Part of his romantic idealist philosophy was his complete lack of inhibition when revealing his life to these girls. He figured that if they didn’t like the real him, it was best to find out sooner rather than later. “Plus,” he confided once, “lying to people or concealing things requires actual work.” It was miles away from Alberto’s approach of putting on personality makeup to draw people in.
Kandinsky and Alberto were at opposite ends of the spectrum in more ways than this one. It was a conflict that never really manifested itself, but they clearly had the most strained relationship of the four of us. Kandinsky railed against fast food and consumerism; Alberto could eat anything without his body showing the effects, and blithely did. Perhaps as important, Kandinsky was a big fan of cooperative video games, while Alberto thought they were a ridiculous affront to the concept. The conflict between Kandinsky’s naïve romantic idealism and Alberto’s attempts to turn himself into a sleazy philanderer was just another facet of this.
But I feel it should have worked at least once. Kandinsky fell in love with ten girls and dated eight of them during college, and all ended in failures. By the end he had grown to be pretty cheery about it; he was pretty good-looking, and his exuberance about love was well-received by Harvard females, and, often, Wellesley females. His relationships usually ended horribly for the other person, but well for him; Kandinsky, once he had fallen out of love, had no qualms about pragmatically ending the relationship to pursue the next prospective soulmate, leaving girls crying without regards to their future mental health.
Once Kandinsky broke up with a girl in our room, leaving shortly thereafter to go to a play with his new object of burning desire. The three of us came back from class (and Kandinsky bitch session; we were all single at the time) to find her crying in our room, tissues strewn everywhere and hair streaked with running makeup.
“Dan broke up with you?” Yuan asked. The girl, Cathy (or Kathy?), glared at him and nodded. She turned to Alberto and me in turn but our bemused faces offered no comfort.
“Would you break up with these?” she yelled, ripping her shirt open to reveal a set of perfect breasts, nipples erect against the winter air. Yuan cracked up, which was not the right thing to do. She threw the box of Kleenex at him; he was so surprised that he let it hit him directly in the cheek, where you can still see the bump if you look closely enough.
Alberto strode towards her tentatively. We had her surrounded, 3-on-1, but she had more emotion than any of us. As he got within ten feet, she yelled at him, “Don’t fucking touch me, you pervert. I’ve heard what you do with girls.” He raised his eyebrows skeptically and backed off. Cathy glared at us, shirt still wide open, her tears now running down her cleavage, an Amazon on the hunt. She then unleashed all of our skeletons – Alberto’s fling with the 16-year-old who we all thought was this girl Kara’s older sister, Yuan’s laziness in and out of bed, and my collection of somewhat disturbing porn. We were sort of flabbergasted, trying to size up how much each of us had just been compromised, while she was still breaking down on the couch, chest exposed to our discomfited eyes.
While an extreme example, this was typical of Kandinsky’s breakups. When he was in love with a girl, they spent all of their time together, and everything was perfect; the Cathy thing convinced us that he was also keeping no secrets from them, not even our roommate secrets, not even things which Dan had learned about us in who knows what fashion. We didn’t really mind this so much – I don’t think any of us had particularly damning litanies of mishaps. The bad part during the relationship was how Dan would go around with his head in the clouds, not really focusing on roommate stuff, just kind of in-love. It was sickeningly sweet, as mindless as Yuan’s flawed girls and Alberto’s foreigner-loving ditzes.
And the fallouts were awful, usually for them. While Cathy was the only one who really unsettled us, we would often run into Dan’s ex-girlfriends while out, and notice the death stares they usually gave him. Dan, when he had decided he was no longer in love with a girl, left them without any niceties. He was after one thing in his life, eternal love, and once he decided that a girl was not going to give it to him he treated her like crap. It wasn’t that he tried to hurt her, at least not consciously; she simply didn’t matter much one way or the other. What he really wanted to do was fall in love again, and so the residual attachment that accompanies most breakups simply vanished immediately, leaving the girl feeling betrayed and confused.
It would rarely happen to him, precisely because he cared about it so much. He lived his life assuming that the current girl was right for him, telling her everything, but in the back of his head he was always looking for signs that it wasn’t actually true love. The girl, meanwhile, likely spent more time just relaxing over coffee, or on her studies, or on her friends; thus Dan always picked up the signs of relationship decay first, and consequently had a quick trigger finger for dumping people.
But when it did happen to him, he was devastated. I don’t think any of us really understood that devastation until Portia broke up with Alberto; Alberto and Yuan both specialized in short, cynical relationships, while my medium-term relationships generally involved fairly interchangeable girls. The strange thing was that Dan had so many relationships, and yet each one meant so much to him. This also was not a coincidence; both were simple corollaries of his philosophy that finding a soulmate was the most important thing in life. So he really would throw himself 100% into each relationship, even though the girls were seemingly arbitrarily chosen.
Dan had two of these horrible breakups in college. The first was at the end of freshman year. The girl broke up with him after ten days. I realize now, thinking about my Elise Snow mania, how he could feel so deeply about someone whom he barely knew. His mind was simply wired to fall in love, and so all of the patterns were there, all of the behavioral tendencies, including having awful breakdowns when things didn’t quite go as planned. And so when a girl came along, she would simply slide into the variable neurons, giving him an object to apply these behavioral tendencies too. During this ten-day relationship, he certainly didn’t seem more into her than he had seemed into any of his previous freshman year relationships; it seemed likely that he would break up with her in the next couple of weeks, as he had done with previous true loves. We didn’t see him much over the ten days, par for the course, but when we did he seemed his usual relationshipped self, a bit distant, a bit on cloud nine, but mostly just a happy version of himself, the version who knew that everything would work out.
