There’s an abandoned building where my favorite bar used to be. It billed itself as a café, but booze paid the bills, and on Wednesday nights the booze paid handsomely. Wednesday was open mic night, and if I missed a week it was because I was out of town. I went when I had to work in the morning. I went when I had to attend a funeral in the morning. I went when I had papers to write. I went when I was deathly ill. I went when I ought to have been elsewhere because it was the only place that offered social interaction and felt almost as safe as being alone in my bedroom with the door shut and a notebook open in front of me. I was writing then. I lacked the lady-balls required to get up on that tiny stage and read my shit, however, and now it’s too late. Now the world gets anonymous blog posts instead of teenaged beat poetry. I alone regret this.
When I was perhaps twenty, a newcomer arrived one Wednesday night and announced that he would play three original songs—a bold move in a bar that once bore horrified witness to a drunken tourist’s Dave Matthewsey cover of the Jimmy Hendrix cover of Bob Dylan’s poor, violated classic “All Along the Watchtower”. The New Guy’s songs were impressive, but no one new walked into that bar without being grilled by the regulars. Ben called to me from the fire escape after The New Guy’s set. I appeared, stirring cinnamon into my chai with a nonchalant index finger, as was my under-aged wont. Regulars had surrounded The New Guy, and the lad looked uncomfortable.
“This kid says he knows something about The Beatles,” Ben baited, his eyebrows arching impishly toward his prematurely receding hairline. Having famously bested a retired music executive in Beatles trivia some years prior, I was something of a legend. Rolling my shoulders and throwing punches at invisible foes, à la Muhammad Ali, I asked The New Guy if he was game.
“Yeah, okay. Challenge accepted,” he sighed, smiling.
“Who wrote Hey Jude, and why?” I asked, still dodging and weaving like a ridiculous old-timey boxer.
“Easy..! Paul wrote it for Julien Lennon. John and Cynthia were getting divorced. It was originally Hey Jules.” Not bad. I had to admit it.
“What was John Lennon’s middle name?” he asked.
“Winston..?” I groaned, rolling my eyes, “Obviously!”
We continued in that manner and the kid held his own until I asked for John’s favorite color, which EVERYONE knows was green. We laughed and I introduced myself at last. He had pretty blue eyes, this new guy, but I had a boyfriend. I always had a boyfriend. He happened to be in England that semester, but his eyes were even bluer and his songs were all about me. Still, this kid seemed nice enough, and any obsessive fan of The Beatles was an honorary friend of mine.
“I don’t trust him,” Ben said later. Fourteen years my senior, Ben had worked at Newbury Comics forever and remembered little ol’ me in middle school, special-ordering Beatles memorabilia in purple polyester trousers. He was the older alcoholic brother I already had two of, but he lived closer and made a point of looking after me.
“What about him don’t you trust?” I wondered, exasperated by his constant disapproval.
“He’s just..? It’s just…? Ugh. I don’t know, Kiddo. Everything?” he squinted. “The kid’s just a tool.” And that’s what he called him from there on out. Ben never called him by his name—which I withhold for reasons soon obvious— Ben called him The Tool.
The Tool came back the next Wednesday. He played more songs and we talked a lot about how weird it was to grow up, and how helpful the creative process had been for us both. He, too, had been raised by his grandparents. He didn’t have a dad to speak of, and there were scars on both of his arms where his batshit mom had burned him with a clothes iron when he was really little. Mom had habitually injured him for the attention she’d receive at the hospital. When it clearly went well beyond her son being accident prone, someone caught on and the state took him away. Although his childhood differed dramatically from my own, I was no stranger to early trauma. I reluctantly allowed him to read a story I’d written about my dead mother, and I never heard the end of it. He said I was a born writer. He said I had a gift. He said if I didn’t share it with the world, it would rot inside of me and make me sick and sad and useless. He said I had to get out of my own goddamned way. He said it like he meant it.
