December 24, 2015

Happy

I’m in the bedroom, about to begin one of my exercise routines. I’m holding a jump rope in the ready position. K is in bed with her binky (iPhone).

Me: I hate my life. Help me make this fun.

K: You can pretend you’re someone else.

Me: Someone happy?

K: Yeah.

Me: Who?

K: Stephan.

Me: Who says Stephan is happy?

K: Well, he has nice hair.

October 6, 2015

Questions

Last night, as we lay in bed, K said she would kill all the angry and stupid people for me.

I asked her, “Sweetie, will you kill all the angry and stupid people for me?”

“Yes,” she said, without looking up from her binky1.

Sometimes I ask her ridiculous, impossible questions, because it seems a funny thing to do. Recently she’s taken to answering yes to whatever I ask, to try to get me to stop bothering her.

I think this is what love is like.

  1. “Binky” is K’s name for her smartphone. It’s a word from her childhood. It means pacifier.
November 1, 2014

Anniversary

Today is the tenth anniversary of my first date with K. I’m not entirely sure how this happened. Ten years ago I went on a date with a woman named K, and when it was over I asked to see her again. Then we had a second date, and a third, and so on, and now today is ten years of one day following the next with this one woman, K.

I don’t believe there’s a word for the kind of disorientation I feel. K says, only half-joking, that there must be one in German.

In the simplest sense I know exactly what happened. But those are merely the facts of the case – one day followed the next, and so on. At the same time there’s another, deeper sense in which the facts are besides the point.

Whenever I fly cross-country, there’s always that befuddling moment when I suddenly find myself several thousand miles from where I woke that day.

Sometimes when K and I are talking, I try to retrace how we arrived at the current subject. Rarely do I manage it.

But then, really, what does it matter? We arrived.

Arrival

Today is the tenth anniversary of my first date with K. I’m not sure how this happened. Ten years ago I went on a date with a woman named K, and when it was over I asked to see her again. Then we had a second date, and a third, and so on, and now today is ten years of one day following the next with this one woman, K.

I don’t believe there’s a word for the sort of disorientation I feel. K says, only half-joking, that there must be one in German.

In the simplest sense I know what happened. But those are merely the facts of the matter – one day followed the next, and so on. At the same time there’s another, deeper sense in which the facts are besides the point.

Whenever I fly cross-country, there’s always that befuddling moment when I suddenly find myself several thousand miles from where I woke that day.

Sometimes when K and I are talking, I try to retrace how we arrived at the current subject. Rarely do I manage it.

But then, really, what does it matter? We arrived.

April 23, 2013

Letter

YESTERDAY MORNING I received an email from my ex-girlfriend Alana. I hadn’t heard from Alana in eight months, since the day we broke up, and I was certain, though I no longer gave it much thought, that I would never hear from her again. Yet there was her name and email address in the From field of a new email, and beneath that, in the Subject field, a single word: “request.”

Unfortunately yesterday was also the day that I was to complete and deliver a proposal on behalf of my employer, Paws for Love. Basically we’re competing with a rival group, Furry Friends, for a five-year grant to run a national animal therapy program for the ASPCA. It’s an all-or-nothing proposition. If we win the grant, we triple in size; if we lose, we love everything.

When I clicked on my inbox and saw Alana’s name, I had not yet finalized our proposal, specifically the charts and graphs. In fact the charts and graphs were nothing but empty boxes, placeholders, and so given that the proposal was due to be delivered by five o’clock this day, it was imperative that I leave for work as soon as possible and not dillydally over Alana’s email. I remember thinking this at the time. I remember telling myself that I should leave the email until the evening, when I would be free to study it at my leisure, to read it fifty times if I wanted, but for now it was best to leave it unread. Best meaning safest. For it struck me that I had no way of knowing what Alana had written and thus no way of knowing how I might react to what she had written. This was no idle concern. Alana could have written anything; her request could have been a request for me to kill myself. It probably wasn’t but whatever it was, it wasn’t likely to be good and could very well send me off the rails, as they say. You simply cannot risk it, I told myself, and then I reminded myself what would happen if we lose the grant, what it would mean to my colleagues, many of whom have families to support. People are counting on you, I kept repeating in my head. People are counting on you and you cannot let them down. And then of course I went ahead and read Alana’s email, as I knew I would and as I would do again in the same circumstance — or any other circumstance for that matter.

However before reading Alana’s email, I locked the door to my room and closed and locked both windows, pulling down the shades. Looking back this seems a bit much, particularly the windows. Oddly I have no idea why I locked them. Was I concerned that someone might climb through the window of my third-floor bedroom and interrupt me as I read my ex-girlfriend’s email? Really it was like a dream in the way that dreams often proceed according to some unassailable logic which then vanishes on waking, so that all you’re left with is an intense but inexplicable mishmash.

Alana’s email was brief and to the point. She said that a mutual friend had recently congratulated her on my behalf on the publication of her first scholarly paper, and that while she appreciated my thoughtfulness she was writing to ask that I never again attempt to communicate with her either directly or via intermediaries.

Actually Alana didn’t say that she appreciated my thoughtfulness but rather my apparent thoughtfulness. The implication being that it was not thoughtfulness that had motivated me to congratulate her but rather something that merely resembled thoughtfulness: pseudo-thoughtfulness. The implication being — because I know Alana, I know what she’s saying between the lines — that I had used this pseudo-thoughtfulness to disguise my true intentions, which were anything but thoughtful. Alana was saying that she had seen through my pseudo-thoughtful gesture to what lay beneath it and that she felt sickened by what she had found. I had not changed. In her naiveté, she had come to believe that I had changed, only now it was clear that I was incapable of change. This is what Alana meant by referring to my apparent thoughtfulness. She meant that I was incapable of change and that I had fooled her, or that she had fooled herself, for the very last time. Finally she had opened her eyes and could see what had been plain to everyone else from the beginning. I did not love her. I could not love her. I was incapable of loving her or anyone, yet she had refused to see this. For three years she had clung to a certain idea of who I was, of what our relationship was, and had lived as if this idea were true when nothing could have been further from the truth. As I had often said to her, we point away from the truth, we know the truth but point in the opposite direction because deep down we don’t want to look at the truth, we don’t want to face it. How many times had I said these very words to her? How many times had I described exactly what was happening between us without her ever realizing that what I was saying applied directly to our relationship, to my supposed love for her. This is what Alana was getting at with the phrase “apparent thoughtfulness.” She was saying that she could finally see that our relationship had been built on nothing but lies, and that as a result she would give anything to go back to the beginning, to the moment we met, and then, just as we were to meet, to turn from me, from us, from all that was to happen, and walk in the opposite direction, forever.

I hadn’t expected this. Maybe I should have but I hadn’t. I went into the bathroom and brushed my teeth, then flossed, then shaved. I always do these things in the same order. It’s a little routine I have. One of many such routines. Basically I don’t like to think about what to do, I don’t like to get to the bathroom and ask myself if maybe I should brush my teeth or floss or shave or what I should do, I don’t like to occupy my mind with these kinds of questions. So over time I’ve developed little routines that I follow without really thinking about them, I just get to the bathroom and open the cupboard and take the toothpaste from the cupboard and close the cupboard and unscrew the cap to the toothpaste and place the cap in a certain corner of the basin where it won’t be in too much danger of falling into the sink and rolling down the drain, and then I take my toothbrush from the toothbrush holder and spread a certain approximate amount of toothpaste on the toothbrush, and so on and so forth, until I’ve done everything that needs to be done on this particular visit to the bathroom, at which point I head to the kitchen and begin my kitchen routine.

So yesterday morning after reading Alana’s email, I went to the bathroom and brushed my teeth and flossed and shaved and then, because this is the next thing I always do, I took a shower, during which time I washed myself in a certain proscribed order, as always, and then, having washed myself, I got down on my knees in the shower and began to weep. I think it was because of the water; I mean the sound of it, the noise. The way I thought of it, this sound granted me a certain degree of privacy. So long as I didn’t cry too loudly, so long as I didn’t wail, the sound of the falling water would drown me out. Although it occurs to me now that the water may have sounded much louder from inside the water, as it were, than it sounded to someone at a distance, namely my roommate. However, for better or worse, I didn’t think of this at the time and instead just let myself cry.

I’m not sure how long I cried for. All I know is that at a certain point I told myself that enough was enough and that I needed to complete my bathroom routine so I could leave for work and get started on those charts and graphs. Doubtless I should have turned off the water at the conclusion of my shower routine, but instead I allowed myself to cry, holding my face in my hands as the steaming water poured down my back. In my defense this was likely my last chance to cry until evening and so I indulged myself for a bit. But only for a bit. Then I stood, washed my face and turned off the water.

On arriving at work, I started immediately on the first chart. Charts are not that difficult, I’ve done plenty of charts and have never had a problem with them. This chart was no different. But then at a certain point, something suddenly made me think of Alana, I can’t recall now what it was. Most likely it wasn’t anything important. Because when a person is inside you, any thought can lead to that person. So you can be debating whether to align a column of text to the right or left and suddenly remember the way she parted her hair, or the slant of her handwriting. You can’t avoid doing this. You can’t put a box around your thoughts of the person and say that you won’t go in the box. Even to say that you won’t go in the box is to go in the box. Although there is no box, there are just these things you feel, in spite of yourself. Or maybe it’s the other way around. Maybe it’s in spite of yourself that you try to avoid a box that isn’t a box so much as a feeling. I don’t know. It’s exhausting to even think about these things. I stopped working on the chart and went to the men’s room, bringing along a pen and a piece of scrap paper.

I keep scrap paper on my desk in one of the slots of a little plastic file sorter. Each sheet is one-quarter the size of an eight and a half by eleven sheet of notepad paper. I cut it this way, using a paper cutter. I mention this only to say that it was a small piece of paper. At first I reached for a regular sheet of notepad paper, but then I thought better of it and chose the scrap paper. Indeed it was as though I understood what was to happen before it happened. Actually that’s wrong. It’s the kind of thought one thinks after the fact, when everything seems to have been fated. It’s an illusion of perspective. When a story begins at the end, everything that follows leads to that end, including things that would not otherwise appear to be leading there, or leading anywhere for that matter.

I walked into the stall, locked the door behind me and sat on the toilet. Actually before I sat on the toilet I pulled down my pants and briefs, despite the fact that I didn’t truly need to do this. That is I didn’t need to piss or shit, I just needed a private place to write. In fact at first I sat on the lid of the toilet with my pants up, but then it struck me that if someone came into the restroom needing to use the toilet, he would naturally peak under the stall to see if it was occupied. I know I do this, I check to see if there any shoes where you would expect shoes to be. So putting myself in the place of this person, the next potential stall-user, I realized that he might very well notice, when looking for my shoes, that my pants weren’t rolled down, in which case he would be apt to wonder what I was doing with my pants rolled up, and he might even complain that I was using the one and only stall in that restroom for a purpose other than that for which it was intended. Hence I rolled down my pants. Everything has an explanation.

Although there is a difference between an explanation and a justification. The difference is that a justification must be supported by what philosophers refer to as “true beliefs.” Thus Romeo had only an explanation for drinking the poison, not a justification, because Juliet was not really dead when he drank it, she only appeared to be dead. Romeo’s decision to kill himself was based on a false belief and therefore cannot be justified, only explained. By contrast Juliet, believing correctly that Romeo was dead, may have had a justification for stabbing herself; it depends on other things, such as whether one is ever justified in stabbing oneself, dead lover or not. Alana taught me this. Alana taught me many things. Sitting on the toilet with my pants down, I scribbled part of a letter to her, holding the scrap paper against my thigh. As I wrote, my handwriting became smaller and smaller so that at the bottom of the flip side you can barely read what’s written there, the letters are so tiny. This is what it says:

There are no songs sung from my perspective. All the songs are sung by you. All the songs are about this person who promised me everything, who could have loved me, should have loved me, but didn’t. Or did, then didn’t. Which is worse, isn’t it — to love and then not love. Because to not love means to have never loved, it means to go back and do a kind of global replace, love becoming bullshit.

In the beginning I would listen to the radio, flipping through the stations, searching for a song that spoke to what I felt. I never found it. Instead what I found, again and again, was you singing to me in the guise of a broken-hearted pop star. It was as though the entire music industry had conspired to torture me with recriminations. I finally gave up that search, but you can’t escape from music; if nothing else you’re forced to hear it through the windows of passing cars. The worst was the treacle they play at the gym. To drown it out I brought along my iPod and listened to The Clash while lifting weights. It worked until Train in Vain. I had forgotten about Train in Vain.

I’m not asking for sympathy. I got exactly what I deserved. And anyway what song was I hoping to find? It Hurts to Know I Hurt You? Sounds a bit like a Hank Williams title, except I doubt that Hank Williams would have sung such a thing. Certainly it wouldn’t have earned him any fans or sold any records. After all, who cares about the schmuck who walked away from love?

Back at my desk I finished the first chart, then showed it to my boss, who suggested a few minor changes. As I leaving he asked how long it was going to take to finish the remaining charts and graphs — clearly he was nervous that we weren’t going to make the deadline — so I said that barring some unforeseen disaster, we had twice as much time as needed. This was the wrong thing to say because my boss then asked what sort of disaster I was referring to, so I pointed out that an unforeseen disaster is by definition the very thing one cannot anticipate. My boss responded by closing his eyes and holding an invisible gun to his head.

I spent the next several hours executing the remaining charts, then I grabbed a pen and a sheet of paper — an eight and a half by eleven sheet of notepad paper — and returned to the restroom. There I wrote the following:

A few days after we broke up I removed your photograph from the little plastic frame on my desk and filed it in my Alana folder. I couldn’t bear to look at it anymore. I’m sure you remember the photo. It’s the one where you stand before the ruins of a castle, the one with the jacket with all the buttons. For perhaps a day I left the empty frame on my desk, but then this seemed even worse, even more depressing, so I stuck the frame in a box in the closet. A few months later, while searching for something else, I came upon the frame again. I had forgotten about it. Seeing it there, it didn’t seem right that I had saved it, because of course the reason I saved it was so I could use it again. I was anticipating my next relationship, my next girlfriend. This convinced me to throw it out, and I even went so far as to stick it in the trash, but then that seemed wrong as well, a kind of betrayal of you, of your memory — to discard, or attempt to discard, your absence. So I fished it out of the trash and put it back on my desk. That’s where it is now and where it will remain until I think of a better place for it. Actually I rather like it there. It makes me think of how men of learning used to keep human skulls on their desks to remind themselves of their mortality. The empty frame serves a similar purpose. Naturally there are times I want to throw it out or hide it, as I did before — it’s ugly. In desperation I once put your photograph back inside it. But that only lasted a few minutes. For it turns out that the photograph, a photograph I have always loved, is now a lie. The truth being no photograph. The truth being empty frame.

While writing this I forced myself to form the letters in my natural size. I considered this time a reward for finishing the charts so promptly, however I feared overdoing it, which is why I made myself write natural-size letters and why I brought along only one sheet of paper, because without these constraints I knew I might remain in that stall the entire afternoon. Of course I shouldn’t have gone into the stall to begin with, whatever size letters I wrote and whatever size paper I wrote them on. But at the time&8230; Well I was about to say that I was distraught and couldn’t help myself, but that, I know, would never get past Alana. Alana would insist that one always has a choice about one’s actions, that one can never point to one’s feelings and say that it was their fault, that they made me do it. Which is true, Alana is right of course, I shouldn’t have gone into the stall at any point, and so my reasons for doing so are merely an explanation of what I did, not a justification, because there is no justification.

As I left the stall I thought of something else to tell Alana, so I took a paper towel from the paper towel dispenser and scribbled down the words, “Bubo. Didn’t fuck. God’s love.” Then I headed back to my desk. However as I passed conference room, I noticed the video monitor in the far corner, which made me remember something else, something important, so I hurried back to the restroom. Before entering the stall I grabbed three paper towels from the paper towel dispenser.

Paper towels, I soon learned, are not the best thing to write on. This is particularly true if you’re using the kind of pen I was using, the kind that bleeds from the tip. Because of this, the paper towel tends to soak up an excessive amount of ink, so you have to make the letters absurdly large to prevent them from blending together and becoming illegible. Basically you have to write like a child, that’s what it looks like, like a child’s handwriting. And of course you can’t fit many words of that size onto a single paper towel. Thus I had to keep getting up to get more paper towels, which meant repeatedly pulling up my briefs and pants and going outside the stall and then returning to the stall and pulling down my pants and briefs again — a operation that soon became tiresome, particularly since I was trying to write as fast as I could so I could return to my desk and get started on the graphs.

In retrospect I should have take a larger number of paper towels per trip. At the time, though, I couldn’t allow myself to do this, because I wanted to believe, each time, that I was only going to need a few more paper towels to finish the job. I shudder to think how long I would have continued in this fashion had my boss not appeared in the restroom. I was standing by the paper towel dispenser, holding three fresh paper towels, when I heard him — or heard someone, because I didn’t yet know that it was him — open the outer door.

Our restroom has two doors, an outer and an inner. I believe the inner is there so that a person passing in the hall will not inadvertently see someone peeing. In this case it granted me just enough time to scramble back into the stall, where I had left two stacks of paper towels in plain view.

While my boss peed, I sat on the toilet, pants down, waiting for him to finish. However I soon became curious who it was, I suppose I had a hunch, so I peaked under the stall and saw my boss’s shoes. I wouldn’t have known that I knew what kind of shoes he wears, but I recognized them immediately. He wears the kind of shoes that are really gussied up sneakers, although they resemble dress shoes from a distance. Seeing his shoes I realized immediately what I had to do, I had to start working on the graphs. So as soon as my boss left the restroom, I wrote a few more sentences, just enough to complete my previous thought, and put the cap back on the pen. This, in sum, is I wrote in that stall:

Last week I watched a television program I am too embarrassed to even tell you the name of, but watch it I did, because I was curious about the actress who plays the female lead. I had heard about her and had seen a few photos and so I knew who she was when I saw her — this was in Sears, I was in Sears and I noticed her face on a bank of television sets. Seeing her face in various sizes and resolutions, I decided to stop for a moment — a moment that soon dragged into an hour because there really was something captivating about her, or about the character she played on the show — a character who I thought of as her, because I don’t think you can act like that without the character being somewhat reflective of who you are in real life.

While walking home I fantasized that I had met her in a car wash, although I don’t, as you know, own a car. Everything in the fantasy was how it really is, except that I owned a car and didn’t know that the carwash woman was a famous actress. So in my innocence I asked her to go candlepin bowling with me, because in the fantasy we had been talking about bowling and she had been saying that she preferred candlepin over regular. I don’t know how we started talking about bowling, or how we started talking at all. Instead the fantasy begins in the middle of the conversation after a certain rapport had been established. Anyway, she said that she couldn’t go candlepin bowling with me because a lot of bowlers would ask for her autograph or want to take photos with her, and that while people were usually considerate about it, it still wasn’t worth the hassle. I thought she was kidding. In fact I thought she was flirting with me, so I said that we didn’t need to bowl in a bowling alley, that we could simply do what I did as a kid, which was to use dixie cups as pins, knocking them over with a tennis ball. She laughed and said that she had used slurpee cups, having saved them for this purpose. Then suddenly it was years later and we were in the bathroom together, because now we were living together and I suppose were married, and she was at the sink and I was sitting on the toilet seat and she was telling me some story, and in the middle of her story I realized that I didn’t love her as I once loved you. So I felt devastated because while I didn’t exactly leave you for her, it was like that in a sense, because when I left you, or when we broke up, I was hoping to eventually meet someone and now I had met her and we were together and all I could think of was you. You were the one I loved. I knew it at the time and yet I could not bring myself to love you. Which of course makes no sense and never will. Why is that? I think it must be a failure in me, in my ability to understand myself. Because it happened. It happened so there must be a reason for it, an explanation, if not a justification. Einstein said (I know, Einstein, whatever) that the theory determines what we can observe. So I say to myself, you need a different theory. But then I wonder if I really want a different theory — and so on — I’m sure this all sounds uncomfortably familiar to you, the same old back and forth. But the point is, I broke down — I mean on the way home from Sears — because I saw that there was no turning back, that I had to love the actress, that I could not half-love her because she isn’t you. I mean after half-loving you because you weren’t her. And then I had a horrible thought, a real doozie. I thought, I’m the Flying Dutchman. You see there was this Twilight Zone episode when I was kid in which this guy is on the Titanic and then the Titanic goes down and he manages to sneak onto one of the life rafts and gets picked up by a ship that turns out to be the Lusitania. Naturally this makes no sense, the Lusitania went down years later, but of course it’s the Twilight Zone. So eventually the Lusitania goes down and he gets rescued by a third ship-about-to-sink, at which point he realizes that he’s the Flying Dutchman, that he’s the captain of a ship that will sink again and again, over and over, that it’s his fate to go from one wreck to another and never reach shore. Granted, the comparison is a stretch. That is you never get the sense that he’s responsible for the ship sinking. Instead he just gets put there by some unexplained force and down goes the ship. Which makes him different from someone who, say, breaks up with his girlfriend every two years. However, it struck me that maybe he and I are more similar than it appears. For I suddenly wondered if maybe the reason he seems so blameless is because he’s the one telling the story. In fact it struck me that for all we know he’s the devil. I’ve often thought this — the devil does not see himself as evil; rather he believes that he’s the victim of unseen forces beyond his control. Of course it turns out that these unseen forces are within him, but still, what’s unseen is unseen. I’m sure I’m not explaining this well, you would not believe the circumstances under which I am writing it. On top of this I have to wonder, as I’m sure you’re wondering as well, what my point is. I think it’s that I love you and that I’m sorry. Walking home from Sears I passed that seedy little lunch place where you waited for me while I interviewed for my job at Paws. Normally I avoid that block at all costs. But this time I went inside and looked at the table where you sat waiting. Do you remember? When I returned from the interview I acted as despondent as possible so as to fool you into thinking I had bombed. And you were fooled, I think. Or maybe you fooled me by pretending to be fooled. I challenge anyone to tell me that’s not love: two people determined, each for reasons they believe to be loving, to fool each other.

I don’t know how many paper towels it took me to write that. Probably fifty. Fifty may sound like a lot, but my handwriting was the size of a child’s. In any case I now had a problem: how to get the paper towels out of the restroom without being seen carrying them. After all they weren’t about to fit in my pockets. In the end I decided to hide them in the restroom and return later with my knapsack. But where could I hide them? There were no cabinets or drawers or anything with any sort of compartment, save for the paper towel dispenser. Ah, the paper towel dispenser! I quickly removed its remaining paper towels and jammed my batch into the slot, five or so at a time, then reinserted the unused stack. Problem solved.

When I returned to my desk, I found a note on my chair: “Had a thought about the graphs, but you’ve probably already finished them. No big deal, just a thought.” The note was from my boss and it was total bullshit. Or I shouldn’t call it bullshit, but it was not at all what he meant. What he meant was, “Where the fuck are you? I expected those fucking graphs an hour ago. Do have any idea what fucking time it is?” He couldn’t say any of this, so he said what he said. I had no choice but to go see him. My only hope was that he would be on the phone when I showed up. He wasn’t.

“How’s it going with the graphs?” he asked, smiling.

“Fine, no problems,” I said. “I’ll have something to show you very soon.”

“Is the deadline five o’clock?

“Yes, five o’clock. Definitely five o’clock.”

“I can never remember these things.”

“That’s okay because I can never forget them.”

Then I left. I won’t go into what we were really saying except to note that as we spoke I noticed that his hands, which were resting in his lap, were curled into fists. It’s a habit he has when he’s upset. This was the most upset I have ever seen him.

Back yet again at my desk I began at last to work on the graphs. To put it mildly, things did not go well. It turns out that Excel automatically generates a legend for every graph you produce. You can easily delete this legend or customize it in various ways but you cannot move it outside the box that holds the graph to which it refers. I was not aware of this until yesterday. The only way to move the legend is to expand the box in which it and the graph are contained. However if you expand the box you also expand the graph. So if you want to move the legend but don’t want to expand the graph you are fucked. The reason I wanted to move the legend outside the box was so I could place two graphs side-by-side. These two graphs, I thought, could share the same legend, which I would center beneath them. You cannot do this. I tried. In fact I spent nearly an hour trying. It can’t be done. I considered many things and attempt many things, none of which worked.

By now it was nearly two-thirty. The way I figured it I needed to leave the office by four-fifteen in order to deliver the proposal by five o’clock.

In the seventy-five pages of guidelines and instructions we received in advance of writing our grant proposal, the ASPCA made repeated reference to Acts of God. It did not define Acts of God but it did make clear that a proposal delivered after the deadline would not be accepted unless the agency in question could prove that the proposal’s timely submission had been delayed by an Act of God. Whatever the ASPCA meant by an Act of God, I was certain that the receipt of an unexpected email from the proposal writer’s ex-girlfriend would fall outside the scope of the definition. All of which is to say that I was in trouble. I did however have an idea, which was to switch to InDesign and produce the graphs there, building them from scratch. This approach would take considerable time but it would grant me control over the placement of the legends. It would have worked too had my InDesign skills been better. For the truth is, I don’t really know how to use this problem, I just bumble along and try different things until something works. So I gave it a shot for perhaps five minutes, recognized that it was hopeless and picked up the phone. The person I called is named Bubo. Actually that’s not her real name, her real name is Barbara. Alana dubbed Barbara Bubo. A bubo is an inflammatory swelling of the lymph gland in the groin. The Bubonic Plague was a plague of buboes.

I had a sort of relationship with Bubo immediately before and after Alana and I broke up. I say “sort of” because we never slept together or kissed or held hands or did anything, really. I may have wanted to, I did want to, but I never did. Then I stopped calling her and she stopped calling me, or maybe it was the other way around, it’s sometimes difficult to tell, and that was that, it was a “sort of” relationship. This happened eight months ago. The reason I called Bubo yesterday is that she’s a graphic designer and is the only person I know who knows InDesign. I called to ask for her help. However I didn’t want to make that too obvious, so I decided to pretend that it was a social call, that I had been thinking of her and was wondering how she was doing, and then, after a certain rapport had been established, I would casually ask if she happened to know how to create a graph in InDesign.

I had considered calling Bubo many times over the last six months or so. In fact on several occasions I had gone so far as to pick up the phone and begin to dial her number. However I never dialed the entire number because I didn’t really want to talk to her. Or I did want to, I just didn’t want to want to. Philosophers refer to this as a second-order desire: the desire to desire something, or the desire to not desire something. It’s one of the things that sets us apart from other animals. Alana taught me this. Had I been an ape, I would have called Bubo many times. Not being an ape, I managed to resist the temptation.

Bubo seemed delighted to hear from me. She me told a story about a guy she knows whose apartment is furnished entirely with milk crates. He has forty-seven milk crates in all, she counted them herself. I asked her to have tea with me, I’m not sure why, I suppose I got a little carried away with my playacting. I don’t really want to have tea with Bubo. Or rather, I don’t want to want to.

I asked Bubo about the graphs and she told me how to do them, simple as that. I don’t think she suspected anything. After hanging up I went back to InDesign. Bubo’s advice was tremendously helpful, although the first graph still took almost a half hour to complete; it was painstaking work.

I showed the finished product to my boss, who I noticed had sweat stains under his arms.

“Problems?” he asked.

“Solved,” I said, and then showed him the graph. I did my best to project a certain relaxed though by no means lackadaisical confidence. “We’re going to beat the bastards” I tried suggest by my manner. “They’ve haven’t a chance against us. Look at the kind of graphs we produce.”

In truth I was certain that the bastards had already submitted their proposal, while I had perhaps an hour and fifteen minutes to churn out five more graphs. Fortunately I was able to use the finished graph as a template for the others. I also relaxed my standards, figuring that no one was going to measure the graphs to see if a particular segment did indeed encompass the indicated percentage of the overall area. So long as it looked plausible I considered it done.

At about three-forty, which is when I finished the fourth graph, I realized that I was going to make it with time to spare. I suppose I got a little cocky then, for I started in on another section of the letter to Alana, writing this one on my computer. I worked on the graphs for a bit, then wrote a few sentences to Alana, then switched back, keeping one eye on the clock. After completing the final graph and importing it into the main document, I sent the document to print, and while it was printing I worked on the letter. There wasn’t enough time to finish this section, so I printed what I had and stashed it in my knapsack. This is what I wrote:

I never fucked Bubo. I know you think I did. The one night she stayed over, I slept on the couch. Had I cared for her enough, it would have happened I suppose and perhaps we’d be together today as ridiculous as that seems. Did I mention how young she is? She’s young. Looking back I see that I used her. I wanted out and she was a way out. When I was a kid I believed that if god existed, he knew everything I thought and felt and did and yet he loved me. Not that I ever believed in god, not even then. Still, that was my model of love: complete knowledge, complete acceptance.

I don’t know why I wanted out. I don’t think I knew at the time. Was it because you didn’t love me in the impossible way I wanted. Was it because I didn’t love you in that way?

If god exists he’s privy to an incredible mountain of garbage.

Once the proposal finished printing, I grabbed my jacket and knapsack and went to say goodbye to my boss, who thankfully was on the phone. I held up the proposal for him to see and waved goodbye. Then I hurried to the restroom to retrieve the paper towels. Unfortunately someone was peeing when I arrived so I went into the stall and pulled down my pants and sat on the toilet. The moment the peer left I stood and pulled up my pants but then immediately pulled them back down again, having heard the outer door swing open. This happened twice more. All this time I considered leaving, but I was concerned what would happen if the cleaning guy happened to pick this night to refill the paper towel dispenser. On the other hand I couldn’t delay any longer, for it was now four-twenty, which gave me no cushion if the trains were running slow. So I left the paper towels behind, figuring I would return for them after dropping off the proposal.

Luckily a train was pulling in just as I arrived at the station. This gave me back my cushion. I sat down and started yet another section to the letter. As crazy as this sounds I became so immersed in what I was writing that I missed my stop. I didn’t realize this until I heard the automated conductor announce the subsequent stop. There was nothing I could do. I stood at the door waiting for it to open. As the train pulled into the station I glanced across the tracks to see how many people were standing on the opposite platform. There seemed to be a lot, which was a very good sign: a train would arrive soon. The moment the door opened I bolted up the stairs and down the other side. At the end of the tunnel, I could see the light of an oncoming train. Everything was going to be okay.

As I stepped onto the train I noticed a man standing against the door at the back of the car, balancing himself in the corner. This man, who in every other respect appeared to be perfectly normal, was wearing a pair of blue pajama-type pants, the sort of pants one wears in the hospital, and he was also wearing, if one can use that word in this context, a white, newly-laundered straight-jacket. He was standing in the corner hugging himself beneath the straight-jacket and struggling to maintain his balance. I stood clutching a pole, wondering how the man had managed to swipe his subway card at the turnstile. Then the train door opened and I ran straight for the stairs. When I reached the street I kept running, holding my knapsack under my arm. The ASPCA office was just three blocks from the station. When I arrived, sweaty and breathless, the clock on the wall said four-fifty-four. I had made it by six minutes.

After handing our proposal to the receptionist, I strode to the restroom — I actually needed to pee this time. While peeing I made a fist with my free hand and murmured, “Take that, my Furry Friends.”

On the train back to work I wanted desperately to continue the letter to Alana but the car was packed and I didn’t get a seat. All I managed to do was scribble three words on the side of my left hand: “Fantasy. Gun. Comfort.”

The office was empty when I returned. I left my boss a message at his home, letting him know that everything had gone well. “Our Furry Friends won’t know what hit them,” I said.

Then I hurried to the restroom. The outer door was propped open by a bucket and the cleaning guy’s supply cart was blocking the doorway. There was nothing I could do. I went inside. The cleaning guy was standing by the sink, reading my letter, which was in two piles before him — a read pile presumably and an unread pile.

“Sir,” I said, “that’s my letter you’re reading. I know it’s crazy, but I left it in the paper towel dispenser.”

He looked at me as though I were some kind of stain that it was now his responsibility to remove.

“You did this?” he asked.

“Yes, I did. For reasons that would be difficult to explain, I had to hide the letter and this seemed the best place.”

“But what if someone wants to dry his hands? What is he supposed to use to do that?”

“I honestly don’t know. What I did was wrong. People have to dry their hands. I would never want anyone to have to walk around with wet hands.”

“But if you write on all the towels…”

“Sir, I received a correspondence this morning from my ex-girlfriend. It has affected me very much. These paper towels are part of a letter I’ve been writing to her. I wonder if you would be kind enough to return them to me.”

He nodded, sympathetically it seemed, but didn’t hand over the paper towels.

“Do you love her?” he asked.

For a moment I was speechless. Somehow, someway, one thing had led to another this day in such a way that the cleaning guy now wanted to know if I loved Alana.

“Yes, I do,” I said. “I believe I do love her.”

“Then I would not speak of this actress,” he said. “A woman would not understand.”

I nodded and he nodded in return. It was a strangely solemn moment. Then he gave me the paper towels.

I walked to my desk where I spent the next hour expanding on what I had written on the side of my hand and then adding this to what I scribbled earlier on the train. Here is what I wrote:

Sometimes it doesn’t seem right that my life has continued. Sometimes I think it would be better if I were to quit my job and sell my things and leave. But where would I go? And what would I do there? Sometimes I imagine myself in Albuquerque. I don’t know why Albuquerque. I’ve never been to Albuquerque. But for some reason I imagine myself there. I live in a boarding house and work at night as a security guard. Often I read. There’s a certain wisdom to killing off most of the important characters at the end of a story, because that way you know it’s over. Losing you has felt like a death but it hasn’t felt over. I go on. It doesn’t seem right. I don’t do this anymore, but for months I had a recurring fantasy that you had kept the key to my apartment and had come into my room while I was at work. So I walk in and put my knapsack on the bed and then I see you there sitting in the green chair. You have a gun in your hand. Of course I know that you would never do these things (this is me speaking now, not me in the fantasy), but in the fantasy it makes perfect sense. And as strange as it seems, I’m totally calm, as though I had been waiting for it happen.

“If you don’t mind, I’ll just close the door,” I say, and then I walk over and close the door and sit down on the chair side of the bed.

“Okay, I’m ready now,” I say.

“You’re ready,” you say. “What do you mean you’re ready?”

“It would be better if I did it myself, because that way you’re in the clear, assuming you don’t plan to kill yourself as well, in which case it doesn’t matter who kills me, because either way I’m dead. Unless of course it means a lot to you to pull the trigger. Although I should point out that even if I end up doing it, it’s going to be difficult for you to explain how that happened given that you’re the one who brought the gun. Unless you plan to claim it’s my gun, which I don’t think would be wise. The police are pretty good at tracing these things and anyway you would have to explain how you had come to be here on the day I ended up killing myself. Of course you could say that you had come to talk with me and that I had became increasingly distraught until I finally pulled out the gun and shot myself. People do such things. But like I say, everything rests on the origin of the gun, which is not in your favor. On the other hand there are a lot of things I don’t know, and needless to say it’s your decision.”

You begin to cry, and to see you crying, my first thought is to scoot over and put my arm around you and stroke your head and say goofy things like, “Hey, if I didn’t know better, I’d say those were tears rolling down that cheek.” Only I don’t dare do any of this because you have a gun and you’ve come to kill me, or perhaps just make me think you’ve come to kill me, or whatever you’ve come to do, so you’re not going to appreciate it if I try to comfort you.

That’s where the fantasy ends. Writing this now I begin to understand. Because after we broke up I remember feeling that the worst thing was that you were out there somewhere suffering, but that I couldn’t comfort you because I was the one who had made you suffer. My friends grimace when they hear me say things that make it seem like I’m guilt-ridden. I’m not guilt-ridden. Or I am guilt-ridden I suppose, but as much as I am I’m also incredibly frustrated. I want to go after the fucker who did this to you so I can come back and tell you it’s okay now, that you have nothing to worry about, that he will never hurt you again.

I cried while writing the last part. As a result these annoying little tear stains appeared on my glasses. I tried to wipe them off with the back of my tie, but that only made it worse. Normally I would have gone to the restroom and washed my glasses in the sink, only I’d prefer to avoid the cleaning guy for awhile. So instead I transferred what I had written onto a floppy disk and left the office.

At the bus stop and on the ride home, I made a list. Here is that list. It is incomplete.

Your face as you slept. Your brown chair. Your walk seen from behind. Your voice on my answering machine. Your breasts. Your mangling of expressions. Your sleepy eyes. Your tears in the airport. Your tears in bed. Your sock collection. Your glasses next to mine on the night table. Your so-called filing system. Your fragility. Your toughness. Your favorite earrings, the Turkish ones. Your drawing of a tree — one leaf. Your literary examples. Your self-respect. Your heart, always your heart. Wherever I go, you are with me. Your sentence construction. Your kiss. Your irrational rationality. Your poetry. Your stories during sex. Your decency. Your face as you slept.”

When I arrived home, I made myself a peanut butter and banana sandwich — I hadn’t eaten all day, not even breakfast. Then I sat at my computer and typed all the pieces of the letter into one document. They didn’t really fit together, the pieces. It’s a mishmash. As I typed I was tempted to change things, in particular to remove the unflattering parts. Only this seemed so false. Why lie? Plus there was the question of which parts were the unflattering parts. In any case the more I thought about it, the more convinced I became that it didn’t matter what I cut or didn’t cut, that Alana would react the same way regardless, assuming she even read the letter, which I doubted she would. Not that I blame her. Never would I blame her for this. If anything I applaud her for it. As her friend, and I was once her dearest friend — perhaps to her shame now, but it’s true — I know she does this for herself and that it’s the right thing for her to do. The only thing, really.

At first I numbered the sections but then immediately removed the numbers because they made the letter resemble an essay. Instead I placed a single centered asterisk between each section, typed the words “Dear Alana” at the top of the document and “Love, Michael” at the bottom, and then saved the file, naming it, simply, “Letter.” Finally I logged into Apple Mail and pasted the file into a new email.

Many times in the past eight months, when sending emails to friends, I would notice Alana’s name at the top of my list of email addresses. Seeing her name there, I would often resolve to delete it — what was I saving it for? — but never could I bring myself to do this. Clearly I held onto the address in the hope that I might one day use it again.

And perhaps one day I will. But this I knew was not that day.

I deleted the email and returned to my word processing program. From there I printed the letter and filed it in my Alana folder. With all the others. You see, there are a lot of un-mailed letters in that folder. I write them now and then. When I write them I always believe I’m going to send them, it would be impossible to write them otherwise, but never do I send them. You can’t really send letters like this.

I shut down my computer and walked to the bathroom where I performed my final bathroom routine, which I suppose is my final routine of the day, unless turning off one’s light can be thought as a routine, which I don’t think it can.

It’s a sad story — a man, knowing he shouldn’t, writes a letter to his ex-girlfriend, a letter which in the end he does not to send.

It is a sad story, yes, but what can you do? You can do nothing, as it happens, so that is what I did, I did nothing. I turned out the light.

March 23, 2013

Clear

K and I like to entertain ourselves with elaborate hypothetical questions, often involving our friends and families. I’m the one who makes up the questions. A recent one went like this:

Aliens superior to us have come to Earth, to our apartment, and asked us to pick someone to return with them to their planet and teach them about humanity. The person we pick will be gone for several years, but when he or she returns to Earth no time will have passed. If we refuse to pick someone the Earth will be destroyed. Who would you pick?

As is our practice K and I both answered the question in our heads, then I did a little countdown and we simultaneously announced our picks.

The countdown was proceeded, as always, by my explanation of how the countdown would work. This is what I said, more or less:

I’m going to count down from three and then we’re both going to say the person’s name, except we’re not going to say “the person’s name” but rather the actual name of the person. Is that clear? So if you pick Joe Schmo, then you would say “Joe Schmo” rather than “the person’s name,” although Joe Schmo would in fact be the person’s name. Is that clear? The words you would say are not the word “the” or the word “person’s” or the word “name.” Instead the words would be, if the person’s name was Joe Schmo, the word “Joe” and the word “Schmo.” Is that clear?

This can go for some time, since we both find it hysterical. Not because it’s funny, which it isn’t, but because I always pretend that I need to say it to avoid any confusion. Which in turn introduces confusion. We have a lot of jokes like this, and it is on this basis as much as any other that I know K and I love each other and always will.

October 7, 2012

Puppet

I saw a policeman on the bus today. He had a puppet with him. They sat together in one of the side-facing seats toward the back, having a quiet conversation. The puppet appeared to be made of wood. He wore a policeman’s uniform with a little policeman’s hat. When he talked, his mouth opened very far. I noticed that his lips, which were bright red, had been painted on his face.

At first I couldn’t hear what the policeman and the puppet were saying, so I moved to a seat across from them and pretended to be reading a book. It turned out that they were discussing a little boy who had gotten lost at a party. In the middle of the party, the boy’s parents realized that they hadn’t seen the boy in some time. They looked everywhere and called his name over and over, to no avail. Then all their friends joined in, but they couldn’t find the boy either, so eventually the parents were forced to call the police. The officer who came was the puppet. He said that he felt bad for the family, who were terribly upset about their missing boy. Everyone was. He said that there was a chocolate cake on the table that looked delicious but that no one was eating any because of how upset they were. The policeman shook his head and said that everyone probably wanted to eat the cake even more than usual but were stopping themselves because of the boy’s disappearance. “It would have looked like they were celebrating,” he said.

“Oh, shit, you’re right,” cried the puppet, who then smacked himself on the side of his head, knocking off his little policeman’s hat.

April 9, 2012

Songs

Once, at a crowded party, I went around asking strangers about their dreams. One man said he dreamt only in colors and feelings. His dreams had no people and no stories except in the sense that the colors and feelings often formed a kind of progression. It was like music, he said, like songs.

March 18, 2012

Snapshots From A Failed Suicide Attempt

1. Pinching Pennies on the Cusp of Death

While walking to the park, I suddenly realized that I needed to buy water to drink with all the pills. I’ve always had difficulty swallowing pills. I have to wedge each one partway down my throat before gulping some water. Sometimes the pill slips out of position, even after the part with the water, and I have to start over. And here I had thirty-two pills to swallow.

At the supermarket I found that they didn’t carry any bottled water (this was long ago, before bottled water became ubiquitous), so I decided to buy the most water-like thing they had, which was apple juice.

In the apple juice section, I spent a long time comparing the prices of the various brands before finally recognizing the pointless absurdity of what I was doing.

I laughed all the way to the checkout line, and I laughed as I paid for the apple juice, and I continued to laugh as I walked through the supermarket parking lot.

2. A Useful Thing to Know

In the park, after swallowing the pills, I laid down to die. I remember looking at the branches above me before closing my eyes. I had no idea how long it would take, but I imagined that I would become sleepy and then fall asleep and then die without knowing I was dying. So my last conscious moment would be one of extreme sleepiness.

The next thing I remember — this may have five minutes later, or ten, or twenty — is of standing in the spot where I had just laid, having realized that I didn’t want to die, not then or ever.

It’s a useful thing to know.

3. Morning Constitutional

The closest hospital was three miles away. Fortunately I was a runner back then, so three miles wasn’t far. However, in the two previous weeks I had gained at least ten pounds, mainly by gorging myself on pies and cake. My favorite was Entennmen’s Chocolate Fudge Cake, which I would finish in a single sitting, eating directly from box. I would often eat two cakes a day.

So the extra weight would be a problem, but the pills were far worse. How long could I run before they made me collapse? I settled in at a modest pace and tried to distract myself by focusing on my breathing.

About halfway to the hospital, I noticed a figure in the distance. As I came closer, I saw that it was a man and that he was walking toward me.

This was, to say the least, a bizarre place for a morning constitutional. I was running along Roosevelt Boulevard, a twelve-lane highway bordered by nothing but trees. Stranger still, the man appeared to be dressed entirely in white: white top, white pants, white shoes.

Also, it seemed that he had no arms.

However, a moment later I saw that he did have arms, and that they were wrapped across his chest, as though he were hugging himself.

This too seemed strange. Of course the whole day seemed strange. And now here I was, running to the hospital because of an aborted suicide attempt. It’s difficult to think of anything much stranger than that.

Except, perhaps, for what came next, which is that I saw that the man was not hugging himself. Or that if he was, it was not by his own volition, because he was wearing a straight jacket.

As I passed him, he smiled the smile of a man enjoying a stroll in the sun.

I waved to him, and he shook his shoulder in a way that I took to mean that he was waving back.

4. Killing Time

On my arrival at the hospital, I discovered that I didn’t feel all that wretched, considering. I remember standing across from the emergency room entrance, confused about what to do. I didn’t want to enter unless I was certain I needed immediate medical attention. I couldn’t bear the thought of sitting in a dreary room with a loud television, waiting to hear my name called. So I decided to remain near the entrance, where I would be seen if I happened to pass out, until I was certain it was time to go in.

There was a phone booth nearby, so to kill time I called a girl I knew, I believe her name was Lori. She was blond and played guitar. We had made out once.

I kept the phone booth door open, just in case. We talked for a while before I finally told her where I was and what I had done. She begged me to go to the emergency room, and I promised I would go as soon as I felt bad enough. However, every few minutes she would ask how I felt, which quickly became tiresome, so I lied and said that I was feeling awful and that it was time. I think she may have cried.

Then I paced back and forth in front of the emergency room entrance, waiting.

5. Consequences

Life is a series of decisions and their consequences. I decided I wanted to die, and then I tried to kill myself, and then I changed my mind, and then I found myself standing in front of a hospital, feeling drugged and woozy.

I pushed open the door and walked to the desk. There was a nurse there, smiling at me.

“Hi, Michael,” she said.

I was stunned. How did she know my name? Was this a dream? Was I hallucinating? Was I dead?

“Lori called us,” she said. “We already have your information. The doctor is ready to see you.”

March 5, 2012

Grandmother

There was once a boy — me, in fact — who had an inflatable grandmother. She wasn’t my real grandmother. My real grandmother was a regular, non-inflatable person who got cancer and died. And then my grandfather, who had Alzheimer’s, came to believe that his wife had run away with another man in the building, who also got cancer and died.

I’m not sure if I’m explaining this right. The other man really did die from cancer, just like my grandmother, and no one ran away with anyone. But for some reason my grandfather believed otherwise, and it broke his heart. My father tried to convince him of the truth, but he wouldn’t listen. So it was then that my father came up with the idea to replace my grandmother with an inflatable doll.

Of course I didn’t understand any of this at the time because I was just a boy. Instead I pieced it together later, and my father filled in the gaps. All I knew at the time was that whenever we visited my grandfather, there would be an inflatable doll sitting on the couch and that I was supposed to call the doll Bubbie.

K: Was it a fuck doll?

M: Well, yes, only I didn’t understand that because I didn’t know what those things were. But, yes, it was an inflatable doll that you have sex with.

Anyway, my father or my grandfather, I don’t know which one, dressed up the doll to look like my grandmother. It had makeup on and wore the same clothes my grandmother wore.

I remember sitting in my father’s car in the parking lot of my grandfather’s building and having my father explain that Pop-Pop was really confused and that he missed Bubbie so much that he now had a doll that he thought of as her. He asked me to play along and say hello to the doll and call her Bubbie, and I said I would. After that we had a regular visit. We sat around eating danish like we always did, and talking about whatever we talked about, and sometimes my grandfather would direct comments to the doll, so we all turned to the doll to see what it would say, but of course it never said anything.

We had about a half dozen visits like this, and then one time we came and my grandmother… I mean the doll… wasn’t there. She was usually propped up on the couch. So I said, “Where’s Bubbie?” and my grandfather said she wasn’t feeling well and was still in bed. So I went to the bedroom to say hello, like I was supposed to do, and there I saw this terrible thing. She, it, was in bed, on her side of the bed, completely deflated.

K: Was she dead?

M: Well, she wasn’t dead because she had never been alive, but I knew she was broken.

K: How old were you?

M: About six. Anyway, it’s weird because it was actually kind of upsetting. I had come to think of the doll as my grandmother. I knew it wasn’t a living thing, and I knew that my grandfather was crazy, but I had gotten used to the doll being in the place of my grandmother, who I missed terribly, and now the doll was deflated. I didn’t know if she, it, the doll had a tear that could be repaired, or if her… what do you call it? The place where you blow her up?

K: The blow hole.

M. I didn’t know if that rubber cap thing had come off, and I didn’t think it was proper to look, the same way that I never would have looked under my real grandmother’s garments. I wouldn’t have done that even if I had found her dead. It was really strange because as I stood there, I was hit with this wave of pretend sadness. Or maybe it was real sadness. Anyway, I didn’t tell anybody what I’d seen, and then we left, and then my grandfather was put in a nursing home for people with dementia. The end.

K: This is another story that makes me want to fucking kill myself.

M: Thanks, sweetheart. The end.

February 27, 2012

Pen

There was a once a man who lost his favorite pen. He looked everywhere but couldn’t find it. Desperate, he convinced himself that his cat had probably taken the pen into the space behind the pipes in the bathroom, which was accessible through a panel that would sometimes fall open. So he crawled into the space to find it. Soon it became too dark to see, and so he ran his hands along the cement floor in search of the pen. Strangely the space seemed much larger than it should have been — larger even than his apartment. This made no sense, and so he told himself that he must have been crawling in circles. It didn’t seem that he had been, and yet what else explained the size of the space?

As he continued on, thinking about this, he suddenly found himself out in the open, on his hands and knees, in what seemed to be a different world.

He jumped to his feet and looked around. There was no sun and yet there was light. There were no clouds or trees or wind, and the ground was made of something like rubber. Strangest of all, there was no sound. He shouted as loud as he could but couldn’t hear his own voice.

In the distance he saw a mountain and decided to walk toward it. When he arrived he discovered that it wasn’t really a mountain but rather a pile, a pile the size of a mountain. And this pile consisted entirely of pens like the pen he had lost.

He walked on and came to other mountains made of other things: keys, wallets, socks.

He walked on and on, for what would have been many days, were there days in this place. He never tired, nor did he need to eat or sleep.

And then, out of the blue, though there was no blue anywhere to be seen, he spotted something in the distance moving toward him. At first it was a just speck, but the speck grew larger as it approached, until at last he saw that it was an animal of some kind. A dog! It was a dog!

This came as a shock, but there were a bigger shock still to come.

He knew this dog. It was the dog he had as a child. It had run away and had never returned; it had been lost, and now here it was, coming toward him.

February 18, 2012

So Delicious

When I woke this morning, I discovered a So Delicious wrapper on top of my alarm clock. Seeing it, I realized immediately that it was a message I had left myself last night, doubtless just before turning out the light, a message to remember something. Only I couldn’t remember what.

Similarly, a few weeks ago I discovered that I was wearing my watch upside-down. Again, I knew that this was a message to myself, and I even remembered the moment, earlier that day, when I had turned the watch upside-down. It was during lunch with Sohrab at S’nice. He noticed me do it, and we spent the rest of lunch discussing the vagaries of memory. Later, though, when I discovered the upside-down watch, I couldn’t remember what it was supposed to remind me of. In my frustration, I eventually I called Sohrab, only he couldn’t remember either, nor was he certain that I ever had told him.

I eventually let go of the upside-down watch, but I’m still stuck on the So Delicious wrapper. Accordingly, I just taped it to the top left corner of the bathroom mirror. This way I’m bound to see it each morning when I wash my face. My hope is that the repeated reminder will spark my memory of the original message.

Addendum: On re-reading the above, I realized that I might forget, yet again, what the So Delicious wrapper is supposed to remind me of, so I got out a magic marker and wrote the following across the front of the wrapper:

Found on alarm clock. What was fucking message?

January 26, 2012

Tofu

There was once a man who went on a long flight into space. He had no reason for doing this, other than that he was bored, and sadly he was even more bored in space, which consisted mainly of nothing.

One day he noticed a nice little planet and decided to get out and stretch his legs. A group of half-naked human-like creatures ran through the fields eating nuts and berries and cavorting like they were at a sixties rock festival.

Some of the women were cute, and he figured he might see some action, given that he was an interstellar traveler with a slick-looking space ship. However, as he approached the group, he noticed that the women all smelled like left-over tofu buried for months in the back of a refrigerator.

January 17, 2012

Last Request

For several months I’ve been badgering K about something I need her to do when I’m dead. It’s my last request — my only request, post-death — and it’s simple: If there’s a memorial for me, I want everyone who speaks to say at least one significant thing they couldn’t stand about me. (I actually wrote about this nine and half years ago.)

I’ve been hounding K about this because I’m certain that if she doesn’t enforce the rule, my friends will either ignore it or turn it into a running gag, as if to collectively say, “Screw him, he’s dead and he was a controlling fucker anyway.”

Each time I bring it up K claims that she won’t let this happen, except she says it in the sort of voice one uses with an impossible child, someone to whom you’ll say anything to get him to leave you alone.

For a time I did leave her alone, but then we spent New Year’s weekend in Connecticut with three close friends, and over breakfast on the last day I described the problem to the group. In short order my request was cast as an attempt to control what gets said at an event which, while it would be about me, wouldn’t actually be for me since I would be dead. K nodded the whole time.

I chose to mention it at this breakfast in large part because Andrew was there, and I long ago pegged him as a likely saboteur. However he surprised me by responding in a way that only someone who knows my heart ever could.

“I don’t think it’s a big deal,” he said. “It’s a minimal ask that challenges folks to skip the bullshit. You’re asking to be remembered.”

It was Lucy, though, who had the best line: “Can we start now?”

January 15, 2012

Helicopter

There once was a helicopter who was different from all the other helicopters. Unlike the others, he wasn’t conscious when he was on.

The moment the other helicopters were turned on, it was as though they would wake from hibernation, from oblivion. Then when they were turned off, they would enter a state of zero consciousness, as though they had died.

But this particular helicopter had no awareness of being turned on, of his propellers spinning, of rising through the air and flying over the city. Instead he would come to life the moment he was turned off.

So he would be, say, on top of some building, doing nothing, just sitting there, and then someone would climb inside him and suddenly everything would go blank, and then, in what seemed like the next moment, he would be in a completely different place, with no idea how he had gotten there. Because of course he had no way of knowing that he was a helicopter and that he could fly and that he did fly, and that this was how he had come to be wherever he would find himself.