And then we came home to find him lying on the couch, vacant eyes staring up at the ceiling. “Hey, Danny,” Yuan said. “Long time no see.” He didn’t move, just stared upwards. He wasn’t even crying. Alberto poked him. He got up and shrugged his shoulders. You could see in his eyes that his soul wasn’t really there. He sleepwalked through the rest of the term, leaving our dorm room only to take finals. He had essentially become an automaton.
That summer I sent him a bunch of e-mails and he replied to none. We later learned that he had gone to work for a volunteer program in Thailand, where he didn’t speak the language and didn’t have to communicate with anyone. I guess he spent his entire summer on introspection. This ten-day breakup had ballooned into a hundred days of fallout. But he recovered, of course, because it is not in the spirit of the romantic idealist to give up. Because, ultimately, the goal is to find that perfect person. The devastating experiences are, in principle, worth it. Dan, like most headstrong teenagers, was firmly convinced that his philosophy was correct, and that the problem with his life was that he had a tough time being faithful to it.
It’s sort of the same mindset as the Minnesota underground (something I no doubt believe partly because Dan was from Ohio, which I am led to believe is not that far away geographically and culturally.) Dan wanted to be a conformist, wanted to conform to this religion of romantic idealism that promised a good life, complete with soulmate and beauteous children. Like many adherent devotees of religion, he viewed his occasional unhappiness or straying as something to be guilty about; he once hooked up with a girl at a party who he had no interest in dating, and was doing penance for a week, despondent about what he viewed as the compromising of his morals and mindset.
He spent a hundred days straying from the fold after his religion had resulted in heartbreak. We would tease him later about the Thailand trip, which he refused to give us any details about, but whatever it was, he returned in September with a renewed sense of purpose, ready to fall in love and break more girls’ hearts, which he true-to-form did with remarkable alacrity, leaving six girls crying in the next year, including the crying, half-naked Cathy.
Given all of this, you might think that Dan was the rare individual willing to put in the actual work necessary to find the right girl. Nothing could be further from the truth. He was just naturally himself; putting in actual work would have required spending more than an hour with a girl before figuring out if they were right for each other. His natural method was to pursue the irrational aspects of love, completely discarding the rational aspects; the repeated callous breakups were Dan’s method of being lazy. As long as finding the right girl was being himself, Dan was fine, but he was simply unwilling to put in any work to make a relationship work, or even to dispel it in a reasonable fashion. Just as with Alberto’s Italian schmoozer personality, by the end of senior year Dan’s propensity for destroying girls was an item of gossip around the female population. And, as always, it could have all been avoided by performing a simple modicum of actual work.
Chapter Nine. I reach home again after circumnavigating the streets of Minneapolis, still thinking of Elise. It takes me three minutes after entering my one-bedroom apartment to realize that I am pacing around. I sit down on the couch and absent-mindedly flick on the TV, which is showing some sort of consumer-report expose of a meat-packing plant where conditions are, to put it mildly, unsanitary.
In every field, there are a few intrepid souls who resolve to use their power and knowledge for the good of the common man. Consumer reporting, and to a lesser extent, the news in general, is the pro bono work of the advertiser. Next time you see a consumer report, watch closely; without context, it is just the same as an advertisement. The people are trying to convince you to believe something, to not buy a product; they are the antimatter to the matter of the nice folks at Villa who manipulate you into going to Jethro Books. It’s two sides of a holy war, but like most holy wars the combatants are really not so different from each other. The general methodology is the same: use any subtle means necessary to convince people to form a certain opinion about something.
All of the specifics, of course, are mirror images of each other. Advertising uses models whom you want to empathize with and be like, the ideal image each person has of themselves. Consumer reporting uses interviews with people whom the average American views as cautionary tales. In practice, this means old people. If there is a story about tainted meat, you will invariably see an old person on camera, talking about how they had some of this spoiled meat. They look haggard, withered; things which the viewer then correlates with the spoiled meat.
Even more generally, every American fears the aged. Images of youth are prevalent in advertising because the human brain knows that correlation implies causation; if young people drink this product, then by drinking this product one can become young. It is reasonable in the wild, where fake correlations are rare for simple statistical reasons, but in the hands of advertisers it becomes a dangerous weapon. Unfortunately, our brains are formed through years of evolution in the wild. In principle, things will slowly equilibrate as those who are immune to deceptive advertising are elevated to their rightful place as rulers of our image-conscious world, the others becoming fat on fast food and dying young, their teenage children left to burn themselves to a crisp with stray cigarettes.
In practice, the advertising blitz has far outstripped the glacial place of evolution. Two generations ago, there was nothing; one generation ago, there were advertisements on TV and in magazines. Today there is advertising everywhere, billboards and sandwich boards on the streets of America. In another generation, we may well have advertisements in cars and houses, with ad space the new currency of America. If you have to choose between a $12,000 car and a $10,000 car identical in every way except for a message from Pepsi which flashes across the CD player display each time you start it up, which one will you pick?
