TNB A&C: Please explain what just happened.
MH: What JUST happened? Well, I just sent an email to Margaret Leng Tan. It said…
Hope Spain went well. Welcome home.
I’ve come up with a perfect unusual creature for you… the Barking Spider! And actually I’ve begun composing it. The Barking Spider (selenocosmia crassipes) is a tarantula found in Australia, which has the added bonus of making hissing or bark-like sounds. They can reach a leg-span of 8 inches, and the female can live up to 30 years. Here’s a picture: http://www.thedailylink.com/australiantarantulas/species/crassipes.html
The piece I am writing will use three toy pianos and, of course, will be a tarantella… though a very slow and ominous tarantella. And then we can overdub Oscar doing his thing, which I will probably pitch shift to make sound a bit more spider-like. Sound good?
What are the ranges of your toy pianos? Any that go particularly lower or higher than another?
In case it’s not clear from the email, I’m going to have Margaret as a guest performer on my next album, “Songs For Unusual Creatures.” She lives with five dogs, and asked if one of them, Oscar, could be included in the recording.
My very first teacher was Mrs. Brady. She was a tall and handsome woman with a severe haircut and coke-bottle glasses. She wore modest calf length skirts with comfortable cardigans and she taught numbers and letters in a furious cloud of chalk dust that was at odds with her restrained, no-nonsense nature.
I shared my classroom with a smorgasbord of misfits.
The puffy-faced boy who brought a black eye to school more often than he brought his lunch; the tiny boy called Johnny who had a hole in his heart as ‘big as a thumbtack’; a pinched-face blond girl whose pinafore had pleats as sharp as her cheekbones.
I was the girl who could never quite manage a smile even with an orchid pinned to her dress.
Mrs. Brady had a daughter. She was much older than us and when fully grown, she would find fame when she climbed Mt Everest without oxygen. She caused controversy with that claim, but I believe she did it. After all, she terrified me so much when I was five, I believe Lydia could do anything.
I don’t remember where we were or why we were there, but we were on a school outing. Lydia had come to help her mother herd the children along. When the day was done, we climbed aboard the school bus that would take us home. I sat next to Lydia. Lydia was about seventeen and she had taken a shine to my plump cheeks. As she squeezed them softly, she leaned in towards me to whisper something in my ear.
“I’m going to take you home and put you in a pot and eat you for my dinner.”
I believed her. I had no reason not to. My face must have crumpled because Lydia hurriedly told me she was only kidding. But it was too late. Lydia had sealed her fate as a sweet talking cannibal forevermore.
‘That woman wanted to eat me,” I would say whenever I saw her on the news after her Everest ascent. People thought I was nuts.
When I was even younger than that, I liked to listen to the radio. I thought that there were tiny little bands and miniature singers who lived inside the box. I imagined there was a revolving stage, like a Lazy Susan, inside the radio that would spin around and give each band a turn, before spinning them back to… well, I didn’t know where exactly, but that’s how I thought it worked. I was certain that if you peeled the back of the radio off, you would be able to see the musicians inside.
Music made me feel good. It made me dance. I thought nothing bad could ever come from music.
Until I heard Aunty Jack.
Aunty Jack was an obese, pig-tailed, mustachioed Australian transvestite who had a hit in the early seventies with a song that had lyrics that went something like this:
“I’m going to jump out of the speakers and I’m going to rip your bloody arms off.”
I would hide behind the couch and shout at my mother to turn the radio off. Turn the radio off. NOW.
My mother got terribly thin not long after I started school. When we would go out for dinner she would avoid the food and drink water by the gallon.
One day after school, my grandmother was waiting for me at the school gate. She had a roll of chocolates for me to sweeten the news that my mother had been taken to hospital. She was very ill.
“But it’s okay,” my grandmother reassured me. “The doctors have found she has a thing called Diabetes. So that’s not too bad.”
I burst into tears. My grandmother wondered why. After all, she had told me my mother would be alright. What my grandmother didn’t know was that I only heard the first syllable of the diagnosis.
Later, I would secretly be glad that my mother couldn’t eat sweet things, as this meant she wouldn’t be able to take such big bites of my cream donuts.
I found a yellowing newspaper article hidden at the top of a wardrobe. I was a precocious reader and so I read it. It was about two girls who had beaten one of their mothers to death with a stocking laced with bricks.
The murder had happened before I was born, but it had happened in a park that I had played in. Time made no difference in my head.
I was worried. I was worried for all mothers when I read this. Especially mine.
When my mother would leave me in the car and rush across the road to the butcher’s shop to get something for my dinner, I would start to cry when she disappeared from my sight. After all, if daughters could kill their mothers with bricks, butchers could easily chop my mother into bits.
I would howl in the car and crane my neck out the window until I saw her coming back across the street towards me. The sense of relief was stunning. I would then wipe my streaming nose quickly on my sleeve so that my mother wouldn’t know that I’d been weeping.
I won the lead role in an operetta when I was six. I was to play Becky Thatcher in ‘Huckleberry Finn.’ This would mean a pink gingham dress and ringlets. I couldn’t have been more excited.
Until the singing teacher told us that we would be singing for the orphans.
Right across the road from my school was a Gothic brick building with forbidding turrets and darkened windows. It was called Nazareth House and it was where the orphans lived. On the way to swimming one day, a relief teacher told us that if we were naughty, we would end up living in Nazareth House, where the children screamed all day and were tied to their beds with ropes at night.
We sang for the orphans the week before Christmas, but I kept my eyes closed as we walked through the disinfectant soaked corridors.
I looked down at my feet all the way through the performance. I shut my eyes again as we walked back out. Tom Sawyer gallantly held onto my hand and led me through my self-imposed darkness.
I still look the other way when I drive past it now, even though it’s long since been pulled down.
My grandparents’ house was surrounded by bush. It was dangerous for me to walk down there by myself, they said, because there was quicksand I could fall into.
Nor could I enter the big steel shed as there were black widow spiders in there, they said.
Likewise, I should avoid cracks on the pavement in case I broke my mother’s back; abandoned refrigerators in case I climbed in and the door sealed me in; hard candy, in case I choked.
Sometimes when I would sit outside in the afternoon on my swing, I thought I saw lions creeping out of the bush. I would run inside.
I would run inside because the outside world was full of dangers.
It wasn’t until I was grown up, that I learned there were no black widows in New Zealand. Nor was there any quicksand. To this day, I avoid hard candy.
I read a newspaper story about the billionaire Getty boy who was kidnapped and had his ear cut off.
I started to look sideways at strangers. I kept a very firm eye on the driver when I got on the bus after school, wondering whether he might spirit me away and kidnap me. I sat as close as I could to the exit doors and my hand hovered near the emergency stop button.
I worried that if I was kidnapped, my mother was not a billionaire and would not have enough money to pay the ransom.
I had a friend who lived high in the hills above the harbour. Her house stood all-alone except for a mighty pine tree that kept it in perpetual shadow. At nighttime, when we were ready for sleep, she would tell me about the crazy man who lived down the road in the cemetery. He was called the Goat-man because he had killed a goat and hollowed out its head and now used that as a mask. He stalked little children, but only on dark rainy nights.
As she talked, the pine tree branches scratched their way down the window and the rain beat against the glass. She told me it was the Goat-man. He was outside, and that screaming noise I could hear, was not possums, but the Goat-man letting us know he was waiting for us.
I would cover my head with the blankets, squeeze my eyes shut and jam my fingers in my ears. I did not want to hear him coming.
I would vow in the morning never to go back to that house on the hill.
But I did. And the Goat-man never got me.
My friend, Melissa, and I dressed up to look silly when we went to the hospital on Halloween. We do it every year because the kids get a kick out of it and we really are up for anything to spice up the day.
(One time I really blew it dressing up on Halloween to go to the old folks home with Brooklyn, my Therapy Dog. I dressed to the nines as Raggedy Ann. I had it all, down to the red and white horizontal striped tights and red shoes. The residents at the home are four-fifths from Cuba and one fifth from Russia. Not a soul had any idea who I was supposed to be. It turns out that Raggedy Ann is an American phenomenon. It had always seemed so universal to me. They thought I was nuts, but they didn’t care, because Brooklyn was with me.)
