Paris, France, late September, 2012

At the airport by the security check-point for international flights I saw families and lovers saying their goodbyes. I’d said mine to my parents a few hours earlier at the bus stop behind the Dunkin’ Donuts. What an indifferent setting for such a thing, I’d thought. My mother had cried and I’d felt neither moved nor unmoved, if such a thing is possible. The Newark airport wasn’t any less indifferent to these partings but at least it was bustling with life. I recalled standing at another security check-point there years before and seeing a young eastern European girl watching someone from her family leaving. Her eyes had welled up with tears. My eyes misted, a manly misting, at that thought.

On the plane I found myself next to a French-Canadian man headed to Paris on business. We chatted for a while but it was a small struggle for me to follow him, and several times I had to repeat myself, paying special attention to my mispronounced vowels. When the stewardess came around with beverages, I availed myself of the complimentary mini-bottle of wine. It didn’t taste very good to me, but wine never tasted very good to me. I used it to swallow a few Xanax, hoping these would allow me to sleep for the rest of the flight.

I woke up about an hour later. The rest of the time passed slowly, tediously. The wine gave me heartburn.
At Charles de Gaulle the RER train into Paris was delayed. I listened to music on my headphones and waited, yawning periodically, half awake, half alive. Finally the train came and since the platform was filled with other delayed travelers I wasn’t able to get a seat. I stood by the door and looked outside the window at the ugly Parisian suburbs passing by. Even though it was warm outside they struck me as cold and sterile and unforgiving, though perhaps I am just confounding that with the view from my window now.

I left the train at the Luxembourg Gardens stop. Much to my chagrin when I tried to pull the handle out of my rolling piece of luggage it wouldn’t budge, so I had to lower my right shoulder and twist my arm awkwardly behind me to drag it along. By the time I made it outside I was sweating, I could even smell my own body odor emanating from my pits. Strange, I thought, that I’d started out at a desolate bus station in eastern PA and now I was on Boulevard Saint Michel in the Latin Quarter. I must have made a clownish figure, heaving and sweating, six inches taller than everyone, wearing stupid-looking sneakers, for in those days my footwear taste was questionable. I pulled out a map I’d drawn with directions to Camille’s apartment.

Making my way east, I followed a narrow street that opened into the Panthéon. Every 50 yards or so I had to stop, stretch the arm and shoulder that had been pulling my luggage, hitch up my pants, and re-situate the duffel bag sitting on my suitcase. I had to do this in front of a group of stylish looking high-schoolers standing outside of their lycée smoking. I felt ungainly, but they paid me no mind.

Finally I made it to Camille’s building. She buzzed me in and I waited in the lobby, expecting her to greet me at the bottom and help me carry my luggage, but after a few minutes I realized she had no such intention. I hadn’t seen her for over a year, and something in the tone of her emails suggested that she wasn’t overjoyed to be putting me up for a night. I struggled up the stairs.

When she saw me we kissed each others’ cheeks, as the French do, but the gesture felt empty to me. I inquired about the bathroom. You can’t argue with the body. It felt like there was a huge stone lying in my stomach but when I tried to let go of this burden it stubbornly resisted. Constipation is one of the great metaphors for how we are constantly at odds with ourselves. One has to admire its symbolic transparency.

Since Camille was preoccupied with other matters, and wanted only to study, I decided to leave her place and spend the day visiting my favorite spots from years ago. I walked back to Boulevard Saint Michel and turned right to head towards the fountain. I stopped in a book store and bought a French dictionary, a notebook, and a copy of Madame Bovary, then headed farther north and passed a few of my favorite movie theaters. The French Connection was playing at the Filmothèque, where I’d seen Badlands with Katrin and Dan over three years ago; afterwards we had met up with Jackie for her birthday dinner, which somehow led to a small fight between me and Katrin.

In front of the fountain was a circle of touristy types watching a performance. I crossed the street and looked at Notre-Dame and down at the Seine. Where I was standing was part of the circuit I had regularly jogged; I saw myself running over the stone path next to the water, having intimate thoughts naturally, probably not unlike the intimate thoughts I was having now, only less refined and more juvenile. I felt old in that moment, old and tired, defeated. But I was on the brink of a new life. I decided to head south again.

Walking down rue Mouffetard, a small, old-world passageway with no cars and heavy foot traffic, I passed a Kebab place where I’d met Andy once for dinner. Later we’d gone to a concert together with Katrin. I hadn’t spoken to either of them in over three years, and it was strange to think of these people and feel absolutely nothing. Yet one can only have so many feelings, I suppose, and god knows I already had a lot.

I wanted to visit the François Mitterand library. Passing by an unsightly shopping center in the Place d’italie I looked to see if the same street performer was in front of the building, an old man who had danced to a portable radio playing generic, tiny-sounding electro beats. There were only a few beggars sitting against the wall with signs. Maybe it was his day off, or he’d died, or found a new spot.

My bowels still weighed on me. A coffee was in order so I bought a pack of cigarettes and sat on the terrace of a cafe in Chinatown, hoping this combination would provide the desired results. But it simply wasn’t going to happen, I couldn’t shit in a random restaurant bathroom, and it struck me as all the more unseemly to drop my fetid American load in a dainty French toilet.

I remained on the terrace for a while, nearly in a trance, contemplating.

After some time I got up and made my way to the library. It was comprised of four symmetrically placed glass towers, each holding an untold number of volumes, and in the center was a large sunken garden. Seagulls flew around. I walked to a small footbridge and smoked another cigarette, admiring the more contemporary buildings situated along the Seine. The area had all been constructed in the last few decades or so, and there was nothing classical about it. There, I felt I was in the anywhere Paris, not the somewhere Paris of books and films where I had been earlier. Only a few people were out strolling around. I asked a passerby the time, as my phone was dead, and had to re-pronounce my “r” several times for him to understand me. There was still time to kill before dinner.

Across the river was Bercy Park, another recently constructed area. I ambled around, admiring the fountains and trees, as well as the foliage and the flowers. This was inevitably a place of memories, and I thought of Katrin and walks we took there. I noticed the spot where I’d introduced her to Stacey, a girl from my neighborhood growing up who had happened to be in Paris at the same time. When she’d arrived Katrin and I were eating strawberries and Katrin offered her one. “That’s so cute, you’re eating strawberries,” Stacey had said, the irony in her voice thick. She was right to be ironic. We were young and insufferable.

Most of all I remembered this place as a place I’d visited by myself. There I was again, by myself.

I found a bench near a long, narrow fountain and watched a little girl and her father play with the ducks. Everything coming to mind, the images of a younger version of myself and figures from my past, I had not considered for years. These memories were so distant that it was a surprise they belonged to me at all, instead they seemed to be part of somebody else’s story. I felt resigned, resigned that I would simply never have the same feelings of a young guy abroad for the first time. My vision had been so short then, I could never have imagined all that would happen to me. But now, was my vision any less short?

A nostalgia descended on me. This was more like a cemetery than a park, a memorial ground for my memories, and I was a rootless, constipated phantom visiting his old haunts. Occasionally my thoughts take a lyrical turn. I caught myself beginning to doze. It was still summer but the air felt cold. No, it wasn’t summer, it was fall.

I walked on Boulevard Vincent Auriol back to the Place d’italie, where I would hop on the metro. This stretch had always struck me as peculiar street for Paris, as the buildings were neither contemporary nor quite classical, just nondescript in a city otherwise so descript, if that’s a word, and the truth is it isn’t. But this complimented my melancholy mood, and in fact there was something appealing about this image of myself. Strange, that vanity could operate even in these circumstances—it’s a sentiment that knows no bounds, apparently.

Back in Camille’s apartment I met her roommate, an Italian bomb studying in Paris. She spoke English rather well, and her French wasn’t bad either. I felt decidedly provincial around these international types. I tried to shit again, to no avail. Soon we left to meet Camille’s friend Audrey for dinner at Chez Gladines, yet another of my old haunts. Camille warned me that she had a lot of catching up to do with her friend, so I might not enjoy myself or even be able to follow the conversation. “You’re doing everything you can to make me feel welcome,” I said. No, I didn’t, but I thought it.

“You’re going to Niort? I’m French and I don’t even know where that is,” Audrey said. I was dipping some bread into mushroom sauce. To my right I saw the table where I’d sat with my two friends three years ago to celebrate my birthday. I recognized the bartender and his sly grin.

“It’s apparently our mutual insurance capital,” Camille said.

“How do you know that?” Audrey said.

“Dan told me.”

Indeed, I had told her. That was all I knew about the city where I’d be teaching the next year. The conversation thus turned briefly in my direction, they resumed their reminiscing about their undergrad days. Suddenly I remembered eating at Chez Gladines only a few days before I’d left Paris the last time. Katrin had been in a sour mood up until when the food came, after which she was back to her usual, loving self. Then, my séjour was coming to an end; now it was just beginning.

There was something cheaply sentimental and hackneyed about these recollections—my youthful, European romance. Platitudinous! It was as if they belonged to the realm of fantasy. Constipated, jet-lagged, headed to a remote, unknown French city and facing the cool distance of these two Parisians—this was real. But is much of youth, in a sense, a fantasy, at least in memories? Yet I was still young, so what would this seem like four years later?

