The Shore House

This essay originally appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer on March 25, 2016

Full of roadside-sold soft pretzels, we’d zoom past pine trees, hand-painted antiques sale signs and Jersey tomato stands. From the backseat, the way-way-back,we sucked hard on plastic juice-box straws and fogged windows to play tic-tac-toe. Then, about 30 minutes past when pop music turned to static, we’d sense it. Crawling over lumpy suitcases, boogie boards and grocery bags, we’d strain for the window crank, roll it down, and let the salt air pour into our lungs.

When I reflect on the Shore of my youth, I’m lying in my underwear on a twin bed. It’s 5 o’clock and the sun is just starting to dip outside the window next to me, a light breeze lifts the lace curtains, chills my sunburned skin. There is laughter from downstairs, clinking glasses, playful screams. I close my eyes and breathe deep the smell of pot roast and suntan lotion.

In 1977, my grandparents bought a vacation house on 16th Street and Central Avenue in Ocean City for $35,000. It had eight bedrooms and two bathrooms. But it came furnished, complete with orange shag carpet. Out back was a barn fence gate that we’d swing open to park cars on the lawn. There also was a ramshackle shower house, which, as a child in the 1980s, I remember being dark, full of half-empty shampoo bottles and spiders.

Like many houses down the Shore, life took place on porches. The wraparound green-turf front porch was an endless cocktail party of obscure third cousins. The back porch was more utilitarian, used for husking corn and sorting seashells. And you had to be quick to score a place on the second-floor screened-in porch, the old white wicker lounge chair a popular nap spot for tipsy uncles and a German shepherd named Heidi.

Days began early, with predawn bike-ride doughnut runs, followed by a mad dash to get a good spot on the beach. As kids we were mules, laden with sacks of games, paperback romance novels, and red plastic sand-castle makers, toting folding chairs rusted from a thousand summers. We’d shuffle down hot, pebble-ridden asphalt until we’d reach hot, shell-ridden sand. But then there it was – the ocean!

We’d drop everything, pull our shirts off and run, zigzagging through the maze of beach blankets, umbrellas, and fat, brown, leathery bellies until our scorched feet reached the cool froth of the Atlantic. We bounded forward until the water was almost waist-deep, and then leaped, twisting and splashing on our backs, sinking, letting our feet hit bottom and then shooting up through the surface with a triumphant shout before we were caught by a bigger wave and sent tumbling back to the shoreline.

We’d stay as late as we could, until the lifeguards pulled down their flags and dragged away their stands. We were starving, peanut butter and sand sandwiches our only sustenance, washed down with Hawaiian Punch.

When we got back to the house, as the adults showered and used up all the hot water, we sat in the alley, listening. We were pros; we knew the exact route pedaled by ice cream vendors, knew the exact time they’d pass by. We heard their distant bicycle bell and frothed like Pavlov’s dogs.

Chipwiches, Fla-Vor-Ice, Fudgsicles, ice cream sandwiches with thin waxy paper. Rocket Pops, Push Ups, Creamsicles, ice cream cups with flat wooden spoons. Choco Tacos, Drumsticks, or just a standard “wooder ice” – we wanted it all, and we usually had about 68 cents.

Later, after a dinner of soggy seafood or charred cheeseburgers, we’d be sent to bed, left to eavesdrop or use the back stairs to sneak cookies. And some nights, there would be storms, our faces pressed into mesh screens, the wind picking up, a flash on the horizon, counting quietly to see how far off it…BOOM! Screams and laughter, the power goes off, more screams, everyone scrambling with flashlights to close windows.

We’d stay a week, sometimes two if we were lucky. I can’t remember any of the trips home.

And, one day, without even knowing it, we grew up. Raucous bedrooms fell silent, days seemed shorter, more full. Time, measured before in sunsets, turned real, tangible. We discovered obligation, our once-weightless childhood given gravity.

In the end, after my grandmother passed away, the Shore house was sold and knocked down by condo developers. We were told that the land was more valuable, that they were building something better.

shore-house

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Captive Audience

If captured by the enemy, I’m not worried that I’d give up military secrets – that’s guaranteed. I’m not worried that I’d pledge allegiance to their government or their religion, that I’d contribute propaganda or slander my own people – that will all happen within the first five minutes.

I lie in bed at night, on the second floor of a townhouse in downtown Philadelphia, and wait for the front door to be kicked in. Sometimes it varies – sometimes they swing in through windows, sometimes they are super quiet and I don’t hear them coming at all. But when the terrorists come for me, I am in my pajamas.

They burst into the room, screaming in a foreign language, grabbing at me, pulling me from the bed. And every time, it’s the same reaction.

“Woah, woah, woah! Okay, you got me! Can I get dressed? Can I…here, can I just put something on? Let me put in my contacts. Easy…easy! I’m coming. Is it cold out? Did the rain stop?”

I’m about to be whisked away to some cave or crumbling post-Soviet basement, and my only real concern is if I can bring a few things. I’ve surrendered, I get it, they win. But if I’m going to be away for a while, let me at least pack a bit. It’s really saving them trouble in the long run, as there are few Walgreens in Afghanistan.

While I’m not sure how I’d get from Center City Philadelphia to Afghanistan, the dream continues and I’m there, curled in a crude jail cell. Again, I’m willing to sign whatever they put in front of me, make whatever videos they want, curse whomever they’d like me to. It doesn’t need to be so antagonistic, does it?

Curious if I was the only one who’d considered such a scenario, I polled some of my other friends.

“They kick down my door? But…well, my cats will get out.”

“Terrorists knock down your door in the middle of the night, and your first concern is your cats?”

“They can’t survive on the streets.”

I pressed on, asking another about what they’d do if confronted.

“Coffee.”

