My grandmother, whom I called Nanny, died at the very end of my sojourn in Australia. There was a grand send-off tour planned with my parents and my first wife’s parents, scouring the northern coast for exotic animals before swinging through the southern island of New Zealand for exotic scenery, but the plan was disrupted by Nanny’s sudden stroke death at the age of 80. She had survived breast cancer (twice), lung cancer, a heart attack, and decades of Cleveland winters, and now she was embalmed. In a fit of familial duty, I booked a four-day round-trip flight from Brisbane to Cleveland with every last penny I had saved. It was my first funeral.
I hadn’t set foot in America for two years – the two worst Bush years, think invasions and Katrina – and I hadn’t set foot in Cleveland for two decades. I was in a bad place, in some ways. I had just abandoned my master’s degree to settle for a graduate certificate. I was working three minimum wage jobs. I was staying busy with projects while my first wife pulled in real money as a big-time television producer. I spent her money cheating on her. Oh yes, I was in a very bad place in a lot of ways. I was panicked. I knew the return to America would bring certain truths home. The alternative facts of Oz would be flipped over and I would be once again obligated to live up to my promise as an adult, as a husband, as a man. I felt the return approaching with extreme stress, like it was a final test I had deliberately not studied for at all.
So the quick, nonsensical flight to Cleveland served a second purpose. I was jumping into the cold pool of my homeland then swimming directly out so I could shiver on the deck for a bit, sopping wet, and convince myself to get back in, it wasn’t so bad. The flight was 26 hours each way.
I bought whatever the latest Song of Ice and Fire book was at the time and tried to immerse myself in the moral morass of Westeros, tried to thrill to rapes and murders and beasts of flying war. I carried all my possessions in a small gray school backpack. My passport was in my back pocket. (Incredibly, I kept my passport in my back pocket for the entirety of my stay, as if begging fate to strand me on that enormous desert isle.) The plane was roomy, but I wasn’t in first class. I was in the center seat of a five-seat row in the middle of the fuselage, and I resolved not to need the bathroom more than once. I resolved not to sleep. I resolved to spend this incarcerated time alone in a monk-like manner.
It was on this plane ride – this interminable, cramped, stale plane ride – that I first started to confront my sins. I had been unfaithful. I had been ungrateful. I had been profligate. I had been lazy. I had wasted the opportunity of a lifetime on frivolous movie nights and retail prostitutes. I felt my identity as a far distant thing, an ocean tens of thousands of feet below me – teeming with life, sure, but also polluted and roiling, an endless expanse of death to swim. I rocketed above my identity as quickly as I could, but sometimes there was no crossing it without looking down. I was nowhere near a window. I only saw sky through distant portholes. I knew I needed to gaze into the abyss, but I couldn’t. “Don’t look down,” I thought. When I steeled myself and did look down, I saw only worn airplane carpet, a dirty backpack, my lap wrapped in the baggiest jeans I could find. I saw my gut, which I hated but did nothing to deter. I saw my groin, which I hated with passion, but …
I read the whole book, all eleventy-thousand pages.
Nanny’s body was on display. My mom frittered around the funeral parlor with her usual brio. “That doesn’t look like her. She never wore her makeup like that,” she told her brother, matter-of-factly, before bustling off to berate the funeral director. “We gave you photos,” she said to his taciturn face. He had, indubitably, seen this form of grief before. I thought it was wonderful. Death as an aesthetic emergency. “Why even have an open casket if there’s a stranger inside?” she said. Somehow she wasn’t yelling or crying. She was calmly hysterical. This was her default mode as a person. If she had a motto, it was "I am never wrong."
I was a pall-bearer. All the grandchildren were. We gave each other hugs, but had little to say about the death. My oldest cousin, Bryan, was a stranger to me. I hadn’t seen him since he was 21 and I was a believer in Santa. He had tripled in size, and his eyes had a perpetually sad quality. “We’re doing most of the work, I guess,” he said, referring to the fact that we were the only male grandchildren. I looked at his meaty hands and bulky arms and thought, ‘We?’ I took a middle handle, just behind my sister, who did most of the work.
We trundled the coffin out to a field and placed it on a mechanical contraption on top of some astroturf. The words traditionally said under a gray sky were intoned here, then the coffin was loaded up into a hearse and given same-day express delivery to a crematorium. During the prayers, the top half of the casket was reopened. I was terrified a bird would soil her face. At some point, my mother had licked her fingers and wiped the blush off Nanny’s cheeks. She did look better, more like herself. In life, she was all sky blue eye shadow and rose lips with dangling gold earrings and cottony red hair. She had a voice like a cartoon crow. Her culinary specialties were poppyseed roll and Jell-O. She kept a series of vicious small dogs that would cower under her armchair and snap at any little fingers that reached into their den. They, too, were all dead.
