Bart Mendoza 5 a.m., Dec. 8
It was a sold out theatre for the monologist from New England via Manhattan. I had recently devoured Gray’s book Sex and Death to the Age 14 and loved every word, felt a kindred spirit, and I’d been trying to finish another one-man show of my own, but had been having trouble getting in a groove on it. I was hoping this night would inspire me. But it started out on the wrong foot right away. Once on campus and parked, while walking to the theatre through the ubiquitous groves of eucalyptus, I began looking around for familiar faces. I’d only graduated three years earlier, and I expected to see someone I knew. I continued searching around when we got to our seats.
“It’s like you don’t even care that you’re here with me,” Karen said in a tone of utter contempt.
It took me entirely by surprise in its intensity. It surpassed her tone in our “Last Exit to Brooklyn” fight and mini-breakup. I tried to explain that I still had friends at the school, that I was just looking around to see if I knew anyone, but all it meant, to her, was that I’d rather be with someone else. I knew for her it was more than this, it was everything – my youth, my lack of money, direction, employment – and this was merely a little insult on top, but it surely set her off.
As a result, I was distracted and anxious and befuddled when Spalding Gray took the stage to perform “Monster in a Box.” Dressed in his standard plaid shirt and khaki pants, he was toting a large, heavy box in one hand. He dropped the box on top of his bare table with a thud.
“This is the box,” he started, audience laughter trickling in. Then he removed from the box, with some effort, his multi-phonebook sized manuscript. “And there’s the monster in it.”
The laughter increased and would continue through the night, as Gray regaled us with, as he described it, “a monologue about a man who can’t write a book about a man who can’t take a vacation.” His autobiographical novel was informed greatly by the suicide of his own mother, who had taken her life while her son was on a vacation. He found vacations difficult for the rest of his life. Twenty years later, and five removed from Spalding Gray’s own suicide, it’s hard to look back on that lively performance and not feel a sort of lively melancholy. Gray, from all evidence, stepped off the Staten Island Ferry, maybe with some weights in his pockets, and drowned himself. His mother, also, had chosen drowning as her method. The performer’s relationship to his mother, while vastly different than mine, was similar enough in emotional heft that I felt myself weighed down in my seat as I listened to him, felt the pull of Karen to one side of me, my childhood behind me, the stage and the theatre around me, and the unknown life in another city that I knew was coming and that I knew I needed, but that I was afraid to confront for the stark loneliness it held for me. I looked at Karen a few times during the show, but she was still angry and would not return my gaze.
The bow Spalding Gray took that night on the Mandeville Auditorium stage could’ve been taken by mine and Karen’s relationship. For all the feelings I’d had at various points that it might be over, now I knew. We walked out of the theatre, back to the car, and drove home in chilly silence. For the next few months we’d stumble, continue to love each other, but mostly we’d fret and squabble about one thing or another, but usually about me and my inability to make a plan, to find direction and stick to it. It was a broken record of a broken record. And I was a luftmensch, a man of the air. I always would be. But when I thought about it, thought about what would happen if I left Karen, or she left me, my back or stomach or everything would hurt. It’s not like I could go out and just find another girl, I felt inferior to the bone still, and what did I have to NOT feel inferior about? I didn’t have a job, I was having trouble motivating myself to look for one, my family felt like a mess, I felt like a perpetual loser and realized how little confidence I truly had. What could I woo a girl with? That I wrote in my spare time? Wow. What had I published? Produced professionally? Sure I’d been writing sitcom specs, but I hadn’t yet gotten my harried lummox of a first agent. Loser, loser, loser. It echoed in my self-defeating head.
It was at this time that I remember my nail-biting habit morphed into a form of cutting. I was bloodying myself from anxiety and self-hatred, chewing my fingertips raw and red, the stinging pain an effective distraction. But I was eating myself alive, in this tiny literal way, cannibalizing myself – a habit I’ve yet to break. Things were falling apart more rapidly, and I was at the head of the class.
* * * * * * * *
During this increasing silence and tension with Karen, I stayed home a lot and tried to write my monologue. I did briefly take a temp job at a print shop, but it only lasted a week, and I had to quit. I’d been working the jogger, which is like an angled vibrating box that takes large and sloppy stacks of paper and jogs them into binding-ready reams of perfection. At the end of a work day, I would still be vibrating. My wrists were sore from it and my head permanently pounded from the noise. But, I must admit, I didn’t really quit. At the end of the first week, the printing company offered me the job full-time. The thought of being there every day I could not entertain. Didn’t they have a delivery truck I could drive? Of course not. I said no. Screw them. Screw it all. I was starting to feel the complete disconnection that has plagued me for decades. I turned down the job, the decent paycheck, and almost assuredly the easier times with Karen. And I was even more confused by myself. I had to leave, I couldn’t leave. I had to leave. I couldn’t.
