Lockdown in Amsterdam – Toby Quinn’s Online Corona Novel
“You know what your problem is, Toby?” I’ve been asked on various occasions by various girlfriends.
“No,” I will say, “but something tells me I’m about to find out.”
I’ve always regarded introspection as an overrated pastime. Okay, so the Ancient Greeks had “Know thyself” posted above the oracle at Delphi, and they’re supposed to have stood at the cradle of Western civilization, but if you look at the mess we’re in right now, we can justifiably ask ourselves whether it was such a good idea to follow their advice.
Apparently, it’s one of the questions Full o’ Bull is looking into in his upcoming essay collection “How smart is it to be smart?”, so you’ll have to ask him about it.
Speaking for myself, with so much fun stuff going on around me, why waste time by stopping to look at myself in the mirror?
Besides, over the years an ever-growing number of girlfriends have done such a terrific job filling me in on who I am, what I am, and why I am the way I am, that I am tempted to call them Psychology 101, Psychology 102, Psychology 103, Psychology 201 and so forth.
By the way, that’s about as long as they put up with me: a trimester, maybe a semester, I think seven months was my record for what is generally referred to as a “serious” relationship, though I’ve often wondered about the term.
I would argue that a one-night stand is about as earnest as they come, and that the longer a relationship goes on, the less serious it gets, until the two participants find themselves stuck in one of those endless marriages for which ‘ridiculous’ would be a more fitting adjective.
After being shacked up with them for all these months, I could tell you stuff about Full o’Bull and his wife… not that I’m going to. For starters, I don’t want to get myself kicked out of their house. And to be fair: not only is this lockdown putting a tremendous strain on all forms of human interaction, but even in the best of times, I’ve seen marriages a whole lot sillier than theirs, beginning with that of my very own parents. And the sequel featuring my mom and stepfather hasn’t been much better.
My own serious relationships invariably begin with a period of starry-eyed adulation, all the more since I have become famous. It’s truly amazing, even mildly disconcerting, to see one gorgeous girl after another, often university-educated and with outspoken ideas about what is right and wrong in this world, just the sort of girl whom you would expect to know better, lose her critical faculties when it comes to me.
I guess it’s one of the perks of being regarded as a Great Writer: you get to be an asshole. In fact, it’s almost expected of you. Being nice and considerate are deemed petty bourgeois values. Unruliness and immorality are what we passionate souls need to keep our creative fires burning.
Oh, the times my girlfriends have put on their sexiest dress after spending all day in the kitchen preparing a fabulous meal, and have waited at the dinner table for me to show up, their delectable bosoms heaving with eager anticipation, while I just go on shooting pool with a couple of friends, or worse yet, go on chatting up some girl at the bar until she invites me back to her apartment.
“Oh, well, that’s Toby Quinn for you,” my hapless belle will sigh, resignedly picking at her crab cocktail after switching off the burner underneath the bouillabaisse. “He needs his space.”
Oh, the sacrificies these girls have made, all for the higher good: Great Literature!
But give them a few weeks, a month and a half at most, and their common sense kicks in. “I don’t care if this guy’s a literary genius, the spokesman of our generation or a fucking visionary,” they will say to themselves, “that’s no excuse for treating me like garbage.” And right they are. I could have told them so myself.
It’s as though I’ve used up my booklet of free be-an-asshole coupons and from now on have to pay for any bad behavior, just like every average Joe.
That’s when the psychology lectures begin, often heralded by the ominous words “we need to talk”.
I might still be crashed out on the bed after having come home at five the previous night, or slouched on the sofa fooling around on my phone. And as I look up at my aggrieved girlfriend, talking incessantly while pacing around the room, looming over me, glowering down at me, I’ll be reminded of mammatus clouds, otherwise known as sky breasts, the harbingers of severe weather, including tornadoes.
Oftentimes these lectures have indeed developed into full-blown tirades, the girlfriend in question gradually spinning into a rage so intense, that objects will start flying through the room: a cushion, maybe, or a sneaker, or a hairbrush (one with a solid wooden handle that hit me right above the eye, and damn did it hurt!); in rare cases, chairs and even fully-set dinner tables have been upended.
As a kid I was fascinated by tornadoes. I remember doing my very first power-point presentation on them, back in sixth grade. Showing the class spectacular footage of nightmarish funnels sweeping across the countryside destroying everything in their path, I told them all about the Tri-State Tornado of 1925, one of the deadliest on record, and about the legendary storm-chaser Mickey Schweitzer, whose van was once lifted right off the road, turned 180 degrees and neatly deposited on the opposite lane with the engine still running, and of fish being sucked up from a pond and transported for many miles before raining down on the parking lot of a drive-in theater.
I made sure to include a few slides of mammatus clouds, and just as I hoped, their alternative name was met with giggles, titters, and guffaws.
“Mama mia!” Joey Fleck called out from the back of the class. “Look at the tits on that cloud!”
