I knew I would be able to have relations with Todd’s mom moments after Todd introduced us. She would give me “extra” looks when Todd wasn’t looking, and she said things that let me know that all she needed was a thumb up to start the proceedings. If Todd’s mom was attractive, my humility wouldn’t permit me to write such a thing, but there was a reason that a forty-something female made it clear that her intentions with her son’s twenty-year-old friend were not honorable, and most of the reasons had more to do with her marketability than mine.
Todd’s mom wore a frayed, yellow T-shirt that said something along the lines of “smell the magic” with an arrow pointing downwards. Her hairdo led the observer to believe that she had spent quite a bit of money on oils, and a considerable amount of time curling. I wasn’t able to determine if either of these enhancements were natural or not, but judging by her overall appearance I made an educated guess that the woman hadn’t been to a beauty salon since Gorbachev stepped down as General Secretary. She also had a “What are you looking at?” expression on her face that led one to feel an apology might be necessary, in the introductory phase, until it could be determined that this was her natural expression.
Todd’s mom was the first parent I met that didn’t have puritanical notions about underage drinking, smoking pot, and premarital sex. She was a free spirited type. She was open in her disregard for the conventions of our constrained society. Todd’s mom was the first cool parent I ever met, in other words. She was so cool that she offered to drink and smoke with us once she was off work. After she extended that offer, and Todd gauged my reaction to it, the mother shot me an “extra” look that told me “those pants of yours will be coming off!” A full-grown woman hadn’t been attracted to me at that point in my life, so it was quite a turn on, even though there were things going on with her that my young mind could not yet process.
She also said snarky, bitter things that slipped beyond my definition of cool to that dreaded arena that no adult can escape of trying too hard. This cynical bitterness did not cause her to name her only begotten son Todd, I’m quite sure, and I do not believe that his mom’s near palpable hatred of men had anything to do with her giving her only son a life of misery with a name. I’m sure she just liked it.
Most people don’t consider it possible to curse a child with a name. Even a person with an odd, one syllable sound attached to their identity is not cursed, naysayers might add, not in the manner you suggest anyway. A child can go onto achieve great things as an adult, no matter what their name is, look at Aldous Huxley. They can gain acceptance among their peers, they can be happy, and they can escape anything put before them. A name is a trivial concern in the grand scope of things, is something they might say. Contrarians might admit that there are names out there that could cripple a child, such as those names that rhyme with body functions, but how many parents would set out to cripple their child in such a manner?
And then there’s Todd. Todd is not a cruel name you say. It’s a common male name in American society today that dates back to a medieval period in England. It means fox, as in clever or cunning. We all know a number of people named Todd, and we might not consider them they’re cursed in the manner being suggested, and we might think there’s no such thing as boxing a kid into some sort of predestination by giving him a name. The very notion is irrational. Most of those that say such things, I challenge, are not named Todd.
When I first met Todd, I thought he was an idiot. That assessment was unfair, of course, because I based the thought on the sound of his name. Yet, when I learned that Todd couldn’t tie his own shoes, I considered that a bit of a stretch beyond my initial assessment.
“Come On!” I said, “He’s nineteen!” I was a naïve twenty-year-old that was not difficult to fool. I didn’t know that at the time, of course, but I sensed a certain susceptibility I had that I knew I would have to expend effort to defeat. Even with that though, I thought this idea they were trying to sell me was beyond the pale.
This revelation occurred when Todd asked his girlfriend, my friend Tracy, to tie his shoes. I joked that I considered that an excellent domination technique that I would consider exploring the next time I was around my girlfriend. That stopped the room. If Todd considered it funny, he didn’t show it. He feared Tracy in the manner a lamb will fear a border collie, and she wasn’t even smiling a polite smile. She had a “Don’t go there!” glare on her face. My initial thought was that that glare had more to do with the “domination” theme of my joke, and I felt a little guilty, because they knew my girlfriend. My girlfriend was Tracy’s best friend. This guilt ended for me when I convinced them I was joking. The cloud continued to loom over us, however, until I realized that this “Don’t go there!” glare had less to do with my joke, and more to do with a subject that began to gather so many elements in the silence that followed, that I began to feel trapped in it. I thought that I had tripped some kind of wire that would reveal domination techniques, or some sort of sexual peccadillo that I didn’t care to explore with them, and their continued silence suggested they were ready to share if I was ready to hear it. I thought that I may have placed them in the uncomfortable position of having to reveal details of their relationship that I might have to fight Todd over, until Todd broke down and told me the story of how he never learned how to tie his shoes.
