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lizro234

The first time I had a full-blown episode of depression I was seven years old. I knew that this was odd, but I was used to oddity. My sister had taught me to read when I was two, so I had become a parlor trick prodigy, marched in and out of rooms at my elementary school and made to read aloud to the “big boys and girls.”  I had the vague uncomfortable sense that I was being used to shame these kids, so I tried to underplay my performance. In return I was petted, praised, invited to eat my lunch with the huge sixth graders and generally protected.

Most people would rather convince themselves of being in love than of being happy, just as most people would rather believe they are talking to others when talking to themselves.”  –Sarah Manguso

 

Marfa 2012This story will end with two women naked in a bathtub. Let’s say that, for now, it begins with a drive to Marfa, Texas. I was with one of my best and longest-time friends, Kaitlyn, on our way to spend an annual weekend getaway there. As Dallas faded into a haze in the rearview mirror, we half-joked that this time we were going to Marfa to find ourselves, our “center.” What we meant was that we were looking for some kind of fulfillment or self-sufficiency—maybe happiness is the word—but the joke was that, in reality, we would have preferred to bring our boyfriends with us…except that we didn’t have any. “Finding ourselves,” whatever that meant, would just have to serve as a consolation prize.

My sophomore year of college, I was a thin, small girl with a pierced lip and pixie-short hair and a mildly broken heart and it was because of this last item that I left myself make a mistake by the name of Lee. This was such a small moment in the great, growing swath of my life, this frozen semester of weeping over romantic comedies and thrashing angrily to loud music and getting drunk off Malibu coconut rum which I didn’t even like. Such a small moment. Over the course of the last decade, these few months I spent with Lee have barely registered. They have been a blip. He did not hurt me badly, nor did he teach me any great life lessons. He did not matter, hardly at all.

But I think about him often, and the day I first let him kiss me, because that was a mistake.

“I quit, you bitches,” he yelled before ripping his apron off, throwing it on the ground, and storming out Starbucks, leaving me with my rival to finish the shift. Neither of us were sad to see the guy go — he was a grown man who replied, “Do I have to?” when asked to fetch a pastry or sweep — but we begrudged being left alone together to finish the shift without anyone to break up our passive aggressive feuding. Both of us were bitter that we had to be baristas in our mid-20s after earning college degrees and building professional resumes, but instead of bonding over our similarities, we complained to our boss about one another and swapped shifts to avoid working together. That evening we finished our work with a minimum of conversation. As we were locking up the store, we spotted the quitter waiting for us in the parking lot, idling in a late-model convertible. He sloppily hurled a melted Frappuccino in our direction, did a few screechy loops around the parking lot, and sped off. It was such a hideous and absurd display that all my rival and I could do was go get a few beers and laugh it off.

I was seventeen when a new millennium reset the world. I started it by drinking a bottle of cinnamon-flavored liquor at my own New Year’s Eve party and passing out in my room, sleeping right through the ball drop. In the morning, my mother woke me with the dregs of the bottle in a shot glass, the sickly sweet, spicy fumes like smelling salts under my nose. She told me to drink the shot or get grounded for being an asshole. I drank the shot and slept the entire first day of the year 2000.

Mr. Jack sat under the hanging light at the kitchen table with an ashtray at one hand, a book under the other, and a cup of coffee in between. His casual posture made him look shorter than he was. Sometimes, he braced his elbow on the back of the chair and dwarfed a novel in the palm of his hand. His dark, wooly eyebrows straightened in concentration, sometimes lifting as he took a drag of his cigarette. From my place in the living room, near a lamp with a book on my lap, I could barely whiff his Marlboro. That’s what my dad had smoked before he quit cold turkey. But Mr. Jack and my father smelled alike anyway, that humid smoky scent of the Intracostal base where they both waited to fly helicopters to offshore oil rigs.

I recently turned 30 in a city I can’t comprehend, surrounded by people I barely know.

These strangers who packed into my apartment on the evening of October 14th come from Canada, Spain, Mexico, Argentina, England, Indonesia, New Zealand, Australia, America, Scotland, Belgium, France, Switzerland, and Germany. They are in Beijing for work. I am here for reasons that become less clear by the day.

What started as a long vacation has turned into an extended slog in a city that threatens to make me mad. There is nothing comforting about Beijing. It is hard and cold like stone.

Traffic snarls the street with perpetual trumpeting horns. Unimaginative high rises are obscured behind polluted skies. The entire city is under construction 24 hours a day.  Twenty billion people grind against each other in the shadow of a Dark Tower. In a metropolis hungry for resources, it is that most precious of commodities—humanity—which is scarcest.

