Wednesday, January 25, 2012

NPR - This I Believe Rhode Island - Derek Dubois

(WRNI) - For many of us, faith defines who we are, how we make sense of our life on earth, and how we envision what happens to us upon our death. For others, faith is an ongoing struggle, perhaps a source of anguish and confusion about our life's purpose and inevitable mortality. Derek Dubois shares his deeply felt thoughts about the evolution of his own faith, and his own plans for the afterlife.

Derek Dubois is a writer and filmmaker. He also teaches film studies courses at Rhode Island College. Dubois is especially interested in the ways in which film and cinema help people understand the world around them. He resides in the city of Woonsocket with his wife, Kathleen 


Click here to listen to Derek's Essay


Saturday, January 7, 2012

Dogs

Elizabeth Young awoke in a bed much larger than her own with the feeling that she deserved so much more.  She laid in the master bedroom of an affluent Boston loft apartment with oak furniture, like perched gargoyles, guarding the expansive olive walls.  This was her Aunt Linda’s home, the younger and successful sister of Elizabeth’s mother Diane, and Elizabeth was spending a good portion of the summer here, alone.  The only job she was assigned: to look after her aunt’s precious English bulldog, Ginger.  The pale and attractive nineteen year old bitterly hated animals but couldn’t pass up a Boston loft during her summer break from beauty school.  Lush bedding enveloped her slim body and her eyelids parted as the late morning sunlight filtered into the room.  The phone was ringing.  It had been ringing all morning but Elizabeth just laid there gazing up at the high cathedral ceilings with a vacant expression and her small full mouth.  She extended her arms straight up trying to reach the light fixtures on the ceiling.  They felt miles away.  She smirked picturing her rich aunt hiring men in matching jumpsuits to bring in ladders just to change the light bulbs. 
Elizabeth craned her neck to the bedside alarm clock.  It was half-past noon.  She contorted her body in a lithe stretch shaking off the last remnants of sleep.  The damn phone still wouldn’t shut up.  It sent shrill clangs into the air.  This was not an environment for relaxation.  It was bedlam.  The answering machine picked up from the kitchen but was too far removed for Elizabeth to make out the message.  With a sigh she finally decided to get up and swinging her legs over the side of the bed called out:
            “Ginger!  Here girl!  Come on ass breath.  Time for your walk.”  She scanned the room waiting but nothing came.  “What a stupid fucking dog,” she quipped and tore away the blankets emerging from bed.
            Elizabeth showered for the better part of an hour just allowing the biting spray to tint her body the color of ripe raspberries.  She donned Linda’s white Egyptian cotton bathrobe while drying her hair before the panoramic vanity mirror.  She scrunched her shoulder length hair into a tawdry mess and admired her reflection with subtle, seductive glances.  Pouting her lips she even offered herself a little kiss. 
            She raided Linda’s bedroom.  It had become a morning routine but Elizabeth never stopped to consider the ethics in privacy violation. She just wanted to feel that this whole place was in some small way a part of her own life.  In the top drawer of one of the large oak dressers she found a small, steel lock box.  Within seconds she’d spun the correct three-digit code and fumbled the lid open.  Liz admired the racy photographs of her surprising salacious Aunt Linda (featuring certain leather under garments) before returning them to the box.  There were no secrets above her here.  Elizabeth rummaged through closets and shelves and pulled out clothes on hangers amassing a hefty pile of fashion on the floor.  She spent the early afternoon modeling high-end executive wear, far too expensive and far too sophisticated for her.  Strutting before the back of the opened closet door with a full size mirror she worked it for herself, one outfit after another.  It was as if Travis Bickle was a snobby blond teenager.  With each new outfit the prior was cast aside into a mound of wrinkled fabric and sharp stiletto. 
It didn’t take Elizabeth long to grow bored and soon enough she floated into the kitchen for breakfast.  By now she’d changed into her own clothes which were more youthful, much less expensive, and twice as revealing.  Three walls were banked with great windows that flooded vivid natural light throughout the loft.  The view looked out over the Charles River and the Ritz-Carlton towers looming not too far over the horizon.  Flared concrete columns jutted up to the ceilings remaining from the days when the building was an industrial warehouse.  The kitchen, which was an extension of the hanger-like living room, was fit for the finest chef and appeared as if it had never been used before.  The custom walnut cabinetry contained little more than unopened bottles of condiments and bouillon cubes.  Lord knows Linda never prepared her own meals and Elizabeth enjoyed deciding where to order take-out from for dinner.  But her cash supply was dwindling from the envelope Linda left her and her aunt wouldn’t be returning for another two weeks time.  She had spent far too much too quickly on entertaining her girlfriends and only had three dollars left in her pocket.  Her friends were getting sick of her excuses. 
“Ginger!  Come on.”  But still nothing came.  “If you shit in this house, Linda’s going to have my head on a platter because I will not clean it.”  Her thin brass voice rapped through the open rooms dissolving into nothingness.  “Ginger!”  She continued to call the name like the steady bellowing horn of a ship lost at sea.     
She stalled at the house phone on the Carrera marble counter top.  A blinking red light signaled an awaiting message.  It could only be one woman.  She pushed the button and took a seat at the counter’s high-back stools. 
