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The Gift, the Curse


This is when I first knew I was special.

1995—second grade. The school bus I rode drove up my street, and our dingy, gray-shingled half of the two-family house came into view. My sister stood in the patchy grass sprouting through the concrete of the driveway, conspicuously waiting.

As always, when something was off, things or people not quite where they were supposed to be, my thoughts turned dire. Were Mommy and Daddy dead? Were my sister and I orphans? Would we have to live with Granny and Poppy in Brooklyn and sit every day on the couch covered in plastic, turning away from clumping spoonfuls of slick, slimy chopped liver?

I went stiff as the thick, curly hair on my head and stumbled my way out of the bus, the driver issuing his daily “Sayonara!” I chuckled back but was still scared of what was to come as Leah strode up to me. She was a blur, her new, tight choker and dark, red lip turning her into a middle school stranger. She soon came into focus, though, and with her palms out, eyes wide, and huge open mouth—a black hole interrupting the galaxy of freckles across her face—she erupted like a nova:

Doogie Howser! Doogie Howser! You’re the real Doogie Howser!!”

“Whaaat?”

I couldn’t believe it. I’d seen her excited before, when her friends came over and had a sleepover with TLC and Madonna blasting, but not for a long time, not for any reason involving me. She usually just ignored me or wrinkled her nose up tight like I was barf.

Now, though, she jumped up and down, took my lunchbox out of my hands, and led me into the garage, where I could see Mom, not only alive but smiling, earring to dangling earring. 

She sat in the lawn chair by the phone, absorbed, her nose wrinkled up the same way Leah’s did—except over Mom’s hovered eyes of sheer, sparkle-stoned delight.

“I know, Jodie, I know! 144! Can you believe it?” she said into the receiver. “I knew Mikey was a genius!” 

The last word blazed double underlined in my brain. I didn’t breathe as I watched Mom incredulously suck her cigarette. But even though I still had no idea what was really going on—it was then that I went from confusion, to exhilaration, to relief. Suddenly, it wasn’t just my sister and me playing around—this was real. And in that moment, all the nagging questions I stayed up every night thinking about got answered; all the worries I’ve ever had, dispelled.

My seven years on planet Earth finally, finally, made sense.


§


You see, there has always been an image floating in the back of my mind. A little ball of color, sometimes red, sometimes blue, or maybe green, all green, and what it did was lodge itself inside me and tell me that I'm different. I didn’t know exactly what it meant. I didn’t know if it had to do with my feeling that every time I left the room, everyone powered down like robots. That I wondered if the whole universe was a test to see if I could be a good person and get into Heaven. Or maybe it had to do with the Messiah thing. I heard that Jesus wasn’t really it, that there was still another one coming, and my Hebrew name was Moshe, which I knew was because of Moses, so maybe it was me.

Or, I figured, maybe it had to do with the other thing that felt weird sometimes.

The thing that always popped up when it was time to pick movies, games, or toys.

The thing that stained all my carefree moments in school.

The thing I couldn’t find words for.

No one directly told me it was bad—that I usually fit in more with girls, and liked girly stuff. Still, it looked like it secretly might be. It might have been why my sister was always annoyed with me trying to copy her when everyone else’s brothers shot Nerf instead, why I didn’t have a lot of friends, why Dad would try to get me to watch sports with him, why Mom encouraged me to pick the blue Beverly Hills, 90210 folder instead of the pink. And while I was sometimes confused as to why any of that happened, I played like it was no big deal. It felt better that way, and I wanted to be happy and excited for what I was happy and excited for.

But, miraculously, with this news, all stray concerns vanished. The hidden problem, the one that made me different, clearly wasn’t that I was too girly, or even a sissy, like the spiky-haired boy on the bus called me, after hearing the way I say the word “yellow.”

No, now I knew.

I was only different because I was smart!


§


Mom stood up and twisted the beige phone cord around, the one I would always play under when she stretched it to talk.

“OK, I gotta go! Mikey’s home,” she said, and hung up, squeezed me in a hug while my sister shuffled back (she wasn’t part of the hug club). Then I recovered, giddy.

“Am I really a genius?” I asked.

“That’s what the IQ test said!” she answered. “Remember the one we took you for?”

I did remember a little, although I had no idea it was for my IQ. It was way more fun than a test and had silly questions that you had to think about on the spot, not study for, like in school.

I jumped. “Does this mean I get a present?” I asked.

