Learned Part 6 

It occurred to me while I was listening to my neighbors, both beautiful women in their late twenties, and they’re talking about dating apps and their conquests or lack of conquests, that I interrupted them and said, “This is why I miss my twenties.” Not for the untreated, at-times-crippling mental illness, but for the fact that I wasn’t concerned about IRAs. This stuff was life or death to them, as it was for me when I was that age. There’s an innocence to it that is impossible to replicate, and if there were some way I could give my neighbors more time to enjoy it, I would.  

One of my neighbors, I’m going to call her Ethel, talks to me like she knows me. We’ve had a couple of one-on-one conversations, and we share the same pot dealer, but that’s really it. But she’ll say something that would probably impress me if I knew what she was talking about, and I’ll stand there, and she’ll cock her head like she’s expecting me to weigh in. She gave me a recently published, critically acclaimed book to read which is currently draped in a thin layer of dust.  

I don’t really read because I have yet to find the book that scratches my itch. I spent a year or so burning through Urban Fantasy novels, looking for the one thing and not finding it. Finally, I decided that I’d have to write it myself, and I currently have over two-dozen novels written. And maybe the reason Ethel talks to me like she does is because she sees me writing constantly, and she thinks I’m unraveling the secrets of the human condition when I’m actually writing a murder mystery starring New York nineties club kids.  

Ethel thinks I’m an intellectual, and she is way off. 

I’m not anti-intellectual. Ever since I was a little bitty asshole, I could soak up information like a sponge, but what I couldn’t do was process it. I would learn everything I possibly could about a subject and that’s what I want to be when I grow up, and a new subject would come along, and no, this is what I want to be when I grow up. It was exhausting, and I didn’t score high marks in grade school. 

They flagged me as gifted in the seventh grade and entered me into the gifted program where all the smart kids got together and went to concerts and played the stock market game and listened to guest speakers, but mostly it was a chance for us to miss class and hang out with our nerd friends. My first kiss was in the back of a Gifted and Talented Education van (high-five!). Looking at the GATE kids now, about half of us are a serious letdown. The reason I was in this program was because I took an IQ test well, and those things are not reliable. One of the girls I used to hang with in middle school repeatedly tried and failed to test into the gifted program, and she was smarter and more hardworking than me any day.  

It wasn’t because of GATE that I felt like an intellectual when I was a teenager. It was because of my Best Man. He was an artist from a Seattle-adjacent town in Washington, and in the time since he’d dropped out of high school and moved to Gallup, he taught himself culture. I would sit in his studio apartment for hours, learning from him. 

When I was in college, I set out to be an intellectual, but I didn’t have the discipline. I bullshat my way through the English Department. (If the English Department ever reads this, their response will be to impatiently reply, “Yes, we know!”) I stopped dressing like a grunge fan had sex with a goth and I was the product of their union, and I started dressing more like a smart person, with tucked-in shirts with banded collars. I almost failed out of college. 

The intellectual mindset followed me to New York where I was going to become a writer of a novel that was going to make critics cry. I drank whisky with a high school English teacher. I wore hound’s-tooth sports jackets. What I didn’t do was write. I got into art, and all my friends thought that was fabulous, but I couldn’t make them understand is I wanted to learn how to draw pictures of one person punching another person really hard, not canvases that contained the secrets to the universe. I wasn’t planning to write literature, just something fun with hopefully some heart, when I got around to it. 

I began my career as an editor within a year of leaving New York, and that made me feel like an intellectual, but I was editing self-published books, and a substantial portion of those were people talking about their lawsuits. A number of them were political diatribes. I read a lot of thrillers written by middle-aged white men about middle-aged white men who got shit done, unlike all this pencil-pushers in the CIA. I read a truly baffling book about a dented can of Juicy Juice that made people dance if you listened to it (but whatever you do, don’t drink it). There was no scholarly literature in the pile, but I kept up the pretense for ten years until I was fired for turning in substandard work.  

