Campbell High was sort of an interesting case. It was a sort-of magnet high school, but the entrance exam was based largely on an essay; it was public, but its mission was to serve as a training ground for the great writers of tomorrow, a wacky liberal idea which could only exist in a city as crazy as New York. So based on one essay written in eighth grade, it selected a class of students who had every opportunity to take up writing. John Updike spoke at an assembly my freshman year; we had writing workshops by local writers who were apparently famous to the upscale all the time, and various authors of all kinds passing in and out, from sportswriter Roger Angell to Louis Sachar, author of a popular series of children’s books. We had political commentators and speechwriters, television writers, screenplay writers, and generally anyone who felt guilty enough to give back to the community in such a misguided way. Out of our class of 500, I would guess that no more than 20 are involved in any way in the writing profession.
I traipse back out to frozen Lake Calhoun on December 23rd, Christmas fast approaching. My household in New York was not a particularly religious one – the one-quarter Navajo in me had been kicked off the reservation for expressing dissent against what it saw as pointless religious rituals, while my father had been raised with self-confidence instead of culture. Nevertheless, on Christmas day, we would always wake up to presents – my mother later told me that she didn’t want us to feel left out. “We” was me and my sister Maria, and my brother Joey who got spared the Corwin by virtue of being the second-born, instead receiving a name which everyone assumed stood for Jose.
Perhaps because of the lack of importance that our household placed on culture, my siblings and I grew up missing both the characteristic rivalry and the characteristic closeness that brothers and sisters tend to have. Maria was two years younger than me, Joey seven; as a child, I sought my playmates outside the home, and as a high-schooler in New York, the most connected city in the world, my friends tended to be from far-flung parts of the city, the web of transportation criss-crossing the city enabling the existence of specialized high schools, one of which I went to.
Having descended from all over the five boroughs (well, four; no one is actually from Staten Island), the most convenient place for us to hang out was in the downtown Brooklyn building that was several miles from my home. So we did, and I never had the prototypical experience of friends hitting on my younger sister. And so my world and Maria’s remained separate throughout high school. I never really had that bonding experience with my little sister which everyone is supposed to have at some point, that magical moment when you first realize that you are now both adults.
I wonder what my parents are up to on this day. It is the first Christmas without any children in the house. I don’t talk to them much; maybe once every two weeks. I wonder how frequently they see Maria, who I talk to maybe once every couple of months, the elongated intervals dulling the flow of time and separation. We are as close now as we ever were; no new rivalries, no episodes, just a healthy brother-and-sister relationship. She’ll tell me if anything important happens, and I’ll tell her. We understand each other, to be sure; in fact, it is precisely this understanding of the internal Gonzalez mindset that obviates the need for us to talk. We are not a family that has a lot of epiphanies or mid-life crises.
Our environment was more or less continuous. There were no stages, no thresholds laid out for us; there were no blacks and whites, which made life very fluid. Puberty was very gentle for me, and I think also for Maria; there was no real adolescent turmoil, no real wondering about how to cope with the newfound interest in the opposite sex. Life was a gradual learning experience; like most boys, there were times when I felt like I knew it all only to be horribly disappointed, but life and my understanding generally got through these blips, trending upwards inexorably like the stock market.
I rarely think about my childhood, which was by and large uneventful, but on this day, December 23rd, I wonder what my family is up to. Joey has just started college, at a small liberal arts college in Kansas I have never heard of; Maria is back in New York, doing financial analysis or analytic finance or something, having recently graduated from MIT. Upon further thought, that was almost two years ago; time tends to fly by with people you never see.
My parents pushed uniqueness on us the way most parents push obeisance. My father had grown up in a rather authoritarian household, where your work ethic was the attribute that defined you as a man, remnants from his grandfather’s successful struggle to lift himself from a migrant farm worker to an integrated member of society. I don’t think his father ever really embraced it; he died before I was born, but all the pictures I’ve seen show him as an old man going through the motions, perpetuating the macho culture and the school-of-hard-knocks philosophy. Forced to practice what he preached, he died young from accumulated stress, a heart attack at fifty-five.
My mother was raised in their household, with words constantly everywhere. She tells her childhood like it was idyllic, although her mother once confided in me that she was a little hell-raiser who wanted to go out and beat people up instead of staying in and reading. With this advantage of revisionist history, the comparison between my mother and father was easy – they chose my mother’s flexible upbringing over my father’s totalitarian one. And so we were raised with all of the opportunities that we wanted, reaping the surplus of a New York family uninterested in the usual expensive New York posturing.
My mother, on the other hand, was raised to be a creator. Her father was a script-writer in Hollywood, and her mother had walked off (or been exiled, depending on who is telling the story) the Navajo reservation at nineteen to find herself in the big city. They had met on a set, as this Navajo teenager was auditioning for a role as a Mexican immigrant, real Mexicans being immensely prejudiced against in the strange culture of Hollywood. They were married a few years later, and she quickly became the brains behind the endeavor, writing scripts of her own for very popular motion pictures under his name. He embraced this pixie of a woman, four-foot-eleven and full of ideas that were just now gaining the literacy needed to commit them to paper.
