1. Loosely Based On Us
When we were in writing school, Violet and I decided one of the fiction writers had the biggest dick, and the poets who wrote about love would be best at going down.
I said the ones who wrote about soup rain and mouths that looked like blackboards would be best at dirty talk, and that’s when Violet said, “Donald would fuck you with Emily Dickinson — hope is a subtle glutton, baby — or else say something about how he was going to stick tabasco up your ass.”
“I don’t even want to know what he’d do with doom’s electric moccasin,” I said, blowing smoke out my nose, and she said, “Oh Jesus, I would.”
I told her that I had told Donald that what was said of Sartre sounded like him, how he seduced and conquered young girls by explaining their souls to them. “And all he said was, ‘Jackie, I’ll Sartre all over your face.’”
“He must have been drunk,” Violet said, laughing a little and putting her feet up on the coffee table. “That’s not even that original.”
“Did you know Sartre adopted his mistress as his daughter?” I asked. “Did you know Beauvoir didn’t get jack shit?” We sat in silence, considering this. Violet pushed empty beer cans around with her painted toes, and I looked out the window, thinking about how I was alone.
“What’s this have to do with Donald?” Violet asked.
“Donald likes Asian teenagers,” I said. “That’s what this all has to do with him.” That’s when we decided two out of three nonfiction writers were movie rentals — take them home for a few nights before returning, Violet said — and that it was too hot to be sitting inside, so we went outside and set up her old lawn chairs on the front lawn, what I always called her front dirt space since there wasn’t any grass, just Sonoran desert.
“If the tide came in and swept us out to sea in our lawn chairs, we’d be a Tony Hoagland poem,” I said.
“Jesus, wouldn’t that just do it,” Violet said, sipping from a can. We watched the orange streetlights come on, and sweated without knowing it. I thought about how I didn’t want to fall asleep that night, and how I hadn’t been in love for what seemed like my whole life.
After a while Violet said, “I do like this cheap beer, Jacks. I do like this cheap beer in these lawn chairs,” then, “Tell me something,” since we’d both been thinking for a long time.
“Ok,” I said, and thought for a minute. “I have these dreams about Chip.”
And she said, “Oh, God,” since Chip was our professor. “He’s about seventy.”
“I can’t help it,” I said, putting one hand over my eyes and stretching my beer toward the sky, which had grown dark and purple. “I can’t fucking help it. Black lace panties and blow jobs,” I said, “in his fucking office.” I started laughing.
“You’ve got to be kidding,” Violet said, laughing too, and we just sat there for what seemed like forever, laughing so hard.
I said, “I need help. Seriously,” still laughing, but thinking that I might cry soon because I felt alone and loveless and, quite frankly, a little goddamn sorry for myself.
We couldn’t see much from our lawn chairs that night, just the white concrete bleachers at the University, the boxy houses and apartment buildings, the asphalt and power lines running away from us, out of Tucson, to the dark mountains in the distance.
Violet’s hair was done-up curly, and she had on her red lipstick and polka-dot high heels even though it was just a Tuesday and we were drinking cheap beer in her front dirt space in a town I liked to call Hell’s Waiting Room. Violet shifted in her seat to cross her long legs, then gave me a wink as she sipped her beer. She gawked at the stars and sighed, the most contented sound I’d heard in years.
Pretty soon we’d both be gone from there, from school, from the hot city I hated. That was the truth. That’s what I needed to remember, I told myself. We’d all be gone so soon.
2. On Human Happiness
I knew the problem was that I was lonely, but I didn’t know what to do about it. Graduate school had ended, and it was time to move, from Tucson to Prescott. Nearly everyone had already left, but Charles was still around, and he said, Yeah, sure, he’d drive the U-Haul. It’s not like he had anything better to do.
We weren’t the closest of friends, me and Charles. He was reserved, pale and good with computers, one of those guys who required sunscreen and hand sanitizer. And it was July in Tucson, melt-your-brain hot, so I was surprised when he agreed to help.