That takes me to now. When I’m not working, or when I’m working from home, I wear T-shirts and jeans. I hardly talk to anyone, but I don’t try to give the pretext of being smarter than I am. I watch Marvel movies (though I am rapidly becoming disillusioned with them) and collect Doctor Who action figures. I have a framed print of a cat in a TARDIS surrounded by framed postcards of varying sizes of John Singer Sargent paintings along with a small black-and-white drawing of Wonder Woman drinking a latte. I have one shelf of my bookshelf of actual books and seven bookshelves of graphic novels. I have Lego models. There is nothing in here that says intellectual (except for Ethel’s dust-covered novel), but the myth persists. 

Do I explain to Ethel that I’m not actually that smart? That I’m not literary, not cultured? Do I really want to dispel this myth? And my answer is no. I hardly ever see her, and I talk to her alone even less than that. I’ve heard some of her guy friends talking, and they’re as bad as I used to be. What’s the harm in her thinking her neighbor is this cool intellectual who sometimes hangs out in the backyard? This, I’ve concluded, is the smart thing to do. 

A Groovy Kind Of

I am very loose with the work “love.” I can say I loved my ex-wife, or that I love my family, or that I love The One That Got Away, and they all mean different things. There’s friendship love, either squealed at each other at bachelorette parties, often accompanied by the word “bitch.” There’s the “I love you, man,” accompanied by the most distant hugs imaginable, because God forbid anyone thinks you’re a homo.  

From the way we differentiate between loving someone and being in love with someone, the word love has many different meanings, like “aloha.” I am in love with a number of people, and it’s not because I want to marry them. I have my friend, the princess, who I will love until the day I die, and all I want to do is cuddle with her. I’m in love with The One That Got Away, and her I want to marry. I’m in love with my Best Man, Shane, my brother. I’m in love with the one who brought me out from party to party in New York and made me feel cool, and that’s mom love. I’m in love with my best friend in 1999 and 2000, and the only thing I want from her is to lie in bed together with a dictionary, spending the entire evening looking up the dumbest word.  

Same word, completely different meanings. So when I tell you I was in love with her from the moment she forced herself into my conversation, it wasn’t because I thought she was the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen (though, to be fair, she was), but because she radiated artistry, sensitivity, and mischief. She was a very tactile person, holding hands, stroking forearms, using one another as chairs, and it was easy to confuse a guy who’d never had a girlfriend in high school. However, expectations were set and revisited, and things were great until I started to run with a crew that viewed sincerity as a character flaw, and she was sent into exile, which wasn’t the punishment it was supposed to be because she had many friends across all disciplines, and I don’t think she missed us.  

She wasn’t gone from my life, though, and we kept bumping into her, and I wanted to keep bumping into her, but there was still a part of me that saw her as the enemy. I was awful to her. She continued to extend the hand of friendship, and I repeatedly slapped it away.  

That was college. After college, we became closer. During a celebration of a relative’s accomplishments, I told her that I was married, and I loved my wife, but I loved her too, for different reasons, and I didn’t have the language to explain, but she understood. That’s probably why I fought so hard against her. She understood me, and I didn’t want anyone to. But ten years after graduating, I wanted it more than anything in the world. 

We talked to each other rarely over the next several years, but any doubt I had about our relationship was dispelled when I visited her at her home a couple of years later, and we spent a couple of days having the kind of drama-free relationship we’d always wanted. We went back to communicating rarely, and I saw her one more time before we went back to communicating rarely.  

In May of this year, while “suffering” from COVID, I wrote my memoirs. I have known a lot of people, and I have done a great many things, so I wrote it down. I broke the book down into nineteen particularly influential individuals (my ex-wife gets two chapters). I sent her her chapter. I wanted her to see what she meant to me. I wanted to tell her how in love with her I was, but not in that way. I wanted her to understand me, more than I wanted anybody to understand me. So she read it. She had no notes. She read the rest of the memoirs because I wanted her to know everything about me.  

Now we text every day.  

For reasons I won’t go into, I’m taking what is probably my last vacation. I stopped by to see my sister in Colorado, and then I retreated to my cabin in the woods, where I was visited by the friend I was in love with. With a brief exception, we sat on the cabin couch and talked about ourselves, our past lives, our present lives, not very much about our futures, our impending disasters we had no control over, our regrets, our mistakes, our triumphs. We also talked about TV and movies. We talked a lot, is what I’m saying. I’ve become touch averse in my old age, but she got through my shields like she always belonged there, holding my hand, playing with my hair. This was our entire relationship in a nutshell. I had no idea how much I needed this. 