Illiterate, barely able to understand what is said, here I am a child who’s wandered far, far away from home and is lost, looking desperately around for a familiar face.

Somehow through the haze I find one, then another, and still more. Each of them is cracked. All of us, Broken Ones. We have to be to choose a life in the Grey City. But they keep me from losing my mind and for that I love them dearly.

The first two through the door on the evening of October 14th carry the biggest bottle of whiskey—a full 4.5 liters—I’ve ever seen. It is, in fact, not a bottle at all. It is a Tank, the contents of which are a weapon in the fight against loneliness and proof that we’d rather destroy ourselves than face down the Void.

Waiting for the other guests to arrive we have a glass on the rocks and acknowledge the calm before the storm. With a bottle of booze this large, chaos is all but assured.

Over the next few hours it is unleashed. One by one the beautiful strangers file in bearing gifts and kind words. We drink, laugh, sing, and dance, forgetting the nightmare city that sprawls around us. We huddle together for warmth in the cold, sad night.

The Tank has its way with me and I awake in the morning covered in my own sick. All that remains of the mad saints is empty cups, broken glass, sticky floors, cigarette butts, and a large turd on the bathroom floor.

That monstrous pile of shit is unglittering reality welcoming me to my third decade on Planet Earth, seeming to say, “If you thought life was going to get better from here on out, think again.”

I spent my twenties in a state of wandering restlessness, trying my hand at five careers and living on five continents. If those years were about experimentation, about finding what I was looking for in this life, then my thirties, I reasoned, would bring some measure of peace through the application of wisdom gleaned.

But considering that I awoke as a 30-year-old under vomit stained sheets in yet another foreign country, that the inaugural event of this life milestone was scraping human feces off of tile, that I abandoned a cozy life in my beloved New Hampshire for a drunken existence in loathed Beijing, a more plausible conclusion is that ten years of wanderlust and self-indulgence have solidified into a permanent state.

In this life that I lead anything is possible and yet nothing is sacred. It may be a moveable feast, but by necessity, the people I meet along the way can be little more than plastic cutlery.

At times this bothers me tremendously and I wish to return home, to be surrounded by family and old friends. Two years ago I acted upon this urge and moved back to New Hampshire. I bought a car, rented an apartment, and nestled into the bosom of my motherland.

Home, however, didn’t really feel like home anymore. Just as I’d changed, so too had the people I’d left behind. The once-interconnected narratives of our lives had broken off into separate threads. We’d become strangers.

The place did, of course, have a certain familiarity about it. And while comforting, this was also consternating, because it made it feel like I had never left. Seeing myself pasted against the backdrop of my childhood, I could scarcely believe I’d spent years out in the world. My memories of that time felt like they could just as well have been something I read in a book.

The little hobbit, back in the Shire, was wondering if he’d really traveled there and back again.

I’d returned because I was tired of being a man without a home. With the discovery that I still didn’t have one, I decided to keep moving on. Because that’s what gypsies do.

Whether by birth or force of habit, a gypsy is what I am. I roam the vast plains of existence, following the herd of new experiences that sustains life. When all that remains are bones, I move on.

Which is what I’ll do now. Where’s next I’m not certain. I just know that, for the time being at least, there is nothing more for me in this Grey City at the edge of the desert.

Perhaps if I do find peace in my thirties, it will be through accepting that there is no going home. There is only that next push that reveals wonder I can’t anticipate and sadness I can’t forget.

And beautiful strangers to remind me that no matter where I end up, there are reasons to stay and start over.

See some of the Beautiful Strangers

 

Of course you can come along, Eddie. Your sleeves will come in handy on a cool day like this, but I hope you don’t mind if I cover you with this flannel. The ladies like them tight across the chest these days, and you’re too frumpy to make the grade. I suppose I’ll let you peek out a little, but try to avoid looking saggy around the collar. And should any girls happen by, I’m gonna need you to keep low.

Mickey was talking, and when Mickey was talking, his hands spoke with him. They were childlike and stubby-fingered, so out of proportion to the dense fat of his forearms and the rest of his bulk they may as well have been the product of an amputation. In jerks and flutters they flew above the arcs of his speech, soaring on the volume of a voice that always bordered on too loud.

I wished, once, for a time machine. I was instead gifted with the present. . .and no return receipt.

*

Like a lot of writers – hell, like a lot of people – I spend a good amount of time in my head, wading through thoughts and worries and ideas and concerns. I imagine a smaller, miniature, version of me in fishing waders with a fly rod trying to catch hold of the things slipping by.

Okay, let’s talk about rejections.

War wounds and badges of dishonor. I’ll see your bruised pride and raise you a broken spirit.