The consumer reporters are the activists of the anti-advertising crowd, the ones who will stand up to it. Consumer reporting and advertising are the two sides of the Force, and consumer reporters see themselves as the Jedi returning to stand up against the tyranny of corporate America. So they use the correlation/causation trick by putting undesirable old people into reports; the couch potato watches, shudders at the thought of this fate happening to them, and shies away from the product. Ostensibly the old people are there because they are the ones who are duped by whatever deceptive claim the product line is making, but in reality they are a pawn of these consumer reporters, advancing their agenda via the same tactics that the firms they are deriding use. The irony is especially palpable when the consumer reporters are railing against the advertisements themselves. They show a TV ad from Ivory soap, and then switch back to a reporter who is interviewing an old decrepit man about whether Ivory has been good for his back pain.
Another trick that both sides share is the hidden camera. Advertising firms use hidden cameras to monitor reactions; consumer reporters use them to reveal subterfuge. Both usages, however, are based on the same principle: in order to get good data, the subjects need to know they are not being watched. The principle originated in psychology, but has been gladly incorporated by both technologue camps in their pincers assault on the Luddite court of public opinion. They gain devotees in proportion to their budgets, advertisers getting the bulk of America, with consumer reporters splintering off hippies and the embittered senior citizens who have spent their life succumbing to corporate America only to see their spouses die, leaving them alone.
This consumer report is pulling out all the stops. It is showing irrelevant negatives about the meat-packing plant; for instance, the parking lot is made of dirty-looking gravel as the consumer reporter’s van pulls in, conveying that this supposedly professional operation is “really” a two-bit scheme run in some backwoods town. As they head in, the cameraman pans up to the ceiling, which is black with soot and accumulated dirt; never mind that any industrial factory’s ceiling looks exactly like this. The workers look haggard, because footage from the morning entrance is spliced with footage from the afternoon, when everyone is tired; the afternoon sun peeking through the window which one can conclude is facing west from other evidence is unlikely to be noticed by most. The ensuing impression is that working at this meat-packing plant is a life-draining experience. The shot of a knife digging into a cow is chosen to be as grisly as possible, the animal twitching, a zoom-in on the tearing muscles.
It is sensationalist advertising at its best, image association that has absolutely nothing to do with the product at hand. Consumer reporters have two big advantages on advertisers: one is that they have no fear of failure, so they can afford to take chances and get feedback without going out of business. Another is that they need only revulse their audience once; no one is going to be instantly convinced to drink Coke by an ad showing Coke and young people, but showing one man whose ulcers might be linked to his consumption of the popular beverage may cause a few people to swear it off for life. Coke needs to keep imprinting their brand in the subconscious of the nation’s minds; the consumer reporter may need only a few minutes to achieve their goal.
But advertisers have their advantages too. Chief among them is the fact that advertising simply pays better, and for a young college graduate unsure of his priorities, money serves as a powerful, lasting tie-breaker, the result being that advertising typically attracts the best minds. Connected with this is the fact that advertisers blitz college job fairs, making it easy for someone to find their way into the industry; with laziness the chief concern on the mind of graduating college seniors, this is a big boon. I made my way into the advertising business because it was easy; even for those without family connections, applying for a job at an advertising firm is encouraged, while consumer reporters are a niche profession.
Another problem is that consumer reporters have to double as both the advertisers and the commercial stars, requiring a combination of attributes (namely the right kind of physical attractiveness and the right kind of social mind) that the advertising industry has bifurcated. Finally, the manipulation industry tends to draw creative people who believe that they have ideas for the future of society, and these people are drawn to the glamorous world of advertising, where they can invent, rather than the field of consumer reporting, where they have to work with what they are given.
The report ends with the consumer reporter, still beautiful but with subtly dirt-streaked hair following her ordeal through the meat-packing plant, is wrapping up her report as a bunch of rambunctious teenagers clamor for face time behind her. Without missing a beat, she notes that “as long as people keep buying the meat,” motioning to these idiots, “it’s hard to see how these conditions are going to be ameliorated.” The final shot is of a man with an arm in a sling using his other arm to ineffectually cut out parts of a flank steak, each cut less precise than the last, as a dirty conveyor belt rolls by in the background, a belt no doubt used for other things.
Consumer reporters have the advantage that they can be honest about their agendas. Advertisers have to position themselves as allies; consumer reporters need make no bones about the fact that they are attempting to get you to stop buying the product in question. This reporter, who looks just a little bit like an older version of Elise Snow, has done a fantastic job with the report. I am glad I am not working on any meat accounts right now, or for that matter eating any meat.
I flick off the TV as the astonishingly unpolished weatherman (who can get away with it; he isn’t selling anything, and no one changes stations just for the weather) wraps up his forecast: “more snow is on the way later next week,” he tells us, with way too much shock. He is clearly not from around here. I wonder how he got his job; presumably some sort of family connection. I wonder how long it will be until newscasts sell advertisements, weathermen wearing Morgan Stanley ties and anchors’ desks colored in the signature hues and fonts of Nabisco or Tommy Hilfiger.
The snow falls outside for the next few days as I continue to stew in my inability to do anything about Elise Snow. I go into work and end up staying late, but there is nothing to do; I schmooze with my AC’s, try to read up on the formal responsibilities of my job, and take a look at old files. My heart isn’t in it. Continuing the introspection kick, I ponder whether it is really progress to move five years forward from a college life complete with textured, flawed characters and awful ramen to the current state of affairs, a perfectly nice job that I enjoy in a city where I am king. In college, the Elise situation would be resolved by now, in a Kandinsky-like stalking and expression of feelings. Rationally, I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or a bad thing, but certainly in my current state I could use some resolution.
