A Eulogy For Myself, In Anticipation of Dying Young

ed. note: About a week ago, in the wee small hours, I was almost hit by a car. The experience got me thinking about the practical details of dying unexpectedly, whether everyone involved would know my burial preferences or what songs I’d like played at the service (is Iron & Wine’s “Naked As We Came” too obvious?). It also made me think of what I’d want to say to the people who love me enough to come to my funeral. This is what I came up with.

i.
I would hope that by the time these words are read aloud in front of a captive audience – you all look wonderful in your classic black suits and ornate veils, by the way – my life will barely resemble the one I lead now. If all goes according to plan I will have died a peaceful death at home on my dairy farm, my gentle heifers Cownie Chung and Mary Tyler Moo-er grazing in a nearby pasture, the hypermodernist farmhouse I designed and built an enduring metaphor for my simultaneously forward-thinking and self-indulgent nature. I will be survived by my wife Helga, our three sons Sufjan, Maxwell, and Maximillian, and a princely Australian Shepherd named Sir Francis Barkin that I love more than the four of them combined.

Of course, life has a way of laughing at our plans. I can say with some confidence that I would never have met most of the people in this room had I received the future I laid out for myself. What a miracle that turned out to be! No less a modern prophet than Garth Brooks once observed, “Some of God’s greatest gifts are unanswered prayers.” The beautiful faces in this room are living testimony to the truth of that sentiment.

Some people preoccupy themselves with uncertainties about life after death. I have no such questions: I know that I will keep living. I don’t mean that in the strictly spiritual sense (although I certainly believe that to be the case as well). Perhaps you remember that essay I wrote about those aspects of other people’s personalities that have rubbed off on me, that have become integrated into my identity, inseparable from my soul. As you have been grafted into me, I have been grafted into you. I live on through you.

I live on when you garnish your butternut squash soup with toasted pistachios and some shards of Parmesan. I live on when you step around to execute a perfect inside-out counterloop, preferably around the net and for the win. I live on when you go top shelf on some sticky summer day, floating above the defender as though carried by cherubs. I live on when you complain that Tarantino’s character work got particularly shoddy after Jackie Brown. When you cry readily at a film, when you order the plainest thing on a menu to accurately gauge its quality, when you sit quietly and just absorb the unceasing human drama playing out in the lives of those around you, I get to live in you.

You found me malleable and seized that opportunity, molding me like sculptor’s clay. No doubt your fingerprints have been baked into my spirit by some cosmic kiln. (Hopefully I wasn’t murdered, or this metaphor just got very awkward from an evidentiary perspective.) Maybe ee cummings had something like this in mind when he wrote,

losing through you what seemed myself;i find
selves unimaginably mine;beyond
sorrow’s own joys and hoping’s very fears

yours is the light by which my spirit’s born:
yours is the darkness of my soul’s return
–you are my sun,my moon,and all my stars

And even if he didn’t, we get to misappropriate his words and intent to our hearts’ content. That is, after all, one of the beauties of art.

That is also one of the beauties of life. It is up to us to interpret and reinterpret our stories, and we can give value and meaning to their details. Superficial tidbits can be imbued with depths unfathomable in the moment. We own our biographies – as Chef John might have said, you are the John Dory of your life’s story – and it is up to us to decide when fidelity to a greater truth trumps fidelity to objective historical accuracy.

And so it is with how I’d like to be remembered. My closest friends no doubt remember our running gag about how the manager at Famous Daves once gifted us with a $7 trillion-dollar meal platter, a not-so-subtle joke about how easily we’ll exaggerate things in retelling, but also a nod to how prestigious, how august that gesture made us feel. When we were still poor college students, savoring the irony of buying kid’s meals for our weekly man nights, this wonderful woman gave us a meal that made us feel like warrior kings. The absolute cost of it is meaningless minutia compared to the emotional value of that gift.

Just a couple nights ago, I was trying to describe to a friend the feeling of being stranded at home with a broken-down car. I crafted an image of a frontiersman in a lonesome log cabin, deep in the wilderness, coughing up white smoke from the pine log that he’d not properly dried before adding to the fire, longing for human contact from anyone who wasn’t his softly-snoring beardly brother. But he dares not venture outside. “He’d die,” I said. “There are bears in these woods.”

In my mind, then, when you retell my stories, the best way to honor me is to identify the kernel of truth each of those stories was told to convey, and to use your best judgment about how to capture that truth in the retelling. Maybe that means that car we found just outside of Montevideo was shrouded in fog when it was, in fact, probably a clear winter night, and maybe the man we found stiff and rigid at the steering wheel was already turning blue. Maybe that means that balcony I pulled you from was on the fifteenth floor rather than the third. Maybe you lost three thousand dollars instead of seventy-five that time we got sushi and I told you that I loved you.