“Coffee?”

“Yeah, I mean fine, take me – but who’s getting me coffee in the morning? Because if I don’t have coffee, I am not fun to deal with.”

Myself? I’m confident that once the language barrier is overcome, my kidnappers and I would likely become fast friends. We’d swap dirty jokes, play pranks.

“Who put bubbles in the water boarding bucket? Was…was that you, Sean? Ohhh, you’re gonna get it!”

Without my contact lenses, I’m blind. And that would be the scariest part of my kidnapping, unable to see what’s coming or where I am. All I’d need is a toiletry kit – shaving cream, contact lens solution, maybe a toothbrush. I wouldn’t enjoy having limited outfit options, but I’d adjust as there are few cocktail parties in captivity.

I’ve debated keeping a small bag next to my bed, full of things I’d need in case of capture to make the process more seamless.

“Akbar – grab that, will you? There’s some crackers in there guys, in case anyone gets hungry.”

If my mother has taught me anything, it’s that emergency crackers are vital to any journey. Her SUV is full of enough mini-muffins and water bottles to survive a Cormac McCarthy novel. I’m careful to not include peanut butter crackers in my own bag though – because even terrorists have nut allergies, and I’d hate to start things off on the wrong foot.

When it comes to food, I’d be an ideal prisoner – no gluten-free gruel for me. There’s no guilt there either, no temptation or cheat days. If anything, forced imprisonment would be an excellent diet, as few people are released having gained weight.

“Yes, we can see him now. He’s just stepping off the plane and…wow! Kristie, can we talk about how fabulous he’s looking?”

“We sure can, Tom. Sources say he dropped a whopping 70 pounds in captivity! When we first saw him he was wearing a king-sized bed sheet, now he’s down to just a twin. Tom, they’re calling it ‘The Terro Diet’ – and it’s taking Hollywood by storm.”

The roommate situation would be tricky, as I’ve gotten used to having my own space. Solitary confinement is a mini-vacation for city-dwellers; the real torture is forced interaction. Sharing a cave with someone I don’t know would be like a months-long airplane journey, and I’d choose execution over listening to stories about little Julie’s impending graduation.

I wonder if there would be upgrades available, a points system designed by the terrorists for loyal prisoners.

“You know, Mr. Carney. For just a few more beatings, the Stalin Suite becomes available.”

“Hmm, tell me about that.”

“Well you get the same standard of starvation, but it’s on a higher floor and facing the gallows. It’s really quite special.”

Amenities aside, I doubt I’d have the capacity for escape. I hate letting people down and since I can’t even get out of a cell phone contract, breaking free of actual bondage would likely prove a bridge too far. Moreover, I’m horrible at keeping secrets.

My only hope would be for a prisoner exchange, something I’ve always felt would work against me. Discussions about my value would quickly deteriorate under scrutiny, the equivalent of negotiating for a washed-up minor league ballplayer.

“So we’re all agreed that it’s not worth releasing anyone on our side, correct? I mean, let’s face it – he’s past his prime. I heard he doesn’t even have a girlfriend. It may be time for us to consider that he might just be better off over there.”

They’d contact my family, inquiring if there was any money available to tip the scales. After an agonizing few hours of debate, my parents would decline, but promise that they’d name the new boat after me.

The media coverage would die down, my captors would get bored, offer to release me if I was interested. But how would I get home? Would they drop me off? It certainly didn’t seem fair considering they’d picked me up, but buses are the worst.

Somewhere they are planning, choosing their targets carefully. And I lie here in my pajamas, bag packed, waiting for the front door to be kicked in.

 

Dungeon

 

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Physical Therapy

I’m repulsed by anyone who would find me attractive. If I’m your choice, you’ve made some bad decisions in your life. How can I tolerate such poor judgment?

A few years ago, my debit card was hacked. I received a call from my bank after some suspicious purchases and the matter was quickly resolved with little hassle. In fact, despite the inconvenience of changing codes and passwords, I found myself oddly flattered by the attempt to steal my identity.

“Someone out there wants to be me,” I thought. “That’s nice.”

Instead of malicious computer software, I assumed it was an actual person – as if there were a criminal website where a person had scrolled through images and paused on mine, jealous for some reason. Out of all the people, they chose me. I won.

Considering my lack of savings account and poor money management, my retirement plan hinges on my identity being stolen by an accountant. I’m hoping that rather than purchasing random products to sell on the black market, the thief makes sound real estate investments.

I never expected to live past 30, so planning for the future always seemed illogical, like a suicide bomber joining a gym. My continued lifespan is forcing me to face the unpleasant possibility of being around for a while, which just gets expensive. Fortunately, I’ve made smart purchases over the years, amassing exactly the right amount of disposable shit that can be sold online to cover funeral expenses.

This is what you think about when you don’t have kids – if your television costs as much as a coffin.

The topic of death is too often seen as morbid, discussed only by poets and gloomy black-nailed Goth punks. For me, our mortality is an inspiration, a reminder of finiteness. And not in the way adrenaline junkies throw themselves off buildings, but rather in the way that I sit on my couch because the outside is full of heat, people and insects, and I just don’t have time for that.

The problem has been that my ideal mate is someone who would share this philosophy, and it’s very tough to meet someone who avoids people.

And so I travel, put myself in uncomfortable situations, hoping that maybe one day I’ll assimilate, that I’ll be interested in “checking out the flea market” or “trying that cute new Thai place.” My entire adult life has been spent feigning normality, walking the fine line between quirky and mental disorder.

Has it always been this way? Sometimes I look back for a reason, to try to find the genesis of me – not the big bang, but the big sigh. Was I programmed for avoidance, or was it learned? Why can’t I fit in?

