“Some of these stories are closer to my own life than others are, but not one of them is as close as people seem to think.” Alice Murno, from the intro to Moons of Jupiter

"Talent hits a target no one else can hit; genius hits a target no one else can see." Arthur Schopenhauer

“Why does everything you know, and everything you’ve learned, confirm you in what you believed before? Whereas in my case, what I grew up with, and what I thought I believed, is chipped away a little and a little, a fragment then a piece and then a piece more. With every month that passes, the corners are knocked off the certainties of this world: and the next world too. Show me where it says, in the Bible, ‘Purgatory.’ Show me where it says ‘relics, monks, nuns.’ Show me where it says ‘Pope.’” –Thomas Cromwell imagines asking Thomas More—Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

My favorite posts to get started: The Self-Righteousness Instinct, Sabbath Says, Encounters, Inc., and What Makes "Wolf Hall" so Great?.

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Alexander von Humboldt, Enlightenment Ambassador: a Reflection on Andrea Wulf's "The Invention of Nature"

Andrea Wulf’s 2015 biography The Invention of Nature: Alexander Von Humboldt’s New World garnered so much critical attention—nearly all of which was resoundingly positive (with the exception of Elizabeth Kolbert’s snooty and unaccountably small-minded review in The New Yorker)—that soon after I first started reading it I couldn’t help feeling underwhelmed. Wulf’s prose builds up to a stylistic flourish now and again, usually helped along with an apt quote or two from Humboldt himself, but if the earliest pages were any indication, the rest of the book promised to make for some pretty dry reading, an occasional scene of high adventure notwithstanding. After making some further headway, though, I found that Humboldt’s story was having a slowly incremental effect on me, as all the best stories do, of cumulative enchantment.

No more than about a third of the way in, I’d learned to appreciate Wulf’s writing, which now seemed not so much dry as scholarly, in the best sense of the term, sober and precise, but never fussily academic. I ended up reading most of the book in prolonged bouts culminating in eye strain coupled with an urge to venture out into some unmapped wilderness.
Andrea Wulf

By the time of Humboldt’s death in 1859, just months before the publication of Origin of Species, historical currents in his native Prussia and elsewhere around the world were sweeping the various fields of science along in the direction of ever greater specialization. But Humboldt’s career followed a wholly separate course, and his writings would form the headwaters for a few currents of their own, less traveled and far less conspicuous perhaps, but evident to anyone taking the time to step back and savor a more panoramic view of scientific progress.

In his autobiography On the Move, the late neurologist, author, and science enthusiast Oliver Sacks describes Humboldt’s moment in history as a “sweet, unspoiled, preprofessional atmosphere, ruled by a sense of adventure and wonder rather than by egoism and a lust for priority and fame” (330). That same sense of adventure and wonder probably still launches innumerable careers today, but it too seldom survives the travails of graduate training and the harsh realities within the institutional bureaucracy most scientists are daily forced to negotiate. For these erstwhile budding explorers, there could probably be few greater delights than being reminded of the earliest upwellings of the passion that would lend shape to their lives, and books like The Invention of Nature offer a welcome opportunity to reconnect with that font of inspiration which, in more innocent and uncomplicated times, set them on the path.

            Ironically, though, Humboldt himself would have scoffed at the suggestion that he lived in a time when scientists could forgo petty politicking and pleading for funds. Though he was born to a wealthy family, he began his career as a mine inspector because his mother saw no practical benefit in financing any of the journeys to far-flung regions he was so eager to embark upon. It was only after her death that he finally traveled, at the age of 27, to South America for the expedition that would make him famous all over the world, but not before costing him nearly all of his inheritance. For a second act, Humboldt planned to climb the Himalayas, where he could compare measurements he’d made in other mountain ranges in various regions, most notably in the Andes. But this expedition would never take place because the East India Company was all too familiar with Humboldt’s widely read condemnations of Spanish colonial rule in his writings about South America. Not until he was nearly in his sixties would he finally go on one more journey of exploration, this time through Russia as far as the Mongolian border. He died back in his hometown of Berlin, though, after living for years on a generous stipend granted to him by the king, in exchange for which he was made to take on, much to his annoyance, the duties of a courtier.
Humboldt

This isn’t to say that Humboldt’s life was entirely without anything that might satisfy our modern nostalgia for the romantic adventures of bygone eras. What you discover reading about his journeys, though, is that the sense of almost spiritual exultation he experienced at various points during his travels was as much a product of his unique view of the natural world and its inhabitants as it was of the actual places he explored and the people he met there. In his mid-twenties, Humboldt was greatly influenced by his impassioned exchanges with Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who was in turn greatly influenced by Humboldt. The two were introduced at Alexander’s older brother Wilhelm’s house in the small university town of Jena in 1794.

Today, Goethe is a towering figuring in German literature, but he was also an avid student of philosophy and science. Though the arts and sciences are Balkanized in modern universities, Goethe saw each as a path to greater understanding of the other. As Wulf explains,

Goethe insisted that objective truth could only be attained by combining subjective experiences (through the perception of the eye, for example) with the observer’s power of reasoning. “The senses do not deceive,” Goethe declared, “it is judgment that deceives.”  
This growing emphasis on subjectivity began radically to change Humboldt’s thinking. It was the time in Jena that moved him from purely empirical research towards his own interpretation of nature—a concept that brought together exact scientific data with an emotional response to what he was seeing. Humboldt had long believed the importance of close observation and rigorous measurements—firmly embracing Enlightenment methods—but now he also began to appreciate individual perception and subjectivity. Only a few years previously, he had admitted that “vivid phantasy confuses me,” but now he came to believe that imagination was as necessary as rational thought in order to understand the natural world. “Nature must be experienced through feeling,” Humboldt wrote to Goethe, insisting that those who wanted to describe the world by simply classifying plants, animals and rocks “will never get close to it.” (36)

What we tend to forget today, however, is that most Europeans of the 18th and early 19th centuries had no desire to get close to nature, which to them represented an absence of all that was Godly and civilized. The natural world was something to be brought to heel, tamed, cultivated, its bounty mercilessly extracted to optimize yields and maximize profits. Nature as a source of beauty and a place of refuge, as we’re more apt to see it today, was a revolutionary idea, one that would be further promulgated by some of Humboldt’s most renowned followers like Henry David Thoreau and John Muir. 

            Today, it’s much easier to imagine nature as so many gently meandering streams cascading from mountaintops overlooking scenic vistas, because we’re seldom at the mercy of a region’s climate or native inhabitants. Wulf writes about how “Humboldt wished that he had a ‘third hand’ to fend off the mosquitoes,” as he traveled along the Amazon collecting specimens and taking measurements, because “he always felt that he had to drop either his sextant or a leaf” (69). With all these first-hand experiences, his vision of the natural world was more complicated than the idylls we can’t help envisioning whenever we see pictures of places like Yosemite or Victoria Falls. Yet the connection between our environment and our inner state was unmistakable. He would go on to explore this relationship in depth in books written some time after his journeys in South America. Wulf writes,

In Views of Nature Humboldt showed how nature could have an influence on people’s imagination. Nature, he wrote, was in a mysterious communication with our “inner feelings.” A clear blue sky, for example, triggers different emotions than a heavy blanket of dark clouds. Tropical scenery, densely filled with banana and palm trees, has a different effect than an open forest of white-stemmed slender birches. What we might take for granted today—that there is a correlation between the external world and our mood—was a revelation the Humboldt’s readers. Poets had engaged with such ideas but never a scientist. (133)

Humboldt was more open to investigating this type of communion than his fellow scientists because, as his brother once said of him, his mind was made “to connect ideas, to detect chains of things” (87), but also because, largely inspired by Goethe, connections between seemingly discrete forces and elements were exactly what he’d set out on his expedition to discover.

