A former contributor to The Village Voice and Rolling Stone, Robert Levin is the author of “When Pacino’s Hot, I’m Hot, a Miscellany of Stories and Commentary” (The Drill Press), “Against Mental Health: Short Stories” (Cyberwit) and “A Robert Levin Reader: Fiction • Commentary • Jazz” (Cyberwit). He is also the co-author and co-editor, respectively, of two collections of essays about jazz and rock in the ’60s: “Music & Politics,” with John Sinclair (World Publishing) and “Giants of Black Music,” with Pauline Rivelli (Da Capo Press).
Emerging from the john with her coat draped over her arm and carrying her overnight bag, Sharon tossed a gift-wrapped box onto the living room couch where I’d been dozing.
“I would have given you this tonight,” she said. “Happy fucking birthday, Steve. You’ve traveled around the sun thirty-five times now and you still haven’t seen the fucking light. Enjoy the rest of the fucking weekend.”
And then, slamming the apartment door behind her with a force that knocked a picture from the wall, she was gone.
For several minutes afterwards I stayed put on the couch, processing my reaction to what was clearly her permanent departure. Yes, it disturbed me that her decampment had come on the afternoon of this particular birthday. And I did experience an uneasiness about the void her absence from my life would leave. (Although we’d maintained separate Greenwich Village residences she’d been my steady girlfriend for nearly six months and slept at my bigger place a lot.) But these concerns were quickly dissolved in a wash of relief, a relief succeeded by what was close to apathy.
Not to say that I’d stopped liking Sharon. I still had an affection for her. The issue was that I couldn’t fully love her. And her persistent demands, especially in the last weeks, to move in, to marry, to have a baby, had become oppressive. (She was just months younger than me and the alarm on her biological clock had been sounding long before our hookup.) Of course, the strain I’d been made to feel in this period wasn’t all about Sharon specifically. It was rooted in the fact that the depth of emotion required to respond to such entreaties had always been off my spectrum. I was more than capable of lust and, occasionally, of infatuation. But love, certainly of the kind that she wanted, was something alien to me.
Indeed, what transpired with Sharon had merely perpetuated a lifelong pattern. It had happened, in one manner or another, with every “serious” relationship with a woman I’d been in.
The pattern I’m referring to would invariably begin in the early stages of routine intimacy. And it didn’t take much to trigger it, I’d hear the sounds they made in the bathroom, or suddenly notice a simple mole or dimpled hollow on a breast, and instantly suffer a spasm of revulsion that was accompanied by a heart jolt of fear—it was as though I’d caught a glimpse of the grim reaper himself. If the intensity of that reflex passed quickly there was an insidious after effect. An emotional distancing would be left in its wake, a distancing which was beyond me to repair. Try as I might, I couldn’t shake my perception of their bodies as things that decayed and ultimately vanished. They were, their bodies, an atrocious and ephemeral concoction of pipes, wiring and nasty liquids that nature had fiendishly devised and then camouflaged by, at best, a pretty face or figure. Any ardor I may initially have felt would fade, and sex would become merely obligatory and mechanical. In the aftermath of the ensuing split-up, that could take place anywhere from weeks to months later, I would feel only a listlessness in the company of any new women I met. My torpor would last until my libido necessarily reawakened—it represented, after all, a biological imperative. Then, not counting one-nighters, I would once again enter a familiar scenario.
Sharon had attributed my resistance to her wishes to what she called “commitment-phobia” and I should acknowledge that I’d led her on a bit. That was because I was afflicted with an ambivalence which hadn’t been a problem in previous failing liaisons. I was approaching middle age with no significant couplings to show for it, and given that she was comely, personable and intelligent, I thought I ought to want her. As a result, I couldn’t bring myself to thoroughly discourage her aspirations. Despite her constant complaints about the noise that extended into the early morning hours from the nightclub across the street and just four floors below, she’d remained adamant about taking occupancy (with getting hitched and becoming a mother to follow on its heels). And I’d more than intimated that when I turned thirty-five I’d be ready. If, all along, I knew that my readiness wasn’t very likely in the cards, I did live with the hope that something would at one point rescue me from my condition. But when the time came it remained too far for me to go.
“So, are you prepared to take the next steps?” She’d asked me in bed that morning, snuggling behind me.
“Shit,” I grunted. “I can’t.”
Sharon’s parting critique of me, let it be said, had been off by 180 degrees. My dilemma wasn’t that I hadn’t seen the light, but that I’d seen too clearly what it illuminated.
My mother told me once that when I was born the obstetrician had remarked that I was “high-strung.” Since no further details were recalled by her, I can only imagine that I evacuated the womb trembling with terror. When I think of this, I’m reminded of another ghastly aspect of women’s bodies. This one involves nature’s design of the female anatomy and it makes perfect sense of my trepidation. A freshman at Pratt, for Christ’s sake, would know better than to locate the portal to the world in such close proximity to the anus. On the order of something my plumber might try to get away with, this arrangement made the moment of one’s birth comparable to exiting a subway station in pre-gentrified Jersey City.
