Hi I’m Wistar. I am a stupid asshole. I write mean-spirited things. My inner life is impoverished. I sweat profusely. I am late to doctors’ appointments. I am not the kind of person that anyone likes to read. I have bad dreams. It takes everything I have not to broadcast them to the world. My body has stopped absorbing nutrients. I keep an envelope full of coupons in my purse. Last week a friend’s dog went sniffing around my purse at a party and suddenly the floor was covered in my coupons. I felt as if the dog had dug my maxi-pads out of the trash can and dragged them across the living room for all to see. I collected the coupon scraps and returned them to my purse, but due to the bite marks at the corners, I could no longer tell if the coupons were for 5-, 10-, or 20-percent off my next purchase. They are probably expired now. I don’t even like to shop.
Katie barely made it through preliminaries. At the infamous prop desk she wrote a few anemic lines about her childhood, but then hit pay dirt when the weary judges asked her to switch gears from “nostalgic prose” to “political poetry.” Somehow she pulled an amusing limerick about Kaiser Wilhelm completely out of her ass, and so the judges sent her on to the next round with one of those golden bookmarks. She was going to Hollywood, baby. Along with a few hundred other writers who were most likely better than her.
But on the plane from Newark, Katie began to reconsider her impulsive decision to try out for Literary Idol. In some ways auditioning made sense. She self-identified as “Writer.” She aspired to publish a novel, and the show was in its ninth season of launching authors’ careers with guaranteed, six-figure book contracts. But those in the winner’s circle weren’t always the brightest bulbs on the studio lot. Often the judges seemed to be influenced by looks and personality more than originality and syntax. This was unfortunate because Katie lacked a personality altogether. She wondered sometimes if she remained intentionally boring so that people would only judge her by her soul. Personality was just how good you were at parties.
That morning she’d read about a social experiment where a famous chef cooked two identical-looking dishes, but Dish A was made with gourmet ingredients and Dish B was made with expired chicken bouillon. When the chef brought the dishes to the table, he told his diners a heartwarming story about the care that he’d taken with Dish B and how he’d modernized an old family recipe with saffron and dragon’s blood, etc. Because of the celebrity narrative, the diners preferred the taste of Dish B over Dish A ninety percent of the time, even though Dish B tasted like the Passaic River. The top chef’s charisma was enough to alter the diners’ sense perception. Katie assumed that the Lit Idol judges were just as desperate and stupid.
But when you subtracted personality from Katie’s author profile, all that was left was forty excess pounds and some writing talent. And what did that talent signify, anyway? That she could string sentences together? That she also vomited words into the void? She’d only been published once, in a regional lit journal called the Garden State Review of Letters, and that was just because her roommate Greg was a copy editor there and he’d withheld Wii privileges until she submitted a short story. He’d told her she was going to do awesome on the show. “You’re going to do awesome on the show!” he’d said.
When Katie walked into the Hollywood hotel that had been appointed to lodge the Idol contestants, she was greeted by at least thirty pens working aggressively at bistro tables in the lobby. She rolled her suitcase toward the concierge and tried not to be intimidated by all the leather-bound journals. The atmosphere comprised coffee, brooding, expensive haircuts, jubilation, despair, emotional support animals, bonding strategies, envy, other elements to be recorded later. Attractive people in their early twenties held bold and clever conversations under artificial palm trees while they internally congratulated themselves on the quality of their discourse. Generally, Katie was too self-conscious to speak aloud wherever anyone might hear her. She took her phone calls in the bathroom even when her roommate wasn’t home. She knew she’d never be a public intellectual. But would she ever be anything?
This was a terrible time to doubt herself. Hollywood Week began tomorrow. She’d bought a new pair of stirrup leggings. The Literary Idol judges had seen something in her writing, and she’d just have to trust them even though they expected great books to wear top hats and dance around for them. She checked in at the front desk and proceeded briskly to her room to draft a 500-word essay about her mounting anxiety. Then she opened her gift bag from the network. She appreciated the thought behind it, but she would never deign to use a dictionary made by Coca-Cola.
The caravan of black buses came for them at 6 the next morning. Katie and her rivals were then delivered to the historic Paramount Library, where F. Scott Fitzgerald used to write his screenplays and a young Jennifer Lopez used to read back issues of Vogue. For a week Idol would have exclusive use of the library. Katie imagined the tantrums of all the children who would be turned away for storytime.
The contestants waited introvertly in the stacks while a camera crew circulated, looking for b-roll footage: complacent dude chewing on pencil, nervous chick reviewing her creative affirmations. Luke Patterson, the long-time host of Literary Idol, arrived in their midst at 9am like a snort of cocaine laced with baby laxatives. Katie watched as he flitted about the bookcases, seeking interviews with the most promising writers. It was as though he’d memorized a script beforehand that said things in the margins like, “Keep it playful!” and “Corporate softball game!” and “Flirty, but NO blow jobs!”
Patterson had been writing two GLBTQ murder mystery novels a year for the past twelve years. The man was hugely popular before he launched Idol’s American version, and his fame had only increased thanks to his ten weekly hours of airtime. Katie wondered how it made him feel that no genre writer had ever won the show. A romance writer once made it to the final round, but she had a strong back story. Something about a dead mom. Or maybe a dog.
Patterson did not approach Katie in her Cer- section of the stacks. That was okay. She’d prefer to meet the ghostwriter who was actually responsible for his books.
