It turns out that purgatory is a lot like jury duty, except without the jury. No one has actually mentioned the word purgatory, but what else could this be?
Unfortunately the staff is no help. On the first day they showed us an orientation film that looked like it could have been made by Salvador Dali. It was amazing but it didn’t exactly clarify anything.
The only hard part so far has been dealing with my ex-girlfriend. I spotted her on the first day, on the other side of the room. After the film I walked past her row and pretended to see her for the first time. I figured this was better than waiting for her to see me, assuming she hadn’t already.
I had no idea how she would react to seeing me again, particularly here, so I decided to just say hi and ask how she’s doing, then follow her lead. I suppose it went okay. Certainly she was friendly enough, but at the same time I know when she’s being nice because she has no choice about it.
That was the first day. We haven’t talked since. A few times I’ve run into her at the vending machines, and she’s always smiles in a way I take to mean there you are, here I am, let’s keep it this way. I don’t mean to criticize her. She’s handling the situation as well as anyone could. And I can’t help imagining that she keeps asking herself what the fuck I’m doing here. It’s as though I can’t escape from hurting her. And then I end up wondering if this is the point: they stick you in a room with someone who hurt you, or someone you hurt, until you’re finally, somehow, purified. If this is right, we may be here a long time.
The orientation film included a scene in which a woman stood at a window with her hands on the window pane. Although she was inside a house looking out, the trees reflected in the window made it seem like she was outside looking in. It was such a beautiful image, evocative and haunting, but at the same time I have no idea what it meant or even if it was supposed to mean anything.
K put the toilet paper roll on backwards. I discovered this when I went to pee. I like having the roll facing out, the loose flap hanging over the front, because it’s easier to tear off a section of paper that way. I’ve mentioned this several times to K, without apparent effect, so this time I wrote a little note on a yellow stickie and taped it to the plastic tube that holds the toilet paper roll in place. The way I figure it, K can’t miss seeing this note whenever she changes the toilet paper. The note reads: “K you are so beautiful and I love you so much please put the fucking toilet paper forward.”
Drunk agin. It makes mey hed funny. But I can’t drink much, I get tired. Unrelated, got into a fight with aaoman at my gym. This was on the phone. She c alled to say they were charging me a late fee. Fuck that. I said she had two coices, forget this late fee or leose me as a customer. Yelling ensued. Or taher, the raising of voices. I am aorry, Anishsa, you are a nice person who was just doing her job. I hope I did not trausmatize you, however one spells traumataize. But listen, your gym sucks. They didn’t have towels for a while so I had to bering my own. I’m paying 80 dollars a month for no twels. That’s, what, something like two dlaars and sevnty cenets a day for no wolwels. Alos the water was changed so there’s less of it. Dn’t thin kI didn’t notice. I noticed. I stnand in the shower and the wter isn’t so nice anymore. I’m sorry I yelld, but just think about it for a second. No twels and less water but more more mone¥ of course and now this fucking fcked up late feee. Forgive me.
D told me about a friend who is in couples therapy with her boyfriend of eight years because he won’t marry her. She’s broken up with him many times but has always gone back. I asked if the boyfriend has given any indication of wanting to marry her, and D said no.
“Well, she’s an idiot,” I said.
“Actually she’s smarter than you think,” said D. “She doesn’t want to marry him either, so she has him play the role of refuser. That’s why she picked him and why she keeps going back – because he’ll never agree to marry her.”
I asked D if her friend realizes any of this, and D said no, adding that the boyfriend doesn’t realize anything either.
We agreed that this is intensely, albeit perversely, romantic.
What single thing is most important to your happiness?
K and I arrived at this question while discussing her resistance to doing the dishes, and our contrasting answers reveal many things, including why K hates doing the dishes and why I’m writing this.
K’s answer: Positive, shared experiences.
My answer: Interesting thoughts.
I wondered aloud when my thoughts interest me, and the answer was plain: When I’m seeing something anew; when I’m uncovering the truth about something. I would be happy dying, I told K, if my thoughts were sufficiently interesting.
