When you first watch Seinfeld, it strikes you as a very funny show. Then you move to New York, and you realize that it’s also an astute portrait of the city. Then you gain a little more experience, and you discover that it’s also a sharp and honest reflection of the existential realities of life on this planet, where ambition is futile, material success makes one emptier, and every person is impenetrably foreign and unknowable. Everything leads me back to that show, and I was mocked for it during my first primary campaign. “I think that for Lent, he ought to give up Seinfeld,” my opponent quipped, teasing me, but also subtly reminding voters of my irreligiousness. For a time, I was worried this would sink me, but then my opponent was caught, literally, with his hand in a honey pot. The voters had their say, and today I’m the one sitting in the Oval Office, 9:45 on a Tuesday night, counting and recounting the plugs on Vice’s head.
I know I’m here to talk about tomorrow’s vote, but I keep imaging that I’ve been called to the principal’s office for misbehavior, that I’m going to get censured for fraternizing with the enemy. All pious baloney about congratulating those who “reach across the aisle” aside, today’s Washington is too vacuously adversarial to condone even a modest hello between a D and an R, much less to condone the kiss I gave the Honorable Senator from the State of Nevada. It was after the day’s business was concluded, and we were left in the chamber, collecting papers. We were talking about an inflated speech given by Maine, in which he derisively referred to the Republican proposal as “a laugh and a half” no fewer than 18 times. I did a pitch-perfect impression, while she retrieved notes from her desk, tittering. When she looked up, I kissed her. I’d had the desire for months, but why I thought it sensible to make my move in our austere, musty, and decidedly unromantic workplace is a question I cannot answer. The words of George Costanza’s mother ring in my head: apprised of her son’s latest boneheaded scheme to attract a woman she wails, “Why can’t you do anything like a normal person?”
Vice is fixing me with his wonky eyes and extruding some stream-of-consciousness mumbling: “We’re gonna send the Minority Leader a reeeeal wake-up call, heh heh heh…” I’m following the rhythm of his speech, and laughing and nodding accordingly – I make sure to shake my head with incredulous admiration at his audacious zinger, “I wouldn’t want to be a Republican’s golf ball tomorrow!” – but I can’t focus on anything but the memory of last night. How on earth can I be expected to concentrate on anything as trivial as SB 31, when I’m on the verge of something truly important? (Not just important personally, but for my political education as well. Most people don’t know that Noam Chomsky met Carol, the love of his life, when he was seven years old. That’s the secret to his success: he solved life’s greatest challenge at a young age, so for the last 77 years, his mind has been free to study to the comparatively simple fields of linguistics and global injustice.)
How does a Chomsky-Gnome like myself fall for a free-marketeer like Nevada? It’s not – I repeat, not – out of a desire to “hate-fuck” her. (One of the worst phrases I know. Compare its sneering hostility to the self-reflective anxiety of Jerry’s “You can’t have sex with somebody you admire! Where’s the depravity?”) In fact, I resent the implication that I need to explain myself. Intelligent people eventually come to the realization that there are things more important than Democrats and Republicans. Or even liberalism and conservatism. Not that this is the place to make that argument. The President has joined us and is delivering dire warnings about a Republican victory in his usual clipped and irregular tone: “We’ve, uh…gotta make sure…that…wepassthisbill.” I’m starting to get a little flattered that the White House is seeking my support; thus far, my experience has been that a leftist in Washington gets about as much respect and attention as a slug at a snail convention. But then Potus reaches his thesis statement: “And if we’re gonna pass this…uh…solidly…we need some Republican votes.”
They saw the kiss (I shouldn’t have expected anything to escape Potus’ surveillance) and they think I can sway Nevada’s vote. The trouble is, they don’t even have my vote. I think SB 31 is exactly the kind of middling, posing-as-progressive bill I came to Washington to eradicate, and I tell them as much. “If you want to keep on doing the same old thing,” I say, channeling George’s words to the NBC executives, “then maybe this senator is not for you.” “Maybe this Senator would like to go back to being another subway-riding nobody,” retorts Vice.
In tidal rhythm, the two men play stick and carrot: Vice continually threatens to “primary [my] ass back to Brooklyn”, while Potus tells me that I have the chance to “be a part of something important. You’ve set yourself up to be the one to…uh…break…this Republican fever.” I’m a little bothered that they think I kissed Nevada to get close to her politically – and I start to worry that she suspects it too – but when I allege my sincerity, Vice interrupts me with, “cut the crap. We saw the way you kissed her. It was a tiny peck.” (How closely were they watching?!)
Potus offers me greater input on future bills, and tells me that I have the chance, “to really change things.” If I do, it’s not SB 31. History is already making its judgments on the American empire: “Worshipped money. Created Seinfeld.” If we want them to add any flattering emendations before China pulls us offstage with a shepherd’s crook, we’ve got to be bold and produce bills that truly address our country’s systemic distress. “Otherwise, it’s just masturbation,” as George says (but not in the episode you think). We must break free of the atmosphere of limited possibilities that my colleagues find so enriching. We must stop being mindless, lifeless politicians. No more zombies; more Noam Chomsky.
Of life, Jerry once pondered, with his usual curious detachment, “you say to yourself, ‘From this moment on, I’m not going to waste any more of it.’ But then you go, ‘How? What can I do that’s not wasting it?’” The four of them never found out how to make life valuable, but I think I’ve got a handle on it. “Thanks for the invite,” I tell Vice and Potus, popping out of my chair, “but you’ll have to find two other votes.” Contra Seinfeld, which posits that the pleasure of the “march-out” is low (“That’s when you realize all the money you’re losing”), I feel terrific striding for the exit. But I’m not walking fast solely for the spectacle of it: the one real difference between the two parties is that Republicans keep earlier hours, so I have very little time to search very many country clubs for my desert rose.
Do you remember The Sword in the Stone? I know you remember the blade; I want to know if you remember the Disney film. It was one of those ones released during the studio’s Blue Period, the interregnum when the square-spectacled, square-headed, all-American draftsman of the pre-war era were departed, but not yet replaced by the mechanized phenoms of Michael’s Eisner’s renaissance. Aside from The Great Mouse Detective – a witty, gripping, and quotable (“Yes! We’ll – we’ll set the trap off now!”) masterpiece – the films produced in those decades were non-entities. The Sword in the Stone is such, save for one sequence.
In the second act, Merlin puts young, king-to-be Arthur through a series of isolated and irrelevant setpieces, transforming him into various animals to teach him lessons that never penetrated my mind. After a dull interlude as fish in the castle moat, Merlin and Arthur assume squirrel-form and climb the trees, whereupon a girl-squirrel takes a fancy to Arthur. She finds his reticence charmingly coy, and pursues him, giggling, for a while. This is all very cute, whether you’re rooting for the boy or for the girl, but the fun dries up quite suddenly. Once Merlin decides that Arthur has learned the lesson of their exercise, he returns them both to human form, causing the girl-squirrel to recoil with a look of shattered disbelief, and run to her den in horror. Merlin and Arthur head home, and the camera cuts to a shot of the girl-squirrel watching them go and sobbing. Fade to black.
I watched the rest of the movie aghast, suffered through Merlin’s “humorous” cavorting and the mediocre, arbitrary villainy of Mad Madam Mim, waiting for some sort of resolution. If not a happy ending for the girl-squirrel, I bargained, then at least some acknowledgment of her pain. But the film never again references this encounter, never shows us what becomes of her. The heroes (yeah, right) never express remorse for having broken a heart, and make no mistake: the girl-squirrel was in love with Arthur. (Merlin even sings a grip-your-armrests-bad song about it.) In the silence with which her feelings were greeted, my purpose was forged.
I wrote an alternate ending where Arthur, rather than pulling the sword from the stone, returned, as a squirrel, to the forest. (This did leave the major dramatic question – Who becomes king? – unanswered. If I were writing it now, I might drop in some lines suggesting that, in the absence of a king, the state withered and the People reclaimed…but you’ve heard this before.) After a several days of badgering, my mother sent the script to Burbank, but before any response came, I had already moved on to other causes: a new girl, Anna, had come to our school, and a group of boys, styling themselves “Anna Sweepers”, were spending recess marauding about, making her feel unwelcome.
Their nastiness formed the root of a short story in which a group of unwholesome boys were bullied and ostracized by the “Sexist Sweepers”. (I knew that their animus was gender- and not Anna-based, having observed these boys long enough to know that they deserved their spots on my regularly updated lists of sexists, racists, and the A.G.P: “Against Gay People”. [No, I didn’t know the word “homophobe” but remember, I was only in the second grade.]) On “Fiction Friday” that week, I read the story to my class and watched the dawning realization assume control of the bullies’ expressions. I felt again the thrill of using words to bend the world towards justice. (Honesty compels me to add that, in an ending of the mordant style favored by Soviet wits and Tales From the Crypt episodes, the result of my recitation was that the “Sweepers” only stopped targeting Anna…)
The irony, which took me 15 years to realize, is that there is also no better way to inflict pain than to write. Last month, I published an ebook that got a few buzzy reviews (under headlines that seemed to bring out the usual in every publication – The Atlantic, pseudo-sociology: “The First Novel of the Digital Generation”; Slate, hyperbole: “The Best Book in 150 years. Seriously.”) But some of the people close to me were hurt by the way I used them in my work. My mother, for one, was not fooled by the gender bending in the opening line of chapter four: “I am very upset with my father for upstaging my graduation with a slurred ‘Oh Come, All Ye Faithful’ sung into an old Mr. Microphone.” “You are like a feral dog,” she texted me, “scavenging for material.”