“Hi Lizzy, it’s Linda.  I hope Ginger’s treating you well” the message continued.  “Ginger may be getting up there but she still has a lot of life left in her.”  The digital voice on the machine popped and whirred.  Elizabeth sulked, in no mood for a lecture. 
“Don’t sit on your ass all day” she continued. “You should be grateful I let you stay in my home.  My own sister may not have much but I don’t want people to see my niece scraping by.” 
Elizabeth crammed the last crust of organic whole grain bread into the toaster while only half listening and went to the bathroom. 
“The courier, idiots they are, left one of my suitcases back at the house” Linda groaned.  “I had to change hotels because of a mix up.”  She laughed incredulously, damning society.  “You should feel the water pressure in that shower.  Pathetic.”
Elizabeth slumped on the toilet, the bathroom door ajar, scanning a tabloid magazine which lay spread on the floor at her feet.  Her toenails were glossed with Linda’s new exotic polish. 
The machine continued, “I’ll let you go now.  Take care of my dog.  That’s all that I ask from you.  Don’t forget that home in Somerville is never far away.”  Linda’s voice raised an octave, growing sickeningly saccharine as she cooed:  “I love you Gingy.  Mommy loves her doggy and I can’t wait to see you.”  Elizabeth imitated vomiting with an exaggerated wretch and gave the finger to the machine.  Kissing sounds were made and then the tape stopped.  The loft settled in silence. 
Elizabeth turned her head to peer out of the open bathroom door back into the kitchen.  Her eyes clocked a distant and quite unnatural lump on the floor partially obstructed by the large island with four double burner stove top.  She squinted.  Immediately she knew it was the dog and in a blinding vision her altogether short and dishonest life flashed before her eyes. 
“Oh Shit.”
Elizabeth stumbled clumsily as she tried run while hoisting her pants back on.  The toast sprang up charred with wisps of black smoke curling into the air.  Elizabeth reached Ginger, lying on her side on the floor.  She dropped to her knees beside the dog.  Its veined and leprous tongue hung limply over the side of its jaw collecting in folds on the ebony stained oak wood flooring.  Her fingers poked and prodded the lifeless animal.  She continually called out its name praying the dog would awaken from some distant sleep.  She attempted to lift the animal but its girth was too wide and its body so cold she just couldn’t manage it.  She let the dog drop back to the floor, very dead, with a resounding thud. 
Suddenly the maniacal shriek of alarms sounded.  The burning toast had set off the smoke detector.  Its mechanical voice consistently reiterated “fire” between blistering pulses of screaming sirens.  Elizabeth stood on a chair below the unit furiously waving a dishtowel trying her best to dissipate the smoke.  Her chest pounded, her vision tunneled.  And just like that it was over.
Telling Linda the dog died would be the most difficult thing.  She forgot the last time she fed the animal.  It didn’t appear to have starved though.  Her heart fluttered to an off rhythm murmur.  She practiced various excuses: some solemn others optimistic.  Her head dropped between her knees as she sucked in deep gulps of air through clenched teeth and picked up the phone from the counter top.  She bit down on her lower lip puncturing the flesh and tasting the salty blood that funneled into her mouth.  The sting was instant causing her to grimace in pain.  She used it to sell herself.  A callous and assured voice, the voice of her Aunt Linda, answered:
 “Hello?”
Elizabeth bawled.  It was feigned and it was exaggerated.  “Aunt Linda, it’s terrible.”
“Who is this?”
“Umm, it’s Elizabeth.”
“What is it?  I’m in a meeting.  What happened?”
            “Well I went to bed early last night after feeding Ginger.  I had taken her for a long walk.  Everything seemed fine.”
“What did you do?”  Damning the girl.
Elizabeth pulled the receiver from her ear and re-focused then dove in for the kill.   “When I woke up this morning Ginger was gone.  I don’t know what happened.”
“I told you that you had to lock that gate when you let her out.” 
“Aunt Linda?” 
“Ginger likes to run.  Lock. The. Gate. Elizabeth.  That is what I said.  No?”
“Aunt Linda-”
“-Is that not what I said?  You are an insignificant dolt.”
“Linda-”
“-Jesus, what the hell is the matter with you!  You better get off your ass and go find-”
“Ginger’s dead!  She’s not away gone.  She’s dead gone.” 
It sounded like the line had been cut.  There was only dead air for almost a minute.    Neither woman knew what should be said next.  Elizabeth closed her eyes.  She could hear the shifting of Linda’s breath as the realization hit her.
“Oh.”  Linda uttered in a sedated drawl.  “My God.  She seemed fine when I left.”  Her voice wavered and cracked. 
“I’m sorry, Aunt Linda.”
Linda sniffled.  “No, I’m sorry.  You have to take her to the veterinarian.  Maybe there is something they can do.  Maybe she’s not dead?”
“She’s dead.”
“You’re not a fucking doggie doctor.  Take her to the goddamn vet.  And if she is dead you’ll have to take her anyway.  I don’t believe the tenant association will allow you to dig a grave in the front yard.”  Linda gasped faintly.  “My poor, poor Ginger.  I really wasn’t ready for this.  They’ll have to cremate her.”
“How do I get her there?”
“You’ll have to figure something out.  She obviously can’t just lie there for two more weeks.  Can you imagine the smell?”
“What should I do?”
“Use the money I left you.  Grab a taxi and go with her.  There was plenty in that envelope for emergencies and I’d say this qualifies.”
