A Web site called www.hotfuck.com lets me download a picture called
Bizarre647.jpg for free. Sluggish technology drags the photo open like
curtains. There is a sky, I see, then a chin thrown up to it. There are
shoulders, thrust back like the head -- someone invisible's pushing. There
is a cheerleader's uniform, red and white with blue, minus cheerleader
underwear. There are taut quad muscles and the suggestion of pubic
hair. There is a young woman on a high school blacktop. She's sitting on
a traffic cone.
My younger brother rehearses ninth-grade geometry like a parody of a bad
actor -- all monotone, no recognition: rhombus parallelogram secant arc. A
sphere's volume is 4/3 pi times radius squared. Cubed. Radius cubed. He
would like to hate his mistakes, I imagine, but he doesn't believe what
he's saying enough for that. He'll take a quiz Monday, the first of 15 this
quarter. On the last quiz, 11 of the 25 answers he scribbled in were
wrong. On the quiz before that, 13. Before that, nine. I daydream about
patterns. I scrape at something on my shoe when he looks up, casual and
unconcerned scraping, but I consider F words: flounder, flightless,
flunking. My brother hands me index cards and I quiz him on formulas.
"You've got those down cold," I say cheerfully after he stammers
through a dozen.
"I had them down cold last time," he says. He sighs and sinks into the
couch. There's a pen and he begins designs on his palm. I lose him for
I can't sleep. I turn on the computer. It's a habit. Or maybe I like
it. I don't know. I would read but I dropped my book in the subway
tracks today. Someone jostled me and I thought Undo. Maybe I ought to lay off the computer for a while.
The Web site about Asian bondage boasts three galleries, each the
hardest core, the XXX nastiest, updated four times an hour. It's quarter
till midnight, which means I'm looking at brand new Asians in brand new
bondage. I don't know where the old ones went. They had their 15
minutes. Fans of porn like porn fresh. I click a couple places and there
is a woman spread like a star over black sheets. Each limb pulls out to
a bedpost, roped tight, and her face is saying no no no yes no. I have a
lot of questions. I click more places and more women pop up, tied down.
Sometimes someone's having sex with them. Mostly they appear to be
waiting for me. I will disappoint them once again.
I'm visiting home for the weekend. I brought some clothes, a
toothbrush, my laptop computer and a book. Kevin is about to fail
geometry. My parents have hired a tutor and conferenced with the
teacher, but he's shown no improvement. A symptom, I'm told in
confidence, in italics. Maybe you can, you know, talk to him while
My parents have something like a slouch about them lately. They look
like hell. They don't joke about the neighbor's lawn boy anymore or
fiddle over soufflé recipes after work -- we have scrambled eggs a lot,
pretty quietly. Dinner is grim business. At the table earlier this
evening, I tried an impression of Jerry Lewis. Nobody really laughed.
"What's that?" my father asked, salting his eggs.
"Jerry Lewis," I said. "Jerry Lewis."
"Oh. Oh, right." He chuckled and salted.
A woman called Cherry Lewis can have sex with three men at once, and I
don't mean one of them waits on the sidelines. She stars in a
three-photo series -- "Series B3" -- performing this very feat. The three
suitors look mad as hell. Maybe they've had a hard life. They seem
content, though, to take it out on Cherry's mouth, ass and vagina. She
doesn't seem as content, but she doesn't seem discontent either. For the
subject of a photo, she fades nicely into the furniture she occupies.
Cherry Lewis is a good name. Her hair is cherry red, of course, and
what's more, how ironic to name a whore Cherry. There is a place in
pornography's heart for irony. I once saw a Web page called Paradise Found -- wasn't this how we lost it in the first place?
The Net doesn't always catch me and I retire for the night. In bed I
skim books with names like "Crying for Help," "The Troubled Teen" and
"Please Hear Me." The writers of these books want the world to understand
people like my brother. I try to learn their language. "Understand," in
the parlance of understanders, means something like "accept." From what I
gather, if you explain the Pythagorean theorem to these writers and they
say, "I understand," what they mean is that they hear you and gladly accept
your desire to teach them. Reading these new rules, something embarrasses me. I wouldn't want Kevin to know. I turn off the light and hide the books under my mattress.