January 3, 2012

Journal

There was once a man who signed up for Facebook. He kept hearing about it, particularly at work but also in the news and in magazines, and so one day he went to the website and filled out the form. Unfortunately he didn’t know anyone to invite to be his Facebook friend. He was friendly with some people at work, but they weren’t really his friends, and anyway he had no way of knowing for sure if they had Facebook accounts, and he didn’t feel comfortable asking.

So each day, although he had no Facebook friends, he would fill in the text box where you’re supposed to write what’s on your mind. The first time he did this he was excited to see his thoughts appear on the page, but soon the excitement wore off and he was left with a feeling of emptiness — or really, a feeling of no feeling in particular. Still he returned each day and wrote whatever he was thinking at that moment, up to a maximum of four-hundred and twenty characters, which was the most the text box could hold.

In time he came to think of the text box as a journal that could only hold one entry at a time, like a journal written on an Etch-A-Sketch. This appealed to him for reasons he never understood, although he had many theories about it. Each time he thought of a new theory, he would write it in the text box.

The end.

K: Is this true?

M: What do you mean is it true?

K: Is it a true story? Is it you?

M: [Laughter].

December 24, 2011

Sweetie

I have certain default things I say out loud when I’m alone. “I’m tired” is one. I’m not usually tired when I say it.

“Fuck you” is another. This I say when I remember having hurt someone. I say it sharply, like a command to a barking dog.

“I love you, sweetie” is another. I say this when I wake in the night. If I’m addressing anyone, it’s K, but usually I’m just saying it.

December 18, 2011

Things About Things

Zip

I’ve been thinking about things. I mean things in the sense of objects. This was brought on by Seymour, by writing about him.

I had a stuffed monkey of my own once. His name was Zip. I would put on puppet shows with him. I know this because there’s a photo of me doing it. However I don’t remember feeling affection for Zip, and I certainly didn’t talk to him or play with him. He was a prop, nothing more.

Seymour, despite his utilitarian role, is not a prop. Rather he’s a source of connection — to K’s childhood, to her mother, to every place she’s lived. In this respect, Seymour is not unique in K’s life. Our apartment is filled with K’s things. They take up every shelf we have, and if we had more shelves, they would take up those as well.

By contrast, I have few things, all of which are filed away, save for a few dozen books.

I keep a folder of photos in a drawer. I take them out now and then, but I would never put them on the shelves or walls. It would be distracting, and numbing too, in that something seen again and again recedes into the background.

When a space is cluttered, I feel unsettled, agitated. I used to feel that way in our apartment because of K’s things, but in time I’ve learned not to see them.

I often say that things — objects, possessions — have a psychic weight for me. This applies to precious things no less than junk. When something is precious, I want to protect it, preserve it. This is how I feel about the photos in my drawer, and it’s also why I keep them in a drawer, where I never need to see them.

My ideal space would contain few objects beyond the functional necessities. The idea would be to evoke and support a mindset of, for lack of a better term, meditative focus.

I recently asked K how she would feel in such a space. Her answer was immediate and certain: “Bored and lonely.”

I don’t doubt her. K’s things keep her company, and having company means a lot to her. Accordingly, her only complaint about our living room is that it doesn’t have space for an L-shaped couch, since that would open up more socializing options.

I’m not against socializing options but it’s the last place my mind goes when I think of ideal spaces.

Here I return to the photo of Zip. It was taken in the dining room of my childhood home, a dining room that had no dining room furniture because my parents couldn’t agree on what to buy: my father wanted to get whatever we could afford, while my mother insisted on waiting until we had enough money for nice things. Similarly our living room had no living room furniture, just plants. We called these rooms the dining room and living room, although little of either happened in either.

The standoff lasted my entire childhood. For my sister it was a source of shame and embarrassment, but for me it was a boon. I would hook a toy basketball net over the dining room door and play by myself for hours, imitating the signature moves of my basketball heroes.

I loved that room.

December 10, 2011

Seymour

Seymour

K has a stuffed animal, a monkey, named Seymour. K’s mother gave her Seymour when K was eight, which makes him at least thirty-three now.

K sleeps with Seymour almost every night. She leans into him, wedging him into the crook of her arm and resting her chin on top of his head. If Seymour were a real monkey he would quickly suffocate from this. Indeed there’s no better way to suffocate a monkey than what K does to Seymour.

Seymour’s head is bigger than the rest of him. Wrapped in finely-woven terry cloth, it’s firm without being too firm to sleep on. Miraculously (a word I do not use lightly) Seymour’s head doesn’t smell. None of him does, although he has spent more than ten thousand nights (I did the math) jammed into K’s armpit and has never been washed. It’s like the miracle of Hanukkah.

The only time K sleeps without Seymour is when she’s away. She says she does this because he’s too big to bring anywhere, but I don’t think that’s the real reason. I think it’s embarrassment. I think it’s the idea of a forty-two year-old woman who can’t sleep a single night without her stuffed monkey.

On the other hand, K did bring Seymour to college. However, as she explains it, most of her college roommates had some ridiculous thing like Seymour, so it didn’t really matter.

After college K lived for a year in Israel, on a kibbutz, during which time Seymour remained at home (in a box!), I suspect because K didn’t want to be ridiculed by the hardcore kibbutzniks — no-nonsense types trained in the use of automatic weapons.

A confession: Sometimes, when K is away, I sleep with Seymour. I use the same method as K. It’s a nearly prone position, which normally hurts my back, but with Seymour’s head propping me up, I wake without pain.

Also, when K’s at home and I happen to get into bed before her, I sometimes hide Seymour under my body. Often K doesn’t realize he’s missing until she’s about to turn off the light, at which point she’ll sidle up to me in a manner indicating affection, or perhaps even desire, but then suddenly go for the monkey, crying, “Seymour is mine! My mommy gave him to me!”

When I asked K what people should know about Seymour, she said, “That I love him.” I love him too, in my way. He’s a survivor.

Although Seymour was made with great care, his manufacturer had no way of knowing that he would be suffocated all night, nearly every night, for thirty-three years. Because of this, and because time is kind to no one and nothing, Seymour is falling apart: his ears are split open; the paint of his pupils is chipping away; his goofy smile, a modest red thread, has been sewn to his face to prevent it from breaking (K: “I can’t make him frown anymore”); and he has dozens of small tears, many of which K’s mother repaired long ago with dental floss.

His paw pads are the worst. Seymour’s brand name was Corky, doubtless because his hind legs are stuffed with tiny bits of cork. Unfortunately his hind paw pads are prone to small tears through which the cork slowly leaks. In recent years K switched from dental floss to duct tape and then finally gave up and wrapped Seymour’s leakier paw in a piece of fabric cut from an old sheet. The paw still leaks but the fabric contains the cork. Eventually K intends to cut open Seymour’s paw pads and remove all the cork. This will solve the problem but at the price of eliminating the squishy crunchiness of Seymour’s hind legs.

Such is life, I suppose. You do what you can, until you can do no more. And in the best case, you succeed in bringing some comfort and joy to others, even if your own smile is permanently sewn to your face.

December 9, 2011

Underwater

There was once a boy who lived with his parents in a house in the rocks. It wasn’t really a house, it was more like a cave, but it was a home and it was where they lived together.

One day there was a terrible flood and everything got washed away and the boy got washed away and he ended up in a place he’d never been.

He saw many things there but didn’t know what they were or how they had come to be. This frustrated him and made him confused and afraid, and so he kept trying to go back to the place he was from, but that place was underwater.

The boy’s name was Bill Gates, only he wasn’t the Bill Gates who is famous today. He was just a boy named Bill Gates who had lost everything, including his parents.

As the years passed, the boy slowly adjusted to the new place, so much so that he began to forget the place he was from, which each year seemed to sink farther underwater.

The End.

K: What happened to his parents?

M: He never saw them again.

K: So we don’t know if they’re alive?

M: No.

K: Make something up.

M: What? That would be lying.

K: No, make it part of the story.

M: Sweetie, I’m telling you what happened. I know it’s sad but at least it’s the truth. The End.

December 8, 2011

Four Recurring Dreams

I live in a secret room in an enormous building. I reach the room by crawling through a heating duct. The room has a mattress, a wooden chair, a candle in a dish, and nothing else. Someone lived in the room before me.

It’s the first day of school and I can’t find my classes.

I’m naked in public.

I die.

December 13, 2007

Half-Shaven

A few minutes ago, while shaving, I remembered that I hadn’t sent this email yet, although I wrote most of it last night (everything up to the paragraph about snow). I felt bad because you probably think I’m not thinking of you. So I put down the razor, turned off the water, and headed to my desk to send the email. On the way there I imagined myself standing with a group of strangers across the street and watching our building burn to the ground. Every few minutes or so someone new would join the group and slowly realize (I would watch this as it happened) that I must live in the burning building because half my face isn’t shaven.

July 26, 2007

Blanks

Recently I’ve been having experiences I think of as blanks. Yesterday, for example, I stood outside our apartment waiting for K to join me, and while waiting I realized that I couldn’t remember leaving the apartment. I could remembered being about to leave, but I couldn’t remember leaving. Nonetheless I must have left, I thought, because here I am at the top of the stairs. How else could I have gotten here if not by leaving?

It’s like the way films are cut. In one shot a woman gets into a car; in the next shot, the next moment, she arrives at her destination. We’re not shown what happened between the two shots because it’s obvious. Films are constructed so that everything obvious is left out. The viewer fills in the blanks.

Stories are the same. Even music. It’s all a collection of artfully arranged blanks.

But my blanks are neither artful nor arranged. They’re just blanks.

May 9, 2007

Regulars

My gym is just a block and half away. It’s in a basement. They tried to make it nice — and I suppose they succeeded — but it’s still in a basement. There are no windows. This bothered me at first, but now I don’t think about it.

I go nearly every morning. Most days this is the only time I leave the apartment, and the people I see at the gym are the only people I see aside from K and the occasional delivery person.

I rarely talk to anyone at the gym, but I notice everyone. I notice them and think about them and I often make up little stories about them. I do this anyway wherever I go, but the gym is ideal because I see the same people over time, the regulars. I enjoy the regulars. I’m a regular myself.

Sometimes I’ll spot a regular on the street, and if I’m with K, I’ll turn and say something like, “The woman in the blue dress is a regular. I told you about her. She wears sweatpants that say YALE across her butt.”

I tell K about the regulars as we eat our oatmeal each morning. I call these my gym stories. I have a new one each day. I believe K finds it both funny and disturbing that so much of my social life, such as it is, takes place at the gym, and that so little of it consists of any actual interaction with anyone.

February 13, 2007

Underground

It’s the middle of the night and K is making whimpering sounds. I’m lying on my side and she’s behind me, spooning me. I don’t know how long she’s been doing this, but what finally wakes me is the way she’s shaking. I turn to hold her.

“You had a bad dream,” I say. “It’s okay.”

“No, it’s not okay.”

“It was a dream, sweetheart.”

“It was real.”

She’s sobbing now. I ask her to tell me what happened. She says that her father came to visit and that we were sitting in the living room talking and having a nice time, when suddenly he said he had to go. “You mean back home,” she said, and he said, “No, dear, I have to go back underground.”

“He’s never coming back,” she says now. “He’s underground and he’s gone forever.”

“No, he’s here in your heart,” I say. It’s the only thing I can think to say.

This prompts more crying, and I hold her. In time she turns for a tissue, saying, “I’m getting better at this,” meaning better at blowing her nose when she cries. Nose blowing is my influence.

Later she gets up to pee. When she returns she says she feels better and can go back to sleep.

I ask her to tell me more about her father. “He’s always welcome at our table,” I say.

In the morning I mistakenly believe I dreamt it all, but K sets me straight.

“I blew my nose,” she says. “I never do that in dreams.”

January 23, 2007

Circle

Yesterday my sister Andrea and I visited the circle. The circle is where we grew up; it’s a cul-de-sac. We were driving to Target to return Andrea’s vacuum cleaner when she suggested a side trip.

We parked in front of Bruce Goldberg’s house. Bruce doesn’t live there anymore – none of the Goldbergs do – and yet I still think it as Bruce Goldberg’s house.

Once, long ago, Bruce’s sister Rhonda, who was fat, sat on Andrea, who was tiny. I don’t remember why Rhonda did this, but someone told me about it while it was happening and I came running. Andrea and Rhonda were on Bruce Goldberg’s lawn surrounded by a crowd of kids, several of whom who were yelling and pointing.

I would like to report that I made Rhonda stop sitting on my sister, but instead I stood there laughing. It was Bruce who pulled her off.

Also, it was Bruce Goldberg’s father who told me my first dirty joke. It happened in Bruce Goldberg’s kitchen. Bruce’s father was at the kitchen counter, drinking a beer, and simply started telling Bruce and me a joke. From the very beginning it was unlike any joke I’d ever heard. And then to top it off, the punch line included the word fuck – an amazing word for an adult to say to me, in a joke or otherwise.

Bruce became a doctor, but I don’t know what became of Rhonda. Andrea says that Bruce’s mother died of cancer. I don’t remember her at all, which strikes me as shameful. How many times did I see her walk in or out of Bruce Goldberg’s house? A thousand? I can’t even remember the color of her hair.

Andrea and I made a circuit of the street, reminiscing about the former occupants of each house. It’s always strange to return; everything is so much smaller than I remember. I tell myself to expect it to be smaller, and yet each time I’m surprised at how small it is. For some reason I can’t reduce my expectations enough to match an ever-diminishing reality.

Also, the houses keep moving closer together. In memory there’s enough room between them to fit another house, but those spaces are nearly gone now. It’s as though the circle is slowly contracting.

And the people are gone as well. That’s what strangest of all – that the circle is inhabited by usurpers who don’t even realize they’re usurpers. As we headed back to the car, Andrea and I watched a bald man walk into Bruce Goldberg’s house. Bruce and his family left that house more than twenty-five years ago and yet it still disturbed me to watch this stranger simply open the door and walk inside. I half-expected to hear the muffled voice of Bruce Goldberg’s father screaming at the man to get the fuck out of his house.

January 9, 2007

Window

I once saw a television program in which a man was lying on an operating table with a sawed-open head. A surgeon would repeatedly stimulate the man’s brain with a pointer that was connected to what looked like a giant car battery. Each time he did so, he would ask the man, who somehow was awake during this procedure, to say whatever entered his mind, and then the man would recount some random, inconsequential experience.

What amazed me was that the man would remember things he wasn’t conscious of when they happened; that everything had been recorded and could be replayed, assuming one could find the play button.

Why so much remembering? If everything is remembered, memory is reduced to a mishmash of minutia. Although perhaps I’m conflating memory and meaning.

It’s like the difference between raw footage and an edited film. The footage is memory; the film is memory spliced into coherence.

December 31, 2006

Cooperation

An awkward scene in the food co-op. The cashier is a woman I had a date with two years ago, just before meeting K. We had soup at a Japanese restaurant and she complained about being chilly – she hadn’t worn socks – so I lent her the thick wool sock I use to store my digital camera. Every five minutes or so she would switch the sock to the other foot. It was a scene from a romantic comedy, and I liked her plenty besides: she was smart and funny and attractive, and the vibe between us was relaxed and flirty.

But then I made a stupid mistake. We were talking about the food co-op, of which we were both members, and I improvised the plot of a film, a romantic comedy set in the co-op, in which a character based on her gets a crush on a character based on me. Her character switches her work shift to be on same shift as my character, only their hippy fascist squad leader keeps sending her to other parts of the store to do jobs she doesn’t know how to do. Each time she complains about this, the squad leader says, “Co-op means cooperation.” I thought she’d find this funny, but instead it made her uncomfortable, doubtless because her character gets a crush on my character and not vice versa. If I had it to do over again, I would reverse the roles.

The next day I wrote to say what I nice time I’d had on our date. She responded with a terse email asking why I would write and not call, since I now had her number. If I had it to do over again, I would call and not write, but really, if mistakes like these are what matter, it’s time to move on. I realized this at the time, but just to be certain I called and left a message. She never responded. A few weeks later I met K.

Today she was my cashier. Thankfully I remembered her name.

“Hi, Virginia. I’m Michael.”

“I know who you are.”

Her tone was the same as her email. She meant to indicate I’d made another mistake.

I smiled and asked if she was cooperating.

November 9, 2006

Strategy

I discovered today that I’ve forgotten all the songs I ever wrote on guitar. Parts of a few came back, but I couldn’t play a single song from start to finish. Also, I’m down to just four chords.

I’ve probably written twenty-five songs on the guitar, some of which were good. I say were because they’re gone now – or most are, the only exceptions being the handful I recorded and possibly a few that musician friends once played and might remember. The rest are lost, likely forever.

What’s interesting about this is how little I care. I used to hold on more, I used to try to preserve things – letters, photos, mementos. But during my last apartment move, I trashed several boxes of such items, recognizing that it had been a decade or more since I’d opened them.

It’s a kind of storage problem. The longer I live, the more past there is to save, and yet my capacity for storage, both physical and psychological, diminishes in equal measure.

Holding on is a losing strategy. Not that there’s a winning strategy.

October 2, 2006

Oblivio

David said that Oblivio sounds like a comic book superhero whose superpower is making people forget. I laughed, imagining a gang of bad guys thwarted by absentmindedness – they hold weapons in their hands but can’t remember how to use them.

September 14, 2006

Penny

A woman I knew thirty years ago, Pennysue Gold, recently sent me a thick folder of poems I wrote when I was fifteen. Most are love poems, of the painfully unrequited variety, all addressed to her. Evidently I loved her then.

My first reaction was disbelief. The poems state again and again that I loved her in the frank and desperate way one loves at that age, and yet I couldn’t remember feeling that way about Pennysue. Did I love her and forget loving her? It didn’t seem possible, but then I remembered a conversation with my father in which he told me to never take no for an answer from a girl. “They want you to fight for them,” he said. I remembered where we sitting when he said this, and I remembered that he was talking about Pennysue. This meant, among other things, that the poems were mine.

The poems. I haven’t counted how many there are, but there are a lot. I wrote them in a two-month period, often writing two or three a day, using lined paper torn from a spiral notebook. Most appear to have been copied in my best hand, although some, evidently originals, are littered with crossouts and corrections and little arrows indicating line order changes. Also: they’re dreadful – possibly the worst poems I’ve ever read.

When Penny emailed me last week (she found me while googling a girl we both knew, who I referenced in an Oblivio piece), she mentioned the poems in her first email. I was floored, having believed my juvenilia lost. But more than this, I was amazed that Pennysue had saved the poems for thirty years. And now that I’ve read them, the mystery deepens, for they are stunningly bad: repetitive, corny, and clichéd. However – and this perhaps explains everything – there is also something beautiful in their sincerity, the sincerity of a fifteen-year-old suffering his first heartbreak.

The first poem in the pile:

A Penny For Your Thoughts

I’ve been watching the sunset
Falling behind the sea
Listening to my headset
Discovering more of me

We’ve been getting closer
I feel a need for you
You’re setting off my emotions
Running me through and through

And it’s beginning to scare me
I want you more each day
I can’t look right at you
I can’t stand feeling this way

Why can I talk to you
Tell you my deepest dreams
Show what I have inside me
Even the weakest seams

I doubt you’ll ever see this
It could change your mind
And ruin our friendship
Change the sands of time

Or maybe you know already
Maybe you always knew
Lying across the wasteland
I want there to just be you

September 1, 2006

Joy

When I was twelve, I would sneak off on my bike and ride to the miniature golf course on Roosevelt Boulevard. It was two miles away, which at the time seemed really far, in the dangerous sense of far.

I would play two rounds, sometimes three, but only pay for the first. The trick was to skip the 18th hole, which would gobble your ball. I don’t know if the guy who owned the place ever noticed what I was doing, but if he did, he never said anything.

I can’t exactly picture him, but I have the idea that he was old, whatever old meant then. Forty? He would sit in the green hut on your left as entered. The hut had an opening on one side through which he would take your money and give you your ball and scorecard and pencil. The putters were around the corner.

Probably he saw what I was doing but didn’t care.

When I finished playing I would go to the Kentucky Fried Chicken next door and order a “Special Dinner”: two pieces of chicken, french fries, a biscuit, and a soda.

Such joy.

August 29, 2006

Self

I made the mistake of saying what I think.

What I said was that asking god for help with an email configuration is dumber than voodoo. I meant the idea of asking, not the specific request, although that too. What world is this in which god sits in heaven answering prayers about email configurations?

Still, I shouldn’t have said anything. Once something is said it can’t be unsaid. Better to sit in silence. Better to brood in silence, if that what it comes to, than to say what you think.

Note to self: shut up.

May 2, 2006

Turnstile

I sometimes think it all still lives in me, everything I’ve seen and experienced. When I think this way, I see myself as a field in which things grow and die, each taking root in soil fed by what came before. In this way everything connects back to the first thing, which in a sense still remains. It remains in what remains.

Other times – most times – I see myself as a turnstile: each thing passes through me and is gone.

March 14, 2006

Potatoes

I remember standing in the room where the coats were, debating what to do. Change is pressed upon one. This was her translation from the French. The question was about whether change is possible.

When she arrived, she smiled and waved. Had she come over and talked, I would have welcomed it, but since she didn’t, I stayed on the couch.

Later, as people took their seats, I saw an open seat beside her and almost took it but instead went to the kitchen to get my potatoes. By the time I finished transferring the potatoes to a serving dish, another man was in that seat.

In the room with the coats, I decided she wasn’t for me and vice versa. I may have been wrong, but you cannot divide yourself into two people and live two lives to see which turns out best.

There is another world, she said, again translating from the French, but it is in this one.

March 7, 2006

Designation

I recently walked passed a patch of grass in Prospect Park where Teresa and I once sat after riding a pedal boat. I have some photos of her from that day. I think of them as the “betrayer photos,” because, as I subsequently learned, she was cheating on me then. Possibly this designation fits every photo I ever took of her, but these particular photos are the only ones I’m certain about. Whenever I look at them, I turn them around in my mind and see myself through her eyes. She thinks: He doesn’t know.

And it’s true: he doesn’t.

February 10, 2006

Crown

Jack and Jill went up the hill
To fetch a pail of water.
Jack fell down and broke his crown
And Jill came tumbling after.

Then Jack arose and blew his nose
And said to Jill, unsmiling,
“You are not hurt. Brush off that dirt.
We must return to climbing.”

Said Jill to Jack, “I hurt my rack
And lost a shoe while falling.
As though you care, you clumsy bear.”
And then she sat there bawling.

Jack took her hand and toed the sand
And told her that he loved her.
“Was it the left?” he asked, bereft.
“Or did you hurt the other?”

“I hurt them both, you stupid oaf;
Our fall was quite a bad one.
At least your crown came tumbling down;
I don’t know why you had one.”

January 14, 2006

Ritual

The first step, probably the most difficult in a practical sense, will be to carve a life-size figure of a woman out of wood. I don’t know where I’ll get the wood or how I’ll carve it, but I figure I’ll work these things out when the time comes.

When the carving is complete, I’ll write on the wood with a fine-pointer marker, describing everything I know about the woman. I’ll have to write very small or else I’ll run out of room, given how much I know.

The next part is unclear. The question is whether I’ll use an ax. This is a problem with made-up rituals: you have to make up everything. Today I lean toward the ax because of how it would engage me in the act of destroying her. This seems important. If I burn her, I remain at a distance from her, less her destroyer than a witness to her destruction.

I should say who she is. She’s not a real person. In a sense this is her crime. Her crime is that she cannot exist anywhere but in my mind. Her crime is that she surpasses what is possible, lacking nothing save for the possibility of existing. Her crime is that I love her and have always loved her, and will continue to love her, even after I destroy her – assuming that a smoking pile of chopped-up wood equals her destruction, which I have good reason to doubt.

November 8, 2005

Fame

As K and I strolled through Prospect Park, she pointed out three famous people, none of whom I recognized or had ever heard of. Notably all three were shorter than K had imagined. Does fame make one smaller? Does one slowly shrink from the attention? It wouldn’t surprise me if the desire to avoid being gawked at might result, after sufficient repetition, in a measurable reduction in physical size.

Admittedly this isn’t a scientific sampling, but I recall seeing Curt Gowdy (a legendary sportscaster, for those who don’t know) in Rockefeller Center, and he was tiny. This was around 1979, at the height of Gowdy’s fame. He was walking down the street eating a pretzel, and the pretzel looked bigger than his head; that’s how small he was – or had become.

Also I once had a conversation with David Byrne on the downtown A platform at 59th Street. This was in 1983, just after the Talking Heads released Little Creatures. Byrne was carrying an enormous black book. I told him how much I loved his music, and then added, out of nervousness, that I hadn’t imagined he took the subway. Byrne smiled and said that the subway was the fastest way to get around.

It wasn’t until later, on the train home, as I replayed what had happened, that I realized how small he was. He couldn’t have been taller than a ten-year-old child. And of course this explained why the book seemed so big: it was huge in proportion to his itty-bitty hands.

November 7, 2005

Fingers

Sometimes I watch my fingers as I type. They seem to move on their own. It happens faster than I can will it. For some time now, they’ve been still. It’s as though they’re thinking. They think and act, think and act. I sit and watch and wait. Then, suddenly, a burst of activity. They have things to do, places to be, such busyness. This is followed by stillness. A long stillness this time. A still more considered stillness. Drawn out. It’s a kind of brooding. I lift my fingers from the keys. For a sentence they move without me.

November 5, 2005

Burning

It’s a beautiful Saturday morning in Brooklyn and I’m sitting on the bench outside Guerrilla Coffee, drinking tea. Across the street a mailbox is on fire.

For the last five minutes I’ve been looking at the clouds. I can never remember the names of clouds, but these are the high, wispy kind, the kind that resemble vapors. Yesterday B stood at my window and said that the clouds (the big fluffy kind) looked like the clouds on the Simpsons. I’ve been sitting here considering B’s remark. It seemed very telling when she said it, but now I don’t think so. Nature is a mirror for our minds, the same as everything else, and B’s mind is immersed in popular culture. It would be silly to expect her to look at the clouds and see buffalos, or whatever people saw in the clouds ten thousand years ago.

Also I was wrong to say that the mailbox is on fire. What’s on fire, rather, are its contents. I know this because smoke is spewing out of the mail slot. Just now a woman came out of the beauty parlor and poured a small jar of water through the slot. This didn’t appear to have any effect, most likely because the act of opening and closing the mail slot fanned the flames inside. Now she’s run back into the beauty parlor, presumably to get more water.

Ah, and now a small crowd has gathered around the smoking mailbox. They’re talking intently and shaking their heads. One man just pointed down 5th Avenue. At the culprit? Did he see who did this? I’m tempted to go over and ask, but I’d rather not give up my seat on the bench, which is comfortable and sunny.

Several times a woman has come out of Guerrilla Coffee to remark on what’s happening across the street. She’s terribly affected and keeps saying that this is a violation of our social contract. It’s true enough but it doesn’t become more true through repetition. I sense she needs an audience for her anguish. She stands in the middle of the sidewalk and looks at the sky (is she addressing the clouds?), saying what a sin this is and how only a psychopath could, etc. Then she retreats into the coffee shop.

Meanwhile, as I sit here drinking my tea, I keeping picturing all the mail at the bottom of that mailbox, all those rent checks and love letters, burning.

November 4, 2005

Island

I’ve been sitting here for several hours, doing nothing. By “nothing” I mean that I ate a pear, went downstairs to check the mail (there was none), and ignored three emails and a phone call. Mostly I thought. The most interesting thought I had was about a desert island.

I tried to imagine what I would do if I was stuck alone on a desert island with no media of any kind – no computer, phone, television, books, music, magazines… nothing; not even pencil and paper. I figured I would probably masturbate a lot, but otherwise what? Wander around the island? Catch fish? Repair my hunt? I decided I would run each day and do regular stretches and calisthenics, because those things help clear my head. I even decided which exercises I would do.

I also figured I would sleep a lot. But then, how much can you sleep? Ten hours a day? Twelve? Twelve hours a day still leaves twelve hours to fill with masturbating, wandering around, catching fish, exercising, and repairing your hunt. It doesn’t add up.

I decided I wouldn’t kill myself, although I would probably think about it all the time.

Otherwise I believe the experience would be like certain days in which I end up doing nothing of consequence and feel mildly lousy, until I finally go to sleep and wake up and it’s a new day. Except in the case of the desert island, the new day would never arrive.

November 3, 2005

Vibrate

People say it’s different when the child is yours. But if what this isn’t true in my case? Certainly that must happen. Lisa was convinced I would love having a cellphone, and then I finally got one, in no small part because of Lisa’s conviction, and immediately hated the thing, and hate it still. What if I react like this to my child? Most times I leave my cellphone at home because I don’t want to put up with answering it. You cannot do this with a child. A child cannot be left at home, cannot be set to vibrate, cannot be upgraded to a model with improved reception and a built-in camera.

People say everything changes in a way you can’t imagine, so I try to imagine what that must be like, but of course I can’t because you can’t imagine what you can’t imagine. You have to take the thing on faith. You have to trust that when you look into the eyes of your child, everything will change and you will change and nothing will ever be the same.

But what if that doesn’t happen? What if I look and all I see are my child’s eyes looking back at me, and nothing changes except that here is my child and here I am and nothing is changing?

November 2, 2005

Notebook

For several months now I’ve been carrying around a little pocket-size notebook. I keep it in my jacket. It’s there in case I think of something to write.

The notebook is made by a company called Roaring Spring and it’s the plainest one I could find. The cover is black with a gray swooshy logo at the bottom. And while it’s a nice enough logo, simple and unobtrusive, I would still prefer that it wasn’t there.

I keep the notebook in the right-front pocket of my jacket, along with my favorite kind of pen, a black uni-ball extra fine point, which I clip to the notebook’s front cover to prevent it from falling out of my pocket. So far this has worked well.

At my gym I carry the notebook everywhere I go, along with a little towel and water bottle. Whenever I ride the recumbent exercise bike, I slip the notebook into a slot at the back of the bike. When I started doing this, I was concerned about forgetting the notebook. Twice I’ve done this with keys. But so far I’ve always remembered.

I thought of writing my name and phone number on the inside front cover, just in case I lost the notebook, but unfortunately the cover is made of plastic and can’t be written on. If I wanted to, I could write my name and phone number on a piece of paper and tape it to the inside cover, only that seems too much.

The notebook came with forty-six sheets. I remember standing in the aisle of the stationery store thinking that forty-six was a strange number. Why not fifty? This almost prevented me from buying the notebook, but then I told myself I was being ridiculous.

I’m glad I listened to myself that day; it really is a nice notebook – small but not too small, and nearly as plain as possible. Unfortunately I’ve yet to write anything in it.

November 1, 2005

Memento

Last night K and I came up with a story about a parallel apartment to our own. In the story I’m the one who discovers the parallel apartment, stumbling on it through a hidden panel in our bathroom. The parallel apartment is identical to ours except for one detail: K. She’s there but she’s different. What she is, is perfect, a version of K without any of the things that drive me crazy about her. Notably it was K who thought of the second K.

The way we first conceived it, time spent in one apartment is time absent from the other. So whenever I’m cavorting in the parallel apartment with the perfect K (let’s call her K2), I’m absent from the real-world apartment and the life of K1. It’s a form of cheating, particularly since I’m obliged to conceal the truth – not just from K1 but from K2. I’m betraying both women at once.

Once I realized this, I changed the story to include two Michaels, one in each apartment. Now whenever I leave one apartment for the other, another Michael remains behind, which means that neither K is ever exactly betrayed.

I wondered what I would do in such a circumstance. Would I try life with K2? Would I switch to K2 permanently? Is K2 who I really want? My answer, in the end, surprised me. I wouldn’t try it, not even once.

In explaining this to K, I said that the operation would kill the patient – or really, it would obliterate the patient, replacing her a stranger. I liked this line of thought, for it made me see K’s faults in a new light: K is not K without them.

Curious, I asked K what she would do in the same circumstance. She didn’t hesitate. “Oh, I’d switch,” she said.

I roared with laughter. We both did.

Later I asked K if she would preserve any of my faults. At first she said no, but then she reconsidered.

“Something small and harmless,” she said. “As a memento.”

October 31, 2005

Purgatory

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.

October 27, 2005

Forward

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.”

October 25, 2005

Apology

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.

October 19, 2005

Romantic

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.

October 16, 2005

Question

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.

October 15, 2005

Suffering

A man comes to a Zen master and says, “I want to quit smoking. Why am I having so much trouble quitting?” The master replies, “You haven’t suffered enough. Go back to smoking.”

This story was told to me many years ago by my then girlfriend. It was her way of explaining why she hadn’t broken up with me: she held out hope that I hadn’t suffered enough yet.

October 13, 2005

Friends

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.

Cookie Monster

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.”

October 10, 2005

Fátima

Day One

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.

  1. Hi, Jay, this is Fátima calling you Friday 9:30. Can you please give me a call back today or tomorrow? Bye.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. Laugh, laugh and have fun; you’re on top of the world. Remember Adam, Jay. But I am Eve. Or evil, if you prefer.
  5. My pain, my shame, will redeem you, whether you like it or not. Remember, my pain will redeem you.
  6. 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.

Day Two

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.

“Yes.”

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.

  1. I’m leaving the check for $2,500 in your box now. Bye.
  2. 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.
  3. 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. Live happy ever after. Live happy ever after. Is that what the credo says – live happy ever after? With me in your conscience.
  5. Are you clean – clean, young, and fresh? Striking? Looking for striking women? Go ahead. Go ahead. Live happy ever after!
  6. 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!
  7. 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!

Day Three

There were nine more calls yesterday.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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 –
  7. 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?
  8. 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.
  9. 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.”

October 5, 2005

Farmhouse

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.

We never discussed what she saw at the farmhouse.

October 3, 2005

Arrow

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.

October 1, 2005

Background

Her hair was blond or perhaps light brown, and she wasn’t tall. I know this because I’m not tall myself and wouldn’t have liked a girl who was taller than me. Similarly she couldn’t have been especially thin or fat, because I would remember that. So much of what I believe derives from what I don’t remember.

She sat at the front of my row. I was three seats back. I can see the classroom a little; it had a door at the front, on my right. Several times I’ve tried to get up and walk to the door and rotate the memory so I can see the room as it appeared when I entered. But I’ve never managed get up, let alone walk anywhere.

My fellow students occupy the space around me and yet have no appearance. It would be wrong to draw them with blank faces, because they have no faces. They’re just there. It’s as though the room is an unfinished painting, most of which is scribbled in pencil. Or really, it’s more like a photograph in which the background is out of focus, so that the foreground, the object of the composition, stands out. Except this photograph has no foreground.

September 25, 2005

Confession

I was the one to find the back door open. We had just returned from the swim club, and at first I thought my brother had forgotten to shut the door. Then I saw the broken glass on the rug and the smashed window.

When the policemen came my mother told my brother and me to go outside and play, but instead of playing, we sat on the curb and stared at the police car in front of our house. There had never been a police car in front of anyone’s house. My friend Richard came over and asked why the police car was there, so I told him. He was impressed. I added that the burglars had thrown all the drawers on the floor.

That night my brother woke me and said there were strangers in the house. I listened for a while and didn’t hear anything. However he insisted I go downstairs to make sure, so went downstairs. There wasn’t anyone.

This same scene repeated night after night. I would be asleep and my brother would come in and say he heard strangers in the house. “But there aren’t,” I would say, and he’d say, “No, I heard them.” I would remind him of all the other times he supposedly heard them, and he’d say, “I really heard them this time.” Finally, because it was only way to get him to go back to sleep, I would walk through the house in the dark.

After a few weeks of this, my brother suddenly stopped waking me. This seemed as strange as the waking had been, but I wasn’t about to risk asking him about it and having the whole thing start up again. Instead I said nothing, and he said nothing, and that was the end of it.

Decades later my mother confessed to having staged the burglary. I believe we were talking about my childhood and she was describing, yet again, how hard those times had been for her.

The burglary was a scam to collect insurance money. We were destitute because my father had stopped providing child support. So while we were at the swim club, my mother’s boyfriend Phil smashed the window and ransacked the house.

I still remember Phil. He had a lot of body hair. I liked him best of all my mother’s boyfriends, then or ever. He was nice without being phony.

I asked my mother if she had told my brother yet, and she sort of looked at her hands. It turns out she that had told him a few weeks after the burglary. She had no choice. Before waking me, he would wake her, and she’d be the one to walk through the house in the dark. Afterwards she would lay in bed and listen as he crept down the hall toward my room.

September 22, 2005

Tagline

This morning over oatmeal, K and I brainstormed offensive taglines. It began with the brown sugar. The current Domino tagline reads, “We’ll always be your sugar.” I suggested they change this to “How come you taste so good?” but K convinced me it would be better as “Just like a black girl should.” Imagine it. “Domino Brown Sugar: Just Like a Black Girl Should.” All hell would break loose.

Then K and I turned to the bananas. It only took me a minute to formulate the winning tagline. However, before I reveal it, you have to promise to imagine a world in which this phrase appears on a little sticker affixed to every banana you buy.

Did you just promise? Are you now imagining it? Thank you.

The sticker says, “Happy to See You.”

September 20, 2005

Room

Her letter lies unopened on the kitchen table. Since I don’t know what it says, it could say almost anything. This remains true until the moment I open it, when all possibilities dissolve into a single reality. Right now I don’t want that moment to come, despite the fact that my last thought before opening the mailbox was how much I wanted her letter to be there.

One hears of people who avoid certain medical tests for fear they may have the disease. They do this despite the fact that such tests do not and cannot change the facts: one either does or does not have the disease. Similarly her letter already says what it says, whether I read it or not.

At the moment I begin to read her words, I enter an unknown room, one in which nearly anything is possible, although some things are more possible than others. For now I sit outside that room, in a kind of waiting area, readying myself.

September 18, 2005

Girls I Never Kissed – Debbie

A friend told me that Debbie was claiming I had made out with her at Pennysue Gold’s party. This was a lie. I hadn’t said three words to Debbie and certainly hadn’t kissed her.

What to do? On the one hand, I wanted my friends to know that I hadn’t kissed Debbie and wouldn’t have done so if given the opportunity. On the other hand, I had no desire to humiliate the poor girl, who after all had chosen me for the lie.

In retrospect, Debbie’s lie may have been less flattering than I imagined. Had Debbie claimed to have made out with the hunky Mark Goodman, her friends would have laughed at her. I was a believable choice. Or perhaps the lie was genuine, perhaps Debbie liked me and chose me for that reason. It’s even possible she told the lie knowing I would hear about it.

Whatever the truth, I’ll never know because I moved away soon after and never saw any of those friends again.

I didn’t kiss her, though, that’s for certain. I’ve kissed and not told, but never kissed and forgotten.

September 17, 2005

Girls I Never Kissed – Stacey

I met Stacey at a dance party in Pennysue Gold’s basement. I was fourteen. We danced a slow dance and she put her leg between mine, rubbing my crouch in rhythm to the music.

At first I had no idea what she was doing. None of the girls I knew would ever do such a thing. It never would have occurred to them, nor would it have occurred to me to want them to do it; it was an act beyond our mutual conception. All that changed with Stacey.

Unfortunately I can’t remember how the dance ended or what we said at that moment, assuming I managed to speak. Instead my next memory is of breathlessly telling my best friend David what had happened. He wasted no time asking Stacey to dance, and she did the same thing to him. Evidently it was how she danced.

Later, on the couch, Stacey revealed that she lived in the suburbs somewhere, an impossibly far distance away. She was Pennysue Gold’s cousin and had been driven to the party by her mother. I knew I would never see her again, and I never did.

In memory she has become my ex-girlfriend, S. Whenever I try to picture the girl in my arms that night, I see S. Because of this persistent confusion, I’ve often wondered if my “type” was imprinted that night in Pennysue Gold’s basement, at the moment Stacey glided her leg between mine.

September 16, 2005

Kisser

I’ve decided to write something new on Oblivio every day for the next hundred days. This is probably a bad idea, another in a series of self-made prisons, but bad or not it’s still an idea, something I haven’t had in some time.

I do have a few stories in mind to start. For example I’ve been working on a series called Girls I Never Kissed. This should keep me busy for a while, given the number of girls who qualify.

How many is that? Several billion, give or take. Of course if you count the dead, the numbers go up. According to the calculations of Tom Ramsey at the University of Hawaii, approximately 96,100,000,000 people had lived on the earth as of the year 2000, roughly half of whom, one presumes, were female.

That’s a lot of lips to have never kissed. But then I think: Someone did, most likely. It’s a nice thought.

July 26, 2005

Starburst

I just returned from sitting in an enormous room for a very long time and doing nothing. There were a lot of other people there as well, a hundred or more, also doing nothing. The nice thing was, there were ten times as many seats as people, so you could drape your feet over the seat in front of you or stretch out across three seats or even sit tucked in the windowsill, which I saw one woman do. She was easily the most beautiful woman in the room. For some reason she switched seats several times, each time moving closer to where I was sitting. Finally she ended up sprawled out in the seats directly in the front of me, reading a tome-like book and periodically reaching around to pull down the back of her shirt, which kept riding up to expose the tattoo of a starburst. I didn’t seriously imagine any of this was intended for me, but I amused myself by imagining she was Kate Winslet in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind – specifically the scene in which Winslet sloppily approaches Jim Carey on the train, the scene in which she calls herself a vengeful little bitch and punches him. However, the fantasy soon petered out as the woman stubbornly refused to turn around and interrupt me from writing in my journal, so I got up and changed seats. Later I saw her in the windowsill, still reading her book and still tugging at the back of her shirt.

Coincidentally she and I were picked for the same case and ended up sitting together in the courtroom as the judge delivered his spiel. I thought he was quite good, imperial yet friendly. The case involved assault and battery, and we were introduced to all the key players: the defendant, his lawyer, and the prosecutor and her law student sidekick. At the judge’s instruction, each turned and greeted us, even the defendant. Some of my fellow jurors (though not the starburst woman) said hello back. It was awkward. I thought of those moments in certain restaurants in which the waiter shows up and says, “Hi, I’m going to be your waiter today.”

“Hi, I’m going to be your defendant today.”

The judge listed the various reasons one might be dismissed from serving, beginning with knowing the defendant or any of the lawyers or court officials. My favorite reason for dismissal was the inability to avoid the corner of 40th Street and Avenue D in Brooklyn. I imagined telling the judge that I have a compulsion to visit every street corner I hear mentioned, and that this compulsion controls my life, making it impossible for me to ride public transportation.

Later the judge announced that anyone with a possible reason for dismissal should stand in line to speak “privately” with him and the lawyers. I put privately in quotes because these chats occurred at the front of the courtroom, close enough for the rest of us to hear every question the judge asked. I was near the back of the line, so I had time to learn the drill. It seemed that no one had a reason like mine, although one woman was scolded for having come to America “believing such nonsense.” Surprisingly she wasn’t dismissed from the case, although the judge did banish her to the back of the courtroom – something he did with no one else. I wondered if she would be forced to remain there during the trial, wearing a red dunce cap emblazoned with a hammer and sickle.

All this time I kept practicing my speech in my head and reminding myself to remain calm and to call the judge “your honor.”

When my time came I handed my juror ID card to one of the court officers, who walked over and handed it to judge, who read it, showed it the lawyers standing a few off to the side with clipboards, and gestured for me to approach.

I know every word we said because I wrote it down immediately after.

JUDGE: Good afternoon.

ME: Good afternoon, your honor.

JUDGE: Please tell us your concern.

ME: I’m not certain that my concern is relevant, but I believe it’s worth mentioning. While I respect your authority and that of this court, it is not for me the highest authority, which is that of my conscience.

JUDGE: You do understand that as a juror you swear to uphold the laws of this court. Given that, would your personal beliefs effect your ability to carry out my instructions or those of this court?

ME: I can’t guarantee they wouldn’t, sir. I mean, your honor.

JUDGE: Thank you. You’re dismissed.

I was crestfallen. Having anticipated a drawn-out exchange, I had badly over-prepared. In fact last night while lying in bed, I found myself asking the judge in my head (who as it turned out, looked remarkably like the real one) to imagine having been born in a world in which all convicted criminals are tortured and executed, no matter what their offense. “Your honor, as a juror in such a world, which laws would you abide by, those of the courts or those of your conscience? If you choose the latter, you must grant that one’s moral responsibility extends beyond the law, even when the law has been established through a democratic process.”

My imaginary judge was dazzled; the real one simply asked for the next card.

May 19, 2005

Melinda

I saw a young woman today in the window of a passing bus who reminded me of Melinda Mason, the beautiful girl who liked me in tenth grade. I attended that school for just one wretched semester, and she was the only person who ever talked to me. We met in French 1, where she was the best student in class and I was the worst. She sat at the front of my row and would come by to pick up my tests and quizzes. One time she saw I was writing something and asked what it was. A poem, I said. Oh really, she said, you write poetry?

After I moved away, I wrote to thank her for being nice to me, and she wrote back that everyone thought I was a narc because right after I left, a bunch of kids got busted for dealing. Then one thing led to another and I took a two-hour train ride to visit her. She confessed to having had a crush on me. She said she arranged to have a friend follow my head as she entered French class to see if I was watching her. Of course I was watching her the entire time because she was easily the most amazing girl in school – so beautiful and smart and self-possessed. She wore odd clothes and clearly didn’t care what anyone thought of her clothes, or her, or anything.

Melinda Mason.

One time we met at her locker.

She owned a horse and sometimes wore a t-shirt that said Horse Feathers.

She liked my poetry.

The day I visited her, we sat on her couch and listened to the Heart album Dreamboat Annie.

May 14, 2005

Alfred

David almost died last week. His heart stopped for twenty minutes. It happened in the hospital, just as his doctors completed heart surgery. Later the doctors told him that very few people survive such an experience with functioning brains. If his heart had stopped just a few minutes later, after they had wheeled him into the recovery room, he would have died for sure. What saved him was immediate access to oxygen. (Later the anesthesiologist said that his hands shook the entire time, which I can totally imagine: you take five seconds too many and the patient ends up a vegetable.)

I saw him yesterday at his apartment, and he told me about a radio play he wrote in his head while recovering in the hospital. It’s called Alfred Saves Himself and it’s almost entirely silence. It lasts five or six hours. Periodically you hear the sounds of different machines. A phone rings but no one picks it up. Then it rings again, and this time it’s answered. There’s some terse dialogue about Alfred deciding not to come over. At one point you hear the wheels of two janitor carts and distance voices. (The wheels were my idea. I suggested them after David explained that the voices belong to janitors.)

What’s happening is, David is dying. Each time I see him he’s farther along, farther away. We don’t talk about it.

March 25, 2005

Socks

Beth is writing something she calls Not Dead Yet. It’s a website. Each day she deletes what she wrote the previous day and replaces it with something new. The website is whatever she writes today.

Today Beth wrote about wearing socks on her hands, which is something she does to help herself sleep.

Another thing she does when she can’t sleep is think of a mermaid. The mermaid swims down through levels of caverns. When this doesn’t work, she thinks of an old Indian yogi humming on a hill beneath a starry sky. When this doesn’t work, she puts socks on her hands.

It strikes that when Beth dies someone will have to create a new website for her. Much like Not Dead Yet, the new site will consist of a single page. The page will have today’s date, only there won’t be any words on it; just the same blank page day after day after day. The site will be called Dead Now.

This reminds me of a clock Andrew made. He took an analog wall clock and removed the hour and minute hands. All that’s left is the second hand, which goes round and round. The clock is on the wall in Andrew’s apartment. Because it looks like a regular clock, I inevitably glance up to see the time, and there’s that second hand again, spinning in circles. Each time this happens – each time, seemingly, for the first time – I laugh. It’s a laugh of recognition. Andrew’s clock is only one I know that always shows the correct time.

March 22, 2005

Proof

Nothing is uglier than they did it to me. Because when you say they did it to me, you give your life to them, ruined. You say, I’m damaged and you’re the reason I’m damaged. Your damage is your proof.

March 11, 2005

Done

According to K’s friend, a Broadway composer, every musical includes a song called Me and What I Tried to Do. When K told me this, I said, “That’s not just true of shows but people.”

This reminds me that someone once said that all songs are love songs. I couldn’t remember if that someone was me, so I looked it up online. It wasn’t me.

One day, when I lose what little memory I have, I will believe I made up everything, only I won’t be able to remember any of it.

That may sound like a punishment meted out by a Greek god, something like what they did to Sisyphus or Prometheus, but I actually think I’ll enjoy it.

Been there, done that, whatever it was.

March 4, 2005

Apple

A conversation between my friend David and his then three-year-old son Jacob, subsequent to their visit to the aquarium:

– Dada, are you going to die?

– Why are you asking that, Jacob? Did you hear someone talking about dying?

– Well, Dr. Martin Luther King died out.

– Yes, that’s true.

– Are you going to die?

– Well, everyone dies eventually, Jacob. But you don’t have to worry about that. That’s far far in the future.

– When?

– Far far in the future.

– I don’t want you to leave me.

– I’m not going to leave you, Jacob. I’m going to be right here with you.

– Always?

– Well, yeah, always.

– (Really getting upset now) I don’t want you to die, because mama goes to work and then I’ll be all alone.

– Oh, you won’t be alone, Jacob. I’m right here with you.

– If you die, will I get another dada who talks just like you, and does things just like you?

– Jacob, you don’t have to worry about that. How about this. I promise not to die until I’m 100.

– When will you be 100?

– You just don’t have to worry, Jacob. I’ll be with you the whole time you’re a kid, and when you are an adult, too. Grandpa Joel was my dada the whole time when I was a kid, and he’s still my dada now that I’m an adult.

– Is Grandpa Joel going to die?

– Everyone dies, Jacob, but he’s not going to die for a long time.

– If he dies, I want a new Grandpa Joel.

– Sweetheart, don’t worry about it.

– Am I going to die?

– Jacob, people die when they are really really really old.

– I don’t want to die, because then I’ll have to go to a big field, and you’ll have to come back and get me and be my dada again.

– Oh, sweetheart, you’re not going to die.

– How can we not die?

– We just have to love life and stay healthy.

– If we stay healthy we’re not going to die?

– Right.

– We haven’t eaten an apple in a long time.

– Would you like me to go downstairs and get an apple? We can eat an apple now.

– No, let’s eat it after school tomorrow.

– That’s a real good idea.

– I don’t want anyone to die out. I just want Dr. Martin Luther King to die out and no one else.

– That sounds good, honey.

– Let’s watch the video now.

– Okay.

– And I want a snack.

– What do you want? Booty?

– Booty, bread sticks, and prentzels. And crackers. Just one kind of cracker.

– Okay, honey.

February 23, 2005

Circling Chicago

I just finished reading Idiom Savant: Slang as it is Slung by Jeffrey Dunn. It wasn’t a good book. Dunn fooled me by putting the best section first. There should be an expression for this, one that means front-loading the good stuff. It could be applied in various contexts, including romantic relationships (“watch out for her; she’s a front-loader”).

The one section I liked covered the slang of nurses, doctors, and hospital staff. In a footnote on the first page, an anonymous nurse apologies for the callousness of the slang, saying that such expressions are “a defense mechanism that protects us from being overwhelmed by a sea of pain and suffering.” Indeed.

A few favorites:

  • bury the hatchet v. to sew up a patient with a surgical instrument mistakenly left inside.
  • circling the drain adj. close to death, lingering.
  • cut and paste v. to surgically open a patient, find that there is no hope for treatment, and sew him up again without delay.
  • gone camping adj. in an oxygen tent.
  • loose change n. a nearly severed limb that will require amputation.
  • waiting for the train to Chicago v. close to death, in spite of the best medical efforts. “He has his bags packed and is waiting for the train to Chicago.”

That last one raised questions. Why Chicago? Also, what city do Chicago nurses say instead of Chicago?

Later I realized that this expression could be combined with circling the drain to create the hybrid Circling Chicago, which would not only mean “approaching death” but could serve as a handy euphemism for foreplay.

February 1, 2005

Broken

Below are photographs of my retinas. At K’s insistence I paid an extra twenty dollars for them. They show the back wall of each eyeball photographed through the pupil. The small light-colored circles are optic nerves, and the cluster of filaments emanating from the nerves are blood vessels. Evidently these photos reveal that I do not have glaucoma and that I’m willing to spend twenty dollars to indulge K.

my retinas

What happened was, my glasses broke. Sadly I saw this coming. Last week I noticed a crack in the right temple, just in front of the piece that curves around the ear. The next day I visited a half dozen optical stores, hoping to get the temples replaced. Everywhere I went I was told the same thing: we don’t keep old parts for repairs. This was a lie; I could read it in the eyes of the people I spoke to, several of whom gave me a sad, shifty look that I understood to mean, “Forgive me, my job is making me do this.” In truth no one wanted to blow a chance at a sale by admitting they keep spare parts to fix glasses under warranty.

Without glasses I’m close to helpless. My left eye is worse than my right but both are really bad. True story: At seventeen I broke my glasses but decided to go to work anyway, blindness be damned. On my way there I walked into the pole of a No Parking sign. Then at work (a Roy Rogers: “Round up that Double-R Bar, partner!”), I saw a mouse scurry past my foot.

“A mouse!” I shouted.

It was a hamburger bun.

My only backup glasses are my prescription sunglasses, which I’ve always regretted having bought and have never worn. This morning I dug them up and put them on, which plunged my apartment into dungeon-like darkness. I tried turning on all the lights, including the one above the stove, but this made little difference. Worse, my sunglasses felt weird on my face which made me disoriented and cranky.

After two hours of online research and calls to optical stores, I arranged to meet K at the Lenscrafter on 32nd Street. I choose this store because the woman there was friendly and because it was the only place that stocked my prescription.

Everything went fine at first – K helped me pick out frames and we managed to have fun in the process – but then as I was about to pay, the saleswoman glanced at my new prescription and said it would take two weeks for my new glasses to be ready. My left eye, the really bad one, had gotten worse (-10.00 in “sphere,” up from -8.75) and so the new lens would have to be special-ordered.

Having anticipated this or something like it, I dangled my broken glasses before the saleswoman and said, “I can’t wear these for two weeks: the broken end will dig into my skin. If you can’t fix them, I’ll have to take my business elsewhere.” The saleswoman looked at me, looked at my broken glasses, then looked at me again. Finally she stood, took the glasses from me, and said she would see what she could do.

