A world lived in the shrub I crouched behind. I need to commune with you. But hiding beside the steps leading to the front door of the university building where Russell Banks waited for faculty members, I needed the renowned author’s signature more. Except, I was only concealing myself in my head - that part of me that was the me I’d known that cowered from the me assuming control of the connections in my brain – behind the shrub that hardly reached my chest, leaving me looking like a man trying to hide behind an inadequate bush he appears on the verge of interacting with, because let’s be honest, calling what I was doing crouching was generous. It was more like the bowing I did in martial arts, though if I’m gonna be completely straight-up, it was more like the hunched over straining of constipation. There was nothing anonymous about me, a truth further enhanced by the following facts: A) I was the education reporter for the daily newspaper, which B), ran an opinion column I wrote that featured my grinning mug, and C), I’d interviewed most of these professionals over the years.
But in my head, as I slightly squatted (again, generous) to better hide, something fantastical beckoned me into the shrub. And that’s what approaching professors witnessed. I see them now as they saw me then. I hear their thoughts that day. “Is that Stephen Bartlett? Is that the Press-Republican’s education reporter trying to hide? Why does he look like he’s conversing with the shrub?”
I must have looked creepy too, because though they’d spotted this caricature of myself I’d created, they still startled when I bounced like a burned Pop-Tart – pretend Kellogg’s made a Ben & Jerry’s Phish Food flavored pastry - from behind the shrub that hid a little more than a quarter of me, proffering three Russell Banks books as I vomited stream-of-conscious explanations as to why I needed the writer’s signature: “Get me his name,” and, “Do it,” and, “Now,” and, “Sign on title page,” and, “Stars align,” and, “Stephen with a ‘ph,’” and, “You know me and I know you, now there’s this thing I need you to do,” and, “Books are heavy and shrubs talk.” Their eyes opened like the lids were attached to sling shots, their bodies jolting back the same way I retreated to the shrub between prospects, not-so-anonymous me, thinking I’m hiding - despite the obvious futility of my attempts – as I carry on with a shrub. I recognized the fear in their eyes. I’d become this wild thing, obsessed with Russell Banks’ John Hancock, because fixation is one of the tendrils illness wraps ‘round the mind’s circuitry until thoughts take every new twisting path formed except the one intended in each strenuous birthing of logic until the afterbirth spectators try to hold in their hands and form into something rationale spills through their fingers and splatters into messy puddles that, at that point, can only be mopped up and wrung in a bucket to be dumped outside and forgotten. Except wait, we’re already outside…
“Your head is sick,” the doctors said. But is there a chance that might be a matter of perspective? If not, can we, with adequate lung-capacity, live in vacuums?
Each time I shrugged off the shrub’s sanctity and – ta da – revealed myself, professors said things like, “I can’t,” and, “No,” and, “Stephen, this is inappropriate.” Their declinations emboldened me as sweat trickled down my back and crack under the sun’s watchful eye, until my fevered persistence was as glaring as a man trying to hide behind a shrub he seeks to telepathically commune with, a somewhat high-profile man in the city with the love-hate relationship with the lake it hugs with its arms of fast-food joints and high-end to low-end housing and hopeless hotels with screaming inside that social services utilizes to shelter low-income families needing salvation but given extensions they default on. If only these professors could see I needed Russell Banks to sign my books, because Cloudsplitter and John Brown took me on an epic journey that left me wanting to change the world, and Trailerpark spoke to me because I’d lived in a trailer park with my daughter in the Midwest after her mother split, and each night my little girl and I walked hand-in-hand making up stories about the people in the trailers, and therefore Russell Banks and I were cosmically bonded, and I’d read The Sweet Hereafter too, and had sex as acrobatic as Cirque du Soleil for Dummies after watching the movie adaptation during a date, so, in a way, Russell Banks had been my wing-man that night.