It was around 9 when we returned to Camille’s place and I feel asleep in the spare room instantly.

But my internal clock was naturally still all out of whack from the flight, and a few hours later I was wide awake. My loins rumbled; it was time. The apartment was rather small, and assuredly Camille and her old-world-beauty roommate could hear every move I made, so I crept as silently as possible to the bathroom. But there was nothing I could do to be quiet in there, it was like a minor gas explosion, and I tensed up imagining them being woken by my bowel struggles—which of course only made the struggle all the more difficult. I had to flush twice. Decidedly, this was one of my darker moments. And lying in bed a few minutes later, only partially relieved, someone went to the bathroom. “That stinks!” I heard.

A few hours later I was on the TGV train to Niort. The sun had only just risen and I admired the flat countryside rolling by. I tried to imagine what my life would be like the coming year but I only saw a blank.

Nashville, TN, August, 2012 (The Goodbye Party)

It was August and my time in Nashville was running out. Later in the month I would leave. It seems to me there must be more stories to tell about me in that city, but I would only be repeating myself. For instance there’s “Nausea Anecdote Number 2: the Fourth of July Party”—maybe that would make a good one but it bores me now. Life repeats itself apparently, with subtle variation. But perhaps I am not looking closely enough, and there is so much more to say, and I might say more, later. And there are also the stories of the people I knew, stories which remain only the vaguest of allusions here.

At the beginning of the month I moved into Abe’s apartment situated just east of Vanderbilt, as Lewis had moved to a new place with no room for me. For a couple weeks I was there alone while Abe took a small vacation. Strange, the feeling of living in someone else’s space; or maybe it was more like living in a hotel. Abe did keep a clean house, the place was immaculate, and the building even looked like a two story motel. I felt curiously alienated from life, not the normal alienation I was so accustomed to but the alienation of being a kind of vagrant soul, so light that it could be blown away at any moment. Forgive this moment of lyricism, I know it’s unlike me. I was given to bouts of anxiety, but also moments of great calm. I dived into my writing with renewed enthusiasm and produced the beginnings of a novel, which I later abandoned. I read in the evenings. At moments I felt moved and overwhelmed; a chapter of my life was ending.

The weekend before I flew back to the east coast I sent an email out to the coffee shop staff saying that everyone should come out for drinks at Springwater to celebrate my departure. This seemed vain to me, and it was, but it also struck me that to leave without any ceremony would be cold, in a sense.

It was a typical summer evening. Abe and I and a girl from the philosophy department drank beers at his place before leaving for Springwater. When we got there only a few people from the shop had arrived. The place was dingy and poorly lit. A few old biker types sat at the bar drinking and laughing. Abe and I played a game of pool with Jay and several times Jay cracked innocent jokes about me, guffawing —I will never forget that guffaw. My mind must have been elsewhere because my memories are vague.

More people came, but it was still a small crowd. I had hoped for a wild rager, and maybe some drugs, but for the moment things were rather sedate. And yet it didn’t matter, the important characters were there. The party was ostensibly for me but I didn’t want to be the night’s main character. I just sat at the bar and chatted with people as they approached.

Soon Randy, one of my co-workers, got up to perform, as that same night he had a show scheduled. The back of the stage was lined with gaudy sequin drapes lit up by the Christmas lights strung around everywhere. Randy wore his signature sunglasses and purple vest. His final song, “Last Chance to get in Dan’s Pants Before He goes to France,” was dedicated to me. I was flattered, still am flattered to this day. The crowd laughed while my face turned red. Naturally I looked around to see if there were any girls who might avail themselves of this last chance, but there were only aging bikers and co-workers from the café.

After the music we all left for the Villager. Springwater, despite its charm, was really just an old biker dive bar, and although the Villager was also a dive, it was a lesser dive, or more of a dive, depending on how you looked at it. Not all dives are created equal, that much is clear. There, we smoked cigarettes and drank at the bar. I was beginning to feel a little sentimental, though perhaps I am confusing how I feel now, as I write; it is difficult to distinguish the two sometimes. At around midnight Jane and Adam left, since they had to open the shop the following morning. We all hugged. These goodbyes were not as charged with meaning as perhaps one might think they should have been. Meaning operates of its own accord, indifferent to my intentions. I couldn’t have known the significance these people would later take in the stories I told myself.

In a general way, it seemed that more should have been happening, but it wasn’t.

Towards the end of the night when it was only Abe, myself, and few others, I filled the jukebox with coins and queued up the Replacement’s “Here Comes a Regular” several times, a song which, for some reason, even then I associated with my time in Nashville among so many musicians and heavy drinkers. I told Jay, who was noted for his musical tastes, what I’d chosen. “It has a special place in my heart,” I said. “Me too,” he said. That meant a lot to me, somehow.

But by the time I’d finished my drink, I knew I was getting too sloppy to stay. Not that I was on the brink of doing anything stupid—that, perhaps, would have been what the evening needed to truly set me off with a bang. I was simply spent, finished. I hugged Jay and Randy and said my goodbyes. My song hadn’t even played yet. Abe and I stumbled back to his place together.

When we got to his front door, I remained outside for a cigarette and a quiet moment with myself. But as I looked out at the evening sky and the tall Vanderbilt medical buildings, I began to feel indifferent towards myself. It was as if I was over-saturated in my own story. This was not an unpleasant way to feel, however, actually I felt fine. My cigarette finished, I went inside and passed out on the couch.

Nashville, TN, late June, 2012 (A Wholesome Sunday)

That night Jane gave me a lift home after we closed the shop. “Hey, do you want to come to church with me tomorrow morning?” she said. We were driving down my block. I knew that Jane had been religious once but now she was as debauched as any of my contemporaries—not that religion necessarily precluded debauchery, but in Nashville it seemed to circumscribe it in guilt and make it novel. Neither was the case for Jane.

I hesitated. “Maybe?”

“It’s my old church—they’re very nice people, open to everyone. I haven’t been there in months, and I’d like to go. And there will be a big lunch afterwards with a family at their house nearby.”

“I’m down,” I said. Free meals were hard to come by, and I could never turn one down. And admittedly I did think it could be interesting. Perhaps I would learn a thing or two. The last time I’d been to a church service had been easily twelve years ago, when I’d gone with a friend after a sleep-over. Not that middle school Dan was religious, hardly. I looked towards God with complete indifference. And twelve years later I was still indifferent, but now this indifference was tinged with an intellectual skepticism. I considered God as a living cultural artifact and a source of the ideology that structured the consciousness of my country; he was also simply a part of my language, in the sense that “God knows,” and “oh my God,” etc., figured in my lexicon. In short I was, a priori, critical of religion in detached sort of way. Yet I had never truly entered this sphere of which I was skeptical, and it seemed that perhaps I should, to see what is was all really about.

So she picked me up at around 10 the following morning. First we stopped at the coffee shop to get something to drink. “I’m going to church!” I said to Jay, who was behind the counter. He gave me a quizzical luck.

Soon we were out of the city proper (if Nashville even has a city proper). Jane turned onto a long, winding, country road. I admired the bucolic countryside and the occasional mansion. “That’s an old plantation,” Jane said, gesturing to her left. Sometimes I forgot that we were in the South. Jane told me that this area was, in fact, one of the richest suburbs in the country, populated by country music stars and other big shots. “And WASPy, moneyed descendants of slave owners,” I added cynically. There was no denying it.

After we passed the last mansion there was nothing but wide open land. If only I could say more but in my mind different countrysides are confused, and I no longer know which countryside belongs to which country. The windows were open, and a warm breeze came through.

The church was situated amidst all this. It was a small, unremarkable building with a couple dozen cars parked outside. Nothing awe-inspiring. Jane and I smoked a cigarette before entering. She took the butts and put them in her car. One shouldn’t litter on a church parking lot, I suppose.

The sermon had already begun but it wasn’t so solemn that a few people couldn’t turn their heads and wave to Jane and me. Perhaps they thought she had brought her new boyfriend to church. The interior was bigger than I’d thought it would be, but like the exterior, hardly majestical. There were lots of children whispering to each other and giggling, along with a few babies crying out now and then, as babies often do.

I listened attentively to the sermon. Jane had told me that the guy—his title, if he had one, escapes me—was rather intelligent, but not the best of public speakers. He was a shortish, portly middle-aged man with a receding hairline and a casual, conversational way of speaking to us, the worshipers, if that’s what we were. “Think about Madison Ave…” he said, pausing awkwardly and looking around. “How many of you have been to New York city and been to the shops on Broadway and Madison Ave?” He stopped again and a few people raised their hands. Perhaps these interrogative pauses were calculated but they didn’t seem to carry much weight to me, I just wanted him to get to the point. “Now when I lived in New York, I used to walk down those blocks and look into the shop windows and see all the designer clothing and bags and things like that.” He paused yet again. Maybe he was just stretching it out he so he could fill the allotted time. I could imagine some powerful orator charging these lines with meaning, like Robert Duvall in The Apostle, but this guy was no Robert Duvall, and his delivery was rather humdrum. “And then you go down to Canal Street, and you see all the fakes: fake bags, fake watches, you name it, there’s a fake.” He looked around, as if what he had said was profound. “Now this goes back to to what we were talking about before. These things aren’t authentic, they’re cheap knock-offs. The same goes for name brand foods—if you buy the generic, you’re not getting the same quality…”

I had know idea where he was going with this, or what he’d talked about before we arrived.

