In the twelfth chapter of The Ocean at the End of the Lane, the narrator waits within the circle as the immense and growing darkness tries to make him leave. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to read The Ocean at the End of the Lane.
I knew as soon as I’d said it that I’d gone too far.
My family never lived in excess. What I remember from my time in Boise was of moderation. We didn’t have a lot of toys. The house was always full; initially, my older brother lived with us, and he stayed in the room that eventually became the same one that my twin and I shared after our sister was adopted. I would often peek into his room whenever he left the door open, which was a rare occurrence. My mom didn’t want us exposed to whatever was in there, and by the time I was five, I knew that there was something different about him. One day, he bolted to the door to answer a knock that must’ve been one of his friends, and I took the opportunity to briefly stand in the doorway of his room to take in what I could. He had an old ESP hung on the wall with a shiny black finish that I wanted to touch. Plastered on the northern wall was a gigantic poster of the band Kiss, the band’s makeup both terrifying and intriguing to me. There were more posters and gig ads up on the walls, most of bands I’d never heard of, and I noticed a page of a magazine torn out and tacked to the wall. It was of a half-naked man, sweat glimmering on his chest, a very obvious bulge in his tight briefs, and I wanted to look at it closer. But I knew I couldn’t be caught, so I ducked out of the room and back into my own.
When my brother moved out a year or so later, and my sister was a toddler and got her own room, the strain was obvious. We had a couple of good Christmases in that house, always covered in snow, and I can only remember maybe one or two holidays full of wonder and excitement in Riverside. Even then, we never got nearly as much as the other kids we went to school with, though I couldn’t figure out at the time why we seemingly got less. Were we more bad than the other kids? Did we deserve less than they did?
We moved down to Riverside for a job my father got, and he would commute over an hour in each direction just to get to it. We lived in the suburbs of the Inland Empire, nowhere near Los Angeles where my father worked. When he was laid off just a year after we got there, we knew the day it happened. We felt it. The tension in the house was painful because this wasn’t something that was kept a secret. My mom was furious, and she didn’t hide it from us. She told us to expect not to get birthday gifts, to not have Christmas, and to possibly eat the free lunch at school. In hindsight, I suppose I don’t understand why my mother was so transparent about it. Was she trying to turn us against our father or prepare us for the grim reality of what was coming? Did she think this would motivate my father to get another job?
He ended up starting another business, and some of the few fond memories I have about that period in my life all revolve around the time spent in my father’s sprawling, labyrinthine office near downtown Riverside. If my mother dropped us off there while she ran errands, it meant that we’d be dealing with the more lenient of our parents, so my brother and I often played hide and seek. We’d try skateboarding on the dollies from the back warehouse. We would hide small toys or knick-knacks in the massive building and then time the other person to see how long it would take them to find it. We devised so many ridiculous games to pass the time there, to distract ourselves from the increasing suspicion that something was wrong with out family or wrong with us, to refrain from acknowledging that we were not allowed to socialize with anyone in our age group.
It only lasted a few years before our family was dealt a double whammy: my dad had to declare bankruptcy and close his company after his business partner stole hundreds of thousands of dollars from him and disappeared, and then my mother got lung cancer. I never knew until a few years ago that my mother had spent tireless years building up her credit, and if she hadn’t done so, she would not have been able to afford the treatment she got, and she most likely would have died. Instead, those years were spent in a haze of terror and disillusionment. We were unequivocally poor; we never knew if our mother would be alive the next morning; and our father could not find a job. Well, perhaps that last one is simplistic. It appeared to us (based on what our mother said often) that my father wasn’t looking for a job at all. I actually don’t know if that’s what really happened, and since my dad is gone, I can’t ever ask him.
That doesn’t change how I remembered the day I said something to my father that I instantly regretted. My brother and I had just gotten home from school, and I know I was particularly upset because during P.E. that day, I’d been ruthlessly tormented by Curtis Tegeler, who I’ll name because I don’t care. I can’t forget him; he was always the worst bully in my life, and that day was no exception. He’d pulled my gym shorts off that day, exposing me to the class, and then made some horrible comment about how I clearly wanted it in the butt from every guy in school, and so when I came home to find my dad sitting in the living room, watching television, I exploded.
I rarely did anything of the sort. I’d been raised not to question those older than me and certainly not to speak back to them. But my mother was in the hospital, and I had no idea if she would survive. My father was at home, and he never seemed to be actively looking for a job. The image of him sitting there, a pleased look on his face as he watched some terrible western for the millionth time, broke me.
