A Tragicomical, Unsophisticated Blog about the Weird, the Absurd, and the Banal

Saturday, March 31, 2012

Fights You Can't Win, Part II

Spring a few years ago I went to Mayflower dorm that sits on the River in Iowa City. Two years later it flooded. But this story isn't about the deluge -- it's about fighting, sort of.

A friend lived in Mayflower. His name is Henry. There was no occasion, just an invitation on a Thursday night for a pre-game drink before going into town. Mayflower is an old apartment building renovated to be a dorm so every time I went there I felt slightly out of my element. It was crossing a threshold from carefully monitored and manicured campus existence into the weird liminal space of strictly regulated freedom. College dorms are weird. Sort of like college life in general.

Henry invited me in. Well, he opened the door and, in a characteristic gesture, grabbed me in a hug and flipped me over his shoulder, somehow maneuvering me so that I cleared the door frame, into his apartment. "Sam!" he shouted. Henry is a diabetic who has never followed his prescribed diet and has survived by balancing his eating habits with absurd physical activity. I still don't think the guy sleeps.

Steadying myself against the wall, I said, "Never do that again," knowing that he'd just forget in a few minutes.

"How the hell are you?" he asked, darting past me into the kitchen. "Did you bring it?"

I nodded and pulled a gallon of Arizona Green Tea out of my back pack. He clapped his hands and said, "Fantastic. Now I'll show you my discovery. Follow me and let's begin."

I followed him through the cramped entry way with miraculously in-tact drywall into the tiny kitchen. The roommate was there, sitting at the table. He was a beefy kid, a bro who wore a cap on backwards and sunglasses to bars. He was eating a candy bar and had a large kitchen knife sitting next to him on the table.

"Hello," I said.

"Hi," he said.

"Hello," Henry said.

The roommate and Henry stared at each other for a moment. After a very tense silence the roommate picked up the knife and walked out of the kitchen to his room.

"So," I said. "How is that working out? I thought you two got along."

Henry went to the fridge and pulled an unopened bottle of Smirnoff from the freezer. In a brutal gesture he twisted the lid off and tossed it down on the wooden table. A sound like pennies falling. In the next room Coldplay suddenly erupted at an absurd volume. Henry gave the wall the finger.

"We did. But over the past few weeks, as we've gotten to know each other, it's just like been every time we're in the same room together we're both thinking 'I hate you.' Do you hear that music?" Henry stabbed his hand in the general direction of the noise. I refrained from saying that I like Coldplay.

"Anyway, Henry said, yanked a stool out from under the table and jumped down on the seat across from me with three glasses and the bottle of vodka. "Let me show you something."

He poured out about a glass full of the tea and then set it aside. He then refilled the gallon jug of tea with vodka and shook it vigorously. Once the ad hoc bar-tending was done he poured it out into the two glasses and then poured vodka into the glass with just tea and stirred it up with a butter knife. Three glasses.

"Where is Kim?" I asked and took one glass.

There was a loud knock on the door. "Speak of the devil," said Henry quietly and stood rather than jumped up. A moment later he led Kim into the kitchen and both sat down wordlessly. I raised my glass.

"To whatever," I said, feeling clever. Kim didn't ask what it was and drank anyway.

Then we talked about the weather, how the heat was becoming unpleasant and there was no way not to sweat anymore. We talked about classes and allergies, the pollen that chocked and itched and brought tears. It was a cordial conversation. And we talked about Tae Kwon Do.

I had been an amateur and, after moving to Iowa City, I had given up. Not Henry or Kim, though. They were Serious. They competed in Nationals and I met them both through the Iowa State Karate Club (a drinking club with a martial arts problem). They were the reason I didn't spar. Both of them were stronger, faster, and gleefully meaner than anyone else. So it wasn't so much that they were both serious as that they took too much pleasure in fighting.

Anyway, at some point I mentioned that I hadn't seen Molly in a long time and the conversation came to a dead stop. Henry and Kim looked at each other and then at their glasses. They took turns refilling. In the other room, Coldplay's "Trouble" was still playing as loud as ever and it now seemed strangely appropriate.

