I asked Jeri how long she had been back in Bryton.
“My son Louie just turned three,” she said. “So you do the math. It feels like forever. How about you? What’s your story?”
“Nothing happened,” I said.
“What kind of nothing?” she said.
“All kinds of nothing,” I said. “Every possible permutation of nothing. I’m a floater, I guess. I think I’m one of those lucky people who was born without any big dreams.”
“That wouldn’t be my definition of a lucky person,” she said. “And I don’t believe it’s true of anyone, including you. If you don’t have any dreams, what do you have?”
“Just my life,” I said, “which is pretty simple and quiet, really. I don’t feel like there’s anything I need, or anything much that I’m missing, or missing out on.”
“I don’t believe that, either,” she said. “Whenever I hear someone say something like that I immediately start thinking something’s very fishy or very wrong.”
“I’m not sure there’s anything very wrong,” I said.
“I’m not sure you’re not sure about that,” she said. “I’ll go ahead and ask you what you do, but I’m also curious about what you like to do. And don’t just shrug. I hate shruggers. This is a question that any human being should be able to answer without much hesitation.”
“What I like to do is nothing much,” I said, “I like to listen to music. And I like to read and watch movies. I'm pretty contented when I have a lot of time just sitting around doing that. If you’re asking what I do for a living, or for a job, I don’t really have a straight answer, because I’ve never put much thought into it. I certainly don’t have a career, and there was never even a point where I had anything in mind that you might conceivably classify as a career. I’ve done all sorts of mindless shit to pay the bills, mostly cubicle work –a lot of temporary jobs—where I entered data or answered phones or filed paper. I’ve never taken a job that I haven’t thought of as temporary, and I discovered long ago that it’s not difficult to find the kinds of jobs that I’m perfectly capable of doing. Some of them have even paid me what I consider a reasonable salary.”
“Give me some examples,” she said.
“Examples? Let’s see. I’ve worked at a law firm, for software and Internet businesses, and at an advertising agency. I’ve worked for a company that published law books, another that did textbooks, and I was even a hotel doorman for a time.”
“Which job did you like the best?” she said.
“I didn’t like any of them, particularly,” I said. “At the same time I can honestly say that not one of them made my life genuinely miserable. I’d inevitably get bored, though, and then I’d quit and eventually find something else to do. That’s been the weird cycle of my entire adult life.”
“The only one of those that sounds even remotely interesting is the hotel doorman job,” Jeri said.
“It was remotely interesting,” I said, which was the honest to god truth. “And I made surprisingly good money. It was ridiculous some days. I had to get up earlier in the morning for that job than I’d ever gotten up in my life. The alarm would go off at 5:30 and I’d try to make myself presentable; being presentable was very important.”
“I’d think being presentable is always pretty important,” Jeri said. “That just seems like a good general rule of thumb all around, don’t you think?”
“Yeah, but this was one of those jobs where success depended entirely on kissing ass in a big way,” I said. “You had to be able to utterly humiliate yourself in order to be successful. For instance, I had to wear this outfit that made me look like an usher from the golden age of Hollywood. I don’t know, other people said it looked like it had been stolen from a high school marching band. I’m sure you must have seen these guys from time to time. These get-ups were completely fucking ridiculous. You wouldn’t last long in that job if you had any real sense of shame.”
“And I suppose you had such a refined sense of shame that you just couldn’t cut it,” she said.
“Oh, fuck no,” I said. “I learned to live without shame a long time ago. I was good at this job. I had the drill figured out in a hurry.”
I hadn’t really thought about that experience in years, but I found myself telling this woman all about it, about how this hotel was a hot shit place downtown where there were always big business conferences and events, and we’d get these players from New York or Los Angeles or wherever flying into town every day for meetings. Some of these people were apparently famous, or at least I’d occasionally hear names being mentioned in almost reverential tones. They never meant anything to me, though; all I knew was that if I hustled out there and worked hard enough at kissing these people’s asses I’d get some cash shoved in my fist.
I told Jeri how, according to our employee handbook, which we were required to read –after which we were expected to sign a fucking confidentiality agreement—I was a member of the ‘service team in the guest satisfaction department.’ This manual was truly mind-boggling; it’s amazing the sort of bullshit people can get paid to produce in America, and there would later be times when I, in fact, would get paid to produce exactly the same sort of bullshit.
My job as a member of the service team was to grab bags, open doors, haul all manner of shit, and do whatever else I could to ‘ensure that the arrival experience’ of the guests was as ‘smooth and welcoming as humanly possible.’ Or some such nonsense like that. I more than held up my end of the deal; for eight months I was as good as any hotel ass-kisser in Chicago.
“I learned to be quiet, deferential, and as nearly invisible as I could be while still insuring that my services were noticed enough to earn me a tip,” I told Jeri. “If it was raining or snowing I was at the fucking cab, car, or limo door with an umbrella before the drivers had even managed to come to a full stop in front of the hotel. You never grabbed anybody’s bag without first asking permission, and if somebody felt like chatting you up you had to be prepared to chat, whether the subject was football, the weather, or a decent place to grab something to eat nearby. I really was damn good at it, and there were days I made fistfuls of cash.”
“It sounds a lot like being a waitress,” she said. “And I wouldn’t think it would be all that boring, really. It must have been good people watching, at the very least. Why’d you quit?”
