Sometimes, on my way to the dog park in Brooklyn Heights, I pass an older woman who likes to sit on her stoop and give out dog treats. She is elegant, infallibly good-natured and always thanks my profusely for letting Mirabelle stop. When I say goodbye she always responds: “As they say in Memphis, hurry back now, you hear?”
Weekdays she is accompanied by a woman I think is her home aide, but today she was alone, in slacks that have become a size too large and patterned house slippers, bright rings stacked on slender fingers. She flagged me when I was a half block away. “Over here! Over here!” she cried, “I have treats!” She made Mirabelle sit, then shake, and again, every time giving her a treat—Mirabelle followed her movements with rapt attention. “How old is she?” she asked. “Five years,” I said, and this seemed to make the woman very happy. Next she remarked on my earrings, which were heart-shaped, and told me her daughter’s last name was Valentine and not only that, she was born on Valentine’s day, and everyone in the hospital made a great big deal out of it when it happened, but that was a long time ago. “How old is she?” she asked again about Mirabelle. “Five years,” I said, and again she seemed delighted by my answer and asked for Mirabelle’s paw and gave her a treat.
I hadn’t realized she had memory problems, but what my mom always told me about my grandmother, who had dementia, was that the best thing was to enter into her own experience of reality rather than to question it. Doing this felt a bit like jumping into a moving river and letting it carry you along, and was both relaxing and disorienting. With people whose minds are intact I often don’t know how to respond when our perception of events diverge. But when my grandmother asked what time my grandfather would be home, which she did often, it was obviously far kinder to tell her he was on his way rather than to remind her, over and over, that he was dead.
I said goodbye to the woman, she told me what they say in Memphis, and I headed to the dog park. On the way back I thought I would stop by again, and maybe she wouldn’t remember she’d seen Mirabelle half an hour earlier and it would make her as happy as it did the first time. I walked back down her street, but the stoop was empty. Or at least I think it was. I realized I actually couldn’t quite remember which building was hers, or even why she had mentioned the detail about her daughter being born on Valentine’s Day, although a little while later I brushed my hand against one of my earrings and it came back.
Take Breaks, Fabio
I first lived in New York in 2002, when I spent a summer in a Williamsburg railroad with a friend, her boyfriend, and her boyfriend’s wayward little brother. I think at one point he even stole my friend’s car and disappeared for a few days, though I only ever got my friend’s side of the story and maybe she actually lent it to him then thought better of it. For work I had a job at a seafood restaurant on the Hudson River a block from the World Trade Center site. I was a kind of glorified cocktail waitress, and spent my shifts depositing buckets of beers at the tables of red-faced Wall Street guys in suits who shouted at each other even when they were the only people there. I didn’t mind, though, because working the patio meant I got to watch the sun go down behind New Jersey, and once it was dark the neon Colgate Clock in New Jersey would light up, and it was big and bright enough I could watch the time passing minute by minute.
Mostly I spent that summer feeling out of place in New York, which was strange, because I went to high school in the city and it was hardly unknown to me. But since I’d been away it felt like it had changed. It had gotten cooler, or I had gotten less cool, or maybe I was just being exposed to a side of it I hadn’t seen much of as a teenager, when I spent my free time on stoops, in parks, or sometimes at the Hot & Crusty on Broadway. The friend I lived with, who was so beautiful that hanging out with her was like discovering I owned an invisibility cloak, was working at a French restaurant uptown, the kind of place frequented by people like Bruce Springsteen and Mick Jagger, and one time I stopped by to see her only to overhear the owner mutter, “What is that person doing here?”
In the midst of this I was out with some friends and we ended up at a Moroccan-themed club on Spring Street. I knew that I didn’t quite belong but I was drunk enough that it didn’t really matter and besides I was in good company—soon we spotted, through what seemed to be throngs of models, Fabio. I had never quite considered he might be an actual person, much less that he could appear in real life in a form-fitting black muscle t-shirt with his long hair billowing out behind him. It felt a bit like seeing a unicorn and my friends and I soon got into a discussion of just how silky his hair might actually be. Finally I walked behind him, trying to act casual, and lightly ran my hand over the tips. It seemed like it might proffer good luck (so I guess I would more accurate to say we saw him like a leprechaun than a unicorn) and whether it did or not, I think this may have been the highlight of the summer.
