An essay by Eugenio Volpe about Shame, abandonment, self-doubt, love, fatherhood, the lack of good dogs in LA, and exorcising his demons through ink.
Last month, GMP started an important conversation about men, shame, and vulnerability. Shame lives in darkness. It’s where it thrives and gets its oxygen. When shame, and the pain that accompanies it, is spoken, it cannot live.
Bringing shame into the light minimizes its power. It’s our sincere hope that in speaking their truth and talking about their pain, that these writers will find their authentic voice and experience the personal power that comes from speaking their truth.
Sara falls asleep first and then I toss around in the dark for a few hours, and by dark, I mean evil. I am the worst man ever. I abandoned my dog, a handsome yellow lab no less, to be with a woman, to be with Sara.
In my defense, Sara is hot. She is also amazing, and by amazing, I mean hot. She is also really smart, like perfect on the SAT smart. She’s also smart in the dark philosophical sense, as in she knows that humanity is super dumb and super-duper fucked. She’s Olivia Wilde on the outside and Nietzsche on the inside. She’s my dream girl. Her skin smells like everything good that was ever supposed to happen to me, as in publish my novel, as in publish a short story in Harper’s, as in start a family with an amazingly hot smarty-pants. Sara is thirty weeks pregnant with our son. One out of the three is at least a start.
I spoon a slumbering Sara while anxiously calculating the improbability of my writer/adjunct professor lifestyle adequately feeding a child. It could barely afford kibble, heart worm pills, and squeaky toys for the best dog ever, the dog I left behind upon moving from Rhode Island to Los Angeles at the drop of a dime. My heart both swoons and aches, the motherfucker of all cognitive dissonance.
Nose pressed into the back of her head, I catch a whiff of The New Yorker in Sara’s hair, which has the reverse effect of smelling salt. It lulls me into a few lowercase Z’s, but then suddenly, out of the proverbial nowhere, the guttural whimper of a dog startles my conscience into high alert. I open my eyes. I hear it again, the whiny sound a dog makes when its rawhide has slid out-of-reach under the couch. I lift my head for a better listen. I don’t hear it a third time but imagine and suspect the worst. There is a dog suffering somewhere, somewhere in our bedroom, under our bed, in Sara’s closet, or perhaps just outside the window.
I sit up. I hear it again, more of a yammer this time. I pull the covers aside. I am seconds from launching myself into action, rescuing this dog from Darth Vader, or Adolf Hitler, or whatever force of evil is doing it harm. I’m moments from pulling a full-on Schindler when I hear the noise again—Sara’s belly. The whimpering is coming from my pregnant fiancé’s stomach. Acid reflux has been wreaking havoc on her digestive system, a common third trimester ailment. Her stomach whines and gurgles again. We had Mexican for dinner. She drank lemonade before bed. I muscle up a sour burp of my own and then swallow it. Careful not to wake Sara, I sink into the mattress, returning my head to the pillow, but this time sentencing myself to face the wall. I’m not good enough for The New Yorker. I’m not good enough for a son. I’m a good-for-nothing nobody with no dog and no means.
Now I’m really awake. Mistaking Sara’s pregnancy for Buddy’s sorrow has got me thinking even lousier of myself. I am the poorest excuse for a man ever, and by poor I mean a 550 credit score and seventy-thousand dollar student loan debt. I try taking it easy on myself, making excuses on my own behalf. At least I was willing to do the right thing for a make-believe dog.
I lie there, staring at the dark wall, nodding in good conscience at the justification, but my superego calls me out on such bullshit, reminding me of my overall selfishness and superficiality, reminding me that the only reason I heard a whimpering dog in the first place was the guilt of leaving the most handsome dog ever for the most beautiful woman ever. My superego has made a valid argument. I am vain and superficial, but I’m a Nietzsche guy, not a Kant guy. I don’t buy into the categorical imperative. I don’t judge moral acts on their intentions. I base them on consequences. Selfish motives are just fine with my ego. It doesn’t matter why I was willing to rescue an imaginary yellow lab from a fictitious sci-fi villain. It only matters that I would have saved him from the Nazi concentration kennel had there actually been one in our bedroom. How’s that for humanity? My son will be depending on mine. How super-duper fucked is he?
