A Note from Author Alex Dobrenko
I recently joined a cult called the Soaring Twenties Social Club, a collective of cool artists and writers that hang out and support one another’s work.
Every month the STSC has a theme for members to write something on, and this month’s theme is “The Beach.” As such, I am publishing this piece - “The Three Arguments” or “Is My Husband a Sex Offender”. Some early BAT heads might remember a longer, 2 part version of this piece from earlier in the year. This new version is shorter and there’s a lot more of you here now (if you’re new, welcome! This is a good place, take your shoes off and grab some popcorn or twisslers).
ALSO I RECORDED AUDIO OF ME READING THIS WHOLE THING AND IF YOU HAVENT HEARD ME READING STUFF BEFORE I RECOMMEND IT! It’s fun and I make a lot of mistakes but I never re-record so its like a wow, I hope Alex is okay sort of situation.
One more note of frank importance:
This is a FICTIONAL story of a family: Hank, Helen, their baby son, and their dog Milt.
This story is most definitely NOT based on my life or the recent family vacation my wife Lauren and I took to Malibu with our baby and dog. Not at all.
I hope you enjoy.
The Three Arguments
We are at the beach on what has been billed as a relaxing day. There is a tent in the sand to protect the baby and the dog and also Helen from the sun.
Me? I lay in the heat.
I want to burn. I want to atone.
And tan. Atone and Atan. Ha, no but seriously, I look about fifty percent more attractive with a nice tan on my face. This has been corroborated by many, refuted by none.
The waves crash onto the shore and I remember what my friend Wilbur said at a funeral for our other friend Mark: “our lives are but mere waves, rising out of the ocean, having a laugh or two, and then returning back into the water from whence they came.”
I try to relax, which, it turns out, is much harder work than actually working.
There’s a saying in Daoism, which is pronounced with a T or a D depending on how cool you are: “do nothing and everything gets done.” Now that is a great way to live. If anyone asks you to explain or prove how it works, you simply don’t, as per the precept. A foolproof plan, if only one could believe it.
The First Argument
Let’s back up or, as we we say in the VHS tape collecting community, rewind.
The day begins in Malibu. We’re driving up Route 1- the PCH - toward the dog friendly Leo Carrillo State Beach.
Much like Passover has Four Questions, every fight between a married couple can be understood as consisting of Three Arguments.
The First Argument was simple: where to park.
You see, reader, this beach had a big ol parking lot, but as we pulled in, we saw it was being blocked by a tall yet scrawny man, red shirt, holding a walkie talkie.
In Los Angeles, someone with a walkie talkie can only mean one thing: content is being made. Helen and I work in the film industry. In fact, it is this very industry that we are trying to get away from during this vacation. But alas, when it comes to Los Angeles, you can never truly escape. Anywhere you look is a shoot, or a meeting, or the diner where they shot that scene from that one movie (Swingers, its somehow always Swingers).
We open our window and I ask “y’all shooting something here?”
Who knows — maybe Steven Spielberg is directing a movie called The Lifeguard here on this beach, and maybe he will hear the deep, dulcet tones of my voice coming through the walkie talkie and say “Hey, hey now wait a second. Who is that? That voice. I need that voice in my movie.”
And the next minute I’m that guy who played the lifeguard in The Lifeguard.
So there I am acting very cool and with it but for some strange reason, the tall dude says “yea, sorry we’re shooting today, but you can still use the beach, you just need to park up on the PCH and walk down.”
I say thank you and wait, just a second longer, to see if he follows with “Hey, hold on a second. I know this is crazy but um, our director, Steven — Steven Spielberg — he’d like to talk to you for a minute.”
But that does not happen so we get back on the PCH and look for a spot to park.
Lauren (change this back to whatever the name of the woman is in the story — this is important so people know this is not about you and Lauren) was nervous about parking on the PCH because she had seen a No Parking sign.
I try to reason with her — “but babe, look at all these other cars here on the street.”
There were many cars and they were all on the street.
“What’s the worst that could happen?,” I ask.
And she looks me dead in my eyes and says “my car gets towed.”
