Victor Lodato: “P.E.”
04/06/2012 § 1 Comment
Originally published in The New Yorker, April 2, 2012.
The ending’s a little shaky, but if you’ve been looking for a crash course on momentum and narrative, look no further than Lodato’s striking short story, “P.E.” Freddy’s a twenty-eight-year old who has been suffering from severe emotional trauma, trauma that in recent years has caused him to balloon in size and to awkwardly withdraw to the comfort of alternate realities, or the teachings of Parallel Energetics (P.E.), in which you “tune in to what it feels like to be [these yous that have worked out a lot of their shit], and sustain that higher frequency for as long as possible.” We get this sense of Freddy right off the bat, as he sits in an airport kiosk, downing slices of pumpkin loaf, waiting for his father — who he hasn’t seen in over two years, and who he hasn’t lived with since his mother’s killed herself when he was seven — to arrive. He attempts to joke with the barista: “I didn’t actually laugh. I just said the words ‘ha ha.’ I’m like that. I pretend I have a sense of humor, but I don’t.” Then he realizes what she’s really upset about: “We stared at each other, fat person to fat person, and it was pretty real, but not in any way pleasant.” Nobody likes to really see themselves, and yet that’s the main thrust of P.E., i.e., seeing the wound through the father, reconciling with the past rather than looking sidelong into a fictitious “now.”
Did I mention that Lodato’s very funny in describing this, which helps to mask just how much emotional baggage Freddy’s got? From a narrative perspective, we buy into the things Freddy tells us because if he was lying, why would he be so self-deprecating? “We stepped toward each other, but we didn’t do anything with our arms or our hands. We just stood there, which was fine. It’s awkward when people try to hug me. And then, if I reciprocate, I tend to engulf. Too much of me touches the other person. I feel like a pervy mall Santa endangering a child.” (Suffice to say, the story ends with the father embracing — to an extent — the son, as they dance, stoned, in his apartment.) We’re also given a sprinkling of interesting facts, things which insist upon the specific reality of Freddy’s world, which further helps to obfuscate what Freddy isn’t telling us: “I gathered from his comment that he was still in the habit of stealing things,” he mentions of his father; “Aunt Helen is a gentle woman, but her wisdom often erupts like a kind of Tourette’s syndrome,” he says of the person who more or less raised him. Even the hints that Freddy isn’t quite being clear — he interrupts himself, doubles-back on certain events, skates around raw memories — are masked by their own casual nature: “For instance, the day my mother died, my father and I were at the beach. I was seven. My mother wasn’t at the beach, she was at home, with the rope and everything.”
“If I seem full of anger, it’s just my style. It’s not my subject,” insists Freddy. This isn’t true, though; after barely kettling his emotions at a cheap Mexican restaurant, the two head back to Freddy’s apartment, where Freddy ends up having to share his stash of artisanal weed with him. (It’s supplied, incidentally, by his P.E. mentor.) The father shares a memory, but the son can remember only his father’s infidelities, the mother’s resultant depression, and the eventual consequences to said actions. “Had my father been cavorting with some other Freddy?” he wonders. “I had the strange feeling I’d been replaced.” What follows is a bit akin to the opening sequence of Infinite Jest: Freddy’s first-person perspective is entirely different, we realize, from his father’s. He is living in a parallel world, or hiding within one, for you see, the father has come not to mooch off the son, but because Aunt Helen, too weak from her hip surgery to come herself, was concerned that he was having another of his “episodes.” This is the first we hear of this, and there’s been plenty of time to bring it up, given that Freddy is all too aware of his father’s own trip to the “nut-and-bolt factory” when he was a child. (“Either that or she’d say he was straightening his stockings. I took these things literally, commingled them in my head, and pictured a transvestite version of my father working an assembly line.” I told you he was funny.)
We’re also seeing the narrative jumble at this point, too. When Freddy first describes his charming father, the man’s missing a tooth, but it’s actually not until now — when Freddy hits him in the face with his cell-phone — that he loses the tooth. It’s not until now that we see the relevance of the story Freddy shares about how, after the suicide, the father kept the rope and wore it around the house. (“Part of it was probably guilt and part of it was wanting to wear something that was hers. A sweatshirt would have been less upsetting to a seven-year-old, but, to tell you the truth, I’m not sure he was fully conscious of the fact that I was still there.”) For you see, the son still has the noose around his own neck, eking out a miserable life in a desert house infested by lizards, delusional about his own relationship with his mentor/boyfriend (“I”m not gay,” he insists, and yet: “Take a deep breath, baby, Salvatore likes to say…”), and trapped in a body that — all joking aside — has more or less consumed the person he once was. It’s a beautiful, fractious final sequence, and if I say up front that it’s a little shaky, it’s only because it’s so different — near elegiac — than everything that precedes it. They’re so naked at this point — the father crying at the picture of his dead wife — that they might as well go skinny dipping, and we’ve come full circle to that water metaphor, the thing that’s inextricably linked to the memory of his dead mother, “I was probably swimming at the exact moment that it happened…. The sea of infinite possibility and everything.” It’s on this final note — the mark of a good author, to have echoed everything without being any means definitive — that Lodato ends his story, one liquid to another: “Sal says that every change of consciousness is accompanied by a loss of fluid.” Possibilities, realities, transference, memory; if we are composed mainly of water, then are we not constantly liquid, i.e, changeable? Nice concept, beautiful images, terrific follow-through, perfectly executed narrative momentum: great.