Jay’s Interview with Dan, 2

(A chapter of Akayama DanJay.)


Dan waddled back from the bathroom like a Sheridanian big-bird and drank most of his second stout. “You remember in high-school, you and me used to eat lunch with Faith and Beatrice?”

“Yeah. Lots of fun.” Jay could listen for long as Dan could talk.

“A lot of guys wanted to date Beatrice, but she always turned them down. She never told them she was already dating Faith.” Dan finished the rest of his second stout all at once. “I guess the two of them were hiding it.”

“I didn’t know until the end of the school-year.” Jay wondered if Dan would mention dating Beatrice himself. “There’re reasons to be protective of that sort of information.”

“I know! That’s why I felt blessed around Beatrice.” Dan smiled into his second empty pint. “Being her friend felt like approval from a secret sacred source. She even told me once, no matter how annoyed she was when I glorified her, she liked having me around, because guys didn’t hit on her as much when I was there.”

“It’s true,” said Jay. “We’d get some catcalls in the cafeteria when you ate lunch alone in the library.”

The bottom of his second empty pint wasn’t making Dan smile anymore. “This one time, eating lunch alone in the library, someone slapped me on the back. You remember the bald guy in our homeroom who always wore sunglasses?”

“Nope.”

“His name was Lio.”

Jay put two and two together. “Oh. Actually, yeah, I do remember him. I didn’t see him much in high-school; I guess he was as repelled by me as he was by you.” He finished his stout and uncapped his pen. “Why’d he slap you in the library?”

“He wasn’t always so repelled by me,” said Dan. “We were friends for a while. Ish.”

Jay couldn’t imagine being friends with Lio. “Friends, ish?” 

“Yeah, ish. Back in elementary. My mom was always desperate for me to make friends, and Lio was always eager to sucker someone into—” Dan put both elbows on the bar. “Putting up with his fig-making, I guess.”

Jay was intrigued by Dan’s exclusive insight. “What sort of figs?”

“We swam in his pool once. I thought it’d be fun having a friend with a pool, but we had to swim his way.”

“Oof.” Jay felt Lio’s belly holding him against the monastery wall. “How was that?”

“My mom used our first play-date to meet his mom,” said Dan, “so when Lio held me underwater, she was there to call him out on it.”

“Call him out how?”

“Honestly, I was embarrassed Mom raised an objection at all.” Dan shrugged. “Boys might hold boys underwater. You know how it is.”

” ‘Let him drown me, Ma.’ “

“She said we could hold each other underwater… so long as we held our own breath while we did it.” Dan puffed out his cheeks. “If we held our own breath we’d know how the other felt, and we’d know how much was too much.”

“Sounds fair.”

“I was the first of us to do that,” said Dan. “After all, Lio held me underwater. I could do it to him, too, right?”

“Sure.”

“I held Lio underwater and held my breath. It was only a few seconds, but he started squirming, so I let him go even though I felt fine.”

“Right.”

“And then he held me under again.”

“Uh-huh.”

“And while I’m suffocating, I was sure any moment now, he’d know it’d been too long, and he’d let me up.”

“But…”

“But he breathed through his nose while puffing out his cheeks.” Dan pretended to hold his breath, but pointed to his available nostrils. “So our moms let him hold me down for long as he wanted.”

“How’d you get up?”

“I considered kicking, but I didn’t want to give Lio another excuse to do all this again. I only got up when he decided I’d had enough. Then he put me underwater again, just to be sure. And again. And again.” Dan fumed into his empty pint. “I asked why he did that, and he said it was for my own good. I had to learn to take care of myself, or I’d be a coward—and I’d failed! I was clearly just feelings, no logic. So I took care of myself by not being friends with Lio for a while.”

“A while?”

“I saw him one time between Halloween and Christmas. He told me how his stepdad…” Dan waited for Jay to provide a word or two edgewise, but Jay just waited, so Dan went on. “His stepdad took his Halloween candy to teach him how evil taxation was.”

“Hm.”

” ‘You worked so hard for this candy, and now the government is stealing it!’ ” Dan mimed eating treats. “I asked Lio, your stepdad held you underwater, metaphorically, so how did you get up?”

“And… how?”

