The other day as I was driving my daughter to a doctor’s appointment, a woman pulled up alongside us, leaned over and held a book up to the passenger-side window. I gave her a friendly wave, because I’m always up for a good book recommendation. But she continued to hold it there, staring straight ahead, as we both edged forward in the traffic.

Gosh, I thought. She really likes this book. And seems to think that it’s just the book for me!

I took a closer look: the title was The Marketing of Evil, and on the cover was an apple being temptingly proffered. Later that day, I looked the book up online and read the description:

This summer I sojourned to the Mt. Hood Wilderness Area in Northern Oregon. Over a span of four days I hiked nearly 40 miles and in the process endured soaking rains, too-little food and water, poisonous plants, venomous spiders, blood-sucking flies, and the possibility of an attack from bears, cougars, or perhaps even Bigfoot. At the end of the ordeal my feet were blistered and sore, my legs and back aching. In such a state was I that the meager prospects of a gas station sandwich and a Motel 6 seemed downright epicurean.

For many, this type of willful deprivation from modern comforts amounts to little more than masochism. As far as I’m concerned, such suffering is sheer joy when compared to the pain visited upon man by his fellow man. Concomitant with deprivation from society’s riches is deliverance from its ugliness.

Behold, I make all things new.
-The Book of Revelation

We are not only permitted but required to believe that cosmic time as we know it, through all the immensity of its geological ages and historical epochs, is only a shadow of true time, and this world only a shadow of the fuller, richer, more substantial, more glorious creation that God intends; and to believe also that all of nature is a shattered mirror of divine beauty, still full of light, but riven by darkness.
-David Bentley Hart, The Doors of the Sea: Where Was God in the Tsunami?

I never want to accept any invite to attend any organized event, ever. Yet, I always do accept and I almost always go.

Why?

Well, I’ve been thinking.

For one, saying “yes” feels good. All non-sociopaths want to please other humans to some degree, and accepting an invite usually engenders good will between the inviter and the invitee.

Fear is also a critical component. If I say “no” too much, will I cease to be remembered? Upon my fiftieth declination, will my phone number and email be deleted from every contact database the world over? Will the walls of my silly little bedroom collapse on top of me, as the North American Coalition Against Bad Excuses files away every last memory of my existence? All photos, commendations, and birthday cards slid into a tattered manila envelope containing only Hootie and the Blowfish singles and Palm Pilot owners’ manuals?

“Luke? Luke who? Let me check the Shit No One Cares About envelope. Oh, yes. He was invited to Beth Maloney’s sister’s medical school graduation party and said he had a dermatology appointment. That was number fifty. Yes, I’m afraid there are no more invites for Luke. Not here, or anywhere else for that matter. That scoundrel. That poor, inconsiderate bastard.”

Last, there are my delusions. Time and time again, some scheming agent in my withering brain mounts a dendritic pummel horse and performs dazzling gymnastics routines. After his dismount, I see speed networking events as “useful”, aunts’ birthday parties as “important”, and high school reunions as “chances to reconnect”. I think pummel-horse man operates in the same cognitive space that houses every “getting ready to go out” movie montage I’ve ever seen because, for a split second after agreeing to go somewhere, I picture myself thumbing through rows of fine suits in a cavernous walk-in closet, oblivious to a well-engineered soundtrack that seamlessly blends the din of Stevie Wonder’s Living For The City with the street noise of my imaginary perfect Park Avenue block. This will be fun. This is what people do. Who knows what the night holds?!

The thing is: I do know.

There have been very few instances where I haven’t forecast every thing that was going to happen before it did. Speed networking will always consist of sweaty palms, poorly formatted business cards, and allusions to the Cape’s unpredictable weather patterns. Aunt Paige’s birthday will always leave me longing for a time when every woman in my extended family wasn’t divorced and dating fifty-year-old mortgage-brokers who offer little more than made-up stories about how close they once came to qualifying for the American Express Centurion card. High school reunions will always be a lot like Aunt Paige’s birthday, except with soon-to-be mortgage brokers struggling to remember the names of their “favorite” single malts. I know this, and I still go. To everything. Always. In fact, it was for all these reasons that I accepted a dinner invite last Saturday. Little did I know, that acceptance would be my last.

