Little Lies: The New Neighbor

worn stairs

The man who knocked on my door last week asked me to turn down my music. I hadn’t seen him around before. This is not a big apartment building, nor is it the first time I’ve been asked to turn down my music, so I’ve seen the faces of everyone who lives here (I’m pretty damned sure). Furthermore, this building has one rickety old staircase up the center, which passes in front of every apartment door, meaning when someone hauls a couch up the stairs, we all know about it. Assuming we’re home, that is, and I was. I’m always home. (Thanks, Obama!)

I figured maybe he was visiting one of the neighbors, probably Molly upstairs. Molly dates a lot. She brings home different guys a lot. It’s not my cup of tea, but who am I to judge? Anyway, I assumed this guy was one of hers.

Most people, though, when they ask you to turn down your music, they make some kind of face. Maybe they look apologetic like, “I’m sorry my ears are so sensitive that I have to inconvenience you.” Or sometimes they look angry like they think I’m playing music just to piss them off. This guy, though! He said, “Would you turn down your music, please?” the same way you’d say, “I’d like a soy latte with an extra shot.” His tone was authoritative, gentlemanly even, and made me feel like some kind of gross creature who should be accustomed to taking orders.

“Nah,” I said, puffing my chest. I let my chin rise in feigned thoughtfulness and shook my head as though considering seriously whether turning down the music would be a possibility. “No, sorry, I can’t.”

And could you believe the fucker smiled at me? I don’t know what I thought he was going to do, but he smiled and walked away, and that pissed me off so much I had to turn my music up even more, and Mrs. Norton came knocking a few minutes later. I had to apologize to her. I didn’t know her baby was sleeping.

That afternoon, I went across the street to eat lunch and watch people. I was hoping to come up with a new story idea, but I got distracted thinking of ways to start a conversation with the barista. My attention had been wandering all day ever since that bastard knocked on my door. The music hadn’t even been that loud. And it was good. It was sunny outside, and I’d been sitting at my desk with just the perfect light streaming down on my page, and I was starting to get somewhere with this story when this gentlemanly fucker comes knocking like he’s got no taste. He had the face of a guy who humble-brags about how his marathon training is going. But if I knew anything about Molly, she’d be bored with him in a minute, and I’d never have to see him again.

I was gazing at the door when it opened and in he walked. His eyes, I swear, went directly to mine, and before proceeding to the counter, he smiled and tipped his imaginary hat at me. I watched him order something I couldn’t hear, receive it, and exit. As he passed the front window, his head turned sharply to shoot a grin straight at me.

I tried to refocus on my story, I tried people watching, I even tried to spin the guy into a character for a new story, but I was stymied. I called it quits for the day, hopped on my bike and rode to the park.

The next day, I got up, made coffee, turned on my music (a little quieter than the day before) and started writing. With my mind fresh from sleep, I had no trouble getting started. I wrote straight through till 2 p.m. before getting distracted by hunger. I locked my door and headed down the stairs, and I saw Molly coming in to the lobby as the new guy was walking out. He stood aside as she straight-armed her way through the door, then swiftly shimmied past her to exit the building without touching the door. Molly was absorbed in her phone and did not glance up at us.

At the sandwich shop, I took a seat by the window. I sat and pretended to write for a long time, occasionally jotting down notes about the people I observed but glancing up every time I sensed movement in the corners of my vision. It paid off. He returned an hour later, empty handed.

I snapped up my notebook and the remainders of my sandwich and jogged across the street in a way that probably did not quite pass as casual. I entered the door 15 feet behind him, and paused to check my mail in the lobby letting him get ahead of me on the stairs. I could hear his footsteps several flights ahead as I mounted the bottom step. He was still walking when I reached my door on the 3rd floor. I didn’t put the key in the lock until I heard him reach the top. A door opened, there were footsteps, and the door closed again. I went into my apartment and resumed work.

The next morning, I walked out into the stairwell and peeked over the edge, up and down the jagged leg of space with the skylight at the top. Feeling confident that no one was lounging outside their doors at 8 a.m., I began to walk up. It was a stupid thing to do. I didn’t think I was going to find anything. But at the very top of the stairs was a dusty landing, which was rarely used because there was no apartment door at the top. The path ended in drywall, and pinned to that was a piece of notebook paper with symbols scrawled across it. It was like a language a little kid would make up — all dots and squiggles. Some symbols were bigger than others, carved boldly into the paper with a ballpoint pen.

