THE GOLDEN RULE
WARNING: SOME STRONG LANGUAGE.
Our marital problem came into clearer focus one Christmas morning, when Adelaide, who was such a wonderful human being but such an incorrigibly difficult wife, threw a book of poetry which I had just given her as a present at my head. "Why the hell would I want some crap like this?" she demanded .
"But Adelee," I told her, "thatís one of the great poets of history."
"Itís depressed, neurotic, self-absorbed groaning. If it wasnít for the metaphors, it would just be like someone weeping and smearing their shit all over the walls of a mental hospital. But no, he says, ĎMy heart is a garden the ants marched off with in the nightí, and I am supposed to applaud the big mirror he is holding up to his face. You know I hate this stuff! Why did you give it to me?"
"Adelee!" I protested. "This is Christmas! Santa did his best!"
Fool, to make such a joke at a time like this! Or was it that I in somehow loved the fireworks that I always seemed to ignite without meaning to? She told me, "You can take that big star on top of the Christmas tree and shove it up Santaís ass! Donít trivialize this, donít dismiss me! F**k Santa Claus, and all his elves and reindeer, this is serious! Itís a power play, isnít it, you have to impose your world on me, you have to try to make me be like you? Donít disarm me with this Santa shit, you f**king five year old! Or is it that you just canít get it into your head that the world is something more than an extension of you, that not everyone thinks and feels the way you do, that your tastes are not the law of gravity?"
"Adelaide, I love that poetry. Thatís why I gave it to you. I wanted to share it with you. How come I always turn out to be the monster? You throw the book at me, but Iím the monster!" My voice was louder than I thought.
"You were just giving a present to yourself!" she retorted. There was no doubt that her voice was blasting like a speaker turned all the way up. "Youíve been living with me all these years, but I am still nothing more than the hand you jack off with, still nothing more than the mirror you need so you can see yourself in drag, as it were! Because you canít kiss yourself, you canít s**k yourself! Well, Iím not you, and when you buy me a present, next time, try thinking about me and what Iíd like, instead of what you like! I donít like Romans! I donít like guerrillas! I donít need to know how bats navigate in dark caves! And I donít like poems that make me feel like putting a bullet in my head!"
"But Adelaide, this is how couples grow, by sharing their strengths, by enriching each other with the things they have found out alone and do not wish to love by themselves! You gave me Bach, and I am so grateful! I have become a deeper person thanks to your gifts, why do you reject mine?"
"Every injustice needs a philosophy!" she retorted. "No!" she shouted, picking up a package still inside its wrapping, and throwing it across the room.
"Wait! But you donít even know whatís in it! Itís fragile!"
"Itís probably a bowel movement!" she raged.
"This is Christmas!"
"F**k Santa! F**k you! And I donít like Druids! And I donít like social insects! And I donít like bear-tooth necklaces!"
"F**k Christmas! Jesus was left hanging on a cross, and this is what we get! A stupid holiday in which people give presents to themselves!"
"No, donít tell me what to do! Donít tell me what to think! And this is just the tip of the iceberg! For you every day is Christmas! Oh, youíre so good to the world, so good to everyone! You think if itís good for me, itís good for them. If I want it, they must want it. Cultures, political systems, lifestyles, you apply the same rule to everything, the golden rule: Ďdo unto others as you would have them do unto you!í But theyíre not you! Oh, I like a lot of light, so I am going to make holes in your wall and put in windows! Wait, this is the arctic and too much cold will come in through the windows; and anyway, there are only a couple hours of sun! Oh, I love the color red, here, put on these clothes! Wait, I am a soldier, if I wear red everyone will see me in the forest and I will be killed. Oh, I like Wagner, here, listen to my records, the complete "Ring des Nibelungen"! Wait, Iím a Jew, my grandparents died in a concentration camp, I donít want to listen to the music of an anti-Semite whose operas, filled with Germanic folklore, happened to be Hitlerís favorites! Oh, I love Shakespeare, he is the master of the ages, here, read these, my very own copies of King Lear and Macbeth! Muchas gracias, senor, pero no hablo ingles."
