Black Ribbon Award

YOUR THERAPIST’S THERAPIST

Psychologist couch isolated. Psychotherapist furniture for patients

Your therapist and I have this arrangement. Call it a “relationship.” Your therapist tells me she uses that word even if, to her, it seems inappropriate. At best it’s a kind of “grey area,” a term she also uses. Your therapist says a lot of words she doesn’t like herself, would never apply in her life, but which her patients (you) hang on. Cling to. “Cling” is a word she uses so much it alarms her, kind of. That’s why we have a “relationship.”

Your therapist likes to call me sometimes. I guess it’s like being a therapist for the therapist. They need that. Imagine being your own therapist, narrating the nature of your own anxiety in real time. Not pretty, I gather.

What I do is slightly different from what she does. Your therapist—a professional—establishes hard boundaries. There are certain parts of her life that are off-limits to you, any time before 10:00 AM and after 7:00 PM. She does not compromise on these boundaries. People who break these boundaries are rebuked and warned once, charged extra a second time, and charged and expelled from treatment a third time. I—an amateur—have no such boundaries. Your therapist calls me at all hours. Sometimes in-between appointments; sometimes very late at night. I have to keep my phone close by. In hindsight, some boundaries of my own would have been helpful. But your therapist knows all the tricks, so here we are.

You appreciate your therapist because she spends most of her time listening to you. For an hourlong session, she speaks maybe for 10 minutes, no more than 15. When she does it’s in a silky cadence that radiates kindness, empathy, and wisdom. Your therapist is your Terry Gross. A Terry Gross whose conclusions about your condition very much echo your own in substance, if not in style. What you don’t realize—or have long suspected but not confirmed yourself—is that your therapist talks. She loves to talk. She longs to talk. She talks so, so, so much. She’s not as eloquent by the time she gets to me. “This is my realest voice,” she says.

Your therapist—again, a professional—is bound by the code of patient confidentiality. “It’s more of a guideline, really,” she tells me at a quarter to two in the morning. “Like being quiet in the quiet car.” Your therapist will never divulge the intimate details of what you tell her. She will, however, use your name, your tics, your hang-ups (as opposed to your traumas), etc. for what I will call her fan fiction of your life. “It’s not as interesting as I’m telling it, I swear,” she always tells me. She has a great imaginative faculty and a very direct, almost pointed, cracker-barrel gift of gab.

Your therapist points to a yellow, crusty stain on the arm of her cardigan. “This is how I got this stain,” she starts. Every stain on her cardigan tells its own tale. Every tear is its own confession or admission of error that she carries with her until her dying day—or until she gets rid of the cardigan. Her cardigan is grey, oversized, and made of wool. It’s very much unlike the cardigan she shows you—black, form-fitted, rayon. It tells you nothing and absorbs everything you tell it, like a defensive fortification. Your therapist talks lovingly about a shawl, crocheted by a beautiful stranger on the side of a mountain in a very rainy, tropical climate, that she holds off until a special occasion that seems further off the more she insists it is happening any minute. She bought it at a flea market for six dollars.

Your therapist has a sharp sense of humor; though I wouldn’t say she’s very funny. Her jokes are corny. Her idea of fun is that she sometimes intentionally forgets to turn on the white noise machine in the waiting room. “You can hear most of it but not too much. My next appointment will come in like they saw someone get mugged. They feel bad, but they feel good it’s not them. Yet.” Sometimes your therapist stops bathing three or four days before your next appointment just to see if you’ll notice.

Your therapist feels things. She has desires. She likes the man at her bodega. She does not know his name, precisely how old he is, if he is married or otherwise taken, or if he dreams of a future beyond where he currently is. She wants to take him with her to Louisville. Also, she wants to go to Louisville to work on the sculpture she’s had in her head for years, that she describes in swooping hand gestures. “It’s mildly sexual,” she says. “But given my line of work, it will always be construed as being very sexual. When I finish it, I will take one photograph, with real film, and then I will destroy it with a hammer.”

I’m enchanted by, but not infatuated, enamored, or besotted with, your therapist.

Your therapist is sort of salty and meanspirited. She regrets this, and I encourage her to seek change and to be her best possible self; even, perhaps especially, if her best possible self might have less patience for you no matter what.

I—again, an amateur—am not bound by any code of confidentiality. I just prefer to tell you half the story. I find full stories disappointing. I’d explain more, but this is not about me, this is about your therapist.

Your therapist gets funnier by the day.

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FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS FOR PAYING MY TAXES

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What is your morning routine like?
Wake up. Brush my teeth. Pay taxes. Make coffee. Read the “Sports” section. Pay taxes. Watch Morning Joe. Nod to everything Mika says. Shave. Pay taxes. Feed the dog. Walk the dog. Clean up after the dog. Pay taxes. Take a shit. Pay taxes.

Do you like paying taxes?
The success of an American life is measured in the time the liver of that life gives to leisure. Time and time only. The quality of the leisure that is spent is at the fullest discretion of the people with the time to spend it. The more time you have, the more discretion you get in spending it. It’s simple math. Some people are more adventurous than others in spending their leisure time. Down the street from me, a couple go parasailing in a different body of water every summer. They are retired. A family on the same block has less time and haven’t gone very far beyond the bounds of the occasional amusement park visit out of state. They seem to enjoy it all the same. A couple but a few houses down, who work and are childless, host swinger parties the last Saturday of every month—I believe the retired couple and the couple with children attend these parties. My leisure time is spent paying my taxes. So, in a word, yes.

How did you start paying taxes for fun?
For much of the time I’ve spent paying taxes, I approached it no differently than most others: as something to do once a year during a designated time. Unlike most people, though, I never looked at “tax season” with the frustration and dread most others attach to it. Frankly, I found the whole process of assessing my earnings, marking down deductions, determining whether I owed or was owed, and the filing of paperwork sort of relaxing. I am not an accountant, but I have always had a flare for arithmetic. Also, I think because I am generally in a good place financially, have few debts, and live more or less within my means, taxes are not so much of a gauntlet for me; on the contrary, they are very self-affirming. I guess it got to the point that my other activities—bowling, football, Netflix, happy hour, holiday barbecues with Kan Jam, date night, etc.—seemed to offer less satisfaction than doing taxes. So I think it was around the August or September after Tax Day that I decided to “prepare” ahead of time, which led to just filing in October. Then next year I did the same, only in June. Then again in November. Did I have misgivings? Did I feel self-conscious? Sure. Don’t we all? But then one day, and for reasons I don’t recall, I was given a copy of this book called The Game and upon skimming its finer points, again for reasons I can’t quite pinpoint, I began to feel better about my situation.

How often do you pay taxes?
At this point … uhm … maybe a few times a day. But not always every day. Maybe I do it once a day, or every couple of days. It depends.

Is paying taxes habit-forming?
That might depend on whom you ask. Since you’re asking me, I’m going to say no. Have my tax-paying activities increased steadily since I took it up as a leisure activity? Sure. But I’d say I do it no more frequently or avidly than a skier who lives within reasonable driving distance of a slope. If you were to ask an addiction specialist, however, he or she might see it differently. He or she might see my steady increase as rapid and my skier analogy as rationalizing false equivalency. But I don’t. I am more or less in control of my tax-paying. My wife doesn’t complain. My accountant doesn’t complain. The IRS doesn’t complain.

Does doing your taxes for pleasure impact your romantic pursuits?
I get no carnal or amorous response from doing my taxes. Though I never rule out the possibility of people out there who fuck, fondle, make love to, or pleasure themselves at the thought of their taxes. The modern world is crazy with all types of kinks. The IRS very likely has contingency measures when a tax return arrives at their offices having been very obviously fucked, just as they have contingency measures for fraudulent or truant taxes. But not me, my taxes arrive having been treated with respect. I have a wife, to whom I have been married for 12 years and with whom I frequently make love. She is away in Geneva right now on business-related matters. Wait. Hold on. My mistake. That was last week. She is in Turks and Caicos on a girls’ trip this week, then next week she is in Lansing, MI to visit her father, a handsome and witty man who is confined to an iron lung.

Where do you work?
Remotely.

Do you also pay sales taxes for fun?
I understand the appeal of sales taxes but I try not to indulge. Sales taxes are a quick, easy-access rush when no other source will suffice. It’s the equivalent of the whippit or the porn .GIF. I will say that what’s more offensive to me is avoiding the sales tax. Such as when New Yorkers swarm over into New Jersey like locusts to take advantage of tax-free clothes shopping. It’s probably a nice boon to the local economy, but I find it disgusting and weird.