One of my favorite rejections to date came from an editor who knocked back my submission but told me by way of consolation that one of my colleagues—an enviable Irish wunderkind—got in instead, and how proud I must be. The editor went on to say that my story (which has since been published elsewhere) was ‘a little too dry, a little airless.’

‘She talking about your story,’ said a supportive friend, ‘or her vag?’

But the strangest rejection experience I ever had was sitting at an editorial table like a ghost, anonymous and invisible, while the editors tore my story, and me, to shreds. And this isn’t really a story about that story, or the editors, or me. It’s about the fifth editor. A lone voice and a goddess, who, like the others, had no idea that the story was mine but who knew what she liked and who had the guts to champion it. This is her story.

I had applied to join the editorial team of a prestigious university anthology. I applied out of loneliness. Had  just returned to Australia, finished my degree, and knew no other writers. I had been downsized from the best job I had ever had, a staff writing gig at a big cable TV conglomerate where I had worked for seven years. Then the absentee corporate owners of our home had returned with soiled white collars and kicked us out. It was best place we ever lived in and we’d been there for seven years too. I had lost all hope, all faith in myself. I had no idea what to do now, where to turn. The unpaid editorial gig came up and I went for it. I was interviewed by two of the country’s better-known authors who teach in the writing department of one of the state’s best universities. The anthology has been going for several decades and is traditionally launched at a major writers’ festival and has kick-started several writing and editing careers.When the nod came I was over the moon. I had visions of late-night editorial sessions, drunken book chat, racing off to meetings in the winter wind, working with up-and-coming writers.

Apart from the last one, none of this was going to happen and it took roughly two meetings for me to know it. It took roughly two minutes to know that I was anything but among friends. Unlike the previous editorial team, this one was all women. And perhaps like many teams, the Alpha and her Acolyte anointed themselves thus in short shrift. This is how it’s going to be, they all but intoned. We don’t read science fiction and we hate horror. Or experimental. Cult, schmult. And as for that muscular American macho shite, forget it. Give us cancer stories, farm animals and abused kids. Any ideals I had about putting together a diverse collection of fiction representing the best emerging writers in the country shrivelled as I stumbled away from meetings in the winter wind.

In addition to myself and Alpha and Alpha-lyte, the editorial team consisted of a darling but heavily pregnant editor whose thoughts were elsewhere, a teenaged writing student who was the designated Excel jockey (my God, I hear her relentless key strokes in my dreams) and a blue-eyed goddess with a wicked sense of humor.

Goddess and I hit it off like naughty kids in the back of the class. But our joint bid for diversity, for thinking outside the Bermuda triangle of cancer-bushfires-motherless children, went unheard. Submissions to the anthology were anonymous. We got over three hundred submissions. Our job was to cull these down to sixty, then thirty five, then the final cut of thirty, with two spares just in case.

Editors were allowed to submit. Anonymously as per instructions. The story I had submitted was not about mastectomies, drought or Child Services. It was about a bunch of materialistic Xers not coping with the GFC and it was called Sex and Death. Yet for some reason it made the long list. Then the short list. The final cut meeting arrived and there it was sitting at number thirty-three on that damn spreadsheet and there was nothing I could do about it. One of the Alphas, or maybe it was Excel, had designed a flawed ranking system from 0 to 10. The flaw was in allowing both 0 and 10 as ranks, when in fact they worked as wild cards, to skew the results toward a single vision. You could, for instance rank all the stories you wanted in a 10, and all those you wanted out, a zero. And that’s exactly what happened. I brought a bottle of wine to the final meeting. Goddess and I slurped from it while Alpha and Alpha-lyte dispensed with submissions 35 and 34. Then mine came up.

It was the oddest feeling and one that I’ll remember for the rest of my life. It was out of body, hilarious in a nightmarish kind of way. Having to sit there and be asked my honest opinion on a story that I could not admit to having written but which apparently sucked asses. Alpha began with the pregnant editor. She said she’d read it but had forgotten what it was about. Abstain. Excel jockey was next. She said ‘eh’, got the stink-eye from Alpha and gave it a 3. ‘What about you,’ Alpha asked Lyte. Lyte said I’ll give it whatever you give it. Alpha gave it a 2. ‘What kind of hateful drivel is this?’ she said. ‘The characters are all so materialistic—(that’s the point, I wheedled). ‘I hate all the brand names,’ put in Lyte. ‘They really annoy me.’ (They’re meant to, I whimpered. By now I was sucking my thumb).

‘Goddess?’ They said. ‘What do you think?’

Goddess’s blue eyes blazed. Her porcelain skin flushed.

‘What do I think?’ She said. ‘What do I think? I think that this is the best fucking story of the whole lot. I fucking love it. It’s slick and professional and hilarious. I fucking cacked myself. I give it a ten.’

