In a class full of oversexed boys, Willie was one of the most bizarre incarnations. He was on the smaller side, like me, scrawny, and usually clad in ill-fitting sweaters and corduroy pants. He wore his hair in a small, unkempt Afro, a stark contrast to the other black kids’ tight box cuts and fades. Willie talked and joked about sex even more than most of the other boys, but his role was more court jester and class clown than king and confident braggart.

His main act was “juggling [his] titties.” He’d cup his dark, spindly fingers under his chest and bounce them up and down slowly, as if each contained a huge overflowing breast that he could barely contain in his hand. Laughing uncontrollably, he’d cry out: “I’m juggling my titties, I’m juggling titties! Watch out, I’m juggling my titties!” Then he’d pantomime one of his “titties” coming off in his hand and pretend to throw it at the nearest kid. “Watch out, I’m going to hit you with my titties!” he’d yell as people screamed and dived away from him in every direction.

This joke never seemed to get old, to him or his victims. At lunchtime and recess, kids were often heard dashing down the hallway, their feet sliding as they careened around the corner, calling out desperate and giddy warnings to the others up ahead: “Watch out! Watch out! Willie’s juggling his titties again!”

Today, however, Willie’s titties were dormant under his lumpy gray sweater, at least for the moment. He sidled up to me where I sat, alone, at the lunch table. “Hey,” he said, “I got a question for you.” His eyes were hungry, his mouth a wide white grin.

“Yeah?” I said. I didn’t trust Willie. He had two other boys with him, who were both already on the verge of laughter.

“You ever had pussy around your neck?”

I squirmed on my stool—a sickly pale-green disk connected by a metal arm to the lunch table—and picked at a small piece of crud next to my tray. These kinds of questions always made me feel terribly small and uncomfortable. Around us was utter chaos, as usual, boys whooping and burping and punching each other, food flying, screaming, laughter. A combination of burnt pizza and cleaning solution hung in the air. My eyes rested on a large cherry pie stain on the lunchroom wall, and I thought about the question.

Pussy. The word offended me, and certainly made me nervous. Things I don’t understand often make me uncomfortable, especially if I sense they are important. At 11 years old, I didn’t understand “pussy” at all, although I could already tell it was tremendously important. I barely even knew what it was, and I was deeply aware and ashamed of my ignorance. All I knew was that it was a crude term for a woman’s private parts, but I had never seen one, let alone had one around my neck!

It didn’t sound possible. I had the impression that tightness was a virtue in a pussy, at least that’s what all the other boys were always saying. But all things sexual were very mysterious to me. My parents were both shy types who apparently thought sex was something magical, certainly not to be discussed. I gleaned what little understanding I could from the conversations I overheard at school, while trying desperately not to reveal my own ignorance, which I usually ended up doing anyway.

Where pussy was concerned, I knew you could stick fingers in it, or a penis, and probably a lot of other things too. But your whole head? That sounded absurd. And yet … I had also heard that you could “eat” a pussy, though there was fierce debate among the boys about whether one ought to or not. Some boys decried pussy-eating as disgusting or even “gay,” while others claimed it was a source of great pleasure and delight. I struggled with the terminology—surely they didn’t literally mean eating, did they? But at the very least I knew that “eating” a pussy involved the mouth. Perhaps then, I thought, as I wrestled with Willie’s question, if a person were to “eat” a pussy that was too “loose” (as I’d heard many, if not most, of the ones belonging to the girls in our class were), one’s whole head could somehow become lodged in there and one would actually have “pussy around [his] neck.” Still, it seemed unlikely.

“Well …” I said slowly, not wanting to commit myself either way. A small group of onlookers had formed around us. This was agony. What was the answer Willie was looking for? How I hated to be wrong! “No,” I said, “I never have.” It seemed to me that to say I’d ever had pussy around my neck would have been to admit being involved in some bizarre sexual act that I couldn’t even fathom. Since I had no idea what that might be, I couldn’t risk it.

“You haven’t?” Willie said theatrically, with mock surprise. For the benefit of his delighted audience, he repeated the question: “You’ve never had pussy around your neck? Are you sure?”

“No, I never have,” I asserted again, trying to sound more confident about my answer this time. “That’s nasty,” I added, as if to bolster my claim.

“Then how were you born?” Willie said. “What are you an alien or something?”

I still didn’t understand.

“Dummy, you came out of a pussy. Everybody has had pussy around their neck.” He looked smug. His two cohorts snickered at my stupidity. I was flabbergasted. He was right. I hadn’t even thought of that. Then he broke into a smile, cupped his hands under his chest and started bouncing them up and down impishly.

“Watch out!” he yelled, suddenly whirling around and charging toward the group of onlookers that had assembled to hear the answer to his strange and unsettling riddle. “I’m juggling my titties! I’m juggling my titties!”

And then, at last, I was alone again.

It wasn’t until years later that I realized that wasn’t the whole story. When I was born, before I could be delivered, my umbilical cord had become twisted around my neck, and I’d actually been born by emergency C-section. I hate to think of my mother being sliced open like that, and part of me wishes Willie had been right, but he was wrong: In fact, I never have had pussy around my neck.

I started and finished Jesus Angel Garcia’s new book, badbadbad, on a flight from Baltimore to California.  In those six hours, I read more sex scenes than I’ve read in the past five years.  It’s one of those books that will keep you from putting on your headphones and watching the lamely re-edited in-flight movie (something I’d never even heard of was playing on this flight).  Music runs through the novel  (go to www.badbadbad.net for the playlist) in a way that makes the book feel like a loud, thrilling, invigorating concert. A concert about sex, religion, music and violence.

Basak meets me at the airport shuttle drop off point in the busy city center. We hail a cab and we’re off to my new apartment. She shows me how to get in and gives me a tour of the apartment. I drop my bags in my room and then we’re off again. She wants to show me the neighborhood so I won’t be lost when I’m all alone at home during the coming weeks. We walk, and walk, and walk. Where we’re going, I don’t know. She shows me her workplace, says I can come there anytime if I need help with anything. And then our destination is in sight: Cevahir, the biggest mall in Europe.

She shows me to the grocery store so I can stock up on a few necessities. I feel awkward shopping in front of her so I try to make healthy choices. I throw a couple of nectarines and bananas into the handbasket, then I head toward the dairy section. Without having to tell her what I’m looking for, and before I can reach for anything, she stops me: “That’s not milk.” I look at her, completely befuddled. We walk over a few aisles to where the cereal is, and there we find a wall of milk boxes – the kind that would never survive in America, the kind that has a shelf-life of two years and needs no refrigeration. “Oh, the Turks do milk like the French,” I think to myself. I throw it in the basket, along with some cereal.

“I need shampoo and soap too,” I tell her. She takes me to the toiletries and I’m dumbfounded by the sheer number of shampoo bottles, not one of them with a label I can read. Right, first order of business: Find an English to Turkish dictionary. I look at her and say, “We need a bookstore.”

***

The next day Basak takes me to see the University I’ll be attending. We aren’t able to talk with the International Student Relations office because it’s after business hours so she heads home, leaving me to explore on my own. I wander the street in front of campus until I see the restaurant I’d seen in my classmates’ pictures back home. “God, I hope this is the place,” I whisper as I walk in the door.

A handsome man with cutting green eyes approaches the reception counter. Nervously I ask, “Is there someone here named Aşkın?”

With a charming Turkish accent he says, “I am Aşkın.” Now I’m really nervous. I’d hoped I could explain the situation to a waiter or someone and they could explain it to him in Turkish. But now here I am and he’s right here, and he has those eyes.

“Uhhhh….I’m a friend of Kristina…” I begin to say, but he cuts me off before I can finish my explanation. “Are you Rebecca?” he asks happily. “Yes!” I say with relief. With ease he changes into French and welcomes me, telling me that my friend Dana had been there earlier that day, but that he wasn’t able to speak with her because he has a very limited English vocabulary. He calls Dana and hands me the phone.

***

Dana and I barely knew each other at home but we’re practically inseparable here. We’re both so grateful to have someone to share this craziness with. We help each other navigate the buses, the cell phone companies, the campus, and the Turkish bureaucracy.

After three weeks of spending our days sightseeing or in the mall, wishing school would start so we could make friends here, we learn of a language exchange group that meets every Saturday evening for drinks and conversation. We’ve got only one week of Turkish lessons under our belt and this week’s meeting is on the Asian side, but we will not be deterred. We leave two hours early to ensure we’ll make it there in time, but when we arrive in Kadiköy we’re not in the right place at all. All we know is we’re near the shore of the Bosphorus. With several missteps and the help of a number of Turks – one of which walked us all the way to our location even though he and his girl friend were running late for some kind of family ceremony – we finally made it, half an hour late.

Dana and a Kiwi girl get wrapped up in a Turkish lesson, while I mingle with the French at the table. I eventually find myself at a table with three young Turks who refuse to believe my claim that I can already count to a million in Turkish. When I first sat down they had asked me what I’d already learned in Turkish.

