Saturday, November 30, 2013

The Inimitable Worm

Writing is a lonely racket. It kinda has to be, if you're doing it right. There's you, and the palette on which you're spraying your brilliance -- laptop, yellow legal pad, vintage Olivetti, whatever -- and the cranky, capricious, perverted worm in your brain that offers up the words but also enjoys shifting gears without warning between your mother tongue and the language of some long lost tribe, then grows surly with impatience at your inability to translate. That is what one would call a genuine mindfuck.

In the last two days, I've left my apartment for exactly ninety minutes: I joined my parents for Thanksgiving dinner at a restaurant here in town, then came straight back home and planted my ass in the chair. Now, truth be told, yesterday I did, off and on, partake of a pleasant distraction: there was a Modern Family marathon on one of the cable channels, and I'm not ashamed to admit I watched a few episodes. If you've never seen it, do yourself a favor and check it out. It is sneaky fucking funny, in part because the cast is phenomenal (timing is a dish they serve cold, every time), but also because the directing and editing are brilliant. And it's sneaky touching. There's a scene where the patriarch of the family, played by Ed O'Neill (of Married, With Children infamy), offhandedly assuages his gay son's partner's newfound insecurities regarding the son's former boyfriend, whom everyone in the family seems to adore. "There's gotta be something there I don't see," the father says. "He didn't exactly bring out the best in Mitchell. Not like you do." There's no design to it, he's just making conversation. And yet it does the trick, and it's kind of a beautiful moment. So go watch Modern Family.

When I haven't been watching Modern Family or sleeping or gazing at my Bettie Page snow globe, I've been working on an essay I hope someplace with a bit more reach than my little blog might publish. It's going to be pretty lengthy when it's done -- I'm maybe a third of the way through, and it's already at about 2200 words (3500 words is probably the high end of average). For a variety of reasons, I've had occasion of late to think about (to steal from Nobel laureate Alice Munro, quite possibly the only Canadian I'll ever admire) the progress of love. Recently I've witnessed a handful of friends going through tumultuous and, in most cases, unexpected endings to their relationships. It's painful to watch because these people are my friends and I hate to see them suffer the rough strife of divorce. It's also tough because I've done all that and so I'm well versed in the tales we tell ourselves while we still believe there's something we can salvage. I don't know how many stages there are to the end of a long-term relationship, but I do know the worst of them repeat, and goddamn doesn't that suck. How many times did I go through my day thinking, "I can do this," only to get home and spend a sleepless night chewing on the inside of my cheek from abject frustration? It calls to mind Hemingway's line from The Sun Also Rises: "It is awfully easy to be hard-boiled about everything in the daytime, but at night it is another thing."

All of which got me thinking about my own history of relationships. We could debate the semantics of what constitutes a relationship -- I know I've been guilty of underestimating a time or two in the past. There was the woman I reluctantly hooked up with a handful of times who, probably to this day, considers me not only an ex-boyfriend, but an ex-boyfriend who treated her badly. Believe me, that's her creative fantasy. Not to toot my own horn, because this is only admirable up to a very fine point, but I don't lie to women to get laid: if it is what it is and no more than that, I don't allow any illusions to linger. In other words, I won't lie to you, so don't lie to yourself. Ah, well, sometimes you can't win. Then there's the rare converse, the lovely pretend girlfriend I had for a while, who was absolutely anything but pretend and deserved more, but took me as I was. There's a lesson for you: it is always better to be with a person who doesn't judge you based on how shitty she feels about herself. The pretend girlfriend was a keeper. I hope there's some excellent guy doing just that.

Anyway, the essay isn't about the implacable one or the one who took me as I am. It's about the ones who left an indelible mark. For the purposes of the essay, there were five: the first girl I kissed, the first one I slept with, the college girlfriend, the mother of my child, and the one who completely undid me. It's about the ways I came to be with them in the first place, and about the ways each relationship ended. I have to say, it's been nice recalling the sweet stuff. It makes you feel like less of a schmuck when you can put into words some of the whys and the wherefores. You always feel like a schmuck when it crashes and burns not by your choice, and that's because in the slow descent toward death you see all the shitty things about the other person, and you can't help but wonder what the hell is wrong with you that you didn't see how shitty that person could be right from the outset. It's a despicable side-effect of rough strife. If you're lucky, you shake it off in short order and move on somewhat the wiser.