* * *

By the age of 22, I’d almost joined every branch of the military. The day after 9/11, I marched down to a recruiter and tried to become a Marine. Sophomore year, I enrolled in Army ROTC classes and after graduation I took the entrance exam to Naval Officer Candidate School. But thankfully in each case, at the last moment, when the last signature was required, I was AWOL.

What had made me think joining the military was a good idea? These were strong men and women, people who spent their childhoods hoisted on the shoulders of teammates, Springsteenian glory days of touchdowns and victory laps. I can’t even get athlete’s foot.

My desire in sports wasn’t victory, but survival without embarrassment. If called into a game, I’d bumble around as if in a foreign train station.

“Excuse me, but if you could point me in the right…sorry, could I just…”

Despite my lack of motivation and complete absence of skill, as a child I found myself involved with almost every seasonal team. In the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, parents didn’t ask your opinion or discuss your love of the game – you were slapped into a uniform and told to get in line. Organized sports were our Hitler Youth, and we just went along.

Back then, teams had a color instead of a name. The best athletes were typically assigned the cooler, darker shades – maroon, purple, black. I always found myself on Sky Blue, full of other nearsighted asthmatics and cripples. We were slaves that the gladiators could easily slaughter, ensuring a good show for the suburban coliseum of beer-gutted fathers.

I was tall for my age, which confounded coaches who associated height with athletic prowess. While others moved around with purpose, I was always in the wrong position and spent most of my time personally apologizing to each player.

“Hey, sorry about that. Cool sneakers. I’m Sean, hi.”

My starting position was on the bench, a place where I was conscious of everything except what was happening in the game – colorful posters, pop songs from passing cars, groaning lawnmowers and the smell of pot roast on an early evening breeze. I contributed the most during timeouts, encouraging the other guys, slapping backs. I sincerely wanted them to do well – because if they did, I wouldn’t be needed.

The sport itself didn’t matter, but I always preferred away games because at least people would cheer when I made a mistake. I also enjoyed the orange slices they would give us during the middle of soccer games. I forget the name for that period, but it’s that time when a whistle blows and you can cry quietly to your mom that you want to go home. That was where I shined.

If nothing else, organized sports are a terrific way to prepare children for a lifetime of judgment and failure. You learn that if you practice hard and hope for the best, bad things will almost always happen. If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again…then give up forever.

For Irish Catholics in the suburbs of Philadelphia, we were used to the emotional pain and guilt associated with letting others down. Physical pain though, just hurt.

Some are surprised when physical pain accompanies a sport. Why? Why be shocked that you broke your leg skiing when the act itself is the equivalent of throwing your body off a mountain? Or baseball – hurling an object as fast as you can towards another human so they can hit it at you as hard as they can. Are there not better pastimes?

By the time I was eleven, I had more balls in my face than a sorority girl. I felt like telling the catchers to knock off the subtle signals and just point at my head. Pitchers at that age lacked any control, sending tiny projectiles slamming into shins, elbows and thighs. It got so bad that I developed a nervous tick and often swung before they even threw the ball. Worse than the pain of being hit was the knowledge that it’d put me on base, and I’d have to be in the game longer.

The final insult came when I was hit by my own teammate. I don’t know how it happened because we were both where we were supposed to be – him swinging his bat to warm up, and me kneeling to study a daffodil. The next thing I remember was a severe ringing in my head. He claimed it was an accident, but I’m guessing another teammate had slipped him five bucks. With me out of the line-up, it was the only game we won all season.

I soon learned the existence of other sports, more focused on the individual, where I’d only be letting myself down. I did that on a regular basis, only now I’d be in uniform.

I eventually settled on track, where I discovered a natural ability to run away from others. I ran all through high school – cross country in the fall, indoor track in winter and outdoor track in the spring. I was never very good, but I wasn’t very bad either, a comfortable mediocrity I’d come to notice later when I started having sex.

But after years of failure, I was finally able to interact without embarrassing myself or causing bodily harm. Here was an activity that couldn’t be simpler – step up to a line and when you hear a loud noise, run in circles as fast as you can. It was the Three Stooges of sports, and I loved it.

It wasn’t until senior year, while leading freshman back from a long practice run, that I felt some of the insecurity start to fade. Maybe it had just taken longer to get to a place of confidence, to a place where I felt more assured, less afraid of getting hurt, emotionally or physically. I fit in, part of a team. And we ran together down the busy street, a normal life ahead.

Then I was hit by a car.

* * *

Fifteen years later, I sat in the dirt and stared at my bloody leg.

It was a company softball league, we were up by six runs and it was the last inning of a meaningless second game of the season – the slide was unnecessary on almost every level you could imagine. Absent any First-Aid Kit, I was given baby wipes and a cloth diaper to treat my wounds. A fitting metaphor.

Hobbling back to the car after the game, I wondered if my wounds would leave a scar. Women were attracted to that type of guy, the athletes, men with evidence of their commitment. But as I cinched my diaper tighter, I realized it didn’t matter. After all, how could I be with someone who finds me attractive? How could I tolerate such poor judgment?

And I pulled out my phone to check the price of coffins.

Physical Therapy

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A Broken Man

Once, while sitting on the toilet in my apartment, my bathroom door fell off.

And not just a hinge – the entire door. It began to sway, wobbled for a moment, and then crashed to the ground.

I stared at it, dumbfounded.

What do I do now?

Lacking the proper tools, I got up and leaned the door against its frame. For weeks afterwards, whenever I needed to use the bathroom I found myself pulling back the piece of wood and ducking underneath.

“I remember when I used to have a working door,” I thought. “That was nice.”

I have a job, some money saved, but rather than replace a broken object I’ll adapt to the situation with the dexterity of a shipwreck survivor – someone given a finite amount of objects that must potentially last a lifetime.