The next day and the next, I saw the man coming and going from the apartment building, nodding at people he passed on the way to this or that errand. When I passed him on the stairwell, I could feel his eyes boring into me, his smile growing wider, his cheeks more insistently jubilant. The harder he stared, the more I wanted to avoid his gaze.

Yesterday, I watched out the front window for him to come back, and when I knew he was coming up the stairs, I listened. His steps were slow, deliberate and loud. At each landing, he stepped firmly with one foot, then the other, and turned slowly. I counted the flights he must have risen, and only after I heard a door open and shut, I opened my door and counted. He’d risen 6 flights total, so he should’ve been at the top floor. Obviously, he’d faked the last flight because he must have known I was listening. He probably saw me sitting by the window when he came up the street. I went up to the 6th floor. Each floor had two doors (one on each side of the landing). Apartment 6A was the landlord’s, and apartment 6B had been empty I thought, but perhaps the creepy bastard had moved in without any furniture. Maybe he was some kind of sicko dope fiend. I’d be doing the whole building a favor if I could get him kicked out. I knocked on the sicko’s door. I knocked and knocked and knocked. It was starting to hurt my knuckles. I was going to keep on knocking all day if I had to, but a door opened behind me, and I heard the landlord’s voice.

“Smithson? You doing OK?”

I froze. How to explain this?

“Uhh,” I said, shoving my hands in my pockets as though to hide the evidence of my insanity. “Sorry to be so loud, Mrs. Davis, I just, um. I been trying to talk to this guy who moved in here. He doesn’t really seem right to me, you know?”

Mrs. Davis furrowed her eyebrows at me. “There’s no new tenant.”

“Well then! How embarrassing,” I said. “Maybe one of Molly’s guys, then. Maybe I should mind my own business.”

When Mrs. Davis finally disappeared behind her own door again, I tiptoed up the last flight of stairs. There was a new note on the wall.

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Little Lies: Two Bright Girls

Ary_Scheffer_-_Greek_Women_Imploring_at_the_Virgin_of_Assistance_-_Google_Art_Project

This is the third piece in my fiction experiment in which I lie  
about people I know and love. Many thanks to my friend Nora for 
letting me write about her.

When Medusa was born, she did not have snakes for hair. She wasn’t even ugly, really, just strange looking. Perhaps it was a slight unevenness of the face, or the slight puff under her eyes that made her look alarmingly old for a child. People were nice to her, of course, and remarked loudly over how sharp she was. At age four, she could recite the complete genealogy of the Titans with a thoroughness most of humanity has long since forgotten.

When Nora was born, though, she was radiant. From the first smile, Nora enthralled all who saw her so they felt they could not move. The baby girl had eyes the color of a summer sky and a swipe of red hair to match her rose-and-porcelain cheeks. To meet her gaze was to be seen through and through. Medusa did not get any more beautiful, nor did she want to. As she grew older, adults ignored her and schoolmates teased her. Seeing how she was rejected by the world simply for being plain, she had no interest in changing herself to please idiotic people.

In other words, people wouldn’t shut up about Nora. Medusa, the plain sister with the clunky name, grew sulky as Nora grew older and proved just as bright. Intellectually, the girls were a perfect matched pair, their differences being mainly ones of taste, never of capability. In addition, the two shared a deep and abiding respect for each other. They shared all their knowledge with one another and were the most intimate of friends. It was only foolish outsiders who judged them and whose opinions they found perfectly worthless.

Though Medusa wasn’t much for religion, she decided to join a little known, semi-religious sisterhood rather than get married. She knew her father would be bound to marry her off before her younger sister could be married, and though Nora protested that she wanted nothing to do with any fool man, it was clear that she had her eye on someone. Medusa on the other hand had been rejected, ignored, and bullied so much in her young life that all she really wanted was to go live in a quiet place where she could continue her studies. She hoped the sisterhood would send her to teach physics in a school for intelligent girls.

With Medusa cared for by the Gorgon sisterhood, it was not long before the beautiful and brilliant Nora was married to a well liked man named Cato who served as strategic adviser to very powerful men. Nora, too, would be provided for and would live a life of leisure and study.