“…and it is similar with God. We must worship him authentically—we must worship the authentic God.”

I wondered what constituted an inauthentic god, or inauthentic worship. He moved onto a new theme but I could no longer pay attention. I was too stuck on this bit about branding and advertising, which, if I’d understood it correctly, seemed highly problematic, sacrilegious even. Not that I actually disagreed with him, or thought he was wrong; it seemed

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to me that branding and marketing did indeed create a kind of idolatry around consumer goods that was more similar than dissimilar to the way God figured in peoples’ lives. But it seemed obvious that this idolatry for goods was unequivocally artificial, and merely an illusory need created by the advertisers. So how was God any different?

Naturally, there was nothing the guy could have said that would have inspired any real faith in me, but this point in particular seemed to collapse under its own logical problems, and if I had been religious, it would be more likely to turn me away from worship rather than encourage it.

The sermon concluded. I considered our orator, who seemed totally harmless, oblivious that his words could be taken such as I had taken them. I imagined raising my hand and asking him difficult questions that would undermine his theme for the day, but to what end? Perhaps he was simply a dupe of the system, too immersed in consumer culture to be able to see it for what it was and why equating aspects of it to religion didn’t help his cause. But what did I know about his cause? And wasn’t that self-righteous of me?

At the end of it we all shook each others’ hands, saying “peace be with you.” I’d forgotten about that part. When the first person took my hand and looked in my eyes, I found it hard to maintain my cynicism. A young couple with a baby in tow approached, their faces beaming and bright. “Jane! How have you been?” the wife said. I was introduced.

“We’re glad to see you here. Glad you could join us,” the husband said to me as I shook his hand. The baby was looking at me. I returned its stare and it smiled.

“You have a great baby,” I said.

More people came and greeted Jane, and I met them all. I couldn’t keep their names straight. They were all friendly to me, their handshakes firm, their eyes sincere. Had I expected to be treated with skepticism? Perhaps, it wouldn’t have surprised me. But I was in their world, and they were welcoming me in.

“So what brings you here?” one young man said when we were back in the parking lot. I told him that I worked with Jane and that she’d invited me.

“Well, what did you think?” he said.

“It was—interesting,” I said. The young man’s wife—in that setting I assumed everyone was married—was by their car and so he said goodbye, shaking my hand once again. Classic Christian fellowship.

Jane and I got in her car, and once we had pulled out of the lot—she didn’t want anyone there to notice—we lit up cigarettes. We were headed to a house a short drive away where we would have lunch. “Wait ’till you see it, it’s beautiful,” Jane said. I mentioned to her my reading of the sermon. “Yeah, you’re right, that’s kinda weird isn’t it?” she said, as if it had just occurred to her that my interpretation was legitimate. And that made me wonder: had I just missed the point, and instead brought out all of my post-Marxist mumbo-jumbo?

But there wasn’t any time to get into it, because we’d arrived. Before us stood a large two-story house set far back in a field. There was a garage with a basketball hoop on the driveway. A few children were playing ball. “Before we go in, let me show you this,” Jane said. She lead me to a small wooded area to the right of the house, where there was a tiny stream with a foot bridge over it, a hammock, and a shed. A black lab was tied up to a pole and it was trying to get at a chicken that was fluttering around. “Isn’t this so serene?” she said.

It was. I could have lain in that hammock all day, doing nothing but contemplating the trees swaying with the slight breeze.

“You’re going to have to help out with lunch. Everybody pitches in,” Jane said as we headed back to the house. Inside there were more kids and pets running around. It was anyone’s guess who they belonged to. I asked Jane for a little bit of history about the family and she told me that its patriarch was a lawyer—I’d met him earlier apparently—and its matriarch didn’t work, rather she raised and home-schooled the children. The youngest was one of the kids running around playing—he was 13—and the oldest a newly minted doctor about to begin his residency. It was as if they were from another era, or I should say, a TV show from another era, like a more pastoral 7th Heaven.

In the kitchen I shucked corn and washed the dishes that had been made from preparing our dessert. Suddenly a pretty girl walked in and stood beside me to grab something from the cupboard. We recognized each other from the coffee shop instantly, I had only flirted with her a few days ago. “Hey there!” she said. “What are you doing here? It’s Dan right?” Kindness and warmth radiated from her big smile. Her teeth were impeccable, white and straight, not the slightest bit of disorder.

“Yes, that’s right. I’m here with Jane.” Of course I’d forgotten her name—I couldn’t keep track of the all girls I spoke to, and it was better that way, in truth; if there was a record of all my stupid flirtations I would be too embarrassed to even think about it. “And remind me of your name?” I said.

“It’s Claire, nice to see you again.”

I assumed that she had been at the service, and I hadn’t noticed her. It was surprising to see her there, if only because I always assumed my contemporaries were, like me, indifferent towards religion. But I was constantly being proven wrong, first by Jane and now by Claire. Anyone in that city was possibly religious, whether they seemed edgy or boring or wholesome or debauched. Guilty until proven innocent, if you will. As for Claire—without a doubt she was too wholesome for me.

“This is my fiancé Richard,” she said when a young man approached. That settled the matter. We shook each others’ hands and I excused myself from the kitchen. The 13 year-old had told me there were some kittens in the backyard and I wanted to go play with them.

It was time for lunch. Two long narrow tables were pressed together. Each place was set, and the food was out on the table—turkey, mashed potatoes, asparagus, etc. It was a good spread, classic family cooking if I’d ever seen it. There were 14 of us there, and with the mix of ages, the young couples and old couples and the children, I was reminded of big family gatherings when I was little. Yet there wasn’t that same undercurrent of petty resentment and familial dysfunction that, even as a young kid, I’d been aware of, even if it had been beyond my full comprehension.

Jane sat to my left and to my right a graying, middle-aged man. I asked him what he did for a living. He worked for some sort of Christian publishing house that put out YA literature espousing clean living and other so-called family values. I didn’t like the sound of that. Of everyone there he was the only one who struck me as phony, and even more than me—certainly the most godless of the bunch—he appeared uncomfortable and stiff, as if he’d come to church for work reasons and now he had to schmooze with the people, and he didn’t understand the people. To me he was just a businessman like any other, only he happened to be working for a corporation that considered itself religious. I could picture him donating money to the republican party and other likely-homophobic institutions.

It was time to say grace. How could I have forgotten. Try as I might, I couldn’t really pay any attention to what was said, and every word of it escapes me now. But these people weren’t all sober and solemn in their faith, and after grace everybody had to introduce him or herself, as well as answer some sort of ice-breaker question. I loved this type of thing, as I was always able to come up with something clever. It’s a shame I can’t remember what it was I said, but you better believe it was witty. The whole table let out a laugh or two and my remark was even brought up later, as a running joke for the afternoon.

“So what do you do?” Jane’s friend, the matriarch, said to me once we’d begun eating. In this world of uncertainty, this is no easy question to answer.

“I work at the coffee shop with Jane,” I said, keeping it simple.

“Surely you must do something else, a young man like you.”

“Well, I uh—I suppose I write,” I stammered, not because I lacked confidence, but because I knew what the next question would be.

“What do you write about?” said the woman next to her.

“Oh, you know, auto-biographical stuff, stuff about relationships, that kind of thing,” I said.

“Like romances?”

“Uh—of a sort. ” I said. Jane guffawed. She knew my material. “Actually,” I added, “I just kind of write about being a lonely guy.” The people around me laughed and smiled. That was surprisingly gratifying; I’d unintentionally won them over, which, it occurred to me, I was often doing. Why couldn’t I be charming when I meant to be? Maybe that was a question for God.

As we continued eating, the atmosphere remained convivial and light-heated; no one spoke about faith, God, or Jesus, and I was never put on the spot to discuss my spiritual alignment. I was in a state of disbelief—it hadn’t seemed possible to me that such a gathering was even possible, whether it was motivated by common religious beliefs or something else. Everybody was so nice, while not lacking in sense of humor. My perspective was too rotted and rusted with cynicism to buy it, and yet I was doing just that, I was eating it all up and even enjoying myself.

As I helped clean up in the kitchen, I wondered if perhaps I was simply not of the right stock to partake of life in the manner of this wholesome group. And did I want to, anyway? Was I too much of a masochist? Did I want to meet a girl, the one if you will, and if not get married, at least embark on a partnership and start a family? And—I pushed this line of inquiry further—even if I wanted to, how would I go about it? Where was the future Mrs. Hoffman? Unquestionably, I was an inconsequential philander, hardly marriage material, but was I actually choosing that, or rather was I just a spiritual beggar of sorts, wandering around and taking whatever scraps of tenderness and love I could find? And the bigger question was this: were these people happy and wholesome and satisfied because they wanted to be, or just because they were lucky, chosen as it were, by God or by their genetics? But there was no God to do any choosing, and I rejected the determinism of genetics—so then what was it? And what about Jane? She had once wanted a life such as this, had even been married in fact, but that was all behind her now. She was probably as spiritually adrift as I was. Why were we that way? Of course there were plenty of reasons why, all of them sound and logical. But I still had the impression that there was something I was missing.

