I’m in third grade. We’re learning about frogs in science, and how if you put a frog in a pot of cold water and slowly heat the pot, the frog will boil to death.
“He doesn’t know he’s dying. It happens too gradually for him to notice” the teacher says.
I want to try it – the frog thing. I get home and I wander around my backyard looking for a victim. I yell “Hey, frogs!” but there’s no response. Maybe they’re not so dumb after all. I repeat the word “frog” to myself over and over in rhythm with my footsteps.
“Frog…frog…frog…frog, frog, frog, frog…frogfrogfrogfrogfrogfrogfrogfrog.”
If you repeat a word enough times, it loses meaning. Linguists call it semantic satiation, and it’s weird if you think about it. Words we use every day, important words, words with significance – life, death, love, hate – can be reduced to meaningless gibberish through nothing more than repetition. The opposite should be true. Like, the more you say a word, the more powerful its meaning should become. That’s how it ought to work It’s like practicing a sport: the more you do it, the better you get. You should be able to practice a word, so when the right moment arrives, you’re ready to say it because you’ve been practicing, and it’s perfect and beautiful and meaningful. But that’s not the way it happens.
Third grade is before I know the word ‘cancer’. Before Christina Rhodes moved to our school district from somewhere in Illinois to tell me about cancer – the astrological sign, not the disease. She was my first crush.
I joined chorus because of her. I dressed up as Abraham Lincoln because of her. I wore a sticky adhesive beard and fake eyebrows, and I memorized songs and lines because of her.
“You’re right,” I say to my fuzzy reflection, “I bet my hero, Abraham Lincoln, never knew he’d grow up to be president!” It’s almost show time. I’m rehearsing my lines in my bathroom mirror before my mom takes me to the concert. I repeat the line again. Again. Again. The words lose meaning. They’re just sounds that come out the way that I’ve practiced them.
Holding a stove pipe hat made out of cardboard, my mom comes in to tell me it’s time to go. She dug through arts and crafts bins for hours, looking for costume glue and fake facial hair to make me look the part. She does all this for my one line. She drops everything to come to my concert. She goes out to buy cardboard and construction paper at 6 in the evening because I wouldn’t be “Honest Abe” without the proper attire.
I can’t see my stupid reflection through my “honest” eyebrows. I hate my eyebrows. And my beard. I look stupid. Christina will think I look stupid.
* * *
My mom is hidden somewhere out in the crowd. I don’t know where my dad is – not here to see my sticky beard and hat…not here to listen to my line. When it’s my turn, I step up and deliver, just as I practiced, without perfection or beauty or meaning. Just a line. I never stop to think that Abraham Lincoln isn’t really my hero. I never tell the audience I’m just saying the line because that’s what was written in the script, and because I could say it better than Kevin Morrissey. Does the audience think it’s true? Do they believe I have a hero? Do they even notice me or my line or the work my mother did to turn me into someone who isn’t even really my hero?
We sing a song called “You can grow up to be president.” I don’t think that’s true, either. I don’t want to be president. Unless Christina Rhodes is the First Lady. Then, maybe.
After the show, I run out into the hall and rip my eyebrows and beard off. It’s painful. I don’t want Christina to see me like this anymore. I’m embarrassed. I look stupid. My mom warned me not to rip the hair off. She said that she had special adhesive remover at home that would take it off quick and painless. I didn’t listen. Now I have red welts and white adhesive residue all over my face. I look like a lobster. A lobster who didn’t listen to his mother.
I make my way back out into a shifting forest of happy parents congratulating sons and daughters on wonderful performances. My mom has found my friends’ moms. She can’t see me when I come up behind her. She doesn’t know I hear ‘cancer.’ She doesn’t know that I’ve heard it before. Not just from Christina, but from other places. I know what it means, but I don’t know what it means. I hear practiced words from the other parents – practiced apologies for things they didn’t do…apologies practiced into meaningless gibberish. My mom turns to see my red welts and adhesive. She doesn’t congratulate me. She giggles and says “I told you so” instead. She calls me her little lobster.
Lobsters aren’t able to jump out of boiling water, so you don’t have to trick them like frogs. You just wait until the water boils and throw the lobster in. He can’t do anything about it. He was caught, unaware. He probably should have listened to his mother.
At home, my mom uses astringent to dissolve the glue on my face. She gives me a cold compress to make the red welts go away. She kisses me goodnight. I dream of Christina and lobsters and Abraham Lincoln and frogs…frogs…frogs…I dream of words that start to mean nothing if you say them enough. Like ‘cancer’.