His hair is red and shaggy and longish, and he’s pale and slim and six feet tall. Music is everything to him, which makes sense because he’s fifteen.
I was twenty-two when he was born. I’d never had brothers or any other close male relatives and I’d always dreamed of having a brother or a son. The idea of it was strange and exotic, and when he was born, it was as if I had given birth to a llama or something. All my girlfriends came to visit me and him in the hospital and I took them down to the second-floor nursery and we stared at him in awe through a glass window. That’s him, I said. With the orange fuzz on his head. He was lying naked and spread-eagled under a bright heat lamp. He seemed very content. My friend Carol gasped and said oh my God he’s got the biggest balls I’ve ever seen in my life. We all laughed our heads off and then the nurse came and told us his scrotum would shrink to normal size in a few days. I haven’t seen him naked in years but it still often feels, when I look at him, that I’m gazing at an odd creature from behind a glass.
All his life Owen’s been a quiet kid. Not sullen, just not big into talking. When he was a baby and I’d push him around in his stroller, people would stop and crouch down and talk to him and expect him to laugh and smile, and all he’d do was sigh and stare at them. When he got a little older and went over to his friends’ places to play and it was time for him to go home, he just stood up and walked out the door to the car. He didn’t say hey thanks for having me, or next time we’ll play at my place, or even goodbye. We’d be driving home and I’d be explaining to him that it seemed rude and that sometimes we had to say certain things at certain times. He’d sigh and nod and kick the dash, or stick his head all the way out the window.
But back then I could kind of figure out what was going on in his mind even if he didn’t come right out and say it. When he was three and he didn’t want me to go out, instead of grabbing my leg or having a tantrum or something, he’d hide my shoes and then sit on the couch pretending to read the newspaper while I searched all over the place. I figured it out after the second or third time I found my shoes underneath his upside-down kiddie pool or wedged behind the fridge. When he was eight and angry and sitting in a tree and throwing stones at the car, I knew it would be a matter of minutes before he’d start to cry and then slowly spill his guts about the series of events that had led to his meltdown, and I knew that the scene would end with hugs and apologies and some cheerful large-muscle activity like taking shots at my head with a soccer ball. Now, though, the signs are harder if not impossible to read. I’m not sure there are any, in fact, and I don’t know where to begin my search.
He brought eighty-five CDs with him for a family road trip that was to last eleven days. He also brought his sketchbook, which started out as an art class project and has since evolved into a kind of diary, I think. He tends to write things down like “Jesus, I gotta find someone irrational.” Or, “The shit I’m trying to pass off as writing is slowly killing me.”
The music wars started on the first day of our road trip, south through North Dakota. His twelve-year-old sister Georgia claimed the very back seat of the minivan and was content to lie there surrounded by nail polish and beads and thread and Hershey Kisses and Archie comics and listen to her music on her discman. Mostly R&B stuff. Destiny’s Child, Ashanti, the Save the Last Dance soundtrack. My husband Cassady and I sat in the front and Owen sat on the seat right behind us so he could listen to his CDs on the stereo. We told him to listen to them on his discman, which he did sometimes, but then he missed out on our sporadic conversations, which he enjoyed either participating in or mocking.
Sometimes he’d give us a choice of his CDs to play. Nirvana? he’d say. You guys like Nirvana, right? Yeah, but the unplugged one, we’d say.
Oh Lord help me now, he’d say. He’d pop a dozen CDs into the player: And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, At the Drive-In, and we’d listen to half a song from each one and go nope, nope, nope.
I had hoped to learn more about him from his music on this trip. I was pretty sure the lyrics would tell me more about him than he would, but I couldn’t understand most of the lyrics, and none of his CDs, which he’d bootlegged, had liner notes. We asked him if he didn’t miss having liner notes and he said man, liner notes. You guys have this unnatural relationship with your liner notes.
When Owen was little I discovered I could get him to do anything by timing him. Go get your jacket, I’d say, or clean up your toys, quick. I’ll time you. He loved competing with himself and beating his old records, even if I just made up the times, and it evolved into a huge, competitive sports-loving thing that I still don’t understand or enjoy. That timing thing didn’t work at all with Georgia. She’d just look up at me and say what do you mean, time me? What for?
