You Can’t Kill A Swan
By Taffy Brodesser-Akner Illustration by Angie Wang
The symbol of Wales is a leek, no kidding, and it is illegal to kill a swan here, which shouldn’t it be illegal to kill a swan everywhere by now? You cannot pluck a daffodil in Wales, and that is not a metaphor; it’s just a fact. Daffodils are worn on St. David’s Day, and St. David is the patron saint of Wales, and so everything is called St. David something, including my hotel, which is the nicest hotel in Wales, they tell me, but then why can’t I get a line out to call my husband and kids and see how they’re doing? Why does my husband keep calling and nobody answers? This, and the fact that it’s not as cold as you think it will be, is all you really need to know about the place. Oh, and there are sheep on the sides of the highways, and that’s cool until eventually two days in it’s regular.
Anthony is at the age of consent in Wales, but his parents were concerned about my intentions, that I was some sort of pedophile, and insisted on meeting me before I could speak with their son. So I spent Christmas Eve at Anthony’s house, the day before Charlotte was due to arrive.
I went home to rest up, and learned from my email — the hotel’s Wifi was okay — that there was bad news: My father-in-law was dying. My father-in-law has cheated death many times, but in the past year it seemed that his end wouldn’t be the glorious one he deserved. He would not have a heart attack fishing on a boat in a storm or even a stroke during a moment of impassioned argument. Instead his kidneys would slowly deteriorate over the course of about eight months. There would be hospital visits and home health care workers and naps that lasted too long and falls in the shower. There would be new apparatuses: walkers and canes and catheters. There would be decisions to make.
On the night before I left for Wales, my 4-year-old had asked me to lie down with him when I tucked him in. He locked eyes with me and put his arm out, and I crawled into bed with him and put my head into the crook of his arm, and I laid my arm across his chest. He patted my hair — me with my head in my 4-year-old’s armpit, like he was the grownup and I was the child — and he told me he was never going to die. He told me he’s just going to do this: And here he made a face of eyes squeezed tight, lips mashed together, and a burst of sound that came from way deep in his stomach, pushing all elements out, refusing to be taken. “Good,” I said. “Don’t ever die.”
I told my mother the same thing when I was his age, when I first learned about death. As I got older I was sure there would be a cure for death, the way I was sure there would be non-invasive face-lifts when I finally required them. Then there comes a moment in your life when you realize you’re going to die for sure. Then one day you cross the threshold of oldness and look up and suddenly you are a real grownup, someone that nobody identifies traces of youth in anymore. Charlotte and Anthony do not recognize me as a peer, no matter how whimsical and funny I make myself. I am too far gone. I don’t really understand what’s going on in Homestuck, or even what Charlotte’s Tumblr all means.
(Here I will finally acknowledge what you, reader, already know: That this story has devolved in a very big way. I swear I tried to tell the story I set out for, about these two teenagers who had fallen in love across the internet and a continent and an ocean. And somewhere in all of it, the convergence of my father-in-law’s health, my impending Big Birthday, the fact that my dimples, once the pride of my face, now remain indentations long after I stop smiling — they changed the nature of this; they changed the nature of me, and I was no longer able to stick to the script. I don’t know if I’ve earned enough good will for you to continue reading, but you’re already in. You might as well see how it ends.)
But back to the story, or what we have left of it: Anthony’s parents are recovering Jehovah’s Witnesses, so they don’t really do Christmas as they see others doing it. “We don’t compete for best decorations and lighting,” says Anthony’s sister, and they all roll their eyes in agreement. There’s no tree anywhere. But they will exchange gifts in the morning in the two-hour overlap in which his father is home from the fiberglass factory and before his mother leaves for the hospital.
We sat in a room in the back of the house — an addition that had never been wired to correctly receive the heat of the house. Anthony sat and talked to me from behind his glasses, which magnify his eyes and his acne. He spoke slowly, and he has a cockiness that could only be earned by attracting girl after girl on the internet. Don’t get me wrong: He’s a sweet and polite kid, but there is something about the way he talks about his ex-girlfriends, all of whom seemed to overlap with one another, that makes me wonder what would happen if I came back here in a year, how he’d talk about Charlotte.
Because even with so little to get in the way of their romance, there is trouble there. Remember that Charlotte no longer wanted to role-play with Anthony on Twitter. She saw something too dark and real in his behavior as Sollux, and Anthony accepted this. Lately he’s been role-playing with another girl. Sollux is one hell of a catch, he reasons. You can’t keep him locked up forever. So he and this other girl engage in role-play, and yes, sometimes there is some of the leaving the role-play in order to chat and Charlotte is strong but secretly she tells me she is jealous. Not existentially jealous, but jealous. Charlotte knows that Anthony has dumped girls for getting gloomy and clingy. But does she really know? Does she know yet that someone who loves you can also eventually turn on you?
Charlotte’s family had visited London the summer before, a quick trip (compared with a trip across the Atlantic), one train really. But his parents wouldn’t let him visit. Why couldn’t he figure out a way to get to where she and her family were visiting? And how much of a shit does he even give about this whole thing? He is excited, he says, and happy. But Charlotte is consumed by it. The world is full of the love songs that boys write, but why is it that it is the girls who know how to set themselves on fire? In my son’s preschool, the boys are wandering around like zombies and the girls are organizing everyone: You here, you here, you be the dad, you be the brother. And the boys shrug and drool and play along, complacent and moveable, and nothing changes in this regard no matter how old you get.
And maybe this story suffers because I’m at a loss. Are 16-year-olds unexamined and unable to communicate, or are they just not interesting people yet? When the TV writers write Gossip Girl, it is not like being with teenagers; it’s like being with grownups acted out by teenagers. There are no answers inside Anthony, and I find I’m out of questions. They were fun sometimes, these two. When I first asked them what they wanted their names in this to be, they’d answered with Sir Stupid for him and Fuck McTard for her. But they were also people who could only talk about themselves in the most superficial ways. And yet sometimes there was a magical romance. Sometimes he just says the word “ding,” and then she immediately is required — on Skype, on Kik, on Facebook, on Twitter — to say “dong,” because she completes him and this is his constant reminder.
Anthony sat with his arms folded. He was nervous. Charlotte was set to arrive the next day. What will you do when you see her, I ask. I’ll kiss her, he says. Sounds about right. I call for a cab.
I went back to my hotel, and the cab driver told me why the red dragon was one of the great symbols of Wales and honestly, it wasn’t interesting enough to remember.