Wren had to park a good distance from the venue. He wouldn’t have known it was the right spot, except the catering truck was parked there: just a gravel driveway, encroached upon with overgrown bushes and trees. If the country had alleys, this was one. As Wren turned off the car, Franny pulled up, so he paced gathering his things, trying to get out at the same time as her. Franny was one of the managers. She was about twenty years older than Wren, with a range of facial expressions that all conveyed disgust and a musical knowledge vastly limited to new wave bands. One time, at a small event with few staff, while they were setting tables, she played nothing but Tears for Fears and was delighted that Wren knew all of the words: “Going far, getting nowhere, going far, the way you are,” “It’s not that you’re not good enough / It’s just that we can make you better,” “The dreams in which I’m dying are the best I’ve ever had.” They had been devoted to one another since then.

Franny was a city girl, so as they walked on the shoulder of the road, she muttered, “I don’t want to be out here after dark,” and Wren began listing horror movies set in rural locations. The venue was situated in the countryside, but was still only miles from the freeway. It was a Stars Hollow sort of farm, with darling house, landscaped grounds, little stone patios under trees with lights hanging from the branches. At the back was a huge ancient barn that had been covered in some kind of glue to keep the boards level and dull any sharp grain.

In such an unincorporated area as this, Wren thought of Craigslist, partially because he was always thinking about Craigslist, but partially because his last casual encounter had been around here. In these parts, only the few and the desperate posted: the risk was higher, so your hunger had to be more intense, be it queer or curious. The immediacy, secrecy and security of it were what attracted and addicted Wren. How you could instantly connect and be charged by the knowledge you were desired. How you could delete everything until there was no evidence. How you could intermittently convince yourself nothing had happened. How you could become anonymous even to yourself.

The event was a wedding, which usually makes the entire catering staff nervous by association. Wren was on appetizers and charmed himself to the teeth: “Would you like to try some Spicy Chicken, which is coincidentally the name of my band?” But he needn’t have bothered, because the bride, groom, their parents, parties and guests were content. They were also stylish, diverse, smart and attractive. It was the sort of crowd that absorbed you, made you want to be better, made you believe that maybe you were better.

Wren was not better. He was worse. Worse wasn’t the right word, because that implied movement in some direction, presumably a dangerous one, but Wren hadn’t budged. He just dredged. Dragged up the same shit over and over again. Nearly every decision he’d ever made was wrong, he was wrong, it was all wrong. Of course, this way of thinking was wrong, too. Since the pact, Wren’s behavior had changed, but his mind and heart were the same. It was hard enough to stop the behavior, now he had to stop the thinking and feeling? The only reason to stop one thing was to start another.

Meanwhile, within 24 hours, he had to go from one wedding to another, from server to guest. Some would think of that as going from work to fun, but it was the opposite for Wren. At the first wedding, he could hover and observe, with no obligation to participate; at the second, he would have to engage and interact, so as to communicate his gratitude at being invited. The reality of introversion isn’t just that you can only be around people for a limited time, it’s that the time with them has to be unlimited in its depth of intimacy: small talk requires huge amounts of energy. And that’s all people have to offer at a wedding, unless you find another introvert and a bottle of champagne and a quiet corner somewhere.

There weren’t adequate corners in this venue, long, narrow thing that it was, like a galley. From where Wren was sitting, he couldn’t really see any of the ceremony; only hear the pastor’s voice, talking about the vine and the branches. And pruning. What a vicious job. You had to nearly kill the plant so it could grow.

Nearby, a boy in his early twenties wore a vintage brown tux, somehow both aware that he could work the look and unaware that it was tight in all the right places. Wren admired this briefly, then felt ashamed, as there must have been a decade between them. It was difficult having an aesthetic orientation that pulled every bit of male beauty with its tractor beam. If Wren wasn’t careful, his brain would beam up to another location where he could be with the beauty alone and talk about the weather, or maybe not talk; almost immediately it would beam back, blaming Wren for being so depraved, blaming beauty for attaching to a person. A crossbeam.

Though Wren had made the pact some years ago with a fellow addict – they had to stay off Oxycontin, he had to stay off Craigslist – he was seriously unsettled by recent news that the site had discontinued the personal ads, as if it were a collector’s coin he had kept, not intending to use it, just imagining the increasing value, knowing it could always be sold, but then found it had disappeared. It was like that quote from C.S. Lewis about thinking that if we are good enough, long enough, our poor deprived soul will be given permission to return to its fleshy desires.

Afterwards, at the reception, Wren provided commentary on the entire staff, a judge at an event: they hadn’t set the tables properly, weren’t dressed professionally, didn’t behave appropriately; he had plenty of adjectives and adverbs for them all. For example: someone spilled a huge bowl of salad near their table, and after 5 minutes of no one doing anything, Wren began cleaning it up with his bare hands. At this point a server walked by and asked if he needed a rag and Wren almost said “NO, I NEED YOU TO DO YOUR JOB.” It was his favorite part of the day, really. He was a guest, he was a server, he was a guest server, being invited into the work. He texted Franny about all of it and she replied, “give management a business card and say when they want good help, come find us.”

