In the story in the Old Testament, Job suffered through miseries. Most vivid to me as a young man was him sitting in the desert with his body covered with boils, yearning to meet his God, to understand God’s meaning to man, or at least to him, Job, who, to the best of his knowledge, hadn’t done anything wrong “in the eyes of the Lord.” I assume everyone who reads that story identifies with Job. I certainly do, though my own attempts to meet God peaked when I got my brother’s dark blue 1958 Corvette stuck in reverse.
Now I warn you, dear reader, that this is all wrapped up in my mind with the relationship of my father and me in relation to my masturbating. (No anatomical details here, I promise.) I was twelve or thirteen when my father spoke to me about masturbation.. I can remember now, fifty years later, the texture of the bed’s coverlets. The little white pellets in a pattern raised above the white, smoother surface of the coverlet itself. He told me that, even just lying there, maybe even then and there, I might have an “erection” and he explained what that meant. I already knew what an erection meant, literally, but I still didn’t get what they whole thing was about. I won’t go into details, but I was awfully naïve. My mother died when I was so young that I still don’t know enough about what it means to have a mother that I don’t know what it means to grow up without a mother. So my father’s world was my world.
What struck me then as it does now is how he seemed so deliberately calm in the way he chose his words. My father was a person who usually spewed forth his words, often in impotent rage at a stranger or at me, not one who chose them carefully. His talk disturbed me, though I couldn’t exactly say why.
From this moment of eerie calm, things got worse. My dad had another talk with me, still calm. Masturbation would not cause hair to grow on my palms or stunt my growth, it was best not do it, to outgrow the need, somehow. He said he knew a man who was so obsessed with masturbation that he couldn’t have normal sex with his wife. That after making love with her, he would have go into the backyard and masturbate. I understood what he was saying this time: there was something terribly wrong with the desire to jerk off, and something even more horrible about giving in to that urge and doing it.
As a boy, it never occurred to me that my father was the man in the story. He left Playboy magazines beside his bed. I’d sneak in and take one from the middle of the pile and later hide it between my mattress and my spring. Phoebe (she will always be Feebie to me because that’s how I spelled her name in my head), who cleaned our house and took care of me every Thursday, would take them out from their hiding place and lay them right on the table next to my bed. I felt betrayed, but then I thought: it must not be so terrible in her mind.
By then, whenever my father was most angry at me, he would come to whether I still “played with myself.” I knew by then that there was something very dirty and wrong about masturbation, but that I could never resist the urge if I had the opportunity. I didn’t dare talk about it with my schoolmates, even my best friend. I wouldn’t have even known how to talk about it.
My father’s rages had a distinct pattern. It would usually begin with something I lost. He’d ask if I lost it – jackets and sweaters were the worst, I was always losing track of them and then losing them altogether. I’d lie, though I told myself there was still a chance it was “at Billy’s house” just like I said. And then he’d bring up, one by one, everything else I’d done wrong – usually an appreciable list.
And he’d be most furious that I was lying to him and I’d swear I wasn’t and it would go back and forth like that for a long while, the intensity of both him and me increasing with every loop through the cycle.
And if it didn’t finally settle down to the point where I could cry myself to sleep, but kept on building, the he’d bring up jerking off and I knew it was all over. Here was the biggest thing of all and I would have to maintain the most bald-faced lie imaginable. My jacket might have been left at Billy’s, but there was no possibility in Heaven and Earth that I didn’t jerk off as often as I could.
Now here was something that merited Hell itself. I do not mean this facetiously. Between lying and spilling my seed, eternal damnation would be my fate. My father said he didn’t believe in Heaven. It was unreal and boring and perfect. Who’d want to be up there anyway? Wouldn’t be any fun at all. But Hell, on the other hand, that was real. Hell was very easy to picture: is was where you were condemned to suffer the worst thing you could imagine, forever. Hell was personal. I’d seen the original 1984 with him and the scene I remembered vividly (and still do) was of the man they had to break who was terrified of rats. So the authorities somehow could look into him and know this and use it to torture him to renounce his individuality and accept his place in their rigid. repressive society. That Hell was all too easy for me to imagine and to believe was real.
Born a Jew, I wasn’t taught to believe that any rituals of the Jewish faith were more than that – rituals. They had meaning of some sorts but weren’t to be taken at face value or believed in. Hell, on the other hand, was something to be terribly afraid of. I didn’t find out until much later in my life that Hell wasn’t part of the Jewish faith.