“Okay, boys and girls, settle down!” said Ms. Richards, clapping her hands. “Toby, could you move on to the next slide, please?”
Dear readers, I hope you’re not taking all this talk of angry girlfriends and mammatus clouds the wrong way. You won’t catch me chuckling that “hell hath no fury like a woman scorned” or some such old-hat sexist nonsense. It takes two to tango, or, as I explained to my classmates back in sixth grade, it takes two to tornado.
In the area stretching from northern Texas up into the Dakotas known as Tornado Alley, it’s when the moist warm air rising up from the Gulf of Mexico collides with the cold dry air sweeping down from the Rocky Mountains; in my East Village loft, it’s when my girlfriend’s annoyance is met with my wry commentary.
As the skies over our relationship darken, so-called “mammatus dialogues” will develop, telltale bursts of conversation regarding my flawed personality. The opening lines of this chapter – do you know what your problem is, Toby? No, but something tells me I’m about to find out – were a typical example. Here’s another one:
“Life is one big joke for you, isn’t it, Toby?”
“Nah, life is too incoherent to be regarded as one big joke. A whole bunch of little ones, I’d say. Some better than others.”
“So is that what I am to you? A little joke?”
“Well, yes, come to think of it. A pretty good one, though.”
That was the time I got hit by a hairbrush.
Or how about this one:
“Oh, Toby, why is it that success always goes to people’s heads?”
“Not to mine it hasn’t.”
“Give me a break! I’ve never met a guy so totally full of himself.”
“Maybe so. But ask any of my ex-girlfriends from before my first bestseller. I’ve always been full of myself.”
I don’t know why this upset her even more. I was only trying to debunk the romantic myth about us writers – and artists in general – being too sensitive and fragile for this cruel world, and that it’s the impossible demands of our surroundings that corrupt our sweet, innocent souls and turn us into such unpleasant people.
In other mammatus dialogues, I’ve been characterized as sadistic, cynical, smug; as oversexed, deeply insecure, hopelessly immature; as a narcissist, a sociopath, an autist. The list goes on and on.
Given all these character flaws, it will not come as a surprise that many a girlfriend has concluded her lecture with a recommendation: that I go into therapy.
“Why would I need therapy? I’m happy.”
“No you’re not. You only think you are.”
Holy mammatus, some of these girls sure put a clever spin on things!
Of course, psychology wouldn’t be psychology if my problems weren’t traced back to some or other childhood trauma. One event in particular stands out: the death of my father when I was ten years old.
It’s no secret – I think there is mention of it on my wikipedia page, and you will certainly find references to it on “The Quinntessential Toby”(www.thequinntessentialtoby.com), the unauthorized website dedicated to yours truly that was set up a few years ago by two students in Bloomington, Indiana, offering my fans a forum where they can discuss my life and work.
It was to be expected: now that I’m a literary star, my girlfriends have been joined by readers, critics and honest-to-goodness professors of literature in their efforts to explain to me who I am and why I write the books that I do.
Not that I mind. Some of the theories that these total strangers come up with are quite amusing. And in my dictionary, “character” is just an alternative spelling of “caricature” anyhow.
Now about this childhood trauma. Long story short: after a series of failed business ventures, my dad developed a bad drinking habit and became verbally as well as physically abusive. One rainy November night, after downing a bottle of vodka and knocking my mother around for a bit, he took the car out for a spin and crashed into a tree, dying instantly. My mother claims it was suicide, I prefer to think of it as plain bad luck. The jury is still out on that one.
At the funeral, an old friend of my dad’s from college, who had made a fortune in mergers and acquisitions, spent an awful lot of time consoling my mother.
That very same week, we moved from our squalid second-story apartment in Queens to his sprawling mansion on Long Island’s Gold Coast, where he and my mom spent all day chasing each other through the halls in various states of undress, shrieking with laughter.
Bingo! That explained everything, according to Psychology 123, Psychology 137, and Psychology 202, to name just a few. My inability to commit to a serious relationship and my compulsive infidelity were at once oedipal and misogynistic. In hurting my current girlfriend’s feelings over and over again, I was subconsciously punishing my mother for not offering me love when I needed it most.
Me a misogynist? I mean, couldn’t we argue that my problem resided in loving a few too many women a little too much, rather than in not loving one woman enough? Psychology kills me. It really does.
Hark! Judging by the sounds coming from the kitchen, Full o’ Bull has started on dinner, and you know how punctual he is. But I think we have time for one more example. This one’s a real doozy.
“You know what your weakness is, Toby?”
“Do you mean to say I have only one?”
“No. The correct answer is zero. Your weakness is that you have no weaknesses.”
Let’s call this girlfriend Psychology 409, not just to indicate that the exchange took place more recently than the others, but also because the underlying theory strikes me as pretty advanced graduate or even postgraduate material.
