So It Goes

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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. 

—Steve Almond, Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life 

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? 

Plus One

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’ve Never Done This Before

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.

Words I Wish I’d Never Spoken

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.

5. “I love you.”

I pulled out an ancient iPod today and was both surprised and delighted to find that Ned’s Atomic Dustbin was still part of its now miniscule-looking memory. I remember playing God Fodder on endless repeat before Mrs. O’Field’s West Virginia History class, sullenly pretending to give a shit about the state’s first explorers (SUCK IT, GOVERNOR SPOTSWOOD) before slumping into my seat on the bus to play the rest of Side Two.

I tried my best to summon some kind of angst in time with the music, even though the only things I could’ve possibly been upset about during those circa-1992 afternoons were the fact that I scuffed my new K-Swiss kicks or that the bus went the long way through my parents’ subdivision. “So you want me to smile? I’LL TRY.”

Sometimes I think I owe my folks an apology that lasts for a solid decade.

"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.