Follow the fucked-up yet inspiring love story of Ben and Maggie, a quirky, character-driven romantic drama set New York City in 1980.
Never read my novels? Now is a good time get drawn in!
The Offbeat Rhythms, Volumes 1 and 2 are available here.
Follow the fucked-up yet inspiring love story of Ben and Maggie, a quirky, character-driven romantic drama set New York City in 1980.
Never read my novels? Now is a good time get drawn in!
The Offbeat Rhythms, Volumes 1 and 2 are available here.
Valerie came into my life right around the time my father had his first bout with shingles, a disease his immune system was susceptible to in the wake of all the chemo they were dumping into his body. This would have been late April or early May of 2006. I recall being aware of her at least by Cinco de Mayo, so definitely no later than that. And the uncanny thing is that we almost didn’t meet at all.
Several months before this, I found myself jobless after my brief stint at an advertising/sales firm came to an abrupt halt. I use the word “abrupt” because I literally just got up from my desk one day and casually walked out, shouting “I quit!” as the door slammed shut behind me. It was a horrible fit, that job. I am a dreadful salesman and it was a dreadful firm, so it’s what was best all around.
I was sort of dating another girl at the time, though it was never very serious. One night we watched the movie National Treasure together. As a man with a history degree who wasn’t doing anything in the field of history, I found myself wishing I had some sort of cool, historical job like Nicholas Cage has in the film. The next day, I sent résumés out to various local sites of an historic nature, such as museums, galleries, universities, tourist centers, and even a few cemeteries. One of these places was the First State Capitol of Missouri Historic Site, located in St. Charles.
Those résumés produced only one phone call, and it came months later, after I’d already found another job at a loan and real estate company. And it came from the First State Capitol, a place that I’d actually never visited in person despite having grown up only a few miles from it.
I went in for an interview in April, after “calling in sick” to my job. There I learned what the position involved: helping in the gift shop, giving “interpretive tours,” cataloging research, handling historic artifacts, working to keep the grounds clean, and basically anything else the boss wanted. I was fine with all of this. Then they told me the salary: minimum wage, nowhere neared what I needed to pay my rent, bills, and student loans, and less than half what I was making at the real estate company. At this point, I was completely disheartened, for there was no conceivable way I could accept the position, which was full-time, and still be able to make ends meet. And anyway, only a fool would leave the cushy office job I had. My original answer was a firm “no.”
Over the next few days, I became increasingly disturbed in my spirit, as though something was very wrong inside, though I had no idea what it was. It got so bad that my insomnia went a minor case to an acute case. Then one night, when sleep just wouldn’t come, I got up around two in the morning and went for a long walk. As a man who has always been extremely self-aware, it vexed me that I couldn’t quite put my finger on what was wrong. And then, after I sat in an empty parking lot for an hour or so, wracking my brain, the answer finally came to me. As soon as it did, vexation fled and peace returned in force, so I knew it was the right answer, regardless of how illogical and just plain dumb it seemed.
The next day, I made two phone calls, and neither of them made any sense. The first call was to the real estate company. I was quitting, and there was no need for a two-week notice as I was just one grunt out of ten; the spot left in my wake could be filled with the snap of a finger. The second call was to the First State Capitol, notifying them that I was accepting the position. After I hung up, I literally said, “Well, fuck!” out loud, because my income was about to drop by sixty percent, and I had this terrible feeling that I had just sealed my own fate.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the state, Val Latham was graduating college, also with a degree in history. Like many do when their college career draws to a close, she found the idea of “whatever comes next” to be rather daunting, being that she had no clue what to do with herself. Moving out of her dorm in Warrensburg, Missouri, she came home to St. Louis in May of 2006 and crashed at her parents’ place to buy some time while deciding how to proceed. Almost as an afterthought, she called up her old summer job to see if she could get any hours. They said, “Yes, come on in.” Being of a slightly reticent nature, and not cut out for crowds, she almost didn’t do it. But after some pondering, she resumed her old summer job at the First State Capitol Historic Site, just a few days after I started there.
She almost didn’t take the job, and I almost didn’t take the job, but we both did, and the first steps toward alignment had been hesitantly made.
One of my new associates kept spouting that a girl who used to work at the First State Capitol was home from college, recently graduated, and a history major, like me. “She’ll be comin’ in to pick up some hours,” this person told me, “and I have a feeling you two are going to really hit it off.”
Then she added, “Oh, and her name is Valerie.”
I continued to hear about this Valerie for a few days, but I remained pretty much unmoved; as an archetypal ladies’ man, women came and went from my life left and right, so the touted addition of this new specimen was neither here nor there to me. If I was interested at all, it was because the Capitol, at that time, didn’t employ any eye candy. The prospect of that being altered was slightly intriguing to me. But I didn’t really give it much thought.
On Valerie’s first day back at the Capitol, we arrived in the parking lot at the same time. She started walking up the sidewalk first; I was about twelve feet behind her, though I knew it was her by the uniform we had to wear. I gave her the old once over, but as far as I could tell, she was a run-of-the-mill, plain Jane type, possibly cute in a bland sort of way, but nothing too remarkable. My opinion was lowered further when, as we both went through the front door, I got a closer look at her hair. To me, it seemed dirty, like maybe it hadn’t been washed in a year (it turns that her hair was just wet; I found this out later, long after we started dating, when we got around to discussing our first impressions of each other).
Over the next few weeks, she and I were scheduled together often. She was quiet and shy, and seldom spoke unless first spoken to, but that never stopped me before; so I forced her to engage me in dialogue because that’s what I do with everyone. The more we talked, the more I felt comfortable talking to her, and I began to realize that she was actually far more attractive than I’d thought at first. Long before meeting Valerie, I had an idea in mind as to what sort of woman I could spend my life with. This ideal female had dark hair, brown eyes, large boobs (I wasn’t the notorious “ass man” then that I am now), a quiet demeanor, and a deep love of history. One day, when she and I were working together, I suddenly realized that she possessed all but one of these traits. The absent trait, large boobs, wasn’t actually absent at all; it was in fact enormously present, to say the least, but for some reason this didn’t show when she wore her uniform. Still, large breasts notwithstanding, I started to suspect that this was a girl I could truly begin to like… maybe even love.
We gradually got to know each other in the following days, and soon it became very clear to both of us that something was happening, that some sort of profound union… or alignment… was taking place within. I could see in her eyes that she knew it, and she could see it in mine.
I knew I was in love with her one day in late May, when we were stuck at work on a rainy day. The weather was so shitty it kept any visitors from coming by, and we had the place to ourselves, except for another worker who shall remain nameless. This other person was of the disagreeable ilk, so Valerie and I passed the time talking about anything and everything, doing our best to be left alone. There was this moment where I said something funny, and she smiled at me… and I smiled back at her… I knew I loved her, that I would always love her, forever. The disagreeable third party saw this moment and noticed the look that passed between Valerie and me. Despite her mostly unpleasant nature, this person commented that she felt a lot of love in the room just then…
And yet, I didn’t even have Valerie’s phone number at this time. One day, when I was at work and she wasn’t, I spied her number listed on the employee data sheet, which was taped to the front desk. Going for broke, I texted that number, mainly because I missed her and felt a strong need for more Valerie in my life. She texted back, asking who I was. From that moment on, we spent each waking hour heavily engrossed in a nonstop digital conversation, which culminated in our very first date, if you can call it that.
It began when Valerie basically invited herself over to my apartment to drink. She was just twenty-one at this time, and the novelty of being able to legally drink was still fresh to her. I was twenty-eight, and not much of a drinker. Still, I told her to come on over. Then I drove to the nearest store and bought a bottle of rum, which, though not a heavy drinker, I was a bit partial to in those days (I’ve since grown to dislike rum).
When she knocked on my door, I opened it to find a totally transformed woman standing on my porch. This was the first time I saw her in anything except her uniform, and though she still insists this wasn’t done on purpose, the shirt she selected for that night was absurdly revealing and extremely flattering to her ample bosom which, until this moment, I was under the impression was nonexistent. To say I was delightedly shocked is putting mildly. I allowed her entry and shut the door behind her, thinking to myself, Holy shit, I’ve struck gold.