Once the door fell off, I hunted around my apartment for other impending disasters. I already knew the windows didn’t open and was aware of the smoke detector wires dangling from the ceiling, but soon began to obsess over smaller imperfections. Tiny cracks, warped floorboards, chipped paint – I was trapped in a human Jenga game, waiting for it all to come tumbling down.

My dishwasher is so old that I worry about going to sleep with it on, staying awake not out of responsibility, but because I might have to flee the scene at any moment. It has leaked downstairs several times and now I change my clothes whenever it’s running, slipping into something more formal in case angry neighbors appear. I’m debating staging a tray of cookies in the oven, so if there’s a loud knock on my door I can present them as a peace offering.

“Maybe we were wrong about him,” they’ll say in between bites. “These are delicious. And did you see his tie? Snappy.”

I’m aware that all this anxiety can be alleviated with just a few phone calls to repairmen, but too much time has passed, too many things need fixing. It’s easier now to just wait out my lease, move away and start fresh. I’ve had this mentality for so long that it has transferred to my own body and rather than visit doctors or dentists, I’m just waiting out my life.

I’ve always felt people who go to doctors are masochists, seeking out humiliation like a submissive businessman does a dominatrix.

“I want you to go into that tiny room and take off all of your clothes. Here, put this paper dress on. I’m going to keep you waiting, but you deserve it, don’t you? Smoker. Binge drinker. Fat ass. You’re going to wait in that room until I come in and tell you to bend over.”

Dentists are even worse, masked bandits we allow to drill into our bodies. Fear of dentists is hereditary in my case, and my entire family suffers from “odontophobia” – from the Latin, meaning “mouth cowards.” My father once famously defended his refusal to go to the dentist by saying, “My mouth is my business.” The dental equivalent of, “Don’t ask, Don’t tell.”

Eschewing professional opinions, I’ve taken to diagnosing myself, assuming that anything from a stiff back to a damaged cuticle is the result of my brain tumor. I update my mental obituary daily to account for my cause of death, but always mention the tumor to excuse all of my life’s bad decisions.

“We can’t really blame him after all,” the mourners will remark. “It must have been the brain tumor. What a brave man.”

My life thus far has been an elaborate PR campaign, designed to trick people into liking me. Death ruins my ability for damage control, and without my direction people will quickly come to realize what a horrible bastard I am. Thus, my only chance is if I outlive all my enemies, and for that to happen I need to start getting in better physical shape.

And so, I joined a gym.

* * *

There is always a scene in television cop shows where the detectives visit the morgue. Before them is the corpse, cold and semi-blue, draped under a sheet to cover the parts forbidden by the network. There are several kinds of victims, but mostly it’s one of two categories – the attractive woman, and the grotesque, beer-gutted man.

“Poor bastard,” one detective will remark.

The other will simply vomit.

While many go to the gym to feel better about themselves, all I care about is if I’ll one day offend a mortician.

Once I’d agreed to a six-month membership, the woman at the front desk gave me a tour of the gym and I peeked inside the men’s locker room. It was pretty standard – a few dozen lockers, some benches, and in the corner, a naked man.

He was crouched over at first, getting something from his bag, but perked up when he saw me.

“Taking the tour?”

What struck me, other than the full frontal nudity, was how casual he was, as if waiting for a bus. I still dress in front of others like I’m on a sinking boat, wildly pulling on random items. But this man stood confidently, towel draped over his shoulders instead of wrapped around his waist. His body hair, thick and black, was so plentiful it almost gave the appearance he was clothed.

It was only an extremely tiny penis that gave him away.

As he began to lotion, I backed out of the room.

“Sounded like Jerry in there,” my guide said. “He’s a regular.”

As she continued the tour, I couldn’t help but notice all the motion – machines whirring with activity, people moving up, down, sideways. Gyms seemed a tremendous waste of energy, a potential power source virtually untapped. Rowing machines and bikes spun round and round, not really doing anything. It struck me that if we could only capture this energy and hook it up to a battery, gyms could power an entire town, or at least a McDonald’s.

After some frantic dressing, I got on a treadmill and began to walk, slowly, getting used to the feeling. Then came some light jogging, followed by a casual look around the room, smiling, nodding at my fellow worker-outers. I upped the speed, moving pretty good. Four minutes had elapsed.

I can run a marathon. What’s the big deal?

Two minutes later, I couldn’t breathe. The room seemed tilted, cloudy. I was plodding along like a drunken horse, clopping loudly, making a noise that appropriately sounded like the word “dumb” being chanted over and over. Gasping for air, my hand reached for the bright red ‘STOP’ button, the treadmill equivalent of an ejection seat. But before I pressed it, she appeared.

A woman had hopped onto the treadmill next to me and though I couldn’t quite see her face through the sweat pouring into my eyes, she smelled attractive. I was suddenly very conscious of my sweating and began pawing at my face and head like I was covered in flies. Then, she began stretching.

She lifted a toned leg almost 90 degrees onto the handrail, a light moan escaping her lips as she bent down. I upped the speed some more, almost sprinting now. She began running herself, methodic, graceful.

I slowed to her pace and pictured us jogging together on vacation, down a remote tree-lined path in Italy perhaps. We’d remark on the countryside, noting the pastoral colors that must have inspired generations of artists. A bunny would startle Danielle and I’d laugh, feigning injury after her playful slap. (I’d decided her name was Danielle.) Later, we’d probably make love beside a stream.

I was stirred from my fantasy by loud beeping. A bright red heart was blinking on the screen in front of me, and warnings were scrolling by.

210 BPM…210 BPM…YOU’RE OUT OF SHAPE….

210 BPM… WHY DID YOU TRY TO RUN THIS FAST? … 210 BPM…

NO ONE LOVES YOU…210 BPM…

EMBRACE DEATH…

My mind, unlike my gelatinous body, sprang into action.

