The Fishbowl: A Catalogue of Funny Faces

The little things that a parent does for a child can make all the difference in the life of that child — and the parent.

Goldfish with a shocked face.

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“I’ll meet you at the window,” I say to my kid.

“It’s a Fishbowl,” he says. He corrects me now.

“I’ll meet you at The Fishbowl,” I tell him.

When I try to stand, he will not remove his hands from around my neck. His arms are a lei draped around my collar. I stand and he dangles there, his body the totem on the end of a necklace. His fingers are interlaced and so I am forced to utilize The Monkey Bloat.

* * *

The Monkey Bloat: This is where I expand my face, especially my cheeks, sometimes suddenly, sometimes incrementally. I do it with fear and confusion in my face until I can inflate my cheeks no more. Sometimes I cross my eyes. There is a reverie. There is an absurdity that is familiar to him. It usually calms and soothes him. Usually.

* * *

The face makes him smile, but still he will not let go. His fingernails are raindrops stinging the back of my neck. I tug his hands until his fingers separate. I place him on the ground and hand check his attempts to grab hold of my leg. He runs off, entering the shrubbery of wet eyes and unkempt hair that is his pre-school class. This is all part of the routine we have developed, he and I. It has taken us over a year to get it right.

We do this every Monday, Wednesday, and Thursday at the Whitford Academy for Boys & Girls. He loves it there, loves all his doting teachers, all the bright, plastic toys, all the other children, but still he resists my leaving, wanting something he cannot have.

In the beginning, I was unsure of how dropping him off should work. I had read about coddling children and how it weakens them, how it is a disservice to them. Or, I hadn’t read it actually. I may have heard it on a podcast. Or I sort of felt it radiate from inside my bones, felt like it was placed there by my ancestors and that they were watching still. And, no, I am not burdened by a belief in heaven, but I still feel like I am performing for the past, proving that I haven’t been ruined by it, showing that I am participating in something grand and old, and carrying on some tradition by raising my son to be tough and resilient. And so at the beginning I allowed the teacher, a 20-something too skinny for her clothes, to pull him away. She hugged and held him while he wailed, too new to know she should be holding back her affection.

This teacher, still in her first year, had not yet learned to establish that professional barrier between her feelings and her students, that she should be reserved and unemotional, cold and stoic like a mother whose child has cost her her own youth. And in those first days this young idealist would tug my child from me and hold him in her arms while he screamed, purple-faced, for me to come back, and when he ran to the window that looked out to the sidewalk leading to the parking lot, the only possible escape route, she would be there, trying to tug him by his tiny hand back to where the other children played.

Out there in the parking lot was work, or the gym, or some appointment I needed to keep. But before I could escape, there he would be, standing at the window we would later call The Fishbowl as I tried to get to whatever was waiting for me. I could not hear him through the glass, but I would not need to, his mouth so wide I could see into him. His wet face pancaked against the window, his fingers making ten little circles of flesh as he pressed them against the glass.

One day, no longer able to face my day lit by the fire of guilt his tears stoked in me, I stopped and crouched down, staring at him through the window that separated us. And then I made The Fart Face.

* * *

The Fart Face: Children are constitutionally incapable of defending against this face until they are at least 24 years old. And even then, though they learn to control their reaction to The Fart Face, they never stop feeling the effects. Young children want to feel the effects of The Fart Face, however. That asymmetrical inflation of just one cheek, of just one lip flapping like a proud flag. Confronting the shame and confusion of their own bodily functions, as well as relishing the egalitarianism of everyone peeing, everyone pooping, everyone burping, everyone farting. Even Miss Evelyn. Even Mister Cruikshank. Even Dad. Even Grandma. Kids can’t get enough of that joke.

* * *

Though he could not hear me, the face I made and the smells I pretended to smell were unmistakable to him. A well-practiced game. The funniest of all games. And my pantomime made him laugh, breaking apart the barrier formed by his crying, his laughs ferocious and bubbling.

The next day we moved on to other pantomimes. Classics like The Trip, followed by The Stumble (two distinct and separate movements, one inspired by the work of Jerry Lewis and the other a clear line back to Chaplin’s the Tramp, the former maneuver making me the reckless and buffoonish butt of the joke, the latter being an expression of a resolute man trying to maintain dignity in an unfair universe. I am certain my son will one day pick up on the subtleties of these compositions).

There are a few moves that I won’t do, however. I would never do a maneuver so crass as The Staircase to Nowhere, for example. That doesn’t even speak to his knowledge base. Nothing as mundane as a staircase would capture his imagination. Now, The Phantom Hand? That is something he can understand.