Writing the publicist character reawakened my tender feelings for her inspiration, my high school paramour. (That word is not quite right, but there’s no term for somebody who was both “never” and simultaneously “much more than” a girlfriend.) Reading the publicist character, however, inspired only stormy feelings in her. Screaming at me from her stoop (I had flown home and had the airport shuttle drop me off in her driveway), she informed me that the details of our eleven nights together and of the dreams she’d shared with me were not mine to publish. “You stole my life and used it for your own advancement,” Anna bleated, likening me to some ghoulish Mega Man, before she slammed the door, leaving me dumbly proffering her bouquet to the night at large.
A non-writer might assume that such an experience would put me off the written word, and that being the nice person I’d like to be would require a new vocation. “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results,” as a Narcotics Anonymous counselor (and not Albert Einstein) wrote. Then again, she wrote it. A writer – usually after passing through the stages of writing for attention and writing out of boredom – eventually comes to the state of writing as a corrective action: corrective to problems both personal and public. Delusional or not, I believe in the strength of words, and according to a letter I received in today’s mail, I am not the only one.
“We are in possession of a speculative script written by you,” it reads. “As it was voluntarily submitted by you to our studio, and as it features characters wholly owned by The Walt Disney Company, including, but not limited to, Girl-Squirrel and ‘Murlin’ [sic]” – their [sic], not mine: that was how I spelled Merlin – “your script is likewise owned by the aforementioned company. Any rewrites or adaptations you do of this piece will also become the property of The Walt Disney Company. Do not resist us. Do not make claims of youthful naivety.” As it happens, I had no intention of revisiting that script, but these attorneys have put ideas into my head. Material is elusive; you must seize inspiration when it comes. And the story of two animalistic lovers has never been more resonant. Exterior: The Woods. Day. Two squirrels chase each other around in a circle, faster and faster, until the two become one furry blur.
I’m a woman of science, but sometimes I develop a fear, or at least an unease, even though no evidence supports it. It’s irrational, but these fears have staying power because there’s similarly no evidence to disprove them. In exemplum, I have no reason for me to think that Quint won’t be in for his 3:30 appointment: in six weeks, he’s not missed a single appointment, always arriving a crisp five minutes before commencement. Still, I don’t (I can’t) know that he’s coming today, and a pattern is only a pattern until it’s broken. I’m so worried that I can barely concentrate on guiding my current patient, Lorne, through the waters of geriatricism. (Before any snotty linguistic prescriptivists get on me for that not being a word: the English language is patchy and inefficient, so I have to create words to fill in the gaps as best I can.)
Quint came to our clinic suffering from Achilles tendinitis so I began the evaluation by opening a tub of Free-Up Cream and massaging it into his calf. In my three-and-three-quarters years as a physical therapist, I’ve become accustomed to the feel of skin, which generally resists an aggressive massage, shifting only reluctantly, with the sticky friction of two slabs of uncured rubber pressing against each other. (This does not include the skin of the aged, which shifts unbidden, like adult clothes on a child’s body.) Quint’s skin, however, was uniquely soft and yielding. Running my fingers over him reminded me of the sensation of dragging my hands through the water-smoothed sand in my childhood aquarium. What’s more, I felt an unmistakable buzz ripple through my hands as I pressed against him. This was a heretofore (hitherto? Why do we have two arcane words for the same chronology?) new sensation, and I took every opportunity to keep my digits on him for the next 45 minutes.
Thankfully, my next patient had cancelled, so after I wrapped up with Quint, I excused myself to the restroom and got myself off. (More weird phrasing: What are we getting off of? And why is it good to get off and bad to be turned off?) I wish I could tell you that I was purely excited by his entrance into my life, but I was also quite terrified. If this was the effect he had on me after 45 minutes, I wasn’t sure I could safely continue to treat him. He was capable of making me lose my license.
If you’re thinking this is just some sex-starved geek getting all worked up, let me set you right: yes, I go through fertile and fallow periods like anyone else, but I’ve never gone long enough without attention to enter the dread ranks of the involuntarily celibate, or “Incel” (a scary term I encountered in a med text years ago). If you doubt this, a prejudice is likely at work. While male doctors are top sexual prizes, females who practice medicine are merely thought of as grown-up nerds. Women in other professional industries – finance, business, law – are seen sexually, and I suggest that this is because they appeal to the domination fantasy, while I, as a caregiver, do not. The Oedipal fixation is split into Mother-as-Nurturer and Mother-as-Disciplinarian, and I got the short end of the stick. (The fetishization of nurses torpedoes this theory, but I’m still working on this, and don’t think you’re so clever for figuring that out.)
Besides, this connection wasn’t purely sexual. The buzz I felt was not just a physical tingling, but a cerebral awakening. I felt enlightened by him. The chaotic world revealed its order when we were in session together. I was a physical therapist – not a surgeon as I’d promised my parents, or a psychologist as I’d begun school pointed towards – so that I could heal him. He made me feel that my medical skills were limitless. This was such a significant conclusion to draw that I forced myself to test it, to see if what I thought was “Us” was really just “Him”. I tried to explain my feelings to my coworker Ron, who treated Quint every third visit, and this (with lengthy caesuras redacted from his dialogue) was our conversation:
“Do you ever feel a sort of buzz when you’re treating him?”
“You mean like he’s experiencing a plantaris spasm?”
“No, I mean: have you had a sense of ‘no limitations’ with him?”
“He does have truncated flexion of his tibialis anterior. We should work on enabling him to move without limitations.”
Honestly, though, the stupider (I know: “more stupid” is proper, but “stupider” both means what it means, and sounds like what it means, and I like my words to do double duty) person here was I. It’s always a waste of time to hope that any third party will understand feelings of this magnitude (making the feelings both an impossible burden and a thrilling secret), and Ron was a particularly poor choice. He thinks only of physical therapy and finds it unprofessional that I care about anything else. Sometimes I think he has a point. Maybe it shows what an unserious PT I am that I get so distracted. At this moment, for instance, I’ve totally lost track of Lorne’s reps: I told him to plant his cane within a splay-footed stance and bend his knees outward, squatting and rising like he’s in a dinner theater chorus. He’s done this at least 100 times, but I’m too preoccupied with my fear that Quint won’t show to come up with another exercise. I call out “Halfway done!” and let him keep vamping.
I’m never so negligent with Quint – as I say, he inspires me to greatness – but he does cause failure of my bedside manner. I want to use our conversations to learn more about him, but I’m always scared that I’ll ask him something stupid, so I wind up babbling about myself. (That riff I had earlier about women doctors never getting the wandering eye originated as something I rambled about to him.) One day, before his appointment, I wrote the initials “TAH” (Talk About Him) on my ring finger, but they rubbed off when I started the massage, leaving a smeary “HAT” on his calf. I had to massage him again to wipe off the ink, which obviously didn’t bother me, but I worried that he noticed, and I got nervous, and I started talking about myself again.
A few weeks ago, I was staring at the hollow at small of his back when I suddenly blurted out, “I love the color of your skin!” (I didn’t specify this earlier, because it didn’t seem relevant, but he’s got a complexion like a steely, overcast sky brightened by the cumulative glow of many neon lights.) Growing up among the translucent, I’m always drawn to variations in skin color, but I’m awfully concerned that that this is symptomatic of some muted, mutated prejudice, so I rarely express my observations. I froze, terrified that I’d relaxed my rule at exactly the wrong time, and was plotting a course through the open window to the pavement below when I realized that he hadn’t heard me over the vibrating and pulsing of the electro-stimulation unit hooked up to his leg. What’s more, getting that remark out of my system freed my words, and once he was de-electroded, I engaged him in a great conversation. I learned that he runs a company that replaces old traffic lights with energy-efficient models. I had never considered the need for such a service, but of course it has to be done. Everything he does fills a void I didn’t know was (wasn’t? We are talking about a void) there.
With five minutes to go, just as I’m telling myself to appreciate all the appointments we did have, he walks in and I feel the anxiety of the day lift. I ask Ron to finish up with Lorne, so I can get right to work on Quint, and he agrees. Not because he wants to help me out, mind you, but because he’s got a compulsion to treat as many patients as he can. If he could, he’d take over the clinic and treat 24/7. I don’t know what void he’s trying to fill (maybe he’s an Incel), but it works for me, and it works for him, and Lorne’s an old man who’s earned a therapist who can genuinely focus on his (many, many) ailments.