My vision had begun to tunnel; my pulse was all over the shop. I was having a full-blown panic attack. I was next.

‘What about you?’ They said.

If I gave my own story a 10, I’d be crucified when they found out. The system is fucked, I thought. How’d it get this far? At this stage I had grave misgivings about even being included in an anthology full of bleating lambs and tumors, yet if I panned my story, what kind of a self-sabotaging loser was I? And what kind of traitor to the Goddess, a lone voice in this wilderness of whining wimmin?

I gave it a seven. Goddess’s face fell. I hated myself.

Alpha shook her head. ‘No no no,’ she said. ‘I really don’t want this one to get in. I just don’t like it. You don’t either,’ she said to Lite, who vigorously shook her head and nodded at the same time. ‘You?’ she said to Jockey, who shrugged. We all looked at the Breeder, staring dreamily into space. ‘I’m going to have to give it a zero,’ said Alpha. ‘I want it out’.

‘Come on,’ said Goddess, looking beseechingly at me. Remember she had no idea it was mine. ‘It’s great. Anyone?’

‘Yeah,’ I said weakly, my skin burning with shame. ‘I like it too, but there’s something I should tell you—‘

‘How can you?’ said Alpha. ‘The characters are horrible. What’s its point? I don’t even know what’s happening half the time. And what’s with that masturbating scene at the end?’

Lyte tittered.

Crunch, went the numbers, and my story fell down dead at our feet.

That night I gave Goddess her usual lift home and she was ropable. Despairing. I tried to laugh it off, but between us lay the fact that I hadn’t come out swinging in support of the story she’d championed. I felt like a traitor, but how could I explain? She’d be embarrassed and I’d be humiliated and what kind of a basis is that for a friendship? Much better to found it on a lie. Mmmm. I was finding it difficult to concentrate on the road. I felt like a wreck waiting to happen. There was, or had been, a real if tenuous connection between us and I could feel it being strained to breaking point.

‘Doesn’t she get it?’ Goddess was saying. ‘It was the only decent story in the whole fucking lot. And what was that line about masturbation? Fuck me. If she thinks that’s masturbating, she’s doing it all wrong!’

That was it. She had me at that. I pulled over and we sat there in my car in the dark cracking up and then I came out with it. The truth. A stunned silence ensued. Then howls. Real-women howls. She-wolves in the night.

Goddess and I have been friends ever since. And I like to think we always will be.


***

 

Postscript 1: A cautionary note. Before the five of us took over, the outgoing editorial team briefed us on procedure. They warned us of the pitfalls in this kind of group decision-making. Blood will flow, they said. You’ll agree on one thing only, that most of the submissions stink. But when it comes to the shortlist you’ll be at each other’s bits. Just remember this. The more divisive a story is, the more consideration it deserves. The stories that divide the team, that cause the most heated debate, are the ones that are going to lift the collection. They’re the ones that need to get in. That’s what art is all about.

Postscript 2: I have not yet resubmitted Sex and Death. I will. One day.

Postscript 3: Calls for submissions to the anthology came out again last year. Goddess wrote and sent me a damn good story. I edited it. She submitted it to the new team. It made the cut.

There are any number of reasons to refuse friendship to someone.

They range from the practical to the personal and will certainly vary by individual.  Here are some examples:

Lying, cheating, stealing, murdering, cursing, getting too drunk, not getting drunk enough, being obnoxious, being dull, being too smart, being too stupid, being heartless, being homeless, farting in public, flirting in public, grabbing your ass, grabbing other people’s asses, being a junkie, being a jerk, getting you in trouble, getting other people in trouble, being unpopular with your girlfriend/boyfriend/mother/father/friends, running with shady characters, running with the Rainbow Family of Living Light, being too dangerous, playing too safe, breaking your shit, taking your shit, giving you shit, talking shit, involvement in domestic spying for a barbaric totalitarian communist regime…

The list goes on.

For me, personally, most of these are not reasons, categorically, to not be friends with someone. Some are.  I do my best to be flexible, but I try to steer clear of any murderers or potential murderers who aren’t state-sanctioned, for example.

I’ll be friends with an army sniper, but I probably wouldn’t want to be friends with Jeffrey Dahmer.

Maybe that’s hypocrisy.

Or maybe it’s just a strict anti-cannibalism or anti-dead-person policy.

The following story struck me for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that literature, as a scene, does not usually involve high international drama and espionage of this obvious a nature:

Nobel Prize winner Herta Mueller recently went public with the revelation that the real-life inspiration for Atemschaukel, her latest anti-totalitarian novel about a homosexual man who is held captive in a Soviet gulag, turned out to be, in fact, an informant for the totalitarians.