“Well, I pretty much only know my numbers,” I responded.

“Oh really, so you can count to, what? Ten?” one of them patronizingly asked me.

“No, I can count to a million!” I replied with confidence.

So they proceeded to quiz me by writing down numbers, first easy ones like 99 or 25. Then moving on to the hundreds, and finally giving me what was to be their “Gotcha!” number: 126,573.

Yüz yirmi altı bin beş yüz yetmiş uç!” Success was mine!

***

My pasta and cereal rations are running low and I’m tired of wasting my money on restaurant food, so I finally head to the grocery store on my own for the first time. I have  a personal mission to buy and then cook actual Turkish food. After all, one cannot survive on pasta, cereal and white wine for six months without wanting to jump out a window at the thought of food (or so I reasoned). I see the bread for Dürüm and it’s decided that this will be my first foray into Turkish cuisine. I head to the meat section and inspect everything, trying to decide whether I trusted myself to cook chicken or not. I decide on spicy pre-cooked Kebab meat (or at least it looks pre-cooked and the picture of peppers and fire on the package clued me into the spicy factor).

Then I’m off to conquer the cheese section. There are hundreds of cheeses, none of whose names I recognize. I finally just decide to grab any white cheese and hope for the best. Somehow my random grab landed me with cheddar, for which I will be forever grateful. Tzatziki sauce, tomatoes, and a couple walks through the aisles for good measure and then I’m done.

Elated by the fact that I didn’t die from food poisoning, I invite Dana over the next day to try what I have now coined “The Turkish Burrito.”

***

I’m sitting on a bench with my earbuds in, waiting for the metro to arrive. A pre-pubescent boy sits on the other end. His younger brother sits between us – his little kid arm, sticky with sweat, resting against mine. “Pardon,” he says as I inch over so we’re no longer touching. He looks up at me and asks something in Turkish. I look down at him and say, “I’m sorry. I don’t understand Turkish.” He looks confused and his brother gives him the 411. “Ah, Ingilizce?” he says, looking back at me. “Evet,” I say.

Now, excited to practice his English, he points to my earbuds and says, “What is this?”

“Music?” I say, confused by what he’s asking.

He looks thoughtful for a moment, then says, “Where are you from?”

“California.”

Ah, Kalifornya.

And we have now exhausted this eight-year-old’s English vocabulary. So we sit in silence, until, just as the train arrives I see his face light up. He’s remembered something. “I love you!” he shouts over the sound of the train. I look down at him and laugh. I walk away to catch my train and as the doors close I know for the first time that I’m really going to miss it here when I leave.

They tell me you should write about what you know. I’ve always had a problem with that. I may know some things other people don’t, but in writing that down, what good does that do me? Not much. I already know it. I want to write about things I don’t know about. I want to learn things about what I don’t think, how people I don’t know don’t act and why. Perhaps I say this because I don’t know much. I know a lot of facts about arcane things, but I already know them and I already know that nobody, unless they are short of Trivial Pursuit cards, wants to hear that kind of bilge. However, I don’t know one thing that I think will serve me well in my writing career: I don’t know how to write.

So, I reckon I’m sitting at my computer in good stead now, not knowing how to write. When I learn how to do that, I can stop writing and go on to a more noble pursuit like filming my relatives in Bakersfield, California doing their best interpretations of pro wrestling, then selling the tapes on what they like to call, the inter-tubes. If the nobility of this is called into question, I defy you to tell me that my cousin Bert leaping off the roof of his house and slamming a metal chair on the top of my younger cousin Stanley’s head is not tantamount in artistry to a Nureyev –Fonteyn showcase ofProkofiev’s Romeo and Juliet.

I haven’t been able to write for as long as I can remember. Alas, I’ve always wanted too, but it never comes out quite right. It seems like everybody writes better than I do. I’ve always wanted to write a book that I’d like to read, but I’m always reading books I’d like to read, so what’s the point? You toil for years over this book, like your child. You like it when you first start raising it, feel you’ve done a bang-up job. Then, the book hits adolescence, its voice starts to crack, it wants its independence, then a car, then none of your time even though you want to give it all of your time. And finally, it flings itself into its own world and blows all your time and patience by spending its time (and still your money) on the hustling whores of the Mexican border and Quaaludes. To this, I have only one response:

It is to enact a sort of vengeful Golden Rule and to take up the qualities of your prodigal, ingrate book. Besides, all the books I would have liked to have written were written by full-blown, abject lunatics. There’s Salinger, speaking in tongues and drinking his own urine, Hemingway and Toole, blowing their minds out, Plath and her oven. Did she pre-heat that? Then Ambrose Bierce, gone without a trace. Que te vayas bien!, old boy. Where is Pynchon? And Mailer, always retching at parties and occasionally stabbing his wife. What a ship of old fools! It’s a good thing I can’t write. I see myself flinging my own feces over the rooftops of Paris, confused over the relationship between vector calculus and intransitive verbs. I swear, once I learn how to write, I never will. And who has the time to learn? There are too many distractions. This is one thing I know: How not to write.

Well, I see your point. You think I’m going to start talking about how not to write.

“But, hey,” you’ll say. “He said he didn’t want to write about things he knew about.” Then you will fold your arms contentedly and relish in my howling error. Aha! I also wrote that I didn’t know how to write, so it was okay to do so. In essence, I have canceled out both of these grandiose proclamations, and at the end of this, it will be like nothing ever happened. Nature frowns at my vacuum and smokes her first cigarette of the day, like Bette Davis…like she couldn’t give one damn. And although I’ve missed an episode of The Real World: Alpha Centauri, its like I haven’t.

One way not to write is to get an STD test. I have spent hours, days not writing because of these. If you think of all the melancholic things that could occur to your genitalia during the three or four agonizing days of waiting for the results, you really can’t be expected to do anything. However, while your wondering if your dick will drop off like an unwieldy stalactite when you’re in line for the movies, or if your partner’s vagina will gradually creep up and eat her belly button, you can think ofall the wonderful places you’d travel if faced with some harrowing disease. I decided that I would go to the south of Spain and just write. I mean, really write this time.

Now, here’s a really sly trick. Do you know that apocryphal probability of a bunch of baboons at a bunch of typewriters, who, if given long enough would eventually type out the entire works ofShakespeare? It’s something that gives writers hope.


http://www.writers-free-reference.com/baboon-at-computer.jpg

It also hints at immortality, as all faulty logic, and writing, must. Here is what you must do. If you can type, you must unlearn how to do that. Maybe turn your keyboard upside down. Then using sequences of one, two, three, four and up to, say, nine letters, type randomly, not looking at the keyboard. Then, when you have finished a few hundred pages, spell check or put the Thesaurus to your piece. Often, you will find there is no suggestion for your word. Sometimes, you will find you have actually typed a word in the lexicon, and sometimes you will find that the spell check divined the subconscious word you hammered out on the keyboard. (Note: If you try this with common penmanship, you will find yourself either cheating or your neurons will become so confused at your attempts to confuse them that your head will turn into eggs Benedict.) “kdfyfrt,” I write. I then use my computer’s thesaurus and find that “juvenile behavior” is an equivalent to “kdfyfrt.” (Seriously, try it.)

And there, I have the beginnings of Catcher in the Rye, or Lord of the Flies. I am that baboon that will succeed. Eventually. And on a side note, if you are interested in poetry, I suggest you type out a few turgid lines in your native tongue, then find a translation website and in translation, you may very well be the next Goethe, Neruda, Rimbaud, or Horace, depending on the language you select. Perhaps you translate better than you are, like Garcia-Lorca.

I want to make clear that, although I don’t know of any other treatise on how not to write, I assume that there must be a few out there. Fine. We all know that everything has already been written before and that the crucial thing is to say it better, or at least, differently. It’s like the idea of Genghis Cohen, the noted Jewish barbarian who went marauding through China slapping everybody with gefilte fish. It turns out, there is a Genghis Cohen’s restaurant at Fairfax and Melrose in LA and is also a character in a Thomas Pynchon novel, The Crying of Lot 49. But I thought of this name, independently, as I thought of the subject of writing on not writing, so be it. I wonder if anybody has done anything with The Origin of Feces, though. I must fact check. Why am I so defensive about this? Because I realize that many people must have sundry techniques for not writing, but I have found the following quite adept at keeping me away from the keyboard. That said, these are only some micro-suggestions.