The problem is that the Kandinsky MO doesn’t work outside of a college environment. The Dan himself had a tough time adjusting to life outside of college, trying to work for a year in a family friend’s car dealership back in Ohio before figuring out that it was clearly not for him. He applied to grad school, then spent his second year out of college back in Thailand. We were all sort of losing touch by now, but I gathered that this return to a country where he hardly risked falling in love with anyone was something of a mid-life crisis for him, his religion threatened by a complete and utter lack of results.
So he came back to grad school, living in the dorms as a resident tutor and making pathetic attempts to revive the college culture he flourished in. But the randomness of life came through for him. Given the circumstances, it was easy for him to fall in love with the female tutor one floor up, who, like him, missed college desperately. The symmetry was overwhelming: two romantic idealists, lost souls looking for passion and everlasting love, while at the same time trying to recapture the free-flowing, uncorporate environment of college. When two people are looking for the same thing, it is easy for them to find it, and so they did. Kandinsky was married last January, 18 months after they met, and the last time any of us saw him. He found his conformist cocoon, and he is no doubt happy; the pairing off of romantic idealists which mirrors the pairing off of pragmatic Minnesotans, the species-wide settling-down tendencies eventually winning out over the youthful values of excitement and flux.
The problem with excitement and flux is that it always ends in pain. Almost everything does; no one ever cries at a movie’s beginning. Life always ends in death; the good parts come first, before the disappointment of the decline of old age sets in. We are spoiled in college, presented with a cornucopia of options, never told that the post-collegiate atmosphere is one where you better hurry up and find a spouse as quickly as possible. And for those who don’t get the message, it is a lifetime of pain, each breakup calling to the front of your mind the collective pain of all previous breakups. Each one gets more and more painful before you decide it is simply not worth it, and end up settling for a loveless marriage you will never be completely happy with, just in time to wake up with creaky bones, life ending in pain despite your best efforts to settle for flatlining.
I feel this already happening with Elise Snow, except in reverse. The pain is coming first, as well as, perhaps, later. In college, Kandinsky’s method avoided this pain, because in college, you can always find someone to announce your devotion to them. In the Minneapolis winter, this is impossible. Elise Snow lies in a burrow somewhere with a stash of acorns and dental dams, to wait out the winter. I am experiencing the heartbreak of rejection without the preceding beauty.
It reminds me of Kandinsky’s second heartbreak, at the beginning of senior year, when Alberto and Portia were in their primes. Kandinsky met a friend of Portia’s at her birthday party in October. Erin Friedland was basically a poor man’s version of Portia. Like Portia, she was comfortable hanging out with us, but she did not have the same inspiration and enthusiasm. She was outgoing, but not nearly as assertive as Portia.
Kandinsky struggled with falling in love with her. After all, it was difficult; he surely felt something for Portia, but Portia was off-limits, and so he couldn’t very well fall in love with her. So he spent two weeks in anguish, trying to channel his feelings to an alternative destination, trying to accept this travel version. Eventually he was able to, and he and Erin dated for three months, the half-size shadow to Alberto and Portia. This interacted poorly with Kandinsky’s issues; he had always felt that we didn’t really take him seriously enough, and having a bit part in this movie, best supporting actor, only served to reinforce that.
He was shocked when Erin broke up with him, I guess because he had thought of himself as in some sense settling for her. People whom you settle for aren’t supposed to break up with you; they are supposed to (by the natural order of things) hang around, validating your existence, until you find someone better. Kandinsky had put himself through two weeks of compromising his morals, dating someone who he didn’t intuitively think was his true love, and this actual work (for him) was supposed to result in a secure relationship, a consolidation relationship. The type of relationship everyone needs every so often as an ego boost before heading back out into the wild scary world.
And so when Erin said that she just wasn’t getting enough out of the relationship, Dan was crushed. This wasn’t the script that he had envisioned. It’s not that the loss of the relationship was so severe; he certainly didn’t plan on marrying this girl, and in fact this was at the root of his own problems with the relationship, his own problems with a situation he viewed as, in the mindset of his romantic idealism, a sin, as his straying from the fold. He was more hurt by the shock of it all than he was by the loss of the relationship.
But he was hurt, all right. He wandered around in a daze for about a month. Erin, who had issues of her own, avoided him studiously, which meant that he could not conduct the sort of post-mortem, the sort of closure which his dumped girls always wished they had had with him. The only option he was left with was to think about the relationship until it went away, but this proved to be a long road. Portia’s continued presence hurt; every time he looked at her, he saw Erin, and in her wonderful persona he saw the girl who had broken up with him.
He fell in love with Erin more after she broke up with him than he did while they were together, in the exactly the same fashion that I am conjuring Elise Snow now – with no actual data, the brain runs rampant. I have none of the default assumptions I have at work; I am constructing her personality from irrational and unfounded axioms. Dan’s pain only intensified for that month, as his initial acceptance of the end of the relationship was replaced by a painful exegesis of the strange process.