I do Quint’s closing evaluation and he passes with flying colors. Across-the-board improvement. I choke up telling him the results, not just because I’m happy for him, but also because I can’t believe how well I’ve done. (Throughout school and my professional life, I’ve never been able to shake the sense that I’m a fraud, and that, with enough exposure, the dangling sword would fall.) Once I’ve read through the entire checklist, I let him put his clothes back on (it wasn’t necessary for him to undress this time, but I wasn’t going to stop him), open the door of the treatment room and say, “It’s been a pleasure.” This is true, but it’s not enough. He doesn’t move for the door, but puts his arms out for a hug, draws me in, and says, “I felt it too.”
Or so I think I heard. There’s a lifetime of difference between “felt” and “feel”, but the phrases are 90% identical. I’ve been hugging him for 15 seconds, unwilling to let go until I’m sure I’ve got the words right.
I take a standard 8.5x11 sheet of paper and fold it across the horizon (“hamburger-style”, though even in my meat-eating days, I never saw a hamburger with the dimensions of a Signet Shakespeare). Pinching the loose ends, I slip a letter opener into the crease and push it through. There’s a noise between a crunch and a zip: the paper is bisected.
Since my first day here, I’ve admired the letter openers. The last place I worked had us opening mail with long, blunt boning knives that crumpled the envelopes and turned the daily post into a gruesome autopsy. Here we have thin plastic semicircles with a slit across the diameter leading to an angled blade that splits the envelope’s flap cleanly, like a can opener. Unfortunately, no other utensils offered by this company have been so good. The first thing to do upon arriving at a new job is to check out the office supplies: Are the binder clips stiff? Are the shelves stocked with knock-off brands like “Stick-It Notes” and “Bick Pens”? The answers, I’m sorry to say, were Yes and Yes. I would have found more crimes against humanity, but eventually, I was told not to spend so much time in the supply closet. When I explained to my supervisor that I was still acquainting myself with the office, she told me that I couldn’t “play the ‘New Girl’ card forever”.
If anybody needs to be told what cards can’t be played forever, it’s her, dressing with total disregard for her age. Far be it from me to criticize anybody else’s costuming – I wore the same green vest from 8th grade through my high school graduation, amending it only with additional silly pins – but this woman dresses like Joan Didion circa Play It as It Lays, which would be fine if it were 1969 and she were a 30-year-old pioneer of New Journalism. But it ain’t, and she isn’t. Every time she calls me into her office, I’m distracted beyond all hope of recovery by the jangling of her bracelets and the flashes of flesh briefly exposed by her loose, flowing blouses. “Do you have any questions?” she concludes all our meetings, and I always want to reply, “Were you just thawed out of a small glacier?”
I align the two halves of the sheet and fold them again. (Now it’s more akin to a hamburger.) The letter opener goes through again: there are four pieces.
She would probably have frustrated me to the point of blurting out that insult, were it not for Sienna, who works on the other side of the Xerox room. (Excuse me: the “Aficio Brand Copy and Print Unit” room.) We started off exchanging cathartic eye-rolls whenever our supervisor passed. Then we began exchanging unflattering doodles. Finally, we exchanged names, and were fairly inseparable for a time. We ate lunch together, commuted home together, and even started meeting on the weekends. It would have been a milestone just for me to make nice with a co-worker, but she became the best friend I’d ever had.
Closeness is better experienced than explained, but the following examples seem, to me, to be utter summations of our friendship: When Sienna put up a world map in her cubicle and started fantasizing about escaping to New Caledonia or Saint Barthélemy (“I like the French, but I don’t like France,” she explained), she always included me in her plans. I let her read drafts of my picaresques. When I moved to a new apartment – having decided that I could no longer live under the fascist yoke of my “No-creeping-plants-on-the-fire-escape” co-op board – she put together the housewarming party. That was the party at which all my troubles began. (Obviously, my first wish is that I’d never opened my mouth to hurt her at all, but if I were allowed only a smaller wish, I would wish that I said my piece on any other night. I hate to imagine that she thinks, on top of everything else, that I don’t appreciate her hosting skills.)
Fold. Slip. Cru-zip! Eight.
Colleen asked me who had baked the carrot cake in the shape of a new apartment, and when I said “Sienna”, that must have caught her attention. (Sienna, that is. Not Colleen, who’s always too attentive, listening to you with wide eyes and slow nods like Joseph Smith taking dictation.) She walked up, unseen by me, just in time to hear me add: “I’m assuming you’ll want to have a lot to drink before you try it.” It was only fourteen words, but there’s a horrible rule that applies to the mathematics of human interaction: The number of words required to reverse an insult is a thousand times greater than the number of words in the initial insult.
I explained to Sienna that this was a joke at the expense of Colleen’s drinking habits (this would have been more clear with better phrasing: “There’s no rum in it, if that’s what you’re wondering”, maybe?), and not at her, and she accepted this, but there was haziness at the corners of her “All’s Well” smile. So I kept talking. Words and words later, I still felt that I hadn’t scrubbed the scuffmark off our relationship. It’s awful when the greatest effort can’t effect even a miniscule result, especially since the pleasure of our friendship came from how the smallest actions of one always meant the world to the other.
Mending this wound is vitally important to me – the first important thing I’ve ever had to do – and I am completely unprepared. Not once, in all my years of education, was I once taught how to handle such a situation. High school found five hours a week for four straight years to teach me geography, but at no point did anyone prepare even one brief assembly in the auxiliary gym to teach me how to be a person. This, for the record, is why every teenager, at some point in high school, has her or his mind blown by a special novel. Until that point, all one’s ever been taught is frivolous gobbledygook, and the first glimpse of true human life is as shocking and energizing as a sudden ice cube down the back of the shirt. (My special book? George Plimpton’s Paper Lion.)
I fold the paper again, but now the crease is too thick, and my attempt to push the blade through for sixteen makes things all wonky.
Given my state of helplessness, I want any accusations that my efforts toward amelioration were “excessive” or “freaky” to be stricken from the record, or at least put into context. Maybe sending her a week of orchids and lilies was too much, but when you’re pricing apology bouquets and the florist asks “How sorry are you?”, it’s easy to lose sight of how impractical flowers can be. (As to the demands that I bear the repair costs for the automatic stapler shorted out by a spilled vase of water, I laugh defiantly and respond twice: Would a “dry” plant like a cactus really have been less of a hazard? Should we blame mechanical failure on the water, or on the b-list engineers at “Wingline Staplers”?) I had the arrangements sent here and not to her apartment because I wanted to be around for a follow-up if my apology wasn’t clear and more words were required, but sending them to her home would probably have been better. The office nits would have been kept out of a purely personal issue, Sienna could have dealt with this at her own pace, and I wouldn’t be here waiting for an “Emergency Employee Evaluation” with my supervisor, which, by the sight of her absurd, Martha Mitchell hairdo coming ‘round the doorframe, I realize is starting.
Maybe I will tell her how ridiculous she looks. Let her throw that stupid “Winking Sun” pendant at me, I don’t care. I get a static shock from the chair as I stand up. Big surprise. I won’t miss anything about this job. All I liked were the letter-openers.
Wait. No. How could I say that?
How could I think that for even a second?
Eight squares of paper are just enough to dab away my tears.
When I was ten years old, the decision was made to have me skip the fifth grade. I had earlier been under consideration to skip the first grade, and the sense that I did not belong to my year had persisted. The aim was to bring me into temporal alignment, but it was unsuccessful. I remain too old for my age.
I was unaware of this affliction for years. I always behaved naturally and unconsciously, and it was not until college that anybody informed me that my mannerisms and appearance – stiff collars popping out of solid wool sweaters, and a 1970s Republican haircut (cf. Ron Ziegler) – set me off as an Old Soul. That term was usually deployed by women in what sounded like an approving tone, so eventually, I put it on my OkCupid profile. It wound up serving less as a green light than as a red flag.
After a period of disappointment on OkCupid, I joined, in a moment of desperate loneliness, a cougar dating website. This is an embarrassing admission, and in my defense, I can only reiterate the forlorn state that led me to see the site as a perfect nexus of supply and demand uniquely facilitated by our wired age. I had some success, if achievements are measured by notches in the belt, but the victories were hollow. My hope was to meet the cougars as equals, but they insisted (for this was their fantasy, too) on treating me as my actual, and not my acted, age. (The appellation “boy”, with or without some lewd modifier, was issued demoralizingly frequently.) The only relationship worth having is with a partner who sees (and likes) you as you really are, and I remain unconvinced that the internet, so accommodating to the obfuscation and reinventing of identity, is the place to find that truth.
(Not that I’m a Luddite. I greatly appreciate contemporary technologies. My favorite is YouTube, for allowing me to take a nostalgic trip into the episodes of PBS’s Firing Line that defined my childhood. I’ve always loved to hate William F. Buckley, and while other kids spent their recesses inserting themselves into the adventures of Harry Potter, I would fantasize of teaming up with Gore Vidal and using our rapier wits to cut Buckley down to size, leaving him with his jaw on the floor [quite a feat when you consider that Buckley never even opened his jaw to speak].)