Todd did not reveal this story. I had to prompt the revelation. That prompt arrived after I tired of the tension between us and said:
“So, if you don’t know how to tie your shoes,” I said believing the shoes were symbolic of a greater story that I might regret opening. “Why would you buy tennis shoes that have shoe strings?”
The answer to this question was “a funny story”. The funny story involved a loving mother purchasing Velcro and slip on shoes for her son throughout the entirety of his youth. It involved that rebellious, young man finding it a way to break the shackles of a mother’s hold with the first paycheck he had earned. The funny story involved the shoe store attendant tying the shoes for him, and Todd walking around the store, saying, “I’ll take them” with the pride that so many young people experience with their first, individual purchase. It involved that young man arriving home for the night and preparing to take those shoes off for bed, as he had on every other night. The funny story involved Todd’s realization that once he untied those shoes for bed, he would never be able put the shoes on again without assistance, and it ended with Todd sleeping in his shoes that night.
I was the only one in the room not laughing.
“It was like buying a sweater with a stain on it,” he said to expound on the funny story. “And you don’t see the stain until you get home.”
As a younger man, I sought out the weaknesses of my fellow man to use against them should the situation arise. There is some information, however, that goes beyond the typical malleable information that one can tease into mockery and ridicule, and it wasn’t just that Todd never learned how to tie his own shoes. If that had been the case, I would’ve used this information without giving it a second thought. It was the whole backstory. It was the whole idea that Todd had a mother that did things that prevented him from learning, until he needed another strong woman to help him deal with the consequences of it by tying his shoes for him. It was so funny that it went beyond funny to a little sad, and it achieved such an exaggerated point of funny that I never used it against him. Even when Todd joined with a bunch of fellas engaged in a round of competitive, good-natured ribbing against me, I could’ve said, “What are you talking about? You can’t even tie your own shoes,” I didn’t use this information. It wasn’t as if I had this ammunition at my disposal either, because I somehow forgot about it in that moment. I forgot about it, because I chose to forget about it, because I wanted to be friends with Todd, and if a guy wants to be friends with another guy they have to block some things out of their head.
That was all later. In the moment, with Tracy tying his shoes, I found myself trapped between not wanting to pursue this matter and this almost ingrained need to have answers to questions that I did not want to ask.
“How did you get out of the first grade without tying your shoes at least once?” I asked. “Don’t teachers have to check a box before you can get out of the grade?”
The answer to that question was another funny story that led to details involving a mother’s desire to protect her son by continuing to purchase slip ons and Velcro for her boy, regardless what her boy’s teachers told her to do. I had more questions, but I feared that they might involve answers that might lead to other revelations about a single mother’s stubborn attempts to protect a son that bordered on neglectful. I realized, then, the full import of Tracy’s “Don’t go there” glare, and I shut the curiosity switch off. I kept that switch off for much of my friendship with Todd, and I even defended him against the ridicule from those trained to go after another’s weaknesses in a manner similar to Pavlov’s dog, until I learned of Todd’s lifelong fear of cotton.
“Oh, Come on!” I said. I was naïve as I’ve explained, and I had had some difficulty coming to grips with certain characteristics I learned about the various Todds I’ve met, but I now had to deal with the idea that one of them was afraid of cotton? It was the second “Come on!” hurdle that our friendship would have to cross. Todd and I had to work through the fundamentals of his fear. We established the fact that Todd had no fear of towels, for example, and he wasn’t afraid of the 50% of my shirt that wasn’t polyester. Todd feared unmanufactured cotton and cotton balls, such as the cotton that aspirin companies put atop their tablets to preserve them. It was what they called an unexplainable fear. A type of fear that called for a strong woman to step in and defend.
“Who has unexplainable fears?” Tracy asked me. “Everyone does!” she answered. “That’s what fear is … an irrational, emotional reaction. Can you explain all of your irrational fears?”
“Yes!” I said. “Yes, I believe I can!”
