(Novel excerpt from ‘The God of Atheists’)
In his early teens, Gordon was not ugly, but he was very poorly groomed. It is a sad but true fact that boys brought up by single mothers are rarely dressed for sexual success. Perhaps their mothers feel that their own sexuality really messed up their lives, and want to keep said temptation far from their sons. Or it may be a hatred of absent fathers, avenged on the sons’ possibilities of attracting a mate. Either way, the profusion of bowl-cut hairdos, petroleum-based pants, thin T-shirts with little holes where the labels used to be (or dates on them more than six years old), jeans with no pockets on the asses (or, God forbid, stitched purple Saturns), does not bode well for the continuation of the blood line. It is like a depressing descent: two parents, one parent, no parent…
Gordon’s future seemed completely preordained: no dating; vivid, random, too-intense sexual attractions that frightened him more than motivated him, a slow strangling of sexual desire, reading comics and playing Warhammer-type board-games well into his thirties, an inability to move away from his mother, an apartment filled with old newspapers, plastic chairs, ‘Hamburger Helper’ and dust-bunnies…
But it was not to be. Gordon broke from this quiet tribe of natural bachelors and dry librarians, in a way he did not expect at all.
When Gordon was fourteen, a cousin, Alistair, came to stay from England. Alistair was a bright, brown-haired, lanky youth of sixteen. The day of his arrival, Alistair stepped off the plane, and his eyes widened at the sight of Gordon. The poor boy was standing next to his mother, in the fenced-off waiting area where, it seems, entire ethnic clans come to meet their members. (Alistair particularly enjoyed the sight of the old, miniature Greek women, all dressed in black. He had a theory, in fact, that Black Holes were just a natural end-product of the feminine Greek habit of getting smaller and darker as they aged.)
When Alistair first saw him, at the airport, Gordon was wearing the following:
– a pair of thick, wide tan corduroys
– a tight blue polyester top, zipped up to the neck
– a wild bowl-cut like an oily blonde fern
– hair oil? (Alistair could never confirm this, nor quite bring himself to believe it)
In a glance, he also ascertained that Gordon was not wearing any of the following:
– Natural fibres
– Anything which combated acne
– Matching socks
Alistair, raised by an efficient mother and four bossy, dressy sisters, was schooled in the importance of appearance early and well. (Being English, he was also allowed far more ‘fop-room’ than North Americans could stomach. What was dashing in the UK was, sadly, nothing but gay in the colonies.) His heart broke, seeing Gordon standing beside his mother, and an odd image came to him; that of a hamster storing her young in her cheeks in a time of danger.
In the taxi, Alistair made up his mind: he’ll never date as he is; helping him would be like contributing twice as many children to our gene pool!
Whey settled into their beds at night, Alistair called over.
“Gord, how old are you?”
A pause. “Fourteen.”
Alistair grinned in the dark. “Christ, you must be masturbating like a stressed-out zoo monkey!”
“Ever try your non-dominant hand? It’s like a foreign woman.”
There was silence. Base biology occasionally needs a cattle prod to wake up.
Alistair smiled in the dark. “In my young career, I’ve tried the following masturbation devices: my hand, my mouth (the only limber enough men, though, are dancers, who can get blown waiting for the bus), a glove – well, several gloves really, I prefer felt, as in ‘I felt myself up.’ An empty pill container of my grandmother’s. A watermelon. In the oven, 350, fifteen minutes – then you really need either an apple corer or a lot of patience. A pillow, that goes without saying. The gap between my mattress and the boxspring – Christ I don’t think they could ever separate them now. A rolled-up girlie magazine; paper cuts my God. What else?”
“How old are you now?”
“What – still as much?”
“Of course. Why are we even put in school from thirteen to seventeen? I don’t even remember my dick when I was a boy. Who cares? Just a pee-weapon. Then you have this – this thing to manage – not just drain like a freaking pregnant cow, but constantly shift and move and extract and undo. I swear to God, you hit thirteen, they should substitute Testicular Management for Social Studies. Do you sit on them often?”
“Often?” Gordon giggled. “They’re like two more ass-cheeks!”
“There are times I would give my left arm – all my foreign conquests – for ten seconds of ‘unbuckle and liberate.’ Girls can fold their arms to adjust their tits – we can’t do a damn thing without looking like Uncle Spanky-Fingers. You ever get any ‘dimples?’”
“You mean – on my – private parts?”
Alistair smiled. “Yeah. Tough to whack off sometimes, placing your fingers just so to avoid them.”
“I’ve had a few. And in my – pubic hair.”
