We Are Learning How to Talk
We are learning how to talk. Half-circle, group, now lined up with No-you-before-me at break time. The chairs could and do talk, unfolded as they are for everyone who comes late, screeching, metal on metal, the way the stories are volunteered, no apologies, and then there’s this break, and we leave those chairs, all of us middle-aged parents and broken and sad and surprised to be hungry except for a sibling who is young, strawberry-cheeked but still spent, the way the glop on the break food that’s pink is, the way the torn-apart sweet rolls taste, milk slopped beside coffee drip, coffee weeping to the floor.
We can weep too, just as fast, but rage is more like it, we gape while we talk through our story and then we rage, we need suture. We have two minutes to tell everything to each other. It turns out to be a lot of time, rattling rattling with heartbreak, years are involved.
The man beside me sits doctor-like on his chair after his story, his white hair fleeing his head in some smart way, and his folding chair protests his return from the break: he is heavy with feeling. I lean into mine, my chair squeaks and he thrusts himself forward in his with Hello. His son is himself wrought wrong, he has said, his son he cut into sentences so precise in his two minutes the white hair must mean he’s a surgeon: where’s the scalpel for this? Where’s the entry? Every tool points to the self, is what he says now. His wife crouches at his flank in a chair that agrees, she lay in the wind of his report, the weather of it brisk and affecting, the words nodding, hers too.
His two minutes were the longest.
Each of us tried to up the ante: a son in a house for a year chained, finger by finger, to a computer, a daughter who wants nothing except what leads to a noose, rope she can’t cry past, another with rehab in series for his son, and buddy-buddy bondsmen, a parent who drives punched-out car windows, who has offspring of offspring who use. No one has bad children, children left out of the fridge and turned bad. Our children rage like us, and forget and then hurt themselves so big we parents shrink to fit. Also no one is rich after all the shrinks, or even before, with truant officers and then bail, so there’s no envy.
The white-haired man stopped his two minutes with comments about lack of medical services and his shock thereof. The hospitals aren’t Obama’s by any means, but.
Everyone nodded then. I nodded. His wife beside him started leaking flat tears. Now she tips forward on her folding chair, almost on her haunches to say–
No one can hear her but we listen.
What? Her husband turns to her.
I’m afraid, she says too loud back. I ran to the bathroom to collect myself the way you suggested, she says to us, she bows to the leader who has stepped back into the room, strawberried, coffeed and only too well aware of our problems, his own two children exemplars. He is the one to whom the cries of the chairs are directed, and he’s often silent.
The boy’s too big, she says, looking at her husband, not the leader. The boy scares me.
The husband narrows his eyes.
You have to use your Delay, says the leader.
He was kicking in the door, she says.
I see, being closer, the dark under the cantaloupe foundation that is spread across her skin. But maybe the dark I see is just the light cast wrong.
The man with the seriously suicidal daughter, desolation incarnate but with surprisingly chipper clothes, says Visualize otherwise.
When she swallows and goes on without words, just shaking, the leader says, you have to see these children with bolts through their heads—
That’s not real, that’s not real, she answers. He’s so big.
The white-haired husband drops his head into his hands.
I want to touch him the gesture is so touching but she is saying the son tried to kill her that day and that was why she fled to the bathroom and what is she supposed to do about that? He—and she points an elbow at the head-handed husband—says it’s nothing, not to worry, he’ll—what?—grow out of it?
She doesn’t say all of that, some of that we insert, knowing what every sob signifies, amplifies, except for the kill part. She says out loud what we all fear, that instinct to kill the parent that runs along like a rat under the skin of all children, that instinct with the stink inside it that parents fear big, that these anomalies of the mind—are they really?—make it easier to see, in fact, with our children’s better muscles and short spans of reason and their dark thoughts tangled by internal globs of newly hatched hormones, it is even easier to see how hard it is for them to resist this.
She has fallen off her chair, she is sobbing that hard.
The husband sits there.
The leader clamps both hands to her shoulders, the leader rocks her quiet until the husband says restraining order and protective services, then she uprights herself with a spring that the leader isn’t balanced for, he sprawls, she’s on her feet and yelling at the husband, against all his white streaming doctor hair.
I turn to my husband who doesn’t hear the chairs or the coffee dripping at break or the leader when he does talk, although he does admire the leader for his job that he doesn’t volunteer for. My husband is here in placation. It only rhymes with vacation. My husband said not a word about our son during our two minutes, other than positive. I admire this stance but words here and in this situation are for truth and not magic. This is the gist of the woman’s lashing back, the black and blue marks on her arms she shows by peeling her shirt sleeves all the way to her armpits. Whatever she says about her son I remember nothing. I’m watching my husband’s hands clench and ball.
She’s a woman not wifed, not mothered, but troubled. Troubled is not the word. She has fallen to her knees and the husband is saying No the way a person faced with a bad piece of themselves they grew on their back where even they couldn’t see it, might on discovery. Not you-are-crazy-and-a-liar but a No-I-don’t-want-to-know.
In fifteen minutes we spew from the room onto the dream of an institutional lawn: Adirondack chairs positioned in front of ducks. Only the trees are weeping.
See? I say shaking, and he says, at last, Yes.
Terese Svoboda won a Guggenheim last year. Her most recent novel, Bohemian Girl, was named one of the ten best Westerns of 2012.