Katie’s time slot wasn’t until late afternoon, but that morning she was able to watch the round’s live feed on the big-screen TV that had been wheeled into the room as a psychological torture device. She’d already seen two people bomb at the desk. One guy who seemed to think he was Samuel Beckett took the prompt to “rewrite Disney’s Cinderella from the point of view of an ugly stepsister,” and was undone by his own pretension. Sentence fragments do not a fairy tale make. One girl had clearly memorized a sample of her erotic flash fiction beforehand, which made it all the more embarrassing that her piece was so bad. Nipples definitely did not prance as she alleged. Plus the prompt had been “You’re the captain of a submarine. You look at your Motorola Moto 360 watch and realize that if you don’t get your crew to the ocean surface within two minutes, everyone will die. And then the lights go out. What do you do?” According to this girl, sex is what you do.
Katie tried not to revel in the creative implosion of her rivals, and instead attempted to read the judges. Theodore Pincho was the main one she’d need to impress to avoid being eliminated. Pincho had written one novel, a critically-acclaimed first-person narrative that honed closely, if not exactly, to the writer’s real life, but was considered an intellectual tour de force and not a 200,00-word entry in his domestic diary because the literary establishment deemed him a Serious Male Writer. Pincho had subsequently also made a name for himself as a frequent contributor to online debates about the impact that social media was having on literature. His eyes rolled with abandon. He was invited to all the New Yorker holiday parties.
Though Katie found his writing overrated, she knew that Pincho at least deserved his reputation as the resident asshole on the judge’s panel. He loved dismissing writers as hackneyed, derivative, neuro-impoverished, and—worst of all—cute. Contestants’ tears made his dick spring out of his khakis. And his gravelly tone carried so much authority that the opinions of the two other judges seemed unduly influenced by his critical reactions. Katie wondered if Pincho sometimes hated on good writing and raved about bad writing just to test the impressionability of his peers. She found him to be humorless and unapologetically full of shit. Recently she read that he was working on a “richly imagined” and “astonishingly original” novel about a brilliant celebrity judge on a hit writing reality show.
Katie wasn’t scared of Sally Delacroix, who wrote bestselling police procedurals structured around brutal sex crimes and was universally known as a softie. If writers managed to sneak in a reference to birds or hearts, they usually got her full approval.
Cecil B. was the wild card. He wrote obscure, experimental fiction that everyone respected but few people read. He liked to use his time at the mic to monologue about things that concerned him. Certain adverbs. The death of culture. Sobriety. The IKEA catalog. He would use some poor contestant’s love sonnet as an excuse to think aloud about sewer drownings. He took copious notes on his own ideas. He strenuously pretended not to be stoned.
And these were the gatekeepers to America’s love and lifelong readership. Not that Katie expected America to like her either.
That morning all three judges seemed immediately besotted with A, a uniquely beautiful young woman whose initial-only name was very on-trend for people as well as fictional characters. A’s glasses and lab coat seemed calculated to remind the judges that she was also a scientist. “I write about the body,” she said when asked about her craft, as if “the body” was some new element on the periodic table. All of this combined to dupe the judges into attributing a wealth of allusive meaning to A’s shitty second-person stream of consciousness about Dove Body Wash. “Wow,” they said after she left the desk in graceful triumph. “Stunning.” Katie didn’t know if they were referring to A’s beauty or to her extemporaneous writing, or if they’d somehow conflated the two.
“Her background as a scientist infuses her line about the ‘cognizant bubble of her womb’ with breathtaking authenticity,” said Pincho.
“She’s a genius,” said Delacroix. “Did you see the Harvard emblem on her lab coat?”
“What this national stage could really use,” said Cecil B., “is a brain surgeon. Those suckers can really write.” Katie wondered if she should have established a satellite career for herself as well so her fiction would be more marketable. But only traditionally masculine job titles like mathematician and lawyer seemed to wield this positive effect on the literati’s hive mind. Her plan would surely backfire if she told readers that her oeuvre was informed by her previous career as a preschool teacher or a stay-at-home mom.
Katie liked one writer’s performance immensely, probably because the young man didn’t officially consider himself a writer and apparently she loathed herself and her own community. Ben was a Division-1 lacrosse player who’d recently discovered the works of Stephen King. “I just wanted a challenge,” he said, when asked why he’d first auditioned for the show. “Coach told everybody to try something new this fall to keep our brains from atrophising in the off-season or whatever.” He got a lob—”a 300-word freewrite about 9/11″—but shortly after starting out strong with an image of a burned Xerox machine, his thoughts veered back to athletics, and he ended up composing a story about a locker-room brawl that Katie found mesmerizing. The judges reprimanded him for breaking the rules, but Katie could tell he’d charmed them. After Ben left the set, the judges made a big show of looking up “atrophising” in their Coca-Cola dictionaries.
Finally it was Katie’s turn. A production assistant with an air of illiteracy escorted her into the library’s main reading room where the three judges sat behind their reference desk. Before they saw her, Katie registered the look of annihilating apathy in their eyes. They were all writers themselves, and she assumed that they’d never be in love with anyone else’s work the way they were with their own. She felt as if she were about to give a reading at a venue where everyone in the audience was a writer who resented that she was the one giving the reading.
“Just, whatever you do,” she told herself, “don’t be trite.” No one could come back from trite. Katie didn’t need to win the contest, but she wanted to be able to hold her head high when she returned to her apartment. If Greg still let her play Mario Kart on his Wii from time to time when he wasn’t using it, she will have been a success.
Her three executioners watched as Katie took a seat at the prop desk and picked up the stylus that said “Wacom Intuos” in shiny letters. She thought about telling the judges a story about how she used to be a terrible writer, then her grandfather who’d always believed in her had bequeathed his magical stylus to her right before he died, and she could suddenly write beautifully, but then one day the stylus was crushed under the wheels of a taxi cab and she thought that she would never write anything good again, but then her dead grandfather came to her in a dream and said that the stylus had never been magical. “It’s been you all along,” he whispered. And then they hugged. And then she woke up.
