April 25, 2008

And Why am I Here?

Another unsolicited absurdist date that begins one morning in an email delivered by JDate from a radiantly attractive little Jew wench. She thinks we have a lot in common. Getting email from JDate women isn’t shocking by itself, but to get one from an appropriate and, more to the point, a pretty one is a rare thing. It’s not to be taken lightly. It must be nurtured and even exploited. By definition, it will end in tears. Mine.

We set up our date quickly; we decide to meet that very evening at a tapas bar near our respective apartments. We live in the same neighborhood. Actually, we live only one block away from each other. This scares me. I already don’t talk to a woman in my own building.

“Looks like we’re neighbors,” I write. “Just don’t stalk me ;)”

“That’s almost too close. I only stalk when I can’t help it.”

She warns me that she might be prettier than her photo.

She is already there when I arrive, sitting at the bar and, well, well, if she isn’t prettier than her photo. That’s another rarity. Most people look worse. Looking better is almost unheard of. It’s also a terrible blow. I begin by going for cleverness, but it comes out awkwardly and paints me as poorly socialized. We find a table; I order a girly martini.

This one, her voice sounds like a stoned Californian, even though she grew up in Vermont.

“Vermont! I love Vermont,” I said.

“Not where I’m from, you wouldn’t.”

“Where’s that?”

“Kraftsbury Kommons.” She looks at her drink. The name rings a bell, but I can’t place it. She’s lived in New York for a year. She had come with her fiancé, but that’s over now.

“When did this happen?”

She looks into her drink again. She decides to sip it.

“Well…” she begins. Her name is Kerri Kenner.

“Oh, no. No, what?”

“I moved out last week.”

“Last week. And you’re already doing online dates?”

“I needed a distraction.”

I relax when I realize that she’s a mess. I’m more comfortable with insane women, who torture men instead of facing up to their psychoses. I understand them. I’ve gone out with many, many crazy women. They like me; I like them. There is a deep insecurity at work here: perhaps I don’t believe that a sane woman could love me.

“Why did you break up?”

“It was dead. I don’t love him anymore. It’s been over for at least a year. I just didn’t do anything about it until now.”

“It happens. He must not have liked that.”

“No, he didn’t. We were together five years.”

We drop that and move on to other topics: work, the Jew stomach (my GERD, her seized-up intestines), her slacker colleagues. Kerri keeps on referring back to a particular one. A boy. She talks about him with exactly the right amount of scorn to indicate that something’s going on between them.

“Is something going on between you?”

“Okay, well, I slept with him.”

“Really? While you were still … ”

“Yes, I cheated on my fiancé.”

“Um, are you still … ”

“We’re still sleeping together, but I don’t want to. I don’t really like him. He’s not good for me. I just can’t stop.”

“What am I doing here?”

“What do you mean?”

“I want a girlfriend, get married, and have kids.”

“I just want a date. It said so on my profile. To distract me.”

“Really?”

“I just started smoking again, too.”

“That’s funny, I just quit.”

“You want one?”

“Sure!”

So we go outside and smoke cigarettes. No, we share one. This makes us feel better.

“I quit smoking last year,” Kerri said. “Then I started running five miles a day.”

“What about now?” I ask, pointing at the cigarette between her fingers.

“Not exactly.”

Back inside, she sighs.

“There’s more.”

“Really? What?”

“I’m going to a psychiatrist and a psychologist.”

“I don’t get it. Why both?”

“The psychiatrist prescribes and the psychologist talks.”

“Ah. What does he have you on?”

“Klonopin. Want one?”

“Sure!”

The pill’s blue, like a little Viagra.

“Is there anything else?”

“No, that’s about it, I think.”

I’ve fallen in love with her. She has that ash pale face, the kind set off by blood lips that just makes me nuts.

Somehow, we get to my place; we smoke weed; I make a little video of her acting stoned; I try kissing her, but she turns her face away and whispers that she’s not ready. We hang out a little more to pretend that everything’s okay. She says that I need to walk her home, because she can’t make it on her own. It’s true: she’s stumbling through my apartment.

On the street, she bounces against buildings. First she goes down the wrong side of her street, gripping her keys like a dowser. We cross to the other side. We make it to an entrance.