After promising to take only the best care of Ginger, Elizabeth set to work savagely tearing Linda’s bedroom apart.  She scoured the loft in desperation until she wrestled out a large designer purse from the rear of the bedroom closet.  Dashing back to the kitchen she arrived at the dead dog’s body which lay slumped like a sack of potatoes.  She hoisted the bag open.  It was an extravagant black leather tote with silver inlays and fine thread etching and she laid it on its side, open mouth of zipper-teeth gaping hungrily at the dog’s limp body.  Elizabeth grabbed Ginger in her petite hands and though she was unable to lift the body, slid it across the floor.  The weight of the torso shined the floorboards as it traversed.  She fumbled with the dog’s rear and pitched it into the purse, working the wiry tail in behind it.  The knobbed and clay-like carcass caused her to shudder violently with disgust.  After getting most of the body in she realized it could not go any further.  There was no more room.  The dog’s head flopped outside of the bag. 
All she could smell was that putrid animal odor on her hands and in her nose and on her clothing and she gazed upon the Vuitton bag crammed full to the brim of dead dog.  Tears flooded her eyes.  She felt hopeless and isolated.  She glanced around wiping her eyes and dragging her arm under her wet nose.  The house was still quiet but now she understood why.  The clock on the microwave read two in the afternoon.  She didn’t quite know what she was looking for until her eyes caught the glint off of the counter top.  There in its extravagant beauty sat Linda’s unused gourmet knife block set. 
Ten minutes later, spread open newspapers covered the floor in a fifteen foot radius around the dog.  Elizabeth had made her way over to the knives and lifted each, one at a time, examining various paring, utility, and serrated knives all with laser cut carbon blades but none seemed quite capable enough.  Lastly, she had withdrawn a twelve inch carving knife, and satisfied, pivoted to return to the dog until something else caught her eye.  On the corner counter rested an enormous meat cleaver; the closest thing to a machete ever seen in a kitchen before.  Why did Linda even have this?  Elizabeth compared it to the one in her hands which now resembled a Swiss army knife and swapped.
Her skin was balmy and the air humid.  This was supposed to be her summer to relax.  Tonight she was meeting the girls at Faneuil Hall and together they would tease the boys and get drunk and sleep well into the afternoon.  This was not the day she expected.  It was not the day she deserved.  She made her way back to Ginger, dolled up in a heavy linen apron, yellow rubber dish-washing gloves, and a pair of plastic safety goggles found in the garage.  Elizabeth knelt by the dog.  The newspaper beneath her crackled and shifted on the oiled wood floor.  She steadied herself and slowly lifted the cleaver over the dog’s neck.  Her hands wobbled due in part to the weight of the knife but also the adrenaline of the situation.  Here she was, Elizabeth the Guillotine.  She buried her face in her shoulder and soothingly whispered:
“You can do this.  It’s just like chopping a hang nail.”  She slammed her eyelids shut.  The nape of the dog’s neck still pinched between the grating metal zipper teeth of the large leather purse. 
“Please, please don’t bleed” she chanted.
Violently she swung, eyes closed, and the blade lodged into the animal’s thick corded neck stopping abruptly on the impact with its firm flesh.  A thin gurgle of blood spurt its way, three feet into the air, spitting crimson liquid and dotting her pale cheeks like freckles.  Immediately she vomited into her lap soiling the linen apron.  The blood then washed in sprays along the floorboards and over the animal dyeing its white fur a sickly pink hue.  With a crash the knife dislodged from Ginger and dropped beside her.  Elizabeth heaved a depressed sigh unable to finish.  At least she knew the dog was dead.  However, she also knew she couldn’t possibly cleave off its head, no matter how annoying the animal was in life.  The tears returned and she crumpled into a ball, defeated.  She held her heavy head in her hands, the heady rubber gloves combining with the smell of dog and newspaper ink.  Small gaseous hisses escaped from the dog’s mouth.  Bloody air bubbles foamed in its wound.  Elizabeth’s body soaked with acrid sweat.  Her hair curled in weird kinks.  She swept it from her eyes and scanned the loft one final time, taking in that which she would have to say goodbye to, until all of a sudden she saw it.  Her eyes widened.  In the corner of the kitchen by the flared cement column sat the lost luggage. 
            “Thank you, idiot couriers.”  Linda’s large, black rolling suitcase loomed in the distance like a monolith and it was the most inspiring site she’d ever laid her tender, sore eyes upon. 
The sunny sidewalk was alive with throngs of people.  Late afternoon in downtown Boston was always beautiful in the summertime.  Elizabeth left the rich brownstone-laden street behind pushing her way through the city.  She dragged the case behind her.  Twice, the excessive weight caused it to wobble and drop onto its side.  One time a pair of paws even spilled out of the partially open zipper.  Moving it took some getting used to.  People here kept to themselves.   She ran to a curb where a line of taxis were stationed and eyed them jealously as she glanced up the street knowing she’d have to take the subway. 