Katie did not tell this story. Instead she accidentally sneezed on the digital tablet she was supposed to write on, wiped off the spittle with the sleeve of her shirt, and awaited her writing prompt.
“You have cancer,” said Pincho. The panel hated small talk. “The only person who can save your life is the alien warlord who raped and impregnated you as a teen. There’s a spaceship parked in your backyard (fertilized with Scotts Turf Builder). What do you do?”
“The,” wrote Katie. Then she stopped. Most of the prompt’s ingredients seemed to indicate that she should write a sci-fi piece, but the presence of cancer made Katie wonder if the judges expected her to write something lyrical about sickness. Like have a girl with leukemia observe a tree through a hospital window and personify the movement of its branches in a way that indicates she trusts in the will of God and has resigned herself to death.
Katie erased “The” and thought hard for a moment. “The,” she wrote again. She would never get used to seeing her digital handwriting blown up on the overhead monitor. She thought about writing the word “penis.” Anxiety tended to make her regress to a vulgar degree. Penis penis penis. Maybe Delacroix expected her to focus more on the rape, and all those feelings, because of her sex crime fixation. Maybe the judges wanted to know what happened to the alien love child. Could the baby be all grown up and willing to be used as an interstellar bargaining chip to save his mother’s life? And then exact revenge on his father?
“Two more minutes,” said Cecil B. He was fanning himself with an Advance Auto Parts flyer, barely interested in Katie’s mortal struggle with her ego at the desk. She was even too boring for the world’s most boring reality show. Her grandfather was very much alive and only emotionally invested in matters occurring within the sports pages, but if he were a sage ghost visiting her from another realm, he would probably tell her that great writing stems from the soul and souls can’t be celebrities. And she would tell him, “Easy for you to say when you’re dead and no longer have a bank account.”
What was the point of having so many writers? So many portholes into so many brains? Why did Katie’s alien warlord matter more than Ben’s alien warlord? Why did Katie’s white blood cell count matter more than A’s? She wasn’t having any fun writing for the public. She preferred to write in a vacuum, taking frequent breaks to ride the Mario Kart.
Even if she did write something amazing for the judges, chances were it would be discounted because she was just a trifling, unfashionable girl. For instance, she couldn’t foresee Pincho ascribing any intentionality to her work. These days art required the full backing of science. Though literature was supposed to be responsible for developing empathy, the selective dissemination of books and authors was controlled by a literary-industrial complex wherein empathy seemed glaringly absent. “…hell with you,” she wanted to write. “I’m going to audition for The Voice instead.”
How would Henry James handle himself on this national stage? What would Tyler Durden do?
The judges were all on their phones, probably deriding her on Twitter. Katie didn’t want to join their club anymore. Could she still be an outsider after her fleeting appearance on Idol? Could the outside actually be the inside? It was time for Katie to return to her regularly scheduled programming.
“…end,” she wrote, and put down her stylus.
The baby was remarkable for his calm. Perhaps he knew that in order to survive he needed to distinguish himself from his older brother, a two-year-old bon vivant who commanded the attention of everyone in a room with a rotation of behaviors that included mania, exultation, violence, and hysteria. Thus the baby was content to recline passively in his mother’s arms, winning her over with his unflappable sweetness and tranquility. He was confident that his sibling’s charisma would eventually hoist him with his own petard, and then only the baby would be left standing, or lying down as the case may be.
But he knew that at first he risked being perceived as a “blob.” It was a testament to the baby’s imperturbability that he did not let these critical judgments upset him. If he was a blob, he thought, he was a Blob Triumphant, because look who was unilaterally soaking up Mama’s love on the shady park bench while the firstborn child wore out his father on the playground equipment with a series of taxing and repetitive demands that could not help but engender resentment over time. Meanwhile there was the baby, angelically faking sleep, with all the milk to himself.
The baby had to admit, however, that his brother had his moments. For instance the elder son could identify every kind of truck on the road with feverish joy: dump truck, trash truck, moving truck, etc. The baby was also interested in trucks, so he always paid attention when they were the topic of discussion. He was not above learning what he could from his brother before disposing of him. It did irritate the baby, however, that his sibling was able to charm his way behind the wheels of cars and tractors so easily. “May I please ride on your Gator?” he’d ask their uncle the farmer, and sure enough their uncle would pull the boy onto his lap and let him vroom around for half an hour. The baby also coveted rides on the Gator, but he had to remind himself that he was playing a long game. Did he want to ride on the Gator now, or did he want to ride on the Gator everyday, into perpetuity, just as soon as he could convince his parents that he was their only child worth keeping? It was merely a matter of time, he decided, and doubled down on his show of serenity.
Sometimes the baby wondered if he’d originally made a strategic error and if he should have joined forces with his hyper, high-maintenance sibling instead of trying to divide and conquer. His brother certainly seemed to have a lot of fun. When they were at the pool, the baby had to sit quietly on the sidelines while his parents took turns launching their eldest into the water again and again. The boy would soar through the air in his floaties and swim diaper, sink nearly to the bottom of the pool, then come up sputtering and choking with both delight and chlorine. “More dat,” he would say, and of course their parents complied because they found his derring-do hilarious. The baby would like to go swimming as well, but at this point everyone would be alarmed if he started crying, and he’d probably end up at the pediatrician’s.