No one was so shocked as Mueller.  Apparently she had no idea.  He was a man with whom she had become dear friends as they worked closely during her time writing the fictionalized account of his story.

From what I can tell, this man–his name was Oskar Pastior (he died in 2006)–had been granted some kind of amnesty when he defected–or was seized–to the west.

From what little I’ve read, it’s not clear whether or not he was in fact a communist sympathizer or whether he had no choice but to do what he did, but he is listed as a Securitate informant in dossiers and other corroborating documents.

“Over the years [Mueller] has clashed with Romania’s post-communist intellectuals with her remorseless campaign against former Securitate informers, demanding that writers and theatre people who were on the police payroll be unmasked and punished.”

DAMN.

This means that Oskar, at some point, was watching his friend–in whom he had confided the details of, potentially, the most difficult time in his life and who was writing a book about him and his heroic ordeal–call for his public revelation, humiliation, and eventual punishment (of what type, I don’t know).

Or, not his, really, since she didn’t know he was one of them.  She was calling for these things, but she thought she was doing it, in part, in his defense and for restoration of justice to people like him (including herself).

But he certainly must have known that had he told her the truth, she would have probably ended their friendship, certainly would not have finished the book (or at least not as planned), and may, potentially, have publicly outed him and destroyed whatever life he’d made for himself since leaving the world of political intrigue and espionage.

Or wouldn’t she have?  After all, what kind of friend would do that?  What kind of monstrous person would offer up her own friend for filleting at the hands of the post-communist public?  How blind must you be to basic interpersonal loyalties and friendship to serve up some one you care about, ostensibly, in the service of state and other relative strangers?

I mention Herta first only because the next consideration is much more obvious:  Were Oskar alive, we could–and should–ask him a series of nearly identical questions surrounding his time as an informant.

And I was thinking about it, and I couldn’t, for the life of me, sort out who was guilty of wrong-doing in that friendship scenario or if both were or if anyone was guilty at all.

What a clusterfuck.

Poor Herta for not being able to confront Oskar.  Poor Oskar, who will never have the chance to explain himself to Herta.

And it suggests a mundane question in fairly dramatic fashion:  To what extent do or should one’s political inclinations or political behaviors, past or present, affect whether or not we choose to be friends with them, interact with them, date them, or consider their experiences and their general presence valuable?  At what point do beliefs and behaviors nullify relationships?

We ask these types of questions with regard to people’s overall past and habits in a very general way, but I don’t hear people talk about them much in a political way.

This question is constantly at the fore of my mind.  I live, basically, in a liberal world.  Because of where I work, because I like to write, because I have what are likely academic ambitions, I am mostly surrounded by leftward-leaning people.

I don’t consider myself a victim by any means.  I interact with the people I interact with by choice and, I think, to my benefit.  This isn’t a complaint lodged against liberalism in the arts, and I don’t consider myself persecuted.

Nevertheless, it is something that I am aware of.  Just all of the time.  Whether or not and when it is advisable to reveal my political leanings, what the consequences might be, etc.

About 16 months ago, a meta-analysis published in the Psychological Bulletin noted that people actively seek out information that agrees with them.  That is to say, they don’t necessarily fail to be exposed to different points of view just because they’re surrounded by like-minded people or because the information available is necessarily skewed.  People are not passive in maintaining and honing their views; they actively go looking for information and perspectives that allow them to go on “living the lives they’re living.”

And it appears to be true for liberals and conservatives alike.

The consensus seems to be that on items of political import, morality, and values, 70% of the time, most people will choose to hear views that agree with them.

Those most likely to seek out opposing views tend to be a) the most confident in their own views and/or b) in need of awareness of opposing views in order to defend against objections to public declarations of their own views (politicians, media personalities, etc.).

In turn, the people least likely to seek opposing viewpoints tend to also be the least confident in their own views.

None of this is altogether shocking.

But more to the point of Herta and Oskar, I have noticed–though few people are willing to state it explicitly–that there is at least some indication that a political lean may be, for many, among the friendship deal-breakers listed above.  That is, people actively search for and/or exclude others from their social circles based on whether or not those people agree with them, just like they seek out agreeable news stories and other types of information resources.  Strictly from my perspective, such sentiments appear to be on the rise.  Or they appear to be more firmly and less self-critically held.

If my impressions are correct–if they are true at all–I’m sure they’re true straight across the political spectrum.  Basic political behaviors, if not the politics themselves, tend to be fairly uniform across humanity, whether people care to admit it or not.

The conundrum is complex:  At what point do a person’s politics and ideology reveal in them some other, fundamental, deal-breaking character flaw?  On the other hand, at what point does a person’s exclusion of others from their sphere of awareness based on politics and ideology reveal in them a fundamental, deal-breaking character flaw?

