Notes on Reading from the Author:
"Seeing Bones" was written to be both an examination of our fascination with binaries as well as the bonds of family as they are made fragile by parental expectation. To the former, I was interested in pitting opposing notions against each other: urban vs. suburban, marriage vs. weddings, parents vs. children. Although these aren't true binaries in the best sense of the word, I felt they acted well to oppose one another (at least in the narrative) and work to establish a moment where the narrator and his estranged cousin can reconnect despite the ways life separates loved ones.
The term "seeing bones" works at two levels: it refers to Edward's job, an X-ray technician, which he chose simply because his father expected him to find a well-paying job instead of pursuing passion. This feeds into the second construct of the titular notion where family members have the uncanny ability to see deeply into one another, perhaps due to some metaphysical and incomprehensible familial bond. Talking with Edward about his occupational predicament, the narrator then ruminates about how he may also expect too much from his young son, thus perpetuating the problem. Though it isn't directly stated, my intended hope was that the narrator, in seeing how Edward's father's expectations shackled him to a dissatisfied life, will now be more open to his own son finding his own way.
Perhaps a bit covert in the narrative, but nevertheless a driving force, was a criticism of vocational higher education. As an educator myself, I value vocational education as a means by which students who do not have academic interests or aptitude can still find meaningful employment in our society. However, vocational education has largely become a method to disenfranchise the potential academic pursuits of the most marginalized students of our culture, particularly in community colleges. In layman's terms: inspiring students to choose a vocational education truncates their passions and potential development for the dream of modest economic gain. Edward's choice to be an X-ray tech, though economically valuable, illustrates how much of his self he had to sacrifice for this elusive and illusionary boon.
Personally, I've been very interested in exploring ideas of family (particularly fatherhood) in my recent writing. I'm intrigued at how family members create and maintain bonds based not on choice but nature and accident. Family is both tender and frustrating, and "Seeing Bones" hopes to understand this binary, too.
Where's your favorite and/or strangest place to write?
I am not much of a traveling writer, though I did spend a bit of time in London to write a novel. Generally, I write at my desk, which is in a poorly-lit nook in my small Philadelphian rowhome. Of note, however, is that I have hanging above my desk a bronze plaque of the Hindu god Ganesh, who is understood to be a patron of writing, and that I brought back from India. He criticizes my histrionics.
WHEN I SAW EDWARD AGAIN, the first time in ten years, the bartender at the open bar filled his wine glass halfway with Johnny Walker Black, and he said to me, “Ever since rehab, I know my limits.” He held the stem of the glass and pivoted it with the perfectness of physics to allow the contents into his mouth. The wedding was in that purgatorial-time, stuck vortex-like between the big cathedral ceremony and the introduction of the parties at the country club reception, which meant a lot of expensively priced but undercooked hors d’oeuvres and a lot of awkward conversation with estranged extended family. And an open bar.
My wife, Elaine, and I were the kind of people who’d left where they were from—went to college and found the nearest big city to forget heart-palpitating words like “rural” or the “suburbs.” One predictable result was that we’d lost contact with a lot of the people we grew up with, like siblings. Like my second cousin, Edward. And so on the occasions when marital ceremonies or deaths brought the black sheep back from their urban hideouts to reconnect with their more prosaic pasts, there was a lot of confrontational pretending. There was the strange, human happening of seeing the image you had of a younger friend changed irrevocably by the foolish mandatory nature of seeing them again in all of their adult shortcomings.
Edward was seated at our table, the negative space of his plus-one more profound by the emptiness of the clothed and bow-ornamented chair to his right. We waited for the bouncing bridal parties to bound in, awkwardly in the dresses and tuxedos they weren’t used to wearing, and sipped our drinks in what seemed more like gulps: the neverendingness of open bars opening throats. Elaine, meeting Edward for the first time, asked the perfunctory questions of new acquaintances that were family but that did not have the blood of family—sisters and brothers and cousins all in the black ink of legalese.
“So, Edward, what do you do?”
“I’m in nuclear medicine.”
My eyes dropped to the table.
“Which means, I work in imaging,” he continued. “So basically, I do the X-rays.”
“That’s very interesting,” she said, with the ability of hers to make every incongruity sound true.
“Yeah. You know. It’s money.”
Propelled by my own generously-filled glass, I thought only of bad puns: Edward, a ward of his own education.
Cousin, a sinful coup.
