Life in a Skinner Box: A Memoir [Chapter 5.1]

After Stephanie left, I met Andres, a thirty-five-year-old Cuban guy from Miami who was working on a PhD in theoretical physics. Andres had double engineering degrees from Cornell and had “slaved himself”—his words not mine—in corporate America for ten years. Two years before, he’d sold everything he owned and returned to school to live out an “academic fantasy” he’d always had. Immediately, I noticed Andres was extremely smart and full of life. His mind could easily go to all sorts of strange, and hilarious, places. The last thing Andres cared about was material stuff. His hair was dark and crazy curly, and he owned only five shirts—all dark-colored, striped polos—which he admittedly wore a “few” times in between washings. He always smelled faintly of beans and I could never tell which food drips were recent or permanent.

Andres loved to eat and I swear we were responsible for keeping open this little Vegan hole-in-the-wall place where we got plates of black beans and plantains and espressos with cream cheese Danishes almost five days a week. Andres collected foreign stamps in a serious way. He had boxes of them everywhere and often ended an evening by saying, “Well, thanks for a great evening. It was quite enjoyable. Now, I’m going to go home and masturbate with my stamps. Night!”

He loved the absurdities in life and spared no one who took themselves too seriously. At the same time, he saw the positive in everyone and gave his friends nicknames that typified the best of their personas. It was common and endearing for him to blurt out how much fun he was having in any given moment. Very soon we began spending almost all our free time together. Yet our relationship stayed totally platonic. We enjoyed each other’s company so much, it was never about sex. Andres’s passion for ideas and life was contagious, and he never failed to entertain with his animated commentary on the ridiculousness of the world around us.

Andres’s only steady girlfriend had been a German girl who had returned to Germany a few years ago. Although he was perfectly capable of making himself attractive to women, he just didn’t really understand how to do so. Sometimes it was like watching a train wreck in slow motion when we went to parties together. His approach to women was to just lay it all right out there from the start; he couldn’t bear the thought of having to be inauthentic in any way to attract a woman. It was simply a prerequisite for him that a girl liked him completely for who he was. He was so very real and raw and adverse to politics, hierarchies, and phonies; he provocatively shared off-beat opinions or politically incorrect ideas. He threw out outrageous bait, but few fish had the nerve to take a bite.

It was great because Andres and I could have fun anywhere. We once went to an independent movie called Kissed, about a beautiful young girl who developed a fascination with death and decided to become a mortician. Her “fascination” turned sexual and she began having sex with the bodies she embalmed. A real live guy wanted to date her, and she tried hard to make herself feel attraction for him. She could not experience orgasms with him, though, so she kept sneaking back to her dead bodies. Live-guy followed her one night and peeked in the funeral home window…only to discover her dirty little secret. Instead of freaking out, he put on a black tuxedo and white face paint and professed his love for her. She tried one more time to climax with him. When she couldn’t, live-guy was devastated again, to the point that he killed himself by hanging and left a note for her stating that maybe now they could finally be together. In the end, his body was sent to the girl for embalming.

She took his dead body off the table and gently placed it on a blanket on the floor. She ritualistically lit candles all around him and lovingly had sex with his dead body, which caused to her have an “other-worldly” orgasm. The cinematography was amazing and Andres and I were both utterly mesmerized by the movie. Our first reaction was shock at how something could be simultaneously so tragic and so beautiful, so gruesome and so tasteful. Our second reaction was that we wanted to go right home and eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. That was the most grounding and comforting thing we could think of to do.

One Saturday morning at our café, hyped up on cream cheese Danishes and Cuban espresso, we decided we wanted to do something different. Andres swiped an abandoned newspaper off a nearby table and turned to the “Things about Town” section. We contemplated the Farmers’ Market, a new art exhibition at the Native American museum, and a hotdog fundraiser at a fire station. (Andres had yet to see the inside of a fire truck.) We’d almost settled on garage-sale hopping to hunt for bizarre and strange collectibles when an ad caught my eye. “Retirement Home for Horses. Entry fee: 2 Carrots!”

For some reason, maybe sheer curiosity, this filled us both with utter glee. We immediately raided Publix for a bag of carrots and hit the road. The retirement home was out on a farm in Alachua County, Florida. At the entrance sign, we turned right and drove up a long gravel road. There were about eight horses in a covered pen to our left and what appeared to be hundreds of acres of green pastures dotted with horses stretched out ahead of us. We were greeted by a friendly British husband-and-wife team, retirees themselves. They told a story of how they had retired from their jobs in Britain ten years before and had cashed in their retirement savings to provide lifetime care to unwanted or rescued horses. As a nonprofit venture, they depended solely on individual contributions.

