I enjoy reading the stories in your magazine each month, but I never thought something like that could happen to me until a few nights ago, when...
This is how I have to begin.
I KNOW! Okay? I know. This opener will force-march me into an airplane lavatory where I will NO DOUBT have to make out with Joyce Carol Oates. (She's tall. I just decided. And so am I, and itâ€™s TINY in there, you know, so one of us has to stand on the toilet and OF COURSE Joyce Carol says, â€œHow many famously prolific geniuses are in this lavatory and do you think they want to be the one standing on the toilet??â€ playing that whole LITERARY ICON card, so I clamber obediently UP THERE and Iâ€™m such a KLUTZ that I probably slip off the lid and now I have one foot stuffed down the hole and it is turning inexorably and forever blue in that astringent cleaner. TEN BUCKS says I end up contracting hepatitis.)
But I canâ€™t LEAVE because MEANWHILE, squatting on the sink? Depending on me and Joyce Carol? Is a sleek, deep-chested, and beautiful man named Rocco (WOW! I just noticed! He looks SO MUCH like Michael Chabon!!!) and he has been UP UNTIL THIS MOMENT sadly impotent for his ENTIRE LIFE and he is snapping pictures like James Spader in Sex, Lies and Videotape, except heâ€™s EVEN CUTER, and heâ€™s suddenly just now for-the-very-first-time (sings Madonna, who is probably IN HERE WITH US) discovering his --- umâ€¦letâ€™s pause here.
I told you, that sentence? It is how I have to begin. So itâ€™s not like we can avoid the airplane lavatory and the hepatitis FOREVER. Iâ€™m just saying, letâ€™s take a break, maybe smoke a cigarette or some opium, and blame the entire writers-gone-wild orgy on a blog essay contest I decided to enter.
You have to start with one of three opening sentences. So the penthouse thing was not my ONLY option. I COULD have started by saying â€œJust when I thought my life couldn't get any crazier...? or I could have gone with, â€œBefore I had kids, I thought ...â€ BUT COME ON. You KNOW just about everyone is going to pick those, right? I mean, who is going to start a blog entry with the Penthouse Letter opener?
And a host of OTHER artsy-fartsy boogerheaded dorks who think we are MORALLY OBLIGATED to hit the road-less-traveled running to prove that we are just. that. cool.
When really? If were WERE that cool? We wouldnâ€™t try so hard to stinkin? PROVE it, now would we? Do you think for ONE second JOYCE CAROL OATES would feel obligated to use the Penthouse opener? NO. Sheâ€™d sit calmly in first class, laptop open on the fold out seat tray, and sheâ€™d order a GIMLET or some ABSINTHE from her delicious friend, Rocco-the-Chabonish-looking-steward. â€œJust when I thought my life couldnâ€™t get any crazier,â€ sheâ€™d type, and by the time the pilot turned on the fasten seat belt signs she would have, oh, I donâ€™t know, probably won Blogging for Books and PS finished up that pesky little novel she started last week.
Me? Iâ€™m still trying to ooze cool like James Dean as I make my fraught way through two paragraphs of quasi-porn just to prove I can START with the most limited of the opening lines and still get a decent essay out of it. Just to prove Iâ€™m special. Iâ€™m different. Iâ€™m amazing. Iâ€™m just like you.
Thatâ€™s it in a nutshell. Thatâ€™s the thing in me that drives me. And before I had kids? I thought it was part and parcel of the standard writerâ€™s mental illness packet. Nurture, you know. Something I grew myself along with my rabid fear of dentist chairs and my endless, unconsummated flirtation with eating disorders. But as it turns out, this is different. I did not grow this thing. This thing is in the genes. I know. Because I see it in my son. Seven years old and already he has this hungry thing in him. I've seen it in him since his birth. Look at me, it says, look at me. No, really.
