• New short fiction, every week.
    The words you know and love . . .
    in a totally different order.

  • 20. Tiger, Tiger

    By Simon Van Booy

    This week brings our first encore performance—from Simon Van Booy, whose collection Love Begins in Winter has just gone on sale. “Tiger, Tiger” is contemplative and memory-haunted yet punctuated by moments of unreasoned, mysterious, violent love. It is a virtuoso performance, one that bears rereading and reflection.

    When I first saw Jennifer, I thought she was dead. She was lying facedown on the couch. The curtains were not drawn. Her naked body soaked up the falling moonlight and her back glowed.

    Jennifer was Brian’s mother. When he frantically turned her over, she moaned. Then her arm flew back, viciously but at nothing. Brian told me to call 911, but Jennifer screamed at him not to. Brian switched on a lamp. He kept his distance and said “Mom, Mom.” Then he asked where Dad was. She moaned again. Neither of us knew what to do.

    Brian fetched a bathrobe and laid it across her back. She sat up, then pulled it around herself weakly. The robe was too big and gaped in several places. One of her breasts was visible. I know Brian could see it. It was like an old ashen bird. I made coffee without asking. There was cake in the refrigerator. It said “Tate’s Bakery” on the box. I cut the string. With the same knife I cut three equal pieces. We ate and drank in silence. Jennifer swallowed each forkful quietly; my yoga instructor would have called her mindful. She shook her head from side to side. Then Brian and I watched as Jennifer buried her face in her hands as though she were watching a slideshow of her life projected across her palms.

    On the carpet next to Jennifer’s clothes were several brochures for new cars. There was also a wedding band and a glass of something that had been knocked over. The contents of the glass had dried into the carpet and looked like a map of Italy.

    We sat in silence; a forced intimacy, like three strangers sheltering under a doorway in pouring rain.

    I remembered a childhood dream that went like this: the night before something exciting such as going on vacation or a birthday party, I would dream of accidentally sleeping through the whole thing. In the dream I would believe I had missed everything—that the event was over; it had taken place without me.

    Brian and I had been together for eighteen months when his parents decided they wanted to meet me. I was indifferent. I was thirty-four and settled in a practice with several other doctors. I didn’t care about living up to their expectations. I got tired of all that after I entered medical school and started clumsily slicing my way through cadavers. I come into contact with life and death on a daily basis, but not through ailing retirees battling heart disease and lamenting their crumbling bones but through children, who are never to blame for anything that happens to them. I wanted to be a pediatrician from the start.

    Countless children have waited outside my office with my secretary, Lauren, a southern redhead with flawless skin. I explain to parents the problem, the procedure, and the risk—in that order. The lone parent never cries, but couples do, even if the prognosis is positive. As they console one another, I often think of the little head swiveling around the waiting room, reading a book about boats, or looking at a plant, or staring at Lauren, unaware of the long and often arduous journey that some force in the universe has chosen for them.

    It doesn’t do children any good to see their parents upset, and so I sometimes let the child take Lauren out for ice cream.

    Several years ago, Brian’s parents bought a summerhouse in Hampton Bays. I personally don’t like Long Island. It’s overpopulated and people find safety through excess. The goal of life seems to revolve around ownership and luxury—just as it did for the English four hundred years ago. It’s everything my parents were against in the 1960s. Either America has changed significantly in the last decade or overeducation has left me cynical. So many revere a vehicle like the Hummer and other glorified farm equipment while spending their lives in ignorance of how their own organs work. We plead with God to spare us from disease, while consciously filling our bodies with toxins.

    I don’t much like the Hamptons either. In the years I have been going out there, it’s become a police state—and the police are paid handsomely for what amounts to guarding the estates of a few homegrown aristocrats.

    Perhaps you wouldn’t think my views extreme if I explained that my parents are from Oregon. I grew up wandering misty fields and sketching cows. My mother knitted clothes and my father built my one and only dollhouse in his workshop. My town is staunchly Democratic and well known as a haven for lesbians—imagine coffee shops and furniture stores run by tattooed women who bake upside-down cake for one another.

