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.

An Autopsy of my Nostalgia 

I finished my typing project. I was only going to do 2002-2004, but I kept going backward, all the way to April 1999. I typed up a total of 162 entries, and there were only about a dozen between 1999 and 2001.  It turned out to cover almost my entire life in New York, give or take a few months here and there, and what a journey it was.  

Things I learned. 

1) I was really smug at times, and it was kind of hilarious, like watching a fourteen-year-old in his dad’s suit. 

2) My life in New York wasn’t some solid stretch of time. I went through several different phases where I was a different person throughout: a fish-out-of-water, a lonely single guy, a boyfriend, a rock ‘n’ roll bar fiend, and those all break down into subcategories.  
 

3) I had no idea how good I had it, particularly during that party guy stretch at the end. I had a solid, diverse group of friends, a city that was wide open with possibilities, and a comic book to illustrate. And I was so unhappy. It just goes to show that you don’t appreciate it until you don’t have it anymore.  

4) There are some friends who were real rock stars in that period of my life, some of whom are on Facebook, some of whom actually log into Facebook every once in a while, and one who is not on Facebook or really anywhere on the internet (I tracked down his email address a week ago and sent him a note, but he hasn’t responded, so that’s one door that’s thoroughly closed). If you’re one of these rock stars, you will likely be hearing from me soon; please don’t mind me, I’m feeling nostalgia.  

I don’t want to say I peaked twenty-three to seventeen years ago. As I mentioned above, I was pretty unhappy through all of it, looking for romance and not being satisfied when I found it. During my marriage, I traveled the world and properly treated the mental illnesses that plagued me, becoming a much happier person overall. I never want to go back there again. However, New York was a vibrant, exciting time in my life, and, as I approach retirement and the weeks kind of bleed into each other, I don’t think I’ll ever have that much fun again. What’s nice about these updates I’ve found is that I go into such detail that I am finding about dinner parties that I have no memory of, as well as the discovery that I went on TWO dates with that unusual girl I met at another party, not just the one, and just how much of a jerk one of my ex-friends could be.  

This was also a nice break from writing novels, which I’ve been doing nonstop for four years, and a little bit of inspiration for my next one. If I had to grade this little project, I give it an A+.  

A Reunion but Sideways

And now, here’s a Hollywood comedy moment that actually happened to me. 

From about 1999 to 2000 Katie was my best friend. I don’t know if I was hers. She had come to New York to be an actor, which didn’t work out, much like my having moved to New York to be a writer. At the time, though, we dreamed big. I liked her because she was funny and weird and larger-than-life, and together we could enjoy the full effect of New York City while not having a penny between us. Life, for me, was simple back then.

We grew apart for various reasons, the least of which was the new romance I got wrapped up in. And because life, for her, was not simple, she left New York to return home. But she was, and still is, one of my favorite people in the world, and when she was going to return to the city for a visit during the Christmas season, I couldn’t have been more excited.

Katie wasn’t a punctual person, but I was, and I arrived at the Union Square Market and waited as the minutes clicked by. There she was, in a shop selling something quaint, and she hadn’t noticed me. I missed her so much, I was going to sneak up and give her the World’s Biggest Hug. And I did.

But it wasn’t Katie.

My victim would have been well within her rights to mace me, but she was quite gracious and good-humored about the whole thing. I turned to escape, only to run into Katie, who thought it was hilarious that I was a sputtering, blushing mess, even if she didn’t know why.

That wasn’t the last time I ever saw Katie, but it is kind of funny that my most vivid memory of her post-move was of someone else entirely.

Elderly Woman Behind the Counter

I’m thinking of a guy I used to know in New York, for most of the time I was there, and he’s one of the few people from my past that I don’t know what he’s doing. I’m Facebook friends with most of my old friends and exes (and friends with the friends of the exes in the cases where they don’t want to have anything to do with me), and while most of the people on Facebook are hardly on Facebook, I know they’re there, and I have at least a tangential connection to them.

