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Who Can Read a Crystal Ball by Wing Wu
I am driving. My daughter is in the back in her booster seat. My husband is up front beside me. We’re on an on-ramp to the I-8 somewhere between Gila Bend and Yuma. My daughter is screaming, kicking, and pounding her fists against the upholstery. My husband is trying to soothe her by singing Itsy Bitsy Spider.
Jackson and Frakanian, 1999, I remind myself. Simone et al, 1982. Turkson et al, 2000. There are many published studies demonstrating the negative impact of a variable reward schedule on extinguishing a learned behavior. I’m referring to the tower of rainbow twist lollipops at the Golden West Gas and Mini Mart, which still looms on the bluff behind us. Sara’s face had lit up like a spotlight when we walked in. She ran straight over, jumping, dancing, and pointing all at the same time. And then there were the translucent, neon, cell-phone-shaped dispensers of lemon-lime taffy tape, the Barbie bubble gum, the fruit adventure Tic Tacs.
My husband and I both believe in teaching self-discipline through pro-active parenting. We rigidly adhere to a nap schedule and avoid violent or electronic toys, anything related to princess fantasy, and all forms of screen time. We have rules against fast food, candy, soda, and even fruit juice. As we headed toward the exit after using the restroom, Sara was alternating between twisting backwards while tugging my arm with the full force of all her thirty pounds and going so limp that I had to drag her – all the while howling loudly as everyone in the store stopped to stare.
After about ten more minutes of continuous crying, the tension seems to have penetrated my skull. It’s like a pressure wave delaminating the meningeal layers. My back aches from driving. Then my husband snaps. Mid-verse, his voice strains, then goes silent for a moment. Then he whips around in his seat. “STOP IT!” His voice is actually louder than hers, fierce and raw. He grabs a little blanket lying next to her and hurls it out the window. “DO YOU GET THIS? Either you stop crying or the kangaroo is next.” He dangles it out by the leg. Pouch flaps in the wind. “STOP. CRYING. NOW.”
For a moment, Sara really is stunned into silence. But then she resumes wailing with a renewed vigor, punctuated as much by hopelessness as indignance. “I want my blankie.” The shrill frenzy in her voice shows no sign of abating. Her face is completely red, and she’s almost choking on her tears.
“You’re only making things worse,” I say.
“No,” he snarls back – “You are the one who’s enabling her.” He’s ripping out pages of her coloring book now. I see them in the rear view mirror, caught in smoke tree along the roadside.
My mother-in-law had six kids in eight years, and to this day, the indisputable excellence of her parenting methods is a considerable source of pride. She brags that none of her children was a fussy eater – never mind that her meals regularly featured hot dogs and Kool-Aid. She brags she used to paddle them with a spoon if they didn’t have their shoes on by the count of ten. Never mind that neuroimaging has reliably linked spanking to a decrease in the volume of grey matter in the cerebral cortex. She brags that her kids never wiggled or even turned around in their pew at church. Never mind that cognitive psychology has proven our long-term memories to be riddled with inaccuracies.
She is fond of sharing her opinion that parents these days don’t expect enough of their children. She barks like a drill sergeant, “Whaddya say?,” whenever she gives my daughter anything. And then there was the time when Sara was 18 months and I had proudly announced that she was forming multi-word utterances. My mother-in-law leaned in and retorted that her friend’s great grand-daughter, Emma, could already recite her ABC’s, and she was only 15 months.
In response to a perceived threat, our sympathetic nervous systems kick in. Our hearts beat more rapidly and forcefully; our pupils dilate; we begin to sweat. On impulse, I swerve across the right lane and onto the fast approaching exit ramp. “I’m going back for the blankie.”
My husband glares at me in disbelief. “Just drop me off in Yuma, and I’ll take a bus the rest of the way.”
“This isn’t a big deal.”
“Raising our daughter to be an entitled, spoiled little shit isn’t a big deal?!” I object to his use of profanity. He objects to my undermining his authority. I point out that it isn’t really working, since Sara is still crying. He says it’s my fault for always letting her have her way. “Three year olds shouldn’t be allowed to drive the bus.”
