Followed by a scuffling sound, then, “It’s not fair!”
“Lucy,” I hear Ellen say. “It’s a toilet. Use the other one.”
“But I wanted this one.”
“Use the other one, Lucy.”
“I was here first.”
“It’s a toilet, Lucy.”
What follows is something not quite a wail, not quite a groan, not quite a ragged-throated banshee hurling itself off a cliff—though this last one is perhaps closest.
Five minutes later we’re in their room, getting night-night kisses when Lucy says, “Ow, ow, ow, ow, ow, owowowowow!”
“What is it?” I said.
“I bumped my head!” Her tone is belligerent. There’s no other way to say it: my six-year old blonde-headed daughter sounds like a truck driver drinking beer at a football game.
“Oh you poor dear,” I say, even though that’s not what I’m thinking. “What did you bump it against?”
There’s a pause. “The pillow.”
I don’t laugh, just lean over and give her a kiss on the forehead. Instantly her arms are around me and she’s squishing me in an octopus hug. So check that: a strong belligerent truck driver.
A few weeks ago, we were out for dim sum with Chris and Valerie and my parents. Lucy was sitting next to Valerie, which is not unusual. Sure, Valerie’s a native Hong Konger who’s occupied this earth for, let’s say, a minimum of 37 years, and Lucy’s an obnoxious six-year-old Norwegian-American pixie who daily tests the theory that she’ll make it to seven—nevermind any of that: these two are essentially the same person, cut from the same cloth, stuffed with the same gooey red substance that’s half lava, half treacle, half math-defying joie de vivre.
Anyhow, we were out for dim sum and I was talking to my parents while Ellen was trying to keep Jamie and Will from hurling shrimp rolls at the old men reading newspapers at the next table. It was at precisely at this moment that Lucy turned to Valerie and said, “Do you have a fussy face?”
Valerie leaned over, not sure she’d quite heard right. “Um, excuse me?”
“A fussy face,” Lucy explained. “You know, for when you’re angry.”
“Oh yeah,” Chris said. “Valerie’s got a bunch of those, actually.”
At which point Valerie gave Chris two or three to select from. Then she turned back to Lucy. “Do you have a fussy face?”
Lucy nodded. “Want to see it?”
“Yes,” said Valerie. “I most certainly do.”
Since I wasn’t part of this conversation, I have to admit I’m relying entirely on Chris’s description for this part. According to him, what came next was instantaneous: Lucy’s face shifted from its usual malleable, round, amicability, to a stone-cold blankness that was simultaneously a glare.
“It froze my blood,” Chris told me later. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”
This story kills me on so many levels: one, that Lucy has such an expression; two, that she knows she has it, and hauls it out very deliberately at moments she deems appropriates; three, that she’s named this face; four, that she’s chosen to name it “fussy,” a word I haven’t heard used by anyone under the age of 72 since Gilda Radner died.
When we first moved to Hong Kong, we thought Will would be the one who struggled the most. This was a boy, after all, who self-medicates after a bad day by hiding in a book, never mind that his best friends are visiting, he’s in the middle of a birthday party or that it’s his birthday party for which the friends are visiting.
Lucy, on the other hand, is pure salt and vinegar, sugar and raisins, pure—I dunno—Punch? Energy? Everclear in a six-year-old bottle?
She’s the kid who, at the ripe old age of four, declared that Pad Thai, of all things, was her favorite food; who loves to go fishing for “crawdad” (singular, mind you) with our neighbor Daisy; who, when you get her up to go pee in the middle of the night, will kiss your neck. While still sleeping.
Whereas Will can barely think of one “favorite thing,” at the end of the day, Lucy can generally reel off 27 different things.
You can imagine our horror, then, when a month after we arrived in Hong Kong, Lucy’s teacher informed us that Lucy didn’t seem to be enjoying school, that she sat in the class room all day looking like someone was threatening to pull her teeth out with rusty monkey wrench if she so much as smiled.
Some of this, of course, can be explained away: she’s six after all, and her jerk parents pulled her away from friends she’d had since she was born, denying her the chance to attend the school she’d envisioned herself going to for years, dragging her to some crazy country around the world where she has to share a room and doesn’t have half her toys and can’t run around screaming in a half-acre yard butting against a huge cemetery.
And, I dunno, she’s my daughter, after all—which would put pretty much anyone in therapy, if you ask me.
So partly I’m inclined to dismiss the concerns of Lucy’s wonderful, talented teacher, and the occasional (say, hourly) temper tantrum or fit of tears and just leave her be.
Except for this:
It started in the fall, or what passes for fall in Hong Kong—those few months where the temperature actually becomes bearable and the humidity is low enough that you don’t feel like you’re being suffocated by a wet sock every time you step outside.
One evening we were lying on the couch, reading stories, and Will and Lucy kept scratching their legs.
“What’s the matter?” I finally asked, the seventeenth time Pooh was interrupted as he attempted to be a rather rainy cloud floating toward some honey in a tree.
“Itchy,” Will and Lucy both said.
I sat up, turned and looked at their legs. They were covered—absolutely covered—with small red dots.