In any case, this year Melissa and I were fancy rich ladies. My name was Miss Bling and Melissa was Miss Bling-Bling. We aren’t allowed to take pictures of anyone at the hospital, so I will just show you some of the stuff I had on.
Here are my prostitute shoes. I love them. Get a load of the size of the rhinestones on the pink flip-flop leather! And the soles! Are they beautiful, or what? I’d wear a dress made out of that fabric! It’s just a shame that you have to cover it with your feet. I actually wear them when I go out, because, when you are my age, no one pays any attention to you, so you don’t need to fret about what other people think. You can dress as crazy as you like. I think these are glorious shoes. This view is from the top.
This view is from the side, so that you can see the subtle leopard print and the lovely silver heels. My daughter, Lenore, says that they might as well be clear. She’s a snide one, Lenore is.
These are the pieces of rhinestone jewelry that I have left from my girls playing dress-up with their friends when they were little.
I wore every single piece. I was covered in rhinestones.
I have some fabulously gaudy hair clips. Here is a picture of just one of my many hair clips.
Here it is from the top.
When it comes to flashy, I do not fool around.
I wore as many ostentatious clips as I could fit on my head. Melissa even wore some, since she somehow lost her tiara between the parking lot of the hospital and the hospital itself. She was resplendent in her own jewelry, pink feather boa and long white gown.
We saw quite a few kids that day and had lots of fun with them. As we were walking into a new area, we met a mom carrying a weeping boy who appeared to be about six. The mom asked us where she could get a wagon, and she was delighted to hear she just had to go around the corner and pick one up. When they came back around with the boy riding in the wagon, he was no longer upset. He was a really beautiful child, with olive skin and stark black hair with a touch of wave. The little boy had a scar on his chest and a large, squarish lump under his skin.
We played with him for quite a while. He was smiling a lot by then. I remarked how adorable kids looked when they lose a front tooth.
“Oh he didn’t lose that tooth the regular way,” said his mom. “He lost it when he hit the sidewalk during a dropdown seizure. In fact, that’s why he was crying before. He had a seizure in bed and he doesn’t like the medicine he has to take when that happens.”
“Ah,” we said. We are not allowed to ask any questions. We just listen and play.
We had lots of puffy boy stickers for him to stick on various things like door hangars and visors. (You would be surprised the variety of stickers nowadays. There are stickers obviously meant for girls and some meant for boys. Then there are the ones for just kids in general, like zoo animals and dinosaurs. Also, stickers are made for an amazingly broad age group. There are huge, toddler stickers all the way to super cool My Little Kitty and sports and superhero stickers for the older kids. This is not even counting the scrapbooking stickers that are selling like hotcakes to adults. We all should have bought stock in the sticker companies before all our money evaporated last year. I’ll bet the sticker companies are still doing just fine.)
The particular stickers we were using this time are difficult to use for tiny fingers, since you have to peel off the paper on the back of them and it is hard to get your fingernail under the paper to get it started. I told the little boy that we could help him while we were playing with him, but when he was playing with them later, he might have to ask his mom for help peeling the paper off the backs of the stickers.
“Use your left hand,” the mom said.
“Kids don’t usually like to use the hand on which the nurses tape the board so that the IV stays in place,” explained Melissa.
“Oh, it’s not that,” said the mom. “He recently had his right brain removed, so he does not know he has a left side. I keep trying to encourage him to notice it. The doctors say it takes a long time for the left brain to begin to control the half of the body it does not ordinarily control.”
This dark, delightful boy needed the wagon because he did not know he had a left leg. He needs to learn to walk again. He needs to discover that he has a left side.
No amount of bling will teach him that.
Being disabled and not being a billionaire evil genius is a shite state of affairs.
After a six year trial period, I’ve decided it’s not for me. The problem is context – context being, supposedly, everything. You see, I didn’t spec my environment; I don’t have a hollowed-out island full of boiler-suited minions, with smooth floors and rapid, spacious lifts. I have London, and it’s a fucking disgrace.
My best friend and I met a man on the cross-Channel ferry from England to France during a summer of blissful ignorance in the late 1990s. We christened him ‘Kaffir Jim’, mainly because neither of us could remember his name after an embarrassingly short period of time.
Like ‘Dave’, ‘John’ and ‘Joe’, ‘Jim’ was generic enough to be amusing, and ‘kaffir’ served as a convenient synechdoche for his identity as a fairly right-wing white South African; a representative of a people who, from Louis Botha to Joss Ackland’s villain in Lethal Weapon II, have had a chronic PR problem at least since the turn of the last century.
Although neither of us knew it at the time, there is a line in H. Rider Haggard’s British Empire classic, King Solomon’s Mines that refers to “a Kaffir hunter called Jim” – a designation which could refer—extending overly-generous benefit of the doubt—to a Bântu-speaking South African, but is much more likely to be a racist epithet. It is more likely still vituperative Imperialist slander against a ‘white man over-friendly with the natives’. It is exactly the type of language one can imagine coming out of the mouth of the most stereotypically reactionary white South African boor.
Whether it is solely down to effective British Boer War propaganda or other aggravating historical factors, your average white South African is viewed as not far off a mildly attenuated Obersturmbahnführer, desperately clinging to a tragically intransigent set of race-bound beliefs.
Sitting at the back of a fairly-crowded bus with his shirt off, braying convulsively like a defecating horse, as though in the advanced stages of some transcendental drug experience, Kaffir Jim chose to share with us his revelation that the world was becoming inexorably homosexual.
This wasn’t the usual spiel about oestrogen leaching into the water supply; this was a terse hypothesis of gonzo evolutionism, refreshingly free of science and reason. How far we’d get with a near-zero birthrate and K.D. Lang (sic) in the White House wasn’t expanded upon, just that more and more people were becoming gay as nature’s naturally selective measure of automatic population control. Kaffir Jim foresaw a dystopian future world ruled by lesbians, and he wasn’t happy about it.
Like most other people one tends to meet at the back of buses on the Lonely Planet trail—a pathway that at the time was merely strung around the third world like a loose garland of adolescent spittle gobs, but that now eclipses the establishment of the ancient Silk Road in the depth of the imprint it has stamped out across the globe—Kaffir Jim wore the creepy, thousand-yard stare of the serial traveller.
Just like the “political kitsch” in the “fantasy of the Grand March” that sustains Milan Kundera’s Franz throughout The Unbearable Lightness of Being, the gestalt of travelling is perpetual and continual movement. There is rarely much of talk of where you’re at, just where you’re going or where you’ve been. As soon as momentum slows to a speed that might threaten the ‘-ing’s on your verbs, the horrifying prospect of reflective thinking looms.
Hiding behind their conveniently intrepid-sounding gerund, in perpetual flight from their lives, the serial traveller seems out-of-time: “separated by an immense space from [their] past and by an immense ignorance from [their] future”
There’s a haunting scene in the film Barton Fink in which John Goodman’s character returns to the spartan room in the flophouse he is living in as the building burns down around him—slowly turning his key in the lock and closing the door behind him, oblivious to the sweat soaking through his clothes from the heat of the flames. I always think of Kaffir Jim whenever I see this.
We met Kaffir Jim in those innocent days before social networking, and at least six months before either my friend or myself had a working email address, so, although we have no way of contacting him to find whether he believes his doomladen projections have come to pass or not, I picture Kaffir Jim still out there somewhere; as oblivious as Mad Man Muntz, half-naked; projecting the disintegration of his psyche out on to the highways and byways of the world.
It wasn’t until 11 years and one too many bouts of travelling later; sat at the back of a crowded bus with my shirt off; desperately fleeing an incomprehensible city, babbling nonsense at anyone who would listen, that I realised what had happened.
IMAGES: Screengrabs from youtube.com
It was located in the basement of an old craftsman that had virtually no ventilation, directly across from the elementary school on Pine Street. When you walked down the stairs and into the dank space the air was hazy with dust particles that shone in the sunbeams that had bullied their way in through the highly set windows. The fractured yet cheery sunlight being the only reminder of outdoor life to the subdued musty feeling that hung in the underground quarters.
