by Moazzam Sheikh

Dinner done, table cleaned, plates stacked away in the sink along with forks and knives; I anticipate Jojo’s second wind before he finally agrees to be led to his bed. He’s at the moment in the bathroom with his mother brushing his teeth as hurriedly as possible while she tries her best to reinforce the value of slowing down, self-discipline, and healthy gums. He has internalised flossing as something that’s meant to create a rift between children and parents. In the meantime, I use that interregnum to check the news on my laptop, flitting from one website to another—celebrities dying, protests in Paris and elsewhere, politicians’ promises and scandals, stock market plunging, rents rising, homelessness epidemic, opioid crisis, pedestrians getting hit by careless Uber drivers, drive-by shootings, Venice Film Festival winners, accusations of sexual harassment, swamis finding cure for a virus in cow urine, a temporary ceasefire, children in detention centres, young boys being blindfolded, a mass shooting in Texas. Feeling disheartened, depressed, even I move away. I am scared, startled.

 “Turn off the lights, Dad!” he orders excitedly.

     “Hey, hey, let mom settle down first,” I say.

     “Gotcha,” he says as he exits the bathroom, looking all serious, like a miniature Toshiro Mifune acting the part of a samurai. Luna closes the door. Luna, that’s not her real name, but when I met her, her friends called her Luna, so it has stuck. I pretend to look busy wiping the counter area around the sink and burners, putting salt and pepper shakers and other paraphernalia in their proper spots, so he’d give me an extra reprieve. Don’t get me wrong. Of course I not only cherish the time spent with my boy—he’s eight now—I love every minute of our nightly ritual even as I feel guilty; he should be getting into bed a bit on the earlier side. That’s why I let him sleep late in the morning while Luna or I prepare his breakfast and school lunch. I know how to get him to school on time, which worries Luna because she believes I drive a bit recklessly. Perhaps, certainly faster than her, but it is more like I know which alternative streets to take if the usual ones are crowded. The issue of him getting to bed late remains a source of mild friction and lighthearted bickering between Luna and me. She concedes, a little grudgingly, when I proclaim how important this playtime, this bonding between father and son, is. But we are also trying to teach him forbearance, which he seems to value less and less since he’s entered third grade. He was born with a backup supply of energy which he enjoys unleashing on Luna and me at whim. Luna is offended when I bring up my theory about children as being hyenas. Unless taught otherwise, they’ll nibble on their parents’ ankles till they buckle. It gets worse usually if one of the parents is too soft without being able to implement early discipline. The more the parents treat their children like a “heina,” the more “heinous” they can become.

“Go change into your ‘jamas,’ ” I remind him as I do almost every night.

     “After we play,” he tries to assert.

     “Nope! You change first, then we play. Or it’s bedtime now,” I say with a mixture of authority and mirth.

Protesting, he goes to his room, but I can hear the sound in his head going okay, okay, garbanzo bean! I break into a smile. Luna’s out of the bathroom, smiling too, shaking her head. I am done with the kitchen. Not spic-and-span, but good enough, good enough for Luna to lord it over her sister whose partner can barely boil water for tea.

He’s changed. She’s grabbed her book, Dostoyvsky’s The Idiot, which she’s restarted after a hiatus of a month. I close the door to our bedroom, so the noise of our horsing around won’t bother her. Even then, she’s bound to reprimand us a few times hey guys keep it down, it’s late, we have neighbours downstairs trying to sleep. Jojo and I shrink ourselves, snigger or giggle when we hear Luna’s admonishment. I notice that the tone of his skin colour changes. He stands, arms akimbo, in the doorframe daring me. I dare back. There’s a smile lurking behind our sternness, like sunshine obscured by a passing cloud. I am not capable of keeping a straight face for long or appearing stolid à la Alain Delon like in Le Samourai. “Lights out!” I announce a clarion call. We flick the light switches off near us and the darkness descends.   