The baby was ashamed to admit that once or twice his brother had threatened to win him over as well. The most memorable incident involved trucks. The baby was still strapped into his car seat on the kitchen floor (though his onesie was pasted to his back with sweat, he hadn’t complained about it, thus no one had thought to remove him), when his older brother—naked except for the Hawaiian lei around his neck—approached him cautiously with a small box of raisins. The baby watched in horror as his brother stood at his chubby toes, staring down at him intently while trying to extract single raisins from the rectangular clump. Was his brother on to him? Had he finally figured out that his baby sibling harbored ulterior motives for being so chill, and that all those motives led directly to the elder son’s demise? The baby’s sudden terror was almost enough to expel the binkie from his mouth.
But to his great astonishment, his older brother addressed him personally. “Do you like trucks?” he said. “Do you want to share my trucks?” The baby didn’t know what sound from his small repertoire to make in response. Pretty soon half a dozen toy trucks had materialized in his big brother’s hands, and he was running them up and down the baby’s tremendous belly, making truck noises and explaining earnestly to the baby how the vehicles operated and what their purpose was, and the turning wheels tickled the baby’s arms and legs, and the baby started laughing even though he’d made a pledge to himself never to lose his cool with his brother, and then his brother also started laughing as he made the trucks go faster and faster in their chaotic circuits around the baby’s body, and for a moment the baby saw an alternate reality, one in which he and his brother could be allies, and they could own a Gator together, and take turns riding it, and putting gas in it, and changing the tires when the tires were low. And maybe there were enough parental resources to go around after all, and maybe it was okay to cry sometimes, and maybe if he didn’t like the Raffi song that was playing on the car stereo, he could just vocalize that dislike, and not worry so much about being put up for adoption.
Then again, the baby thought as his brother continued to use his belly as a racetrack, consider how amazing it would be if I had all those sweet trucks to myself.
The toddler had only been mobile for six months, but she had already consumed three times her weight in sand, dirt, rocks, and dog food. Her unorthodox appetite baffled her parents. It certainly wasn’t that she was malnourished. Her typical breakfast consisted of three eggs, two slices of toast, and a mountain of fruit. And yet if her parents left her unsupervised in the house for over a minute they’d inevitably find her squatting over the doggie bowl, shoveling kibble into her mouth as fast as she could. Then she’d smile up at her parents, trying to charm her way out of trouble, but her infraction was always betrayed by the thick brown paste sticking to her virgin white baby teeth.
It didn’t help that the toddler was so independent. From the time she’d mastered crawling, she was filled with steely purpose. It was as if she woke up every morning with a long list of tasks that she needed to complete that day at maximum speed and efficiency. She must roll her grandmother’s desk chair across the living room and back. She must remove every magnet from the face of the refrigerator. She must flee the supervisory perimeter of all the grown-ups and ascend the most treacherous stairway. She must make haste to the garage in order to handle every power tool in turn. She must consume three cups of dirt. And if her parents ever tried to thwart one of her clear objectives, she would be furious. Didn’t they know how busy she was? Did they not comprehend the value of her time? Did the mayor of New York have to take naps every afternoon?
The toddler’s voracity for life and between-meal snacking was most evident during visits to her grandmother’s house. Not only did Nana have a dog that needed to be fed and watered everyday, she also had several jars of delicious loose change, a pile of compost, a kiddie pool she’d converted into a sandbox, and a gravel driveway that was basically heaven on earth. The toddler marched around the house and grounds with a demeanor that suggested she was the most competent person there. Before she began her peregrinations, she liked to seize some object that she would only part with upon pain of death, something like a sharp stick or one of her grandmother’s heirloom necklaces.
But the toddler’s favorite companion on her dedicated tours of Nana’s property was a small trophy that her uncle had once won playing peewee soccer. The trophy featured a short metal man on the verge of kicking a ball, and for all intents and purposes, this man was the toddler’s abject servant. He came with his master when she inspected the swing-set ladder. He stood at attention on the tray table of her high chair when she devoured lunch. He faithfully oversaw her dips into the dog’s water bowl. But the metal man lived in fear that eventually his master would discover the one flaw that would nullify all his other acts of devotion: he was inedible.
Toddler and trophy grew apart before the former realized that she could not behead the latter. Or perhaps she’d known it all along and it was a sign of her maturation that she’d ever employed an individual she could not also eat. But whatever the cause of their estrangement, the trophy soon returned to the bookshelf and the toddler found a new slave to her various enterprises. His name was Batman, and he was a Pez dispenser. And if she gnawed on him at just the right angle, she could sometimes score a piece of his ear.
The newborn’s parents took their exercise routine as seriously as a heart attack that could only be staved off with kettleballs and ankle weights. Throughout the pregnancy, the mother- and father-to-be worked out daily. The mother’s fitness of choice was long-distance jogging, an activity that she didn’t relinquish until the 8-month mark. The father preferred doing video aerobics from the comfort of their condominium. He frequently joined his partner on the living room rug for two-hour sessions of prenatal yoga.
So it was no surprise when their baby emerged from her electrolyte-fed chrysalis with peak levels of cardiovascular endurance. Her lung capacity was in the 99th percentile. She relentlessly screamed her head off. And for the first few weeks of her life, her parents could not mitigate her despair no matter how tightly they swaddled her or how sweetly they sang over her crib. Their round-the-clock exertions were yielding no positive results whatsoever and the situation was becoming dire. The mother and father were not only sleep-deprived and quarrelsome, but they were losing muscle tone as well.
One afternoon when he hadn’t slept for 48 hours and his newborn was still howling on his chest with the strength of a thousand angry kittens, the father remembered something that a woman in spandex had once said on a workout video long, long ago. “Fitness,” she’d huffed between reps with her barbells, “knows no age limits.” Could it be that their baby was missing her parents’ workouts as much as they were?
He rose from the couch with his child in his arms, then executed his first deep squat since he’d became a father. The baby immediately quieted. Again, he lowered his butt to the floor, feeling the burn along the length of his weakened quadriceps. His daughter smiled up at him through her tears. “Honey,” he shouted to his wife, “you have to come see this!”
