Ken!

reggae

I value my sanity. And I know exactly how much it’s worth to me. One hundred and eighty dollars. But I’m getting ahead of myself. I should start this story at the beginning.

I met Ken at a reggae club. I don’t particularly like reggae. I was there to pick up hippies. If you can get past the b.o. and patchouli, they’re pretty good in the sack.

Go ahead a slut shame me. It’ll just make me hornier!

But Ken wasn’t a hippie. He was a tall, African man with a magnificent set of choppers.

While we writhed on the dance floor, I frowned and refused to make eye contact. It’s the only way to get a man’s attention – act like he disgusts you.

But inside I was wondering what it would be like to be gently bitten on the shoulder.

We went out to eat. Dutch. I mean we split the check. The food was Thai.

Over dinner, Ken told me his story. He was from Kenya and his parents owned a tea plantation. He’d gone to boarding school in London and university in Berlin. Now he was in Seattle, to see something of the States.

Wait a minute… I smelled bullshit. Ken was a clerk at the Blockbuster for Christ’s sake. But what the hell, everyone has a right to reinvent themselves. I don’t lie myself. When you can spin the truth like I can, you don’t need to.

We started seeing each other two or three times a week. I won’t repeat certain crude sexual stereotypes about black men. Let’s just say, I voted for Obama.

One day, Ken asked to borrow $200. He needed it for the rent. “I don’t know, Ken. Can’t you get it from your parents? Don’t they own a tea plantation?”

I mulled it over. What did it mean if I didn’t lend Ken the money. If Ken was my boyfriend, then I was a tightwad. If Ken was some vaguely untrustworthy guy I was dating for sex, then I was a slut. Neither one sounded good. So we drove to an ATM and I gave him the cash.

We went out a few more weeks and then, well, as exotic as Ken had seemed at first, he ended up being really boring and square. We didn’t have a whole lot in common. For instance, Ken’s favorite drink was Bud Light. Mine was LSD.

I needed to get rid of Ken. I asked myself over and explained that it wasn’t him, it was me. Ken took it well. He gave me a warm hug and said he’d miss me. Sweet.

On the way out the door, I remembered the loan. “By the way, I expect you to still pay me the money you owe me.”

“Oh, of course, of course. Sit down.” Ken ushered me back onto the couch. He left the room and returned with a check for the full amount.

A few days later I got a call from the bank. The check bounced. In fact, it superbounced. Ken had written it against an account he’d closed out over a year previous.

I drove over to Ken’s house right then. I knocked on the door and, when the knob turned, I shoved the door open.

“Ken, that check you gave me bounced,” I began, affecting the calculating demeanor of a TV Mafioso. “Why would you do that, Ken? Did you think I would just forget about the money? Well, I’m not going to forget about it!”

I poked my finger hard into his chest. “When do you get paid?”

“Fridays,” Ken whimpered. Crocodile tears were streaming down his cheeks. “You can shut off the waterworks, sister,” I hissed. I actually said that to him, even though it didn’t make sense, him being the wrong gender. But I’d heard a guy say this to a woman in a bar once and I’d been waiting years to repeat it.

“Sometime over the weekend, I want you to put $20 in an envelope and drop it into the mailslot at my office. And I want you to do this every week until you pay off the $200 you owe me – and the $20 the bank charged me for your fake-ass check.”

On Monday morning Jackson was there, winking at me. But the next week, nothing. After work I drove over to Ken’s house again.

What timing! I pulled up behind another car that had a blonde at the wheel and Ken in the passenger seat. Ken noticed me in the rearview mirror. I smiled and waved.

Ken got out of the car and after the Blonde drove off, Ken sauntered over to my window.

“Hi, Ken. I’m glad to see you’ve moved on. But I’m worried about your girlfriend. Maybe I should tell her how go around ripping off poor, defenseless WHITE women.” Yes, I played the race card.

I waited another week and then decided I needed some backup. But I was new in town. I had just moved to Seattle to work for a comic book company and the only people I knew were geeky fanboys.

Thom was sympathetic and agreed to help turn up the heat on Ken. But he wasn’t very intimidating. Thom was not only your classic, 90-pound weakling, he was also somewhat effeminate.

One of his pickup techniques was to confide in a woman that he was sexually confused and needed help sorting things out. This would involve him trying out her vagina, “to see what it’s like.”

Robert, on the other hand, was six two and substantial. He was kind of big, bald guy you see at art openings wearing a black turtleneck and sipping cheap wine out of a plastic cup. Robert had the annoying habit of clearing his throat every time he spoke.

“We’re going over to Blockbuster to put the muscle on Mandingo,” explained Thom succinctly.

“Ughmmm. I don’t appreciate racial slurs,” replied Robert, “even when they’re ironic.”

“Just get your jacket,” said Thom.

“Ughmmm. All right,” said Robert. “But I’m not going to hit anyone. I’m a pacifist.”

On the drive over in the car, Robert gave us a lecture on the white man’s burden and the violent sequelae of colonialism.

“Who’s side are you on?” I fumed. “That asshole destabilized my economy!”

I entered the Blockbuster alone, found Ken, and demanded another twenty dollars. He hustled me outside to where Thom and Robert were waiting.

“Who are these guys,” snickered Ken.

“Who they are isn’t important,” I answered. “What’s important is they don’t like how you’re treating me.”

“Take it easy, Robert,” cued Thom.

“Ughmmm.” said Robert. We waited but that was all he did.

I could see I was going to have to take the lead.

