Childhood

Mark didn’t know what to make of his son—he didn't seem like an "ordinary" kid

Illustration by Kellen Hatanaka

As a treat, on the way to the appointment, they stopped at an Indian restaurant, and Mark Berman listened to his son pronounce the items on the menu. That they had made it this far was already a feat, since it meant they’d managed to leave the house, walk down to Eglinton Avenue, and board a bus filled with people, some of whose bodies gave off strange scents. Along the way, there had been tears, but they were mostly symbolic, the boy’s means of asserting himself.

In the restaurant, Reuben was happier and behaved like a little adult, summoning the courage to glance at the waiter when he placed his order. A year before, he wouldn’t have set foot in this restaurant, couldn’t have been convinced to try the alien food, and would have answered the waiter by looking at the tablecloth. Some combination of time and enzymes had eased him. The boy was eight, and he was doing better.

There were lots of reasons to be optimistic. He was a proficient reader in both English and French. He could amuse himself for hours, concocting stories and creating intricate drawings. He remembered the lyrics to seemingly every song he’d ever heard and, using his index fingers, could tease their melodies out on the piano. He was physically robust and swam and ice skated and did karate. Sometimes, boys from his class invited him to their houses; other times, they invited themselves over to his. Mark would encounter them in the kitchen—funny, eager boys, named for English monarchs and biblical prophets—opening cupboards in search of snacks. But many mornings, when he dropped his son at school, he’d see these same boys in a fizzy little scrum and his son tentative to approach, lurking on the periphery, gazing absently about, with none of them taking note of him. There were also fits of temper. A relentless argumentativeness. Extreme sensitivities to sense phenomena—a phantom smell in the car, dishes with unsightly patterns, the textures of clothing. Mutating phobias—of the bin under the sink for the kitchen waste, a malevolence in a tree at the playground, getting caught outside in the rain. And absent-mindedness—lost shoes and lunch boxes, perpetually forgotten homework—and an otherworldly spaciness, minutes like eons when he stood holding his underpants while reading a book he’d read before. Mark didn’t know what to make of it. Did it fall within the margin of error? What constituted ordinary childhood? What did they have to go on?

Report cards were composed in language that bore only a faint resemblance to English. Parent-teacher conferences had the polite, anxious feel of second dates. Then there was the hysterical internet. Contrast with his older sister. Comparison against Mark’s imperfect memories of his own childhood. Did he have even a single distinct memory of himself at eight? Everything before—what, twelve?—felt like a brown haze punctuated by bright spectra of embarrassment or shame. Here the object of cruelty, there the subject of boastfulness, of pettiness, of deceit. He vacillated between thinking he had been just like and nothing like Reuben. So he and his wife had put off making the appointment until it felt just too irresponsible and cowardly not to. Then they put it off some more. Until, in a spasm of conviction—the way they accomplished most things—Mark phoned the office and set a date.

They finished their meal and rose from the table, now with only a short walk between them and the appointment. He expected his son to grow wary and sullen, but Reuben acted as if he’d forgotten how much he had dreaded this day. Instead, he basked in the glow of having eaten a challenging, sophisticated meal.

“It was really spicy,” he said. “It was even too spicy for you.”

On the street, there was construction—the city was digging a new subway line—and sidewalks were barricaded, requiring pedestrians to walk along narrow pathways and cross at improvised intersections. Confused drivers weren’t sure where to stop. Without Mark asking, Reuben slipped his soft, slightly damp hand into his. Mark could count the number of times his son had done that. For the first five, six years of his life, he hadn’t liked anyone but his mother to touch him. At a certain point, by way of compromise, the boy would let Mark lay his hand on his cheek and then kiss it to say good night. But now he held Mark’s hand and prattled on about some incident at school. Something “gross” a boy in his class had done. Then about his part in a social studies project on Manitoba. Did Mark know about polar bears in Churchill? Which reminded him of a riddle Elijah, his project partner, had told him about a cowboy who rides into town on Friday and leaves three days later on Friday. (His horse’s name was Friday!) For a moment, Mark interpreted Reuben’s chattiness as a sign that he’d stopped being nervous about the appointment. Then, thinking deeper, he realized that it actually meant the opposite. A more astute, sensitive father would have understood this right away. His son had taken his hand because he was very nervous and was talking compulsively to mask his fear. Why he didn’t understand this immediately, why his son so often seemed like a mystery to him, felt like a personal failing. He pictured the trunk of a tall, broad oak. This was how a father’s love should be. His was wrapped in creeping vines.

After navigating more barricades and obstacles, they found the entrance to the medical building, a kind popularized in the 1960s, brown, brutalist, and not very inviting. Mark normally wouldn’t care, but he knew his son would. It couldn’t help that they were going into an ugly building. He had the address and all the details but still consulted the directory, also of the period—white plastic letters pressed into a black plastic board. He found the name and suite numbers: Dr. C. Katsenelenbogen 203, 204.

