It’s Wednesday, which means Lucy has her afterschool activity, hand drums, or hand grenades or some such nonsense. Wednesdays also mean Will takes the bus home by himself, freeing Ellen up so that Jamie can take a decent nap and the two of them only have to make the trip into Tai Po once.
When he arrives on campus, Will takes the elevator up to the top floor of my building and strolls to my office. I can hear him coming the whole way down the hall, the 15 or 16 key-chains he has collected jangling as he walks. It’s a wonderful sound, signaling, most weeks, the end of my Wednesday workday, or at the very least an excuse for packing up my lap-top and heading up to the flat, where I give Will a snack before settling on the couch to handle a few more e-mails.
Today, though, is special. Today, I get to have The Talk, with Will.
Yes, that talk, the one about the birds, the bees, and Britney Spears’ absent underpants. It appears some of the kids at school have discovered at least the latter, and have spent what little time they’re not on the internet looking at pictures they shouldn’t look at explaining to their classmates the intricate details of these works of art. According to Ellen, who can draw information out of eldest much better than I can, these same boys also delight in waiting until the teacher leaves the room, then shouting at the tops of their lungs all the rude words they know and several they’ve made up.
In short, we did not choose to have The Talk with Will at this particular point in his short life; the decision was thrust upon us. Either explain things to him now, the proper way, or take the risk he’ll form the life-long impression that sex is something involving hip-boots, short whips, and men with names like “Donkey Kong.”
It’s not that I’m afraid of The Talk. This is me, after all, Man o’ Crap, a guy so full of it that he can talk about anything, anywhere, at anytime, convincing absolutely no one but himself, but enjoying the experience immensely nonetheless.
No, I’m fine with having the The Talk. I’m just not fine having it with my son.
I am Norwegian, after all. And Midwestern. And Lutheran. Sure, we—the collective we, mind you—have sex. Occasionally. But we don’t talk about it, though I’m not sure if this is because we’re embarrassed, or just so brainwashed by our parents on the virtues of modesty that we fear bragging.
I don’t, for instance, have any memory of my own father having The Talk with me. It’s entirely possible that he handled it the same way he did revealing the truth about Santa Claus, by simply saying, “You get this stuff, right?” Maybe, with the sex talk as with the Santa talk, I nodded vigorously, even though, in both cases, I had no idea what he meant. Which perhaps explains why I now have three kids and still spend Christmas Eve rigging cameras trying to get a snapshot of that fat bastard (Santa—not my dad).
All of which is a roundabout way of saying that I always assumed Will would learn about sex the same way I did: by looking at Scott Holgscrum’s dad’s Playboy magazines. Of course, given that both Scott and his brother Todd regularly ate Milkbone dog biscuits as a part of their afternoon snack and spent most of their twenties playing Bunk Buddy Bingo at the state penitentiary, maybe talking to Will straight up is a better idea.
So it’s Wednesday, and I’m sitting in my office sending crank e-mails to one of the deans about that speck of dark skin at his temple that I can only assume is melanoma, when I hear the jingle-jangle of Will’s backpack coming down the hall.
“Hey,” I say, when he comes in. Even I can hear the crack in my voice. “How was school?”
“Good,” he says. “David threw up during recess. It was really gross. And kind of funny.”
I’m not sure where to go with that. So I pack up my laptop, grab my water bottle, and lock up. We stroll down the hall, my son and I, talking about little things. He’s explaining something to me about cuttlefish, and I’m saying “Uh-huh,” and “Really?” all the while wondering how I’m going to start the conversation. My original plan was to appeal to Will’s scientific nature by very literally discussing the birds and the bees, slipping in, only toward the end—“Oh, and that’s how people do it too, only the man has a penis and the woman has a vagina, and for God’s sake, wear a condom or it’ll shrivel up and drop off!”
Now, though, this seems like a stupid plan. I find myself listening to him chatter on—we’re off cuttlefish, and onto, somehow, air pressure—and thinking what a handsome boy he is, his cheekbones high, his mouth small, his eyes slightly sunken like his uncle and his grandmother, clearly more Satrom than Hanstedt, and more Campbell than Satrom. Really, Ellen should be the one having this talk with him. The two of them are much more alike, on the same mellow wavelength. Whereas I used to worry that Will was too shy, that he would suffer at the hands of kids his own age, Ellen knew better, knew—as a former wallflower herself—that he would be fine. Will tells his mother things that he never seems to mention to me, stuff about his classmates and his dreams and things he’s wondering about, like how God is light enough to be supported by a cloud, and how do scientists know what color dinosaurs were?
