He wouldn’t get his first taste of Baudrillard until he was eighteen. At 6:15 a.m. on a Wednesday precisely eight days into sixth grade, he was wearing pajamas with Pokémon on them. He liked Pokémon. But he really liked explosions. They were fun.
The explosions on the television were not fun. Robert Mercado, some fucking guido kid whose father – get this – worked in construction, told him it was the Saudis who did it. How the fuck would the guido know that? Lined up on the tarmac waiting to get ushered off to class, the air felt heavy and wrong, a sinister emanation of the permanent cloud cover over the Puget Sound, another thing he knew in his heart that he hated.
This disgusting redheaded chick named Chelsea who had Tourette Syndrome asked loudly if the terrorists meant she got to go home early. She wanted to play with her Saint Bernard. A decade later he’d wonder if he had blunted affect display disorder. Something very bad had happened and he didn’t feel a thing. Chelsea got yelled at by this dopey bitch named Maggie, who later would go off to study in Switzerland but not before showing him her robins-egg-blue lace panties in seventh grade gym class. Maggie was crying even though she didn’t have any family in New York City, much less in those ugly burning towers. Why was she crying for people she didn’t know? His emotional valence, annoyance – exacerbated by a fervent desire to go home and play Starcraft on a computer larger than his prepubescent chest.
The next night he and his father put on their tuxedos and drove past miles of candlelight vigils and saw Richard Stoltzman perform at the Pantages Theater in Tacoma. He didn’t know why everyone was crying at the vigils except that something very bad had happened. His fat fucking teacher had assured him of that. Stoltzman played the entire four-hour concert from memory.
Soccer practice turned into soccer games turned into soccer tournaments under the non shadow of those towers now collapsed while the mothers breathlessly intoned support for this new bill. The PATRIOT Act. Suspicion was everywhere, the DC Sniper ran amok, and he learned that Anthrax was not just a band his mom didn’t want him listening to. Everything was more menacing. Everything would explode more easily. Everything would explode. Especially suspicion. The PATRIOT Act. “If you have nothing to hide, then you have nothing to fear.” After all, something very bad had happened and that meant that the “adults” needed to do something.
One of his uncles gave him a copy of The Elegant Universe, or maybe he’d pilfered it from an older cousin who could actually understand more than the first thirty pages. He wasn’t sure what the fuck a Calabi-Yau Space was, but it sounded cool. He found himself thinking about event horizons and about the fact that you can’t go back once you passed the surface – that impossibly sinister yet invisible membrane that felt apt for a world flipped upside down and wouldn’t flip back. If such a thing was even possible. After all, something very bad had happened.
Spies, spying, and espionage bubbled to the front. If the nineties had Bill Clinton getting blow-jobs in the Oval Office, the aughts now had Jack Bauer torturing bad guys to impose sanity on explosive situations. He discovered he liked spy thrillers. Everyone had secrets to hide. But
didn’t that mean that everyone had something to fear from this new PATRIOT Act? “If you have nothing to hide, then you have nothing to fear.” The adults laughed this off. A small price to pay for security, they said. After all, something very bad had happened.
Airports – a staple of his life being shuttled around (to) various wealthy family members across the country (SEA to SFO to LAX to DFW to BWI to MIA to PHL to… nowhere and back) – weren’t fun anymore. The lines grew longer. Everyone reeked of suspicion. His parents stopped taking redeye flights and started listening to Bill O’Reilly. Sixth Grade ground on. It wasn’t until after Christmas Break that his classmates stopped wondering if terrorists were going to bomb us again. “Could be any day,” Jeff said from behind his dog-eared copy of some Forgotten Realms novel. Jeff said it how he’d have said it – almost begging for something to happen. After all, at least another “terrorist attack” would be more interesting than Sixth Grade. It didn’t matter that, a few months beforehand, something very bad had happened. Some new bad needed to happen.
But some new bad had happened with the spies and the spying and the airport security. Danger had crept back into a world anaesthetized by Boy Bands and presidential fellatio. And with this injection of danger back into things, so too, the chance for discovery. He’d rather have been at home playing Starcraft, but his friend Brandon invited him to go “explore” the hilly wilderness behind his home two blocks up the street. They stole long knives from Brandon’s dad and hacked a path through pricker-bushes and poison ivy and made some discoveries: a meth lab hidden in the forest, ATV tracks for miles, seemingly going nowhere, to a place that didn’t – shouldn’t – exist, and finally a neighborhood, or at least a collection of houses scattered around an old pond; one house even had a small boat. “We’re somewhere we shouldn’t be,” he said. Brandon ignored him and wanted to check things out. He always wanted to check things out. The spookier and more dangerous, the better. Something very bad had happened. Danger was back. Back at home, winded from the way they’d run away when they heard voices in the trees, he tried to find the neighborhood on a map. It was not there. They went back to find it again. It was not there. Two years later, he asked Brandon if he remembered what they’d found, especially if he remembered the pontoon boat and the voices in the shack. Brandon gave him a dead-eyed look that ended the conversation with a definitive “What the fuck are you talking about?” But he knew it was there. Just like he knew there was no going back from the PATRIOT Act. A wounded nation’s self-loathing given form in a bill that no one had read in its entirety, nor ever would. When he went on to junior high, he discovered that secrets and suspicion had only multiplied – as did the efforts of everyone to find out those secrets. If the PATRIOT Act was a response to the fact that something very bad had happened, then it only acted to mirror the darkness and suspicion in the heart of the nation. It was then