I’m not defending his behavior. That’s not why I’m writing this. I’ve mocked him and cussed him and now I’d like to describe him uninflected, to get the features down without misery, if it’s possible. Thankfully there’s no need to lie because a mere report already reads like distortion—he does so many things too large, he hardly thinks, he is the kind of guy who saves up knowledge from hours and hours of television consumption hoping to get in disputes about chronology. He vociferously argued with me about mid-series episodes of a show I have never watched, letting me have what for about the sequence, in effect, of how this trash fell first and then this trash second, and then how it all ignited in our faces. Trash being handsome male cast members and their spaceships or similar. If I was baiting him it’s because regular work is so boring. Anyway, I think he’s in counseling now or counseling sessions, how they say it, so this description may presage recovery or intimate the hopelessness of his situation. In all fairness I think the situation is hopeless: the man is a wreck.
Sometimes, when he looks so kicked-in-the-ribs alone, my heart fills up for him and reminds me I am human. “Oh, the humanity,” I say under my breath, and then I remember that I am literally paid to hang out with him day in and day out and already the time reeks of brimstone, as if I were poised before hell’s mouth, with its hot exhalations of fish-smelling seductions. Volunteering time with him—and he’s insisted on drinks, later—must be hell’s colon. All my vital nutrients absorbed for his sad-sack satanic delight. When that night comes I will have cracked and then where will I hide? He texts me political commentary highlights, headlines circled but too small to read on my phone’s screen, the images busy with illegible text. One of my irrational fears is texting lamely in reply—noncommittally, generically—only to discover he’d sent dinner reservations or a review from Yelp, and I’d accidentally given a thumbs up. What can I do. I don’t have the money for higher resolution or the fortitude to print off each and every text message and inspect them for propositions.
Like his older half-brothers, his septum protrudes. Vasari described the long, underhanging septum of the inbred Medici, and their thin dark hair and adder-like eyebrows, and the purplish circles under their eyes, putatively sourced to their intense concentration. I want to describe the three piercings he put in his ears that have restored five years of his looks-life but now play host to a bevy of misappropriated cultural signifiers. He looks like an inbred emo Medici, with his thick thighs splaying out his dark wash jeans, thighs he is always rubbing his hands on. He lotions said hands maybe three times a shift and after offering me the leftovers of another massive dollop, rubs the excess into his denim. I know I’m being harsh when I say this unnerves me. But if you’re skin is already oily in the way of vaguely sinister fifteenth-century Florentines, why rub even more grease onto your person? He wants to be soft like an eel, is how a co-worker put it. Vasari described Brunelleschi as ugly as Giotto and Forese da Robata, so how many artists in The Lives suffer some deformity in forehead or peculiarity in gait? My subject has this Italian blood and a little bit of German in him. His father and mother are products of the Sixties—the mister fought in Laos and Vietnam while the missus motored around the West Coast dropping acid and humming Joan Baez songs. I don’t mean to neatly contrast their formative years but this does say something about their temperament, and possibly its effect on their son. (Sometimes we roll silverware together, the missus and I, and always she is humming. Once, preparing to share with me an article scanned in the New York Times, she prefaced with, “I don’t know if you’re into drugs, but as a youth in the Sixties…” It was a touching and naked way of introducing the topic of psychotropics and hallucinogens on depressive patients, apropos her son’s method of coping. How else?) The mister has a paunch and the missus is rail thin, etc. Their son is interminable in repose. His lumpen pectorals are accentuated by the play of his nipple rings against tight polo shirts, and sometimes he flicks his breasts when he’s standing around daydreaming. I wonder if he knows he does that? He rubs his belly when he is hungry. Since his parents own the cafe he manages, I get to see the three of them together a lot and so observe the infantilizing effect they have on one another. He unconsciously pats his body. The mother giggles. The father yawns. The dynamics, even though he’s gay, are entirely Oedipal and in the most tantalizing way owing to the amount of money exchanging hands. During his nervous breakdown, for instance, he only communicated through his mother to his father, and this through text, and only to demoralize the old man, to talk of pressure and limitations and suffering.
