Parallel and Perpendicular
Gary couldn’t sleep.
Whenever his wife and son got into one of their arguments, it stressed him out. The fights were exhausting for all the parties involved, but their son, Neil, would eventually storm off to his room and decompress with loud music. Gary’s wife, Sofia, would sit down at her computer and read the posts of her most distant acquaintances of Facebook. Occasionally she’d sigh and tell Gary about one that particularly bothered her, but mostly she’d retreat into the digital space, at once a public place and her most private space in the house. Their daughter, Stephanie, who was three years older than Neil, could now drive. When the fights began, she would ask Gary for the keys. They would share a moment of eye rolling, and then she would take off. She had a sixth sense about when it was safe to return. Gary’s sixth sense told him he would be in big trouble with his wife if he tried to escape during the fight, but even bigger trouble if he tried to intervene, so he would quickly find a book, sit down in his recliner, and only weigh in when Sofia asked for his opinion.
Tonight’s fight started the way they generally did. They were all watching The Daily Show, a show the whole family could enjoy together. They got to a commercial break, and while Gary skipped through the commercials, Sofia looked over at her son. “Neil, will you quit doing that?”
“You’re doing it again.” Her voice was calm, but there was a dangerous undercurrent, like a riptide.
“What?” Neil’s voice carried the sneer he’d almost perfected at only 13. Gary marveled at that sound. To the best of his recollection, he’d only mastered that kind of disdain by 16.
“You’re digging in your ear again. You know that grosses me out. Get a cue tip and do that in the bathroom if you have to.”
Neil pulled his pinky out of his ear. “I was not.”
“Neil, I just saw you,” Sofia said.
Gary tried to steer to safety. He smiled at Neil and said, “You were, buddy.”
“No I wasn’t. It’s not a big deal.”
“Well, which is it?” Sofia asked.
“Either you weren’t doing it, or you were and you don’t think it’s a big deal.”
“Or I wasn’t but I still don’t think it would have been a big deal if I had been.”
Stephanie held out her hand. Gary shook his head and continued to aim the remote. If he could just get through the commercial break in time, he thought. He skipped ahead, but it was too far. He tried to go back.
“Neil, I wish you would just admit that you were doing it, say you’re sorry, and quit it. Then it won’t be a big deal,” Sophia said.
“I wish you’d admit I wasn’t doing it, say you’re sorry, and leave me alone,” Neil said.
Gary hit pause and handed Stephanie the car keys. Then he got up.
“Where are you going?” Sofia asked.
“I’m just going to grab my novel.”
“I’m sorry, honey. It’s not a big deal.” She looked back at Neil. “I just don’t like being lied to.”
“And I don’t like being falsely accused,” Neil said.
Gary headed off for his book.
When he came back down the stairs, their voices hadn’t risen too much, and they were still on the original topic. Gary wasn’t sure what kind of omen that was.
“Maybe I touched my earlobe or something, but I wasn’t ‘digging in my ear,’” Neil said.
“Well, this is progress. Now you admit you were touching your ear. Neil, your pinky finger was halfway to your brain. I think you don’t even realize you’re doing it.”
“Then why did you call me a liar?”
“I didn’t call you a liar.”
“Yes you did!” Now Neil’s voice didn’t just rise in volume, it cracked in a way that might have made Gary laugh under different circumstances. “You called me a liar!” he tried again, this time without cracking.
“I didn’t call you a liar,” Sofia explained in a voice straining for patience. “I said I didn’t like being lied to.”
“That’s calling me a liar!”
“No, it’s not quite the same thing-”
“That’s a lie, because if I said I didn’t like you lying to me, you’d say I was calling you a liar.”
“I am not lying, Neil. I’m trying to explain to you that-”
“I didn’t say you were a liar, Mom.”
“Okay, you did, but please don’t interrupt me Neil, because-”
“I did not! I said you wouldn’t like me to call you a-”
“You just did, Neil!” Now Sofia was shouting. “You said, ‘That’s a lie!’”
“Did not! This is just like the whole ear thing!”
“Yes, it is. You say you didn’t do that, either!”
“See? You are calling me a liar, but you also said I don’t even know I’m doing it.”
“But you can know you’re doing it when I catch you doing it, so just admit it and quit it.”
“But I’m not doing it!”
Gary tried to focus on his book. The words made a gray smudge on the page but refused to separate into distinct shapes.
Sophia leaned forward. “I’ll tell you what you aren’t doing. You aren’t doing all your homework. You aren’t doing the dishes when it’s your turn. You aren’t practicing the piano even though we keep paying for lessons.” She was counting things off on her fingers, and hesitated on the third, her mouth slightly open to let Neil know she wasn’t finished. Then the fourth came to her. “And you aren’t putting your clothes in the hamper.”
Well, Gary thought, they got past the ear thing. Now we’re up to DEFCON 2.
Neil leaned forward. “So that’s what this is really about? How I do everything wrong?”
“Oh, don’t be so dramatic. I didn’t say you do everything wrong. It’s just that, when I come home from work, and I’m tired, and I’m stressed, if you haven’t done something, and I ask you if you did it, just admit it and do it. Don’t tell me you did it when you didn’t.”
