From edition

Get Used to Having Less

A Fake Memoir by S. Daniel Arnold (Chapter 1)

THE VISUAL FIELD snapped open. The unlit space it hung in was no marvel, just one unit out of hundreds, eighteen levels up and furnished with a big square window to look out of and contemplate the height of the drop.

The window had been intensely scrutinized ever since the space was occupied earlier that fall. It tilted inward when the handle was cranked, leaving roughly a hand’s width open at the top. But it was recessed several inches into the wall, and only a few panicked fingers could be fit through the opening. The hinges and supports and crank mechanism were amazingly solidly constructed and were held in place by no fewer than four different types of screw, each with a proprietary head design unbudgeable by any modification of either standard or Phillips screwdrivers conceivable by the average first-year student. This was how the children were protected from themselves at the 33rd-best university in America.

The visual field bounced twice in the dark, a switch was flicked, and the space was unlit no more. The light was really searing after five hours of darkness; it disturbed the visual field. But it was a much lesser evil than the non-visual thing that had gotten the visual field to bouncing in the first place: bididididididididit! bididididididididit! Merciless, merciless electronic perfection. Why in the world did they still call this ringing? Ringing was what mellow wedding bells did – golden bells! This fucking cyborg canary song, this had to stop. The visual field bounced three times in the light and with a muffled k-klk, it did.

“Hello?”

“Spanky, you motherfucker! How’s it hanging?”

“Enh? Who’s this?”

“C’mon, guess.”

“Jaap?”

“What a fucking genius you are.”

“It’s four in the mor-”

“Listen up, doggie. Jessica Nam is dead.”

“Uh, no, you listen up. It’s a school night, dipshit. And I’ve got a test in four and a half hours that if I don’t get at least an A- on I fucking fail Logic. I don’t appreciate you waking me up in the middle of the fucking night with your lame-ass prank call!”

“Kevin, I wish it was a prank call.” The hated first name. The dewy-eyed righteous voice. He was serious!

“Oh, shit.”

The sorority Jessica (‘J’) had joined up at Dartmouth was deeply devoted to the art of hazing and had held a grand event at which she’d drunk some twenty-seven or twenty-eight J├Ągermeisters in twelve hours. No paramedical heroics proved necessary; she was pronounced dead on the same couch she’d passed out on. Jaap related the information without evident grief. She wasn’t his friend.

“Will there be a fu-”

“Bagdasarian Memorial Home. Sunday at 12:30 I think. You should try really hard not to make an ass out of yourself there. OK, doggie?”

“OK, thank you.”

“Fucking I still hate you, you know.” K-klk again.

So this was what the world was like without J in it. Every corner edged in high relief with filth, dust bunnies seeming to rise and fall with the breath, and the carpet all around full of dramatic arcs of brown on frosty pink, great irregular Siamese blobs – the scars left behind by a pathetic ten-times-a-week onanist. Whose extremities now contorted with no goal, no teleology, the upper ones drumming in howling sadness at nothing. What was to be done with them? Useless things that couldn’t weather the touch of a girl anyway, chewed up and raw – Manwich hands – pulling at furniture, garments, carpet fibers, air . . . while extremities of a higher order, black as squid ink, were descending from the vault of heaven to wrap around the optic chiasm, where the visual field met the fleshbag whose nerves were so ruffled by the mere news of the death of a loved one: me.

My roommate Sten gave a snort and rolled over.

[ * * * ]

Exactly four years earlier, give or take an evening – a cafeteria filled with new and elastic bodies, really bright in the facial area, all swivels and grunts, comfortable. Chatting in even tones, overarticulated because in the end it’s a less than sentient being at the other end of your speech stream. This is just common sense. Way, way at the edge sits a short, nearsighted boy with pendulous lips and a greasy cowlick. His only tablemate, over at the opposite corner, is fresh off the boat and sports even thicker glasses; neither is talking. The cowlicked boy unfurls a paper bag encrusted at every seam with transparent tape of both kinds (glossy and matte). Its contents? One sandwich of all-natural peanut butter and honey (jelly verboten in the Plotnick home), one resealable plastic bag – to be saved for reuse – of nine carrot sticks, and one box of all-natural apple juice with a straw held on by a creamy blister of glue. He eats quickly but with scrupulous politeness, doing his maximum utmost not to make the animal noises of social lunch-eating, where (believe it or not) you’re expected to talk with your mouth full. Disgusting! It’s better this way, really – eating alone, uncorrupted by all the vulgarity of the world, so much in evidence everywhere. Note the table of juniors near the North Exit doing horrible things to their fried chicken. Separating the skin, yes, but normally they eat that and throw away the meat. Not today . . . what are they making a necklace out of it? Look at their leader Alex now, he’s got the necklace on and is dancing over to the buffet area to mock the lunch ladies’ work. They’re just scowling as usual, but they must be agonizing within. If lunch ladies ever agonize. Will Alex desert them forever when the KFC opens across the street? He means it with this protest, it seems; only a very major issue warrants getting such a nasty grease stain on his precious T-shirt: International Thespian Society Troupe 3103. The juniors cheer. The boy watches Alex and thinks deep thoughts: They love him . . . why do they not love me? Jealousy, pure jealousy. For many have been in Gifted & Talented, but I, I am the most gifted. My sketchbook, my poetry, my noble goals of housing the houseless and feeding the foodless all testify to this. I am a student of not one but three dead languages, two of them with funny letters. I run my hands through my hair when passionate. In but a few short years, beautiful girls from all over the world will appreciate my genius, in college, yes. For I am the most gifted. I AM THE MOST GIFTED!

