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I Started To Laugh
“Why doesn’t she ever laugh? I remember my father asking my mother when I was a child. I wasn’t unhappy, but I never seemed to laugh. Thinking that perhaps I was possessed, my parents brought in the local priest. The priest blessed me with holy water, which wasn’t at all ticklish.
“She has the Madonna complex,” the priest declared.
“What the hell does that mean?” my father barked.
The priest, a timid man, began to tremble, which irritated my father who had no patience with people who wasted his time.
“Out with it for God’s sake!” Father cried.
The priest fled. Not satisfied with the priest’s declaration my parents sought out a lay opinion. Dr. Lightfoot, a psychologist, was perplexed.
“You say she laughs when you tickle her but otherwise she keeps a somber face?”
My parents nodded.
“Perhaps she is a dull girl?”
“Dull!” my father responded indignantly.
“Retarded!” my mother screamed. “No daughter of mine is going to he retarded!”
I was tested and found to be above average intelligence. Actually I was of average intelligence but my IQ jumped several points at the insistence of my father who argued that he was footing the bills for the tests and so should have some say in their outcome.
Special tutors were brought in to teach me how to laugh. Excerpts from Mark Twain were read to me. I was taken to Neil Simon plays. My mother engaged a stand-up comic but nothing made me laugh. Usually I fell asleep. My mother lectured me on how inappropriate my behavior appeared to people. How could I ever be introduced into her circle of friends if I didn’t learn to laugh? They would start wondering about our whole family. Nothing worked until one day my brother, Jack, ran through the house stark naked wearing his underwear over his head. Without letting anyone see, I laughed inside so hard I pee’d my pants.
I wasn’t meant to he born. There had been a miscarriage between my brother Jack and me. The miscarriage was going to be their final child. I was an after thought. I’m not feeling sorry for myself. Most of the world has been born as after thoughts, but I always got the sense that there was no place for me. God had a big plan for the universe and because of my late arrival I hadn’t been included. I had crashed the party and the only one I knew there was my brother.
When I was a kid, father would take Jack and me to the park. Jack would take a kite and run the length of the park as father fed him the string, the two of them screaming at each other and laughing. I would sit on a bench watching. They were so beautiful together like two angels playing with God. We are going to be happy, I used to think, but then father became successful.
Father was one of the richest men in Windsor, a friend of Frank Sinatra, a cousin of the mayor, chairman of the University Building Committee. Father ran several businesses including a trucking company, an ice cream firm and an import/export dealership. Although he showed up at all important functions, birthdays, Christmas, the holidays the family took to Europe, father was mostly absent as I grew up. Each time I saw him he seemed to have grown fatter, and balder and more abrupt. He had little patience with small talk.
“Are you happy?” he would ask. It was the same question he asked me throughout my life. I don’t think father saw me as anything but a little girl sitting on his lap. When I was younger I responded honestly and answered – No. But as I grew older I could not bear the look of guilt and helplessness in his eyes and so I lied.
“How could I not be happy, father?”
Mother, a glamorous sophisticated woman, was fifteen years younger than father. Mother and I were not close. There was no affection except the courtesy kiss on the cheek when we met. Our only intimate conversations concerned the welfare of my older brother, Jack.
“Watch out for your brother!” she would say. “He worries your father.”
There was always a television set on our dining room table in the place father would have sat if he’d been present. Walter Cronkite was our father figure at dinner. We loved the CBS Evening News. Mother claimed to have known Eric Sevareid intimately. The only Canadian news we watched was the weather. Canada was cold and it always rained in Windsor. As we grew older Jack became more and more interested in American politics. Mother, an American by birth, was a big Adelai Stevenson fan and fell in love with Jack Kennedy. His assassination was the most traumatic event of her adult life.
I loved my brother Jack. He felt such passion about ideas and the world. And yet it seemed to me that he lived in a dream, believing in things that meant nothing to him. What did Jack know about being poor, or black, or exploited? His ideas insulated him from his own privileged upbringing and the cold loneliness inside our family. Jack was not alone. The world was buried in an endless expanse of space, like an obese creature’s soul inside light years of fat. We all wanted to believe that the events of our lives or at least of our time were important when the awful truth was that we were nothing more than an echo in an empty universe.
I grew up on television. Captain Kangaroo made me curious. What was inside those huge pockets in his trousers? I learned to cry from Queen for a Day. On this program the woman whose life was judged to be the most miserable won all the prizes. The Millionaire taught me charity. I learned how to apply makeup from the Loretta Young Theatre. Spirituality was taught to me by Bishop Fulton J. Sheen and art appreciation by John Nagy. But the most influential program in my youth was The Price Is Right. It was the America dream – intelligence measured by one’s ability to shop.
I lost my virginity when I was fifteen to father’s chauffeur. He was so cute with his trousers around his ankles, his hat on the steering wheel, and his jacket and shirt still done up. The blessed event took place in the back seat of our Chrysler in the garage with the motor running. Ricardo wasn’t much good as a lover. He was a professional chauffeur: polite, prompt and inconspicuous. I was happy to get it over with.
On my sixteenth birthday I was arrested for shoplifting. I’d taken a case of eye makeup. Father fixed it so that all charges were dropped. He never asked me why I’d stolen the goods. Instead he raised my allowance. My shoplifting continued for a while. Finally mother sat me down to have a heart to heart.
“You have always been a strange girl,” mother said. “Do you understand why?”
“You’re a spoiled little rich girl and if you don’t smarten up, you won’t amount to anything.”
I grinned. This upset my mother.
“I don’t understand you. Are you angry at us?”
I shook my head. I wasn’t angry with my parents. I didn’t feel anything at all. I felt empty. The thing about feeling hollow is that you don’t feel as if anything is missing. When I looked inside all I saw was mother, and father, and Jack. I didn’t see me.
