Thursday, March 24, 2011

Chapter 3~~Houses

Photo by
Brendon Stuart

It took two 12 more sessions just to hear the whole story before Jo walked back out of my life. But I didn't see that coming. I made a commitment. I cleared my calendar. She came every day. Her words spilled out in a rush. At the start of the second session, I pulled out a recorder. She pursed her lips and frowned at me from under her brow.

“What’s that for? Are you planning to use this against me?”

“How would I do that? Have you committed some kind of crime?”

“No. At least, I don’t think so.”

“Well? What’s the problem, then?”

“I don’t know. It makes me uncomfortable. I just don’t understand why you need it. It's kind of creepy.”

"It's not creepy, Jo. It's professional. I record most of my clients."

"You do? What for? So you can listen to them later? When you're in bed?"

"No. Of course not."

"I bet you do..."

“Listen, Jo. I’m trying to understand what's going on in your life, and how I might be able to help you. That's what you're coming here for, right? Because you want my professional assistance?”

“Why else?"

A week after the correspondence on Instant Messenger about the simultaneous consumption of psilocybin, methylenedioxy, and methamphetamine, Eddy showed up at the house to talk. He sat on the bed in the back room with his shirt off. He appeared to have lost weight since the last time she’d seen him. She attributed this to his new preoccupation with raw food. As far as she knew, he was eating little more than raisins and almonds at the apartment where he’d been living since he’d turned 18 and abruptly moved out of the house.

“Well, that’s all right. Let him experiment,” Jo thought. Eddy was the kind of child who had been waiting his whole life to become an adult. Now that he finally was, she was grateful that he still wanted to come home and visit. All the tension that had accompanied their 18-year effort to rein him in seemed to be dissipating.
On that particular afternoon, he sat with his legs crossed, Indian fashion; his hands rested on his knees as if about to meditate. She admired his flexibility before dropping her own stiff body into the circular bamboo chair from Cost Plus which was much too big for the narrow back room. “Hi Eddy,” she said cheerfully. “It’s good to see you. How’s it going?”

“Okay, Mom,” he smiled graciously, his dusty brown hair brushing his bare shoulders. He adjusted one knee, settled more comfortably on the bed, put his hands palm up in his lap like a guru, and then, with no preamble, asked inexplicably, “What do you think of houses?”

“Houses?” Jo was perplexed.

“Yes, houses. What do you think of them?”

“Well, I like our house. I know some of our neighbors are kind of obnoxious, but it’s close to work, and once you get inside…”

“No, I don’t mean our house specifically,” Ed interrupted. “I mean houses in general.”

“In general?” Jo didn’t like getting the wrong answer. She tried again. “Well, in general, I think houses are a good investment, particularly in this area. I know buying this house was the best investment your Dad and I ever made. But some say our housing market is so inflated that it’s due for a crash any day now…”

“No, Mom. That’s not what I mean either,” Ed interrupted again. “What do you think of the fact that people live in houses?”

“Oh,” she hesitated, wishing she could give him the benefit of the doubt, but getting fed up with the game. Still, she gave it another shot. “They’re one of our basic human needs. Food, shelter, and clothing…right? Every human being needs shelter.”

“Did you know that if everyone in the world had a house like the kind we have here it would destroy the planet?”

“Really?” she was taken aback by his intensity. “No. I hadn’t thought about that, but I guess you’re right. It’s true our houses have been getting bigger and bigger, while our families are getting smaller and smaller. But our house isn’t really that big, compared to some.”

“Yes. It’s big,” Ed disagreed. “It’s fucking humongous.” A tendon on his forearm stood out and the brown skin of his belly tightened. His eyes seemed to grow darker.

But if he was irritated, so was Jo. “What’s the problem, Eddy? Why are you telling me this? What is it that you want? Are you saying that you want us to move to another house?”

Ed laughed. “Sure, it would be a good idea for you and Dad to move, too, but that’s not what I’m saying. I’m saying I’m moving.”

“Oh, I know that!” Jo laughed a little uncertainly. “You’re moving to Berkeley, to a student co-op, right?”