K, by contrast, structures her life to foster and maximize positive, shared experiences, which I dubbed PSEs (pronounced “pissies”). There are no potential PSEs in doing the dishes, unless one does them with another. However, dishwashing is an ideal time for thinking – as is any solitary, meditative activity. This explains why I love taking showers and why K prefers showering together.
I recall something a date once said to me: “Don’t make yourself miserable by thinking so much.” I ended the date as quickly as I could and never called her again.
K, who works for Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit foundation behind Sesame Street (“and so much more,” says K), told me this morning that a new muppet will appear on the show next September. Correction: not a muppet. In 2004, The Jim Henson Company, run by the late Henson’s son and daughter, sold the muppet “property” to Disney. This included Kermit the Frog and Miss Piggy and other less popular muppets, along with the Muppet Show and the various Muppet movies. Disney also acquired the term muppet, and so the puppet characters on Sesame Street are no longer referred to as muppets but friends. To confuse matters, some of these friends are also monsters. The distinction hinges on whether the friend represents a human. Non-human friends are monsters; human friends are just friends. The give-away is fur: only monsters are covered in fur. Thus Grover and Oscar are monsters, while Bert and Ernie are not. All four, however, are friends. The one exception to the fur rule is Big Bird, who is covered in feathers, not fur, but is still a monster, albeit an unrelentingly friendly one.
Anyway, K wouldn’t tell me anything about the new friend because it’s a big secret that no one outside of Sesame Workshop is supposed to know. I told her I understood, which really I didn’t, and instead I made up my own new friend. Her name is Terri, and she’s a self-described slutress. (As Terri explains it, calling herself a slutress is her way of reclaiming her feminine power.) Terri, who looks remarkably like a very young Stevie Nicks, is into various new age practices and phenomena such as channeling, reincarnation, and crystals. I picture her in a purple slip and many scarves. She has sex with all the other characters, friends and monsters alike, sometimes more than one at a time. Since she’ll only do this in the graveyard (you didn’t know there was a graveyard behind Sesame Street, did you?), she’s affectionately known as “Cemetery Terri.”
When I arrived home tonight, there were six consecutive messages on the machine from Fátima. The messages had been left in the space of an hour and a half.
Hi, Jay, this is Fátima calling you Friday 9:30. Can you please give me a call back today or tomorrow? Bye.
Hi, it’s me again. You are there celebrating your degree and you’re doing well. I’m here at home Friday night celebrating my birthday by myself. In the end, after you’ve celebrated everything with your good friends, Juwow included, the last talk will be between me and you. Call me tomorrow.
If you want to have the pleasure to see how decent people like me lose it, I’ll give you that chance fully. Because when people love, they give the chance. Bye.
Laugh, laugh and have fun; you’re on top of the world. Remember Adam, Jay. But I am Eve. Or evil, if you prefer.
My pain, my shame, will redeem you, whether you like it or not. Remember, my pain will redeem you.
I’m going for a long walk, and you’re the one who’s going to find me. It’s not my parents, it’s not my friends, it’s not the Harvard Police; it’s you. I’m going for a very long walk.
Fátima called at least a dozen times this morning. Or at least I assume it was Fátima. The only time I’m certain about was the first, when I answered and woke Jay. Later, while I was in the bathroom giving myself a haircut, the phone rang every few minutes, and each time Jay picked it up. Unfortunately Jay had some cartoon playing on the television, which drowned out the sound of his voice and made it impossible to tell if he was talking with Fátima. A little later, while I was in shower, the doorbell rang and Jay answered it. Then it rang again, and again he answered it. When I emerged from the shower, I saw that Jay was gone and had left the television on. Ten or fifteen minutes later I heard him return, alone so far as I could tell. Then the doorbell rang again but Jay didn’t stir. I would have gotten it myself only I was convinced it was Fátima. The doorbell rang again, this time continuously. Without question Fátima was out there, standing on the porch, holding down the buzzer. Finally Jay rose from the couch, and now he’s out there talking with her – I can hear his muffled voice.