The plastic wheels of the luggage spun with feverish zeal, popping loudly over sidewalk cracks.  The repetition droned a lulling rhythm.  She yanked the case down the stairs leading to the Quincy Station T-Train.  Rushes of people flooded either side of her down the stairway.  She left the sunlight behind and crossed underground.  Her eyes adjusted to darkness and then to the buzzing fluorescent fairly quickly.  The cement surroundings and the stale stench was nothing new to Elizabeth.  The train served as the bookends of summer taking her from Somerville to the Boston loft in early June and back home, away from the city and her summer friends, in mid-August.  But for the months in between she simply ignored its existence.  Now she handed over her last few dollar bills in exchange for a ticket.
            Somerville is a small city just north of Boston and it made Elizabeth claustrophobic just to think of it.  It was actually the most densely populated place in all of New England, all blue collar Irish.  The buildings were in a constant state of decay, crumbles of brick and graffiti everywhere.  Elizabeth was born here and the way it seemed at this point, she’d die here too.  Her mother worked hard but times had been tough after her father ran off.  She couldn’t picture his face but remembered him softly singing old folk songs: I heard some fair maiden give a pitiful cry.  It sounded so lonesome, it swept off on high.  I never will marry, I'll be no man's wife.  I expect to live single all the days of my life.  And he meant it, apparently.  He rushed out on them years ago never to be seen again.
Quincy station was always dank and depressing because it was filled with dank and depressing people.  Along a bench on the back wall an older black man in tattered clothing rapped blues riffs on a tarnished tenor saxophone.  He sat with a large German Shepherd tethered on a leash by his feet.  Elizabeth inched by, the dog lurched onto its haunches and swept its lips back to unfurl a row of knife blade teeth.  First it growled but soon began ravenously barking.  Small droplets of blood had been welling in the bottom of the case and were now just beginning to drip through the luggage and collect in a small red stain on the pavement.  The German Shepherd knew this.
The old man withdrew his horn, yelling: “Shut Up, Seamus.”  The dog cowered to the ground, tucking its bristling tail around his hind legs.  The man nodded towards Elizabeth in a gesture of politeness and returned to his blues.
She stood on the subway platform, her toes teasing the yellow caution line and the suitcase perched just beside her.  Bending forward, she craned her neck to peer down the tunnel now only a vacant black hole.  The other awaiting passengers stood idly by around her.  She turned.           Behind her, a young man was looking her way.  His eyes found hers and then fixed on the black luggage.  Just as quickly, he looked away.  The young man appeared to be in his early twenties and carried himself as an intellectual with horn rimmed glasses and a day’s shaggy growth on his face.  Elizabeth hated his type: the arty individualist, so unique and vulnerable.  Too many Bergman films and Marxist rallies.  She snapped her head forward.  Her hands wrung around the handle of the suitcase until they were sallow and moist.
With a thunderous roar the subway exploded causing Elizabeth to jump involuntarily.  She turned back and caught the young man smirking.  Her face radiated a deep scarlet.  The train pulsated to a rest and the crowd engulfed around sweeping her onto the train.
The Red Line subway car packed up quickly.  She rushed over to a support pole by the sliding hydraulic doors.  The suitcase rested at her feet.  She scanned the car, wild-eyed and uneasy. 
“Hi, um, Hello.”  A timid male voice startled her from behind.
Elizabeth turned.  Beside her stood the dickhead from the platform. 
“Hi.”  She turned away disinterested.
Elizabeth tried her best to ignore him.  The two glanced off in opposite directions.  She spied from the corners of her periphery hoping he would shuffle off but the young man remained.  His eyes fixed on the roof of the car.  Elizabeth pretended to read the adverts plastered on the walls.  The train started with a lurch and everyone collectively jerked backwards in tempo.  The zippers on the suitcase jingled where they met as the case rocked slightly. 
“I’m Leland.”  He extended his hand and chuckled nervously.  Elizabeth held out as long as humanly possible before reluctantly taking his hand. 
“Amanda” she lied.  She lowered her palm to her thigh and wiped his sweaty shake off of her pant leg.  “Look, I’m a bit tied up right now.  So if you don’t mind…”
“Oh.  I, yeah sure, no problem.  I completely understand.”  His head fell, eyes on his loafers.  “I didn’t mean to bother you.  I’m sorry.  I’ll stand somewhere else.” 
Elizabeth could read his anguish and she clutched the suitcase tighter.  Maybe he didn’t talk to girls all that often.  He certainly didn’t carry himself like he did.  His lanky physique was amusing and she knew if nothing else that he could at least purchase liquor which would surely impress her friends.  She visualized her pockets with the tumbleweeds of lint balls and nothing more.  “I’m sorry.  It’s been a wild morning” she relented.  “I didn’t mean to sound so cruel.” 
He smiled.  The two stood awkwardly amid the closed in crowd of other passengers.  
“Where you headed anyway?” she asked.
“Not quite sure.”  He shrugged his shoulders.
“You don’t know?”
“No.  I’m new to the city.  Here visiting relatives.”  He gestured by reaching a balled fist above him and cocked his neck to imitate being hanged by a noose.  “And I’ve never actually seen Boston before.  You know, never really seen it.  I figured I could, I don’t know.”  He lost the wind of his speech maybe worried that he was boring her.  His flickering eyes shone brightly.  “I bought one of those day passes and I’ve just been riding the trains all afternoon.”
“And you’re enjoying it?”  She arched her eyebrows incredulously.  “You must be a Southie.”   She forcibly inhaled.  “It stinks down here.”
