RUMPUS BOOK CLUB EXCERPT: Yuvi Zalkow’s I Only Cry with Emoticons
An excerpt from The Rumpus Book Club‘s May selection,
I Only Cry with Emoticons by Yuvi Zalkow
published by Red Hen Press June 2022
I get in my car and drive over to my boy’s school. As a writer type, I should be able to describe things well. But I struggle with real-world descriptions. When I describe an object, like my car, I forget to say what color it is. I won’t say whether it is a sedan or a hatchback or sports car or one of those old station wagons that has somehow survived all these years, which I inherited from my mother when she died ten years ago and I keep repairing even though I should just get a new car. I don’t describe whether the car is clean or if it has stains. Like a big vomit stain on the seat from when my mother broke into the liquor cabinet that one last time and then went for a drive. None of that comes out. Just, “car.”
My boy is excited to see me when I get to his school. With his arms around me, I can totally forget about Blog Posts and Blue Whales. But he hugs me tight enough that I immediately worry if he has had one of those days when other kids teased him for one reason or another. The boy got the most-sensitive-kid-in-the-class genes from me. He’s not such a small kid, but he always struggles with the more boyish boys. They don’t like that he prefers dance to basketball. That he’d rather paint a picture of a butterfly coming out of a cocoon than of Spiderman punching a bad guy. After the hug, we get in the car, and I say, How was your day? My ex never liked how I ask these open-ended questions. She said they were too hard to answer. She tended to ask more specific questions like, Do you think you can stop obsessing over your novel in the next thirty days or should we just get separated now?
My boy doesn’t bother to answer my question. He says, Can we watch The Octonauts when we get home? I tell him we can. It’ll give me a few minutes to work on my novel. I keep hoping to find the secret to this story to make it all come together, to stop it from feeling like a bunch of disparate, desperate anecdotes without a clear throughline. As we’re driving home, I get a text from Anne: sometimes letting go is the only way to move forward. I don’t know if she is talking about my marriage or my novel or just quoting some dead guy for fun. She is very involved in the Famous Dead Guys group at work. My wife and I are not officially divorced. But unofficially, we’re divorced. Big time. Our joint custody situation is good, though. We even share a Google Calendar. Things are so clean and clear that I suggested to my wife—my ex-wife or semi-ex or quasi-ex or whatever she is—that we’re so good at being separated that we should get back together again. She didn’t like my suggestion. Or even worse—she liked it enough to laugh at me. The boy splits his week between us. It was a hard few months for him when we first separated, he kept asking why it had to be that way, but he seems fine with it now. At least he is more at ease with it than I am.
When The Octonauts are over, he says, Can we get gelato? Who wouldn’t want to get gelato? I’m no idiot. He grabs his scooter, the purple one that he loves with the bell in the shape of a sunflower. I grab my iPad, just in case I get an idea for the book. He says, Dada, can I play with your iPad at the place? Why? I ask. If I check in from a dessert place, I’ ll be able to serve zombies ice cream. I say, We’ ll see, as if what he said makes perfect sense. My favorite Octonaut is Tweak Bunny. Who’s your favorite? I can’t remember their names. My favorite is also Tweak Bunny, I say. I knew it, he says. Tweak Bunny talks just like your dad.
My boy’s whole life has been here in Portland. He doesn’t know much about accents, other than the Japanese girl and the Nigerian boy who are in his classroom. And that his grandfather talks differently because he’s from the South. I worry often about my father. He survived cancer, heart disease, three marriages, a depression, the Depression, twelve Bush years, Trump, but now it is his failing vision that is killing him. You can only increase the font size so much before it becomes impossible to read a digital book about quantum physics. My son asks me if rabbits can swim. I tell him I don’t think so, and I think about Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction boiling the pet rabbit. I shake my head to make the image go away. I remind him to stop at each intersection so many times that he finally says, Dada! I know! I do it right every time. He stomps his foot and his scooter on the sidewalk. He has a clip to keep his long hair out of his eyes, and it falls to the ground as he stomps. I choose not to use a clichéd parenting speech here about safety, save it for another day. There are so many confusing and scary things about being alive. Sometimes I want to hug my son and never let him go. I pick up the clip, and he grudgingly accepts it. Before getting the gig at CollaborationHub, there was a six-month period when I was unemployed. My boy was just a baby and my ex—nearly ex, almost ex, virtually ex, viciously ex—was my happily-ish-married wife back then, just getting her social work degree. She made it seem like it was good timing because I could take care of the baby while she wrote her papers. And you can work on your book while he naps, she said with a smile. I knew it scared her. At best, I was a reluctant parent. At worst, I resented her and the baby for what they took away from my once quiet life. Plus, we had nothing in savings. Of course, I didn’t write a damn thing. I worried. I stared at my sleeping, snoring, pooping boy, and I thought about how I would manage to take care of this creature until he became an adult. My so-called skills are very particular, and I worried that I’d never get a job again. It didn’t help our life that, at night, I’d drink, and instead of writing, I’d order crap online that we didn’t need and couldn’t afford.
