One Day it Dawned on Him

A story about identity.

Jay threw him across the room. Luckily Dorn didn’t get too busted up. It just made a racket as he knocked over a small table with some “family” photos of the couple and their friends. He was uncannily lucky that way. Rarely ever got hurt. The impact surprised and shocked him at first, but then felt kind of good, tingly all over. He felt like he’d just awakened from a dream.

Dorn’s whole life he’d gotten what he wanted, done what he wanted, gotten away with almost anything he did. For a few seconds now, he felt he’d arrived at the station, actually stopped in the middle of the room, instead of passing by on the train, while others had to stay behind and live their lives slowly and deliberately.

He was good at almost anything, and popular as well. Since he improved any situation with his presence, most people thought he was there just for them. And that was true. He liked pleasing people, but it wasn’t really him. Alone, he was lost. He needed something to match, something to adorn, in order to be something himself.

He took this jolt from Jay to be a sign. Someone had been watching, and now he was in for it. But that didn’t happen. Jay apologized profusely, and Dorn again had the upper hand.

Just like always.

They had quarreled before, but only when things got too strained for Jay to remain physically passive, which was work for him. He was a man of raw emotion, not a lot of detail. That’s why Dorn loved him, because Jay wasn’t like him. Dorn had complex emotions, but he hid behind the detailed analysis game, picking apart an event, looking at things objectively, until he convinced himself, and almost anyone else, that he was right.

“It’s tough being a chameleon” he thought. “No one understands you because they can never really know you. And even you can only guess what your next move will be.” Dorn used to have a dream where he was in a play and forgot his lines. We’ve all had that dream. But he’d learned to make them up as he went, and pretty soon, just flowed into any situation as if he created it.

While Jay retreated, Dorn sat there on the floor, thinking. He could just keep going with the flow, the usual, and use the new power he had over Jay to get more out of him, or he could try something new. He opted for newness, which didn’t surprise him. Dorn thrived on chaos. It’s so pregnant with possibility.

After a pleasant night out for dinner and Mozart’s Don Juan, they had bickered about his tendency to forget Jay’s birthday, or any other important day for him. He tried to remember, but couldn’t see why is was such a big deal. This time he got defensive. Dorn told him he’d have to get used to it, to anything he did, without recourse. After a venomous exchange, Jay’s animal temper flared, and he picked up Dorn and sent him flying.

In a strange, masochistic way, Dorn hoped for another pounding. The first one woke him up, so the second might enlighten him. What happened next blindsided him.

He went into Jay’s room. They sleep in separate rooms, to keep things more exciting when they fooled around. He was reading a magazine on antique cars, his passionate past time. Jay is a gentle giant, a brute with a heart of a kitten, just Dorn’s type, masculine but malleable, a macho votary.

He’s sprawled across the bed on his stomach, clad in only brown plaid boxers and a tight, white, ribbed tank top. He’s no model to look at, but his strong, modest body emits animal vibes. Dorn couldn’t help but be aroused by his innocent power. And he wanted to be taken now, to be shown who’s boss.

His plan was to tell him he wanted out, to leave him high and dry. Dorn paid for most of what they had and most of the rent, so he figured Jay would do whatever he wanted.

“Hey Jay, I need to talk to you.”

“OK…”, a little too naturally.

“I’m sorry about our fight. I don’t’ know who’s fault it was. I’ll don’t think I got too hurt, by the way. But…I’ve been thinking… maybe it’s best for us to, you know, split for awhile….”



Dorn stood there, like someone who can’t remember his lines.

“Uh, OK Jay. I guess you agree with me.”

Silence. Deafening silence. He’s just looking at Dorn, patiently. But there’s no anger, no hidden confusion, nothing readable. It’s eerie. The silence tells him to leave.

Dorn is stunned. “He’s never done this before. Usually he sees my reasoning and we talk things out, with me doing most of the talking. Usually it leads to great sex. What do I do now?”

At this point he couldn’t lose his pride and tell Jay it was just a ruse to get him in further emotional debt. The only choice was to follow his own twisted plan and move out. Change to fit whatever scene you see yourself in. On to the next scene.