I’d planned on a night in: a hot shower, a jar of Nutella, and a healthy Netflix Instant Play queue.

But my phone buzzed and the plan changed.

A text message from Annabelle, a quasi-work-friend with whom I occasionally grabbed a bite: “Any interest in coming to dinner with me and a few others?” it read.

My psychosis sprung into action. Desire to please? Check. Fear of being forgotten? Check. Fantasy? Maybe. I needed more information.

“Sure, where?” I replied.

Pastis.”

Ah, yes. An overpriced, up-its-own-ass Manhattan restaurant that I can’t afford. But maybe my ill-fitting cardigan will catch the eye of Mike Bloomberg or, better yet, an infertile Russian Oligarch looking for an idiot, American heir. Delusion button pressed. With a “Yes I’d love to” text and a desperate, “Please come with me” plea to my best pal, Sam, I was headed downtown.

Annabelle met Sam and me at the hostess stand and lead us to her table. We sat next to an expansive bar that made me wish I knew how to make even one drink with vermouth in its recipe.

Three others were already seated at the table when we arrived. “The friends.” They seemed harmless. Cornell graduates. North Jersey suburbanites-cum-West Village aficionados who probably clutched their New York Magazine “Best Of” issues like wading remnants of the Titanic’s freshly splintered deck. They smiled, and shook hands, and asked about where I lived, and recoiled when I said Queens. Then, one with a gold Rolex and a puffy red face sympathetically mentioned she had an uncle from Park Slope, Brooklyn. Another mentioned her family’s “small vacation home in Sagg Harbor” in a fine display of counterfeit humility. I let it roll off my back. All was still subtle enough. I pressed my knee against Sam’s, silently communicating my guilty thankfulness.

Then the last friend arrived, and all hell broke loose.

He bent down to kiss the female dinner guests on their cheeks, the shawl collar on his red cashmere sweater flapping against his face with every overzealous dip. I could tell right away that he was something extraordinary, something awful, something for which I never could have planned. Then, he extended his hand to me: “David. A true pleasure.” I looked into his eyes and I knew: I had encountered pure evil.

The things that came out of David’s mouth were stunning. His pretension seemed limitless. It was as if the ghost of F. Scott Fitzgerald replaced David’s brain with the entire contents of This Side of Paradise, and then destroyed the concept of irony.

 

-“I can’t believe they gave us this table. I’ve been back from Hong Kong, and in New York City for over a week. I’ve been to Pastis four times already. I should think that’s enough to get a decent table. I mean, we’re at Pastis, not M. Wells for Christ’s sake.”

 

-“Waiter, waiter, I’m not sure what this is, but it’s certainly not lamb. Grace, try this. Please. Does this taste like lamb to you? Well, does it?!”

 

-“There’s nothing quite like owning well-positioned retail properties.”

 

I couldn’t be sure anything David said was true or even factually accurate, but I guess he knew that. And that’s why he kept going.

 

-“Sideways be damned, I don’t mind Merlot. What else would you drink with a filet mignon…if trying to adhere to a certain price point, that is? Oh, Lizzy, I’m sorry. I know you’re a Chardonnay fan. No, no. Enjoy it.”

 

-“I swear, sometimes this city makes me wish I were an American.”

 

He clapped his hands, and laughed the way I imagine Boss Tweed would have, if he were pretending to be a foreigner. Inappropriately timed, forced blasts. I asked David what he did, and he replied only, “I deal in the markets.” Soon after, he referred to Zagat guides as “dining papers of the proletariat”.

I looked around the table to gauge my companions’ reactions. Surely, even this group of tip-toeing braggadocios would show some shock. None. Only Sam, my loyal friend, looked back at me terrified, his suddenly sunken eyes beaten in by the endless barrage of David’s insanity.

