Episode 1: Speculirium
Flashbulb — Feb 2010 — My Date Was 23
My terribleness is not the fault of having seen Elvis. Nor can I blame my problems on anyone else who died before I was born. The ice and fire in me bloomed when I took that terrible boy to the tropical island. Haven’t talked to him since. Don’t even care to remember his name.
“He’s 23,” I told my friend Stanley, with whom I always shared details of my dates, when I had dates, which was approximately never.
“Are you griping?” he asked.
“I just wonder how much we’ll have in common.”
“Because it sounds like you’re griping, Lev.”
“I mean, I want this date.”
“OK, then. The date that you have is 23. That is the person you manifested.”
I, Lev Ockenshaw, was 29.
Flashbulb — Feb 2010 — I Am Not a Dead President
Before our first date, the boy had snooped the Internet. When we met, he told me: “You don’t look anything like your picture.” Pitcha, he pronounced it, Boston all the way. We clarified that he’d seen a thumbnail image of JFK I’d used to illustrate a webpage.
I do not have the straight nose of JFK, nor of Elvis. My nose, seen from the side, is round like a quarter-moon. Like an extra-large slice of pizza.
I guess I’d liked the terrible boy’s chipper energy, his grooming, his genteel attention to whether I was enjoying my soup—all of these qualities I lacked.
I liked him. Oh, “like” is a strong word. I’d like to backpedal that.
Flashbulb — Feb 2010 — Getting Acquainted with the Terrible Boy
I ignored his confusion about the dead president. A second date, and then, somehow, we were going on a trip together.
He and I made light conversation on the highway to the airport. He chattered about the Continuum album by a singer named John Mayer who I didn’t think I’d heard of. Before we’d even boarded the plane, he was hiding behind headphones. He fiddled with a music app, narrating his problems for me: “I have to get antiquated with it.” My internal dictionary threw up a little in my mouth.
This wasn’t a vacation for me, I realized too late, but a vacation I’d paid for, covering both of us, because he’d wanted to go.
Flashbulb — Feb 2010 — I Assumed He Had Gay Trauma
“Exquisite beaches,” the tourism website said.
A month before, there had been an earthquake in Haiti. The resort wasn’t far from Haiti, according to “satellite view” on the map. It depends on how you zoom.
Our trip addressed our practical challenge of needing a love nest, or so I rationalized. I had a roommate in Boston then—someone who didn’t stay long—and the 23-year-old lived with his parents. When I asked if he planned to find his own place, he said he was scared. I let that be. Monsters in the campfire smoke take on the shapes of our fears. Gay men don’t have to vanquish all our monsters before we take vacation.
Flashbulb — Feb 2010 — He Wanted the Vacation
He wasn’t immediately put off by the strangeness of my gender. I might have talked myself into falling in love a little bit, but he made it obvious on the plane that he was using me. He came for the vacation alone.
He flirted with everyone in sight—men, women, old, young—making loud conversation with them to avoid interacting with me. It was the banter of “a character in a novel (minus the novel),” to use an enigmatic phrase of David-Shields-as-Roland-Barthes-plus-Michael-Dirda in Reality Hunger, article 5 of 618.
By the time we checked into the resort, he was rebuffing my touch, and then he was off frolicking in the water with other boys his age, imitating each others’ effete C3PO golden tush walk.
Flashbulb — Feb 2010 — My Takeaway
I should have anticipated this. Men say they are open to me but, when it comes down to it, they are not. They want what they want and not what they don’t, and that’s what makes them their own persons, and there’s no argument I can pick. I just wish they’d be clearer in advance. If they don’t like my gender, a change of scenery won’t set the mood, so why should I swipe my card?
If a man wants me, he’ll go for it with or without a proper love nest, and we don’t have to fly to an island to create the opportunity. I am responsible for learning my end of it. That had to be my takeaway here.
Flashbulb — Feb 2010 — Least Favorite Book
He had brought a book. Usually a good feature in men. I hadn’t seen it on the plane, but he’d left it on the nightstand before he stepped out barefoot onto the sandy front steps and scampered down the beach. I picked it up and turned it over to read the description. It said the world would end on December 21, 2012, according to an ancient Mayan prophecy.
Dismaying. Did he actually believe this?
And if the prophecy were true, and the world wouldn’t last another three years and he wouldn’t make it past 25, why were either of us wasting our precious time with each other?