And maybe I simply didn’t want any of that, not that I knew what I did want. My desires were fickle and confused. Whatever the appearance, it was impossible that there wasn’t a subterranean level to this family. I was like Nathan Zuckerman, skeptically reflecting on the Swede in Roth’s American Pastoral—there must have been private tragedies and disappointments that were simply well-concealed beneath the bright, shiny surfaces.

After we’d finished cleaning up I told Jane I was going to take a walk by myself around the property while she chatted with her friends. I returned to the small wooded area next to the house. The dog was there and it ran towards me, barking. I offered it my hand and it sniffed it briefly, then walked away, indifferent. It was a warm, summer day. I lay in the hammock and looked at the sunlight shining through the trees. It was June; soon I would be moving away from Nashville, onto the next stage of my life. Everything was confused, so I just did my best to empty my mind and feel the light breeze on my cheek and the swaying of the hammock. After a while my phone buzzed. It was Jane saying it was time to go.

Nashville, TN, June 18, 2012

That morning I woke up thoroughly disgusted with myself. No, I had not done anything regrettable and there wasn’t a stranger in my bed. If only, that would have made for a nice passage. Not that it was inconceivable that a stranger would be there, would have been there I mean, or is it could have been there, anyway there have been strangers, don’t worry about it. Simply, I had over-indulged, and was hungover. It was beginning to seem to me that binge drinking was no longer entertaining, that my life in fact was no longer very entertaining. I showered, shaved, and got ready for a midday shift at the coffee shop that I’d agreed to cover.

I was on duty with Heath, a quiet, reserved guy who, despite my best efforts to be genial, was not enamored with me. When we worked together, we treated each other with polite indifference, speaking as little as possible. It was going to be a long, tedious day. I felt a generalized contempt for the customers—vain, idle, decadent consumers, blowing their money on sugary lattés that, from the point of view of calories, were hardly better than soda. Even flirting with the perky, fresh-faced college girls did little to assuage my soured temper.

About halfway through the day a young man with his father approached the counter. “I’d just like a coffee,” he said, smiling nervously. It was immediately apparent to me that he was in some way mentally disabled. This simple exchange appeared to have cost him a great effort. “Sure thing,” I said, handing him the mug. When he said “thank you” a wave of sentiment came over me, my heart broke. Our brief interaction seemed to have been a small challenge for him and, now accomplished, he was delighted. He looked towards his father, who handed him some money, and he added, “He’d like a cappuccino, please.” The father thanked me, too. He was not in the least embarrassed by his son, if anything he was proud. I handed him the change and they left to find a table.

Later on, refilling the sugars, I saw them sitting together, sipping their coffees. They looked rather solemn, the father reading a paper and the son staring into space. I knew I would never forget that image. I wondered if there was a reason for their silence, or if being together was all that mattered, the simple ritual of sitting down for a drink and letting time pass. I recalled, suddenly—how could I have forgotten?—that years ago my father and I had made a habit of getting breakfast at the nearby diner on Saturday mornings. Maybe there was something of my father in this father sitting with his son, whose demeanor was also sedate and reserved. In a kind of misshapen, vague mass with neither borders nor limits, the memories of my life spanning from those days up to the present flashed through my mind. What had become of me?

It seemed at that moment that my life was totally barren, bereft of loftier sentiments, misguided, a joke with no punch line. What I had observed between this father and son was the real thing, cutting through the miasma of inanities and trivialities. I yearned, for what, who knows, perhaps for some true heaviness, a bit of weight on my shoulders, a burden to carry around not with reluctance but with purpose.

Naturally by the end of the shift these feelings had passed, it would have been rather insufferable otherwise. But I did feel, at least, renewed, ready again to face the banality of life. One needs a bit of perspective now and then. On my way out I almost said a heartfelt goodbye to Heath, but at the last moment decided not to.

Nashville, TN, June 1, 2012 (A Dinner Party)


When Lucy opened the door and greeted me and Lewis she mixed up our names. “You two look the same!” she insisted. She was always doing this and I wondered if it was just an affectation. Abe was sitting at her kitchen counter drinking a beer, and on the sofa sat a couple I’d never seen before. Introductions were made, they were Gary and Rachel, two final year clinical psychology PhDs. A high brow bunch, in short. When they asked me what I did I felt rather insignificant. “I’m an underemployed liberal arts graduate,” I said. No, I didn’t say that, but if only, it would have been rather clever.

Dinner began. Lucy mentioned several times how Abe’s dinner from a few weeks ago had inspired her to outdo him, implying that she had in fact outdone him. “I thought Abe’s dinner was pretty good,” Lewis said.

“Oh, you don’t know what you’re talking about!” Lucy said. Most of what she said warrants exclamation points, a piece of punctuation I’m normally reluctant to employ.

I was in a contemplative mood. Lucy regaled us with a tale of one of her advisers, whom she suspected had hacked into her email account. Abe was incredulous. “What you’re saying is completely preposterous,” he said. But she insisted, there was possibly even a whole team from the faculty working against her.

It was difficult for me to discern whether or not she was serious. There was something performative about her behavior, as if it were an extended gag. But she never let up. Perhaps it was a matter of complete indifference to her if her claims were true or not, and she argued them just for the impression they created. I reflected that the same claim could be said about me, at moments, or any number of the characters in my life. Lucy was simply an extreme example. And isn’t this what goes into writing a story, in a sense? The alienated self writes itself, as authors write their stories.

As I said, I was in a contemplative mood. I considered the couple sitting across from me. Gary’s body language and the way he looked at Rachel clearly evinced his affection, even infatuation, perhaps, for Rachel. Ah, love. Rachel, though not indifferent, seemed content to just bask in his affections. Then I overheard her call him “sugar pie” as he stood up to go to the bathroom.

“I’m going to have some wine,” Lucy announced, presumably because she rarely drank and so this was an exceptional moment.

“Oh, no,” Abe said.

Indeed, by the time we finished dinner she did seem drunk, but it could have just been her histrionics. Gary and Rachel left, saying they both had to be up early the following morning.

We moved to her living room and she offered that we play a game. Wait, I seem to recall that there was another person in the room. Courtney was also there, how could I have forgotten.

“Why don’t we try and levitate someone?” Lucy said.

“Yeah, I used to do that at sleepovers when I was a kid,” Courtney said.

“This is ludicrous,” Abe said.

“I agree,” I said. And this was true, but lately it had seemed to me that so little of interest was happening, and at least this was out of the ordinary, a curiosity if nothing else. Lewis stood up—I could tell he felt awkward—and said he was going to leave. “I want to see the evening out to its end,” I said.

Abe begrudgingly lay on the floor and the two girls kneeled down on either side of him, one touching his feet, the other touching his hands.

“Alright, we need to concentrate very deeply,” Lucy said. They remained in that position for a few moments, silent. “Do you feel anything?”

“A little indigestion,” Abe said.

“Oh come on! I need another glass of wine,” Lucy said.

The next game was going to be prank calls, again it was suggested by Lucy. “I see a theme evolving here,” I said. Devolving was actually the appropriate word. Perhaps this was my cue to leave but I felt exceptionally spectatorial, for once my gaze was directed outward and if I left it would mean simply going home, where I would resume contemplating myself, masturbate, and then go to bed.

I still couldn’t decide if Lucy was merely performing or if it was all genuine—in the latter case, perhaps it was contemptible of me to be taking pleasure in watching her act foolish. But if it was just a charade, then I was in on the joke, and we were all laughing together.

In the spirit of things I offered that Lucy call the coffee shop, because I knew Jay would be working and he would take a joke like that pretty well.

“Hello may I speak to Jay…yes…this is Lucy…well I just want to say that things aren’t really going well between us…that’s right…yes…well the truth is I found another man…that’s right…last night in fact we made love for the first time…there was even a noise complaint from the neighbors…what do you think of that!…in short I’m breaking up with you, I see no other option…” And so on. She delivered her speech so glibly and with such a straight face that we were all stifling our laughs. It was a very considered performance, after all, and this was the pay off.

But then things took a turn. After hanging up on Jay Lucy offered that we call her latest man, a guy from the gym she’d picked up and slept with a couple of times. “He mistreated me! I was crying last night and he came over and all he wanted to do was bang!” she exclaimed.

“Maybe calling him out on that now, with a prank phone call, is not the best way to address it,” Courtney suggested.

“No, it’ll be great. This is fun,” she insisted. Something was cracked about her now. Her carefully calculated affect was beginning to crumble. But there was no convincing her to just call it a night. She dialed him from her land line so he wouldn’t recognize her number. “Hello, it’s me Lucy,” she

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said. She put it on speaker.

“Hey what’s up?” the voice on the other end said.

“I need you to come over. We need to have a chat and, well, it’s been a wild and fun evening and we need you here. Right Courtney?” I detected a sly, perhaps sexual, innuendo in her voice. She covered the speaker with her hand so the guy wouldn’t hear. “Tell him, Courtney! And say he’s a piece of shit.”

A quizzical expression formed on Courtney’s face. “Are you sure?” she said.

“Yeah, it’s funny.” She released her hand from the receiver and held the phone out towards Courtney.

“We do need you here and, uh, you’re a piece of shit,” she said, rather reluctantly.