They climbed one flight of stairs and approached room 203. A small handwritten card tacked to the door informed: “If the door is locked, please go to room 204.” The handle gave way, and they entered a small reception room that had no provision for a receptionist. He noted two upholstered chairs, in a midcentury modern style, flanking a pale maple end table stacked with children’s books and juvenile magazines. Beyond the reception area were two rooms, one whose door was shut, the other whose door was open. Unsure what to do, they didn’t make any deliberate sounds to announce themselves. But, through the open door, a woman appeared anyway. She smiled and offered her hand and introduced herself as Dr. Claire Katsenelenbogen but asked that they call her Claire. She was slightly older than Mark, of less than average height, dressed in a neutral caftan blouse and matching slacks, her dark curls gathered in a loose knot atop her head. She had neat, regular features, which had probably always suited her, was sufficiently but not exceedingly pretty, so as not to detract from her brains. Something about her seemed familiar, which wasn’t unusual in the fishbowl of Jewish Toronto. She could have been the older sister of a forgotten high-school friend. Or maybe just the representative of a certain social type: the daughter of a progressive mother and a father with a good head for business.

She opened the door to the room where she conducted her client meetings. A window overlooked the street and framed a steel desk. Claire seated herself behind the desk, and Mark took the seat across from her. Beside him was another chair and beside that, at the corner of the desk, was a red synthetic fur beanbag chair. His son weighed his options and, resentful of being watched, turned his back to Mark and knelt on the beanbag, averting his face from Claire as well. “Reuben,” he admonished, though he knew it would be less than futile, produce the countereffect.

His son plucked at the fur and fixated on a spot between the top of the beanbag and a bookshelf on the nearest wall. Brain Lateralization in Children, Beyond Freedom and Dignity, The Psychology of Sex Differences, Precocity and Perversity, and Children and Arson were among the happy titles.

“Reuben, do you know why you’re here?” Claire asked.

“Because I forget things,” his son replied uncertainly.

“What kinds of things?”

“My agenda from school and stuff like that.”

“Does it bother you when you forget things?”

“Sometimes,” his son said, and squinted at some red fibres that had stuck to his fingers.

“And do you know what we’re going to do here today?”

“Tests?”

“Kinds of tests. Some questions have right answers and some don’t. You’ll just do your best, okay?”

His son nodded, and Claire slid a thick manila envelope over to Mark.

“Your mom and dad will answer some questions too. It’ll be their homework.” She delivered this rote little quip with a dry smile, so as not to insult anyone’s intelligence.

Inside the envelope were two identical sets of workbooks, six in total. Each workbook concerned itself with a related but slightly different set of capacities and behaviours. They’d notice some overlap in the questions, but this was intentional. Completing each workbook would take anywhere from fifteen minutes to half an hour. Some questions they’d be able to answer instantly; others would require reflection. Parents were meant to complete one set of workbooks, with the other set to be completed by the child’s schoolteacher. Once all were done, the data could be compiled and integrated with the results of his son’s testing. They’d get a detailed report with recommendations about how to proceed. Which might include doing nothing at all. While Claire went through this explanation, his son looked up from his hands and studied the room. There were the bookshelves to inspect, the view out the window (from that angle, little more than the tops of buildings and the white midday sky) and some diplomas and lithographs on classical Japanese themes—a pink lily, a snow-capped mountain. The name on the diplomas was Claire Gelb.

Mark tried to remember how he knew the name Claire Gelb as he sat in the waiting area of room 204 while, in another room, Claire administered a more systematic memory test to his son.

“Say the numbers back to me in reverse order: 9, 1.”

“1, 9.”

“4, 5, 8.”

“8, 5, 4.”

“7, 5, 4, 2.”

“2, 5, 4, 7.”

“2, 1, 7, 9, 4.”

“4, 9, 2…”

“It’s all right. 6, 3, 7, 2, 9, 1?”

“1, 9, 2, 7, 3, 6?”

“Very good. And can you say these numbers back in numerical order, smallest to biggest? 7, 5, 8, 1.”

“1, 5, 7, 8.”

Mark attempted the questions along with his son and didn’t do nearly as well. One day, he imagined, he’d be given this same test to establish just how much his mind had deteriorated.

In another room, its door open, another psychologist put a different set of questions to someone else’s child.

“Please define island. What does ancient mean? How many hours are in a day? Name something in space not made by humans. Why is it important to tell the truth? How could stress be a good thing? What are problems with rapid changes in science and technology? What does the heart do?”

Every answer was like wiping a little more of the murk from the future. This is what is inside you. It is your potential. People rarely transcend. Even if you are granted love and support, X awaits you. Probably more like X minus Y.

Moved by boredom, curiosity, and foreboding, Mark opened one of the workbooks and read the questions. They were written in plain language and arranged in neat columns, the diligent work of confirmed specialists—researchers, editors, publishers—that made undeniably and pitiably real the agonies people were living in their homes each day. The answers were graded on a scale that started with “Not at all,” proceeded to “Just a little” and “Pretty much,” and then dropped into the abyss of “Very much.”

