If you asked my mother, she’d say she was first and foremost a crusader for fundamentalist Christianity (a belief system believed so necessary to society that it required her constant defense), but I don’t believe that was ever really the case. I don’t believe she’d have made it through the long years in that dingy house in Little Mexico unless she was something else, something more realistic: above all else, a capitalist. Because a true Fundamentalist could not have ignored my father’s line of work — the boozing, the other women, the professional scumbags arriving at all hours of the night. My father’s business trips to visit ‘friends’ in Central America would have set alight the moral outrage of a true crusader, yet my mother was somehow able to tolerate it. She could divide the divine and the corporeal — she knew it wasn’t Jesus who paid the bills and kept her in the Sunday finest.
So she picked her battles. When my father was gone, she enforced a hard-line religious code; I could receive a beating both for the sin of watching a Victoria Secret commercial (“perversion”) and for looking away the next time it aired (“homosexual proclivities”). I could be grounded for reading a book with a curse word in it. Friends in the surrounding trailer parks were discouraged if they came from families of sin, as she figured they mostly did, and I learned early that unmarried girls — or ‘sluts,’ as she called them — were not welcome in our home, that my desires would make it impossible for my mother to hold an office at our church. I was constantly ashamed of myself.
But life was different when my father was home. He watched football and talked crap. He made his ‘friends’ get high and watch CNN’s Crossfire with him, he yelled at Bob Novak’s “fat lyin face.” Sometimes his friends brought me toys or fixed my bike. It was all right, really. The toughest part was dinner. He’d float in from the junkie-filled den in a thick musk of smoke, pop off his shirt, and slide into the chair beside me. He always made me play games, kind of like thought experiments, and this would teach me about the world.
“Okay now, get this,” he said. “There’s a train with thousands of folks on it speedin’ toward a bridge, but the bridge is up, so whattaya do?”
“I put the bridge down—”
“Yeah, okay alright but here’s the kicker now: yer mother’s trapped in the bridge machinery. Ya lower it for the train and that poor sweet body a her’s gonna git tore right up. So what now, uh?” A heady question for the first-grade kid with no understanding of ethical philosophy, who would eventually grow into a twenty-something man with even less an understanding of ethical philosophy. “Whattere ya gonna do?”
My mother stared into her plate.
“I’d save Momma cause I love Momma!” I declared. Play to the crowd you’ve got, I learned that lesson early.
“Congrats,” my father said. “Ya jus murdered thousands a people. That sound like somethin Jesus would pull?”
“Cause yer mother would tell ya, she’d say right away God sacrificed his son, though he loved him plenty, to save a whole buncha people, right? And we should all follow God’s example?”
I said, “Yeah…”
“So whattaya do?”
“I save them folks in the train?”
“How?” he said. My mother’s fork scraped against her plate.
“By killin’ Momma.”
He slapped the table. It was loud. My mother jumped. She always jumped. “That’s right,” he said. “That’s absolutely right. Course now yer goin’ to Hell.”
I felt a jolt rush through my body.
“Ya killed yer own mother! Special ring a Hell fer folks like you.”
“But I—” I looked to my mother but she wouldn’t look up from her plate or say he was wrong or say that it was all lies and so my eyes burned and I shook my head back and forth and I tried to argue my way back into Heaven. “I just did what—”
“Devils… playin wit yer butt. Sticking pitchforks in ya. Forever.”
“I’d save Momma then, I take it back cuz I’d save Momma—”
“Welp, now yer back to mass murderin’ then – that’s Hell, too.”
I started to cry.
“Okay, alright c’mon now, knock off the babyshittere and listen,” he said. “Cause imma tell ya right now, that’s the thing ‘bout religion: ya ain’t never gonna win with em. Ya got that? Can’t never win.”
We played games like that every night and, honestly, I didn’t mind so much. When my father was too rough, my mother would let me have a dessert, and as the years passed I got better at saying the right things to appease him — usually a variation of “Jimi Hendrix” or “Bill Clinton” or “Legalize It!” And some of the games were fun; my favorite was the one where you picked three people to have dinner with, and it could be anyone in the world, alive or dead, didn’t matter. Any three people. I still occasionally play this game, usually on road trips or at dinner parties where the conversation has run its course, and believe me when I say most people are terrible at it.