Mother sent me to a shrink, Dr. Zwetiak. I was diagnosed as manic-depressive. At first I felt relieved. Suddenly there was a name for people like me. The doctor said that research indicated that some manic depressants suffered from a chemical imbalance. And he added that there were a lot of manic depressants. I felt giddy. Soon, I thought, they’ll have special parking spaces for manics, and ramps outside public buildings, and psychedelic canes. Great white rabbits would replace seeing-eye dogs. They’ll have Special Olympics for manics. I’ll enter cross-country insomnia.
“Why are you smiling?” Dr. Zwetiak asked. Dr. Zwetiak had a permanent smile on his face but he was uncomfortable with people who smiled.
“Why are you smiling?” I asked.
“I’m not,” the doctor smiled.
I told the doctor about my vision of a world of manic depressants.
“And that makes you smile?” the doctor smiled though he tried not to.
I followed my brother to the University of Windsor. My best friend at college was Owen, a fellow I met in an introductory philosophy course. Owen was a slightly built man, almost frail. But his delicate frame was overshadowed by the strength and force of his face, which was large and flat with a great wide grin and a strong sloping forehead. His receding black curly hair made him look much older than his years. His voice was filled with a fire and passion that overwhelmed all arguments. Owen was black. Owen had two children. I never met his wife.
“Poetry is the glue of the universe,” Owen said. “Without poetry atoms would float aimlessly around, blind with white canes, bumping into each other, constantly apologizing, strangers in the night. Without poetry there would be no love, just a series of one night stands called the physical laws of the universe.”
I replied. “I think there is much less poetry in life than we can bare to imagine. I think life is frugal.”
“You’re too melancholic,” Owen said.
“You’re afraid that I may be right,” I countered.
“I’m afraid for you,” Owen sighed. “I’ve never met anyone who was so serious. Hasn’t anyone ever made you laugh?”
“I’m happy.” I said. “Just ask my father.”
I tried to make other friends. Girls didn’t like me much though I did make some acquaintances. I dated boys though most of them were more interested in how much money my father had. If they wanted, I slept with them. Middle class boys love to fuck rich girls. It makes them feel better about themselves. After a Bob Dylan concert in Detroit, I went to party where Dylan appeared. He sat in the corner, smoked dope and spoke to no one. I sat beside him, shared a joint and hoped the great man would sleep with me. I met a boy named Michael some weeks later. I told him about Dylan.
“Did you sleep with him?” he asked.
I shook my head.
“That’s too bad,” he responded. “I always wanted to sleep with someone who had slept with a star.”
After graduating from college I hung around the campus for a couple of years. With a couple of girls who had befriended me, I rented an apartment in the basement of a house. Our landlord was a professor in the French department. The other two girls moved out and into apartments with their boyfriends. When the French professor’s wife found her husband and me fucking in their kids’ room, I moved out and found an apartment downtown over a Chinese restaurant.
Owen and I remained friends though never lovers. He thought of me as a younger sister that he had to watch over. One afternoon at the corner 0uellette and Wyandotte, Owen was dragged by the police out his beat up Chev before a lunchtime crowd and beaten with nightsticks. His two kids sat in the back seat of Owen’s Chevrolet watching. I accused my father of trying to break up my friendship with Owen.
“The police don’t need an order from me to beat up a nigger,” father said, dismissing me with a wave of his hand.
I hadn’t intended to get so fat. There had been no overwhelming depression or anger or incident that had pushed me over the edge. I was bored. Eating was something to do. And I loved Chinese takeout. All my friends at college had graduated and begun careers. After the beating in downtown Windsor, Owen didn’t drop by as often. Jack abandoned his early anti-capitalism and joined my father in business.
Everyone loves a fat person. Look at Oliver Hardy, Jackie Gleason, Mama Cass. People love to watch fat people laugh. All that jiggling makes them feel that all is right with the world. And there are so many fat people. You don’t notice them so much when you’re normal. It’s like when you’re having your first child. Suddenly you notice how many women are pregnant. Most of North America is fat, suffocating in affluence. The oath of allegiance should have just two words – FEED ME!
There are all kinds of stereotypes about fat people: fat people love to read tabloids; fat people have sweaty necks; fat people are constantly farting; fat people don’t enjoy sex; fat people don’t recycle; fat men have small wieners; fat people can’t dance; fat people are overly sensitive to pain; fat people like to gossip, drive big car’s, and wear bright baggy clothes; fat women are married to skinny men whom they physically abuse; fat parents are bad role models; fat people have small dogs as pets and treat them like spoiled children. The only stereotype about fat people that is true is that they eat a lot.
My parents stopped coming to see me in my apartment because they found me so disgusting. For a while I tried to keep up appearances. I bathed, wore fashionable oversized clothes, poured huge amounts of exotic perfumes over my body. My father said I smelled like garbage. He was surprised that I wasn’t attacked by seagulls like the city dump. My brother showed up one day with a friend and beat me up. He thought that if he threatened me with death I would change my ways.
And then my father died of a massive stroke. My mother’s greatest concern seemed to be what I would wear at the funeral. It was a hot sticky day in August. Clouds of mosquitoes swarmed the throng of people that showed up at the grave sight. A drum roll of slapping could be heard. Jack stood beside mother comforting her, while she swatted frantically at the mosquitoes with a handkerchief. Sweat soaked the dress my mother had bought for me. I could feel the fat melting off me and flowing down my legs into two pools at my feet. The priest spoke glowingly about my father as mosquitoes lay siege to mother. I looked at Jack and recalled the day as a little boy he had run through our house stark naked with a pair of underwear on his head. I started to laugh.
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