But I imagined we’d still be here in 2013.
Flyleaf — Evil in the Garden
At the beginning of time, they commit the crime. In the Garden of Eden, the boss tells Adam and Eve: Don’t eat this apple. If you do, you’ll taste the difference between Good and Evil. Then you’ll understand why you’re supposed to follow instructions from your boss.
Obedience is a choice, but you can obey without understanding. Even the mechanism by which you make choices doesn’t have to mean anything to you. If you want an apple to mean something, make it taste like Good and Evil.
Any experiment with the forbidden tree will be a challenge because they don’t know which tree it is. They haven’t touched the wrong tree yet. An unreliable snake points it out. It’s like they’re listening to garbled lyrics by Iron Butterfly and can’t understand that the song is about them.
Perhaps it’s better not to try to understand evil, since then we begin to sympathize with it. That was part of the “national conversation” after Nine-Eleven, or, rather, the parameter of a non-conversation. Did Adam and Eve eat the apple of Trying-to-Understand-Terrorists? If so, they disobeyed the national conversation that warned them not to, but why does that amount to Evil itself?
Transgression sets the story of everything in motion, winds the watchspring, and lets go.
After it goes down, they wear fig leaves on their groins. In all the oil paintings, you see the fig leaves, untied, held up by nothing.
Fog — Mayan Prophecy
At this gay resort on the tropical island, the boys cavorting in the waves hiked their swim trunks and pulled their drawstrings. I watched from a distance.
I might have leafed through my date’s pretend Mayan prophecy book for kicks, but I dropped it like a hot potato when I saw he’d paperclipped a page. I never found out nor did I ever care to know what page he was on. I just didn’t want to touch the paperclip. Those things cause problems for me. Touching one is like wearing a wire. It attracts spirits. I guess I don’t really believe in that anymore, now that I’m no longer ten, but I don’t not believe it, either.
Flashbulb — Aug 1987 — Elvis Has Been Dead for a While
Let me explain how I feel about paperclips. But first let me tell you how I know that Elvis is dead.
On the tenth anniversary of his death, the supermarket tabloids claimed he was riding in flying saucers, visiting the President, and so on. I was six. The tabloids were sold at the checkout counter at my eye level so I saw them as I followed my parents out of the store. The headlines said “ELVIS LIVES,” and the interiors didn’t make sense, although neither did the real newspaper make sense to me when I was six. I believed the presumed death of Elvis on August 16, 1977, three years before my birth, remained an open debate.
Flyleaf — The Muppets Do Kierkegaard
Before Sesame Street launched, the producers debated whether to feature solely human actors or, alternatively, solely monster puppets. Yet the children in their focus groups were most excited by a third reality framework: human characters interacting with muppets. The adult experts on children’s reality frameworks disapproved of interactionism and felt distressed by the children’s preference for it.
Kierkegaard says in his introduction to The Concept of Anxiety that logic “merely prepares the way” for what is real. Logic won’t draw your conclusion about what’s real. Logic doesn’t even want to hear your argument on that topic. The very thought of realness gives it indigestion. So, he says, reserve judgment. Give the idea of realness time to breathe.
In The Velveteen Rabbit, the toy, stuffed with sawdust, doesn’t describe himself as “a model of anything, for he didn’t know that real rabbits existed,” while the mechanical toys in the Christmas stocking, knowing they are models, are “full of modern ideas, and pretended they were real.” One day the Rabbit asks: “What is REAL?” With an eye toward the robot toys, he clarifies his question: “Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?” An older stuffed animal explains to the Rabbit: “Real isn’t how you are made. It’s a thing that happens to you.” There may not be a logic to it. It’s more like an event. He adds: “You become. It takes a long time.”
[Note:] The story of the early days of Sesame Street is discussed by Malcolm Gladwell in The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference (2000).
Fog — Fireflies
I remember catching a firefly that summer in my hands at sunset and watching its yellow light blink between my interlaced fingers.
My next recollection feels continuous with the firefly, but my memory must have spliced the scenes, as this one takes place during daylight.
A swingset on the beach, facing the water. A boy my age swinging next to me. Both of us on vacation. I didn’t know him, certainly don’t remember his name, but I can’t forget his neon-colored sneaker laces. Nothing could have been cooler. For some reason, at the height of summer, we were chatting about Christmas and Santa Claus. His family celebrated the holiday; my Jewish family did not.