The mother roused herself from the toilet, where she had dozed off minutes before. She thought that something awful had happened because she couldn’t hear the baby crying. But her panic turned to joy when she entered the living room and saw her husband doing lunges while holding their elated child triumphantly over his head like a jungle cat in a Disney cartoon.
“It’s a fitness miracle,” she said.
From then on, the baby whipped her parents back into fighting form. They now recognized that their daughter would never be content to lie still on a blanket wearing an adorable onesie. She would not fall sleep unless calories were being aggressively burned. She would not be soothed until both her parents had reached their target heart rates. She was like a diminutive drill sergeant in a newborn boot camp. Soon her parents were in the best shape of their lives. They took turns doing crunches on the play mat, using their baby as a counter weight.
“They say it gets easier around three months,” said the mother, her nursing bra soaked through with sweat. She wondered if this was what Jackie Stallone had to endure with Sylvester. Her abs were on fire. “Subbing out,” she said. The father took the baby and immediately dropped into a warrior pose.
“I think she’s almost asleep,” he said. “One more set of side kicks and we’ll be home-free.”
“As much as I like squeezing into my pre-pregnancy blue jeans,” said his wife, “I think I’m going to take it easier on the second go-round. Like, just watch TV and drink milkshakes on the couch for nine months so we’ll have a less vigorous baby. Because this is really hard.”
The husband was torn between his inclination to be sympathetic to his wife and his passion for exceeding personal fitness milestones.
“What about if you just focused on the upper body with our second-born?” he said. “And maybe bounced on the exercise ball now and then?”
“Okay,” said his wife. That sounded like a good compromise. And at least they could start a college fund with the money they’d save on gym memberships and personal trainers. They’d already bought a treadmill for the nursery.
“I just never expected motherhood to be so…grueling,” she said. Her husband kissed her, suddenly overcome with love for his wife and child. Not only were they the two most amazing women in the world, after his mother and perhaps Michelle Obama, but they’d also helped him conquer his fitness plateau.
The baby whimpered and began to stir in his arms. “I know that cry,” he said. “It means that she’s ready for lateral lunges.”
“Let me,” said the mother, limping to her feet. And sure enough, the baby dozed off again, as her mother lunged her back and forth, back and forth, with her husband spotting them every step of the way.
“But her eyes remained open, staring upward almost as fixedly as those beside her. These were the first moments of a new existence, a strange one in which she already glimpsed the element of timelessness that would surround her. The person who frantically has been counting the seconds on his way to catch a train, and arrives panting just as it disappears, knowing the next one is not due for many hours, feels something of the same sudden surfeit of time, the momentary sensation of drowning in an element become too rich and too plentiful to be consumed, and thereby made meaningless, non-existent.”
–Paul Bowles, The Sheltering Sky
They attend their first summer concert in Prospect Park. They’re smug about already possessing the yuppie picnic essentials: blanket, cooler, baguette, rosé, lawn sports. But she doesn’t remember that she packed her paddle ball set until the concert is over and dark has descended on the Brooklyn leisure class. No matter. She’s determined to play anyway. “But you won’t be able to see the ball,” says her companion. “Of course I will,” she says. They take to their feet with their paddles. He hits the ball, which is dark blue. She swats toward where the ball might be. The ball lands in the grass and disappears forever. “Told you so,” says her companion. Nearby picnickers catch her attention. They are playing the Italian game of bocce with glow-in-the-dark balls. It’s as if these picnickers came to the park just to taunt her with their lawn sport superiority. She realizes that she now lives in a world where owning a paddle ball set is not enough to illustrate her status as a Park Slope elite. She must now acquire a paddle ball set that glows. A paddle ball set that overcomes the natural limits imposed by night and day, good and evil, pinot noir and rosé. She must own a paddle ball set that makes a mockery of the seasons and rejects the rotation of the earth. She will paddle at midnight, in winter, underwater. Suddenly the Cheeto stains on her picnic blanket seem all the more glaring.
“Yes,” says the bagel shop owner, “we do sell gluten-free bagels.”
She feels that people take her career more seriously now that she lives in Park Slope. Professional writers abound in her zip code. There are few public benches in her neighborhood not occupied by middle-aged men with MacBooks in their laps, staring at her as she passes, willing her to do something story-worthy. (She never does.) A new acquaintance who might have considered her a hack when she lived in Bed-Stuy, now thinks she’s Margaret Atwood by virtue of her new address. “So tell me about your craft,” he says. “Like, what is your typical morning like?” “Well,” she says, “I wake up, make some coffee, then surf the internet for an hour or three.” “God,” he says, “it’s so fascinating what you do.” She badly wants to prove herself worthy of his delirious respect while she answers his questions about word count and creative process, but she’s not used to being treated like a professional and it makes her self-conscious. She wonders how long it will take her to start identifying as a Park Slope Writer and not a Murder Avenue, basement-dwelling amateur. For now, however, she can only enumerate her bathroom breaks to her number one fan while secretly battling a sea of cognitive dissonance.
On their way to pick up a beautiful, like-new, 8 x 10 rug that retails for $1,500 but one of their Park Slope neighbors is giving away for free, they pass an espresso machine on the sidewalk. Upon scoring the rug, an additional dutch oven from Le Creuset, and a set of twins, an espresso machine is the only thing they need to complete their transformation into average citizens of Park Slope. So she puts the freebie machine into her canvas tote bag and starts fantasizing about iced lattes. Once they’ve collected their rug, they take a different route home to see if they might dumpster-dive some other brownstones. Sure enough, they find a stack of unopened cardboard boxes on the pavement next to a manicured shade tree. The boxes contain pristine cans of illy Italian gourmet espresso with a combined street value of about $300. She is surprised not to encounter a windfall of soy milk in the final blocks home. Maybe tomorrow.