At breakfast, for Kevin's benefit, my father launches into infomercial
mode. It's Saturday morning and his campaign for a weekend of studying
has begun. He's taken the reins lately while my mother backs off. I
gulp some coffee and force myself to follow.
"What are you going to do today?" he asks me, intent as an anchorman.
"I thought I'd go to the library for a couple hours," I reply, natural
"Do you find it easier to get work done there?"
"Definitely," I say. "It's nice and quiet."
"Sounds good," he says, glancing my brother's way for a reading. But
Kevin's eyes have glazed over, staring at a squirrel out the kitchen window. He's no simp -- he can play a role, too, if necessary. It's the part of the
wayward son, oblivious to absurd and condescending lessons in work
ethic. He won't return until he's ready, Saturday morning infomercials
notwithstanding. I admire his fortitude.
But this is not in my father's script. Flustered, he moves in at a
"Kevin," he begins like a pal, "are you ready for that geometry quiz
"Hmmm. It's on proofs?"
"Proofs?" my brother asks.
"You know, what you were working on the other night. Weren't those
I jump in. "Kevin, why don't we go down to the park with the basketball
later? Around 2 o'clock maybe?"
"OK," he says. "They just put new nets up."
"Good," I say and clear my plate. The squirrel outside notices us and
stares. His black eyes seem to bug out of his head.
"Maybe I'll go to the library for a while until then," Kevin says and
finishes his pancake. My father, I imagine, thanks some god.
The Fletcher County Library, I discover, has been remodeled. The
unimposing brick building I knew as a child is missing, and in its place
I find a sort of geodesic Plexiglas book center. There are weird chairs.
There are 15 computers. There are ergonomic reading desks facing giant
windows, behind which wave daffodils and impressively green grass. In
the old library, cafeteria-style tables lined an ugly beige windowless
wall: One read. I see two kids running through the biography section.
The first, it seems, has a note that the second wants. Some books get
knocked off their shelves.
"How often do you do your work here?" I ask Kevin. Perhaps -- I fantasize the instant before his answer -- the problem is but a matter of work environment. Who could possibly calculate circumferences in a funhouse
like this? The solution was so simple, I imagine him chuckling to his
former teachers years from now, gathered around him in appreciation of
his slow-starting but unparalleled success, "I was studying at the wrong
But these fantasies never pan out. "I hardly ever study here," Kevin
answers, picking up the books that were knocked over. "It's kind of hard
We manage to concentrate, finding a
secluded little hideaway in a
corner. For the next hour, I deliver a silent lesson in discipline,
veiled of course; for me, even our most relaxed moments together these
days are shamefully calculated. Kevin flips through his geometry
textbook while I write letters. I try not to worry about whether he's
flipping too fast. At noon, he announces he's left an important notebook
at home. Can you study without it? I ask. No. We go back home.
In the afternoon we play basketball. Kevin plays hard. I take comfort
in his commitment to winning, however brief. I play hard in return; he
can smell a thrown game a mile away. My shots are on, his aren't so
much. He takes it bad. Dear God, please let him believe in himself. Once
he misses a layup and mutters, fuck, not quietly. I don't get it.
- - - - - - - - - -
Back home, we sit around for a while and drink juice. Kevin thumbs
through the yellow pages.
"What are you looking for?" my father asks.
My father turns to me. He wants sympathy and solidarity plus a little
company: two perplexed souls shaking their heads. His face wants my face
to explain this boy for whom the absurd is often more compelling than
the real. But I clean away all expression. I don't want to fall into
After the yellow pages, my father wanders off and Kevin puts in 45
minutes with the geometry textbook. I sit beside him. I answer what I
can, he asks what he can. We discuss triangles. Not knowing where the
real problem is, he can only offer token questions. None gets at the
heart of anything, but we manage to make our way through the weekend's
homework. At one point, I hear steps outside the door. They're my
father's, I know, and for an instant I squeeze my pencil and pray that
he not come in. I can tell Kevin is praying the same. Don't come check
on his progress, I plead in my head, don't even offer to turn another
light on; we're getting somewhere. The steps linger but move on.