I’ll never fall asleep unless I somehow deflect judgment from myself. The cheapest and easiest way of thinking better of oneself is to think lowly of others. This is especially easy when living in LA. I reflect on all the materialistic megalomaniacs I’ve encountered since moving here. The trainers at my gym. The trophy wives at our Beverly Hills ob-gyn. The surfer bros of Malibu. Aside from the Porsches, boob jobs, and designer soul-wear, their true terribleness is expressed by the dogs they own.
There are few real dogs in Los Angeles, and by real I mean canines that could take down a faun, or at least a squirrel, a dog with actual fur, weighing over twenty pounds. LA residents do not own dogs. They own miniature toys. They’re still accessorizing outfits with Paris Hilton Yorkies. Modern Family French bulldogs waddle the streets in packs. The Taco Bell Chihuahua is still mucho popular here. Angelinos talk, dress, and think straight out of media. They take everyday life cues from TMZ and Us. Angelinos aren’t human. They’re reality TV extras taking part in unpaid rehearsals, the lowest form of inhuman. They don’t deserve real dogs. They don’t even deserve children.
Caring for a real dog requires a soul. I should know. I used to have one. I haven’t seen Buddy in seven months. I left him with his mother (my ex-wife) upon leaving for Los Angeles. Sheila and I had been separated two years. When we split, I acquired full custody of the best dog ever, and she acquired full custody of the best cat ever. Sheila and I remain good friends. We were together twenty years, married for thirteen. We fell out of love, romantically. I was first to realize it. I was the one who took the initiative. It took Sheila a few months to accept the upside of my evildoing, but once she started dating, once she had a consistent sex life for the first time in three years, she got it. She was okay with me being a bachelor. She was okay with me dating as long as I didn’t fall in love. I’d ended our marriage on the premise that I wanted to die a playboy, pledging that I’d never again fall in love, that I didn’t want it, wouldn’t accept it if thrust upon me. I swore on a stack of Bibles that I’d remain single forever, just me and Buddy in my cozy harborside apartment.
We walked three times a day. We hung out at the café. I took him surfing. I sometimes brought him to class. I cooked us steaks. I shucked us oysters. Buddy and me, doing whatever the fuck we wanted whenever the fuck, hanging around, getting down, listening to the Stones, swilling Wild Turkey, chowing Iams, just a couple of dogs living the good life.
Sheila could live with that version of me. She could live with my not having anyone special other than Buddy. It salved the sting of my ending things. I was more than happy to oblige her. I was hell-bent on staying single, until I met Sara. Then from the proverbial nowhere, my libido wanted to play for realsies. No more unpaid rehearsals. My hormones wanted true, biological happiness. Nietzsche defines happiness as the feeling of power growing. Marx argues that a living thing seeks above all to discharge its strength. In the classroom, I’d spewed these quotes into the unfertile minds of business majors. After spending my first twenty-four hours with Sara, I finally understood them in a useful context.
I fell in love with her physiologically, but also emotionally, mentally, chemically, and physically. I fell in love with her every which way. We’d been friends some eighteen years prior and had recently reconnected via Facebook. Our first date was her sister’s wedding in Kansas City. We each flew halfway across the country. I landed Friday night September 20th, and knew by 5pm Saturday. Sara knew by Monday morning. We wanted to spend the last half of our lives together. We wanted to marry and have kids. Two months later, I bought her a ring before my divorce was even finalized. Understandably, this rubbed Sheila the wrong way. She’d wasted her entire adult life on me. No money. No children. Nothing to show. She was forty years-old, living with her mother, and that was slightly more than half my fault.
Come December, I dumped Buddy onto Sheila. I asked her to watch him for a few months until I sorted things out in LA, until Sara and I moved out of her small one-bedroom apartment with a no-pets policy. I’d be getting acclimated, starting a new job. It was unrealistic to bring Buddy. He was used to a certain lifestyle. He was used to open space and lots of attention. He’d be miserable in Sara’s apartment, getting minimal walks in a congested city. Sheila lived on six acres of woods surrounded by another hundred acres of woods. Her mother’s house had always been Buddy’s second home. He loved it there. He loved Sheila, almost as much as he loved me.
