I’m watching him in the video monitor, but naturally he doesn’t know he’s being watched. The second you put this kid down for nap, he starts his calisthenics routine. He’s up. He’s down. He’s spinning in circles with his fists full of binkies. He’s like a chubby Gold’s Gym instructor who works out in a potato sack. This potato (a.k.a “sleep”) sack restricts the kid’s leg movements, but he’s still able to bunny hop from one side of the crib to the other. He sings the ABC song in his trademark slur. He halfheartedly calls for his grandmother, but only because he likes the sound of her name. I think about pressing the Talk button on the monitor and saying, “This is the voice of God. Stop squirming around, peepee pants.” But to this kid, God is just another adult who will have to retrieve his binkie if he throws it over the side of the crib in order to evade his nap. So the gods do not interfere with this child and his deranged projects behind bars. In thirty minutes, when the kid’s body finally goes still in the monitor, I sit and watch the lump.
Yesterday I was rolled up in a blanket watching a mildly entertaining television program when this marketing atrocity came on the air. It started off like a prescription drug commercial or something. A white, middle-aged professional walks hand in hand with his smiling eight- or nine-year-old daughter through an affluent, suburban neighborhood. She might have a backpack on. Maybe she’s got a bow in her hair. In any case it’s a pleasant father/daughter bonding stroll, perhaps to catch the school bus, UNTIL the adolescent boys in the neighborhood catch sight of this nine-year-old girl and are suddenly whipped into a sexual frenzy. They start shaking and salivating. They’re losing their GD minds over this girl. They can’t resist chasing after her—while she’s with her father, mind you—and telling her how horny they are over the picket fence line.
At this point the burrito that is my body has gone completely frozen. Is this commercial really sexualizing a young girl? But it gets worse. Through some miracle of our digital age, the girl’s body morphs into that of a labrador puppy. On a leash. Because this whole time—joke’s on us—the father has actually been walking his female puppy, not his human daughter. And the young neighborhood rapists who were harassing the father’s human daughter actually wanted to have sex with the father’s puppy, who is apparently in heat and giving off all kinds of lustful signals. Because the rapists were also dogs, all along. And then the advertising geniuses behind this blizzard of bad ideas arrive at their triumphant message: spay your pets.
I don’t know why I should object to this commercial because it hits all the notes that usually wield a positive influence on my decisions: pedophilia, bestiality, slut-shaming, and sexism. Consider the lesson learned. If I ever have a daughter I’m going to make damn sure she doesn’t walk to school wearing some revealing cardigan sweater that might provoke the carnal appetites of neighborhood males following their instincts. My little girl can’t help being sexy as hell, but I can at least put a leash on her and sew her vagina shut. That is how things work in the animal kingdom. Spay your pets, people.
You’re becoming too much of a celebrity. Cloistered and out of touch. All your shoes are unattainably expensive. You have the physical dimensions of a fruitatarian fashion model. You own houses in places that would have fallen into the sea ten years ago if money hadn’t intervened. And the boys are no longer on your side.
Why not? My stylist has been lowering the necklines of all my formal gowns.
You have a reputation for being a prude.
That’s hurtful. You know I have always been a closed system. It’s just how I operate as an artist.
That works for novelists and schizophrenics, but if you want to remain a power player in the music industry, you need to make some changes in your lifestyle before consumers turn on you.
But I surprise and delight my fans all the time by showing up unexpectedly at their Bat Mitzvahs and baking them cookies and things.
True, but it’s like watching a baby snow leopard leave her zoo enclosure and pretend to enjoy a shopping spree at Wal-Mart. It just looks off. And creepy. It doesn’t help that you lack friends in real life.
But I have lots of friends in real life.
My mom. My dad. The attractive Latin woman who does my hair. Sometimes my fellow celebrities and I exchange mutual admiration on Twitter. I always sign glossy photos with “xoxo.”
But female friends go shopping for makeup together and they have secrets and sleepovers and they take hilarious selfies and have inside jokes and defend each other against evil boys. Your fans need to feel that you’re best friend material. If you’re best friend material, then they can potentially squeeze in there. If you’re a hothouse flower, then you’re just another millionaire idol, and idols fall every day.
Of course I’m best friend material. I just haven’t met anyone who really gets me yet. Someone who shares my drive and ambition. People should be allowed to communicate through personal websites and music videos. That’s what Bey and I do.
Would you feel comfortable calling her Bey in person?
Here’s the thing. From an outsider’s point of view, your world is becoming more rarefied by the minute. You’re transitioning from being an earnest, vulnerable young woman with relationship problems into an omnipotent robot with a hundred burned bridges and twice as many tubes of red lipstick. So I brainstormed this list of famous women who are considered sincere and down-to-earth—and who maintain loyal fan bases within the blogosphere. If you can be seen disporting with these women on social media and if you mention them enough in magazine interviews, noncompetitively, people will forget that you’re a snow leopard and an emotionally stunted former child star and they’ll want to buy your next album.
I’ll do whatever you say. You’re my best friend.
I’m your 63-year-old male publicist.
But you sent me that Dean & Deluca gift basket.
Please don’t make me wear sneakers.
You can still wear your Louboutins. Just get photographed tripping in them every now and again. Clumsy girls scream “relatable.”
What are you doing now? Do you want to go for a drive in my Town Car? Do you want to come over and watch Dance Moms?
I thought we talked about this.
You’re right. I’m sorry. Just give me the list.
“Tighten up, Felicia,” says Felicia. “Two more houses and you’re done.” She wrings the sweat from her bandit mask then stuffs it into the pocket of her stretchy jeans. How long has her fly been down? “These stretchy jeans came straight from hell,” says Felicia, zipping up. She leans over a blue mailbox, murmuring ad jingles and trying not to vomit, as the shortie princesses pass by with their parents.
