The Leopard, the Lion, and the She Wolf

She makes me tremble, the blood throbs in my veins.


Maybe it begins with the porn, single sheets on the side of the street as he walked the dog, his aging lab Allegra. Five am, cup of coffee, Allegra nosing along the same streets, the landscaped yard by the cedar fence of the corner neighbor. Sheet of paper, a glossy page, torn. Sideglance, an ass. It registered and it didn’t, kept walking, doubled back, took a snap with his iPhone, ha. Bubblegum lettering in pastel pink, not sure what it read. Kept on, another house, another block or so, another page, clearly this time what was once called full beaver, the closeup, fingers on labia, exposure. This, though, this hit him differently. It wasn’t funny, he stopped, stooped, picked it up. Walked Allegra back and grabbed the other page, too, crumpled both furiously into the pocket of his nanopuff. His head went immediately to his daughter, the other children he saw nearly every day who walked near here, the children who might see this, sure, but also the world that these pages promised to these children. He didn’t want them to see, didn’t want them to have to be in the same world as these pages, whatever their original context.

But when he was twelve or thirteen, maybe fourteen even, he and a cousin had found a porn stash, a briefcase of tornout pages and polaroids, in the dusty backseat of a Dodge Dart in a barn as they hid out to smoke a ratty joint. It was the family farm and who knows whose porn, an uncle’s they guessed, but they shuffled through it idly and excitedly, and he palmed a page with a woman facing the viewer, a headless torso behind her doggystyle, her expression delirious but the eyes xed out in maybe Catholic shame, which (the disfigurement of her face) was ultimately the most unsettling aspect of the find. He palmed it, crumpled it into his hoodie’s kangaroo pocket, and masturbated while holding it later that afternoon before flushing it down the toilet (a failed method of contraband disposal he had yet to learn the limits of). But the guilt in his act was compounded so terribly by the guilt evident in the crossing out of her eyes, the original owner’s own act of hiding his shame from her gaze, like those Frenchmen who covered their heads in towels before devouring songbirds whole, bones and all.

Maybe it begins with the campaign materials, yardsigns and bumper stickers and stacks of screenprinted teeshirts, their garage repurposed as a sort of distribution center, his wife’s volunteers now a constant presence at the house, the signs everywhere, all over town, the stickers not only cropping up but punctuating every conversation he’d had with her, Yasenia, over the past weeks: the final thought always the handoff of 15-20 or even 50 more stickers he should give to students, colleagues, post up wherever he went. But his world was so small he only went like four places: his office, the sole classroom in which he taught, the town’s only non-franchise coffee shop, and his kids’ school.

Her campaign had suddenly turned serious, is why the signs, with her passion and commitment suddenly breaking over into a real chance at unseating a national political figure—or so it seemed—because the post-Trump landscape was one where a dramatically underfunded campaign driven by an authentic, intelligent (descendent of immigrants) woman was inspiring, was desperately needed, and so the congressional lifer in a safe Republican seat was increasingly likely to lose, which they hadn’t really talked about what that would mean, her election to the US Congress, but he wanted to champion her, wanted to be excited for her, wanted to see her win this upset victory—which had lately captivated the national press and so was featured every other day or so in the NY Times, the Washington Post, the Houston Chronicle, on CNN, on Fox, each in its separate way.

And what a weird cloud has gathered around her campaign, with the media pressing the narrative that her outsider shot at unseating the congressman was part of the #metoo movement, or was a referendum on MAGA, or a redstate repudiation of The Wall and “They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”

And why did he feel implicated, outed, on the verge of some colossal twist of fate, these signs, this campaign, all this good will and the supposition by so many, Yasenia included, that he represented her message, that #notallmen, that feminist theory and professional courtesy implied a lack of the sexual engine that drove men, to power, to ruin.

His student who’d written about a teen couple taking MDMA and breaking up at Disney World, his student who’d told him about her tattoo (because of the one he had on his right wrist, of Byrne’s image of Euclid’s first proposition) and showed him the picture: a sacred heart, aflame and wrapped in dripping thorns, between her breasts (which breasts were suggested but unpictured), his student who’d come to his class weeping on Nov 9th, this student had written a story about a young woman at a college and date rape and her reputation thereafter gets destroyed, a story which after his encouragement was not only published in the national magazine he’d been aiming for for years but then, now, she told him, had been selected out of that magazine for inclusion in the Best American Short Stories, it was this student who had thanked him, awkwardly, in a heated class discussion about the importance of representation. This student who had made a point of noting he was a man who listened, understood, made space for his students’ voices. He was politely excepted from the problems being discussed; he was even a force for good.

