The buzzer in my building works by radio signal. When someone pushes the button, it sends a signal to the receiver in my apartment, which produces a buzzing sound. Unfortunately the people in the next building have the same system, so whenever someone buzzes their door, it rings in my apartment as well. Since I receive so few visitors, I usually assume the buzzer is for them and ignore it.
The only exceptions are when I’m expecting a delivery or when, in the past, I expected a visit from my now ex-girlfriend. When it was her, she would let herself in with the key she still has and I would go out in the hall and wait for her at the top of the stairs.
I liked doing that. I could hear her steps as she approached. When she made the turn one floor below, I would lean over the rail and say, “Hi, sweetie,” and then she would pause and look up and say, “Hi, sweetie” back.
When the buzzer buzzed just now, I imagined it was her and that she somehow knew that I had cried in the shower and that I’d written a haiku for her (for the first five months of our relationship, I wrote a haiku for her each day), and so I hurried into the hall and stood at the top of the stairs and listened for her footsteps.
The stairs were filled with silence. I waited a long time, telling myself that perhaps she standing on the first stair, paralyzed with fear. It was so quiet that I imagined that I would be able to hear her breathing, assuming she was down there. But she wasn’t. I know this for certain because I finally went down and looked. She wasn’t there. I knew this before I went, but I went anyway.
When I returned to my apartment, I disconnected the buzzer.
I peed on myself this morning. It’s not the first time I’ve done this. The way it happens is… there’s this tiny fold on the – fuck, now I have to check – right side of the opening. (I was going to add “from my perspective” but then realized that we always describe a person’s parts from his or her perspective. Inanimate objects work the other way. When we speak of a chair, we refer to the armrest on our left as the left armrest. However, if the chair is animate (as in, say, a cartoon), that same armrest is the right armrest. The distinction seems to hinge on consciousness. If a thing has, had, or commonly develops consciousness (say, a human embryo), or if it represents such a thing (a human doll), we describe its parts from its own perspective, even if no such perspective currently exists (as with a human corpse) or ever could exist (as with a statue of a human corpse).) The fold seals the hole, preventing leaks. It’s a clever bit of engineering. There’s one downside, though, in that sometimes the fold gets stuck shut by a drop of dried semen and the pee has to break through the seal. Thankfully this doesn’t require much force. However, in that split-second of breaking through, the pee sometimes deflects off the half-open fold, resulting in the kind of thing that happened to me this morning.
I assume this happens to most men at one time or another but is simply never discussed, for obvious reasons.
We would take turns reading to each other during sex. When you were the reader, the idea was the keep reading. Whoever read longer without stopping won.
What we read didn’t matter. We even used the phone book once, as a joke.
I don’t think she ever won this game. She wasn’t very good at it. Not that she didn’t enjoy playing. It was the kind of game you didn’t need to be good at to enjoy.
She would often talk during sex – a kind of continuous commentary, like a horse race announcer but more associative.
I would listen less to the words than the feeling. Probably this was always so, but here it was exaggerated.
Sometimes she would type things on my back. She would do this whenever we were lying together and she had her arms around me.
Naturally I wanted to know what she was typing, but I didn’t dare ask, for fear of making her self-conscious. Instead I would try to decipher the words based on the pattern of the touches – a hopeless task.
I had the idea – the dream, really – that she was typing her secret thoughts to me. Things like: “I can’t tell you I love you, because to say that I lose you. I have to pretend I don’t love you so I always have you.”
There were other possibilities – “The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog,” for example – which I preferred to ignore.
There’s something wrong with my email program. It was working fine until I decided to upgrade. Never upgrade unless you absolutely have to.
Everything seemed okay until I received this bizarre email from my ex-girlfriend Barbara. It was an invitation to a party she was having. At first I thought it was just some generic invitation, but once I started reading I realized this couldn’t be true.
The only reason I’m inviting you to my party is because I’m concerned that if I don’t invite you, you’ll hear about from someone else and realize I don’t want you to come. Which I don’t, of course, but I can’t let you know that because it makes me look like a person who was hurt by you, which I am, only I can’t bear for it to seem so. So I’ve decided to pretend I want you to come, when really I’m praying you have the good sense to stay away.
Barbara had never sent anything like this before. It’s not her style. Her style is to pretend nothing happened. So I figured it must have been a mistake, that Barbara wrote it as some kind of therapeutic exercise but got carried away and accidentally clicked SEND. It happens. And if it happened in this case, Barbara must have felt awful about it. To be exposed in this way is her worst nightmare.
The more I thought about this, the sadder I became. You don’t stop caring about someone after a certain number of months apart. And I couldn’t help imagining the moment Barbara recognized her mistake.
It took me a good hour to write a response. I kept typing things and deleting them. My idea was to try to convince her between the lines that her email hadn’t been a mistake, since I hadn’t realized it was a mistake and since my reaction was the best possible reaction to such an email, mistake or not. In the end I was left with just four brief sentences:
I received your email today. More than anything, I appreciate your candor.
