My Girlfriend Is God
Joyce’s compound was a couple miles beyond the town’s border, but it might as well have had a heavenly zip code for reaching it required an act of god. That didn’t stop the faithful from trying. Pilgrims manifested their devotion in action: walking the poorly paved roads, others upping the agony ante by crawling. My commitment called for a cab. I might as well have built a teleport and broken myself down into subatomic particles that would reassemble at another vector in time and space. It would be easier than parting the red sea of fevered humanity that stuck like a cork in the bottleneck to the sweet nectar of my lovely Joyce.
There were cameras, however, flatscreen TV screens growing from the greenery and broadcasting real-time images taken from outside Joyce’s gated compound where a mass of followers congregated in pixel-perfect clarity. Beyond the wretchedly observant were security guards positioned strategically where the private property met the public road. They wore dark glasses and dark suits, carried clipboards and earpieces that sent messages responded to in tightlipped whispers up the cuff of starched shirts. The scene was more celebrity than celestial, though, in truth, the line between the two keeps moving.
I waved at the monitors and, smiling broadly, called out, “Joyce, it’s me! I’m here!” No response. I started to chant her name, which was picked up and carried among the spectators like the wave at a sporting event.
Yes, I knew that the screens weren’t two-way receivers, but I figured with god all things are possible. I was wrong. I was also horny and hungry and decided to sate easier appetites.
My Girlfriend Is God
The road to spiritual enlightenment is arduous. It’s also smelly. The bus seat was bumpy, stained, discolored and emitted a powerful stench that further stirred my nausea from the jolting motion of the bulky vehicle over what felt like the craters of the moon. The moon would have been more hospitable than rural upstate, where trees jostled at the side of the road. Assembling for what? I never trusted a tree’s bark and feared their bite. It didn’t seem possible but by the time I reached the small town outside Joyce’s compound nature had further declared its dominance, with an aggressively rocky horizon line grinning in the distance like a predator’s fangs piercing the dense greenery of the urban-less environment. Proximity to god was not good for me. My vision doubled, my body also doubled and was slick with a hot discharge that made it difficult for me to do anything other than ooze. Maybe it was allergies, but allergies never effected my hearing, and now I was hearing voices in my head. But, really, where else does one hear voices? A chorus unchained by melody rocked the bus depot worse than the lurching I experienced on the road to which it terminated. These were no auditory hallucinations, for I would have preferred a diagnosis of schizophrenia to the reality outside the tiny station. It was mayhem, madness not mental but manmade, a great beast of humanity stampeding recklessly through the small hamlet, threatening to trample me.
Main Street was rechristened Maim Street as the frenzied followers of Joyce clawed their way ever closer to salvation. The last leg of their pilgrimage had gone lame. The nearer they got to god, the denser the flock. It was not just believers. Against the imposing peak of the aptly named Giant Mountain and its skirt of sappy evergreens was a blight of news vans with antennas pointed heaven bound. The media was witness to and participant in the congealing convergence of Joyce’s crusaders. Cars were double-, triple-, quadruple-parked until they no longer qualified as parked but stalled, abandoned, discarded on roads and sidewalks and yards. Seekers saturated the streets and spilled over storefronts, into buildings and out windows, finding their own level. Many carried signs, some crudely scratched out on broken boards and others professionally printed. There were those who held children or huddled with the aged and the infirm. Only I had a heart-shaped box of chocolates.
My Girlfriend Is God
Larry was right, not about the pickles — I was becoming obsessed with Joyce. It got so bad that I’d sit in my room and talk back to the media, which was now on a twenty-four-hour cycle of all Joyce, all the time. Obsessed. Obsessed. Obsessed. Obsessed. It was my mantra. Then I got tired and noticed I had been saying abscess for the last fifteen minutes. At least I think it was fifteen minutes. It’s hard to say. It’s hard to say anything after you’ve been chanting at your TV set for fifteen minutes. Or fifteen hours. Or fifteen seconds. What’s the difference? Well, besides the obvious. Time may be the fourth dimension, but the Fifth Dimension had better hits.
“Up, Up and Away” was the Fifth Dimension chart-topper playing as the soundtrack for my love of Joyce, though “(Last Night) I Didn’t Get to Sleep at All” was more appropriate. My love for Joyce kept me up at night, which doesn’t explain how I dreamed of her naked, seducing me. Either I was falling asleep and was too tired to notice, or Joyce, being a god, had folded space and time to perform a striptease in my bedroom. It seemed a silly expense of godly power, but who was I, a mere mortal, to judge the will of the divine? Her striptease was good, very good, dare I say omnipotence? Speaking of omnipotence, how about omnipresence? I began to see Joyce’s face everywhere: on billboards, advertising cola, on publicly traded stocks. The era of Mother Mary charred in the center of a slice of toast was over. Joyce was the new style, a fashion trend echoed by every passersby. Pedestrians marched to the beat of her bland wardrobe. Drivers behind the wheels of their cars mimicked her stiff posture from interviews. Even long-haired followers of Jesus gave up their loincloths and sandals for sensible shoes and business causal, the uniform of the Joyceans.
