by Robert Levin
I wanted to be invisible. Out of nowhere, with, I swear, nothing in my history to predict it, I’d done something people regard as sick and disgusting and I wanted to disappear.
I should say that at first I wasn’t so sure what I’d done was all that awful, and I certainly didn’t concur with the character judgment implicit in such a definition. It didn’t seem in my case to be fair. I felt this way because I’d always had an exceptionally inquisitive mind, a mind that, forever in search of the deepest truths, often compelled me to challenge things (the assumption that boundary lines in nature are fixed and inviolable for example) that others never questioned. And that was a good thing, right? What’s more – and who would argue with this? – when you call your dog “Maureen” you’re clearly asking for trouble. And not only that, hadn’t Larry Flynt confessed to the SERIAL RAPING OF CHICKENS without suffering one iota of damage to his reputation?
But I stopped protesting pretty quickly. It was impossible for me to deflect for long the look on the face of Maureen’s owner (and my now erstwhile girlfriend) when, on the evening in question, she came home unexpectedly early.
Preoccupied, and with the stereo at full volume, I didn’t pick up on the fact that Annie was home until she was suddenly big in the room. Maureen, I realized afterwards, was aware of Annie’s untimely return before I was. I saw one of her ears rise and I saw what I also understood later to be a look of apprehensiveness on her face as she turned it towards me. But, and probably because her countenance was open to several interpretations at that moment, her heads up went right by me.
In any event, I hadn’t seen the expression on Annie’s face since my mother caught me barfing into the family “Important Documents” chest when I was five. The horror it conveyed seemed, in its breathtaking proportions, to have issued from the gods themselves. No, try as I might I couldn’t deny it. Diddling Maureen had been an egregious crime that was in no way mitigated by the fact that it was unpremeditated and, for me, unprecedented.
And in the following months (and along with a discombobulated Annie’s exclamation: “My God, she’s just a puppy!” echoing in my head) I was seeing similar expressions everywhere. Were guilt and shame working their poisons on my psyche or was it true that no one was liking me anymore? I mean no one SEEMED to be liking me anymore for shit. Total strangers I passed on the street all but recoiled at the sight of me. And dogs. What was up with dogs? Dogs had always been as indifferent to me as I was to them. But now, straining at their leashes, they growled deep guttural growls when I walked by. Was it possible that dogs – in ways we’ve yet to appreciate – were able to communicate to one another, and over great distances, the indignities humans perpetrated on them?
In all manner of torment and confusion, I spent my days scouring my brain in a frantic effort to uncover the reason for my… well… BESTIAL behavior.
What had dispatched me to such a forsaken place?
Could the fact that Maureen had been bathed that morning and that her shimmering coat smelled a lot like Rive Gauche – a fragrance widely known to be irresistibly seductive – been at the bottom of it?
Had the philosopher in me simply chosen a less than auspicious moment to take the leap from rumination to hands-on investigation?
Had I been trying to tell Annie something? Our relationship not going so well, had I been saying to her, “See? This is what happens when you deprive a person of sex.”
Was it conceivable that – strict dosage instructions included for a reason – the extra teaspoon of Nyquil I’d taken for a vicious post-nasal drip had caused me to lose my species bearings for a minute?
But nothing I came up with rang true for me. All I knew for sure was that I’d become, say it, the definition of “pervert.” I could not have descended to a much lower depth if I’d done so intentionally.
As you can see, I very much needed to get out of this dreadful situation and the first exit I thought of was suicide. But while destroying my body, which was making me much too noticeable, was certainly an attractive idea, a large problem that I have with dying discouraged me from acting on it. I’m not trying to be funny. Transforming into something comparable to what Maureen might leave on a curbside is a prospect that weighs very heavily on me. In fact, to make it hard for the gods to find me when my time comes, I’ve endeavored even in normal circumstances to not stand out too much, to be, you know, as anonymous as possible. (This explains the “C” average that I’ve steadfastly maintained throughout my life.)
And if there’s any substance to the reincarnation thing and the immortality it promises, suicide posed a very serious risk. The gods, everyone knows, tend to frown on people who take their own lives, no matter how wretched their conditions may be. That made it unlikely – especially after the way I’d comported myself this time around – that they’d send me back as anything better than a water bug or dental plaque.
Passing on suicide, I contemplated surgically altering my appearance or moving to another city. But these choices were cost prohibitive and the latter would also have involved a lot of heavy lifting, which I really hate.
Finally I considered going insane. Well within my budget, what this option offered was the opportunity to stay alive AND lose my body (my unrelenting self-consciousness anyway) at the same time. But to achieve a genuine psychosis – to, that is, retreat into the bowels of your brain, live in a world of your own invention and become completely oblivious to what’s going on outside of it – isn’t so easy.
I know because I tried. Thinking that I could maybe connect to madness by faking some emblematic symptoms (and sufficiently desperate by now to chance still more humiliation) I ran an experiment. It was the middle of August and wearing a tattered overcoat – and with a week’s growth of beard and my hair wild – I stood on a street corner and commenced to babble unintelligibly at various decibel levels. After a few minutes of that I shouted, “Fucking motherfuckers, I’m gonna break your fucking hearts and shove the fucking bits and pieces up your hungry assholes.” Then I babbled some more and then, kicking and swiping at the air, I snarled, “PILLOWS? What else you asswipes got in store? The armadillos shat in your cereal shit? THAT crapola again? That – ha ha – GRANOLA crapola?”