“Yes,” says the girl behind the counter, “of course we serve vegan gelato.”
It’s 3pm and they’re on their second round of margaritas. The Mexican restaurant had lured them in with an unprecedented happy hour special. They’re holding hands at the bar, which gives her less manual control over her wedge of lime. She accidentally squirts juice into his eye when optimizing her drink order. He dabs at his face with a cocktail napkin, but still retains his focus on the bar television set that seems to be powered by decorative chili lights.
“Whoa,” he says.
“What is it?” she says. “What’s wrong?” She knows her boyfriend is watching the local news because she overheard a segment about school closings while staring at the side of his face, willing him to turn his attention back to her. They have so many urgent things to tell each other. How in love they are, for instance. Little jokes.
“A car crashed on the BQE and six people were killed, including a baby.”
“That’s terrible,” she says. She glances briefly at the TV, but decides she doesn’t want to see the footage. Instead her heart goes out to the place on the road where the figurative bomb was detonated. It really is terrible. All those people. The bartender brings them complimentary chips and salsa.
She and her boyfriend are both quiet, drinking, as he continues to watch the news anchor’s concern drift from fatalities to traffic. Maybe she can use this moment to start a conversation that will deepen their romantic bond.
“You know,” she says, “I’ve always wondered what the Dalai Lama would do if he were hanging out, enjoying a margarita, and then he was told that a baby had just been killed in a horrific car accident. Would he acknowledge the suffering, then go back to drinking his margarita? Would he get bummed out and stop drinking his margarita altogether? What’s the mechanism for going from happiness to tragedy and back to happiness, or do you just stay in an emotional place that lacks polarity, so you drink your margaritas in a mental zone that precludes any extreme feelings whatsoever about car crashes? But does that seem fair to dead babies?” Her boyfriend looks at her distastefully from the corner of his citrussed eyeball.
“You’re killing my buzz,” he says.
“Oh,” she says. “Okay.” He tunes into the weather report. Thunderstorms. She had really hoped for a different outcome to her conversation starter.
“You know,” she says, “one could argue that randomly bringing up a dead baby during happy hour is more of a buzzkill than philosophizing about how the omnipresence of suffering might coexist with inner peace.”
“I’m not going to apologize for what’s on TV,” he says. She lets go of his hand and buries it in the basket of tortilla chips.
“And I’m not going to apologize for trying to have a meaningful conversation with my boyfriend,” she says. “Who thinks I’m a buzzkill.”
“Maybe you shouldn’t overthink things so much.”
“So sorry that my reality harshes your mellow. I’ll try to keep my reality to myself next time.”
“Can’t we just have a date without you turning it into an intellectual symposium?” he says.
“Can’t we just have a date where the television isn’t more important than me?” She’s fixing to abandon her boyfriend at the restaurant when the bartender brings them two shots of top-shelf tequila.
“We didn’t order these,” she says.
“They’re from me,” says a cherubic voice to her left. She spins around to find a ghost baby nestled in a Bumbo on the neighboring bar stool.
“Wow, thanks,” she says.
“Cheers,” says her boyfriend, reaching over her to clink glasses with the ghost baby’s bottle of beer before taking his shot.
“You’re not that baby who was just killed in that awful car crash on the BQE, are you?” she says.
“I am,” says the ghost baby. She tears up.
“You must be so distraught,” she says. “Your life was just beginning.” She tries to lay her hand on the ghost baby’s chubby arm in sympathy, but his body seems to be made of a cloud.
“Here’s the thing,” says the ghost baby. “When your mind is disciplined, suffering can only disturb it superficially. Your attitude dictates how badly things will hurt, and for how long.”
“But if a person has graduated to enlightened suffering,” she says, “and his loved one is still devastated by loss because she’s not a Buddhist, can the person still extend the full range of his compassion without being able to feel the full depth of her misery?”
“Yes, because he’s been there before. Maybe even in a past life. But then he trained his mind to transcend pain.”
“Interesting,” she says. “But do I really want a hug from someone who’s better than me?”
“People cross the world to cuddle with the Pope and the Dalai Lama.”
“True,” she says. “But take my boyfriend here.” She points her plastic drink straw to her right, flinging liquid everywhere. “What if there’s a discrepancy between the amount of love I feel for him and the amount of love he feels for me? In time won’t that just increase my suffering?”
“Love is infinite,” says the ghost baby, “in any amount.”
“Well, but at least I don’t watch TV when he’s trying to talk to me about serious shit.”
“In Buddhism there are three mental poisons that lead to suffering: ignorance, attachment, and hatred.”
“No, no,” she says. “I don’t have any of those. I think I’m just a little drunk.”
“Hey babe,” says her boyfriend. “The World Cup game is about to come on. And your girl what’s-her-face is playing.”
“Sweet!” She high fives him, then swivels back around to the ghost baby. “Do you like soccer?”
“I’ve always liked balls,” he says.
“Great! Then this might be your sport.”
“Hey kid,” says her boyfriend to the ghost baby. “Chill out with us for a while. The next round is on me.” She wraps her arms around her boyfriend’s neck and kisses him on the cheek.
“What was that for?” he asks.
“For not being sad or angry anymore. For getting your buzz back.”
“My buzz has always been very resilient.”
“Just like the Dalai Lama’s,” she says.
“Exactly,” he says. She shifts around the bar stools so the ghost baby sits between them. By halftime the Bumbo is gone, and she and her boyfriend’s hands hold on for dear life in the place where the baby had been.
