Raccoon

A Massive Attack song played and Jonathan drove faster and faster down the freeway. It was two in the morning, he was slightly tipsy, and he knew this was a bad idea. But the freeway was empty, so at worst, he thought, he would careen into the concrete divide and kill himself or else he would run over a raccoon. And he had a beef with them anyway. They’d dug into his garbage can so often that he’d realized that the animal control department wasn’t heeding his phone calls. His date – Tanya? Or Tina? – had said that raccoon were adorable.
“Adorable my ass,” Jonathan muttered and hit the steering wheel hard with the palm of his hand. He jumped as a honk sounded. Then he giggled at his own surprise. Then he stifled the giggle and glanced sideways, just to make sure that no one was watching him make such a stupid face. And then he remembered that he was alone, tipsy and driving on the freeway and he quickly brought his eyes to face front again. He had to straighten the car, which was veering into the right-hand lane. When he managed, he felt very proud of himself.
Tanya or Tina had been pretty. They’d danced together for a couple hours but she hadn’t agreed to come over to his apartment. “You’re drunk,” she’d said, frowning. “And I am too. Let’s go to a cafe and sober up.” He’d ask her if she’d agree to come to his apartment after they did that and she laughed very suddenly and said that probably not. Then she’d punched him on the arm, lightly, in a brotherly guyish kind of way that turned him off. So he’d invented a dog that he remembered he had to walk – because it was good to keep a good impression and not to close any doors with rude remarks, and everyone knew that girls liked guys who liked animals.
Jonathan wondered if he should actually get a dog. Then he realized that it would mean two things. First, he would need to walk it, pay for its shots at the vet, and in general stand having it around. Second, it would mean he wouldn’t be able to bring home girls who were allergic to dogs. And what if the girl of his dreams would be allergic to dogs?
Not that he was a romantic. No, he had no false notions of love or tenderness. He knew what he wanted and how to get it. His older brother was married and claimed to be happy, but Jonathan was pretty sure that he was actually miserable.
He wasn’t a complete bastard. He had friends who were girls, and he knew that women were people, too. But he didn’t really think that he wanted to have one around all the time. He’d been in several relationships in his life, but he always got tired of the girls he’d been with and so he’d ended it. His big brother told him that he was an immature man-child. Jonathan took that as a compliment.
He got home without causing an accident. There was a raccoon digging around in the trash can again. He tried to kick it and fell, swearing. So he went inside and tried calling animal control again, forgetting that they weren’t open at three in the morning.