Are there others?
I have not checked, but probably. I go back and forth on whether it would be better or worse to know that I am not alone. On the one hand, it would be nice to form a community of leisure taxpayers so that we can compare experiences and methods, talk about our feelings, our anxieties, our joys. I would probably feel less alone than I do now, though I should say that I don’t feel that alone. On the other hand, meeting others means also subjecting yourself to harsher judgment than the wider community might give. Most normal people don’t care what you do with your time unless it threatens property values or disgusts them in some deep, personal way that is disappointing but ultimately not enforceable. I get the feeling that a community of leisure taxpayers, even just a message board, can devolve into petty spats, envy,  flame wars, attempts at extortion or fraud, and other hazards and anxieties related to closed circles. I’m not that desperate.

Do you feel accepted by society?
No more or less than before. Despite the fact that I pay my taxes at an incredible frequency, I don’t think that makes me better than people who pay their taxes at the standard interval. Nor does it make me worse. I am a good person. I open doors for people. I take my dog to the dog park. He plays with the other dogs equitably and with restraint. I love my wife. My wife appreciates the meticulousness of how I approach my finances. Sometimes she asks me for help, and I oblige as per our vows. I am open and transparent about my urges. Yes, there is some tension and confusion, but we respect each other’s boundaries. On the occasions we make love, I make sure never to have a 1040 in the room. She knows never to go into my office. Ever. I work diligently, I do not cultivate relationships with clients, interns, or peers beyond what is appropriate. I have only paid my taxes during work hours a few times but only when I was certain it would not interfere with my tasks for the day. I prioritize my tasks and my pleasures with patience and maturity. Society may find my leisure activity unusual or confounding. If I showed up to one of the neighborhood swinger parties—which I have been invited to before—with my receipts, there would probably be grounds for censure. But under the present circumstances, waking up at four in the morning to assess my withholding is outside their purview of shame.

Do you feel shame?
I am human like everyone else. I feel the same things that humans usually feel. I sometimes feel less than I should be. I feel like I am denying myself something better that my habits won’t permit me. I feel like I have constructed a box for myself. A psychological box that just happens to look like my private office. In that box I am free from whatever feelings arise from the outside world, good or bad, but not free from my own feelings, good or bad. The bad feelings always fall on whether I’m doing right by myself. Whether I’m doing enough. Whether I am earning the esteem of the IRS or whether earning the esteem of the IRS is the wrong thing to look for in this whole arrangement. Sometimes when I’m doing my morning routine I’m stopped in my tracks (in shaving, anyway), looking at myself in the mirror. Am I where I want to be? Am I going as far as I want to go, at the speed in which I want to get there? That’s more like inadequacy, though, not shame. So, no.

A DESCRIPTION

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I just got back from hearing THE MOST BORING SOUND KNOWN TO MAN. I will now attempt to describe it.

It is important that THE MOST BORING SOUND KNOWN TO MAN should be described in the most objective possible terms. Surely sound scientists, whatever they are called, will not question my authority in doing so. I am a man; I was supremely bored while I heard the sound. From there, one might safely generalize to the greater public.

To be sure, one must take pains not to err in describing THE MOST BORING SOUND KNOWN TO MAN in such terms as to make THE MOST BORING SOUND KNOWN TO MAN “all about you.” Though I experienced THE MOST BORING SOUND KNOWN TO MAN directly and with acute agony, I am not special. It was fortune, not destiny, that brought me into contact with THE MOST BORING SOUND KNOWN TO MAN. Truly any person could have encountered it before me. I, frankly, am worthless. I am unemployed, I have no achievements of which to be justly proud, I floss negligently, I am very unappealing to women as a long-term or short-term partner. It would be foolish to expect any of that to change just because I encountered THE MOST BORING SOUND KNOWN TO MAN at uncomfortably close range.

Not that it wouldn’t hurt to take something transformative from the encounter. I know I’m not entitled to transformation; but it would be nice. Everyone wants to feel integral to events, not tangential. Even if it is THE MOST BORING EVENT KNOWN TO MAN. (Side note: I’m not sure about the correlation between THE MOST BORING SOUND KNOWN TO MAN and THE MOST BORING EVENT KNOWN TO MAN. It is possible that THE MOST BORING TASTE or MOST BORING SMELL KNOWN TO MAN is vastly more boring in scope than THE MOST BORING SOUND KNOWN TO MAN. Not that I can fathom that, THE MOST BORING SOUND KNOWN TO MAN is pretty boring, as you shall see.) I would also like to be held warmly for a brief but consequential period.

It might help for me to set the mood in which I heard THE MOST BORING SOUND KNOWN TO MAN: a bad one.

I wish only to instill awareness with my forthcoming description of THE MOST BORING SOUND KNOWN TO MAN. Having made itself known to me, and doubtless registering its impact upon me, THE MOST BORING SOUND KNOWN TO MAN will be eager to relive the encounter with others and maximize its exposure. THE MOST BORING SOUND KNOWN TO MAN is predatory and insatiable. Even so, as more people inevitably come out of the woodwork to describe their own experiences, I will be very depressed.

Have I mentioned that I want to be touched longingly by slow, sensitive hands? I can make arrangements after I have described THE MOST BORING SOUND KNOWN TO MAN.

Some might find it improper at how I am gendering THE MOST BORING SOUND KNOWN TO MAN. I ask them to please bear with me. I am a man rather than a woman. No one else, of any gender, was present in that moment but me and THE MOST BORING SOUND KNOWN TO MAN. Had there been a woman, and had she been able to hear it, I would have had to call it THE MOST BORING SOUND KNOWN TO ALL HUMANITY. It is possible, likely even, that THE MOST BORING SOUND KNOWN TO MAN has an equal-opportunity agenda. I am in no way suggesting that women lack the merit or potential to hear THE MOST BORING SOUND KNOWN TO MAN; it would, however, be fortunate if they couldn’t, because THE MOST BORING SOUND KNOWN TO MAN, as I will soon describe, is terrible.

As a way of counterexample, here are sounds I would have preferred to hear in place of THE MOST BORING SOUND KNOWN TO MAN:

  • a babbling brook
  • swans in flight
  • someone driving a Toyota Corolla on the turnpike with the parking brake up
  • the crackling of pancake batter on a griddle
  • a child having a tantrum in FAO Schwartz circa 1993
  • Gregorian chant
  • 1,000 bees ejaculating in unison
  • paint drying
  • “November Rain” in its entirety
  • the final exchange of fire in World War I
  • Sarah Vowell reading the Book of Deuteronomy in ASMR voice

Important amendment: I no longer limit myself to being touched longingly. I will open up the floor to offers of being touched coldly, brusquely, painfully, indirectly (with long poles or prods), sheepishly, fumblingly, accidentally, and quizzically.

In 20- or 30-years’ time, old men and women will sit their grandchildren in their laps and tell them where they were when I heard THE MOST BORING SOUND KNOWN TO MAN. This depends, naturally, on how well I describe THE MOST BORING SOUND KNOWN TO MAN.

I cannot wait to hear what I will say about THE MOST BORING SOUND KNOWN TO MAN! I am reordering my whole life in preparation. I hope when I am finished it will allow me to replace old habits with newer, more interesting habits. My rote and dreary baggage will become mysterious and complex. My skin will shed. The hair on my abdomen will retract and thicken elsewhere. A woman will smile at me.

When I am done describing THE MOST BORING SOUND KNOWN TO MAN, I would appreciate it if someone can stay behind to simulate drowning and sing words of affirmation into my ear in as close a cadence to Pat Boone as you can manage.

AN ADDRESS TO YOUTH

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There was once this website where you could go and look at autopsy photos. The selection on this website was modest but notable, centered on famous people who died tragically. People like Marilyn Monroe, John F. Kennedy, Kurt Cobain, Sharon Tate, the Heaven’s Gate guy, River Phoenix, Mama Cass probably, and the like. I have visited this website more than once.

Going on that alone, it looks as if I lived a free and easy life full of privilege: the privilege of looking at autopsy photos whenever I pleased. Not everything is as it seems, of course, and this is no exception. Sure, autopsy photos were floating around the internet, how you found out that they were was another matter.

First you had to have a tendency that made the prospect of looking at autopsy photos either very appealing or not a big deal. Then you had to present that tendency to others so that they might share their knowledge with you of where to find autopsy photos. I heard it from a friend, appropriately enough, during third period bio. He heard it from his older sister, who dyed her hair red with Kool Aid and wore Sketchers under over-sized black jeans with patches all over them. She would walk the halls with her friends who also wore Sketchers (or Adidas shell-toes) under over-sized black jeans with patches all over them, with the confidence that they could, within ideal conditions, look at autopsy photos on the internet. And that is how they liked it.

