That's a paper towel tube with electrical tape wrapped around it, to answer your first question. It's one of my most prized possessions. I’m always hiding it in the back of a drawer or moving it to safe ground high on a shelf somewhere, just in case anybody in my house is tempted to throw it out in a cleaning jag. That's not just a paper towel tube, is why. That's my spine, or a model of my spine.
Let me explain. This is an exercise a teacher gave me. He asked me to get something to represent my spine, and then to get some tape, and wrap tape around the parts where I felt like I had some energetic or emotional blockages. And so I did and then we talked and I told him what I guessed each block of tape was doing there, how it might have gotten there. (This is a great exercise, by the way. You can borrow it.)
The tape in the middle, that third stripe of black, that's where the story I'm about to tell you comes from. They're all about fear, all the stripes, but I think I figured out that the one in the middle is the fear of ostracism. It's the fear of asserting myself in a way that could invite ostracism, more specifically. It's got a couple of other fears packed in there, too, but that's the relevant one. That's the ringer.
We're going back to 1982 now. Pour yourself a Tab or a Pepsi Light or whatever and get comfortable.
Eight p.m. on a Friday night—after our softball victory, after our victory pizza—we're cruising around in Coach Karen's black Corvette. Karen is 19 and beautiful and shares an apartment with her boyfriend, Jim. We're doing a sleepover at Karen's tonight, and she and Jim have crammed our entire team into their two cars and are taking us out for the centerpiece of the evening's activities, which is just this, driving up and down Lake City Way. When we first moved here in 1978, cruising was the centerpiece of all teenage weekends, as far as I could gather. Lake City Way popped and revved all night, even though there was nowhere to be outside of a car. Now, in 1982, cruising's waning, but everything hangs on a little longer in our scruffy neighborhood, and we're just barely teenagers, so we're amped to be out on the road en masse. I get to be in Karen's car, and I feel lucky in my backseat spot. I feel lucky to be here at all. I don't quite know how I got here, on this team, in this group. For the first time, I'm popular. It never stops amazing me. Everything is shining these days.
Our softball team, The Preps, is undefeated. Karen's dad is a bigwig at Domino's pizza, so not only do our jerseys have the Domino's logo on them (along with some cartoonish, non-Izod alligators we've sewn onto the chests) but we get free pizza after every win. We just stop at the closest Domino's to whatever field we're playing on that day, Karen goes in and says a few words, we loll on the sidewalk waiting, and soon a stack of pizzas is brought out to us. We're 6-0, despite the fact that we play in stiff, dark Levi's and Top-Siders instead of shorts and sneakers. I'm the catcher, and nearly worthless at it, but everybody else on the team is so good that we never lose. The post-game pizza has become our divine right. We're not even that excited about it any more. We're just bored and smug. I haven't contributed to our wins in any particular way—I never make any runs or get any outs—so mine is a contact smugness.
The music in Karen's car is cranking. Asia's on the radio right now, with "Heat of the Moment". It's tough to describe one stretch of Lake City Way as more drab than another, as the whole thing is just a series of car dealerships, strip clubs, gun shops and fast food restaurants, but we're coming up on a stretch that's emptier and more dimly lit than the rest, past the Italian Spaghetti House, where nothing really is. A figure is walking by the side of the road, and in a minute he becomes recognizable. It's Charles McGovern.
I have to jump in and explain something. In the language we're using these days to describe outcasts, there's a hierarchy. The softest insult on the spectrum is dork. You can be called a dork yourself and it's not even a flesh wound. Everyone is a dork now and then, even the coolest people. Even Linnae Dengah is a dork, though probably not very often. You don't want to live at dork level, of course, but there's the sense that you could survive if it came to that. Nobody has vitriol for something as harmless and unassuming as a dork. They can be entertaining, and some dorks have gently jocular relationships with extremely popular people. There's good-natured teasing, and dorks tend to take it well, no harm done.
A spaz is just a louder, more intense, more inveterate dork, but the spaz often has a kind of joie-de-vivre that saves him (and it's always a him). Spazzes get in trouble with their teachers, too, which creates a distant, accidental camaraderie with the toughest popular kids, and so the spaz stumbles on mostly unmolested.
The nerd does not have it so easy. A nerd is a magnitude or two more difficult a thing to be than a dork or a spaz. Nerds are overt, willing brains, quiet and serious, far less fun than dorks, no fun at all. Nerds are unpleasing to the severely popular. What gives them the nerve to be so smart? Teachers adore nerds, never hassle them. Something is unfair. The popular person feels edgy, bothered by the presence of the nerd. But if a nerd plays his or her cards right, stays quiet enough, he or she can pass mostly undetected and avoid the worst. At least that's the hope. Write small, talk small, dress small, no untoward broadcasting of your smarts, and try to smile a little. Nerds are grim, and that grimness is a rebuke to the aggressively laid-back popular person trying to have a good time. Dangerous.
Then there's the geek, who occupies the bottommost rung of the social ladder (though there's another category of being so low as to be off the ladder altogether). The geek is the offspring of the nerd and the spaz, inheriting neither of their saving graces. The geek lacks the academic gifts of the nerd, so teachers are no solace, but the geek also has none of the spaz's blitheness, which at least offers a kind of foggy protection among his peers. This is dire. It's social doom. There's no way out. A geek has no moves, and barring a miracle, it's akin to a life sentence. If you spend enough time as a geek, a kind of loneliness and despair will settle around you and sink into your pores, and then your bones, and you will transform into the worst thing you can possibly be: a freak.
