Billy sat at the dinner table, watching his father, who wore a Detroit Tigers t-shirt, pace the kitchen floor. His father was about to give one of his life’s lessons. Billy had become accustomed to the routine. As his old man would say: I’m giving you these lessons so you don’t end up working at the auto factory like me.
His father cleared his throat and stopped at the middle of the table. “Today I’m going to teach you about empathy. It’s the most important thing you can know in life. Do you know what empathy is?”
“Yes,” the boy lied.
“Um,” the boy paused. He played with a fake flower on the wooden table, fidgeting as he tried to come up with something. His father stared at him for a few moments.
“Are you lying?” the father asked.
“Stop it. That’ll get you in jail one day. Now where was I at?” The father paused, put his hand to his chin, and nodded. “Empathy. It’s the ability to understand someone else from their point of view. Like walking in their shoes.”
The father began pacing again. Billy glanced out the screen door and saw two neighbor kids playing catch with a football.
The father stopped and stood facing his son again. “Stand up,” he said.
The son stood up from the dinner table.
“Grab your balls,” the father said.
The son looked down at himself and his cheeks went hot. He hesitated.
“Do it,” the father said.
The son reached down and grabbed himself for a second and let go.
“Hold them,” the father commanded. grabbing his own sack.
The son held his sack in unison.
“Every man has a ball sack. You’re feeling the same experience every man feels. And that’s the weight of his balls. That’s empathy.” The father let go of himself. “You can let go.”
The boy released his sack.
“Do you have any questions?” the father asked.
The boy stared at the floor, confused about what his father just told him. He didn’t quite get the meaning of empathy, but was really trying this time to understand his father. This lesson felt important.
“What about girls?” the boy asked.
“Shit,” the father said, and began pacing for the third time. A cricket chirped through an open window. After a minute, the father stopped again and stood at the middle of the table.
“I want you to touch your taint,” the father said.
“What’s that?” the boy asked.
“The spot between your balls and your asshole.”
The father reached between his legs and felt his own taint “Women don’t have a ball sack and they don’t have a penis. They have a vagina which is just above their asshole. It’s flat, and your taint is the closest you’ll feel to a woman. That’s called empathy.”
The boy followed suit, feeling the weird spot of flesh he rarely touched through his gym shorts, and felt nothingness. “Whoa,” he whispered.
“That’s it.” The father reached into a cupboard and grabbed a drinking glass, filled it with water from the sink, and took a large gulp.
The son pressed his taint again and felt goose bumps.
The father put down the empty glass and looked at his son. “Did you understand the lesson?” he asked.
The boy looked at his hand in front of his face and nodded. He thought of his older sister Karen and whispered “empathy.”
His father looked on in approval.