Liquor, but what if she licks you first?
My family frowned upon our living in a big city—a big plane ride away—and were simultaneously in awe that we were a part of what Edward would later call “a rat king where the most interesting humans wove their tails.” (I was taken by his crass poetry.)
“So, where are your little ones?” Edward asked. The middle-aged DJ searched his laptop playlist for his presumptions of what club music was then the most popular. If he succeeded, I didn’t know, lost as I was too at understanding what pleased the youngest in the room. All I heard under Edward’s question was thumping and what sounded like someone strangling electricity.
“Home,” Elaine said. “We have a friend watching them.”
“Well, for the couple days we’re here. It’s okay. They know our friends and our friends know them.”
“That’s cool,” Edward said, his feelings of the preposterousness of city life gleaned only from the tail end of his words’ resonance.
“The thing is,” I said, “You can’t bring them. As in, you can’t take them. Anywhere. I mean,” and here’s where the loose tongue wriggles itself right out of the mouth; here’s where Elaine’s glare hides, only kind of, the fear she has that I hate our children, “Once you have them, it’s like they have you. Always. That whole being an independent, self-serving, icon of freedom goes kaput.” Kaput. I never said words like kaput. Edward’s face had the look of those who were nostalgic about children because they didn’t have them and wondered if they were too old to have them. It was also the same look that betrayed, in the non-parent, that they had no solitary clue what it meant to raise a child.
I caught Elaine’s glare, knowing it was there all along, “But it’s also, like, the greatest thing in the entire world, Edward. Truly.” Paternal credentials met.
We hadn’t invited Edward to our wedding. Most of our extended family, burrowed as they were indomestically-converted farmhouses with too many rooms for too few or in endlessly replicated vinyl-sided cul-de-sac monstrosities just outside real metropolitan areas, were—likewise—not invited. We were not rude people. Our goal wasn’t to ostracize our family. Rather, our mistake was insisting that our wedding—that our lives—were our own things; that we wanted to do things our way. That, in a world where being selfish was such a pejorative, at least our wedding would be our own. We were younger then, not yet parents, and so did not realize our lives were very far from “our own things.” The subsequent decade, the real indicator of a marriage’s longevity (“the hardest years,” my aunt had said, at her 30th anniversary), we had to deal with our guilt and our families’ chagrin at not being at our very special, very unique, own, day. That I didn’t, at the very least, reserve a dance for my mother.
Edward had yet to meet our children. They were as elusive to him as characters in a story he didn’t have the patience to read, but he still had the thoughtfulness to ask after them. Our estrangement—Edward’s and mine—began just before Elaine and I were married, at a Christmas party we’d come home to attend where I saw him do a line of cocaine (for the first time) from the porcelain of his parents’ washroom’s toilet tank and I drove drunk (for the only time) back to the hotel to get away from it. As urban as I’d become, I was still rather urbane in the whitewashed suburban conformity of my rearing. Turns out, his snorting was to become more than recreational.
“That’s good,” Edward said, in reaction to my histrionic parenting, then took a drink that made his throat bob the way a jaw pulses at its hinge when clenched. “I look forward to having some, someday. Kids.”
And then, they came. The bridesmaids, the groomsmen.
The uniformity of the peach-beige dresses; the exactitude of the black-tux redundancy. The bride and groom, man and wife, the I-Doers, in all the majesty of over-indulgence, highlighting and underscoring in vicious detail how much Elaine and I had shortchanged our families from the bad dancing and roaring drunkenness that was their right for sharing our blood. The DJ passed a hand through his thinning, dyed hair in a way he’d certainly learned from studying the day’s heartthrobs and mispronounced the difficult Italian names of the groomsmen. No matter, they strutted in, patriarchal elbows crooked for the ladies’ taking, and gesticulated curiously for the benefit of the rented cameraman. And at that moment, thinking all of these things, I realized a certain level of my own jadedness. My judgmental instinct emphasized by the genuineness of Edward’s smile, as he watched the procession glide, happily, by.