“Ellen?” I called, fear creeping into my voice. It’s one thing to come to Hong Kong for a year, another thing to come and contract leprosy. I wondered for a moment what it would be like spending the rest of my life running from my children every time they tried to give me a hug.
It turned out it was heat rash, “Prickly heat,” the kids’ P.E. teacher called it, when the pores of the skin become clogged and inflamed.
It hung around for a long time, well into November. After a while, Will seemed okay with it. Lucy, though, found a new hobby.
“Lucy!” Ellen would say. “Stop that!”
We’d be sitting at the table, eating dinner. Even from where I was, I could feel the table rocking as Lucy scratching furiously at her legs.
Or we’d be standing out on the patio, throwing rocks at the students who live below us, and Lucy would be rubbing one foot against the other calf, then switch, and rub the other foot against the opposite calf.
Or we’d be cuddling and she’d be scratching obsessively, or . . . or . . . .or . . . .
Eventually what happened was that her legs were covered with tiny red pin-prick scabs.
Which she’d pick.
And then she started picking scabs on her face as well, one so much that it was in danger of scarring.
All of it reached a climax when we were in Vietnam. Will had his eye on a little metal monster made of nuts and bolts and other cast-off hardware. A guy was selling it outside a shop one day, and somehow Ellen and I got talked into buying it for Will, despite the fact that it cost roughly the same as a meal for 60 at the best restaurant in Hanoi.
Exercising the ultimate wisdom of a six-year old—“It’s not FAIR!”—Lucy insisted we get her something extra-special as well—more specifically, an ao dai, the traditional pantsuity thing that Vietnamese women wear when they want to drive dumb white men insane with lust.
Not that I’d know.
Anyhow, Ellen and I gave in, largely because we’d already spent $90,000 on random knick-knacks and junk for ourselves. The first outfit we looked at was reasonable priced, but upon closer inspection turned out to be made from a very cheap fabric akin to what you’d find, in, say, a Gladd bag.
“But I want it,” Lucy said.
“No,” we said. “Let’s go eat lunch and we’ll find another one.”
“But I want this one!”
“This one is made from cheap material,” we said. “It’ll fall apart in a week.” Because, of course, when faced with a hungry six-year-old, the best thing you can do is use reason. “You wouldn’t want that, would you?”
“Yes,” Lucy said. “That’s exactly what I want. Now give it to me!”
But we didn’t. Instead we continued down the street, belligerent, drunken football fan trailing behind, found a restaurant, and got some food in our bellies.
Things were better after that, until we were leaving the restaurant, and Jamie was grabbing Ellen’s nose and Will was telling some story from a Calvin and Hobbes cartoon, and Lucy said, “Want to know what I do when I’m angry?”
And then she grabbed the soft skin on the inside of her elbow, and half-scraped, half-pulled it.
Until it was red and raw.
Now I want to be honest with you.
First, this only happened once. Yes, there’s been lots of scratching, and yes, as my friend Janel has pointed out, that might be bordering on OCD.
But even so.
Next, Lucy is, by almost any measure, an insanely happy child: She loves fried dumplings and can eat 16 at a sitting; she’s a fast runner and her favorite color is blue. She can actually read a few books by herself now, and delights in doing so for Jamie; she likes the Mary-Kate and Ashley Olson mystery series, and hasn’t yet learned what a couple of drugged-out loser wanna-be porn queens those two have become. Yesterday, she spent part of her allowance on a roll of strawberry flavored Oreos, then split the pack with her two brothers. She’s only missed three words on her spelling test all year, which isn’t bad, given that there are ten words per week, and they include terms like gastroenterology (I’m trying not to take offense that one of the misspelled ones was “father,” where, inexplicably, Lucy included an extra “d,” an unnecessary “o,” and a couple other letters, like “l,” and “t.’).
When we were in Vietnam, Lucy reached into a hot pot, pulled out a chicken foot, and said, “Will, look! I’m eating a foot!” And took a bite. And though she complains about sharing a room with Will, sometimes the two of them walk ahead of Ellen and I, whispering to one another, and we know they’ll remember this experience for the rest of their lives.
Oh: and eventually she got her ao dai.
In short, she’s the same Lucy. She’s not broken. And she won’t be, not anytime soon.
All of which is a rather roundabout way of saying that I’m uncomfortable writing about this. In the five or so months since I first wrote about my concerns about Lucy and our decision to move to Hong Kong, I’ve written fewer posts specifically about her than I have either of the other two children. Partly this is because of fear of exploitation on my part: I know when I write about the family and my fears, my reading numbers go way up. Might as well go on Springer.
One of the mixed blessings of my job, however, is that I often—through papers and journals—get more of an insight into college students’ lives then your average 44-year old bald white-guy with fading eyesight. Over the years I’ve read about students’ hatred of their mothers, about the first time they smoked crack, about being raped, about anonymous sex in a public park, about anorexia, alcoholism, and discovering their own sexuality. I’ve read about their first loves and their fears that they’ll never be loved and how their parents are forcing them to study a field they don’t care anything about. I’ve read about their fathers’ marijuana addiction and their fathers’ deaths and their intense love for their fathers.