Over the next few hours, we talked, flirted, flounced, giggled, silently acknowledged and then ignored crazy the sexual tension… and drank. In fact, I drank so much rum I got sick. I think my most vivid memories from that night, aside from the pleased shock I felt when I first opened the door, was kneeling desperately at the toilet most of the time, puking my guts into it as quietly as I could, hoping she couldn’t hear me.
Valerie ended up staying the night, though nothing sexual occurred: she simply fell asleep on the sofa. I covered her with a blanket, then went to bed myself.
We became a steady couple not long after that, sometime in early June. I remember we were driving along Creve Coeur Lake when I blurted, “Hey, do you think we be, like, an official couple now?” She said yes, and then we shook on it, a peculiar gesture that we have repeated several times amid other major decisions. At that point, the alignment was complete
From then one, except for a handful of days here and there when one of us went out of town without the other for whatever reason, we have literally been with each other every second of every hour of every day since… and neither of us has ever gotten tired of it.
We moved in together in early September 2006, just three months after we began dating and only four and a half months after meeting each other. Too quick for some; perfect for us.
After many months of living together, I abruptly asked her to marry me in May of 2007, just a year after we met. She said yes, and we were married by a judge just a few weeks later. No elaborate ceremony for us; no hectic day of navigating through people who didn’t have much to do with us anyway; no going into debt just to start the rest of our lives together… no, just a quick thing at the courthouse downtown and then back to our loves as normal. Her parents give the cash us they would have otherwise spent on a wedding, and we used a small portion of it to honeymoon on Sanibel Island, off the coast of Florida. It was one of the best weeks of our lives.
It was extremely lucky for me that I met Valerie when I did. I was going through some distress as my father basically wasted away in front of me. I met her in April or May of 2006 (again, I can’t be sure of that exact date), and my dad died in August, just a few weeks before she and I moved in together. I wonder often how I might have handled his decline and death had she not entered my life at just the right time. I really don’t think I could’ve gotten through it the same way I did. As it was, I had her comforting love as a sanctuary whenever I needed it, and I needed it a lot at that point. But that was one of the reasons I fell in love with her: her brand of kindness and goodness was a perfect match for me; I felt invited into a calm and consoling reality where nothing could hurt me anymore. Many were the nights I buried my face in her welcoming bosom, and there I’d find a peace of mind that had hitherto been unknown to me.
This is perhaps a good place to explore the other reasons I fell in the love with Valerie Anne Latham. It’s important that the reader first understand the kind of guy I was at that time. “Sowing wild oats” and sleeping around wasn’t foreign to me; it’s basically how I spent most of my free hours. The sad truth is that I slept with so many women in those days that trying to count them is futile. I honestly have no idea as to the number. I’m not proud of it, though I was certainly quite pleased with it at the time. I mention this because it’s significant, I think, that I wasn’t looking for or even desiring a monogamous situation just then; I was all too happy to remain single. And despite my allegiance to Christianity at that time, which was important to me regardless of my nocturnal exploits, I had no plans to alter my profoundly promiscuous habits. It was one of those “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” things. Since there was no chance of overcoming the sin, I embraced it. Why not? It was better than sitting around feeling guilty all the time.
Ergo, for me to say “goodbye” to all that freedom and also say “yes” to fidelity, the girl in question had to be the absolute cream of the crop, the utmost best of the best, the highest possible expression of everything I desired in a girl, multiplied by about a billion, presented to me in such a way as to seduce me into believing that entire lifetime could be spent alongside this person. To be candid, not one of the women, from the serious, steady girlfriends I had, to the nameless one-night stands, and all the specimens in between, ever induced me to feel anything close to the kind of attraction and gravity and certainty necessary to lead me willingly into the manacles of monogamy. Not until Valerie, that is.
But why is that? What’s so different about her that she did what so many others could not? I have asked myself this question several times over the years, and the answers continue to evolve, the older I get. In these moments, I’m tempted to allow for the possibilities of destiny and fate, two things which I am, by nature, extremely suspicious of and not least bit interested in, nor am I persuaded they even exist at all. Still, barring any belief in those concepts, I do sometimes feel as though something or someone led Valerie and me to each other. I mean, I’ve got to believe that, don’t I? How else can I account for the fact that she’s sitting right over there, looking at me right now, and in love with me, when all available data suggests that I should never have been so fortunate. I just don’t know. I go back and forth.
That said, it isn’t difficult to imagine why any man would fall in love with Valerie. She’s kind. She’s generous. She’s calm and gentle and understanding. She’s by far the best listener of any woman I’ve ever known. She’s quite intelligent but doesn’t know it, so rarely is there an ego to deal with. She’s supportive and encouraging, and she always makes it clear she believes in you. She’s easy to please and difficult to offend, and she’s very eager to make happy the people she loves. She’s funny and has a great sense of humor, though we’ll sometimes squabble over the precise definition of “comedy.” And she’s utterly attractive. I’m likely speaking out of partiality when I say she’s by far the most alluring woman on Earth (not even Kim Kardashian can top her). I could say much more about my passionate feelings toward the epic proportions of her delightful body, but for her sake, I shall refrain; though I will say this: I wasn’t an ass man until Valerie came along; now I’m so far down that rabbit hole there’s no hope for me.
But those are all traits any man could fall in love with; the question still remains as to why Valerie’s absolutely perfect for me. In order to answer that, I first need to divulge a few things about the man I’ve turned out to be. I’m a natural-born leader, the kind of man who, in some circles, might be classified as an “alpha male.” Whatever the term is for the opposite equivalent in the female, that’s what Valerie is, a self-admitted follower. I also tend to be an extremely needy, sensitive man, which may seem out of whack with the whole alpha male thing. Valerie is perfectly disposed toward being the answer to those particular and unique needs of mine, in a way no other woman has ever been able to match. She just “gets” me, and I think that aspect alone accounts for at least fifty percent of a working marriage.
There’s also the fact that we share the same philosophy of life: we’re both introverts, both homebodies, both much more comfortable on the antisocial side of the spectrum. To wit, we prefer to just keep to ourselves. Neither of us feels at home in a crowd or at a party, and when given the chance to mingle or just go home, we go home. Most of the time, we’d rather hang out with our cats than with other people. We prefer our books, Netflix shows, and Xbox to the revelry of social gatherings or nights on the town. And if we do leave the house, it’s mostly to eat at restaurants… by ourselves.
Mostly, we just align. Where I’m weak, she’s strong. When I don’t understand, she does. If I can’t do it, she probably can. And vice versa. It’s gotten to the point where we can finish the sentences of the other, read each other’s thoughts, and pretty much anticipate ahead of time how the other is going to feel or react to this or that. And no matter how much she snores, I’ll fall asleep much better when she’s next to me than when she’s not. We’re just one now. I couldn’t live without her.
At the moment I write this essay, our thirteenth anniversary is just a few months away, and it’s been fourteen years since we moved in together. It’s no secret that our marriage hasn’t been easy; I’ve spoken about our struggles in great detail elsewhere. Several of the decisions we’ve made haven’t been popular with family members and friends. Some of those friends went their own way, and some of those dissenting family members don’t have much to do with us (not that we’re crying about that). We have also had several financial misfortunes, including the loss of a job, mounting debt, and major life plans that didn’t work out and ended up costing us thousands of dollars.
On my part, there’s also the regrettable fact of my abusive past, which is constantly looming over my shoulder, causing me to sometimes react to things improperly. I’ve had to work through a lot of anger, pain, and depression over the years, and sadly, Valerie has frequently been on hand to witness some of my less than flattering moments. On her part, Valerie came to this relationship much too young, without ever having time to properly develop as a person… on her own. While she was still too young and inexperienced, suddenly there was a man in her life who had needs and expectations. She had a lot of growing up to do, though that in no way impugns her merit as a wife or a woman. After all, we’ve all got a lot of growing up to do when we’re twenty-two, which is how old she was when we married.
