Smells Like Teen Spirit

Posted: May 7, 2013 in Life
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

There’s a recently acquired Polaroid on my fridge these days. It’s was taken some time ago – maybe in ’90 or ’91 – and it’s my first audition with what would turn out to be my longtime agent. We reconnected recently (or, more specifically, Mom reconnected with her) and she passed along this Polaroid. It’s just a basic shot of me, at 8 or whatever, at the agent’s office. They wrote notes on the back: Cute kid, good reader. I see that kid, shoulders straight, starry eyed, and marching toward what can only be a glorious future. Every morning, we stare at each other across time and space – me, the depressed 30 year old and him the idealistic Wunderkind. I am not anything like he would have wanted to turn out, I’m sure. And he’s so very young, and has no idea what’s ahead – the soaring highs and the crippling lows. I would tell him about it – warn him, prepare him, comfort him. I wouldn’t tell him everything will be okay, because it won’t. Not terrible, I suppose – it could be much, much worse – but certainly not what he imagines. But the past is the past, and as they say, it is another country. I have a passport, but I am no longer a resident. I’ve often wondered how the two of us would interact – Past Me, and Future Me. I don’t expect we’d get along very well – Future Me would think Past Me was naive, full of himself, and wound way, way too tight. Past Me would think Future Me was a mopey underachiever who somehow ruined (or allowed to be ruined) Past Me’s plans. I think they’d strangle each other in all of 2 seconds.

Past Me: Get off your ass and do it! You know you can! Why are you being so freaking lazy?

Future Me: You don’t have any idea what I’ve been through! Just wait and see. You’re in for some real surprises, kid.

Is that normal, to feel like past you/future you wouldn’t get along at all? Hm.

When I was about 10, Mom started seriously researching family history – she was insistent that Grandpa told us we were related to Arthur Freed – a famous composer and film producer from the golden age of Hollywood. And when I say that she did research, I mean I did research – she’d take me to the library and grab a book and tell me to read it (which I did) and tell her about it (which I also did). While I didn’t remember Grandpa saying anything specifically about that, he did die when I was 7. Although I have vivid memories of him, it’s entirely possible he related such stories to the family. I didn’t exactly doubt Mom’s testimony, but I was hesitant to get behind it 100%. I’m still not sure what’s the truth – so much of my past is bullshit mixed with delusion mixed with reality – it’s hard to sort it all out sometimes. In the end, I guess it doesn’t matter. In researching, for whatever reason, she came across an cousin of Grandpa’s who was still kicking. Her name was Leah, and she didn’t live terribly far from us – maybe 20 minutes down the road. We hadn’t spoken to each other in quite some time – at least since I was born, so that would be 10 years minimum. But Mom suddenly decided to reconnect, talking about how family was important and we shouldn’t forget about people. I knew it was bullshit, of course, because I knew she had an ulterior motive – Mom often did. She wanted to get into Leah’s scrapbooks to find pictures of the Freed family, and maybe get some sort of testimonial from her that we were indeed related (she got both, for whatever good it did her). Leah was a strange lady, at best, and by all accounts not a terribly good person. Back in the day, she and her husband had impersonated Grandma and Grandpa in order to get a large loan (I think it was for a car, if I remember my family lore correctly). I imagine such things were easier to do back in the 50’s and 60’s – no computers or anything. So I guess they were basically identity thieves before such a thing existed in the public consciousness. Anyway, I suspect that little stunt at the bank was the reason our families didn’t speak. Grandma wasn’t real happy about it, but Mom did her best to smooth things out and Grandma went along (she usually did this in things that involved Mom). Long story short, bygones were bygones. Leah had a small house with a trashy front yard – lots of lawn gnomes, globes, and ceramic squirrels. You know the type. Mom pulled me aside before we got in.

Mom: Leah has a…funny hand. Don’t ask her about it.

Me: Funny how?

Mom: Just…don’t ask about it. You either Timmy.

