Porn’s uncomplicated promise is one of immediate and effortless gratification - an airbrushed daydream to get us off without having to face anything messy. Relationship fantasies are pretty similar: Easy, unconditional affirmation – a passionate yes to everything we are, regardless of what we actually deserve.
Given these inglorious supplications, the prospect of listening to someone’s sad childhood narrative is about as tempting an idea as watching a porn star with a syphilitic cock. As a rule, unless you’re on Jerry Springer, the spectacle of personal confession is a bad idea.
Others may appear to welcome your traumatic nostalgia but, chances are, at least one of them will use it against you and another is charging a co-pay. Moreover, if you confront people with dark truths in the bright light of day they will likely turn on you with pitchforks; but, soften the truth into a version that’s fun to believe - you know, the junkie with a heart of gold or a psychopath who dotes on kittens - and they'll love you forever.
The devil imparted these cynical aphorisms one night during my junior high school years.
“That’s pretty depressing,” I said, propping myself up against the arched headboard of my bed.
It’d been a lousy day. During lunch, the group I hung with had teased me over a rumor that was going around; by the end of the day they’d pushed me to the curb. I’d come straight home from school and had been brooding under my covers ever since. The devil had stopped by and we’d been debating how to brush off the chalk that had been slapped across my back.
I reached beside the bed and scooped up a pillow that had fallen off the edge.
“Let me see if I have this right,” I scoffed, ”your contention is that the best way to get through life is to be superficial.”
“It’s the path of least resistance,” he nodded.
“I think I can expect a little more of people,” I said. I fluffed the pillow and slid it behind my back for support.
The devil snorted. Grey smoke billowed from his nose.
Satan had shown up old-school. He looked like he was ready for Halloween, special FX decked complete with bifurcated tail and pointy horns. His body was covered head to toe, or actually horns to cloven hooves, with blue-black scales. The iridescent plates were dense and turned metallic green or purple depending on how he sifted in the light. Over the armor he was wearing silk drawstring pants and a velvet smoking jacket. The general effect was something like Cary Grant meets Hellboy. He looked ridiculous but I could tell he thought he looked smart.
“The thing is,” I told him, “these were – are - my friends.” I rested my cheek against the cool wall beside me. “But, they were so mean,” I closed my eyes against the memory. “They really hurt my feelings.”
Satan wrinkled up his nose like he’d been eating turnips. “Don’t be such a chump. Just grow a pair and fight back.”
The devil spat a fire gob to the floor in emphasis.
“That doesn’t work,” I said, stretching my foot from under the covers to stamp out the embers smoldering on the rug. “When I fight back I get beat up.”
“So?” he hissed, throwing sparks. “Who cares? At least the SOB’s will leave you alone the next time.”
His contempt inflamed me, like poison oils that blister the skin if they get touched.
“See that’s exactly the problem,” I said, jerking my other foot out from the covers and perching stiffly on the edge of the bed. I’d been listening to Satan grouse about the peril of human entanglements for more than an hour now. He was starting to get on my nerves. “Number one,” I said, my voice going screechy, “I care. I don’t want to get hammered; and secondly, I don’t want to be left alone. I…I want them to like me.”
I heard the pathetic stammer in my voice. The sounds came out less like actual words and more like a resonance.
“Oh my God,” the devil shrieked, shaking his head. He widened his eyes like he was talking to a half-wit. “Stop feeling sorry for yourself. You don’t need them to do anything. You won’t stop breathing. You won’t die.”
The corners of my eyes stung with my big pussy loser tears.
The devil picked up one hand and made a sawing motion against his opposite arm like he was playing a violin.
“Poor me,” he groaned.
The devil twisted his lips into a menacing sneer and the scales on his torso stiffened into terrible spikes. He shook his tail spine and stared at me in fierce silence. His eyes were hard as bullets.
I shrank back.
Satan’s head recoiled and he parted his blue-black lips. I could see the expanse of his unctuous gums. He drew up his broad shoulders and took in the breath of a tempest.
I didn’t move. I sat leaden, bracing myself for complete thermogenesis – I made a mental inventory of escape routes and places where a fire extinguisher might be stored.
From deep within the devil’s chest, a sound erupted. It started out cruel – a mocking growl, coarse and disturbing; but he turned it around at the end and the devil laughed. The amber sound billowed into an infectious wave of mirth. Beneath his plush jacket the vicious spikes receded into a resplendent sheen, like an oil slick, across the muscled scales.