And I’ve read about cutting.
For those of you not in the know: good. Stop reading right now. Trust me, you’ll be much happier.
For the rest of you, well . . .
Cutting is a form of SI, or self-injury. It’s practiced mostly by girls, but some boys do it as well. It involves taking a semi-sharp object—a pin, a knife, the tip of a screw driver—and rubbing it hard against your skin until the stratum comeum is worn raw and blood starts to appear.
Or it may involve taking extremely sharp objects and making actual incisions in the skin. Because they wish to hide this practice from those around them, practitioners of cutting generally mutilate their upper legs, their bellies—or their arms.
Why, you ask? Why do they do this horrible, destructive, stupid stupid thing to themselves?
Every time I think about that question, I think about the LA riots following the verdict in favor of the policemen who clubbed Rodney King in 1991. Standing in a grad office watching as people set fire to stores and turned over cars in their own neighborhood, someone turned to the rest of us and said, “This doesn’t make sense. Why are they destroying their own stuff? If they’re mad at whites, why not go wreck white stuff?”
The answer, I suppose, and this is nothing profound, is because the emotions are sometimes just too much: they have to be released, never mind logic or the consequences.
As near as anyone can tell, it’s the same thing with cutters: they’re struggling with an emotion—negative, I assume—that’s so big yet so intangible that there seems to be no way to deal with it. Lacking the coping mechanisms we develop as we get older—martinis, anyone?—cutters seek some way, any way, to release these emotions. Have a hurt that you can’t explain, that you can’t define, that you can’t see or touch or erase? Put it here.
When I hear about stuff like this or read about stuff like this, all I can think is: what kind of world have we created, where kids do stuff like this?
And, of course, the subtext here is: what kind of world have I created for my daughter? By deciding to come to Hong Kong, by taking her away her friends and her room and her school and her, well, life—did we mess her up irreparably?
I’m overdoing it, I know. Relax, you say, it’s just one moment, one incident. You think too much. She’s just a little kid. You can’t read that much into this. She’ll be fine.
I know, I know.
But . . .
a) She’s my little girl;
b) I spent my senior year of college watching my girlfriend try to starve herself to death;
c) She’s my little girl;
d) I’ve seen students end up in the hospital for behavior like this;
e) She’s my little girl;
f) I know what it’s like to have big emotions;
g) She’s my little girl; and
h) She’s my little girl, so to hell with you.
My friend Janel, who had a Fulbright in New Zealand nine years back, knows what it’s like to travel with children: she took her two daughter, then ten and 12, with her for a full year, by herself. Sitting on the ferry to Macau, she tells me about this experience, about how her kids needed to find rituals, something to shape the apparent chaos (at least in the eyes of a child) of life abroad.
“It’s stressful,” Janel said, keeping her eyes on the horizon. Janel and I are both prone to sea-sickness, and though we’re friends and colleagues, we both agree that throwing up in each other’s laps is just a bit too intimate.
“And kids don’t know how to cope with stress,” she goes on. “You need to find some way to help her do this.”
I think about this a lot. Both the boys have some pretty handy coping mechanisms: Will hurls himself into books pretty much every chance he gets, dropping into a near meditative state from which we can extract him only by poking him with a sharp stick and mentioning popcorn. Jamie’s method is less sophisticated, but equally effective: it involves running up and down the halls screaming at the top of his lungs until he collapses on the floor in a sweaty heap, occasionally wetting his pants.
She’s just learning to read. When she screams we need to plug our ears. She’s not crazy about art. She’s too small to cook with us. She . . . ?
I’m tempted to end on a positive note. And certainly, there’s lots to be positive about: Lucy is a vivacious, energetic, loving, joyful (even, apparently, when she’s “fussy”). So there’s a lot good. And not much bad.
But the last time I wrote about Lucy, and talked about our fears for her, I ended up by saying I knew everything was going to be okay. I just knew it would.
I still think that way. Really I do.
But sometimes when I wake up I the middle of the night, and I’ve had too much caffeine or too much Toblerone or some discussion with some faculty member didn’t go so well and I can’t get back to sleep, I lay there, my mind racing over all the things that are wrong with the world (health care, Sarah Palin, Osama Bin Laden, Sarah Palin cuddling in bed with Osama Bin Laden and discussing ways to screw up health care), my thoughts inevitably fall on my children.
Thinking of them makes me feel better, of course. Especially thinking about Lucy who, as my dad often says, makes you want to smile just by walking into the room. And for a time, I can bask in the warmth of knowing she’s just down the hall, that in the morning after she’s gotten a little cereal in her and brushed her teeth and woken up completely, she’ll crush me with one of those octopus hugs before going out the door to school.
So that’s good.
But sometimes—sometimes—when I’m having these thoughts, there’ll be something lurking just outside the circle of light, something black and hard, something cold and threatening to wrap itself around my spine.
And when that happens, what I know and what is real have nothing to do with it. And I wonder--and this is the only time this happens--if Hong Kong was a mistake.