The problem is they let their enthusiasm get the best of them. Sure, it might be nice to invite Thomas Jefferson and Martin Luther King Jr., but how awkward is it going to be when Jefferson orders MLK to shine his boots? Jesus and Mohammad loved to talk and would make for great dinner companions, but both of them at the same table is an argument waiting to happen. Then there’s the language barrier — unless I waste a seat on a translator, my limited French means I’ll spend most of the night asking Napoleon if there’s a W.C. I can use. And at what point do you bump Confucius or Socrates or Dante for Samuel Coleridge and his enormous sack of opium? These are important considerations most people overlook.
My Big Three has been decided for years now:
1) The Dunking Gorilla from the Make Em Say Ugh video – Self Explanatory
2) Mike Tyson — Terrifyingly Effective Boxer
3) Vince Guaraldi — Jazz Pianist / Wrote and Performed the Peanuts Theme
The way I imagine it, we start with a few drinks at the bar – introductions, stuff like that – then head to our table where we order whatever kind of food it is that rich people are always eating. Something Fusion, maybe? Is that close? Anyway, our appetizers come and the Gorilla and Vince are bonding over their experiences in the music industry, and Mike Tyson is making these brilliant observations about fame and humanity and I’m just listening attentively — I can’t believe my luck — and when the entrees come we all agree to share, and I start to ask Vince about performing at the Monterey Jazz Festival, but his mouth is full, and so we all have a laugh about that while he chews his food, and then he says it was great, and I ask him about working on Charlie Brown Christmas, and he says that was great too, and then I say, You know what else is great? and he says What? and I say This! and the three of us — Mike Tyson, the Dunking Gorilla, and myself — turn over the table and attack him, just mercilessly thrash him to within an inch of his renewed life, and Tyson is just brutalizing him and I’m blind with rage and screaming, That’s what you get! That’s what you get, Vince Guaraldi! You ruined my life!
Allow me to explain.
By the time I got my Pell Grant and went off to university, I was a painfully shy young man. My mother hated the idea of me hanging out with the trailer park boys, and my father prohibited me from spending much time with anyone else — on account that they might get nosey and snitch. So I spent most of high school playing basketball and working odd jobs to keep out of the house, and while I had the same social opportunities as any high school athlete, my deep sense of shame kept me from ever really connecting with anybody. I tried to spin it like I just preferred to be alone, that I was aloof by choice, that I never much wanted friends or girlfriends anyway. People sometimes thought I was an asshole, I knew, but that was better than them thinking the truth.
At university, my dorm room was small but standard — for once, I had a space of my own, someplace I could bring people without them facing an inquisition or being harassed by junkies. It was heaven. And I was so determined to meet new people, to finally form meaningful relationships. It was not lost on me that now, if I met a nice girl, I could allow myself to develop feelings for her, and there was nothing wrong with that! Everything would be okay — by all appearances, I was just a normal college kid. Here I was thousands of miles from my demons, and it felt like nothing could stop me!
Except my shyness. For some reason I’d been under the impression that years of turning down the friendly girls at my small, Southern high school somehow made me good with women. That even though I was now a nobody accomplishing nothing on a campus containing one of the largest stadiums in North America, pretty girls would continue to approach me and fall in love with me for no reason whatsoever. At eighteen years old, this is what I actually believed.
So things didn’t go as planned. I had no idea how someone even went about approaching a person they didn’t know — did you just walk up and start talking, offering no explanation whatsoever for why you’re suddenly stood next to them talking about James Blunt? Should I apologize for interrupting their daily routine? Would apologizing make me look like a pussy? Would not apologizing make me look like an asshole? Do I just say, “Hi, my name’s Jack,” and shake their hand? Shake their hand? Really? God, that’d be awkward. Although I think I saw Jude Law introduce himself that way in a movie once. But then girls probably wouldn’t care if Jude Law approached them with a Sieg Heil, given how handsome he is. I’ll probably never be Jude Law. Sometimes you see stuff on TV where they go back and show how awkward Brad Pitt looked at eighteen, and that sort of gives you hope that maybe movie star good looks might suddenly blossom for you, too, but that seemed far off still, assuming it would ever happen at all.