An old man in a red suit falls down the chimney, wedges there because of his girth, lands whomp in the fireplace, kicks up ashes, brushes snow from his long beard, opens his sack, leaves presents under the tree, eats a cookie, skedaddles.
I asked the kid: “Are you afraid of Santa Claus?”
He turned toward me. He stared through me, focused on a faraway place, and (I imagined) gazed inward. His little hands clenched the chains holding up both sides of the swing. His legs pumped, but the motion was robotic. Light was allegorically streaming into the Socratic cave.
“No,” he answered, as if annoyed, “I’m not afraid of Santa Claus.” As if a different question were now at issue for him.
Flyleaf — 350 Parts Per Million
When I was six, every million parts of air contained 350 parts of carbon dioxide. We had just trespassed above the global climate’s safety threshold.
It’s not a new concept. The physical chemist Svante Arrhenius figured it out in 1896. He said, if we keep burning stuff, we’ll change the climate of the whole planet. The climatologist Syukuro Manabe crunched simulations in the 1960s. And just before Elvis died, a scientist employed by Exxon acknowledged the industry’s activities were heating the planet.
Carbon dioxide exists regardless of my belief. It’s part of the air, and I’ve never seen nor grasped air, but I breathe it. A real threat causes problems even if it passes through your body without incident and even if you don’t believe in it.
Unreal things—this is the non-obvious part—can cause problems, too.
Children with firm beliefs on Santa Claus didn’t seem to fear him. Maybe his metaphysical ambiguity—his real-and-imaginary state—and my uncertainty about him were scary to me.
I had only asked another child if he was afraid of Santa. I did not—I insist—thereby kill Santa, though my question inadvertently blew open an underlying question about Santa’s existence.
Maybe my Jewishness blew open the question, as, likely, a Christian child asking the same question about fear of Santa would not have induced the underlying question about whether Santa exists.
Santa was already metaphysically ambiguous; I didn’t ambiguize him. But something about my being may prompt people to reevaluate certain metaphysical assumptions about other beings. I never know what people are going to do about their reevaluations and who they are going to blame for the discomfort.
[Note:] The scientist was James Black, who provided this information to Exxon’s management committee in July 1977. (“Exxon knew about climate change almost 40 years ago,” Shannon Hall, Scientific American, October 26, 2015.)
Flashbulb — Aug 1987 — The North Pole Is Melting
That Christmas or next, my classmates began to inform me that Santa Claus had, of course, been pretend all along. Santa is dead, and we have killed him.
I had never believed in Santa anyway; my parents never acted out the role. Yet I recognized Santa. He felt ominous to me, even as a fictional character.
Santa is real-and-imaginary and has reason to be mad at us. His house is melting. The glaciers on the North Pole have been receding for a hundred years because of industrial emissions. I might be naughty. We are collectively naughty, but what can Santa do about that?
Flyleaf — Three-Way Lightbulb
When I was in elementary school, I knew a very old man who lived in a nearby town. Thin, no beard, not especially Santa-like. He was a retired electrician, and they said he was the unsung inventor of the three-way lightbulb. He used to come to the elementary school and show us little hands-on science models he’d made. I forget if he ever told us how a three-way lightbulb works.
[Note:] George Edward Mills (1895–1992) was an electrician who lived in my hometown of Sudbury, Massachusetts. He was past 90 when he volunteered as a science educator in the elementary school, always showing up in a jacket and tie. We were told he had invented the three-way lightbulb. The version of his story I find online today is that he sold the idea to General Electric for $25. My family had three-way lightbulbs when I was growing up.
Flashbulb — Aug 1991 — The Song About Elvis
Anyway, Elvis. I didn’t finish explaining why I’m sure he’s dead. It isn’t just because the newspapers reported his death in 1977.
In 1991, the summer I was ten, the youth group at our synagogue played the song “Walking in Memphis” on repeat, insofar as “repeat” was achieved by rewinding the cassette tape. The song refers to Gospel music, but the youth group leaders tolerated it because the singer-songwriter was a Jew. They preferred it over Norman Greenbaum’s “Spirit in the Sky,” even though the lyrics of “Walking in Memphis” answer in an ambiguous affirmative when the singer, Marc Cohn, is asked if he is a Christian.