There have been some beautiful moments, too. Late nights in bed when neither of us could sleep and we chatted until the wee hours, laughing and just relishing each other’s closeness. Saturday mornings when we’ve had nothing else to but watch a movie like flouncing couch potatoes. Moments of wonderful transcendence where we cross the line that separates our souls and touch the place inside where we really are one. Even if we do have a fight, there’s always the wicked fun of makeup sex. I guess the measure of a good marriage is whether all the good times outweigh the bad ones, because you’ll always have both in a marriage. On our part, I think those good times have been so absurdly better than how terrible the bad times were. If there’s some scale somewhere keeping track of it all, then I am sure our better times weigh more.
I like to use the word “alignment” to describe my relationship with Valerie because it calls to mind images of two misshapen or crooked things being brought together and straightened out by their mutual attraction and basic proximity to one another. That, to me, is an apt description of marriage. If a marriage is to work, these two entities have to first accept themselves and each other for the misshapen, crooked things they are. Neither should expect the other to be straightened out overnight, nor should they endeavor to straighten the other until they’ve first worked to straighten themselves. You cannot alter the person you love, but you can work to alter yourself. If you’re working on yourself, and the person you love is working on himself or herself, that’s when true alignment is going to happen.
Neither Valerie nor I came to this relationship as the best versions of ourselves. And now, thirteen years in, we still have more straightening to do. But an alignment of two souls is an ongoing process, a journey, an unfolding that takes place over the slow passage of time. Too many people give up before they have put in enough time to see the fruits of their labors, never stopping to remember the wise words of the Buddha:
A bucket fills one drop at a time.
I won’t say there haven’t been moments when one or both of us haven’t questioned how life would’ve turned out had we not met. I think that’s a natural thing for people to do, even if they’re as happy as married people can be. It’s a game we play with ourselves. It doesn’t mean we made an error in marrying the person we did. And no matter how many disturbingly hard times Valerie and I have faced, and regardless of how greener the grass can sometimes look on the other side of that fence, I still believe with all my heart that I couldn’t have aligned like this with anyone else.
 I fully acknowledge my atrocious superficiality in this instance. All I can do is shrugged.
To be sure, I’m the last person anyone should listen to when it comes to the subject of mental health. I’m like a patient in the asylum who goes around lecturing the other inmates. The staff just shake their head and say, “Oh, that Vito. He’s at it again.” Then a fat orderly comes in and gives me a shot to shut me up. I like to think I’m this great literary mind, but really, I am just the guy everyone hopes will stop talking soon. I know that.
Still, if there was one message I could be known for in the years and centuries after I’m gone, one message for which I’m remembered, if I am remembered at all, it would be the urgent bulletin I’m delivering right here and now: where you are now and what you are now—at this precise moment—is absolutely, one hundred percent okay… and accepting yourself right now for who and what and where you are is not only your best bet, it’s your only bet. Have you earned the right? No, because you don’t need to earn it. It’s yours as a birthright. You don’t need anyone’s permission, and you don’t need to perform some sort of prerequisite. Self-acceptance is as freely yours as is the very air you breathe.
“My greatest fear in life is that I will die before I learn how to accept myself.”
I said that. And I think it bears repeating.
I would like to start at the beginning, but it’s difficult for me to know precisely when that was. I have never been entirely sure when conditions in my home went wrong. It could be that they were always wrong, and I was just too young to be aware of it. Or it could be that things went wrong in the late 1980s, when I was an adolescent. That’s when my earliest memories of abuse started forming (although this isn’t entirely true, and I’ll get to that in a moment).
I want to make it clear right now that not all the memories I have of my mom are terrible. There were some good times, a few here and there… though definitely not enough to balance out the bad times. Those good times, scarce though they were, usually came when something positive happened in my mom’s life, such as an unexpected check arriving in the mail or one of her favorite movies airing on television (because there was no streaming in those days). And even though she could be loving and sweet and entirely motherly in these moments, we always knew that skulking just below the surface was that part of my mom my sister and I eventually dubbed “the Beast.”
Today, my mom seldom takes responsibility for what she did to our family, but on those infrequent occasions when she does, she blames it all on menopause. Her hormones, she will explain, were acting “wacky,” causing her to say and do things she otherwise wouldn’t do. For a while, when I was younger, I bought her excuse, mostly because my memories of when the “shit hit the fan” seemed to correspond with the right time for my mother going through what she always calls “the change of life.” That’s why I believed for a long time that I didn’t have a single bad memory from before that time (though I was totally wrong about that).
Maybe that’s a good place to begin this account, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when my mom, being middle-aged at that point, was at that place in her life where her body and her hormones were starting to “change.” Whether this is when the abusive actually began or not is still up in the air. Suffice it to say, this is when I became aware of it; this is when her actions and words began to have an adverse effect on me.
The change in my mom’s behavior was not slow or subtle. It seemed to happen overnight (a fact which would strengthen her case for menopause). As far as I can recollect, it happened during Christmas of 1988. I don’t recall any tragedies or major reversals of fortune going down during that time, nothing that would account for the shift in my mom’s behavior—but a shift there definitely was, my sister and I both agreed on that fact. I first began to notice something different when my mom came into my room early one morning, sometime before Christmas, and woke me up by shouting as loud as she could in my ear. I was eleven at the time, barely old enough to understand right from wrong, but I knew nevertheless that what my mom had just done was wrong, that something was definitely not right here. Imagine, if you will, being woken up in that fashion. Try to envision the fright and terror you would feel as you greeted the world from slumber by your mother shouting in your ear. I still remember the words she shouted: “GET YOUR ASS UP!” Once I was awake and sitting up in my bed, she walked out of the room, leaving me to the nearly impossible task of trying to process what just happened and why.
In the days that followed, more strange behavior and unaccountable exhibits of anger from my mom only heightened the sense in our house that something was different, that there had been some kind of inexplicable shift in who my mom was, and the more this shift became apparent, the more I started to suspect with great uneasiness that my house was no longer an entirely safe environment. I had no clue just then that this was only the tip of the iceberg.
1989 wasn’t a good year in our house. In the months after Christmas, new and frightening realities began making themselves known to me. I discovered quite promptly that this new version of my mom was prone to outbursts of unprovoked and uncontrollable anger. Simple things, like putting a dirty spoon in the “wrong” side of the sink or forgetting to wipe your feet when you came into the house, would send her into a quaking rage. So, as an eleven-year-old boy, my homelife became beset with fear, and walking on eggshells became the standard way of life in my house.
There is no question that regular, repeated anger, issuing forth from a parent to a young child, has a damaging effect on the child. Ergo, my mom’s abuse toward us had already begun at this point. However, I wouldn’t say my mom’s abuse was yet what it would become. The deeply psychological stuff, the vile and heinous verbal assaults that permanently ruined my sister and caused me significant damage as well, had not yet reared their head. The worst still to come.
In the early 1990s, my mom forced my dad to move out. Their relationship had been going south for a long time, and I guess this new version of my mom was all too eager to be rid of her husband. As for my dad, I don’t recall him fighting too hard to stay. He never said, and he never showed it (not that he would have, anyway), but I wonder if he wasn’t secretly overjoyed to be free of her and her bullshit. I don’t know. It’s possible.
I would say my dad’s exodus from the house left my sister and me more susceptible to my mom’s abuse, but that wouldn’t be at all true. His presence in the house had never stopped her before, not that he ever tried. His absence altered nothing, and if you ask me, that’s a sad but accurate testament to the weight of his flimsy impact on our lives. Physically present or physically absent—it didn’t matter: his attendance was irrelevant in either case. I understand that’s a harsh thing to say about your father, but it’s not my fault that it’s true.
With my dad gone, my mom had sole control of the house, which she pretty much already had, anyway. For a long time, she didn’t want my dad visiting us, though she was more than happy to take his money. This she did for many years, relying on his financial support while continuing to bully him, ridicule him, block him, and lie to him. She even forced my sister and me to lie to him on her behalf. I can recall one instance where my mom ordered me to tell my dad that she’d been seeing a man named Mitch. There was no such man; my mom conjured him from thin air. When I voiced reluctance to tell my dad this lie, she got in my face and hissed, “You’ll do it, or I’ll beat the shit out of your sister.” So of course, I told my dad about Mitch, for her threat had serious weight; I’d previously seen her beat my sister bloody with an extension cord. In lying to my father, I was protecting my sister. That’s how I rationalized it.