Leaving Buddy behind was heartless and selfish, but I knew he’d be happy. I knew he’d be loved. I knew Sheila would be loved. My heart was in the right place, a half-assed Kantian act on my part, but I won’t try to justify it. My best intentions were in my own best interest, but I did feel guilty for rubbing everything in Sheila’s face, for finally getting my shit together for another woman. Sheila had seen the good in me when there was nothing but smoldering anger and self-loathing. She’d put all her stock in my potential, as an author, as a man, but I never rose to her occasion. I didn’t have it in me, not for her, and that’s the worst thing a person can’t do to someone, but now I was leaving her with the best dog ever. She still had the best cat ever. She also had a new boyfriend. Buddy liked him. They’d spent time together during Buddy’s alternating weekend visits with his mother. They were all in good hands with each other, so I jetted off for happiness, the happiest I’d been since my parents’ fugly divorce, which had rendered me a sorrowful sack of shit at the age of seventeen.
By the end of my first week in LA, Sheila began texting me photos of Buddy palling around with her boyfriend Brian. A photo of them hiking in the woods read, “Buddy with his new father.” During week two, she sent a photo of Buddy lying against the bathtub while Brian showered behind the curtain. That message read, “I’ll spare you a photo of his dick.” Sheila has a terrific sense of humor, a Bostonian ball-buster. The text was delivered as part tickle and part jab. I mostly laughed. I wasn’t hurt. I wasn’t jealous. Not of Brian’s penis, nor his relationship to my dog. I’d hung out with Brian a few times. I liked him. He was great to Sheila. They’re a wonderful fit, but he’s not me. Brian could have a twelve inch cock made of peanut butter, but Buddy would still come licking my way if put to a mock dog food test.
By week three, Sheila began sending texts saying I had to take Buddy back. Her mother didn’t want him at the house. Sheila worked full time, which meant my ex-mother-in-law was home all day with Buddy and her own dog Mayzie, who is the worst dog ever, not to mention the ugliest. Buddy is easy to take care of, but Jean resents me for good reason, and for some not-so-good reasons. She perceived babysitting Buddy as doing me a favor. To make matters more impossible, Jean has a rich history of being a terrible dog owner. She never walks them. She always forgets to fill their water bowls. She feeds them scraps of human junk food. Previously, she and her late husband owned two miserable dogs. The first was an obese chocolate lab with warts. Mocha bit thirteen people over a course of three years. The second was a gentle darling, a black lab/greyhound mix. They would leave Jet home alone for ten hour stretches while they toiled away at their failing factory. Jet died relatively young, stomach cancer caused by desolation.
I begged Sheila to give me another month or two. She reluctantly agreed, but by week four, Sara was a week late. I didn’t have the heart to tell Sheila when by week five she texted saying I had to take Buddy or she was giving him to Brian’s best friend. Jean was fed up with him, with helping me. She was cutting her daughter’s nose to spite my face. Jean always resented my ego. She’d always suspected me of thinking I was better than everyone, she and her husband in particular. She was right. I did. I was.
That doesn’t make me a very good person, but so be it. So be me. That was my new Nietzschean motto. After years of existential self-deprivation, I was only interested in willing myself to power. I was behaving in unpopular ways, doing the wrong thing, hurting people who I still kind of sort of loved, but that’s inevitable when you want greatness, when you want the most amazing woman ever. As Nietzsche argues, terribleness is part of greatness. One should not desire one without the other. This is the moral system of winners, of Steve Jobs and Alexander the Great. It’s a moral system that terrifies the likes of my ex-mother-in-law, and for good reason.
