Jeff Phillips: Scissors on a Sailboat


The compulsions started when I was in the 5th grade. Our teacher Mrs. Chapman was coming back from maternity leave, and we had this big banner hanging up above the chalkboard that said “Welcome Back Mom of the Year Contender!” It was a huge sign hanging there and I felt this urge to tear part of it down. Not out of any spite or ill feeling toward Mrs. Chapman, I liked her, she was really nice to me. The paper was so flat, in good condition, and it seemed like it would be so satisfying, getting up there and tearing it. I didn’t because I had a fear of getting in trouble, and that would for sure get me sent down to the principal’s office, so I sat there in class, kind of twitching. I couldn’t focus and felt ill. Mrs. Chapman noticed how pale and sweaty and shaky I was, which is part of what made her great, really noticing us, so she sent me down to the nurse’s office and they called my mom to tell her I was sick.

Sick was one way of putting it. Back at home, when I was supposed to be lying in my bed, I went into my desk drawer, found some construction paper and tore a sheet in half. I felt overwhelmed with relief. I tore another sheet and felt like laughing. The sort of laughter that rises up out of you and makes your chest tingle, your legs rubbery. I tore another sheet, there was a head rush and the air that filled my lungs seemed almost cleaner than any gulp of fresh air. I kept tearing at sheets of paper and my mom heard it from downstairs. She came up to my room, opened the door and found me kneeling, an orgasmic look on my face as I was tearing away and sheet halves of all colors were piled up around me.

They thought I was just being a brat, acting out that day. I didn’t have another urge for 3 years. The next one came when I was in Boy Scouts. We were on a camping trip. I had just gotten a new Swiss Army Knife and they had these tiny scissors. While in my tent one night, trying to sleep, the urge came. My Boy Scout handbook was lying beside me, the only paper stock I had available, so I started in trying to cut the pages. The sound of the snip was even more satisfying than the rip. The Swiss Army Knife scissors worked well when I performed a slow, controlled cut. But as I was getting into it, I wanted to go faster, and that’s when it started to pinch and jam the pages. This was irritating me, I sort of growled, which woke up my tent mate and he saw me attacking the book. He ran screaming from the tent and woke the troop master, telling him he didn’t want to bunk with me anymore, that I was scary.

When I started High School, I quite often felt stressed and this is when I just didn’t give a shit about holding back on these urges. I would bring out a pair of scissors and start snipping paper. I’d be suspended, scissors confiscated, but I’d come back with new ones I had stolen from CVS or Staples. There was one day in particular that was a frenzy. It wouldn’t do to just snip up the paper near me, I wanted to undo every perfect 8×11, or paper of any size, any book, any notebook, and I ran around the room as fast as I could, lunging at anything resembling paper, tearing down the posters on the wall advertising the joys of achievement, because I knew they were bullshit, to feel joy all I had to do was ride these compulsions! It  was hilarious seeing my peers squeal and run out into the hallway. I felt an erection firm up, and the horny throbs increased with a combined crescendo as I cut pages faster and faster and I came in my pants! The school security officer had arrived at this point. He was apprehensive at first sight of me. He didn’t want to deal with this, man, I was dangerous. After the jizz stopped pumping I bent down, overwhelmed with relief, and let the man wrapped around me from behind, grab my wrists and force me to drop the scissors.

I was kicked out of school for good and was institutionalized for several years. They medicated me for my extreme Obsessive Compulsive disorder which washed away the urges. I lost interest in scissors. To pass the time and relax myself, I got really into weaving tapestries, and tying knots, even, I would tie bowlines and square knots for hours. It felt good in a different way. The counselors told me I felt good because I redirected my energies into putting something together, instead of tearing it apart. I think it was mostly because it was a monotonous distraction from the fact that a rewarding activity was missing from my life.

They let me out when I was 22. I lived with my parents for about 5 years, and in my late 20s, because I was doing well, I was behaving, I was regularly taking my medication, they let me live by myself in the big city.

What I liked about the big city was walking around. I’d see these big brick buildings, so well put together. It wouldn’t do to even think about trying to halve one. I had nothing on them. Maybe this was a notion deep down in subconscious but I felt safer because of this, I wouldn’t slip into my old ways and be swarmed with concern again.