They led us over to the penned horses, which were those that needed extra-special attention since they were either blind, deaf, had no teeth, or were missing a leg. I’m not sure why, but I felt so taken aback. Of course, horses could fall ill and acquire conditions just like humans. I’d just never given a thought to what must happen to horses that might no longer be wanted by their owners. Andres stood next to me, also silent, also absorbing how alien this experience felt. I caught myself staring, holding the bag of carrots like an idiot.

I went for the bag, but the husband said, “Oh. You can’t feed these horses carrots. They require a special mash that we make and hand feed to them every two hours.”

This would be one of those times Andres wouldn’t say much and would respond to everything with a long, sincere, “Whoa.”

Whoa was right.

The husband talked about the various horses and how they’d made their way to the farm as he led us to the entrance of the fields. Some horses near the fence approached us softly when they saw us coming. The husband showed us how to feed the horses, and then he walked back to the pen. I was speechless…because my heart was breaking. As soon as he was gone, I cried for those sad horses up front. Andres knew what I was feeling without having to ask. For thirty minutes, we marveled at the healthy horses and wished we would have brought more carrots.

On our way out, we thanked the owners and expressed our admiration for the work they were doing. The wife said, “Would you like to volunteer? We need people to come on Saturday and Sunday mornings to feed and groom the horses out in the pasture.”

So, for those three hot—no, scorching—summer months, Andres and I reported for horse-grooming duty every Saturday morning at 6 a.m. Although we spent only about four hours feeding, scrubbing, and brushing ten horses and a donkey, it was the greatest physical challenge either of us had ever endured. After the second horse, my biceps and shoulders ached like hell, and after the fourth, my arms went numb and shook. We both became completely filthy and sweated buckets. It was such exhausting work that Andres and I had to cheer each other on toward the end so we wouldn’t give up. Yet standing next to those horses out in the middle of nowhere seemed like a dream. I felt such peace and awe in their presence; that they let us touch them felt like an honor.

Each horse had a story too. One was a perfectly healthy purebred race horse, past his prime, who used to belong to someone famous. The donkey was anonymously dumped at the couple’s doorstep—well, tied to the porch anyway. A docile black Arabian had been brought there from an experimental facility in a covert rescue operation initiated by someone from inside the lab. He had dozens of metal wires threaded through the veins of his entire mid-section. If the sight of that wasn’t horrific enough, the ends of each track of wire stuck out about two inches, presumably because the researchers needed something to hook their electrodes or whatever to. We could only groom his head and legs and clean his hooves, for there weren’t two square inches anywhere else that didn’t have wires poking out. I couldn’t believe he let us touch him at all, after what he’d endured at the hands of other humans.

After finishing our last horse, we’d crawl back to my car, aching—but filled with pride and satisfaction—too exhausted to speak on the ride home. After a good hot shower and donning comfortable, clean clothes, we’d meet up to grab lunch. By this time, we were both riding what we decidedly termed a “horse high,” which was a euphoric, serene—yet totally alert—state of bliss. We’d been cleansed. We basked in those moments when our hearts were filled with gratitude.

Andres loved music, groups like The Orb, Underworld, and The Cocteau Twins. One night I talked him in to checking out “Goth Night” at a local club. This was a tantalizing experience for the both of us. We had enough sense to wear black, but it was painfully obvious—to us, anyway—that we were outsiders.

We stood against a wall drinking hard cider, smoking clove cigarettes, enjoying the music, and just took it all in. It was intriguing for both of us to discover the existence of an entire underground culture, with its own unspoken rules about dress and the acceptable expressions of emotions and behavior. Everyone dressed like they had just come from either a christening at Dracula’s house or like they had just time-traveled from a futuristic, post-apocalyptic world where metal spikes and black plastic were vogue. The long cloaks and capes made some of them appear to be floating on air.

Andres and I became frequent visitors of “Goth Night,” but almost a year later we’d still never been approached by any of the Goths. I suppose they could tell we were “normals”—people who weren’t Goth when the sun was out—and had long ago flicked us off their radar. It seemed a little odd that this group of supposed outcasts might be elitist in their own right. It didn’t really bother us though. We still respected the fact that they rejected the mainstream bar scene we had grown to hate. Andres and I delighted in the fact we never once saw a Goth “do shots,” get drunk, or holler. Don’t ask why seeing Goth magazines—which sold cow’s blood in vintage bottles—peppered around the club didn’t freak us out as much as it would have to see a Goth wet T-shirt contest. But it just didn’t.

The main attraction for Andres and me was the music and the chance to dance without anyone giving a hoot. All Goths danced alone but connected completely to the music. They had their own interpretations and unique movements, which changed and morphed fluidly with every beat.

