The months following the disastrous prom with Em were dark. Not only had I not gotten to do it, I’d also become obsessed with shooting stars. It had started with the huge one I sighted when I was thirteen, but I’d read that one as meaning I was blessed, protected, chosen even. The second hadn’t felt like that. It had felt ominous. Of course, signs must appear in forms that are comprehensible, if not by others (most often not by others), at least by the party concerned; otherwise they’d seem mere coincidence. When I sighted the second one at the exact moment I’d decided I could no longer believe in God, I knew deep inside it was a directive, saying: yes, do not believe in Me.
But that was confusing. Would God send a sign to not believe in Him? And if so, didn’t that suggest there actually was a God? Still, if He hadn’t sent it, who or what had? Someone or something ominous? Someone or something sinister? That’s what I came to believe: something sinister had sent the sign. And over time I started sensing the thing that had sent it: a huge, dark Machine, floating in the sky, following me wherever I went. Of course, I knew it wasn’t real. Still, I worried if I turned around too fast, I’d see it even though it wasn’t there. That’s important: because I knew it wasn’t real, I was certain I hadn’t gone crazy. But I was troubled. And that caused me to dwell upon an idea that in some form I’d worried about my whole life: that this world was not real. At least one of us wasn’t––me or the world, I wasn’t certain which.
Through some reasoning that made sense at the time, I concluded it was the world that wasn’t, including all the people in it. They were simply puppets run by the big, black Machine that wasn’t really following me but that could, nevertheless, move people from place to place and make them do or say whatever it commanded. Again, I’d always had a very vivid imagination, and that was what this was: a very big product of a very big imagination.
Still, I felt scared, frightened, and too suspicious to discuss it with anyone. But one day I sat down and wrote to the only person I thought I might be able to trust: my brother Clarence. I thought of him as such a benign presence in my life (he’d become a minister, after all) that even if the Machine were instructing him how to reply, his answer might still be helpful. Beneficial.
So I wrote that I was concerned, worried, afraid that we did not exist and asked how he knew we did––if he did. Then I waited for the answer. Which didn’t come for six very long weeks. In his response Clarence told me my question was absurd because how could it be answered unless we did, in fact, exist? He went on to write that in this life it is as important to figure out which questions make sense as it is to find the answers. He added in closing that he’d recently bought an antique brass lamp and that, in his philosophy, well-polished brass was a good thing, that one could (and should, it was inferred) take joy in keeping it well-polished.
That was it! It didn’t really tell me what I wanted to know, it didn’t really answer my question. Perhaps, I decided, a Harvard education wasn’t worth so much if it couldn’t answer Basic Questions. I was painting when the letter arrived, a big, black, sour painting, and after rereading the letter, I took the handle of my brush and plunged it through my canvas, tearing it from top to bottom. Then I placed the letter into the book I got from the evil Mr. Oliver.
The next week I started college. Shuffling behind a group of freshmen apparently as confused as I was, I passed a big table and took one of each of the handouts (class descriptions, parking permit, invitations to join fraternities) and at the end was a sign (an actual sign): “Got Troubles? Need Someone to Talk To? Free Counseling.” The box attached was filled with leaflets, and it was as if they were twinkling, even winking at me. I looked left and right, grabbed one, and stuffed it deep into my notebook. When I got home I read it, then hid it in Mr. Oliver’s book next to Clarence’s letter, where I could retrieve it if it were ever needed.
It stayed there three years.
During that time I should’ve been happy. Teachers in the art department loved my work, I got an A in every studio class, and the art majors I admired looked at me as a serious rival, even one to be emulated. (There were others, of course, who insisted on painting things; they didn’t respect me, but who cared?) I soon found that the stranger I acted, the more impressed people were. If I refused to use more than one color per canvas, they’d nod. If I explained I repeatedly slathered my canvases with transparent washes to reflect the varnish overlaying a world people foolishly called real, they’d applaud. And if I mumbled to myself while painting, my peers would interpret it as a mark of a deep, aesthetic trance. One day I broke a bottle of ink in the pocket of my trench coat. I tried cleaning it by throwing it in the washer with a cup of bleach, but it turned a disgusting, splotchy orange-gray. The following week, two painting majors asked for instructions on how to do the same to theirs.
It was unsettling: why would people so approve of me?
Still, I was getting where I’d always wanted, making a name for myself, brushes flying, riding high, crazily busy. But from time to time and with no prior notification, everything would collapse. Someone I admired would pass one of my paintings without praising it, or compliment the canvas on the easel next to mine, and I’d fall into an immediate and huge depression.