The extension cord incident notwithstanding, I recall only one other time my mom’s abuse turned physical. That was the day she “accidentally” burned my sister’s leg with a frying pan. She claimed over and over that it wasn’t done on purpose, but I saw the whole thing happen from my vantage point, standing in the doorway of the kitchen. My mom had clearly been upset with my sister over one thing or another, and, to me, it looked as though she intentionally moved the hot frying pan from the stovetop right over to where my sister sat at the kitchen table, reading a book. No, I can’t be certain, but I take my lead from Sherlock Holmes, who preferred to examine the whole picture when patching together clues.
Physical mistreatment aside, my mom’s modus operandi for abusiveness was typically of the psychological variety, and this seemed to escalate in the months following my dad’s departure. Her interactions with us became increasingly hostile, her motherly behavior disappeared almost entirely, and when any opportunity to ridicule us, insult us, berate us, or just hurt us surfaced, she seized upon it like a bird of prey. I simply had to get used to being called, “stupid,” “retarded,” “worthless,” “ugly,” an “idiot,” a “mistake,” a “loser,” a “failure,” and a “huge disappointment.” On one occasion, when I was eating lunch in the kitchen, she came and, out of nowhere, said, “When I look at you, I know I have been a failure as a mother.” And then she walked out. I sat there in her wake, trying to process what had just been said, trying to comprehend why my mom would say such a thing, and trying to ascertain what I had done wrong to make her say it.
As badly as my mom treated me, my unfortunate sister got it worse. Much, much worse. Sometimes she would stand outside my sister’s bedroom door at night, while we were lying in bed in the dark, and whisper things such as, “No man will ever love you,” “There’s nothing pretty about you,” “No boy is going to look at you because you’re just too ugly,” “Your butt is flat, that’s why no one ever asks you out,” “You’re so worthless as a woman,” “You’re unlovable.” She would say these things over and over. And my sister wouldn’t even stir in her bed; she just listened to all this without ever saying a word, though I could hear her muffled sobs. This went on for years.
I clearly recall every word of those verbal attacks all these decades later, for my bedroom was next to my sister’s, and my memory is a steel trap. I used to just yank my bedcovers tight over myself and listen to the abuse spew forth. I too never said a word. You just didn’t. You didn’t fight back. That wasn’t only futile, it was dangerous. You don’t provoke a beast, especially when it’s already on the warpath.
After about a year of this, I finally told my father what was happening in his absence. He seemed quite shocked to hear it, though whether that was a genuine response or a staged reaction for my benefit, I can’t say. I remember thinking that now, finally, something was going to be done. But at the end of our visit, my dad just dropped me off at home and drove away. He never said a word about it again.
With my dad out of the house, my exposure to his parents, namely my beloved Grandpa Vito, became nearly nonexistent. When my grandpa voiced his wish to see my sister and me, my mom threatened him and then added, “My kids don’t want to see you, anyway.”
In time, my mom’s behavior became increasingly bizarre. She amped up the various lies she wanted us kids to tell on her behalf, she became notorious for the dine-and-dash caper, she pushed all of her siblings away, she began to tell her dwindling number of friends that we had a summer home in Florida (this was completely untrue), and she began waging a personal war with most of the neighbors. I’ve never really known what these neighbors did to incur my mom’s fury, but she made me a part of her war. She forced me—forced me—to take pruning shears over to one of the neighbor’s houses in the middle of the night to cut down that neighbor’s prized rose garden. She also made me pour gasoline on the neighbor’s lawns so their grass would die, leaving her lawn green and vibrant. She also made—well, I could go on; the list of similar things she made me do is rather long indeed, but I think the point has been made. Remember, I was a boy of about thirteen at this time, barely a teenager. If I ever refused to take part in these dysfunctional sabotages, or if I showed even the slightest hesitation, she’d make me pay. It eventually got to the point where I just did whatever she asked without question. It was just easier that way.
To keep me in line and sufficiently afraid, my mom would come into my room every Saturday morning and empty all my drawers onto the center of the floor, then rip all my photos off the wall, dump all my clothes from the closet onto the growing pile on the floor, and then use her arm in a clothesline motion to sweep everything on my dresser, desk, and nightstand onto the floor as well. Then she would get in my face and say, “You have got twenty minutes to clean it up.”
She continued to destroy my sister, taking her self-esteem from low to nonexistent. Whenever my sister earned a little bit of money and dared to buy herself some new clothes, my mom would go straight into her room with the scissors and cut them up. Eventually, my sister began hiding her new clothes, which only enraged my mom when she discovered it. Several times, my mom would purchase the most god-awful, hideous clothes possible, then force my sister to wear them to school. I recall a few occasions when my sister spent the school day sobbing in the counselor’s office, unable to show her face in class.
I’ve hypothesized many times as to what was causing this behavior in my mom. I’ve never reached a definitive verdict. It could be that she was deeply depressed, though I would surely characterize myself that way, and as far as I can tell, I don’t go around verbally and psychologically abusing people. It is also possible that my mom had some sort of severe mental disability, though I cannot say precisely what. I do recall one bizarre incident: I was walking down the hallway and I passed by her bedroom. I stopped in my tracks when I saw my mom driving a handful of nails down her leg, cutting deeply into her skin. I said nothing, for that was the safest course, but the image has remained in my memory forever. Such behavior does, I think, tend toward an explanation of acute mental and/or emotional duress. It’s possible that my mom was suffering from this, but again, I can’t know for sure. I have heard stories from her and some of her siblings that their upbringing wasn’t totally normal, either, so it’s perhaps not unfair to suspect that my mom had her own brand of damage within. I would accept that as a possible explanation, but certainly not an excuse. There’s also that menopause possibility, which my mom insists is the true culprit. I guess I’m just not convinced.
As the years went on, my sister and I grew desensitized to what others would likely characterize as appalling conditions. It just became the way of life for us, the standard landscape of existence. By 1993, my sister was out of the house for the first time in her life, living in the dorms at Lindenwood University. I cannot speak to whether this was a liberating experience for her because my sister rarely talks about her feelings or her life in general and even rarer are the times she is willing to revisit the damage our mom did to us when we were young.
I was finally out of the house by 1996, when I too moved into a dorm at Lindenwood. That was the beginning of the end of my mom’s reign of terror. She continued to her abusive behavior for several years after that, but being liberated from her grasp enabled me to begin distancing myself from her, recover from all that happened (as much as one can), and take some control over my life. It’s been a long, grueling process, and even now, at age forty-two, there are still moments when my terrible past throws a wrench or two into the gears of my life. I guess that’s to be expected. But for the most part, and with the support of my wife and her love, I am moving on.
In recent years, now that enough time has passed and I’m able to look back with some clarity, I find myself beginning to suspect that the abuse had been going on since the moment I was born. I still can’t be sure since the memories are growing fuzzy which each passing year, but now and then a recollection surfaces out of the dark ether, the memory of a harsh word, or a mind game, a guilt trip, or some other dysfunctional incident from the twisted brain and lethal hands of my mom… leading me to wonder if my homelife was unsafe from the word “go,” and I just never knew it. The memories are vague and fragmented, and since my sister won’t discuss any of it, I have no frame of reference in which to place them. I’m therefore left only with suspicions and possibilities and unanswered questions.
I do still have a relationship with my mom, though I would describe it as strained and by no means loving. I tolerate her, mostly because it would feel dishonorable to me were I to cut her off entirely, though many people, including my wife, have questioned the logic of this choice. I can only shrug in my defense and say that it’s not really in my nature to cut anyone off, no matter what they’ve done to me, and I suppose I harbor some admittedly misplaced optimism that maybe, just maybe, my mom might someday own what she did and express some genuine remorse, a possibility which could pave the way for a better relationship with her in the few years she has left. But I definitely don’t hold my breath.