“Well anyway we’ll get into all that as soon as you get here,” Lucy said.

So we sat awkwardly and waited while Lucy explained to us the guy’s offenses, which all centered around the last time he’d paid her a visit. She’d been in an emotional state, crying, etc. (she didn’t elaborate, as if crying on a Wednesday night were a regular occurrence), and she had hoped he could comfort her. And he tried, perhaps, in his own way, which was simply by attempting to get her in bed. She was teetering on the edge of disinterestedness, it alternately seemed like she had been truly hurt—was truly hurt—and like it was all a joke to her, and the guy was nothing more than her plaything.

When he arrived he immediately looked towards me and said, “Hey, I remember you from the coffee shop!” I didn’t remember him, I couldn’t keep track of all the faces I saw daily. I shifted in my seat. “I’m Kevin, nice to meet you.” He approached me and offered his hand, which I took reluctantly. Then he turned to the others and did the same. It was obvious that he was uncomfortable, his gestures were stiff and forced, his speech overly proper, like this actually was a formal dinner party, and not—I didn’t know what it was.

And so Lucy and Kevin’s private drama unfolded before us, the confused voyeurs. “Well, I really just wanted to tell you that you’re a piece of shit. You can go now,” she said.

But he was going to stand his ground. “I’m not going to let you make a straw man out of me and badmouth to all of your friends,” he said, gesturing towards us. “So what is this all about?”

I cringed. If there is such a thing as feeling appropriately, then he was out of line. He was more concerned with his reputation with us, which was already ruined anyway, than with Lucy. Whatever was about to happen was not meant for me to see.

“Okay, you asked for it,” Lucy said. “You know, you would be a real fucked up guy, a real evil guy, but you’re not clever enough. You came over here, treated me like a piece of meat. I was crying and upset and I called you, and all you wanted to do was have sex. And I feel bad for you because you don’t know any better. But come on, have some sense! I was crying, and you just started trying to take my shirt off. It’s you – guys like you, my therapist says – who have damaged my view of men.”

Now it was clear that she was cracked. The gag was over, if it had ever been one.

“I’m drunk, I’m not thinking straight,” she said.

I considered this peculiar drama in front of me. There was merit in what she’d said to him, pathos even, but mostly it seemed like a ludicrous imitation of the real thing. And yet I wondered if perhaps all of our private dramas would seem, to the impartial observer, rather embarrassing. This could be why I haven’t said a single word about my numerous love affairs, I wouldn’t even have the courage to read my own words.

And of course I couldn’t help but feel pity for the awkward young man. Yes, he was older than me but in his vulnerable state he was more like a confused adolescent than a physics PhD.

I reflected that what separated Lucy from me, or Abe, or Courtney wasn’t that she’d had these thoughts about the guy, rather mean-spirited thoughts but in some sense warranted; it was that she trusted them so much that she let them all lose. Most of us only feel the powerful, unconsidered emotions, and by the time we’ve gone to the trouble of articulating them they’ve been mitigated and made more palatable. Or could it be that I am emotionally effete?

At that moment I imagine we were all wondering whom we would have prank called—whom we would have invited over so as to unload all our resentment. I had a few people in mind.

Eventually the two ex-lovers seemed to realize that they were both fighting a losing battle, each blow was only digging their shared hole deeper and deeper. “I’m not thinking straight, you’d better just go,” Lucy said, her voice strained.

When he finally left Lucy seemed for the first time that evening truly vulnerable. All of her giddy energy had dissipated. “I feel bad, I’m not being myself,” she said. Luckily Courtney was there to attempt to console her. There was nothing else left for me to do so I said thanks for the dinner and made my exit.


A couple of weeks later, walking home from work, I ran into Lucy. “Lewis!” I heard, from a distance. She was hailing me from across the street. I walked over and reminded her that I wasn’t Lewis. Next to her stood a brute of man, he looked like a regular meathead with his bulging biceps. Another one of her gym pick-ups, I assumed. “This is Ricky,” she said.

“Nice to meet you,” he said, taking my hand. He grip was strong and sweaty.

“The pleasure’s all mine,” I said.

Drawing by Keenan Julies

Nashville, TN, June 14, 2012 (The Trip)


That evening I felt on edge, there was an itch for a little excitement. At least I had the visit of my good friend Neal from New York to look forward to, and a bag of mushrooms in my desk that we were going to take. The truth is my delicate constitution and mercurial psyche make me ill suited to experimenting with drugs, but from time to time I feel adventurous and the visit of my friend seemed like an exceptional occasion.

Jane and I closed up the shop. She would be taking me to the airport the following morning to pick up Neal. “Down for anything tonight?” she said. For Jane life seemed to be constant motion and action, there wasn’t a moment to lose because of all that was possible. I was flattered, still am flattered as I look back now, to be caught up in the whirlwind of her life. Forgive this moment of nostalgia, I write these lines without irony.

“Why don’t we take some of the mushrooms now?” I said. “Let’s do it,” she said.

So we chewed a few pieces down and drove to her house, where we would plan our next move. She texted a few friends as we smoked cigarettes in her backyard. The night was calm, the air mild and warm. The street lights in the distance began to glow more brightly, and it felt as if the cigarette were being inhaled into my whole body.

We decided to visit a few of her friends a short drive away and see what they were up to. “Look at these,” Jane said, pointing to some moon flowers in front of her house by her car. I kneeled down and smelled them, rubbing the dewy petals over my face. “Beautiful,” I said. Simply beautiful.

During the drive I admired the traffic lights. The warm air coming in through the window seemed to propel us forward. We glided over the roads, through the lights. “Should you be driving?” I said.

“I’m a pro at this, don’t worry.”

“Just livin’ on the edge,” I said.

We parked in front of a nondescript house. That is to say I could describe it, but I won’t. I had to shake myself out of the strange trance I was in as soon as we got out of the car, which I did by moving my head up and down and side to side in a rapid, jerking motion. The sound of the door slamming made me jump. “You okay?” Jane said, a big grin spreading over her face. “Just a little overstimulated,” I said.

In the house some dudes sat playing a skateboarding video game. It might have been two dudes, or four. Certainly not five, or one. Most likely three, but I can’t commit to that. I took a seat and watched, enthralled. It escapes me whether any greetings were exchanged, that was Jane’s business anyway. She was being quite personable and effusive, all smiles and laughs, while I was on another plane, eschewing speech for the moment.

But I was not insentient towards the other people in the room, if anything I was extra sentient, or meta-sentient, truthfully. A certain energy seemed to emanate from the guys, it was an indifference towards me, as if I was not quite unwelcome, but nor did I matter very much, or at all. And that doesn’t even really capture what I was sensing, which may have resulted from nothing more than my misfiring neurons.

I stood up and walked to the bathroom. Naturally I studied my reflection in the mirror. Something disconcerted me about it. Everything seemed fine, yet everything was in total disarray. I tried to explain to myself what is was, but language had stopped ordering my mind. After peeing I examined closely the patterns on the floor, which were shifting and morphing. In doing this I dropped my phone, but it appeared to still be working. Finally I made it back to the living room. “Perhaps it’s time to go?” I said to Jane.

Outside of her car I took out my phone to check the time and saw that something was poking out of the top, the SIM card perhaps. In any case something was wrong, because now it wasn’t working. “I think a part of my phone may have broken off when I dropped it in the bathroom,” I said, a sober expression forming on my face. Don’t ask me how it is I can describe my own features. And perhaps I am wrong, and I flashed the biggest of smiles. But a vague impression suggests to me that it was this way, and not the other way.

I braced myself to head back inside by shaking my head and arms and taking deep breaths, not unlike before, but yet so different. “You’ll make it,” Jane said. “I believe in you.”

When I knocked on the door one of them caught my eye and nodded, so I let myself in. “I think my SIM card fell out in the bathroom,” I said. It was as if there was a search light on me. Then something caught my eye: a revolver sitting on the coffee table. “Is that a real gun?”

“Sure is,” he said, picking it up and examining it.

“Well, I better check the bathroom,” I said, rather troubled. In reality it wasn’t a real gun, but I didn’t know any better. They were probably having a great laugh at my expense as I crawled on the bathroom floor. The SIM card was nowhere to be found. I made a quick exit this time, my eyes glued to the gun as I walked past the coffee table. “Thank you,” I said.

Back at Jane’s place we debated over what to do. She suggested watching a movie, she happened to have one called 50/50 on hand, a Seth Rogen flick. So we started that but its vibrations weren’t jibing with my soul, and I felt deeply unsettled somehow. So she dug up a DVD of What About Bob?, and that seemed to do the trick. Eventually I just closed my eyes, and strange visions appeared to me, things which I don’t have the courage to write. Soon it was morning.


Two days later Neal and I sat in my room, preparing ourselves to take the rest of the mushrooms. Even though Jane and I had dipped in, there was still enough for two hearty doses. It was about 2 in the afternoon. The weather was fine, warm, slightly humid, a sunny southern Sunday.

After eating them we decided to watch an episode of Seinfeld. Periodically I revisit this show, one should always revisit the masters.

“Did you ever notice the way the plastic on your laptop has these small dots?” Neal said.

“No, I haven’t, come to think of it.” We both examined the plastic next to the tracking pad while Jerry ran into Banya on the street. “That’s gold, Jerry, gold,” Banya said.