 The war begins. The entire area stretching from our kitchen, the short corridor from the entrance that brings you into the kitchen, and the long, combined dining and living room turns into a war zone, except for what little light sneaks in from outside despite the drawn curtains. Even real wars, I realise, never have total darkness. It takes time for the eyes to adjust. We are both good at hiding, with a bullet made of foam lodged in our respective nerf pistols. I summon a semblance of synchronicity between my mind and heart. In order to make our game convincing and fun, we pretend to hate the guts of our enemy. We take cover. I usually hide in the small corridor leaning against one of our bookshelves or squat by the closet facing the front door. I rarely go into the extra bathroom. Because if he comes pursuing me there, I am always nervous about him panicking and dashing into a sharp edge. He, on the other hand, likes to hide in the living room area because it gives him a sense of real-time action where he can hide behind a tree (sofa), a bush (table), or a bombed army truck (island counter). He crouches, lies down on the carpet, and crawls from the single sofa to the three seater; then from there, inching his way to zero in on his prize victim, to under the dining table. From there he rushes to his side of the island counter. I can hear his movements and by then I know exactly where he is at a given moment. I have a good “soldier sense,” I commend myself, feeling embarrassed. I know he’s going through similar realisations about his soldier sense but without any negative emotions, without any idea what real wars do to its victims and perpetrators. I imagine his grown-up face, muddied and intense as if he is on a movie set, somewhere out in a real location like the countryside of Morocco or the Arizona desert, along with his soldier buddies ready to charge the enemy. I shake my head, snapping out of my world of fear. I am grinning now, stifling my laugh, as I picture him, as if the room was awash with light, his endearing self led by a primaeval instinct for survival with a modern-day weapon of destruction, his cherished toy. Even though I resisted, I had to yield and get him his gun from Target for his friend’s birthday party in the pristine Golden Gate Park.

Currently, he’s obscured by a bookshelf that holds most of my fiction in translation collection, literary criticism, nothing too heavy that could hurt him if a book is to fall over, and if I were to come forward in order to cross over to the kitchen area—there’s about six feet long path between the corridor wall and the isle counter—I will have exposed myself to his shot, though he misses often. I wonder if he’s got a grin or a smirk on his face too? Earlier when we dared each other, I believed we both smiled, but sometimes I am not too sure about him. The thought that I can’t be a good reader of my child’s face saddens me. Sometimes, I suspect, there’s no smile crouching behind his all-too-serious-for-a-combat look. Do I exaggerate? Maybe he does smile. When I summon an image of his, it resists stability, constantly metamorphosing, wobbling. Soldiers, or perhaps killers, don’t smile, don’t melt from the internal heat of hatred. They are supposed to be cold-blooded evil. But, on the screen at least, they smirk, cackle, guffaw, taunt, roar, right? It gives me a shudder. Admirably, he shows patience and, influenced by me, sits tight in one spot a long moment or two before skittering off to his next bunker or hideaway. Sometimes he retreats also, believing it to be a strategic move to lure me in, setting up a classic trap. It’s easy for me to zone out when surrounded by silence and darkness. Two prerequisites to lure a nightmare when you sleepwalk.

 Jojo’s fascination with guns and shooting has taken me by surprise. It is all too sudden. Realising the power our national culture has on children, not to mention grown-ups who should know better, I made an early effort to introduce my son to the world of nonviolence or anti-violence, to the world of love and art. I exposed him to rock and roll, from Chuck Berry to John Lennon, to The Supremes to David Bowie to Annie Lennox. I told him that one of my girlfriends before I met his mother, was in love with Annie Lennox. I take him to local bookstores and public libraries, expose him to the world cinema with a child protagonist such as Pathar Pancholi and 400 Blows. I think I regretted making him watch Tarkovsky’s Ivan’s Childhood, which left him disturbed, but he really loved De Sica’s The Bicycle Thieves. He also loved some of the Iranian films, with children lead nonactors. Sitting in a café with him once, a middle-aged man’s head turned towards us in shock as Jojo unconsciously blurted out the opening riff of Satisfaction as if his riff could bring the whole structure down. Jojo kept humming unaware, the stranger’s head turned back, and I buried my head into my book gleefully. I feel proud of the house I have been building for my boy. I signal to my colleagues and other parents that it is possible to build a different world. Not alone but with a little help from others. 

