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Tourist

When friends lecture, friends get annoyed.

I know a few people who see a flame and want to touch it. They call me at 2am, drunk, and tell me about the naked woman in the other room. One explained his five days in jail for DWI, and laughs at his own wildness. "I read Anna Karenina cover to cover."

"You read Anna Karenina in the hoosegow?" I say. Over the phone, he tells me about prison food, his blue shirt, the morning alarm, details for the screenplay. He collected some dialogue, wrote it in a mottled notebook. He tells me he's coming to New York, and asks if he can stay with me.

"Any time," I say. "Just give me a few days warning."

The next week at four PM--I am at work; the answering machine stamps the time--he calls: "If you're home, pick up." A pause. "I don't have a place to stay. I'm on 72nd St., and I was wondering if my friend and I could sleep with you tonight. We'll take the train, and be there at 7 or so.

He brings stories and scars; he pines to be released from this hour, and to find a few more dollars in the next one. Then, he will move out, break up, calm down. Time will put his soul at rest, he insists. He writes poems on the backs of receipts. I love him.

I curse at the answering machine, and throw a pile of dirty clothes in the closet, do the dishes. Jeff shows up without the friend, with no explanation. I take him out to dinner. I say, "it's good to see you, even on short notice."

I tell Jeff some of what I'm learning, but he finds it too boring. I talk about sentences and rhetoric, about small, jerky emotions that I am trying to understand. He talks about women he is fighting with, and he compliments me on being alone for so long. "I don't know how you do it," he says. "I go crazy without sex."

Back at my one room apartment, I hand him a blanket and pillow, and he stretches out fully dressed on the futon. We talk until the morning, both lying in bed and staring at the stucco ceiling. We speak into the air. I tell him about the strangeness of being in business in writing advertising copy, describing the hivelike behavior of big corporations. It's not strange anymore, though. I am only providing him with anthropological insight, trying to prove that I still have a soul, showing him that I am still his friend despite my paycheck. I feel guilty for doing well, and I feel old, but not mature.

I become suddenly very tired. He says he doesn't know how I do it, how I handle all that madness, how he'd love to get the sense of peace I have, settle down. I start to mumble, "I'm not settled." He says, "I bet you I'll be there with the rest of them, with a house and car. Blissful hypocrisy, right? Giggling at the irony of my new station wagon, but thinking of my vodka memories, cheating on my wife with the babysitter. You know?" I snort in exhaustion; I am thinking of the work I did not finish because he arrived; I am looking for ways to put more time into tomorrow, my fingers tight against my bare stomach under the blanket. I don't care about vodka memories, except to think that he sounds contrived when he speaks. I love Jeff from a distance.

I am about to sleep, half-snoring, on the edge of nowhere, when he says quietly, "Do you ever wish you were a real writer?"

I think of the dinner I put in his stomach, a good one, paying the $42 check and leaving the tip, but then I nod out of sleep and say, "yes," knowing that he has a writer in his head, some inky pedant with a narrative map of his novel in ballpoint, the map scribbled on butcher paper and hung above the Selectric, the butcher paper darkened with more lines than the New York subway system. Yes, I wish I could be that person, thinking about characterization and reading poetry chapbooks, filling up pages and going to lunch with my agent, wearing brown turtlenecks, loving wine instead of gin. Yes, I wish I was famous; I wish there was a way to know that if I quit it all and only wrote for a living, there would be a prize, a few fellowships, some kind of cultural tenure. Yes, I am afraid to risk any more on my writing than this web site. Jeff doesn't know about Ftrain, and I don't want to show it to him. He wouldn't understand how important it is to me; he would be annoyed at its smallness and weak phrasing. Ftrain isn't that writer in brown, but something unpure and mostly unread, an attempt, an exercise, not real art. He would think that, and I would not know how to disagree.

The last time he was here I also bought him dinner. Over that dinner I listened to him lament advertising and sneer at "suits." I thought of my collection of neckties, my red copy of The Portable MBA in Marketing. When we left the diner I handed him a $20 bill because he had spent all of his money.

He thinks--I have many friends like this--that I don't see what I'm like, that I don't see my own fatness or exhaustion, my numbness, my talent used to sell lightbulbs, my ignorance of a much larger world of ideas. I have so little to tell them, my old friends; everything that happens is so small. The only sustaining ritual in my life is work, the coursing flow of handshakes, meetings, proposals, bound together by language and emotion. They find this boring; they want gossip and all I know are bland subleties, stories that aren't funny and don't end with a moral. To Jeff, I don't describe my total rejection of faith, my firm belief in the transmigration of nothing, the ascendency of nothing, the judgement of nothing, the rejection of soul, my absolute belief in the final rotting of the body after death. I wanted to tell him of the fear I feel because my skin is going bad from sleepyness and New York air, the crinkling at my eyes, the gray hairs, the feeling that I am decaying, and that there is only one chance, that I cannot come back as something better.

Maybe I am shedding; or maybe I am pupating, a massive pair of insect wings hidden inside my shoulder blades. But what if I am decaying? These ideas constantly circle my head, like airplanes above a thunderstorm, desparate to land but refused permission. I want to sit up, reach out to his futon, take his head, his long brown greasy hair, in my hands, and say, "thank you, thank you for living it, for trying to not give up on God and people, for not giving up on yourself, for letting them beat it out of you rather than beating it out of yourself. You are so full of shit, and I love you, and I will give you money and support as long as you fight back, as long as you believe in the world's myth of success without believing in its standard of failure.

"I know how scared you are, how failure follows you wherever you are, washing dishes at a restaraunt, delivering flowers, but only wanting to write. Do you know that every night I lie in bed and clench my fists and curse and cannot sleep, I am so angry at the day's failures, at the chance I didn't take? I don't have any idea what I want, and I've tried love, and coffee, and anger, and none of them work, none of them wake me up.

"You think I am beyond dreaming, and you love me in spite of it. I can't tell you how much I am still dreaming, still hoping for something new, some healing fire to burn through my life and clear out all the dead things. The only difference between you and me is that I don't believe in the fire, but I wish I could find something to replace it.

I wanted to say to him, "Jeff. When you are fat and happy and married, I will have long since spun out of control, away from this city and my stable life, wandering to find myself, and I will land on your respectable doorstep and ask for food, ask for shelter. You'll remember this night--a vodka memory, right--and take me to dinner and we'll go home, and I'll stare at you, both of us silent, in your downstairs den, the blue light of the TV bouncing off the brown walls. We will be watching television, and I will be watching you, heart full of love and scorn." But I just lay there, wanting to speak to him, to touch him, to tell him that I knew what he was thinking about me, that I understood and respected his boredom at my efforts, that I was really something else entirely. I wanted to say it all so badly, just speak out against the night, stop listening, stop laughing and stop helping the conversation along, but I only held my hand tight against my side, the fingertips quivering in the cold room, and fell asleep on a bed of love and scorn.


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About the author: I've been running this website from 1997. For a living I write stories and essays, program computers, edit things, and help people launch online publications. (LinkedIn). I wrote a novel. I was an editor at Harper's Magazine for five years; then I was a Contributing Editor; now I am a free agent. I was also on NPR's All Things Considered for a while. I still write for The Morning News, and some other places.

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