just a bite of something sweet

Chicken took a book from one of his classmates today - one that has a real clock face with a silly squiggly mouth, two wide oval eyes, and hands you can spin around. Honestly, it's a pretty sick book. It's a page-turner. It's the toddler's Da Vinci Code.

The other kid - we'll call him Edward - had been deeply invested in pushing the spinning hands round and round, when Chicken pulled the slick hardback from his lap. Edward grabbed it back. Chicken pulled harder. Edward pulled harder, too. Then Edward bit Chicken on the chest.

His teacher came down the hall toward me with a guilt-stricken face, and Chicken on her hip, draped over her shoulder, an ice pack pressed to his Star Wars tee shirt, right on Darth Vader's helmet.

She said, "he got bitten." The last word fell from her mouth in barely a whisper.

I didn't respond.

She said again, "another child bit him." Again, she swallowed the word "bit," the way you do when you say "what the fuck" in front of your kid.

Chicken picked his head up and began to sob again, the rhythmic heaves that sound like they're being summoned from the earth's cracked core, no-fucking-around crying, the way adults cry alone in the car, parked at the back of the Safeway parking lot, at night, listening to Adele, eating a baguette. The way I wish I could cry anymore. Chicken leaned into my arms and the teacher handed me his heaving body.

I said, "oh... bummer."

The teacher looked at me, puzzled, and said, "you can kind of see some... blood... so I need you to sign this form..."

I felt like the teacher was waiting for me to pick up a folding chair and heave it through the window, or bite the head off the biter's pet kitten and say "that's Old Testament, motherfucker," or at the very least hold up a finger, begin recording on my iPhone, and then say, very clearly, "Now please tell me again, in your own words, exactly what happened to my son."

Sure, I was a little mad, madder when I got home and actually saw the wound. I say wound, because that shit is a WOUND. You can see the little crevice of each tooth, the way Edward's top teeth and bottom teeth pinched a narrow band of Chicken's pink chest together until it raised and turned white, a little slip of an ivory island jutting out of an angry red river.



But even now, as I begin to tell friends and even send out a picture, and my tribe is sending back all the "hell to the nos" and "what the fucks" and "get that motherfuckers" that a Tarantino protagonist could want, I'm... not really mad.

My feelings about this incident are, shockingly, as nobody could have predicted, in a manner that in no way characterizes literally everything about the way I luxuriate in my own perspective, more complex than that. I know! You're super surprised and so excited to read 2,000 words on how I feel about biting, and yet how I feel about so much more than biting.

In the car on the way home, Chicken pointed to a pair of tied-together sneakers, slung over a power line, kicking in the wind. "Look!" he said, a grin lighting up his face even as tears still brimmed in his eyes.

Then he looked down at his shirt, remembered what had happened, and began to cry again.

I suspect it is not the bruised and punctured skin that hurts so much as the sudden understanding of what a person could do to him. This is Chicken's first brush with acute, intentional violence. He's been hit and pushed - it's not called a jungle gym because it encourages diplomatic conversation - but always in the casual, thoughtless way that children do when they need to get to the monkey bars and there happens to be another warm body in the way. This was different, as intimate as a stabbing, or a kiss. Or, really, both.

Until now, he's lived among other kids the way the Grizzly Man lived among wild bears, with confidence born of innocence, with the naive certainty that we're all the same. Those bears remind me of security guards at a gated community. They look so lazy, don't they? So bored, round, and harmless. In a second, that can change. One step too close and a bear's mass loses all its cartoonish friendliness; one nip and you bleed. One wound, and the world you thought was always padded and patiently mediated turns out to be a really fucking scary hurt locker. That shit leaves a scar.

Today Chicken learned that a person can draw his blood for a small reason, or no reason. A person can open his body. A person can take from him, his skin, his certainty.

It feels like the end of the beginning.

___

I went on a school hike with ten or so other kids in 7th grade. Midway up the mountain, our little band felt bonded, even though some of us were giant-glasses-wearing dorks and some were sleek-ponytailed celebrities. I found myself talking with people whose entire wardrobes I'd memorized from afar. It was heady and I grinned as we slogged up the trail. Maybe we'd stay friends? Even off the mountain?

Some of the boys started teasing another boy about his girlfriend, who had just broken up with him. He laughed - it was all in good fun, and this was a 7th grade relationship, so even if his heart had been broken he would never have admitted it. One of the guys said, "I heard she's going to homecoming with a freshman." Everyone said, "oooooooooh," and laughed, including the boy. I remember seeing his back shake with laughter; he was right in front of me. Drunk on camaraderie, I raised my voice and chimed in, "I heard she's going with Josh." Josh wasn't just a freshman, but a hot freshman who was seriously probably going to start varsity lacrosse. Everyone laughed even louder. I felt like a lottery winner.