What is 210 BPM?? Is that bad? It seems bad. Maybe I reached a goal, like a high score or something? I don’t feel so good. Do I stop, or is the beeping alerting a medic to help me?

I slapped at the screen, desperate for the beeping to stop. It sounded like a Russian jet had locked on and was about to fire. And if that wasn’t enough, from the corner of my eye I saw the unthinkable. Danielle was stripping down to a skimpy tank top.

It was too much for me.

The first thing to hit was my right knee, which slammed down onto the treadmill and was pulled backwards. Then came my head, which bumped into the monitor, but thankfully silenced the beeping. I’d managed to hang onto the handrail, but it was no use – the rest of my body soon followed, sweat flying, finally crumpling into a pile behind the machine.

Danielle didn’t even notice. She stared straight ahead, the same methodic, graceful pace.

Thirty minutes later I saw her leave with tiny penis Jerry.

* * *

The next morning, my right knee had swollen to the size of a grapefruit. I could barely walk.

I rolled over and grabbed my phone, searching “knee pain brain tumor.” The names of several doctors appeared, none specializing in both areas.

No matter, it will probably heal on its own, eventually. Some broken things are easy to repair, bathroom doors and dishwashers; others just take time, knees and hearts. The problem is, that even after all the fixing, after all the anxiety, the worry, the effort – the only thing left is more breaking.

So really, what’s the point?

Jenga

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Pray Frus Sinners

It was dark when the plane dropped out of the sky. We collectively clenched, wondering if the ocean water would be cold and if our seat cushions really floated. Then, at what seemed the last possible moment, we slammed down onto what I hoped was the runway.

The pilot’s voice filled the cabin. “We made it!”

As the woman next to me squeezed my hand, I wondered, “Were we not supposed to?” I then made a silent vow to stop vacationing in places where passengers applaud when a plane doesn’t crash, and imagined the scene unfolding in the cockpit.

There was the exhausted pilot, covered in sweat and kissing a picture of his family, his rookie co-pilot puking in the corner, a flight attendant smoking a cigarette.

It was only when we passed by several goats penned alongside the runway that I realized this was just how one landed on the tiny island of Grenada, and that I’d have to readjust my expectations of what would be normal in the week to follow.

Grenada is in the southeastern Caribbean Sea, about ninety miles off the coast of Venezuela. It’s famous for a United States-led invasion that took place there in 1983, so bungled that a pinned-down American soldier was forced to use a personal credit card to call his base in North Carolina and ask for fire support. Lacking proper intelligence, the US military had instead been relying on old tourist maps, and had issued Hertz Rent-a-Car guides to its soldiers for navigating the island.

“Sergeant, I believe the enemy camp is directly ahead, just past a charming bed and breakfast. If we see a McDonald’s, we’ve gone too far.”

While the island had evolved in the thirty years following the invasion, it has stayed relatively off the grid to tourists, which was why I found it so appealing. I’d arranged to stay forty minutes outside of the main town, on a secluded beach surrounded by jungle. I prefer vacationing like an anti-social castaway – someone who sees a sailboat on the horizon but elects to stay marooned over having to interact with the rescuers. My interest in learning about Grenadians was probably equal to their interest in learning about me.

I was told to look for a “Mr. Boney” at the airport, who was either my driver, a child’s cat, or an erection.

I saw a sign with my name on it, and it wasn’t until we were driving rapidly through a dark Grenadian ghetto that I wished I had looked a little closer at the spelling, convinced I’d just flown hundreds of miles to be abducted.

“Local officials tell CNN that they can’t officially declare it a kidnapping, since the American tourist had willingly gotten into the van. Sources say the man is believed to be overweight and unloved.”

We whipped past ramshackle shops, slums and aluminum-topped huts, past crumbling painted concrete walls, wires and vines. Braking suddenly, our headlights surged forward into oncoming traffic, honking, shouting. Big-balled dogs slinked along street gutters beside muscular men stumbling shirtless from makeshift side-of-the-road saloons. Rum signs on bus stops, speed bumps for one-roomed schools, political posters, cow field fences, barber shops.

We climbed higher into the mountain, narrowly avoiding potholes, parked cars and tethered livestock. Silhouetted faces glowed from front porches, gone in an instant. Static-laced rap music provided the soundtrack until we turned down a seemingly abandoned gravel road and Mr. Boney switched to another station – one consisting entirely of a man and woman praying the rosary.

“Ale Maree, fulla grace, da Lor be witchoo. Ohly Maree, mudder a got, pray frus sinners…”

We skidded to a stop and I was introduced to a woman who led me by flashlight past a stately pink plaster manor house and down a path to my room. Tossing my backpack into the corner, I sat on my bed, whipped mosquito netting around me and when I opened my eyes, it was morning.

* * *

There was no moon that night, and the rum was strong.

I wobbled for awhile in ankle-deep water, working up the courage to take off my clothes. It began conservatively, the removal of sandals and shirt, folded into a neat pile on the sand. After a few more minutes, off came the shorts, also placed on the pile. Emboldened, I took one more look around and yanked down my underwear, flipping it casually over my shoulder and leaping naked into the black ocean.

The water was warm, silky. I plunged down until my feet hit sandy bottom, paused, and rocketed back up to the surface. I bobbed and tasted the salt, slurping, spitting it like a fountain. Then I was a corkscrew, spinning nude, slipping and sliding, genitals freed and flopping. Rolling on my back, I stared up at the sky, just barely making out the top of the jungle, listening to the night creatures singing.

