This Saturday, we returned from Sea Isle, the Jersey beach town where we vacation each year with Karen’s family. We stayed on 48th Street, steps from the boardwalk, which stretches north to south from 57th street to 29th street.
On our final morning in town, a hot Friday, I walked with Owen and Ella and their cousin Katherine to the Island Breeze Casino, on 37th Street. The kids spent quarter after quarter on claw machines and other games with impossible-to-master directives, all issuing strips of five, ten, or twenty tickets as a consolation for defeat.
We traded this pittance of tickets, of course, for the mementos one expects from these places: Whoopie cushions, army men, or the Pinky Hi-Bounce Balls I remember from my childhood vacations in Stone Harbor, when my brother and I tossed the balls in the water, crashing ourselves into the waves, making the easiest catches seem impossible.
We got all of these mementos and more.
On a whim, to assuage my growing impatience, I put a quarter in Owen’s favorite game: a truck game. You had to shoot a quarter down a slot into one of three truck trailers, each overflowing with quarters. If you hit the trailer, you won some tickets. I aimed at the trailer, hit a lever, and one of the trucks dumps its entire load. The game issued an alarm. Lights flashed. Owen looked at me, confused.
“Uh oh,” I said, smiling.
When the tickets came, a seemingly endless train, Katherine and Ella came running from a nearby game. We stood watching, laughing, gathering the tickets in our hands.
Owen jumped in place, excited, his fists balled at his sides “When will it end?” I asked.
He looked at me, worried. Had we done something bad? Had we broken the machine?
At least since he could speak, Owen has expressed a fascination with good and bad. Unlike his father, who only ever wanted to be Luke Skywalker, Owen loves to be the bad guy. Darth Vader. Ultron. Sinestro. He relishes the war, the mayhem and destruction, all of which I’ve taught him to associate with “bad guys.”
Yet I also remember a few moments from his early youth, when I shouted at him, “bad boy.”
Now, I believe, he has internalized my shouts, for he wants to be a good boy. He often feels compelled to say, “Daddy, I’m good.” And he often asks me, “Daddy, am I good?”
At the arcade, I could see him trying to interpret my mood, placing himself in a holding pattern until he knew my emotional state. Had something bad happened? Was I angry? I realized he’d been doing this for some time, and that I had probably clouded many moments for him, for I am so often a melancholy, frustrated person, and I can not help but reveal my emotions.
“Did we break it?” he asked.
“It’s fine,” I told him. “These things don’t break so easily.”
I believe the human spirit is strong and that a great deal of a child’s personality evolves independent of his parents. Yet I cannot but feel an intense remorse whenever I get angry at the children–whenever I shout or treat them roughly. What insecurity, small or large, have I added to the mix? How have I damaged our relationship?
This moment at the arcade returned to me on Saturday night, our first night home, when I sat with Owen on the couch watching his “videos” about the heroes and villains of America’s superhero culture, all enacted with the little Imaginext and Playskool figurines. Marvel. Star Wars. D.C. Comics. This video featured Batman and Mr. Freeze.
I have been a vocal opponent of these videos. “They make you crazy,” I have told Owen. I usually forbid him to watch, but vacation with his doting extended family had normalized the devices for the time being, and now Owen was experiencing an unprecedented moment: He was welcoming his father into his world.
As we watched, he continued to glance at me, searching my eyes, tracking my reaction moment-by-moment. The sincerity of his probing expression. The hope he seemed to hold, which battled his fear, which I guessed to be of my disapproval or outright dismissal.
“Look,” I said to him. “That’s so cool.”
“So cool,” he said, burrowing his body close to mine.