But the walls I build around him turn out to be, as if, made of sand. For they cannot shield him from the onslaught of rocks thrown at him which he brings home after playdates, all from good families. Most kids his age have been exposed to the world of violence and hatred via various means of entertainment and electronic gadgets. Despite the parents’ denial and wringing of the hands, I call it wilful complicity. Luna tries to knock some sense into me. Says I have messed-up notions of how children should be raised due to, perhaps—she makes an interesting leap here—my own childhood trauma. She certainly has a point regarding my convoluted convictions even if they don’t appear to me to be so convoluted. Why complain about the world and the horror it unleashes on people if we don’t even want to change it? Talking about trauma, I want to draw her attention to the possibility of why a trauma cannot be from one’s adult life instead? Why do we always connect the two: childhood and trauma?

Others too tell me I worry unnecessarily, see the world through bleak lenses. Instead of worrying and worrying and fearing the world, they advise, enjoy the time spent with your son. I know I can’t change the world but it makes me angry that even the smaller world around me is not in my control, so I can’t help but worry for my kid. That’s why I love the time I spend with him playing games that make him happy, though I still believe in having some control over the smaller world around me and that’s why I try my best to minimise the introduction of violence into his beautiful, still-forming mind. That’s why, although I enjoy playing this game with him, I much more love wrestling with him afterwards. He relishes it when I throw a blanket on him, as if I am kidnapping him, and loves fighting back, punching and kicking, while I tell him to cool it since he can hurt me. I want to teach him the value to know that it is okay to hit back sometimes and when it is also okay to not hit back sometimes. When I am hurt and I choose to wince or go ouch! he stops and comes over to kiss the very spot he’s caused pain to. It’s never serious and I exaggerate. It’s a sight to behold when he showers affection. Luna says that’s his innate nature and it will remain intact despite the worldly influence. I like to believe it’s my mentoring or at least partially.

The news of gun violence in America and elsewhere disturbs me, hurts my innards, so whenever I juxtapose him with guns or violence in general, I lose perspective. My projections run wild. I see him as a misogynist in the making and I start cursing under my breath at America’s right of centre tilt, prayers in schools, and action movies. About school prayers, a close friend argues it’s good for moral grounding. He, too, has a point. Kids these days take everything for granted. Children of affluence, a sociologist coined the term. They should learn to be thankful. And patient. I tell myself it’s working, the patience part. The thankful part? I am not too sure. But I can’t do it alone. Luna doesn’t believe in my parenting philosophy. She doesn’t believe in worrying. She believes in love though. Love alone is not enough, I say. She says it is. That’s the only difference at the end, she says. Who lives to see the end?

  Every once in a while, I catch myself running the most freakish scenario in my head: My son having grown up a loner, introverted, angry, unloved, unsexed, intoxicated with guns, normalising male angst, pimples and halitosis, obsessed with revenge, one of his exes, a redhead, blue-eyed trash from Modesto, cries on the phone with me harping on his callosity, his cleaning out her savings and absconding, and now all the major TV channels are flooded with the headlines of him walking into a middle school, spraying bullets everywhere, killing and hurting several students. Dizzy, I can’t breathe, drop the phone; a tight knot forming in my stomach. I howl. I am yelling at my wife Didn’t I warn you, didn’t I say something like this would happen? I am startled by a phone ring. The police, a journalist, my brother from Austin, Texas, a friendly neighbour, lawyer. There’s a knock on the door. My wife is screaming, banging her fists against a hard surface. I breathe in and out but only molten iron wafts. The sound is from inside the TV, the newscasters’ office phones and fax machines and printers at work. There’s chaos and police cars with flashing lights, cops running, taking cover. A unit of SWAT team. Helicopters. The announcer, full of mixed emotions, stares at the screen to announce, with gravity in his baritone voice, The shooter goes missing! I am relieved and hurt beyond words at the same time. I bang my head against the wall.

