The man’s hoping the trip will distract him from the 3-week wait for his first psychiatric appointment at Kaiser, but by the second day, he and his husband are counting the minutes till home. It rains every day, which the man doesn’t mind, because he can’t leave the cottage for more than a few minutes at a time. He finds the town, even now in the off-season, claustrophobic. The glut of tourists exists solely to scrape his skin down to the bone, and the shops and the restaurants are gaudy and noisy and he returns to the cottage with snatches of songs stuck in his head, so that for the next 24 hours, every waking moment features a running loop of Ke$ha:
Ain’t got a care in the world but got plenty of beer…
“My brain is eating itself,” he tells his husband. He offers this in a quiet monotone, the most words he’s mustered all day. He’s grown thick-headed and stupid, his voice trailing off as he searches for common words, so that what actually comes out is, “My brain is eating…” Eating what? What was that word? Over the past year his head has felt like an abandoned carnival taken over by knife-wielding clowns.
Ain’t got no money in my pocket but I’m already here!
His husband grows restless in the cottage and decides to brave the rain for an hour or two. The cottage is charming and adorable, an A-frame with skylights and exposed rafters just a few feet from the beach. Every time he shuts the door behind him, the husband hopes he won’t come back to find the man hanging from the rafters.
The man has the same thought when he looks up at the rafters, though he and his husband don’t discuss it at the time. The man thinks about one of his favorite writers, who ended his life in that exact way just a few years before. The man has brought that writer’s biography with him on the trip, a gesture that even he, in his present state, admits might seem foolish.
But for a few days the man is able to read about the writer’s life-long struggle with an illness the writer called the Bad Thing, a name that acknowledges the impossibility of articulating its utter horrors. When he reads the writer’s biography, the man feels a little less alone in his insanity, though the end of the book is, of course, devastating, and reminds the man of the handful of times over the course of his life that he’s been this close to the Bad Thing.
The Bad Thing – accompanied all day by Ke$ha – tells him that his husband would be better off without him. His husband could mourn a little, then find himself a sane and confident new companion, preferably one with a well-paying job that includes dental and maybe even vision. His husband has told him that he couldn’t go on without him, and though the man doesn’t believe this, he acknowledges to himself that the Bad Thing can’t be trusted. So he turns on Playstation 3, which quiets Ke$ha, and allows him to make objective progress, racking up experience points as he rids a distant planet of evil.
* * *
A few weeks later, now more thoroughly medicated, the man feels the fog clearing. Every day he goes to work behind a capable facade, and having barely escaped death, he grows irritated with the Bad Thing, which has dogged him for so many years, and which has nearly cost his husband some happiness. The man is eager now to eradicate the Bad Thing, to dig out its roots, pile it up, and set the whole thing on fire.
The man keeps thinking about his father.
How can he describe to you his father? If his mother – dead now ten years – had been more than the sum of her parts, his father was less. How can he describe him? Take a man – now subtract something. That was his father. That was Hank.
Hank is a retired IRS auditor, living now in the Arizona desert with his gay lover. The man has always described Hank as the most practical person he’s ever met. The man’s brother often has a better way with words:
“He’s got the personality of a calculator.”
Hank the Blank, the man called him privately, the blankness not only a reference to his father’s flat personality, but to the void that the man feels within himself whenever he sees him.
The man has never in his 42 years reconciled in any sustainable way the things Hank the Blank had done to him when he was still a boy. Ten years ago he’d made a veiled reference to it on his brand-new blog, which Hank the Blank found quite easily a few months later. Hank the Blank had fired off an email from his computer at the Internal Revenue Service in Washington, D.C., demanding to know just what the man meant by the veiled reference.
“Okay,” the man thought, “Let’s do this.” In clear language the man set down, in his reply, a detailed account of his memories.
Hank the Blank wrote back: “I’d like to continue this discussion from my personal email account at home.”
Over the next several days, in a dozen emails, they discussed what Hank the Blank had done to him. And after the man had backed Hank the Blank into a kind of virtual corner, his father kind of, sort of, apologized.
The man, a member of both contemporary culture and a 12-step alcohol/drug recovery program, felt enormous pressure to cave into prevailing and conventional notions of forgiveness. The man felt that he could not be a good, spiritual, evolved person unless he forgave Hank the Blank. So he did. Or rather, he thought he did. And for the sake of their improving relationship, the man ignored a great many things inside himself, such as the overwhelming urge to punch his father in the face every time he saw him.
* * *
And now, ten years later and more heavily medicated, the man keeps thinking about the last time he saw Hank the Blank, when Hank had told him that he’d spent some time following his recent retirement from the IRS (30 years, of course, with full pension) writing stories and posting them on the Internet, and that these stories had garnered Hank the Blank thousands of fans, who wrote him tens of thousands of emails full of praise. Hank the Blank told his son that he’d like to share these stories with him now, adding that the stories were posted on an erotic stories website, but that, “They were really about the emotional connections between the characters.”
Despite this emphasis on the emotional connection between the characters, Hank the Blank could see a kind of reluctance on his son’s face, and despite the fact that he’d always been rather creepy and clueless when it came to proper notions of sex and family, appeared now to hesitate, questioning – maybe – the wisdom of sharing erotic stories with his grown son.
“Perhaps another time,” said Hank.
The son, who’d been fighting the urge to punch his father and flee the state of Arizona for good, exhaled for the first time in ten minutes, and nodded his head in a show of compassionate understanding.
* * *
But during his most recent Battle of the Bad Thing, the man had dropped out of contact with everyone, including Hank the Blank. And Hank had begun to send him worried emails from a new account, the one he used to post the erotic stories to the Internet, the one he used to correspond with his thousands of fans. “You can write me here,” Hank the Blank assured him, in case there was something the man needed to say to him alone, something that Hank’s gay lover wouldn’t read.
Which meant that the man now has everything he needs to find the stories himself, which he knows he probably shouldn’t do, and yet which he can’t help but doing, one evening at work, after everyone has gone home for the day. And after a 6-second search on Google, the man finds what he’s looking for.
For the past three years, Hank the Blank has been writing dozens of stories for his thousands of fans, and the man begins to click and scroll through each one. The stories are all about incest. Father/son, uncle/nephew, brother/brother. Each story with a dozen or more chapters. Stories in which the boys are all eager participants in their own “awakenings.” Stories where a tender coming-out talk between father and son morphs, two pages later, into a steamy encounter in the shower. Stories that mirror what Hank the Blank had done to him. There are stories about a barber. There are stories about a character with the man’s own name, a character described as a “hot, hunky stud.”
Ain’t got a care in the world, but got plenty of beer…
The trembling begins in his head. He shuts down the computer and drifts through the building and out onto the streets of downtown San Francisco, amid the rush of commuters, seeing everything around him in a great blur of color and noise, heightened and unreal, as if he were encased in a game on a distant planet, everything just out of reach. He is an astronaut, sucking down his last tank of oxygen as the aliens close in.
He makes his way to the train, and though he holds onto the handrail as tight as he can, willing his center to hold, his body betrays him, and the tremors now shake through every part of him, and the commuters around him begin to move away in fear.