Matthew Lickona 5 p.m., Dec. 9
- Community Blog
- The Abnormal Width of Normal Heights
The Early Daze, part 2
My early years living in Normal Heights were also my early years living in love. (Not in love with my roommate, J, mind you, though he was a smart guy, made a decent living, not too tough on the eyes, with good taste in music, though his feet stunk up the house whenever he took his shoes off.) No, I prefer the ladies, and this was the kind of love I’d always dreamed of as a kid, when I was ten or eleven, miserable in my fractured Los Angeles home, and already looking for a girl to marry (an uber-neediness that would curse me into my early twenties). So young, you might say, to be interested in marriage. But that’s what happens to sensitive little boys who spend their malformative years competing for mommy’s attention with stepfathers, girlfriends, kids from other marriages, careers, all of it. A kid doesn’t want to compete for that time. A little boy just wants…
Look, let’s be frank: I’m a Freudian petri dish. I probably fell in love with my mother for a time during my childhood and adolescence. The old Greek tragedy in rehearsal. I wanted to be the man, alone, I just wanted us to be by ourselves, and happy, and not in the middle of a constantly shifting and often chaotic family dynamic that would soon start giving me excruciating stomach pains from the repressed anxiety and rage. When my first stepfather became angry and abusive, when I couldn’t handle all the strangers I was around constantly (also a feature of those random weekends when I would see my father), when the social pressure of school and bullies terrified me, when it was just too much to bear, the pain would strike, shut me down completely. It felt like a dagger was being thrust into my gut, and all I could do was curl up in a fetal ball and jam myself into the corner of my bed. All day.
When I think about that boy now, I weep for him. Doctors were mystified at the time, one even claming I was making it all up for the attention and sympathy (which my stepfather, looking to absolve himself, agreed with heartily). They were all fools. No doctor had the sense to ask what was going on in my life, how things were going at home, and I was too afraid and too eager to please the adults around me to have said anything. But home is where it was, where you would have found the core of my maladies – from debilitating stomach pain and backaches (a twelve year old with backaches!), to allergies and sleep disorders and many other “mystifying” ailments, some of which continued into adulthood with severity.
In recent years, while studying up on adoption issues, I came across a term in workshops and books, regarding children who have been physically and/or sexually abused. They are said to describe experiences where they “lose track of their bodies”. While I cannot say what I experienced one night was the same thing that these former foster kids had experienced as “losing track of their bodies”, but the term struck a long dormant cord within me. What had happened to me, more than thirty years ago, as odd as it is reads, was like a supernatural experience – which describes most closely how it felt at the time, as a child, and for a long period after it occurred.
I was about nine or ten, it was the mid 1970’s. The house was tense and my stepfather, a very stern and often angry African-American man (bi-polar they’d call him today), had been raging at me for not cleaning up the house, for not calling him “Brother Joe” (he was on a Church of Christ kick at the time), for not wearing my pants the right way, for not going to the bathroom enough, anything and everything, as was his absurd and callous norm. I was almost in tears when he yelled for me – threatened me really – to take out the trash that night.
I grabbed the trash can from the kitchen and walked outside to empty it. I remember feeling so sad and overwhelmed, as if I just wanted to drop the trash can and start running and never stop. But I couldn’t. I was stuck there, and I knew it. Depressed, I lifted the trash to dump into the larger can and, just as I did, something otherworldly happened. It felt as if a fire hose had been jammed upward into my belly button and turned on full blast. I could feel a flood gushing into me, filling my whole body with fluid until it became so full I felt I was going to burst, and then…VOOM!…I was lifted off the ground several inches, shot up from it actually, as the fire hose popped away from my overfilled body. I landed on the ground, on my feet, body buzzing, confused, and unable to speak for a few minutes. I remember that I returned inside, put the kitchen trash can back in its place, then went right to bed. I lay awake that night, abuzz with a kind of current, an overflow, as if my young body could not handle all the emotional amperage.
I can understand why my young body wanted to lose track of itself and fly away that evening as I emptied the trash. I understand why the fire hose filled me with water, or maybe it was helium, and I was supposed to fill like a balloon and float away into the endless sky. It was my tortured brain, the same one that had started to lay me low with pain, making the only attempt it could at real flight, with some frenzied rush of hormones or enzymes or other chemicals. It was my brain trying to save me the only way it knew how.