Kevin's relief is clear, though he doesn't say anything. We get back to
the math and eventually finish all 30 problems. His teacher's assigned a
bonus question, something about planes, but Kevin leaves it. I can't
solve her problems for her, he says, and I decide it's probably good to
have a sense of humor about it all.
"Good work," I say. It's better to encourage, I've decided, than worry
about whether it sounds like I'm talking to a dog. I punch him lightly
on the knee and get up to find a book of my own. As I'm leaving the
room, a couch pillow hits me in the back.
"You just threw a pillow at the wrong guy, buddy."
I turn. A second pillow hits me in the head.
"You just threw a second pillow at the wrong guy, buddy."
I pull him off the couch mid-giggle and we're at it like old times.
He's gotten stronger, but I manage to get him in a half nelson. The half
nelson has been the terminus of every roughhouse we've ever conducted.
Shall we dance? I ask him for the 1,000th time in our lives. He declines
demurely and I release him back to the couch.
"I tried reading the Bible last night," he says as we catch our breath.
"I got through Genesis."
"When did you get so bored?"
"I didn't like the fall of man stuff," he says, ignoring my question.
"It seems like a weird way of explaining things."
"The fall of man," I say. "I used to think it was poetry. I thought
they meant the autumn of man."
Kevin smiles. I can tell he likes the autumn of man, at least as much
as a 14-year-old can like something he can't point to. I laugh at
something too, and punch him on the knee, and go to find a book
of my own.
The books in my parents' shelves look wrong -- old, but not old enough. I feel fussy. They are about politics or parenting or French spies. They
give the impression of all having the same ugly cover, the way all cars
from the 1970s seem brown and dented. A book, I've learned, is about
the only thing you can judge by its cover. I grab a couple but head
downstairs to the computer.
Checking my e-mail I find a letter from SuziExtreme@hottail.com. She's
written to tell me about a Web site featuring her giant tits. She's
probably written to a million guys like me, or a million guys
different from me, but I'm not offended. Nor am I offended that these
people have used their tech sense to figure out my e-mail address. One
visit to a Web site, I've been told, and they mark you. For all I know,
they have access to every file on my computer. Still, one's capacity for
outrage abates looking up a bound teen's skirt. Can I really complain
about my privacy?
To visit SuziExtreme's site for her giant tits, of all the giant tits
in cyberspace, is like going to the Redwoods to see a particularly tall
tree. I go, but only because I was invited. Despite my better judgment,
a part of me worries no one will show up to see her naked. I picture her
putting her pants back on after a while, sheepishly, quickly, more
embarrassed than when she took them off.
SuziExtreme, it turns out, doesn't exist. The site bearing her name
instead contains photos of women named Racquel, Samantha and Julee.
There are always choices in these places, such a funny occasion for
pluralism. I click on a miniature picture of Julee that promises a
larger one. Some whirrings and the promise is kept. Julee's feet and
legs float askew, thrown up haphazard, a dramatic flail about them:
She's falling. Not literally, of course -- her back is square on a shag
carpet -- this is a reenactment, a dramatization of the fall. The picture
gives no clue from where. And maybe in the end, this is where the porn
lover gets his true kicks: One could imagine any number of heights from
which she fell, or was pushed, or jumped. For all that these shots don't
leave to the imagination, after all, the connoisseur must still provide
context. Without an invented narrative -- even the tacit and uncomplicated
kind -- a penis inside a vagina is just a penis inside a vagina, flesh
frozen two-dimensionally in a moment the viewer can never penetrate.