"Adelaide: youíre having a tantrum!"
"Donít tie my hands!"
"Youíre having a tantrum!"
"You canít sweet talk your way into a coconut. Youíve got to hit it, and bang it!" she shouted, smashing her hand down on a table. And then she shouted: "F**k the golden rule, itís just you, Narcissus, staring at your reflection in a pool of water, thinking that youíre Simon Bolivar!" And she gave a kick to the Christmas tree which caused it to shake violently, and caused several of the ornaments to fall and break, but did not quite suffice to topple it. And then she was gone, the bedroom door slammed behind her and locked.
It was an utterly wretched Christmas, which simultaneously demonstrated the reason that our marriage was a living hell, and why we were still together: for I have always loved passionate women, and in bed, I loved to be that shaking Christmas tree.
The days after Christmas are always wonderful shopping days, filled with sales; and shopping is a wonderful way of making up. In order to restore peace after our December 25 debacle, I silently followed Adelaide up and down escalators through the maddeningly boring , air-deprived floors of a major department store, in the same way that I had once, as a child, followed my mother, taking care not to be swallowed up by the giant gaps between the moving steps, that opened like the jaws of monsters beneath my feet. It was December 26, I remember it well. Penitently, I hung my head as I trailed her through the store, even though I felt that it was I who had been wronged, I who was the most misunderstood and persecuted soul in the entire universe. Was I supposed to accept the fact that I was a criminal merely because of the extremity of her reaction? Did her impressive display of indignation in any way constitute a valid proof of my barbarism? Was I truly the self-centered Neanderthal she imagined? I wished I could have submitted myself to a physical anthropologist for inspection, to clear my name.
"Nice purse, donít you think?" she asked me, a true olive branch if I ever saw one, at least within the context of our relationship.
"Yes, Adelee," I replied, taking the olive branch and letting the truth fend for itself. What was I to tell her? That the brass disks sewed into the fabric reminded me of those horrible coins from my parentsí coin collection, the ones with the distorted Hapsburg face of Louis the Hogís Head engraved on them? Dad had only been able to win those coins in a numismatics auction because no one else wanted to have such hideous possessions, no matter what the historical value.
"What about this purse?" Adelee asked, holding up another, maroon in color, like the leather upholstered chair that I had not been allowed to sit in as a boy. To me, the purse reeked of unjust exclusion, I could not see it as a new opportunity, a chance to take the reins from the gods.
"I think itís perfectly nice. You know that judging the aesthetic quality of clothing and accessories is not my strongpoint."
"I think I prefer your taste in clothes to your taste in poetry," she mumbled, absorbed, now, with a silver-plated belt. "Thereís no item of clothing in this store, as far as I know, that could make me want to hang myself or run to the refrigerator for a piece of cake."
As I walked around with Adelaide, I spied another couple not far away, and marveled at the symmetry of their hearts, which seemed to beat in unison. There was something so romantic about them, like two birds huddled together under the eaves on a wet, cold day, cooing with folded wings. "Oh sweetie, do you mind if I spend just a little longer looking at the purses?" the woman was asking her man. You look so bored. You donít mind, do you? And after that, Iíd like to look at some blouses. Is that all right? If youíd rather not, we can go. It doesnít matter that things are on sale now, your happiness matters more to me. You are the sun in my sky, I would never do anything to dim your shining. Are you sure you donít want to go?"
"My God," I thought, "what an angel! What a relationship! Here I am, emotionally bruised and paying reparations for a war I didnít start, and they are walking around in such gentleness and harmony. I have just had the fiery brand of Ďmonsterí burned into my flesh, and she is spreading a carpet beneath his feet, taking the pulse of every one of his discomforts like a nurse!"
Adelaide caught me looking at the couple, and said, "You like that woman?"
"Sheís very pretty," I admitted. "But more than that, Iím looking at how well that couple gets along."
"You wish we could be like that?"
"Would that be a sin?"
"How do you like this hat?"
