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Open Features: Moves

...There is no room in his universe to doubt that he will, indeed, triumph. He is a roaring siren, a marching band, a banquet of obscene indulgence, a bloody boxer with gloved hands raised...

In this marvelous piece of writing Julie Drew gets inside the head of a 13-year-old boy - and of the mother who walks the fine line between being protective and allowing freedom.

Watch out next Monday for another fine article by Julie.

Ethan jumps over the things he finds in his path. Garbage cans, a bicycle, a pile of bricks. He jumps over them for the fun of it, for the sense of his own body in motion - for the sake of flying. He calls what he does moves, and he's never without one. At thirteen, his sense of himself as a physical being in the world is informed by Jackie Chan, Wesley Snipes, Michael Jordan - even the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles he once loved - and whether or not I am around to appreciate all this talent.

He flies, twisting in mid-air to throw some sort of kick at an adversary flanking him on the left, his face a grimace of pain or concentration. Maybe both; the imaginary and the real are one here. He is frozen in flight - just for a split second - and I see him in stark relief against the diffused glare of this stifling August afternoon in the alleys of Beijing. The tendons behind his knee are taut, subcutaneous ropes, incongruous on bones bare but for the thin hard muscle, a ghost of the man he will be. I encounter that specter in odd, unexpected moments and he sees me see him like this. He lands, cat-like and wired, and shoots me that glance out of narrowed gray eyes. Brows dipped down and lips curled up, his expression a conqueror's flag, he nods - only a little - cocky and cool, and says, "You know you like the skills."

I've seen him - his moves, his badass routine - a thousand times, and I rarely notice. Today, I notice. We've been watched in guarded glances since we arrived, but the watching is suddenly naked as he flies over the things he chooses, the things he acknowledges only long enough to gauge what he needs to do to overcome them. There is no room in his universe to doubt that he will, indeed, triumph. He is a roaring siren, a marching band, a banquet of obscene indulgence, a bloody boxer with gloved hands raised, and I see him through strangers' eyes today: he is an American boy, with a sense of entitlement that is surely unmistakable in every corner of the world. He is laughing, godless and ungoverned, and I think about what that means, not at home where he is common fare, but here. Here. This boy, my boy, inspires in me an intensity of desire and resentment: I want to be him, or at least be near him, and at the same time resent him for his privilege and my own wanting. I am terrified to imagine what those who do not love him beyond the ability to comprehend or contain it must feel when they see what I see, when they wonder what he will be capable of.

We round a corner in the hutong and, as so often happens in our excursions, the Sanhuan Lu - the Third Ring Road - is suddenly a stone's throw away, a wholly different world. I step over a pile of rotting garbage immersed in a puddle of what my nose tells me is urine that's been steaming in the sun for quite a while, one eye peeled to make sure Ethan doesn't blithely plow right through it and track it into the apartment later. I feel the heat and noise and weight of the traffic up ahead, and the inevitable bodies, too many, too close, as we approach the intersection. We'll be in the thick of it in a moment.

Good boy, he sees the garbage and steps over it. But still. "Ethan," I say, "when we get home don't forget to take your shoes off before you go inside."

"Mom, check this out," he counters, dropping down and executing a sweeping maneuver with his leg, successfully taking out his invisible assailant. The subsequent sounds he makes indicate an enemy fallen hard, clearly regretting his encounter with The Master: you picked the wrong man to mess with today, pengyou.

"Yeah, Ethan, nice, but did you hear what I said?"

"Yeah, Mom, did you see it? It was like, EEEE YAH!"

"Ethan, would you please acknowledge what I said?"

"I said I heard you. Hey Mom, look-"

"What did I say?"

"Take my shoes off before I go in the house."

We walk on, the feet in our shoes smacking the alley, stinging, crushing our frustrations underfoot, grinding them into the raw sewage. These small hurts stink, too.

"Ethan," I begin, "I'm sorry, I was watching. I just didn't want to have to clean the floors again today, not if we can help it. I need you to pay attention to me just as much as you need me to pay attention to you. Ok?"

"Yeah, sure" he says, sullen, unwilling to let it go yet. He pauses for maybe ten seconds.

"Hey Mom, want baozi for dinner? And eggplant?

Not his favorite. Mine. A gift, sweet as the cards he used to make with the transposed letters spelling I love you Mommy. His cards were elaborate works of art, always depicting he and I engaged in some activity - the early ones in which we held hands in the sun, on top of a mountain or in the surf on some beach. A bird nearby, maybe, or a garish pink and orange flower. Each of those precious papers, already yellowing, sports two stick figures, one little and one big, their relative sizes determined forever by one another, with carefully counted fingers and toes that look like nothing so much as foot-long spikes protruding from bodies that smile red crayon gashes. His later cards reflect the traveling and his maturing imagination, a boy's secret fear and longing for danger: cliff diving, elephant riding, mountain climbing, alligator wrestling. Those cards - stashed away in the box I will always grab first when we have to move quickly - go everywhere I go.

