Here’s the Bad News, Son

shiner photo by Martin Thomas

Steve Almond’s reflections on having a baby boy, after a lifetime of trying to deal with aggression.

—-

I’m in the library of a small college in Salt Lake City when my cell phone rings. It’s my wife calling from our home in Boston. She’s just visited her ob-gyn. We’ve been waiting for the results of various prenatal tests. I walk to the bathroom, lock the door, and flip the phone open.

My wife sounds happy, a little out of breath. “Everything went great. No problems.” She pauses. “They did another ultrasound.”

By this she means, I know the gender of the child. This is a touchy subject, because both of us have been forthright about our desire for female offspring. When my wife told me, two years ago, that our first child was a daughter, I flushed with joy.

“Do you want to know?” my wife asks.

She’s in such a buoyant mood. We must be having another girl.

“Sure,” I say.

“It’s a boy,” she says.

I close my eyes. My forehead thuds softly against the mirror over the sink. It’s my job now to say something, rather quickly, about how great this is, how excited I am to be having a son, a bouncing baby boy, an heir to carry on our silly family name. But when I open my eyes, the light inside the bathroom is a sickly yellow and my chest is hammering with panic.

♦♦♦

I’m maybe five years old. This is in the house on Frenchman’s Hill, where I grew up. Our cat, Macacheese, has just given birth to a litter of kittens in the backyard. But the kittens came out dead, stillborn in their amniotic shellac. We’re not allowed to see them.

The event has me torn up, so I’m inside, sort of curled on my bed.

My older brother Dave appears in the doorway. “Remember when you dropped Macacheese on her head?” he says.

I shake my head.

“That’s when the kittens died,” he says. “You killed them.”

♦♦♦

Dave and I are fighting in the TV room. It’s a boy fight: hurled fists and grunting. Our dad is seated on the piano bench, watching this awkward spectacle. He believes we need to “get our aggression out,” and that there’s no other way to do it. He’s even sort of rooting me on, because Dave is bigger and I need to stand up for myself.

Dave grabs my hair and pulls down until I’m jackknifed at the waist, my head trapped below his chest. “Calm down,” he says. “I’m not going to let you up until you quit spazzing out.”

“You fucking pulled my hair!”

I’m appealing, I guess, to our dad. But he’s no longer in the room.

I finally agree to calm down.

The moment Dave lets me up, I swing for his jaw and land a glancing blow. Later, after we’ve retreated to our rooms, our father comes to check on me. I’m lying on the blue rug, crying. He tells me Dave has a broken hand, from when he hit the coffee table. He’d been aiming for my skull.

♦♦♦

I fight with my twin brother, Mike, too, until he hits a growth spurt and becomes too big to tangle with. Our final fight is especially vicious. We grapple and punch and tumble across the bed. We can smell each other—our skin, our breath. The intimacy is disorienting. Not so long ago, the two of us walked to school pressed together at the shoulder. But the prohibitions of boyhood have torn us apart. These days, the only time we touch is when we fight.

Having pummeled each other to exhaustion, we stand face to face. Our chests heave with adrenaline. We’re confused, not sure how to bring this to a close. My hand flies up and slaps Mike across the face. It’s a loud, clean blow, delivered so quickly neither of us can quite believe it. Mike bursts into tears and runs from the room. I stand, staring down at my hand. My palm stings, but the rest of me feels nothing.

♦♦♦

Around this time, I become convinced that Peter Guerrero wants to kick my ass. I have no idea how this notion has taken root, but I spend every lunch period obsessing over it. Peter is a pudgy kid with a rash that makes the skin on his arms red and flaky. I am constantly thinking about where he is, where I can and cannot walk, what to say if he approaches me.

This is how I understand masculinity to operate: Either you are a bully or you are bullied. You find a weaker boy to absorb your humiliation, or you are that boy.

A few years later, the bully is a kid named Sean Linden, who organizes a posse of his friends to antagonize me. For months, they call me names and issue threats. Linden never gives any indication of why he has targeted me, and I never ask. All we know is that because I’m too frightened to fight back, I’ve consented to this arrangement.

