It’s All Porn and Cat Videos
"Horribilis" by Amanda Marbais is a story about being afraid of everything, but living your life anyway
INTRODUCTION BY MICHAEL CZYZNIEJEWSKI
I came to know Amanda Marbais’s fiction at the same time I got to know Amanda as a person. We ran in the same literary circles in Chicago. Knowing her has made one thing apparent: she’s one of the funniest people I’ve ever met. Marbais’s dry, relentless sense of humor is obvious in her stories, too. But there’s more to Amanda and her work than comedy. Working with Marbais on her debut collection, Claiming a Body, has been like placing that final piece in the giant jigsaw puzzle. Suddenly, the picture is complete.
“Horribilis” is perhaps my favorite example of what Amanda does so well. She puts her foot to the gas and never lets off. The story starts with shock and gore—a cat’s been hit by a car—executed in a few poignant lines. But by the next paragraph, Marbais is off to the next race, introducing us to the therapist who is into alternative medicines, with tuning forks and “posters of people standing on cliffs, their arms raised in a V.” To deconstruct the sentences, it seems as if Amanda is starting a new story after each period, introducing a fresh image, a fresh idea, a fresh complication, whatever she can conjure. The barrage of hilarious lines, twists, and pop culture references work like a stream of consciousness, a plunge into a click-happy Internet binge.
At the same time, all these elements build the narrative, almost secretively, as if Marbais is distracting us. Lo and behold, there’s this story going on, the story of a woman who’s afraid of everything, including being afraid of everything. When it seems like Marbais just wants to shoot fireworks off in every direction, we’re reminded of the reality of this character’s hell.
“Horribilis” is a forlorn tale, undercut with timely wit and caustic cynicism. I’ve always been attracted to this combination, making me think of Marbais as a Gen-X Lorrie Moore. She’s a dynamic storyteller in her own right—if Marbais and her work make up a puzzle, we’ll want to glue it together, frame it, and put it up somewhere to share with others.
Editor of Moon City Press and author of I Will Love You for the Rest of My Life: Breakup Stories
It’s All Porn and Cat Videos
by Amanda Marbais
One evening, I ran over a cat. Upon impact, its flat eyes reproached me, like it hadn’t known pain before. I got out of the car, stood in the headlights, and cried. It had a crushed skull and its bloody ID read “Sparkle-Motion, 5502 Ashland Ave.” I delivered it to an angry mother and a six-year-old, wearing Dark Knight pajamas, who gave me the devil’s look. I’m a vegetarian!—I wanted to say. He wouldn’t buy my sincerity. It was horrible. His reproach appeared in every human expression. My insomnia returned, and I went to my shrink.
My shrink was into alternative medicine. She had posters of people standing on cliffs, their arms raised in a V. Tuning forks lay on squares of bright orange cloth. Lamps were buried in large amber rocks. She wore blouses with choir-cloak sleeves and full-rimmed hipster glasses.
She had once been on Broadway, but never gave details about her roles. She assured me she was never hired for a lead, and eventually she grew tired of being poor. Her colleague had been a massage therapist for Kiss. This explained their lively office punctuated by flighty laughter. My shrink was laid back, and this appealed to me.
“You hit a cat. How horrible. I would be so upset.” She was never one to deny validation. She adjusted her glasses. “OK so how is your anxiety level?” She lit some incense.
Phobias are the most common mental illness, yet I had an uncommon number. They can be broadly classified as anxiety disorders, and this was my diagnosis.
“So which fears are bothering you?” she said.
“All. All the fears,” I said.
“Uh-huh,” she said. She broke out the tuning fork.
In my household, my shrink gained celebrity status the summer she helped my husband Eli through a job change. She was often called upon to assist in minor issues.
“So, do you want to go?” I said.
“Yes,” said Eli. “If you don’t mind.”
The need for a session arose from our enjoyment of a certain kind of pornography. It was about jellyfish and people getting stung during sex. These productions involved Magnum PI-type settings, bad acting, and then frantic jellyfish stinging. We had stumbled on to it, and while appalled at first, we just continued watching and were eventually turned on. We’d been watching it for weeks, doing it when the jellyfish stopped.
Yet there was a drawback to discussing sex. My shrink was like my mother.