I pull out the cell phone, my optimized tether to society, and punch in the home number. It rings once, twice, three times, and I hang up before the machine picks up. It is 9 PM on the east coast, and my parents are out carousing, apparently relishing their newfound freedom. Joey is spending winter break with a Kansan friend; he is a strange character, really the only one in the family, always wearing black and now on this rash Kansas kick. If Kansas is anything like Minnesota, he will be anointed leader in a couple of years, with his strong opinions and handsomely shaped brow. I could see Joey riding his own Gonzalez all the way to fame, whether it be political success or simply a poorly researched footnote in a history book saying that Joey Gonzalez was the first Hispanic-American something or other. He is mysterious and independent at eighteen, taking wild risks that Maria and I would never think to take.
The message repeats, this time in Italian, an efficient way to convey that yes, this man really is Italian, and can be yours for the low low price of $59.95. There is a beep. I leave a message of casual jocularity, put my phone back in my pocket, and skip a rock across the solid lake. It makes a hollow sound as it skips across the ice, thuck-thuck-thuck. It slowly comes to a stop, joining a refreshingly small amount of debris on the lake. In New York, when the lakes in Central Park freeze, dynamic postmodern sculptures arise impromptu, composed of Coke cans and swirling newspaper. The litter is thrown there by rambunctious teenagers; the sculptures are created out of them by artistic teenagers. The triumph of creativity over macho. My parents must be proud.
I call a college roommate, Alberto Lauria, a real-life Italian, actually from Italy, now taking up the life of a suave bachelor foreigner in New York, where he already fools at home. It goes straight through to voicemail, which is an upbeat attempt by the slacker Lauria to sound busy. “Hey, it’s Alberto, sorry I missed your call, please leave a message and I’ll try to get back to you as soon as possible.” The diction rushed, the intonation on “try” making it quite clear that he is in much demand, even though he still spends five hours a day lying on his couch watching TV, reading, and dicking around on the internet.
Here in Minnesota everything is quiet. The entire landscape has fallen under a blanket of dampening snow; the cars driving on the other side of the lake are barely audible, leaving the listener secure in the knowledge that nature is, for now, still winning the race against technology. A lone lost goose flies overhead, hopelessly anachronistic in its futile attempts to win the race against natural selection. It honks, and the sound fills the air the way the automobiles wish they could do. The goose dives down to get a closer look at the sprawl, to get closer to the city’s radiated heat it is mistaking for Florida. Its swooping path is a microcosm of the airplanes still flying overhead, exporting senior citizens and the unceremoniously dumped to the world at large. It leaves no contrail.
I resolve to find Elise before the winter is up, a highly unorthodox move, and perhaps one only a foreigner could get away with. I have no idea how I am going to do this. Tracking people down during the winter is notoriously difficult; presumably she is spending her time inside, so a chance meeting is out of the question, and it is rather impossible for me to inquire as to her address or phone number without setting off relayed alarm bells. She is not in the phone book; I have already looked there.
I’m not really sure what the introspection I am trying to do is supposed to accomplish. I’ve been in Minneapolis for four years and my personality has basically not progressed; the facets that engaged Sarah Calflower, Judith, the rest of the underground, and interludes like Stanton were already there. My thoughts turn again to Elise Snow. I wonder if my obsession with her is the cabin-fever mania, the collective idea that we have built advertising campaigns around. “Get out of your house and come see ours,” a tag-line for a winter-wonderland gingerbread house for children, complete with the sledding off the roof which produces happy squeals the parents take as an indication that they are doing their job well.
As I ponder the Elise question, a ludicrously underdressed old man runs by, his elbows swinging in the self-parody of the aged, mimicking movements that used to be fluid in his youth. He is wearing nothing but running shorts and a tank top, despite the fact that it can’t be more than twenty degrees out. He glances at me, and our eyes meet, his piercing and stoic, mine huddled beneath three layers of newfangled fabric. I feel ashamed in front of this crazy man, who turns away with scorn as my phone starts to ring.
“I’m bored off my ass, Harold. Don’t you have a sister you can introduce me to or something?”
It is Alberto Lauria calling back, an exuberant “Harold!” in his voice. Lauria is an interesting creature. Watching him interact with people he doesn’t know very well is almost sickening; he knows exactly how to be smooth, and exactly when to use his supposed foreigner quirkiness to his advantage. But around us, around the roommates, he is pure authenticity. The contrast is jarring. Lauria is free with his thoughts, and honest with his opinions and his ongoing life story.
“Married, Berto.” Maria is a running joke between Alberto and me. He didn’t find out that I had a sister until junior year, it never having come up, and ever since then he teases me that my sister must be insanely hot in order for me to have kept her from him. He met Maria a few months later, when she came over from MIT to drop off some papers I had forgotten at home during winter break; the actual appearance of my comely but by no means “en fuego” sister did nothing to break the joke. Maria herself is, of course, not actually married.
“You don’t say?” Lauria replies. “Lucky guy.” Indeed, my hypothetical sister’s hypothetical husband is quite the lucky guy, since over the years she has transitioned with Alberto’s maturing desires from simply a beautiful sexpot to a well-rounded, super-smart woman who is Alberto’s life partner.
“Yeah, I think he’s also like a former Mr. Switzerland or something. You got no chance, he’s even got a cooler accent than you.”