For the next long time, the young women grew in their own ways. Nora penned all the truly great romances and tragedies, those long lost scripts of which every novel since has been poor imitation. Medusa meanwhile conjured mathematical concepts beyond this author’s comprehension. Each of the women was quite happy with her work and proud her sister, except for one small yet meaningful thing: Each new work of Nora’s was met with praise, and people threw parties to celebrate her every move. Medusa’s work was largely ignored and dismissed except for those occasions when she sent out papers under the name of some male she invented.

Medusa and Nora, both enraged by the stupidity of humans and their willingness to discard the work of a woman decided to play a trick on the world. They began to send each other their work, and each woman published her sister’s work under her own name. As a result, Nora received credit for creating worm holes while Medusa published the answers to life’s greatest mysteries, and what’s left of the manuscripts floats around in scraps, often misquoted, and always attributed to Anonymous.

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Little Lies: Freddy’s Winter Commute

icy road
This is the pretend Freddy.
This is the first in what I hope will be an occasional series of fiction
experiments. Thanks to my friend Freddy Nassar for volunteering his 
likeness for my studies.

It would have been appropriate to get on the road a little early, but he didn’t. There were numerous little things to be done before he could leave the house. Shower, shave, feed the cat, clean the litter box, and scrub the spot on the floor where the cat had expressed his dismay with the state of the litter box. He checked his e-mail while waiting for the coffee to brew. He checked it again while sipping his coffee pensively, quickly, wishing he could gulp it down like water, knowing he should be getting on his way. He checked his email once more from his phone as he sat in the car waiting for the engine to warm up and melt the ice on his windshield. No new messages, except for the usual barrage of sales pitches from online retailers used once to purchase a Christmas gift for a girlfriend who was no longer so much as a friend. At 7:45, he put the car in reverse and began to move only to glimpse a dark, hulking figure in the rearview mirror. Brakes. Park. That fleeting moment of insanity: Is that a fucking bear? A fat, ruddy face lowered into view, leathery red cheeks smiling idiotically.

“Sorry!” shouted the stupid face. Two hands appeared alongside it, one wearing a mitten, one bare-fingered, both waving stupidly. “Have a nice day!” The idiot bear man moved on with snow and ice crunching under his feet.

At 7:54, the car was warm, sitting at a traffic light, and grumbling away like an old man. Freddy checked his phone. Nothing. Greenlight. Acceleration. The way the tires spin until they can get traction on public roads when winter catches them by surprise. Freddy’s car scrambled as though having a bad dream of its own, then bolted into the intersection just as the cars behind him began to honk. “Fuckoff!” Freddy shouted as he fishtailed through.

The next time the car stopped, it was facing a low, grey building nearly identical to every other building within a radius of about 5 miles. The front door was locked, and Freddy opened it with a key that he carried along with his car and house keys. His gloved fingers fumbled for a moment, human error, but the key slid into place and the door recognized its partner, and the grey building opened itself up, offering him a slightly less grey and rewardingly warm interior. Lights, automatic. Carpet, grey berber, that bland mélange of colors that is not a color unto itself, intended to disguise the stains of everyday abuses.

Freddy’s lungs overtook him with a spasm that produced something that he was compelled to expel emphatically onto the floor. “Ugh,” said Freddy, as he scuffed the filth into the carpet with the sole of his favorite shitkicking boots.

Freddy used to enjoy being the most competent person in the office. That was before he learned there were no rewards for competency. If you are good at your job, efficient, if you ensure that rules are followed and schedules are met, you get the occasional pat on the head or an invitation to lunch with the boss. You get invited to play golf. Freddy did not want to play golf. He had learned the rules of the game and how to swing that stupid stick at that stupid little dimpled ball, and he sometimes tried playing mental games like in fourth grade — imagine your boss’s head on the ball, et cetera. He drove around in golf carts with old men droning on and kept score for them and was jolly about being the looser of every round. After all, bosses and clients love to win. They invited him back often when he’d been good, guided some tough project through the weeds and made everyone a bit of cash.