Leland eyed her with sincerity.  “I find it romantic, you know?  Like the pioneers of old.  No worries.  Just hopping aboard and exploring.  It makes me feel daring.”
“It makes me feel dirty.”
Leland looked to her, dejected.  She shifted on her feet and licked her lower lip.
“I think I can see what you mean.  Sometimes my friends and I get a limo to take us to different clubs and sometimes we have the driver take the long way, to you know, see things.  That’s kind of the same thing.”
He didn’t say anything.  He reminded her of someone who would have descended from Somerville.  No one in particular.  But the way he looked at her was nothing she’d ever experienced before.  Maybe it was his sincerity.
            Elizabeth continued, “It must get lonely riding the rails all by yourself?”
The train slowed to its first stop.  The car vibrated.   Her case toppled forward.  Elizabeth lunged after it, knocking straight into Leland.  He kept his balance with a hand on the steel pole and reached his other hand out to lift Elizabeth back up to her feet.
“Whoa, careful.”  He looked at the case.  “You must have something special in there.”
She steadied the case upright.  The zippers remained closed.
“What “You just about impaled me for that thing.”
Her small hands cinched tighter around the handle.  “No, no.  It’s nothing special.  Actually, I’m off to visit friends at Northeastern for a few days.  Just some clothing, Laptop, I-Pod, stuff to keep me busy.”  In truth other than her cheap and trashy clothing she owned none of these things.
“And all you’re taking is that one little suitcase?  I’m impressed, Amanda.”
“What do you mean?”  She decided to egg him on.  It was awkward and new to flirt with someone who didn’t quite grasp the confidence and skill she expected.
He stammered turning a distinct shade of embarrassment himself.  “Nothing.  I just pictured you more as a twenty-five suitcases kind-of girl.  What do they call ‘em, socialites?”  His hands trembled nervously and he didn’t know where to rest them.  “I’m sorry.  I didn’t really mean anything by that.  Bad joke.”
Elizabeth delighted in his apprehension.  “You really like that word sorry, don’t you?”
He glanced to the floor but smiled with relief.  They both fidgeted and squirmed and the fluorescent lights of the underground tunnel filtered past like shimmering doves in the night. 
“By the way, it’s Elizabeth.”
“What?”
“My name, it’s not Amanda, it’s Elizabeth.  And that’s not really the kind of girl you think I am, is it?”
“I...no…of course not.”
“Well I hope you wouldn’t judge a book by its cover.  That can be very dangerous, you know.”  She grilled him in a game of dominance.
“Yes.  It most certainly is.” He smiled sheepishly.  His breaths were shallow and his eyes nervously drifted in and out of focus.
The train slowed for another stop.  The passengers shifted.  Leland reached for the pole as inertia worked to fling him forward and his hand landed on hers.  Elizabeth smiled secretly.  The train screeched and steadied and Leland left his hand upon hers a little longer than he needed to.  The doors closed with a pneumatic gust and just outside of the window the overhead cables sparked like small fireworks.  At the previous stop almost everyone on the train had emptied out.  Elizabeth and Leland didn’t notice the room.  They continued to stand while the surrounding seats beckoned. 
“So, do you need any help lugging this thing around?”  He pointed at her luggage.  “I really don’t have anything to do for the rest of the day.  I’d hate to see us part so soon.”
She glanced down at her case.  Streaks of blood were forming in soft pools on the floor.  “No.  That’s okay.  I shouldn’t be long anyway.”  She bated her breath.  “Maybe you’d like to go out tonight?”
“You mean, like a date?” Leland picked at his fingernails and swallowed in a gulp.
She nodded and extended her hand for a shake, no longer repulsed to touch his.  He was so different from the boys she’d meet with her put-on Boston personality.  He was not like the guys her friends here met.  He was true, something about him was genuine.  She wanted to pursue this further.  “Deal?”
            “You’ve got it.  Let me give you my number.  I’ll write it down for you.”  He took out his wallet, quickly rummaged through it and removed a slip of paper.  He patted his pant’s pockets down before pointing to the case. “You don’t happen to have a pen in there, do you?”
“Sorry.”  She giggled. 
The two glanced around.  A few plastic seats down from them an elderly man in a fedora with gnarled fingers sat working on a crossword puzzle.  Leland shuffled over to him.
“Excuse me, uh, sir?”
The man looked up from the paper.
“Sorry to bother you but do you mind if I...if I just borrow your pen for a moment?”
“Which of Shakespeare’s tragedies says: ‘fair is foul and foul is fair?’” he asked.  His voice was skittered and raspy.
Leland dragged his hand over the back of his neck.  “What?”
“It’s for 15 down?”  The old man rocked with the rhythm of the speeding train car.  They were flickering in and out of tunnels.  The light would come and go, like a child playing with the switch.
“I have no idea.” 
Elizabeth watched his nervous quirks with a large grin.  The man cackled and surrendered his pen.  Leland sat beside him and scrawled on the dog-eared square of paper.  He returned the pen to the old man and rose.
“Thanks...Thank you.”
The elderly man buried his head back into the crossword puzzle.  Over the paper he called out: “I can never answer these bastard questions.”
Leland stumbled back to Elizabeth.  She remained still, forcefully clutching her suitcase handle in one hand, the pole with the other.  Linda’s veterinarian was in a few more stops.  She felt much better now.  The subway slowed once again.  A station platform entered into view.  The white tiled walls through the scratched plastic windows were cast in a dull and pallid gray.  Leland pointed outside the approaching platform.