Thinking of this, I remember something Ellen mentioned to me, and interrupt my son’s stream of consciousness (he’s now onto turbo jet engines and Einstein’s conceptions of the fourth dimension): “Hey Will?”
He looks up at me.
“Mommy told me something about Mark and George not being nice to you. Is that true?”
For an instant, his eyes drop. “Well,” he says, drawing the word out. “Kind of. A little bit. Maybe.”
The first clue, actually, came two weeks ago when we learned that Thomas, one of Will’s classmates, had transferred suddenly to another school. When we asked why, Will had said some of the other kids weren’t nice to him. Three days later, a note came home from the teacher talking about how some of the kids were starting to play “excluding” games: it’s Monday, so let’s all pretend Bobby is a loser and keep him out; now it’s Tuesday, so let’s ignore Wai Lam; Thursday, it’s Kyle’s turn. I remember these sorts of encounters when I was in sixth grade (and college, and grad school, and at my first job). I just hadn’t remembered them starting so early.
“What did they do?”
“Hey look!” Will says. He bends down and picked up a long, dried out pod. Peeling back the top husk, he reveals a row of dark black seeds.
“Huh,” I said, because, after all, it was a seed pod, and there’s not really much else to say. “So what did they do?”
“I bet these would still grow, don’t you?”
I lean in, look at the seeds. “I dunno. They look pretty dead to me.”
We walk a bit further. The sun is shining and the air feels dry for once. We’d spent most of February running a dehumidfier, trying to keep mold from blooming on the walls of the flat. I know I should be happy about the change in weather, but honestly, it’s so bright out there I have to squint.
And I’m beginning to feel the pressure, too: Ellen’s been bugging me about The Talk for three weeks now, and I can never seem to find just the right moment. Now, we’re only two-hundred yards from our apartment building, and The Talk is not the sort of thing I want to do sitting down and face to face and having to look him in the eye. Definitely more of a side-by-side thing: two dudes, strolling along, shooting the shit about menstrual cycles and stuff.
And of course, somehow, I’ve gotten sidetracked on this conversation about bullying and all that it entails—little things, like, say, my son not being invited to a birthday party, or not being driven to a Columbine-style killing spree.
“Does this happen a lot?” I say.
Will is still peering into the pod. “What?”
“This,” I pause, trying to figure out how to put it. “This stuff with Mark and George?”
“You know what?” Will says. We’re at the backside of campus, strolling along the bottom of a sheer rock cliff.
“Seeds are pretty incredible.”
For a second there, I think maybe he’s leap-frogged right over me and we’re onto The Talk before I even know it. Were I smart, of course, I would capitalize on the moment, explaining that testicles aren’t just for getting stuck in zippers, but between the sun, the wobbly conversation and my own fears about somehow turning my boy into one of those men who think the clitoris is a kind of Italian car, I’m in the position to capitalize on anything.
So I stumble on.
“When I was a kid, my friends Scott Holgscrum and Mark Vandenborough used to do stuff like this all the time. I remember once—“
“Because, you know,” Will says, gesturing at the wall of rock beside us. “Grass can grow in something like this. It barely needs any soil at all. If the seed can land there, and it gets enough water, grass will grow.”
“Will,” I say, “this is important, I really want to—“
But he’s examining the stones now, picking at one with his finger, his elbow in close to his body, his eyes fixed on his hands. Something about his posture, about this gesture, pulled in close to his body, as though protecting himself—something about this triggers a memory for me. Suddenly, I’m back maybe five years, the first time we’re in Washington DC and decide to go to the Natural History Museum. For weeks, Will, then four, had been talking about going to see the dinosaurs, rattling on and on about Tyrannosaurus Rexes and Triceratopses and a bunch of names I don’t even know how to mispronounce.
By the time we got to the museum on Saturday, though, it’s time for Lucy’s nap, so she and Ellen head back while Will and I go into the museum. After spending a few minutes admiring the huge mammoth in the front hall, we stroll into the room where the dinosaurs are kept—or their bones at least. The room is immense, of course, so I wasn’t surprised when Will stuck close to the walls, examining the terrariums they’d set up to show what the undergrowth and bug-life looked like during the neoplywhatever era. Eventually, though, I got bored with this stuff and figured he was too.
“Come on,” I said, taking his hand. “Let’s go see the dinosaur bones.”
But he pulled me to a side room. “What’s in here?”
It was a long hall with some sort of fancy display concerning neoplywhateverean sea life. “Giant sharks,” I said, surveying the scene. “Pretty cool. But come one: the dinosaurs are in here.”