I lie on the sofa in my ruffled bikini, crying. It’s the last weekend of summer 2014. An hour ago my best friend canceled our day trip to Coney Island while I was at the store buying us beach Doritos. Once again my life is in shambles.
I am almost 34 years old. I’ve essentially laid waste to all those years and counting. I’m broke. I miss my dad, who is dead. Cockroaches scale the kitchen cabinets. My boyfriend sometimes wants to kill himself. I sometimes want to kill myself. We take turns hiding each other’s pills. I haven’t slept for two nights because of the fighting. Alcohol is a factor. The only words I’ve produced in six months are sadsack diary entries and advertising copy for septic tank companies. I’ve eaten all the beach Doritos myself. And the beach Cheetos. And the cookies I’d baked for Coney despite knowing they’d inevitably get sand in them. The sky is cloudless but the curtains are drawn and I know my tears are the closest I’ll get to the seashore today.
I recently collaborated on a young adult novel about five teenagers with problems that far eclipse my own. After putting them through the wringer for a bit, I took pity on these disordered kids and in my infinite mercy endowed them with spiritual cores that could withstand every calamity by reshaping pain into gratitude. I felt this was the right thing to do. Helping the youth is its own reward. But I have to make a confession: I’m a phony. I never dreamt of internalizing the abundant life lessons I showered upon my characters. I wrote the book with blinders on, caring for those 16-year-old psyches while neglecting real life’s rampant dysfunction. I gave the kids souls when I was in despair about having lost my own.
On the last day of summer, after I’ve cried all the tears and put on some underwear not made out of Spandex, I have a vague notion of turning my life around. But a concrete strategy eludes me, so for the next two hours I devour inspirational quotes on the Internet. Three or four hundred inspirational quotes later, I’m finally ready to leave the apartment. “It is never too late to be what we might have been” (George Eliot). I intend to wander around, look at things, maybe buy some cheap fruit from Mr. Kiwi.
The Brooklyn sidewalks are riddled with people whose beachy dreams seem equally crushed, but I am staunchly determined to get over myself and fall madly in love with life because “Happiness is not having what you want, but wanting what you have” (Hyman Schachtel). And when an ambulance driver gives me the middle finger because I’m teetering like a drunk astronaut on the curb, I remind myself that “Happiness is not a state to arrive at, but a manner of traveling” (Margaret Runbeck). And by the way, who are these enlightened people on the Internet, and have they ever sleep walked down Broadway in the sweltering heat with a death wish and nacho cheese indigestion?
In my aforementioned novel, a spiritual healer materializes out of the New Mexico desert and sets my tormented teens on their path to enlightenment. “This is ridiculous,” I’d muttered to my computer as I brought the shaman into being. “This is so YA. This would never happen in real life, to a real grown-up.”
This intersection looks like a good one to flop myself into. Perhaps I can get run over by something official, like a police car or a fire engine. But no, that’s stinkin’ thinkin’, because “If your compassion does not include you, it’s incomplete” (Jack Kornfield). And I must recognize the beauty in every moment, because “Happiness does not depend on outward things, but on the way we see them” (Leo Tolstoy). And I need to force myself to “Enjoy the little things, for one day [I] may look back and realize they were the big things” (Robert Brault). The J train screeches on the tracks above me as if its cars are dragging the chains of hell. I take a deep breath and vow to wake up to the wonders of the world.
An elderly lady stands beside me on the curb, patiently waiting to cross the street. She’s loaded down with so many plastic shopping bags I wonder if the cement is going to fracture beneath her. I don’t want to offend her by asking if she needs help because her back is straight and she can’t have more than 70 years on her. I say something plaintive about the traffic light. The preternaturally-preserved woman studies my face for a full count of five before agreeing that yes, this intersection could use a pedestrian signal. I self-consciously overtake her when we cross, but I’m still drawn into her orbit. She walks a few paces behind me, on the same sidewalk, past the same vendors of tube socks and cell phone cases. I want to turn around and confess to her how black my heart is. I sense that she’d be down for this discussion. Maybe we could have it telepathically. The air between us is just that charged.
In my YA novel the shaman makes his grand entrance with a pet coyote. On Broadway I see nothing of the kind. Maybe a mangy dog slipping under a barbed wire fence as if he’s just been kicked.
At the next intersection the elderly woman sidles up to me. “Would you mind doing me a favor?” I’m relieved that she’s making the first move. She lacks a free hand to adjust a strap on her shoulder, but won’t permit me to carry her bags, saying that even though she has three great-grandchildren, she still plays basketball and can run a mile without breaking a sweat. She has no need for my strength. I desperately need hers.
I cannot shake the feeling that this woman is extraordinary. Being enclosed in her energy’s orb is like entering a messianic tent revival. She’s the human embodiment of an inspirational quote. And not one by Donald Trump or Tony Robbins; I mean one by Confucius or Martin Luther King. So I trot along beside her, savoring bits and pieces of her life. As a girl she wanted to be a Freudian psychoanalyst. She became a teacher.
We arrive at her destination: Fat Albert’s, a discount home goods store I know all too well. My new friend gathers that I’m loath to leave her so we continue talking on the sidewalk. We grew up in the same small town 200 miles away, 40 years apart. She wants to know my birthday. “You’re a Libra,” she says, peering into my diminished, flickering soul. “You need to meditate in order to hold your center, and you need to live near the water.” I haven’t felt my center in years and the only water I’ve known lately has been boiling.