Joyce was everywhere. Her cult growing in numbers and power. Cancer wards became obsolete, remission swelling in her wake. Disease cured, nonprofits shuttered their doors. Global conflicts lost their appeal. Suicide bombings bombed. No one cared. People became holy apathetic. Joyce was photographed walking on water so ofter that it lost its novelty. She had to issue a public service announcement to warn children from following in her watery footsteps after several drowned.
Skeptics tried to debunk her miracles. Magicians exposed the hidden mechanics of Joyce’s “water sport.” But their one-up-showmanship was mundane in the face of the miraculous. The barometer of success is ratings, and Joyce’s marketshare among all age groups dwarfed the viewership for the naysayers’ parlor tricks. Advertisers didn’t care if the audience could see the strings or even if there were any strings. They were more interested in eyeballs, and those were glued to Joyce’s primetime specials. Imagine how an endorsement from her could push a product through the roof, a strange enough metaphor, but no more odd than the pitch of a miniature sailer cruising in your toilet tank, which made one manufacturer a tidy sum. Business is agnostic about everything not proceeded by a dollar sign, so as morning-after water-coolers hummed with talk that, maybe, possibly, Joyce was the messiah, industry was already onboard to exploit the trend.
It wasn’t just leaders of commerce, Presidents and heads of state met with Joyce. Her mountain compound became a must whistle-stop on the campaign trail, Joyce another baby to kiss. People not running for anything, stopped running from everything. When god tears into the fabric of reality things don’t change, they stagnant, and Joyce attracted the masses like molasses. Slowly, thickly, they made their way. You could spot them by the black buttons they wore, printed simply with a knockout sans-serif J. Joyce was a bigger than one-name celebrities such as Madonna or Cher. Her notoriety required the utterance of only a letter. Did that mean there would be twenty-five other messiahs? Would they square off in the four corners of the world, spreading like a disease, a viral infection, a pandemic, until we were all contaminated by faith?
I alone was resistant to her malignancy. My carnality the cure to her conversional magnetism. For me Joyce was emblematic of nothing other than sex. Only I could see that she is Marilyn Monroe in Mother Teresa drag, and I praised the carnal word even if that meant damnation. To the devoted I was like a virgin with a sexually transmitted disease, an immaculate misconception.
Analysis was counterproductive. It wasn’t getting me any closer to Joyce. I felt as if I was cheating on her in a way, my energies spent mentally masturbating, while I was also physically cheating on her with my hand. Action was the lubricant to bag this most decadent game, and not the repetitive action of my compulsive self-abuse, which only resulted in carpel tunnel syndrome. Jerking off is a blessing for jerks like me, though, who have a hard enough time mustering the courage to approach a hot chick. Now amplify that anxiety when the target of my affections is god. The penis hasn’t been erected which can let off that steam. Joyce had been approachable when she was a cute, cubby office drone. How do I now breach a hive and ask the queen out for a drink? This task required more than a how-to pick up women tome. I was going to have to think without my hands and develop a strategy to bed god.
My Girlfriend Is God
Joyce has a face for TV. She generates banner headlines in newspapers and goes viral online. If it bleeds, it leads, is the wisdom of the newsroom, so it must be Joyce’s time of the month. Religious leaders opined pro and con for this new organ of god’s word, but that was preaching to the choir. The real battle for Joyce’s brand to move on up from the ghetto of cult idolatry to the high-rise of religion would be fought elsewhere. She appeared on the cover of magazines, first supermarket tabloids, but in time more respectable newsweeklies and the all-important woman’s market. Oprah denied her O-stamp of approval unless Joyce revealed that the ashes of some abuse or an addictive malady clung to the wings of her phoenix-like redemption. But Joyce wasn’t about to parrot the popular recovery narrative. She was about removing the cover over our eyes, not recovering it, or so she said seated opposite talk-show hosts in bright rooms filled with loud audiences or in dark studios for more serious summits with pundits. Joyce began as fodder for late-night comedians, but soon their punch lines softened and lead to seats where Joyce sat beatifically as the mockers morphed into reverent disciples.
Joyce was everywhere. I couldn’t avoid her. It was like breaking up with a girlfriend who suddenly becomes famous, only Joyce and I had never gone out.
“And you regret that,” Larry told my refrigerator.
“You know I do. I think I’ve always had a crush on her. It was an emotional time, with Elaine and all, I was in no condition to act upon it.”
“If you did, imagine,” he said, pulling out a jar of pickles and kicking the door shut with his foot. “How many men can say they made it with god? The Greeks, sure, but I think Homer is an unreliable narrator. I never understood that Olympian interest in mortals. I mean we are supposedly their creation, of course they would be interested in us, but it’d be like playing with toys for them. I wouldn’t stick my dick into Barbie or G.I. Joe. It’s unsavory, like having a blowup doll when you’re middle-aged. It’s childish. But who can say? Those were different times.”