The only arena in which I enjoy some measure of physical pride is the soccer field, where I’m small but quick, a star. One year, I lead my team all the way to the city championship game. I score a goal early and assist on a second, which puts us up 2–0 at halftime. Then a teammate tells me that the toughest kid on the other team is going to beat me up after the game. I spend the second half in a silent panic. We lose the game 3–2. I’m convinced my cowardice is to blame.

♦♦♦

It’s 1981, and Sugar Ray Leonard is fighting Tommy Hearns. It’s one of the first fights on pay-per-view, and my father has agreed to buy the telecast. We’ve moved the TV into the living room because a bunch of friends have come over. There are maybe a dozen of us, men and boys flung across sofas and chairs.

We’re all Sugar Ray fans—except for this one kid, Jeff, who worships Hearns. Nobody really knows Jeff. He heard from someone that we bought the fight and begged to come over. In the tenth round, Hearns lands a flurry, and Jeff, who’s sitting next to me, throws punches right along with him, wild uppercuts and hooks. I stare at him in disgust. It’s such a sloppy display of bloodlust, I think. But a few rounds later, when Sugar Ray is knocking Hearns senseless along the ropes—trying to do serious damage to the man’s brain—the rest of us rise from our seats and start throwing our own vicarious haymakers.

♦♦♦

I’ve been at the park, walking our hyperactive Labrador retriever. Dave, my older brother, is a senior in high school now. Mike and I are sophomores. As I approach our house, I can see our mother through the full-length window next to the front door. Her expression is grave, her complexion heading toward ashen. Mike appears behind her. He shoulders past her and out the door. He has the smaller of the serious kitchen knives in his hand.

Mike pounds on the door to the garage. “I’ll kill you!” he screams. “I’ll fucking kill you!” He’s holding the knife as though he’s the villain in a slasher film.

“You’re crazy,” Dave says, from inside the garage. “Calm down, crazy boy!”

This fight began at the dinner table. Mike claimed his right to take over Dave’s room after Dave leaves for college. Dave objected. Insults were exchanged. Mike kicked at Dave under the table. Dave picked up a fork and stabbed Mike in the thigh. Mike substantiates this last act by showing me—with great ceremony—four puncture wounds, one for each tine.

♦♦♦

I work hard in college to convince the world I’ve outgrown savagery. I quit the soccer team. I rally for nuclear disarmament. I adopt the prevailing feminist spellings (“women” becomes “womyn”). But when my girlfriend makes an offhand joke questioning my manhood, I punch a hole in her bedroom wall. continued on page 2


Continued on page 2

Photo credit Martin Thomas / flickr

Pages: 1 2

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About Steve Almond

Steve Almond is the author the story collections My Life in Heavy Metal and The Evil B.B. Chow, the novel Which Brings Me to You (with Julianna Baggott), and the non-fiction books Candyfreak and (Not That You Asked). His most recent book, Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life, came out in Spring 2010. He is also, crazily, self-publishing books. This Won’t Take But a Minute, Honey, is composed of 30 very brief stories, and 30 very brief essays on the psychology and practice of writing. Letters from People Who Hate Me is just plum crazy. Both are available at readings. In 2011, Lookout Press will publish his story collection, God Bless America.

Comments

  1. Are you kidding me? You’re worried about bullying and your son? Girls are WAY more apt to bully each other than boys. And they’re meaner too. Phoebe Prince anyone??

    I hoped and hoped and hoped for a boy and I was rewarded. I don’t have a daughter (I have one on the way but we don’t know the gender) and I hope I never do. Body image problems, ultra-mean bullying and other female issues are not something I look forward to at all.

    • “Sean Mulveyhill, Austin Renaud, Kayla Narey, Ashley Longe, Sharon Chanon Velazquez and Flannery Mullins are all charged in connection with Phoebe Prince’s death.”