“Well, I might as well check in with the family.  This is mine.”
The train came to a complete stop.  The doors opened.  Elizabeth wasn’t quite sure which part of the city she was in right now but she knew it wasn’t a good area.  Leland took the slip of paper with his phone number and reached around behind Elizabeth.  Very forwardly and with a new found confidence, he slid it into her rear pants pocket without breaking eye contact.  She shivered.
“I’ll call you when I’m ready.”  Her breathing quickened.
Leland leaned in and gently kissed Elizabeth on the high blade of her cheek.  They embraced awkwardly, the pole caught between them.  He pulled back and the two looked at each other for a long, long time, the train idling.
“I can’t wait” he whispered.  Wedding bells sounded in her head, girlish fantasies of new love: everything was beautiful.
Suddenly Leland pivoted on his right foot and whipped around violently.  In a flash his balled up fist connected in a solid left hook with the bridge of Elizabeth’s nose, just to the side of the spot he’d kissed her.  Her eyes fluttered with white flashes that crackled like splashes of heat lightning.  She flew backwards and stumbled onto the row of seats behind her.  The few other passengers within the car yelled chaotically and ran towards her.  A river of blood poured over her chin.  Leland grabbed her idle suitcase and tore out of the subway car. The doors closed softly behind him.  He sprinted alone into the distance of the darkened station, out of view. 
The passengers of the Red Line car crowded in a semi-circle around Elizabeth.  Her face was already swelling in concentric bruising that extended in deep purple caverns below her eyes.  She trembled kinetically and sat on the sticky black floor of the car.  Her eyes stretched wide regaining their focus.  The pain came all at once in dull radiating waves. 
An amphibious middle-aged man with a pot belly and a plaid shirt two sizes too small rushed to her side.  He stunk of cigarettes and burritos and removed a cell phone from his coat pocket.
“I’m going to call the police miss.  Did you know that man?  Shit,” he jammed the phone back into his pocket, “no service on the train.”
            Elizabeth shook her head.  She reached into her rear pocket and removed the paper that Leland had slipped in there.  Her fingers fumbled nervously as the gathered crowd glared down at her.  She held the paper up for a closer examination and turned it over.  Her hands left streaks of bloody prints where she grasped it.  In choppy handwritten cursive the backside of the note had only word written on it: 
Sorry.
            Lying there, sprawled on the subway floor, Elizabeth couldn’t help thinking of how she was going to solve her next problem.  She couldn’t tell her Aunt anything that had happened.  It’d kill her to know Ginger was out there, somewhere, rotting.  Elizabeth had to present Linda with an urn and ashes.  She thought of going to the ASPCA and inquiring if they had any recently unclaimed dead dogs and whether or not they would burn one for her.  Just one?   It couldn’t hurt, right?  She thought of posting fliers all over town offering to sweep chimneys for money.  A bit too Dickensian maybe.  She could save the swept up ashes in a paper bag and use the money she made to buy an urn.  She thought of collecting subway rats in a shoebox and dousing them with gasoline and accidentally dropping a lit match on them.  Her visions spiraled out of control.  Her body trembled madly.
            An older woman crouched down by Elizabeth and met her at eye level.  The woman removed a handkerchief from a fanny pack and attempted to wipe some of the speckles of blood that collected below Elizabeth’s nose.  She was obviously not from around here.  Her actions were motherly but Elizabeth waved her away.  She thought of her own mother, alone, back at home and she missed her terribly.  She didn’t know any of these people and found it difficult to breathe as cold sweat beaded around her hair line. 
“Thank you, really, but I’ll be fine.  It’s just a little bit of blood.”
“We should get off at the next stop and wait for the police.  I’ll wait with you if you’d like.”
“No.” Elizabeth said.  “I just want to go back home.”
The older woman smiled.  “And where is that?” she asked.
“Somerville.”
“Well you’ve got a long ride ahead of you, miss.”
“I don’t mind” she said, “home’s much closer than it used to be.”
The Red Line Subway lurched forward with lumbering jerks.  The amphibious man and the woman staggered through the car and returned to their seats.  “I hope that bastard didn’t make off with too much of ya’ stuff.“  The man groaned.  “It doesn’t look like you’ll ever see that case again.” 
Elizabeth closed her eyes and let the murmur of the engine and the screeches of the cars on their metal tracks soothe her.  The man across the car kept talking but she was no longer listening.
“Boy, I’ll tell ya” he continued, “this city is full of animals.  They’re all dogs.”


Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Hot Flushes: Sexual Trysting in the Public Restroom

 In Crash, the 1973 novel from author J.G. Ballard, sex and car wrecks were united in a horror story that explored technology’s increasing role in every aspect of our lives, including, detrimentally to Ballard, our sex lives.  While Ballard’s book is an exaggerated glimpse into the perversions of a select group of individuals, it would seem as if his fears of technology and the media have actually been met to some degree.  Our modern culture has sanctified new areas as erotic zones, areas both public and private which had not been developed for such functionality.  Arguably, the public restroom has become one of these spaces, bridging public and private needs while glorifying sexual trysting through visual representations.  I wish to argue that the public restroom has emerged over the last century to incorporate more than its primary function of hygiene and alleviating bodily functions by merging people and leisure together in ways not previously considered.  Public restrooms have become loci of social interactions and by the beginning of the 21st century, sexual intercourse within the public restroom has lost its taboo because it has essentially been condoned by frank commonality and explicit openness in its representation through various forms of media and entertainment and now serves to expand the discourse on both sexuality and the exploration and use of public spaces.