“How do you say … fuck?” Lauria mock-queries in his exaggerated Italian accent. Lauria speaks flawless English; his parents worked for an American who set up in the restaurant business after WWII, and it stuck. “Anyway, it’s okay. I got somebody.”
“Oh really?” These “somebody”s of Alberto never seemed to materialize.
“Yeah, she’s a trader. I kind of work with her off-and-on.”
“Work with her?” Alberto had several part-time jobs. I was searching my mind for what they actually were.
“Her kid …” I burst out laughing. “Hey, shut up, people with kids can be sexy too. Like, how do you say… your mom?” It was like being in college, except that Alberto could not raise up in mock anger and punch me in the arm hard enough that I would feel it the next day. When I stopped laughing eventually, he continued. “Her kid is, like, eight, and wants to write children’s books. He’s really not bad. Maybe he’ll go to that high school you want to, what is it, Chef Boyardee?”
I recalled that one of Alberto’s jobs involved vetting manuscripts for an alternative books company. This children’s books by children thing sounded right up their alley. “So, uh, you and her and the kid must have some wild times.”
“Sure. We go out. Sometimes just me and the kid.”
“Sounds like you’re the babysitter.”
“Well, I am his agent, kind of. I have to get something to pitch.”
“Alberto, have you ever been alone with her?” Silence.
“Okay, never mind. You got somebody, good for you, congratulations.”
“What are you up to, Harold?”Accent on the second syllable of “Harold.”
(“Hey, it’s an honor, I’m pronouncing your name in the Italian way,” he contended.)
“Stalking girls, working my ass off, the usual.”
“You’re working your ass off? This I gotta see.”
“Yeah… okay maybe mostly stalking girls.”
“What’s her name?”
“Elise Snow,” I say.
“Holy fuck, I know her!” Alberto explodes.
“No way, Joey. Why would I know some random chick from Minnesota? You’re becoming gullible in your old age.”
“Yeah, I think she’s a lesbian though. Something really weird is going on with her, I’m trying to figure out what.”
“You’re stalking a lesbian? What’s the reward?”
“I don’t know, it’s some sort of weird situation. I saw her talking with this guy…” There is absolutely no way I will be able to convey to Alberto how much this means to me.
“Hey, you should come visit. It’s been a year and a half. Bored off my ass, dude. And bring your hot sister.” The Italianized “dude” is absurd.
“I was thinking of coming for New Year’s, but I guess it’s too late.”
“Lame. Anyway, I gotta bail, I’m meeting this chick…”
“And the kid? You’re dumping me for a kid? I should just hang up on you right now, you Italian wanker.”
“Ciao.” I hit the disconnect button on my phone and go back to trying to figure out what introspection is. I don’t really think it’s thinking in circles about Elise and watching a second insane old man jog past, looking at his watch periodically. The man is on a mission. I wonder if he knows Elise.
The following day I get a Christmas card from my parents. They’ve never done this before, but I guess in their old age they are trying to tie up all the loose ends. “Corwin – We’re proud of you. When are you going to get us some grandchildren? – Mom and Dad.” Dad’s handwriting, with the needling grandchildren comment that is less of a joke each time they make it. I wonder if Maria got the same card; probably so.
It’s not clear how serious the pride is. We were supposed to be creative, unique students; instead we have become quantitative successes, attending normally elite schools and winding up in advertising and finance. Certainly we are not failures; certainly we have successful lives, and are even socially adept. On the other hand, we are not unique; worse, each of us, in our own way, is contributing to the status quo. I am working for heartless corporate America, advancing the agenda of the conglomerate; Maria is, I think, also paid by the monoliths, analyzing the financial status of corporations to allow other corporations to make intelligent takeover decisions. Or possibly she is analyzing the stock market, lifting up those who are already rich. Either way, she is hardly looking out for the common man.
I don’t know Joey terribly well, of course. When I left for college, he was a pretty normal ten-year-old, before this fiery persona came out. I haven’t spent much time with him since then; we weren’t terribly close before I left, casual games of tossing the ol’ pigskin around being quite implausible in both our household’s value system and the clamor of New York. But the intermittent glimpses of him I have seen over the past eight years portray a disjointed maturation process that involved him trying out all sorts of things to feel agitated about. The exact opposite of the Midwest rebels, who try out all sorts of things to feel comfortable about. I wonder why he chose to go to a college in the middle of this reverse environment. I guess he probably didn’t know about Midwestern attitudes, perhaps due to my failure to impart any life knowledge whatsoever to this boy who shares more DNA with me than anyone else younger.
I wonder to what extent they are more proud of Joey. Unlike Maria and I, Joey’s grades in school were not very good, and so he ended up going to a college named Kiting (Kitting?) in Kansas. It was his decision; he wanted to go to school in the Midwest. Joey is both more opinionated and more of a firebrand than I remember either Maria or I being, though of course there is always the possibility that I am comparing my mellowed twenty-something self to his tumescent youth. He went through a rather sharp adolescence, complete with brooding, and possibly experimental drug use, but the flip side of this rebellious self is that he felt very strongly about his opinions. He also developed an artistic streak that neither of us had, creating strange postmodern paintings with iridescent blue backgrounds.
