Friday, June 3, 2011
A boomerang, a broken-heart, angry lesbian therapists and my pill-popping mother...
We of the Broken Hearts Club (gawd, what a bad movie that was) align with our own kind. Those who smoke too much and drink too much to avoid the horrific reality of our own naked, alone existence. I have many friends who are suffering the aftermath of a break-up and let me tell you, motherfuckers -- this is major aftermath.
Someone told me once for every year you are in a relationship it takes a half a year to get over someone. So, basically, by 2018 I'll be all set to sleep with someone and not break out into blubbering sobs or take seven and a half hours to orgasm. Great. Life is good! I can't say I believe this math, but emotionally, right now, it sounds irrationally right.
Every pop song I'm forced to listen to at Duane Reade, every dance song shoved down my throat at every dance club in this country tells me that I have to be my own commander, my own soldier, I have to push ahead and lift my head to face another day. Every time I hear one of these songs I raise my chin and feel a surge of excitement in my breast(s) as I push open the Duane Reade door and walk into the urine-laden muggy, summer city air, saying hi to my fellow scowling New Yorkers, giving money to homeless dogs and children and solider on into the urban landscape which is my home.
Then I see them.
They usually come in pairs. They can be small and may be perched in a tire. Or in their teens and jumping through a round Target store shaped circle, or holding cell phones and skipping in Central Park or old and smiling at the camera as they blow out candles atop a celebration cake.
Of course, I'm talking about happy people and people in love in ads on city busses or on TV in Times Square. The minute a sappy song comes on and the actors pretending to be in love appear I tear up and have to turn away and mutter something horrific, such as "I see dead nuns riding on a bicycle with no bicycle seat" to make me stop from being overly emotional.
The mantra of all love songs and insipid TV ads is the same as the lyrics from the song Smile sung by the incomparable Mr. King Cole...
Smile through your heart is aching...
Smile even though it's breaking...
When there are clouds in the sky, you'll be by...
If you smile through your fear and sorrow...
Smile and maybe tomorrow...
You'll see the sun come shining through for you...
Some people were raised to solider on better than others. I learned to solider one from one thing and one thing only when I was nine years old -- a boomerang.
Now, a fair warning -- I have a sneaking suspicion all of these blog posts will be published in a book in the near future. So if there is an agenda here, it is of 'memoir writing'. I've been reading a lot of memories by gay men lately and they are like eating Wonder Bread. The look good and taste nice, but afterwards you're hungrier for something much more substantial.
Most of these writers discuss their zany and wacky (but lovely) family and their zany and wacky (but domestic and classic suburban) relationship to the point where I wonder, "Is there something wrong with me? 'Cause their reality ain't the reality I had growing up."
I remember years ago I asked a therapist if my family life was normal compared to her other patients. This therapist - let's call her CD -- was a salt and pepper haired older gay woman with a thriving practice in the East Village section of Manhattan.
Looking back, I feel sorry for CD. She met me at my most neurotic. I was living in a dilapidated loft in the East Village, I made $6.00 and hour under the table at a dirty video store in the East Village, I was horribly in debt and had terrible credit, I ate at McDonald's every night and I was living with the kind of Mother rage that would have made Hamlet blush.
I chose her as a therapist because A) She was a woman who looked like my mother. There is no "B". If you knew me at all you'd know "A" was all that was needed to lite this transference powder keg.
In the end, I was more than she could handle. The end came when she came into the office one day looking rather distraught. Now, I'm a very caring man. I am overly caring sometimes. There are days I want to take away everyone's pain, but back then when I was in my mid-20's, it was all I could do to get out of bed and make it through the day. I was what therapist term 'really fucking depressed.' And when you are really depressed, it's very hard to see outside of your own narrow reality no matter how well meaning your intentions.
So when CD came in looking distraught, I immediately said to her, "You know, just because you're upset doesn't mean I have to take care of you. I know that's not my job. Okay?"
What I didn't realize is this person across from me is just that -- a person. And on this day, this person went into full-blown Lose My Shit Mode.
"This isn't always about you," CD bellowed to me. She looked at the ground and shook her head. She jammed her fingers into her hair and let out a huge exhale. And let me tell you -- when a lesbian as big as her exhales it's best you stand back because something is gonna blow.
And oh boy, blow it did.
She bolted up in her chair, pointed her finger at me and screamed until the veins on her neck reminded me of the kind of Red Vines licorice you'd buy at the movies. "I had a death in my family today! I'm suffering too you know! You're not the only one who feels!"
I felt like a bucket of cold water had been splashed on me, aka, Catholic guilt. "I'm sorry I didn't know. Who?"
I sat up in my chair. She had a daughter? "Oh my God. How..."
She shook her head and looked away, her clenched fist cupped at her mouth. "She ran out into the street, she didn't see the car coming..."
"CD...I...I...I"m sorry I didn't ask you about your child."
"Yes, they are like children aren't they? When we got her from the pound she was so small."
She pulled her fist away from her mouth and took one step towards me. In a flash I saw my drugged up and wine filled mother from my youth advancing on me and felt my balls rise up into my body. The beginnings of a full-blown panic attack was starting and all I knew was I had to get out of the room -- now.