Maybe the trouble is that, while other people online were interested in dates and hook-ups, I, ever of an advanced age, was already marriage-minded. I realized this when I caught myself admiring men with wedding rings, thinking how much I’d like to wear one myself. This led to my admittedly hasty engagement. We’d only been dating (having met at a Spiegelman reading) for a few months when I popped the question, but we shared many interests and were happy for a time. We decided to call off the wedding when it became clear that between us was an irreconcilable incompatibility: I was an Old Soul and she was a Nostalgia Hound, and it wasn’t right to build a home over that division. (Once it was over, I realized that what I admired about men with wedding bands wasn’t their marriage, but the subtle accent that the flash of gold gave to their gestures, and I was able to get that by buying an old Dartmouth class ring off an alumnus. If there’s a lesson to this story, I guess it’s to always examine and question your own motives.)
After the wedding fell apart, I threw myself into my career. I can see now that I pushed myself too hard, but the myriad rewards – the corner office, the interns, the honor of being the youngest executive at VH-1 Classic – were too much to resist. I was greedy, and it’s only right that I have to pay for it. I’ve never believed in God, but I began to suspect that some force with a taste for irony and dramatic consequence was at work when a stress-related heart attack felled me during my commute, and I crashed my BMW – a corporate thank-you for securing the Tears for Fears catalog – into a Nuts4Nuts cart.
An EKG revealed that I had the heart of a 60-year-old. (My doctor tried to cheer me up by telling me that Martin Luther King, Jr. did as well, but I told him that I didn’t think anybody [even a medical professional] ought to compare anybody [even me] to our country’s greatest hero. [N.B. Active in the 60s, natch.]) The staff at the hospital remains confident that the bypass will be successful, but I’ve begun to make the mental preparations of the nearly departed, just in case. I feel sad sometimes, thinking of how quickly I passed through my youth, and I wonder if there was a moment when I could have made the decision to slow down and act my age. But mostly, I try not to dwell on the woulda-coulda-shouldas. You can’t retrieve the past by looking backwards. “You’ve got to go forwards to go back. Better press on.” So says the hero of a dimly remembered children’s movie from my brief youth.
I do have one sharp memory of that era: It’s a sunny Saturday morning in 4th grade, and I’m on a pint-sized soccer field – one of eight carved out of a weedy forest. I’m playing goalie for my YMCA team, The Tigers. An opposing forward punts the ball towards my head, and, flailing in fear, I knock it into my own goal. A furious groan goes up from my teammates and their parents as my opponents laugh and jeer. To stop myself from crying, I bite the inside of my cheeks, hard enough to draw blood, but the tears come anyway. My vision gauzed, I take off running into the field’s adjoining woods, twigs stinging my face, the jersey cotton of my Adidas shorts whip-whiping infernally.
Like most young people, I thrilled at the 2008 election. Via a regular diet of The Huffington Post, I kept this up through the first half of Obama’s term, cheering every PR victory, and investing myself too much in the drama of the health care debate. (From my journal, November 22nd, 2009, on a personal subject: “I felt meaningful, as though I was really part of something, moving forward and experiencing life. [Here a paragraph break] I also feel like mentioning that yesterday the Senate Democrats secured the 60 votes necessary to block a filibuster.”). My support lasted through the 2010 midterms, long enough to do my part in denying the turtle-faced Mitch McConnell some of his sadistic pleasure, but over the last two years, I’ve abandoned my allegiance. Though I hate to tip my hat to this pathologically lying meanie, you may number me among Paul Ryan’s disappointed college grads, staring up at (or in my case, down to the floor at) an old Obama poster.
The first inclination I had that something was going wrong came during the 111th Congress’ lame duck session, when Obama signed an extension of the Bush Tax Cuts rather than fight a battle in which (it seemed to me) he could have easily won public support. The following summer, the debt ceiling negotiations dragged on for weeks and resulted in, as The Onion put it, tough concessions by both Democrats and Democrats alike. Obama wasn’t just losing fights; he hardly seemed to be fighting. That is, unless I was mistaken in my understanding of Democratic priorities, and what I saw as crushing losses were merely collateral damage in the victories of the party’s real concerns.
I’m not sure exactly when I gave up on the Democratic Party, but I don’t remember it being too painful. Much harder was giving up on the identification “liberal”. I wasn’t giving up on liberal philosophies – or rather, I was giving them up, by leaving them in the dust on my brisk march into libertarian socialism (that is a real philosophy, not a typo) – but I was giving up on Liberal as an American ID. I no longer wished to be numbered among a group that, after a recent, impressive run, seemed to be selling out for the sheer gratitude of finally having buyers.
During the first two years, when Obama’s betrayals were primarily economic, Liberal excuses were usually an assurance that the president was playing a long game and that soon – soon! – he’d start acting progressive. (Mostly, people seemed to say this day would come in his second term, a theory that holds no water: If he’s going to limit his “good” years to one term, why not have that be his first term? Why futz around for four years?) But recently, as information about Obama’s national security apparatus has come to light, this excuse has given way to one far worse: no excuse at all. American Liberals, who so recently stood against the War in Iraq and the War on Terror, taking abuse from all kinds of media folk and politicians, refusing to back down against immorality, were now either ignoring the president’s warrantless wiretapping, drone strikes and due process-free executions, or worse, supporting them. At the 2008 DNC, the crowd cheered politicians who vowed “we reject illegal wiretapping of American citizens” and “we will not…detain without trial or charge prisoners who can and should be brought to justice for their crimes”. Four years later, the same enthusiasm is lavished upon a White House that fought for the renewal of the Patriot Act, signed the NDAA, and initiated the President’s Personal Kill List. What a long, strange trip it’s been, brothers and sisters.
Over the same four years, the GOP, perhaps feeling its territory encroached upon, managed to drain more water out of its pool. Already really, really bad – cf. George W. Bush using homophobia to buy electoral validation for a fraudulent, failed war – the party reinvigorated itself by hijacking the regressive, hypocritical, astroturfed Tea Party movement. Once back in (some) power, the Republican Party flailed about wildly, taking all kinds of positions, no matter how dangerous, nonsensical, or arbitrary. If you doubt the sheer rootlessness of the GOP, please recall when Obama sent troops into Libya and the same people who started two wars in the last decade, who shriek at any proposed (or supposedly proposed) military cut, and who won election after election portraying Democrats as weak on defense, actually turned dovish. Speaker of the House John Boehner wept that “[T]he limited, sometimes contradictory, case made to the American people has left some fundamental questions about our engagement unanswered”, evidently forgetting his joyful, unbothered support for the Bush administration’s frantic hodgepodge of justifications for the Iraq War. This newfound humanity lasted less than a month, but it was memorably weird.
Meanwhile, the party’s presidential nomination contest elevated a handful of lunatics, resurrected Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich, two rightfully slain ghouls, and even managed to tarnish the few good guys who showed up (check out the vacant expressions on Ron Paul and Jon Huntsman when their debate audience boos a gay soldier). Ultimately, to nobody’s surprise and everyone’s disappointment, the winner was the man with the most money. In the summer since he won the nomination, Mitt Romney has failed at every conceivable attempt to prove himself presidential, politically competent, or even human. His non-human qualities may inspire amusing memes, but they are also suggestive of the cold, unambitious, and backwards country America would be under Romney’s rule, when he would be a vessel for the nastiness of his retrograde party.
So the 2012 race has come down to a soulless suit who affects any position to get himself through the day – and fails at even that simple task! – and a hollowed-out progressive who’s done…much the same. Obama may have been overrated during the 2008 campaign, but the fact remains that he, not Hillary Clinton or John McCain, was the candidate who stood for the most mature, thoughtful, and humane policies. All of his past writings and work pointed to years of dedication to forward thinking. In four years, he’s shed that commitment with impressive ease.
This is not to say that the candidates are exactly the same; there are clear-cut differences on social policies. (Although a cynical person might point out that, since Obama has sold out on so much, what assurance is there that reproductive rights [say] will not be next?) (For the record, I don’t expect Obama to sell out on that particular issue, not because I trust his moral consistency, but because he’s smart enough not to take such an obviously losing stand.) But in many important ways, Romney and Obama are two nuts in the same fruitcake. Romney can woo people with lower taxes, but under Obama, tax rates are already historically low. The president pursues suspected terrorists in Asia with undiscriminating zeal, while his opponent vows to “double Guantanamo” right off of our shores. Not identical, no. But would you take fraternal twins?
A lot of Liberals have said that a presidential election is not the time to take a stand. But if not now, when? As politics and policy become dictated more and more by money, a vote is the only tool left to the Average Joe. Protesting is fine and necessary, but if the establishment knows it can always count on you to fall into line on election day, why would they bother to listen to your protest? If you don’t make politicians earn your contribution, they will focus their energies on those who do.
It’s been a disillusioning bummer of a term, but I must say, I actually feel pretty good. Not about the future of this country, which I expect to be foul and unacceptable, but about my own education. Yes, it was satisfying cheering the passage of Obamacare, but it’s more satisfying knowing that it was a bloated giveaway to the insurance industry. A painful truth is better than an opiating fantasy. To paraphrase (try not to hold this source against me) Karl Marx, casting off imaginary comforts is the first step towards gaining real comforts.