“Mom, did you ever stop to think that maybe I’m stressed and tired, too, and that’s why I can’t do all the things you want me to do?”
“Neil, I said I understood that sometimes you won’t have done all the things you’re supposed to do. That’s not the point. The point is that you need to just admit it and do them when I ask.”
“No, that’s not the point, Mom.”
Sofia fell back heavily into the couch. “Fine. What is the point?”
“The point was that you were accusing me of digging in my ear. All this other stuff is just a distraction you just brought up.”
That is a pretty good point, Gary thought. Wisely, he said nothing.
“There can be two points, Neil. These aren’t unrelated. You say you didn’t do something I was watching you do. Sometimes you say you did things you didn’t do. I think there’s a connection there.”
That was also a good point, Gary noted.
Neil fell back against the back of the loveseat. “Fine. Fine. I will try to do everything you want me to do.” He started counting on his fingers. “I’ll try to remember to do all my homework. I’ll try to make sure I do the dishes when it’s my turn. I’ll try to remember to practice the piano.” He hesistated on the third, his mouth open. “Oh, and I’ll put my clothes in the hamper.” Then he exaggerated the fifth, waggling his thumb. “And I will try to stop doing the things I don’t even know I’m doing, okay?” He stood up. “But you don’t have to be such a…” He pressed his lips together.
Sophia’s eyes got very wide, then very wet.
Gary sat up quickly, looked at his wife’s eyes, then turned toward his son.
Neil knew he’d stepped in it. “…mean. You don’t have to be so mean.”
“Neil,” Gary said softly. “Go up to your room. Right. Now.”
Neil opened his mouth.
Gary pointed toward the stairs. He pointed hard. Neil went.
Gary looked at Sofia. She carefully dried her eyes with one finger, trying not to smudge her eyeliner too much, rose slowly from the couch, and went to sit in front of her computer. The sound of muffled punk music sloshed down the stairs in little rhythmic waves, just loud enough to be sullen, but not loud enough to confront.
Gary went into the kitchen, but he could still see Sofia over the bar. “Would you like a glass of wine?”
“Do we have anything stronger?”
Gary turned toward the cabinet above the fridge. “Um, we might.”
“I’m kidding. A glass of wine would be nice. Maybe some of the red from when the McCabes were over.”
He poured it and brought her the glass. She mumbled a thank you, then disappeared into Facebook again. Gary went back to his book. The words resolved themselves, but the story eluded him.
“What punishment should we give him?” Sofia asked.
“For sticking his finger in his ear and lying about it?”
“No. For… Oh, God, do you think I was being a bitch too?”
“No, of course not.”
“I was. I was. It wasn’t a big deal and I made it into this big thing.”
He could hear in her voice that she was crying, and he rose to hug her, but she handed him her glass. “No, I’m fine. I’ll apologize to him tomorrow.”
“I don’t think you need to apologize.”
“No, I do. It was… I do.”
Gary tried to think of something to say while he took the glass back to the sink, but when he turned around she was already heading up the stairs. Soon after, the music stopped, and he thought maybe she’d gone into Neil’s room. He listened, but the only sound he heard was the car pulling back into the driveway.
“Are they done?” Jennifer asked when she came in.
“Was it bad?”
“It’ll be fine.” Gary watched Jennifer roll her eyes, then head for the stairs. He called after her in a barked whisper. “Hey!” She returned. “Hey, why didn’t we ever have big arguments with you like that when you were 13?”
“Because I’m more like you, Dad.”
“But you didn’t argue with your mother, either.”
“Nope. Neither do you.”
“Love you, Dad.”
“Love you too, honey.”
Gary read his book for a while, but when he was sure everyone was asleep, he made his way up the stairs. As he passed Neil’s door, he remembered checking on his son a decade earlier. He felt an overwhelming urge to do so again. Carefully, he turned the nob and poked his head in. Neil was turned toward him, his face serene and years younger. The blankets were pulled up to his neck, but one leg stuck out, almost perpendicular to his body, his foot hanging off the edge of the bed. Disturbed just enough by his father’s presence, Neil swallowed and then made a soft clicking sound in his throat twice, then fell back into a deep sleep.
Gary continued down the hall, past his daughter’s room, and slipped into his own. Sofia had fallen asleep with her book open on her chest and her end-table light on. Gary slipped around to her side of the bed, gently picked up the book, placed the bookmark in it, and set it down as quietly as he could. Sofia heard this slight sound and swallowed once, then made a soft clicking sound in her throat twice. Gary remembered, at one point when Neil was five or six, he went through a phase of climbing into their bed after bad dreams, and because he made the exact same sleeping sounds as his mother, Gary hadn’t been able to tell if he was there or not sometimes.
Before Gary could turn off Sofia’s light, she rolled over and pulled the covers up to her neck. Then she pushed one leg out from under them and dangled her foot over the side of the bed.
Gary went into the bathroom. While sitting on the toilet, he contemplated the ways his wife and son were so similar. Did that explain the tension between them? It must, he decided.
He was entirely unaware that his pinky finger was buried deep in his ear.