My mother died when I was two days old. I hate cars. I string those two sentences together because anyone who’s ever even audited a freshman seminar in psychology would do so. My mother was killed in an automobile accident. I hate cars. It’s not rocket science, at least not from an easy analysis.
My dislike of cars actually goes far deeper than that. I didn’t actually learn how my mother had died at the time. I was, after all, two days old. It wasn’t something that was in my comprehension. There was a change from breast milk to formula that was abrupt and the person from whom I’d taken the most comfort was gone. At least, that’s what seems obvious in retrospect. I was two days old—I don’t really remember. Would you?
At any rate, the story I want to tell is neither about my mother nor really about cars, although, like any modern story, cars will be in it. They can’t help themselves. They’re like television, ubiquitous. The reason I wanted to start with my mother and my loathing of cars is pretty self-serving. I’ve been accused (not unfairly) of having very detached narrators when I write in the first person. And, after several drafts of this story, I’ve certainly seen that to be the case. Hell, I even sound fairly detached in what I’ve told you thus far. I’ve presented facts, but not my reactions to those facts. That will come later. I promise.
In this story, it’s essential that my narrator not be detached. Usually, my narrator is an idealized version of me. He’s not idealized so much in that he’s a perfect human being. Far from it. My narrators are often wildly flawed human beings. They are idealized in that they aren’t dramatically affected by the characters around them. The epiphanies always belong to the characters surrounding the narrators. The narrators are solid, steady, unchanging, God-like.
And if you re-read that paragraph, you’ll have received much greater insight into me than the bit about my mother and cars, although one follows from the other. Figuring out how might actually require having completed a freshman course in psychology, but not much more. As complex as I like to pretend to be, my inner workings aren’t that difficult to fathom.
So why is it important to me that I not be so detached narratively from this story? Good question. This is the story of my life, or rather, the story of the most important events of my adult life. This story is the story that shaped who I am today, so I believe it’s important for me to actually put on prominent display the organ that pumps blood to the rest of my body. And you, dear reader, may think this is done for you, that I may craft the best story possible. It’s not. I have far more vanity than that. It is for me. It is for me, because even though I’m not very difficult to understand, I don’t understand me.
While you can stare at my heart and apply basic Freudian principles to it (or Jungian or whatever school you prefer) and reach conclusions easily, I’ve not yet been able to do that. I could probably look at your signature alone and analyze you inside and out with shocking precision and you’d think me some prophet or remarkable astrologer or something of the sort. My brain works that way. It did even before I took a ridiculous number of classes in psychology (which I mention not as a way of indicating my prowess, but rather to illustrate something else; can you figure it out?). My signature, incidentally, is precisely illegible. It varies little from signing to signing, but is basically unreadable as anything other than a bold squiggle with specific instances of straight lines and dots.
I’ve committed a cardinal sin of writing, by the way. I’ve told you much, but showed you very little. That will change. I promise. My reason for telling you all of the above is purely selfish. I am printing out the above and highlighting certain sentences and taping it to the wall next to my computer. Every time I find my narrator growing too distant, bold swaths of iridescent yellow will hurt my eyes until I admit to falling back into old, bad habits. Come to think of it, I think I’m going to go to a party supply store and buy a nun costume. Just for the habit, mind you. If writing while wearing a nun’s habit doesn’t remind me constantly not to fall back into bad habits, nothing will. So I’ll be back in a few hours and I’ll start telling you the story I wanted to tell you.
Oh. I can be impetuous sometimes. Just not in my signature. Okay. Watch a football game or something. Or better, go climb a tree. I’ll bet it’s been a long time since you climbed a tree. You’re overdue. If you climb a tree, I’ll put on the full nun costume and climb a tree, too. In public. Okay? Is it a deal? Good. I’ll see you back here in a few hours.