            Humboldt came to appreciate these connections as never before atop Mount Chimborazo, an inactive volcano a hundred miles south of Quito in what is today the country of Ecuador. This climb would represent a turning point in Humboldt’s life, an experience that both Wulf’s biography and his own writings return to frequently. Having reached an altitude of 19,143 feet—a mere 1,000 feet from the peak—Humboldt took in his surroundings. Wulf writes,

As he stood that day on Chimborazo, Humboldt absorbed what lay in front of him while his mind reached back to all the plants, rock formations and measurements that he had seen and taken on the slopes of the Alps, the Pyrenees and in Tenerife. Everything that he had ever observed fell into place. Nature, Humboldt realized, was a web of life and a global force. He was, a colleague later said, the first to understand that everything was interwoven as with “a thousand threads.” This new idea of nature was to change the way people understood the world. (87)

This concept of interconnectedness broke with the tradition of such figures as Carl Linnaeus, who saw the world as more like a complex timekeeping device. Following Goethe, Humboldt was now seeing the earth as a living organism. The parts of one watch are interchangeable with those of another, but each part of an organism grows along with all its other parts; you can’t remove or replace one without impacting all the others.


            What likely stands as Humboldt’s biggest scientific discovery emerges from this more holistic way of thinking about the world. On the lookout for hidden connections all throughout his journeys in South America, he compared whatever he saw, as systematically as he could, with what he’d observed during his travels through Europe. In the process, he became the first to notice a pattern; the various plants growing at different altitudes resembled those at similar altitudes on mountains in distant parts of the world, and they also corresponded with plants at particular latitudes of the globe. Wulf explains,

For Humboldt, the days they had spent travelling from Quito and then climbing up Chimborazo had been like a botanical journey that moved from the Equator towards the poles—with the whole plant world seemingly layered on top of each other as the vegetation zones ascended the mountain. The plant groups ranged from the tropical species down in the valleys to the lichens that he had encountered near the snow line. Towards the end of his life, Humboldt often talked about understanding nature from ‘a higher point of view’ from which those connections could be seen; the moment when he had realized this was here, on Chimborazo. With ‘a single glance’, he saw the whole of nature laid out before him. (88)

What Humboldt was describing are what we now call isotherms, bands across the globe where similar climates lead to similar types of vegetation. Just as climate varies with distance from the equator, it also varies with distance from sea level. “Instead of placing plants in their taxonomic categories,” Wulf emphasizes, “he saw vegetation through the lens of climate and location” (89).

            This marked the beginning of our investigations into what one of Humboldt’s acolytes, Ernst Haeckel, would coin the term ecosystem to describe. Even more revolutionary than Humboldt’s idea that all aspects of nature are organically interconnected was his insistence that humans must be incorporated into these systems as well. The unsettling implication was that by cultivating land and harvesting its resources, people were setting in motion a cascade of consequences that could be devastating over time.

By then, Humboldt had already documented evidence of this kind of environmental degradation at Lake Valencia in what’s today northwestern Venezuela. Farmers had felled countless trees to clear the surrounding land, and they’d diverted several of the streams feeding into the lake to irrigate their crops. In only a few decades, the dense forests surrounding Lake Valencia had disappeared, the water level had declined dramatically, and already the soil was depleted. The planters’ response was to continually move their fields westward. “Forest very decimated” (57), Humboldt noted in his diary. He even went on to speculate about how the same type of deforestation all over the world could lead to unforeseen and possibly dramatic transformations. “As Humboldt described how humankind was changing the climate,” Wulf contends, “he unwittingly became the father of the environmental movement” (58).

It wasn’t merely for his environmentalism, however, that generations of readers would come to idolize him. The Invention of Nature tracks the major events of Humboldt’s life in mostly chronological order, with chapters focusing on important periods in his career interspersed with chapters on some of the scientists, artists, environmentalists, and revolutionaries who took up one or another of his myriad mantels. While this approach to organizing the biography results in some repetitiveness, it also lays bare the remarkable similarities among all of these men’s lives. You might even say a biographical template emerges from all the juxtapositions: the solitary youth of the misunderstood misfit romantic, the worryingly intense passion for nature, the wanderlust leading to a perilous but fateful adventure, the earthshaking epiphany whose reverberations can still be felt after over a century. The Darwins, the Thoreaus, the Bolivars, the Muirs—all variations on the same set of themes.

             Yet, despite her emphasis on Humboldt’s heroic stature among his many followers, Wulf’s portrayal leaves plenty of space for her subject’s less than admirable characteristics. He was a legendary speaker and lecturer, for instance, but he often couldn’t shut his mouth to save his life. Wulf recounts a famous anecdote in which Humboldt invited a celebrated pianist to play for a gathering at his house, only to shout over the music as he lectured to the audience. (“‘It was a duet,’ the pianist said, ‘which I did not sustain long’” [238].) But one of the most pleasant surprises to be found in The Invention of Nature is just how admirably humanistic this early nineteenth century Enlightenment figure was. Beginning in his early days as a mine inspector, Humboldt showed great concern for the safety and working conditions of the men he encountered, and he would be even more appalled by the treatment he witnessed of indigenous peoples in South America. Wulf writes,

For Humboldt colonialism and slavery were basically one and the same, interwoven with man’s relationship to nature and the exploitation of natural resources. When the Spanish, but also the North American colonists, had introduced sugar, cotton, indigo and coffee to their territories, they had also brought slavery. In Cuba, for example, Humboldt had seen how ‘every drop of sugarcane juice cost blood and groans.’ Slavery arrived in the wake of what the Europeans ‘call their civilization’, Humboldt said, and their ‘thirst for wealth’. (106)

Especially since World War II and the coming to light of atrocities committed by Nazi scientists, many scholars have come to see science and the Enlightenment more broadly as inseparable from the worst excesses of racist colonialism. For the modern reader, it may be a shock to learn about an early scientific explorer who wasn’t given to discounting the humanity of anyone whose ancestors weren’t European, having instead imagined some wandering sadist performing experiments with arcane instruments resembling miniaturized medieval torture devices, cutting and poking whatever parts and appendages got in the way of fitting all of humankind neatly into the racial hierarchy. Humboldt was instead such a devotee of Enlightenment principles that he felt the failure of The French Revolution to establish a lasting republic and the persistence of slavery in the U.S. as crushing disappointments all throughout the latter part of his life.

            It’s easy for postmodernists today to imagine that their concern for the racially and economically disadvantaged sprang into life sui generis as a reaction to the inherently oppressive forces of history. But the principles that have proven most effective in combatting injustice, those constituting our modern conviction that human rights are universal, in reality find their source in the same Enlightenment stream as the scientific principles that have so radically transformed our civilization over the centuries, the same stream, incidentally, out of which flows the environmentalist principles underlying our determination to deliver the planet safely into the hands of future generations.

The lessons of history often highlight the smugness and complacency with which we view our forebears. With all the amenities our technological advancement affords us the luxury of taking for granted, along with all the ready knowledge that seems so obvious soon after someone else provides it for us, we can’t help feeling superior to people from earlier periods. Yet we also can’t help feeling nostalgic for a time when our precious maps had yet to be drawn, our revolutionary breakthroughs had yet to be made, and our moral advances had yet to be accomplished. As Sacks wrote about Humboldt and some of his earliest followers,

They were all, in a sense, amateurs—self-educated, self-motivated, not part of any institution—and they lived, it sometimes seemed to me, in a halcyon world, a sort of Eden, not yet turbulent and troubled by the almost murderous rivalries which were soon to mark an increasingly professionalized world. (330)
Oliver Sacks at Machu Picchu

By the time he wrote these lines, Sacks was probably well aware of all the diseases and all the wars—all the truly murderous rivalries between nations and men—that were ravaging the world during Humboldt’s lifetime. I like to think too that Sacks may have had an inkling that to many of his readers he was himself a modern reincarnation based on the same template which harks back to that halcyon world. The reality, we know too well, was far more complicated, to be sure. But Humboldt’s age wasn’t entirely unworthy of our romantic longing for a time of innocent exploration fueled by our ever-so-human sense of adventure—no more than our own anyway. 

