The other night I put Theo, my four year old, to bed without my phone. I didn’t think much of it; I do several things during the day without looking at my phone. I went through the routine: book, pee, water, escape, capture, water, escape, capture, chloroform… (kidding about the last one).
It was all fine, pleasant even, as the summer heat was giving way to cool autumn nights and our sealed, air conditioned house could now be opened up to all the breezes and the noises. It made for great sleeping, and possibly, perfectly fine sitting, staring at walls.
So, this particular night, I didn’t think much about the fact that I’d lost my phone. People have put kids to bed without phones for centuries. Animals don’t use phones at all. Some alone time without my phone would probably do me some good anyway. I check my email on my phone an average of one hundred and fifty two times a day (got an app for that) even though I have no job, and my wife, Kate, is too busy to write me from work (and when she does it’s unintelligible because she needs to show me how FAST her day is moving). The rest of these ‘hotly anticipated’ emails come from my mother bearing a “FWD: Cute…” title.
So, I sat there, rocking gently in my Poang, listening to the hum of the cicadas, the distant clang of recycling, the rustling of breezes. I was just going to sit here. Without my phone. And that would be fine. Theo was in his usual position; his body across the foot of his bed, an arm stretched out on my lap, for movement-detecting purposes.
Eventually, as it goes each night, I will lift this arm and very, very slowly inch my butt cheeks across the Poang while placing a perfectly sized balled-up blanket where my lap was, like Indiana Jones did with the idyll and the bag of sand so the poison arrows wouldn’t shoot out of the walls and the ground wouldn’t disintegrate and a giant boulder wouldn’t roll out of the ceiling and try to crush him.
But, first thing’s first, I needed to wait for him to fall asleep.
It seemed easy enough. The nightlight would allow me to look at things around his room. And I knew I could get out if I needed to. Like, if it got really bad, I could just walk out. So I sat there.
My first thought was really more of a regret: We should’ve put some pictures up on his walls. There used to be an NFL wide receivers poster but it got taken down when Jordy Nelson got hurt and ruined my fantasy football season. I could’ve looked at that for a while.
Without any visual cues, I was feeling a little lost. And so my brain had to resort to thoughts. They started coming in weird.
I should start collecting something. Old coins maybe?
My dad used to cook artichokes a lot. Why would he do that?
I wonder if I’ll ever even be able to buy a convertible.
My calves aren’t as hairy as they used to be.
Full minutes went by like this. Literally, thoughts were just loose in my head and there was nothing I could do about it.
Theo would be still for a few moments and I’d watch and pray. But then, out of nowhere, he’d blurt out something like, “Did you know snakes eat chickens?” and I’d sink back into my Poang.
It’d go on like this…him lying still, blurting out a random animal fact, him lying still, blurting out a random animal fact… same as every other night but this night, instead of completely ignoring him while playing Candy Crush on my phone, I had to think about the things he blurted out. Because what the hell else was I going to do?
How does a snake even catch a chicken? Chickens are fast. And all those feathers. I would hate to eat something covered in feathers. Our dogs didn’t eat our chickens, just killed them. But it was before their feathers came in. They were just fuzzy chicks. They were really cute. Damn. I wonder if our kids will have any lasting trauma from all these gruesome pet murders in our house. Roxanne pops into my head…I’d completely forgotten about her. We got Roxanne, a Samoyed puppy, when I was ten. She got out one day not long after we got her, and ran straight down Primrose St. toward busy Connecticut Avenue. I remember running down there, scanning the traffic and finding her laying on the side of road, cars zooming by her. I walked over and picked her up… the look on the drivers’ faces as they drove by…little kid with a fluffy white dead puppy, blood seeping out of her ears, draped across his arms…
“Kate! KATE!! Can I borrow your phone!!!”
“I’m using it!” Kate yells.
“Well, Can I use it?” I yell back.
“I’m lying with Louisa!” She yells.
I look down at Theo. He’s looking up at me, like, ‘see? It sucks, right? Just sitting here? You make me do this every damn night.”
“GET OUT!!!” Louisa yells from her room. George has snuck in to listen to her book. Poor guy…three kids…two parents…always the oldest that gets left out at bedtime. That’s why they become the assholes. It used to be awesome for them. Two parents, each taking turns reading to the one kid. George resents Louisa everyday, perhaps understandably. He’s a very sweet, sensitive kid but he’s a complete dickhead to her 90% of the time. Of all the pains of parenting, this one hurts the most. So far.
Theo’s head is now on my lap. He looks terribly uncomfortable, his body spanning the bottom ledge of his bed and arm of the chair. But he yawns. It’s a heavenly gape. Sweet little guy, getting sleepy. I stroke the hair around his ear. His eyes start to droop. And then they close. All the way. I give it a few minutes, wait for his body to get heavier. It doesn’t, but his eyes stay closed. I wait. I want to get up so bad but I’m so close to getting out of here, I can sit another two minutes to seal the deal. I gently rock the Poang and watch for any REM-like movement of the eyeballs behind the lids. His breathing slows, grows steadier. I detect an ounce or two weight change. Then…
“Hermit crabs are so weird.” He says, his demon eyes open and staring right up at me.
“Remember,” Theo continues, “their bodies when they’re not in their shells? It’s sooooo gross.”
If I did have chloroform right here, would I use it? I ponder for a moment. Maybe just on myself?