Okay, I’m back. Are you? Good. Let’s get started. Oops. Hang on a second. My roommate wants to know why I’m wearing a nun outfit and why my hands are all scraped up and where the hell I’ve been. Okay, so she’s my lover. I probably shouldn’t conceal that. Her name is Magda. Well, really, it’s Margaret, but I call her Magda, and that’s a long story and it’s actually relevant to the story as a whole, so I’ll let it come out in natural order. Oh, and she’s not real. Nobody in this story is, except you and me. Standard disclaimers about this being a work of fiction apply. Anyway, she wants to know about the costume and all that. And hopefully, we’ll have sex.
If sex bothers you, by the way, you should probably pick up a different book. I like sex. A lot. And sometimes, I describe it in fairly explicit terms. So if that’s not your kind of reading, you might want to pick up a different book. I could leave the sex out of it, but I’d be lying, mostly to myself, if I did that. So I hope sex doesn’t bother you. It’s important to this particular story. Okay, she’s getting annoyed because I’m still typing and saying, “Just a minute, I’m almost done.”
How was the tree?
Hi. I’m back. The sex was good, thank you. Magda decided it might be fun for her to wear the costume and she was right.
You didn’t climb the tree at all, did you?
Sorry, the whole tree thing kind of pissed me off, so I took another break. I have a habit (there’s that word again) of trying to control other people. See, the thing is, I know what’s good for you. Really, I do. I don’t always (okay, ever) know what’s best for me, but I’m good at figuring out what other people need, and it irritates me when they can’t see it for themselves. That’s called projection, you know. That’s probably about chapter three of the freshman psychology text. Anyway, don’t mind me if I get petulant and pouty when you don’t do something that I suggest you do. I’ll get over it. I always do. And if I don’t, you’ll eventually leave me like everyone else always does. Everyone but Magda, and like I said, she doesn’t really exist.
You know what I’m really doing when I take all these little breaks? I’m having a cigarette out on my porch and wondering where the hell the story is going to go next. That’s God’s honest truth. Or maybe not.
Do these little asides bother you? I think they’d piss me off. I’d probably have stopped reading by now. I’d realize that it was the author’s way of hiding from the truths he’s supposedly trying to reveal.
Let me say this in my defense. I like being enigmatic, not letting anyone get too close. That’s part of who I am. It’s a defense mechanism. Because everyone goes away. Eventually, they all do. You will, too. You’ll finish this book and then you’ll move on to something else. If I’m lucky, you’ll like the book and maybe recommend it to your friends and maybe keep it on your bookshelf and come back to it from time to time. If you’re one of those people, I love you.
Hi, it’s good to see you again. How have you been?
I’m going to tell you now a few truths about myself. There will be other times that I’ll tell you truths about myself. Well, one truth anyway for now, as I don’t have time for more. I’m married. I have two kids. One of them just woke up my wife and she’s irate. She’s asked me to stop writing and watch the kids so she can go back to sleep. So I’m going to shut down the computer for a while. I’ll be back after several more cigarettes and I’ll probably masturbate between now and then, too.
There are still lots of trees to climb. I’m very serious about this. Go. You have time.
I didn’t get to masturbate. Did you get to climb the tree? Magda, by the way, is very angry with me now. She can’t believe that I’d write that I have a wife and two kids. “Show them to me,” she said. But I can’t.
Look, I’m going to tell a lot of lies to you while writing this. That’s what fiction is. But hopefully, I’ll be able to reach some deeper truths. That would make it good fiction, and maybe it’s presumptuous of me to believe I can write good fiction, but I’m going to try.
There is only one thing you can know. You know that you exist, just as I know that I exist. Beyond that is a crapshoot. That’s basic philosophy right there. DesCartes. “I think, therefore I am.” I will probably make lots of references like this to make you think that I’m well educated and intelligent. The fact is, though, that I have smatterings of knowledge in a plethora of areas, but no deep knowledge in any one. And that sums me up pretty well. I seem very well-rounded, but I’m actually pretty shallow.
That probably doesn’t instill a lot of confidence in you to continue reading, does it? Hopefully, I can at least be moderately entertaining. Why did the monkey fall out of the tree? Because it was dead. And that, my friend, is about as basic as it gets.
