It was hard leaving Brenda. Morton Pinkney Fitzgibbons III looked out the airplane window at his own reflection in the blue lights. His parents didn’t like Brenda. They hadn’t even allowed her to come to the airport. They were always saying disapprovingly how he hadn’t been the same since he’d met her. They didn’t bother concealing their relief that his college was so far away, or smirking that Brenda’s family finances didn’t run to bicoastal airfares. This way she couldn’t “pester” him, they said. Morty had spent the past four years giving it everything he had to get into a prestigious college, but he wondered if he didn’t hate himself a little bit for giving in so easily, for not standing up to them. But heck, just a few months ago he’d been a little kid.
They were absolutely right when they said he wasn’t the same, and about time too. He’d hardly dated any girls in prep school – date-nights at his all-male school were so formalized he’d pretty much backed off and let his mother do the heavy lifting. None of the girls she picked were easy. She must give them a questionnaire, or a job interview, or something to determine their absolute hopelessness as potential girlfriends. Right from the first Brenda was different. Not just a girl to “begin”, to “experiment” on, as he had imagined in his lonely self- projections. She was the girl. In restaurants people already turned to stare at her and she was only seventeen. It actually was kind of insulting the way his parents attributed his new maturity completely to Brenda. Showed what a spineless jellyfish they’d always considered him.
That jellyfish, swimming down the darkly stained oak halls of his worthless school, that wasn’t his real self at all. Anyone who knew anything knew that. Look at his reports: “Morton seems to have deep reserves he has yet to draw on” and “excellent work but hardly to capacity.” The school psychologist said, “Doesn’t let anyone get close” and “polite but uncooperative.” Like you could study The Prince in class all day and then make a “buddy” out of the school shrink! What kind of retard did they take him for?
That creature walking through the halls of Asbury Prep had been more like an animated corpse, or an “astral double”. The real Morty was sleeping, was gathering power. Gathering strength. The real Morty wouldn’t waste his time with their version of “leadership” – because their version of leadership was servanthood. The real Morty was a Champion.
Pretending to empower you, the school actually harnessed you. Drained you. They demanded lying, insisted on evasion, mandated phoniness and reveled in fakery – they didn’t care who the hell you really were at all. And it wasn’t just Morty who noticed it. Not a kid on his floor dared reveal his true self. Every authentic interaction sapped you – because it turned you into a sap — better hold your fire. Save enough force so you could become who you needed to be, who you were meant to be,
The plane was taxiing to its runway. Morty kept his face averted, absorbing the blue light, so his father wouldn’t attempt conversation. He felt a strange prickling inside his forehead, but it wasn’t pain. When he met Brenda he was taking pills for ulcers, pills for attention, for sleeplessness, for cluster headaches. Turned out all he needed was sex. That as the big secret they had been
keeping all those years! He guessed it was like being in the army – they kept you deprived to keep you passive. Once you discovered that, you mastered confidence. Each time he locked loins with Brenda freed him a little more. The soggy curtain that had separated him from the universe since childhood fell away. He didn’t need the pills anymore. It made better financial sense to sell them. When he felt this tingling in his forehead he imagined himself head-butting the universe — breaking the glass that separated him from the world.
Morty picked at the weird fabric of the airplane’s window curtain with his thumbnail. What was this stuff? It was some kind of man-made junk, not plastic, not cloth, more like Fiberglas. That was the trouble with the world these days. Nothing was real. People had been pushing fakes so long they forgot what reality was. Sex was real.
Connecticut dropped away below him until there was nothing left to see. But still he kept his face averted, hoping his father wouldn’t pull the trigger on another awkward, pathetic conversation. He liked his father – would have said he loved him if love wasn’t a feeling now reserved for Brenda alone. But his father was a decoy, some kind of “staked goat” offered to lure him into letting down his guard.
His father used to write music – had a band even back when they lived in Stoneyport – but one of the incontestable facts about Stoneyport was that if you lived there year round, you were nobody. So it was just their summer place now and his father was too busy tending other people’s money to waste any more time on progressive jazz. “Progressive jazz” wasn’t even a “thing” anymore, even, nobody did it, nobody had even heard of it. His father’s time was up. The old man tried not-so-
subtly to blame the kids – they all did that — that was the way grown-ups operated – you were the reason for everything! They did it for you! Guilt, the gift that keeps on giving. At school they were always after you to “assume responsibility”. The school’s motto was “No excuses.” If the dog really ate your homework you needed punishment for having such a freakin’ unruly dog. Morty had been trained to recognize buck-passing by the best-in- show. He knew exactly whose fault everything was.
Take his mom for instance. She was a screamer.
She had a super-simple business model: just yell and scream till you get what you want. Amazing how effective it was. Nobody would pay to get that in the real world – not since the concentration camps closed – but in interpersonal relationships “Making a Scene” was the strategy to beat. No one was willing to go up against her. Nobody could outlast her. The thing that really got his goat was she pretended, in the midst of epic rages, to be a competent, polished adult. Oh, yeah, she set herself up as judge as well as executioner! A day didn’t pass without a tweet, email or sticky note about how he had failed her perfect standards. He was sick of it, really. The degrading scenes, the room searches, the “white glove” inspections. He had long since learned to leave nothing personal, nothing of any importance in his room.