And so I wonder how my parents feel about Joey’s weirdness. Certainly he has not been successful, but he has something to him that Maria and I don’t, a chance to be mentioned in newspapers or history books in the future. I wonder how much his upbringing has been affected by our parents’ obvious ambivalence with respect to my life and Maria’s. My parents were never ones to have secret opinions; they told us when they approved of what we did and what we didn’t do, and perhaps Joey saw an in with them, saw that he could be their child in a way that Maria and I had failed to be.
The items with six check marks read like bad movie titles: GROUPTHINK, RELAXING OVER COFFEE, HOW TO FIND THE RIGHT GIRL (CAUTION: REQUIRES ACTUAL WORK!). Astonishingly, the three items are all things I feel that I am relatively good at. I am better than most at judging the prevailing attitudes among a group of people; my conquest of the Minnesota underground social scene demonstrates as much, but I think this is mostly due to being a New Yorker, and due to the fact that most people are extremely bad at it. My parents, I suppose, would disagree, claiming that conformity is of no value, but being ostracized from a group because you espouse unpopular opinions seems to me to be of little value also. And in any group, if you are just yourself, you will have unpopular mannerisms or opinions or likes/dislikes.
I spend most of December 25th and Boxing Day, December 26th, watching television and trying this introspection thing. A casual internet search reveals a plan: “Write down a list of the nine attributes you most wish you were better at. Compare each pair, putting a check mark next to the one you think is more important. If you are unsure, put a check mark next to each in turn and see which one feels more satisfying. Then try to work on the thing with the most check marks.”
I am surprised to find that none of my nine things garner more than six check marks. In principle, whatever is most important to me should beat every other item, and end up with eight. I wonder if this is a sign of my inner contrarian, the artistic personality that my parents valued so, the writer who was supposed to be nourished by Campbell.
A group is a tenuous social concept. With two people, the Venn diagram is simple, two circles in perfect symmetry; with seven, it is a mess, regions twisting and winding everywhere to interlock in all possible combinations. And thus the internal dynamics of a sizable social group go, with ephemeral and complicated opinion blocs. In addition, groups of this size tend to come into contact, and there is a lot of intertribal mingling; the ones that survive are the ones where the expressed features of each person’s personality are identical. The ones where there is never any conflict that could snowball into a rift, like some people wanting to see one movie and some people wanting to see another.
In the underground, it was easier than even college. There was always plenty of discussion of three things – literature, music, and hooking up – and very little else except for the occasional political aside. As long as you figured out whether to call some new book or rock group pretentious, and as long as you paid attention to know who was flirting with whom, you were okay. In a sense, the underground is a second (or, often, first) college for these people: not yet ready for the full-fledged social sphere of the real world (in Minnesota, complete with children and hobbies), they instead bunker down in a restricted environment. In principle, the social scene should have by now evolved to a complete setting, but because of the constant flux among its membership, it has been unable to (says our gay historian John.)
Being a successful member of a group requires not only the conformist bone in one’s body but also an ability to intuit what one is conforming to. In college, Alberto Lauria, myself, and two others had this down; we knew when to play video games, we know when to ask other people to play video games, and we knew when to go to dinner. In college, admittedly, it is easier, with far fewer implications and far fewer facets of one’s being manifesting themselves.
But the video game thing, though it may seem trivial, is important. If you ask someone to play a video game when they do not want to, it is a disaster: either their rejection of you creates an imbalance, an asymmetry in the unstable Venn diagram, or their reluctant acceptance creates an fake, hollow dynamic which threatens to manifest itself in some hideous way later, again throwing the diagram hopelessly askew. These trivial things are critical to the functionality of a group dynamic.
Being raised by-and-large in small towns, you would think that the denizens of this subculture would be very good at conformity. The hard part, for them, is figuring out what to conform to. In their small towns, it was clear what the dominant ethos was, but in a city of their own they often struggled with perception of actual differences. Even with their shared backgrounds, they were blissfully unable to pick up on social cues, on what bands they were supposed to mention and when, on girls who were out of the question because they were someone’s sister or someone’s erstwhile crush or whatever.
Groupthink is hard. No matter how good you are at it, you will always miss some cues; you will always contravene some strange opinion which the two people you are with happen to share, twin rare alleles producing a one-in-10,000 bizarre trait. There is always room to get better. One needs to chameleon oneself not only to the group but also to the situation; a virulently political group in a coffeehouse may become profoundly apathetic when confronted with the angst rock of some latest model. A man who is a philanderer in general may break down and cry when confronted with news of his girlfriend watching a movie with some concluded sleazeball.
These things resulted in the splintering of many tight-knit groups. Eventually these complicated setups were rejected due to the collective laziness of the populace in favor of relatively simple pair bonds, or, for those few who could not handle even that complexity, the even simpler one-person bonds of religion or suicide. Being a New Yorker growing up, I never had such a predictable environment; at a young age, I learned to handle perceived adversity or diversity. Friction snowballed faster among these Minnesotans, as I learned the first year when I glossed over things I thought of as issues but which the Twin Cities viewed as Issues. Things like who should drive when going out, a complicated game that interacts with status, girlfriend situation, and, last and least, driving ability. I was particularly bad at that one, not having been behind the wheel of a car until the summer after my junior year of college.