As December 31st dawns, I get an e-mail from Sarah Calflower inviting me to an impromptu New Year’s Eve party, and the first thing I wonder is whether Elise will be there. I try to remember if Sarah knows Elise or not. Just in case, I put on an outfit I think she will like, a textured blue shirt that seems to me to be in the same style as the white wispy sweaters I see her often wearing, with a pair of slacks that are worn, casual, and tend to put people at ease.
New Year’s Eve parties are comparatively rare in Minnesota, and I thank myself for having a casual relationship three years ago with the sort of girl who would have one. It occurs to me that I have not seen her in quite some time; I wonder if she has gotten married or something like that. I get a call from Moishe, a rare Jew in these parts whose name is actually Brian but who, in an Alberto-like pomp, goes by Moishe to accentuate his exoticness. Moishe lives a block away and is wondering whether I am going to the party and whether I want to carpool. I cannot say no, even though the thought of being in a car alone with Moishe for the drive to Sarah’s, which takes half an hour in the winter, is not an appealing one.
Moishe is the rarest of Minnesotans: he is a maverick. He appears to have absolutely no desire to fit into anything, happy to hang around crowds and be an object of amusement, this strange man with the kipah and outlandish Israeli name, a curiosity. I’ve never seen him with a girl, so he might be gay, but then again I’ve never seen him with a guy either. He gets into the car wearing a fedora, which instantly reminds me of the man whose name I never knew in the coffeehouse with Elise. Five minutes into the party, the fedora will be removed to reveal a kipah with an ironic crucifix on it. That crazy Moishe, always pushing the envelope.
As we motor towards Sarah’s house, the mood oscillates between awkward silence and awkward small talk. Through my years in Minneapolis, I have learned the latter, learned how to put people at ease with irrelevant conversation, but Moishe does not want to be at ease. His brand of small talk involves talking about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or cricket, or random anecdotes involving people he knows, each one of these an attempt to buttress the idea that he is a man with his fingers in every pie, a man who is diverse and unique.
Yet Moishe, for all of his individuality, still does not want to be a leader, and this is how one can tell that he is a Minnesotan. He has no desire to convince other people of his opinions; for him, it is enough for people to know that he holds them. He has more “I heard…”s than “I believe…”s. He is a wealth of information, but he is fundamentally a librarian, not a scientist. Everything passes through Moishe, but he has no desire to change anything. He is a news reporter, famous in his own way but hardly any sort of agent of progress. And so he spews facts and scenarios at me while I try to remain relaxed in the face of accelerating thoughts about Elise, whom I deliriously hope will be at this party.
And, mirabile dictu, she is. Moishe and I arrive as it starts, once again, to snow, and are greeted by a cavalcade of amused glances, being the first ones to arrive with the fluffy flakes on our coats (or, in Moishe’s case, a very authentic-looking shawl.) As Sarah greets me heartily I glance down at her ring finger, finding nothing. I switch into old-friend mode, asking her how she’s been doing. We walk into the hallway talking as Moishe ironically salutes the assembled crowd in the foyer, talking about work and life, the kind of small talk I am quite comfortable with.
With people one has amically broken up with, the Janets and the Sarahs of my world, there is a level of comfort unattainable via any other means. To amically break up with someone requires a high level of mutual understanding, and so I instantly get everything that Sarah says, reading between with the lines with complete fluency. I gather that she, like me, is taking the winter off to focus on introspection and her art, which she is on the verge of doing full-time. Her easy smile tells me that she is doing a better job of it than I am; she seems balanced, in total equilibrium. She, in turn, can see through my comfort towards the Elise turmoil. She asks me if everything is okay, and the rational side of me says yes. She looks a bit concerned; I can see her thinking things through, but before reaching the emotional conclusion which I have confidence in her to arrive at, a man who I have never seen before walks up to us. I am introduced to him as Patrick Leach, a British artist who has arrived in town to sculpt the Minnesota winter.
I talk with them for a couple of minutes, during which it becomes clear that Leach treats the Minnesota winter as some sort of Loch Ness Monster, a mythical object worthy of being presented in a Heisenberg shroud of uncertainty. Leach is out of his mind, of course. The winter here is not mysterious; it’s just cold, with lots of snow. It doesn’t create anything; it merely destroys possibilities and narrows mindsets. Even the cabin fever and various Elise-type manias are the result of sensory deprivation; people become monomaniacal not because their interest in something is suddenly piqued due to the calm exterior, but because their interests in most things wane with the sunlight hours, dreams of lounging on lawns or employing that special brand of mammal photosynthesis which turns sunlight into emotional warmth extinguished. But, like most people, Leach already has an image of it in his mind, an impression of it, and this is what he will choose to see. He will see the soft snowdrifts and extend them to the population; by nature, he will only come across the children (and parents trying to recapture their youth) playing in the snow, little pioneers impervious to its numbing aura, and this is what he will take back to Britain.
I become bored of Leach’s vision and walk off into the living room, where I see her. Elise Snow, alone, sitting on a couch, and having obviously awkward conversation with a hulk of a man named Jimmy, whose idea of deviation is being a mechanic. He thinks this is ironic, a shout-out back to simpler times when mechanical jobs were the norm among the intelligent class; he thinks of himself as delightfully blunt and unpretentious. Jimmy is an idiot. He has developed these notions to allow him to live without suicidal thoughts; in reality, he is a mechanic because he is incapable of maintaining the thought required for anything else. He is also stunningly ignorant of the fact that mechanics did not exist even a hundred years ago; there is no tradition in his line of work, which hearkens back not to some utopian conception of the Renaissance, but rather to a time when pollution was rampant.
