First Four Letters

I’m in the den with Dad, watching McEnroe versus Borg. The tennis ball makes a fat popping when hit. I’m all for Borg because he’s quiet, patient, seasoned and wise, hanging along that baseline, waiting for McEnroe to come in. McEnroe is younger, brash, ballsy. He hunts the ball, smacks at it. He hurries the net, rushes the point, wants them over. When Borg hurls a shot past him and it kisses the line, McEnroe cries foul. It’s getting tiresome. Even to my 15 year mind, he seems the petulant brat. And he really needs to lose the terry headband. Mom comes in asking what we want for dinner. Dad stares at the ceiling and says hot dogs. I wonder what he sees inside all that whiteness. Why don’t you look at her when she talks to you, I want to say. Just give her that much respect. Then I turn my attention back to the match. I’m rooting for Borg to give it McEnroe. Not looking promising. The Swede’s not at the peak of his game anymore.

Mom’s been a little queer lately. About once a day she’ll descend to the cool basement and hide, sometimes for half an hour, or lope into the bedroom to lie down. Dad slumps in his recliner and scratches his bald head. Nobody says nothing in this house to offend anybody. It’s like an abandoned church in here.

Sometimes Mom, before retreating to the bedroom, will explode, taking it out on the furniture — moving and sliding kitchen chairs, shoving them in corners, punching doors open, smashing them shut. She mutters in my direction, yet never flat out hits me. Maybe she should. I’m getting away with stubborn laziness, selective listening, spending more time alone in my room with my books and my stereo headphones, or outside shooting baskets. Dad’s way is to sneak a Kool on the back stoop. I tried them once. The menthol tricks you. Behind the minty foretaste is always the bitter coming after. Dad often gets up from his marathon TV watching to stare across the street at the neighbors’ front yard, like he’s waiting for a sign or a ride to pick him up. He’s most relaxed when the Maloneys’ calico cat, Spazzy, comes by. That’s what they called him – Spazzy – because he’s a nut. Dad feeds him treats and talks to him a lot. I’m practically jealous of it.

I’m hooked into this particularly long point in the match. Borg is running the baseline, looping into those long armed strokes. McEnroe is on the run, furiously chasing the point, egging to get in on net. “What do YOU want,” Mom asks, and I can’t look up at her either. I’m zoned in on the television, enveloped in Dad’s force field. For a moment I’m aware how disgraceful we’re treating her. I say (too late) macaroni and cheese, and she tramps away, her footfalls miming a mean song about thanklessness. I’m thinking, from some deep catacomb inside me, that I’m picking up the worst habits from both of them. What do I want? I want out! I want to have a life. I want a room without a television set glowing inside.

Borg’s shot looks long, then falls in the corner, just died like a stone in the mud. McEnroe is screaming at the judge now. “You’ve got to be kidding me!” he goes screeching, punching at the air. The normally docile crowds are gurgling, some on McEnroe’s side hissing at the umpire, others telling McEnroe to pipe down.

Mom’s back in the room to ask us what we want to drink. Does Dad even notice her in the corner, arms folded, the frown creasing her once pretty face? No. There’s a folded newspaper on his lap, the glasses perched on his nose, and he’s breathing through his mouth, lips parted in mild amazement at McEnroe’s antics. Usually Mom turns back to leave us in our father-son boob tube stupor. Not this time. She’s standing there. I can feel the shadow on my neck. McEnroe’s completely freaking out now, and the ref is drowned out by the roaring crowd.

“Oh, shut the FUCK up!” I bleat, at McEnroe, but if you want to know the truth, at everything. The words come out with a piggly wiggly whine. I want to puncture the screaming silence. Slash it into submission with a racket. I want Dad to notice. To react. To say something in response. Not that he’s saying anything. He’s saying nothing. It’s the silence he’s miming that’s intolerable, and I want him to shut that up. I’m embarrassed for Mom’s sake.

It is the first time I’ve ever cursed in front of my parents. Clearly, they don’t know what to do or say. I didn’t expect this. We’re all dumbfounded. Nobody says squat. The moment sits, fat and lonely. An unadulterated honking duck of a moment. In the quiet, the duck is squawking, an act without words. If only Dad’s newspaper would rustle. Mom may have left the room. I’m afraid to look up. Afraid to see what I’ll become. The match plays out, and McEnroe wins the set. He’s marching around like the Little Prince of badass. I’m seething at him, forming mini-cusswords on my lips that only I can hear.

Dad changes the channel at the next commercial. Seahunt’s on. Lloyd Bridges paddles around underwater, schools of tropical fish like arrows shooting past, and a shark on the lurk. I’m wondering how long he can hold out with his oxygen tank. They always make it seem like he’s going to run out, that flurry of air bubbles thinning to a trickle. Eventually, he will make it to the surface. I can almost imagine what the air must feel like when he breathes it into his wheezing lungs.