I mean, she isn’t wrong, but also that is never going to happen. What are they gonna do, round up the Tow Boys and tow every single car that’s parked here on the PCH? No. Never. Worst case scenario: we will get a ticket. I am about to say that I will pay for the ticket when I remember that there is no ‘I’ anymore when it comes to paying - WE pay for everything now. Perhaps I’ve lost all sense of ‘I’ altogether.
“What can we do?”, I say. “The parking law applies everywhere. Should we drive home to LA , park at our house and walk back to the beach? To be safe?”
She does not laugh.
I suggest a compromise - let’s park here on the PCH and carry our caravan of suntan lotions, tents, and hats — the many ways we protect ourselves from the very sun we have come here to be around, an irony lost on me then but not now, here in my retelling. Then once we’ve set up camp, then I will march back up to the car and see what’s going on with the parking.
Helen agrees and that’s what we do. After dropping everything off, I trek back to the car when I feel something in my chest. And my head. Tightness. Is this a heart attack?
No. I am upset.
Since when were there so many rules? Where is the adventure, the risk? Will our entire vacation, nay, our entire lives, be a continuation of this: anxiously fearing the world, never doing anything that might upset anyone?
As I walk up the unending stairs, my mind spirals. I wish the stairs were spiral stairs — that would make for a good image, but they are normal, boring stairs just like my normal, boring marriage.
Finally, after about twenty minutes of walking and brooding and obsessing over how I am going to lose forty minutes of fun because of this stupid walk, I reach the road and I see the sign.
Helen was right.
Right below “No Parking” it says “from the hours of 10pm-5am”. We are fine. Who would wanna park at those insane times, I think - those times are for sleeping. Plus, I was right. We can park there.
I walk back down to the beach and reveal the news, giddy and vindicated.
Helen hears me and, not taking the bait for more fighting, simply says, “Well, now we can have fun and not be stressed.”
To which I nod and agree, stressed out that all we do is make sure we are not stressed.
The rest of that first day is great, as far as I can remember. We enjoy life and laugh and watch our bundle of a baby experience sand for the first time. He lives every moment as if he’s on a strong dose of LSD, and we bask in the second hand high. He is not yet ready for the ocean though, it scares him. For the first time in his life, he truly clings to me when I try to put him down, holding onto me for dear life.
The Second Argument
We wake up the next day with a view of the Pacific Ocean through our floor to ceiling window. If my immigrant family could see me now.
They will actually see me now, because I send them photos of the baby and his comings and goings every single day.
We float through a morning of views and diapers and our dog Milt barking anytime we hug or high five — he mistakes the physical contact as aggression.
Or maybe he knows something that we don’t?
Standing outside watching our baby crawl through the grass, we see the AirBnB hosts, the people we’ve spoken to for a sum total of five minutes yet whose advice I trust more than my own family’s.
We tell them about the dog beach we found yesterday, and they laugh because it is March and no one cares about the rules of the dogs on the beach - you can bring dogs to any beach they say! It’s off season, for god’s sake. In June and July they clamp down, sure, but right now? Now is a free for all. Bring your dogs and go nuts. There’s a beach real close, they tell us, and it’s magnificent - we must go, they say, an absolute must.
We say thank you and head back into the house, the table set for The Second Argument.
I say the most sane thing based on the intel we’ve just collected: let’s go to that super close beach. To minimize travel and maximize fun. Efficient chaos.
Yesterday was great but involved a whole lot of moving about, to and fro, before any actual beach time could be enjoyed. Reminding Helen as if she wasn’t there, I say “We had to park on the PCH like cavemen and walk all our shit down to the beach. We had to use stairs. STAIRS. I’m sorry Helen but that? That was the U word.”
The U word is what my dad calls “unacceptable,” a term he only uses when talking to customer service reps from whom he would like a refund.
Helen disagrees and says, “but what if we can’t have Milt there?”
To which I say “But they just told us we could bring dogs no problem.”
“We already know everything about the other beach — where to park, where to go,” she replies, basically making my point for me.
“Right so let’s try this new one, if it sucks we’ll go to the beach without parking,” I respond.
“It has parking normally, that was just yesterday with the film shoot and — “ she explains, pleading with me to understand.