This gave me a chance to tell K what she didn’t know, which was that prior to her arrival, the same saleswoman had claimed that Lenscrafters didn’t keep spare parts. So by threatening to take my business elsewhere, I was forcing the saleswoman to either tacitly admit her lie or forgo her commission. I figured the commission would win out and that my glasses would be repaired, but either way I had nothing to lose because my threat was a bluff: I would buy my new glasses at Lenscrafters regardless.

K believes I was right to lie, having likely been lied to. That’s how I felt at the time, but now I’m not so sure. Is it right to humiliate another person to get what you think is due you? K believes the saleswoman wasn’t necessarily humiliated (“this is how business works,” she said), but that, in essence, is my point. The thing called “business” perverts us.

When the saleswoman returned with my glasses, I saw that their shiny new temples were a different color from my old temples, but not so different that anyone would notice. I tried them on as the saleswoman, no less friendly than before, made sure they fit right. I’m wearing them as I type this.

January 27, 2005

Asshole

K and I have fallen under the spell of the Myers-Briggs Personality Indicator. She’s an ENFP; I’m an INTJ. According to the literature, our types are ideal romantic partners – it has something to do with how my dominant function compliments her dominant function. (That sounds kind of hot, no?)

I’ve learned some interesting things about INTJs. We’re the rarest of the sixteen types (less than 1% of the population), the most self-confident and independent, the least likely to believe in a higher power, and the least likely to deal with stress by watching TV. Collectively we have the highest GPA. We’re known as the “free-thinkers” or “masterminds.”

Sadly we’re also a bunch of assholes. Consider the following passages lifted from the literature (I’ve simply replaced every instance of INTJ with ASSHOLE):

Fellow workers of ASSHOLES often feel as if the ASSHOLE can see right through them, and often believe that the ASSHOLE finds them wanting. This tendency of people to feel transparent in the presence of the ASSHOLE often result in relationships which have psychological distance.

By nature, ASSHOLES are independent individualists. They see their visions so clearly that they are often surprised when others do not see things the same way. ASSHOLES are strong at critiquing and as a result tend to notice the negatives. To them, a job well done should be reward enough in itself.

ASSHOLES can be unsparing of both themselves and others. Anyone considered to be “slacking,” including superiors, will lose their respect – and will generally be made aware of this.

ASSHOLES apply (often ruthlessly) the criterion “Does it work?” to everything from their own research efforts to the prevailing social norms. This in turn produces an unusual independence of mind, freeing the ASSHOLE from the constraints of authority, convention, or sentiment for its own sake. … ASSHOLES many find it useful to learn to simulate some degree of surface conformism in order to mask their inherent unconventionality.

Other people may have a difficult time understanding an ASSHOLE. They may see them as aloof and reserved. Indeed, the ASSHOLE is not overly demonstrative of their affections, and is likely to not give as much praise or positive support as others may need or desire.

ASSHOLES live in a world of their own conception. They simply ignore rules, concepts, and directives that do not suit them.

In social situations, ASSHOLES may neglect to observe small rituals designed to put others at their ease. ASSHOLES tend to have little patience and less understanding of such things as small talk and flirtation (which most types consider half the fun of a relationship).

Most people do not understand ASSHOLES and try to keep away from them.

To be fair to my type, I tried to balance these passages with others that describe how collectively appealing we are. My idea was to replace all instances of INTJ with SUPER-SEXY BRAINIAC. It failed.

January 26, 2005

Friction

The document is eleven pages long and is called Customer Sensitivity Issues in Content. It shows what’s okay and not okay to include in the company’s publications. The company is a major publisher of children’s literature.

These things (among many others) are not okay anywhere ever:

  • casual, social drinking by adults
  • birth control / cloning / reproductive issues
  • ghosts, witches, warlocks
  • topics considered embarrassing such as menstruation, flatulence
  • “embarrassing” words such as breast, toilet, brassiere, jackass
  • people discussing sex or sexual feelings; human sexual acts
  • blatant disrespect of parents or authority figures
  • kids vomiting
  • suicide

I’m in a bar having a drink with a sexy ghost. We’re discussing reproductive issues. I ask if ghosts need to use birth control, and she says they don’t.

She has nice breasts.

I ask if ghosts still have periods. She says no and adds that ghosts can’t have sex with living people because ghosts’ bodies are immaterial. If a human tried to fuck her, he’d fall through.

I ask about phone sex, and she laughs. She has a great laugh.

Just then the president walks by. He’s holding a vomiting child and looks like he’s about to shoot himself. His t-shirt says, JACKASS.

“Only by speaker phone,” says the ghost.

“Pardon?”

“Ghosts can only have phone sex by speaker phone. It’s the immaterial problem.”

January 5, 2005

Night

Early in the night I heard a man cry out. I think he was shot. That’s what it sounded like. I mean his cries. I tried to remember if I had heard the shot, and it seemed that I had.

The sound he was making wasn’t continuous. He would breathe and cry out, breathe and cry out.

Later I believed I was dying. I don’t know if I dreamt this or if I was awake. If I dreamt it, I woke immediately. My thought was: This is the last moment of my life.

I didn’t know what I was dying of. I thought there had been a flash. I was dying of whatever made the flash.

November 13, 2004

Gumdrop

There was once a gumdrop who worked as a sales rep in the candy industry. His favorite thing to say was, “Oh, sure, anything for you.” Whenever someone asked him to do something he’d say, “Oh, sure, anything for you.” Another thing he liked to say was, “Ask me if I care.” He would say this in response to nearly anything anyone said to him, even compliments or offers of assistance.

The reason he worked in the candy industry instead of simply being a piece of candy was because he didn’t have any sugar granules along one side of his body. He was bald there. What happened was, a little piece of something got into the machine while he was being manufactured. This little piece of something blocked the sugar granules from sticking to him along that side. For this reason he was removed from the conveyer belt and kept separate from the other gumdrops.

He never discussed this with anyone. Whenever someone asked him about it, he’d say, “Ask me if I care.”

As a sales rep he was required to fly to lots of candy industry conferences around the country. He hated everything about flying, but most of all he hated the giant seats he had to sit in, which were about a hundred times too big.

Whenever an airline host or hostess asked if he was okay, he’d say something like, “You wish,” or, “As if,” or sometimes, “Tell me you’re kidding.”

He spent most of his time at candy conferences looking for other candy to have sex with. Despite his disagreeable personality, he was remarkably successful, although such liaisons rarely lasted beyond a single night. Often he would wake in the morning, badly hung-over, with no clue what he had done with the jelly ring or set of wax lips asleep beside him.

Sometimes when he was having sex he would remember what it was like to be separated from the other gumdrops. While it was happening he didn’t realize what it was. The way he experienced it, something lifted him from above and suddenly he was flying through the air. He had never flown before and couldn’t believe how wonderful it felt. It was as though he could taste the air with his whole body.

Another thing he liked to say was, “Yeah, and I’m the pope.” He would say this whenever other sales reps introduced themselves to him at conferences.

“Hi, I’m so-and-so,” they’d say.

“Yeah and I’m the pope,” he’d reply. “Let’s have sex.”

It amazed him how often this worked.

October 19, 2004

Haunted House

Michael,

There are two things I failed to mention last night.

The first is that I’m 41, not 35. When you told me the Nixon story, I remembered the sweat on his lip as well as you did, only I didn’t dare say this because I was supposed to be two at the time and two-year-olds don’t notice things like that. It made me wince. I should have admitted the truth right then, and almost did. But the vibe between us wasn’t that great, so I figured we weren’t going to have a second date. Why confess to a man I’m never going to see again?

On the other hand I was curious what you’d say. Of course women lie about their age all the time, but in this context the lie must be admitted in the end, at least to someone you get involved with. For me this makes it more interesting than, say, telling someone that their pathetic haircut looks good. If we had to admit such lies, we wouldn’t tell them. Really, there are few lies we would tell at the cost of having to admit them to the person we deceived.

But like I say, the vibe between us was only so-so, so I kept my mouth shut. It’s funny, though, because I was really hoping for a reason to confess.

This segues to the second thing I failed to mention. You may find this hard to believe, but last night was not our first date but our second. The first happened three years ago at a Williamsburg cafe called Bliss.

I recognized you when you wrote to me last week. You haven’t changed much. I thought of telling you the truth immediately but then decided to surprise you on the date. I suppose I thought it would be sort of funny when you first saw me again. The way I imagined it, we would laugh. But I got exactly what I deserved. All through the date I kept thinking you were going to figure it out. But you didn’t. Or if you did, you certainly didn’t show it. This is why I told you the haunted house story. I told that same story three years ago; I repeated it last night to try to spark your memory. I nearly spit up my beer when you said it seemed familiar.

I feel a little sick about this now, and I’m sorry. There was a level on which I was fucking with you. I did it because I was angry at having been forgotten.

It never occurred to me that you wouldn’t recognize me. How can you completely forget a person you talked with for two hours? Again it’s funny because you mentioned your memory problem on both dates. Obviously this is an issue with you, although I wonder to what degree you’re really aware of it.

At one point last night I thought of trying to find a way to meet you in a year, just to see if you would remember me then. But the more I thought about this, the sadder I got. It reminded me of certain relationships in which I felt unseen. Unremembered, unseen – you get the point.

Anyway I doubt you’ll ever forget me again. I may not have sweat on my lip, or whatever it is that makes a lasting impression on you, but my lies are hard to forget.

October 5, 2004

Diary

After Sunday’s reading, a group of us went out for Chinese food and told mugging stories. My favorite: The woman who was held over a pit for her Brownie dues. This was funny when she told it, but now I see it’s not. With enough distance, almost anything can seem funny.

Another woman described a scene in which a hooded man in a schoolyard stuck a gun in her face and demanded her money. “No!” she shouted, although all she had in her bag was ten dollars. Her reason for refusing: her diary was in her bag and this fucker wasn’t getting it. The man turned and ran.

September 28, 2004

Blank

I’ve been trying to think of a word. It’s a word like mutilate. It means to permanently alter something, in a negative sense. It’s what I’ve done to my fingernails. I’ve blanked them. Blank is the word. I was explaining this to someone and couldn’t think of the word. Finally I had to stop trying because I obviously wasn’t getting anywhere.

Oddly enough, I like trying. I like the tension of it. Or really I like it when the word appears, seemingly from nowhere.

The word is inside me. It’s there, buried, and I have to find it. I use different methods. My favorite is to go into a kind of trance state. I just tried it. It’s like looking without looking. My eyes are open but I’m not focusing on anything. It’s as though I’m floating, or that I’m lying still while everything around me floats.

Now I’m in a subway car, in a tunnel, as another train pulls up alongside. It seems, looking at the other car, that only the faster train is moving. Also the other train doesn’t appear to be a train as much as a series of connected boxes filled with light. People sit in the boxes, oblivious. Everyone is hurtling forward in a kind of still silence.

I just remembered the word. It’s disfigure.

August 20, 2004

Post-it

The ghost of my father keeps leaving me post-its. He sticks them in my bathroom. I know they’re his because of the handwriting. I wouldn’t have known I knew my father’s handwriting but I recognized it immediately.

Each post-it includes a quote from Werner Erhard, the founder of est. It’s not clear if my father knows that I know where he’s getting these quotes. Are ghosts capable of knowing such things? Can they read our minds?

The first post-it appeared last week. My father placed it in the middle of the bathroom mirror where I couldn’t miss seeing it. It read: You don’t have to go looking for love when it’s where you come from. Let me tell you, it was weird seeing these words in my father’s handwriting. I checked to see if the door to my apartment was locked. It was. I’m not sure why I did this because, like I say, I recognized my father’s handwriting. He has a characteristic way of writing his lowercase y‘s. I think he must write them backwards, beginning with the descending stroke on the right.

The quote seemed familiar, so I looked it up online. Werner Erhard. Then I checked to see if the post-it matched the post-its I keep in my desk drawer. It did, though that didn’t actually prove anything since I use standard, yellow, two-by-two-inch post-its. There must be billions of these in the world. Also what difference does it make if my father used my post-it or one of his own?

The second post-it appeared the next day. It wasn’t on the mirror this time but along the left-edge of the bathroom cabinet. It read: Create your future from your future not your past. I recognized this as Werner Erhard without having to look it up. My father used to say it to me all the time. I always took it to mean I should forget all the shit he pulled when I was a kid.

This got me thinking about that shit, which I don’t like to do, and pretty soon I was so pissed off that I went to my desk and wrote a post-it of my own: Create your lies from your lies not from mine. I wasn’t really sure what this meant but I liked it anyway, so I stuck it on the cabinet in the same spot where I’d found his.

The next day he left me another post-it, this time on the faucet. It read: Happiness is a function of accepting what is.

My own post-it was still where I left it. Had he read it? Knowing him he probably saw it there and ignored it. On the other hand I’m not even sure ghosts can read. I tried to look this up online. Of course I realize that people write all kinds of crap online, but I was curious if anyone had written an account of ghosts reading. No one had, at least that I could find. Not that this proves anything.

I suppose the real question is whether ghosts can change. I know they change in The Sixth Sense. That’s the whole idea of the film – all the ghosts, including Bruce Willis, are in the process of accepting their deaths, although they don’t realize this. There’s proof everywhere that they’re dead but they can’t see it.

Is my father in the process of accepting his death? It doesn’t seem so. Instead it seems that he’s lecturing me, same as always. Every day there’s a new post-it. The one this morning went: In life, understanding is the booby prize. That’s Werner Erhard as well. They’re all Werner Erhard.

I stopped writing my own post-its after the one about lies. For one thing, I don’t know if my father can read them, and for another, I doubt he would even if he could. Also, what’s the point? That’s the clincher. Even if my father can read, and even if he is reading them, there’s no point.

However, a few days ago he left a post-it that really pissed me off, coming from him. It said: Your life works to the degree you keep your agreements. The moment I read this, I rushed to my desk, pulled out a post-it, and scribbled two words in big block letters: DROP DEAD.

Then I remembered. He is dead. He’s dead and doesn’t know it. This made me laugh. Not because he’s dead but because I’d forgotten. I’m just like my father: neither of us can see how dead he is.

August 18, 2004

Buddy

I’m in the army and a robot is my best buddy. This is great except yesterday I had to watch my buddy’s head get blown off. We were crawling through a ditch on our bellies when there was a sudden flash of light and ka-boo, no robot head. I was grief-stricken because I really loved that robot. Also this was supposed to be a training session and nobody said anything about explosions and blown-up heads. Holding back tears I went up to Sarge and said, “Sarge, they blew the head off my best buddy.” Sarge shrugged and told me to shake it off. Typical Sarge.

Next morning I’m cleaning my gun and thinking about that blown-up head when Sarge introduces me to my new best buddy. This one looks and acts exactly like the last one except he can’t remember anything I told the last one. I guess all those conversations got blown up with his head.

The new one knows all the jokes told by the last one and tells them the same way. They’re all jokes about robot soldiers. For example:

Question: How many robot soldiers does it take to screw in a light bulb?
Answer: One.

None of the jokes are funny, but I used to laugh anyway because I didn’t want to hurt my buddy’s feelings. Now I can’t laugh anymore. My new buddy doesn’t seem to notice this – or he if does, he never shows that he does. Instead he just pretends that I laughed and moves on to the next joke.

August 11, 2004

Man

There’s a man who sells candy bars on the subway. He keeps the candy bars in a cardboard box. I used to see him when I lived in Williamsburg and rode the JMZ train. He would walk from car to car and hold out his wares for the passengers to see. He never said anything. Maybe he didn’t speak English. Or maybe he had nothing to say. The one time I saw him make a sale, he held up a forefinger to indicate the price of a particular candy bar. One dollar. Probably all the bars cost a dollar.

He was beaten down. People who sell candy bars on the subway are invariably beaten down, but he was beaten down more than most. I believe this hurt his sales. He never smiled, never tried to make eye contact. He was like zombie, shuffling from car to car.

Once, late at night, I boarded the Brooklyn-bound J train at Canal and found him sitting there, alone, in the middle of an empty row. I had never seen him sit before. He had his cardboard box in his lap and was gazing across the aisle – at nothing, apparently.

August 6, 2004

Now

Among the things I must do, there is always the thing I want least to do. This thing is also the one that weighs on me most, its weight increasing in proportion to the amount of time I spend not doing it.

I know I have to do this thing to be happy and yet I still put it off.

Even now, as I write this, there’s something else I should be doing.

July 17, 2004

World

The pain of others, even a pain so evidently similar to my own, seems so far away, a little ship out there in the distance. I wish I could touch the head of another and feel what that person feels. The world would be different then.

July 13, 2004

Inscription

He doesn’t know. This is what Nancy answered to her own question…. He couldn’t see what she had done.
– TC Gardstein, Circuit
Oh, my little bird
I am blind as you are blind
– Jodie McCann, Elegy for My Little Bird

A WEEK AGO SUNDAY, Independence Day, at about two o’clock in the afternoon, I checked my email on my girlfriend Teresa Gardstein‘s computer. When I finished checking, I closed the browser and then went to close AOL, when I noticed something odd, something that made me stop what I was doing.

Teresa had left her AOL In Box open, and near the top of the list of emails, I saw what struck me as a strange and disturbing subject line.

thinking of you…

Who besides me would write such a subject line to her?

I glanced at the “From” field. The address there began jmk@.

J, I thought. Who does Teresa know whose first name begins with J? No one but her cousin in Kentucky; however her cousin’s last name begins with G, not K, and anyway her cousin wouldn’t write such a subject line.

I scanned down the list of emails. Teresa’s In Box was peppered with emails from jmk, all of which had suggestive or semi-suggestive subject lines. For better or worse, I’ve forgotten all of these subject lines. The only one I remember is the first. Still, the others must have been similar enough to convince me to do what I did next, which was to click on thinking of you…

I had never done such a thing before, not to Teresa nor anyone. It’s not the sort of thing I do. In this case, though, I didn’t hesitate.

Teresa was in the kitchen. I was in the living room, at her desk. You can see her desk from the kitchen, although it’s at least fifty feet away, at the other end of the apartment. Teresa computer, a laptop, faces sideways in relation to the kitchen, which means you can’t really see the computer’s display from the kitchen, or at least not much of it.

jmk’s email was brief and to the point. It read, in its entirety: …as I listen to Hooverphonic.

That may seem benign enough. One can imagine such an email being written by an old friend upon stumbling on a CD you both loved in college.

thinking of you…
…as I listen to Hooverphonic.

However, the message was not benign. Not even close. Hooverphonic has a special meaning for Teresa, one that is far from benign. Hooverphonic is sex music. Teresa likes to play it when she fucks.

I started seeing with Teresa eight months ago. We met through the personals on nerve.com. Her headline read, Give me liberty or give me chocolate. In her photo she sat grinning before a luscious-looking chocolate dessert.

On our first date we ended up making out for two hours on the stoop of her former apartment in the East Village. She lost track of time and missed the last train back to Long Island where she was temporarily living with her parents. I suspected – or perhaps hoped – that she had missed the train deliberately, as a way to get me to invite her home.

I invited her home.

Since the only place to sleep in my studio apartment is my bed, I pledged to Teresa to not take advantage of the situation. In the end I honored that pledge despite the best efforts of Teresa, who had made no such vow. It was the only time I refused her.

In the morning she did something I’ll never forget. She said she wanted to try it with me, meaning try a committed relationship, and that she didn’t want to pretend otherwise or play any games. She cried as she said this.

Later, during more difficult times, she would sometimes regret her candor that morning. “I shouldn’t have let you know so soon,” she would say. Each time she said this I winced. She won my heart by being honest and vulnerable. It was the sweetest, sexiest thing I could have imagined. I said yes and never regretted it.

I read three or four of jmk’s emails.

His name is James or Jim. Both, I suppose.

In an astonishing feat of self-protection, I have forgotten what James or Jim wrote to Teresa. All I know is that the evidence was damning but not conclusive. There remained a chance, however small, that James or Jim was merely coming on to Teresa, merely trying to woo her.

Actually there’s one thing I do remember. In one of James or Jim’s emails, he said that Teresa was going to love what he planned to do to her next time. James or Jim did not say what he planned to do, but even if he had, it would not have proven that Teresa wanted him to do it, or worse, that she had permitted him to do such things in the recent past. This is despite James or Jim’s use of the words next time.

James or Jim had written at least a half dozen more emails, but I stopped after three or four. I’m not sure why I did this. The way I remember it, I was afraid of being caught. However it’s possible that I’m remembering wrongly, or more likely that I’m remembering rightly only this wasn’t the real reason I stopped.

When I closed the third or fourth email, I saw that there were checks next to the emails I had just read and that these emails were the only ones with checks.

I know a lot about email programs, but in this moment I panicked, imagining that the checks were permanent and that Teresa would see them and realize I had read her emails. I scanned the screen for a solution, but there was none to be found. I didn’t know what to do, so I kept looking. And then, mercifully, I saw it – the “Mark As Unread” button. I clicked this once for each email I had read, closed Teresa’s In Box, closed AOL, flipped down the computer screen, and sat there trying to think.

After some time, perhaps as much as five minutes, I got up and walked to the kitchen.

I’m a good actor. Acting is a kind of storytelling, and I have a gift for stories. The role I played this day, one of my most challenging, was The Man Who Doesn’t Know Anything.

In the kitchen Teresa was making tuna fish sandwiches. She wasn’t the same Teresa she’d been just a short time before. She will never be that Teresa again. It was my job to act as though I didn’t see this.

We had plans to spend the afternoon in Fort Greene Park, so I asked Teresa when she thought she’d be ready, and she said soon.

I had a plan in mind, of a sort. It was to talk with her in the park, after we ate our sandwiches. I would start by asking her about our relationship, about how she felt it was going. I wouldn’t mention the emails.

This was my entire plan. Looking back I don’t know what the point of it was. Mainly I think I was in shock.

The last time Teresa and I had discussed our relationship was six weeks prior, in late May, the night before she was to leave for a week-long Caribbean vacation. We were walking along Henry Street on our way to the promenade, and had just crossed Atlantic. I don’t remember what she said to set me off, but whatever it was, her words were more than I could bear. Turning to her I shouted, “Enough! I’ve had enough! You have no fucking idea how selfish you are!”

I tried to leave, to walk away (something I’d never done before), but Teresa grabbed my arm and pleaded with me not to go. I’d never seen a look like that on her face. She was terrified of losing me.

We talked for hours that night, wandering the streets of Brooklyn Heights and Cobble Hill. I told her two very hard things, things I had previously confided to just a few close friends. In a sense these two things are the same. In a sense I’ve only ever had one thing to say to her, and I’m still saying it. I said that I felt she didn’t care about me, or that if she did, she had no idea how to express it. I said that nearly all our time was focused on what she was thinking or feeling or on doing what she wanted to do.

There’s a price you pay for saying such things, just as there’s a price for feeling them. I don’t think I fully realized either price at the time. Actually I know I didn’t.

Her cab to the airport was due at five in the morning. We stayed up that night, talking quietly. At one point Teresa apologized for how she had treated me, but soon her apology devolved into a series of excuses. It was, I knew, the best she could offer, and it was in this spirit that I heard it and accepted it.

When we had sex I kept thinking that everything felt like tears. Afterwards she wanted to know why I loved her, the reasons. I listed everything I could think of, but what I wanted to say is that I loved her because I loved her, not because of any reasons. The reasons hardly mattered.

Fort Greene Park is about a mile from Teresa’s apartment. We zigzagged through Boerum Hill, turning at every corner. Teresa gabbing the entire way. Fortunately for me, she didn’t require more than an occasional acknowledgement that I was following what she was saying. Not I was actually following it. I couldn’t. I was also having difficulty speaking. I mean in the physical sense: I couldn’t get my mouth to work right. For this reason I limited my comments to just a word or two at a time.

I see.

Yes.

Really?

As we walked a strange thing began to happen. I began to forget about the emails.

When I think back I remember having difficulty speaking as we passed a playground on Pacific. Then, in my next memory, I’m in a bodega by Fort Greene Park and I’m suggesting that Teresa buy a coke in a plastic bottle rather than a can because the bottle, which has a twist-off lid, will last longer. Looking back it doesn’t appear that the man in the bodega knows about the emails.

We laid out our towels on the far side of the main hill. It was a splendid day. Fourth of July in the park. Bright sun, cool breeze.

I ate my sandwich and waited for Teresa to finish hers. When she did, I discovered again that I couldn’t speak. It wasn’t a physical problem this time; it was fear. I’m not exactly sure what I was afraid of. Was it of losing her? If that’s what it was, it was an odd fear because deep down I had to know she was already gone.

When I finally found the courage to say what I planned to say, Teresa thanked me for bringing up the subject and confessed to having trouble taking the initiative. We talked for three hours. It was the best conversation we ever had about our relationship. I understand now why this was, but at the time I found it disorienting. I kept waiting for her to be unreasonable or defensive, but she wasn’t. She said – and I think I’ll always remember this – that she felt she couldn’t commune with me. Here she meant commune in contrast to communicate, which struck me as a beautiful and sadly accurate distinction. I said I felt the same way and wondered aloud why we couldn’t commune. The answer, we decided, had to do with trust, or the lack thereof. I asked if there was a way to build trust, and she said she didn’t know. Then she told me a secret.

“I feel totally isolated and alone,” she said, crying. “I feel alone by myself and I feel alone with you.”

Moved, I thanked her for telling me this. “It gives me hope,” I said.

“Ah, but there’s so much more you don’t know.”

This may be hard to believe, but when she said this I had no idea what she could have meant. It was as though I had slipped into another world, a world with no James or Jim, a world with no emails about anyone’s plans for next time, a world with no references to Hooverphonic. I believe I spent much of the afternoon in this other world. However there were a few moments when I would slip back to the world of knowing. One such moment occurred near the beginning of the conversation. I brought up the subject of sex, saying that she didn’t seem as interested lately. I did not say, because it did not need to be said, that her relative disinterest was unprecedented. From the start, sex was at the core of our connection. It was the one place, to use her language, we could always commune. I said – and when I said this, I knew perfectly well what I was saying – that I had begun to wonder if there was someone else.

“There’s no one else,” she said.

She said this softly, and I watched her face as she said it. I didn’t see anything there.

Sometime in January I celebrated a friend’s birthday at a restaurant in Teresa’s neighborhood. After dinner I decided to walk to Teresa’s apartment and surprise her. It was a spontaneous thing. Previously we had only seen each other at arranged times. I considered calling first – I wasn’t sure if she’d be home – but then thought it would be more romantic if I took a chance and showed up at her door.

As I walked down Smith Street a terrible vision came to me, a kind of negative fantasy. I would open her door and hear the sound of her having sex with another man. Only I wouldn’t know what the sound was at first, so I would go inside to investigate.

There’s a scene like this in Kieslowski’s Decalogue. I remember being horrified by it. A man follows his wife to the apartment of another man, where he climbs onto the man’s ledge to look inside. We see him inching toward the bedroom window, all the while clutching some part of the wall to keep from falling to his death. When the camera finally pans into the room, we see his wife in ecstasy, gleefully fucking the other man.

In my vision I didn’t actually witness Teresa fuck anyone. The scene ended, mercifully, as I reached Teresa’s living room and realized what those sounds were. Still, despite being spared the worst of it, I felt sick and bewildered. I’ve never been the jealous type, I’ve never been the kind of man who tortures himself with visions of his lover cheating on him. On this night though something possessed me. I stopped a block from Teresa’s apartment and called her on my cellphone. She sounded normal – not at all like she’d just been having sex with another man. I said I was in the neighborhood and asked if I could come by, and she happily agreed. Of course the reason I called was to her give her time to get the other man out of her apartment. I knew I was being ridiculous, I knew there was no other man, but I couldn’t bear the thought of experiencing my nightmare in real life.

Later I told Teresa what had happened. She was touched. It was as though I’d given her a bouquet of roses.

“I didn’t think you got jealous,” she said.

“I don’t,” I said. “Or at least I didn’t use to.”

Although such visions never returned, there were other things.

Teresa writes stories, most of which involve sex – often casual sex or sex with multiple partners. These stories aren’t pornography; they’re serious works of fiction. It’s just that sex is usually central.

Many of the stories are based on Teresa’s own experiences. She’s always been open about this and I’ve always been supportive of her writing. After all I write stories as well – somewhat explicit stories, at times – and these too are often based on my own experiences.

Still, whenever Teresa read one of her stories to me, I would find myself becoming increasingly upset and even distraught. I tried to hide this from her, feeling that it was wrong – and not just wrong but embarrassing. But no matter how I tried I couldn’t control it. As Teresa read, my breathing would become shallow and I’d begin to feel as though my face were burning.

It didn’t occur to me until today that the many of these stories, including Teresa’s first novel, feature a protagonist, invariably an attractive and intelligent young woman, who is cheating on her boyfriend.

Leaving Fort Greene Park, Teresa and I walked south on DeKalb. At Flatbush we came to Junior’s, a landmark Brooklyn restaurant famous for its cheesecake. Since Teresa had never been there I suggested we give it a try.

Nothing of note happened during dinner. We had a nice time. I believe I spent the entire meal in the world of not knowing.

When we stepped outside again, it was dark. Our plan was to watch the fireworks from Teresa’s rooftop. We heard them begin as we hurried back.

Teresa’s roof is connected to a series of roofs that run the length of her block. We moved to the corner roof to get the best view, and there Teresa lit up a joint.

It had been my idea to watch the fireworks from Teresa’s roof. Teresa hadn’t known she had access, nor that the fireworks could be seen from this distance. Now, standing close to her, I could feel her happiness.

The pot was strong. As it took effect I felt the need to sit, so we moved to the front ledge of the roof. The ledge was about a foot high. We sat side by side with my arm wrapped around her.

Sitting there made me uneasy. Three rooftops over, a small group of people were watching the fireworks. What if one of them, for god knows what reason, decided to run over and give us a push? Or what if we simply lost our balance in reaction to the fireworks? We would fall to our deaths. I wondered what that would be like, to fall together. Would I keep my arm wrapped around her?

I said nothing of this to Teresa. Instead I asked if we could stand again, which we did.

The fireworks, doubtless augmented by the pot, were stunning. I found myself sighing in the way I sigh during sex with Teresa. And it was like sex, in a sense, each burst a small explosion of flowering pleasure. Teresa began to respond with her sighs of her own. And then it truly was like sex, with each of us finding deeper pleasure in the pleasure of the other.

When the fireworks were over, we started to kiss, and soon Teresa indicated the desire to fuck on the roof.

We’d never done anything like that before – nor even strayed from having sex in bed – but the way I looked at it was, if your incredibly sexy girlfriend wants to fuck on the roof, you fuck on the roof, no questions asked. Naturally we might be seen up there – people were standing on rooftops all over Teresa’s neighborhood – but that was part of the point. In fact while we were looking for an appropriate spot, Teresa said she hoped that others would see us and get ideas.

“I want to start a chain reaction of fucking that will spread over the entire planet,” she said.

Unfortunately there was nowhere even remotely comfortable to do it. In the end I sat on the pebbly rooftop surface with my back against a chimney and my shorts down just far enough to expose my cock. Perhaps because Teresa was stoned, she didn’t bother to remove her panties but only lowered them to her ankles. This made it difficult for her to straddle me. We gave up after a friendly but fruitless struggle. I’m not sure if I ever made it inside her.

Leaving the roof, we took the fire escape down and climbed through her kitchen window. I don’t know what Teresa did next, but I went into the living room to look for a CD to play.

I felt good. I knew that Teresa was happy and that we were going to have sex and that it would feel as intense as always and bring us closer.

Teresa’s CDs are in a tall stand arranged alphabetically. I started at the top, at the A‘s, and made my way down. Because Teresa has so many Beatles CDs, I was almost a third of the way from the bottom when I finally reached Hooverphonic.

I believe I passed from one world to the other at that moment. Or perhaps I straddled the border, one foot on each side.

When Teresa walked into the living room, I held up the CD for her see.

“Is it okay if I play this?”

As I said these words, I looked directly into her face, watching.

She flinched. It was a small flinch but I caught it.

“Sure,” she said.

I put on the CD and went over to the couch. After one song Teresa asked if she could play something different.

At this point I must have drifted back to the other world, because the next thing I remember is being in bed with her and having sex. Near the end, as she was about to come, she asked me to come with her. As I did, just before it happened, I felt the compulsion to thank her. Naturally I resisted doing this, for she would have found it bizarre and possibly disturbing, but afterwards I told her about it.

“I’m glad you didn’t say anything,” she said, chuckling.

“But I felt it,” I said. “I wanted you to know.”

A bit later she mentioned being thirsty so I suggested the lemonade in the refrigerator. Earlier this day she had showed me a special type of lemonade she had bought. She picked it because of the bottle, which was tall and sleek and had the kind of complicated metal lid contraption used on old-fashioned milk bottles.

We stood naked at her kitchen counter and tried, both at once, to remove the lid. It wouldn’t budge. Finally I asked her to let me do it alone, and after much confused fiddling I realized where to push. The lid slid off with a resounding champagne-like bang. We drank a glass each, then a second. Granted I was stoned, but it was also really good lemonade. Between gulps I came up with a sexy tagline for it: The after-fuck refresh-me-up. Teresa loved this, and we took turns saying it like actors on television commercials.

When we returned to bed I told her that I wanted to write about what had happened with the lemonade, and I asked her to help me remember the tagline. She said she would. This is the last thing I remember her saying. Then I fell asleep.

I woke the next morning at eight-twenty. I know the exact time because I got up and walked around the bed to get my glasses which were resting on Teresa’s nightstand. After putting them on I glanced at the clock.

We had gone to sleep at about one. Most likely Teresa, a late sleeper, would remain in bed until at least ten. I had hoped to sleep late myself but for some reason woke early.

I stood gazing at Teresa. The sheet, wrapped around her and tucked under her body, made her look like a woman-sized candy in a blue wrapper. I studied her face. It was puffy with sleep but no less dear for that.

I walked to the living room, sat at Teresa’s computer, clicked on the Start menu, opened the control panel, and turned off the computer’s sound. The reason for the latter should be clear: I didn’t want the sound of the modem to wake Teresa.

Then I started AOL and opened Teresa’s In Box.

What’s interesting to me now is that I didn’t consciously plan any of this. I didn’t even think to do it until I woke. However the moment I woke I knew exactly what to do and went about it in calculated fashion.

I had one rule and that rule had a name: court of law. I would read Teresa’s emails to the point at which I found evidence sufficient to convict her in a court of law, were transgressions such as these considered criminal.

I started at the top of the list, at the emails I had read the previous afternoon, and worked my way down. There were several moments when I stopped to asked myself if this or that thing was sufficient, and each time I made myself continue. Court of law, I kept saying in my head. Court of law.

It turns out that Teresa was betraying me with more than one man. I don’t know the exact number; I just know that at a certain point I switched from reading James or Jim’s emails to reading Greg’s. I picked Greg because he had sent a lot of emails. Greg was also the one who gave me my evidence and for this I am grateful to him. Lord knows how many more emails I would have had to read if Greg hadn’t come through.

The clinching email was about plans. Here Greg sent Teresa a short list of nights he was available to see her. This wouldn’t have convinced anyone of anything, but at the bottom of Greg’s email I found what I had come for. It was the email that Teresa had sent to Greg, the one in which she had asked when he could see her, the one to which Greg had replied with a list of available nights.

Teresa has a characteristic way of signing her emails. This is what I noticed first. She had taken her name and appended something playful to it, so that it read something like Teresychedelic. Only it didn’t read Teresychedelic, because that’s one of the names she used with me. The one she used with Greg I don’t remember anymore – not that it matters. What matters is that it was proof, if proof indeed was needed, that Teresa had written the words above the signature.

Among those words, near the bottom of the email, just before her signature, Teresa wrote this: “I can’t wait to have your cock inside me again.”

Or maybe she wrote, “I still remember having your cock inside me.”

Or maybe she wrote something similar but different. The only thing I know for certain – and this, sadly, I would swear to on my life – is that she definitely wrote the phrase “your cock inside me.” You don’t read a phrase like that, in a context like that, and ever forget it.

I closed the email, closed Teresa’s In Box, closed AOL, and closed the computer. Unfortunately these things were far more difficult to do than usual given how much my hands were shaking.

As I had done the previous afternoon, I sat at Teresa’s desk and tried to decide what to do. It was a surprisingly easy this time, considering.

Question: Do I break up with her?
Answer: Yes. What she’s done is unforgivable.

Question: Do I wake her to tell her?
Answer: No, that could get ugly.

Moving quietly I crossed the room and got my clothes which were draped over the arm of her couch. To reduce the chance of being heard as I dressed, I carried my clothes to the kitchen. Once dressed I grabbed Teresa’s collection of handbags – she has three – and brought them into the hall outside her apartment. There I searched each bag for her keys, without success. I carried the bags back into the kitchen, and as I walked in I noticed her keys in a little dish by the front door. My keys, the ones to my apartment, the ones I had given her only two weeks after meeting her, were on a separate key ring that looped through Teresa’s larger key ring. I removed my keys and placed them in my bag. Then I slipped out of the apartment and walked with my bag to the ground floor of Teresa’s building. There I took out a notepad and pen and sat down on the stairs.

I’m a careful writer. I try hard to say what I mean. However saying what you mean means knowing what you mean, and knowing what you mean takes time, and in this case I didn’t have much time.

As corny as this sounds, I found myself thinking of the letter as a kind of spiritual test. The words I would write would be inscribed on the gravestone of our relationship. Could I find it my heart to remember her heart and to leaven the letter with kindness?

The words came slowly. When I finished a draft, I read it through from the beginning, made a few edits, and re-wrote the letter on a clean sheet. Then I walked up the stairs to Teresa’s door where I stopped for a moment and listened for sounds from inside. There were none.

I took a breath, laid my set of Teresa’s keys on her mat, and slipped the letter face-up under her door.

I arrived home at nine-fifteen. Teresa called an hour later. I didn’t answer. Instead I dialed my voicemail and deleted the message she had left. I didn’t listen to it.

Five days later I received a letter from her. This I returned unopened. I also signed up with a spam filtering service, in part so I could put Teresa’s email address on my “bad sender” list.

These were extreme measures, and there was, I confess, an element of revenge to them.

That’s the ugly side of things. The other side, also ugly in its way, is about fear. I’m afraid that if I allow her to speak, she will begin by apologizing but then manage to whittle down her apology, bit by bit, until nothing remains. I have good reason to fear this, knowing Teresa as I do, and I will not allow it.

Over the past six days as I wrote this account I thought a lot about forgiveness and healing. I’ve come to believe that healing is a kind of forgetting. We never really heal; we just move further from the moment we were hurt. Still I imagine that I will forgive Teresa in time. However I will never allow her to hurt me again; I will never give her the opportunity to make excuses for what she did.

Assuming I remember what she did.

Here is what is inscribed on the gravestone:

Teresa,

Our relationship is over and I will never see you again. You have lied to me and betrayed me in a way that is not forgivable.

As I write these words you are asleep in your bed. I looked at you one last time before leaving the room. I wanted to kiss you but was afraid that you would wake.

I would like to leave you, and to remember you, with kindness. I care for you and I want you to find happiness.

I ask that you not contact me. I do not mean this harshly but you should know that I will ignore any message you try to send.

Do you remember the words that came to me last night just as I was about to come? I say those words again, Teresa. Thank you for all you gave me.

Love,
Michael

p.s. I have taken my apartment keys. Yours are outside your door.

June 30, 2004

Problem

I once had a boss who refused to say the word problem. Whenever he wanted to say problem, he would say opportunity. At staff meetings he would often talk about the opportunities the organization faced. However, since he also used the word opportunity to mean opportunity, you had to determine from context whether he was referring to a problem or an opportunity.

June 9, 2004

Terrace

I’m working on a taxonomy of evil. This began five Thursdays ago, during lunch, which I ate, as I do each Thursday, on the Fragrance Terrace of the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. The Fragrance Terrace is for Garden staff. I’m part-time staff so I get to eat there. Four of my colleagues were with me, and we – or they – discussed the torture of Iraqi prisoners, which was big news right then. I learned about it from my colleagues.

Never did I determine why it was such big news. Did the American people seriously believe that Iraqi prisoners were not being tortured? Do the American people seriously imagine that the Geneva Convention or the U.S. Constitution or any law ever written can prevent people with power from abusing that power? What world are we living in, in the mind of the American people?

I perked up when someone called Rumsfeld evil, and someone else – me – called Cheney eviler. The distinction hinged on my interpretation of each man’s morality. As I see it, Rumsfeld operates according to a consistent set of moral precepts. Cheney, by contrast, is interested only in power. Said another way, Rumsfeld believes his actions will bring about a better world, while Cheney believes his actions will protect or expand his power. Said a third way, Rumsfeld is Hitler and Cheney is Stalin. Hitler believed in Aryan supremacy; Stalin believed in his own hegemony. Of course it’s entirely possible that Hitler believed in his own hegemony no less than Stalin but did a better job of camouflaging it in the rhetoric of Aryan supremacy. Also it can be argued that Stalin and Cheney are moral according to a version of morality that values power above all else.

One of my colleagues objected when I put Nixon in the Stalin category, since Nixon’s crimes don’t compare to Stalin’s in terms of scale.

Fair enough. My taxonomy of evil will include an adjustment for scale. This means that Jeffrey Daumer will be considered less evil than Dick Cheney, despite the fact that Cheney has not, so far as I know, killed and eaten anyone. I mean, not directly.

My taxonomy of evil will also include an adjustment for how directly evil one is, although in an odd twist, indirectly evil acts such as expanding the Army’s use of torture will be considered more evil than directly evil acts such as torturing people. It will work just like Amway, with a percentage of evil flowing back up the pyramid.

June 8, 2004

Debate

In fifth grade I participated in a classroom debate. I’ve long since forgotten the topic of the debate, or whether my team was for it or against it, and in fact the only thing I remember is that I didn’t say anything. Not a word. I had spent a week studying the subject of the debate, but when the time came to debate I froze. I remember telling myself that I had to say something, that I couldn’t just sit there in silence, but that’s what I did. It was humiliating.

After class, my teacher, Mrs. Staller, who wore an extraordinary amount of make-up, almost like a clown, touched me on the shoulder and said, “Next time, Michael.”

May 17, 2004

Guitar

I had a guitar that kept going out of tune. Two minutes after tuning it, it would need to be tuned again. Finally I took it to an expert, a guy who built his own guitars, and he said the guitar was warped in such a way that it couldn’t be tuned at both ends. If you tuned it at the top, it would be out of tune at the bottom, and vice versa. A lot of things are shaped like that.

May 7, 2004

Stripper

All my clients these days are good clients. Good clients are clients who don’t change things fifty times and who you can tell during an important phone call that you need to go pee. The main reason my clients are so good is that I’ve learned how to spot bad clients and have stopped accepting work from them.

The hard part is turning them down. Previously I could spot them okay but didn’t always trust my judgment. Now, having suffered enough times at their hands, I’m ruthless.

Of course I never tell bad clients the truth (e.g., “I’d don’t want this job because you’re a controlling motherfucker who will make my life miserable”). That would be rude. Instead I offer some half-plausible excuse and pass them along to friends who can’t afford to be so selective.

It’s taken me years to climb this mountain. And I may have reached a kind of summit this morning when one of my clients sent me the following email:

I had a nightmare last night about the website. In my dream the website looked exactly like a brochure, although it was still a website. I was at the print run and they kept making mistakes, like printing the front page with our content, while the rest of it was an advertisement for a concert of electronic music. I had a fit and forced them to print it again. After it was printed the second time, I noticed that you had decided to totally change the theme to a cartoon “the Last Supper.” Also, the cuts were very sloppy, and when I went to go check out the cutting situation, it turned out that all the brochures were being cut one-by-one by a stripper with a paper cutter. Then I woke up.

April 26, 2004

Placeholder

It’s taken me a long time to recognize how bad my memory is. It’s partly because I forget how much I forget. There’s an obvious paradox in this.

I have trouble remembering specific times I’ve forgotten things. Instead what I remember, as a kind of placeholder, is the fact of my forgetfulness.

April 23, 2004

Free

Late in life my paternal grandfather developed Alzheimer’s. The disease advanced quickly. Within a few months he could no longer recognize anyone, not even his wife. In broken, incoherent sentences he would tell the same story over and over, unaware that he had just told it.

I never saw him happier. The disease melted the sorrow from his face. Suddenly his eyes, which I had never noticed before, sparkled. He was free.

April 22, 2004

Difference

He says he can’t heal because he can’t feel time. By time he means the difference between himself in the past and this moment. It’s this difference he can’t feel. Time is the difference between moments.

April 21, 2004

Person

The interesting part was coming home in a state of shock and noticing what that was like, how mixed up my thoughts were. To figure out what to do, I had to ask myself what a person in my situation should do.

Not me, a person.

April 19, 2004

Decision

This morning I played a game I often play. I thought, “You can have any woman in the world you want, but you have to decide in the next sixty seconds and the decision is permanent.” As always I ended up with a choice between two ex’s.

Who would you choose?

I’d have to pick one of my many perfect childhood babysitters. Or maybe I’d just choke. How the hell do you run through the gamut of all possible women, and commit to one, all in 60 seconds? The answer is Diane Lane. Of course if I were serious about it, I’d probably pick an ex-girlfriend too, because you gotta go with what you know. Maybe I’d pick Atlanta Danna. I don’t know. Has it been 60 seconds yet?

Recently I considered Jessica Lange. I like Jessica Lange. But how old is she now? 55? Also, not knowing Jessica Lange, it would be a crap shoot.

Plus there’s the problem of what would happen if this actually happened. Isn’t Jessica Lange living with Sam Shepard and don’t they have kids? What happens to Sam and the kids?

Jessica Lange with a time machine.

Diane Lane without the time machine.

Ah, I didn’t think of a time machine. Should be allowable. Still I don’t think I’d choose a woman I’ve never slept with. What if things don’t fit? That can be sad.

Also I don’t know who Diane Lane is.

My final choice is J in the fall of 1994, right before I broke up with her the last time. I would have picked an earlier J, circa 1988, but that one still had her lesbian phase to go through.

Please google Diane Lane right now. Good god, man. No wonder you have so much trouble playing this game.

Also, if you’re going to include readiness of the love object, the game falls apart. The whole thing involves stealing women from the present dimension and carrying them off to one in which they reside with us. If this were possible in this dimension (mutual desire, “readiness,” etc.), the game would be unnecessary.

Actually, I think the fantasy element of the game – why it begs to be played – consists of escaping the real world difficulty of commitment. If only one could be forced to stick with one’s choice of mate, rather than having to reaffirm it periodically over a lifetime, through re-observing (if not re-inventing) who they are. It’s not who you pick that’s important (which is obvious from the fact that we reset and play over and over again), but the ironic joy of making irrevocable decisions over and over again….

April 18, 2004

Iris

The subway walls in New York are embedded with tile mosaics that spell out the names of the stops. These mosaics were created long ago, by forgotten people, and are routinely, numbingly, beautiful. The individual tiles, now faded, resemble irises; they have the same patternless pattern of colored flecks.

This morning while pacing the subway platform, I noticed the tiles around the words Eastern Parkway. My eye was drawn to the s in Eastern. Looking closer I saw that the curved edges of the s were constructed from broken fragments of tiles. Once, long ago, someone stood here and cemented these tiny shards in place.

That’s all. While pacing I noticed some tiles and stopped to investigate. Then the train came.

March 24, 2004

Blanket

Unedited selections from my inbox this morning, March 22, 2004:

today is monday. i am already tired and weary from a week that has yet to happen. i feel like i’m planning ahead, getting on the ball by being already so beaten down. i’m no procrastinator!!

> Big Theatre For Little People
> presents:
>
> the works of
> Samuel Beckett,
> Jean-Paul Sartre,
> &
> Augustus Strindberg
>
> as performed with soiled and discarded
> handpuppets and abandoned stuffed animals
>
> “Your security blanket is useless.”
>
> Ticket Prices:
> what does it matter, when the price of
> existence is sorrow, anxiety and
> horror?

Unfortunately nothing solves everything nor makes every situation the right one. Develop that pill and you’d be a zillionaire. And my personal hero.

Stay? Go? Stay? Go? I tore my hair out daily over that one with the Hungarian. For me there was value in staying – for awhile – just for the sake of having stayed. Because, as you know, for me, something that lasts as long as three months is unusual. I wanted it on my record. But also I wanted to practice working on something with someone. Unfortunately, though he very much wanted (and wants) to be together, “working” on it for him meant telling me what I should do to change. Anyway, that’s all neither here nor there relative to why I began this paragraph. But now it’s time for a new one. See below.

Ok. What I’ve been thinking as I’ve been dating these past two weeks and meeting three men, each of whom would be in many ways a vast improvement over the Hungarian, is that I wish I could make myself a composite boyfriend. And I think it is the human condition to want that and one of the sad realities of adult life that we all have to face that it isn’t an option. Actually that’s a brand new thought but I think it’s not a bad one, frankly. So, what are we to do instead? The impossible: choose which things are absolutely essential in a mate and let go of the idea that we can have it all without “settling” to a degree which will make us angry, bitter, lying, cheating, absent, or unbearably ambivalent so-called partners. For me, the Hungarian was that kind of settling. I had someone I loved having sex with, enjoyed cuddling and watching a video with, occasionally had a good laugh with, with whom I could not have a decent conversation, who made no effort to understand me, and who so regularly made me want to kill him that I began to feel like a madwoman. (Ok, I admit, that should have been a fairly obvious “no,” but I’m a sucker (read starving person) for sex and companionship.)

All that to say, in a word, aaaaaaaaaargh. Even if one can let go of the idea that having it all is possible, how the fuck do you know what’s absolutely essential and what you can live without without hating the other person for their failure to be what you want them to be? Another pill I’d like you to invent, please.

March 12, 2004

Atlas

The alarm of my smoke alarm is incredibly annoying. Obviously it was designed to be annoying, but this is something else. It was as though the hatch to hell had burst open, releasing the screech of a million damned souls in eternal agony. I almost leapt out of the shower.

The first thing I did was turn off the burner under the charred and smoking pot of oatmeal. Then I ran around the apartment in search of an implement – something wide and flat – to wave at the smoke alarm. Naturally I was naked, naked and dripping wet, but more to the point I had left my glasses in the bathroom, which meant I couldn’t see. Three times I headed back to get them and three times thought better of it.

In retrospect this scene resembled a compacted, minimalist version of the Keystone cops, with all the cops played by a single actor who for some reason is naked, wet, and severely nearsighted.

Here’s something I learned today: Dynamic HTML by Danny Goodman, while an excellent reference source, comprehensive and well-written, is not the best thing to wave at a smoke alarm. For one thing it’s 1,073 pages, not counting the front and back matter. That’s a lot of pages. Despite using two hands, I couldn’t get any speed going. Worse, the book is just nine by seven inches, so there’s not much surface to generate resistance. A coffee table book would have been far better. That or an atlas. I just now thought of an atlas. I don’t own any coffee table books but I do own an atlas. Two in fact. Fuck.

For a moment I considered looking for the off button on the smoke alarm, only this would have meant getting my glasses from the bathroom and dragging a chair from the kitchen, and I wasn’t even sure that smoke alarms have off buttons. Do they? Probably they do. Which is too bad for me because I must have waved that book for two minutes before the screech finally stopped. When it did, I immediately headed to the bathroom to dry myself, only the screech started again. Four times this happened, and each time the pause between screeches lasted longer. During the pauses I dried myself, put on my glasses, dressed, moved the pot to the sink, opened the windows, and turned on the vent above the stove.

Now it’s a few hours later and I can’t tell if my apartment smells better or if I’m just getting used to it. Probably it’s a combination.

As a kind of joke, I just walked around the apartment trying to figure out where the hatch to hell would go.

February 20, 2004

Glasses

eye chart

The “sphere” of my left eye is -8.75. This means that I see at ten feet what a perfect-sighted person sees at 87.5 feet. To say this another way, without my glasses I can’t make out the top letter on an eye chart.

One morning when I was seventeen, having broken my glasses the previous night, I convinced myself that my job was so easy and repetitive (I worked at a Roy Rogers) that I could manage with them. On my way to work I walked into the pole of a No Parking sign.

Later that day, while scooping French fries, I saw a brown shape dart past my foot.

“A mouse!” I cried.

It was a hamburger bun.

My glasses are a part of me. I put them on first thing each morning and take them off last thing each night. Otherwise the only times I remove them are:

  • before cleaning them
  • before sleep
  • before showering
  • before swimming
  • before, or sometimes during, sex

Without my glasses, the functional world is reduced to what’s about twelve inches from my eyes. The rest is still there – or out there, really – but it’s a badly blurred version of itself.

I believe I’m introverted in part because of my eyes. Living in a fog turns one inward.

February 4, 2004

There

I told my girlfriend yesterday that I wished we could switch genitals now and then, just for fun. She agreed. Naturally I realize that men can be penetrated, but what I really want is a vagina. In particular I want her vagina and I want her to have my penis.

The other idea would be to really be her, and have her be me. But that’s strange because if I were her, would I be her or would I be me being her?

You see, what I really want is to feel what she feels, but how can I feel that without actually being her? And if I am her, where am I? It doesn’t seem like I’m there anymore.

January 28, 2004

Bounce

Mars rover

Two dear friends became first-time fathers this past weekend. It was a very reproductive weekend.

I spoke with one, and he described, or tried to describe, what it was like seeing a head coming out of his wife’s vagina. What he ended up saying (and I totally trust him on this) is that you can’t fucking imagine.

After we hung up I read an article that explained how NASA landed its rovers on Mars. They did it by wrapping each rover in a skein of giant airbags. The rovers bounced to the surface. Spirit, the first to hit, bounced more than thirty times. Its twin, Opportunity, bounced once and landed in a crater.

January 21, 2004

Cramps

I’ve ambled up to Everest
And made the rounds with boxing champs
Though clever as the cleverest
I don’t know squat about your cramps

I’ve been around the block a lot
Known vixens, vestal virgins, vamps
Except I have one caveat
I’m not familiar with your cramps

Some curios are curious
Some highways have a thing for ramps
Some paramours are amorous
Sometimes I think about your cramps

So tell me, dear, or call, or write
I’ll reimburse you for the stamps
Though some may think it impolite
I’d love to hear about your cramps

January 12, 2004

Mr. Butternut

Many years ago a guy named Charlie L. borrowed my friend Alisa’s copy of A Lover’s Discourse. Recently Alisa asked for it back and Charlie L. said, very irritated, “Well, do you need it?” Alisa was frightened and didn’t reply. A few days later she read a quote on my website by Roland Barthes – “I am like those children who take a clock apart to find out what time it is” – which made her realize she’s afflicted with a love curse. A love curse meaning a curse that prevents one from having love. The curse began when Charlie L. borrowed her copy of A Lover’s Discourse. Alisa told me all this in an email and then wrote:

What do I do? Should I buy a new copy? Should I go to the gypsy fortune teller and bring this new copy and for $100 they will do something to it to remove the curse? Bury or burn it, I imagine?