But not him. I’m not even friends with his friends so I can’t get in touch with him secondhand. The aol email address I had for him is defunct. He’s completely gone.

He stopped talking to me the day Kate and I decided to get married. When we made the decision, I called my parents, and then I started to call friends. He was second on my list. In the five minutes it took me to hang up the phone after I called the first person, do something quick, like go to the bathroom or get a glass of water, and then call him, the first person had told their friend who told him. When he picked up the phone, he was furious that he found out about through a rumor. I can understand why he got upset, even though I didn’t do anything wrong, and I wouldn’t do anything different, even though calling him second resulted in me losing my friendship with him forever.

He considered us best friends, though, when I think about the six years I spent there, he’s rarely in my thoughts. I remember clearly my girlfriends, I remember clearly the women I wanted to be girlfriends, I remember clearly my drinking buddies and the guy whose apartment I would hang out in every Friday, getting stoned for several months before we went our separate ways. But I barely remember him.

And that’s weird because we hung out nearly every single weekend since the day I met him at a party in August of 2000. I enjoyed his company, even if his verbal filter was faulty and he was a little problematic (he identified perhaps too strongly with Rob from High Fidelity—the book and the movie). He was a songwriter who didn’t write songs, but my persistence in writing inspired him to get out his guitar and invite me to his apartment so he could show off. I recall, as vividly as I remember anything, one day, as we were walking underneath the Brooklyn Bridge on the Brooklyn side, seeing a pair of really old men sitting together on a park bench like an old couple and thinking that was where he and I were going to be in fifty years. We didn’t last five.

Every other person in my life has become the bones behind a character I’ve written (that’ll encourage my friends to read my writing, to see if they recognize themselves). And then there’s him. All that time and experience together, and all that time and experience apart, and I don’t miss him. What does that say about him? What does that say about me?

But now that I’m thinking of him, I want him to be happy. In fact, the only thing standing in the way of his happiness at the time was him, and I hope he finally defeated himself. I hope he grew up to be as cool as he’s always wanted to be.

The Night the Lights Went Out

I just had a random flashback. This happened during the great Eastern Seaboard Blackout of August 2003, and the lights had just gone out. They dismissed us from work because, really, what was the point in otherwise? I knew that I was not getting back home without electricity, so I did the only thing I could: I stopped in a bar and proceeded to give my best effort to keep their beer from getting warm. After I did all I could, I headed out, and through a series of coincidences and good timing, I ended up on the world’s most expensive ferry to Jersey City, and from there hopped on a bus home.

When I arrived, I found my upstairs neighbor and my roommate (the normal one, not the crazy one) smoking cigars on my front stoop. My upstairs neighbor asked me what I did when the lights went out, and I told him that I stopped for a drink. My roommate handed him five dollars because my upstairs neighbor was so sure that the first thing I would do in this situation would be to find alcohol that he wagered money on it.

That’s who I was back then.

Man’s Second-Best Friend

Instead of working on my book all late afternoon, I’ve been hanging out with Newcastle, who has been following me from room to room, giving me big, begging eyes for my attention. I let him curl up with me as I watched my one day off slip away from me. 

I love this cat. I love him so much. 

He crawled off of my lap and curled up in the corner of the couch to go to sleep, and he looks old. He is old. I can feel his bones when I pet him. It really hit me just now. He’s lived a lot longer than he was supposed to, with his heart condition and a liver that’s not where it’s supposed to be. But he and the other cat play chase still, even if Newcastle doesn’t really have the stamina to play long. 

When I saw my psychiatrist for the first time, and he asked me what my goals were, I told him, “I want to be as good as my cat thinks I am.” I don’t know if I’m there yet. I think Newcastle has unfairly high expectations. 

I don’t know what I’m going to do when he’s gone. But I know what I’m going to do for these years, these months he has left, When he comes up to me and demands affection, I’m going to put the notebook down and give it to him. This cat has brought me so much joy in my life that the least I can do is give him a happy retirement.