This is probably hard for you to understand; you’re too young, it was a different world. Autopsy photos are abundant today. You can see them without ever having to ask first or to search them out. Some of you probably gestated in the womb looking at autopsy photos. Not just of famous people, but of any random person. A grandma who died of plain old heart failure for instance. And not just autopsy photos, though, right? There are also crime scene photos, mugshots, grave but comical injuries, videos of crimes in progress. You’re living a life of which I could never have conceived. You’re living a dream.

But I have to ask myself sometimes: is the dream worth it? What are you losing by living this dream? Quite a lot, I think.

Now ask yourselves: when you’re looking at an autopsy photo on your device, at the dinner table or wherever, do you feel the satisfaction of a conscious pursuit eliciting ideal results? Is there risk involved? Not physical risk, perhaps, but social risk—is there a stigma attached to what you’re doing?—and technical risk—is the source a bit shady? Have you, in other words, worked for it?

I would think you’d have to answer to yourselves: No. I want you to think about that, and to think about what this says about you. It might say that you lack a certain degree of class, of dignity, of respect for yourself or others. Which, of course, so did we, but we at least had standards. Never did we look at autopsy photos without first asking “What is this going to do for us?” Will they offer glamor? Mystery? Thrills? Would they fill a hole that polite society left open? Say, by the love of our parents? The truth of God? The humor of post-Phil Hartman NewsRadio? If the answer was no, then we dispensed with them without a second thought and never looked back.

Do any of you retain the capacity to feel? Just wondering really; I don’t. Not anymore. Not in the way that I used to. When I was your age, I spent hours doing nothing but feeling things. I’d feel everything. Sometimes I’d feel everything in a very careful sequence: one and then another and then another and then another, and so on. Other times I’d feel everything all at once. You know, I’m not sure why I ever listened to my friend’s sister. She wasn’t very nice. I remember this one time I got this L7 Screeching Weasel Operation Ivy Five Iron Frenzy t-shirt—in the city—and I wore it to school the following Monday. I was very stoked. Then when I was getting ready for class, shutting my locker, there she was, waiting for me with her friends flanked behind her. She held up the straw and launched a spitball right at my forehead. It was the size of a jelly bean. I never wore the shirt again.

But life is kind of complicated like that. I, like you are now, was young. I was starving for authority in a world almost totally bereft of it. It was a world where you had to wait a week at least for online orders to be delivered. It was a world where writing poetry about spectral cats with eyes of ruby was “not optimal time management” and when writing poetry about spangled sabers that flew on their own accord meant a trip to the school shrink. Then just the nurse. I kind of liked that, now that I look back on it. But it was a different world.

One of the most common mistakes that generations collectively make is that they are to be the final generation. Not the final biological lineage, but the final word on cultural expanse. Everyone who comes after it are like shadow people: malformed approximations of humanity with no consciousness or reference points of their own. They are a backward-looking breed, to whose forebears they give untold awe. If only! They do look back, this much is true, but they also talk back, with such whimsical sayings like, “What was with all the autopsy photos?” I’m not sure why that will be. Maybe autopsies will be outlawed or innovated out of recognizable existence or there will be no internet somehow. Maybe the future generations will have regained respect for themselves and others. Whatever the case, they are probably not ones to lean on rhetoric. This will be a conversation, an inquiry for which answers of some sort are expected. You could give a bad answer and that will be fine, but that is our answer, and they’re not going to ask us. We will be too busy doing whatever dead people do when they are not on the internet.

These are things worth considering as soon as possible. Pretty soon it’s going to be a different world.

A BRILLIANT, VITAL THOUGHT

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The espresso machine revs, then it whirs, then it sputters and kind of coughs the way an espresso machine might cough if it achieved singularity. Silence. The machine repeats the pattern.

I sit at the other end of the café, by the entrance, where the light is brightest from the big front windows. The espresso machine’s coughing subsides under the clacking and talking and slurping happening around me. I think about how I’ve never had an espresso. I think, also, about disintegration.

She sits across from me smiling. Her cup is blue and bowl-shaped. I also smile, even though my cup, which is smaller and orange, gives me less occasion to.

The coffee here is good, she says.

It was my idea to come here, but not my idea to meet. I agree, in any case. My coffee lost its steam five minutes ago.

Did you hear? she asks, sipping her coffee. Her sip is distinctive. It’s soft and slow but focused, like a high note on a violin or the fading ring of a small bell.

I don’t know, is my response.

I guess you probably heard. People talk, I guess. Even if you tell them not to, they talk.

Maybe I forgot, I tell her.

It’s about 3:30 and a Tuesday. The café is crowded. The patrons are young and well-dressed, at least in the sense that having jeans torn in strategic ways counts as well-dressed. Well-dressed, anyway, for people who have fewer and fewer better places to be.

I don’t think you’d forget this, she assures me. But anyway, I converted to Catholicism.

I hadn’t heard this, I say. Congratulations.

Thanks.

When did this happen?

A few weeks ago. On Pentecost.

Disintegration. How do you disintegrate? Is it an acquired condition—like a virus? like tetanus? Is it reacting to something else? Like when you pour salt on a slug? I think about the time I poured salt on a slug. I’d heard about people pouring salt on slugs and watching them writhe and burn in agony. Once there was a slug on the sidewalk. Seeing my opportunity, I went inside and put a very minor amount of salt in my hand. I crouched down over the slug, going about its business, and dappled its back with the salt. Its skin started to forth, it did not enjoy what was happening to it. I ran back inside to get water and poured it over the slug. I don’t remember it dying, but I don’t remember it doing any good. How I must have looked from a slug’s point of view.

I know in the past that I’ve said some things. Some opinions. About the Catholic Church. Needless to say, I recant those things. I was in a sort of darkness when I said them. But now things are much clearer. She pauses and sips her coffee. They’re … they’re brighter.

Can you disintegrate by choice? Maybe it’s a kind of power. Could there be a superhero whose power is disintegrating? What purpose would that serve? Defense? Diversion? Can the superhero regenerate? They must regenerate. Otherwise it’d be a single-issue comic, a movie with no franchise potential. Is the power inborn? Like a genetic aberration? Is it a skill to be taught? Like telepathy in The Shadow?

I’m in a prayer group now. We meet on Wednesday nights.

Cool.

It’s mostly women, but some men show up who don’t really do anything. It’s fine, though. I hope they see what we do then go do it at home. Maybe they’re doing it better. I don’t pray enough when no one is around.

Around the world, millions of people are probably at prayer. Some of them must be in solitude.

Yeah, you’re right.

Maybe at their desks at work, thinking it to themselves. Or somewhere where it is night—someone’s awake, troubled, while their partner is sleeping.

Probably in New Zealand that’s happening.

It’s about 9:30 in New Zealand. So theyre doing it in traffic probably.

Anyway, I hope you’re right.

Tomorrow is Wednesday.

I can’t wait! It carries over from our confirmation class. We try to bring new people who we think would be interested. Some people really like recruiting. I like it fine as an idea. Actually doing it is hard for me. It basically amounts to going out and looking for people who are a lot like me, who live in the same kind of darkness I used to live in.

There is a man at the table to the right of me, and the left of her, clacking on and staring at his laptop. His face is that stony, resolute expression used for giving and receiving bad news. We are blocking the light from hitting him. The glow of the laptop on his face makes it appear 10 years older than I suspect it is. I was 26 years old when I tortured the slug.

But how do you explain the darkness to someone going through it? Talking about the brightness isn’t so great either. I know what the brightness looks like and how it feels, but it never measures up to how I say it is to them. And they just wave it away. And if they do come, they sometimes do, they don’t really stay. And what does that say about me?

Some other things I did when I was 26: baked a cake for a romantic interest, got laid off, lost my cat, had two cancer scares, fell for a scam, worked remotely for a shale oil shill, watched a lot of old gameshows, broke up with the romantic interest, planned a spontaneous trip, made out with a standup, considered—somewhat seriously—moving to North Dakota, wrote an angry email to the least-deserving recipient, got laid off again.

I told my mom I was converting just before Easter.

How’d that go?

It went okay. Well, I had a better scenario I wanted to have happen in my head. She didn’t yell. She didn’t cry. She didn’t curse. She didn’t condemn. She just kind of sat there and laughed.

Do you pray before you eat?

Not as much as I should. Never in front of her. We had an argument about the Pope. We have a lot of arguments about the Pope. They begin the same way and end the same way. The only difference is when they start. I never know when an argument about the Pope is going to strike. We could be at the mall arguing about the Pope. We could be at the gym arguing about the Pope. I could be taking her to the doctor arguing about the Pope. I’d be at prayer group arguing about the Pope.