Because of the snowball effect, one also needs to be on the lookout for minuscule changes that threaten to disrupt the social dynamic forever. A crude jackal may have an epiphany and become uptight about swearing. A macho man may come out of the closet. Two of the members of a group may decide to become roommates, which throws everything out of whack as the uncomfortable subject of this perceived circle of exclusivity, a platonic pair-bond, threatens not only the group itself (which feels distanced from them), but also the psyches of its members (as they struggle with the implicit rejection; why did nobody ask them about their living situation?)
Ursula was great at relaxing. We would go out, usually in a group that didn’t know each other very well (like the dorm floor we shared freshman year of college), and while other people were nervously checking each other out, Ursula would be calmly and casually laughing, seeming to be affected by nobody, seeming to notice nothing perplexing. The miracle of Ursula was that despite this apparent lack of perceiving, she was absolutely fluent in groupthink. Naturally gifted. There are many ways to succeed in life, and Ursula had social interaction down pat. She knew when to be zany, when to be herself, but she also knew when to just let go and let the current carry her.
It’s a hard game, but the second item on my list, RELAXING OVER COFFEE, was even harder for me. Keeping a constant lookout for perturbations was second nature to me; the stereotypes which most people use to make accurate first impressions was replaced in my household by an inculcated sense of immediate perception, the fairer method of judging everyone by what you see of them at the beginning of it all. There are situations in the underground where one is merely expected to relax, where things are not as important. I’m okay at camouflaging my constant scans which pick up Elise Snows and the like on my radar scene, but actually relaxing is almost out of the question. The introspection yielded this sentence in an e-mail to Ursula Devon, an unfortunately porn-star named girl who had pegged me as a deep platonic friend early on: “I think I would be a lot happier if I just learned to sit back and relax sometimes. If I wasn’t trying to get everything out of everything. But I can’t. It’s the curse of the New Yorker.” Except with three unfortunate typos that I have expurgated in transcription.
This sort of talent can get you into Harvard. Ursula’s book-learning skills were merely okay, but she made up for it with an incredible conviviality that no teacher could possibly fail. Ursula solved the SAT’s by applying psychology to the question-writers, not by knowing vocabulary or mathematics, and she breezed through college using similar methods on exams and engaging people in discussions about the papers she was writing or even calculus problems she was doing.
And so she comes to mind immediately when I think about RELAXING OVER COFFEE, even though I haven’t talked to her in three years, since we saw each other at the wedding of a common acquaintance who was throwing a lavish wedding (complete with free airfare and renting out a hotel) because her father had made it big by inventing some kind of nanoscrew. And immediately next day comes back the perfect reply:
“Harold!!! It’s great to hear from you. I’m actually going to be in your neck of the woods, Rochester, in January, for a wedding of this high school… well let’s just say friend of mine, and leave it at that. I might have some time if you want to get lunch.
Sorry to hear about the problems you’re having. [What problems!? Did I mention any problems? I scan the email I sent her, finding no mention of any problems. I guess she just divined it, or maybe I crossed wires with one of her other acquaintances.] As for me, I’m having a kind of career crisis… this social work thing is rewarding but also terribly depressing, I get home at night and I’m tired. I ran into Alberto the other day and he said you were doing well. Hope that’s still generally the case. If you want to talk sometime, feel free to give me a ring, 718-762-9808. I’d love to catch up.
Impeccably worded and impeccably timed. I ponder calling her but pass. It is December 27th and I haven’t gotten to the third co-winner of the checks game yet.
Chapter Eight: How To Find The Right Girl (Caution: Requires Actual Work.)
Upon breaking up with her, Yuan embarked on a series of meaningless three-week relationships. He wasn’t searching for the right girl; that would require actual work. Instead, he was doing fake work, looking for girls who were wrong in every possible way. The layman’s psychological analysis, which our fourth roommate Dan Kandinsky performed for Alberto and me in a hilarious late-night drunken rant (a 3-on-1 which threatened to upset the roommate dynamic), is that “Yuan thinks he can construct the perfect girl by finding all the ways in which a girl can be imperfect and looking at the outline.”
My roommate Yuan used his Chinese name instead of the anglicized Clement in a horribly misguided attempt to impress the girls with his exoticism, no matter how many times we reminded him that girls just don’t dig Asian guys. He wasn’t even all Chinese; his dad had emigrated from China at age 25, ten years before he was born, and had married a Jewish woman with a painfully Jewish name (Esther Rosenstein), who had died during childbirth. Left to raise the child himself, his father (whose name, replete with X’s and strange vowel clusters, I have never been able to pronounce) decided very early on that he wanted his kid to not have to go through the same painful bereavement that he did. His strategy, apparently, was to poison Yuan against women.
“Clement, you’ll never find the right girl. You shouldn’t try. I know you think you can do it, and I believe in you in general, but everyone’s got something wrong with them. Also, it requires actual work.” Yuan was even lazier than the rest of us, and this tagline was sure to dissuade him. So he cynically avoided the female sex until he gave up the possible solution of being gay and threw himself into a two-year-long relationship with – well, to put it bluntly, an awful, awful bitch. I think he stayed in the relationship because he was not aware of any other kind of woman, the ultimate backfiring of his father’s dictum.
