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Spy Kids

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At dinner on Tuesday (Fried Chicken Night at Rudy's Can't Fail Café) my husband and I discovered that we are under surveillance. We had fought the night before--neither a rare nor a common occurrence for us. We see eye to eye on almost every question of importance that arises in our household, but every so often things take a turn for the bombastic. It seems, however, that we had an audience. Apparently we've been having one for quite some time.

We stared at our eleven-year-old daughter, horrified, as she calmly recounted the argument in all its specific detail. She could, in fact, remember more about the fight than either of us. To us this particular argument, whatever its source or flashpoint, had within minutes merged into the undistinguished gray mass of all its predecessors. Over the course of a marriage of a certain length--we've been married for twelve years--all the arguments you have tend to coalesce into a single, endless meta-argument, an argument about arguing, revolving around slippery questions such as who started the argument, who was the one doing the yelling, whether an apology is required, by whom any such apology should be offered first, whether the resulting tone of contrition is genuine or adequate, etc. The fundamental absurdity of the process, and the fact that both of us care far more for each other than for it, means that while our fights are loud and all-consuming, they never last for more than a few minutes, and usually are resolved when I storm out of the house, drive around the corner few times, and return, bored or contrite. The next day neither of us can recall much of what happened.

Our daughter turns out to have a far better memory for our discord than we do.

"That was a very nice apology, Mommy," she said to me, with a hint of condescension in her tone.

"Although you might have made it earlier on, the first time Daddy asked you for it."

My tongue scraped against the dry roof of my mouth. I took a drink of water. Then I said, "Did you hear a lot of what Daddy and I were talking about?"

Talking. Yeah, that's one way to put it.

"Yes," my daughter said brightly, "I heard everything. I can always hear everything you guys say."

Across the table my husband covered his mouth, sitting in wordless horror.

"But I only listen when you're fighting," she continued. "Otherwise I don't really pay any attention."

I turned to her eight-year-old brother, busy with his fried chicken and biscuit.

"Can you hear everything, too?"

"No."

"Thank God."

"I only hear it when you're doing mm-mm-mm," he said, giving his eyebrows a lascivious waggle.

* * *

I don't know why I am surprised by any of this. My children are moderately more precocious than I was - it took me until junior high school to start invading my parents' privacy on a regular basis - but by the time I was thirteen searching through their drawers and listening to their conversations was one of my primary preoccupations. Why did I ever imagine that my own secrets would be any more sacrosanct or less interesting than theirs were?

My parents both worked, and my younger brother and I came home to an empty house. There were strict rules about what we were supposed and forbidden to do. We were to do our homework and walk the dog. We were not to watch television. Not once did we even consider following these edicts, but television was not the wonderland it now is, and while I indulged a brief infatuation with the goings on of Luke and Laura (was it rape or true love?) mostly the afternoon offered little more than a wasteland of game shows and local news. Instead, I amused myself with exploring my mother's underwear drawer, the shelf on the top of my father's closet, his bottom desk drawer, her top corner bookshelf. My preoccupation, of course, was sex, and I was looking for anything that smacked of even the remotest licentiousness. It was the 1970s, and my parents satisfied me with the occasional Playboy magazine, a dog-eared paperback copy of Fanny Hill, and the ever-popular Joy of Sex, that hairy-armpits staple of the fantasies of teenagers throughout the suburbs.

As I grew older my interests expanded beyond the purely sexual. I rifled their filing cabinet, looking for letters and documents, preferably ones that would cast aspersions on my siblings or on my parents themselves. Panicked missives from deans of students, psychologists' reports, medical evaluations, accusatory letters from my father's ex-wife. I would tremble with a kind of pleasurable horror when I found anything like these. There was no similar thrill to be found from the notification that my sisters made the Dean's list or a form letter indicating that my father's cholesterol was in the normal range. I took pleasure only in bad news. It was misery and only misery that satisfied me.

And here I've gone and bred four spies of my own.

My daughter's admission that she pays attention only when we are fighting, given so casually, brought me immediately back to myself at her age, perched on the top step of the staircase, listening to my own parents' bitter exchanges. My childhood memories are restricted to the tone and volume of these arguments, their precise words and topics having long since faded from my memory. What I do remember is that listening to my parents fighting was not the terrifying experience you might imagine it to be. My parents were never physically abusive to one another; I could listen to them argue without fearing that they would cause bruises. At least not ones you could see. There was a certain thrill involved in eavesdropping on them, a kind of vicarious excitement to the drama of their discord.

