Douglas & McIntyre
Tiger, Tiger

Book details:

March 2011
ISBN 978-1-55365-855-9
Hardcover
6" x 9"
336 pages
Biography & Autobiography
$29.95 CAD

Douglas & McIntyre

Tiger, Tiger

A Memoir

Excerpt / Additional Content

Prologue

I started writing this book the summer after the death of Peter Curran, whom I met when I was seven and had a relationship with for fifteen years, right up until he committed suicide at the age of sixty-six.

Hoping to make sense of what happened, I began drafting my life story. And even during times I haven’t worked on it, when it sat on a shelf in my closet, I felt its presence in the despair that comes precisely at two in the afternoon, which was the time Peter would pick me up and take me for rides; in the despair again at five p.m., when I would read to him, head on his chest; at seven p.m., when he would hold me; in the despair again at nine p.m., when we would go for our night ride, starting at Boulevard East in Weehawken, to River Road, down to the Royal Cliffs Diner, where I would buy a cup of coffee with precisely seven sugars and a lot of cream, and a bread pudding with whipped cream and raisins, or rice pudding if he wanted a change. When I came back, he’d turn the car (Granada or Cimarron or Escort or black Mazda) back to River Road, back to Boulevard East, and we’d head past the expensive Queen Anne, Victorian, and Gothic Revival houses, gazing beyond the Hudson River to the skyscrapers’ lights ignited like a thousand mirrors, where we would sometimes park and watch thunderstorms.

In one of his suicide notes to me, Peter suggested that I write a memoir about our lives together, which was ironic. Our world had been permitted only by the secrecy surrounding it; had you taken away our lies and codes and looks and symbols and haunts, you would have taken everything; and had you done that when I was twenty or fifteen or twelve, I might have killed myself and then you wouldn’t get to look into this tiny island that existed only through its lies and codes and looks and symbols and haunts. All these secret things together built a supreme master key, and if you ask a locksmith whether there is a master key in existence that will open any lock in the world, he will tell you no, but you can make a key that will open all the locks in one particular building.

You can configure the locks beforehand to match the grooves of the key in question, but it is impossible to design a key that will open any preexisting lock. Peter knew this because he once created a master key for a whole hospital; he was a self-taught locksmith, learning the trade in libraries at night and on the job after bluffing his way in.

Picture a girl of seven or so, who loves red gumballs that come from gumball machines but leaves behind the blues and greens; a child whose sneakers are the kind with Velcro, not laces; a child whose legs grip metal ponies activated by a quarter at Pathmark Super Center; a child who is afraid of the jokers in a card deck and insists that they be taken out before a game; a child who fears her father and dislikes puzzles (boring!); a child who likes dogs and rabbits and iguanas and Italian ices; a child who likes riding on the back of a motorcycle because what other seven-year-old gets to ride on a motorcycle; a child who hates to go home (ever) because Peter’s house is like a zoo, and most of all because Peter is fun, Peter is just like her, only bigger and can do things she can’t.

Perhaps he knew that human cells regenerate every seven years, that after each of these cycles, a different person rises up from the old nest of atoms. Let’s say over the next seven years, this man, Peter, reprogrammed this child’s fizzing cells. That he cleverly memorized her pathways to joy and followed her easy trails of desire, her cravings for Creamsicles, going shirtless like a boy, loving the lap of a dog’s sweet pink tongue on her face and the sight of a rabbit crunching something crisp and green. Later, he assiduously learned Madonna’s lyrics and, still later, the names of twenty Nirvana songs.

Four months after Peter died, I interviewed a corrections officer while working as a feature writer for my college newspaper. At her apartment, a studio in the Journal Square area of downtown Jersey City, we drank chamomile tea and chatted. I mentioned that I was writing a book. She wanted to know what kind, and I said it was about a pedophile and that it was only a first draft—very rough so far. I asked her if she knew any pedophiles in her line of work.

“Pedophiles. Sure. They’re the nicest inmates.”

“Nice?”

“Sure. Nice, polite, don’t cause any trouble. Always call you miss, always say no ma’am, yes ma’am.”

Something in her calmness compelled me to talk. “I was reading that pedophiles rationalize what they do by thinking of it as consensual even if they use coercion.” That particular fact, something I’d seen in my abnormal-psychology textbook, shocked me by how perfectly it fit Peter’s thinking. My next insight, though, wasn’t gleaned from a book, but I pretended it was: “I also read that spending time with a pedophile can be like a drug high. There was this girl who said it’s as if the pedophile lives in a fantastic kind of reality, and that fantasticness infects everything. Kind of like they’re children themselves, only full of the knowledge that children don’t have. Their imaginations are stronger than kids’ and they can build realities that small kids would never be able to dream up. They can make the child’s world . . . ecstatic somehow. And when it’s over, for people who’ve been through this, it’s like coming off of heroin and, for years, they can’t stop chasing the ghost of how it felt. One girl said that it’s like the earth is scorched and the grass won’t grow back. And the ground looks black and barren but inside it’s still burning.” “How sad,” said Olivia, and she looked like she meant it.