“He didn’t try complaining, because his stepdad said that never worked even though he did it himself all the time. He tried complimenting his stepdad, but that only got him one candy per compliment. When his stepdad ate enough and thought Lio had learned how the government sucked, he gave the rest of the candy back.” Dan shuddered. “I asked Lio, why didn’t he fight? Well, his stepdad was bigger than him, usually drunk, and fighting would give him an excuse to do something worse.” Jay nodded. “That seriously bothered me.”

“It bothers me, too.”

“I mean, it obviously bothers me there’s this whole drunk-stepdad situation. It’s quite a struggle. But…” Dan raised his empty pint to the bartender. Jay shook his head, so the bartender kept pouring a drink for someone else. “This was after Lio held me underwater for my own good, for me to learn to take care of myself, or I’d be a coward. Hadn’t Lio’s stepdad presented the same lesson? And hadn’t Lio failed just like me, symbolically accepting his position as victim of an oppressive government, complimenting the fuhrer to preserve their feelings and beg for more? He was raised to believe political conservatism and sovereign citizenship were both perpetual submission to the state—and he expected me to give into him the same way, putting on training-wheels and drinking pink-slime.”

“Wow.”

“I tried to explain this concept, but Lio wouldn’t have it. I, uh…” Dan waved a gloved hand. “I got a little too biblical at first.”

“As you do.”

“The children of Israel, enslaved in Egypt, brought on ten plagues and parted the Red Sea. Sure, it’s God doing all that stuff, but we’ve already established even a literal God is a metaphor for overcoming overwhelming obstacles through the liberation of one’s own hands. To make figs is sending your soul to Hell before you’re even dead, inventing demons to pilot your living body. Lio didn’t quite make that connection, and told me not to shove religion down his throat.”

“Leave that to his stepdad, I guess.”

“So I tried lore he’d heard of. Was Lio his stepdad’s puppet, or was Lio a real boy?” Dan waved his gloved hands over his head, showing he had no strings attached.

Pinocchio’s dilemma.”

“Lio said he wasn’t scared of his stepdad, but I said wasn’t sure. Maybe he was so scared—“

“—he had to say he wasn’t scared.”

“He insisted, no, no, no, but I looked him in the eyes—this was before he wore sunglasses all the time—and I said, ‘is someone trapped in there? Blink twice if you need help.’ “

“And?”

“He blinked twice.” Dan laughed, just one ‘ha.’ No wonder Lio wears sunglasses all the time, thought Jay. “I think it was just his reaction to hearing the phrase ‘blink twice,’ but I’m sure he got my point, because he covered his face with both hands and screamed. He screamed…” Dan scowled. “He screamed, ‘let’s go swimming.’ But I didn’t take orders from Lio anymore! He’d accidentally helped me clip my strings and become the real boy he wished he was. From my point-of-view, we were equals—brothers in anxiety, at least—but he accepted his learned helplessness. That put me in position of messiah, obligated to save him from himself, but I turned it down because I was free to do so.”

Jay flipped to another fresh page. “Dan, I’m glad to hear all this, but you started talking about high-school. What did Lio want in the library?”

“I was hoping he’d grown a little since I’d last seen him. He had grown, but not the way I’d hoped. I told him not to slap me on the back like that, and he said it was okay, because it didn’t hurt. ‘I’m just being your buddy, Danny-boy!’ ” He and Jay both rolled their eyes. “I’d always regretted being mean to him, even if he was mean to me first. I’d probably enabled his victim-complex. I tried giving him the benefit of the doubt, assuming, like my dad taught me, he just got taught different simple rules, and our important rules were probably the same. But the more we talked there in the library, the more I realized he’d gotten seriously fucked in the head. I don’t think you’d believe me if I told you what came out of his mouth.”

“Try me, Dan.” Jay flipped to another fresh page.

“Well, he asked if I was an ‘alpha male,’ keeping Beatrice for myself, or just a ‘beta’ trying to get into her pants. I told him we were just friends, and he scoffed and said, ‘beta, then.’ “

“Yeesh.”

“He asked me for Beatrice’s phone-number, and when I wouldn’t give it to him, he said he was disappointed in me. He thought we were friends, he said, and if I wanted to stay friends, I should leave Beatrice alone and get out of his way, because I was ‘cucking’ him. Am—am I right that ‘cuck’ has sort of a racial connotation?”

Jay frowned and underlined the word in his notepad. “It can.” He decided Lio wasn’t worth the benefit of the doubt. “In porn, a cuck is a guy whose wife cheats on them with a black man. Another lynching excuse.”