I met Eli post-shrink, years after accepting a bad childhood. By even the most lax standards, my parents were not the Keatons, unless there’s an alternate universe where Steven and Elyse engage in all types of abuse: physical and emotional. My parents were absent any type of moral compass, even say a Jim Jones one.
When we arrived at the office, Eli took in the new posters, the aromatherapy candles, and the wish box, but said nothing. He and my shrink immediately caught up with banter.
Hitting the cat sent me into agrizoophobia, with a special fear about bears. We lived in the city but vacationed in national parks. Agrizoophobia rode my established neurosis like a pilot fish. While fixated on an object of fear, I’d repeat “motherfucker” like Samuel L. Jackson whenever I saw a cat, bear, or someone who looked like Lou Reed.
“Do you feel anxious all the time, or just uneasy in general?” She was opening a package of eagle feathers.
“It’s a real phobia this time—swear to god.”
Most people harbored a crumb of phobia regarding something—the roar of cars, fireworks, wormholes, sweating crowds at county fairs, spider webs, giant squid, etc. Once I had a phobia about manholes, a splinter of Cacohydrophobia.
My therapist specialized in anxiety treatments. Long ago, she’d studied with Francine Shapiro who had developed EMDR, a therapy utilizing REM. My shrink’s office was an anti-anxiety-lair equipped with gear—giant headphones and moon-shaped glasses, like those worn by Geordi La Forge. Patients chanted pleasant tropes while watching a sea green balloon float away.
She was hinky, but interesting. However, on my walks through Ravenswood to the train, I wondered if people could ever really know each other. Because, if anything, she knew me better than my mom. Of course, there wasn’t actual equality or shared experience. So, of course, we didn’t really know each other, which seemed surprising after sitting in her chair for six years.
Ailurophobia soon became an issue, and purring became a total detonator for me. We couldn’t visit our best friend, Michelle, because she had two cats. One was a Maine Coon the size of a bobcat, a motherfucker of twenty-eight pounds with a five-inch bat-tail. When it jumped, it shook the floor, and its meow resembled a drunk guy mocking a meow.
I developed a fear of true crimes shows, the ones deeply imbedded with the message “It really could happen to you.” I feared everything from an owl attack to a man waiting in the closet. I feared the kidnapping from the street, only to lose your cell phone before being thrown into an Oldsmobile trunk. I feared dismemberment.
On my way home, I saw a terrifying cat and swerved before going into hyperventilation. To have a cat phobia is to not be able to use the Internet. Eli looked up from his computer when I said this.
“It’s all porn and cat videos,” I said.
“Don’t I know it,” said Eli.
Someone posted a cat meme on Facebook, and I had become transfixed. “It’s horrible,” I said.“Horrible.”
He looked over my shoulder. “That’s because the cat is Photoshopped to look like Nicholas Cage. That’s both amazing and terrifying.” He closed my computer for me. “Who would do that?”
“I feel like I’m entering crazyland,” I said.
Eli and I shared one phobia. We went camping and because of the mild winter were beset by ticks. One gave Eli Rocky Mountain spotted fever. “It sounds more like a craft beer than a disease,” he said to the doctor.
He began taking antibiotics. The next morning as Eli held our dog, a motherfucker dropped to the floor with a wettish thud. It looked like a rock with legs, or what I imagined could be a polyp on a dying man. We found another twenty-six and disposed of seven at a time with tweezers and a jam jar. We both grew phobic about ticks but sharing made the fear surmountable.
But after six years of therapy, ultimately my fears grew worse. I made a catalogue: spoons, fireworks, dresses that don’t fit, bank lines, viruses, manholes, ink spots, trains, apple-picking, golf courses, Mary Lou Retton, bowling, Super-Soakers, lampshades, firearms, glass tables, etc.
On my next visit, my shrink shocked me by not asking about Eli. She had left our last appointment behind—one more proof she had a life. She stood below her “Hydration is the key to life” sign and filled her water bottle from her new pink cooler. She wore a knee-length smock embroidered with ferns. She quaffed her water bottle. “What about doing some inner child work?”
“Oh. Jesus. No,” I said. I stared at the hand puppets of Jung, Maslow, and Freud, the Tibetan singing bowl, and her reed diffuser. I wouldn’t look at her.
