I am home in bed tonight and I’m supposed to be studying for the GRE. Pah! I don’t know what “supposed to” really means when you’re an adult, but my aim was to do it, even though as I said it out loud I thought about all the to-do lists I’d make instead, the googling I’d do, the Sopranos I’d watch (oh goddamn, I’ve succumbed and nothing else matters). It was like my brain wandered away from itself, whistling and looking over its shoulder, thinking, “Ha, yeah right.”
I stared at I think one problem and made Dustin look at it (he was sitting next to me, playing a video game on his phone) while I stammered about it, about how my brain is freaking out. He said he understood the problem but did not understand what I was saying. I covered up half of the equation with my hand. I said I knew the question but the algebra, oh, I’d forgotten what was allowed. Isolating the variable — do you remember this? It seems unfair, the things they let you do. Divide both sides by the coefficient? Why? Okay I know why but it’s funny how wild math can seem even when it’s right; correct. Math is, or was, something I could do but that I hated. I want to say it didn’t come naturally to me but that is hardly fair. Why did I, do I, hate it? I got a D in math in college and my academic advisor sat me down and said, “What are you doing, I have engineers who didn’t do as well as you on the SAT.” (Which is hilarious in retrospect, those engineers! I mean they’re children? They hadn’t done shit. It was freshman year. They were just men, probably. Math men! Future engineers and accountants and even lawyers. My intellectual enemy, I sometimes think — or to be clear: sometimes think I think, unconsciously.)
I always think of this conversation with my advisor, maybe because I savor the idea of being praised for something I willingly discarded. I fear not knowing the difference between being good at something and enjoying it, or I dislike the trait in other people, so I exaggerate it in myself. Or else I am spoiled, a too-often praised child, and impatient with myself and anything that is, or was, a little too much of a challenge. The way as a child I hated learning how to swim, swatting at my parents in the pool: Get away from me. How often has my petulance held me back, made me stew in my own incompetence?
I am still that child.
Anyway I signed up to take the GRE in an impulsive moment and now have spent $200 on it and it’s Wednesday and though I’m 70% sure I won’t be applying to grad school this year, I paid and I checked out a book from the library and turns out I forgot all of Math. I am trying to do all of these more practical calculations like, Can I just not relearn the quadratic formula and that would be ok? Is it worth losing two weeks of my life to study for this? How much can your GRE scores matter, actually, when you are going to school for writing, my god?!
I studied wholeheartedly only one afternoon so far, and only because the coffee shop I was meeting someone in four hours from my arrival turned out not to have wifi. I had to sit there with this book and a crowded room and an iced tea and actually read this book. My head nearly blew open. I hated it so much, I got so mad at math. And yet it is like anything that is a little bit hard but not impenetrable: I look at it and comprehend nothing, then I take a step back and re-approach it with a new squint and read slowly and breathe and it’s fine. It’s like I have to turn the dial just a tiny bit. This is how learning a new language is for me, too. And legal documents or literary theory or tax code. I tell myself, People out there do understand this. Why not you?
It sounds a little arrogant I suppose but after a point you just learn to do all that maternal bucking-up for yourself. Why not me, motherfuckers, why not me?
This is how it feels relearning the rules of exponents. It means nothing and then it makes great sense. It is a gift. The world shifts into place. I am ecstatic. Then in awe of my teenaged self who knew all of this at once, and did it deftly. How did we do it, though, and why did they make us? I imagine it was to give us that same tiny sense of control, that intellectual domination, a toehold in the sea of unknowingness that is adolescence. Or else they didn’t know what else to do with us. Is this why the accountant and the lawyer and the engineer are my intellectual enemies — their firm grip of the truth, their shifting into place, never subsided. They carried it with them into adulthood and now make more money than me. I am so jealous of them, they so often get to work with the lights on, knowing every turn of the hallway as they walk through it in the middle of the night. Those fucking dicks. I may never make my peace with it.
In the meantime, remember y = mx + b? m is slope. I remember it, can recite it, but still am unsure what to do with it. When I get to those questions I write TOO HARD in the margins of my library book. I understood it fully once. What else have I lost in the prideful, grasping effort to define myself?
The past few times I’ve run into someone and they’ve said, “Congratulations!” out of context, my mind starts racing, wondering what they are congratulating me for. Part of me thinks I am having a Doris Lessing moment, and that someone is giving me a big award for, I don’t know what, really promising Google Docs? And I haven’t been on Twitter so I just haven’t heard the news yet. Or once I thought my former boss was congratulating me for not working at his company anymore. I was like, Wow I guess we’re being really…real today. But no: engagement.
Congratulations is such a funny thing to say for this, I think. We didn’t get married yet. We made a decision! We had several difficult conversations over the course of a few years! We dealt with ambivalence and fear and had to articulate things we would almost rather not (okay that is always worthy of congratulations, in my book). We’re excited — and I know congratulations is shorthand for, “How exciting!” or, “I’m happy for you!” or, “I wish you the best!” But I think of it usually as closer to, “Good job!” so it keeps striking me as a little hilarious, in this moment for me of not-working and working on things slowly/quietly/privately, this moment where I am so hungry and nostalgic for the days of “good job.” And here I am accepting “good job!” for making a conventional decision people almost automatically support (never my strong suit).