“No, I’ll agree, it wasn’t boring,” I said. “It was seldom boring. But it was humiliating. I think it was the uniform, more than anything else, that got to me. I’m just not a uniform guy. Some days when I’d put that thing on and look at myself in the mirror I’d just feel more foolish than I’m comfortable feeling.”
“I thought you said you had no shame.”
“Well, yeah, to a point,” I said. “I mean, the ass-kissing didn’t ever really bother me. It was part of the competitive nature of the job. I also always managed to think of it as an acting gig. I was playing a doorman. But you had to be sort of sub-human if you really wanted to succeed. The whole uniform thing, though, seemed so unnecessarily humiliating. I didn’t understand the point of grown men running around in those ridiculous outfits. I was always amazed that people didn’t just look at us and break out laughing.”
“Everything has become so ridiculous that people don’t notice anything anymore,” Jeri said. “I always think that if you really stop and look at or think hard about anything it won’t make any rational sense. I mean, those people whose bags you were carrying, did you ever notice the clothes they were wearing? Whenever I find myself really noticing a tie, for instance, I realize that those things are utterly pointless; they serve no purpose whatsoever. And yet these guys waste all sorts of time and money dicking around with ties without ever really thinking about them, or about why they feel compelled to wear them.”
“Because it’s just become accepted, I guess,” I said. “Or expected.”
“I hate things that serve no function,” she said.
“Have you spent some time mulling that?” I asked.
“No,” she said. “No mulling. A firm conviction requires no mulling.”
She paused and looked across the room. “The feed caps need their bill,” she said. “You should go over and look at my grandmother’s pictures. She’ll probably have some stories for you as well.”
I watched her cross the restaurant. This was a curious woman, I thought. I was still in that stunted mindset where I continued to find myself thinking of women of roughly my own age as girls, which said plenty, I suppose, about the generally static nature of the last decade of my life. I imagined that until quite recently Jeri was probably accustomed to being referred to as a girl by characters that weren’t markedly different from me.
I’d lived for quite some time on the fringes of the world she had earlier described, and still, to some extent, had one foot tentatively in it. As with pretty much everything else in my life, I’d never quite managed to fully immerse myself in the music scene in Chicago, even though I had been going to shows and concerts and hanging out in record stores forever. I’d probably seen a number of the Minneapolis bands that were kicking around at the time Jeri was living in the Twin Cities.
I’d dated some girls (and they were, unmistakably, girls) from that club scene, but, in truth, none of these experiences could even be called proper dates, and certainly didn’t qualify as relationships. I’d also had, more recently, a few genuine relationships –or at least entanglements that were prolonged beyond a point where they could have been called casual dating—with women I’d met through various jobs. I’d even once lived briefly, and disastrously, with a perfectly nice and attractive woman.
Nothing ever came of these situations, and I had always been willing to accept that the blame was entirely mine. I am, for reasons I’ve never sufficiently tried to understand, an intensely private person. Even now I consider email an odious personal invasion. I do not like to talk on the telephone, and have no patience for small talk. And though I chose to at least imagine that I had a reasonably active sexual imagination and normal desires (these terms are, of course, relative, as I could never bring myself to spend any time reading up on such subjects or mucking around in the miserable business of psychology or self-help), I was nonetheless never particularly gifted –an understatement, perhaps—in the arts of what my father always called “pitching and wooing.”
I’m shy, is what it really boils down to, reserved, clumsy. Or, as one former girlfriend once observed, I am not exactly “the slickest-fielding shortstop in the American League.”
The woman who had lived with me for a time said to me, preparatory to moving out, “Your lack of ambition and self confidence really gets to be unattractive after awhile,” a statement that had devastated me precisely because it had been one of those instances –rare in my life—where someone had unwittingly given me a glimpse of how I am likely perceived by others. I’d give her the ambition point, but prior to that moment I had honestly never thought of myself as someone lacking in self-confidence, and the woman’s statement had had the effect of both calling my attention to this lack and exacerbating it.
I also realized that I had never truly allowed myself to get close enough to anyone else –or for anyone to get close enough to me—for them to form such acute impressions, or at least get comfortable enough to articulate them. As wrong-headed as this surely sounds, that experience made me skittish about exposing myself in that way again.
As I sat there at that counter in the diner I realized that in the more than two years since that former girlfriend –the one really serious, prolonged attempt at a relationship in my life—had moved out of the apartment we shared, I had had exactly three exceedingly awkward and brief sexual encounters. I could remember every one of them in painful detail. There had never been the slightest pretense that any of these women were anything but convenient sexual partners –and I’m quite certain this was as true for the women as it was for me—and I had been perhaps too keenly aware of the level of desperation and need I was feeling, a desperation and need that I fully understood wasn’t going to be even remotely assuaged by having sex with a woman I didn’t even know.
I had no idea what might assuage these feelings of desperation and need, and this was exactly the sort of big question I had spent my whole life avoiding. I was still, I knew, avoiding such questions. If I gave them any attention at all, it was only when I was blindsided, and these uncomfortable moments would always recall to me the way I used to see my mother look at herself in the mirror –this as she got older and after she had split from my father the second time; her confrontations with any mirror involved no clear or actual appraisal, or even what could properly be called a gaze, but rather an almost furtive glance, her head already and almost instantly turning away as her eyes met the reflected image, as if all she was then seeking was the briefest and most unsatisfying of confirmations that she was still there, that the reflection in the mirror was really the person she had become and there was no longer a damn thing she could do about it.