My hot upstairs neighbor has gotten a puppy. I give it another 48 hours before I blurt out something stupid in the elevator, like “SO ARE YOU GETTING NEUTERED I MEAN THE DOG IS THE DOG GETTING NEUTERED, NOT YOU, YOU LOOK PRETTY VIRILE, NOT THAT I CAN TELL BY STARING DIRECTLY AT YOUR CARGO SHORTS LIKE THIS BUT I BET YOURE DOING OK DOWN THERE OK WELL THIS IS MY FLOOR GOTTA GO JUMP OUT MY WINDOW NOW”
"—-you know, I’ve either had a family, a job, something has always been in the way but now I’ve sold my house, I’ve found this place, a large studio, you should see the space and the light for the first time in my life I’m going to have a place and the time to create.”
no baby, if you’re going to create you’re going to create whether you work 16 hours a day in a coal mine or you’re going to create in a small room with 3 children while you’re on welfare, you’re going to create with part of your mind and your body blown away, you’re going to create blind crippled demented, you’re going to create with a cat crawling up your back while the whole city trembles in earthquake, bombardment, flood and fire.
baby, air and light and time and space have nothing to do with it and don’t create anything except maybe a longer life to find new excuses for.
So the other night I was at the gym, staring at my watch and hoping that in the next twenty seconds I’d be able to remember whether I’d already done four sets or only three. Before my Timex bleeped to tell me that it was time to pick the bar up again, a pair of twentysomething girls came up the stairs and crossed the room. They might’ve been two or three Chuck Taylor-lengths past me when one of them sort of tosses her head in my direction and says “Yeah, I do not want to look like that.”
To borrow a line from Mike Birbiglia, what I should’ve said was nothing. What I actually said was “I don’t want to look like me either. That’s why I’m here every day.” Both of them stared at me with their oversized anime eyes, their jaws silently dropping past the hems of their capri pants. There wasn’t really anything else to say, so I went back to my now-overdue deadlifts and they scurried off to the corner to start doing something with one of those exercise balls, the kind the copywriter in your office uses as a desk chair.
But when I was walking home with storm clouds gathering in the back of my throat, I thought of all the other things that I wanted to say. You don’t want to look like me? Fine. You’re probably not going to, because I get the feeling that we have totally different goals. And somewhere between Wythe Avenue and Berry Street, I realized that my goals have nothing to do with the way I look, for good or bad. I like being strong, stronger than I’ve been in my entire life. I like feeling capable, I like lifting a little more weight than I did six months ago or six weeks ago or even six days ago. And I like the confidence that comes with that, the kind of confidence that doesn’t always show up if you spend your time measuring your progress against your own reflection. Or against a total stranger who’s sweating through her threadbare Huey Lewis tour shirt.
I’d also tell her that maybe she should set, like, a more concrete goal. How hard do you have to work to NOT be something? I mean, sure, I’m not exactly sending love letters to either one of my legs but saying “I don’t want them to look like that” isn’t going to get me as far as “I want to squat 100KG by the end of the year.” (Although those of you who’ve seen my squat know that brilliant idea probably won’t get me anything other than a day trip to Disappointment either. BUT STILL!)
I don’t know. Maybe I’m just tired or maybe I’m overanalyzing or maybe it’s an assortment of things. Or maybe I just need a new desk chair.
I’d just gotten off the J Train and was heading to the boxing gym when the dad and daughter in front of me stopped suddenly. He dropped her hand—she was probably 7 or 8, but I’m terrible at judging these things so she might’ve been 40—turned to face the Greek-lite Chambers Street station and said “Let’s selfie!”
I’m not gonna lie, his enthusiasm and her willingness to go along with it were both adorable. Being sentimental is rarely my default setting, so I’m always totally surprised by it. I immediately shrugged my backpack higher on my shoulders and walked faster toward the crosswalk, thinking about nothing but ducking and swerving and keeping my elbows tight.
But I did look back, just once, in time to see him pocket his phone and take her hand again. And that was pretty goddamn cute.
I was just staring—unashamed, wide eyed, open mouthed staring—at an insanely good looking guy, one with a sharp suit, sharper cheekbones and the kind of shoulders that never let his shirtsleeves catch their breath. “This soccer cup just started,” I heard him say to his friend. “And I’m already friggin’ sick of it.”
He doesn’t know it, but we broke up about twenty seconds ago.
'If I threw myself at you any harder, the Texas Rangers would sign me.'
That is a real thing that I seem to have texted to a guy last night, a comment that falls somewhere between dumb and regrettable. On the bright side, it’s still less embarrassing than being an actual Texas Rangers pitcher. (And no, he didn’t text me back.)
We had wound up, instead, as wannabes, geeks, professional worshippers, the sort of guys and dolls who walk around with songs ringing in our ears at all hours, who acquire albums compulsively, who fall in love with one record per week minimum and cannot resist telling people—people frankly not that interested—what they should be listening to and why and forcing homemade compilations into their hands and then calling them to see what they thought of those compilations, in particular the syncopated handclaps on track fourteen.
