I woke up lying on top of the sheets, my pants and pullover still on. My head throbbed, my mouth was parched and tasted foul, but still that feeling persisted, that I’d been lifted, or pushed forward, that I was better for it. I recalled coming into the room, chugging water, trying and failing to close the blinds, but I couldn’t remember falling asleep, or even when we came inside. I opened my eyes and lifted my head and saw the sun straight on. I contemplated getting up to shut the blinds but instead just turned my head away. I listened to the rest of the house and found nothing. Interacting with another human was the last thing I wanted to do, but I had to drink water. I managed to get up and open the door. Again I listened and heard nothing. The silence felt like a virtue, and as I went to the kitchen I shuffled on my socks to sustain it. When had I put on socks? I drank two glasses of water and saw a note on the table. I’m off to the library for the day. When you leave just click the switch on the inside of the door. As promised, I’ve sent you some of my own writing. Great seeing you, friend. Next year in Jerusalem. ~ A
I read it again and once more, because there was something wrong, a word that needed tending to. I’ve sent you some of my own writing. Own writing. Own, as in, to differentiate from other writing, my writing. I remembered then that I’d told him about the manuscript, my failure of a novel. I’d told only two other souls about it, Louis and Julie. At least he, like them, hadn’t read any of it—right? I excavated my memory of last night, making sure I hadn’t shared it with him. I still wasn’t sure. I drank another glass, fetched my laptop from my room, went to the living room, and ﬂopped onto the couch. I hadn’t sent any emails last night. I had only one in my inbox, from him, sent at 7:44 a.m. There was no subject line, the body just said, Be kind. I downloaded it.
When I’m hungover I cannot suffer even good ﬁction, ﬁction I normally love, and this was not good ﬁction. I almost couldn’t read it, but I did, partly because it made me feel better about my own writing and partly because I was interested—it was the story he’d told me, or the ﬁrst few scenes of it, except written in the third person. It helped me remember more of last night, which made me feel embarrassed, but what did I have to be embarrassed about? No, he was the one who’d done all the talking. I cried, yes, but so did he. Suddenly it made sense that he’d made it out of the house so early. After I ﬁnished I went to File > Properties. Total editing time was 3094 minutes, across ten days that was an average of ﬁve hours per. I felt wrong for knowing how to ﬁnd that. The word count was 3252. I thought about him staring at his laptop for a full minute before typing each word. I drafted a nice email saying it was evocative and atmospheric, et cetera, and I made a note to send it later.
I closed the laptop and put it on the ﬂoor and rolled over on my back. Above me was another Chagall, which seemed to be a visual interpretation of my hangover. I put my hand on my stomach, slowly inhaling and exhaling, and surveyed the room. In a moment of weakness I allowed myself to lament how wonderful it would be to own a house like this, and how sharply I’d have to alter the course of my life to one day be able to afford anything like it. It was just as likely I’d ﬁnd God. And yet, all of my daydreams about my future involved a house not unlike it, a house with a room for each of my three children, a workspace for me and my wife, a spacious dining room for dinner parties. All of a sudden I felt like I didn’t belong on that couch, in that room, in that house. If a neighbor came over to return garden shears, and asked who I was, I wouldn’t be able to answer. I had no reason to be there. But based on his mumbled deﬂections—a benefactor? a friend of the family?—neither did Avi, and he seemed right at home. I thought of him at the library. I replayed last night through his point of view. I stretched my legs and tightened my butt muscles. I yawned. I closed my eyes and tried to nap.
I had hoped to parlay that ﬁrst night into a longer stay—surely Avi’s benefactor’s meditation room would remain unclaimed— but as my hangover dimmed I came to accept that it wasn’t in the cards; after all, his note had described how exactly to lock the door on my way out. I drank more water and ate some cold cuts and olives I found in the fridge, and then packed up and drove to the nearest Starbucks.
For the next three days I Airbnbed a windowless room in Koreatown for $43 a night. It was my ﬁrst time in L.A. and I wanted to have fun but I was hemorrhaging money. If I was going to extend my little sabbatical from real life I needed to be someplace cheaper. So I spent much of those three cloudless days on my computer, back on the Craigslist aggregator, searching for sublets all along the West Coast that were under $400 a month. There was too much to sort through, so on the second day I added the ﬁlters “expired start date” and “repeat posting.” By the third day I was willing to look past serial killer grammar (great spot !! must be clean, and kind) and still couldn’t land anything. I was just about to book my place in Koreatown for two more days when I got an email back from a girl named Bertie in Eugene, Oregon. She was a senior at the University of Oregon and lived with three roommates. From her Facebook I gathered that her life revolved around ultimate Frisbee. She was in Haiti, doing humanitarian aid until the fall semester. She said as soon as I wired her two months’ rent the room was mine.