"Uh," I said. "What's going on?"

"Nothing, actually," Kim said. He looked at Henry. "Life and everything are sort of on hold right now. There has been a misunderstanding. A failure to communicate. And, so, nothing is happening."

"That's one way of putting it," Henry said, still looking at his glass.

Molly was Kim's ex. There had been marriage plans announced and then swept away, forgotten, tensions rising and falling. Ultimately, it sounded like all the wounds had healed months ago. Things were supposed to be back to normal.

Kim said, "How would you put it, then?"

"Molly is trying to decide which one of us she wants to date," Henry said, staring at his drink. Kim stiffened, turned red, and then relaxed.

"Yeah, that would be the sum of the misunderstanding," Kim said.

"She said so yesterday and now things are..."

"May the best man win," Kim said, raising his glass in a toast that no one reciprocated. "We have a gentleman's agreement."

"We do," Henry said, grabbing on to the statement for dear life and drinking. "We're waiting for her word and then the guy not chosen will ow out graciously."

"Step to the side. Tap out," Kim said. "That was the deal."

"It's not going to work that way, though," Henry said. He looked up and the two stared at each other until both nodded. "It's not, is it?" Henry said.

There was a grim pause. Eventually, I said, "Holy shit. Are you two going to fight over her?" hoping that this would jar everyone back to reality. It was my best hope.

They both looked at me. There was shock and horror.

"Holy fuck," Henry said. "We can't let it come to that."

"It would be like The Matrix," Kim said and he did not sound like he liked the idea.

"Buildings would collapse."

"Bystanders would be killed."

"There would never be enough police."

"They'd have to call out the Army."

"Call a national emergency."

"And we wouldn't stop until Everything was Broken."

"It would be apocalyptic."

"Uh, guys...?" I said. They both looked at me and must have seen terror because they both burst out laughing. This continued for a long time, drowning out the Coldplay.

"Come on," Henry said. "Let's get drunk and then go out."

And so we did.

That was the last I heard of the love triangle for a long time until one day, many months later, I asked a mutual friend how everything worked out. She said that Molly chose God over the boys and that was the end of it. When she said this, I felt sorry for God. It was only a matter of time before Kim and Henry had their reckoning.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Make or Break

Imagine the Perfect Person for You. This Person is everything you have ever desired in a Partner. If life were a genre romance, this is the Person you would go on a Quest to save and your Story would be inflicted on generations of high schoolers. Probably you’d make yourself sick by loving this person. Yes, that One. Perfect in every way except for One Thing.

This is the game: Make or Break.

For instance: this Person is perfect for you in every way, except when you’re within ten feet of them you become functionally illiterate. Or they have face-blindness – just for you. Or they can only speak in rhyming couplets.

You get the idea.

It’s a great icebreaker, or a good way to pass the time when you only have one bottle of wine to share among four people, it’s a Tuesday night, there’s no reason to go out, something vegetarian lies mostly-eaten on the table and there’s no other alternative than to have a pleasant round of one-up-man-ship. Usually, this gets dirty fast. Most people can’t help it. After all, we’ve all played Apples to Apples. Or it just gets too personal (“They’re perfect for you in every way except they’ve slept with Elyot… I mean…”)

Or people take it too seriously.

K, M, and I were driving down Claiborne on the way back from Work when, in a few moments of silence, I suggested the game and explained the rules. M had the windows down and so we had to shout over the hot, late, Caribbean fall wind. It hadn’t been a Bad Day, and so we were talkative.

“They’re prefect for you except that they believe you’re an imaginary friend,” I said, “ala Fight Club.

All Considered this one for a moment and concluded that this would be problematic, but Interesting. Ultimately, the relationship would Fall Apart. Preferably before they had you duct-taped to a chair on top of a skyscraper, pressing a gun into your mouth.

“What if they lived across the country?” M said, making a sharp turn for the realistic. “No matter what effort you made to get close to them, their work always took them somewhere else?”