In the late 19th century, Freud begins developing what will become the basis of psychoanalytic theory and a controversial component of his body of work is the immense role that he places on sex in the subconscious psychological development of human beings.  According to Freud, there are five stages of psychosexual development for individuals, ranging from birth through adulthood, which tie the instincts of the id to developments around specific regions of the body.  Certain stages of psychosexual development, such as the anal and phallic stages, link erogenous zones of pleasure to conflicts between children and phases of toilet-training and sexual development.  These stages of development are not attained well by all individuals and, as Freud argues, misguided psychic energy can often lead to complexes and fixations which alter proper development and create sexual fetishes and perversions.  As Freud himself has written, “we have reason to assume that there is a primal repression, a first phase of repression, which consists of psychical (ideational) representative of the instinct being denied entrance into the conscious.  With this a fixation is established” (570).  While Freud does not concern himself with sexual trysting in the bathroom he is highly interested in explaining perversions and sexually deviant behavior.  Freud’s stages have often been labeled as esoteric and convoluted but his pioneering glimpse into the psychological development of human life cannot be denied.  Ultimately, Freud’s work directly links the primary functionality of bathroom usage and sexual pleasure together and this will serve as a basis for positing why the bathroom may have emerged as an area for sexual intercourse.
To put aside convoluted psychoanalytic theories for one moment and focus on social historicism, the rise of the public restroom has a long and largely undocumented history in world civilization.  As historian Jennifer Hudson writes: “Toilets in one form or another have existed since man started building cities” (6).  She then continues by citing indoor plumbing  thathad been discovered in the palace of King Minos of Crete, Romans and their public baths, Chamber pots of the dark ages, and finally Alexander Cummings The ‘S’ Trap in 1775 which combined “all the components for the flushing toilet in place” (7).  Public restrooms, as are typical in almost every commercial and recreational area, emerged with the cultural tropes of industry and consumerism to meet the needs of large congregated groups.  More recently, it would seem as if social interaction has been increasingly emphasized in the form and function of the restroom.  Specific technological and cultural developments have played a large role in the socializing of western public restrooms.  The urinal, developed in 1866, removed the need for private, enclosed stalls and congregated men in the open while they exercise their bodily functions.  The rise of the department store at the end of 19th century catered specifically to promoting women’s pleasure by trying to instill a sense of pampered luxury.  The department store adds couches, tables, and an overall sense of societal comform in Women’s restrooms thus creating and fostering a sense of social togetherness and relaxation.  The women’s public restroom soon becomes a meeting place for women with the cliché of women going off together, “I’ll join you.”  By the end of the 20th century co-ed public restrooms have begun to emerge in various college dorms and corporate work environments which allow both sexes to mingle people in these collective areas for the first time.  It is interesting to consider when public restrooms developed as heightened places of sexual trysting.
It is not just technological advancements which facilitate the open discourse on socialization within public restrooms but also mass media.  Through entertainment mediums such as film and television, the representation of sexual trysting in public restrooms has largely diminished the taboo.  The role of the media is effecting social change is a controversial issue.  Some critics believe media fosters and creates that which it depicts whereas others argue that mass media is simply the mirrored reflection of current practices.  While I am not prepared to argue one way or the other on such a lofty critical issue, I am prepared to state that media certainly has the power to disseminate new cultural tropes through a population.  In examining representations of sexual trysting within popular media, from high-brow to low-brow, I can at least explore the correlation between representation and social acceptance.
One of the most popular examples of sexual trysting within the common zeitgeist is The Mile High Club.  The Mile high Club is a pop-cultural slang term used to describe those who’ve experienced sexual intercourse during a flight in an airplane.  While technically the parties involved can engage in this practice on any portion of the airplane the airplane lavatory has become the typical headquarters of this club due to its enclosed space and privacy.  Notable social and media celebrities such as Richard Branson and Ralph Fiennes have publicly admitted their own participation in reaching this “unofficial club.”  Through said public admissions, celebrities, with their added cache, essentially open up new discourses and make it okay for the general population to a) discuss their actions and b) learn from / repeat their actions themselves.
Countless films and television shows have portrayed narrative moments of sexual trysting in public restrooms.  Bathroom sex can be found in key scenes from the films Amelie (Jeunet 2001), Prick Up Your Ears (Frears 1987), and East Palace, West Palace (Dong 1996).  Popular Fox network television show Ally McBeal incited incredibly heated social debate as to the applicability of unisex bathrooms due to the portrayal of one which served as a major set in the series.  Over the run of the series male and female characters found each other, socialized, flirted, and on occasion engaged in intercourse in the unisex bathroom.  Likewise, in the pilot episode of HBO’s Six Feet Under, two main characters, Nate and Brenda, meet for the first time at an airport and proceed moments later to engage in sexual intercourse in an airport restroom.  An episode entitled “Head” of NBC’s Law and Order: SVU involved the two main detective characters searching for an elusive criminal who was planting video cameras in toilets of public restrooms for sexual gratification.  While I cannot even begin to describe how prevalent sexual trysting appears in public restrooms in contemporary mass media, these few examples of mainstream representation should reveal that in recent years this topic has no longer been relegated to adults-only material or considered obscene material by censors. 