Larry reached into the jar with his thumb and forefinger, stirred the brine trying to hook a pickle. After a minor struggle, and with great satisfaction, he cornered one and shoved the whole thing in his mouth, crunching, chewing it into tiny bits. Licking his lips, Larry tightened the lid back on the jar’s mouth and returned it to the refrigerator.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
“My fingers are clean,” Larry said, holding his hand like a gun speckled with seasoning.
“Keep it,” I said, taking the jar out of the refrigerator and pushing it into his chest.
“Don’t get all holier than thou with me,” Larry said. He looked down at the pickle jar, but refused to take it. “This isn’t about pickles.”
“Yes, it is. Pickles and manners.”
“No, it’s not. This is about Joyce and your unrequited love for our savior.”
“You don’t really believe that, do you? You don’t think Joyce is the messiah?”
“I feel sorry for you.”
“I don’t want your pity.”
“Well, you got it.”
“And you have my pickles.” I took Larry’s hands and sandwiched them around the pickle jar before letting go. The jar slipped through Larry’s limp fingers and landed at our feet in a kosher-dill explosion.
My Girlfriend Is God
The news was on and a familiar unfamiliar face spoke. I was hearing voices or having a vision. Joyce had risen, at least as a human-interest story on the local affiliate. If TV existed in biblical times how it could have changed the way we worship. But, of course, it already has. “Amen,” I said to no one. It seemed appropriate.
I heard Joyce’s voice saying pretty much the same thing she said to me over the phone, only in public, to hordes, which, I think, is the dictionary definition for a group of religious revelers. Joyce’s movement appeared to have legs, thousands of them, which had followed her upstate, camping out at a mountainside community, according the the newscaster, just as Joyce predicted! Guess she wasn’t coming on to me, unless prophesy is a kind of tease. I did hear from Joyce once after she called, a letter inviting me to come up and see her some time. I read it more Mae West than Jesus Christ, because context isn’t everything, subtext is. Only the underlying theme of her correspondence wasn’t a come-on as much as commerce. It was a form letter, direct marketing, the launch of her public relations crusade.
Joyce built a website to cast a virtual net, a fisher of avatars, a portal from which to pitch the virtual word. A portrait of Joyce graced the homepage. She had lost weight. Joyce looked hot. God is love and that love had me kneeling down before my monitor to pray with one hand.
I planned to use both my hands when finally reuniting with Joyce — and other conjoining body parts. Such enthusiasm wasn’t reverent but fervent. While Joyce was looking good, she was also losing her mind, which made for an ethical dilemma: was a few moments of pleasure worth the hours of wacky sermonizing that was sure to follow? Joyce must be god if she has me pondering ethics. I don’t even know what ethics means, let along pondering. One of these days I have to get a dictionary to prop up that broken leg on my bed.
“Enlightenment can be had, for a price” the newscaster read. “An upstate cult, taking a page from the Medieval playbook of indulgences, offers spiritual points in exchange for donations. Lead by the charismatic beauty, known only as Joyce, it has found a thoroughly modern way to fleece its flock. Their business model is online. Call it e-religion. You log on, pay up and attain inner peace, all without leaving the comfort of your computer. The site is called PaPal. And they take all major credit cards.”
Despite the domain name, the religion had no connection to Rome or Catholicism, the newscaster continued, though I knew that already from my brief conversation with Joyce. Hers was an all-denominational faith. That could be a problem. I have a thing for Catholic girls.
Booting up my computer and logging onto PaPal, I donated one-hundred dollars. My email dinged instantly. It was Joyce, not personally but an automated reply from her organization. Opening the email, I was greeted by the simply declaration: “Love.” For one-hundred dollars I got love, virtual love, but it was tax-deductible.
I printed out the email and carried it around like a talisman. Good things began happening. There was a job offer, a recruiter called unsolicited, and the position paid more than my unemployment checks, which I had yet to cash because I hadn’t gotten any, forgetting to file for unemployment. I started to lose weight, but then I hadn’t the money for food after paying for Joyce’s indulgence. I noticed that I never hit a red light, but then I had no reason to not owning a car or caring for pedestrians. But still, it was as if a path had been cleared in front of me, pulling me forward, and all I had to do was follow.
My Girlfriend Is God
Elaine and I had been together for years, or it felt like years, but then when we decided to make it official there must have been a typo in the marriage certificate, because everything turned offal. I blame religion. We could have had a civil ceremony and be done with it, but Elaine was raised Catholic and, though she was no longer observant, her parents were practitioners of religion as an odds game. They saw no gain in betting on a win that wouldn’t pay off. Heaven, to me, didn’t seem a prize. It was a cloudy gated community where white was worn long past Labor Day, robes covered a multitude of sins and to top it all off everyone had wings like junior airmen. Feathers make me sneeze. So does marriage. If Elaine’s family were so wedded to their spiritual tradition why not choose a location that had been sanctioned as scared by their savior? I suggested having the ceremony in a manger.