After an awkward pause, the conversation shifted to other types of inmates and the general experience of working in a prison. During our talk, I began to feel nauseated, as though my surroundings, the warm kitchen that had felt so inviting at first, had become menacing.

My perceptions were always devastatingly acute, a side effect of years of very little social contact with the world outside of the one I’d shared with Peter.

In Olivia’s kitchen that day, I felt as though something in me was at a high pitch, as if the world were turned up, and roaring at me.

Union City, New Jersey, where I grew up, is said to be the most densely populated city in the United States. You can’t get a real feel for it just from descriptions of the stale-stiff buttered breakfast rolls and paper espresso containers the size of doll teacups, or the long doughy-sweet churros, just as you can’t get a feel for Manhattan by simply mentioning the shish kebab stand by the Port Authority Bus Terminal or the Strand Bookstore with its eighteen miles of books or the skateboarders at Washington Square Park.

You might try to envision the pigeons and bars and night (spelled “nite”) clubs, the young “hoods” in baggy pants displaying their boxer shorts, the cars parked bumper-to-bumper and the bizarre narrowness of some of the streets, where it’s not unusual to get your side mirror cracked by a passing truck. There are the hissing sounds men of all ages make at any girl over twelve, the fruit stands selling cheap papaya, mango, and avocado (my father, an avocado lover, insisted they could make us live forever), the blackened pieces of gum packed tightly into cracked cement sidewalks. It’s not unusual to hear the kids chant, “Step on a crack, break your mother’s back!” and, I, superstitious like my father, would dutifully avoid them, which was difficult since they zigzag the concrete like the rivulets on a crumpled map when you open it. Just as carefully, I would avoid stepping on my shadow for fear I’d be trampling on my own soul. If you visit, don’t forget to hold your nose as defense against the foul smell while passing the Polleria Jorge live poultry market on Forty-second Street between New York Avenue and Bergenline. Crossing the street to where Panda Shoes has been as long as I can remember brings you to El Pollo Supremo. There, the kind smells of roasting chicken, simmering yucca, rice with black beans, and frying tostones greet you like the elixirs of the Atlantic Ocean. We used to go there to eat, Peter and I, and one wet Halloween during the two years my parents kept us apart, Peter sat in a lone booth and stared out the rain-splashed window for eight hours, hoping to catch a glimpse of me trick-or-treating with my mother.

I still have twelve spiral notebooks of dated daily letters, all beginning with “Dear Princess.” Peter made Xs for the kisses and Os for the hugs. He wrote ITOYOALYA on each, an abbreviation for “I think of you often and love you always.” I have seven videotapes, each dated, with titles such as Margaux on Roller Skates, Margaux with Paws, Margaux Sitting on the Back of the Motorcycle, Waving. Peter would watch these every day toward the end of his life: Margaux scuffling in the dirt with Paws, Margaux playing Criminal on the couch, Margaux waving from atop a tree, Margaux blowing a kiss. Nobody watches Margaux now. Even Margaux herself is bored at the sight of Margaux in headbands, Margaux in cutoff jean shorts, Margaux with drenched hair, Margaux by the ailanthus tree where the white hammock used to hang.

I was Peter’s religion. No one else would find the twenty photo albums of me alone, or with Paws, or with Karen, or with my mother, engrossing. The wooden box made in eighth-grade shop class contains loose pictures, and they are equally uninteresting. The two locks of hair, braided together, brown and gray, laminated so they would always last. An album of autumn leaves, the names of the trees that they came from listed underneath: sugar maple, blackjack oak, sweetgum. My glittery fairy wand, my tiny gray felt mice Peter threw out in a fight but later dug through the trash to retrieve, the cast-iron skeleton key we found by the boat docks; my silver bangles and huge faux-gold cross that I got from the West Village, the tight black leggings (my Madonna pants, he called them), my black choker with the silver heart, my red lace-fringed bodysuit and the vinyl biker-chick pants he got me; a book of Wicca spells, Nirvana, Hole, and Veruca Salt cassettes for our car rides, bootleg Nirvana videos, also from the West Village; cassettes with our four novels recorded on them (different voices for each character); a wooden amulet Peter gave me of a fairy looking into a crystal ball. All of this was stored in a black trunk with a broken latch that he used to keep by the foot of his bed.

Peter, you couldn’t walk more than a few blocks toward the end of your life and you could no longer ride a motorcycle. You walked a little ways to the edge of a cliff at Palisades Park and there you jumped and fell 250 feet, or so the Parkway Police report stated. You left an envelope in my mailbox containing ten suicide notes and several statements on lined notebook paper signing your car over to me. You drew a map for me to find your black Mazda so I wouldn’t be charged for towing and storage. You left me a copy key inside the envelope; the original key you left inside the Mazda’s ignition. I was twenty-two and you were sixty-six.