It is worth noting that while this has not been a superficial account of all that happened, it has nevertheless been a fairly condensed version. I had hoped to tell the full story in this essay, but once I began writing it became evident to me that one essay isn’t enough. One book wouldn’t be enough. Most of the darker details have been left out, but I suspect the reader has been duly acquainted with the lay of the land by now.
 A few years ago, I tried talking to my sister about the extension cord incident. She patently denied that it happened, and then accused me of making it up. “How come I don’t have scars from that, then?” she asked. I didn’t know how to answer this, but I nevertheless know for a fact that the incident occurred. I remember it like it was yesterday.
In a few months it will be fourteen years since my father died of cancer. He had chronic lymphocytic leukemia, which means his bone marrow malfunctioned and produced too many white blood cells (or lymphocytes). After being diagnosed with it at the age of fifty-five in 1998, he showed no signs of being ill for several years, and sometimes it was easy for me to forget that he was sick at all. By 2002, when he was fifty-nine, this began to change. When the cancer woke up (I don’t know how else to say it), the suffering started, and from then on it was very bad. He received no relief until he finally passed away on the afternoon of August 28, 2006, at the age of sixty-three.
For many years I have wanted to write something about all that occurred that day, and the circumstances leading up to it. I guess I was waiting for enough time to pass, enough time for me to look back on everything and see it with some clarity. It can be quite hard to remain objective when the matter at hand causes the writer pain. And while there is still pain there (I’m sure there will always be), I feel now that I’m finally at a place where I can say these things accurately and do my memories justice.
However, before I talk about his death, I think I first need to say something about his life.
The man who would become my father was born on December 30, 1942 (his daughter, my older sister, would be born on the exact same day in the same hospital by the same doctor thirty-two years later). He was named Anthony Carl Tosto, after both his grandfathers (Antonio Tosto and Carmelo Mondello). This was before his father left to fight in the war (my grandfather, Vito Tosto, worked at an arms factory and as such was exempt from the draft; nonetheless, he eventually volunteered to go to Germany).
After the war, during the economic boom of America, my grandpa thrived as a factory worker, which, in those days, was more than adequate to house, clothe, and feed a family of six, which is what they ended up becoming after my dad’s siblings were born in the 1950s. Consequently, my father grew up during a fertile time for American money and American culture. He never knew hunger or lack or distress of any sort. And with my grandparents being the type of people they were, he grew up with plentiful love, affection, and kindness. In fact, I asked my dad once, not too long before he died, if his childhood was as idyllic as it seemed, to which he replied, “It was wonderful. I was raised with a lot of love. I had a great time as a kid.”
Sadly, I don’t have too many stories from my dad’s youth, but I do have a few. My dad told me about the time he and his dad sent away for a mail-order model airplane which, once it was glued together, was supposed to “fly for a hundred yards.” He said they labored over the building of the airplane for days, both of them giddy with joy at the thought of flying it. Finally, it was done, and they were ready to test it. There was a junior high school across the street from their house, and they decided to test it there. They went up on the roof (which I guess you could do in those days) and positioned themselves toward the west end, facing a ballyard. With great expectation and excited hope, they launched the airplane… which promptly nosedived straight down to the ground where it shattered into pieces. My dad said they just stood there for a while, looking down at the debris below, neither of them able to bring himself to speak. I asked my dad if he cried, and he said, “Are you kidding? I was with my dad. I couldn’t have been happier.”
Another story about my dad’s youth came to me courtesy of his best friend, Rich Slusher, who told me this story several years after my dad was gone. Apparently, when my dad was a freshman in high school, he took a girl to a dance. While there, some of the tough guys at the school took exception to this girl choosing my father has her date, since she was evidently very popular and quite pretty. Naturally, they decided to take it out on him. My dad, who was never the brutish type and had the slight build common to Sicilian men, had no chance of beating these guys up once it came to punches. They cornered my dad in the bathroom… at which point Slusher ran to my grandpa’s house (just a few blocks away) and told him what was happening. My grandpa, though he was in his thirties by then, looked young enough to pass as a high schooler himself, and he went straight to the school and into the bathroom, where he pulled these thugs off my dad (for which he might have been sued in today’s times). Then he declared to any and all present that if anyone ever wanted to mess with Anthony Tosto, they would first have to deal with him. Slusher said no one ever bothered my dad after that.
My dad joined the Navy shortly after graduating from high school. His ship was part of the blockade around Cuba during the missile crisis, though my dad said no one aboard the ship knew it at the time. After leaving the Navy, he used the GI Bill to get free tuition. He attended Washington University, where he studied drafting and engineering. He was briefly married to a woman named Sharon in the mid-60s, but they divorced not long after a daughter was born, my oldest (half) sister, Donna.
In the late 60s, my dad grew his hair long, built a Harley-Davidson from scratch (I have pictures of it), became a “patch member” of a local motorcycle club, and began experimenting with acid. His liaisons with psychedelic drug use continued off and on into the 1970s, after which point, he only smoked pot. I have vague memories marijuana growing in my parents’ bedroom when I was a kid.
He met my mom in 1971 and married her in ’74, the same year my sister Lori was born (on his thirty-second birthday). I followed three years later.
When I was old enough to form memories of him, my dad was already forty years old, just a few years younger than I am at the time of writing this. Most of his life was already over by that time. It’s quite strange to me that I’m now the age he was when I first met him, for when I was a kid, he appeared utterly ancient to me. And yet I don’t feel ancient now.
My dad was an exceptionally quiet guy, so much so that, at times, I mistook his reticence for a lack of personality. It’s only now, being a little wiser for the ware, looking back with some clarity, that I can see his personality was (maybe) every bit as substantial as mine—he just hid his deep down, whereas I wear mine on my sleeve. He didn’t speak often, my dad, but when he did, you can bet he had something important to say. And most of the time you really had to prod him to get him to say anything at all. To say he was reserved doesn’t do it justice. In fact, I’m not sure there’s been an adjective conceived that can properly convey the level of introversion and bashfulness for which my dad was known. His tongue was loosened a bit by alcohol, but only a bit. Besides, he was never much of a drinker, my dad; a trait shared by his son.
His humor was of the “dry” type, and not much made him laugh. But when he did laugh, it was nice to hear. He loved the films of the Coen brothers (O Brother, Where Art Thou? and Fargo were his absolute favorite movies of all time). A lifelong reader, he adored science-fiction, and told me once that Dune was his favorite book, that he read it over and over after it first came out (it has since become one of my favorite books, too).
Throughout the span of his career as a drafting engineer, my dad designed air-tools for various mechanical companies and had numerous patents registered in his name. In the early 2000s, I asked him if he enjoyed his job. He said he did but he also expressed regret that he didn’t do more with his formidable intelligence, which even he knew was far beyond the level reached by most people. When I asked what else he could have done, he just looked off into the distance with a somewhat sad expression and said, “Oh, you never know.” That was about as much as you were going to get from him.
By 2002, his illness forced him into early retirement, but ensuing boredom led him to a part-time job at a library, where he did some maintenance work just to keep busy. He was still working there in April 2006 when, just four months before he died, he contracted shingles, an extremely painful skin disease that’s common among cancer patients whose immune systems have been ravaged by chemotherapy. That was the beginning of the end, and the end came quick.
My relationship with my dad was complicated, and it still is, to some degree. As I’ve said before, he was nothing like his dad. I say that without judgment, for my dad was only ever obligated to be exactly what he was, no one expected him to be a perfect replication of Vito Tosto. Nevertheless, it’s a bit baffling to me that my dad was so different from my grandpa, for I saw with my own eyes how my dad very much tried to emulate Grandpa Vito. He clearly wanted to be like my grandpa; he just wasn’t. He couldn’t fake what was so patently absent from his personality. I sometimes wonder if he was aware of this and privately disappointed with himself because of it. If so, it’s a shame, for no one should ever have to be anything other than just what they are.
Having said that, it’s no secret that I have grievances with my father. But I think this is quite natural, though it’s difficult to say why. There are matters between a son and a father that cannot be explained. Expectations. Regrets. Certain degrees of vulnerability, most of which goes unsaid and undemonstrated. There are lingering emotions of disappointment, primarily on the part of the father, sometimes on the part of the son. There is a complexity to that relationship which goes beyond what humans are capable of expressing through language.