Eddy had been accepted by the University of California at Berkeley as a junior, even though he was only 18. He’d taken an exam to get out of high school early, and been attending the local junior college, College of San Mateo, for the past year and a half. He’d gotten a high SAT score and written a great application essay. And when they’d gotten the news that he’d been accepted to the same prestigious four-year university that his super-studious older sister attended—the university that every bright middle-class student in the San Francisco Bay Area wanted to attend (the upper class preferred Stanford)—everyone in his family was excited and proud, particularly Larry. Now Larry was telling everyone that he had two children at Berkeley. On job applications, when explaining his recent gap in employment, he’d claim he’d been busy “shepherding” his children into Berkeley. He wore a Berkeley sweatshirt even when it wasn’t cold.

But on that particular afternoon in April, Eddy still had one more month to go before finishing the spring semester at CSM. Presuming he passed all his classes, he was scheduled to enroll at Berkeley in the fall. And last they’d heard, he was planning to move into a student-run co-op over the summer. Jo felt relived that the topic of their conversation was finally apparent.

“You’ll be using less resources in a big house full of a lot of people,” she said encouragingly.

“No, not to a co-op,” Eddy stopped her once more, frustration thickening his voice. “I’m moving to the forest. But I need you to buy me a few things first.”

“To the forest? What forest?” Jo was confused. “I thought you were going to UC Berkeley,” she said with some alarm.

Yes, I am.” He spoke slowly and carefully, as if explaining something simple to a stupid child. “I’m going to UC Berkeley in the fall, and, in preparation, I’m moving to the forest behind UC Berkeley.”

“The forest behind UC Berkeley?” Jo repeated dumbly, stunned. “You can’t live there, Eddy. That isn’t a forest. That’s a park.”

“A park? A park?!” he exploded. “That’s not a park! There are acres and acres of open space! There are other people who live there, and I‘m moving there, too! I’ve been thinking about this for months, Mom. I know exactly what I need to live off the land and not harm the planet. There’s a lightweight tent I want to buy, a hammock, some cookware, some special pellets that you put into water to make sure it’s safe to drink… ”

“Edward.” Jo tried hard to keep her voice even. “Wait a minute. Calm down. What about your classes?”

“I’m going to go to my classes.”

“You are? What about your computer? Where are you going to plug that in? How are you going to do your homework?” The idea was preposterous. Surely he would see it.

“I can take it to the library, or to a restaurant. There are plenty of places to plug in a laptop.” He spoke in a harsh and condescending tone, as if Jo was being willfully stubborn. She recognized the mood. It meant trouble—lots of it. Eddy was angry, a mood she had seen many times before. But this time, there was also something new. Something more. His vehemence alarmed her. His voice was wrong, too intense, almost artificial. It reminded her of childhood scenes with her bipolar father. Eddy seemed inflated, full of arrogance, as if everybody around him was grossly inferior. He wasn’t registering Jo’s objections at all.

“Eddy, why are you talking like this?” she wheedled, a little frightened. “Of course you can’t live in Tilden Park while you’re going to UC Berkeley. What about showers? How are you going to stay clean?”

“I’ll use showers at the co-op. Or I’ll go to a friend’s house.”

“Use the showers at the co-op? But you won’t be living there! They’re not going to let a stranger just walk in off the street and take a shower whenever he feels like it.” Her voice rose in spite of her efforts.

“What do you know?!” Ed scoffed. “Yes they will! I’ve been there. They’re just a bunch of kids! No one’s paying any attention, Mom,” he said the name like a hateful epithet. “They aren’t grown ups who have to control everything. They aren’t afraid of anything new. No one will care if I come in and take a shower!”

Ed was shouting now and Jo felt her anxiety spike. The walls seemed to be pressing in towards her, and she couldn’t catch her breath. He looked as if he had climbed aboard a big balloon of anger that was feeding rage directly into his spinal cord. His arms seemed to multiply, sinewy and hostile, shooting everywhere like Shiva. His eyes flared. His torso got bigger and bigger as anger puffed up his chest, his neck, his shoulders, his face.

“Where are you going to take a shit?” Jo shouted at him, trying to match his intensity, to puncture his rage balloon. But her voice slurred with tears from the back of her throat, which was closing. Eddy’s face looked scary, unfamiliar, too close. He seemed unmoored, floating above the bed in a miasma of his own making, unable to hear or see his mother standing right in front of him.

“In the forest!” he shouted. “There couldn’t be anything more natural! We should all be shitting in the forest!” Jo looked at him incredulously as she stood up from her chair.

“I’m not shitting that much anyway,” Eddy added incidentally, suddenly calm, “because of my new diet.”

