Sunday, September 28, 2008

Learning to Whistle

My license plate is about to expire. I've begun to eye them, license plates, staring like a cancer patient suddenly awakened to all the bald heads, all the absent breasts in the world. Something about the expiring license plate fills me with dread: it's an intrustion, a rapier thrust from the background of life into the tender flesh of now.

There are, in case you were wondering, a lot of license plates. There are old license plates and new license plates, dusty license plates and clean license plates, vanity license plates, paper license plates, license plates that proclaim their owners' allegiance to football or children or some other petty tyrant. There are even supplemental license plates, including the one on the front of the Buick three streets over that reads: Happiness is being a Grandma or a Grandpapa.

You know in your bones this license plate was a gift. Possibly from the the parents of the grandprogeny, but even more likely from the insensate grandprogeny themselves: purchased by their parents, wrapped in cheerful paper, then strapped like an explosive belt to their uncomprehending, incontinent bodies. Family is a beautiful thing.

Of course, once you get a license plate like this as a gift, you're cornered. A license plate is not like an ill-advised paperweight or an unfortunate object d'art. A license plate can't be relegated to the spare bedroom or the downstairs bathroom or the garage (doesn't Aunt Molly's self-portrait with fuzzy kittens set off the oil cans perfectly?). Nor can a license plate be regifted: it's awkward to wrap, and who are you going to give that clunker to, anyway? No, the only thing you can do with this license plate is screw it to your car. You are happy, damn it, and it's because your kids made babies.

I go a couple of days thinking this license plate is the height of passive-aggressive brilliance. What's worse than having someone else tell you how you feel? And then forcing you to broadcast it on the front of your Buick?

On the third day, I still think that. But I'm also walking past the Buick in the late afternoon. It sits quietly on the street, under a canopy of yellowing lives. The season is turning and the air is sharpening; someone in the house has set out, with care, a dozen plastic pumpkins of varying sizes. They are arrayed in order, from the size of a border collie to the width of my fist.

Maybe sometimes we need other people to tell us when we're happy. Maybe sometimes happiness sneaks up on us like a pickpocket, takes off down the road before we notice our wallets are missing and our hearts are lighter, and we need someone else to cry out.

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