I live-blogged to her the rest of my vacation, the writer’s retreat with my old friend Shane, running into those people from my past who crossed social boundaries to be my friend, how I’m feeling, etc. I’d rather be sprawled out on the couch, my head on her lap, recounting the events of the day rather than sending her a text. When I think of her, I think of warmth and companionship, and never romance. It’s the perfect relationship for someone ace.  

Now that we’ve so clearly spelled out what we mean to each other, what does our future look like? I don’t know, but we have the rest of our lives to figure it out. She’s not going anywhere. 

Home Again Jiggety-Jig

When I arrived in Albuquerque, I had a few hours to kill, and I explored a neighborhood called Nob Hill, close to the university campus. I breathed in the mountain plants and beheld the adobe houses everywhere, and it had been twenty-four years since I’d spent more than a few days here, but it still felt like home.

As I approached Gallup from the east, the shapes of the buildings—the gas stations and auto parts stores and restaurants—were all the same, even though they are all different businesses than they were in the twentieth century. I drove in a car I thought of as invisible i.e. it’s so generic that it can follow you for miles and you’d never notice, and I coasted down Coal Avenue, my favorite place to go when I’m downtown. An entire block of the street was gone. Aside from that, it looked great. The coffee house that had opened up after I started college has been renamed and expanded, and the ratty, crumbling apartments that had housed several of my friends have been given a fresh coat of paint. On the other hand, the department store across the street is exactly the same, and so is the Crashing Thunder Art Gallery a few businesses down. The New Mexico souvenirs store now sells CBD products.

On day two of my return to Gallup, I started to entertain fantasies about quitting my job and settling down there. The dating scene is terrible, but I have no interest in that kind of thing. I have three friends there already, which is more than I have in DC. This would be a good place to retire.

By day five, I’d had a chance to look around. The elementary school my dad taught at is gone. There’s not a molecule of it remaining. My middle school had been expanded by erecting these Borg-cube-like buildings. My high school has been completely rebuilt, though the roof is still that familiar zigzag shape, making me suspect they built on top of the original. Lots of familiar buildings have unfamiliar storefronts, Comics, Cards & Games, for example, had been replaced by a sign that simply says “Waxing.” However, from a distance, Gallup looks the same as it did when I grew up here. The Gal-A-Bowl hasn’t changed its cheesy sign, El Sombrero is still there, the courthouse is a masterpiece of Southwestern architecture (just don’t look at the modern office buildings springing up around it).

If I look closer, the stucco on the house I grew up in has been replaced with aluminum siding, the Pic-A-Flic video store I once relied on is now a payday loan place. The theater where I went to the movies by myself for the first time at age nine (Godzilla 1985) is now boarded up. A lot of businesses are boarded up, actually, while other businesses, mostly the ones downtown, have been given facelifts. Gallup in 2022 looks like the Gallup of 1994, but it’s not. It can’t be.

Even the people I’m seeing are the same, but not really. My friend from high school kept up her enthusiasm and her bright smile, but she’s an accomplished professional now, not a giggling cheerleader. And then there’s Shane. Shane is a special case because we’ve led parallel lives that occasionally intersect. When I met him in Gallup, he was an artist and fixture in town who went to bed in the same studio where he created his paintings. When I pulled up to his place in Gallup last week, I found an artist and fixture in town who went to bed in the same studio where he created his paintings. But when I looked closer, I could see many differences. He has two children now, one of whom is twenty-four and living in New York, like I once did. He has less hair. Money is no longer the precious commodity it once was. There are hundreds, as opposed to dozens, of paintings leaning against the walls. If I moved down here, I’d have to navigate a Frankenstein recreation of the city I grew up in, and I don’t think I’m ready to do that. On my way to my hotel, there is a sign for a diner that was once a Gallup landmark. The diner itself is gone, now a weed-infested parking lot. The ghost diner speaks to me. It says, “Don’t look back.”