“That sucks,” I said with conviction. “And that’s not in the spirit of the game.”

M was undaunted. “What if she had a much more adventurous sexual history than you and her name is Amy?”

“Isn’t there just supposed to be one flaw?” K asked, flicking a cigarette into the street. A line of ash erupted across the pavement and then Disappeared.

“I’m just speculating,” M said.

We turned down St. Bernard, past the Circle Food Store that has remained closed since Katrina – in fact, most of that corner looks like the Nuclear Holocaust passed through fifty years ago. It’s difficult to imagine a time when this was a shopping area where Families came to get groceries and chat and sit in the shade of trees on the concrete benches and envy the people who could live so close by in the now dissolving wood, decaying paint, angles of disrepair and stretches of house-shaped, once-life-shaped lots.

“Make or break,” K said slyly. We pass over a significant bump, but on one is fazed. “She’s an alcoholic.”

I considered protesting this one, but already my brain was at work. All the alcoholics I’ve ever known suddenly sprung to mind along with Empathy and a deep Reluctance to Dismiss them outright. They have all been good friends. I love my Alcoholic Friends.

“Well,” M said, “What kind of alcoholic?”

“Or is she a classy, 1950s drunk?” I asked. “Can she still hold a cigarette holder, quote Ginsberg, and walk in on high heels when she’s shattered?”

M made a dangerous pivot in his seat to look at me and show the measure of his false-disgust. “You would ask that, wouldn’t you?”

“Whatever kind of alcoholic would be most problematic for you,” K clarifies.

“Well, that’s tough,” M said, returning to the relevant topic. He was going now, in his Routine. “I mean, are we talking functional? Or does she vomit blood every night?”

M pulled down our street. “This is a terrible, terrible conversation. Thanks, Sam. You’ve made us all terrible people.”

“I do what I can,” I said.

“I know. And it’s about time you stopped.”

Saturday, March 17, 2012


I really wish I could've met August Strindberg.  Not that I particularly like his work or find the man especially likeable.  Honestly, I wish we could've met and he would immediately be seized by uncontrollable, inexplicable loathing so that he would spend the rest of his days trying to foil my every action.  Yes, I want August Strindberg to be my arch enemy so that, at an appropriately climatic moment in my life, I can scream, "STRINDBERG!!!!"  into the raging wind and collapsing inferno of my life.

However, I'm glad that I never met Samuel Beckett.  It would've sucked being friends with him.  Can you imagine planning to meet Beckett for a drink or inviting him over for dinner?  Every time he was late you'd think to yourself, "Christ, I'm waiting for Beckett again."  The irony would just be too much.


Happy St. Patrick's Day! I will now meander my way to St. Charles Avenue where I drunken Irish float riders will throw cabbages and potatoes at me. This should be interesting. There will be stew!

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Tribute to Tobias Wolff

At five in the morning it was still dark in their tiny room and would be for the rest of the day if they didn't open the curtains. They, the curtains, looked alive, Becca thought. Or formerly alive. Grey green strips of skin twitching in the fan. Postmortem reflexes.

Somewhere in the murk, Kirk asked, "How long have we been here?"

And she said, "Forever," and meant it until she heard the word come out of her mouth. She was glad only Kirk heard something so cliche. The curtains would stay put, though, Becca decided, but she would not.

It took about an hour to carry out the command. They were staying in a friends' spare room while they searched for work and an apartment. San Francisco was overcast and cold, the streets empty and peculiarly empty. There was not a parking space in either direction for the length of the block, but not a person in sight. Becca felt unusual. Lonely. Even next to Kirk. He stood next to her looking up and down the block, atrociously alert.

"Well, food," he said and started walking. Becca was certain that he didn't know where he was going, but was still too tired to care. It was good to be moving. Not quite as good as bed. Laziness would get her no where, she thought.

"How long have we been here?" Becca asked.

"You said 'forever,'" Kirk said.

"No, I'm serous."

"Sunday before last," Kirk said without hesitation.