The house itself was a rundown rental: The small front yard was an odd mixture of overgrown weeds and patches of dry bare earth. Plaid couches, rescued from various dumpsters around town, littered the crooked porch of the sinking haven. Discarded empty bottles of whatever cheap alcohol someone managed to shoulder tap and smashed beer cans lay strewn about the base of the discolored sofas like barnacles. Really, the exterior appeared much like the interior, sans the heavily used and abused musical equipment and beer matted shag carpeting. The windows sat askew in their rotting wood frames like the crooked smile of a child who had just lost its first tooth. The filthy glass was covered in punk rock ooze, creating a darkened hue, that you couldn’t see in, or out of.
The film that coated the windows rendered them darker and more distorted than a carnival funhouse. Today, window tinting on cars that dark is illegal in most states. You have to find some shady-pines window tinting company, pay in cash and pay extra for it (not that I would know about doing something like that). And, though professional tinting may deflect heat better than this particular brand of shadowy slime, I can guarantee you it isn’t made of the same self righteous matter; Mohawk grease, Knox Gelatin, raw emotion, teen angst and god only knows what other pillaged sentiment or stolen idealism.
It was the brainchild of a guy named Dave who lived in the house, along with his band-mates. He was a little older than the rest of us, he had a fire engine red mohawk and black, black eyebrows that were tweezed into long upward points at his temples. A true artist, he was the one whose ideas we all played along with. In whose eccentric projects we all partook. He was a bass player in the coolest punk band in town. I heard he once took a dare that he couldn’t swim the full length of a swimming pool with the neck of a bottle of Jack Daniels stuck up his ass. Unfortunately, I can’t remember the rest of the story, or if he made it the whole way, maybe no one ever mentioned that part. Whether he did or not, there is not a doubt in my mind that he tried his best. He was just that type of person, who, for obvious reasons, was insanely fun to hang out with.
Once your eyes adjusted to the light, or lack thereof, you could see through the dusty air to a bank of shelves along the far wall. Lining these shelves were a number of tightly sealed jars. All the jars had handwritten labels, some made of masking tape, some were just written in Sharpie directly on the glass. Upon closer inspection you realized that each of the jars contained urine. Dave’s urine. Hence the name, The Piss Museum.
Labeled, dated and sealed mason jars full of his piss. Each label told its own little story.
January 2-Tripping on acid.
February 18-Ate a side ribs.
June 23-Had gonorrhea.
June 30-Finished antibiotics.
July 25-After I had sex with my girlfriend.
July 28-Drank a case of Meister Brau.
September 9-Ate 2 pounds of bacon.
October 1-On painkillers from breaking my wrist.
October 6-Drank a gallon of apple juice.
October 9-awake for 32 hours.
Dave documented his day-to-day life, as well as more significant events by saving his own urine in jars and labeling the events that preceded each collection. There were hundreds of jars. These he kept in a separate special location on display inside his house. If you weren’t totally repulsed by the idea of The Piss Museum to begin with, and picked up the jars to examine them, all the urine was completely different. When the light from the windows hit the jars’ unusual contents you were awed at the extreme variations in color and substance. It was as though you were looking through a portal into another universe.
It’s not often that one comes across such great conceptual art that, somehow, in its own vulgarity can speak to you. There have, however, been many artists who have done works involving bodily fluids, each making their own individual statements. One that comes to mind, and makes me laugh to no end, is Piero Manzoni, that had an exhibit titled “Artist’s Shit” in 1961. It’s a series of, you guessed it, the artists shit, canned. Which he sold on par with the price of gold.
It’s anyone’s guess if the cans contain his (or anyone else’s) excrement. Does it really matter? He also had other works involving his own body matter. Balloons filled with his breath and egg shells that he marked with his thumbprints before eating them. Kiki Smith had a project like this as well. A row of large jugs that you couldn’t see through marked “tears,” “spit,” “diarrhea” etc… Though her jugs remained empty.
In the case of The Piss Museum, we knew it was the artist’s urine filling those jars. I don’t recall any other works by Dave involving bodily fluids or excretions but this doesn’t mean that they didn’t exist. He was a devout “meatitarian” for a period, where he promoted vegetable rights and carrot love, and on occasion he would drink a substantial portion of bacon grease for an audience. He also kept a collection of photographs of all of his girlfriends when they were seven years old, which I see as another example of his unusual artistry .
The last time I saw Dave was about ten years ago. He, our mutual friend Ali, who was also an ex-girlfriend of his (that he did indeed have a picture of when she was seven), and I, met for breakfast downtown at a restaurant that hires employees based on their natal charts. Dave had just gone back to meat after a long stint of veganism. He remained as striking, witty and true to form as my sentimental teenaged memories of him. He had retired his mohawk and was now sporting long dreadlocks and he drove a Gran Torino that had been restored to look like the one in the TV show, Starsky and Hutch, except that his was green.
I wish I could recall more of the conversations the three of us had that day as we laughed hysterically and overstayed our welcome in that semi-dilapidated oddly placed booth in the center of the restaurant. He had become a DJ and quite the wine connoisseur. He gave me some great recommendations for red wines, all of which I later bought and thoroughly enjoyed.
Later that night Ali and I went to house party where Dave was spinning. The party was packed, we drank cheap keg beer and chuckled as we watched the row of groupies stand in front of his turn tables and ogle him. After the party got busted, Ali, Dave and I stood outside, tipsy and giggling pretending to be newscasters, speaking into our thumbs and trying to get interviews from the disgruntled underaged kids as they scattered from the police.
I don’t know what ever happened to The Piss Museum, if it was left for some unsuspecting landlord to find during a property walk through or thrown into boxes and left curbside for the garbage truck. Maybe it’s packed in a storage unit, napping, and will at some point, awaken in all its glory and once-again, be relit by sunbeams.
What I do know, is that there are times in your life when you look back and acknowledge the little things, the random seconds, the individuals that shaped your person and made you who you are. The moments when we find great beauty and serenity in the centered sounds of nature or are lulled into a meditative trance by the bombastic lights of Tokyo. It’s when you recall these characters and snippets that have fallen into your world like raindrops. When you acknowledge the people that have unknowingly given you the strength to create by example, that you realize; you can find an astounding amount of clarity while staring into a jar full of cloudy piss.
When you enter the country of Pain, they confiscate your passport. You leave behind the things and people that used to feel important and familiar, in which you used to believe. Everyone in the new country is a stranger, though it scarcely matters because pain is really a nation of islands, and everyone who lives there lives alone.
In 1995, while my husband and I were visiting my best friend Tom in Barcelona, I became an unintentional and surprise immigrant in the country of pain. It happened overnight, and at first I did not realize I had “moved.” I believed I had a bladder infection. I’d had them before—many, in fact, even having been hospitalized for one as a child. Sometimes when I got one, I could not close my legs for the burning; I could not stop pacing the room; I urinated blood. But the agony was always temporary. You take your antibiotics, you take your pills that make your pee turn orange, you feel a little crazy for a couple of days and then it is done.
Except this time, it was not.
I tried to make the most out of the remainder of my trip—which then extended into London—but it was difficult. I was impatient for my stay on the island of pain to end. Surely once I got home to Chicago and could see my own doctor, I would get on the “right” drugs and I’d be fine in twenty-four hours. So we returned home, and my doctor, who knew I was prone to these infections, prescribed a stronger antibiotic over the telephone without making me come into the office. I began taking it gratefully.
I got worse.
What had been distracting and bothersome became blinding, all-consuming. My burning no longer happened only during or right after urination but was happening twenty-four hours a day. Eating seemed to make it worse. It grew difficult to function. I was exhausted from the pain, not sleeping, and had started peeing maybe 20 times a day at least. My bladder felt full constantly, as though with battery acid. The inflammation was so extreme I could feel it right through my skin, radiating heat and distended so that my lower stomach felt unnaturally tight and hot. Nothing alleviated it. I showed up at my doctor’s office and he ran a urine culture saying maybe the infection had spread to my kidneys. But this had not happened.
There WAS no infection. My urine was clean.