I emerged on the beach like a sea zombie, arms outstretched, blindly searching for my clothes. The current wasn’t too swift and they had to be nearby. After twenty minutes, I was covered in sand, crying.

“No, no, no…NO!!”

I was on my knees, half praying, half digging, shoveling between my legs, a range of emotions. Wild screaming, hysterical laughter, cursing, sobbing. Everything… gone – my clothes, my room keys, my only pair of sandals.

I caught my breath and took stock of the situation.

Foreign country, drunk, midnight, naked.

I decided to make a run for it.

Hunched over and groaning, I was a streaking Quasimodo, zig-zagging down the beach, tripping over driftwood. As I neared my room, I flopped on my belly to stay out of sight, slithering through the sand until I reached the four-foot wall outside my veranda.I’d done the high-jump as a child, and even though there was no mat on the other side and I rarely cleared the bar when there was, my rum-soaked brain thought it would be a good idea to simply hurl my body over this obstruction.

I was surprised when I smacked penis first into the wall, landing backwards with a thud on top of a coconut and narrowly missing what would have been an expensive proctology bill. Left ass cheek bleeding, I limped back onto the beach. This time the running start helped clear the wall, and the adrenaline propelled me even farther into the table and chairs on the other side, where I landed with a crash and promptly passed out.

I woke with the sunrise and devised an excuse. Losing the clothing and sandals didn’t concern me, but explaining how I’d lost my keys was another issue. I planned to say that I’d gone on an early morning swim, and it was believable to think I’d forgotten to remove my keys beforehand.

As I exited from my room, I found an excuse would be unnecessary.

Apparently, various items had been washing up on shore all morning – a sandal here, a t-shirt there, boxer shorts. Locals had been turning them in at the hotel piece-by-piece. I waited until the complete set was in the basket, and then casually swiped the contents.

Meandering down the beach later that day, I found my room keys – still neatly coiled, next to several dozen holes in the sand.

* * *

Four days passed, uneventfully. When asked to explore the island I politely declined, opting instead to sip rum and stare at the ocean. I read, jotted down notes, mused on the existence of the universe.

But rather than relaxed, I felt myself growing more insane by the moment. Tranquility didn’t suit my personality.

I was riddled with anxiety as the tide edged closer to my beach chair – obviously the result of an approaching tsunami. I knew the crabs were up to something, probing for weaknesses. I had cholera from the water, malaria from the insects. I tried a nap, but spent the whole time fearing a military coup and awakening to a villager with an AK-47.

I tried a massage, but spent the whole time sweating and waiting for the masseuse to whisper, “You seem tense. Would you like me to work on this tumor I just found? It feels cancerous.”

By my final day in Grenada, I almost couldn’t take the serenity. I decided to go for one last early morning swim and ventured back to the remote part of the cove, site of the doomed skinny dipping incident a few nights before.

The swim was pleasant enough and on my walk back to my room I spotted a cow grazing just off the beach. She was brown and white, mid-sized by cow standards, though I had nothing to compare against. Alone by the shoreline, she was chewing on some tall grass, her jaw sliding rhythmically back and forth. For some reason, I felt a kinship with the beast, solitary among all this beauty, quietly going about her business. In my mind I imagined a friendship developing, rides through the countryside, inside jokes.

When I came within a few feet, she raised her head. I noticed a piece of rope dangling from just below her nose, and it appeared she had recently broken free of whatever post she’d been tied to. Few would consider cows wild animals and I’ve always known them to be harmless, docile creatures – the Canadians of the animal world.

Before I could stop myself, an overwhelming urge to pet her took over. I was more surprised than scared when the cow bucked her hind legs out, more curious than concerned when she moved a few steps closer – in fact, the terror didn’t fully set in until she kicked up sand and began her charge, head down, directly at me.

I ran as if from a tiger – my high-pitched squeals seeming to enrage the cow further.

Within a few strides, she was almost on top of me. Barefoot and horrified, I ran towards the sea.

“Stop it! STOP IT! Ahhhhh! Help! HELP! COW!”

If ever being chased by a cow, screaming “cow” does little to sound the alarm. Perhaps it was the singular nature of the word, since yelling “stampede” would have likely gotten some attention. But on the imminent danger scale, “Cow!” was on the level of “Kitten!”

Crashing into the surf, I became acutely aware that I didn’t know if cows could swim. When I glanced over my shoulder, I saw its front hooves entering the water.

“It can swim! It can SWIM! Ahhhhh!”

I didn’t think I had it in me to drown a cow – the process seemed too personal, like stabbing someone. Give me a gun and I’d shoot it in the back from a distance, but something about holding a cow’s head under water felt wrong.

Thankfully, the cow stopped her charge after I’d gotten about waist-deep in the ocean. We both stood a few yards from each other, panting heavily. I began looking around, both hoping to see someone and hoping no one had seen. The cow meanwhile wasn’t going anywhere and snorted into the water, backing up a few steps only to get better footing.

It was a standoff.

Further complicating matters, at some point during my girlish dash I’d stepped on a broken shell and sliced open the bottom of my foot. As blood swirled around my leg, I began to appreciate my unique situation – I was either going to be trampled by a cow, or eaten by a shark.

Unfortunately, this particular dilemma had little precedent to rely upon for guidance. In a fire you’re told to, “Stop, drop and roll” – there’s no childhood adage for being trapped in the ocean by a cow.

I managed to compose myself and tried to evade the cow by walking parallel to the shoreline. And as I looked on, she calmly backed up onto the sand and shadowed my movement, slowly plodding along, content to wait me out. Being held hostage by a cow was nothing compared to being outsmarted by one.

I stopped and she stopped – she resuming her chewing, I resuming my wailing. As time passed I became enraged, slapping the water, splashing towards her like a child would their younger sister.