To be honest, I don’t think my dad was a very good father. In fact, I’m not sure he had any business being a father. There was something missing from him, something that a man must possess if he’s going to have children. Much of this was due to his inability to express himself, and I totally get that. But there were also certain expectations he placed on me which, I think, destroyed my development as a young man. He wanted me to be like he was. He resented me for being eloquent, he resented me for being confident, and he resented me for being like his father by nature since this is something he wanted and clearly could not see to fruition.
My dad rarely spent time with me when I was young. I can recall a few times, but they were the exception to the rule, and I wouldn’t say these memories are especially joyful. Since my dad never spoke, I had to guess what he was thinking and feeling—his insurmountable stoicism didn’t translate very well to a young boy’s need for his father’s approval. And it’s confusing to me that my dad seldom wanted to spend time with me since he recounted so many times how much he loved the things he and his father did when he was young. Hearing that while also observing that my dad seldom wanted to do things with me, I was left to conclude that my dad found me wanting. And that was a belief I carried with me from my earliest memories up to the moment he died, and beyond.
Also, there is the uncomfortable truth that my father knew full well about the extreme psychological abuse my mom subjected me and my sister to, and never once did he lift even the slightest finger to intervene or stop it. He let it continue under the pretense of what he later called “keeping the peace.” That was his answer when, in my early-twenties, I confronted him about his role in what happened, an answer that reminds me of Neville Chamberlain and his appeasement of Adolf Hitler. Keeping the peace often requires battle. Sometimes peace has to be fought for and earned. My dad was never prepared to do battle for us. I have never really known why. For a long time, I thought it was because he was a weak man, a man who had no fight in him. And while there is probably some truth to that, I have begun to suspect also that my mom had just as strong an abusive hold over his mind as she did us kids. I could say a lot more about that, but I prefer not to.
I know I was a disappointment to my father. He expected me to be the unbegrudging workhorse he was. Anything short of that was, in his judgment, evidence of a dysfunctional mind. When it became clear that I was much more interested in the artistic pursuits than practical ones, his disdain for me, while never quite being expressed verbally, was nevertheless clear in the way he looked at me and in his refusal to endorse my work ethic, which was no less intense than his though it was indeed much different.
There was one time when he heard me singing one of the songs I had written. I was in the basement, playing guitar and belting out one of my tunes, and he came down into the basement and said that the song was good. “You really wrote that, huh?” he asked. I indicated that I did. “Wow,” he said. Quietly. Then he went back upstairs and never spoke of it again.
It sometimes seemed to me that the older my dad got, the less room he had for my bohemian pursuits. And the sicker he got, the more he wanted to articulate his dissatisfaction with my approach to life. The exception to this was the day he and I drove down to Hawn State Park in southeastern Missouri. He knew that one of things I always wanted to do with him was go hiking, and a few years before he died, he finally agreed to it. I will give credit where credit is due and say that, on this day at least, my dad seemed to have some encouraging words for me. We weren’t able to get too far along the trail, however, before he said he couldn’t go on. By that time, the chemotherapy was causing him way more problems than the cancer was.
One of the things that infuriated me the most was the stoic manner in which he accepted his doom. Not once in the entire eight years between his diagnosis and death did he ever say a word about being bothered, saddened, angered, frustrated, or confused about what was happening to him or why. He never once complained, never asked “Why me?” and never displayed the slightest sign of even being perturbed about his illness. It just did not seem to human to me. I wanted him to show some indications that his life was more precious than that. I wanted him to be mad. I wanted him to feel cheated and wronged. But he didn’t. It was as if he just shrugged and acknowledged his fate with as much emotion as you’d feel killing a fly. (That did change, slightly, when he contracted shingles. I think the pain of that was so apocalyptic for him that even his own apathetic nature was betrayed by it. But even then, he seemed only a tad put out by the presence of the pain, as though it was really just a minor inconvenience. I didn’t understand that kind of reaction, and I still don’t.)
Several weeks before he died, my dad was scheduled to start a new sequence of chemotherapy. I don’t remember the name of the drug in question, but his doctor informed him and us that this drug was highly dangerous and highly effective. Basically, the doctor told us that there was fifty percent chance the drug would put his cancer into total remission, and there was a fifty percent chance the drug would kill him. My dad, not typically one for optimism, said, “I am going to be among the good fifty percent.” I distinctly recall this fateful moment and the tone of his voice as he said this.
About a week later, he began the last round of chemo, and it totally wrecked his body. At one point, a thick tube had to be shoved up his nose and down into his stomach to drain what looked to be toxic nuclear waste. It was very green and odious. I recall standing by his hospital bed as he slept one afternoon, watching that vile green liquid being pumped out his stomach through that tube, and I knew he was going to die. He was not part of the good fifty percent, after all. The chemotherapy had backfired, and there was no hope from that moment on.
A few days later, while I was out to lunch with my hot new girlfriend (who later became my wife), he called and asked me to take him home from the hospital. I did. That same night, he sat me and my mom down in the living room of their house to say that he was dying, that he knew it, and that he was ready. I called my sister who was living in Chicago at the time and told her to get on a plane as soon as possible. She did.
Two days later, on August 28, 2006, my sisters and I were in my dad’s room as he lay there waiting to die. His body had shrunken down to nothing, and he was bleeding out of almost every orifice. The end was very near now.
Family members, including two of his siblings and a few of his cousins, were in and out of the house all that day, visiting him and saying goodbye. One cousin, who had been very close to him when they were young, asked to be alone with him, and she was in there with him for about a half-hour. I have no idea what they discussed.
In the late afternoon, my dad said he had to use the bathroom. My sister helped him get there. While he was in there, I looked at her and said, “I don’t think he’s going to last another hour.” She shook her head, uncertain.
He actually didn’t make it another ten minutes. When the bathroom door opened, my dad stepped out into the hallway, and collapsed. We tried to wake him up, but it was obvious he had slipped into a coma. Within a few minutes, the paramedics had arrived, but my mom produced his DNR document, so legally they could not work to revive him. He was pronounced dead just a few minutes later. The cause of death listed on his death certificate was sepsis.
That night, about two in the morning, I couldn’t sleep, and I walked into this field near my house, standing directly in the middle of it. I looked up at the black night sky and just started screaming at the top of my lungs. I don’t know if anyone heard me. I didn’t care either way.
My feelings for my dad remain conflicted. I have no problem airing my grievances with him, but I’ll shut anyone else down who dares to speak ill of him. Sometimes I think maybe I just didn’t understand him and he didn’t understand me, and if we had maybe been given more time together, that could’ve been rectified. I don’t really know. There are many times in my life when I’ll find myself wishing he was still here, that I could ask him questions about his youth or his experiences in the Navy. There are also many times when I feel thankful that he’s gone because, in his absence, a great weight of quiet oppression has been lifted, that feeling of being a disappointment to your dad, a feeling that crushes any man, no matter how strong he is.
I guess mostly what I feel about dad is confusion. I mean, I knew him for twenty-eight years… and yet I didn’t really know him at all. I don’t know if anyone really did. I’m still not sure if there was anything to know. I go back and forth on that. In the end, I think the fact that I have to wonder at all is perhaps not the greatest testament to the impact he left on Earth. I hope to be different. I hope to leave a massive dearth in my wake. He was like a weak waft of wind that barely registers on your face. I want to be a great gale that knocks you over. I want knowing me to make a difference. I want knowing me to leave you forever touched, forever something other than you would’ve been had you not met me. He was content with much less than that. And that’s fine, but I’m not like him. Finally, after many years of feeling bad about that, I’m now okay with it. I also think he would be as well.
Our backyard is massive and butts up against a small copse of trees. As a displaced city boy now living in a rather wooded area, I’ve marveled at the many forms of wildlife which, from time to time, can be spotted and heard in our backyard. I have seen two deer so far, plus a brown fox, a beaver, a snake, and a rather large, hideous toad which, I highly suspect, lives under my deck. There was also an incident with a bat; I’ll leave it at that.
