In a Family Way

“I DO NOT HAVE time to teach boys,” says Evangeline, our de facto foster daughter. She shows us how she dumped her boyfriend Jarred this morning with a talk-to-the-hand gesture and the immortal line, “Clean your shit outta my locker–you bore me.” Evangeline is part Janeane Garofalo, part Divine Miss M. She is the funniest human we know. Jarred, who we secretly referred to as “Silky Sideburns,” is more of an Al Gore, low on humor. “You do the math,” she says.

A week ago, we caught them cuddling under a blanket watching The Iron Giant, and I was sure there were tears in Jarred’s eyes. Now we are informed that his sweetness, his charm, and indeed, that mist in his eyes all arose out of reefer. “Lots and lots of doobage, guys.” Hmm. We were right way back when we were their age: Parents really are almost unbelievably stupid.

So we want to learn, we say. Teach us, please, oh Master.

Well, turns out Evy also disapproved of his chronic masturbation. “Oh, all boys do that, sweetheart,” said we.

“No, but he’s on it so much he’s been missing appointments,” said she. What’s more, we now know–as Evy turns toward the Mac to plug her Spanish homework through something called freetranslator.com–Jarred got the heave-ho, in part, for his failures in bed.

“‘Okay, heeeere’s the road,’ I tell him,” she says. “And you’re way off here, like, in the forest.'”

We die.

They have just turned 15.

And funny thing is, Evy, she’s our easy surrogate child. Cody, her 12-year-old brother, well–he’s the real nut to crack.

David and I are 33 and 32, respectively. It took us years of wrangling to realize we no longer harbored any romantic inclinations toward having kids. Well, maybe just a little.  But none should violate these basic no-no’s we’d unequivocally settled on during scores of drives away from all nieces and nephews:

We will have no critter not old enough to wipe his own diarrhea-smeared behind.

We will harbor no creature so uncontrolled as to project any manner of sputum upon our persons, pets or accoutrements.

We will have no ugly child, or one with missing limbs or senses.

Gender moot.  Ditto, race.

Must enjoy long walks on the beach and Mexican cuisine.

Evy and Cody came, as Lennon sang it, while we were busy making other plans. They came from the south, by way of the ramshackle house down our dirt road, the house with the duckweed-choked pond, the preposterously huge American flag pinned to the flaking porch, and the perpetually half-painted barn. Our realtor had warned us against certain areas so we were surprised when our neighbors, the Calhouns, immediately embraced us, the new queers on the block. You just wouldn’t expect that a family prone to ordering hunting knives from the Shopping Channel would accept us so “easy peasy Japanesey,” as they say next door. Me, a bespectacled English professor, and David, a hunky graphic designer.

Yet as we lugged our Brookstone accessories and houseplants swaddled in flannel sheets into our first house that first day 18 months ago, accept us they did. Instead of a burning cross on the lawn, we got a chocolate cake with “Wellcome” spelled in gumdrops. Rather than threatening us, they loaned us their pickup truck, their ladder, their gutter scraper. They trusted us with their keys, their dogs, and eventually, their children.

The kids’ stepfather, Dale Calhoun, a gentle Shrek-shaped fella fond of Ozzy and Metallica, is exactly our age, but Donna is older, past 40. Evy and Cody are her kids. She had to bundle them one night into a Pinto and flee from their father–their “sperm dad” as Evy calls him–with only the belongings that fit in a paper bag. This was a year before she met Dale at her church and they married, dancing the electric slide. Dale has now knocked her up according to their plan, with a baby they jokingly–God, we hope–refer to as “Helmut.”

Helmut Calhoun.

Together we’ve all chipped wood and chain-sawed aspens, dismantled the rusty barbed wire fence that once separated our lands. They took us on a tour of the tackier Christmas lights in the nearby town. We’ve lain under each other’s porches and retrofitted our septic pipes, mired in each other’s “business.” We’ve pulled each other’s 4x4s out of the ditch along the road. We’ve walked our dogs together many nights under stars you can’t see from the city. Our tools and gloves got intermingled. We keep saying we’ll split the cost of a generator, maybe even a plow.

The Calhouns are fun and they are neighborly in a way we never understood before we met them. They are also the Huckleberry Calhouns, unafraid of farting at a party, calling attention to “the bitch’s hoochie (speaking of Shasta, their Rottweiler, not Donna), of hauling from South Carolina cases of fireworks for the Fourth of July, with names and features they know by heart.The Calhouns don’t buy cheese smaller than a cinder block. And while we have never actually seen either jerky or chew on their premises, we have noted that their only beverage options are “beer,” “purple stuff” and “pop.”  For special occasions, wine is dispensed from a box.

They share with us further culinary counsel:  “After the spaghetti’s cooked, we just freeze the whole damn pot. Then whenever we want pasta, we just defrost, heat and eat!”

It was on their first trip to D.C., “our nation’s capital state,” that Donna, doubled over in pain, ended up taking an ambulance ride to “some big bonehouse where the President goes whenever he gets shot.” That’s Dale talking now. You’d love Dale. He’s all heart and cholesterol.