But what a weird feeling, to want something and to know that you yourself are antithetical to it, to know that you must be pushed out to make space for it.

But maybe he was incapable of change, whatever precisely that means (that incapability): like, for instance, why did he include that he’d encouraged her to submit that particular story or the detail about the tattoo between her breasts?

Maybe it begins in the upstairs bedroom of a beersoaked frathouse, Sigma Lambda Kai, the one he would occupy (the one), but before that, two years earlier, the night he was a freshman and was brought upstairs with his roommate Keith by the wild-haired drunk upperclassman in his American Literature survey who loved lowbrau culture and early 80s TV and Berryman and Bukowski and also wore the same pair of windbreaker pants the entire year and invited him to drink forties in the afterclass afternoon on some other person’s porch (a friend they would wait for who sometimes showed up and let them finish their forties inside, on the couch, playing video games), this fratbrother who offered them Jack from the bottle, which they had to take in violent long pulls, while he played the record—as in vinyl LP—that he’d brought them up there for, a jazzy recording with Kerouac intoning over mewling sax, “I drink wine…I’m a better man than all of you.”

It was this brother more than the others who convinced him to go through the stupid rush process, the pledge-night binge that left him immobile for over a day afterward, who introduced him to the joys of bad karaoke at the local bowling alley, who told him about Richard Ramirez and Robert Rodriguez and Eraserhead.

The year he pledged they took on alter egos, the brothers, and became the Elks: Lucky, Dino, each brother had a character. This was the fight club era of American maleness. Sophomore year, there came a thing where the party’s end was announced by Irish Rebel music and then it was whiskey shots and short rounds of sportif fist fights. That this had been true in high school, too, before Brad Pitt turned out to be Edward Norton’s id, maybe said something about intoxicated masculinity, inherently.

That’s how he remembered it, the poem, the record, but revisited in grad school the poem, “Running Through—Chinese Poem Song,” leads up to that last line with these:

& I’m a fool

without a river & a boat & a flower suit—

without a wineshop at dawn

—without self respect—

—without the truth—

His colleague who, in the year and a half since he left academia, left the college where they’d taught, his now-former colleague Bryson, had become something of an intellectual dark web celebrity, primarily for the eloquent bridge-burning article he'd published with Quillette immediately in the wake of his abrupt dismissal by the Dean of Liberal and Applied Arts. Celebrity meaning he’d managed to parlay his supposed humanities chops and turncoat outspokenness against PC culture and #metoo and “The Fallacy of the Apology in the Era of Cancel Culture” into a string of interviews, combative midday panels, and a podcast, “Straight to Hell.” His, Bryson’s, PhD was in American Studies, centered on film, more specifically centered on the auteur era of new hollywood in the 1970s although, once he landed the tenure track job, his research had been almost exclusively honed in on 1970s car chases. He gave a wild talk after receiving a state-wide grant, which included the entire chase sequence from The Seven-Ups and relied on extensive explanatory contextualization about Vanishing Point and Spielberg’s Duel and Smokey and the Bandit (the bridge jump) and The Man with the Golden Gun (Roger Moore’s Bond’s corkscrew jump) making the case that the trio of movies—Bullitt, The French Connection, and The Seven Ups—that showcased the stunt-driving techne of Bill Hickman and which were all produced by Philip D’Antoni, that these three films reach their apogee in the least well-known movie, the final, the only one directed by D’Antoni himself.

All this to say Byrson was showing him a pristine white 1970 Dodge Challenger, his prized possession. “Casper mattresses and, man, the new Shaw Weavers and Lanier Cravenses.”

This was, in fact, an object manifesting his new IDW ideological position, that an era of Americanness and maleness and rather explicitly of whiteness was fading out, being forgotten—he was careful not to say replaced, trying not to dip even a toe in that fetid pool, but the ideas ran closely together. It was fitting he would use his sudden new fortune to buy a rebuilt classic; fitting he would see the forthcoming auction of the Bullitt Mustang as a singular cultural moment; fitting he’d chosen the Clash original and not the MIA track as his podcast theme music, the Clash whose “White Riot” was wildly misunderstood in just the way Bryson now likes to suggest his own comments are when circulated on alt-right Twitter.

“I read about a guy in LA who rebuilds these old stock cars with Tesla engines, but fuck that: think of the sound alone! That’s why they overdubbed the Bullitt Mustang for The Seven Ups’ Ventura. That beautiful roar, almost like Motor City music, a gritty bit of America that died sometime in the 1980s, maybe with Heaven’s Gate, maybe with Dune or the fucking DeLorian in Back to the Future.”