“Maybe I should go back in there and tell your boss what a fucking jerk you are,” I offered.

“Go ahead.”

“Okay,” I shrugged and made for the door.

“Wait a minute.” Ken took out his wallet and handed me a twenty.

When we got back into the car I asked, “Do you think that guy’s afraid of me?”

“Ughmmm. No.” said Robert.

“Yeah, I know. It’s a problem. I’m trying to make him believe I’m crazy, crazy enough to do anything to get my money back.”

“If it makes you feel better, we believe you’re crazy,” said Thom.

On Monday, Ken was still in default.

So I went to see my boss, Gary. Gary was a contradiction, a die-hard liberal and one of the meanest people I’ve ever known. This democratic socialist saved an answering machine message from an ex-girlfriend. She’s crying and begging him not to leave her. Gary would play this message at parties.

Like many despised and paranoid people, Gary was a gun nut.

“Gary, I need to borrow a gun.”

“Sure,” he shrugged. “Do you want a revolver or an automatic?”

“I’ll take the revolver. It’s classic. It really says ‘gun.’”

“What about bullets? Do you want bullets?”

Did he think I was stupid? If I killed Ken, I’d never get my money back.

That afternoon I went over to Ken’s house. In the car I mussed up my hair and rubbed spit into my eyes to make it look like I’d been crying. Then I banged on his door.

“I know you’re in there,” I yelled. “I saw you peek out the curtains.”

Ken let me in.

“I can’t take it any more, Ken.” I tried to shake uncontrollably. “The humiliation is too much. I want my money.” Then I pulled the gun out of my jacket and aimed it at his chest as I had seen numerous crazy women do in soap operas.

Then Ken reached over to the end table, opened a drawer and pulled out his own gun.

I opened my arms wide. “Go ahead and shoot me, Ken. Your ass is going back to Africa.” Then I tried a more rational approach, “Look, just give me the money, and you’ll never have to see me again,” and I turned around and left.

About a week later I tried to call Ken with the intention of threatening him with the Immigration and Naturalization Service, but one of his housemates picked up. Ken had vacated the premises owing two months rent. He’d also quit his job at Blockbuster.

Now what? I called a cartoonist I knew who was a process server. We strategized. Ken might still be in Seattle. Find out if Ken submitted a change of address at the post office. Stake out Ken’s favorite bars. Keep a picture of Ken in my wallet and ask everyone I met if they’d seen Ken. Ken. Ken. Ken. Ken!

When I hung up, Robert, who’d been at his desk eavesdropping, asked, “Ughmmm. What would it be worth to you to get rid of this Ken problem?”

“I don’t know. Why?”

“Would it be worth, say, $180?”

“Yes! I’m interested. What do you have in mind?”

“Ughmmm. Then why don’t you just forget about the whole thing.”

BANG!

There was a tiny explosion in my brain that wasn’t an orgasm or an aneurism. It was an epiphany. Robert was right. I was driving myself crazy a 180 bucks?!?!

So I pulled out my dossier on Ken, a manila file folder labeled simply, “Fucker,” and I dropped it in the wastebasket.

 

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Bottoms Up!

It was the night before Thanksgiving. I’d only been in town a few months and everything was going wrong. I’d just gotten out of an entanglement so ugly I’d started believing evil really did exist in the world — that it was a solid thing, like a rotary telephone or a birthday cake. When a man tells you he’s sick and twisted take him at his word. He knows who he’s talking about.

But there’s little time to wallow in heartsick when you’re unemployed and running short of cash.

I was all dolled up in a tight, black wool suit and Wall Street warpaint because I’d just finished up a lousy job interview. Across the street from the subway stop was a blinking sign. Blue. Bird. Lounge. A neon drinking bird with a tophat kept tipping over to sip his martini, then up again. Back and forth and back and forth and back and forth.

I wasn’t excited about home. My roommate, Joan, had been particularly pissy as of late. Why not toss back a few; it might help get me to morning.

You’d have to be stupid to order a cocktail in a dive like that, so I went for a pint on tap. After another I was bumming cigarettes from the guys sitting next to me at the bar, a blond and his friend. The Blond was just passing through on his way to visit the folks upstate. His dad was a professor at a college up there.

I told them about my horrible job interview and the Blond asked what had the interview been for, undertaker? (making a crack about the black suit). He asked how I’d ended up in the big city, and I launched into my sob story about the bad romance.

About halfway through I was boring even myself so I started embellishing. Now the evil ex was having violent outbursts. He couldn’t help himself: he had excessive levels of testosterone caused by a double set of testicles. The guy had four nuts, a fact he’d somehow managed to hide from me until last week. I’d given him an ultimatum. It was me or the extra pair, and he’d made his decision…

The Blond told me I was funny, which might be effective flattery. But I was embarrassed, so I said, “I’d rather be sexy.” “Oh, you’re sexy,” he said.

I was jacked up from the beer and the general hilarity and I blurted out, “One of you boys should come home with me, but which one? You’re both so handsome.” The Brunet, which was the better looking of the two, snorted “not me” with a rapidity that I felt was lacking in compassion. But the Blond was on track: “Are you serious?”

We turned to look at the Brunet. He cleared his throat noisily and said, “I believe I’ll be taking my leave now” while raising an imaginary fedora. He left half a pint on the bar which I shamelessly commandeered. “A good friend of yours?” I asked. “Not really,” the Blond answered.

“So what do you say…” said the Blond, wrapping his arm across my back. “I don’t know,” I answered. “I don’t do this kind of thing. Are you married? Do you have a girlfriend? I got enough going on right now without the added guilt.”