Where is the line, exactly, between the personal and political, and what are the implications?

For example:  How has the value of a fictional account of Oskar’s story changed, given Herta’s revelation?  How has the value of his real-life story changed because of it?  And most importantly, is their friendship–Oskar’s death notwithstanding–invalidated?

On the topic, Herta hasn’t said much except that she felt slapped in the face and that she is now in a period of mourning.  This suggests to me that she has left or lost something some way or another, but only Herta can say what.

Last but not least, had Oskar been forthcoming with the information from the outset, would there even have been a book?  A friendship?

If an ideology is willful and can be synonymous with a character flaw, then does that mean an ideology IS a willful character flaw, and if so, what then? What might we do with such people?


My feeling is that otherizing–the act of identifying and alleging a dichotomy between “us” and “them” –is at the very heart of how Herta and Oskar ever even found themselves in the predicament they did.  It may, by some leaps (great or small, take your pick), be at the heart of the very existence of the USSR.  Between Herta’s otherizing and Oskar’s participation in Securitate otherizing, the stage was set for a karmic kill-strike of dazzling irony.

Maybe, in a way, they deserved the fate that befell their friendship.  Both of them.  Or maybe neither of them did.  Maybe they were both victims of something well beyond their control.

At any rate, it appears that the two of them, both separately and in their joint war against ‘the other,’ were eachother’s ‘other’ and eachother all along.


This essay used to end here.

I didn’t like it ending here because I didn’t think I’d made my point, but I wasn’t sure what else to say.

Then John Cusack posted a tweet leading to this article. He called it “strong, clear thinking.”

“We have to build that independent left. It has to be so strong and so radical and so militant and so powerful that it becomes irresistible.”

Militant, radical, powerful, irresistible.  “Left” is not the word that worries me here.

And just last week, at the dentist’s office, I picked up a recent issue of Time magazine with a cover story about the Tea Party’s rattling of the conservative establishment (and the political establishment, period).

There’s nothing too fascinating or groundbreaking in the article save one thing, and it is unfortunately treated as minor–a passing thought–by the article’s author:  The suggestion that the solution to extreme, reactionary conservative politics may be for liberals to create their own extreme, reactionary politics with the expressed intent of doing battle with the conservatives of a similarly pissed-off, bloodthirsty, and unthinking sort.

I find this progression troubling.  I find it troubling that some people believe and are increasingly fervent that the answer to extremism and reactionism is more of the same.  Escalation, basically.  A call to balkanization.  I find it wrong-headed and obviously so under almost any circumstances. I think most people–certainly most liberals and conservatives, asked independently of a discourse on politics–would find it wrong-headed as well.

But here we are.


I suspect that there will be no call for radical moderation. I just hope we can all still be friends.


Embers

By Arielle Bernstein

Essay

When Adile and I see each other for the first time in five years, our embrace is awkward. “I forgot how tiny you were,” she says to me. There is nothing specific I can point out about Adile, immediately, that has changed. My memory of her is distant and charged with sentimentality, an echo of her voice emblazoned on my brain, a silhouette impression in the back of my eyes. Big black curls cascade down her shoulders. She isn’t wearing glasses like she did in high school so her eyes stand out even more than usual. Her black eyeliner is thick like an Egyptian goddess. “I didn’t remember you were so blonde,” she says to me, touching my hair as if I am a little doll.

My Dead Friend

By Mark Sutz

Memoir

I’d like to take a moment to talk about a dead friend.

Not recently dead. And not recently a friend.

But a dead friend, nonetheless.

High school in Scottsdale in the early 80s wasn’t exactly any worse or better than I imagine it was anywhere else. It was for some the best time in their lives, for some the worst and for most, like me, just another time, not traumatic enough to scar me for life or fantastic enough for me to talk about it longingly decades later.

I was a studious type and loved the academic life and had, since I was a boy, planned on being a doctor, a plan which went the same way as: astronaut, FBI agent and race car driver. I had a decent amount of friends, most of whom shared the joy in acing a test or wrestling with a calculus problem until we figured it out. I dated a few girls, emphasis on few, and spent most of my time from sophomore year on mapping out where I wanted to go to college. I think this was perhaps the most common activity amongst my friends: figuring out where we’d begin our ‘real’ lives and how far we could get from our parents. Suffice it to say, I was as invisible as I suspect ninety percent of high school students feel and ninety-nine percent actually are. Invisibility to all but a handful of people is the common thread most of us will share from the time we’re potty trained until the time we need assisted care in old age.