When they came home, Donna went to a local bonehouse, and we insisted on taking the kids. We took them to the diner, went school shopping, rented a PG-rated video. We were thinking a few nights at most. A laugh. A mitzvah. But since then, as Donna’s fibroid tumors have crushed her urethra, blocked her colon, relentlessly tried to smother poor Helmut, the kids have rarely left us.

Now imagine this motley pseudo-family traipsing through the Super Wal-Mart, deflecting all Cody’s proposed confections from falling into our cart. “Dude, but Twizzlers have, like, absolutely no fat.”

Picture us wooing him into the notion that Wal-Mart sneaks are actually cool, that we–especially David, the cool one–not only would wear them, but will. And see us there in front of the Blue Bunny ice-cream sandwich display, each of us eyeing the same stock boy with the sharp incisors and the box cutter outlined in the pocket of his 501 blues. Of course David and I are five-star, lifelong, way-off-the-Kinsey-scale queers, and Evangeline at 15 can’t help her “horn dog” tendencies, now can she?

But Cody. What’s his deal? Wouldn’t you like to know.

We’d noticed rather early on that this kid, far from shying away from or mocking the subject of homosexuality, sidled up to it with a sensitivity, sense of humor, and sophistication unprecedented for his age. The most conspicuous early clues included his slavish obsession with discussing David’s dick. Any joke, epigram, riddle, or figure of speech he could infuse with a reference to David’s penis, he seized on the way most kids repeat the words dude or you know or um (which he also does).

“Dude, I’m gonna punch you in the dick.”

“Hey, don’t slam your dick in the car door, dude.”

“Dude, your dick cushioned my fall.”

And so on.

Chalk that up to adolescent whatever. We went that route. We never encouraged the boy in these locutions, of course. Even when Donna and Dale were there to hear such bawdy, suggestive stuff, they never blushed or criticized, never even seemed to take notice. It was always we who disciplined gently.

Check it out. At the Renaissance Fair (give us a break, they begged us!), Cody kept pressing his nose against the hot codpieces of armored knights. He likes to breathe on them then make smiley faces in the condensation. Okay by us, but he learned the hard way to ask the knights first.

As we passed the “kissing bridge,” Cody goaded us on, wanted to see us “do it,” even turned it into a litany: “Do it. Do it. Do it, dudes.” (We did kiss in front of him once, on New Year’s Eve. He looked intently. He looked sad.)

Cody loves to touch us and to be touched. Especially by David. It took more than a year for me to feel comfortable with his touching me in any nonviolent fashion. Maybe it was some internalized homophobia, or simple fear of even the perception of impropriety. Of course, I’d sooner chew my own tongue than violate a child.

But I remember the moment I stopped worrying. I had a migraine after a faculty senate imbroglio. As I sat at my desk, Cody simply came over and started to squeeze my shoulders. I wanted to cry, though I’m not sure why. Maybe because I knew his own biological father’s hands had only hurt him, though he supposedly didn’t remember this. Maybe because I felt sad for Dale, with whom Cody had still not bonded in the way he had with us. Maybe because I’d denied Cody this simple, electric pleasure, and denied myself for so long, too. “Good touch,” as I think parents might still call it when they give their kids that speech.

This kid, I might not have mentioned, is really beautiful. And he’s needy. And into that mix, add vulnerable and self-deprecating.

“What do you mean you have no friends?” David asks him this the way he asks most profound questions of the boy, while crushing him with his huge feet against the arm of the couch.

“Duh,” says Cody. “Look at me. I’m an idiot.”

David releases.

“I make that stupid Beavis and Butthead noise after everything I say. Everyone knows I’m an idiot.”

We’re raking leaves this weekend. Dale is by Donna’s bedside across the river, where Helmut’s still locked in a life-and-death wrangle with his evil twin, who is growing fiercer by the day. Evangeline is “helping” us, occasionally scooping up a pile of leaves and holding them a while. Her breasts hurt, she tells us. They’ve hurt all week, and her cramps “kill like a mother.” In less than a year, Evy has gone from a packet of Target training bras to a Victoria’s Secret hottie before our eyes. “My teachers all talk to my tits,” she tells us. “It’s kinda funny.”

Yeah. Ha, ha.

Cody, who was riding his bike at the end of the road, is skedaddling up our hill now on foot. I don’t see the blood until he’s right up close, and I instantly kneel as he falls into my body, the twilit sky behind him. He has no compunction about crying and I’m gratified he’s come to me and not David this time. The fact that he has hurt his face is immaterial to him right now. His main concern is securing a solemn promise that we will not make him get stitches. “You don’t understand. You don’t understand,” he says until it’s an almost psychopathic plea, so we have to agree, although above his scruffed cheek and ear, the blood spilling down his olive skin suggests a fairly serious injury somewhere.

“Uh-oh,” I say, inspecting.

“No stitches.”

