It looks like a dwarf lives here,” my father jokes as we stand looking at my apartment. It’s a typical studio â€“ futon, television, stereo, and books on the floor. I don’t say anything.
My father goes from room to room fixing things. He fixes a leaky faucet in the kitchen, loosens a window which had been painted shut. He tightens the knob on my bathroom door. There are very few drawers to look in.
I follow him around saying, “Please, don’t do that. Don’t bother. I can do it myself.” And, “Please, let me help you.”
“Would you like some coffee?” I finally ask.
“That would be nice,” he says, staring at a crack in the ceiling. I know what he is thinking: earthquake country.
My friend Martha receives many catalogs in the mail. Some of them she wants; others come on their own. She did not mind until she started getting catalogs advertising clothing for mature and full-figured women. Martha is neither mature nor full figured, but her name is an old, fat name, just as the name Enid reminds one of a bug. These catalogs disturb her.
“Why are they doing this to me?” she wails. “How did I get on a mailing list for old, fat women?” She writes to the company and tells them she is only 26 and a size 8, but the catalogs keep coming. Her self-esteem suffers.
I don’t tell Martha, but I’m the one who put her name on those lists. I thought she would appreciate it. Otherwise, she wouldn’t get any mail at all.
The bar serves beer from all over the world. Janet and I are drinking our way through Ireland when my ex Mike comes in with his new girlfriend. He pulls two chairs up to our table and we make our introductions. Mike orders a round of Bass, even though he knows I prefer Harp’s.
“Have you ever noticed,” Mike says in a tone of revelation, “Have you ever noticed that a bright sun makes everything look closer than it really is?”
Janet nods vigorously. “Oh yes, and that fog makes everything look farther away.”
“And,” I offer, “rain makes everything look wet.”
Mike and Janet look at me blankly, as if they hadn’t realized I was there. Later we decide to switch to Mexico â€“ meaning, Coronas with a twist. Mike’s new girlfriend goes to the ladies room and never comes back.
I sleep in old t-shirts, exercise in my underwear. I play the same song over and over and hang my pantyhose in the bathtub. Some days I don’t have to say a word until I get to work in the late afternoon.
Such are the advantages of living alone.
Mental illness, like lightning, sometimes strikes the most likely of targets.
The phone in the apartment downstairs kept ringing. It rang all morning, through three loads of clothes I washed. I heard it as I went up and down the stairs to the laundry room. I had never seen the man who lived there, but I know from the mailbox that his first name is Harvey. It annoyed me that Harvey had friends who would let the phone ring for so long. It annoyed me that Harvey didn’t have an answering machine.
Late in the afternoon, I smelled the smell of decomposing bodies in a hot place. It was the Japanese woman across the hall cooking fish heads for dinner. I left for work. Harvey’s phone was still ringing.
At the Aquarium, there is a three-legged alligator. In addition to being an amputee, he is old and, they say, more than half blind.
At feeding time, the keeper drops raw meat right on top of the old alligator’s head. He has to lean way over the tank to do this. The keeper hangs onto the railing, a caravan of seahorses, with one hand. If he misses, the meat falls to the bottom of the tank where it is quickly snatched up by the smaller, more agile turtles and the alligator goes hungry.
My friends take a vote. It is unanimous: looks are important. Good looks make up for deficiencies in personality, sincerity and intelligence. None of my friends have time to look for all that in a man, even in this city crowded with men.
I work nights. I spend my days doing laundry, going grocery shopping, and seeing bargain matinee movies. My circadian rhythms have changed.
People do walk here, but only with dogs.
Mitchell works for a scent house.
“Smells are very important,” he says to everyone. “Some people base all their decisions solely on their nose.”
For months Mitchell had a box filled with glass tubes of scent that he kept in his refrigerator. I swirled the vials under his nose and he guessed which ones they were. He had to memorize all those fragrances and be able to pick them out in various combinations in everything from perfume to furniture polish.
“Nose flashcards,” I called it.
“Do you know what really stinks?” he asked me once. “Money.” He didn’t mean it in the figurative sense either, as in the root of all evil. Mitchell once dated a woman who worked in a bank, but he had to break it off. “It was awful,” he said. “The smell was stained right into her skin.”
Mitchell now sees a woman who smokes. I don’t think she did before they started dating; he says it is a test of his love for her.
Adene is very drunk. “Cats are better pets than dogs,” she says to no one in particular. “No, no, no. Cats are the best pets in the world. Cats aren’t even pets, they’re family. Yeah, that’s right. Cats are people too.”
Someone puts her to sleep in one of the bedrooms and the party continues.
Advice from an ex-lover: Never move in with your boyfriend or girlfriend.
“Nope, never move in,” he repeats. “Then it’s just one more step to the station wagons, the backyard barbecues. Suicide by suburbs.”
He delivers this information to me over a Transatlantic phoneline. I wait for the echo of my own voice to die down before I can hear him. There is a strange squeaking noise on the line also, as if a hamster is stuck somewhere between here and Europe.
I can remember being afraid as a child, especially during the summer. It didn’t always used to be this way, but it didn’t used to be different either.
I call my brother to see if he remembers. We were close as children, but now he lives 2,000 miles away in a city that is big by mid-western standards.
I ask him if he was afraid of anything back then, in those summers of our childhood. His voice comes to me casually, in the way that 2,000 miles puts distance between people.
“Sure,” he says. “I was scared to death of having nothing to do.”
“Anytime you’re ready,” my friends and I say to each other, sometimes sincerely, sometimes not. When we are not, which is most of the time, we turn the conversation into a comedy routine of exaggerated politeness.
â€“ Anytime you’re ready. Take your time.
â€“ No, anytime you’re ready. Really. Please, take your time.
â€“ Oh no. Anytime you’re ready. No, really. Please. Take your time. Take all the time in the world.
â€“ Are you sure you’re ready?
â€“ We’re ready already!
Then laughing, we leave, but for all of our jokes and our sarcasm and our camaraderie â€“ for all of our italics â€“ we aren’t ready. Not really.