My mind was already spinning with possibilities – was it a stump (I had seen such things before)? Was it some kind of horrific tentacle? Did her arm terminate in a hook? It wasn’t long before I found out. It turned out “funny hand” was as apt a description as “pretty hot” is to a heat wave. Regardless, it wasn’t her hand, it was her forearm – it grew pretty much straight for a ways, then seemed to have decided to make a full on U-Turn. It didn’t get quite all the way back around, but it looked like it had given it the old college try. I’m not going to lie, it freaked me the hell out. I hadn’t been around many people with disabilities (or deformities for that matter) and it always made me feel funny – a little alarmed and nauseous at the same time. I didn’t make fun of them or anything – I felt really bad for them – but I certainly didn’t want to be around them. Add to the fact that Leah’s house wasn’t exactly the pinnacle of cleanliness (and the fact that I basically was all about clean and tidy) and you had one uncomfortable 10 year old. Her house smelled like must, sweat, and old dogs – lots of dogs. She only had one ancient golden retriever but I swear to God it smelled like a herd of maybe 10 or 15. Everything either looked moldy and dilapidated or smelled disgusting. After that one time of going to her house, Mom decided that it would be better if she came to ours (I breathed a giant sigh of relief when this decision manifested itself). Even though she still smelled like her house (a special brand of cologne I thought of as Old Sweat and Million Dogs), it was at least tolerable. She seemed nice enough, I suppose, though I didn’t talk to her much. We had dinner a lot, and I had a hard time eating when she was around (mostly the smell, honestly, but the sight of the hand was upsetting enough to turn my appetite). I’d be cutting into a big slice of ham steak, and get a whiff of must and dog and just put my fork down. After Mom got what she wanted (which took several months), we were pretty much done with Leah. Mom stopped inviting her around, and started making excuses when she called up. I felt an odd mixture of relief and pity – I felt kind of bad that Mom had used her and was basically dropping her, but thanking God I didn’t have to endure torturous dinners with that smell hanging over me like a cloud. I can still remember it today, even years later – it makes me think of rotting bricks. It still makes me wrinkle my nose.

When she died, she didn’t have any direct relatives except for Mom. Basically, Mom went through the house and sold what was valuable and tossed what wasn’t. Most of it was junk, so 95% of the stuff was stuffed into contractor garbage bags and tossed on the curb. What wasn’t junk smelled awful, or had mold, or was under about 3 inches of dust. Nobody wanted anything. At Mom’s repeated insistence that we take something – anything we wanted, she said – Tim selected some sort of turtle knick-knack, and I picked up a clear paperweight with pennies suspended in it. I couldn’t tell if it smelled – I’m sure it did, just by virtue of being in the house – but it didn’t look nasty like a lot of the other things.

The last thing to go were the papers, which Mom and Grandma went through. Most was of no consequence, at least that I remember, except for a pile of her personal writings. I tried to catch glimpses, but I couldn’t quite make it out – and Mom and Grandma did not want to let me see it. Since it was a secret, I was curious and pestered. Still, they didn’t give in. I overheard a conversation between Mom and a family friend who was helping her go over the papers.

Friend: …horse shot…?

Mom: Yeah. You know. Like, semen.

The friend laughed.

Friend: hooooly shit.

I did manage to catch glimpses of Leah’s scrawling script – I had no idea what I was reading at the time, but I understood enough to be revolted. With the benefit of hindsight, I now see Leah had written about 100 pages of sex stories. With horses. Not like, having sex with a guy on a horse. Her. Having sex. With a horse. Sometimes horses in the plural sense. I’m sorry if you were eating just now – it was pretty foul and explicit. Like I said, Leah was weird.

But back to what I was talking about earlier. This blog has been my passport to another country – the past in general and my past specifically. I feel a little like a paleontologist who is digging for dinosaur bones. I don’t know what I’m looking for, exactly, just that I’m playing around in the dust of a dead world, hoping to exhume something interesting and useful. Except what I’m digging up is liable to still be alive.

 

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