I left at 6 the next morning because the drive was fourteen hours nonstop and I had texted Bertie’s roommates that I’d be there before bedtime. When I reviewed the exchange in the morning I regretted using such a creepy phrase, especially because no one responded. I thought to call but feared that would be even more unwelcome, so I just started driving; at that point I saw Los Angeles as a black hole for my checking account, and all I wanted to do was get away from it.
I had heard Route 1 was beautiful, but that would have added hours to my trip, so I took Interstate 5 instead. New Jersey turnpikes get a bad rap but I would have taken an endless string of Best Buys over that abyss of visual information. By hour three I was seriously struggling. It was as if all of the trip’s podcasting caught up with me at once, all of the cute phrasing and mouth clicks and contrived affectation coalescing into one amorphous host who seemed to always be so surprised by what his guest had to say, who played dumb too often, who laughed too hard too close to my ear. I didn’t have much else downloaded to my laptop so I switched to Top 40 for ﬁfteen minutes before deciding silence was best, was needed, was natural—for millennia man had subsisted on nothing more. This paved the way for a nice meditational period, which quickly turned into an audit of all my past failures, which narrowed to my manuscript, which by then was a well-worn topic with predictable ruts: all the strokes of genius that turned out to be pretentiousness, all the emotional depth that was actually sentimentality, all the wasted hours. It was a dimly lit cave I’d slept in for many nights, but all of a sudden there was a hidden passageway out, a failed manuscript I could dwell on that wasn’t mine: Avi’s. I gripped the steering wheel and gave a little jerk to either side. The thrill of circumnavigating emotional pain.
His story was bad, yes, but why exactly? Tolstoy’s epigram on families could just as well apply to ﬁction, but inverted: each successful story succeeds in its own way, but all the bad ones fail for a short list of reasons. For starters, he’d tried to make objective something so obviously personal, starting with the point of view. A switch from third person to ﬁrst would not only have opened up a lot of emotional doors, it would have let him tell the story truthfully, allowing the protagonist’s ﬂaws to show, if not unintentionally. But ﬂaws need sympathy, and there was hardly anything to feel sympathetic about. Soﬁa is going to eventually reveal her plans for euthanasia. Avi’s narrative, on the other hand—to recap: a comp lit postgrad feels compelled to take a vacation—would need to match the emotional depth of hers. He would need some sort of breakdown of his own—not a postgrad breakdown but something real, a divorce. Yes, and more. A lost child. Some pathos to spend all that serious writing on. And god, the writing, so humorless, down to his title, Jouissance. I’d looked it up. It’s French for fucking, or not really, something from Lacan, save me. And speaking of fucking but not really, where were the sex scenes? Two strangers fuck on a lawn at night and all we get are their moans, dissolving into that dark, that salty air. Knowing Avi, I’d bet my life that his foursome scene kept the men apart. Surely he’d fail to see the opportunity to make Joe, who was already way too passive, an active character. One impulsive man-on-man hand job and Joe’s regret could be the motor for most of the denouement!
When the sun set I was still moving pieces around, reimagining lines of his I was surprised I could even recall. I only stopped three times—for gas, a bathroom break, and a late lunch at Subway—beating Google Maps’ prediction by forty-ﬁve minutes. The girl who opened the door was surprised to see me, and a bit put off. I got the impression she didn’t love the idea of Bertie subletting her room to a man. When she let me in I stopped myself from making a joke about bedtime, and generally managed to transmit my harmlessness. She gave me a perfunctory tour of the house and showed me my room, which was bigger than I imagined, with wide windows on two walls, wildﬂowers and ferns shooting into view. I took off my socks, brushed my teeth, and plugged in my laptop. I cracked my knuckles, exhaled, and opened a new Word doc. I wrote:
As I walked down the dock, my eyes still needed to adjust—I’ d spent the ferry ride hunched over a newspaper—and I couldn’t understand the source of an unusual sound, a sort of sticky thwack. A few moments passed and the world resaturated with color and I found it: men hoisting dead octopuses over their shoulders and slapping them against wooden boards, over and over, each tenderizing swing giving the meat a second’s grip on the lumber. I stood there for a minute and watched, and they didn’t notice me, or maybe they were just used to tourists gawking.
I read it three times. I changed a word and then changed it back. So much is decided in the ﬁrst paragraph, the ﬁrst sentence, really—point of view, tone, texture, velocity. And now that all that had been decided I didn’t really have to think, I could just imagine the story in my head and put it on the page, and for two months I spent most of my waking hours doing exactly that (and all the better to evade the breakdown that still occasionally threatened to surface). I’d wake up and write in my room and then go to the Eugene Public Library for a change of scenery and at 6 I’d drive back, picking up dinner on the way. I’d eat in my room while I wrote, something I was never able to do—eat and write—but it didn’t really feel like I was writing, it felt more like I was watching a TV show, one which I just had to occasionally pause and put down on paper.