My mother would finally leave my first stepfather, but it was far too late in the game. Joe had started hitting my toddler brother, which horrified me and drove me to think, as much as a scared kid could, about killing him – which I can hardly fathom as I write it, or that I wrote it at all. But it’s true, painfully so. I remember poisoning his medication, but never being “brave” enough to give it to him; I hid a knife under my bed, and my baseball bat near my little brother’s high chair. I felt that afraid and helpless. But, thankfully (if that’s the right word), I never acted. (When my first stepfather died a few years ago, I had to work very hard to feel much of anything. I tried to be sensitive to my brother and sister, whom I love immensely, and who were too young to have any memory of the madness we went through. I managed all the polite feeling I could when I had to. In reality, however, all I wanted to say was, “Have you got him in the ground yet? Because I really need a grave to piss on.”)
Within weeks, though, my next stepfather would move in to our new house. Weeks. I know now (though I didn’t fully comprehend it then) that he had moved in so quickly for protection from my first stepfather, but that wouldn’t have mattered to me. He was still just another man I didn’t know and didn’t want in the house, just another man I found myself competing with. Always competing, it never ended. He was also more than twenty years older than my mother. It embarrassed me, infuriated me. And my pains, of course, moved with us too.
Any wonder why I was so love starved as a boy that I wanted to find a wife in elementary school?
Rimshot, please. I beg of you.
* * * * * * *
I found my first real girlfriend, my first real love, while employed part-time as a writing tutor at Encanto Elementary School, the inner city magnet I worked at for the first few months of my Normal Heights residence. Karen and I met at the staff meeting where I was introduced to the teachers. She taught fourth grade, and our eyes met quickly, she had such a cute inviting smile, with a nose slightly crooked in an endearing way, and her red sweater was so bright I could hardly turn my gaze from her. There was a spark between us from that start.
I was assigned to her classroom for the first few weeks at the school, and that initial spark continued. She seemed exactly what I needed. In other words, she was a gal I was interested in who was also, by some miracle of astrology, actually interested in me. (That needy/inferiority complex I’d toted around for years had made me a pathological failure in love up to that point. I had always pursued the wrong girls and women, always the gals who liked me soooooo much but…just wanted to be friends. If I knew you were interested in me, most likely I’d run away faster than light. I did it several times.) I couldn’t help but notice, however, that Karen’s classroom desk was a disaster, a mountainous mess of papers like I’d never seen in a teacher’s room. Something was up with that, but I didn’t really care then. On our first date, my twenty-second birthday, we saw a production of WHAT THE BUTLER SAW at UCSD, a few of my old college friends working on the show. We were comfortable together, both needed the companionship, I could tell, and we were back at her place in La Mesa later that night.
Karen warned me before we went inside that her room was embarrassingly messy. I laughed, having grown up in a very sloppy series of apartments and houses as a kid. She was just being a little insecure, I thought, how bad could it be? But then I pondered the desk in her classroom. And then she opened the door to her room and, holy sh*t, it was like one of those places you see on a TV special about people who hoard things. Junk and clothes and books and all sorts of stuff was piled everywhere, three feet high, or higher, and she’d carved a small trail from the bed to the door, the bed to the closet, and the closet to the dresser, so she could get to where she needed to go. Though I could sense, even then, that this mess represented something inside her, something probably as broken as the things inside me, I was too desperate for love to consider it beyond that. You think a fairly serious clutter disorder was going to keep me off that mattress? Hell no. If we could find the mattress.
We’d date for a little over two years, and she was the first woman to whom I said “I love you”, which she tenderly responded to in kind that late night in bed. The memories of that love are many. At the same time, it was an always unsteady relationship, we would break up for a few days every three or four months it seemed, but then get back together with tears and forgiveness. I knew in the first year – logically, if not at all emotionally – that it wasn’t going to work. She was 30, I was 22. Today that age difference means nothing, or it would were we dating now, but then, to her, it seemed everything. She didn’t really want a young boyfriend who lacked direction and a career. The artist part, yes; the starving part, not so much. She’d had a previous boyfriend whom she’d had to support and didn’t want to do that again. And it was a constant source of tension. “You have no career, maybe if you were making a good living, maybe, maybe, maybe….” But we stayed together longer than I would’ve imagined.
She, too, came from a complicated family, and had her own unbound back issues. Her parents were still married, but decades ago Dad had joined a sort of cult and had started sleeping on the other side of the house and not interacting the same way with the family. It had profoundly altered the course of her family and all those who composed it. We had, ultimately, the kind of common ground, which, at those points in our lives, was too often more like quicksand. The aching combination of our emotional gaps and necessities would sink the relationship. Our LAST EXIT TO BROOKLYN afternoon was typical separation material.
