Thomas Wictor

Noreen in the Rat Palace

Noreen in the Rat Palace

I’ve received several queries about Noreen in the Rat Palace. One came from Scott Thunes. So I’ll tell the story.

First, an explanation: Ghosts and Ballyhoo is an art project. It isn’t a memoir per se. Everything in it is true, but I wrote it in order to elicit a certain reaction among readers. I left out far more than I put in. One reason was because of space limitations, but another was that each of the short stories had to stand on its own. I omitted what I deemed superfluous information; in other cases I chose to not include things that I feel aren’t a good fit with this particular art project.

Those of you who’ve read the book have seen that I try to not feel sorry for myself, and I like to make people laugh. That’s why much of my life isn’t for public consumption. The really bad stuff is important only to me. Publicizing it would defeat the purpose of how I intend to manage my writing career. I want to be known as the guy who can make you laugh even when discussing pretty dark themes. There are enough authors out there who just want to shock or get attention for what they’ve experienced. We don’t need another.

One of my brothers wondered why I didn’t write about a girl in high school who broke my heart. Well, she’s not a ghost. There wasn’t much to write about. I was deeply in love with her, but she just wanted to be friends. I got my panties in a wad when she found a boyfriend, and I ended our relationship. It was teenage angst that wasn’t worth putting in the book.

I also didn’t explain that Noreen was a family friend Tim met in London. She befriended my father too, so when she wasn’t hanging out with Tim, sometimes she and Dad had dinner. She was an extremely funny, intelligent, engaging, artistic, attractive person, a former dancer.

My brother Paul moved into the Rat Palace in 1981, after my grandmother Carolina died. One by one all the siblings joined him, either permanently or on an extended temporary basis. Tim had maintained his friendship with Noreen; in fact she was his closest friend. Her family lived in a Southern California city, so after Tim took up residence in the Rat Palace, Noreen was usually there.

Four years ago, I found an undeveloped roll of film in a drawer. It was a quarter-century old but produced stellar images of our lives at that time. Here’s Noreen eating ice cream on the sofa in the fireplace room. I’ve fiddled with it; the original photo is crystal clear.

My parents moved into their final house in 1984, two doors down from the Rat Palace. Noreen became very close to my mother, a closeted rebel who admired free spirits.

The freest of free spirits, Noreen once said to me, “Wanna see how strong my thighs are?”

Sure!” I shouted.

She ran at me and jumped into my arms, wrapping her legs around my waist. The only way to support her was by grabbing her spectacular bottom. Then she crossed her ankles behind my back and squeezed. It felt as though a giant pair of scissors were cutting me in half. I staggered around the room, screaming for her to stop, still clutching her ass as she laughed hysterically.

Another time she and I were the only two in the house, early in the afternoon. She announced that she was going to take a shower. I gulped because the shower in the Rat Palace is as big as a walk-in closet. My mind whirled with lurid fantasies that I knew would never come to fruition. I’d had a mad crush on Noreen ever since I’d met her, but I was acutely aware of how far out of my league she was.

After her shower she stayed in the bathroom a very long time. The wooden floors in the Rat Palace squeak like…well, rats. The only person who could navigate them silently was my father. Maybe he was some kind of Coast Guard commando in 1949. Anyhow, he used to scare us to death by suddenly materializing beside us.

I walked over the squeaky floors to the bathroom to see if Noreen was okay, and she slid open the door. She was naked, her left arm covering her full breasts and her right hand holding a washcloth over her groin. I gaped in wordless stupefaction, being an inexperienced, lapsed Catholic who was fatally conflicted about sex.

Noreen smiled, strolled into Tim’s room—giving me an unobstructed view of her perfect, completely nude bottom—and sat on his bed.

“I have to get dressed now,” she said in a little-girl lisp. “Please close the door on your way out.”

I numbly obeyed. It was the most erotic encounter of my life up to that point. The lack of contact between us made it more potent.