Good-boy Freddy rolled his eyes, pulled off his gloves, and stuffed them in his pockets. With a groan, he unzipped his pants and pissed on the carpet, letting the morning’s coffee finish it’s journey to an unexpected destination. He listened thoughtfully to the sound of piss on berber, a sound he’d never contemplated before, and at the same time felt a thrill not entirely unlike the first time he dragged his tongue up the length of a woman’s body. Strange, he thought, that those two things should be connected in his mind. But then, life is certainly strange. Sex is strange. People are strange. What wasn’t strange was this office and golf and the coworkers who were now officially late.

8:46. Work started at 8:30. No fucking respect for schedules, Freddy thought. No fucking respect for each other or themselves — what a waste, he thought.

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Monday Night Nonfiction: Arson

housefire

He said, Go write. Write what? Write something just for you.

Everything I write is for me. Get in the moment of ink in pen on page stop thinking thinning out like hair growing up going up to some height unseen uncomposed undreamed. Forget to plan the right word foot in mouth disease like the dis-ease of life watch my glass ice melting smoke fills this room in me. I am a house on fire, and inside me, someone’s choking on smoke. Those poems I used to write. I was a natural. I was brilliant beautiful unedited, uncensored, unplanned. I was surprise. On the page making myself, many versions of myself, cry. Laughing so hard at how ridiculous life is all the times you’re so desperate to feel something you’ll pretend to be in love. Then real love throws you for a loop, and you have to admit to all those years of lying. But you weren’t lying. You were just pretending. It was a game. I don’t care if she doesn’t get it. I don’t get a lot of writers and I don’t expect them to write me a preface.

There is no preface to me. This is, I am, writing is experience. I am asking you to submit yourself to this experiential learning. Conceptual ideas abstractions don’t work here. We’re talking about abstractions already. You can’t make abstractions about abstractions. That’s just stupid. That’s why we never get anywhere. So that’s it.

Stop and take a sip. Get your head together again. Relight the incense. Be glad you can’t erase this. If only all life really were recorded in some great book. Memoir is how we make up for all our lost belief. There is no god to tell me I’ve been good and treasure all my deeds, so I commit them to pages and leave them to you, world.

Stop stopping to think goddamnit. He said write something for you. Do it. I don’t know how. How how how to be mine and that’s what’s scary. Yes to the night. Yes to time. Yes to smoke filling that room inside me.

Get out goddamnit get out. Climb the ladder of my lungs and slide down my tongue to freedom. Open the shades of my eyes and jump for crying out loud. Get free. Get out. Smoke is filling that room, smoke from an infinite fire, and you’ve got to open up some doors or die.

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I Am Not My Work

Art by Benjamin Gabriel

Not too long ago, I wrote about how being a writer is meaningless. I’ve continued to think about that idea, and today I just want to share some thoughts about it.

I used to want to be a famous writer. Actually, I had a very specific goal — to have my works included in literary text books for high school and college students. I wanted my writing to be considered definitive of an era. After all, anyone can write a book, but in order to feel that I was really a good writer, I needed to be the best writer.

My entire identity and self-worth was wrapped up in this idea of being a great writer, and if you’ve any idea of what the publishing industry looks like right now, you can probably imagine how this is a problem. No one wants to publish your book? Probably because you’re worthless as a human being. That was pretty much my internal dialogue for a few years.

The prospect of earning a living as a writer was terrifying. I loved writing because it was literally my main tool for navigating the world. I trusted no one but my own writing, and I was completely wrapped up in my own inner world, which is why I had no close friends for a really long time. To turn that into a source of income made me feel too vulnerable, and I was unwilling to do any writing I didn’t really love.

At the same time, my yoga practice was starting to teach me, “You are not your job. You are not your belongings. You are not your social status.” I still struggled with the idea that I needed to be something more, something better. I needed to be great but couldn’t wrap my mind around what that meant.

Only when I started teaching yoga did that change. When I’m teaching a class, I don’t want to be famous, to prove myself, or to impress anyone. All I want is to do a good job for the people in front of me. When they visibly improve from one class to the next and say “thank you” to me at the end of the day, I have the most amazing feeling of success I’ve ever had.

I no longer feel that need to prove myself as a great writer. I write because I love it and because it’s a good tool for me. Writing is now part of my yoga, part of how I understand the world, but it’s no longer my identity.

After all these years, I realize:

I am not a writer.
I am a me.
Writing is something I do.
My writing does not define me.
I do.

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