Today is my birthday, and what am I going to do? Mostly a lot of the same stuff I always do, actually, like editing and Swiffering and so forth. But I'm also going to buy Bela a little fan to clip on to the side of his tank, and if I feel wild I may also buy myself a ruler, because an artist ought to have a ruler and not use the side of an index card to draw edges. And also I'm going to write back to Doctor Three and thank him very politely for maybe helping me and what are those other biographies you helped with, so I can be sure I've read them all? (I could positively hear him sighing when I read the first sentence of his e-mail: "I have assisted on 5 prior biographies." Which just makes it nicer of him to have written back at all, don't you think?) And then Virgil is going to make me dinner, like the lovely person she is.
What else am I going to do? I THINK YOU KNOW.
"That," said Maisie McCready's father, speaking from a second-story window, "was Mrs. Van Tol calling to inform me that my daughter was sitting on the roof."
Maisie was not really on the roof, though she was technically on a roof, the roof of the porch, and she was lying, not sitting, with her feet pointed toward the ground at a forty-five-degree angle. When she turned her head to one side and rolled her eyes back she could just barely see her father in the window of the spare room, holding out the handset of the ancient cordless phone as if it were evidence that the call had really taken place.
"What did you say?" she asked.
"Not the actual roof, surely."
"Do you like it out there?"
She didn't, really. She hadn't especially thought she would. It was just that she had to do something a normal person would not do. Being in the house drove her to a fever pitch of irritation: she couldn't stand being surrounded by the furniture she had seen every day of her life and that before that her father had seen every day of his life. The house was airless and immutable, like a decorative jar of herbs sealed in some clearish and presumably poisonous liquid, the jar prominently labeled DO NOT EAT, which she had seen and been depressed by at Pier One Imports the previous week. The house was antithetical to life; she had to get out of it; but what was the point of getting out of the house if you only walked around the way you always did and then came back? You might as well not leave at all. She clung to the hope that if she did enough abnormal things she would eventually be rewarded with an equally abnormal sense of satisfaction.
"It's OK," she said. She was overwhelmed by her own childishness. Normal fifteen-year-olds, feeling oppressed by their surroundings, would have experimented with drugs, but all she could think of to do was sit on the roof of the porch. It was only fifteen feet to the ground, so she was taking only enough of a risk to be stupid, and not enough of one to be interesting.
"I told her you were unlikely to be seriously hurt, even if you did fall off. The poor woman had to spell it out for me. She said, 'Your daughter is sitting out there in a skirt.'"
"No one can see anything," said Maisie. She was pretty sure this was true.
"I am simply informing you." But having informed her he did not leave. She had been about to go in, and now she couldn't.
She sat up and looked down to where her skirt drooped modestly between her knees. To have seen anything while she was lying down a person would have to have been standing in one exact spot at the fence in front of the house, staring blatantly upward. And for what? A glimpse of her navy blue Jockey for Her underpants? It would have to be an awfully pathetic pervert who got much of a kick out of that.
"Come in and help me with dinner," he said. Her whole body stiffened. She wouldn't, she wouldn't, she would not have charitable thoughts about him, not when he hounded her like this, she would rather be flung headfirst into boiling tar. Was he determined to witness her return to the house, the admission of her failure? Was he trying to drive her into drug addiction, by harping like this on the inadequacy of her current grasping after experience? They both knew perfectly well that he didn't need any help to make lasagna.
"No." If she jumped off the roof it would doubtless end the conversation. She would land in the hydrangea. Probably she wouldn't be hurt at all.
"All right." Maybe it was unfair to assume he was smiling, but she wasn't going to turn around to check. She wasn't interested in being fair.
* * *
Candy recommended sluttiness as a drug-free means of expanding the range of her experience, though further questioning confirmed that Candy herself was still at least nominally a virgin. Yoshio argued that Maisie was not cheerful enough to be effectively slutty. "Dude'll be all, 'Aw yeah, baby, you like that?' and Maisie'll be like, 'Dude, just shut up and stick it in if you're gonna.'" He accompanied this dialogue with hip-thrusting motions that, since they were walking, made him appear to be suffering from a seizure. When he tripped over a crack in the sidewalk Candy laughed so hard she had to sit down on the ground.
