Sunday, December 13, 2009

The Birthday Party

         Our kids hadn’t been at their school too long when we started to hear the rumors.  I was lying in bed with Will one night, asking him what his favorite part of the day was.  I do this, because Will is definitely a glass half full kind of guy, and if you just ask him how his day was, you’ll get a list of grievances half a mile long. 

That particular night, he paused a moment then said, “Nothing, because of Leyton.”

It took me a minute to figure out that Leyton was a person.  “What about Leyton?”

“He’s always kicking me,” Will said.  And then he went on to deliver a list of perceived slights by this character Leyton, who apparently found it funny to step on the back of Will’s shoe as he was getting on and off the bus, or to kick him in the shins when they were playing soccer during recess. 

Later, I mentioned this to Ellen and she seemed surprised as well.  Neither of us had ever heard of Leyton.  The next night, I asked Will about him again and got the same catalogue of grievances. 

“Did you tell your teacher?” I asked. 

“Uh-huh,” he said.


“She just said to try to ignore it,” and then he spun into some vague answer that I couldn’t quite follow. 

“Did you try asking him to stop?” asked Ellen from the next bed, where she’d been cuddling with Lucy and obviously eavesdropping.

“I told him it hurt,” Will said.

“Did it help?”

Will gave a groan that said, clear as day, “Of course not.”

“Did you try kicking him back?” I asked.

“Paul,” Ellen said from the next bed.

“Well,” I responded.  “What’s he supposed to do, spend all year getting bruised?  The teachers aren’t helping.”

“That’s not the answer,” Ellen said. 

“Yes it is,” I whispered in Will’s ear.  “Give him a good shot, right in the shins.”

Then the next night, I had another thought:  “What’s Leyton do after he kicks you?”

Will sighed.  “He laughs.”

“A mean laugh?”

There was a pause, then Will said, “Not really.”  Another pause.  “More like he thinks it’s funny and thinks I’m going to laugh too.”

Ah . . . memories of third grade came back, when I had such a massive crush on Laura Rich that I did the only thing an eight-year-old boy could do:  I hit her with a stick. 

“Maybe he wants to be your friend,” I said to Will.

Even in the dark, I could feel him staring at me like I was insane. 

“Seriously,” I said.  “Try being nice to him.  Play with him.  See what happens.”


That was the first clue.  The second came when we were meeting with Will’s teacher for our annual conference.  “Will’s one of the best behaved students in his class,” she told us.  “I sometimes worry that he doesn’t get enough attention.  You know:  because of the other boys.”

We must have looked at her blankly, because she frowned, then went on.  “Not that they’re that bad, mind you.  Not bad enough that I qualify for assistance,” she continued under her breath.

Ellen leaned forward.  “I’m not quite sure we follow.”

Will’s teacher sighed.  “Take Thomas, for instance.  He’s very smart.  Very smart.  And most of the time he can control his temper.  But say the wrong thing or catch him in the wrong mood, and WHOOMP!  Next thing you know he’s ripped off all his clothes and he’s trying to bite anyone he can get his teeth on.”

Twenty minutes later we were in the Lucy’s classroom, meeting with her teacher, when she named a classmate of Will’s:  “And I’m sure you’ve heard about Mark.”

Ellen and I gave each other a glance.  We were still spinning from Thomas the naked, flesh-eating nine-year-old. 

“Um . . .” I said.  “Not really.” 

And she went on to tell us about how Mark’s mom was sick with cancer.  We’d heard about this, about how she’d had to fly back to Malaysia for treatment, about how Mark had missed a few weeks of school.  Lucy’s teacher, though, gave us some new details, however—like how, for instance, Mark manages his anxiety by goading all the girls on the playground to beat him up. 

You heard me.  All of them:  older, younger, Anglos, Asians, didn’t matter.  He’d prod them until they were good and angry at him, then let them pile on him and stomp the living whoop out of him.  Including Lucy.

“We just keep an eye on him,” Lucy’s teacher said.  “Mark’s very smart.  We all understand he’s going through something difficult here.  But we keep an eye on him.”


Everything really fell into place when Ellen bumped into Leyton’s mom one day at a PTA meeting.  In recent weeks, Will had stopped mentioning anything involving kicking, and has even mentioned Leyton’s name in the context of having fun at recess. 

Ellen mentioned the latter to Leyton’s mother, who looked slightly pained.  “I hope he’s behaving?” she said. 

Of course, Ellen said.  And then Leyton’s mother went on to explain how this was Leyton’s third school in four years, how it was the only one he liked—scratch that: the only one he didn’t have fits about going to. 

When Ellen reported all of this to me that evening, we spent a minute or two staring at the kitchen floor, trying to figure out what was going on.  Then, just like in some crappy movie starring Nicholas Cage, all of the pieces shifted into place:  Leyton, Thomas, Mark, the small class size, the high male-to-female ratio, the repeated comments we’d heard from parents about how they’d chosen this school because the academics weren’t so cut-throat.

