Level 10: A Million Ways to Say ‘I Love You’


“Stew the rabbits!” squealed Gollum in dismay. “Spoil beautiful meat Sméagol saved for you, poor hungry Sméagol! What for? What for, silly hobbit? They are young, they are tender, they are nice. Eat them, eat them!” He clawed at the nearest rabbit, already skinned and lying by the fire. “Now, now!” said Sam. “Each to his own fashion. Our bread chokes you, and raw coney chokes me. If you give me a coney, the coney’s mine, see, to cook, if I have a mind. And I have.” —The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers

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Just in case you’ve forgotten what I look like naked.

Eventually we reached Denver. My mom dropped me off at my apartment then headed north to her friend’s house. I had never met this ‘Lynn’ but was secretly suspicious my mom had turned lesbian and only came over the mountains to see her lover. My sickness was just an excuse. “Bye, honey. See you tomorrow!” I closed the door without replying. I was just too tired.

I climbed the stairs to my apartment and fought with the security door. I lived in Capitol Hill, a hipster neighborhood three blocks from downtown, and my landlords were incredible. When I moved in they took my deposit and invested the money. When I moved out they would return my money, minus maintenance charges, plus the interest it had accrued while I lived there! Why would a company do this? Because Round Hill Pacific was awesome. This customer first policy permeated everything they did. If something broke it was fixed that day. The only thing their brilliant odd jobs men couldn’t figure out was the hilarious front door. They tried, oh how they tried, but to no avail.

I’d been living at The Ambassador for four years and in that time the front door had been smashed, cracked, shattered, torqued, bludgeoned and hammered more times than I could remember. Each time some drunken crazy broke the tortured gateway, maintenance men quickly replaced the glass or bent the frame back into place, but that was easy, the tricky part was the lock. Only an experienced Ambassadorian with the strength of a lion and the touch of Cleopatra could open it. It took time. It took practice. New tenets couldn’t do it. They tried, and it was fun to watch, but they always gave up and walked the long way around the building to let themselves in the back door. Unlocking the front door was a badge of honor and like anything worth having it wasn’t free. You had to pay your dues. I was an expert. I could open that front door drunk as shit without thinking about it. Until the night of May 16, four nights after the Nuggets lost to the Lakers. On May 16 it wasn’t just the lock that was broken, it was me as well.

My hands shook, my keys fell to the ground. I tried and tried, but couldn’t do it. I was too spent. The long walk around the building seemed impossible. There was no way I could make it, but the door would not budge. Like Gandalf I read the elvish script, “Friend,” I said to the door in the ancient tongue, but no beams of light traced silver paths in the stone. The door remained closed. Dejectedly, I limped around the building, stopping twice to rest. I reached the back entrance where I found a bum asleep on the step. I shooed him away and wrestled through the cumbersome, green door. Another funny thing about my building was the hallway. It always smelled. The smell was like a snowflake in that no two trips down the corridor were the same. Sometimes the aroma was sublime — flowers, bacon, laughter — other times it stank like shit. On May 16, the night my mom dropped me off and headed north, I smelled danger. There weren’t bodies in the hall or robbers with Hamburglar masks. The fear was imaginary, the kind of threat created by a mind beginning to fracture.

Shelob was angry. She must have called while we were away. We had never been gone for so long. In her rage she climbed out of the depths, ignoring her wound. Now the building reeked with the vile smell of her noxious breath. I stood, frozen in the hallway, wondering what to do.

“She’s angry, my love, oh yes she is.”

“But we brought her the hobitses. Tastey morsels, nice hobitses.”

“But they stabbed her, Precious! They stabbed her and now she is mad, mad, mad, like we’ll be soon, except for us it’s crazies.”

“Crazies, my love?”

“Oh yes indeed. We shouldn’t have left the cave. We should never have left at all. Bad things happen when we leave the cave.”