If it’s the feeling that matters, if it’s the emotional experience that is in some way the real truth, the image we use to craft that feeling or evoke that emotion is as real as what we otherwise call reality. Perhaps reality itself is itself a handcrafted image, its sole purpose to reveal these feelings to us. Perhaps these shadow plays are the only way by which such truths can be revealed: “Now I see in a mirror, dimly.”

“But when the perfect comes, the incomplete will pass away.”

I don’t know how I’ll be remembered. Hopefully my award-winning cheese hybrids (like a cross between Gorgonzola and Gouda called, you guessed it, “Blouda”) will merit mention, as will my bestselling self-help extraordinaire “The Macks Effect: Making Life Your Bitch Through Reverse Psychology.” Others will focus instead on my unlikely scientific breakthrough, the discovery of the heaviest element known to man (your mom). But if I had to choose, I hope the stories you tell are about how together we became more than ourselves. I hope you’d remember first those times it felt like our hearts had left our bodies and were dancing together on a stage only we could see. I hope you take comfort recalling those times we looked at each other with tears in our eyes, unsure if the pains we endured were woven from my wounds or yours, or if the joy we felt was your victory or mine. Were you the harmony to my melody, or was it the other way around? It couldn’t matter less. Together we sang a beautiful song.

 

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Photo credit: Daniel Mick

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On the Circumference of Lake Superior

iv.

It’s already difficult to picture, standing near its shore, where Lake Superior could possibly end, but when the sky’s a dripping, drizzling gray it becomes practically impossible. The horizon seems to extend above the tree line, as though the lake is curling up over itself and dumping the excess back into its basin. I can’t help but wonder at the first people to encounter it, whether they thought they could find something on the other side or if they believed it to be the edge of the world. Was there an intrepid skeptic who dared put it to the test, walking north only to return from the south several months later?

These were the questions on my mind as I sat at the bar at Castle Danger, sipping a George Hunter Stout – “an American version of the style with aromas of molasses, licorice, maple, coffee and cream that are also echoed in the flavor.” I also wondered if there were more beers on tap than daydrinkers sporting identical trucker-hat-and-camo ensembles.  The tap list boasted eight beers. “Did I already charge you?” asked the bartender, a squat middle-aged woman with silver-gold hair and a ready smile, as I tipped back the last dregs. “I can never remember when someone’s paid or if I’ve just given away beer for free. It’s a nightmare.”

“Your nightmare is someone else’s dream,” I replied as I pulled out my wallet.

“Don’t you want another one? The cream ale is really nice after the stout.”

I declined. “It’d be bad manners to show up to a wedding drunk. Besides, I have to drive back to Duluth for it.”

When she asked if I was excited to go, I smiled and said, “Sure, who doesn’t like an open bar?” But in truth I was dreading it. I tried dodging the invitation once it became clear it was coming, but the bride tracked me down like a blood hound. Didn’t she know you’re not supposed to bring prior romantic baggage to your wedding?

It would have been easy enough to simply decline the invitation. The wedding was in Duluth, after all, and that’s a difficult trip without a car. Scheduling it for 5 p.m. on a Friday meant I’d have to take time off work, another reasonable excuse. And even though there’s no lingering attachment, a betting man would think it’d be, at the very least, an uncomfortable experience. But in the end, I couldn’t convince myself that I wasn’t just trying to hurt her in the most passive way possible. Could I say with total, unshakeable confidence that there wasn’t any part of me that wanted her to notice my absence, that wanted that absence to sting and linger, no part of me that wanted that slight to fester and damage? What would it say about me as a person if I hid behind a reasonable excuse in even the most miniscule attempt to inflict pain on someone I have claimed to love?

It was convenient, to say the least, that my ability to feel, to commune with my emotional self, has been so eroded these last couple months. I don’t like to think of it as a numbness; rather, it’s as though that emotional self is unconscious, passed out in a drunken stupor. He’ll come to just long enough to yell something angry – and probably offensive – before slipping again into restless slumber. It hardly matters which emotions have come for a visit when he’s snoring loudly and mumbling about Vietnam. They’ll have to come back later if they want an audience.

This enabled me, at first, to watch the ceremony with a detached fascination. There were fewer groomsmen than bridesmaids. The pastor had brought a football as a prop, despite the fact that neither bride nor groom cared for the sport. (I’m still not totally clear about the point of that. Something to do with Chris Berman’s “He. Could. Go. All. The. Way.” catchphrase?) But when I saw her eyes well up with tears of joy, and I watched his gentle thumb dry her cheek, I became self-conscious of tears in my own eyes. Was I feeling something, or were my mirror neurons just firing blindly like a caricature of an old prospector? Moving my hands towards my face felt too conspicuous. I let the dampness linger.