The easiest way to not write is to start drinking. You may have a splash of inspiration after a few cocktails and look to put this, the framework of your magnum opus on paper. This feeling will pass. I will occasionally belly up to the keyboard after doing the same at the bar and find that while I think I can write, I still can’t (Thankfully. I would hate to learn I did something better drunk than sober, aside from falling down.). Just don’t drink whiskey. The only two things whiskey makes you want to do is fight or write. Both of these will get you into trouble. In defense of writing, though, the simian ogre at the bar ready to knock your block off doesn’t have a “delete” key. Stick with red wine and read a good book until you fall asleep. Or call up some friends and tell them how much you love and miss them. If you have no friends, watch a city council meeting on the public access channel and ask yourself why you are such a drip. Drinking is an easy out, and one determined to really not write should have salted away a number of other options. I’ll make this hasty, as writing about not writing is proving to be almost as exhausting as just writing. There’s something I didn’t know.

There is one particular flood of menstruum that dissolves the spirit and when instituted will assuage all pains related to not writing. This is called internet gambling. This is the knockout drop in the drink that keeps me alive, as Endymion. Rolled up jacks over trips, down and up, down and up. It is that kind of blessed monotony that I think keeps most people alive. And for the antsy creative type, you can really make an art out of losing money, which, I should add, has been my summer job. Losing money at the online casino. This is not as lucrative as a typical summer job, but the hours are flexible and I don’t have to talk to anybody, save my own ravaged conscious. When does anybody make or lose money on writing? Never. Writing just is as I am. Nobody can prove either postulate and only the fool might try. I have just lost $200. Really, I just did that. I sell bonds like cracker jacks and switch them like shell games. I am such a disappointment. I feel that way. Thinking, I am Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, all of them. Pick my story, I’ll try not to write it. Matt, the realist. Too much on about His wisdom, Son of Sirach and all that drivel. Boring. Then Mark, snot-slinging drunk and bitch of Luke, holds forth on the Sabbath and then hits the middle-of-the-road. Why not Luke, the pretty-boy, the best writer of the bunch who learned how to write and kept it short, ofsorts. And finally, John, who gives the words appeal. Writes the bestseller. The clincher. No, I am none of them. I have created no universe, I have moved no man, no woman. Damnit, I tried, though. That is all I have ever wanted to do. Like McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, “I tried.” There is nothing more stifling than knowing what to write and not writing it. I suppose that’s the point, though, not writing.

Maybe I’ll can it. I’m getting awfully invested about thinking about not writing. Change the ring on your phone to Dance of the Valkyries, think of titles for new books, old books. If you have that liberal guilt, see how far you can jam your thumb up your ass, while convincing yourself you’re really not that gay. Ok, then how interesting can you be? If you can see 3-D, try a hand at vector calculus. Make a sloppy Spanish tortilla. Put your brother to bed, again. And again. He’s getting old now. Memorize something. Like ketchup: Tomato concentrate, distilled vinegar, high fructose corn syrup, salt, onion powder, natural flavoring. I think I finally got it.

Enough. Writing, and not writing, is a brilliant ponzi scheme. You manufacture one word and the rest fall into rank. Any word engenders another, no matter how puerile, no matter how vacant. They will all, eventually, spill out in a brilliant splash of your own gore. But it is your gore. And you must believe it will withdraw from you some semblance of value. This is, of course, if you are able to write. I , of course, have a problem writing. I will sweat until my death in attempts to finish this odious trade. Until then, I can tell you only that one should never write about what one knows, one should never know what one truly feels, one should keep one’s thumb up one’s ass, constantly, in the hopes that one’s head will peer out from that unholy aperture long enough to realize that we must always try and hold our entrails, our souls out to ourselves long enough to realize that we can never, ever, learn to write. Jesus wept. I’m talking about me. But Godamnit, I try. I will try and take my TKO against the demiurge of words with grace, with nonchalance. With everything I have. I shall never write. I know that. That’s one thing I know. The thing I’ll never write about. Or not.

These arrangements of empty chairs are what’s left of celebration, argument, meditation, sleep and revelation.  They huddle together like still animals in the cold.  From a chair beneath a plane tree, the round tracks of a cane disappear into the gravel.

The single chairs are absent of their poets, readers and afternoon philosophers.

Those side by side and face to face are absent of their lovers, their chess players, the soon to be married and the just abandoned.

The great groups of circles and strange half-moons have lost their lecturers, their students.

The first thing that really nailed it was “Constantinople.” The word comes toward the end of Dr. Seuss’s Hop on Pop and when I pronounced it for the first time, finally, I think that lit the candle. Droplets spilled from the ducts of my parents and mine as we closed the book and then perhaps I was offered some fried chicken. A simple exchange of values, my inchoate literacy for a bucket of Popeye’s extra crispy. It has always been that way for me; chicken for literature. Madame Bovary and I shared a bucket in bed until Rodolphe burst in with a revolver. But that is later.

I flounder on what to include. After Hop on Pop, I think I rode the Seuss wave dressed in a Marmaloot suit, scrambling Horton’s eggs and devouring the oeuvre. Then a snag. There is no real transition from Seuss to anything. Maybe Finnegan’s Wake, or some of the more obscure Borges stuff, but that doesn’t really do it either, does it? And thus, my literacy was stifled for a rather large quantity of years, as Good Night Moon and its cohorts never really did it for me. However, I did look at covers of books during these dark ages.

Those god-damned Hardy Boys, with their blue bindings and images on their covers depicting all sorts of scenes of mystery, intrigue and adventure. So alluring to the youngster, all the while not giving a tinker’s fuck to the fact that I can’t read you, man! And so I waited. I can’t quite remember the time when I first opened up one of these Hardy Boys books, but I remember it was a little anti-climactic. Isaac, one of my associates had apparently been devouring all this Hardy Boys nonsense for a while. I was accused of being a tyro in the sphere of the Hardy Boys and felt I ought to compensate by attending the book fair and enlisting my mother to buy around 10 of these books because one must catch up to one’s fellows. They still sit on my bookshelf, and I still am only able to look at the covers. I’ll bet they’re not bad, though.

My next endeavor into literature, I suppose would be the series of “Choose Your Own Adventure” books. These books are responsible for my current literary bankruptcy. Now, I am sure I am not the only one to abandon the whimsical “chance” happenings in these vile books, but I am quite certain that their resonance has stayed with me longer than the average anybody. I remember distinctly one of these books. The main character, presumably I, am stuck in some kind of Orwellian nightmare of totalitarian regimes and faux Nazis that continue to kill my family and hook me up to some kind of brainwashing mechanism. Well, this tried my patience, as every adventure I “chose” enlisted me in the same odious situation. At wit’s end, I wrote my own “adventure” on the back jacket cover that had me blow-torching some futuristic Reichstag and wandering in a field with the love interest of the story who never actually appeared except in my addendum on the back cover. I still look for her in bars and sundry houses of ill repute. I can see her. Is it wrong that I continue to put her age at around twelve? Eat your heart out Humbert.

When I woke from this, it seems I spent my days treading Vaseline in a sea of warped sexuality (not so different from now, at this very instant). A Separate Piece (Peace?), To Kill A Mockingbird, Catcher in The Rye. These works are what I remember from my early adolescence. Alas, all I really seemed to absorb in my sexually quiescent stage was how much Scout would enjoy a good romp in the back of the courtroom. Hell, at this stage, I would have fucked Holden, Stradlater, Phineas, Gene, Jem, Gregory Peck (he is Atticus) as quick as the crack of dawn–given the opportunity. I think at some point around this time I also read The Jungle by Sinclair, but all that did was switch me from hot dogs to corn dogs for a semester. The Jesuits really know how to put a scare in you.

And then it gets interesting. I am sitting on a hammock in Fortaleza, Brazil with summer reading (high school) in my hand. It is this atrocity called Madame Bovary. Flaubert? Flaubert? Sounds like some kind of ice cream that you should set on fire. I guess it still does. But he introduced me to my literary fait accompli. Falling in love with heroines. No, but bad love. That faded love in aurora, thrice before the cock crows. Yes–hanging from the fig tree. Holy Thursday love. Dead love. And Emma Bovary is my first, my last–my alpha and omega. And then the credit card debt. I spoke to her. And she spoke back. Our knowledge of each other made us complicit. And she adores my jejune reflections on life and art. And her blood sings in her veins like the very river of milk.

It is not I that negotiates these grotesque self-deceptions. It is literature. It is Emma Bovary, with her “heavens torn open…and passion… spilt everywhere” that beguile me. I suppose when I open the novel and “go” I go. This is why I don’t wander around with Catcher in The Rye in my pocket. I have no inclination to assassinate anybody. Not yet. And Salinger’s shibboleth is one I don’t feel like speaking. I choose Emma. And Anna. And Brett Ashley. And Natasha Rostov. And Molly. And all those maenads hovering around Nightwood. It is the most erotic thing since considering balling the Aramaic legions and a vixen from every Ivy League school simultaneously. Horrific, yet undeniable. And necessary?

Then there is now, today. Literature aside, I try and brush up on my Portuguese. There she is, Paula. She sits with Gustavo, ordering a cervezinhas na praixa. If I can get him out of the picture, I have a chance. Hell, last night I swindled Portnoy’s “Monkey” into bed with Emma. I have so much more reading to do. I really do. But this is where I am. I am looking at the cover of Don Quixote. I wonder if Dulcinea needs a drink.