“Eddy,” Jo spoke slowly and deliberately, trying to take advantage of the brief lull in the storm as she began walking woozily towards the door. She felt she might faint. “You’re talking like a crazy person. You’re making me very unhappy. You’re sounding just like my father used to when he was out of his mind. Of course you can’t live in the woods and go to UC Berkeley,” she pronounced quietly.

Eddy shot from the bed to stand in front of the doorway, blocking her egress.

“Get out of my way,” she said sternly, feeling threatened.

“I’m not crazy, Mom,” his voice was soft now, persuasive. “Just because this idea is new to you doesn’t mean it’s insane. Think about it. This is what everyone should be doing. We can’t sustain life on the planet living the way we do.”

“Okay Eddy,” Jo said softly, relieved that he had lowered his voice, but also desperate to get past him, through the door. “You may be right. But this isn’t the time or place for you to do this. Please get out of my way, now. You can’t do this in Berkeley, in an urban environment. You can’t do this when you are going to school. I don’t want to talk about this anymore.” She put a hand on his arm to move him aside.

“Don’t tell me what I can’t do!” his eyes flared as he jerked his arm away from her hand and moved to block the doorway more completely. “I can do this! I’ve thought it through! Every little thing that's happened to me in the last three months, I've asked myself ‘how would I handle this if I didn’t have an apartment? What would I do in this situation without a house?’ I’ve studied it. I have all the answers. I’m serious, Mom. Give me some credit! Don’t treat me like I’m 12 years old!”

“Fine!” her voice was shrill. “You want to be homeless—be homeless! I can’t stop you. You’re a grown up. But don’t ask me for money to finance your stupid experiment. Now get out of the fucking doorway! Let me out of this room!”

Ed looked down at her for a moment before moving aside, then followed her as she stormed off to her own bedroom.

“I’ve been thinking about this for months and you’ve only been thinking about it for five minutes!” he yelled at her back. “I know what I’m doing! I just need a thousand dollars for some camping equipment.”

“A thousand dollars?!” Jo snorted. She couldn’t believe the sum.

Eddy hounded her into her bedroom, where Larry was lying on the bed with his laptop perched on his stomach, idly looking over the Craigslist advertisements.

“Eddy wants $1,000 to buy camping equipment so he can become a homeless person,” she told him before burrowing into bed beside him and pulling the blankets up over her head.

Larry laughed impishly.

Eddy sat on the bed and composed himself for the pitch. “Listen Dad,” he began quietly, keeping his voice in control. “We’re raping the planet. You can’t deny that. But we don’t have to. I just want to live in the forest so I don’t harm anything.”

“Where? In Berkeley?”

“Yes. Behind the campus.”

“What, are you going to leave little pieces of toilet paper on the bushes in Tilden Park?” Larry laughed again. His fingers were still poised above the keyboard, his gaze lifted only slightly from the screen.

“Look Dad. I won’t use toilet paper. I’ll use leaves.” Eddy laughed a little too, in spite of himself. “I just need a thousand dollars for a tent and some equipment.

This time Larry put the laptop aside. “Look, Ed, if you want to renounce the material world and live off the land, that’s wonderful. I support you. And I think the very first thing you should renounce is money. I’m perfectly okay with that, because, frankly, your mother and I have a lot of things we’d like to spend your college money on anyway.”

“Dad, I…”

“It’s not happening, Eddy!” Jo shouted from her bivouac beneath the blankets. “Give it up!”

Eddy crossed his arms and glowered at the wall. “You’re not listening to me!”

“That’s true, Eddy,” Larry put the laptop back on his stomach. “We’re not listening to you, because this conversation is over. Is there anything else you’d like to talk about? Because if there isn’t, I’d appreciate it if you’d go away.”

Eddy got off the bed and left the room abruptly. They heard the front door slam a few seconds after that.

When Jo knew the coast was clear, she emerged from under the covers and looked at Larry. "That was scary."

"Hmmm." He didn't look up from his computer.

"He sounded nuts."

"What else is new? He's just yanking your chain."

"I guess." Jo walked over to the dresser to change into her pajamas. And as she pulled off her tee shirt, she noticed a small dot of moisture on the fabric above her left breast. “Wow. Look at that,” she said wonderingly. “I must be starting menopause. My hormones are going crazy. My body thinks I’m breastfeeding.”

Larry looked up from his laptop involuntarily, drawn by the one thing that interested him more. “Maybe you better come over here and let me take a look at that.”

Cut Off will be published in June.


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