It’s Saturday night, and I am cleaning the kitchen because it’s easier than cleaning up my life; I am putting away dishes because I know where dishes go. I do not know where to put other things: relationships I no longer want, relationships that are killing me. Well, not killing me exactly. Taking me apart bit by bit, the way ants disassemble a picnic. There was a sandwich here, and now there’s not. You can’t say when it disappeared.
I say it’s killing me anyway, though, because for me it is easier to to think in acute agonies. This has to do with my brain and its dark materials. I have always expected to suffer, yes, but I expected to do it dramatically. Think Girl, Interrupted. Think folk songs about hard-bitten farmers down to their last cow. Think consumptive heroines, 19th-century Russian Literature.
From joy I expected the same sharp corners. Not living, but living: I wanted to be raptured, rattled, I wanted a riot. Everything in between the two extremes was terra incognita, avoided ground.
And so you could say that I did not expect to be here, in my one-light kitchen, stacking cups and feeling a buzzed nothing, waiting for a confessional radio show to start.
The premise of the show is simple. A host sits alone in his studio. Anyone can call him about anything they want. There are only two rules: the host cannot hang up and the call ends at the hour mark. I listen because I like to hear what people pretend to be calling about. How they say they want to talk about baseball but really they’re grieving their mother’s death. How they’re stressed about money but truthfully they’re gay in a small Western town. It’s almost funny, this art of the false start. They pretend nothing is wrong, even when they’re calling a radio shrink at 10 pm on a Saturday. I figure what’s the use? A happy person does not call a stranger while an entire country listens in. This much I know.
Today’s guest is phoning from his car. He started the day at his telemarketing job, but when he stepped out for a bathroom break he really stepped out, through the exit and into his car. Now he is sitting in the parking lot, incapable of driving away but incapable of going back. Three hours now, and still he can’t decide. So he calls the radio guy.
I do not remember what this man pretended to call about. I only remember that he hated his life, that he dreamed of being a comedian but had lost the nerve, bit by bit, until he landed in the place he was calling from. He tells the host he does nothing, knows no one, feels like zero.
* * *
I mock the safe start but I know I’d start there, too. Because what’s really wrong is embarrassing. Maybe I’d call in and talk kitchen cleaning, tupperware lids. They’re all different shapes, I’d say. Where do you put them? But the host would be on to me. He’d press.
Well let’s see, he’d say. What’s not fitting in your own life?
For starters? I’d say. Me.
And I wouldn’t mean to but I would reveal myself. How I had expected—foolishly—to be the same person when I was grown as when I was growing. Still eating books like food. Ideas still a fire in my skull. Hot-needled as ever by what was world-wrong, thrumming with possibility about what was right. But more than anything, not scared. Or scared, sure, but still doing it sparkly, eyes even on the prize. I’d tell him I had not expected to end up so stuck and so timid, which is the same as saying I had not expected to age—the slow way it undoes a person, the patient grind of disappointment like the scrawl of beetle-work on dead trees.
We would talk about my father, of course. This is standard. I’d say he hated his job, that he’d wanted to be a composer but not enough to risk it, that his regret at what could have been and his certainty that it could not have been gassed off him through the years like a light mist. He wasn’t strong, I used to think. He wouldn’t hazard a try.
But you don’t think that anymore?
No, not anymore.
And why is that?
Because lately I’ve learned that I too want things I will do nothing to have. I can only say that the fighting started two years ago, dramatic at moments and then exhausting, and that at some point I looked at the person who was supposed to be mine and she wasn’t mine at all, and we were not each other’s. All my life I’d bought love with currency I thought I had: I was special, I was fearless. I was admired. Then I hit 28 and 28 hit back. I lost a best friend; I lost a baby. I found a girlfriend but I could not imagine what she found in me: collapsing on couches everywhere, barely moving. I tried for impressive and barely managed impassive. I was not special; I was pathetic. I was not, after all, the person I imagined I’d be. I thought I knew what I feared: being average, and being left for that. Soon my girlfriend would see to the center of me. Soon she would shake her head, disappointed.
But my real fear was much worse than that. What if she wasn’t dissatisfied at all? What if I was the one who wanted out?
I couldn’t bear that idea, though, so I fought instead, out-shouting the sentences in my head. And my girlfriend, confused, fought back. We fought ‘til we were blue-faced, then red; we fought until even those colors got tired and left us, pale and worn. I knew I was supposed to make a choice then. I was supposed to be brave, to leave. Instead, I was afraid. Instead, I began to close down, room by room, as if shuttering a large castle for the winter—the west wing, the east wing, till only the kitchen remained. This kitchen, where the radio plays at keeping me company. This show, where the host gears up to save another soul.
