Jamie scooped the snow and slush quickly, in a feint of carelessness. He found himself focused on the black wet edges of the stone, though his eyes were elsewhere. His anger was white.
Fingers clenched, this is what he remembered. The voice of his grand-aunt saying Uncle Will’s drinking made her “overklempt.” That Toyota commercial which showed an insipid little baby introduced to “The Great Unknown” while some old Peter Gabriel song played. His mother once looking down at him with a contemptible pity to dramatize her own tribulation. The buffering symbol on his iPad. The face–that face!–of Amanda Princely (“You do not! You’re full of shit!”) in second grade. Ms. Marcus giving him a “time out” when he said he couldn’t understand functions in seventh grade. The deliberate mask of indifference he saw on each nurse’s face. What David Stang did to his pudding cup. That DM he got from User43010b.
Jamie found himself last spring reading Simon Leys and Michel de Montaigne. Yeah. What 14 year old does that? Didn’t take a brain trust, though: the small pile of much-thumbed books was pretty much all he had of his dad, now that he had stopped texting. Who could live with a monster, anyway? Apparently, Dad believed his mother could. Jamie didn’t like either of the writers especially much, but the books made him go looking for other essayists, and he soon found John Jeremiah Sullivan, Touré, and Nishta Mehra. Writers not afraid to write it.
Well, not that Leys and Montaigne were afraid. They were just a bit too educated for him. Touré and Mehra? They were just smart. And they seemed to understand–sometimes without saying it–what monsters were. Touré had spoken of the monster of race as “a completely liquid shape-shifter that can take any form,” and this felt true of a lot of monstrosity. Nothing, though, that qualified them for a 504 Plan at school, nothing which prevented them from taking the stairs or reading the whiteboard, nothing exactly which caused them to fail soccer or baseball try-outs (Jamie figured he pulled those off all on his own), but something unspeakable, for sure. Something white and blinding and shifting.
Leys was a liar and truth-teller at the same time, Jamie figured. He said that we all still talked about Don Quixote (Jamie had to look him up) because we all secretly believed he would become a knight, that his insanity wasn’t really insanity. But Jamie–choosing on purpose to never read Cervantes because it was too damn long (But what else are you gonna do in the spring, now?)–concluded that Quixote’s problem, his delusion, was that he somehow saw through the whiteness. Quixote would never be saved because on the other side of that fear-and-fight response was something even bigger. And we read and read about the guy who saw giants for real.
Mr. Hanniwick told them that both fear and anger and other primal emotions emerged from the amygdala part of his brain, the part that started right near the bottom of the skull, the first part to evolve, the part attached closest to our spinal cord, that reacted first before the rest of our thinking brain could catch up. When it was set off, Mr. Hanniwick said, there was sometimes no telling how even the nicest person would behave. And all Jamie could do was nod, yeah, yeah, but also wonder what attached itself to the amygdala.
Leys wrote that whenever people wanted the truth, they just had to look under their noses. No, not under their noses, Jamie thought, but beneath their own heads.
My body’s breathing while it can
But what I don’t understand is that
My world ain’t gettin’ no brighter
Montaigne wrote about monsters more directly. He didn’t do it as well as when Sullivan described Axl Rose (who Jamie now streamed repeatedly) as looking like the monster in Predator. But Jamie remembers that Montaigne saw a child who was a Siamese twin once and whose family paraded it around for cash. This was a strategy Jamie’s mother had not yet struck upon. But he moved his dad’s books to his own bedroom and hid them away. Later he started to carry pages around in his pockets, of essays, of lyrics,of whatever helped.
So yeah. David Stang was an asshole (and on the soccer team), and all Jamie did was read his dad’s old forgotten books while the winter slowly melted away. Stang got angry when he saw Jamie, who knew why, except that he definitely seemed repulsed, as if he could sense what was monstrous. More than twice that repulsion had resulted in bruises, and more often than that public humiliation. The high school still insisted on describing this as “bullying,” so Jamie decided not to report the elementary school behavior.
Not that he could blame Stang, exactly. Stang’s ol’ amygdala just kicked in–a primal Fear Factor, Jamie was sure. It focused his aggression on the unnatural, and the rest of what he saw was just a blinding white. Stang couldn’t see it, either.
Why would he expect him to?
He saw it all clearly enough, but his periphery was white, an obtuse blankness from which it bloomed. Tendrils stretched into his amygdala. Why could no one else see what he saw, feel it, speak about it? Hidden behind that closing bubble, rising beneath him. Not beneath their noses: beneath them utterly.
It filled his space with want, a space not without air but without breath. The whiteness threatened to crush him into a paralysis of lung and leg, into a panic which was absolute, unsound. The first part of the brain to evolve had responded to something from without. Now it had found him. Like knows like.
So much easier to remain blind, Jamie thought. To believe that it was just him, that the monstrosity of him alone was enough to explain it.
It’s a bad obsession
It’s always messin’
It’s always messin’ my mind
That soft pulling wiggle wrapped around his ankle, around his spine. “Throw. A little balance in the world. Please.”
He followed the tendrils back down (monstrous), sensed the giant at their root, its arms spinning into millions of brains. And the worst part of it, Jamie sensed as his hand measured the length for his throw, was that there was nothing evil here at all, nothing that . . . that chose. It was deliberate yet implacable. Slumberous but irresistible. Bloated and hungering. It barely knew he existed. So huge he could not discern its form–fluid, shape-shifting–and yet it manipulated. It was part of him as was Montaigne’s child monster: two bodies directed to one head. Hiding behind the white.
His arm pulled back. Amanda’s white teeth would meet that throw.
And yet his left hand struck the paper in his coat pocket, the page from Montaigne he had kept. His left hand slapped it again, hearing the crinkle.
Those that we call monsters are not so to God, who sees in the immensity of His work the infinite forms that He has comprehended.
Jamie did not believe in God so much. His mother had given up on church soon after his birth, Aunt Ann had told him.
And here was Montaigne. Even this, this swelling hate, this shame, this bullshit, this abusive awkwardness, this thing beneath him, was not so to God, was not unnatural.
Whatever falls out contrary to custom we say is contrary to nature, but nothing, whatever it be, is contrary to her.
Good words. Jamie had kept them to remind him, to ground himself, to hang on. But Montaigne, like Cervantes, would not speak openly of what lay beyond nature. Tolerance, forgiveness, these things were all well and good for what was part of nature. But monsters are portents.
Nonetheless, Jamie chose. His lips drew tight. “I forgive you, Amanda.” And he let throw.