I became numb. Claustrophobic even. I feared that if I listened to David much longer, my exploding skull would ruin the steak tartare he ridiculed me for ordering. Like a panicked soldier foolishly lured over enemy lines, I resorted to desperate measures. I put down my water glass, placed my napkin beside my plate, took out my phone, and conquered my crippling desire to please.

“Sam!” I said, grabbing my confidant’s shoulder in manufactured alarm. “I just got a text message from my landlord. A pipe broke in my building and my entire apartment is flooded. We have to go. Now!”

“Oh God, let’s go. Oh God, do you have renter’s insurance?!.” His reaction was pitch perfect. He knew.

No goodbyes. No extended explanation. Just a lie. A well-placed lie to extricate myself from the worst commitment I’d ever made.

That dinner was rock bottom, and it changed me. My desire to please is gone. My fear of being forgotten, a thing of the past. And the allure of my movie montage, “getting ready to go” fantasy? Fin.

Sam and I left the restaurant and hopped in a taxi.

 

I turned toward him. “Are we sociopaths?”

 

“Yeah,” he said. “Yeah, I think so.” He opened the cab’s window and let in the blare of a passing fire engine. I breathed deeply as I let it drown out my last regret.

 

“Oh well,” I exhaled. “There are worse things to be.”


It never changes. Every time I even think of-let alone read or watch-the penultimate scene of Macbeth, I don’t just sit up, I stand up. I’ll stand right up in a theater-I have no problem with the violation of decorum in public places.

I know Macbeth is guilty of heinous crimes. I know, as he does, that he deserves his fate. I know he is the most despicable of men, a faithful general and friend-a true hero turned traitor, murderer…psychopath. I know he has sold his soul and become a greedy, power hungry madman. And yet…

I rise to my feet in respect, whether at home alone in my office, or in a theater in one of the world’s great cities. When Macduff reveals his prophetic magical protection of being “untimely ripped from his mother’s womb,” Macbeth at first acknowledges his cowardice. And then the old soldier in him, the noble though fallen inner man shines through, and he says for all time: I WILL NOT YIELD.

Macbeth

Though the line, “Lay on, Macduff” has become caricatured in many contexts, no one can ever minimize or demean the power of Macbeth’s assertion, “Yet I will try the last.”

With blood on his hands, doomed to die, he still draws his sword and calls upon the courage that made him the leader and warrior that has been his life. I get out of my seat and want to plunge into the page and the scene-because I want to help him. Despite his crimes, I want him to somehow triumph.

Hamlet, near the end, says, “We defy augury,” and goes on to fence to his appointed death. But my sympathy isn’t so much with him. I appreciate his predicament, but he seems a dithery sop to me-death is an easy way out. He’s a prince and fencing is something he learned indoors.

Macbeth wants to live. A Captain of Men, he’s seen the blood of combat and survived. He is in fact a professional murderer. Confronted by the same dark magic that had earlier protected him, he draws his sword one final time. I think I’m not alone in hoping against hope that somehow he will prevail.

The moment is a great triumph for Shakespeare. The fact that he could produce such remarkable comedy alongside this bewitched darkness is beyond saying. But to create a villain of Macbeth’s complexity-in this, his shortest tragedy-leaves me standing.

Richard III, Iago, Edmund-are all great villains that any actor of substance would kill for to play. (Richard Burton said, “Any actor given the chance to play Richard III who doesn’t take it, should be immediately executed.”)

But there is an undefeated humanity to Macbeth, and I long to join him…to bring Macduff’s head back on stage and not his.

I count this one of the finest, truest moments in fictionalized Western Civilization. There is Christ on the Cross, anguishing in vinegar and blood-but he had his Father’s many mansions to look forward to, and knew all along he was the sacrificial Lamb. Socrates? He knew the payment for the gadfly is hemlock. Odysseus? He would’ve run away. Macbeth draws his sword and says for all of us, YET I WILL TRY THE LAST.

The only moment to compare is early in Paradise Lost, when Satan sits brooding amongst his monsters and the exiled gods, and speaks with disturbing calm about “What reinforcement we may gain from hope…if not, what resolution from despair.”