"It's probably true, though," said Maisie, sitting down beside her. Behind their backs a chain-link fence divided the basketball court from the sidewalk. She had noticed that the people who were sluttiest -- or possibly just the girls who were -- were also the people who fell in love most often. She herself was not inclined toward falling in love, assuming being in love was different from feeling other kinds of love, such as the kind she had for Candy or, for that matter, for sour-cream-and-onion Pringles. She was totally capable of loving, it was just that her kind of love did not blind her to the faults of the loved one the way the in love kind of love seemed to do. It would never not be annoying that Candy interrupted people in the middle of a sentence whenever she thought of something to say, or that she said "convo" for "conversation" and "bee-tee-dubbs" for "by the way." Just so it would never not be annoying when Sean Parisi made a big show of kissing her fingers when really he had only taken her hand for the purpose of maneuvering it closer to the zipper of his jeans. Not that she loved him. But that was the question: did love make sex easy, or the other way around?
Having had the talk with her a few years earlier, Maisie's father apparently considered the matter closed, for which she was grateful. Others were less fortunate. Only the previous week Candy's mother had confronted her -- apropos of nothing, apparently -- with "Don't you dare get pregnant." When Candy protested that she was in fact a virgin her mother had laughed and looked insulted. "I have eyes," she said, but would not explain the significance of this remark. "I have eyes" was now the expression Candy and Maisie used to indicate that they didn't want to discuss something. They were trying to get others to adopt it in the hope that it would become one of those expressions people used without thinking about, like "You're pulling my leg." Maybe one day it would come back around to Candy's mother, who would then be as baffled by it as Candy had been. Thereby would order be restored to a chaotic universe.
"I have eyes" presumably had something to do with Christopher Stompanato, Candy's boyfriend, who was eighteen and attending a state college from which he drove down nearly every weekend to see her. Between visits they exchanged nightly phone calls that from her descriptions seemed to consist largely of heartfelt silences. "It's ridiculous," she said, which was a relief to Maisie, who had been thinking the same thing. It turned out that they were considering different aspects of the situation, however: the part that Candy found ridiculous was that she was in love with an altar boy. It was true that Stompanato had been one of these in the past, and that he attended church every Sunday even on those weekends when he stayed at school; it was also true that Candy had a lapsed Jewish mother and a lapsed Episcopalian father and was therefore nothing in particular. Still, they were hardly Tony and Maria from West Side Story. What Maisie wanted to know was what provoked them to do all that not-talking, which to her sounded less fun and more pathological. Candy couldn't explain it.
Maisie's best guess, though she didn't say so, was that the not-talking was somehow a not-expression of that other thing they didn't do, the thing Candy had offered to do with Stompanato in a mutual casting-off of nominal virginity, but that he had declined to do because of the St. Christopher medallion that had been a gift from his mother and that she had designated the defender of his chastity. Candy was touchy about this episode, which was why Maisie did not voice her theory. She did, however, accuse Candy of attempting to be slutty vicariously through her, which Candy didn't deny. Maisie had both Margaret and Valentine on her keychain, but surely not everyone with a saint medallion had to wait until marriage.
Having recovered from her laughing fit Candy sat now with her head bowed between her knees, as if she were preparing for a plane crash or attempting not to be sick. "Aw," said Maisie, patting the back of her head. "Maybe I'll be slutty later." Meaning that maybe later it would seem more like something a person might do for fun, and less like being embarrassed for Sean Parisi, who was seventeen and had probably thought he was being pretty smooth with that finger-kissing business.
"I can be slutty later," said Candy, slumping over until she was lying in a fetal position on the sidewalk. "I'm in love with an altar boy now. Someone has to be slutty now. Hula Hoop, you have to be slutty."
"OK," said Yoshio, who had never objected to being called Hula Hoop, or any of the other dumb names Candy came up with. Nor did he object when the other Misery Park people called him Ryan. Candy hated this nickname -- because it was disrespectful to the dead, she said, but really because it gave her the creeps. Maisie liked it. She liked the idea of ghosts, and the idea of a ghost's attaching itself to Yoshio, as long as it didn't do anything to hurt him. Probably he would tell it dumb jokes accompanied by hip-thrusting motions and this would make it laugh, freeing it from the misery that had made it commit suicide in the first place.
