for Leonard Michaels
For most of the aughts, Ellen was the smartest person I knew. She dressed impeccably for parties, she always knew the right moment to use the word ‘oeuvre.’ People were delighted to be in her presence, as if she glowed incandescently. Later she came down with an eating disorder and wasn’t quite as fetching as in earlier years. After all this, she asked me what she was like then, since a woman is rarely aware of her powers. I told her. She exclaimed, “But I was a failure!”
I attended a university where I was perplexed most of the time. In Wayland dorm I met Danish, who had the misfortune to be even more alienated than I was. His roommate spent all his time working out and continually watching movie trailers on his iMac. We observed him with a mixture of fascination and regret that we could not be as he was.
I took a class on the Caribbean writer Maryse Condé; I was the only non-African American female in the class. Once I was pumping my leg up and down absorbed in some lewd thought or another. Someone touched me on the shoulder and asked me very nicely to stop shaking the ground.
My college friend Andrew never found such emphatic endings to his conquests. He preferred to slowly bring up suggestions/complaints to his girlfriends. Once, without thinking, he told a very lovely girl she was too tall.
A phone call or dinner used to be required for intimacy. Then, suddenly, it became available wholesale. I experimented with how quickly I could become close to someone, how emphatically I could ascend in their worldview. All closeness seemed magical, and then waned, and this too was natural.
For the longest time I pretended the pleasure of everything wasn’t in its anticipation. Enjoying things became passé, remembering the past fondly was easier on the heart. Danish began dating someone seriously, and all else seemed like a major joke in comparison. When I met his girlfriend, her eyes shone with his light, which in retrospect strikes me as gay.
Ellen and I caught up later. I could tell she was better, but none of her normal pallor had returned. In this fashion I began the inevitable process of confusing pity with sexual attraction, an eventuality that I learned was actually best described in Stanislavsky’s An Actor Prepares and the work of Harold Brodkey.
A few of my friends entered the military because they wanted to try to change who they were. For the most part they were successful in this venture.
The first college girlfriend I had was named Alice. She wasn’t necessarily as into Fiona Apple as I would have liked, but she did find my then-cutting edge jokes about 9/11 humorous. The morning that 9/11 happened, my political science professor ignored what was happening in favor of what was on our syllabus. It was difficult to respect him, or anyone, for awhile.
I became friendly with a couple that lived nearer to the bottom of College Hill named Jasmine and Ted. They entertained a coterie of lovers and sycophants that I found amusing before I realized I was one of them. As an icebreaker, I used to ask girls their SAT scores. This rarely worked out as well as it might have, but I wasn’t deterred in the least. There is a real glory in being as obnoxious and self-involved as you can for short periods, provided you can get over it by Yom Kippur.
Although usually the life of the party, Danish would occasionally get surly if a frat house didn’t treat him with proper respect. If a frat boy tried to argue with him, Danish made a habit of mocking his girlfriend’s hairstyle and choice of handbag. Once, one of these offended young women punched me in the face. Another time, someone was dragging my couch across the Quad, and when I asked the guy what he was doing, I recognized him as my English 21 TA.
I met a jittery Irish catholic named David with a penis shaped like a soda can. Shockingly, he was incredibly attractive to women. Once, he introduced us to his new girlfriend, a recovering alcoholic. As Andrew put it, “Either we’ve lost a drinking buddy, or she’s about to have a hard life.”
Somewhere in there, Dave Eggers decided he’d prefer to only half-shave his face everyday.
Jasmine and Ted wed somewhere in Chelsea, I gave a moving but inappropriately long toast about how much they taught me about love. Old acquaintances and lovers swished around on the floor, Jasmine’s sisters were dressed exquisitely. I wrote a rather solemn poem about my emotions that took its cues from Byron’s “The Dream” while Andrew blew coke in the bathroom in what I assumed was a committed tribute to Jay McInerney’s masterful Bright Lights, Big City.