Oh shit. I just heard the doorbell again, only this time it’s not Fátima; it’s the police – I definitely heard a man say police. I’m guessing that Jay hadn’t actually been talking with Fátima but with our upstairs neighbors. Now I feel stupid for remaining in my room all this time, writing. Perhaps I should have gone out and helped Jay in some way. All along I was thinking there was nothing I or anyone could do to help, so the best thing was to give him space.
Oh shit again. Now Fátima called and I went out to the porch and there was Jay with two police officers.
“Jay, I’m sorry,” I said, “Fátima’s on the phone.”
“Is this her?” asked the cop.
“Yes,” said Jay.
“Do you want me to talk to her?” asked the cop.
The four of us entered the house and I said, “Hey, Jay, how’s it going?”
“It’s come to this,” he said.
“Yeah, I’m sorry.”
The cop got on the phone and talked to Fátima. It was horrible. After determining that she’s a Harvard student, he said, “Listen, you’re an intelligent woman. I’m telling you that you need to stay away from this property. You don’t want to jeopardize your career… I’m not concerned that you’re not afraid. I’m not trying to make you afraid. I’m just telling you to stay away from this property… He doesn’t want to have anything to do with you either. I’ll tell him to stay away from you, if you like, but you need to stay away from him also… Listen, we’re going to put a tap on this phone. You can’t call him or come here. You can’t approach him in any way. I think you understand that this serious. Jay is filing a report of assault and battery. We’re filling out the forms.” And on and on and on.
After the cop finally hung up, he turned to us and said, “Whew.”
A few minutes later the phone rang again. No one answered it. Fátima didn’t leave a message this time. Then she called again, and again left no message.
While I’ve been typing all this, the cops have been interviewing Jay in the next room. From Jay’s answers I’ve learned that Fátima is black, about 37 or 38, 5′ 1″, about 120lbs. She attacked Jay once before, two weeks ago, in a hall at school. She has hounded him at work. Jay saw her socially in February, then tried to break away from her.
“Do you see much of this?” asked Jay.
“Yes, we do,” said the cop. “It crosses all economic classes, all races.” He didn’t mention genders.
The cop recommended that Jay get a restraining order, either today or Monday.
I went out and spoke with Jay, telling him again that I’m sorry and offering to help in any way I can. The cop asked if I’d seen the assault. “No,” I said, “I’ve never met the woman. I’ve heard her phone messages of course, but I’ve never met her.”
Fátima showed up a short time later – what nerve! – and the cop asked me to take a look at her so I could recognize her if she returned. I stood with Steve by the window, looking. Fátima was leaning into the window of the police car, her back to us. We had to wait a long time before she turned in our direction. My only thought on seeing her face was that she didn’t look insane, that her insanity didn’t show in the least.
After talking about it all with Jay and Steve for about a half hour, I left to go to the library. When I walked out the door I looked around to see if Fátima might be lurking somewhere. If she was, I didn’t see her. Walking home from the library, on Fayette Street, about a hundred feet from the shortcut, I passed Fátima walking from the direction of our apartment. We looked right past each other. I had the horrific thought that she had just come from shooting Jay, and I half-expected to find an ambulance in the front of the house. Instead I found an envelope sticking out of the mail slot. It had Jay’s name on it. I opened the door and handed it to Jay, who was standing directly behind the door. Steve, who was with him, said, “Here’s your $2,500” – a remark I didn’t understand until Jay played me her three most recent messages.
I’m leaving the check for $2,500 in your box now. Bye.
Make good use of it. Use it for the kids in Roxbury; they need it. And take some aside for paying dinners for your next girlfriend.
Take them out. Have fun. You deserve it.
The envelope contained a check for $2,500 along with a letter that read, “Jay, I did not play alone with my toys. I played with friends that I loved. That’s how I got to became human.” The envelope also contained a photo of a laughing girl, perhaps two years old. Fátima.
