I. What the hell am I doing here?
I am on my way home when it all begins. Or maybe ends. These transitions can be hard to keep track of. Sometimes you don’t even know you’re in one until it’s halfway through spitting you out in another city, or country, or relationship. But sometimes you do know and all you can do is wait for it to end. I’m in the first kind. I don’t even know it. It’s been four or five months since I’ve last been comfortable. It’s been four or five months of burying myself in distractions, smashing myself beyond reflection.
They show up after work, splattered like a black and white and colorful corpse across the sidewalk. From six feet up, they look like nothing unusual. There are dozens of them, maybe a full deck, but who cares? Stranger, scarier things have been spilled on sidewalks in Brooklyn. I stand for a moment and try to make out the Wilds. A woman pushes a stroller past, sending a blue seven fluttering into the street. I go home.
It doesn’t get weird until a few weeks later. I come out of a bar near my apartment and I slip on something in the rain and I fall on my ass. It’s a cartoon fall. I could pause in mid-air and contemplated my existence, my fragile suspended state. I have that much time. But I don’t. From my seat on the sidewalk, a trail gleams before me. More fucking Uno Cards. They shine like faded yellow streetlights and their corners peel in the rain. They lead me in ones and twos down side-streets and alleyways until somewhere, nowhere, they stop. I go home.
That’s it for the Uno Cards. Maybe I’m seeing things or hallucinating or looking for something that isn’t here or there or anywhere. Maybe I’m looking for them to take me to a place I’m not.
II. Who are these people?
Nothing happens. A year apart and I’m stuffing pizza down my throat because I don’t have anything to say. He’s not saying much either, but I don’t think he gets what kind of silence this is. I think the peppers and the pepperonis and the oil dripping down the crease of his folded pizza like it’s some kind of Roman Viaduct are enough for him. The man behind the counter is hopelessly fat. His face is caked with flour. I signal to him. More pizza, please, more pizza.
Once upon a time I could actually talk with this guy. We were friends and that was all there was to it. We bullshitted and dreamed and complained and it was easy. Now I feel like I’m on a date, like I’m searching for a spark that may not even exist. I stare past him at a photo of a bridge on the wall. He stares into the puddle of grease on his paper plate, or into his Styrofoam cup, or at me. I don’t know. I’m not watching.
We make small talk. We gossip. He fills me in on what’s happening back home. Gossip is really all some of us have. Is there a stronger bond than mutual interest in another person’s life? Did you hear about Steve? Oh I heard about Steve. Can’t believe it. Thank god we’re not like him. You’re not like him. I’m not like him. Jesus. Thank god.
This is sad. It’s unavoidable and universal and not really shattering, but the way we grow apart is sad. I never stopped liking this friend, I just stopped wanting to spend my time with him. Our interests changed, my geography changed. It was a friendship forged in common circumstance, and when those circumstances changed, there was nothing left to hold onto.
I’ll still see him sometimes. We’ll still get drunk when he comes to town. We’ll still gossip too. But it won’t last. We’ll have the same friends, but we’ll stop calling. We’ll just ask somebody, how’s he doing? Oh good.
The check arrives for seventeen bucks each, including tip. I have exact change and I toss it on the table. He puts the rest on his card.
III. Why don’t you just stay put somewhere?
She’s right, of course. That’s the problem. I don’t usually give her credit for the complicated stuff, but this isn’t even complicated. It’s just life. It’s just the way people live. Normal people, happy people, don’t move every three months, six months, eight months. Normal people stay somewhere for a year or two years. They build up friends and become regulars at coffee shops and buy furniture.
She’s not only right, but she’s better than I am. If you don’t want to be here, you should go, she tells me. You should go home or to some city where you can be happy. I understand. I just want you to be happy. I wonder if what she’s really saying is that she can’t take any more of me like this. I can hear it in her head: You’re wearing me down. You’re miserable and you’re making me miserable. I’m tired. A non-relationship, a long distance relationship, any kind of relationship would be better than this one. You have to do something. I understand. It can’t stay like this. But she probably isn’t that miserable. She doesn’t think in downward spirals the way some of us do. She’s just being nice and I can’t even take the benevolence at face value. See? She’s better than I am.
I put up curtains in her apartment last week. She has lots of windows and sunlight and even with the dark curtains drawn it can be hard to sleep in her bedroom. When I put them up, I had to move all kinds of furniture. I had to move her television and her book shelf and take some paintings down from the wall and push her bed away from the wall. I didn’t have a drill, so I used a screwdriver. It was a pain in the ass, but she can’t not sleep right?