We’d been arguing about money, or my lack of funds, my lack of a career kind of job, my increasing desire to get to L.A. and try screenwriting, anything and everything that was a source of stress. I didn’t really want to be close to my family at that point, but I knew there was nothing for my writing career in San Diego, and reality was telling me it was LA or nothing sooner or later. The different-stages-of-our-lives conflict was always on the verge of blowing up. She was never going to L.A. for me, for the same reason I put it off: she didn’t want to be closer to her family’s anxiety.
That day (on my indie-leaning and disastrous recommend) we went to see the film version of Hubert Selby’s very dark novel, LAST EXIT TO BROOKLYN. One of the climatic scenes features Jennifer Jason Leigh as a prostitute who lets dozens of men have at her in an alley, one after the other. Karen was so disturbed by this scene, so angry that I could’ve liked the movie at all, that she simply kicked me out of her car at the curb in front of my apartment: “Get out. We have nothing to talk about if you like that movie, we have no reason to be together.” And that was that. At least until Tuesday, when we’d start up all over again.
Unfortunately, as much as I knew after the first year that we needed to break up for good, as much as I actually wanted to in my denial-ridden heart, I would not well survive the permanent split when it finally occurred, on her request, fourteen months and ten mini-breakups later, and my debilitating pains and maladies would return to haunt me for several more years. The wounded kid that forever exists in my psyche could not handle the thought of once again being denied, of once again seeing things crumble, even if it were a love ultimately incompatible. I could not deal with being alone.
We cling. Oh how we cling. It was all I knew to do.
I would get very depressed, seek herbal medications, write more dark and brooding things (which really is what commercial agents and the reading public want…um…). I’d move into a dank studio just off Hollywood Boulevard for a Dali-esque year (another pulp story entirely; Rodney King anyone?), then run back south, while unsuccessfully and stupidly trying to win her back, and I’d eventually become quite the recluse in the aftermath. But that was still to come, still a year point five away.
For now I was on Ward Road, and the old lady who was a real recluse, a professional recluse, lived below us and left notes on her door, mad scribbles in crayon, which I can only reproduce from memory, scratchings that said things like, “Stay away all you evil children, I am the devil today!” or “I know you’re taking my food! I know all of you are!! It’s never in my stomach!!!” or “When tomorrow comes, you bastards will know I wasn’t here today!” She’d scream at the kids who lived with their single moms and their boyfriends across the way, kids who’d made a cacophonous pastime of crashing their Tonka trucks into the walls of the courtyard. It seemed they would go at it for hours at a time, nothing better to do, no real parental guidance. BASH! BASH! BASH!
I wanted to scream at them too, and often. But then I would say to myself, “You were those kids once.” So I’d give them a dollar or two sometimes, tell them to run to the market at the corner and get a popsicle or ice cream. And I’d think of the two boys I worked with at the elementary school, Ricky and Trumaine, who’d both written short stories on their own, not for school, but just to write, and I helped them whenever I could get some free time from my assigned classroom.
Ricky was a tiny kid, picked on a lot, who had written a story about killing an adult who had been bothering him, and after the murder the kid in the story went to live alone and in peace in the forest. It worried me, at first, and I alerted the counselor at the school, but nothing seemed to come of it. Certainly I related to that story, and certainly more than any other tutor he likely would’ve had, so I tried to get him to focus on things other than violence, like the forest, the animals, maybe making a friend. I hope Ricky was able to make friends in real life, and I often wonder if he survived intact. Still, I remember the last day of school, and how Ricky ran up to me to thank me for all my help, smiling like I hadn’t seen him smiling before. I hoped that happiness would carry over beyond the always joyous last day of school. Even today, I think about him and worry.
Trumaine, on the other hand, was a big and tough, but sweet, black kid whose mom lived in another part of the state working as a prison guard, he and his two younger brothers being raised by their grandmother. He wrote a story about hating his youngest brother, which I tried to steer him away from, but then he’d write a line so poetic it would almost make me jealous. It came in a section of his story describing how he’d hide away in his closet to listen to music, or sleep, anything to forget about the things in life that made him sad, like his mother being gone. One day, his young sibling barged in on him and he described it as “My boot shaped little brother stomped his heel into my dream.” I don’t know why, if it were simply because I knew the kid and could sympathize, but it may be the most perfect line I’ve ever read. My boot shaped little brother…
Which brings to mind a joke I made up for my young son.
Q: What did the messy astronaut say to the other messy astronaut?
A: We need more space.
Ain’t it the truth.