BFFs

“I do mean it!”
“No, you don’t, you’re just saying it to be nice.”
“Would I do that?”
“Yes. You would.”
“Okay, yes, I would. But that doesn’t mean I don’t mean it now.”
Jane and Erin argued all the time. They had known each other since they were both in preschool and knew each other better than they knew anyone else. They knew their friendship was rare, and they appreciated it, but they couldn’t help bickering. It was precisely because they knew each other so well that they couldn’t help this. Jane knew that Erin always tried to soften her criticisms of any artwork that Jane showed her, just as Erin knew that Jane could never be unbiased when it came to her relationship issues, since she always thought that Erin must be right. It meant that, although they could discuss anything and everything, and although they did, there were some subjects that would always be problematic.
They walked down 42nd street toward Grand Central Terminal and continued to disagree, voices getting shriller until a man painting a cartoon portrait of a little girl in pigtails stared at them with such astonishment that they both burst out laughing and changed the subject.
“So did you and Mark go to that thing?”
“Oh, yeah, we did. It was so boring, you have no idea.”
“But then why do you always go to this stuff?”
“I don’t know, cause he wants to, and I’m like whatever.”
“But you don’t enjoy it so what’s the point?”
“I don’t know.”
Grand Central Terminal was teeming with people going home. It was peak time and Jane and Erin complained about the increased price of the train fare as they bought their tickets from the only two machines on the bottom concourse. They saw a pair of twins walking together and talking urgently to each other with violent hand gestures.
“The one on the right is cute.”
“What? They look exactly the same. They’re both cute.”
“No, the one on the right is better dressed.”
“You’re so full of it. That’s blatantly ridiculous.”
“That’s not how you use the word ‘blatantly.'”
“Oh, fine, English major, educate me, why don’t you.”
And they were off, unknowingly mimicking the twins as they talked with their hands on their way to track 106 to the train. They threw themselves down onto empty seats and continued to talk in loud voices as the train filled up with people in suits, leaving their fancy city jobs and going into the small towns on the Harlem line.
“Excuse me, could you be a little quieter?”
“Excuse me?”
“Excuse you, rather. This is a public place-”
“We’ll speak however we want.”
“Yeesh. Can you believe the nerve?”
“I know! I mean, dude, seriously, how can anyone ask anything like that? It’s a loud freaking train, you know?”
“What if one of us had ear problems?”
“Yeah, like, what if we were half deaf or something?”
“Yeah.”
But they both lowered their voices without meaning to, embarrassed that they’d been talking loudly enough to make anyone ask them to be quieter. They often felt like they were too rambunctious when they were together. They knew that their other friends couldn’t stand being around both of them at the same time, because they would end up talking only to each other, or, if they talked to the others, they would still have inside jokes and references that nobody else could understand and that they refused to explain even when asked about them.
The train began to move and they recited the stops with the electronic voice that came on over the PA system. They took the train into the city every weekend, religiously, and they always left and came back at exactly the same times, so they always knew what stops they were going to pass by and in what order.
“I’m concerned about you.”
“Oh, brother.”
“Who says that anymore?”
“What?”
“Oh, brother. No one says that. Have you been watching old movies again?”
“So what if I have?”
“Oh my god, never mind, that’s like so beside the point. How do you always manage to do this? I was saying that I’m worried about you.”
“And then you went on a rant about how no one says ‘oh, brother’ anymore.”
“It wasn’t a rant. It was an observation. Anyway. You need to go out on another date.”
“Ugh, but boys are icky and stupid.”
“If you like girls, just say so now so I can start finding those for you instead.”
“No! No, I don’t like anyone right now.”
“That’s exactly why I’m worried. You need to get out there again! One bad boyfriend doesn’t mean they’re all like that.”
Jane and Erin continued fighting until they got off the train at White Plains and walked home together, still disagreeing on the subject of dating.

Worrier

The trembling in the barman’s fingers was noticeable when he brought the next round of drinks to their table. Tabby, the tall brunette who had been eyeing him up all night, spoke up.

“Hey man, you okay?”

“What?” He set down her drink, sloshing some of the brightly colored liquid out onto the table, distracted by the question more than by his hands.

“Your hands. They’re shaking. Everything alright?”

“Of course,” he said, fixing a grin on his face. “Sorry about that,” he pointed to the spilled drink, “I’ll get a rag. Just a sec.” He hurried back to the bar, and Tabby turned to her girlfriends.

“Something’s not right with that guy.”

“Shut up, Tabby, you’re drunk. Also, you’re a fixer.” Joanna was big-boned but lanky, and she was the drunkest of them all at that particular moment. She didn’t notice the way her words were slurring together or how her eyelids were already drooping a little.

Tabby rolled her eyes at Kate and Gina. “If I’m drunk, then you’re a lobster,” she muttered under her breath. Joanna didn’t hear her. She was digging in her wallet for a couple quarters for the old-fashioned jukebox in the corner. “No, but seriously,” Tabby continued. “He’s shaking.”

“I didn’t notice,” Gina said. She shrugged, a dramatic feat that caused her to immediately hitch up her shirt so that nothing would spill out. Kate wasn’t listening to any of them; she had her face buried in her phone and was alternately typing and staring intensely at the screen as if it would grant all her wishes. Tabby raised her eyebrows at Gina and gave Kate a pointed look. Gina rolled her eyes and mouthed “They’re fighting again.”