I went to my mother’s ostiopath. He gave me herbal supplements but they didn’t help. Like many inhabitants of Pain, I became desperate, without the usual sense of decorum and subtlety that people on the Mainland possess. I called my ostiopath too often and complained too stridently. I began to worry that maybe I was dying. I sounded, in short, like a crazy hypochondriac, since crazy hypochondriacs are sometimes indiscernible from people with real ailments the medical establishment does not understand. In truth, I could not be sure myself that I was not going Crazy, which is its own island adjacent to Pain. Maybe it was all in my head. It began to seem possible that one moment, a woman could be in Barcelona lying on topless beaches, seeing a Sheryl Crowe concert, smoking lots of hash with Spanish and Dutch friends, visiting Gaudi parks and having those delicious, vacation-specific afternoon long sex sessions with one’s husband . . . and that the next day she could be raving mad, driven to distraction and a mounting dread of life by physical agony that might not even be Real.
What was real? When you are in pain, it’s hard to tell. It’s in your head, they may tell you, and how can you prove it isn’t? Come in here, you want to say back—Come in here and let’s see how you like it; let’s see how well you cope. But you cannot peel back your skin and let others step in and poke around with their own pain receptors. Your sensations, your respective sanity or madness, are all inaccessible to them.
Maybe you don’t live on an island of Pain so much as become the island. Though, of course, metaphors fail. If you were an island, you would be one nobody wanted to visit. You would be prone to torrential storms that prohibited settlers from approaching your shores.
If you are not an island but a woman, you begin to wonder whether you can honestly go on living this way. You are 27 years old. You could conceivably live another 60 years. The thought of 60 more years, each stretched into its long days, its long hours, feels so unbearable, so overwhelming, that even if you have always been afraid of death you begin to think maybe it would be the “best thing.”Death begins to sound like a dangerous lover from whom you cannot stay away. Death begins to sound like the bad boy you know will be the end of you, but whom will get you out of your parents’ oppressive house, and so you cannot help but run off with him into the night at 17, when no one is looking, when it was not even something you had planned.
I began to take narcotic painkillers. A lot of narcotic painkillers. An addiction to Vicodin probably saved my life.
I alternated at first. Darvoset, large doses of Tylenol 3, which was weaker than the others but gave me a scraping feeling inside my stomach that I liked, that distracted me. Vicodin, or its stronger sister Norco. Percocet when I could get my hands on it. I drank very little alcohol because the fermented nature of it aggravated my bladder further, but I smoked copious amounts of pot.Sometimes I threw some Benadryl in for the hell of it, because though it did nothing to kill my pain, mixing it with the painkillers and weed made me more high so I didn’t care as much, yet didn’t increase my tolerance to the pills. I alternated so that I didn’t become immune to their affects, but sometimes I became immune anyway. Sometimes I took Vicodin after Vicodin at a party, hoping to numb myself out enough that I could smile and make small talk with people—so that I didn’t have to go home and cut myself with the unscrewed razor from my eyeliner sharpener, kept inside a felt cloth for that purpose now, and yet even when my ubiquitous silver pill case was empty the pain was still clawing inside my bladder like an animal determined to scrape its way through my skin and expose itself to the world.
Somewhere amid all this, in early 1996, I received a diagnosis. Interstitial Cystitis: an ulcerative, autoimmune condition of the bladder. It was said to be incurable but not necessarily progressive, and not actually “harmful” (if you don’t count being in blinding pain 24-7 to the point that you have to become a pill junkie “harmful”) to one’s long term health. It is no doubt indicative of my state of mind that this diagnosis actually seemed like good news. I was not insane. There were books about this illness; there were doctors who recognized it, though they did not actually know how to effectively treat it.
It probably goes without saying that, both before and after my diagnosis, sex was not a great deal of fun. And yet, I was determined not to relinquish it. To relinquish sex would be like making a space for Death on the couch. It would be saying goodbye to anything that made me a normal woman, a normal twentysomething person still in the prime of life—to what made me still me. I began to require extreme sensations, extreme scenarios, to transport me far enough away that the sex seemed pleasurable rather than torturous. Probably it makes little sense to say that, while I had always had an interest in kink, those were the years I most required it in vigorous and intense proportions. I just wrote a bit about that, but now I have deleted it; even after a decade, it doesn’t feel like something I can delve into here. Suffice it to say that my husband was, at turns, befuddled, turned on, beleaguered, elated, exhausted. While I was busy popping pills, brewing Chinese herbs, seeing ostiopaths and chiropractors, attending a support group for people with IC (though it depressed me so deeply I never went back after meeting women who had had their bladders removed and lived on psychiatric medication), and becoming an incomprehensible fetishist, he had to continue doing all the “normal” things our lives required, like going to work, paying the mortgage. He worked long hours in finance and his firm was riddled with political unrest and in-house dramas. At times he seemed to me an infantile narcissist, pettily concerned with banalities that could not compare to my Life and Death situation. At other times he seemed a saint to put up with me—to still want to touch me, much less live with me—and I felt so grateful to have him I became as clingy as a child.
There were other things. Other factors. My husband’s issues as an adult child of an alcoholic were beginning to surface in the face of our stressful situation. There was a man with whom I began spending a great deal of time, who it would be fair to say was drawn to all the darker aspects of my personality, my life, while my husband wanted me “back” to the way I’d been before—wanted me healthy, which felt increasingly not even like a pipe dream but a bad joke. Our marriage began to drift.
This was my life. 1997 came; 1998. There was no country of Healthy anymore. Other people lived there, but I could not even visit. The people in Healthy had strange concerns. They cried endlessly over brief love affairs gone wrong, or said “I wish I’d never been born” because they were having a hard time conceiving babies, or talked about their work problems as though these things carried the weight of a mass genocide. A close friend who was unhappily single once told me that I “had no problems” because I was married and my husband made good money. She knew of my illness, but she herself was so ceaselessly healthy that to her it must have seemed abstract, somehow lesser than the difficulties of living alone in an apartment, sleeping alone in a wide bed at night. My friends’ language made no sense to me. Increasingly, I needed a translator to be among them. I was more comfortable among junkies, bipolars, survivors of cancer, who were, at the end of the day, always biding time, waiting for the next blow.
Yet I never really spoke of my illness. I followed a strange diet; I brewed tea with odd herbs; I took a lot of pills. Sometimes I cited the name of my disease as explanation for these habits, but I rarely elaborated. One thing everyone who lives in the country of Pain knows is that if you open up to somebody once about something that is fundamentally unchanging, constant, permanent, your “confidante” will begin to ask you about it frequently expecting some kind of progress report. They’ll say “How are you feeling today?” every time they see you, and if you keep saying, “Like slicing my arms open just to distract myself for one goddamn moment from the burning between my legs” they will not like this answer after hearing it for the 97th time. You will have officially become a buzz kill.Better to just say “Fine.” Better to just say nothing.
My years in the country of Pain are an episode of my life that is both integrated and self-contained.Now, in retrospect, the days, months, years blend together. All said and done, this period of my life lasted for three years and three months: from May 1995 to August 1998. At the time of its finale, I was living in Amsterdam with my husband. In the paradox that is life, my time in Amsterdam was both one of the best times of my life and also one of the most intensely unhealthy. Away from my doctors, my pain level escalated even beyond its usual state. There were days when all I could do was slam Famous Grouse scotch and smoke hash and pound Vicodin until I was incoherent, and still I could feel the edges of the pain snaking around me like a vice, strangling me. And yet, there were days at outdoor cafes and buying fresh vegetables at the markets near our apartment in the Jordaan; there were friends visiting and there was Paris and there was Brussels and there was London and there was Lausanne and there was still, strangely, an intoxicating infusion of sex and a falling-in-love-again with my husband amidst it all. There was a fear of flying that felt crippling and a continued flirtation with death. And then, abruptly, there was a visit to a health food store where I randomly described my symptoms to a Dutch employee of the store and she suggested the herb Pau D’Arco in larger doses than recommended on the bottle, and I tried it because I would try anything, with no hope or optimism that it would actually work when nothing else had, and within two weeks of popping 9-12 Pau D’Arco tablets daily, I was 100% pain free, off every other treatment from my Chinese herbs to my painkillers. I was, incredibly, a normal person again. Shell-shocked, perhaps, but incredibly—for the first time in more than 3 years—pain free.
