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 that in the end he does not to send. It’s 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 talking about a little boy who 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.
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, and possibly older, depending when he was manufactured.
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 probably no better way to suffocate a monkey than what K does to Seymour.
Seymour has an enormous head; his head is bigger than the rest of him. It’s covered in finely-woven terry cloth and is 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. Also he 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, and I suppose that would be true if K went on backpack trips, but K doesn’t go on backpack trips. In fact a few years ago K put a large magnet on our refrigerator that shows a smiling woman reclining in bed under the words I love not camping. So I think it’s something else that keeps Seymour confined to our bed.
Perhaps it’s embarrassment. Perhaps it’s the idea of a forty-two year-old woman who can’t sleep a single night without her stuffed monkey. It’s not that people would know this was true about K; it’s that K would know.
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 on a kibbutz in Israel, 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, 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 lovingly made, made in a way few things are these days, 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 with dental floss.
The worst is his paw pads. 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 (the left) 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. In the best case, you succeed in bringing some joy and comfort 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 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 man gets into a car; in the next shot, the next moment, he arrives at his 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, by contrast, 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.
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 I you see are my child’s eyes looking back at you, and nothing changes except that here is my child and here I am and nothing is changing?
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 us 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 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.”
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. This 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.
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.
– 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.
– 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?
– 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.
– And I want a snack.
– What do you want? Booty?
– Booty, bread sticks, and prentzels. And crackers. Just one kind of cracker.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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:
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.
p.s. I have taken my apartment keys. Yours are outside your door.
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.
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.
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….
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.
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 down into the darkness.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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. 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 –
M: It seemed like they were happy together and that there was no disfunctionality of any kind in that moment.
W: No, none visible.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
M: The article mentioned that he had smelled like tuna fish.
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?
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.
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.
– 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.
>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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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].
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?
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.”
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 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 four defenses one can use in such situations:
Diminish the wrong
Attack the accuser
Defend your character
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 or only about myself. 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, and then find reasons to justify it.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
My step-grandfather Andy was an astoundingly stupid man, likely the stupidest person I have ever known. It is not entirely 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.
What happened was, 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 his 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, either that 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 others.
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.
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. 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:
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:
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.
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.”
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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!”
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.
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.
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.
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.”
“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?”
“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!”