“Unattached,” he shrugged.

“I don’t know why I asked,” I huffed. “I don’t believe a thing men say any more.” Then I told him if he wanted to come home with me there were some rules.

“Such as?” he asked.

“I’m in charge. You only do what I tell you to.”

“Okay.”

“You have to promise never to contact me because I hate men now, especially boyfriends.”

“Easy enough.”

“Ah, ha. You say that now, but you haven’t slept with me yet,” I said, and he laughed. “And you can’t tell me your name.”

“But I already have. And your name is Gladys.”

“I’m so drunk I must have forgot. Don’t tell me again. This has to be anonymous.”

We left the bar and walked to the bodega on the corner to buy condoms. I didn’t want eye contact with the clerk, so while the Blond was making the transaction, I clopped over to the refrigerator case in high heels. A blister near my right ankle burned and just thinking about taking my shoes off felt good. As I peered inside the glow of the case I thought, I can’t believe I’m doing this. How pathetic. And I laughed out loud.

We grabbed a cab and went back to my place. Fortunately, my roommate Joan was still out, no doubt snorting cocaine of low quality off a toilet tank somewhere in bohoville. We went into the living room. The Blond sat on the couch, and right away I got naked and sat in his lap. I let him cuddle me and stroke me like a cat, but I wouldn’t let him kiss me.

I straddled his lap and ground my crotch against the fly of his jeans. Then I flipped over and stretched out across his lap. “Spank me. I’m a bad girl,” I commanded. “Sometimes I drink too much.” We both laughed.

He whacked me good a couple of times and when my ass was toasty I stood up and struck a Betty Grable. “Tell me I’m attractive,” I said.

“You’re attractive,” he said.

“Are you saying that because I told you to say it, or do you really believe it?”

“I don’t know, but my cock’s pretty hard right now.”

“Stay here,” I ordered, and I scurried into the kitchen to look for something else to drink. I have alcoholic tendencies and when I get a good buzz going I go nutty for the stuff. All I could find was a bottle of red wine someone had given my roommate and me as a housewarming gift. I uncorked it and took it into the living room, and we drank it right out of the bottle.

I told the Blond to take his clothes off. “Can’t we turn the lights out?” he whined.

“What, are you hiding something? I want to check you out first, make sure you’re healthy and not a junkie or covered in Herpes lesions.” Maybe I’m being too mean to this guy, I thought, but he didn’t seem to care. He took his clothes off and turned around a few times. He was well built — something I didn’t expect. Muscular, but not steroidal.

“Wow, do you work out?” I asked.

“No. I’m a carpenter, and I do a lot of physical labor.”

He got down on the carpet with me and we passed the bottle back and forth, laughing just because we were drunk. He tried to touch my crotch, but I smacked his hand away and hissed, “Go and wash your hands first.” I hate when a man tries to touch me with dirty hands. It’s disrespectful.

He went into the bathroom, and I heard him piss and then wash his hands. When he came back I let him touch me and he put his fingers inside of me. We rolled around on the carpet for a while, and he rubbed and kissed my body until I said, “Okay, we can go into the bedroom now.”

We grabbed our clothes and walked back to my room. I turned on the light and he asked me to please turn if off, so I plugged in a string of red chili novelty lights I had nailed to the wall over my futon. It made the room nice and rosy.

He rubbed my crotch some more and sucked my nipples. He fished a condom out of his pants pocket, put in on and put his penis inside of me. It felt good, but there wasn’t the joy like with someone you care about. The probability of me having an orgasm approached the null so I didn’t even bother to get really excited. I’m small and he was strong, so he could move me around and that was sexy.

Afterward we talked and smoked for a while. When things got quiet he reached over to a pile of fanzines that were beside the bed and started reading out loud:

“‘It was the summer of 1976, our nation’s Bicentennial. I found myself in the souvenir shop of a white trash seaside resort faced with a monumental decision. After considering an exhausting number of permutations of T-shirt and iron-on transfer (which covered every inch of the wall and ceiling), I had winnowed it down to just two: a cartoon mouse holding a single long-stem rose next to the catchphrase “a touch of class” on powder blue or the simple rock ‘n’ roll-inflected “wild thing” in rubbery silver glitter on black. I made my choice and everything that I am today flowed logically from there.'”

“Did you write that?,” he laughed. “It’s pretty good.”

“I don’t know. It’s the same kind of shit everyone else is writing.”

He told me about his family and how his dad was disappointed that he had only wanted to be a carpenter and not an academic or some other kind of educated professional. He asked me what I was doing for Thanksgiving and I said, “I don’t care about it.”

“You know what would be funny,” he said, “if I took you to Thanksgiving dinner with my family, and I had to explain who you were.” I didn’t know if he was inviting me or making a joke, so I said, “That would be against the rules.”

In the morning he was kissing my neck and telling me how adorable I was. It was flattering, but he lit a cigarette first thing and the smell nauseated me. I just wanted to get rid of him.

“So, should we go for another round,” he asked.

“No thanks. I’m hung over.”

“You mean you’re sober,” he said.

“Yeah, I guess that’s it,” I said, chuckling.

“Maybe you should get going.”

“All right.”

We got dressed and I walked him out of the apartment. I wanted to get some fresh air because of the cigarette smoke and maybe some coffee. When the subway stop was within sight I pointed him the rest of the way. Then burrowing my hands deep in my jacket pockets I said, “That was nice.”

“It was,” he said.