This guy lives in New York now with his longtime girlfriend, so there’s no curse on him.

What do you think?

For some reason people often ask my advice about their romantic problems. Given my own romantic history, this is both strange and, to use an overused word, ironic. Nonetheless I always try to craft a thoughtful reply. Here’s what I wrote to Alisa:

Knowing just one thing about Charlie L., I feel safe to say that he’s a bad person. Thus I recommend that you buy a new copy of A Lover’s Discourse and put Charlie L. behind you. One way I’ve changed over the years is that I don’t hesitate to drop stuff that isn’t working. Like Charlie L.

Mr. Butternut1 goes in the same category as Charlie L. Or rather, he goes in a similar but different category, since he’s not a bad person. Still he’s not working so I say drop him.

Knowing nothing about Charlie L.’s relationship with his longtime girlfriend, it’s hard to say if he’s cursed. That aside, I don’t believe in curses. You get what you pay for. Or not. But there are no curses.

  1. Mr. Butternut is my name for a man who last month brought Alisa a bowl of soup at a party and talked to her a lot. The problem with Mr. Butternut is that he’s really nice. At first Alisa had some hope about him because he kept seeking her out and bringing her food as gifts. But now she realizes he’s just nice and isn’t interested in her romantically. When she was confused about this, she asked if I would ever bring a woman a bowl of butternut squash soup at a party for a neutral reason, and I said absolutely not. But then I wondered if it was possible that Mr. Butternut was in fact romantically interested in Alisa but was operating according to an idiosyncratic model of a romantic relationship. As it turns out I was wrong to wonder this. Mr. Butternut isn’t romantically interested in Alisa. I know this because Alisa subsequently flew to Utah for the holidays and wrote to Mr. Butternut about a rodeo she went to there, having always dreamed of attending a rodeo. Mr. Butternut showed zero interest in the rodeo – not the bareback riding, nor the steer wrestling, nor even the barrel racing – and merely asked Alisa to keep him on her mailing list.
December 13, 2003

Painting

We’re sitting on a little loading dock at the edge of train tracks. The dock is made of cement and sticks out from what may be a yellow building. Trains stop here – or did once. J is at my side and has her back against the loading dock door, which is corrugated, and I have my hand in her pants. I’m not sure which hand it is.

There may also be houses whose yards border the opposite side of the tracks, behind a row of trees or bushes.

The dock is visible from the road but far enough away so that no one can tell what we’re doing.

This is the day that J saw me from her window. I had come to surprise her after many weeks of angry silence, and she happened to glance out the window as I approached. After a tearful reunion, she made us leave her apartment and refused to tell me why. I know now that it was because she didn’t want to be surprised by her roommate, a woman she was secretly sleeping with and would later move to California with, and later marry, and later divorce.

I can’t tell which side I’m on, her left or her right. The one clear image I have is of the building and dock as seen from the road. The building is very long and made of brick. The brick is painted a light color – yellow probably, or white. I don’t know what’s beyond the building, but it feels very open and blank back there, like a part of the painting that never got painted.

December 8, 2003

Left

I gave a reading yesterday. I often say I’m happiest when I’m reading, and I suppose it’s true.

Anyway the light was so bright that I couldn’t see anything when I looked up. Just blinding light surrounded by black. But I’m good reader so I made sure to look up a lot. It’s all about connecting with the audience, even when the audience is a roomful of blackness.

There’s this thing I do with my left hand. I stand very close to the mic and hold the pages of the story with my right hand, while my left hand is off on its own, being expressive.

This time, for whatever reason, I got curious about what it was doing. Best I could tell (I could only take a few seconds here and there to check), it was making a lot of circular motions interspersed with an occasional turning-over gesture, or sometimes the two together, a circular motion that turned over.

December 6, 2003

My J

A man stands in a room, at a desk, and thinks about his mother, who has just died. The desk is crowded with her papers. This is her apartment and he’s come to put her things in order. Seeing the clutter he thinks: “She could never throw anything away… My mother… My mother… My mother was my mother… My mother was my mother, and my father was my father…”

I understand this. He means: The woman who was my mother was my mother. Or: Of all the women in the world, that particular woman was my mother. Just as that particular man was my father.

This is how I feel about J. J was my J.

December 4, 2003

End

Before I begin to read, I do a kind of internal calibration, orienting myself to the length of the text before me. Short stories call for different calibrations than novels. It’s like the difference between a drive crosstown and a drive cross-country; I settle in differently. And then I read differently, with a different level of attention and focus, depending how far I am from the end.

I often imagine a text whose length is unknown. Reading this would require a special gadget. You would only see a single set of lines at a time. To move forward, you would push a button, and another set of lines would appear.

It would be maddening. Imagine reading a story that could be a thousand words or a thousand pages, you have no way of knowing. I don’t believe I could tolerate it, even if I loved the story. Particularly if I loved it.

And yet that’s what a relationship is: a story of unknown duration. Except a relationship is unwritten. The metaphorical button, when pushed, simply produces a blank page, an empty stage on which to enact a new scene, the final scene perhaps, like all the others.

December 1, 2003

Date

I was on a date that may or may not have been a date when suddenly a giant roach flew into my neck. We were playing pool and had stopped to talk. I had no way of knowing what had flown into me. My date, if I may call her that, told me what it was. She was upset because, as she explained it, she’s afraid of flying things.

I’ve given this a lot of thought and have decided that a date is only a date if both people think it is. By the time the roach flew into me, I definitely wanted her to think it was a date. Actually what I was thinking was more like: I hope she thinks it is, because if she does then it is.

After flying into my neck, the roach flew off toward the front of the pool hall. I offered to go kill it, but my date said not to bother because it wasn’t a big deal to her. My sense however was that it was a big deal to her but that she didn’t want to admit how much of a deal it was because to do so would make her seem too girly.

The only reason I asked her on a date was because I knew she would turn me down. I was having a problem with liking her, so I decided to ask her out and have her turn me down. Once she turned me down I could let go of liking her, is how I thought of it. All that backfired when she said yes.

At first I’d thought she’d said no. I thought this because when I asked her to play pool, she said exactly what I thought she would say, which was that she would really like to play pool with me but was super-busy and would let me know when she had time. The words she used were more or less the exact words I had imagined her using to turn me down without having to say the word “no.”

Strange as it seems, her rejection made me happy. I had made a plan and the plan had worked and now I could begin to stop liking her.

The reason I wanted to stop liking her was because of how much younger she is than me. This is what I would think about back then. I would lie in bed and calculate how old she was when I was certain ages and then I’d picture the two of us at those times, standing together. This wasn’t a fun exercise. In fact it was gross. As a result I tried to stop liking her so much – an effort that failed, of course. You can’t stop yourself from liking someone. The best you can do is not write to that person and not talk to that person, but you can’t make yourself feel different feelings just by wanting to. Deep down I knew this and yet I still tried to will my feelings to change. When that failed I hatched the plan of asking her out so she would turn me down. At first I thought my plan had worked, but then a week later she wrote to say that she finally had time to play pool and when could we?

At her insistence I let the flying roach be. However I couldn’t help but notice that whenever it was my turn to hit a shot, she would do a lot of looking toward the front of the pool hall.

“You’re worried about the roach,” I said finally.

“Not really.”

“I’m going to go kill it.”

When I found the roach, it was flittering around a cluster of florescent lights above an empty pool table. I had brought along an extra t-shirt which I planned to use to kill the roach by doing that wrist-snapping thing boys do with towels in locker rooms. I figured that even if I didn’t nail the roach with the tip of the shirt, I could probably hit it well enough to stun it, at which point I would keep snapping at it until it was dead. That was my plan. However the roach wouldn’t budge from the florescent lights, and I was concerned about breaking one of the lights with my t-shirt, so after standing there for two or three minutes, I walked back to our table.

“You didn’t do anything,” she said. “You just looked at it.”

“I didn’t want to break the light.”

We kissed then, I would like to say, in part because it would make such a sweet ending (they kiss after he fails to be her hero) and also because I wanted to kiss her. Instead, though, we returned to the game we were playing – a game she won easily, just like all the others. Even distracted, she’s a far better pool player than I’ll ever be.

Later, at a bar, she told me about her boyfriend in Wisconsin. I hadn’t known about him before. The moment she mentioned him, the moment she said the word boyfriend, I realized that I wasn’t on a date with her and never had been.

November 19, 2003

Bad Witch

Rachel’s nieces Sydney and Hannah were in town for the weekend, and Rachel and I babysat them. After dinner Hannah, who’s four now, insisted I play “bad witch” with her. I was to be the bad witch.

“What does the bad witch do?” I asked.

“Bad things.”

Fine. Bad things. I stuck her in the bathroom sink and told that if she tried to get down I would turn her into a bar of soap and wash the dog with her.

She liked that.

Then she demanded some bugs to eat, so I got her a handful of grapes.

“If you eat all these bugs,” I said, “you’re going to become the fattest girl in the world.”

“Why?”

“Because these bugs get really really big inside you, and you can’t ever get them out.”

“I’m going to eat them anyway.”

“You won’t be able to leave this bathroom if you do, because you won’t be able to fit through the doorway.”

“I don’t care. I’m hungry. Give them to me.”

“Suit yourself. Since I’m a bad witch, I want you to eat the bugs because it means more soap for me. I like soap.”

Chomping on the bugs, Hannah asked why I like soap.

“Because it’s made from little girls.”

I laughed demonically, brandishing my claw-like hands.

Hannah was unmoved. “You don’t scare me, you soapy witch. Now bring me more bugs.”

Drawing of me by Hannah, age 4

Later Hannah gave me a drawing she made. The black part, she felt compelled to explain, is my t-shirt.

November 11, 2003

C0cksucker

I took a job writing spam headers. I won’t try defend this because I can’t. That’s my defense: I have no defense. Anyway I only wrote headers; no body copy.

Not that I was so great with headers. The guy who hired me, I’ll call him Josh, paid me by the header. He’d say, “Give me twenty headers about sucking c0ck” and I’d spend half a day writing the world’s best headers about sucking c0ck, which was ridiculous because he was paying me a flat rate and would use maybe two headers.

Anyway I quit writing spam headers when it became clear that Josh didn’t appreciate my work. The final straw was the aforementioned c0cksucking assignment. I wrote a header I really liked but that Josh considered “overly modest.” It went:

i am not perfect but i do suck c0ck

As I saw it, the reader would picture a woman who was trying to be realistic about her strengths and weaknesses. This made her compelling to me; in fact it made me want to know more about her. But Josh doesn’t care for subtleties. He wants the hard sell, as it were, which I find distasteful. So I quit.

I am not perfect, I told him, but I won’t whore myself.

November 5, 2003

The Obvious

E reported over dinner (excellent new Italian place on Vanderbilt) that it’s over between her and J, who has returned to a woman he had a long-term affair with years ago, under the nose of her then live-in boyfriend. E said that the former boyfriend, who is either an idiot or someone who gets off on being betrayed, once phoned his girlfriend at J’s apartment, right after she and J had had sex, to ask what she was up to. “Lying naked with J,” she said, as though joking, which in a sense she was, the joke being she wasn’t joking.

E ordered meat ravioli and I had vegetable polenta. The food was yummy and we both liked the décor, which made E think of a bed and breakfast, and me of the hull of a ship. We sat at a table for four. I noticed that you couldn’t fit two chairs under the same side of the table at the same time, that either the table was too narrow or the chairs too wide. I pointed this out to the waitress, who kept leaning over the table and tilting her head in a way that made E think she was flirting with me. I disagreed, or rather I thought that if she was flirting, which I suppose she was, she didn’t actually mean anything by it and was instead pretending to mean something, which to my mind made it different from flirting, which is all about possible, not feigned, meaning.

E said that her instant messaging program lets her know when J’s computer has been idle more than a certain number of minutes – information she uses in her speculations about whether J is talking to, emailing, or having sex with the other woman.

I suggested the obvious: delete him from the program.

She responded with the obvious: this is her only remaining connection to him.

October 20, 2003

Plastic

I had a date last night with a woman wrapped in plastic. Or at least I think it was plastic. It looked like super-thick cellophane. What is that stuff they wrap little boxes in? This was like that, only thicker and less shiny. When she turned her head, her cheek appeared to have an extra, translucent layer of skin.

Shrink wrap. This looked like extra-thick shrink wrap. It covered everything, including her clothes, and seemed to be just a single piece all the way around. It was as though she’d been put through a shrink wrap machine. Only how would they have gotten the material all the way around her arms and legs and between her fingers? Instead she must have been dipped into something, the way strawberries are dipped into chocolate.

We met through an online personals site, nerve.com. Although she didn’t mention anything about plastic in her profile or in any of the emails we exchanged, it turns out that she’s covered in plastic in all three profile photos. I know because I went back and looked. Originally I assumed it was some kind of arty Photoshop effect, particularly since she, like half the women on Nerve, is a graphic designer.

Those photos were important to me. A woman doesn’t need to be gorgeous (in fact I find that I’m biased against the ones who are), but I must have the sense that I would find her attractive in person – or rather that I wouldn’t find her unattractive. It’s really more the latter: I use the photos to weed out the no’s.

The woman last night (I’ll call her Megan) looked plenty attractive in her photos. And she got extra points for coloring one in with what looked like day-glo paint. I’m a sucker for that kind of thing. Nerve is a cut above other such sites, but you’re still faced with a slew of insipid, quasi-flirtatious questions like, “What is your favorite on-screen sex scene?” and “What celebrity do you resemble?” and “What song or album puts you in the mood?” Any attempt at creativity jumps out.

Megan also impressed me with she how dealt with Nerve’s one fill-in-the-blanks question: “Blank is sexy; blank is sexier.” I have a file where I save the best answers to this, and hers is at the top: Jesus is sexy; Oh Jesus is sexier.

But it wasn’t the day-glo paint or the Jesus answer that sold me; it was her answer to the final question, the worst of the bunch: “What are you looking for?” Women usually respond with a list of desirable characteristics and traits, a list more or less like every other woman’s list. But Megan skipped all that and wrote: “Someone who can levitate. Or at least have fun trying. Okay: ready, set, go!”

Reading this I immediately clicked the Send Message link and composed a message to her. Here’s what I wrote:

I’m bumming. There was this genie a while back who gave me three wishes (long story) and I thought of asking for the power to levitate but instead choose x-ray vision. What was I thinking? It’s as though I channeled my six-year-old self, the one who was obsessed with seeing what people look like naked. A totally wasted wish.

In my defense the genie stood there with a stop watch and said I had to decide in thirty seconds or the offer would be withdrawn. They don’t mention this in any of the genie stories and frankly I think it’s deliberate. They figure the unexpected pressure will get people to screw up and ask for ridiculous things like x-ray vision.

Anyway it would have been cool to levitate for you and have you be all, “Whoa, what else can you do?” But alas. Would you settle for me knowing what’s in your refrigerator without having to open the door?

I probably didn’t need to quote the entire message, but it’s charming, no? I was inspired. More to the point, Megan liked it. We exchanged three or four emails before talking on the phone. It was hard to hear what she was saying (due to the plastic of course, which goes over her mouth and makes it sound like she’s talking through plastic), but I just figured it was a bad connection.

When she approached me outside the cafe and asked me to tell her what was inside her bag, I was too flustered by the question to really notice what she looked like.

“A picture of Jesus,” I said finally, and we laughed.

Inside we sat at a table in the corner, and immediately I saw that her nose was sort of scrunched in and that her hair was too flat. The thing is, you want to be totally cool in that moment, you want to act like everything is fine and normal and that you don’t notice that the other person has some terrible problem. That’s what I thought this was: a problem. Then I saw the extra layer on her cheek and hands, and pretty soon I realized that she was simply a normal-looking woman wrapped in plastic.

Looking back I regret not saying anything. I guess I was in a kind of shock. When I meet a woman online, I try not to allow myself to fantasize, based on a little day-glo paint, who she might be. Still it’s hard to stop myself for doing exactly this. Megan seemed really special in her profile – funny, smart, creative – and I couldn’t help imagining that we would hit it off and maybe even fall in love. I knew this was ridiculous, I knew I didn’t know her in the least, but that’s what I found myself thinking.

It’s interesting how you deal. When I realized she was wrapped in plastic, my first thought was that maybe this was some sort of conceptual performance piece, that Megan was commenting on the way we “package” ourselves. Nerve is very much about that, with cutesy usernames and clever profile headlines (Megan’s headline was Temptress in a Teapot; mine is More than this.) Were this true, were it really a performance piece, I would have fallen at her feet. But of course it wasn’t. Just to be sure, though, I asked if she liked conceptual art, and she made a face, a real face, and I knew I was wrong.

The rest was excruciating. Einstein said that two hours spent with a beautiful woman is less time than two minutes spent on a burning stove, but Einstein never mentioned anything about plastic.

Megan had nothing to eat or drink, I assume because she couldn’t get anything into her mouth. I had green tea and a scone. Without thinking, I offered her a bite. She gave me the same look as when I asked about conceptual art.

We talked the way you talk when you have nothing to say. I asked her questions and she asked me questions and then we both asked each other follow-up questions. After a time we would get to the end of a particular subject and then one of us would think of another subject and we would ask each other questions about that. I learned, for example, that her younger brother has a business making chakra tuning forks.

The worst part was the parting. I never know how to handle that. I want to be nice but I’m loathe to give the wrong idea. How do you tell a woman that you like her but that you wouldn’t want to see her again because she’s wrapped in plastic?

That’s a rhetorical question, of course. Because you never actually say any such thing. Instead you thank her for a nice time and leave it that. By saying nothing about the future, the message is clear.

The absolute worst, and this is what happened yesterday, is when she fills the empty space with an offer to get together again. At this point your only options are to state outright that you’re not interested or give a weak yes and tell her you’ll call her. The former requires a kind of courage I don’t possess. I told Megan that a film sounded fun but that I needed to check my schedule.

My plan, my real plan, is to email her and tell her the truth – without mentioning the plastic. She’s bound to know though. How many men have rejected her, for how many supposed reasons, when each time she knew the real reason?

When I got home I went online and looked at her profile again. Partly this was to check the photos, but mainly I just wanted to remember the person I had imagined her to be. Everything was the same, the same words and photos, but they didn’t have the same effect. Even the levitation bit didn’t seem so great anymore, although I still laughed at her answer to the sexy/sexier question. That just cracks me up. Jesus, Oh Jesus. I can’t help loving that.

September 29, 2003

The Plight of the Orange Juice Container

I couldn’t find my orange juice container. I had made a so-called spritzer (orange juice and seltzer) to drink with dinner, and now it was past dinner and I was thirsty again so I went to the refrigerator to get more orange juice.

Finding an empty refrigerator shelf, I remembered the thing for which I will one day become famous. I don’t think I’ve mentioned this before. It’s my method for finding lost things, and it can expressed in a single sentence:

When something is lost, it’s usually in one of the three most likely places for it to be, but in an expected way.

The trick is to get yourself to look in the same places you already looked but this time in a new way. This is surprisingly difficult. Once people have checked a particular place, they draw a line through that place in their minds and scribble a note in the margin that says, “Don’t look there. It’s definitely not there. You already checked.” Then, just to be sure they don’t miss the note in the future, they draw an arrow from the note to the image of the place. The arrow they draw looks something like this:

arrow

You should see how quiet people get when you make them re-check the places they’ve already checked and you ask them to check these places in a new way, and they look at you like you’re a dick for making them do this, and then, ho-ho, the thing is there. People get very quiet.

As to my orange juice, it wasn’t on the refrigerator shelf so I looked to see if I had left it on the counter, which I hadn’t, so I looked to see if I had brought it over to my computer, which is something I do sometimes but in this case had not.

One, two, three places.

I opened the refrigerator again and stepped back. No orange juice. I stood a good ten feet from the counter and scanned it slowly. Nothing. I turned and looked at my desk again. Nada. Then I walked over to my bed and took in the entire apartment. It was an apartment, I saw, bereft of orange juice.

Could I have finished the container and thrown it out? That would count as possibility number four, and I was certain it hadn’t happened and yet I still made myself check the trash can, which as expected was orange-juice-less.

Remembering my rule, I forced myself to repeat the entire operation, minus the trash can, but in a new way. I would characterize this new way as pissed. I looked in all the places I had already looked, but this time as a person who was really pissed. It didn’t help.

When I was kid and something was lost, my mother was fond of saying that the lost thing didn’t just get up walk and away. I imagined that the container of orange juice did in fact just get up and walk away, that it had grown little arms and legs, forced open the refrigerator from inside, climbed down the shelves, and scrambled off into the bathroom where it was now cowering in the bathtub, poor thing, having realized that its dream of escape was just that, a dream. (Below is an artist’s rendering of the plight of the orange juice container.)

container of orange juice with stick figure arms and legs, in a bathtub

My own plight was beginning to annoy the shit out of me. Until very recently there was definitely an orange juice container in the apartment. I had combined some of the orange juice with seltzer and had had the combination, a so-called spritzer, with dinner. In fact the glass was still sitting on my desk. If I went over and looked inside it (which I was not about to do, FYI), I would find little specks of orange juice pulp at the bottom.

A certain unease began to roll in. Could I possibly be remembering these things wrongly? Had my mind gone off its wheels and moved last night’s spritzer to tonight? It didn’t seem possible and yet where was the motherfucking orange juice container?

I walked to the kitchen and opened all the cabinets. The orange juice container was on the same shelf as the plates and bowls and glasses. I had placed it in front of a row of glasses, I suppose because it more closely relates to glasses than plates or bowls.

I may not end up becoming so famous.

September 28, 2003

Chicken in Reverse

The rain is coming down hard. It sounds like something sizzling in a pan but with cars swooshing by. Ah, and with a bus, braking.

A new thought: The Buddhists speak of walking with one’s death, but it’s really one’s fear one walks with. Meaning: Everything I do is done to clear out a space for not being afraid, for believing that the space I walk in is safe. Which obviously it isn’t. It’s all an attempt to beat back the truth.

This just in from a friend:

Still no word from Nancy. Odd, because at the end of our date, when she asked me if we should get together again and I said “sure,” she touched my arm and said “oh, yay” before leaving.

It’s like we’re playing a game of chicken in reverse. Instead of veering toward each other to see who stops first, we’re veering apart to see who’ll be the first to look back.

September 20, 2003

Nothing

For some time now I’ve had nothing to say, nor seen any reason to say anything. Yesterday I bought a shower curtain and shower curtain liner. It was kind of a big deal. I used to have just a liner because the fancier sort of curtain seemed silly, a useless bit of decoration. But something got into me yesterday and I decided that man does not live by usability alone.

Also, perhaps because I’ve had nothing to say, I recently gave in and bought a cellphone. I hate it already. I spent an hour trying and failing to figure out how to leave a greeting for when someone calls. Then I made the mistake of emailing my cellphone number to a dozen or so friends. The email went:

I have a cellphone now. The number is […]. Please don’t call me on it for a while, I’m a little freaked out.

Immediately three friends called me. Evidently all my friends have the same sense of humor. I refused to answer the thing and tried instead to figure out a way to turn it off, which I failed to do because the user manual sucks. In the end I stuffed it at the bottom of my laundry hamper, which is where it will remain until I decide my next step. If I forget it’s there and end up including it in my next load of laundry, so be it.

Oh: A short time later the phone started ringing again, so I dug it up and stuffed it inside four pairs of athletic socks (eight socks into all, one inside another), then returned it to the bottom of the hamper. Then I called it on my regular phone to confirm I couldn’t hear it. I couldn’t. As it rang I covered my phone with my hand and walked over to the hamper and stood there listening.

Nothing. Silence.

September 15, 2003

Semi-untoughness

Just after midnight on Thursday I received a call from my friend Lisa. At first I couldn’t make out what she was saying because she was talking so quietly, almost a whisper. But then, in pieces, I understood. She was in an ambulance on her way to the hospital. She’d had a bike accident on the Williamsburg bridge, had flown over her handlebars and landed on her arm and face, didn’t know which hospital she was going to, didn’t think it necessary for me to come. I convinced her to hand the cellphone to the ambulance driver, who told me where they were taking her.

Soon after I arrived at her hospital room, she asked to be photographed like that, her face scraped and bloodied, her arm broken at the elbow, one tooth chipped. Then I took notes so she would remember things when it came time to write about it. It was, we both recognized, an EXPERIENCE, one that had to be captured, the capturing becoming, unavoidably, part of the experience.

Yesterday I sent her my photos and notes, which she used in her written account.

There’s just one thing I want to add. Friday afternoon, after fifteen straight hours of “dealing” (post-hospital I slept on Lisa’s floor and did what I could to help her handle the logistics, and shock, of a temporary one-armed existence; “my mouse hand,” she cried in a rare moment of semi-untoughness), I sat at her kitchen table and looked at the photos I’d taken in the hospital, still in my camera. As I did this I could hear her on the phone in next room telling someone, I think her father, what had happened. I knew she couldn’t see me there, so I let myself weep, weeping as quietly as I could.

Holding back the sound kept the tears in as well. Perhaps because of this I felt acutely conscious of the way my shoulders were heaving, a rapid and seemingly exaggerated flapping motion.

September 9, 2003

High Line

I walked the High Line Saturday. If you don’t already know, the High Line is an abandoned elevated freight line that runs along the west side of Manhattan, from lower midtown to the West Village. It was built in the 30’s and was discontinued in 1980. The final freight train (I learned this from the friends of the high line) carried three carloads of frozen turkeys.

The city plans to convert the remaining structure into a “grand, public promenade.” This will be cool, I’m sure, only not one-hundredth as cool as what’s there now, which is a dilapidated overgrown junk-strewn oasis. I don’t have the strength to describe it except to say that it reminded me of The Zone from Tarkovsky’s film Stalker, sans all the intense metaphysics.

If you’re in New York and know what’s good for you, you will go do this thing posthaste. Here’s how:

GETTING ON: Enter the big truck lot on 33rd between 11th and 12th Avenues. See that opening in the fence directly across? Walk through that, make an immediate right, and climb straight up the embankment onto the ramp. Easy.

GETTING OFF: This is harder. The High Line terminates around 10th Street, but there doesn’t appear to be a viable way down at that point unless you enjoy jumping fifteen feet onto the top of a parked truck. Instead double-back to 17th Street. On the west side there’s a staircase plastered with signs that say TRESPASSERS WILL BE PROSECUTED. You are a trespasser. Walk down the stairs to the level where the nasty-looking barbed wire is, then climb over the barbed wire and shimmy down the opposite side of the big girder at the corner of the stairs onto the car below. Do this quickly and quietly as there’s a security guy in the booth in the yard who will be mean to you when you gallantly remain behind so your friend can get away and who will order you to call after her and then get pissed when she doesn’t turn around (something she will know not to do because you called the wrong name) and who will ask sarcastically if you happened to have seen all those NO TRESPASSING signs plastered on the stairs, to which I recommend replying, politely, with the truth, since that will confuse him.

September 1, 2003

Wings

At the wedding picnic, Ishmael, age 12, tied the broken pieces of a giant Styrofoam airplane to his body – side wings to his arms, tail wing to his back – and ran around like that, attempting to fly. Later, in the car, I brought up Icarus. Ishmael, still wearing the wings, said that he already knows the story and plans to avoid using wax.

August 21, 2003

Song 19

fork tongs on CD cover

It wasn’t the taped-together cover, nor the fuzzy orange ovals floating in a darker orange ether, nor even the giant black-and-white close-up of fork tongs and their shadows that made me so sad. It was my own happiness. Which is absurd because if I can’t be happy when I’m happy, when can I be happy?

[Ceyda just called and said we can’t watch any films tonight because Leili doesn’t want to, so I said, “Maybe we can put plays on for each other,” only Ceyda heard, “Maybe we can put pastries on each other,” which I in turn heard as “put pasties on each other,” pasties being a word that Ceyda, who is Turkish, doesn’t know, so I explained it to her.]

After listening to the final song, Sing Swan Song (did you know – I just looked this up – that swans sing some exquisite song as they die, thus the expression swan song?), I realized that the song list is a map, each song a stop along a route you laid out. Or that’s what it felt like to listen, a full day between songs, and that too is why it was heartbreaking: because I want to live (I typed love) in that place (a place forever down the road?) and never leave. I’m reminded of the songlines – vast labyrinths of invisible pathways preserved in the form of songs. It’s a bit much when speaking of a mix CD, but who knows what our descendants will be into and anyway the thing rocked.

August 19, 2003

Song 17

Song 17 is Nick Cave’s “The Weeping Song.” I found the production bombastic. As I listened I thought that Nick Cave would be a really intense person to have over for dinner.

Also something in the music made me remember a time when, high and freaked out, a man appeared in my head and helped talk me down. He was older and had a nice voice. I was so stoned that I didn’t realize I had conjured him.

Then I remembered the time I got caught in an undertow. This is not a metaphor for something; I got caught in a real undertow and couldn’t get uncaught. The shore was right there, with hundreds of people on it, but I couldn’t get to it. I thought of calling for help but was too embarrassed to do so, so close to the shore.

Nick Cave would have yelled his fucking head off.

August 17, 2003

Song 15

Wasted day. Don’t want to say what I did, or rather didn’t do, except to note that I watched as Ryan Nyquist sewed up the X-Games Bike Stunt Park competition by putting together a Double Truckdriver, 360 Bar Spin Backflip over the Spine, One-handed X-Up Backflip over the Sharkfin, and finally a 720 over the Spine. Now my head hurts. I listened to a song (not Song 15, which was the sweet and melodic “405” by Death Cab for Cutie) but that song by Caetano Veloso I mentioned in Song 5, a link to which was subsequently sent by a kind reader. It nearly made me cry. That was today’s highlight: crouching with my ear next to the lousy mono speaker and feeling overwhelmingly sad and melancholic.

August 11, 2003

Song 9

Songs I love I devour. I listen to them until there’s nothing left to hear, just a pile of greasy little song bones.

August 10, 2003

Song 8

My friend Eva is visiting me for a few days on her way back from Bali where she spent a month with her boyfriend, a Balinese shadow puppeteer. She phones him in Bali three or four times a day. After each conversation she reports how affectionate he was on a scale from sparingly to exceedingly. Rarely does he rate higher than sufficiently, although in fairness to him, I sense that Eva’s a hard grader.

The one thing that bothers me about the guy is his cellphone addiction. Once when they were having sex (totally great sex, says Eva), his cellphone rang and, incredibly, he stopped what he was doing and got up to answer it. That’s an addiction.

The eighth song is by PJ Harvey. It’s called The Garden. This morning Eva and I listened to it together, except she spent the entire time downloading photos of her boyfriend.

August 9, 2003

Song 7

A friend made a compilation CD for me and I’ve been listening to one song a day and more or less writing about that experience but not really. (Yes, one song a day: I have oodles of self-control. And by the way, today’s song, Je Ne Respire Plus, Milos by Domnique A, was intense and excellent.) Maybe you already knew. But what you didn’t know is that this same friend recently received a weird and scary email.

there will be nuclear war this month – i just wanted you to know.

thanks.

In Christ,
Stanley Dougler
(Boise, ID)

My friend doesn’t know any Stanley Dougler of Boise, ID. When she forwarded the email to me, I wrote back that if there is a nuclear war this month, the first thing she and I will think of will be Stanley Dougler of Boise, ID. Now you will too.

I meant this as a joke of course, but then today I wondered what I’d do if I believed what Stanley Dougler believes. It seemed a good question, but as it turned out I couldn’t imagine believing such a thing. No vision, no matter how vivid and apocalyptic, is going to convince me to send emails to strangers, or to do whatever I’d do as a result of such a belief. So I gave up on that and instead considered a related question, one others have pondered, and still others have faced in real life: What would I do if given a month to live?

My response was immediate and certain, but before I say what it was, I want to say what my friend Eva said. She said she’d spend the first two weeks writing her life story, a book called Things I Noticed On My Way Through.

“Why not write it now?” I asked her.

“Lack of discipline.”

“A death sentence would give you discipline?”

“I already have a death sentence and I’m not writing anything.”

We were having this conversation in Starbucks and she was drinking a double tall mocha.

“Why would a more specific death sentence change things?” I asked.

“The illusion of immortality. All day long we live with the expectation to live. We know on some level we’re going to die, but we don’t expect it to be today or tomorrow. If I knew I had a month left, I would write.”

Sadly this is probably true: Eva would write if given a month to live. One reason this is sad is that Eva can really write and really wants to write. The other reason is that in lieu of such a sentence, Eva probably won’t write. So Eva needs a highly improbable tragedy to do the one thing she really wants to do.

My lot is similar, not that I would dream of writing at such a time. Instead I’d post a thank you on this site, either mention my illness or not, and go see the people I love. That was my first and only thought. I would visit friends around the country, exclaim my love for them all, get drunk a lot, cry buckets, possibly sleep with a certain ex-girlfriend, and consume a lot more coffee than I do now, no longer needing to fear developing a more serious habit.

Also, silly but true, if I listened to my friend’s CD again, I would listen to all nineteen songs in one go and forget this one-song-a-day business. Life is too short.

August 8, 2003

Song 6

I sit at a school desk outside a bar, thinking about my prayer. You’ve gone inside the bar to pee. Across the street, perched above another bar, is a giant neon sign shaped like a cigarette. The red tip flashes on and off as though someone, a giant, were smoking.

A man walks by I immediately recognize. He sells belts and assorted junk at the corner of South 5th and Marcy. Maybe you’ve seen him. He’s skinny and Asian and lays out his merchandise on a white canvas laundry bag, the kind with a drawstring. I can’t imagine he’s ever made a sale: his belts are ugly and he is insane.

I never told you about my prayer. Basically I talked to myself out loud and explained what was happening, which was that there was something I wanted so much I was willing to pray for it, despite having no one and nothing to pray to. This was part of the prayer. The idea was to be as honest as possible. I said that it felt wrong to be praying for what amounted to a personal favor and that I therefore saw no reason it should granted. I said that the thing I wanted had to come of its own and not through some magical manipulation of reality. I was on my knees as I said these things, kneeling near the end of my bed, and had my hands joined in an approximation of hands joined in prayer. I said that instead of having my desire granted, a better thing to ask for, a better thing to be given, was what I called joy but what I really meant as wisdom in the face of loss.

The sixth song is beautiful. He never quite says what he means and yet you understand what he’s saying.

August 7, 2003

Foot

At the co-op yesterday I watched a baby stick her foot in her mouth. She managed it without using her hands. As I shopped I made a mental list of things babies don’t know. Although it was a long list (babies know almost nothing, as it turns out), today I can remember just four items:

  • What a baby is
  • Plato’s metaphor of a cave
  • How to tell if a melon is ripe
  • Where not to stick your foot

Song 5

I could see the musicians as they played. They were in a room, possibly at different times, wearing headphones. A series of images floated by, extreme close-ups: the drummer’s wrist, a hand moving over keys, a guitar pick held between thumb and forefinger, the taut neck muscles of the man singing. I didn’t want to see these things, preferring to experience the song as one thing, a kind of wave, rather than a collection of sounds made by several people in a room, perhaps at different times, according to some complicated arrangement.

I once saw a film with Caetano Veloso. I had never seen him before, wasn’t expecting to see him, had no idea what he looked like. But when he opened his mouth, out came that voice – a voice, I realized, I had never quite thought of as belonging to a person, nor even being a voice exactly but simply some beautiful thing, like the way maps are beautiful, or manhole covers.

August 6, 2003

Song 4

This song made me realize you are capable of hearing what I hear but in such a way that it becomes something else. Of course this is always true, about everyone and everything, and yet I still manage to forget it. It’s as though I forget I have a shadow.

In the film I watched last night, a woman gazes out the window during a fight with her lover and threatens to take up with the first man she sees. In the next scene, she carries through on the threat, following a random man to a train station and staring at him as he buys his ticket. Then we see the man calling his wife from a hotel where he’s in bed with the woman. He tells his wife what has happened and says that he’s going with the woman to Barcelona. In Barcelona we’re treated to numerous shots of the woman’s naked breasts in the moonlight. The film could well have been called Naked Breasts in the Moonlight. In his journal, in 1913, Kafka wrote: “Went to the movies. Wept. Boundless entertainment.” I didn’t weep but became sleepy.

August 5, 2003

Song 3

Zero conversations yesterday. I did say “hi” and “thanks” to the woman at the gym who handed me my towel and I did leave a phone message for a friend, but neither could be called a conversation. A conversation is when people say things back and forth and no one knows for certain what’s going to be said. Imaginary conversations are not conversations, for even when you must consider what the imagined other would say in response to what the imagined you has just said, you’re still just talking to yourself.

This time I raised my arms to the ceiling and sort of danced, flexing my legs at the knees and rocking my head a little from side to side. It was nearly involuntary. I felt like a baby in its crib, reaching up at one of those crib toys that spin and make sound.

I have tried not to think how you picked the songs, what each may or may not mean, why one follows the next, to what degree you asked yourself what I would think. It’s a dangerous thing to do. In the years I was gone, my mother would read and reread a book she found in my abandoned apartment. She gave special attention to the notes scribbled in the margins, seeing these as clues to my inner life – the life, as she imagined it, I had never shared with her or anyone. She told me about the book when I returned. It had taught her things about me and had strengthened her faith that I was alive and would one day return – a faith she alone maintained through those years.

And it was all a mistake. I had never seen the book before.

August 4, 2003

Song 2

Soon after the song began, I uncrossed my legs and opened my hands. I do this sometimes in the middle of the night. While changing positions I’ll discover that my hand is clenched, so I’ll flatten it against the bed or pillow. Sometimes, to be certain, I’ll slide it under the pillow and lay my head on top.

This time I sensed you beside me. At first I thought I was in bed, on my back, and that you were somewhere to my left, listening with me. But then I saw we were floating in air, our arms suspended at our sides. It was as though we were on our backs on the surface of a lake – that’s how our bodies moved: a slow ripple.

August 3, 2003

Song 1

On the subway home I studied the CD case and saw how you glued two images back-to-back and taped the titles in the center of one.

Across the aisle sat a mother with her two young sons. One of the boys was standing on the seat, looking out the window. I worried that he might fall backwards and smash his head on the floor of the train. It wouldn’t have taken much as he kept losing and regained his balance. His mother, seeing this, would periodically grab the pocket of his shorts. I set my bag to the side and quietly got into a kind of sprinter’s position, right foot slightly back, right arm slightly forward, ready to push off should the boy begin to fall. In my mind I could see him falling. He didn’t fall.

Before listening to the first song, I did the dishes, put away my laundry, wrote to six people, and showered. There could be nothing else I needed to do.

Everything one says about a song is equally true and false. This one was like a merry-go-round that’s both faster and slower than merry-go-rounds are. Perhaps it could be filmed with cameras that spin. I saw streaks of green, a blur of trees.

July 29, 2003

String

Remember when some guy used the Oblivio search function to dis me? The following week someone else used the same technique to not only praise me but dis my dis-er. Here are the ten top search strings from that week:

  • 7,290 for “fuck him you rock”
  • 51 for “hi mike”
  • 30 for “love letter”
  • 25 for “eh guy s a fuckwad don t sweat”
  • 25 for “i love you mike”
  • 24 for “your site rocks”
  • 22 for “you are so cool”
  • 19 for “dont listen to them”
  • 15 for “cheer up i like your site”

Yes, fuck him you rock was searched on 7,290 times. One assumes – prays, really – that the operation was automated.

Also I lied: only nine results are listed above. I left out #4. #4 was the best. #4 is the phrase I want used if I ever appear in a documentary and some identifying text is shown at the bottom of the screen. It is the phrase that belongs, had I the courage, at the top of my business card; the phrase that describes my best self better than any phrase ever: dear man weird but dear.

July 28, 2003

Dirt in a Cup

Just back from a short trip to Philadelphia. Big highlight: me and my mom reading every letter or postcard I ever wrote to her. My favorite was a postcard sent from summer camp, age eight. Even then, my writing style is mine.

Dear Mom,
Camp isn’t getting much better. We had to go to Camp Council for a carnival. I got poison ivy + a small case of the common cold. It was mean of you to send me here. Please send me 3 stamped postcards addressed to Pop-Pop. Miss you. Love, Michael

Another highlight: Hanging out with my seven-year-old nephew Matthew and my cousin’s five-year-old daughter Casey at a playground called The Castle. After exhausting ourselves in the heat, we took shelter under a playground toy and waited to be picked up by the rest of my family. They were late, so Matthew, a complainer, complained. Rather than reassure him, I announced that we had been forgotten and were likely to have to sleep in The Castle and eat a dinner of wood chips and grass. Casey, recognizing that I was kidding, played along. “We can have dirt in a cup,” she said. Matthew asked where we were going to get cups. Casey rolled her eyes. “From the garbage, Matthew. Where did you think?”

Later Casey said there was something written on the beam above her head. Without thinking, I asked her to read it to me. “I don’t know this word,” she said, pointing. I leaned over and looked. She was pointing at the word COCK in the phrase SUCK MY COCK, which was written in large white letters across the beam.

What to do? I decided to level with them. “I can’t read that word to you because your parents will be upset. They think it’s a bad word.”

Matthew scooted over to see. “I think it says cock,” he said.

Cock. The children looked at each other, baffled.

July 25, 2003

Feathers

How does it feel to inhabit a body? I can never know, never having known otherwise. This makes me think of Rilke’s poem of Leda and the swan, of the line And then for the first time his feathers felt marvelous. The line comes as the god Zeus, in the form of a swan, penetrates Leda. When have my feathers felt so?

July 23, 2003

Skid Marks

M emailed me last night, the first contact between us in seven months. I worked on my reply for five hours, finally sending it at four in the morning.

When I started writing I was kind. I told her that before reading her email I peed and that while peeing I repeated a little mantra to myself: “Generosity of spirit. Generosity of spirit. Generosity of spirit.”

All that got deleted.

In an early version I wrote:

Of all the things I could tell you, the thing that seems to matter most is this: I’m sorry about what’s gone down. The scene of our relationship now resembles the site of a car accident months after the cars have been towed, a few random skid marks the only evidence that something terrible happened there.

In the version I ended up sending, I deleted the first sentence, which obviously changes the meaning.

I’m not sure what happened between eleven o’clock and four in the morning. Or I do know one thing: I read her website for the first time in seven months. The thing that struck me was a piece she wrote soon after our breakup. It was about her childhood relationship with her father. As she was talking about her father, I got confused because it seemed like she was talking about me. I felt certain I must have missed a reference to my name, so I read back. There was no reference. After re-reading the passage about her father, I again felt certain that she must have switched to talking about me and had merely forgotten to say my name. However in the next paragraph she does say my name and it’s clear that she’s now comparing me to the person in the previous paragraph who really is her father.

This made me angry. I’d rather not go into why; it’s a long story, none of which matters now. What matters instead (or so I thought while peeing) is to find some way to say it’s okay, even if I would only be saying it. Generosity of spirit.

We had our own private language. One of the new pieces on her site was addressed to me in that language. It was a kind of goodbye. I cried when I read it. She always could write things that made me cry. Immediately after reading it, I wrote a response in the same language, never intending to send it. I wish now I had. This is how it ends:

But what does it all mean now? Not much. I say this not to be mean but to say it. All gone like a dream. For that’s what it feels like, like a dream I had or we both had once. Can you think of when we would try, each in our own bed, to dream in the same shade or hue of blue or red? Not once did that work. Nor could I feel it when you would kiss me in my mind how you said you planned to – on my throat, my eyes, in front of my ears, and at last my lips. Still it’s true, I want to find a way to say that we do what we can, though it is nuts, all of it, nuts and cracked, and that still the sun comes up and goes down like that ride in the park, the one that goes round and round for what seems like no time when the time has all passed and you step from the ride and are gone.

July 20, 2003

Fireflies

Last night I attended a friend’s birthday dinner in Central Park, at Sheep Meadow Cafe. I think I drank too much. At one point, head spinning, I went off in search of fireflies. I found a few in an unlit field. Watching them I realized for the first time that they don’t flicker on and off but dive, again and again, into something dark. We see them as they surface and turn and dive back into the darkness.

June 25, 2003

Song

My thoughts divide roughly into three categories: memories, observations, and fantasies.

Fantasies include desires.

Probably there’s a better word than fantasies, one that encompasses both fantasies and desires, but what would it be?

Also, what is a word for what happens in my head when I read? I want to call this mastication, but that seems different from the things above.

Anyway right now an ice cream truck outside my window is playing that insipid ice cream truck song over and over. You know the one. If I could I would gladly and without remorse smash the truck’s speaker into a smoking heap of metal and wire. This is both an observation and a fantasy.

Also, had I previously seen someone do this, or had done it once myself, or had once fantasied about doing it and had now, hearing the song again, remembered my fantasy, it would also be a memory.

June 23, 2003

Regrets

I used to claim I didn’t regret things. Maybe that was true when I said it, I don’t know; I just know I regret plenty of things today.

For example I regret breaking up with J. I mean the fourth time. I don’t regret the first, since I really had no choice that time. The second and third times were her doing, so I can hardly regret those. Although it’s true that I drove her to it the third time, so if I wanted to regret that I could.

Similarly I could regret getting together the second time. Also the third. I could even regret getting together the fourth time, but what’s the point? It’s all too easy to say you should have known better given what happened.

Still, I should have known better. I mean about the fourth time. She called and said she wanted to get back together and do it right this time. She even said she loved me. It was only the second time she ever said that. The first time was during our third relationship, and that time she didn’t actually say she loved me but that she had told her therapist she did. In response I said that her therapist knew better than to believe her. I regret that now. It was mean. All the mean things I ever said to her I regret.

Not that she ever actually loved me. In fact that was why I broke up with her the first time. It’s also why she broke up with me the second. The third time was different: that time we broke up because I didn’t love her.

Actually the third time may not count as a time at all, because all it was, was sex. Once a week we would have dinner, talk about our weeks, and fuck. To distinguish this from “going out” or “having a relationship” or “being together,” we would say we had “an arrangement” – an arrangement she ended because it prevented her from going out with or having a relationship with or being together with anyone else.

She told me this over the phone. She also said that my comment about her therapist had hurt her.

The second time she said she loved me was when she called and said she wanted to get back together. That was how the fourth time began. In response I told her that I loved her too, which I now regret because it wasn’t true.

Also, while having sex we would sometimes say we loved each other, but that was different because we were having sex. In other words, I don’t regret it.

Here are all the things I regret:

  • Saying mean things to her
  • Telling her I loved her
  • Breaking up with her the fourth time

Everything else I’m okay with.

June 9, 2003

Ducklings

Someone is writing to me via the search function on Oblivio. Each week I receive a report that lists the ten most popular searches on the site, and in recent weeks someone has been conducting the same searches over and over, so that they appear at the top of the report. Last week there were eight searches for “u r an unabashed prick” and five for “fuck you asshole.” I’m not totally sure that “fuck you asshole” was bogus given that the most popular all-time search is “fuck my wife” (!), but there’s no question that “u r an unabashed prick” was directed at me.

Last week there were 14 searches for “but you are a jerk.” However this is nothing compared to the week of May 10, when the top seven searches were:

  • 18 for “and that means you mike boorish”
  • 16 for “how do you live with yourself you stupid fuck”
  • 15 for “murder any ducklings lately j o”
  • 14 for “total fucking prick”
  • 13 for “complete and utter asshole”
  • 13 for “u r a complete and utter asshole mike”
  • 12 for “u r a total jerk fuck mike”

Being a complete and utter asshole, I considered writing a piece in which this exact thing happens, except that the searches add up to a love letter. That’ll fix his wagon, I thought. But then after a minute I decided that I didn’t really want to fix anyone’s wagon. If anything I feel grateful to this person for transforming my weekly search report into something I look forward to reading. Perhaps it’s the unabashed prick in me, but I enjoy imagining this person at his computer (I believe he’s a he) doing the same inane searches over and over, with what I imagine to be demented glee.

Naturally I realize that I invite more of the same, from him and others, by writing about this. Still, call me a total jerk fuck, but I could care less. Anyone who does 18 searches for “and that means you mike boorish” deserves a few paragraphs of public acknowledgement.

June 4, 2003

Lines and Arrows

We kissed for the first time at the northeast corner of St. Marks and Fourth Avenue. It was raining. We had been walking in the rain for several blocks and I was standing to her left, holding her umbrella above us. We were standing so close that our arms were almost but not quite touching. The light was red. I believe she had just been explaining why she wasn’t wearing her sweater, despite the rain. It was because she wanted something dry to wear later, which seemed more important than to be warmer now. I didn’t say this at the time, but I totally respected her logic and in fact this may be why I kissed her.

She was wearing white and red sneakers which I believe are called Vans. Normally I don’t notice such things, but these sneakers were adorable. When I first saw them I remembered that on our first date she wore blocky black sneakers which I couldn’t help but find sexy. Truth is, I’m usually impervious to such things; if anything it’s a turn-off when I sense that a woman devotes too much attention to fashion. The sneakers were white with little red flowers. The red matched the red of her pants. Later she confessed that she had left her entire wardrobe in a giant pile on her bed, which may have been the hottest thing any woman has ever said to me.

The way the kiss happened was that I turned to her and started kissing her, without really thinking about it. Well, there was a bit more to it of course. Because as I moved in I definitely looked to see if I had permission to do so. Did she tilt her head in acceptance? Did she part her lips slightly? Probably she did both, although I don’t pretend to remember. In baseball this is called a bang-bang play. A player slides into second, the throw comes in, the second baseman catches it and slaps the runner with his glove, and that’s it, it’s over, bang-bang, no time for anyone to think about what’s happening. Contrast this with the kiss itself, during which I focused entirely on the fact that we were kissing, that those lips touching mine, as well as that flicker of tongue, belonged to her. This part was more like those slow-motion replays, usually in basketball, in which the announcer scribbles a bunch of lines and arrows on the screen to explain what just happened and how it relates to what previously happened and how it reflects and reveals what each team is trying at this moment to do, beneath all the lines and arrows.

May 25, 2003

Poetry

I am a horse begins one, and here the speaker, the horse, is riding in a train that’s absolutely packed, and he has his hind legs folded on the seat behind him and is wearing, as the poet tells us, the six shiny buttons of sex appeal. The middle part I don’t remember, but then the comes the end which I love which is this: O how small this world is. How large cherries. And then another, quite different, begins, We don’t know anything. We haven’t learned one single thing about pain. That bitterly cold season only leaves long streaks in our muscles, and here again the best parts are the beginning and the end, whereas the middle could be the middle of anything, something to connect the beginning to the end, a bit of passing landscape, otherwise the poem doesn’t work, we get off at the same station we boarded, no time having passed, no distance traveled. Truly I don’t expect anyone to agree with me about any of this, poetry being a matter mostly of what you bring to it, but when I read those three lines, we don’t know anything and so on, I can feel them vibrate in my head like when I’m singing and I have my hand on my chest, and then the end too, no less, which goes, then we might understand that death can be a beautiful long voyage and a permanent vacation from structures, systems, and skeletons. Granted it gets a bit poetical there, but I’m happy to overlook that because it’s such a striking thought to me that in death there are no skeletons, that skeletons are something the living must live with, rather than the dead, who are evidently on a kind of loosely organized cruise ship. I don’t pretend to totally get that part, which in poetry is fine, almost the point really, make it interesting but not totally graspable, keep a certain friendly distance between what you mean and what you say, such as when Cesar Vallejo says that he will die in Paris on a Thursday in the rain and that they, whoever they are, will beat him hard, with a stick, and hard, the only witnesses being the bones in his arms and the rain and the Thursdays, so that you’re left feeling that Vallejo doesn’t quite mean what he says because first of all how would he know all this in advance, when and where and how he will die, not to mention the weather that day, and second, how could his own bones be witness to his own death, that makes no sense and is obviously the sort of thing that poets say when they are trying to say something that can only be said by saying something else, except that in this case Vallejo really did die in Paris on a Thursday that it rained, so perhaps this is not the best example.

May 23, 2003

Flag

Her technique, she said, is to put her bad feelings on a raft and push them out to sea. If she has time, she sits on the beach and watches the raft float away.

Recently there was a man she liked so much that she made a flag with which to surrender to him. Lacking a proper flag, she used some napkins left over from a take-out burrito. She unfolded the napkins and taped them together with adhesive tape, then waved the taped-together pieces at a particularly beautiful email he had sent, hoping he could feel it.

Whether he felt it or not, he soon did some unspecified thing that upset her so much that on the subway ride home she put the napkin flag on a raft and pushed it out to sea. Unfortunately the flag immediately blew off the raft, where it drifted about idly. This was maddening, but then, mercifully, her stop came and she was able to get off the train and leave the flag behind her.

May 19, 2003

Mom

This just in from my mother:

I just saw your picture in a “fucking suit.” That was the style then! Anyway, the picture is adorable and it should definitely help your business.

my mother and me when I was a baby
Me and my mom (it’s true: I was the fattest baby in human history)

May I publicly announce how much I love this woman? True story: When I nineteen she came into the room at the hospital where I had just finished vomiting up the last of the thirty-two sleeping pills I had taken, and her first words to me were: “If you ever do this again, I’ll kill you.”

Love you mom.

May 17, 2003

Dressing Room

On a personal note, I just launched a new fancypants version of my business site Luminous. I suffered for this. I am a lunatic and I am my own worst client. If I were hired by me, I would quit long before I had a chance to fire myself, and then I would bitch about myself to friends.

The worst part was promotional copy. After writing three words of promotional copy, I begin to sob. What I wouldn’t give to just put something like this on Luminous:

HIRE ME. I KNOW WHAT I’M DOING. I AM NOT A JERK. I WILL LISTEN TO YOU AND PROBABLY TALK YOU OUT OF THREE BAD IDEAS. I WILL MAKE JOKES. WHEN THE BILL COMES, YOU WILL FEEL LIKE YOU GOT A GREAT DEAL.