So you may be wondering, since I claim to have been working on this awesome essay, why am I spending the latter part of my night writing a blog about it rather than continuing to work on the essay itself? Well, because it's a little bit overwhelming, both the good stuff and the bad. In places there's a depth of history that can lead quite easily to pitfalls and dead-ends. There are betrayals that still sting, and the memories of my own missteps that still make me cringe. And in its eminently perverse way, the worm in my brain decided to start offering up the story in Portuguese, which is a gorgeous language but not one I'm equipped to follow. I'll tell ya, if I didn't need it so badly, I'd squeeze the life out of that worm here and now. Instead, I'll take it to bed, and hope tomorrow he wakes up ready to tell his tale, and spouting nothing but beautiful English.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

The Good Liar

It was December 31, 1996. Some friends were hosting a New Year's Eve party, and I offered to stay home with our eighteen month old daughter so that her mother, the Prevaricator, could have a rare night out with good pals. We were at the tail end of a fairly miserable year, but better than the year before, which made it seem like we were moving incrementally forward, and anything I could do to help the cause seemed worth the effort. My best friend from college lived in the apartment upstairs from us, and of late he'd been feeling pretty down: he was sort of perpetually alone and in no danger of rectifying the situation, but in the last couple months he and the Prevaricator had formed a bit of a connection, and so I felt pretty good being the guy who stayed home on New Year's Eve and sent his two best friends off into the night to a fun, mellow party. At the very least, since the Prevaricator didn't drink, I thought she could drive dear old Mattie home after he'd drowned his recurring sorrows.

Somehow I got the Little One to sleep at a halfway decent hour -- no small feat in those days -- and camped out on the couch with some lame TV for a few hours until, just before midnight, I picked up the phone and dialed the party, intending to wish my beloved a very happy new year as the clock struck 1997. Eventually, after a handful of truncated exchanges with drunken revelers, the phone made its way into the hands of my friend Mike, the party's host, who drunkenly suggested that Mattie and the Prevaricator had already left, or perhaps never been there at all. Like a dummy, I remember thinking, "Aw, she's on her way home to her feller." I stretched back out on the couch and waited.

It was well after two when I saw his headlights splash the wall as he turned in to the driveway. I closed my eyes and pretended to be asleep. The Prevaricator slipped in like a flat-footed, legally blind ninja, bumping into at least five things on her way to the bedroom, where she inexplicably changed her clothes, and then just as stealthily slipped back out the door and climbed the stairs to Mattie's apartment.

I spent the next three and a half months being alternately vigilant and accusatory. My accusations were met with such ferocious indignation from the Prevaricator, most of the rest of my non-vigilant, non-accusatory waking moments were dominated by self-flagellation: how dare I accuse her of such a thing! What a dick I was!

Mattie's dad bought him a house that spring, and in late April we had a dude day at the new house to install the basketball hoop his daddy had bought him. Mattie lacked the ability to screw in so much as a lightbulb, so he was beyond helpless when it came to attaching a basketball hoop to the house his father had bought for him. The friends gathered and we got to it. At one point Mattie had to make a run to the store, and I chose that moment to reconnoiter. It wasn't tricky: until very recently he'd lived right upstairs from me and we'd hung out all the time, so I'd had occasion to take note of the box of condoms he kept in his medicine cabinet. That particular box was long gone by that day in April, replaced by a different brand of twelve-pack that was down to just two, nestled optimistically beside a brand-new twelve-pack. I remember even then taking a moment to consider the possibility that I was wrong. Because that's what you do when the worst case scenario has crawled into your lap and nestled in like it has a right. But he was my best friend: there was only one reason in the world he wouldn't have told me he'd been fucking someone.

