john lennon — mind games
I hate this song.
I grew up in a tiny town you’ve never heard of (I know this because even people from the same state stop me here to say, “Oh, where?” and when I say, “You’ve never heard of it!” they challenge me by saying “Try me!” and when I tell them they pretend as though they know where I’m talking about, but I’ve discomfited them by living somewhere they can’t map, and it’s never the same) and had a friend named Alex whose mother was very rigid in terms of discipline. She was old-fashioned, if by old-fashioned you mean not the warm glow of the 40’s/50’s but rather the decrepit sewers and street smells of urban Europe during the Black Plague. She did not like the term “dude” because she found it disrespectful, even when she was not its target, and even more than “dude” she hated the word “hey.” “Hey” is not by any stretch of the imagination a rude word, in my opinion and in the opinion of most of my generation, if not all of my generation, but Alex’s mother took offense at it and every time he or I said it we were punished by having to eat an entire bowl of prunes.
This cruelty does not need to be explained. This is not a scatological blog and I am not a scatological person, which is why Alex’s mother’s attitude and really her entire universe alienated me, and eventually the creeped-out feelings I had towards Alex’s mother seeped into my relationship with Alex, and I stopped hanging out at his house and at school always remembered to say “hi” not “hey” which made him foreign to me, like an extraterrestrial. He wanted to play Super Nintendo, which I had and he did not (not surprising considering the psychological darkness of the household to which he belonged), but really, I was never up for it. And so I played Super Nintendo with Manhattan and LJ and Alex was never invited. He seemed to be rarely invited anywhere anymore, and nobody wanted to keep the heys at bay at his house, obviously. What a shame. Poor Alex.
A few months ago I got an email from Alex, who had recognized one of my turns of phrase in a book I ghost-authored years ago (the phrase — I gamble at giving myself away — is “Lookie here, mister man.” Please don’t think less of me; I was very young when I ghost-authored the book in question) and asked if I had read it. I responded that I hadn’t (and I haven’t, I only wrote it), but of course followed up with the how-are-you’s and what-have-you-been-up-to’s, which are the same question, just phrased differently, in e-mail context.
“Oh,” he replied (I’m paraphrasing), “Oh, well, great, ha-ha, living with my mother, having trouble dating.”
Is that so, Alex? Why could this be?
Flummoxed was I, he wrote sarcastically (he is me), because why would a grown man choose to live with a woman who had controlled his speech, controlled his manners, controlled his very guts for years? It doesn’t take Freud to figure it out, but maybe it does, because I sure can’t (and I have a BA in psychology). Wouldn’t a man reach an age at which he wanted to break free from that and just play some Super Nintendo and say “hey” back to the cat (scientists have proven that the language of cats — meows — are to be translated as “hey”)? Don’t you think? Don’t you agree? Who wouldn’t agree? What if I am the only person who thinks that this is insane/sociopathic/masochistic/a generally bad idea?
“Alex,” I wrote (I’m paraphrasing again), “I hate to be an ass, but could you be bothered to explain why you’re living with your mother? I remember she was strict. Do you think you have trouble dating because you’re in a state of arrested development? Maybe your mother gives people the I-don’t-want-to-come-overs.”
“Warren,” responded Alex (verbatim), “I know you weren’t trying to be an ass but it’s a sensitive topic. My mother is only cruel because she’s insecure. That said, I would like to move out. Is your couch available?”
I thought about it. I like my sofa to hold just me, but at the same time, I felt tremendous (almost crushing) pity for Alex and even convinced myself that Alex and his mother both would feel the benefits of leading lives as parallel lines, not lines drawn over each other so that it looks just like one bold line. I assented. He arrived.
“Hey Alex,” I said, by way of greeting and also as a way to get his attention to warn him about the tricky step, “watch the tricky step.”
He stared at me.
“What did you say?”
“I said watch the step.”
I realized it before he’d finished saying “before.” I’d said “Hey Alex.” Hey.
“Sorry dude,” I said, then smacked my head. “That was another faux pas.”
“Sure was,” said Alex, which I did not care for at all.
A home is a dungeon when your sofa holds someone else. Never in my life has the word “hey,” or the word “dude,” or even “hey, dude,” wanted to jump off my tongue as it did during the ten days of Alex’s transition away from his mother. He was infected with the mentality of an on-duty police officer: he took mental notes, and I saw as my punishments collected in his brain. Not that he carried them out: he couldn’t, it was my house and my sofa after all, but each demerit was assigned a red X. I could not listen to my rap music, I could not even listen to Everclear. Offensive. Alex caught me at three in the morning eating Chinese spare ribs like an animal, hunched over the sink, wiping my fingers on my boxer shorts. It was not tolerated. As I said: he was infected.
Before he moved out of my apartment and into his own, Alex brought me a jar of lemon curd as an obviously-last-minute token of his appreciation. He announced what it was and I flung the jar at the wall before he’d finished saying “from Provence.”
“Get this out of my sight,” I said, in such a terrifying and commanding tone that Alex disappeared into the kitchen to grab paper towels and wipe away the offending condiment from the wainscoting. Silently. Enjoying familiar wrath.
From his crouched position, gathering shards of glass, he summoned the courage to ask, “What happened there?”
I explained that if there’s one word that’s too disgusting, too evocative, to be used in my house, it’s curd.
I don’t know what’s become of Alex since he moved out. He was a really good dude, on some level.
I have just come from about three years of self-imposed exile from communication in general. Sometimes when I open my mouth hoping to see a bubble come out with my thoughts inside, the bubble bursts and a fly wanders in instead.