“What are you supposed to be?” asks a preteen gremlin in a surgical mask. “A fat old lady?”
“Fuck off,” says Felicia. “Halloween is for everybody.” She’s got thirty years and seventy pounds on the gremlin, making her infinitely better at trick-or-treating. His plastic bag barely bulges, while her flannel pillowcase is almost at capacity. She peers into its gaping maw and begins to salivate, which induces a coughing fit. “You will feast tonight, Felicia,” says Felicia, when she catches her breath. Precisely once a year everything goes right for her.
Rich neighborhoods are known for the superior quality of their candy giveaways. Five city blocks of Georgetown will net Felicia enough booty to take her through November. Sours are her favorite. If it doesn’t make her mouth pucker into a butthole, it’s barely worth opening. No to caramel apples. No to toothbrushes. Yes to Jolly Ranchers, but predominantly greens. No to things that taste like coconut. Her stomach is killing her so she sucks down a WarHead’s bitter medicine.
A solitary witch skips by wearing goggles and holding a plastic pumpkin bucket. The bottom hem of the girl’s black gown collects more filth than the bristles of her broomstick. Felicia tails the witch to the next townhouse, the kind you live in if you’re a United States senator. They make their way up the stairs through the warm gauntlet of jack o’ lanterns. “Go ahead and do the bell if you want,” says Felicia, feeling weak in the jeans, and the witch rises gratefully to her tiptoes.
“Trick-or-treat,” they both say when a statesman answers the door in a werewolf onesie. He seems surprised to see a middle-aged woman standing at eye level on his stoop, brandishing a pillowcase. Maybe he’s from the country. When he removes his merkin of a monster mask, Felicia feels intrigued by his presidential aura, but she’s disappointed that his candy bowl contains only Tootsie Rolls of pygmy stature. Felicia takes a healthy handful.
“Excuse me, ma’am…,” says the werewolf, likely preparing to make a speech of some kind, and that’s when Felicia pukes into his azalea bushes. The witch screams and makes a run for it. Fussy little snot. She probably gets free chocolate on Valentine’s Day, too.
“Listen,” says Felicia, when she’s finished spitting sugar over the railing. “I’m a little under the weather. Can I get a soda or something?” She feels feverish. Her forehead could definitely benefit from the Arctic roll of a cola can.
With a degree of hesitation the werewolf abandons his candy on the stoop for children of the rich to rifle through and escorts Felicia into his front hall. “Of course, of course,” he says, being neighborly even though Felicia had to ride three different buses to reach his neighborhood. “Please wait here for a minute.” Felicia waits by the coat rack for a quarter of a minute. When her guts cramp up again she moves to a velvety couch in the living room. Someone has taken the time to arrange decorative gourds in an autumnal crescent around the fireplace. One wall of the room is just pillars. A substantial jar of candy corn sits on the coffee table next to some news magazines. Felicia thinks she has a good chance of guessing just how many candy corns are in the jar because in grade school she once won a jellybean-counting contest that no one expected her to win.
She clings to her pillowcase, which now weighs the same as a bag of human skulls. She wipes her sweaty brow with the bandit mask in her pocket, then sneezes into the tassels of a throw pillow. An icy female voice carries from the next room. “…a grown woman begs you for treats then vomits on our doorstep and you roll out the red carpet? Meanwhile the rest of us are here trying to secure our nation’s borders and fight an epidemic.”
“You let in those Mormons the other day.”
“That’s different. Have you ever met a sick Mormon? Sick people don’t ride bicycles. Sick people do the exact opposite of that.” Felicia realizes that the wife thinks she has that deadly hemorrhaging virus that’s been going around the world. What a stupid idiot.
“Very well,” says the werewolf. “I’ll ask her to leave, or…”
“I just saved all our lives, Mark. You’re welcome in advance.” The werewolf rounds a white pillar rubbing something into his finger webbing that Felicia assumes to be hand sanitizer.
“We seem to be out of ginger ale,” says the werewolf. “Is there anyone I can call, or…?” Felicia’s coworker Macy Something lives near Dupont Circle, but she only has her email address. And one time Felicia caught Macy spitting in the French fry grease at work so she punched her in the boob.
Felicia bends double over her pillowcase, feeling nauseated and stressed out. So what if she is a woman of hearty appetites? It’s called living, and she only gets to do it one night a year. With her skull between her knees, she opens a Fun Size Snickers. “Maybe this act is part of your costume, or…?” says the werewolf. As if anyone is that committed. Felicia probably just contracted flu from one of those unclean superheroes on her Halloween beat and this has nothing to do with eating a Twizzler off a public toilet seat four days ago. A skinny, whorish wife appears in front of the fireplace, wearing yellow rubber gloves.
“Oh hello,” she says. “I was just washing some dishes.”
The Fun Size Snickers made Felicia feel less woozy, so she opens a miniature Reese’s. Peanut butter is her ticket out of this hellhole. If Felicia had a cat, she’d name it Peter Pan. But people keep refusing to give her their cats.
“Your house reminds me of Las Vegas,” says Felicia, who has seen a lot of television commercials about Las Vegas.
“I think you mean Tuscany,” says the wife.
“Only if you can make a good living there as a stripper,” says Felicia.
“Before you go,” says the wife, using a fire poker to nudge a gourd back into formation, “for I know you have a long night of adult trick-or-treating ahead of you, I’m curious to hear what you do for a living. Do you often travel on business to exotic locales? Or maybe you work at an international airport, or as an orderly in the infectious disease unit of a hospital?” Felicia in fact works in the food court at Dulles International Airport but she will not give this rangy woman the satisfaction of knowing that. Felicia is starting to feel like the only person in this townhouse without a flesh-eating virus.
