When a stranger asks how old he is, my cousin B—’s eyebrows stretch upwards and his mouth drops open into an “Oh!” He doesn’t say a word. Instead he sticks out three fingers on his left hand. It’s New Year’s Day, we’re at a party, and there are many strangers here. They must seem strange to B, who stands no more than two feet tall. They tower over him, calling to one another in booming voices, demanding that he account for his age, and answering their own questions about the true nature of things. But that shows how little I know. Most people on Earth “tower over” B. He is three years old. The bigness of the world must be a given.
Also at the party is a small Cavalier named Mozart, a caramel-colored puppy who mostly sniffs around for fallen bits of chicken, or gets cradled in his owner’s arms. B’s older sister M— is tentative with Mozart. She scratches his tail, gapes at him, and eventually gives up, returning to her coloring book. B, in contrast, is manic. He tiptoes up to Mozart, reaches a hand out to touch him, and then—before any contact is made—runs away screaming. His wordless terror rings through the air.
The adults all agree: if B doesn’t want to play with Mozart, he should play with his toys on the other side of the room. B sits at the dining table, ramming a fist-sized police truck into a fist-sized ambulance, over and over—now from a distance, now at close range. Once, the ambulance rolls off the edge of the dining table, and onto the rug. Craving chicken, Mozart darts for it. B jumps onto his chair and wails “The dooooog!” The adults intervene, separating child, truck, and dog. Once everyone has returned to their conversation (“I never make resolutions anyway.”), B stands resolutely on top of his chair, picks up the red ambulance, locks eyes with Mozart, and sends the truck crashing onto the ground. Mozart runs over, as if called, and B begins to scream gleefully. After three more rounds, the adults are tired of this game.
B wants to play with Mozart, the dog. B is terrified of Mozart, the dog. B is not ashamed of his contradiction. B doesn’t try to explain himself because he knows this: language is a trapdoor.
Later, B and his sister are balancing the dog’s rubber balls on the crowns of their heads, and M has made a rule—several rules, in fact: “You have to dance—keep the ball on your head—but you can’t kick—and no pushing.” B races brazenly across the room, weaving through dining chairs and thoughtful adults; and unsurprisingly, the rubber ball topples onto the ground. B tries again, tries everything, big and loud, and yet the ball keeps falling. M moves in slow circles, what she calls “dancing,” and wins the game, again and again. B runs to his father and cries out, “I all-ways lose. I want to win!” And his father asks, “Win? At what?” To which B replies, “Win like this,” as he holds the ball on top of his head and runs away. B has not explained the rules of the game, but it’s too late now for all that talk—the world within and around him has already moved on. He makes a mad dash for the door before it shuts.
B stands on a knife-edge between silence and speech. He reminds me of Nana, a character in the movie Vivre Sa Vie, who is caught in her own struggle to communicate. Nana is convinced that “the more one talks, the less words mean.” Near the end of the movie, she debates the meaning of silence with a philosopher, wondering whether “to speak is to risk lying.” B knows this risk. When Mozart the Cavalier disappears after dinner, B says nothing. He puts his small cool hand on my shoulder, his face sunken in despair, and presses into my side. A child’s hand exerts a pressure unlike other forms of touch. B’s hand on my shoulder is not honest simply because it is uncorrupted by life. B’s hand on my shoulder is honest because it doesn’t want to risk lying.