“Wow,” said Ellen, breaking the silence.  “We’re sending our kids to a school for troubled boys.”


Not really, of course:  as far as we know, no one's pulling switch blades or selling crack next to the water fountain.  And we’ve yet to learn of rubber bits in the mouth and electrodes to the temples or secret “time-out” rooms from which students reappear, pasty and thin, six days later. 

 It’s more a place that attracts kids who aren’t very happy in typical, ultra-competitive HK schools.  The academics at our kids’ school are tougher than at any school we’ve ever encountered in the States—Will regularly comes home with four sheets of complex multiplication or division problems, all in addition to English, Putonghua, and the rest—but they’re nothing compared to some private schools that’ll kick out a third grader for failing to delineate Pi to the 15th decimal.

But even so,, all of this caused us to start being hyper-vigilant—or paranoid, if you prefer.  If Lucy was in a particularly barometric mood one day, I’d gently ask if anyone had touched her someplace they shouldn’t have.  To which she’d respond by giving me a weird, frowny look, before running to her mother to ask if Daddy had had too much caffeine again.  If Will came home and mentioned that one of the boys—Mark, it turned out—had pulled up pornography on the classroom computer, we were quick to assign it to the nature of the school, rather than to the that nature of nine-year-old boys with access to a computer and a four-letter word for the female bosom.   

And when Will came home, two weeks before his birthday, and declared that he wanted to invite a bunch of boys over for a party, Ellen and I nearly knocked each other over inquiring who, exactly, he meant.

“Steve,” he said. 

“Great,” we responded.  Steve had already been over for a play date, and had impressed us by not only carrying his used dishes to the kitchen counter, but polishing my black work shoes and rocking the baby to sleep. 


“Fantastic.”  The son of the one of the professors on campus. A nice kid. 


Dandy.  Gordon did archery with Will, and was as polite as the Dickens.  And we all know how polite Dickens was, especially when he first cheated on and then abandoned his wife and the mother of his children to run off with her sister. 

“Oliver,” Will continued.

Never heard of him.  But as long as he cleared the criminal background check, fine. 


“Are you sure?” Ellen responded.


“I don’t know,” I said.  “I think four is just dandy.  Maybe we should stick with four?”

“And Mark,” Will concluded. 

Ellen and I glanced at each other.


But what are you going do?  These are your kid’s friends, after all.  And as messed up as some of them might be, my guess is none of their dads keeps a blog. 

So we put the invitations in the mail, strapped bars across the windows, and hired seven security guards to spend the afternoon sitting on the patio. 

Just kidding, of course:  these days everyone e-mails invitations.

The party began with a treasure hunt.  My idea.  Ellen wanted to contain it to our flat, but I had other plans.  Borrowing from Mr. Blain, the kids’ charismatic but fanatical physical education teacher, I was going to run those six boys (Oliver and Peter couldn’t make it) all over campus, wearing them down to submissive little lumps of clay. 

Standing outside our apartment on the eighth floor of the building, I went through the list of rules: 1) Stick together; 2) Be careful; 3) Collect all the clues so there’s no litter; 4) Do the clues in order; 5) No snorkeling. 

Blank stares. I felt my face begin to burn. 

“What’s snorkeling?” asked one of the Chinese boys.

You’d think after four months in this country, I’d know better than to try a joke with a cross-cultural audience.  Especially one full of nine-year-old boys. 

Then I realized someone at the back was, well, if not cracking up, at least snickering.  “Snorkeling,” he said, when I looked at him.  “It’s funny.  We’re not going swimming.”

“What’s your name?” I asked.

“Mark.”  He was handsome, with clear eyes and a broad face.

I gave the rest of the gang a significant look.  “Mark,” I said, “knows enough to laugh at my jokes.  Mark gets extra cake.  Learn from Mark.”

The first clue sent them down to the playground outside the building, where they found a mathematical equation that ran them back up to the third, then the fifth, then the eleventh floors (I’d forbidden using the elevators; I’m sure Mr. Blain would have approved). 

Every clue they found, Leyton would insist, “We need to go up on the roof!”   Then he’d scrambled up the green railings that rim each floor of our terraced building, and start to make his way to the terra cotta tiles of the floor below.  Every time, the rest of the boys called him back and they continued with their hunt. 

When, after the eleventh floor, they needed to hustle back down to the tennis courts, I figured I was safe, and lagged behind.  Five minutes later I arrived outside the courts to find Leyton two-thirds of the way up the chain-link fence protecting the grounds, the rest of the group trying to guide him down. 

“Just jump,” someone said.

“I can’t,” said Leyton, fingers locked to the fence.

“Why not?”

“I’m afraid of heights.”

After the tennis courts, it was back up to six.  Then back down to the swimming pool.  As they searched the bleachers for the next clue, Mark threw me a sidelong glance.  “I bet we have to go up again after this.”