I’m glad he looks to be doing well. I’m also happy he hasn’t cut his hair, which continues to appear healthy and clearly still billows out behind him even when he’s doing something as ordinary as eating lunch and drinking a Diet Coke.
After high school I moved in with a friend of mine in Venezuela, where we both worked at a local school. She had a boyfriend, a cocky guitar player who, among other sleazy things, once spent an entire dinner (on my birthday, no less) critiquing my table manners. Worth mentioning is that we were sitting on the linoleum floor of the living room eating dinner off the door of one of our bedrooms, which we’d taken off its hinges and set up on milk carts to use as a table since we didn’t have one. I’m surprised we even bothered to fold up squares of toilet paper and turn them into napkins, but I know we did because he was adamant that the thing belonged in my lap.
Eventually my friend broke up with him and he disappeared from my life until a few years ago, when he friended me on Facebook. He immediately started showing up constantly in my feed, always with a different girl. What a sleaze, I thought at first, until I realized that actually what had happened is that he had become a member of a popular Venezuelan band. He was so famous, in fact, that his fans constantly wanted to take pictures with him, and whenever they did they immediately posted the photos on Facebook and tagged him. Presumably they are more receptive to his napkin tutorials so I guess in many ways we have all ended up where we are supposed to be.
Things I know about my upstairs neighbor just by listening:
1. Getting ready for work in the morning requires her to take approximately 5,000 trips back and forth through her apartment.
2. She is partial to epic games of Jenga.
3. She almost never has friends over.
4. The only time she did, on some random Tuesday, they played Jenga and whenever the tower fell over they made the noise of 20 elephants—it sounded like were throwing themselves on the ground en masse and screaming collectively. This happened early on in our proximate living arrangement, so I didn’t realize how infrequently she had friends over. If I had, I would not have gone upstairs around 1am to ask them if they could keep it down. The neighbor herself didn’t come to the door, just her two friends, and they gave me dirty looks, which now, in retrospect, I realize I deserved.
5. Often, upon arriving home from work, she bangs on the wall for a little bit. Is she obsessively hanging pictures? Does she own an appliance that frequently requires re-installation? Maybe it is an unusual form of stress release? I have no idea.
6. She rarely plays music, except when she’s getting pumped to go out on the weekends. Her preference, in such circumstances, alternates between mid-aughts girl anthems and Madonna.
7. A few months ago she started dating someone new, a gruff but nice body builder type—somehow in three years living here I have never seen her but I did at one point see this guy. For a few months he would come over at night on the weekends and they’d bang the bed against the wall for around 15 minutes and then go to sleep.
8. She wasn’t that into the sex.
9. I know this because back when I moved in to the building she was together with a different guy and whenever they had sex she would scream there’s-a-person-about-to-murder-me screams for hours at a time. On one particularly memorably night they struggled upstairs at 2am and the screaming lasted from about 2:15am until the sun was up. I did not go ask her to keep it down. How does one phrase such a request? I wasn’t sure. At one point I considered leaving an anonymous note, but this seemed rude.
10. She and the body builder boyfriend broke up a few weeks ago. She betrayed him somehow—I heard snippets of the fight. From what I could gather he was into the relationship and wanted to make it work, but after the betrayal (what WAS it? I kept missing the salient detail, even after opening my window) he didn’t see how they could stay together.
11. During her screaming phase I was not yet familiar with her habits, so I thought it was some weird tic of hers, maybe something she’d picked up watching porn and was now determined to inflict on others. I foresaw it being a frequent and ongoing annoyance, one that would entail years of earplugs. But now that she’s cycled through a few other relationships I see that I had it all wrong—she was having the best sex of her life and the screaming was her body’s inadvertent response. Realizing this made me feel even more glad I had not left the anonymous note asking her to keep it down.
12. I only heard her cry once and it was right after she broke up with that first boyfriend. One afternoon, she burst into loud, epic sobs. When the bodybuilder boyfriend stormed out she didn’t cry at all. She just stomped back and forth in her apartment for a few minutes, then went to bed. She hasn’t had anyone over since.