This man—this man who I have never met—might understand me more than I understand myself. And he definitely understands me more than the recipient of that last mix CD, the one that kicked off with a Robert Wyatt cover of “I’m a Believer” and ended with a ballad by a seventies singer-songwriter who is rarely described without some seasonal varietal of the word “failed.”
But really, what did you think about those handclaps?
I’m never getting married, I proudly remind people at any opportunity: on first dates, during commercial breaks, waiting for prime rib at a wedding reception.
Never, I unnecessarily repeat, my italicized emphasis cutting in line, elbowing their unrelated thoughts out of the way. They’d been wondering about the origins of the Electric Slide about the purpose of charger plates, about the cool pink center of perfect medium rare
'I don't need a gift registry! I have kitchen shit I don’t use, an abandoned George Foreman, an unemployed blender,’ is the next thing I say when I’m sober.
'I don't want to make promises that I’m incapable of keeping,’ is the next thing I say when I’m not.
In both cases, I force feed the listener from a buffet of congealed views on fidelity and commitment, claiming that I can’t—or don’t—understand any of it. All that you can eat, more than you can stomach.
Friends and semi-strangers and those unfortunate enough to be seated beside me nod silently, lips tight, eyes racing across my shoulders toward the closest conversational exit
A band being paid an hourly rate plays a Jackson Browne song.
I’m thirty-four, old enough to realize that there’s a thin line between independence and loneliness, a line thinner than the card stock on the flimsiest Save the Dates, the cheapest invitations.
I’m not sure I believe in my words any more than I believe in the vows I’ll never say but I’ve let my insistence define me much longer than it should’ve. An aging child star, forced to repeat her catch phrase at fan club conventions.
But rather than reflect or, even worse reevaluate, I’ve reprised my one-hit, added a new verse, dropped a mix-tape remix.
'Penguins are the only other mammals who even PRETEND to be monogamous,’ I say in all caps, quickly hiding several essential facts under the parquet dance floor.
I think it’s penguins, but it could be hedgehogs or the brightly colored birds painted on Caribbean postcard stamps or some other animal you can’t picture having sex.
I’m thirty-four and it’s still two hours until my fifth glass of this couple’s signature cocktail will lead to a year of bad decisions with the maid-of-honor’s stepfather.
This could be more Jackson Browne or a Van Morrison B-side. The lead singer is unconvincing when he coughs out either man’s words, an unreliable narrator even when he says good night.
I’m twelve, asthmatic and wheezing in the thick air of summer camp dusk, watching cabins pair off to make promises they’ll forget when their parents show up.
I cut a neat X across my palm that night, even though no one asked me to. I stand in the gathering dark, feeling the blood slide down my fingers before dripping silently to the dirt.
I saw a pair of Frye boots stacked together at the shoeshine stand both buckles winking at me when I walked past, alluring and tacky at the same time. An Invisiligned smile with a gold incisor.
They reminded me of that morning when he sat crosslegged on my floor, reaching for an identical pair. We blinked and squinted through hungover small talk, when even whispered one-syllable words sound like Keith Moon testing out power tools.
"We should get together again," he said.
We didn’t know it was a lie at the time.
That morning I think he meant it, not like those lines I’ve served the hosts at the end of disappointing cocktail parties. Flaccid nights of soggy appetizers and novelty napkins, forced smiles as they scrape $20 of cold Trader Joe’s specials into a scented trash bag. "We should get together again," I’ve said. The words always surprise me as they run past my teeth. The lie never does. I meant to do that. I don’t think he did.
I’d had a crush on him for years, since the day we met, as ridiculously scripted as that sounds.
We lived close enough to share the same district court judge the same regional accent the same Target pharmacy but our lives didn’t intersect unless we made an effort, which meant sending an email.
He had to know. Had to. I stood too close to him too many times on the sticky floor of a downtown rock club, our shoulders just touching. We stared at each other when we should’ve been looking at someone else. At least that’s what I think he was doing. He might’ve been looking for the bathroom.
Last summer we were both single at the same time for the first time in several years, in too many years. Since before selfie was a word. Before there was a gluten-free aisle. Before we took McConaughey seriously.
He wore those boots on our first proper date. Neither one of us called it a date, but it had to be. I don’t sweat like that otherwise. It’s hard to feel sexy when you have Florida swamp, Minnesota lakes, Mississippi River, an entire uncomfortable country pooling under each leg. Mark Twain could’ve extracted a short story from the tide rushing under my right thigh.
But it was a date, It had to be. There were cloth napkins and drink specials, multiple forks, specialty spoons, nothing made of plastic. The conversations overlapped, outran us. Or they did until I told him that I’d be chasing another guy if he were single.
"Do you want to come over," I asked. "To watch a Robert Wyatt documentary?” That line might’ve been deployed once before Probably in another country, Definitely in another decade. It was dusty and outdated, hidden on a shelf behind discontinued cereal brands Nuttin’ Honey Smurfberry Crunch and my shit attempts at charm.