The More They Stay the Same

May through August of 1998 is known to me as My Summer in Purgatory. My plans for my post-collegiate future were pulled out from under me, and I was so tied up in graduating and working almost full-time that I didn’t make alternate plans, so I moved in with my parents. And my two sisters, who had been doing fine without me there, thank you very much for asking. I spent most of the time being drunk and stoned, being needlessly … well, me … to a wonderful young woman who has moved onto bigger things and beyond. I was offered a hand out, and I took it, and decades later, here I am. I’ve visited Gallup a few times since then, but over the years the city has been completely rebuilt and redesigned while also remaining the exact same. Here I am, twenty-four years since the last time I’d spent more than a couple of days here, crammed into a coffin of a hotel room ten miles from town, and it still feels like home.

I’m here on a writing retreat with Shane. We want to take a 156-page screenplay and expand it out into a four-to-six-episode TV series, and thanks to his networking from being a successful painter and having once been married to literary intelligentsia, he has contacts, and he might be able to get it in front of people. If he doesn’t, that doesn’t bother me. The whole goal of this trip was to work with one of my oldest and best friends on an art project together like we used to do. We have met that goal. We have written a solid first draft of the pilot, and we’ve finished more episodes. What it needs is a fine polish, and then we’re ready to send this butterfly out in the world and see where it lands.

It’s about a hitman and his sidekick and the people they pick up along the way searching for a ruthless drug dealer in Gallup, New Mexico, in 1995, a time and place Shane and I know very well. And the thing about Gallup is, it’s weird. I know, I know, you think your hometown is weird. You’ve never lived in Gallup. It’s a curious cocktail of mixing cultures that don’t mix well, but can get along to get along. The characters, who have impressed some of the contest readers who’ve seen it, are what we’re focused on. The hitman is a professional, but he’s emotionally unstable, and pops antidepressants and anxiety meds like Pez. The sidekick is a hitman in training who doesn’t want to kill people and dresses like a 1995 rapper. The point man is a Reservation resident who acts chill but is shifty. The victim is a cute redneck girl once kidnapped by the drug dealer, and who hangs around the hitman so she can get her bloody revenge. The waitress is a high-class girl in search of adventure. Nobody knows what’s up with the drug dealer. That’s something we have to work on.

Sorry, didn’t mean to bore you. I’m proud of what we’ve done together.

Shane has been a resident of Gallup for years, after living around the country and even outside our country. The town has a certain gravity. It draws people back, like a few of my friends from high school (and me) in the years following. They all scattered to the wind, but a few more came back as adults. And I don’t mean adult like me, where I have a job and failing eyesight, but otherwise I haven’t changed. I mean adult as in married, with children, and buying houses. This was where they wanted to raise their families. Shane knows more of them than he can count. I know two of them.

The first was the cute cheerleader turned cute mom and high-ranking school administrator from my last post. She’s the one who informed me that the narrative I had where I survived high school by being invisible was not remotely true. I’d been seen.

I knew she was in town, and I had expected to see her, so that didn’t blow my mind as much as the next guy. Shane called for a break during a particularly unproductive stretch of hours, and he drove me to the UPS Store to see someone who really wanted to see me. I’m terrible with faces, so I knew that, unless he told me who it was, I wasn’t going to guess. And he took me up to the pass-through and pointed his chin at a guy wearing a COVID mask. I shrugged, and someone called his name, and I remembered everything I talked about in this entry:

tl;dr: If 1998 was My Summer in Purgatory, 1992 was My Summer of Adventure. The Lost Boy was a really good friend when his crew was away, but as soon as the crew returned, he ghosted us. I was heartbroken at the time, but as I got older and met more people who were popular when they were young, the more I understood why.

On the other hand, a member of the crew I ran with that summer was an easily offended, vindictive bitch, and he very well could have unilaterally exiled the Lost Boy.

Either way, the last time I saw him up close was when he tried to explain to me without explaining to me why he had to leave us behind. But once I heard that name, those sharp, manicured eyebrows could belong to no one else. Shane got his attention, and he came over, and they chatted. Then Shane said, “Look who I brought!” The man I used to know as the Lost Boy called out my name and ran out from behind the counter to tackle me with a hug. He looked the same—compact, in shape, no wrinkles, not a single gray hair. The only change was his mullet. He used to have the kind of mullet that would make Billy Ray Cyrus look like Sinead O’Connor. It was business in the front, very long party in the back. And now he had a respectable middle-aged-man haircut. He asked me where I was and what I was doing, and he was excited to hear I was still writing. He reminded me that it didn’t matter if I wasn’t a New York Times Bestseller, I was writing.