    They both visited once. My mother feels abandoned by me, her only child. But then she was always strange—somehow detached at key moments. When I was in high school I put it down to menopause, but now I think it’s something that’s been long-standing since childhood. My father would never say anything critical to her—he would just rub his chin or rub her hand. My father spent his life rubbing things, like Aladdin.

    Of course, my parents didn’t understand the Hamptons when they visited, the summer before I met Brian. Especially my father, who became flustered when we were stopped at a beach checkpoint and told we had to pay the town a fee in order to park at the ocean. My father told the teenage attendant that the Town of Southampton was no better than the mafia. But then people behind us started honking. Over dinner at a lobster shack close to where the fishing boats dock, my father said we would have been better off under the British. My mother said that if the British had retained the colonies, the only difference would be that everyone would have bad teeth. The waitress overheard and laughed. She gave my father a beer on the house and told him to cheer up.

    On the way back to the city my father looked strangely sad. I think he was going through something painful that he couldn’t talk to my mother about. I wish I’d asked. He died last year.

    After that long visit, the novelty of upper-middle-class New York life wore off and I appreciated the city for what it was, an indifferent, throbbing pulse with an infinite number of chances to reinvent yourself.

    It was sweet of Alan and Jennifer, Brian’s parents, to say I was the first of their son’s girlfriends to be asked out to their summerhouse in Hampton Bays. But they quickly ruined it by saying they only wanted to meet the ones he was serious about—as though the less serious ones were meaningless. Alan and Jennifer referred often to their summerhouse when they left messages on Brian’s machine, which led me to suspect they’d grown up poor. Actually they hadn’t. Jennifer was the daughter of a real estate husband-and-wife team from Garden City. Alan was the son of a Jewish tailor from the Lower East Side, who knew how to save money and collect secrets while he measured inseams. Brian said his knowledge of clients’ personal lives helped get his son into a private school where Jews were not particularly welcomed. When he died, his few remaining clients on Park Avenue breathed a sigh of relief.

    Brian has a younger sister, Martha. I met her once at a concert in Irving Plaza. Perhaps because she isn’t pretty, she had decided to be ironic and make her body the canvas for a series of strange tattoos, one of which is an artichoke.

    Brian’s mother, Jennifer, was once physically beautiful. In the photographs which dotted the living room of their Hampton Bays summer home, she looked perpetually overjoyed—her mouth painted and open like a rose moving its petals.

    The night Brian and I arrived in Hampton Bays we kissed in the car before going in. It’s something we do. We are always kissing. Brian stopped abruptly when he suddenly noticed the house was in darkness.

    “That’s strange,” Brian said. “There are no lights on.” I sensed something was terribly wrong.

    *

    Jennifer’s eyes were so puffy I felt awkward looking at her. I quietly asked Brian if he wanted me to examine them. He said they always puffed up when she was upset, but he’d never seen them like this.

    Alan, Jennifer’s husband, had walked out that afternoon. He returned from his tennis match and started packing a suitcase. A woman in a convertible picked him up. She waited at the end of the driveway with the engine turning over. He said he wasn’t coming back. He said Ken, their lawyer, would sort out the arrangements. Jennifer chased after the car and threw her shoes at it. Then she walked home. They had been married for thirty-four years. They were married the year I was born.

    Brian’s father was fifty-seven years old when he left Jennifer. Alan’s father, the Jewish tailor, was fifty-seven when he died of a coronary thrombosis. It was a psychoanalytical cliché, but I kept quiet and said nothing to Brian—even intelligent people go nuts around their parents.

    I asked Brian again if he wanted me to examine his mother and he said no, that they had a close family friend—a Dr. Felixson, that his mother trusted and who was at his summerhouse in Southampton. I couldn’t hide my disappointment. “Let’s just get through tonight,” he said. “You should meet this guy anyway—he wrote a book back in the seventies on pediatrics or something.”

    “Really,” I said.

    As I waited outside in the darkness for the doctor, Brian came out with a copy of Dr. Felixson’s book, The Silence After Childhood. It was an odd title. I said I would read it. Then Brian told me he’d known about his father’s affair. Apparently, Alan had confessed over dinner several months ago. Jennifer had been visiting her family in Florida. Brian thought I would be angry with him for not telling me. But I wasn’t.

