"my mother is a fish"

when i was a freshman at UT, i took a class called “interpersonal communications.”  it was a popular class, and a large one to begin with–i think the auditorium held at least 500 students.  my years at UT were depressing ones (in the most literal sense of the word), and although i found the lectures interesting, i didn’t attend the class very often.  the only specific thing i remember about it was the day the professor asked a guy in the second row to stand up, turn around, and show everyone his t-shirt.  it was a white t-shirt with the abbey road album cover on the front.  the professor used it to illustrate a point of some sort.

my sophomore year, quite by accident, i met and became friends with the abbey road t-shirt guy, whose name was paul.  paul and i lived in the same dorm, one floor apart, and he spent a lot of time in my room hanging out with my roommate and me.  he was the only one of us who had a car, so we’d make trips to the grocery store in his two-seater–him in the driver’s seat, one person in the passenger seat, another person stretched out across both laps.  it was difficult for the person sitting on the laps to make it through the whole trip without hitting her head on the windshield.

sophomore year was the worst of the two i spent at UT.  during the spring semester, my friendship with my roommate was strained to the point that it couldn’t be considered a friendship anymore.  she hung out with one of our suitemates and her friends quite often, but i was never invited along.  in my worst moments of depression-induced paranoia i felt like my roommate and suitemate had banded together against me.  by the time my birthday rolled around in may, i considered paul to be my only friend, or at least my only friend with whom there were no underlying tensions or resentments.

i spent my birthday at a lakeside coffeehouse with paul, my roommate, my suitemate, and a few of my suitemate’s friends.  it was during finals, so we were only there for as long as everyone could stand being away from their studies, which wasn’t long.  i remember thinking how sad it was to celebrate my birthday with a group of people most of whom i wasn’t sure even liked me.  to call it a low point in my life thus far would be an understatement.

i asked paul if i could speak to him alone for a minute, and we went and sat at a table by the lake.  i told him i was glad he’d come to my birthday.  i told him i was glad i knew him.  “this year’s been really awful,” i said to paul, “and i just wanted to thank you for being the only person here who’s always been truly and genuinely nice to me.  i think this semester you’ve been my only friend.”

paul didn’t say anything for a few minutes.  he looked uncomfortable, probably because having someone thank you for being their only friend can feel like a pretty heavy burden.  but i’d wanted to say it.  i felt better having said it.  and i needed to feel better.  we sat in silence, staring at the lake.

“things will be okay for you,” paul said finally.  “do you remember what dr. daly said in interpersonal communications class about the four reasons why people spend time with one another?”

“no,” i said.

“proximity, attraction, utility, and loneliness,” he said.

“that was over a year ago,” i said.  “how can you remember that?”

“because,” he said.  “Proximity, Attraction, Utility, Loneliness.  paul.”

i’m not sure why paul decided that that would be a good time to tell me about the four reasons why people spend time with one another, but i’ve never forgotten it.  i can still remember the exact tone of his voice, and the look on his face.

the first time i really thought about those four reasons, they made me sad.  proximity made sense, of course–we’re more likely to meet and talk with people we see at work or school or near our homes.  loneliness made sense, too.  but utility?  people hang out just so they can use each other?  and did attraction mean that we only want to spend time with people we find physically attractive?  it seemed a pretty grim assessment.

since then i’ve decided that attraction encompasses both physical attraction and the often-platonic attraction we feel towards people we get along with, towards those who share our interests.  i’ve come to terms with utility, too–after all, paul would drive us to the store and i’d help him with his spanish homework, but that didn’t mean we were using each other, not in the negative sense of the word.

no, the one that bothers me now is loneliness.

i mean, of course i understand the feeling of loneliness.  and like everyone else, i’m lonely much more often than i care to admit.  but loneliness is a visceral item on an otherwise intellectual list; unlike proximity or attraction or utility, loneliness cannot be quantified or rationally explained.  the existence of such a list, however, would seem to indicate that our very human need to spend time with other humans is something that can be rationally explained.  in that sense, loneliness is out of place on the list.  it almost begs the question.  “why do people spend time with other people?”  “because they want to.”

throughout our lives we meet hundreds of thousands of people.  some of those people we only meet in passing, but some become our friends or lovers or partners or spouses–people who alleviate our loneliness.  those people don’t always stick around, either.  old friends make way for new friends, old lovers for new ones.  if we’re lucky we’ll have just one partner or spouse, but that doesn’t always happen.  in the course of our lives, in other words, our loneliness is alleviated by many different people. for example, paul and i don’t hang out anymore, but that’s okay, because i have other friends to hang out with.

i’m going to quote a passage from one of my favorite books, faulkner’s as i lay dying.  in this quote addie bundren, a dead woman, is talking about her relationship with her husband, anse.  the emphasis is mine:

He had a word, too.  Love, he called it.  But I had been used to words for a long time.  I knew that that word was like the others: just a shape to fill a lack; that when the right time came, you wouldn’t need a word for that anymore than for pride or fear.

i think about that phrase pretty often: “a shape to fill a lack.”  but i think about it in terms of people rather than words, like this: loneliness is an innate human characteristic, defined as the longing a person feels when he or she is lacking human companionship.  and as i said before, this lack of human companionship can be, and is, filled by many different people over the course of an individual lifetime.  so are these people, these loneliness-alleviators, fundamentally interchangeable?  is a friend or lover or partner or spouse just “a shape to fill a lack?”

now that, my friends, is a grim assessment.  because if that’s true, if the people in our lives are thusly interchangeable, it renders all human relationships pretty mundane, doesn’t it?  i’m not a big believer in fate, but i’ve always liked to think that there’s someone out there i’m meant to be with.  on a lesser level i’ve often thought there were people i was meant to be friends with, too.  if that’s not the case, i’m going to be pretty upset.

Sometimes I would lie by him in the dark, hearing the land that was now of my blood and flesh, and I would think: Anse.  Why Anse.  Why are you Anse.  I would think about his name until after a while I could see the word as a shape, a vessel, and I would watch him liquify and flow into it like cold molasses flowing out of the darkness into the vessel, until the jar stood full and motionless: a significant shape profoundly without life like an empty door frame; and then I would find that I had forgotten the name of the jar.


the other night i went to work trying not to go to work. what i mean is that i spent all afternoon calling my coworkers, trying to get someone to take my shift, because i think i had the whooping cough. or maybe it wasn’t the whooping cough, but some funny-colored stuff was coming out of my lungs for sure, so that’s how i knew it was bad. nobody could work for me, though, so there i was at work, trying not to go to work, with my technicolor lung butter.

i was standing near the kitchen when i heard the door open. that’s one thing i like about my restaurant, that the front door squeaks when it opens, so you can always tell when a customer’s coming or going even when you’re not watching. but i heard the door open, and i looked up, and my favorite literature professor was coming in, pushing a man in a wheelchair. the two of them sat in someone else’s section near the front of the restaurant, which was good because it would be way too awkward to wait on my former professor, but i thought maybe i would go say hi to her later. she liked those photos i took of quentin’s bridge, maybe i could tell her about when i went to see faulkner’s house.

i went into the waitstation where priscilla was pouring iced tea into glasses. “that lady at 38 was my favorite professor at U of H,” i said.
“really?” she said.
“yeah,” i said, “except i’m afraid to go over there because i don’t want to have to tell her that this is what’s become of me.”
“aww,” priscilla said as she picked up the glasses and walked out, “this isn’t what’s become of you.”

still hiding in the waitstation, i grabbed the schedule clipboard off the wall and looked at my shifts for the next week. “oh, no!” i said to one of the other waiters, who had come in and was leaning against the counter. “i asked off next friday and saturday, but i’m scheduled to work both nights.” 1
“oh yeah?” he said, not looking at me.
“yes,” i said, though i could tell he wasn’t interested. “and i bet there’s nobody who can pick up for me, either. i’m so tired of working here.” 2
“then why don’t you quit?” he said.
i looked up from the clipboard and he was staring at me, his look challenging. “it’s not that easy,” i mumbled, unable to articulate anything else. he walked away then, leaving me alone in the waitstation. 3

later, of course, i came up with a thousand and one better things to say, things both sarcastic and sincere, but mostly sarcastic.
you don’t think i look for jobs every single day?
oh, yeah, because my other career is going so well.
i’m so glad life’s that easy for you.
why would you say something like that?
well, i am having trouble fitting in my many job interviews.

but i didn’t say any of that then, because i couldn’t, because that was when i realized something. standing alone in the waitstation, hiding from a former professor, i realized that the clipboard in my hands contained a sheaf of papers which comprised the only plans i have for the rest of my life.

lately, every time i run into someone i haven’t seen in awhile, my response to the inevitable “how’ve you been?” is always a succinct “bored,” and my response to “what have you been up to?” is “nothing.” i choose to say “bored” and “nothing” because discussing the concept of boredom is, to me, preferable to discussing the x-files episode i just watched, or that sweatshirt i made into a skirt. how many hours i spent on the internet. the marginally-funny thing the dog did.

but in all the times i heard myself explain to people that i don’t really do anything, the boredom always felt temporary. this period in my life was just a natural step on the road to better things, right? it wasn’t permanent. right? after all, i spent a lot of time assembling, categorizing, and reviewing mental photographs of myself doing these better things. me walking to work on a chilly morning in a different city, me taking the dog for a walk in an unfamiliar park, me on the subway, me in a bar with a group of friends. me in my new apartment, working on something. these photos, i’d assumed, were my future.