It’s fair to ask whether some achievements are worth the effort. In her journal, Sylvia Plath wrote, “The danger is that in this move toward new horizons and far directions, that I may lose what I have now, and not find anything except loneliness.” For the fur traders of the North West Company, it was essential to know how far the lake would stretch. For those early few who were driven only by curiosity, one has to think the satisfaction of attaining that knowledge would be tempered by the realization that they’d only ended up back where they started, but with salt water running down their faces.

A Cluster of Words Simulating the Way Steven Macks Had an Existential Crisis at the Dentist Office (Blog Titles Inspired By Sufjan Stevens Songs)

i.
“That doesn’t look right,” she said behind me as I stared up at the ceiling, the treble in her voice deadened by her dental mask. “It could be an occlusion or maybe even a cavity. But the whole root of your tooth is dark on the x-ray.”

When I woke up Saturday morning, an emergency dental visit did not seem to be in the realm of possibility. But when I got out of bed and brushed my teeth, I felt an unmistakable grit on my brush. I spit into my hand and put it under a gentle tap and let the water pass through my shaking fingers like a prospector panning for gold. Soon enough, I found my treasure: sharp flecks of mother of pearl. I ran my tongue around my teeth and found an unfamiliar texture, like a corn kernel made of shale, on my lower lateral incisor.

Shit. I’m going to lose a front tooth.

A quick Google search revealed three dentists within a mile of my house. Fortunately, the one open Saturdays – Bucca Dental – was also in my insurance network. A follow-up Google search told me that “Bucca” is a storm spirit of British yore, a wraith believed to haunt the abandoned mines of coastal regions. That sounded to me like a sturdy, romantic name for a dental office, so I got dressed and walked over.

It has been my experience that all dental hygienists are gorgeous young women, and Bucca’s was no exception. She had orangish-red hair and the slender body of a middle-distance runner, the sort of combination that made me think of a defiant maple still gleaming despite a waning autumn. I also couldn’t help but wonder whether my dental visits growing up have had an impact on my dating life. Meet a beautiful woman. Fall in love a little. Endure a span of pain, and criticism, and judgment. Try again in six months.

At any rate, by this point she had summoned the dentist, a regal and handsome Hispanic man named Edgar Mantilla. He looked like a Mexican version of the actor Ray Wise. “Let’s have a look,” he said, gesturing for me to open my mouth. The exam last less than ten seconds. “This is nothing. It’s a calculus.”

What does this have to do with derivatives? I wondered to myself. Confusion must have registered on my face.

“It’s calcium buildup. We’ll scrape it off and you can go.”

The voice behind me chimed back in. “There’s still the matter of this occlusion, Doctor.” I glanced back to see green eyes shining like traffic lights against her cerulean facemask. I couldn’t help but wonder if occlusions were dealbreakers.

“Ah yes,” he replied in a cadence close enough to Emperor Palpatine’s to be unsettling. He explained that a spiral cavity had cut off the blood flow to my tooth, and it was likely dead. He proposed an experiment to illustrate his point, and disappeared momentarily to retrieve a shard of dry ice the size of a pebble. Instructing me to tell him when it started hurting, he pressed the dry ice against my poor occluded tooth. I felt nothing, and so I shrugged slightly. Then he moved the it to the adjacent tooth and I felt a burst of intense pain. He did it again to drive the point home. Nothing. Nothing. Intense pain. “See? You’ll need a root canal.”

I thought to ask when I’d be able to eat hard cheeses again, but I didn’t think he’d get the reference.

lizlemon2

Three Conversations

1.

The exam room was maybe eight feet by ten feet, with the requisite medical posters adorning the walls and the obligatory forest-green bed spanning most of the far side of the room. The nurse sat across the desk from me, clicking through the patient database, hunched forward with fatigue at just ten in the morning. She was lanky, almost six feet tall, and wore a lab coat over her blue scrubs. I wondered if it was common for nurses to wear lab coats, though I didn’t think to ask. After a protracted silence she said, “You remind me of Keanu Reeves.”

“Thanks?” I offered with a slight chuckle, imagining for a moment myself in place of the most inexplicable movie star in film history. That was a backhanded compliment if I’ve ever received one.

“Why is that funny?” she asked, tilting her head forward so her eyes bobbed above her ruby rimmed glasses.

“Oh, it’s funny because I was just reading an academic paper on the neutral mask, which helps explain why Keanu Reeves was such a successful action star.”

“Are you a professor or something?”

“No, I’m just constantly curious.”

