Grownups by Andrew R. Touhy

A: You row beautifully, so self-assured. I can’t help but feel inadequate in the face of your ease, and demonstrable maturity.

B: Just taking in the pond.

A: It’s a thing of beauty.

B: A fine pond—

A: Your rowing.

B: Oh. Well, thank you.

A: I wonder, at what point does a man feel grown? When do his thoughts and words and deeds dovetail organically, declaring finally to the world that he’s no longer a child?

B: This is an ideal condition? An endpoint you aspire to?

A: A point, or position, I feel required to achieve, yes. Is there not overwhelming pressure? I mean genuine constraining if not constricting forces at work, pressing us to be and be seen as adult?

B: So—hypothetically speaking—your wish then, after, say, a night out with Katherine—dinner then a movie, touch of pie and coffee—is to think well of yourself for having behaved as a grown man should in those environs? Under the circumstances? That over salad for instance or appetizers you listened with care to her not altogether rousing précis of the workweek (the many office indignities, the principals’ giant egos, another jam in the copier), without once imagining her lightly freckled cleavage popped free, button by blouse button, in the back of a taxi? That the cab franc you selected—based on a much cultivated understanding of single varietal bottlings, terroir as a concept, vintage, really viticulture as a whole—wasn’t merely drinkable but bright and balanced (tobacco and cassis) not to mention excellent with roast pork? That from the darkened theater you easily wore the characters’ skin and struggles, while never mistaking the illusion for life? (Thus enjoying the drama inherent of good entertainment vicariously, you might say, dabbing huckleberry crumbs from your lips, rather than personally, foolishly enacting it to disastrous effect?) That when it came time for the Goodnight Kiss—

A: Could you speed it up?

B: You felt not hope, not despair, but positive regard for a fellow being of prerogative?

A: Well—

B: I nearly forgot. And that she felt, earnestly, watching you row off between the star-shot sky and its reflection in the dark water, your evolution as an adult male? That what she took to mind and heart as your essence or chi or inner ooze or modus operandi a priori was none other than perfect grownupness?

A: Something along those lines, yes. Is Katherine very pretty?

B: Don’t be a child.

A: But I confess it! It’s the very thing I speak of. Irrepressible. Can you venture an explanation?

B: If you can agree to behave.

A: There’s no reason to be condescending.

B: Apologies. Times, well, I won’t go so far as to say often, but sometimes, like anyone, I too grow impatient, lash out. Which is really just a form of, you know, it’s nothing but frustration marauding

A: Almost as if, in your effort to snuff certain childish impulses, tendencies even, the adult-you becomes more heedless, rash?

B: Perhaps.

A: That surprises me. A rower of your caliber?

B: Me too.

A: You do row beautifully.

B: Yes, well. Preparation. Concentration. Repetition. Even strategy comes into play. Long-term focus. I try to work on little things always, always tweaking my gear. Practice possibly to the point of rehearsal, really. In this way I hope the big picture’s taken care of. Sometimes I get to feeling like an empty vessel. Swift, powerful—or powerful-looking. But a bit on the hollow side. Bit on the whittled side. On the Styrofoamy side. Anyway rowing isn’t all bread and roses, it’s a mind-attitude and labor—

A: Believe me I understand.

B: Of love.

A: Indeed.

B: I won’t commit to this as anything more than bald speculation. Consider it—at best—a prelusion to a working principle. But perhaps lacking the proper training, a rigid sort of guidance in the formative years, be it social, religious, or some other psychological conditioning of a deeply constructive nature…the child grows enormous but never quite up? Honestly I can’t see how we haven’t managed a foolproof system yet…

A: System?

B: Yes or handy manual chock full of flawless instruction for preempting—redeeming too, I guess, if the enormous child is worth the cost—lopsided growth. In much the way anyone might consult a trusted cookbook for the perfect meal, we as a culture could engineer our little rowers to, say, signal before changing lanes, or properly tie off at the docks. Not to mention keep their grubby paws off oars that don’t belong to them, especially if they’re intent on returning them splintered or sawn in half. Imagine. A resource like that. On the nightstand of every expecting parent. We could make it mandatory, standard issue. Bring out a large-format edition, even, nice leather covers (real Argentine hide), glossy full-color photos, easy-to-read diagrams, something interactive in there, a poster or CD, reading group guide…could be on every coffee table in the nation. Much I suppose would be lost as a result: freewill, ethical choice—the sense of selfhood and vitality that flow from both. But the application (skillfully, dispassionately, universally) of such a doctrine could be awfully fruitful, could…end irregular enormity in adults forever. Not to put too fine a point on it, but wouldn’t the child grow up to be a grownup?

A: Ah! You mean Kids these days!

B: No. I mean adults these days.

A: They’re failing?

B: You fail yourselves.

A: Because I lack the moral fiber?

B: And therefore suffer from misplaced intensity. A terminal illness, you know.

A: But it’s a dispositional thing. A fallibility thing. A human condition thing. Emotion—emotions—at play, you understand, desires, there are all kinds of rowers on the water. Different rowing styles. Each has its strengths and weaknesses, each offers—

B: No personality is above the law of discipline.

A: A simple matter of correction, then?