    “What man could resist the opportunity to live twice?” Brian said his father had pleaded. He perceived his son’s silence as reluctant approval, but in truth, Brian was disappointed. He finally had to admit his father’s cowardice. The marriage to his mother had never been harmonious, but he’d stayed in it. Brian said that if his father wasn’t such a coward, he would have hurt Jennifer thirty years ago, instead of humiliating her and hurting her after three wasted decades.

    “But then Martha wouldn’t have been born,” I said. Brian was silent for a moment. I thought he was mad at me, but then he said that regardless of his sister, his father had stolen his mother’s life.

    “But Jennifer let him steal it,” I added.

    Brian nodded. I think he appreciated my frankness, but I shouldn’t have said it then.

    The doctor arrived in an old station wagon. A kayak was tied on the roof. He got out and waved. Then he opened the trunk and reached for his bag.

    He was a tall thin man who looked as though he could have been a nineteenth-century Midwestern farmer. His unkempt white hair and strange side-to-side walk gave him the appearance of being drunk. He was born and raised in Stockholm. He’d moved to New York in the 1970s. He wasn’t married.

    “Brian, my boy, sorry to see you under these circumstances, but we’ll sort this out together.” Dr. Felixson said quietly. He walked up to me and put his hand on my shoulder. Then he said, “What madness has driven you to retrieve a copy of that book you’re holding?”

    Before disappearing inside, he turned around and said, “Brian tells me you both went to Stockholm, yes?

    “Yes,” I said. “It was beautiful, but it didn’t snow.”

    “Times change, I suppose,” he said.

    One night, maybe our third date. Brian and I lying in bed. The room sketched by moonlight. The street outside in a deep sleep. Snowing and we didn’t even know.

    Brian said he and his sister had trembled with fear at his parents’ arguments. “They screeched like birds,” he said.

    Brian said he would never get married. I hesitated. Years of adolescent sleepovers had engraved images of the perfect day. In truth I hadn’t thought about marriage for years.

    Brian sensed my fear. He reached for my hand under the blanket. I gave it to him. He was no coward—maybe that was worth a thousand perfect wedding days.

    Brian believed that marriage often gives one party the license to behave intolerably without the fear of being abandoned because the state must oversee any separation. He said that with many couples he knew, either the husband or the wife had waited until they were married to really hang out their dirty washing. He believed that marriage was an outdated concept, like circumcision in gentiles.

    “But not in Jews?” I said.

    “It’s more complicated than that,” he said, but in a kind way, as if to say I had a point too.

    The next day we went to McCarren Park and built a snowman. A young Hispanic boy helped us with the finishing touches. The boy held my hand for a while. Then he said Brian and I should get married. Brian looked at me and laughed, then asked him if he’d settle for a cup of hot chocolate at the Greenpoint Café. The boy said he would. I had wanted Brian all to myself, but loved how he was so inclusive. I suggested the boy call his mother and tell her where he was. I gave him my cell phone. Later that night, I noticed the absence of a new number on my call list. The boy had just held the phone to his ear and talked.

    That was one of the nicest days I’ve ever had with anyone. Later we went to a fondue restaurant and then stayed up all night drinking and listening to Getz and Gilberto. I remember dancing. Brian watched.

    A week later when the snow melted, we decided to go to Sweden for a long weekend. It cost more than we thought because you forget to include things like car service to the airport and then the money you happily waste in duty-free. We were both in graduate school, so it took us a year to pay the trip off. I remember we held hands on the flight. You can’t put a price on the rituals of love, because you never know what will happen next. I suppose fear is part of the excitement and we can’t have one without the other.

    Dr. Felixson examined Jennifer in private. We heard her crying. Then we heard Dr. Felixson’s voice. It sounded like he was talking to Brian’s father on the phone. Before he left, he said that we should call him if we had any questions, and that, with any luck, we’d all live through this. I was too tired to get one of my cards from the car, and so I said I would send him an e-mail. Of course, I never did.

    Soon after Dr. Felixson left the house, his sedative began to pull Jennifer out to sleep like a tug silently towing a ship out to sea. She mumbled that if Alan showed up or called back to tell him she was dead. I nodded.