In what sequence can you disintegrate? First I thought from the inside out. I think—assuming you can choose to disintegrate—that is the preferred choice. It is the less immediately alarming, because it is reminiscent of a lot of disease and the basics of decomposition. I think about a fast-motion video of a dead fox or coyote, swelling up and bursting open before disappearing. What is the attraction of disintegrating from outside in? More impact maybe. It makes other people feel complicit if they see it. I think about a snowflake melting; a photograph burning.

I have no strong opinions about the Pope, I tell her.

That’s refreshing even though I wish you hadn’t.

I see the Pope and I see every other Pope. I see the President and I see every other President.

Sometimes you just want someone to be special though, right?

They never seem special, do they? Only until later.

The espresso machine revs up again but immediately sputters. I can hear the tapping of the customer’s finger on the counter. The barista grins nervously as she restarts the machine to the same sad result. I’ve never had an espresso. I know almost nothing about it. I’ve never gone out of my way to order one. Maybe my mom let me have a sip of hers and it just didn’t take. I’ve never gone out of my way to see a therapist either. It’s clear that the espresso machine is done for. If I wanted an espresso on this day, and came here in hope of getting one, I would be very unlucky.

Yeah, maybe you’re right. My mom, though. I don’t know what to do.

Pray for her?

Sometimes I don’t feel like I’m ready.

How does that work?

When I find out, I’ll let you know.

Without context it feels like you’re talking about a maze.

She laughs and sips loudly.

Have you confessed?

Since converting? Not yet. I’m still practicing.

Disintegration, I thought, feels like a slow dissolve. Like you are a fizzy drink and you are getting flatter. Or you’re fading out. I think differently now, with the expectant clarifications wrought by maturity and by lived experience. Disintegration is more profound than that. I can’t really describe it. It doesn’t really hurt in the way that most deterioration hurts. It doesn’t look how you’d expect it to look. No dramatics, no fireworks. It’s anticlimax at its finest.

Which I mean to say, I’m still working up the courage.

I want to mention this to her, about what I thought disintegration felt like versus how it actually feels. It’s a brilliant, vital thought with many meanings.

Meanwhile, I try to manage my sins as best I can.

I decline.

This coffee is good.

You didn’t need to tell me all that.

Maybe. I’m glad I did.

… yeah … still …

So how are you?

The espresso machine is beyond hope.

BELIEF

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Ms. Lawson sits in the center of her front lawn sewing a quilt.

Other people in the neighborhood go out on their walks and pass her house, a one-story ranch home. Some wave, some don’t wave and just glance, some don’t do anything at all. To those who wave, Ms. Lawson smiles and waves back. I choose not to wave when I pass her that day. It feels rude to divert her concentration, even for a second. But our eyes meet briefly, and she waves at me anyway. She wears sunglasses, a pink cap, and a shirt that says “IDAHO” across her chest.

My dad says that “A man needs something to believe in if he wants to stay sane.”

I believe in Ms. Lawson’s quilt.

***

Quilts, as I understand them, are gradual things, requiring great care, skill, and concentration. From my distance, between the yard and the curb, it also looked meditative. By contrast, my discovery of the quilt was abrupt. She had clearly been at work on it behind closed doors for a long time before she decided to show the world. I sometimes think if things would have been different if I’d seen the quilt in its more foundational, rudimentary form long ago. I would have to be a different person; brought into the world with slightly different fortune. I try not to think about it for too long.

***

“Lawson” is almost certainly not Ms. Lawson’s name. It’s a name I gave her. It’s the first name that came into my had, at least in part. I also believe I heard another neighbor call her something similar. “Hello, Ms. Lawler” or “Lovely weather isn’t it, Ms. Lawley” or “Happy Easter, Ms. Rollins.” Close enough. My name for her gives Ms. Lawson distinction, placing my knowledge and memory of her on a higher stratum than any regular memory. Not because it’s higher or more important, but out of greater need.

***

The quilt is looking to be very big. I don’t really know dimensions but … maybe, it’s the size of a large table. Or maybe a king-size bed, which makes more sense, I guess. But I feel it may yet be bigger. It could be bigger. There are some big quilts out there. Even if this quilt is not physically the biggest, it seems big in a thematic, conceptual way. It’s bigger than any American flag, and hence more authoritative. It would not be out of place to see soldiers practicing drills as it flies overhead. It would bring a tear to a President’s eyes to see the quilt draped over a parade procession of missiles.

***

A man lives with Ms. Lawson. Or so I suspect. Like Ms. Lawson I’ve only ever seen him out of doors, doing work in the yard: cutting grass, pulling weeds, trimming hedges, shoveling snow. He is a good deal younger than Ms. Lawson, but probably a little older than I am. I guess he could be her son, but I’ve never seen Ms. Lawson with a man her age. I’m afraid to make hasty assumptions about someone’s lifestyle choices, let alone about this woman’s.

He seems dutiful like a son. He never smiles—we have that in common—and waves limply. I call him “Young Lawson” or “Ms. Lawson, Jr.”

***

I have never seen the quilt up close. I could see that the pattern of the quilt was of a floral nature. Each square on the quilt, looking about the size of a small plate, the kind used for finger foods, bore the image of a flower. Each flower was unique with its own color and shape. I don’t know flowers. I don’t know if the flowers are from real life or rough approximations from Ms. Lawson’s casual knowledge, or flowers that exist exclusively in Ms. Lawson’s imagination. For various reasons I’m afraid to look at the quilt up close or for too long from afar: (1) I feel unworthy; (2) I’m afraid what I see in reality will pale in comparison to what I see in my imagination; (3) it seems weird and impolite just generally. I think I saw what looked like a rose, though.

***

There is tension in the neighborhood thanks to Stanley. Stanley is a reliable source of tension. There are probably worse things to plague a neighborhood but even a dweller of any of the most beleaguered blocks in America can agree that Stanley fills our street with unnecessary disquiet.

Stanley’s idea of lawn care consists of strapping on kneepads to inspect every blade of grass with a small pair of clippers and petting them as if the grass was a sick cat. His gut protrudes smoothly from under his tucked t-shirt  like an upside down dome.

Stanley likes to stand on his front porch of his newer, larger house with his arms crossed. When someone walks in front of his house with their dog, he moves slowly toward the center of his yard and turns his neck in tandem with the walking neighbors, who can’t walk on quickly enough. He does the same with children.

Stanley likes to put his house on the market for a few months and then take it off. I think he gets a thrill from sizing people up. Of course Stanley will never leave.

Stanley will have an opinion about your own habits and methods of home ownership, and he will tell you them even if you wish him not to. He does this with the politeness of an animal tester.

Stanley is divorced; bitterly, I assume.

My problems with Stanley didn’t extend beyond the usual annoyance until a week or so after seeing the quilt.

I decide to walk over to Ms. Lawson’s house. It’s spur-of-the-moment, poorly reasoned, and at too late an hour; but I grow more committed the closer I get to the house. I pace up and down the length of Ms. Lawson’s front curb to determine the most possible excuse. “Can I borrow a cup of sugar—and maybe eat all of it in front of you?” No. “There have been rumors of break-ins around town, the elderly are especially vulnerable and I’m doing a safety check.” No. “Do you want to watch MacGyver?” What?

“What are you doing?” a voice harshly whispers. Stanley comes at me from the blackness, and stands close enough to me that I can smell the barbecue on his breath and see it between his teeth. “What are you doing?”

“I’m … I’m walking. Nothing.”

“Don’t lie to me.” He puts on hand on his hip and uses the other to point at me and at Ms. Lawson’s house. “You’ve been pacing up along this house for 10 minutes.”

“No I haven’t. Have I?”

“Do you live around here?”

“I live across the street from you.”

“Good, I can keep an eye on you. Consider this a warning,” he says before the blackness subsumes him again. He never takes off his kneepads.

My dad says that “A man needs something to believe in if he wants to stay sane.”

Stanley believes in being a righteous asshole.

***

I haven’t seen the quilt in several weeks. Nor have I seen Ms. Lawson out working on it. I’m apprehensive about being too far away from the quilt.

I believe the quilt is infused with a moral purpose. I believe it presents a very clear sense of how the moral order should be formed and what does and doesn’t transgress against it. I believe that breaking a promise is a transgression. I would obey its dictates even if it means going far away from the quilt itself.

