Blasphemy 1

He did it on purpose is one of the strangest accusations ever leveled at a writer. Of course I did it on purpose.  The question is, and it is what I have tried to answer: what is the ‘it’ that I did?

–Salman Rushdie “In Good Faith”

My first day trip to London was delayed
for hours. We watched from the airport
in Edinburgh as Tony Blair’s helicopter
took off; there were questions to be answered,
trains to be secured. Bombs had blown up
a bus and a train. There was smoke and fire
and death in London on that day. Our cab took
us to the home of Battu’s cousins, who had
left Sierra Leone for the United States but
then ended up in London in a house at the end
of the bus line. “You make more in America,”
They said, “But, oh, you have to spend more, too.”

I played with their children that night; a ten year
old daughter who laughed at my American ways of
saying things, a seven year old boy who wanted to
roughhouse and wrestle (“Roughhouse” was a word
that made the ten year old laugh), and a girl, no
more than two, who looked at me with big eyes
and reached out to either give me a hug
or her pacifier. Over and over again.

In the morning, I walked past the launderettes
and the chip shops to the bus stop
which I rode all the way in to King’s Cross
itself. I read the signs for those still
missing. I looked at the women crying for
dead husbands, fiancees, boyfriends, mothers,
children. I watched the men who clenched their
fists.

I spent a morning watching, from up close
and from afar. The afternoon I spent on the go
chasing churches and castles, eating fish and
chips in some random corner stop, trying not
to forget and not to remember the scenes from
the shuttered doors in the subway. Big Ben’s
clang, the sound of the priest’s prayers at
Westminster Abbey, the rag-tag group of volunteers
in the basement of Westminster Cathedral (where
I stopped to use the bathroom). I would look up
back towards the cross, back towards every Underground
stop I passed, back to where I thought the airport might
be, to see if there would be plumes of smoke, a fire
or mob or bomb but nothing ever came.

I made my way back, my hands still greasy from
the fish and chips, to the end of the bus line
where three little children greeted me, as if I
were an uncle come back from a trip abroad. In
the cozy little house that cost more and cost
less than its American equivalent, they asked
me what I had seen that day, showed me their
toys, and demanded that I play. And like a
favorite uncle, I hid and sought, I stole
noses, I made jokes.

The seven year old, wild as boys that age
can be, demanded the most attention. The
ten year old laughed the most, the two year
old climbed and cuddled. In a crowd around
me, they clamored for attention I was already
paying them, and in a moment, the seven year old’s
play turned more violent than expected. With
a quick and loud “NO!” my voice rose, and
I turned quickly from playmate to adult,
or so I thought.

“You….you….TOSSER!” he yelled at me,
and though no other adults were in earshot,
the ten year old gasped in horror, and
the two year olds eyes seemed to grow
wider, though her pacified mouth remained
silent, as if we were in a Cockney episode
of The Simpsons. Even the boy
seemed shaky at the knees, impressed with
himself for uttering the slur, though surely
he had faith that hell awaited when I spoke.

A favorite uncle might quickly conclude
such an affair, determine what grace,
what punishment might fit this crime,
and either excuse or execute just as
quickly. But a fake favorite uncle,
but two days in, can only stifle his own
laugher and say, “We don’t use such words”

(because truly, we don’t. Not where I come from.
In fact, this fake favorite uncle will google
“Tosser” later to make sure he knows
just how severe an insult he sustained),
and pick up the littlest one who reaches
up in silence to be held, never breaking
eye contact with the blasphemer, whose
punishment will be delayed, who will
swear he didn’t mean it, who will take
a wicked joy in a bad word not reported,
who will make me laugh on a day so heavy
and hard.

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