And I’d have to sleep. A lot.
I called it the World of Sleep, a name Em had come up with earlier, but this was bigger. My mother called it the “roller-coaster,” but she didn’t know how to help, so she simply turned back to her cooking and stirred harder. My father would look up from his pork chops and say nothing; formerly he’d been cruel––and so vocal about it!––but the way I was acting now was more than he could fathom. They were both embarrassed by my turning into a freak who’d paint around the clock three days straight, then climb under the pool table with a blanket and disappear for the next three; but what could they do?
Of course, even with the acceptance of the art department, I was still alone. I had to be. The other art majors approved of me too much to be believed. Still, why would I need anyone else? It wasn’t like I was ever going to have sex, for example; being with Em had convinced me of that. I wasn’t attractive enough, big enough, man enough; maybe it had something to do with the fact I was uncircumcised. (I’d always thought my foreskin looked sniveling.)
I was left with masturbation as my only friend.
Of course I felt guilty about it, but I couldn’t stop. It was something I did daily, three times when I had the chance, the imperative being that no one catch me. My bed was in the basement, so I thought I was safe––until one night I realized that frequently, immediately after flushing the evidence down the toilet, I’d hear my parents moving around upstairs. Were they listening? Were they aware of what I was doing?
I still took long walks, alone, each night. That was when I made plans to escape this town, to become famous, or to determine exactly how real the Machine was that day––a weather report, more or less, of Huge Import. One evening in December I was out walking and found an empty water cooler bottle. I carried it home to use as an ashtray––filling it a foot deep with water for safety. (I didn’t want to start a fire.) The next night I was jerking off and figured why not use the bottle? Afterward I shook it and the semen and spent cigarettes mixed together, producing a disgusting brown liquid. Big deal! No one would ever see it. The basement was mine; no one dared enter. My mother refused to clean it, saying a person old enough for college could clean up after himself. And even if someone should discover it, who would believe such a thing?
Of course, the Machine might. It was omniscient. Which meant, in some way, some extraordinarily odd way, there was no need to change my behavior because of it. It already knew what you wanted to do, deep in your heart, so why not just do it? Anyway, hadn’t I decided the world did not exist? And if it didn’t, how could the Machine?
So from then on I used the bottle, adding more water from time to time to dilute the odor of the tobacco and semen, and I got by, feeling very bad or very good, going from one extreme to the other, and coming to the realization that one could live with the Machine if one had no other choice. Which, of course, I didn’t. The year 1962 flew by, 1963, the spring of 1964 was on its way, and I was balancing things fairly well. By attending summer sessions, I’d finished all my art classes and needed only some language and science requirements to graduate.
Then the Torpedo hit.
* * *
It was nine at night and I’d just left the art department. I’d been painting alone since eight that morning, April light streaming through the windows, the Carmina Burana playing in the background. I was in love with music, with painting, in one of those moods in which nothing could stop me. I’d quit only because the custodian had kicked me out. Feeling better than happy, elated even, I was on my way home––when I spotted her about thirty yards across the lawn, coming out of the student union.
It was Em.
I’d guessed she might be taking night classes, but I’d never run into her and I decided not to run into her that night, either. I ducked behind a column and watched (spied would be the more accurate term). She looked beautiful: the way she walked, the way her weight swung from left to right, the way she balanced a book on her hip; her clothes, the scarf over her shoulders. I could practically smell her perfume. She’d cut her hair but I’d have recognized her a mile away: the most beautiful girl in the world. I held my breath as she sauntered over to the bus stop. I was swallowing funny, remembering everything I’d ever felt; and I continued to watch, trying not to appear furtive, until the bus arrived and took her away. Then I sank.
It was like that TV show about World War II in which black battleships surge through dark waters and you’d think nothing could harm them; but then you realize the film’s being shot through a periscope, that someone is watching; and then that someone pushes a button and you see the torpedo head out from the sub toward the unsuspecting target. Finally, the explosion.
I sighed as the bus pulled away, then went home to sleep and to dream, a dream in which Em got on, then off, the bus repeatedly. On then off, on then off. In the morning, I awoke to salty tears running down my cheeks and white stuff in my shorts.
