For his high-school English class, my son Eli has to write an essay about how each generation inevitably battles the one that precedes it, referencing Greek and Roman mythology.
With a full mouth of lasagna he says: “It kind of feels like a stretch. I mean, all except Cronus.”
I’m glad he’s being critical of his assigned work, but as I tell him this, I find myself speaking faster than normal, and using words like notion, assertion, and anachronism. I realize I’m filling every last bit of air with academic jargon because the assignment feels like an invitation to be critical of our father-son relationship. I don’t want that conversation to begin, ever. I’m a little boy again, smiling as my father spanks me.
“Yeah,” he says, after I’m done holding forth. He doesn’t call attention to the fact that I’m being weird. I wonder how long that sort of grace will last. I suspect part of it comes from being bullied. He’s never hid from anyone his brains and he can’t hide his narrow, disproportionate, face – a genetic gift from me. And he hasn’t yet given himself permission to fight back against his enemies. I fear they are damaging him. I fear I’m one of them.
He spins the ice in his empty glass, and says: “I mean Cronus swallowed his children.”
“Well Cronus is one of the more ambiguous examples,” I say, and proceed away from the dinner table to the ivory tower. It’s the parenting mistakes I’ve committed. There are too many to remember. The time I didn’t show up to his saxophone recital. That summer I sent in his application late and he had to miss Space Camp. These may sound small, but we all inhabit our own little familial bubble; what occurs inside creates its own proportion. I didn’t talk to my father for two years for some seriously mundane shit.
And all this wouldn’t be a big deal, except for the fact that I don’t just love Eli; I really like him.
But there’s that other fact: I chose to have him in my life. He had no say in being born. But he has yet to realize that now he can also choose me.
I feel like keying his English teacher’s car. “Well, have fun writing it,” I say.
He rolls his eyes and begins talking about a role-playing card game tournament this weekend. It costs a hundred bucks. The top ten get a payout. He’s saved ninety and needs ten from me. He’s recently reorganized his deck and now dominates the daily lunch table games.
I’m so glad we’re discussing something else I almost tell him yes. But then I remember the agro punks that hang out at the gaming store and the shit they’ve put him through. I’ve watched him walk through those doors dressed in his polo shirt and pleated slacks and felt my heart pound. I’ve said prayers in the car after dropping him off, even though I don’t believe in any god.
I know I can’t protect him. I remind myself they haven’t stopped him from playing. That says something. But still it doesn’t say enough for me, at least not now. “We’ll talk once you have that essay finished,” I say.
He shrugs and forks another large hunk of lasagna and swallows and burps. I summon a burp in response. He nods in approval. The conversation has ended.
He heads upstairs and I’ve yet to stomach my first bite. The ceiling above me creaks as he walks down the hallway to his bedroom.
As I clean the dishes and play our conversation over in my head, and wonder how it would read if I was searching Eli’s memory instead of my own, which makes me think about how history is written not only by those who live to tell about it, but care to tell about it, which makes me I wonder if there’s a chance the original scribe got Cronus wrong.
Maybe the old god didn’t give a shit about keeping the crown. Maybe power meant nothing to him. Maybe, when he first held each of his children’s soft, tiny bodies in his hands, he just couldn’t handle having them out in the universe so weak and vulnerable. Perhaps, when he saw their quivering lips and kicking legs and touched the newborn acne pocking their cheeks, the idea that he could do something so terrible as to deserve his children’s wrath was too much. Could it be that, when he swallowed them whole, all he wanted was to keep his little bundles as close to him as possible for as long as they would allow? Perhaps Cronus wasn’t trying to prevent a coup d’état. Perhaps he was only trying to delay the inevitable separation.
More anachronisms. I flip the lever and the dishwasher begins its nightly rumble and picture Zeus, eyes lit with fury, lightning bolts crackling in his palms, finally bellowing to his father all the reasons for his anger. I turn off the kitchen light and wonder if that was also the first moment Cronus could look at his child without fear.
Ross McMeekin’s fiction has appeared recently or is forthcoming in publications such as Tin House, The Portland Review, PANK, and Hobart, and his essays have appeared in The Rumpus and Hunger Mountain. He received a MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts. He edits the literary journal Spartan and blogs at www.rossmcmeekin.com.