“That’s what I thought, so I asked him what it meant, and he couldn’t bring himself to say it aloud. He just croaked the word like a toad a couple more times. When I kept playing dumb, he said cucking was when someone keeps you from getting what you deserve. I was like, ‘really? Is that what it means?’ ” Jay considered reminding Dan he’d said feigned ignorance was still ignorance. Was Dan reinterpreting rules just to be offended, or trying to slap a fig-maker awake with realization of embarrassment? “He told me to stop messing around. He knew I knew what it meant because of the book I was reading.”

 “What book were you reading?”

“I had lots of books! We were the only two in the library, Jay! But I knew which one he meant. It had a temple from Thailand on the cover with swastikas on both sides of the door, one clockwise, one counterclockwise. He must’ve thought the swastikas meant I was on his fucked-up wavelength, so I told him swastikas meant a lot of different things to a lot of different people. He was like, ‘Yes! Exactly!’ and he unbuttoned his shirt. This asshole had tattooed a swastika on his own chest. It was the size of his palm, but the lines were thinner than pencil-lead, just a fragile little snowflake. He must’ve had a hard time inking himself in the mirror, because he fucked up two of the spokes, so it looked like a crude firearm with a hair-trigger. I remembered what my dad taught me: following simple rules, like not tattooing a fucking swastika on yourself, are indicators of following important rules, like being a decent human being. And then my dad taught me to confront terribleness by being terrifying.”

Jay soured, remembering how Lio tried sharing his tattoo on the ferry. “So what did you do?”

“My dad had just committed suicide, okay? I felt like I was exactly the person to tell Lio, ‘anyone who looks up to Hitler can bite a bullet in a bunker. If your feelings can’t handle the facts, you’re allowed to leave.’ But that just seemed to build him up! He said he tattooed himself to detect small-minded people, and he was glad to see it worked. Disapproving of his swastika-tattoo meant I was the real Nazi. He’d invented a simple rule just to watch people break it: apparently I had to respect him no matter what awful decisions he made. He was allowed to ‘pretend to be a Nazi,’ but I wasn’t allowed to ‘pretend he was a Nazi.’ He said I was oppressing him, proving he was right all along.”

“Right about what?”

“He said society limited his true power for the sake of political correctness. The world would be better off if he, and other alphas like his rich dad, were really unchained. I—I don’t know why he brought up his dad, he just did. I certainly didn’t ask. I didn’t even think he knew his real dad.”

“He mentioned his dad in Sheridan, too,” said Jay. “I hadn’t asked, either.” Was Lio telling the truth, or just a lie he liked enough to repeat? “Unchained to do what, exactly?”

“He said ‘sweatshops sound bad, but—‘ “

Jay chuckled. “Not a great way to start, huh?”

” ‘Sweatshops sound bad, but there are so many useless people out there! Think of how much money we’re wasting teaching garbage-kids to read and write instead of putting them to work.’ Work under what conditions? Are there safety-regulations involved? ‘Safety-regulations? You’re spitting on my rights!‘ I asked about the ethics of dangerous child-labor, but he told me ethics were made up by religious people—he pronounced the word with this shit-eating grin—to make alphas like him a slave to the weak. That made real slavery okay, he said! ‘We gotta do it! Some races wouldn’t survive on their own. If we take them from their huts and teach them to be useful, they should thank us! If they refuse to take responsibility for themselves even after we beat some sense into them, then at least they’ve got some organs to sell!’ That was war, slavery, torture, and genocide all justified at once, and he’d said ‘we’ and ‘us’ as if I’d be on his side for any of it. ‘Slavery is a choice,’ he said. ‘It’s their fault, not ours.’ “

Jay groaned as he took notes. “I guess if you can reference the Old Testament and Pinocchio, he gets to quote Kanye West.”

“It’s precisely the defeatist attitude I wanted to save him from!” said Dan. Jay recalled Dan’s regret just commenting on black magic, and wondered if the second stout would give him more to regret. “The way Lio describes them, slaves are so much more impressive than him. Literally enslaved people have to make tough decisions. They don’t ask for permission before escaping, maintaining hidden cultures, or calling down ten plagues. In that sense, the enslaved handle so much more responsibility than their masters, who writhe like impotent soccer-players trying to convince the referee they’ve been burdened. Fig-makers invert the slavery-dynamic to justify the slavery-dynamic, effectively enslaving themselves, to themselves, so they can command people outside their mental-illness.”