Theo is parroting something I said earlier in the day while we were watching Wild Kratts. It was an episode called “The Hermit Crab Exchange” and there was a part where a cartoon hermit crab pulls its shriveled naked alien body out of its shell so it can get into a bigger one. I nearly spat out my coffee and threw up my cereal the thing was so terrible looking. Just as a cartoon even. “Good Lord, that thing is gross,” I think I said.
“Try to go to sleep, honey.” I tell him.
He’s quiet but his eyes remain open, staring off into the abyss of malformed cartoon hermit crabs.
I start to think about the hermit crab exchange. It’s actually one of the more incredible displays of animal behavior. A bunch of hermit crabs gather and line up from smallest to biggest –an amazing feat in its own right. Then, when the coast is clear, they all get out of their shells and move one down into the next bigger shell. Total hermit crab organization and cooperation to create a result where everyone wins. (Except the biggest one, I don’t know where he goes, but I know it’s not pretty).
It occurs to me that, as the youngest, and poorest, of four, I would stand to benefit rather well from a sibling home exchange.
My oldest brother and sister live in big houses on leafy streets in Manhattan. That would be pretty cool.
My other brother lives in a lovely house in northern California with lemon trees. He rides his bike to his professor gig at UC-Berkeley because everyday is sunny and beautiful. I’d like that.
Then it occurs to me…
Why don’t I have any money? Why are they all so successful and I’m not? When did they all learn to work so hard and where was I when they learned that? Have I really quit pretty much everything I’ve ever started? What’s wrong with me? Was it my dad’s 70’s Eagles and gin-soaked sperm? My mom’s 70’s therapy-riddled eggs? Why don’t I ever take responsibility for anything? Why didn’t my parents teach me how to take responsibility for anything? Am I ever going to be happy? Would I even know it if I ever was? What if I’m gay?
KATE!! I need your phone!!
Kate doesn’t answer. She’s close to closing the deal with Louisa, doesn’t want to yell and wake her up.
Theo’s wide awake again.
“Get OUT!!!” Louisa shouts.
Ha. Kate’s back to square one just like me.
“GEOOOORge….” Kate’s shout goes muffled. She’s been working on not yelling at the kids. She often catches herself mid-word. It makes for some odd-sounding outbursts.
But then I hear Louisa laugh. George has done something silly. He’ll often resort to pratfalls to get the tiniest bit of attention. Poor guy. His room is right across from hers. It allows for spontaneous and dramatic entrances and exits.
Small shells are good for that. I hated the big houses I grew up in. That never comes out well when I say it to people. Understandably. But it’s true. I wanted nothing more than for all us to live in one small room like the destitute family in Charlie in the Chocolate Factory. I think I still do sometimes. My mom’s house wasn’t quite as grandiose as my dad’s but both meant I had to sleep in a large room far from loved ones. In my dad’s house, I got the ‘best’ room in the house… all the way at the end of the long hallway from The Shining with a bed right next to a Salem’s Lot window and directly underneath the tree from Poltergeist.
Much of my early life, in fact, seemed like an extended reference to various horror movies. I was so impressionable. Why was I watching all these scary movies at such an age?
Maybe it’s because in a single-parent post-divorce household of three or more children, the youngest is only as young as the next oldest sibling (four years older in my case). So, at age six, while watching Dawn of the Dead with my brothers I was really 10. And 10, in the early 80’s, is the equivalent of 15 today. Because of all the coddling today. So, I was about 15, which is pretty reasonable.
But I was a sensitive 15/6 year old and so when zombies started chowing on the intestines of a dismembered human in Dawn of the Dead and our dog, Dexter, who was facing me, hot and panting, let out a giant burp in my face, the combination of the heat, the slurping of intestines and the smell of Gainsburgers was all too much for my –rather sensitive– senses. I remember running crying into my mother’s bed, where she’d often let me sleep. From age 6 to about 16.
If it wasn’t horror movie trauma it was metaphysical trauma. For a solid two years between around 8 and 10, I’d lie in bed trying to grasp the meaning of eternity. Not a million years, not a billion, not a billion million trillion…I’d keep going and going and going until my brain would just flip out and I’d run crying back into my mother’s bed.
I wonder now if an adult’s brain simply isn’t able to go there like a child’s brain can.
To truly comprehend infinity… to get to that point, so far down the road endless time that your mind has no choice but to flip, like a pinball machine on ‘tilt’. I don’t think I could do it now. Then again I haven’t tried in about 30 years. Maybe I should try. What else am I going to do sitting here?
Kate doesn’t answer. She’s fallen asleep, goddamn her. If I could…just…get up and…get her phone…
But I decide to stay. I take some deep breaths, settle into the Poang, and try to recall some mind-quieting techniques I’ve pooled from the library of self-help books my mother has given me over the years (I have THREE copies of “Wherever You Go, There You Are” and all three are crap) (but not as crap as the THREE copies of “What Color is Your Parachute?” that sit next to them).
But something funny happened while my heart was beating out of my chest and my brain tap-danced into oblivion. Theo fell asleep. He’d even already started his sleep sweats. Maybe it was me. But I did it. I made it.
I gently pick him up, his limp little body draped across my arms. I give him a kiss on the nose, the way daddy wolf gives his pup, and I put him in his tiny bed. I give him another kiss and then walk quietly out of his tiny room that’s right next to his brother’s and directly across from his sister’s, no hallway. Then I go downstairs and I turn the house upside down looking for my phone because like f-ing hell I’m going to go to bed and just lay there thinking about stuff.
(is near…and then we just lie there alone in the dark forever and ever and ever and ever and ever and ever and ever and ever…
Unless we’re reincarnated. In which case I really don’t want to be a hermit crab.)