What’s more, as I’ve left my old groups, I’ve become more empathetic with all sorts of people, and more empathy is what life is really all about. I used to find libertarians, for instance, hopelessly annoying, but as I’ve evolved, I’ve come, in spite of substantial disagreements on policy and philosophical emphasis, to admire them for seeing, earlier than I, the nonsense of the duopoly. In the past, I was ginned up into believing that there was an intractable divide between me and any Republican voter, but now I can see that somebody who voted for McCain was most likely a victim of the same assault: I was boxed in the left ear, they in the right. We’re no longer opponents, but rather can share a commiserating shake of the head. “They got us,” we’ll say. “They got us good.”
Heath arrived at Hunter College’s Counseling and Wellness Services office right at 9:00am but, like everyone save the rare, happy workers, he delayed the onset of the day’s tasks by slowly reading through his accumulated emails.
From: Alicia L.
Subject: Thought of the Day
“I’m not at all contemptuous of comforts, but they have their place and it is not first.” – EF Schumacher
Aside from his relationship with his freshman year roommate, Heath had no prior experience in the field of mental health, but his position as a receptionist required no skills beyond a phone voice, the ability to spot typos, and the fortitude to ignore every natural impulse each morning, leave his bed, and climb onto the A train to share the world of limited possibilities with all the other hopeless commuters. (“I mean really hopeless, as in no hope ever,” wrote Daniel Clowes. “Those of you who have ridden the subway will recognize that this was not just some hallucination.”) Heath had issued himself a standing challenge to find one straphanger who looked even remotely happy, and every morning he failed. The working world was a cruel structure to demand so much more from its participants than it ever returned to them; a terrible perpetual motion machine, creating misery that dampened people’s dreams, staunched their sense of possibility, and resigned them to the inevitability of greater misery. (Heath had recently noticed that he was becoming a socialist, as if he didn’t have enough problems already.)
To halt (or at least delay) his total subsumption, Heath spent every spare moment at the office sketching anything that came into his eyeline, compiling research for the graphic novel he would (might? could?) write someday. After seven months, he had filled an entire sketchbook, an achievement that underscored and was in turn overwhelmed by the length of time he’d spent at the office. Sick at the thought of his tabled ambition, he hastily gathered the contact information for the art departments at each of the waiting room magazines he updated weekly, and sent them each a portfolio of his best drawings.
From: Isabelle C.
Subject: RE: Thought of the Day
So true…try to tell that to people today and they act like YOU are crazy!
The first time he’d given anyone a drawing was in the middle of his freshman year, when his roommate Alec had requested a portrait. “Exchanging personalized gifts demonstrates a serious investment in a friendship,” he explained, though Heath hadn’t asked. He was intimidated by Alec’s strong opinions and short temper, but the two of them got along fairly well, and Heath was flattered to have a picture commissioned. Upon receipt of the picture, his roommate did not respond in kind.
Alec spent a long minute glowering silently at the picture, then furiously stuttered while he pointed out offending details. “Is this really how you see me?” he demanded. With certain specifics isolated, Heath could almost see his point, but he still felt he’d drawn the picture without prejudice, capturing Alec’s receding hairline, but also his bright eyes. Furthermore, being completed, the picture was no longer “of Alec”, but rather, was only itself. But before he could offer these defenses, Alec raised a second question – “So what is your opinion of me?” – and from the moment Heath finished his answer – that, though he was intimidated by Alec’s strong opinions and short temper, he felt they got along pretty well – to the last time they saw each other in person – moving out of the dorm five tense months later – he found himself, more or less permanently, on the receiving end of Alec’s ire.
That experience rattled him greatly, but it wasn’t until the following year that he stopped giving out pictures entirely. Akina, the girl he’d been crushing on that season, was having her 20th birthday at a bar lenient towards underage patrons. Two hours in, he managed to secure her attention long enough to give her his gift, an 8.5x11, blue-and-black crayon drawing of crows against a suburban night, matted on a construction paper frame. In the bright fluorescence of his dorm room, it looked impressive, but as he watched Akina squint at it in the dim bar, Heath registered his error. He had been literally childish, making a drawing from kindergarten materials and presenting it to her on precisely the night she was emphasizing adulthood. After that evening, every drawing went directly into his files.
Heath was able to convince himself that his fear was professional prudence, for eventually he received a friendly response from the art editor of Psycho, a journal of psychological and sociological research and reporting. What its editors hoped would distinguish it was the pushy, contrary attitude of its writers (hence the selection of a title better suited to a Peter Bagge zine). Most of its articles began with an illustrated title page, and the art editor wanted to use Heath’s drawing for a piece titled, “In Defense of Insults: Why Your Bully was onto Something”. (Like all nominal contrarians, Psycho could only barely hide its desire for the approval of the powerful.) The drawing was of a group of middle-aged adults smiling and staring pleasantly, if blankly, ahead. The editor had annotated Heath’s original with arrows pointing to each character, affixed with words like “stupid”, “lazy”, and “pathetic”. Officially, Heath couldn’t abide by bullying or by people altering his work, but it was their magazine, and he had to admit that, in the rare moments when he redirected his anger outward, those were some of his favorite words.
From: Gail S.
Subject: Chocolate Lab?
Hi everyone! Is anybody interested in adopting a chocolate lab? He is my husband’s and my first dog and we have realized that we cannot commit to raising him. Rocky is 1.5 years old and very lovable, but you will have to train him because (unfortunately) we have not taught him anything!
He generally suppressed those feelings, as they were of neither philosophical satisfaction nor practical use, especially in the singles’ world that had been his reluctant focus since Mallory’s departure. He had no genuine yen to be dating, secure in the integrity of his lingering affection for Mallory, but he was maddeningly nagged by the knowledge that his excellent reason might be only a weak rationalization. A boy who was merely complacent or fearful of rejection could easily retreat behind an affected front of supposedly noble emotion. (Perhaps, too, he was wrong to understand her presence as preclusion: “I don’t think you ever really move on from someone,” suggested Jeffrey Brown. “You just make room in your heart for new people.”) Heath sincerely doubted this to be the case, but, knowing that doubt might very well be symptomatic of rationalization, he defied his natural impulses (a skill he was getting very good at) and pursued as many dates as he could.
Near Union Square, he met a chef whose interest waned visibly when he revealed that he wanted to be a cartoonist. (He had forgotten Alex Robinson’s injunction against that very admission.) He took a graphic designer to a bar in Bushwick, expecting they’d have much to talk about, but instead found silences so blatant that they couldn’t even make eye contact and were reduced to eavesdropping on another couple having a bad first date. “Do you like video games?” the man asked desperately, sending a jolt through Heath, not from sympathy, but from the harrowing realization that he was probably only a few minutes away from venturing such a terrible question himself. He shot pool with a first-year med student whose candor was easy to like – he was pleasingly ruffled by her unprompted admission, “I don’t bite my fingernails, but I do bite my cuticles” – but they had only two dates before she returned apologetically but resolvedly to her estranged neurologist boyfriend. Even without knowing the man, Heath conceded the validity of – and rather admired – her choice.
From: Michelle D.
Subject: DISCOUNTED TICKETS: SPECIAL STAFF ONLY OFFER
Ticket Center is happy to offer discounted Broadway and off-Broadway tickets at prices exclusively for Hunter College faculty and staff. Visit our website or our office and plan your perfect New York night.
It would have been unfair of him to compare those dates to June 10, 2011, except that he compared every day to that Friday. He had made plans with Mallory to meet at Tompkins Square Park, where she’d been spending her summer afternoons playing the public piano. He approached her from behind, and, without looking up, she began adding lyrics to her song:
Business goes broke,
Friends will deceive,
Family’s a joke.
Romantic travails leave you
Except maybe you.
She resolved the lingering chords and got up to offer the piano to the next performer, but nobody in the crowd dared to follow. Though it was on his mind through their entire picnic dinner, Heath didn’t mention her song until they were back at her apartment that evening. He commended her improvisatory skills, and Mallory confessed (as though it was in any way worse) that she had actually written “the doggerel” beforehand. Reaching over to the keyboard, she continued:
You overuse words like
“Perhaps” and “Unless”.
You know all about pencils,
But not how to dress.
You’re not self-assertive
Or physically tough.
It’s easy to see
Why I can’t get enough.
Heath couldn’t ably convey the vertiginous feeling he got from her singing, but he managed to offer a small compliment, which she quickly brushed away. She struggled to maintain the usual detachment in her voice as she confessed a fear that her musical skills were insufficient to maintain her uniqueness against the terrible world: “It’s easy to feel myself getting fainter.” At this, Heath found his words – many, many words – beginning with “yeah, but, see, it’s the other way: against you, the world starts to dim,” and concluding with “I love you.” (He actually said, “…I love you?”, the pause and rising inflection not indicative of internal doubt, but of delighted incredulity that such a beautiful woman was – by her flickering smile and soft eyes – giving him the prompt.
Later, as they lay in her bed, each wearing a t-shirt and a pair of his boxers, Mallory asked Heath if he would draw her portrait. “Even just with a ballpoint,” she said. He mumblingly demurred, feigning exhaustion, but actually wide awake with anxiety at her request. It was awful enough to have had a picture ruin a fleeting crush or a tenuous friendship. The idea of one devastating this evening was unthinkable. He was sure that any picture he drew would be incapable of capturing her adequately, of demonstrating his awe, of giving her the satisfaction she deserved. These justifications suited him until he left her apartment and was immediately struck by the terrible irony that his very effort to protect the evening had rent its perfection.