So he imagines the fall. She was a cheerleader, a nurse, a next door
neighbor, a teacher. She was upright, virtuous, chaste, pure. She
flitted girlishly about a world that spun far above the lair of Internet
perverts. But she was also other things: the virgin-whore, the tease,
the coed too innocent to remember underwear. She didn't see it coming,
perhaps, but felt it when it came. And when it came, when gravity clawed
her body down at 9.8 meters per second, when her own weight
sent her floor-ward all the faster, a man with a digital camera made
sure she never landed.
It's little comfort that my porn fascination is not really about sex, if there's even such a thing as not really about sex. I don't want to be one of those men for whom it is a cultural artifact. I'd rather read a book. Still, these days I turn on the computer and, so often, end up in terrible, weird places. Soon, I know, the disgust that overwhelms me after five minutes in these places will occur before I even get there. I will outgrow this phase and remember it with uncertainty and complicated theories.
The computer off, I go to find something else to do. My father stops me
at the stairs. His face is sad and thin, I notice suddenly, like a man's
rather than a dad's. He looks to me again for something. I don't know
how to give it. I start to tell him not to worry too much, the old advice
standby, but he interrupts.
"He's my child," he says. "What else am I going to do?"
"Maybe he needs to hit rock bottom," I suggest. This little gem is just
as insipid, but maybe with a teen you can't stray from insipid. What am
I even talking about? I ask myself, having caught this last thought. I'm
in over my head.
"When's rock bottom? When's that?" he asks, but I'm already on my way
up the stairs. I can't solve his problems for him, I think. I leave him
We all have dinner together later, a soup I've cooked, plus salad, and
we talk about the weather. It's October, the autumn of man, and outside
another squirrel is rustling around in some bright yellow leaves.
There's a breeze. We agree it's a very good season.
"Maybe I'll be a weatherman when I grow up," Kevin says. He's in a good
My father wants to say you'll have to pass the ninth grade, but he
refrains. I pour him more soup as a reward.
"I think you'd be a very good weatherman," my mom says, back in the
game. "You already have that plaid jacket."
After dinner, we disperse. I double-check the Greyhound schedule and
make plans with friends back in New York. They ask how my homecoming
went. I say the home team's not doing so hot. Season's not over, they
offer. No one likes talking about family.
I turn on the computer but turn it off. I remember the first instance
of pornography in my life. I was 10 and I found a torn ad on the way
home from school. The ad, announcing the opening of a strip club
somewhere, featured a naked dancer facing the camera. She had a big
forced smile that made her look sick. See Me Live, it said in big
letters near her mouth. I misread it at first: as a plea for someone to witness her living.
Kevin wanders into my room and it's nice to see a real person.
"What were you doing?" he asks.
"Thinking. How about you?"
"Same, I guess. Thinking never feels like thinking, though."
"That's true," I say. We're formal and stiff sometimes. All those
half nelsons, but we're formal and stiff sometimes.
"Well, I guess I'd better study some more."
"I don't know -- maybe you should take the night off. You shouldn't kill
yourself over this stuff."
"Yeah," he says. "But I think I'd better study some more."
"All right. Good luck, then."
"Thanks for helping with my homework earlier."
"Don't be silly."
"All right. Well, I guess I'll see you in a while."
"November," I say. "I'll be back for Thanksgiving, if not sooner."
I decide not to say good luck on the quiz. He says to hug him goodbye
in the morning and I promise to. He goes off to work. I sit there a
minute, then pick up one of the books I took from my parents' shelf.
It's a thriller. It promises a tidy and sensible roundup of everything
by the last page. I stretch out and start reading. By the third page
someone's stabbed. By the ninth page I'm struggling to pay attention.
Some time later, a heavy book shuts in Kevin's room, snapping me a
little more awake. Julee, with her crazy fake name, pops into my head.
Those girls aren't falling, I know. To believe they are is to hide from
a scarier truth: There's no such thing as falling. There are no heights
to account for differences within us, no falls to explain what is profane or just sad in the angles of someone's life. Nothing quite makes sense of a voice begging See Me Live. Things are arranged laterally and loosely, one big unreasonable plane, with shapes pressed flat and not always connected to each other.