Response to the Number Nine

Honorable Mention

First, I'm a liar. I don't even mean "me" when I say "I."

Second, I don't like numbers. They have no real connection to my life, and they quantify me uncomfortably. I certainly don't remember being nine, or any other age in particular -- my memories are not number-specific. I've never even looked my age, so that number system has no meaning to me personally. I looked twelve when I was twenty, and I've looked like a boy but never a man. Anyway, how can numbers dictate what we are supposed to look like, how time has touched us? I'm mature enough to admit numbers matter, but they matter less. So I won't be using them anymore after this.

Now that I think about it, lying is not such a good thing. It's safe, but it removes me from life the same way faking orgasm removes the possibility that I might ever actually come. So safety must be a big deal to me. There's something to take away with you. Safe reminds me of the two boys who boarded the Greyhound bus with me in Chicago, the brothers going all the way to Los Angeles. It's a three-and-a-half-day trip. The bus driver to the guy putting them on the bus: "I'm not gonna watch these kids for you." The guy, an impatient guardian ready to get the boys off his hands, to the bus driver: "They'll be alright." Then he stepped backwards off the bus as the driver cranked shut the folding door. Two small boys. If you must know, one of them one was nine. I happened to be twenty-seven. But the little one was just seven -- how do you make that fit into this arbitrary pattern? It doesn't, other than that seven is too young to be alone at the World's Largest Truck Stop, on buses at night with unshaven men whose luggage consists of one black plastic trash bag. When I got off in Iowa City the boys were asleep and ignored.

Lying is preferable to remembering, because I can't and I don't want to. I want to take other people's memories, the little league teams and ballet classes, the lifeguards, Now-and-Laters, all the peas and carrots and make them my own, like I stole meowing from Mr. Roger's Neighborhood. When I was young I watched that show all the time and that hermaphroditic kitty, I can't remember its name but I think it was a boy's name although it dressed like a girl, that puppet who would meowspeak. MEOW-MEOW YES MEOW-MEOW, MEOW-MEOW I LOVE YOU MEOW-MEOW. At some early point I thought it would be cute to speak that way. I no longer think so, but the meow stuck itself way back in that part of the brain that controls involuntary speech, and now when I least want to be seen meowing, here it comes. MEOW-MEOW JOB INTERVIEW MEOW-MEOW. MEOW-MEOW TOUCH ME THERE, YES, THERE MEOW-MEOW. Other people's memories always seem better and so I take them and try to tuck them in that MEOW-MEOW part of my brain. Sometimes it works.

Nine seems to be about anything that is the World's Largest, about believe it or not, about world records, dirty words. I was probably still going to temple, learning the only Hebrew word I would ever learn; now I can remember what it looked like but not how it sounded or what it meant. I remember wearing a blue football jersey, a half-shirt, nylon with small holes punched in the fabric so the breeze could pass right through me. It was a shirt meant for a boy which I most certainly was back then, because my father wanted a son. He never said so, but when will parents realize kids pick up on these things? Nine was about kissing frogs not because of some fairy tale, but because I liked frogs. Since then I kiss increasingly inappropriately. I don't remember my father ever kissing me until I went away to college. After that he began to kiss me, closed-mouthed but on the lips, whenever he greeted me or said goodbye. I don't like to be kissed on the mouth by my father but I don't know a good way to make it stop. Once he kissed me on a busy city corner before putting me into a cab. The cab driver asked, "Isn't he too old for you?" I sat in the back of the cab thinking that this kiss was another in an infinite sequence of events that I don't ever want to think about again.

Here I want to borrow someone else's memory, about a girdle, but it's not right for my numerical age bracket so I'll have to settle for a memory about a different female contraption: the plastic belt women used to use in order to fasten themselves to a sanitary napkin. (I suppose double-sided tape was for many years too much to hope for.) My mother had a belt, clear white plastic around your waist and down to your crotch holding the thing beneath you with metal fasteners. I had to wear it when I was nine, which if you must know was when I may have begun to menstruate. Early, but not unheard of. Even though my period came that one month and then not again until I was eleven, after the first time my father no longer let me sit on his lap and fall asleep while he watched TV.