Really she was suggesting soul-retrieval. Good thing Eli wouldn’t be weirded out, because I would definitely tell him later. It would be more fun to laugh with him about it than to do it. Everything seemed a drag. “So we’re contacting the four-foot-tall cunt-bag?” I said finally.
My shrink lit some incense. “Now cunt-bag, that’s a name.”
Under full meditation, I focused on the memory of the woods. Its young trees and dry leaves obscured the ranch houses. The inner child jumped down from a low branch and bit my neck, and though spoon-like in bluntness, her baby incisors broke skin. “Motherfucker,” I said, but my eyes were closed.
“She bit me.”
“She must be frightened.”
“Or she’s a bitch!” I looked at my shrink like she was crazy.
“Tell her it’s OK, that she can’t bite.”
“Don’t bite, bitch!” I said.
“I don’t think talking to her that way is going to help. Maybe you should ask her what’s wrong.” She waved more incense at me and smudged it with a feather.
“Bitch, what’s wrong!?” I shouted.
My shrink snickered. “Sorry,” she said. “Tell her if she comes out of the woods, you’ll give her something she wants, like a pony or something.”
“Really, is that good therapy? I can’t give her a pony.” Yet, secretly, I wanted a pony.
“It’s in your imagination. You can give her anything you want.”
We coaxed her past the neighbor’s house. There’s nothing worse than having to tell a kid, “You’re screwed. Whichever direction you go, you’ll be exploited. That’s your destiny, and you’ll hate it.”
“Now all we have to do is retrieve your soul,” said my shrink. Her embroidered smock made her dyed hair unusually red.
“Should we whistle for it?”
“It does sound funny doesn’t it?” She laughed.
“OK.” I told Inner Me the truth in a laconic, controlled way. But it was the pony that lured her to ride like She-Ra across an Indiana suburb, vaulting over the community pool.
“Do you feel better?”
My inner child was supposed to settle into my apartment with an imaginary room, and the pony, in an imaginary stable. I’ve done this a good fifteen times. Soul-retrieval is the New Age-y name for it—I err on the side of Carlos Castaneda in his somewhat grounded anthropological days.
“Well, don’t be surprised if you feel a little more anxious this week.” She gave me an awkward hug.
On the drive to meet Eli at Michelle’s, I actively forgot everything.
“Just touch the cat,” said Michelle. She had the Maine Coon on a table, as if she were grooming it. “Seriously. Just touch it,” she said. It turned and growled.
“It’s fucking growling at me.”
“It’s just scared,” said Eli.
“OK. I don’t want to force you,” said Michelle. “I feel bad.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Sorry.”
On the way to the party, our failed immersion therapy left me hyper-vigilant. I didn’t mention this week my fear was polio, which could explain my fever, stiff limbs, and back pain. It didn’t seem irrational. I considered it in aggregate of an hour per day: in the bath, on the train, walking to work. Polio. I knew I would die, so was I above deadly diseases?
On Monday, I became obsessed with shooters. My office building contained a catacomb of government branches. Last year, a man brought his seven-year-old to the Social Security office. He waved a gun and demanded Arnold’s Spare Ribs, a Barq’s, and seven hundred dollars in back Medicaid costs. The elevators were cordoned off and bomb dogs sniffed the bathrooms. My fear was not totally irrational. The guy was owed seven hundred dollars, because Social Security was wrong. But for days I pictured my office door bursting open and someone blasting my face.
I did not tell Eli as I slid into bed. It was raining. He had gotten us diner food and lit a candle in our kitchen nook, which overlooked the Oak Park street and a backdrop of Victorian houses.
He researched backpacks for a trip to Montana. He had gotten a raise and found a deal on flights. “We can camp up there, backcountry, then stay in this railroad chalet.”
“There’s more chance of bear attack in backcountry. You watched Night of the Grizzlies with me,” I said.
“You have more chance of being struck by lightning. I’m not giving you a hard time though,” he said.
My fear could be traced to obsessively watching Grizzly Man, a documentary about Timothy Treadwell, whose celebrity was derived from the infamy of his bear-related death.
“Well, we don’t have to,” said Eli. On the nightstand beside him were his pocket knife and the remnants of the strap he tried to repair.
