As I’ve been working on Mark of the Pterren these past two weeks, I’ve been having to examine the state of my heart ever more closely. Like what I have truly loved in my life, and why I have loved.
There are two romantic love stories in Mark of the Pterren, stories that don’t bloom in the plot until the final part of the book, which is the section I’ll start writing soon. I would have thought I’ve examined the state of my heart enough over the years, as my two previous novels both have love stories in them, but it seems this internal seeking is a well that never runs dry.
So there is this question of romantic love, and what inspires it, and why.
I don’t think I’m alone (as a female) in saying that my first crushes in life were not on boys. My heart thrilled to ideas, to concepts of goodness and rightness and my own sense of morality. Some of my earliest memories in life are recollections of sitting in hot, stuffy churches, my legs glued to the wood planks with my sweat, listening to pastors and ministers shout and yell about eternal damnation, how we are all sinners bound for hell. I was four or five the day I heard this line spewed from the pulpit:
“Everyone! Everyone in this room–is a sinner deserving of hell!”
The man quoted a long list of sins, most of them transgressions involving the Ten Commandments and the seven deadly sins of the Bible. I couldn’t identify all of them (I was particularly puzzled by adultery, which the man repeated more than the others, maybe because more of the adults in the room were guilty of this particular “sin” than taking false oaths and killing their neighbors)– anyway– at the mention of all of these sins, I looked at the infant my mother held in her arms (my brother Lee was a newborn at this time), and I thought, “Surely this baby is not an adulterer. I know he isn’t a murderer. Or a thief. Or lazy. This baby is innocent! So how can he go to hell?”
And that was the moment I decided anything being shouted at me about hell was a bunch of crap. Other people get hooked on the fear of hell at a young age, and while the pastors and ministers were always explicit about how terrible hell was, and could describe in detail the eternal torment awaiting for me in the afterlife (the fires, the agony, sometimes demons and Satan ripping my body apart, plucking my eyes out, giant insects with razor-sharp teeth that would skewer me, et cetera, et cetera)– but despite all this colorful detail, these men never convinced me hell existed. Because their initial argument– that we are all sinners– went against my own morality too much.
Maybe if I had been taken to Catholic services, and sin had been focused on Original Sin, rather than willful transgressions, I might have had different ideas. But who knows? I might have found that argument to be equally crap at age four (or five) as well. Because I’ve never believed that a baby is born with Original Sin, bound for hell without baptism, or that stillborn babies go to Purgatory, or any other “this is how death works” idea propounded by the church.
For some people, that admission alone is enough to damn me to hell. But I can’t be scared of something I don’t believe in. My internal truth has always been strong and insistent, and I have never, ever been frightened of hell. Not even as a small child, being told giant insects were waiting to skewer my eyeballs and Satan was eager to cook me on his fires and rip me apart. My internal truth simply said, “Uh, no. This is crap. There is no hell.” And nothing– nothing– has ever been able to overpower that voice, the presence within that tells me what to trust and what to reject in the world. If people want to damn me to hell, I say, fine. Damn away. If they want to believe in Satan and fires and insects and demons and whatever else is supposedly waiting in the afterlife, that’s their prerogative. It’s just not for me.
So the question of my baby brother being damned to hell was one of the first matters of the heart to affect me a great deal, and as I grew older, I was still far more curious about making sense of the world than I was about boys.
Even so, I had to ask myself recently when I knew I “liked” boys, because I didn’t like boys in a romantic sense at all growing up. Men in general seemed pretty disgusting to me, and maybe I can blame this on being raped at age seven, and being scarred by that, or maybe other things in my life gave me such a distaste for the opposite sex, but I just wasn’t a fan of how women were treated (in real life or on TV), I wasn’t a fan of how the world seemed to operate in regard to the sexes, and most of the time I just wanted to be alone.
And guess what? That has not really changed. I wasn’t antisocial growing up (I always loved my brothers, my sister, and I’m still close to my childhood friends, and my life would be miserable without all of the friends I’ve made since the days I was young, friends of both sexes)– but I was, and still am, fairly asocial– as in, content to be withdrawn. I am quite happy with little to no interaction with others, which doesn’t stop me from being extremely social at times (and being extremely happy to be social at times), but being alone with myself– even if I have nothing to do but sit and daydream, which I do a lot– well, it’s always a good time. It’s a party. Rock on.