Pain is always worse when condensed into pithy phrases, the sort that had been rushing in to fill the vacuum left in Mallory’s absence. The worst one he’d developed was “She meant more to me than I meant to her”. It was impossible to prove, of course, but he couldn’t reason away the insistent voice that forced the notion. Worse, it was both conclusive enough to be hopeless and inconclusive enough to deny any relief. He was unable to release her (or, better said, release himself) as – it was in the very premise – she meant that much to him, even if they didn’t visit, even while he didn’t speak to her, even as she forgot about him.
To: Heath B.
From: Alec M.
Subject: Your Illustration
I saw your drawing in the August issue of “Psycho” and noted with disdain your inability to use your artistic interests toward any end but your own narcissistic relish. (In theory, the two should be incompatible.) It is heartening to see that you’re working in a mental health office, but given your total lack of self-reflective qualities, I doubt that, even in the presence of professionals, you will accept the help you need.
Heath read through the email twice, hoping to find even one phrase that wasn’t alarming. While it certainly couldn’t have been difficult for Alec to uncover his place of employment or his email address (though it was unsettling he had it done at all), finding his illustration in a low-rent trade magazine was incontestably obsessive. It was troubling enough to know that he had his own personal gremlin, but what upset Heath most was how the letter threw light on his own fixations. What difference was there between Alec’s fixation and his for Mallory? Heath could tell himself that his was rooted in adoration, but surely that was exactly the specious defense of a crazy man. He could commend himself for not sending Mallory an unprovoked email – indeed, for leaving her alone entirely – but it now occurred to him that the mark of genuine affection might not be to hide in the shadows. There was a duality, creepy and deceitful, in having gained her attention through kindness and gentility, and now lingering on that attention in a feverishly infatuated manner. (He considered the possibility that he was, in Adrian Tomine’s words, “the kind of person who looks okay at first glance, but is actually quite ugly”.) Heath wondered how he could consider himself so thoughtful and still originate such negative energy, and decided to go forward putting even less stock into his natural impulses.
To: Heath B.
From: Alicia L.
Subject: Need to meet
Heath, please come to my office as soon as you get this.
Many mornings, as Heath rode the elevators to his office, he said to himself, “Today is the day they will finally see through me.” But that was only a mantra, a way to assure himself that he didn’t belong to this world. He was actually quite stunned to be fired. When he walked in, Alicia held up the August issue of Psycho, and Heath instantly remembered the origin of his published drawing: he had copied the group photo from an old office Christmas card that sat on his desk. If he’d thought that he had any chance of recovery, he might have explained that a drawing, once completed, severed any connection to its subject and became a self-contained object. But he wasn’t sure if he actually believed that. He also considered telling Alicia that he wasn’t the one who wrote the invectives. But that seemed a rather picky distinction. He had drawn the picture and submitted it, and it was his fault that her face had been published bearing the legend, “Loser”.
He walked out of the office and onto the train, and refused to think at all until he was at the Hudson River Park. He finally understood that the people who have time to sit in the park on a weekday morning are not necessarily the free: they may be the doomed. (One and the same?) The sunshine provoked a brief wave of contentment that was quickly washed away by a dread he likened to the ominous atmosphere of Sunday afternoons, when the pleasure of time off is mocked by the looming Monday. This was worse, though: the only activity more painful than having a job was looking for one. He felt ashamed of his sense of entitlement, of having loathed a job that only degraded him mildly, when so many people suffered worse employment – or worst of all, suffered no employment. He failed as an obedient worker, and he failed as a sensitive socialist.
Suddenly, Heath realized that the pithy phrase under which he’d been operating was false. The problem wasn’t a world of limited possibilities. That was a misinterpretation caused by the dark confinement of the subway tunnels. In the bright sunshine, he saw that the problem really lay in limitless possibilities. He could publish a drawing and lose his job, or keep the job and lose himself. He could embarrass himself in front of chefs, graphic designers, med students, or any profession at all. He could draw a portrait and he could not draw a portrait, and he could be sure to offend either way. There was no reason he couldn’t be both pathologically lovestruck and paralytically fearful. An infinite panoply of grief lay before him and the idea of facing another day, another week, another 25 years and then another 25 more of no-win scenarios was inconceivable. The world was full of double-edged swords, but never when you needed one.
Heath stayed in the park as long as his shift would have lasted, and then for a few hours more. He leaned over a Pier 45 railing towards New Jersey, wishing that by sheer desire he could launch himself away into another life. But New Jersey couldn’t be that much different from New York. Any city in the country, or on the entire planet, for that matter, would fail to be a refuge. If he wanted a world where everything happened properly, he would have to create it himself.
Unless art, too, proved not to be enough. Heath wasn’t sure he could bear another heartbreak of that magnitude, but the only way he could learn if drawing was a waste of time was to waste his time drawing – another foreboding double-bind. But at least any misery so produced would fuel another drawing. (“That’s one thing about art,” wrote Daniel Clowes. “No matter how ashamed you are of what you’ve done, there’s always tomorrow.”) It was a tremendous perpetual motion machine. Heath pushed himself off of the railing and headed north to the 14th Street subway station, where he would meet further inspiration.
This story is a companion to The Visitor.
It seems impossible that any set of parents could sincerely dislike their child. Beyond the ingrained biological desires to protect their offspring that would give the relationship fairly sturdy grounding, the fact that the child was being raised in a world of the parents’ design would surely instill the child with behaviors, interests, and values acceptable to the parents. Still, if most parents find their children mostly pleasant, but afflicted with a few glaring faults, and a few raise offspring who surpass their every expectation, then there must be some couples who exist at the other end of the bell curve, parents whose children are never more than a dull burden to them. Eventually, Mallory came to accept her life as a statistical anomaly.
Ivy’s and August’s attitudes towards Mallory were never cruel or even unsupportive, merely uninterested. When, at age ten, she asked her parents to buy her a piano, they didn’t request a promise that she would practice everyday or warn her that this was not a present that she would receive without vowing to commit, as she later learned her school bandmates’ parents had all done. They simply bought it, and when she asked for a piano teacher, they hired the first person to respond to the flyer that Mallory herself had typed, printed, and posted around her father’s university. Her teacher was a longhaired graduate student who remarked on her progress with unironic uses of phrases like “that’s a drag” and “right on”, a tic that her parents would mock for hours after each week’s lesson. Their teasing wasn’t rooted in his hippiness, exactly. Ivy and August mocked everyone behind his or her back, which was technically democratic if not actually fair.
Ridicule was the only activity that stirred them from their natural imperturbability. Nothing else held their interests, as Mallory learned when she brought her mother the news that she’d mastered “Moonlight Sonata” and Ivy deadpanned, “To think, all you had to do was read the music.” After the sophomore year concert in which her piano playing led the orchestra through “Rhapsody in Blue”, August only remarked that her conductor “was certainly breaking ground with that obscure selection.” Ivy was more amused by the telephone book that Mallory needed to sit on to reach the grand piano’s keyboard.
In their estimation, her concerts were childish exhibitions, but for Mallory, short and relatively underendowed, music was the only attribute that made her feel grown up. While, biologically, she’d long since left childhood (four days during which Ivy’s standard detachment was particularly unhelpful), she felt hopelessly stunted when she compared herself to her classmates. By junior year, she’d only barely been kissed (by a trombonist, Doyle, while managing the sparsely visited ring toss at a fund-raiser), so her conductor’s announcement that her school band would be attending The Disney Honors music festival in Orlando the following April provoked an (internal) announcement of her own: that was the week in which she’d lose her virginity.
Having sex for the first time (or, indeed, at all) at Disney World was slightly dissonant, but, so much the better. Her parents had already been laughing at the idea of high school students being taken to a children’s theme park. How better to turn it around on them? Furthermore, setting a date six months in advance gave her time to take precautions against the hazards her sex-ed class had carefully impressed upon her. The shock of seeing dozens of photos of diseased organs, however, was far less than the shock Mallory felt when her class began the unit on family planning. The idea that parents would choose when to have their children and the corresponding sentiment that it was embarrassing to be a “mistake” puzzled her, for she’d always assumed she was unplanned.
It seemed impossible that her parents, whose lives had brought them to each other, had led them to tenured professorships, had gone so wholly according to plan, could have intended to have a child, but still be without any strategy for making the relationship successful. The proof of each day’s interactions was supplemented by the abundance of condoms Mallory found every time she opened any medicine cabinet. Packing for Disney World, she swiped a handful, replaced all but one, and then grabbed a second. She noticed that they were subtitled “Her Pleasure”, and smiled, pleased not only for the obvious reason, but also for the satisfaction of denying her mother pleasure.