Beyond his sexy cool, he was one of my most enthusiastic cheerleaders. When we were hanging out alone, he was always encouraging me to write. At the time I believed that I could tell the story, but I couldn’t think of what the story should be. That’s why I was working on an idea with the vindictive bitch as opposed to my own, which I wasn’t sure I had. But my friend believed that I could come up with my own. He also had a female friend he thought would be a good match for me when the school year began (but that went away when he did). He knew I was bound for bigger things. That hadn’t changed in the slightest, even though it is literally thirty years, summer-to-summer, since we had known each other.

He gave me his number. I’m going to shoot him a text.

Gallup, New Mexico is a weirder-than-average town close to Arizona and three Indian Reservations. It’s a place where magic happens. I’ve set two novels and a screenplay here. It will always be home.

Social Influencers

I didn’t enjoy high school, but my senior year in high school was kind of nice, actually. People stopped bullying me, Severian wasn’t around to bring down my mood, I made new friends, a new comic book shop opened, and this cute cheerleader started following me around. She hung on my every word and often arranged to be where I was going to be. She manipulated events so we could be coeditors of the school paper. I had enough presence of mind to recognize that these weren’t romantic overtures, just someone who was fascinated with me for some reason, like Jimmy, who had a man-crush on me.

She also met Shane separately from me and followed him around too. It wasn’t until I was telling him about my new cheerleading friend in school that he told me he also had a new friend, and our descriptions of her matched up, and when one of us said her name, we knew.

I lost track of her after graduation, and I found out, like, 12 or 13 years ago, that she was back in Gallup. When I saw her then, I was really depressed and feeling gross, so it didn’t make much of an impression. This time, I was alert and content and feeling confident, like I have been during this long vacation I’ve been on, so we went out to drinks and caught up with each other’s lives.

She told us that, even though she was a cheerleader in a popular crowd, she felt miserable and like a fraud. She had admired me through most of school, and she wanted to soak up some of my mojo, whatever it was. She told me that I was a goth back when goths still wore colors (I don’t agree with that assessment), and she had to learn to be like me.

When she met Shane, she was enamored of him, as many women are. According to Shane, she made a move on him, but I never trusted his interpretation of events when it came to women (because his interpretations tend to consistently fall under the category “She Wants Me”).

It’s weird for me to hear I was a formative influence in someone’s life. I don’t think of myself as making much of an impact on this world. She told Shane and me that if she hadn’t met us, she would have been shallow and unhappy. Now she is relaxed and herself and successful and in a good place. I guess I did have an impact.

Stepping into the Same River Twice

I’m doing something a little presumptuous. I’m writing my memoirs. I’m doing it in an unusual format, which is I picked twenty people who influenced my life, from high school friends to more recent individuals, to my ex-wife, and I’m writing a chapter about each of them. Sometimes, I’ll take a page or so of someone else’s chapter and remember another important figure who I don’t have enough to write a full chapter on.

There was this young woman in college who I very consciously set out to befriend. It was a success. However, it was approaching the end of the school year, so we became pen-pals. Every other week, I received a letter from her, long and a little stream-of-consciousness, and just all kinds of wonderful. When asked by her therapist about journaling, she said, “I do journal. I write Jeremiah.” She had lost her father recently to cancer, so she pleaded with me to quit smoking, which I didn’t do. We cared for each other, we supported each other, we loved each other, and we didn’t have sex, so I called her my wife. Corresponding, we had no one else in our lives, but in person, not so much. When we reunited that fall, we didn’t click, and we drifted apart.

At some point, I think she started a cult. It was some kind of internal spirituality thing, and it sounded like a cult. Later, after she found me on Facebook, I discovered that she was a pre-COVID anti-vaxxer, and after she posted some really objectionable science, I hid her posts. The last thing she said to me was a comment on a post I made debunking the Mandela Effect, saying that I was wrong, there’s more to the Mandela Effect than just faulty memory. If you know anything about the Mandela Effect, you know she means alternate universes and apocalypses. That’s when I muted her feed.