But my face crimson with embarrassment all the while, my act (with its admittedly lame material) never stopped being just that and my self-consciousness was only heightened. (If I needed confirmation of my failure to accomplish my objective it was more than adequately furnished by a woman who remarked to her companion, “Must be some kind of fraternity initiation.”)
So it became evident that even the fact that I was doubtless more screwed up than I knew I was when I realized exactly how screwed up I was didn’t give me an advantage here. However odd the angle at which I protruded from it may have been, I was as mired in reality as anyone else. I mean, despite my preoccupation, I still worried a lot about real world things. I worried about losing my job. I worried about getting to the laundry in time to collect my shirts. I worried that I might have picked up a dose of heartworm from Maureen. And if that wasn’t enough, I couldn’t stop caring about what people thought. It was possible, in fact, that I’d come to care more about what people thought than Louis Harris and George Gallup put together.
So I could do no more than envy the real thing – those guys who’ve established permanent residence in a fissure between their cerebellums and their medulla oblongata. Yes, I know THEIR weird and terrible utterances can be, in their obvious authenticity, very scary and lead you to conclude that even in the worst of times only a schmuck would want to take refuge in the kinds of worlds they inhabit. But long before my interest in the subject got personal I discovered that if you were willing to pay close attention you could sometimes pick up indications that where they live is not without a recreational dimension. On one occasion I was actually able to make out, in the background of a nasty mix of epithets, cacophonous outbursts and sundry other emissions, the strains of a tinkling piano and the clinking of glass and ice cubes – persuasive evidence, you’ll agree, of a party in progress.
I wanted to find that party guy now and see if I could get him to show me the ropes. But I knew that I had as much chance of prying instructions out of him as I did of getting the name of his caterer.
So what did I do?
Well, standing as I was on the corner of “Terror Street and Agony Way” (as the poet described it), what I did then was what’s left for you to do in this circumstance.
I resolved to – what else? – redeem myself.
I mean what choice did I have at this point but to try to get the gods to FORGIVE me?
Now I certainly recognized that the level of depravity to which I’d sunk made redemption a tall order. The gods would hardly respond to a less than stellar effort. But after thinking long and hard about it, I finally came up with something I thought was near to perfect in its symmetry. Something that they’d just have to applaud.
With the help of donations I opened an animal shelter.
Forget what you’re thinking. Okay? I never went into the kennels. I functioned – it’s the truth – in a strictly administrative capacity.
Anyway, it turned out that I was nothing short of brilliant in this role. Under my supervision the shelter quickly became a huge success, and, sure enough – it could not have worked out better – with each rescue and adoption of a mangy dog or one-eyed cat my Maureen burden grew lighter until, just like that, it was gone.
With that monstrous problem behind me I felt, as you can imagine, something like great. But this wasn’t the only reason for my high spirits. No. They derived as well from an even bigger reward that my act of redemption yielded. In the delirium that develops from the knowledge that you’re successfully making amends with the gods – from the certainty that you’re pleasing them and earning their approval – you get to feel that you’re atoning not only for the crime at hand but also – they become one and the same – for WHATEVER YOU DID TO WARRANT THE DEATH SENTENCE YOU WERE HANDED AT BIRTH! In turn you can feel that your atonement actually makes you eligible to SURVIVE YOUR DEATH – that it’s your TICKET TO HEAVEN!
This, you’ll have to concede, is some spectacular shit and it occurred to me one night that it was right here that the answer to the question that had been eating at me might be found.
Had I maybe set the whole thing up? Was it possible that my problem with mortality was even more serious than I realized and that (ingeniously exploiting the simultaneity of a bitch in heat and a simple, random hard-on) I’d deliberately committed an appalling but ABSOLVABLE crime in order to fashion an opportunity to experience my ULTIMATE redemption?
Was it possible, that is, that I’d FUCKED A DOG TO GET INTO HEAVEN?
(I should note that I flashed on that after an evening of heavy drinking with a bunch of veterinarians. It came to me while I was crawling on my hands and knees up three flights of stairs, just moments before I puked on my welcome mat.)
Now I don’t want to leave the impression that I was entirely free of issues. Although my guilt and shame had evaporated there was still something pertaining to Maureen that bothered me a little. Whenever I thought of her, I would find myself wondering how she’d, you know, rated me. If, you know, she wanted to see me again.
But male ego aside, I felt in all other ways terrific. And, indeed, when I was interviewed on Animal Planet on the occasion of my shelter’s first anniversary, I was fully at ease with being visible, more at ease with it than I’d ever been before.
ROBERT LEVIN is the author of When Pacino’s Hot, I’m Hot: A Miscellany of Stories and Commentary (The Drill Press), and the coauthor and coeditor, respectively, of two collections of essays about jazz and rock in the ’60s: Music & Politics (World Publishing) and Giants of Black Music. (Da Capo Press).