Tim and Noreen had a falling out in 1990 and made amends in 1996. After their reconciliation she invited me to stay the night at her condo. The tenor was “old pals getting to know each other again.” Since we were both adults, she said, there was no reason why we couldn’t sleep in the same bed. That was fine with me; I still remembered the shower incident. After a few minutes under the covers, she told me that she always slept naked.

“Would that bother you?” she asked sweetly.

No!” I shouted.

She took off her clothes, and two seconds later we were all over each other. I didn’t understand why she wanted to be with me, but it was great. For about two weeks. Then it became an absolute horror show of the most vicious personal attacks I’ve ever experienced. What she’d done was apply her training in psychology to draw me out; I’d told her all my fears, all the details of my past, my disgust with my physical appearance, and all my failings and weaknesses. She then used these confessions as ammunition against me.

The three weeks or so that she did this were the impetus for me to seek psychiatric help. I had to find out why I lusted after women who savaged me, and I had to learn how to avoid them. In that sense Noreen did me a big favor. I was terrified of therapy. Being psychically disemboweled for the fourth time made me accept what I’d denied for thirty-four years: I had a major malfunction that had to be addressed.

To Noreen it was only a game. She wanted to see if she could hurt someone deeply enough that he’d commit suicide. A fantastic movie that nobody ever talks about is Tales of Manhattan, about a tail coat that brings bad luck to everyone who buys it. In the first story, Charles Boyer is having an affair with Rita Hayworth. Her husband Thomas Mitchell—a hunter with a massive gun collection—finds out and shoots Boyer in front of Hayworth after toying with him. When Hayworth thinks that Mitchell has just murdered the man she says she loves, she’s utterly turned on.

That’s what my suicide would’ve done for Noreen. It would’ve boosted her ego and made her a sexual funambulist for the next guy. This isn’t supposition on my part. Noreen herself admitted it in an e-mail.

The fact that I never cared about you makes you furious. Why don’t you forget about me and leave me alone in your writing.

Well, page 103 of Ghosts and Ballyhoo describes my actual feelings. At the beginning of my relationship with Noreen, I called Carmen, planning to lord it over her that now I had a new small, dark-haired, multitalented other half. I was going to get my revenge on Carmen for how she drove me away. The second I heard her voice—for the first time in two years—I instantly fell out of love with Noreen. Carmen’s reaction to my call convinced me all over again of what I knew the day I met her: We were supposed to be together.

So I’m not furious that Noreen never cared about me. That call to Carmen made Noreen irrelevant, in a way. Though I tried a few times after Noreen to have relationships with other women, it just wasn’t possible. I was meant to be with one person. Since she and I weren’t able to make it work, I choose solitude. My life is full, I’m happy, I’m already fifty-one years old, and my health is lousy. There isn’t much left in this cycle. I look forward to the next one.

By the time I finished Ghosts and Ballyhoo, I felt that the connection between Carmen and me was finally broken forever. In the past year, I’ve come to know—yes, know—that someday we’ll meet again. I know it the same way I knew her when we were introduced, even though she was a stranger. When I met her on November 6, 1987, I thought, “There you are.” I’ll recognize her again, I’m sure.

As for “leaving Noreen alone” in my writing, I get to write about my life. I’ve taken every precaution to disguise her. Nobody’s holding a gun to her head and forcing her to read what I write. If she doesn’t want me to post her e-mails, she should consider not sending any more.

But that’s the story of how Noreen came to live in the Rat Palace. She was a family friend who at one time was close to us all, especially my mother. We loved her. So she asked if she could come to Mom’s funeral, and Tim said yes.

I’m not angry at her. The Tom-Tom she knew in 1996 died a long time ago. His death was necessary; it was a good thing because he was a creature of rage. I put him to death. Since he went without a fight, Noreen got her suicide after all.

There’s no rage in me. Everything that enraged me is worthless and ephemeral. I can’t spend even a second of the time I have left thinking about it.

Tom-Tom is gone, Mom and Dad are gone, the Noreen I knew is gone, and soon the Rat Palace will be gone. But it sure takes a nice photo, doesn’t it?

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