“Aren’t they allowed to have feelings too?” I counter.
“When our daughter starts stealing money from your wallet, are you going to say, ‘That’s OK – her feelings matter too.’ ‘Cause that’s where this is headed, you know.”
“Since when did you learn to read a crystal ball?”
“Don’t need one.”
My husband has an older daughter named Peyton, who’s 23. She has not come to visit in a decade. A few years ago we bought her a plane ticket, booked a beach front vacation rental, and invited her grandparents and aunts and uncles down from L. A. At the last minute, though, she texted my husband that she was too busy for his family.
“Elizabeth just let Peyton go until it was too late.”
This statement makes me think of my father. I see him shaking his head at me in ashen sternness. I was apologizing for smashing a plate on the floor. He’d been criticizing me for eating too many grapes at tea when my aunts were visiting that afternoon. “You just kept reaching for more and more – I couldn’t believe it. You wouldn’t stop.” I remember looking down. Feeling small. Feeling angry at myself. It was like this tightness that squeezed harder and harder inside me until suddenly, the dinner plate I was about to wash was hurtling towards the floor. I asked my father if we could start over, but he just stood there shaking his head at me. “You’re not little anymore.”
Then I remember in sixth grade stuffing my report on Papua New Guinea in the back of my desk after Mr. Edwards had refused to accept it because I’d forgotten it at home the day before. And I remember the day I quit ballet. Class hadn’t started yet, and I was waiting in the hallway. Kylie Jacobson and Tiffany White were there too, practicing their arabesque and grand chassé. They’d both been training in Madame Rouvel’s studio since first or second grade. They both had long, pale blonde hair pulled back in pony tails and rode to class in new SUVs. Their moms were friends, too. They did family bowling together, shopping mall trips, ice skating. And as Kylie and Tiffany fluttered and chirped like sparrows around the hall, a dark thought took root in my mind. I would never be as good at ballet as they were. Because I was eleven when I had started. Because I was chubby and ate too many grapes and didn’t have any friends to go bowling with or even know how to ice skate. And my parents were divorced and Madame Rouvel commented that my ankles weren’t strong enough to keep my feet from bending in a sickle. Your toes were supposed to stay behind the line of the heel, and mine were always forward of that line.
I’m pulling over to the shoulder – not because I see any sign of the blanket, but because I have so many things that I want to scream back. “It’s never too late,” I just start to choke out. Then a flash of silver catches my eye. It’s a mylar helium balloon, improbably caught by its string in a cholla just ahead. There is just enough breeze keeping it aloft above the thorns.
It’s funny how your perspective changes once you step outside of the car. I see a blanket of chollas and sagebrush extending from edge of the asphalt way out to the Mohawk mountains, where they blur together like mist on the ground. It occurs to me that ten years from now, this moment, too, will have blurred in my mind with so many others. My husband brings a pocket knife to cut the string. I catch the balloon before it drifts away.
Human beings are not rational. We believe a rancher from Wyoming is more likely to own a Ford pickup than any rancher. We think 20 is thirty percent of sixty. We embrace aphorisms like Red sky at night – sailors’ delight more readily than Red sky at night – sailors’ joy simply because the first one rhymes. We tend to judge decisions by their outcomes – not the information available at the time of the decision.
We never did find the blanket, but Sara got a new balloon. To get heading west bound again, we have to drive all the way back to the Golden Mini Mart exit. We stop and head inside again. It’s only 9:30 AM, and already, the thermometer outside the entrance is registering above 90°. We are greeted by the soothing caress of air conditioning and the bright glow of refrigerated cases. I lean over to Sara. “Pick out whatever you want.”
*Previously appeared in Issue 81 of the Bellingham Review
Ying Wu is a poetry editor of Writers Resist and the Kids! San Diego Poetry Annual. More examples of her work can be found online at poetryandartsd.com, poetrypacific.blogspot.com, shj.kysoflash.com, and writersresist.com, as well as in the material world at the San Diego Airport (arts.san.org/portfolio-item/before). She leads research on insight, problem solving, and aesthetic experience as a project scientist at UC San Diego and lives with her husband and daughter on a sailboat in the San Diego Bay.