But instead, the professors I surprised made clear their discomfort, which infuriated my fracturing head believing my behavior was acceptable and reasonable and rationale, and motherfuckers quit being difficult and stubborn and unreasonable, because once Russell Banks (who was teaching a one-shot class) inscribes the books I purchased at the local bookstore all will be good in the world.
Except this one professor - in his suit that hung on his slender frame in a way that presented him as comfortable and relaxed - who looked at me with his soft brown eyes and guided me away from the congested faculty traffic that darted toward the steps like rush-hour, because this was a big deal (or were they avoiding me). It was a Russell Banks’ event I considered crashing to announce my request like the DJ introducing the wedding party at the reception, except it would be me presenting myself and I wouldn’t have a microphone, so I’d have to yell, and that was still very much an option in my head if my current strategy failed. This professor, whom I respected and considered a friend, gently asked, “Stephen, are you alright?” Holy fuck, I thought and then said, “If you’d listen to me you’d understand.” “Would it be alright if we went somewhere and talked?” “But Russell Banks is here, and I need him to sign my books. Could you please have him sign these books for me? I’ll wait right outside the door for you to come out. Deal?” He hesitated, as I grinned big as I could and forced my eyes open as wide as possible to show him the exaggerated whites of my eyes and teeth (that meant no harm), so I jerked away and went after the next unsuspecting professor, who still jumped – what the fuck people - despite the fact this time I didn’t leap from behind the shrub, and then the next one and the next one and the next one…
Eventually, I stood alone outside the door they’d locked (and I wonder was it because of me) and paced the steps, plotting and racing the scenarios in my head that might result in Russell Banks signing my books. There was more than mere mania behind my pursuit. This obsession was also founded in a desire to accumulate a collection I could pass to my grandchildren – if I’m ever granted any - one day, much like the antique typewriters I snatch up and rebuild to behold and bequeath to descendants too, because maybe all of it will be worth so much money one day, and I’ll have contributed to the security of loved ones and make up for all the ways in which I squandered my familial investments when I was raving and lost and not worried about finding myself, because holy fucking whoopee it’s fun living madness in the moment. Anyway, at times while I fidgeted and switched hands holding the books and rehearsed out loud the iron-clad conversations that would get me what I wanted, I became angry with the professor I respected and admired and who had pulled me aside to check on me when nothing was fucking wrong (I’d thought), and I’d made clear what the fuck I needed. He couldn’t have reached that part of me he knew that pulled off an adequate crouch to conceal itself behind a part of my brain (maybe shaped like the shrub) in a corner of my mind overwhelming it.
That professor’s eyes that day weren’t frightened and/or annoyed like the others. Genuine concern resided in orbs that saw me better than any of them but could not find me. He’s passed now, and I wish one of the times we’d met for breakfast I’d told him what he meant to me and how it felt being near him.
I got Russell’s autograph, just not that day. A professor friend I sometimes ate lunch with spotted me walking on campus after I’d met with a source. He was on his way to the author’s house and pulled his car over to say hi. I had stuffed the books in my messenger bag slung over my shoulder (because mania ebbs but doesn’t give up), and he agreed to take them with him after I asked appropriately and without materializing from a hiding place that had no hope of covering me. I also went to a small reading featuring Russell Banks in an eatery with paper napkins. I said something cliché and forgettable when he signed a copy of another book of his I’d purchased. I was afraid and didn’t find myself interesting from down low. I used to think I lost my voice in the cycles, or it couldn’t keep up and what fucking good was it to me several steps behind? But I also know now that my grandfather turned my volume down when he used me to get off. My uncle lowered it more when he made me blow him. My babysitter muted me when she told me I was “beautiful” and “special” and she loved me while she did ‘bad’ things to the preschool boy I was that felt good and which she said felt good to her too, creating connections I later reinforced each time I was insecure and needed to feel “beautiful” in the only ways I’d been shown.
