Raising children, I can imagine, is always a task. But being a child is no better (or worse). Clarence Darrow’s penetrating (and obfuscating) quote wraps it up nicely: “The first half of our lives is ruined by our parents, and the second half by our children.” Of course if that were entirely true, it begs the question. Still on we go for the good of humanity. This week’s story by Layla Benitez-James does what all good fiction does: penetrate (and obfuscate) for there is nothing truly black and white in this world. And stuck right in the middle are parents.
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Gondoliers in Vegas by Layla Benitez-James
We, believing only in the trickle-down theory of dancing, pour all our movement into our shoulders. If the main motion goes there first, everything essential rolls down to areas of the body which need the motion most.
From her highchair, our daughter howls. We smile and keep dancing. We are trying to show her what fun can be had when one finishes one’s good food. My spouse and I, we’re both Clean Plate Rangers so we can dance, if we want to.
Only peas are left, timeless peas. We feel like giving in, remembering when we were prisoners of the table, now we are wardens.
“Please, our lovely daughter, eat your peas,” we say.
She says we don’t own her; she is not “ours.” She says she is a son, or neither, gender is a social construct. She seethes, screams the last two words over and over. It’s been a week since she learned to be aware and un-beholden to such social constructs.
“Atta boy!” tries my spouse, “but boy or neither you still have to eat some peas.”
“Peas are social constructs!” she cries. My heart aches for her faith in our rhetoric.
“We all must eat our social constructs sometimes,” I say.
Her grandmother has hung her head so many different times and said,
“That’s not how I raised you to raise her, dearest child.”
I want to say, you were new once and there were those before you who saw you hurtling towards something too new for what you could bring into the world.
“If they’re talking, they’re talking back,” she said past perfectly painted lips. “Just listen to you now.” She gave me Miss Manners’ Guide to Rearing Perfect Children, which I never saw her crack, but was always on the bookshelf and heavy enough to threaten with.
I remember trying to twist her meanings when I was young. Spare the rod, spoil the child! It was a command, not a warning. I chose friends who called their parents by first names.
Now we’ve made our child furious. We did not mean to, but we did.
We navigate these waters like the gondoliers we once saw at The Venetian in Las Vegas. Looking down off a bridge, we thought of how enormously sad it must be, being those gondoliers. How tragic to row on a little constructed canal, in a huge manmade citymall, under the always blue sky and clouds at dusk. Imagine, trying to please whatever old women step into the boat by pretending everything’s real. Even the shadows were painted on.
It was lifetimes before we thought of wanting kids. We kept our hands in each others’ back pockets and frowned at parents with leashed children. We kissed and basked in the knowledge that we were the only thing real in that place.
Our daughter looks at her plate, our dancing grows wilder. 99% shoulders! We know if either one of us were Atlas, the whole world would be shaken apart.
Lyle Rosdahl, a writer living in San Antonio, edits the flash fiction blog & best of in print for the Current. He created, facilitates and participates in Postcard Fiction Collaborative, a monthly flash fiction response to a photo. You can see more of his work, including photos, paintings and writing, at lylerosdahl.com.
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