You may have read this story, the one about 62-year-old Don Doane of Ravenna, Michigan. For more than forty-five years Mr. Doane was a member of the same bowling team. He and his teammates competed in a local league at the local lanes over at Ravenna Bowl.

It had been a long night in Madrid, but I didn’t anticipate seeing the sun so soon. I had no watch and had thought that while I knew I had been out late, it couldn’t have been sunrise. I danced with friends at a club, a number of clubs, but I left after a meaningless lover’s quarrel with my girlfriend at the time, the kind that occurs after couples are separated from each other for a length of time, yet remain still in the same place.

Outside, a soft breeze made everything around me seem lighter, more fragile. I felt like I could topple over city blocks by just leaning on one of their buildings. Passing Madrid’s Arc de Triomphe, I thought about how much smaller it looked than the one in Paris. Was it actually bigger, or was it some trick of product placement on Napoleon’s part? I was happy to be outside the pulsing and suffocating atmosphere of the dance club. Next to the Arc de Triomphe was a small park with pear trees. I had never eaten a fruit right off of the tree and thought I might try it, but the idea of biting into a worm disgusted me. I wasn’t sure if pears were ever possessed of worms, but I knew that apples sometimes were, from those images in picture books you see as a child. I decided against eating a pear and instead sat under one of the pear trees for a while, smoking, aware of everything important and thinking of nothing.

The sun began to rise and I felt a touch of anxiety that comes with knowing you have so much day in front of you. I have always hated taking in the sunrise, because I know I am either up too early, or out too late. I began to walk back to my apartment building near the Cuatro Caminos, a part of town mostly inhabited by students and younger families. I wasn’t tired yet and it was a pleasant walk, for the most part. Occasionally a group of drunken teenagers would set upon me like harmless ghouls, asking for money or making fun of me for being a foreigner. I laughed awkwardly at myself with them and nodded in agreement when they would persistently ask if I knew Michael Jordan or The Red Hot Chili Peppers.

I came to a crosswalk and noticed a man with a cane standing toward the side of the street he intended, I thought, to cross. The sign indicating it was okay to pass flashed and still the man had yet to cross the street. I arrived at the crosswalk as the light had just turned to red and although there were no cars at any of the intersecting streets, I stopped anyway. I stood next to the man at the corner a few moments before I realized he was blind. The man turned toward me; he had no sunglasses on and I could barely see the outline of his iris or pupil through the gauze of his cataracts. His eyes were two small pebbles drowned in saucers filled with milk.

“Did I just miss the light?” he asked. He dressed nicely, as all old Spanish men do. He wore a blue pinstriped suit with a somber black tie over a starched white shirt. His face had succumbed to gravity, but there was youthfulness to it.

“I’m sorry?” I said. I had, and still have a hard time understanding questions in Spanish, when I’m not sure they’re coming.

“I missed the light, didn’t I?” he asked again, patiently.

“Oh, yes, I think you just missed it. I missed it too,” I assured him.

“We’ll get the next one,” he said, smiling.

“Yes, we will. Besides, you can never be too careful.” The man looked perplexed. I’m sure I had translated myself poorly. “It’s good to be careful,” I tried again.

“Yes, it is.” He smiled at me again. “You’re up early.”

“No,” I admitted. “I’m out late.”

“Ahh-yahh. You sound young. Where are you from?”

“I’m American.” He coughed, covering his mouth and gave a nod. We waited a few moments and the light flashed again.

“Let me help you,” I said, putting my arm in his and leading him gingerly out onto the crosswalk. Another pack of teenagers bounded by next us shouting something either at him or me or both of us. We reached the other side of the street and I unlocked my arm from his.

“Thank you, son,” he said.

“You’re very welcome.” The man gently put his hand on my shoulder and asked,

“What is your name?”

“Tyler.”

“Is that an American name?.”

“I think so.

“Sr. Ignacio Galban,” he said, extending a withered blue hand. His flesh had thinned and a geometry of veins overwhelmed it. “It’s a pleasure.”

“The pleasure is mine,” I said. “Take care.” Such exchanges are not uncommon in Spain. The simplest interaction often results in a formal exchange of names, geography, how the day is going and almost always, the soccer scores from the previous day. I felt a sense of satisfaction in helping an old, blind man across the street—the iconography is as familiar to me as the worm in the apple.
Should I keep walking toward my apartment to resume the argument with my girlfriend, or continue up Cuatro Caminos to nearby Retiro Park? While I stood debating my next move, the old man turned in my direction and seemed to say, “Tyler, do you believe in God?” I was sure I had heard this incorrectly.

“Pardon me?”

“Do you believe in God?” he asked in the exact tone as before.

“Yes,” I lied.

“That’s good. I do too.” I dreaded the inevitable offer of a “Jesus Saves” pamphlet, the lecture on the patience of Job, or a warning on the impending end of the world. “I’ll buy you breakfast,” the old man offered, cracking the corners of his dry mouth with a smile. I panicked. I recalled going to breakfast once with someone to whom I confessed my lack of faith, and receiving an excruciating, interminable sermon.
There are times when a person does something that they wouldn’t normally do. But then if you accept an invitation to do anything, at that moment it creeps into the category of something you would normally do.

“Do you like churros con chocolate?” he asked.

“Yes, yes I do.” I was hungry, but I don’t think that’s why I replied what I did.

“Have churros with me, then.”

“Alright,” I said. There was a small café just up the street and the old man led us to it. I mean that. He led us to it, although I did hold him by the arm as I had when we crossed the street. It could not have been later than 6:30 in the morning, but the café was heaving with people. We stood at the entrance to the café for an awkward moment until the old man instructed me to find us a table. I imagined how we must have looked walking into the café together, and I felt guilty because I was embarrassed, even more guilty because I had no reason to be. I found a table looking out toward the intersection and we sat down. The old man deftly placed his cane against the windowed glass of the café, hung his coat from his chair and slipped into his seat. When he was settled, I made my way up to the counter to order. In Spain, they have waitresses, but they never come. I ordered two cups of hot chocolate and a plate of churros to split. I should have gone back to the table, but I waited at the counter a few minutes until our food was ready. I carried two cups of hot, thick chocolate to our table, and a waitress followed languidly with the churros.

“Don’t eat all my churros, American!” the old man said with a laugh, pawing at the table. I set the plate of churros in front of him alongside his hot chocolate. He felt both items and smiled.

“I’ve never been here,” I said, trying desperately to avoid discomfort, hoping the old man would say something.

“It’s good,” he said, wiping a moustache of hot chocolate from his mouth. I dipped a long churro into my cup of hot chocolate and agreed with a nod. Embarrassed again, I agreed aloud, “It is good.” We ate and drank in silence for a minute or two until the old man looked up, rather, raised his head and said, “I’ve made you uncomfortable.” I felt horrible before and after I said it but I did. “A little.”

“I know,” he said, wiping another moustache of chocolate from his mouth. “I’m sorry I asked you if you believed in God.”

“It’s okay,” I said.” It’s just an odd question—only because it’s a dangerous one.”

He gave an odd smirk, “Why is that, you think?”

“What if I had said no,” I asked.

“I would have still invited you to have churros with me.”

“Do you ask everybody if they believe in God?”

“No, just today, I think.” His face grew somber and a tear welled up from one of those clouded eyes. “My wife died the other day, two days ago.” I felt horrible.

“I’m so sorry,” I said.

“She was old.”

“How long were you married?”

“Thank you for not asking me how she died.”

“You’re welcome.” He grabbed for his cane, made a frantic motion to get up, and stumbled over his chair. I caught his arm and helped him right himself.

“Will you do something with me,” he asked, picking up his jacket from the back of the chair. I stood up, nervous and without a clue what to say.

“Yes.”

“Let’s go.”

I led him out of the café, maneuvering through the customers who paid no attention to us. We stood silent on the street corner. The old man turned his head from side to side, I imagine just a pedestrian reflex we all get, whether we can see or not.

“Do you really believe in God?” he asked again.

“Yes,” I lied again.

“I don’t,” he said.

“Excuse me?” I asked, certain I had again mistranslated.

“I don’t believe in God. I never have.” He secured one arm under mine. “I feel like I should now.” The morning was coming along in swing; cars began to honk their horns, going somewhere.

“Why now, because of your wife’s death?” I couldn’t think of the way to say “your wife’s passing,” as I wanted to.

“Yes, I suppose. Even if I could still believe in her, it doesn’t help me. It fills me with more sadness.” I was more uncomfortable than I have ever been in my entire life.

“Do you want to know something?” he asked.

“Of course.”

“They say that if you inhale forty breaths and then exhale them at the same pace you drew them, you will know death, you will know God You liberate the soul.”

“I don’t understand.” I said.

“Because you’re an American, or just because you don’t understand?”

