When we moved to New York we moved quickly, one after another, in what felt like years apart but was really week to week, our arrivals stacked together like holes in a belt. I don’t know where we came from. We were temp-to-perm assistants. We were broke. We were free — subsisting off of open bars and leftover lunches, crashing on one another’s couches, sleeping on mattresses hoisted above suitcases stuffed with clothes. We didn’t know much, but we knew our next apartment wouldn’t have mice. And we knew how to go and go and go, working and drinking and sleeping around through hangovers, through head colds, through deaths in the family, through all the strangers underground. We spent the beginnings of our paychecks on vodka and the last of it on a therapist, who gathered that we drank more than we would ever say, because she knew how to read our early on-set wrinkles and our breath, and she knew that everything we said was either too true or not really true at all.
There’s a scene in the movie Office Space where our hero shows up to work late, only to flop a giant fish on his desk and begin to gut it.
Believe me when I tell you that I replay that scene in my head frequently, relishing his calm, easy where-with-all to debone that fucker on his pile of reports.
I thought about that scene today twice, reminding myself that the futility of life should not be determined by the frustration of your work. Work angst is such a spoiled, fucked up problem of the well-abled. It is practically a commodity, nearly a good as silver, almost as semi-precious as a gutted fish when you’re hungry.
Some things never change. Those things don’t exist in New York.
I walk down Columbus Avenue with the dog pulling against the leash, racing past drunks and couples and the old man who lives downstairs. We blow through the intersection, the dog frantic now, practically sprinting forward and forward and forward through the city. We get to the pet store, and she tries to go in. It’s one in the morning, I tell her. It’s not open. She wags her tail, an act of naïveté or defiance.
(Three years ago I ran down Avenue A drunk and bewildered and reaching out for everything and anything and waiting for someone to watch me fall. By the time I hit 8th Street, he was there, of course. I was running to him in some sped-up tragicomedic scene playing out in the movie of my head.)
The wind picks up and the dog’s ears blow back slightly. She whines and paws at the pet store. I gently tug at her, and then use a bit more force to try and yank her away.
The kids at the bar smile. They are outside, waving around cigarettes and hunting down cabs. One of them approaches the dog, already on his knees. She ignores him, desperate to go inside the pet store. The guy could be my age, but from the crowd at the bar, I assume he’s younger. His jeans are tight and torn. He pets the dog’s head and scrambles away, his cigarette stuck against his bottom lip, his tail between his legs. The dog looks away.
We begin the slow walk home, across the avenue, to our apartment. She will eventually lie down on the corner of my bed, her head pressed up against my ankles, the same happy-sad expression on her soft, sleeping face.
Chest pain like this isn’t normal but neither is my career history. Six different positions in six different years. The shortest, a handful of months at a famous fashion magazine, may have been the best. The longest, two and a half years at a lesser-known weekly indie rag, may have been just as good, but I was too underpaid and resentful to know it at the time.
The resentment is usually what causes my chest pain. The overwhelming fury paired with raw, youthful frustration.
I also developed an ache in my jaw, and a stiffness in my neck.
My boss — my most current of the lot — told me the other day I come off like a know-it-all. He said I don’t have to prove myself in meeting. I already got the job, he told me. Sometimes it’s more important to listen.
He’s right. Of course he’s right. I’m bitter, but I’m no idiot. If I was an idiot I wouldn’t let the anger creep up my throat. I wouldn’t pick at my fingernail beds in meetings, trying to shut myself up, trying to remind myself it’s just a job.
It is, after all, just a job. And the economy is rumored to be miserable for the unemployed. Which makes me, what, overemployed? Overpaid? Overwhelmed? Overfed? It’s just a job, don’t forget. I tell myself that over, and over again, smiling and nodding, willing the heat in my cheeks to fade, waiting for that pain in my chest to give.
Some people, if they say something enough times, begin to believe it. Not me. The more I repeat myself, the more I see through my own lies. I was never a good liar.
I saw a therapist when I was in college who, after three semesters of unloading my problems on him, told me I was my own worst enemy. He said I was standing in the way of my own happiness, and there was nothing he could do to help me. I obsessed that for years until a friend told me she saw that same therapist and gave her the same speech. He had been a therapist for twenty years. I wonder if he told everyone that. I wonder if you tell enough people something enough times, everyone starts to believe it.
No, standing in the way of my happiness was a group of tourists. They meandered slowly down Columbus Avenue three abreast, gawking at the museum to their left and the menu of the Pizzeria Uno Chicago Grill to their right. A tangled dog walker approached from the cross walk, two aging retrievers pulling in his wake. Across the avenue, the green market vendors wrapped up their unsold produce and organic chicken. The scent of warm, rotting berries mingled with fresh dog shit. That group of tourists stopped in front of the bodega, allowing themselves to be counted by a man with what sounded to me like a German accent. I wove through the roadblock. There must have been at least fifteen, all of them sweating and smiling feebly.
One of them had his shoes off. He leaned against the glass window of the bodega and wiped his brow. His shoes, tied neatly together, dangled on either side of his shoulder.
here was something else my therapist said in college, but I had forgotten it. He didn’t dispense much advice, which was okay. He was in his forties or fifties — it was hard for me to measure middle age when I was barely twenty — and went barefoot in his office. I respected that about him, at least more than I respected the degrees or piles of paperwork I had to fill out before each session. His bare feet was a badge of authenticity that alleviated how clinical and foolish the hour felt. I was depressed, but I was also staring at a grown man’s bunions.
When I asked my friend if he had taken his shoes off during her therapy sessions, she said she didn’t remember.
Wait — I remember when he had said. He told me to stop doing drugs. No, not exactly. He said something like: “Of course you’re depressed. You’re fucking high all the time.” And just like that, I didn’t feel depressed anymore. But I still got high. I got high every single day because I was in college and I was bored and had no idea what to do with myself except smoke pot. I listened to music and drank, too. But mostly I got high on a couch with a rotating cast of roommates, classmates and friends. No one, I had instructed, should ever wear any shoes or socks when they’re smoking with me.
The girls, all together, say something vague and cutting. Something about shoes or the size of their waist. Whether it is said out loud or not, well, that doesn’t matter. It is said over and over and over, repeated so many times it becomes a warm, dull chorus of young discontent. I grip my scotch and soda the way an old woman holds onto her walker. And I let it take me away.
We went to a comedy show. He insisted.
It wasn’t even a normal showing of stand-up circuit comedians. It was worse because it was just joke writers. Most of the jokes were about how they were Jewish or hated themselves or both. People laughed anyway, too much, because they had paid and they had made plans that night to drink watered down cocktails and fucking laugh. They even laughed at the joke set-ups, like they had been so conditioned to the situation that they couldn’t help but flinch laughter. So I drank extra so I would laugh more, like my laughs would soothe him. I drank extra so he would drink extra, too, and maybe he wouldn’t think too much about the news that his grandfather had died that morning.
It might have been the morning, or the night before. He didn’t know, and he didn’t ask. I don’t know why it mattered to me. I guess it doesn’t matter when time stops, if you think about it. When the ride is over you have to get off.
The comedians were terrible. We each had six scotch and sodas and shared an order of greasy fried shrimp. I had the urge to pat them off with a cocktail napkin but I didn’t want to garner the attention of the comedians. I had a panic attack that they would run out of material and angle in on the audience, notice me patting off a basket of fried shrimp and ask what I was doing there, and I would blurt out, “His grandfather just died,” and everyone would laugh and laugh, looking at the joke writer for the punchline.