Jay and Steve went to school and I watched the second half of the Seattle/Utah basketball game, an extraordinarily boring game won by Seattle by 30 points. Right after the game, Fátima started calling again. (Had she been watching the same game? Had the useless ineptitude of the Utah players struck a chord with her?) Here is her most recent round of messages:
I want to be locked up. I’m giving you all that need for your alibi. You are a healthy citizen and I am a mad woman. I want to be locked up. I want to see it happen and I will do as best as I can to see it happen. You will leave with your conscience.
I am alone as I want to be. I have absolutely no friends. My friends are mad, angry at me. They don’t want to see me. They don’t want to talk to me. This is where I have got to. Think about it. Put me in jail. Send me to grave.
You want a woman fresh, clean, young. Explain to me how your mother got divorced from your father if she was not fresh, clean, and young.
Live happy ever after. Live happy ever after. Is that what the credo says – live happy ever after? With me in your conscience.
Are you clean – clean, young, and fresh? Striking? Looking for striking women? Go ahead. Go ahead. Live happy ever after!
And laugh! Laugh loud! Make a mockery out of me! Look at me as if you didn’t know when you see me in the cafe. Laugh! Laugh very loud! Laugh! Laugh about it! It’s very funny!
Record everything. Broadcast it on the news. Show it to everyone that you know. Juwow H – your buddies, the black folks at Harvard, your 13BA. Broadcast it very loud, so that everybody can see how mad this woman is and how healthy and fresh and clean you are!
There were nine more calls yesterday.
Hi, Jay. You had all this prepared way in advance before your review, right? I realize now that from the beginning there was something very perverse and sick about it. But it will end perverse and sick. Bye.
Are you aware of the fact that I have a project signed by you in my hands that states the date May twelfth or fourteenth, and that there are people who [inaudible] together at the Wang Center just a couple weeks ago. It’s becoming very ugly. I don’t know if you realize. Very, very ugly. I don’t care what Barry does to me any longer. But it’s not going to do any good to you.
Hi, Jay. I left a few things at your door for you. And from this point on, you’re in charge of whatever happens to me. Do you understand? From now on, it’s up to you whatever happens to me.
Jay, you are responsible for whatever happens to me. And I curse you. You’ll never be able to love. You’ll never be able to be happy. You’ll never be able to do anything with your degree in architecture. You are cursed for life. Do you understand me? You are invisible. From today on you are invisible, unless you take responsibility for what you’ve done to me.
Answer to me. Answer to me. Answer the phone. Answer to me! Answer to the phone! Answer to me! I’m not crazy. I am just a human being who you have been making miserable. Answer to me if you have any sense of shame! Answer to me! Answer to me! Answer to me; you are there. If you have any sense of shame, answer to me! Answer to me! … I know you’re there, Jay. Answer the phone. Answer the phone. I have taken a number of pills, I don’t know how many. Answer the phone.
I have been walking between your place and my place at two in the morning, three in the morning, and I have met someone, Sasha, that works at the cafe. Absolutely everyone that I know and that you know is going to know about this. You are going to be exposed. I’ve spoken to the chair of my department. I’ve spoken to my colleagues. I’m speaking to your advisor. I’m speaking to people in GSD. Because you are a monster. You are not a human being; you are a monster. And you’re not going out of Harvard with a degree and do whatever you want. Do you understand me? Call the police, and we’ll deal with the police. I will deal with the police. My department will deal with the police. Harvard will deal with the police. You’re outcast. You are an outcast. You are gonna have to get –
You have preferred to associate yourself with Juwow R – and the like. Who are they? Who is Juwow? Juwow is an orphan; he’s a bastard. He has a family of 200 children. His father keeps having children with every single woman on that island. He has no social class. He’s a nobody. That’s why he hates me. Who are your friends and the friends of the people you’re hanging out with? They’re nothing. Who are these women? You attract these striking women. Women that aren’t worth the shit. They’ve nothing. You don’t even understand what your place is. You’re trying to put me in my place. My place is upper middle class with access to power and decision. Haven’t I proved it to you several times. Does the evidence hurt?