“Well, see ya’ later.” Then I laughed and added, “Or I guess I won’t be seeing you later.”

I was feeling better after walking in the cool air, so I went to the diner. There was no one there so I got a big booth all to myself. I ordered scrambled eggs and dry wheat toast, which was all I could stomach. I starting feeling cheerful for a change. I thought, he was a nice guy — not my type — but a nice guy. That was more fun than crying myself to sleep.

When I got to the apartment, Joan was sitting in the living room smoking a cigarette, which made me queasy again. She didn’t have to talk: I could tell she was mad by the way her mouth was set. I sat down on the chair across from her and picked up a section of last week’s newspaper off the floor.

“You had some guy here last night, didn’t you?” she asked.

“Yes. Yes, I did.”

“Who was he?”

“Just some guy I met at a bar.”

She let this hang a minute and then said, “That’s not cool, bringing strange men back here. He could have been a sicko. It’s not just you here, you know. What about my safety.”

“Come on. Get off your high horse,” I snapped. “Just last month you brought some guy back here, remember? The one that tried to fuck you in the ass.”

“That was different. My friends were here from out of town sleeping in the living room, so he couldn’t have started any trouble.”

“You’re right. I’m sorry,” I said, not wanting to argue. “It was wrong, and I’ll never do it again. But he was a perfect gentlemen. I could tell.”

“You were drunk!”

I sat there pretending to look through the paper while she fumed. Joan reached down and hooked something white off the floor with her index finger. “It looks like your friend left something.” She held at arm’s length a pair of men’s white briefs. Then she screamed, “Oh my God!” and twirled the underwear around so I could see the back. There was a big red-brown stain.

“It looks like your ‘boyfriend’ was bleeding from his asshole. How do you feel now?” I felt like I was going to hurl. “You fucked some guy who was bleeding from his asshole,” she added in case I wasn’t capable of putting two and two together.

I thought, my God, I fucked some guy who was bleeding from his asshole. This is really, really bad. Then with great relief I remembered something: I had knocked over the bottle of wine when we were on the floor and sopped it up with his underwear.

“It’s all right,” I said. “It’s just wine.” The floor of our apartment had a tremendous slope, and I retrieved the spent bottle from where it had come to a rest against the wall.

“What? That’s my bottle of wine!”

“I thought it was ‘our’ bottle of wine.”

“That was a very special and expensive bottle of wine my friend gave me.”

“I’m sorry,” I said. There was no point in defending myself: I really shouldn’t have drunk it. “I’ll buy another bottle to replace it.”

But she kept harping on it. “You can’t replace it because it’s from her family’s private vineyard. I can’t believe you would just take it like that.”

Then I had an inspiration. “I’ll give you $20, all right? But if you take the money I don’t want to hear about it any more. That’s part of the deal.” I knew Joan was hard up because she already owed me a hundred bucks. “Okay,” said Joan. “But I want it now.” So got my purse and handed her the cash.

Does the Buddha Like Strained Peaches?

New motherhood can be a time of intense spiritual growth for a woman. It’s an opportunity to set aside the concerns and worries of the larger world to focus on living in the present moment and to just “be.” It’s a sensuous, oxytocin-fueled sacred space filled with love and infinitely expanding compassion.

And at the heart of it is this beautiful, new creature who is a living, breathing example of an enlightened being. An enlightened being you get to introduce to the everyday wonders of this world. Does the Buddha like strained peaches? What does he make of cats? Let’s put him on the swing. Wheeeee!

That’s the jist of an article I read in a parenting magazine while I was waiting in the pediatrician’s office. I think. It was hard to concentrate. There was a lot going on. I was still trying to wrap my head around the surreal fact that an actual human being had recently wormed its way out of my crotch. Also, my boobs hurt really bad and were the size and firmness of basketballs. And I hadn’t slept for days and days and days and days.

I had a burning question for the doctor: Should I continue to starve my newborn to death with my inept, hippie breastfeeding or should I feed him formula, and turn him into an allergic retard who will never be able to experience real love?

At the time I wanted to slap whoever wrote that article, but it was probably right on. In fact, I feel certain that new motherhood presented me with a lot of lost opportunities. When life gives me lemons, I don’t make lemonade, instead I squeeze the juice into my eyes and then scream about how much it hurts.

In addition to the stresses of new motherhood, there were other things going on that helped me along a path toward wretchedness. There was the problem of the baby daddy’s wife who was always in the background demanding money that we didn’t have. And the no-money problem itself — I had quit my job to look after the baby and then my partner was laid off when the tech bubble burst. That’s why we were able to look out the window of our Brooklyn home together and watch airplanes fly into the World Trade Center.

My anxiety was overwhelming. I tried not to act out but sometimes I couldn’t control myself. I would be quietly white-knuckling it until some innocuous camel straw — the baby would have a crying fit or I couldn’t find my keys — and then I’d start moaning and yanking my hair out.

Despite the fact that my partner seemed to take these outbursts in stride, I was concerned that this type of behavior might make me appear just a wee bit incompetent as a new mom. So when the urge to depilate came on, I would rub my right thumb hard into my left palm. Sometimes I’d chuckle, “I’m being rubbed out.” When I think about this period of my life, this is the “Vine” that runs in an endless loop.

I wondered why I was having such a hard time with all of this. Yes, I had always been a little bit… cuckoo. I won’t deny it. That would be futile. You can see it in my eyes! But I had also been independent and capable. I had friends and interests and talents. And I had a funny little Bonzai tree of a personality that I had painstakingly and lovingly crafted over the years.