But he’d spotted a TV screen on the other side of the room. Running over, he planted himself in front of it, eyes fixed on the flashing images: a tiny bug, being eaten by a fish, which in turn is eaten by a bigger fish, which is then swallowed by a dinosaur shark or something and on and on and until the tiny bugs all die, and then the little fish and the big fish and the dinosaur shark all shrivel up and croak.
“Huh,” I said, watching it. And then watching it again. And again. Will stood, staring, as though he’d never seen TV before.
“Really?” I said, when the same, 60-second video came on again. “You really want to watch this again?”
He just nodded. I stayed for one or two more rotations, then wandered off, looking at the rest of the display, the fake starfish, the silhouette of a giant shark on the wall, the weird, snaily looking things that seemed to be wearing space helmets. When I came back, Will was still staring at the TV: same story, floating bug, fish, bigger fish, monster shark-ish thingy-bob. Blah blah blah. The food chain can be boring, especially when you’re at the top of it.
“Come on,” I said, “we can watch TV at home.”
But he wouldn’t budge. He just stood there, feet anchored to the ground, one hand up, picking at the metal frame around the TV, his arm in close to his body, as though to keep it warm.
I wandered the other way, ducked my head into the dinosaur room. There was the triceratops, big enough to hold a mini-van between its ribs, a T-Rex with it’s head well above the second-floor balcony, something else I couldn’t name with plates along its spine.
I hustled back to Will. “Come on,” I said. “You gotta see these dinosaurs.”
“I’m watching this,” he said. It had to be the thirtieth time he’d seen it.
I will admit I started to get a little irritated. “Geez, Will,” I said. “We came all this way. The dinosaurs are right there. You gotta come see them: they’re huge.”
I’d like to tell you that it was at that point that I figured it out, that the moment I said “huge,” I knew, as any good father would, why Will wasn’t going to budge from that TV screen. But that wouldn’t be true.
In reality, I nagged at him a bit more, might actually have chastised him a little. I might even—though I don’t honestly remember—have finally dragged him out of the museum in a little bit of a huff—though, honestly, writing about this right now, I don’t remember that happening either.
What I do know is that by the time we got out into the fresh air, I knew what was going on. I knew that he’d been scared and that he’d done the only thing he could to protect himself: planted his feet and held his ground like the determined (I won’t say stubborn) little guy who was his mother’s son.
And I know I bought popcorn before we got on the train. And that we sat and ate it, and talked about—well—any damn thing but dinosaurs.
This second time, fortunately, I’m not so stupid—and a good thing, too, because you can’t get popcorn to save your life in Tai Po.
Seeing him standing there, picking at that small fleck of dirt on the stone face beside the sidewalk, I know there’s no way in hell I’m going to get him to talk about what’s going on with Mark and George at school. Every time I bring it up, he’ll just start talking about seeds again, or blowfish, or aerodynamics and solar winds.
And I’m guessing The Talk won’t happen either. And maybe it never will, at least not with me. Maybe I’m just not the right person—like I said, while Ellen get thoughts about God and the intricate details of Will’s school day, I mainly get phrases that begin with, “Hey Dad, did you know that . . .” followed by obscure information about how ducks float.
Which is fine, I guess. I like hearing about nuclear reactors, or why wind happens, or how sharks never sleep. Really I do.
At the same time, I understand that what’s happening here is just the beginning: Will will turn ten this year, will go back to Virginia, will start fourth grade, will begin to form the friendships he’ll keep for years. Two years after that he’ll go to the middle school, and then there will be girls and cliques and stuff that’ll make those idiots George and Mark seem like a stroll on a daisy farm.
My own Dad, who’s neither fat nor a bastard, always talked about how when I was thirteen I could get out of a car faster than any boy alive. “We’d get to church,” he’d say, “and no matter how fast I was, you’d be out first and ten feet in front of me. And you’d stay there, ten feet away, walking in front of me, like we had nothing to do with each other.”
And I know that’s coming too. Maybe especially with this boy, who’s more Satrom than Hanstedt, and more Campbell than Hanstedt, and more his own person, already, than I ever was.
So call me a bad father; call me short-sighted and superficial; call me a selfish old man who’s gambling with his son’s future happiness (not to mention the shriveling up and dropping off of—well, you know); call me all those things. I don’t care.
Because for now at least, he’s still my Will and he’s still talking to me, even if it is just about grass seed. And pathetic as it sounds, I’ll take what I can get.
So now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go call Scott Holgscrum’s dad.