This is all so impressive that he falls back into the quotidian with only five minutes to finish his meal. He wolfs his food with great frenzy and sucks his juice box concave. A job done, and with three minutes left still, thank G-d! But punishment is coming. Slowly, hopelessly, he feels the gas rising up in his stomach, tumefying his whole gut, surging out of his colon – he drank the juice too damn fast. He shifts his weight to one buttock and relaxes his sphincter, desperately hoping that this position will quiet the eruption enough to make it inaudible against this mostly wholesome din that right now seems like horrible velvety silence –

BRAAAAAAP!!!!

and the damage can never ever be undone. Every head turns, every index finger points, every facial disk cracks into a smile and hoots. The odor is undetectable, but look how many noses are pinched closed in disgust, even at the giant room’s far corner! Why are they doing this? The fifth period bell ends the spectacle; he runs away to the boys’ room and cries.

Ten minutes later, and at least new tears have stopped forming. While the old ones dry, he scans the sides of his stall for some morsel or other of Washroom Wisdom to sustain him through the next several years of shame. Aha, here we go:

CHARLIE BENANTE IS A QUEER AND HE CANT DRUM TOO GOOD EITHER

As true today as it was when it was written.

[ * * * ]

What’s important to remember about this sad little episode is that Jessica Nam was somewhere in that crowd. I used to imagine her looking away and shedding a single tear in pity, but probably she was no less amused than the rest of them. It doesn’t matter much; I would’ve been marked as a clown forever (a funny robot) no matter how she reacted, plus I would learn pretty soon just how contemptible the sentiment of pity was. Also the idea of giftedness.

So now a sad Kevin was comic, an angry Kevin was comic, a fearful Kevin was comic, and the rare Kevin that displayed a ‘positive’ emotion was comic too, much the same way funny animal sidekicks in the cartoons are always highly comic when in love (with food or females), no matter how sincere that love may be. But it wasn’t the tears of a clown that made me contemplate doing away with the individual phenomenon. No, that’s the way of degenerate scumbags like Kurt Cobain. I reasoned my way to it, did some formal grinding, worked up a rock crusher of a suicide note – 827 pages by November 1994 and still growing at half a dozen points. The spur to its composition was my rejection not only by Harvard but by all the Ivies and sundry other schools in the U.S. News & World Report top 25, the authority of whose annual rankings of national research universities it would be an act of the greatest ressentiment for me to challenge. These rejections had the serious consequence of putting me below the Line of Death, college-wise.

Line of Death?

It does have to be drawn somewhere. We live today in a deeply decadent world – decadent owing to all the grotesqueries the triumph of slave morality (the wretched Christian/liberal/bohemian synthesis) has made available to protect the weak from destruction, which they deserve. I mentioned the hideous residence hall window – the preservation of life at no matter what cost to the greater health of society! But there exist ideological grotesqueries of much greater moment than such minor architectural touches.

Consider first the fiction of ‘rights’, as propounded by Suzi Park – Jaap’s ex, my enemy – and challenged by yours truly. Suzi gets in the first word debate-wise by expressing her devotion to MTV personality ‘Kennedy’ (annoying redheaded VJ, slave morality incarnate – even more dastardly for pretending to be a Republican): “I really admire her work.”

“What ‘work’?” I protest. “She stands there and reads cue cards!” Or possibly a teleprompter.

“You think you could do better?”

“Fuck yeah.”

“Then why aren’t you on MTV?”

“I don’t wanna be!”

“You’re just saying that because you’re jealous.”

“No I’m not! She’s a complete airhead!”

Get ready for the trump card now: “What gives you the right to judge?”