She sat up straight. “What is the neutral mask?” I explained to her that, in theory anyway, one of the keys to blockbuster movie success is having a character who doesn’t emote much, if at all. The idea is that the more subtlety and emotion a character expresses, the more cognitive strain we feel in processing why he or she is having that reaction, and the harder it becomes for us to psychically substitute our personalities for theirs. This is why Neo is so bland in the Matrix, why Bella Swan is expressionless in Twilight, and one of the components that makes superhero films so popular: we can insert ourselves into their character and see the world of the movie through their eyes. (It’s interesting to me that the neutral mask concept was introduced by the French actor Jacques Lecoq, a mime who taught his students to use the neutral mask in order to develop their ability to convey feeling with the rest of their bodies.) We project our own feelings onto them, and that’s what allows us to feel immersed in an implausible story.

A conversation of my favorite films and directors ensued (The Lives of Others, Shaun of the Dead, and No Country For Old Men all came up). Although I inquired about hers, but she seemed reluctant, almost embarrassed to share, like finding yourself confessing to a wine snob your love of three buck Chuck. She eventually admitted to her love for Fight Club and, to her relief, I returned the sentiment.

“That’s interesting,” she said as she played with her silver and gold spiky hair. “You’re so interesting.”

2.

Recently, and to my surprise, I’ve been told by a half a dozen different people that I am a good conversationalist. Given that at least one of these people studied communications, I found it difficult to disagree. While it’s not as though I had any particular evidence to support such a dissent, I had always taken for granted that the opposite was true. Considering the ease at which we can selectively recall certain events but not those that contradict it, I’d managed to ignore the myriad pleasant, deep conversations I’d ever had in favor of those occasions where someone I’d tried to talk to was either reluctant or shut me down entirely. (Self-scouting notes: I am quick to assume that any social unpleasantness I experience is my fault and my fault alone).

But this revelation, as welcome as it was, cast new light on some of those joyous and fulfilling conversational highlights I look back upon, a relational proxy for athletic glory days or the like. The three hours at Nina’s with my friend Katie, for example, perched upon our thrones at the top of the stairs, is a memory clear and warm to me that the paint still seems moist in my mental portrait. Or that lonely January night saved by an impromptu chat with Jasmim, spanning topics from wall art to empathy to the religious influence of our parents, her brown Disney eyes welling up with tears as she opened up to a man who was a stranger mere minutes prior. Whereas before I’d thought these times were moments of developing rapport or an emotional connection, now I have to wonder instead if they were as equally-matched tennis players sharing a long volley.

3.

My friend was waiting for me at Five Watt when I arrived. “Just got here,” she’d texted a few minutes earlier. It’s poppin!” I’m almost always the first to show up when I’m meeting up with someone for coffee, or drinks, or what have you. Perpetually early. Saturday reminded me of a scene from 30 Rock, when Liz is introducing her new boyfriend Floyd to her boss, Jack Donaghy. “I hope this isn’t too boring for you,” Liz offers apologetically as they walk into the restaurant.

“Are you kidding? Jack Donaghy’s a legend. I’ve read his book like twenty times!”

“Jack wrote a book?”

“Yeah, ‘Jack Attack: The Art of Aggression in Business.’” Floyd spots Jack waiting for them at their table, sipping Scotch. “Oh no, he got here before us. You’re not supposed to let that happen. That’s chapter two in the book.”

When we sat down, she told me she wasn’t thirsty. I came back with a Busy Beaver in hand (one of Five Watt’s signature drinks, made with maple syrup, Blackstrap bitters, cinnamon, molasses, black pepper, and espresso, and it is absolutely delightful) and offered her a sip. “I don’t actually drink coffee.”

“Wait, really?”

She explained that she didn’t like the way it made her feel, and that listening to what her body was telling her was something she was learning how to do. More people should learn that lesson. She then sat graciously sipping water in a temple of caffeine as we enjoyed a conversation.

4.

Kevin and I had been waiting at Lyon’s for almost an hour. His friend Mike, we had been assured and reassured, was on his way and would be with us shortly. Jon would be bringing his girlfriend: “I think she’s the one,” or some variant, he’d texted to Kevin, with the not-so-subtle subtext that we should help make him look good. I’d been warned that Jon was something of a meathead. A former pro football player, and retaining the physique of a current one, he had no patience for people he didn’t care for, and no use for pretense or drivel. Not everyone was going to like him, and he could in no way care less.

They finally arrived. Jon shook my hand and quickly turned his attention to Kevin. Laura asked all of us if we wanted anything to drink. It was 1 a.m. at this point. “Nah, we’re trying to sober up.” She smiled and headed up to the bar. “Isn’t she perfect?” Jon asked. “I mean, aside from the fact that she needs to lose like forty pounds, but I’ve told her that.”

Laura came back with a shot and a beer for each of them. Jon and Kevin were already lost in conversation about life in Colorado, a discussion to which Laura and I had been denied entry and would have had nothing to add. I decided to play dumb, one of my favorite conversational tactics. “I hear you’re a financial analyst,” I offered. “What’s the difference between that and the guy who drags me out to coffee and tries to look at my bills?”