Becca made a quick calculation while stepping over dog shit. The air was greasy, but she was catching a whiff of espresso. "Ten days," Becca said. "You know, there's a joke about when the Beatles got to Iceland some reporters rushed them at the airport. One of them asked, 'What do you think of Icleand?' and John said, 'How should I know? I just bloody got here.'"

"That's how you feel about San Fran?" Kirk asked, rounding a corner and making for the coffee shop where they'd eaten breakfast for three days straight. It wasn't a bad choice. They had great sandwiches and the espresso was amazing.

"Yeah, kind of," Becca said. "I don't feel like I can form an opinion."

The cafe sat in the middle of a row of boutiques. Deep green shutters, unvarnished hardwood floors, heavy marble tables, band posters plastered over every wall all made Becca think of a kind of blase abandon that appealed to her. There was no TV, just a little radio playing blues. They ordered eggs and toast and sat down at a table not far from the serving counter. The air reeked of tart, black coffee. While they ate, Becca read them and Kirk consulted the Chroincle, taking notes on a legal pad.

There was no one else in the coffee shop except the old man behind the counter, polishing a porta-filter. When he finished with the porta-filter, he picked up a thick, leather-bound book and stood facing the door, turning the pages slowly. He wore black slacks and a black vest over a white, formal shirt. When Becca stood close enough to him, she could smell his cologne. While he took their orders, he barely said a word. The first time they came in, Becca thought he might be mute, but the second day they came in he looked up and told them, "Hello."

After about a half hour, a middle aged man in a brown business suit walked through the door. "Hello, Roy, long time no see."

The barista put down his book. "You're back," he said.

"Yeah, we just got in a few hours ago and I thought to myself, 'Now, where could I get the best cup of coffee in town?' Well, that's right, Roy." The man waited for a second. Becca stopped reading and watched out of the corner of her eye.

"Well," the man said, "I'd like a cappuccino."

Roy nodded and stepped over to the espresso machine. There was a metal clink and he stood back up, pouring a little milk into a stainless steel beaker. The man who had just walked in watched for a moment and then said, "It's colder up here."

Roy looked at him and then went back to his work, saying "Colder than New Orleans, I'd imagine."

"Not that much. I'm a little surprised how little difference there is," said the man. "It's so humid that it gets underneath your skin."

The milk hissed and growled as Roy steamed it. Becca had to lean a little to hear what the man said next. "A week feels like forever when you're volunteering. Especially in a city like New Orleans. You wouldn't believe what it's like down there."

Roy did not look up. In one smooth movement, he filled the porta-filter with espresso, tamped it down, brushed off the excess, and pushed the filer into the gasket. A loud click of the switch. A moment later, steaming espresso poured into a tiny metal shot glass.

"We were staying neighborhood that hadn't recovered from the storm yet," the man said. He wasn't looking at Roy, anymore, but down at his hands. Ever so often, as he spoke, he would look up at the old Barista, checking for a reaction. "There was an older man, Harry, who lived next door to the church where we were staying in his gutted house. After working on site every day I'd come by and he'd be working on his house, by himself. I would hear him hammering and sawing, see him carrying wire and pipes, all day long. He was disabled. He used to work in construction and his hip was so badly injured in an accident that he couldn't work on site anymore.

"Every time I got home from work he'd ask me over to play dominoes. That's what everyone in the neighborhood played. I'd get daiquiris and we'd sit around for an hour talking and playing dominoes until he told me he had to get back to work. That was the only time I didn't see him working.

"He was determined, you know. Absolutely determined to rebuild his life even though no one was helping him. Not at all like the man who's house we were rebuilding. This guy, every time we saw him, all he would do is complain about how screwed over he'd been by the government, the city, people stealing his money, all that. But Harry never once complained that whole week."

Roy handed the man his cappuccino. Becca noticed that Kirk wasn't taking notes anymore. The man did not drink his cappuccino, but just held it, speaking directly to Roy. "One day I got home and instead of a house there was a hole in the ground next door. The city had declared his condemned and in the eight hours I was at work they tore it down. And there was Harry, standing there over this big hole and shaking his head. I didn't know what to say to him, but I walked over and he looked up at me and I don't think I'll ever forget what he said. He just shook his head and said, 'This is going to take longer than I thought.' Can you believe that? I think I would have shot myself right then and there. Those people down there just have a different attitude than we do. It's all about attitude."

