One night, in a phosphorescent sea, he marveled at the sight of some whales spouting luminous water; and later, lying on the deck of his boat gazing at the immense, starry sky, the tiny mouse Amos, a little speck of a living thing in the vast living universe, felt akin to it all.
There is no walking away. Not this time, not ever. It astounds me that he still behaves as if I am truly leaving, his face opening up in fear, his body chasing after the warmth of mine.
“You can’t hit, buddy,” I say in a quiet voice. I hug him gently and walk with him back to the bed. I keep my hands off of his body, trying now to guide with word and deed. Trying to practice what I preach. It is not so easy to stay good. We slip-slide up this steep learning curve together. I understand that some of his intensity is just being Bug at six. Some of it, I’m ashamed to admit, is me.
I keep my voice gentle as the tears press against his. “You have to use words instead of hitting when you want something to be different.”
“It wasn’t really hitting,” he says, crawling back into the bed. “Hitting is like with a fist.”
“You’re right that it wasn’t hard hitting, but it was still hitting instead of talking about your feelings. You cannot hit.” I pull the covers up over him.
“Can’t you just read one more book?” He asks. His eyes are wide and frightened. I understand his worry. We never deviate from our bedtime routine. This choice rattles me, too.
“No. I’m sorry. You hit me, so no more stories.”
“Can’t you just turn on one more light?”
His face is quivering. I crawl in next to him. “I’ll sing you one song,” I say. “First, can you tell me what you were feeling before you hit me?”
Overwhelmed by the beauty and mystery of everything, he rolled over and over and right off the deck of his boat and into the sea.
For a long moment, he is quiet. Then, “I didn’t like what you were doing.”
I knew the instant everything turned for him. We had reached the page where the little mouse is bobbing in the water, possibly about to drown. His boat is bowled away in the wind. Amos frets about what he should do and what big fish might be coming for him. I had asked Bug about Amos. “Does that face look worried? How would you feel?” When I stepped out of the story long enough to wonder at the fears of the waterlogged mouse, Bug turned on me. His face tightened, he scowled, he hit me. Twice.
That’s when I closed the book. I stood and turned out the lights. “No hitting. Time for bed.”
Now, I say, “Baby, if you don’t like something a person is doing, you have to say something. Say, ‘Please stop. I don’t like that.’ Maybe they’ll stop or maybe they won’t, but you can’t hit. You have to figure out other ways to deal with your feelings.”
Bug scrunches down under his Dora blanket.
“Can’t I just have one more book?”
This kills me. It is our one precious sliver of Us every night we are together, this ritual of reading. Three books, three songs. Today we only made it through one book and part of a second, and now we have to call it quits.
The kiddo has been struggling at school the past few weeks. Twisting a classmate’s arm, disrupting, ignoring the teachers. Notes have come home. Red days on the calendar. Something is amiss, and I ache to help him. I have no idea what I am doing. I hate that sometimes I have to sacrifice our sweetest gift so that he can learn to check this behavior. I hate it more that I have no idea if this is the right approach, and if I might be risking our very bond by holding this line.
Morning came, as it always does. He was getting terribly tired. He was a very small, very cold, very wet and worried mouse. There was still nothing in sight but the empty sea. Then, as if things weren’t bad enough, it began to rain.
“Just one more? Please?”
I stroke his hair. “No more books, sweetie. One song, though. We always need a song.” I begin to sing.
Baby beluga in the deep blue sea
As the tune drifts around use, I rub my boy’s belly and stroke his arm. After a moment, he shakes me off and turns away. His lip is pooked out. “Please stop touching me,” he says to the wall. I remove my hand and finish singing to his shoulders, his spine.
As he was asking himself these dreadful questions, a huge head burst through the surface of the water and loomed up over him. It was a whale. “What sort of fish are you?” the whale asked. “You must be one of a kind!”
When I finish the song, I lay with him for a moment. I tell him about our morning, about how we will need to leave extra early so I can go to the dentist to have him put on a crown. When I had the root canal in November, Bug came with me and watched. Now, he turns back towards me, suddenly fascinated with the topic. We talk about enamel, roots, and how teeth draw nourishment from below the surface the way trees do. How the crown is like armor to keep the tooth from breaking.
“Is it metal? Or liquid?” He asks. “Will he, like, pour it on?” He gestures the fluid cascade. My mouth, the waterfall. The meteor shower.
“I’ll let you know when I get home tomorrow. For now, though, you should get some rest. We have an early morning ahead of us.” He pulls the blanket up over himself. I keep my hands behind me, stilling the urge to tuck and fuss. It is hard, this lesson in boundaries. He is forever my flesh, it seems. I can still feel his feet seeking purchase against the walls of me.
Amos said he’d had enough adventure to last him a while. He wanted only to get back home and hoped the whale wouldn’t mind going out of his way to take him there.
“You know what, Bug?” I say. “I am so pleased that you asked me with your words not to touch you a few minutes ago. It really worked. I think that choice deserves another song.”
Bug ooches around and smiles. I open up my voice.
The wind is in from Africa. Last night, I couldn’t sleep.
My boy presses sideways against me. “Can I cuddle?” I whisper. He nods and turns a little more into my body. I put my arm around him and he folds himself to me. I sing the song and he breathes quietly, his gaze softening, his eyelids drooping. He lets me drop a kiss on his cheek.
What a relief to be so safe, so secure again! Amos lay down in the sun, and being worn to a frazzle, he was soon asleep.
Excerpts from Amos & Boris, by William Steig. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, New York: 1971.