He comes from patrician wealth, I suppose that’s why I’ve pretentiously referenced Vasari, who upon further research makes none such descriptive claims on the Medici. Invoking Vasari prevented me, up front, from simply saying he has a rat-face, with the incisors and the sniffling. No matter. On top of two restaurants, his parents own a high-end boxing factory and an organic farm retreat, too, and each enterprise seems to be depreciating. The cafe is outright failing, though it’s widely believed that it’s used as an awesome tax write-off, however that all works. I don’t know why so many details were shared with me by his mother and father. My hourly pay-rate hovers around minimum wage, which is not loyalty compensation. After his nervous breakdown he took nine days off from work and never phoned me and never came into the cafe. (His mother offered, “He’s too embarrassed to speak to you.”) As the de facto—when not de jure—assistant manager, I drove into work that fateful evening to make the schedule for everyone for the next week. I had had the day off; my boyfriend was in town but left that morning, and we slept-in together and had we’re-not-frantic/we’re-not-clinging sex in a labored way that was attentive by not lovely, as lovers in long-distance relationships do on those mornings they depart. Twenty miles away my manager had retreated in a shell of confounding passions, swearing, threatening, kicking boxes, proclaiming, gnashing teeth. I have it on good authority that he barked at a patron. Perversely I parallel these unfolding events because my relationship is a part of his disgust—he had given me the day off to say my goodbyes, and so resented my not being at the cafe for his shitstorm on receipt of his generosity. My togetherness owed something in the wide cosmology of sullen singles to his being alone. (Although, when you break it down, he gets a lot more assplay a lot more regularly than I do—and long ago, before I really understood his full resentment, I offered this comparison to him as solace.) The afternoon I spent walking up stairs and down stairs, unlocking my car and searching for CDs, sorting piles of laundry but not washing it, until my phone rang and his parents were calling in a state. “He’s gone emotional,” is how his father put it. I asked to speak to his mother. She said, “He has um, he has um,” and I said, “Right.” No one knew what to do next. I went in and made the schedule. We’d all work around him. We’d overcompensate. I was relieved that he had snapped.
The amount of feminism coming across my dashboard is going to make this post extra unseemly, but to hell with it.
I was calculating parity looks-wise between myself and a potential mark—I mean it in the con sense—and landed on the opinion that I was not handsome enough to be the one in the relationship that had to explain “what he saw in the other person,” or rather, if I and he were to enter a room of strangers, they would size him up and say, “Oh, lavish. The shorter man must be intelligent or funny or kind.” This isn’t to say I’m not handsome-ish—I am. I’m a Bryson: we’re a handsome lot. But my hairline is going back and my diet has taken some of the color out of me (or maybe I’m the only vegetarian whose gone “ashen” about the face and hands?), and I’m not at all tall. I can grow a beard in about a week but I’m not like wearing a Kodiak pelt across my back and chest, thankfully. My teeth need whitening but I don’t smile that much and rarely if ever laugh, so I’m not languishing in company devising ways to hide my mouth. These are all things I’ve accepted and gladly. My surface features hide incredible sexual prowess and a winning, where not stunted, intellect.
This photo was taken in a public restroom.
Cody identified my gay-type as “otter” (a cuter less burly “bear”) and I was somewhat disgusted by the aptness.
I say “mark” because I lack the words just now (it is a dreary Thursday, the temperature is cooperating but the noon is grey overcast) to describe what this young man actually is. He writes for the paper in the op/ed section and I want him to publish my ideas—well, one idea that has been gnawing at me for the last two weeks that requires a certain amount of delicacy in regards to university and community relations. Nobody regards letters to the editor with any merit—only columnists are taken seriously, and that only barely. The topic deals with racism, third world exploitation, Lockheed Martin, cultural sensitivity issues, et. al., and the dialectical nuances therein.
So, I think analogously what is happening is a con and he is my mark, although when we met on Friday night he was just this radiantly gorgeous young man with a faux hawk (I am embarrassed by faux hawks) and blinding white teeth, huge teeth, and reassuring height. The circumstances were completely coincidental. I vaguely remembered his face from somewhere. He took an interest but I resisted mysteriously (owing to the fact that I’m in a serious and loving committed relationship). I cultivated an air of mystery and fibbed twice or maybe three times. I realized that we were continuing to talk long after a parade of better looking guys had sauntered by and said hello. He seemed popular. His long legs did this thing where they wanted to circulate by shuffling in a way that was not at all dancing. My attention-grabbing grist was just about milled out—the race to obscure my middling quality of handsomeness with mirth and brio and attentiveness was beginning to give me a vague panicky sensation; also, I was self-conscious that I was taking up his time, too earnestly. When I don’t come off as intense (not laughing, not smiling) I come off as earnest (gesticulating wildly to hammer some point or other).