I’d think about my anxiety and it didn’t make sense. Why worry about things you can’t control? I wasn’t even dealing with that much. When my son was hospitalized overnight for jaundice, I met a mother who had been staked out in the hospital waiting room for months waiting to hear whether her baby would live or die.

Maybe I needed the anxiety. It was the only thing I had. Underneath the anxiety was something even scarier. Nothing. The person I was had been replaced by a zombie that fed, soothed and cleaned ass 24-hour a day. I was never as boring or as stupid or as ignored as when I was taking care of young children. All the saccharin Mother’s Day cards in the world cannot make up for the fact that no one actually cares about mothers or motherhood or mothering. I know I didn’t, and I was one.
People who are childless often complain about pushy, entitled, lazy mothers and their screaming spawn, but when I see a mother of young children I always think, Christ, I hope she’s okay.

My Suicide

toilet

I first fell half in love with easeful death at the tender age of four. As the last child in a large family I felt ignored, so I would hide under the coffee table. Hiding is actually not a good way to draw attention to yourself. After a while I learned to enjoy lying under there, alone. It was like having my very own coffin in the living room. I crayoned some flowers under the table top. I folded my arms over my chest and pretended I was a corpse. It was peaceful.

Eventually they pulled me out, combed the knots out of my hair and sent me to school. Surprise, I didn’t like it. I resented being bossed around by the man, also known as Miss Goodman. Let’s face it, who wants to be told when they can pee.

But instead of fighting the good fight, I took the weasel’s way out and became a malingerer. I would scream at my mother, “I’ve got a headache and you can’t prove I don’t!” When she failed to be convinced I would hold my breath in class hoping to pass out or even pass away. But no matter how hard I tried my last gasp was always followed by another.

As an older child I was a misanthrope. All social interactions appeared to be about establishing and maintaining rank in the pecking order. People were no better than chimps, shaking sticks and grimacing at each other so they could get first pick at the bananas. Disgusting. I felt superior, but I also knew that if I ever did throw myself into the violent competition of life I was sure to lose.

Around this time I started thinking that maybe I wanted to be crazy. Society doesn’t expect much from the insane. They get to sit on the sidelines and enjoy the show. It was the ‘70s and the fad was on for psychos. Charlie Manson and Sybil Dorset had their own TV movies.

Sybil’s personality split into 16 different people because of childhood abuse. I would imitate Sally Field in a scene from the movie where she mutters into her hand unintelligibly. But it was Sybil’s psychotic mom was my hero. She was a genius of torture. I mean, if I was going to abuse my kids I’d just burn them with a cigarette and shove them in the closet. Sybil’s mother would fill her daughter’s bladder with cold water and then tie her to a piano leg. Then she’d play vigorously, the resulting vibrations giving her daughter excruciating spasms. In the movie, Sybil’s mother commands in a terrible voice, “Hold your water!” I would shout this accusingly at my mother when nagged to clean my room

As a teenager I practiced being a schizophrenic but I didn’t have much talent. I’d stare at candle flames trying to see the face of Satan. I’d listen for voices in the dark. Sometimes I would hear them just before I fell asleep but they never said anything interesting. No CIA plots or alien encounters, just two people having an ordinary conversation. “How was your day? Okay. What did you have for lunch?”

No, all I could muster was ordinary depression with suicidal ideation. I slept with a knife under my pillow trying to work up the courage to stab myself in the heart. But it wasn’t all fun and games. Sometimes I wasn’t sure I wanted to die and then I’d get worried. I was still a virgin for God’s sake! But I couldn’t tell my family about my problems because I knew they would just tease me.

A few years after that my mother died and I became even more depressed. I saw a psychiatrist at my college who told me I was manic depressive, which was the hot diagnosis in the ‘80s. Nowadays they call it bipolar disorder which doesn’t sound nearly as romantic. I had finally made it, I was certified.

But my satisfaction was short-lived, my doctor put me on lithium, which wasn’t a good drug for me. It didn’t help and it had a lot of side effects. The worst was that I couldn’t have an orgasm. I’d just started having them! So I stopped taking the pills and I stopped going to head shrinkers. And things got a little better. I graduated school somehow and I took various secretarial jobs. When I felt bad I drank and smoked, which works pretty good actually. But I kept the pills, as a souvenir.

My doctor had told me the pills were dangerous. That they would kill me if I took too many. I figured if I ever needed to check out that would be a painless way to go. Believing I could easily kill myself was comforting, the same comfort a Nazi spy must have felt knowing he had a cyanide capsule sewn into the hem of his jacket. I didn’t need to kill myself now because I could do it at any time. Why not wait and see if things got better.

Then in New York things got much worse. I was in my 30s with nothing to show for it. My friends were all failed artists and alcoholics. I had become a cartoon character, a low-rent Dorothy Parker, who if not consistently witty could at least be depended on to take her blouse off at parties. And I couldn’t find a publisher for my novel. It seemed really unfair. It knew it was good, damn good. The fact that I hadn’t actually written a novel didn’t seem to matter.

I tried to find meaning in my life. I applied to volunteer for the Big Sister program but was told, don’t call us we’ll call you. Evidently young African American girls don’t need to be mentored on drinking and sleeping around.

One night I came home late from a party. I’d had a good time but it seemed like the same party I’d been to a couple of hundred times before. While soaking in a hot tub I decided it was time. I rummaged around until I found the pills, filled a glass with water and climbed up the ladder into my loft bed. There I downed as many pills as I could and squeezed out a couple of tears. With the ceiling so close it was a lot like lying under the coffee table again. I crossed my arms over my chest and waited.

