I’ll tell you what you see in the video because it’s cute as hell. The boy: eight, blond and shaggy haired, almost swallowed up by an adult-sized sweatshirt; the girl: eleven, black Chuck Taylors, black hoodie, bleached blonde bangs, when they’re not hanging in front of her eyes, tucked behind her ear. They’re decorating the tree, with the Vince Guaraldi Trio’s “Linus and Lucy,” the most joyous of all Christmas songs, playing in the background.
His hair bobs in time to the music, as he does the Monkey, does the Frug, slides around in his socks and does Schroeder rocking out on the piano. She sorts through ornaments and hooks, and carefully hangs a homemade paper angel. He climbs on the arm of the couch to hook a colored ball up high. They dance and play and throw things at each other, which is what siblings do.
And in the background, every once in a while, you hear the man with the camera giggle because the kids don’t know that he’s recording every bit of it.
It’s Austin, 2005, and we’ve lived in this house almost six years. It’s the house I wished I had growing up. A big old house with tall ceilings and pine floors, with oak trees filtering the late day sun outside the double-hung windows. A house where you can call the kids for dinner and hear the clatter of toys hitting the floor and the stampeding of feet down the stairs. It’s supposed to be our home forever, a place where our kids can grow up, and where our grandchildren can someday play under these same trees.
I can tell you some things you can’t see, that the kids can’t see either, even though these things are in plain sight. You can’t see the massive debt it takes to sustain this life since the dot-com world collapsed. You can’t see the dark circles under the cameraman’s eyes, formed as he works sixty hours a week just to tread water.
You can’t see the levees breaking in his hometown. You can’t feel his survivor’s guilt, his anxiety over not being home. You can’t taste his desperate need to get back, to do something important, something worthwhile. Something, anything but twenty more years of sixty hour weeks, making software to help rich people get richer.
You can’t see the continual dance of invisible jab and parry that makes up his marriage, and you can’t feel his growing suspicion that the bottle he put down was the glue that once held it together.
You can’t see the bear trap that has sunk its jaws deep into his ankle. You can’t see the bite marks on his leg, the tentative places where he’s started to gnaw, just a little bit, testing, wondering if he might one day be able to chew it all the way off and, on one foot, run free.
It’s hard to explain how it feels when the place you call home becomes a weight that slowly kills you.
The only jobs that can pay for a house like this are the high tech ones, consuming a man’s years like locusts chewing through a wheat field. I sold my soul, and I got good money for it, but the money goes so fast, water through my fingers. And without this job, or one just like it, the house is not affordable. And if the job goes, then the house goes, the health insurance goes, the private school goes, it all goes, and it’s all on me. And I can give in, I can give it all up, or like Giles Corey I can cry “more weight,” and take it all as if I too were a fearsome man.
And then Katrina. Every day, I leave my software job and put in eight hours at the Austin Katrina shelter. I come home with a list of names of missing people. I stay up all night searching the internet for them.
Burning the candle at both ends is a weak metaphor for something that feels like you’re running five thousand teeth-grinding volts through your skull until the insulation starts to melt around the edges.
But it points to a way out. I can save people. If I didn’t have the house, if I didn’t have the job, maybe if I was in a different city that desperately needed me. Maybe a city like New Orleans.
And there are a few things that even the cameraman can’t see, apparitions whispering just outside the window, waiting for their chance to sneak in. But I can see them from here, from where I sit, in his future.
The dancing children can’t know, and the cameraman can only suspect, that the house will be on the market before the Christmas tree is down.
The children can’t know what the cameraman is only beginning to dream. That he will take his family on what he thinks is a great adventure, to a city of ghosts and jazzmen, where life is slower, where leisure is still cherished, where a man can slow down and pay attention to the beautiful world around him. And he can’t imagine how much it will feel to the children like being ripped from the only home they know, to live in a place full of poverty and anger, full of newly-homeless classmates and self-medicating adults. To a home where blocks away, flood debris still lines streets of gutted and empty houses, and boats abandoned on weed-choked sidewalks, where they came to rest after the flood went down.
None of them can know that the slings and arrows of the marital cold war, thus far invisible to the dancing children, will erupt into open conflict.
And none of them can foresee, but I have already seen, that by the time two more Christmas trees have been raised and lowered, the dancing children will find themselves in a broken home, in a broken city, with a broken family, and a broken father.
I hobble around on one leg now. There’s a ragged wound where the trap used to be, and some days it gives me more trouble than others. There was a lot of blood at first, in the early days, but I keep it bandaged up and wrapped tight. I hope it’s not infected; I try not to look too close.
I worry more about the children. They hide their wounds well, as teenagers do, and anybody else would believe they turned out just fine. But when I look at them, I wonder if they’ve really healed, because they don’t dance like they used to.