There’s something about loud children in public places that makes my stomach turn. It may have something to do with the fact that I, myself, never was the type of kid to make a scene.
It’s fair to say a strong sense of shame was one of my first complex adult faculties to develop. That, and my affinity for men’s (boys’) formalwear (that counts as a faculty, right?). Given that my aversion to scandal and my willingness to judge others were finely tuned long before any sense of empathy, I’d see other children making a scene at McDonalds over an unsatisfactory happy meal toy, for example, and feel burning, visceral disgust where an adult might be more tolerant. Is this idiot serious? I’d think to myself, sipping Sprite with zeal in at attempt to wash as much hatred as I could down my throat. You know that look you give someone at the movie theater when they’re talking really loud–the dramatic turn, performed lethargically, deliberately–like you’re nearly throwing out your back to do it, paired with death stare? That was my go-to. Too small and yeller to fight, for me, this was the equivalent of fisticuffs.
Unfortunately, children have next to no self-awareness, let alone regard for people around them, so this mostly proved ineffective, though it didn’t abate my efforts, except occasionally, when I’d find myself staring down a child of the mentally-challenged variety and wishing I could take back the daggers I’d given. Eventually I’d learn to scope out the enemy before attacking (figuratively, of course). While trial-and-error has its pitfalls, it’s all you have as a kid. Childhood is like a giant game of Battleship, except nobody wins and the people losing don’t seem to notice. The ungrateful little shit screaming about his happy meal, for example, won’t notice his ships steadily sinking until he’s convicted on eight counts of date-rape with two of his college lax buddies. No doubt his enabling, invertebrate of a mother will stand behind him then too. We’ll see her on CNN sporting the first professional coiffure she’s had since before childbirth, babbling about how the liberal media and the criminal justice system have completely mischaracterized her “little angel.” She’ll wave her finger and tell Anderson Cooper that it would never have come this far if we hadn’t “kicked Jesus out of our schools.” At this point we’ll flip the channel because if there’s one thing worse than a parochial, irresponsible parent; it’s a self-righteous, bible-thumping, parochial, irresponsible parent.
That said, I wasn’t thrilled to find myself trapped in a cabin on the ferry back from Nantucket filled with strollers, sippy-cups, and miniature sauce-covered faces a few weeks back. I’m not sure how children under twelve manage to always have sauce on their faces, but they do it somehow. It’s equal parts impressive and revolting.
I’d been in Nantucket with my brother, let’s call him Kip, for a few days to attend an art show of his, which, despite taking place in the world’s mecca for oil paintings of sailboats, beach landscapes, and weathered buoys on rope in expensive frames; featured next to none of these. Accordingly, we chalked it up as a wild success and, hence, treated ourselves to intermittent twenty-minute naps on the glorified park benches they called seats on the two-hour ferry back to the mainland. I don’t want to sound ungrateful–surely there are people in the world who don’t have seats at all, let alone brownish ones. But for a forty-five dollar ticket, some kind of a cushion situation would’ve gone a long way. That’s all I’m saying. Maybe even a rack of those portable seat cushions people bring to sporting events. I would’ve paid upwards of five dollars just to rent one of those. Missed opportunity if you ask me.
Nobody did ask me. And given that there was no suggestion box on any of the three decks to be found and the deckhand with whom I raised this concern seemed entirely uninterested, I had to sit with it. In addition to the small factions of children scattered around the cabin growing more and more restless as the trip progressed. I grew envious of Kip who, apparently, in addition to being a talented visual artist is also very gifted when it comes to sleeping snugly in refugee camp conditions at the drop of a hat. I thought about drawing a penis on his forehead, but I didn’t have a marker. I probably wouldn’t have done it either way, honestly. I’m not really the kind of person who draws penises on sleeping peoples’ foreheads. I want to make that clear. It was a fleeting thought in a moment of covetousness and I’m not particularly proud of it.
The kid-noise came in waves. Loudest were the babies, of which there were three. One would cry and shriek and the other two would join in like clockwork. Their unity was pretty remarkable on this front, especially given that they were each from a different family. It was a bit like being at a Destiny’s Child concert in that sense, though their harmonies could’ve used polishing, and that’s to say nothing of their choreography, which, essentially, was limited to rolling their heads back and forth and turning red.
Then there were the toddlers. Though older, and, presumably, wiser, these guys followed the babies’ lead wherever it took them, their voices ebbing with each swell. This made for a rich symphony filled with sweeping cacophonic crescendos of the grandest kind. The toddlers added a performance element that the babies couldn’t. Mainly, this entailed running around and spilling food items. They made it look easy. At it’s best, the theatrics of the whole spectacle reminded me a bit of the “The World Will Know” number from Newsies, except it didn’t sound good, which I thought was an interesting twist.
One voice rose above the rest. “I want pasta!” was her anthem. “Ensalada, mom!” featured prominently as well. Whether or not it was her intent to shove her bilinguality in the face of everyone in the cabin, I don’t know. Sure, it added some zest to the ferry chorale, which, until now, had been voiced only in English and baby babble. Still, I found it a bit pretentious. “I’m hungry! I’m hungry!” I’m hungry too, I thought. You don’t hear me screaming about it. This went on for a while and after about twenty minutes or so, it was very clear to everyone in the cabin that, not only was this girl hungry, but that her first choice would be pasta and she’d probably settle for ensalada, which I think is a type of Dominican sandwich made with seasoned meats. Though I’d have to look it up to be sure.