Okay, to see what this feels like, to try it on as one might try on clothes one can’t possibly afford, I just made a page with giant letters. Dig the photo of the future lunatic.

May 9, 2003

Beaten

The following is a transcript, nearly word for word, of a tape recording I made earlier tonight. Normally I would edit this into something else, but I think in this case it’s best to leave it as is. In any event I want everyone to know I’m okay. I really am, more or less. I figure I’ll write more later.

May 8th, I think. I was beaten tonight, attacked and beaten. I was walking to the Chinese restaurant to pick up dinner, a late dinner. It was about 11:15. I had just crossed Washington Street and had gone perhaps a hundred feet. I was less than a block from my apartment. I don’t know what happened exactly. That is I do know what happened; I just don’t have any recollection of it. I was walking and then I was being hit. The first blow must have come from behind because I didn’t see anyone in front of me. Then suddenly I was being hit by several people. At least two. They were young African-American men. And at least one of them was yelling something at me. I don’t know what he was yelling. It was the same thing over and over, but I don’t know what it was. This went on for what was perhaps a short time but felt like five minutes.

I didn’t see the first blow coming. Or any of the blows. If I had seen the first blow coming, it would have been much easier. Because the way it happened, it was as though something had suddenly fallen on top of my head. Plus the first blow was probably the best one, the most effective one, so not only did it come as a surprise but it made my head fuzzy. Had I seen a fist coming into my face, it would have been enormously helpful, but that’s not how it happened.

Still, after a certain number of blows, I managed to gather myself to the degree that I knew what to do, which was to run. As I ran I expected, because I was in this stunned state, to be easily caught and knocked to the ground, or whatever they were going to do to me – beat me unconscious, I suppose. Except I wasn’t chased. I knew this because I didn’t hear anyone chasing me. I just heard the guy yelling the thing that I don’t know what the fuck it was and don’t think I ever will.

I think I turned at a certain point, perhaps a hundred feet down the block, when I realized that I wasn’t being chased, and yelled, “What the fuck is this about? What the fuck did I do to you?” Something along these lines. I remember now that I also yelled this sort of thing when I was being hit.

I was without my glasses as I yelled this, since they had been knocked from face during the attack. The thing is, I need my glasses and can’t see without them. However there was no way I was going to turn and go back to where I had been beaten, so instead I crossed Washington, which was kind of difficult to do because I was badly shaken up and didn’t have my glasses. On the corner there I went into the bodega where I sometimes buy coffee or a banana. They know me there. They’re friendly, I like them. They’re Arab, I don’t know from where exactly. I can never understand what they’re saying. The moment the guy behind the counter saw me, I realized that my face must have looked pretty bad, that I must have been bleeding a lot, because he said something about the hospital and handed me a napkin which I’m still holding as I record this. It’s covered with blood. There were a few other people in the bodega, customers, and they listened, they came over and listened to what I was telling the guys behind the counter. And then I said, “Would someone be willing to walk back there with me and help me find my glasses?” An African-America woman said, “I’ll do it,” and we walked together across the street. This may have been totally insane, going back to where maybe these guys were still hanging out, where maybe they would jump up and start hitting me again, but it was the only thing I could think of doing because without my glasses I’m screwed.

There were two big African-America guys sitting on a low wall there. The woman asked them if they had seen my glasses. This was a problem because I wasn’t sure exactly where I had been hit, the physical location. I ended up pointing at two spots about fifty feet apart and saying to the woman, “Somewhere between there and there.” One of the guys said he thought my glasses were by a particular tree, so we went to that tree but didn’t see them. The woman was ready to give up immediately. Maybe she was scared to be there? Maybe she felt like she’d done enough? I kind of pleaded her, I said, “I really can’t see without my glasses, so I can’t find them without you.” Then she found them. They were right near her feet; she had almost stepped on them. Thankfully they weren’t broken, though one of the stems was badly bent. However, they were a good ten feet from where the two guys had indicated – these same two guys who I’m ninety percent sure had witnessed my beating and who of course had nothing to say to me and who I’m sure will have nothing to say to the cops.

A digression. I’m waiting for my friend Andrew to arrive. I called him a short time ago. He’s coming over on his bike. I don’t have any ice. I realize that I should put ice on my face but I don’t have any. I would go down to the bodega again to buy ice, but I feel I should stay here. I’m waiting for Andrew and I’m waiting for the police. I’ve often thought of putting water in the damn ice trays, but I’ve never bothered to do so. So I’m doing it now, what good this does me.

On my way home I went back to the bodega with my glasses and held them up for the guys there to see. One of said something to me (I never understand what they’re saying) and I said thanks. Then I came home and the first thing I thought of doing was to take pictures of myself, so that’s what I did, I took some photos of my face in the bathroom mirror. Then I got out a pliers and bent my glasses back into reasonable shape. They fit okay now; not great but okay. No, actually I think I called Andrew before I bent back my glasses. Anyway I also called the police, I don’t remember when, and tried to tell the dispatcher what had happened. I was asked how many assailants there were, and I had to say I didn’t know. There could have been as many as five, I said, I have no way of knowing.

I just realized that I must have been hit in my shoulder, just below my right shoulder, because it’s starting to hurt there. The main blow was to the side of my face, near my eye. My left ear hurts as well. It may have just been three or four blows, I don’t know. I wish I could remember what the guy was yelling. All I can say is that my sense was that it had to do with me not belonging there, with me being white, not that he ever said the word white. This is a mostly black neighborhood. I’ve never felt uncomfortable here other than in that one stretch from Washington to the next street. This is where I was attacked.

I’ve been pacing around my apartment recording this. I am to say the least wound up. And my face hurts some. Andrew arrived a short time ago; I sent him to the bodega to get some ice and bread. I hardly have any food in the apartment, so I figure I’ll make myself some eggs. I’m okay now, though I’m shaken up, obviously. My mother is going to be upset to read about this. She reads my website. I said to Andrew that nothing has changed. I’ve always known that there are people who would do this. I’ve always known why. I’ve been lucky till now that it hasn’t happened to me. I guess I’m lucky I’m not hurt worse. I said to Andrew that we haven’t evolved very much.

At some point (I forgot to mention this before), I decided to call the Chinese restaurant to explain that I wasn’t coming to pick up my food. However I stupidly hit “redial” on my phone, which meant that I redailed 911, because I had forgotten that I had called them. When I realized it was 911, I hung up on them and then decided to not bother with the Chinese restaurant because it was already past their closing time. The next time I’m in there, I’ll apologize and pay for the food I never picked up.

April 27, 2003

Note

I went to a party tonight. Got drunk. Danced. Left a note in a woman’s shoe. She wasn’t wearing the shoe at the time. It was under a chair. I’d seen her leave it there. With her other shoe. Even drunk I’m paying attention.

I gave her my email address. On the note. As I wrote it I was extra careful to make it legible. Because it would terrible if she wanted to know my email address but couldn’t make it out. She’d think, The drunk motherfucker what the fuck does this say?

I read through the note before leaving it. I wasn’t totally sure but it seemed that the “at” symbol didn’t look enough like an “at” symbol, so I rewrote the entire note with a better “at” symbol.

I did this in the hall outside the party. It was very bright which for some reason made me reason how drunk I was. Not reason; realize. I’m still drunk.

Now it’s the next day. I laid in bed all morning talking with her. Her name is Tess. This wasn’t her but an imaginary her. Although her name really is Tess. We didn’t talk so much as snuggle. She wore one of my t-shirts. At one point she cried but wouldn’t tell me why.

In another version (there were many) I went down on her. Then I decided it was too soon for that, so I wiped it out and started over.

In another version I watched her sleep. At a certain point her face became very intent, as though she was struggling with a math problem.

In another version she snuck out of bed in the early morning, put on her pants, and wrote me a note sitting at the kitchen table. She thought I was asleep but I wasn’t. I could hear the sound of pen on the paper. My fear, lying there, was that she wasn’t going to leave me her number. The moment she left, I got up and looked at the note, which she had left on top of the fruit bowl.

That’s how it ends. I never got to the part where I find out what the note says.

April 23, 2003

Motel

My friend David took his three-year-old son Jacob to the aquarium. At the octopus tank David realized he had a problem: the tank was empty. This could only mean one thing.

“I guess the octopus went away,” he said, hoping to leave it at that.

Jacob wasn’t so easily satisfied. “I know where it went.”

“Where?” asked David.

“It went to the motel.”

This become a little joke between me and David. When your life is over, you go to the motel. Christ stayed at the motel for three days, then came back for a visit. Love, when it dies, moves to the motel where it spends its days flipping through the cable channels.

Recently I realized that the motel must be bigger than the world, bigger even than the universe. It’s so big you can’t tell it’s a motel because you can never stand outside it.

April 15, 2003

Routine

We had a little routine for after. After she got up and headed to the bathroom, I would wipe myself with toilet paper torn from the roll I kept on the windowsill behind my bed. Then I would go to my desk and throw out the condom, the condom wrapper, and the used toilet paper, being careful to bury the condom under other trash. Returning to the bed, I would put away the lubrication, lay our pillows side-by-side, and straighten the sheets. Then I would walk to the kitchen, where I would drink some orange juice straight from the container, standing in the light of the open refrigerator. It always surprised me how bright the light was.

She would be in the bathroom all this time, doubtless following her own routine, a sub-routine of the one we shared. I would wait for her by the coat rack, six feet or so down the hall. I don’t know if she knew about this part. Probably she did – otherwise how was I always right there when she emerged from the bathroom? – however it’s not something we ever discussed. None of this was. It was simply what we did.

When she emerged from the bathroom, I would step into the hall so she would see me there waiting for her and wouldn’t be frightened. As she walked past, I would lightly touch her arm and say something friendly like Hey or Hi’ya, and she’d mumble something friendly in response.

She was naked as she passed, which always struck me as odd. It was the only time I saw her naked outside of bed, and I sensed that she didn’t want me to look at her body, so I didn’t.

In the bathroom I would pee and wash up and maybe brush my teeth to be polite, although I loved her taste in my mouth. When I returned to bed, she would be under the covers, and as I settled in she would lay her head in the crook of my arm, although I was never quite sure she really wanted to. Instead, and this again is something I can’t know for certain, it seemed that she did it because it was what we did. Not that she didn’t want to, necessarily; I just had no way of knowing.

Similarly I could never tell when she switched back to being her regular self, as opposed to the one who did the sex scenes. Was it in the bathroom? Was it earlier, while we were still in bed? Or was it at different times each time, within a certain range? This would mirror the structure of the larger routine, in which a certain number of familiar elements were repeated in more or less the same order, although with varying intensities and durations.

April 7, 2003

Gone Away

contact sheet

1. Reports

Thursday

M: My idea is to give little reports. It’s now 8:19 p.m. We’re at –

W: – Dwight and Sacramento.

M: Wendy has just told me about all these terrible things involving a fire in her apartment and… what else?

W: Battery fumes.

M: Oh yeah, disgusting battery fumes.

W: White gas is going to explode in the dumpster in the garage. The entire building is going to be destroyed. We’re going to be at Yosemite when it happens.

2. Superfluous

M: It’s 8:41 and Wendy has reported, as I already knew, that the left arm of the crash test dummy dangling from her rear view mirror won’t go back into its socket.

W: It’s permanently severed.

M: She mentioned that she has a purple crash test dummy at home and that she’s thinking of… Are you thinking of just taking the arm or the whole crash test dummy?

W: No, I thought of switching them, but then I decided that that would be unfair to this one. Just because you’re missing an arm doesn’t mean the rest of you should be rejected.

M: Have you thought of transferring the purple arm onto this one?

W: Well, then you’d have a purple arm and a white body.

M: That would be interesting, don’t you think?

W: But the purple arm might not go in that socket.

M: What you could do is remove the right arm from the purple one and then they could hang together side-by-side without any superfluous arms between them. It would be romantic.

W: Not for the one who just lost an arm.

3. The Endless Night

M: It’s 10:48. We’re about sixty miles from Yosemite and we’re winding up these incredible rock-like mountains. The moonlight is extremely bright, as bright as the lights on movie sets. From where we are it looks like a car commercial behind us. You can look down there and see the winding road we came up. At first we weren’t sure if the mountains were snow-covered or grass-covered or what they were, but it turns out that they’re rock-like mountains and that they have these sort of bushes growing in patches, so it resembles some kind of hair disease.

W: There are no other cars. It’s sort of eerie. I’m having this feeling of being up really late doing homework in New York when everyone else had gone to bed, not only in my house but everyone in the huge apartment building across the street. All the lights would have gradually gone out and there would be just a few on still, and me and Laura would be doing homework over the phone.

M: Over the phone?

W: Yeah. I remember going through half a loaf of bread once, doing homework. There was this incredible feeling of being the only person awake, and I’m sort of having that feeling now because we have the whole road to ourselves. I feel like we have all this time. The endless night.

4. Distortions

W: We each had our set-up.

M: What do you mean?

W: We each had our own camp, and my doll had her camp and Laura’s doll had her camp.

M: Were there tents or was it all imaginary?

W: No, it was all imaginary. But they were in the woods and there were bears and things. And I had this rubber knife that belonged to some other doll set (naturally, Barbie dolls don’t come with knives), which fit perfectly in her boot. So my doll used to carry a rubber knife in her boot wherever she went. To protect herself. And since they were living in the wilderness, they didn’t have any watches or any way to tell time. We had these ways of distorting the dolls for different reasons.

M: Distorting?

W: Well, they were already distorted, as you know, in their dimensions. So we had to bend their heads back, which we could do pretty easily, and we would say, “I wonder what time it is.” That was how they told the time, by looking at the sun. The other thing we used to do was squish their cheeks together and say, “I wish I could see on both sides of my head.”

M: Was the idea that they would do that when they wanted to see on both sides of their head?

W: Yeah.

M: Have you and Laura talked about this since?

W: Oh yeah. This was the same period as the Batman and Robin adventure.

M: What was the Batman and Robin adventure?

W: We would pretend that we were Batman and Robin and that we had gotten into a horrible car accident and then one of us would say, “Oh, are you alright?” and we would burst into hysterics.

5. Yellowish

Saturday

M: Last night we got into our tent and “married” our sleeping bags, only our sleeping bags weren’t quite the same length, which was awkward. Also the ground was slanted towards my side of the tent, so gravity tended to pull me towards the wall of tent, and her towards me. Plus we set up the sleeping pads in the middle of the tent, which is to say that I ended up rolling off my pad. But the biggest problem was that the short side of the combined sleeping bag was at my back and it was quite cold. After Wendy tried to move the pads and the sleeping bag while still inside the bag – an absurd and silly operation – we finally, with some annoyance, got out of the bag and switched things around so that the warmer, longer side of the sleeping bag was at my back, the direction of gravity. And then, some time during the night, we switched sides, with Wendy taking the downhill side.

W: Which turned out to be a disadvantage because you get pressed up against the edge of tent, which is really cold, and then you get terrible cramps in your legs.

M: Hey, there’s a waterfall up there.

W: There is a waterfall.

M: Yeah, it was problematic: my arm started to hurt when I was on the bad side. But we did, after a while, get a little better at it. We moved towards the middle of the tent and somehow stayed there.

W: Look, people are taking pictures of the waterfall.

M: Yeah, it’s a waterfall.

W: “Watch for rocks.”

M: So we sort of fooled around a lot. It was nice. I won’t go into details.

W: The flowers are out.

M: Five minutes back, we passed over a little bridge that crossed to the other side of the river. There was a guy there who had set up a tripod by the roadside, so Wendy and I both looked around maniacally to see what he could have been taking a picture of. But there didn’t seem to be anything spectacular there to photograph.

W: These trees are in bloom. They’re pretty, white, open flowers. Big. What are they called?

M: I don’t know.

Now we’re coming up to the waterfall.

W: It’s Bridal Veil.

M: This rock is absurd.

W: There’s another one up there.

M: I’ve never seen anything like this. It’s just weird.

W: What are those people taking pictures of? They’re looking back there, in the wrong direction.

M: How high would you say that rock is?

W: How high? The rock is –

M: – hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of feet.

W: It’s more than that.

M: Okay, two thousand feet of sheer rock.

Now we’ve got different trees, and they’re pretty. Yellow trees. Yellow leaves.

W: Look at that.

M: Yellowish.

6. Moment

[Walking sounds.]

M. We decided to get out and take a look at Bridal Veil closer up, because we realized that the road coming back is on the other side of the river, so we wouldn’t be this close again.

We just saw this lovely family: outdoorsy-looking parents, young, in their thirties, and two kids, girls. They were playing this game where they all stood in a line together and the older girl said –

W: – “Okay, everybody stand still. Okay, one, two, three, go!”

M: And then they strode together.

W: The little one couldn’t quite keep up.

M: It seemed like they were happy together and that there was no disfunctionality of any kind in that moment.

W: No, none visible.

7. A Certain Majesty

M: We’re now at Bridal Veil Falls, which Wendy just said looks better from a distance. Then her sentence sort of trailed off, but I think she was going to say that it has a certain majesty from a distance, but that here, up close, it’s this loud thing with too many people around it.

8. Names

M: We’re walking on rocks in the stream. That sound you hear is the water rushing over rocks.

Wendy mentioned that the trees at the foot of the rock mountains are pretty and that perhaps they’re aspens. I pointed out that we’re not as interested in them because we don’t know what they’re called.

W: Right. We’re not interested in the rocks either.

M: Just the names.

9. Meadow

M: It’s 12:07 and we’re just getting out of the car again. We’ve come to a little meadow. A car has stopped in front of us, a Toyota, and a blond couple has gotten out. I remarked that they have the same ass. The woman put her arms around the man from behind. I said that they’re happy together.

W: Maybe they’re brother and sister.

M: I don’t think they’re brother and sister.

W: How can they have such similar hair?

M: And asses.

They’re holding hands right now.

If they’re brother and sister, it’s pretty intense.

10. Tent

M: It’s 2:30. It’s snowing now and we’ve decided to leave Yosemite; to leave the mountains in fact. Wendy suggested Mono Lake but unfortunately it’s a five-hour drive in the wrong direction. So rather than do all that driving we’re going to head back down out of the mountains. We’re hoping for better weather.

So when we decided this, we went back to the campground, ran to where we had left our tent, threw the tarp off it and just carried the whole tent, with the sleeping bags and such still inside, back to the car. While we were in the tent I suggested making love, and although we did kiss, it didn’t happen because it seemed too cold, according to Wendy, for all-out sex. I argued that one, we didn’t need to be fully naked (technically only one part of you needs to be naked during intercourse, and even that part, for the male, can and often should be covered), and two, we would generate our own heat. Alas Wendy spoke, rather unromantically I thought, of freezing her tits off, so the idea was tabled.

11. Voice

M: It’s 4:15. We went to a cafe called Cafe where we got bowls of split pea soup and talked. It’s chilly and rainy. We talked mostly about the situation involving Wendy’s friend, Annabel, who is supposedly moving out of her boyfriend’s apartment this Saturday at a time when her boyfriend is, as I see it, likely to be there. In my blunt fashion I said that this was sure to be a disaster, although perhaps exactly the sort of disaster Annabel secretly desires.

I found myself speaking in that tone of voice I so dislike.

12. Picture

M: Wendy has stopped the car to take a picture of a dilapidated building by the roadside. She’s standing in the middle of road now, taking a picture of it from in front. I’m walking towards her. She’s standing on the yellow line. It’s raining. “Wendy, there’s a car coming,” I’m saying.

13. Monsters

Sunday

M: It’s 9:00 Sunday morning and a lot has happened. Yeah, hmm. Anyway we’re about to go down to breakfast.

W: At The Hotel [French accent] Leger.

M. I’m a little nervous about this breakfast. The woman at the desk said there’s going to be eighteen guests. Although she did make the food sound good.

W: Yeah, yogurt and fruit.

M. I’m pretty hungry and have to pee.

I took some nice pictures of Wendy after having made love and having come relatively quickly because we have to hurry down to breakfast before those monsters devour everything.

14. Cement

M: We’ve come to the cemetery in Mokelumne Hill, where we’ve seen some interesting things, including a sign that said, “No Digging.” And now here’s something even stranger: At the back of the cemetery all the grave sites are in cement.

W: All of them. In cement.

M: It’s bizarre. Also the place seems way too new for a cemetery. Wendy has suggested that the graves may have been moved from someplace else. But that still doesn’t explain why they’re made of cement.

In any case we’ve now come to a large, new-looking gravestone embossed with the images of a husband and wife: John Nelson Sandoz and Margaret May Sandoz. Margaret May isn’t dead yet, so her side of the stone still remains to be fully inscribed. It seems strange that she might come here and stare at the blank space where she is later to be memorialized. Although on the other hand this merely formalizes what all of us – Margaret May included – know. Death approaches.

15. Gone Away

M: I just realized that “Dear Mother, You Have Gone Away But Are Not Forgotten” is not necessarily a positive statement.

16. Wheels

M: We’ve come to the Kennedy Mines Tailing Wheels, which were once these four huge wheels that carried the tailings, or residue, from the mines. The one we’re looking at, which I think is number three, has collapsed; Wendy is taking pictures of it. The wheel itself is surrounded by a barbed wire fence, but we noticed a place where someone cut open part of the fence, which Wendy was able to slip through. Up the hill, looming in the background, is wheel number four, which is still intact although it appears to be badly slanted.

17. Fence

M: After taking many pictures of the collapsed wheel, Wendy tried to wiggle though the opening in the fence, got caught, and called for help. Instead of helping her, I made her give me her camera, which I used to take photos of her trapped in the fence.

18. The Burden of Caring

W: While you were gone I imagined this piece of electronic equipment getting into the hands of some person who would then listen to your tape. And so on.

M: What do you mean, “And so on”?

W: I felt kind of sad because it would be like having someone steal one of my cameras with film in it. So I sat here and took some pictures and experienced some sense of satisfaction that I still had my pieces of electronic equipment with latent images in them, and I also felt fear that you would be separated from yours, and I wondered what that means about what you record.

M: At times I’ve been seeing us as others might see us. Like the way we were around the fallen wheel. We were present there but we were also elsewhere – in some imagined future looking back. We had all this energy on the question of what was worth documenting.

W: So in some sense losing the record would be freedom.

M: Yes, but a sad freedom.

W: I thought about that when we were joking about my apartment exploding. You pointed out that I would lose all my pictures. There’s some sick part of me that would feel liberated by that. It’s as though there’s a ball and chain effect with things you really care about. Isn’t that twisted? The things or people you care about most – like your parents, for example – trap you. Or they don’t trap you…

M: They bind you.

W: They have such power over you. It’s ironic because they’re the things you care about most and yet there’s this dark side that wants to be freed from the burden of caring.

M: We don’t have any documentation of making love. The last thing I’m thinking about then is the future. In that moment I’m right there with you. And it’s precious – it’s the present and it’s precious. I say this in contrast to how we are around the wheel. Which is not to say that what we do around the wheel is wrong.

There’s a little bird in the tree.

W: It’s a hummingbird. It sounds like a plane.

19. Shadow

W: There are people over there. They’re doing something together.

M: What do you see?

W: They’re standing together, and walking away, back down the hill.

M: What else?

W: They’re facing each other, they have their arms out together.

M: What else?

W: One’s a man and one’s a woman. She has a dress on. She has her arms out again. She keeps holding her arms up in the air. She’s dancing now. She’s throwing her legs out. She’s really happy. She’s turning around in circles. He’s just walking. She’s very happy.

M: I’ve decided not to look.

W: They’re walking on the ridge, so they’re sort of silhouetted against the sky. They have the same gait. They’re holding hands now and walking back to the car.

It’s over, they’re not there anymore. They’re in the parking lot now, experiencing the parking lot. They had they’re little joyful moment on top of the hill. It’s over, gone.

M: You didn’t take any photos.

W: No.

M: Now they’re gone.

W: That moment is gone.

M: They’re gone with it.

W: They’re getting into the car.

M: You can see them still?

W: Yeah. He’s driving. Now they’re in their car – an unpleasant place to be. He’s about to drive over the cliff. Off they go.

M: Over the cliff?

W: No, they’re coming this way. The windows are down. They’re still trying to experience it, trying to let some air in, the sun. There they go.

M: I saw the car for a second.

W: Here it comes again.

M: I see it.

W: Those two people.

M: It has a shadow.

20. Roar

Monday

M: It’s about 8:30 Monday morning. Wendy has taken the rain slicker and gone off to pee. We smoked some pot in the tent last night and then talked and then kind of passed out together. It rained during the night and it’s raining still. The rain was heavy at times, a roar in the trees.

21. Nice

M: It’s 12:50. We’re leaving this Native American museum – Chaw-See I think the tribe is called. We came because of the grinding stones, which were somewhat of a disappointment; although the museum was not done any worse than I expected. As Wendy pointed out, these grinding stones, which were just places where people came to grind down their acorns or whatever they had to grind down, were for some reason surrounded by wooden fences with signs that said, “Keep Off The Grinding Stones.” And there were also these overly wide cement paths all over the place.

On another subject: It rained all morning and is still raining. We made love, we talked. We made love, we talked. We talked some more. More talking than making love, but both were nice.

W: “Nice.”

M: Nice. Which means nothing. I asked Wendy about her orgasm and she said it was nice.

W: At least I didn’t say it was fine.

M: Passable.

She did tell me – and this I’m sure she meant as a compliment – that I’m her favorite lover.

W: I started out by saying he was the best lover in the entire world.

M: But then it was cut down to something like “best lover in the tent.” Anyway it was “nice.” She came, and I kind of thought she was coming but couldn’t totally tell. That was “nice.”

W: I forgot to tell him.

22. Question

M: Is this okay?

W: Yeah. If I can remember where I was.

M: “So many things happening – good things, hard things.”

W: That’s when I felt like I was falling. I was overwhelmed. It wasn’t like anything I’ve felt before. We said, “falling in love,” but I don’t know what I was falling into.

M. Well, that’s the nature of falling, I suppose.

W: I don’t know what happened to those feelings.

M: The bad ones?

W: Yeah, I don’t know what happened to that stuff. It kind of dissipated.

M: I remember some things coming back.

W: Things came back, yeah.

M: Buried by?

W: Buried. I see a mountain and I see myself underneath it.

M: I have these moments periodically in which it seems I can see, for just a moment, what’s really happening. I can actually see it. I can see how much of what we do is a facade. Whenever I see that I feel despondent.

W: What was it that made you feel that way?

M: Nothing in particular. Well, there were specific things, but they were innocuous things, moments. It’s when I choose to say something or do something out of the thought that this is what I should do, out of playing a part – like playing the part of falling in love with you. When I see that facade, I see it everywhere, in everything between people.

W: And then you asked me what I felt.

M: What did you feel?

W: And then I avoided the question by telling you the story of my mother.

M: Yeah, and you kept avoiding the question.

W: I’m still avoiding the question.

23. Tuna Fish

M: We’re about an hour from home and Wendy has a poem to recite.

W: This Is Just To Say, by William Carlos Williams: This is just to say that I have eaten the plums that were in the refrigerator that you were probably saving for breakfast. Forgive me, they were delicious, so sweet and so cold.

M: I think it’s they were delicious, so cold and so sweet.

W: Hey, no. I had to memorize a poem for the poetry contest. Everyone had to memorize a poem. Some kids memorized, Tiger, Tiger, Burning Bright, but I memorized, This Is Just To Say.

M: A charming poem. Tiger, Tiger, Burning Bright is nice too, but this is an extremely charming poem. And I’m glad to know you know a poem by William Carlos Williams.

W: That’s just the beginning.

M: That’s not just the beginning; that’s the whole poem.

W: I know. But it’s just the beginning of my extensive knowledge of the poetry of William Carlos Williams.

M: I’m impressed. Do you perhaps also know the poetry of Czeslaw Milosz?

W: Sorry, never heard of him.

M: It’s fine. He won the Nobel prize for literature, not that that means anything. I saw him once, eating a tuna fish sandwich at a soda fountain in Ann Arbor. I recognized him because of his eyebrows, but I didn’t think it was him because I couldn’t believe he would be in Ann Arbor eating a tuna fish sandwich. The next day I read in the newspaper that Czeslaw Milosz had spoken at the university.

W: Ah.

M: The article mentioned that he had smelled like tuna fish.

W: Naturally.

M: I was heartbroken because he’s one of my favorite poets and I had failed to talk to him. Would you care to hear one of his poems?

W: Yes.

M: It’s called Tuna Fish.

W: No it isn’t.

M: That’s true; it’s called Encounter. We were riding through frozen fields in a wagon at dawn. A red wing rose in the darkness. And suddenly a hare ran across the road. One of us pointed to it with his hand. That was long ago. Today neither of them is alive, not the hare, nor the man who made the gesture. O my love, where are they, where are they going – the flash of a hand, streak of movement, rustle of pebbles. I ask not out of sorrow, but in wonder.

24. Bereft

M: It’s 5:06 and we just got back. I have five messages on my answering machine.

W: I only had four, and one was for somebody I don’t know.

M: And now we’re saying good-bye. And we’re doing pretty good, we’re not too sad. Wendy’s going to go swimming and I’m going to make dinner for myself. It’s good. We had a nice time, whatever nice means.

W: And we’re going to do it again.

M: In two weeks. Pinnacles.

W: But no camera this time.

M: And no tape recorder. We talked about this in the car.

W: Just the two of us.

M: Bereft.

March 31, 2003

Going to California

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?”

I nodded.

“Would you care to guess who it was written for?”

“Pat Nixon?”

“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.

March 29, 2003

Scribe

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.

March 27, 2003

Towel

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.

March 18, 2003

B

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 Gazingo

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.

March 13, 2003

Boy

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.

March 12, 2003

Cashier

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?

March 11, 2003

Recording

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.

March 10, 2003

Helmet

– 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.

– Why?

– 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:

My superpower
Fly into oblivion
With no fucking trace

March 8, 2003

Turn

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.

March 5, 2003

Jump

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.

February 24, 2003

Talk

– Have you said anything to him?

– No.

– Are you planning to?

– No. I’m not going to talk to him anymore.

– Are you just not going to talk to him or are you going to tell him you’re not going to talk to him?

– I’m not going to talk to him.

– What are you going to say if he calls?

– Nothing. I’m going to hang up.

– What if he calls and uses a different voice?

– Why would he do that?

– Because you keep hanging up on him.

– I’ll hang up when I realize it’s him.

– What if you never realize?

– Eventually I will. Or else I’ll hang up for some other reason.

– What if he kidnaps your little girl and says he going to kill her if you don’t talk to him.

– I don’t have a little girl.

– But say you did.

– He wouldn’t do this.

– But say he did.

– I suppose I would talk to him.

– What would you say?

– I don’t know. I guess that I’m sorry it’s come to this. That I remember when we loved each other, and that I don’t know what happened to change that. That sometimes, late at night, I read our old emails. That I copied them all into one document, even the emails where we’re just making plans or something, even the ones that are forwards of things, and that there’s this tenderness there and that I haven’t forgotten that tenderness and don’t think I ever can or will. Some bullshit like that, the fucker has my kid.

February 23, 2003

Syllables

>hey,
>am suddenly in Sao Paolo, where it’s summer. I
>was very close to getting bumped and receiving
>a travel voucher, which meant I would have
>showed up at your apartment again and
>temporarily fulfilled your prophesy of me
>forever trying and failing to leave you.
>
>another question about syllables. (I know, I
>know, I know: I am BAD with syllables.) when
>there’s a lonely vowel in front, like ‘alone’
>or ‘equator’, is that vowel a syllable?
>
>love,

Alone is two syllables. Equator is three. I can’t get my fucking keyboard tray to work is eleven.

I’m really glad to hear from you so soon is also eleven. As is, sorry you didn’t get that travel voucher.

Me and my godforsaken prophesying is, eerily, eleven as well.

Evidently a lot of sentences are eleven is, paradoxically, fourteen.

Love is one,

February 14, 2003

Words

I’m on the phone with D, and although we’re having a nice-seeming conversation, I’m struggling to find the next question, the next topic-starter. The naturalness between us is gone. It’s been gone a long time now, so long I can’t imagining it ever returning. Still if I don’t allow for the possibility of it returning, it can’t return. So that’s I’m doing: I’m allowing for the possibility.

I remember a story D once told me about her mother. She was leaning out the window of her parents’ apartment when her mother came up behind her, wrapped her arms around D’s legs, and lifted them from the floor. For one brief, terrifying moment, D thought her mother was about to throw her out the window. But then her mother released her legs and explained that it was all just a joke. D lost it then and began screaming at her mother, who was profusely apologetic. However D’s mother’s apologies only infuriated her more, because her mother, in characteristic fashion, somehow turned the thing around so it wasn’t about the horrible thing she had done but rather how badly she felt about it.

And now, somehow, I’ve become D’s mother, and D is screaming at me, only her screams sound like conversational remarks, a causal bit of catching up after months of being out of touch. I try to respond, to apologize for what I’ve done, but what comes out instead are rote questions about D’s life and rote remarks about mine. She’s screaming at me and I’m trying to say how sorry I am, but the words have nothing to do with any of it; they’re just words said to fill the space where words belong.

January 25, 2003

S

Sophia and I went for a walk in the West Village and I showed her the apartment where e.e. cummings lived for forty years, 4 Patchin Place. As we walked I taught her how to write haikus. She already knew what they were but didn’t know the number of syllables in each line. Soon everything she said became a haiku:

I need to pee bad
Where’s a place to urinate
Without buying stuff?

My hands are frozen
Did you hear? – frozen solid
Like hands made of ice

Soup is the best thing
Well, it’s one of the best things
Anyway it’s good

The soup poem was written in a restaurant called Sacred Chow. There we decided that everything good begins with an s – soup, sleep, showers, sun, and sex – though not necessarily in that order.

January 20, 2003

Doll

On page 141 of A Lover’s Discourse, in a chapter entitled This Can’t Go On, Roland Barthes writes:

Once the exaltation has lapsed, I am reduced to the simplest philosophy: that of endurance… I am a Daruma Doll, a legless toy endlessly poked and pushed, but finally regaining its balance, assured by an inner balancing pin (But what is my balancing pin? The force of love?). This is what we are told by a folk poem which accompanies these Japanese dolls:

Such is life
Falling over seven times
And getting up eight.

Having read A Lover’s Discourse long ago, I’ve often remembered this poem and have quoted it many times to friends. Today, though, I read it again and was surprised to find I’ve been misquoting it. In my version, the poem ends with getting up six times, not eight, a mistake that reverses its meaning.

The way I always remembered the poem, it was about death, about the final time you fall, the first and last time you fail to get up. Barthes’s version is about some freakish form of endurance. The legless doll is invulnerable; no amount of abuse can knock it down, since abuse is what it was made for. Indeed, if abused in the right way, the doll is indestructible. Its fate is like that of Sisyphus but without all that nasty, backbreaking, spirit-crushing toil.

January 18, 2003

Sophia

The alien is living with me now. I still don’t know her name. I’m not even sure that aliens have names. When I asked her about it, she told me to call her whatever I wanted, so I picked Sophia. I picked it because I’ve never known anyone named Sophia and don’t associate it with anyone.

We had burritos today for lunch. I ate mine too fast and got hiccups, so I stood and bent over and drank some water like that, with my head upside-down.

“What are you looking at?” she asked.

“Nothing,” I said, “I have the hiccups.” I was upside-down when I said this.

By her tone, it seemed that she really didn’t know what I was doing, although it’s possible she knew but wanted to make it seem she that didn’t so I would trust her more and treat her like I would treat any other woman.

This is the question: How much is she like other women? It comes down to whether she knows things that no woman, no person, could know. Can she read my mind? Can she call up my past? Nothing she does reveals she can, but I’m not convinced.

She has a laptop computer. When we’re not talking, she likes to sit on my bed and type what she calls her “notes.” She’s a fast typist but doesn’t always keep her fingers on the keys. Her main problem is the delete key, which she types with her right forefinger instead of her right pinky. This slows her down. When I mentioned it to her, she nodded, but I haven’t seen her trying to change. This seems suspicious because I imagine that an alien could type any way she pleased and would choose to type the most efficient way possible.

Here’s the thing: I suspect that everything she does is to get me to treat her as I would treat any run-of-the-mill woman who happened to be sitting on my bed drinking herbal tea (she likes Wild Sweet Orange) and typing a tremendous volume of “notes.” And I find myself falling for it. If someone or something looks like a woman, smells like a woman (!), and acts like a woman, you can’t help but think of that person or thing as a woman. And I think she’s banking on this, and on the fact that I will react to her as any man would, which to this point I have resisted doing, although it hasn’t been easy.

January 11, 2003

Spaceship

While walking home from work last Friday, I noticed a spaceship in the Shakespeare Garden. At first I thought it was for one of the Garden’s cutesy community events (Plants from Outer Space perhaps?), but I couldn’t figure out what it was doing in the Shakespeare Garden. Was it built there with the intention of moving it later? If so, this was a stunningly bad idea because the ship was blocking the path and had crushed several flower beds.

The spaceship was shaped like a giant frisbee and had a bubble-like dome and a ring of round red lights along its circumference. It stood on three stilt-like legs and had a bottom hatch, which was down. When I ran my hand across its surface, I was surprised how smooth it was. I don’t think I’ve touched anything that smooth.

But the real surprise came when I climbed up the hatch. I expected to find a cramped room with a bunch of hokey alien spacecraft controls and navigation screens, but instead the room looked exactly like my own apartment. In fact the pot I had used that morning was still soaking in the sink and the clothes I’d worn the previous day were where I’d left them, in a pile on the floor by my bed.

Just one thing had changed: there was a woman was sitting in my green chair.

“Hi,” she said.

“Hi,” I said.

“I’m an alien,” she said. “I’ve come to study you.”

I don’t know why, but she reminded me of a certain ex-girlfriend.

“Really,” I said. “That’s awesome.”

For obvious reasons I didn’t believe she was an alien.

I asked if she happened to know why there was a spaceship in the Shakespeare Garden.

“There isn’t any more,” she said, indicating the hatch with her eyes.

I climbed down. The hatch led not into the Shakespeare Garden but into the apartment of my downstairs neighbor, a creepy guy who always has a can of Coke in his hand. I knew it was his apartment because it was shaped like mine and had eight cardboard boxes of Coke stacked against the wall.

I climbed back up and pulled the hatch shut.

“Nice trick,” I said.

“Thanks.”

“Who are you?”

“I’ve come to study you. I will sleep in your bed but I won’t have sexual relations with you.”

“I don’t remember asking you to have sexual relations with me.”

“It is expected. I have assumed a physical form that you find hot. Did I use that right, ‘hot'”?

“It’s more like hottt, with three t‘s.”

“I thought it was just one t.”

I noticed she had a space between her two front teeth, just like that certain ex-girlfriend.

Hot is fine, but it’s flat. The extra t‘s add a touch of irony by referencing how the word is spelled in phone sex ads. It’s ironic because phone sex ads that spell hottt with three t‘s are too moronic to be sexy. To refer to this is a kind of wink. You’re saying that you recognize how moronic and unsexy it is to spell hottt with three t‘s, but that you are going to do it anyway. By some roundabout logic, this sort of stubborn self-consciousness is itself sexy.”

“But how do people know how many t‘s you’re using when you say it this way?”

“They can’t, so you have to find other ways to indicate it.”

“Like how?”

“Gesture, intonation, facial expression.”

“This conversation is not very hottt,” she said.

January 2, 2003

Tape

The moment it happened I just wanted to rewind the tape. Of course I knew you can’t rewind anything, but still that’s what I kept thinking – Please god, just let me.

Not that there was any tape to be rewound.

Nor any god to allow it.

No tape and no god and yet there I was, practically begging.

December 26, 2002

Beginning

M came by today against my wishes. She knocked and I answered. Two days ago, when I left to buy a window shade, I locked the top lock, which I never do. I did it to keep her out of my apartment. (She has – or had – just the bottom lock key.) Today she returned that key, although it’s possible she made a copy first. Did she really do this? I doubt it. Will I keep locking the top lock? Yes, I probably will.

We sat at the kitchen table and talked. It took less than five minutes to get to the usual place. The usual place is: She shuts down because of something I say or don’t say, or more often, say but say wrongly. Also the thing I say or don’t say or say wrongly is something crazy – crazy in sense of being something that couldn’t possibly (to my mind, at least) cause a person to shut down. Then she storms out. She stormed out quietly this time, which I appreciated.

In the beginning (six weeks ago!) it struck me as strange that the beginning felt like the end. Why does the beginning feel like the end, I kept asking myself. Now I know why: Because it was also the end.

December 23, 2002

Platform

It’s two a.m. in the 14th Street subway station. A woman, a blond in a dark coat, leans against a pole and possibly cries. She’s wearing nice shoes – black, fashionable – and dark pants that I can only see the bottoms of. I can’t tell for sure she’s crying because she’s facing away from the platform and because her hair comes down past her shoulders, hiding her face. Her arms are crossed and she appears to be shaking a little.

I’ve been pacing up and down the platform, walking three or four poles past her in each direction to disguise the fact that I’m trying to tell if she’s crying.

I think she is. I’ve considered saying something to comfort her, but everything I can think of is presumptuous and intrusive.

I once comforted a woman who had been hit by a car and was lying the street with a broken leg, crying in pain. That was different, though, because the woman was obviously crying and her leg was clearly broken and she was unmistakably lying in the street.

December 17, 2002

Backhand

Sadly – and shamefully, I think – the Brooklyn library system has endured a long series of funding cutbacks that have ravaged services. Still, the central branch – a magnificent Art Deco structure shaped to resemble an open book, with the back of the spine facing Grand Army Plaza and mirroring its curve – is just blocks from my apartment, so I often stroll over to look for something to read.

Yesterday I arrived with a list of five books to take out.

The first, “After Midnight” by Irmgard Keun, was not in the catalog.

The second, “Artificial-Silk Girl,” also by Irmgard Keun, was listed as on the shelf in Fiction. I looked in Fiction but it wasn’t there. I asked the librarian if it might be elsewhere, and she checked her computer. It was in New Arrivals, she said, so I looked in New Arrivals. It wasn’t there.

The third book, James Dickey’s “Deliverance,” was listed, like “Artificial-Silk Girl,” as on the shelf in Fiction. However, like “Artificial-Silk Girl,” it was not on the shelf in Fiction. I asked the same librarian if it might be elsewhere. No, she said, it should be on the shelf in Fiction. I asked if books are often not where they should be. Yes, she said. She had a nice smile.

The fourth book, “De Profundis,” Oscar Wilde’s prison-written, book-length letter to Lord Alfred Douglas, yielded the same result as “Deliverance”: on the shelf in Fiction, yet not. I mentioned to the smiling librarian having noticed in the catalog that other branches have copies of this book. Could a copy be transferred from one of those branches? Yes, she said. It costs fifty cents. You write your address on a postcard and the library mails you the postcard when the book arrives. Said cards are obtained from the something librarian up front. I went to the something librarian, who explained that as of December 11th, the library stopped providing this service. I told her, politely, that her library sucks. The way I say it was, “No offense meant, but this library really sucks, you know?” I know, she said. She had cool glasses.

The final book, “Down and Out in Paris and London” by George Orwell, was, like its brethren, not where it should be, which was on the shelf in Fiction. I asked the smiling librarian if it might be elsewhere, and she looked on her computer. Yes, there was a copy stored in the basement. How do I get this copy? I fill out a slip and give it to the something librarian up front. Ah, the something librarian up front. I filled out a slip and gave it to the something librarian, who suggested I return in fifteen minutes. To pass the time I read an article in “Tennis Magazine” about the Best Strokes of All-Time. Andre Agassi’s backhand was not mentioned anywhere under Backhands, which I found outrageous. I was fuming, but it was kidding kind of fuming. Then I returned to the something librarian up front, who informed me that “Down and Out in Paris and London” was not in the basement. I told her that the best way to find a book in her library was to have it fall on your head. I said this nicely, of course, with a smile.

You’re wrong, she said, that’s the second best way. The best way is to trip over it while looking up to see if it’s about to fall on your head.

We laughed then, the something librarian and I, oh how we laughed.

December 16, 2002

Desk

I believe I set a record today for total amount of time spent with one’s forehead on one’s desk. I didn’t keep track, but I’m sure it was well over an hour. I would stay like that for five minutes or so, then realize what I was doing and pick my head up. Later I would find myself with my head back on the desk.

Yesterday, when things were at their worst, it occurred to me that if I could write an account of what was happening at that moment, an account that consisted of nothing but our dialogue and some basic stage directions (“She runs to bathroom, shuts door. He follows, opens door, turns on light. She is standing there, bent over. He turns off light,” etc.), it would out-Bergman Bergman.

December 11, 2002

Falling

How exactly do you drown yourself? How do you prevent yourself from keeping yourself afloat when you’re there in the ocean with the ocean all around you?

I can see getting tired. I can see having your arms become so exhausted you can’t lift them anymore. But I can’t see not using them to begin with, I can’t see giving in like that.

It’s like holding your breath. At some point you’re going to breathe again, you can’t make yourself not breath.

Of course when you jump, once you jump, it’s over. You fall. But with the ocean, the ocean holds you up. It pulls you down and holds you up.

It’s the falling that scares me. It’s when you’re in the air and you know that in four or five seconds you’re going to run out of air to fall through.

What if in that moment you change your mind? What if you suddenly see that you were mistaken, that in all this time of wishing, you never understood what you were wishing for?

I imagine this happens all the time. Because how can you know for sure until you’re actually falling and it’s too late to change your mind?

Of course they’re all falling. Because there’s always a point when you pass the point of no return. From that point on, you’re falling. Even drowning is falling. Even shooting yourself.

Of course when you shoot yourself, you’re only falling for as long as it takes the bullet to leave the gun and slice through your brain. How long is that, a hundredth of a second? So it’s a kind of falling you never experience.

Unless time slows down to where you have time to think something. A single thought. Like, say, I did it.

Or more like, I – .

I

What is a thought less than I?

December 10, 2002

Moment

My button fell into a toilet full of pee. I’ve been having this problem for months now: the button falls off when I unbutton. It’s annoying. It’s the button on my favorite pants, the one above the zipper, the one that, together with the zipper, holds my pants shut.

What’s happening is that the little hole into which the button goes has torn or worn slightly, so that when I unbutton the button, the button pops out. Sometimes I don’t notice it until I feel the button roll down my leg or wedge against my thigh. Other times, like today, it pops out straight into the toilet.

The moment I realized that the button was gone and where therefore it must have gone and what therefore I would need to do to retrieve it was not, as you might imagine, a happy moment.

December 3, 2002

Speaker

My great-aunt died today. Or yesterday, I forgot to ask which. I am to speak at her funeral tomorrow. In my family I have become the designated speaker-at-funerals. Earlier today, while telling a colleague this, I wondered aloud who will speak at mine.

Apropos of nothing, a woman outside is screaming: “You did not want to tell me. Shut up. I’m speaking. Shut the fuck up. You stupid motherfucker. Shut the fuck up. You dumb bitch. I something your fucking head.”

November 29, 2002

Dick

A book for a straight woman to write: Dicks I Have Known. The book would consist of the author’s anecdotes about men she had known named Dick, men she had known who were dicks, and of course the dicks of men she had “known.” A post-feminist classic.

November 28, 2002

Thanksgiving

My two-year-old nephew recently dislocated his elbow. His grandfather did it to him, the way he lifted him. Don’t ever lift a two-year-old by the wrists.

My sister, the child’s mother, now has a new thing to fear: people lifting her son by the wrists. I saw the terror in her eyes whenever someone extended their arms towards the child.

Her other son, age six, informed me that people steal children. “I’m still a child,” he said, “so I have to be super careful.”

Later, after his uncle-to-be performed a magic act in which he caused various objects to vanish, my nephew asked me to make his stuffed bear, Mr. Red-Blue, disappear. I got up, opened the front door, and tossed the bear onto the lawn.

My mother wouldn’t believe my nephew when he told her what I had done.

“Uncle Michael wouldn’t do something like that,” she said.

“Mom, it’s true,” I said.

“He almost threw it into the street,” added my nephew.

“I didn’t throw it into the street.”

“Almost.”

I looked at him for a moment. “How about if I pick you up by your wrists?”

November 26, 2002

n

I’m having trouble with the letter n. I noticed this yesterday while writing my return address on a bill. I got to the n in Brooklyn and wasn’t sure how to make the shape. Does it begin at the bottom or the top?

It’s been like this for months. Usually I end up writing a scaled-down capital n, which isn’t at all how I normally write the lowercase version. I know this because the letter doesn’t feel right as I write it. All the other letters feel right.

How do you forget how to do something you’ve done thousands of times?

Sometimes I start to imagine that this is merely the beginning, that letter after letter will vanish, until the act of writing my name becomes a struggle, a struggle made terrible by the memory of a time when nothing felt more natural.

The final loss, then, will be the loss of all the smaller losses. I will forget what I’ve forgotten. It will be like the beginning. The end is just like the beginning, except it’s the end.

November 23, 2002

Reverse

When you turn it around it seems impossible, the convergences and synchronicities necessary to make it happen. Yet every story, considered in reverse, forges a path back to its beginning.

Who hasn’t traced the thing like this, saying, If you hadn’t and I hadn’t (and so on, back in time), I wouldn’t be holding you now.

November 21, 2002

Ad

Many years ago a friend submitted a personal ad to the Boston Phoenix that read, simply, “I want to eat your brains.” Unfortunately the jerks at the Boston Phoenix told her that her ad had to sound more like a date, so she changed it to read, “I want to eat your brains and then see a movie or something.” This they accepted.

Months later I submitted my own personal ad, and this they rejected on the grounds that it was too short. Evidently, in order for the Boston Phoenix to accept your ad, you had to make it sound like a date and you had to use more than two words.

Sadly it was impossible to lengthen my ad, even by a single word, without destroying it. I knew this without trying, so I did not try.

It was excruciating, though, because my ad was better than any personal ad I had ever read. This is what it said:

Minimalist seeks.

November 16, 2002

Conversation

The conversation didn’t get interesting until the end, after we ran out of things to say.

November 14, 2002

Mail

The love interest in my dream last night was named Michael Barrish. I don’t know what she looked like because I only spoke with her on the phone. I liked her voice and felt an instant attraction.

However when she told me her name, I became confused. “No, that’s my name,” I said, “I was asking about yours.”

She thought I was messing with her. Even after we sorted it out, the name issue remained upsetting for both of us. “What if we get married?” she asked. “How are we going to tell who the mail is for?”

November 11, 2002

Peru

For several weeks now I’ve been looking for something to read, a novel. Nearly every day I’m at the library, searching the stacks. Recently I noticed a familiar-looking woman there and realized that I had seen her before, and that in fact she’s been there every day. Oddly I’ve never seen her holding a book in her hands. Often people stand in the aisle reading a book, but I’ve yet to see her do this. Also there’s something about the way she cocks her head as she scans the shelves that bothers me, although I can’t say what it is. In any case I try to avoid her: if she’s in the C’s, I walk to the W’s.

Most days I return home with three or four books. I’ve yet to finish one. Usually I read a page or two and toss it on the bed. Yesterday’s haul included Asa, As I Knew Him by Susanna Kaysen, The End of the Novel by Michael Krüger, and Nausea by Jean Paul Sartre. I read seven pages of The End of the Novel before slamming it shut. I didn’t like the beginning of the second chapter; it seemed too “written.” Asa, As I Knew Him fared better, although at first I doubted it would because I didn’t like the author photo. Specifically I didn’t like what Kaysen was wearing. Was it a robe? Some sort of jacket? She didn’t seem to have a shirt on, just this jacket, which though nice enough, seemed too much like the kind of thing one wears in an author’s photo. Obviously one wants to appear attractive in such a photo, but it seemed that Susanna Kaysen was trying too hard to appear attractive – or rather failing to hide how hard she was trying. I felt a touch of pity and didn’t like feeling it. On the other hand I liked her book titles. Aside from Asa, As I Knew Him, she’s written a book called Girl, Interrupted, which I believe was made into a film, and another called Far Afield. Far Afield is a so-so title, but I like Girl, Interrupted. I read thirty-two pages of Asa, As I Knew Him. The book concerns a woman, Dinah, who works for a married man, Asa, who is the publisher of a quarterly journal. Dinah loves Asa. Evidently they had an affair, which in the end he ended. Here is a sentence I like: “I may have been born to love him – I’m sure I was; loving him was easier than eating or sleeping – but he was surely born to stomp my heart.” Asa is a blue-blooded Yankee, and frankly I’m not interested in blue-blooded Yankees. Nonetheless I read the first two chapters, largely because they were easy to read. The remainder of Asa, As I Knew Him concerns the youth of Asa as imagined by Dinah. I know this because it says so on the back of the book. Unfortunately I have zero interest in Asa’s youth, imagined or otherwise. This is not the fault of Susanna Kaysen, who did her best to interest me. I laid the book on the bed and opened Nausea. Half a lifetime ago I read several plays by Sartre, and I remember liking them. The beginning of Nausea consists of an editor’s note stating that the notebooks we’re about to read were found among the papers of Antoine Roquentin. To further the conceit, Sartre added a few editorial footnotes here and there, indicating that certain words in the original text are missing or crossed out or illegible. It seemed a promising start, but then I discovered that some cretin had written all over the book, underlining words and scribbling comments in the margin: “Estranged?” “Losing grip?” “Thinks of past, but not now.” “Like mirror.” Disgusted by these remarks, which I knew I couldn’t stop myself from reading and, worse, pondering, I threw the book on the bed (it bounced over) and resolved to look for another copy during my next trip to the library.

Earlier this same day, in the S’s, the aforementioned woman stood next to me, facing the opposite set of shelves. I waited for her to leave, but she did not. Was she standing next to me to stand next to me or was she looking for something on that shelf? Eventually I turned and walked to the L’s to see if there was anything by Gordon Lish I haven’t read. There wasn’t. So far as I know, Gordon Lish has written just four books: three novels and a collection of stories. Sadly I can’t read stories anymore. When I was younger I hardly distinguished between stories and novels. Novels I thought of as particularly long stories. But that’s not how I think today. A novel is a world, while a story is at best a fragment of a world. There is no pleasure like the pleasure of finding a novel you love and settling in and beginning the slow drift across.