I give as my reply the following passage from my seminal work ‘Posers and Racists Kick Ass’ [Scientistic American #6, pp. 3-4]: I take whatever motherfucking rights I so desire. Will G-d miraculously intervene if I point a loaded firearm at your cranium and deprive you of the life you allegedly have an inalienable right to? I don’t think so. Your rights are what you think you deserve but can’t get without trying. Nobody can enforce them except you. And if a stronger party can crush your defenses, you have no rights. It’s that simple. I’m rather proud of my ability to recite this from memory.

Of course, Suzi’s president of Students for a Safer America (SSA) and can be counted on to get hysterical at any mention of handgun violence. “Kevin, are you threatening me?”

“OK.”

“Do you want me to tell Dr. Broderick what you said?” Brod’s our beloved principal.

“Look, I swear that I don’t have a gun.” But she doesn’t believe me. Really, I only ever had the little blue water pistol I pulled on Brod at the big SSA assembly. And even that was confiscated mere seconds after I used it! Oh, the way Suzi beamed when they marched me out of the auditorium in front of her conspirators, those tyrants – Florio, Bradley, Lautenberg, Torricelli! The owners of New Jersey! What does a good Republican like her want to criminalize gun ownership for, anyway?

But with these remarks I have left the subject.

Getting back to it, consider the very existence of schools below the Line of Death – the 26th- through 228th-best so-called universities in America. What are they really but machines for propounding lies to the weak and the stupid – people who in a just world would be crushed by the higher types? Never have I heard so much nonsense about equality as I have in my first two months of college. Is a rich man equal to a poor one? A handsome man to an ugly one? A MOST SELECTIVE school to a MORE SELECTIVE one? NO, NO, NO, NO, NO!!!!!

The LoD is drawn in defiance of this sickness. Have I been understood? Life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness – all privileges to be earned by honest toil, especially the first. The privilege of life is your reward for acceptance by a member of the U.S. News & World Report top 25. Never mind the lies about how your value is tied to more than just intelligence – if you don’t earn the privilege of life, it’s your duty to die.

[ * * * ]

I got a B+ on that Logic test.

[ * * * ]

I was saying that J’s reaction in the cafeteria was unknown to me, and irrelevant in a way. But what an exquisite young lady she was! We had all the same classes freshman year except foreign languages, and I couldn’t keep my eyes off her. I was in honors classes with the grinds, most of whom (M and F alike) seemed to put great energy into looking rumpled and sweaty, the better to evade romance and thus keep one’s GPA up. But not J, who I first really noticed in mid-September when seat assignments were still fluid. During the one class period where I was able to claim a seat immediately to her left and thus view her unobstructed by either other bodies or the extended particle-board tongue her desk unit had on its right, I was transported as close to paradise as was possible without making actual physical contact with her (which I was unable to do for reasons we’ll come to by and by).

She wore brown suede Mary Janes without visible buckles or other fastening devices, with heels of a very modest height. The shoes were a snug fit, nipped in where the soles were sewn on, and showed no gapping between upper and foot. There were matte white stockings completely solid in pigment (absence of pigment, I know, I know) even at points like the swell of the calf muscle where frequently the extra stretching lets you see the flesh tone within. Also the stockings didn’t bunch up anywhere, which is a really momentous thing for a fourteen-year-old girl. Her calves were smooth and had an athletic firmness that suggested hours a day spent at the track, although I have no idea what her level of involvement in sports was at the time. She had on green corduroy knickerbockers, a pretty avant-garde flourish for 1990, also outstandingly fitted. Again, no gapping – the cuffs, each with a gunmetal snap on the outside, perfectly flush with the tops of her calves and not riding down when she stood. The pants bagged a small amount at mid-thigh, the better to contrast with the milky smooth five-lobed conical limb buds (five-lobedness inferred), but snugged up again in the pelvic area and ended roughly an inch below the navel. There was a brown suede belt that matched the shoes, with a gunmetal buckle that matched the pants’ cuffs’ snaps. From what she did with those legs, you’d never know that she was a plantigrade mammal – she pranced when she walked, balanced almost always on the balls of her feet, and when sitting leaned forward and tucked her legs under her seat in a pattern suggestive of a rotated-45-degrees-to-the-right letter Z. Lingering around the legs for just a moment more, my favorite thing to watch her do was cross them. The bottom leg would remain on tiptoe, and the foot of the top one would tuck behind the calf of the bottom one. It drove me bananas, and I’d tend to have to do a lot of thinking about the cold bodies of the dead rotting in the earth to get my erection to go down.

I can’t speculate about the shape of her genitalia.