CD glared at me and screamed, "She was my dog, okay? My dog! She was the most perfect Doberman Pincher there ever was. I'm sorry it wasn't a child but it was a child, Michael! And to answer your earlier question, no, Michael, you're family was inordinately fucked up. They were a mess and regardless of what you may think, most people are happier than you. Okay?"
I stood up. "Okay, well, I think we're done here." I ran to the door and pulled it open.
CD ran to my side. "I'm sorry, Michael. I lost my shit. I'm sorry. Stay."
"We can work this out. Please don't leave. Please."
"I can't," I said. "I just can't".
I ran out of her office that day and never looked back. I was too afraid to work through our small disagreement.
But of course, her words stuck with me. And as time marched on and I got older and went to more and more and more therapy, I learned she was right.
I came from a really fucked up family.
I grew up in a suburb of Seattle. It was a tiny town with a population of less than twenty thousand. It wasn't a farming town but it was rural white trash. We had one strip in the center of town where there was one of everything. It was walkable and white trashy cute.
Of course, I now live in a town in Queens, a sorta-suburb of New York City, that looks exactly like my home town. Your past is like herpes - no matter how much you try to cover it up it never, ever goes away.
My Mother and Father were friends with The Hardy's, our neighbors who lived nearby. Edna Hardy was a short woman, no taller than five feet four inches tall. She was very pretty, her hair a bright, fiery red that fell over her shoulders like silk over a summer lounge chair.
And she also has the biggest tits I'd ever seen.
But not just any tits. She was the kind of woman for whom the term Torpedo Tits was created. I used to watch my father around Edna at parties and neighborhood gatherings. Whenever she would talk to him he'd run his hand over her neck and stare intently into her eyes.
"Jesus Christ, Edna really loves her tits, doesn't she?" My mother said to me one winter day as we walked back to our house after a party at The Hardy's.
I was nine at the time. She glared over her shoulder at the Hardy's house. "The woman doesn't have a brain cell in that red head of her's but she's sure got a great pair of knockers. I'm telling you, those aren't naturally that high. It's all about the bra, sonny boy, all about the bra. God, Edna and her tits. See how you father was afraid to look at them? Men. All the same, all the goddamn same."
Remember what I wrote about how gay men wax poetically at how perfect their mothers were and how wonderful they were and how divine they are? Well, my mother was what you'd call a saucy dame. Sure, she was mentally ill, but who doesn't have a few personalty quirks!
My Mother had a great Bullshit Detector. She taught me how to smell someones bullshit a mile off. Many times she used to tell people off and many times she lost friends because of it. I had the same issues up until recently. I now know how to be polite and observe social etiquette. But get a couple glasses of wine in me and get ready to hear the truth weather you like it or not.
Saints are boring and belong in fantasies. My mother was real. God bless those other writers for having such well-balanced and loving families and mothers. I'll take my turbulent and truly crazy one any day of the week.
Back to the story -- so the Hardy's had a son...we'll call him Paul. And Paul was a shit. He hated me. He was exactly the same age as me. He had light blond hair and very thick eyebrows. His eyes were green and his face seemed to cave inward, as if his nose were being sucked into his face. It gave him an impressively devilish look. He scared the shit out of me.
One night he asked me if I wanted to come and play. I said sure.
It was the summer of 1978. The music of the Bee Gee's, Commodores and Olivia Newton-John filtered out into the crisp, summer air from open windows off of tiny AM radios. I grew up in a white trash neighborhood so no one could afford an actual stereo. All we had were radios from Fred Meyer, a local trashy store that sold shit on the cheap.
I was an awkward kid. I never knew how to play with other kids. I preferred to stay at home and watch old movies with my father or sit on the couch and count how long it would take for my mother to pass out from one too many Valium and glasses of wine.
I met Paul and a few other neighborhood kids as the sun started to set.
Paul took me and the other kids behind a small, Ranch-style house at the end of the block. He had something poking out of his back pocket I couldn't quite see. Night was falling and with the arrival of night came the arrival of something I dreaded almost more than puberty: bats.
For reasons I'm still unclear on, in the summer my hometown became home to numerous bats only at sundown. They would circle in the sky in figure eight's and make small, whimpering sounds. It freaked me out and Paul and his bully buddies knew it.
So when Paul and his friends invited me to see the new backyard at a neighbors, I should have been more suspicious. But I was a trusting child and trusting children almost never make it unscathed through childhood.
Into the backyard we went. It was nearly dark. The sky was a pale ash and light blue. Paul pointed to the tips of the trees behind the house (having grown up in the Pacific Northwest, soaring trees were as common to me as hypodermic needles are to kids growing up in The Bronx). Atop the trees was a swarm of bats. But not just a swarm.
"A super swarm", Paul said, his voice filled with wonder and a touch of malice. I felt my throat clamp shut. My palms were sweating and I wanted to pee.
Paul reached into his back pocket and took out the object I'd seen earlier. He handed it to me. "Go ahead, Mike", he said, his eyes never leaving the Super Swarm. "You know you wanna."