I read Gordon Lish’s third novel, Epitaph, first, and read it through to the end – a rare accomplishment for me. The next day I began Lish’s first novel, Dear Mr. Capote, but gave up in the middle. Then I read his second novel, Peru. Peru is what I was looking for. Peru is always what I’m looking for. The last Peru before Peru was The Loser by Thomas Bernhard. Two long years passed between The Loser and Peru. I can’t remember the next Peru after Peru. Perhaps it was David Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress, although I’m not sure that Wittgenstein’s Mistress was quite Peru. Not that it matters which Peru came last. What matters is which is next. It is, undeniably, an addiction. Once you have the thing, you have to have it again. And once more, each time. And when you do, it is like the early stages of love, when the eyebrows of your beloved appear achingly beautiful, each hair tenderly rooted in its follicle.

Since I was now in the L’s, I continued my search there. In the K’s I found The End of the Novel and Asa, As I Knew Him. Then I found another book, the title and author of which I’ve forgotten. The book had something to do with chess. On the cover was a graphic of chess pieces. This made me think that the book was about some sort of intrigue between people. I turned to the title page and saw that someone had used a black felt pen to write, This book is profoundly boring! The word profoundly was underlined. Naturally I was disgusted by this act of defilement, but still I laughed at the thought of the defiler, a disgruntled person with a black felt pen. This made me wonder if I seen the aforementioned woman holding a pen of this type, and I imagined that I had, and I even went so far as to create a mental image of the pen, cap off, resting, ready, between her thumb and forefinger. Was she defiling library books? Was that what was doing day after day – wandering the stacks looking for books to defile? I decided she was. And then I read the beginning of the book that she had defiled. It was profoundly boring.

November 4, 2002

Drunk

I’m waiting for her to call again. As I write this she’s in another city, with friends, drunk. She just called from the restroom of a Chinese restaurant to tell me this. “I’m drunk,” she said, “and I’m in love with you.” We discussed how much she’s in love with me. She characterized it as “ridiculously,” which we decided is a more extreme form than “incredibly” but less so than “insanely.” I’m in love with her as well, but we didn’t discuss the degree.

Her voice echoed the way voices echo in restrooms. She held the phone to the restroom fan so I could hear what it sounded like and also to prove, I suppose, that she was in a restroom, although really all it proved is that wherever she was, there was a whirring sound.

As we spoke some person or persons kept trying the bathroom door, so she moved to the area outside the restroom, what she called the vestibule. This seemed a too-fancy word to me (I was thinking “hall”), but since I’m in love with her and since she was drunk, I didn’t question it. At one point an elderly woman, doubtless having overheard her ramblings, stepped out of the restroom and beamed at her.

I told her that I wanted to be drunk with her, or barring that, just with her, or barring that, just drunk.

November 1, 2002

Time

One morning I disabled all the clocks in my apartment. There were three: the alarm clock, the clock over the refrigerator, and the clock function in my computer.

To disable the alarm clock, I simply removed the battery, keeping the clock facedown to avoid seeing the time.

The kitchen clock proved more difficult because I had to remove it from the wall without noting the position of its hands. To manage this I first squinted at the clock to fix its location, then reached up, head averted, and lifted it from its nail.

The computer clock was the hardest since the time appears in the upper right-hand corner of the screen and is difficult to avoid seeing. My solution was to keep my left hand over the time while mousing with my right. After changing the appropriate control panel setting, I restarted the computer to make sure it had taken. Sadly it hadn’t, and it was then that I saw the time for the first time this day: 9:59 a.m.

Earlier I left a message for a friend, asking if she was free for dinner. “It’s Friday morning,” I said, and as I was about to add the time, I realized I didn’t know what it was. Later (was it an hour later? two?) I ate a peanut butter and banana sandwich, though I knew it was long before my usual lunch time. Then I biked around town, doing errands. A few blocks from the library I noticed a big clock on a black pole in front of a shoe store. I tried not to see the position of the hands, but it was too late: 2:05.

Soon after I returned home, my friend called back, and I told her about my day. She offered to meet me at my apartment that night instead of the restaurant, since I couldn’t commit to a specific time.

Naturally we spent the rest of the conversation talking about time. Nothing brings a thing into focus like an attempt to obscure it.

October 30, 2002

Wheels

  • him: just tried something dumb
  • him: tried to do this w/ my eyes closed
  • her: and?
  • him: wanted to think that way
  • him: it makes me feel closer
  • him: to you
  • him: in my thoughts
  • her: but?
  • him: but of course I couldn’t see what you were saying
  • her: lol
  • him: dumb
  • her: the only thing that will calm me now
  • her: is to touch you
  • him: yes
  • him: I mean
  • him: I feel that too
  • him: that way
  • him: can I tell you a story?
  • her: yes
  • him: I have these friends at MIT
  • him: genius types
  • him: whatever
  • him: but really really smart
  • him: one guy does quantum computers
  • him: right now these computers can only add 1 + 1
  • him: it’s funny
  • him: he has a giant magnet
  • him: that costs $50,000
  • him: it’s by his desk
  • him: anyway this isn’t the story
  • her:
  • him: right
  • him: the story is
  • him: about a different friend
  • him: he showed me around the media lab
  • him: ever hear of it?
  • her: i’ve been there
  • him: cool. when?
  • her: i was the actress
  • her: for a project
  • her: but the guy made a pass
  • her: so i quit before it was done
  • him: gross
  • him: whatever could have motivated him?
  • her: yeah yeah
  • her: did you see the birds?
  • her: at the media lab?
  • him: no. tell.
  • her: the film of the birds?
  • him: no. tell.
  • her: projected on either side of a hallway
  • her: and when you walked through the hallway,
  • her: the birds, pigeons
  • her: would fly away suddenly
  • her: like you had disturbed them
  • him: ah, brilliant
  • her: it was
  • him: this other thing was too
  • him: they had a prototype of it
  • him: you put your hand over these tiny wheels
  • him: and another person puts their hand over another set of tiny wheels
  • him: the two sets could be anywhere in the world
  • him: and when you move your hand
  • him: the other person can feel it
  • him: it was kinda like touching hands
  • her: can we buy one
  • her: ?
  • her: now
  • her: ?
  • him: we’re doing the wheels in our heads
  • her: no. not good enough.
  • her: i want the wheels.
  • him: what about the wheels in our hearts?
  • her: i want the hand wheels.
  • him: fine I’ll call him tomorrow
  • her: you do that
  • her: you realize they could make a whole person like that?
  • her: made of little wheels
  • her: two people, actually
  • him: not people. machines.
  • her: machines
  • her: i imagine lying on this person
  • her: i mean machine
  • her: shaped like you
  • her: while you do the same
  • her: under, over, whatever
  • her: a machine shaped like me
  • her: etc.
  • him: etc?
  • her: the doing of things
  • her: the making and breaking
  • him: it was my first thought
  • her: of the world
  • him: sounds bumpy tho
  • her: true
  • her: anyway i have a better idea
  • her: it’s for when you go to sleep
  • her: it’s something i want you to do
  • her: will you do it?
  • him: sigh
  • him: yes
  • her: on your back
  • her: with both hands
  • her: touch your
  • him: sigh
  • her: eyelids
  • her: lips
  • her: and then the place on your neck by your earlobes
  • her: gently
  • her: that is where i will kiss you
  • him: smiling out loud
  • him: sol
  • her: will you do that?
  • him: yes, I will
  • him: for you
  • him: yes
  • her: don’t just say you will
  • him: I so fucking will
  • her: i will do it too
  • him: ah
  • him: I love that
  • him: which ear?
  • him: both?
  • her: both hands
  • her: both sides
  • her: both eyes
  • him: but how are you going to handle this?
  • her: ?
  • him: when it comes to kissing
  • him: actual kissing
  • him: gotta be one then the other
  • her: one eye
  • her: the other eye
  • her: and so on
  • him: back and forth, like reading?
  • her: yes
  • her: with your eyes closed
  • him: yes
  • her: like you tried to do
  • him: yes
  • her: before
October 29, 2002

In the Event of My Death

Track down my childhood friend David Helinek and have him show you where the fort was. If David doesn’t remember, say it was the fort that the park guard had his horse pull down with a rope. This is where I want my ashes to go.

Sell my things and use the money to pay for the cremation. If anything remains, give it to my mom.

Remind everyone how much I loved them. Exaggerate if necessary, but make it believable.

There’s a collection of pornography on my hard drive in a folder called “reference.” Delete it.

My web projects are in folder called “web.” Make a copy and save it for when former clients need master files.

If you have a memorial, everyone who speaks must mention at least one thing they couldn’t stand about me. Make this clear up front: no one speaks without including at least one major negative. And it can’t be a bullshit negative like, He was too fucking funny. I’m not kidding about this. It’s my last request.

October 27, 2002

Change

My former therapist once told me a story about one of her clients, a man couldn’t throw anything away. It was a story, she said, about the nature of change.

Her client’s apartment was packed floor to ceiling with junk, the only uncovered space being a narrow path that wove between the piles. One day she asked him to bring in some things he was sure he could get rid of, and the next session he showed up with a shoebox full of ridiculous objects: orphaned pens caps, defunct subway passes, ancient ticket stubs. She had him arrange the objects in three piles: definite discards, probable discards, and possible discards. They discussed why different things were in different piles, and in the process the man moved some objects from one pile to another. Once he felt sure that each thing was in the right pile, she had him toss the “definite” pile in the trash. It was a cathartic experience, and he wept.

This is progress, thought the therapist.

Then, as the man was leaving, he turned to her and said, flatly, “Do you mind if I take that stuff out of the trash now?”

October 17, 2002

Quote

If I were someone else and came and told myself my problems, my response would be something like, “This is who you are, get used to it.” I would be tough with myself because that’s how I am with people I care about.

For example, I recently I told a good friend that she should stop trying to be a different person so that some guy will fall in love with her. At best the guy will fall in love with who she’s pretending to be, which can only mean trouble once he realizes he loves a performance.

I also told Will to stop claiming he wants a serious relationship when what he really wants is pussy, preferably youngish pussy, let us say in its late-twenties and belonging to a woman of a certain look, why lie about it?

The best way to escape a problem is to solve it. This is a quote from a famous thinker. I often use quotes when talking with my friends about their problems. Sometimes I make up the quotes and attribute them to the sort of writers my friends respect but have never read; say, Pascal or Voltaire.

The main thing is that I wouldn’t let myself off the hook. No pretending to want to change or be capable of change when I have no intention of changing, now or ever. We don’t change, wrote Goethe, we just change our delusions.

October 6, 2002

Poem

A piece I wrote, Bookmark, is making the rounds of sex sites. A lot of people read sex sites. As a result, my hits have doubled and a bunch of weird shit is showing up in my site statistics. For example, here are the fifteen most popular Oblivio search strings since October 1. I consider it a poem.

  • fuck my wife
  • fuck stories
  • fuck her
  • fuck wife
  • fuck woman
  • wife fuck
  • wife fuck stories
  • ex wife pics
  • first fuck
  • fuck my wife story
  • fuck story
  • fuck the world
  • fuck fuck
  • business card design
September 28, 2002

Obscura

You stand in a dark room gazing down at a round, concave surface perhaps five feet in diameter. On the surface is the ocean, revealed in a slow pan.

It’s like watching a film. But this isn’t a film; it’s a reflection of what you would see at this moment if you stood on the roof of the building looking through binoculars and ever so slowly turned, taking a full minute to complete a single rotation.

First there’s the ocean. Then the beach. Then trees. Then the buildings behind the building in which you stand. And then the shore on the other side of the building. And then the ocean again, and across it.

There are birds above the waves. From the shore these birds are too small to be seen. But here they are plain. Birds above waves.

September 23, 2002

Chronicle

He had a board with letters that he would point to with a stick he held in his mouth. The stick was u-shaped at one end and had a rubber cover so he could grasp it in his teeth.

He had been the editor of the San Francisco Chronicle. Now he was dying. I learned these things from his wife, who appeared always about to cry, or having just cried, but never did cry, in my presence.

I don’t remember what my job was exactly. Probably feeding him and getting him things. It didn’t last long because he died after just a few weeks. His wife called and said, simply, that I didn’t need to come in anymore.

I only have one real memory of him. We were alone in his study and he was spelling something with his pointer. This may have been my first day. He had just spelled a word I didn’t know, preceded by the words DON’T BE SUCH A, and so I had asked him to spell the last word again. That’s what he was doing. I thought he seemed pissed.

Here’s what he spelled:

N

E

B

B

I

S

H

September 17, 2002

Thing

There was once a basketball player named Jeff Hornacek. Hornacek was ugly but a very good shooter. Whenever he shot free throws, he would bounce the ball a certain number of times, then rub his cheek with his right hand. The gesture was a message to his kids; it meant that he loved them. He did it before every free throw he shot.

If you had never seen Jeff Hornacek shoot free throws, you would have thought the gesture unconscious. A man gazes at something, directing all his attention on it, trying to reduce the world to just this thing and him, and then, without thinking, he absently strokes his cheek as though to brush away a small irritant, or more likely as an accompaniment to his thoughts, which are focused on the thing before him.

I’ve been wanting to find a symbol, a word, a gesture, anything that might stand in the place of the things not said. It would be for you, and it would mean a thing that only you would understand. To everyone else I would appear to be a man, the same man as always, absently stroking his cheek.

September 10, 2002

News

Saturday afternoon, after the mover guy left, I stood in the chaos of my new apartment, boxes everywhere, my desk in pieces in the corner, and said to no one, “I want to go home.”

September 7, 2002

Marathon

I woke ridiculously early this morning given how little remained to be done. The mover is due in an hour and a half and the only things left to pack are the air conditioner (which will be last) and this computer. All the dishes are packed, so I’m eating my breakfast, a banana and peanut butter sandwich, off a manila folder.

I have a question about crying. Is a certain amount of crying necessary to complete the process of mourning, and if so, can it be completed in a single marathon session or must it be done in separate episodes spread out over time?

When I learned to type, I ignored the instructions that came with the program, which said to practice for no more than an hour a day, and instead typed eight hours a day for three weeks straight. Although this approach took longer in total hours, I reached proficiency in fewer days.

I realize there are people who don’t cry at all. What happens when they feel sad? Could it be they never feel sad? Perhaps they feel sad for a moment, then immediately do something to stop the feeling. I know that while packing, I would skip certain songs on the CDs I played. On hearing the opening notes of one, a wave of heaviness would flood my chest and I’d immediately hit the NEXT button. It’s not that I’m afraid of crying; it’s just that not every moment is a convenient time to lose it.

Two days ago in the gym, a song came on the radio about giving love one more chance. This left me no choice but to put down the weights I was holding, walk out of the room, and quietly weep on the stairs.

Because I packed all the utensils last night, I had to spread the peanut butter with my finger – a tricky process because the peanut butter tends to tear off little swatches of bread as you smear it.

I have to end here because it’s time to pack the computer. Now would be a convenient time to listen to sad songs and cry – who knows how long the mover will be? – but I already packed my CDs.

September 5, 2002

China Star

You will find the phone number on the menu, which is affixed with little black magnets to the refrigerator door. I have never bothered to memorize it. It has proved easier, each time, to walk the five paces from my desk to the refrigerator, temporarily memorize the number, and return to the desk and dial. Today, two days from the day I move, I regret this small repeated laziness. If I could turn back the clock, I would memorize the number on the first day and save myself the walk to the refrigerator and back, performed several times a week for two years.

When you call the number, the woman who answers, whose name I still don’t know, will say, “China Star, can I help you?” only her accent will make this sound something like Chhnahsta kunnaheyuh. This doesn’t matter. What matters is that you’ve dialed the right number. Chhnahsta kunnaheyuh confirms this. Wait for her to say it, then say, “I’d like to place an order to pick up. Broccoli and tofu. Small.”

I realize now that after the first few months I didn’t need to say “small,” since by that point the woman had learned my voice and learned too that I never ordered anything but broccoli and tofu, small. Indeed, I probably could have left out the bit about wanting to place an order and instead just said, “Broccoli and tofu, small,” or even, “Broccoli and tofu.”

Regrets.

Wait at least ten minutes before heading over, to avoid having to stand too long in that cramped little space (China Star is take-out only).

Broccoli and tofu costs $2.75. I get it fried, since the steamed version has no flavor. If you decide to try it steamed, be prepared to pay an extra quarter. I don’t know why the plainer, simpler version is more expensive, but I figure it’s the same reason that it costs more for an unlisted phone number.

Your order should be ready when you arrive. However, sometimes you will have to wait a few minutes while the woman deals with other customers. A total of three times she’s forgotten to relay my order to the cook. I’ve never shown any anger about this, and neither should you. The poor woman works seven days a week, twelve hours a day (thirteen on Friday and Saturday), and must be forgiven the occasional oversight.

We’ve now arrived at the difficult part, the part about the condiments and the fork. If you’re like me, you don’t use those condiments, nor would you dream of eating with a plastic fork when you own nice metal forks that can be washed and reused. The China Star woman includes a fork and a half dozen condiment packages in every order. I don’t know how many orders she fills each day, but it must be in the high hundreds, if not thousands. And each time the same motions: fork in, condiments in, close bag.

It took several months to get her to stop giving me these things. Again and again I asked her to take back the fork and condiments, and each time she responded with a confused and weary look before opening the bag. I tried to make it into a kind of joke, a friendly jesting: “Ha, you didn’t remember this time.” Part of the problem was that she doesn’t understand the word condiments, so I had to be excruciatingly specific: “Please, no soy sauce or duck sauce or hot sauce or fork or anything.” I would accompany this with a frantic hand gesture. The turning point came when I hit on the phrase, “Just the food, please.” Somehow this clarified things for her.

A new thought: You could mention me whenever you request no extras (she doesn’t understand the word extras either; I tried), perhaps by saying something like, “Just the food, please – like that guy” (she doesn’t know my name). Here it would help if you only ordered broccoli and tofu, for that is how she must think of me, as the broccoli and tofu guy. The combination of the two things, the broccoli and tofu and “just the food,” would surely click in her head and you’d be set.

Back at home remove both containers from the bag and uncover the dish. Allow the food to “breathe” (I really do think of it this way) about five minutes. The longer you wait, the more the sauce congeals and (I swear this is true) sweetens. As with many of life’s true pleasures, it’s best to wait for a time before indulging.

September 3, 2002

Egg

Last night Rachel talked on the phone with her nieces. The first thing Sydney asked was if Rachel and I are going to get married. Rachel said no, holding back tears. “We’ve decided to just be friends,” she said.

Sydney is almost six and, although precocious, doesn’t understand certain things.

“Is Michael going to live at your apartment?”

“No, Sydney, we’re going to live in different apartments.”

“But you’re going to sleep over, right?”

“No, Sydney, we’re not going to sleep over anymore.”

Rachel tried various ways to explain what a breakup is, but the concept was new to Sydney and thus difficult.

A sudden memory: At a family dinner this past spring, Sydney asked if I was going to sleep at Rachel’s that night. I nodded and smiled, for Sydney is obsessed with sleeping arrangements. “I know what that means,” she leered, and for a moment I believed she did. “It means you’re going to wear her pajamas!”

Hannah got on the phone after Sydney. Hannah is three and half. She asked if Rachel wanted an egg.

“No, thanks, sweetie. I already ate.”

“Are you sure?”

“Well, okay.”

It’s not clear if Hannah tried to squeeze bits of egg through the tiny holes in the mouthpiece or if she merely held some egg there for Rachel to absorb through the wire. Whichever was true, Rachel nearly lost it.

“Why, thank you, Hannah,” she said, making appreciative chewing sounds. “This egg is delicious.”

August 28, 2002

Story

I’ve been corresponding with a young woman, a college student, who plans to go to law school, provided she doesn’t kill herself first. She hasn’t said this exactly, but that is the gist.

I am loathe to lobby for one choice over the other. Suicide makes as much or as little sense as anything else (particularly law school), and besides, it’s her call.

Many would disagree with my approach, but that, as my correspondent has noted, is a lot of crud. The ties that bind must be self-applied – and always are, ultimately.

Recently I asked her a question:

I’ve long believed that we each have a story about ourselves which we try all our lives to prove true, unaware that we are doing so. This story invariably explains a lot of otherwise inexplicable behavior.

What do you think your story is?

Note: It can usually be expressed in just five words.

Note: This can be a difficult and scary question.

Her response took the form of a meta-proof.

After some serious thought, I’ve decided that my story would be this: I’m a lost little girl.

And yes, that scares me… but there’s nothing I can do about it. I wish I knew what the right choices in life were, but I can barely keep myself afloat as it is.

I nodded as I read this, for it showed that she knows who pulls the strings of her suffering. Not that knowing this diminishes her suffering, nor changes the story that drives it, but at least it’s a start.

August 23, 2002

Moderation

Whatever it was, I was supposed to not only know what it was but be engaged in doing it, because evidently everyone else was doing it. He was aware of this and accepted it, so the question boiled down to how often and to what degree.

I had no idea what he was talking about, but given the tenor of our conversation, which I can only characterize as “on-the-level,” it seemed best to nod in agreement whenever agreement seemed called for, rather than risk being thought an idiot or liar or both.

This is how I came to admit that I periodically stole from the restaurant, the same as all the other waiters and waitresses, using the obvious method, whatever it was, but in moderation.

August 21, 2002

Flesh

I discovered today that my readership has gone up twenty percent since I stopped writing so much. Among other things this reminds me of the old saw that women are attracted to men who treat them badly. Sadly I think there’s some truth to that, broadly speaking.

However I assure you that our relationship is based on a different model. You are hungry and I feed you. Or rather, I try to. And in the process am fed. Actually the hungry person is me; I feed myself.

This reminds of an old Jewish saying: There’s always enough food in the kitchen for one more meal. It’s a lie of course. Eventually you run out of the last thing you have, and the meals are over. Is the speaker suggesting we eat our own flesh? If so, our flesh will run out too, same as everything else. Nothing doesn’t run out.

August 15, 2002

Murmurs

I keep a document of fragments. Most of the pieces I write emerge from these fragments. Mainly I change things; I read through the document and make small changes. This is what happened just now. I found a fragment I liked, only it didn’t seem quite right: too many commas, too broken up and stuttery. So I removed some commas, and that made it better. Then I realized that the fragment was actually a quote from Beckett, so I put it back the way it was:

I don’t know: perhaps it’s a dream, all a dream. (That would surprise me.) I’ll wake, in the silence, and never sleep again. (It will be I?) Or dream (dream again), dream of a silence, a dream silence, full of murmurs.

July 30, 2002

Television

My boss, the Executive Director, would practice, in the men’s room, talking to the Board of Directors. Occasionally he addressed the entire Board, but usually it was the Executive Committee or individual members of that committee, most often the chairman. I could always tell, based on what he was saying, who he was talking to.

It was painful. He sounded exactly like he sounded outside the men’s room: like a person trying and failing to seem natural.

My desk was only about forty feet from the men’s room, which was how I knew. Didn’t he realize I could hear him? If it had been me, I would have run the faucet to drown out the sound.

When I was a child and something upsetting came on TV, I would hide behind the television. I didn’t so much mind violence, because I knew it wasn’t real, but I couldn’t bear to see people humiliated, even when it was pretend humiliation. Whenever it would start to happen, I would turn off the sound, wheel the set away from the wall, crawl behind it, and crouch amid the wires.

This is how I felt whenever I heard my boss’s voice issue from the men’s room: like I wanted a television set to hide behind.

July 23, 2002

Perpendicular

I believe his name was Roger. A name like Roger. He was handsome, as I remember him, and short. Exactly how short I cannot say, because I never saw him stand.

Has he ever stood, I wonder.

When I held him (this was while swinging him into position), he was a full head shorter than me, although some of the difference was due to the maneuver, which required him to bend, or for me to bend him, at the knees.

He was persistent in the way certain men are persistent. Having never been this way myself, nor having witnessed it so intimately, I didn’t know how to respond. I tried to laugh it off, to pretend it wasn’t happening, but this failed to deter him. If anything he redoubled his efforts, seeing hope in my passivity.

I don’t recall the specifics of what he proposed to do to me, or vice versa, but whatever it was, it excited him, for his penis rose up and lengthened, settling at a perpendicular angle to his groin.

I found it oddly comical, and sad.

Of course it helped that he was on the toilet at the time and would remain on the toilet until I agreed to transfer him back to his wheelchair and continue our work that morning – our last together, for obvious reasons.

July 19, 2002

Cord

Mostly I remember the tuna fish sandwich my aunt made for lunch. It included slivers of celery and was cut diagonally. I had never seen, and had certainly never eaten, a diagonally-cut sandwich.

My aunt was nice. Many years later her daughter was in a car accident that left her disfigured. Before that her son took drugs that were supposed to make him taller but instead screwed up his digestive system so much that he had to have a colostomy.

It was my job to mow the lawn. I don’t know why my cousin (the boy cousin) wasn’t doing this. Maybe he wasn’t old enough yet. Or maybe my uncle took pity on me because of my “situation” at home. Anyway I can still see the shape of the lawn, the way it wrapped around the side of the house.

About halfway through, my aunt came out and asked if I wanted lunch. Various people hated my aunt for supposedly turning my uncle against his mother (my grandmother), but to me she always seemed nice.

After lunch I ran over the lawn mower cord. I mean, with the lawn mower. Unfortunately it was the actual lawn mower cord and not the extension cord. I say this because otherwise I may have found a way to finish mowing.

Instead I wheeled the lawn mower back to the garage and left the severed cord on the engine. Then I went and told my aunt that I was done.

My aunt gave me money and drove me home. The next time I saw her, or anyone in her family, was at my sister’s wedding twenty years later. No one brought up the cord.

July 17, 2002

Arm

My grandfather didn’t want me to see the magazine. He said, “I don’t think you’re old enough.”

He worked the front register; I dusted. He said, “If you see it, you’re going to have nightmares.”

I had no way of understanding this at the time, but my grandfather must have been doing very badly to have to work on Sundays in his son-in-law’s pharmacy.

“Michael,” he said, “I want you to trust me.”

As much as I loved him, I couldn’t accept this, and in the end he was forced to relent, recognizing, as I imagine it now, that he couldn’t protect me from anything, as much as he wanted.

The magazine was a tabloid. It had a cover story about a dog that had attacked a baby. There was an enormous photo of the baby and its mostly-eaten arm.

I’ve forgotten the rest: what I thought about it, what we said.

My memory ends with the arm.

July 15, 2002

Rule

It was my job to sort the mail into cubbies and then periodically deliver it to the people on my floor. At least ten other employees did the same thing in the same room, and each had their own floor.

After my first delivery, I returned to an empty mail room. This seemed bizarre, particularly since everyone had left at the same time as me, with more or less the same amount of mail to deliver. When the same thing happened after my second delivery, I realized that you weren’t supposed to return right away but rather waste time elsewhere in the building. It was crazy how much time you were supposed to waste, but I understood that if I came back too soon, I made everyone else look bad, which I didn’t want to do since I was a temp and everyone else was permanent.

I made a similar mistake that first day by sorting the mail as soon as it arrived from the post office. No one else did this, because there wasn’t much mail to sort. Basically you had to make the sorting last about five times longer than necessary or else it looked like you weren’t doing anything. Everyone, including the boss, understood this, since everyone including the boss was doing as little as you were, while pretending to do five times as much. Suffice it to say, no one was allowed to do anything that made this state of affairs too obvious.

That was the only rule.

July 12, 2002

Folding

Somewhere near the top of Maxwell Street, a man in a car stopped and asked if I lived nearby. I said I did, and he offered me a job. I believe I started the next morning. I remember meeting him on a certain corner. A shopping cart full of newspapers was involved, and folding. Folding was the best part.

The worst part was collecting. A lot of people on my route never paid me, and some even hid when I came to collect. Since I had to pay in advance for the papers, I never made a penny from delivering newspapers and quit after less than a month.

I don’t remember much else – not delivering the papers, nor getting up early, nor the man’s reaction when I quit. The only other thing that remains is the vague memory of standing in a sad man’s sad apartment, waiting for him to get the money he owed me.

Often after reading a newspaper, I fold it the way I was taught to, in thirds, tucking it into itself.

July 11, 2002

Bad Michael

Walking home from the grocery, I did an inventory of all the things I own. There isn’t much, as things, for me, take up a lot of psychic space. The fewer things I own, the more room I have for my thoughts.

Of all the things in my studio apartment – a bed, a desk, two chairs, two computers, a printer, scanner, and maybe twenty books – which actually matter to me? None, really. What about the files – is there anything there that matters? Yes, some photos, although not to the point I would mourn their loss: photos are a crude stand-in for memory.

Oblivio matters to me, not so much because of the pieces I’ve written but the possibility it represents. If it were taken from me, I’d be crushed. Which is interesting because the only significant possession I could think of was me, Michael Barrish. But then I wondered if it would be possible to start again – as a different person, in a sense – for it struck me that I have no obligation to this Michael Barrish person.

I recently watched a videotaped interview of a therapist who continually referred to unseemly or undesirable actions as patterns, as in, “Our patterns make us reach for the Nutella.” The implication was that such patterns are invaders who make us act in ways we otherwise wouldn’t. In other words, they’re much like the devil – little devils you might say. I found myself cursing at the screen. I cursed because the desire for Nutella is real. We can ignore it or suppress it, but we cannot place it outside ourselves.

Years ago, my then girlfriend would often refer to a character she called “Bad Michael.” Bad Michael was responsible for all the things she didn’t like about me. More than once she spoke of surgically removing Bad Michael, leaving Good Michael behind.

Assuming such a thing were possible, the man who would emerge from surgery might look like me and might even talk like me, but he wouldn’t be me. I am Bad Michael as much as I am Good Michael and all the Michaels in between.

I mention Bad Michael and the little devils because the thought of abandoning myself is a lie. One’s self is the one thing one cannot abandon.

July 10, 2002

Endings

Samuel Beckett’s trilogy of post-World War II novels, the first book of which, Molloy, is one of my favorites, ends with these seven words – a distillation, in a sense, of all he wrote – “I can’t go on. I’ll go on.” (Similarly the bible, I’ve heard said, can be reduced in a pinch to a single two-word verse: “Jesus wept.”)

Recently I’ve taken to extending Beckett’s ending slightly. Three examples follow, with commentary.

I can’t go on. I’ll go on. Whatever.

We persist despite our avowed inability to do so. Why is this? Why do we say one thing, believe one thing, and do another? Who knows and who cares.

I can’t go on. I’ll go on. What’s up with that?

What indeed.

I can’t go on. I’ll go on. Deal with it.

My notes read, “Confronting the external critic,” but rather than expound on that, I’ll share some Beckett trivia.

What sport did Beckett love to watch on television? Rugby.

What did Beckett say on his deathbed when asked what he had found valuable in life? “Precious little.”

July 8, 2002

Cabins

I just finished reading Cemetery Nights, a collection of poems by Stephen Dobyns.

A long time ago Stephen Dobyns had sex in a cabin with a woman (I’ll call her Nina) with whom I had sex some years later. Dobyns was twice Nina’s age at the time and possibly married. I’ve never had sex with someone so much younger than myself, nor would I ever do so, feeling it wrong. Stephen Dobyns doubtless felt differently, or made an exception for Nina, who told me this story so long ago that I’ve forgotten where the cabin was.

I do remember that Stephen Dobyns asked first, outside the cabin. I confess I’ve never done that, although I can see doing it if the woman is as young as Nina was and I am as old as Stephen Dobyns was (which as it happens, I now am). In lieu of asking I simply do what feels right and see what happens. It’s a more subtle approach, although far be it for me to criticize Stephen Dobyns for asking, particularly in a case in which you are (I only just remembered this) the young woman’s poetry teacher at a summer workshop.

Cemetery Nights was published in 1987. Stephen Dobyns slept with Nina sometime around 1977; I slept with her in 1981. I believe I had difficulty maintaining an erection.

A few years later Nina won an Academy Award as a co-producer of something. By chance I visited her soon after, and she brought out the statuette. It looked exactly like an Academy Award statuette. Mila asked if I wanted to hold it, and I said that I did not. By this point I had stopped liking her very much, for reasons I only dimly recall and which in any case no longer matter.

The main reason I read Cemetery Nights was to see if Stephen Dobyns mentions any cabins. He doesn’t.

June 28, 2002

Bookmark

I stumbled on some of photographs on the Internet of my ex-girlfriend having sex. This was on a porn site. Naturally I hadn’t expected to find photos of her there, and certainly wasn’t looking for any. But even if I had been looking, I wouldn’t have found these particular photos because she used a pseudonym.

Jennifer Joy.

Lord knows how she came up with that. I find it embarrassing. There are photographs on the Internet of my ex-girlfriend fucking some guy with dyed blond hair and a tattoo of a chain around his bicep and she’s calling herself Jennifer Joy. Probably the name was someone else’s idea, but even so she agreed to it. Besides agreeing to the photos.

Sadly – and this I noticed immediately – she wasn’t aroused. Not to pull rank, but I happen to know how she looks when aroused. She gets splotches. I wouldn’t have known I knew this, but as soon as I saw the photos, I found myself searching for the splotches.

A few years after we broke up, I spotted her on the street, a good two hundred feet ahead of me. I recognized her by her walk, which I didn’t know I knew. The splotches are the same. You know certain things without knowing you know them.

The worst part was her pubis. I mean the hair. She had shaved everything but this tiny vertical strip above her labia. That’s the style these days, to shave everything but this little landing strip.

After we broke up, the first thing she did was buy a flank steak and grill it on our neighbor’s grill. When we were together she was a vegetarian – we both were – but as soon as I walked out the door she became a carnivore. The same day. A mutual friend told me about the flank steak. It turns out that she had been a vegetarian because I was a vegetarian – to please me, I suppose. I had no idea. Once I learned this I began to wonder how else she had fooled me. It’s a terrible thing to wonder about your ex-girlfriend, because of course there’s no limit. Which words, which moments, were lies? Which may have been lies but hopefully weren’t? Which probably weren’t but hopefully were?

Seeing that landing strip made me think of the flank steak, because it struck me that perhaps the man in the photos, who I presume to be her boyfriend, wanted her to shave that way. On the other hand maybe she chose the landing strip herself, having seen it on other women. But even this depresses me. How many women shave their pubic hair this way in order to appear desirable to men whose idea of what is desirable comes from photos of women who have shaved their pubic hair this way?

Doubtless I’m lamenting the loss of something that never was. It wouldn’t be the first time.

They used the doctor’s office bit. In the early shots he wore a lab coat and had one of those round strap-on mirrors on his head. The office (it was a real office) had diplomas on the wall and an examination table. All the action revolved around the table. Sometimes she was on it, sometimes he was, and in a few shots they were on it together – precariously, it seemed.

I found myself fixating on the fact that I had done these same things with her, although never on a table and never with a photographer circling us. Strangely, though, I couldn’t remember any of it. That is, I could but I couldn’t. She was there – under me, over me, in front of me – but I couldn’t feel her there. It was like watching a film shot from my perspective but with her removed, just an empty space where she had been. Except that what was missing wasn’t her but my feelings for her.

I’ve made her into a ridiculous character with flank steaks and landing strips. It’s unkind. And it’s only possible because I’ve forgotten her. As I knew I would.

There were these moments when we together – moments of closeness, of feeling connected and happy. Whenever it happened, I would recognize it and tell myself to remember it, because even as it was happening it was slipping away. And now it’s gone and all I remember is trying to remember it – an effort I knew would come to nothing, as it has.

There’s more to say, I’m just not sure right now what it is. I’ll probably go back and look again. I bookmarked the page.

June 22, 2002

Blindness

I’m not sure why, but I believe (imagine?) that I’m going to go blind one day. Similarly I believe that I will die in a car accident. If both things happen, it follows that I will go blind before the accident, which means that someone else will be driving the car.

Sometimes I wonder who that person will be. In fact whenever I get in a car with someone, I think, “Is this the driver?” But then I always manage to convince myself to table the question until I become blind and people start driving me around.

A new thought: The accident could be the result of my sudden blindness, in which case the driver would be me.

June 17, 2002

Attachment

loose leaf paper with writing

I noticed a sheet of loose leaf paper swirling with the trash in front of my apartment building. Handwritten. Pencil. Bottom left corner torn but otherwise unmarked. Some erasures related to line-spacing.

I stood there reading, then looked around for something else, an “attachment,” without finding anything.

This is what was written on the paper:

1.) I am myself at my age.

2.) I am dressed in everyday clothes.

3.) I am in my brother’s room.

4.) My brother who is falling for a girl who I know is bad news. He’s giving up a chance for a great scholarship to a school.

5.) He said, “Randy, I think I’m in love with her.”

6.) I want him to go to school.

7.) See attached.

8.) Forget Susan. Are you not seeing that this will ruin your life.

9.) Yes, she could be a murderer.

10.) I can’t physically force him to understand me.

11.) I really care about him, and it would kill me if that happens.

12.) He is trying to convince someone that is close to him.
The height of it is at “I hand to you like a brother.” He starts to walk downstairs.

13.) See attached.
14.) See attached.

15.) I am trying to see if he’s listening.

16.) Ugh … I wonder if he’s heard a word of it.

17.) I hope I did enough.

18.) See attached.

June 7, 2002

Dollop

I want to note here for my future self to read that yes I am aware that my happiness at meeting this woman is at best one phase of feeling and that as our relationship develops, the feeling will be replaced by feelings like the ones I’ve felt with others, what is to stop it from happening?

As we were leaving I looked at the picture of us on her mantle, taken by her roommate on our second date. It touched me, our happiness then. “Look, baby,” I said, “this is when we fell in love.” At that moment I saw her again as I had in the beginning. Where has she gone? Or really, where have I?

A man in the future remembers a woman he saw as a child, before the outbreak of World War III when the human race was forced to live underground. He is chosen for an experiment in which he either goes back to the earlier time or dreams that he does, going as himself today. He meets the woman and without a word is accepted by her. I too fell in love with her. Or not with her but with these photographs of her, of the two together, their tenderness. Two pictures in particular I love, both of the woman. In the first she is prone and appears to be naked, though this is uncertain: she has her arm crossed before her. In the next photo, the next moment, she has opened her eyes and is looking at the camera, at her lover, with happiness and wonder.

I told her last night that I want to feel more happiness with her. But what I meant, I think now, was not happiness but love.

In Akerman’s film a couple lay in bed unable to sleep. Finally the man says, “What are thinking?” The woman replies, “I wish that summer were over,” and then, “We no longer love each other.”

“You’ve been thinking that a long time,” says the man.

– I suspect I’ve never been happy with anyone beyond a few months. When I think like this, I wonder if happiness isn’t another red herring.

– Meaning?

– Meaning happiness can never be a stable condition, so if I expect to find a relationship that makes me happy in this sense, I’m doomed.

– But if I understand you right, you lose something different from happiness if you lose her.

– Yes, closeness, intimacy.

Happiness is the possibility of happiness. It is the belief that something pleasurable is coming, or may be.

So long as I put off checking the message, it remains possible that it’s from her. But once I check it, it becomes what it is, which may not be a message from her. Until I know what it is, it can be whatever I want it to be.

I thought again of giving up everything and setting off. But where to and why? Truth is, I need other people for my dollop of happiness.

Camus does not say that we must imagine Sisyphus free, but that we must imagine him happy. Though, again, he does not say that Sisyphus is happy, but that we must imagine him so.

It’s possible that one only completely remembers or completely forgets, that there is no middle ground of half-rememberance. Still, I’m dubious. A thousand grains of rice is surely a pile, whereas five grains is not. When does a collection become a pile? At a certain point it’s definitely not a pile; at another point it definitely is. Somewhere between these points is the point at which collections become piles, but where that is, is fuzzy. It’s fuzzy because the idea of a pile is fuzzy. A surprising number of ideas are fuzzy like this: love, happiness, [more examples].

May 25, 2002

Elsewhere

I once rode a bus into the Berkeley Hills, to the state park up there, tripping, mildly, on mushrooms. It was a resplendent day and I was the only person on the bus. With my journal open on my lap, I scribbled the sort of things I often think when tripping (“to be lost is to wish to be elsewhere,” “to be lost is to lack a story for where you are”), when I decided to address my future self, the one who would one day return to these words.

It’s been nine years now. Here’s what I wrote, using giant, child-like letters:

HELLO, MICHAEL-READING-THIS-IN-THE-FUTURE. WHY DON’T YOU GO OUTSIDE AND LOOK AT THINGS FOR A CHANGE? YOU HAVE AN INTERESTING MIND BUT WHERE DOES IT GET YOU?

May 20, 2002

Swing

We were playing miniature golf at my childhood course and you insisted on taking a full swing on every shot. Right there that should have told me something.

Although this was miniature golf, you had a caddie. I realize now that he was your boyfriend. He would estimate distance and hand you your club. No matter how far it was, he always gave you the same club (you only had one) and you always swung as hard as you could.

At the sixteenth hole, a complicated deal involving a mechanical Shiva whose six limbs rotated at different speeds, you kissed me, or rather laid your mouth on mine, to stop me from speaking.

On further thought, it was the latter: you laid your mouth on mine. It was only after a time that one could say we were kissing.

Also, I didn’t really dream this.

May 19, 2002

Mofo

A thoughtful reader informed me yesterday that Oblivio is now the #1 search result on Google for the word motherfucker.

Choosy motherfuckers choose Oblivio.

It’s all because of a piece I wrote called Motherfucker in which I explained my decision to build a separate website for my web development work so that, in part, I would be free to write the word motherfucker as many times as I wanted.

Motherfucker, motherfucker, motherfucker.

Motherfucker, the band

When I went to Google to confirm the news, I discovered several other top “motherfucker” sites, including one for the band Motherfucker, “the only truly open, absolutely insane, psycho sexual, rock’n roll extravaganza left in New York City.” This site is #2 in the rankings. I particularly enjoyed the graphics.

#6 was an essay about household explosives: Celebrating Independence Like a Bad Motherfucker. The author, seanbaby (the piece is a part of seanbaby.com, a four star recommendation for both profane beauty and beautiful profanity – don’t miss Angry Letters from Angry Christians!), believes that everyone should build and own household explosives, and explains how. I found his arguments refreshing: “We should know by now that America’s freedom needs to be celebrated with the most life-threatening devices we’re able to build. To hell with a few dumbasses firecracking their fingers off. Do you think Abraham Lincoln would have put up with British taxes just to keep you with the correct number of fingers on your dumbass hand?”

#10 concerned Motherfuckers International, which appears to be a legitimate organization in the sense that it exists, or at least has a website saying it does. If nothing else, it has rules: “If you lose your Motherfucker ID (or need a new one due to theft) and all other membership info is unchanged, you must reregister and pay the $10 fee to get a new one – check ‘Get New Motherfucker ID‘ at the bottom of the form. This safeguards you from another Motherfucker getting your Motherfucker ID through trickery.” Evidently some Motherfuckers are attempting to obtain their IDs through trickery – a sad commentary on the motherfucking state of our culture.

I can’t think of a word I would rather be linked to than motherfucker. Every so often I return to Google to make sure Oblivio is still #1.

It still is. I know this because I just checked.

Ah, and now I just checked again. Still #1.

This might take some time to get used to.

Motherfucker, motherfucker, motherfucker.

May 9, 2002

Form

Every woman has a form that is repeatedly expressed, fractal-like, in all of her features and at all levels of her anatomy. Her forearm is the same as her nose which is the same as her clitoris which is the same as her thumb and calf.

This form is no less explicit in her character. Or perhaps it is her character – her character given physical expression.

May 8, 2002

Corner

My elementary school playground was divided into two sections: the white top and black top. The school itself was L-shaped, with the white top occupying the crux of the L. This would be easier if I drew it.

my elementary school schoolyard

The school had five grades, but only the older kids, fifth graders mostly, ever ventured onto the black top.

One day during third-grade recess, I followed the fence to the end of the blacktop, to the corner farthest from the school. This may have been the bravest thing I’ve ever done. Rumor had it that certain kids, possessed of a badness beyond comprehension, would slide under the fence in this corner and run to the 7-11. And it may be have been true, for I saw sufficient space to slide under. Not that I would have tried it. Instead I simply stood there watching tiny tornados of trash rise off the ground as I wondered how I was going to make it back to my school, which was now a giant L-shaped ship receding into the distance.

April 29, 2002

Silence

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.

April 17, 2002

Deflection

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.

April 10, 2002

Triptych

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.

April 9, 2002

Upgrade

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.

It went:

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.

Be well.

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
> fault.

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.

April 8, 2002

Uds

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.”

April 4, 2002

Gone

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.

April 1, 2002

The Four Horsemen of Justification

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:

  1. Diminish the wrong
  2. Attack the accuser
  3. Defend your character
  4. 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 logic used to justify the theft of duck signs is used to justify the destruction of the planet. We do what we want, pretty much, then find reasons to justify it.

March 28, 2002

Gray

There’s a form of colorblindness that reduces the world to shades of gray. What must this be like?

I think if one previously saw colors, it’s crushingly sad, but then in time one adjusts, by which I mean forgets. The healing power of forgetting.

Then there are those born in a gray world. This seems far worse: to know there is something everywhere, always, you cannot see and never will. I doubt this could ever be forgotten.

March 26, 2002

Sign

duck sign

It was Rachel’s idea to steal the duck sign. Had we succeeded, I wouldn’t be telling you this story. This raises the question of what I’m not telling you. I’m not telling you a lot.

The sign is on Broadkill Road, a few miles from Rachel’s mother’s beach house. Rachel noticed it on her way back from the supermarket and immediately got out to check the bolts. The bolts seemed easy enough to unscrew, although reaching the top bolt would require some kind of stool.

Back at the beach house Rachel reported her findings and asked for my help. I agreed to do so only so long as we didn’t get caught. My philosophy is, I’ll steal duck signs with my girlfriend but I won’t get caught.

After much discussion (sign stealing is not a felony, we reasoned), more investigation was deemed necessary, so we drove to the sign, bringing two large wrenches and a foot stool. If things went well we would steal the sign in the middle of the night, when few people used that road.

Things did not go well. There was no shoulder on the sign side of the road, which meant that we couldn’t park the car in a way that would block view of what we were doing. Worse, the top bolt was higher than Rachel had estimated: a good four feet above my reach. We would need a small ladder to do the job, and unfortunately there was no such ladder back at the beach house. We considered using the car as a ladder, with me standing on the roof, but that seemed crazy. What if a car appeared in the distance? At best I would have just enough time to jump from the roof, or perhaps lay flat across it, but there wouldn’t be enough time to move the car, which would be parked against the sign, sticking out halfway into the road.

I turned to Rachel and said, “I’m not sure we can do this,” by which I meant, “No fucking way am I doing this,” and then we returned to the beach house.

The next day, heading back to Brooklyn, we stopped and took photos. It was sad. Rachel really wanted that sign and I wanted to get it for her.

About the only good thing about this is that I can tell you about it.

March 22, 2002

Anniversary

At their one-year anniversary party, Paul and Julie played a video made on the day of their wedding. People crowded in front of the television to watch themselves, one year earlier, wish Paul and Julie a happy marriage. When Annie appeared on screen, the tape was paused so that Julie could run to the kitchen to get Annie, who evidently did something funny at this point.

Nobody said anything while Julie was gone – it was as though pausing the video also paused the party.

Then Julie returned with Annie and the video was started again. On the screen Annie took a long drag of an imaginary cigarette and said, “We’ve come a long way, baby, but we don’t know where the fuck we’re going.” This got a big laugh, although I sensed that most people had already heard it, either because they were there when Annie said it, or, more likely, because they had seen the video before.

I realized then that this wasn’t just the anniversary of Paul and Julie’s wedding but of their wedding video, and it struck me that someone should be making a video of this event as well, to be played at next year’s anniversary party, and so on.

March 18, 2002

Nothing But Dots

It wasn’t until ninth grade, in Driver’s Ed., that I discovered I’m colorblind. You were given a set of cards with colored dots, and you were supposed to see numbers on the cards, ghosted between the dots. In most cases all I saw were dots.

At first I didn’t understand what this meant. I turned to the kid next to me and said, “There’s nothing on this one, right?”

“What do you mean, that’s an eight,” he said, tracing the number with his finger.

Even as he traced it, I saw nothing but dots.

first colorblindness text image

The number 12

second colorblindness text image

Nothing but dots

third colorblindness text image

Nothing but dots

fourth colorblindness text image

Nothing but dots

fifth colorblindness text image

Nothing but dots

six colorblindness text image

Nothing but dots

seventh colorblindness text image

Nothing but dots

eight colorblindness text image

Nothing but dots

Six colorblindness text image

Nothing but dots

It felt like that dream where your teeth fall out. Holding your teeth in your hand, you know that your life will never be the same, because you no longer have any teeth. Except this was different because I never really had the thing I lost; I only thought I had it. Probably a lot of losses are like that.

March 7, 2002

New York, New York

I’m on the uptown 6 train. We stop at Union Square. People get on. There’s an open seat to my right. A woman passes in front of me and is about to sit down when a dorky-looking guy with huge square glasses appears from the other direction and throws his ass into the seat, bumping her aside. Once he’s in, he says, “Ha ha, you lose.”

I get off the train at 23rd. As I’m crossing 22nd, two men stride across Park Avenue, oblivious to traffic. Well, one is oblivious and the other is nervously following his friend. Both men look beat up and possibly drugged. Cars swerve around them, horns blasting. I stop at the corner to see if they survive.

They survive.

Production

I had brunch with some friends this past Sunday. I don’t understand brunch. Why do we need a special hybrid weekend-only meal? With tax and tip I paid $16. During the week the same meal costs $7. One of my friends said something interesting. He said that in a perfect world he would watch two movies every day and get high. I suppose I can relate to that, although I rarely watch movies or get high. But I like the idea (from a distance!) of having pleasurable experiences all day and not producing anything.

The restaurant was called Dizzy’s. Despite ominous clouds overhead, we ate at a table outside. I half-wanted it to start pouring, just to see what would happen. The restaurant was packed, with more people waiting for tables, so it wasn’t as though they had room for us inside. I figured that if it started raining, we would be forced to stand in the aisles, plates in hands, or maybe crouch in the hall that leads to the bathroom. That would have an EXPERIENCE. Alas, a few drops fell on my bagel, but nothing major.

My friend confessed that most days he watches two movies and gets high.

March 5, 2002

Lie

When I was kid, just six or seven, I used to work in my father’s pharmacy on Sunday afternoons. This arrangement only lasted a short time because my father’s pharmacy failed. Later he bought another pharmacy, and that one failed too. I believe he owned four pharmacies in all, each of which failed.

One of my jobs at my father’s pharmacy was to dust the empty prescription bottles. My father had hundreds and hundreds of such bottles, in various sizes and shapes, arranged in rows under the counter where he prepared prescriptions.

Another one of my jobs was counting pills for prescriptions. It was illegal for me to do this – you have to be a pharmacist to count pills – so I could only do it when my father and I were alone. Looking back, I see it as the pharmacy equivalent of sitting in my father’s lap and steering his car as he drove.

Pill counting required a special plastic pill-counting tray. The tray was blue and had an alley on one side into which you slid the counted pills. Since you couldn’t touch pills with your fingers, you glided them into the alley with an implement much like a butter knife. The alley had a clear plastic flap that closed over it. After counting the pills, you shut the flap and poured the pills into the appropriate bottle or vial. My father let me do the pouring, but I wasn’t allowed to type the label. That’s where he drew the line. You have to be a pharmacist to type a label.

My father’s pharmacy had a back room where he liked to sleep in the afternoon. Another one of my jobs was to wake him every half-hour and have him tell me to wake him in another half-hour. With the exception of these periodic attempts to wake my father, I wasn’t permitted in the back room.

But then one day while dusting empty prescription bottles, I said something to my father that compelled him to take me to the back room and shut the door behind us. I don’t remember what I said, but it must have been pretty interesting, because as soon as we got to the back room, he sat me on the cot and told me the craziest thing. He said that sometimes he and my mother want to be close, as close as they can be, so what happens is that he puts his penis inside her vagina, and then some stuff that isn’t pee comes out of his penis and goes into my mother, and somehow this stuff finds an egg and makes it into a baby.

My father asked me if I understood, and I said that I did, and then we went back to what we were doing before my father decided to tell me all this.

Naturally I knew my father was lying. I may have been only six or seven, but I wasn’t so easily fooled. The question, though, was why my father had lied to me. Or more to the point, what his lie was meant to conceal.

March 4, 2002

Approach

Since she was an artist, I figured she would appreciate an unorthodox approach. Plus I couldn’t bear the thought of calling and asking chitchatty questions. Better to skip all that. Better to show I’m the kind of person who isn’t ruled by convention; someone who embraces irony but is not paralyzed by it; an artist, like her, though nothing like her. Also I was concerned that if I wasn’t working from a script, I would screw it up.

So I called her and said simply, “Hi, Kathy, this is Michael, would you go out with me?” Except I didn’t pause much between words, so it sounded more like, “Hi Kathy this is Michaelwouldyougooutwithme?”

She laughed and said yes.

“Wow, that’s great,” I said, “really?”

“Sure, why not?”

After that I was forced to improvise.

March 1, 2002

Missing

I was in a laundromat in the west 50s, in what was then called Hell’s Kitchen. I was nineteen. A young woman, a Krishna, struck up a conversation by the dryers. I have only a vague recollection of her: dark hair, dark skin, a bit plump. She came on to me, there’s no other way to say it. Her method was compelling: she spoke as though everything had already been settled and so we simply needed to work the details of where and when. I asked for clarification of the rules about pre-marital sex for Krishnas. She said that it was strictly forbidden, a big no-no, but the way she said it, it was as though she were speaking from some point in the future, after we’d slept together, and was saying, “Oh, I’ve been such a bad girl.”

The weird thing is, I don’t remember if I slept with her or not. I don’t think I did – that is, if I did, I assume I would remember – but it’s also possible I’ve forgotten.

Another possibility is that I dreamt this.

A third possibility is that I killed her.

I realize that’s a horrifying thought, but sometimes when I think about her, I see this cabin in the woods and I think that if I did kill her, I probably did it in the cabin.

Whenever I think this, I try to remember what happened after the scene at the dryers. Did we go back to my apartment? To hers? Did one of us suggest a trip to the woods?

I look and look, but there’s nothing there.