And now I am a sniveling child, inexplicably undone by this woman and the spiritual medicine dispensed by her gaze. She’s not sentimental about the dumb heartache writ large on my face. She tells me that I’m smart and strong, like her. In front of Fat Albert’s, she matter-of-factly reveals the secret to a happy life, and I promptly forget it. Something to do with love. Though I don’t retain a word, I cling to everything she says, everything she is. Before we part I hold her hand in mine. I haven’t felt anything so soft in skin and so formidable in presence since my grandmother’s hand when she was dying. The woman gives me her number and says one of these days I should come over for pie.
Walking home, my heart wells up with the world and its magic. The second I resolved to see beauty again, I was sent this emissary from heaven who’d transformed a filthy square of Broadway sidewalk into a dropped pin on a rainbow. You can’t make this stuff up in Yeah books. I smile at everyone I pass, and they smile back. I’m having the best beach day ever. I glide across the sand dunes in front of Fat Albert’s, breathing in the sky’s salty mist. I pause next to an overflowing trashcan near Mr. Kiwi’s watermelons and feel the ocean’s ecstatic power. My eyes fill with grateful tears. I am alive I am alive I am alive. God bless America.
But no, that is not my eureka moment. That moment comes the next morning after I wake up feeling sad and dyspeptic again and am dismayed to find that yesterday’s blessed burst of enlightenment hadn’t carried over to Day 2 of the rest of my life. “WTF?” (Wistar Murray). I realize that I’ll need to restart the process from scratch, perhaps with a quiet sit or 500 more inspirational quotes. Because it’s hit me that happiness is something you must fight to inhale every second your airways are open. It’s a book you must keep writing and reading on a continuous loop, so the kids inside it won’t lose heart. Naturally the book will never be finished. It will always be in the midst of happening. In fact it’s happening right now, at this urban intersection, while we stand together in our bathing suits and wait for the light to change.
She decided that she’d like to help him with his career. “That’s sweet of you,” he said. “What did you have in mind? Updating my web portfolio? Helping me set up the monolights on Tuesday? I told Anichka and Danya that I’d have sushi for them on set except the place they like doesn’t deliver…” But she was an autodidact zoologist and these services sounded beneath her.
“I’d like to art-direct your next photo shoot,” she said. He turned from the naked female image he was editing on his 27-inch computer monitor and faced his girlfriend. She sat primly on their couch wearing his boxer shorts and an XL t-shirt with an anthropomorphized cartoon of a goat on it. She’d recently dribbled Nutella down her chin.
“But you hate fashion,” he said.
“No I don’t,” she said. “Even though fashion is responsible for decimating the beavers and for yanking the hair out of millions of angora rabbits and for driving one more wedge between rich and poor, I can still respect your job.”
“You’re rich and I’m poor,” he said, smiling, “and it didn’t drive a wedge between us.”
“But I know fashion photography isn’t about that stuff for you,” she said. “It’s more about making art. Which is why I want to get involved.”
“I saw that the coffee shop across the street is hiring,” he said. “It might do you some good to get out of the house, away from your terrariums.”
“No offense, but I think all your editorials are starting to look the same.”
“That’s actually the most offensive thing you could have said to me.”
“You could use an outsider’s perspective. Like, why do all your photos have to be so gloomy, and shot in black and white?”
“Because heavy contrast is on trend right now.”
“Is it?” she said. “Or has everyone just run out of ideas? Here’s what I think. Have you ever read Cat Fancy magazine?”
“Well the reason Cat Fancy magazine is so popular is not because the quality of its photographs is especially high. It’s because the magazine features cats.”
“Sure, that makes sense.”
“Cats are really fun to look at. They’re gentle and beguiling and often quite colorful. Plus they have such charismatic personalities that a photographer doesn’t have to do much to make an image sparkle.”
“If you look at the success of Cat Fancy magazine, a few things leap out at you. Or pounce, I should say. One, the art directors aren’t trying to reinvent the wheel with their stories. They don’t feel the need to take the cats out into the desert and, like, shoot them rolling around naked in the sand in front of giant sheets of gauze like they’re Kim Kardashian. A staff photographer just puts the cat in front of a solid, neutral background in a studio, takes a snapshot, and tada, there’s your cover.”
“I mean you can change the background color depending on whether it’s Christmas or whatever, but for the most part it’s pretty simple. That way it’s all about the cat, you know?”
“Two, no one is trying to tell the cats they need to lose weight.”
“Right. I know you hate that.”
“So with your 19-year-old anorexic Polish models on Tuesday, I think you should just, like, put them on the floor there, so they’re kind of lying in that patch of light from the window, and maybe scatter some catnip around so they’re kind of happy and docile, but not with those dead eyes you like so much, no offense, because all your models seem to be on heroin, which is another way in which your art is sort of dated.”
“And then I think you should, like, optimize the image for poster or billboard size. And maybe Photoshop some words into the background that could easily be a speech bubble coming from a cat, or a motivational message that a cat could be thinking, or perhaps just existentially representing, you know?”
“I get you. You want the image to capture a feline essence. Even though it’s people.”
“Right. I don’t want to say ‘Garfield’, because that’s too obvious and plus I know you like things to be sexy, but just take a look at Cat Fancy when you’re doing your mood board for Tuesday. I have a whole bunch of back issues in the bedroom.”
“Okay, sounds good.”
“I just really want you to break out of your artistic rut, baby.”
“Thank you. I appreciate that.”
“You’re welcome.” She went back to reading Misty of Chincoteague.
“Hey sweetheart,” he said.
“I know you promised you were going to get me that Canon 85mm fixed 1.2 lens for my birthday, but I was wondering if you could order it a little early, especially since it would really help with this upcoming photoshoot you’re art-directing. Which is going to be awesome, by the way.”
“But I thought you wanted the Canon 5D Mark III camera for your early birthday present?” she said.
“That too,” he said. “You’ve inspired me.”
“Thought so,” she said with satisfaction, and went to get her credit card.