In a Chinese restaurant, a mother and father tapped away on their smartphones, ignoring the three children in between them.
If someone was writing a story about us, Anna thought, then dismissed the possibility. No one in the restaurant was even looking at her family. Anna preferred it that way.
The restaurant occupied the space of a long hallway—with benches along the long walls, tables next to the benches, and chairs on the opposite side of the tables. This left a narrow space between the chairs for the waitresses to walk up and down. Anna could see them, taking orders from the customers, then passing these on to the counter at the front of the restaurant, or the kitchen at the back.
A waitress kept returning to the table her family occupied, but her mother or her father would shoo the waitress away, telling her that they were still deciding. In the meantime, Anna was getting hungry.
Her family all sat on a bench, she and her brothers between her mother and father. They left the chairs on the other side of the table unoccupied. Her younger brother sat next to her mother, while her youngest brother was beside her father. She sat in the middle.
Being in the middle was apt, Anna thought, given the way she and her family looked.
Her mother was fair, with a sharp nose and high cheekbones, and her younger brother had inherited these same features. Her father was darker-skinned, with a wide forehead and a rounded nose, and her littlest brother shared these features with him.
Her own features were a mixture of her parents’: she had her father’s dark skin, her mother’s sharp nose, her father’s wide forehead, and her mother’s cheekbones. Looking at herself in the mirror, she often despaired at her appearance; she found herself speculatively switching around her inherited physical traits, trying to produce a more attractive portrait.
But Anna had no time for vanity at the moment.
Someone was watching her family! An old woman, eating alone at a table, smiled at her, then frowned at her parents.
You don’t understand what’s going on, you’re not part of our family, she wanted to tell the old woman. She wanted to explain the situation, but said nothing.
Her parents were not neglecting her and her brothers.
They were arguing—again—using their smartphones.
And Anna knew this was a good thing.
Not the arguing itself—that was not a good thing, though Anna had come to believe that all parents argued—but that her parents were using their smartphones to do it.
Anna could remember a time when her parents argued out loud, all the time. It usually started with a whispered question from her mother (which Anna tried to make out), followed by a tense answer from her father (Anna could usually decipher one or two of the words he said). From there, it escalated to words said aloud (there was no hiding the argument any more), then to words said very loud (Anna could imagine the exclamation points behind the words). Finally, it was shouts, just shouts (Anna did not bother to try and understand the words anymore; she suspected her parents didn’t understand what they were shouting either).
Thus, Anna believed it was better when her parents used their smartphones to try and settle their arguments. The problem was her little brothers. Her little brothers were bored and hungry and were preparing to distract their parents—she could read their body language as they fidgeted on both sides of her.
Her parents needed to finish their argument! Anna knew from experience that if they did not, the argument would spill over into the open. They would start talking to each other, but the talking would not last long before it devolved into shouting. If that happened, she would end up with her head down, tracing patterns on the tablecloth, unable to face what she imagined would be looks of pity from the old woman and the other restaurant patrons.
But how to distract her little brothers? Her parents did it by letting them play on the smartphones, but that was out of the question at the moment. Anna, who identified herself as a reader of books, believed playing on the smartphones made her brothers dumber—for one thing, they clearly spent little time reading, at least compared to her at their ages. On the other hand, their being dumb did make it easier to distract them.
“Once upon a time,” she said, “there was a giant named Bibo and a dwarf named Cuddly, and they were always fighting.”
Anna cringed at the story she’d started; she knew she would never want to read a story that started this way. But there was no denying its effect on her little brothers. They stopped fidgeting; they stared at her, mouths agape, waiting for the rest of the story with an anticipation she found both flattering and frightening.
“Bibo liked to make fun of Cuddly because he was so short.”
Billy, who was six, was now smiling, clearly enjoying the start of the story. Carlo, who was four, looked at her with his big, sad eyes. As the baby of the family, he was sensitive about his height, and looking at people with his big, sad eyes was his preferred mode of defence. It was usually effective against her, but Anna knew that if she stopped, he and Billy would start fidgeting again.
Sorry Carlo, she thought, and pressed on with her story.
She told a story about how the dwarf and the giant exchanged escalating insults, but her eyes were on her parents, watching the progress of the argument.
They were typing away as fast as they could, the speed and constrained furiousness with which they tapped at the smooth screens of their smartphones hinting at the anger in their messages. But Anna knew that no matter how fast they tapped and typed, it was not as fast as words said in the open air. During those arguments the words would come so fast she could see the spittle flying from her parents’ mouths. Seeing this made her think of spitting cobras, a snake she’d read about but had never seen. The words came too fast—it seemed to Anna that her parents said things just to have something to say.
