Monday, December 14, 2009


Everything had come apart. My family, first of all. My mother's remarriage had not established a new family: it had established a sort of way-post cum entertainment center with a swimming pool. Parties would coalesce there from time to time. Visitors would show up. Hospitality was perhaps the only value we all shared – in fact, it bordered on a passion, for my mother – so you never really knew who would be there. Friends of my brother's, friends of my sister's, friends of my Mom's. Friends of my stepbrothers. Vietnam vets. Hippie-free-school students or their traveling companions. Utopians planning a commune on BLM land up north somewhere. Guys who had been in the T-groups my Mom had led at the state penitentiary. They'd all be plied with liquor – you had to be sociable, after all.

I'd come out onto the deck and find a stranger, a couple sheets to the wind, gazing out over the hills, while the sun sparkled on the pool, and the swallows went on their vast circuits overhead, plummeting down every once in a while to skim a drink of water. So it went on, as my imagination holds it: always summer, always intoxicated. We kids, teenagers, weren't given drink, but it was winked at if we took it. The vets and traveling companions supplemented the drink with joints smoked a hundred yards or so down the vast, coarse lawn. A soft landing, for the moment. But nobody ever stayed long.

It was not, I'm sure, so disorganized as I perceived it to be. I was never good at tracking who people were, why they were there, or who they were friends of. I was not very socially functional. People just appeared, got inebriated, and wandered off again. Sometimes my Mom would cook a great meal. More often I'd eat the packaged foods I loved: some sort of “breakfast drink,” an envelope of chocolate powder you'd tear open and pour into milk. Tuna fish out of the can. Campbell's “hearty soup,” the sort you didn't mix with water. You dumped it into a pan. Sometimes the soup-stuff held its shape, like a can of cranberry sauce at thanksgiving, till you squashed it down with a soup spoon. It got runny as it got hot. It's still an occasional comfort-food for me.

Usually Mary – except she'd changed her name to Alex -- was off at some experimental boarding school or other. David had an apartment in town somewhere, some of the time, though I never saw it. We lived oddly separate lives. I had a whole wing of the house to myself, two bedrooms, a bathroom, a living room of my own with a TV. The kitchen was the only room I had to share. I heated my soup and ate it out of the pan, and watched the TV, and the years rolled by. I went to school. As time went by, my grades began to slip. I had always been an A student, but by the end of the ninth grade I was getting Cs and even Ds. I don't remember anyone but my junior high counselor giving me any kind of talking-to. He said I wasn't working up to my potential. I agreed with him: certainly I was not working up to my potential. I thought school was idiotic. The world was coming to a fucking end: the environment was being destroyed, populations were exploding all over the world, and the Last War was waiting to happen. I was supposed to care what grade I got in Social Studies?

It was a strange mix of independence and helplessness, which has marked me all my life. I'd go to spend the night with a friend, and he'd say, “don't you need to ask your Mom?”

“Oh, no. She doesn't care,” I'd say airily. What a pain it must be, I thought, to have a Mom who wanted to keep tabs on you all the time. My friends would look at me with envy, but also with pity. On the balance, I think, they preferred a Mom who cared.

So I was independent: but I was also helpless as a baby. I had not the slightest idea how to take care of myself. I couldn't cook. Packaged food simply appeared in the house. We bought cans of soda by the gross: Fresca, Fanta Orange, root beer, cola, Dr Pepper. Some diet, some not: to me those were just different flavors. If there was something I liked, my Mom would try to get it.

I didn't work, I didn't cook, I didn't clean up, I didn't wash my clothes. I look back on that time as my stint in hell. It's grimly humorous to me that this is the state to which so many people aspire. It's the logical end of upper class life in America: to be stranded, idle, catered to, useless, surrounded by convenience: reduced to an infantile, mewling consumer, with no project in hand but the increasingly difficult task of titillating a jaded palate.

I had subscriptions to Playboy and to Oui magazine. That was where my imagination went, when it wasn't going to science fiction and fantasy novels. I pored over the photographs. The images sank into me. I can find them easily in my memory to this day: particular images haunted me. Somewhere, somewhere was the world in which naked women looked at you frankly, with mischievous grins or solemn intensity, and loved being looked at. Somewhere. Not here, that's for sure.


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