I remember telling him that my day was awful when he asked how I was. He came into the kitchen, where I sat with my algebra book and homework sprawled in front of me, and when he asked what happened, I told him the truth. I never had before. I told him that everyone at school hated me, that I had no friends, and that I was always hungry, and that I didn’t want to be at school or at home or anywhere because it was all so oppressive. That was my favorite word at the time. God, I could be such a little shit, but we’ll get to that.
He just stared at me like he always did when things go uncomfortable, so I called him out on that. You never have anything to say to me, I said. It’s like you don’t even care.
I care, he replied, visibly upset, beads of sweat on his brow, another sign that he was nervous. I care a lot about this family.
Then why don’t you get a fucking job? I screamed at him.
My dad was very dark-skinned for a Japanese man, and to this day, I’ve never seen anyone with his skin color go so pale so fast. My dad rarely got angry, but I saw his eyes get red and watery, and he walked over to me, and he slapped me across the face.
I didn’t say anything to him after that. We just stared at each other, both of us crying, and I felt miserable. I felt like I’d just blamed him for everything wrong in my life. I turned the page in my algebra book and continued my homework. We never spoke of the moment ever again.
- There were actually multiple points in this chapter where I thought, “Holy shit, I can tell a story about that.” When the narrator is trying to deal with his sister, I felt an eerie sense of recognition because one of my sister’s favorite pastimes was tattling on me (or outright lying) in order to get me in trouble. She would often gleefully rub this in my face after a victory, too.
- What’s fascinating about how Gaiman writes this, though, is that we never know if this is actually the real people. As the Hunger Birds torment the narrator, trying to get him to step out of the ring, we have to question the appearance of every character. Obviously, the opal miner is not real. (HE IS ALSO FUCKING HORRIFYING, OH MY GOD, WHY IS THIS BOOK SO CREEPY) But it’s possible that the father and the sister are real, as their behavior isn’t too far off from their real selves. But how much of what they’re saying was influenced by Ursula’s presence?
- I latched on to one particularly moment to tell a story: saying something to a parent that you instantly regret. To me, that was the most powerful and evocative part of this chapter because I imagine that for a lot of people, that’s something they’ve experienced. I wanted to tell a story that spoke to this and that also demonstrated how my perception of events at the time was horribly skewed by the multitude of things I was forced to deal with when I was growing up. I have had folks tell me (through email or in person) that they’re often aghast when I reveal pieces of what my childhood and teenage years were like becauseâ€¦ well, it all seems so resolutely awful. I won’t deny that. I don’t look upon that period in my life fondly at all. Part of this is due to what I choose to tell and what seems relevant to the text I’m reading or watching, obviously, so I only pick up on things that have a contextual relationship. I mean, I do have some good memories of the years between the ages of eight and eighteen, but they were sporadic. My environment and my identity clashed at every turn, and the more aware I became of how different I was, the worse it got.
- The reason I’m sharing this is to further elaborate on the reasons that emotional responses to fiction sort of fuel my everything. There’s something haunting in the little boy at the heart of this novel being forced to confront things that most seven-year-olds never have to face. I admit that I see myself everywhere in this novel, and that includes the segment of Ursula’s speech about the narrator having a hole in his heart. Honestly, I think that is what the point of the story above and the ones I’ve told in the past ultimately are: I am trying to explain why I have a hole in my heart, one that I have never been able to repair since. Like Ursula says, I have spent my life realizing that I cannot forget what happened to me; I cannot stop desiring things I can never get; and I will never escape the pain and torment I went through for nearly ten years.
- Which is why I see hope here in this book and why I continue to do what I do. Amidst this, the narrator still refuses to leave that circle. He refuses to give in to a fatalistic end. He would rather die waiting for a friend than to give his life up to this force, and that’s goddamn beautiful to me.
- My pain is mine, and it’ll always be a part of my identity. But that doesn’t mean I can’t feel wonderful things now. It doesn’t mean I can’t have incredible friends. It doesn’t mean I can’t fall in love with a beautiful man. It doesn’t mean I can’t gain satisfaction from writing my words down for others to read. No, it just means that the past hurts. Remembering it hurts. But I am here now because I survived it, and that’s a bit of self-worth that no one can take from me. I survived.
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