She was about to sweep away shards remaining from his high school crackup – more precisely, his breaking up over romance in his senior year. Ever since, his heart and skull had continued warring, sometimes erupting feverishly into a death mask mirrored in his own hands. Despite later dates and embraces, the artistic and social projects he retreated to whenever that suffocating midnight grip loosened, the self-therapy of hunchbacked miles along thunderstorm’d sidewalks, the scalding showers, exhausted jogging, throbbing woofers and shrill tweeters, hours of dreamless sleep – the kid had never fully eluded that gigantic amoeba. Disconcertingly, in trying to withdraw, he rolled back to his own deficiencies time and time again. The most painful message in all this, perhaps, was that he could not conquer everything he set out to accomplish; many things would remain beyond his range or his abilities.

In that brief, disastrous infatuation he had sought validation. Having a beautiful, charming, intelligent girlfriend would be a sign of completeness, of fulfillment. He believed that something in the mystery of woman spelled salvation, which is, of course, a terrible weight to place upon anyone. How could he burden his beloved with his own suffering? Any American boy who isn’t an athlete is handicapped – especially in the nation’s heartland. He wasn’t sturdy enough for football or even basketball, swift enough for track or cross-country, forceful enough for baseball, at least for the success he demanded of himself. He knew these activities weren’t “play,” despite usage, and believed only victory would compensate pain and exertion. His strengths and speed lay elsewhere.

But he remained loyal to people and institutions. Adolescent birds leave nests and stake out new territory. He yearned for loving, a special acceptance.

He spent weekends in grandstand choruses, screaming himself hoarse in spectacles where he was cast as a eunuch rather than a warrior who could claim spoils – nights memorizing contours of smooth legs, dreaming of kingdoms and harems, power, authority, and consolation. The more his activities had taken him along their corridors, the more petty jealousies he discerned; rather than piety and devotion, there were raw politics. Dogma he embraced did not lead to angels. Yet, when fundamentalist Doris began flirting, he anticipated multidimensional glory, hoping not only for salvation in her woman-spirit, delights of her smile and torso, and prestige, but also for strength through her convictions. He had expected too much. When her friends revealed how she had lied, something besides love soured. A rocket exploded on takeoff. A facade collapsed, taking sky and street with it. A giant fish had been caught not for feasting or trophy but to rot in sun. In a pulpit he could no longer speak what he believed. He could not proclaim his metamorphosis without wrecking everything at home. He remained strictly honest, however covertly, by directing hootenannies, film festivals, picnics, and dances. When the academic year ended, he never again entered that congregation.

And now, this brilliant Lumina in other fields was setting out to encounter fair Disillusionment in this young woman named Pepper. She, too, was ready to set forth, needing only someone who could appreciate her interests, which overlapped with much of his own dreaming.

In short, he had it – and had it bad. She knew a suitor had come, and he was all hers.

As a second Joint Venture moved closer to publication, the kid was asked to design a psychedelic cover. These days, thanks to Pepper, he saw only stars. This time around, there was nothing symmetric. In fact, everything was unbalanced – like life.

Now, at last, all the past was countered, all his yearning reversed, all had seemingly healed, all was waiting to happen again.


For more from my THIRD RAIL collection, click here.


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