“Maybe both.” He repeated what he had just said about the forty breaths and stopped his gait.

“No, no I understand what you said.”

“I can’t do it,” he said, defeated.

“Do what?” I asked.

“Draw the breath, the last one.”

“Maybe you don’t want to yet.” I wished I had gone directly back to my apartment. I might be in her good graces by now, making love, watching the day begin through a window.

“It seems I don’t,” he answered.

“Are you from Spain?” I asked, desperate to change the subject.

“Yes and no.”

“How is that?

“I fought in the war, the civil war. The one we lost. Franco’s stupid war—a stupid war filled with stupid hate. I fought for Spain, I fought like a dog for Spain. My parents, though, they were gypsies. From nowhere. Morocco. That is why I am not a Catholic.” He stared me in the face, he did, with those languid, baleful eyes. “You came from where tonight, Moncloa?”

“Yes.”

“Along the street Isaac Perál?”

“Yes.”

“You can still see the bullet-holes in the buildings. My friends died there. They had the luxury of God.”

“The luxury?” I asked.

“Somewhere to go. I have nowhere to go.”

“Everyone has somewhere to go,” I ventured, aching for the right word or words.

“Will you take me to confession?” the old man asked. As we walked along I drew breaths and exhaled them at what I thought to be equal intervals. I felt silly doing it, but I have found that whatever superstition is the most relevant or immediate, I, or almost anyone, will embrace it. I would stop at around thirty breaths, arresting the deadly cadence the old man had described. This is obscene and idiotic, I thought. But I did it.

“Confession?” I asked, knowing I had heard the old man correctly.

“Yes, doesn’t it help? Help with something?” I had never been to confession in my life, but I answered,

“Yes,” I said. “It ought to.”

“Will you take me to a church?” he asked. I stood scanning the streets, as aimlessly and as fruitlessly as he had earlier.

“Sure, let’s go to confession.” There are points of no return—this was one of them—and the prospect frightened me.

“Will you show me how?”

“I’ve never done it in Spanish.”

“Done what?”

“Confess.”

“You speak Spanish pretty well,” he said.

“I don’t know la liturgia,” I guessed at the word.

“I’ll tell them what we’re there for,” he said. I remembered there was a church a few blocks north of my apartment, next to a veterinary clinic. We walked in silence, our arms intertwined. The whole time I repeated the breathing exercise that led to death, to God, stopping just short of thirty-five this time around. I wondered if he did, too. His breathing was heavy and disconcerting. I didn’t feel like counting anymore. We passed the veterinary clinic and turned up a small side street, I can’t remember the name. As we approached the church, I smelled shit.

“I smell shit,” the old man said.

“I do too.” I looked at my shoe and I had stepped in a pile of it, it was all over my shoe. “It’s me,” I admitted.

“That’s good.”

“That I stepped in shit?” I asked.

“Yes, that’s good. That’s good luck. Here in Spain.” The church was open and we walked in. While I hadn’t ever been to confession, I was familiar with the protocols of entering a Catholic church. I dipped my hand in the holy water and crossed the old man with my index and middle fingers. He seemed pleased. I dropped 100 pesetas in the donation box and had the old man hold up a candle that I lit with my lighter. I craved a cigarette all of a sudden, as I realized (and felt) I’d been without one for almost two hours. I hadn’t the slightest idea of how to enlist a priest for confession, so I led the old man to the very back pew, took his cane, and helped him out of his jacket. We knelt without bowing. I didn’t pray and he didn’t know how. A priest appeared out of the dimness to light candles in front of a mural depicting the Gift of the Magi. I told the old man to wait and he nodded in silence, kneeling devoutly the whole time, his head still facing forward. I approached the priest and asked him if we could make confession. “Both of you, correct?” the priest asked.

“I guess so. I mean, yes.” I felt disrespectful. It seemed that in a sacred place, “I guess so” is a ridiculous thing to say. The priest motioned for me to escort the old man to the confessional. I confessed first; the old man insisted. I began in Spanish, but I didn’t know how to begin in Spanish or English.

“Say it in English, I speak English,” The priest said. This was worse. I knew to say, ‘Forgive me father, for I have sinned . . . but then what?’

“Just talk to me,” the priest said. So, I confessed everything in recent memory that had offended me about myself, which I assumed would have also offended God. The priest listened well. I felt comfortable. Contrary to what I had seen in movies and read in books, I wasn’t instructed to say a Hail Mary or an Our Father. The priest, I thought rather strangely, thanked me. I waited for a moment, but he said nothing else, so I left the confessional and sat back down. The priest then spoke with the old man, and lead him to another confessional. I wonder how much the priest listened to me. I’d like to think he took it in.

While I waited for the old man to finish his confession, I walked around the church, admiring the stained glass. The Virgin has always fascinated me, and I stood looking at a window depicting her with the dead Christ, “La Pieta,” is the only expression I know for that image. I was still standing there, when the old man, led by the stone-faced priest, touched my shoulder gently.

“We can go,” the old man said. I nodded to the priest and he nodded back. I led the old man out of the church and out the door into the light of day. I was very close to home and I didn’t know what exactly to say to the old man.

“That was interesting,” he said.

“It was,” I agreed. “Very.”

“You don’t believe in God,” he said.

“No, I don’t,” I said.

“I don’t either.” He smiled toward me and swiveled his blind eyes, again, about the neighborhood, the city, the world. The jowls rose on his face and I saw a smile appear.

“I hope that was comforting, or helpful,” I said.

“It was,” he said. “Now I can go home to breathe.” I tensed up and again, felt uncomfortable.

“Breathe how?”

“Breathe as I do.” I asked the old man if I could pay for his taxi fare, flag him a taxi. He agreed and I saw one right away and hailed it. The taxi stopped and I led the old man, my arm intertwined with his, into the backseat. I gave the driver 2000 pesetas and asked for his car number, just in case. The old man crumpled into the backseat and let out a sigh. He turned his head in my direction and nodded politely. I nodded back at him and closed the door. The taxi left around the corner of the side street and down Cuatro Caminos. I walked back in full daylight toward my apartment, smoking.

 

I met my mother when I was born. Since then she has progressed from a dress-sewing, dinner-cooking, hair-in-a-high-bun housewife, to a nude-swimming, pot-smoking artist, to a grey-haired lady who thinks old age is an embarrassment to be treated like some hideous, debilitating disease. There are two ways in which my mother has never changed: 1. She reads a couple novels each week (she keeps one upstairs and one downstairs and reads the one on the floor she’s on). 2. She is brutally honest, refusing to bullshit even for the sake of social nice-nice at a cocktail party.

The following is an interview with my mother that took place over the phone on Sunday, August 7th, 2008. I was in Baltimore, Maryland, where I live. She was in Santa Barbara, California, where she lives.

Jessica: First of all, do you still think you look Bruce Springsteen? Can you explain this?

Mom: Well, didn’t I say Josh looked like Bruce Springsteen and not me? [Josh is my younger brother.]

Jessica: No, you first said you did.

Mom: No. I said Josh looks like Bruce Springsteen. Did I say that about me?

Me: Yes. You called me on the phone and you definitely said that you looked like Bruce.

Mom: Well I think it’s the eyes and the nose and not the mouth. And Josh definitely looks like Bruce Springsteen. Josh has a worried little brow. Bruce has that too. It’s funny josh was born worried.

Me: Yeah, he was.

Mom: Poor little guy. [Note: Josh is a grown person who lives in Istanbul. He has a fabulous life, long stays in Paris, holidays in India, etc.  Nothing poor about him.]

Me: Do you think I look like Vincent Van Gogh?

Vincent.  AKA moi!

Mom: No, I do not think you like him, but I can see what you’re looking at when you say that. I think you’re looking at his nose. Maybe you have his mouth, too. He has a little hearty mouth. Heart lips like you do.

Jessica: Why do you love Randy Newman so much?

Mom: Oh my god because he tells the truth and he’s so brave. He’s like you as a writer. He tells these terrible things that are true and that people think but don’t necessarily say or acknowledge about themselves. Like, kids are grown now, they have their own TVs, I’m always glad to see ‘em but I’m glad to see em go. [Mom speak-sings in Randy’s voice.] And you know, he, well, in the song “I love L.A.” he’s in the car with these kids and their friends, he’s 16 or 17 in a convertible, and he says [speak-singing again], Look at that bum he’s down on his knees. Like it’s a great sighting! An L.A. sighting. He’d drive around L.A. on the freeways looking at things. It’s cool. Oh, and he’s had such a sad life cause he has these crossed eyes and he’s terribly, terribly self-conscious about it. You know that’s why he wears sunglasses a lot. Sometimes they take pictures and they get it right but most of the time his eyes are all over the place. Poor guy. And his uncles were composers for movies, they did soundtracks, so he uses a lot movie sounds. And cartoon sounds, like when he says on “My Life is Good,” [The Newman speak-sing voice again] I’ve got a friend his name is Bruce Springsteen and he said to me RAND, I’m tired of being boss, why don’t you be boss for a while, and then you hear this sound: dee-dee-dee-dee. Like a song to represent an idea in a cartoon. He uses things like that. He’s just so inventive and unafraid to use strange things in his music, to mix it up. And he’s so honest. I just love him.