How he could manage his power!
I was infected by his panache.
The devil lifted his hands and clapped them together as if to declare, ‘well well my fine friend, it is only for you and I that the earth bothers to spin’.
I was smitten all over again.
Satan winked and snapped his fingers. There was a flash-paper poof. It belched a small cloud of smoke like a magician. When the mist cleared a heavy silver tray was revealed on the dresser, with a bottle of Wild Turkey and two Baccarat glasses.
“Poor me,” he repeated, but this time with a voice like butterscotch candy. His brow furled into a playful arch. “Poor me, poor me…pour me another drink if you expect me to stick around and help you sort out this mess.”
The devil ran his hands coolly across the contents of the tray. His muscles tensed and rippled.
“Isn’t that a bottle from our liquor cabinet?” I asked.
Satan shrugged without looking up
“How would I know,” he said, waving off my question.
The devil commenced pouring us shots.
He handed me a glass, gave a slight nod and drained the brown liquor in a single gulp. He clacked his empty glass down onto the dresser and looked over at me expectantly. I threw back my shot, trying without much success to imitate his flourish. The liquor burned my throat and made me gag.
“I don’t like it,” I said, shaking my head and thrusting the glass at the devil. He pressed the glass back into my hands and wrapped an arm around my shoulders affectionately.
“It’s an acquired taste, kid,” he whispered. “Don’t worry. I’ll teach you to love it.”
The devil poured out another slug. We raised our glasses up high.
“To life,” he said and drank the shot down all in one. He wiped his mouth and leaned against the dresser. I chocked down the second drink and set my glass next to his.
“Feeling better then?” the devil asked, glancing to the other side of the room. His gaze cued my stereo like a remote. The stylus lowered. Wish You Were Here began playing softly from the speakers.
I had to admit, after the initial wave of nausea receded, I did feel pretty good – warm and at ease. Brave even.
Satan lifted his arms, spread them into a wide V over his head and shook out his body, the way a dog shakes after a bath. His prongs and armor disappeared, made over into a soft plumage of iridescent feathers. I laughed with delight. He preened every so slightly.
The devil sat down next to me and we lay back on the bed, listening, eyes fixed, falling away from the world together, the music filling the spaces:
How I wish, how I wish you were here
We’re just to lost souls swimming in a fish bowl, year after year
Running over the same old ground
What have we found?
The same old fears.
Wish you were here.
By college I’d learned how to be a little cooler, at least not so quick about giving away the darker secrets. My family narrative for example, erratic depressives on the violent edge of crazy, was not going to land me many dates. But the topic of family comes up quickly at school as a shortcut way of getting to know one another. So, I came up with a hedge, not unlike Adele’s dodge to get around my dad. I found that by sketching my family euphemistically I was able to loop around the crazy stuff and sneak out through the cat door.
“So, do you have family around here?” Charlie Taylor asks me, pushing a damp blonde strand of hair out of his eyes. The afternoon sun has tinted the bridge of his nose pink. It’s late in the day and we’ve struck up a conversation after noticing we both have the same class anthropology text on our chairs. Charlie just moved to Florida from Atlanta for school. A quick glimpse at the wispy clouds fogging up his blue eyes gives away that he’s homesick.
“Yeah, I do,” I reply, hoping a simple answer will suffice.
This works more often than you might think, whenever a question is just polite reciprocation. More times than not, when someone poses a question, they're not all that interested in an actual opinion; they’re just asking about something they want to discuss. The time in between is more like waiting around till you finally shut up and it's their turn to talk.
“Really? Are they close by or…”
“Pretty close,” I say.
Deflection isn’t going to work this time. Charlie is trying to figure me out. Nothing too deep, mind you, just the basic drift of where I come from.
“Why don’t you live at home then?” he persists.
Maybe he isn’t even aware of his scrutiny. It could be a kind of basic survival instinct that’s making him try to root out possible danger.
I should throw out a little chum myself. A little drama will make a healthy stripling back off like the maraca of a rattlesnake’s tail. The damaged ones won’t back away. Their eyes will flicker with rescue fantasies or maybe something darker. Mercenary traits. But, I don’t care about any of that at the moment. There’s plenty of time to figure it out. Right now, Charlie Taylor likes me and he is bug-ear cute.
“Well I don’t know,” I say. “I guess I just wanted a little space to myself.”
I don’t mention that I wanted this space because of genetic derangement or that I moved out the house when I was sixteen years old.
“My family can be, you know, colorful,” I offer.