Elise sees me come in but says nothing; I overanalyze this while I have a casual conversation with a couple standing on the side wall. I can carry off this dialogue, which consists mostly of talking about how cool it is that Sarah is having this party, with very little of my brain, leaving myself free to listen to Elise. I listen to Jimmy, brash and insecure, assail Elise with anecdotes which might seem thoughtful if told by the right person. By the curtness of her answers, I conclude that she needs to be rescued, but Jimmy has her pretty pinned; with the state of the couch, there is nowhere for a possible third party to sit down. Elise is volunteering nothing. I wonder if she realizes that I am hanging on her every word, looking for an opportunity to swoop in and rescue her.
But it never comes. I am engaged in an anecdote when Elise walks out of the room with a girl who tells her there is someone she has to meet. Is it Johanna? I size up the competition out of the corner of my eye, a tall, stately, feminine, confident blonde who looks nothing like I expected Elise Snow’s partner to be. I run the conditional probability calculation in my head, and conclude that there is about a 30% chance that this is the girl I need to overcome to fulfill my destiny.
I finish my anecdote from work, and leave the room in exaggeratedly casual search of Elise. I have gone through one, two, three rooms before I find her in the kitchen. She is talking with the blonde girl and another girl, who I remember as Katie Olafsen, Norwegian through and through, blonde hair, blue eyes, five foot six with astonishingly pale skin. I feel the trembling in my brain start as I tremulously go up to them, the three of them standing with their backs to the counter casually eyeing me as I approach. I feel like I’m auditioning.
Smiling at Elise, I pretend to not be quite sure who Katie is. I hope Elise has not noticed the quiver in my voice, as I try to gather myself. “Hey, Elise. You’re Katie, right?” “Yeah,” she says – and she clearly doesn’t remember me, which gives me an opening. “I’m Harold Gonzalez, I think we met at the bookstore opening last summer… damned if I can remember what the name of the store is.” Katie smiles; I have put her at ease. “Junipero Books, yeah.” She continues onwards with the anecdote of how she was there, emphasizing the word boyfriend. I don’t even flinch. The other two girls seem impressed by this, that I am not hitting on Katie. It is going well.
I turn to the mystery girl. “And… I’m afraid I don’t know you at all.” I give a little self-effacing smile. “Cara Broadway. I’m Elise’s roommate, I work with Katie over at the Blue Moon.” The name doesn’t ring a bell. She notices this and continues. “On Lake, a bit west of the Marshall Bridge.” I’m surprised not to remember the name; I walk by frequently, and I drive by it sometimes on the way to work.
I realize that I have not said this out loud, and they are waiting for me to fill the vacuum where it should have gone. I recapitulate it, but it sounds a bit flat. The internalization of all of my feelings for Elise has apparently carried over into the rest of life. I am trying to figure out Cara Broadway’s role in Elise’s life. I throw caution to the winds and just ask. “How long have you guys been living together?” I ask, taking care not to make eye contact with Elise so she can look into my soul before I am ready. “Couple of months,” Elise replies. “Mid-November, I guess?” The voice I have been idealizing in my mind is in reality raspy and nonchalant. I interpret the latter characteristic as Elise trying to conceal her feelings from me before I realize this embarrassing override – she is doing nothing of the sort, it is merely that she doesn’t care. Doesn’t care about the work I have put into deconstructing her, doesn’t care about the fact that I would run through a brick wall to her. I’m barely a blip on her radar screen. My stomach feels like shit and I need a drink. I barely keep my composure as I spend another minute with my panel of judges before walking back to the hallway. I see the exit door and race through it.
Once outside, I realize I haven’t breathed in quite some time and inhale deeply. My hands are shaking. I take a slow walk down the street to calm down – nothing doing. I need Elise, I need this girl who is the way out of my complacent life of advertising and half-assed relationships. I need a purpose, something to center my life around.
I walk past a liquor store and try to open the door to get a drink. It is locked; it is Sunday, and even though it is December 31st, perhaps the biggest-drinking day of the year, the store is closed, victim of a Puritan mentality which still lives in the Midwest. I peer in, but the interior is dark, not a soul in sight. I briefly contemplate punching through the door, but the street has numerous cars whizzing past en route to family gatherings (not parties; they contain families and old couples, presumably grandparents), and I don’t have the nerve. I am ashamed of this. I should be able to break into this liquor store; I should be able to follow through with the crazy thoughts I am now thinking on a regular basis.
I keep going down the street, touring the streets of Brooklyn Park, where Sarah lives. It is mostly quiet; peering through the windows, I see families inside, drawn close together for emotional warmth, many watching television. I think back to New Year’s in college, sophomore year, the only time I have felt close to what I feel for Elise right now.
Her name was Courtney, and I didn’t know her yet. Yuan and I were back at college for some reason, Dan and Alberto still back on Christmas break, and we were pretty bored with the limited selection of two-player games. I was leafing through the list of Harvard activities when I noticed the play, Young Ushers, with a strange start date of December 31st to the January 4ths of most of the wintertime happenings. “Want to go to this play?” I asked Yuan. He read the capsule out loud. “When their grandfathers die, two young girls find themselves pressed into replacement duty as World Series ushers. An existential drama about the power of DNA. This sounds awful.” And it did sound awful. But we went anyway.