I didn’t mean to take note of the time I saw her––the exact day, hour, and minute I saw her––but somehow seven nights later I found myself watching from behind the same column. It was a warm night, and she’d decided to walk instead of take the bus. I couldn’t help myself: I followed a block and a half behind, sometimes closer, depending on what seemed safe. From time to time I’d run around the block, arriving out of breath at the next intersection, where I’d watch as she approached, waited for the light, then crossed. I’d stand sideways behind a tall shrub, arms tight against my body; or crouch, breathing heavily, beneath a staircase.
It quickly became obvious she wasn’t headed for her parents’ house; she was going someplace else, and then I guessed it: she’d gotten her own apartment––close to the museum, in one of the cheap and not very nice buildings you find there. I watched as she pulled a key from her purse, watched as the lights switched on, one room to the next. I was shaking from head to toe; my shirt felt moist against my body. I was breathing heavily and felt terribly ashamed.
But the next week I couldn’t help myself again. When I saw her get on the bus, I ran like crazy all the way to her place and followed her shadow across the shades, trying to figure out which room was which: which was her living room, her kitchen, which the bath, the bedroom?
I was even more ashamed when I came the following night and, seeing lights lit, crouched beneath her windows, between the asphalt siding and those dusty thorn bushes that have red berries. I listened as she moved from room to room, opening drawers, straightening things, playing Dionne Warwick: “You’ll never get to heaven if you break my heart.” It sounded so pretty and girlish, it gave me a hard-on. Finally Em turned out the last light, and I knew if I stayed any longer I was going to jerk off, then and there, in those sticky bushes. I don’t want to be like that, I thought. I could never face myself again. I crashed up and out of the bushes, scratching my face, and ran down the sidewalk and through the alley.
When I got home I found my mother in my basement, looking terribly upset. She’d been cleaning my room (an exception: spring cleaning). Dirty clothes were thrown in a pile by the stairs, bedding changed, paints stacked neatly in a cardboard box.
I asked, “What’s wrong?”
She answered, “You know very well what’s wrong.”
I repeated, “No, what?”
She answered, “Do you think I don’t know what’s in that bottle?”
Then she went upstairs, saying not one word more.
And suddenly I knew it was time, no matter if it were all some plot the Machine had devised to entrap me. I walked over, opened the book that housed Clarence’s letter, and pulled out the sheet of paper: “Got troubles? Need someone to talk to? Free counseling.”
* * *
“You’ll need to speak up if you want anyone to hear you,” the lady complained.
Of course, that’s exactly what I didn’t want. There were six people in the waiting room, so I whispered again: “Your hospital gave out an announcement at the school…”
“Well, why didn’t you say so? Here, fill this out.” The lady pulled a form from beneath the counter and handed it to me. “Got a pen? A pencil won’t do.”
I crossed to the other side of the room, to the only chair sufficiently isolated, and looked over the form: three pages, a million questions. I looked around, then realized I’d have to walk back. “Do you have something I can write on?”
“Didn’t exactly come prepared, did you?” she grumbled, as she searched again beneath her desktop, this time producing a clipboard. “Make sure I get this back.”
I returned to the chair, turned so no one could read over my shoulder, and started filling it in. But the pen ran out of ink. I went back to the lady once more. She scowled, shook her head, lent me another. I started to sweat and, as I answered the questions, to tremble.
The form wanted everything: not just name, age and social security number, but where you’d gone to school and whether you’d gotten a degree, each place you’d worked, for how long and why you’d left; most problematically, however, it demanded references. Three of them. But this was supposed to be a secret! At least I’d assumed it was. Yet the form was asking for references, complete with phone numbers, which meant they intended to phone and discuss my situation. At which time I’d become a laughingstock, an embarrassment to my family. Of course, I hadn’t intended to tell anyone; this was just for me. Selfish, perhaps––but then I saw myself beneath Em’s window and my poor mother confronting me with a bottle of…geeze! and I realized this wasn’t just for me; it was for them, too. A kind of Christian thing to do: thinking of others.
So I tried to reassure myself that asking for references was all right. It meant the Machine wasn’t involved, since it already knew any names I might use. Then I realized it would be just like the Machine to pretend it didn’t know something: the better to fool you! Still, I couldn’t do it. I finished the rest of the form and took it up, afraid the lady would read it out loud and others in the room would hear, but she simply adjusted her glasses, looked it over, and handed it back.
“They won’t accept it without references.”
I leaned over and whispered, “But can’t this be a secret?”
“Secret! What kind of job you think this is?”
“Aren’t you here for a job?”