No, but, um…”

My sister interrupted. “But you said that—!”

“OK, OK, there might be something,” Mom said. “They suggested that… ugh, I have to talk to Daddy first.”

Leah inhaled and bit her lip, giving the same obvious look when she knew whodunit in Clue. But I peeled off, galloping up the stairs to my room, having no problem waiting for what was to come. I wasn’t going to pump Mom for information, after all—that was beneath a genius.

I was pretty sure I knew my present anyway: that I could skip a grade. The way I’d been dreaming about, the way my parents’ friend’s daughter, did. She was just like me, with a Brooklyn-Jewish mom and an Israeli dad, and now it was time for us to be even more similar. If I skipped, I could stop being so bored. I could stop reading my own books under my desk in class, correcting the teacher, and finally go straight from 2nd grade to 4th. Miss Cohen had even let me sit in on the 4th graders one day, when I didn’t go to the Statue of Liberty because there was no nurse for my asthma. I loved how the kids spoke, and how the boys were serious, wore glasses, and answered math problems with letters in them. They seemed much nicer than the ones in my class. Sure, I liked Sam, who made shapes with his watch, like a cobra. But no one else in my grade did or said anything of interest.

Yes, fourth grade was clearly where I belonged, where a special, sensitive intellect like me was destined to be. After that, I’d go to Staten Island Tech—the smart high school where you had to take Russian—then Oxford to study Classics, like the back of my Greek mythology book said its author, Edith Hamilton, did, and from then on, my entire life would be perfection—pure, academic perfection.


§


“We’re getting cable!” Leah ran up to me shouting, victorious.

The roar of the garage door opening was barely out of my ears, and Dad hadn’t even come up to the living room before Leah bounded up ahead of him, to spread the news. My eyes widened in wonder. This must have been the present she was talking about before, I thought. 

“Ori!” Mom yelled down, hearing from the kitchen. “We said we’d tell them together!”

But Dad ignored her in favor of a song. “My boy’s a genius / a genius / I squirted a litt-le genius!”

He picked me up, which was still easy because I was so small for my age. I giggled but also pulled away—he wasn’t really part of the hug club, either. Resistance only encouraged him, though to spin me around, give me a big smooch on the cheek where I felt his stubble linger.

“Put him down!” Mom yelled. “You’re going to make him sick!”

“Shhha! You’re sick,” he spit. “Mikey’s fine. Nu?

I nodded, although I did feel a little dizzy.

“Can we get MTV?” my sister piped in. “And Nickelodeon?”

“It's for educational shows!” Mom yelled, jolting my insides. “The Discovery Channel. Like they told me. To learn more. You’ll watch that, right, Mikey?”

I nodded again, although I wasn’t sure. I’d been to friends’ houses with cable, and we always skipped past the Discovery Channel, filled with sharks and other animals that just sat there while some old man talked.

“All the channels come together!” my sister whined.

“Well, I wish they didn’t,” Mom said, and went back to pounding chicken cutlets.

My dad, with sandborn skin, thick hair everywhere and crooked front teeth, hung up his army-green coat and stretched his body from a day in his Lincoln town car. I imagined him taking Mom’s calls in it all day, taking his kishkes out, as he always said. He went to turn on a game in the living room.

“Yeah, we’ll probably need a whole new fakakta set-up,” he said, playing with the rabbit ears antenna. “It’s gonna cost a frikkin’ bundle. Not to mention the Internet, too, mamma mia.”

And it was then that a record scratched. My sister and I looked at each other, stunned. Did we hear that right? We couldn’t possibly.

Leah cleared her throat. “Wait, we’re getting AOL?” she asked.

“For education!” Mom yelled.

  We froze. We didn’t want to ruin it, make any wrong moves. We didn’t even say thank you, jump for joy, or shout. We just lit up inside, hoping this wasn’t a dream. Because even though AOL had already been around for a while—and maybe, yes, it was inevitable we’d get it one day—it still always felt like changes in the house could easily not happen. Mom and Dad always fought, it always took forever to make any decision, and it was usually up to whether Dad’s boss could find us a deal, like with our Commodore 64 computer or stereo with CD player. Even the gray shingles on the house took years to pick and install.

But I guessed that this was different—like Mom said, this was for my education, what she always said Jews prided themselves on. I’d finally know how to “surf the web” and “channel surf,” how to “instant message” and “Pay-Per-View,” and I’d know what most of the kids in class talked about, not to mention read encyclopedias online instead of sneezing from the dusty ones we kept in the house, copyrighted from the 1950s.