We went to a reception where the food was paltry and cheap. Then we went to her condominium to divvy up goods. My mom served as auctioneer, barreling over everyone’s grief with gusto. “Who wants this brass duck. Sarah? You want the brass duck? Yes? No? Okay! In the trash!” In the auction, I “won” a Cuban cigar box, a recipe book of cocktails from a 1950s Playboy magazine, a card shuffler, and a ceramic dog. I preferred to keep her memory as a boozy ex-flapper with a sassy taste in pets.
Before I knew it, it was time to go back to the airport. I hadn’t had time to talk to anyone of anything. “How was Australia?” everyone asked in the past tense. “I’m going right back,” I’d respond. And as if to prove it, I took my leave three hours early.
Downtown, I had time to kill, so I went to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. It turned out I didn’t know very many old-time rock and rollers. All these names of people who had made music for vinyl and been launched to fame by small-town deejays, they did nothing for me. I strolled around, trying to feel American.
I slept almost the entirety of the flight back. I remember my dream vividly, probably because the sleep was shallow and frequently disturbed by turbulence or noise or discomfort. It was more like a daydream, and in it, I rehearsed a confession. I had no desire to confess anything, but there was something inside my body that needed to be purged, some oily pain that was going to leak out one way or another.
I rehearsed the confession like it was an essay to polish. At this point in my life, I was operating under the assumption that life is a fiction over which we are given limited narrative control. This was to be my first edit, my first excision of chapters upon chapters for a rewrite. I was unprepared for how the paragraphs would cry and fight and accuse. I was naive, unaware that truth is stronger than fiction. I thought of myself as a character written into a corner, and I had to do something uncharacteristic and manufactured to wrench the plot forward, lest the story simply thud to an unsatisfying halt. During couple’s therapy, I brought up all of this. “You sound like a psychopath,” my wife said.
“Am I a psychopath?”
The therapist said, “Maybe.” She said that. “What’s your family history?”
I thought of us laughing and passing around a dead woman’s possessions. I thought of my mom wiping her dead mother’s lifeless face with spittle. Is never being wrong crazy? Then I remembered we were talking medical history, and I said, “I don’t know,” the ten-thousand foot loft over the ocean of my identity opening back up.
“Do you feel remorse?” the therapist asked. My wife was wearing such a scowl. It was such a classic, classic scowl.
“How could I say anything but yes?” I replied, aware that the measured and self-aware answer was, itself, so, so psychopathic. “Yes,” I repeated, acting it a little.
We were back in America. Well, California. We were in a small office in a small town. The therapist had tie-dye on her walls, like she still lived in a dorm. When I imagined facing the music, I did not think it would be so soothing and full of pan flutes.
She had us do an exercise where we stood and faced each other, then slowly took one step backward, away from each other, after another. We were supposed to say the point at which the distance felt uncomfortable. I spoke first, at about a distance of 10 feet, trying to get the right answer. Only later did I realize my wife never said a thing at all and, in fact, took another step away as I spoke.
Later that night, in bed, she asked, “Are you gay?”
“No,” I said. “But for some reason people always think I am.”
“Are you sure you’re not gay?”
I thought of the women I had paid to call me a woman, to pretend they were with me as a woman is with a woman. I tried to pull away the blankets of shame and disgust I’d piled on top because those were the right answers (I thought), and see if there was something gay in there.
“All of them were women,” I said. “They could have been anything, and they were women.”
“Well,” she said, summoning up all her sarcasm. “That’s a relief.”
But it was, I thought. It was a relief. It was such a relief, and I had absolutely no idea why. Two years of travel as far from my home as I could get. All those ideas, all that exposure, all that healing and eating and praying and loving, and somehow all I’d discovered about myself was that I was a scumbag pervert?
Back on the return flight, in my confessional reverie, I remember mulling through a phrase. “I just don’t feel right.” But I couldn’t share it now, not with the mantle of psychopath so near at hand. “I just don’t feel like I’m in the right body, saying the right words and thinking the right thoughts,” it went on. “I don’t know. Maybe something’s wrong with me.”
“I don’t know, maybe something’s wrong with me,” I said out loud. "All I know is I want to be a parent. I want to have babies."
After a long pause, while her back was turned to me, long enough that I wondered if she had fallen asleep or was faking so, she said, “I’ll never have your children.”
The following weekend, I hired an illegal whore to come into our room and sit naked on our bed while I tried to summon up something like sexual aggression. We did nothing. I couldn’t keep it up. I removed the condom and sent her on her way with everything that was left in my checking account. I threw the condom in the bathroom trash, where, later that day, my wife would find it, and the marriage would end.
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