Enough of that. I was very lonely and even more confused, desperate and out of ideas until one night someone pulled the fire alarm at the girls’ dorm and I, there after curfew, was left alone in the narrow bunk of a girl I was so far unable even to kiss. She and the rest of the tower rushed outside in their pajamas to wait for the fire department, but seeing as we were violating the Student Handbook at the time, she figured it’d be better for me to stay put. So I lay on her bed and stared at the ceiling, at the collage of her high school friends, the tiny blue Christmas lights, the Palahniuk and the Sedaris and the Klosterman, the Simpsons on DVD and the posters covering her walls. I stared and wondered what I was doing wrong, at how my life had been transformed into a perpetual marathon of vacant dry-humping — and then I saw it:
Look at that. No really, take a minute and look at that face. I’ll wait.
Right. So that’s the face of a guy who has had sex with a woman. Actually, it’s the face of a guy who has had sex with multiple women. Multiple famous women, even! To the 18-year-old me—kind and loving but alone—this was unfathomable. How was I struggling for first base while this gangly prick was getting taped to cinderblock walls around the world? He wasn’t that much better looking. How did he convince people to love him? I needed to know. I’d been praying to Jesus every single night since kindergarten, asking that He use his magic to make somebody love me someday. Didn’t matter who. Just somebody. So why did it never happen? What was I doing wrong? What did Chris Martin have that I didn’t?
This is what I thought.
I thought, I will do whatever it takes.
I will study the lessons of Chris Martin, and then someone will love me.
The girl returned to the dorm. “Brrrrr! It’s cold out there,” she said, and as she returned to bed I thought we might cuddle, but she pushed me away, and I thought a twin bed should never have so much room.
Lesson #1: Fame. Chris Martin was famous and girls probably liked that, but there wasn’t much I could do to emulate that aspect of his life. I was never going to be famous; I lacked the charisma of a Chris Martin. (God, what a sentence to have written.) Moving right along.
Lesson #2: Money. Chris Martin was rich. Even at eighteen, I wasn’t so naïve as to think that simply having money would earn me love, but I knew it was important – money represented stability, it made possible a relationship free of the monthly knock-down, drag-out fights that belonged to my parents.
I googled “how to get rich.” I watched infomercials about real estate. The internet seemed to think the key to riches was selling stainless steel blades, but the rational part of me suspected girls might feel somewhat reluctant toward sleeping in a bedroom full of knives whose literature insisted could cut through bone. I wanted to be romantic, you know? And it would’ve been hard to be romantic when you were known on-campus as The Knife Guy. The real estate thing was a scam, too — not nearly as glamorous or affordable as I had imagined. I ended up working for minimum wage. I ended up living cheap.
But I knew first impressions were important, and so I saved my paychecks for months until I was able to afford two sets of nice clothes. Only two. I knew I couldn’t actually afford to be stylish, but the idea was I’d look good enough on the first two dates that maybe, by then, the Future Possible Love of my Life would be smitten enough with my personality to overlook my not actually being a millionaire. It made sense in my head.
So I went out and got a personal shopper and bought a pair of those fancy button-ups with the carefully frayed seams – they were totally in at the time — the ones meant to express that “sure, this is a $200 dollar shirt, but I can change a tire, too.” The blazer was next. Then a nice, black leather belt with an absurdly large silver skull+crossbones buckle, which the attendant assured me would not be interpreted as a commentary on the size of my penis. Then two pairs of overpriced designer jeans with an indigo stain as deeply blue as the lips of the now-dead Vietnamese orphans who undoubtedly provided the stitchwork. Did you know Prada made sneakers? My life’s savings were gone at that point, so I couldn’t afford them, but it’s interesting to think about, huh?
