Doug was hired to paint and varnish our apartment. He lives in the apartment above us and is otherwise unemployed. The first time we spoke, he told me that he’s hoping to secure a writing position at Harvard, only they have repeatedly refused to grant him an interview.
Doug is the most earnest person I’ve ever met. Each day when he arrives, he carefully explains what he intends to do that day and how long each step should take. Whenever he needs to use our phone, he tells me who he’s calling, approximately how long the call will take, and in what way the call is related to the painting and varnishing of our apartment.
Today, apropos of nothing, he announced that he likes music, particularly classic rock. The only kind of music he doesn’t like is country and western.
“Are you a music lover?” he asked.
“Yes, I am.”
“What about classic rock? Do you ever listen to classic rock?”
“Now and then,” I said. “More so when it was released.”
“I learned a bit of classic rock trivia you may find interesting. It concerns the Led Zeppelin song ‘Going to California.’ Do you know it?”
“Would you care to guess who it was written for?”
“Joni Mitchell. Led Zeppelin wrote a song about Joni Mitchell.”
Yesterday Doug told me that he’s written a screenplay about the first woman director in Hollywood. He sent off a slew of query letters about it, but has yet to back from anyone, despite the fact that the director – whose career declined to the point that she was directing Brady Bunch episodes – recently died. He asked if I’d be interested in reading the screenplay, and I said sure, thinking I really would be interested in reading it, if only to see what such a deadly earnest person would write.
I’ve now known Doug for five days. Today is the first day I saw him without his painter’s cap. It turns out he’s balding in a particularly unattractive manner, his hairlessness describing an upside-down U. When I saw this I felt a pang of compassion. Here is a man who hasn’t been able to get an interview at Harvard, whose query letters have gone unanswered, who is earnest to point of absurdity, and who, I now discover, is losing his hair in a particularly unattractive manner.
The day I met him, he told me a story about a woman he encountered in a bar the previous night. He’d been sitting in the bar for some time and had already had three or four beers when the woman walked in and sat next to him. They struck up a conversation. She said she was waiting for a friend. This friend never showed, if indeed she existed, and Doug and the woman bought each other several drinks.
They made a date for the following night and Doug made her promise she was going to keep it. He told her that he’d been stood up in the past and had come to doubt what women told him. At this the woman leaned over and kissed him on the mouth. “Okay, I believe you,” he said, and they kissed again. It had been a long time, he said, since anything like this had happened to him.
I intended to ask him about the woman the next day, but five days have gone by and I still haven’t asked. I’m afraid she stood him up.
The procedure was simple. One of us would write down everything said by the other, including all the ums and ahs, over the course of twelve minutes. Then we would switch roles.
The one speaking was called the speaker, and the one writing was called the scribe. The process itself was called scribing, and the thing produced, a scribe.
The scribe had a watch, and at two minutes to go would say, Two minutes. It was one of few things the scribe was permitted to say. The others were begin, end, repeat, pause, continue, and ten seconds. Pause was said when the scribe needed a moment to catch up. Repeat was said when the scribe hadn’t heard something clearly. When ten seconds remained, the scribe would say ten seconds.
The speaker could, and did, say absolutely anything.
The scribes were written in special notebooks, one scribe per page, with the date in a certain place and the text beginning at a certain place. We each completed one scribe a day for several years. We never missed a day, even when we were fighting. One time I was so mad at her, I said nothing for twelve minutes. That scribe just has the date at the top.
When we broke up, I photocopied all the scribes and gave her the original notebooks.
Later she got together with a bodybuilder and soon became a bodybuilder herself. Now she’s in the Women’s Martial Arts Hall of Fame, I’m not sure for what. She’s still in touch with my mom.
As to the scribes, I just discovered that I threw them out. I’m a fucking moron.
The outfits worn by the waitresses resemble togas, except they’re nothing like the togas you imagine on Romans. For one thing they don’t even go halfway down the thigh. Plus, and this is the main thing, they’re just as skimpy on top – so skimpy they barely cover the waitresses’ breasts. The togas (one wonders how they do this) make the breasts protrude on top so that it seems like the breasts are about to spill right out of there.
Also there’s a man in the men’s room who hands you a towel. He has a pile of fluffy white towels and all he ever does is hand them to you. You come in and pee and then, just so no one thinks you don’t do this, you wash your hands. This is when he hands you the towel, the moment you’re finished rinsing.