    Then she lay down on the couch, and the sedative pulled her under so violently that she began to snore a few moments after closing her eyes.

    I was surprised I understood why Jennifer couldn’t go into the bedroom and lie down. I covered her up with another blanket. Body temperature drops at night.

    Brian came over and put his arm around me. He turned off the lamp and kissed me. Then suddenly I felt strange.

    I pulled away.

    He sat there for a moment.

    Then he kissed my forehead and went outside. I heard him drive away. He wasn’t mad because we understand one another—like two maps pressed together in a book.

    It was either the semi-darkness of the room, or the smell of late summer pushing at the screens—or even the fabric of the couch on my bare legs. All these things in that moment seemed like props arranged by my memory to suddenly transport me to a moment which had long passed.

    The exactitude of feeling two years old flickered inside me. I kept very still. I felt like primitive man having inadvertently made fire and wishing, more than anything, to keep it burning just a few moments longer.

    It’s as if my two-year-old self had been living inside me like the second smallest piece in a set of Russian dolls. It now rose to the surface of my consciousness and I felt with absolute clarity how it felt to be two years old on one particular day in the 1970s.

    My parents had taken me to the park across the street from our house because it was my birthday. There was a party, other children came. The other children weren’t my friends, they were just other children. My parents were my best friends, which was why it was so hurtful when they reproached me.

    My feet suddenly rose off the floor, pulled up into my shrinking body. I could feel the scabs on my knees like small islands. I pushed my tongue into the spaces where I had no teeth. Dry birthday cake. Juice with crumbs in it. Mild nausea. I pictured the candles, but the feeling was stronger than anything I could visually recall. It was as though I were there but without my eyes or my sense of touch. I remember running through tall grass. I can feel it brushing against my legs like long, thin arms. The other children’s high-pitched cries. Presents lowered from large, foreign hands.

    The end of the party. I didn’t want to go home. I was frustrated that everyone was separating. I wanted the day to rewind itself. Then I remember chasing a boy. My parents calling me. His parents watching us, grinning, encouraging us. He falls, turns over laughing. I’m laughing too. I come upon him. I take his arm and bite into it. Blood appears from nowhere and spreads on his skin. He looks at his arm. He screams and parents scramble. He is scooped up like a bug. I want to say that I am a tiger and tigers bite. I want to remind them I can be a tiger. His face turns red as he is pulled up into the nest of his mother’s arms. I sense the tone of crying change from shock to something else. He lifts his arm. His mother kisses it. She rocks him. His father stands erect, on guard, looking around, helpless, pathetic.

    I am rooted to the spot by fear. Then suddenly my diaper is yanked down. I recoil but am held in place as my mother’s hand clips my bottom. The crack of her hand against my flesh. My little body making forward jerks with each smack. My disgruntled face, my curling lip like a glistening crimson wave.

    My eyes are open, but I am almost unconscious with shock and humiliation.

    I can feel wind on the exposed flesh of my bottom. My mother walks away. I am burning with emotions too great for my small body. I am undressed in public. There are spots of blood on the grass. People gather around and peer down at me sadly.

    I overhear a woman ask if I am a boy or a girl.

    I am too scared to pull my diaper up.

    My mother has walked away.

    My father carries me across the field to our house. As soon as he pulled my diaper up, I defecated into it. He rubbed my head. My mother stayed at the park with her arms crossed. She had taken off her fancy shoes.

    My father said: “You cannot bite—biting is wrong.” But there was no passion in his voice. Then we reached the house.

    He put me in their bedroom. He closed the blinds, but ribs of light fell through and settled upon the floor as though I were in the stomach of some celestial being. My father stripped me down to my diaper. It was full of feces. I was too afraid to cry. I wondered if I would be killed without knowing what death was. The fabric of the chair stuck to my tiny, fleshy legs. It was my birthday. I was two. Sweat had dried across my body like a veil.

    Later, a plate of birthday cake was left outside the door.

    “What if she’s sleeping?” my father whispered. “She won’t be,” my mother snapped.