Jean had always written me off as a loser, as a surf bum, as an irresponsible vagabond. She was pretty much spot-on. For two decades, between intermittent work as a tree-cutter and adjunct professor, I did nothing but travel the world, surfing and reading esoteric literature. Jean resented me for this, for not buying her daughter a house, for crashing at hers between trips, and for not providing her grandchildren. Sheila was complicit in this lifestyle, sort of. A friend once described our relationship as Sheila tubing behind a daredevil boater. Thrilling and fun, but ultimately destined for seasickness. Eventually, Sheila did develop epilepsy, partial seizures occurring monthly, and then two grand mals five months apart. The partials showed up during our thirteenth year together. They went undiagnosed for another three. The first grand mal finally clued doctors. I diagnosed the cause as stress brought on by me, by bouncing Sheila through life full-throttle with no money, no plans, and no promises. Sheila and her neurologist could neither confirm nor deny my medical theory. I felt terribly guilty. I assumed full responsibility. I deemed myself the worst husband ever. Jean kindly agreed.
Jean had every right to judge my failings, but she also needed them. It made her feel good about herself, and by good, I mean bitchy. It also made her feel better about her own son, an under-achieving software developer to whom she and her husband had loaned tens of thousands of dollars. Jean needed to have me both ways. She would have been heartbroken had I ever out-succeeded them. After grad school, upon my fourteenth year with Sheila, I won the PEN Discovery Award for my uncompleted novel. A very popular literary agent asked to read it, calling the sample chapters “exceptional.” Upon learning of this, Jean reacted with a panicked, “Imagine he’s the one to make the millions!?”
Jean believed there was a million dollars out there with her family’s name on it. But Jean didn’t have to worry. I wouldn’t lay claim to it. I didn’t finish the novel. I never sent it to the agent. My best friend died two weeks after the agent contacted me. I stopped writing. I took up swilling whiskey and Netflix binging. In my drunken carpe diem haze, somewhere amidst the sixth season of Lost, I realized that I didn’t want to be married anymore, that I didn’t deserve to be. I didn’t want to drag Sheila anymore, not down, not up, not anywhere. I wanted to be alone. I wanted to sow my wild oats, but wouldn’t find the strength until we adopted Buddy.
Jean had always known me as a loser, but suddenly I was a loser on the move. I was suddenly rising above and beyond her, and she had my dog. I respected her disdain for me. I didn’t expect her to assist in my ascent. She was being who she was, a resentful wreck, existentially threatened by my finding the proverbial millions. By forcing Sheila to give Buddy away, Jean was cock-blocking my happiness. Good on her. Why should she be partly responsible for the temporary care of her daughter’s half of Buddy? She shouldn’t. As crummy as Jean was, it was my bad, not hers, and by bad, I mean heartless, selfish jerk.
But I couldn’t take Buddy back. With Sara pregnant and me not making much money as an adjunct professor, our wisest move was staying in her rent-controlled apartment. I couldn’t bring myself to tell Sheila about the pregnancy. I didn’t want to hurt her. Maybe it would have given me some moral leeway with Jean, but the bigger reality was that Buddy didn’t fit into my new life. I had a new relationship, a new job, a small apartment, and tiny embryo. Sara runs a busy tutoring company. Buddy wouldn’t get the attention he needed. He would have hated his new surroundings. Brian’s friend lives in the woods of New Hampshire. He had chickens and three kids who were gaga for Buddy. It was time for me to let go. I was on the verge of having everything I ever wanted. I was writing more than ever. I stopped chowing Wild Turkey. Things were beginning to happen. Life was beginning to happen. I relinquished Buddy. I told Sheila to do what she must with him. She was wholeheartedly disappointed in me a second time.
I didn’t tell Sheila about Sara’s pregnancy, but she knew. She had a hunch. We’d been together twenty years, and in that time developed a sixth sense for each other. She can know what’s going on with me without having to ask, by just looking or listening. She has a feel for me. Sheila knew I was going to be a father. She could hear it in the tone of my voice when we spoke on the phone, but more than that, she just knew. It’s not as supernatural as it sounds. Developing a sixth sense for someone is a form of love. The problem, however, is that when you get that close to a person, when you develop that sixth sense for them, you no longer need the other five senses, touching and fucking in particular.
