He sat between two women, a child of five; tow-haired and bright, unpracticed at smiling, but accustomed to attention. He was an only child; a lonely child—fatherless and wary, but loved or smothered moment to moment in the crucible of his grandparent’s home.
The grandmother on the left and his mother on the right were arguing again.These women were rivals in all things great and small.
“Terry, point your finger at who you love the most.”
This was THE GAME: a corrosive, triangular dysfunctional contest for bragging rights with the boy as prize.
“I don’t want to.”
“Yes, you do. Who do you love? Is it her or me?”
“I don’t know.”
“Why lie about it? You won’t hurt our feelings—go ahead—who do you love more?”
“Both. I love you both.”
“Goddam it, Terry! Why can’t you just say what’s on your mind? Are you a coward? Nobody’s going to hurt you. WHO DO YOU LOVE THE MOST?”
“I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I don’t know. How can I—I love both of you!”
The Game continued until the blade of the guillotine was loosed and a bloody head dropped into the basket.
He lifted his pointing finger and oscillated slowly like a fan; first this way (Grandmother) then that way (Mother.) The child’s heart was pounding in his chest, his keen scrutiny searching their expression for signs of pain or anger. Back and forth the finger tested, probed, and ascertained. This was the Mycenaean priest prodding entrails for omens; the Gypsy with her tea leaves conjuring mysteries of Fate and folly.
How had it come to this Kabuki mise-en-scène?
The boy was learning to delay, play for time, plucking courage from thin air. This was THE LADY or THE TIGER. This was the Roman coliseum and thumbs up / thumbs down of life or death, to the victor goeth the glory.
This was his calculus:
Choosing his grandmother, the mother would be outraged; her anger and hurt feelings could erupt with furious spontaneity. Selecting his mom, the grandmother turned cold in her scorn and a wall of covert indifference descended called the Silent Treatment.
Simple as any dilemma could be, a Hobson’s choice of pain vs. pain devolved down to decibel levels.
Ongoing as the game was, Terry alternated, testing outcomes and consequences. How spectacular was the reward from a mother chosen winner? How bitter the incrimination from the grandmother! Feast on one side, famine on the other—try them on, wear them—see how it goes, okay?
Who can doubt the careful calibrations of a young mind fine-tuned at regular intervals? If you win, you lose. If you lose, you win. What would the boy conclude about love and hate, men and women, the very process of divulging honest emotion itself?
As he grew, along came girls, girlfriends, sweethearts, fiancées and wives followed inevitably by ex-girlfriends, former sweethearts, broken engagements and ex-wives.
If life were indeed The Game, what is the payoff in the end?
For Terry, it wasn’t Hollywood endings. The little boy, the apex of a Right Triangle gone wrong, knew ending was obvious. The only way to win is to not play.
Lonely null set.
No emotion in and no emotion out.
Empty man in an empty room.