* * *
The host is worried about the telemarketer. He goes into rescue mode. He cares about the caller, you can tell. He gets right there in his corner. He asks, Can you quit your job right now? The guy supposes he could. He guesses he already has. The host asks, What do you love, what do you love more than anything? The man already told him. Comedy. He’s funny, he says. He is even funnier when he isn’t home on a Friday night, smoking weed and watching his life dilate to a great big nothing. His dream? Doing stand-up.
There are fifteen minutes left in the show. Now that they’re down to the wire, the host ramps it up. I want you to get out of there, he says. I want you to drive to a stand-up open mic night and I want you to perform. The man says maybe maybe maybe; the host says come on come on come on. Five minutes left and the host is Googling locations, using pressuring sales techniques. Will you, he says, Will you go to this particular stand-up night on this particular day next week? The caller breaks. The caller says yes. Yes, he will go. Yes, he will follow his dream. God it feels good to say yes! The call ends on a high note. The host and caller feel fantastic.
I have stopped cleaning. I am in the center of the kitchen, knuckling a broom. My breath is shallow, almost absent. I want to be happy for the man but instead I am full of dread. I feel dread because I know that no matter what the host says to this man, whatever this man promises to the host, he will not go to the comedy night. I know that he might believe he will go, might believe it until the second before he is supposed to go. But then he will not go. I know this because I know myself. And this is why my broom goes quiet.
I am remembering a night like a hot-plate in my brain. How it was winter, how we argued, how the words turned to shouting, to screaming—not caring anymore that we were in public. I am remembering how the cold and the hurt and the shock of our words dragged me right down to the ground, how on a late-night November street I crawled along the sidewalk, holding onto the railings of a nearby fence and mewling like a forgotten animal. “This is humiliating,” my girlfriend said, and left. And she was right; it was.
I remember crawling until I found a dirty, discarded mattress and collapsing onto it, not caring who saw. I remember a woman approaching me, suspicious in her worry, who said, Should I call the cops? I remember looking at her, confused. I didn’t want that. I wanted her to take my hand and walk anywhere, to wherever she was already going. But instead I said nothing and she moved on, the sound of her heels ringing the arctic street like a thumb on glass.
It was the worst I’d ever felt. Until I stood up and went back home, back to my girlfriend. And that was worse. At least on the mattress my misery was sharp, with a prodding edge. There was still a chance to follow the script: breakdown, breakup, breakthrough. But I couldn’t do it. I was miserable, but I couldn’t do it. Instead, I walked around like a dull drum, my heart drubbing away at its boorish task.
And so I know the host has made a common mistake. He has confused resignation with sadness. A happy-sounding man, he seems to believe that a sad person wants to be happy, and that being happy is worth the risk of failure. But I know that resignation falls faster than sad, and the math goes wonky as it plummets toward the ground: paradoxical, non-linear. You want something more than anything, but not more than that. Or that. Or that. What you want really, somewhere inside you, is to keep falling. To keep falling until your life is more intolerable than the fear of change. Resignation, I know, is alcoholic: it searches for hardpan, rock bottom, and, until it then it is undeterred—not by logic, not by desire, not by encouragement.
* * *
I’m glad I’ve never called the radio shrink. If I did, he’d probably break his rule. He’d hang up on me. Because he wants a story and this isn’t one. In stories, things happen. In stories, people change: people who are sad try to be happy, people who are devastated get back up. I know I am supposed to offer rising action, a climax, a denouement. At very least I could stop being so pitiful. But that is not this story. In this story I cannot move at all. I just stand in the kitchen with a broom.
Years later, in the bedroom across from me, I will read a story where a woman argues that a story—a real story—does not rise sharply from an inciting action, climbing the mountain of adversity to a pointed climax. A real story, the author says, does not have a peak in the middle; it has a hole, a hollow where a character sits for a long time without moving. Years later I will see this moment as that hollow, the place where I rested long enough to say: This is what is, and I’m terrified.
But in the kitchen, holding my broom, all this is far in the future. All I know at the moment is I’m interested in what people cannot change. In what must change us. I am interested in rock bottom: the mysterious hard earth that finally breaks us and lets us go, the floor that we will find, finally, without knowing when. I am wondering what earth will finally find me. Until then I know I’ll have no redemption—not for the shrink, not for anybody. I will stay in my relationship, and the telemarketer will not do stand-up. We will not give you what you want because we cannot give it to ourselves yet. We cannot lift this heavy thing, the heart.
The kitchen gleams in the stove light. I am almost all the way done.