Could I tell her that it would make her look like Brezhnev reviewing a parade of Soviet tanks? "Itís fine," I said. The egotistic gift of poetry which I had given her had still not been paid for, more of my blood was required.
Meanwhile, the other woman was telling her man: "How do you like this belt?"
"Oh, very attractive!" he said.
"No," she said, after looking at it for a moment, "the buckle is too heavy, and the strap too thick. Itís like the kind of belt a cruel father would own." She put it back. "I would like a belt thatís more gentle. Maybe something made of fabric, something native, maybe from GuatemalaÖ Are you sure Iím not taking too long in the store?"
"We can go see a movie afterwards."
"Any one. Just to be together. When we get to the theater, you pick. You decide."
Seeing this couple as we shopped rescued me from the low opinion of myself which Adelaide had shouted into my head on Christmas morning. No, I was not such a beast as she imagined! The existence of harmony and marital bliss, if not in our home in others, raised my morale, made me once again consider the possibility that I was deserving of love and kindness. That mere thought gave me the courage to seek them.
"You know," I told Adelaide, determined not to be intimidated by her rage and by my chivalry into the tiny box of self-contempt, "I think you went too far in your criticism of me yesterday." She did not look up from the item she was examining but her eyes registered a recognition of the challenge. "Granted, I got you an inappropriate present, and I am sorry for that. But it wasnít right of you to extrapolate from that that my entire worldview is nothing but a gigantic misinterpretation of reality based upon the imposition of my inner life upon the external world."
"You know, I dropped out of grad school because of that kind of talk. ĎDiscourse.í And you left out the word Ďhermeneuticsí, and a reference to Foucault."
"I consider myself to be sensitive to the differences between cultures and individuals, and to actually be rather astute regarding the psychological processes going on inside people who do not think and feel the same way that I do."
"Bring the Bible and railroads to the lands of shadows! Youíre just a more sophisticated and politically correct version of a Christian missionary. Put tops on those poor, uneducated Polynesian girls! But go on, now, put the rubble back together any way you want. The book you gave me was like a bucket of cold water dumped over my head on Christmas morning. And I think thatís, basically, what youíre doing to the world."
"The golden rule goes a long way back, Adelaide."
"Thatís right, white man loves to plow a field; kill all the buffalo, and give the Indian a plow. Now he can be like me. Golden rule. I donít want to ride around on a horse with such a big, scary sky above my head. Why would you? General Custer becomes Jesus."
"Iím not like that Adelaide."
"Yeah," she said, "you donít have the six-shooter."
Once again, I protested: "Adelaide, youíre not being fair! Every one of us perceives the outside world from whatís inside us, even you! But that doesnít mean we have to be inflexible about it, or to proceed with a limited imagination to the conclusion that, say, a Shuar Indian in Ecuador is going to want the same things in life as a Valley Girl. Itís possible to hear the other. And itís possible to put yourself in another manís shoes, and to fine-tune the golden rule. The Shuar native doesnít have to worship Jesus or even to revere Lao Tsu. Iíve got that. I understand that. Donít try to turn me into a herd animal, Iím not. I donít do White Manís Burden or Manifest Destiny, not the original or the remix."
"Well, for someone who says he can stand in someone elseís shoes, youíve sure got big feet. How do you like this hat?" she asked.
"Fine," I said, unwilling to let it go, now. "You know, Adelaide, I said Iím sorry. How long do I have to pay for my mistake? You know, Achilles with his chariot only dragged Hectorís corpse around the walls of Troy three times before he finally stopped. Could you just let me off the hook, just take off the monster sign thatís hanging around my neck, and let me be the decent human being you married? Why canít we be more like that couple over there? Why canít we be peaceful, like those days we used to lie together on one big towel on the beach? Why canít you treat me more like that woman is treating her man?"
