My six-month-old son knows the sound, the electric trilling that comes from the tablet I hold in front of him. When he hears it, he giggles, smiles, and waits. What will emerge, he knows, is an old woman eight thousand miles away, in a country where purple lotuses bloom in ditches, a country currently without a government. To my son, this woman is magic. She appears suddenly from a dark screen, and what he sees is not her face but the top of her forehead and the dome of her black hair. He grabs for the woman, believing she is there in his Florida home. The woman says hello in two languages, Thai and English. She says his Thai name, Po, over and over again. This old woman does not know that we can hear her perfectly; she does not need to shout. This doesn’t matter to my son. The old woman’s forehead is familiar. Her voice. He loves the sound of his name spoken in a foreign tongue.
The hours before he arrived, the sky was cloudless, the day bright. But a storm gathered quickly and thrashed against the hospital windows. The lights outside lit the rain speckles on the glass into tiny globes of orange. This is what I remember from the outside world, those globes of orange light. Inside the room, the midwife could not find my son’s heartbeat. My wife knotted her hands in the sheets and howled. I put my head against hers, whispering clichéd encouragement. You can do this. You’re doing great. But I wasn’t sure if she could do this. I wasn’t sure whether she was doing great. The clipped voices of the midwife and nurses seemed to suggest otherwise.
The midwife said it was time. Said, this boy wants out. “I can’t hear the heartbeat,” she said. “You need to push.”
And my wife did. Through tears. Through screams.
“I got him,” the midwife said. “He’s arrived.”
The silence that followed. A silence among the chaos of nurses and orderlies. A silence between my wife’s heavy pants of breath, my reverberating heart.
Then the sound of his first cry.
After I clipped his umbilical cord, after the chaos of the night subsided and my wife was resting in her bed, I watched my son—my son!—breathe in a bassinet beside the bed. I kept watching out of fear that I might lose him. I put my lips on his wrinkled forehead, and like my mother, when she kissed me goodnight those many years ago, I breathed him in.
My son does not give kisses. He devours. He will take your face in both hands and open his mouth wide and seek to encapsulate the whole of you. He will take your nose, your forehead, your chin. His kisses are a possession.
Except for me.
He does not kiss me, though I spend the majority of the day with him, though he reaches for me and cries when I leave a room. He loves me, I know, but he does not kiss me. My wife says it’s because I don’t have boobs. My mother says I need to get rid of my scratchy beard.
The old woman wants to see every element of my son’s day. She wants to witness his eating habits. How he sleeps. Bath time. She wants to see him jump in his jumper. Wants to inspect the state of his diapers. The old woman is too old to travel, her legs unable to withstand the twenty-two hours on a plane. So in the time we have, she wants to observe her grandson’s life. She says, I love you. She says how badly she wants to hold him. She says she wishes she had more time to know him. She says, “Do you think he loves me?”
At the end of every conversation, she puckers her lips and brings the screen in and out. “Jube, jube,” she says. Kiss, kiss.
And my boy opens his mouth wide, taking her whole.
The Kiss: Intimacies from Writers is available from Norton in February 2018.