“No, this isn’t it. Mine’s more ghetto.”

A few more doors down and we get to right building. It’s more ghetto.

She opens the door, waves goodbye, and disappears.

The next day Kerri sends me an email.

“That was fun! And odd.”

I thought I’d never hear from her again. I was wrong.

April 19, 2008

Doin Nothin

We met the guy in the strange Pennsylvania town of Bryn Athyn, home to the Swedenborgians, a Christian sect that other Christians call dangerous and mystical, or even better, a cult. What do I know? All Christians look the same to me. Like many of the other men in the town, he was bearded. A black biblical beard, really. His hair was unkempt; it looked like he cut it himself. He picked us up at the train station. I was going with two other friends to see the marriage of someone we barely knew, a woman we had met a few years earlier in Vermont. We stopped for lunch at a sandwich shop, where the bearded man was well-known. He had just come back from Kansas City. He had been away for a while. Hugs ensued.

“I just got so totally engaged,” said the pretty girl behind the counter. As the day went on, I saw her everywhere until I finally realized that a lot of people in Bryn Athyn looked alike. Everyone in the coffee shop knew about the wedding: one prominent family was marrying into another.

The ceremony would begin at 2pm, inside an impressive — and, it turned out, very Christian-looking — cathedral. The bearded man — called that by the mysterious voice on my cell phone who had instructed us who to look for at the train station — was dressed only in a t‑shirt and jeans.

“After this wedding, I’m heading to Colorado for another wedding.”

“What do you do?”

“Oh, I don’t do anything.”

“Really? Nothing at all?”

“Nothing. I walk.”

“Walk where?”

“Anywhere. I like walking.”

“I walked a lot in Vermont,” I said, because I suddenly wanted to impress him and yet I already knew that what I called walking did not compare in any way to the kind of walking the bearded man did.

“I figure,” he said, “since I don’t do anything, I might as well just walk. So I’m walking to the wedding in Colorado.”

He said all of this in a mechanical way, as though he’d already told dozens of people this story and had since whittled it down to its essentials.

“When’s the wedding in Colorado?”

“I have to be there on June 28th.”

“Can you make it?”

“I figure I need to walk 30 miles a day.”

That sounded impossible to me. Maybe he could keep that pace up for a few days, but not for two months. But again, what did I know? I didn’t grow up here. No cult had time to fill my head with crazy dreams. I grew up in the city. We’re the most provincial of all.

“Well, what are you taking with you?”

“Nothing really. A sleeping pad, some extra clothes. That’s it.”

“What about a cell phone?”

He shook his head.

“My parents want me to bring one, but what’s the point? It will just run out of power after a few days anyway.”

“But aren’t you going to check in with people?”

“What for? I mean, if something happens to me everybody’ll know it when I don’t show up at the wedding.”

I wanted to give him my telephone number. And to maybe buy him a gun. I was going to ask him if he had ever read On the Road, but I didn’t want to embarrass myself with such an obvious and possibly insulting question.

“So wait, when are you leaving?”

“Right after the reception. Around four.”

“You’re just going to start walking?”

“I’m just going to start walking.”

He drove somewhere and dropped us off with a woman who then took us the rest of the way to the cathedral, which stood visible for miles around.

“Bryn Athyn doesn’t have a town center,” she said. “The cathedral is really the center.”

I asked her about the marriage. She knew both families well.

“People in this town tend to come back and marry someone here.”

During the ceremony, I saw in another pew the bearded man. He had put on a sweater and almost looked respectable. When it came time to sing a hymn, many in the congregation didn’t even need to pull out their hymnals.

The priest pronounced “conjugal” in a strange, archaic-sounding way: “con-joo-gal. At first, I thought that he was just an old fool who didn’t know how to pronounce the word, but later I heard other people saying it this way. When I got home that night I looked it up and sure enough, the priest’s version was considered acceptable. This use of an uncommon pronunciation felt very Swedenborgian.

At the reception, I met an attractive and prim girl — the kind I dream about, actually — who told me that most of the town was made up of Swedenborgians. She had been working in the church bookstore for seven years.

“But new, non-Swedenborgian people move in sometimes, right?” I asked.

“Sometimes, yes,” she said, “but not often.”