In more reasoned moments, I compare this to crossing a bridge and wanting to jump. One doesn’t really want to jump; it’s just a morbid fascination with what one could possibly do, in the extreme. In the case of the Krishna woman, the fascination is not with what I could possibly do, but what I could have possibly have done.

On the other hand it’s not a reach to think I slept with her. I’ve done that once or twice. It’s more likely, though, that I made her up. That I do all the time.

February 21, 2002

First

I can’t recall what she said or did or even what the fight was about, but I know that we were standing outside a place in Harvard Square called The Garage, which isn’t a garage at all but an indoor mall. Also there was a trash can there, right where we were standing, so I kicked it over, or did something else to it, I don’t remember what exactly. She was – this I remember well – surprised; I could see it in her eyes.

I’m not given to violent displays, but the feelings between us were so intense that if we weren’t fighting, we were fucking, or about to fight, or fuck, sometimes it didn’t matter which.

This time, though, we were definitely fighting. And so while I was doing whatever I was doing to the can (which plenty of people were watching me do), I shouted, “I never want to see you again! Get the fuck out of my life!” Something to that effect.

As it turned out, that just the first of many breakups. It was the most dramatic but not the most traumatic – not by far. That one occurred six years later, in her apartment in San Francisco, as I reached down to untie my sneakers. All she said was, “Don’t untie them.”

February 14, 2002

Floating

E-meter

At the first office I was given a piece of paper and was told to deliver it to a person in a second office. At the second office I was given a different piece of paper and was told to bring it to a third office. At the third office a bald man took the paper and asked me to sit down across from him.

On the table between us was a device with a meter with two metal tubes attached to it by wires. The man explained how the device worked. I was to hold a metal tube in each hand. When my reactive mind was triggered, the meter would register this and the man would report it to me by saying that my needle was “floating.”

The man asked if I understood and I said I did and then he began what he called the process.

When it was over he gave me a new piece of paper to bring to the second office, where I was given a different paper to bring to the first.

Eve was waiting for me in the car.

“How’d it go?” she said, seemingly casual.

The truth is, I had no interest in Scientology. It’s just that Eve couldn’t imagine being with someone who wasn’t a Scientologist, so I had agreed to try this one thing this one time, knowing what it meant to her. We both knew, although we never acknowledged it, that if things went badly, which they likely would, we would break up and I would leave Los Angeles.

“It went fine,” I said. “The only weird thing was the part where he says that your needle is floating.”

“Why did that seem weird?”

“It just seemed to be floating a lot.”

Eve’s eyes narrowed. “Wait, he did explain this to you, right?”

“About the needle? Yes. But it was weird because every time he said that, I felt okay. We’d be talking something and he’d say that my needle was floating and I’d think, ‘Why it is floating again? I really thought I was over that thing.'”

Now Eve was livid. “He was telling you you’re okay! When your needle is floating, you’re okay! It’s his job to make sure you understand this!”

She slammed her hand on the dashboard. “Shit!”

This was the end. Eve knew it and I knew it, and it was terribly sad, a sad stupid waste. However the mix-up about my needle floating was just too fucking funny, and I burst out laughing.

February 11, 2002

Gum

My tenth birthday party

My best friend growing up was Richard Sauginkan. My mother says we met by crashing our pedal cars together, but I don’t really remember it. In fact I barely remember Richard at all.

I have only one photo of him, taken at my tenth birthday. He sits to my left, wearing a light brown jacket and holding a slice of pizza in his mouth and making a peace sign. If it weren’t for this photo, I would have no way of knowing what he looked like. He looked like Sal Mineo.

But for all I’ve forgotten, I do remember this: everyone loved Richard. I recall my mother saying how gorgeous he was. And it was true: he was a looker. And not just a looker but a sweet-tempered kid.

When we were ten, Richard convinced two neighborhood girls to play kissing games with us. I would have given anything to kiss either girl, but it was clear they both preferred Richard. Not that I minded so much. Of course it hurt when Lisa Rothman kept turning her head away during Seven Minutes in Heaven, but I had no problem with either girl liking Richard. Richard glowed.

When we were eleven, he and his family moved to Syracuse. We said goodbye in the street, standing next to his family’s station wagon, which was packed full with boxes. After Richard got into the car, I walked around back and stuck the piece of gum I was chewing under the fender.

I don’t believe that Richard and I ever corresponded, and then, years later, I learned that he died at nineteen of a heroin overdose.

That was twenty-three years ago. And it’s been thirty-one years since I watched his family’s station wagon turn onto the next street.

In thinking about that day, I imagine it must have been traumatic to watch my best friend drive away like that; but the truth is, I don’t remember it. My last memory, as well as my most vivid, is of sticking the gum under the fender. If memories were like films, the screen would go black at that moment and the credits would begin to roll.

February 7, 2002

Pool Hall

I ran into my grandfather last week in the pool hall at Mott and Houston. I was just passing by and got the urge to play. My grandfather’s been dead over a decade now. He was alone at one of the tables in back.

He looked the same as always and was smoking the same brand of cigars. I recognized the smell immediately; that’s what made me look.

Funny thing: it was my other grandfather, Abbie, who played pool. This one, Max… I never saw him play a game of any kind, not even a card game. Aren’t grandfathers supposed to play card games? All this man ever did was sit in his recliner and smoke cigars.

When I saw him I thought maybe I was wrong about him being dead. This is not as crazy as it seems, since I don’t have much contact with my father’s side of the family. It goes back to my father, who calls me once a year to say he wants to have a relationship with me. Except he doesn’t say it like that. Instead he talks in this weird lingo he picked up from The Forum, saying things like, “I want to acknowledge your willingness to put yourself out there and share your authentic truth.” I try to be nice about it – my father has feelings, the same as anyone – but it’s hard to get around the fact that my authentic truth, when it comes to him, is fuck off.

My sister is the one who keeps in touch with him, so it must have been through her that I learned that Max had died. It’s strange, though, because I don’t remember her telling me this. Or maybe it’s not so strange given that my memory is not the greatest and I hardly knew Max.

It was Abbie I knew. We were close. In fact he was the one who taught me to play pool. We’d go to a place in Roosevelt Mall and play for hours at a time.

Because of this it was confusing to see the wrong grandfather at the pool hall. And then to top it off, I had the awful feeling of wanting him to be Abbie. Because Max… Well, I don’t really know for sure, but my sister says he used to beat my father with a board or something. I don’t know how she claims to know this, but he certainly never hit me. In fact he rarely ever sat up in his recliner. Still, my sister usually knows what she’s talking about, so I suppose it probably happened.

Then I remembered something else my sister told me. Actually this was the first thing I remembered. She said that my father used to hit me as well. Just not with a board. Honestly I don’t remember what he hit me with. Anyway I can’t say for sure that it happened, except that my sister is pretty insistent about it.

So when I saw Max again, I thought about him hitting my dad and my dad hitting me, and the whole thing just put me in a shitty mood. Perhaps I overreacted, but after that I decided to leave the pool hall.

On the way out I had this crazy thought that I was going to see Abbie coming down the street. In fact I constructed this entire cornball fantasy where I run up and embrace him and tell him how much I’ve missed him. It was all so vivid that I started to sort of cry (in the pool hall, I mean), and the guy at the counter said, “You alright?” and I said, “Sure, I’m fine,” and then I got the hell out of there.

Naturally Abbie wasn’t coming down the street. I didn’t have to look to know this, but I looked anyway. He wasn’t coming.

February 6, 2002

Dark

The voice is always the same: a kind of a barely controlled rage. It doesn’t frighten me. I hear it, and know, and I’m with her again.

This most recent time she shouted, “What the fuck is your problem!” It’s always something like this. I put my arm around her, to wake her.

“I had a bad dream,” she said.

“I know. It’s okay.”

“You were there. My mom was in the basement screaming at us to get downstairs. She would always scream like that. I don’t think she had any idea. I felt embarrassed because you were there.”

I pulled her closer and fixed the blanket.

“She doesn’t know what happened,” she said. “She’s forgotten everything.”

“I have too,” I said. “It’s easier that way.”

Her cheek was resting against my chest. I felt her tilt her head back to look at me, not that she would have seen anything in the dark.

“That’s true,” she said, “you have.”

January 29, 2002

Virgin

This morning I tried to count how many women I’ve slept with. Strangely the total was less than the last time I did this, three years ago. The number should have gone up by one, but instead it went down by three. So that’s four missing women.

This is disturbing, particularly since the total is not so high as to excuse oversights. And what it makes me think is that I should write down the names of the women I currently remember, before I forget them as well.

I picture myself at ninety, in a nursing home, unable to remember a single woman I’ve ever slept with. So I’m ninety and I’m devastated because I believe I’m still a virgin.

January 28, 2002

Death of a Snowperson

Someone brutalized my snowperson.

This happened last Sunday, during New York’s one and only snowfall this winter. As Rachel and I walked through Prospect Park, I noticed that the snow was perfect snowman snow, wet but not heavy wet. We choose a spot away from the big field, on a slight rise.

The way to make a snowman, in case you don’t know, is to roll a snowball through the snow, pushing down as you roll it. It’s slow going at first, because the ball is small and has little surface, but it gets easier once you reach a certain mass.

I decided that we were going to make the best snowman in the park, and I believe we succeeded. Except it wasn’t a snowman we built but a snowwoman. We gave her spiky twig hair and breasts with acorn tops as nipples. I was particularly proud of her breasts, one of which was slightly larger than the other, just like with non-snow women.

(Confession: it was strangely erotic to rub the breasts with my palm to smoothen them out. Does this make me a pervert?)

Rachel regretted not having a camera, but I felt that a snowperson is by its nature impermanent, so why try to capture it? However, on the way home, Rachel convinced me to return later and take photos. “You can post them on Oblivio,” she said.

Sadly, shockingly, this is what we found when we returned:

The crime scene

If this doesn’t look like a snowperson, it is because it’s not one anymore; it’s a crime scene. The pile of snow in the middle is what remained of her head after someone stomped on it. We found her torso elsewhere, smashed to pieces. Only her base remained intact.

I was upset. I’m still upset. Rachel and I walked through the park taking photos of other snowpersons, none of which had been harmed. Only ours.

Was it because of the breasts? Was it because we made a thing out of snow that had breasts, and so someone figured it would be fun to fuck it up?

I really think this is what happened. Or else some dipshit decided that exposed breasts on snowpersons are an affront to decency and shouldn’t have to be looked at, that little children will see breasts on snowpersons and all hell will break loose.

Anyway, fine, this happened over a week ago now and I’m trying to let it go. Non-fucking-attachment.

One more thing: her mouth. We found her mouth stuck in a tree. It had been a metal top from a can, the kind you pull off with a tab. I used the tab part to make it stay on her face. They folded the thing in half.

It

A couple on the inbound 1 train. She has her arms folded across her chest. Both are trying to keep this private.

Him: It’s not what you think it is.

Her: What do you mean “it’s not what I think”? Is it or is not what you told me?

Him: I don’t know what I said, but I can tell you’re thinking it’s something else.

Her: Like what?

Him: Like I don’t have to say what.

[Pause.]

Her: Fine, it’s not that, I believe you.

[Pause.]

Her: But that doesn’t stop me from feeling hurt by it.

January 21, 2002

Why I Am Late

I noticed immediately that the guy at Mister Pizza had a new rash. It was on his right temple. Purplish and large, it reminded me, in shape, of Alabama. He also limped, which he had not done previously, and in a way that indicated hip pain.

I felt sad. Even before the rash and the limp, this man has always made me sad. He confuses orders and struggles when calculating change. Because of this, I usually avoid Mister Pizza. However, on this day, needing something quick before jumping on the train to meet you, I thought I’d pick up a slice and eat it on the platform.

Two customers were ahead of me, waiting for their food. Since this was a pizza parlor, where the fare is simple and easy to prepare, I figured I’d be out of there, slice in hand, in a few minutes.

I was wrong. My order didn’t get taken for at least five minutes as the proprietor struggled to wrap two hero sandwiches in tin foil. There seemed to be a problem with his right hand which made it difficult for him to open and close his fingers.

To give the man his due, he makes a good faith effort to serve his customers, and he devotes himself to doing it right. And this is what makes it so painful to watch him: he is doing his very best.

I placed my order, and then he cut a slice and carried it, limping, to the oven.

“To go or stay,” he asked.

“Stay,” I said, not wanting to put him through the business with the take-out box.

I was concerned about time. A J train had passed as I reached Broadway. The J comes every ten minutes or so, which meant that if I stayed too long in Mister Pizza, I would miss the next train and show up late for our meeting.

The proprietor placed a paper plate before him and tried to separate the plate from the one beneath it, but again his fingers wouldn’t cooperate, so the two plates remained stuck together.

I said nothing. My chest felt heavy. I studied the soft drink dispenser.

The man limped to the oven, scooped up my slice with a big metal spatula, then limped back to the counter and placed it on the plate – or rather, plates – adding a clump of napkins on the side.

“A dollar fifty,” he said. I handed him two bills. He rang up the order, then stared into the open cash register drawer.

What was this? Why wasn’t he giving me my change?

Suddenly he turned and hobbled toward the back room. Now I understood: he was out of quarters and had gone to get a new roll.

Then I heard the approaching train.

My first thought was to run – there was still time if I ran – but what would I say to the proprietor? I could have yelled something like “That’s my train; keep the change,” but had I done this, he would have known that I had been hoping to get out of there quickly because I had a train to catch, and that he had failed me, as he fails others, all day long, day after day, despite his best efforts.

I couldn’t bear it. I stayed and waited for my change. This is why I am late.

January 19, 2002

Doorknob

There’s this moment in her car where I have no choice but to say good night, because I can’t invite her in – I don’t live here, and even if I did I’m not so sure I would bother. Of course she could have invited me to her place, but the time for that was in the restaurant or soon after the restaurant, only for whatever reason she didn’t. Somehow the vibe shifted from hey-let’s-keep-this-going to hey-let’s-just-get-this-over-with-shall-we, and I don’t know why. Worse, I sense she doesn’t know either, that’s she just as confused and disappointed as I am, but that neither of us knows the other well enough to say anything about it. So now here we are in the car and she’s dropping me off and saying something about how grateful she is for my help with her resume. I say I hope it helps her land a job she loves, and then we both remark how nice the other is and how much fun the whole thing was, especially to get to know each other some, which we agree was the nicest part. I don’t lean over to kiss her cheek, nor do I offer my hand for her to shake. Instead I wave goodbye as I leave the car, rotating my hand in the same way one might jiggle the doorknob of a locked door, only I hold my hand mostly open, so it’s more like the way one might fondle a breast of a certain size, rubbing the nipple with the sweaty part of one’s palm, although in the case of a breast the motion would be slower, a breast requiring a slower, more sensuous motion than a doorknob.

January 17, 2002

Flaming Ball of Fire

For several months now Rachel’s been looking for a job. It’s been difficult at times, but I’m proud of her because she’s managed to maintain a positive attitude. Her motto: One day at a time. Sometimes when I see her getting discouraged, I remind her that the earth will one day be a flaming ball of fire and that all this will be forgotten.

“How do you always know the right thing to say?” she asks.

“I just know.”

Today she sent me her latest cover letter.

Dear Executive Director:

I am responding to your poorly worded and unclear posting on
the low-paid-jobs-for-losers-who-decided-
to-go-into-social-work-because-they-actually-
thought-they-could-make-a-difference website for the position of Peon in your poorly run and under-funded social service agency. I have enclosed my way over-qualified resume for your consideration.

My employment experience is abundant and varied. I have been underpaid, overworked and unappreciated in a variety of positions including Band-Aid Applier, Finger-in-Dike Holder, and Justifier of Lousy Policies. I have always excelled in situations that require a high degree of denial, a capacity to look the other way in the face of gross malpractice and fraudulence, an ability to accept horrifying working conditions, and a tolerance for seeing zero affect of my efforts to ameliorate people’s lives because, “well, we do the best we can.”

At this time, I am looking for another underpaid, overworked and high-likelihood-of-burnout job and would relish the opportunity to learn more about the available position in your agency. I am particularly intrigued by the prospect of working for another lunatic director with no interpersonal skills, management ability, or capacity for leadership.

I look forward to hearing from you if and when you get your shit together, but will not hold my breath.

Naturally Rachel wrote this by taking her actual cover letter and replacing all the lies with the truth.

The Wizard of Oz pulling levers behind his curtain

Remember the scene in the Wizard of Oz in which the wizard, frantically pulling levers, intones, “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain”? I’ve long believed that language developed, to a significant degree, so that we could lie to each other.

Certainly this is true of the language of business.

I will refrain from discussing the language of love.

January 15, 2002

Navigation

What is thinking without words?

A bird surely thinks as it builds a nest, just not in words. In what, then, is it thinking?

On her secret website, a friend writes:

There is a theory about how some birds learn the global positioning skills that will guide them along their migration route. The theory talks of the nights that they spend after breaking out of the egg, exhausted, eyes able to see only the nest below and the sky above. There, for the first weeks of their life, they stare endlessly at the constellations as they move across the theater of night sky. The stars, in their subtle movements, imprint themselves on the little bird brains with such force, such permanence, that the birds will always be able to know where they are in relation to where they began.

That’s what it was like, looking up from his lap into his calm eyes above for minutes and minutes. Minute movements there. And much love. A positioning, an equipping for travel.

I told her she was wrong, but she came back with evidence.

And just now I realized what’s it like when I bite my nails. It’s less like thinking than feeling. And there are no words. “Get that. Good. Again. Bite. Good. Now over. Again. Bite,” and so on. Just not in words.

Which is how it must be for birds.

However, a baby at birth thinks nothing, I suspect, beyond the baby equivalent of feels good and feels bad and also perhaps something that adds up to what the holy goddamn fuck. Just not in words.

January 14, 2002

Michael’s Burnt Soup

  1. Begin with soup. I use canned (Health Valley is good), but any kind will do.
  2. Pour the soup into a pot and turn up the flame much higher than necessary.
  3. Do not stir.
  4. Sit at your computer and work on a proposal for a job you really hope you get because you would be perfect for it and would do a fabulous job and the client would love you.
  5. Become so engrossed in your proposal that you fail to notice the burning smell coming from the kitchen, which in your studio apartment is only eight feet behind you.
  6. Finally notice the smell and rush over and turn on the faucet and hold the soup beneath it as a plume of steam shoots up and nearly burns you.
  7. Stir the soup with a large wooden spoon, frequently scraping the bottom of the pot.
  8. Serve with crumbled bits of toast that you over-toasted in the oven because you don’t have a toaster and totally forgot about the toast.
January 13, 2002

Hand

Last night I curled behind Rachel as she slept. She was on her side, facing away from me, so I brought my arm over and around and laid my hand on hers. It was warm. I could feel her breast under my arm. She took my hand in hers.

January 12, 2002

Shoes

All I can see is the bottom half of her legs and the top part of her left knee. Also, vaguely, some thigh.

Actually I can’t really see her legs or thigh but rather the shape they make her slacks make.

Her slacks are a brownish sort of gray – the color, as I imagine it, of an aristocrat’s horse.

I have some judgment about her shoes. They’re too fashionable: the heals too high, the fronts too square. Also I sense too much energy, just from her shoes, devoted to appearance.

She has one hand – I see this also, although it requires me to move my eyes as far as possible to the left while keeping my head entirely still, as during an eye exam – folded over the other.

Before sitting down I saw that she is beautiful.

We’re waiting for the train.

January 8, 2002

Procession

Walking there, I reminded myself that I am beautiful and to ask her questions.

Thanks for working on my resume for eight hours, she said.

I didn’t do it so you would drive me to the bus station, I said.

Nor it is why I agreed to drive you, she said.

Then why did you? I should have said, only I would never say such a thing.

Never up, never in, as my golf-crazed father used to say. Meaning: only a ball that reaches the hole can go in.

What we did was talk, and there was a time when I became acutely aware of this fact, that we were two animals conversing. I was aware, too, that I did not want to kiss her, so that is what I did: not kiss her.

I haven’t said her name. For some reason I’ve avoided it. Calling her her feels best. She, her. And the reason, I see now, is that she is one of many over time. A kind of procession. Like in G’s play, Tensleep. Two characters played by six actors. When a character returns from off-stage, he or she replaced by a different actor, until all six actors have played both roles.

January 7, 2002

Whoosh

If I’ve made it as far as China Star when I hear an approaching J train, I run for it; if not, I let the train go.

I was about a hundred feet short of China Star this time, which meant letting it go, only I was late, having left late, so I hesitated.

What to do? Danna, my dinner date, might be late as well, which is partly why I left late: I thought Danna would likely keep me waiting a bit. Problem is, Danna is unpredictable – sometimes she’s late, sometimes not – so I had no way of knowing if I had any extra time. However, if I let the train go, I would be stuck waiting another fifteen minutes or so, which could put me dangerously close to the late late category.

My system is born of experience. If you run for the train from some point before China Star, everything has to break your way, and even then your chances of catching the train are slim. And in this case, I hadn’t even reached the dumpster. Never had I tried to run before reaching the dumpster.

On the other hand, why not try? Would it be so terrible to run for a train and miss that train and have the people who just got off the train look at you like you’re ever so slightly a loser? Why not run and hope that the train sits in the station longer a bit than usual?

This decided it. I took off, swinging my bag from my back and tucking it under my left arm, running-back style. I consciously chose my left arm for this, anticipating the need for my subway pass, which I keep in my front right pocket.

At Marcy and Broadway, I cut right, taking a wide line around the corner deli to avoid colliding with eastbound pedestrians. Then I dodged two homeless guys outside the chicken place and made a beeline for the stairs.

I should note that I was wearing my long winter coat, the extra material flapping wildly behind me.

The stairs to the J train are across from the hairdresser, about ten stores in from the corner. Also, the stairs head up, not down, since the J is elevated in Brooklyn.

The moment I saw the stairs I realized that I should have tucked my bag under my right arm, not my left, because I was going to need my left hand to grab the railing and swing myself onto the stairs. Realizing this, I switched the bag back to right arm, as running backs do when they want to protect the football from would-be tacklers. This cost me some portion of a second, for I am not practiced in the maneuver and needed to slow a bit.

About fifteen feet from the stairs, I slowly a bit more, then grasped the railing with my left hand and swung myself around, coat flying, bag held out from my body, and planted my right foot on the third stair.

Whoosh.

The Marcy stairs are divided into two sections which are separated by a brief landing. Each section has perhaps twenty rather slippery steps, the grooved metal worn to smoothness from decades of use.

I went full out, taking two steps at a time and saying the word ATTACK in my head, over and over. (It’s a cycling thing: you “attack” the mountain.)

At the top of stairs, still running, I slipped my pass from my pocket. The train, I saw, was parked in the station, doors open, and some of its former passengers had already reached the turnstiles.

My only chance was a perfect swipe. Sadly, I’m a poor swiper and often have to try several times before it works.

I had considered this on the stairs, preparing myself for what lay ahead. Since the train was already in the station (I could hear the doors open as I climbed), I knew I had to cut corners. Thus I resolved to swipe without pausing to confirm that it worked. If the swipe failed, I would smash into the locked turnstile, which would surely piss off the booth attendant and might even leave me injured. But this was a risk I had to take.

To complicate matters, getting the pass out of my pocket was not as simple as it sounds, for my pants were a little tight at the top of the pocket. If it were possible, I would have gotten the pass ready on the stairs (I usually do this at China Star!), but I needed my arms free to remain balanced as I climbed.

Also I had to turn the pass so that it was oriented correctly for the machine, there being four different ways to orient a pass, not counting numerous crazy ways.

Both tasks – getting the pass from my pocket and orienting it correctly – went perfectly, ten on a scale of ten, my years of subway riding serving as inadvertent training for this moment.

I swerved past an outgoing passenger, angled for the end turnstile, swiped the pass and pushed.

It gave.

Ah, but just then the train door closed halfway, then three-quarters way (this part was happening in slow motion), then seven-eighths way… and still I kept running, thinking that sometimes the door re-opens before it closes, it’s a quirk I’ve never understood, a little glitch in the system… And then it happened: the door opened again and quickly closed.

Between opening and closing, I was in.

A woman facing the door gave me a big smile (she had witnessed the dramatic last few seconds). I smiled back.

I wanted to run through the train, high-fiving the passengers and even waving my bag like a flag, the whole compartment stomping its feet and whooping it up.

Instead I sat down, placed my bag on my lap, and removed my scarf.

January 5, 2002

Code

At sixteen, in an act of desperation, I took an aptitude test. Not long after taking the test, I dropped out of high school – or rather, announced having done so, since I had stopped attending classes the previous year.

The test consisted of about two hundred yes/no questions. You answered the questions and tallied the results. This left you with a three-letter code that corresponded to a list of jobs typically performed by people with that code.

Strangely, the page with my code included just one job title, while most such pages listed a dozen or more. Stranger still was the job listed: furrier.

My grandfather Abbie

Furrier would have been strange in any case, but it made even more strange by the fact that my grandfather Abbie, who died when I was fifteen and who was the only adult I loved as a child, had been a furrier.

Many years later I researched the aptitude test and came to understand my strange result. My three-letter code is very rare, since the first two letters, which represent creative types and detail types, seldom apply to the same people.

Notably, the making of a fur coat requires both sensibilities. As does the making of a website. Which is what I do: I make websites.

January 4, 2002

Get It, Regret It

Half a lifetime ago I went on a long and ridiculous bike trip, and for years after I worked on a book about the trip, which I never finished to my satisfaction. However, today, while looking for something else, I found myself reading parts of the book and was struck by several stories about meeting kids in parks. Here are three:

I sit in Cinderella’s carriage – an enormous, pumpkin-orange playground toy – scribbling in my journal. The metal seat is cool against my hamstrings.

A horde of kids approach, and I hear them clamor atop the structure, screeching and singing, oblivious to me in the shadows.

Then, abruptly, silence.

“Hey, there’s a man down there,” whispers a girl. “I don’t think we should disturb him.”

“No, you definitely should disturb him,” I say, calling up through the hole in the roof. “He needs some disturbance.”

The kids poke their heads inside from above and read all the graffiti aloud, taking pleasure in spelling out the word fuck wherever it appears.

It appears often.

Walter Johnson city park. After watching a few run-filled innings of a girl’s softball game, I walk my bike to a nearby picnic table and begin preparing dinner. A young mother appears with her two small kids. The younger child, a boy, makes a dash for the swings.

“It’s dinner time!” shouts the woman. “You can play after!”

The boy ignores her, swinging.

“I’ve already told you once!”

The boy swings higher, throwing out his legs.

“If I have to come and get you, you’ll regret it!”

“Get it, regret it,” he sings. “Get it, regret it.”

The woman hands a bag of food to her daughter, strides up to the swings, plants herself before her son, and in one motion wraps her arms around the boy’s legs, tackling him in mid-air. The boy, holding the chains with all his strength, twists violently, his forward momentum impeded. For a moment they are frozen like this, as though posing for a photograph. Then the woman grasps the boy’s belt on either side, yanks him off the swing, plants him upright on the ground and smacks his butt, hard. Neither say a word, though both gasp frequently and loudly.

After a moment to re-adjust clothing and hair, the young mother leads the children to my table, apparently the only table in the park. I have the usual: macaroni and cheese with canned spinach. They have fast food hamburgers, french fries, and soda. The woman maintains a steady stream of chatter, remarking on the nutritional value of my meal and periodically offering me their surplus condiments: little packets of mustard, mayonnaise, and ketchup.

“Who cares!” cries the boy suddenly. “My daddy is fat!”

In the background of Shirley’s drawing, in the upper third, she sketches a tent, a campfire, a giant sun, a tree, and some clouds. I stand in the foreground, holding my helmet in one tiny hand, a water bottle in the other. My pear-shaped face is longer than my torso, and my smile is nearly the size of my helmet. The dark hair of my chest is prominent, and my glasses seem delicate and fragile. The clouds resemble waves, so that I seem to be standing underwater.

From Shirley Age 11, she writes in long-hand along the edge of the page.

Warren, her six-year-old brother, is more of a minimalist. He draws two intertwined stick figures with big dopey smiles.

“They’re humping,” he snickers. “Get it?”

January 3, 2002

Storage Facility

cockroach

In 1999, Jaron Lanier, a leading figure in the history of Virtual Reality (he coined the term), proposed a revolutionary vehicle for archival storage: cockroaches. Lanier’s plan was to translate the contents of The New York Times Magazine into a form that could be stored in the DNA of cockroaches – eight cubic feet of cockroaches; about enough to fill the average refrigerator – which would then be released at specified locations throughout Manhattan. After about fourteen years of mating, every cockroach in Manhattan would carry the archival information.

Lanier, who was not kidding around, submitted this proposal to an international competition sponsored by the New York Times Magazine to build a time capsule that would preserve information for a thousand years. In his insanely brilliant proposal, Lanier noted that the cockroaches would be able to survive nearly all conceivable calamities, including terrorist attacks, rising oceans, and ecological catastrophe.

The archival cockroach exceeds the materials specifications: it is water tight, impervious to changes in weather, easy to locate, impossible to destroy.

Because the archival cockroach will exist in so many copies, it will be easy to read the data without altering or destroying the archive. This is the most attractive aspect of the archival cockroach. No future historical revisionist will be able to locate and destroy each copy.

I know what you’re thinking: What if other cities adopt similar archival strategies so that cockroaches imbedded with an archive of, say, the Washington Post start reproducing with the cockroaches carrying the New York Times? Wouldn’t the resulting cockroaches end up storing an unreadable mishmash of more or less interchangeable news pieces and sadistically difficult crossword puzzles?

Good point, you, but Lanier has it covered.

As significant sequence similarity is required for recombination to occur, genetic crossover between Washington Post and New York Times articles is extremely unlikely. Indeed, if crossover were to occur, an earlier instance of plagiarism or reprinting would be implicated. At any rate, as long as each article is stored with its proper reference data, it will be possible for future historians to reconstruct both archives from a sample of roaches.

Makes sense to me. Or no less sense than the idea of preserving a complete archive of the New York Times Magazine for a thousand years.

Alas, the corporate corpus reaches everywhere else, so why not inside cockroaches? If nothing else, it would provide a postmodern twist to Kafka’s “Metamorphosis.” Instead of becoming cockroaches, which in Kafka’s world results in shame, failure, and death, we simply transform the buggers into handy places to store old magazines.

No doubt it will happen. However, for the present, Manhattan’s cockroach population is free to party all night without fear of having its DNA used as a latter-day storage facility: Lanier’s proposal lost out to a metal sphere folded to look like a giant fortune cookie.

January 2, 2002

How I Write

I sit at my desk and try to think of something to say. When I think of something that seems half-right or half-interesting, I type it into the computer and read it over and think about it. Sometimes I go back to the previous sentence, or the beginning of the current paragraph or previous page, and think about what I wrote there. I do this again and again, and along the way I keep changing things.

The current piece is an apt example. I’ve been working on it for nearly an hour now, writing a clause or two, thinking about it, writing another, going back and changing what I wrote, moving things around, deleting, deleting, deleting. How different it would be if we were talking. For it appears, reading back, that I have a certain point in mind, when really I’ve discovered things as I’ve went, not knowing what, if anything, I would find.

December 17, 2001

Excuses

I never intended to read her journal. This is key: I didn’t enter her room with the intention of doing what I did. I’m not saying this excuses what I did, but I believe it places the violation in a slightly less serious category.

So goes excuse #1.

Excuse #2: She left the journal in plain view. Again I’m not defending my actions; it’s just that if she hadn’t left the journal on her night table, I wouldn’t have read it. In other words, I did not seek out the journal but rather fell prey to its temptations.

This is not a case of blaming the victim. Rather my point (and I realize I’ve said this in several ways already) is that I don’t normally read other people’s journals and so it took an extraordinary circumstance for me to do so.

Excuse #3: I was young and didn’t know better.

Some exposition: This happened twenty years ago while I was visiting a friend in California. My friend had a roommate, Molly, who I soon developed a crush on – a crush, it seemed, that was reciprocated. So one day, after a protracted and nearly unbearable build-up, I kissed Molly. We kissed for perhaps a minute, and that was pretty much that. Subsequently Molly’s interest in me seemed to wane, although it was hard to tell for certain because she was a difficult read.

A few days later, while Molly was at work, I went into her room to retrieve a book I’d left there, and it was then that I noticed her journal on the night table.

Excuse #4: I only read the parts about me.

As should be oblivious to the reader by now, my excuses are actually diminishments. I intend to whittle down my crime to its smallest possible size. It’s like that game in which you split a piece of food in half, then split one of the halfs in half, again and again, until the thing that remains is so small it cannot be split in half anymore.

At any rate I began reading her journal from the entry she wrote on the day we met, and I continued through to the present, skipping her reflections on other people and other events. In doing so I confirmed two key facts:

  1. She was immediately attracted to me.
  2. She didn’t feel much while kissing me, which surprised her but which she nonetheless considered an unassailable truth.

This was precisely what I had suspected, and it was a relief to have it confirmed. Satisfied, I carefully replaced the journal on Molly’s night table and left the room.

However, the next day I returned to see if she had written anything new about me. Without question, this return trip was a more serious violation of her privacy, given that I now knew how she felt (excuse #5: I didn’t know how she felt).

Excuse #6, apropos of nothing: People do worse things.

Excuse #7: At least I’m being honest about it.

For better or worse, my return trip bore fruit, for Molly wrote that she was experiencing a surge in her feelings for me and was wondering if a second round of kissing might be in order. This was both thrilling and confusing as Molly hadn’t done anything to indicate such a shift. Guilt struck (excuse #8: I feel guilt about what I did) as I now knew something I wasn’t supposed to know. This was in contrast to discovering that Molly’s feelings for me had waned – which was something I already suspected that. The new information was different because Molly had clearly intended to keep her feelings secret from me, at least for the present.

Perhaps due to the awkward circumstance of knowing Molly’s secret, I did not kiss her that night (excuse #9: I suffered for my crime).

The next morning I returned to her journal for the third and last time. Here is what I found written there:

Michael, I know you’re reading my journal because I’m reading yours. I don’t want to do this anymore. Truce.

December 16, 2001

The Contents of My Bag

my bag
photo: Pamela Cobb

Four general points before we begin:

  1. I bring my bag everywhere, without exception. Too many times I’ve left it behind and then regretted the decision. An ancillary advantage to this policy is that I never need wonder if I should bring my bag on any particular occasion; the answer is always yes.
  2. In contrast with my girlfriend, who only carries what she thinks she will need on a given excursion, I always carry the same items, all of which pass a certain informal test for combined usefulness and compactness.
  3. I am a practical person concerned with practical matters. Everything in my bag is there for a practical reason.
  4. My bag is insanely sexy.

Inner Front Mesh Pocket

Bee sting kit

My father, a pharmacist, once warned me that I would die if I was ever stung by a bee and didn’t receive medical attention in twenty-four hours. Crazy as this sounds, it’s probably true, since the one time I was stung, my arm expanded to twice its size, my eyes watered like mad, and I struggled to breath. Scary stuff.

Swiss Army knife

What am I going to do the next time I fly? In the past I’ve always carried my Swiss Army knife onto the plane as a result of carrying my bag onto the plane. Post 9/11, this is no longer possible.

Rachel’s keys

We’ve been together nearly eight months, and the apartment key exchange happened at about the four-month mark. However I still prefer ringing her buzzer and having her come downstairs to let me in, since this is less intrusive.

Work key

Although I only work there one day a week, I was given an office key. I haven’t actually used it yet, except for the time I was the last one to leave and realized in the hall that I had forgotten my sweater.

Pen Slot

Two pens

It’s maddening how these Uniball 2mm pens, which I otherwise love, run out of ink in the exact amount of time established by the fuckers at Sanford as the shortest amount of time a pen will last and still not seem like a total rip-off.

Yellow highlighter

Highlighters should be yellow. Other colors are wrong.

Inner Front Compartment

Small collapsible umbrella

Given to me by my mother, who I have hurt again and again for not liking or not using (and in fact often discarding) her gifts.

Water bottle

The heaviest item in the bag, but well worth it. It not only saves me from buying bottled water but ensures I have something to drink on the subway.

Two canvas shopping bags

Given to me by my ex-girlfriend, who bought them in Germany for something like fifty cents each. Never fails to impress the cashiers at Prana Foods.

Main Compartment

Current issue of TimeOut

The only publication I subscribe to. Finding a weekly magazine with comprehensive, well-organized movie listings transformed my experience of living in New York.

8.5″ by 11″ notepad in plastic notepad holder

I purchased the notepad holder, if that’s what it’s called, at Staples. I hate the cover, which is over-designed, but I love how light and sturdy it is.

Front Flap Pocket

Two zip disks

One PC, one Mac. Be prepared.

One floppy disk

Formatted for PC, since this works on both platforms.

Wallet

No money here; I keep that in the front left pocket of my pants (right front pocket is for credit card, driver’s license, and subway pass). Wallet instead holds business cards along with various membership cards and IDs. Also, in a little zippered compartment intended for coins, a fingernail clipper.

Work ID

Worn on a chain around my neck. Nuff said.

Checkbook

I keep checks to deposit under the top flap, folded. Whenever I withdraw money, I look there to see if there are any checks to deposit. This eliminates having to think about going to the bank to deposit checks. Most of my systems exist to save me from having to think about something. I am a lunatic.

Keys

Color-coded:

Yellow = outside downstairs (think: caution, you may be mugged)
Blue = inside downstairs (think: freedom, you were not mugged)
Green = apartment (think: growth, prosperity)
Red = bathroom (think: emergency)

Back Pocket

NYC subway map

I love this map, not only because it shows the entire New York subway system but because it’s laminated. Everything precious should be laminated.

Assorted maps and schedules

Manhattan and Brooklyn bus schedules. New York street map. Philadelphia commuter train timetable (my mom lives in Philadelphia).

5″ by 7″ three-ring binder

Address book info (name, address, phone number) printed from a Word Doc; print-out of email addresses; list of all the places I’ve ever lived; in back flop, soft cloth for cleaning glasses.

The Loser, by Thomas Bernhard

The only book I read. I am a lunatic.

Secret Hidden Inner Front Pocket

Rolling papers

A godsend when needed.

Condoms

An assortment of male and female types. The female type, in case you haven’t tried or don’t know, fit into a woman the way a trash can liner fits into a trash can (no offense meant, truly), particularly in how the open end, which has a flexible ring embedded in it, encircles the outside of the rim.

December 14, 2001

My Heart Laid Bare

Four months ago I removed all of my business-related information from Oblivio and put it on a separate website. Doing this freed me, in my own mind at least, to write whatever I wanted, or rather, more of what wanted. Previously I felt constrained by what I imagined that people (read: clients) would think. Oblivio has changed since then as I’ve tested the limits of this new freedom. Its limits are considerable. There are many things I still don’t say and can’t imagine ever saying.

Baudelaire once said that if a man could write a book that exposed the truth of his experience, the book would be a masterpiece. I tend to agree with Baudelaire, but I balk at the price one would pay for such a work, masterpiece or not. One would lose a lot more than clients. Or I would, at least. Or at least I think would.

Mark Pilgrim might disagree. Two months ago Mark was fired from his job for publishing a weblog in which he posted a personal piece about addiction. His boss was concerned that one of the company’s clients might discover Mark’s writing and think the wrong thing, whatever that may be, so Mark was told to shut down the site. He refused and was fired. Mark and I exchanged some emails yesterday, and he wrote something that struck me, which is that he’s thought long and hard about what he might have done to short-circuit the chain of events that led to his firing, and that all he has been able to think of is this: be someone else.

December 13, 2001

How to Get Nothing Done

Brooding helps.

As does obsessing over things beyond your control or ability to influence.

Try re-reading the newspaper, looking for articles you skipped the first time around.

Nap.

Write emails you don’t need to write and edit them to eloquence.

Search online for your various ex’s until you discover that one, a biggie, has returned to her hometown where she works in the Budget & Finance department of the local university, serving as a “team member” on the Dean’s Office Feedback project.

If possible, locate her email address but do not find any recent photographs, however comprehensive your search.

Consider writing to her, and in fact begin several such emails, but then dig up your last letter to her, written four years previous and never sent, in which you relate the pathetic story of how your roommate at the time reported that she, your ex, had called saying that she was in town for just one day and was sad to have missed you, and how this moved you to tell her how much it meant to you to hear from her after five years of silence and how it made you realize what a jerk you had been to harbor bad feelings for so long, and how you had gone to bed that night filled with such happiness and relief, only to discover the following morning that the message had been left by another woman with the same name.

Space out.

Make lists.

Remember the first time you and aforementioned ex had sex and how her then recent ex-boyfriend, who was also your boss, appeared at her door in the middle of everything, and how she went into the hall to talk to him while you stood naked on her bed, not knowing what else to do, and how you listened as they argued about the fact that he wanted to come into her room, only she wouldn’t let him – not for any reason, she said, but because he had no right – and how he kept saying that he knew someone was in there, because he wasn’t, as he kept saying, an idiot, and how you wondered if you should put on some clothes in case he decided to storm into the room, because you had a better chance in a fight with him with clothes on.

Contemplate new shelving strategies.

Put on the kind of music that befits the melancholic mood brought on by thinking about a woman who never loved you and who you never loved, as you would each periodically remind each other, and then discover, on further research, that she had placed 29th out of 37 entrants in the 34-39 age division of the 2001 Run for Independence 5K.

Calculate that as 10:36 a mile.

Repeat as necessary.

December 9, 2001

Taxonomy

What is a good life? This question has obsessed philosophers since the Greeks, and what we are left with after 2,400 years are three competing theoretical approaches identified by Derek Parfit in Reasons and Persons as Hedonism, Desire-Fulfillment, and Objective List. What follows is a brief explanation of each, stripped of nuance and accompanied by photos of Anna Kournikova, who has more personal websites devoted to her than anyone in the world and who never fails to remind me that men are attracted to women with baby-like features because men, broadly speaking, want women to be docile and helpless.

Hedonism

Anna Kournikova

Hedonism champions happiness. The more happiness you experience, the better your life. There are actually two schools of thought here, each with its own definition of happiness. Narrow Hedonism considers happiness a homogeneous state of pleasure, while Preference Hedonism expands the definition to include any state of mind favored by the individual, including pain. However the two schools are united in their focus on mental states, which, as you will see, is a bad idea.

Or maybe you won’t. Here’s a test. Imagine a life in which you are married to some fabulous person who you love and who brings you nothing but happiness, only said person is actually fucking your best friend. Would you prefer to know the painful truth or live your life in blissful ignorance? If you answered painful truth, you value something else other than mental states and thus do not subscribe to Hedonism.

Desire-Fulfillment

Anna Kournikova

Desire-Fulfillment theories define a good life in terms of… the fulfillment of desire. This is different than Hedonism in that one may desire a thing which, when fulfilled, does not produce a particular state of mind. To borrow an example from Aristotle, imagine that you have a child who you love and want very much to grow to be a happy and successful adult. Unfortunately you die while your child is still a child, which is sad, but then many years later your wish comes true. According to Aristotle, this turn of events makes your life a better one, despite the fact that you are dead. That’s right: you need not be alive for the fulfillment of a desire to effect whether your life is a good one.

Certain Desire-Fulfillment theorists say that only “ideal” desires count toward a good life. What are “ideal” desires? They are the set of desires you would have if you knew everything there is know and had flawless reasoning capacity and weren’t the neurotic bastard you are. This refinement is necessary to account for the fact that people want all kinds of superficial crap. That’s one of the core problems with this approach. Moreover certain people are, or can be, immoral, even after going through the “ideal” ringer above, which doesn’t sit well with certain philosophers. This objection can be leveled against Hedonism as well, and it leads to the final group of theories, Objective List.

Objective List

Anna Kournikova

Philosophers flying this banner (Plato was the first) propose an inventory of things that are, to quote Parfit, “good or bad for people, whether or not these people would want to have the good things, or to avoid the bad things.” I have dubbed these the Chinese Menu theories in honor of their familiar “one from column A, one from column B” format. Notably no one has ever actually proposed such a list; what has been proposed rather are various approaches to the question of what general form such a list should take. Of course this is no less ridiculous than an out-and-out list, for it merely attempts to hide the ridiculousness by making it too fuzzy to decipher.

The problem is specificity. The more specific the list, the more preposterous, for one can always devise an account of a good life that doesn’t include any of the items on the proposed list. Vagueness is no refuge, however, for the less specific an account is, the less meaningful. In the end one is left in the unhappy middle, claiming that a good life consists of one or other combination of vaguely stated things.

The philosophers who subscribe to this view are called Realists. Realists believe that value is inherent in the world (as opposed to being created by us), which leads to some really exhausting mental acrobatics once you ask yourself what a world with inherent values would need to look like.

At any rate, and I personally find this inexplicable, Anna Kournikova has yet to win a professional tennis tournament in singles, despite having been ranked as high as eighth in the world. Injuries have contributed to her difficulties, but still.

December 1, 2001

Party!

I’m having a birthday party this Saturday, the first birthday party I’ve had in twenty-two years. I dread the thing and am basically forcing myself to do it.

When I was kid I loved this day more than any other. My mother had her faults but she knew how to throw a party. We’d go to New England Pizza, my friends and I, and eat ourselves sick. That’s what fun is. In later years we had a contest to see who could eat the most pieces. One year Howard Skolnick caught Scott Rosengarden spitting out half of his last piece into the toilet, which gave the title to Richard Marcus. Big drama! Another year Anthony Pitcharelli (who later became a champion high school discus thrower, then had a nervous breakdown from which he has never recovered) ate fourteen pieces. They were smallish pieces but still.

It’s going to be a kid-style birthday party, without the kids. We’ll wear hats and play kids games like pin the tail on the donkey and musical chairs. The motif is smiley faces. Here’s the front of the invite:

smiley face

I tried Rachel’s patience by changing my mind a half dozen times. All the while she was steadfast in her refusal to push for the party. She does that and it’s over. But Rachel’s no dummy: she let me stew in my ambivalence. In the end I decided to do it, telling myself that it could turn out to be one of those things that makes me realize what a moron I am for not doing certain things because I supposedly know what they’re going to be like.

Still to buy: smiley-face napkins, smiley-face hats, smiley-face plates, smiley-face cups, and a yard-wide smiley-face for decoration.

The menu is pizza.

November 28, 2001

Hide-And-Seek

I played hide-and-seek over Thanksgiving with Rachel’s three youngest nieces, ages five, five, and three. I totally kicked butt.

First round I hid in the utility closet. Little kids don’t like looking in dark places so this kept them busy a good ten minutes, an eternity in this game. Finally Samantha opened the door, no doubt praying I wasn’t in there. Suffice it to say, that’s the last time she looks for me in that closet.

Second round I sat in the living room while they headed the way they always head, clockwise from the pantry. Then I snuck back to the pantry (the pantry’s where the “seekers” count while the “hider” hides). Sydney, when she finds me, is like “How did you do that?” so I’m like, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Without us actually saying anything.

Third round I dominate. First I’m in the middle bedroom on the top bunk of the bunk beds, behind a bunch of towels. The girls come in three, four times, but never think to look behind the towels. I wait until they’re out of earshot, then move to the laundry room and from there to the dining room where I sit next to Charles, the father of two of the girls, and read the Wall Street Journal. Hannah, his three-year-old, runs up saying, “Daddy, Daddy, help us find Michael,” so I say, “Where have you looked, sweetheart?” and she starts telling me where she’s looked but then realizes… hey, what the…? and can’t say anything. She tries but nothing comes out.

November 26, 2001

Jesus

Bad scene in the Fulton Street station. A “police action” knocks the 4/5 train out of service at rush hour, stranding thousands. I end up in a corridor packed with commuters, many of whom are trying to make their way back to the 2/3 train, having waited in vain for the 4/5. My group, a smaller group, dreams of reaching the Brooklyn-bound J train via a stairwell on the 4/5 platform. We have time to dream too, for we’re moving at about five feet a minute, about a third of the speed, as I figure it, of a crawling baby.

Remarkably the vibe is mellow. Some scattered Jesus-Fucking-Christ’s can be heard, but overall the crowd is composed and orderly and even a bit philosophical, for a crowd. Impressive. But then this guy comes up the stairs and starts pushing through the crowd because he needs to BE SOMEWHERE, in contrast to the rest of us, who are merely loitering in the corridor, and for no other reason than that we enjoy standing groin to butt with our fellow New Yorkers.

He’s tall, perhaps six-five, and broad. Also, violent, evidently. I recognize him immediately. He’s the guy who drives like he’s playing a video game, weaving between lanes at ninety miles an hour.

“Friend,” I say, “we’re all going the same place.”

“Yeah, well, fuck you,” he says.

“Yeah, well, fuck you,” I say.

Actually I say no such thing. I say nothing. I don’t want him to smash me in the mouth.

Jesus had it easy, for He could heal people.

November 21, 2001

Volition

My step-grandfather Andy was an astoundingly stupid man, likely the stupidest person I have ever known. It is not surprising, then, that Andy died in the manner he did. However Andy’s death was not merely the result of stupidity but rather stupidity combined with stubbornness, senility, and remarkably bad luck, although the latter is open to debate.

Here is what happened: Andy pulled into a service station to get gas but in doing so failed to park close enough to the pump for the pump to reach the gas tank. Not realizing this, he got out of the car, tried to use the pump, discovered that it didn’t reach, then got back into the car, presumably to move it closer to the pump.

Unfortunately Andy neglected to shut the driver-side door before starting the car again. This was his fatal mistake. Well, it was either this or his decision to drive with his left leg partly outside the vehicle. It depends how you look at it. In any case it is undoubtedly true that the location of Andy’s left leg forced him into an awkward spread-eagle position, which made it difficult to control the vehicle as he pulled forward – or rather as he careened forward, for that is what Andy did: he careened.

One can always claim that luck either is or is not on one’s side. Andy’s death is a case in point. For while it is true that he avoided hitting any oncoming motorists, it is also true that he struck a succession of parked cars. A glass-half-full person would say that Andy was lucky to kill no one but himself; however a glass-half-empty person would consider Andy’s death proof of grave misfortune. For the purposes of this account, I will stick to the facts and leave such determinations to you, my reader.

After smashing a final parked car, Andy jumped over a curb (or rather his vehicle did, for there is some question as to volition), then sped across a series of lawns, leaving toppled fences and broken ornaments in his wake.

Oddly I cannot recall what Andy finally crashed into. I suspect it was a wall of some kind. At any rate Andy was no longer inside the vehicle when this crash occurred, and thus it may not be correct to say that it was he who did the crashing.

Also I have always assumed that Andy fell out of the car by accident. Certainly this is how the story was told to me. However, it occurs to me now, as I consider the final moments of Andy’s life, that his so-called fall may in fact have been a jump. Unable to swing his left leg into the car, Andy may have decided to abandon ship, as it were, and follow the leg out.

Whatever the truth, and perhaps it is better that we cannot know, Andy died in a seemingly impossible manner: he ran himself over.

November 20, 2001

FAQ

I cut my fingernails as short as possible and have done so since childhood. I don’t know why I started doing this, other than that I liked how it felt, particularly a day or so after cutting. At a certain point I realized that I could cut the hardened skin under the nail, which made it possible to cut the nail further. Then I discovered that the hot water of a shower made the skin under the nail soft and puffy, which allowed me to cut further still.

I’ve cut my fingernails this way for so long that they’ve become freakishly short, perhaps a quarter the length of normal fingernails. They’re also oddly shaped, growing at the ends but not in the middle, which means that if I ever stopped cutting them, the corners would grow into the skin.

As a kid I had an overwhelming fear, a phobia, that one of my nails would be bent back. I don’t know where this came from. No doubt it concerned control, or the lack thereof, but beyond this I’m stumped. From my earliest memory I’ve cut my nails as short as possible, and for reasons that have always felt self-evident.

I’m often asked if it hurts. It doesn’t, because I’m careful. Once in a while (this is rare now), I go too far in one of the corners – invariably with a middle or ring finger – and draw a speck of blood.

Twice such cuts have become infected. The first time this happened I went to a doctor. After examining me, the doctor said that she needed to lance the infection, and offered two options: a local anesthetic via a needle, or no anesthetic at all. Both would hurt quite a bit, she added.

Bluntness, I feel, is a winning quality in a physician. I told her to skip the needle. She immediately pulled out a scalpel and made a steady incision halfway around the fingertip.

Earlier, as she examined me, she turned to the nurse and said, “Chronic such-and-such.” That hit home. I was doing something chronic to myself.

Having watched the doctor, I lanced the second infection myself, using a sterilized razor blade. It took some time to gather the courage to cut that deep. I would cut a little and stop, cut a little and stop.

The other thing I’m often asked is how I feel about it. I feel sad. Sometimes I look at my fingernails in disbelief. Why did I do this to myself? It’s not the worst thing I could have done – my fingers are perfectly functional, not counting the difficulty I have when opening pull-top beer cans or picking up coins from the floor – but it’s a stupid waste and an ongoing humiliation. An ugly part of me is forever exposed, right there at the tips of my fingers.

November 13, 2001

This Happiness Business

Dean and Gail are in love. Their love is of the pass-the-puke-bucket variety – my favorite kind.

Thing is, I’ve never met these people.

Dean writes textism. I like textism. Last August Dean announced in textism that he was moving to the south of France to, as he put it, “spend languid days and nights with a beautiful, ludicrously smart woman” with whom he was “deeply, irrevocably in love.” The words “ludicrously smart woman” linked to Gail’s website, openbrackets. This is how I came to know Gail, or rather her writing. (I wouldn’t pretend to know Gail, nor Dean for that matter, nor anyone, really, merely through what he or she wrote. It is not enough. Bowling. I have always said this. Bowling is the best way to know a person. Also, sex and poker. Bowling, sex, and poker: the holy trinity of knowing.)

There were sixteen days between Dean’s announcement and his actual move. He used this time to finish his final projects, sell or abandon the bulk of his possessions, and be feted by friends – events he related with bitchy and characteristic wit.

Gail, meanwhile, swooned. The day after Dean’s announcement, she posted her own brave declaration. I became a fan on the spot and read the entirety of openbrackets. Along the way I discovered an entry from July 14, “Love and the turning year,” unquestionably addressed to Dean:

Thunder

Thunder. My heart trembles.
I lift my head from my pillow and listen.
It is not a chariot.

