Kids ask all sorts of questions, and Ryan is no exception. I don’t have the answer to every one of his inquiries, but when I do, it fills me with dignity and self-assurance. Especially in light of the recent developments during which I’ve been proven inadequate in several areas.
Tonight, he’s unusually quiet which means a question is brewing in his head. We’re having takeout dinner. Fried chicken – his favourite.
‘Dad, what’s “Kafkaesque”?’
‘Where did you hear it?’
It must be TV. After all, there’s no shortage of Kafkaesque news in the current state of affairs. But he shows ambivalence, afraid of my scorn perhaps. It’s not easy for a kid to know if a word is inappropriate.
My smile brings out his mumble: ‘Mom’s friend said it once.’
Ryan never refers to his mom’s friends as Mom’s friends. ‘Which one?’
‘A special friend.’
‘What makes this one special?’
‘Mom said so.’
I get this feeling that he’s trying to tell me something without actually saying it. Enough time has passed for me to accept this possibility, that a man, someone special, might enter Kathy’s life. I want to tell Ryan I don’t care, but I refuse to say so because the people who do usually mean otherwise. ‘So, you want to know about the Kafkaesque, do you?’
I give him a lecture on Kafka and The Metamorphosis. He feels pity for Gregor Samsa, savours the funny alliteration in his name.
‘Why does he become a bug?’
Beads of grease drip from the drumstick Ryan is holding, and I feel a pang of guilt. A father should be more conscious of his child’s diet.
‘No one knows, but everyone is free to have their own interpretation.’ I open a moist wipe and clean my fingers. ‘I have the book. Wanna take a crack at it?’
He nods. I’m not sure how much he will appreciate at seven. But the kids of this generation are slated to be precocious, and it doesn’t hurt to try anyway. The prospect of sharing books with him is something to rejoice at.
My living room is L-shaped, and along its shorter edge, when I moved in, I stuffed a tall and wide Ikea bookshelf. I assembled it by myself. It turned out a little wobbly and skewed yet fulfills its purpose. Despite its visual state of disarray, alphabetical order governs the organisation of the shelves. The Metamorphosis is the only thing I have by Kafka. Thanks to its tiny dimensions, I miss it during my first perusal. My eyes travel back, traversing the row of Kunderas until I reach Dubliners. Kundera’s Joke leans against it, leaving a triangular void where The Metamorphosis should be. I couldn’t have misplaced it, not me. And neither could anyone else, which reminds me no soul has bothered to pay me a visit since I moved here eight months ago – except for a sloppy plumber in overalls and a morose case worker in a suit and neither staying longer than ten minutes.
Ryan stands next to me, glancing up at my confused face. ‘Did you already take it?’ I ask, given to a reflex.
He shakes his head no.
‘Of course not’, I mumble, apologetically.
I bend a little to breeze through the titles across the shelves more thoroughly. I’ve always prided myself on my disciplined approach toward books, and this is now a proof to the contrary. You’re a disappointment on every level, Kathy used to say. Every with a triple V.
‘Dad’, Ryan yells. ‘Look!’
I don’t pay attention. He repeats himself louder with more urgency. I give in and follow the direction of his finger. A cockroach appears in the gap between The Joke and Dubliners, swaying its antennae.
‘Shit’, I mutter. ‘Bring me a shoe. Quick.’
I stay put to make sure I don’t lose sight of the cockroach. When Ryan brings me my worn-out sneaker, the cockroach creeps to the side of the shelf. In order to minimise the possible mess, I roll up the small carpet in front of the bookshelf and shove it behind the sofa. This cracked leather sofa is where I sleep when Ryan visits. The previous tenant left his single bed, and I never bothered to swap it for a larger one, never considered Ryan’s visits, never thought of the possibility of receiving a future date. Those days hurtled forward like a blurry dream, and in dreams you don’t care if your apartment is insufficient and dingy because you might snap out of it in any minute.