A fluffy white cat jumps onto the couch and begins licking flecks of vomit from Felicia’s t-shirt. “Oh my god,” says the werewolf’s wife. Felicia loosens her sneaker laces and then curls up in a ball on the luxurious cushions. Her stomach is a fandango of assorted flavors.
“Let me just…,” says the werewolf, swiping the throw pillows that prevent his guest from relaxing into the full depths of the couch. Felicia sees that the only nearby vomit receptacle is her trick-or-treat bag, and that is just not happening. If worse comes to worse, she’d rather puke into the jar of candy corn.
“May I use your toilet?” she says, directing her question to the werewolf because he alone can act like a grown-up around bodily functions.
The wife looks momentarily panicked, then claps her rubber gloves together. “Mark,” she says with epiphanic zeal, “do you still keep that tarp in your gun closet?” She calls for Jack Junior upstairs while the werewolf reluctantly excuses himself from the room. Felicia gags, then finds herself holding a fun-sized pool of throw-up.
“What the fuck, Mom?” says a teenager who was obviously interrupted halfway through applying full David Bowie makeup. He seems like the kind of kid who goes to bed every night with Starlight mints on his pillow.
“We need a hand real quick,” says the kid’s mother, “but try not to breathe.” Felicia breathes on everyone freely because she is a mammal. The werewolf returns and helps his wife spread a blue plastic sheet on the Oriental rug below the couch. “You’re doing it wrong,” she tells her husband.
“Take it easy, Jen,” says the werewolf.
“Ma’am,” says the wife to her houseguest, “would you mind rolling onto this tarp?” Felicia doesn’t want to walk to the bathroom, so she evacuates the couch with a thud. The family carries her to an upstairs bathtub like a fancy whale on its way to an aquarium.
Mother and son are responsible for the part of the tarp that holds Felicia’s bottom quarters, and the werewolf is responsible for the part with the head. As the latter backs everybody up the stairs, he gazes into Felicia’s eyes with a face that so much reminds her of nougat and caramel that she wants to take his Sugar Baby nose into her mouth and then just see where her instincts lead her. She can tell that he’s doing his very best not to jostle her in the tarp. Felicia wiggles around appreciatively, which loosens her stool.
Felicia sits on the toilet and listens to the werewolf conspire with a 911 operator outside the bathroom door. She briefly passes out with her stretchy jeans around her ankles, and is aware of having a small, fugue-state orgasm. “No room at the inn,” says the werewolf after he hangs up the phone.
“You’re kidding,” says the wife.
“Drunken robots and vampires and things have laid siege to all the ambulances. But they’re going to send a hazmat team.”
“Whatever you do,” the wife says, addressing whomever, “don’t touch your eyeballs.” This lady must hold her Junior League meetings at CDC headquarters.
“If I catch what she’s got and have to miss Suzie’s glam rock party I will be so pissed,” says JJ.
“No one’s missing any parties,” says the werewolf. “That’s the last thing we want.” He cracks the bathroom door and winks at Felicia as though there’s a private party in their future, one with bowls and bowls of complimentary refreshments. She waves a wad of toilet paper at him like a flirty handkerchief.
Ten minutes later Felicia’s body is arranged on the tarp in the front hall, the fly of her jeans left open to antagonize the wife. “Where’s my candy?” she asks the werewolf, but the doorbell rings before he can answer. Felicia’s body blocks the doorway, but when the three members of the hazmat team enter the townhouse, they step over her with ease. Two of the men sport convincing panda bear costumes under their yellow jumpsuits.
“Don’t tell me you’re trick-or-treating as well,” says the wife.
“Panda bears are immune to human fevers,” says one of the panda bears. “Which makes us doubly resistant.”
“Sir,” says the non-panda to the werewolf, “I’m going to need you to remove your costume.” After a brief struggle with the zipper, the werewolf costume drops to the walnut floorboards and the non-panda puts it on over his hazmat suit. The hairy mask barely fits over his respirator. The wife takes it upon herself to line up the eyes.
“Not bad,” she says.
“How many candy corns are in that jar?” says a panda, reconnoitering the ground floor.
“Four hundred twenty-nine,” says Felicia.
“By god she’s right,” says the husband. “I counted them myself.” Felicia wishes she could just dazzle people for a living. She feels delirious, but still manages to spot Jack Junior on the couch gobbling up candy from her pillowcase. That little weasel.
“Not the sours,” she moans.
“Is this tarp coming with us?” says the second panda.
“Please help yourself,” says the wife. “You can take the couch too.”
“It looks comfortable as shit,” says the hazmat werewolf, running his finger along the wife’s naked forearm—her skin so tight it gives off a glare—then snapping one of her rubber gloves like a middle school bra strap.
“What else you got?” says the first panda.
“I would be all right with your taking the rug, and the contaminated candy belonging to that doughy woman on the floor,” says the wife.
“Not this candy,” says Jack Junior, his teeth coated in chocolate film. Felicia wishes he were closer so she could try to have a nosebleed on him.
“Don’t eat that poison,” says the wife, fancying herself in charge of all the household’s most basic activities. Felicia’s butt toots in defiance.
“You can take my son as well,” says the wife. “He’s now infected.”
“Can do,” says the hazmat werewolf. “We’ll quarantine him along with the couch.”
“You’re very kind,” says the wife. Her gloved hand lingers in thanks on the werewolf’s furry bicep.
“Great,” says Jack Junior. “I guess I’ll just go back upstairs and remove the androgynous makeup it took me an hour to apply.”
“No, keep it on,” says the first panda. “We have a dedicated ward for kids like you.” He examines a pistol that he’s presumably stolen from the gun closet.