Randy.  Mom would marry him.

Me: Would you marry him?

Mom: Oh my god, yes.

Me: If you could go back in time and marry him, and then you wouldn’t have me and Becca [my sister] and Josh, would you still do it?

Mom: That’s an impossible question. No, I wouldn’t do it. Because you’re even more interesting than Bruce [Springsteen] and Randy [Newman], my two heroes.

Jessica: Exactly how bad is old age?

Mom: Oh my god. Well. It’s the shits. One thing’s nice, when I feel like I’m standing up straight and walking good I feel really good cause I can do it. [My mother had a heart attack about five years ago and lost half her heart and one lung.] It stinks.It’s awful. It just stinks ‘cause it’s so limiting. For me it is anyway. I don’t think it has to be and I don’t think it is for everyone. And it’s shocking. It’s just shocking how ugly you get when you get old. I look at my face and I’m shocked at how ugly I am compared to how pretty I was. And I just took that for granted. And now I’m ugly and I just can’t get over how ugly I am. And I look at people when they die, in the obits.  And it’s the same story, so shocking. Sometimes they print a young and an old picture. It’s so sad that that pretty person becomes this ugly person. And then you get used to being invisible, too.

Mom now.  I think she's a cute old lady.

Mom now. I think she’s a cute old lady.

Jessica: Why does it matter so much to be pretty?

Mom: Well that’s a flaw, but it always did. One of our family things. It matters a lot to be pretty, mattered a lot to me. And it was hard to take when I got older and then old. And hard to take when people see you as a generic old person, don’t see you as an individual. And then ugly on top of it. If I weren’t fat that would make a difference, too. I don’t want to see anyone because I’m so old and fat. I don’t want anyone to see me. I think I had a very superficial approach on one level to life and it had a lot to do with beauty, and that’s a shame because it’s a waste of time and it certainly doesn’t pay off in the end.

Jessica: What would you advise someone who’s getting older and not old yet? [I suppose this question applies to everyone under 70, no?)

Mom: I don’t have any advice it just happens.

Jessica: Well any advice about ideas of beauty?

Mom: I wouldn’t give anyone advice, but I’d say it’s a shame to focus on beauty, to weigh that so heavily in their life. And a shame to focus on your childrens’ beauty. And all my kids have this same thing, right? I mean, I just admire people who can see deeper than superficial beauty.

Jessica: What do you mean we have the same thing?

Mom: I think everyone in this family focuses on beauty. It’s important for each of you to be beautiful and handsome. And I just think now that it’s so much better not to have that weigh on someone’s life and decisions.

Jessica: You think we’re all vain?

Mom: No, I don’t think you’re vain. I don’t think I was vain. We know we’re beautiful and we use it. And count on it.

Jessica: I think I’m kind of ridiculous looking.

Mom: Oh my god, you’re beautiful what are you talking? You’re beautiful what are you talking about? That’s’ one of the silliest things you ever said. But that’s why you’re a good writer.

Jessica: I really do think I look ridiculous. [See Vincent Van Gogh.]

My hair is pulled back here, so you can sort of see how the shape of my eyes and nose and head are like Vincent's.  My daughter took this pic and I like it because it's totally unposed and "real."

My hair is pulled back here, so you can sort of see how the shape of my eyes and nose and head are like Vincent’s. My daughter took this pic and I like it because it’s totally unposed and “real.”

Mom: No you don’t look ridiculous.But I think it’s great you think so.

Jessica: I know you only have horrible things to say about my father these days, but you must realize that he is half of my genetic make up and it’s a little brutal to hear his flaws laid out for me day after day. Do you have anything good to say about him?

Mom: Ummmm . . . [laughs]. Yes, I do of course. He was always willing to do what I asked him do. If I asked him to take the dog out he’d take the dog out. If I asked him do this, he’d do this. He was good about that. There’s a lot of good about him. But there’s more bad.

[Note: my parents split up a year ago after over forty-seven years of marriage. My dad’s a pretty great guy but he did do something really shitty to my mom.]

Jessica: Were you scared during the fires? [In July more than 5,000 acres burned across the road and down the road from my mother. She was evacuated and the fire department goozed her house with fire retardant. She and the house survived.]

Mom: No, I wasn’t scared but I was worried.

Jessica: What was the one thing you wanted to get out of the house when you had to evacuate?

Across the road, after the fire.

1. Aerial shot of the fire. 2. Across the road from my mother’s house, after the fire.

Mom: The animals, first. I was going to let the chickens roast. But the cats and the dogs were my first concern. After that: papers, insurance papers, checks, papers having to do with babies, life. After that, my favorite paintings. And then, uh, just things that couldn’t be replaced. Some family photos that were framed and hanging. And I forgot to take clothes, so I had to go buy some when I was evacuated. I didn’t even put anything in a suitcase or a bag.

One of the chickens who was left to roast.  I think this one's named Levi.

One of the chickens who was left to roast. I think this one’s named Levi.

Jessica:Is there anyone you despise?

Mom: I don’t despise your father. I think he made a big mistake but I don’t despise him. Right now I despise Sarah Palin ‘cause I keep hearing her speech over and over and it’s just dripping with sarcasm like the way a high schooler would talk. [The V.P. acceptance speech.] Like when she talked about Obama, she was just so childish. She didn’t write that speech but she certainly read it like a child. It was full of nastiness. So I despise her.

Jessica: What’s the best book you’ve read this month?

Mom: Um, gosh that one by Ondaatje, what was the name of the book? I forget. I’m going to look it up. Hold on. Oh shit. Oh god. Hold on. [She’s messing around on the computer.] I can’t think of the Ondaatje one, so I’ll say Willie Vlautin’s books, Motel Life and Northline. They were both great. And I also liked Joyce Carol Oates something about love and brother. I liked that even though it got panned a lot.

Me: The one about Jon Benet Ramsey?

Mom: Yeah, it’s a satire. It’s a very strange book. It’s way over done and way overly self-conscious but really interesting. I liked it.

Jessica: Best movie you’ve seen recently?

Mom: Gosh I haven’t seen one in a long time. Oh my god what was that one with. . about the Mexicans running dope and the guy finds the money in the suitcase and . . . who’s that Mexican guy, he had his hair down, so good looking, he’s in the . . he’s in the new movie about . . .uh with uh . . . oh god, I can’t remember.

Jessica: No Company for Old Men?

Mom: No Country for Old Men.That  was great. That was amazing. There were a lot of good movies last year.

Jessica: I know you’re a connoisseur of the worst that television has to offer. Among this group, what show is your favorite and why?

Mom: [laughs] Well my favorite is, New York Goes to Hollywood. And New York is Tiffany Pollard. And oh god, it’s just a terrible, terrible show but I love it.

Jessica: What do you love about it?

Mom: Ummm, I love, oh, New York is such an idiot. And she has so little talent. And the only reason she’s out there is because she was on a reality show and she’s outrageous. And then there’s her mother, Sister Patterson, and she’s crazy. It’s a good show, I like it. It’s a terrible show. It’s one of my favorites. There’s another one called Intervention. That’s really good. And then there was Celebrity Intervention and that was great. All these celebrities on there, kind of schmoozing each other and faking it.

Jessica: What was the happiest time in your life?

Mom: Well I loved living in Paradise. [When my parents were around fifty-years old, they bought a cabin in the woods, in an area called Paradise. My mother lived there fulltime, my father came up on the weekends.] I really loved that. I was very happy. I was happy when I was first married. I haven’t been unhappy very much. I’ve been happy about everything. Living in France was very hard at first because I couldn’t work [paint], couldn’t find a place that felt right. But my memories of France are very, very vivid and I loved it. [My parents lived in France a few years ago.]

Jessica: What’s the most interesting thing about you?

Mom: About me? Right now I don’t think there’s very much interesting about me at all. But I know other people think I’m interesting but I don’t know what it is. Maybe it’s because I’m honest. When I resigned from the WRA [Santa Barbara Wildland Residents’ Association where my mother was on the board for around sixteen years.] a couple people spoke about how interesting I was, but I don’t know. I don’t think there’s much interesting about me. Except I have a good sense of humor and I’m honest. That’s it.

[My husband, David, walks in the room. We’re on speaker phone so he hears everything. He decides to join in.]

David: What’s interesting about you is that you’re a genius who watches retarded TV shows. It’s a paradox I’ve never understood. Nobody watches worse TV than you.

Mom: [laughing]Oh, Cops is one my favorites! I love Cops!

Mom's favorite show!

Mom’s favorite show!