He’s bumped into the dining table. My reverie evaporates. He hasn’t ouched. I wait. If I talk, that’ll get him mad because he’ll know my hiding position. We’ll have to start all over again. I try to contain the pain in my heart at the thought of my son in pain from bumping. I send a silent prayer his way. My wife and a few of my close friends tell me that I worry too much about losing him to the world once he’s eighteen, once he’s left the house for college. He’ll be sold into the slavery of the modern corporate world. He’ll end up selling his soul to Starbucks or Amazon. I, his Yaqoub, his Jacob, will miss him terribly, go blind from weeping and grieving incessantly. I breathe, exhale, thankful he hasn’t winced in pain, a tough cookie that he is, he worries me because I think he has learnt to hold physical pain unless, of course, it’s beyond what he can bite. Then he wants the world to weep for him instead. I don’t like that. I tell him it’s okay to weep or cry. Don’t hold it in. Because that turns into aggression, unnecessary anger, which then can erupt in wrong places, unleashed on innocents, mostly women, caring people, people you actually love. Be a pussy, don’t be a dick I want to elucidate. I will when he’s a little older. I am still trying to mould him and I am hopeful, but when I look around the world, pessimism and fear take over. I decide to test his alertness or take advantage of his distraction caused by the bumping when I come out of the corridor to shelter behind the other side of the isle counter. His bullet whizzes past me missing my ear by an inch. I duck and I am safe. For the time being. I feel insulted and infuriated by the bullet. I see it not coming from him but the world. A teasing note about things to come. I block it out, the thought, the premonition. 

     “Did I get you?” he asks, revealing his location.

I hold my breath, signalling his bullet missed me. The battle is on. Now it’s a matter of combat as we are both in the same room. From now on, we both peek out with the nerf gun, aimed, because the moment of locking the enemy in your imaginary reticule is too short. You must fire on impulse. Reluctance will get you killed. Here’s the catch we both have to wrestle with. We’re not supposed to aim the face—that’s our morality test in the midst of an immoral game, though here it’s based on the idea that playing shouldn’t end up in injury—but it’s precisely the face that’s visible at first, so we lean towards hesitation, conditioned to find the outline of our shoulders or arms. We bob up and down like floating pieces of cork in water. Bullets whiz by us. While I dunk, he moves swiftly to his right without a rustle, and hiding behind a chair, he shoots at my left shoulder when I arise looking for him where I thought he’d still be. 

     “Did I get you this time?”

     I fall and moan, “Yes, son, you did!”

     “Yeah!” he ululates his victory. 

     “That’s the exact opposite of the Rostam and Sohrab story,” I tease.


     “Just kidding.”     