But it worked.
We fell into each other while Elvis Costello and Robert Wyatt explained the meaning of “Shipbuilding” in tasteful black and white. That was probably inappropriate on a number of levels.
I heard Costello say those were his best lyrics. His tongue pinned mine to the soft mat of my mouth while I tried to think of better ones. "Alison" is too obvious. "King Horse," maybe. He bit my bottom lip, tested it, tasted it. "Man Out of Time" "Beyond Belief" "Less Than Zero"
He was a musician. He still is. The guy, I mean, not Elvis Costello. That’s true for him too, but Costello’s never been naked in my living room asking to borrow a toothbrush.
His fingerprints are all over my favorite records. They were all over me too, in a more literal sense. Although the figurative ones, the mixed metaphors will last longer. They have. They will.
"I like your boots," I said the next morning while he was still naked on all fours, looking for an errant sock under the sofa. The pose was half-seductive, half Carl Spackler. I have complicated feelings about Caddyshack.
"I’ve had them for years," he said, his voice distorted between the furniture and the floor. "They were just resoled for the third time. They’ll outlive me. They’ll last forever.”
It would be a clever, possibly cloying literary device if I wrapped this up by saying
that nothing lasts forever.
But those boots probably will,
just to spite me.
I didn’t really like them, although I said I did, which makes us even. Scoreboard. Score-fucking-board.
The sign above this duplicate pair written in blue ballpoint ink says that it’ll cost seven bucks to shine them. It costs nothing to forget. It costs nothing to knock them to the ground.
1. That story about the weekend when I was invited to go rollerblading on two separate occasions, by two strangers. The owner of a café in Prospect Heights sat down across from me while I tore into a mid-afternoon plate of eggs. “What kind of music do you like?” he asked.
"Oh, you know, power pop, Canterbury prog, Robyn Hi—."
"Me, I just listen to Zeppelin," he said, excitedly interrupting me. "Yesterday, I put on my headphones, grabbed my Walkman and just rollerbladed for nine or ten hours. All Zeppelin."
"Wow," I said, because what else can you say? I had followup questions, mainly about battery life and what kind of socks he wore (and sub-questions involving thickness and their sweat-wicking capabilities) but I don’t ask any of them.
"You should rollerblade with me next time." He scribbled his phone number on his pale green order pad. "I have another Walkman."
"I don’t think I’ve rollerbladed for ten hours, total, in my entire life."
"I do it all the time," he said, pushing the page across the sticky table towards me. He stood up. "It keeps me alive. So does Zeppelin."
I couldn’t tell if he’d written two 3s or two 8s. I kept his number anyway.
The next day, it was the woman who’d been seated at my table in a distractingly loud dim sum restaurant in Chinatown. “So,” she said, between bites of pork bun. “Do you ever rollerblade?”
When I finished telling this story, four or five Jamesons into the next Saturday night, I punctuated it with the kind of exaggerated shrug perfected by Paul Reiser in circa-1992 press photos. “I mean…did I walk into a Mountain Dew commercial or what?”
It was met with collective disinterest, much like Paul Reiser, circa-now. The author sitting across from me—a man I’d just met, hours after seeing his high-gloss face in a bookstore’s window display—spoke first. “Why is that weird? I rollerblade.”
"It’s just…I just… No, it’s not weird at all." I stared at the wet drops slipping down the side of my glass, waiting for someone to change the subject and wondering which ex-boyfriend might still have my old rollerblades in his garage.
2. That detailed list of how much cheese I ate over the weekend. Shouting “Gruyere, don’t care!” doesn’t make it sound any better. I realize that now.
3. Anything involving Crossfit.
4. A pointless story about how I discovered Black Sabbath because of the cover of “Supernaut” by the one-off Trent Reznor and Ministry side project 1000 Homo DJs. As the words dropped out of my mouth, carpooling with a thousand intermittent “um’s” I realized how little I know about either Ministry or Black Sabbath. Interrupting a totally unrelated conversation to read their respective Wikipedia entries out loud from my stupid phone screen didn’t help. Neither did mispronouncing Al Jourgensen’s name.
"So, like I always say, it all comes down to how much you need to inflict yourself on the world. You’re good enough. If you kiss the right ass, you could certainly make a career […] Sure, there are stars, most of them hacks, who make silly amounts of money, but for the rest of us, it’s just endurance, perdurance. Do you have the guts to perdure? To be dismissed by some pissant and keep coming? To be dumped by your gallerist? To scramble for teaching gigs? It’s not very glamorous. Is this what you want? You’re good enough for it. You’re not the new sensation, but you’re good enough to get by. But you have to be strong. And petty. That’s really the main thing."
Sam Lipsyte, The Ask
This paragraph gives possibly the best advice and asks the toughest questions about pursing a career in the arts—as a painter (like the narrator), as a writer (like me) or other pursuits you’d file in that same broad category—than anything else I’ve read.
I wish someone had quoted it at my college graduation. Would it have changed anything? Nope. But at least I would’ve known what I was in for.