“That sounds wonderful,” says the wife. “Did you hear that, Jack Junior? Say, you gentlemen don’t have a ward for consenting adults, do you, hahaha?” The hazmat werewolf whispers something into her haircut. Felicia overhears “electrolytes” and “dick chlorine” and a word that could be either “serum” or “semen.” He wraps it up with “hemorrhaging organ,” and they both giggle.
“Thanks for nothing,” Jack Junior tells Felicia. He kicks her in the sole of her sneaker as he marches out the front door. His father throws a small gourd at the back of his son’s head, but hits the stroller of a chubby spaceman who is way too young to be trick-or-treating.
“I’m leaving the cat,” says the wife. “Because she’s as good as dead. And I’m leaving you, Mark. Same reason.” Her husband stands there in his boxer shorts, looking unbothered. Felicia can’t wait until all the sick people clear out. She thinks that she and Mark have what it takes to be Surgeon General and First Lady. It’s been a long time since she blew her nose in front of anyone.
“I like Halloween more than Christmas and my birthday,” the second panda announces to his partners as he slips the husband’s leather wallet into the pocket of his hazmat suit. “There’s always so much mischief afoot.”
“I like epidemics more than plane crashes and animal extinctions combined,” says the first panda, cocking his new pistol. “Where to next?”
“To quarantine some sexy nurses and requisition a new microwave.”
“These guys,” says the hazmat werewolf, pulling the wife into an embrace. “Let’s get this show on the road.”
“I’ll just grab my purse,” says the wife, grabbing her purse.
When the hazmat team, the son, the couch, the pillowcase, the rug, and the wife are gone, the husband drags the tarp toward the fireplace and opens a bottle of chilled pink wine. He and Felicia take turns drinking from the bottle and fondling Peter Pan. Felicia feels her heart melting from within. “As far as I’m concerned,” she says, “your whole family can just go fuck itself.” The husband makes a nest around Felicia with 429 candy corns, then begins licking the perspiration from her neck.
“You’re the best thing that’s ever happened to me,” he says. “You’re so sweet inside.”
“No shit,” says Felicia. “That’s always been my way.”
Because I always start out trying to be inspirational and end up being discouraging and overly ironic, I thought I would add a little something to my last post and not be so evasive this time.
For a long time I didn’t do my blog. I was embarrassed. I felt ashamed of what I’d already written and of what I might write. Strangers could see me in all my unbearable colors (i.e., earth tones). Worse still, friends and acquaintances could find me and scrutinize me through the aquarium glass of the Internet like I was some scaly, immobile thing in the Reptile House and they had to figure out if I was dead or not.
But that is all in the past. I no longer care what goes up and whether my visitors think I’m such a poor specimen that the snake handlers have forgotten to feed and water me. I am committed to busting loose. Here is what happened:
- My friend A started an art project. Every day she forced herself to post one item of work online. One picture per day. It doesn’t sound like much, but when you’re sad or cranky or down on yourself, it’s everything. And now she has this badass portfolio that no one would ever guess she created with a gun to her head.
- My friend X has kept a LiveJournal since 2006. She doesn’t publicize it, but it’s there and it’s wonderful. She’s been published in lots of prestigious journals, but writing something secret online every day makes her feel less lonely in her art. Right now I find her quiet URL to be the most powerful place on the Internet.
- I read the book Show Your Work which basically told me to get over myself.
- I let go of projected opinions. That snobby old writing professor is not looking over my shoulder, judging me for my attempt at online relatability. David Remnick is not sitting in his corner office at Conde Nast thinking, “I’d give her the fiction centerfold in the next issue if she weren’t such a blogger.” Nobody gives a shit. Besides, my mom’s opinion is the only one that matters.
- I finally found my visitor stats, which indicated that no one was reading my website anyway.
- My therapist started working with me on being more assertive. Being assertive is not only about saying, “Hey buddy, it’s not okay that you’re stepping on my toes.” It’s also about saying, “Hey buddy, here are my toes tra-la-la-la-la and when I wiggle them the sparkle nail polish catches the light and yes I might have a mild case of athlete’s foot but only angels are immune to fungus.”
- I realized how unhappy I was not participating in the world, even in a little, whispery way.
- I’ve changed my mind about so many people. On too many occasions I’ve judged as I’m petrified of being judged myself. And yet I’ve often found my judgments to be wrong—or at least pliable. A writer I thought was a talentless hack eventually wins me over by her unapologetic hackiness. A novelist’s second novel makes me go back and read his first with new eyes. Someone on Facebook whose feeds I once found obnoxious starts posting about whales or something and I’m like, “Hey, this guy’s actually pretty cool.” So even if I annoy the shit out of someone one or one hundred times, there’s always a chance I can redeem myself later. If Gawker.com can eventually come around to Lena Dunham, a handful of people can eventually come around to me. (Gawker hasn’t done this yet but I imagine that one day maybe they will under duress from their advertisers.) The important thing is to keep making people sniff your fungus until they finally realize that they’d miss it if it disappeared. Never stop itching. Never buy the Tinactin.
- Whatever I put online does not affect the sanctity of my work in progress, which will not see the light of day until it’s absolutely ready. In my novel I can indulge the perfectionism that would make blogging unthinkable. Whether I have a complete mental breakdown if that novel is ever published remains to be seen.
Finally, the only person I hurt when I’m in my hidey hole of embarrassment is myself. I like to write. I like to throw various foods on the wall—Twinkies, spaghetti, whole cabbages—to see what sticks. And in my limited time on this earth I’d like to be the party guest who tries to add to the conversation rather than run to the bathroom where I pretend to wash my hands for an hour. In the long run, being embarrassed is more embarrassing than doing embarrassing things.
Now if I could only stop crapping my pants.