A week later, Wren remembered that he didn’t bring a card for the couple, which was the most he could do. It was frustrating when he didn’t do the most he could do. After reading a dozen cards, he finally selected one that had three panels – Faith, Hope, Love – connected with a ribbon that you could hang on the wall. There was a spot to compose a message. “Sincerest apologies for the delay in getting my shit together,” he wrote, “but there are few wedding cards that are not delusional, damaging or diabetically sweet. Instead, I found one that references the most challenging passage in all of the Bible! Never stop failing beautifully in your attempts to fulfill it.” He signed it with his name.

Some Greatness

It’s the sensation when you’re halfway to the airport and then, suddenly, certain you’ve forgotten something. You don’t know what it is, but you’re certain. This was how Ned experienced his life, most of the time – he should have prepared more, he should have accomplished more, more, more, more, it was an extended trance mix, on loop, in the background. He had reached that point in the mid-30’s where you are no longer judged by what you might do, but by what you haven’t done. Or maybe it’s just you who are doing the judging.

Ned had done things, but they weren’t good enough, they weren’t big enough, they weren’t enough. As he texted to a friend, “I am high on standards and low on self-esteem and have emotions that go up and down to meet both.” It definitely felt like Bibi Anderson and Liv Ullman in Persona, two faces blending together in a perpetual dissolve, both visible and in. He hated Ingmar Bergman films.

Occasionally, though, something would land, big enough to crush all of that with the weight of glory. Often it landed at a party. At the Doole house.

Everyone knew that Sheila and Prentice Doole’s parties were in their own time zone. They went on forever and were over in a flash. This one didn’t even start until 10 PM; the planning for it had started at the last one, around 2:30 AM, when Sheila was rhapsodizing about Twelfth Night. “We should read it together,” she said, with such authority that it became a commandment.

Ned didn’t need to be commanded, as he was always ready to obey Sheila, especially when a party was concerned. Somehow her invite list was invariably long on feelers, people who just radiated physical confidence and reached you with their rays. Normally Ned would swat away such intrusions to his personhood, but after drinking, his body’s drought would rise in a heat of demands. Simply put, there weren’t many opportunities for touch that were permitted by his conscience.

And, well, obviously he liked Shakespeare, too, and had seen the film adaptation of Twelfth Night with Helena Bonham-Carter years ago, remembering a rather electric scene where Viola, believed to be a boy, sat by a bath containing her master, Count Orsino. For those who escaped school without reading it, here is a synopsis: in the kingdom of Illyria, Count Orsino is desirous of Olivia, who is in mourning and denies his proposals. Viola washes up on the shore of this place, having been separated in a shipwreck from her twin brother, whom she assumes is dead. Determined to find work, she pretends to be a young man and applies at Orsino’s household, where she is hired as his page. Viola begins to fall for Orsino, as Olivia begins to fall for her, and things begin to fall apart, but because it’s a comedy, at the end, they are put back together again.

Not for Malvolio, though. And this was the role Sheila assigned Ned. Malvolio is the humorless steward to Olivia, whose other staff conspire to punish his pedantry by sending fake love letters from their mistress. Malvolio is flattered by this love, and even more so, preoccupied with the notion of becoming important by association, as Olivia is the daughter of a Count. From there, the deception devolves, each outrageous lie closer to the obvious truth, even as Malvolio continues to rearrange reality to accommodate his fantasy.

Ned found himself investing in this fantasy: first, as an actor, eager to give a worthy performance; then, as a sympathizer, appreciating the pain expressed in Malvolio’s need to believe; and then, suddenly, as one with the character, integrated, inseparable. And from that unity came an understanding; or, more precisely, a compassion.

All the attention to Malvolio, though imaginary, rouses an idea long asleep: that he could be great – no, is great – and has simply been awaiting confirmation; now he will commune with greatness. When the truth finally invades – his perceived value is a bubble, it has burst, and the very house surrounding has betrayed him – Malvolio is defenseless against it. So was Ned. And together, they sobbed. The emotion was a grounded floating, a kite with a long string fastened to a tall tree. Ned realized other actors had lifted heads from scripts: those outside of the scene, riveted by it; those inside, energized even further towards their character’s intent. There was a sort of power and he was trembling with it.

In Perelandra, the second installment of C.S. Lewis’ space trilogy, the titular planet has only two natural inhabitants, both uncorrupted, including the Queen, Tinidril. A tempter arrives, telling her tales of women pursuing their own desires completely, whom he characterizes as heroines. The appeal is the same: become great. Become like God.