We got married in an ornate church, with all the Bells and Whistles, friends of the bride’s family. The only concession to my family’s faith being a glass wrapped in cloth that I was allowed to step on at the religiously neutral reception site. While there I was ambushed by revelers armed with an empty chair, but my bulk proved too weighty for tradition. We fell to the floor in a pile, a Jewish pile, my parents insisted.
“I thought Jews wobbled but they don’t fall down?” said my newly minted and currently stewed father-in-law. I appreciate wit, but not at my expense, and certainly not if it mocks beloved childhood brands. Weebles, unlike relatives, never let me down. If looks could kill then mine would have maimed, as I’m myopic. The truth is I didn’t want my father-in-law dead. Why put him on the fast track to heaven when I could first milk his bank account while degrading his daughter? That thought produced a smile on my face, which he took as approval. Elaine revealed her true alliance to blood and not my watery kind when she laughed and laughed and laughed some more, even slapping me on the back to emphasize her father’s punchline, which made me lose my drink and my smile.
That was the first sign of trouble. The second was toothpaste, not as a symbol so much as a practice. I was taught to squeeze the tube from the bottom. Elaine pinched it just below the opening, which was wasteful.
“Don’t be so Jewish,” she said.
I had been planning to seduce my newlywed bride, but now she was tainted meat. Sweet nothings heated to accusations of anti-Semitism. She waved them off with her hand as if I was an annoying insect, vermin, infesting her superior airspace.
The tube of toothpaste was our Waterloo. Yes, it represented the decisive turn in our marriage, but mostly I love Abba and drop their songs into conversation whenever possible, which was another SOS with Elaine. The toothpaste lay in the medicine cabinet, a barometer of our falling love. I refused to replace it, each morning and every evening squeezing out just enough toothpaste from the flattened tube to cover my toothbrush. Elaine kept putting toothpaste on the grocery list, and I kept conveniently forgetting to buy it.
“There’s no need for a new tube,” I told her. “The tube continues to dispense more and more toothpaste, like one of Jesus’ miracles.”
“That was wine and fish.”
“Who brushes their teeth with wine and fish?”
When I came home I knew Elaine was gone. I could feel her absence. It was the closest we’d been since getting married.
She left a note written on a loose leaf of paper held on the bed with the miraculous tube of toothpaste. Elaine was leaving me. The first thing I did was go out and buy new toothpaste.
My Girlfriend Is God
Had Joyce joined a cult or was she starting a cult or was this merely the opening salvo in a subtle sales pitch? Is so, what was she selling: deliverance? Was airfare and food and accommodations included? I had to admit being perplexed. Joyce was getting under my skin. I knew this because perplexed is one of her words. It’s not in my vocabulary, and neither is vocabulary. I checked.
Confusion makes me horny. Well, everything makes me horny, so I try and best handle the physical manifestation of my arousal. That has brought upon me all sorts of trouble. I blame society and the legal system and public standards of decency and my neighbors and the hot line that was created to curb the expression my normal human sexuality. Joyce said my compulsive behavior was symptomatic of an unfulfilled need. She was then only an apprentice in the business of salvation. What I needed, I said, was a job: a hand job or a blow job or a salaried job, as I had just quit the position at the firm in which we meet. Quit being my way of saying fired because it looks better on a resume, the resume I need to write, once I learn what a resume is. If all this sounds confusing, then you’re close to understanding my sexual frustration.
Joyce, being a writer, could pen a compelling resume for me, and having a reference from a deity would look good to an employer. But what may prove detrimental to getting myself hired again is that Joyce is insane. It’s textbook. Delusions of grandeur. Once nuts were innocents, infatuated with mythical creatures like Napoleon, but today miniature Frenchmen aren’t good enough for them. They’re more ambitious. It’s a sign of the end of times. I should have said something, offered her the number of my psychiatrist, for instance, if I had one. Still, I know numbers, and it doesn’t take a saint to string together seven. A phone call, even a wrong number, would’ve kept her busy, and maybe god would have directed her call to someone who might have helped. If there was a god, but there’s only Joyce, and she’s not well and vulnerable and maybe I can take her out to dinner and a movie. We could start casual, see how things develop. No need to bring a condom. If there’s immaculate conception then it goes to figure there must be immaculate abortion.
How does one date a god? The Greeks did their fair share of cross-pollination with gods, but it was always the god who made the first move, and then their offspring came out all discombobulated. Could Joyce and I love a centaur? I was getting ahead of myself. Joyce has a mental illness, one which, like all disorders, is a point on a spectrum. At one end sits the religiously observant and on the other is Joyce. Who’s in charge of this seesaw? It’s god’s playground, but try getting an appointment. This is a question for Dear Abby or Ann Landers, but god got to those advice sisters before I could. There are the religious representatives who toil on this mortal plane, but to seek their counsel would involve leaving my house for a house of worship. That involves exercise. Curse you, god! I still had friends — bless their fallibility and listed phone numbers — to whom I could complain.