On an alpine ledge, the chalet offered a view of archaically named natural phenomena—Gunsight Mountain, Lake Ellen Wilson, Bad Marriage Mountain, and Beaver Chief Falls. This place seemed appropriate for rail men, 1920s moguls on wooden skis hiding flasks of gin, and hikers. Eli clicked through the Flickr.
“I don’t want to be resistant to things because of fear,” I said.
“Maybe we need to go someplace where there are no natural predators,” said Eli.
“I can do it,” I said. But I couldn’t do it. There was no way. Months of therapy would have to prepare me.
I have a phobia about the world ending. I imagine a visit to my favorite news outlet will yield a slide show in which the world’s end is a horrifying photo available for five seconds. Thousands of birds will have fallen from the sky and bats will have lost their nocturnal radar and slammed into buildings. Magnetic fields will have disappeared, and an asteroid will be headed for North America. It will release thermal radiation. Everyone’s fingernails will fall off. Weather patterns will change. The water will be contaminated. It’s going to be in a streaming slideshow of death.
“How have you been feeling?” said my shrink.
“I’ve been thinking about the end of the world.”
“Well,” I said.
“No one really wants to die alone. That’s probably your fear,” she said. “OK. More to the point, is she home safe?”
“Yeah,” I said.
I left feeling light-headed, and quickly walked to a bakery to buy a peanut butter Twinkie. Already I had forgotten my shrink, the event evaporating in the street. I resented having to deal with it. I resented her.
We planned our vacation to Sperry Chalet in backcountry. We flew to Kalispell and stayed one civilized night in a railcar, a restored caboose in which we took long showers, and then we lay out flat on the clean bed and watched the Amtrak pull up and the people get out with their packs and trekking poles in the extended dusk. Rested, strapped with backpacks, we hiked Gunsight Trail, tracing the cirque of remaining glaciers. The rivers became creeks below the mountainside. A John Ford movie landscape, boulders were the size of cars, cliffs exceeded skyscrapers, and meadows diminished us to ant proportions, as if we simply crossed a city park.
In a pine forest, we climbed through bear grass, monkey flowers, fireweed. We crossed a fast-rushing river where it grew narrow. In many spots, the river gushed, an open hydrant thickening to a waterfall cascading the hill. Eli talked loudly to scare off bears, then switched to whistling show tunes. I realized Singin’ in the Rain seemed utterly appropriate for scaring bears.
I knew the origin of this technique. Other than people with exotic pets, lone hikers were most susceptible to animal attack. A ranger warned us of silence, claimed running while listening to earbuds could lead to death.
We camped on flat terrain near the rushing river. Even black bears have attacked campers at night, ripping their tents and dragging them by the rib cage. “It’s rare,” said Eli. He patted my arm. I didn’t sleep well for the first hour, but with a Valium I was out.
Bears’ chiefly vegetarian diets comforted me. They were only violent if desperate, freaked out, or if they were just an asshole bear. They mapped their habitats, knowing every stone and every tree. They could walk a hundred miles from home in search of food and were still tough enough to return to their den in just a handful of days.
“Where did you hear all that?” said Eli as he climbed a hill in front of me.
“God. You’re cute,” he said.
“I am kind of embarrassed by my sources.” Still I went on. “They’re unpredictable though. And they’re smart. They know we’re not to be trusted. Did you know they can run up to thirty miles an hour?”
“We’re not going to see a bear.” He cupped his hands, shouted, “No bears.”
Cresting the hill, he turned and smiled, beautiful though damp with sweat.
Still I imagined wide-set eyes, elongated snouts, longer claws, and humped backs. But their specificity was sacrosanct. They could be all gradations of brown and black and above all elusive.
When we did see the bear, it was rust-colored. It vaulted the trail’s width, like a tumbling ball, disappearing in the brush as if chased. It filled me with joy and exhilaration, as I stared at the undulating brush.
The second one moved slowly, an explorer pushing aside branches as if peering—angry at the hubbub of people. When he moved into the trail, his head lulled, heavy with chuffing. He filled the trail. He bobbed a “no” and then charged. My limbs floated. Everything slowed. I collapsed in the bear grass. Eli already lay in repose like a child, his face damp. Most of my life had been a string of phobias, and now I could think of nothing but bear grass. As I heard the bear gallop toward the hillside and dive through the brush, I thanked no one, but gazed at Eli in the silence.