The Tool never tried to kiss me. He didn’t confess his undying love for me the way most of my male friends (including Ben) eventually did. He only dissected the myriad excuses I devised for giving up on a career in writing before even giving it a go. He got away with saying things that stung because he was exactly right; I was bloody scared. His glib, below-the-belt goading went undefended because I knew there was no judgment. I knew he understood. I wrote more. I sometimes went so far as to allow other people to read it. I felt more like myself than I’d ever felt before, and I had only The Tool to thank. We struck up a terrific friendship, but the rest of the regulars rejected him. Dear old Ben persisted in his belief that The Tool was… well, a tool. His relentless warnings went unheeded until:
The Tool telephoned one evening to say that he’d picked up a copy of Being John Malkovich, which he knew I’d never seen. I had a habit in those days of staying up literally all night writing and, being on day two or three of just such an insomniac bender, I warned that I might drop off to sleep at any moment, movie or no. He said he didn’t mind. His grandparents were meddlesome, so we decided to watch the movie at my house. The Tool did not drive, so I picked him up. We popped popcorn, put the movie on, and I proceeded to fall fast asleep before that Rubik’s cube of a film ever had time to confuse me.
Sprawled across the couch, I remained obliviously asleep until something touched my foot. One sock seemed to already be off, which was odd, but I’d have thought nothing of that… except that the other sock was inexplicably in the process of being peeled away. Only dimly aware of this, I was drifting off again, dismissive of whatever was happening, when The Tool tugged the remainder of my sock decisively off and proceeded to caress both my feet, which happen to be exceedingly ticklish. A foot massage..? Whatever. Right back to sleep I intended to go until I heard what can only be described as the unmistakable sound of… furious… male… masturbation.
This is not happening, I silently assured myself. How could this be happening? No. No! No fucking way. There is no fucking way that this is actually happening right now. Because– why? Why would this be happening? Why the fuck would this be happening to me?! But as the sound continued—nay, increased in apparent gusto—the horrifying fact remained:
If whatever was happening resolved itself uninterrupted, my feet might well end the evening covered in more than their missing socks.
Of course there was some perfectly logical explanation. Of course we’d both laugh and laugh and laugh about whatever it was when I told him what I’d imagined he was doing, but I certainly wasn’t going back to sleep until I found out what it was. Looking forward to my friend’s explanation, but not wishing to see my friend’s wiener on the off-chance that no explanation was forthcoming, I stirred. Eyes still shut, I yawned. I stretched to suggest imminent wakefulness. The silence that followed the furious male masturbation sound was punctuated by the decisive zip of The Tool’s jeans. ‘Twas then that I leaped from the couch.
“Heeeeey, sleepyhead! Bad dream?” He asked, smiling sympathetically. “The movie’s almost over.” I blinked. I shook my head. One of us was insane. I was pretty sure it wasn’t me, but I was very, very sleepy.
Somehow, I managed to mumble, “I…. I think you need to go.”
“Um. Okay..?” He didn’t ask why. He gathered his things as I made a great production of putting on my socks. I followed him outside, where he proceeded to plant his sorry ass upon the passenger’s seat of my automobile. I paused. How was I to proceed? Had he whipped out his uninvited dick and then removed my pants, I’d have had one hell of a ready reaction. But he hadn’t taken off my pants. He’d taken off my socks. For that, I was speechlessly unprepared. I clung to our charade of normalcy. To this day, I can’t believe it. I cannot believe that I drove his ass home. When he tried to make small talk, I turned up the radio and stared straight ahead. The drive was a short one. I backed out of his driveway without a world while he oh-so-casually bid me goodbye. I ignored his subsequent phone calls.
I told everyone what had happened. And I do mean everyone. When The Tool stepped through the café door on Wednesday night, every jaw in the place dropped open. The Tool didn’t seem to notice. As he approached me, the regulars formed a loose human shield. He asked if I might give him a ride home at the end of the night. The human shield held taut.