But the words they used only them angrier and angrier.
Anna had seen how typing the words forced them to slow down, to reread what they were saying to each other, to reconsider what they wanted to say. She watched, hopeful, for a sign that using the smartphones was having an effect.
It started with her father. She noticed the pace of his typing slow, as if he realized he had written something wrong, unfair, not true, whatever. Anna would never know, for he pressed hard on the corner of his smartphone (on the Delete key, Anna suspected) erasing what he’d written, before he started writing again (Anna hoped it would, somehow, be better this time).
It took her mother longer to get to this point in the argument, but even she was starting to slow down in her typing.
Except Billy was fidgeting again! He was getting restless; he was bored with the story.
“And so Bibo the Giant got angry over Cuddly the Dwarf’s insults,” she said, “and sliced Cuddly’s beard off with his great axe.
“Angry over losing his beard, Cuddly took out his great club and smashed it on Bibo’s toe!”
Billy sat still; he was listening intently again. You can always count on Billy to get interested in a story, Anna told herself, as long as there’s a fight in it.
Actually, Billy would find interest in anything—a television show, a computer game, a video on the Internet—as long as there was a fight in it. Anna wondered about the reason for that.
Billy was around four when her parents (mostly) stopped arguing out loud. Before that the arguments had been frequent and loud—very loud. Did Billy remember, Anna wondered. She shook her head: no, he was too young, she reassured herself.
But Anna’s thoughts would not stop, leading her to a conclusion she’d intuitively known she’d dislike.
Maybe Billy did remember; maybe he learned to like fights from watching her parents!
Maybe he misses them, she thought, horrified by the possibilities.
Anna’s mind kept running, asking question after question: what if he realizes what I’m up to? What if he becomes my enemy?
But her mother’s typing distracted her: it slowed, then picked up speed again.
Oh, please stop, she wanted to tell her mother; her father’s typing had slowed. She could tell he was trying to wind the argument down, maybe by giving in.
Don’t try to win all the time, she wanted to tell her mother. He’s going to hate you if you keep doing that, then that’s the end of us.
She wanted to tell her mother: he’s giving way, give way a little bit too.
But she spoke none of these things.
At last, at last, the speed of her mother’s typing began to slacken. The argument was winding down.
Chalk up a win for the smartphones, Anna thought, feeling relieved and a little triumphant. She liked to believe she forced her parents to adopt the use of the smartphones.
She thought back: she was six or seven at the time, Billy was four … how old was Carlo back then?
It was an argument at home, at the dining table. Her father was carrying Carlo, who was crying; Billy stared into a smartphone. Her father had stood up from the table, pacing around it while trying to shush Carlo; he was failing at that, for he tried to do it while still arguing. Her mother stood her ground—arguing from her she sat, unmoved, at her place at the table.
Then Anna had stood up.
She did not like to speak up. She never spoke back to her parents. As far back as kindergarten, she recalled reacting with horror and envy at the way some of her classmates would speak back to their parents. It was one of her personal rules: don’t speak back to your parents.
So she flailed out her arms instead, sending every plate or bowl within reach crashing to the floor.
Her parents stopped fighting. Carlo stopped crying. Even Billy looked up, briefly, from the smartphone.
Her parents stared at her; she stared back at them, saying nothing.
Then her parents turned their faces away; Anna believed they were ashamed.
That was when her parents started using the smartphones; that was when she started working behind the scenes to make certain the smartphone arguments worked. She’d succeeded—this time—but she’d also failed a few times in the past.
What if I fail next time, and start failing again and again, Anna asked herself. But now was not the time to think about that. She wrapped up her story, with Bibo the Giant and Cuddly the Dwarf going to the hospital as friends, to heal their broken bones and replace their amputated limbs. Billy and Carlo started to fidget again.
Her parents were putting their smartphones away; soon, Billy and Carlo would ask for the smartphones, and their parents would give these to them.
But Anna was already planning ahead to the next argument.
She would need to work on Billy: if part of him remembered the loud fights, and if he felt the same way about them as she did—but she would have to sound him out first. If she got him on her side…
At that moment, Anna realized that she wanted him on her side.
The loneliness of the burden she’d taken bore down on her; she briefly glimpsed the future that waited for her, year after year, until adulthood finally freed her.
Then the food arrived at her family’s table.
“At last,” Anna said. G