“It’s…it’s like someone sewed together a mass of ugly floppy dicks with barbed wire into the big gross net shaped like a person and they then filled that net with individual dog turds and then lightening struck and half set it on fire and brought it to life too and IT IS ME!!!”
That was a text I sent to my husband last week, trying to communicate how I feel with 23 days left until my fancy-ass book manuscript is due. It is also, to my muddled pride, probably the first thing I’ve written he thought hilarious…no let’s say, hysterical enough to share with co-workers. Gus always enjoys a fresh image for suffering, I think, bless him.
I must have subconsciously saved the hardest chapters for last. I don’t outline or plan. I scribbled down potential chapters and a couple words about what each would be about because that’s what is required when you submit a book proposal to book people. That was the last bit of “planning” I did. No note cards, no bullet points. I just find the cool shit and write around it. It all falls to place by itself.
Until I hit a slimy stone wall called Hysteria. Rocks held together by the sticky jagged crepi of Masturbation, which SHOULD be hilarious, but not now, because it is inextricably, atomically linked to the horror and confusion of Hysteria.
That makes no sense but stay with me (and welcome to my world).
It’s not what you think it was, Hysteria, I mean. It’s popular now to describe as a disease assigned to sexually frustrated women because women weren’t allowed to have sex feelings or orgasm in Victorian times. So they went to their doctor (remembering that the requirement for calling yourself a doctor for most of the 19th century was the ability to
word “doctor” in front of your name) to be manually masturbated to “paroxysm.”
Almost everything in that paragraph is wrong. Urban legend even. I have no doubt there were places you could go for medical orgasms, but it was the era of quackery and there were places you could go for horrific abortions and to have ice water shot out of a fire hose directly into you abdomen to cure ovarian cancer.
And while I’ve got you, I would like to clear something up; the Victorian patriarchy, at least the learned men of letters who wrote health books and religious counsels, very much wanted a woman to be sexually satisfied. In fact they thought without orgasm her uterus would get gummed up and turn cancerous or fall out of her like an inside out tube-sock.
They just had no idea HOW women achieved orgasm; and assumed it happened for ladies the same as gentlemen. Insert God-given organs of multiplication, agitate, repeat, reap coital bliss. This clitoris was considered some awful little distraction, a vestigial penis that probably shouldn’t be there anyway.
Which is one other reasons for the fad of amputating it in women who suffered “Hysteria.” Or a child, who masturbated too much. Sometimes a simple burning of the clitoris or foreskin with carbolic acid would do the trick. As long as it caused enough pain to make them keep their hands off of it. The doctors thought they were saving women and children from a slow agonizing death, due to Hysteria, caused by masturbation.
This is where Therese begins to feel as if she’s drank a bottle of lead-black ink. And that it’s turned her insides wet red and black and rotten. I restarted that chapter three times. It wouldn’t come. I tried an outline, which is as alien to me as forcing a sub-Saharan toddler to wear wool in summer, and as about as comfortable. That didn’t work either.
So what does a person do? Sleep, yes I did that, so much, too much. Then one runs away, to the ocean if possible.
There, after watching the gray of the water make the faintest line again the gray of the sky, dirty nickle on an old white sheet, one goes and sees Dan, should they have a Dan. And they should.
Dan built my shed. I’m sitting in it now at the half-moon desk he built for me. Dan wears, no matter the season, sweaters that unravel at the wrists and shorts that show powerful thick legs. Every hair that comes from his head has been left undisturbed for what must be years; if you saw him standing on a street corner you would know he was a bum, unless you looked at his face, which would already be looking directly at yours, smiling happy, knowing and loving the idea of you thinking he was a bum. That would tell him so much about you. Then he’d bring you home for salmon and rice and excavate your soul.
Going to Dan’s is to push your way through the looking glass. Except it’s not scary. Wonderland was scary as shit…no one liked Alice, nothing made sense, no one would help her, and she was oblivious to the terror around her due to her rabbit obsession. Fever and opiate induced nightmare, is my theory.
But like Wonderland, in Dan’s house the rules of nature and society are chopped and tossed. He lives in a cold cozy house spilling with books and blankets, each room somehow appearing to be a unique, lilting tack-on to the one that came before; a mansion made of damp tenements. He doesn’t heat the home despite living on the Oregon coast, and his two daughters don’t mind. He in unmarried, and he is not a “weekend Dad.” He is proud of his girls, so proud. It’s not their grades or how pretty they are, it’s because they are self-sufficient, strong and kind. I think Dan believes a woman is at her best when she is wild and powerful.
I first met his oldest, who I accidentally kept calling Margo (her real name is even cooler) so I will continue to here, when she poked her head sidewise from their door to see who her Dad was welcoming. She stepped out in full-body Cookie Monster footie jammies, with hair dyed to match, and eyes coordinating just by luck. Without a trace of sulky adolescence, the first words she said were to my own messy haired, dirty-jacketed daughter.
“You are so cute. Can I hug you?” Frankly the exact same impulse had been going through my head.
My daughter now believes they may be soul mates, begging for a sleepover as we got in the car for the hour drive home.
“Sweetie, Margo is fourteen. You’re her version of that cute little kindergartner who follows you around every recess.”
“I knowbutwehave so much in common,” LE sighs. And I believe her.
Margo wraps my 9 year old in what I assume is a smaller, gentler version of that odd space Dan inhabits, and he gives them money to walk to Dairy Queen so I’ll be free to talk about Harvey Kellogg burning the clitoris off a ten year old rape victim so she’d stop touching her genitals. Even telling it makes me fold in half, coming as close as a person can to going fetal-position in a breakfast nook. Not just the heartbreak of that child’s life, but my responsibility to write about it.
Dan’s lived more lives than a dozen of us regular people put together in his fifty years. (“You can’t actually hear bullets when they’re being shot at you. The gun makes noise, but the bullets, you don’t hear a thing.”) He speaks with parts missing. Very smart people do that all the time; make references we don’t get or leap over five minutes of explanation that their minds can’t bear to be distracted by. Dan has that, plus he doesn’t quite talk in prose, but a freestyle train-of-thought talk-poetry. I know, that’s also a good description of how a crazy person talks. So he’s crazy. The line between crazy and brilliant is as thin as the one between ocean and sky in February.
“Well, it’s not funny anymore,” he said simply, after I’ve dumped my grief on his table. “All the other stuff, the sex and farts, that was funny. But Hysteria isn’t.”
And there it is…he’s defined the edges of my blockade. I thought it would be funny. That it SHOULD be. And I’ve been trying to make it so by sheer force of will. But it is stone and ancient mortar and my only sculpting tool to shape it into a comic strip is a Mickey Mouse spoon. He’s right, tho. I finally dug so deeply into the archaeology of that society that I’ve uncovered the mass graves of plague victims and executed witches. Not literally, but it gives that same, “Oh…crap. I was really hoping for Roman gold hoards. Not children frozen for eternity in terror clutching at their dead mothers’ throats.”
Any my job, I have been thinking, is to festoon the corpses, tie their bones to marionette strings, and put on a show.
That will not work.
“You’ll do it though,” Dan said. His eyes are the steeliest blue, and I think they have probably held as much sway over the people in his life as his words ever could. He doesn’t speak with overwrought intensity, and the length of his beard suggests he might, but anticipation and joy. “And it will be so amazing when you do.”
C’mon Mickey…we’ve got some work to do.