She laughed. “That’s a financial advisor. A financial analyst gives guidance to institutions, helps them make investment decisions and things like that.”

I asked her if she liked her job. She said she loved it: it paid well, it afforded her the ability to travel to more countries she could list, and they had even paid for her to be tutored in French. “There’s been a trade-off, though,” she admitted. “My social life has suffered.”

“I have a friend who recently confided in me that she was worried the same thing would happen to her. You can’t have it all, or at least you can’t have it all at once. You have to prioritize.”

She agreed. “And I’m glad I put my career first. I’m on a CFO track. I can have a family at any point, but it’d be almost impossible to break back into where I’m at if I’d picked that first.”

Around this point, Jon started to notice that his girlfriend and I were not waiting patiently for him to drop conversational crumbs for us to lap up. Some men, when they want to assert dominance in a non-threatening way will offer a compliment. This is a subtle way to express that he is the source of affirmation, and that therefore everyone else should consider themselves lower in the hierarchy. “Hey bro, I like your coat. Maybe I should borrow it for my interview.”

I laughed to myself. I’m not sure if he noticed. “There are plenty of Banana Republics around.” I turned my attention back to Laura. She lowered her voice. “Can I tell you something I haven’t told anybody yet?”

“Of course!”

“I’ve been offered a teaching position at Columbia.”

“That’s awesome!”

“Come on, you’re probably boring him,” interrupted Jon.

“I’m passionate about my job! When you’re passionate, people find that interesting!” Was I interested? Did we, over the course of a half an hour or so of polite conversation, develop rapport enough that justified making me the first person to share in her news? I don’t know. Perhaps that Keanu comparison was more apt than I’d thought.

Meme credit to Michael Vanden Oever

Meme credit to Michael Vanden Oever

No Free Lunch

Please, remember me
My misery
And how it lost me all I wanted
– Iron & Wine, “The Trapeze Swinger

Across the street from the train station, on the south side of 5th street, there was a beggar holding the requisite cardboard sign. I couldn’t really read what it said, but despite the usual club-goers and the traffic on Hennepin, it was quiet enough that night that I could hear his conversations. “I’ll do a dance for you. If you like it, you can give me a dollar,” he’d say to passing pedestrians. Sometimes they’d laugh. Usually they’d ignore him. Before too long, though, a well-meaning young man in a blue Oxford and a black North Face windbreaker walked up with a doggy bag in hand. “Here. I got you a bite to eat.”

The beggar mumbled something in reply – a humble but practiced “Thanks,” perhaps – but accepted the white bag reluctantly, as if he thought there was a fifty-fifty shot it contained scarabs rather than food. He glanced inside before setting the bag beside him, reciprocating a wide smile with a curt nod. He watched as North Face walked away: as soon as the do-gooder turned the corner, the beggar slogged over to the nearest trash can and threw away his free meal.

I considered rummaging through the trash to see what the bag contained, but my curiosity wasn’t strong enough for me to bypass the arriving train. Being late on a Wednesday, the cabin was predictably empty. Two people had their heads down on the seats in front of them, striking the “Heads up, seven up!” pose I learned so well in second grade. (Train travel note: discounting rush hour, you’ll find that most people sit on the last car. It didn’t take me long to realize that this is because the station entrances tend to be closer to the rear of the stationary train and most people can’t be bothered to walk the length of the platform. I, on the other hand, prefer to defer my laziness to end of my trip and board the car that will be closest to my exit.)

That night I wanted a distraction, and as amusing as it was for me to imagine some sprawling city-wide game of Seven Up, it wasn’t about to cut it.

The next station gave me people to watch. I mistook them for a couple at first. They were both attractive: her with sandy-blonde hair and what seemed like green eyes – or maybe her emerald jacket just drew the green out of them? – and him dark-haired with murderer’s thumbs and, despite it being well past five, a square jaw without a hint of stubble . What drew my eyes were his shoes, rich burgundy wing tips without laces. They seemed unnaturally stiff, as though toes had never flexed against the polished leather. Even after I noticed the titanium rod where his ankle should have been, it took a moment before it dawned on me. This man is missing his legs.

That detail, perhaps morbidly or unfairly, piqued my interest in what I’d brushed off as a run-of-the-mill date night. But by then it was too late to eavesdrop. “Well, this is my stop,” he announced.

“Okay.”

“This was a lot of fun. We should do it again.”

“Yeah,” she said, somewhat flatly. “We should.” He gave her a side hug and shuffled out the door.

I glanced over at her and I felt anger swell up. Have you ever been irrationally angry at a total stranger over something completely innocuous? It’s a good sign you’re projecting. How could she? I bet it’s because he’s an amputee. Just how shallow is this woman? It always says more about you than it does about them.