I didn’t actually take a break this time, but since I’m going to go in another direction now, the section break seemed appropriate. Ha! As if you weren’t already having to sort through what’s true and what isn’t true, now you have to deal with the conventions themselves. I really am an asshole sometimes. That’s something that Christy used to tell me a lot. Well, actually, she referred to me as a dumbass, but it’s kind of the same thing, isn’t it? Christy’s going to play a very major part in this story, perhaps the biggest part. Every time I started to believe she was the most important character in the story during previous writing sessions, though, Magda popped up and became more important. And vise versa. The story originally was about Magda and was supposed to be only about five pages long, if that. Twenty-five pages about Christy later, Magda had barely entered the scene. So I don’t know. They’ll both be important parts of the story. And knowing me, now that I’m on yet another draft, someone else will come in and assert her dominance. (It won’t be a male; I don’t know men very well. Does anyone?)
Ah, there was a direction I was going to go with this section and the preceding paragraph wasn’t it. Sooner or later, I should probably cease inserting every thought I have about the writing of this story. I’ll try to keep aware of that. Self-conscious writing isn’t generally very interesting to anyone but the person who wrote it, is it? So for the next thousand words at least, I promise not to refer to the writing itself, but rather will just show you the events as they transpired. Does that sound good? Okay.
I hope you didn’t climb a tree during that last break, since it wasn’t really a break at all. This next break isn’t really a break either, so feel free to read without revisiting your inner child. Why don’t you get a beer, though? You deserve one. Go ahead.
Police officers, at least in this town, don’t have a sense of humor about men dressed as nuns climbing trees. You wouldn’t think such a thing would be illegal, but apparently it’s enough to cause stringent questioning. I don’t really want to go into the details, but I had to have someone bail me out of jail earlier today. And Magda couldn’t do it, because she doesn’t really exist. I had to have her ex-husband bail me out.
Charles lives just down the block from me and we’ve developed an uneasy friendship over the years. I dated his daughter when she and I were both students at Northwestern University. At one point, I felt fairly confident that we would marry. Charles did, too. I don’t know about his daughter. We never actually discussed marriage. She just felt like “the one,” and Charles told me later that he saw something between the two of us that he hadn’t seen exist in any of her other relationships.
We didn’t get married. There are lots of reasons for that, including one big one. The big reason is the crux of the story, though, so I’d be jumping the gun to go into it here. (That wasn’t too self-aware, was it? Oops, this parenthetical remark certainly was. Sorry about that.)
At any rate, Charles bailed me out of jail. I owe him five hundred dollars now. I have no idea how much I owe the costume rental place, but between climbing trees, going to jail, and having sex with Magda while she wore the costume, I doubt they’d accept it back in its current condition. So I own the nun outfit now. Which isn’t all bad. Sex with Magda was really, really good while she wore it.
Charles doesn’t know that Magda is my lover, by the way. He knows I play cello and didn’t start playing cello until after I met his daughter, though. The first time he saw the cello in my house, he raised an eyebrow, but that was about it.
We have dinner together once a week, every Sunday night. We’ve done this ever since the first day I met him. Initially, we always ate at his house, but after a few years, we started alternating who hosted the dinner. It seemed unfair that he always had to cook, although I know he enjoys cooking. And I like having him over to my house, and so does Magda, even though he never sees her. She didn’t like it at first, but she’s grown accustomed to it.
Charles is a minister at the Methodist church here in town. He does a good job. I go to his services every week. Does that surprise you? It surprised me the first time that I realized I was going because I was getting something out of the services. I’ve been going for nineteen years now. Charles isn’t very charismatic, and I don’t always agree with the messages he takes from the text, but I find comfort in his sermons nevertheless.
Charles is a good friend, the only male about whom I can truthfully make that statement. I think seeing me in jail in the nun’s habit bothered him, though. He’d never say as much, but I could tell. He raised that eyebrow again, just like when he first saw the cello.