“There is a deeper, Strangelovian logic to such happy holocausts.”
—Mike Davis, from Ecology of Fear
Oh, bride of Frankenstein, I say. I chuckle, then groan about the hideousness of what’s on the Oscars. A grandmother-head medically scaffolded atop the lithe and taut body of a swimsuit model. Oh, Sophia Loren, what have you done? Raising my hand, I cover the top fifth of the TV, white-outing her head. The body peeking below my fingers is perfect. Blood pushes into my groin.
I have made love to Sophia Loren thousands of times in my dreams.
But I’m watching the Oscars with two women, one of them my wife, so I cover my crotch with a magazine and shuffle out of the living room. Two buttons are missing from my shirt. Another is about to go. Cookie crumbs are smeared into the cotton. I smell like a creek, like sewage.
The day’s plates are stacked in the sink. On the other side of the wall, Sophia presents the Oscar: the carved man, glowing. My wife and our friend begin talking about plastic surgery—the gendered unfairness in ideals of beauty. I stare out the window. Across the street, the parking lot lights look like swans frozen in the air.
Turning the lights off, I close my eyes and scrub the dishes by feel.
The film that’s winning all of the awards is filled with played-out tropes: love and redemption and comeuppance. But it’s other. It’s vibrant. And it’s set in another country, so it makes people feel doubly good. Who wants to be a millaneeer?!
Spaghetti sauce and broccoli are crusted on the plates. My fingernails can’t grind them away.
Listening to the women talk about the Oscars, I feel incredibly heavy. A familiar shame pulls at my insides like someone is bungee-jumping from my heart.
My wife is a feminist. Courtney Martin, our friend and guest, wrote a brilliant book called Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters. And though they aren’t talking about me, I hold my breath. I scour with steel wool.
Watching Sophia Loren, I laughed out a few tiny words. Oh Bride of Frankenstein. Just words. And a voice in my head asked me if I’d really care. So my Sophia Loren is worthless. Put a paper bag over her head, and I’d fuck her. And everything inside me felt ugly. Like I’d puked in my mouth.
Sophia Scicolone was born in Rome in September of 1934. She was forty-three when I was born in 1978 in Iowa. I saw The Pride and the Passion (1957) as a teenager. In the film, Sophia’s hair always seems to be tousled. The top of her tight shirt is open. Her lips pout. Her eyes are angry and sad and passionate. Fuck you, Frank Sinatra. Eat a dick, Carey Grant. That look meant that she wanted me. From that moment on, even past her femme fatale role in Grumpier Old Men, she was my sexual Mr. Potato Head. She didn’t have to touch me. It was better that way.
It was perfect.
But my breath caught in my throat when she walked onto the Oscar stage. With each step, she metamorphosized—left right swish, left right jiggle—changing from my object to a piece in a museum of grotesqueries. And I felt like I deserved that monster.
In the dark kitchen, I fondle each thing on the counter. A pyramid of bowls. The detritus of chips and salsa. Sesame crackers and hummus. Half finished glasses of Italian soda. I touch whatever’s left in them and then fingertip my lips.
Pile the years I’ve been a miscreant, the years I’ve mistreated women, on one side of a seesaw and the time I’ve known how to love fully on the other, and the sumo wrestler of my ugliness would have one end of the seesaw buried in the ground. At the opposite end the small boy of my love would be crying in the air.
I didn’t have sex without being inebriated until I was nineteen. I celebrated my twenty-first birthday at the University of Northern Iowa—hundreds of miles from my girlfriend—and somewhere in that night’s snippets of memory, before we were tossed out of a bar for brawling, I remember a faceless woman in the bathroom. Sometime later, the bedroom door closes, vanishing all of my partying friends. A sixteen-year-old girl drops to her knees. And still later, sometime after the fight in the street, after Jonny jumps off of the balcony, that same girl and I wrestle into the bedroom again.
In blackouts, I’m positive I’ve done things that in another life would have me waking in handcuffs. In a hotel bar, my first year of graduate school, I kissed a man, but refused another’s plea to give me a blowjob. I’ve been tossed onto sidewalks in front of bars and once looked up just as a bouncer thwacked my own cane against my skull. The same night, I was jumped in the alley because I groped someone’s girlfriend on the dance floor. Waking in a pile of trash, a mask of blood on my face, my first thought was about what lie I was going to tell my girlfriend. To get sympathy. To get some love.
Until turning twenty-six, I cheated on every woman I was with.
And all of those years, I hated myself the morning after. I spent my sober hours afraid and unfeeling. Teeming with rage.
It’s a common thought that molested children, especially boys, will grow into sexual deviants. They will violently prey on the innocent. They hang on playground-fences, sing-songing with a fistful of candy. Van doors open behind them. The blackest cave mouth.
Growing up, I heard all of the jokes—saw TV reports about molesting uncles and deacons and repeat sexual offenders. But I couldn’t connect the bleeding dots inside me. As a boy, my urge to hurt myself seemed inexplicable. Lightning caroming down from a blue sky. Caresses were not pleasurable. They were painful, unnerving. In my all-American world, you had to be tough. The ability to soldier on grimly while the land you walk is flecked with your own blood was equated with manliness.