***

I made a promise to meet my friend Sonya in the city to look at art. Sonya is what you’d call an “art lover,” who talks mostly about art or finds ways to work art into unrelated conversations. “That seems like something Van Gogh (or Goya or Diane Arbus or whoever) would agree with,” she might interject about a conversation comparing Pringles flavors or the foreign policies of Democratic presidential candidates. In her element, Sonya achieves a tone of manifesto, in long abstract statements that she has very likely been fashioning in her head while on the subway, or at Pret a Manger on her lunch break at work. Last week she was a “managing associate”; this week she is a “director of operations.”

Sonya waits for me in front of the Whitney. She is wearing a red track suit, white Keds, a lipstick shade likely called “cyanosis,” and smoking a vape pen.

All museums must seem like tombs to most people. They are tombs of human greatness or ingenuity or emotional intelligence. The Whitney takes on the form of a tomb of futility. Sonya leads me down the wings from bottom to top, yet each work dissolves into the walls until they are completely blank.

“This one has such resonance,” Sonya says gazing worshipfully at Robert Ryman’s Untitled (1969). “I first saw this in a book. I didn’t think much of it at the time. I thought it was dumb, actually. I thought anyone can do this shit. It wasn’t until I saw this in person that I realized I just wasn’t ready. I don’t think anyone is.”

“I think people are wrong about Dash Snow,” she says as we look out over Manhattan on the roof. “I think in a few decades people are going to come around to his genius. In a few decades art will be alive again. In a few decades there probably won’t be museums anymore because art will belong to the people. And a beautiful artwork will come with every home.”

“Will the homes, be beautiful?” I ask.

“Maybe. I wish I’d go back to school—get a degree in interior design. I’ll probably just be a consultant, I guess.” She blows a thick but low-key plume of vape smoke. “I got some pills. You wanna do some?”

On a bench at the park she takes out a small bag of what look, to the vulgar eye anyway, like SweeTarts. We each take one. The effect of the pill raises my sense of well-being to a height I’m not familiar with, but not so high that it upends my opinions or worldview. Sonya goes into her purse and takes out a set of Tarot cards.

“I got these in Baton Rouge last month,” she says.

“I didn’t know you were into the occult.”

“I’m not, I just like how these look.” She holds them all out in a fan, takes one out and shows it to me. “I really liked this one, it’s the Hanged Man.”

“Why?”

“It’s just really intense.”

On the train ride home I realize that one of the Tarot cards is in my shirt pocket. It’s the Sun. I’m don’t remember if I’d taken it or if she’d given it to me. It features a golden-haired boy in a field of sunflowers, under an anthropomorphized sun, and holding onto a red flag.

***

I wonder when the quilt will be finished. Then I wonder if it’s better if the quilt is never finished. Not incomplete, but continuous. Spanning without clear, containable dimensions. A quilt that is almost fluid. A sea unto itself. In defiance of everything.

***

I knock on Ms. Lawson’s door. The door is heavy and my knuckles hit it in a low thud. With each thud my senses become sharper, it’s like I’m coming out of a fugue state or a black out. I feel like a murderer getting my defense ready beforehand. I had a breakdownlost control of my facultiesfelt like someone else was driving me from the inside, a small, angry puppeteerforgive me.

I knock four times. No answer. I turn and look out into the neighborhood. It’s afternoon, a little after lunch, and pleasant in its near-emptiness. I walk over to the spot where I think she places her lawn chair to display her craft. I don’t know what I want to feel. A sense of power? Empathy of someone in power?

The lawn chair is folded up next to the garage. It is the kind that makes the peeling sound against bare skin.

“Can I help you,” calls a voice from behind me. Ms. Lawson, Jr. is pushing a wheelbarrow. “I’m not interested in what you’re selling. Sorry.”

Never in great composure, I’m even more off-guard than ever. “No … I’m sorry … I didn’t mean to bother. I live down the street, and I was wondering if … if … she was home?”

We stand stiffly before one another and say nothing. Ms. Lawson, Jr.’s expression is puzzling. I can’t tell if it’s meant to elicit confusion or scan for danger.

“She’s not available at the moment,” he says methodically.

“Thank you. I won’t bother you.”

“It’s okay.” He resumes pushing his wheelbarrow.

“Mulching?” I ask as if that will cut the obvious tension. He stops again.

“Yeah,” he says more keenly. “You got a mulch guy? Mine’s pretty good. I can give you his number.”

“I just like the smell.”

“So do I.” He resumes pushing and goes around the other side of the house.

***

I lie in bed hoping that I will dream about the quilt. I want to dream that my skin is a plush fabric with floral patterns. l lie in bed hoping that this is the last thing I’m thinking about before I finally sleep.

My dreams are usually turgid. They depict days at an office where I don’t work; nights with a loving family that I don’t have; commutes between them with a plum purple 1980s Oldsmobile that I don’t drive, and whose wheels detach at random every few feet.

I fail to dream what I want to dream. I also fail to sleep. My bedding disappoints me. I sit on the floor, facing my window, hoping. I repeat and I repeat and I repeat.

My dad says “A man needs something to believe in if he wants to stay sane.”

I believe that enchantment is possible, and very close.

***

A surveillance state. A panopticon. Eyeballs on the porch—in the windows—through the fences. It has come to this. Maybe it always was this but it has since been subject to maximizing institutional reforms.

Many seasons have changed since that time I saw the quilt. It’s under heavy guard. And so, it seems, am I. Like lovers kept apart by warring houses. Have others discovered what I discovered? Are they suppressing it for their own purposes? Are they coveting it for themselves or are they shielding it for what they tell themselves is the greater good?

I stare up at my shaded window and indulge myself in revisionism. It was I who had the pure intentions. It was I who had the quilt’s best interest at heart. It was I who saw into Ms. Lawson’s vision and saw that it be respected in posterity. No one plans on finding the most beautiful thing in Christendom. There are protocols for when you do. Like escaping a burning building. It was I who followed them to the letter.

I try to render the quilt on paper. It’s square, I know that. Within it are smaller squares. How small? How many? There was a visual concept, too. A pattern. What? Floral, I think. Or hands? Or types of fruit? Geometric shapes?

I tell myself “I need to inquire. I need closure. I’m entitled to it” as I walk out the door.

***

It’s cold now. There is frost on the grass and fog hanging in the barren trees. I’m wrapped in a thermal blanket. I walk down the middle of the empty street. A family of deer—a buck, a doe, and two fawns—issues from between two houses just up ahead of me and, taking no notice of my approach, continue on unperturbed in between the opposite facing houses and the woods beyond.

Ms. Lawson isn’t home. Neither, for that matter, is her house. Where her one-story ranch home used to be now sits the plywood framework of a much larger structure, a beast in incubation. The grass once tended well enough by Ms. Lawson, Jr. has been upended—or suppressed—by mud, gravel, and the tracks of heavy machinery.

I walk into the unfinished house. My feet thud on the floor as I walk through walls trying to get a sense of what used to be. There is a strong smell of sawdust, hay, and chemicals. Out the back entrance I see a pile of surplus wood and an uninstalled septic tank. I fumble over two trash bags sitting in a corner as if that would tell me anything.

“Can I help you?” A voice calls from behind me. The man is in work boots, ragged jeans, and a Jets sweatshirt. His construction hat is wrapped around his arm, the hand of which is holding a Dunkin Donuts cup. “This is private property.”

“Sorry. I was looking for something that I thought I left behind.”

“Does this look like a Goodwill?” he shoots back.

“No, it doesn’t.”

I shuffle in place, readjusting my blanket. He looks at his boots.

“Look, you want some coffee?”

“No thanks.”

He takes out his phone. “Can I call the local parish? Maybe they can get you to a shelter.”

“I live around here,” I say as I make my way out.

I see the realtor sign at the edge of the lawn and the lawn chair folded up against it. The builder sees me taking it and does nothing.

I spend the day watching the frost thaw.

***

The light in the topmost window of Stanley’s house, just above his garage, burns ceaselessly. It’s troublingly alone, not just in relation to the lower parts of his house, all light-starved after sunset, but amid all the houses on the block as their occupants lull them into darkness as muscles relax and as breathing rhythms slow down.

I never did look into what the meaning is behind my Tarot card. I still don’t know the meaning when I walk across the street to Stanley’s mailbox at 1:14 AM and place it inside. Maybe he will interpret it poorly. Maybe he will interpret it kindly.

My dad says that “A man needs something to believe in if he wants to stay sane.”

I shower regularly. I catch up on sleep.

