It is Saturday morning at 7:15am and I’m eating breakfast with my daughter Alice. She is six and half years old. We are eating French toast that I made from scratch. On the table is fresh squeezed orange juice, real maple syrup and a bowl of blueberries. I’m a newly divorced father. I’m proud of myself.
We are discussing what we are going to do that day — farmers market, a play date with a friend in the park, lunch at our favorite diner, and then maybe a movie.
She holds up a small white square of cardboard. She unfolds it.
“It’s a tattoo!” she declares.
“That’s good. Where did you get it?”
“At Lily’s birthday party.”
She coquettishly lifts her shirt and positions it in the middle of her naked chest.
“Should I put it here?”
“That would be fine.”
I’m struggling. The tattoo is of an ornate gold Gothic cross festooned with curling snakes. At the center of the cross is a large black heart. The heart is also festooned with writhing snakes.
Should I take it away? Tell her I’m calling Lily’s parents? Lecture her on the danger of birthday parties? Or do I let her tattoo herself and thereby encourage her first steps towards what will inevitably lead to nipple piercing in her teenage years (“But Dad you let me wear that Goth tattoo when I was six.”).
How do I overwhelm a threatening object? I reach for my best weapon.
“I want to tell you a story about my friend Mark,” I say.
Alice eyes me suspiciously.
“One day he was feeling sad because of a girl. He decided get a tattoo.”
There is a flicker of interest.
“So he asked me to help him. Together we found a store underneath a railway bridge. It was raining. Inside the store was a man with a needle. The store was dirty and dark and the man was short and he walked with a limp. He asked Mark what kind of tattoo he wanted. Mark said he wanted a Native American symbol called the Medicine Wheel. He drew a picture for the man and colored it in and handed the picture to him. The man told Mark to lie down in an old dentist’s chair. Then the man then took the needle and burned the shape into Mark’s skin.”
“Did it hurt?.”
“Oh yes. It was bleeding.”
“And what did Mark do?”
“He passed out.”
“What do you mean, ‘passed out.’ ”
“Did he wake up?”
“Yes, he woke up after the man gave him some water with sugar in it. The glass had dead flies in it.”
“And then what happened?”
“The man wrapped his arm up in a bandage.”
“And then Mark and I went to a bar and then we went home.”
“What happened next?”
“A few days later Mark unwrapped the bandage. It had scabs on it but Mark thought it looked really cool.”
“What happened next?”
“He was playing sports and another friend looked at his arm and said ‘why do you have a pie chart on your arm?’”
“What is a pie chart?”
“It’s a math thing.”
What happened next?
“Mark was embarrassed.”
“And then what?”
“A few months later Mark got a new girlfriend. He wasn’t sad anymore. But there was a problem.”
“What was that?”
“His girlfriend hated the pie chart.”
“What happened next?
“Mark wore long sleeves.”
“Did the he take the tattoo off?”
“No. That’s the problem with tattoos. They don’t come off. They last forever and ever.”
Like most kids, I hated brushing my teeth. It seems to be a universal rule. I think it has to do with the act itself which is repetitive, stupid and boring. All you do for thirty seconds is look at your grimacing face in the mirror and watch all this white stuff come bubbling out. And, of course, you are told that brushing your teeth is supposed to be good for you — which is obviously the wrong thing to say to a kid. I think it also has to do with the intention behind the act, which it is preventative and future-orientated as in “if you don’t brush your teeth you’re going to get cavities.”
For me, it was the “you’re going to get cavities” that caused instant resistance, at least for me. What did I care about “going to get”? I was a kid; I lived in the present. I was thinking about my homework, about Renee Rasmussen’s bra, about the Six Million Dollar Man.
At bedtime, my sister, who is two and half years younger than I am, always got to use the bathroom first. At twelve years old she took ages: hair brushing, face cleaning, flossing, and god only knows what else (I didn’t want to think about it.)
I would patiently wait my turn in my room. Because I was attuned to the rhythm of the sounds of the bathroom (the water pipes were in the wall adjoining my room), I could accurately anticipate when she would emerge. For the first five to eight minutes of her time I tried not listen. But then came the final backstretch order: double faucet burst followed by a three-minute silence (she was probably daubing around her face with one of those round cotton things). Sound of gurgling drain. Second faucet burst signaling that she was refilling the sink. Thirty second wash with mild exfoliating soap.
Two minute silence as night cream was applied. Three full minutes of final mirror consultation. And then I was good to go.
On this particular evening I was restless and wanted to get in and out of the bathroom as fast as possible. I wanted to get back to the book I was reading. After my sister emerged I darted in and locked the door. I was timing myself, trying to break my own 82 second record. At 63 seconds I was falling behind so I decided to skip the brushing of the teeth.
I unlocked the door and zipped back to my room. I hopped into bed. I slipped under the covers, positioned my pillow, angled my body in just the right way and started reading.
My father would usually poke his head through the door about half an hour later when it was time to say goodnight.
“Brush your teeth?”
My father closed the door. I noticed a slight hesitation. About thirty seconds later he opened it again.
“Anything you want to tell me?”
“Brush your teeth?”
My father was a kind and gentle man. By no stretch was he authoritarian. Which, intentionally or not, had the powerful effect that when he did speak with authority it signaled that something was definitely up.
“I’ll ask you one more time. Did you brush your teeth?”
I paused. I put my book down.
This was a serious dilemma. I could admit to my lie and thereby reveal that I was capable of duplicity. Or I could stick to my guns. Since I was enthralled by the concepts of honor and bravery I chose to stick to my lie.
“Yeah. I brushed my teeth.”
My father didn’t say anything. He signaled that I should get out of bed. I threw back the covers and rose with what I hoped was a swagger. I followed my father into the bathroom. My resolve was starting to crack. My father picked up the toothbrush. He held it out to me. He fanned the bone-dry bristles.
“Now brush your teeth,” he said.
My father kept his pipe in a tall wooden cabinet with beveled glass doors. The cabinet resembled a Victorian display case except that instead of stuffed animals it held treasured books and objects. Inside were the complete works of Joseph Conrad; two Meissen tankards; the catalogue from the Museum of Modern Art’s 1957 Picasso exhibition; a pre-Columbian ceramic bowl with a disturbing face on it; a book (I don’t remember the title) that contained May Ray’s “Rayographs” including one of a spinning top; a magnifying glass and a small nail; a third porcelain tankard (there was a pattern here) of a skull that looked so real, including yellowed teeth and empty eye sockets, that I convinced my best friend that it was the skull of my deceased Uncle George and that my family drank wine from it once a year at Passover.
There was also a Modern Library edition of the complete writings of Thucydides. Inside was a clipping torn from a newspaper or magazine. It was a passage from Show Me The Way by Leslie Waller. It read:
The word seemed to swell inside her, grow huge and overwhelming as it fought to the surface. It pressed against her tongue, driving ahead with a terrible force. It was almost, nearly ready, growing, looming up and welling larger, almost ready, almost uttered, almost told and almost spoken, growing till it filled her with a reckless, fierce and savage sudden…. “Ah” she said.
As a teenager, in the late afternoon when no one else was around, I would open the doors to the cabinet and inhale the sweet musky smell of tobacco that wafted out from the pipe. It was the smell of looming adulthood, the smell of art, sex and words.
This is what my father gave me.