Monday, April 02, 2012

Seven Days Before Christmas

Seven days before Christmas.

Children chase each other across an ice rink. I’m new to the parent game, but everyone is glad to show me the ropes. Away from the action is the private drama of a hundred married couples, the million tiny stories that add up. I listen to business deals, mortgage payments, conflicts with teachers, aging parents, and the minutia of white, middle class chatter. The men walk towards food carts, buying hot dogs and soft drinks. The women stay behind, chatting about nothing in particular.    

I have no fondness for ice skating. My memory is of hopelessly swollen ankles that did not recover for nearly a week. I remember immediately soaking them in the hot water of the bathtub after arriving home. Anyone who can manage to stay upright for long periods of time has my sympathy but not my envy. 

The last time I skated, I stood outside the glass. Then, I thrust bad poetry upon the sympathetic, craving a lasting connection with someone else. My writing went with me everywhere in those days. I also think of bad food, usually covered in nacho cheese. The ice rink closed years ago and with it, no doubt, the stories of other like me.  

I’m dating a woman who believes that every event, regardless of context, must be narrated. Consequently, my life feels like listening to an everlasting book on tape. I’m not complaining. If she’s the play-by-play person, I’m there to provide color commentary. In this contest, we’re watching eight young teenagers to make sure they stay in line and don’t get hurt. But beyond the strictly essential aspects, it’s irresistible to watch. Proud parents have much to crow about—to latch onto and brag.

My father appreciated what he could. I always seemed to make him proud for the very things I found the least compelling and interesting. While on the football field, he beamed with pride while still refusing to puff his chest out. When I learned the guitar, he only wanted to hear Johnny Cash. If I tried to play something else, his eyes drifted elsewhere, as if waiting only for the end. When it comes my turn, how will I respond?

I return to the action already taking place. They're really still children, even though sometimes it seems otherwise. Their behavior is often transparent to adult eyes, as are the beginnings of their new selves. It makes it easier for parents that way, at least for a while longer. Their heads seem misshapen, growing at a rate of speed not at the same proportion as other parts of their bodies. They call it the awkward age for a reason, though these kids seem close enough friends that insecurity momentarily lets go, delayed until their skates and selves leave the ice. I imagine it must be quite a relief.

But whoso shall offend one of these little ones which believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea.  

The blonde haired girl chases my new stepson around and around the rink. All the mothers remark how he’ll break all the girls’ hearts someday, with his good looks and long eyelashes. Based on what I see, he’s still entirely oblivious to female attention, a curious state which won’t last long and will never descend ever again. In one of life’s great ironies, at this brief juncture, the girls have a corner on attraction and energy. I wonder to myself what will happen when the roles are reversed, a year or two from now.

His mother and I very nearly didn’t let him attend tonight. He’s an underachiever with his schoolwork. More than capable enough to get all A’s if he applied himself, he rushes through assignments, unwilling to devote the time. And yet, he is such an obvious leader, even now, with all the required poise and presence. My girlfriend suggests he is still mad at her for the divorce. It’s highly likely. Here lies an avenue where I feel powerless to intercede and would not do so if I could.

I’m new to raising children and even less confident because they’re not mine. It’s true that they like me, which was the litmus test employed by their mother immediately after our first date. I want you to meet my kids. Never was a more terrifying phrase employed. After introductions, they were put to bed. You pass the test, she said.

In the meantime, sharing space with two kids can be nerve-wracking, but it’s easier than living with bratty roommates. I had far more problems when living in a college dorm. I never had nightmare experiences in that regard, but more than a few awkward encounters. A roommate returning from classes once discovered me in a rather compromising state. Socks on the doors can be fine, but only for those who understand what they represent. It is that very basic fear that remains in my mind when kids have been tucked in and it is time for us. Doors can be locked, but I keep an ear out for a late night knock or two.

This will take some adjusting to, but you’d be surprised how easy it goes if you stop trying to control every aspect. As animals, we were designed to care for the young. The thought that never leaves my head is the realization that everything I do or say is fodder for impressionable eyes and ears. I never was terribly profane. Their mother, however, lets fly with a stream of curses both great and small. I try to undo, in my own small way, her anger and frustration. The kids aren’t the only ones upset from the divorce.     

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