My neighborhood was a dangerous place filled with orcs and hoodlums. I couldn’t sleep outside. Only Shelob could hide us from the wretched moon with her bright face. Pathetically we shuffled down the hall. As we neared the door the stench became more powerful, a wall of olfactory hate. I opened it a crack and peered inside. Shelob sat there brooding, her sunken eyes glinting red. Tentatively I stepped inside, stooped and beaten, my eyes on the ground. I closed the door. All was black save the glow of the computer screen. I stood in the entryway, waiting for her to strike. She hissed, long and slow. Ancient dead things rattled in her fangs. I stood there dejectedly, half facing the monstrous beast.

“Glorious lady, my goddess, my liege.” Cold hands clenched in a bony knot of supplication. I dropped to my knees. “Please forgive poor Sméagol. We hates the white witch as much as you! She made us go. She made us NUCCA! We’ll never leave again. We swear it on the Precious.”

Patiently she watched. We were not the first to worship her. Oh no, there had been others. Many had fallen sway to the promise of fame and madness, spoken with unintelligible hisses in the quiet of the night. Men and women had sacrificed all to this glorious beast and been rewarded or punished as she saw fit. For a thousand breathless moments we waited, bent on the floor, resigned to our doom. She moved. Slowly at first, then faster. Our body trembled as she closed. Delicate clicks of spiked claws on hard wood beat rhythmic patterns across the floor. The bloated form loomed above us, staring down with equal parts hate and curiosity. Who was this scraggly creature? How was he not dead? She bent and sucked the air, tasting for something. No. Not yet. We had not suffered enough. Her gifts would come, but first we needed to burn, to prove ourselves worthy. Others had tried and failed. We would fail too, no doubt, but not without a fight. Oh no, my love, not without a fight.

Satisfied there was still some use left in our wretched bones, Shelob turned and waddled back into the hidden recesses of her cave. I laid there terrified. Frozen in fear. Contemplating. Sauron hadn’t killed us. Shelob hadn’t either. Why? What did they want?

The hiccups had lessened on the drive home but I was dehydrated. My throat ached but water brought Fell Riders on hiccuping mounts. They were drawn to the Precious just like me. I couldn’t wear the ring. Maybe just a sip? No. Our will was weak. If we poured ourselves a glass and promised to take only tiny sips it would not be long until we were drinking swallows, then mouthfuls, then glasses of shimmering joy; and then Black Riders. Always Black Riders. I crawled into the bathroom and turned on the shower. Glorious redemption poured from the sky. Like a miserable prisoner I laid in the rain and let its sweet forgiveness wash over me. There was no fear, no sadness, no joy; no lack of joy. An endless ocean surrounded and absolved. In ecstasy we worshiped, not with our throat but with our skin, a holy sacrament absorbed through the pores; blessed baptism, sacred and true. God moved over the face of the deep and the darkness did not comprehend Him. Then angels like twinkling stars fell from heaven. The pain returned and with it sadness, fear and hope. We were sick, but we were fighting. How long until our body healed? Hadn’t we been forgiven? Weren’t we absolved? No. No mercy for us. Salvation was a sham. We were wretched. We were dark, like all living things we deserved to die. And like all living things we were tasked with the same directive: continue. And so we fought, absurd as it seemed. Despite God, in the face of angels, through teeming hordes of demons and lack. In the face of mercy and hope, in the vacuum left by a creator who  abandoned us to misfortune, we fought. Though Sauron and his minions threw us into the pit, still we would rage. The war would never end.

After a thousand bloody epochs I struggled out of the tub and fell, naked and sopping, into bed. Sleep came, intermittent and painful. The act of rolling over was an enormous task. My gut ached, I cried out, returning to the shower when my legs could manage. I soaked until I could stand no more, then returned to bed. The night passed like a season. Imperceptibly darkness turned to morning with chirping birds and fewer sirens. I stood on the edge of the battlefield. Bright sun stabbed through carnage and smoke. I loved the smell of napalm in the morning.