When I opened Tuesday’s paper there was his face, that faux hawk, above a liberal opinion column. That’s how come he seemed familiar; I’d already mooned over his mug months ago, after he’d written something, I don’t know, gay civil rights-ish. I’m willing to seduce him if that’s what it takes. Not like sleeping with him, but definitely meeting for drinks and seeing Blue Valentine, yuck, and hopefully offering ideas about his next column. Think Inception meets The Rules of Attraction. This entire conspiracy is the product of Jane Austen novels and Hollywood special f/x.
This is the worst thing I’ve done in years. It is motivated purely by ideology. Wickedness is fascinating to me, and luckily, deviousness my métier.
A lady called me over to her table today and pointed to the rim of her bowl with a fork. “I think this is a bug,” she said.
I peered at the sautéed bug, sea-foam green with its singed little leg nubs and about the size of my thumbnail. “Yes. That is a bug.” I apologized profusely, intimating that we use only the freshest ingredients, and that bugs are a hazard of this commitment. I comped her meal, and in the kitchen speculated with Nathan and Amanda about the bug’s origins.
"Probably came out of the goddam spinach," is what Nathan said. "Which is bullshit because that shit’s supposed to come pre-washed."
When I came back to the table to bring the patron a new bowl of chicken and rice, her friend had finished with her own bowl. At first the thought of buggy spinach hadn’t acted on her appetite—”No, I’m fine with my bowl; no bugs in it!”—but then you could tell the idea of bugs consumed her. Her bowl’s contents were thoroughly sifted, tomatoes over here and rice piled and carefully forked-over. The spinach festooned the rim, splayed green guts, with the peppers and squash secreted in a napkin, as I found out later when bussing. Natürlich the blackened chicken was all gone.
This is what the bug looked like:
I’ve worked with food for 10 years now and have never experienced this. I was giddy about it. I laughed a lot for no reason. I had to open today, so I suppose I’m tired. Arcade Fire won Album of the Year and I was giddy about that too.
Nadir, I looked this word up again today. I want to use it only in positive contexts. It makes me think of flying ships illustrated in the kid-soft style of Chris van Allsburg. It means lowest point or something (I’m not looking it up again)—sagging, perhaps bulky, more so emaciated and finished, the worst event. The editorial board of the New Left Review uses the word a lot; so does Nikil Saval. I’m not using nadir to modify my experience of the drag show—that’s unrelated. I don’t know.
My twin brother and my boyfriend are both in D.C., studiously avoiding one another. They don’t have to meet-up just because I’m so important to the both of them, and it would be life-affirming to me. What forces have conspired to draw them within city blocks of one another though they and I live hundreds of miles apart? Why not honor those forces? I’m superstitious—it’s embarrassing. A.J.—with whom I share a genome—wants to play chess in Dupont Circle, and Cody must attend Teach for America’s 20th Anniversary summit and bar-hop. (President Obama delivered a pre-recorded address to the delegates; suck on that TFA haters in education doctoral programs; suck on it.) A.J. also has Moot Court events to attend to; I didn’t ask how he did today—but he didn’t mention it. I frantically texted him that, if he were in the Dupont park—which he was; he sent me photo evidence of playing chess—then he owed it to the both of us to turn around and walk into the corner bookshop and pick up Mating. (By frantic I mean caps-lock text messaging.) He did not pick up Mating even after entering the bookstore. 0-2, Andrew Jordan.
On the Indiana-Ohio border, I am attending a drag show in Oxford, I think sponsored by the Spectrum group of Miami University. I have a lot of opinions about Miami University of Ohio. These opinions preoccupy me only every other month. While waiting in town, Todd, middle-brother, texted me about the significance of the rainbow to the gay community. He and Katie, his girlfriend, while watching something other than The Wizard of Oz, were seized by this aporia in their Florida Keys lifestyle. I offered my scant knowledge on the subject matter. He asked who I was going to the drag show with. I told him my straight friends. I’m a little hungry and sitting in Patrick’s house by myself, wondering if I should pour myself another glass of Lucky Duck Shiraz. It’s a product of South Eastern Australia. It is the least spicy Syrah I have ever drank, and I’ve had Crane Lake Shiraz, which comes from California. Lucky Duck Shiraz has all the flavor of Yoplait Cherry Orchard yogurt with notes of pennies and a finish of bootlace. Speaking of same-ish: Tonight I have new shoes on and will test them on the dance floor at this, my first ever drag show.