While writing this chapter, I realized that I still had all of her letters. I dug them out and reread all of them, which took some time because each of those letters was a tome. What I found was a young woman desperately trying to find her identity and make sense of this world. She struggled to get over her last boyfriend, she tried dating back in her small, South Dakota town to disappointing results. She signed her letters with “Love” but would sometimes cross that out and write “Always” instead. She read a story I wrote inspired by her hostile first meeting with me, starring a thinly veiled me and a thinly veiled her, and she informed me that these two characters would make great friends but there would be no romance (I recognized the subtext, even at the time).

Reading pages and pages of her careening trains of thought reminded me of how it felt to open up my mail and get one of these oversized envelopes. I wrote about three double-spaced pages about our relationship, and I wondered if maybe she would like a nostalgia bump, so I searched her out on my friend list, but she wasn’t there anymore. I searched her out anyway and discovered that her feed is public.

She isn’t just a little anti-vax now. She has gone full-throttle. She’s posting news stories about people dying from the vaccine, and about people applying for jobs at concentration camps that they’re going to create for the unvaccinated so they can force them to take a shot. She is not coming from a Republican place with this, this is all conspiracy from the Left. It was in college that she started down the New Age rabbit hole and got stuck.

How I feel about this is the same as when you have to sneeze, but can’t. I’m seeing this lovely, confused, hopeful young woman on paper, but in reality, she’s kind of insane. I go through nostalgia kicks and can’t or won’t contact the person I’m feeling it for, but I’ve never run across so many red flags screaming “Don’t!” What am I supposed to do with this warm, lovely feeling reading her letters has given me when this person isn’t the same person I remember (all the while being unquestionably the same person)? This is so frustrating to me because the two things I got from this experience that I want to hold onto forever is this woman as I remembered her and the feeling of writing actual, physical letters to someone and getting one back. I can’t have either anymore.

I miss her. I had no idea how much.

The Butterflies Effect

The last few years of my marriage, I became insular. I would accompany my ex to gatherings, and I’d sit there, unable to think of a thing to say and unable to meet new people. The problem wasn’t that I didn’t want to talk to people, or even that I lacked the will to do so, but because I had no idea how to start a conversation. When I got a job at The Container Store in Reston, I didn’t particularly bond with my colleagues, and it took me three years to be comfortable enough to be myself around them. This came up during one of my employee evaluations, so it was noticeable. When I started work at the DC Container Store, I was there for a year before I quit, and I had not, by that point, made friends. There was a guy I talked to regularly, and there was my crush, who I followed around like a lovesick kitten, and that was it. Once quarantine happened, I lost any progress I had made in that front. Since I’ve been half-assed dating over the past six months, I’ve had success chatting with the women because they led, and I just caught up.

I’m very comfortable in silence, and I can ride an elevator all the way to the top (which in DC is only ten stories) with someone and not have to share a word. Since we’ve returned to the office, though, a situation that makes me extremely uncomfortable, as in middle-schooler-at-a-dance uncomfortable, and that’s when I’m in the break area with my new crush.

I’ve gone over this before, but I love having crushes, and I never look at them as anything more than just butterflies fluttering around my ribcage. In the case of my last crush, she was in her early twenties, fresh out of school, and I had no doubt that everything I found charming about her would absolutely irritate the shit out of me if I experienced it for longer than an hour at a time. In the case of my new crush, I know nothing about her, except that she’s cute, and that’s no basis for a relationship. She looks like she’s in her mid-twenties, but she has her own office, and my boss doesn’t have her own office, so that has got to put her squarely in her thirties (that’s two things I know).

Every day she walks by my cubicle on her way to the water station/break area (so I guess I know three things about her—the third is that she’s hydrated), but she looks really irritated every time she walks by, so the excuse I have made not to talk to her is that I didn’t want to be messing around in that. However, I stepped into the break area to find paper towels my second day in the office, and she was there. I braced myself for what was bound to be an uncomfortable (for me anyway) silence, but when I did discover the paper towels, I announced my relief, adding, “I knew they were here because I saw them in the trash.” She said, “As long as you don’t take the ones from the trash,” and she laughed uproariously. So she has a sense of humor (four things I know about her), and she’s got a husky voice like Katherine Hepburn (five things).