A little while ago I wrote something for the Hairpin about a hiking trip I went on last fall. In the piece I mentioned a summer I spent living in Wyoming, and said that during those months I had no friends, but I realized afterward this wasn’t quite right. There was my fellow intern at the newspaper, a sweet girl who sometimes invited me to hang out with her and her boyfriend, and one of my roommates at the first place I lived, a surprisingly grounded Rainbow Family type hippie whose dog, Stash, a mellow white poodle-type creature, was indeed so-named because he had once consumed a sizable stash of her weed. But my closest companion was actually my next roommate’s dog, Tucker.
It was so hard to find housing that I ended up arranging to stay in one place for some of June and then in July and August I lived in the bedroom of a pre-teen boy who was at his dad’s for the summer. His dog, Tucker, had been left behind, along with his collection of plastic cartoon characters on his dresser, his vast array of protective sports gear in his closet, and his trampoline in the backyard. At one point he visited for the night and forced Tucker to stay on the trampoline while he bounced him up and down and up and down. This and other things (the little shits Tucker often left in corners of the living room, the insane laps he frequently took through the house, usually clutching some piece of my clothing between teeth, his daily attempts to escape if I left the front door open for more than a moment) led me to believe that he almost never got walked, and for some reason I decided to take him on as my responsibility.
We went on loads of day hikes in the surrounding mountains and finally worked our way up to a 4,000 foot climb that took place over about six miles. When we made it back to the bottom there were two girls sitting on the grass by the parking lot who called Tucker over to them. Earlier in the summer there had been moments during particularly steep and/or hot hikes when Tucker had given up altogether and I had walked the rest of the way with him slung around my neck like a towel (the long Corgi body is conducive for this, I discovered). That hike, though, Tucker held up fine up until he started walking over to the girls and abruptly dropped to the ground, his four little legs splayed out beneath him. The girls looked up at me questioningly and I explained we had just hiked up to the top of the mountain above them. They stared up at it, looked back at Tucker’s tiny legs, then turned to me as if I was a monster. I was very embarrassed, and said that of course Tucker was FINE, we did this all the time, and tugged on his leash so he could get up and show them, but instead he just lay there. So I pulled a little harder, and for one terrible moment I pulled hard enough to start dragging his inert little body by the neck across the grass. Finally I walked over and picked him up and carried him to the car. Man did I feel like an asshole. But just a few hours after arriving back at the house he was doing his laps in the living room again.
I spent last week at a silent meditation retreat in a rural part of Massachusetts. It actually wasn’t very silent. People didn’t talk, but the place running the retreat is in the midst of an extensive building project, and eight hours a day, directly outside the meditation hall, cement trucks churned and other trucks dropped off gigantic loads of dirt and bulldozers deposited it into wide holes and all of this was accompanied by the very loud beeping and grinding and digging such things generally entail. It didn’t bother me, though, partly because it sounded like home but mostly because I was far more bothered by the person near me sucking on lozenges, and whenever the construction noise picked up that meant I could no longer hear the lozenge hitting the edge of her teeth.
The retreat lasted ten days, and by day five I was in the strange space I arrive at under such circumstances. One moment my mind felt like a planet floating in outer space, the next I was infuriated by a person doing nothing other than considerately trying not to cough by sucking on a lozenge, and the next I was suddenly aware of a pain in my knees so acute I couldn’t imagine how I had ever managed to notice anything else. Once the hour was up I would walk outside, my mind momentarily clear until someone passed in front of me and a single thought would appear, such as, “That man is wearing a skirt.” Gender roles are all reversed at these things. The men wear sarongs. The women wear loose fitting pants. And even the most mundane observations take on significance when surrounded with so much silence.
The same seemed to be true of dreams, this was all I could figure. Midway through I woke up in the middle of the night with the feeling that I had just had a very meaningful message. I opened my eyes and sat up, this was how important it felt. For a second the dream was gone, but then I remembered it. First the image returned: two cows in a field, and atop each cow was another cow, but sitting the way a person would on a horse, with their two back legs danging down on either side. Then the message: “The world is best viewed from atop a cow.” Make of it what you will.
The two men were standing together outside the coffee shop I go to sometimes. The older man had on ill-fitting red corduroys, the younger man had on ill-fitting jeans and a white cotton t-shirt. He was telling the older man he needed to quit it with all the surgeries - what did he think, that changing his face would be enough to draw women in? The older man seemed discouraged. Yeah, yeah, he said. It’s just I’m insecure, and besides the real problem is I’m fat. I gotta quit eating. I know what you need to do, said the younger one, you should start taking speed. You want me to get you some meth? The younger man, I decided, was an asshole.