She wore a fitted shirt the exact same Jaguar green as the pants, correcting for the optical effects of the deep ridges of the corduroy. It must’ve been tricky business, matching those shades. How do women do it? Her bust-waist-hip complex was sufficiently hourglass-like, and the pants-shirt interface was a gap-free zone. The closeness that the fit that the shirt had had revealed a bra, symbol of chastity (I think). Let’s not linger on this; I’ll only misdescribe the technology. Instead, let’s detour down the arms. The flesh of these appeared at upper forearm without flab or coarseness. The gently curving tapering from elbows to wrists could not have been more graceful. The hands were free of bulging veins. The fingers tapered too, flesh-colored throughout, and terminated in scrupulously clipped nails painted white to match the stockings. No rings, bracelets, or watch evident. Also no tattoos. She did the usual girly things with these arms – dangling, crossing, resting her head, taking notes in the dense typographic hand common to studious young ladies everywhere.

OK, now the neck – tendons outlined slightly, no creeping baby hairs on the nape. Jawline pleasantly balances roundness and angularity; chin is uncleft. Ears are unpierced! Lips are a little bit pouty, anchored by dimples when she smiles. Standard issue flat-bridged button nose and black epicanthic eyes. Crisp semicircular hairline. Hair hangs to the shoulders in a gentle convex black sheet. One other thing she did with her arms was tuck this stuff behind her ears periodically. And what good taste she had in eyeglass frames! Gunmetal again, matte and tastefully small, cutting in neat squared-off ellipses just above the cheekbones and just below the eyebrows. The exposed eyebrows were particularly affecting, I thought. Two of our most expressive features, but all too often obscured by the wrong glasses.

I fear that I’ve been much too clinical and maybe sort of creepy in my description of J thus far. She was a momentous girl in word and in deed, and she’ll get her memorial even if I have to put my suicide note on hold for a week to construct it. Right now, it’s sufficient to note just the most momentous thing about J – in the face of my kind of failure, failure to earn the privilege of life, she could still have been happy. Of course, we’ll never know this for sure because she got into Dartmouth, the 9th-best university in America and thus safely above the LoD. Nevertheless, her kindness to me in chess club, her good humor in the face of life-threatening illness and the unchained love of life that bloomed in her after recovery, her brilliant article ‘The Amputee Writer and Tradition’ [Scientistic American #3, pp. 5-8], her prolific poetry (much better than mine), her devoted THE BLOB fandom and tolerance of Jaap – all these things pointed to a spirit too generous and compassionate and wise to decide issues of life and death based on a crackpot cocktail of the U.S. News & World Report rankings and the Master’s philosophy. She was thus my superior in a way unrelated to rank or value, and her superiority deeply touched my inner heart of pure goo – I loved her for it.

Of course, there was much less for her to love me for. By junior year, I’d moved beyond all that sensitive-artist ‘gifted’ nonsense and was fashioning myself (I thought) into a world-historical intellectual titan of some kind. My goal? Total Cultural War, to be fought with the most radical and exotic weapons – my band! my zine! – and won by the foolproof strategy of striking the most perfectly reactionary and evil poses possible. Thus the pro-gun protest, the humorous Holocaust Memorial Poem, the close working relationships with known Satanists and race warriors and violent goons. Also the volunteer work for Christie Whitman’s gubernatorial campaign. My allies? Jaap van Fraassen, Charles ‘Pico’ Lee, and Ted Mosconi. Our testaments? Walter Kaufmann’s translations of the late works of the Master and Chuck Eddy’s Stairway to Hell. Our enemies? EVERYBODY!!!

Funny how the one thing you never think about a Total Cultural War is that you’ll lose.

[ * * * ]

I should explain now my inability to touch. As an underclassman, I suffered from a Condition even school psychiatrist Dr. Kevorkian, with all his Lacanian brainpower, couldn’t diagnose. The slightest contact with exposed female flesh, it seemed, would launch me into a seizure lasting seven minutes or more.

I’m sorry to say that it was J who was responsible for my first attack. After that one golden class period of ogling (which she didn’t even notice me doing, G-d bless her), we all picked up our things and trundled out. Deadly dull World Cultures teacher Mr. Abalone escaped first, followed by a hazy file of students. And in mid-trundle, my left Manwich accidentally grazed J’s naked forearm. I sustained some rather nasty bruises on my trip to the floor. Almost nobody noticed.

Of course J can’t bedevil me anymore, and the contorting I do now is very conscious and very sad. The only bridge to happiness that I had, the only argument that the world was not made a better and richer place by my absence. Am I marked for death, stripped of escape possibilities, exitless, now that she’s gone?

S. Daniel Arnold is an author based in Santa Cruz. Get Used to Having Less is his first novel.

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