"All right, sorry," she said, discovering a flaw in the stitching in a cap. "Youíre not a monster, all right? Youíre just ignorant. You have this huge amount of knowledge which hides it. Iím thinking of a diamond buried underneath a big pile of sand. All the facts you fill your mind with and use to impress the world are like the grains of sand; the diamond is your ignorance. Itís worth more than all the sand on top of it. Itís valuable enough, impactful enough, to inflict tons of unintended damage on the world. You are well-meaning, but dangerous. You think you know people, you think you know cultures, but you do not."
I shook my head in amazement at her obstinacy. So now I was no longer sinister, I was merely stupid. What a price to pay for wonderful sex!
Speaking of whichÖ. Just at that very moment Annie Y., Adelaideís very unusual and kinky lady friend appeared, shouting out with an almost indecent, sensual roar of joy at finding her good friend shopping in the same store and in the same aisle. Adelaide and Annie Y. shared a love of sculpture and were inseparable museum buddies, and along with her intelligent comments about art we enjoyed her uninhibited stories of her sexual adventures, which fell like cinnamon into the hot chocolate of our own love life. We learned a lot from her, and were grateful, although we blushed many times or laughed too loudly, like inexperienced teenagers, until we got to try out the new things she had brought into our lives behind the locked door of our bedroom.
"Oh, poor baby!" she said, kissing me on the cheek, having noticed something in my demeanor which tuned her in to my state right away. "Are you killing him with boredom, Adelee? Slow death by purses?"
"Death by hats," laughed Adelaide. "Do you like this one?"
Annie Y. put it on her head. "Wow, itís great on me! Your face isnít right for it. You need something that leaves more forehead. Did you know, you have such a beautiful forehead? Why get all this fur into your third eye? - You need something Ė something like this!" she cried triumphantly, seizing something from the shelf and forcing it into Adelaideís hands.
As Adelaide looked at herself wearing the hat in the mirror, Annie Y. said, "So, when is the divorce?"
"What, you could tell we were arguing?"
"Either that, or rehearsing the knife fight from West Side Story. Well, it is December 26, I guess thereís no reason to keep holding onto the Christmas spirit. You probably took down the tree already, am I right?"
"Well, I almost kicked it over, but itís still standing. Long story," said Adelaide who decided that she loved the hat. "My grievously injured husband, here, seems to think that I am some kind of shrew. He wonders why we canít be all lovey-dovey and harmonious like that couple over there."
"What? I canít believe itís them again!"
"Hey Annie!" the woman, seeing us look at her, called, waving her hand to Annie.
"Hey Lana! Hey Ephraim!"
The man waved to Annie without speaking.
"Are you following us?" the woman asked, her eyes twinkling.
"Looks like it! No, now I just bumped into some more friends!"
"Do you, like, know everybody in New York?"
"No, just in this store!" They waved hands again, a way of saying good-bye, and thatís enough, since theyíd already met and talked earlier on another floor.
"Wow, you do know a lot of people," Adelaide told her. And lowering her voice, she asked, "Who are they? This fairy-tale prince and princess living happily ever after who my henpecked husband wishes we could be."
At that Annie Y. had to restrain a laugh by throwing her hand over her mouth. A sound like choking or coughing came out from behind the glove she had not taken off all the time she had been in the store, as her eyes, lit up with merriment, poured her amusement all over us. At last, she was composed enough again to speak. "That woman," she whispered to us, chortling, is "Lana Savage; well, thatís the name she goes by in the underground. Lana Perry just isnít frightening enough. Sheís a dominatrix and the man with her is her slave. You know, itís the BDSM thing, the whole nine yards: handcuffs, whips, and thatís only the warm-up. Heís what you call a pain slut. He loves to be beaten, and he also loves to be controlled and humiliated. Public humiliation is one of his biggest turn-ons. But heís been a bad boy. So sheís punishing him by treating him nice and letting him make all the decisions. The guy who you think is so happy Ė well, it just so happens that this is the most miserable day of his life!" And both Annie Y. and Adelaide burst out in uncontrollable laughter while I just stood there shaking my head, wondering how it was possible to figure the world out, to know what any man or nation truly wanted or needed. And I thought: how well you have to know people before you bring them a Christmas present!
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