I first realized I was not the father I intended to be on the day I took my son to the Museum of Art to see my favorite painting by James Jacques Tissot and he didn’t care about it. He was five, and so probably didn’t rightfully need to grasp what joy the inane portrait brought to his charlatan father. But I was teaching him the badly-pronunciated first-year French I knew, the Grimm’s, the multiplication tables, the proper techniques for bouldering on our furniture—in short, I was doing all I could to raise the genius I knew it would take for him to both take and challenge the conventions of our ever-frustrating world. I was antagonistic to the redundant maxim that non-parents had (that perhaps I had before becoming a parent): I wouldn’t want to bring a child into this world. It was too reductive and non-pragmatic; I didn’t want the species to end. I only thought it best to raise a child with enough cerebral ingenuity to justify my own curiosity (see: ineptitude) at making a substantive change to our collective human lot.
Was it a lot to ask that we bypass the dinosaurs at the Academy of Natural Sciences for just one day in order to see French portraiture?
“You see the detail, Elliot?”
“It’s amazing, isn’t it?”
Elliot was a precocious but respectful kid; he benefited from his parents’ insisting that formal education was an anemic supplement to what we would teach him at home. He also benefited from the wild diversity of the city. Our picnicking in public parks, museum membershipping, and worldly food trying (et. al.) was buttressed by the endless redacting we had to do in explaining to him and his sister why the strange people of the city did their strange things. High high art.
Though he responded with the appropriate gusto, I could see he was not nearly as interested in the painting as I was. His little eyes flitted to the other walls with childlike ennui. And this painting, this portrait of whoever by a painter whose other work I hadn’t ever seen, stalled me, years ago, the first time I’d gone there, and had done so every time since. If only there for a traveling exhibit, I’d make sure to stop by to—I don’t know—say hi. To visit. Alone on the wall for what seemed forever, I felt it was the least I could do to stop by. Pay my respects. Sign the guest registry.
He needed to understand.
“But, Elliot. Look at how real these things look even though they’re not.”
“But they were real, Dad. He painted them.”
“But. Oh. But he could have painted them from his imagination.”
“Did he, Dad?”
I didn’t know. In all the years, I didn’t do the research; stuck as I was in the nostalgic emotionalism of “visiting” my painting, I didn’t want scholarly research to besmirch my experience. What would I do if I found out the portrait was of a slumlord public menace or that Tissot was a pedophile? “No. Probably not, Elliot. He probably painted it from real life. But still, that’s not easy. What I mean is, can you see how amazing it is that Tissot was able to capture this scene in this way?”
“Yeah, I can see it.”
“But not just see it, Elliot. Feel it. When you stand there, right at this spot, can you feel the painting?”
“I’m not standing, though, Dad.”
It was true; I had lifted him to see the painting up close. Slumping at the shoulders, I lowered Elliot to the ground and said “Nevermind” in the way that was supposed to elicit pity, but word tonality was something I forgot to teach him in our home.
When he ambled over to the bronze in the middle of the room and I followed, I turned to look back at the Tissot, knowing I would never again see it in the same light. From then on, when I went there, the memory of Elliot’s not feeling what I felt would cover the spot like a veil. Like the painting itself was drapery-covered in some old French attic, forgotten like the bogus melodramatic emotion it elicited in me.
Oh, how I wished I could change my son.
Weddings: the elaborate beginnings we think them to be, but also so close to webbings, where you’re stuck for a bit before being eaten. My bad puns as endless as the bar.
Someone had a checklist (the Maid of Honor? The DJ?) listing all the itemized, perfunctory elements of the festivities. The cake sliced, the slices face-smashed. The dancing, melodramatic up to and including hysterical tears. The Electric Slide, slid. The stuttered speeches of the inebriate head table. The chicken and the fish. We were halfway through the ghastly tradition of some stranger sliding a garter up the trembling, goose-pimpled, naked leg of the most athletic of the single girls when Elaine tugged a little at the sleeve by my triceps and asked, “Where’s Edward?” I looked around and, in not finding the object of the query, shrugged. I turned back to watch the blush of the girl’s face as the garter-pusher’s upper arms disappeared under her skirt and his sinister smile widened, but was now distracted. I, too, wanted to know where Edward had gone. There’s something fascinating about reconnection, even under the temporary and prescribed circumstances of a wedding; in all of the expectations of the past, there seemed only scant traces that resembled a person you knew, like fingerprints beginning to lose their rings. I didn’t know Edward any longer; he didn’t know me. But we shared a history, which meant we owed something. Whether we liked it or not, the compunction that drove us to understand one another was buried permanent where our roots crossed.
“Dance with me,” Elaine said, smiling. “It’s not like we get out that often. Remember when we used to dance?” The question fumed of old-speech, like something you were supposed to say to a spouse of many decades, near the end of your mutual existences. It wasn’t all that long ago that we danced.