I don’t remember what she said that interrupted the self-analysis of my contempt. With how much time I spend speaking to strangers – and just how often people ask me for my favorite ice breakers – you’d think I’d have a more natural memory for conversation starters. But the best conversations seem to flow from something said off the cuff. I wish I remember what she’d said. All I can say is that one second I was fuming, and the next second we were talking. Detached from the immediate context of such events, it seems remarkable to me that people open up to strangers on public transit, or that they’d deconstruct elements of their lives in the apparent hope that a fresh set of eyes could help them reassemble in a more comfortable arrangement. All that to say, at some point she asked me in some arrangement of words, “Why do men ask women on dates if they know there’s no future for their relationship?”

I could think of three reasons. “Either they don’t know that they don’t have a shot, or they think they can change your mind, or they see inherent value in going through the motions and issuing the invitation regardless.”

(She scoffed at the third possibility. When I told her I’d done it, she pressed me for an explanation. All I could think of was baseball: if you’re at bat, in the bottom of the 9th with two out and a full count, a certain type of man will always swing at that next pitch. Although she nodded her head, I’m not sure she could relate.)

“Is that what happened tonight?” I asked. “You don’t think you have a future with that guy?”

She nodded her head.

I often finding myself asking the wrong question. What followed was a discussion of why she didn’t think he was right for her – a conversation I had no way to contribute to, not knowing him at all. What I should have asked but didn’t was, “Believing that there was no future, why did you go on the date?” Maybe hers would have been a disappointing and banal reason (“I didn’t have any plans” or “I couldn’t think of a good excuse” or “Well, he asked, and I have a rule about that”). Maybe it would have been something interesting like, “I didn’t want people to think I was shallow for turning down an amputee.” Perhaps the presumption that had me fuming was, in fact, her whole motivation for going out with him in the first place. I’ll never know.

Past her sandy-blonde head I saw the familiar sight of the Lexington Aldi. “Well, this is my stop,” I said as I stood up. “It was nice meeting you.”

She sat up straight. “Actually, we haven’t met yet.” Then she thrust her hand in mind and told me her name.

An Empty Church

Historic St. Anthony Main always smells like rotting fish. Being near the Mississippi would be bad enough on its own, but all of the canals and rivulets they created in order load Pillsbury flour onto barges only amplifies the problem. If you walk down the trails below Father Hennepin Park, you can sometimes get a glimpse of a gull tearing apart a catfish behind the obscuring mantilla of a man-made estuary, the carcass fermenting and baking in the summer sun. Minnesota’s own katsuobushi.

That’s about the only complaint I could make about St. Anthony Main. The brick boulevard – or are they cobblestone? – gives it an idyllic quality, one that’s only enhanced by the view of the Stone Arch Bridge and the distant lights of downtown Minneapolis, a view that gets sweeter as the evening turns into night. And there’s always something to watch: dedicated joggers with fluorescent shoes and awkward running motions; dog walkers, sticking out for their attempts to be inconspicuous, as they bag up their civic duty; and couples, some stalked by photographers, others trailed by posers, all in search of the perfect façade.

She’d wanted to meet down at Aster Café, so that’s where I waited for her arrival, watching couple after couple gaze wistfully at each other with the Guthrie in blatant view behind them. She was running late. “My phone has been dead all day so I’m gonna let it get a bit of juice and then I’ll be heading out real soon.”

“Okay,” I replied. “You’ll narrowly miss happy hour, but that’s okay.”

“Poop. Did they have apps on happy hour? No, don’t tell me. It will be better if I don’t know.”

I checked my watch: fifteen minutes til last call. So I motioned that waitress over and ordered two cheese plates and a flatbread. I asked her to wait as long as possible before putting in the order. She ignored the last request, and the food came out within minutes.

My phone buzzed again. “Perhaps I’ll get some sweet potato fries….”

Bzzz.

“If they have them….”

Bzzz.

“Which they probably don’t.”

They did not.

Aster

I thought I’d be feeling nervous or excited, but I wasn’t. I felt nothing, just an emptiness where I anticipated a feeling. Confusion found itself sucked into that vacuum. History was screaming at me to feel something, anything at all. Seeing her was never without jitters of some kind: even if it wasn’t always excitement, there would at least be a sense of anticipation. But now, as I waited for (…my friend? It felt like an abuse of the term. My ex? I could never get comfortable with that expression, either…) this woman I hadn’t seen in months, ambivalence was all I could summon to feel.