Have you been asking advice from your father? Who’s your father? What does he know? The only thing that he knew probably was to abuse your mother and get rid of her. That’s exactly the example that you’re following. You’re a bastard, and your father is. Show all this. Date it, record it, show it to the police. Get me in jail if you can. You are going to be exposed. You’re the scum of the world. You are not human, and you will be invisible. You are invisible and you’ll keep being invisible.
If worse comes to worse, I’ll kill myself. I have the means to do that. But it’s not going to be without a lot, a lot, of suffering on your part. Believe me, you’re going to be going through a lot of suffering. Invisible nigger.
After transcribing these nine messages, I replaced the microcassette in the answering machine, thinking that a written transcription doesn’t do her justice, that one must hear her speak to grasp the desperate intensity of these messages. After I removed the old microcassette and before I inserted the new one, the phone rang. The answering machine began to whirl, searching for the beginning of the tape. But with no tape, the answering machine just continued to whirl as the phone rang. After 30 or 40 rings, I went into my room and shut off the ringer on my phone. The phone in Steve’s room continued to ring, but it wasn’t nearly as loud. After 100 or more rings, the ringing stopped. I quickly inserted the new microcassette but then had trouble recording a greeting. Actually I may have succeeded in recording a new greeting, but I couldn’t get the machine to play it back. By this point my laptop was beginning to run out of juice. (I had brought the computer into the living room so I could sit next to answering machine while transcribing Fátima’s messages.) I considered this a sign that I should go out and buy something to eat. It was now almost one o’clock and I had failed to take the time to eat anything. My plan was to buy some fruit, come home and have lunch, document what was in the two small brown bags that Fátima left outside the door this morning, and then watch the first game of the Chicago/Orlando conference final at 3:30.
On the porch I discovered a large plastic bag. The bag contained mostly clothes; on top was a note for Jay. I thought, I’m never going to be able to keep up with her.
On the way to and from the grocery, I thought about that bag. I could picture Fátima in her apartment carefully stuffing various articles of clothing into it and then lugging it down the stairs and out the door. What went through her mind as she struggled to carry that bulky bag the five or six blocks from her apartment to our porch? What in the world is she thinking? I can only assume that her thoughts resemble her messages, that her messages are her thoughts. (The phone is ringing again.) Last night I told the whole story to Judith, who more than anything was struck by the woman’s lack of shame. This, I realize, is what makes her so compelling: that she has moved beyond the bounds of propriety, that she has no fear of the police, of insanity, of self-degradation, that she has surrendered to her passion, without thought to the consequences. It is madness.
When I returned from the grocery, there were no additional packages on the porch and only one new message on the answering machine. I was tempted to start in on documenting the contents of the two little bags, but then realized I had to eat something, so I cut a few pieces of cheese and stuck them between two slices of whole wheat bread.
As to those two little bags, they are both medium-sized shopping bags with handles – one from the Gap, the other from Structure. The Gap bag contains reading materials mostly: some books (The Wretched of the Earth by Franz Fanon; Black Skin, White Masks, also by Franz Fanon; encountering the other(s) by Gisela Brinker-Gabler; Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison; A Salute to Cape Verdean Musicians and their Music by Ronald Barboza); two photo books (The Sweet Flypaper of Life by Roy DeCarava and Langston Hughes, and Roy DeCarava: A Retrospective); two recent editions of The New Yorker (the April 29 Black in America issue, and the April 8 issue featuring an article on Albert Murray by Henry Louis Gates, Jr.); and three CDs (Cesaria and Miss Perfumado by Cesaria Evora, and The Cape Verdean Blues by The Horace Silver Quintet plus J. J. Johnson). The bag from the Gap has assorted nicknacks and pottery, most of which were probably made in Cape Verde: three dolls, including a medium-size stuffed tiger; two vases (one a large simple brown and blue vase, the other a much more elegant and colorful hourglass-shaped vase); a clay plate etched with the scene of what looks like a shamanistic rite; a small ceramic plate; a shell painted with the scene of someone wind surfing; a small head of a woman made from polished bone; a carved wooden letter opener; two handmade beaded bracelets; a carved wooden bowl; and a pair of hand-painted wooden maracas.