She nodded over to the parquet dance floor, where the prototypical commonplaceness of the festivities had ceded to a swarm of people swaying like heat distortions over pavement: the once-in-a-while where people who never danced (who had no business dancing), danced.
“You want to dance to club music?”
“Could be fun.”
“Let’s wait for a slow song, Elaine.”
“They only play like two slow songs at weddings anymore.” She said this to me but it was as if she’d said it to no one.
“Next slow one, I promise.”
“What are you worried about?”
“In dancing to this?”
“I don’t know. That. Looking like that.” I nodded toward the hoard.
“No one cares.”
The thumping thumped on, and we sat there alone at the table. Elaine must have been thinking about our children and I was certainly thinking about our children, but together, we were only thinking of the children in relation to ourselves—what they meant, even in being their own people, to our lives. It was as if being a parent made you simultaneously the most selfless and selfish thing. We wanted them to have everything, but we carefully defined that everything within the parameters of our own paradigms.
“Let me see if I can find Edward,” I said to Elaine, rising with my glass; thinking better of it, putting the glass down.
I saw him from the balcony of the clubhouse. He was walking across the ninth green of the golf course. I wasn’t sure if it was the ninth but I liked to think of it as such: halfway through. I hurried.
He had stopped just beyond the cup and sat down. I found out his relationship to the cup because, as I approached, my foot plummeted in the nothingness of it and I sprained my ankle, sprawling to the ground behind him and eliminating any hope of stealth.
“Aren’t there supposed to be damned yellow flags?” I moaned, rolling in perhaps too childish a fashion for my innocuous injury.
“Are you okay?” Edward asked, rising to come to my aid.
“Yes. I suppose,” I responded, through with the spectacle. “Let me just sit with you.” He sat back down and I crawled over to join him. “What are you doing out here?”
“Nothing. Just catching my breath.”
“You feeling okay?”
“I am. You?”
“All but the ankle.”
“People tip big at weddings. It’s all the euphoria and nostalgia,” I said.
The course was illuminated with the orange sodium vapor of the lamps. A sand trap, a ways away, cut like a pockmark into an otherwise perfectly spherical green mound of the adjacent hole. Caught in this way, the scene before us, stretching in undulations of land so manicured it couldn’t be true, our environment was quietly part of us. When we breathed, it went into our blood, that shared blood of vague familiarity. Somehow, in ways neither of us understood, there were elements of his blood that were the same in my blood, and that basic fact was important. We made it important. Blood viscosity’s trumping of water’s somehow central to our human condition. Somehow. I never used words like somehow. They reminded me of how little I understood anything.
“You still like living in the city?” Edward asked. Then he said that thing about the rat king.
“I do. It’s hectic. It’s loud. But it has a lot of advantages.”
“Elliot and. . . and. . .”
“Elliot and Suzanne don’t mind not having a yard or anything?”
“The neighborhood has parks, Edward. They’re better than a yard,” I said, mistaking his basic questioning for accusation. “And anyway, I don’t have to mow them,” I said, recovering.
He laughed. “So, what’s it like? Living in a big city and coming back here to this?”
I hadn’t realized it until he asked, but the phenomenon he spoke of happened to have been a major focus of my unconscious thought until it surfaced with his question. I suppose I had been musing about my return here all day, “It feels like I’ve found El Dorado. Or Atlantis. You know? I feel like I went out and I found Atlantis. And the other people in the city, they don’t even know they can breathe under water. That they are breathing under water. And I come here and it’s like everyone is afraid of drowning. That’s what it was like when I moved to the city from the suburbs, that I realized how to breathe underwater. Is that too complex a metaphor?”
“No. I may stand around radiation all day, but I’m not an idiot.”
“Sorry. I’m drunk.”
“Don’t apologize. I’m drunk.”
We both laughed out at the golf course.
“I was just remembering when we were kids,” Edward said. “You remember sleepovers? We’d stay up all night watching Godzilla trying not to get caught.”
“I think it was like one in the morning.”
“How late we actually stayed up.”
“Felt like all night,” he said.
I hadn’t noticed it at first, but the sounds from the clubhouse behind us seemed to amplify; there was either a wedding reception or a prison break in congress. Edward’s gaze out upon the course reminded me of Elliot’s when he was caught with thinking; perhaps there was something to family. Maybe there was eternity in progeny.
