The year is 2004.
We have invaded Iraq on a lie. Over 4,000 American troops will be sent to die in the desert. 9/11 is still fresh; the nation remains flush with its victimhood.
I am a senior in college. I am rife with undiagnosed mental illness. I long for security, for executive function, for unconditional love; I seek dopamine in all the wrong places.
The place is Barnes & Noble.
It is Allentown, Pennsylvania, a city made famous by a mediocre Billy Joel song and an iconic line in the musical 42nd Street. This is before Jeff Bezos enslaved the working class under the premise of free shipping; it is before the swan song of mortar-and-brick.
The ensemble cast is me and two platonic Queer men in their early 20s.
They are actors; they are English majors. They are true friends for whom I am grateful every single day. Before long, they will become a romantic item for a grand total of 36 hours, news of their breakup then spreading through the dormitory like a contagion; before long, I will be raped by a fraternity brother whose name I will never quite catch.
The objective is a short story.
The end goal is Playboy.
The appeal is Queer author Chuck Palahniuk.
The president is George W. Bush.
We all think this is as bad as things can get.
“Hello,” I say awkwardly to the woman at the information desk.
She looks at me inquisitively, probably because she is accustomed to giving information.
“I’d like…Playboy,” I announce, with a weird mix of pride and shame, my Queer friends behind me snickering at the mere idea of tits. I make sure to follow up the request with a meek, “It’s for a story.”
Now I am a cliché.
The clerk is an older lady; bespectacled; gray hair in a curly helmet; gold cross around her neck.
“You’ll need to ask behind the counter,” she responds, keeping a neutral face, Jesus admonishing me from underneath her chin. “We don’t keep those…out.”
“Thank you,” I gush with red face, beating a hasty retreat back to the two men, who beat a hasty retreat away from the information desk.
We wait in line, amped up on that mix of adrenaline and shenanigans that is unique to college and friendship and twenty-one and youth. I relish the moment, even as I am ignorant to all the events in the future that will fight to douse the flames of my happiness and my will to live.
“Hi,” I declare to the counterperson, another woman, looking all the world like she does not want to be an employee of the Allentown Barnes & Noble on a cold Friday night. “We’d like three copies of Playboy, please.”
I attempt to be assertive and instead come off as creepily enthusiastic. I do not bother explaining that it is for a short story, because then I’d be compelled to explain the rest: That Fight Club is currently all the rage; that Fight Club was Chuck Palahniuk’s first novel; that we are all now Chuck Palahniuk fans; that we are eagerly awaiting publication of Chuck Palahniuk’s next novel, a short story collection dubbed Haunted; that one of those stories is pre-released in this month’s – you guessed it – Playboy; that it is apparently a doozy. I don’t bother with any of that – there’s no salvaging my façade as a good Lutheran girl at this point.
I also do not stay a good Lutheran girl, but that is a different story for a different day.
“Sure,” says the woman dully, reaching down to rifle through what is presumably a box stuffed to the gills with naked ladies and fantasy football polls and scandalous stories from an author we have all come to venerate amid the discord of the George W. years.
The cover is graced with a glorious blonde woman with glorious breasts and a suggestive look on her face; the title announces itself in screaming hot pink font; it advertises “Guts – a short story from Chuck Palahniuk” right on the cover.
I take my copy and squeal with excitement.
We each clutch a magazine, the thrill of anticipation thick in the air. We pay with various bills and debit cards, escaping into the entropy of the mall in a time when malls had not yet started their sickly decline.
I start reading in the car, gasping at the intro, screaming at the outrageous bits, wincing and laughing and shivering at the part where a young man masturbates with a filament of candle wax shoved up his urethra. We return to campus and park, my friends starting to read, squealing themselves at various points in the text.
We finish at three different times, staggered and impatient. I am practically bursting with the need to discuss the ending, the twist, the absurdity and sheer Palahniuk-ness of the tale. We laugh over the story as the sun sets, reveling in that neat experience which is discussing literature when the world seems only as big as your tiny university.
We part ways after a time to resume our separate lives; theirs defined by the coming-of-age which is Queerness on a college campus in 2004, mine defined by twenty years of unresolved childhood trauma. We will lose touch by graduation, and then for even longer, until social media is birthed from the brain of Zuckerberg like Athena breaking through Zeus’s skull to enter the world.
A decade later, hindsight bias will announce this period in time as the fulcrum between the two lives I have experienced on this planet, the event horizon at a juncture when I could no longer rely on sheer grit to get by. That night with my friends marked the point at which life began to get away from me; buying Playboy with Queer men during the Bush Era was one of my last pleasant memories for quite some time.
There will be mood swings and self-harm and periods of mania and depression; there will, one dark and drunken night, be a suicide attempt and a spousal ultimatum. Then there will be therapy. There will be medication and titration and DBT and psychoanalysis and a two-month stint in a facility for eating disorders. There will be effort, and work, and tears, and pain, and then, at the end of it all – as a reward, really – will come more effort and work and tears and pain.
But, there will also be healing. There will also be growth. There will be cats and ice cream and orgasms and, eventually, two glorious children. It will take more than 15 years, more presidents than just Bush, more dead soldiers than just the detritus of Operation Mission Accomplished, but there will – eventually – be happiness.
And through it all, I saved that Playboy. I saved it through the rest of college, through the summer months, through my dramatic attempt at a Ph.D. that unfortunately crashed and burned somewhere over the Midwest. I saved it through my move to Philadelphia and a marriage to my husband and a series of nondescript crappy apartments. And then I found it, last week, somewhat battered, unfathomably dusty and covered in cat hair from living in a bin for years.
And I thought about everything since the beginning.
Haunted would come and go, as would at least a baker’s dozen of other Palahniuk novels. Sadly, they seemed to deteriorate in quality somewhat over the years. Around 2008, the author appeared to reclaim a bit of former glory with the book Pygmy; then I found myself unable to finish his next two. The draw of Chuck Palahniuk slowly faded the more Nietzsche and McCarthy and Murakami I read, and now I find myself, at the onslaught of 2021, unable to recall when I last thought about one of his books.
But on the other hand, I will never forget the story “Guts.” I will never forget how, when things were starting to fray and the future would soon be intolerable, I got that one memorable night with my friends. It was a night defined by irony, rich with fellowship under the innocent guise of depravity, in the company of those rare human beings who keep you from feeling alone when you’re down in the depths.
And while college was not as bad as things would get, and Haunted was not as bad as things would get, and Bush was not as bad as things would get – it is nights like those, those bright points of laughter and light, which remind us why we choose to endure.
So I am nothing but grateful for the sheer awkwardness of buying Playboy with Queer men in the Bush Era, when to be gay was to be “othered” and to be mentally ill was a source of shame.
How far – despite it all – we all have come.
Shannon Frost Greenstein (she/her) resides in Philadelphia with her children, soulmate, and persnickety cats. She is the author of “Pray for Us Sinners,” a collection of fiction from Alien Buddha Press, and “More.”, a poetry collection by Wild Pressed Books. Shannon is a former Ph.D. candidate in Continental Philosophy and a multi-time Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net nominee. Her work has appeared, or is forthcoming, in McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Pithead Chapel, Epoch Press, X-R-A-Y Lit Mag, Feral: A Journal of Poetry and Art, and elsewhere. Follow Shannon at shannonfrostgreenstein.com or on Twitter at @ShannonFrostGre.