"Well?" he asks tentatively, wondering if I'm actually pissed. "I'm buying." This, our joke since Nigeria when he was eight. Neither of us can remember exactly why it's funny - something about him counting out the money to buy something from a fruit seller, using U.S. coins he insisted on carrying around in his pocket, but speaking in Korean to a farmer who understood neither. The meaning of that moment has changed, the memory of it fading. It serves now as the hug, the cuddle in my lap that he will no longer allow himself, one of the ways we set things right again. Excruciating tenderness, not like pain, but pain, burns my lungs and throat and moves to spill from my eyes and mouth, tears and words he will reject. I suffer the amazement of comprehending my own child, this being who has only so recently encountered the world - many different worlds, really, accepted and ventured on my word alone - but who can throw off the mood, create a better moment, protect us from ourselves. He will soon be done with childishness altogether, and I will have to remake my relationship to this life. I'm thankful for my shades and blink hard.

"Great," I say lightly, and the day is restored.

We hit the street, weave into the crowd, if not comfortable at least used to the light, constant pushing of other bodies against our own. I'm tall, and easily scan the multitudes for sandy hair like ours, someone scanning the crowd as we do; Asia is easier than Europe. I can let my guard down, a little. It takes only ten minutes to get to the hotel. Last month we made a deal with the day manager of the Jing Guang: I tutor his daughter in English one afternoon a week, and we get to use the indoor pool and sauna from three to five as often as we like. I'm teaching English for cash again, and Ethan studies at home with me. No record of either of us. We make our own schedule, and swimming is always a part of it - if we can swing it - wherever we go. We wave to Li Hong at the front desk, call "Ni hao," and head for the elevators. The doors slide open on the ninth floor, and we walk past the health club reception desk and head through the frosted glass doors. I change in the locker room and hurry to meet Ethan poolside.

We're alone but for some tourists, a Japanese family, parents and three daughters. Two of the girls are teenagers, a few years older than Ethan. The smell of chlorine, the reflection of light on water making rippled patterns on the ceiling seem very familiar, and familiarity is a welcome thing; we've been in Asia this time for eighteen months, Beijing for two. Each member of the Japanese family swims, except for the youngest child, at intervals. They only swim laps. They seem quite happy, chatting easily when sitting in their chairs, and once the mother and father race lengthwise across the pool, he giving her a head start. She wins, and their quiet, mostly-girl laughter wafts across the water and laps gently against the side of the pool. The father looks proud and claps. Without exception, they swim with a perfectly metered, calm and precise breaststroke, and I have no choice but to remember that swimming is good for the constitution.

Meanwhile, my son throws his towel at the nearest chair, missing it entirely; it lands on the wet tile floor, unnoticed, while he jumps into the deep end in the most ungainly manner imaginable. He thrashes about, doing something that might be an Australian crawl, slapping the water and kicking up bucketsful everywhere. He stands on his hands in the shallow end with legs and feet waving above the surface like palm fronds in a monsoon, and pulls his trunks up over his exposed boxers every time he climbs out of the pool. He tries unsuccessfully to obey the posted rule not to run, in order to jump in from another spot as quickly as humanly possible, for no apparent reason. He yells, "Mom, watch this!" his voice bouncing off the walls, off the water, off the faces of the Japanese family turned toward him in silent appraisal. He clamors for my word on whether or not he beat yesterday's time doing the length of the pool, or holding his breath underwater. He is sloppy and loud, his body undignified and moving without grace or order. He seems always to be going in several directions at once on feet that are too big for his skinny frame, without a cohesive thought moving him to one well-defined moment of accomplishment. He feels everything - the water, the movement of his body. His unceasing desire for more is palpable. He is spectacle, spectacular, and he neither knows nor cares; he is utterly unaware of his own overwhelming presence.

I feel the weight of my responsibility to teach him, to keep him safe, and the desire to let him be: his wildness, his sense of himself and everyone else as essentially good, his complete lack of malice - these things inspire awe in me and I think I could kill to let him stay this way just a little longer. The door from the men's locker room opens and I glance up, as I must, taking in the three approaching figures at a glance, always on the lookout for that sandy hair, the broad shoulders and bruising hands, those angry, narrowed gray eyes so like my son's. I wonder how long I will feel safe here, how long before we hit the road again, just the two of us, as Ethan somehow manages to yell through a mouthful of water, "Hey Mom, look at me!"

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