Suffice it to say, I will refrain from coming to your party.
When I sent this I believe that I had done a good, caring thing. Certainly I never dreamed it would elicit the reaction it did:
I have an idea, sweetie. Why don’t you bring your new girlfriend along and fuck her on my couch? I think everyone would enjoy that immensely.
Then you can feel bad about it, and tell everyone how badly you feel, particularly since we used to have sex on that same couch.
This was too much. It was as though it had been written by someone other than Barbara. Not that Barbara would never think such things. In fact I’m sure she would. But I couldn’t believe she would tell me about them.
I went into my OUT box to re-read the email I’d sent her, for I thought that maybe I’d said something hurtful between the lines, not intending to.
This was a dead end. My email to her was nothing if not respectful.
Then, after reading Barbara’s email again, I scrolled down, intending to read her original email, the invitation. Right under her latest email, in the place where my email to her should have been, was this:
> If you don’t want to invite me to your
> party, don’t invite me.
> Like I fucking want to come to your
> party. What for, so you can find new ways
> to shit on me?
> It’s only because I’m a fucking idiot that
> I hold out hope that you’ll one day
> treat me like a human being and
> stop blaming me for what was nobody’s
I immediately recognized these sentiments: they were my thoughts on receiving Barbara’s first email. In other words, this was the email I would have sent had I sent the truth. Just as Barbara’s emails were the truth. We had been telling each other the truth, without intending to do so, or even realizing it.
I knew then not to respond to Barbara’s latest email, though lord knows if I did or not.
A woman is sitting too close to me on the J train. There are just nine people in the car, including me and her. I think she’s crazy. She came in and sat down next to me when she could have had a whole row to herself.
With just two stops to go, I’ve decided to wait her out rather than change cars. She’s definitely crazy. When I moved my bag onto my lap, she slid closer, filling in the space. Occasionally she stamps her foot, the left one, hard.
Right now she’s looking at what I’m writing. I’m leaving out letters so she doesn’t understand. For example, the previous sentence reads, “I’m le out lts so sh ds uds.”
A year after leaving high school, I left my family and friends, saying nothing to anyone. No one who knew me had idea where I had gone. I could have been dead for all they knew – and some did come to believe that, or fear it.
When I returned, after six years of silence, my sister was no longer a ten-year-old girl but a young woman. To help me adjust, she gave me photos of herself from the time I had missed. I would place them in a row in chronological order and try to grasp what had happened. But it was no use. To me my sister was gone, and this new girl, the grown one, had come in her place.
Several readers responded to my failed attempt to steal a duck sign by saying that stealing is wrong. Although these emails didn’t surprise me, my reaction to them did. But before I get to that, here’s a quote from one of the more forceful and articulate emails, written by Jay Perkins:
Presumably the duck sign is there for a reason, maybe so people are alerted to the presence of ducks and don’t run them over? I guess you feel it’s more important to satisfy a juvenile urge than to respect or care about the lives of defenseless animals, whose only protection on that road is said sign.
Besides which, it’s not yours to take. Taking something that doesn’t belong to you is called ‘stealing’, and whether you get caught or not, ‘stealing’ is morally reprehensible, especially for such unnecessary and idiotic reasons as yours appear to be.
From your picture, you don’t look like an eight year old, so you might try not acting/thinking like one. Grow up.
I was at Rachel’s when I read this. I had meant to check if a certain client had written and then jump in the shower, but instead I found myself mesmerized by Jay’s email. I began various responses to him, one after the other, deleting each.
Soon Rachel appeared and asked why I was sitting at her computer in my underwear. I showed her Jay’s email. In short order she voiced the same arguments I had previously deleted, in more or less the same order. And on each point I knew she was wrong. What she was doing, and what I had done earlier, was scrambling for justification of her own self-serving behavior.
The most interesting part was how Rachel’s tactics mirrored my own. Evidently there are exactly four defenses one can use in such situations:
- Diminish the wrong
- Attack the accuser
- Defend your character
- Divert responsibility
Of course Jay Perkins was right: stealing is wrong, particularly when one steals for “unnecessary and idiotic reasons.” And it doesn’t matter that one’s accuser is a jerk or that little harm comes from the theft or that one is fundamentally moral. It’s still wrong. When Rachel asked me to help steal the duck sign, I weighed the wrong against my desire to play hero, and I decided to play hero. It was a purely selfish decision. I make such decisions all the time and for no other reason than that I want to.
When pressed to defend my actions, I invariably resort to the four-point approach listed above, which I have just now dubbed the four horsemen of justification.
Of course I’m not just speaking about duck signs. The same arguments used to justify the theft of duck signs are used to justify the destruction of the planet. We do what we want, pretty much, then find reasons to justify it.