B: Self-correction. Self-constraint. Self-control. Self-imposed. Self-composed. Self-restraint—

A: I think you don’t have any idea what you’re talking about.

B: I’m beginning to suspect as much myself. You ever feel like a unicyclist whose seat’s notched too high? Or worse, whose legs will never be long enough to reach the pedals? Or worse, who might in fact be shrinking? There is, in the pit of my stomach, this balloon of chronic unease.

A: Hmm. Not wild about unicycles. How about a tricycle? Nice chromed bell, red and white streamers, racing stripe down the—but don’t go changing the subject. You would see us automated, automatons, mankind one unanimous ant heap—and you stick by this bleak vision of existence?

B: I said it was less than a theory.

A: That’s true enough.

B: I just said so. I agreed with you in advance. And before that.

A: What about happiness? Does happiness factor in?

B: Happiness is not the rower’s goal. Happiness has always been a smokescreen. The rower seeks joy.

A: Joy, then?

B: I’m quoting.

A: But you’re right, I think. It is joy.

B: I know, I know. Joy’s the emotion that arises when we fulfill our true nature. It springs eternal the moment we experience ourselves as a beings of worth and dignity, beings who are then able to affirm this identity, if need be, against all other beings and the whole inorganic world. No more need to purchase the parental pat on the head—

A: You’re quoting.

B: I know.

A: You row well. Efficiently at any rate. But you sound so painfully grownup…so dreadfully overgrown, in fact, I think you’re dead.

B: I feel dead.

A: Completely?

B: Mostly.

A: Inside?

B: In general.

A: That’s a real pity.

B: I know, I know. I wanted to be something else.

A: Just now?

B: Always.

A: Such as a fighter pilot? Or Norwegian? A cat!

B: A victim. I have this terrible recurring daymare. Crowded halls between classes, a high school or driving school or something, very busy. I’m thirsty, and there is a glinting drinking fountain. Just as I bend over, my pursed lips lowered to the water, someone crashes into me from behind. My front teeth and gums. The blunt, cold metal. Bright red drool everywhere, bits and chunks on my chin. Years of flossing all for naught.

A: I’ve been there.

B: Oh?

A: I would be the someone who slams into you. On a skateboard.

B: How is it you do that?

A: Unchecked id? Always a tad preoccupied with the business of me?

B: Well I wanted to be grand, also. Recognizably grand. One of those rare creatures who enjoys popular and critical acclaim in their lifetime.

A: Now we’re talking.

B: But humble in light of that grandness. A notable heroic humility.

A: Sort of a prince who darns this own socks? Or supermodel who complains of her bottle-opener overbite? The ninth most frequently quoted person in The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations?

B: More along the lines of the severe old handsome actor who, morning after the Oscars (finally!), cheerfully scoops up after his teacup terrier, golden statuette tucked in his bathrobe pocket. Self-indulgence, I know. Absolutely childish. I’m ashamed now that I’ve said it.

A: No, no. Clearly you suffer from too little of the proper childishness. Don’t they say that the child is the father to the man? Seems to me you’re childless, fatherless, manless, figuratively speaking of course. Somehow you’re out a whole inner family.

B: We did lose Papa early. Then Mother and her grief. It wasn’t sudden but it happened no less suddenly. Naturally, as the eldest of four orphaned sons, the bread-winning and sibling-rearing fell on my unformed shoulders. Not an easy lot for a twelve-year-old whose prior responsibilities included violin practice and a little yard work on Sundays. Uh, that gloomy hydraulics factory. Home of the eighteen-hour night shift. I think it’s a mixed-use art space now, or beer hall, lots of reclaimed wood and skylights. I never learned how to swing a bat or chew gum. Then of course, one by one, my little brothers started dying off…

A: Life has left terribly deep cuts in your flesh, around the mouth, across your once smooth brow.

B: Responsibility has hollowed my eyes.

A: But you have me.

B: I have you?

A: Might I suggest something? I’m going to make a few hand signs, let’s call them Rorschachian gestures. I want you to shout the first thing, anything, that comes to mind.

B: Did I mention I’m a weak gamesman?

A: It’s not a contest. Please, there isn’t much time. Ready?

B: All right.

A: ◄

B: Baby corn.

A: Good. ▼

B: I am a high forehead.

A: Better. ►

B: That a Doberman pincher you’re making?

A: You must answer quickly, without thinking.

B: Sorry.

A: ►

B: You can’t get buggy whips anymore!

A: Very good. ▲

B: Maroon! Maroon!

A: Oh excellent.

B: This is scaring me.

A: Terrified?

B: No, but it’s frightening. Look at me, I’m shaking all over.

A: Give me the oars?

B: No, no. Can’t do that.

A: Why not?

B: I’m afraid.

A: We’re all frightened. What’s the worst that could happen?

B: We’ll crash. We’ll capsize. Drown. The boat won’t just captain itself, you know—

A: Let go of the oars. Please. Only for a minute. Put your hands over the side and tell me, what do you feel?

B: Water.

A: No.

B: I feel wet.

A: No.

B: …a cracked mirror?

A: Yes.

B: A spider crawling from a broken jug.

A: Yes. Yes.

B: The beginning.

A: Naturally.

B: Will Katherine be waiting ashore?

A: Your eyes are luminous!

Photo used under CC.