So what is the Mal-American Boy who yearns to be the All- American Boy supposed to do?
I was violent. And though fucking often barb-wired my insides, I tried to get as much ass as I could. For years, the only way to go on was by erasing myself. To drag myself forward I filled my bleary nights with as much flesh as possible.
The actual number of childhood sexual abuse cases is thought to be hugely under-reported, but even so, in 2006 almost 78,000 children were reported traumatized. According to Darkness to Light, an organization dedicated to “confronting child sexual abuse with courage,” one in six boys is sexually abused before turning eighteen. These boys are more prone to sickness, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, depression, are 70-80 % more likely to be addicts and/or boozers, often have suicidal thoughts and/or attempt suicide. These boys are more likely to violently victimize others. When the sexually abused boy reaches adulthood, he is more likely to become a perpetrator of felony assault, domestic violence, and a litany of other crimes.
In the dim room where I was repeatedly molested, there was a knife on the bed.
Writing this today, my hands tremble. My chest feels filled with wasps.
In his book Waking the Tiger, Peter Levine writes “that learning to work with the felt sense may be challenging. Part of the dynamic of trauma is that it cuts us off from our internal experience as a way of protecting our organisms from sensations and emotions that could be overwhelming.”
In my struggles to recalibrate my “felt sense,” what, without thinking, I know through what my body feels, I’ve cut and punched and starved myself. I lifted weights and dieted to exhaustion. Imagined my own death and, for years, wanted violence to orbit around me.
I had to get fucked up to feel something.
Anything at all.
When the pendulum swung to the other side of the spectrum of my new “felt sense,” TV commercials made me weep. Feverish, I’d lie in bed. All day. Sleepless, all night. Bus rides gave me panic attacks. I’d stare at the cobwebbed ceiling of my apartment, paralyzed, depressed because it was all so much. I could feel every single word I heard. Every heart beat around me. Branches snapping and singing birds. Blades of grass whispered.
Flushed, I half-listen to the Oscars in the living room. I think about how much I love my beautiful wife. But I’m shivering. My reaction to Sophia is rooted in a part of me that most days I pretend is gone. The part of me that is torn and shaken, rattled and scarred. It is the thing locked in the attic. It is one of my multitudes. The worry that I’ll punch someone I love or find myself on To Catch a Predator.
For a decade, when I squinted I’d see them both. The sumo wrestler. The little boy. Frozen in the blur of my eyelashes.
No matter what anti-depressants I’m on, no matter how many times a week I get my head shrunk, I’m not sure that the fear and darkness will ever recede. Not fully.
But a few years ago, that still-life behind my eyes, boy trapped in the air by pain and anger, slowly began to move. Like a strange animal crawling out of a winter lake, it crawled and my insides shifted. The little boy slid down the seesaw and began walking toward the giant man.
Now, I do not blink when I see it.
The little boy wraps his frail arms around the enormous belly.
It is unquenchable, this love.
Done with the dishes, the Oscars blaring on, I flick through songs on my iPod. It will never go away. It is an extra rib, another heart valve. Here, where I love the dark joy that bubbles in me when I listen to 50-Cent’s song “Heat.” It’s a fact, homie—you go against me you’re fucked.
“Going outside,” I whistle to the women in the living room. “Filling the bird feeders.”
Behind that twinkle in your eyes I can see the bitch in you. I jump down the back steps, spilling birdseed over the walkway. The night sky pulses. Filled with beacons and warning lights and high-power tension lines. I ain’t playing. Keep slipping and I’ll kill you. Day or night, it’s always there. The stars are outlined tonight. Sharpened by the torque inside me. Done pouring sunflower seeds into the plastic tubes, I crumple the bag and toss it on the porch. Through the picture window, I watch the women on the couch, laughing and talking about the Oscars. Beyonce’s song, Penelope’s kiss. If I die today I’m happy how my life turned out.
The gas station lights blink off down the street. A teenager sprints through the parking lot, pushing and pushing and pushing a shopping cart until he’s going so fast his hair pulls back from his head like a black flame. He shouts, then hops on the clattering cart as it sails into the flickering shadows.
Alex Lemon’s most recent book is The Wish Book (Milkweed Editions, 2014). He is the author of Happy: A Memoir (Scribner, 2010) and three other poetry collections: Mosquito, Hallelujah Blackout, and Fancy Beasts. An essay collection and a fifth poetry book are forthcoming. His writing has appeared in Esquire, American Poetry Review, AGNI, Ploughshares, Best American Poetry, Tin House, The Kenyon Review, and elsewhere. Among his awards are a 2005 Fellowship in Poetry from the NEA and a 2006 Minnesota Arts Board Grant. He is an editor-at-large for Saturnalia Books, the poetry editor of descant, sits on the the editorial board of TCU press and The Southern Review. He lives in Ft. Worth, Texas, writes book reviews for The Dallas Morning News, and teaches at TCU and in Ashland University’s Low-Residency MFA program. (updated 6/2016)
Lemon’s “from Hallelujah Blackout” is reprinted in The Best American Poetry 2008.