The most common visitor, which to me is a bit unusual but perhaps not so much to others who are more used to this kind of thing, is a great big owl that likes to perch in the tree next to the window in my study. I hear him a lot in bed when I’m trying to sleep. His hooting isn’t unpleasant, although sometimes it seems a bit insistent, by which I mean ceaseless. He’s trying to say something to someone, that much is certain. I just never dreamed that someone would be me.
Here’s how it happened. One night in the summer of 2019 I was in my study working on cataloguing my massive library of jazz albums. It wasn’t a particularly warm summer night, so I had the air-conditioner off and the window open. I also had some music on low. John Coltrane’s Giant Steps, to be precise.
After a while, I heard his familiar hoot. The owl is back, I thought to myself. I turned the music off and listened to him chatting out there on the tree branch, wondering what he was trying to say. And then, for whatever absurd reason, I suddenly felt like the owl was aware of me. A foolish thought, I know, but I never said I’m not a dreamer. I got up from my desk and walked over the window. I could hear where the hooting was coming from, but I couldn’t see the owl. As I tried to find him in the darkness, his hoots got louder. I can’t prove it, but I am fairly certain he saw me and was saying, “Come out here, let’s talk.”
So, naturally, I went outside.
Normally, I would have brought my pipe with me, but this was so spur of the moment that it didn’t occur to me. As soon as I flipped the patio light on, I saw Son, the neighbor’s mangy cat who terrorizes everyone who falls in his path. I’m a cat guy as much as anyone can be, but I don’t like Son. He’s a motherfucking, cocksucking asshole. Not only does he urinate on our house constantly, but he bit my brother-in-law and attacks the neighborhood stray, who is about as sweet a little guy as a cat could possibly be.
I shooed Son away with a broom that hangs in my garage, a tactic which works every time (Son is the bane of everybody on this street but for some reason he is scared shitless by that broom—it’s his Achilles’ Heel).
Once Son was gone, I brought my chair over to the edge of my deck and sat down, facing the general direction of the tree outside my study. I was worried that maybe all the commotion had chased the owl away, but after a few moments I heard him hoot, and I smiled. I still couldn’t quite see him (it could have been a her, for all I know), but he was still there, and just as in my study, I sensed he was aware of me.
A few minutes of silence passed. There was a gentle summer breeze, barely perceptible, but just strong enough to make some of the leaves murmur above me. And the sky was absolutely cloudless. Not many stars were out, but the ones I could see were quite bright and something about the night sky and the sound of the trees moving in the breeze made me feel very much at peace with my surroundings.
I don’t know why, but I was reminded a similar night, over twenty years ago, when I was living in a dorm at Lindenwood University and I couldn’t sleep. After tossing and turning restlessly, I decided to get up and walk around the campus a bit. I chose to climb out the window instead of going through the door, something I did often back then. Once outside, the heat of the September night, which didn’t bother as much then as it does now, made me wish I had something cool to drink. I had just over a dollar in change in my pocket, which was enough to buy a soda back then. So I set off toward the convenience store just off campus. When I got there, I witnessed something very odd in the parking lot. Two women, both in their late twenties or thereabouts, were beating a man with their purses. I’m not sure what he did to incite their anger, but he must have known he was guilty because he didn’t try to stop either of them… he just stood there and took his medicine. What made this so odd was that it didn’t look like the sort of scene you would expect. The man was wearing a nice suit and the women were garbed in posh dresses, the kind that said “money,” not “hooker.” And as they beat this guy, they spoke a foreign language. My guess was Russian, or something close to it.
I shrugged and went in to buy my soda. When I got to the checkout counter, the girl at the register said, “There are some strange people out there.” I asked her what she meant. “Look,” she said, nodding toward the parking lot. Through the window I could still see the women beating the guy with their purses. “That’s Herbie,” the girl went on. “He pays women to beat him in public places.” Astonished, I looked again at the scene outside. That’s Herbie, I thought. He pays women to beat him in public places. Fascinating. I turned back to the girl and said, “How do you know that?” She sneered and looked at me like I was crazy. “Dude,” she replied, “I work here. I know what goes down.”
I hadn’t thought about that incident in years. But for some reason, sitting my deck that night in the presence of a talkative owl, it randomly surfaced. I wondered what Herbie was up to these days and whether he still engages in his bizarre nocturnal activities.
It occurred to me just then that I hadn’t heard the owl in a while. After a few more moments of silence passed, an absurd and humiliating impulse overtook me. I knew no one else was nearby so it was probably safe to give in to the impulse, but all the same, I sensed a rabbit hole of the Lewis Carroll kind, and I wasn’t sure if I wanted to fall into it. Do it, something inside me said. Scoffing at myself, willingly stepping into the rabbit hole, I cleared my throat and… hooted.
The owl hooted back.
Incredible, I thought. Contact has been established!
After that, there was a brief exchange of continued hoots. I answered him, he answered me, and so it went.
“Don’t go away,” I said to him, and I went inside to get my pipe. As I packed it in my study, I hooted out the window. He hooted back. I was delirious with joy.
Just then, one of my cats sauntered into the study, intent on uncovering what the all hubbub was. Knowing he would sit on the windowsill and ruin things, I closed the window gently (so as to not frighten my new avian companion) and brought my pipe back out onto the deck. I sat down and hooted, just to be sure the conversation was still intact. The owl hooted back. Beaming, I lit the pipe and settled in for what I presumed was going to be an interesting night.
At this point, Son showed up again, having clearly recovered from his encounter with the business end of my broom. I cursed him like the nemesis he is. But after having gone inside to retrieve my pipe, and resting now quite comfortably in my lawn chair, and with my pipe now lit, the smoke wafting about the air in lovely circles, I had no motivation to do further battle with him. My hope was that if I ignored him, he would get bored and wander away, which he did after about ten minutes.
As he departed, the owl hooted. I was sure this would get Son’s attention and make him cease his exit, but Son, perhaps unconcerned with owls (which I suspect are formidable foes), gave the hoot no mind and continued on his way.
Alone with the owl again, I felt myself overwhelmed by the most preposterous notion: that I was suddenly at the center of a pseudo-Socratic situation. In all the classical, philosophical works written by Plato and others, there’s a teacher and pupil, and the content of their dialogue forms the basis for whatever message is being conveyed. This type of teaching is referred to as the Socratic Method, the distribution of knowledge through conversation rather than blocks of prose. Carried away by this absurd notion that I was a pupil and the owl was my teacher, I decided that the owl’s name was Archimedes. This sounds sufficiently Greek, and it was the name of a highly educated owl in Disney’s production of The Sword in the Stone. I imagined also that Archimedes wore the black-rimmed glasses befitting a scholar of his lofty rank, and this felt right since it somehow makes sense to think of owls with glasses.
Now that the proper setting had been recognized (I sensed that the owl appreciated where this was going as well), I drew in through my pipe and puffed smoke into the balmy night air with great expectation. What, I wondered, would the owl impart to me?
(The reader must understand something at this point, and that’s the quite evident fact that I’m manifestly insane. I know this well. I know that the ensuing conversation took place only in my mind, and that the owl never actually said any of this. I know it. I mean, I mostly know it. I think I know it. It could be that the conversation happened only in my mind. Yes, I guess that could be possible. The owl never actually spoke. No. I am quite sure of that. Aren’t I?)
Archimedes cleared his throat and said, “So, what is it you want to know, exactly?”
I considered this. “What does it all mean?” I replied.
“By ‘all,’ I assume you refer to existence itself?”
“Yeah, existence. Life. Reality. The Universe. All of it. Everything.”
“Which answer would comfort you more: if I said it means nothing, or it means whatever you want it to mean?”
“The truth would comfort me, whatever it is,” I replied.
“You lie to yourself.”
“You tell yourself you want the truth, but you don’t. What you really want is to be comforted, so I’ll ask you again, which answer would comfort you more?”
“Those are my only to options?” I queried. “Either, A, it all means nothing, or B, it means whatever I want it to mean?”
“Why just those two options?”
“Because they are the only two possibilities.”
“So there’s no third option? You’re saying it doesn’t mean anything on its own? Either I give it meaning or it has none?”