Pornography is another, and maybe the most obvious, mainstream media outlet advocating sexual activity in public restrooms.  Titles such as Tails from the Toilet (2004), Toilet Tramps (2000), and Bathroom Antics (2002) are all advertised as top-sellers on AdultDVDEmpire.com.  In an attempt to retain the slightest bit of dignity I will confess I have not seen any of these pornographic films (and would not describe their content in detail if I had), but the descriptions following each title indicate that entire segments of these popular pornographic entries, if not entire films, are set within the confines of public and private bathrooms.   Pornography, obviously, is a genre of media used exclusively to foster and incite sexual pleasure within its viewers.  Pornography is also known for strong marketing tactics and knowing exactly what its audiences want (Thank you for saving home video, Porno!).  Therefore, the large percentage of titles using restroom settings for sexual trysting would indicate that many users want, prefer, and dare I say are turned on by the atmosphere connoted by it.
In recent years, the risqué activities of important United States social and political figures have dominated news and contemporary media.  Larry Craig, a Republican senator from Idaho, may be the most well know example of this scenario.  According to cultural commentator James Hannaham,
It seems logical that closeted men would seek out anonymous, fleeting encounters, typically in the most transitory sorts of restrooms, ..Men… [enjoy] the fear of being caught add an extra thrill to the experience” (Hannaham).
While this journalist’s opinion of why men might engage in bathroom sex is sorely lacking in scientific evidence to back up his claims, that is not the point of my citation.  The point is to illustrate that the recent actions of political figures, such as Larry Craig, have made news headlines and thus kept the concept of bathroom sex alive and well in our current vocabulary.
            Media’s representation of sexual trysting within public restrooms may have paved the way for a general level of social tolerance.  This is not an exercise in morality.  I am not claiming right or wrong but simply examining a social phenomenon and its appeal.  The appeal of sexual intercourse in public restrooms is derived from a combination of many factors.  The first, arguably, is the relative ubiquity of public restrooms.  As the restroom is a space uniquely public and private simultaneously, the fostering of social interaction and subsequent hiding of illicit activities is both possible and easy.  “Restrooms…join the company of automobiles and bathhouses as places for deviant sexual activity second only to private bedrooms in popularity” (Leap 30).  Sociologists have pondered why the sexual trysting in public restrooms has become so popular.  Laud Humphreys found that, “those who seek the impersonal sex of public restrooms are caught in a sexual bind between their perceived sexual needs and the satisfaction of those needs by prescribed means” (141).  In effect maybe this returns us to Freud.  Maybe the real appeal of representations of bathroom antics would be some unconscious regression to moments of our own psychosexual development where we can revisit key moments that have shaped our own evolution.  My interest in exploring sexual trysting in public restrooms is more so about a new utilization of public space by individuals and an attempt to define exactly what that means.
To answer the question of what this novel use of public space signifies, I have turned to the intellectual prowess of 20th Century Cultural theorists.  Using the public restroom for sexual intercourse essentially does serve a purpose – even if it is only an academic thought exercise.  This use of public restrooms functions as detournement.  As Guy Debord has illustrated in his seminal essay, “Methods of Detournement,” this process is traditionally accomplished in the work of an artist who will reuse traditional elements and arrangements of things in new ways.  As Debord himself has written, “Detournement not only leads to the discovery of new aspects of talent; in addition, [it clashes] head-on with all social and legal conventions, it cannot fail to be a powerful cultural weapon” (11).  Ultimately In this essay he outlines how powerful this technique can be.   While this term originally derives from artists working in the Situationist International movement, theorists have begun to expand the idea of detournement outside of the art world.   More recently, cultural studies have begun to incorporate detournement in new ways such as working against the planned usage of public space.  Henry Lefebvre has lamented the post-war organization of cities by exclaiming, “Everything which could be has been separated and differentiated: not only specific spheres and types of behavior, but also places and people” (151).  This, finally, gets to the point I wish to make about sexual trysting in public restrooms: the act is, essentially, detournement.  Pleasure seekers looking to engage in sexual activity in a restroom are defying the expected (and accepted) role of both the space as well as the differentiated behavior that is supposed to be accounted for within it.
I can remember early in my studies of Media Theory coming across Debord’s “Methods of Detournement” for the first time.  At the time I had failed to grasp what such lines of thinking would lead us to.  There seemed no inherent social or political gain to be had but figured it functioned rather like a bourgeois thought experiment that led nowhere.  Only recently, coupled with Lefebvre’s “Notes on the New Town” and de Certeau’s “Walking in the City,” does the theory of detournement within public space open me up to understand that these new lines and channels of thought can allow us to view past, present, and future experiences in diverse cultural lights.  When thinking this way, something previously viewed as base and vile, such as sexual trysting in a public restroom, suddenly becomes a rebellious act of non-conformity.  By re-classing that which we might often cast aside as mundane, vile, reprehensible, or even pornographic (generally lacking in socially redeeming values), we as human beings can come to view life and experience with brand new eyes and shape and construct meaning through our interactions with people, culture, and public space to defy expectations and carve our own paths.