“What do you do then, burn their houses down?” I said, laughing. I had wanted to be funny, but I was just rude.

“No, no, we don’t burn their houses down!”

An expression of horror had swept across her face until she realized that I had been joking with her.

During the reception, which was on church grounds under a tent, the bride’s father gave a speech. It turned out he was a minister at the church. You could just tell, just by looking at him and hearing him speak, that he was possibly one of the sweetest men you would ever know. He choked up at the end when he raised his arms and said something about how the couple had brought heaven down to earth. Around us, the people of the town who had crammed into the tent, spontaneously broke into a song. My friend, standing next to me, whispered into my ear, “Now I feel like the Jew.”

We saw the bearded man one more time.

“Well, I’m heading out,” he said.

“Really, you’re going.”

I looked up at the sky, wondering if it might be too late. It had been a beautiful day and we had been lucky, because it was supposed to have rained.

“I need to start walking before it gets dark.”

“Good luck,” I said. I shook his hand. It turned into a hug. Part of me wanted to go with him. Why was he escaping this town? Or was there something about Bryn Athyn that created this kind of enviable insanity?

My friend and I watched the bearded man walk away.

“Fuck,” I said to the friend.

“I know,” he said.

“Now this is a cult I might want to join.”

Then our other friend came over, waving in her hand the train schedule back to the City.

April 14, 2008

Poker Buddy

Paul called me this morning from Vermont, agitated. He’s always agitated. He drinks, he doesn’t hold a job, and he plays too much poker. His poker debts run into the thousands. He once wanted to be a writer. He was good at it, too. But he has yet to finish anything. He’s one of those people who has become paralyzed by the dismay he feels for the world’s hypocrisies and impurities. People disappoint him; he wallows in the fraudulence of college professors spouting old insights and bosses small-mindedly pushing their power around. Most of us acknowledge these deep human flaws from which no one is immune and then we move on. Paul can’t move on. He’s trapped himself.

He called to talk about his latest poker fiasco. Like me, he plays online. He’ll win great sums and just as quickly lose it all. Sometimes, he calls begging me to stake him a bit and so I transfer a few dollars to his account. “Stake” is too generous a term, since he never returns the money.

“I hate poker,” he said this morning.

“You lost everything again?” He had called a few days earlier, singing of his big wins.

“Yeah.”

“What happened?”

“I got bored. I played badly. I started throwing away chips.”

This can happen when you play too much. Playing good poker is mostly boring. I get jealous watching the reckless players win and lose huge numbers of chips. They seem to enjoy themselves much more than the rest of us.

“Where are you playing?”

I worried that he might ask for more money. But I had already killed my bankroll under pretty much the same circumstances as Paul had: boredom that had translated into recklessness. Whenever I try to get a little fancy with my poker play, I invariably lose big.

Paul named a poker site where I didn’t have an account. He moaned a little more about his losses.

“You have to quit for a few days when that happens,” I said. I hate myself when I talk to Paul; I sound like a scolding uncle.

“I know, I know.”

“You need to get a job to distract you a bit.” I couldn’t remember the last time he had held one.

He ignored my advice and then said, “Hey, have you heard about this new law they want to pass in the Netherlands?”

“What law?”

“Basically, any money you lose, the poker house has to pay it back to you.”

“What? That’s ridiculous.”

“Instead of making it illegal,” Paul said laughing a little hysterically, “they’re making it so if you win you have to return the money!”

“I don’t get it. What’s the point of playing, then?”

“So I’m thinking maybe I can get some of my money back.”

“How? None of those poker companies are based in the Netherlands.”

“Right, you mean they’re all off-shore.”

“Like in Gibraltar.”

“But still, maybe.”

“Look, you lost that money. That’s poker. What if you had won? You wouldn’t want to suddenly pay it back. Anyway, it’s the Netherlands.”

“But maybe there’ll be a law like that in America soon.”

“No, I doubt that would happen. And still, the Gibraltar thing.”

“If something like that passed in America, maybe, maybe I could get some of the money back.”

“Paul?”

“Yeah?”

He really needed to get a job; he was free-associating like some old lady parked in a chair in front of a window. He was mangling his hopes with total fantasy.

“Just stop playing for a few days. You’ll get your game back.”