Out my window I heard the sounds of life. Giant trucks with grinding gears, the crackling hiss of rubber on pavement. Beep! Beep! Beep! Someone somewhere was getting towed. The city breathed traffic. The city was alive. I was too, and so there was hope. “Just one more day,” I thought to myself. “Then I’ll be eating Taco Bell with Jackie’s grand kid.” In agony I waited for my mom to make the journey back from Lynn’s house. I divided the time between showers, reading The Lord of the Rings, watching draft videos and listening to Tobolowsky. Occasionally I allowed myself a sip of water.

My mom was late, but she was always late. Then she was later. Then it got offensive. What could I do? The woman had dropped everything and come over the mountains to nurse me back to health. Some time after noon my phone rang. She was outside. I put on boxers and shuffled to the door. Her arms were overflowing with cleaning supplies: buckets, rubber gloves, green scouring pads and scented sprays. I began to hiccup immediately.

“Hi honey, how do you feel?”

“Fine.” I said and turned around, limping back to Shelob’s lair.

“Did you get some sleep?”

“Yes.”

“How many hours?”

“Mom.” I was in no mood. Her mighty word probe would have to wait.

“Alright, alright, I was just asking!” She came into my apartment where a Tobolowsky File was playing. It was my favorite one, episode 55: The True Arena. I went to my computer and turned it up a bit so my mom could hear, “I want you to — hiccup — listen to this guy. He’s — hiccup — amazing!”

She set down her piles of stuff, “I went to the Dollar Store and got you all kinds of supplies. This will clean your bathroom tile,” she held up a bottle of Scrubbing Bubbles, “It only cost a dollar! And this will clean your stove, and it only cost a dollar! You’d spend three bucks on this at the grocery store. This is for glass and if you use just a bit on your fixtures…”

Was she showing me cleaning chemicals and explaining their uses? Did she actually think I had never heard of Windex? I knew how to clean, I just didn’t care enough to take the time. “Mom — hiccup — listen to this. His name is Stephen Tobolowsky. — hiccup — He’s an actor or something.”

“I’ll listen while I clean,” she said and opened a package of yellow rubber gloves. “These gloves were only a dollar!”

“Yes. That’s why they call it — hiccup — the Dollar — hiccup — Store, and you can’t — hiccup — listen to Tobolowsky and — hiccup — clean. He’s too profound and — hiccup — he’s too profound.”

“Oh, I’ll be fine,” she said. “Don’t you worry about me.”

“I’m — hiccup — not — hiccup — worried. I just — hiccup — want you — hiccup — to — hiccup, hiccup, hiccup.” It was no use. Here I was exploring A New Voice In English Literature and my mom didn’t care. Robbie would have understood. Robbie would have listened, but he was gone, living it up in South America with a bunch of Australian hotties. For now it was just me and Tobolowsky.

Chuck Close has inspired me more than any other artist. After seeing an exhibit of his in New York I came back to Colorado and switched my major. The fact that I have a worthless art degree instead of a worthless philosophy degree is because of this great man. I love you, Chuck, keep painting.

My mom didn’t know the first thing about art, but she was an artist. Not in the traditional sense, but in that true way few people understood. “An artist is someone who likes to be alone in a room.” Said Chuck Close and he was right. Art was not a painting, it was the process of meticulously applying stroke after stroke of carefully mixed pigment to a canvass bigger than your book shelf for days and weeks and months and years until your neck gave out and your eyes could no longer focus; it was the 10,000 books you’d read and the 10,000 you were planning to and the way they mixed together in the gray soup of your mind then came spilling out your fingers after decades spent typing page after worthless page; it was bloody fingers cut raw on guitar strings and a hand that refused to learn another chord until you’d set the thing down for a bit. Art was boredom. Art was tedium. Art was pain. And when it was over, art was the satisfaction of a job well done. I lay there and watched my mom clean my kitchen. She removed every item from every drawer and scrubbed them until they sparkled. Then she attacked the drawers themselves until they shone golden. I wandered in and out of consciousness, in and out of pain, in and out of the bathroom to soak more water. Tobolowsky droned on. Each time I returned, the kitchen looked a little better, the canvass got a little brighter. She was meticulous and careful, but confident in her movements, a genius in her prime. Decades passed and her masterpiece neared completion. My guts weren’t so lucky. “Mom?” I whispered.