When I told Ellen I couldn’t stand to see her anymore, she seemed distracted or unwilling to listen. There should be a term – there probably is a term – for nostalgia for something that hasn’t happened yet. I explained this to her. She said, “I know what you mean.” I still wonder if she did know. She began dating a guy who had the word executive on his business card and smelled like vanilla.
In a writing workshop, a troubled young woman wrote about an unhappy sexual experience (cunnilingus) with a classmate, who happened to be sitting next to her. The story took place during the sex act in the minds of the characters, in what I privately felt was a ripoff of that Susan Minot book. The normally quiet classmate objected to the story on several grounds, trying to improve it seriously. Our professor said (to someone), “I can’t help but wonder how much of yourself is in it.” “Didn’t you guys see Todd Solondz’ Storytelling!” I screamed.
I worked for a novelist who lived in an apartment overlooking a park on the Lower East Side. I noticed he didn’t have any male friends, except a noted artist who had recently passed on. I felt the urge to ask him the reason for this predilection. “Why would I want to talk to a man,” he said, “when I can talk to these beautiful creatures?” Shortly thereafter, I found myself leaving his employ.
Danish began to work at Google. The guy who created Urban Dictionary worked on his floor. No matter what we pitched him, he always told us no.
My dad met some of my college friends. “Your gay friend seems nice,” he said, pointing to Morgan. “Because of the sideburns?” I said.
Before a writing workshop I was in, a red-haired girl with knee-high socks and what I viewed as an extremely poor attitude asked me, after reading what I’d written, if I was insane. I reread the offending story and felt I had to concur. Until then, I had not realized this no doubt pertinent development.
Ellen revealed that she’d been dumped by the executive and was now fielding offers. She used to control men with the glint of a smile, the sweep of a blouse. Now they controlled her, or so it seemed. I asked her what was most difficult about her breakup. She said, “He used to bring me warm milk before bed every night.” That took me about four weeks of therapy to work out.
In the 00s I tried to like people I wouldn’t normally have liked. More and more, people were vastly different from their appearance, a development I attributed to adults rather than children being my peers. When I met someone I cared about, I usually informed them of this directly. In a similar case I took up an indirect approach that met with better results. Then I switched back again. After a fashion, I surmised that it was the world that was changing, not me.
At first I introduced myself to people without thinking. Then I became more cautious. What benefits could I bring them? What boons, what booty? The uncanny wisdom, the magnificent self-deprecation; how could they possibly interact with me and not grow irrevocably changed for the worse?
Since my parents never divorced, I witnessed the first serious endings to long relationships. Frederique had been dating a guy who worked at a magazine; directly before dumping her he passed along a year’s worth of issues in a bound volume.
I worked for various people: Nobel Prize winners, toity fools, moronic news anchors, magnetic visionaries, complete shitheads. All of these flawed people had one thing in common: they had no idea how to blog.
Once I found myself walking across an island near the coast of the Eastern seaboard. It was early morning. The date seemed significant, but I found I could not recall it. Ahead of me, Ellen raised her skirt and let it blow through the mist. I thought of a place we could go, but we never went there.
Soon enough it was explained to me that apparently I liked unavailable people, enjoyed drawing them out the way they’d never be able to do with me. After this process, I grew bored with what they couldn’t provide me. This struck me as something of a devil-may-care attitude and I resolved to keep it up no matter how much pain I caused myself.
A movie came out based on my early years called 8 Mile.
Sometimes I will hear from someone I knew in the 00s. (This happens fairly regularly, since this is still the 00s.) Occasionally it will be a person I met in the 90s. I am astonished and not infrequently appalled that they consider the Alex they knew then to be in any way similar to the me that exists now. They are confused. Increasingly, their messages describe events that I can’t fully recall. Perhaps I can blame a selective memory, but some of these incidents, as described in their correspondence, sound glorious. My life was so obvious, it would have been such a simple matter to grab it and not let go.
I visited Danish in San Francisco, where he chose for his lodging the top of the highest hill. He seemed happy, if a little restless. His ex-girlfriend drove us around Berkeley. His hair was wild like the mane of a fetching pony. She took some unknown delight in this. Her jokes about American Idol were essentially spot-on. I took pictures of them together.