I still have a sixth sense for Buddy. I dream of him at least once a week. I always wake up crying. The dream always starts with me in a room, doing nothing, just sitting there. Buddy comes trotting in, wagging like crazy at the sight of me. He flops down and I thump his ribs and kiss his ear, whispering baby-talk to him, telling him he’s the best dog ever. That’s when I wake up teary-eyed. These dreams are my conscience grieving in small portions. If I look at pictures, or even think of Buddy long enough, I’ll lose it. He meant the world to me. Sheila and I adopted him on a whim. We were walking by the animal shelter and there was this handsome and muscular yellow lab with a wide magnificent head and eyes like Christ. We adopted him in the spot. He saved me. He gave me the strength to leave Sheila. He gave me the strength to be alone for two years while I self-destructed, drinking and womanizing, gladly accepting fights against armed gang members in front of my friend Gerald’s house in Providence. A small chunk of me wanted to die. Buddy prevented that part of me from metastasizing. He kept me alive for Sara.
The other night, I had a dream that Buddy had somehow slit my throat, and as I lay there on my back bleeding out, he curled up next to me and rested his chin on my chest. It wasn’t sad or terrifying. It actually felt warm and nice. We were just lying there dying or something else kind of awesome. I kissed him on the ear, his fur smelling like a publishable story in at least Tin House.
Buddy loved it when I thumped his ribs, a primordial 4/4 time, an accentuated downbeat from sounding like battle drums. All dogs love being thumped. It reinforces human dominance over them. That might sound evilly fascist, but it’s not. Being benignly dominated makes a dog feel secure. It also reminds them of their mother’s heartbeat in the womb, or at least that’s what I read on the Internet.
With dogs, wombs, and dog wombs on the brain, I roll onto my back and give up on the idea of sleep. I am beyond it at this point. Buddy is gone, a mere stomach grumble in the middle of a sleepless night. My son is coming in two months. I am still financially inept, but my eBook is due out soon, and I’m now shopping a novel to agents. I am proud of both works. I am proud of this essay. I’m a good writer, and by good, I mean honest. I occasionally speak a few truths, and by truths, I mean insecurities. Nietzsche would be disappointed in me. He didn’t value truth, or meekness or cowardice. He wasn’t a big fan of humility either. He could be so bold. He didn’t have a son to feed.
If I’m to make it as a writer, I must sustain a healthy dose of self-loathing. Otherwise, essays like this wouldn’t be possible, but maybe that’s the point of writing, to someday cure oneself, to exorcise ones demons. Here’s where I’ll take a lesson from Nietzsche’s madness, brought on by his intellectual pursuit of a moral system based on untruths, eventually rendering the nihilist philosopher in a catatonic state, well that and the syphilis. I won’t go so far as Nietzsche. I will however remain a touch sick. I won’t heal myself. I certainly won’t write myself any prescriptions. I will remain the worst man ever. I will remain super-duper fucked so I can entertain readers with my awful failings. Don’t worry, I’ll live. I might even live well. I can withstand my own torture. I can take my own punches. I’m an Italian-American Catholic from Boston. I’ve got thick skin and a hypersensitive soul, which heightens my sixth sense for the world, making me the honest-to-goodness writer I am today.
I have a sixth sense for the world. I love it. I love Los Angeles. I love to surf Malibu. I love farmers markets. I love books. I love coffee. I love Brian. I love Sheila. I even love Jean. I just don’t want to fuck any of those people or things. I am wildly in love with Sara. It’s downright primordial. I have zero sixth sense for her. I don’t want one. I want us to love each other viscerally, with mouths, hands, and hearts. No intercourse via telepathy. No intimate hocus pocus. Sara is too hot for that, too dark and deep, and by dark and deep, I mean brilliantly twisted enough to love someone like me. Therefore, I must remain cognitively dissed so I can write a nice little life for the three of us. I must continue being terrible so I can be great for Sara and our son. I am shameless. I am shit. Have I failed to mention that Sara was once the love of my dead best friend’s life?
Read more from Eugenio at his blog: Me Being Brand