“What do you do when someone tells you they’re the messiah come to save mankind and point the way to paradise on earth?” I asked.
“Paradise, huh,” Larry said. I heard the mug of coffee clink the receiver as he took a noisy mouthful in slurping thought. Odd, because Larry doesn’t drink coffee. It’s too hot for him, so he fills his mug with Coke. “You sure it’s paradise? Because there are many false idols leading man down roads of temptation. But paradise, well, I’d be a fool not to follow. There’re virgins in paradise?”
“I think that’s Islam, and only for martyrs. Maybe there’s a different paradise for each faith.”
“That doesn’t make any sense. Paradise would be just like earth, with every faith fighting it out to be the one true faith with the best real estate. No, I’m not buying that, unless…could paradise be here and now, on earth, and after we die that’s when we start living?”
“I’ve never thought about it that way.”
“That’s because you’re a pessimist. I’m an optimist. I believe things are going to get better before they get worse.”
“Meaning things will eventually get worse?”
“That’s a given.”
“You’re not helping. I’m concerned about Joyce. When somebody says they’re a god it’s usually from inside a padded cell. I think she may be depressed, or institutionalized, which is depressing.”
“You still like her.”
“Don’t be silly.”
“You do, you like her. You have a crush on Joyce. You always have.”
“I was a married man…”
“You’re not married anymore.”
My Girlfriend Is God
My girlfriend called. She’s no longer my girlfriend, but calling her my ex-girlfriend sounds morbid. But she called, so what are you going to do? Pick up the phone felt right.
“Hello?” I asked, though I knew who it was. Her name and number appeared on the display, along with a picture of us in flagrante delicto, our favorite Italian restaurant.
I didn’t answer by name because I’m old-fashioned, also I was drinking old-fashioneds and was a wee bit drunk. Call me conservative, but I prefer the formality of making introductions. “Hello?” I asked again. “This is conservative, to whom am I speaking?”
That usually throws off the telemarketers, only this wasn’t a telemarketer, it was my girlfriend, okay former girlfriend, though that’s even more morbid or morbidder, and I know where that leads: morbiddest.
She wasn’t interested in small talk, though, there was something more important to tell me. Anal? That was the first thing that came to mind, then vaginal and oral or, at least, phone sex, as we were already on the phone and, therefore, halfway there.
But there followed no heavy breathing, just Joyce’s affectless voice, a droning siren alerting me to the monotony of monogamy, our shared history, a past I was condemned not to repeat.
Good old Joyce, for that is her name, and, no, it’s not a great name, not one you’d want to cry out in the throes of passion, but we can’t change our names. Yes, of course, we can change our names. There’s a legal proceeding, but then it was legal to own slaves once. I just think it’s bad form, slaves and name-changing. You should play the hand God dealt you. Who, it turns out, is Joyce. You see, that’s why she rang: to tell me she was the savior of humanity, the messiah, summonsed to lead the people of earth to enlightenment. It was a bit of a surprise. We hadn’t talked in months.
“So, you’re no longer in communications?” I asked.
We had met at the copy machine, both employed for one of those major conglomerates that ride tall like a ship over the skyline and in which it was easy to stowaway in its bowels unseen. I was sitting on the glass and I recall exactly her first words to me: something along the lines of sitting on the glass might not be good for the machine. She was always looking out for others, even inanimate objects, like my pants. The rivets on the pockets of my jeans could scratch the glass. That’s what I thought she was implying, though obviously she was flirting. My pants weren’t down yet, as my bare ass was the intended target for the glass seat, but I did have my finger on the button. That being the button that fastened my waistband, which some would classify as a Weapon of Mass Destruction. Not Joyce, though, she went to another copy machine before I could make my move.
Joyce Van Patton wasn’t my type, at first. There was the sad association of her name with the actress, but it went deeper than that, in a superficial way. Her body was pear-shaped. I’ve had an allergy to pears since childhood. The doctor said an allergy was a hypersensitive disorder of the immune system and not a lifestyle choice. I said my parents are paying your salary, so quick the quackery. He asked me to leave the office and never return. We received a bill for services rendered, insurance paid for a percentage of it.
My head leaned into the phone, slippery with sweat in my palm, and pressed against my ear, which hurt, but worse was the pain inside my head. It was Joyce, still yammering about her revelation, her spiritual awakening, if you can call it that, being that she was not claiming to know divinity but be divine.
She was telling me the exact time and date of her epiphany. It was time-stamped for prosperity, a day that will live in theology, like I was a historian taking notes or an actuary. Where was the awe, the fear and trembling, the fish and wine? There was a plan, a purpose, as there always is with these sorts of things, a road that lead to the mountains.