The band was staying at Disney’s Contemporary Resort, an inverted V through which the park’s monorail zipped in and out. While the chaperoning parents sorted out room keys, Mallory finalized her selection: Brooks, first-chair oboe. He wore headbands and tie-died shirts of the mass-produced variety she would later learn was a hallmark of the nominally counter-culture. But he was a skilled musician, a unique conversationalist, and, as a self-styled libertine (so she’d heard him explaining on the airport shuttle), he was unlikely to obstruct her plans.
Mallory did shift her focus away from Brooks long enough to excel during Thursday’s performance, the centerpiece of which was Percy Grainger’s “Children’s March”. The concert hall could only offer her an electric keyboard, but under her fingers, it was better than a grand. She nailed the pentatonic scales, clipped her glissandos to perfect lengths, and even allowed herself to enjoy the bow her conductor signaled her to take. The second he set down his baton, Mallory wished only that he would pick it up again, that they could step back into the song. She remembered that, within certain parameters, she liked herself, and carried that confidence to her next task.
While the winds disassembled their instruments, she positioned herself behind Brooks to ask for his help in carrying the keyboard and amp. As they walked through the service hallways back to their rehearsal space, Brooks soaked up her compliments on his skill at oboeing in 11/8, landed an improbable number of witticisms, and took no time in accepting her offer to hang out. Mallory stuck with him for the next two days, stealing playful bites of his meals, “reflexively” grabbing him during roller coaster rides, and dancing with him during Sunday night’s closing gala. Though his persona obliged him to remain mellow, Brooks was visibly dizzy from her attention. By Sunday, he’d caught up, whispering into her ear while they danced. He had nothing romantic to say – he mostly complained about Thomas Edison and other “people who history has, like, put on a pedestal, and you know, they’re personally fucked up” whom he felt oughtn’t be honored at Epcot – but he was clearly prepared to follow her wherever she led. Riding the speeding monorail back to the hotel, she suggested they skip the covert after-party Doyle was hosting and go to his room. He said “sure.”
Mallory was temporarily flustered when she arrived at his room and realized that, wearing only her orange gown, she wouldn’t be able to strip off her layers gradually, as her plan had outlined. She asked Brooks for a set of pajamas and her offered her a pair of boxers and a tie-died shirt. She changed in the bathroom and looked into the mirror, expecting to have one last look at immaturity. Instead, she saw a startlingly well-cut figure. The snug hems of the boxers revealed legs that were shapelier than she’d ever noticed. Her upturned nose was not piggish, as she’d always assumed, but jaunty. Her chest, which she’d always found too easy to lose, filled out the t-shirt subtly but unmistakably. Without question, she wore the shirt better than Brooks, who used the psychedelic colors to distract from the prematurely expanded gut he balanced atop distressingly meager legs. (He hid it well, but she’d felt it all when he pressed against her, dancing at the gala.)
She could have ignored his physical shortcomings, but that line of thinking cracked open a door to a less forgiving examination of his personality defects. In three days, he hadn’t asked a single question about her. His conversation was limited to screeds against Edison, Shakespeare, and Einstein, all of which she suspected were apocryphal, and all of which she knew were boring. Brooks was mostly pleasant, but afflicted with a few glaring faults. Perhaps this was as much as she could reasonably hope for, but why settle for reason? She had discovered, at the concert, that a transcendent life lay within her reach.
Returning to Brooks, she felt mildly guilty for confusing him, and briefly considered performing a conciliatory gesture. But the idea of putting the same fingers that had been Thursday’s triumph to such ends was unthinkable. Instead, she jumped into the second bed, thanked Brooks for the pajamas, and clicked off the lamp. Once he fell asleep – a long wait for his neurons to stop firing in a vain search for reason – Mallory changed back into her dress and returned to her room. Replacing her handbag on her bureau, she caught sight of the two condoms she’d swiped. She was making a mental note to return them to their poorly hidden box in the medicine cabinet when a new thought struck her: Was it possible that she’d fallen into a trap her parents had set? It was a paranoid idea, and it was hard to imagine them even thinking of her long enough to bother. It wasn’t hard, however, to imagine them laughing as they pictured her caught in the fumbling, incompetent embrace of a pretentious 17-year-old.
She kept the condoms until next July, when, during a summer program in New York, she needed them. As a result of her performance in Orlando, she’d been asked to take part in a nationwide high school honor band performing in Carnegie Hall. There, she connected with a percussionist from the Upper West Side. Ivy and August never asked her how she liked Carnegie Hall, nor did they ask her, later that year, why she only applied to colleges in the city. Mallory never volunteered those answers, or any other personal information for the rest of her life. She accepted her monthly allowance, and spent their contributions on a life she kept secret from them. This wasn’t democratic, but it seemed entirely fair.
The 14th Street subway station was the worst place to catch the A. It seemed to be under perpetual construction, forcing too many trains to compete for one track. It was much better to travel from West 4th Street, but Heath’s walk along the Hudson River had left him too far north for that. As he passed through the turnstile, a group of travelers came up the stairs from the downtown-bound tracks, and among them he recognized Mallory. His theory that there are no bad surprises - because life’s normal routine is so awful that any unexpected event that alters its course is, by definition, wonderful - would have to be amended.
He had met Mallory two years earlier at an apartment warming. They talked about yard work and middle school tennis players. He spoke-sang along while she played “I Get Around” on the piano. Heath surprised himself by asking for her number after two hours, as opposed to waiting two weeks. In later days, he would convince himself that this uncharacteristic act was proof that, from the outset, he was in love with her.
Mallory walked down to the L platform and Heath followed her at a distance. Why didn’t you tell me you were here? In his mind, the question was merely quizzical, but any spoken tone he took felt aggressive. It was worth taking the time to avoid that, as this would be the first time he’d spoken to her in nearly a year, so rather than catching her on the platform, he boarded the train with her. Sitting down two benches away and holding the displayed side of his face in his hand, he watched her through his fingers.
They had dated for just over six months, walking around Manhattan, exchanging personalized gifts, and engaging in all of the other romantic behaviors that sound silly to everyone but the participants, whose vantage point allows them to see that theirs is the only behavior that isn’t foolish. They whispered phrases that he would have been embarrassed to hear in a movie, but which delighted him to perform live: “I woke up smiling today.” “You make the awfulness seem insignificant.”
They detrained at Lorimer Street and walked down Union Avenue, separated by 30 paces. Why didn’t you tell me you were here? The word to emphasize was “tell”, but he still wasn’t sure about the pitch or the speed. A flattened and laconic “tell” or a peaked and rapid “tell”? It wasn’t easy to develop his delivery and keep track of her. She seemed to be accelerating, and, dressed well, she blended in with the crowds of Williamsburg’s wannabe Manhattanites.
Mallory had left Manhattan a year prior, but she had the decency to admit it was a retrograde move. “New York is the best city,” she declared. “Anyone who says otherwise is just being nationalistic.” But she’d been offered a scholarship to The Boston Conservatory’s graduate program, and the pursuit of a dream was probably enough to insulate the mind against an unstimulating world. That was Heath’s theory, which was why he made no effort to stop her leaving. They said goodbye at the 14th Street subway station after taking one last walk along the Hudson. Phone calls and online chats were unsatisfying, so he gave up on those. He didn’t want to distract her from her studies, so he never visited her or dared to suggest that she visit him.
Mallory entered a building that was hosting a roof party, and after six minutes, Heath followed. The front door was locked, but he buzzed a few random apartments and mumbled into the speaker, waiting for a resident who was more willing to let a stranger into the building than demand ID into an evidently malfunctioning intercom. Up six flights of stairs he went, to a roof where guests danced before the Manhattan skyline that filled him with the same emptiness with which all beautiful sights now left him. It had become impossible for him to take comfort in purely external splendors, having lived long enough to experience beauty on the personal level. The memories his mind could retrieve filled him with an awe that no physical work of man or nature could inspire. His (yet unrealized) plan for happiness, then, was to take part in a tangible world that was consistently too beautiful to be adequately stored in his mind.
If any other guests were so beleaguered by this backdrop, they masked it well. His inability to share in the pleasures that delighted everyone else struck him mostly at parties, but often in parks and in restaurants, on holidays at home and on weekdays at work. (He derived a term – hypohedonia – for his narrow tastes in pleasure, an act which itself gave him pleasure, until he realized the word already existed.) Sometimes he thought it would be better if he was locked up and taken out of society’s circulation. Preparing for work in the morning, he would hesitate before slipping into his overly roomy khakis for eight hours (plus the commute), fantasizing about stepping outside and being greeted by men in white coats or men in black suits. “For your sake and ours,” they would say, “we’d like to offer you a padded room.”
Passing his eyes over the untroubled guests, he located Mallory leaning against a vent. Why didn’t you tell me you were here? The proper tone, he had decided, would be to expand his voice from “why” until “tell”, then contract it over the remaining three words. Like a siren, his pitch would peak at that crucial, central syllable. He was preparing to step over to her when he caught sight of a dancing man whose weight was, at a conservative estimate, pushing 300 pounds. He was the fattest young person Heath had ever seen. Sweat matted the man’s hair against his forehead and temples, and his laborious breathing was audible over the music. But he possessed a limitless energy, and the triumph of the action itself – his impulse to dance overriding his naturally limited mobility – lent the whole spectacle a noble beauty. To present himself this nakedly, Heath thought, would suggest that his self-perception is hermetically sealed, unassailable by any outside judgments. What must it be like to move so nimbly, unbound by the weight of your body, or the weight of your consciousness, or the weight of your past? The dancing so mesmerized Heath that he failed to notice Mallory until she was directly before him.