(weeks later)
Dorn calls Jay every day. One thing about him is his stubbornness. If he can figure someone out, he’s over them. If not, he persists until he knows what makes them tick. Jay answers the phone most of the time. If not, he answers when Dorn calls back. He listens, saying little. Dorn talks. He talks about how strange it is for him, being so skilled at fitting in, how easy it is to get lost in that. He tell him of his struggle with intimacy, how important freedom is to him. Jay listens. But he never invites Dorn back.

This continues for months. They speak regularly. Jay is always polite, and listens. Dorn fills the space with his words. He’s barely aware of all he says, since he floats through most words and situations with little memory, just filling up space.

Dorn begins to feel different. He’s never done anything so regularly before. But it comes easily, naturally. Calling Jay is his structure, his meditation. The rest of his day drapes around those 30-some minutes daily talking to Jay. At times, his own circular talking begins to bore him. But his stubborn nature persists in calling. Dorn wants his way. He sees no other option. The scenery shifts through these days, but he feels like he’s standing still.

At the same time, he notices changes in how others around him behave. His co-workers seem to smile more, open up to him. His family tells him he sounds and looks happy, centered, engaged. He begins to see peoples faces as he bustles along busy sidewalks in the drizzly morning rain on his way to work. He sees lots of eyes meet his, unusual for a big city. They aren’t always friendly, but they contact him, pass messages on, maps to treasures, their hidden secrets no one else knows of. One man, who could have been Dorn’s twin, tall and thin, stared passively into him, searching, reading something there, until they passed each other. There was a faint, knowing smile behind his mask.

He begin to wonder if everyone else knows something he doesn’t. It’s as if they are showing him patience and compassion in his vulnerable state. But he hasn’t talked to anyone about it, except Jay of course.

Dorn feels like he’s on that episode of Twilight Zone where the patient wakes up after major surgery to reconstruct his supposedly hideous face, and finds the whole world peopled by hideous faces, while the failed surgery on his “normal” one is considered hideous by them. So they pity him and it drives him insane. Dorn wonders if they are all laughing at him. He feels naked and vulnerable, but keeps blending in. Yet he’s unsure what to blend with.

Jay keeps listening, daily, patiently. Dorn has new respect for him. It seems he’s more of a chameleon than Dorn thought. He changed to fit his situation, to balance Dorn’s manipulative style. He blended into the background just when Dorn thought he had him pinned.

It dawns on Dorn that most people are chameleons, constantly adjusting to those who are presumptuous enough to think they know it all, absorbing their hubris without reflecting it back at them. They smile when they’re sad or lonely, they work hard when they’re tired, they care for loved ones when they’re stressed or depressed, who stay positive when the chips are down. Most people shift identities all the time. Waves of molecules, like the pigments on a butterfly’s wing, adjusting to what’s around them, trying to reflect a brighter light.

Dorn always thought he was the only one. He feels his heart beating as he opens the door to a gray Fall day and steps out onto the orange, mottled sidewalk.

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4 thoughts on “One Day it Dawned on Him

  1. It’s funny- I wanted to scream “Come on Dorn, everybody’s a chameleon” early on in the story. I’m relieved that he figured it out. I am definitely a chameleon right now, as your story shows. I am deathly ill, having caught the malady which kept my kid out of school all of last week, but the child is hungry so I’m out of bed reluctantly cooking spaghetti and checking your blog. What else can I do?

  2. Betty- I think lots of us think our problems or differences are unique, that we’re special or unusual. And because most people act normal even if they don’t feel that way, it’s easy to think we’re really different. The illusion of normalcy becomes the norm. Dorn is a narcissist, and has trouble seeing what others take for granted.

    I’m sorry you are sick. Mother’s work is some of the most heroic, selfless effort in human culture.

  3. Your story reminds me of what it felt like to read a story called ‘The Depressed Person’ (DF Wallace, Prize Stories: The O. Henry Awards 1999) …you’ve illustrated narcissism from the point of view of the narcissist, which is tricky to do successfully, but you’ve pulled it off here (and in the midst of some complicated dynamics, too)–go Garnet!

  4. Jess- I was writing off the top of my head. I like Dorn, and I want to follow his life. I’m curious to see how he deals with life after Jay. Though I may change his name to Clay instead of Dorn.

    I’ll check out the Wallace story. From the review, it sounds provocative. Was my story provocative?

    I’m curious. Did you see the continued reference to the moving train, which he finally exited at the end? Did you notice why I named him Dorn? Did you notice the choice of the Opera they went to?

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