Some girls’ night out this turned out to be, Tabby thought. Joanna’s drunk already and is going to fall asleep in five minutes, Kate’s having the same old relationship issues as always, Gina is in one of her quiet moods and I’m still stone-cold sober. And worrying about a barman who I’ve never met before.

The barman came back with a rag and wiped the spill. His hands were still shaking. Tabby stared after him. She hoped he was okay.

Julie’s Last Blind Date

Checkered shirt tucked into tan-colored pants, the man struck an image that wasn’t charming or heartwarming, but somehow caused those who saw him to feel sorry for him. He knew that he had this influence on people, and he didn’t mind at all. On the contrary, he worked to preserve the sympathy that was directed his way because he knew how quickly it disappeared.

The problem was that underneath the thinning hair, bushy mustache and rather bulldog-like cheeks lived a mind that was almost entirely fixated inwards. The man heard a child crying and thought about how he’d cried when he’d been taken out of his mother’s arms in his earliest memory; he saw a documentary on a village that a big volcano had destroyed and he thought about how awful it made him feel; he saw the death of a distant third cousin as a cause for self-pity and an excuse for not listening to what other people said.

On the first date, however, Julie didn’t know any of this. She simply walked into the restaurant where she’d made plans to meet him, and saw a slightly scruffy face, strangely hairless arms and a nervous, scared look in the man’s eyes. She knew immediately that here was the man who was waiting for her. After fifty-one blind dates in the past year, Julie was proud to say that she could recognize that deer-caught-in-the-headlights look that graced almost every man’s face as he waited awkwardly to meet his future wife.

Julie didn’t have any intention of marrying this man (Pete, she reminded herself sternly, this one’s name is Pete). She’d never had any idea of marrying any of the men she’d been hooking up with through 1-800-FOURTYS, a dating hotline, but they all seemed to be sure that she was going to be their next, or sometimes their first, love. It made her sad to think about this, so she tried not to. Instead, she enjoyed the meals out, and collected material for her book.

Special-novelty-concept books were in now, and she had bowed down to popular demand. Her weekly column in the paper was doing well, but her fans wanted something longer, something substantial to hold and to put on their bookshelves. Her agent told her she might as well try, so she’d come up with a name for her book: “The Year of Dates.” Her agent was skeptical about the name, but he liked the concept.

Now Julie was on her fifty-second date (although the first with this man) after which she could finally finish the book. She breathed a sigh of relief as she walked through the restaurant, a smile fixed rigidly on her face, and thought about how she could spend next Saturday evening alone for the first time in a year.

“Julie?” the man in the checkered shirt had gotten up abruptly as she approached his table. He had a bit of a stoop, and he looked uncomfortable in his own skin.

“Yes,” she continued smiling. “Pete, right?”

“Yes.” He sat down almost violently, as if punishing his chair for something. Julie fought the urge to raise her eyebrows and sat down as well.

“So…” she tried. She dropped the smile, felt her jaw muscles relax and leaned back in her chair. She had already decided that she had enough material for her book already, and that she was only going on this date so as to come full circle and finish the thing properly. Still, there was no reason to make much of an effort.

“I’m married,” Pete said abruptly. He gave a small, sniffling laugh at Julie’s expression. “Well, still married that is. I’m going to get a divorce, of course.” His accent was strange, not New York or Boston, but also definitely not California. Julie couldn’t place it.

“Oh,” she said politely. “Been separated long?”

“No, well, yes, of course. I don’t know. After twenty years of marriage is six months a long time?” The last half of the sentence was muttered and Julie had to concentrate rather harder than she wanted to in order to understand him.

“I don’t know,” she said hesitantly. “I suppose that’s not very long at all. Not after twenty years.”

Pete stared at her intently before dropping his gaze and shifting positions in his chair. He seemed to have a breathing problem (was he asthmatic?) that made him sound like he was snorting with every intake of air. Julie didn’t find this attractive in the least.