AN INQUIRY, THE GOAL OF WHICH BEING TO ASCERTAIN THE SCOPE AND MERIT BY WHICH REASON, WISDOM, KNOWLEDGE, OPINION, TRUTH, AND DATA MAY BE IMPARTED TO THE UTMOST DIALETICAL COHERENCE AND RHETORICAL IMPACTFULNESS UNDER SEVERE—ALBEIT SELF-IMPOSED—STRICTURES WITH REGARD TO ACCEPTABLE VERBIAGE, OR LADIES AND GENTLEMEN, SCHOLARS AND WORKERS, HOLY AND HEATHEN (OF WORLDS FREE AND NOT): THE SHORTEST ESSAY EVER WRITTEN

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Indead.

SPONGE CAKE

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Last week I attended a gender-reveal party, the purpose of which was to determine, once and for all, what my gender was. I say a gender-reveal party because I was not the only one having the state of their gender revealed. It was a group party, among my friends and acquaintances and a few of their friends and acquaintances.

Someone at work was talking about attending a gender-reveal party for someone else and thought it would be a fun idea to have our genders revealed together. These are offered by a few private companies for a fee. We selected a company that specializes in group packages, we each chipped in for the fee and one friend volunteered their home to be the party’s location. It was on a Saturday afternoon going, presumably, into the late evening. I was tasked with bringing a cheese plate, and beer or wine if possible.

Admittedly I was reluctant at first to participate in the gender-reveal party. For much of my life I felt more or less confirmed about the gender into which I was born if not always entirely at ease with it, and it would be foolish to deny that I hadn’t reaped occasional advantages as a result of it. But I knew also that others might not feel the same way. The very least I could do was keep an open mind. It wasn’t much of a chore anyway. My portion of the fee was doable with easily made sacrifices and all that was required besides my presence was submitting answers to an online questionnaire and samples of my blood and urine. If, after all that, it happened that an error had been made somewhere along the way, well, I would have to deal with that.

I pulled into my coworker’s cul-de-sac with the cheese plate and a six-pack of Molson Ice. The formal invitation also encouraged me to bring a “support guest,” a trusted friend or loved one, to comfort and/or congratulate me upon my revelation. I opted not to do this.

I was not very late when I arrived, but most of the guests were there ahead of me, spread out along the open floor layout. A long table was set up extending over both the living room and the kitchen. Before each seat was a box with the name of each guest on it. Festive multicolored letters were hung over the living room sofa that read “TO NEW BEGINNINGS.”

Everyone was buoyant and cheerily apprehensive save one standing over the kitchen counter, dressed in a polo shirt and pleated khakis with a look that was at once soft, self-affirming, and alert. I suspected they were a representative of the company we hired.

I was greeted warmly by all and the cheese plate appeared not to offend. But the pleasantries had to be paused as the polo-shirted representative, Representative A, moved to the head of the long table.

“If I could just have your attention,” Representative A said. Everybody went silent and directed their gazes as ordered. “Thanks everyone for coming, first of all. Thank you also for choosing our firm to organize what will surely be a momentous and cherished occasion. Please give yourselves a hand.”

Everyone clapped.

Representative A continued. “In a moment we will commence with the revelations of everyone’s gender, but first I wanted to set a few things straight. Our company prides itself on our meticulous process so as better to serve the needs and wishes of those who hire us. For those whose genders will be revealed to be other than what yours previously were, we will offer resources for support and guidance as you leave. For those whose genders do not change, it is extremely important that you be supportive of your peers. And I ask that each, the changed and unchanged, be mindful of one another.”

Another polo-shirted representative, Representative B, whisked in from the side hallway with several clipboards in each arm that were passed out to all the guests.

“These are waivers,” Representative A continued, “absolving the company of any error or false-positive that may occur in the process of the revelation. Our company takes any complaint or attempt at correction very seriously, but we pride ourselves on having a 0.000001% margin of error, a far smaller margin than any of our competitors. Now once everyone signs their waiver and passes it back to my associate, everyone please take a seat at the table where you see your name.”

Everyone sat down.

“The data you submitted to our company was analyzed with the greatest care and consideration to your well-being. It only makes sense that we take as much care in giving back the results. Some might say it is less costly in time and resources to just call or email you. We think that’s a bit cold, so we devised this setup. You will each take turns with your gender-reveal, starting with you,” Representative A said, pointing to the guest seated to their right.

The guest lifted up the box to reveal a cake covered in pale blue frosting and their name in sugar lettering. Ooos and aahs all around. Representative A handed the guest a pie server. The guest cut their cake which revealed a regular yellow sponge. Representative A held up the cake and presented it to the other guests.

“Yellow,” Representative A said, “indicates no change in gender.”

Everyone lightly clapped as the representative handed the cake back to the guest who looked game but a little underwhelmed.

The guest passed the pie server counterclockwise to the next seat, and then to the next, and then to the next, and so on. There were 21 or 22 of us. Most of the results were yellow cake. This was met with different reactions. Some were satisfied. Some were clearly more disappointed, having worked themselves up the days prior into an anticipation of the possibilities of something new, only to have that hope festively dashed. Some were more muted and ambivalent. One guest actually cried and had to be comforted.

Four or five guests had cakes with a red velvet sponge. This indicated a new gender designation. There was much cheering when these were revealed before these guests had to report to Representative B for another clipboard and some pamphlets.

I was seated in the middle of the row to Representative A’s left, about 12th or 13th in line. By the time the server was handed to me, my curiosity had raised somewhat higher from when I had arrived. Still, I mustered enough sober modesty to cut slowly and not too large a slice.

But once I had done this, I was met with a sponge of a very different color. Rather than yellow or red velvet, my cake sponge was of a greenish-black consistency with a soggy texture.

I looked around at the other guests who had stilled into a tense pause. I signaled the representative.

“There seems to be a problem with my cake.”

Representative A looked at it briefly. “What is your name?”

I gave my name. Representative A signaled to Representative B who brought over an entirely new clipboard. Representative A looked it over.

“Ah, here it is. Your gender is unchanged.”

“Okay,” I said, then motioned back to the problematic cake.

“Oh,” Representative A said, inspecting the cake more closely. “Your cake is defective.”

“Is there any way I can … maybe … get a new cake?”

“All cakes are final. But consult with my associate after the ceremony about getting a quote for reanalyzing your data.”

I nodded and passed the server on.

After the ceremony, the guests splintered into several smaller parties centered on the few who got red velvet cakes, where toasts were made and group selfies were taken.

I formed a sort of satellite at the periphery of these groups where guests would pass me and offer various commiserations.

“Better luck next time, eh?” one guest said.

“It’s not your fault,” another assured me, “no matter what they tell you.”

“Have a beer on me,” another guest said, and handed me a bottle of the Molson Ice I brought.

I took my cake and prepared to leave. Just as I reached the door, Representative B accosted me to remind me of the finer points of the waiver, which I halfheartedly acknowledged, having had my fill of clipboards for one evening. I last saw Representative A moving around the table carefully dropping the cakes into a large trash bag.

I drove home with the cake box on my passenger seat. When I took it out of my car, I noticed that some of the cake had seeped out of the side of the box and onto the seat’s fabric. I opted to deal with it in the morning, though I did not hold out hope that the stain, now the most prominent stain on the seat, would ever be removed.

I placed the cake on my kitchen table and observed it. I went to the junk drawer and took out a box of birthday candles. Conveniently there was one left. I placed it at the center of the cake, right at the half-point of my name. I lit the candle and ate from a bag of stale tortilla chips until the candle melted down to half its length and extinguished.

I threw out the cake and fell asleep watching Hawaii Five-O—the old one, not the new one.

TWO DIALOGUES

TWO GIRLS IN A FOOD COURT

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People talk about permissiveness like it’s the worst thing.

I know.

Like it’s the worst fucking thing. Everyone has permission now so now we’re all gonna die, like, this instant.

Right.

But look at it. Really look at how it works. Look at how dumb people can be. They hate it, they hate having permission to do anything.

Sure, yeah.

They love things they can’t have, right?

True.

Anything they can’t have, they want. This is true. This is a fact.

Totally.

I mean it. I’m not rationalizing.

Of course.

Put that thing that everyone wishes they had, but can’t, right in front of them. Like, seat them in front of a table. There’s this box on the table. Some masked man or something comes in and lifts up the box and voila: that coveted object is sitting there to be grabbed. Could be anything: jewelry, car keys, cocaine. Suddenly it’s there and it’s free and they’re all, “I don’t want it.”

Ha ha.

“I changed my mind, sorry. I don’t want it.”

Imagine if someone wanted … not really a person but … only part of the person.

So, you mean, a sex organ?

Sure.

That’s creepy; that’s so creepy.

Or it doesn’t need to be that, it could be, you know, eyes. Like someone’s eyes.

And they’re in the box?

They’re in a jar that’s under the box.

Just floating around?

Sure.

That’s somehow creepier.