* * *
A few days earlier, while poking through the boxes in the garage, Maisie had found a book called Denial of Death. This was an intriguing title because of course death could not be denied, so how could anyone get a whole book out of that? She flipped it open and read:
Man has a symbolic self, a creature with a name, a life history. He is a creator with a mind that soars out to speculate about atoms and infinity, who can place himself imaginatively at a point in space and contemplate bemusedly his own planet. This immense expansion, this dexterity, this ethereality, this self-consciousness gives to man literally the status of a small god in nature, as the Renaissance thinkers knew. Yet, at the same time, as the Eastern sages also knew, man is a worm and food for worms. This is the paradox: he is out of nature and hopelessly in it; he is dual, up in the stars and yet housed in a heart-pumping, breath-gasping body that once belonged to a fish and still carries the gill-marks to prove it. His body is a material fleshy casing that is alien to him in many ways—the strangest and most repugnant way being that it aches and bleeds and will decay and die. Man is literally split in two: he has an awareness of his own splendid uniqueness in that he sticks out of nature with a towering majesty, and yet he goes back into the ground a few feet in order blindly and dumbly to rot and disappear forever.
She slapped the book shut, fascinated by the prickling feeling in her eyes. She could not quite turn it into actual tears, but still. Blindly and dumbly to rot and disappear forever: it was unthinkable to go back into the house, the sealed-jar house, immediately after that. Instead she let herself out by the back door of the garage, generally used for tossing eggshells and gouged-out slivers of potato onto the compost heap. There was nothing else here but the brick walkway that led to the back garden, and nothing in the back garden but an apple tree and an eroded marble bench, and behind these a five-foot concrete wall overgrown with sweet peas just beginning to bloom. Maisie sat on the bench and opened the book again. This time she whispered the words aloud.
"And yet he goes back into the ground a few feet in order blindly and dumbly to rot and disappear forever." The sunlit garden twinkled when she looked up from the page. So now she had this to deal with.
* * *
The idea was that everything people did was an attempt to distract themselves from the knowledge of their inevitable death. When regarded in this context, people's behavior became a lot easier to understand. If it didn't make sense, it was because it wasn't intended to make sense: it was intended to be distracting, though the people involved were themselves unaware of this. Yoshio jumped off the bridge and Candy spent hours not-talking to Stompanato. And what did Maisie do? She sat on the roof of the porch. This was what she wanted to say to Candy as Candy lay whining on the sidewalk: that failing to get rid of one's virginity was unfortunate, maybe, but at least it was normal and not pathetic, the way everything Maisie herself tried seemed to be. After reading the complete works of Sylvia Plath she had for a while tried writing poetry, and it was amazing how idiotic everything she wrote ended up sounding. At last she had set her poetry notebook on fire in the driveway before she could get sentimental and decide to keep it.
It was the fear of misplaced sentiment that made her take Denial of Death out of her backpack now. She had been carrying it around for days without mentioning it to anyone. If this turned out to be another poetry situation she did not plan to burn the book and hose its ashes down the sewer grate at the end of the driveway, but it might still be possible to put it back in its box in the garage and return without further comment to her life.
"What's that?" asked Candy, still lying down, when Maisie propped the book on her upward-pointing hipbone. Maisie had brought other books of her father's to Misery Park, mostly outdated abnormal psychology textbooks that referred to homosexuals as "inverts." These had always been well received. The game with Psychopathia Sexualis had been to see how long you could keep reading it out loud without laughing.
"Let me read you something," said Maisie. "But I'm just warning you, OK, it's not funny or anything."
"Is it something you wrote?" asked Candy. "Ooh, is it a poem?"
"God no," said Maisie.
"I didn't know you wrote poetry," said Yoshio.
"She totally does." Maisie lifted the point of the book's spine from Candy's hip and brought it down again. "Ow! What are you, dowsing for ass? 'Hey, here's one!'"
"Dowsing for Ass is what I'm going to call my band," said Yoshio.
