I’m on the floor of my son’s room again. It’s midnight and I’m cross-legged, leaning over a pile of one-by-one yellow and red bricks, stacking them into a column the correct height to support the weight of the second floor in this Minecraft LEGO scene.
My son’s room is upstairs. The longer I sit here, 1:00 a.m., 2:00, later, the more pressure I exert, over time, on the carpet, on the beams supporting this room, on the foundation, on this quarter-acre of clay and Casa Grande in the American Southwest. And, in turn, physics dictates, on what is keeping up this bureau to my left, and the drawers of clean and folded size-six shirts, this twin bed, its headboard strung with lights.
Arianna calls from bed. I hear the wobble of her end table. A few seconds and she puts the water glass down.
“I’ll be in soon, in a few,” I tell her, just above a whisper.
“Please,” she says, and that’s all. I kind of murmur something like okay, love you, but it’s so quiet.
Notice what I see from my level: Connect 4, a 60-piece Ravensburg Animals of India puzzle, Candy Land, three “Dog Man” books, “Captain Underpants and the Attack of the Talking Toilets,” a dust bunny collecting around the left hind leg of a four-foot giraffe, two marbles, “The Odyssey,” “The Goldfinch,” “Birds of America,” “Angel Pig and the Hidden Christmas,” a stuffed tiger under the bed, “Sing, Unburied, Sing,” a 90s-themed crossword collection, water trickled into a pool from a succulent on the windowsill.
We used to read together, right here on the carpet, on our bellies early in the morning. He wasn’t much of a sleeper, but he was always in a good mood, even at 5:00 a.m. We’d lay in bed as the sun came up over the neighbor’s adobe-tiled roof. We’d flip through an atlas. “The Wonder Garden.” “Wild Animals of the North.” Richard Scarry’s “Cars and Trucks and Things that Go.” I’d turn the air conditioning up and we’d get under the covers until Arianna woke up and we’d get him ready for kindergarten.
The pressure: I think about it sometimes. Not every night, but enough, enough to run through scenarios: Is it possible to wear down the plywood flooring beneath the carpet? What amount of repeated pressure in the same or similar spot will lead to structural damage? Am I overreacting, and if so, who’s going to tell me?
Arianna had a friend in college whose sister took LSD or MDMA, whatever was around in the Phoenix suburbs in the early 2000s. “She was never really the same,” Arianna said. “She just kinda went inward after that.”
What she did: she paced around the house. Over and over, the same path, hours and hours a day. After a few months, Arianna said, she’d worn a noticeable route where the grass would no longer grow, her sneaker treads perfectly imprinted.
I’m about done with this build, LEGO Minecraft: The Villager Raid, model 21160, 562 pieces. I should get to bed soon, anyway. At 8:00 the 7th graders will want to talk about Scout and Jem, about what Dill’s role is, about Boo Radley and all the scary houses with manicured ivy in their beautiful neighborhoods, where they’re safe and enveloped in love and toys and food and family, until one day maybe they just aren’t.
I’m missing a green two-by-six. I scan the floor: stuffed pig, wooden globe, dusty-footed giraffe, an outer space diorama with fishing wire holding up the planets, two maracas, a pad of temporary tattoos. The model number of the bureau is M77870, but you can only see that if you’re lying on your back.
Oh, here it is, the LEGO, a dark flat piece the length of a fingernail to a knuckle, perpendicular against the spine of “The Usborne 1001 Things That Go.”
And I think this, too, as I finish up for the night: When will the grief of him not being here lessen, dissipate, dilute. Is there a day when this will fade at all? When?
Or is there a word, a word that will, when I say it, when I say it and understand it, really, will this word and its meaning make this somehow make sense, make this easier to deal with?
My wife suggested counseling. I did it. She suggested trauma survivors’ groups. I went. She’s given me books, she put a rowing machine in the basement last summer, she’s taken me on runs, hikes, vacations. We went to Aruba in February when it seemed like we could put the masks away finally. It all helped, sure, but here I am, breaking apart last night’s work, like always, putting the newly constructed Minecraft scene back on the six-drawer IKEA bureau in the middle of the night in the dark, silently.
I’m called, like a teenager, into the principal’s office.
“Apparently,” Principal Eubanks says, shifting her weight forward, straightening a stack of manila folders, “you’ve been lying to students?”
I dated the principal’s sister in high school, a connection that’s helped a few times in the twelve years I’ve been here. But I don’t see any glimmer in her eyes, and the lines in her face are all angled down.
“It’s not lying, really,” I start, aware already of how this is going to end up. I scratch an invisible itch beneath my collar. “It’s – they’re things like the height of the mountain Tiresias the oracle was on in Antigone, or –”
“Was he on a mountain?” Two fingertips to the space between her eyebrows.