Into this tightly wound crowd of ‘smart’ kids (in the years since, I have come to realize how unimportant this category is to, well, most of life), Bill entered. Atypically for our bespectacled, geeky bunch, he was as socially confident a fifteen-year old as could exist in our awestruck minds. We all knew upon first meeting him that he’d scale heights reserved for the rarefied few.

Bill was also one of those guys who was popular with every stratum of high school clique. From stoner to jock to brainiac to musician to the invisible, Bill was a guy to whom everyone was electrically attracted. Even the girls us nerds drooled over and who wouldn’t so much as walk in the same hallway as us, even those preening swans of the fakest variety, found Bill irresistible. And the schoolmarmy Spanish teacher who complained with a finger wag about Bill’s being late to class could not help but be impressed when he explained, a few times a week, the reason for his tardiness in Spanish that could have gotten him from Mexico City to Rio without a hitch. He was, overall, one of those people you meet just a few times in your life and onto which you are impelled to glom.

Bill and I became friends in that flummoxing and arbitrary way that most of us have experienced. By the end of my freshman year, I’d found the first best friend of my adolescence. High school was infinitely more bearable and less boring because of my friendship with him.

Bill was a gifted pianist and a ham the way talented people often are. He loved playing the piano and singing (great voice, too) when friends came over to his house. He knew he was good and we all did too. I don’t remember most of what he played (Beethoven and Brahms, certainly), but I do recall one song vividly – “Rocket Man.” He sang the song with such showmanship and sincerity that you’d swear Bernie Taupin wrote the lyrics just for him and played the piano with a flair that Elton John would have applauded. I envied this talent of his more than his others because my own household was devoid of musicians or music lovers, a silent place livened only occasionally with whatever radio station a housekeeper listened to. I credit Bill with my first experience of tasting varieties of music, and I’ve since become a person who needs music like food and books and water and art. His impassioned, lengthy, repeated defenses of the band Yes in the face of detractors gave me quiet strength in the years since, often plucking CDs of mocked and reviled bands off the wall and playing them for friends with supreme confidence and my own defense at the ready.

Bill introduced me to near-frozen Mexican beer on scorching summer days, explained how to be cool with the girls, espoused the idea that intelligence was something to relish and not hide away, gave me the first nickname I ever had, Smarko, and taught me how good chips and extra hot salsa are when chased with tall glasses of frigid, frothy milk while watching football on TV. Burning followed by relief. This analogy to writing and stopping writing is something I think about till this day when I down a mouthful of the hot red stuff.

Bill had a laugh that wasn’t so much infectious as it was healing. When he was in the dead center of a good one, usually after telling a joke or a story himself, the world was better in that tiny piece of geography where we shared our friendship. One of the things we did was watch the A-Team together. Well, not exactly together, but at the same time. When it came on, I’d give him a call or he’d call me and in our respective houses we’d get very stoned and giggle our way through the show, repeating the hackneyed, awful dialogue to one another and laughing our stoned asses off. I have no idea how this activity started or why we both found it so amusing. Some aspects of a friendship are beyond any rational explanation.

Bill’s hyper-intelligence was his most remarkable trait. He had the capacity to fuck around as much as the committed stoners did all day, yet Bill would ace not only every class, but also every exam or quiz in those classes. He’d spoken about Harvard first when we were sophomores, not as if it would be a burden to get in or if it were an exceptionally lofty goal, but in a manner that convinced me they were just waiting for him, high school a simple formality that he’d like to be quickly done with. He spoke about it as if he’d already matriculated, graduated, time-traveled back to our conversation and felt the warmth and comfort of having an Ivy League education packed away like insurance for every version of social, financial and professional malaise a person can encounter in life.

And so it turned out that Bill was our high school’s first student admitted to Harvard. The moment he was accepted (early admission), his aura was fully confirmed and our friendship began to fizzle. I think, honestly I’m certain, it was more because of me than him, because of my envy of his acceptance there and my failure to even get a sniff at the Ivy League schools I’d been casually knocking around in conversation since I could sharpen a pencil.

My awaiting college, UC Berkeley, was all the way on the other side of the country. While nothing to sneeze at, Berkeley wasn’t, isn’t, Harvard and I could tell our trajectories would seriously diverge after high school. I suppose I was already mourning a dead friendship rather than doing what I should have been: making it stronger so it might have a chance to last.

For the last year of high school, we hung out less and less until we graduated, the summer rolled away and we were each off to our next step in life.

I didn’t last at Berkeley. Academics weren’t the issue at the time – Berkeley suited my awkward desire to exercise my brain like a Mensan. An odd loaf of financial hardship and a myopic family incapable of commonalities like communicating with other human beings kinked my plan. I’d turned down a full-ride scholarship to Arizona State, my local university, because I had the same species of ant under my feet that many kids that age have, the kind that makes you want to get away from everything you’ve ever known and start anew. But because I turned it down upon graduating high school, I was rendered ineligible for it anytime in the future.