i hung the clipboard back on the wall and stared at the schedule, my eyes filling with tears. nothing, i thought to myself, nothing i’m doing right now is going to make those photographs a reality.

after checking on my customers, i asked someone to keep an eye on them while i went to compose myself. outside in the back of the restaurant, with the grease traps and firewood and empty boxes, i sat down in a plastic chair and took a few deep breaths. several yards away, the chicken scratched methodically at the ground. i observed her process with interest: she would scratch the gravel with her feet, peck at whatever she had unearthed, and then scratch again. scratch, peck, scratch. i watched for awhile longer, wondering if i could find some significance in her actions. deciding there was no significance to be found, i went back inside.

and i worked. i talked to people and brought them drinks and food and processed their credit cards. i avoided the front of the restaurant as best i could until the professor left. i said hi to freddy, who was sitting near the bar. “i like your hair bondage,” he said. i wanted to tell him it was the only thing holding my brains in. i wanted to tell him about the thing i’d just realized, because i thought it might help. but i didn’t.

mostly, though, i thought about siegfried and roy. i saw that special the other day where maria skeletor interviewed them about roy’s tiger mauling and his subsequent surgeries and rehabilitation and his new outlook on life. i found the whole thing to be pretty cheesy for the most part, but there was this one scene where siegfried was talking about the strength of his and roy’s relationship, and something he said (i can’t even remember what it was) was so sweet and genuine that i almost cried, just a little bit.

of course i berated myself for it immediately, because, jesus christ, what the hell kind of person cries during a siegfried and roy special? at the time i’d decided i was crying because that kind of emotional bond is pretty touching and in some ways enviable, no matter how sequin-spangled it may be. in retrospect, though, maybe i was crying with envy because siegfried and roy had jobs.

1. the schedule situation has since been fixed.
2. the problem isn’t really the restaurant, though, is it? it’s me.
3. this situation has been fixed as well. we talked it out, things are okay, etc.

la actitud discriminatoria

in spanish class we are talking about freedom and laws and censorship. each unit in the spanish textbook has a different theme, and at the start of every unit, there is a list of questions that the professor asks the class about the theme. she asks us about banned books and the spanish inquisition and civil rights and martin luther king and religion and, “¿has leído los versos satánicos de salman rushdie?” (have you read the satanic verses by salman rushdie?)

as soon as she asks that question, i know i will be the only person in the class who has read it, and i am. after all, i have another rushdie right there in my backpack. “¿alisón?” the professor says, which is not how you spell my name, but that’s how she pronounces it. she asks me what the satanic verses is about and i can’t really explain. then she asks me if i liked it.

sí, me gusta, pero no lo entiendo mucho porque no sé el koran,” i reply. (yes, i like it, but i don’t understand it much because i don’t know the koran. (in my spanish, everything takes place in the present tense, because i’m not comfortable with el pasado (or el futuro, for that matter))) the professor smiles at me and moves on to another question.

“dork,” chris mutters from the chair next to me.

“i know,” i say. and then we talk about los derechos (rights) for los homosexuales and la inclinación sexual and el heterosexualismo.

in cultural psychology class this guy does a presentation on homosexuality. he tells us that when he was seventeen he was walking down the street holding hands with his boyfriend, and a group of men jumped them, beat them with baseball bats, and stabbed them several times. i pay attention, although during most cultural psych presentations i read the next day’s assigned articles, among them an awful rush limbaugh one about prayer in schools and the limits the constitution places on congress in terms of religion.

the constitution places many limits on congress, i learn in government class. i learn, too, about constitutional amendments and about court cases in history related to civil rights: plessy v. ferguson, brown v. board of education.

i write an essay for cultural psych on an article called “white privilege: unpacking the invisible knapsack,” which is about white privilege as a hidden form of el racismo (racism). after i turn it in, someone gets up to present an article on muslims and racial profiling and says, “has anyone read the satanic verses by salman rushdie?”

i don’t like when my classes relate to one another this way. it makes me feel like i’m trapped inside a bad novel, where poignant themes are hurled at me in an attempt to capture my emotions. but these stabs at symbolism are thinly-veiled; they do nothing but insult my intelligence, oversimplify my problems, and cheapen my experience. they do not fool me into thinking that “everything is connected” or “all things have a purpose” or “there are more things in heaven and earth, horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” at this point, the world is about the size of my apartment.

listen, don’t look at me that way, okay? i know i’m in the middle of telling you a story, and i’m stalling. but it’s taking all my energy to cement my face into the only two expressions it has nowadays: lost puppy dog and inscrutable, dead-eyed waitress. once i’ve got the masks on autopilot, i’ll be able to get back to you. until then, i’ll be writing a paper on intolerancia and discriminación.