One Sunday this last January, before all the college kids came back to school, I decided to sleep in on Sunday morning expecting to be able to hit up the evening service at church. It was one of those blistering winter days where the temperature dipped to 20 below before the sun went down. I took the 16 to the Metrodome station and walked the half mile to the Hope East building, but when I got there all the lights were out: I’d forgotten they don’t have a third service over winter break. Expecting the warmth of both the building and people who cared for me, I found instead an empty building, cold and dark. So I trudged back to the Metrodome and waited under heat lamps for the next 16 to take me home.

None of that is to say our dinner was bad. It wasn’t. It was all pleasant, and sometimes exceptional. We laughed together in a way we hadn’t in months, maybe years. But my stomach didn’t rise into my throat when she finally walked up to the table. My hair didn’t stand on end when she brushed up against me on our saunter over the bridge. My heart didn’t flutter when she hugged me goodbye. The only emotion I felt was a vague sadness that this person, once so special, so primary to me, was now just another person.

There’s a scene in the movie Swingers, arguably its climax, where two friends are talking about how to move on from a relationship. Rob, played by Ron Livingston, tries to point Jon Favreau’s Mike to the future. “You gotta get on with your life. You gotta let go of the past. And Mikey, when you do, I’m telling you: the future is beautiful, all right? Look out the window. It’s sunny every day here. It’s like manifest destiny. And everything that is past is prologue to this.”

Mike, though, is preoccupied with the hurdle instead of the finish line. “How did you get over it? I mean, how long did it take?”

“Sometimes it still hurts,” he admits. “You know how it is, man. It’s like, you wake up every day and it hurts a little bit less, and then you wake up one day and it doesn’t hurt at all. And the funny thing is… this is kinda weird, but it’s like, it’s like you almost miss that pain.”

“You miss the pain?”

“Yeah, for the same reason you that you miss her. Because you lived with it for so long.”

Ellen Goodman, the Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, said, “There’s a trick to the ‘graceful exit.’ It begins with the vision to recognize when a job, a life stage, or a relationship is over – and let it go. It means leaving what’s over without denying its validity or its past importance to our lives. It involves a sense of future, a belief that every exit line is an entry, that we are moving up, rather than out.” That’s in every way beautiful and optimistic. And yet it’s still so confusing to expect to feel and feel nothing, to long for an ache of nostalgia that’s nowhere to be found. Maybe emptiness is another word for the readiness to be filled.

Aesop and Street Harassment

In September 2011, while sitting at the bus stop on the corner of Aurora and University in Midway, a middle-aged woman walked up to where I was sitting and propositioned me for sex. I was dressed well that day: I was wearing a pink checked shirt, a royal-blue polka dot tie – half-Windsor knot, of course – and a dark-gray cardigan with black toggles. I liked dressing up before work those days, when I worked as a cook. One thing a lot of people don’t consider about cooks is that it’s a physically-demanding job, one that requires working around and above hot surfaces and lifting heavy loads, all at a brisk pace and for hours at a time. Cooks are always sweaty and gross at the end of their shift. If they want to feel comfortable and confident in their appearance it has to come at the start of the day.

To be clear, she didn’t seem out of the ordinary as she approached. She was about 5’4, I’d say, wore gaudy turquoise sunglasses and carried herself in a distinctly hen-like fashion, but none of that struck me as peculiar. (When I’ve told this story in the past, people often ask me if she was a drug addict. I have no way of knowing, but she didn’t conform to my stereotype of such a person.) She gazed down from my face to my feet and back up and said, “Mmm!” in a nasally alto. “I could use you.”
“Uhm… for what?”

“Sex. Do you live around here?”

I’m not used to dealing with people who are being so direct. Even the Mormons that I meet ask for my name before they wax on about Joseph Smith. “And to think I just got dressed.”

She chuckled and changed the subject to the weather.

This who exchange has been on my mind as I’ve been thinking about the ongoing discussion of catcalling, street harassment, and how men and women think about these issues. I have plenty of thoughts about those things, and about how threatened and uncomfortable some women are made to feel by complete strangers. It just occurs to me that it’s almost impossible for me to relate, despite having multiple experiences that could be defined as street harassment. And that’s because I don’t feel threatened. When it happens to me, I think it’s funny.

I’m not saying it’s funny in general. I worry sometimes for certain friends when they have to walk alone in downtown Minneapolis. And I certainly don’t laugh when the women in my life share their experiences with me. It’s not funny that it happens to other people. It’s funny when it happens to me.

Every time I think I’ve come to an informed opinion on these things, I have to stop and remember that I can’t really empathize. I’ve never felt afraid or vulnerable out in public, and I’ve never thought that I could be in danger (even though there have been times that I really, really should have felt like I was in danger). I’m a tall, stocky, physically-imposing dude. I have the luxury of being snarky when someone walks up to me and asks for sex. And I never have to fear physical reprisal for doing so. Even men tend to give me a wide berth when they see my lumberjack beard.