Obviously he’s watching you, how else does he know when it’s time? Probably he has it down to where he doesn’t start watching until after you reach for the soap, or probably some later point such as when you start rubbing your hands together. Or maybe he never actually watches what you’re doing with your hands but instead looks for some subtle movement of your hip or shoulder that tells him it’s almost time.
On the wall next to him is a paper towel dispenser, but hardly anyone uses it because of how rude that would be. Probably most people would prefer the dispenser, but since the man with the towels is right there and since it’s obviously his job to be there, they play along and take the towel even if they think it’s ridiculous.
What a job, to hand people towels they don’t want and never asked for.
On the other hand, at least he gets to wear a half-decent jacket, while the waitresses are stuck wearing the least amount of clothing possible. This is because the waitresses are there to be looked at, in particular their breasts are, whereas the man in the men’s room is a kind of invisible person, so he’s wearing the sort of jacket that makes him as invisible as possible, right up to the moment when he suddenly and seemingly out of nowhere hands you a towel.
Last night I attended a poetry reading at the Bowery Poetry Club. Outside the club I met an old guy named Bingo Gazingo. Bingo had a backwards letter B written or possibly tattooed on his forehead. He and his letter looked something like this:
Bingo wanted me to buy a CD of his poetry, which after looking at the CD case I declined to do. “You’re breaking my heart,” he said.
Later, during the open mic, Bingo read some of his poems. My friends hated these poems because they were crazy and because Bingo read them in a histrionic manner. I loved them for the same reasons. I also loved that Bingo had written the poems on enormous sheets of paper using large block letters. The letters were so large that Bingo could fit just twenty or thirty words on a single page. Because of this he had to shuffle through a thick stack of enormous papers just to read a single poem, which for me only added to the charm and luster of his performance.
She said I reminded her of a boy she knew in sixth grade. The boy had pretty eyes and sat on the opposite side of the room, facing her. One day their eyes met and they didn’t look away. She described her thought process:
I shouldn’t look, but I don’t want to look away. Maybe he’ll look away and it will be over. I want him to be the one to look away because then I won’t have to, because I don’t want to. Maybe he doesn’t want to either. Maybe he’s waiting for me to. If he is, I won’t, because I don’t want it to be over. He has to be the one to look away, not me, because I won’t, how could I?
Sadly she had forgotten how it ended, although she did remember what happened next… nothing. They never spoke about it.
This surprised me but not her. “It was only sixth grade,” she said.
I have a thing for the cashier at the health food supermarket. I think it’s because she hates me. Either that or because of her body. Probably it’s both.
Today I went to her line, despite the next line being shorter. She didn’t say hello. She never says hello, nor smiles, nor does anything to acknowledge my existence as distinct from my groceries.
I once saw her sitting outside, at the far end of the parking lot, alone, reading. I didn’t dare speak with her. Occasionally I break down and attempt to make eye contact, but then I invariably feel foolish for having done so.
Our exchanges always follow the same pattern. She rings up my groceries and I give her my credit card. She processes the card and hands me a receipt to sign and a pen. I sign the receipt and give her the top copy plus the pen. She hands me my card and another receipt and I say thank you. “You’re welcome,” she says. You’re welcome is the only thing she has ever said to me. Sometimes she doesn’t say it – perhaps she forgets – and I end up waiting a split-second extra. That’s the worst: to stand there waiting for words that don’t even mean anything.
Walking back from the supermarket, I wondered if I’m attracted to her because she refuses to make eye contact with me, refuses to be even the slightest bit flirtatious or kind. I wondered too if she singles me out for this kind of treatment because she’s kind of hot for me. That one made me laugh out loud. She ignores me because she likes me. Ha, ha, ha.
While unpacking my groceries, I imagined that I had become a famous writer and had approached her as she sat at the far end of the parking lot, reading my famous book. I’ve had this fantasy before, and it’s always the same.
“Ah, you’re reading [book title here],” I say. “I’ve read it myself. What do you think of it so far?”
She surprises me by holding forth about it at length and with considerable feeling. In short, she hates it, thinks it’s worst kind of drivel, a complete waste of time – our culture has become a toilet, she says, or if not a toilet then a sewer, either a toilet or a sewer, she says, she can’t make up her mind, sometimes she thinks toilet but then she thinks sewer, she says, it’s so hard to decide, toilet, sewer, toilet, sewer, books like this don’t make it any easier, what did you think of it?
I shouldn’t let myself lie down like this. When I lie down I drift off to sleep. I tell myself I won’t but I do. This moment of telling myself I won’t is interesting. It’s interesting because I know I’m lying, because I’m not fooled, because I’m only saying I won’t so I’ll let myself lie down.