I refuse to itemize the contents of the bag on the porch. Well, I just took a peak. As I said before, it contains a lot of clothes – jeans, t-shirts, socks – but also numerous towels of various sizes. There’s a large envelope on top with Jay’s name on it, and a brown plastic bag inside that contains some harder objects, possibly books.
The new message on the machine goes: “Hi, Jay, I left a bag outside with some things and a letter for you. It’s important that you read it.”
The phone just rang again. I didn’t answer it, thinking it was Fátima. Instead it was a Detective White from the Cambridge Police with a question about the report Jay filed yesterday. As to that report, which Jay left sitting on our kitchen table, section 26, the section entitled Narrative, reads:
On the above date & time 8 states that 20 came to his home wanting to speak to him. 8 went outside on his front porch to talk to 20. 8 went to walk back into his house (20 wanted to argue). When 20 tried to follow in behind him 8 blocked her path. At this point 20 attacked 8 scratching his left arm, nose, and bit him. During this time 8 states that he was trying to hold her back. 8 states although there was never a romantic relationship they had gone out socially in the past. 8 states that 20 has been harassing him by phone since February 96. 8 was advised of his 209A rights but declined at this time.
Section 5, Offense(s), reads, “A & B Annoying and Harassing Phone Calls.” Section 4, Weather Conditions, reads, “Cloudy.”
On the drive from Salzburg to Graf, S and I visited Ohlsdorf, the home, for the last twenty-four years of his life, of my favorite writer, Thomas Bernhard. Coincidentally it was Thomas Bernhard week in Ohlsdorf; a banner hung over the road announcing this. I winced. Bernhard despised Ohlsdorf, just as he despised all of Austria.
Later, in Vienna, one of S’s friends explained that Bernhard’s hatred of Austria is a big part of why many Austrians love him. Evidently hatred of one’s homeland is a quintessentially Austrian attitude. But it is by no means shared by all Austrians, for many others consider Bernhard a Nestbeschmutzer (someone who soils his own nest). Bernhard himself claimed to love Austria more than his critics; his love, he said, was the ground of his hatred. His hatred, however, ran deep. In a famous insult from the grave, his will disallowed all publication and staging of his work within Austria’s borders.
But I digress.
Bernhard’s farmhouse home was far from Ohlsdorf proper. I had no idea what I would do when we arrived – probably nothing more than gawk from the car – but the banner made me uneasy. Finally, less than a mile from our destination, I told S, who was driving, that I wanted to turn back.
“But we’re almost there,” she said.
“I know that, but Bernhard doesn’t want us here.”
“Bernhard is dead.”
“I know that too. Now please stop the car, okay?”
S pulled the car onto the shoulder and I got out.
I remember throwing stones at a distant tree while waiting for her to return.
The breasts of the woman tonight… so yummy. And yet I hardly talked to her, despite her apparent interest. It was because of her outfit, which seemed designed for no other purpose than to guide my eyes to her breasts. “You have a fondness for breasts, sir? Please follow me, I have a pair that may interest you.” It struck me as overkill, a lack of subtlety. Whatever she wore, I would have noticed her breasts, so why the flashing traffic arrow? I felt insulted by it, for it made me think she thought this was all I cared about. And here I was, proving her right. Which I resented because while I notice breasts, I notice other things as well, including things one cannot knead or suckle, such as wit and intelligence.
In TV sci-fi shows these days, there is always at least one character with large, shapely breasts. On some excuse or another, or sometimes no excuse at all, this character is obliged to wear a skin-tight outfit. Doubtless the actresses who play these roles realize they were chosen because of their breasts and that the characters they portray were created for the same reason, that both actress and character are breast-delivery vehicles. What must it be like to think, I am here for my tits?
This was what disturbed me – that she seemed to think she was there for her tits, or that I was, and that this represented, for her, an opportunity. Such is the new feminism: objectification is good when you’re the object of it and can use it for your own ends.
Later, walking to the subway, it struck me that men have probably gone for her breasts first, again and again, and that over time she has formed herself around this maneuver – the stray hand in her sweater.