One of my sociology instructors had served an unhappy term in the Israeli army. He was an impressively ethical man; I loved showing off what an incredible moralist I was. I went over to his house on Thayer Street for Passover and he got me so drunk I fell asleep in some rose bushes. After I told him what had happened, he said, “I knew you were a pussy.”
After a spirited debate, I was awarded the title of most empathetic person on Earth.
I met Molly Lambert in playwriting class. She didn’t stop talking for three full minutes before I got a word in. Morgan tried to make out with her on Halloween but was shut down. Danish told me that anyone who went to Harvard-Westlake was bad news. Molly’s play was called Bake-Off, and she forced our professor to play a wacky hippy who takes LSD in her staged reading. I was the only one amused by that. I had never made a friend from Los Angeles before.
Whenever I think I’m about to see someone I know on the Williamsburg Bridge, I cover my face with my hands.
I remember talking about Stanley Elkin’s teaching methods with my advisor, a woman who had released three similarly brilliant novels. After reading a student’s first chapter, he sketched an entire cliched manuscript that would no doubt follow. He did it to show what a predictable hack his disciple was. I listened attentively to my advisor’s long blond locks and stroked her Alaskan malamute Tony. She said, “You will find it impossible to believe what all the people you know now will become.”
My mother wrote a novel and asked me to read it. In it my father perishes and she’s left with my brother and I. We’re very affected by Dad’s death, but we are able to move on. I returned the novel to her with the typos corrected.
Meeting people unhappier than you are is Darwin’s mood corrective. There is always someone who has it worse and is still paying for it. For example, I recall feeling terrible about one of my romantic disappointments. I related the story of the incident to David, who couldn’t stop smiling. “Someone loves you,” he told me. I never could take him seriously after that.
Once I met a very special woman. My own interest surrounded her every thought. The fact that I was capable of this kind of affection was wildly out-of-character. Unfortunately, she also perceived this and the relationship fell apart quickly thereafter. It is astonishing how much of life is mere accident, however predetermined it appears in hindsight. Much later, she approached me with the kind of maddening reserve you expect from debutantes, a fashion that always signals doom.
My professor of poetry picked me up in an Oldsmobile the color of dogshit. We went to Keith Waldrop’s house and watched Cocteau’s Orphée with a bunch of other people. His wife had recently left him, and he was drinking too often. When he taught us Spring and All, I didn’t believe a single second of it.
“It does no good,” I recall explaining to Andrew, “to be both sensitive to others and not tough enough to inure yourself from them.” “You sound like a seven year old,” he said. “Grow up.”
Life spiraled onward, you could never get a month off to just think about stuff. My Jung typology wavered and then settled on INTJ. Women wore overcoats or freshened their makeup on the subway; I worked on Long Island and maintained a serious attitude about things. Whenever someone asked me how they looked, I told them.
In a writing workshop I wrote a story about the close rapport of my parents. Never had I portrayed anything so evidently personal from my own life. There was general agreement from the class that my parents should separate and weren’t a great fit together. This seemed to express how I felt about the two sides of my own personality – one incredibly kind and taciturn, and the other imbued with utter James-Dean-esque darkness.
I moved uptown. Mothers became ubiquitous, seniors more so. Once an elderly man and I slept through No Country for Old Men and when we woke up during Tommy Lee Jones’ incredibly boring monologue, we both received an identical look from our paramours. Shortly thereafter I departed my relationship. I don’t know what he did about his marriage.
Danger stalks me at every turn, intrigue is as familiar as incense. The world sometimes tilts on its axis when viewed from the right perspective. A man isn’t born, he is unearthed and then poured into a smaller or larger cup depending on the circumstances. After metaphors collapse, people still fill the streets. That was the end of the aughts.
“The Way I Are (French version)” – Timbaland (mp3)
“The Way I Are” – Timbaland (mp3)
“The Way I Are (Private Tool remix)” – Timbaland (mp3)