The next time I interacted with her, it was the next day, and I made a point of going to the break area when she walked by. Somehow I started a conversation with her and made her laugh some more. I can’t begin to express what a big deal this is to me, for all the reasons I outlined above, and because my inability to have conversations doubles when attractive strangers are involved. But I made a joke about pinching on St. Patrick’s Day, and she laughed, the kind of laugh you throw your whole body into. But the following week, I couldn’t bring myself to talk to her.

While talking to my Wellness Coach, I made it clear I wasn’t proposing marriage. All I was doing was having a thirty-second conversation. If that failed, my life will not have changed in any way whatsoever. My homework assignment was to compliment something she was wearing, and how hard could that be? On Tuesday, I did it. Today, I had a brief conversation with her about Turkish coffee. So not so hard at all. The tendency of humans is to lose excitement for things that are no longer novel, but every time I talk to her, I want to tell everybody. This is a huge accomplishment for me.

I am reminded of my roommate in Jersey City, and how, every time I expressed an interest in someone or talked about my crush at the time, she always said, in an almost scolding voice, “You never know!” And so I leave you with that. Will I continue to chat with this woman? Will the skills I’ve picked up in my thirty-second conversations translate over to the rest of the world? You never know.

All Tangoed Up

I tried to dance the Argentinian Tango, and it did not go well.

I made a new friend through one of the dating apps, and she is obsessed with dancing. And fishing. If this was a Venn diagram, there would be a circle for fishing and another for tango, and they would barely touch, and in that little sliver would be my new friend. She’s energetic, cheerful, and enthusiastic, and she does this thing where I remember her talking all the time, but we’re always talking about me.

She reached out to me on a dating app, and I talked to her about learning to dance. I’ve been talking about learning to dance for years, and I’ve never followed through on it. Well, she did, and after a false start, we found a place that taught the tango. We went to the class, listened to the lecture, lined up with our partners, and I had a panic attack.

Part of it was because I was overwhelmed. Part of it is because touching makes me uncomfortable, and I couldn’t power through it like I thought I would be able to. To be fair, this was an advanced class, so we were learning a few steps ahead of what I could handle, but still, I was a mess.

The instructor, who was amazing, and who loved dance, saw that I was floundering, and he stepped in to show me the basic tango moves: step, pivot, step, pivot, and so on. I figured out the stepping part, and if we had stopped there, it would have been a successful learning experience. But the pivoting, which I had to guide with my chest, baffled me. The instructor could be heard saying, “Guide me. No, the other way. The other way. Okay, you don’t need to move your feet to pivot. Step, now pivot. You need to stop moving your feet when you pivot. Step, pivot. Try to keep your feet together when you pivot. Step, pivot. You did it! You did it!” I’m pretty sure he was thinking, “Finally!”

My new friend took me out on a break, during which I told her about my touch aversion, which she felt I should have told her about sooner. But in the room where we were hiding, we tried the basic steps. Eventually, I got it, though I will need a lot more practice until I feel comfortable with it. We called it quits there, after a half-hour, so I could get home and recover from the trauma.

I’m excited to go again, and as I suspected, the more I danced, the less the touch thing bothered me, so it should go a lot more smoothly. My dance partner is practically a professional. She’s been dancing since the nineties, so she’s pretty advanced. I worry that she won’t be able to dance at her own level while I’m around, but that doesn’t seem to worry her at all. Probably because, when you’re taking the class and not losing your shit, you have to switch partners, and she would inevitably be paired off with someone with a lot more experience (but not as much as her).

For the past several months, I’ve been writing, or I’ve been editing. I wake up, I write, I clock in at work, I clock out, I write, I make dinner, I watch some TV, and I go to sleep. All weekend, I type what I’ve written and write some more. I sometimes go to the grocery store. If you’ve been paying attention at all, you know that writing is my life, and this seems like it would be ideal, but I really need to get out. My new friend gets all the points for getting me out.