Now that’s not just a joke. As it occurred to me later, the doctor’s comment had predicted a handicap to which I’d been sentenced. The crucial repression and denial mechanisms intended to insulate us against too keen an awareness of the deeper and uglier realities of existence, and belonging, it seemed, to most everyone else, were in my case missing.
And the consequences of this flaw were hardly confined to my inability to deeply connect with the women in my life. In fact, that was only a relatively small piece of it. I was also, and most devastatingly, consigned to a chronic anxiety and disconsolation about my own physical composition and fate (which, I suppose, the women simply mirrored). The sinister underside of nature being so evident to me, I lived with a dread that would fluctuate from low to high, but which was unremittingly there. The horror of the inevitability and the agony of death that I knew their beauty disguised and distracted us from, a bright spring day or magnificent landscape were not, for example, phenomena to rejoice in, but ominous and disquieting.
My state of mind, however, was a secret that, with one exception back in my twenties, I never revealed, not to the women it affected or to anyone else. More than a little embarrassed by it, and my socializing being minimal anyway (I had friends but none with whom I was very tight), I was loathe to discuss it. And inasmuch as I was functional, decent looking, educated and with a well-paying, if unrewarding, job, no one I came into contact with would suspect that something might be wrong. To my knowledge, the most negative thing ever expressed about me (apart from “commitment-phobia,” whatever the fuck that actually is) was that I tended to be “sullen.”
“Sullen.” I could summon no argument against that description. Veiled as my inner wretchedness may have been by a determination to appear as together as possible, I was still, and much too often, visibly tense and morose.
That exception I mentioned above was a psychiatrist who I saw twice a week for the better part of a year. I told him my story and he diagnosed the symptoms I presented as depression, which he interpreted as a chemical imbalance. In the course of my treatment, I went through an array of psychotropics, none of which had any effect whatsoever on my thoughts or moods. (The few times I’d tried street drugs like cocaine and speed they’d worked to appreciably lift my spirits, but as good as they’d made me feel the gratifications they afforded would dissipate rapidly.) My depression, this shrink said one day, was “refractory,” impervious, that is, to medication, and he was talking about alternatives like electric shock therapy (as a means with which to rearrange my chemistry???), when I abruptly upped and left. What he didn’t grasp was that depression (whether or not it’s recognized or conceptualized in this way by those who are cursed by it) was caused by seeing the world as it is.
I’d pretty much understood at this juncture that, notwithstanding the perpetual yearning that a miracle would happen to eradicate the quandary I was in, nothing figured to release me from my consciousness and fear of the evil that nature embodied. The cruelty of nature (watch those shows on the animal channels for a demonstration of how it doesn’t give an antelope’s ass about the so-called “sanctity” of life) was too starkly discernible to me. As I’ve said, the mechanisms—I mean the illusions and mental manipulations—other people were able to employ in order to live with some measure of interior peace in respect to the unacceptable reality nature posed were not available to me. I’m speaking of, say, religion and the immortality it promised (or the justification for suffering it provided). I’m also speaking of an immersion in social or political missions to absorb the attention. And, to be sure, I’m speaking of profound romantic love which, from what I’ve observed, is a method people subconsciously use to transform the body from a source of apprehension into something quite the opposite—a vessel of transcendent pleasure. (This is probably the fundamental reason the termination of romantic attachments seems to be so shattering for most of mankind.)
A bitterly cold midwinter month of dragging myself through the rounds of my days had passed since Sharon took off and I was walking into the laundry room of my building’s basement when I felt a hard crunch under my foot. Looking down I saw that I’d stepped on a large water bug and that its crushed remains were oozing from under my shoe. In the same instant I also saw a second bug right next to my shoe. Apparently in reaction to the event, it had jumped at least six inches straight up and, upon landing, scurried away. I felt no guilt or remorse about what had happened. But I wasn’t indifferent either. No, what I felt was something like a thrill that made me want to repeat the experience. Compelled to chase after the companion bug, I cornered it behind a trash can where I dug my heel into it and watched it break apart, its lifeless tentacles still gently waving. With this act I felt another thrill akin to the high from a line or two of blow. But this one was joined by a revelation that had the impact of an epiphany. I could end my difficulty with nature by becoming one with its heinousness.
Before I was back upstairs I knew exactly what I was going to do.
How I acquired the weapon—an AR-15 with a 16-inch barrel and iron sights, or the half- dozen 30-round magazines that came with it—is nobody’s business. I will report that I found it, in its design and craftsmanship, to be a stunningly beautiful instrument and that, immediately in its thrall, when I first held it in my arms—it weighed maybe six or seven pounds—it seemed to pulsate as if it was possessed of a beating heart. Was I, at that moment, projecting the excitement of my own wildly beating heart onto it? The gun was also, considering it was second-hand, remarkably clean. All the preparation it needed was a quick tidying.