That scene, the child at the top of the stairs, the parents fighting below, is a staple of the young adult novel. As a child I read countless renditions of it. But I never reacted like the characters in those books. I didn't sit, my heart in my mouth. I didn't weep soundless tears or clutch my teddy bear to my chest. I remember leaning forward, listening closely, with a kind of clinical detachment. All but taking notes.
I think my daughter in the same mold as her mother. Decades apart, we both determined that the best way to figure out the complicated and incomprehensible world of adult relationships is to evaluate them at their worst, to dissect them when they are fragile, even broken.

She and her siblings do this all the time. Their father and I talk constantly - our marriage is really one long conversation, interrupted only when absolutely necessary. The children by and large ignore us, entirely wrapped up in their own complicated universes and in each other. They pay no attention to our discussions of our work, a book one of us is reading, the movie we saw the night before, their uncle's new job, the latest episode of Entourage When we kiss or hug, their eyes skate over us; at best they snort in derision or utter a disdainful, "Gross."

But let one of us mention an instant of conflict, let one of recount a bit of bad news, and they snap to attention.

"What did you say?" our eight-year-old son will shout from the back of the minivan.

"Nothing! I didn't say anything," I will say. My tone, in telling my husband of our friend's diagnosis of breast cancer, will not have changed from the tone in which I told him of someone else's good review in the New York Times, but somehow the boy will not longer be interested in playing with his Z-cards.

"Yes you did. Who has cancer? Is she going to die?"

Or, "Who's getting divorced? Why are they getting divorced?"

Or, "Are you fighting? What did you say to daddy?"

One minute they are so immersed in Wallace & Gromit that they wouldn't hear a bullhorn calling them to wash their hands for dinner, but if, in the next minute, their father and I begin an argument or share a whispered piece of malignant gossip, they are like dogs responding to the sound of the can opener. They appear in the kitchen, their prying eyes narrowed. "What's going on?" they want to know.

* * *

Our bedroom door has a lock, and most nights we remember to use it. We've cleared out the nightstand, bought a box with a key for the things we don't want them to see (or show their friends). I've never been a fan of John Cleland, and the Joy of Sex is passé. There are plenty of salacious books on our shelves, but I figure once the kids can make it through the rest of a novel by Nicholson Baker or Bret Easton Ellis, they're entitled to enjoy the sexy parts.
I can handle all that.

The other is far more complicated. Better parents than us might manage rage in whispers, but to me the very nature of an argument lies in the fact that it is uncontrollable. An argument that can be muffled or silenced can just as easily be ended. Anyway, given the keen ears of my daughter and the paucity of insulation in the walls of our house, controlling the volume probably wouldn't make much of a difference.

Far better to learn to live with the way in which my children are making sense of the adult world, no matter how uncomfortable it makes me. It is, after all, my turn. It surely would have made my own parents uncomfortable had they known about my childhood snooping, my rifling through their drawers and closets, my listening in. But I don't think they knew of it. Back in those days we didn't talk about such things. I kept my own counsel, drew my own conclusions. I never would have dared to cheerfully confess my eavesdropping over fried chicken and biscuit. Perhaps that is something to be grateful for. Because my own children feel no self-consciousness about their snooping, at least I was warned.
My kids have effectively cautioned me in advance. They have advised me of their intention, like mine before them, like that of all children, to latch on to tales and examples of conflict, despair, misery and sadness to learn what it is like to be a grown up. This is what it has always meant to be a child. Such dark stuff is the very currency of children's literature and fairy tales. The stories my children love are full of doom and disaster. It's just like when they ignore our calm and pleasant conversation, but tune us in when we bicker. When we read, for example, the Norse myths, they stifle a yawn at the sun dawning over the green and lovely new earth, but sit up, eyes bright and fascinated, when we read about Nidhogg, the dragon of destruction, or the hag with many heads. What is more delightfully grim and terrifying, after all, than Grimms' version of Cinderella, the one my children like best, complete with hacked off toes and birds pecking out the stepsisters' eyes. I could try to present a Walt Disney version of my marriage, all happily-ever-afters, but they would neither be interested it in, not believe it.
So now that I know that they are listening at our door and rifling through our drawers, hoping we won't clean up our act, what will we do? Nothing different, I suppose. We'll just continue the show.