Flashbulb — Aug 1991 — That’s the Song
Cohn’s song tells a true story about going to Graceland in 1985, hoping musical inspiration would strike. He wore blue suede shoes. He referred, of course, to a famous Elvis song about dancing—Cohn was writing a song about a song. The shoes, if they really existed, might have been talismanic. Cohn mentions the shoes at the beginning, then a repeated line suggests he’s levitating, then he mentions his blue suedes again to wrap up. He may as well have been a Christian, he explains, when he finally heard, felt, played the music as he’d hoped he could. For a while, he felt he’d lost the spark, but then, walking in Memphis—that’s it, he snapped his guitar fingers. That’s the song.
Fog — Are Feelings Real?
Cohn’s lyrics ask repeatedly whether his feelings are real or whether he understands them correctly. Strange question, it seemed to me then. How could feelings not be exactly what they were? How could he misunderstand them? If you feel something, that’s the feeling.
And there was this one part of the song. Elvis, years dead, is wandering around Memphis too, and Cohn sees him, clear as day. He doesn’t apologize for it. He may not be sure about his feelings, but he’s sure about having seen Elvis. As a ghost.
One day, after my youth group played the song multiple times in the synagogue’s rec room, I walked home alone in the rain. Beside me, to the right of the sidewalk, sprouted, like a person-sized mushroom on the grass carpet under the dense trees, the luminous outline of Elvis.
I was startled. Elvis looked like an old man. Taller than my father. Big belly. He looked unhappy, as if he did not want to be there, and I felt alarmed that he’d shown up.
He existed, and yet did not, in the way that a human being remains part of history forever and yet a dead man is no longer there at all. If you’ve ever seen a ghost, you know what I mean.
I continued walking, trying not to let on that I was scared.
Elvis followed me.
Now see here: If Elvis were still alive, he couldn’t have been a ghost walking beside me, right?
So that is how I have always known that Elvis is dead. The conspiracy theorists who say he’s still alive are wrong.
Does mushroom Elvis sprout in the sunshine? No, usually he sprouts in the rain.
Reminds me of a song by The Monkees. Seeing is believing, or more precisely, seeing is believing in. Think about the goddess images you’ve seen. Now imagine if you believed in them all. In the song, there’s an unnamed “her,” and to see her face is to believe in her.
A few weeks later, I saw Mary in the grotto in the neighbor’s yard.
The grotto was a bathtub they had half-buried in the garden, pointing up to the clear sky. Blue like a tropical ocean. The statue of Mary stood inside, robed, hands clasped in prayer, facing the quiet street. She too was porcelain. As I walked by, she winked.
I swear she did. I wouldn’t swear in front of Mary, even though I’m not Catholic. But I am telling you, she winked at me. And then she went back to being a statue.
I felt something change in my hands when that happened. A heightened sensitivity. A shimmer, like powdery snow falling. A change in my toes, too.
Every single time I passed the neighbor’s yard, Mary winked.
Since then, I’ve always been a half-believer. I could try to leave her. Wouldn’t work, as the Monkees joyfully observe. It’s not necessarily Elvis or Mary who’s special. It’s all the ghosts, the saints, the good gods almighty from every walk of life.
Well, not all of them. Half of them.
The way I see it: Ghosts are all men. Goddesses are all women. Those are the parameters. That’s how it works for me. I have never seen a female ghost or a male god.
I’m an atheist for all gods and a seer of all goddesses. I’m a skeptic about all the lady ghosts and a medium for all the gentlemen ghosts.
No border cases. I always have a clear reading on whether the spirit is a woman or man. Maybe there are some spirits who have some other gender, but those spirits don’t show up for me. And I always see a distinction between a goddess and a ghost, even if that’s just another way of describing their gender. Maybe I am categorizing the world wrongly, but this is what I’ve got. This is how I manage the information.
So, for example, the Prophet Elijah does not come to the Passover seder no matter how many times we invite him in, year after year. Don’t believe everything you read in the Maxwell House Haggadah. He is not a regular man; if he were, he’d show up for me as a ghost. He’s more like a god, so he wants nothing to do with me.
The saint the Catholics know as Mary—she wasn’t a regular person either, and is now more like a goddess, and that’s why she talks to me.
Ghosts, by contrast, were once regular people. Post-death, they are what Yiddish calls “mazikim.” A mazik is a troublemaking spirit. They exist. They’re right there.