It doesn’t have to be, like, literal eyeballs. It could be a replica of them.

Like … marbles?

I don’t think marbles float like eyes do, so some lighter glassy material. Because eyes are made mostly of water, right?

I don’t know. I’ll check.

Just take my word for it. So they dissolve away soon. But if someone loved someone’s eyes so much they wanted to stare at them all day, they could get these fake ones.

Except I’m saying they wouldn’t want it if it was given to them.

They would because you can’t take someone’s eyes for your own personal use without first asking permission.

That’s gonna be what saves permissiveness.

Asking permission?

Like getting permission slips.

Oh.

I hate permission slips, but everyone else would love them, I think.

They love that little extra bit of process.

Yeah.

Who would they bring it to? Like, who would sign their permission slip to go to a strip club or to have someone offed?

I don’t know. Maybe a notary?

I would be a notary just for that.

We should do a notary business.

Absolutely. Can we do that?

Of course, why not? Permissiveness!

I think we solved society.

This should be our calling: solving society.

For money?

Sure, but, you know, not for working moms or old people who are lonely.

Sure, right.

This reminds me of this girl who was really determined to cure anxiety.

Cure anxiety?

Note cure really but … help people who had anxiety. I can’t remember what her deal was, whether she had an experience or was just really into psychology or getting extracurriculars …

Uh huh.

But no one wanted to come to her. I don’t think she knew anything. So what she did was go hunting for anxious people.

Ha ha.

So she’d find someone she thought was anxious and go “You’ve got so much anxiety” and, like, lit a candle.

Ha ha, a candle?

Not really, but you know what I mean?

What happened to her?

Not sure exactly. You ever just see people all the time in a certain pretext and then once that pretext is through you just never see them again and it’s like, did they ever exist?

I know what you mean.

That seems bad, and wrong.

No, I think it’s normal. She probably thinks the same thing of you.

I don’t exist?

Sure. You disappeared. You’re in another dimension.

Oh wow.

You ever have that feeling, like, of just wanting the day to end?

Uh huh.

You just want it to be over, you just want it to be dark.

Sure.

But when you say “the day” you don’t really mean the day. Like it’s not this day.

Okay.

This day, the one right now, is fine. It’s good, even. There’s nothing wrong with this day. It’d be pretty rude for me to spend this day with you or anyone and be just “This day sucked.”

I don’t know that it’s rude. You can enjoy a thing and also think it sucks. That’s life.

But I guess what I really mean is that I’m not saying what I’m saying. But saying it in that way, in that certain special way, makes me feel better.

So it’s like a code?

Exactly. It’s my very own personal code.

Gotcha.

I do that a lot now. I speak in code. I speak in code without ever thinking that I’m speaking in code.

How do you make it, or keep track of it?

I don’t know. That’s the thing. It’s so unconscious now. But that’s how you keep it from being broken, right? You can’t know the key so no one else can know the key. I’m sure there are so many books about “breaking” someone’s code, like a bunch of people just think the same way. All the time. They think that’s really how things go.

Totally.

But I haven’t read those books.

Maybe you should, as a countermeasure.

I bet that’s exactly what they expect. Like it’s probably in the forward. “WARNING: Your child is reading this book, too!”.

But, yeah, I want the day to end soon, too.

Feel better, right?

A little.

You want this last onion ring?

You’re not gonna eat it?

No. It’s kind of oily at the bottom. And also it looks a little burnt. It’s a runt ring.

A runion ring.

Ha ha. It’s yours. You can have it.

No thanks, I don’t want it.

TWO MEN IN A LIFE RAFT

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Do you think my wife is pretty?

No.

Oh. Okay.

Was that a trick question?

No, I was asking you straight out if you thought my wife was pretty.

I wasn’t sure.

Do you then, knowing now that I’m asking you straight?

I’m not changing my answer.

Okay.

Sorry.

No, it’s fine. But if you were to ask me if I thought your wife was pretty …

Okay …

… I’d say, Yes.

Okay.

I’m just being honest.

I don’t have a wife.

I’ve seen you with her all the time.

That’s not my wife.

Is she your sister?

No, she’s my mistress.

A mistress?

A mistress. It’s an entirely different thing.

Yeah, a mistress. Yeah. You like her?

I like her fine.

Have you considered taking her as a wife?

A few times.

Have you brought it up to her?

One time.

What happened?

She respectfully declined.

I’m sorry. Why? If you don’t mind me asking.

I sort of do, but, it’s because she has a husband already.

Oh.

Also she says I’m not “husband material.”

That’s awful of her.

She’s probably right. I don’t have a wife, she has a husband and many other lovers. So she would know better than I would.

So you’re just one.

Yeah. I’m on a calendar. Every first Tuesday of the month at 3:45 PM, for an early happy hour, and every last Thursday of the month at 11:20 AM, for an early lunch.

Seems too complicated and unfair to me.

Maybe it is, but it’s also very hard to find someone who places as high an importance on structure as I do. It’s like every relationship, it has tradeoffs.

I think my wife is pretty anyway.

That’s good of you to say.

And I don’t think we have any tradeoffs between us.

That’s also good of you to say, if also not very realistic.

You know, I thought maybe I’d be offended by you not thinking my wife is pretty. But actually I’m kind of okay with it. I appreciate the honesty.

I try to be honest.

Maybe I place importance on honesty in the same way that you place importance on structure.

Could be.

And there’s also the added security knowing you’re not interested in my wife.

Well, I didn’t say that.

Come again?

You asked me if I thought that your wife was pretty. I answered that I did not. But I don’t place as much importance on prettiness as I do on structure or as you do on honesty. Now if you were to ask me if I thought your wife was charming or erudite or challenging or inspiring or hard-bargaining or subversive or spirited or a bit enigmatic (just a bit), we’d be having the same conversation, but you’d maybe feel less secure—depending on what you asked me.

You think my wife is subversive?

No, I don’t. But I place higher importance on subversion in a woman than I do on prettiness. Unless that prettiness was part of her subversive quality, then I’d have to factor that in.  

How do you function?

Until very recently, pretty well.

I think I’m having delirium.

Why do you say that?

I keep looking up at the sun and seeing her.

Your wife?

No, my lunch lady from middle school. She’s behind the sneeze guard, with a spoonful of tater tots in one hand and a spoonful of Jell-O in the other. She’s dressed for Halloween. She’s got cat whiskers painted on her face and cat ears sticking out of her hairnet. It’s not a lot of effort but cutting holes in your hairnet is probably against regulation. That left an impression on me.

You’re not supposed to stare at the sun. Stare at the sky, there’s plenty of it.

I’m bored with the sky.

Well pretty soon the moon is coming out and you can stare at that all you want.

The moon agitates me. I look up at the moon and all it does is shine back every inadequacy I’ve ever felt. It’s like it keeps tabs on me, going back to my very first moment of inadequacy.

When was that?

When I was three. I had this white blanket from when I was a baby. I became pretty dependent on it. I would not let it go. I felt safe with it. Even when it was all ratty and knotted up and looked like a chew toy, I wouldn’t part with it. One day I was in the backyard with it. In the sandbox, minding my own business. Then my older brother comes running around from the front of the house, his arms stretched out and a bedsheet tied around his neck. He was playing Superman. He kept running around the house making whooshing sounds. And every time I’d see that sheet flowing in the breeze behind him. I looked down at my ratty blanket and felt disgusted. My brother seemed to be telling me that “I am me and you are you; and you will never go higher than you already are.” I tossed the blanket over the fence and never saw it again. I did try to scale the fence and retrieve it, but my mom got me in time. Anyway, pretty soon I got a new blanket, but it just wasn’t the same. I guess you could say I was an early adapter.

I guess it happens to all of us eventually.

Maybe I’m still lucky. I bet some people are born inadequate.

Probably.

I don’t think my brother ever said that to me, that I would never be higher than I was then. I don’t even think he thought it. But the moon says it to me every night. And, at least in this instance, the moon is right.

SIMULACRUM

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1.

“There is a difference between ambition and determination,” Ray says.

“Oh yeah?”

“Yeah. Ambition has a long view; determination doesn’t.”

“Unpack that for me a little.”

“You can have an ambition to be King of the Mountain. You and everyone else is scaling the mountain for that position, the top of the mountain is all you and everyone else chooses to see. But you made it to the top because you saw the top of the mountain more clearly. But you could just be determined to get to the top, to topple the King of the Mountain over, and to drag the King back down to the bottom with you.”

“That second one also sounds kind of ambitious.”

“Not if you’re doing it for the fuck of it,” Ray insists, “or for your own narrow and private reasons.”

