“Why are you always so cynical?”
It’s a surprising accusation, flying up as if out of nowhere, as I drive him down the highway to his weekly viola lesson. Surprising because, well, first of all we weren’t having that kind of conversation, but mostly surprising because this accusation is coming from him—him—who acted like a hard-boiled forty-year-old at age twelve and at least a decade older than that at fifteen. Nothing but straight blackness out of his mouth then; nothing but the same color in his wardrobe. Hair dyed so dark a brown it might as well have been pitch. Black socks; black Vans, black wristbands. The dark sounds of screamo shouting at him through his ear buds. You get the picture. Thankfully, he’s started—started—to come out of all that over the last two years. But, still, I’m the cynical one?
I’ve always thought of myself as naïve, bordering on ridiculous. The kind of person who dares think well of people, almost always thinks well of people, until they prove otherwise; and sometimes even after they prove otherwise. A mid-Atlantic bred, lapsed Catholic, twenty-to-twenty-first century Akaky Akakyevich; the kind of guy who stumbles his way through life and keeps to his self-styled recreations, while the world keeps after its own, only vaguely aware that behind his back—and sometimes to his face—he is being ridiculed. And when aware of it, not sure what to do about it. The kind of guy who, at age 22 or 23, did not appear to be on any kind of track that might lead to marriage, home, family; to say nothing of gainful employment. You get the picture. Except that through a minor romantic miracle, occurring on or about the month of March in the Year of our Lord 1997, I found my way to all those things, and way sooner than anyone had a right to expect.
Thirty years ago, when I was a junior in high school, as he is now, I carried around inside me a global, uninterrupted sense of all that there was in the world I didn’t understand. Most problematically, people. People I understood the least. I felt like barely a person myself then. I could not have explained myself to myself. So how could I explain all these other people around me: in my high school, in my neighborhood, in my life? Where did they get their strange notions? What brought on their compulsive behaviors, their destructive alliances, their ugly decisions, their pointless risks? Where they did they get all their bizarre, dark-worldly knowledge? What kinds of homes must they have grown up in to become these kinds of people, to earn that sort of knowledge? Homes not like mine, that’s for sure.
“What do you mean?” I say.
“All you do is gripe about people.” He’s staring out the windshield at the road ahead, as if it might disappear entirely without his help. His cell phone is in his hand, but he’s not looking at it. He’s not looking at it. Normally, that’s all he does in these car rides.
“I don’t gripe about people.”
He laughs. Not a real laugh. It’s not a real laugh. “Are you kidding? You gripe about me constantly.”
Do I? Is that what he thinks? How could he? I make suggestions to him, sure. I admit. Sometimes strong suggestions. But, honestly, with him and me it’s like Akaky Akakyevich taking on the Kremlin; or, rather, a tepid stream of water lapping against a brick wall: the limited force taking on the immovable object. I can’t bring him down in one fell swoop, so I try to brush up against him regularly, at sustained intervals, trusting that eventually I’ll break through a barrier. That’s not griping; that’s love in daily maintenances.
“You tell me I don’t dress right. You tell me I don’t eat right. You complain about my room. You tell me I need to try listening to this kind of music—because it’s your kind of music—though you don’t ever listen to my kind of music. You were especially bad a couple years ago. It’s better now that I’m listening to more classical, but a couple years ago all you did was make fun of it.”
I did? My recollection from a couple of years ago is that at all times I was desperately trying—and trying successfully, let me say—not to express how dearly I hated his screamo. Even though I did hate it. I hated it so very much. He never fathomed the depths of my hate for it, because, as I saw it, I held back the storm. Heck, didn’t I buy him a couple CDs one time?
I choose my words carefully. “Well, you know, those are classic complaints that parents bring up with their kids. All parents. The music. The food. The room. It’s like in the rule book.”
He frowns but says nothing. He isn’t giving me that out.
“Hey,” I say, “you’re lucky I didn’t bitch about your friends.”
“You did bitch about my friends.”
“When? When did I do that?”
“Dad.” He turns to me, his face caught in an expression mid-way between exasperation, befuddlement, and disgust. His mouth is hanging open, but he’s not able to push out any words.
“Which of your friends did I complain about?”
“C’mon, Sutton Parrish? Ryan Turpen?”
“I liked Ryan.”
“You said his family was like holdover hominids from the Stone Age. You said they reminded you of nomadic peoples hunkering down in the caves of Northern Europe 20,000 years ago. Except, you said, they weren’t good enough to paint horses on the walls so the tribe would have kicked them outside to go hunt woolly mammoths.
“I never said—”
“But, you said, they were so stupid they would have ended up squashed to death beneath a big, hairy foot.”
“Did I really say all that?”
I consider this for a moment. I think: That was pretty clever of me.
“Well,” I say, “they were fairly primitive.”
He raises his hands to the sky.
“But I never disliked Ryan. And you have to admit that Sutton Parrish was a washout.”