The spiritual beings are out and about. Whoever isn’t of this world is talking to me half the time, and I am a half-believer in everything supernatural.
It’s called speculirium. Half pathology, half imagination.
The music store in town was staffed by an older teenager who ground her teeth, and it was Elvis who helped me find Paul Simon’s album Graceland on the rack. You don’t have to believe me. Elvis did find me that album. It has the song “You Can Call Me Al.” Another amen, another hallelujah, and something about a bodyguard.
“Can I call you ‘El’?” I asked Elvis, who was sitting on my carpeted bedroom floor.
He wasn’t anywhere near drunk enough to consent to that. He shook his head. Negative.
The first music video of that song is a video of a video. Full of rainbow pixels like spilled Mike & Ike’s.
One day, we kids were running around the synagogue grounds playing hide and seek as if it were the last year we’d find it fun, and I went to the rabbi’s study and asked her how and why ghosts were talking to me. I thought that was what you were supposed to do if you had a supernatural problem: ask the rabbi.
Her study looked like a regular office, but her lampshade was stained glass. The lamp sprayed colors onto the wall.
She seemed amused. “You’re in communication with the spirit world.”
“How am I doing it?”
“You’re wearing a wire.” She shrugged. No big deal.
Later, l checked my pockets. I was, indeed, carrying a paperclip. So that was the explanation for everything.
Flashbulb — Feb 2010 — TFW You Are in Paradise
Don’t know what I expected out of the island escapade, but I was disappointed. Scrolled through my social media and saw my date’s post, made from the beach a few yards from our room: “TFW you are in paradise, and wow how nice everyone looks!” TFW: “That feel when,” usually a personal statement deployed as if it were a universal. Suddenly I felt not even so much friendzoned as acquaintancezoned.
“What are you afraid of?” I asked him in the hotel room as we got ready for bed. “Regarding moving out of your parents’ house, I mean.”
“I’m not afraid.”
“You said you were.”
“It’s just that, you know, my mom washes my clothes. I’m scared to start doing laundry myself. You know?”
Flashbulb — Feb 2010 — Move the Mayan Prophecy Book
Joke was on me for generously assuming he had some kind of gay trauma. Not that I had an abundance of love interests, but this one was already tiresome. I permitted myself to feel embarrassed for him.
I asked him to move his Mayan prophecy book with the horrid paperclip. I came up with some excuse for why books couldn’t be on the nightstand. It was really the paperclip that bothered me. I wanted to get some sleep and not touch any wire that could wake up a long-forgotten goddess who might destroy the world. I just wanted to make it to my next stop: to 2011, to 2012. Ideally, we’d all make it to 2013.
Flashbulb — Feb 2010 — PILCREPAP
It wasn’t that I believed in the power of the paperclip, exactly. As I said, I was still a half-believer in gods—at least in all the goddesses if not the male gods—but not in ridiculous explanations for them.
In my twenties, I’d begun taking pills to control my speculirium. The pills worked, mostly. I saw fewer spirits, less frequently. I brought the blister pack of pills on this trip. It was no one’s business what the prescription was, so I stickered over the box and wrote “PILCREPAP” with a marker: “paperclip” backwards. It’s always important to pack one’s medication while traveling. One never does know what one might encounter that isn’t in the travel brochure.
Flashbulb — Feb 2010 — Satellite View
Not far from us—again, map set to “satellite view”—was the Chicxulub crater, discovered 20 years earlier, where a space-rock hit 66 million years ago with a hundred million megatons of explosive energy, leaving a welt a hundred miles wide and ten miles deep, a vast ditch of rock and glass, metamorphosed from shock, covered by ocean. The asteroid took the dinosaurs with it, first by unsurvivable heatwave near the impact, then by a tsunami taller than the Statue of Liberty, then by kicking up soot that blocked out the sun.
The climate cooled. Life changed. The dinosaurs that survived aren’t dinosaurs anymore.
You never know what you might find.
I take pills and avoid paperclips. Two ways to ghostbust. Hedging my bets.
Flashbulb — Feb 2010 — You Only Live Once
Just as I found my date tiresome, similarly, he seemed embarrassed to be seen with me unless we were participating in a structured activity, which, on the day I remember best, he hoped would be scuba diving.
“Not I,” I responded. When I booked the plane tickets, I imagined spending time in the hotel room. Scuba wasn’t my bailiwick. Now we stood on our room’s beachside porch, arguing. I leaned bedward, he leaned seaward.