I can’t pinpoint the frequency I tuned to the day I faux-crouched behind the shrub (which owes me a fucking apology) and accosted people I needed to maintain a professional working relationship with so I could continue to excel as a journalist. I tuned into it when I announced to colleagues in the briefing room that I had a huge dick (when I don’t), and for a long time the lie seemed a bigger offense than the announcement, because a man’s conditioning is like a barbed hook that bleeds him as he twists it out. I tuned to that frequency when I crawled out of an elementary school window after fucking a teacher (and a source) in her classroom on the floor and the desks and the chairs and the objects for learning I could bend her over and wrap her around, hiding naked in a closet when the janitor knocked to clean, and she shouted not yet. We finished as families in houses surrounding the school tucked into the middle of the city sat down to dinner and might have seen, had any of them peered out a window in the direction of the back of the school, their friendly neighborhood education reporter fall giggling out a classroom window, jump to his feet and brush his khakis off and fix his tie and look around and sing out loud “Back to work I go,” skipping ‘cross the playground, out the back gate and down the sidewalk. This is what I tuned into when I turned in gibberish and my editor suggested I see my doctor, yet in the moment I couldn’t fathom any issue she might have with the award-winning story, that, later, when I was better, looked like a toddler had pounded the keyboard while drooling and chirping and crapping his pants. I tuned out after extended and exhausting peaks, my brain no longer able to comprehend the world around me, curled into a ball on my couch, disconnected (or maybe connected with everything and overwhelmed).
I was tuned into Russell Banks that day the shrub deceived me, because if it wasn’t for that fucking shrub it would have all worked out, and yer damn right I’m driving their tomorrow and tellin’ that bitch off. “Stephen, chill the fuck out, dude. Yer in character for the piece yer writing. Ain’t gonna be no tango with a shrub. Do you even know where the fuck that shrub is today? And you might want to reflect on why you called the shrub a bitch.”
I chuckle when I think about it today. Surviving made me stronger. I love me, and all the flaws that walk with me now. If you saw us holding hands, you’d think we were family, friends, or lovers. I’ve shared this story with the few people I let into my life. I have high standards. It’s not a better-than thing, or “this person’s cooler than that one.” It’s more - I fucked up in so many ways while I was out of control and dove so deep into fixing it, it was like holding my breath for several years, and when I surfaced I needed to set high standards (while I catch my breath), because sometimes I struggle to maintain when triggered. I project that onto others and that’s not fair, because we make mistakes, and while parts of me are light and goofy and love and support, when I project I can be harsh and unforgiving and cold, which I scold myself for, because tenderness is a huge part of whom I choose to be, and that’s why, before writing this, so few people have heard this story. Until I fix more of my parts, I can’t let in people who might trigger me, not because they’re less than, but because part of being a responsible person who works and pays bills and cares for his son - who is severely disabled - and is emotionally available to his wife and children, is knowing where I am in life and setting boundaries to ensure I handle mine. Triggers remind me of the me I used to be, the me I’m afraid I could still be if I don’t hold the reins tight, the me that possibly I haven’t forgiven myself for being, and therefore lied when I whispered, “I forgive you.” How can I forgive when I hurt so deeply the ones I loved the most?
But back to this story that makes me chuckle. It’s inspired laughter in the few people I’ve told, that lough-out-loud shit that makes their parts tingle in its wake, though I suppose in their heads, as they paint smiles on faces I color my canvas with, they could be thinking, “Holy good God Jesus and all the love of Aphrodite, save me now. Just smile and laugh, and maybe this motherfucker won’t come unhinged.”
Painting by Darby Bartlett
This lifestyle/memoir blog contains mature content, some of which could trigger some people. These posts are the author’s honest recollections to the best of his ability. He acknowledges that sometimes people remember things differently. Some names, locations and other identifiers have been changed to preserve anonymity. Author is not providing medical, legal or other professional advice, and all opinions expressed here are that of the author.