“That is what I am saying.”
“I know a lot of religious people who would disagree with you. They’d say everything does have its own meaning, and it was authored by God.”
“‘God’ is a false hypothesis you invented to make sense of reality. Your people didn’t like options A or B, so they created C, the idea that someone made all this for a specific purpose.”
“Well, that is the most comforting option.”
Archimedes bristled. “That does not make it true.”
I considered his words for a moment, then said, “Alright, we will come back to this later. What can you tell me about my own life?”
“I only just met you. What do I know of your life?”
This last statement gave me some insight into Archimedes’ nature, for now I knew he was of the grouchy variety, but I like that, so it was all good.
I decided to change my approach. “Well, I’m not what I’d like to be,” I said.
“Then change,” Archimedes replied.
“Is it really that simple?” I asked.
“It’s the easiest thing in the world. You’re like a computer system. Your function is to perform whatever is programmed into you. But who is the programmer if not you?”
“Well, aren’t I the product of all that has happened to me, and what the world has done to me? I mean, I thought reality itself was the programmer.”
“Nonsense. That is just one of your many miscalculations.”
“So I have complete control over who I am and what I become?”
“If not you, then who?” When he said “who,” it was rather hoot-like.
I wanted to say “God,” though I don’t believe such a being exists. I knew Archimedes wouldn’t have accepted that answer anyway, so I kept it to myself. “I don’t know,” I said. “I guess I need to give it some thought.”
“Let me ask you this,” Archimedes began. “You say you’re not what you want to be. What is it you want to be?”
The answer to this question came scurrying forth from the ethereal depths and escaped my lips of its own accord. “I want to be free.”
“Free,” Archimedes said. “I see. And what does that mean to you, ‘free?’”
“I want the ability to be the person I want to be. I want the ability to eradicate those parts of myself that are undesirable. I want to overcome what has happened to me. I want to evolve, to graduate into a complete, finished version of myself. I want to be happy freely, without reservation, without trepidation, without asking myself whether or not I deserve the right to be happy.”
“You’ve heard that it’s about the journey and not the destination, right?”
“Yeah. It’s a nice cliché, and for the most part, I agree with it. But at the same time, I feel that concept sort of equates our experience in life to a long road trip in which the destination is always over the next bend, remaining constantly out of reach. Road trips are fun, yes, but they can also be exhausting. Sometimes we need to arrive. Sometimes the destination is just as important as the journey. There is rest in arrival.”
“So you want to rest, is that it?”
I nodded. “Sometimes.”
“I see,” Archimedes said. “What if life isn’t about resting? What if life is about doing?”
“What, so we only get to rest in death?”
“No offense, Archimedes, but that’s kind of shitty.”
Archimedes stiffened. “How like your kind,” he griped. “So entitled. Show me where in the Cosmos the rule is written that existence is guaranteed to be something other than shitty.”
“You are, I presume, referring to the human being’s sense of entitlement? I suppose your contention is that the virtue of existing entitles a being only to the possibility of fulfilment in life, but not necessarily the promise of it.”
“You are correct. Your people are provided with the means of contentment, but is it not guaranteed that you will attain it, nor should it be.”
“I knew you’d say that. You refer to the proverbial pitcher of water, I suppose?”
“I beg your pardon?”
“Well, you know, that age-old dilemma of why God would give you thirst, provide a pitcher of water, but then hand you a glass that has a hole drilled in the bottom of it. The means of quenching our thirst are there, but we cannot make it work.”
He sighed. “God again?”
“Okay, forget God. What I’m saying is that by virtue of existing, the human being has various needs. We didn’t ask to be created, whether it was by God or the Universe or an accident or whatever. But someone or something saw fit to fling us into being. Our entitlement comes from that. If we are given thirst, then we are entitled to drink. If we are given aches, we’re entitled to assuage them, right?”
“Who said you were given thirst? Who said you were given aches? Is it not your own lusts and desires that give you these things? And why do you have to keep bringing God into it?”
“I’m saying that we possess them merely by virtue of existing at all. Besides, I don’t even believe in God. You know that.”
Archimedes flapped his wings and said, “Your cat is in the window.”
I looked to see that my cat was indeed in the window. “He can’t get to you,” I assured him.
“I’m a bird,” Archimedes barked. “I could never fully trust someone who keeps cats.”
“Okay, let me get this straight. What you want it to be free. Oh, and to rest. Yes?”
“You make it sound like resting is a bad thing.”
“What exactly is it that you need rest from?”
“Well… the weight of life can sometimes be too heavy. The daily trudge through reality on this planet can be too much at times. We don’t even really have to be doing anything. Sometimes, just being here, being awake, can take everything out of you. It’s hard to be a human.”
“Try being an owl sometime.”
I didn’t know what to say to that, so I said nothing.
Archimedes went on, “Okay, let’s get back to what you said before. You said you cannot rest because you are not free.”
“Yes. I am not free to rest.”
“What if you really are free to rest? What if this inhibition exists only in your mind?”
“Well, you exist only in my mind, too.”
“Be serious, now. What if you can rest, but you just won’t?
“Then I am to be pitied, I suppose.”
“Tell me about this perceived inhibition. And note my use of the word ‘perceived’ there, because I believe this inhibition, whatever it is, exists only in your imagination.”
“Whether it’s real or not makes little difference, if you ask me. It amounts to the same thing. Where is my life lived if not in my mind? All my experiences, my reality, everything that I feel and think and perceive and discover and contemplate—it all takes place in my mind.”
“Are you saying that reality is unique to you, and someone else’s reality is unique to them? So, in your mind, reality is not a fixed schema but rather only what one particular individual interprets it to be?”
“I guess I’m not sure. How can reality be defined without first leaving reality to see it as it is from the outside?”
“But if even you could leave reality, don’t you take it with you the instant you set foot elsewhere?”
“That’s just what I’m asking, Archimedes. Does reality apply wherever I am, no matter what? Or does it have borders that can be crossed? Can I go to a place that’s outside of reality and then look back in on it from the outside?”
“I personally don’t think so. I think reality applies wherever anything exists.”
“Then what does it matter if I only perceive certain things to be real? Either they’re real, or they’re not.”
“It does matter. Sometimes what seems to be real in your mind is actually false outside the limit of your physical brain.”
“Like you, you mean? You’re only in my mind, after all.”
“Son, I am your mind. Haven’t you figured that out yet?”
“We’re getting off track. Your assertion is that my inhibitions are only real in my mind. But I ask again, where do I live out my life if not within the confines of my own mind?”
“Think of it this way. If a man is shot and the bullet stays lodged in the flesh, we could say that there is some malignant foreign material residing in his body, yes?”
“The bullet is now inside the body. Ergo, one could make a case that the bullet is now part of the body. But that bullet is, nevertheless, foreign material. It doesn’t belong there. And if it is left there, it will cause the body harm.”
“That makes sense.”
“Well, alright then. Imagine that your inhibitions are like a bullet in your mind. They seem like part of the landscape, but in actuality they don’t belong there. They are foreign material causing the mind harm.”
“It can’t be that simple.”
“Ah, but what if it is that simple? Perhaps you just need to do to that ‘inhibiting voice’ in your mind what a doctor would do to a bullet in someone’s chest.”
“Yes, remove it.”
“That’s easier said than done.”
“I said it was simple, not easy.”
Just then the conversation was interrupted by a passenger jet flying overhead, something that happens frequently due to our house being so close to Lambert Airport. Somehow the noise of the jet shook me out of this mental fantasy and restored me to the real world. My pipe was spent, and I found myself growing tired.
I hooted to see if the owl was still there. I was greeted only by silence. He’s gone, I thought. I felt sad for some reason. For all I knew, he had flown off long before now, but I was so immersed in my pretend dialogue that I might have missed it. It didn’t matter. The moment had passed, and now it was time to put “done” to this day.
I went inside and eventually slid into bed, but I didn’t fall asleep for some time. I lied awake for a while, musing over all that Archimedes had said.
Writing is something that happens in the fingers. The absolute worst mistake you can make when you write is to let your brain get in the way.