The theatre was deserted. There were six people in it: us, and two couples. Yuan and I took seats in the second row, and were caught by surprise when the play started; it didn’t seem like the audience was really ready for it. And then, five minutes in, after the deaths of the grandfathers, she walked on-stage and our eyes met for a few seconds. I saw her shiver as she pulled her gaze away from mine and I hurriedly flipped through the cast biographies pamphlet, fumbling wildly until I finally found it.
COURTNEY MARKEWICZ (Olive) – Courtney grew up in Chicago playing with dolls until she realized there must be more to life than this. Her parents noticed this precocious midlife crisis, sending her to boarding school, an experience she has never forgiven them for. At age ten, she decided she wanted to be a professional actress, a dream which she realized at age eleven when she was paid $40 for her work as Crying Girl #2 in “Mimic,” a performance which was shockingly overlooked by the Academy. Courtney currently resides in Dunster House with her two loving roommates, Celia and Josephine, and her ca… I mean, stuffed cat, Ibsen.
It was beautiful, everything except the Slavic name I felt uncomfortable around. I think she knew what I was doing, for when I looked up her eyes were focused on mine as she delivered her monologue with perfect timing and just the right slouch of her shoulders. Just as I looked up, she gave a little grin and raised her eyebrows a fraction of a centimeter. It fit perfectly with what she was saying, but the subtlety of the gesture meant that it was just for me, just the sort of thing that only someone obsessed could notice. At intermission, I told Yuan in a Kandinsky voice that “I’m gonna marry that girl.” He laughed heartily.
During the second act, I was riveted. Yuan later told me that the play was actually pretty good; to me, it could have been How To Kill An Electric Chicken Slowly And Painfully and I would have enjoyed it. Olive – Courtney – was alternately vivacious and somber. It was as if I was at an audition, and the girl on stage was showing me every facet of her personality. As if she was performing only for me, making eye contact with me throughout, perhaps accidental since I was just one-sixth of the audience, but nonetheless making me tingle a bit each time.
After the show I waited around in the reception area for her to come out. She came out talking to one of the couples in the audience, her aunt and uncle, telling them that she was so glad they could make it. After they left, I turned to her. “Courtney?” She turned and smiled. “Oh, hi. Did you enjoy the play? I was nervous as heck out there.” She laughed disarmingly, and I melted. “It was awesome, I had a great time. I have to be honest, we just came here because it’s December 31st and nothing’s on, but it was awesome. Why did you guys start the play so early?”
“It’s Julie’s first time as a lead. We wanted to work the kinks out. You can never have too much practice.” She was amazingly relaxed for the girl of my dreams, compared to my continually clenched toes and butterfly-ridden stomach. “Anyway, I gotta run, I told my parents that I would call them tonight. Hey, come back tomorrow, we can use all the audience we can get.” I laughed, scanning the cadence for cues. Slight hesitation before “parents”; was that where “boyfriend” was supposed to go? Did she want me to come back so she could talk to me for real afterwards?
I didn’t go back the next day. Yuan’s father was in town on business, and he took us out to dinner in Chinatown, an awkward meal that only served to remind me how amazingly relaxed Courtney seemed. On January 2nd, the cafeterias open again, I ate in Dunster, hoping to run into her, but with no luck. As I was leaving dinner I saw a girl who might have been her, huddled under a winter coat, walking into the cafeteria. I hesitated, she brushed past me, and I had waited too long to do anything. I went home and read Courtney’s bio again.
The next day Alberto and Kandinsky came back and I forgot about Courtney as we bonded deep into the night. It was one of the best conversations and one of the worst decisions of my life. She was dormant in the back of my mind until the beginning of the next term, when I took an English seminar for the heck of it, a short stories reading-and-writing course with a professor I was told kicked ass. And I walked into the room, and Courtney was sitting there and laughing with a guy who was clearly her boyfriend. She waved at me, all smiles, waved me over to the seat next to her. She introduced me to this John Rose, no mistaking the tone of voice, her boyfriend. I wasn’t as crestfallen as I expected. I was excited that Courtney was back in my life.
We became closer, unusual in the face of a boyfriend. Usually it is impossible to even befriend girls with boyfriends, but Courtney was so assured that we had no trouble meeting occasionally for dinner, sometimes with John, sometimes without. I read his expression on many occasions; he clearly wasn’t entirely comfortable that Courtney and I were becoming close friends, but I think he realized he had no option but to allow it to happen.
And I tried to fall in love with Courtney. I had that first impression, I had our growing friendship, I had her laughs when I talked to her. It came out that in fact, that first night, she had broken up with her boyfriend; they had been having trouble, and she said, with no hint of irony, that the opening of the play and seeing me in the audience had been the adrenaline rush that she needed. She was not shy about telling me that she had found me very good-looking. The breakup over, it seemed clear from the way she talked about things that if I had succeeded in meeting her over the next few days, we would by now be talking about marriage. But she and John got together two weeks later, and it was all smiles and laughs with them, everything going great. He had caught her in the right mindset, still with the adrenaline rush of an epiphany, and he had snagged her.
