Thursday, January 14, 2010


"Please," you said. "Less awe."

I’m sorry. I must have seemed terribly exaggerated. Maudlin. But please imagine, pretty boy, that you are 53. Beauty’s not just some dainty treat. It’s a surprise. And not like a birthday party, but really a shock to the system. Especially if you have been alone for a very long time.

Do you know what it’s like to be lonely? Perhaps you do. In the beginning loneliness is quite passionate really, as it stumbles over broken ground: boulders, lava flows, birds of prey. That sort of thing.

After a long time it is a clear cold flat expanse. You can see for miles in every direction. No one is coming.

Excuse the fancy turns of phrase. Nowadays I read more books than I talk to people. Drama is something I enjoy – but only in books with Russians! Years ago I was advised to cultivate a simple life.

I shouldn’t be grandiose. After all, I was completely wrong. I felt like I was living on the moon. And someone was sneaking up on me.

I’m 53. I wrote that already. At a certain point your age becomes a talisman you wave in front of you in hopes life will leave you alone. It doesn’t work. But anyway – I’m 53. I was never particularly handsome. Not like you! OK, for awhile I had a certain something maybe. That something has long passed. My father and grandfather were both bureaucrats. I have inherited neither their money nor their influence. Their jowls alone have been vouchsafed to me.

I have enough money for basic security, none for excess. I admit I like security. I have never been a globetrotter, a go-getter, an enthusiast. I am not saying this is the way you ought to live. But it is not such an uncommon strategy either. I look upon disappointment as a friend and ally.

Now can you imagine how I felt – when I answered the door and a boy stuck his tongue in my mouth?

Do you understand why I shook? You looked worried -- I must have seemed even older than I am. Please understand: I prepared for disappointment. I did not prepare to have an Italian boy (28!) unbuckle his belt in my entryway.

Those who fast are warned to resume eating only gradually -- a bit of gruel, weak tea. Whereas I was accosted by the buffet. I am sorry if I sighed a lot or looked close to tears. I am grateful to have survived.

This is not an effect of age: all my life I have struggled to retain my composure in the face of good news. I remember the day at work when I was told I had been promoted to assistant manager. (This is the same job I have now, 23 years later.) I still remember the day. I locked myself in the bathroom for an hour. I was sure I was about to be sick.

The year before last a stranger's child threw her arms around me at the park. I'd been pushing her on the swings. I'd sung a little song for her. She hugged me and my eyes welled up. Her mother laughed -- and pulled her off of me at once. I'm sure I seemed a little crazy, the kind of person not to be trusted with children.

Years ago I had as many aspirations as anyone. I may even have been grandiose, if you can believe it. And then – well, I lost my balance. I was advised to live a simple life. I got a job at the drug store. I moved in with my mother.

It would have been easier for me, I think, if you'd refused to move and expected me to do everything. If you'd demanded money or stolen something from the nightstand. Lord knows, I'm used to that.

But you said (and, hello, you demonstrated) that you are attracted to older men. Good Lord, the fetishes people have nowadays: spitting, spanking, amputees, auto-asphyxiation, old men. Such perversity. God bless you!

I have adjusted, adapted, prepared, accommodated myself to simplicity, to ordinariness, to what is drab. But please keep in mind: I recognize that I am very humble, very nothing. But life however is very rich. It is extremely even overpoweringly rich and, contrary to the advertising blitz, it does not care whose handbag you are carrying. It does not care if you have a Mercedes or a Mastercard or an enormous penis. Life goes on being rich. Yessir, even for me at Payless Drug six days a week, with library books and 2 cans of Diet Beer, with my chapped lips and increasingly demented mother.

All that is required is a certain quiet precise attention. I cultivate this. I sometimes even think that life is more well-disposed toward me, because I am so very nothing.

My mother used to tell me that I was too proud. You see how we are misunderstood even by those who purport to know us best.

Mother, as you know, is extremely unwell. But there is something in her even now: Mother adores monster movies. Often now she seems very far away, but she still lights up to see a giant reptile wreaking havoc, a luxury shopping district squashed.

That night -- the night before we met -- was a double feature. I stayed up very late to watch with her, to watch her. Something I would ordinarily never do. And so the next morning I was exceptionally tired and accepted the new clerk's offer to get coffee from the gas station, except that the clerk is new and added too much sugar and got an extra large instead of a small and I was on auto-pilot and drank it all and that, I think, is why I did something so abandoned, so reckless, so entirely uncharacteristic of me, and winked at you, when you came up to the counter with your can of Red Bull, and Cheddar Cheese pretzel combos, and two boxes of Trojan Magnum XL.

Please understand – about the wink – it’s not the sort of thing that I would ever do. Except that I did.

I’m sure you understand now how I felt when you handed me the receipt. I’m sorry I acted so dense. I assumed you wanted to return something. You smirked, I looked down at the paper and – there was your phone number.

The other clerks are very good to me. Even if they accuse me of being “brainy”. I bring them donut holes every Friday. Nobody minded that I lay down in the storeroom for an hour. I’m sure they just assumed that I was worried about my mother.

I didn’t call you. Of course I didn’t call you! Do I have to start explaining all over again? I am 53. Almost 54 actually. I have a double-chin. If an Italian boy with a trouser snake passes me his number I assume it is going to cost more than I can afford.

The next day you were back, looking aggrieved and demanding my address. Which was, of course, just next door. Of course I would never give a total stranger my address. My own mother’s address. Except that I did.

I have water and canned food in case of earthquakes. I have a back-up generator. I have the phone numbers of three coroners taped inside the cupboard. But you were an emergency for which I was not prepared.

About my mother. Please don’t be sorry! Yes, she was startled to see a nearly naked man in the entryway, grappling with her very own unbuttoned son. But in another moment I’m sure the memory had entirely dissolved. Anyway, she was exceptionally cheerful the whole rest of the evening. And I’m sorry that I myself was so startled. I wasn’t horrified actually. It’s just that, at the moment she came around the corner, I’d forgotten that I even had a mother.

As for the rest – how can I thank you? It’s like my soul’s been reupholstered, new doors and windows, new carpets throughout, all new appliances, solar power!

And that is why I must insist that you not contact me again. Good news, for a man like me, is contraindicated: it’s over-rich, intoxicating. Potentially devastating. I am nursing my mother throurgh her twilight years. To tell the truth, management has several times offered me promotion. But I don’t want my own store. Assistant manager is high enough in the world for me.

I’m sure this will be no sacrifice for you – I suspect that you are only passing through. Wild boy! Anyway, this city has an army of plain faced fifty-somethings if that is your fetish. They will be thrilled to see you. Most of them have money.

I’m sorry – to good news I cannot adapt. I suspect my mother will soon be unable to dress herself. I am prepared for that. I have learned to live my simple life. I cannot risk losing my balance now. I cannot adapt to good news – which is, I suppose, a kind of fear of heights.

There are many drug stores in this city. I reckon most of them stock Magnum XLs! It will be easy for you to avoid mine. Super Walgreens, to tell the truth, has better prices.

Please tear up my number. My face will be easy to forget. Thank you for your praise and endearments. I am certain that you do not mean them. This is a well-known Italian characteristic.

Please don’t call or come into the store. Please no letters. I almost never go out now that Mother is doing so poorly so there is zero chance of a random meeting.

Above all I must insist that you not come to the door again. You see what kind of man I am. I do not know what I would do --

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