    I didn’t want the cake. I wanted my mother to forget herself and remember me. Eventually they brought the cake into the room. I ate it and cried and sat between them and repeated over and over mechanically that biting was wrong. But deep down I still loved the boy and would have bitten him again and again, forever. And he knew I loved him. And it was pure and spontaneous.

    And so I became a pediatrician. I wanted to be a hand that’s lowered to souls dangling off the cliff in darkness.

    *

    About two years after Brian and I found Jennifer on the couch in Hampton Bays, I finished Dr. Felixson’s The Silence after Childhood. I read it in one sitting. It was 3 A.M. on Monday morning. I picked up the phone and called Brian.

    “I have just read Dr. Felixson’s book.”

    There was silence and then Brian said:

    “See what I told you?”

    “Do you want to come over?” I said.

    “Don’t you have work in a few hours?”

    “Jesus, Brian.”

    “Okay, okay—I’ll bring my clothes for tomorrow.”

    I was trembling. Dr. Felixson’s insights had set off small earthquakes in my body. They were spreading to my memory like soft, warm hands eager to unearth buried things.

    When Brian arrived, I sat him down, kissed him, thanked him for coming over, and handed him a glass of whiskey. I opened the book randomly and read a passage.

    “Listen to this,” I said.

    “To children, parents can seem like blocks of wood—or at best, sad creatures that seem always on the verge of not loving them. Later, we adults learn that our parents are consumed with neuroses they’ve manifested as seemingly real problems to draw the spotlight away from a more painful reality. . . .”

    I closed the book and opened it to another page. Brian leaned forward.

    “There’s no going back to childhood unless you’re somehow tethered to it and can feel the weight of it against your body like a kite pulling at you from its invisible world; then you will understand everything through feeling, and the world will be at once tender and brutal and you’ll have no way of knowing which on any given day. And you’ll love everyone deeply but learn not to trust anyone . . .”

    “Wow,” Brian said. “Dr. Felixson wrote that?”

    “I thought you’d read this?”

    He looked up. “It’s been in our house for so long. I always meant to,” he said.

    I turned several pages and let my eyes fall into a paragraph:

    “Childhood is terrifying because adults make children feel as though they are incomplete, as if they know nothing, when a child’s instinct tells her she knows everything that’s important. But then perhaps the most damaging crimes in a society are committed by most of its citizens and perpetuated unknowingly . . .”

    Jennifer is now living in Florida. She is writing her memoirs. She is seeing someone. He’s Italian Italian, she says, and he’s apparently related to Tony Bennett and has the family voice. Alan lives year round in Hampton Bays. His relationship fell apart a few months after he left Jennifer. He tells Brian he’s “playing the field.” He’s started wearing cologne. I often wonder if Jennifer and Alan were as close as Brian and I are.

    I know Brian has wondered if I’ve thought about whether he would leave me in the same way. But Brian is not like his father. Brian is a beautiful child, but he’s not childish. Children are the closest we have to wisdom, and they become adults the moment that final drop of everything mysterious is strained from them. I think it happens quietly to every one of us—like crossing a state line when you’re asleep.

    Brian and I may part one day, but it’s not really parting—you can’t undo what’s done. The worst wouldn’t be so bad—just the future unknown. Though I would carry a version of him inside me. But isn’t every future unwritten? The idea of fate is really only a matter of genetics now. But what’s interesting is how so many significant events in my life have come from seemingly random things. Freedom is the most exciting of life’s terrors:

    I’d decided on whim to walk into a bookstore. There was Brian.

    I wonder if I had never met Brian, what I would have thought about all the times I’ve thought about him. Would my head have been empty of thoughts? Would it have been similar to sleep? Or would other thoughts have been there? Where are those thoughts now, and what would they have been about?

    I’ve thought about these sorts of things since I began editing the unpublished writings of Dr. Felixson. A few days after finishing The Silence after Childhood, I tried to call him. A woman renting his old surgery space said he’d died.

    I had more than forty pages of questions.