“To be closer to god?” I asked.
Silence. I waited for Joyce to laugh, for her to let me in on the joke, but she played it straight. I was getting uncomfortable, which is unusual, as mostly I make others feel uncomfortable. Technology doesn’t help. Joyce called me on my cell phone. I miss the worry-bead-like fondling of the old phone cord, now neutered making me more neurotic by its absence. What can I use to siphon off the building tension? It’s always the crazy ones that go nuts.
“Are you still writing?” I asked, unsure if I wasn’t posing the question to dead air.
In a rapturous yet even tone Joyce said she was working on a series, four books that would reunite people with god. Each volume would focus on a major religion: Christianity, Islam, Buddhism and atheism, which Joyce also considered a matter of faith.
“Nobody cares about the Jews,” I said, which got no reaction, so I switched to sincerity. “I’m happy to hear you’re still working on your fiction.”
Schmuck: Faith, Fatherhood and Foreskin
The aliens attack earth. Our last line of defense is a deep-sea submarine, a Navy prototype that can submerge to unfathomable depths. Deep below the ocean, beyond radio contact, alone and overwhelmed, global positioning software is useless. Connection to communication satellites is impossible. Breaching the surface the ship sets a course for the United States, arriving to witness miles of coastline engulfed in flames, cities devastated and the remnants of a mighty civilization reduced to wandering bands of looters. The alien hoard systematically eliminates the population, the few spared enslaved. An alien battleship appears on the horizon, the submarine dives. Flashing-red lights ghostly illuminate the sailors as they race through the ship. Sirens scream, battle stations are manned. But the alien craft does not pursue — cannot pursue. Something about the sea, the pressure deep underwater repels them. It’s the chink in the invader’s armor. The submarine captain smiles; there is hope.
By that point in my story I’m asleep. The fantasy never plays out past the initial conflict. In bed, hugging my pillow, imagining a submersible the size of an aircraft carrier, a complete and insular sunken city. New technology enables the ship to remain under water for months, re-circulating air and purifying ocean water to drink, harvesting the bounty of the sea for sustenance. Sometimes the captain will order the crew to surface near a deserted island and stock their ship with fresh produce. They crack open pistachio shells, savoring the taste of non-processed food, a brief respite from the everyday toil of fighting a superior enemy intent on their destruction.
That’s the setup, but the plot never develops. I’m fast asleep, bored by my own tall tale, before there’s any resolution. I may lack the imagination to become a science-fiction writer, but I’ll never be an insomniac.
The phallic symbolism of the impenetrable submarine isn’t lost on me. I saved Simon’s submarine from the alien forces out to destroy it, but I can’t keep it underwater forever. I’m going to have to allow him to come up for air and engage those great powers at some point.
I’m in bed, Simon sleeping between Helena and myself, my eyes are closed and I’m captaining the last submarine in the United States Navy. Above me are hostile forces, at my fingertips toasted pistachio nuts sprinkled in salt. My crew is looking at me for direction. They’re scared, but putting up a brave front. I’m eating nuts. They wait for my orders. Do we attack? Do we run and hide? What can we do? The crew turns to face me, confronts me, demands action, but it’s too late. I’m already asleep.
Schmuck: Faith, Fatherhood and Foreskin
32. AND A CHILD SHALL LEAD THEM
We dress Simon in overalls, an engineer’s jacket, trainmen’s cap and any T-shirt that has a locomotive printed on it, accepting his lifestyle choice and making sure he looks the part. I imagine he’ll grow up and move into the Live Steamer’s compound in Griffith Park. Simon will become stout and oily, hunched over and endlessly tinkering with expensive train models, Helena and I visiting him only on Sundays when he takes us for a ride around the tracks. He’ll preach the gospel of the iron horse, baptized in steam and live his life following the well laid-out path of the rails.
Simon watches Thomas the Tank Engine videos. We buy him miles of wooden train tracks and happy engines with smiling faces and English names. On his second birthday Grandpa gives him the Thomas the Tank Engine train table, the same tabletop that he worships at the Travel Town gift shop. I covet his faith, but he has already pulled that interest into the station and disembarked. His trains are retired to a plastic storage bin on the porch. The train table is a dumping ground for house clutter.
Thomas the Tank Engine loses its divinity and becomes just another toy, no different than the dozens of cars he chews tires off of or the construction trucks that no longer whistle and roll around the house after being thrown one too many times. Simon’s curiosity now turns to documentaries on insects, rocks, shells, the ocean and space. He wants to explore the physical world and beyond, play with airplanes and rocket ships and robots. The humble train still part of his playground, but neglected like a rusty jungle gym.