Jessica: Who do you love more, me, Becca or Josh?

Mom: [laughs] I always love more the one who asks. Nobody asks but you. I don’t think you ever ask that really. You don’t ask that question, I’m the one that asks those questions. Like who do you love more your husband or me? That’s my question. And I’m just saying it to be a smartass, I don’t really want you to make choices like that. [My daughter Ella and her friend walk into the kitchen and my mother can hear them jabbering away.] Oh my god does that girl ever stop talking?

Jessica: Who do you think is smartest:  Me, Becca or Josh?

Mom: Oh, come on! [laughing] That’s terrible! I think all three of you are incredibly smart. I do. And also about equally smart. And each of you in different directions. But I’m smarter than all of you [laughs]. Why don’t you ask who’s smarter me or your dad? Then I’ll tell you!

Mom holding me at age two.

Mom holding me at age two.

 


In my previous post, I revealed one of the most embarrassing things that has ever happened to me. Here is another embarrassment (the list is endless, as the only thing I am sure of in my life is the fact that I will repeatedly humiliate myself!):

My husband and I had moved from California to Toronto, one of my favorite cities in the world. After a few weeks in a basement apartment, we bought a creaky old row house in the Greek neighborhood not far from the center of city. Everything was new and exciting to me—I loved buying my cheese at the World of Cheese near the Pape subway stop; I gawked at the slayed lambs hanging from the butchers’ windows during Easter week; I had my cardboard passport stamped by almost every country during the multicultural Caravan festival; and I rode the subway and streetcar whenever I could. The Canadian mosaic was great by me; I had no problem waving goodbye to the American melting pot.

And even my mistakes were fun. It took me about seven months to realize that mail is not picked up from your house, only dropped off (I repeatedly told my husband that I thought our mailman hated us as he refused to pick up my out-going letters!), I frequently forgot that speed limits were posted in kilometers and once went careening around a winding onramp thinking, Damn, these Canadians take their turns fast!, and I did not understand how spectacular hockey is until someone gave us tickets to a Maple Leaf game where we were seated just behind the plexi-glass barrier. (If you haven’t been to a hockey game, you must go! The skaters are like beautiful, graceful seals in an aquarium as they speed-skim around the rink. When they fight, fisting each other against the flimsy walls, you are startled into feeling alive.)

Eventually, I figured out most stuff, although it seemed that little unfamiliar encounters would pop up every now and then, as one did shortly after the birth of my first daughter.

I had just returned home with my baby from Womens’ College Hospital after a week of recuperating from a c-section while my baby was in Intensive Care. I’d had infrequent sleep and was teetering on the razor of extreme emotion. Additionally, there was a banana-shaped oozing gash at my pubic bone, my breasts were bigger than Dolly Parton’s (in fact, when I hobbled to the bathroom from my hospital bed one day, a tiny Philippina nurse looked at me and said, “Dolly Parton look out!”) and I was wearing my husband’s giant blue jeans with one of his over-sized triathalon tee-shirts. I looked, and was, a complete wreck.

There was a knock at the door, so I carried the tiny baby on my shoulder (one hand on her bottom, one hand free) and went to answer. A uniformed man stood on my porch. He had a clipboard in his hand.

“I’m here to read the meter,” he said.

I looked at him a bit stunned. In California, the meter reader went to the backyard and read the meter; he never knocked on your door. I had no idea what this moment would entail—him going into the basement perhaps?

“Okay,” I said.

“Here’s my I.D.” He handed me a laminated, drivers’ license-sized I.D. card.

I took the I.D. from him and didn’t even look at it. And then, in almost hypnotic slow motion, I put the I.D. in my mouth.

Yes. I PUT IT IN MY MOUTH. And I held it there, as if I were a human ATM just waiting for the cash to come out of some orifice.

I have no idea why I did this. I was delirious. I had been sniffing the baby’s hands and feet while she nursed. I think I put them in my mouth at times, too.

I didn’t realize what I had done until the man reached out and gently removed the I.D. from my mouth.

“I’ll take that now,” he said, and it was like I had suddenly awoken. My heart started beating, which in turn ramped on the pumping machine in my breasts. Milk pulsated out into wet bulls-eyes on my tee-shirt. I wanted to cry but I knew that to have stuck his I.D. in my mouth and then to burst out crying would only make the matter worse.


“Can I come in and read your meter?” he asked.

I sucked back the tears, stepped aside and let him pass. I figured he’d know exactly where to go.

When he left, he didn’t say goodbye.

An open letter to Maggie, my neighbor’s black Lab:


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Dear Maggie,

I think your name was Maggie. You were a black Lab, and you lived in a small kennel made of chain-link fencing and wood in my neighbor’s backyard. I peed on you one evening when I was about seven years old, on a dare from a few of my friends. We were standing around your kennel, looking at you, when suddenly it occurred to me that I had to urinate. I mentioned my condition to my friends, and one of them suggested that I pee on you, for fun. And then the rest of them said, “Yeah, I dare you.” And so I did.

I remember you ran back inside your doghouse once you realized that I was peeing on you. And then I ran home.

My mother got a call from your mother a few minutes later. Apparently, she had seen the whole incident from her bedroom window. On hearing the news, my mother was horrified, and fittingly, I was grounded for the better part of a week as punishment. I also had to walk over and apologize to both you and your mother in person. I can only hope that you forgave me. I really felt bad about peeing on you, in the pit of my diminutive soul. I always thought that you were a really cool dog, and I secretly wished that you were my own.

Sincerely,

Brad Listi
Los Angeles, CA


An open letter to God, Creator of the Universe:


God



Dear God,

When I was a kid, I was forced to go to church, and I was advised by my elders to believe in you. On many occasions, while seated uncomfortably on a hard wooden pew, listening with grave confusion to the rambling of a large, avuncular preacher, I turned my gaze heavenward and prayed in your direction. Almost every time, I prayed that you might provide some sort of definitive, supernatural evidence of your ever-abiding existence.

Dear God, I’d pray, could you please shoot a beam of purple light through that window up there above the altar, so that I can know for a fact that you’re actually listening to me?

Or:

Dear God, could you please blow out that candle sitting over there by the piano, so that I can know for a fact that your powers are actually real?

Naturally, on every such occasion, my heartfelt prayers went unanswered. My pleas were met with an altogether deafening silence.

Here and now, as I enter the prime years of my adulthood, I certainly wouldn’t expect you to trouble yourself with any of my petty requests issued forth in prayer. I can imagine that you are an incredibly busy entity with plenty of universal responsibilities to attend to. I wouldn’t think to bother you.

At the same time, I continue to find myself troubled by your total lack of regard for the innocent requests that I made as a young boy. One would think that a being as powerful and compassionate as God could trouble himself momentarily to shoot a beam of purple light through a small stained-glass window for the benefit of an innocent child.

No offense or anything, but the fact that you ignored me is pretty fucking lame. Hopefully, you will see fit to change your protocol for the next generation of good-hearted inquisitors.

Stay black,

Brad Listi
Los Angeles, CA


An open letter to Julie, the girl who dumped me right after the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded:


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Dear Julie,

We dated briefly in the fifth grade, and on January 28, 1986, you broke up with me. We were sitting in the Presentation Area, adjacent the library, and we had just finished watching the Space Shuttle Challenger explode. It ascended from the launchpad at Cape Canaveral, and seventy-three seconds later, the whole thing went up in a massive fireball, killing everyone aboard. The room was silent, and our teachers started crying. And then your friend Marianne walked over to me and handed me a note that said, “Hey … You’re dumped.”

I’m not the type to hold a grudge or anything, but I always felt like that was really insensitive timing.

Cordially,

Brad Listi
Los Angeles, CA



An open letter to Jeffrey Dahmer:


Jeffreydahmermugshot


Dear Jeffrey,

You worked at the Ambrosia Chocolate factory in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, during the early 1980s. I read about it somewhere not too long after you were bludgeoned to death in prison. My second-grade class went on a field trip to the Ambrosia factory in 1982. I often wonder if you were there at the time of my visit. I wonder if we saw each other in the hallway or something. And naturally, I wonder if you looked at me and decided that you wanted to eat me and keep my skull as a souvenir.

Sincerely,

Brad Listi
Los Angeles, CA



An open letter to John Walker Lindh:


Walker_enlarge

 


Dear John,

You were born in 1981. Whenever I hear of adults who were born in the 1980s, it makes me feel old. You’re twenty-six now. And you’re in prison. I can’t think of anything worse than being twenty-six and in prison. I hope you’re not going insane.

I just reread your personal history online, and I have to admit, I find it pretty stunning. It’s hard to believe you started off in Marin County and wound up fighting with the Taliban in Afghanistan. It’s a massive statistical unlikelihood—which I suppose is part of the reason why you did it. For a teenager raised in Mill Valley, moving to Afghanistan to fight with the Taliban has got to be the ultimate in youthful rebellion.