One thing you tell yourself when you leave the Island of Pain is that you will never be one of those assholes again who sweats the small stuff. That you have learned what is Really Important, and that interpersonal dramas and posturing will no longer plague you—that you will be Grateful and Content with whatever life hands you so long as you remain healthy and pain–free. There are stories we tell ourselves. There are lessons we think we have learned. One is that Pain somehow elevates you from the rest of humanity, makes you more pure, makes you more wise. Maybe part of this is true. And in another, more-than-equal part, it is all bullshit. We all revert to a state of narcissism, which is, perhaps, the human condition. Before you know it, you are fighting with your spouse about the same crap everyone else fights about; before you know it, you are losing sleep over some ridiculous drama at work. It is true what they say about pain: the body cannot retain its memory of that primal state. The intensity is simply too much to cope with on any long term basis. At the end of the day, we all revert to a state of Normalcy if we can. Gratitude on a 24-7 basis holds out only so long.
It has been eleven years now since I left Pain behind and moved back to my native land. I have almost forgotten, now, what it was like to be a foreigner; what it was like to have lost my native tongue. For two years, I took Pau D’Arco daily out of fear, but eventually I stopped, just as I abandoned my Vicodin habit, my marital tumult, my cutting alone in my bathroom, my desire to end my life. Three years after my pain ended, I adopted two children, and five years later I had another, with a body I once believed incapable of even getting through a normal day much less bringing new life into the world intact. These days, I am just a Normal Woman, just a Normal Mom. A decade has worn down the memory of those days as an immigrant in Pain’s land. I tell myself, as all immigrants do, that now I am home for good: that I will never return to that land.
They told me that IC was “incurable” but that it could go into remission. I am, now, 41 years old. I have been in this remission for 11 years. Maybe, at any time, it could end, and there I would be, again. Back then, it was all I could do to get out of bed, to go to graduate school, to feed myself and speak to people and get through my day. Now, I have three children and run my own business and teach at two universities and run an online literary magazine and live with and financially support my elderly parents. If I were blindsided again that way, the consequences would not be the same. My stakes are higher. This time, I might not survive intact.
And so I wait. Or rather, I usually forget I am waiting. I relish the arrogance of forgetfulness, of normalcy. I am here, in my body, my normal body, right now. That other truth seems murky and impossible again. This is the arrogance of the human experience. Even though I have already touched that flame, it seems impossible, somehow, that such a thing could happen to ME.
A while back I drove to Texas and attended a high school reunion. Events like these are surreal for most everyone, but as I approached Wichita Falls on a cold and still Friday evening, the intensity of it all was overwhelming—the color of the sky, the emptiness of the prairie, the quiet roar of my tires on interstate asphalt. I felt like I was driving into someone else’s dream. I’d lived in this area for less than three years, and many more years had passed since I’d had contact with anyone I had known there. Hell, I didn’t even graduate high school in Wichita Falls because my family moved to Corpus Christi the summer before my senior year. The only way I’d known about the reunion at all is because I saw something about it on MySpace, and I wasn’t sure I should go since I wasn’t on the alumni list.
But I wanted to go. For a bit of nostalgia, sure, but also because I wondered if anyone would remember me. My family moved seven times before I left for college, and I hadn’t kept in contact with any of my childhood friends. Because of this I had romanticized these short-term friendships, imagined they were more meaningful than they probably were, and I assumed I was missing out on some essential quality of childhood that less-nomadic kids took for granted. I felt impermanent; if no one from those years remembered me, had I actually lived them? Were the memories real? Did the past exist anywhere else besides my own mind?
And of course there was a girl. There’s always a girl.
* * *
Relationships are mostly about geography.
Your childhood friends are the other kids who live on your block. Or you meet them in homeroom, or they play on your little league baseball team. You don’t choose these friends so much as you happen across them. Often you barely have anything in common at all.
As you get older, the schools get bigger, and it’s easier to meet people like yourself. In college you enroll in certain classes, you join certain clubs, you’re invited to certain parties. You aggregate and congregate and build relationships based on shared interests and attitudes instead of coincidence.
But in adulthood your world social world tends to shrink again. You work in this office and live in that apartment building. You pick up friends here and there, at work or at church or on your flag football team, and maybe you don’t realize the best friend you never had lives three blocks away. You both shop at the same grocery store and play the same golf course, but for nothing more than probability, you’ll never meet.
Now think about your very best friends—the few who understand you better than anyone else, the ones you practically share a brain with—and consider the astronomical odds you overcame to even meet them in the first place.
* * *
I wasn’t driving to Wichita Falls completely blind. I’d chatted on Facebook and MySpace with a few people who planned to be there. At the first event, a Friday night football game, the organizer of the reunion recognized me. I hadn’t known her in school, but that evening she smiled at me and made me feel welcome.
Inside the stadium, the night was bright and cold. Fans, thousands of them, were huddled under red and black blankets. I was expecting some kind of fanfare, a whole section of cheering alumni impossible to miss, but it turned out there was only a handful of us. Eventually I found another familiar face, an online friend, and sat next to him. I had known of him in school, but only vaguely. I’m not sure he remembered me.
Only a fraction of the graduating class made it to the game. The girl wasn’t one of them. And if she had been there, I probably wouldn’t have spoken to her. Not only because it was cold and everyone was rooted to their seats, but because I was mortified she wouldn’t remember me. She had been one of the most popular girls in school, and certainly among the most beautiful. I was awkward and painfully shy, my face burned with acne, a kid who appeared in the middle of ninth grade and disappeared before graduation. I knew her peripherally for a couple of years, and then, during my last semester before moving away, we sat next to each other in English class. She was the only pretty girl I’d ever found the courage to speak to, and every day I made her laugh. In my yearbook she wrote how nice it was to finally to get to know me, and thanked me for being so sweet to her. I allowed myself to believe, had I found the courage to ask her out, that she would have said yes.
* * *
Social networking sites recognize the problem of geography. Not only can you meet people of like interests, but you find them all over the world. The larger population makes it more likely you might meet a best friend or even a soul mate…at least in theory. The reality is a bit different because online personas don’t always match up with their real world counterparts. Often the qualities you imagined made the two of you so perfect for each other turn out to not really exist, or at least not the way you hoped. And since attraction is fickle, your online friend might be no more of a match than someone you stumbled across by chance in the real world.
And so we’re back to that random encounter, the probability-defying instance where you meet a person that, friend or lover, is the missing piece of the puzzle that is you. It’s not difficult to recognize a person like this. All it takes is a single conversation. And it’s the same where romance is concerned. Love isn’t a look across a room. Lust is a component of love, yes, but if that’s all you’re working with, you’re missing the real magic.
Because of the sheer math involved, we don’t meet these puzzle pieces often. You never know how or when it might happen. And when it comes to love, we often aren’t willing to wait. Circumstances trick us into assigning greater meaning to most of our romantic relationships than what is really there. This may be why friendships often last a lifetime, but marriages don’t fare as well. There isn’t as much pressure to force friendship as there is love. Your biological clock doesn’t care much about your friends. It wants you to find a mate, and the sooner the better.
* * *
I was only sixteen years old when I sat next to the girl in English class, but if she had wanted to get married I probably would have asked her. I couldn’t imagine being drawn to a person more than I was to her. But of course I was too young to understand that a pretty face and a kind smile don’t equal a match. In fact, it was a long, long time before I finally figured this out.
The day after the football game, Saturday, lunch was held in the high school cafeteria. Many more alumni showed up, and I saw plenty of recognizable faces. A guy I played basketball with. A guy who had lived in my neighborhood. Both of these men recognized me, and though they seemed more surprised than pleased to see me, I was nevertheless relieved. Their acknowledgment meant I really had gone to school with these people, that my memories weren’t built from illusion after all. The long hallways and institutional staircases and antiseptic smells were all familiar. These people and this place were my past, and they were real.
And then I saw her. Actually I first noticed her voice. The tone was a little deeper than I remembered, but unmistakable nonetheless. After a moment I made eye contact with her, and I thought her gaze lingered a bit, but maybe I only imagined it. She was as popular as ever. It seemed as though people were lining up to talk to her. I assumed at some point she might be left alone, a tiny window where I could approach her, but it never happened. She was in constant conversation the entire lunch, and even during the mingling period that followed.