Five minutes, nothing. Ten minutes, disappointment. Fifteen minutes, abdominal cramps …. and an unmistakable urge. I climbed down the rickety ladder as fast as I could. Minutes previous I was okay with my roommate finding me with a purple tongue and flies feasting on my eyeballs, and now I was worried I would shit my pants.

Over the next half hour everything but my life was forcefully expelled from my anus. Then the vomiting started. I thought about going to the emergency room but I didn’t see my suicide attempt as any kind of cry for help. In my mind it was a cry for death. So I waited it out and the next morning I was dehydrated but otherwise fine.

For a while afterwards I wondered why I didn’t die. Well, probably lithium isn’t poisonous in the way I had thought it was. Or maybe I didn’t really want to die. But on a deeper, cosmic level, I think I didn’t die because I didn’t deserve it. I hadn’t really done anything with my life. I’d spend most of it hiding, loafing and feeling sorry for myself.

So, I made up for lost time. I went out and found myself a decent man, who I seduced away from his wife. Which sounds worse than it really was but whatever, I don’t have to explain myself to you people. And I had a couple of kids and I went back to school to be a nurse. I work hard now. And I’m going to write that unpublishable novel.

And one day, in the not too distant future when I’m exhausted, the grim reaper, who looks an awful lot like my supervisor at the hospital, will say, “You can clock out now. And I’ll say, “Great, I’m really bushed.” And the grim reaper will say, ‘Want to work another shift?” And I’ll say, “No thanks,” and the grim reaper will say, “Time and half…” And I’ll say, “Yeah but it’s taxed at a higher rate so it’s hardly worth it” At this point this bit is in serious danger of breaking down, so let me in end with this… You can cheat death but you can’t cheat life, you’ve got to live it.

Why That Zen Retreat I Went On Matters

baldy I went to a weekend Buddhist retreat a couple of weeks ago. Not that I’m some kind of religious nut. Actually, I am a religious nut. I just don’t like to admit it because it’s embarrassing. I can’t help it. Hyper-religiosity runs in my family. I even have one of those insane spinster aunts that goes to mass every day and is always making brownies for the priests. The entire inside of her trailer is covered with icons. It’s really cool.

It’s not like God talks to me or anything. Although Jesus did come and sit down next to me on a pew once. But he didn’t say anything, he just put his arm around me. At least I think it was Jesus. I can’t say for sure that it was him since he was invisible.

I need some kind of religious practice. Without it I will slide into the psychic hellhole that is always following me around. I can almost see this hole. I’m not that afraid of the hole any more because I know I can function in there, but it’s not a good place to be. It’s dark and I spend most of my energy making sure I don’t hurt myself bumping into things.

But I’m also deeply rational, and an atheist. There’s just not that much out there for us — the religious nuts who are also deeply rational atheists. There’s Quakerism and Buddhism and a couple of other things that I’m less interested in. (I promised myself I would stop ranting against 12-Step and I’m keeping that promise.)

Years ago, I read something that the Dalai Lama said about how Westerners should practice their own religions and stay away from Buddhism. And he’s like their pope or something, so that settled it. I’m a Quaker.

For people who don’t know anything about these religions, there’s not that much to know. There’s not a lot of dogma. On some level it’s just a bunch of weirdos who sit around and attempt to connect with something greater than themselves through meditation, while also trying not to be jerks. At least that’s what it is to me, but I’m no expert. I never study any of it. In fact, I’m resistant to studying it. I just want to do it, not read about it.

Being a Quaker, I thought I might fit in with these Buddhists. These two spiritual traditions share an affinity for vegetarianism and healthy grains. But I don’t want you to get the idea that I’m some self-righteous cunt because I don’t eat animals. In fact, I sometimes suspect I’m a sociopath. The right thing to do is almost never obvious to me. Like, should I give that guy on GoFundMe money for his elderly dog’s chemotherapy or not? I can’t decide!

However, Quakerism and Buddhism aren’t really all that much alike. Quakerism is inherently value-based. It’s about figuring out how you should act in the world and toward other people. Buddhism, at least Zen Buddhism, is more nihilistic. It’s about how you relate to reality. Maybe…. I don’t know. (I should really read something, even if it’s just a Wikipedia entry.)

Buddhism also has this big lottery jackpot of enlightenment, which I imagine is like being on acid all the time only you never get paranoid and you can still drive and hold down a job if you have to. But that’s off my radar because Quakers aren’t supposed to gamble and I never win anything anyway.

And then there is Brad. I’ve attended zazen meditation sessions at a yoga center with Brad a couple of times. My friend M, who is my co-conspirator in religious nuttery, turned me on to these folks. I’m perplexed by Brad. What is Brad? Is he a teacher? A facilitator? A guru? A cult leader? Is he a secret right-winger, like I suspect? I can’t figure it out. Brad explains that he’s simply some guy who likes to meditate and if people want to come and join him, great. I like Brad. What’s not to like? He’s cute and nerdy and self-effacing.

But when it’s time for the dharma talk I quickly learn that this isn’t some spiritual rap session. Brad is the man. He’s the guy with the “transmission,” whatever that is. As a nurse the word transmission does not have positive connotations. It’s usually associated with things like multi-drug resistant gonorrhea.

We don’t have a Brad at the Quaker meeting. It’s one of the few rules that Quakers have — no Brads, or, maybe, all Brads. This is one of the reasons that Quakerism appeals to me. I have issues with authority, especially male authority. It’s practically impossible for me to take direction from a man. When I took ballroom dancing lessons the instructor had to remind me over and over and over again to let my boyfriend lead.