He’s on Bryson’s podcast as the foil, the voice of academia, a caricature of lefist outrage and the de rigeur politics in his scholarship. Bryson’s sense of their times in the hall and the undergraduate bar across from their campus offices was this, that he played the straight man to Bryson’s more outre notions, that he could well articulate the “don’t go too far” attitude that someone like Jordan Peterson might point to as the neutering of the intellect and the culture.

Maybe it begins with Bryson trying to bait him into a position defending cancelling artists and cultural figures—the author and the work itself—in the wake of sexual assault allegations or masturbation scandals, predation.

Maybe it begins with some deep-seeded denial of our tribe, a claim that we are not, were not, can not be implicated by the worst of our history—our maleness, our whiteness, our Americanncess. Maybe it begins when we lose something and fail to see how much we’ve gained, and instead can only feel the personal loss, the particular slight. Achilles the rapist and pillager who feels he’s wronged when Briseis is taken from him. Then we slip into the insidious position of victim and, forgetting (willfully or not) how powerful we are, we seek redemption, revenge, a return to better days. Only then do we reconnect with our tribe, only when we feel we’ve met a bond of brothers who share in our suffering, who’ve known the type of wrong we’ve faced. We cannot see what a gathering of white men bent on redemption, revenge, restoring the social order to one that favors us, gives back what we feel has been taken, we cannot see what this gathering of white men is. A shrewdness of apes, a murder of crows, an audience of squid, a business of flies, a gang of elk.

Because it can’t have lasted that long in lived time, compared to how long it has lasted in the dusty backseat of his mind; it might not even be remembered by her. The risk that he’d be outed could be infinitesimal, a word she’d taught him, She, in the years they’d dated after the night, that night; because isn’t singling out a moment denying it its complexity, because can’t things, events, experiences, mean more than one thing or represent more than one truth, be defined by context in such a way that decontextualising them changes them, alters them, falsifies them. Deictic, another word she’d taught him. Everything a duckrabbit.

Because isn’t it just another form of self-victimization to feel threatened by the possibility of a story being told, to feel that though the telling would be true it would also be a violence?

When he told Yasenia the story about the porn stash and the shame evident in the defaced page she said nothing. Nothing not in a silent search for words but nothing because it meant nothing to her. When he prodded, she snapped, “What do you want me to say?”

Would he tell her or would it not mean to her what it meant to him? Could he even find the language to describe? Maybe certain shames deserve to be crossed out, buried, flushed away.

Because it didn’t really feel like a secret he was holding until the world began to presume his innocence.

It has to end with a reckoning. Maybe the reckoning of middle age will come from without, her campaign turning a spotlight on his past, his interactions with students making it somehow worse to have been a student himself, the sense now that things done in youth were not forgot, were not gone, were instead spectral.

The things we get away with, the things we do even to those we love.

“And I haven’t even told you,” he might have said to Yasenia, to Bryson, to his student, “what I’ve done.”

Maybe it starts with Mona Lisa in the picture window of a brick split-level. And a wall of negatives on another street along the walk, his and Allegra’s: a child’s inverted face, the darkened portrait of the klansman. He’d seen the photographers, a goth couple younger than he would have expected. Through another window a man at a cramped desk, and another Hannity on TV, another a couple on a couch, what they were watching out of his line of sight. But it was the living room Louvre that had drawn his Instagram eye. It was an impulse, almost, taking out his phone and framing the lawn, the window, the DaVinci between dated curtains.

“What are you doing?” “What?”

“I saw you. What did you just do?”

He said nothing and walked.

Behind him, “Hey. I’m calling the police right now.”

Maybe it wasn’t until he’d been seen that he saw himself, realized his clever Instagram series was perverse, voyeuristic, that the photos he’d planned to take of these quick glimpses into other people’s lives, the images they hung on their walls, was maybe even criminal.

But beyond the Instagram idea, there was the shame in being suddenly seen. And wasn’t that just the thing, to presume you could look but not be looked at, that you could x the eyes of the watched, stand in shadow on the sidewalk looking in at someone else’s art. That you could direct and guide and teach and tell but not yourself have to change, to learn, to reflect, to understand. That you were somehow both central and outside of the discussion, able to absent yourself.

Bearing a secret shame eventually does this, drives you back from the height you felt entitled to, or that seemed the path you would take. It is not external, the force that turns you back; it is not a spotted hide before you, at once everywhere, blocking every step. It is not the hunger that lunges at you. Maybe it begins, the opening into the unwanted path downward, that low place, with the lean beast that makes you compare your then with your now, to feel all your gains turned to losses, to understand that what you thought you had you had taken. Lies, violence, lust: it was not one thing, one time, one woman; there was no single secret, but rather the concentric rings of his inner life.   

Copyright © 1999 – 2024 Juked