One thing I should make clear: I wasn’t there to meet this girl in a romantic way. Far from it. But I couldn’t imagine leaving the reunion without speaking to her, not before I could compare my memories of her to the reality of the woman she had become. As the afternoon wore on, however, doing so became less and less likely. She was never alone, not even for a moment. What could I do? Walk up while she was talking to someone else and wait for them to stop? The past pulled on me like gravity, weighing me down, rooting me to where I stood. Not once during my nearly three years in this school had I asked any girl on a date.
I thought about giving up, walking away, but instead I summoned all the confidence I could muster and approached her. She glanced at me and then continued her conversation with this other person. Seconds ticked by, maybe minutes, and my skin began to crawl. Had I made a mistake? Did she recognize me at all?
Finally, she was free. She smiled the same smile I remembered and extended her hand. I shook with her and introduced myself, watching for recognition to flicker in her eyes the way it had with the other friends I had discovered here.
But no recognition appeared. She didn’t remember me. She even apologized for not remembering.
We talked for a while afterward, close to a half hour, about various political and cultural topics. It was a fine conversation, but we didn’t share similar views on very many things. Eventually we climbed into our cars and drove our separate ways, and that night, when dinner and drinks were served, when tables were cleared to make room for a dance floor, I made no effort to speak to her again.
* * *
I’m not sure I learned anything intellectually by attending the reunion, because what occurred there is pretty much what I expected. But I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything. It’s one thing to tell yourself how you should feel about a situation, but something else altogether to live it.
Because while it’s true that reality for each of us exists only in our own minds, the magic of being human are the odd and daily experiences you share with someone else.
“I got beaten by a fairy,” I said to David, the New York City Marathon finish line director, after I crossed the finish mats, wondering if I was going to puke. A worker put a medal around my neck. I talked instead of puking.
“I ran as hard as I could but the fairy beat me,” I said, and peeled off to the celebrity exit. I felt like weeping. I always do after a marathon, good or bad – it’s a flood, the emotion, the stuff you’ve kept pent up for a few hours because you’re concentrating on running, that stuff takes the easy way out, which is release by weeping. With David I didn’t worry about weeping or not making sense, because he’s seen a good half million marathoners finish and must have talked to a thousand of them. Or listened to them. Or danced away from their puke.
So he didn’t bite on the fairy thing. “Good job,” he said, “Good job. Looks like you’re in under five.”
“It sucks,” I said, drawing my mylar blanket around me, “I blew up. Groin. Groin blew up. Yesterday I told you hamstrings, but it was the groin. And I got beaten by a fairy.”
“Go up to the celebrity tent.”
He led me to a gap in the fence, where orange-jacketed workers checked out my secret stickers, and let me through. I had only had a couple of hundred feet to go and lots of attendants, because I was a celebrity, and we got special treatment before the race and after it, even though what happened during it was up to us. The other celebrities were real celebrities, like P Diddy, or they were friends of the sponsors, or they were like me, one of the guys in the racing business, getting what amounted to professional courtesy. Celebrity status at this race covered a lot of ground, and although I liked what it promised, I had been ambivalent about it because most of the other celebrities were not serious runners. Evidently I wasn’t either, because I’d just been beaten by a fairy.
At the moment, though, I felt like a celebrity. Someone offered me water. A man draped my arm over his shoulder and walked me away from the gate. Another person clipped my timing chip off and thanked me. A woman walked me up the path, looked at me carefully and asked if I was all right. I knew she meant was I physically all right, so I said I was fine and didn’t need anything. At the tent a young woman led me to the bags and found mine for me.
“Can I take anything out of it for you?” she said while handing it to me.
“No, I’m fine. But thank you.”
I wasn’t fine. What I meant was that I wasn’t going to faint, I wasn’t going to puke, my blisters and sore toes were nothing, and my groin didn’t hurt now that I’d stopped running. So I was fine except for the cramps that I knew would be along pretty soon, but in the meantime I could flop down on the Central Park celebrity grass and have some Poland Spring and hope that nobody I knew would find me for a while, wouldn’t out me and my dogshit time, because I wasn’t ready to talk about how much of an idiot I’d been, how I’d forgotten what I knew how to do, that I’d run stupidly and had been beaten by a fairy. Probably.
By this time I was thinking more clearly and wondering if the fairy had really beaten me. Maybe I’d beaten her. I didn’t know for sure, even though when I charged up the last little hill to the finish line, I’d thought that the fairy had been ahead of me, even though I couldn’t see her. The last time I’d seen the fairy she was ahead of me and moving away, but that didn’t mean she’d stayed there. The fairy and I had swapped positions eight or ten times since the 59th Street Bridge, and the last time I’d seen her moving away from me had been back on Central Park South, which had felt a hell of a lot longer at the end of the race than it had when I’d walked down it the night before to get to my free celebrity room in the Sheraton. I’d bet there were a thousand people on that stretch of road, so it was possible that I’d passed the fairy for the last time and hadn’t known it. But in my heart I was sure the fairy had beaten me.
It wasn’t that I wanted to beat the fairy. I wasn’t racing against fairies, or against women in their twenties, which is what I judged her to be. It was more that I didn’t want to be beaten by a fairy. At the time these seemed very different ideas to me, and after it was all over they still seemed different, but I couldn’t have said why. Logically they were identical. Either I beat the fairy or the fairy beat me, or we tied, which I knew hadn’t happened and couldn’t have happened because if I’d gotten into an all-out sprint with the fairy I felt sure I would have kicked her fairy ass, groin or no groin. I wasn’t sure I’d have had the balls to given the fairy an elbow or knocked her into – well, of course not. What had the fairy ever done to me? Nothing.
At least the fairy who beat me was an international fairy – English, because of the Union Jack stitched onto the top of her white fairy costume. I fell in with her on the 59th Street Bridge, just about the time my groin blew up for real. Back on the Pulaski Bridge it had started to go but it hadn’t gone bad until the big bridge. I’d been monitoring it carefully since the halfway point and it’d been deteriorating since then, which was bad because I had 10 miles to go, and had already fallen off the pace, because of the groin. I don’t even like the sound of groin, it’s blunt and ugly. Plus it’s all those little tiny muscles I can’t even remember the names of, little ones so you say, well, who cares about those little guys? Look after your quads and hamstrings and the rest’ll take care of themselves. Except nope.
Too fast, too fast, I couldn’t stop saying to myself, you took it out too fast, you idiot. How could I? Being old and out of racing form and reentering marathoning after twenty years out wasn’t any excuse because I’d known all those things and had meant to be cautious. And I’d even run the race the year before. But, almost unbelievably, I’d started my watch at the gun, and all the way walking and then jogging the 13 minutes it took to get to the actual starting line I hadn’t stopped and reset my watch so I could start it at the line. Me! The professional timer guy, timer of more than a thousand races, of nearly a million runners, making an idiotic mistake trying to time himself. Not starting my watch properly meant I couldn’t judge my pace from the mile markers all along the course.
So I’d run the first ten miles too fast. But I felt good, as I said to my son later, the plaintive cry of the runner who misjudged his fitness badly. When I was young I’d just say, well, I went out too fast so I’ll just have to hang on and maybe I’ll have a good one. Now that I’m old I say, I went out too fast, I’m fucked.
The Fifty-Ninth Street Bridge was the usual mixture of paces. Some runners were attacking it, some were walking, and the rest were passing people or being passed. I was passing people who were walking but about as many people were passing me. When I came up on the fairy I wasn’t too surprised. She wasn’t the only person in costume, although she was the only fairy I’d seen. You don’t really expect costumes in a marathon, because a marathon is serious business. You can get goofs in a marathon, people with stuff written all over their shirts, sometimes funny hats or socks, but not many costumes. But here was a fairy, white with silver trim. She looked good, too; her stride was short and controlled – just right for climbing. I passed her, slowly, wondering if I’d see her again, suspecting that I would.