      Those aren’t all girls.

      Also, pretty sure boys can have body image issues–steroids?

      I don’t think it is a contest about who is meaner, I think that bullying and violence in all forms need to be addressed.

      • Girls and bullying is certainly a mounting problem. But It’s not strictly just a female issue. Recently in my own state of NJ, a gay male college student Tyler Clementi commented suicide because of another student, his roommate’s, bullying. If you are worried about situations like Phoebe Prince and your children, then you should also be worried about these kind of situations as well. “Meanness” happens on both sides.

        I also think there is an issue with parents not teaching their children to deal with the fact that not everyone is going to like them and that’s okay, in combination with teaching their children what they say to others matters. It’s these dual life skills that seem to be missing from situations like Phoebe Prince and Tyler Clementi, both from the people who bully and the people being bullied.

  2. Wow, this has certainly given me a new perspective. Steve, you already got a leg up on your own Dad. You recognize the perversity in ideals about what masculinity means, even if you still feel that thrill from out right violence. And because of that, your son is guaranteed a different childhood then you were. You’re Dad was just doing what he thought was best as a father. And you have enough foresight to see how that affected you. And that’s the key here.

  3. Hey Steve, don’t worry so much. If you’re a good dad your son and daughter will turn out fine. Give them a good sense of self and good values and they will get through life just as you have. I was a small, studious kid and I got picked on growing up. I got my ass kicked, kicked a few and lived in terror of some of the big, tough guys. When all was said and done I ended up in a better place with a better life than the punks who pushed me around.
    I have two daughters, 17/22 and a son 20. The seventeen year old got bullied by a boy in middle school and after meeting the parents of this shit I saw why. The school helped a bit but mostly when her older brother had a “talk” with him he stopped.
    This summer a family friend accosted my daughter one night after she had a few drinks. She finally told me and later that day I almost strangled him and put him through a wall. So, no , the savagery never goes away. I hadn’t hit anyone in 35 years and avoid fights whenever possible.
    For the most part this world is a wonderful place populated by decent people. You seem like a decent guy and will do a great job parenting both your kids. We can’t change the world but we can give our kids the tools with which to navigate it. good luck and enjoy!

  4. Victoria Jones says:

    To put it just as starkly: Aggression is the means by which girls learn to control their feelings. Not even the most loving father can protect his daughter from the playgrounds, the bars and parking lots where bullies lurk, where soft emotions are hunted down and targeted, where fear becomes rage, and rage becomes violence and violence becomes rape.

  5. This is excellent stuff, Steve. Excellent writing.

    You certainly have more self-control than I. If someone gets out of their car in the middle of traffic, I’m already on my feet and anxious to meet them.

    It is good to dispel mush. I’m sure your son will turn out just fine.

    Best of luck with fatherhood.

  6. I don't know says:

    Ah, there’s that famed male empathy I keep hearing about. Good thing he didn’t reveal his problems to a mean ol’ woman who’d just take advantage of his vulnerability.

  7. wellokaythen says:

    A simple gender flip reveals quite a bit here:

    Imagine how a woman would feel if you wrote a piece saying how disappointed you were that you had a daughter instead of another son. Justified righteous indignation would be the order of the day. That’s how many men would feel upon reading this piece.

    If it doesn’t pass the “what’s good for the goose is good for the gander” test, then there’s something wrong with it.

    • And “justified righteous indignation” would prevent us from seeing what the author is really saying, which is to examine the problems with what masculinity means to him and why he is afraid of failing his son.

      If we really want to be able to discuss this sort of thing openly, we need to allow space for people to share their honest feelings, even if we may not like or agree with what they have to say. Trying to police what people can and can’t express is harmful, and prevents people from being honest with their stories.

      After all, isn’t part of why this site is here so we can share each others stories?