•Picks at things (nails, fingers, hair, clothing)

•Problems with making or keeping friends

•Excitable, impulsive

•Cries easily or often

•Daydreams

•Difficulty learning

•Restless in the “squirmy” sense

•Fearful (of new situations, people, places, school)

•Restless, always up and on the go

•Problems with eating

•Bowel problems

•Destructive

•Shy

•Quarrelsome

•Pouts and sulks

•Feels lonely, unwanted, or unloved

•Fails to finish things

•Mood changes quickly and drastically

•Harms others (pets, friends, siblings)

•Harms self

•Doesn’t understand/respect other people’s physical and sexual boundaries

•Plays with own genitals

•Basically an unhappy child

It was then that Mark remembered how he knew Claire. She’d been the host of a local television program when he was a boy. The show aired every afternoon after school and consisted of her answering questions about relationships and sex. She would have been in her early twenties, not all that much older than her callers. It was the mid-1980s, before the great disgorgement of the internet, when the world still seemed full of intimate, hidden things. Under the cover of the show, kids unburdened themselves while other kids watched giddily or silently in their living rooms and basements.

Mark usually watched with other Russian kids whose parents had bought homes in a modest development within sight of the apartment buildings where they’d landed not long before, penniless and bewildered. They were boys and girls often left to their own devices, pulled daily into the evolving drama of the street. They called each other friends, but it was friendship marred by intrigue, jealousy, mockery, and distrust. He didn’t know why it was like that. Maybe it was immigrant. Maybe it was Soviet.

When he was twelve or thirteen, in a misguided attempt at fellowship, he revealed a vulnerability, hedging, saying he’d only done it once, but still, like sadistic little ogres, they tormented him. He could have said, “The whole world is beating off,” but that was still privileged information. He had never before known such misery. No day passed without ridicule and the threat of exposure. They would drop hints in front of strangers. There was something the matter with him. He was deviant. For his own good, they would tell his parents.

Alone, he suffered and prayed that they would tire of persecuting him. He could see no way to make them stop. He suffered and masturbated, the pleasure just barely exceeding the shame. He hunched on the toilet with a page from a pornographic magazine, of a woman in high heels presenting herself from behind. He hadn’t hit puberty and there were functions his body couldn’t yet perform, but she had already imprinted herself on his erotic life. He would lock the door and, heart pounding, pinch the tiny exposed corner of the photograph from where it protruded between the bathroom mirror and the wall. And then fold it up and slide it back into its hiding place, careful not to push it in so far that he wouldn’t be able to retrieve it again.

Then, one day, someone proposed the hilarious idea to call the TV show on behalf of a friend who had a problem. Red faced and on the verge of tears, he ran home and, out of inchoate desperation and hate, called the show himself. It was the closest he’d come to wishing he were dead.

His son emerged from the room where he’d been tested and came over to him looking mildly disconcerted, as if he weren’t sure quite what to be upset about.

“Finished?” Mark asked.

“I have a break before the next test.” He stood by Mark’s side and his expression altered slightly, as if a source of frustration had revealed itself.

“What is it?”

“You’re probably going to say no.”

“Always possible.”

He shifted in place and said, “Can I play a game on your phone?”

Mark gave him his phone and got up to give him his seat as well. The boy curled up, resting his chin on his knees, and abandoned himself to the screen so that he didn’t notice or mind Mark looking at him. When he was untroubled, he was quite a handsome boy. Of his two children, his son was the one who looked at all like him. In the set of Reuben’s chin and the shape of his mouth, Mark also glimpsed his own father, who’d died before the boy was born. Mark couldn’t say why that should matter. It shouldn’t matter. Only it was evident that something of his resided in his son.

Claire came out of the testing room and walked purposefully toward the door that led to the hallway. She and Mark exchanged a polite smile as she passed. She opened the door, stepped partway out, and then turned back.

“I’ve been trying to remember where I know you from,” she said and loosed a flush of panic in him as if, because he had been thinking about her, she could read his thoughts. “Is your family Russian?”

“Actually, Latvian. Soviet,” he bumbled. “But basically Russian.”

“My husband’s family is Russian. I think your parents were at our wedding.”

“Your in-laws, what are their names?” he asked, but he didn’t recognize them.

“My associate will do the other testing,” Claire said as she turned to go. “The language and concepts.”

Unable to stop himself, he followed her out into the hall, startling her.

“I remember you too.”

“Oh,” she said.

“You must hear that a lot.”

“How is that?”

“From your show,” he said.

He saw her expression assume a professional opacity, as if the mode between them had changed. Perhaps, he thought, he had reminded her of a former self she no longer identified with. It was such a long time ago, and she had been so young. Or maybe she really didn’t know what he was talking about. He’d confused her with an entirely different person. Descending further, he started to question whether he had misremembered the whole thing. There hadn’t been a show.

“Your son is very sweet,” Claire said to break the silence.

“He did okay?”

“He did fine.”

“Do you think he’ll be all right?”

“Most of us turn out all right,” she said with calm finality. He felt the ludicrous urge to insist and say, I called you and you saved my life, but she had gone, and anyway, it was beside the point.

David Bezmozgis
David Bezmozgis is the director of the Humber School for Writers. His latest book, Immigrant City, was released in March 2019.