That’s not to say I feel my opinion has no merit. I may even end up sharing it soon. It’s necessary, though, to contextualize my experience and acknowledge how it differs from what women experience. Having an opinion is all well and good. But any opinion that feels alien to what people actually experience on a day-to-day level is worthless at best.

I See Fire

When I say the coupe was on fire, I don’t mean that there was a little smoke slipping out from under the hood. I mean it was blazing: the flames climbed four or five feet above the car’s roof, its gun-metal gray smoke billowed in a cylinder as thick as the trunk of a redwood. It was a flicker of dystopia – or the somber news footage I remember from the war-torn Balkans. Flaming cars do not belong in the parking lot of the Midway Rainbow Foods. It was a sight equal parts astonishing and captivating, one impossible to reconcile from my seat in the glistening new Green Line cabin.

Even before the fire, the train ride had been eventful. The Hennepin Avenue station where I boarded is positioned awkwardly in front of both Sneaky Pete’s and a strip club. (After just a few minutes of watching the rope line and pedestrians from the station platform, it becomes obvious which men would make the sharp, swift bank into the doors of the latter. They have the tendency to grimace when they notice the line blocking their path.) Despite the throng of club-goers and night owls, the only other person waiting on the platform was a young, slender brunette woman. She was wearing workout gear: yoga pants, a track jacket, Reebok cross trainers with hot pink highlights. And she was crying.

We boarded the train together and sat across from each other in an otherwise-empty cabin. I glanced over at her. Her arms were crossed tightly across her chest, almost like she was hugging herself, and her lips were pressed together as if to quarantine her voice. I opened my mouth almost as a reflex. I wanted to say something – I don’t know if the “damsel in distress” thing is hardwired into men in general, or if it’s just me, but few things swell my sympathy like a woman crying. Call me sexist if you must. But I couldn’t think of anything of any value to say.

As luck would have it, we were afforded a timely interruption. Another woman, slightly older than the first, came aboard on the next stop. She was wearing a leopard-print top underneath a faded denim vest. Her perfume preceded her by three paces. She sat in the seat immediately in front of me, tapping her half-inch long fingernails on the handrail and muttering, “That was the worst date of my life.”

That was too much for me to resist. “Excuse me,” I said. She swung her head around. “What made your date so bad?”

Out of the corner of my eye, I could see our fellow passenger riveted while awaiting her answer. Apparently, her date was more interested in getting high than he was in the date. “He ask me if he could use the drugs!” she groaned. “When I said no, he got drunk on the liquor!”

“Yikes,” said track jacket, breaking her quarantine.

“It was awful. I didn’t even wait for him to pay. I just left.”

I let out a chuckle. “On the bright side, though,” I offered, “your next date can’t possibly go so badly!”

She didn’t appreciate the joke. “No. I am never going out with him again.”

At that point, I looked back over at track jacket. She was smiling slightly, but her cerulean irises looked luminous in contrast to the bloodshot whites. I must have been frowning myself: the second she made eye contact, her lower lip quivered, her inner eyebrows shot up, and she turned away. Ack. I finally tried to ask, like a shy toddler requesting a cookie, “What’s wrong?”

She inhaled and sighed. “I can’t really explain – it would take too long. It’s just… some people just jump to conclusions. They don’t even try to understand.” As though it were scripted, at that exact moment her phone buzzed in her hand and her whole body clenched from the surprise. She hoisted her knees to her chest, embracing them in a seated fetal position, and began texting with the speed and fury of a court reporter tracking an auctioneer.

By and large, that’s how it stayed until we spotted the fire. Denim was the first to notice it. “Oh my goodness,” she gasped. “Like this night needed any more weirdness.”

The people waiting on the platform didn’t seem quite as interested in the blaze. In fact, none of them were even watching it. When a group of three teens – two girls and a boy, sharing a pound bag of Skittles – boarded our car, they seemed practically oblivious. Denim asked them, “Guys, what happened to that car?” The three of us watched them in anticipation of an answer.

The question went unnoticed. What was noticed, however, was the fact that I was looking at them. The male of the group made eye contact with me and held it, waiting for me to look away. I held the eye contact, waiting for him to give me more information about the riot scene playing out in the parking lot. “Dude, stop looking at me!” He dropped some Skittles on the floor and smashed them with his foot. “I’m not gay.”

The girls immediately stood up and boxed me into my seat. “Yeah! My boyfriend’s not gay! Stop looking at him.”

I laughed derisively.

“We will fight you.”

I laughed harder. The thought of two teenage girls furiously slapping at me while I covered my face with my forearm was just too much to hold in. “Wait. You want to fight ME?” Denim started laughing too. The girls huffed and went back to their seats. I considered asking for a handful of Skittles, but thought better of it. I tend to have a hard time putting out fires I didn’t start, but I am slowly learning to not throw gas on them.