And I do, but I do not.
I say yes but I feel no.
Not once now but twice I have been rebuked, a caged animal within the ‘freedom’ of my own marriage. I was livid, but what could I do, what can any of us do, really — and so I said “ok fine, let’s go to the beach from yesterday.”
To which she replied “are you sure?”
And I said “well we don’t really have a choice do we?”
To which she said nothing.
We drove and picked up a big ol’ burrito at a place called Lily’s. It was the size of a newborn baby, wrapped tight in its tinfoil swaddle.
It was delicious - a calm before the storm.
We arrive at the beach. The parking gate is locked again, this time with nobody from a film set to tell us why.
I look at Helen — “see?”
And she says “oh shut up who cares? Let’s park and walk down.”
Who cares? Who cares?! I care. Your husband, Helen. Me. The man you vowed to have AND to hold.
We park on the PCH and walk down to the beach. Twenty minutes of fun, wasted.
Walking down, I spin out, my mind caught in a rip tide of anxiety: “I’m getting older. Life is over. Fun is over. I am nothing more now than a vessel to care for and protect the babies (1 human, 1 dog). From now until death, this is all there is.”
My mind races through these thoughts so fast it only catches snippets — just enough to springboard toward the next — a cacophony of fears building upon each other, working together — collaborating! — until they’ve organized themselves into a self sufficient community of panic, anger and isolation within my mind.
We arrive at the beach, put our stuff down and, once more, I bake in the sun like a Baked Lays chip. Atone and Atan.
Helen can always tell when something is wrong and so she asks, “you ok?”
To which I lie and say “yes.”
She smiles, knowing I am lying.
This, my dear friends, is the calm before the storm. All seems well, ideal even. Life is good — what could possibly go wrong?
The Third Argument
Hours pass. Helen takes the baby and nestles him in her bosom so that he may sleep. This is, by the way, the first time I’ve felt like I could accurately and appropriately use the word bosom. These small victories are all I have left.
I am still in the sand, direct sun oozing into my skin, all according to plan. I have been chugging water to stay hydrated and now the chicken of the sea has come to roost: I need to pee.
I do find it weird to write pee in an essay of this scope, this heft, this gravitas, but there really is no better word. I am not about to say ‘urinate’ (too formal) or ‘piss’ (too vulgar), and so pee is all that’s left. Plus that’s what I would say if I was telling you this story in person.
My instinct is to find a place to pee nearby. I know there are porta-potties somewhere in the far distance, but I do not want to go to them. They are far too far and I have followed the rules for far too long. I need to make a stand. Which I would do regardless of where I peed, because I was raised in a society that said men pee standing up, but I also mean metaphorically.
I look behind our tent at the seawall separating the beach from the parking lot. It’s a few feet high with some sparse bushes and plants, a couple slight indentations that I could theoretically hide behind and pee.
Lauren (note to editor: change this to Helen so people know this story isn’t about me and Lauren) is, at this point, nowhere to be seen.
I take a look at the surroundings. There is a family that’s parked their belongings far too close to us given how much space there is on the beach that day, but they are busy, distracted.
I tell our dog Milty to stay put, which I know he will because he’s scared of everything including and especially the sun, and I begin my journey toward the sandy seawall.
Milty our dog.
My head on a swivel, I watch to see how my approach affects the people of the beach. Does anyone stir? Gawk? Whisper to their loved ones that the shirtless man over there is looking like he’s about to pee right there on the beach? Nay.
I also confirm that there is no one up on the parking lot coming down to the beach. The coast is, and I cannot stress this enough, literally clear, which is also what my pee would be in mere seconds if it weren’t for Helen, who I now see walking toward me from the water.
She is approaching at a rapid clip with our baby nestled, asleep, in her aforementioned bosom.
Because the baby is sleeping, the heated conversation we are about to have takes place entirely through the mouthing of words and very animated hand signals.
First Helen mouths the words “what are you doing?”
To which I mouth back “peeing”.
She moves toward me and whispers, “what?”
And I mouth, more slowly and dramatically, “pee—ing”.
This doesn’t help because she mouths “what?” again.