Then the boy stopped, turned around, grabbed my shoulders and screamed in my face, "Shut up! Shut up! I want to kill you!"

The teacher ran back to see what the problem was. I folded my lips together so they wouldn't shake. Everyone stood silently until the boy's friend said, "Nah, everything's ok, we were just joking." The teacher looked at me and said, reluctantly (he was so not interested in our drama) "are you okay?" I nodded.

The group filed back into a single line. I waited till the end, till their voices rumbled and their giggles chirped back toward me. It felt like the safest place to be.

___


Last weekend Chicken found my hair dryer under the sink.

"This is my gun. I use it to kill people." He pointed the barrel at Buster and said "bang, bang."

Damn it, I knew the Star Wars board book was a mistake.
Damn you, Han Solo.
Damn your awesome blaster.

I said, "I do not like that game," and took the hair dryer back, winding the cord around the plastic handle and placing it high up on a shelf in a locked closet, next to the bottle of baby Motrin.

Chicken stomped his foot. "But that's my gun."

I said, "I heard you," playing for time.

It was one of those schizophrenic parenting moments, when you have to choose which screaming parenting voice in your head to listen to, in a split second. Do I talk about gun safety? Do I accept that violent play is as natural and indeed important for toddlers as sexual curiosity or an obsession with fire trucks? Do I say that guns aren't for playing with even though we all know that my hair dryer isn't really a gun and he will probably just go find something else gun-shaped to pretend to kill people with?

guns don't kill people
singing teapots do


Do I change the subject? Do I tag Ryan in?

I called out, "Ryan? Chicken has some questions about gun safety for you."

Then I said I had to use the bathroom, but I sat on the edge of the bathtub and listened to Ryan's voice rumble, Chicken's chirp, through the wall.

The first and most important rule of gun safety is that you never, ever point a gun at a person.
Why, daddy?
Because a gun is a weapon, a very dangerous weapon, and you could hurt or kill a person.
Oh! Okay.

It felt like the beginning of grief. It felt like time to pack up the cotton-stuffed "Pat the Bunny" books. It felt anachronistic to ask Chicken to use his long fingers to pat the bunny, to use the lips that said, "bang, bang," to kiss the palm-sized rabbit on a ribbon good-night.

___


A few weeks ago I overheard just a snippet of a conversation between two mothers. One spoke to the other from a place of benevolent wisdom, as her daughter was, at least, six months older than the other child.

"It's a big decision to make, there are so many parenting philosophies out there, you know? But to me, it just boils down to a single question: whether or not you believe that children are innocent and sweet when left to their own devices. I do not believe that."

I stopped in my tracks, pulled out my phone, and texted the line, word for word, to myself.

What a surprising thing to say.

It was an odd "single question" to boil down to, in my mind. I don't think that any deep relationship can be boiled down to any single question, but if I had to streamline my parenting philosophy so it could fit on a scrap of paper to slip into a fortune cookie, it wouldn't be, "I do not believe children are innocent and sweet when left to their own devices." (in bed) (haha)

After I suppressed my knee-jerk reaction to tear this statement apart, I settled in to give it good thorough consideration and found that I actually agree, a little bit. I don't think children are sweet when left to their own devices, at least not all the time. But I think the parts of them that aren't sweet are the same parts that are innocent.

It's the child's inexperience with the humiliation that leads him to say, out loud, "why is that fat guy in a wheelchair?" It is the child's precious ignorance of human rage that allows him to overturn a plate of homemade baked ziti, and then look you in the eye and say, "you clean it up. Now." It is the child's unmalicious irritation at having his book stolen that bares his teeth.

No, not sweet.
But yes, innocent.

When I have the chance to watch my child be sweet, there is a part of me that sings and a part that folds my lips together so they won't shake. If he's learned to be sweet, he's lost something pure. If he's learned to be kind, it cost him.

Sweetness is a consequence, the result of being hurt, losing some of your innocence, and understanding your own ability to hurt, and your desire not to.

Bitterness, too, is the result of being hurt, losing some of your innocence, and understanding your own ability to hurt. And your desire to.

Sweetness is so nearly bitterness. They live on the very same tongue.

___


Chicken and Buster are watching a movie in my bed while I finish this blog post. I had no idea how I was going to end it. Then Chicken rolled over, snuggled into his brother's side, and began to sing:

"I love you,
oh, I love you.
I love you so much
that I want to wrap you up
in a blanket
and throw you in the trash
you little Stumpy."

He caught me listening and stopped, grinning and half-hiding behind his hands.

"What was that song, baby?"

"Oh, just a song for my brother."

"What's it called?"

"It's called, 'I Won't Bite You Probably.'"


... and, scene.

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