“Yes, honey?” She was buried in the refrigerator, by far the filthiest place in my apartment. Even my toilet was disgusted.

“I — hiccup — hurt.”

“I know you do, but tomorrow we’re going to Dr. Groover’s and then you’ll feel better.” She didn’t look up. She was lost in her work.

“That’s — hiccup — not what I meant.” I tried to put it into words.

“I — hiccuphurt…” I trailed off.

“What? I didn’t hear you, my head’s in the refrigerator.”

“I hurt.” I repeated.

My mom came in the room, her gloves reeked of cleaning agents. “Honey, you’re mumbling.”

I looked at her with tears in my eyes. Something was broken inside me. I was dying. Not dramatically in a blaze of glory, but slowly over the course of five agonizing days. Shelob hissed. I ignored her. “I need you.”

The words came unbidden. I tried to hold them back, but it was too late. They clanged on the ground like dishes at a dinner party. The room went silent. Everybody looked. My mom stared at me with a shocked look on her face, she was as stunned as I.

“Need?” She repeated. The word moved awkward in her mouth.

“Yes, to sit next to me and — hiccup —  put your — hiccup — on my back. You don’t even have to — hiccup —. Just sit.”

My mom was confused. I had never asked her to do such a thing, “Nathan, I’m almost done in the kitchen then I’m going to clean your bathroom and the—”

“Please.” I begged. Slowly she took off her gloves and sat down next to me. Neither of us knew what to do. “Put your — hiccup — on me.”

She complied, her back rigid, her feet shifting. I could smell the chemicals on her gloves. It was nauseating but I knew if I asked her to put them somewhere she would return to the kitchen and never come back. “I’m soaking the drawers in your refrigerator,” she said. “I need to get the chemicals out.”

“No.” I could feel her tension, like a dog who sensed someone at the door. “They’ll be there — hiccup — later.”

She fidgeted and shifted nervously.

“Something — hiccup — about — hiccup — touch. Calms — hiccup — hiccups — hiccup — .” I tried to explain. “See, there was this dog — hiccup — and the chiropractor when he — hiccup — and Mary. I’ve been thinking about it and — hiccup, hiccup, hiccup.” I trailed off, lost in a convulsive sea.

“I know honey,” my mom said placatingly, “but if they dry out it’ll be that much harder to get them clean.”

“They don’t — hiccupneed to be clean. Please.” She sat for ten minutes or so. I could feel her pulling away, even as she rested her hand on my back, which slowly became my side, then she stopped touching me all together. I lay there in agony willing her to touch me, begging her to touch me. But her canvass was calling. It was more important. It was everything. Eventually I couldn’t take it any more.

“Go,” I said.

“Ok, honey. You sit tight and I’ll finish cleaning, tomorrow the chiropractor will fix you right up.”

She stood and went into the kitchen, leaving me alone. I finally understood how my girlfriends felt when I disappeared into a painting or a story or an album or a band.

Love Potion No. 1

A Million Ways to Say ‘I Love You’

There’s this book, I think it’s called Love Languages or something. I’ve never read it but it’s popular enough in Christian circles that I know the premise and it’s a good one. The basic idea is that everybody has a love language and if you learn to speak it your relationships will work better. For some people the language is time, for others it’s gifts; acts of service is in there and there are few others I don’t remember. The specific names of the languages aren’t important, they’re just contrived to sell books, to make you think the writer has assembled a complete list and all you need to do is read, but that’s silly. Love is hard. I’m going to teach you a higher road, no need to memorize lists.

When it comes to love what matters most is customization. A handwritten note is better than a Hallmark card. A bouquet of roses will never beat a vase of hand picked wild flowers. Sex is better than pornography. The best ‘I love you’s’ are the ones that require the most thought and the great thing about that is everyone is different. You can customize your ‘I love you’s’ for every person on the block! That might seem like a lot of work, but it’s very rewarding. You get to be Amélie.

I love this movie. The magical world created by the fantasies of the protagonist has influenced Confessions of a Diarrhetic more than I like to admit. The soundtrack is stellar too.