"FUNDAMENT," announced Candy, flapping her free arm in the air. This was the Psychopathia Sexualis word.
"'Man has a symbolic self,' Maisie said quietly. With no one competing with her in volume, Candy shut up right away.
"…And yet he goes back into the ground a few feet in order blindly and dumbly to rot and disappear forever."
"Wow," said Yoshio, but Maisie couldn't tell if it was an impressed wow or an appalled wow or just an obedient wow meant to satisfy his obligation to appear impressed or appalled.
"Why do you like stuff like that, May?" asked Candy. If her tone of voice had been dismissive Maisie would have been hurt, but she was just curious. Earlier in the school year Maisie had been sent to the principal's office by her algebra teacher, Mr. Bruder, because her limited repertoire of facial expressions plus the Plath made him think she might have been contemplating self-harm. Candy's reaction to the incident had been threefold: first, she said, Maisie's face was just as mobile as anyone else's, just not in algebra class, where what was she supposed to do, be cheer captain and organize a human pyramid?; second, had Mr. Bruder ever even met a high schooler before, because there were a lot of people she, Candy, thought were much more eligible to be persecuted for not having feelings appropriate to the occasion, such as Sean Parisi, about whom Maisie had written a villanelle expressing her conflicted emotions, and who when Maisie mentioned this had not expressed the slightest curiosity, as if every human being didn't know that when someone writes a poem about you you are supposed to ask to read it; and lastly: "It's your hair," she had said firmly. "You've got that Ophelia-right-before-she-drowns-herself hair." It was kind of true. Maisie's trick with her hair was to stick pencils in it so that the erasers pointed straight up. "Just put it in a ponytail so it doesn't disturb him." From then on, during algebra class, Maisie had, and Mr. Bruder had never accused her of emotional abnormality again.
"I wouldn't say I exactly like it," said Maisie. "But it seems important."
"I don't know. Is the whole book like that? 'You're worm food'?"
"It's true, though," said Yoshio. "What's true is important."
"Sure, but lots of things are true, I mean I'm lying on the ground, that's true, but that doesn't mean it's important, all kinds of dumb stuff is true."
"Who says it isn't important?" said Yoshio. "Maybe it is. Maybe everything is."
"OK, but then what? You're worm food. Then what?"
Maisie told them then what, overcoming the temptation to respond, "Ask Stompanato," which would have broken her momentum. (She herself had been baptized as a Catholic, but that was the extent of her religious affiliation, except for the keychain saints.) Then what was the denial of death, the cultivation of distractions.
"What about suicide?" asked Yoshio.
"I'm not sure," admitted Maisie. She knew he was thinking of Ryan. The story about Ryan was that he had killed himself after a fight with his mother about a tattoo he had managed to get even though he was only sixteen. According to some sources the tattoo had read FUCK THE SYSTEM; according to others it had been a pentagram on either his shoulder or the back of his hand, and because of this the mother had accused him of Satanism. She had possibly also physically struck him. Two days after this he had climbed up on the roof, drunk about a pint of vodka, and jumped to his death. If even part of this story was true, the sheer stupidity of it was difficult to reconcile with a theory that called man "a small god in nature."
"That's easy," said Candy. "The idea is, you do something so awful that everyone remembers you forever and you become immortal that way."
Maisie was stunned. This explanation was perfect. "Yes!" she cried, pulling Candy upright by the hood of the bubblegum-pink sweatshirt Stompanato had gotten her from the university bookstore. It was necessary to hug her at once. Therefore it was necessary to hug her from the side, pinning her arms down. This immense expansion, this dexterity, this ethereality! Even if it was annoying that she said "bee-tee-dubbs."
I can so love other people, thought Maisie. I can so.
substitute thinks that since I'm getting a ruler, because artists have rulers, I should also get a beret, but I'm kind of anti-beret, which is what I told my sister that time she suggested I marry Jamie Hyneman from MythBusters. Setting aside the fact that Jamie has been married since I was in junior high, I find it interesting that she suggested him instead of Adam Savage. Maybe she was thinking of that episode with him in the aluminized heat suit: "I kinda like it in here, it's private."
Happy Teethmas to all! Buy yourself a doughnut or something.