[Crossposted from WAAGNFP]
OK, there was this time in college, I was dating a girl named Rhoda, and she invited me home for a weekend, and so I thought … no way am I telling that one.
–Jon Carroll, San Francisco Chronicle
There are some stories that I can’t just change the names and get away with it. Probably the most important part of that is that the individuals involved would still recognize themselves, and it would, despite all attempts at anonymity, still be an invasion of privacy. Some stories are just too intrinsically personal.
Moreover, there are some bits of personal history, that, no matter how much I might try to take all the blame for whatever bad things happen, it wouldn’t be enough, and other people would be shown in a bad light. I’m not always against that, mind you, but sometimes I am, especially when I had too great a hand in the unfortunate events.
Sometimes, making a story more generic removes all its flavor. At that point, there’s no reason to tell the thing in the first place. That’s one of the places where you opt for out-and-out fiction, keeping the flavor, but creating new characters for all the events, and distancing the events by wrapping them in the outlandish, putting them in the future, for example, or having them occur while there is a serial killer on the rampage. Even that is a risk, of course. Sometime people still recognize themselves in your fiction; sometimes they do so before the writer does. Tough. That’s the biz, baby.
The one I’m about to tell takes generification to some sort of limit, I think, but there are some philosophical points that I’ll get at, probably not the most important things in the real story, but the only nuggets that I can pull from this stream at this time.
In the early 1980s, I had my heart broken by a woman who had no idea at the time that she was doing it. That can happen when you carry a torch in sufficient secrecy for long enough.
It was hardly the first time I’d had my heart broken. If you’re still single in your thirties and haven’t had your heart broken a few times, you’re really not trying very hard at life. Still, this particular one felt different. It didn’t have the feeling of failed infatuation, for one thing. It didn’t damage my self-confidence that way a humiliating heartbreak does. Rather, there was a deep sense of loss that I couldn’t fully plumb, and a feeling that my future had somehow changed. It was some combination of freedom and being adrift.
Maybe it’s only hindsight, but I also had the feeling that I was in for some trouble. Or maybe that I was about to go looking for trouble.
When you really want to get into trouble, (and by “you” I mean “me”), the best enabler is usually a woman. That’s my drug of choice anyway. It only took me a few months to find the right one. I’ll call her June, which is obviously not her name at all; I’ve never dated a June.
Okay, here, massive generic evasion. I am not going to give any specific details about why June was trouble. I’ll note that, between the first time I met her, and the time we’d agreed to have lunch, something really bad happened to her, so she missed our first lunch date. I’ll also stipulate that you aren’t likely to figure out what that “really bad something” was, so don’t bother trying to guess. Just realize that, when I heard about it, I knew that the danger content of knowing her had just gone up by several orders of magnitude, and that we were going to become lovers, and that it would end badly.
There is an absolutely brilliant sequence in Alan Moore’s groundbreaking comic Watchmen, concerning Dr. Manhattan, who is the only character in the book with truly superhuman powers. Okay, Ozymandias can catch bullets as a bit of a trick, but Dr. Manhattan can teleport, transmute elements, and be in several places at once. He also experiences time, his own personal history, all at once, so he can foretell the future. At one point, he takes his girlfriend to Mars, and makes a reference to a time, several minutes in the future, when she surprises him with the information that she’s having an affair with another hero.
Then, several minutes in the future, she mentions the affair, and Dr. Manhattan is surprised. He knew what was coming, but he was still surprised when it happened.
He has to be surprised sometime, and that was the time, even if he knew about it in advance.
So I knew it was temporary and that June was going to dump me at some point; I even told that to a close friend when she asked me about the relationship (out of concern for my well-being, bless her). Furthermore, I’ll even suggest that whatever attempts I’d made to cushion that eventual blow, made the breakup even worse, because it added to the degree to which I was culpable, and it meant that I’d not been as good a person as my own ego ideal would like to believe. Some of the attraction had been that I was playing white knight, and instead I seemed to have a bit of dragon blood in me, as it were.
And it hurt. It really, really hurt. All the pain and humiliation that I hadn’t felt with the original heartbreak, well, I made up for it when June dumped me. And, just as an indication of the original, obvious danger content, it wasn’t a clean break, and couldn’t be, because circumstances meant that I still saw her on a regular basis.
Pretty good job of it, eh?
Okay now, the bit of philosophical payoff that I referred to earlier.
I’ve been following various feminist discussions on the net for quite a while, from even before what is now called teh blogosphere. And one of the issues that comes up frequently is the “nice guys don’t get laid,” discussion, also known as “Why do good girls like bad boys?” (from the song by Angel and the Reruns, in the Tom Hanks movie Bachelor Party). There are plenty of snarky things said about guys who say this, and rightfully so. The gist of the rightful snark is that being shy and insecure is not the same as being a “nice guy” and exactly why is being “nice” supposed to be rewarded by sex? That expectation, in fact, sounds like something other than “nice,” doesn’t it?
As a critique of male hypocrisy, the argument is spot on. I’ll stipulate that I agree with it.
However, after the episode with June, after the initial acute pain and humiliation wore off, I found myself in a state that combined pain and anger. Neither of those was intense, and I was raised well, and I’m a polite fellow. But there’s plenty of psychic energy in both pain and anger, and the mix is potent.
And I was catnip to women. They sat down next to me at lunch counters and struck up conversations. They latched onto me at parties and invited me home. They asked me to walk them to their cars from bars and they gave me their phone numbers. They invited me up to their rooms at conventions.
Okay, I was also in my early thirties, employed at a good, high status job, and I’d been practicing Aikido and doing weight training, so I’d filled out an astonishingly thin (in college I was just over 6 feet tall and weighed 130 lbs) with an extra 15-20 lbs of muscle. I was blond with dark black eyebrows and dark beard (since gone to gray) and had a sardonic look. So it wasn’t as if I’d somehow gone to sleep one night as a pimply geek and woke up the next as some sort of hunk. I’d never been unattractive physically, and I’d been complimented on my appearance before, and I wasn’t anything approaching a “30 year old virgin.”
But this was new, and I found it very easy to take advantage. Moreover, there were at least a couple of occasions where I was, by my lights anyway, something of a bastard. And it was expected of me, as nearly as I can tell. The women expected it, and, for all I know, would have been disappointed if I hadn’t acted that way.
It wore off after a while. The pain and anger faded, and I’m not very good at the bastard part anyway. But I can’t say that I didn’t have fun, because I did. And I hope that the women involved enjoyed it half as much as I did, because then it was worth their while as well. They got to play with what was, when all is said and done, a pretty tame monster, to no lasting damage. I suspect that’s the purpose, in fact. We all like to think that we can tame the monster, and there’s really only the one door. It leads to both the Lady and the Tiger, and they are one and the same.