The City seems impersonal more often than not, particularly when I compare it to the intimacy of the household I grew up in. Over the holiday, in the ebb of the din, I found myself with some spare moments during which to reflect on the way things were: three generations packed into a caravan, surviving the summer’s heat in our threadbare underclothes, ripe as an open can of meat.
I was closest to my grandparents. They were truly two of the most gentle people I’ve ever known, with voices like doves and never too busy to pet me on the head for an hour or two each day after school. By the time I was old enough to pee without crying they’d already gone soft in the head, and usually just sat there mewling like helpless kittens. They remained affectionate though, and would hug me close, my face pressed up against their stained plastic bibs. My grandmother used to suck my hand unconsciously, which I thought was cute. And then at night they would coo, the both of them. To this day I think of my grandparents when I hear the pigeons on the stoop outside my apartment. Still though, doves are classier than pigeons. Pigeons remind me of what I didn’t like about our blue-class hovel. Doves are the socialites. And if all this is so, then my parents were a couple of crows, fighting all the time, and never with a kind word toward me or to each other.
My parents used to talk about me as if I weren’t there. Which was fine with me, as I spent most of my time fantasizing that I was an orphan – albeit one with grandparents. I was sickly and had every kind of allergy you could think of. I felt much more akin to the mindless geriatrics blinking their cloudy eyes on the piss-stained sofa than I did to the shrieking couple who spawned me. So who was trespassing, really? But for all her incessant screeching, it was mom who kept us together. At least she tried. Pop wouldn’t have had anything to do with me if mom hadn’t told him to. Anything to get us out of her hair. And the best thing he could come up with – this is what I remember most vividly – was to measure me against the wall.
I was young then – still in the single digits – but old enough to know from humiliation. Because I was an oddity back then, and I knew that this little ritual of pop’s, it didn’t come from anything so lofty as an appreciation of biological progression, nor anything as basic as pride in his son’s struggle toward the blight of adulthood. No, the only reason my pop wanted to measure me was because I didn’t grow normally. That is, I didn’t always get taller. I was taller some years, I mean, but other years I was a little shorter – sometimes by nearly a foot. That’s just the way it was for me. And as humiliating as the whole drawn-out experience was, it’s not like I could have refused to participate. It just wasn’t the way of things. There was a hierarchy, ingrained into me from the time I knew anything.
Those marks on the wall – each one dated – looked like a chaotic jumble of lines. And just let me be shorter by six or more inches too, I’ll tell you what. My pop would take that kind of behavior as a personal affront. “See now,” he would say. That was his way of warming up. It was the conversational equivalent of cracking your knuckles before you roll the bones. “Everyone has to do their part, and what kinda respect do you have for it? Hah?” His questions didn’t make a lick of sense to me then, but his tirades were best suffered in silence anyway. His bark was bigger than his bite, and by the end of the night even his bite would be gone.
When my grandparents died – they both went on the same day – I was quite young yet, and I recall pop pulling me onto his knee. I thought of Santa, whom I’d never been able to actually approach on account of my allergy to fake beards. Pop seemed excited though, and I was hoping that he would tell me that my grandparents weren’t really dead. My hunch, in fact, was that they had hidden themselves, and I was supposed to find them. Was that the game? Maybe pop was excited because he’d finally figured out something to do with me other than to draw lines over my head. I was close to right on that count.
“Life is a mystery,” he said to me, and I was enraptured immediately. Not because I understood what the hell he was saying, but because he wasn’t grumbling or yelling. He seemed positively inspired. “Mamsy and Papsy, they’re gone now. Like, as in dead-gone,” he went on, and my happiness flagged. “But, see, in one way they’re not gone, because when people die, son, they don’t just disappear.” I remember looking up at him – I was very, very short that year – and he nodded at me and winked. “When people die, they get tiny. Really tiny. So tiny that you could hardly even tell they was there in front of you.” And now my spirit sank. In fact I was horrified without exactly knowing why. “Like dust particles,” my pop was telling me, “floating in the air. They could be anywhere.”
And then my pop got up, shoving me off his knee, and grabbed a beer from the ice bucket.
For the next two years, as bad as my allergies got, I didn’t sneeze once. I kept my sandpaper sinuses to myself for fear of inhaling my dead dust grandparents.
And I sit here now in better health, and with a clearer understanding of things, and it occurs to me that the people who do the most talking are the ones with the least to offer. And even though I know that deep, deep down, I still catch myself, on occasion, holding my breath when someone walks by.