    Unbeknownst to Brian, Jennifer had actually come into possession of some of Dr. Felixson’s journals. I found this out when I called her in Florida. I wanted to find out more information about his life. There was singing in the background. Jennifer giggled and asked if I could hear it. I explained the effect Dr. Felixson’s book was having on my life. She asked if Brian was there. He was. She asked to speak to him. She then explained to her son how she and the doctor had experienced a brief affair several years before Alan left her. Their marriage had never been the same after. Brian was so shocked he hung up. Jennifer immediately called back and said she would have spared him, but she wanted to explain why she only had some of Dr. Felixson’s journals. In his will, Dr. Felixson had left Jennifer the journals covering the period of their togetherness.

    In a gesture of kindness and courage, Jennifer sent them all to me from Florida via UPS. She said that what little had been written about her was nothing compared to the notes he’d made on his patients and his general everyday thoughts.

    “He writes about everyday things like clouds,” she said.

    She was adamant that they be in the hands of another doctor. I felt truly honored.

    When they arrived, I wrote back to Jennifer, asking if she had loved Dr. Felixson and why the affair had ended after only a few weeks. She wrote back almost immediately. She said Blix Felixson was the only man she had ever met who could love unconditionally without having to be loved back. She said it was unnerving, because he was never disappointed by anything.

    Or he was disappointed by everything. But I didn’t suggest this. I had learned my lesson.

    *

    December 23rd, 1977

    “For infants, discomfort in any measure is hopefully met with physical and emotional contact with a parent or caregiver. Could it be then, in the silence and confusion after we falsely perceive childhood has ended, that our experience of discomfort is met with an instinct to seek solace through the same end? An emotional reassurance from another human being bound up with physical embrace? So then, in adulthood, could it be possible that we spend the majority of our lives looking for comfort from strangers?”

    “Adult fears are idealized to the point where they have become too big to fit through the hole they originally came through.”

    “People’s expectations of coupling may be too grand, and thus disappointment, loneliness, and often pain are the inevitable adjuncts of something we thought would be the ultimate answer (an emotional cure-all) to our ongoing fears. Many people who feel an emotional emptiness when alone for long periods look to marriage the way someone financially poor views winning a jackpot.”

    “All wars are the external realization of our internal battles. Humans must learn not to blame each other for being afraid, disappointed, or in pain. We perhaps might learn to view those we have special feelings toward as being our companions rather than our saviors, companions on the journey back to childhood. But there is nothing to find. We must only unravel. And in the meantime—lower our expectations of each other (and ourselves!) in order to ‘love’ more deeply and more humanly.”

    “It is almost dark now. I can hear rain on the window, but I cannot see it. A car drives past. I wonder who is in it.”

    “I wonder what life would be like if I now were married. Perhaps the smell of cake would fill the house. I think of Mother and Father. I remember launching my model aeroplanes off the hill at Skansen. Visiting my father’s office in Stockholm in the bright noon sun. I remember my father’s face. My mother’s face. If only I could speak to them now. It would be a different story altogether. I would forgive them.”

    *

    Dr. Felixson died alone and was not discovered for several days. The Southampton Press reported that a doctor of many disciplines who was of some note had passed away from causes unknown at his Shinnecock Hills cottage, and was discovered by a landscaping crew who called local police when they saw an elderly man through an open window lying on the floor, apparently unconscious.

    July 7th, 1977

    “It’s true the people we meet shape us. But the people we don’t meet shape us also, often more because we have imagined them so vividly.

    “There are people we yearn for but never seem to meet. Every adult yearns for some stranger, but it is really childhood we miss. We are yearning for that which has been stolen from us by what we have become”

    Brian is something in the universe and I am something in the universe, and our real names are not sounds, nor marks on a page, but bodies. We meet and then we recede.

    We can never truly be one sea, though we are both water.

    *

    June 21st, 1978

    “We are not at home in the world because we imagine it is as we have become, full of nothing but yearning and forgetting and hoping for something so raw we can’t describe it. We think of the world as the place of beginnings and ends, and we forget the in-between, and even how to inhabit our own bodies. And then in adulthood, we sit and wonder why we feel so lost.”

    *

    It is Sunday afternoon and Brian and I are driving out to Hampton Bays to see Alan. We’ve been together almost four years. I have been editing the journals of Dr. Felixson. They will be published the year after next by a man I think Dr. Felixson would have admired. I have my own practice now, but eventually I’d like to teach. I have had an article published on Dr. Felixson’s methods in pediatric psychology in the New England Journal of Medicine. His first book, The Silence after Childhood, is being reissued next year from a publisher based in Berlin. Since my article was published, I have received thirty-four letters from doctors across the world.

