Beautiful Malady

entry_213My friend returned from her vacation with skin the color of apricot honey. “Wow,” I said, and proceeded to ignore her recounting of exotic locales and leisure pursuits. The change in her complexion was profound, but more than that, her countenance glowed with a vitality that made her seem more real. She was transformed, and I couldn’t help but to comment again. “I can’t get over how healthy you look. I guess that’s it.”

She said, “You’re talking about my skin, aren’t you?”

“Hard not to notice,” I said. “I’d gotten used to you being a pasty pale thing, and even though I’ve never been one to equate tans with health–I’m proud of my ghost-flesh–I can’t deny that… it complements you. If I may be so bold.”

She laughed, “You are the saucy one. But in my case it actually isn’t healthy. When I’m in the sun too long–on those rare occasions–I get these really weird blotches. You can’t normally see them, but my face is actually one big blotch. I swear, it ends around my neck.”

Was this modesty? I wasn’t sure.

“Really,” she said, and leaned forward, tugging her collar down so I could see her right shoulder. “See there, where it ends? It’s red where my shoulder meets my neck, and there’s this ragged intersection that goes all the way down my back.”
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Grown Up

entry_212I’m lying on the floor, languid as a corpse. I practice not breathing, and can feel my heart slowing. Slowing. Then I feel the need to stretch, and I stretch so violently that my molars click against each other like one of those wind-up dentures. The feeling of unmitigated sloth is delicious. I’ve always enjoyed a good stretch on the floor. It’s convenient, it’s flat, and the low viewpoint provides a most favorable perspective of a room. As a matter of personal aesthetic, I’ve preferred an inferior perspective since I was quite young. My adolescent height gains only made me more conspicuous, and allowed me to see over everything at will. Where’s the adventure in that? When one is small, everything is a potential maze, which is one reason why, every now and again, I appreciate a return to a more grounded point of view.

I roll onto my chest, and support myself on my elbows, looking down the carpeted hall. This is how varmints see the world, I think. Varmints and critters, bugs and babies. I wonder how quickly I could pull myself down the hall using only my elbows. What if that were my only means of locomotion? Properly motivated, I suppose I could get moving pretty quickly, but this is an untested theory. It might also cause undue strain to the tissue of my elbows, for example. There’s no way to accurately anticipate the outcome, so naturally I must commit to the task.

I need a trigger though, something to set me off. There must be something from which to flee. And it comes to me: K. is in the bathroom behind me. When she emerges and notices me there on the floor, that will be my cue to move. I’ll gallop down the hall on my elbows, pulling my useless body after me. How far will I get? I decide that if I can make it as far as the cat food bowls, that will be considered safe. Is it an unrealistic goal? I’ll just have to find out by trying, as I would if my life depended on it.

I am completely still on my elbows, waiting for the click of the door. I am poised to start. I’m looking at the cat food bowls at the other end of the hall, and visualizing my eventual progress toward them. I’m noticing bits of cat food on the carpet. I see a piece of something beneath the refrigerator. My forearms are beginning to tingle.

K. is taking longer in the bathroom than I’d anticipated. But all the more reason to be aware of the click of the door knob. It’s imperative that I pull myself to safety before she can catch me. And in thinking it over, I realize I’m not in the right position to start. One elbow should be slightly in front of the other, and my back should be in a natural position, but stiff. There, now, for the first time in three minutes, I’m truly ready to crawl to freedom. It’s a good thing I had this extra moment to get into the correct starting position. A luxury, some might deem it, but I’ll take what I can get.
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Name of the Game

entry_211Dangers abound for the insouciant child, but by far the most treacherous waters to navigate are those of socialization. The survival of one’s formative years is largely dependent upon the learning of arbitrary rules hatched by adults. Even so, where matters of protocol were concerned, I excelled. I rather enjoyed the code of it. I was a quiet child, detail-minded, generally thoughtful, and courteous to a fault. My single downfall, if it could be so called, was that I didn’t like to use peoples’ names.

It’s not something I had never articulated, and no one had ever commented on it to me. But in fact my entire childhood was geared toward determining how to meet my needs without using anyone’s name. These aren’t conscious decisions one comes to, but innate inclinations one happens upon in the course of self realization.

For two years I was able to get by without saying my babysitter’s name. Whenever one of the other kids asked her for something, I could simply attach a “Me too, please!” to the request, and I’d be in. My technique was transparent, and all the more compelling for the “please,” at the end. The “please” is the bane of most kids’ existence. Every book on etiquette obsesses over the necessity of the “please.” And why not? It is, after all, the most important bit. Luckily for me, that word never presented a problem. I savored it, in fact, and the word dropped from my lips like silk.