In fact I angled the conversation to one word, not necessarily an erotic one, although I did feel somewhat guilty in that I was getting shivers thinking he might actually say it, in text message, I mean.
It was a dance of thumbs. In passing I referenced beating off (virility), running (athleticism), and football (masculinity)—although pro forma I rejected the event (intellect). We caught up on village news. His lines lacked discernible subtext the only reason (as I understand it) anyone continues to text at all. I was moved to use folky handles, like the term icepop, grasping for a non-commital tone. I was a love-cylon; I had a plan.
On the topic of irrational fandom I tried to find the Spanish word for heart—inexplicably these gems leave me. I wanted him to say it first. My face felt hot imagining him trawling through his memories of high school, the word gliding there, glowing under the surface of his fair hair. I drank ice-water alone in the kitchen and assumed non-commital poses. I did not pour a second glass, for instance. I thought of salmon ladders on hydroelectric dams.
He wrote, Hearto?
This was an unanticipated variant. Once I had showered and read for a bit, I consoled myself with pita and vegetable curry.
Ghosts, Teach for America & Sexual Frustration, Creative Nonfiction
My mother proffered some advice this morning, while I looked on as she substituted shortening for butter in a batch of Valentine’s cookies:
"On your day off tomorrow, you need to take the time to write a novel. I know it will be a rush job, but you can write under a pseudonym. Make it a ghost story, about Flo. This will make you happy."
Union County Court House
Flo is the name of the ghost that supposedly haunts the county courthouse. My father was signing charges for the court secretaries early last week, and the adding machines “acted up” twice while he was in the office. The paper printed off calculations that no one had entered; sometimes the buttons are even “pressed” to spool the tape. Apparently this is a phenomenon that occurs with some frequency, and also missing/re-appearing staplers and other desk-bound object distractions. When the ladies work they see someone walk by the office doors and hear footsteps though no other living person is present. The doors to the chambers open and close, the doors opening the bar open and close. The secretaries and the judge call this ghostly emanation Flo and relate any eerie or unexplained activity to Flo.
The idea of Flo has driven me to distraction—not least because the silliest ghost story will give me nightmares. I had a particularly fraught obsession with the supernatural as a child—resulting in an overload of ghost stories that eventually, for the duration of a summer, prevented me from walking under trees at night alone. Labored breathing, upset stomach, cold-sweat, raised-hair, the somatic responses of anxiety that a more credulous, more adult me weathers without the emotional connect. (Until I fall asleep, anyway.) I wish I could suppress it but I take it as one more symptom of my Sontagian embodiment of the world: I simply feel more about everything than I reasonably should, viz. the way I feel about Sontag. I’m embarrassed by the comparison, natürlich, long believing that superstition is a vestige of fascism and belief in the supernatural an attenuated comfort of religion. Hypnagogia regularly presents me with exceptionally vivid sleep paralysis, encounters with shadow people and auditory sensations like books falling to the floor from their shelves. Lately I’ve turned the tables on this state and my frequency of sex dreams has increased.
The “Little” Tower of Babel, Pieter the Elder Bruegel, c. 1563, 60 X 74.5cm
Take for example a dream I had this morning: It began as a revue of my feelings about Teach for America. Cody and his TFA chums were at a conference in Detroit, inhabiting a long abandoned school system that occupied several abandoned factories. The factories were of the same height and rust-color of Bruegel’s The “Little” Tower of Babel, though they were made of iron and copper, not stone, which is generally how my dreams have always incorporated the work of Pieter the Elder—industrial behemoths meant for my personal exploration, followed by an explosive sensation of agoraphobia as the architecture expands infinitely up and outwards.