“Sutton’s father was in jail. Their family was having a really hard time of it then.”
“No. No guess, Dad. They were.”
“Is he still in school?”
“He’s not even in the state. They moved to Texas like a year ago.”
“I’m pretty sure I told you that.”
“Maybe you did.”
“I did,” he says.
I drive. He stares. He squints. I drive.
“Okay, so I’m sorry for being kind of rough on Sutton and Ryan. But the other stuff—the food, the room—isn’t that all true? Are you going to tell me your room doesn’t look like a war zone?”
“But you are always going on about it; like it’s all you can think about. Like your life can’t be right if my room isn’t the way you want it.”
“But your room is really sloppy. I mean really, really sloppy.”
“See?” he says. “See?”
He’s pushing back now on his seat, his neck straining, his right leg pressing forward, as if imitating a braking motion. Except that traffic on the highway is moving normally. The closest car is several lengths in front of us. And he hasn’t even learned to drive yet. Why is he doing the braking thing?
“See what?” I say. I’m looking with double attention at the road, wondering what I’m missing.
“That’s exactly what I’m talking about. And, no, other parents don’t go griping after their kids all the time.”
“They do too,” I say. Then: “Sometimes.”
“Dad, I know other kids. I go to school with other kids. I know other kids’ parents. They’re not always griping to them about their rooms. Or how they eat.”
“Well, maybe those kids are willing to taste a vegetable once in a while; maybe those kids clean their rooms.” If he’s thinking of his girlfriend and her parents, I happen to know that she does eat vegetables—plenty of them—including broccoli—also that she keeps her room hypo-allergenically clean. Her room is probably cleaner any four hospital rooms combined. I know her parents. They told me.
“See?” he says, his neck straining again, his leg braking once more. “Don’t you see?”
“What?” I say. I check the road again. “See what?”
“Sometimes, I think—I really think this—I think that for you guys being parents is like purely an administrative duty or something. Something you have to do, like taking out the trash, doing your taxes. Something to get out of the way. Something you have to do, but you’d really rather not do it; you’d really rather wish you could be let off the hook.”
“Is that how you feel?” I say. I’m not even trying to keep the hurt and exasperation out of my voice now.
Is that how he feels?
“I mean,” I say, “is that how I seem to you? What makes you say that?”
He turns his face, looks out the side window for several moments, as if studying the trees in the distance for some school-enforced botanical survey.
“I’m not sure I should answer,” he says.
“But I’m asking you.”
“That doesn’t mean you want an answer.”
“What do you mean? If I ask you, I want an answer.”
“You might want an answer, but it doesn’t mean you want a real answer.”
I chew on this for a bit. Can it be true? And, if yes, what does it mean? I mean, what does it mean for the entirety of our relationship, the seventeen-year living history between him and me? Have I been existing inside a bubble of illusion all this time? Some phony, happy idea of what I was—or at least could be—as a father, and he was as a son? How long had he been holding back? And what did it mean for us now or going forward? What would it mean next month? Next year? Eight years from now? If he’s finally lost his patience and proceeds to cut, what will that new reality look like? What will I be?
I hold my breath. I watch the road roll past beneath the burden of my car. “I have a feeling there’s something you want to say to me,” I say. “Maybe you should just go ahead and say it.” He stays silent. He doesn’t look at me or out the window anymore. Just ahead, at what is coming. I see something like worry—but not actual worry—pass across his eyes. “I’m a big boy,” I say. “I can take it.” Then: “I should take it.”
He breathes a sigh through his nose, his heavy lovely cheeks sag—as a baby, even as a six-year-old, he had the chunkiest cheeks you’d ever seen, and there’s still, even as a teenager, a residue of that fleshiness in his face. His head dips the tiniest human measure. He still doesn’t look at me, yet I feel him looking at me.
“That’s okay,” he says. “It’s okay. Don’t worry about it.”
That’s probably exactly what I would have said to my own father, at his age, in this situation, in a closed automobile, driving at highway speeds. That is, if the man had ever begged me for the truth—which he never did. And never would have. But that’s exactly what I would have said. Because I would have known the truth and would not have wanted to hurt him with it. To unsettle him. To unseat him. To break apart his precious, heart-beholden delusions. I think to tell him this, as he sits there next to me, frowning at the windshield. I should tell him. I should say it: That’s exactly what I would have said to my own dad at your age. But I don’t. I don’t say it. I keep driving and, finally, eventually, he begins looking at his phone. I like to hope he understood, he understands.
John Vanderslice teaches in the creative writing program at the University of Central Arkansas. His stories, poems, essays, and plays have been widely published, including in such journals as Sou’wester, South 85, Laurel Review, Crazyhorse, and The Pinch. In recent years, he has published two books: Island Fog (Lavender Ink, 2014), a linked story collection, and The Last Days of Oscar Wilde (Burlesque Press, 2018), a historical novel.