by Charles M. Knudsen
|part 2 of 3|
Bubs had once suggested that I get a lizard or a guppy or something. “You need stuff to do, man. Someone who needs you. I’ve got my mom to take care of. You need a pet.” Sage advice, I’m sure. But wasn’t it his mom taking care of him?
The point is I didn’t have a pet. And Risa was long gone. So when I very clearly heard the deep, rhythmic breathing of someone or something asleep somewhere behind me, well, it freaked me out.
Too afraid to turn around, I launched Photo Booth and tilted my head to the side to let the computer camera capture the mysterious napper.
Nothing but the coffee table and the sofa. No people. No animals. I turned around. The breathing went on, clearer, louder. Maybe it was just my beer-fueled imagination. A weird form of tinnitus, perhaps? Or maybe I was just hearing the sound of my own breathing. So I held my breath.
Nope, still there. Clearer and louder than ever.
It sounded like it was coming from the sofa so I slid to the floor and crawled across the room. And there it was, the source of the noise: Keito’s T-shirt. I knelt there with my face hovering over it, looking down at the “trippy” interference pattern.
I’m sure you’ve seen one of those pictures in the paper, the kind with a strange, repeating pattern that you’re supposed to stare at for a long time and zone out, and if you’re lucky and zoned out enough, a 3-D image emerges.
Something like that was happening right now. An image was coming out of the interference pattern. A nose, eyes, a mouth — a face. As young as on the day I first met him. Sleeping there, so peaceful, so innocent. The sweet kid.
Keito. My amazing Keito.
For three days, Keito just hung there over the edge of the sofa, eyes closed, like a small stone Buddha. But gradually his face took shape, grew more pronounced, more fleshed out, and began to protrude from the shirt until I could even see his little kid’s ears poking out of the sides. The interference pattern got pushed to the margins.
On the fourth day, I dared to pick the shirt up. It was heavy, like there was a real human head hanging off it. I carried the sleeping boy/shirt around the house with me as I did my chores, gripping the crew neck with one hand as I mopped or rinsed plates with the other. I could have set him down on the sofa or draped him over the back of a chair, but if the boy was going to wake up, I didn’t want to miss it.
Sure, I doubted my sanity. I considered taking a snapshot of Keito and e-mailing it to Bubs to see if he could see the boy, too. But I figured I had nothing to gain by it. If Bubs saw Keito, he’d probably think I had gone Jeffery Dahmer on some kid and tacked his head onto my T-shirt. If Bubs didn’t see the boy, well, the disappointment might have broken me. So I decided to keep Keito to myself, at least for a while.
Besides, Bubs had his own problems. He e-mailed that he had actually had to leave the house for the first time in years to accompany his mom to the hospital. She just needed some tests, he said, nothing to worry about. No big deal. But that was already three days earlier, and Bubs was still laid out from his harrowing ordeal outside.
On the morning of the seventh day, the boy opened his eyes and uttered his first words. The night before, I had hung him up on a padded hanger hooked onto the ceiling light above my bed, so he had been up there all night, hovering over me while I slept. Then, while I was doing my in-bed stretches, I heard Keito say in a matter-of-fact voice, “Keito asobitai no” — ‘Keito wants to play.’
I sprang up and gave the shirt a little squeeze. “Keito! You’re awake! You’ve come back to me.” Tears welled up in my eyes. I was... how else can I put it? Overjoyed! “I knew you cared, Keito. I just knew it.”
The boy didn’t react. He didn’t even seem to recognize me. He just looked into my eyes then lowered his gaze. “Keito asobitai no.”
I eased the hanger off the light and, gripping the velvet padding with both hands, stepped off the bed. “Okay, Keito. We’ll play, buddy.” I was still teary-eyed with joy. “What do you want to play?”
Keito kept his eyes fixed on the floor. “Keito asobitai no.”
“No problem, bud. Let’s find something fun to do.” I skipped about the house looking for anything that might make Keito smile. Remembering that Keito had taken dance lessons, I streamed “Billie Jean” through YouTube. I swayed the shirt from side to side to the seductive beat.
But Keito wasn’t into it. “Keito asobitai no.”
I grabbed one of my iPads and waved it in front of him. “You wanna play a game, Keito? I can download something from the Apple store.”
He didn’t even look at the iPad. “Keito asobitai no.” He said it once more. Then again. And again. Over and over until he began a non-stop chant of “Keito asobitai no,” each intonation a little louder and a little sadder than the last. Before long, his eyes welled up, and the miserable boy broke out into a full fit of crying. “KEITO ASOBITAI NO!”