An R2-D2 robot that (supposedly) responded to voice commands. A six- (but-really-three)-in-one step stool. A two-(but-really-one)-year supply of razors and wet wipes. A zucchini spiralizer. My boy happily scoots ahead. He occasionally looks back at me, but acts like he is just checking out the scenery around him. He’s in that place between being a little kid and being a big kid. I’m not sure how much distance he wants. I get another text. It vibrates on my iPhone, but also beeps on my iPad at the same time, which means we must be around a Wi-Fi hotspot. One of the houses around us naively left their router with the factory settings, unaware of what a malicious hacker could do to them. Anne says: marriage = false. novel = false. boy = true. date = true. beach = true. #salvation It drives me crazy when people use hashtags. #The #hashtag #is #a #distracting #symbol. Anne thinks the beach can solve all of life’s problems. But the only solution to life’s problems is being dead. Anne is married, BTW. Happily. I even like the dude. But she is taking me on as a project. I am a thing she is trying to fix. We park the scooter outside the gelato store, don’t bother with a lock since it’s a pretty safe neighborhood, and as we walk into the shop, I rub my hand over my boy’s head. He says, Stop that, Dad. My dad used to do that to me, and I hated it too. I thought he was just being mean. I wonder if Papa used to do that to my dad. Even though I know my boy doesn’t like it, sometimes I don’t know what to do with this feeling for him. I try to avoid these selfish gestures of affection, but occasionally they just burst out. He gets vanilla gelato no matter how many times I try to convince him to pick something more interesting. I get vanilla too. He wants to use the iPad. Can I can I can I can I? I say he can’t until after he finishes his gelato and washes his hands. You’re a party pooper, he says. I’ ll get extra points if I serve zombies ice cream from here.
Why not eat your real-life ice cream? It’s gelato. I’m not sure whether or not to let him play these games. He is so into this alternate world that seems so empty to me. He’ll spend hours watching YouTube videos of people playing this game. It’s so weird. These young guys who make these videos are probably just around twenty years old and have ten million subscribers and make a living off recording themselves playing games. We focus on our gelato. Quietly. Nobody @ mentions anybody. But still we are connected. Silent collaboration. Then my boy asks if I think he’s getting too old for The Octonauts. I say if he enjoys it, then he isn’t too old. But they make fun of me at school. Who? He pokes his spoon into his gelato and doesn’t look up at me. I burn with the pain of knowing that kids tease him. I say, You don’t have to tell others about it if you don’t want, but if you enjoy it, you can watch it. To hell with them. He takes a bite of his gelato and then looks at me, smiles, and says, How long ago were you my age? In my novel, my father is my son’s age. This makes things confusing because sometimes I write the character as my dad, and sometimes as my son. But they are two very different creatures. My dad was the scientist. My son is the storyteller. My dad was into insects. My son is into cartoons about insects. My dad had a buzz cut and was in the Boy Scouts. My son is into scooters with flowers and has a clip to hold back his long hair. In the novel, the character has both qualities. Which means he is a mess. It got so messy that in the latest draft, he is reduced to a character who just digs a hole in the backyard in search of China. All novel long. Poor kid. I want to apologize to my son. And to my dad. And to the character in my book. So I rub my hand over my boy’s head. Stop that, Dad. Anne sends another text: we found someone for you.
I call in sick the next day. In my sick post, I make sure to @ mention my boss and Anne. Within seconds of that post, Anne sends a message that makes it clear she downloaded the stupid haiku-ify app:
blue whale in water knows who pretends to be sick future uncertain
I ignore her attempt at seventeenth-century poetic Japanese sassiness. Instead, I lazily loiter on Twitter, mute a few trolls saying nasty things, and search for something meaningless that I can retweet.
From I Only Cry with Emoticons. Reprinted with permission from Red Hen Press.