“I don’t think so,” I said simply and walked away. Ben barred him from following. The Tool approached me again, perhaps an hour later. I was outside, unprotected. When he innocently explained that he really had no other way home, and could I please just give him a ride, the hell-hath-no-fury dam broke.
“Listen,” I said pleasantly, conspiratorially leaning in, lowering my voice, “I know what you did while I was sleeping, and so does everyone else here. So you’d better find another way home, and you’d better find it fast.” I said it calmly and I held his gaze. Terror dawned in his pretty blue eyes and he left the bar on foot.
A week later, I received a heartfelt apology via email. He was so fucking sorry. He explained that he hadn’t meant to objectify me. He thought the world of me. Really, he did. He just had this terrible compulsion. He was working on it. He would seek help. He sincerely was so very, very sorry. He hoped to all the tiny gods that we could still be friends. My heart went out to him. Truly, it did. So I did what any compassionate young woman would do. I forwarded his confession to each and every one of the regulars so we could laugh en masse at what a total creep he was. What else could I do? Like Ben said, The Tool was just lucky that I couldn’t possibly report it to the police with a straight face. And, by the way, he’d told me so. Chuckling, I conceded that the kid was, indeed, a tool. Still, I was secretly saddened; I thought he was my friend, and he turned out to be some sort of podiatric predator. He left town shortly afterwards. Honestly, who could blame him?
Recently, however, The Tool’s sister overdosed on heroin and died. I didn’t know her, but it was suggested by our single mutual friend that hearing from me might buoy her grieving brother’s spirits. Having no idea how else to go about it after so many years, I ‘friended’ him on the ol’ Facebook and let him take the lead. He sent me a message straight away. He missed me, he said. When I politely offered condolences, he described his sister as a tormented soul finally at rest. He gave me the abridged version of his life these last few years. All things considered, he said, they hadn’t been unkind to him. I couldn’t say the same. We made plans to get chai and catch up and just when I thought he might be as willing as I was to never make mention of the foot incident, he unflinchingly addressed it. It was true, he said: he had and has a foot fetish. He was wrong, he said, in believing for so long that this was a problem. “Let me explain—“
I was ready to shut my laptop and stroll away whistling. Not a fucking problem..? No, he said—but keeping it hidden had been a problem. The shame was what drove him to behave so compulsively the night we watched Being John Malkovich. The thing itself—when consensual— is perfectly healthy, he assured me— and not as uncommon as I might imagine. In fact, he confided, it just so happens to be how he makes his living. See, he only works at Guitar Center to get himself out of the house a few days a week; he makes more than enough off of his foot fetish videos to afford an apartment in a nice part of Boston, which he shares with his polygamous schoolteacher girlfriend and their various playmates. It works for him. He’s happy. Again, I couldn’t quite say the same. He apologized again for what he had done way back when and elaborated on how repression and self-loathing had led him down many a dark road before he faced—and eventually embraced—the source of his overwhelming shame.
He sent me some new songs he was writing, which were unsurprisingly solid. In exchange, he asked me for some stories. I was still writing, wasn’t I? I told him I wasn’t, really, and without missing a beat he berated me for being my own worst enemy.
“You have no idea how doing what you love will change your life, my dear. But there’s still time for you to find out,” said he.
And so there is.
Whether you dream of writing the great American novel or blowing your load on some girl’s toes, you can either make yourself crazy trying to forget, or you can make that dream your reality. It’s one or the other, and it is that simple. Sean, if somehow you are reading this, you’re a great big weirdo… but you are not a tool. Tools serve the purposes of others. Tools do as they’re told. In your own freakish way, you’re a fearless advocate for all that’s in your twisted, foot-fetishy soul.
Howard Thurman said, “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” Thank you for making that point in the absolute strangest way possible. And—check it out—I’m writing! You must forgive me for telling THIS of all stories. Much like the night we watched Being John Malkovich, this isn’t quite consensual. On the other hand, though… unlike the night we watched Being John Malkovich, we do finally have ourselves… ahem… a happy ending.