Still, there was one thing I was unclear on. One thing I had to break the delicate silence to find out for sure—

“…What about HBO?” I asked.

The sound of the drill electrified me as I watched and learned firsthand that cable meant real cables, real hardware. Our house was getting surgery, going through pain to be a better, stronger version of itself. I didn’t love it. I was always looking for things to be minimal and easy, and I never understood why people went through so much effort and agonizing for what I considered to be a small, superficial difference. Shouldn’t they be reading? I wondered. Thinking important thoughts? And in this case, I was worried that we’d never get our nice, familiar house without holes back.

Then they unwrapped the cable box. It was placed in the perfect spot under the TV stand, underneath the Nintendo and the VHS player. And immediately, the stack of three felt so right, so correct and ancient as a pyramid, I couldn’t believe it hadn’t been like this the whole time.

“Here’s your remote,” a man said, and handed me the stunning object.

It felt hefty and good in my hand, and I grazed the squishy buttons. I turned it over to see the sticker he’d affixed on the back, listing the channels we had in blue, the premium channels we didn’t get in red. I studied them quickly, noting things like the History Channel, TBS, USA, wondering which would be my favorites. My brain loved having this glut of information—at last, access, power—and it was all for me.

“Hey!” I said as the remote was snatched from my hands.

“I want to see if The Real World is on!” 

“But I—what’s that?” I asked.

She turned to channel 20, MTV. Maybe it was the younger people sporting nose studs and unnatural hair colors jumping naked into pools, maybe the lack of long, flattening commercial breaks, or the colorful graphics and alternative style, but it was like a window flew open to an alternate dimension, so like ours and how regular TV depicted it, but with a distinct, indescribable difference. Maybe there was another president in that dimension, or something more subtle, like kites that were circular. Maybe man walked on the Sun instead of the moon. But MTV’s moon man was there; everything else was like our world—just so much better.

Then we tried Nickelodeon, and the deluge came. I always liked TV and movies, but this was different. I instantly had almost a hundred friends in my life, like I was suddenly popular. There was Lucy stuffing chocolates in her mouth and Mary, showing off her spunk, laughing at the death of a clown. Little bears and owls and rats interrupted by a giant face during the day, to talk to me, make me feel like I’m part of something. Not to mention the handfuls of sand thrown before the scary stories, the bulging eyeballs sucking into the Nipples of the Future, and a blonde teenage girl, taking the time out of her busy day, just to explain it all.

And what that girl didn’t cover, the Internet did. At first, I was disturbed by the dial-up modem sound. The reeeeooooookkkshhhhhhh bah bah bah cracked my ears open, like I had frozen wax—but quickly, it became utterly normal. It also became normal to scream that you’re expecting a phone call, to kick the person offline. Normal to look up what you’d watched on TV for more information. To get bored quickly and switch back to the TV instead, which was soon in everyone’s rooms, because once you had one cable box it was cheap to get more and made for an easy Hanukkah present. It was also a way to keep us off the living room carpet, which Dad now called from us sitting there so much, the “dirtiest part of the house.”

I still made sure to read my books. I was going to prove my new, third-grade teacher wrong, that the “idiot box” couldn’t “rot your brains.” So, I spent the year inching through The Hunchback of Notre Dame. I read The Pelican Brief, then rented the movie with Julia Roberts, and built a diorama pointing out the differences. I cooled a bit on Oxford, and switched my dream school to Tulane, where Julia Roberts’ character went to become a lawyer. Sure, maybe because I could see it on screen, I was influenced a little, making me wonder about TV’s effect, but when my teacher made a survey on the chalkboard of how many hours we watched a day, I still had no problem shouting: “Eight!”

The class gasped. No one else’s parents let them watch that much. They didn’t understand or think that was real. But I knew it was OK, that they just didn’t get it.

They weren’t capable of what I was.


§


One day over the summer, after scarfing down my ham sandwich with potato chips, I jumped in front of the TV, happy. It was raining, so no one expected me to go outside and play. Also, there was a Hey, Dude mini-marathon on Nickelodeon that needed my attention. I never got to watch much of Hey, Dude before because it ended before we got cable, so I figured this was the perfect time to catch up.

I immediately recognized the star, David Lascher, from the episode of Blossom about her having sex, which I knew meant when a boy and girl lie down on a bed. After a couple episodes in, I realized it felt a lot like Saved by the Bell, but on a ranch. There was the main couple, and then the secondary couple, and the C-string. Of course, I loved it, and I sat there for hours.