One of life’s lessons that always comes too late is that avoidance only makes the inevitable worse. I’m not sure how it happened, but something was stuck in my babysitter’s craw the day she made me learn it. I recall running into the kitchen from the heat of a summer afternoon with one of the other children. I always took particular care not to let the screen door slam shut, so thoughtful was I. “Mrs. Dutrow, can I have a glass of kool aid?” asked Mark.

“Me too, please!” I said.

My babysitter retrieved a single plastic cup from the shelf, filled it with cool sugar water, handed it to my colleague, and then regarded me cooly. “Say my name,” she said to me.

My friend took this as his cue to exit, while I stood rooted to my spot on the worn kitchen linoleum. “What?” was all I could muster. There’s nothing like running headlong into an invisible barrier that leaves you questioning your most basic assumptions. What had just happened? I ran the scene through in my head again, but I couldn’t find anything out of place. Sure, there was the tug of guilt because I knew exactly what I’d been getting away with. Yet I couldn’t believe that she would actually confront me about my disinclination to call people by their names. It seemed an outright violation, if not a cheap grab for control.

“You never say my name,” she said. “You never say anyone’s name.” And there it was, the ugly truth. She might as well have said, “You’re short and slightly cross-eyed,” but that would have been stating the obvious at least. This was different. Like that she had just laid out my secret. Fifteen other children under her daily care, and she didn’t care in the least that any one of them might have overheard.
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entry_210My office used to be a place where I would hide in fear as the besuited folk plowed their cubicle crops. But now my office resembles the aftermath of a freak industrial accident, and as I lay draped over my designer chair my superiors fall over themselves to praise my good work. It’s no accident that papers are strewn across every available horizontal surface, or that my desk is festooned with dozens of writing instruments, redundant office appliances, and stray pieces from things that I didn’t know what they were to begin with. The fact is that the cleanliness of my office is inversely proportional to my standing at the company, and right now I’m a superstar.

My projects are delivered ahead of time, and I take care to innovate in ways that the unexceptional minds of project managers could never anticipate. As a result of this a rather curious dynamic has become manifest: my impeccable output has rendered me untouchable.

Do my high standards stem from the desire to gain the appreciation of my colleagues? Certainly not. It’s an infallible principle that I’ve simply taken advantage of: The better appreciated the worker, the weaker the requirement for the artificial façade of personal fastidiousness. I leave management with no options. Make yourself likable and people will miss you when you’re laid off. Make yourself essential and you can lay ruin to your workspace with nary a concern.
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entry_209Owing to severe lack of focus I tend to lose anything that isn’t part of my actual body. I tell the ladies that I just have a canny asceticism, but it’s hard for me to maintain an air of wisdom when I’m locked outside my own house four times a week because I can’t remember where I put my key. This is why I keep a spare house key up in the rain gutter. The house is one of those modern designs, made primarily out of a single slab of some foamcrete-like material, so I suppose I could just walk through one of the walls if I pushed firmly enough. In any case, because it’s a slab structure there are no convenient crooks or crannies in which one might conceal a spare key, which is why I’ve taken to hiding it up in the rain gutter.

One drawback to stowing a key in the rain gutter is that getting it down is less than convenient. The stepladder lives in the shed, which in turn lives in the back yard. Factoring in the time it takes to clamber over the fence both ways, key retrieval is a good five minute undertaking. But inconvenience alone isn’t the problem. The problem is that once I’ve stowed the stepladder and return to my front door, the thought will inevitably occur to me: “What would it take to toss this key back up into the gutter?”

