Terese Svoboda

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.