Since returning to Brooklyn I found myself wincing every time I opened a menu. But here the prices weren’t bad. This I took as just another sign that things were going my way, would continue to. I checked the time; I had twenty minutes. I ordered a beer, ﬁguring I could get half a glass of relax in me before she came. Normally for ﬁrst dates I needed a push in the opposite direction, to be more extroverted, excitable, talkative. But over the past few days it seemed I had a new reserve of energy. And there was something else too: somehow this didn’t feel like a normal ﬁrst date. I actually looked forward to meeting her.
Café Rue Dix was not three blocks from where I used to live, and yet for some reason I hadn’t been once. It was Senegalese, a culture I knew nothing of, but I believed the food would be authentic because they had no ﬂags or any other discernible signiﬁer. The facade was open and I sat facing out, watching the diners, who all lounged comfortably, sharing ﬂuid conversation, and I wished such good fortune on myself. Actually, I felt nothing but good fortune. For the past few days it seemed the universe was ﬁnally in my favor, doling out rewards in bits and pieces that were only getting bigger. This theory was tested when, about midway through my beer, I made eye contact with the woman two seats over and realized she was Sandra at the same moment she realized I was Caleb. She was nearly done with her drink, must have already been there when I arrived, which made me wonder if I’d done anything embarrassing in her presence. No, I hadn’t, but had I already let the worry show on my face? I suggested we move to a table, and when we did I searched her for signs that she was displeased by me, by my appearance, it seemed like she wanted to leave, surely I was projecting. The waiter came and gave us menus and we both smiled at him the way uncomfortable people do. She had shorter hair than she did in her photos, a longish bob, a great bob, which somehow made her look younger. Her eyebrows were thick and a bit wild in a great way. She had beautiful shoulders. She was wearing a sleeveless brown blouse and simple black pants that were perfect together, and it occurred to me that I should stop thinking about how nice she looked and speak, and for my grand opener I said that I used to live around the corner, and then amended it to four blocks away, which actually was wrong, so I said it was three, and this all should have conﬁrmed that I’d hired one of those services that write your Tinder messages for you.
She looked straight at me and asked if I really was this boring, her eyes conveying such easy kindness I almost said, Your eyes convey such easy kindness. Instead I said yes, I was in fact this boring, and she had no choice but to sit there with me for an entire meal, and if she didn’t I would go home and write about the night to my incel friends on 4chan. She didn’t know that incel stood for “involuntary celibate,” and she barely knew what 4chan was, and that impressed me greatly. She started telling me about a computer science course she took in college. I was slowly becoming mesmerized by the way she spoke, literally how she produced language, which seemed to be completely improvisational, it wasn’t just that she said interesting things but that she never seemed to know the next word until it came. I’m not doing a good job of explaining it. She wouldn’t say ﬁrst and foremost but ﬁrst and ﬁnal, or she’d use ebb without ﬂow, jetsam without ﬂotsam. That she could produce novel syntax at such an alarming rate, I have to be frank, was arousing.
Her accent seemed to be aspirationally upper-class, or maybe just middle-class with academic parents. I asked what she did for a living. She was unemployed, which I should have guessed by the lack of a profession in her proﬁle. She had worked for the United States Mission to the United Nations, as an assistant policy advisor on the Human Rights Council, but her role had been made redundant due to budget cuts. I made a few informed comments about the Human Rights Council and she asked me to rate, from one to ten, how proud I was to subscribe to The Economist. I said eight, and then changed it to seven. She asked why I changed it and I said that the covers are so bad, it would make me feel better about reading it on the subway if I knew the person across from me was looking at a nice cover. She smiled so beautifully, like she was trying not to. The ease I felt between us, which for me (and I’d wager anyone on Tinder) was a one-in-a-thousand miracle, only faltered when she returned the volley, asking me what I did for work. I gave her the elevator pitch, literally what I told the other people in our building in the elevator, with about the same amount of enthusiasm. She asked what exactly I did at Parachute and I told her, and it wasn’t what I said but how I said it, that I was passive, and reluctant, and maybe she’d been joking before but now she really looked like she was wondering if I was this boring, and suddenly all I wanted to do was tell her the one fact that would prove I wasn’t, that I had lunch yesterday with Ellis Buford about a manuscript of mine, and that she should Google his name, and maybe we should reschedule for a month from now, when she could Google mine.
Eventually, we recovered. There was too much time not to, and I really liked her, and I could feel she liked me. We split beef stew and empanadas, and had a few rounds of drinks. We talked about our families, seeded some inside jokes, laughed a lot. We did all the things you’re supposed to do on a ﬁrst date with someone you think you have real potential with, down to the brief, somewhat awkward but thrilling kiss. And yet, after we said goodbye, as I was walking home and reliving our best moments, I couldn’t help but feel that the whole time I’d given her an outdated version of myself, that the real me was being recalibrated and there was an upgrade on the way.