“The thing is–” So this is what it’s like, I’m thinking. To be depended on. He doesn’t ask for his mother. He wants me to do it. To “fix it,” he says as a child far younger than he might beg. Sitting on the toilet seat, he’s wincing as I gingerly wipe out the gravel and blood, revealing a one-inch open wound above his eyebrow, where a kid’s skin is so preciously thin. He sees the look in my eye alone, grabs my wrist to get my attention, stares me down. “Forget it,” he says. “We made a freakin’ deal.”

When I go to the medicine cabinet for more alcohol, he takes off his shirt and starts to unbutton his jeans. “Hey, what are you doing?”

“My knee’s all fucked up, too, dude.”

“It’s okay, Cody. Keep ’em on. We’ll roll them up.”

He can’t hide his disappointment.

After I administer to him the first two Advils of his life, he starts to fall asleep in his room (what we used to call the “rabbit room,” the guest room he shares now with Rupert, our mini Dutch). Something wakes me much later and I crack open Cody’s door.  He’s sitting up in bed, worrying the butterfly bandages on his brow and staring, afraid, at the hulking shadow of Rupert caused by the nightlight we’ve left on for these defenseless tenants of our house. I tell him he can take off school the next day. He thanks me, sincerely, oddly maturely, and I say it was nothing.

It was nothing.

David and I hold hands now in the doorway. Cody tells us, “My goal in life isn’t being happy, it’s just to get through it, you know, to survive.”

We want to die. We want to scoop him up and cry on him. “Baby, you’re only a kid. You’re not supposed to say that type of shit.”

“Want me to lie?”

“No, we want you to know that there’s more for you, though. There’s joy and falling in love and making a difference in the world and leaving something. A legacy, they call it.”

“Yeah, how’s that workin’ for my dad?” he says.

They say the darnedest things.

As we build him up, stroke his confidence, bolster his character, we never forget to prepare him as kindly as we can for all the future pain that will come his way. We assure him he’ll rise from these various spills, just as he did from the bottom of the wooden ramp he’d missed while jumping his bike. We’re not sure he’ll rise, though. We couldn’t guarantee it. We know his sperm dad took depraved Polaroid pictures of him, held him upside down, tried to ruin him.

We shudder to think what might have happened to Cody had he gravitated south down the dirt road instead of to us up north. Had he wound up curled on some other couch, sharing his insecurities, searching with his half-sexy come-ons, reaching for attention, affection, acceptance, love. I’d kill anyone who hurt him.

It isn’t politically correct to say it, but I can understand how easily kids like Cody can fall prey to the sin that lurks in the hearts of some men. What do I mean? Of course we are responsible, appropriate, chaste around “the kids,” but our feelings for them remain a strange mix of empathy and nostalgia, paternalism and a vague, stomach-churning attraction, which we can only assume straight parents must know, too. What’s unnatural about finding your child beautiful, wanting to hold him, take away his pain?

Tonight the four of us eat our mac and cheese in silence. In his first life next door, Cody would sit away from the family table at dinner, downing packets of hot chocolate powder in front of the TV. But this is our house, our rules, and we take no prisoners. “Sit yer ass down” is intoned as often as any affirmations. We will have our work cut out for us with Cody. He etched a symbol into a cabinet door, lit matches while no one was home one afternoon. He is failing every class except gym and French, where he cheats. Five minutes in the same room with his mother and she gets contractions, machines start to beep. He’s in dire need of medicine, but it’s a tough sell to Donna, who’s afraid they’ll turn him into a “zombie boob.”

Where once we used to toss and turn, afraid of–what? What could have mattered as much as this?–now we lie awake at night whispering the whispers of parents conspiring.

“We can’t relent.”

“Don’t you let up on her.”

“He’s got to understand.”

If we cave, we know one day Evy will come home plump with child. She will say, “We only did it once and he even pulled out. But it’s cool, ’cause he loves me.”

It takes a village to raise a child.

Your kids, they’re here to stay.

“Those beans are for eating, not for playing,” I say, like somebody’s dad.

Then Cody asks one of us for Kool-Aid. The way he asks is unexpected, unbelievable, undeserved. Sheepishly he smiles, rocks his legs, reaches across the table for the bowl, wishing to brush off what he just said.

“Cody?”

“Dude, I said Dave, not Dad.”

Ian Blake Newman is an assistant professor of literature and journalism at SUNY Rockland. He reports that the “Calhouns” had a healthy baby (and didn’t name him Helmut), and Evy and Cody traipsed back home. Reprinted from Brain, Child (Summer, 2002). Subscriptions: $18/yr. (4 issues) from Box 714, Lexington, VA 24450. A 2001 Alternative Press Award winner for personal life coverage, Brain, Child: The Magazine for Thinking Mothers takes a literate look at modern parenting. A typical issue might include a debate on whether pets really teach kids responsibility, an essay chronicling the activism of an HIV+ mother or the adventures of a lactating lawyer, as well as fiction by a luminary such as Jane Smiley or Anne Tyler.

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