He affected a finger-wagging kindergarten teacher voice, trying to explain life to a pitiful old man-boy who didn’t get it. “You only live once!”
“I live,” I countered, “to breathe. Air.” Boyle’s Law about the compression of gases means the lungs experience oxygen differently as you go farther down.
Flashbulb — Feb 2010 — This Is the Risk of Reincarnation
I realized how he saw me: old, ugly, boring. Snell’s Cone describes how, from an underwater vantage point, the surface looks distorted.
On our first date, to reiterate, he’d said I did not look at all like JFK, which reminded me that I was born on the 17th anniversary of JFK’s assassination, which reminded me that there are cicadas with a 17-year lifecycle, which has always made me think of the 22nd of November in Dallas when JFK rode happily in a car, blinking in the sunlight, and then maybe—this is the risk of reincarnation—JFK woke up 17 years later as a giant bug.
I cannot help it if I look like a bug.
Flashbulb — Feb 2010 — The Problem with Scuba Diving Is It’s Underwater
I have a good idea why someone wouldn’t be attracted to me, and reproducing their thought process makes the rejection feel worse. This boy did not care for my gender history or body configuration. Nor did any other terrible boy I’ve ever dated. My recollected unpleasantries concentrated upon his smug face. I was stuck on an island with him negotiating my right to breathe. He was pouty, playing up his own deathstar homo swish magic, deliberately leveraging a conflict over scuba diving to deflect from, or act out, the repulsion he felt from more intrinsic things about me.
But I didn’t need him, and I still had my will to live, which the idea of scuba diving intrinsically threatened.
Flashbulb — Feb 2010 — Bleak
“We have to see the coral reefs before they all disappear from the planet and are gone forever,” he pleaded.
That was bleak: the extinction prediction, but also the self-positioning. As if the importance of the existence of coral were that we personally see it. As if, once we see it, it will have fulfilled its purpose. If the big boss had wanted us to see coral reefs, He would have aired them on the Discovery Channel. But: If I’m not going to look at coral reefs, why did we fly here?
“Don’t you need scuba certification first?”
“Clearly not.” He pointed his thumb at the vacationeers wading at the edge of the ocean where the guide had just shown up in a rowboat.
Flashbulb — Feb 2010 — I Handed Over My Credit Card
“The dive is only 20 minutes. You have a mask, and the guide follows you. You get to see all the fish.”
“I don’t want to be underwater more than 20 seconds. No desire for it. Sorry. You can do it, though.”
I handed over my credit card so he could book the underwater tour for himself, but he came back.
“The guide wants cash. Dollars are fine.”
Certification, no; cash, yes. Hmm.
My main concern had been getting laid in the hotel room. The possibility diminished, and with possibility, interest. I was not going to beg for it. Evidently we had different assumptions about the kind of bad behavior we’d let each other get away with.
Flashbulb — Feb 2010 — Under a Sun-Umbrella
The terrible boy put on the funny suit, walked into the waves with the scuba guide, and slipped beneath the surface.
I settled myself on the restaurant deck, not without anxiety, at an observation table under a sun-umbrella, waiting for the terrible boy to return. I had my beat-up copy of Yo maté a Kennedy—I Killed Kennedy—by Manuel Vázquez Montalbán, a novel pretending to be written by the president’s fictional bodyguard, telling tales about how a fictional JFK kept neutered Dalmatians and involving any other number of details that did not seem to be true in my world.
An iguana clambered across the railing. It moved faster than I expected.
Flashbulb — Feb 2010 — Drinking a Milkshake
I ordered a milkshake with no alcohol. Sipped it slowly at first, then chugged the vanilla ice cream and chocolate sauce on the bottom. Wished I’d ordered it with rum.
Sun beat down. I began to feel bored. Checked my watch. Twelve minutes gone. Scuba kids weren’t due back for another eight.
A feeling of nonbelonging bubbled up and beset me with the vague worry that someone might notice my otherness and point it out to me. If a cop asked, “Why are you here?” then— No. Won’t happen. This is a resort. Everyone is here to relax. I don’t have to justify my idleness. Blending in with the gays, I am. And cops had never removed me from any place before.
Flashbulb — Feb 2010 — Mudslide
“Can I get you anything else?” the waiter asked, clearing the glass.