Yesterday a woman called to offer me two free tickets on a Caribbean cruise if I would just answer a few of her questions. At the time of the call I was sitting in a crowded coffee shop so naturally I hung up on her. It’s always been my dream to set sail on a Caribbean cruise ship, but the idea of random people overhearing my conversation was just too embarrassing. What if the woman asked me something deeply personal like “How do you feel about buffets?” My cheeks were already hot because my phone had vibrated three times on the cafe table before I’d answered it. I could not endure any more public humiliation.
Which got me thinking about embarrassment. I am embarrassed about how many things I’m embarrassed about. And it’s not the stuff you might expect. FOR INSTANCE.
1) When I got all dolled up one night to drive to the Chevrolet sales lot because I’d trusted a newspaper insert saying that I’d won a new car and I thought that when I put the key in the door for the first time someone from Chevy might want to take my picture for promotional reasons, I was not embarrassed.
2) When I got an F in Physics because two weeks into my freshman year of college I simply forgot I was enrolled in Physics and consequently neglected to attend class, do the homework, take the tests, etc., I was not embarrassed.
3) When I blew a snot rocket at the park a couple days ago and it touched down on my sneaker in plain view of all the other joggers stretching their quads, I was not embarrassed.
And that is because I am a grown woman who has read a lot of pop psychology online and who contains enough inner reserves of strength and self-confidence to weather any social mortification. But a few things still manage to get to me. They’ve gotten to me for a long time, but only recently have I identified and tried to come to terms with them. So in the therapeutic interest of revisiting “humiliations past” as World of Psychology recommends, I give you three of the fundamental embarrassments that are currently shaping my life.
1) I didn’t write all the books.
This one comes up a lot because I am a writer of books, and yet all the books on bookstore and library shelves seem to be written by other people. People like Shakespeare and Thomas Pynchon and Virginia Woolf and Jesus. Even if I had written just a few of the books I’ve recently enjoyed—Beloved, Dog of the South, Awakenings—it wouldn’t be enough. That’s not all the books. And my guess is that tomorrow more books will be published and I won’t have written those either. Frankly it makes me want to be a shut-in.
2) I was a particularly ugly child.
Even if I could excuse the grotesque fat rolls that plagued me as a baby and gave me the same tan lines as Jabba the Hutt, I cannot accept the unappealing little girl whom that infant morphed into sometime in the 1980s. There’s a good reason I’ve never had the habit of showing new boyfriends my family’s photo albums. If one of them saw a picture of the five-year-old, gap-toothed Medusa who still lives somewhere inside of me, characterized by her ill-fitting red snowsuit and her herpetic lip blown open like a hotdog in a microwave, he would most likely not want to come anywhere near my reproductive equipment ever again. The shame lives on.
(Is this still healthy? This no longer seems healthy.)
3) I’ve messed up bad and I don’t know the first thing about time travel.
I’m less embarrassed about the messing up bad part and more embarrassed about my failure to do even a fraction of what Bill and Ted can do. I’m told that everyone makes mistakes. Terrific. Those people can accept and learn from their errors. But I am a special case and my mistakes have been egregious and I would much prefer just to get into my time machine and redo some stupid shit I’m still paying for, rather than be seen as someone who only gets to live her life once because she’s too much of an unexceptional dingbat to travel back in time. But here I am, a woman without the phone booth that would render her first kiss a little less awkward. Please just look away.
I could go on. I pick my nose when I’m not turning it into a rocket launcher. I’ve never been to MOMA. I’m not a movie star. I’ve never been the democratically elected president of even the smallest nation. They say that embarrassment is a product of perfectionism. As if being perfect is a bad thing. As if my dream of being an exquisite kindergartner sunning herself on a Royal Caribbean deck while autographing copies of The Divine Comedy and Ulysses is unattainable. I only want to live in harmony with the universe, and the universe wants me to be tan and rich and glorious like the love child of Angelina Jolie and Sir Isaac Newton. The universe will accept nothing less than an A-plus-plus and if I don’t perform to the universe’s exacting standards I’ll have to cower blushing in the corner for another three decades.
There’s no enlightened, elegant, nonironic way to wrap this up. Unless. UNLESS. I accidentally pooped my pants. Goodnight.
The animator took the call from Barbie’s people at noon on Veteran’s Day. They said they liked his work on Cyrus the Blimp and would he be interested in coming into Mattel to talk faces.
“I thought Barbie’s face was already a done deal,” said the animator, opening another can of Budweiser.
“It is and it isn’t,” said Barbie’s people. “Her appearance evolves with her target consumers. No one likes looking at the same face year after year.”
“I thought that’s why you created those teenage hooker dolls with the big eyes.”
“That wasn’t us.” The animator thought he heard a collective sigh on the other end of the line. Or maybe it was his sigh. His 12-pack was almost empty and his stump was throbbing.
“We’re not trying to reinvent the wheel here,” said Barbie’s people. “Our doll designers just need a consult from someone who knows faces. From someone who’s used to moving them around for marketing purposes.” Apparently they didn’t know the animator had been out of work for nine months. “You drew Cyrus the Blimp with simplistic strokes and yet movie-going audiences considered him an airship of great emotional depth. Essentially, we want to know how you pulled it off.”
“It’s funny that we’re having a conversation about faces when I can’t see any of yours,” said the animator. Sometimes he forgot what he looked like and had to run a hand over his face because he was too down in the dumps to look in a mirror. Sometimes he forgot that his right leg had been blown off in Iraq.
“I’m sure you can use your imagination,” said Barbie’s people. The animator envisioned a conference room full of pink ponies wearing telephone headsets, each one grinning within the strict parameters of red paint. Better than an ex-soldier getting drunk in an Echo Park studio bought with ephemeral cartoon money.
“I can tell you right now that the number one problem with Barbie’s face is that it’s made of hard plastic,” said the animator. “She’s practically a Lego person. You might as well put a blond wig on a flesh-colored gumball and call it a day.”
“We’re open to using more pliant materials.”
“For me, personally,” said the animator, “Barbie has always been more about the bod.”
Barbie’s people were silent. The animator remembered one of his sister’s Barbies after it got chewed up by their pet ferret. He could still see the puncture wounds in the cheeks and the torn nose. It was the most emotion he’d ever seen on a doll’s face.
“We already have a body guy,” said Barbie’s people. “He’s very good.”
“Have you ever put a Barbie’s head in your mouth and bit down?” said the animator.
“Of course,” said Barbie’s people.
“There’s nothing there.”
“It seems to me that what you really want to give her is a brain. Let me put you in touch with a brain guy.”
“Not necessary,” said Barbie’s people. “Our problem is perception. People don’t believe that a woman could be happy all the time, for going on six decades.”
“Since Vietnam,” said the animator, adjusting his prosthesis. “The question I would pose to your face people is this: If Barbie were a flesh and blood human of the same stature, let’s say twelve inches tall—”
“Eleven and a half inches,” interrupted Barbie’s people.
“Okay. If she were that size, but real, what kind of things would she be interested in? Furthermore, what would she want to talk about? How would she feel from day to day? Is she a heavy drinker?”
“Barbie is a woman of many enthusiasms,” said Barbie’s people.
“Personally, if I were that short and didn’t have any toes to speak of? I’d probably kill myself.” The animator wished he could scratch his missing ankle. He opened another beer.
“You’re saying that her face should reflect gloom and unhappiness?” said Barbie’s people.
“If you want consumers to love her, her face needs to express more than lobotomized delight.”
“You’re saying she should frown?”
“Have you ever pressed down so hard on a Barbie’s head that her neck disappears?” said the animator.
“Yes,” said Barbie’s people.
“Have you ever disfigured Barbie’s face with black permanent marker? Or pulled off one of her legs and beat her with it?”
“Yes,” said Barbie’s people.
“You people are worse than my ferret,” said the animator. They seemed chastened. “When little girls play with baby dolls,” he continued, “they want them hungry and crying. Do you know why that is?”
“So they can feed them and comfort them,” said Barbie’s people.
“Precisely,” said the animator. He closed his eyes and saw rows and rows of Barbies with his face on them. Untidy beards. That same ragged scar across their foreheads. Flak helmets of synthetic hair. Their features were contorted with fear and anguish. Their mouths were wide open with weeping. Then little girls descended on them, gathered them in handkerchiefs, cradled them and sang to them.
“I’ll be there tomorrow morning at eight,” said the animator. “Let’s get some faces on these bitches.”
I’m not sure why I wanted to post this today. It’s something I wrote in graduate school after my father died and I started reading the books on his nightstand. All quotes are from The Death Ship by B. Traven except for the Nick Cave lyrics.
How a Book Became Holy in a Dead Sailor’s Hands
Books are profane until they are last books. They look like plain things until they outlive you, when the stack is still tall and teetering on the nightstand and your side of the bed is empty. I’ve read books about ships. I’ve sailed the high seas in maritime stories. I’ve been on boats, but mostly I’ve just waded on through.
Walking down the creek, the sun splashing through the trees, I tripped forward to my death. I’d been trailing an unfamiliar birdsong, my heart transfixed by those little bird lungs. I fainted in the shallows and inhaled the current, cloudy from yesterday’s rain. Then I found myself in exile. Exile, at first made up of vague impressions: a bear on the bank, my toes turning blue with cold, a beloved woman screaming my name, a tractor pulling the ambulance that had sunk deeply in the mud.
The farm had been lit up that afternoon, all bright and clear with winter. I’d removed a tangle of branches from the egress of a lake we’d all skated on once. I’d paid no mind to the day turning dark. My work there was almost done. The waning light still seduced rocks and eddies further down the creek. My family awaited me, but so did that song in the treetops. I’d recreate it now if I could. But all I can hear are those beats of my heart, those erratic rhythms. Beating extra beats that day, budum, budum—you probably know the sound. I cursed myself as I stumbled, fell forward: “Stupid man, stupid man.”
Let me remind you: I’ve scaled water towers. I’ve climbed trees to heights unheard of. I’ve tripped acid on college rooftops. I’ve read the books that turn boys into men. And yet the truth stands: I’ve been on boats, but mostly I’ve just waded on through.
I’d worn special boots made for tramping through water, rubber soles suspended all the way from my shoulders, rubber all the way down, insulating my legs and my feet from the cold, for a time. I’d eaten eggs for breakfast, skimmed a Sunday newspaper. I’d read special books written for the dying. Books critical to my survival. Books written just for me.
Days before I joined the current—stupid man, stupid man—I lay in bed beside my wife, rereading a novel about a sailor on a death ship. The sailor had been dozing on the railing when the Yorikke’s engines went silent. Pause here to consider a fictional moment beyond this nonfictional moment. Something final is happening here:
Suddenly I was wide awake. I could not understand at the moment what it was that had made me so. It had been like a shock. Fixing my mind upon this strange feeling, I noticed a great quietness. The engine had ceased to work. Day and night there is a noise of the engine; its stamping, rocking, and shaking make the whole ship quiver. It makes the ship a live thing. This noise creeps into your flesh and brain. The whole body falls into the same rhythm. One speaks, eats, hears, sees, sleeps, awakes, thinks, feels, and lives in this rhythm. And then quite unexpectedly the engine stops. One feels a real pain in body and mind. One feels empty, as if dropped in an elevator down the shaft at a giddy speed. You feel the earth sinking away beneath you; and on a ship you have the stark sensation that the bottom of the ship has broken off, and the whole affair, with you inside, is going right through to the opposite end of the globe. It was this sudden silence of the engine that was the cause of my awakening.
Shortly after I inhaled the murky water, my blood ceased to warm my body like the steam that scalds the engines of the Yorikke. The cold slipped into my rubber suit. The pulse stopped sounding in my wrists. My vessels went still and numb. I never knew how loud a body was until it went quiet. Then I awakened on a lonely ship.
I can’t tell you yet about awakening.
As a young man I heard the ship’s engines. The engines drove me across continents. They carried me to Alaska, to England. To Haiti and the Grand Canyon. I manned the outboard motor of a fishing boat, I shuttled my children between islands in the Chesapeake. I saw the breaching of a humpback whale from the aft-side of a party cruise. So many times I ferried my family across the water.
In the shippy story on my nightstand, a sailor’s vessel leaves the port without him. The cabin of the ship held all the sailor’s earthly belongings, including his proof of citizenship. He stands on the dock and watches his whole life drift away from him:
I have seen children who, at a fair or in a crowd, have lost their mothers. I have seen people whose homes had burned down, others whose whole property had been carried away by floods. I have seen deer whose companions had been shot or captured. All this is so painful to see and so very sorrowful to think of. Yet of all the woeful things there is nothing so sad as a sailor in a foreign land whose ship has just sailed off leaving him behind.
There are no homefires burning on the absconding vessel. There are no misplaced mothers. The daughters are far away, dressed in mermaid costumes. And yet the sailor wanders from port to port. But he gets to choose the manner of his homecoming, by land or by sea. Either he will stick to piers and boardwalks, or he will bounce back on the waves.
You bring nothing with you to the afterlife. You have no credentials, no documentation. And so you drown, and you pray that the bottom of the ocean lacks customs officials. You hope the red tape can’t reach all the way down. You sink, a piece of coal tied to your foot so you’ll be heavier, more efficiently submerged. Your weight is your passport. “What right have you to be here?” asks the old man of the seabeds. “What qualifies you for admission to eternity?” You can only answer, “My DNA, the science that makes up my body. The paper of my skin. The stamp of my mouth. The license that my sodden heart has earned.”
My daughter’s hand on my sailor’s cheek, my sailor’s cheek tickling her palm for the last time with its whiskers. My sailor’s rags buried in a coffin ship.
I watch them all, the members of my family, casting lines into the Atlantic. My wife washing her wintry hands in our kitchen sink. I watch and wash them all with water, as warm as I can make it. My eldest daughter, she hates taking showers, she dreads each repetitive, droning action like using a toilet, like pouring milk on cereal, like waiting for the teabag to seep. She was born without the landlubbing instinct. I can see her when she’s sailing. I can see all my children as ships because I, too, am a ship, rudderless in some uncharted ocean. My aquatic exile, can it compare to days on solid earth? Can any part of death compare to life? Can what remains of me speak the argot of those on shore? Stupid man, these are senseless questions. No sailor can commune with earthbound faces. My loved ones can’t correspond with the dead; they don’t know the mailing address of the ship I’m on. They can’t foresee my next port of call. Stupid man, stupid man. He can’t find the harbors, he can’t find the docks.
But hear me out. I’ve been with them on boats. That one with the glass bottom that could’ve cracked on any reef. That one that was sinking, that boat that was a body, her arms clasped around me. We’ve stood together on the boat circled by whales, the mother diving, the calf bobbing on the surface like a coal-black log. We’ve been to the brink and back. If it had been a daughter who had died, I would still be in the ocean right now, probing the equator, never resting till I’d searched every sunken stockhold. If it had been a daughter, I’d be scuba diving in the Bermuda Triangle right now. I’d be rooting through shipwrecks. Will she never find me in her spyglass?
When I’m scared, I look for shipping lanes. They must be around here somewhere. They must lead me home. My daughter consoles herself by lying on her back in currents of fresh water. Perhaps in the morning she’ll wake up in the ocean. I’ve been on boats, but mostly I’ve just waded on through.
We’ve had enough of life and death today, agreed? At a certain point it’s over the top, over the treetop with the last briny birdsong. Enough with these ships around the bend. There’s always a boat to be boarded, something to carry you around Cape Horn or through the Straits of Magellan. I’d have the course if I had the map.
When the kids were little, we could see a lighthouse from our home on the shore. The keeper could have turned his spotlight 180 degrees from the bay, and shone it through our windows. He would have seen children fast asleep. He would have seen a young man and a young woman reading together under lamplight. For the sake of setting us ablaze for a moment, the keeper’s ships would have shattered against the rocks. That’s too bad. Not as bad as this.
I’ve read my last book. It was a book about sailors. My final library, she’s committed to memory. She’s my final calling card, my final decimal system. I scoured her pages, I took her chapters with me into exile. Perhaps I share her vision of hell, circling my family for eternity, watching them struggle together on the seashore. I’m in a tub, in a bucket. Stupid man, stupid sailor. I’ve abandoned everything on earth: my sons, my daughters, my wife, my medical supplies, my passport, my shaving cream.
They all say it’s a terrible song. They all say it’s sentimental. No one likes this song. They all say it’s maudlin. I’m making this up. I don’t know what they all say. No one likes death. They say it’s too easy. No one likes ships. No one boards ships. No one sails ships anymore.
“The Ship Song”
Come sail your ships around me
And burn your bridges down.
We make a little history, baby
Every time you come around.
A long time ago I attended a memorial service for a boy from Virginia. He had also died in an accident. He’d been standing on a seaside cliff in California when a rogue wave swallowed him alive. No teenage body to bring back from the Pacific. At the memorial service, the boy’s father pulled out a boom box. He played a rock song at full volume while howling lyrics toward the pews, like a miserable karaoke machine. The father tore off his shirt and you could see the sweat on his naked chest. Wet salt and stringy black hair. The father wanted to play the song in its entirety; he wanted to make everyone feel what he was feeling, through the music. The other mourners were embarrassed. His ex-wife pulled him off the stage, wadding his soaked shirt into her hands. Perhaps I’ll meet these drowned men on my travels.
I’ve been on ships but mostly I’ve just splashed against them. I’ve been a strong mast on a deck rocked by storms. I’ve been a regal sail, I’ve been a barnacle. I’ve been on boats, but mostly I’ve just waded on through.
For a simple sailor on the Yorikke, some days are worse than others. Here is the order of one’s shipside melancholy:
In the end I got a craving to feel a solid street under my feet. I wanted to see people hustling about. I wanted to make sure that the world was still going on in the usual way, doing business, making money, getting drunk, laughing, cursing, stealing, killing, dancing, falling in love, and falling out again. I really got frightened being alone there.
I had an ugly feeling in my throat now, when I knew the last minute had arrived. All my life I had wanted so badly to live in Australia and make good. Now my life was snatched away from me. There were hundreds of things I had planned to do some day. All over now. Too late. Terrible words: too late.
The little word “Why?” with a question mark. So what could I do, a sailor without papers, against the power of the word “Why?”
Of me there is not left a breath in all the vast world.
Now where is he? A man fine at heart and body, for ever willing to work true and honestly. Where am I? Where are all the deads to be some day? On a desolate reef.
After a shipwreck, the simple sailor’s delirious friend lets go of a rope and sinks for good into the ocean. The sailor, clutching his own rope, cannot fathom his friend’s disappearance:
I looked at the hole through which he had slipped off. I could see the hole for a long while. I saw it as if from a great distance. I yelled at the hole. . . He did not hear me. He would have come. Sure he would. He did not come up any more. . . There was something very remarkable about it. He did not rise. He would have come up. I could not understand. He had signed on for a long voyage. For a very great voyage.
Once, when I was a boy in a thunderstorm, I huddled under an upturned canoe with my parents and my brothers. We’d left the lake so we wouldn’t be electrocuted. I heard the rain beat hard against the hull. Budum. Budum. Every time the lightning flashed, I could see my family’s faces secure inside our cabin. We stayed dry within the belly of that landed ship. Traven writes, “It is not the mountains that make destiny, but the grains of sand and the little pebbles.” Drowning in an ocean or a raindrop, it’s all the same, you know. I’ve been shipwrecked in rural creeks. I’ve stumbled in the ocean. I’ve been on boats, but mostly I’ve just waded on through.
Lately the news (aka my Facebook feed) has been broadcasting this video, which draws attention to the problem of street harassment and catcalling. Frankly it’s never bothered me much when a strange man says, “Hello beautiful!” or “Have a nice day!” as I pass him on the sidewalk looking beautiful on a nice day. This seems like pure friendliness on his part, and the comments help challenge my working theory that I’m a ghost. It’s annoying when a strange man tells me to smile, but at the same time the directive makes me question why I’m not walking around smiling all the time because it’s such a nice day and I look so beautiful. Maybe I should be smiling. Maybe this guy trying to contort my face into a different position using only the power of his voice has been to hell and back and is now wise to the ways in which a smile turns a frown upside down and he wants to share this happiness with me and the rest of the babes.
It’s hard for me to distinguish between my sensitivity to street comments and my sensitivity to people in general. I don’t know whether to look someone in the eye when I pass him, to give a little wave, to steal his iPhone, etc. It’s just like how I get nervous standing in line at the post office or visiting the bodega downstairs where I might run into one of my amiable neighbors. Other people are scary. They throw off my equilibrium. Sometimes they even say things out of their mouths, which can be horrific.
When a stranger speaks to me on the street, I don’t know when a response could be construed as flirting and when a lack of response could be construed as rude. It sucks to be put in that position every time you leave the house, but a lot of people for whatever lunatic reason like to stay socially engaged. They like to interact with the transients who enter their communities, especially if those transients seem carved out of marble. I condemn sexual harassment and catcalling, but most of the time people are just saying hi or telling me how wonderful I am. We exchange niceties and continue on our business, no harm done, sometimes with a little glow about us because that social interface went so well. I’d honestly rather live in a world where people notice each other than in a world where we pretend strangers don’t exist and where my beauty isn’t recognized for its cataclysmic power.
My other objection to shutting up everyone on the street is that I, too, am a street harasser. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve stared out a coffee shop window and have proceeded to write down graphic details about a stranger’s dress or stride or baleful countenance. I put words into their mouths. I ascribe feelings to them. Sometimes I write explicitly about their butts. I violate the personal privacy of innocent passersby again and again by way of my notebook. You’re going to wear those hot pants outside my coffee shop window? You deserve to be written up. I might even put a baby in you. (But in 25 years that baby will discover that his absentee father is in fact the President of the United States, which is ironic because the baby has been trained as a political assassin.)
No one has the right to take physical or vocal possession of anyone else’s body. But humans are naturally interested in each other. So I think someone should make a video that doesn’t shame men for their interest, but instead tells them what kind of speech is invasive or prurient, and what may genuinely put a smile on two faces. (Kinda like this?) And also teach them that NO ONE IN THE HISTORY OF URBAN LIVING HAS EVER GOTTEN A GIRL’S NUMBER BY HOLLERING AT HER WHEN SHE ALREADY HAS SOMEPLACE SHE NEEDS TO BE. For god’s sake. But, to paraphrase Rabbi Hillel, if we can’t build elaborate fantasy worlds wherein every passing woman is a potential future wife or perhaps a serial arsonist on the run from Johnny Law (according to my notebook), then who will build them for us? Not the Republican Party, that’s for sure.
And now I must adjourn to pace the block where the half-blind men in their 80s hang out on their stoops just waiting for an angel to walk by and make their day.