Presented with the counterfactual future where Courtney and I lived as perfect lovers, perfect boyfriend and girlfriend, I felt the pressure to divert the current stream to that universe. But I never really fell in love with Courtney. I had already fallen in love with Courtney, that December 31st; it had already played out inside my head, under the spell of the play, and hanging out with this real person was insanely enjoyable but hardly romantic. The truth is that I was happy growing into her best friend. I didn’t have visions of a naked Courtney in my head (although I recognized that she was very attractive.) I would have been at peace with our current state of affairs were it not for the devil on my shoulder, the Kandinsky telling me to fall in love with her, that the universe’s will must be respected. Sometimes mirrored by an actual Kandinsky.
And eventually it happened, eventually I told her I loved her, and then felt empty afterwards because I knew on some level it wasn’t true. And I tried to put the moves on her, and I caused her a lot of grief, and eventually she broke up with John for me. Which caused John a lot of grief, which I ended up feeling guilty for. John was a pretty nice guy, and deserved a girl almost as good as Courtney. Not quite as good, of course; he was a Judith, a 9 in every way, and Courtney deserved at least a smattering of 10’s. After they broke up, he started dating a girl who Yuan had actually dated, a very imperfect girl, mostly 3’s and 4’s, and they ended up getting married. I never really saw him happy again.
His is the real tragedy. The story of Courtney and me is, to him, presumably just the bitter subplot. After they broke up, we dated for a couple of weeks, but it was forced. And it did destroy our friendship. Dating, we were not nearly as open to each other; the whole complex about wanting to reveal only one’s good side emerged for both of us. Courtney was a pretty jealous person, and didn’t take my hanging out with my roommates, who didn’t particularly like her, very well. I think she expected them to be poisoning me against her, which was not really happening, each of them having their own relationships at the moment to worry about. One of the things girls don’t realize about guys is that guys almost never give each other advice. Mostly we just live and let live. The closest we get to advice is constant teasing; the nature of a male friendship is not one where we intrude in order to make our friends happy. We only intrude if the girl is taking our buddy away from us, and even then usually not, preferring to simply modulate our teasing to be a bit meaner, a bit more bitter.
And Courtney’s subcutaneous foibles, which I think I had always seen, became more present, on top of which several conflicts of personality, such as our differing sleep schedules (I liked to stay up late; she treasured the quiet moments in the morning), emerged. The problem was that because we were such close friends to begin with, we jumped immediately into the serious part of the relationship, not feeling each other out to see how serious we wanted things to get. And so we had an awful breakup, each of us feeling that our expectations had been betrayed, expectations that are usually dealt with in the introduction part of the story: the part we had never gone through.
We didn’t talk for a year after that, until I got an e-mail from her saying how stupid it was that we hadn’t talked for a year, and that we should get together for dinner sometime. By this point Portia had supplanted Courtney as the ideal woman in my mind, and so the dinner wasn’t that important to me. And it wasn’t that good anyway. We talked, it was awkward, we didn’t get each other very well; I think to some extent the breakup had convinced each of us that we really didn’t have that much in common, so at the dinner we just pushed our food around on our plates trying to find the small talk which had never really been part of our friendship. We saw each other occasionally after that, keeping up appearances of civility, but it was more so we could remove a breakup from our “bad” lists than because we actually enjoyed it. Since college we have not been in contact at all.
I round my seventh corner to come across a few postcard-style children playing in the falling snow. They are maybe five to eight, not yet old enough to have the stalwart Minnesota mentality implanted; they are baffled by the falling flakes which didn’t exist in humanity’s ancestral home of Africa. This is Patrick Leach’s dream: children captivated by the beautiful, sinuous snow which is, to him, nature’s way of telling humanity not to give up the search for beauty. The antidote to technology, to overplanning; I wonder if he has been told I am in advertising, the quintessence of these virtues which no doubt inflame his inner reactionary artist.
I stop and watch them for a bit. Leach would be right about one thing: they are pure, unsullied by the pains of life, the heartbreaks that Kandinsky went through all the time, Alberto went through with Portia, and I am going through with Elise Snow. Their only concern is how to build the snowman; they have fights, but these are not things that will leave lasting impressions on the soul. As they grow like the snowman being rolled around, the extra layers will mask the imperfections introduced into their beings at such a young age. Our heartbreaks, meanwhile, are etched in the finished stone, unable to be drafted over.
I stand lost in thought around the playing children for a few minutes, until they notice me, and turn towards me. Their attributes, even at age six, are already evident in their demeanors. The future athlete waves, his confident posture displaying an athleticism that will serve him well in life. The plain girl smiles, another above-average Minnesotan who will marry at twenty and raise clones just like her. Her older brother, of slight stature, is shrinking back, an expression of mild panic in his face. He is not one of the chosen ones, not one of the Minnesota elites. His future unhappiness is plain to see; he is not exactly unhappy now, but in fight-or-flight situations he will fly away for the rest of his life, a complex of physical inferiority which will only be intensified by growing up around this neighborhood quarterback who, possibly, might date his sister as an introduction to a life of womanizing, he powerless to stop her emotional pain as he leaves her.
But for now they are all just children playing. They go back to their snowman, all laughing, as I turn around and walk back along the same street. I wander for a few more minutes, then head back to Sarah Calflower’s, where I hear the sounds of the party from several yards upstream. The white flecks are flying in my face. It is 9:30 PM, an hour and a half until the ball drops. I open the door and walk back into Elise Snow’s life.