* * *

The Phantom Hand: Leaning in from the side of the window, I smile moonily at him while, unbeknownst to me, a hand (my hand in practice, but not so in the context of the performance) reaches out from the side of the building. It creeps like a spider. It is important that he sees it before I do. He will try to point, he will try to make me look, but I won’t and the hand will grab me and pull me away from the window, yanking me away as I claw and scream. A way for him to cope with me leaving, me being taken, me being gone. But I appear again. I appear and smile, unharmed, and I wave and I leave, both of us beaming.

* * *

The next time I dropped him off, I whispered in his ear, “I’ll meet you at The Fishbowl.” I’d heard another parent once call it this as they too stared into the classroom through the window like our children were pets we merely had to feed and whose antics we could enjoy without having to participate.

“Do a face in The Fishbowl,” my son says, the metaphor of seeing all the goldfish bubbling around their classroom lost on him, his trust in my authority so absolute that I can transform a window into an aquarium with only my words.

We all talk about it. All of us parents, at birthday parties and the Halloween magic show. We share our own family-born lexicon for childhood. We all have different names for The Fishbowl. The Zoo. The Goodbye Spot. We all have our rituals. Isiah’s mom squishes her nose up to look like a pig. Olivia’s mom holds her hand up still and strong as she passes by, her palm a moving target for her daughter’s love. Brandi’s Dad does a train whistle as he passes by, his big forearms pumping as he walks past the window to his car in the parking lot.

* * *

The Train Whistle: Also called The Big Rig, or The Kirk Gibson for men of a certain age. This is a movement as iconic as the superman pose, Rosie the Riveter, or the Heisman trophy statue. It connotes power wielded well, control, and the willingness to exhibit that power. Every kid has had the experience of seeing a trucker pass by and knowing the delight of being gifted the blast of a horn for their enjoyment. The power of this performance is harnessed and co-opted by a parent when they present it to their child.

* * *

I leave the classroom and make my way through the over-chemicaled hallways toward the exit. The walls of the school are strange maps made from backward letters, mixed media madness, chalk and crayon, macaroni and snot, wrinkled onto paper to describe the seasons, all situated around signs describing how to extinguish oneself if one found oneself to be on fire. The art is at once entirely unique and embarrassingly typical. Every childhood is identical in its complete and total uniqueness. As I exit the building and step onto the sidewalk that will lead past The Fishbowl and ultimately to the parking lot, I think about what face I will make when I reach the window. Which twist my mouth will achieve, which hand gesture will leave him smiling. The Monkey Bloat, The Clowny Pinch, The Cliffhanger Dangle, The Top Lip Touch, etc. There are many to choose from.

* * *

The Clowny Pinch: This is one where my hand has a mind of its own, and it surprises me by pinching my earlobe, the opposite arm, and eventually, inevitably on the butt. This kind of crass humor is deeply satisfying to 4-year-olds. Seeing the lack of control of a parent must be a comfort to someone with such a lack of control over his own body that he has never, not once, gotten his urine inside a toilet bowl.

The Top Lip Touch: Pretty self-explanatory I think.

The Cliffhanger Dangle: There is a slight stone overhang above The Fishbowl window, and I can hold myself from it for 10 to 15 seconds, at least. I spend those seconds flailing and panicked, only to inevitably fall. Then I am relieved when I land and find that I have been so close to the ground all along, finding that I was never in any danger. The fear of falling is ancient and emerges from our reptile brain (and I call it that knowing the term is merely a metaphor and there truly is no such thing as a reptile brain and I have explained all of this to him, but I think I will probably have to explain it to him again for him to get it all the way), and so seeing the fear of my face, the terror that I might fall, communicates to him that he is not alone in having this fear and that he is perhaps justified in being afraid of heights. Scaring children is how we keep them safe. Scare the Hell out of them, I say.

* * *

I’ve taken lately to hiding along the side of the window and jumping out suddenly, leaping into his view as a means of surprising and delighting him. I did this one pretty regularly for a time because if I got the exact right angle, I could see him before he saw me. I could see him searching for me, the side of his smooth, perfect face — all parents think their child’s face is perfect, but mine actually is — his head angled toward the sidewalk, looking for me. I would see him search; see his mouth hang open like he will be fed just from the sight of me. And it’s a selfish moment I take, so I know not to take too much, but it’s mine nonetheless, that being needed, that moment of anticipation that I alone can quench. I don’t peek anymore. He caught me once and he crowded over to the corner of the window to sneak a peek at me. It sort of ruined the whole presentation, so now I don’t dare look before I leap into view, giving him the surprise of me leaping.

