Yosef, age 10 (who arrived in America last month) walks through the house with a loud fake cry. “Unh-hunh! Unh-hunh! Unh-hunh!” he sobs.
“What’s the matter?” I ask.
He shrugs, falls quiet. Then he starts up again, loudly, and as false as if he were yelling Boo-hoo! Boo-hoo!
“Yosef, WHAT?” I ask again. “Is something hurting you? Do you feel sick?”
He shakes his head no, and stops. Then he starts again.
After 24 hours of his boo-hooing from one end of the house to the other, I’m thinking: “He has deeply-buried grief. He misses Ethiopia. He’s in mourning for his late parents.”
After 48 hours, I’m thinking: “There is something seriously wrong with the child. He’s emotionally unbalanced.”
After three days, I’m saying aloud: “For the love of God, somebody make him stop.”
So Daniel hits him. (Daniel, 13, Yosef’s biological brother, also joined our family on June 10.) When Yosef boo-hoos louder and harder, Daniel slugs him again. He’s fed up with Yosef’s cuteness and attempts at cuteness, Yosef’s winning ways, and now Yosef’s false grief. He intends to pound it all out of him, the cuteness, the charm, and the crying. Yosef is not a joyful clowning Yosef anymore; he’s a deflated Yosef, a lips-turned-down Yosef.
Yesterday, a hot summer day in the Deep South, everyone escaped the house except Yosef, Daniel, and me. The afternoon unspooled in slow motion, the gold-flecked air outside heating up. From the laundry room, as I took sheets from the dryer, it seemed that the steamy room was the equivalent of the slow simmer of the outdoor world. Guiltily I perceived that Daniel and Yosef were deep in their third hour of watching Disney Channel sit-coms on the basement TV.
“Go pool?” asked Daniel when I looked in on them.
“Can you wait till Lee or Seth or Dad get home from work to take you?” I asked.
“Go pool?” he replied.
“Unh hunh unh hunh!” sobbed Yosef.
“WHAT? Yosef, WHAT?”
“Unh hunh unh hunh!”
I was hot, sleepy, cranky. The house was a mess. I hadn’t shopped for dinner; I hadn’t had a chance to do any writing. I wished night were falling. I wished it were winter. I wished it were a decade from now and I was sitting on the back porch reading poetry and stroking a cat in the middle of an afternoon during my Empty Nest Years. But neither seasons nor years seemed as long a stretch of time as the hours between now—two o’clock—and six or seven o’clock this evening when Donny, Seth, Lee, or Lily would come home and do something fun with these bored, lonely, unhappy boys.
“Why don’t you go outside and shoot baskets?” I asked Daniel.
“Too hot.” They also thought Atlanta was ridiculously, mind-bogglingly hot.
“Go jump on the trampoline?”
“Shall we walk the dogs?”
“Mom! Too hot!”
They hated the heat. I’d thought that children coming from sub-Saharan Africa would find Atlanta’s climate bearable, or at least familiar. No. According to them, Georgia was far hotter than Ethiopia, though air-conditioning attempted to conceal that fact. One day, Daniel observed: “Mom! Ethiopia? Outside cold. Inside hot. America? Inside cold. Outside hot.”
“Go pool?” he asked now.
“Unh-hunh. Unh-hunh,” sobbed Yosef.
Feeling trapped, doomed, I collected towels, swim-suits, goggles, and flip-flops and we stepped into the furnace-blast of the front yard. The car was pre-heated, like a roasting pan under a broiler. Deeply sleepy and resentful, I drove to the pool. The boys ran ahead while I unloaded the towels, goggles, and flip-flops.
In the heat of the afternoon, the pool was nearly vacant, an unused oasis, a sheen of silver heat stilling the water. The lifeguards wore towels wrapped around their heads like desert nomads. Yosef, Daniel, and I waded into the shallow end. I put on a happy face and proposed that we play keep-away with a beach ball; I tapped it into the air; but they let it fall, remaining discontented even here waist-deep in tepid water many blocks from home.
“Unh-hunh. Unh-hunh,” cried Yosef and Daniel hit him hard.
I burst into tears. I hadn’t known I was anywhere near tears. Sudden crying—real crying, not fake—splashed out of me. I ducked under the surface to hide the tears and to stop myself, but I couldn’t stop and choked instead on inhaled water. Sputtering, I ran clumsily out of the pool, grabbed a hot towel off the burning-hot pool chair, covered my face with it, and fled barefoot to the parking lot as if skipping over hot coals, aware that the lifeguards, glistening under the sun in their wrapped towel headgear, observed my unconventional departure.
In the broiling car with burning seats, I cried harder. I crossed my arms on the steering wheel and laid my head on my arms and wailed like a baby.
“Mom! Sorry!” It was Daniel, rolling his Rs, peering through the passenger side window. “Oh sorry Mom, sorry.”
“Mom, sorry,” whispered Yosef, at my window, also doing an Ethiopian thing with the letter R. The boys had gathered our stuff and were climbing into the car with crestfallen faces.
“Mom I sorry. Yosef sorry,” said Daniel. He glared at Yosef.
“I sorry,” said Yosef.
I couldn’t stop crying but, at the sight of their identical long sad faces, I burst out laughing at the same time, an effort like sneezing through hiccups. Yosef, leaning forward from the backseat, patted me on the shoulder, and Daniel, beside me, looked forlorn. “It’s okay, really, it’s okay,” I said, sputtering between sobs and guffaws. “It’s just… it’s just… it gets really hard. I don’t know…how to make you guys happy. Nothing… makes you happy. You’re just sad or mad all the time.”
“We happy Mom,” said Daniel. “Sorry. We happy. We happy now.”
“Yosef cries all the time,” I said, and the memory of Yosef’s loud fake crying inspired a new burst of real crying from me.
“Sorry Mom finished Mom,” promised Yosef. “I happy now.”
After a deep sigh, I looked at the two sweet remorseful fellows. “Shall we go back to the pool?” I asked.
“No Mom okay Mom home Mom,” they said.
“No, really, I’m okay now. I’d like to swim.”
“Okay Mom sorry Mom.”
We went back to the pool and played and swam for hours, ducking in and out of the turquoise sheets of water. I swam laps and felt like my old self. I glimpsed the boys in horseplay when I turned my head while churning up and down the lap-lanes. The sun was past its meridian when we ate dripping popsicles side-by-side on a wooden bench, and we dried ourselves off by stretching out on lounge chairs with our eyes closed, enjoying the watery breeze off the diving area. All was well with my family for several hours.