On Richard Linklater’s Boyhood

I wish I could see the look on my face when I lied to Dad to get out of going to church. Or when my best childhood friend and I sat on swings in the neighborhood park the night before we began college at schools in different states. When my parents or siblings told me I cried too much. I wish I could see the look on my face when I stood at the viewing over Grandpa’s prepared body, his skin yellow, plastic-like around eyelids sown shut. Were his eyes in there? Had his eyes disappeared with his final breath? I wish I could see my boy face, which is perhaps why I look so intently at my son’s face. I wish I could see the look on my face when I walked the path through the woods up to the house. When my older brothers offered me their extra ticket to see Styx on their Mr. Roboto tour. When I stood in line to ride a roller coaster even though I didn’t want to ride a roller coaster but was too afraid to admit that. When my body tried to receive something it couldn’t or didn’t want to. When my face tried to hide the face inside my face, my face turning away from its own face or to face the face nowhere seen—as Stephanie says. When my face betrayed me, when my face fell, flogged, fled even though I wanted it to face you. I wish I could see the look on my face when Dad told me he and Mom were divorcing, when I said, Mom’s leaving you, and he said, I’m leaving her. The boyhood face is the look of a face in a glass cage, the look of a face trapped inside somebody else’s idea of your face, a face not facing things, an inner face-plant. The word boy comes from French and Latin words for servant, leg iron, and one fettered. The boy face is the face of a folding chair collapsing, a sweatshirt sleeve pulled through a puddle, writing in the dark, burnt toast. O I wish I could see the look of burnt toast on my boy face. The face of laughter and silliness and joy and unquestioning earnestness, the face of clowns and cannonballs in the deep end of the pool and brightly colored garments and game-winning shots and everybody’s at home when you arrive. I wish I could see the look on my face the moment after Dena’s cousin Tracy and I French-kissed for the first time, when Rick Sutcliffe hit a home run, when our family sat together and watched Soap or Young Frankenstein or when just my brothers and I watched Saturday Night Live with its original cast. I wish I could see my laughing face expressing my immutable love for my older brothers, for Dad, for Mom. I wish I could see the look on my face when I sat in the backseat as we drove home after dropping my oldest brother off at college, when I sat in the backseat as we drove home after dropping my middle brother off at college, when my parents drove my face back home to an empty house filled with ghost faces. When Dad told me to choke up on the club, to put on a shirt with a collar, when my Dad held my hand, when he treated me and my friends to an ice cream soda at Bonnie Doon’s, when he emptied the change from his pockets onto the dresser. I wish I could see these Dad sounds shrinking or expanding the face inside my face or raising the face inside my face as when Dad sat in front of the TV on the floor, leaning back against the couch, with his box of shoe polishes and brushes, shining several pairs of shoes, Dad’s precise hands, his nimble hands, his olive- skinned fingers my olive-skinned fingers, our hands holding the brushes polishing those shoes. I wish I could see me looking at Dad in that moment with love in my little-boy heart and I wish I could see the look on my face as Mom and Dad kissed, the one instance of them kissing I recall, a brief, warm, welcome-home peck at the airport gate. I want to see what it looked like to feel things, what it looked like to feel disorientation and confusion and love and joy. The wonder a boy feels. To feel sorrow and fear. To feel loneliness. To feel ashamed. I wish I could see the way my boy face showed the man I was becoming. I wish I could see at once what I am now and then. I wish I could see the look on my face when I scanned the list of names that didn’t include mine. When Jim called me a skater faggot. When Mark called me a pussy. On my parent’s couch when Sheila and I made out and dry-humped and I slid my hand inside her pants and touched her and felt her breath rising against my neck then, when, thinking I was somehow hurting Sheila, I pulled from her pants my hand and if you could see the face of my hand in that moment you’d see a face full of desire, ashamed, confused, a face like a trench flooding with rainwater, the face of bunched-up skin. I wish I could see the look on my face as I skipped and hopped down the driveway. Bouncy ball, bouncy ball, bouncy ball. The Pirate’s Cove on 4th Street, just over the tracks on South Merrifield Avenue. The old Hook’s Drug Store, things run down, houses with sagging decks, dry rot, doors uneven in their frames, sparse, unkempt yards. Mobile Home Factories. Hummer Factory on Jefferson. Closed porches filled with broken toys, abandoned garments. Ghost motels on Lincoln Way. The Wooden Indian. O Princess Mishawaka, may you find your way to the banks of the St. Joe. My Brother Word Processor. The look on my face when Randall held his index and middle fingers to my nose and asked me if they smelled like vagina. I wish I could see the look on my face when at a keg party I