  8. Both genders may have a hard life ahead of them, it’s just different issues that come up. Girls bully differently than boys but it’s still destructive. Girls have body image issues but so do boys. And both have societal pressures and expectations. Parenting is rough

  9. courage the cowardly dog says:

    I can’t take all this self-loathing. Perhaps you have heard of Mahat Ma Ghandi or Martin Luther King or Jesus Christ or St. Augustine or Sir Thomas More. All men of peace. They died seeking peace. Perhaps you have heard of Phoebe Prince, the 15 year old girl in South Hadley, Massachusetts who was relentless and mercilessly bullied by 6 female classmates to the point that she hung herself. Or maybe you have heard of The “Angel of Death, Beverley Gail Allit, is one of Britain’s most well known serial killers. Working as a pediatric nurse, she is responsible for the murder of 4 children and the serious injury of 5 others in her care. When available, insulin or potassium injections were used to precipitate cardiac arrest; smothering sufficed when they were not. Although convicted with death or injury in nine cases, Allit attacked thirteen children over a fifty-eight day period before being caught red-handed. Allit has never spoken of the motive for her crimes. Don’t transfer your urge for violence or bloodlust to all men. Hell, just may be your son will grow up to be the next Ghandi. For his sake I hope he never sees this article, God forbide that he see how unwanted he is. Rejoice in your son and teach him the ways of peace.

  10. Thanks. I’ve never read anything that addresses this idea before. It hadnt occurred to me that others might think about things in this way too. Just thanks.

  11. Hi Steve,

    any chance we can have a talk about it, like on skype or via email? I`m EXACTLY in the same situation at the moment, and I can`t believe they why you could articulate MY feelings in such a clear way.

    thanks

    gimbo

  12. Their are very few people who wold only want a girl child and no boys as women don’t give their life for Husband, friends or any one else but they are also not bothered about their parents as I have never seen a female taking care of her parents in their old age even though there are umpteen examples of boys voluntarily living far humble life just because all their income goes towards maintaining their parents, this is never recognized by anyone and people live in myth that girls love there parents more than the boys whereas the fact is they just pay lip service and back out when time comes to actually part with something for parents – http://www.lifenstory.com/frmViewStory.aspx?C1=196

  13. Great, great piece, Steve.

    You are so very right. BEING a loving father/man is easier said than done.
    Nobody is perfect and we have never asked to be the way we are. We just deal with it in the best way we can and we can’t do more than acknowledge our mistakes and learn from them so as to avoid making the same mistake again.

    I admire you for your openness and your honesty. The weak can never be honest. Honesty is the attribute of the strong. So, reading your piece I would say you are one of the strongest men on earth. And who wouldn’t want to have such a man as his father?

    Thanks for sharing,
    Michael

  14. Steve, you have nothing to worry about, raise your children to the best of your ability and all of the things you are anxious about will be experienced but learned as lessons that will benefit them in the long run because they have a good background and support

  15. There are more than a few good men, and there is no reason to believe that your son will not be among them.

  16. Tara Aders says:

    As usual, Steve, you’ve written about something deeply important from a place of honesty, self reflection, and true wisdom. Thank you.

Trackbacks

  1. [...] was a contributor to the Good Men Project: Real Stories From the Front Lines of Modern Manhood (excerpted here), and has a new book: Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life. On July 8, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, [...]

  2. [...] 3) The stories will surprise you. Do you really know what it’s like to be a photojournalist in Iraq, one who thinks he might want to come back to the US, live a normal life, but finds himself inexplicitly drawn back to the foxholes again and again? Have you struggled with being a reluctant stay at home dad, envious of men who go off to work? Have you had a moment with your wife when you stormed out of the house, and in retrospect said, “Truth be told, I was leaving her.” The stories are varied, and rich, and interesting. For example, read an excerpt from Jesse Kornbluth’s story “Sex and Drugs made me a Man” here. Or from “Here’s the Bad News, Son” by Steve Almond, here. [...]

  3. [...] brawling with his brothers, and his apprehension about having a son. Read his essay on that subject here, and watch a video of Steve dissecting Toto’s “Africa” here. Did he wear make-up [...]

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