With a quick jerk, I swat at the cockroach. I miscalculate the extent of force, and the trajectory of its flight brings the roach to the surface of the sofa, leaping over the floorboard I had chosen to be its slaughterhouse. I swallow back a fuck. Luckily, it lands on its back, unable to push itself upright on the slippery texture.
‘Wait’, Ryan says. ‘What if he is Gregor?’
‘Huh?’ My stare is fixed on the scuffling insect.
‘Don’t kill him, Dad.’ And with more conviction: ‘It’s him.’
Few minutes have passed since I told Ryan about Samsa’s struggle to roll himself off the bed, yet it takes me some time to make the connection. ‘You want us to keep him?’
It’s incredible how Ryan takes after his mother when he’s caught up in one of life’s thrills. The eyes bulging, mouth open enough to exhibit the tip of the tongue. ‘Yes.’
This is an opportunity I should seize upon. What sort of boy wants to spend time in a matchbox apartment plagued with vermin, unless that vermin is a literary icon?
I pass him the shoe. ‘Keep an eye on him.’
I rush into the kitchen, looking for a container. There’s a Pier 1 glass jar near the sink half-filled with stray teabags, like an orphanage. I empty it onto the counter. Thinking ahead, I tear down the cardboard of a Costco hummus box. Costco membership is one of our last joint ventures, Kathy and I.
In the living room, I trap the hapless creature with the upside-down jar. Then I slide the cardboard beneath the jar and turn the whole contraption around in a swift motion. Ryan witnesses the proceeding with awe and admiration.
I twist on the cap and carry the jar to the kitchen. Then, on my laptop, next to my job-hunting tabs, I open a new one. ‘Now let’s see what Mr. Samsa likes to eat.’
The answer, according to my search, is practically everything, including, of course, books.
‘I hear you got a new pet.’
Every time I hand Ryan back, I receive a call from Kathy within hours, an obligatory call as if to grade my parenting performance. It has turned into a routine I almost look forward to.
‘I lost my Metamorphosis…’ I’m clueless how to complete the sentence.
When you’re divorced with a child, you begin to see every act through the lens of custody, like how it’ll play out in court. How can I prove myself a fit parent if I keep a cockroach in a jar? Good that Kathy can’t do it alone. Seemingly, she has a burgeoning love to tend to.
‘Thank God you didn’t lose a Moby Dick’, she sneers. ‘Do you take your little Gregor for a walk? Have you got insurance for him yet?’ She’s having a field day, and I don’t stop her. Suddenly, her voice falls into a grim pitch. ‘Is that really what you want your son to remember you by?’
When dealing with the throes of separation, it often happens that you miss the person, and in so doing you tend to forget why you separated in the first place. An exchange of a few sentences is enough to enrich you with some perspective.
It’s a neutral statement I’m making; surely, she feels the same when I respond: ‘It’s better than watching his mom smashing dishes. This is harmless at least. No collateral damage.’
‘Human beings are entitled to sudden fits. But I don’t know what to call a chronic infatuation with insects.’
‘Go on…say it.’
She’s silent. The fact that she doesn’t call me a lunatic is morbidly reassuring.
In the end, all she says is: ‘Ha-ha.’
She actually utters ha-ha whenever she aims for a fake laugh, like when millennials verbalize el-oh-el.
‘That book was a gift from you’, I say. ‘With a handwritten note. I don’t recall the exact words.’
Somehow, I’m hoping she might recite it from memory, but all I receive is a flat ‘So?’
Kathy is amazing at filtering out emotions. She turns stone-cold whenever she wills it, erecting a shell that only lets raw reason seep through and nothing else; selective osmosis.
She sighs. ‘We have just one child in this world. Let’s make it a success, okay?’
Any sentence with ‘just one child’ is an accusation in disguise. I was the one thinking that even one was too many. Kathy always pushed for more. And time isn’t on her side which is why I think she must be trying hard these days.
I’m unemployed, on EI. Two centuries after the Industrial Revolution, machines still claim victims. Apparently, libraries don’t need librarians, or so I was told on my last day at work. HR encouraged me to channel my skills into something indispensable and sent me home with a small severance paycheque.
A month ago, I found a temporary gig as a freelance translator for a satellite channel that broadcasts soap operas to Iranian audiences across the globe. The output of my work is a transcript they use to dub the shows. These are shows so dumb and mediocre I can’t sit through even one episode, but the pay is decent. I have a desk in my bedroom, where I usually work. But when Ryan is with me, like now, I sit at the dinner table across from where he sits, doing his homework. This set-up gives him the impression of doing an adult thing, and he’s always up for being an adult.
He’s solving some math problems, and I’m converting the dialogues of a collapsing Turkish family who are at each other’s throats for inheritance money while at the same time three of the stakeholders are having illicit affairs. Three so far.
‘Ryan, your grip.’
He tends to write with a twisted wrist. When I correct him, he clasps the pen with the tip of his fingers, somehow dramatically, to show me how difficult it is.
‘I don’t need to learn it. When I grow up no one will write. People will think of something, and boom! It’ll be written.’
‘Wouldn’t that be Kafkaesque?’
‘No, scientific advances are gradual. Kafkaesque, by definition, is absurd and unexpected’, I say, anticipating his questioning the meaning of absurd.
‘Dad, I told Mrs. Sanders about Gregor Samsa. I mean our Gregor Samsa.’
‘Oh, yeah? What did she say?’
‘That Gregor Samsa was a human-sized bug.’
‘What did you tell her?’
‘That if a man can turn into a human-sized bug, then a human-sized bug can turn into a bug-sized bug.’
‘Exactly! And now you know everything about the Kafkaesque.’
He begins to use the term promiscuously, with a droll edge. The milk turning bad – Kafkaesque. Dad shaving his stubble – Kafkaesque. Waking up in alternating beds, every few days – Kafkaesque.
Attending parent-teacher conferences is the sole activity Kathy and I do together. It’s not mandated by the school, but we both want to hear everything first-hand, not paraphrased by the other parent, subject to bias and inflicted with undercurrents of blame.
Mrs. Sanders looks vivacious in a light green dress. I’ve always found her attractive, maybe too attractive to be my son’s teacher. Right now, in her office, Mrs. Sanders is fiddling with her computer. I stop staring at her only when Kathy catches me red-handed.
‘Sorry about the wait.’ Mrs. Sanders swivels her chair in our direction. ‘Ryan is adorable. He’s highly intelligent and communicative. Very curious about how the world works.’
Kathy and I exchange glances. Kathy tilts her head a bit; I rub the underside of my chin. These are things we do when we’re pleased and proud.
Mrs. Sanders places her elbows on the desk, lacing her hands together. ‘So, there’s almost nothing to worry about, especially after the recent changes in his life.’
‘Almost?’ we ask in unison.
‘Well…’ She drinks slowly from her water which she shouldn’t have if she didn’t want to alarm us. ‘Children his age, with a divorce in their family, have different ways of coping with trauma.’
Kathy shifts in place and dangles a hand from the arm of her chair. Not a signal for me to take it, I remind myself.
Mrs. Sanders continues, ‘Some kids, especially the smarter ones who are more prone to imagination, make fantasies. A parallel world. An isolated world. Whatever fits better.’
‘You’re referring to that…’ I look for a benign way of putting it. ‘That insect experiment, I suppose?’
She glares at me as if I spoiled the climax of her story. ‘He volunteered to share with me that he caught a cockroach alive and named it Gregor Samsa. I’m not sure how he knows this fictional character at his age, and I don’t know if it’s a passing phase, but I thought you should know.’ She turns to me with a raised eyebrow. ‘You seem to be aware of it already.’
Our son tried to protect me by claiming it was his idea. Well, I’m not sure if he did it out of protection. Maybe he aimed for all the glory, felt that by sharing his novel idea, he’d gain respect and praise. It sounds like a joke I should never try on Kathy, whom I do my best not to look at.
Then I come clean, owning up to everything. Mrs. Sanders listens to my story wearing a smile that should be digitized into an emoji.
‘A passing phase then’, she concludes.
Kathy and I walk out together. She makes no attempt to march ahead of me – something she did a lot in the last year of our marriage, making it look like I was stalking her. We exchange no words, but I know the ‘talk’ is bound to happen, probably once we’re off school grounds.
After walking two blocks in silence, Kathy stops. We stand next to her black Audi. At the time, she’d reasoned she needed a car to impress her clients, but I believe it was more to intimidate me. I still hold on to the idea that the rift between us had to do with the fact that she could finance an Audi Q7 and I could not. In her opinion, however, the rift started when I refused to catch up with her progress.
She fishes for her keys in her purse. ‘We’ll talk later.’
I’m surprised at how easily she lets me off the hook. But as I turn to face her, I see why. She’s a few words away from tears, and she’s not a good fighter when she cries. I jam my hands in my pockets and murmur a goodbye.
Today is Friday, my turn to have Ryan. He goes to bed before nine. Out of exhaustion or boredom, I don’t know – possibly the latter. I should get him a PlayStation or at least a Netflix-equipped TV. Why the hell did I pick the weekends if I’m such a failure at entertaining?
I decide to do a bit of work. I clear a space for myself at the table, ready to go back to the Turkish dysfunctional family struggling in the void left behind by their patriarch. I’m barely into the third page when I hear faint knocks on the door.
It’s Kathy, in a purple blazer with grey pants – her work attire. She adopts an affected sheepishness. ‘Someone entered the building, and I tailgated him.’
She says it as if that’s all the explaining she needs to do.
‘You were in the neighbourhood?’
It used to be an ongoing joke in our early years, when I materialised at her door and said, I happened to be in the neighbourhood. Over time the joke improved and expanded. When we made love and my hand probed between her legs, I would say my hand was in the neighbourhood, and she would laugh.
She smiles, looking away. For a second, she resembles someone combing through memories. Maybe she always smiles when I make romantic allusions over the phone, only I can’t see it on the receiving end.
Her blank expression returns. ‘I…wanted to see it. The cockroach.’
I step aside. ‘The cockroach would be honoured.’
She idles in the foyer, takes in the interior. Her eyes appear to be searching for the vermin, but no, she’s studying her ex-husband’s dwelling, which isn’t any prettier anyway. I fluster about, collecting cups and plates here and there as if that helps to salvage this wreck of an apartment. I relieve another chair of bundled clothes and invite Kathy to sit. Despite her efforts, the trace of a mild surprise emanates from her face.
‘Would you like something?’ I notice the teabags, still scattered on the counter. ‘Tea?’
She shakes her head, so instead I place the glass jar on the table, between us. The cockroach’s hairy legs are halfway into the water I thought it needed to survive.
Kathy looks at it, not close enough or curious enough for someone to justify her visit by this encounter. She’s never been scared of insects, but that doesn’t mean she’d enjoy staring at them.
She points to my laptop with her eyebrows. ‘You were busy.’
‘Just some translation work, you know. These TV shows.’ I close the laptop while I flap my other hand in the air. I’m reluctant to talk about work. It would inevitably lead to the matters of money.
‘Your knowledge of Farsi comes in handy at last.’
It’s condescending. Funnily enough, when she started her realtor business, the few words I’d taught her proved very useful in charming her Iranian clients. I’m sure she made way more dollars with those rudimentary words than I’m making with my fluency in the entire language.
She reads my thoughts. ‘I was joking. It’s getting harder and harder for us not to offend each other.’
She checks her watch. It’s the second time.