witnessed my best childhood friend get beat up. I wish I could see the fear on my face, the pain on my face, I wish to hold my face, cradle my face. What fetters a boy to what? The boy fetters himself to expectations of others, to his perceptions of expectations of others, to overreaching toxic masculinity. The boy fetters himself to the faces dad shows him, to the faces culture asks him to mimic. The boy weaves his fetters by interlacing long threads of silence and shame, of repressions and repercussions, of impossible stardom and adoration, of the false American dream cloaking centuries of oppression through policy and violence and prejudice and hatred and dislocation, long threads of bully stitched with short threads of play and conch shells and riding the waves back onto shore and grasping fir tree boughs dew-soaked and drawing endless, labyrinthine city grids extending off the page into the other world, the magenta world beyond boy, beyond binary. A boy pushes away his mommy to reach for another who doesn’t need him, who pushes him away to dance with others, which is to say, a man’s feelings of inadequacy haunts the boy even before he becomes a man and men don’t stop being boys, never shake off the boys inside their fully matured male bodies. A man is a boy is a man is a boy. Dancing alone in the dark or in daylight, running on deep-wood trails amidst spruce, pine, birch (O white bark!), lavender fields, tiger lilies, fern fronds, through which patches of blue sky poke, poke poke, poke poke. A man is a boy is a man is a boy. All those boys and men, hands slipping inside their unbuttoned pants, sitting on couches and armchairs around the TV, watching other men hit one another, tackle one another, slap one another on the ass. Towel snap, mother fucker! Towel snap, mother fucker! Dear Matt Hart, O you have the most beautiful scream of all. Dear Matt Hart, from where do our screams come? Do they rise out of our silent, overstuffed, caged hearts, from abandoned hospital ships and swimming pools emptied behind boarded up houses, from dead shopping malls—from Farrell’s Ice Cream Parlour, Dog N’ Suds, and Brown’s Sporting Goods—from the body immobilized, fastened in place, fixed in physical and psychic spaces like the boy who must remain seated, the boy who shall not cry, shall not lose control over his body, those Jo Jo potatoes shriveling beneath food warmers at the convenience store bordering winter fields lined with frosted-over stubs of stalk, the winter fields of our Indiana childhoods. Dear Brandon Shimoda, I love how you scream through a whisper? Dear Brandon Shimoda, let’s whisper into cold night. Let’s waver in the winter fog, into the dark fade. Feel what you feel, our parents tell us, but do not express what you feel. Keep all feelings inside where they shall grow an inside face you shall never show. Ronald Reagan says so. Dick Cheney says so. Playboy says so. Hustler says so. Your baseball coach Timmy Armstrong’s dad says so. Boys don’t cry. Boys make money. Boys win. Boys fix things. Boys tie knots, boys knot ties. Do not speak of masturbation, do not speak of the pleasures, of the dignity, of self-touch. Do not speak of where a boy’s body ends and another body begins. Boys don’t care for bodies—boys thrash bodies, make bodies into projectiles. Evel Knievel hit the takeoff ramp then felt the motorcycle decelerate, ripping the handlebars from his hands and he tumbled onto the pavement and skidded across the parking lot. O boys, how I love you so much in this moment of typing out these words, how I love your souls, your clinging hearts, boys, boys, I love you, I love your faces that show both your open and closed hearts. This is my love letter to your faces, your many faces you show and don’t. I see them all, boys, all of your faces. When a boy doesn’t talk about something, he feels something exists inside his heart that’s not supposed to and what is a boy to do with existing things not supposed to? What is a boy supposed to do with boys raping girls? What is a boy supposed to do with men thrashing their bodies at one another, when men use their bodies as weapons to hurt others? What is a boy supposed to do with death? He turns inwards. He says, this something exists inside me therefore the problem is me. My body is the problem. My body holds existing things that aren’t supposed to. The face inside the boy face, the face of no-face. Of not-supposed to. I wish I could see the look on my face when, in college, I heard a bunch of rugby players urinated on a woman passed out near the back of the bar, these boys walking away from her leaving her in a puddle of their urine, not courageous enough to lift her out of their bodily waste. When I found my 8th-grade gym clothes soaked in piss. When Phillip thwacked me in the ear. When I feared gym class because I knew Phillip would thwack me in the ear. When I walked through the woods covered in snow, when the white of the snow blended into the white of the sky. When I played basketball in the driveway till it grew dark, till I could barely see the ball rising from my fingertips towards the basket. I wish I could see the look on my face when, at Christmas, I found in front of the tree a Jolly Green Giant Vegetable Factory. When I felt witnessed, deeply loved by Grandpa and Grandma together. When, around 3 or 4 on Saturday afternoon, Grandma would call me inside to