“I’m concerned that Harold might be a bit of a . . . flibbertigibbet.” – My Wife, To Me, Last Night
It was a happy period for us: Ruth, myself, Harold, and our other three children had nearly no obligations, no pressing matters, no recurring vexations, no interpersonal disputes, and so were able to enjoy vast unbroken quantities of leisure time. We all at long last got to do some serious work on our hobbies, it was the dream, “pinch me,” Harold would say, “I am sure that I am dreaming,” he only ever drew away when I brought my hand close to him to pinch him, laughing with that disconcertingly deep chortle of his; I had my farming, or so I jokingly referred to it, a window box full of sunflowers that made our room ‘a refreshingly shady pit’, Ruth had her knife work, Harold set about learning other words, insisting that it would allow him to “better communicate with other people,” a value which we were, according to him, “sore lacking as a tribe,” the little gutter-punk, and as for the other three children, they were usually off in some other room somewhere, one of them got pretty deep into the embroidery scene, as I recall. Aside from that, which kept us occupied and so prevented any untoward mischief, we directed our thoughts to all ‘the final things’, as it were, the very peak of Maslow’s pyramid, in which he was accordingly buried. By ‘the final things’, I am of course referring to, for instance, the thought of what might happen to our bodies after death, what might happen to our personalities, what might happen to our souls, whether ‘souls’ were an actual existent thing (“No,” was the consensus we came to quickly, and the subject was not broached again), whether ethical issues or moral issues were more interesting (that, too, was swiftly decided: ethical issues were more interesting), what ‘love’ was, exactly, and if it could be effectively divorced from its neurochemical foundation, what hate was, whether revenge was ever justified, the metaphysics of adultery, whether sublimation was healthy or whether it might instead be a mode of disease and self-alienation, whether guilt was productive, whether suicide was ever justified (another easy one: “Yes, suicide is occasionally justified, but only in certain situations”), whether the state could be intrasystemically salvaged or whether it was in need of a nonviolent revolution or whether it was in need of a violent revolution (nonviolent revolution, we decided), and while it would be very immodest to say that we ‘solved’ any of the problems we discussed at length, for when is a solution really possible, it would not be inaccurate to say that we at least made some good headway.
It was a happy period for us, but it gave way to a less happy period. Harold attained ‘that age’; Ruth and I, having been raised similarly, both felt it would be good for him and his still-nascent work ethic to get a job. He eventually landed a position as a busboy at a local restaurant, and though it was only part-time work, I do believe it was an educational experience . . . nonetheless, both Ruth and I, and perhaps even the other three younger children, noticed that the longer he spent working, the duller he became, pushing his peas moodily about the plate, increasingly failing to regularly exercise his loathsome vocabulary, hardly partaking in our conversations, and almost never putting forth a ‘thought experiment’ or playing devil’s advocate. Ruth and I occasionally conferred about what to do about this problem, late at night, alone in our shared room, with the lights out, the conversation always lasting until one or the other of us fell asleep while the other was talking . . . we could at least agree on this much: It was important not to pander to his difficulties, for to do so would be to water the unattractive strain of egotism that had theretofore been entirely absent in our selfless little sweet one. No, whatever moodiness had taken a hold in Harold would have to be extinguished through asphyxiation, just the same as an errant flame. Thus, we tried living our lives as though he hadn’t changed, and if he didn’t get any better, neither did he get worse. In spite of our best attempts, the rhythm of our lives shifted once more―some of the other children became more talkative to accommodate Harold’s withholding silence, Ruth and I ceased directing questions, statements and commands to him, and so on.
We began to settle into the way things were, then, but it was at about that time that I was forced to acknowledge something I had increasingly begun to suspect since the onset of that original ‘happy period’ in which we had all successfully developed the sorts of skills that made us all more interesting as people. I called a house meeting.
“What’s the deal, pops?” asked one of my healthy children once the family was assembled in the dining room, where all house meetings where held.
“As I think you all know, in this family, we prize personal growth,” I said to the various people in front of me, maintaining a few moments of eye contact with each of them in turn. “It’s true that your mother and I have worked very hard to build a household that works well, both together and as a unit functioning in our capitalist nation, and I believe we have succeeded at that . . . but we have also tried to encourage each other, and you, to be individuals with a purpose, with something to say, something new to bring to the world, such that we will all develop (or continue to develop) the skills necessary to be efficacious individuals, each necessary of finding his or her ‘audience’, as it were, in the outside world.”
They all nodded. Small voices saying, “Well, sure,” and, “That makes sense,” could be heard in the crowd.
“And while I believe your mother and I have done a good job of keeping to the path, so to speak, I would never be so prideful as to assume that we have kept to the only path, if you catch my drift.”
“We do not,” said one of my darling idiot children.
“I mean, something you’ll understand as you get older is that it’s very important to remain conscious of possible alternatives at all times. Sure, things are a certain way, but think of how many other ways they could be. And wouldn’t some of those ways be nicer? Thusly, if I am going to continue thinking of myself as a good, selfless man, husband, and father, I need to leave.”
My wife broke the silence first. “Whatever do you mean?”
“I mean, while we may like to imagine that conditions of perfect happiness in childhood produce conditions of perfect happiness in adulthood, it is not true. We have to be frank with ourselves. The happiest adults are those with some capacity for self-management, who were forced to grow up a little too soon, who feel as though they were, as children, surrounded by parents whose ‘thoughts always seemed to be elsewhere’, who are taught to expect nothing, to consider themselves lucky when they suffer only a minor disaster rather than something legitimately tragic, who believe that every other person only practices friendship and kindness to make their eventual abandonment that much more devastating. I don’t want to raise a family of blithe smilers, darling, I want to raise a family of impenetrable sneerers, and that isn’t just going to happen of its own accord.”
I would have loved to have remained a few hours longer, to really ‘hash it out’ with all those (let’s face it) strangers, but that would be disingenuous . . . after all, the only things we really learn from are those things that blind us with their suddenness. Only after, as Larkin wrote, do we see that “it’s just a latitude: the map/Points out how unavoidable it was:/’Such coastal bedding always means mishap.’” Bearing those lines of verse in mind, I streamed out of the room, slammed the front door just as I heard the scrape of chair legs upon our hardwood floor, jumped behind the wheel of the car―already idling, my bags already in the back, I had not slept the night before, opting instead to grease the gears, all the better to shift quickly from Park into Reverse―and slid out of the driveway as my family clustered in the bay window, their faces like the undersides of tennis shoes.
I traveled the world, dodged taxes, got STDs from prostitutes and cured them with a few easy rounds of antibiotics. My family, I am assuming, continued on without me, wiser, less trusting, maybe even engaging in a little self-aggrandizement over driving ‘such a rogue’ out of their lives, although I’m sure they knew the truth, spent sleepless nights lamenting that they had never really gotten to know me, not really, had never really been drunk with me, had never gotten high with me, had never tripped on acid and sealed themselves up in a room with me, inventing vast depths and ascribing them to the barely-remembered man who had exempted himself from his loved ones for the sake of their own betterment. Sometimes the prostitutes asked me if I ever intended to visit my family, to make amends, I had to answer honestly, “No,” how could I? I am sure that they were doing a better job with me than I was with myself.
Gil Lawson is a writer from Santa Fe, NM. He has work forthcoming from Hypocrite Reader, n+1, and HTMLGIANT. He won the Bard College Written Arts Prize in 2013, and currently lives in Brooklyn, NY.