The rest of the evening seemed to take its cue from the way the first minute of their conversation had gone. They spoke haltingly, uncomfortably, and of disconnected subjects. Pete’s eyes seemed to burn with fiery passion when he spoke of films of which Julie had never heard. He mumbled and became awkward when she tried to ask him about his personal life. All in all, Julie felt the evening was a failure.

“Can you believe I’ve been on twenty-five of these things?” Pete asked as they split the bill (Julie only let the men she’d enjoyed spending time with pay for her meals.)

“What things?” she asked distractedly, trying to calculate the tip. Math wasn’t her strong point and she was focusing quite intensely when Pete’s next sentence caught her off-guard.

“Twenty-five blind dates,” he said. He snorted and went on. “One a week since my cupcake moved out. Crazy, eh? My head’s not quite right these days.”

Julie looked at him and wondered if she could have heard right. So there was someone else as mad as she was wandering around? A date every week for months on end? With a different person every single time?! Nobody, she thought, in their right minds would do that.

“Do you want to go out again?” she asked abruptly, surprising herself. Pete looked surprised too, and Julie could tell that he’d never been asked that question in all those dates. She could sympathize with the other women – he wasn’t a very good conversationalist and seemed a bit odd – but for some reason, she suddenly couldn’t bear the thought of never seeing him again. It was as if his own brand of unique madness made her feel a little less crazy herself. “Not on Saturday, though,” she added quickly. “We can go out on Friday.”

“Alright,” he said. “Sure, yeah.”

They parted chastely in the parking lot, shaking hands rather than bumping cheeks. Pete walked to his car with an odd, off-balance gait, and Julie unlocked her own car and watched him go. She felt repulsed by him, but also fascinated. Maybe, and a bit of a grin began to form on her face as she thought this, maybe she’d just found the subject of her next book.

 

 

A Taste of Conference Work

Although I’m taking time off from school – or maybe because of it – I still think a lot about my academic work. Over the last few months, I did more research and reading about obscure and interesting subjects than I dreamed was possible for such a short span of time. I found it immensely satisfying, challenging, and frankly fascinating to read things that I would never have picked up on my own without the structure of research and coursework to guide me.

Now, at Sarah Lawrence, the most important and unique part of the system is conference work. This is basically independent study and research that is done for each course, with the professor supervising the process and helping out when and if needed. I thought I’d give a small taste of what this is like. Below is the handout I gave to our class, as instructed by the professor, towards the end of my writing process of what turned out to be almost twenty pages of essay, end-notes and bibliography:

Elizabeth Barton, The Holy Maid of Kent, and Anne Askew, Protestant Martyr

Political and Religious Importance in Early Reformation England

  • Elizabeth Barton – In 1525, Barton began to have visions and make prophecies. She soon joined a nunnery after an impressive public healing in a chapel in Kent, and became renowned in England for her prophecies. She prophesied directly against King Henry VIII, predicting his downfall should he marry Anne Boleyn. Executed on April 20, 1534, for treason.
      • What was her political role and what goals did she set out to meet? What political role did she play in her arrest and death? Was she autonomous in her actions or merely being influenced and used by her mentors?
    • Quote: A warning from Thomas More: “Good Madam… I shall beseech you to take my good mind in good worth… many folk desire to speak with you… But some hap to be curious and inquisitive of things that little pertain unto their parts; and some might peradventure hap to talk of such things as might peradventure after turn to much harm…”
  • Anne Askew – In 1545, after being kicked out of her home by her Catholic husband, Askew traveled to London where she was soon apprehended and examined for her Protestant beliefs. She recorded her examinations – the first in 1545 and the second in 1546 – and her manuscripts were published after her execution on July 16, 1546, by John Bale, a Protestant activist.
      • Were her words her own, or were they edited? What was her political and religious significance, before and after her execution? Was she used by others or working as her own free agent?
    • Quote: John Bale praises Askew: “Soch a won was she… whose harte the lorde opened by the godlye preachynge of Paule… “

