Displacement Behavior by Cassandra Clarke
Of all the balls of gum in the police station’s gumball machine, I wanted the pink one most. At the time, my head came to my mother’s hip. I pulled at her shirt, wanting to interrupt whatever she was saying to the man behind the desk. This was important. The gumballs were in this machine, not my belly. When she spun to face me, I pulled my hand back. No words escaped her mouth, but I knew that look. She had that lightning bolt look—the one that said if I continued my cheeks would burn. “I just wanted a quarter,” I muttered. Her hair was thrown up in a loose ponytail, falling out by her ears.
My mother exhaled, an exasperated sigh.
We left the police station without her giving me gum. My mother left the police station that day without being granted the permission to change the cause of death on her brother’s coroner’s report. My Uncle Steven, her brother, would go down in the eyes of Providence, Rhode Island, as having died from liver failure as a result of alcoholism. Though the alcoholism was true, the blow to his head with a metal shovel that caved in his frontal lobe suggested other causes. The coroner noted it, but refused to revise his report, to suggest that it was anything but the liquor’s fault. They would not file a case.
No one wakes up deciding “today, I will be an alcoholic.” In our world, in the haze of addiction shown on dramas and in tabloids, people tend to think that addiction is driven by a desire to destruct, to be careless, to hurt others. Often, it can be. But, also, it is driven by a far deeper desire to not destroy, but to sustain. Sometimes the reach for a drink or a type of substance is seen as a way to help endure the other parts of life that aren’t kind, that aren’t patient, that aren’t willing or wanting you to become better. Balm the pain and continue onwards. As people, as a species, we are not alone in thinking that a reaction independent of solving a situation can soothe the ways in which we can tolerate and endure. As animals, we displace to survive moments that we do not know how to approach without thinking it could lead us into more pain, more confusion.
Birds, when facing off for territory, sometimes turn their heads and viciously bite at weeds by their claws. Though they should face each other, beak to beak, saying, this is mine, they nervously pull at grassy clumps. Scientists relate this to an animal instinct, displacement behavior—when animals crave a result, and yet, focus their actions on something else. Usually, the less patient bird, the one willing to confront the other, will claim the territory first by staying his ground. The other frustrated bird, stuck with his pulled-up pieces of earth, wondering where he went wrong. He always meant to call the land his.
My uncle Steven didn’t like to drink. My uncle Steven looked at his pile of mounting bills, his divorced wife, the holes he punched in the walls, the ants crawling on his toilet seat, and he drank. We’d visit him on Sundays. The television would always be on, blaring football, and I would try to follow along but everything on screen would blur into a greenish haze. He set out bowls of popcorn or pretzels for me on his dining room coffee table. I could always see the thin layer of dirt around the edges.
Uncle Steven liked our weekly Sunday visits because, out of his entire family, his three brothers and four sisters, we were the only ones that still kept in contact with him. When he was a young adult, just out of adolescence in West Warwick, Rhode Island, he never would have imagined that this would be the case. He was an all-star wrestler and won state titles. He taught my mom how to flip, or, more accurately, how to be flipped onto her back. His laugh was full and loud and shook your bones when you heard it. He kept her secrets. She used to sleepwalk at night, and their father would think my mom was sneaking out and beat her when she returned with twigs in her hair and her pajamas torn around her kneecaps. Uncle Steven, instead, would keep the back door unlocked so when she climbed out of her window, and started to wander, he could follow her outside, find where she wandered to, and bring her back to bed before their father found out that she was gone.
Uncle Steven had long, black hair. Willowy. His long hair was framed by his thick plastic-rimmed glasses. Then, he was readying to move out, to move into an apartment or home with the love of his teenage life, and have a family. In his early twenties, his father had a stroke. His mother died of a stroke caused by the severe beatings that his father gave her. The impact on Uncle Steven’s brain from years of wrestling led him to a life that was almost always concussed. It caused delays in his thinking, in his ability to rationalize and control anger. He would feel and then move. There would be no moment to collect himself. He had a son named Matt whom he did his best to collect himself for, but ultimately, he could not. His wife divorced him in his thirties. He did not stop drinking, though at times he stopped eating. The drinking was a constant. A good friend. More constant in his life than us.
Sometimes when you try to tell dogs a command, they will lick your palm. Although they know that they are being yelled at, that they are being told to do something else, they will try to comfort you, as if doing so will take away the need to perform the action. Dog trainers say, it’s natural. Dogs want to be Alpha. They want to stay in command and not take yours. Don’t let them lick you. Don’t let them crawl under your hand and demand to be petted. They’ll win, shaking whatever semblance of control you had over them, whatever ability to govern them. They will steal affection to avoid punishment or rules.