And the question of romantically liking boys is further complicated by just– well, take this picture, for instance:
A bunch of young boys at camp. Some skinny, some buff, some round and fluffy, all of them trying so hard to be masculine, to fit in, with their raging hormones and body odor, their mommy issues and daddy issues and adolescent anger and angst, masturbating with Vaseline and tube socks or whatever they can get their hands on, eager to buy Playboy magazines and share har-har look-at-her-tits jokes and all of that other stuff that goes with being a male and being young. (A phase some boys never grow out of, which is fine, cause– to each his own.)
I’m just saying, I look at this picture of these boys, and human-being-me feels compelled. To understand them, to know them, to examine them.
Girl-me, who feels romantically inclined toward things, just looks at this picture and says, “Ew.” Gross. I want no part of that. Ick. Double ick. Get away, go away, I want no part of this disgusting yuck.
To be fair to boys, I feel the same sense of ick when I look at pictures like this:
Flaky, backstabbing adolescent girls trying hard to live up to gender roles, conform, and fit in. I wouldn’t feel romantically inclined toward these teenagers, either (if I was gay, or if I was a boy).
Which leads me to the question of “liking” boys as a youngster– when romantic-me really doesn’t like them at all.
So who was my first crush? Who was the first male in my life who made me swoon? It took me a while to remember. And then I totally did remember–
It was this guy:
Raphael. The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle.
I fell in love with this man-turtle, big time. It was a very consuming love. Because I didn’t just romantically love him, I also wanted to be him. I wanted to be Raphael.
I can feel the strength of that love even now, just looking at this cartoon picture of him. He was my first crush. Age 9. And he stayed with me, as my great crush, until I was 12, and I don’t think I ever stopped loving him, I simply stopped watching the cartoon. I never had a crush on a human boy (though I did go through the motions of “liking boys” in junior high, as all humans are actors and actresses when we need to be, and the pressure to “fit in” is never so intense as it is in junior high, and sometimes high school)– but my feelings for this cartoon man-turtle weren’t a ruse. They were very real, and very intense.
What is crazy in remembering this fact now, all these years later, is that I’m writing a book with a man named Rafael who is one of the stars, and he is written to be swoon-worthy and badass. My Rafael doesn’t fight with twin sai, but his weapon is about the length of sai (a bit longer), and he holds one in each hand. The story calls them khadga, and my Rafael is awesome with them.
I also spell his name with an f, rather than the ph, because I think it’s a prettier spelling, of course. (Cause me and my words… letters are as much art to me as anything else.)
I’ve been working on Mark of the Pterren for years now, on and off, and Rafael was always, always part of this tale, regardless of whether I consciously remembered my long-standing love of a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle or not. My Rafael also doesn’t have anger issues, as Raphael the mutant turtle did– but Raphael’s man-turtle anger and vulnerability show up in another main character in my story, in the character who is like the other half of “my Rafael” all through my tale, someone like his brother, but not a brother by blood.
I also find my memories about my first crush particularly funny right now since a new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle movie is opening this summer, though the turtles look a bit creepier than the cartoon turtles of my youth.
It should also be noted that this particular turtle– Michelangelo– was my least favorite turtle, because he was the most juvenile of the four. (“Cowabunga, Dude!”) I tolerated Michelangelo because he was “the favorite” turtle of two of my brothers (Lee and Mitch), while my brother Johnny and I would often get into fights over “who loved Raphael more.” (And I am not kidding about this, we would take turns quoting Raphael’s lines from the show– in increasingly louder and louder tones of voice, to the point of almost hitting each other– to prove our devotion and try to outdo one another in our worship-level of mighty Raphael and his badass sai. For me, Raphael was my one true love, so of course I thought I had my brother beat, but then again, Johnny could “be” Raphael a lot better than I could, as he had the correct genitalia, so he had me there. In the end, it was always a draw, but I think he still believes he loved Raphael more than me, and I still believe I loved Raphael more than him. This might have been the first battle of the heart either one of us ever fought. And you know what? It was totally worth it.)
I mean, just look at this cutie pie:
This Ninja Turtle just totally does it for me.
He even looks good as a plush!
Raphael was a great First Crush. I also think he’s as crush-worthy for me today as he was at age nine, and I don’t think every girl can say that about her first crush. But I was lucky enough to grow up with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and they are awesome.