Saturday, November 19, 2005

Many Several Thousand Words

I have this whole series of pictures from the year I was four. They map out the story of the big stuff that happened in my life around that time. Not that there weren’t pictures from earlier times or pictures from later times. We’re a modern family. There have always been way, way too many pictures.

But that seems to be a time when my dad went kind of shutter happy, in part because he was secretly freaking out about my mother leaving her domestic life and going back onstage. I don’t know why he ever thought she'd be satisfied sticking around the homefront and playing happy homemaker. From what I can tell, no one else ever really bought it, even Mom. It just wasn’t in her nature. It’s like if I tried to be a diplomat or something. It’s not like I wouldn’t know how to begin, but it’s just not how I’m wired. International incidents would ensue.

Of all these pictures, my very favorite one is from our Easter party. Dad got Mom to help him plan it, and they went all out: a full lawn party with tents and ribbons and balloons. I don’t even know where all the kids they invited came from. Most of their faces are unfamiliar to me now. But there in the middle of the proceedings is me, hoarding a basket of toys and candy about three times bigger than I was.

But that’s not even the best part. The best part was our Easter bunny.

Mom had hired one of the actors from her show to come out for the day and mingle with the kids while dressed in a fuzzy bunny costume. He didn’t just run in and get us all excited, the way people in funny animal costumes usually do. It was an immersive experience. He hung out and played with us and told stories. He even helped us hunt for the harder-to-find eggs, because excited little kids have absolutely no attention span. I remember us finding brightly colored, rotting eggs in the yard all summer.

Since the bunny was there most of the day, just like the other adults he had access to the open bar on the patio. Most actors I've known can't turn down good alcohol. I think they’re afraid they’ll never be able to afford it themselves. The Easter bunny was no different, and he got pretty tipsy. Plus, it was an unusually warm spring that year, and those big fuzzy costumes get really, really hot. Sometime around two o’clock, it finally all got too much for him. The bunny fell over and passed out.

That would have been freakish enough for most kids, seeing the Easter bunny collapse. You can see just how much so on the faces of the kids who were in the immediate area when he went over, because Dad kept snapping pictures of the whole thing. This series contains one of my very favorite pictures ever: Seconds after the actor inside the rabbit costume collapsed, the huge, fuzzy animal head popped off and and rolled down the gentle slope of the lawn. Its oversized eyes stared in wonder, its toothy smile remained fixed. It was amazing and surreal. And how often do you get those kinds of pure moments? Okay, maybe when you're four you get them all the time, but this one was still special. Plus I have the pictures.

There are a few things that year's pictures don’t show, however. Those are probably as important—or more important—than what they do show. The main thing they don’t show is much of my mom. She’s there occasionally. For the Easter party, for some other big holiday events. But she’s a guest star, not part of the regular cast. I’m in there, the star. And Dad, his assistant, family friends, the household staff. When you look over the whole collection of shots, it's clear that Mom appears less often than, say, our cook.

Mom had taken a new role in a small musical. She'd been away from the stage for a couple of years, and she'd started showing signs of depression. So a new project seemed like it would be a good distraction. But the thing really took off, and she ended up being away from home more than expected. The commute got to be a problem, and more and more often she ended up staying at her old apartement in the city. The show’s run kept getting extended. “Just a couple of months” became “just another month or so” until a whole year had gone by Mom became a stranger in the house.

I’m sure this was all very good for Mom. She was born to the stage, I've been told. I’m not going to contradict public opinion by suggesting otherwise. But I was a four-year-old who only knew that whatever was going on in the city was a lot more interesting to my mother than I was. I don’t remember feeling that way, but I have some evidence that's what was going on. Some people have memories of their feelings at that age. I have pictures and stories.

Besides the remarkable absence of my mother in the hundreds of photos chronicling that year, what also stands out are the stories about my animal hallucinations. In hindsight, it seems obvious that I was so young that I wasn't able to distinguish between what was real and what wasn’t. But I know from what little I do recall that I wasn't making things up. I might have a vivid imagination, but I've never been one not to take credit for it. So even though I know for sure that these things couldn’t have happened, they still seem pretty real to me.

First there was the time that I was playing out on our lawn. We had these huge patches of tiny white flowers that kept popping up all over the lawn during that spring. I liked playing in them, but they attracted a lot of bees. One afternoon when some of my friends were over playing, someone got the idea of capturing some bees so we could make a bee village. We’d stomp bees when they landed on the flowers, and then someone would scoop them up with a cup and take them to some trenches we'd dug out in the sandbox. The injured bees would crawl around the trenches, providing our village with citizens. Kids are so cruel.

