The best of Oblivio, as it were (view as list of excerpts)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.