When I moved to the city, it was mid-winter. But it was only a few months before spring brought some nicer weather, and as the nicer weather became more consistent, I would take longer walks. I’d walk down by the harbor and the sailboats were starting to frequent the lakeside vista. I’d sometimes take a break from my walking and sit on a bench by the rocks and watch the sailboats pick up speed with the wind gusts.

I started sailing myself one day because I critiqued someone’s knot tying. I was leaning up against a railing by the yacht club’s docks, and there was a gentleman getting his rig ready, and he was struggling to get the square knot tied. After seeing a few failed attempts, I offered to help, and he thanked me. We got to talking for a little bit. He offered me a wine juice box and I accepted. The wind picked up and the gentleman asked me what else I had going on that day. I said you’re looking at it. Then he asked me if I’d like to help, be his crew for the day. I smiled and agreed.

I sailed with him fairly often after that, and developed a taste for wine coolers. He was gregarious, and quite generous, and would buy me sandwiches in the clubhouse after our sails. He was an investment banker, and the things he would talk about, projects he was working on at work, and details of things in the news bored me, but it felt wonderful to be out on the water; tie knots for him. I was good at them. I was quick.

Fall arrived and he had to put his boat away for the season, but he told me to come back around next summer. He had the same harbor space reserved, so just come back around.

Over the course of that winter I had many dreams about sailing. The imagery from this activity had been pressed hard into my subconscious and these urges and fantasies I had to get back out on the water were what my therapist called normal inclinations toward a hobby. We all have things we enjoy and crave. My family thought this was a really healthy thing I was taking on, and often claimed jealousy that I was a sailor, and I would say with a grin and a shrug, “wish I could invite you, but not my boat.”

I didn’t sleep too well when spring arrived. I think it was because the smell of the air made me think it was time for sailing, but boat owners weren’t quite ready. The weather was crummy, we got so much rain that season, so boats were slow to be put in the water, and I started getting these tics, started feeling sort of nervous all of the time. I felt like maybe my sailor friend wasn’t coming back.

One sunny Saturday, he was there, ready to hoist his sail. He called to me and said he thought I had moved away. I said, “No, I’ve been here all along waiting for you to get your lazy ass down here.” He motioned for me to get my ass down on the boat. I did. Coming up from below, in the cabin, was another man, his friend from work, who’d be sailing with us.

His friend’s presence unsettled me. First of all, his friend wasn’t as friendly as him, and he was a damn good sailor. He really knew the ins and outs of sailing. He shooed me away from helping out, said my weight was all that was necessary, go sit on this side. Then he would make us tack into the wind to get pretty far out there, now go sit on that side, and when the land faded, I would feel a slow burn of panic, that we weren’t going back. This friend also talked about their line of work a lot and completely ignored me. My sailor friend from last year seemed to forget I was there too. From his pocket he pulled out a mint tin and sprinkled some white powder on the tiller. Then he would snort it. He’d sprinkle some more and his friend would snort it. They’d take turns. They wouldn’t invite me to partake. I felt incredibly left out, and I became more and more curious about what they were doing. So I invited myself over.

“You want a little nose candy too?” My friend asked.

His friend stiffened and said they didn’t have enough.

“Maybe one line,” my friend offered, asking his friend’s permission.

“Fine, one line,” his friend conceded.

I took a quick snort and felt a burn rip up through my nose and an energy spin around my head. This was the start of my unraveling. The beautiful boat that I had many times now help put together by tying the knots and hoisting the sails, I felt like tearing to shreds. This wasn’t necessarily out of anger toward the intrusion of this new friend. I had this feeling the sail would look even more beautiful if it was fluttering as little white squares, scattering in different directions, swooping down to the lake where it would be wetted and consumed.

When we tacked to head back in, we were going down wind, and his friend hoisted a large orange spinnaker. The wind filled it. The robust concave inner half of a filled balloon and I got a boner thinking about taking a pair of scissors and reaching up through the middle of it.

I didn’t have any scissors. There were marine knives below deck I thought about, but I held it together that time. I sat where his friend wanted me sit.

We docked and unrigged. I asked if we were getting sandwiches but they both replied that they had to get back to the office for a cocktail party. Maybe next time.

I came back down the next afternoon and found the two had already left the dock, they were cruising out past the breakers. I tried shouting and waving.

