Of Course, Fences

The same way Troy treated Cory is the same way his father (when he was around) treated him and the same way I too often treat my son and the same way I was treated by my grandfather: with chores, rules, wrath and anger first and compassion, if ever, last. Sometimes, and I mean rarely, niggas are able to acknowledge their abuse of women (Troy would never, nigga was insane, my own grandfather hasn’t, and took me damn near thirty years, arguably, though writers like Laymon are definitely moving that forward now), but the lack of sensitivity towards sons specifically, continues to feel justified. Of course there’s the fear, the tradition of harshly disciplining our kids so the cops don’t grab hold of them. But still, it reminds me of my favorite sentence from Oscar Wao, when hoe ass Yunior says, “A heart like mine, which never got any kind of affection growing up, is terrible above all things.”

And it’s true, and too easily perpetuated. I feel so damn little about most things, but my heart is especially stone when it comes to discipline. When Cory asked Troy if he liked him, and Troy said he ain’t got to like him, that it was about responsibility, I replayed every single time I’ve had that exact conversation with my grandfather. Shit, I thought of times I hadn’t yet had it with my own son because of how predictable it is. There’s a lot of it I struggle not to agree with, but at times I wonder if I should even bother fighting it, if I should be even more strict. Every time Jojo doesn’t understand a concept perfectly or at least better than other kids around his age, or doesn’t begin a chore without my telling him to, or slips up at school (especially if it involves aggression) I have to fight to hide my anger, my fear of how he could end up. I think, if only I’d have done or said X, or maybe not let him play Xbox or watch T.V. or double his reading time, then maybe there would be fewer slip ups, there’d be less for him to work on, there would be less at risk. Maybe he will be better than me. But maybe not.

He’d still be him and I’d still be me. He’d still be jealous of his sister and flustered all the time because he isn’t satisfied with her punishments or she doesn’t get in trouble enough in general. I’d still ask him if her sneaking to bed without brushing her teeth deserves the same punishment as punching and threatening to kill a little girl on the bus yesterday because she called him “stupid” and he’d still say, “I dunno,” which makes me even more angry after the polite half-hour of conversation explaining why it’s wrong and then he might still end up crying into the living room carpet doing push-ups, still afraid of me.

Bizarre Bazaar becomes less Bizarre

The Global Bazaar began as a simple food court across from terminal C80 at the Newark Liberty International Airport, but then it evolved–like antibiotic resistant strep–into something more costly and uncomfortable. Its pillars are embedded with tall televisions, depicting their self reported range of international delicacies prepared by real humans up close: powdered hands chopping, kneading and rolling dough; smiling chefs building pasta like dextrous children with Play Dough; chopstix delicately placing spinach and pork atop squiggly noodles and awaiting brothy euphoria; and forearms with brightly colored tattoos–having well-defined borders of course–grinding coffee beans (from Colombia or Costa Rica or wherever Americans demand our fair trade coffee from these days) and making swirls at the brim of little white cups. The word “artisanal” was everywhere.

Artisanal Twists.                                                Artisanal coffee.

                                     Artisanal granola bars.

Artisanal smoothies (arguably not smoothies because they refuse to make them with milk).

                                                                   Artisanal doughnuts.

Artisanal Lays potato chips.

                        Artisanal paper plates.                                       Artisanal lamp shades.

And so forth.

I purchased artesian water (not to be confused with artisanal) that was apparently “Born in America.” Purchased it at one of the mandatory self-check out counters. The scheme had shopping baskets lining the far walls with counters, tables and a full-service ramen bar in the center–every seat was accompanied by an Ipad. I sneered at the impersonalization and forced screen time, the fact that Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and the other ones were already pre-loaded, and the ads and pay-to-play virtual games with addicting tokens as I watched children and adults alike glued to the tiny screens. Tablet was the only method of ordering food.

I searched for a KFC or Pollo Campero or just any fried chicken place and there weren’t any. Apparently, United Airways had gentrified the entire terminal.

My seat at Kaedama Ramen Bar was an arm’s length from Philly Cheesesteaks by Pat La Freida and Custom Burgers by Pat La Freida respectively. The noodles were a little over $20.00, but also delicious. The whole time I ate I was looking around and judging the whole process. I felt dirty about how the self-checkout and tablet model had completely replaced the need for any person-to-person interaction and reduced all customer service to the despicably low level of say, the United States Government. People were buying celebrity gossip magazines and ordering fake cheesesteaks and grabbing six dollar bottles of water without ever having to look another human in the eyes to admit what they were actually doing. I was drifting into yet another slice of armageddon correctly predicted by science fiction novelists fifty some years ago.

To accompany the noodles, I’d ordered a ginger ale. I don’t know why, I just really like ginger ale, but I didn’t receive the ginger ale. It was on my order. I viewed the receipt on my personalized tablet several times and every time it said “ginger ale.” There was no option to re-order the ginger ale without paying for another one. I couldn’t remove it either because I had already closed the tab. I grew nervous. There was only one thing I could do. One thing I had to do if I wanted that ginger ale I’d already paid for and that was to say excuse me and ask the waiter handing out the drinks about the ginger ale.