“Go away! Shoo! Get out of here you stupid…COW! YOU STUPID FUCKING COW!!!”

I realized that the real problem was there were no deterrents for cows – with imprisonment from birth and death already an assumed eventuality, what do they have to fear? A cow with nothing to lose is a dangerous thing, and it’s a wonder that more of them don’t resort to a life of crime. I hoped that my murder would at least serve as a cautionary tale for future beachgoers, and signs would be erected to warn those unaware of the imminent peril.

“REMEMBER – sand castles don’t protect against sand cattle. Stay alert!”

Floating on my back, I pondered the life of animals further, wondering if I could survive as one. In their world, you had to move to stay alive, though there was also a case to be made for staying hidden to avoid exposure to predators. This meant as an animal, in order to survive you had to move, and not move. It must be a terribly confounding, depressing existence.

I wondered how much road kill was simply suicide – tiny notes scratched into trees on the side of the highway by despondent animals who just couldn’t take it anymore. I’ve seen them, the ones who try to run back. Faced with their own tiny mortality, what had made them reconsider?

The sun rose higher in the sky and my face felt tighter, warmer. I was burning in water, a painful irony. Glancing towards the shore, I noticed the cow had wandered back to the grass for a snack.

It was my chance.

Taking a deep breath, I slipped silently beneath the water with the stealth of a military diver, kicking and pulling for what felt like an eternity, fighting the urge to rise until my lungs nearly burst. When I finally surfaced, I’d gone about seven feet.

I checked the beach, saw that the cow had her back to me, and decided to yet again make a run for it. The evolutionary option of “fight or flight” was settled long ago by my cowardly ancestors, allowing me to quickly flee situations with little internal debate. I made as little splashing as I could getting to shore, but when my bloodied feet hit the sand I took off screaming.

The young honeymooning couple must have been surprised by the bald, bright red, semi-naked man running down the beach towards them, cursing and flailing his arms. Was this some poor, wretched castaway? Had someone been marooned here for years? And what was this strange language he’d adapted?

“RUN! COW! Crazy cow!! Will kill us all! AHHHHH!”

I blew past them in a flash, hobbling along like a pirate triathlete, a trail of blood and shame in my wake.

* * *

Back in the relative safety of my room, I huddled in the cool darkness, knees pulled tight to my chest, rocking. I stayed like that for almost an hour before passing out from exhaustion.

When I woke it was time for dinner, but I’d lost my appetite. They only served fish at the restaurant, caught from the ocean and likely tainted with my foot blood. My only hunger was for cow flesh, and I vowed to have the biggest burger I could find when I got back to America, hoping it had been a close cousin or first love of my former four-legged warden.

At five o’clock the next morning I left for the airport, hitching a ride with a few others from the beach. I’d somehow come down with food poisoning and spent the entire night either hunched over or sitting on the toilet. That, combined with the sunburn, left me praying for the mercy of a car accident, ideally into the cows grazing beside the road. I could almost hear the sweet, pained moo’ing of their grieving relatives.

We drove back over the same mountain road I’d arrived on – past the same ramshackle shops, slums and aluminum-topped huts, past crumbling painted concrete walls, wires and vines, past the big-balled dogs who still slinked along street gutters, and the muscular men who still stumbled shirtless from makeshift side-of-the-road saloons.

As the plane taxied down the runway, we gained speed and eventually climbed into the air. Only then did I close my eyes and smile, squeezing the hand of the woman next to me and whispering, “We made it. We made it.”

 

Grenada

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Filed under airports, animals, desperation, drinking, flying, Grenada, humor, madness, ouch, scary, Sean goes insane, Sean is almost killed, Sean is an idiot, the beach, tourists, travel, vacation

Videos: Storytelling in Philadelphia

Writing, like masturbation, is best done without an audience.

Storytelling is different – a place to write out loud, your microphone a pen. The concept is simple – get up and tell a five-minute story (a true story) around a certain theme.

Sound easy? Wait.

You can’t use notes – no script, no props. The crowd will judge you – both in their heads, later to their friends, and out loud in front of you.  They’re going to rate you, give you scores out of ten like jaded gymnast judges – for content, and performance. They’re going to pick you at random – you won’t know when you’ll be called, if at all, and when you are, you’re hustled up on a stage in front of dozens, if not hundreds, of strangers. The spotlight hits you and you’re on – entertain us.

Oh, and they’re also going to videotape you.

In Philadelphia, storytelling events are run by First Person Arts, a fantastic non-profit that puts on “Story Slams” twice a month and organizes them into seasons, culminating in an eleven-person championship where they crown “The Best Storyteller in Philadelphia” – a title I was fortunate enough to win a few weeks ago.

Your first time on stage is jarring, unfamiliar, invigorating. All clichés become realities – you even say them afterwards. You can’t help yourself. The lights just really are that bright. Your mind just really does erase.

You laugh nervously, want to be closer to the crowd, farther away. You vaguely remember being funny at a dinner party once, but what did you say? What was that casual allegory about a squirrel and communism that had evoked so much laughter?

Jerry Seinfeld once quipped, “The number one fear of Americans is public speaking. Number two? Death. So that means the majority of the country would rather be in the coffin than giving the eulogy.”

You find out a lot about yourself on stage. Over in an instant with a sideways smile, a quick wave, a damp back. And you can’t wait to do it all over again.

Here are some of my recent performances…

* * *

November 2013 – “Dilemma”

Championships – Winner, “Best Storyteller in Philadelphia”

November 2013 – “Pilgrimage”

Featured (Tell Me A Story)

July 2013 – “Criminal”

Audience Favorite (First Person Arts)

June 2013 – “On the Road”

Story Slam (First Person Arts)

June 2013 – “Power”

Championships – 2nd Place (First Person Arts, Grand Slam)

December 2012 – “Family Ties”

Winner & Audience Favorite (First Person Arts)

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Filed under About, humor, Philadelphia, storytelling, videos

Turtle Pervert

As children, injuries are always accompanied by a story.