The man looked at his watch. "I'm going to be late. Shit, sorry, I wanted this to-go."

"I'll remake it," said Roy and reached for the saucer.

"No, no, that's all right. Just put it in a to-go cup, please."

The old barista unceremoniously poured the cappuccino into a white, paper cup and handed it to the man. "Thanks, Roy, you're a good man," said the man and walked out of the cafe quickly.

Becca looked over at Kirk who had sat his paper down and was looking at her. They stared at each other for a moment until finally Kirk said, "Wow."

He took a sip of his cold coffee and shook his head, "There are no apartments or jobs in this city."

Outside the wind blew. The barista had gone back to his book. And Becca was two thousand miles away or some impossible distance crashing on a friends couch with Kirk on borrowed money. There was nothing here just as there was nothing there. Becca decided that she would not move from her chair.

She said, "We could hang ourselves."

Saturday, March 3, 2012


If you asked how they came to be hanging from vines over an enormous gorge, Lemuel would shrug and say it Didn't Matter. Lawrence, on the other hand, would say the How and the Why made all the difference in the world, even greater than the fact that they were hanging over Death. But that isn't what concerns the two of them now. It's the strawberries.

"We should eat them," Lawrence says. He adjusts his hands to get a more comfortable grip on the vines cutting his fingers and palms.

"Why?" Lemuel says. Blood runs down his arms, hot and sticky. The sun burns his skin and its too damn humid.

"Well, we can either fall to our deaths having eaten strawberries or just fall to our deaths."

Lemuel looks at him. "And yet the outcome is the same."

Lawrence reaches out, plucks a strawberry, and eats it. "They're good," he says, encouragingly.

"You. Are. About. To. Die," Lemuel explains. "Good is out. You can't talk about Good anymore. Look down. That's going to hurt a lot and we're about to fall in it. The sun is hot, these vines are burning my hands, and you want to eat strawberries?"

"Look, isn't it better to just, you know, enjoy it while it lasts?" Lawrence asks.

"How can you be enjoying this?"

Lawrence looks at Lemuel, then at the strawberries, then back at Lemuel. "Is that a trick question? I've got strawberries."

Lemuel says, "That's called delusion."

"No, that's called trying to be happy. You should try it sometime."

Lemuel feels himself sliding and tightens his grip. He is beginning to feel his hand for what it really is: a contorted, knot of meat. He says, "Our current situation makes happiness a bit difficult."

"Oh no it doesn't," Lawrence says blithely, waving his hand and sliding down the vine a few feet. He grimaces slightly, but continues. "You just have to decide to be happy and you can be. It's behavioral psychology."

"You can't reach the strawberries anymore," Lemuel observes.

"But I'm still happy," Lawrence throws back.

Lemuel raises an eyebrow with great and deliberate effort. "What's it like? Living in that precious little world of yours?"

"Pretty swell. You should be envious."

"I'm not."

"Look, ass hole," Lawrence growls through gritted teeth, "we're in a motherfucking allegory. Just eat the goddamn strawberries."

"You're in an allegory," Lemuel calls down and observes that their vines are beginning to pull loose. "I'm firmly planted in reality. Snap."

The vines give out and they simultaneously begin their long descent.

"You see," Lemuel shouts over rushing wind, "that's what's wrong with the world! People tell insipid little allegories and plaster motivational posters on cubicles and say 'it could be worse.' Why not just admit that the world sucks and figure out how to change it?"

"Are you offering any solutions?" Lawrence asks, waving his arms wildly, either gesturing at their rising surroundings or trying to fly.

"Got anything else to be happy about?" Lemuel shoots back.

"We're flying...?" Lawrence tries. Then, with sudden inspiration, grinning, he shouts, "We're alive!"