Desperate, I asked my little buddy if he wanted to play in the bathtub. “You can float around in the water, Keito. It’ll be fun.”
But as soon as Keito saw the water pouring out of the tap, he screamed and cried out, “Yada! Yada!” which I remembered meant “No!”
“What’s wrong? Don’t you want to take a bath?”
The boy just let out a falsetto shriek. I got the point. I ran out of the bathroom and straight back into more friendly territory. On the sofa, I set Keito on my lap and stroked his head, whispering, “I’m sorry, buddy. I’m so sorry. We won’t go near the tub again.”
Keito was sobbing so hard now that he was almost choking. I gently stroked his head. “Shh... it’s okay. You’re safe now. Shhh.”
Finally, the boy settled down. He yawned and closed his eyes. “Keito asobitai no,” he said for the last time. And he fell asleep.
This routine went on for several days. Keito would wake up, cry about wanting to play, then, after wearing himself out, fall back asleep again. I have to admit I was getting a little flustered. I had had no idea raising a child would be so hard.
About a week later, we had a breakthrough. I had slipped a sleeping Keito over the back of the kitchen chair so I could heat up some canned chili. I was stirring my lunch as quietly as I could, not wanting to disturb his rest. But then I slipped up and banged the wooden spoon against the metal pot. It wasn’t even that loud, but little Keito had some seriously sensitive ears. He woke up and started bawling.
I ran over to him, picked him up, and rocked him in my arms. And just as he started crying out his usual “Keito asobitai no,” I smelled the burning beans. It was stinking up the kitchen and Keito was wailing away — I didn’t have enough hands.
So I just did it. I wriggled into the shirt. I stretched it out, sure, but somehow I managed to get the junior-medium most of the way over my gut.
Keito stopped crying right away. And me? I felt as if low-wattage electric lava was oozing through my veins, filling me with some kind of warm life force. It was joy. Pure joy. I knew then that something remarkable was happening.
Then I heard his voice. “Hi, Carl. You there?”
* * *
For the next several days we celebrated our reunion, laughing together, dancing to “Billy Jean,” doing upside-down crunches on the inversion table. I’m talking serious quality time. Keito and I shared our body, taking turns controlling the arms or legs. We started off with a lot of “after-you” and “no-after-you-I-insist,” but before long we knew who wanted to do what and when without even having to think about it. We were a great team. Astaire/Rogers — eat your heart out.
Sometimes, when Keito wanted the whole body to himself to try a new dance move, I would surrender my entire being over to him. It was liberating, exhilarating. The only drawback was that Keito was affected by whatever I ate or drank, so beer was out. But considering the tradeoff, it was no sacrifice at all. Besides, Keito hated our big beer gut — it made his jaw ache.
Keito’s English was as good as the “real” Keito’s had been the day he left — even better in that he had a bigger vocabulary. We would spend hours talking the days and nights away. The little chatterbox never seemed to run out of things to say.
It wasn’t long before we came across the first hiccup in our relationship. It bubbled up one day when I insisted we take a bath because the shirt was starting to stink — and so was I; we hadn’t had a wash since Keito was “born.” But Keito was afraid that if I took him off, he’d slip back into that helpless, zombie-like state he’d been in before I had tried him on. And the water still petrified him. Even the sight of the bathtub terrified him.
I had to settle for a sponge bath at the sink. “Don’t worry, buddy,” I said as the water flowed from the tap. “I won’t get any on you.”
He strained his eyes upward to look up at me. “I don’t know why I’m so afraid of the water.”
I soaped myself under the shirt, careful not to let the lather seep into Keito’s eyes. “I wonder.”
“You must have some idea.”
“Not a clue.”
“But you created me, didn’t you? There must be some reason in you that makes me afraid of the water. I mean there has to be, right?”
I set the soap down. “Keito. How could I have created you? I’m not a god, kid. You’ve got a wild imagination.”
“I thought you were the one with the wild imagination,” he muttered.
For a while, Keito didn’t again ask about his coming into being. After the sponge bath, we were back to our old ways, dancing, watching YouTube, ordering stuff we didn’t need off the Internet. I was happy. That’s all I knew.
But a few weeks later, Keito started brooding. He got testy, too, talking back to me more often and criticizing me about small things, like my short arms, or my long hair, or my belly that hung around no matter how many upside-down crunches we did. Our honeymoon was nearing its end, and I knew it.
“Carl, be straight with me, man. Why did you make me?” he asked me one night as we were lying in bed.
Copyright © 2012 by Charles M. Knudsen