“Hm. Do you think that’s what Kanye West meant, too?” asked Jay.

“Sorry, who’s Kanye West?” asked Dan.

Everyone knows Kanye West. He’s a musician who claimed to be a god, I figured you’d love that attitude.”

“Oh. I don’t know a lot about music.” Jay waved the matter away. “I asked where Lio drew the line,” said Dan. “Was child sex-trafficking okay? I was trying to plumb the bottom of this well, here, for some low-hanging fruit.”

“Dan.” Jay put his pen down and rubbed his eyes. “I’ve met this guy, and I understand your averse reaction to him. But you were just giving him bait.”

“Huh?”

“Bait. You were a fish giving a fisherman more worms for his hook. You gave Lio more ways to upset you, and he took the chance every time.”

“Well… That I understand,” said Dan, “but that means he was taking my bait, right?”

Jay sighed. Clearly Dan and Lio were both master baiters. “So what next?”

“I’d pitched underhand and he kept clubbing baby seals. He says, ‘you convinced me, child sex-trafficking is okay too, and preventing it should be against the law.’ I was fucking floored. Not only was he going this far, but he was acting like it was my idea! I asked him what possible excuse he could have for justifying child sex-trafficking, and he said—oh, boy—he said gays like Faith and Beatrice were an ongoing genocide against ‘proper straights’ like us, and to make up for it, we deserved the right to buy someone underage and impregnate them. Besides, child sex-trafficking was gonna happen somewhere no matter what, so it shouldn’t be opposed anywhere. In fact, being against child sex-trafficking meant I was at fault for all the starving kids around the world, and he was the only one with their best interests in mind.”

“Lordy.” Maybe Lilly dodged a bullet, thought Jay.

“I was seriously shaking.” Dan was shaking now just thinking about it. “Here was a guy who made government, sexuality, law, religion, the economy, and morality into a cruel God to make atrocious little figs at, a guy slave to the entire universe at once. I’d never expected to meet someone like my dad had described, deliberately misinterpreting reality’s emptiness to construct a personal hellscape justifying terrible impulses. My dad had told me, ‘steal their God! Make it your own!’ I’d get him to drown himself until he realized he was responsible for his own decisions no matter who he blamed.”

“The Bugs Bunny approach,” said Jay. He wondered if either Lio or Dan ever believed a single thing they claimed to believe.

“I told him the reason political correctness could limit his power was because he was a coward,” said Dan. “A free man can be free anywhere, but a coward is a communist whatever their government allows or requires them to pretend to be. ‘What, you want me to go full Waco?’ he asked.

” ‘I want you to escape the mental gulag you’ve cucked yourself into, for your own sake and for the sake of anyone who ever has the misfortune of meeting you, but if you mean kill your family in a fire, yes, please, do the world a favor!’ So he socked me in the jaw. My head hit two bookshelves when I fell.”

“Ouch.”

“It’s okay.” Dan sat back on his bar-stool. “I… I deserved it.”

“Did you?”

“Yeah. The difference between him and me is that I own the consequences of my actions. I threw my dad out a window, I hit Beatrice with a bus, I zapped Faith with a lightning-bolt, and I socked myself with Lio’s fist. I’m not gonna make figs at a fig-maker.” Jay wrote this down, unsure. Behind all the master baiting, wasn’t Dan just making figs at himself? Who assigned Dan the burden of being messiah? “But while I was on the library floor, Lio shouted something at me I don’t think I’ll ever forget.”

“What did he shout?”

” ‘Stop looking at me like that!’ Apparently my rights ended where his feelings began. I wish I knew my own look, because it must’ve been a powerful one.” Jay could guess: like a disappointed mother watching her kid stick a fork in an electrical socket for the umpteenth time. “So I gave him a twenty dollar bill and told him to get another swastika-tattoo on his forehead. Then everyone would know to look at him the same way I did.”

“Did he take it?”

“Of course. And then he said he was gonna beat the smug out of me that summer.” Dan sipped the last dregs from his empty pint-glass.

Did he beat the smug out of you that summer?”

“Hold on.” Dan stumbled off his stool and waddled away like a Sheridanian big-bird. “I’ve been pouring out my heart for like an hour. Now I gotta pour out my bladder again. I’ll be back.”

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