When We Were Interesting

I lingered at drop-off, talking to my younger son and his friend about their paper dragons. I realized it had been half a year since I’d set foot in my son’s classroom, and I noticed that many of the girls had grown fatter, like their mothers, and they reminded me of bar wenches in a Restoration drama: more contrived, and less sensitive. The class was getting ready to go on a field trip to the Nordic Heritage Museum so I slunk away, heartbroken, as I always feel when I visit—or breech—my sons’ school during school hours. I drove home thinking about developmental stages, in this case 2nd graders—about groups. Even the little article I’d read earlier on the Internet about the cute opossum on the D Train bragged about the life of the group opossum being five million years versus two short years for an individual marsupial. The same little son is now a teenager.

I can’t figure out if waking life wreaks havoc on dream life, or vice versa. My dreams are episodic; I’m stuck in traffic coming down I-5. I’m stuck in traffic coming down Roosevelt. I grip the wheel over the grates and grooves of the University Bridge, I glance up at the double-layered I-5 bridge far above me, a bicyclist sheers by, the boys in the back of my car are singing an a cappella tribute to John Williams one of them found on the Internet, my older son has memorized Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah, “I saw her bathing on the roof,” am I dreaming?

I’ve never been much of a connoisseur of information, even as a teenager I eschewed the lyrics on the inside of an album cover, life was moodier, more mysterious with mondegreens. I must have listened to Joni Mitchell sing A Little Green ten thousand times and I never knew it was about the baby daughter she gave up for adoption.

I was shuffling the Internet as if it were a lot of loose pages (I don’t surf. I don’t ski. I flatter my prejudice against high-cost, equipment-rich activities. I don’t do yoga) when I chanced on a podcast of an old friend talking about her new novel and her old life. It was clearly a phone interview, her voice sounded like a translation into a different instrument, an oboe becomes a keyboard, but her laugh was the same—frank and becoming. If only I could talk to her now, thank her for everything.

I found myself listening eagerly, even greedily, for the parts where I could sense the ghost of myself. I noticed quickly that while my old friend sounded really spontaneous, even careening and ebullient, she was actually practicing a strict code of discretion. Although to be honest, all those whose names she didn’t mention would have enjoyed the exposure. It wasn’t my name I wanted to hear, but again, the sense of eavesdropping on my own past with someone else as the main character.

When he was in 9th grade my older son complained bitterly about a girl in Geometry who would point out all of his mistakes with the preface, “As a feminist . . . ”

I used to hate it when dads and diaper-changing was used as a symbol for gender equality in parenthood. Consider Baby with his bottom rolled up, thoughtfully abstracted; Baby isn’t out to prove anything. Baby doesn’t think that by rubbing his nose in baby-shit Dad will be a better dad, Mom’s cause will be advanced or her mom-hours shortened.

We were invited to an election-night party the first year we lived in Seattle, through the boys’ school. Being new, we were interesting. A Tudor castle in a gated community, no streetlights on the winding drives, swooping acres of golf course, horses. It was the kind of party other people, we said, send their kids to private school for. I had left my wallet at a gas station earlier in the day and spent many frenzied hours cancelling credit cards which had already been violated, mourning school pictures. Now my feelings of loss and vulnerability were exacerbated, I told myself, by the exceptional wealth around me.

Indeed it didn’t take long to ascertain that we were the only guests who had not hosted a campaign-trail Barack in their living room. A couple of hale dads had just piloted their own planes back from a last-minute dip into Montana, vote-gathering; the moms were ski queens and former models. I found I was dressed the same as the help, in a crisp white shirt and last year’s blue jeans.

A family-friendly evening like a Ralph Lauren ad. Kids running a little wild, light patriotic, a soul food indoor picnic with macaroni salad and collard greens. Chicken and ribs. Guileless watermelon, or so I assumed. There was a TV the size of the side of a truck that made state after state going for Obama seem effortless, a forgone conclusion. Everyone knew their candidate was a winner—everyone was a winner.

Even while I was at the party, moving my mouth around, nipping into the bathroom, checking on the kids, who, even when they were finally sequestered with a bevy of babysitters, had minor issues and disputes, I was thinking that if I wrote up—or wrote it down (what exactly was the difference?)—this evening—what would it be about? We were interesting, but were we interested?

One theory is that people were more interesting before the Internet. Now we all know the same stories. Where we were once merchants and servants (we were many other things too; this is not an aphorism) we are now branders and consumers. When I go through the loose papers on my desk I’m in a mood that briskly denies mythology. It’s depressing if I can’t get rid of the detritus, but there’s always this tension that has to do with the beauty of certain papers versus the serenity of a clean surface.

I come across a traffic summons from the State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations. I have been cited and fined for running a red light on North Main Street and Branch Avenue, and there are three well-reproduced color Xeroxes of the butt end of my car to prove it.

In the first photo, the old Rav 4, the mom-mobile, the spirit animal, is poised beneath a red light at the head of the line in the left-turn lane. The trees are bare, the shadows across the street in high resolution, and there’s a truck in the right lane carrying bright blue and green port-a-potties with giant belts around their middles.

In the second photo my hips—my car’s familiar profile—have made the complete turn through intersection, on red, and the final shot is a close-up of the numbers on my license plate.

Did I really do that? Is the citation a record from the dream world?  

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