Anyway—Cody and other well-heeled Teach for America kids are in Detroit, in a bombed-out Bruegel-school, and I’m attempting to get into the conference (for purposes of live-blogging?), when we all meet up, stuck between three or so high-ceilinged rooms ornately decorated but without definite furniture—candelabras and rococo wallpaper, dark wood floors, cabinetry and even golden ladders, but no windows and no doors elsewhere, re The Winchester Mystery House. The school sealed itself and the Teach for America convoy inside. We began to inspect the seams in the wallpaper, the floorboards, the cabinets, and slowly found tacks and nails and other clues that pointed to a cruel intelligence, at which point, in the dream, I began to feel dread, and also to hear wind, low hooting, and murmured taunting. I suggested we take our clothes off. So we took our clothes off—I mean the guys did—and stood around in flattering underwear and began to pet one another. This was awesome.
The scariest book I’ve ever read is Brenda Coultas’ The Marvelous Bones of Time, a collection of poems and tales published by Coffee House Press. Here is a less scary but no-less beguiling passage:
Addendum IV: The psychic friend explained that the old woman was a daylight person, which is a living person who has become lost or passed into a portal. The portal is analogous to a clear shower curtain; you walk through it and everything looks the same, but actually you are in a different dimension. It may be only a few feet wide, so you might not be able to find it again.
She said there is no evil, only negativity; however, the portal on the crematorium lawn should not be open. In regard to her behavior, the odd dancing and trance, she reported that spirits who had died by their own actions, accidentally or intentionally, were standing in front of her face, explaining their regrets and intentions. During this time, she, the psychic friend, experienced a continuous orgasm, which allowed her to withstand intense negative energies.
Christmas Portrait. Left to right: Bobby and Evan (standing); Hannah and Thomas (sitting); Brekke (seated on floor)
I should say that “Flo” has an odder significance to me for far stranger reasons, owing to a college debt. Junior year, my art-minded and lit-type friends were bored and frustrated with the staid dating scene among the courtiers of our small, reasonably conservative Lutheran university. I think we were feeling the effects of post-structuralist criticism in too bodily a way. We thought dance parties were the answer and they were for a while. But then we thought we should have romance with the dance parties—or that the dancing would, through friction and spontaneity and vulnerability, catalyze romance. We shifted our tactics, crafted aggressive ploys, upped the assertiveness. For subscribers to our new theoretic, we proposed several levels of commitment: PAW, Faux-PAW, and FLO. If you were satisfied masturbating, you could be PAWlm (pronounced “palm”). FLO was a state of ease and tranquility as in “going with the flow”: the end of analysis, receptive caesura. Our friends Thomas and Brekke identified this state as a transcendent corrective to all the other sexual competition horseshit we were investing our considerable intellects. FLO was Zen. I rejected it tout court as a program of the “soul mate” master-narrative.
In a few days, my essay about Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining will go up at A Bright Wall in a Dark Room. Writing this necessitated revisiting the film, which is a ghost story, and thinking through ghosts and places where ghosts reside. I scrapped this route when I began to sleep with my reading lamp on, and I took up cruder, drier investigations.
Incidentally, my twin brother finished drafting his first personal essay for a creative nonfiction seminar he is taking at my alma mater, taught by my friend and mentor, Allison. His essay is—uncannily enough, if you have an interest in twins’ psychic capacities—about ghost hunting and abandoned houses. My first essay for Allison in my creative nonfiction seminar, four years ago now, was also about ghost hunting and abandoned houses. My essay was intriguingly titled “Abandoned Houses,” whereas A.J.’s is evocatively titled “On Hunting Ghosts.”
This afternoon, staring outside and admiring the crystalline havoc of the ice-storm, I pulled up the case of Isaac Heller from Google Books (the literature on this count is surreal). A.J. and I had a moment of marveling at this man who, in February of 1836, took an axe to the heads of his wife and three children. The blood on Heller’s boots tracked for eight miles across the snows in my home county, before he was apprehended, lucid and incurious as to his evil, admitting to his deed, disheveled sure, and apologetic.
In his “reminiscences,” Oliver Hampton Smith questions the guilty verdict of the jury. Years earlier, Heller was acquitted of murder charges in Pennsylvania. He had killed a young girl with a pocket-knife; had dragged her from her hiding place under a bed to whittle at her neck, screaming “The Kingdom of God is at hand!” Hellar was a homicidal maniac and needed hospitalization.
Is Flo the spirit of Isaac Heller? What is he doing messing around with adding machines? And when will justice be served.