“It happens. So, are there any girls you’re into?”
Gordon smiled in relief. “Yeah, sure. Tons.”
“Only those with a pulse, right?”
“Unless it’s a warm day.”
Alistair laughed. “Oooh! ‘The boy is fast,’ she cried. So tell me.”
“There’s one, but she’s such a queen. I’ll never… I’m completely doomed. But she brought me some shark jaws.”
Slight pause. “Excuse me?”
“I’m really into sharks. She offered to get me some shark jaws when she went to Florida.”
Alistair chortled. “She brought you the teeth of a predator? Christ, you colonists are primitive!”
“I can reach almost all my arm through it.”
“Yeah, that’s the hole you should be going for… So who initiated?”
“Did money change hands?”
“I gave her five dollars. It was windy.”
“Hm. Then what?”
Gordon sighed. “Then – I asked her out.”
“I see. Tell me.”
“Well, she has the same initials; our lockers are two apart, she brought me these shark jaws. Mom thought I had a shot.”
“Sure, that’s objective.”
“So she’s next to me one day, and I’ve been practising my Deep Voice all morning…”
Alistair nodded on his pillow. “Sure, the Deep Voice. God with a throat cold. Very sexy.”
“But I lost it asking her out. I wobbled.” Gordon imitated the pre-teen gargle of base and falsetto: “Shelly, I said, would you like to go swimming Friday?”
There was a pause. In the dark, Alistair covered his face with his hands. “Swimming?” he groaned.
“No – there’s a good reason for it. I’m a great diver.”
“I wanted to bring her somewhere where she could see I was good at something!”
“Sure, I understand that. So…”
“So after I say: do you want to come swimming Friday, she says…”
“I can’t bear it!”
“She says: ‘with who?’”
Alistair writhed on his bed. “Argh! Mayday! Mayday! We’ve lost engines two and four!”
“Well I’m a little cheesed at this point.”
“Sure – you know you’re going down. I hate that time between losing power and hitting the ground.” Alistair shuddered. “All that screaming.”
“So I say: ‘with me.’”
“You should have said: ‘with me and Sting.’”
“Yeah, I’d love to be seen in a Speedo next to him.”
“At least you’d get to see her in her Speedo before he whisked her away on his Tantric carpet. So then what?”
“So she says: she’s busy.”
“Engines one and three down, but who cares at this point? Because now you get slow-motion sickness.”
“Slow-motion sickness. You know, you have to get away, but you’re legs are stuck in quicksand. I would rather a quick death, like a cobra. This is more like a very lazy boa constrictor. It’s like the walk back from the Great Weighing.”
“Let me guess…”
“You know, at a dance, you go over no-man’s land to the female line-up, and you try to find that perfect balance: a girl attractive enough that your friends won’t make fun of you for dancing with her, but not so attractive that she’d never dance with you.”
“Because if you get the shun…” shuddered Gordon.
“…you have to walk back – you can’t ask a backup. And if you walk back…”
“…then you have to walk over again…” groaned Gordon. “Let’s not talk about that!”
Alistair smiled. “So you got away from this girl…”
“Yeah, and I have been feeling terrible ever since,” said Gordon, his voice catching.
“Terrible – why?”
“This isn’t so funny. I really wanted to go out with her.”
“Of course you did. I understand that. But you’re all wrong, right now.”
“Look, you’re an okay-looking kid, but it’s like you’ve been dressed by all the devils of celibacy! Who does your hair? NASA?”
“Well that’s no good. Do you choose your own clothes?”
“Sometimes. But we’re not rich.”
“You don’t have to be rich. Listen. Sleep now. Tomorrow we do the Makeover.”
The following afternoon, Alistair took Gordon over to an Italian hairstylist’s, a place with caustic receptionists in tight pants and genial stylists like Alpha males in a harem. There was no small degree of consternation over Gordon’s bowl-cut, and three men came over, clucking like a pride of lions over a wounded cub. The cut finally decided on was called the ‘Stinglet,’ in that it attempted to reproduce Sting’s hair on a smaller scale. Dyes, trims and stylings were applied, and at the end of it, the three men stood around Gordon’s chair, going into great detail about the best way to buy and apply gel. They even shaved him for free. Alistair paid them, but they would not charge full price, claiming that they had never had more fun with a customer. They seemed quite moved by the metamorphosis.
The fact that the pretty receptionist did not recognise Gordon on his way out should have prepared him for what was to come, but it didn’t. After the hairdressers, Alistair took Gordon to Rockwell.