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Friday, December 25, 2015

The Legend of Creepy Santa

(5133 words. Link to printable version.)  

     “Who was the craziest woman you ever dated?”

         That’s how it started. That’s what inspired Nate to tell our group of frustrated writers what is probably the creepiest Christmas story I’ve ever heard—and that was how the discussion had begun, with each of us trying to come up with ideas for something to write about for the Christmas season. 

The air in Rob’s apartment that night was thick with everyone’s mutual disdain. Ben, Carrie, and Luke were taking turns scowling over a flame as it bowed down to a generously packed bowl they were passing around amongst themselves, each of their choked-back exhalations contributing to the insalubrious stickiness of the air. We were divided into equal groups, one stoned, the other drunk, and the drunk ones kept casting barely disguised looks of disgust at the stoned ones, who each in turn affected a pose bespeaking more supercilious boredom than any stoned person has any cause to feel. Sipping from a glass of whiskey myself, I almost wished we had some yayo. At least then we might have some real drama to inspire us.

Everyone likes meeting at Rob’s because he has a nice fireplace, and no matter how modern or postmodern a writer tries to be he can’t help being nostalgic for an age when the novel was actually novel, longing for the nineteenth century and all the accoutrements of society’s higher orders. Even the two women in our little group thought of themselves as rightful heirs to scotch-swirling, cigar-smoking aristocrats, milling about in the dancing orange light of the hearth in some preposterously outsize manor.

            We’d started talking about Christmas stories because it was late November. (I may have been the one who steered the discussion toward seasonally appropriate stories, but I would’ve done it subtly, since my role in the publications for Encounters, Inc. is something only a few of my closest friends know about.) We’d discussed Dickens of course. Then we’d taken turns taking our principled stances against the commercial dreck of the sort you find on racks in grocery store aisles.

Beneath the surface of all this casual self-assurance, though, I knew there to be a shared sense of disillusionment and failure. Six years after forming our group we were all still eagerly awaiting the moment when even one of us managed to make the tiniest ripple in the publishing world—the actual publishing world. This meeting was our first in over four months. For the first four years we’d met every two weeks. Over the last two, our collective output had diminished precipitously. A couple of us haven’t submitted a single piece of writing to the rest of the group in over a year. (My own efforts have been directed elsewhere, as many of you well know.)

            Gathered around that fireplace in Rob’s hazy and stiflingly overheated apartment, we all looked at each other and saw living, breathing emblems of our own failure, never for a moment suspecting our unvoiced creeping disdain was more for ourselves than anyone else. You felt it when Kristen barked out a laugh in the middle of Luke’s ranting about the “vacuity of the visionless visual media culture.” You saw it in the way Rob turned away during Mike’s peroration on the injustice of this or that middling writer going without some much deserved recognition, like he didn’t want anyone to catch him rolling his eyes. Lately, you heard it in the silence, as though none of us would condescend to contribute anything more substantive than a mumbled witticism.

            “Well,” Luke said, “if we’ve established anything, it’s that nearly all the Christmas stories out there suck ass.”

            Just then, the similarity of the scene to the opening of James’s Turn of the Screw occurred to me. I was about to suggest perhaps narrowing our focus to Christmas ghost stories—again Dickens lent plenty of legitimacy to the genre—when Justin, who till then had barely spoken that night, made a provocative suggestion of his own.

            “Let’s try coming at it from a different angle,” he said. “Let’s try asking ourselves a completely unrelated question and see if it sparks any new associations that might be worth pursuing. Every year at Christmas, I find myself thinking about this crazy girl I dated like ten years ago. She was obsessed with Christmas, wanted to go to every event in the city, watch all the classic movies, had the music on constantly. I mean, it was annoying. It was beyond annoying—it was freaky. I started thinking maybe something traumatic had happened to her, so now she was latching onto the season because it brought her back to a time before things had gone so wrong. I don’t know. I never really found out either way. Anyway, I could start to write a story based on that. So here’s what we should do. Stop trying to think of a Christmas story for now, and instead answer this: Who was the craziest woman you ever dated? Or for you two, who was the craziest man?”

            “What makes you think I haven’t dated crazy women too?” Kristen snipped.

            “Whatever. You get the idea.”

            The two glared at each other for a long moment, making me wonder if something had transpired between them that the rest of us weren’t privy to. Before I could remark on it though, Nate broke in with a sudden booming laugh. “Ha! I’ve got a fucking Christmas story,” he said. “It’s so obvious. I don’t know why I didn’t think of it before. It’s totally Christmas. And it’s one of the most fucked up stories you’ll ever hear.”

            All five of us were looking at him now. At first, he was smiling broadly, the eureka smile of the suddenly unblocked writer. Then his smile faded and he looked as though he’d arrived at a troubling, even painful conclusion in some untraveled corner of his thoughts. “God, I don’t know, though. I don’t know if I should tell that story.” He began shaking his head slowly.

            Carrie groaned dramatically. “Something interesting seemed about to happen for once in these boring ass meetings, and now you’re not going to let us hear about it. I don’t even know why I come anymore.”

            It was the most openly disdainful any of us had been, though we all felt the same way. Before anyone could respond to it, though, Justin approached Nate, put a hand on his shoulder, and said in a solemn tone, “If you feel like telling this story would be revealing too much, then that’s exactly the story you need to tell.”

Now there’s some writer’s logic, I thought. I bet there are some people who’ve had writers in their lives who would bristle at this particular maxim. Nate looked around the room. His expression was now one of unmistakable panic. Then he closed his eyes, bowed his head, and turned back toward the fire. When he began speaking, his voice was low, scarcely more than a whisper.

            “Everyone in West Central knows the Santa playing the organ,” he said. “It’s in this little balcony over the front door of the house catty-corner to the Sheridan Court apartment building. All you see when you pass by is Santa’s back, kind of swaying side-to-side. If you’re on foot you can hear there’s actually music playing.”

            We all knew the Santa he was talking about.

“Honestly,” I said, “that thing creeps me out. I go for walks around the neighborhood all the time, and I always get a chill down my spine when I pass it. The organ music reminds me of a circus. There’s just something bizarre about it. And the fact that Santa is sitting facing away from you so you can’t see his face—I can’t help imagining he’s actually got some psycho grin on his face, like some demon-clown. I mean, I think it’s great. But I seriously doubt that’s the effect the people who live there were going for.”

            “Well,” Nate said, “the people there now aren’t even the ones who originally started putting it up every year. If you remember, it wasn’t there last year.” We all looked at each other and nodded, each of us having taken scant notice of the organist Santa’s absence and then promptly let it slip our minds. “That’s because the new people had just moved in, and they had to be talked into continuing the tradition.”

            “Wait,” I said. “So you dated a woman who lived there? I only ever saw an older guy coming and going from that place.”

            “That was Carl’s dad. Carl bought the place from him a few years earlier. I think his dad was still helping him with some kind of renovations for a long time, so he was there a lot. I don’t know. I’ve never actually seen the inside of the place.”

            Nate went silent. His reluctance to speak, his halting progression—it was unbearably tantalizing for all of us.

            “So who was the girl?” I finally asked. Nate’s demeanor as he nibbled around the edges of his story had me wondering already if what he was about to tell us could be of use to me professionally (in my capacity as story scout for Ashley).

            “The girl was Erica,” he said. “I met her through my friend at school, Bethany. She told me I had to meet this girl who was really pretty and really smart, but who was also stuck with this horrendous boyfriend. A guy who was really possessive and overbearing, not violent or anything, but—what’s the word? Controlling. He was really controlling. In a passive-aggressive kind of way. Later, I found out the guy she was talking about was Carl. They were living together in the big red-brick house with the Santa playing the organ.”

            I was anxious to get more details, but I managed to restrain myself from barraging him with questions. The way Nate had become elated when Justin’s prompt succeeded in helping him think of an idea, only to sink into the somber, neurotically contemplative state he was in now—it had me reviewing all my encounters with him over the past year. Originally, he’d been one of our most active members. I wouldn’t say he was the most talented of our group, but he was a solid amateur who could usually be counted on for a passably competent story. Over the past year, though, he’d only submitted one piece that I could think of, an overstrained prose poem about how trapped he felt in his hometown. Still, I don’t think I was alone in failing to note any change he’d undergone. Hadn’t the whole damn group lost its enthusiasm?

            When at last Nate snapped out of his reverie, his eyes darted, first at me and then onto the others. “Seriously guys,” he said, “I can’t tell this story. Carl’s dad—I shouldn’t have even brought up any of their names. Carl’s dad has a lot of money and he knows a lot of people who…” He trailed off again.

            “Who what?” I asked. “You mean like politicians?”

            “Something like that. There’s a reason none of it was in the news. If I say anything…” He groaned, shaking his head again. Then he laughed nervously before falling silent once more as he stared into the fire, which by now was mostly embers, barely casting any light.

I began forming a plan to meet with him in private so I could give him all the assurances he’d need to share the story. After all, I know some people too. But apparently the urge to unburden himself was busy overpowering whatever trepidation he felt. Without any further coaxing, Nate told us the story.

“Erica told me that when she and Carl had first started dating she was really big into Christmas. So when he invited her to move in with him, she was stoked. She was like, ‘Holy shit, I can’t believe I’m going to be living in the house with the Santa playing his organ.’ I guess Carl’s parents always went all out decorating and all too—obviously. But Erica said Carl himself really wasn’t that into it until he found out she was. Then he took it to an extreme, like he was so eager to please her that it actually got a little disturbing.

“That was the theme for their whole relationship. He was overly solicitous, intrusive—you know, meddlesome. But he acted like it was all for her sake. He interrogated her whenever she left the house. He always tried to find out what she was reading so he could read it too. It was the same with movies and music and everything else. He tried to do everything for her, like she was his delicate little flower. I guess he even spoke to her like a toddler half the time. When I first heard about all this, I thought it was just the kind of stuff you say about an ex when you’re breaking up, figuring it had to be exaggeration. But Bethany told me if anything it was worse than what I was hearing from Erica.

“That was the story I got, that Erica had broken up with Carl—or that she was ‘going through a breakup.’ I had all the reservations any of you would have about moving in on a woman so soon after her last relationship. I mean, she was obviously still living in the house with the poor idiot. But there was something about Erica that I felt really drawn to, a quietness that made me think there were much greater depths to her. I don’t know. Plus Bethany kept insisting we were perfect for each other and that things were completely over between her and her ex.

“I’m embarrassed to say it went on pretty much just like that for about three months. Looking back, I can see that the whole notion that she was breaking up was nothing but a convenient cover. No, we were cheating, plain and simple. Only neither of us wanted to believe it. So one night I get a text from her. I remember it was right after Thanksgiving. Erica had just gotten back to town after going to visit her parents in Grand Rapids. But she said Carl was still in South Bend with his family. Since he wouldn’t be back until late the next night, she wanted to get outside. ‘I want to go for a really long walk through the neighborhood,’ she said. ‘And maybe we can go downtown too. I just want to be outside in the cold and look at all the Christmas decorations.’

“Well, that’s what we did. We bundled up and walked around West Central, over on Main Street as far as the big Santa and his reindeer, down to the giant wreath. We walked for hours, talking about our best and worst Christmas memories from when we were kids, and about what we would want Christmas to be like for our own kids someday. As we were walking back, I felt this thrill—it was like a ball of tension in my stomach. I thought for sure we were passing some milestone in our relationship. I was even starting to wonder if I should ask her to move in with me, even though until then I’d hated the idea of her moving out of Carl’s house directly into my apartment. Anyway, I felt like something had changed between us.

“We walked down Berry Street holding hands, both of us with these stupid grins on our faces like we were a couple of kids who’d just raided the cookie jar. When we got to the front of their house, Erica did this ta-dah, saying, ‘And now we come to West Central’s famous Santa Claus playing his organ.’ For me, that was the first time the thing creeped me out. I don’t know if it was just the significance it had taken on—the only thing I could think about when I looked at it was how Carl had decided he was all about Christmas just because Erica was. Or maybe it was my conscience. I knew I was about to take her away from him, and however weird he sounded to me it wasn’t like I could fucking rejoice in causing anyone so much heartbreak. Maybe it was the cold. Whatever it was, I shuddered as I stood there. But then Erica pulled me to her for a kiss.

“It was one of those times when you’re with a woman and everything feels so perfect you just have to do something. I wanted to tell her I loved her. I wanted to ask her to move in with me. Hell, I wished I could pick her up and carry her away from that place back to my house. We kissed for a long time, and I was thinking the whole time that as soon as she pulled away I would do it, whatever it was. But then I heard something.

“We’d been making out with quite a bit of abandon, you know, right in the middle of the damn sidewalk. So you can imagine how any sound would startle you in that situation. We pulled away from each other a bit, but we just stood there with our eyes still locked on each other. I think I probably still had a grin on my face. Not Erica though. Erica looked terrified. The sound was like this gravely, staccato rumbling at first. Then it started to sound like someone was mumbling. We both turned toward the house. When I realized that the sound was someone laughing—laughing like he was trying to scare us—that’s when it dawned on me why she looked so terrified. But when we looked at the front of the house there was no one there.

“Now I’m a grown man and I’ve never been big on all that Halloween, haunted-house type of shit. But in all of my adult life I’ve never felt the kind of—I don’t even know what to call it. It wasn’t fear, not like the kind you feel when you almost get into an accident in your car, or when you think you’re about to get jumped coming out of a bar. It was a completely different kind of fear, like you’re in the presence of something that’s just not right. Shivers shot all through my body in like a second or two. My limbs felt shaky and weightless. I wasn’t charged up, you know. I didn’t even want to run. All I could do was stand there, every inch of my skin tingling.

“So now I’m looking up at the damn Santa, and the fucker is turning around with this big fucked up smile on his face, still doing his evil laugh. I swear the psycho must’ve rehearsed it. Then Erica mutters to me, ‘You should go.’ So I’m standing there thinking, I’m not going to leave you here with this freak. Before I say anything, though, Carl starts clapping, with his big Santa gloves, making this damn popping sound that echoes off of Sheridan Court. ‘It’s a Christmas miracle,’ he shouts like he wants to be heard all over the neighborhood. ‘True love—how amazing. How beautiful.’ Now he’s sitting on the bench, clenching his hands together in front of his heart like this, still with the big smile, titling his head to the side. Then he turns off the smile and glares at us. He says, ‘You two have been awfully naughty this year.’ I’ve got to hand it to the nutjob—he definitely went all out.

“Next thing he does is throw his leg over the side of the balcony and start climbing down. Erica must’ve sensed that now I actually was getting ready for a fight because she grabbed me by my coat and said, ‘Please trust me. Let me take care of this. Please, the best thing you can do right now is go.’ Of course I was all, ‘Like hell I’m leaving you with him!’ But she was adamant. She kept pushing me away. I looked over and saw Carl struggling to climb down. He must’ve had a rope or something on the side of the balcony. And he didn’t look like he was in very good shape. I half expected him to fall and break his neck. The whole time Erica was pushing me, saying, ‘I’ll be fine. He won’t hurt me. Please, you being here just makes it worse.’

“Finally, I start walking away really slow, looking back the whole time to see what he would do. But she went over to him and as soon as he had both feet on the ground they disappeared through the front door. So what the fuck do you do? I thought about going back and listening at a window or something. I thought about calling the cops. Hell, the guy obviously belonged in a padded cell somewhere. Eventually, I went back and stood in front of the house, listening for shouts or crashing noises or anything. After a while, though, all I could do was go home.

“After that, I kept blowing up her phone, but she wouldn’t respond. I’ll never forget that stretch of time. It was torture having no idea what was going on like that. I called Bethany but she hadn’t heard anything either. It wasn’t for like two weeks until she was finally able to tell me that she’d talked to Erica and she seemed fine. Apparently she said I was blowing everything out of proportion and that what really happened wasn’t that big of a deal. I was shocked. I mean, how many ways are there to interpret seeing a guy dress up like fucking Santa Claus to catch you making out with his girlfriend? I kept pestering her, though, trying to convince her to see me, even though it was obvious whatever plan I had to take things to the next stage with her were moot now.

“What I didn’t know when I finally did see Erica was that Bethany had been putting a lot of pressure on her too. This was about three weeks after Carl’s… whatever. We were supposed to have lunch together. I’d been insisting—pretty much demanding that we needed to talk. But it ended up going down in the alley downtown behind Dash-In. I don’t think she wanted to go inside because she was afraid someone might see us and report back to Carl. Right away she told me she wanted some time to figure out what she needed to do. I couldn’t help myself, you know. Those two weeks I’d been going out of my mind with confusion and worry. ‘What you need to do?’ I said. ‘What you need to do is get as far away from that psychopath as you can.’ ‘Maybe,’ she said, ‘but what I definitely don’t need is another fucking man telling me what I need to do.’

Nate stood silently jabbing with the poker at the embers in the fireplace for a long time before going on. “I went off on her,” he said at last. “I wasn’t in my right mind, you know. And I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I couldn’t believe she was staying with him. Unless of course he was threatening her, holding her hostage basically. She insisted he wasn’t. I accused her of defending him, said she must have battered wife syndrome or something. I’m cringing just thinking about that day. I said a lot of really nasty shit. And to think—on the way to Dash-In I had still been planning to tell her I loved her. But I guess she was right. I must’ve sounded almost just like that nutcase. What I remember most is that when it was over and I turned to walk back to my car, I said, ‘Have fun being a fucking doormat for the rest of your life.’

He went silent again, though it was clear the story wasn’t over yet. As I thumbed the phone in my pocket to pause the recording, I thought about how many of the stories I’d been collecting over the past few years featured moments like the one Nate had just told us about. Looking around the room, I wondered if the real problem for our whole group is that fiction—pure fiction—simply holds no interest to anyone anymore. Who cares about a guy getting visits from three ghosts if the whole thing is nothing but make-believe? That’s why we’d all been reviewing memories of our actual lives, trying to find some real-life incident that would make for a good story. People want their narratives to be authentic, at least in some sense true. Or, if not, they’d better have wizards and dragons in them.

The problem is that true stories always involve other people, and everyone disagrees about which version is the most valid. You can’t blame them, I thought. As much as Nate is beating himself up over how he acted and what he said, he’s still telling a story about a woman who’s a doormat, isn’t he? Not many of us possess the self-assurance to sit idly by as someone else puts forth a story that stars us but that we have no control over. You change the names (and in this case expunge all of the physical descriptions), but reputations are so sensitive, and people get so paranoid, the obfuscation as often as not only leads to more suspicion and indignation. People hate hearing the sound of their own voice in a recording because they have no control over how they sound in real time. They hate hearing someone else tell a story they feel is theirs and theirs alone to tell even more. To write good stories that people are actually interested in anymore, you have to be as much a thief as a storyteller.

“It was Christmas Eve,” Nate began again, “when I heard from Bethany. She said Erica and Carl had gotten into a huge fight—apparently over her insufficient enthusiasm for his excessive efforts to make her Christmas unforgettable. I never got the details about what all he did. I can only imagine it was something totally batshit. But here’s the thing—Erica had told Bethany that she was finally ready to leave him. I guess the argument had really escalated. Bethany said she’d never heard Erica sound like that before. This was basically good news, but I was worried about her. I thought the best thing to do was wait a while. With any luck, Erica would get in touch with me and we could go from there. According to Bethany, though, Erica actually wanted me to come see her. She’d said she needed to talk to me. So I texted her. And she responded right away, asking when I could make it over to her house.

“When I walked up to that fucking house on the sidewalk, I saw that she was already outside waiting for me. And Bethany was right—she looked different somehow. Just the way she was standing. I don’t know how to describe it. All I know is that my heart sank as I walked up to her because my intuition told me I wasn’t about to hear any profession of love. If anything, I was about to get told off. But as I approached, she turned and smiled at me and reached out for my hands. I was so relieved I almost felt like crying. I remember she kissed me and I wrapped her up in this big hug, lifting her off the sidewalk. It was one of those experiences that’s like an eternity in the span of a few moments. I had the thought again that I should hold onto her and just walk carrying her like that all the way back to my apartment.

“I asked her where Carl was, and as soon as his name passed my lips I involuntarily shot a glance over at that fucking Santa Claus. She said, ‘I can honestly say I won’t ever have to deal with any of that man’s shit ever again.’ I drew back a little, still holding onto her. Something about the way she was looking at me, or something I’d seen—I didn’t know what it was—started to give me that feeling again, like my heart stopped beating and my blood went cold. Her eyes were locked on mine, and they had this sparkle to them. I would have thought it was like this loving gaze, but there was something off about the way she was smiling at me. I let go of her and stepped away. It was that same horrible feeling, like my limbs were hanging weightless and my skin was on the verge of breaking into a cold sweat. I took another step backwards, and then another, and the whole time she just kept looking at me, with that damn smile fixed in place.

“I think I muttered her name. ‘Erica?’ And, still smiling, she was like, ‘Do you like the modifications I’ve made to the Christmas decorations this year?’ It’s like everything after that point was only a dream. Everything went perfectly silent, except my heart. It started beating again. But I couldn’t hear it so much as just feel it. I turned and looked at the Santa Claus again. Before I knew what I was doing, I had run up to the front of the house to try and get a better look at its face. I stood there staring at it—until something fucking ricocheted of its head. It was a rock or a log or—I don’t know. I never found out. When it hit him, I actually fucking screamed. Erica had thrown whatever it was and hit him right in the head, knocking him over sideways so he slumped over the rail, his vacant eyes staring right at me.

“I had my hand over my mouth and I felt myself backing away slowly, as if I didn’t want her to see me moving. But I kept staring at him—at those fucking dead eyes—even as she marched up to the front door. When she pulled the latch and opened the door, that’s when I finally looked down at her. She stopped before going inside, turned toward me, and said, ‘You can tell Bethany how grateful I am to you both. I really doubt I’d have ever been able to overcome my problem with being a fucking doormat without you two. Merry Christmas asshole. Now get the fuck out of my yard.’” 

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The Fire Hoarder 



Friday, November 27, 2015

Derailed: A Reflection on Dating, Dogs, and Family

Emma, Kevin, me, and Kelly in Vegas
            I put the car in park after pulling into Kevin’s driveway. Tonight was supposed to have been a return to the drunken glory of the summer before last, the months following his divorce. But it was a cold and rainy night in October, and none of the three bars we’d checked out looked at all promising. I’d warned him this might be the case, but he was determined to get out and make something happen. For close to a year now, he’d been dating Susan, and for all that time he’d been repeating his litany of reasons for not wanting to be in a serious relationship with her, or with anyone else. Then came an invitation for him to have dinner with her parents. He made it clear how little the idea appealed to him. So she decided they shouldn’t see each other anymore. He casually agreed. Over the past week, however, I’ve seen and heard enough to know that neither of them is finding it as easy to walk away as they’re both trying to make out. They’re playing the old game of breakup chicken—testing to see who can withstand the self-imposed misery the longest. Hence his determination to get out to the bars for a night of unencumbered fun, and hence his disappointment now.

            Since his divorce two years ago, Kevin has taken to fervidly disparaging the married life. You can’t be yourself in a marriage, he insists. The way he sees it, all the men in his life are being stymied and suffocated, just like he had been for those eleven years with his wife—and they don’t even realize it, just as he didn’t. The willing confinement and constant stifling inevitably narrow a man’s perspective to the most miniscule of apertures. Your whole life becomes effortful, forced. You have no energy and no time for pursuing your old passions. Women’s nature and desires are too bizarre, too overbearing, too irrational to be compatible with men’s nature and desires. Once we give in and settle down, once we compromise and allow ourselves to be trapped, we begin a slow but inexorable process of forfeiting everything that makes us viable individuals, everything that makes life worth living, everything that makes us men. As we sit side-by-side listening to rain beat half-heartedly against the windshield, he repeats these sentiments once again, interspersing them amid complaints about the unreasonableness of Susan’s request for him to meet the parents she’s given so little indication of even liking herself. I know what he’s doing because I’ve done it myself once or twice. He’s reciting his motivations for keeping to a course that’s getting increasingly difficult to keep to.
Kevin and me in Valley of Fire

Kevin had decided to divorce his wife a year and a half ago, after they both met up with me and an old friend in Nevada. While we were all there together, we did the standard Vegas thing for one night, but most of the trip was devoted to visiting national parks: Zion, Red Rock, Valley of Fire. The whole trip, he would later tell me, his wife was irritable, tetchy, impossible to please. He felt the full force of a familiar realization as he’d never felt it before: he would be enjoying the trip much more if his wife hadn’t accompanied him. And so it was with the rest of his life. Kelly, the friend I was traveling with, is a lot like me in that she’s an uncompromising free spirit—though she’s more the free spirit and I’m probably the more uncompromising. In the two of us, Kevin began seeing a model for what life could be like. Kelly and I have both had our share of heartbreak, but now that we’re free of those old entanglements there seems to be nothing holding us back. It must look as though we’re both far better off. To Kevin, it must also look as though we’re both far better off than all those married men he sees withering away under the yoke of uxoriousness.

            In their basics, the stories about Kelly and me are true enough. Back when I was living with SJ, the ex I believed I would marry and grow old with, I really couldn’t be myself. I really did feel like I had to compromise some of the best parts of who I am for her sake. The breakup wrecked me. Now I’m far better off. I get the sense from Kelly that her story is similar. Her boyfriend was disdainful of her time-wasting creative endeavors. He was intolerant of anything that wasn’t practical. He belittled her for being too sentimental, too uninterested in making money for the sake of making money, too dependent on him in the selfsame way he loved her to be. Her final leave-taking was more recent than mine, but it seems she’s on her way to bouncing back with a vengeance, just like I eventually did. Neither Kelly nor I, however, took up proselytizing for the unmarried, uncommitted, unmonogamous lifestyle—at least not consistently. Though at times we both despair, I don’t think either of us has completely given up on the idea of finding a more compatible partner. But in the meantime we both do a pretty good job of enjoying the shit out of our single lives.

            As I sit listening to Kevin’s list of reasons for staying unattached, I find myself settling on a decision, prompted by reasons that are mysterious to me. Maybe, when it comes down to it, I just need to talk to my friend, and whatever point I work back around to will be mostly serendipitous. Or maybe I feel responsible for conspiring in the creation of an image of my life that, while not exactly false, is certainly incomplete. I have, after all, shared with him many of the juicy details of my active and quite polygamous sex life. I have also structured all the stories I’ve told him about my struggles with my ex to make them sound like some heroic journey from domestic oppression to intellectual, spiritual, and libidinous liberation. Again, the stories are all true enough. But I tell them in the manner I do for my own ends, for my own psychological benefit, and now I’m worried he may be applying the lessons in a way that’s far less beneficial to him than they have been to me.

            Anyway, for whatever reason, I start talking. I start telling another story.

            “When I was in Boston a few weeks ago, the conference I was attending was just bizarre. For the past three years, I’ve been doing this thing for my company called inbound marketing. I know what it is. I know how to do it. Hell, I may even be pretty good at it. But I realized when I was there with all these thousands of other inbound marketers that they all take it far more seriously than I do. For me, this shit is just something I do. It’s my job. But for them it’s who they are. They identify with it. So I felt like an anthropologist studying this weird cult. Which would have been fine, except, you know, fifteen years after graduating, I still identify more as an anthropologist than as a damn inbound marketer—something I do every day, something I actually make a decent living doing. I identify as a writer more than anything else, though, so I guess it works out well enough.
Aziz Ansari reading his book on dating at Inbound

            “Anyway, so I’m feeling completely out of place—and wondering how all these people could be so taken in by all the crap we’re hearing—and I go out in front of the building to have lunch. While I’m sitting there, facing the front of the building, I see this woman with these really great legs—just stupid hot. I was working out how to talk to her, even though I didn’t have a lot to work with, and it wasn’t like it could’ve gone anywhere because I was sharing a hotel room with one of my coworkers. But, you know, you’re in Boston—when are you going to have this opportunity again? Instead, what ended up happening was that I casually butted into a conversation two women sitting beside me were having. And I talked to them about marketing for nonprofits for the rest of the lunch hour. One of them, Lindsay, I ended up hanging out with for the rest of the trip. So it was cool, you know. I made a connection.

            “But when I got back to Fort Wayne, I felt really out of sorts. It was actually pretty bad, and it lasted for about two weeks. My whole life seemed completely fucking arbitrary, you know. I kept thinking, well, I was in Boston a week and I made this connection. I could almost as easily have connected with the chick with the nice legs I’d seen. It was a cool experience, the kind you hope you have when you go on a trip like that. But I didn’t really feel it. I’d talked to her, hung out with her—maybe if we’d had a place to ourselves we would’ve hooked up. She’s awesome. She owns her own design company in Austin, Texas. She was talking about doing business deals with chauvinist dudes in Colombia. I mean, we don’t meet women like that here. But still—no feeling. It was just a bunch of stuff that happened. It was just like the whole inbound marketing thing. I do it. But it’s not who I am. It’s just a surface behavior, an act. I go through the motions. Then I’m back in Fort Wayne and I realize—that’s how I feel about my whole life lately. That’s how I feel about all the women I’ve been hanging out with. You know, I care about them. I’m not trying to hurt anyone. I just don’t feel it. And I’ve been telling myself, that’s exactly what you want, right? Now, I’m not sure.

            “So for like two weeks I’m home and I’m feeling—just hollowed out. Empty. Every day is just going through the motions. Then last weekend I drive over to my dad’s house in Clarksville for his birthday. Saturday night, I get there late, and I stay up drinking with my dad, my brother, and my sister-in-law Amy. But right away Sunday morning my niece Josalyn wakes me up and tells me how mad she is that I took so long getting there the night before that she’d already been in bed, and now she wants to go looking for my stepmom’s goat Triscuit in the woods behind the house. When the family’s all together, I usually end up being in charge of Josalyn a lot because to her I’m kind of a novelty, and she just sort of seeks me out. So we’re walking around in the woods and looking for this damn goat in the junkyard behind the property, and it wasn’t right away—but at some point I notice that for the first time since Boston I’m starting to feel normal again. Because when you’re with a little kid you don’t have that feeling that whatever you’re doing, it’s just you that it matters to, and it’s just you it has any meaning for. For one thing, you have to watch her to make sure she doesn’t get hurt or anything. Beyond that, though, you have this sense that everything you say has more of an impact on her. She’s really listening and taking it in. She’s not just nodding along and going about doing her normal thing the same as before.
Josalyn at Dad and Jan's house in Clarksville

            “After the junkyard, Josalyn decides she wants to go back to the trench we climbed down the last time we were back in the woods. It’s this ravine covered in loose shale that slopes down from a big pond to a bunch of old farm land. It’s actually pretty sketchy at a lot of points because it gets steep, and the rocks you’re stepping on can slip out from under your feet. But we go down a ways and come back up. When we run into my brother and my nephew Ellis back at the top, Josalyn starts telling them how awesome it is. Of course now Ellis wants to go. My brother says it’s alright if I take him, and Amy is kind of hovering around too, keeping an eye on everyone. Still, I’m not completely sure taking Ellis down there is a great idea. I slip and stumble on those rocks enough myself. And Ellis is like five.

Josalyn and Booth
            “I try to explain to him how dangerous it is, and how you have to test each rock to see if it’s going to hold you. But he keeps walking with us right up to the trench. When we get there, I’m expecting him to realize how scary it is and decide not to go. But he climbs right down with us. Right away, my stepmom Jan’s dog decides to start circling us. I think he’s a pit bull-Border collie mix, and he’s rambunctious as hell. Maybe a year ago when we were all at my dad’s house, I’d seen him plow into Josalyn a bunch of times. So now I’m thinking it’s only a matter of time before he runs up and knocks Ellis down, making him tumble all the way down to bottom of the damn trench. Ellis keeps on going, though. And the whole time he keeps talking—it was actually really funny. He’s like, ‘This is so dangerous. This is just crazy. These rocks are not even safe to step on. We should not be doing this.’ I keep asking if he wants to stop and go back, though, and he just keeps climbing down and talking about how crazy it is the whole time.

            “I stayed really close to him the whole way down. At the bottom, though, he and Josalyn turned around and started heading back up by themselves. I figured going up was a little easier, so I let them both get a ways ahead of me. As I’m going up myself, though, I keep thinking whenever I get to a sketchier part of the climb that I need to run up and make sure Ellis makes it alright. The first time this happens, I look up and I see Booth, that damn dog, running up right behind Ellis. At first, I freaked out a little, thinking I’m about to watch the dog knock the poor kid down. But Booth just kind of stops behind Ellis and slowly picks his way up the trench behind him. I’m thinking that’s good—if Ellis slips or stumbles, he’ll land on the dog and it’ll break his fall. So I keep climbing up along the trench a ways back from the kids. Eventually, I get to another sketchy part. So I get ready to run and catch up with the kids—and there’s the damn dog again, right behind Ellis, with his nose right in his butt. I go through the same thought process as before. You know, the dog’s going to knock the kid down, he’s going to get hurt, and then my brother’s going to kill me. I watch for a while, though, and it looks like the dog’s behaving fine. But then I get to a third rough stretch in the climb, I look up, and there’s Booth again with his nose right in Ellis’s butt.
Booth herding Ellis

            “This time it finally dawns on me—the dog is fucking herding Ellis along the hardest parts of the path. And he must know exactly what he’s doing. It’s the Border collie in him. Later, I told Amy about it, and she said they’d been playing a game the day before where Booth followed right behind Ellis—with his nose in his butt just like I saw—while Ellis walked around in circles in the front yard. So when it dawns on me that the dog is being really fucking smart and that he’s actually protecting Ellis, I just stop in my tracks, and it hits me like a truck. I don’t know why. I’m just suddenly overcome with emotion—ha ha, and you know how awful that feels. It was like I got the wind knocked out of me. My insides all clenched up and I could barely breathe. I start climbing again, to sort of walk it off, you know. But now all I can think about is this day I spent with SJ like five years ago.

            “It was during the summer, about a year after we broke up and I moved out of the house on Lambert Lane. At that point, I wasn’t really hanging out with her that much anymore, but we saw each other once in a while. This was the first time I’d seen her after her hysterectomy, and she was still a little wobbly on her feet, and she was moving around really slow. She’d told me about how after the surgery she’d actually passed out while she was standing in the bathroom at her foster family’s house in West Lafayette and woken up on the floor. It was this fucked up situation, you know, because I felt like I should have been there and it broke my heart to hear about it. But then I was still pretty pissed at her, so whatever. Anyway, we’re hanging out that afternoon, and she says she has to stop at the bank.

            “When we get there, we both go in the door and walk up to the counter. The teller is this older woman, and as SJ is telling her what she needs she looks back and forth between SJ and me a couple of times and gets this weird look on her face. Then she kind of half smiles and says to SJ, ‘You’ve got yourself a nice bodyguard there.’ SJ says something about how I’m easy to look at so she doesn’t mind having me around, or something like that. But I’m standing there trying to figure out what the hell the teller is even talking about. What I realize is that, without even thinking about it, every time SJ and I move I’m keeping her in my peripheral view, and I’m staying within arm’s reach of her. Because I’m afraid she might get dizzy and fall again—and I’m making sure if she does I can catch her. What the teller noticed was that I was watching SJ out of the corner of my eye even as we stood there at the counter.

            “For all of about ten seconds, I’m standing there completely shocked at how automatically I fell into that position alongside her. But then I thought, you know, are you really surprised? Because the truth is, I would derail a fucking train if I had to for this girl—no hesitation, no questions asked. And if I couldn’t do it, I’d still find a way somehow. Just moving her off the tracks wouldn’t be good enough because that fucking train needs to know it doesn’t come at her like that—not this girl. This one’s with me. You don’t fuck around.
SJ and me circa 2008

“Have you ever had that feeling? So I’m standing there in this shitty bank, and I’m thinking, there’s all this feeling, all this energy, all this passion. And it’s all a complete fucking waste because whatever the two of us had, it was already so thoroughly ruined by then. She didn’t trust me anymore because she was sure I cheated on her—though if she had any sense she would’ve known she never had to worry about that with me. And I sure as fuck didn’t trust her anymore because she’d turned on me so many times I’d starting suspecting that she was always just looking for another excuse to turn on me again. So what do you do with all that energy and feeling and passion? It’s utterly useless. Actually, it’s much worse than useless.

            “You don’t just recover from that in a couple of months, or even a couple of years. That kind of thing fucks you up for a while. After that, I kept kind of plodding ahead, doing my own things, trying not to think about it too much. I actually made the conscious decision to spread myself thin in relationships from then on, to keep things caj—I just didn’t believe I’d be able to pull it off as well as I did. But I had been on and off with SJ for like seven years. And here’s the thing—you were with Emma for about eleven years. And I know getting divorced felt like this glorious, triumphant liberation, like you were finally free to be yourself again after all those years, but so much of what you expect from people, what you expect from women, comes from what happened between you two. It sucked. It was like a prolonged type of mild torture. I know.

