When we’re young, life takes place on two physical levels. There’s the world of adults, shifting like storm clouds close to the ceiling, and the world of children, where kids create games to simulate the behavior of their parents and relatives. I could barely figure out what was happening on my own level, so I was completely mystified by almost everything that went on up there.
Grown-ups told long, ponderous stories. They talked a lot and drank from short glasses, and as evening turned into night their conversation became sharper and more urgent, as if each person were trying to drown out the others by speaking louder. Their jokes, despite the resulting claps of laughter, seemed pointless and devoid of humor. I’d sit sometimes, under a card table or on the floor next to the sofa, and I’d listen, believing that if I focused hard enough I might understand what they were saying. I approached it the way my mother had taught me to do a jigsaw puzzle, separating the mismatched pieces and turning everything right-side up so I could search for patterns. I would form pairs and then small clusters, and soon the magic moment would arrive when I’d connect the sections and begin to see some resemblance to the picture on the box.
But it never worked that way with adult conversation. They would jump from sports to movies to food. They’d argue about which actor starred in which film, who sang a certain song, and whether Truman was a better president than Eisenhower. They’d disagree about what happened at a picnic decades ago, which beach it was where somebody’s boyfriend almost drowned, or what year they’d gone to that wedding or bought that car. And they’d gossip about aunts and uncles who weren’t there. It all ran together into a wall of noise, as though the whole thing were a sheet of metal that someone was shaking into the sound of thunder. How did they learn their lines, I wondered. How did they know what to talk about, and when it was their turn?
These were all part of the main question that I carried with me everywhere I went: How did anyone find out what they were supposed to do? I asked it a lot, because I was never quite sure. It wasn’t that people were neglecting to tell me, but rather that my brain had the unfortunate ability to tune out instructions at the worst possible moment.
When I was in the first grade, the nun must have explained that she wanted us to circle the words that matched the illustrations in our phonics book. So it shouldn’t have been such a shock when, after creeping up and down the rows of desks and stopping behind mine, she noticed that I was circling the pictures instead, and whacked the back of my skull with her open hand.
But I was surprised, even though so many human interactions led directly to pain. For example, when my older cousin came over, I knew that at some point he would offer me the end of a coat sleeve, his fist hidden inside. “Want to see stars?” he’d ask. And I’d put my face close and peer in, forgetting what happened the last time we did this, and the time before that.
My godparents’ daughter would pull my hair, hard, the way you would shuck stubborn ears of corn while thinking about somebody who had run over your dog. I can’t remember the reason, and probably didn’t know then, either. There may not have been a reason. I was smaller and we were alone downstairs, and she knew my protests would fail to reach the second floor where the big people were busy sipping their coffee. I dreaded their visits, almost as much for the injury to my scalp as for the unbearable hugs I endured from my godmother, an enormous woman who sold Avon products and was always coated in powder.
One hot summer day when I was nine, a friend of mine held out his left hand. He seemed to be offering me a sip of his root beer.
“Want a slug?” he asked.
The word slug had two meanings for us. It could be a single, swift punch, as in “Did you watch wrestling yesterday? Crazy Luke Graham slugged the referee right in the mouth!” Or it could be a gulp of liquid, especially when shared among a group of boys who would pass a bottle around, each pausing only to wipe the top with part of his filthy shirt. It was a sign of friendship. The only act more sacred was the ritual of becoming blood brothers, which involved cutting our fingertips with a razor blade and then pressing the open wounds together. This seems unthinkable now, given the paranoia about pandemic and our inability to walk more than twelve feet in public without sanitizing ourselves. But we worried less back then, and trusted more. And that’s why I reached for my friend’s soda can so readily, without hesitation and unaware that he was about to drive his fist deep into my stomach. Bent over, bewildered, and gasping for air, I reminded myself that an unexpected slug to the abdomen was how Houdini had died.
Retaliation wasn’t an option. The experience, I realized, was part of my education, a process that would continue to be painful until I learned to pay attention. And with two older brothers, there was no shortage of lessons. They’d grab my wrists and slap me in the face with my own hands. They’d rub their knuckles on my head, or twist an arm up between my shoulder blades until I was sure it would break. They could turn a kitchen towel into a deadly weapon, winding it up to a fine point and then snapping it, like a bullwhip, against the back of my leg, which was often still sore from school, where I’d felt the sting of the nun’s wooden yardstick. On my birthday, every male in my life would seek me out so they could clobber me in the bicep – once for each year, and a final hit for good luck — which left me with a powerful ache, and struggling to appreciate the good luck part.
None of it made any sense. Still, it was better than being a grown-up, when I’d be forced to attend those family gatherings. I was concerned that I’d never be able to talk loud enough. The only actors I could name were Fred Flintstone and Godzilla, and I had no idea who Truman and Eisenhower were. Did adults still get punched on their birthday, or offer each other slugs from those tiny glasses? And who was going to take the time to explain the jokes to me?
The jigsaw puzzle had too many pieces. Somehow, it seemed safer down where I was.