A proper mudslide I wanted, but I deferred decision.
They are probably looking at gobis, I thought, checking my watch again. Gobis live on coral reefs. Clownfish do, too. And pointy arrow crabs.
Flashbulb — Feb 2010 — No Air?
The wristwatch’s long hand was moving slowly. With the bumble of an arrow crab. According to precise, unconscious logic for finding food. As if wavering in the sea currents. It chomped the 20-minute mark.
I looked over the smooth sea surface. Any moment now.
No heads rose up.
They had to come up because their tanks would run out of air. They will be here any minute now.
And yet they weren’t. Another minute passed. Another. The surface did not break.
Flashbulb — Feb 2010 — Under the Waves
“The dark side clouds everything,” a Yoda voice whispered in my head. “Impossible to see, the future is.”
I slumped forward, resting my cheek on my copy of Yo maté a Kennedy.
What is the guide thinking, under those waves? I barely remembered the guide’s face. I remembered a stereotype, the earnestness of a physically active person who lived on a vacation resort to help people look at fish. I did not wish to think of the hapless guide in distress underwater.
But the boy?
Fog — He Could Just Drown
My eyelids batted open. I sat upright.
Yes. He could just drown.
The possibility, no, the prediction came to me as if I were already watching it play out in real life. I’d order another milkshake when the waiter came round again. This time, rum. I’d savor the alcohol, rationing each sip to count the minutes. When the guide did not show up for his next appointment with the next tourist standing there in black flippers, someone would point out his absence. There’d be a commotion. I’d be a helpless spectator.
Fifty feet down, they might be, even a hundred. I was unequipped. No goggles. If I jumped in, submerged, opened my eyes in the saltwater, I wouldn’t see them. No oxygen tank. If I swam until my lungs hurt, I wouldn’t touch them.
My eyes narrowed briefly to slits, like a cat’s. I lifted my head off my unread book and leaned against the vinyl straps of the lounge chair.
He could just drown. And I would not have to do anything.
I warned you I was going to tell you a story about my terribleness.
Flashbulb — Feb 2010 — Dating Is Expensive
The surface of the water broke once, then twice. Two heads floated, dark balls on the flat expanse, shouting, laughing.
I exhaled slowly.
The waiter came. I dismissed him with what might have been a dirty look. Everything was too much. I covered my brow with one hand to block out the sun.
The boy was standing at the water’s edge now, waving loopily to me. I gave the English queen wave back. I felt weak. I might need another milkshake after all. And the boy—he would probably want a drink too and a plate of food. Dating was so expensive.
Flashbulb — Feb 2010 — The ‘Requisite’ Sea
I wrote a check to cover my milkshake and slid it under the saltshaker.
“You missed the most incredibly beautiful fish,” the boy said. “We stayed down a little longer than planned because it was just so requisite.”
I was exquisitely relieved I had not gone down. I like to sit in a chair looking at the sea: safe, calm, in control, knowing that I, as my number one, am going to survive the day because of my own good choices.
“Glad you had a nice time,” I said requisitely to the terrible boy.
Already I was planning what I’d tell Stanley in the postmortem of this terrible vacation. Oh, to go home and have a beer with Stanley!
Flashbulb — Feb 2010 — Sixth Version of ‘The Legend of Zelda’
I expected my date might listen to John Mayer again on our return flight, so I remembered to look up who that singer was. He was in the news, and I was not impressed.
But my date hummed a different tune, familiar like a lullaby.
“What’s that song?” I asked nicely.
The Legend of Zelda. The original was released on Nintendo when I was five.
“Majora’s Mask. Sixth installment,” he clarified. “‘The Song of Time.’ Link finds the Ocarina of Time and learns to play the Song of Time so that the Goddess of Time can help him. Whoever is the Hero of Time can go to the Temple of Time and open the Door of Time.”
And he began to hum again.
Flashbulb — Feb 2010 — The Deep Freeze Is Coming
I was out of my mind. At some point, I had wearied of pushing fictional characters through a pixelated world, using plastic buttons under my thumbs to inflict life-and-death battles upon them. Yet here I was, on an adult date with someone young enough to care about playing the sixth version of The Legend of Zelda.
Everything began in the water. From this water came the ice.
Today, the tale of the terrible boy is what I still think about each autumn when the weather in Boston starts to chill and when I remember that the cold, the deep freeze, is coming.