Now the second part starts. Luna calls from the bedroom excitedly, “You got dad?” but he doesn’t listen or doesn’t care to reply, running to his bed. I read too much into this. He’s already devalued female participation, feminist interruption as his subconscious mind sees it. Part of me wants to tell him to answer his mother, but I remain quiet. I feel complicit in fostering a misogynist behaviour. I take too long to ponder. The moment has passed. I crawl on my elbows and knees, injured, bleeding, fighting till the last breath, chasing after my shooter, howling, “I’m coming. Your bullets can’t finish me off.” I am not fighting for my own vanity but the honour of motherland. I am inside his dark room. He’s hiding against a wall. I sit scanning the room. He ambushes me from behind as I half-expected, his skinny but strong frame clinging to my back wrestling me to the ground. We take turns subduing each other. He’s getting wilder and stronger day by day and I am worried I won’t be able to tame his flailing and kicking limbs, afraid we won’t be able to play this game one day. The thought makes me forlorn. He wiggles out of my grasp. Or I let him taste that power. I am not sure. I suspect it is both. He picks up a white pillow and hits me with it. I defend with my arms a few times, but he finally whacks me over the head; mildly astonished, I wonder how something as light as stuffed with feathers can hurt and shock one’s senses. I look for another pillow and reach for one. I am already panting, unable to match his frenzy and excitement. Substituting his pillow with a blanket, our ritual enters its final phase. It’s inevitable that I bring into play my natural advantage, my size as I stretch the blanket over him to make him cower, instinctively, a natural response from a child who’s not sure how to handle a calamity descending upon his tiny self but is ready to assert, ballooning, like in TV cartoons from the 50s and 60s, deflecting the fatherly onslaught, flexing his inexperienced muscles. Separated by a thin wall, we can’t see each other’s expression as our eyes adjust to the lack of light. I wish I could read his mind then, the other side of the sunshine. While he thrashes about, a tiger caught in a snare, I cherish the time my fingers, my chest, my knees can feel the contours of his body, its energy, its alacrity, excitement, and terror. He’s trying his best to escape the blanket and my hold, but due to his age and size, he’s learning I am much bigger than him. I worry he’ll suffocate. He knows his best weapon is persistence, knows he’ll wear me down—that’s the hope every victim has, but sometimes things don’t work out that way. The aggressor wins, as he learns to slow down, he has more at his disposal, to do partnerships with the powerful, to break the spirit of the oppressed, he can lay and delay the siege, regroup to pounce again. To blame the victim for the violence. I do the same. I pant, I force a momentary truce, I dodge his blows. Then I come down with an exaggerated force to overwhelm him, remind him of his smallness so he’ll surrender or back off, and then, in a moment of pure intoxication, I go all out. I have retreated into my childhood, or innocence, and I work myself into believing I have Jojo’s body and energy. We are going at each other nonstop, muscle for muscle, bone for bone, blow for blow and I have lost track of time, not even aware of how long have I been doing this, but it seems like a long time has passed—days, months, years?—because not only do I feel spent, I feel I have aged, and when I attempt to pronounce his name, I don’t recognise my voice, or his name … was it Jojo or Yoyo? … that’s the voice of an old man; a man with a double chin, a potbelly, sagging leg muscles, stooped shoulders, which when I try to straighten makes me cry in pain, which elicits a concerned inquiry from Luna, who asks in her fatigued voice, “Are you okay?” though she knows what I am doing. It’s her way to assert her will on me, remind me who’s saner and who’s gone bonkers; it’s her way to tell me that’s enough for today, but I am confused, lost for words, don’t understand her behaviour, so lackadaisical, I can’t explain what has transpired here while she was busy reading One Hundred Years of Solitude, the tragedy that has befallen us. I am stunned into silence and can’t form a sentence to tell her why Jojo is not inside the blanket anymore. Even when she is in her room, she is here holding a small mirror to my face. I am not interested in another man’s wrinkled face and unkempt hair. I am interested in my son. He was here, just a while ago. I can still smell his unique scent. Where did he go? When did he leave? Is he in the shower? He’s nowhere near me, he’s nowhere around the house; however, his traces linger, clues left behind on purpose to keep me hooked; has he melted into a memory? His childhood so fleeting has escaped my size, power, hold, and my love, my paranoia. It’s just a nightmare, I console myself. I even run my hand over the holes in the blanket I have mended from time to time. There’s no way. I don’t know how to break that news to her. I can’t find him inside the blanket, not even inside the patterns and colours. She’ll kill me. I have looked everywhere even after having stayed inside the dark canopy for what seems like one hundred years. I fear that reality, its recognition, its admission, will break her heart, demolish her as it is breaking me into pieces, muscle by muscle, bone by bone, splitting one vein at a time … even as I continue to collect myself. Or should I keep it a secret from her?

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