What happened after that?
Afterward, I acted like a creep. I started writing about her and him and It—I called it “the Mistake”—obsessively. The first time I wrote about it was the night it happened, at Teddy’s house. After Teddy started ignoring me there was like this two-week period where I would just stay up all night alone and write about it. I would wait outside Teddy’s house to see if he would come out and talk to me and of course he wouldn’t and then I’d wander back to my house and write. I refused to let go, apologize, move on. I’d write weird, pathetic stuff.
After that I kept writing about the Mistake. For years. I thought that if I could just get it perfectly into words, I could just explain everything away, and then it wouldn’t be a shitty mistake. There’s this phrase, All things become as nothing in our hands. That phrase, it was like a bad song stuck in my head. I didn’t want this to become nothing in my hands: I thought if I could just turn it into a story, it would be all right.
Did you? Turn it into a story?
No. Yes. I mean, scraps. I wrote a lot—hundreds and hundreds of pages—on this goof-ass event. I thought if I wrote enough I could get to the Truth of the event, the Truth of these characters. But you can’t fit real people onto pages or extract sense from a senseless event or put an ending on an event that had no real conclusion. All I was left with was these hundreds of pages, with no ending.
What about the real-life end?
Time passed. Teddy went to rehab. When I saw him a few years later, we were different people and it no longer mattered. L. and I are civil, friendly, again. I managed to keep writing about this for several years, but eventually I grew bored.
Oh. Well. Lessons?
Well, looking back on it all, it seems pretty obvious to me that I was jealous of L.—with all her smartness and peppiness and happiness and lightness and so many damn interests and mostly her ability to be a writer, while I was stuck being her sullen silent depressive blob friend. And so, despite all my excuses and pretending like there is no reason behind what I did and saying it was just ’cause I was outta my head and all that, it seems pretty obvious that I did it because I wanted to be like L. I wanted to imitate her. I wanted to fall in love with something and I wanted to be engaged with the world like her and I wanted to be writer, too. So I imitated her in the most effed-up way possible, by dating the person she was in love with, and by using all that melodrama as fodder for my fiction. But it was a weak, pale imitation. It’s one thing to do what L. did—fall in love with the things of the world and write about them—but quite another to treat your friends, your real life, like things, to reduce them to characters, to watch your life unfold as words on a page.
Ugh. Listen. As this icky story has shown, I’m pretty immature. I dunno if I should be the one to hand out lessons—
I’m not asking you to hand out lessons, I’m asking if you learned any lessons.
I went to a party recently and this dude told me I’d traded in the capital L for a lowercase l: I’d stopped searching for the Way to Live and was simply living. He’s right. For a long time I thought if I could just find the right Way to Live then everything would be all right. This is what I was doing when I was feeling all that disdain for the Christmas-tree people at college; it’s why I was carrying that “Thirsty Fish” around in my pocket. I thought I was being noble by holding out for a capital-L Life. I felt like I was the only person around who hadn’t given up on capital letters, and wasn’t there something good about that? But now that I look back on it, I seem more needy than noble, and my values seem like Linus’s blanket. Like comfort food. I somehow convinced myself that there was this right way to Live, and that L. did not embody that correct way of Living, because she loved things too much, and I used this idea as an excuse to act poorly and without compassion.
Have you read that David Foster Wallace story “Little Expressionless Animals”? It is beautiful. A character in it, Julie Smith, says that the point of love is to try to get your fingers through the holes in the lover’s mask. I keep thinking about the story, when I think about what happened with L. I think that I hated her for being so composed all the time. I felt like there were no holes in her mask that I could get my fingers through. So it was easy for me to choose to be cruel to her, to choose not to believe that she had real feelings. David Foster Wallace is good at talking about compassion. He talks about how compassion is really difficult. It is maybe the hardest thing, even though it seems like it should be the simplest, most obvious, most straightforward thing, to be good to other people. ’Cause, like, I live in my own head, so it is way easy to think that the world revolves around me, ’cause I’m constantly experiencing it as such. When I was feeling depressed, it was way easy to put L. in a box and force her to stand for something that irritated me, instead of seeing her as a person who is full and complex and hella real.
Anyhow. My point is just that it is hard to have compassion. And words are funny things, but they’re what we’ve got to work with, so we can’t constantly be trying to get under people’s skin, we’ve just got to let words float and do their thing and trust them. Trust the words and the people who say them. Maybe there is no mask. ♦