After his thirties, Uncle Steven started to gamble and drink. He bet on sports to raise money. He worked as a clerk in a grocery store and on the side he would bet his checks on teams in hopes they would win and he too would take home something shiny and big. I wondered if when he bet on the numbers of other men, if that wasn’t another way to throw himself back onto the mat, to taste the possibility of danger and luck.
During his time at the grocery store and his gambling, he found a girlfriend. She was almost ten years older than him. She wore her thinning hair back in a headscarf. She had a heavy accent, Slavic, and wore long skirts with dark, flowery patterns. When I would visit to watch football with Uncle Steven, she would be there. She wouldn’t say much, but she would sigh. When she would sigh, my mother would clench her fists. It took me a long time to realize what that sigh signaled. Whenever the woman sighed, she went on to talk about how hard times were and how the minimum wage was so low. My mother’s eyes would dart around the apartment, at the dirty dishes in the sink, at the flies, at the woman’s arms that seemed particularly veiny, and grit her teeth. My mother had a lot of opinions about how life can be hard, but how lack of cleaning makes it harder. Because my mother could never work less than three jobs, she couldn’t stand to be in this woman’s presence. I, on the other hand, liked to stare at her. I liked to stare at her because she wouldn’t look at me, only just over my head. I don’t even remember her name. All I remember was that she was living with my uncle Steven, that she coughed a lot and smelled thickly of smoke and mothballs, and that when she was around, Uncle Steven held her hand. He’d walk to the bathroom with her still holding her hand. I had never seen two people more kept by each other.
I remember on a drive home from his house, when I was close to ten years old, asking my mother if the woman and Uncle Steven were married, because at that age, I thought all adults who live together are married. She said, “Thank God not.” That was the last time I asked her about it. My mother murmured about her, the older woman who sighed and sighed on her misfortune, who did not pay back a penny lent to her by my mom. My mother was never one to tell others how to tend to their homes.
I don’t know much about the woman in the headscarf and the dark flowery skirts, but I do know she didn’t show up for Uncle Steven’s funeral. She never contacted us after he died to see if we were OK, or just to tell us about how he would sleep on the right side of the bed and that side of the bed was cold now. She put all of their collective, dirt-rimmed bowls into paper bags from the grocery store they worked at, and moved out.
Siamese cats have been known to groom themselves when they are unsure whether or not their owners want them to come closer. When they are homed by owners who pet them at one moment, and then shriek at them the next, they do not learn normal social cues. They tend to approach and fear at the same time, wanting and not wanting, and yet, there all the same for their masters. If you approach a Siamese cat in this warped state, they will lick themselves, their flanks, their paws. Some people might call it cute, how when you reach your hand out to them, they decide to lick their own fur. But, if the behavior advances, if the not knowing becomes stronger than the knowing, they won’t know when to stop indulging in the act of themselves. They will lick and lick until their fur falls out in clumps.
What they think will soothe them the most can lead to their self-destruction.
For a time, before his death, before he worked at a grocery store, before he met the woman with the headscarf and the dark flowery skirts, but after the divorce, my uncle Steven slept in the room across the hall from mine. He never woke before noon. He walked around the house in his boxers with no shirt. His belly swelled over the waistband of his underwear, ballooning out in front of him. He didn’t look like a wrestler anymore. I used to call him a bear. I was afraid to knock on his door because I didn’t want to wake him. He seemed to always be sleeping and when he did stir, and walk around the house, his feet thumped on the ground, as if he were a grand beast, stalking our halls.
When he came to stay with us, I was in kindergarten. My mom explained to me that it wasn’t forever, but just until he could get back onto his feet again. I wanted to ask her, How did he get off his feet? but I just nodded and smiled. He barely spoke to me, but he did speak to my mother. She would walk into his room and not come out for hours. When she did, she’d force a smile in my direction and then go into the kitchen where she would cook us all dinner. He wouldn’t eat with us, so I left plates near his door. At times, when I was delivering his dinner, his door would open and his eyes would catch mine, and for a second I could not tell you whether he or I was on fire, but it felt as if one of us was. He’d snatch the plate out of my hands and shut the door and go back to the darkness of the room, the enveloping silence of his new home. It worked well for him. He never had to face himself in the eyes of others because he would only be left with himself, in that room, shut out to the rest of his family. In his mind, I am sure, he thought this was how he could stay safe.
I’ve tried to arrange and rearrange the facts of Uncle Steven’s life. Nothing seems to show one breaking point. At every moment of his life that I can recall the good and the bad and I can’t seem to find when it became too much. In animals, behavioral scientists would tell you, the key to stopping the displacement behavior, the need to do an act that will soothe a sensation but not actually lead an individual to their desired result, can be remedied if you can find the stress or the trigger of that anxiety. Looking at his life, it would be like drawing a straw out of a paper bag and hoping the one I pulled would be the right one, the right sadness to alleviate. I had no idea what straw would be the shortest without looking at all the rest of them. My mother tried to become salvation. First, she thought it was her own father, their father, his abuse and tirades. Then, she thought it was an unhappy marriage. After, it was the woman with the cough who smelled of mothballs. After and after, it was still her. If only she had come soon enough, my mother would be the one who would knock on his door and tell him he had to move out. Tell him he had to stop gambling. Put down the bottle. See, it was her fault. She was the third act, the epilogue, the one that was supposed to show Steven how change is possible, how he can overcome. Problem was, when was soon enough? How far back in time would she have to travel?