    Brian sometimes tells me anecdotes about when Dr. Felixson examined him as a child. I love these and write them down.

    Brian and I have also decided to live together, but we’re never getting married.

    November 17th, 1980

    “Today, a woman touched my sleeve in the supermarket as I was trying to pick out good strawberries. She asked if I was the children’s doctor from Germany. I corrected her and explained that Sweden is much, much colder in some ways but not in others. She asked me if I had a moment, and I said of course, though I thought to myself, it is an interesting thing to say because one’s life is nothing more than a string of moments. Each life is like a string of pearls.

    “This woman wanted to know why her four-year-old son, when she met him from school, had given his macaroni drawing to another boy’s mother and not to her. She said she didn’t speak to her son all the way home and even cried. Then she said he cried and locked himself in his bedroom. She was worried that her son didn’t love her—otherwise why would he give his drawing to some other child’s mother?

    “I laughed a little and ate one of the strawberries I was holding. Is that all? I said. She nodded. Well, I explained, you are worrying about the wrong person. I explained the reason her son had given the drawing to another mother was because he loved her, his own mother with such blind, unprecedented devotion, that naturally he felt sorry for every other woman in the world, whom he did not love so vehemently.

    “Then, of all things, the woman started to cry. She touched my sleeve again and said Thank you, Doctor. She said she was going to buy him a toy to make up for it—but I said to her, Perhaps, madame, instead of buying a toy, you should simply go home, find your son and remind him of the event and tell him that you love him with equal devotion, and that you will never again question his judgment when it comes to how he expresses his love for his mother.

    “When I thought more about the encounter on the way home, I found myself getting depressed. So when I got home, I put my robe on and gave my strawberries to the birds. What a beautiful child that woman has, I thought. What a genius boy, and what a hard life he has ahead of him in this world, where beauty is categorized, and natural love is negated by flattery.”

    *

    TOYS

    Toys are the props by which children share their fears, their hopes, their disappointments, and their victories with the outside world.

    The toys parents choose for their children will set the boundaries of their play (fantasy). A heavily representational toy may limit the child’s play to those aspects the child associates with the context. For example, a toy based on a television character will determine the way the child plays with the toy and thus limit the fantasy.

    Toys that are not representative of some third party (the child and the toy are the first and second party), allow children to develop and explore their own fantasies with less distortion. However, if your child seems unhappy at the idea of playing with pieces of wood or wool shapes, then introduce a few props from nature (leaves from a park, or hard vegetables like pumpkins or potatoes). These will allow your child to set his fantasy in the natural world.

    Present your child with a cooking pot, and he will pretend to cook. Give your child a gun, he will pretend to shoot. It’s an easy choice for the thinking parent. (Unless the child is born into ancient Spartan culture!).

    For a child, asking someone to play is an act of trust. And trust helps build love. For the child is eager (through toys) to share her private world with you, and to express through play (with toys as props) what she cannot express through language—either because she doesn’t inherently trust language (and why should she? see Chapter 2, “Everything Is a Metaphor”) or because she doesn’t yet possess the skills to express herself clearly through the speaking circuit.

    Play to a child’s emotional development is like food to physical development. Play is a tool for loving. Even the most healthy adult relationships I have studied rely heavily on forms of play.

    Conversation with Four-year old Dorothy

    Dr. Felixson: Why are toys so important?
    Dorothy: They are important for kids.
    Dr. Felixson: Why is that?
    Dorothy: Because kids like to play
    Dr. Felixson: Hmm. I wonder why they like to play?
    Dorothy: I don’t know
    Dr. Felixson: I wonder why kids want to play with grown-ups?
    Dorothy: Maybe because they like grown-ups so much?

    Astonishing, isn’t it? Dorothy knows she is being questioned, and like most children, she wants to please. She is eager to talk, but perhaps a more effective way to understand children is to do it on their own terms. If I were to play with Dorothy (toys of her choosing), and then study that play, I might understand Dorothy’s world more clearly. To question Dorothy as though she were a simple adult as I did above is a great failing on my part. And since writing this, I have changed the way I explore children’s perception. To experience an apple, don’t eat the apple—become the seed.