I miss the trains more than Simon. I miss our Sunday morning ritual: driving out to Live Steamers, standing in line with the other families, giving Simon the dollar to slip into the donation jar and boarding one of the many trains for the ten-minute journey. I know all the members of the Los Angeles chapter of Live Steamers and many of the parents with similarly obsessed children. I miss Simon sitting between my legs, holding my hand as the train rolls through dark, cool tunnels, then back out under the hot sun past the dry dirt and tangled vegetation at the base of the foothills. "Look at the gold mine!” My color commentary the same each week as we pass by miniature ghost towns and ride beneath trees with large rubber spiders tied to low-hanging branches and columns of gigantic, plastic army ants marching below them. "Here comes the crossing signal, wave at the passing train. Look how high up this bridge is!” Afterwards, I lift Simon up to the water fountain and we share a drink. Back in the car, warm with trapped, sun-baked air, we roll down the windows, turn on the radio and drive through the park to the Gene Autry Museum Café for a Li’l Buckaroo lunch. After eating, Simon slips off for his afternoon nap. I park in the shade, crack a book and read for the next hour.
It’s over with a word. On Sunday, I ask if he’s ready to leave for Live Steamers. "No," Simon says.
No is one of Simon’s first words, after "Mama," "Dada" and, for some inexplicable reason, "Bubble." No remains one of Simon’s favorite words. He says it softly, whispers it through a smile like chanting some mischievous incantation. He says it loudly, also smiling, relishing in being contrary. He says it through tears, on the ground, working through the three stages of a temper tantrum. He says it in a panic. He says it like a song, a prayer and a commandment. When I ask Simon if he’s ready to go to Live Steamers he says no without any emotion, flat and simply, as if it’s no big deal. That’s how casually he loses faith.
I still have faith that Simon is Jewish, even if centuries of Talmudic law and my own indifference to religion say otherwise. Some might say, "You can’t have your cake and eat it too,” but I never understood the wisdom of that maxim. How can you not have your cake and eat it? You have to have your cake to eat it. Logical dictates that "you can’t eat your cake and have it too.” I am lost in semantics, which also have subtle designs on Simon.
Heinie versus Tushie.
It sounds like some third-tier act on the marquee of an old vaudeville road show. But Heinie versus Tushie is serious, an unconscious battle raging for the religious orientation of my son. Well, it isn’t unconscious to me! I discern the vague codification, the hint of gentile flavoring to the word heinie, a word that Helena uses to describe my son’s tochis.
Tushie is a bastardization of the Yiddish tochis or buttock. It is the word my Grandma used when changing my diaper. She’d wipe my behind and then blow a raspberry on my naked tush. As a child, I used it to insult the girls I had a crush on. "You got a gushy tushie!” Such a malleable word, so descriptive, it captures the glory of the gluteus maximus with onomatopoeic poetry. It is the word my son will use to describe his hindquarters.
But Simon refers to his bottom as a heinie. That is the word he hears his Mommy say. I haven’t felt so emotionally blindsided since Simon was admitted to the hospital for jaundice as a newborn. It’s like a panic attack. Heinie. Stop! Heinie. I can’t breathe!
I never thought I’d feel such proprietary about my son’s ass. Funkadelic named one of its albums Free Your Mind…And Your Ass Will Follow, but what kind of mind will my boy have if he follows a heinie? I don’t want Simon to follow his heinie to church, baptism, confirmation, confession and communion — Christianity. If I lose Simon’s butt as a toddler what other parts of his body might fall away as he develops to adolescence and maturity? Have I won the foreskin and lost the war?
Simon is Jewish. It is important to me for reasons beyond my grasp. Being Jewish and uncircumcised, Simon is not officially Jewish. His Mother is a shiksa and his penis is treif. What is Simon? Simon is Schmuish. That’s not even funny anymore, if it ever was, not with Simon calling his tushie a heinie. Simon is a heathen. A heathen is an uncivilized or irreligious person, someone who has not heard the word of God and His Bible — my son the barbarian. Simon is an infidel. An infidel is one who opposes Christianity — my son the blasphemer. Christian, Jewish, heathen, infidel — where do all these words come from? What do they mean? Why do I have to open a dictionary to speak my mind? Why does Simon have to follow the Bible to be Jewish? I just want Simon to call his tushie a tushie.
"You got a dirty tushie,” I’d tell Simon, holding him upright while Helena changes his diaper.
"Poop comes out of my heinie,” he replies proudly.
"You got a dirty ass,” Helena says, adding another dimension to my struggle.
Tushie is wounded, battered and in retreat, but not yet defeated. I have all but given up on Simon using Yiddish words to describe his body parts or his state of mind, when a visit from his Grandma initiates the utterance of a word I can’t decipher. It sounds like "I ski mountains.” I ask Simon to repeat himself.
"I ski mountains,” he says.
Looking directly and patiently at me, as if speaking to a child, Simon lifts his hand and points his index finger at me to accentuate each beat. He speaks deliberately, "I … ski … moun … tains.”
Grandma is also speaking in tongues. "I’m Iskymountains,” she says after a long day trying to keep up with Simon.
"What did you just say?”