In his hand was a black and yellow striped boomerang. My heart skipped a beat.I felt a rush of adrenaline as I looked up at the black, whimpering bats in the air. Paul was right. I did want to. But I was a good boy. I was raised a good boy. I did well in school, I helped old women across the street, I never cursed and I always ate my vegetables.
But boy oh boy did I want to nail those fucking bats.
I'd learned a few years prior my Percoset loving mother may have been an addict but she was a fun addict and politely rebellious. She said she had the manners of a nun but the mouth of a sailor. I had a sneaking suspicious I was the same, but I had yet to dip my toe into those overly rebellious waters.
"I hate them," I said aloud.
Paul smiled and then took four steps back, his shoes lost in the thick, uncut dirty grass beneath his feet. For some reason in white trash neighborhoods, people never mow their lawn. Our neighborhood wasn't the exception. If you dug deep enough you could find washer's and dryers and maybe a charcoal grill or two.
Paul licked his lips. "Throw it, Mike."
I looked up at the bats. I was lost in their swirling, chaotic mass. I turned my body to the side, bent my wrist and as I'd seen on TV, flicked my arm back and snapped it forward and let the boomerang fly.
It made a sound not unlike that of a coat zipper being pulled quickly apart as it flew threw the air and headed straight into the center of the Super Swarm. The bats scattered, emitting a spine-tingling scream. They furiously dove into the trees and out of site...and so did the boomerang.
I turned to look at Paul. "I thought the boomerang was suppose to come back."
Paul shrugged his shoulders. "That's what my Dad said. I dunno."
"But I just threw it over the trees. Wouldn't it --"
I heard Paul scream. He sounded like a three year old girl. A terrified three year old girl. He was pointing at me, his finger shaking.
I noticed it was getting very dark very quickly. I looked up at the sky and saw it was still the normal grey, light blue...and I also noticed something sticking out of my forehead.
It was the boomerang. It had returned.
And it had lodged straight between my eyes.
Being the heroic boys they were, Paul and his Posse ran as fast as they could away and out of sight. I stood alone in the middle of the quite back yard. I wasn't sure what to do next.
I looked at the grass and as I did, the boomerang gently dislodged itself from my forehead and fell into the dirty lawn with a soft thud.
I realized I should probably go home and tell my Mom and Dad what had happened. I knew Paul would make me the cause of the entire thing and I'd be in trouble.
As I walked home, I remember thinking, Why is it so dark?
I was confused and afraid of what my punishment would be at home. I walked up the small, concrete driveway leading to my house and I noticed my parents cars were gone but my sister was home.
At the time I was 14 years old and she was 24 and in college. She had come to raid the refrigerator had no idea I was out playing with my friends. My sister openly detested my Mother and it wasn't until many, many years later (and much more therapy) I realized she may have a point to her pain. Every time she'd come to visit doors would be slammed, tears would be shed and silence would follow after.
Up to the front door I walked and opened the door. My sister saw me from inside the house and ran out to greet me. I saw my Mother in the kitchen. She was making dinner and looked annoyed doing so. My Mother detested the fact she had to feed us. She felt takeout should suffice and was sick and tired of having to feed her brood.
To my mother, eating high on the hog was a burger with pickles and a open container of cottage cheese with a spoon stuck in the center. Oh, and if she was feeling generous, she's open a can of green beans as well and sprinkle them with canned Parmesan cheese.
No holding back in the Bryan household!
My sister opened the door. I remember she had an ice cream cone in her hand. When she saw me she dropped the ice cream cone. It plopped on the carpet floor right as my Mother started screaming.
My next memory is of my sister grabbing my hand and pulling me into her yellow Volkswagen Bug. She gunned the engine and peeled out from the driveway of our house (peeling out in a Volkswagen Bug in the 70's was no small feat) and drove me straight to Edmond's Hospital, a fairly large small town hospital a few miles away.
I remember the face of the ER nurse as me and my sister walked into the hospital. I'd never seen a person turn absolutely white before. She looked like a ghost.
She grabbed me and pulled me into an examination room and it was only as I passed a long mirror on the wall leading into the room I saw my face: it was coated with deep, red blood. Rivulets of it continued to pulse and fall down my face and neck. I was a living, breathing horror movie.
The doctor cleaned me up, sat me down on the exam table and told me and my sister he couldn't put the stitches in unless I had no Novocaine. Now, my memory may or not may be right here, but I do remember it was either as the stitches were being put IN or taken OUT that no Novocaine could be used.
Those details don't matter. What matters was that my sister, God bless her, sat there and held my hand as the doctor poked me again and again without the use of Novocaine. My Mother, of course, was at home popping pills to cope with this trauma that had mysteriously been inflicted upon her.
Oh, my Mother was a practicing nurse, by the way.
What was that part about my family being fucked up?
It was on that day, as I felt the needle going in and out of my skin I realized that even in the worst of times, it's possible to make it through the pain and come out the other side.
I am reminded of this every time I look in the mirror. Wedged between my eyes is a thin scar. Doctors tell me it will never go away and back in the 70's my doctor told me I missed losing an eye by a quarter of an inch.
If I can make it through that...and my Mother...I can make it through my new divorce and onto bigger brighter days.