Amélie is a character from a French film of the same name. The story centers on this girl who decides to be a super hero. Her acts of valor are less than heroic, but she still manages to change lives. For instance, she gets back at this retarded guy’s boss for being mean to his dimwitted employee. Then she graffities a wall with the words of a poet who lives in her neighborhood. He sees it and smiles because it means someone likes his work. She even helps a coworker find love.

Amélie encourages everyone in exactly the way they need, and that’s the key to this potion. Imagine a different movie where Amélie decides the retarded guy needs a new job. She goes through all the trouble of hunting one down, taking him on interviews and combing his hair only to find that the new routine disrupts his habits and sends him into a mental fit. Next imagine that she assumes the poet needs more sales so she picks up a second job, spends all her extra income on crates of unread books then discovers that the poet doesn’t care about money, that poverty is his inspiration.

Now think about my mom, willing to drop everything, rearrange her schedule, drive over the mountains and buy arm loads of Dollar Store cleaning supplies then throw herself into tidying up her son’s apartment only to discover that all the kid needs is for her to sit with him and listen to Tobolowsky.

You can say ‘I love you’ a million different ways but if you say it wrong, it hurts. When my mom cleaned my apartment it wasn’t out of love, it was selfishness. The two are very similar. Love possesses. Love needs. Love desires, yearns, pleads, begs, screams and borrows until it gets what it wants. And when love does these things on another’s behalf it is beautiful. When it’s done for yourself it’s something else, something ugly.

My mom cleaned my apartment because she wanted it clean. I was not in the equation. She thought she was showing love because that’s how she receives it. If you want to make my mom feel all warm and fuzzy, empty her dishwasher. When her family goes on vacation they travel to one another’s homes and do chores. They dig up trees, put in jacuzzis, and clean the dishes. For them that’s fun. They’re showing each other love. That’s why my mom wanted me to mow her lawn the summer I came to town and worked for those newspapers. It wasn’t about grass. She was just lonely. When I refused, it hurt her, just like I wanted it to. But sickness changes everything. Now I want something different.

Mom, I love you. I’m writing a book about it. It’s called Confessions of a Diarrhetic: Lessons of Life, Love and the Ocean. You’re reading it now. I’m horrible to you. I kick you when you’re down then brag about it to my friends. I lie to you, steal from you, ignore you, laugh at you, call you a bitch and tell you to fuck yourself. Sometimes I hope you die.

I dream about making enough money to afford a house so that when the financial ruin dad left you in finally bears its fruit I can lock my door and smile at the thought of you begging in the cold. But you’re too tough for that. Your fiery spirit fought through and won the day and now you’ll be fine. You don’t need my imaginary house. Still, I am a vengeful, hate-filled, son of a bitch who is as mean to you as he dares. But rage doesn’t happen in a vacuum, fire needs fuel. You hurt me too. Not intentionally, like I do to you, but when it comes to love, intent doesn’t matter. That’s the point. Love misplayed looks a lot like hate. You can say or do whatever you want whenever you want but if it’s not the right thing in the right way none of it matters. You wasted your time.

Let me take you back to May 17, mom. I’m laying there watching you clean my refrigerator instead of sitting with me and listening to Tobolowsky. You think you’re saying “I love you,” but you’re hurting me more than you will ever know. I’m spent, worn, thin, tapped out. My defenses are down and I have nothing left but the hope that someone might sit with me and touch my back. It’s pathetic but it’s all I have. I tell you, I beg you. You don’t listen. Are you listening now?

Love Potion No. 1 works a lot like Life Lesson No. 3, The Ping Pong Theory of Conversation. In fact they’re both the same story told from different perspectives. Both require you to pay attention and give back at appropriate times. Both ask that you be selfless. When you listen to someone and respond accordingly you are really saying, “I love you.” Not in the erotic sense but in the way all living creatures care for one another.