When I took breaks from trying to write, I started smoking from Sandra’s stash of Merits in the kitchen drawer; and it was the only time in my life when beer genuinely tasted good. Sometimes, to shake it up, I sat in front of my putrid green screen and attempted to summon my inner Spalding Gray with beer and cigarette in hand. Anything to get it grooving. But I couldn’t stand the thought of myself. I was lost in my own room. My body ached and I did not yet nearly understand my mind enough to stop it. The man and the child and the man, sharing a studio. Some days I felt like vomiting, and not just from the beer. I had a university degree, I was a smart and funny guy, why was I increasingly locked away from the world? Often I felt a surfacing need to weep, but I always fought it. One day, I do not know why, I did not try to stop it. I let myself feel something I had denied for years, let myself relive the horrendous experience, if only for an instant. My breath was stopped for a moment, I saw it, felt it, heard his raging voice, even the smells of that childhood home returned. It dizzied me. Today it is more than thirty years ago, but then, when I was alone in that kitchen on 32nd Street, unemployed and starting to cry again, that dreadful night was barely a decade past. That corpse of a night. When my first stepfather killed my childhood. Like I should have killed him.
He would hit us, my little brother and I, with a razor strap, as I mentioned earlier, a piece of leather thick and wide, that felt like a slightly more flexible two-by-four coming down on you. The first time he hit my brother, then just a toddler in diapers, I ran away in fear, I could not bear to watch, and what sentient being could? You don’t hit a child that small with a piece of leather that big, much less with the force of irrational rage my stepfather possessed, without doing serious damage, even if you cannot see it. Then, one night soon after, when my mother was out of town on business, or working late, or absent for some reason, my little brother pushed his bowl of crackers off his highchair, as toddlers do, and my stepfather erupted. He grabbed his razor strap and swung wildly at my wailing and frightened brother, who was trapped in his high-chair seat. I screamed for my stepfather to stop, begged him to stop, tried to pull him away, but he pushed me to the ground. So I ran away again, so afraid, convinced he was going to kill my little brother, and I hid in the tiny closet in my room, where I often hid then. My little prison cell of seclusion and safety. But not that night. The closet door was ripped open by my enraged stepfather, who dragged me out of the closet and back down the hall.
“Now he’s going to get beaten harder!” my stepfather roared as he dragged me back toward the kitchen. “Because YOU ran away!”
I flailed in his grip, screamed at him to let me go, he was squeezing my arm so hard it felt like he was going to break it, but he just kept dragging me, then threw me to the floor in the kitchen and started beating my brother again. I screamed for him to stop.
“Hit me instead!” I cried. “Please hit me instead!”
But he just kept hitting my helpless little brother. My body began shaking, I went into a kind of shock, and I have no idea how I got through the rest of the day, or the week, month, any of it. The next day, however, I’m fairly certain, was when I had the experience of levitating in the garage, of feeling like I was being filled by a fire hose and lifted off the ground. Of losing track of my body, of myself. Of trying to escape the only way my tormented young brain knew how. Because I couldn’t escape. I was a prisoner of this man, and I suffered as any prisoner does under the control of a sadistic guard. That’s why I became so afraid that I felt no other option but to kill him the next time. That’s why I hid a knife under my mattress, and my baseball bat near my little brother’s high chair. And why I sprayed bug poison on my stepfather’s medication. But I could never summon the nerve. Sometimes I wish I had. Sometimes I still do. That child never dies.
Have you got him in the ground yet? Because I really need a grave to piss on.
I am afraid of what these words will do to my brother. He knows, but he doesn’t know. I am the keeper of this family secret. The true extent of it. And that’s how I learned to hate myself. Those nights. Because I ran away, he was beaten harder.
Because I ran away.
I was to blame. You cannot plant that seed in a child. It will sprout an invasive species, a growth inside that will take over everything native and good. And kill it. Or try to.
So I still, to this day, blame myself for everything on some level, on the deepest, most subconscious level. I know I do. I always will, because that part of our brain, the deepest and most ancient part, where we are infant and caveman, it forever remains, it is both the repository of our most profound and dangerous emotional wounds and it is the involuntary power plant that keeps our bodies of flesh alive. Hence all my pains and maladies. Psychosomatic. Mindbody. I know that now, and I can control these symptoms to a large degree. But I knew nothing then. I was blind in the light.
You cannot plant that seed in a child.
* * * * * * * *
This was all kicking and stomping in my brain as I spent those days in the 32nd Street house trying to write my monologue. Smoking and drinking and chewing my fingers into raw bloody shards, my back in spasms and locking up constantly, my allergies ridiculous. I knew Karen’s love was soon to leave me, or I would leave it, it was closer than ever to happening, and the realization punched me in the breastbone again and again. I knew it was inevitable now. And I had to write, I had to write. But I was blocked. So I drank another beer one afternoon, and I completely forgot that I’d taken an allergy pill an hour earlier, and then, uh-oh, I started to feel very strange. Loose and limber and free-headed, and suddenly…the creative dam collapsed, and the wordflow burst forth.