Authors: Laura Z. Hobson
“I’ve heard it’s the best film he’s done,” she said. “Dad and I will get to it the minute we can.” She spoke in her ordinary voice, but she knew that he also was reading a coded message in her words, that she did understand, and that she loved him. From the dining room, she could follow every step of his preparations of breakfast, which he was getting for himself in the kitchen. The metallic zing was the toaster as he plunged down the lever, that dry rattle was corn flakes filling a large bowl, the soft susurrus was sugar sifting over it, and the crisp snap was the opening of the milk carton to form a spout. They were comfortable sounds, the sounds of home, of a family, and for a fleeting moment she was content.
Jeff appeared again, all his dishes precariously perched one atop the other on his arm, like a practiced waiter in a beanery. “Boy, am I starved,” he said, setting everything on the table.”Oh hey, the orange juice.”
Again she could interpret the sounds in the kitchen, the slap of the refrigerator door, the clink of the spoon with which he stirred the juice she had squeezed from fresh oranges hours before. Why did the pulpy thickness rise, leaving a thin golden fluid underneath, if you let juice stand? Why didn’t it do the opposite, and have the heavier part sink, according to all the laws of physics?
“You smart fellow,” she said, “I have a question in physics to ask you.” The code again: we are at peace.
“About the movie,” he said almost simultaneously, reappearing with his glass half emptied. “I’m not going to tell you enough to spoil it for you, but it sure is different from anything he’s ever done before.”
He began with alacrity and she sat back to listen. The physics question could wait; he evidently had not heard it. He was almost at once caught up in his recital, telling far more than he meant to, the way children always told plots of books or movies. Selectivity, she thought, comes only with boredom; in the teens, not even the tritest scene is tedious, and apparently this film of a fading third-rate vaudeville entertainer was anything but trite, with Olivier playing it.
“Dad will want to see it as much as I do,” she said when he finally ended. “We haven’t seen a good movie in months.”
Jeff suddenly looked around, looked through the doors into the living room. “Is he asleep or what?”
“He’s out. He left before I was up.”
“Is he going to be back this afternoon?”
“He didn’t say exactly.”
“For dinner tonight?”
“Jeff, I haven’t the vaguest. He said he’d have to be out today. That was last night, and I, well, I suppose I thought I’d see him at breakfast, so I didn’t pin him down.”
For a moment he stared at her, his expression darkening. “He can’t look me in the face, is that it?”
Her heart seemed to stumble. It was the Jeff of the night before. His voice roughened, his face went tight, went into hiding, and again she felt that she could see his boyhood going away, draining out of him.
“Jeff, dear,” she said. “He’s not himself yet, even though he seems to be over the stroke. So maybe he can’t handle—maybe it’s best if he doesn’t get too involved with this now.”
“That’s not why he’s out. That’s not why he didn’t eat with us last night. He’s going to give me the silent treatment, like that time about the boat.”
Instantly she saw the small sailboat again, Pete’s boat
coming in after the storm with Jeff looking so untroubled and Pete equally free of concern. Summer a year ago that had been, in Connecticut, and both boys out on the Sound when the storm struck, the whole coast attacked by the roar of the sudden wind and the crack of thunder through the summer skies. Radio news all at once gave way to small-craft warnings about gale velocities. They were both good sailors, but they had announced their destination as Oyster Bay and had been gone long enough to be halfway across when the storm hit, nowhere near a safe cove or dock or harbor.
She and Ken had full confidence in their skill, but the unspoken worry, sharp enough while the storm was still raging, had grown for some perverse reason after it was over, grown with the reappearance of sun and fair sky, grown with the silence that extended long past the time when they could have reached shore, could have telephoned to say, “We’re all right.”
Nothing. Quarter hour by quarter hour and still nothing. It was Ken who finally called Pete’s parents to ask if they had had any word, Ken who had then phoned the Coast Guard to ask about sailboats in trouble during the storm. And when the response was yes, that two boats had capsized in the open Sound, with a search still going on, it was Ken who had asked the impossible question, “Any deaths reported?”