You might be reading this and saying, “Wow, this dude’s writing a book for his mom? He’s so amazing, clearly he loves her so much.” And you would be wrong. My mom is an artist, but she’s not an artsy type. She doesn’t understand what I’m doing, she never has. That’s OK. This book is for me. I’m writing it as a way of coming to terms with an illness even as it destroys me. It’s as selfish as my mom cleaning out my refrigerator. To show my mom I love her I need to put down the proverbial pen and mow her lawn. I need to help her cook and change the oil in her car. I’ve never tried to show my mom I love her. Never. We’ve been at each other’s throats from the moment I was born. Or, more accurately, we’ve been saying ‘I love you’ in ways that were perceived as hate.

“Look mom, I made you a painting!” Said Big Brudda Nathan to his mommy one day.

“It’s an angel cutting the head off of a demon!”

“Ew.” Replied my mother, a look of disgust on her face.

“But you’re the angel, just look at that sword!” It was the highest honor Lil’ Nathan could bestow.

“Stop drawing angry pictures and take out the trash. How many times do I have to remind you?”

Two broken robots doing their best to be human and failing spectacularly. Hilarious.

This is Level 10, mom, it’s the same as Chapter 10 in other books you’ve read. It’s an auspicious number. Very important. I’m giving it to you. The whole book is yours, but this chapter especially. I held back writing the first love potion for ten levels because I wanted it to be special. I wanted to show you how much you mean to me, despite it all. But my gift is meaningless. I know that. It’s not in your language. So consider this a stocking stuffer. The real present comes next.

I’m sorry, mom. We can’t go back, but we can move forward. I’m going to stop being selfish and start listening. I know your language but I’ve never spoken it before. It’s going to be hard. The words feel strange in my mouth. You’ll have to teach me. We’ve tried before but this time it’s different. This time I’m willing to learn. Are you? Of course you are.

<3

If you’ve been paying attention you know my mom loves me more than life itself. She’s desperate to show me affection in the only way she knows how. Are there people like that in your life? Maybe one of them is your mom. She loves you, I guarantee it, but she doesn’t know how to say it, moms are like that sometimes. So teach her, and if she can’t figure it out, forgive her and cherish the things she does do for you. Once you’ve got that part down start listening, give back in ways that are meaningful to her. She sacrificed everything for you, her youth, her beauty, her time, her money. Figure out the ‘I love you’ that works best for her, then tell her from time to time. It works with moms and other people as well. The right ‘I love you,’ if applied consistently, can heal a marriage, fix a friendship and change the world. Not for everyone, but for you, and believe me, it’s worth it.

I love you, mom, and I just took out the trash to prove it.

Back to the story.

Eventually my mom left but not before she had cleaned all of my kitchen and part of my bathroom. It took the entire day. After she left I limped into the kitchen to have a look. Every shelf, dish, utensil, tile, wall, window, handle, nook, cranny and crevice gleamed. I had no idea my counter top was white. I assumed the tile had been stained with grime for so long not even napalm couldn’t remove it, but my mom had brought it back to near mint with Comet and persistence. Even MP looked great!

“How you been, partner?” Asked the Multipure MP400PC countertop model with adjustable hose and easy release valve.

“Better.” I said distractedly, staring at the cupboard doors and shiny chrome, my mouth agape.

“Get you a drink?” Asked the filter who, over the last 14 years, had literally been around the world with me.

“What — hiccup — did she do to you?” I picked him up in both hands and held him like a newborn baby, staring at his bone white sides to see if I could uncover the mystery of his rebirth. Earlier that day he had been caked in dirt, covered in paint and encrusted with mineral deposits. How had she removed the paint? My mom was not just an artist, she was a genius!

“Whoa, there Nelly,” said MP nervously. He wasn’t used to such affection.

“How’d she get the paint off you?” I asked in awe.

“Ma powers,” said MP. “They’ve all got ‘em.”

“I don’t under — hiccup — stand.”

“Nobody does,” said MP sagely. “It’s one of life’s great mysteries.”

to be continued

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The Little Kid Sessions

I’m tired of uploading my music to the interwebs so this week you get something special! This is a segment of the recording session I had with the kid who played me in this week’s podcast, enjoy!

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