When no one said anything in this space, I continued.
“I have an irrational fear of heights,” I said. “But I believe I fear falling more than I do being high up. Whether it’s a learned behavior, or primal instinct, I’ve learned that hitting the ground at a high rate hurts, and that it could end up damaging something that I enjoy using, and I’m not just talking about reproductive organs here. I’m talking about arms, and legs, and brain matter, and if you have a problem with that, you’ll have to take it up with my brain. My brain is the epicenter of self-preservation. It has learned, over the years, and through the many mistakes I’ve made, to use the emotion of fear to prevent me from harming myself, in the manner falling from on high might, and I think my brain has been doing a damn good job thus far.
“I do accept the premise that most fears are irrational, and they can provoke emotion explanations that can be difficult to explain,” I continued. “But if you are arguing that my fear of falling and Todd’s fear of cotton are to be placed on equal ground, someone is going to have to explain to me how a brain, that I can only assume is equipped with all the same tools as mine, and is undamaged, can convince a person that a ball of cotton presents a danger to a person equivalent to falling.”
I wasn’t sure if the silent reaction I received was one of them not knowing what to say, but I decided that I wouldn’t have to pound the point home by listing off the numerous experiences I had had with paraplegics that had assumed their condition based on falling. I wouldn’t need to recount the number of fatalities that had resulted from falling, and I wouldn’t need to compare those numbers against the number of people maimed or killed after an episode with a cotton ball. I wouldn’t need to go into these numbers, because I made my point. I wasn’t the type that engaged in verbal touchdown dances anyway, because I knew that doing so made a fella look bad in front of his girlfriend. So, I was fully prepared to allow the matter to die right then and there, no harm no foul, until I remembered that I had a cotton ball in an aspirin bottle in my medicine chest.
I was old enough to know that refraining from anything that might make a man look bad in front of his girlfriend should be the goal of any man that wants to remain friends with another, but I was still young enough to follow my impulses.
I hoped that I hadn’t followed my usual routine of throwing the cotton ball out the minute I opened an aspiring bottle. I hadn’t. I was so excited at the prospect of having a moment that I smiled anxiously when I discovered that I hadn’t thrown the cotton ball away. I knew this would be an obnoxious moment, and I knew Todd’s feelings would be hurt by it, but when you’re twenty-years-old these considerations take a back seat to having a moment that you believe will be so hilarious that it could be historic.
I was so anxious that when I grabbed that cotton ball, I spilled aspirin all over my bathroom counter. I didn’t even bother pick them up. I thought timing was of the essence, and that I could pick the tablets up later. I raced towards Todd and Tracy with the cotton ball dangling from fingertips, saying, “Ooga Booga!” Ooga Booga were not the words I incorporated into my ritual of striking fear in others. I reserve other exclamations for that purpose, but I felt Ooga Booga captured what I considered the perfect hybrid of comedy and horror. I would reminisce about the decision to enhance that “Ooga Booga!” later, and I would think about how I made what I considered the perfect “Ooga Booga!” face to frame the moment, but all of the decisions I made, at the time, were impulsive.
“Dude! Dude! Don’t dude! For the love of God DON’T!” Todd said leaning back against Tracy, clutching her in a position that approached fetal.
Todd was the first “Dude!” I ever met. He was the first fella I met that could use the word as a noun, a verb, a transitory verb, an adjective, an introductory declaration, and as punctuation in an interrogatory sentence. I would meet many “Dudes!” later, and I would call them “Dudes” in a derogatory fashion, but Todd was the first.
In the moments preceding the “Ooga Booga” moment, I considered Todd’s fear of cotton to be the equivalent of the much-ballyhooed fear of clowns. A number of people say they have a fear of clowns, and they qualify this with a: “I don’t know why. They’re just creepy.” When the nuts are screwed into the bolts, however, the audience of this provocative joke finds that while most of these provocateurs may be “creeped out” by clowns, they don’t fear them as much as they want their audience to believe. They just want to be the center of attention for a moment.
This “Ooga Booga!” moment revealed that Todd had a vein-straightening fear cotton. He was clutching his girlfriend, he was in a near-fetal position, and when I threatened to put it on his skin, I sensed that he might shriek.
