“Fuck!” the kid said, from the back seat of the car. They pick these things up from everywhere, the two-and-a-half-year-old children do. The child is like a runaway threshing machine rattling across the landscape of language, ingesting and scattering everything in its path: grain, chaff, string beans, feed buckets, chopped-up bits of mailboxes. How much of what your child says is understandable? the developmental survey form asks. You mean articulate? Or comprehensible? “The greens are taking care of the eights,” he says. Or: “Welcome to Metro.” Or: “I want a toaster in my ear.”
Sometimes the kiddie-Joycean monologue defies untangling. “Musaka musaka iko,” he likes to say, or something that sounds like that. Followed by: “No! That’s J____’s line!” J____ is one of his day-care classmates. I tried to reproduce his thought processes with Google and got eggplant recipes. None of the day-care teachers could figure out where it had come from.
“Fuck!” was not one of the mysterious ones. He had it perfect. We were heading out to the airport, the two of us, and we’d burned most of our margin of error getting him into his coat and shoes. I’d hurried him through the apartment garage, buckled him into his car seat, and thrown the luggage into the trunk. I jabbed the key into the ignition, letting my eyes fall on the dashboard clock, and just as the numbers lit up: “Fuck!”-like a cue called out from the wings.
It’s not that I’d been about to blurt it out myself, right then. We weren’t running that late, yet. But I’d slipped up enough times before-missing a Metro train, yes, definitely-and he’d picked up the whole rhythm and logic of it, the moment when Daddy’s haste and frustration would crest. He could hear and echo the bad words even if I kept them inside my skull.
“Fuck!” he repeated, with rising merriment, as I put the car in reverse and looked over my shoulder. “Fuck!”
I tried not to meet his eyes. Take provocation in stride, the experts say. Deprive the child of any reaction, positive or negative, as if nothing interesting had happened. This is wonderful advice. If I had that much self-control, he would never have heard me cuss in the first place.
I don’t want to have a salty, transgressive mini-adult around. The joke is not that great. My parents raised me with rules and standards, which I gradually learned to break over time. I can remember my mother remonstrating with me, probably in the middle-school years, for my overreliance on “holy crap.” It was no doubt a relief to my father when I devolved into full foul-mouthed teenagerhood and he could go back to saying “dog-fucking son of a bitch” during Eagles games or whenever. But he didn’t try to speed up the process.
So it was guilty and mortified laughter that I was stifling, ineffectively. No one will mimic you more cruelly and accurately than your own child. “Daddy made a mistake!” is his favorite gag line of all. Daddy made a mistake! It’s not funny. It’s funny. Fuck! I mean, drat.
A friend of mine, when his daughter was two years old, got called in for a parent-teacher conference. The little girl had been bouncing around on one of those big rubber balls, happily saying “Fuck-fuck-fuck-fuck-fuck!” in time with the bouncing. Yeah, he and his wife said, abashedly, she got that from us. The teacher was surprised. No parents had ever pleaded guilty before, she told them. They always said it must have been an uncle or something.
Or something. I do sincerely believe he picked up “It is SO fucking cold!” from somewhere else, for instance. And the “WEEE WILLL, WEEE WILLL…” of “We Will Rock You.” Not my fault. Influences are everywhere. The parent has to set an example.
Not long after the ride to the airport, at the end of a party with people we’d only just met, the kid-who’d been quiet all evening-suddenly felt moved to holler. “Oh, MERCY!” he yelled. “Oh, MERCY!” Those words had come out of my mouth only once, maybe a week before, at the sight of some Dutch elm disease damage. The kid had been up on my shoulders at the time, seemingly engrossed in an electronic greeting card he’d discovered, making it play a snippet of “You Are the Sunshine of My Life” over and over in my ear.
But now he was stomping around these people’s entrance hall. “Oh, MERCY! Oh, MERCY!”
The other people’s children were scampering here and there. Who says “Oh, mercy”? someone asked.
I do, I said.