‘Waiting for your special friend to pick you up?’ I ask.
A flash of incredulity seizes upon her eyes, and I immediately regret what I let out. I have clearly established that I exploited my son like a spy.
Kathy, however, is quick at regaining her composure. ‘Believe it or not, I have no plans tonight and no way of proving it to you, anyway.’
As I gaze into her eyes appraising her sincerity, it occurs to me that this is the woman, out of the billions, with whom I won’t grow old, next to whom I won’t be buried. Prove it by staying over, I almost say.
‘Why not? It’s Friday night. You’re a young, single, pretty woman.’ I linger on every adjective, weighing them. ‘And you don’t have to worry about Ryan. Go crazy. Eat your heart out.’
‘Except that I do worry about Ryan. Look…the abusive parents aren’t the only ones fucking with their children’s lives. That’s just one way.’
‘Seriously? And I thought I was the one prone to exaggeration in our marriage.’
She fixes her gaze on the jar. The cockroach places one front leg on the wall of the glass as if waving at her. I’m sure she won’t appreciate the simile, might find it repugnant even.
‘Don’t you have plans to see someone?’
She doesn’t even acknowledge the sarcasm. ‘Women.’
Kathy was in Mrs. Sanders’ office this morning. She saw my need for a woman, any woman. I graze the glass with my thumb. The cockroach scurries about in fright and stops closest to my finger. I look up at Kathy to share this funny moment, but she’s looking away, to her right, where Ryan stands in his seersucker pyjamas. He’s peering at us: Mom, Dad and a live cockroach in between. A moment worthy of the Kafkaesque, if only he wasn’t too overwhelmed to speak.
‘Hi, honey’, Kathy says.
‘Your mom came here to convince me this is not Mr. Samsa.’
I steal a glance at Kathy whose expression has turned placid again.
‘Your mother can be very persuasive; yes.’
‘What’s happened to your book then?’ he asks.
Kathy zips her purse open, pulls out a thin book and leaves it on the table.
‘A replacement’, she chirps.
I lean over and draw it toward myself with one hand. I leaf through the opening pages. ‘You haven’t written anything in it.’
She has a pen ready. ‘Ryan, come here.’ She opens the book to the title page. ‘Write something for your dad. It’s your gift to him.’
Ryan inches closer, shifting his gaze between us. He must be thinking this is the continuation of a dream. He grabs the pen and, after a moment of deliberation, starts to write. His grip is wrong, but I say nothing. Not the time and place.
‘Once you’re done, we’ll take the jar to the street and free the cockroach’, I say.
This we do as a family. Downstairs there’s a small patch of garden. I twist the cap open and give the jar to Ryan. He tips it slightly until the cockroach drops and vanishes into the earth.
‘So long, Gregor’, he shouts, and neither of us protests.
‘You’re not keeping that jar, are you?’ Kathy asks.
‘Nope’, I lie. ‘Got to find a new home for my teabags.’
‘You don’t want to serve tea to your special friends from a cockroach-inhabited container.’ And then, ‘Ha-ha.’
We shake hands, business style. She gives Ryan a kiss and disappears into the dark night. Ryan and I climb back inside.
I intend to discuss his mother’s visit, but he kicks off his slippers, dashes to the bedroom and shuts the door. Maybe he figures if no one talks about this, if we don’t jinx it, it could happen again. Us three.
I put the jar in the sink and open the faucet. Amid the sound of splashing water, an unconscious force gravitates me toward the bookshelf. To check one last time for my old copy. What makes more sense, for it to be there or not, I don’t know.
Still a dark slit, an opening for the new copy, bearing Ryan’s note. Still there, on the dining table, not yet evaporated. Water starts to overflow. The bookshelf squeaks. The tiny hill of teabags lies on the counter. The garbage bag gaping open, voracious and black. For a moment, I’m paralyzed. Clueless, like a roach on its back, limbs in the air.
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