I could hardly answer because everyone was listening and staring. I looked down, I didn’t want to look at the lady directly; from the start she’d seemed so unwelcoming and somehow I’d assumed it would be the opposite. I shook my head no. “I’m here about the paper they passed out at school. It said to come here for free counseling.”
“Oh, lordy.” I peeked up and watched her hand fly to her mouth. “I am so sorry. I misunderstood.” She lifted a hinged section of her desk, stepped out and grabbed my hand. “You used the wrong entrance.” Then she walked me down the hall to another lady (to whom she whispered something) and I was ushered into a small room.
With a chair and a cot. And a picture by Salvador Dali, the one with the clocks hanging on trees, watches melting over the branches. It looked out of place––the room being so empty and plain, the painting so filled with symbols––but perhaps it was supposed to get you talking; what did I know? I was also unsure as to whether I should sit on the cot or the chair, but I guessed that might be some sort of test so I remained standing––sweating, and watching the clocks in the Dali painting.
The door opened. Dr. Connors (he wore a name badge) was in a hurry, I could tell, and he wanted to get this over with quickly. I shouldn’t have bothered him; he probably didn’t have enough time to get through the Important Things each day. He indicated he’d read my form, then asked, “What did you wish to discuss?”
I’d assumed there’d be small talk first. It was difficult to start in with Important Things, just like that––and did he know I’d filled out the wrong form? I guessed he was smart enough to figure that out. I answered, “Religion?”
He smiled. “Usually a separate question from what we deal with, but go on.”
“How about God?” The Dali clocks looming over his shoulder were making me nervous, making it difficult to figure out what to bring up, and how.
“Again, not usually. If you wish to discuss God, we suggest you talk to your pastor or priest.” He looked me over closer. “Or rabbi. Whoever your family goes to about such things. But perhaps you can clarify…”
I wasn’t meeting his criteria. I wasn’t crazy enough for him to bother with and would have to leave without any answers. Which I really didn’t want to do. So I reached deep into my head: “How does a person know what’s real?” I asked.
His expression changed slightly. “Tell me what you mean by ‘real.’” And he motioned for me to sit on the cot as he sat down in the chair.
“Can I go back to God for just one minute?” I asked. “Because the way I figure is, if God is perfect––and by definition He is––doesn’t that mean everything He made would be perfect? And since that’s obviously not the way it is here, doesn’t it mean that this”— I gestured with my arms to include everything around us—“that all this is unreal? Including that painting, your chair, and…”
I went on explaining and I guess he decided he wasn’t so busy after all, and I went on and on while he listened and finally I got to the Machine. I’d held that out for last. I wasn’t sure I’d even mention it. Or if I did, how. Talking about the Machine was a bit like lying, in that I knew it wasn’t real; and yet to describe it as anything less than real didn’t seem honest, either. In the end, I’m not sure I did an adequate job because when I finished, he nodded up and down like you’d do to someone crazy. He said, “Michael, I’ll bet you’re tired after talking so much. How about if I get you something, you take a rest, and I’ll return later and we’ll talk further?”
“Naah. I should be going. But could I come back some other day, perhaps?”
“Actually, Michael, you seem rather upset today. Why not stay a while longer? I’ll get you something to calm those nerves, you can rest, and we’ll talk some more.”
Didn’t he understand I had to get back to school? Couldn’t we just agree to some of that free counseling?
“Trust me,” he said.
And because he’d been kind enough to listen and hadn’t made fun, I took two pills and lay down on the cot for a few minutes, and when I awoke he’d returned to the room with my parents, who were standing a few steps behind him. I got the idea that hours had passed.
“Michael, your parents and I have discussed this and we think it would be a good idea for you to stay here awhile. To get a real rest. We could review those ideas you have.”
I felt groggy. I looked up at my parents, they were blurring in and out of focus, and they looked so little and scared. I felt sorry for them. My mother was wearing a hat. She only wore hats on special occasions or for church and that’s what this felt like, church, quiet like that. Or even Heaven: all feathery.
The doctor held out a piece of paper. “Because you’re over eighteen, if you sign yourself in,” he explained softly, kindly, “you can’t be given shock treatments. If someone else does”—he indicated my parents—“shock treatments are…”
I looked at it, read a line here and there, but it kept fuzzing over. This is all a mistake, I thought, I’d just wanted to talk. I turned to my father for help but he looked so helpless and I felt so ashamed for having made him look that way that I took the form and signed. As I was led down a long pale green hallway into the hospital, I turned to look back at him and Mom. Were we supposed to say good-bye? Were we supposed to kiss or something?