Eventually I stomped a bee when no one was around to help me. When I looked down to where my white canvas tennis shoe was flattening the grass and flowers, all of a sudden I saw the bee reach around the edges of my rubber sole and pull himself out! The bee didn't wriggle its way out from under my shoe the way you might imagine. I saw these two cartoon-like black arms, all muscley, reach out from under the shoe. The bee pulled himself free, and then he flew right at me, superhero-style, and stung me on the cheek. When I told the adults about it, but they thought I was just upset. I could hear them laughing when they told the story later.

A month later we were staying at the family beach house. I’m pretty sure Mom was supposed to come stay out there with us, but the pictures don’t lie. She wasn’t there. And it’s not like Dad ever forgot to point the camera at her. Next to me, she was his favorite subject, but the the photos of those weeks at the beach show only a smiling little girl, her doting father, and a few friends swimming, building sand castles, and clustering around bonfires.

One afternoon I was playing in the upstairs playroom. All the windows in the house were open to catch the ocean breeze, and a lot of flies had been getting in. Dad had repeatedly warned me to be careful of the horseflies, because they might bite. I'd been keeping an eye on every fly that came my way, watching for the dreaded horsefly. Then I saw a particularly large fly land on the window sill, and I knew I'd finally seen it. It had a fat, shiny fly's body, six thin hairy legs, and transparent wings, but its huge compound eyes were poking out of a narrow horse's face on a long neck. It wouldn't have seemed any weirder if it whinnied. I ran downstairs as fast as I could to tell Dad. I’ve ever really completely forgiven him for laughing so hard.

Everyone thought these were isolated incidents, and they made for good stories. But then I had two more hallucinations a few months later as my mom's absence from home went on and on. One night, I woke up suddenly and had the feeling that something was in the room with me. It was very dark, and I couldn't see much, but I was convinced that a bear had gotten into my bedroom. Its huge, broad shape shifted uneasily in the corner near the door. It sniffed the air, trying to get the scent of my fear. If it sensed my moving, it would kill me. But if I didn't escape, it would also kill me. I spent what felt like hours slowly inching my way off the bed, breathing shallowly and shaking as I made my way out the window and onto the balcony. I was out there for at least an hour before Dad found me shivering outside in the cold.

At that point Dad began to see a pattern. The bear thing came up shortly after my parents had had a big argument, and he knew I’d witnessed some of that. He made an appointment with a child psychologist and told my mom that he thought she'd been away for long enough. I don't know how she felt about the whole thing, but she showed up at the house that weekend. There's no way she could have been there if she hadn't turned her role over to someone else, so I guess she was convinced my problems were pretty serious.

Both my parents wanted to be there to take me to the doctor. We spent a couple of days together while we waited for my appointment, but despite how normal they wanted to make things, that's not how it seemed. Mom was back, but mostly out of guilt. And Dad was as happy as always to have her around, but he could always sense her desire to get away and resented it. We had some marathon icy silences around the house in those days, and those don't get filled in just because the cartoons on TV are turned up too loud.

The day before my appointment, I was watching afternoon kid's shows. The local station added a lot of between-show filler, kind of a Kid’s Show Helper, including a fake news report about an escape at the local zoo. Animals were everywhere, they said, and they instructed kids to be on the lookout for wild animals outside their windows for the rest of the day. It kept me at the window on animal watch all afternoon. Every once in a while they’d interrupt the shows with updates about the capture of some of the animals. But there was a lone kangaroo who had bounced so far away, they said, that they might not ever catch him.

I was completely convinced about the rogue kangaroo. They showed maps on TV of where he had been spotted, and even though there’s no way I would have been able to read a map, I was sure he was heading my way. Every minute or so I’d go over to the third-story window of the playroom to see. I was sure I’d be the one to catch him. I just had to keep looking.

Then while I was staring out the window into the distance, all of a sudden there he was! Not some little figure in the distance. No, instantly I found myself staring straight into the kangaroo’s eyes. He'd leapt straight up from the ground, bobbed into view for just a split second, and then disappeared again. All I knew about kangaroos was that they jumped really high and far. The whole thing made perfect sense to me. Of course a kangaroo could jump thirty feet in the air.

And of course a kangaroo could hop away so fast that you couldn't even see him go. I kept staring out the window, looking as far as I could see, but the kangaroo was gone. There was no sign of him, as if he'd never even been there. It made me very sad, and I decided not to tell my parents about it. Even now I remember how bewildered that kangaroo looked when he stared me in the face. The poor thing didn’t know where to go, but he knew for sure that he didn’t want to be caged anymore.