There are two ways to be a freak. Only one way is good—and one
good, even if nobody high on the social ladder recognizes this. The good way is to not give a fuck, to flamboyantly not give a fuck. Successful freaks wear whatever they like, hang out with whomever they choose, and they're not afraid of a fight. That's the key. Have a go at this kind of freak and they'll have a go back at you harder; they might even call on some mysterious freak army from another part of the city, who knows? This seems possible. The keyword for this freak is liberation. You may not like them—they're galling—but you grudgingly respect them. They've freed themselves from all of this bullshit.
(And it is bullshit, of course, worse than bullshit, more poisonous; who doesn't know that now? But I knew it then, too, as much as I wanted to pretend I didn't. I was scared, so I pushed the knowledge down. But I knew it, I did, and I went along anyway.)
The other kind of freak, the worst freak, has already given up and died inside. An essential weakness has metastasized. It's no longer about geeks and dorks and nerds and what you do and don't do. The lowliest freak is a walking wound, sorrow incarnate, a reminder of what could happen to anybody if you get on a long enough losing streak.
Charles McGovern is a freak, the second kind. There he is right now, walking down the worst part of this sad street, wearing his perpetual blue sweater with the black Charlie Brown zigzag across the chest, his army green jacket, his thick black glasses stark against his white face. He's as pale as can be—a ghost, translucent—with dark circles under his eyes. His hair is deep, bright, almost Ronald McDonald red. He's unbearable to look at. He's the most vulnerable being I've ever seen; he terrifies me, as though he's carrying a disease I could catch. The cloud of sadness he walks in is as visible as Pigpen's dust. He agitates me! Why is he so sad? Why is he so thin? Why is he so tired? Why does he only wear that one sweater every day? Doesn't he know he can get crucified for that, just for that alone? He's infuriating, he's upsetting. He won't save himself! What is his home like? Where are his parents? Why won't they make him change his sweater? Why is he walking alone at night on this horrible stretch of Lake City Way?
"Oh my god, it's Charles McGovern!" somebody screams. Everyone exclaims and gasps, turning to look. Tanya Carson* turns, Sonia Kim* turns, Cheryl Leed* turns, Paige Anderson* turns. The front passenger window is rolled down, and a girl—one of us, I don't remember which, and anyway we were practically one organism—sticks her head out of the window and yells, "Freak! Go home! Go take a shower!"
He sees us. He hears us. He barely turns his head to look, but he does, and he just keeps walking. It's as though there's no more damage we can do, like he's a person in a movie who's been shot ten times, and we're delivering the pointless eleventh bullet.
The car erupts in hot exhilaration. Something has happened! Friday night has delivered! There's excited chatting and laughter and more gasping, as though we, this carful of girls, have somehow come close to being harmed in that transaction. I make all the right laughing noises, and sounds of assent.
Blackout. Return to 2014.
As you can imagine, this is not a slide show I’ve particularly loved pulling out of the memory banks over the years. I feel a pea-sized, nuclear ball of hot shame lava detonate in my stomach whenever I flash on that night. Charles McGovern is probably not reading this, but if he is, I don’t know what to say to him that would be good enough. The obvious word is so small, so inadequate. But it’s the sine qua non here; we can’t do without it. Charles, I’m sorry. Whenever I’ve been in danger of too much self-congratulation, the memory of your skinny little form moving down Lake City Way has buzzed and blinked red up through the fog, reminding me of the fear that’s driven me since forever, and the cruelty of which I’m capable, both of which are entwined.
I’m 45 now, and I have two sons, aged 5 and 8. (If you have emotional armor and you’re interested in blasting through it, by the way, one surefire method of kicking off that process is to have children. When you become the steward of a bundle of pure vulnerability, you become extra-attuned to vulnerability everywhere: inside yourself, on the news, in your friends and neighbors. The whole map lights up with it.) It’s not long before my boys are going to find themselves in my shoes, or Charles’s shoes, or both pairs. I’m of the belief, too, that whatever emotional issue you ignore in yourself as a parent, you wrap up as an unconscious family heirloom and pass down to your children. Here. I didn’t feel like facing this. You try. Luckily, I think the converse applies; the more you extricate yourself from old baggage, the cleaner the canvas you hand to the next generation to scrawl upon.
This memory is only the most extreme example of my cowardice through the years. I wouldn’t even know how to track the rest. Even in the present, the impulse to speak up and the impulse to muffle myself and stay safe do battle in my brain several times a week. The battle dictates how far I wade into politics, how deeply I’m willing to engage on issues of social justice, what I say on Facebook, what I say to your face.
So I have this paper towel tube, a model of my energetic spine. I feel nervous saying "energetic spine" here, but what the fuck was the moral of this story if I don't say what I mean? I'm not talking about my bones. I'm talking about some bright channel of life running up the center of my body, and everything hidden in there that got stuck one way or another. Stories, lies, patterns. And this paper towel tube, this class-project-looking thing I made, it feels alive when I hold it in my hand, like something real transferred in there, something useful.
*names changed to protect the...well, anyway. Names changed.