Per the previous owner’s instructions, I removed the rear takedown pin and took out the bolt carrier group and charging handle. With that done, I wiped these components with a rag to rid them of small bits of black sludge that was dirty oil, Then, using a nylon bristle brush, I scoured the inside of the upper and lower receiver. Next, I ran a bore snake through the barrel to make sure it was completely clear. Finally, I added fresh oil to the outer three flanks of the charging handle and, returning to the bolt carrier group, put several more drops of oil into the holes on the side.
And that was it.
With the gun all set, I became feverish and agitated. Anxious to get moving, I was unable to sleep that night. In the morning I left a voice mail for my boss to tell him I was sick. After that I did nothing but pace the breadth of the apartment over and over again, pausing periodically to glance out the window at the shuttered night club below. Then, when darkness eventually fell, and wearing a thick parka with the loaded gun clutched against my chest and extra clips in a backpack, I climbed the two flights of stairs to the roof. Once there, I slid the long dead bolt rod and opened the creaking metal door to a blast of icy air, which made me wish I’d thought to bring gloves. Maybe twenty patrons, most of them young, were queued now in front of the club when I got to the roof’s five-foot high concrete wall overlooking the street some thirty yards from the door. Pulling the parka’s hood tighter around my head and laying the gun at my feet, I crouched and wedged myself between a skylight and a fireplace chimney and, peering over the wall, watched them. I could hear some in the group laughing. They were anticipating a good time.
I didn’t wait to start. My target clearly illuminated by street lamps and the club’s neon sign and decorative lights, I picked up the gun and began firing right away, moving my aim from the back of the line to the front. Having had no prior experience with this rifle, the crackles and pops of the reports were much louder than I’d thought they’d be. And the force of the recoil against my armpit was stronger than I’d expected. It would doubtless leave a bruise, but I felt no pain. The thing was I couldn’t really feel my body. I wasn’t even cold. From the moment I’d started shooting I was liberated from my body and, by extension, from all the grief that it generated for me. I wasn’t scared anymore. On the contrary, I was ecstatically happy. In the process of killing you kill your own death, at least your anxiety about it. Feeling far greater than anything I’d ever felt on coke or amphetamines, I realized what being truly “high” meant and why people coveted it. It meant to be outside of and above the body that will ultimately destroy you. I’d mimicked nature—given it what it obviously relished—and I’d been rewarded by euphoria. The vivid red blood that was erupting like a fountain of mini geysers all along the line was glorious to behold. I heard muffled cries, but no screaming. It was happening too quickly for that. One guy, who I’d hit in the torso, looked in my direction with a quizzical expression before falling. Even with the wind up the smell of sulfur was thick in the air. Shell casings were scattered all around me. And in short order sirens began to wail.
I think I got most all of them.
Since I’d always eschewed social media and had given no hint of my intentions to anyone, I knew there’d be puzzlement about my purpose. Had I come from some twisted ideology? A grudge against the club? People would look for a rationale that, however demented they’d deem it, was comprehensible to them. What could my motive have been? Well, I’ll tell you. Self-defense. I was defending myself against my crippling terror of death. But no, they won’t get it. This explanation will willfully mystify them because to understand it would oblige them to examine the devices they use to protect and sustain themselves and would, in turn, undermine those devices.
It was at this point that, separated from my body and with the prospect of my own death no longer frightening me, I thought to turn the gun on myself. If death or permanent incarceration were all that was left for me—and not knowing how long my exaltation (which might have made a life in prison tolerable if it continued) would last, I wanted to take advantage of a moment in which my demise would be near to painless. That was when I heard a slight grating sound at the rooftop door. The first responders had showed up. They’d knocked out the stairwell bulbs, but there was still sufficient light from the windows of the surrounding and taller buildings to see the door, which I’d left slightly ajar, slowly opening wider. They were cautiously pushing against it with their weapons. Then they egressed, dropping to their stomachs on the tarred roof floor and crawling military-style along it. Although they were helmeted and heavily armored, it still, I thought, took courage to do what they were doing. Unlike me they had normal lives to lose. Almost simultaneously though, I also flashed on the possibility that, perhaps burdened with a problem similar to mine, at least some part of them had picked this job precisely for a chance to get a taste of the sensation I’d arrived at. But why they’d chosen to be here didn’t really matter. Either of those reasons was enough to move me. Out of admiration for their heroism, if heroism was what it was, or empathy, if a private misery was what it was, came a swelling of generosity and a better idea.
Standing fully upright and facing them, I emptied a clip in their direction, careful to aim above them. There followed a crackling fusillade of hail-like metal, the impact of which lifted my feet and hurled me backwards and, in its deafening volume, so all-consuming of my senses as to further reduce my capacity to know any pain to a slight burning in my chest. With that, as the blood spilled from my ripped heart into the cavities of my body, I entered a sweet oblivion.