Still I did sometimes pray to God. Even a “Now I lay me down to sleep…” incantation now and then and still do some nights. I had more doubt than conviction that any He heard me or even existed, yet still my heart yearned, especially if I just done something stupid that was sure to get me in trouble, that there was a God who heard everything, even the whining of a teenager who forgot he’d left his notebook outside as it began to rain.
The more urgent the need, naturally the more intense my urge to connect with God became. Wishes were for smaller things, like getting a birthday present that I’d ask for.
If you’d asked me then, though, if I believed in God, I would definitely have said that I did. I couldn’t conceive of not believing in God.
But this “benign indifference” to the existence or non-existence of a Supreme Being all came apart the day I got my brother’s green ’58 Corvette stuck in reverse. It was the only day in my entire life that he let me drive his car. My brother is ten years older than I. Ten years and three months, to be exact. Those ten years were a very long time and an enormous difference when we were growing up together. Our mother’s death came when I was an infant: my brother was nearly eleven. My father was quite successful in show business during my brother’s early years. As I was maturing and ending only in father’s death years later, he was seeking to land something but never succeeding. So my brother got a Corvette when he graduated college and I got a Sheaffer pen.
So on the one occasion where my brother let me drive his car, I got it stuck in reverse. I was alone in the car in mid-afternoon and went down a block that turned out to be a cul de sac. I was turning around, backing the car up, very close to a street lamp, when I got stuck, the tail of the ‘vette jammed up against the pole. No matter what I did, I could not manage to pull the gear shift lever out of the reverse slot and free it to move it into first.
I began to a panic: What a bumbling jerk of a kid, I thought. After trying and trying, I managed only to bang off a chunk of the pole (this seems unlikely to me in retrospect, but it’s how I remember it) escalating my panic. I hadn’t broken anything on the Corvette, yet, thank God, but that was certain to come very soon.
It was then that I began to pray. I wasn’t Moses the mount or Job in the desert, but I addressed myself to God as directly as I could. I prayed that He’d get the car out of reverse. I would do anything, I’d be good, I swore, if only He’d get it out of reverse.
My panic was accelerating rapidly. I spoke to God again, beginning to cry, pleading for Him to get the car out of reverse. I swore that I’d do what my father asked me to do, everything, even wash the dishes, if He’d just get me out of this nightmare. In the depths of my despair, I swore that I would never masturbate again if only He would get the car out of reverse.
The events that followed were predictable: He got the car out of reverse and I went home and jerked off. Twice.
I realize it’s a petty to conclude that God probably doesn’t exist because of an adolescent paradox I’d gotten myself into. I didn’t, in fact, jump to that conclusion. At first, the experience only dampened my sense that I could call upon God to help me out when in trouble and heightened my conviction that, if there were a Hell, I was assuredly going there for my eternal punishment.
But it is the event that I turn back to as I think about why I think it’s impossible to know if God exists, much less to know anything specific about the nature of God. Why, for instance, would a God of All Things and of Everything, give a good goddamn about whether an adolescent boy made a deal with Him that he couldn’t keep? That He would damn a kid in a pickle who’s made such an ill-conceived promise? Oh, I suppose He might. It’s possible. But it doesn’t really seem likely that that’s really how the universe works.
And so I see nearly all systems of belief: Possible, of course, anything’s possible. True? How would we know?
I’ve heard religious people on the Telecare cable station suggest that they can reconcile all beliefs except non-belief and scorn only the “secular humanists.” This is patently false. Reincarnation in life after life is not the same as eternal salvation or damnation. Jesus is the son of God or he isn’t. Zeus could either throw lightning bolts from the sky, marry his sister (whom he’d had brought back from the dead), and have affairs and babies with mortals or he couldn’t.
Since that day when I stood so piteously staring at my brother’s gorgeous but hopelessly stuck Corvette, I think that God is not something we believe in, but something I sometimes hope exists, just as, at other times, I hope and pray He doesn’t. With so many people in the world knowing that their particular vision of God not only exists, but demands that they do everything from abstaining from pleasure to contributing wealth to the church to mass pillaging and slaughtering of people whose vision differs from theirs, I just think back to that day with the Corvette and figure that if God is at all like the God I grew up believing in, He sure has a funny sense of humor.