    Pages 221-223, Chapter 8, The Importance of Toys by Dr. Blix Felixson,
    Greenpoint Paperbacks, New York, 1972.

    *

    Driving through Riverhead, Brian asks me to unwrap a sandwich we picked up at Greenpoint Café for our trip. He watches me unfold the paper and reaches out to take a half. I slap his hand.

    “No,” I say. “I want us to share the same half.”

    Trivial secrets and unspoken pacts keep us going.

    We’re driving through East Quogue. The road has thinned to a gray strip that slips through a forest. I think of the forest as my childhood.

    Brian touches the back of my neck. My concentration breaks like a wave against the shore.

    “Remember the champagne glasses?” he says.

    I think of the two delicate champagne flutes we left in the Adirondack Mountains a few weeks ago. Brian and I were hiking. There are forests so thick it’s like perpetual night—or the subconscious, Brian remarked. The air is thin and crisp. At night, we fell asleep with wood smoke in our hair.

    After hiking nine miles up into white breath of a mountain, we were truly invisible to one world but in the palm of another. Brian heard a river. We followed the sound and then spotted a rock in the middle, large and flat enough for our bodies to sit on comfortably. It had been raining, but it’s amazing how quickly the sun dries the earth after it has been washed.

    Brian and I lay our bodies on the rock. I closed my eyes. The sound of water was deafening. Brian unwrapped a bottle of champagne and two wine glasses from several T-shirts. I was surprised he would bring such things up into the woods. Then he explained. It was the anniversary of our first date. I told him it wasn’t but that I’d help him drink the champagne to lighten his load.

    We lay on our backs. The sun in and out of clouds. The silence of the sky intimidating. A landscape of thought.

    Then Brian laughed and told me I was right. It wasn’t our anniversary. I felt then he was somehow disappointed and so told him that every moment with him is a small anniversary. I don’t know what it meant. It just came to me.

    We kissed and that led to us making love. It was sweet and slow. My foot trailed in the water like a rudder.

    After, Brian pulled a towel from his rucksack and put it under our heads.

    When I awoke, Brian was gazing down off the side of the rock into a deep pool. His bare back was a field of bronze muscle. I had forgotten his male strength. It was late afternoon. The sky had bruised. There was a wind and the trees shook. Wind is the strangest thing. The word describes a phenomenon.

    I reached for Brian. I lay my palm on his back. He pointed to the pool beneath the rock. The scent of pine was overwhelming.

    While I was sleeping, the champagne glasses had rolled off the bags and fallen into the rock pool below. By some miracle they had fallen upright. The river gushed through the rocks and then into the pool where the glasses stood. Each glass held the weight of an entire river without knowing where it came from and how much was left.

    *

    Suddenly, in the car just a few miles from Alan’s house in Hampton Bays, I reach for Brian’s arm. I dip my head and bite into it. I feel my teeth clamp his warm flesh. He shouts, then screams when I won’t let go. The car runs off the road into the woods. There is thumping from underneath. Brian yanks his arm back, still screaming. The front wheels come to rest in a tangle of leaves and branches. I can taste Brian’s salty blood in my mouth.

    Brian looks at me and then incredulously at his arm. It bears the perfect indentation of my mouth, but the line is blurred by shallow bleeding.

    Brian’s eyes are full and swirling.

    We breathe heavily, as though inhaling one another. Then it starts to rain. Nothing but the sound of drops falling. The rear lights of passing cars break into blood-red bloom through the rain-spattered windshield.

    My eyes like leaves, long and wet.

    Alan has baked lasagna. He arranges the chairs so that we sit close, so that in the end, as light dims, and the curtain falls on another small day, we won’t lose sight of each other’s eyes, even if everything in between has been lost or fell away one cloudy afternoon to the sound of passing traffic.

    *

    From the collection Love Begins in Winter. (c) 2009 by Simon Van Booy.

    Begin by buying it here!

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    And don’t miss our inaugural story, Simon’s “The Missing Statues.”



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