I know why I lose things. I think started losing my edge in my teens, not long after my stepfather installed an attic fan in our house. The man was too cheap to pay for proper air conditioning, but, ironically, procured from an old ex-aerospace buddy an attic fan roughly the size and strength of a hypersonic wind tunnel. Most males express mid-life crisis through showy, frivolous trifles. My stepfather fetishized household fixtures and appliances. Hammacher Schlemmer and Brookstone catalogs were his porn. And the attic fan was a particularly unfortunate way for him to exhibit machismo, because the condo we lived in wasn’t much larger than a gypsy caravan. The result is that whenever the fan screamed to life, every door in the house that wasn’t stopped by an anvil was sucked shut. Astronauts know better than to open their facemasks in the vacuum of space, and my stepfather could have learned something from that. The hotter the weather was, the more I could look forward to popped eardrums. By evening my head would be splitting, and I got so used to forcing my eustation tubes open that I must have been blowing brain circuitry by the fourth summer.
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entry_208At a family reunion dinner, my great grandfather–a man who was, to me, as noble as a silverback gorilla–ground his molars mercilessly. Our relationship at the time was such that he would occasionally drop tidbits of age-old wisdom on me, and I would not let on that my pockets were stuffed full of colorful summer beetles that I had collected from his garden. It’s fair to say that we weren’t exactly on the same wavelength. But as inscrutable as the old man was, when it came down to such basics as the feeding process, any mystique he’d cultivated just went out the window. Whether he was processing steak gristle or apple sauce, I endured the sound of rhythmic pulverization for the length of the dinner. It seemed impossible that this had been going on for eight decades. No, more likely he had simply reached a point where he knew just how long he needed to last, so why not use it up? To end on zero, there’s nobility in that, surely.

In response, I decided on the spot never again to allow my teeth to touch. My reaction might sound extreme, and I would agree that some lifelong habits can only take root during childhood’s idealism. But the mere thought of enamel on enamel was so offensive that I spent the rest of that day slack-jawed, for which I paid dearly when I failed to heed the portrait photographer’s increasingly vehement pleas.

Gradually, my ability to avoid closing my jaw became second-nature, and it was undetectable to the outside world. A strategic, if unnatural, placement of tongue provided cushion enough to ensure that enamel never touched enamel, and my resolve to this end became an obsession, not to mention a source of vanity. I could smile without raising undue attention, and took great pride when people complimented my extraordinarily intact teeth. I was not shy about brandishing them. Soon after my 25th birthday a friend remarked, “You still have those darling little bumps on the tops of your incisors, like they just came in.”

If there was a price for perfect teeth, it was in the denial in the satisfaction of a solid bite, which I experienced only in reverie. At night I would dream about grinding my molars against each other, and the pain of it was sweet. The clenching pressure was so great that my teeth would squeak like styrofoam, and fracture lines would creep over their contours until they splintered, until gum pressed against gum. Often I would awaken in a panic, though probing never revealed anything more serious than a bloody tongue.

My teeth are worthy of remark not because they’ve changed, but because they’re exactly the same as they were when they first thrust themselves through my gums. Thus, it’s not change in itself that is remarkable, but some measure of contrast between perception and expectation. It’s fair to say that I have some concerns about my teeth, but to illustrate why this is specifically, I need to tell you another story.
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entry_207A red sign on the door can’t be a good thing, can it? But we’re a block away, and though I can’t yet read the single word emblazoned on it, hope drains with each step. And indeed, the truck rental place is closed by the time we’re pressing our foreheads against the glass door. As a result of this we’re not just inconvenienced or put out, but well and truly fucked. These are the situations that nightmares are made of, because now we’ll basically have to rely on the moped we rode in on to move all the furniture–by midnight–which is more than patently absurd. So I should be devastated. I am devastated. But secretly I’m also reveling in it. Not in a way that I would dare put to words, especially not then and there. But there’s no denying that there’s a part of me that relishes the sweet kiss of denial.

And this isn’t just a behavioral singularity, but rather a constant quirk in my character. When I lost a ten page story during a power outage caused by a freak summer hailstorm, I was immediately awash in that unique nectar of panic, and for some time after I was utterly despondent. At the same time I felt as though I had been cleansed. Or, no, that’s not the right word for it. Virtuous, that’s what it was. Merely writing a story out, that’s something anyone can do. But to overcome adversity, to painstakingly write the exact same story twice, out of necessity, surely that was a task fulfilled only by the most intrepid of avatars.
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Watching (an excerpt)

entry_206“You’re shy, aren’t ya?” Michelle asked, her chair squeaking as she leaned it forward on two spindly legs. I thought I heard her tongue falter on “aren’t,” like she was translating from the twang of her native “ain’t.” She asked the question in earnest though, and it wrinkled her brow.

I could only grin, but it felt more like a wince. The break room was nothing more than a converted closet, appointed with a perpetually-hissing coffee maker and a couple of derelict chairs. There didn’t seem room for an answer in such a confined space.

My job’s primary attraction had been that there simply weren’t many people around on midnight security. Yet now Michelle’s pale eyes were steady on me, like she was trying to see straight through me to the back wall. It was all I could do to avoid turning away. My arms felt exposed and leaden, and I couldn’t find a natural resting position for them, so I folded them across my chest. What an unfortunate confrontation.