Meanwhile, I live above a warehouse in a room with two windows. The blinds on one of them broke, but I have not replaced them. Instead of a desk, my computer sits on an old ironing board. I sit at it to eat the sandwiches I buy from the Polish deli down the street for lunch every day. My futon was fifty bucks online, used. I find myself cracking my back and stretching my neck if I have to stand for too long, or sit in the same position. I keep my belongings in a monstrous brown armoire that came in the room and is too large to move. Inside one of its doors there are two stickers: one says Virginia is for Lovers. The other is a shipping label with my address, only the address was crossed out in thick red ink and the words Hell on Earth are filled in next to it.
It’s not that I don’t want to pay for things like a better armoire. It’s that if I pay for them, I owe the objects something – time or good treatment. If my walls are empty, it’s that much less like home, and that much more like where I happen to be for the moment. When she comes over, she doesn’t complain about any of it. Not the sticky bathroom floor or the creaking futon or the 20 minutes to the subway stop. I apologize quietly, mumbling, not wanting to admit that my life is something to apologize for. This is not squalor; it is not poverty; just fear and indecision; it’s not wanting to stay but not knowing how to go.
IV. Why don’t you just go to law school?
They are good people. They see things the immigrant way, the way most Americans see them before years of privilege and post-modern confusion and liberal arts education muddle all those postwar values. You work hard at something, then you get a job, and you make money, and you buy a house, and hopefully you buy another house. What else is there? What else could a human being possibly want?
But this is after dinner talk. This is after six glasses of holiday wine talk. This is let’s find out if our son’s friend, polite as he is, is actually just a deadbeat talk. Four months unemployed, maybe you should consider trying something else. Maybe your resume should be revised. Maybe you just aren’t so good at writing. Maybe you should try politics. Why don’t you just go to law school? You know you can go to law school and not be an attorney. Many people do this. It’s a good education.
How can I tell them that I’m good enough? How can I tell them that my resume is in fact excellent, pristine, detailed? How can I tell them that the real problem is I’m just not trying very hard. These are my friend’s parents I’m talking to, they live in New Jersey, they work long and stressful hours and they admire, if anything, financial solvency. But I’m not interested in financial solvency. I’m interested in a more meaningful, possibly fictional, probably unattainable solvency. What’s independence if you cannot depend on yourself?
I try to tell my hosts that I’m taking things one step at a time. I try to tell them that law school is not for me. Maybe I could study public policy or journalism or international affairs. I don’t know. But they press on. Why not law? It’s such a fine, fine education, and practically money in the bank. And you’d be so perfect for it. Your background and experience and mind. Why don’t you go?
We aren’t religious, not I nor my friend nor his family, but this is Passover and we are having a Seder because that’s what Jews do on Passover. We eat a lot of food and say a few prayers and sing a few songs and drink until we fall asleep. We honor the Israelites and their exodus from Egypt. We follow them from the grips of slavery and through the parted Red Sea. We watch as the Lord turns rivers into blood, and rains down locusts, and covers our oppressors in boils. We toast the slaughter of their first born sons. We remember the toil of our ancestors, whose mission in life was simple: get free.
In a way, oppression and poverty and misery can be effective restraints. They turn inward existential crises outward; they turn the esoteric into the vital and tangible. Tyranny shapes brilliant thoughts and heroic acts in the same way that pressure forms diamonds. But what about artificial, or self-imposed tyranny? Does brilliance fall by the wayside? Is simple angst enough to spark any kind of valuable ideas? Art? Action?
I’m thinking this bullshit throughout the dinner service. I’m toying with the food on the table in front of me, which I’m not allowed to eat yet, and I’m wondering about excuses. Do my miserable apartment and joblessness make good excuses for my life right now, or are they just more things I need to make excuses for? The service marches: call and response, audience participation, the same story told at these tables every year since forever.
We get to a part of the Seder called the Four Questions. The Four Questions are one of those landmarks, not because Talmudic scholars have debated their meaning for thousands of years, and not because they represent a vital moment in the history of the Jewish people. They are just, quite simply, the most Jewish thing we do on this Jewish night. This is because The Four Questions are actually four answers to a larger question, only the answers are told in the form of questions.
The Four Questions (actually answers) are sung by the youngest capable person at the table. For a while, I sang the Four Questions, then my younger brother, then the youngest brother, then a cousin, and so on. Survival, the greatest legacy of the Jewish people, is marked by a fresh faced child singing these questions that are actually answers. It’s a short, pleasant little moment in the service. Only tonight there are no children present. So I ask myself:
Why is that on all other nights I seek answers in Uno Cards spilled on city streets, but on this night I cannot bring myself to seek them in my own culture?
Why is that on all other nights I lament my paling friendships, but on this night I can only bemoan the well-meaning gestures and sincere interest of gracious hosts?
Why is that on all other nights I plot escapes, but on this night I can only be afraid of why she wants me to go?
Why is that on all other nights I eat stale turkey sandwiches alone at an ironing board, but on this night I cannot make out the savory sauce on the brisket or the salt in the soup or the sugar in the Manischewitz?
The Four Questions