It began to wear on me. Eventually, I gave up on the possibility that she was going to shut her mouth and I started to hope that she’d at least say something different. The bar for entertainment gets set surprisingly low when your headphones are broken and you’ve forgotten to bring a book.
Then it came. “Fuck…You.” She said it loud, but slow and deliberate. With space between the two words–like she really meant it. Woah, I thought. I would’ve settled for “steak tips!” or “I’m thirsty!” Then she said it again. “Fuck. You. Mom.” Louder this time. Once more, “Fuck. You.” I’d been avoiding turning around. There were so many sounds in the cabin that trying to locate the source of each one seemed a pointless endeavor. I was less interested in seeing the kid and much more interested in laying eyes on the kind of parent who would allow her offspring to speak to her like that in public.
So I turned around nice and slow–with intent–death stare locked and loaded. Three or four seats back from me were a little girl, probably around eight or nine, and her mother, sitting casually across from her, arms over the back of the seat, smiling at her girl. “Fuck. You.” Again. The mother made a slight shushing noise and kept grinning at her daughter, who, for a delinquent and future car thief (probably), was actually pretty cute. She said it several more times with me watching, peppered with the whole “I’m hungry” shtick from before, and the picture began to look clearer.
I’m no doctor, but based on what had been coming out of this girl’s mouth for forty-five minutes and the volume at which she’d said it all, combined with complete nonchalance on the part of the mother, it was obvious that this girl had tourettes syndrome. And now I felt like a jerk for assuming she was some spoiled, pasta-obsessed brat with a dim future and a pathetic pushover for a mom.
I did a 180. Where before, I’d found this girl obnoxious, I started to feel for her–identified with her, even. Admittedly, I’d never been around someone with tourettes before. So on some level I found it fascinating. That, and I got quite a bit of enjoyment out of the fact that the dozens of clean-cut polo-clad, croakie-sporting Nantucket families with their snot-eating little children had to sit here in silence as this girl shouted obscenities at the top of her lungs.
As her tirade continued, I found myself in agreement. “I want pasta!” Totally, I could go for some pasta right now. “Ensalada!” Seriously. Ensalada sounds uh-mazing. Put that on rye with extra mayo, and we’re in business. “Fuck you!” Man, I wish I could shout ‘fuck you’ on the ferry. That’d be amazing. I’d shout it in Kip’s ear to wake him up and the three of us could get some kind of a chant going. I bet someone would fork over some pasta if we kept at it long enough.
One of the babies started screaming again after a brief period of relative silence. Without missing a beat, Tourettes Girl shouted “that baby is stupid!” I thought right on. That baby is stupid… Not that it’s his fault really. All babies are stupid.
It was weird. All of a sudden I had an ally. A shipmate with whom to brave the harsh seas. It didn’t matter that she was an eight-year old with a neuropsychiatric disorder. That’s what worked about it. She could say all the brash things with which I’d never be able to get away, with immunity, and I could sit quietly, basking in the increasingly sour expressions of the huffy, waspish bluebloods scrambling to cover their children’s ears.
Then we hit shore and went our separate ways. But I kept thinking about this girl. It was nagging. Remotely, aversely, there was some element of jealousy palpable in my fixation. Not, I should say, born of the fact that she’d been dealt an involuntary, socially crippling condition that she’d have to manage the rest of her life. Such a lot takes the kind of person who can roll with the punches. Given that my life descends into pandemonium when first signs of the common cold appear, I had to give the kid due credit.
While I never had tourettes, I was nine. She and I had that in common. I pondered this fact as I drifted through stages of sleep, drowsiness, and hunger, each of which seem to hit me much harder when inside a car. Between intermittent minute-long pasta dreams, I thought about Tourettes Girl and myself. Mostly myself.
Forthcoming was a familiar image. A nine year-old sitting in his room, shirt tucked in, drawing a picture of a wolf, but having a hard time doing the legs. Dissatisfied, yet unwilling to crumple it up and dispose of it, he puts it in a manila folder in his desk, marked “mess-ups” and decides that whales are his new favorite animal because they don’t have legs. He draws a few of these and puts them in his “good art” folder. He’s mad at his parents for yelling so loud through the wall. But anger is for stupid kids who throw tantrums in McDonalds. What’s important now is dragon pictures. Legless ones, placed in a fresh new folder because, needless to say, dragons aren’t real animals. His siblings are younger. They’ve been crying more frequently lately; they could probably use their oldest brother. When they see these dragon pictures, they’ll understand–when they’re older and less annoying, of course. He thinks about screaming, but he sits instead. He never screams. What would screaming accomplish? Stupid kids scream. That kid who got suspended for hitting a teacher screams.
Tourettes girl came back to mind and I felt pathetic. Here’s a child with a serious medical condition that will haunt her the rest of her life and I’m jealous that she can yell “fuck you” at her mom on a crowded ferry because my own childhood was plagued with passivity. It took concerted effort not to fetishize it–effort that didn’t quite pay off because fetishize it, I did. I was like a 40s-era housewife watching her college-age daughter talk politics at the dinner table. It seemed so wrong–backwards even, but that’s what was exciting about it. I was titillated, involuntarily, by the token of something I’d never been able to do myself.
Fuck you, Tourettes Girl.
I didn’t say this, of course. I thought it. I kept it quietly to myself as Kip and I pulled frantically into the first Wendy’s we saw like a couple of meth addicts in withdrawal. Not-so-fun fact: there is no fast food on Nantucket.