It all began in December 28, 1987; the world premiere of the very first episode of the very first Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon series. I was six years old, and like millions of other children in my age group, the reptile's first cornball adventure knocked my little socks off. I was a die-hard fan in minutes, and I couldn't wait to play my favorite turtle - Michelangelo - on the playground next school day.
That was precisely how I discovered the problem that has haunted me to this day.
There I was, just a naive six-year-old boy, tearing around the playground with a dozen other kids who all had their favorite character. We had at least five Raphaels, two Shredders, even a Krang, though we hadn't even seen him in the show yet - just his action figure.
But, one by one, the other kids started to look at me weird. A couple of them stopped playing altogether. A couple seemed to run off somewhere.
Only when I found myself in "time out," sobbing, screamed at by a red-faced teacher already notorious for a hair-trigger temper, did the confusion set in.
Real quick: what's Michelangelo's catchphrase? What's that thing he shouts from his skateboard that almost immediately entered the vocabulary of every child from the late 80's to the late 90's?
Those of you as old as I am or cartoon-savvy enough just said "cowabunga," sometimes "cowabunga, dudes."
To this day, I have no idea what these words sound like in any incarnation of Michelangelo's voice.
It's not what I hear. It's not what I ever heard. If I tell you what it is now, you're going to think it's a joke, but I'm sure as hell not laughing. Not after three decades of it. Three decades of being the only human being on the planet who hears something different when the same fictional turtle-man opens his damnable mouth.
It wasn't long before I learned to just never speak of it. To never show that there was anything wrong. To let the grown-ups think it was just me desperately blaming a cartoon for getting into trouble at school.
It wasn't just the cartoon, though.
He said it in the comics. He said it in the commercials. His first electronic talking action figure said it. Even the comics from before the cartoon show, where he wasn't even supposed to say "cowabunga," found a place to work in his now crushingly familiar, alternate slogan, the one nobody else could see or hear. The one apparently just for me.
Naturally, confusion became obsession. I consumed everything turtle-related I could find, hoping to understand, hoping for answers. I let people think I was their #1 fan. Every birthday party was a turtle birthday party. Even when their popularity waned by the end of the 90's, I clung to every scrap of the franchise I could find...but nothing changed. Mikey never said "cowabunga" in my world, and I never found out why.
Then came to the brand new, updated cartoon in the 2000's, and as far as I know, it had completely phased out the whole "cowabunga" thing...but as with the original comics, his "special" catchphrase was still there, waiting for me...and worse than before.
The first time I tuned into the new show, heart already racing, Mikey did something he'd never done before.
He addressed me specifically. He tacked my first name to the end of the catchphrase.
Nobody in the show was named "Jordan."
This continued, almost exactly the same, through nearly every episode. Sometimes, he'd even look directly into the camera. There's one episode where he adds a sly wink.
More of the same from the 2007 CGI movie. Remember that? Not many do. It had its own self-contained continuity and never continued into anything else, swiftly forgotten by the time of the 2012 Nickelodeon series, also in CG.
Mikey still didn't say "cowabunga" in what fans came to call "Nickturtles," but he did say "booyakasha."
So I'm told.
It was in the first of the Micheal Bay film adaptations that things took a turn for the worse. The repellant motion-capture Mikey, with his uncanny quasi-human face, added an entire spiel to his little "trademark." Now it was "That's right, Jordan. You, the Jordan watching this movie, in this theater, the only Jordan in this audience. Any day now, Jordan."
I bolted from my seat.
I should have called it quits then and there. I should have thrown away my collection. I should have stopped frequenting the fandom. I should have stopped giving him the satisfaction.
But I couldn't.
I kept watching the TV series. I kept looking for any more signs or signals directed at me personally.
I even bought the movie on DVD, the day it came out, just to see if there was anything more.
The spiel was different, this time. Now he specified the Jordan watching his new DVD copy, the Jordan sitting alone at home, always so alone, the Jordan on the "cheap looking couch."
He could see me.
Soon, he was talking to me more than ever. The Nickelodeon show warped and rewrote itself to accomodate Mikey's long, bizarre tangents about me, about my life, about what he'd been waiting almost thirty years now to do to me. Soon, it was the only thing the character spoke of when I watched the show, and as always, nobody else saw it.
The worst was when it started to pollute other people. I used to have a pretty good grasp of what the character was supposed to be saying or doing just through wiki synopses, through review blogs, through other fans I carefully spoke to without revealing my little "issues." Not anymore. Now, this private hell, this alternate reality, this curse or delusion or whatever you want to call it, was actually affecting what I heard and read about the series from my fellow viewers. One of my favorite bloggers gave Mikey's latest "Jordan rant" a ten out of ten, and she never even normally used a numerical rating scale. TMNT Wiki suddenly featured an entire page on Mikey's apparent fixation with me, detailing precisely who I was, where I worked and disturbingly intimate details I was sure I'd never shared with another human being. Thank god I still seemed to be the only one able to see or hear any of this.
Then, one day...it stopped.
In a sense.
Suddenly, I could watch the scaly teens without hearing those accursed words. I could read the comics without Mikey berating and threatening me.
I should have been relieved, but my obsession, my terror was only escalated by one maddening new question.
......Where the fuck did he GO?
Michelangelo was simply gone. Gone from the books, gone from the cartoons, even gone from my collection. Every plush doll and action figure I'd amassed out of masochistic fascination had become one of the other turtles, overnight. I could no longer find mention of him online. Nobody knew who I was talking about. It was as if I'd slipped into a reality where there had only ever been three, just three, Teenage Mutant Ninja turtles. Well, three except for that one time they added Venus DeMilo, the much-reviled "female turtle" I never thought was that bad, personally. At least she never threatened me.
Had I truly just spent three wasted decades of my life living in mortal fear of a character not only fictional, but completely concocted by my own mind? Was I that fucked up?
It wasn't long before I stopped going into work. I stopped talking to friends. I barely got out of bed. My reality had crumbled. My incredibly ridiculous, stupid, pathetic reality in which I'd been tormented since childhood by the imaginary words of a cartoon animal.
What else wasn't real?
Was I real?
Did life matter?
All these thoughts, this entire twisted life story, playing and replaying in my head as I stare up at the ceiling, inhaling the stink of sheets I haven't changed in months.
A knock at my door.
Another old coworker checking to make sure I'm alive.
I drag myself from bed, sticky with days of old, dried sweat since I last bothered to shower.
Another, louder knock.
I attempt to assure my visitor that I'm coming. All that comes out is a grumble.
Knocking becomes banging. Urgent. Desperate.
I stagger to my front door, turn the knob, and pull.
Somehow, I'm not even shocked by the figure on my front porch. Big. Green. Smiling.
We stare at one another for what feels like an eternity before he speaks, and I already know what he's going to say.
Those same old words. Those same five words I repeated on that playground in 1987. Those same five words that I and apparently I alone in all the world have heard from every iteration of the fictional character, Michelangelo, across every medium in which he has ever appeared, for thirty continuous years.
He says them as loudly, enthusiastically and cheerfully as ever, the same tone that I'm sure he's supposed to be saying his "cowabungas" or his "booyakashas" or whatever the hell else the rest of you are hearing.
"I'LL BITE YOUR DICK OFF!"
I know, Mikey. I know.