I endured months of minimum-wage humiliations because I knew I’d eventually sit across from someone I cared about, looking sharp, feeling confident, and when the check came I’d reach for it as surely as if I’d had a trust fund. And they’d be impressed, I thought. Two dates, I thought. Love at first sight, maybe. It felt like progress.
Lesson #3: Music. Chris Martin was musically talented. Or, even if he wasn’t really talented, he did a good enough job convincing people otherwise. I figured that was something I could do. Pretending to play the piano, I mean. Because practicing scales and actually learning to play the piano took way too much time. I mean, even learning to read music was a pain. Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge? To this day, I can’t look at sheet music without imagining a portly German child with a mouth full of brown. Conversely, I can’t look at a portly German child without wondering what they’d look like eating fudge, which is one of those idiosyncrasies that I’ve found you almost never, ever want to talk about, even if the mousy girl in the Elvis Costello shirt does claim to like quirky guys. Trying to memorize the bass clef was even more unpleasant, and so I just gave up, instead paying a music major to transcribe a handful of then-popular songs into simple alphabetical notation.
I spent hours every day for weeks sitting in front of a beat up, old baby grand piano that had been inexplicably stashed in a maintenance closet in the basement of one of the old dormitories. My theory was that the janitor was trying to steal the thing one key at a time, like a musical Andy Dufresne sneaking C-sharps and A-flats out into the yard. And so with the loose-leaf cluster of letters before me, I worked note by painstaking note, committing into muscle memory the keystrokes I could not name or understand until, by the end, I was masterful.
At five songs.
I became as proficient as I was embarrassing. “Moonlight Sonata” was the first song I learned; the fingering on it was incredibly simple, which surprised me, I guess because I knew Beethoven was a genius and so I figured all of his compositions would be unfathomably complex. But I managed. And once I had that right, I moved to theme song from Amélie, because the movie was just recently gaining ground in America as That Foreign Movie Teenage Girls Like. After that came, I’m sorry to say, two Coldplay songs – during “Clocks” I’d rock back and forth each time verse met chorus met verse, and I’d try my best to stare ‘soulfully’ through whatever girls would watch me sing “The Scientist.” I can admit to you, the reader, these humiliating truths about my past only because what I’d do while playing James Blunt’s “You’re Beautiful” was so shameful that I’ve since lost the ability to be self-conscious about anything.
Ineffective? Well… not as much as you might expect. I don’t know if it was the placebo effect – that I’d convinced myself I had something to offer now and could thus show a little confidence – or the college environment, or the fact that 19-year old girls aren’t famous for their judgment when it comes to guys, but awkward, shy little Jack Cazir was finally getting some female attention! People were inviting me to parties! I’d put on my one pair of clothes and cologne from the sampler bottle I’d ordered from the internet, and I’d spend my whole paycheck on whatever mid-range wine Oz Clarke happened to be endorsing that week, and I’d show up doing my best impression of someone who had any idea what the hell he was doing. If it was a house party, I’d look for a piano and — rather than stand awkwardly in the corner and pretend to text, as was my M.O. up to that point — immediately sit down, usually with a feigned oh, I really shouldn’t directed to no one in particular. Then I’d play a song and, as this occurred in the halcyon days prior to the supremacy of irony, people were grateful for my enthusiasm.
The experience was tightly scripted:
Jack: I’m sure nobody wants to hear me play.
(Jack waits for the denial that is a basic social nicety.)
Jack: Well, okay, but I’m not very good.
(He plays an extremely polished version of whichever song might play best with the crowd and its vibe, then pauses for applause and/or compliment.)
Jack: Oh, come on. You’re making fun of me, aren’t you? I’m embarrassing myself.
(Once again, he waits for the denial, then begins the second song.)
Jack: That was horrible.
(Pause for denial.)
Jack: Oh, wow, well, I’m glad someone liked it, I guess.
(He begins the third song but abruptly stops and closes the guard about fifteen seconds in. He stands and smirks, responds to all comments in the most self-effacing manner possible, then retreats to the kitchen and pours himself some of the wine he’ll pretend to know about.)