“Clever boy,” I said.  Then sent them back up to 12.   After that, it was down to two, then up to seven.  There, sweaty and red-faced, they discovered that the last hint sent them back to our flat.  They banged through the front door, the whole lot of them insisting they wanted water, cake, and a nap, not necessarily in that order.

Lunch was a quiet, albeit surly, affair.  Afterwards, enough of them woke up to have a rousing balloon fight on the terrace.  And they seemed to enjoy the game Ellen had organized for them involving blow torches, straight razors, and life-sized Gang of Four blow-up dolls. 

The part that really got me, though, was when it came to the presents. 

To begin with, there was Mark, who brought his gift in a shopping bag.  “We weren’t able to wrap it,” he said, matter-of-factly.

I was about to make some sarcastic crack (I enjoy being cruel to children) when I suddenly remembered:  Mark was the one whose mother had cancer.  Cancer that was bad enough that she’d flown back to her home country to get treatment.  I closed my mouth.

It was a wonderful gift, actually:  four historical action figures, all generals of a sort—Jeanne d’Arc, Napoleon, Zhang Fei, and Guan Yu.  Plus a professional quality sketch pad and colored pencils.  We’d had to leave Will’s art supplies in the States when we came over, and I knew he’d missed them.  I wasn’t sure if Will had mentioned that to Mark or not, but after watching this kid in action for two hours, I was sure there wasn’t much he didn’t pick up on. 

Then there were the cards:  most of them were handmade, and they were elaborate.  Gordon’s, for instance, featured hand-drawn pictures on the front and back as well as the inside flap.  The note itself, written in precise handwriting in 17 different colors, said:

Dear Will:

Happy Birthday!!!  You one of my best friends at _____ and you are the first classmate to invite me to a birthday party in this school.  I’m so happy that you invite me to your birthday party.  I’m glad to meet you.  I wish you have the best birthday ever. 

And then it was signed and dated. 

Sure, there were hitches.  Thomas didn’t so much give Will his gift, as open it himself, then sit in a corner and read it for ten minutes before reluctantly handing it over to our son.  Following that, he spent most of the rest of the party playing with one of Jamie’s toy planes, flying it around the room, muttering about Kim Il-sung and Pyongang.  He mentioned 1959 as well.  I still haven’t figured out what that was all about.  I’m just happy he kept his clothes on and didn’t eat anyone.


That night, lying in bed with Will, I asked him what his favorite thing that day was.

“My party,” he said. 

“What part?”

He paused for a second, then said, “The presents.”

“Not the treasure hunt?”

Under the sheets, he punched me in the hip.  “Dad,” he said, turning it into a seven-syllable word, “that treasure hunt sucked.”

I laughed.  Then I took a deep breath and asked a question that’d been nagging me all day. 

“Does Mark ever talk about his mom?”

Will didn’t say anything for a moment.  Even though it was dark, I could feel him staring at the ceiling. 


“Does he ever talk about how she’s doing?”


Now I didn’t speak, not sure where to go from there.  Will lay silent for a bit, then said, “But we know she’s dying.”

I looked at him.  “How do you know that?”

 He named one of the teachers, who’d mentioned it in the context of talking about her own family, a number of whom had died from cancer.

“Are you sure?” I asked.  “I mean, about Mark’s mom.  Because you know, sometimes things get mixed up when one person tells another, then that person tells someone else.”

“No,” he said.  “I heard it.  I was there.”

I thought about this for a bit.  Then I thought about Mark, his intelligent eyes, his bright laugh, the way he glanced down for a moment—but only a moment—when confessing his unwrapped gift.  And I thought about how, exactly nine years and two days ago, I’d held Will in my arms for the first time, feeling the bend and flex of his ribs as his tiny lungs drew in air and then let it out again.  And I thought about how, at that moment, these words had entered my head, in no particular order:  Holy crap.  And:  Wow.  And:  Oh my god.  And:  I can’t believe he’s mine. 

And I thought about how, at that moment so long ago, it had never occurred to me that I might possibly not be around to see him play in his first baseball game or go to his first prom or register his first sax solo or wax his first car or graduate from high school or get married or have kids of his own.

Or turn 10.

And then, if there’s a word that’s stronger than “cling,” and darker than “fear,” and purer than—what? “Fire”? “Water”? “Hope”? “Blood”?—If there’s a word that’s all these things but even closer still to the bone, then that’s what I did that night, in that room, with my son, in the dark, exactly nine years and two days after he was born. 


Anonymous said...

Tears, Paul, at that last paragraph. Well said.

Najmania said...

Beautifully written. Well done.

Joyce Tush Angel said...

That's a very difficult way to handle things specially with your mom having a cancer. I wonder how that kid is now. It must have been terrifying for him. I wonder though on why it had to be Malaysia for the treatment...anyhow, poor Mark and belated happy birthday to your son. You should embrace him everyday and make him feel loved but not too much, specially in the teen years as if you remember how we felt back then when we were younger. I hope the best for Mark though