Even with Todd’s reaction, I maintained that this was funny. That did subside somewhat when I considered the idea that unusual fears result from unusual circumstances that can alter otherwise normal thought patterns. I also considered the idea that my “Ooga Booga!” moment may have opened some cavern in Todd’s soul that housed these deep seeded, childhood fears that if explored any further could land him on a psychiatrist’s couch recounting the “Ooga Booga!” moment for the next twenty-five years. If this future event never occurred, we still had to deal with the present predicament I had created by putting Todd in a position where he was all but clawing at his girlfriend to get away from me. We still had to deal with the fact that I brought my party to a crashing halt, and everyone in attendance was now staring, with sympathy, at Todd. I ruined my own party. I ruined Todd in the eyes of those attending the party. I had my moment, the moment I sought when I remembered I had a cotton ball in my medicine chest, but I did feel a little bad about it.
Even after that moment, and all of those moments that occurred before and after the “Ooga Booga!” moment, that would end up further revealing the eccentricities of this man named Todd, girls loved him. He had a special degree of vulnerability about him women loved. He also had eyes those eyes. A pair of crystal blue eyes, I was informed, that could melt a girl. Could one call them dreamy? Why yes, his eyes made him a little dreamy. They could cause a girl to swoon. He also had that hair. I thought he had the same oiled and curled hair that his mother had, but it was blonde. He was a natural blonde. It was a little dirty, and somewhat unkempt, but he fit the mold of one that can get away with all of this.
He was also dumb, and girls like dumb. Now, no self-respecting woman will admit to such a thing, but they love dumb guys. “That’s ridiculous!” is the reaction I receive when I pose this notion to the women I’ve met in my post-Todd life. This reaction is so ubiquitous among women, from all walks of life, that it requires notation. Experience with this subject has informed me, however, that if a guy has all of the ingredients listed above, and he has a way of making a woman feel smarter on top of all that, he’s bound to find himself a resident on “hotty” isle. As long as that guy doesn’t say, or do, anything to tarnish his presentation, they can secure themselves permanent residency, and Todd never did anything to ruin his presentation.
I don’t know many men that would want to follow Todd’s blueprint for landing women, but when those discussions arise among young men looking for the key to becoming what they call a player, I would tell them I witnessed one successful formula firsthand. I inform them that I’m as in the dark as they are on the topic, in general, but I’ve witnessed a real-life asterisk in the equation for them to consider. I tell them about how this man named Todd could work a room of girls without effort. I inform them that I witnessed Todd move from one girl to another without leaving any of them upset in the aftermath. He could have one-night stands with a girl that was not his girlfriend, I would tell them, and the two girls involved would begin yelling at one another at the lunchroom table, without considering the role the Todd –the man that sat between them– may have played in the situation. What I did not tell them, because such things are impossible to relay without knowing the man, is that Todd did all this without considering the true import of his actions.
There was no carefully orchestrated plan Todd had for success with women, in other words. He did not accentuate certain aspects of his personality to appeal to women, and he didn’t work on his faults. He did not, as far as I know, sit around and develop schemes that would land him more women. He was just Todd. When fights would erupt between scorned women, he would play peacemaker at times, and he would do everything a man could do to prevent them from harming one another, but when the smoke would clear Todd would sit between them hoping, with sincerity, that they could all be friends. I’ve tried to explain this anomaly to those that never met him, and they naturally assumed that he was probably smarter, and craftier than I ever gave him credit, if he had as much success as I purport. He did have as much success as I detailed, I say, but he wasn’t craftier or smarter, he was just Todd.
There’s no research, I know of, that concludes that giving a more culturally acceptable name, like Todd, Gil, or Ned, can affect that child’s life in anyway. There is no sociological evidence to suggest that the Todds, the Neds, or even the Gusses of the world, live a life any different from anyone else. If you’ve ever known one of these unfortunate (and I say cursed) individuals, however, you know that there is a fundamental difference about them that they will spend most of their life trying to overcome. Something about their existential existence has been affected by a life lived with an odd, one syllable sound attached to their identity. They don’t all become square pegs in a round hole society composed of more pleasing sounds attached to them, but the preconceived notions those of us have of such sounds grease their slide to the outer layer.
If you enjoyed this piece, you might enjoy the other members of the seven strong: