Karl Ove Knausgaard Lit My Cigarette

And I feel terrible about it.

Context is essential: I was at the 92nd Street Y on Friday night when he was doing a reading and an interview alongside Rivka Galchen. Her reading was first, and I loved it. She was smart, and funny, and seemed so down to earth. She was shy of the crowd, or at least came off that way, knowing as she did that it was, for the most part, not there not to see her, but to see the famous Knausgaard of the My Struggle saga (the fourth book of which just came out).

I am reading the first My Struggle volume at the moment, because my significant other (SO) loves Karl Ove and his writing with a passion he otherwise reserves for techno music and me. We sat in prime seats, row F and to the side. When Karl Ove and Rivka sat down for their interview, the former was facing us.

His reading had been magical. Hearing the names and the pacing read in his voice, with the correct accent, felt so much more natural to me than reading the book itself, the style of which I’m struggling (no pun intended) with. His adherence to detail is beautiful at times, but at others make me feel lost in a landscape so unfamiliar to me, but in a mind so intensely familiar to me. I do not presume to be as smart or sensitive as Karl Ove. But the way he talked about writing that night, the way he talked about it being a coping mechanism, a way to avoid the shame of life – it resonated. I write for many reasons, but one of them is escapism.

When the reading and the interview were over, it was only 9:15 or so. The line of people waiting to get their books signed was backed up almost all the way into the auditorium so we found an alternate route out, one that was underused and perhaps not totally kosher, though there were no signs telling us we couldn’t be there. I told my SO, I bet he’s smoking a cigarette before the signing. Let’s go around the corner and see.

And indeed, there he was. He is incredibly good looking, white hair and beard, kind eyes, a tall and fit figure, dressed in skinny jeans and a blazer and brown boots. He belonged in Brooklyn. In Portland, OR. In Hollywood. Not at this side entrance in New York. But at the same time he looked entirely natural, smoking his cigarette and talking to Rivka and the head of 92Y.

I legitimately couldn’t find my lighter as I took out a cigarette and rummaged through my bag for one. We approached, getting closer and closer. Should I do it, I asked my SO, should I ask him for a light? And he said Yeah, that’d be so cool.

So I did. I asked Karl Ove Knausgaard for a light. I said, Excuse me, I’m so sorry, do you happen to have a light? I interrupted their conversation in order to get his attention, as I would do with anyone else I saw smoking when I was in need of a light. I’ve been interrupted before for the same reasons. Smokers are pretty much seen as the scum of the earth these days, so we tend to be nice to one another.

Karl Ove took out a yellow mini-Bic lighter, gave me a pained smile and lit my cigarette, cupping his hands around its tip. I held my own up reflexively, to block the wind, but stopped myself from touching him. Behind me, my SO claims to have been smiling like a goof. I should’ve stopped at that, pretended I wasn’t at the event, that I didn’t know who he was.

But I have a penchant for honesty even when it gets me into trouble so as I took the first drag of my cigarette and thanked him, I looked at the other two and said, And thank you, all of you. It was something like that. Thank you for tonight, maybe, with a gesture towards the 92Y building. My SO and I walked down the block a bit, so I could smoke and while keeping them in sight.

After me, other people passed by and interrupted the conversation between the three people who’d been on stage that evening. I couldn’t hear what they said, or how the stage-presence reacted, but I was already regretting my own, similar, actions.

I had cheapened the experience. I had made Karl Ove look me in the eye, light my cigarette, and interact with me when he had no reason to do so other than politeness. I want to think he’s forgotten about it. I want to think that if he hasn’t, he doesn’t think of me as unbearably rude, but as, perhaps, ballsy or charming. Or as a fellow smoker who can’t find her lighter.

But my attempts at being ballsy and charming have backfired on me too often. One I insulted without knowing she would read the comment in which I put her down – a put-down that was entirely made because of my mood that morning and poisonous envy. Another I’ve had a conversation with regarding vaginas and the things we put in them. Another is my mentor. Another I shook hands with in the lobby of a literary agency. Another, recently, is not so much a luminary as an inspiration, and I treat him with a reverence and admiration that I think he finds off-putting. I am convinced that the half dozen published and/or famed writers I’ve interacted with see me as a young, doe-eyed, desperate writer who only seeks fame. Most of them probably don’t remember me or care about me (other than my mentor, whom I know does).

But in this regard, I feel much like Knausgaard. Yes, I want my work out there. I need the validation that he needs; he called a friend and read him what he’d written every day during his writing-about-America column, just so the friend would tell him, Yes, this is good, I know you think it’s not, but keep going. I badly want to find an agent who believes in me and gives validation for my writing. But I also write to take away the shame, as Knausgaard said that night, the shame and guilt of every action I take.

So here is my confession. I am ashamed, Karl Ove, of treating you like a celebrity, a commodity for me to interact with for a moment and then boast about (as I immediately did on Twitter and Facebook). I am ashamed of not taking in your stage-bound words and holding them dearly to my heart and keeping my experience personal. I am ashamed of asking you for a light.

It doesn’t count for much, and this is an apology you will never read, Karl Ove Knausgaard, but I have the utmost respect for you as a writer and a human being – because every human being is worthy of respect and because of who you are. If you remember me, forgive me. If you have forgotten me, good. I will not forget. And I will probably not forgive myself.

Dad

Daddy Issues

When I was fifteen years old, my father found out he had Stage IV lung cancer. He’d been wheezing on our weekly walks to his mom’s place for a while and coughing more than usual, so we all knew something was wrong, just not how wrong it was about to get. He was sick, then very sick, then even sicker, until finally there was no other way to describe it: he was dying. And then he was dead. His illness jump-started my adulthood, and his death cemented it. There was no going back. I was an Adult, a Grownup, capital A, capital G.Dad

When I was fifteen years old, my father found out he had Stage IV lung cancer. He’d been wheezing on our weekly walks to his mom’s place for a while and coughing more than usual, so we all knew something was wrong, just not how wrong it was about to get. He was sick, then very sick, then even sicker, until finally there was no other way to describe it: he was dying. And then he was dead. His illness jump-started my adulthood, and his death cemented it. There was no going back. I was an Adult, a Grownup, capital A, capital G.

Fatherhood is an interesting societal role. We have so many ideas and assumptions about what a father should be, and these, of course, have changed over the centuries. According to the extremely nifty Online Etymology Dictionary, the Old English, fæder, means “he who begets a child, nearest male ancestor;” or “any lineal male ancestor; the Supreme Being.” By late Middle English, it meant “one who exercises parental care over another.” The word “dad” is actually much older and almost universal (in a variety of forms) because of the common syllables “da-da” that babies utter when learning to talk.

Fathers are not supreme beings. And many of them do not exercise parental care over another. I am not a historian, and I cannot tell you exactly when the modern Western idea of fatherhood was created, though I do know that Freud had a lot to do with it. What I do know is that the concept is still in flux. For many Americans, fathers don’t exist: they up and left, they’re in jail, they’re service-members who rarely see their families, they work long hours in corporate positons and leave their children with a stay-at-home-parent or hired help. Many mothers fit these same descriptions and indeed there is a rise in single father households, though three quarters of single-parent households are headed by single moms. We have this notion that mothers are automatically closer to their children because of the biological connection between womb and baby. This not only assumes a whole lot about what a woman is (not all women are able to give birth, not all women want to), but also throws light on why we seem to accept fathers as the more transitory beings. They’re the ones allowed to be gone, because their purely biological role ends after providing the little swimmer that fertilized the egg that made the baby.

I am lucky; I had a father in my life for sixteen years. I am unlucky; he never knew me as a grown woman. My sixteenth birthday was spent at his hospital bedside. He died a few months later. My father was the kind of guy who, had he survived to see my eighteenth birthday, would have offered me a joint to share with him. We would have gone out for beers. We would have had long walks on the beach in Israel and long Skype conversations once I’d gone to college and we’d talk about relationships I was in, and he’d tell me stories about his various exes, some lovely and interesting, some extremely manipulative (one threatened to commit suicide when he broke up with her). Instead, by my eighteenth birthday I was dating his best friend’s son and developing an eating disorder.

I have also developed a strange discomfort around fathers in general. Not regarding strangers, mind you. Dads on the subway with their teenage kids, dads in grocery stores humoring their children’s wish for sugary cereal, dads taking campus tours with their college-bound kids – all of these warm my heart, make me miss my father, make me believe in daddyhood. It is my friends’ fathers, my acquaintances’ dads, and older men who are my mentors and friends (and who have children), around whom I feel uncomfortable. Not because of anything they do – this is an important point that I want to stress. These men have not been inappropriate with me. The fear, the discomfort, lies in myself: am I being inappropriate with them? The thought process goes something like this:

Do they think I’m flirting? Do they see me as a sexual being, as an adult, a grownup with experience? Are my breasts too exposed? Are my pants too tight? Am I appropriately asexual when I talk to them? Do they fantasize about younger women? Wait, no, don’t go there. But wait, do, because what if they do something? How would I handle it? Would I tell my friend/significant other that something weird happened? Would I ignore it? What if it’s that teacher I’ve always had a crush on because of his intellect? Would I want him to cheat on his wife? Wouldn’t I feel terrible? Can he even see his students that way? Why am I thinking this? What’s wrong with me?

Gross Dad

I am not unique in this. I have talked to other women around my age and they feel similar discomfort. Maybe this is the equivalent of the way teenage boys fall in lust with their friend’s mothers or their female teachers or their parents’ friends. Do teenage boys actually do this? I don’t know. I’m basing this knowledge off of movies like The Graduate and Superbad and television shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer (and many, many others).

Unfortunately, I think that my own neuroses about fathers has less to do with my dad being very much dead, and much more to do with the way older men are portrayed in pop culture, literature, and psychology. According to Freud, of course, I was and am in love with my father and because he died, I now seek to find him elsewhere. Except that I haven’t dated older men. I haven’t had random sex with older men. (I sometimes wish I had, but mostly just for the resulting story.)

Fathers are sexual beings, of course. The very nature of fatherhood traditionally involves the act of sex. But there is supposed to be, at least according to Western social mores, a detachment between father and daughter. That’s one of the reasons Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov, is so shocking and upsetting. Not only does Humbert Humbert truly believe that Lolita loves him and that she is the instigator in their relationship, but he also marries her mother, becoming an even more screwed up version of a father figure. A more recent and equally disturbing example of this kind of story is American Beauty, the film starring Kevin Spacey as a father who falls in love (or lust? Open to interpretation, I suppose) with his daughter’s friend. Another example is our fascination with incestuous father-daughter relationships, as exemplified by Precious, the film based on the novel Push by author Sapphire. In the film Eve’s Bayou, the character playing a philandering father begins to ardently kiss his older daughter, to their mutual horror. We find this fascinating, taboo and exciting even while regarding it as somehow filthy and degrading.

Older men in general are often seen as sexual in pop culture. For one thing, leading men in Hollywood are allowed to be much older than leading women. May/December romances are common in movies and television shows because men look dashing in their grays and women look best when their breasts are still perky and they don’t have wrinkles. While women in Hollywood are fighting this, and there are some “token” older women who continue to get roles (Vanessa Redgrave, Dame Judy Dench, and several other typecast actresses who always seem to play the annoying mother to someone or other). But older men continue to flaunt their sexuality well into their later years, a la Woody Allen, who even as he aged, continued to pair himself off with younger actresses. Hugh Grant keeps getting paired with younger actresses as well.

May December

The music and literary scenes are similar: Paul McCartney still has a huge following, so did Lou Reed. Jonathan Franzen may be hated by some but is also beloved by many, and John Irving as well. Similarly with Stephen King. Their author photos tend to be much larger than, say, Hillary Mantel’s or P. D. James’s.

Older men are simply more appealing than older women. That is what society has taught us. The question then becomes, how do young women like myself learn to feel comfortable around them – and fathers in particular – without changing our behaviors and becoming meek little girls?

The only solution I have found so far is to ignore the discomfort. It is usually not the older man or father’s fault (unless, of course, he IS making any sexual comments or staring) but rather the larger role the patriarchal notions have been embedded in me. I call my friends’ fathers by their first names and we chat like old friends, and even when I wear a tank top with a lowish neckline (which is basically all I ever wear because I am a sweater and t-shirts don’t work for me) I try to remember that my body in itself is not an invitation to sexuality. I am friends with several older men and try to remember that not all men have a one track mind and that my fear is part of the same power that the patriarchal society has on me and that I am lucky enough to be able to put aside that fear when I choose to.

And I do. Am I more open to danger? Possibly. But I refuse to live in a world in which I have to be scared of every father or older man I know, in which I cannot relate to people as people rather than as their genders. It takes a great deal of effort, but I make it work.

Thank you to everyone at Beacon who supported and funded this article.

Images: Flicker (1) (2) (3)

Journeymen

The first job of the day was simple. So simple that Rush could have done it in his sleep. An old woman hovered near him as he flicked up the fuse switches that had been overloaded and shut down by the summer heat and the overuse of air-conditioners.

“You have to be careful using the A/C, ma’am,” he told her. “Don’t turn the oven and the television and all the fans on along with it.” She nodded, eyes glassy with medical grade weed that reeked from her thick flannel nightgown. She was bald. Probably dead soon, Rush thought. He left the building, got  back into his truck, and checked his list for the next job.

As he drove, he considered his recent predicament. Rush had never been in love with a married man before. It was a novel experience, refreshing as the cold spring near his first foster home. The good one. The spring had been icy and sharp on his bony feet, the tingle as close to arousal as he’d gotten as a child.

The married man was not unkind to Rush. He was a friend, sort of, a distant sort. They went out to drinks with the others occasionally. Rush had met him on the job. They were both union electricians, though Rush was only an apprentice and the married man was a journeyman. Rush knew this was part of the attraction. He was lower in the deck of cards than the married man, whose experience, precision with his tools, and dedication to hours of work made him a Jack, where Rush was  only an eight of hearts.

Rush’s second stop of the day proved trickier. It was at one of the two community theater spaces in town and their equipment was old. He had to untangle wires, find their sources, stream new copper wire into select areas, running back and forth to the fuse box to turn the power on and off to see if things were fixed yet. He worked right through his lunch hour.

The journeyman was not only married, but married to a woman. This too was refreshing but in a less pleasant way. Rush had been attracted to plenty of unavailable gay men before; celebrities, prudes, closeted homos playing the straight and narrow for their Catholic parents. But never in his life had Rush felt something like this for a straight man. A married straight man. A married straight journeyman thirteen years his senior. The allure felt Austinian, Jamesian, Forsterian. Rush read things. He knew the married man did too. It was one of the things that had drawn them together, to an extent. An almost shameful love of reading.

The last job of the day for Rush was at a faraway location, out in the suburbs. He parked his trucked and saw that another was there already, its bed filled with similar equipment. This happened sometimes, double bookings, mixed listings, but Rush was unwilling to slack so he went up to the house anyway. The married man was there already, on a ladder in the garage. A woman with long nails painted a deep purple that looked more like shit-brown was hovering beneath him murmuring “Oh, be careful. Please be careful. Oh, please be careful.” She sounded like she was making love to the married journeyman, her voice breathy, her head thrown back to look up at him, her mouth hanging open between words. The married man said nothing, but continued to examine the wires surrounding the apparently defunct lighting system in the garage.

“Hi,” Rush said. The woman looked down and back up in confusion. The married man glanced at Rush and smiled.

“You’re the second one they sent. Guess they don’t think I can do the job.”

Rush laughed because he knew he was supposed to. “Need help now I’m here?”

“Nah. I’ll be good. It’s fine.”

“Okay. See ya.”

Rush fled the garage and got back into his truck. His heart was racing. The woman in the garage would keep making eyes at the straight married journeyman. Rush would go home and watch straight porn for the first time in his life, trying to figure out what the fuss was all about.

 

On this Mountain

Mountain

“There is nothing a mountain can do to hurt you,” Brian said. We were in the car, heading towards one of his favorite hiking spots, and he could see my chest rise and fall as my breathing quickened and the way my cheeks got hot and my fists clenched. Anxiety, that’s what my doctor said.

Screw my doctor.

“I beg to differ,” I told Brian, except that I didn’t, because what was the point? He was taking me on this trip with an explicit and very obvious reason. A proposal. This wasn’t exposure therapy. This was a romantic gesture.

Screw romantic gestures.

Brian and I had history. Two years of it. And six weeks of dating before that, if it counts. “Meeting through an online dating website does not a forever make,” my mother told me when, in my honeymoon phase glee, called to tell her that I finally had a boyfriend.

Screw my mom too. Except she was right. At least in my case. Still, screw her. Screw her for being right. Screw her for planting that seed of doubt that’s now grown into a weeping willow that I can hide inside and feel safe in.

And then this mountain business.

Brian pulled our backpacks out of the back seats of his SUV, which he called his truck even though it wasn’t, and gave me one. It was lighter than his, almost for sure, but it was heavy enough to reset the disaster reel in my mind. Falling down backwards down the trail, falling sideways off the train and into a chasm, slipping and breaking a leg or an arm or a rib or my head, being attacked by a wild boar or a black bear or a snake or—

“Ready?”

“Yup.”

I followed him towards the base of the trail. I watched his boots thunk down and tried to match his pace. I had always been a devout shoe-watcher. My mom always told me to put my chin up, to be proud, to let others stare at my skin if they had to but to know that I was beautiful. I didn’t know how to explain her that looking down had nothing to do with any of that. Nobody knew where to place me, so everyone put me in a comfortable box and didn’t see me as a thug, because I wasn’t big or a man or dark enough to be a thug. I knew thugs, real ones and ones who just looked it, and they didn’t think I belonged to them either. Mom thought I belonged everywhere. That I was some free-spirited sprite like her, able to jump through environments and homes and societies like an acrobat. Instead, I put my head down and found things that were interesting and similar everywhere. It was easier to move around when I knew that no matter where we went, I’d have shoes to look at. Almost everyone wore shoes. The ones who didn’t, I knew, were even more on the outside than I was.

Brian’s shoes were sturdy yellow Timberlands. I’ll say this for him – they were broken in, not shiny and new. He really was a hiker. He said he was many other things that he wasn’t (tender, intelligent, original) but this one thing was true. He loved the mountains. I used to love that about him.

On the trail, Brian made me go in front of him and kept up a running commentary, so I could never forget where we were.

“Careful of that rock, babe. There’s a tree branch coming up on your left. We’re going to curve here, so don’t look down to the left, okay? It’s not that far but I know it freaks you out so just don’t look. There you go. Good girl.”

Idiot. I wasn’t afraid of heights. I lived in cities all my life. I was afraid of nature. Of this mountain we were on. Of what would happen at its summit.

It was beautiful, I was big enough to admit that, even with my sulky silence. The air smelled different, tasted like cold water when I breathed it in. The trail itself was nothing special, but the views of other mountains was more impressive than the view I was used to: a bunch of identical high rises in what was called, in every city I’d been to, the ghetto.

I was still scared of the mountains. Man made disasters I could understand. I grew up seeing people get into fights that left them bloody. I knew gunshots when I heard them. Sirens were a constant, and the sound of pounding meat as cops beat up on other people was more familiar than any tree. I had no idea what trees were around us. I didn’t know more than a handful of names for tree: birches, furs, weeping willows, regular willows. Apple trees. I knew there were more, but it’s not necessary knowledge for a city-dweller.

An hour in, when Brian told me we were halfway there, I stopped. He bumped into me. We fell. I screamed, even though we were nowhere near an edge. We were firmly in between large rocky bits, on a trail that made a little valley between them. There was dirt in my mouth and Brian was cursing, and he got up and tried to help me, but I only turned over off my stomach and sat there, spitting out dirt and taking swigs from my water bottle and spitting them out too.

“You’re wasting our water,” Brian said.

“I thought you said we had enough for four treks like this,” I told him with a thick tongue, still trying to expel the feeling of dirt from my mouth.

“That still doesn’t mean you should be wasting any. What if something happened?”

“You said nothing could happen.”

He shut up, knowing it was better not to argue with me when I was like this. I would win. My logic was as curving and twisted as a Möbius strip. Those I knew about. I was one of the ones who paid attention at school. Every school I went to, the math or science teacher (sometimes both) did the Möbius strip trick for us, trying to show us how cool it was, how it defied logic or didn’t or something. Once it was an art teacher who showed us how to make one.

Brian wouldn’t sit. He stayed standing, bouncing on his toes. Everything was going wrong, as far as he was concerned. I wasn’t having fun. It was getting colder than he’d meant it to get. And we weren’t moving, which meant he wouldn’t be able to time his proposal with the pre-sunset colors.

“I want to go back down,” I said. He kicked a pebble around with his foot.

“After all this way?”

“We’re only halfway. You said.”

He didn’t say anything. A gust of wind blew through our clothes and hair. It smelled delicious. I wanted to grab it in handfuls and put it in my pocket and breathe it in every time I had to pass the garbage room and the hallway of my apartment building which smelled like piss.

“I’m going to say no, Brian,” I finally said.

“I know.”

“Then why did–”

“I thought the mountain might change your mind.”

I snorted. “And you say you’re barely Indian.”

He was a half blood like me. No one knew where to place him either. It had been part of what drew us together originally. There was a lot of ground to cover when it came to identity. We had an endless supply of conversational material. Not a day passed when we wouldn’t call or text each other with the latest slur, awkward question, or odd look directed at us.

“Yeah, well.” He was quiet, a shoe-watcher, looking down at his Timberlands and moving them around, back and forth, a tiny dance of discomfort.

“I still love you,” I said.

“You do?”

“I just don’t know how much yet. I don’t know if it’s a forever love.”

“I do,” he said.

“I know you do.”

“Okay, come on, get up,” he said, helping me to my feet.

We began walking down, him in front this time. Either he didn’t want to look at me or he trusted me to walk well enough on my own now. Maybe both. I followed him, keeping an eye on where he placed his feet, and tried to put mine in the same spots he did. His stride was wider than mine. I had to stretch to match it sometimes. I was a game. I was having more fun now. I pointed out birds I’d never seen before, and the shapes I saw in the shadows of trees. Brian answered when I spoke, and I could hear a smile in his voice. Maybe even relief. Maybe I just wanted that part.

We unloaded our backpacks into the backseat of the truck that wasn’t and got into the front. I reached over to kiss him, and he kissed me back. I could feel the lump of a box in the pocket of his flannel shirt when he leaned against me. I put my hand on it.

“Keep it,” I whispered in his ear. “Let’s wait and see.”

He drew away and started the car. “Maybe next time,” he said as he drove us out of the parking lot, which felt more familiar to me than the mountain dust clinging to my clothes and hair. “Maybe we’ll make it to the top, next time.”

 

 

 

The story above got an honorable mention from the judge at Hour of Writes, who was reading the pieces blindly. 

Image / flickr: Doug Wheller

Reading Into Things Too Much; A Study in Impossibly Stupid Reflections

Dear Ilana Masad,

The members of the fiction admissions committee have carefully review your application, and I am sorry to report that we are unable to offer you a place in [REDACTED].  We have a limited number of openings and must turn away many promising applicants.  This year, one thousand and twenty-six people applied for twenty-five spaces.

We wish you well and thank you for your interest in [REDACTED].

Sincerely,


[REDACTED]


Director

[REDACTED DIRECTOR’S INITIALS]/jz

It is 5:37am and I am awake and thinking of the nature of time. Because that’s what writers do. Right? Faulkner did it. I must do it too.

At first I thought the typo in the first line was the missing “ed” from the word “review,” but then it dawned on me that this may not be the case! What if the typo is the word “have” that comes before “carefully?” Strike that word out, and the whole nature of this thing is thrown into question. A 5:40am kind of question. If the members of the fiction admissions committee carefully review my application, that means they are still reviewing it, ad infinitum, and even though they “are unable to offer” me a place, they might totally change their minds, if, you know, they keep reading my application over, and over, and over…
This, at 5:42am, is a hopeful, and far more cheerful, way of looking at this whole situation.
Then again, maybe the missing “ed” is supposed to deprive me of what those two letters are shorthand for – think higher ed, continuing ed, that sort of thing. Maybe they’re just rubbing it in. Assholes.

Or maybe they’re encouraging me to seek the “ed” in other places. Maybe I should get a PhD.

But what’s with the double spacing? Look, REDACTED, I’m an editor myself and I totally notice  when  there  are  two  spaces  between  words, mostly because old people are prone to double-spacing because you used to need to do that on typewriters or something. I think? That’s what someone told me. Maybe it was my mom. The question is, REDACTED, did you actually write these letters on typewriters? I mean, that would be on brand, but then again, maybe it’s actually a message hidden in that double space. Are you going to take me on a treasure hunt? Maybe if I look with a magnifying glass, I’ll find a secret QR code there, betraying the nature of temporality and embedded societal ageism (old people double space, young people QR code). Then if I scan the QR code into my phone, maybe I’ll be directed to a link that says PSYCH! YOU’RE TOTES ACCEPTED!

Or maybe, and just maybe, I realize at 5:45am, this is actually a secret Jay-Z marketing campaign. I mean, it makes sense, sort of, in an alternative and paper-killing kind of way. If one thousand and one people are getting this letter (though there’s probably a waiting list, and maybe it’s also twenty-five people long, just in case none of the people who get into REDACTED want to go, in which case it’s nine hundred and eighty-six people getting this particular letter, but I can’t be sure because it’s too early to do math) – well, that’s a lot of shares right there. Every one of us letter-receivers is going to share it with our friends, families, therapists, cats, and neighborhood sympathetic bartenders. Or baristas, baristas are cooler these days. And let’s not forget hairdressers. People talk to their hairdressers, right? Or is that just something from Legally Blond and Orange is the New Black? Anyway, shares. That’s the point. Maybe Jay-Z is going to rebrand himself as jz and is looking to break into highbrow hipster writer culture, you know, the kind that only reads Anna Karenina and e. e. cummings and cries when rats are smushed by buses while smoking American Spirits.

Not that that’s me or anything. (It’s actually not. American Spirits are too expensive and taste gross.)

But if Jay-Z is rebranding, then hey, it’s his own identity and I totally get that. I respect that. Peace be with you, jz.

It’s 5:56am on a Sunday morning, and I have no decided that I’m over you, REDACTED. Because if you really want me to read so much into your letters, you don’t really want me. That’s what they always say about relationships. Don’t be with someone who doesn’t want to be with you. Right?

Or maybe you do want me and just want to play Sherlock Holmes games. Well, I’m sorry, REDACTED. I’m not that smart. Or have that ready an access to opium. Or use the word “ejaculated” to express a way of speaking. No, wait, that’s John Watson writing about Holmes. Or Sir Arthur Conan Doyle writing as Watson about Holmes.

Things are getting meta over here.

It’s 6am.

The Barista

cafe

See the scene: a table made of real wood; chairs too; a drone of unintelligible conversation punctured by ire and laughter (they make themselves heard above any din); a man, a woman; a beer, a coffee; one tipsy, one too sober for her own good.

See me, behind a counter also made of real wood. Reinforced with metal hinges. The structure must be sound. It has to fulfill health and safety regulations. Our kitchen has no wood, I believe. Wood absorbs moisture, I imagine. There is varnish on the counter, to prevent this very problem.

I watch them. They are no more or less interesting than the others here. But I take turns, and give each table its due. Even the empty ones. Especially the empty ones. Those allow me to think about what I saw, what I heard.

But now, it is this couple’s turn. Theirs, at their wooden table, one tipsy and happy, the other listlessly merry, There are many kinds of happiness in the world. Theirs is momentary.

“Can I tell you a story idea? I’m tipsy.”
“Please!”
“Okay, so-” but the tipsy one is cut off, because I am there, not-so-surreptitiously picking up the empties, mug and bottle alike. He is beautiful, this man, and I want him to notice me. I smile. He says, “Thank you.” I stop smiling. The sober one doesn’t look at me at all. She is checking her phone. She’s one of the workaholics. I’ve seen her here before. Only memorable because of her piercings. She is not interesting. She is only average.

I wait until they leave, and I follow them. The beautiful man, he gets on the subway heading downtown. The same subway I take.

I will look for him now. In every car. On every ride. He is not more or less interesting than the others I see every day. He is only more beautiful. No one is interesting. This I have learned from countless observations of the fourteen wooden tables, three-seat bar, and twelve-seater old slab of concrete where students clack on keyboards and read Kierkegaard with furrowed brows.

No one is interesting.

 

 

 

Image / Beshef