You must have been really pissed off at your parents.

At the time of your arrest, you were twenty years old.

When I was twenty, I was taking bong hits in a Boulder basement, listening to Dark Side of the Moon while watching The Wizard of Oz.

People, generally speaking, are pretty stupid at the age of twenty. I know I certainly was. And I imagine that you were, too.

To be honest, I think you might have set some kind of record for misguided youthful indiscretion. If there were some sort of measuring device that could calculate this kind of thing, I’m almost certain that you’d rank right up near the top.

A lot of my friends lost their shit in college, but nobody grew a beard and moved to Afghanistan.

Kindest regards,

Brad Listi
Los Angeles, CA

P.S. Forty is the new twenty.

I have been accused of being too cerebral. Once. Or perhaps twice. And to prove that this is simply not true at all, I would like to share a brief, somewhat scatological, story of my girlhood, excerpted from my memoir, FallingThrough the Earth, which was chosen as one of the Best 10 Books of the Year by The New York Times.


From Falling Through the Earth:

ONE SATURDAY THAT SUMMER, Serenity decided to stay the night. She brought a duffle bag full of clothes and a plastic jug of orange juice mixed with Smirnoff vodka.

“Here,” Serenity said, holding forth two tabs of acid, wrapped in the plastic of a cigarette package. The squares were white, with pink mushrooms printed over their surface. She lifted one tab by its edge. I stuck out my tongue and took it.

Earlier that afternoon, after school, we had worked the lock on the gun cabinet and took two crisp twenties, to pay for the acid. I had only taken gun-cabinet money once before, the previous winter, to buy a new ski jacket. I had taken four twenties that time. When Mom saw my coat, and asked where I’d gotten it, I told her Dad had bought it for me. She looked it over, saw that it was expensive, and said, “Columbia? Your dad must have been feeling generous.”

The guy who sold us the acid said that Vitamin C would enhance our trip, and even though we suspected that this was just an urban legend, we’d been drinking orange juice all afternoon, in preparation. We took turns swigging as we walked to the bus stop.

Although most people were averse to it, Serenity and I liked the bus. The plexi-glass shelters promised freedom to the car-less kids of town. We would buy monthly passes and shuttle from one end of town to the other, riding until after midnight.

The bus rumbled up, flipped open its doors and, swallowed us into its cold, chemical air.Sometimes, when I was alone, I took a seat next to a greasy haired psycho-killer in ripped polyester pants. I would strike up a conversation, flirting with death. The bus would drop me into the space odyssey of the icicle night. I wandered the holocaust streets, dodging wind-whipped newspapers. I would find myself alone in strange parts of town, a girl who liked to be lost.

The bus dropped us downtown, at Riverside Park, a narrow strip of trees and benches skirting the Mississippi River. All of Tony Dimantilo’s friends hung out there, mostly because the park was zoned for ‘roller skating and other sporting activities,’ and the police had to leave skateboarders (and the girls who hung out watching skateboarders) alone. Serenity and I went there after school and on weekends. With nobody keeping track, I went wherever I wanted. Nobody noticed my grades, my drinking, that I spent most of my Saturdays in detention. I did whatever I chose.

Down by the water’s edge, there was a pack of punk girls.

Punk201


I’d known these girls for the past few years, since Tony introduced me to his crowd. One of the girls said, “Yo Dani! What’s up? Looking for Tony?”

“None of your beeswax,” I said, pulling Serenity by the elbow to a park bench, next to the river. We sat down just as the world began to drain away. Serenity’s face jittered before me, all electric skips. The Mississippi river was roiling, boiling lava. If I turned around, the park leapt into a burst of firework colors,
hundreds of ribbons curling up.

This was the first time Serenity had taken acid. She looked confused. I had only done it once before myself (with Tony) but to her, I was an expert. She said, “Why is everything so…colorful?”

“I think the acid is kicking in,” I said, holding onto the park bench with both hands, as if it would roll away.

Our bench was within a stone’s throw of a six-foot mini-ramp. Skateboarders, Tony Dimantilo among them, strutted and sauntered around the ramp, leaned on their boards, ollied and performed every variety of flip (heelflip, kickflip, nollie kickflip) that they could manage. Jump ramps radiated from the edge of the
mini-ramp. The boys posed for the girls magnetized at the periphery.

Skateboarder


Tony did not see us, and I was sure, suddenly, that Serenity and I were spies hiding behind the curtains of the real world, Girl OO7s. I said, “Do you think they can see us?”

“Who?” Serenity asked, her voice spacey.

“Everyone. The skaters. Tony.”

Serenity squinted, examining the cartoonish tableau before us. She said, “I don’t think they can.”

“But we’re here, right?”

Serenity crinkled her nose. “If they don’t see us?”

“Exactly.”

“If they can’t see us,” Serenity said, becoming suddenly authoritative, “then no, we’re not here. We
don’t exist.”

I tapped a cigarette from my pack of Marlboro Reds and lit it. Serenity touched my fingers. I gave her the
cigarette. We smoked, thinking over the consequences of our new state of non-existence, while imaginary boys on unreal skateboards slammed the sidewalk, carving and ripping past the bench. Each truck grind, each skid, had a tangible sound, tinny and resonant. Serenity suddenly said, “If we’re not here, I wonder where we are.”

“We’re nowhere,” I said, confident. “Non-existence means nothing’s here. Nada. Zilch.”

“But we have to be somewhere.” Serenity stuck out her arm. “Touch me. Do I feel like I’m here?”

I squeezed the key-teeth grooves of her wrist bone. “Feels like you’re here to me.”

We burst out laughing, fully aware of how ridiculous we sounded. Serenity covered my mouth with her hand, stifling my laugh, which only made me laugh harder. A boy with a T-shirt that read SKATE OR DIE rode by, leaving a sparkling, elastic, Wile E. Coyote trail behind him. I said, “That guy definitely turned
his head in this direction. I think he saw us.”

“Yikes! Yikes! Oh my God!” Serenity lifted her arm as if it were something she’d found on the street, a piece of wood or a lead pipe.

“What? What’s going on?”

“I can see through my arm! Do you see this? My veins are on the outside! Oh my God! That is so freaky!”

I took her arm and stroked it, smoothing the veins into place. “There,” I said. “You’re fine. It’s all skin
now.”

“Thanks,” she said. “How the hell did that happen?”

The sky turned saffron yellow, as if the sun had been pricked and its essence sucked into the air, a color that contained greens and flecks of red, like a ripe peach. Looking across the park, at the road running along the river, I half expected to see my father, driving by in his truck, ready to take me to Roscoe’s.

“If you’re upset that your veins are changing places with your epidermis,” I said, unwilling to give up on existence so easily. “Then you must, in some sense, exist.”

Serenity lit another cigarette. After a few seconds, she said, “You know, you’re right. You’re absolutely right. If I didn’t exist, I wouldn’t care if my veins were squiggling around on the sidewalk. This is solid proof.”

Just then, as if in response to Serenity’s empirical evidence of our existence, a pressure rose in my bladder.

“Emergency,” I said, crossing my legs tight.

“Emergency?”

“I have to pee. Really, really, bad.”

“How can you pee here?”

“Duh. I can’t.”

Serenity said, “Here is a second instance of proof: If you didn’t exist, you wouldn’t have to pee. Or you could pee here and it wouldn’t make any difference.”

“If I didn’t exist, I wouldn’t have drank so much fucking orange juice.” I squeezed my legs tighter together and, for a moment, I couldn’t tell if I had a body at all. After a few minutes, however, I realized that I really needed to go.

Serenity pointed to a squat brick building in the park. She said, “There’s a bathroom over there.”

“But I don’t know if I’ve got to go or not.”

“Either you have to go. Or you don’t have to go. One or the other.”

“What I mean is—This is kind of a Big Question.”

Serenity raised an eyebrow. “Is there something I don’t know about peeing?”

“If I’ve really got to go it’s settled: We exist. If I don’t, and I’ve just made it up, we don’t exist.”

Serenity was all appreciation. “Good one,” she said.

She shoved me onto the sidewalk, into the wavy, rainbowing, off-the-bench universe. I walked quick, dodging the metallic stares of the skateboarders, stumbling over a patch of grass, and onto a billowing sidewalk. My knees Jello-ed. The punk girls, each one a different color (one purple, the other green, another a brilliant shade of blue), turned their Martian eyes upon me, their gazes indicating my path: It’s right there, the answer to your existential questions!

I grabbed the bathroom door, all of existence hanging upon the result of my task, and rushed inside, where I yanked up my skirt and squatted over a muddy, broken-seated toilet. Two minutes later, I emerged from the Potty in the Park, triumphant. “We’re real!” I called, waving my hands at Serenity’s small, pink head hovering like a balloon above the park bench. She waved back, ecstatic that we did, in fact, exist.


For more about me or Falling Through the Earth, please come visit www.danielletrussoni.com.


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