Three more hours had gone, the question still officially unanswered, and then in the waning afternoon
had appeared at the little dock, and Jeff and Pete, happy and untroubled, had greeted the crowd gathered at the small marina, the four parents and others in the two families, as well as neighbors and friends.
She had flown to Jeff and hugged him, as Pete’s parents had gone to Pete. There were the explanations, so simple that the anxious crowd ashore felt like simpletons: That morning at the marina, they’d been warned of a possible squall, had changed their route and sailed south, along the shore, down to the Norwalk Yacht Club, thinking they’d meet up with two fellows from school there and have a swim and their lunch until the storm situation showed more definitely.
“And when it did hit, you never thought of phoning home?” Ken asked. His voice was unemphatic.
“It just never occurred to me,” Jeff said.
“Me either,” Pete put in.
Ken had remained silent, perfectly polite, drifting into the background while others took over the questioning. Tessa had seen that Ken was no longer listening to the rest of their recital, how they had sat out the storm in the luxury of the club, their boat safely moored, the huge storm a theatrical scene staged for their amusement. Then Ken had departed alone, had gone home alone, had gone to his room, and remained there. He had appeared for dinner, but at the table he was detached and quiet. “I have a headache,” he had soon said, and had gone back to his room.
His silence finally became more punitive than a shouted scolding could have been. She could see that Jeff was not only uncomfortable but furious. In the end, there had been a raging fight, not between Jeff and his father but between Jeff and her, she defending Ken, Jeff attacking.
“It’s his way, Jeff,” she had cried out. “He does go silent when he is upset. He was brought up that way.”
“It’s the oldest cheapest trick in the world—‘giving somebody the business’ is what it’s called.”
“It’s not cheap. And it’s better than giving way to temper the way I do and you do.”
“My God, I feel like some old criminal.”
“It was a pretty bad time you gave us. You might be a little more contrite about how he took it.”
“You didn’t take it that way.”
“Jeff, people are different.”
“I’ll say they’re different.”
He had stared at her pugnaciously, and now again he was staring at her as if whatever guilt there was lay with her. “That’s why he was out last night,” he repeated, “and that’s why he’s taken a powder today. Give him the business. The silent treatment. Well, just let him.”
“He needs a little time, that’s all. You ought to see that and give him a little room.”
“What the hell for? What business is it of his anyway? It’s not
life, it’s mine. It’s not his trouble, it’s mine.”
“But, Jeff, it’s also his. It’s also mine.”
“Parents think they’re just naturally into everything. They think they own your whole life and everything you do is to their credit or not to their credit. It gets me sick.”
“That’s unfair. Neither Dad or I have ever gone in for that stuff about living through our children, and you know it.”
“That’s a good one.” He laughed, an artificial raucous laugh. “Every damn time one of us got a prize at school, you’d glow like a lamp, as if it was you getting the prize. Every time one of us got in a jam, you’d look like it was you in trouble, as if we’d stabbed you in the back. All my life I’ve had both of you on my back every minute, every day. We all did. Ask Don. Ask Margie.”
She was astounded. The sudden attack, the injustice, the sense that it was absurd to argue—all this kept her silent. Twenty-five years ago when Don was a baby, she and Ken had pledged to each other that they would never live vicariously through their children, had promised never even to suggest that a child follow in their footsteps, in the smallest thing or the largest. Never would Don feel prodded to go to Dartmouth because his father and grandfather had gone to Dartmouth; never would any daughter feel slated for Radcliffe because her mother had gone to Radcliffe. Consistently through the years, they had each checked up on every impulse of “guidance,” in their wariness over “parentship” they had often been too self-conscious about visible control or discipline, also worrying about being too permissive long before the word became the tag for any kind of parental abdication.
“That’s not fair,” she said again. “We felt pride or worry but we were never on your back. Nor on Don’s. Nor on Margie’s. You’re lashing out with accusations, and that’s not fair either.”
His voice rose to a shout. “Fuck fair. What’s fair anyway?” He shoved all his dishes violently from him, toward the center of the table. The glass toppled; milk poured forth. Instinctively she slapped her napkin down to blot it up, only to have him tear the napkin up from the table.
“Leave it alone,” he shouted. “Leave me alone. I’ll fix it. I’m not a baby you’ve got to clean up after.”