It was the first time he had seen her upturned nose or heard her permanently detached voice in nearly a year, yet both seemed so familiar. She had been foremost in his thoughts, not only in the year since she’d left, but also in every moment since he’d first met her. But for all its photorealism, this version of her couldn’t compare to the Mallory staring at him now. His mind was incapable of adequately capturing her.
Why didn’t you tell me you were here? The question was ready to go, the tone and the pacing practiced to perfection, but before his brain could transmit the proper signals to his mouth, they became enmeshed with every other thought he had of her: the asymmetrical way she scrunched up her lips, her irrational hatred for E major, an image of her leaning over a Pier 45 railing towards New Jersey. And a million new thoughts were coming to him now, just by the very sight of her. Too many trains were competing for one track, and Heath was unable to say anything before Mallory asked him a question.
“What are you doing here?”
Unprepared though he was to begin their conversation with anything other than his rehearsed line, hers was a reasonable question, so he answered it as concisely as he could, hoping to move on to his promptly. But his answer – “I saw you at 14th Street.” – elicited another question – “Did you follow me here?” – and answering that failed to close the discussion, and the rally went on for several shots. In spite of his having rehearsed all evening and Mallory being obliged to improvise, Heath’s answers grew progressively more meandering, while her crisp interrogations – “So you got on my train?” “That was you following me down the street?” “How did you get into the building?” – seemed almost scripted. By the time she settled into a silence that he hoped was satisfied but that he suspected was stunned, he had heard himself articulate such a lunatic series of thoughts and actions that it was no longer even necessary to ask her his question.
Despite having kept one for nearly four years, I’m still not sure for whom a journal is written. It can’t be written for other people, for that invites self-censorship (and furthermore, at that point, really, just do some editing and show people a short story if you want attention). At the same time, how does one write for oneself? Your thoughts will always be more meaningful to you in their natural amorphousness than they can be in concrete words. At best, a journal is a photograph of your mind: imperfect, but an acceptable representation, one that can at least jog your memory, and remind you of the person you used to be.
I began keeping a journal midway through my freshman year at college, the same week that I read Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem, which contains (in addition to an eerily timely piece on keeping a journal) an essay entitled “On Self-Respect”. The essay, as I wrote in my journal,
speaks uncannily to my current situation. Just to highlight some lines: “I lost the conviction that…these rather passive virtues that had won me approval as a child automatically guaranteed me…happiness, honor.”…”To live without self-respect is to lie awake…counting up the sins of commission and omission…the gifts irrevocably wasted through sloth or cowardice or carelessness.”
At the time, I was feeling as though I’d taken some grievous missteps during my first semester at NYU. At a time when I should have been outgoing, I had carved out a position of high-browed aloofness, refusing to – or rather, being too cowardly to – engage in normal social intercourse with my schoolmates. These were the “passive virtues” that had seemed to secure me approbation and serenity throughout my life, and I had seen no need to change. My adolescence was fairly painless (except for once, at age 14 [14!], when I was hoisted off of the ground by a large kite and dragged along the beach [past plenty of girls, I’m sure] for 50 feet) and I assumed that the tricks that had worked in a high school in Colorado would translate to an immense university in the country’s largest city. When this failed, I fell into a funk and – because the nature of the funk was thinking I had no close friends – poured it all into the journal.
But reading Didion’s essay alleviated the gloom. “I don’t know why,” I wrote at the time, “but seeing this in print has lifted almost everything off of my shoulders.” I now know why: I was relieved to see that my feelings were not unique, and therefore, not without a cure. (One of the most alienating parts of rereading these journals is glimpsing epiphanic moments like this and realizing how many “breakthroughs” of mine are now so obvious and axiomatic that I’m embarrassed to bring them up.) The cure, I believed, was to reverse course, and begin sharing my feelings with others, a task I attempted clumsily for the next year.
From January of 2008 to March of 2009 my journal was bloated with useless details (“I went to work, took a break to take a psychology study, then went back to work.”), which is also how I conducted personal conversations that year. In my effort to connect more deeply with my friends, I subjected them to excruciating stories and half-stories in which no incident was too meaningless to ignore, and no detail was too irrelevant to merit inclusion. Their patience was admirable, and I was sure to note their – and any – kindness in treacly journal entries: “If you have people who like you…and who are concerned for you, then you have a lot. It was touching to hear that _____ evidently cares about my well-being.” And that was in reference to a kid who had been gossiping about me.
Eventually, I was able to get those interactions under control, and the remainder of 2009 passed undramatically. I was finally occupying the psychological space I’d been hoping to inhabit since I started the journal. But restlessness gradually crept in. By December, I wrote, of an action I was considering taking, “Perhaps trouble and drama will arise, but then, I always get a perverse enjoyment out of that.” For the sake of giving myself something to think about, I began working myself into anxieties so patently manufactured that one entry’s parenthetical closure – “How do I manage to make myself so distressed all the time?” – was immediately followed by another, berating myself for the phony protestation of innocence.
Whatever was missing from my life was apparently instated when I went to Ireland, for the next six months of the journal are full of cheer, excitement, and, because I was in such a good mood, some straight-up jokes. (Since I’m never going to write a travelogue, I may as well use this joke here: “I walked along the River Liffey, passing its numerous bridges, including the Samuel Beckett Bridge, which, presumably, will not actually take you across the river.”) Page after page is filled with glee. I was living in rarefied air, but if I knew it then, I certainly didn’t show it. “How nice that some things only get better,” I wrote at the end of my trip, swiping a blurb from a Harry Potter book jacket.
I continued in this tone until July, at which point the journal gets very heavy. I suffered a big embarrassment, the shame of which lasted two months, easily eclipsing the 30 seconds I was kite-dragged across the beach. The entries I wrote during this period are so primal that I’m almost proud of them. They’re naked displays of raw humanity – the intellectual version of Cro-Magnon Man killing and devouring a saber-toothed tiger – unlike anything I had hitherto expressed. “I felt like a cowardly asshole,” I scrawled, “I felt angry, embarrassed, betrayed, and depressed beyond all reason.” “I have failed repeatedly, in increasingly wretched ways.” (Yes, “increasingly wretched” is a phrase I use in the heat of my emotions.) Even in later, calmer, more reflective entries, I was writing passages in which I weighed the total sum of my life and concluded, “More so than not, this does not reflect the person I want to be.”
But from that summer, I developed the personality that I have today, the one that seems to suit me best. That incident (combined with the Christopher Hitchens/counter-culture fandom I picked up at the same time) has made me less approving of the world, more prepared to see the worst. But these allegedly cynical qualities have actually made me more satisfied. Because I went through such a vigorously emotional experience, I’ve conquered the inability to forge emotional connections that dogged me in 2008. By looking at the world more critically, I can always find the intellectual stimulation whose absence left me feeling so restless in 2009. And the more negative worldview I’ve developed doesn’t preclude me from feeling joy as I did in Ireland; it makes the joy stand out. “I may have concerns about the future,” I wrote after one great day, “both on the personal and extrapersonal levels, I may feel despair about much of the world, but I have a group of immensely intelligent, witty, fun people in my life.” When 2010 drew to a close, even the dreariness of the summer gave me no hesitation in labeling it my best year yet.
It seems to me that the personality I have now is the last stage in my evolution, but I’m sure that’s how I felt at every intermediate stage. In his essay “Centrally Located”, Jonathan Franzen writes that the agony of adolescence comes from feeling the genuine emotions of the experience alongside the awareness that the real world is yet to come and that none of these genuine emotions actually matter. “This cruel mixture of consciousness and irrelevance” he explains, “is enough to account for how pissed off you are.” But this sensation isn’t limited to teenagers. “The double bind, the problem of conciousness mixed with nothingness, never goes away. You never stop waiting for the real story to start, because the only real story, in the end, is that you die.”
The “me” I am today seems entirely suited to The Real Story – more than any earlier “me” does. But if Franzen is as right as he usually is, then this version of myself will eventually just be another exhibit in the procession. And if that is the case, what consequence does that have for the beliefs and values under which I operate every day? In what ways am I dead wrong again? It’s an unsettling train of thought. (On the other hand, it’s equally unsettling to imagine that, yes, I have figured it all out, and I’m going to stay this way for the remaining 75 years of my life. [I’m estimating high because I just became a vegetarian.])
I haven’t written in my journal for some time, because nothing interesting has happened to me for some time. But when things pick up again, I’ll resume the project. It’s satisfyingly mysterious to look back on a time gone by, a time when I could write, “For the bleak and uncaring universe that it is, it certainly has done me a gracious turn” and not have any second thoughts about the sentiment. That’s why this is a record worth having: it’s a window to a past that’s at once familiar and totally unfathomable. When you write a journal, you’re not writing for yourself, but for the person whom you never imagine you’ll be.