Back in the pack the runners seem to be part of a giant phase-shifting experiment. We start in the same place, we end in the same place, but at every moment some of us are speeding up, some are slowing down. It’s almost fugal. I saw Nori, the Japanese guy, about every half hour. I came up on another Japanese guy and decided to say konnichi wa, good day, to him. I concentrated on my accent. He was surprised and, I think pleased. I never saw him again so maybe those words, the only words I said before I finished, magically took us so far out of phase that we never fell back in again.
The fairy never turned to look at me, and I never turned to her. I didn’t want to talk to her – it felt as though it would break some kind of spell. I almost did when I passed her in Harlem at the same time we both passed a chubby blue bug, well – something with antennae. I wanted to say, shaking my head, That blue bug is too much, isn’t she? In Harlem I still had hope for my 4:40 or 4:45, because I thought the groin might be easing and I’d be able to speed up even if I had to slow down on the long pull up Fifth Avenue.
The groin. Years ago when I was hanging with some medical guys who referred to people by their complaints.
“Got a toe to see you.”
“Is the tropical ulcer still out there?”
I wanted my groin to get better so I wouldn’t have to find the celebrity doctor, a thoracic surgeon doing volunteer duty. I imagined him calling out from his little tent, I’m ready for the groin.
I walked out to Central Park West to find my son. I was still thinking about the fairy and how I didn’t like being beaten by her. She was probably a fine fairy and on this Sunday she had been the better runner, but she was in costume. There’s a Richard Pryor routine about fighting a guy who knows karate, where he says Kick my ass if you can but don’t be hollerin’ at me while you doin’ it.
That’s how I felt about the fairy. You can clean my clock in a marathon but don’t be doing it in a costume. But is it really that simple? Is that really the problem? It’s not. It’s not really about the fairy. It’s about screwing up when I shouldn’t have, and not liking admitting it to myself.
When I finished, someone put a medal around my neck. I left it on when I went out to the street. I’ve never been one to wear a finisher medal. The year before I hadn’t worn mine, but later David gave me a hard time about it. Everybody wears their medals after this race, he told me, big-time executives wear their medals to work on Monday, with their Armani suits and silk ties, and it’s cool. So I wore mine and yes, everybody said Hey, congratulations. On the street they said it. At the restaurant where I went with my son they said it. At Jet Blue I wasn’t the only one in the lounge wearing one, and they all said it, and we the finishers exchanged glances. In the airplane my seat mates said it. What they all said was, Good job. If I’d run a smart race I’ve have loved it, but all I could think of was, I ran a bad race. I lost control. I was stupid.
I was married then. My wife picked me up at the airport and said, “You’re my hero.”
I said, “I got beaten by a fairy.”
And she looked at me like I was nuts, and I didn’t know what to say, so I said it again, “Don’t you get it? A fucking fairy beat me.”
She said, “Who cares? You’re sixty years old and you ran a marathon faster than a lot of other people did and I don’t know why you’re complaining. How many in your age group?”
I said, “I don’t know. P Diddy beat me, too.”
She said, “You’re old enough to be his father.”
“Christ,” I said, “you don’t understand.”
When we got back to the house I went to my workroom. I didn’t want to do anything childish like throw my medal in a drawer so I hung it on the window latch. The neighbors wouldn’t know what it was, so they wouldn’t tell me I’d done a good job. Then I went out on the net to check the stats. Had I really gotten under 5, as David said?
Shit! No – 5:00:16. Seventeen seconds faster and I’d have been there, not that a sub-5 was anything to brag about.
So much for the absolute time. What about place? Just over six hundred men 60 to 64, and I’d beaten nearly half of them. Not bad. But if I hadn’t been an idiot I could have beaten more of them.
How many runners finished behind me? 8,500. OK, not so bad. I can live with it. But more than twenty thousand finished ahead of me. Bad.
The fairy beat me. Bad. But she deserved the win. So, the truth? Not so bad.
In Alba, Italy’s rain, my hair flattens wet against my skull. Hugging the shopfronts of Via Vittorio Emanuele, I see a white triangular peak in the distance. It could be anything—a downed mountain bowing to commune with this street, the cobblestone river that carved it—except, glowing with rain, it looks to be made of canvas. I know.
I know. It is October. This is Alba. Simple arithmetic: October + Alba = Truffle Fair. Math never smelled so good. I thank the wet heavens for this day off. I am in Italy’s Piedmont region to work the seasonal wine harvest, sleeping in a tent in the garden of the Il Gioco dell’Oca bed-and-breakfast. But today, I am relieved of my grape-picking duties, and the white truffle beckons.
The truffle is an underground fungus of the tuber genus (some call it an underground mushroom), found beneath the bases of oak, linden, poplar, elder, willow, and wild hazelnut, where they establish a symbiotic relationship with the tree. They enjoy a cool soil about eight to ten inches below the earth’s surface. The truffle’s roots are as strong as its perfume. They are incredibly thick and intricate, surrounding the “fruit” or “gleba” with a cortex called a “peridio.” These characteristics vary greatly among the varieties of truffle, distinguishing each gem to the scrutinizing eye of the truffle hunter.
Truffles themselves are surrounded by legend. A famous Italian tale from the Piedmont regionclaims that truffles make their homes in the graves of dissipated gnomes and that their often-irregular shape is a result of the heartbeats of soon-to-be-sleeping plants. Truffle hunters, or “trifolau,” have always had their quirks and secrets, and their own fair share of lore. Often disguised as a man and his dog strolling an autumn hill at night, the trifolau are reputed to walk with lighter steps than the rest of us, and speak only with necessary words. The truffle-sniffing dog or “tabui” is calmer at night (hence, the typical night hunt); also, the night protects the trifolau and tabui from the imploring eyes of others. (Pigs can also be used to detect truffles, but dogs are preferred since they are less likely to eat the reward).
This peak in the distance is the demure cap to Alba’s famed truffle tent. Polar, bearish, the fur on the back of my neck stands up.
Soon, I am at its entrance and, ducking my head like a linebacker preparing to unleash a bone-crunching tackle, I dip my white face into the seas and come up with a salmon, flapping into U, inverted-U, U, inverted-U in my jaws.
Umbrellas woosh open and closed around me, people entering, people leaving. What an indulgent invention the umbrella seems in a tent so connected with the soil—with these personal hand-held awnings, nobody gets wets, and in turn, nobody dries off.
I shudder from the waist up as a dog shedding a rain-sheen onto a business suit or two, and survey this white vacuum of aroma and taste and commerce. Row after row of truffle vendors chat with a clamorous array of buyers, displaying their wares that they dug from deep earth oak tree bases with the aid if their sniffing dogs. And now, these black and white delicacies, the essence of earth and epitome of fungus, lie platter-lit under glass containers, exhumed by the merchants to be held, like their children, to the noses of probable patrons. This is the second coming through a kaleidoscope.The dirty gray rock-like truffles, so much like figs, play their cards close to their chests until the glass container is lifted and aroma spills the room like oil.
There is something in the contained stoicism of a red-bearded man in the tent’s west corner that makes me want to buy a truffle from him. He, unlike the operatically effusive majority, seems to share the wise hermit nature of the truffle itself. He knows. That’s all.
I walk to him, the sea of people and their downward-pointing umbrellas rushing from my heels like jet smoke. His red face, unearthed just this morning perhaps, spreads in a bread-and-butter grin.Wordless, he reaches for his platter, left hand bracing its bottom, right hand poised on the container lid. This is potential energy as it should be. Two steps later, the lid is off, the sweet white truffle smell of soil and mushroom, corn husk and asphalt gift-wraps itself bowless over the back of my head, grabs me my the ears like a schoolyard bully. I am thrown face first into this silver platter’s playground dirt. This is not fair. I’m telling on you. I want my mom.
In what sounds to me like a blubbering cry, I ask, “Quanto per uno?”
He waves his chapped hand over the pile, indicating that I choose my favorite. Always the champion of the underdog, I choose the second one from the top, a battered golf ball of a tartufo boasting the elegance of the clubs that hit it. Red-Beard, with a thumb and forefinger, lifts it from its family litter.It wriggles and wags like a puppy. The next thing I know, it’s in my hand. Its touch is gold and scab, bottlecap and skipping stone.