“They’re sort of fluctuating in size,” I said.

“I could study this for hours,” Neal said. And so we continued to study the small circles for what we thought were hours, but a glance at the clock on my computer revealed that it had only been about a minute. “Whoah,” I said.

“This is great.”

I wanted to go outside. “You wanna come with me?”

“Doing great here,” Neal mumbled. He was rather enthralled with the texture of my laptop, there’s no way around it.

On my way out I passed Lewis, who was in his usual pose, hunched over a book at his desk. “Hey,” I said. “How’s it going?”

“Oh, you know,” he sighed. It was as if we weren’t in the same room, but we were in the same room, otherwise how else could he have been there with me? I slowly eased myself onto the couch and, following Lewis’ example, sighed deeply.

“What was I doing?” I said, or perhaps thought. In either case the question was posed. “You know, I hope everything is okay with us, that you enjoy living together,” I said, suddenly.



“I mean what did you say?”

I’d forgotten. How is it that I remember now? Don’t worry about it.

“We took the mushrooms,” I said.

“Oh,” Lewis said. “How’s it going?”

“I feel alright,” I said. But it wasn’t as if I’d said that, it was as if the guy from the deli down the street had said it. Suddenly I guffawed. “That’s what Jovan always says.”

“What’s that?”

“’I feel alright.’ Even if you ask him how’s it going, or what’s up, he says ‘I feel alright.’”

“Who’s that?”

“The guy from the deli.” An urgent sense of purpose came over me; I’d planned on going outside. “I’m going outside!”

Outside, the waves of heat pleasantly caressing my face and limbs seemed to take on an aural quality. A kid rolled by on his tricycle. Everything was vivid and sharp and undulating. It seemed to me I had never known such natural beauty before, the sunlight, the trees, the green lawns. I did not think, I exalted.

But I was worried, too, worried about Neal, I had left him all alone, and so I mustered the resolve to head back inside.

In my room he was lying on the air mattress, hugging a pillow, laughing. “You feel good?” I said.

“This is out of control,” he said. “Look at this.” He showed me a phone with a text message from our friend Lomax that said “I hope you guys aren’t just sitting around watching Seinfeld.” That was too much, I lost it and was seized by an uncontrollable fit of laughter.

“We are, aren’t we?” I got on my bed and followed Neal’s example. “Oh my god,” I said, me, not a believer. Neal was talking on the phone with his girlfriend now and suddenly I too felt the urge to call someone, the names of friends popped into my head and I called them, one by one, to tell them how great we felt.

Time passed. Neal was starting to feel overwhelmed as he lay on the air mattress, I think he was having an existential crisis and talking about it with his girlfriend. I was still entertained by Seinfeld for the time being. Then I remembered wanting to see Jane so I called her up. “It’s happening,” I said. What seemed like hours (20 minutes) passed and she arrived.

Together we watched a little more Seinfeld and then browsed through photos on Facebook that had me convulsing with laughter. Neal remained on the mattress. “I’m alright,” he said. He wasn’t alright. “Don’t worry about me,” he added.

“I’m worried about Neal,” Jane said.

“Don’t worry about me,” he repeated.

But I was beginning to worry I would go to a dark place too, so Jane suggested that we smoke a little bud. She seemed to know what she was talking about, so I trusted her and took a few puffs. We went outside for a cigarette.

“I feel…I don’t know,” I said. I was in fact heading to the same place as Neal. I had a glass of water with me and it seemed that if I just could pour it over my face, then that would shake me out of it. So I lay down and tried to dump it on my head but I overshot it, it all landed behind me and only a few drops dampened the top of my hair. This was profoundly disappointing, and I still regret it to this day. “I think I’m just going to lie in bed and watch TV,” I said.

“No! You should go outside, take a walk.”

It was time for her to go so we parted ways. I was sorry to see her go. I felt on the edge of despair—no particular thoughts came to mind but if I wasn’t careful I knew I would begin to examine myself and plunge, or is it plumb, the depths. And my depths aren’t that deep, it would be like diving headlong into a shallow pool.

So I lay in bed, watching more Seinfeld. I was vaguely aware of Neal, next to me on the floor, struggling with his own demons, periodically calling his girlfriend. There was no girlfriend for me to call. The show did not lighten my mood at all, in fact I began to feel disgusted with myself because I was seeing for the first time how deeply lodged in my subconscious it was. I felt insubstantial and trite, I was little more than a disappointing and fatuous conflation of various things I’d read, seen, or heard over the years of my seemingly indeterminable existence. I’d cracked the code to myself, and the results were decidedly underwhelming.

I thought of Jane’s words, “you have to go outside.” She was right, there was no sense in staying inside. I offered to Neal that we take a walk.

“Can’t do it,” he said, his voice anguished. “I’ll be fine though.”

Sure enough, once I forced myself to move and leave the house, I immediately felt more light-hearted. The sun was beginning to set and the air had cooled down. I pictured myself on the coffee shop porch with a drink and a cigarette in hand, and the image motivated me to head in that direction. On the way I stopped at Dragon Park and sat on a bench to admire the sky, the lawn, the strange playground, the bushes, in short everything in front of my eyes. A great calm descended on me, and I posed a series of questions to myself:

1. How does the language we use to describe mental life change mental life?
2. Am I more like other people or less like other people?
3. Is there a pure mental state, where longing stops?
4. Have I lost touch with something?
5. What is to be gained by learning?

There weren’t any answers, but questions, I told myself, were more important than answers.

On the way towards the shop, I felt both frightened by the people I passed and fascinated—what did they think of me, since I felt so alien to them? The porch was crowded as usual, all the regulars were there smoking and sipping their drinks. I did talk to a few of them but mostly I sat and watched, not a thought in my mind. After some time I heard from Neal; he had come out of the worst of it, and wondered what I was doing. I offered that he come my way and we could have some food at the restaurant next door.

“What’s up?” he said when he saw me. He seemed more like his usual self now; he had made it through.

“I feel alright,” I said.

Drawing by Courtney Sanchez

Nashville, TN, a day in May, 2012 (A Hard Day’s Work)


As I replaced the roll of paper towels next to the hand-washing sink behind the espresso machine, Jane, or was it Janice, walked passed me, brushing against my shoulder. Admittedly I was particularly out of sorts that day, the prior evening I’d been assailed by a fit of pointlessness and despondency, the details of which I will omit, no need to get into it. “You have a great body,” she said after she’d passed. I was flattered, and thanked her. I told myself that such a comment shouldn’t really matter, and that whatever was the source of my malaise, it certainly had nothing to do with with my appearance. But it did matter, there was a new pep in my step. Perhaps in this sense I wasn’t really all that out of sorts, because my vanity could still be indulged. It is when one’s vanity can no longer be reached that true despair begins.

I tried to be more observant while working. It seemed to me that very little was going on there, but I reasoned that that was only because I was too self-centered, oblivious to the happenings all around me. It’s all in the details, I told myself, and if I just pulled my head out of my ass and opened my eyes, a story would unfold. We are all in a sense a lot of narratives colliding with each other, intermingling, conjoining, separating, copulating perhaps, or just incurious towards each other. Rick and Jay were working the front counter, while I floated or “coffee backed,” so to speak. James the kitchen manager was in back, and later Kevin joined him. These two guys weren’t exactly enamored of me, they were hard to please and I only made it worse by taking my break at an inopportune moment. But Jay said, “No matter what you do you’re going to piss them off.” He guffawed, I guffawed. A pretty college girl came and introduced herself to Jay. “I’m Caroline, I see you here all the time,” she said. When she’d left with her coffee Jay turned to me and said, “These cute college girls, they just stay young while I keep getting older.” He guffawed, I guffawed.

Then my phone buzzed, I felt a little excitement, maybe it was a girl texting me back. That’s Dan all over. “Hey dude just letting you know they want to fire you, quit before they have the chance,” the message said. It was from Dave the dishwasher. I felt deflated suddenly, worse than before Jane or Janice’s comment. I rushed to the bathroom and evacuated my bowels. Anxiety produces unpredictable results. Assuming the message was true, what troubled me the most was the implication that I was disliked not just by James and Kevin, but a whole faction of people, that in fact I had no conception of what anyone thought. Instances where I’d been excessive, or where I’d not shown enough restraint, or had been immodest, flashed through my mind. Why do I persecute myself for moments when, in effect, I am most myself? That is a question worth looking into. It also could have related to me shirking on my duties, the thought crossed my mind, but I tend to take things personally, metaphysically even, I am a sensitive soul, deep down. “Screw those guys, whoever it is,” Jane or Janice said, when I showed her the message and speculated about what was happening. “Uptight assholes,” she added. I appreciated that. We had a version of a similar conversation from another day, and we concluded that, simply, one can’t help whether one is liked. And that was some consolation, but nonetheless I was ruffled.

A talk with my manager was in order, if I really wanted to get to the bottom of it, so I excused myself and went downstairs to his office. Thankfully, he immediately assured me that the rumor was groundless, simple gossip, nothing more. Then he asked me who had sent the message, and I reluctantly told him it was Dave the dishwasher, an effusive and kind soul, if there ever was one. He himself was later fired.