I was with my father the time I fell off a horse and onto the rusted corner of a metal gate. It tore a gash above my knee that bled fast into the dirt. My father took off his shirt and tied it around my thigh. Coincidentally, that happened when I may have been about nine. It's not a good memory but too late, here it comes, ready to be re-experienced. Unlike some people I don't find it useful to remember pain. Despite all the doctors around, my father sang to me at the hospital the whole time they were stitching me up. He sang the Spanish song about a lovesick cat, Don Gato, that I had been practicing all week for choir. That may be worth remembering. And now I remember the name of that meowspeak hermaphroditic kitty. That handpuppet's name was Henrietta Pussycat.

At home my father was a singer. When he wasn't at home he was a podiatrist. Our home was in the south because my father didn't like his own family and so moved us far away from where he grew up. His brother visited us once, it must have been when I was nine, he was rich and he took me to a toy store and said I could buy anything I wanted. I picked a Dance-With-Me doll. She was life-size and you attached your hands and feet to her hands and feet with elastic bands, and then you had a permanent perfect dance partner. My father called her a ragamuffin, he said, "You could have anything in the store, and you picked this?" Again, another memory I wish I didn't have. Do you want it? Before my uncle left town he came into my room to say goodbye. It was an early Sunday morning and I pretended to be asleep. He spoke to me, he shook me. Everyone knew I was pretending, but I wouldn't wake up until he was gone. I don't know why I pretended. I didn't use the Dance-With-Me doll after he left. I don't know why I did a lot of things.

Nine is like the '60s TV show The Prisoner, starring Patrick McGoohan. He played a British secret agent who abruptly resigns his position. We don't know why, but it's safe to assume it was a matter of principle. Soon thereafter he is knocked out and kidnapped by forces unknown. He wakes up in "The Village," a beautiful but fabricated water-locked community that he is unable to either identify or escape. All of the residents on the island have been abducted, and all have been assigned numbers instead of names, but that does not make them friends. Seemingly trapped in this evil paradise, Number 6 (the number he has been assigned, and what is a six but a nine upside down?) soon learns that no one can be trusted, that his fellow abductees are terrified and mum or else working for the enemy, and that those in charge will stop at nothing to force him to confess the reasons behind his resignation. The most sinister tool at their disposal is a giant tumbling bubble-gum bubble that chases and silently envelops its victims.

The Village had a series of Maxims seen prominently displayed on large placards posted throughout the island. The Villagers who had succumbed to their imprisonment often uttered these slogans to one another in place of actual conversation. For example: "Humor is the essential ingredient of a democratic society" and "Questions are a burden to others, answers a prison for oneself." Lies are the bars of my own little prison, I swing from them like a monkey, so what if it's a filthy little monkey who's infected with one of those diseases about which bestsellers are written and TV movies are made, or an evil nazi monkey like the seig heiler in the fez from the first Indiana Jones movie (a movie I saw when I was nine), the one who dies of his master's poisoned dates.

If you must know, nine means the educational programs I used to watch on public television back before there was cable TV. The show about early experiments in electricity and the old footage of an elephant being electrocuted on Coney Island. She stood still and silent as smoke rose from her giant round feet. Her ears fluttered with the slow fall of her blackening body, dying as dignified a death as such sorry a circumstance would allow. Since then "elephant" is the definition of "sad." The circus sideshow documentary with the alligator man who fell in love with the monkey girl and how he refused to let her shave her hairy face. The series about the Stonewall Riots and my father sitting there with me, and then saying, "To me, the world is black and white," as though he could tell I had certain tendencies and wanted to discourage them then and there. Since you've forced me to find some sort of connection, I'll admit to you that nine is the end of tanned tree-climbing boygirl bare-footedness, the beginning of secrecy. end story

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