the trailer to dress for church in White Cloud. When Grandma said White Cloud or machines, her word for snowmobiles. For supper she’d make spaghetti and meatballs with bread and salad and I’d drink a small bottle of Coke. We buttered soft white bread. We prayed Our Father before we took our first bites. I wish I could see the joy on my face, the boy in my face, the prayer on my face. I wish I could kiss that boy’s face, let this boy know dreaming in the day is the loveliest form of play. Do not feel bad about yourself, do not secret away this play from others. Unfetter yourself. Become something other, something beyond boy. When I lay in bed and imagined living on a train shooting through winter fields on a clear, cold night, when I imagined walking through littered, bustling streets on Chicago’s South Side, the ‘L’ Train rumbling above and inside my chest, my dreaming chest, O I wish I could see the look on my face when my chest felt the rumble inside my dreams or when my parents, my brothers, and I shared one last meal together as a family, at Sal’s in Milwaukee, when I told my girlfriend Jodie I didn’t want to be with her anymore, when I found Mike Crawford naked, tied to a street lamp outside his parent’s house, when I found a strange man bleeding in my basement apartment, when Amanda told me she liked Bob, when my first therapist said to me, You have fallen in love with Amanda and it felt as if she were talking to somebody else, like she was mistaking me for somebody who had impactful interactions and encounters with other human beings and when I said hello to Mom like everything was ok even though it wasn’t and I felt like such a failure. I wish I could see the look on my face right in this moment as I type these words, in this moment of composition, I wish to see the love on my face, the openness of my face, easy smile and wet eyes, I wish to see the space my face makes for all these other faces I couldn’t see, all these ghosts I love—come restore (re-member) our bodies in childhoods congested, submerged, disoriented, silenced, dismembered. I wish I could see the look on my face as I hold these other faces, sad faces, faces confused, sopped-up, angry, impish, false faces too, the cheerful countenance hiding bemusement, diminishment, loneliness. Perhaps a boy becomes beyond-boy only when he begins to present to others his inside faces, only when receives how his inside faces impact others, when he feels his own inside face feeling the inside faces of others, only when he accepts all of his faces and loving all of his faces so he can love the many inside faces of others, only when inside becomes outside and outside becomes inside and losing his boy faces liberates him from psychic congestion and repression of feeling and he must grieve the loss of his boy faces and express to others this grief too as he expresses to others the love and wonder he feels after the Great Liberation, the Unfettering. I wish I could see the look on my face when I picked up a caterpillar and petted its furry back then set it back down beneath the fern leaf and watched it slink from view, beyond me, beyond my face, when my boy face first encountered things moving beyond this face and what it can apprehend which is so very little. I wish I could see my face beholding the face of God as I knelt before my bed and prayed for peace, for the safety of all dogs and cats and turtles. I wish I could see the look on my face when Kat told me she didn’t want to be my girlfriend and afterwards I walked up the hill to my house, wearing mirrored sunglasses to hide my eyes wet with tears. Leonard Michaels says this about the face: You want to light a cigarette or fix yourself a drink. You want to make a phone call. To whom? You don’t know. Of course you don’t. You want to phone your face. The one you’ve never met. Who you are. Montaigne says, A thousand different kinds of troubles assailed me in a single pile… Montaigne says, Our faces answer for us. When I dialed Karen’s phone number (255–2756 I think), waiting for somebody to pick up, hoping it was her or her older sister, not her Mom or Dad, when I watched Grandma cry at Grandpa’s funeral, when I watched Mom cry at her Dad’s funeral, when Dad cried and said, My Mom died today. I wish I could see the look on my face when I tell Mom and Dad I’m sorry their parents died, I want to hold my parents, to parent my parents, I want to see my face being cared for by my son. This moment of prose is dedicated to my son, Oscar Ponteri, Ode to Oscar the Great, I wish to remember all my boyhood faces to see your boyhood faces and in seeing your boyhood faces I let go of mine, dearest son. Oscar—I have cut the chains, Oscar, I have undreamed the chains. Oscar, you are not fettered to me. Oscar, you are free to be the person I can’t even fathom, full boy and beyond-boy, you are free to be who you are. Take your life, make your life, separate from me and your Mom. Oscar, I love you so much. This is a love letter to you, to your face, the best face I’ve ever seen. I wish I could see the look on my face right now. I wish I could see the joy and sadness which are the same filling the back of my face with heat, my hot back-face, my inside face now outside, the face inside the face I wish I could see but you can.




Read our interview with the author, What Jay Ponteri Told Me

Image: Photo by Alex Iby on Unsplash.