“You forgot me!”

But they didn’t hear me. They went out far on the lake and I sat on the bench and watched. I watched them return with that big orange spinnaker, but I ran off before they got close to the docks because I was feeling anxious. I wanted to walk off the thoughts I had of charging the boat, tearing it apart, even ripping the lines and sheets hard with my bare hands until they frayed. Even though I was upset, I still recognized it as a nice thing that he had invited me out in the first place, and I wanted to maintain politeness and consideration as a mode of operating. My years in the institution had driven hard the point that acting out my compulsions was the most selfish thing I could do, and selfishness was a bad trait to have. I needed to walk amongst the big brick buildings some more and remind myself I was powerless, so why try to be a big bad destroyer.

I went back down to the docks a few days later, saw his friend on the boat, so I approached it, but his friend grabbed something from a compartment on the deck and then hoisted himself back up to the dock.

“What’re you doing here?” He asked.

“I was coming to go sailing with you guys.”

“Not going sailing today.”

“ Oh. Well, what’re you doing here then?” I asked.

“I forgot something here.” He tapped my shoulder with a light fist. “What’s it to you?”

“Nothing. I just wanted to go for a sail.”

“We’re going out tomorrow,” he said. “Maybe you can come too.”

The maybe he said was a dagger. These sails used to be a given. Now this friend of my friend was dangling hesitant approval over me.

I felt like even the big brick buildings could come down. Without even thinking, I went into an Ace Hardware and bought a rather large pair gardening shears.

The next day I returned to the docks. Both my friend and his friend were actually welcoming. They seemed happy to see me, but it didn’t matter because I had this compulsion stirring in me all night. The lack of sleep made this compulsion harder to suppress. I had the scissors tucked inside my pants, at my hip, my t-shirt covering their handle. They were ready. The heat of the compulsion kept rising as the sun beat on my neck and the wind puffed smooth any wrinkles in the sail.

When the white powder was sprinkled on the tiller again and I was invited to enjoy the first line, it was all over. The pleasure centers in my brain lit up and the scissors came out. The men looked at me and asked what I was doing. I pointed it at my friend and told him to jump over board. He stepped back a little, but laughed. His friend tried grabbing my arm but I spun around and stabbed his hand. Then I sunk the sharp tip of the scissors into his belly. I turned back to my friend and started swinging the scissors at him, He walked backward, started tripping over a cooler, and as he looked down at his feet to see what was going on, it gave me a good opportunity to give him a hard shove. He went over the stern, splashing down into the wake.

The friend of my friend wasn’t going to be a challenge to me. He was seated now, holding his bleeding gut, looking sick. I thought about just letting him bleed out, but I didn’t want him judging me and I didn’t like the look of blood stains on the deck. I charged at him and knocked him overboard, too.

The tiller had an automatic stabilizing mechanism which allowed me to hold my course, running with the speed of the steady afternoon wind.

The next few minutes were the hardest because I wanted to do what I intended to do but also wanted to gain some distance between me and my discarded friends before taking the wind out of the sails. I held out as long as I long could, but felt like I was going to burst, so I went for it. I stabbed the blades into the sail and it pierced the canvas. I quickly resituated my blades to pinch the fabric and snipped, a big grin gushing on my face. I reached up as high as I could to cut the main sail and there came a loud whistling as the wind flapped the two new edges.

Then I went for the main sheets and the boom banged back and forth. I ducked down and laughed, looking up at what I had done. Then I snipped the main halyard and the rig came crashing down beside me.

I drifted around for the better part of the day until the marine police found me. But they never found my crew.

A little memory snuck to mind during my first night in jail. I was maybe 4 years old. At pre-school. I was down on the floor coloring with a playmate. Another kid crept up from behind and towered over me. He stepped down on my sheet of paper. He pressed it down and I tried to pull the paper free.  This went on for a few minutes; he was standing his ground and I was tugging. Then he ran off, leaving the dirty outline of his shoe over my marker etchings of a boat. Something gnawed at me that day. What occurred to me, as I turned that memory over in my head decades later, is that as hard as I was trying to pull my paper away from his foot that was trying so hard to pin it to the floor, the paper’s corner should have torn off as a crumpled little sliver. And why, I wondered, didn’t my playmate stick up for me?



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