This was back during a period of my life when I thought of myself as having things. What did I have? In no particular order, the same things a lot of people have: a smartphone; an apartment; a monthly MetroCard; a Facebook page and an Instagram account; a checking account and a savings account; student loan debt; a steady, well-paying job that wasn’t too good or too bad; furniture; books; records; access to HBO GO and Netflix; neighbors; a doorman; a closet full of respectable middle- to upper-middle-class clothing; an IRA; a 401(k); stock in a once-great-but-now-pretty-much-obsolete film and camera company located in Western New York State; parents; siblings; an antique mirror; a baseball signed by Larry David and the cast of Seinfeld; countless other things.
Currently, I do not have a spouse or partner, but I do have a three-year-old son. His name is Noah. For a while he lived with me all the time because his mother, my ex-wife, is no longer living. She died a year-and-a-half ago. It was nobody’s fault. We had already separated and figured out how to be on “good terms” (her words). We shared custody then; now we don’t. She had an aneurysm and passed away, alone in her apartment. It was a difficult time. I understood the situation. I even accepted it. Nevertheless, it’s strange for me to say that something I have is not just an ex-wife but a dead ex-wife. Neither are things I ever thought I’d have. Nor did I anticipate having a son. But I do have a son.
The story of our family goes like this: Jack and Jill met in college. Jack and Jill started dating and quickly became inseparable. Jack and Jill were an item: not just Jack or just Jill, but Jack-&-Jill-Together—a single thought. Everyone who knew them agreed it was perfect, including Jack & Jill themselves. Jill was a poet (or wanted to be) and Jack was a fiction writer (or wanted to be). Instead, they both became teachers and moved out of Jersey into the City. They would write in the summers. They would publish a poem here, a story there, and eventually they wouldn’t have to teach anymore because that’s how that story goes. And there was to be no children. Children as children were fine as long as those children were someone else’s children. Children got in the way. Children replaced writing. Children were for everyone else. Poems were children, stories were children. Books were children. Actual children were not children. Until one day they were: one day, children were children again, and where were theirs? Jack & Diane had them, as did Jack & Joan, and Jack & Jack, and Joan & Joan. Who were they to be different? Who did they think they were? It was time to put away childish things and make an actual child.
So we did: we made our son, Noah, and from the moment of his birth we pretty much gave up on writing. Later, we gave up on each other, and later still her brain gave up on her, leaving me and Noah alone in the apartment.
There was me and there was him. He was a thing I had. And me: I was a thing he had. He probably didn’t think about our relationship that way—he was only one-and-a-half—but I did. He was part of the list, the inventory of my life. When I think of that time now I’m not always sure I loved him as much as I loved my books or my apartment—our apartment—but I did care about him a great deal, and I did love him most of the time. Other times I did not. Other times he screamed if he was unhappy, and then he became nearly identical to a car horn: someone or something is in his way and he knows he simply must alert this person or thing to his presence. Because this will fix things. Screaming fixes things. The person or thing will move, he thinks, and he’ll be happy because he’ll have what he wants, whatever it is. It’s the having that matters most to him, the having and the happiness.
As an adult, I know this is true only sometimes. I know there are just too many of us to be happy all the time. I also know that even if you get what you want, you’re just as likely to be unhappy. Especially if you’re a U.S. citizen or someone who grew up in the U.S. He doesn’t know this yet; he doesn’t know what “the U.S.” is or what a “citizen” is and he doesn’t care. He doesn’t know that everyone dies and that no one has any say in their birth or the circumstances of their birth. He lacks knowledge and experience of almost everything. He is basically helpless, and yet he’s lied to me—a lot. I know that he has. All the foods he likes are bad for him, but he would eat them all the time if he could. He’s never shared anything, never been a sharer. I’m sure other parents dislike him; it was always difficult for me to arrange playdates. I didn’t think of this then but now I think it’s because Noah is a difficult child. My son, Noah, is one of those kids other parents look at on the playground and go, “Wow, that is a difficult child.” He wants everything in the store. If he sees it and is interested, he thinks it should be his simply because of his interest. Money is a concept that means as much to him as Existentialism or the Cloud or being on time. He is an excellent drawer; I wouldn’t be surprised if he grew up to be an artist. His favorite song is “She Loves You” by The Beatles. He used to hate it when I played jazz in the apartment or if I decided that tonight’s one of those nights we wouldn’t watch anything. He hates taking a bath and going to the bathroom and changing his clothes and keeping things neat. This is how I know he’s a young person. He would die if someone didn’t make him do all the things he hates to do and he’s never thanked me or anyone else for keeping him alive.
Sometimes I think he thinks his mother is dead because of me. This may very well be true. It’s one of the first things I thought about when she died: did I give her an aneurysm? Was my personality somehow responsible for her death? Obviously, it wasn’t, but what if it was, in some small way? It’s possible, isn’t it? I don’t know.
Noah used to like to “lose me” in the Park. “Losing me” meant that he’d pretend to be invisible right in front of me. He’d cover his eyes and then maybe hide behind a tote and think that that was all he needed to do to lose me. Even if we were sitting on a blanket facing each other he’d somehow think he was invisible to me if he put his hands over his eyes. Why are children like this? (Many of my students are like this too: they seem to believe I can’t see them looking at their phones during class if they look at their phones beneath the table—we all sit at four tables arranged in a square—even though they know anyone can see what anyone else is doing beneath the table. It’s very strange.)
