We were in the backyard pulling weeds because Mel asked me to and Tristan volunteered. It was unusual for him to get excited about wanting to both pull weeds and spend time with me.
He’d been going through this pre-preteen phase. Most of the time I embarrassed him. He wouldn’t let me hug him in front of his friends. A month earlier, I dropped him off at school. He sprinted from the car, darting in front of the school’s heavy morning traffic to keep me from giving him a hug. Part of me hoped he’d have a close call with a car. A near miss or something. I didn’t want him to get hurt. I just wanted him to be good and scared so I could lean down, look him in the eyes, and say something like, “Not hugging your dad sometimes means getting hit by a car. It’s just the way the universe works.” He’d have to believe me because he was seven. But none of that happened. Instead, I just stopped hugging him in public.
It’s an unwritten agreement of sorts.
He’s pulling away from me, which has made me think a lot about him growing up and moving on. I wonder how much more time I have to influence his life before he sees me as this domineering thing in a polo shirt and cargo shorts, whose advice is old-fashioned and worthless.
“You know, Tristan,” I said. “Someday you are going to do that in front of someone you’re attracted to. That person is going to call you disgusting, while you are going to think they are cute. It will make you feel so crappy that you won’t ever eat a booger again.”
I assumed he would tell me that I was lying. That he didn’t care who liked him or not, or some other clichéd seven-year-old answer. Instead Tristan looked up at me, hands dirty from pulling weeds, the booger still soaking in his mouth, and said, “Did you ever eat a booger in front of mom?”
I laughed. “I ate a booger in front of a girl on the school bus once. It wasn’t your mom. Her name was Liz. I thought this girl was really cute at the time, and I thought eating a booger would make her think I was funny like it did with my older brother. I was probably eleven. I put the booger in my mouth, then I stuck out my tongue and showed it to her. She put her head down and puked in her lap.”
Tristan put his hand over his little chubby tummy and laughed long and hard. “That is awesome!” he said.
I laughed a little, too. I couldn’t help it. His reaction was priceless.
“Listen, someday you are going to want to date. Someday you are going to meet someone, and you are going to want to impress that person. And maybe, you will find someone that is impressed by boogers and farts and all the other crap you always talk about with your buddies but chances are, they won’t be. Someday you are going to move out of this house and go out on your own, and you will have to stop all of this gross booger stuff and find something else to talk about. Something of value. And I don’t know what that’s going to be, but what I do know is that when your mom and I first got married, I still thought farts and boogers were charming. After two weeks of marriage, your mom and I sat in bed, and I thought it would be really funny to fart and then pull the blanket over her head.”
“Why did you do that?” Tristan asked.
I smiled, and then I said, “Because I thought it would be funny to trap her and the fart under the blanket.”
Thinking back, I didn’t really answer his question because I’m not really sure why I did that to my wife. Growing up with other boys had shown me that farts make friends. Perhaps I did it because for so long I’d gotten used to receiving positive attention from my buddies for talking about farts and boogers.
Once again Tristan wrapped his hand over his stomach and started laughing at the thought of his mother trapped under a blanket with a fart, and for a moment, I felt like I was failing at this whole Ward Cleaver parenting talk.
“Listen,” I said. “She didn’t think it was funny at all. She squirmed and coughed under there, and when I let her out, I was laughing hysterically. But she wasn’t. She started hitting me and calling me a jerk. Then she made me sleep in the living room for a few nights. She was really, really mad.” I thought about mentioning that she also cut me off from sex for almost a month, but decided I’d better keep that conversation for another time.
Tristan now listened, both hands in his shorts pockets.
“Someday,” I said, “you are going to grow up and be on your own. You will probably get married to someone you really love and respect. And I suppose my advice to you is, don’t be gross. Be a gentlemen. Treat your partner with respect. Don’t eat boogers in front of them. Don’t make them smell your farts because stuff like that will probably make your partner feel like THEY are the kind of person who deserves to be farted on. And that’s not a way to make a good relationship work.”
Neither of us spoke for a moment. I looked at Tristan’s face, and it almost felt like I’d gotten through to him, that my advice for adult life had worked. As a father I don’t get to feel this sort of satisfaction all that often, so I didn’t say anything. I just savored the moment.
Tristan looked up at me. I expected him to say something important. Something that reflected the change I’d obviously made in his perceptions on adult life.
He took a deep breath and said, “I farted. And it smelled really good.” Then he placed his hands over his tummy again and started laughing.
This is an excerpt from my new book “This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things.”