When the Upwards Christian Soccer Awards were being given out, and the coach held up the white star, the award for being like Jesus, and asked the team, â€œWho do you guys think best exemplified Christ today?â€ It was this thing that sent my son roaring to his feet, raising both hands to the sky and shouting. â€œMe! That was me! I?m JUST like Christ!â€
And now that I have seen it in him so young? I can look back and find it in me through every step of my memory. My need from Pre-school on to be every teacherâ€™s pet. In high school, I had the lead in almost all the school plays. In college, before I went to my first sorority pledge party, I dyed my hair Morticia-Black. I slunk in and immediately found the one girl with bi-polar disorder and MULTIPLE tattoos. Soul sister. We spent the evening leaning together against the wall, relentlessly mocking the procedures and speaking in subtext.
Hi. Iâ€™m slumming. Because Iâ€™m different and special.
Yeah? Me too. Iâ€™m different and special, too!
Oh, you DONâ€™T say!
Same thing in graduate school. I picked for my friends the two best writers in the program, partially because they were good, and I respected their work. But. Also. They were the girls who came up with BIN RACING. Sitting in the mail bins and making the boys push us FAST FAST FAST through the hallowed halls of academia, shrieking as we exhorted and flogged our steeds. Before the FIRST MONTH of our tenure there, each of us had had a separate and unrelated spanking from the head of the department. Rebels with matching MAC lipsticks.
Do you see me now? Good.
And nothing has changed. I am THIRTY-FREAKING-SIX and I have spent the decade of my post-grad-school years of my life feeding this thing. Throwing myself at hundreds of agents, DO YOU SEE ME? Until I found the one who said yes. Then asking him to hurl me in front of the chariots of New York editors. SEE ME? DO YOU? SEE? SEE? And writing from the back alleys of my brain, from my liver and my spleen, spilling everything I have out of me and meeting all rejection with cries of â€œAH, YOU PHILISTINES!?â€ and redoubled determination, coming back even louder next time, to make you DAMN WELL LOOK AT ME. Because I am smart enough and good enough and pretty enough. Because Iâ€™m so damn special. Because Iâ€™m different, just like you.
And I wonder---whatâ€™s it going to take to feed this thing? Feed it full. To make it lie down. To make it be still and be quiet. To stop its ceaseless clamor, because I cannot, will not, wonâ€™t ever again, must not let what this hungry thing wants push me into words or actions that are in direct opposition to what *I* want.
And now I am going to tell you what I want. And I am going to try to tell you with no irony, and not hiding in my humor, but to tell you plainly my most beautiful, secret dream. I will pause here and make for you some great-big-dewy-sincere eyes and then I will say it, baldly, with no superlatives. No caps. I will say it with absolute integrity. Ready?
I want to be a good person. More than that. I want being a good person to be enough.
Because there is no end to feeding this thing.
Letâ€™s play pretend. Letâ€™s say, it all works out and EVERY dream of mine, no matter how far fetched, comes true. Let?s say Arnold Schwarzenegger, in a last ditch bid for Oscar, options gods in Alabama. He wants to play Burr. (Never mind that Burr is 28. And black. Arnold is the freakinâ€™ TERMINATOR. He can play Burr if he wants to.) And letâ€™s say Der Arnold wants me to write the script. And, um, play the lead opposite him. And letâ€™s say the book wins the Pulitzer AND the NBA and letâ€™s say I am the FIRST PERSON in history to get Oscars for Best Screenplay AND Best Actress in the same year and then I am declared PRINCESS OF GEORGIA and then they CHANGE THE NAME OF THE ENTIRE COUNTRY to Joshilyn-Ville.
Do you think thatâ€™s going to do it? Do you think this thing in me will release a mighty burp and settle down to sleep forever so I can go HELP SOME FRICKINâ€™ ORPHANS? Letâ€™s say it already happened. And I am in first class, flying high over Joshilyn-Ville just after the Oscars, tiddly on champagne. And I open my laptop up and I see this essay contest. And thereâ€™s that one sentence that I KNOW most people are not going to choose. I mean, COME ON. But I have everything I ever wanted, so I have nothing to prove. Right? Right?
But before I can pick --- and I SWEAR this part is TOTALLY TRUE, OKAY? I look up, and sliding into the cushy chair beside me is Joyce Carol Oates, saying , â€œHello,â€ to me, all big eyed and breathy, and Rocco the Steward is offering us Key Lime Pie-Tinis and saying, â€œAre you ladies in the mile high club?â€
Just when I thought my life couldnâ€™t get any crazierâ€¦