I hadn’t seen the place where I was going to live in Prescott, but my friends owned it and had given it to me cheap. It was a double-wide trailer named Boulder’s Edge with a wraparound porch, piles of boulders, a view of Granite Mountain. Charles discovered a path leading to a shack strewn with old tools; we both liked the pencil sharpener inside, screwed to the wall. In the trailer, I pointed out the knocker on the bathroom door, and outside, Charles rang the bell positioned on a twenty-foot pole. It made a giant ding dong.
We unloaded the heavy stuff that afternoon, then all the boxes blocking in the box spring and mattress, which we finally heaved to the bedroom. After that we were so hot and tired we couldn’t stand it, so Charles had a shower, then me.
I took him to dinner at the place downtown where they made beer in big, stainless steel vats. At dinner he told me how he had read about a study on human happiness. In the study, he said, the researchers had people estimate how happy they’d be after, say, a really good meal. The people always predicted that they’d be incredibly happy, but inevitably they vastly overestimated their future satisfaction. (That’s how Charles talked, vastly overestimated their future satisfaction.) The only thing the researchers found that could make people truly happy, Charles said, was other people.
On the first night at Boulder’s Edge, I slept on the living room floor in a sleeping bag, and Charles slept in my bed. After he left, I didn’t change the sheets.
I found his crumpled t-shirt under my bed a few days later. It was inside-out, and I pulled the hem through the neck hole and then held it in front of me by the shoulders. I decided to smell it. Detergent and sweat, but not in a bad way.
That afternoon I washed it along with my clothes. Ever since then it’s been folded on the shelf under my bedroom window. This has happened a couple of times: I forget about it, but then the breeze moves the long curtain that hangs over that shelf, and I see the shirt, folded neatly, as if it belongs there. I still haven’t told Charles he left it. I plan to keep it indefinitely.
3. What To Write Down
Libby told me about this punk guy she fell in love with in Minnesota. She tried to bake some bread and it didn’t rise — I mean, it didn’t rise at all, is what Libby said, holding her thumb and forefinger an inch apart — and he still ate it and said it was good.
It wasn’t good, Libby said. It was not good.
And later, late at night, he called her and said he was coming over. In bed, when he asked if she wanted to snuggle, she blurted no even though she meant yes. They spent the rest of the night lying next to each other, trying not to touch.
Then he decided to hop a train to San Diego — hobo-style, Libby said, no ticket, no nothing — and on his last night in town they exchanged coats. He got her ice fisherman’s coat, and she got his watching baseball/drinking beer jacket. He said he’d wait for her in Prescott, Arizona, and she said she didn’t think the train ran through that town.
She said she’s still waiting for him. (We were standing on a corner in Prescott, Arizona, outside the Thai place.) She slapped her hands over her eyes and yelled WHY WAS SHE DO DENSE? — not because she was waiting, but because she had to wait, because of her nos and theories about train routes — and I laughed because that was the only thing I knew to do.
That fucker, she said, hands resting on the top of her head, and grinning, beaming, even though I could tell she would have preferred something less emotional. I’m still waiting for that fucker.
The only thing she’s heard from him is that the coat she gave him has been warm, is keeping him warm. This was through a friend of a friend of a friend. She said she doesn’t even have an e-mail address for him. She said that he’s somewhere in a boxcar, or on a veggie bus, you know, one of those bio-diesel things, she said, full of real anarchists and punks and hippies.
I told her I thought it was the most romantic story I’d heard in years, and that she needed to go home and write down all she learned so that she’d know the next time, know how no really means yes (even though this is the opposite of everything we’ve been taught), and know how if a punk guy wants to eat your unleavened bread or snuggle or swap coats or wait for you in Prescott, Arizona, how all this also means yes.
She said yeah, but he left on that train and I’m always the one who leaves, that’s how I like it.
She said, No one’s ever left me before in my life, and I said, write that down.
For God’s sake, write that down, too.