The assertion that nobody could possibly want to hear me play anything more was both polite and extremely functional, as I knew the drop-off between Beethoven and Chopsticks was a noticeable one. Conversely, the difference between Coldplay and Chopsticks is far more subtle, but that was a realization my newfound success would not allow me. Things were going well for me, word around the dorms was I was smart, and I dressed nice, and one girl joked that I was good with my fingers. Good with my fingers! Like with vaginas! I was living a dream. And it seemed sustainable enough. Not every party was at a house, and not every house had a piano. Even if there were a piano, people wouldn’t always ask, and when they did I could always just decline and it was understandable, like how Billy Joel might not play “Piano Man” every time he goes out. Teenage Me saw no problem with comparing himself to Billy Joel.
This continued for most of my first semester until, eventually, I began to hear phrases like, “You haven’t played for us in so long, play something!” My constant denials were making me look less like the modest, lovable Scrubs: Season 1 Zach Braff and more like the self-involved, gonna-beat-up-a-kid-on-Punk’d post-Garden State Zach Braff, which was a problem, as I was sure one of the girls I’d been dating was maybe going to fall in love with me soon. “Play something fun!”
“Like…like what?” I’d ask, for some reason, since with the exception of an extremely timely James Blunt remix, chances were I’d be completely incapable of playing whatever was requested.
“Ummm… well let’s see what we have!” She’d say, this adorable smiling girl with the bouncy brown curls and the snowblind-white teeth. She had a piano in her house, of course, and a subscription to The Atlantic and McSweeney’s and—my God—prints from the British National Portrait Gallery. Her music was all vinyl and while I always thought that was kind of silly I suddenly saw the charm: us cuddled together in the hammock she’d hung next to the space heater while we sipped hot cocoa, the night’s only sounds our tiny, ironically-named Boston Terrier (‘Lucifron Atlas Soulf-cker’) skittering on the wooden floor beneath us and the Alkaline Trio record spinning on the turntable.
If only she could have seen our adorable future together! The two of us like Norman Rockwell’s wettest dreams! But no. She’d kneel beside the piano bench and thumb through page after page of sheet music humiliation, endless indecipherable dots and stems, every so often pushing the puffy white ball of her Santa cap away from her perfect button nose. She would offer her home for a holiday party. Of course she would.
I wanted someone to have washed the hat in bleach. To have farted on it as a joke and now she’s got the world’s most immediate and malicious case of pink eye. I wanted a bird to fly into the window as her best friend attempted suicide across town. Radiohead performing a secret show on her front lawn. Anything. Anything to get her away from that sheet music. Anything that would make it so I –
“…should play some Charlie Brown!” It was Vince Guaraldi’s Linus and Lucy, actually, and, as it so happened, I was already familiar with it. It’s a scientific fact that no human can resist the Charlie Brown theme — it’s the ultimate crowd pleaser — and so it had been the first song I’d tried to learn. But it was too hard. Vince Guaraldi was a professional jazz pianist and so he didn’t care if the left and the right hands were on different rhythms. He didn’t care about all the changes in tempo. He could play anything. But it was way too much for this awkward Southern boy.
I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t even fake it. I could get the first part, the bass part that everyone knows, but as soon as the melody kicked in I would completely lose the rhythm of the bass hand and the song would devolve into this aural soup of awfulness and shame. Which is exactly what happened that night, despite my protestations, surrounded by all my friends and fans and would-be girlfriends, the sheet music I pretended to read mocking me in a language I would never understand. Vince Guaraldi screwed me. I tried to blame the sounds on being too drunk to play, but everyone was quick to point out they’d heard me play a sonata beautifully while completely ripsh-t, and that was Beethoven — this was from a cartoon. The truth came out.
I was somehow worse than Coldplay. I didn’t have Chris Martin’s money or his musical talent; the only things we shared were gap teeth and a future as laughingstocks. I was mortified. I was a joke. I was still too young to know that nobody ever cares as much as you think. That people would quickly forget. I just remembered the laughter. The girl thinking I was pathetic. Thinking I was a fake. My confidence disappearing. Drinking unfamiliar wine. Thinking. Sitting on the piano bench with my face in my hands — a virgin Rodin on a pedestal of shame.