The Princess and the Pauper

Once Upon a Time, there was a pauper who lived in the Magical Kingdom of New York, by way of the Fiefdom of Jersey City. This Pauper was deeply in debt, and had to work two jobs to keep the creditors off of him. Working so hard made him tired.

Once Upon a Time, there was a Princess in a distant kingdom. She had troubles of her own and was also very tired.

The Princess and the Pauper knew each other, but only barely. And yet, one fateful day, she sent a message to the Pauper that she had some frequent-flyer miles, and she wanted to see the Magical Kingdom of New York, over President’s Day, and would he be her guide?

The Pauper remembered being bedazzled by her smile and her attitude, so he opened his doors wide, where she came into his life like a tsunami. She was a princess, in every sense of the world, and demanded the Pauper’s full attention and allegiance. They zigged and zagged through Manhattan, until something caught the Princess’s eye, and everything came to a halt while they investigated. There was much to investigate. They went to the finest restaurants, the finest drinking establishments, the finest merchants, and befriended the finest puppies. Unfortunately the Princess chose the wrong boots for all the walking they were doing, but she persisted. She had to see all of Manhattan in three days, and they almost did.

Meanwhile, the paupers of New York gathered on random weekends at a pub called The International. The Princess’s sightseeing fell on the same weekend as one of these gatherings, and the Pauper had to confirm with the Lead Pauper that he could have a plus-one. This made the Lead Pauper suspicious, and when he and the Princess arrived, the Lead Pauper gave her a look that asked the question, “Who do you think you are?” The gathering of paupers was for paupers, not princesses. But then Lead Pauper and the Princess carried a conversation with their eyes for a split-second, and the Princess was welcome to their corner. The Princess charmed everyone, and was a welcome addition to the gathering.

When the Princess and the Pauper weren’t wearing themselves out in the Magical Kingdom of New York, they were resting. They took refuge from the chilly February air under the blankets and sheets, talking. They talked and talked and cried and laughed and talked some more, all while cuddling. And that’s where they kept it.

At the airport, when it all had to come to an end, she kissed him chastely but passionately, and when she pulled away, she nibbled on his lower lip. That was when he fell in love with her. This wasn’t the pining, focused, often possessive love of fairy tales but rather a sense of joy knowing that she was in the world, bedazzling others with a smile and a wink. He never fell out of love with her, even through several girlfriends and a long marriage, and when the Princess found her Prince and is now Queen of her own kingdom. They don’t talk often, but every President’s Day, they reach out and remind each other what that weekend felt like.

And they lived happily ever after in their own lives, knowing that, on the day when everyone in the US celebrated their presidents or, more likely, their day off, the Princess and the Pauper would always celebrate each other.

A Heaping Slice of Humble Pie

This is quite possibly my roommate’s favorite story about my youth. In high school, there was a guy who loved to argue. He’d argue about anything, and he was never wrong. In his eyes. He was my friend, despite the massive headaches he gave me, and he stayed my friend for a long time. One thing that never changed was his insistence that he was always right, despite the evidence against his point. It should come as no surprise that he grew up to be a proud Republican who I can no longer talk to.

One day, I’m pretty sure this was senior year, he came to the group of nerds and misfits in the Gifted And Talented Education program, and he told us that we were pronouncing manicotti wrong this whole time. It wasn’t man-ih-COHT-ee, it was man-ih-CUHT. He’d know because he was Italian. This was, in my opinion, the stupidest thing I’d heard in quite some time. None of the nerds and misfits were swayed by his argument, and we all had to endure it whenever the word manicotti came up (which to be honest, was pretty rare) and he corrected us. He was ready to die on this hill.

One day, toward the end of our stretch in high school, he sheepishly came to the group of nerds and misfits in the Gifted And Talented Education program and confessed that he found out that it was indeed pronounced man-ih-COHT-ee. He had his bib and his fork out, prepared to eat a shitload of crow, and our reaction was only, “Yeah, we know.” The journey he went on had no effect on our lives in any way whatsoever. In retrospect, I wasted that moment. I should have treasured it because, in his forty-five years of life, this was the one time in history that this guy, this fucking guy, has ever admitted to being wrong about anything.

Also, Nicole and I pronounce it man-ih-CUHT now because that’s how much we love a good story.