Sunday, June 12, 2011


Like some morally ambiguous cartoon character, he carried an angel on his right shoulder and a devil on his left. Unlike the proverbial indecisive animation, he carried them at all times, even in the absence of ethical dilemma, and they weren’t adorable miniatures with cherubic faces. They were full size, slightly larger than his own six feet, and while they possessed no earthly mass, they still weighed him down spiritually.

They didn’t look like any popular conception of angels or devils.

The angel had a smooth, flat face, like a white pebble, with water-worn holes for eyes, nostrils, and mouth. Its head, covered in stiff, alar hairs, attached directly to its shoulders like a bird’s, and also swiveled and twisted like a bird’s. Its stick-figure body dangled from the head like strings from a helium balloon, and its wings hung in airy folds, bleached sheets clipped to wiry frames.

The devil looked almost exactly alike, except darker: the crisp and flaking black of a third degree burn. Where the angel had feathery hair, the devil had charred hair shafts. Where the angel had billowy and draping wings, the devil had ragged membranes.

To say that they enjoyed arguing with each other would be an understatement.

If there could be found a moral angle, they would exploit it. Veal, one-night stands, offering ones seat to an elderly woman on crowded public transport: all were dilemmas necessitating a screaming tirade. Even minor matters, such as the purchase of a bottle of water (“Plastic is bad for the environment; consider your carbon footprint” versus “You’re thirsty; you can’t control the packaging; it’s cleaner than tap water, and colder, too”) initiated disputes that could last for hours, long after he had made his choice, until they pounced upon the next ethical dilemma (“You can’t shop there; they underpay female employees and minorities” versus “Corporations make decisions based on feasibility, and have every right to set their own pay scales”).

The nonchalance with which other boys made decisions amazed him. They could skip homework, cheat in math, or hide in the girls’ shower at overnight camp, and appeared not to hear a word of bickering from a pair of moon-faced creatures who insisted upon being carried everywhere.

Was there nothing they could agree on? Clean coal? Small-scale local shrimp farming? Consensual polyamory?

“Too dirty,” sniffed the angel.

“Not dirty enough,” grunted the devil.

In college, he took an ethics class, believing his life experience would translate into an easy A. Instead, he failed, too overwhelmed by the running commentary to focus on lectures, retain textual information, or write a coherent paper. Korean pottery, French cinema, Egyptian history, and Ornithology 101 all proved hot-button topics. Through trial and error, he determined he could graduate only by majoring in pure, theoretical mathematics.

With prodigious application of alcohol, he tuned them out long enough to lose his virginity, but he paid with weeks of debate on the advisability of sexual purity, the ecological impact of condoms, the politics of STDs, and the legitimacy of the sexual revolution. When he got up in the morning, they were fighting. When he went to bed at night, they were fighting. They only interrupted that argument to weigh in on other important matters, such as turning up the heat versus putting on a sweater, paper versus plastic, and exactly how horrible hopping on an unprotected Linksys network really was in the grand scheme of things, but sex proved irresistible and they kept returning that the subject.

“Far beyond physical purity or moral fiber, this is about spiritual cleanliness,” the angel yelled.

“He’s built for sexual pleasure,” the devil retorted. “Denying a natural and healthy release muddies his spirit more than acceptance of his true physical nature.”

“Overcoming the base body is the path to spiritual purity!”

“Spiritual purity is shorthand for total emptiness.”

Earlier in the day, while discussing functional analysis in the library, a brainy and busty blonde had uncrossed and recrossed her legs right in front of him. After six hours of cogitation, he calculated with ninety-percent certainty that she had provided that glimpse of her lacy panties with perfect deliberation. This conviction emboldened him for the first time in his life.

“Why don’t you two just fuck each other already?” he shouted.

“I’d rather fuck a moldy apple,” said the devil.

“I beg your pardon,” the angel said. “I do not fornicate.”

“Whatever,” he said. “You obviously have a thing for each other. You enjoy arguing way too much. You’re overcompensating for your forbidden attraction. You,” he said, pointing to the angel, “get your hands dirty for once in your existence. Learn something about the world you condemn.

“And you,” he continued, pointing to the snickering devil, “get your ass up out of the mud. This will come as a complete surprise to you, but it’s possible to experience pleasure without being a selfish bastard.”

At long last, the angel and the devil fell silent. Instead they both gaped at him, round little mouth-holes open and speechless, dark little eye-divots surreptitiously glancing toward each other and then down to the floor.

“There’s no shame in admitting your feelings,” he said. “Surely you can agree on that.”

“Feelings are dangerous,” the angel whispered.

“Emotions indicate weakness,” the devil grunted.

“Whatever,” he said. “Deal with it. I’m going out. You’re not invited.”

And he brushed the astonished creatures off his shoulders like lint, with such ease that he couldn’t believe he’d never tried before, and he went out of the dorm, texting the brainy and busty blonde.

He did not return to until the next morning, at which time he was a little surprised, but not very, to find the angel and the devil, their faces deeply engaged between each other’s legs. On his bed, of course.

He shoved them to the floor and fell to sleep, scarcely noticing the faint squeaks and growls of pleasure. The next day, they were still at it, seemingly glued into an alchemical knot, and each day thereafter they appeared smaller, lighter, and stiffer, until, by the end of the semester, he was able to hang them on the wall, where they were mistaken for an ethereal and remarkable yin-yang sculpture by a string of women who truly appreciated fine art.