She took my silence as confirmation. “Shy!” she said, this time with conviction. Michelle was a woman not given to subtlety, so I could find some comfort in her obliviousness to my discomfort. I’d often found myself studying her schoolyard caliber flirtations from across the employee office, where fewer than a dozen of my crew mates spent the last half hour of shift before turnover. The conduct there tended toward the aggressive, and bawdy jokes or sports bickering set the tenor of the mornings. I’d ascribed it to the forced intimacy, but I’d always felt a distance from it, like a transient at a family gathering. I could relate to my shift mates as far as the job went, and my work was something for which I was well-regarded. But the friendship of colleagues had never been a part of that. They were here, after all, more as a factor of necessity than choice. And now, face to face with the company’s most volatile personality, I felt positively awkward. Calcified. It was an indelicate reminder that I had succeeded only too well in distancing myself–the stolid observer had become more a fossil than anthropologist.
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Handy Man

entry_205Damned if my hands didn’t look good around Claire’s throat. But then, my inability to perceive an act so visceral with any subjectivity was the very reason I was finally giving my agent the throttling she deserved. It sent me into a rage that there was a part of my mind, even then, that wasn’t focused entirely on squeezing with every ounce of strength I could muster. I could just hear the photographer’s direction: “Now lace your fingers behind back there, and turn the hero head just a little so we can see your thumbs. Nice!”


It’s impossible for me to lose myself within any activity, particularly anything involving my exceptional hands. You’ve probably seen my hands–the tools of my trade–fondling various products over the past decade or so, though you’d never know me on the street. I am a plain man, it’s true, but my hands are widely-held as the finest the advertising world has ever known. My introduction to hand modeling came early, sparked by an off-hand comment during a visit with Mother’s best friend Claire.

“Will you look at that?” said Claire, swirling her martini glass so that the ice cubes tinked against each other.

Mother looked up from her nails, “Mm?”

“The boy’s hands,” she said. Just like that: the boy. “They’re like little porcelain spiders.”

I looked down at my hands as if I were wearing them. At the time I was holding the chocolate bar Claire had brought me, still wrapped. It had melted in the summer’s heat, and I’d been squeezing it between my fingers, enjoying the fluid resistance within the candy’s foil sheath.

“Jeffrey, don’t play with your food,” said Mother. “It’s rude.”

“It’s not food, it’s candy,” I said. I put the bar in my pocket where, incidentally, it would melt even more.

“The boy could be a hand model,” Claire said. She turned to my mother. “I’m serious. Have you ever thought about bringing him in?”

I didn’t like the sound of that. In my limited experience, “in” was not a place to be brought. The thought of small severed hands on black conveyor belts had me massaging my wrists.

Mother shook her head. “All children have perfect hands,” she said. “You forget. That’s what hands look like before you’ve worked a job, or done your drugs, or been divorced-”

Claire chuffed. “Maggie, stop.”
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Once More

entry_204I met Tasha late last year at the rec center pool. I was doing my usual laps, and forcing myself to remain submerged as long as I could bear it. When I surfaced at the pool’s edge, her ankles were the first things I saw. Tasha stood there with a look I could only interpret as expectation, like she was close to remembering me from somewhere else, and only hoped that I would make it easier by remembering first. I could only shrug. “Sorry?” I said.

“No,” she said. “I was just admiring your submarine-like abilities.”

“Ah,” I said. “Yeah, it kind of runs in the family. That and a copious bladder. None of the men in my family urinate but once a week.”

“Which makes you excellent pool material all around, I’d say.”

We hit it off right away. Our rhythm was curiously free of the usual newborn fawn clumsiness, and I felt not the slightest hesitation when she asked whether I was hungry. “Your people do eat, I assume?”

“Of course,” I said. “But I eat only things that I’ve caught and shaken to death in my own teeth.”

“I can’t wait to meet your family,” she said.

It was about a week later, when work week poisons had attained dangerous levels once more, that I paid another visit to the rec center. My routine there is fairly regular, more ritual than relaxation. So I suppose I shouldn’t have been too surprised to see Tasha there again by the pool’s edge as I surfaced from my last lap.

She had that same look on her face–it’s unique to her, somewhere between private humor and deep confusion–and I didn’t have it in me to spoil the drama. So I shrugged. “Sorry,” I said.

“No, I was just admiring your submarine-like abilities,” she said. I felt that momentary mental tug that happens whenever I’m pitched out of the moment. That’s pretty much what she’d said the first time we’d met, wasn’t it? And I was immediately won over.
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