I will not trouble you with citations. All I can do is submit to you my thesis, which goes something like this: having been raised under the shadow of a tyrannical father, my particular syndrome of neuroses––my cloying, self-effacing wispiness of mind––can be cured only by a radical and protracted refusal to comply. And to this end, I propose a longitudinal study in the therapeutic effects of contrarianism.
On my sixth birthday, my father brought me to Dairy Queen to pick up a Reese’s ice cream cake. The man in front of us in line had a tattoo of Spiderman web-slinging across his calf. “Dad, look, Spider-Man!” I blurted out. Hearing this, the man turned around, smiled, and fired an imaginary web out of his wrist. I laughed out loud and fired a few webs of my own back at him. The man chuckled and then turned back towards the counter to order. As soon as he did, I felt my wrist caught and crushed in the vice grip of my father’s massive, calloused claw. He dragged me back to the freezer, into which he deposited my ice cream cake, and then led me out of the store.
What I had just done, he informed me as we drove home, was abnormal. Over the years, my father was quick to point out other examples of abnormal behavior that I unwittingly exhibited. Coloring the rubber tips of my Chuck Taylors with green Sharpie: abnormal. Picking dandelions during a soccer practice: abnormal. The hemp necklace my middle school girlfriend made for me: egregiously abnormal.
Abnormality was far from the only sin of which I stood guilty in my father’s eyes. I was also lazy, sneaky, dishonest, manipulative, blasphemous, and intellectually incurious. But none of these held a candle to my most grievous fault.
“The boy contradicts me at every turn,” he complained to anyone who would listen. “He does it just to spite me.”
The first experiment happened by accident.
One evening, during my first semester in a graduate program in Clinical Psychology at a Very Prestigious University (it doesn’t matter which), I was riding the bus back to my apartment. Thirty minutes into the ride, I was irate to find myself still pinned to the window by some old greybeard’s enormous shoulders. He and I were the last remaining passengers. In such cases, it is customary for the passenger in the aisle seat to shuffle over to the opposite row, allowing both passengers to enjoy more space.
I knew that this particular greybeard was a history professor. He taught in the same room as me. I had seen him giving out fist-bumps to his students––an unbecoming affectation for such a very old man.
“Beautiful afternoon,” he suddenly remarked.
I made no attempt to clear my face of shock and contempt as I turned to face him. Social convention dictates that if one is to make small talk in public, one must do so at the onset of the shared experience. For example, if riding the elevator with someone, it is permissible to start a conversation the moment you step into the elevator, but if more than three seconds pass in silence, the remainder of the elevator ride should adhere to that precedent.
We were driving over a bridge, and below it the river was bright with flames of red and orange leaves spreading over its surface. I realized that it must have been the sudden appearance of autumn foliage reflected in the water that inspired Boynkins’ remark.
“On the contrary,” I replied. “This afternoon is absolute dog shit.”
Just then, the bus driver came to my stop, and without waiting for Boynkins to get up to let me by, I stood up, stepped over his fleshy thighs, and left him dumbstruck and, no doubt, feeling quite foolish.
I am now reminded of the words of a very famous psychologist (don’t ask me which one) who said that self-knowledge is paralyzing. Though I’m sure he was some insufferable graybeard, he was quite right. In this moment, I was indeed paralyzed by the awareness that even my fury doubted itself. Was I mad at this avuncular fool, or was I really mad at my father for subjecting me to customs that did not exist?
But at a certain point, one must rage against whatever is at hand.
Colton Huelle is a New Hampshire based friendly neighborhood fiction guy. His work is forthcoming or has appeared in the Los Angeles Review, SOFTBLOW, and The Prism Review.