Once a white truffle touches your skin, a strange symbiosis ignites. A purchase is inevitable, even for those with a psychotic regard for self-denial. Rough, dimpled, irregular, geologic, its bloom waits for contact with a truffle shaver and a quail egg, a plate of ravioli, a loin of venison. I’ve never felt the stirrings of fatherhood before, but…
And just like that, he picks it from my palm as a poppy, weighs it, and writes £80,000 on a slip of blue paper. Forty dollars for an entire white truffle—worth about $1,800/lb. in the U.S.—forty dollars for a tongue’s meditation stone that will span a week’s worth of dinners. I want to weep. I want to pray. I want to, and do, hand him the money, and he proceeds to wrap the sweet baby in a fan of white tissue paper, then places it into a tiny paper bag. I hold the bag to my face and breathe as if hyperventilating, as a horse licking the first or last oats from its feed-bag.
Then Red-Beard, perhaps as penance for his namesake’s pirating, perhaps due to my treasuring of his ware, removes a plum-sized black truffle from another platter, wraps it, and hands it to me without so much as a “Prego.” I match his silence, my hands go numb, my hair most assuredly turning white.I am in a place where the purchase of a white truffle gets a black truffle thrown in for free. This place is Alba, Italy. $19.95 for twenty steak-knives be damned. I reach my bagless hand to Red-Beard and he shakes it, his palm rough as cornflakes, eyelids drooping nearly to the corners of his mouth.
Retreating to the tent’s entrance, the other merchants thrusting, then cradling their truffles under my nose, offering their perfume, my eyes begin to water, my breath shortens, my head spins in a wild vertigo. This is sensory overload at its best, the ripe fungal blossom of the tent tattooing itself into my nostrils. I need to take a breath of rain.
And in a step, stutter, step, I am back in it, iron pencil sky relentless in its spewing. I tuck the truffle bag into my windbreaker’s heart-pocket and make for the bus back to Il Gioco dell’Oca, where the kitchen will hopefully be empty, and my tent, most certainly, saturated.
A bead of sweat pools on the tip of my nose. I want to wipe it, but I can’t move. Light pinwheels around my eyes like a kaleidoscope at a carnival. I hear my breath quickening, but I don’t know why. Other sounds morph into a distant drone punctuated by organ interludes.
Am I in church?
Through pinholes in my delirium, I can see Father Tassio talking behind the pulpit, his hands working the sermon like a potter would clay on a wheel. Behind him, I can see the cross where Jesus bleeds, the holes in his hands pulsing dark tunnels to another dimension. I look away so I’m not sucked into them.
Amanda Wingo draws in her bible. Her pencil scratches into the onion thin paper. I want to be that paper. Want to feel that important to someone.
The organ explodes and my head reels.
Everything fast forwards. The ironwork on the ceiling spins like the inner workings of a Swiss clock racing to get away from time. The stained glass windows shoot daggers of colors that ricochet off pews that are lined up like dominoes. I want to knock them over and watch them tumble, but my hands are too heavy.
I can’t lift my head, either. I am stone – just another Parian figure in the church, albeit one with penny loafers and a navy jumper.
Father Tassio’s words turn to tongues, a belligerent rant that pummels my head like shrapnel. “Shut up,” my mind screams over and over as each word bullet zings me. “Shut up! Shut up!”
Will I go to Hell for my blasphemy? It has to be a pretty big sin to scream shut up at your priest. I don’t care, though. And I wonder what is wrong with me that I don’t care.
Perhaps this is demonic possession. Shelly Meyers, a sixth grader with hair that reminds me of Christmas tinsel, missed three weeks of school one time when she was possessed. I overheard her telling the Barrow sisters all about it in the cafeteria during lunch, though I didn’t understand why the devil would want to make you do things with boys.
I recall a scene from The Exorcist, a movie I’ve watched on cable far too many times. Not the best choice for a second grader, but television is never monitored at either of my homes. Maybe Captain Howdy needs a new little girl and has come for me.
Oh, please, oh, please, don’t let my head spin around like that.
I look over at Jesus. His holes expand and unfold into a blanket of space that covers me.
I knew he’d get me eventually.
I hear a thud,
I have no consciousness.
Am I dead?
Not yet. That would come later.
For now, I am simply nothing.
When I begin to come back, I hear water running. Then I feel something warm and wet on my cheek. A washrag. Steaming terrycloth.
“Are you all right, dear?” she asks with a voice soft as baby powder.
I can’t talk. There’s a boulder in my throat. But I can hear and I can see, though the light of the room makes me squint and washes everything out like an overexposed photograph.
“Breathe,” she says, and I do as I’m told. But my chest expands too quickly. It won’t stop, and I can feel an earthquake somewhere at my core. A chill skitters up my legs to my stomach somehow setting flame to something that erupts.
I vomit on her, but she doesn’t seem to mind. “Don’t you worry about that one bit,” she says, cleaning her skirt.
Mrs. Tassio. I see her clearly now. I’ve thrown up on the priest’s wife.
“Are you all right?” she asks again.
I sit up too fast and almost hurl another, but somehow I will the tsunami in my stomach to recede. Mrs. Tassio puts a cup of water to my mouth and I drink. “Your mother’s on her way,” she informs me. “Is there anything else I can do for you?”
She curls a strand of my hair behind my ear and I feel better, but then the weight of what I’ve done drags me back under. I’ve desecrated the priest’s wife. I don’t know where that ranks in the hierarchy of sins, but I’m sure it must be a doozey. Maybe even worse than telling a priest to shut up, even if I did only say it in my mind.
I start to cry.
“Father Tassio,” I whimper. “I need Father Tassio.”
Mrs. Tassio motions to a girl behind her. The girl approaches and I can see the burn scar that runs along her jaw. I want to touch it; I want to know what the puffy skin feels like. There’s something beautiful about the way it coils from her ear to her chin like a rivulet of secrets. I catch her eyes, and I can tell she misunderstands what I’m thinking because her mouth tightens into an asterisk of anger.
Mrs. Tassio dunks the washrag in a basin of steaming water. “Go get Father Tassio. If he’s not in the church, look in his office.
The girl obeys, throwing me a look on her way out, a look I’d come to know too well over the forthcoming years.
Moments later, Father Tassio returns without the girl. I can’t decide if I’m more relieved that he’s here or that she isn’t. My stomach moans and I roll over on my side. He kneels next to me
“You sent for me?” he whispers, taking my hand. His skin is too soft, it reminds me of someone, and I almost recoil, but then I remember. Father Tassio. My priest.
I squeeze his hand. “I need to confess my sins,” I say.
“What sins could you possibly have, little one?” he asks.
I run down the list, admitting all my indecencies: the time I said shit when I stubbed my toe on the refrigerator, the time I blamed our dog Jenny for breaking my mom’s porcelain vase, the time I gave Milton Hewitt the finger when he splashed me on purpose with his bike.
By the time I get to today’s transgressions, about how I told him to shut up with my mind and how I vomited all over his wife, I hear funny sounds coming from Father Tassio. He sounds like the squeaky gate to the playground. At first I think he’s crying, ever so disappointed in me, but then I notice he’s holding his stomach.
Is possession contagious? Have I contaminated my own priest on top of everything else?
Father Tassio snorts, taking such deep breaths that his nostrils flutter like an accordion.
Mrs. Tassio steps over with a thermometer, but I wave her off.
“My penance. I need my penance.”
Father Tassio can’t talk. He turns completely around in his chair. His belly heaves like a bellow, and he wheezes like my Uncle Ernie’s mule. I look at the ceiling to see if there are any long spears that might fall from the sky, but I only see a brown water ring.
God, if his head spins around, I swear I’ll throw up again.
“Five Our Father’s and five Hail Mary’s,” he finally gets out.
Mrs. Tassio sticks the thermometer in my mouth. “And how many for the priest?” she asks, then thumps him on his head.
A light bulb dangles in a Northridge, California motel room. Streetlights glow through cracks in the blinds. Trembling hands dump a bottle of Bacardi 151 on the head of a shirtless Philip Seymour Hoffman. Said hands strike a match. Enter the flames. The screams.