Then, my mom and sister came in, sat on the couch and waited for an episode to finish, wanting to take over. I didn’t care. I could switch over to my room. I’d hole up there all night until my eyelids finally betrayed me.

But I heard groaning “Why do you like this show?” Leah asked.

I sighed. I’d been noticing we’ve been starting to wildly diverge in taste. She didn’t like anything “weird,” and I guessed the involvement of horses in her teenage hijinks was too much for her. Meanwhile, I liked almost everything weird.

“I don’t know,” I replied, a little annoyed.

“It looks boring,” she said.

“I guess sometimes, but David Lascher’s so cute!” I said, joyously.

And this time, it was my mom and sister’s turn to look at each other, stunned.

I was also shocked. I didn’t realize what I’d said.

I quickly covered, “I mean—you think the guy’s cute. I thought you said you liked him, Leah. On Blossom?”

I turned back to the TV. I felt hot behind my ears, my whole skull tensing. I purposefully didn’t look back or make any nervous moves. I didn’t even try to see if they bought it. I treated it like I didn't care. That nothing I said was strange.

I just focused on the screen and laughed at the next bad joke.


§


The little ball of color returned.

I felt I was different again, and this time, the idea wasn’t nearly as soft-voiced. I was hoping my excuse had worked for my mom and sister. Maybe it did, or maybe it wasn’t even an excuse, maybe it was real, I wondered. But I kept seeing Mom and Leah’s faces on repeat in my mind and knew, either way, that this was serious. Did I really like boys instead of girls? And was that bad? I was back to worrying—worrying that I had more female friends. That I liked Barbies up until last year. But what did it all mean? It didn’t make sense. I was going to have a wife and kids, wasn’t I? I even had names picked out from Shakespeare.

I had no idea what to do to prove it to anyone or to myself. But luckily, I didn’t have to. I had a stay of execution. My secret was soon replaced in my family by one even bigger, or at least more urgent.

That summer, Leah picked up the phone in the kitchen to call one of her many friends. The line was tied up, but it wasn’t blocked by Internet use, as it usually was. It was Mom on the line. She was talking in the garage to Jodie again. Except this time, it wasn’t about me, my IQ, or anything for our ears.

I wasn’t there for the moment. But I was there for Leah being quiet, for the new, dulled look in her eyes. I knew what she’d heard really disturbed her. But I didn’t get exactly why until a few days later.

“What are you guys doing?” I asked when I saw my dad and Leah at the computer together. They’d found their way onto mom’s screen name, and were looking at the pictures she was exchanging, ones she saved in her email.

“Look what your mother’s been up to,” Dad said, “Mamma mia.”

I saw pictures of a young, thin, pale guy with long hair that looked like a model. I was confused and worried. Also, a little excited as his eyes penetrated into me. But mostly it felt wrong to be looking at her stuff. I learned from The Brady Bunch that two wrongs don’t make a right. I didn’t say anything, though. I tried to stay out of it, even as it exploded, and as there became a new dirtiest part of the house.

Dad and Mom had always screamed. “That’s how we talk,” Mom said. But now it was different. Now, Dad started calling Mom a “hoo-er,” while Mom was calling him a “Nazi” and for him to move out. But he wouldn’t. Finally, things got so bad that Dad went to the lit-up modem, the source of his problem, and ripped it right out of the wall. Then he dumped it in the trash, banning the Internet from the house.

It felt like I was being ripped out of the wall. Every time they fought, I wanted to jump in and make them stop, make them fix it, or tell them to get a divorce, explain that it would be OK. But they were so angry. I also didn’t want to make things worse—I felt guilty enough. We had AOL because of me. Also, what Mom had done seemed wrong, but she already slept on the couch, and she was also my mom and my favorite. I didn’t know what to do—and I didn’t want to draw too much attention back to myself.

So, I tried to be good. I played up my crushes on girls in third grade and gave Nicole Cooper the life-sized Hello Kitty stuffed animal to prove I was serious. And I sat alone in my bedroom, hoping and praying everything would work itself out.

That is, until fourth grade, when I realized I was a genius, and I didn’t have to wait.


§


First, I’d need sheets from the house. They didn’t have to be white; it wasn’t that important. Off-white was fine, or a light pattern, anything that didn’t distract.