He was doing a pretty good job of it. He dated mean girls, uninteresting girls, ridiculously insecure girls, ugly girls, you name it. He dated one girl who was so horrible she even convinced him to swear off relationships for life, until he realized that they had an excellent effort-to-payoff relationship. Simply by going through some social cues, Yuan could obtain sexual favors, personal validation, and smiling ugly faces all in one. Because he was only looking for tragically flawed girls, he wasn’t out of his league; Yuan was a perfectly average-looking kid with no particular female-attracting skills like playing the guitar (would have required actual work to develop) or having a sensitive side, but to these imperfect girlfriends he was Zeus in all of his glory.
Alberto had the foreigner thing going and milked it for all it was worth. He had no trouble getting girls, even no trouble getting girls who weren’t misshapen (like Yuan’s girlfriend one month, a girl whose knees clicked together when she walked, turning out like the sticks of a dancing marionette puppet.) The problem with Lauria was that he assumed that anyone who was drawn in by his foreigner thing would approve of the real him. He viewed the foreigner thing as just a hook, but the result was generally a disappointing relationship, as the girl’s impression of him went downhill as the real Alberto emerged.
It was a good strategy. The relationships ended rather harmlessly; Yuan generally claiming to us that “well, we’re not right for each other” and then getting together with another girl who was also crystal-clearly not right for him. It certainly provided endless entertainment for the rest of us, especially since we each needed a distraction from our own warped outlook on love. In a sense the thing that tied all four of us together more than anything was the fact that we all had deeply rooted misconceptions about girls. Well, either that or video games.
It wasn’t that the real Alberto was some sort of elephant man. Alberto was witty, socially well-adjusted, spontaneous, the works. The problem was that the type of girl he attracted were, in general, not interested in that sort of thing. This quintessential Alberto girl was interested in having a hot Italian boyfriend lost in American culture, the sort of boyfriend who would be pliable about day-to-day things like going to parties, hanging out with her friends, and the occasional grocery shopping. She was interested in having a sufficiently culturally detached boyfriend that she could flirt with her male friends, and occasionally hook up with them, without him raising a peep.
Alberto was so pleased about having gotten a girl to stay that he was willing to put up with the everyday friction in their lives, and the girl, Catherine Jackson, was too dumb to realize things were wrong, too dumb to overwrite the impression of him as that mysterious foreign man fit to show off at parties. He didn’t help matters by continuing to slip into that mode at the parties she managed to drag him to, just enough that she didn’t have to come to terms with the fact that this lifestyle was really not suited to him. So their lives proceeded with neither really getting the day-to-day life they wanted for far too long, three and a half months, long enough for the breakup to be painful for him, and, one assumes, for her. Curiously, it happened because he decided to go to one of these parties, having changed his mind, and saw her clothes draping off of her as she was sitting on the couch with a scrawny German. The combination of rare physical superiority and a rage of testosterone led to two of the German’s teeth being seriously chipped, a night in jail and four months’ probation for Alberto, and a crying Catherine Jackson being demoralized, turning Christian the next month, and marrying the guy we had always made fun of for being Mr. Goody Two Shoes immediately after college graduation.
Alberto was not this Italian trophy boyfriend. He got American culture, and he got flirting. He didn’t want to go to superficial parties, and he really didn’t want to be cheated on. Most of the time, the relationships never got off the ground, a few days of dalliance being enough to make the girl see that he wasn’t what she was looking for and leave (Alberto being merely confused about the whole thing.) But, of course, the one that did last for a long time was with the girl who was too stupid to realize this.
Shortly thereafter, Berto realized that in order to get a girl he actually wanted and could actually have a decent relationship with, he would have to do some actual work. The problem was that by this time his schmoozing Italian persona was deeply ingrained. This was the 3-on-1 thing which the rest of us commiserated over, and laughed at when we were in light moods and saw him at parties. And so he did the only logical thing possible: he started to only pursue those girls that actively avoided this persona at parties. Well, not on purpose, but it just so happened that this sort of down-to-earth, amazingly blunt character was exactly the sort of person who would not go within 20 feet of an Italian man with greased hair.
And the next day Alberto called Portia up, apologized for the previous night, and invited her to dinner with us. And she passed. Boy, did she pass. Portia was capable of anything. We talked about our usual geeky topics, inserting puns and teases at every juncture, and Portia matched us punch-for-punch. Usually one girl with a bunch of guys is a recipe for disaster; it is these meetings that have driven many girls away from our heroic bunch. Portia didn’t run. Portia stayed, and Portia and Alberto had loud, uninhibited sex, and she became part of our crowd, coming along to birthday parties, gaming socials, and the occasional satirical pub crawl where we would make fun of the jock stereotypes who now turned their attention towards us, drawn by the striking brunette with a cocky edge to her demeanor.
Except Portia Freeport. Portia Freeport, in my opinion, was the awesomest girl any of us dated in college. Portia was a San Franciscan who had left to come to Harvard because she was disgusted at the closed-mindedness displayed in its liberal environs. Portia spotted Alberto across the room, and somehow saw the Alberto behind the layer of lacquer that covered his shiny face. She marched up to him and started talking to him, sneering whenever he would use the Italian tricks that got girls in bed with him. She marched away imperially just as he was starting to drop the façade, her red heels making quite an impression on him. That night he told us that this was the girl. “And with no actual work!” he gleefully exclaimed. Yuan, fresh off another downer and with three vodka and Sprites in him, turned to Alberto and said, “I feel like punching you in the face.”
