and impunity conferred by that voice!
And simplicity. Because what was to figure out about a screaming baby? There was an entirety to it, an objectivity, that I've never encountered before.
I have the attention span for this. I can stay up as long as it takes. I can take it. I can do it. I'm doing it.
When Quincy was delivering his worst, there was nothing else for me to think about. For the first time in my life, I shed my own poisonous third-person regard, stopped looking at myself doing whatever it was I was doing, and passing judgment of one kind or another. Here's the truth: There is nothing like dealing with one's own screaming, puke-slathered spawn at 3 in the morning that better puts one in one's place. How strange — taking care of Quincy in those first years was, objectively, a very loud and very unpleasant experience. But subjectively? It was trancing. And it is, still. Fatherhood has quieted the furious mouse-on-a-wheel motions of my mind as nothing else ever has.
There was a time, before our children were born, when it seemed a certain kind of mystery had gone out of my marriage, out of the story of Dana and me. The reason was plain enough: I'd used up all of my stories. Being both an egomaniac as well as a professional storyteller, I'd fully excavated myself for my wife, left no mysteries to discover.
Dana, on the other hand, always had, and always will have, the mystery of her stories. It simply doesn't occur to her to tell this or that story about her past, because it doesn't occur to her that anyone besides herself would find them of value. Which means that living with Dana (especially if you feast on stories, as I do) is like living with the knowledge that here and there under your house and in your yard, there are buried treasures that, once in a while, you'll be lucky enough to stumble upon.
Every three or four months, an ancient something from her past will plop out of her mouth and I will be astounded — I'll actually feel angry and even betrayed — by what she's been "withholding." I'd known the woman five years before I learned that in high school, she was the top-ranked cheerleader (individually) in the state of Colorado. I'd known her six years before learning she'd quarterbacked her school's football team (in Texas) until the seventh grade, when school officials decided such a thing was unholy. And only last month, after 10 years, did I hear about the ingenious torments her dear, departed mother, Reba, devised for her wayward alcoholic husband when Dana was a girl. (Exhibit A: the night Reba unscrewed the shower head, filled its insides with red food dye, then screwed it back on; when the old man inevitably stumbled into the house at 3 in the morning and then into the shower, a minute passed before the screams began. "Jesus, Reba! I'm dyin', I'm dyin', Reba, I'm DYYYYIIIIN'!")
"How could you keep this from me?" I've whined whenever she's unearthed these gems, marveling all the while at the renewed mystery of the woman I married, and ruing the fact that I've got nothing of the kind to offer her in return.
But then our boys came into our lives, and with them, my unexpected capacity for calm. Just when she thought I had no mysteries left, when it seemed no part of my story remained unwritten, out came this new chapter. It mystifies her, my new evenness. Her response to it isn't overt, or exclamatory, like my experience of her childhood tales. Instead, she experiences it as assurance — that I am capable of handling not just the everyday stress of parenting but, if necessary, actual calamity — that there resides within me a kind of insurance policy for my family that has nothing to do with money.
For a long time, this role reversal of ours, this debunking (or revising) of The Angel and the Skank, went unacknowledged. But then, about a year ago, we had one of those perfect storms. Quincy brought a stomach virus home from day care. It was terrible, terrible. Within 24 hours, our home was an epidemiological hot zone, with both boys and both parents voiding from both ends, racked with body aches, feverish, sleepless. There was much gnashing of teeth, much pulling of hair. On our second night of plague, while Dana gritted it out on her own, Quincy, Casper, and I spread out on a bed in the guest room. Then, just after 2 in the morning, with spectacular synchronicity and symmetry, both boys bolted upright, locked eyes, and vomited on my chest. Then began to shriek in horror. The stench, the screams, the steamingness of it all, was ... weirdly calming. Eventually, from the adjoining bedroom, Halo Girl, sounding like a wounded gibbon, joined the screaming.
"I CAN'T TAKE IT ANYMORE!"
By the time she got herself out of bed, the boys and I were in the tub, de-vomiting. Their shrieks had ebbed to rueful moans. She stood in the doorway for a time, piecing together what had happened.
"God," she finally said. "How do you do it?"
I'd never actually heard the words out loud until I spoke them then.
"Darling," I said, "there's nothing else I can do."From the book Blindsided by a Diaper, published by Three Rivers Press, a division of Random House, Inc., June 2007. Excerpt adapted from the essay entitled "Debunking the Myth of the Angel and the Goon."