Having no choice, I decide to mime what I’m trying to say by holding up my index finger and making an arcing motion with it down into the ground as if to say — this is how I will be peeing if you would just stop asking me and drawing attention to what was going to be a fairly covert mission.
Her eyes bulge ever so slightly, the sort of change only your partner of 10+ years would ever notice, and then she makes the single hand motion that takes me over the edge.
She looks up at me and raises an index finger of her own. A second of pause that feels like an eternity, and then she makes the “come hither” motion at me, the bend of the finger toward her that makes her look like a grade school teacher ready to punish me for, once again — the third time actually, not following instructions on the playground.
I cannot say what it was about this motion exactly, but I become inflamed with rage. Enraged, even.
I storm toward her and before I can say anything Helen says, still in a whisper so the baby who is our light and joy and still resting in her bosom does not wake, “what are you doing?”
And I reply, whisper screaming: “I was going to pee over there.”
To which she, no longer my wife but a two headed hydra made up of equal parts my mother and my first grade teacher Mrs. Trykowsky who had a special area of the chalkboard with my name permanently on it listing how many times I had to stay inside during recess, says “really? here? out in the open?”
And there it is. All of my plans, my careful analysis of the situation, all turned to dust. To sand that has not been peed on.
“Why can’t you just go to the porta potties right over there” she whispers, pointing with the same finger she used for the ‘come hither’ motion a few seconds prior.
I am, once again, thwarted. But I do not capitulate. I do not say sorry, I do not, in fact, say anything at all.
I storm off like a small child, age three or so, temper tantrum in full swing.
I hear Helen say my name, but I do not turn back.
I then hear her say one more thing which I can’t hear because of the waves and also because she’s whisper screaming it in my direction. All I hear, distinctly, is the word “sex”.
I walk right past the scene of the ‘crime’ — the seawall — and right past a family that was heading down the steps onto the beach (I had not noticed them earlier though upon a quick inspection I am sure that they would not have minded seeing a man, turned away from them, peeing into the sand).
I huff and puff my way toward the porta potties, livid about what has just happened. My agency, my freedom! Oh where oh where could they be?
My family came to this country to pee where we wanted. Now look at us.
What do I do next? Go to the porta potty like a good boy because Helen my mother told me to? No sir.
I storm through the EMPTY FUCKING PARKING LOT that no one can park in and realize that this vacation is a haunted hellscape, each joy hiding within it a dark secret that will ruin your day.
Fuck it. I walk toward some bushes at the far side of the parking lot closest to the steep hill up to the PCH, and I pee. Into the bushes.
And for a second, then and there, I am free, for I have not peed into the portapotty like a boy but into the bushes, like a man.
The joy does not last. Though I have rebelled, I am not happy.
And so I keep walking, further from our tent, past the portapotties to the giant rocks separating this beach from another beach further down the way.
I walk back onto the sand and there, once more, the waves. They rise, they crash. We live, we die.
I kick up the sand like I’m in a loser in a cartoon, and then I walk back toward our tent.
Approaching our beach tent, I see Helen, our baby and our dog.
Helen and I stare at each other. A game of chicken. First, we apologize to one another with our eyes, even if we don’t really know what for. Embarrassed smiles, then we speak.
“What were you saying as I walked away?,” I ask.
“I was saying that I’m pretty sure — no I know for a fact - that peeing in public will get you put on the sex offender list,” she replies.
I laugh. “That is definitely not true,” I reply, not sure at all whether its true.
“Yes, Hank there are kids around and if you pull out your dong in front of kids and someone reports it, you’re now a registered sex offender.”
“No one would have reported me, babe,” I say, exasperated. I thought we were in the resolution phase but this? This is not good.
“You don’t know that! You were right there, in public, not hidden at all from anyone,” she says.
“I was gonna do it at an angle where no one would see!” I say.
“There were people coming down from the stairs who would have seen you.” she responds.
“They weren’t going to report me!” I say back, and I realize there will be no end to this.
She gives a bottle of milk to the baby.
And that’s when I play the ace up my sleeve: “Well. I didn’t even pee in the portapotties. I peed in the bushes over there.”