She stood up waiting for a moment for some change in him. Then she took up the morning paper and left the room. Behind her he yelled, “You running out too, like him? Can’t stand it unless I kowtow to you every minute, can you?”
She sat on her bed behind a closed door. She could not stanch her tears, tears she hated. He was lashing out because he was lashed. Soon she heard inexplicable hangings and pullings from his room, as if he were moving furniture there. She considered going in to him, but she did not. Once this stage was reached, there was nothing for it but separateness and waiting. She turned on her bedside radio for music but she could not sustain three notes in sequence. She twirled the dial for news, but the words held no meaning. She picked up the one manuscript still unread of the three that had been there a fortnight ago, but she gazed at it as if in a stupor.
At last silence descended upon the apartment. Tentatively she opened her door an inch. Jeff’s door was closed, but from behind it there was no sound. She left her own door open, and sat down in a small swivel chair by the window, where by craning a little she could see the dusty yellows and golds of the trees in Central Park. Fall in the city was never the clear flaming of the country; it was as if the dust of August had lingered on through the turning of the leaves, to mute their flare of crimson and gold. Muted, the way she felt now.
The silence remained. A sense of emptiness now came to her from the entire house; this stillness was too complete to be merely stillness. Jeff too had gone out. With a rising dread she went back to the living room. Beyond it she could see the small dining room, its table cleared and put to order. In the kitchen all was tidy, the dishes out of sight in the dishwasher. Taped to one of the cupboard doors was a note.
“I’ve gone back to school. Sorry. J.”
He couldn’t look me in the face, Jeff thought, damn it, I’ll show him. All the way back on the train he felt the hate hammering at him, pounding at him, hotter and bigger all the time. He’d never go home at all if the old man was going to give him that. The business. The silent treatment. The cheapest trick in the world.
There was no train direct to Placquette on Sunday afternoon; he had caught this one to New Haven. In Grand Central, he had actually gone to a phone booth to call Dr. Dudley and ask for a special visit, but something had held him back. “Anytime you feel the need for an extra visit, Jeff,” the doctor had told him, “any evening, any weekend, whenever there’s any emergency, just call me and I’ll do my best to make extra time.” Now as the train began to slow down at the end of the trip, he considered it again, but once more there was something repugnant in the idea. “I’m no baby you’ve got to clean up after.” He could still feel the way he had yanked the napkin away from his mother at the table. Rushing to Dr. Dudley for help on a Sunday afternoon would make him feel the same way.
But he couldn’t get out of that train and meekly take the first bus back to school either. Just before New Haven it began to rain, and by the time he was walking away from the station, the sky was nearly black. He felt just like that, a blackness flowing through him. He wished he had his bike and could ride the ten miles through the drubbing rain all the way to school. He needed action or he would explode. He felt choked on the blackness, as if it were not only in his veins but in his throat, clogged and sticky. A dog ran by him and he thought of the choke collar and that poor bastard hanging from that tree.
He reached his bus corner, saw a bus approaching, but suddenly he turned away from it, almost spun around and started to walk rapidly back toward the center of the city. He couldn’t face school, not yet. He had to go somewhere, see a movie maybe, anything to climb back up to where things felt ordinary again. Not happy, not cheerful and great, just ordinary and free of this rage and misery.
Tomorrow on his regular visit, Dr. Dudley would probably tell him that all this was valuable material. He was always talking about new material, useful material, as if he, Jeff, were being measured off like yards of cloth from a bolt of goods. The whole analysis so far was like that, a measuring, a ticking off, a prying and digging, and all of it a confessional to the priest seated behind your head. A priest that every once in a while showed you scientific models of male genitalia and female genitalia and talked up the wonders of nature’s intention and the instinctive joy and satisfaction waiting ahead for you.
God, those plastic models.
The sleety rain increased further; wet needles pricked at his face and he looked about him for shelter. Ahead of him was a sign blinking feebly in the light. Grymin’s Café—he hadn’t realized he had walked far enough to have reached it. Gremlin’s, the fellows called it, and it was more of an eatery than a café or bar. He might get something to eat, though he was in training. But one of the guys from school might be in there, ready to talk his ear off.