One of my patients who is a fitness coach told me I have too much testosterone for a woman. He said he could tell because I’m a hothead and have zero body fat. Maybe it’s as simple as that. Or maybe I’m still pissed off that I was born a woman in a culture that does not value women.

What do I know about Brad? Very little. Brad has written a couple of books, none of which I’ve read, including something called Hardcore Zen. The title does not intrigue me. I am not a sex-positive feminist. I’m a second-wave dinosaur. (Ladies, you can’t smash the patriarchy by selling pussy.) I think about a book titled Extreme Anal Penetration Quakerism. Would that be something I would be inclined to read? No, it is not.

But I take a closer look at the cover and hardcore doesn’t refer to porn. It’s almost worse. It’s a reference to punk rock. Punk-rock Buddhism is some kind of thing now. There’s Brad and this other guy Noah Levine, who might be worse because he’s covered with tattoos and is part of the recovery movement.

I like punk rock. I sustained multiple bruises pogoing in mosh pits. I just don’t get the connection to Buddhism. Like, why not glam rock Buddhism? Yes, Husker Du’s cover of Eight Miles High is totally bitchin’, but so is Roxy Music’s.

Maybe it’s just a branding thing, like “Buddhism isn’t just for hippies any more.” If that’s the case I wonder if these guys are aware of the contradiction inherent in using an anti-capitalism, anti-consumerism counterculture movement to market themselves to the mainstream.

I google Brad and up pops an article titled “Why Brad Warner Matters.” I believe this article may hold the key to helping me unlock the arcane connection between punk and Zen, but I can’t bring myself to read it because the title is such a stupid cliche. Oh, well.

So I show up for the retreat on Friday afternoon and at the reception they’re all, like, “Do you want a [Japanese word] with Brad?” I’m clueless. It sounds something like “sodoku” but I feel pretty certain they’re not talking about the math puzzles that are in the newspaper. I hazard a guess that it’s some kind of spiritual dialogue. I think, Brad should ask for a sodoku with me so that I can tell him that if he keeps stage diving at his age he’s going to break a hip.

I get settled in my room and we’re off: eating meditation, meditation, walking mediation, yoga, lecture, mediation, walking meditation, meditation. Repeat until Sunday. Did I enjoy it? I don’t think you’re supposed to. I have a natural tendency toward asceticism so the austerity didn’t bother me at all. And I loved that it was silent. I’m uncomfortable around strangers and I don’t like small talk. The only time I want to discuss the weather is if there’s a tornado on the horizon.

But a couple of things really irked me. One was a humble square of cloth. We had to use the same filthy rag to wipe out our bowls after every meal. I’m not a princess. Honestly. I’m a nurse. I change colostomy bags. I smell urine, on purpose. I squeeze the pus out of wounds. And then I go to lunch. But that rag quickly took on the aspect of an impudent turd, a turd that I neatly folded and placed on top of my food bowls following every meal. We would sit down to eat and there it would be, right where I had left it, mocking me. I wanted to strangle that rag. Because of that loathsome cloth I was barely able to choke down anything the whole weekend.

And then there was the soul-crushing discipline. I was told what to do and where to be close to 24 hours a day. This is what it must be like to be in jail or a psychiatric hospital, two places that I have somehow managed to avoid. (Hard to believe, I know.) I was enraged enough to pack up my shit and leave, but I’d already given these people $350 and I didn’t think they would give it back to me. So I started plotting revenge against Brad. During a work meditation, I recognized Brad’s shoes outside unattended and I could barely restrain myself from stuffing rocks and twigs in them. It was such a great prank. Brad would be, like, somebody hates me, but who? And no one would ever suspect me because I don’t look one-half as crazy as I really am.

Oh, right. I almost forgot something crucial. I finally figured out what Brad is and this is probably why I was focusing all my anger on him at that point. I don’t know if it’s just my natural stupidity or the fact that I’m self absorbed and don’t pay attention to what’s going on around me, but on Saturday morning I suddenly notice that Brad is wearing robes and chanting in another language, and there’s incense and prostrations and we’re bowing to … Brad. I start hyperventilating and having palpitations and I feel like I’m going to vomit and scream at the same time, which I don’t think is even physiologically possible. This is all so surreally familiar from when I was a confirmed member of the Holy Roman Catholic Church. Trigger. Trigger. Flashback. Trigger. Flashback. Holy Mary, Mother of God, Brad is a PRIEST! How did I not know this? I consider throwing myself on the floor and pretending to have a seizure so that they will take me back to my room, but I somehow manage to keep it together.

That’s most of the bad stuff that happened. Well, I also struggled with impure thoughts about the monks. Which one was hotter, the tall, grumpy one, or the short, nervous one? I still can’t decide.

It wasn’t all bad. Good stuff happened, too. During the meditations I tried not to dwell on anything, but something kept surfacing. I can never seem to decide if my job is killing me or if it’s just making me into a better person in a really painful way. And then there are all the ethical compromises I have to make as a cog in the machine that is the medical industrial complex. So I break down and sign up for a sodoku with Brad.

Brad doesn’t have any special insight and he doesn’t give me any advice, but I feel like he is giving me his full attention and really listening to what I’m saying, and that means a lot. And I’m grateful, even if Brad is a possible Republican.