Fu Hsuan (217-278)

I can no longer untangle my hair

I can no longer untangle my hair.
I feed on my own flesh in secret.
Do you want to measure how much I long for you?
Look at my belt, how loose it hangs.

Anonymous (Six Dynasties)

Translations by Kenneth Rexroth

On August 28, Dean posted his final To Do list. It consisted of twenty-five items, beginning with “Call bookseller” and ending with “Print last set of proofs,” and included, in the middle, the mysterious “Sell kitchen to Bev.” Gail’s list from that day was different, as befit her different circumstance:

1) Eat
2) Sleep
3) Breathe
4) Run grinning like a simpleton through a crowded airport and jump into his arms.

Oh, come on, 1 out of 4 isn’t bad…

My heart went out to Gail who had nothing to do but wait while Dean mocked Kate Winslet’s breasts and sold his kitchen to Bev. On August 24 she reported on the effects of this waiting:

Let’s see…

Found the remote control in the fridge this morning.

Promised a client that I’d do something right away. Remembered to do it three hours later.

Walked into town to post some letters. Forgot to bring the letters. Went back home, got the letters and, back in town, noticed I hadn’t put stamps on. Laughed out loud, raising concerns among villagers’ about my current mental state. Begged 9 F credit from post office.

Read the same sentence 15 times before deciding to skip to the next one.

Contemplated new chair.

Charred the brioche.

Sighed a lot.

It’s 3 am.

George Bernard Shaw observed that newspapers cannot distinguish between a bicycle accident and the collapse of civilization. I feel like a newspaper sometimes, particularly when it comes to love. Dean and Gail posted nothing for two days. Silence. I told myself they were probably too busy fucking, etc., to attend to their readers. Which is understandable. Life is to be lived. But then I fretted that all was not well, that the build-up had been too much.

Truth is, I had fretted all along, for each had given indication, here and there, of ambivalence, of difficulties. Not with each other, but with love. Dean in particular concerned me. In his original announcement, immediately after saying that he was “deeply, irrevocably in love,” he wrote: “Still a little unclear on this happiness business.”

I take back what I said about not knowing someone through their writing. I feel I know Dean. He’s pissy and opinionated, a man who abhors half-measures. Isn’t love, the lived version, a half-measure? Sometimes I think it is. And I would venture that Dean does too, or did, previous to Gail, which would explain his uncertainty about “this happiness business.”

In their first posts post-move, each described driving through the countryside on their way from Paris to her home – now their home – in the south of France. The two descriptions formed a two-panel portrait of the experience:

Him: “Bombing at midnight across the countryside in her decrepit Ford, grinning like fools, the air hot and rich, the streets narrow.”

Her: “Up out of the city, Mediterranean midnight wrapping itself around us as we speed deep into the country. Only wide curves of dark tree-lined roads lit by high beams, fragrant air passing over us. Heat lightning flashes red revealing sudden contours of the landscape. And we’re speechless.”

Each is present in the other’s description. And the two perspectives form… I don’t know what they form, but it’s really lovely, no? the two of them in her car, and so happy, thinking, This is it, holy shit, my god, finally.

I believe that the parting is always contained in the greeting. I believe that one knows from the beginning why a relationship will fail, that the problem is plain and yet one pretends not to see it; or perhaps one admits to seeing it but downplays its significance. The flush of love, or attraction, or hope, is a powerful hallucinogen, one that makes us see things that are not there, and fail to see things that are. A relationship does not begin in earnest until the effects of this drug have worn off.

I don’t think the effects have worn off for Dean and Gail. Or perhaps my theory does not apply in their case. Time will tell. Meanwhile there are the periodic declarations. This one and this and this and this. I collect them. I don’t know these people, but I care. No doubt for personal reasons. If it can work for them, it can work for others. For me, for example. For me and Rachel.

November 8, 2001

Ladder

Ludwig Wittgenstein

I was being charged for collect calls I had not made, so I called the phone company to complain. After some difficulty, I was finally transfered to someone in customer service. I explained the problem in careful detail, hoping to demonstrate through the reasonableness of my tone and the clarity of my language that I was a decent person with a legitimate grievance. When I finished, the agent surprised me by saying that he would connect me to customer service (I don’t know where he worked, but clearly he didn’t work in customer service), only as I was waiting to be connected, I received a call on the other line from an operator who said that she had a collect call for me from Michael Barrish.

I said: “I can’t be getting a collect call from Michael Barrish, because I am Michael Barrish. In fact I was just on the other line with someone else from your company, making a complaint about a collect call I never made.”

“Does this mean you won’t accept the charges?”

“Well, yes, obviously.”

“Okay, I’ll tell him that,” she said, and was gone.

Switching back to the other line, the one in which I was waiting for customer service, I was greeted by the same operator, the one I had just spoken to, the one I had told that I would not accept the collect charges. She reported that my collect call could not go through because Michael Barrish would not accept the charges.

I said: “Look, I’m Michael Barrish. I’m the same person you just talked to. And I’m not trying to place a collect call; I have a complaint.”

Here she said the only thing that followed the logic of all that came before and yet trumped that logic, rendering it null and void, much like the ladder Wittgenstein speaks of at the end of Tractatus, the ladder that must climbed in order to be discarded.

“Okay,” she said, “I’ll connect you to customer service.”

November 7, 2001

List

I’ve lived in exactly forty-two forty-four houses and apartments. I’m not entirely sure how this happened. One thing led to another until I found myself here, in Brooklyn, with forty-one forty-three places behind me.

I could say what prompted me to leave one place for another, forty-one forty-three times, but that wouldn’t really explain anything. What’s there to learn from a series of turns?

In the back flap of my address book, I keep a list of all forty-two forty-four places. The list includes the dates I lived at each, rounded off to the month. Between certain entries I’ve noted places I’ve stayed or trips I’ve taken after leaving one place and before moving to another. These have dates as well. The dates are important. I refer to the list whenever I want to know when something happened.

I feel that I’ve always been the same person, even when I lived on Tremont Street, even before my sister was born, and yet I’m suspicious of this feeling. One forgets. One creates a past that makes sense in a present that continually changes.

Maybe it’s different for different people. My sister, for one, seems to remember nearly everything, and with matter-of-fact clarity. For her the past is neatly printed and arranged into chapters, with a first-rate index and four-color photography. For me it’s an enormous room strewn knee-deep with undated papers that have long since yellowed or smeared to the point of illegibility.

Naturally I’ve forgotten when I first complied the list. Whenever it was, I remember having to call my sister to fill in several dates from my childhood.

In the last ten sixteen years I’ve added eleven thirteen more places. Each time I’ve been struck by how the last place on the list always ends with the word present, how this word keeps sinking, anchor-like, to the bottom. Of course in the final list, the one I won’t be around to update, present will be replaced with a date.

Date Place
12/60 – 7/65 Tremont Street, Phila., PA
7/65 – 12/75 Maxwell Place, Phila., PA
1/76 – 3/76 [Dad], Valley Forge, PA
3/76 – 4/78 Maxwell Place, Phila., PA
4/78 – 7/78 [Aunt Dee & Uncle Sam], Phila., PA
7/78 – 4/79 Souder Street, Phila., PA
5/79 – 8/79 West 59th Street, New York, NY
9/79 – 4/80 [Mom & Andrea], Phila., PA
4/80 – 10/80 Kingston Street, Atlantic City, NJ
11/80 34th Street YMCA, New York, NY
11/80 – 5/81 Park Slope YMCA, Brooklyn, NY
5/81 – 10/81 East 11th Street, New York, NY
11/81 West 72nd Street, New York, NY
12/81 – 3/82 East 84th Street, New York, NY
3/82 – 5/82 E. Quad back kitchen, Ann Arbor, MI
5/82 – 7/82 East 23rd Street, New York, NY
7/82 Piedmont Avenue, Berkeley, CA
8/82 [Ken etc.], Brooklyn, NY
9/82 – 2/83 Vicente Street, Oakland, CA
2/83 – 5/83 Channing Way, Berkeley, CA
5/83 – 8/83 East 11th Street, New York, NY
9/83 – 5/84 Lawrence Street, Ann Arbor, MI
6/84 – 8/84 Packard Road, Ann Arbor, MI
9/84 – 5/85 Division Street, Ann Arbor, MI
5/85 – 9/85 Hillegass Street, Berkeley, CA
10/85 – 11/85 [Eve], Hollywood, CA
12/85 [Various friends] Ann Arbor, MI
1/86 – 5/86 Michigan Street, Ann Arbor, MI
6/86 – 7/86 Travels w/ Gary
8/86 Arch Street, Ann Arbor, MI
9/86 – 11/86 Beacon Place, Somerville, MA
11/86 Trip to Ann Arbor
12/86 – 6/87 Beacon Street, Somerville, MA
6/87 – 8/87 Route 110, Tunbridge, VT
9/87 – 11/87 Beacon Street, Somerville, MA
12/87 – 3/88 Noe Street, San Francisco, CA
3/88 Travels to L.A., Santa Fe, Chicago
4/88 – 11/88 Rossmore Avenue, Jamaica Plain, MA
12/88 Travels w/ Lisel
12/88 Oak Street, San Francisco, CA
1/89 – 3/89 Glen Avenue, Oakland, CA
3/89 Various friends in Boston area
4/89 – 5/89 McBride Street, Jamaica Plain, MA
5/89 – 6/90 Cottage Street, Cambridge, MA
6/90 – 4/91 Jay Street, Cambridge, MA
4/91 – 7/91 Bike trip
8/91 Travels w/ Monique
9/91 [Laura’s parents], Salisbury, CT
10/91 – 11/91 Travels w/ Monique & Laura
12/91 With friends in Boston area
1/92 – 10/92 Rugg Road, Allston, MA
10/92 – 11/92 Prospect Street, Cambridge, MA
11/92 – 5/93 Jay Street, Cambridge, MA
6/93 Scott Street, San Francisco, CA
7/93 – 10/93 41st Street, Oakland, CA
10/93 – 10/94 Northside Ave., Berkeley, CA
10/94 – 1/95 39th Avenue, San Francisco, CA
1/95 – 7/95 Armstrong Street, Jamaica Plain, MA
8/95 – 8/96 Fainwood Circle, Cambridge, MA
8/96 – 3/00 Harvard Street, Cambridge, MA
4/00 – 8/00 Saint Marks Place, New York, NY
8/00 – 9/02 South 5th Street, Brooklyn, NY
9/02 – 8/05 St. John’s Place, Brooklyn, NY
9/05 – present Berkeley Place, Brooklyn, NY
November 3, 2001

Jolly Ranchers

Does the public really need to know the final meal requests of the last 253 death row inmates to be executed by the state of Texas? I’m all for freedom of information, but why is Texas putting this stuff online?

Certainly it’s mesmerizing – a bizarre combination of banal and lurid. When you click on an inmate’s name, you see a page scanned from his death row file, presented as a single, enormous image. These pages (many of which are poorly three-hole punched, the little holes often breaking the edge of page) contain identifying information, a pair of mug shots, and a summary of the inmate’s crimes. The summaries are horrifying, the horror enhanced by the dry-as-dirt language. For example:

Convicted in connection with the deaths of sisters Grace Purnhagen, 16, and Tiffany Purnhagen, 9, in south Montgomery County. The bodies of the two girls were found along a pipeline in the Imperial Oaks subdivision on Rayford Road. Grace’s throat had been slashed and she had been sexually assaulted with an object later found to have been a beer bottle. Tiffany had been strangled with a rope found around her neck. Grace’s former boyfriend, Delton Dowthitt, then age 16, confessed to killing both girls following his arrest in Lousiana four days later. He later recanted, saying he killed Tiffany at the order of his father, who he said had actually killed and sexually assaulted Grace. Delton led police to where his father had disposed of the knife. Police also found a bloody bottle and rope at Dowthitt’s auto sales business in Humble.

Elsewhere on the site you can access gender and racial statistics, final meal requests, and other handy death row facts. I learned a lot about lethal injections, the current execution method employed by Texas. (Previous to 1977, the state used electrocution, and before that, from 1819 to 1923, hanging.) In Texas, a lethal injection consists of three drugs:

  • Sodium Thiopental (lethal dose; sedates person)
  • Pancuronium Bromide (muscle relaxant; collapses diaphragm and lungs)
  • Potassium Chloride (stops heartbeat)

Texas is a stickler for details: “The offender is usually pronounced dead approximately seven minutes after the lethal injection begins. Cost per execution for drugs used: $86.08.”

$86.08 for the drugs. Thank you, Texas. Elsewhere I learned that the cost per day per offender is $53.15 and that the average time on death row prior to execution is 10.58 years.

If I remember my Foucault correctly, he said that public torture restores the state’s sovereignty (which had been violated by the offense) by displaying infinite force on the body of the prisoner. Here we’re dealing not with force but disclosure. Since we no longer witness executions, all we’re left with is the paperwork. Well, that and a USA Today-like obsession with factoids:

  • shortest time on death row prior to execution: Joe Gonzales, 253 days
  • longest time on death row prior to execution: Excell White, 8982 days (24.6 years)
  • average age of executed offenders: 39
  • youngest executed offender: Jay Pinkerton, 24
  • oldest executed offender: Cydell Coleman, 62
bag of Jolly Ranchers candy

And then there’s Mike Graczyk of the Associated Press, a man who has made a career out of watching Texas death row inmates die, having witnessed 234 out of 253 executions since 1982. Thus we know what Mike will likely be doing on on November 14: He’ll be witnessing the execution of 41-year-old Jeffrey Tucker of Parker County, convicted in the July 1988 robbery and murder of 65-year-old Wilton B. Humphreys of Granbury. Texas doesn’t tell us what Tucker has requested for his final meal, but we know that the last inmate executed, Gerald Mitchell of Harris County, asked for a bag of assorted Jolly Ranchers.

Sadly, Odell Barnes, Jr. of Wichita County, executed March 1, 2000, never received his final meal. I know this because he requested justice, equality, and world peace.

October 29, 2001

Bun

On the way back from the post office, a woman pushing a shopping cart full of random stuff stopped me and asked for change. She said she wanted to buy some meat to go her bread. I gave her thirteen cents, which was all I had, and apologized for it.

“Every little bit helps,” she said, and offered me a hamburger bun.

October 28, 2001

Trash

My former neighbor, Barbara, back in the days when I lived in a so-called artist’s building (where no one, technically, was supposed to live), kept several enormous plastic bags of trash in her loft. The bags where on your left as you entered, stacked in a corner. For the longest time I didn’t know what was in them, but then one day Barbara stopped me in the hall and asked if I knew anyone who had a fireplace where she could burn some trash.

“Why don’t you just throw it out?”

“Because last year I fined for illegally dumping trash on Cambridge Street. The police tracked me down by going through the bags and finding a bunch of mail with my name and address.”

“But I’ve seen you dumping trash,” I said. “We’ve even done it together a few times.”

“Yes, but none of that trash had my name on it.”

October 24, 2001

Creases

On the subway tonight I read the same book I always read: The Loser by Thomas Bernhard. It’s the only book I ever read all the way through, despite only reading it on the subway. I read five to ten pages at a time, depending how far I’m going. When I finish I return to the beginning and start again.

The book’s effect on me is like music. There’s little plot; it’s simply a man’s thoughts about his two closest friends, both of whom are dead. One is Glenn Gould. The other, the loser of the title, recently committed suicide by hanging himself from a tree a hundred yards from the home of his sister.

Years ago I enjoyed reading books – novels! – but no longer. Most seem so written. Descriptions, in particular, I find intolerable. The Loser contains no descriptions, or nearly none, which is partly why I love it.

A confession: I dog-ear the pages. And since I’ve been reading the book for so long, more than half the pages have little diagonal creases. Somehow this pleases me. There’s something to be said for loving something to the point of destroying it a little.

October 21, 2001

Switch

Unable to work any longer, I got into bed and slept. The covers were hot and stuffy, but I was too far gone to think of removing them. Then the phone rang and it was J. She said she felt like a switch inside her had been turned on.

“I have a love/hate relationship with the switch,” she said.

Later that night I dreamt that J said that the reason she’d been so distant was because I had mistaken her for someone else. Then she introduced to me to another woman, someone who did in fact resemble her. “This is the person you thought was me,” she said.

The woman merely smiled.

It occurred to me that the two women hadn’t necessarily told each other everything.

October 18, 2001

Logic

On the subject of notes left in strange places for desirable women, twelve years ago I stood in a kitchen at a party in Chicago with my friend Mickle, who wanted desperately to leave a note for the host of the party, a woman he had known, barely, in college, and who may have, he had recently learned, admired him back then, and who now lived with a man who was possibly her boyfriend.

We were drunk and were being pressured to leave by whoever was giving us a ride.

Mickle’s note, which he had scribbled in great haste, invited the woman to attend a play he had written. Problem was, Mickle accidentally inverted the names so that the note appeared to have composed by the woman, who was inviting Mickle to see a play she had written. It was a regrettable mistake, but it was the least of Mickle’s problems. The real problem was where to leave the note so that it would be found by the woman rather than her possible boyfriend.

I was no help. Nor was Mickle, really, who in his drunken and agitated state believed this to be his one and only chance to act.

Finally, in desperation, he opened the refrigerator, surveyed its contents, and stuck the note in a tub of lowfat cream cheese. His logic: Possible boyfriends don’t eat lowfat cream cheese.

He was correct. The woman found the note, attended his play, got together with him, broke up with him (or he her; I forget), married another man, divorced him, got back together with Mickle, and now, twelve years after finding a note in her lowfat cream cheese (forgive me that I do not know how long it took her to find it, nor what she thought on finding it, nor anything, really), has agreed, at last, to marry him.

October 17, 2001

Spinning

I washed my clothes with a friend at a place in Santa Cruz called Ultramat. Halfway through, a woman walked in and put her clothes in the washing machine next to mine. She was kind of frumpy, with frizzy hair and baggy pants. I found her totally irresistible. (The moment I saw her, I told my friend I wanted to pull those pants right off her.)

As we were leaving, I noticed that she had disappeared but that her clothes were still spinning in a dryer. This gave me an idea. I ran to the car, tore off part of a paper bag, and frantically scribbled a note on it. The note read:

I just wanted to tell you that you’re totally beautiful and that I really like your pants.

I signed the note, “The Guy With Round Glasses,” and added a p.s.: “Goodbye forever!”

I left the note spinning in her dryer.

That was nine years ago.

October 11, 2001

Dollar

A man in a wheelchair came to our door acting as if he knew J, then me. He said his name was Franklin and that he lived two streets away with his brother, whose name was also Franklin. He said that he’d been shot and robbed on August 14th and was recently let out of the hospital. He needed money, he said, for diapers, because he was incontinent. Then he pulled up his shirt to expose the top of one of the diapers.

I refused him. J gave him a dollar.

I believed he was lying about everything except being incontinent and having a brother with the same name.

There was a particularly awkward moment when J went to get the dollar and I was left to talk with the man after having turned him down. “It’s been a pleasure meeting you,” I said.

October 7, 2001

Shack

The shack was no bigger than a shed and had no windows. Its floor was slanted, the slant following the slant of the hill, so that the only workable prone position was “feet first,” with my feet pressed against the downhill wall. At first I tried using my jacket as a pillow, but I was soon too cold to sleep, so I put my jacket back on and tried sleeping without a pillow. Unfortunately this made my neck hurt, so I returned to using the jacket as a pillow. I slept a short time like that before waking from the cold. The rest of the night I wore the jacket and did not sleep.

I can’t remember where this was. I had been dropped off in the middle of the night at a truck stop and had wandered down a back country road to find shelter.

The shack was a few miles down the road, on a hillside to my right. I remember the moment I saw it, a vague shape silhouetted against a starless sky.

October 3, 2001

Candy

He got to work and felt bad. Knowing it was stupid, he decided to call her. Got into the “press such-and-such for such-and-such” loop. Tried her initials in the company directory. Didn’t work. Called again, hit zero for operator. Operator transferred him. She answered. Her work voice. He felt stupid. Stupid mistake to call. He that said their last conversation left him feeling bad. Could she spare just a minute to talk about it? She said she’d call him right back. The whole thing felt idiotic. He went into the conference room and shut and locked the door, then jumped up and down as though incredibly excited. It was something she once told him to do – when you’re feeling bad, perform an action associated with a happy feeling. It didn’t work. He returned to his desk and took a staple out of something, then went back to conference room and jumped some more. This time it worked a little. The phone was ringing when he returned. It was her. He told her about the jumping. She suggested he buy some candy. He said that candy make him feel bad. Buy some anyway, she said, and give it away. This made him laugh. He noticed he didn’t feel so bad anymore. They had only talked for a minute. Now he’s leaving to buy the candy.

October 2, 2001

Dream

You’re in a car that’s careening down an enormous cliff, plunging headlong to its destruction. In the manner of dreams, very few people in the car recognize what’s happening, although one must merely glance out the window to see. Meanwhile a small, dedicated group of passengers are working to improve conditions within the car (which are abysmal), while the majority occupy themselves with everyday concerns: love, work, entertainment.

Also the car has no steering wheel and no brake, and even if it did, it’s far too late for turning or stopping – that moment passed long ago, if indeed it ever existed.

Worse still – worst of all – this is not a dream.

September 28, 2001

Fantasy

There’s no single word in the English language that means “nightmarish fantasy.” The best of the bunch, “fantasy,” has a misleadingly positive connotation. But the verb form is worse. Consider the following sentence and ask yourself which word or combination of words could replace “fantasized”:

He fantasized that when he turned the corner to his street, he would see his house ablaze.

“Imagined” is probably best, but it fails to convey dread. One is forced to use a construction such as “had the horrible thought” – itself a horrible thought to those who like their language concise.

Anyway, this morning I had the horrible thought that a nuclear bomb had destroyed New York. I’m in Boston now, which explains how I was able to imagine such a thing and still imagine myself alive. In my imagining (I dare not call it a fantasy), everyone in New York had been killed. This included Rachel and many beloved friends, as well as Mayor Gulianni, the woman who owns the Chinese take-out on Marcy, and millions more. All dead. Moreover my computer would be destroyed, and with it, all my files.

Since the television networks are in New York, I figured that the entire system would go down. The internet, too, would be devastated; although I believe the destroyed hubs could be circumvented. Not that it would matter: recent events proved that the web can’t handle the crush of traffic generated by a national crisis. Telephone service, too, would be knocked out or jammed up, further sentencing us to a terrifying silence (though less terrifying, certainly, than the truth).

So how would we learn the truth? The first and best witnesses would be the pilots of commercial jets flying near New York. They would initiate a chain of communication that would lead very quickly to the military and the president, who would… well, I have no idea what that fucker would do; something more horrific still.

I’m staying with a friend, Anne, who’s Canadian. So I figured we’d go to Canada, to Nova Scotia, where her aunt lives. But then I realized that all hell would have broken loose, making a drive to Canada impossible. (Could we buy gas? Could we use ATMs? Would our money still be worth anything? Could we cross the border? Would we be attacked? Would Anne be raped?)

You see my point. “Fantasy” doesn’t cut it.

September 26, 2001

Face

There’s a vertical crease that begins at the inside edge of my left eyebrow and extends north about three-quarters of an inch. It’s the kind of crease that forms when one furrows one’s brow. Except this crease is permanent, etched into my face by decades of furrowing. Oddly the parallel crease on the right is half as deep; evidently I furrow lopsidedly.

I didn’t notice the crease until this morning, although it must have been plain for many years.

Similarly, sometime in my early twenties, I discovered that my ears are different; that the left, lacking a fold possessed by the right, sticks out funny. It was a strange, almost shocking moment. How could I have missed such a thing for so long? How could I have failed to something that, once you see it, cannot be unseen?

I spent a long time that morning studying my face in the mirror. Then I pulled out a box of baby pictures. My ears, naturally enough, had always been this way; I just never noticed it.

What else I am failing to see?

September 24, 2001

Badge of Courage

Earlier today Rachel and I took her nieces, ages two and a half and nearly five, to the Children’s Museum in Manhattan. The girls have been staying with their parents and infant brother in a midtown hotel while waiting to return to their Battery Park apartment, which was evacuated on the day of the attack and remains off-limits. The whole family has been stressed – shuttling from one place to another, scrambling to buy replacement clothes, dealing with the emotional fall-out – so Rachel and I offered to entertain the girls for a few hours and give their parents a breather.

The museum was fun. We sat in a room packed with kids and listened to a hyper-enthusiastic three-person group perform upbeat songs about spaghetti and dinosaurs. Then we indulged in a succession of arts & crafts projects, all of which involved glue and brightly-colored bits of paper and fabric and plastic. I can’t complain, really, and the girls were precious.

Well, I can complain, because one of the projects involved the production of a “badge of courage” for a local police officer or firefighter.

A thirtyish father sat at the same table as us, making the nicest badge you can imagine, with evenly drawn red and white stripes and lots of silver stars. It even had the words THANK YOU written across the top with what I took to be his own personal blue marker. Many similar badges were prominently displayed in the middle of room, hanging on a string strung in front of a sign that said THANK YOU in big letters.

The girls sat glueing things to other things. The oldest, Sydney, announced that her badge was for her mother, whereupon her sister, Hannah, announced that hers was for her father. Then each requested another piece of paper so they could make one for the other parent. When the badges were done, Rachel and I punched holes in each and tied blue or red string through the holes. The girls had us attach them to their wrists so they could wear them as bracelets. As we were leaving, one of the museum people noticed the bracelets and asked Sydney if she wanted her badges hung up with the others. She declined, saying that this one was for her mother and that one for her father. Hannah followed suit.

In the cab back to the hotel Sydney correctly identified various New York landmarks on a map affixed to the back of the driver’s seat – the Statue of Liberty, LaGuardia Airport, the Empire State Building. Then she put her finger on the World Trade Center and said, “These are the buildings that crashed.”

Sydney was at kindergarden when the planes hit, just two blocks from the towers. When she pointed at them on the map, I thought of something she told Rachel about that day: “That was my worst day of kindergarden ever” (it was her fourth). I wanted to ask what happened to make it so bad, only I wasn’t sure this was something you talk about with other people’s kids. Probably it wasn’t, I decided, so I didn’t.

September 23, 2001

Cough Drops

Rachel woke me at 3:00 AM last night to tell me her throat hurt. We decided she should go to the kitchen to see if there were any cough drops in the utility drawer. When she returned she reported that the cough drops were stale. I asked what a stale cough drop tastes like, and she said it’s soft and chewy, which makes it difficult to suck on. Then she mentioned all the dead people, saying how sad she felt about them.

We spent the next hour imagining the last moments of the people in the stairwells. How long, we wondered, did it take for the buildings to collapse? Ten seconds? This means that if you were in a stairwell near the bottom of the building, say the fifth floor, you had ten seconds, at most, to contemplate your fate – assuming you realized what your fate was.

What exactly did you know? And what exactly was happening around you?

I said there must have been a tremendous rumble, and screaming, as the walls and floor began to buckle. Actually the rumble and screaming probably came first, followed by the buckling.

Then we realized that the screams probably didn’t intensify over time but diminished as less and less people were alive to scream. However, the rumble, we agreed, grew louder. How loud? What does a 110-story building sound like, from the inside, as it collapses on top of you? Really fucking loud. So loud you can’t hear the screams, not even your own.

We realized too that the walls and floors must have distorted the way one’s body distorts in a Funhouse mirror, if only for a fraction of a second. However it’s possible that no one saw this happen since the lights probably went out the moment the rumbling started. Or did the rumbling start first, followed by the lights going out? To answer this, one would probably need to be an electrician and know exactly how the towers were wired – and even then I’m not so sure one could know.

But then, really, what difference does it make? Either the lights went out immediately or they didn’t. Either the walls and floors distorted or they didn’t. Either you could hear the screams or you couldn’t. Whichever way it happened, people were killed in a few short, unimaginably horrific seconds, crushed to death in a collapsing mass of concrete and steel and other people.

At around 4:00 AM it seemed that we had considered all the possibilities and impossibilities and that we could now give it a rest. We considered returning to sleep then, only we soon recognized that this was impossible. How can you sleep after imagining such things? You can’t. So then we started in on the people on the planes.

September 18, 2001

Messin’ with the Kid

When the south tower fell, Rachel was on the phone with her sister, who lives in Battery Park City, less than five blocks from the World Trade Center. At that moment there was an incredibly loud noise on the line and her sister cried something like, “My god, the tower’s falling!” Then the phone went dead. Rachel was certain her sister had been crushed beneath the fallen tower. I asked if she wanted me to come to her, and she said she needed to keep trying to reach her sister. I said, “We should be together.” She said, “I have to call my sister.”

I put on my sneakers and left the apartment. I reasoned – correctly, as it turned out – that the subway would not be running, so I headed for Rachel’s on foot, a three-mile walk.

I walked south along the service road that follows the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. Above me, a long line of cars were parked on the shoulder of the road, their drivers perched at intervals along the guard rail, looking out toward Manhattan.

Traffic everywhere was at a near standstill, yet no one seemed to notice. Instead they sat in their cars with blank expressions, listening to their radios. I caught a few words here and there, but understood nothing exactly, save for the tone. The tone was scary.

While walking I sang a song I’d heard for the first time the previous day – the Junior Wells classic, Messin’ with the Kid. I didn’t sing the whole song but just a single verse and chorus, repeating these over and over:

You know the kid’s no child
And I don’t play
I say what I mean and I mean what I say
Hey, hey
Oh look at what you did
You can call it what you want
But I call it messin’ with the kid

The identity of the “kid” kept changing as I sang. First it was me, then the president, then the leader of the highjackers. All of us were pissed and wanted the world to know it.

Oh, and I didn’t walk so much as stride, as befitting one who doesn’t appreciate being messed with.

It was weird.

Every now and then, I would reach a corner with a view of downtown Manhattan and would sneak a peak at the mountain of smoke and ash. I didn’t sing then.

September 13, 2001

Abominations

I imagine the first tower as seen from the cockpit of the first plane a split-second before impact. From here, at this moment, it would be all one could see. Does the pilot, knowing that victory is assured, raise his hands in exhalation? Does he mutter a few holy words as the nose hits home, splitting concrete and steel and glass?

Earlier I imagined a group of terrorists standing guard at the cockpit door as the plane approached its target. Their shared fear, the only fear that remained, was that one of the passengers would break into the cockpit and divert the plane.

Yet another cockpit scene: The moment the pilot of the second plane, the one headed for the south tower, first sees, in the distance, the mountain of smoke above the north tower.

I confess to feeling admiration for the terrorists. In my innocence, I had always imagined an atomic bomb at Disneyland, the usual 50’s-style nightmare. But this was far more clever and daring.

One of my many tasteless remarks from yesterday, spoken sotto voce: “Too bad we can’t hire these people to run the revolution.”

Of course the towers were hideous – twin abominations. Each time I stood beneath one, I thought this. Even more I thought it from the Staten Island ferry, which launched a mile south and yielded a spectacular view of the downtown skyline. If you never experienced this, you really missed something: two featureless slabs rising an absurd, inhuman distance into the sky. From here I often wished them gone. But however much I hated them (and I really did hate them), I couldn’t actually imagine them gone.

I still can’t. Endlessly repeated video clips notwithstanding, I won’t really believe it until I’m down there and there’s nothing.

That will be some day.

And then, over time, I’ll adjust – one always adjusts – until I finally forget the fucking things, as impossible as that now seems.

September 7, 2001

Motherfucker

Having decided to change Oblivio so it would work for daily, shorter things, I showed a few early designs to several designer friends. One said, aside from design commentary, that I couldn’t or shouldn’t put “such things” on the same site as my business stuff, what would potential clients think? The “things” in question were quasi-pornographic content.

As I saw it, I had two choices. I could do it anyway, despite the quasi-pornographic content, or I could create a totally separate business site.

A separate site meant three bad things:

  • Finding an available domain to serve as the name of my business
  • Designing, building, and maintaining a separate business website
  • Paying separate hosting and registration fees

There was actually a third choice – to tone it down – but this I rejected immediately for I felt that if I had to evaluate each thing on the basis of whether it might offend someone, I was fucked.

After weeks of waffling, I decided to do it anyway, damn the consequences, and wrote a long, impassioned email to my designer friend, explaining my decision. What it boiled down to was that I want clients who won’t be offended by quasi-pornographic content, clients who might even appreciate quasi-pornographic content, clients who in any case can distinguish between what people call pornography and comments about what people call pornography. I told myself that I would gain as many clients as I would lose, and that the quasi-pornographic content would be inadvertently beneficial in that it would scare away the “bad” clients and attract the “good” ones. Also, the quasi-pornographic content would give me something no sanitized separate business site ever could: a sense of wholeness. No more hiding what I write from the people I work with. No more splitting myself into separate personas for work and non-work. No more fear of people getting “the wrong idea” about me. Let them get “the wrong idea” about me, I decided, for I will no longer act like someone about whom no one can get “the wrong idea.”

Such is what I told myself. And then the next day I realized I couldn’t go through with it.

The following two months were spent doing the three bad things I didn’t want to do, and now those things are done and I have a separate business site which I’ve spent at least a hundred hours working on because I’m an obsessive motherfucker. I also have new business cards and of course new hosting fees to pay, and here I am writing this new piece for the new Oblivio, which I must admit feels lovely, in part because I can now write the word motherfucker as many times I want without fear of seeming like the kind of person who just goes around writing the word motherfucker all the time and for no apparent reason.

Motherfucker, motherfucker, motherfucker.

July 13, 2001

Kama Sutra

Recently I’ve been thinking about the fact that most dead people had sex at some point. I mean before they died. This follows from the fact that dead people were once people with lives more or less like my own.

Except that they never, unless having died very recently, used the Internet. Nor spoke on a cell phone. Nor [fill in any number of things that I do all the time and never once think about and basically can’t imagine not doing, although I only relatively recently started doing them].

But what I want to know is whether my life is fundamentally different from the life of my great-great-grandfather. And the answer, of course, is that it depends on what one means by fundamentally.

This being true, there are certain things we undoubtedly share. Such as sex. But there is sex and there is sex. Inspired in part by lego porn, I’ve been wondering what kind of sex people had a hundred years ago. Or a thousand. Short and brutish, perhaps?

Well, to say that, I’m forgetting the Kama Sutra. Not that my great-great-grandfather, a 19th century Ukrainian peasant, ever read the Kama Sutra. This seems an obvious difference between us: I’ve read the Kama Sutra.

Kama Sutra position

Or rather, I’ve skimmed it.

Well, I’ve looked at the drawings.

Just back from reading the Kama Sutra. It’s great. Every position has a clever name: Clinging Creeper, Mare’s Trick, Sucking a Mango. Plus there are funny bits:

Your wife grips your neck
and locks her legs around your waist:
this is Kirti (Fame) …
Never try it with heavy girls.

July 12, 2001

The Answer Is Yes

Lego porn

The interesting thing about lego porn is how much it resembles non-lego porn. Who came up with the idea of coming in a woman’s face, and how did this become part of the porn canon? Did men come in women’s faces a hundred years ago?

Actually it’s not difficult to understand. It’s a marking of territory. You are mine, my possession, because I come in your face. If it’s degrading it’s because the underlying mindset is degrading – a mindset in which women are things to be possessed and in which possession is expressed by degradation; a mindset in which one’s value as a man is measured in terms of what one possesses and can therefore degrade.

Anyway, fine. What I especially loved was the text. Or I loved this as much as the images. A sample:

Prostitute: “Hello there sir would you like a date!!!”
Policeman: “I am an officer of the law!!! Which means THE ANSWER IS YES.

September 20, 2000

Retina Enlarger

We Get Confessions contains more typos than any book I’ve ever read. This is one of the reasons I like it: one gets the feeling that it was written by a person who couldn’t care less about piddling stuff like grammar and spelling. I like that. Too many of us care too much about piddling stuff. But not Lieutenant Albert Joseph Jr. No, what the Lieutenant cares about are bottom line issues such as what to do when a suspect begins crying during an interrogation. Here is what he has to say on the subject:

Crying is the best thing that can happen. In the majority of child abuse cases, sex cases, and homicides where the suspect cared for the victim, the suspect will usually cry before he confesses. By using these techniques I know that you will get suspects to cry. When the suspect starts to cry don’t make the MISTAKE of allowing him to gain his composure. You’ve got him where you want him. You have convinced him that he will feel better if he confesses so continue what you are doing. When he starts to cry he will probably have his head down but you will see the tears falling. Keep the same tone of voice but move in on him and touch his shoulder or hug him and tell him that you can understand how he feels. BUT continue the interview and very shortly he will tell you that he did it. When the suspect is crying it will take longer to get the details. He may sob during the rest of the interview but that is OK. Please don’t rush him because you’ve got him where you want him. This is what you have worked for. I love it when I see tears falling from the suspect because I know I’ve got him and a confession will be forthcoming very shortly.

Before I say anything else about Lieutenant Joseph or his book, I must confess that I love it when people use capitalization for emphasis. Yes, the technique is considered bad form, but I happen to enjoy it VERY MUCH. Lieutenant Joseph is a big-time capitalization guy, and so by my way of thinking he can do NO WRONG. It almost doesn’t matter WHAT he’s CAPITALIZING, I simply MARVEL at his EXCESSIVE and UNPREDICTABLE use of BIG LETTERS.

Okay, that said, the man is a genius of human psychology. I mean this. Not a make-it-so-complicated-that-people-don’t-know-what-you’re-saying genius, but an even-a-child-could-do-this genius. For example, here is my haiku-like summary of the Lieutenant’s technique for getting suspects to confess:

Treat kindly.
Downplay crime.
Place blame elsewhere.

What could be simpler? What could be more effective? NOTHING.

Before Lieutenant Joseph became a cop, he was a vacuum cleaner salesman. When I first read this, I laughed, but then as I read further, it stopped seeming so funny. Lieutenant Joseph himself considers the two professions identical in terms of the proper techniques for success. As he puts it, capitalizing the entire sentence to show how important it is, “TREAT THEM WITH RESPECT + BULLSHIT THEM A LITTLE + GET THEM TO LIKE YOU = SELL THEM THAT VACUUM CLEANER OR GET THAT CONFESSION.

We Get Confessions is a treatise on how to deceive and manipulate people into admitting their wrongdoings. To ensure that the “deceive and manipulate” part is not lost on his readers (a readership of cops), the Lieutenant repeats a certain phrase over and over again throughout the book, much like a mantra, drumming it into our skulls until we feel certain that we are going to EXPLODE from the PRESSURE. And what is this phrase? “WE NEVER TELL IT LIKE IT IS.

No, we do not. However, Lieutenant Joseph is careful to distinguish between legal and illegal deception, and at no point does he advocate the latter. Still, it might surprise one to learn how much leeway cops have when it comes to the truth. Although they cannot use threats, promises, or coercion to obtain a confession, nothing restricts them from simply lying to people. Thus the classic ploy of telling two suspects in a two-person job that the other confessed. But Lieutenant Joseph goes beyond the commonplace to introduce a level a creativity not often associated with law enforcement.

For example, here is Lieutenant Joseph’s account of how he and his colleagues employ what they call “suggestive evidence”:

One of the Investigators that works with me was interviewing a suspect in a robbery in which the suspect wore a mask. The victim was positive who the suspect was just from his voice. Of course that would not be enough to convict the suspect. There were ‘rinky dink’ cameras in the store that was robbed. The Investigator told the suspect that his voice had been positively identified by the victim. (That WAS true.) The Investigator then told the suspect that one of the cameras in the store was State of the Art and had a RETINA ENLARGER and his eyes had been positively identified, even though he wore a mask. (That WASN’T true.) The suspect confessed.

As well he should have. Anyone dumb enough to believe in a RETINA ENLARGER deserves to go to prison. The same can be said for the man who believed in the made-up science of Neutron Activation Analysis (I kid you not).

However, while tricking bad guys is all well and good, how do you determine who the bad guys are? After all, innocent people are sometimes brought in for questioning and it is your job to distinguish them the guilty. How are you to decide who is telling the truth and who is lying?

The method is surprisingly simple. First you determine how the suspect answers when telling the truth, and then you ask some tough questions and watch for deviations, in particular non-verbal deviations.

A certain intimacy between you and the suspect helps. Lieutenant Joseph conducts all his interrogations (he prefers to call them “interviews”) in a small plain room with the suspect facing away from the door (no thoughts of freedom). The Lieutenant sits just two to three feet away, and although there is a desk in the room, he never goes behind the desk, as that would take the pressure off the suspect. The desk is a prop and is only used for eating and, if all goes well, the writing of the confession. Before entering the room Joseph stands just outside the door and yells down the hall for an imaginary colleague to call his wife and tell her that he won’t be home for a very long time. He yells also that he has only one side of the story and is now going to talk to [insert name of suspect] to get his side.

The Lieutenant rarely allows a second cop into the room, as suspects are more apt to confess to a single person. On entering the room, he carries a folder filled with useless paper so that he can have something to point to when he says, “Listen, [insert name of suspect], we have positive Neutron Activation Analysis that proves that you [insert crime].”

True story: Many years ago I was in a bank with friends while they were withdrawing money (this was before ATMs). To amuse myself in my boredom, I took to “acting suspicious.” This performance, which was staged for the crusty security guard standing across the way, consisted entirely of wandering around the bank and making nervous-seeming head movements. I soon lost myself in the role and decided to write a robbery note. To say the least, this was a grave mistake, for as soon as I finished scribbling “This is a robbery” on a blank deposit slip, the crusty security guard had his hand on my shoulder. No amount of explaining could convince this man that I was not a bank robber. Instead he led me by the arm to a back room to await the arrival of the police, who appeared less than thirty seconds later.

This happened at one of the big banks in midtown Manhattan, so the cops were probably just a block or two away when the call came. They were soon followed by two more cops, and then two more. The four latecomers stood to the side while the first two asked routine questions. I don’t count this as the interrogation; that began when the two detectives arrived.

The detectives, who were considerably smarter and better looking than their street patrol brethren, decided to play “good cop, bad cop” with me. It was all I could do not to laugh. They recognized this of course and did not appreciate my half-concealed smiles. In fact Bad Cop said that scum like me shouldn’t be allowed to walk the street. Whereupon Good Cop said that if I “played ball,” they’d go easy on me.

All this time, someone somewhere was checking if I had a record for bank robbery. I don’t have a record for anything; I’ve never even received a parking ticket. I knew this, and I knew too that I wasn’t going to be arrested for “acting suspicious,” nor even for writing a note that said, “This is a robbery.” Writing such a note, while criminally stupid, is not a crime.

The two detectives asked the same questions over and over, alternating between mundane inquiries about me (employer, address, phone number, years in New York, etc.) and more pointed questions about the “incident.” If you’ve ever been asked the same questions over and over again, you know that after a while it gets very annoying. Thus I took to reporting the number of times a particular question had been asked.

Looking back I’m amazed how dismissive and disrespectful I was. But then, in another sense, it was an understandable response, because of course I knew the cops were wasting their time.

In the chapter entitled TRUTH AND DECEPTION, Lieutenant Joseph provides some key “indicators” that reveal whether a person is being truthful. “A TRUTHFUL person,” he writes, “will be emphatic. He may bang on the table, may raise his voice, may TELL YOU that you are wrong, your witnesses are mistaken, your fingerprints are wrong…. [He] will exhibit anger when you accuse him of doing something that he did not do and he will stay angry for a long time. Even when you tell him to relax, the anger will still be noticeable. HOW WOULD YOU ACT IF YOU WERE FALSELY ACCUSED??” A deceptive person will be considerably less emphatic. “[He] may show anger,” writes Joseph, “but it will be an act to see if he can get you to back off. He will calm quickly when you tell him to relax. When a person becomes angry while you are talking to him, just tell him to relax and you will notice the difference between true anger and feint anger.”

I never became angry with my interrogators; I became snide. Had I actually committed a crime, or had planned to do so, I never would have dreamed of trying this. But of course I wasn’t trying anything; I was responding to the ridiculousness of the interrogation.

It’s worth filing away for future use. When questioned (and guilty), remember to be disrespectful and dismissive. Whenever possible, raise your voice and bang on the table. When told to relax, do anything but relax. And whatever happens, fear not the Retina Enlarger.

August 24, 2000

Bingo

Once, long ago, I was a bingo caller. I was fifteen at the time and got the job through a friend whose grandmother was president of the ladies club in her apartment building. The club had about fifty elderly members, most of whom, to judge from appearances, were addicted to bingo. They played in a room in the basement of their building. Every Tuesday I joined them, sitting at a table at the front of the room. For my services I received six dollars an hour plus all the fresh-baked cookies I could eat.

An important part of the job, aside from spinning a small metal bingo wheel and calling out the numbers of the resulting ball, was to confirm the winner of each round. I did this with the aid of a big flat white board that was covered with lots of small round indentations, each of which corresponded to a number on one of the bingo balls. After calling a number, I would place the ball in its proper indentation on the grid. When someone shouted “Bingo,” I would ask the player to read off her winning numbers, and as she did so, I would check the numbers against the balls on the grid. In this way I would catch a few false bingos each night. I didn’t like doing this; it’s no fun to inform a gleeful winner that she is in fact a humiliated loser. However, since many of the women followed along during the confirmation process, I knew I’d be in trouble if I ever confirmed a false number.

All of this relevant to the confession I’m about to make, which involves one of the players, a woman who would sit at a nearby table with a chair between her and the next woman. During the intermission, while I was busy with the cookies, she sat alone, eating cantaloupe out of a plastic container. Thus I dubbed her the cantaloupe woman. She appeared to be the only woman in the room without friends. I would have talked to her myself, but I really had no idea what to say to an elderly woman, aside from thanking her for her cookies.

Each week she sat there, alone, eating her cantaloupe. It was heartbreaking. And then one night I finally decided to do something about it. During the intermission I lingered past her table and memorized a row of numbers on one of her bingo cards. In a subsequent game I called out these numbers during the first eight balls or so, virtually guaranteeing her victory. And it worked: she yelled “Bingo” loud and strong. (As a precaution, I had placed the balls on the slots belonging to the numbers I had called, not the numbers on the balls. I did this in case the cantaloupe woman overlooked her bingo, in which case the game would continue and I would need to confirm another winning combination.)

Emboldened by the woman’s reaction, I falsely awarded her at least one bingo a night, and several times granted her the final game, which was worth double. I was never caught, nor did I ever sense that anyone realized that such a thing was possible. In moments of self-satisfied reverie, I fancied myself the Robin Hood of bingo callers, stealing from the rich Ladies Club members and giving to the poor cantaloupe woman.

It was the best wrong thing I’ve ever done.

August 14, 2000

Happiness = 12 + 6

face charted with underlying facial actions

Paul Ekman, a seminal figure in the relatively new field of evolutionary psychology, is one of the world’s leading experts on lying, having written or edited nearly two dozen books on the subject. Ekman’s central insight is that the human face betrays emotion in a universal language. Over the past thirty-plus years, Ekman has developed a system, the Facial Action Coding System (FACS), that breaks down human expressions into forty-six distinct facial movements. Researchers have codified these movements into seven universal emotions: happiness, anger, fear, contempt, disgust, sadness, and surprise. According to Ekman, few people are capable of hiding these expressions. Try as we might, “micro expressions” slip through, revealing our true feelings.

Ekman’s research has many practical applications, most of which I can’t think of right now because I’m not in a very diabolical mood. But get this: scientists in Japan, in an attempt to boast flagging morale among assembly-line workers, have used Ekman’s FACS data to create a robot “co-worker” who, using a camera embedded in her left eye (yes, the robot is a she, complete with wig and dentures), observes her fellows and responds to their emotions with a “near-human expression of empathy.”

In case you’re wondering, the FACS code for happiness is 12+6. Sadness is 1+4+6+11.

August 8, 2000

Insanity

I should have gone to college and gone into real estate and got myself an aquarium, that’s what I should have done.
– Jeffrey Dahmer

As part of my research for a novel-in-progress, I recently spoke with a friend, a forensic psychologist, about sexual deviancy. In the course of our conversation she said something that amazed me, which is that most serial killers are sane. As an example she cited Jeffrey Dahmer, the guy who killed and dismembered several dozen young men. (Did he also eat them? I think he may have eaten some, or parts of some.) According to my friend, Dahmer was sane, and her reasoning, the reasoning of her profession, hinged on whether Dahmer could distinguish between right and wrong. About this there can be no doubt: Dahmer went to great lengths to conceal his actions, a sure sign of a person who knows he’s done something wrong, something for which he would be punished if caught.

At first I thought my friend was talking about criminal responsibility – a more narrow concept than sanity, one that applies only within a legal context. But it soon became clear that her definition applied more generally. The key issue, she said, is whether the person possesses an accurate picture of reality. I asked her whose picture of reality can be said to be inaccurate.

“People who suffer from extreme paranoia, hallucinations, delusions,” she said. “People who believe the KGB is after them. People who think they’re god, or that god is instructing them to do things.” (Nearly every Christian saint was insane by this definition, but that’s another matter.)

Her rationale reminded of arguments I’ve had with computer tech support people about whether a particular problem is hardware- or software-related. Tech support people invariably claim that one’s problems are software-related, which means that they aren’t responsible for fixing anything, and that in fact they can’t fix anything because nothing is broken.

My friend was saying that Dahmer’s problem was software-related. Something bad had gotten into the machinery, but the machinery itself was in good working condition: Dahmer could hear what we hear and see what we see, and that’s what matters.

For what it’s worth, my friend did say that when interviewing people who’ve committed sexual crimes, she has difficulty interviewing the so-called sane ones, that it sickens her to be in the same room as them. So it’s not as though she equates sanity with morality. In fact, in her view, insanity and immorality are completely unrelated. It’s not insane to be immoral, nor is it sane to be moral.

Perhaps this is how it should be, but the fact is, Dahmer is insane. It’s insane to murder innocent people and cut them up and possibly eat them. It’s not just that these things are immoral (plenty of things are immoral without being insane; say, cheating on your taxes or your lover). It’s that it takes a truly crazy person to be that immoral.

Psychology passes the buck and in so doing becomes a tech support function for humans, one that applies only in cases in which people come to believe grossly false information about themselves or their environment.

I had so much trouble accepting this that I approached my friend again to confirm I’d gotten it right. She assured me that I had. Dahmer is sane, she said – or was sane, having long since been murdered by a fellow inmate, a convicted killer who claimed to be Christ because he was a carpenter and his mother’s name was Mary.

You know: a crazy person.

The Black Knight

On November 18th, 1999, my great-uncle, Al Rubin, died of a heart attack while attempting to lift his wife, Dot, from their living room floor. Al was 92; Dot was 90.

Al and Dot were found lying foot-to-foot, their heads at opposite ends of the living room. Al was naked. Evidently he had been in the bathroom when Dot fell and called for help. A wooden coffee table was turned on its side, most likely toppled by Al during his fall. Dot was alive but badly disoriented.

In the hospital my mother and her sister Dee (Dot’s closest living relatives) agreed to spare Dot the news of Al’s death until she recovered. That is, assuming she recovered, for she was in critical condition, suffering from severe dehydration.

Two days later Dot was alert enough to ask for Al. Where was he? Why wasn’t he visiting her? In answer to these questions Dot was told that Al was in another part of the hospital or in another hospital altogether (I’ve heard different versions) and that he would visit when he could.

Most people wouldn’t object to the lie, but I do. I ask myself if I would want to be lied to like that, if I would want my family to conceal the death of my spouse for fear that the news would kill me. The answer is no. It’s not so much the lie that bothers me but the underlying presumption – born of love and concern – that when sufficiently old or infirm we can be stripped of the right to the truth. We treat children that way. We tell them stories to protect them. To lie to Dot was to treat her like a child.

Kant believed that no lie is ever justified and that we are obliged to tell the truth even if it means leading a murderer to his victim. I fall somewhere between Kant and my family: I would lie to the murderer but not to my great-aunt, as I believe that Dot deserves respect, and a murderer does not.

When Dot was deemed well enough to know the truth, my mother and Dee told her what had happened.

“Do you remember falling?” asked my mother. “Do you remember that Al tried to lift you?”

Dot remembered nothing. Moreover she had no idea what she was doing in the hospital. When told that Al was dead, that he had died trying to lift her, Dot showed no emotion. Dee, remembering this moment, believes that Dot never understood. I would go further and say that the thought of Al dying was not something Dot was capable of thinking. She knew what mortality was and she knew Al was mortal, but she could not complete the syllogism.

A few days later I visited Dot in the hospital. She was the same as always, though noticeably diminished. We made small talk. No mention was made of Al until Dot asked how I was doing, and I said that my heart was heavy because I missed Al.

“So what’s the weather like in Cambridge?” asked Dot.

Dot’s deflection didn’t surprise me. Over the years she and Al had refused to accept or even acknowledge their deteriorating ability to care for themselves. Despite failing health, they rejected all offers of assistance. Since neither could cook anything more involved than canned soup, they would eat dinner in restaurants, and Al would drive, to the collective horror of my family.

As painful as this was to witness, I admired it. It took great strength for Dot and Al to be so persistently stupid. I’m convinced that they survived as long as they did because they refused to face the truth. Their final years together – sad, pitiful years, but years together – were testament to the power of denial.

I’m reminded of the battle between King Arthur and the Black Knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Arthur chops off the Black Knight’s arm, but the Knight refuses to give up and claims that the wound is “but a scratch.”

King Arthur and the Black Knight

“Well, what’s that, then?” asks Arthur, pointing to the severed arm on the ground.

“I’ve had worse,” grunts the Knight.

Arthur slices off the Knight’s remaining arm, and then a leg, and still the Knight is loathe to concede.

Arthur is incredulous. “What are you going to do, bleed on me?”

“I’m invincible!”

“You’re a loony.”

My great-aunt is a loony. Living in a nursing home now, she remains unable, or unwilling, to admit that her husband is dead. To hear her tell it, Al is forever indisposed, puttering in another part of the building. Recently Dee, exasperated by such remarks, reminded Dot that she had attended Al’s funeral and had watched his casket being lowered into the ground. Dee expected Dot to claim that no such funeral had taken place, but Dot had her outflanked. “That wasn’t him,” she said.

In the end King Arthur chops off the Black Knight’s remaining leg, and yet the Knight, now a legless, armless torso-plus-head, cannot admit defeat. As the King gallops off into the forest, the Knight shouts, “Running away, eh? You yellow bastard! Come back here and take what’s coming to you. I’ll bite your legs off!”