I once met a man who could stare into my eyes and at my breasts simultaneously. Not one eye here and one eye there. No flashing back and forth. What was going on, I believe it’s what’s called a thrall. And we were never introduced, so it’s misleading to say I met him. But it’s a strange story and it has to start somewhere.
The encounter took place some years ago, back when my office was not in my apartment. Then it was on the corner of two major hallways in the editorial wing of a publishing house in Manhattan. Its advantage was that I saw everyone coming and going. The obvious disadvantage was that everyone saw me.
That morning I was sitting at my desk, on the telephone with an agent, when I observed the not unusual parade of assistant, agent, and, presumably, author march past my door. I wouldn’t have taken notice except the last in line backtracked and propped himself against my doorjamb, saying, “Hillery, how are you?”
He said it as if we’d known one another our whole lives but rarely saw each other, like we had one of those Same Time, Next Year affairs that picked up right where it left off no matter how much time had passed. Except I had never met him. I would have remembered. It’s not that he was particularly attractive—tallish, brown curly hair, ordinary face—it was the thralldom. It’s not something you forget. I asked Doug to hold just as the assistant returned and took the man away.
I went back to my conversation. I worked some more and made another call before the parade passed me by again. The man didn’t bother marching past my door this time. He walked right into my office and said, “Hillery, I don’t know how long it’s been, but I’ve missed you. Have you missed me?” It sounds so corny now, like a bad joke. But he was totally serious and, at that moment, I wasn’t laughing. I just hung up the phone without saying a word.
I don’t know what would have happened next, what with the thrall and all, but someone came back for him again and the spell was broken. I couldn’t have picked him out of a line-up five minutes later, but I’ll never forget the power of that smile.
I caught the assistant on his return trip. “Who was that man?” I asked.
“That was Gene Simmons.”
Once when I was visiting my father during a college holiday we shared a very boozy lunch, during which I observed with some concern that almost all of the writers I admired had vices I did not. They were drunks, junkies, womanizers, and suicides (a bad habit indeed), leaving in their wake failed marriages, lost fortunes, and abandoned children. Young as I was, I remember wondering if you could be happy and talented or if it had to be one or the other. I felt sure that if there was a choice, I would have the former. I don’t remember what my dad said.
On the other hand, I recall precisely what he said when I called him a few years later and asked him, “Who the Hell is Gene Simmons?” I really didn’t know. I was born in the 70s and I was busy reading and wreaking mild havoc through most of the 80s. When I was watching TV it certainly wasn’t MTV. He explained to me as diplomatically as he could that the man had documented proof of sleeping with more women than anyone else, ever. Also, he was in a band.
Suddenly my story went from strange to humorous. The sex god of hard rock had been trying to lay me…in my office…before lunch. He saw tits at a desk and a nameplate on the wall and that was all it took. Opportunity knocks.
The more I told the story, the more information I got. Every two minutes they spend in the same room together his editor reportedly shouts, “Hands, Gene! Hands!” Learning about the surgically altered tongue was also disturbing. Context made me reconsider the thrall. It’s not something you’re born with, like plain old charisma. The power of thralldom must be cultivated or, perhaps, bargained.
So I start wondering. Did the thrall come first and the women later? I think about it as a numbers game. How many women do you have to approach in order to bed twenty thousand of them by the time you’re fifty? Like a hundred thousand? At least. Factoring out the pre-pubescent years, that makes well over two thousand a year—roughly seven a day. How did the guy have time to be in a band? Oh, right, one feeds the other. How much does the thrall have to do with the KISS Army? Is the seduction beyond sexual at some point?
Then I stopped trying to figure out the how and moved on to the why. Obviously it isn’t about the women. I certainly didn’t feel special to be singled out. Hell, I didn’t even feel singled out. It’s so clearly about the tally. And what does that say? Sure, the man wears make-up and spits fake blood, but he’s made a living out of that. What is this about?
Persona is defined as (2.) an identity or role that somebody assumes and (3.) the image of character and personality that somebody wants to show the outside world. People put a lot of effort into developing a persona. It costs them, in many ways, to maintain it. As such, it must be a very important endeavor.
When I look back at the writers I loved as a younger person and consider the ones without vices, they are usually homosexual. Well, they have been revealed to be homosexual. E. M. Forster and Lytton Strachey had to maintain a certain persona to remain in society. Remember what happened to Oscar Wilde. Think about The Picture of Dorian Gray.
I think about that and I think about Tom Cruise. And Scientology starts to look a little less funny and a lot more scary. I think about our president and wonder if he’s simply A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. I think about magazines and airbrushing and eating disorders. I think all the characterization we’ve got going on these days begs the question: What are we so afraid of?