And then there was lying awake in bed Saturday night, tossing and turning, which doesn’t sound that great but it was. That’s the night that I realize the depth of my ridiculousness. Like how I’m this tiny, ineffectual person who’s pathologically hostile and suspicious. I’m basically a Chihuahua with rabies! And how completely miserable I make myself, for no reason. This doesn’t seem tragic, it’s hilarious! I laugh out loud about it. I can’t stop laughing. I laugh so hard that I’m afraid I’m going to wake my roommates up. It’s like I have been playing this elaborate practical joke on myself for ages and I just let myself in on it and, even though I’m also the patsy and it’s a mean joke, I still cannot help but admire its diabolical genius.

And then something happened Sunday during the second meditation that’s too private to talk about it, even if I understood what it was, which I don’t, and could find the words to describe it, which I don’t think I can. But it’s right up there with ghost Jesus. I wouldn’t tell you about it even if I wanted to, because you would just laugh at me. Everyone is always laughing at me.

I’m different now, at least I think I am. Everything looks a little bit brighter and I notice things that would have gone right by me before. I’m acting differently: I’m not yelling at the kids as much and I’m not sitting in the car crying in the parking lot before work. People have noticed the change and remarked on it. I’ve been doing zazen mediation every day and I hope I don’t stop.

At the end of retreat. I feel all of this gratitude and affection toward Brad. I know it’s just as irrational as all the anger I focused on him earlier, but I want to make him brownies. And when we go around the room talking about our experience I try to convey how overwhelmed I felt earlier, but I can tell I’m being inarticulate. I feel ashamed of myself for having been so angry at Brad earlier, and I try to sincerely apologize. But when I confess to Brad that I wanted to put rocks in his shoes, everyone just laughs. I told you people are always laughing at me.

Girl Crush

drum-tobacco-12.5g-1204-pIn the early ‘90s I lived in Seattle and worked on a magazine about comic books. At the time Seattle was a cartoonist Mecca and maybe it still is. I don’t know anything about comics any more. I lost interest after having been completely obsessed well into my 30s.

Anyway, one day the art director at the magazine came over and handed me a piece of paper with a name and phone number on it and he said, “You should really meet this woman. She’s visiting from the East Coast, and I think you two would hit it off.”

I had a lot of social anxiety — I still do — and just the thought of talking to a stranger, even on the phone, gave me palpitations. Normally I would have just thrown the paper in the trash. But I had no female friends, and the art director, who was someone I trusted, had been insistent. So I dialed the phone and whispered tremulously into the handset: “Is Deb there?” Luckily, when she got on the phone, I didn’t have to say much more than my name. Deb gave me the address of where she was staying and asked me to come by later that night.

For the rest of the day at work I had problems concentrating. I kept wondering, What am I going to say to this person? Should I try to think up something clever in advance so she’ll think I’m smart and funny? But then I thought I might sound affected and she’d think, “Wow, this chick is a big phony laying schtick on me.” Should I bring beer? If I bring Red Hook, I might look pretentious. But If I bring Red Stripe, I might look pretentiously unpretentious. Hook or Stripe? Ack!

I finally decided that I wouldn’t bring anything. And I’d just show up and listen and smile and if I felt like saying something I’d say it and not worry. There was a good chance I wouldn’t like her anyway because I hated just about everybody.

I drove over to where Deb was staying in the beat up Cavalier my dad had sold me for almost nothing. It smelled like cigarette smoke and burnt plastic. The ashtray was always overflowing with butts and one morning I went into the office without taking care and the dashboard had caught on fire.

Deb let me in this apartment that was stripped down even for a crashpad, with bare lightbulbs and old dusty sheets covering the windows. What a dump! Deb was about the same height as I was, five foot, but she was a spunky art punk with short, bleached hair, a husky voice and a frank gaze and I was a whiny neo-hippie with roving eyeballs and lots of long, brown political hair. But it didn’t matter because the whole grunge thing that was happening was a sort of truce between the punks and the hippies based on a mutual love of heroin.

There was an ashtray on the dining room table where we were sitting so I took out my pack of Drum tobacco and rolled a cigarette. I was a chain smoker because at that point in my life I was one-seventh suicidal. The other six-sevenths were anxious, horny, lazy, sleepy, doc and grumpy.

Deb asked me to look at her comics and she brought out these gorgeous originals drawn in a primitive big-foot style. They were painted off-register in neon colors and every one included a goofy catchphrase that I’m sorry I can’t remember. They were adorable and funny and I loved all of it.

Then I started talking about heroin because it really was everywhere. I mentioned that I had injected it recently, not because I really wanted to do it but because I felt like I had to. Living in Seattle at that time and not injecting heroin would be like going to Disneyland and not riding Pirates of the Caribbean. One of my roommates had shot me up as a birthday present.

I said I really didn’t like heroin addicts because they were boring. All they ever did was sit around and draw for hours. Deb put her index finger to her lips and flashed her eyes over to the right and I was shocked to see another woman sitting on the floor who I had not noticed before. And she was completely absorbed in drawing in a sketchpad.

Deb quickly switched the topic to bands that she liked, but she was way more into the music scene than I was and I couldn’t keep up. She mentioned that a punk band of some renown had stayed over at her group house back East. I don’t remember the band or even the city were she lived.

Deb said that because these guys were staying at her place she had felt like she had to be a good groupie and fuck one of them. But the problem was she found all of them disgusting in one way or another. Finally she had chosen the bassist because he was the least physically repulsive and seemed the most likely to pass out. I had to ask, “Was there cock worship involved?” And she said, “I’m only getting paid scale for this.”