One of the things that comes with the Parent Package is an item known as “Regret ™ .” It is included with every shipment at no extra cost, it lasts for a lifetime, it never wears out, and it works especially well late at night, when all is quiet except for the sounds in your head.
The family I grew up in was almost the last one that participated in the cycle of violence. This is a simple cycle. Parent hits child, child grows up, hits his child, that child grows up, etc.
Our earliest family violence stories were about ol’ Great Granda Edward. He walked from Leesville to Alpine, Texas when he was sixteen, a very solid 500-mile stroll. In Alpine he bought a team of mules and became a freight hauler. Then he inherited some money from a childless great-aunt he’d never heard of in Philadelphia, so he bought a ranch.
When he wanted to make a point with his two sons, Frank and Eddie, he made it with a two-by-four and with his fists. My grandfather Frank got his points across with severe beatings. My dad vented his job/family/life frustrations with belt whippings, although many of them were richly deserved, like the time we mined the alley out back with a hundred broken bottles and watched gleefully as all the cars got double or even quadruple flats.
My own ventures in corporal punishment were brief — a few spankings when my daughter was two or three, and then one day I realized it was wrong, realized how much I’d hated being hit, and never hit her again. My two boys have never been hit, and they’ve never complained to me about it.
Still, just because our family has evolved out the beatings doesn’t mean that I’m not a victim of the frustrations and annoyances and anger that buffeted my dad, or my granddad, or my great grandfather. Take, for instance, beer.
A couple of months ago I hit on the bright idea to recruit my youngest son as the family brewmeister. What could be better than having a son who brewed your beer for you? We bought a brewing kit, he read up on the process, and after a long while we started on the first batch. I’m not much of a cook or a chemist, so I “supervised” by standing around and taking orders.
After a couple of weeks the beer had stopped fermenting and it was time for bottling. “You gonna bottle that beer tomorrow?” I asked.
“I thought I was the one in charge.”
That stung. “You are, but is it just going to sit there forever?”
“No. I’m gonna bottle it.”
“Because mom is making me go watch her Michael Jackson flashmob in Santa Monica and I’ll be too tired to bottle five gallons of beer.”
The way he spoke to me was a way that, if I’d ever spoken in such a way to my father, would have resulted in a memorable beating. I felt my blood heat up, then simmer, then boil. “When are you gonna do it then?”
“Monday, after summer school.”
“Why don’t you do it today?”
“You said we were going to ride bikes today.”
It was already six o’clock, I was wrecked from the Donut Ride, and I knew he didn’t want to ride bikes. It was a strategic ploy to force me off the beer gambit. My legs ached and I got so angry. Now I’d have to either admit that I didn’t really want to ride bikes either (he’d win) or I’d have to go ride (legs would fall off), and in either case the beer would get put on hold. He had me.
“Fine,” I said, even though it wasn’t fine. “Suit up.”
I stomped into my room and pulled on my kit. The anger was profound, and what made it worse is that he wasn’t upset at all. “Sure!” he said.
All of our previous rides had involved driving down the hill and commencing our rides in Torrance or on the gradual rollers. The reason was simple: leaving from our place meant a 10-minute descent and an awful, 2-mile climb with a couple of very severe pitches. I knew that there was no way he could make it up the hill, so we had always driven.
But this evening I still had one move left in this chess game, and I played it.
We rolled out. It was pretty obvious we weren’t taking the car. I never looked back as we dropped, descended, flew down towards Malaga Cove. He had never descended that far or that fast and now I was trapped in the full riptide of regret. “What if he fucking crashes? What if he gets killed?”
But we dropped like stones and all I could think was that we lived atop a high hill and if he was going to ride a bike with me, someday he’d have to ride it fast, and that some day was now, and anyway, it was way too late to turn around.
We reached the plaza. “Where are we going now?” he asked.
I made a loop through the parking lot and we started back up the hill. “Oh,” he said, looking at the wall of Via del Monte.
Now the regret took another phase; what I was doing was, it seemed to me, one step removed from a beating. I never looked back, but I didn’t have to. I heard him breathing, then grunting, and every minute I waited for him to say “Stop” or “I need to rest” or “I can’t.”
At one point after the hook turn he veered into a bush. “Goddamit,” I heard him curse. All I did was slow down, listening to him disentangle from the branches and get started again. The road flattened and then kicked up hard. He was gasping now. I hated myself and my father and my grandfather and my great-grandfather, but I couldn’t turn around and say a word of encouragement or do anything except push the pedals. It’s called the cycle for a reason.
He never stopped, though, or asked for mercy. Waiting for the light at Hawthorne I looked at him and said, “Good job.”
He didn’t look at me directly, only tried to catch his breath.
We got back home and he went in the door first. Yasuko was in the kitchen. “How was your ride?” she asked.
“It was so awesome!” he said. “I made it all the way up the hill without stopping!” Then he turned to me, beaming. “Thanks, dad!”
The beer didn’t seem very important anymore.