One of the problems with being a guy is that you are drawn to just about anyone. And so I was drawn to just about Portia, and I don’t think I was the only one. I wasn’t jealous of Alberto so much as wistful that someday our time together would end, and Portia and Alberto would move somewhere together after college and have children, and I would at best be the fun uncle who visited occasionally from out of town. Portia and Alberto started dating in March of our junior year, and continued through the end of college. During that time I had no serious interests in other girls, no serious interests in anyone, probably not a coincidence. Portia blew everyone else away, especially at the dinners, when they saw the type of girl who we, by extrapolation, wanted, and were awfully intimidated by her.
I was once talking to Portia, who was hanging out with us waiting for Alberto to come back from class. I asked her what she thought of Alberto’s Italian persona. She rolled her eyes. “I know exactly what you’re talking about. It’s total bullshit. My theory is that he watched too many movies growing up. There are so many movies with Latin guys and American girls. How come there are no movies with Latin girls and American guys? What’s the deal with that?”
“So how come you’re dating him? Wasn’t he like that when he met you.”
“Yeah. But I saw something beneath it. You know, I was briefly in a class with him freshman year. Expos. He says he didn’t remember me, which is weird, since it’s only a 15-person class, right? I transferred to another section two weeks later but I remembered him from that. Then I saw him at that party, and he was so smarmy I wanted to smack him, but I saw that underneath he was a pretty interesting guy. Whenever he let his guard down, you could see his soul in his body language.”
It was perception like this that made Portia so fantastic. Looking back on things with my vocational perspective, Portia was an advertiser’s nightmare; she could see through facades to the relevant underlying phenomena. She was fluent in groupthink, and also fluent in getting others to see her way of putting things. She was fluent at relaxing over coffee. She was even fluent at doing actual work, fitting everything seamlessly into her life while never seeming stressed, at least to a casual observer. Admittedly it is much harder for the casual observer to see day-to-day fluctuations in temperament.
And, of course, she broke his heart. After graduation, Alberto assumed that Portia, a year younger, would follow him to New York, where he had procured a standard job in a reputable Wall Street firm, via the American family which owned the restaurant his parents worked at. He spent the next year dreaming of their future and talking to her less and less frequently, until she told him she had found someone else. That was it for Portia Freeport’s gracing of our lives, and that was it for Alberto’s finance job, destroyed in the ensuing mid-life crisis. So Alberto quit the finance scene, and settled upon being heartbroken, getting all sorts of menial jobs for a year, sitting at home with depressing friends watching depressing movies with depressing friends, fellow janitors or security guards.
Until he called me one year later, with the news. “I did some actual work today,” his voice cheerily echoed through the phone.
I would love to say that I helped Alberto through the aftermath, but I didn’t. We weren’t talking much by this point, the atrophy of a relationship of circumstance. It wasn’t that he and I had nothing in common so much as it was that we had so much in common which required us to be together: the video games, the late-night bullshitting, the talking about girls we met at parties, inside jokes, the whole college-roommate thing. And so even though we had other things in common, the things that our relationship was built on were things that couldn’t survive the distance.
Eventually, Alberto came out of it. Portia had never given any reasons for breaking up except for the someone else, and it haunted him; he assumed there must be something deeply wrong with him. So, just as in college, after the breakup he spent a year coveting and easily acquiring what he now viewed as other deeply flawed people, drunks and alcoholics, criminals and guilt-ridden Hispanic Christians, violent people and those with screwed-up relationships with their families. These were the people whom he wallowed with during this period.
“What’s her name?”
“So is she a stripper or a porn star?”
“Neither. She’s a physics grad student.”
“Yeah, how did you know?”
“She went to Campbell. Year older than us, right?”
“Apparently so. We haven’t gotten that far yet. I guess I could have you tell me stuff about her and then freak her out by telling her about her life. I bet that would be healthy for our nascent relationship.” Nuh-sent.
“Nascent, Alberto. It’s pronounced nay-sent.”
“Anyway, yeah, we met at a Buffy viewing.” Alberto has started watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I am not sure exactly why. Maybe to pick up girls like Cassandra Middlefield, who I vaguely recall as a wisp of a girl who, like most of us, defied Campbell’s mission statement by going into physics.
Apparently she was still there, and was Alberto’s rebound relationship, nursing him back to emotional health following the Portia devastation. And then he, repaying her kindness, devastated her in turn, telling her point-blank that he didn’t need her anymore. She called me up that night (we had gotten casually reacquainted when I visited New York once during their two-month relationship), and yelled at me for about half an hour as Sarah Calflower sketched my bemused smirk like a court stenographer.
Since Cassandra, Alberto has reverted to his string of messed-up girls, of which apparently the latest one is this financial mother. I wonder if this Portia thing will stay with him forever. If it’s going to anyway, maybe I should take a stab at Portia myself. I wonder what she’s up to.