I wait to see how this bombshell would shake Helen to her core. But it doesn’t. She seems unphased.
“I knew you wouldn’t,” she says, not even looking over at me.
And so it goes. Slowly, surely, we recalibrate, morphing back from two teams of one into one team of two. At best, this is what long term love can be — a proclamation that says ‘yes, everyone on this earth is batshit, but you seem like the least batshit, so let’s stick together and laugh about how insane everyone else is.”
But here, this fight, we had become each other’s unintelligible craziness. I made no sense to her, nor she me.
“I need to break rules sometimes,” I say, like a five year old.
“I know Hank, I just don’t want you to become a sex offender,” she explains. We’re looping again.
“I wouldn’t — “
“What will our son do if he can’t go within fifty feet of his dad?”
“Everyone pees on the beach! In the water, everyone is peeing does that mean I could report them all as sex offenders??”
She pauses a second, considering, then, “No because they don’t have their dicks out for the world to see! If a guy stood in the shallow water holding himself then yes without a doubt that man would be a sex offender, yes.”
Another moment. Our baby son watches all this, observing, taking it all in.
He will experience a lifetime of these spats throughout his childhood. They will shape his idea of conflict, of relationship, of love. And this might just be his first. A fight about whether dad is a sex offender. I make a mental note to write this all down somewhere so that he may one day read it and share it with his therapist. It’ll save him some money to be able to just give her a written record of what transpired.
I make another mental note to write down brief reports of all the dramatic moments in his life and, when he turns 18, provide them to him in a leather-bound book. “Within these pages are all the struggles of your little world. Give it to the best therapist you can find and, god willing, within a few years you will be free of whatever it is we have done to you.”
This act, I realize, in and of itself would then be what he talked to his therapist about.
There is no winning, as parents, but alas.
the type of notebook I would hand my son with all his trauma once he turns 18
I look at Helen and say, “The thing that really got me was the one finger ‘come hither’ motion. You seemed like my mom.”
“I know,” she says, “I’m sorry.”
“It’s ok,” I say, though I don’t think it was.
We sit in silence a minute, each marinating in our own shortcomings when Helen asks, “Are we doomed?”
We’ve joked about this before — ‘when do you want to get divorced? We should put it on the calendar now.’ etc., but this sounds real. There is genuine fear and it shakes me. I look up in her eyes and say after perhaps a second too long of thinking “no, of course we’re not doomed.”
I spend the rest of the vacation wondering: but are we though? Are we doomed?
Stock photos of couples fighting are a particular slice of heaven
A few days later
We are on a walk with the baby and the dog, back home away from Malibu and its portapotties. We run back through the events of those two days like athletes watching game tape after a particularly painful loss.
She tells me that she knew how high risk the move to bring up being a sex offender was — she knew both that it would piss me off in the moment and that it would make me laugh down the road. In both the comedic and marital spheres, this is a stroke of genius. To create a joke whose punchline will only land later on in the future and that this very punch line will transform the rage, the conflict from that day into something we can laugh about all while also giving her what she wanted in the moment, specifically for me not to pee on the beach but go to the portapotty instead. This is Harry Houdini Inception level shit right here.
I bring up the “are we doomed?” moment, how it really shook me.
She looks at me and says, “yea I mean, for a second there I really did think -’are we that incompatible that this is not going to end up working out?’”
“No,” I respond, convincing myself as much as her, “not at all, like — whoa hey, look at those two sunflowers!”
I point to the two lone yellow orbs sticking out of the green bushes in front of an apartment building.
She turns her head to see this beautiful metaphor and says “Hank, those are fake.”
To which I look and see yes, obviously they are fake. How could there be two flower heads without any stems?
“I know,” I say, lying.
We both laugh, and we walk, two waves not ready to crash back into the ocean just yet.
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Thomas J. Bevin is the dude behind it and I dig his philosophy / approach, and am loving to get to know the people in the cult. They cap the membership at 300 and are already over 250, so if you wanna join you should do it soon! I pay a monthly fee of $8 and in exchange get to hang out with people who seem to like me. If only I coulda had this set up in high school!
im an og i remember