“I guess that makes sense,” I say, and we are silent for the rest of the afternoon.

Ray and I are in the park when he tells me this. Ray called me up late last night, then he called me again early in the morning, to tell me to meet him in the park. There is a large lake at the center of the park. I meet Ray at the east-facing shore so that we may walk together to the west-facing shore where there is a small stone building made to resemble a castle.

In the miniature castle there is a tower that walks up about 15 feet. We stand in front of the entrance to the tower and Ray points up the narrow spiral stone steps. In the tower there is a slim window where you can look at the whole expanse of the lake. It is a warm, partly cloudy day and people are paddling in the lake or picnicking on its grassy shores. The tower itself is narrow, like the shaft of a model rocket, and only fits two people. It has a romantic feel encouraging closeness if not intimacy and practically coerces anyone in it into kissing.

Ray has taken me to this tower to tell me something I already know.

“I guess we should go,” Ray says breaking the silence. “People are probably waiting.”

When we get back down, there are a clusters of people, some young couples but mostly older tourists, milling around the path in front of the miniature castle. Here perhaps I would nudge Ray and ask if any of them look ambitious or just determined, but none of them look all that eager to go in after us and could just as easily be anywhere else. One man locks a stern pair of eyes onto mine as if cataloging all the ways we may have just abused this amenity. I get a slight tingle of excitement in my lower back, followed by a flush of guilt from head to toe, thinking that he is thinking we are criminals of some sort.

“I have to go back now,” Ray says. “Thanks, man. Take care.” He walks out of the west-facing gate before I could respond.

A sign next to the miniature castle reads “BUILT IN 1976, USING STONES MADE AVAILABLE TO THE CITY BY DEINSTITUTIONALIZATION.”

2.

I am in the passenger seat of a boat bobbing up and down in the tunnel of love. “Passenger seat” is not accurate in a technical sense. In a technical sense, we are both the drivers. But in a thematic sense I am being driven by Ray, who is appropriately in the traditional driver’s side of the boat.

The boat is controlled by pedals set in front of us that we must use our legs to move, which would be fine if Ray was moving them at my more relaxed speed. If that was the case, it would prevent the boat from jerking sharply at either direction and splashing water onto my clothes.

The water over which we are pedaling is so murky as to be a manmade river of ink. It courses down a tunnel that is heart-shaped and gives one the sense that one is in a deformed digestive tract. It is segmented every few feet by thin tubes that pulsate from deep red to hot pink and back again. Their fragmented reflections on the water’s surface make it look crowded with highly aroused electric eels.

A Mariah Carey song blares from unseen speakers. The acoustics of the tunnel turn Ms. Carey’s voice into a banshee being pulled on a rack. The couple behind me, also two men, break through the howls with their arguing. I hear it in pieces that are drearily poetic:

“You’re not listening. You have never listened. You will still not listen when we get out,” one says in desperation.

“I have always been in this tunnel,” the other responds dryly, as if rehearsed.

It is difficult to hear what Ray is saying. It is not for lack of trying on Ray’s part.

“I have an idea for a house,” he says more loudly than the things he said before it that I have forgotten. “It’s a custom design, very modern. I’ve been thinking about it for a while. For many years—around the time we met but before we became friends.”

“There’s this Tudor house I used to live down the street from when I was a kid,” I say. “I’d like to make enough money to live somewhere like that.”

“When my house is built, I’m going to have a big party, one of several. And I’m going to call my house the Simulacrum.”

“Simulacrum?”

“Yeah. I like it.”

“Do you know what it means?” I ask in a phrasing I would have reconsidered at the last second under more ideal conditions.

“Yeah,” he says with a laugh.

Exiting the boat, my knee twitches on the edge making it rock. Ray, still seated but reaching out his hand to mine, starts to wobble in the boat. For a second it looks like it’s going to topple him over, but the worker on site steadies it, only getting his pants wet. I think my knee spasm was involuntary.

I don’t want to go for ice cream but I do not refuse when Ray makes the suggestion. Seated at the bench with his cone of mint chocolate chip, Ray takes out a piece of paper that is soaked straight through.

“These were my plans for the Simulacrum,” he says.

When he unfolds the paper there is just a big purple cloud. It’s like a Rorschach blot.

“Shit, I’m really sorry.”

“It’s fine. It was a pretty crude mock-up. I have a different, more detailed version I work on periodically in my notebook.”

“I’m not sure what I could have said about it,” I assured him. “I like architecture, but I don’t know much about it.”

“Me neither, I just thought it would be cool for you to see.”

“I think I’ll just buy a condo.”

3.

Ray wants to go see a movie. Except he doesn’t want to see whatever’s showing at the theater near where he lives or the theater near where I live. The theater he has in mind is outside the city. Far enough outside the city, in fact, to require two separate train rides and a taxi ride.

The theater is in one of those small towns where every business closes at five, except the theater, whose blank marquee is the only light source on the street.

The boy in the ticket booth is a teen with many pimples, some made prominently inflamed by incessant picking. He stares out into the street in a kind of daze and takes a few seconds to realize I’m there.

“One please,” I say.

“Sorry?”

“One ticket.”

He stares blankly and tensely as though he is about to be murdered. I scan his face from one side to the other, counting a total of six pimples

“Oh … uhm … Wait, are you the sax guy?”

“Sure,” I say slowly and with an arched eyebrow.

“You can just go in. Everything is ready.”

Ray is sitting in the back row of the theater. Another couple, a person with long curly hair and a person with short cropped hair, sit a few rows ahead at the center.

The lights go down and the screen projects Suspiria.

“I don’t really like horror,” Ray whispers to me almost as soon as the film starts. “It’s not that I think it’s too scary. I just think it’s a lot of needless effort.”

He stops and we resume watching. Five or so minutes later, he resumes.

“I don’t think this is a horror film, though. So I think this is okay.”

“I think they can hear us,” I whisper back.

We look out at the silhouetted couple in front. The curly haired viewer has disappeared and the cropped-haired viewer seemed to be asleep.

I pardon myself to use the restroom. When I come back out, the curly haired viewer, a woman as it turns out, was just exiting the theater, wiping mascara from her right eye that had begun to run. We look at each other and she stops dead with a stunned expression, as if I was a ghost cursed to roam the earth trying to sell people vacuum cleaners.

“What the …” she blurts.

“I’m sorry.”

“So you’re the sax guy?”

“Excuse me?”

“I can’t believe it.”

“There must be some mistake.”

“There must be. This is a private fucking function, and you need to leave.”

“I’m sorry, I just need to go—”

She shushes me and points to the front exit. Not wanting further confrontation, I agree to leave.

I wait outside the entrance for Ray’s own expulsion. The teen is still in the booth, reading Guns & Ammo. But the expulsion does not come. I go around to the back exits to find only an empty parking lot.

On my first train ride back home, I text Ray if he had anything more to say.

When I get home, he replied “no not really”

4.

Ray calls me to come back to the park. He tells me he has a surprise for me. He tells me to go to the southmost part of the park, where along a curved pathway are a line of benches on either side. He tells me that I should sit on whichever bench feels most comfortable. He tells me he’ll take care of the rest.

I’m waiting at the park. The bench I am sitting in has incomprehensible graffiti scrawled in gold and blue ink. None of the benches are very comfortable in the strict sense.

There is a steady procession of people along the pathway. People jogging. People walking their dogs. People walking with their babies. People jogging with their dogs or babies. People holding and picking at Styrofoam containers. People holding and drinking from bottles or cans wrapped in bags. People holding other people. People looking at or yelling into their phones. Very few people rollerblading.

Nothing else happens for 45 or so minutes. Then I see Ray coming under the far stone bridge. Ray is not alone. His left arm is linked to the right arm of a woman in a blue evening gown, a yellow hat with a white ribbon and bow, white gloves extending to her elbows, and a black sheer veil over her face. They walk slowly, almost glidingly, down the pathway. People pay no mind to them, passing them as though they were two rocks in a stream. Every few feet Ray leans into the woman’s ear and appears to whisper something. As they come closer I hear her chirping giggle after every time he talks to her. Ray is whispering a new funny secret to her as they pass me. Without stopping or gesturing, they pass on, giving and responding to new secrets, and melt into the swath of pedestrians.

I return to my apartment. I resume my ongoing project of peeling off, as cleanly as I can, the grocery label of a lid for a container of potato salad.

Before I realize it, it has gotten dark. The label has left a strong layer of film that smudges and thickens the more I try to scrub it off.

I start to picture everything I know, and tell myself that I already know them. I set them carefully in front of me and watch as they flash and quickly go dark, like a row of light bulbs extinguishing themselves, one after the other.