The Jazz Bar

The jazz bar is situated off of the main pavilion where the common pubs are located. The pubs on the main drag are all basically the same – crowded, smoky, electronic music blasting too loudly from the speakers. The jazz bar, however, is different. It’s roomier, more spread out, with tables both inside and out. They’re all simple affairs, black plastic tops on stainless steel legs, the chairs matching them. The main difference, of course, is the music: live jazz. The musicians change, sometimes during the course of one evening, but they make up the same basic grouping: a drummer, a bassist, a pianist, sometimes a guitarist or a trumpeter, occasionally the odd harmonica-player. The atmosphere at the jazz bar is relaxed. Although the live music is loud, louder than you would expect, conversation is still an option.

Saturday night found the jazz bar full to bursting – yet still, the space outside didn’t feel cramped. Four young men and a young woman, none of them long out of adolescence, shared a table. Four of them sat and sipped their beers while the fifth slurped his strawberry-melon-smoothie moodily, wishing he hadn’t made himself the stupid promise of zero-alcohol-for-a-month. They sat and listened to the music, one of the youths, who was on his break from drumming, occasionally made snide comments about the trumpet player who was blasting his sounds into the air. The conversation went back and forth, encompassing everything from the latest party to the correct technique of asking a girl out to dietary tips to tattoos.

The group was clearly comfortable together. The solitary girl, who wasn’t a regular addition to the group as she was the girlfriend of the curly, black-haired young man, was welcomed among them and felt surprisingly at home with them. She talked easily and laughed readily, not fearing being ridiculed and not taking to heart the light teasing that is often a single girl’s lot among boys. It dawned on her that this, too, she would leave soon. Oh, she would be back, of course she would, but the experience was all the more precious because she knew it might not be repeated for a good long while.

Three Ladies at Peet’s

Three ladies sat outside Peet’s Coffee in Santa Monica. There were many little tables outside the coffee-shop: one was inhabited by a trendy man in his early twenties, wearing a brown hat and reading a design book; one other table was occupied by a balding man with glasses perched precariously on his nose who was proofreading a paper as he sipped his coffee and occasionally looked up at the people going by; the third table was surrounded by three ladies.

The three ladies were of varying ages. Two were in their early fifties and looked like sisters – both had similar features and they had that sort of friendly and easy manner with each other that comes from a good sisterly relationship. The third was obviously a family member as well – the daughter of the one and the niece of the other. These ladies were surrounded by lots of baggage – a purse, a backpack, four pounds of Peet’s coffee blends, another shoulder bag, and, of course, three large cups of coffee, a cinnamon roll and a small box of chocolates.

The conversation between the ladies was fast and carefree: gossip about family members and family events, chit-chat about the merits of good coffee, small talk about travel plans. Somehow, in all the chatter, the subject of ostrich meat, an option that had been on a menu of a restaurant where the ladies had been the night before, came up. There was some discussion over the general aversion to the very idea of ostrich meat, and then with a casual remark from one of the ladies about how it tasted like roast beef, the table exploded. The ladies all burst out laughing as one of them spit out her coffee, overcome with laughter, and the other two followed suit while trying to control themselves and the flow of coffee spilling over their baggage.

Eventually, the three got themselves under control, though still giggling, and got up to leave. As they were walking down the sidewalk, the young hip man called out with a smile that he enjoyed their laughter and liked to see that they were having fun. He wasn’t mocking – he was sincere. He had enjoyed the sight of three ladies laughing at a table in the Los Angeles sunlight. Only the young lady had noticed that the other man, the quiet one with the glasses, had smiled to himself as well as the three had been laughing hysterically.

The youngest lady walked away from the whole encounter feeling that the world was a good place if people could enjoy the enjoyment of others.