Then, casting. Leah had to agree to play the lead. It would be perfect. She was the one blindly loyal to Dad. It made sense with her character.

And finally, we needed the wig, the short one that could pass for a boy’s—the one my sister got for Halloween. I would wear that so I could pull double duty on camera.

After all, someone had to if we were going to properly film Antigone.

The idea fell in my lap. Despite finally getting to and absolutely loving fourth grade, I was still dogged by the persisting notion—that my hours in front of the screen were “bad. So, when my teacher, Dr. Beck (a Ph.D.!), announced the Literary Fair, this idea came to me. I could film a play and combine my two big loves, literature and TV, shutting everyone up once and for all.

And if my family worked together at the same time, well, who was I to complain?

We filmed it all in our basement, using the family camcorder. We had no editing tools, no Internet, so everything had to be shot in order—even when I talked to myself as stubborn King Creon and his son, Haemon, stopping the camera and switching wigs for each line.

I was mostly worried my sister wouldn’t understand her speeches, which I chose carefully from the play and put on cue cards. But maybe because our own family was in so much turmoil, when I said, “Action!” I really felt the story come alive.

Leah pleaded with King Creon to have mercy on her traitor-brother’s burial. Also, my own cold reaction as Creon fit with my apathetic attitude toward my mother’s transgression, while my turn as Antigone’s betrothed, Haemon, also King Creon’s son, caught in the middle, gave me a chance to express my sympathetic feelings to those who were hurting.

Most of all, my mother’s performance, as Creon’s wife Eurydice, being the most mournful, emotionally tortured by her son’s eventual death, was borderline eerie as she sat on her knees on the carpet, reaching for the sky (she did musicals in college).

When we finished, I was ecstatic. I played the video over and over for myself, and I couldn’t believe what I’d created out of nothing, from my brain, from eight hours of TV a day.

It was a masterpiece.


§


“Lights! Lights!” I shouted.

We were in class and Dr. Beck dutifully turned off the lights as my project played on the monitor. I was so excited I could barely stay seated. I was thrilled to share something I made with my family, something that showed off my passions, represented me. Showed that I really was special.

The video began. I held my breath. Right away, though, I noticed there were some tracking issues. And I could barely hear what my sister was saying—the most important lines.

“I can’t hear!” someone yelled. But Dr. Beck raised the volume to no avail.

I was frustrated. I sank, embarrassed.

“What’s this about?” someone else yelled.

“They’re sisters!” I explained. As we got through the expository scene of Leah and her friend, as Ismene, talking about their cursed family, I slowly realized this didn’t look or feel nearly as good in class as it did in the house.

Then I popped onto the screen, in my punk girl’s wig, as King Creon.

Everyone laughed. I laughed, too; it was a little funny watching myself. But this felt different—they kept laughing even while I was talking. And from there, I started judging everything more harshly. I noticed the sheets as togas looked bad. I noticed that my mom wasn't as mournful as I thought, she was silly. I was silly. And that talking to myself, cutting back and forth from line to line, was too choppy and confusing. I knew I should’ve let my dad play Creon—I was just so worried his accent wouldn’t translate.

Mercifully, it was at least short. When it ended, Dr. Beck flicked the fluorescent lights on, said it was “cute,” smiled, and asked for the next presentation. A week later, she announced Jared, who kept a diary while reading The Diary of Anne Frank, would represent the class in the Literary Fair.

I felt betrayed. Jared? He played basketball. He wasn’t a genius.

I went home on the school bus, hoping somehow for something else to distract me, but was greeted, as usual, by Mom screaming back at Dad. They were still at it. The video didn’t matter. And all at once, as quickly as it came in the garage that day, I knew that neither did my supposed IQ. I couldn’t even win a class fair, and it’s not really what made me different. No, I was old enough now, and had seen enough to know the truth:

I wasn’t special. I was a faggot, like I heard the boys on the bus say behind me. My nice, familiar house without holes was never coming back. And if I wanted to fit in, or be anything like my favorite couples on TV, I’d have to become a way better actor.


 


MICHAEL NARKUNSKI is a Los Angeles-based New Yorker whose essays can be found in Out, The Advocate, Narratively, Hippocampus, Full-Grown People, and Vol. 1 Brooklyn. He has a BFA in Dramatic Writing from New York University and MFA in Creative Writing & Literature from Stony Brook University. He is finishing up his memoir while currently working as a bookseller. www.michaelnarkunski.com





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