Left to my own devices when my father died, Psych 409 began her exposé, I self-medicated. How? The answer was to be found in one of my catch phrases, which happens to be the motto of the novel you are reading right this very minute:
Unfairness is where the fun begins.
The unfairness, obviously, was losing my father at such an early age. And the fun? My writing! Making up stories was my way of coping with grief.
And oh what fun I had had over the years, and must still be having, as I continued to work on this ever-expanding palace of my imagination, this verbal Alhambra so to speak (Psych 409 had taken a Spanish course in Granada in her gap year, and was always going on about how beautiful the Alhambra was, and that we should go there together some day).
But my fun had come at a price, she now cautioned me. Deep inside this wondrous palace of mine, locked up in a dark and dank dungeon, a ten-year-old child was still grieving, still waiting to be comforted.
Never having been properly consoled myself, I was at a loss what to do when others were in pain. Worse yet, I enjoyed inflicting pain on others, because it “inspired” me to build yet another extension on my Alhambra, encapsulating the injured party inside my ever more elaborate verbiage.
Yes, I had worked long and hard to become the charming, witty and brilliant writer of international renown that I was today. And yes, Psych 409 would be lying if she hadn’t been attracted to me for all the usual reasons that so many other women found me irresistible.
But that was not why she had fallen in love with me. No. Behind the bluff and bravura, in my novels as well as in real life, she had sensed a different, more vulnerable Toby. He was the one who had stolen her heart.
For all these months, she had put up with my supposedly witty putdowns, with the blatant flirting and the outright cheating, hoping that everything would change if only she found a way through to my inner child. She was now giving up. The fortress I had built was simply too immense, the halls and secret passageways too dark and labyrinthine.
It was only then that I noticed the bulging backpack and a few shopping bags by the front door. She was leaving me. For good.
Slinging the backpack over one shoulder, she turned to face me one last time.
“Letting down your guard won’t kill you, Toby. In fact, it is by acknowledging our weaknesses that we forge our strongest relationships. It’s what makes us human. It’s what makes life worth living.
“Toby? Have you even been listening? It’s hard to tell, with that eternal smile of yours. Don’t you have anything to say to me? Not even some clever one-liner? Oh well, suit yourself.
“And by all means go on having fun. With so many fans cheering you on, it’s easy enough to ignore your inner child’s whispering pleas for help. And with a sheer limitless supply of beautiful women eager to get into bed with you, you can breeze through life going from one short-term gratification to the next without ever having to look back.
“Ah. You are grinning from ear to ear, eh Toby, at the mere prospect of the many earthly delights that still await you! But mark my words: all the fun in the world will not be enough to console your inner child, the child that you need if you ever want to lead a truly meaningful and rewarding life.
“Oh. And one more thing before I go. Not that you ever take your critics seriously, let alone some embittered girlfriend on her way out of your life, but even your writing, Toby, even your writing would benefit, becoming richer, deeper, less formulaic and more layered, if you were to set your inner child free.
“Goodbye, my love. And good luck. I mean that.”
Psych 409 had kept her composure to the very end. It was only when she spoke those final words that her eyes filled with tears. But before they could roll down her cheeks, she swung around and went out the door, closing it behind her ever so softly.
Her gentle exit goes to show that mammatus clouds don’t always develop into tornadoes. Sometimes they’ll just dissipate. Maybe it helped that I let her go on talking, rather than continually interrupting her.
She was smart, Psych 409. She really was. A bit nasty, too, though, when you think about it.
Not that I blame her. When you become a destructive presence in somebody’s life, it’s only natural for them to fight back with whatever they have, and psychology can be a formidable weapon in the hands of a smart and angry woman, or a smart and angry man, for that matter.
Don’t let the concerned look on the faces of these self-appointed therapists fool you: they are not “only trying to help you” by tracing your problems back to your childhood, they are also trying to emasculate you, rendering you harmless by reducing you to that child.
I guess that’s what Mary Trump had in mind when she wrote “Too Much and Never Enough: How My Family Created the World’s Most Dangerous Man”, the tell-all book about her crazy uncle Donald that came out this summer. Has it had an impact on the course of events? Well, maybe its publication has helped the author get to sleep at night, but if you ask me, her boogie-man uncle looms large as ever.
Who knows, maybe Psych 409 will write a similar book some day: “Lost in the Alhambra. In Search of the Real Toby Quinn”. It makes a compelling story, I must say, and for a while I almost believed it.
Here’s the funny thing though: whenever I try to imagine that kid, locked away deep inside my literary fortress, he’s got the exact same grin on his face as the one I saw in the bathroom mirror this morning.
Hell, I don’t know. Like I said at the beginning of this chapter, I’m not a big fan of introspection, and maybe it’s just me, but for as long as I can remember, I’ve always been me.
(coming up next: Chapter 8: Brief Reply to a Hideous Critic)