So, I returned to Arizona, went to school after a year of moping, and led as equally an uninteresting life after high school as I’d done since I left the carnival of infancy.

Move ahead more than ten years. By 1997, I’d long since graduated college and was sliding my way toward 30. I had a girlfriend I wanted to marry, a woman who once kissed me so nicely, so perfectly, I lost consciousness for a few seconds. This woman left me giddy enough so I annoyed my friends with constant talk of her. She also led me to thinking about all the great people I’d had in my life and what they were doing.

I hadn’t seen Bill in more than a decade, but kept up with his activities through our dwindling grapevine of mutual friends that I’d see at the bars occasionally. He’d graduated Harvard in three years and returned to Arizona to go into the securities business with his father and start a few ventures of his own. One of them, oddly, was a bar. I assumed the only kind of bar Bill would own must be very classy or very cool and made a mental note to drop in and check it out sometime.

Finally, in early May of 1997, after thinking about it for months, putting it off because of my job or my girlfriend or any of a number of regular hangovers, I got the notion to call him out of the blue. We hadn’t spoken in such a long time, but I was confident that at least we’d be able to catch up over beers, perhaps revisit and restart a friendship that I’d thought about often as I bumped around my twenties. Maybe because 30 was near and because my more recent friendships seemed flimsy at the time, I wanted to rekindle one I felt was strong. I easily found a number for his brother Jeff, who’d never left Scottsdale, and called him to ask how I could get a hold of Bill.

In a monotone I’ll never forget, Jeff told me Bill had recently died. I couldn’t speak and uttered some incomprehensible gobbledygook and nearly puked. Jeff said he’d been killed in a car accident on April 15, about three weeks earlier. I was at work when I called, a denim resale shop a friend owned, and I broke down like a baby.

I cried my way through asking to go home for the day, cried my way home in the car and cried the night away on my couch, so sad, so surprised, so utterly incapable of accepting that this person, a guy of Bill’s intelligence, humor, talent and promise was dead before thirty. I fell asleep on the couch as wiped out as if I’d run a marathon or been beaten by an angry mob.

The next weekend I visited Bill’s grave. It was a clear, windless spring Arizona day. When I got to his gravestone and saw his name, the tears came again. I stood there for thirty or forty minutes thinking about our concluded friendship, not quite believing he was freshly buried beneath me. As I was getting ready to leave, a wind kicked up and a piece of paper tumbled corner over corner toward me from the edge of the otherwise pristine cemetery.

When the paper reached me, the wind stopped and it lay still at my feet. I bent over to pick it up and put it in the trash. It was a flyer for an anti-tax rally and on the bottom, in bold, was April 15, 1997, the day Bill died. It didn’t make me religious but certainly cemented the day in my head as something more than the day to send in my returns.

In the years since Bill died, I’ve often thought of him. To many, perhaps most, people who knew him he’ll always be just shy of 30. But to me, he’ll always be 18 and always be my first best friend.

Even in death, maybe especially, a friend can teach you so much. My friendship with Bill, or should I say his friendship with me, a fairly unremarkable person, was a gift that I still unwrap and learn from.

In the ensuing years, when I felt like, feel like, an asshole or nasty words for people are just behind my lips, ready to escape, I think of Bill and how he treated me: as an equal, a friend, someone to eat salsa with and someone just to get to know. I’m far from the most tolerant person on the planet, but my friendship with Bill reminds me, even when I’m in a lousy mood, that good friends are better than good jobs or good trips or lots of money or any of the other things that are stand-ins for what life really is about. My friendship with Bill helped strengthen in me the shapeless, nameless muscle one needs to nurture friendships and it has served me well. I’ve become a better friend to others (though far from perfect), keenly sympathetic and kind to the oddball in all of us, and a more compassionate person in general than I ever would have had our paths not crossed.

He lives with me and will until the day I die, always extant in the architecture of my personality, as are many dozens, hundreds, of other people also in that structure. Bill provides, however, along with only three other people in my life, the most important part: a certain, solid foundation buried beneath the skyscraper that I feel like I am some days and the hovel I feel like on the rest, both of which are invisible to most save a vital few.

Jilly and I occasionally have these very heartfelt conversations about relationships. I usually feel lighter afterwards, like I’ve shaken off a few hundred pounds of expectations and ideals and other such annoying things. We talk about the men we’ve dated, the men we’ve wanted to date, and the men we see ourselves eventually ending up with when it’s all said and done.