I didn’t want to. I had no desire to talk to another person. I was getting along so well with the tablet and things just appearing in front of me and polite exchanges that consisted solely of “thank you” before parting ways. I waited. It took me a little while to come to terms with the fact that now I had to have a conversation. A brief one, but still a conversation, right after I’d thought what I thought and felt what I felt and as soon as the words “excuse me sir” left my lips, making me feel sour and excessively human, I knew. That “I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together.”

Damn it all.

Reading

Most mornings I open my eyes sad or angry, my body glued to the bed by an ant colony of pinching, naggingly existential concerns. Not a drop of sleep. Long gone are the days of going to bed hungry and waking up cold on the floor, but I’m still too often unconvinced that happiness is a possibility. In the back of my mind I just know for some reason that every positive gesture a human being has ever extended to me was either to make themselves feel better, or to conform to societal demands of politeness. I think repeatedly that most of what I’ve spent my time on: interpersonal relationships, school, work, running, writing, and especially therapy, are complete wastes and will continue to be so. A bunch of bets I keep placing and losing; I’m like my grandfather with those daily scratch offs. Nothing that used to be fun is enjoyable anymore and I’m always in search of that next external thing that will lead to a breakthrough, knowing damn well that’s not how this works. But I search anyway.

Basically, I’m Quentin Coldwater, but I’ll get back to that.

Nothing is continuously enjoyable that is, except for reading. Reading is the only thing that, through all the tedium and frustration, sleeplessness and suicidal thoughts, that I can depend on. When I was a kid we only had one book in that damn house, ever. It was Vampire Junction, S.P. Somtow’s book about Timmy Valentine, the vampire rockstar. My desire to be him might have morphed indirectly into my obsession with vampires in general. As a kid I’d never read much that wasn’t in a video game (I still remember nearly everything Navi said and Link’s non-talking ass didn’t) and though I never forgot Somtow’s book, I realize now that my love for it was linked primarily to its presence and provisional escapism. Had someone quizzed me about it using any manner of theoretical perspective I’d have been like, Yea, Timmy Valentine is cool as shit, right? I’m frustrated now though when shit like that is the peak of a book conversation in a graduate English course, but that’s a whole other issue.

After reading Somtow’s “The Pavilion of Frozen Women,” anthologized in Mothership, I realize I need to go back and read Vampire Junction as a writer. A privilege made possible by Aisha getting me a signed copy (thanks again for that) after my first short story publication. Anyways, all that is to say that yes, I’m basically Quentin Coldwater.

The same way he escaped into the Fillory books as a kid, I did with appropriately darker, gore filled novel of Somtow’s (probably explains a lot).

For three, four-hundred page novels Quentin Coldwater scours the external world–in search of this ambiguous thing, this shifting target, that could potentially make him happy–while trampling over the souls of other people’s conceptually less important desires.

I may as well have invented that.

A stand out intellectually before college, Quentin never really stresses his brain until he gets to Brakebills, which in itself is supposed to be one of those self-actualizing end-all be alls.

It’s not.

Quentin discovers this world he’s always dreamed of and has this super smart, perceptive, caring, nerdy, beautiful girlfriend who’d do anything for him (two of those external thingies), so he cheats on her and then literally gets her killed in said world.

Several times this has happened to me.

Quentin catches the elusive Questing Beast to grant him three wishes. It doesn’t have any of the answers, nor the ability to give him what he really wants so he says fuck it and just wishes to leave Fillory altogether.

Yup, a born quitter.

The older Quentin is more introspective and slows down a little, wants to make up for past wrongs. He hangs out with Plum and doesn’t fuck her even though everyone thinks he did because that’s the kind of dude he was (still, he acts like that). Now, instead of searching for this thing to fill the gaping hole in his heart and mind, he decides to build his own world and fails miserably.

I’m working on a novel…

Quentin essentially stalks, but refuses to confront the woman he loves head on until he takes Plums advice to do so. He succeeds in turning Alice human again, but she’s furious because she didn’t want to be. He just assumed so for seven years. Instead of acknowledging what she wanted, he insists that she’ll be grateful at some point and sticks with the assumption that he knows better for her than she does.

Done it a million times.

Eventually, Quentin saves the magical world that forced him out, that literally made him kill his hero, that killed Alice and that took Penny’s hands and a chunk of his shoulder. He does it for its own sake, because it’s right, expecting nothing in return. In fact, he opts to leave Fillory behind and return home to try building his own world again. There, he soberly accepts Alice for who she is, or who she wants to be and makes no assumptions about her subject position in reference to his. They build the new world together, and not only does it work, but the door he opens is a sprawling and lush landscape linked to the one he’s always known and loved since he was a child.

This last part is damn tricky.