Ned didn’t remember this until days after the Twelfth night, and then he couldn’t stop reading Lewis. In a sermon delivered a year prior to the publication of Perelandra, he writes:

“What I had mistaken for humility had, all these years, prevented me from understanding what is in fact the humblest, the most childlike, the most creaturely of pleasures – nay, the specific pleasure of the inferior: the pleasure of a beast before men, a child before its father, a pupil before its teacher, a creature before its Creator. I am not forgetting how horribly this innocent desire is parodied in our human ambitions, or how very quickly, in my own experience, the lawful pleasure of praise from those whom it was my duty to please turns into the deadly poison of self-admiration. But I thought I could detect a moment – a very short moment – before this happened, during which the satisfaction of having pleased those whom I loved and rightly feared was pure.

“And that is enough to raise our thoughts to what may happen when the redeemed soul, beyond all hope and nearly beyond belief, learns at last that she has pleased Him whom she was created to please. There will be no room for vanity then. She will be free from the miserable illusion that it is her doing. With no taint of what we should now call self-approval she will most innocently rejoice in the thing that God has made her to be, and the moment which heals her old inferiority complex for ever will also drown her pride deeper than Prospero’s book.”

The book, of course, is full of magic, which Prospero throws into the deep, near the end of The Tempest. Ned couldn’t imagine anything better than all the spells, cast into the water, buried alive.

The Lion of Lucerne

At a distance, the monument, a rock relief, reminded me of Petra; emerging from the stone, both composed of – and separate from – its source; real and fantastical. There was also a sense that I was discovering it, although surrounded by people taking selfies.

The subject is a fallen lion, spear thrust into his side, with only a shield for a pillow. The lion’s expression is almost unendurably anguished, a tangled but clear knot of emotion: sadness so ancient and deep it must be woe, an agony of confusion, a total resignation. There is such nobility to him, such beauty, the death seems an injustice that cannot be understood, only witnessed.

“He’s so sad,” I said through a throb in my throat, not really to anyone; I said it, trying to send the sadness back to the Lion, but it was a cord tying us, taut. I looked at the spear in His side as my father read aloud from his phone:

“The Lion of Lucerne [was] designed by Bertel Thorvaldsen and hewn in 1820–21 by Lukas Ahorn. It commemorates the Swiss Guards who were massacred in 1792 during the French Revolution, when revolutionaries stormed the Tuileries Palace in Paris…”

Even after hearing this, I couldn’t receive the monument as anything other than a tribute to Aslan, however chronologically incorrect and thoroughly disrespectful that may be. For those who haven’t met Aslan, he is a character in C.S. Lewis’ Narnia series, “the lion, the great Lion [who] isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King.” Aslan allows Himself to be slaughtered in exchange for the life of a traitor.

I wanted to walk away, I wanted to be alone with the Lion, but neither were possible. I could not contain the tears, so I collected them, one at a time, with my finger. “Nothing is black and white,” my father concluded next to me, putting away his phone. My eyes felt red. They were looking into the eyes of the Lion.

The Lion, the Witch, and the Car I Drove

It was an 8-hour trip home from Kansas City, Missouri – a city split by two states, which I find quite relatable. Also, as I learned on the visit, it’s one of the busiest corridors for sex trafficking in the country. Likely this is due to its Celtic cross of freeways, bringing customers from every direction.

While I drove I listened to Michael York, that yummy English muffin, read the second installment in The Chronicles of Narnia. Audiobooks are another invented industry of the outsourced society, wherein we can’t even read a book, we must have some specialist do it for us. But a moving car has the same effect as eating a gigantic meal – it drags me into the undertow of deep sleep – and no one keeps me upright like Michael.

In the story, the spoiled brat Edmund (the one most like all of us) is manipulated by the White Witch, because she promises more Turkish Delight. Since I’m an Anglophile, not an Anglo-Saxon, I Googled the dessert. It’s a “sensuous pleasure imbued in its melting, gelatinous texture, and, when made in the proper way, delicately perfumed with rose petals, flavored with oils and dusted with sugar…[it has a] power as sweet and seductive as Arabian nights.”* So it’s candy. Cheap and sweet, but you pay for it later.

Just off the freeway, I saw a building without windows, like those anonymous municipal things outside of town that contain some power supply. So did this one, I realized, as I read the sign: Lion’s Den Adult Bookstore. The lion imagery was conflicting, considering the book I was listening to and The Book I believed in.

On my 18th birthday, I drove around with a friend whom I wanted to be more, though I knew little of what that meant. I said, “I’m 18 – I have to do something.” He smiled, “Like what?” I smiled in a different way, “I don’t know.” He thought. “Do you want to buy some cigarettes?” I pretended to think. “No.” I pretended to pause. “Let’s go to that store next to the freeway.”

They’re always next to freeways. And they’re all the same. We walked in and showed our ID’s. We walked around, he looking at the merchandise, me looking at him. We left. I never went in another place like that. I never had to. It was all only a laptop, click and a hump away.

“This was enchanted Turkish delight…” Read Michael York. “…anyone who had once tasted it would want more and more of it, and would even, if they were allowed, go on eating it till they killed themselves.”

As I passed the store, I stared at the cars in the parking lot, waiting for their drivers.

*So says Jenny Colgan, some britchick who writes chicklit.