That night of December 27-28 I dream about Elise Snow. She is standing in a forest clearing talking to a girl whose face I can’t see, possibly Johanna. She is impassioned. Her face is bright red from a lack of breathing. The girl slaps her hard and walks away into the fog that is gathering on the edge of the field. Elise stands in the middle of the field, stunned and crying. I walk towards her, unsure what I am supposed to do. As I get closer I realize that her left arm is literally hanging by a thread connecting her shoulder to her bicep. She looks at me and screams, not at me but just in general. I look around and realize that I am looking at a painting of Elise in the art gallery where Jeremy works, and that the real Elise is driving along I-80 towards San Francisco. I get in my car to chase her but she has too much of a head start. Just as I catch up to her, her car plunges over the Marin County cliffs into the ocean. I brake just in time and watch her fall in slow-motion.
I wake up and I am in love with her. I go outside and walk around Minneapolis, shaking from my need for Elise Snow. It is snowing and fifteen above, quite warm for this time of year. I walk across the Marshall Avenue bridge and into St. Paul, as the white flakes hit the frozen-over Mississippi down below. An image pops into my head: the plants and fishes below the ice, having a party while the intervening layer of frozen water shrouds them from the humans who pollute their habitat and occasionally trick them with worms and nets.
As my trek continues, alone, through the snowy streets of St. Paul, I fall harder and harder for Elise Snow. I can feel that this is irrational, I can feel the winter loneliness pressuring my brain, but I can’t stop it. I just have this feeling that I am right, this intuitive specter which I will regret forever if I don’t indulge. Elise Snow is everything I want. She is pretty, funny, interesting, mysterious, and versatile. She knows how to do groupthink and how to relax over coffee. I believe all of this despite the fact that there is no evidence for it, and indeed despite the fact that there is substantial evidence against it – I have seen her uncomfortable on the fringes of crowds, and I have seen her agitated with the fedora-clad man in that coffeehouse.
Minneapolis during the winter is frigid, but not particularly hostile, even when it is snowing. It doesn’t really feel like nature is trying to attack you; it’s more like returning to a time before Prometheus. There are snowdrifts two feet high on the sides of many streets, and on the river down below; everything runs in slow motion, with drivers afraid to hit the gas for fear of the ice fighting back, and people trying to stay in the same place long enough for the heat to accumulate before moving on.
A car drives by, and I lock eyes with the passenger, who I think for a moment is Elise Snow before my mania leaves, and a thirty-five year old haggard-looking woman comes into focus. You can see the derision in her eyes, the slit glances that come from a lifetime of pain. I am a foreigner intruding upon her world, marked by my gait. In that instant, I feel the icicles in her gaze crawl through my eyes into my bloodstream and into my heart, and I shudder. Being a marketeer is not a profession respected by these people. Even though her glance is likely just the random result of some recent unfortunate events (death in the family, perhaps), I narcissistically interpret it into my world as a criticism of my being.
One of the strangest things about love is how internal it is. When one is making friends, one typically takes a rational attitude towards things; when one is looking for relationships, life consists of snap judgments and overanalysis. First meetings leave indelible impressions. One only has to look at our rooming group in college to see the stark contrast between friends and lovers. We were all very similar, very well-meshed; our respective romantic interests and hangers-on were all over the map, people so poorly selected that the pain and heartbreak easily outweighed the times of self-deception when they seemed obviously fated for us.
As I am gripped by this irrational fascination, I realize that its absence is precisely why Judith and I broke up. Rationally, everything was there; we enjoyed being together, we were very similar on most scales. But irrationally, there was nothing. There was no irrational attraction to each other, no singular-minded obsession that ever took our lives over. There was no “integration of our auras,” as that hippy Buddhist girl at college would have said. The reason true, lasting love is so rare is that it requires both a rational and an irrational component; no matter how rationally you love someone, to really understand them requires a completely inefficient use of your time, a delving which makes no sense whatsoever and necessitates an override of your brain. As this Elise Snow thing is demonstrating, this is due more to spurious encounters and internal introspection than it is to actual characteristics of a person.
Now it is apparently the right time of my life for me to be in love. I see no reason why I should be in love with Elise Snow; I do not recall ever being struck by her beauty or her personality, but I am in love. Maybe this is what introspection is all about. I am willing to do actual work for Elise Snow, or so I believe at the moment. I see her face in storefronts and snowdrifts. The mania of love.
One needs to be lucky to fall in irrational love with someone one can rationally love, though. Dan Kandinsky was unlucky in this regard. Of the four of us roommates, Kandinsky was the only one who was really a romantic idealist. He happily cast his lot with whatever girl his mind was set on this week, and it was entirely unpredictable: Kandinsky could fall in love with the girl next door just as much as with the Julia Roberts look-alike who was a friend of Yuan’s from high school; his gaze was just as likely to fall on an athlete as on a pre-med.
Because of the utter lack of pruning, Kandinsky never found anyone quite right for him. The romantic idealism led him into relationships; his high rational standards led him out of them. Kandinsky would break up with girls for very little reason; in fact, it once seemed to the rest of us, in a 3-on-1 situation once again, that the mere fact of his irrational love getting dimmed over time was responsible for these breakups, since he had no barrier to loving someone immediately, and this love then dimmed over time as the novelty wore off without the compensating increase of comfort level.