When Mattie came back, we shot free throws to determine the teams, and then we played two-on-two all afternoon. I was like a man on fire: I never lost. Christ, these were some of my closest friends, and I don't even remember who was my teammate. I just know I wouldn't lose. Until the afternoon began to fade and a couple of the guys had to go home to their lives, and I ended up with Mattie on my team. Suddenly, my still crisp passes were hitting him in the face instead of in the hands. We had every chance to win that game. I made sure we didn't. Poor Mattie: a brand new basketball hoop, and he'd lost every game. Then there was me: I'd won them all, save one. Hadn't I?

At home, the Prevaricator and the Little One met me at the door with smiles and kisses. I took a chair and peeled off my sneakers and socks, then looked her in the eye and said, "I'm going to ask you this one last time, and I swear I'll never ask you again." I asked, she bristled indignantly as ever, and I put up my hand and said, "Okay." Without another word I stood and limped into the bathroom, turned on the shower, undressed and, with a sigh months in the making, stepped under the spray. A minute later there she was on the other side of the curtain, uttering quite possibly the only honest words she has ever spoken to me: "It's true."

All of this happened long ago. In an ordinary life you'd write it off and move on. But ours has been an extraordinary life, because we're fortunate to have a daughter we both adore. This daughter we share is more than worthy of our adoration: if I lived another hundred years, the world would be hard pressed to offer anyone I'd favor above my daughter. The downside is that I continue to have to interact with the Prevaricator, who, to put it kindly, is a remarkable case of arrested development. To be fair, the combination of a broken home made whole by the odd dichotomy of the ever forgiving mother and the by-the-book step-father, plus a wholly inappropriate sexual relationship with her thirty-year-old history teacher when she was fifteen, almost certainly rendered someone like her incapable of dealing with the world. You always think you're the one who's going to fix them, right? Hence the concept of hubris.

This morning the Prevaricator called to say she was going to be an hour late picking up the Little One at my place. That's not a big deal: in sixteen years, she's probably had to make that call at least twenty times. Every parent of a broken home has had to make that call. Except that this time she led with a specific excuse, and also the husky, ethereal voice of someone still lying in a bed she doesn't yet want to leave. She had car trouble, she claimed. I could have just left it there, as though I imagined that her shitty car were capable of the rarest of car troubles, the sort that you know for sure will be resolved in an hour on a Sunday morning. But I let her dig -- because she's going to see me as the dick oppressor either way, so I might as well fuel the fantasy. She drove down a dirt road last night, she said, and might have put a hole in her muffler. (She makes it painfully easy to be crass, by the way, but I won't bite.) Long story short: perpetual liars will always believe that the reason they give you, if it's even remotely plausible, is the true reason for their actions. They believe it, and therefore you should too.

And that's fine, I get it: the Prevaricator is a broken little girl, and I failed to fix her, and so every broken-little-girl moment that presents itself is, at least in part, mine to bear. But goddamn does that shit take a toll, man.

Recently a friend made a comment in response to some offhand joke I'd made about drunken sex. He used that tragic modern catch-phrase, "fear of intimacy," and he wasn't entirely off-base, but he missed his mark by a significant matter of degrees: saying I have fear of intimacy is like saying someone whose legs have been crushed under the wheels of a runaway dump truck has fear of Michelin tires. I was never a physics major, but I believe in a version of Hooke's law, which states that an applied force will yield a linear-elastic response. A dump truck will crush your legs, and a Prevaricator will crush your heart. Sometimes you know too well that the force exerted is guaranteed to exceed the stiffness of the spring. Generally the reason you know that is that the spring has just been obliterated by said force.

Let this be the lesson, then: A life of perpetual lies is born of a single lie, the one the liar tells herself over and over again: that it's not about her, it's about the person she's lying to, who can't handle the truth. And while it's often true that honesty comes with its own peculiar consequences, the consequence of perpetual lying is that you become a shittier person with every lie you tell. Also, the more you lie, the harder it is to remember what actually happened, and that is one of the ways in which people go crazy. And not for nothing, but you can't fight crazy. You're stupid to even try.