* * *

The Full Body Swell: This mime is similar to the Monkey Bloat (see above), but requires more imagination on the part of the audience as I become a full balloon of helium and begin to float away. I’m surprised and confronted with the visceral violation of it, the sheer terror of watching my body mutate into a balloon, the lack of control inherent in the floating. Its grotesquery fascinates him. Perhaps it helps him to confront the body-horror that is being a 4-year-old, with teeth erupting in his mouth and threating to jettison themselves just as quickly, having to cope with seeing gooseflesh conflagrate his arm for the first time, tomato skins in his stool. Perhaps my bloated face is just the kind of catharsis he needs to be able to cope with that kind of strangeness. When complete, I depart, back to my normal non-swollen self, leaving him a thumbs up, sometimes a peace sign, sometimes a shadow puppet that makes no shadow.

* * *

When I finally set up with my back against the wall, like a police officer ready to break down a door, I wonder what he must think of this all, how psychedelic childhood is. How strange it must all seem to him. How weird adults must seem, all of our strictures and the idiosyncrasies that we accept in each other, but must present as silently bizarre to them. I think about what it must be like to encounter melted tar for the first time, static cling, a dead animal twitching in the road, blueberry ice cream, a middle finger presented in a traffic jam, a stubbed toe, warts, vertigo, dreams. My son tells me he never sleeps. He can’t even grasp the concept that he lays down and goes into a trance for ten hours. He knows that he dreams, but he doesn’t think he sleeps. He thinks he goes there. He thinks it’s a place.

I stand upright and stiff, next to The Fishbowl, my back against the brick wall, ready to leap, ready to employ a new face where I make my hands into horns on top of my head and hunch my shoulders into a pile of tensed muscles, like a bull ready to charge. I hope to find that when I leap out, face fully contorted, that he will be smiling to meet my silliness, that he will reciprocate with his own funny face. I never know what I will find, what will happen in between me leaving the classroom and arriving on the other side of The Fishbowl, the outside. I hope to find that he will be happy, that he will not be sobbing, his snot being wiped away as quickly as it forms by his over-attentive teacher.

I see Logan and Luke’s Mom holding infant Tyler in her arms. I know for whom she is performing. I don’t dare peek in to blow my cover. I already know she has just dropped off the 4-year-old twin boys and now she is flapping the crying baby’s arm toward the window as if the baby will miss his twin siblings. She smiles at me as she leaves, knowing my trick, having seen it before, probably thinking I’m taking things one step too far, dirtying my shoes and making all the other parents look bad by comparison. But I don’t care. I tell myself he’s worth it and persist.

I hold my breath and suppress a laugh as I get ready to make my big entrance. I plant my foot like I am getting ready to steal second and finally I leap out, huffing like the bull I have become, dangerous and ready to face down the matador’s sword.

But there is no one at the window. All the children are silently playing, the window blocking out the shrieks of glee from the pre-school room. Some are playing a board game, some are tugging a set of magnet blocks back and forth, snarling at one another. My son is sitting awkwardly on the floor, next to a little boy and little girl who are intent upon something on the carpet. I arch my neck to try to see what it is, but I cannot. I wave at him but he does not see me. I think about going back in, but I don’t know what I would say to him, and I have an appointment to get to. I look in at the side of his face, standing with the bushes reaching up to my knees. William’s Dad is coming out of the front of the building toward me, preparing his own farewell, a point or a thumbs up, to be sure. I take one last look at my kid and fish my keys from my pocket, learning that something has ended.

Featured image: Noheaphotos / Shutterstock

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Comments

  1. Mr. Meade, this story is classified as fiction at the top–twice, and I’m sure it is. It’s just that it seems like a really big percentage of children today are… autistic. Especially boys from different articles I’ve read, and have observed everywhere from the grocery store to kids that age in my own condo complex.

    One such boy is going to be 4 soon, the other 6, yet they seem like they’re going on 2 and 4 respectively; still toddler-like. I’m not a pediatrician or an authority on child development, but I don’t think that’s normal, and frankly would be alarmed if my child was like that.

    Today though, I guess it IS part of the new normal. EVERYTHING is so weird now, why would that be any different? Obviously, I’M the one out of step with the times! At 4 I was a regular boy talking almost as well as I do now (younger than that) and certainly wasn’t taught to sit down to pee like most boys apparently are now from what I’ve read, and have been for years. It’s hard to know how much of it is autism vs. the de-masculinization of males in this society otherwise. It also explains why in restaurants at tables within earshot I’ve overheard boys say they have to pee, and it’s MOM that gets up and takes him to (what I presume) is the ladies’ room, even though Dad’s right there. Kids that are 10, 11 years old. OKAY!

    I liked your writing style, the story itself, and your compassion. If it had a disclaimer at the beginning stating it was a little out there though, a little weird, I would have said you’re right, that was weird.

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