One time, Noah said to me, “Dad, you’re crazy!” and I said, “I am?” He said, “Yeah, you’re crazy!” and I said, “How come?” He said, “I don’t know,” and then went back to playing with his toys, as if he hadn’t said anything at all. When I said, “‘I am?’,” part of me wondered if he was right; and if he was right, how did he know? But of course he was just repeating something he’d heard somewhere else. He could’ve just as easily said, “Dad, you’re a cat!” or “Dad, you’re late!” or “Dad, you’re an apple!” or “Dad, you’re my dad!” I wondered if he’d ever told his mother she was crazy, but then I remembered he couldn’t talk like that when she was alive.
Neither of us are—were. Crazy, that is. In fact, of the three of us, I’d say Noah is the most likely candidate for craziness. If not on his own merit, then perhaps by way of circumstance. The world he’ll inhabit as an adult is a world I’m glad I’ll never see. This world here that we live in right now is rapidly becoming the kind of world I don’t want to live in. Everything has so much weight. Everything matters all the time, from the second you’re born. Appearance is everything, impression is everything. The judgment of others is constant—every day is Judgment Day because living is public. Every day I almost fail. Every day I wonder if this will be the day I give up. I don’t think quitting is bad. Sometimes it’s required. I quit playing baseball in the second grade and it was definitely the right thing to do. I didn’t enjoy it; I wasn’t any good at it; my teammates disliked me because I was no good; the coaches disliked me because I was no good; I quit and it was right. Everyone was pleased with the decision. My parents weren’t, of course, but they got over it because I started playing basketball instead and I was much, much better at that. At the time, I thought they were pleased simply because I was a better basketball player than I was a baseball player. Now I know that’s only partly true. Now I know the real reason they were pleased is that they had a story to tell: “He quit baseball because he wanted to concentrate on basketball instead, and anyway he’s much, much better at it.” That’s how that story goes. It’s very short, and very easy to understand. A lot of people like that story. If nothing had replaced baseball, things would’ve been much more difficult for me. They would’ve sat me down to talk about why I wanted to quit, to explain to me that quitting isn’t something people respect. They would not have said that quitting didn’t work for them because they wouldn’t know what to tell their friends, and I understand that now. As a parent, I get it. We are being judged all the time by all the other parents. I garnered a certain amount of sympathy among the other parents at Noah’s daycare because my wife—ex-wife—died. I garnered almost no sympathy at all when we were separated, but now that she’s dead, there’s a story and I’m the protagonist; and whatever backstory there might be that might make me appear one way or another, no one really seems to care about that anymore because someone has died, and that someone is a person who used to love me and with whom I created this little boy they see and know, this Noah. I am Noah’s bereaved father to them. The sad, slumping, pathetic fortysomething widower and occupant of a one-bedroom apartment. Bereavement: also a thing I have (to all the other parents, that is). Also a thing on my list. Their list about me is different from my list about me, just as my lists about them are different from their lists about themselves.
What I’m really talking about here is secrets. That’s no surprise. We all have them. Some of them are worse than others. Some of them are meaningless. But that’s not a very good story. No one wants to hear a story about a meaningless secret. For example, a secret I have is that I wasn’t all that sad when my ex-wife died. I was certainly shocked and saddened, but I wasn’t overcome with grief the way I might have been if our marriage hadn’t already failed. The other parents don’t know this about me. Noah doesn’t know this about me. I would never discuss it with him, for one thing—you can’t really have a discussion with a three-year-old—but there’s also the fact of the funeral. I cried at it. In public, in front of my son and my ex-wife’s family and my own parents and a small gathering of our closest friends, I looked sad and overcome with grief. I hadn’t been faking it, but I happen to know that I was crying more out of confusion and the overwhelming sense that my life was now going to be lived in a constant state of being overwhelmed. Everything was overturned, nudged out of orbit. Whatever metaphor works. All I knew was that there was me and there was Noah, and I was completely responsible for his life.
That’s how that story was all set to go. That’s how that story was all set to go until it didn’t. Something changed. Several things happened. Most of them weren’t all that important. First, there was a siege of rabbits in Brooklyn and Queens. Nobody knows why or where they came from, but for about a week it was true that a thing Brooklyn and Queens had was a rabbit problem. It got so bad that they stopped traffic during the morning commute one day. Rabbits flooded the Battery Tunnel. I’m not kidding. The tunnel was a parking lot full of angry drivers honking their horns and so many rabbits that the cars couldn’t move. Imagine that scene. It was incredible. The footage on the news was like something out of a disaster movie. I remember I thought of Watership Down and that very strange sequence with the domesticated rabbits in David Lynch’s Inland Empire. Animal Control had to be called in to round them up and get them out. Who knows what they did with them all.
The other thing that happened—the thing I’ve been driving at all along here—involved me and Noah and a Zipcar and my ex-in-laws’ house in North Caldwell and a somewhat regrettable but totally necessary scene in their driveway. They never liked me that much anyway. I don’t know. What are you gonna do? You stay or you go; that’s all there is to it. That’s all there is to anything, really. It’s a classic American story. I don’t feel very good most of the time now, but that’s OK because this is what I’ve chosen. This is the life I’ve decided to lead. I feel better about this life that I don’t feel very good about than I felt about my life the past year-and-a-half since the funeral. That’s just the truth, I’m sorry. So there you go: at least I have that. It turns out I still do think about myself in terms of having things. Or not having them, I guess.
Thomas Cotsonas is the author of Nominal Cases, his first book of fiction and winner of the St. Lawrence Book Award from Black Lawrence Press. His fiction has also appeared in numerous journals and magazines, including Web Conjunctions, Puerto del Sol, and Western Humanities Review. A native of Rochester, New York, he now teaches at Rutgers University and lives with his wife in New York City.