Oysgematert, which is Yiddish for beyond exhausted. Simon is speaking Yiddish! My uncut boy is more Jewish than I am. He’s talking like a ragman just off the boat, peddling his wares on the Lower East Side. There is continuity. The Jewish line goes on.
Even the battle of Heinie versus Tushie is turning. Heinie’s Waterloo is nursery school. Helena researches the cooperative preschools in the neighborhood. They are all progressive and exclusive, with absurd waiting lists and politically correct requirements. We begin the long process of begging for acceptance, visiting open houses and sending cards praising the schools and inserting a snapshot of Simon lighting the menorah in hopes that we might fulfill their Jewish quota.
Nursery school becomes our new obsession, our religion. Helena begins night classes to fulfill the prerequisite courses necessary to apply for nursing school. She is volunteering at the Los Angeles Free Clinic. Simon is no longer content to observe the other kids at the playground, he now wants to engage with them. He is becoming a social creature. Mommy and Daddy have to pretend to be religious, go to school, work or volunteer to feel a connection to something larger, but not Simon. He just watches a group of older children hitting a tree with sticks and says, "I’m going to play with those kids,” and then he is gone smacking the tree. He is ready for nursery school, ready to leave us to solve our spiritual dilemma alone. There are too many trees out in the world to hit.
Simon is accepted at Hilltop Nursery School. Helena is changing Simon’s dirty diaper, while I hold his hands. Simon looks at me and said, "Poop comes out of my tushie.”
"Tushie, that’s a new one,” Helena says, running a baby wipe up the crack of Simon’s little, round tush. "He must have learned that in nursery school.”
Words are a two-edged sword that unexpectedly cut. Words like marriage. Helena and I still aren’t married. She continues to turn down my proposals. What is marriage but a word? We are more than a word; we are a family. Helena isn’t my wife. I call her my wife because it’s easier in casual conversation than "this woman I knocked up and live with,” but I feel vaguely dishonest when I tell someone she’s my wife. Yet, Helena is my wife as Simon is Jewish, another word I play fast and loose with. Which brings me back to the unresolved question of religion.
Helena and I start going to the Orange Grove Meeting, a weekly gathering of the Religious Society of Quakers in Pasadena. The service is unlike anything I had ever been a part of. The congregation meets quietly for an hour. There is no sermon or minister. People stand and speak when compelled, sharing thoughts both topical and spiritual. The Quakers are involved in community service, which attracts Helena, who defines herself as an atheist. There are even some Jews in attendance. I have my issues, which I admit are personal, such as any time someone mentions Jesus Christ, quotes the New Testament or sings a hymn I want to run for the door. Helena and I volunteer for its Sparklers childcare program, which provides nondenominational spiritual lesson plans for the toddlers during meeting time. Whenever one of those kids says their parents are in church I cringe. “It’s a meeting house,” I correct them. Jesus Christ and Church may only be words, but they land like bricks at my feet erecting a wall that forever separates me from worship. Still, I enjoy my Sundays there. I’m happy to meet other families and watch Simon play with the girls in Sparklers, even if now he claims to like only boys — Mommy and Grandma are exceptions. I can’t say I feel as if I belong, because I can’t say I feel as if I belong anywhere, but I’d like to belong here. Even when I feel uncomfortable hearing people talk of God without sarcasm, I know it’s important to expose my family and myself to that which cannot be explained by rational inquiry. There is something exciting about the inexplicable, and the ability to open oneself to what is beyond reason is not only reasonable, it’s enlightening.
Simon doesn’t sleep through the night. He’s finally left our bed, though still wakes in the dark and crawls in with us before dawn. He needs special care at night, a ritual to prepare him to sleep in his own bed. He loves to have us read him stories, but after the book is closed and the lights are off, Simon needs Mommy or Daddy besides him in bed. He becomes contemplative before giving up the fight for consciousness and drifting off to sleep. One night he says to Helena, "I don’t want to be Jewish.” Helena asks why. "Too many bad things happen to Jews.”
How can a child understand the torments that the Jewish people suffered over five-thousand years? Where did he pick that up? Was he mocked on the playground? Could it have been from television, perpetually tuned to the news? Helena hates the news. It feeds her pessimism. She cites medical studies that suggest watching television is harmful to the developing mind of a toddler. My old friend television is no longer welcome in our home. Who needs its anti-Semitism? But maybe the blame for Simon’s fear is closer to home. Have I sabotaged my son’s Judaism after struggling with it for years simply by spending my Sundays with the Quakers?
"Simon, you know Daddy is Jewish,” I say, "and so are you.”
"No, I’m not. I’m Christian, like Mom.”
"I’m not Christian,” Helena buts in. "I’m an atheist.”
"Grandma is Jewish, Simon.”
Simon thinks for a moment.
"So, what are you?" I ask.
"I’m just Simon,” he says.
I can’t argue with that. He is just Simon, and that’s enough.