“Godzilla,” he said again, reflectively.
There’s a sweet injustice to what was.
How quickly a year goes.
How quickly all the years go.
“You know, it’s been fifteen years now that I’ve been taking X-rays.”
“Wow, Edward. That’s great. That’s a hell of a long time. That’s really something. That’s. . .” It’s frustrating, sometimes, to talk.
“No. I mean, what I’m saying is. . . I’m just not there anymore. I don’t really want to be there. What I mean is. . . when I think of the city, where people are, where people are doing things. . . and I’m in that hospital, the same room, every day. Pushing the same button. Asking people the same questions. Seeing their bones.”
“But you’re making good money, right?”
“That’s the thing, isn’t it? The presumed safety of easy decisions.”
Behind, the revel, rabbling, rabid.
“I went to college,” he continued, “because you were supposed to go to college. The lore was, if you don’t go to college, you’re going to end up at McDonald’s. That’s what we thought, back then. Hell, it’s probably what they still think today. You either go to college and get a degree and make money or you end up in some terrible situation. Vague, but terrible.”
“That’s what my parents told me,” I offered.
“Me too. My dad had this fear in his eyes when he talked to me. He was very stern when we talked about college, about what I wanted to do with my life, like my life was a thing I would act on and not just something I had. Like everyone, I had no idea what I was supposed to do, but that look in his eye scared me. I thought I might be some bohemian writer. He told me I had to go to college and choose a major that would make me money. He asked what in the hell I could do studying literature. So it made sense back then: two-year degree, instant job making pretty decent money. Thing is, no one ever tells you there’s a lot of life to live while making money. No one ever says there might be other things to think about. So I work the same shift on the same days, making all of that money, surviving, and all the time, the fear in my dad’s eyes looks at me the way he did. And the thing is, I see that fear when I look at my own, now, in a reflection. There they are, my dad’s eyes, afraid and looking at me, but scared of the wrong thing. All along, scared of the wrong thing. I know there’s more than the bones that I see, but they’re all I see, anymore.”
“But, you know, Edward. That’s his job, as a father, you know. To make sure you survive. And look at you. You’re alive.”
“So that’s being a father,” Edward said, more to himself than to the ether, or me. I didn’t know what kind of convincing I was trying to do. Edward’s life, mired to suburbanism, handcuffed to drone capital, made me think of empty but beautiful things: canyons, pupils. But I wanted to make him feel better. I wanted him to think he could go back to school, major in English, move to the city. Grow a beard. But here was the reality: we were two old cousins sitting on a golf course, my children far away in a big city, and his father sitting somewhere with fear in his eyes. Tomorrow would be the first day in years that would separate us again before the next wedding or funeral. I’d fly home. He’d drive to work and look into the insides of people. Edward didn’t do anything wrong, and yet how else could it feel? Wrong.
I wondered, sitting there, what sort of emotion my eyes betrayed to my children; what Elliot saw when the emptiness of my pupils filled with himself. We have no idea what the vibrations of a chord we strike might mean to those outside our instrument.
When I returned to the reception hall, I saw the bride and groom thanking Elaine for coming while looking over to the next guest to thank. I wondered if they asked where I was. I wondered if they knew who she was.
The wedding was winding down and I was reminded of the gentle dusks of the city when things were almost quiet. As in, the only sounds were the planes overhead and the sirens that didn’t even cause us alarm anymore, as much wolf as they cried. On evenings like that I could watch the clouds on my back patio, bounce Elliot and Suzanne on my knees in the most stereotypical fashion that still felt perfect, smell the dog piss from the neighbor’s adjacent, attached patio, and feel for a second just right—before the sun set and it was dark and the peculiar night sounds of the city set in.
The bride and groom moved on to someone else they didn’t recognize and Elaine turned to see me. I limped back to her, my ankle swelling under its strain.
“What did you do?” she asked.
She cocked her head puppy-like and I held out my hand.
“You’re going to dance to club music hobbled like that?”
“I won’t look any sillier than anyone else,” I responded, not knowing how true it would have been if I was talking about anything but dancing.
We went to the dance floor and became heat distortions amidst the strangled electricity.
It occurred to me briefly that Edward could look deep into my ankle, see me inside. Maybe he couldn’t diagnose the grade of the sprain, but he could see my bones, naked as they appear only to those closest to us, regardless of any distance.