Think about that…when the fallen angel of the morning star-a lieutenant to Eternity-speaks to monsters of “resolution from despair.” The vanquished ministers of vengeance and pursuit…under house arrest in Pandemonium, debating rebellion by either covert guile or open war against the tyranny of Heaven.

This is a moment in artistic civilization…not Mr. Darcy.

But oh, for Jane Austen, relative to her disciples today. Give me Jesus long before Paul. Holy shit.

I’m now very tired of warm fuzzy characters. I’m tired of the endless yeast infection of what is really chic lit, masquerading as serious fiction. I’m tired of the miserly boredom of figures as real and thin as toilet paper that get flapped in the published breeze just because someone is well connected and lives in Brooklyn.

The WitchesAnd I’m sick to nausea of fantasy hijacks of darkness, where witches and black magic are the stuff geeky boys and a politically correct girl have to deal with-like fodder from a bad Disney movie.

Macbeth, the warlord, met witches. Shakespeare always brought out all the tricks. But still, there is that final moment, when he draws his sword-and transcends gender, race and class in the doing. I WILL NOT YIELD. Though prophecy and fate be against me, he says…bring it on.

Makes me want to climb on stage.

bathroom left, poop box rightOne of my cats has started following me into the bathroom.

Most of the day, he sleeps under the bed, while I am on the couch.  At night, we switch.  As I see it, I respect his territory and he respects mine, with only minimal crossover for such necessary exchanges as food-in-bowl and pet-on-head (he is, after all, a “good kitty”).  But now, oddly, he insists on watching me poop.

“I thought we had an understanding,” I say, knees pressed together in reflexive embarrassment.  “You know…you do your thing and I do mine.  What’s with this?” I make a little noise like a toy-gun to spook him off. It doesn’t.

“Mrrow,” he says, and saunters over, finding my huddled knees as good a place as ever before to sidle up against.

“Cat, this is very unlike you. You never like me. And it’s not like I…”  And it dawns on me.  I watch him poop.

One of them has been pooping on the carpet.  I haven’t been able to figure out which one.  All I know is at night the carpet is clean and sometime in the night, with all the mystery and silence of Santa Clause, a little present is left for me.  What’s amazing is, it’s always left in the same place: three infuriating feet to the left of the damn litter box. Never two feet, never four. That’s poop left, litter-box right: it’s like when your GPS is out of sync and a casual drive down the coast shows you a hundred feet west, driving in the water.

Now I stalk the poopers.  I stay up late at night, later and later. I’m on their time now, waiting for the sound of kitty paws on artificial gravel.  When one of the cats walks down the hall, I wait and listen.  I creep around the corner, shielding my eyes from the ambient light to keen my senses.

Tonight, it’s the fat one in the box.  Good ol’ fat one. (This is the same cat who, after first moving in, would find his way into my girlfriend’s underwear drawer. There he would lie for hours, a true predator. Eight a.m. would bring a scream, and I’d rise just in time to see gravity defied by fur, his paws outstretched, no doubt intending a kill. I was endeared to him then.)

I watch him poop, making sure it wasn’t a trick. I watch for twitches. I watch for silence. He sees me and is unmoved.  I nod, acknowledging him. He is not the carpet pooper. He sits there, proudly, little head upright, the dignity of a prince, and pierces me with his repose like a general standing tall in surrender.

And now he follows me into the bathroom to watch, and I can’t blame him. I would close the door, but it seems a little sad since nobody else is around but the cats. And even that is a little sad. I never wanted to be a cat person: they’re the ones you hear stories about. I’ve seen James Bond, and the most evil of villains, the most twisted, always has a cat curled up in his lap. They are as one.

But that’s not me and the fat one. We respect each other’s territory. Maybe being a cat person just means respecting where the other one poops.

He really is a good kitty.*

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

*Someone, please help. Spot, “The Fat One,” has had me cornered for two days writing flattering cat stories. Even now, as I type this, he has a paw to my throat. His English is poor but his meowing is clear. I don’t have much time. Send dogs.