I go to all of Owen’s games. They are fast and exciting and his team often wins, but I really do prefer watching Georgia play basketball because the girls are always saying sorry when they bump into each other and oops, are you okay, and hey, nice shorts, where did you get them, and if they lose they say oh my God, we’re sooooo bad and then start laughing.
On the sixth day of our road trip we got to Fort Stockton, Texas, and Owen discovered Slam Ball on TV, a new type of basketball played with trampolines and a lot more physical contact than normal basketball. It’s weird-looking and kind of stupid, in my opinion. He said it was the greatest thing he’d ever seen and that his life would never be the same. He sat on the hotel bed clutching a pillow and laughing and saying oh my God, my heart is just pumping! Georgia ordered him to never play Slam Ball, it looked dangerous. I know! he said. I love it! She and I shook our heads and went back to our card game.
The difference between Owen and Georgia in the talking department is huge. Georgia will come home from school and literally re-enact her entire day, so that she’s telling me about it almost in real time, hour after hour, with commentary and time for questions in between the re-enactments. Owen, on the other hand, might tell me that his day was good, even if it was bad, but usually he just shrugs and makes an I-don’t-know kind of sound. Then he heads down to the basement and plays his guitar.
I’ve learned over time not to worry too much about his silence. I used to be afraid that maybe he’d turn out to be a psychopath, although I’m not sure why I associate silence with evil. Cassady often reassures me by saying stuff like: it’s a guy thing, or: he’s a fifteen-year-old boy, what do you expect? He told me that when he was Owen’s age he sat in his bedroom by himself for hours on end, typing page after page of vitriol against the world on an old manual typewriter until his fingers bled. And he seems really happy now.
I realize my kids sound like boy and girl stereotypes: Owen is taciturn and into sports and Georgia is chatty and prone to the occasional crying jag, but it’s not as if we planned it. If it is because he’s a boy and she’s a girl, who cares? On his fourth birthday, when Owen begged for a Western Barbie, he got it, along with an extra rodeo wardrobe, and Georgia once expressed an interest in playing football. So what?
One afternoon when Georgia got upset about something that happened at school, and came home and lay face down on the couch, Owen sat on the floor beside her and said, it’s hard being a girl, isn’t it? I’m not sure that it’s any easier being a boy, and I don’t know what he does when he’s sad, other than listening to music. Except for once, it’s been years since I’ve seen him cry. I’d kill to read his notebook.
On the way to Santa Fe he said some strange things. He said he wanted to be buried in an above-ground tomb. He also said he’d like to adopt a kid. Maybe it seems less complicated to him than having a kid the natural way. More do-able. A couple of his buddies have girlfriends, but Owen seems still to be in the research phase. Or maybe I am entirely off track.
We were all pretty quiet as we drove north to Colorado Springs, on our way to Denver. The sun was shining but it was raining a bit and we saw not one, not two, but three dead cows in fields, stiff with their legs in the air, and it bothered us.
After the third dead cow, I played my favourite song of the summer, Gillian Welch’s “Elvis Presley Blues.” It’s a wistful song about the king as a fifteen-year-old boy just starting out with a big rock and roll dream, in a shirt his mother made. And it seemed miraculous to me because Owen actually liked it too. For me it was a song about a boy becoming a man and leaving home and it made me a little sad. For Owen it was probably a song about a cool fifteen-year-old who was about to conquer the world. But really I haven’t got a clue how he heard the song or how it made him feel. All he said was that it had a decent pop sensibility. And then he was quiet.
The more I press him for information, the faster he shuts right down. So one day I tried a new approach—his. I was annoyed by a bunch of things, and rather than broadcast it all over the house, I sat on the couch and glared at the TV and sighed periodically. And strangely, Owen responded. He observed my odd behaviour for a while and then left. Then he came back and looked at me again and said one word: Mom. But in such a nice way that I smiled and said Owen, and that was it. We sat there for a while, silently. I was surprised by how comfortable it felt. And then, finally, wordlessly, he got up and took his laundry upstairs.