My nerves were shot by the end of the day. Even though the rumor was false, I still had to reconsider my standing at the coffee shop, which had become the hub of my social life. When I got home and saw Lewis at his desk hunched over a book, he asked how I was. “Let’s have a cigarette,” I said. “Sure thing,” he said, breaking his normal non-smoking policy. We went outside and lit up, listening to the sounds of the crickets on our picturesque block. A couple strolled passed, they were probably heading to Lover’s Circle. It was over 100 degrees outside, and the cockroaches were coming out of the woodwork. One landed on my shoulder and I promptly flicked it off. “What am I doing here?” I said.

Photo by Dave Herr

Wyman, CT, July, 2014

Maybe it was because I was on the john with the Saurian’s Feb 5th issue that, at the climax of a lavish Presidential profile, the Commander in Chief’s intimate, unguarded call-to-arms to our nation’s youth to “strive to be exemplary not just in their personal lives but also in their civic lives, in their communities” fell on my ears with a flat perfunctoriness as though it were an entreaty to Fillet Your Day at Bay Burger® (Stay Burgin’!TM). I finished the paragraph, just as the Prez was about to set foot in yet another wearying donor gala, endowed anew with a trans-class, trans-generational sense of sympathy and thought, once more unto the breach (from a play I’ve never read). I got up to start the shower.

The bank was open until 4:30, and it was 3:43. I had woken up around 1:30, checked my e-mail, taken out the dog, made coffee, made the bed, and watched fifteen minutes of Sandwich Showdown on the Feast Network while eating a vodka sauce spaghetti sandwich. Then I’d browsed the web until the coffee had done its duty gastrointestinally. My shower and shave took too long because I was trying to dispel some residual anxiety from the previous night, and I finally popped out of the house at quarter after, at a double-time trot. The Constitution Bank branch around the corner had a shriveled pink balloon tied to a post on the facade, somehow having retained a pocket of air through the severe temperature shifts since its National Breast Cancer Awareness posting months prior. It was on its last legs, so to speak, having shrunk more and more noticeably over the four visits I’d now made there there during the past three weeks. Inside the warm bank, I approached—now for the fourth time—a very short, neat woman who greeted me with a terse but not impolite tone. Her nameplate read Juhi Hada.

I said hello. “So… I finally got the documentation—I mean, sorry… I was in here a few days ago, trying to deposit a check?” Juhi nodded once, unsmiling, affirming her recollection. I was being overly timid, of course; Juhi and I were old chums by this point. For the past several weeks I’d been trying to transfer my checking account from Lowdon Savings in MA, whom I’d forgotten to even inform of my departure, to my new account here in CT. After the trouble of establishing a Constitution account, which itself had taken two visits the first week, necessitating a far more stringent proof of address and a few more back-up IDs than I’d expected, they’d started giving me a hard time about the funds I was attempting to move. They said no dice to the old “write a check to yourself” method, one of the tellers prattling on about some newly implemented program of fraud-busting regulations the state had been pushing on early adopters prior to legislation that the bank had opted for, for a big tax break of course. At home I’d scribbled a note on some legal paper and mailed it to Lowdon over the weekend (the three available printers were all broken) and they’d sent me a cashier’s check, upon whose delivery Juhi informed me they’d need a further set of evidentiary forms to authenticate, in further fraud-adjacent defensive wriggling. After hours of excavation in the inanimate refugee camp, as I’d come to think of my pile of stuff and files in my parents’ basement, I’d shot off another harried missive to the Lowdon’s Millford branch, requesting copies of random, pathetic statements and receipts I’d tossed during the whirlwind of the previous month’s ultimate cleanse. “And, so, I got the proof of former address, as well as the most recent statement with check scans, and the most recent deposit slip, whose sum, you can see, matches the figure on the check, and uh, well, here.” I handed over a parcel of sketchy-looking documents, which Juhi gingerly took and began to peruse as I sat with my hands awkwardly in my lap. Looking around the room in a play at nonchalance, I noticed a TV on the wall behind the counter playing an episode of Grill It with Greg on the Chef Channel, a program I’d momentarily flipped past to reach the sandwich show earlier. I figured there must be a midday marathon going, then briefly wondered at why they were playing such a tedious entertainment—almost a non-sequitur with the instructional audio track turned most of the way down—in the lobby of this suburban bank, appropriately innocuous though it may have been. Greg Chovnik was applying a wet rub to some short ribs as his mouth flapped, dispensing inaudible banter to the camera. Juhi interrupted my reverie.

“So… it seems that there is no bank seal and watermark on any of these,” she said, with a new, weary apology cutting through her businesslike tone. What?

“I… what?” I was literally lost for words. Juhi seemed to sink into her seat a bit.

“You see, we must authenticate at least two legally admissible documents via our CertiFinance® system. There is a process with a laser scanner. If you see on your cashier’s check”—she picked up the crinkled, smudged slip, tried to smooth it on the desk’s surface and pointed to the bank’s insignia on the corner, next to which there was a barely-legible logo reading CeFi in some kind of special ink—“the encoded watermark must be linked in our system to the institution on the proof-of-funds documents, via an identical readable watermark, along with an identical bank seal, before we can approve the transfer. These are photocopies, which do not replicate the UV-detectable ink of the CeFi scan mark or the bank seal.”

“Wait… so I need to get reprinted, first-generation copies of these documents, like hot off the press?”

“Yes. In addition to the proof of former address you have provided.”

“All right, I’ll… go get those. And be back. Uh… soon.” Juhi’s faced scrunched almost imperceptibly—in annoyance or sympathy or some complex combo, I couldn’t tell—as I rose to slink away, yet again, and she turned from the desk and walked back to her regular post, robotic. Outside, I looked further down the street. The branches of the federal banks gleamed promisingly in the winter sun, those bastions of fast-and-loose intercontinental amassment and corruption, to whom my checking account would be a molecule on a grain of their Saharan sand. It would be so easy to open an account there, drop my money in—they wouldn’t give me any of the shit this Podunk local operation was pulling, they’d welcome me with candied smiles and a free souvenir decoder ring or something. But I’d have to pay more operation and withdrawal feels (that is to say, any at all), not to mention hitch my wagon to the modern Mephisto that is national corporate banking. I looked across the street. There was a large sign next to the convenience store advertising an upcoming February Friends Festival in the park, with sales and activities to benefit the local old folks home. Volunteers Needed! I’d been looking for exactly some such low-key, non-long-term volunteer opportunity, within walking distance, over the past month. Who knows what the weather would be like that weekend, though? I hesitated, thinking about crossing the street to copy down the contact info on the sign. Instead I turned the corner, heading for Annie’s, the bar in the local strip mall. Annie’s is an exemplar of the true townie dive, a species distinguished from its hipsterized imitators in authenticity by subtle shades of taste, or lack thereof: one of the newer digital, touch screen, million-song music selection interfaces rather than a dusty old jukebox, for example. Most of the booths had chunks of cushioning missing or duct-taped in place. There were white Christmas lights still draped haphazardly all over the paneling above the bar. They had a couple of of old tube TVs, currently playing daytime sitcom reruns. One middle-aged guy sat at the bar, eating wings, with a bottle of Bud. Two others played pool on the lone table beyond the bar and booths, and as I entered one lightly smacked his cue’s butt against the floor.

“Han, it ate the cue ball again.”

“Just a second,” said the bartender as she noticed me coming up. “Can I get you something?”

“Yeah,” I said slowly. “Can I have a Dewar’s® and soda?”

“Sure thing, hon,” she said as she turned to scoop ice into a highball. “Can I just see some ID?”

Ezra Riemer lives in New England.

Nashville, TN, date unknown, 2012 (The Noise Show)


Jack, a friend of mine who had also recently moved to Nashville, called me up to tell about yet another house show. He had discovered it through a friend of a friend, and thought it would be a good way to make an appearance in a new scene. I was fine with my current scene, that is to say the coffee shop scene, I already felt that my threshold for new friendships had reached his limits, but Jack convinced me to go.

The show was at a space called “Secret Arts Warehouse,” which was what it sounded like, a small warehouse in which, beneath its unassuming appearance, there were drum sets, large murals, half-finished paintings, and a few dingy, make-shift bedrooms. True bohême, if such as thing is still possible, and it might not be. The crowd was by far the trendiest I’d seen thus far in Nashville, in a fringe sort of way naturally—this was, after all, not just any show, but a noise show. If the coffee shop denizens had struck me with their obvious posturing, then this was what, whether they knew it or not, they were actually posturing towards. But these people too were posturing, we are all posturing in a sense, although towards what is not always clear. I found myself wondering where I was in terms of this thinking, whether they thought upon seeing me, if they noticed me, oh, here’s a cool guy we’ve never seen before or, what’s he doing here, look at his glasses, doesn’t he know they’re over, etc. Adolescent considerations that I confess with some embarrassment, admittedly. I boosted myself up by reminding myself that I’d gone to college in the noise capital of the world, lived in New York, and generally been around the block, so to speak, so any insecurity was unnecessary. Vain, idle thoughts!

The first act was typical noise fare, a dude with a guitar, lots of effect pedals, and a synthesizer, as well as a stocking on his head, as if he were robbing a bank, for added effect. I enjoy noise performances such a this in two senses, that is they seem to have merit, sometimes anyway, but they’re also laughable.