Rockwell was right downtown, Yonge and Dundas, at the hub of all things happening. Gordon had passed by it many times, but it had as much relevance to him as a synagogue to an atheist. It was a jeans store three storeys high, with bright fluorescent lights, sexy salesgirls and gaggles of smooth-cheeked girls holding halter tops up to their chests. Gordon began sweating going in there; it felt wrong, but oh so right! Not one soul in there was an intellectual; none of them wanted to work their way through the classics, or line up for hours to get a book signed, or to learn an ancient language. But they were hot, in the way that only girls who don’t analyse can be – when they’re young, anyway.
The fashion world for young men was at this time a Police state, in that the ‘Synchronicity’ album had come out, and wearing bright rags and hanging from scaffolds over garbage was about the best a young man could do. Alistair had a great eye for the kinds of shirts and jeans with eye-poking zig-zag patterns and enough zippers to qualify as lightweight medieval armour. Again, Alistair paid for a lot of the clothing, but refused to let Gordon wear any of it home until he had been ‘hosed off.’
The next stop was a pharmacy. Gordon had been there before, of course, picking up cigarettes for his mother and buying enormous coloured pillars of cheap shampoo. But there were several aisles down which he did not venture; the standard ones, of course, the feminine products, the weird little grocery section, the old person section, condom rack, the makeup and perfume counters – but Alistair took him down the aisles of men’s-care products, and there he beheld great wonders.
They left the pharmacy with deodorant, shaving cream, after-shave balm, hair and skin lotions, gel, acne cream, round styling brushes, and much more. ‘Take back the bathroom cabinet!’ was Alistair’s rallying-cry.
Gordon slept poorly that night. He was entranced, afraid, unbearably excited, like a gladiator about to step into the light and part the waves of the crowd’s roar. He rose in the morning, showered, and then he and Alistair endured his mother’s discontent as they took an hour to prepare him. (She was not wildly pleased at his transformation, fussing at the cost and shooting resentful glances at Alistair.)
Gordon walked to school, finally able to walk without writhing. For about a year, he had writhed under an anthill of little itchings, able only to wear corduroys, and spending a good third of his time in school trying not to scratch himself. Alistair had pinpointed the problem – dry skin – and solved it by suggesting fistfuls of moisturiser. So Gordon was not only made over in appearance, he had a different relationship to his own flesh. Random erections were still a problem, of course – and would be for years – but at least he was no longer encased in termites.
No one paid any attention to him as he came into the school, and this was quite odd. He sat through his classes in great comfort, but curious and surprised that he was not greeted. In gym class, just before lunch, he came out of the shower, and another boy glanced up at him, then did a classic double-take.
“Jesus Christ man – we all thought you were the new kid! What the hell happened?”
He blushed. “I got a hair cut.”
“Yeah, no kidding! Where’d you get these clothes?”
Gordon panicked. I can’t say ‘Rockwell’; I’m supposed to be smart. “Umm… Downtown.”
“Well you are one happening son of a bitch! You’re like one of those, you know, before and after photos.”
There were two girls Gordon liked, Andrea and Marjorie, and they were both in his German class. They were beautiful – Andrea in particular had a fashion-magazine perfection which soared far above the fleshy lust of teenage attraction. It was only with great effort that sweaty sex could be imagined; to Gordon’s mind at least, his fantasies involved feeling unbearably proud to be with her at a gallery opening, and the limits of his erotic imagination faltered at the edge of perhaps feeding her an exquisite caviar appetiser when no one was looking.
Now, being an intellectual-in-the-making, Gordon had no idea that a good part of the soul is moulded by the flesh, and that the heart can be changed from the outside in. Alistair was right; Gordon was a handsome boy, and the Great Makeover brought it out. Girls smiled at him, giggling as he passed, and he took to sucking in his cheeks and stomach slightly and forever flexing his biceps slightly as he walked.
So Gordon was elevated from skulker to hunk in the space of a single day, and in the fashion of obscure jungle drumming, the news travelled far and wide through the feminine tribe. Andrea and Marjorie were heard to be fighting over him, and Gordon became – verbally at least – very confident with girls. He had been flailing in a void for so long that his extremities hurt striking at his sudden purchase. He was still jittery in romantic situations, but he found that he had a knack for flirting – and, after a few truly abortive starts, that he had rhythm, and he could dance.
Gordon’s Cinderella moment was to have a great effect in his life. Gordon was destined to have a truly Great Idea, and while the source of Great Ideas remains a mystery, it is probably true that Gordon’s Idea had something to do with how he found his way to the centre of things simply by changing his exterior.