The difference between animals and humans is that humans have memory. Humans can think back on when they act and react and wonder why it is that they do what they do when presented with something that is uncomfortable. Animals lack the ability to know why they perform the same task, time and time again, to give themselves comfort. Unlike humans, they cannot confront their fears and their failures and themselves and see their behavior is not actually helping them evolve further.
Uncle Steven was found facedown on the front lawn of his apartment building. His head was smashed in with the metal end of a shovel. The man wrapped the shovel in a brown paper bag so it wouldn’t have his prints on it. He left the shovel in my uncle’s head, and ran away. The blow to Steven’s head was supposed to scare him. It was from one of the many people that my uncle owed money to from gambling on the football teams that never won. The blunt force caused his brain to rupture. Aneurysm. Blood ceased to clot. Flooded his ventricles. Drowned his nerves.
In the end, he couldn’t feel a thing. Death came quick and easy. When the coroner found him, they measured the alcohol in his blood. Since his blood was way above a 1.0 blood alcohol level, and his liver was severely damaged already, they deemed his death to be due to the alcohol, due to his bad habit. A healthier man in the medical examiner’s hand would have had better treatment. As my uncle was not the healthiest of men, he was looked at as his inability. He was looked at by his behavior that he could not stop nor control because it created in him a sense of dependability, of constancy, of knowing that even if people leave you, and money goes, that glass can always be there. It can keep on being filled and you can keep on drinking it and it won’t give up on you. Really. If anything, it will dull your sense to anything that is happening outside of it. Sweet reprieve.
My cousin, Matt, stopped talking to my mother and me around the time his father moved out. After that, we’d see him sometimes at birthdays of cousins, but he’d avoid us completely. Since we were the family that kept in touch with his father the most, he pushed away from us. He looked repulsed by me when I would wave, as if I had slapped him across his face. That look, that lightning bolt look that is carried in my family’s blood, came to me from his face at his father’s funeral. Do not touch me.
I wanted to tell him then, though I lacked the words or thought, that that need to push away someone else when you are hurting is completely animal, which is completely human, which is completely like his father, and me, and all of us, and can’t he see that he is made no different than him? Can’t he see that posturing, that need to say what he shouldn’t say, is such a waste of time? That if we leave ourselves to the impulses that satiate our needs, that do not ask us to push into the uncomfortable, to run up along the mountain of ourselves, winded and desperate, that we will only save ourselves from the chance to look head-on with our situation at hand and face whatever good or bad will come. I let him look at me like that, uncomprehending that, in my silence, I was also an accomplice to his denial.
When my mother tells me of the night that she tried to file the police report for my uncle’s death, she asks, “And you, do you remember how you only wanted gum?” Thing is, I did and didn’t want the gum. When she turned her back, I did have a quarter. I got myself a piece of gum and hid it in my jacket. I asked for a quarter from her because I wanted another one. I wanted as many gumballs as could fit into my mouth. I wanted to chew and chew until my jaw slackened, until I was too tired for words, until I was too tired to ask my mother, why, why, why. That night, when she cried herself to sleep behind a door she closed in my face, because I asked too many questions, I sat on my bed and bit into the gumball. White. Not pink. Stale. It crumpled in my mouth, melting into thin strips of gum. I chewed and chewed it together, hoping it would meld into something sweeter. I chewed and I chewed until the gum was tasteless, until I couldn’t feel my own tongue, flapping around wordlessly in my mouth.
“What a time to ask that,” she tells me.
“I was small,” I say, and she nods, as if that is true. She smiles, faintly, happy that I was too small for it to have been a more serious time for me. I knew the difference then; there are some things that we feel but cannot approach, that we sometimes do what doesn’t make sense to do at the time but makes a kind of sense and a kind of easier trouble. How scary it is to admit that we are also what, and who, we choose to avoid. How impossible it seems to look at people and their actions and think, for one moment, that there might be an intention hidden underneath them.
I wonder if the medical examiner, if Steven’s ex-wife, if his son, if my mother, if even I, barefoot in his apartment, could have pulled Uncle Steven to our sides and asked, “What is it that you want to say to us? What it is that you need? I’m sorry for only seeing you as your behavior. I bet you are full of unimaginable things, begging to be seen. I’m sorry for never giving you the gift of wonder.”