One weekend, we decided to drive to a large Goth club in another city. We danced from 10 p.m. to midnight until suddenly all the lights and music shut off. The crowd gasped and froze in the dark. A minute later, a spot light illuminated a wall behind us. The whole room turned toward the light to see a handsome blonde man dressed as a priest methodically lighting candles and placing them around what appeared to be an altar on the floor. Lying on the altar was a beautiful, pale woman with long, dark hair—wearing only black lace panties. The candles glowed around her beautiful body. Her eyes were open, but she was motionless.

The priest walked around the opposite side of the table and faced us. Looking at her intensely, he bent down and picked up one of the candles. He held it high above her, tipped the candle over, and let the wax drip down to her stomach. She stirred a little and moaned with pleasure. He picked up candle after candle, waved them around in the dark, and then poured them down onto her in cascades. In the darkness, this effect was stunning; we were enchanted.

After a while, the woman was coated from neck to toe in a thick shell of wax. The priest left the stage momentarily and returned to stand with his back to us. He very slowly turned around and raised a long medieval sword above his head. He brought it down quickly toward the woman, as if he was going to chop her in half.

She cringed and let out a blood-curdling scream when, at the last second, the priest turned the blade horizontal and used it to gently shave a large section of the wax off her stomach. He continued to delicately shave long pieces of the wax off her body until he needed a smaller tool—a dagger—to carefully whittle off the small amounts left on her breasts and neck. When she was clean, he bent over her body and kissed her sensually, helped her up, and walked her off the stage. I think Andres said “Whoa” about a hundred times on our way home.

Although I laughed loud and hard with Andres a lot of the time, he was very introspective about events in his life. Conversations rarely stayed trivial for long. We would quickly dive into some little nugget of our past or present just to analyze it from multiple perspectives until we could make some sense out of it or find the lesson in it or, at the very least, find humor in it. We could point out patterns in each other’s lives that we ourselves couldn’t see. We shared similar misfit childhoods that were full of books and ideas but lacked true connections with most people. We truly listened to each other, and by sharing our experiences and vulnerabilities, we healed a lot of emotional wounds and put many old hurts to rest. I felt he made me wiser and my days were brighter because he was in them.

I’d also never had a friend willing to stick his neck out for me. More than once, Andres unleashed his sarcasm and wit on his fellow graduate students any time they attempted to belittle my field for not being a “true” science, like physics was.

He would interject with a challenge like, “How is trying to understand how the human brain controls the most complex behavior on the planet, our internal universe if you will, any easier or less important than discovering the laws of the physical universe?”

Andres made sacrifices for me as well, like the time we went to see The English Patient at the university theater. I started crying at the opening music and sobbed pretty steadily throughout the rest of the film. When the film ended, I told him to go on home without me because I wanted to—or rather needed to—stay for the very next showing of it. Andres never blinked an eye; he got us some popcorn and watched it with me again.

Tragically, one morning Andres received a call from his stepfather notifying him that his mother might not make it through the night. Andres’s parents had travelled with him, from Cuba to Miami, on a boat in the early eighties. Once they were here, his father quickly learned English and found a job. His mother did neither; she remained wholly dependent on her husband. Their marriage ended within a few years, and Andres stayed with his mother.

They were extremely close. He attempted to protect her and be as successful as possible for her. Being a sensitive son, he understood her pain and loneliness. He worried that she sometimes made careless choices and financial mistakes. And, although he was aware she sometimes used guilt or ignorance to manipulate Andres’s devotion, he believed all her actions and intentions were pure and came from true maternal love. In many ways, Andres took care of his mother and provided her with complex emotional support, something I could certainly relate to.

I knew Andres’s mom had cancer, but he discussed it with little drama. He would simply say, “This is a part of life. It sucks, but it could happen to anyone. Just because she’s my mom, she’s not immune.”

He was grateful she had a long-time boyfriend who could be with her and help with her basic needs. Andres was prepared for her to die someday; he just didn’t want to see her suffer any more. Andres made it to Miami before his mom passed. A few days after the funeral, when he went to her apartment to gather some of her keepsakes, he came upon her lock box. Inside, he found a five-year-old letter from a doctor confirming that his mom was HIV positive.

Andres said that he felt like a bomb had dropped, not because of the diagnosis itself, but because his mother had carried the burden of that secret alone all those years. He knew his mom well enough to know that she’d lived that “cancer lie” so her son wouldn’t think less of her. Andres knew this meant on some level his mom had never valued herself enough to believe that Andres would have still loved her had he known.

I was both ecstatic for him and heavyhearted when a few weeks later Andres received a call that he’d been invited to “bash atoms” at a famous super-accelerator the next fall.

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