You know what your problem is? the older man asked. You’re a Jew, so you’re genetically predisposed to try to undermine the confidence of Aryans. That’s what you’re doing to me right now. The older man, I decided, was also an asshole. I mean, look at you, the older man said. What do you mean, look at me? said the younger man, I don’t look like a Jew. Ha HA! said the older man. Everyone can tell you are a Jew. I focused intently on eating my cookie. They seemed like exactly the kind of assholes who might turn to the nearest person and say, hey, don’t you think this guy here looks like a Jew? On the sidewalk I watched a man fiddling with his phone walk straight into the flowering branch of a tree, look up from his phone and give the tree a dirty look.
Then the younger man received a text. Oh my God, he said, I’ve just received amazing news. What is it? asked the older man. The younger man ignored him. You know what you should do? he asked the older guy. You should get an exercise bike. I don’t need to exercise, I need to quit eating, said the older guy. So what’s your good news? The younger guy paused for a super long time. Isabel texted me, he finally said. So she wrote just to say hi and you’re going to respond simply by telling her where to meet for lunch? asked the older man. You’re starting to get the hang of this, the younger guy said, you listen to me and we’ll get you a girl in no time. You just can’t tolerate any of that bimbo crap. The older man nodded. And with that they took off to meet the lucky girl.
Lately I have been taking an exercise class that involves running across the Brooklyn Bridge extremely early in the morning. It’s brutal, at least for me, which makes it particularly hard to motivate myself when I hear the alarm go off at 5:30am. Today I skipped. On Saturday, however, the class starts at 9am, and last weekend I successfully got myself out of bed in time.
The class involves sprints and running and then all these terrible exercises with stretchy band things, and how hard I have to work would make me feel foolish except that it usually seems hard for everyone else, too. Last Saturday, though, there was this guy there for whom nothing was hard. He had gigantic shoulders and huge rounded calf muscles and a neck like a tree trunk. He was a true specimen of health, built like a fridge but super fast—like a fast fridge—and for most of the class I watched him unabashedly. I found it strangely relaxing, watching him do things I find hard with such ease. It was like watching an acrobat, or an animal on one of those wildlife shows, or a ballerina balancing on one foot with her other foot above her head. Until the part where we had to sprint, and he took off up the bridge, almost swaying back and forth - he had so much muscle to move that running required this sort of motion. But super fast, as I mentioned. Like a fast swaying fridge. And all I could think was: If that guy came after me, I could never, ever run fast enough to get away.
I’ve been to a few different therapists in my life, and all can variously be categorized as bad (the one who told me I could stand to lose ten pounds), strange (the one with the wand and the therapy dog) or good (the therapist I have now).
It is such an odd relationship - he know loads of intimate details about me, but I know almost nothing about him. Does he get impatient with how I get stuck in the same ways over and over again? Does he think I am impossibly self-involved? How could he not? All I do in his presence is talk about myself incessantly, one hour at a time.
If I told him any of this I’m sure he would smile in the same beatific way he does when I ask him how he’s doing and suggest we talk about it. But because the thought of doing that makes me vaguely uncomfortable, instead I tell myself that he does not do what I imagine I would do if I was a therapist, and occasionally share bits and pieces of his patients’ lives with his friends. Moreover, I tell myself he definitely does not have more or less favorite patients, and that once we walk out of his office we cease to exist to him altogether until seven days later, when we walk back in.
Last week, though, I was in a small cafe and there was a woman talking nearby on her phone. It was a very emotionally fraught conversation. There was a suicidal mother, a suggestion of an Al-Anon meeting, a reference to a trigger incident—it soon became apparent that the woman on the phone was a therapist, and on the other end of the line was a client in crisis.
Finally the therapist got off the phone and turned back to her friend. “Sorry,” she said. “I had to take that. That was the one with the crazy mom - remember her?” The friend did, and the therapist proceeded to catch her up on everything that had just happened to the one-with-the-crazy-mom. At the end the therapist teared up. “There’s just always that one client,” she said. “You know, the one that’s your favorite?”