“How did you hurt your foot?”

“I jumped off a roof.”

“Is that how you got that black eye?”

“No, Tommy Granikowski hit me in the face with his cat.”

As adults, we’re less forthcoming with the details of how we hurt ourselves, usually because the reasons are less fantastic.

“What happened to your tooth?”

“Oh nothing, it fell out last night while I was reading.”

Our wounds have evolved from badges of honor, to symbols of shame. When you break your arm running to get ice cream during a commercial break in CSI: Miami, you don’t ask people to sign the cast. I once threw my back out after seeing a bug run across the floor, a simultaneous moment of youth and old age that to future strangers I’ll describe as “an old football injury.”

The real concern is when reasons no longer become necessary, and questions are replaced by silent head nods of assumed decrepitude. Still, the origins of some injuries should always remain a secret – which was what I told my friend after he confessed that he’d hurt himself while masturbating.

“I think I pulled something.”

“Isn’t that the point?”

“No, my wife came home early and I strained my neck when I heard the door.”

“Did she catch you?”

“Nah, she went back out to buy Tylenol and I got an extra half hour alone with the computer.”

The need for pornography tends to be a singularly male problem, and its proliferation is expedited by equal parts testosterone, boredom and simple curiosity.

“I watched this video the other day – a nurse has sex with an amputee and all of a sudden this turtle walks across the floor in the background.”

Sure, you’ll laugh at first, but in your heart you know that as soon as you’re alone you’ll be online searching for: “amputee sex turtle video.” And when advertisements start popping up on the screen promoting prosthetics and local pet stores, it’s because your computer thinks you’re depraved, and wants to help.

* * *

When you live alone without animals, you sometimes realize that you’ve gone almost an entire day without speaking. Often the first words I use are over the phone to the Chinese food restaurant, ordering dinner.

In the absence of human interaction I instead rely on electronic relationships, and like to give names to certain objects in my apartment to personalize the experience. In New York, I had a computer named Adelle, in honor of her creator. One morning I woke to find her dead at the tender age of six. Overcome by grief, I went to the living room and consoled Samantha Sung.

Rather than put the computer next to the box of old cell phones in my closet, I decided to sell its remains on the internet. I found an interested buyer on Craigslist who consented to pay the fifty bucks I’d requested, but wanted to inspect the computer first. He suggested we meet at a public place and we agreed on a local Starbucks that night around eight o’clock, which only left me two hours to decide what to wear.

Do I dress up to look more professional? Or is that coming on too strong? I want to look trustworthy, but not like I’m trying too hard. He can buy it, or not – I’ve got plenty of options. I’m not desperate. I should just be myself. What time is it? Do I get there on time, or am I casually late to prove I’ve got other things going on? Maybe the blue sweater?

When I entered the Starbucks, I realized that we hadn’t discussed how we would recognize each other, and there were several people sitting by themselves.

“Computer?”

“I’m sorry?”

“Computer…you wanna buy a computer?”

The man seemed confused, as if he had just been solicited by a Silicon Valley scalper, so I moved to the next table.

“Craigslist? You the guy I was talking to from Craigslist?”

“What?”

“Public place? Fifty bucks? That guy?”

“I swear, I…”

I left him and his wife to discuss.

After moving to an open table near the back, I saw a man wearing camouflage pants enter. He seemed as if he was there to meet someone, but I hesitated. I don’t trust those who wear camouflage in social settings.

Is he concerned a deer might spot him walking into this Manhattan Starbucks? Why only wear the camouflage pants? Would animals be less concerned about a floating torso? Had dogs been bumping into his legs all day? And why hadn’t he adjusted the camouflage to match his environment? Were better hunters crouched nearby? Did that trash can just move?

The man saw me eyeing him and sidestepped over to my table. With tousled blonde hair, leathery skin and thin lips, he looked like a masculine Meg Ryan, but spoke in a thick Russian accent.

“You are the man from the internet. You bring computer?”

I decided to play the situation out like a movie character.

“You bring the cash?”

I expected him to say it was in the car, to which I’d counter that I’d have to see it first. I’d toss in a few nicknames also – something condescending like, “Listen Vladimir, I didn’t come here to play games, okay comrade?” And as he glared at me I would wink at a pretty cocktail waitress, assuring her I was in charge. If the spy movies were right, later on she’d appear in my room and we’d make love in a tub.

The man pulled out his wallet and the fantasy ended. Villains don’t use Velcro. He plopped down a fifty dollar bill and we made the deal, which he seemed very pleased about.

“Good! This will meet our needs nicely.”

As he disappeared outside in the rain, my head was spinning.

“Our” needs? Whose needs? Who is he representing? And who buys a broken computer off of Craigslist anyway? What was he hiding? He wants to stay off the grid – cover his tracks. Had I just sold a computer to a terrorist?! Could this be traced back to me?

And then it hit me – I hadn’t erased my browsing history. The computer had died too suddenly and I couldn’t wipe its memory. The man, this terrorist, would eventually be arrested and the FBI would have a computer registered in my name. I ran after him, but slipped just outside the door, badly scraping my leg.

He was gone.

* * *

There’s a tiny scar on my knee, an injury too small for people to notice or ask questions about. I sometimes run a finger over it when I watch the news each evening, waiting for my face to appear on the screen.

“FBI Seeks Turtle Pervert.”

Turtle

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Filed under animals, desperation, Guy stuff, humor, life in new york, madness, ouch, scary, Sean goes insane, Sean is an idiot, technology