He could imagine her prowling around when he wasn’t there – feeling up his underwear and sneaking looks beneath his mattress, hoping to find the weed, the smokes, the girly mags she could get her wail on about. Nothing there; but there were always Brenda’s phone calls and text messages good for a public session of electro-shock; a thong trophy lifted from her son’s blazer pocket or the wet scrap of bikini discarded on the cabana floor. Scream-a-thon if Morty was using condoms; Shriek-
a-thon if he wasn’t; take your pick. Good thing she couldn’t get a hold of Brenda’s mom – there was no dad – or she would have made her life a living hell. But Brenda’s mom was one of those unlucky females forced to actually contribute to society instead of just yelling at people – she lived at work – and hospital dispatch don’t take personal calls.
Morty’s mom was fat. That was her real trouble. Morbid obesity. Her body was so swollen that from a distance she looked like a tiny block placed atop a big one. If anyone ever said anything about dieting – even diets in general – Elsa the She-Wolf went right upstairs and cried. Then she came downstairs and screamed harder. She actually forced her kids to eat ice cream. Bizarre. Morty could burn it off and his father preferred alcohol but it wasn’t doing his little sister any favors.
His mom’s fashion solution was to wrap herself in shawls. Not working. Who asked for a Hungarian peasant woman for a mother? Frankly, it was embarrassing. There was his tall, distinguished, tired father partnering Hulda the Witch to school events. Bad.
She was sitting behind him now, talking to Gracie in a baby voice, trying to “persuade” her not to kick her father’s seat back. Gracie was ignoring her — poor Gracie wasn’t able to stand up for herself yet, so passive aggression was all she had going. What hope could there possibly be for her with an example like that? She was finished before she started. Morty knew – he had been forced to listen – that she wasn’t in the “popular” group at her school and surprise! Screaming and threats failed to fix the situation. Face it: his mom made everything worse. Your misery was her modus operandi in life.
Morty hated leaving Brenda. Everybody said college was so great, but what if college turned out to be another Asbury Prep in disguise? A place where “Gentlemen’s Agreement” meant upperclassmen torturing underclassmen for three long years? Could he stand it? It would be a relief getting away from his parents. His Mom was getting harder to fool – and his dad was sinking so fast it was politer to avert your gaze.
Mom had allowed Morty to invite Brenda to his pool party. It was all a trick of course. She was trying to find out if they’d been “seeing each other behind her back”. Belligerent as a tank in her red-skirted suit she’d gathered steam watching Brenda lounging in her invisible bikini, belly jewels and hummingbird tats. Swim-suited Morty tried to convince his Mom that his circular red weals were “wrestling burns”; that was a hard enough sell, but when Morty’s father rubbed sunscreen along Brenda’s shoulders Hulda blew like Vesuvius. Only coming down at midnight to make herself spaghetti.
On the way to the airport the screaming was particularly intense. She lashed them, beat them, drubbed them all with waves of sound; then, the minute they hit the ticket counter she snapped out of it like the psycho from Three Faces of Eve. Sybil from the suburbs.
Now Mom was taking Gracie to the bathroom. Didn’t trust an eleven year old to go alone. Morty closed his eyes but he could imagine the horrible scene in the aisle, his mother’s huge hips bumping into everything, her tight black dress riding up in little ridges around knees and waist. He vividly imagined her falling into the laps of a pair of horrified strangers, struggling with flight-attendants, burping and farting and shrieking while the pilot appeared personally to help place her in restraints. If only.
There must be something pleasurable he could do with his imagination; playing Vice Cop3 or texting Brenda a note to send when cellphones were allowed.
But completely unbidden a new thought popped into his head. What if they were dead? All of
Now a new vision; himself walking down an antiseptic corridor, a doctor shaking his head like a metronome. Repeating, “I’m so sorry, sorry, sorry…”
Then Morty could call Brenda, even in the middle of the night, never mind about her beauty sleep, telling her, “We’re rich.”
Because he would be, wouldn’t he? Even though his parents moaned and groaned about the expense of two homes and their crushing load of debt, there were retirement funds and college accounts and a pile of insurance because Hulda wasn’t getting left
penniless like her own mother had been.
Morty and Brenda would go to Europe — she had never seen it — he could show her all the places he knew and all the places he didn’t know. Wasn’t making love to Brenda under all the bridges of Paris the only education really worth having?
He reached in his pocket and felt the satiny scrap Brenda had left for him, and it was so reminiscent of her all the blood left his tingling forehead and tumesced between his legs. Morty pulled down his tray table to conceal his excitement.
But how could he do it? He summoned up the whole of his first class education: the difference between a wish and a goal was a plan. Three people were a lot to ask for. How about a car crash? That would be a start. Get him out of college and visiting a hospital, then he would see what he could do. His parents were renting a car to drive back home so they could see Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon and all the other boring obligatory stuff. His father always drove because of his mother’s bad back, and he always carried coffee in case he felt sleepy. Morty still had plenty of sleeping pills; easy enough to give his father a doctored thermos as a thoughtful, parting gift. His mother never drank coffee, she insisted on Earl Grey and if you couldn’t provide that, God help you. It was a plan. A shy, modest beginning of a little plan, but unmistakably, a plan. He drummed his fingers ecstatically on his plastic tray table.
His father had obviously been awaiting just such a conversational opportunity.
“Hungry for airplane food?” he teased. Morty said, “Hungry for everything.”