When I was growing up everyone in my family called my grandmother “Oma,” and while I have had friends tell me they did this too, it has tended to mean they are Dutch or German, while my relatives, other than a few distant strains of the family tree, are not. The source of my grandmother’s nickname was actually my grandfather, a physicist with a wry sense of humor who at some point deep into their marriage started referring to her as “Old Mother.” He also greatly appreciated the economical use of language and as a result “Old Mother” became, simply, “O.M.” My oldest cousin then transformed this into “Oma.” I wrote a piece about my grandmother that was recently published in Salon and an early version included a quote from one of my cousins in which she called my grandmother “Oma.” At first it seemed important to include this and I spent about an hour trying to figure out how to explain her nickname in just a sentence before giving up and cutting it. Thank goodness I did not see any reason to include my grandfather’s nickname, Dopo, which would have required, among other things, an explanation the Op language.
Summer is coming.
I didn’t drink much in college. Partly it was because I was too miserly to invest in a fake i.d., but also I just didn’t really like alcohol—an early foray into vodka shots proved an incredibly successful prophylactic. On my 21st birthday my two closest friends brought me to the local bar and I took two shots, promptly lay my head down on the table and said I was ready to go home.
For inexplicable reasons, about half the senior class went to this bar, the Gatekeepers Tavern, every Wednesday, and after my birthday I started going too. Of those two friends, one exclusively drank Long Island Iced Teas, which I quickly concluded were disgusting, and the other one drank Jack on the rocks, so that’s what I drank.
I have been to many bars at this point and consumed many Jack Daniels on the rocks (happily not many Long Island Iced Teas) so in spite of the tenor of the sole Yelp review—”5 of Americas most wanted criminals are usually seated at the bar and there’s a bevy of lovely $10 hookers outside the front door”—I feel comfortable stating definitively that the Gatekeeper was a great bar. I was very sad to hear that it had closed. Apparently a few years ago the senior class, exhibiting the inexplicably uniform logic of a flock of birds, decided to take their business to some dance club nearby with colored lights and a dj or whatever. This sounds incredibly lame to me, a response probably not that dissimilar to the way adults in the 1950s reacted to kids dancing the Hully Gully, and makes me feel about as old as Moses.
On New Year’s eve I got the stomach flu, though I prefer calling it the “winter vomiting disease,” as I saw it referred to in a few alarmist news articles, since this more accurately evokes how miserable it was. As far as viruses go I would give it an A+, assuming viruses judge themselves according to how terrible they make you feel, and how quickly they’re able to spread between human hosts.
I got it while I was in California with my family, all of us staying in one house together, and within two days, out of 12 people, ten were sick. Ten! We dropped like flies, and so dramatically that it was almost funny. We’d sit down to dinner, and by the end of the meal two more people would have stood up with a funny look on their face and headed upstairs to lie down. It was the kind of stomach flu where you’d try to roll over only to realize your stomach could only accomodate being tipped to one side, and you’d immediately have to roll back. I was too sick to even watch tv. The only thing that brought me comfort was breathing, or at least the thought that with each breath I was one breath closer to this thing being over. And then a week later I got the flu.
I had a crappy day yesterday, but this morning, walking to the subway, I suddenly felt better. Motion, or forward motion at least, almost always improves my mood. And this is, I think, because one of the things that I am most of afraid of, the sort of common area in the Venn diagram of my fears, is stasis.
I have no idea why stasis should be frightening. It doesn’t make sense. It’s just a lack of activity. Maybe it has something to do with my army of Puritan ancestors and their indefatigable focus on always progressing, on achieving academically and professionally and even, most ridiculous of all since there is no actual way to be successful like this, personally, on having disciplined, productive habits like beginning all days at dawn with cold swims, which is not what I do, obviously, but always, somewhere in me, is what I feel like I should be doing. What is it about WASPs, that they are so incapable of sitting still and so eager to be physically uncomfortable? Or maybe it is a normal thing that I simply haven’t grown out of—it’s so profoundly childish it’s almost embarrassing, like how babies are calmed by getting walked around the room or jiggled up and down.
Also like a baby, I am happiest when I am carried along by motion that I am not in charge of, like on a plane or a train. Trains are the best. And ultimately this is where I get into trouble. Because if you’re always waiting around for someone else to put you into motion, you never move at all.
On the upside, the flu has made my New Year’s resolution to drink less extremely easy.