THAT’S MY BOY by Jo Gatford

The cartoon cat hits the cartoon dog over the head with a wooden plank and an angry lump rises from the top of its head. The dog’s face turns red and steam escapes its ears like a whistling kettle. The cartoon cat is frightened. He presses the lump back down with his finger but it returns the moment he lets go. The dog is furious. The kettle blows. The dog chases the cat around and around and around. Frantic music plays. 

We teach our son the word ‘gentle’ by stroking the back of his hand over and over but he still bites our thighs with what we hope is affection. We joke about gauging his height by the teeth marks. We scour baby books for advice but the only two options are: ‘bite him back’ or ‘remove the child, sit him on the floor and ignore him’. It doesn’t say how long for. Biting him back seems the more logical choice but we try the floor trick and he is immediately enraged and tries to bite me again. You watch him do it and read out loud: repeat until the child associates biting with the withdrawal of attention. I have to leave the room before I lose something fundamentally tied to my sanity and our son falls asleep in his own snot, stuck to your chest. We google abandonment issues and separation anxiety and anger management in toddlers and the next day I clamp my teeth around his soft doughnut forearm just tight enough to imagine what it would feel like to press down until my incisors hit bone. His arm is so small my jaws could meet in the middle. His skin tastes like yogurt and sun cream. I blow a raspberry on it and he looks at me like I am the whole entire world. 

The cartoon coyote wants to eat the cartoon bird. The cartoon bird makes a funny noise and runs away. The cartoon coyote chases the cartoon bird. The cartoon bird is either fast and cunning or lucky and dumb. It doesn’t seem to matter. The cartoon coyote falls off a cliff runs into a rock wall painted like a tunnel is blown up by TNT is crushed by an anvil is run over by a train. The cartoon bird makes a funny noise. The coyote is so tired and so hungry and so desperate and there is no other food for miles and miles. He tries to kill himself but always comes back. Look at the silly birdie run.

He grows out of the biting but will always be angry as a person, I think. You roll your eyes and say I wonder where he gets that from, as if the way I slam doors has nothing to do with you. I am pregnant again and wake every morning before four because hormones I guess but also it’s the only time in three years I’ve had time to myself with no one touching me. I watch the cooking channel for two hours even though actual food makes me sick, even though, impossibly, I am always, always starving. My favorites are the things I will never make, like spatchcock chicken and homemade jerk sauce and fish tacos and triple baked cheesecake. Our son comes waddling through around six, all thick and fluffy with sleep. He leans on me, breathing against my belly, and his soaked nappy leaves twin Rorschach patches on our pajamas. He says toons and smacks me with an open fist until I change the channel and I never do learn how to make fennel gratin. 

The cartoon skunk is in love with the cartoon cat to the point of attempted rape. The skunk’s heart is a battering ram beating out of its chest. The cartoon cat is beautiful in her terror. She slithers out of his grip like an eel. The cartoon skunk is a hopeless romantic. Mon cheri. She cannot love him back because she is a cat. But he will not take no for an answer. That’s the joke, folks.

You say not everything has to be about feminism and do I realize how frustrating it is to be told that everything is your fault because of the simple fact you’re a man and how confusing it’s going to be for our son to grow up in a world where the patriarchy is the enemy and I don’t even know how to respond to that without laughing in your face so that’s what I do and it’s one of those arguments that we don’t talk about later but bank for hypothetical divorce purposes. I tell my sister I hope the new baby isn’t a girl because surely it’s easier to change things by raising good boys than having to explain to your daughters how things are and she says did our mother ever tell us how things were or did we just find out, and is that worse or better.

The cartoon cat steps on a rake. The cartoon cat is cut into pieces by a lawnmower. The cartoon cat is scalded with boiling water. The cartoon cat is rolled up inside a hammock like a scroll. The cartoon cat is beaten with a broom. The cartoon cat is pushed through the propeller of a plane. There is no blood. The premise resets. The toddler watches without glee or shock or fear. The baby just likes the colors. The frantic music. The screaming. They both cry when I turn off the television. I cry when it’s on, without sound, behind their soft heads. I remember every episode from when I was just as small but I never remember laughing and when I ask if you ever found any of this funny or terrifying you just say Jesus do you think maybe you’re reading too much into this I mean it never did us any harm did it

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