Just before Christmas, my 2-year-old son, London, started saying the word "pussy." As the father of two, I understand that new words stick to 2- and 3-year-olds like toilet paper to the bottom of your shoe, yet this ideogramic discovery struck me as different from the others.
The first time London uttered the word, we were sitting at the dinner table -- me, my wife, the boy and his 7-year-old sister, Poppy. London had just declared that he was finished with his meal and, not restricted by the rules of eating that the rest of us subscribe to, he began to run around the room, holding a Thomas the Tank Engine figure in the sticky tunnel of his closed hand. "Pussy!" he yelled, Thomas above his head, weighting his fist like a roll of pennies.
My wife and I looked back at him in unison, not dropping our forks, but definitely halting the chew. "What did he say?" she mouthed at me, careful not to alert our daughter that this word had some thorns.
"Hey, London," I called as casually as I could. "What did you say?" I forced a phony smile to throw him off the scent.
"Pussy." He cocked his head. He waited.
"You see a cat somewhere?"
"What's a pussy?"
He searched around the room, trying to find an object to attach to the two syllables. My wife is a folk artist and there were many objects among our many collections for him to choose from -- bottle-cap men, ceramic cars from Mexico, strings of red chile lights. He spun around and then pointed at me. "You!" he said gleefully. "You are a pussy!"
I suppose, in retrospect, we paid far too much attention to an otherwise harmless word that I'm sure would have faded, like all the other sounds my son gives voice to during any given week. "Pussy," however, captivated us. I'm a writer and high school teacher, so the music of the word alone grabbed me, not to mention its myriad meanings. (I'd recently purchased a meat mallet, and couldn't stop using the term -- saying it at home, in my classroom, in my car: Where is my meat mallet? Who stole my meat mallet? Have you met my meat mallet?) For my wife, it was her love for all things taboo. A 2-year-old with that word in his mouth was deliciously naughty. Because we gave London the third degree over this one term, he soon realized its power and said it even more frequently than I mentioned my new flesh hammer.
A former student of mine, who is now in college, visited us one afternoon to tell us of her upcoming trip to the town of Hana on the Hawaiian island of Maui. The road to Hana is famous for its twists, turns, waterfalls, and potential for carsickness. Since we had experienced this firsthand during a vacation the summer before, we spoke of Hana in great and nauseating detail. London darted in and out of the living room during our chat and then sidled up to my student, the Thomas figure now replaced by Buzz Lightyear, and asked her, "Hana pussy?"
My student tried to be polite and asked London to repeat himself -- which he did, but now with a more affirmative statement: "Hana pussy. Yes, Hana pussy."
She sized us up and asked sincerely, "You guys watch a lot of porn around here?"
"Pussy" is a funny word because its taboo or profane meaning is slang and not definitive. Its beauty is in the eye of the beholder. A simpleton would say that since London knows neither the profane meaning nor the feline meaning of the word, anyone who thinks he's uttering an obscenity is perverse -- but hearing "pussy" out of context and out of a young boy's mouth, most people cannot help being offended, intrigued or both.
My older brother and his wife recently split up, and my sister-in-law is quite wounded from the separation and impending divorce. I phoned her to offer my ear and, as is habit in my family, put my daughter on first to say hello and tell her aunt about her busy suburban life of spelling, tap dance and horseback riding. She then passed the telephone to her younger brother, who shouted enthusiastically into the receiver: "Hey, you big pussy!"
I snatched the phone away, sending him into hysterics, and prepared to start the long explanation about "the word" and our fruitless investigation of its origin and subsequent embarrassment, but my sister-in-law snapped.
"What did he just say to me?" she wailed, and then wept like La Llorona.
London had evolved into a short, scurrying time bomb. My wife and I take our children everywhere, and London, loaded with that one lexical bullet, ticked along to birthday parties, various parks and playgrounds, and the grocery store. And he lived up to Chekhov's rule of drama: If you have a shotgun in the first act, it has to go off in the second. London hitched otherwise mundane modifiers to his new linguistic engine. He called our butcher "stinking pussy," his playmate Augie "Robopussy" (after a terrible Alvin and the Chipmunks video); even my father became the benevolent "Grandpa pussy."
Most people thought our anxiety around the word stemmed from a nightmare of our son becoming a foul-mouthed sailor at preschool, dropping the F-bomb, smoking Luckies and drinking mouthwash. I hesitate to admit I kind of loved the anticipation of the adult reaction to my little Don Rickles: the p.c. glares in our direction, then the pat questions about leonine friends at home, or perhaps overhearing our bedroom TV blasting videos you can only rent with a photo I.D. after midnight.
"Pussy" made the boring dinner party tolerable, the dance recital closer to a punk rock concert. "Pussy" broke the structure of our soccermomstrumental week. The part I didn't foresee was the discomfort people felt even discussing the metafact that London had become this cunning linguistic prodigy.
We were at a holiday party, and I was thinking about all this: language, meaning, interpretation and the profane. One of my current student's parents also attended this festive get-together and the couple asked what I was working on. About eight people huddled in our wine-slurping circle, eating imported tomatoes that had been dried in some exotic sun. I hesitated telling them, but figured we were all enlightened liberal adults -- and besides, the point still remained: London did not know what the word meant. It was just a "fa" in his song, a narrative scrap blowing in his mind's dust devil. So I said: "I've been thinking a lot about pussy."
The chewing stopped, mouths held the wine a beat longer before swallowing, the glances no longer seemed casual or mildly flirtatious. I let the sentence linger longer because I was my son's father and I wanted to experience fully what London had discovered: the power of a word.