This tape is going to be weird because I can’t remember what I said. I keep drifting into these little dreams. I feel as though I’ve recorded the dreams but of course I haven’t. I must be depressed. I’m drifting off to sleep because I’m depressed, because my life or something is depressing me.
– If a superpower is granted, the implication is that you must give up what you already have as a mortal. I’ve gone back and forth on this, but generally, yes, I would give up what I have to be able to fly.
– Where would you go?
– To India. I’d fly between India and the rest of the world.
– How fast do you think you’d have to go?
– As fast as a supersonic jet.
– That’s fast. You may need a special hairdo at that speed.
– Or wear a helmet. I’d buy a helmet before I’d change my hairdo.
– What would you do in India?
– There are certain people I want to see. Some of us want to observe the people we love, or once loved, the way angels may observe them. So that’s what I’d do; I wouldn’t necessarily interfere with their lives. It depends. There’s certainly a desire to make myself known, but for some I wouldn’t do that.
– Think of a particular person. If you didn’t want to make yourself known to this person, how would you observe him or her?
– From above. I assume I have pretty great eyesight as well. Or I would land and follow him here and there and peak into his work or home. That way you indulge your interest in a person without letting the person know. We all do that.
– What happens if you meet someone you want to be with? Would you tell him about your superpower or would you keep it a secret?
– I’d keep it a secret.
– I assume that if I make the decision to accept a superpower, it may mean forever, it may mean that I can’t ever give up the superpower and return to normal life. So if I do meet someone, I wouldn’t tell him about my superpower, because how you can have a normal relationship in that circumstance?
– You appear to be screwed either way. If you don’t tell this person what you’re doing and what you’re able to do, there’s going to be distance between you. On the other hand, if you share the truth, how can a person who can’t fly…
– Right, that distance, that difference, can never be bridged.
– It would seem that you need to find another person who can fly.
– Or remain alone.
– Or remain alone.
Several days later she surprised me with a new haiku:
Fly into oblivion
With no fucking trace
A young couple, hitch-hiking cross-country, are picked up by a man in blue car. The man doesn’t realize this, but the couple are in a fight and have barely spoken for two days.
The woman takes the passenger seat; her boyfriend sits behind her.
Within a few minutes it becomes clear that the driver is insane. He keeps mentioning a letter he’s received from President Carter. This letter, he says, is a thank-you for certain work he recently performed for the president. He explains that unfortunately he cannot reveal the exact nature of this work, for security reasons.
“I would have to kill you if I told you,” he says.
“In that case I’d prefer you didn’t tell me,” says the woman.
This is meant as a joke, but the driver fails to get it. Instead he’s offended.
“You don’t believe me. You don’t believe the president wrote to me.”
“No, of course I believe you.”
“I have the letter in the glove compartment. If you don’t believe me, I can stop the car and show it to you.”
“That won’t be necessary. Honestly, I believe you, I really do.”
The driver says nothing, and nothing gets said for a long time, and then, abruptly, the driver turns off the highway.
The boyfriend, silent until now, is the first to speak. “Where are we going? Why are we turning here?”
The driver doesn’t answer. A few minutes pass before he makes a second turn, this time down a dirt road.
“I don’t think we want to go this way,” says the boyfriend.
“No, this doesn’t look right to me,” says the woman.
“Well, it is right,” says the driver, “so you two just shut up.”
At this the boyfriend reaches around the right side of his girlfriend’s seat and touches her flank. She brings her hand to his, and they hold hands like this, in secret. It’s the first time they’ve touched in two days.
I’m sick again. It’s the fourth time this winter. I’ve never gotten sick this much.
My understanding of quantum theory is that light quanta can only have certain specific energy levels. When electrons jump between levels, a packet of energy is emitted or absorbed whose frequency is proportional to the energy difference between the levels.
I thought of this today to explain what’s happened to me. I’m suddenly older. We don’t age in a steady, continuous progression, but in discreet jumps, like the way electrons jump between levels. I made a jump recently and am older than I was.
Recently I had an affair with a much younger woman. Her body reminded me of the body of a woman I dated twenty years ago. I had forgotten what breasts like that are like. Oddly it made me sad. It felt like a kind of cheating.
When I look ahead, I see myself on my knees, on my back, humbled by loss. Until recently these losses have seemed far away, an abstraction to be faced in the future, itself an abstraction. But now those loses are much closer. I can see it and feel it, and this is why I’ve been sick.