Again, I make omissions. I pass over the fullness of our color wheel. If he’s grown up with polo shirts and crinoline skirts, that’s the way he’ll envision my family too. I want him to imagine my family in primary colors, not a reality that borders on leather and piss.
“I gotcha,” Charlie says with a generous smile. A dimple in one cheek tempts me like a cherry on top.
“They can be a bit of a handful,” I say, grateful for his venial innocence. I return his smile warmly.
“I know what you mean,” he says, touching my arm with his. The gauzy clouds slip from his eyes and land squarely on his tongue, which I imagine tastes like spun sugar.
He wants to talk about his family. Duh! He has all along. I relax and dip my pink petal toes into the cerulean water of the chlorinated pool. He wants to reminisce, to tell me about home. I don't know his details yet but I'll bet they'll be tender, although I doubt he'll present them that way to me.
“I couldn’t wait to get away either,” he says, rolling his eyes, looking tough. He takes in a breath and holds it in his cheeks for a moment before letting it out. Whispers of cumulus and cirrus flutter past me.
“My parent’s followed me down in their car,” he says, shaking his head. “The trunk was so filled up with crap I could barely fit it all in my dorm room.”
He dangles his tanned feet next to mine along the tiles.
“Don’t get me wrong,” he says with his dimple cherry smile, “they’re great you know? I appreciate the effort and all, but jeeze, they left me like two big boxes of food - you know, cookies and snacks...”
A small wisp puffs out one ear.
“...like I might starve or something,” he says pushing out his strong chest. I guess the clouds have settled there for a bit.
“It just feels good to be here, you know, on my own.” Charlie winces.
“Right,” I say.
Charlie's a sweet cub. I look deeply into his eyes so his clouds can drift my way.
Sometimes being aligned is more important than being alike. Charlie can find the balm he needs by seeing my family like his. I can enjoy having my family regarded as less crazy than they really are. Plus, before we leave poolside, Charlie invites me to go water skiing with him on the weekend.
I know time is bound to erode my little larceny but, so what? Maybe holding onto small but true moments is enough. They leave a trace, don’t they? Perhaps tiny cloud bits accumulate. Can a meaningful life come from cherishing stray gifts? Maybe that’s how to forge a noble world, one sugar cube at a time.
I guess it’s no big surprise that I majored in Psychology. Here is an entire discipline that caters to screwed up kids trying to figure out what the fuck happened and hoping to get a better handle on where to go next. I didn’t clear that much up in my first four years; so, I stayed on and got a Ph.D. in the field.
So, what did I glean for all my years of learned study about the mammalian mind, our idiosyncratic behavior and the complex system of defenses we use to cope with daily life? I learned that we detail our lives in predictable ways to help make sense of all the world’s noise; but, there are as many ways to organize the data as there are people to construct it. Each of us must ride our own surging mad current. I learned to respect that first whispering breeze that told me paradox is truth and each of us is crazy. Oh – and I have another hedge. I've got credentials so now it's me who’ll be signing the commitment papers.
As far as I can tell, there’s no right way to move. One man’s revolution is another’s Armageddon. While my dad mobilized for the overthrow of America, my grandmother prepared for Christ’s second coming and my mother threw up her hands and called it a day.
For a while, I immersed myself in science looking for universal laws that might lead to redemption. But it turned out that facts are more like opinions that have been around for a really long time. Gods, politics and science all seem more like those snakes who eat their own tails. Systems change right along with us. A flat world becomes round – bloodletting gives way to transfusions. And it's all open to interpretation.
At the beginning of my relationship with Steve, when I was still wondering if we’d be never-ending, I bought a beautiful orrery to give to him. It’s a perfect model of the solar system, each planet rendered by precious polished stone mounted on a thin wire arm in its proper celestial position. If you flip switch on the wooden base, the planets revolve in their accurate orbits around a yellow quartz sun that sits in the middle. The farthest planet out is made of howlite, a tiny purple gem that completes its rotation steadily, moving slowly around all the others - earnest and resolute.
For years Steve and I watched the planets spinning, peacefully completing their anticipated trajectories. Even when our lives appeared transient and erratic, we could count on the planet’s orbits – the changing seasons – comforted by their constancy in the universe.
And so it goes – we move through the years from babes to youth to the grave, scratching a groove with sharpened beliefs and a prayer. Along the way we find security and hope in our convictions - and then one day we find that Pluto is really just a big dopey dog and not really a planet at all.