“That’s what I’m saying,” I tell her. “It doesn’t even matter, but it helps them understand the –”
“What else have you been teach – what have you been telling them?”
“Nothing. Little things: that Tom Robinson was based on Jackie’s dad; that people in Ancient Greece couldn’t see the color blue; that everyday there’s one volcanic eruption somewhere in the world, sometimes more.”
Eubanks doesn’t want to talk anymore. She calls in her vice-principal and secretary, two men with similar balding patterns and light sweaters. They look at their phones and sigh, together. Shortly thereafter, in an email on official digital letterhead, I’m told to take a few days off.
Sometimes it’s 60252, the Construction Bulldozer, or 60276, the City Police Prisoner Transport. It doesn’t matter which. The Volkswagen T1 Camper Van, 10220, 1,334 pieces. I can take them apart and put them back together in the dark, by feel. Though usually I’ll turn on the ship-in-a-bottle nightlight, or arrange a few battery-operated votives in a semicircle, a build-site perimeter.
Pressure is the force applied perpendicular to an object’s surface per unit area over which that force is distributed. The formula is P = F/A, with F as the magnitude of force and A the area to which its applied.
Some examples of units of pressure are the Pascal, which is one newton per square metre (N/m2); and pound-force per square inch (psi), like filling the air in your Honda Pilot with third-row seating.
Notice, further down on this Wikipedia page: Atmospheric pressure: static pressure exerted by the weight of the whole fucking goddamn unforgiving atmosphere.
And Vacuum: Space that is empty of matter.
The Board of Trustees wants to have a meeting. Sure, lets.
A few nights ago, Arianna and I watched a documentary about a guy who around 2004 built a makeshift fortified armored car, a bulldozer, in one of his Colorado muffler garages, which he then used in a violent rampage through their quiet blue collar mountain town.
“I get it,” I told Arianna later, in bed. She didn’t respond though; she was probably asleep.
And I do. His reasons were a little skewed, sure; he was denied an easement from a neighbor’s concrete shop for him to connect to the municipal sewer line. But the main idea: life serves you up a bad hand, an irredeemably shitty set of circumstances, and you get in a homemade tank and destroy everything in sight, obliterate everything, wrap yourself in everything and then burn everything until everything’s gone, until you succumb to the overwhelming force of the mass weighing down on you, until it’s only clear pure light and F over A dissolves, evaporates, and you float away, up and elsewhere.
I went to the toy store last week to get a few new LEGO sets, but supply chain delays and Christmas coming up had left many of the shelves empty. And when I thought about going yesterday, I checked the numbers on my phone, and cases, in my county, had risen 1,100%, on average from last week, and deaths were up too, again, so we went for a walk outside instead, again.
We talked a little on our regular loop through the park, but not much. It was very hot, even for December. Mostly we noted the brightness of the poppies, the marsh aster, the thistle and jewelflower as we crossed the wash and the ground turned to sand.
I slip quietly into bed and listen to Arianna’s light breathing, watch her right shoulder rise and fall. I listen to the air conditioner hum. I listen to the dust between this stack of books. I listen to the whirr of the two air purifiers we bought 17 months ago, when we were bleaching groceries on the back porch. I listen to where the baby monitor used to be. I rub the pads of my pointer fingers, which bear still the imprint of 586 plastic pieces.
In a few years Arianna will leave me, I’m sure of it. She’ll move to Oregon or Utah; she’ll meet a man and get married and I’ll get a Christmas card and the occasional text.
I like to imagine her sometimes, this sister of Arianna’s college friend, not yet an adult but already feeling the weight of a life, navigating her way in circles around the property as the Arizona heat sizzled the Brittlebush, the Chuperosa, the Yuccas and Desert Willows, as the orange sun sank lower, over the car dealerships and budget hotels to the north.
I wonder again how much force I need to exert on this same spot here for it to retain a memory of my shape, to understand the contours and weight of my imprint.
The meeting is for tomorrow, 3:00 p.m. just as the students are filing out. So okay, all right, but until then I’ll continue to do what I’ve done for the past 17 months, to keep dismantling and rebuilding one LEGO kit per night, in the dark, and to exert all this pressure into the floor, onto it, the plywood, the plans, the studs, the rebar, the concrete, whatever structural support, whatever’s keeping me here, sitting, working.
Tomorrow, I imagine, anyway, the administrative hearing will go something like this:
“I’m sorry, Mr. Liebowitz, I can’t even begin to imagine –”
It will be a woman who says that, not the principal but a mother, the PTA president, a parent of an overachieving daughter. She’ll wear her concern like a protective skin, a microfiber sheet of worry and care and pride, and I’ll smile but she’ll see my hard plastic brick outer covering, and I’ll say what I always do, which is “Yes you can. Try.”