            “But I’ve been free, completely free to do pretty much whatever the fuck I want for the past five years now. I’m not going to lie—it’s been fucking great. Every time I’m with a woman who doesn’t have all the stupid hang-ups SJ did, all I can do is smile and think how lucky I am not to have to deal with that bullshit for the rest of my life. Every time I spend the whole day reading, or hours and hours writing, or get off work and decide to go running in the woods for like two hours, or every time I go out drinking with you or Fred till three in morning, even to this day I smile and think how awesome it is that I don’t have to check in with anyone, or deal with anyone hovering and waiting, or deal with anyone being suspicious or pissed off for no damn reason.

“Every once in a while, though, I feel like I felt when I first got back from Boston. You know, like nothing I do fucking matters. That makes it really hard to get into whatever book I’m reading. That makes it hard to get off the couch and go running. The reason any of that gets done is that I’ve made it such an ingrained habit. I just do it, unthinking, unfeeling. And writing—I could quit my job and write full-time and ultimately whatever I come up with isn’t going to mean much to anyone but me. The fiction books that have had the most impact in the last thirty years are fucking Harry Potter. I’m never going to write anything like that. I’m never going to write anything that changes the world like Origin of Species. Mostly, I’m fine with that. I write because I enjoy it. But knowing that its significance is so limited like that makes me question how much meaning I can get from it. Can I derive all the happiness and fulfillment I need in my life from writing the stories and book reviews I post on my damn blog?

“The reality is that without you and Kelly and my brothers and Amber and Fred, without all the people I’m closest to, you know, I could spend every waking hour doing the stuff that means the most to me personally, but it wouldn’t mean a damn thing. I’d probably fucking kill myself. Ha ha, and most of you guys don’t even read most of the stuff I write, or get pissed off because you think it’s about you. The reason that I’m actually happy to go to work most days isn’t that I give two fucks about inbound marketing; it’s that I love all the people I work with. Going to work is like going to hang out and work on projects with all these cool, really smart and creative people I call friends. Even the women I date—I don’t feel the way about them I felt about SJ, but the reason I enjoy spending time with them so much is that I’m friends with them all.”

Kevin has sat listening silently to my story up till now. I’ve been talking for a long time, not knowing how he’ll respond. As a take a breath before starting again, he stops me saying, “But that’s the way I think it should be. I mean, you have your friends and your family and your work. You don’t have to rely on any one person so damn much. You don’t have to live with her and tie so much of your day-to-day existence to her. I mean, you know what it’s like living with someone. That balance of doing what you want and still having people in your life—it’s not possible if you get too close with any one woman.”

“Honestly, I’ve been doing my best to make it work. But I’m not sure the type of meaning I’m talking about can come from a bunch of casual relationships. Four or five casual arrangements don’t add up to one profound connection. Doing it that way is fun as hell, don’t get me wrong. But after a while it starts to feel shallow. You start to feel empty. Any one of the women I’m dating now could decide she wants something more serious with some other guy. That wouldn’t bother me. I’d be like, ‘Cool, I hope it works out for you. It was fun hanging out.’ But the fact that I can walk away like that shows how little meaning it ultimately has. And when shit really starts going wrong—and you know it will sooner or later—when my dad dies, or my brothers get sick, or I get hurt, who knows? When shit like that happens, it’s not really fair to ask anyone you’re in a casual relationship with to be there for you. And even if they are, what are they going to do? Show up and hang out like they usually do? And if they do more than that, if they really are there for you, then aren’t they making that relationship more meaningful in the process?”

“Ugh, it’s not like that though,” Kevin says. “You’re painting this picture of being down and having some chick supporting you, but what would really happen is that she’d be there making it fucking worse. She’d be making the whole thing out to be your fault, criticizing you. Or she’d be remembering every last little thing she does for you so she can remind you of it later. I know, I know. Sometimes people are just nice to each other. But the longer you’re with someone the more resentment builds up. And it happens so gradually that you wake up one day and realize you’re basically stuck with someone who doesn’t even like you, who’s annoyed by everything you say and do—and you feel the same way, but she’s sucked out your will to live so much you don’t even have the energy to get away.”

“That’s the risk you take. You and I both got pretty much wrecked. And I don’t even want to say it’s because either of them is a terrible person. But they were terrible to us. That’s just the thing, though. You form these bonds because when it comes down to it they’re what makes or breaks your life. Every time you get close to someone you run the risk of it being the wrong person. All you can do is be careful not to spend too much time with someone who isn’t right for you. I knew from early on that SJ was going to cause me a bunch of problems. I should have stayed away, but we worked together, a bunch of crazy shit was going on in my life, and she kept coming after me. If I saw the same warning signs today, I wouldn’t go anywhere near her. And you know exactly what it was about Emma that made it not work. You know what the problem was—hell, you just described it. Aside from all the daily compromises of any relationship, there were some pretty huge fucking deal-breakers, right? Now think about Susan. Do you have any of those same problems with her?”

“Not even close. She comes with her own set of problems. It’s true though that they’re nowhere near as bad.”

“I think it’s got to be this process of making sure the person you’re getting close to is cool with who you are and accepting of how you need to spend your time. We’re both pretty introverted, so we need a lot of time to ourselves to do our own projects. We need to find women who are the same way, so when we go off on our own they’re ready to go off on their own too. We need to find women who aren’t fucktard feminists, who don’t feel like they have to get all weird about sex, and who like to fuck all the time, but who aren’t uneducated idiots. I’m starting to realize they’re out there. What happened was that we both got in really deep with women that we were just fundamentally incompatible with. And it fucked up our lives for a while. I don’t think that’s inevitable for every relationship though. I fucking hope it’s not.”

“Seriously, though, do you really think there’s someone who’d be compatible with you out there, someone you’re likely to meet?”

“They don’t have to be perfectly compatible. But, sure, yeah, there are so many people out there, someone has to be as introverted and laid back as us. You can look at the statistics on what makes people happiest. You can look at all the people who are most successful. And the trend is that most of them are married.”

“No, I mean you personally. Knowing yourself as well as you do, do you think there’s someone who’d be cool with you going off on your own as much as you like to? Someone who’d be cool with your views and opinions and wouldn’t get pissed off all the time, or take what you say personally and get hurt feelings? Just someone who’d be cool with you even after you’d spent tons of time together.”

“You make me sound like Rustin Cohle on True Detective,” I say before pausing to think. I feel like I should say yes and explain why I’m optimistic. But I don’t want to be anything less than perfectly honest. So after thinking about his question for a minute, I answer, “Judging from the women I actually know now, I have to say the chances are pretty slim. And if I never find anyone like that, I figure I can still find a way to be happy, to live with the feelings of emptiness and pointlessness that come up once in a while. I’ll just have to hope to hell you and all the other people I’m close to are still around. Still, I have to say, as shitty as the chances are, I’m feeling like I can’t help keeping an eye out, like I’m open to it in a way I haven’t been for the past five years.”

Jos and me on a hayride
Driving home after the conversation, I wonder what Kevin might have taken away from it, if anything. It’s impossible to tell. Then, despite myself, I start thinking about my ex, about what it would be like if we’d had a little girl like my niece Josalyn. After the family had spent most of the morning in the woods behind my dad’s house last weekend, everyone packed up for the drive back to Fort Wayne. Before leaving town, though, we stopped at a fall festival hosted by an old dairy farm. Jos came and sat next to me in the back of a trailer hooked up for a hayride that took us along winding forested trails decorated for Halloween. When the guys in ape masks and other costumes started jumping out from behind the trees to scare us, she curled up in the corner of the trailer, under my arm, complaining about how they’d tried to “take my head off.” I smile at the memory. Don’t worry Jos. They won’t harm a hair on your head. They wouldn’t fucking dare.

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