The second act featured a beautiful girl, a québécoise I later found out, dancing and singing to another guy playing with a synth and a drum set.

It was right before the third act that things took a turn. I had noticed several times a young, fresh-faced girl with a cute look glancing in my direction, and this time when I looked towards her she was lighting a joint. The smell of bud filled the air. She offered it to the group of people standing next to her, but they all declined—which surprised me, people are usually all about the bud. I was up next. It had been over a year since my last indulgence, which was fine with me, I could have gone the rest of my life without bud and been the better for it, but I took the joint and puffed. Jack took it next and when he offered it to the people standing next to him, only one person took it, and gave it right back. It came to me again and I offered it to the girl, who—the bud was already setting in—was beginning to make me feel nervous and giddy, like a naive teenager. “You can hold on to it for a sec,” she said, and although I’d had a number of assuredly clever things in mind to say to her moments ago, all of them escaped me and I just shrugged my shoulders, as if to say, the more bud the better, which couldn’t be farther than the truth, which was that I couldn’t bear anymore bud. This time I had a coughing fit after inhaling, that always means game over. “Whoa there,” the girl said. My heart fluttered, this simple exclamation struck me, like cupid’s arrow. When she took it away from me, puffed it once more, and handed it back, again I took a small hit, god knows what got into me. “Don’t worry about me, this is kids’ stuff,” I said, coughing still. She laughed, I laughed, we all laughed. “I’m Allison, ” she said, holding out her hand. “You can call me Dan,” I said, shaking her hand.

The third band began their set and I stood wondering what else to say to Allison. Then suddenly I was distracted by an overwhelming sense of dread, and the question: when can I get out of here? I turned towards the girl, then turned immediately away. “I’ve gotta go, can we go?” I said to Jack. “I’m feeling great, wanna stay to the end,” he said.

A feeling of utter malaise overtook me as the music got louder. I decided some fresh air would calm me down, but on my way towards the entrance I stopped in the bathroom. Naturally I looked at myself in the mirror to study my reflection. There was a small pimple on my nose, and I hadn’t done a good job shaving; one side-burn was longer than the other, and razor burn covered the right side of my neck, something which always confounded me because what was different about that side? Perhaps a new after-shave lotion was in order, in any case I’d have to look into reevaluating my whole technique. And the way my hair looked seemed somehow flat, it needed something but I was always reluctant to use product, I am not that dandy, though I am somewhat dandy, decidedly. Suddenly a surge of nausea called me to less elevated preoccupations, and I managed to purge into the toilet, which seemed to alleviate at least some of the discomfort, but my head wasn’t any clearer. Somebody knocked on the door so I quickly tidied up, flushed, made sure things looked in order. I took one last look in the mirror. At that moment it felt as if I would never get out of the secret arts garage, or warehouse, whatever it was, the truth is I don’t remember and all those names are guesses.

As soon as I opened the door the music overwhelmed me again, each noise was a sort of blow. I pictured myself lying down on the couch, a pillow propping up my head, blankets all about, utter relaxation leading to a deep slumber. This image propelled me forward, and I made it outside. I would have to wait for Jack, but at least I could sit in peace and quiet in his car while he enjoyed the rest of the show.

But then, about halfway down the block, and a few yards away from his car, the following two things occurred to me: First: I had no way of getting into his car. Second: Jack had mentioned earlier that his cell phone had died, so if I wanted to get his keys, or talk to him, I would have to go back inside. Then it also occurred to me that he didn’t even know where I was, or what I was doing, and what if he panicked when he turned to his side to make a remark, and I wasn’t there? What would he do? That makes three things that occurred to me, I wonder why I didn’t just say that right in the beginning. A profound fear gripped me; I had to turn back.

I made it to the doorway but when a few people came out and I heard the music again there was another powerful wave of nausea. In that moment only one solution to this rather troubling dilemma was apparent: since going back inside was decidedly out of the question, there was nothing to do other than remain by the entrance so there would be no possibility of Jack losing me, because as soon as he decided to leave he would see me upon exiting. Flawless reasoning. So I sat down next to a bush, crossed my legs, and held my body as still as possible while I closed my eyes and tried to block out any stimulus that could agitate me. And this seemed to work, until a few people came out and stood near me, talking. I was a super sentient being, the slightest shifts in the environment assailed me like blows. Just the sounds of voices got to my fragile loins, and when I opened my eyes to look up at them, I immediately had to look away and puke into the bush behind me.

“Are you okay?” I heard, as if from a distance.

“Just smoked a little too much, that’s all,” I managed to say. Although a vague sense that this was extremely embarrassing flitted through my consciousness, I was hardly inclined to give this thought any heed. In truth, very little thinking went on, I was all feelings and sensations, a mass of flesh undulating with the waves of gastric turbulence. People came and went to smoke cigarettes and talk, and each time the door opened and they stood near by, it just got worse. Again, as if from a distance, I could discern talk about the weed being “good,” perhaps Allison was even the one talking, but I couldn’t tell, and it hardly mattered, my principal concern was just to puke in peace.

It seemed like an eternity had passed before I finally decided to go find Jack and tell him I was in extreme distress. Miraculously I made it back to him without puking. He reluctantly agreed to leave early and take me home. “I feel great,” he said, as if that meant I should feel great, too. But I didn’t feel great. In that state my equilibrium suffered untold abuses during the drive home, fortunately I was able to avail myself of an empty shoe box, in which I vomited several times.

The following morning, my mind less illuminated than usual but active nonetheless, I reflected that the evening had probably been one of the most difficult and unpleasant of my life, and yet also easily one of the most meaningless, devoid of any significance or insights to be gleaned, except the platitude that I should stay away from bud. And even now as I write this—master of my mind, master of my body, nothing other than a little caffeine in my system—I wonder if there are any conclusions to be drawn.

Painting by Sarah Anne Dixon

Nashville, TN, May, 2012

artwork by Ariel Elias

How does one one make things more interesting? This is a question I had been, have been, asking lately, largely because I was keeping this record, and the monotony is more apparent when there’s a record of it. That’s why I don’t do it anymore, and you’ll never find out what’s going on now, think of me as an old text and nothing else. I was in the bathroom when a version of these thoughts first came to me, looking at myself in the mirror and running my hand through my hair, to get it just right of course; it occurred to me that so much time is wasted in this dawdling, which becomes a form of white noise, a distortion buzzing between the songs. But when do the songs begin?

For the first time in a while, perhaps ever, I opened the shop with my manager Phil. We smoked a cigarette out back before we unlocked the front doors. “I like to smoke back here so early customers don’t pester me to let them in,” he explained. “Vultures,” he added. Though a boss, in no way did Phil exhibit the objectionable and often petty characteristics of an authority figure. In the food services setting—this being a notable exception—authority breeds a range of undesirable characteristics, and I believe, a priori, one should be skeptical of all management and all business owners.

We worked well together. Phil mentioned some details about his biography; he had tried marriage, it didn’t work out. “Do you have any paternal instincts?” I asked. Definitely not. In short, Phil explained, he wanted to hold onto his “do whatever I want” card as long as possible, or until cupid’s arrow struck. These were sage words, it seemed to me.

Later in the evening Abe came by to pick me up so we could go to a warehouse gallery opening organized in part by one of the guys at the coffee shop, the wry one, I forget his made-up name. Here was an opportunity for a great evening—a cultural outing, assuredly involving attractive girls and booze. Perhaps love will strike, I thought, recalling Phil’s remark.

The warehouse was in the middle of nowhere, at least from my perspective, which is all you can get here. As we ascended the stairs, I realized we were really in for something else. It was as if we were in a haunted house—and installations are a little bit like haunted houses, in a sense. Strange, dissonant percussive music filled the air, like we were in a Japanese art movie from the ’60s. There were several large, Tee Pee structures in the room; a small area set up with photo lights in one corner; a tent in another with a projector inside; a small stack of strange lamps that was made by the guy from Bongo; and other assorted found-art sculptures. Phantasmagoria, in short.

As we drank the experience only seemed stranger and more fun. Later on in the night a girl who looked like one of the fairies in Fern Gulley did a trapeze act on a swing that was hung from the ceiling. Everyone stood in a circle around her and watched, transfixed.

At around 10 or 11 we decided to leave. Love wasn’t going to strike. I couldn’t find the friend who had invited me but I said goodbye to his friend Mary, another one of the artists on display, hoping she would mention some after-party plans, preferably involving nice drugs; she only said she’d probably be up all night, even though she had had only four hours of sleep the night before. That could have been an allusion to something fun, but she wasn’t extending an invitation. We conversed for a while about the idea behind the installation and she explained that she wanted it to be a transient thing: for one night people come and hang out in this weird place, then it goes down, no time for snooty art people to deconstruct it and ruin it. I did my best to say intelligent things about art, and then she said that actually, she didn’t as a rule like talking about her work at her own openings, as if she were reluctantly making an exception for me. That seemed to be my cue to end the conversation.

With nothing left to do Abe and I went to the Villager for more drinks. The night devolved into us commiserating about ex-girlfriends and breakups, we became a couple of pathetic, lonely guys. Nights often end that way. At around 1am I walked home.

 Illustration by Ariel Elias