I am trying to resist that neediness, to stay focused on the long con. And dwell in peace and happiness and accept everyone’s well wishes and stop hoping people are congratulating me on winning the Nobel for staying off Twitter for three months.
And we have done a great job, with each other, accepting each others’ love, practicing empathy, articulating hard things, saying what we want. We have done a good job, for two sensitive, moody, fearful, stubborn, proud, striving people who have never felt more known. And I do want to celebrate that. It’s just funny because how do other people know that? Though maybe they do. Or maybe we are asserting it through this decision, and people are trusting us and supporting that. Reconciling cynicism and giving people the benefit of the doubt: a new thing for me!
I love her. Still haven’t finished the Golden Notebook; still love her.
I didn’t write back because when you replied to me I realized what a horrible person you are and decided that actually I don’t want to meet you after all. I was hoping you’d take the hint but it appears you are another naggy, entitled millennial who seems to have read too many business self-help books.
Please never speak to me or of me again.
Thanks in advance,
A person responding to my “follow-up” email, probably.
It’s funny I just got home after working way too late and getting dinner w. everyone. On the way up the stairs I thought about giving you a multiple choice test about why you are talking to me; what you need from this. I was thinking what if i called you on the phone, how weird and kind of funny that would be. I was thinking it was good we didn’t talk tonight, that maybe i would read and go to bed early. would i read the sad book or the annoying book. when i said goodbye to my friends (my coworker and his girlfriend live two blocks from me), she asked if i wanted them to take me home. I said no, that I am alone all the time. “I bet,” Peter said, and we laughed. “Just open up Twitter on your phone,” he called out after me, and my hand was already in my pocket, reaching for it. I said so and we laughed. I walked the two blocks home and thought about the things I should have gotten done tonight; how fucked I was. But work was good actually, in a way it hasn’t been in so long. Thank God. What is your favorite color? Middle name?
Hey, so I wrote an essay about Choire’s new book, which (the essay) was just published on the Millions. Click through and feel depressed enjoy! In all seriousness, I think the book is beautifully written and conceptually important, and I wanted to explain why.
This is GREAT. In the future NYRB Classics edition of Very Recent History, this should be the introduction.
My last French class was uneventful, anticlimactic. Is this why there were always parties on the last day of class, for our own emotional satisfaction? A manufactured sense of closure? There were only 6 students left, the same six that had come every week. The therapist, the old old man who really wants to know if I am going to take Advanced Beginner, the flibberdigibbet, the Asian girl who is suspiciously good at pronunciation (I am always suspecting people of secretly knowing the language and “cheating” by taking this class), and the lawyer guy, who came around to being fascinated by me in the end because I asked weird questions meant to trap the teacher, corner him grammatically. All of us did this, but I was very persistent about it, unsatisfied when there were holes in his system, as if he invented the language. But what about THIS. But I thought you said THIS. He would try to argue with us but then we would say BUT! Look, there is an “e” and I thought you said whenever there is an “e”…etc. What did we think we would gain? Did we think he would say, You caught me! You Americans are correct. Let me telephone France right away and ask them to issue a correction. We’re eager to forgive him, though, poor Maurice who has to answer for an entire language. We love making sense of why this but not that, so we were eager to forgive him and keep them. We just kept hoping there were incredibly edifying reasons for each exception. To have him explain the why of something, whether it was a hunch for him or just the way he thought of it or actually true, thrilled us all. He says that most countries are feminine, so you are “en” them, versus “au” them. But very new or very unknown countries are masculine. Au Canada. Au Iraq. Israel doesn’t even get an article and I asked if this was some sort of potentially offensive political statement but no one heard me or answered. Then Maurice says states have genders, too. When he told us this we all threw our heads back and rolled around in our chairs. Kentucky he said, making a disgusted face. “Those K’s? That would never be feminine.” He says this like it’s obvious and there we go again trying to absorb his system, to understand. So the lawyer grew to appreciate me because I like to cite every American use of french when he teaches us the words. “Oh sous for under like sous chef because he’s under the main chef! And sur like SUR LE TABLE! Savoir like savoir faire!” Etc. On the last day I cheerfully pointed out that lawyer and avocado were the same word, as if no one had ever noticed. “How do you know which thing people are talking about?” We’d been learning adjectives and a classmate was declaring a lawyer to be blonde. Our own lawyer was bald. As was Maurice, our teacher, who laughed his French head off when I asked him my avocado question. Well, he said with the thickest Parisian accent, if my avocado was blonde I would certainly throw it away! It would certainly be past its date!” CONTEXT! he adds. His favorite answer, which satisfies none of us. Context?! We’re left shaking our heads and muttering to ourselves. We need more clues than that. We’ll never understand this language. In fact, at the beginning of class on the last day that is what everyone was entreating him over. We know nothing! How will we ever know? How will we ever understand someone? Maurice said but oh you know a lot. “We don’t even know the past tense!” “Well,” he says, “think of all the things you can say. I like to watch films. I live in New York. I work in an office. The rug is blue.” We sound like children in the eternal present, I thought. I wanted to make a joke about the Power of Now but did not risk it. Maurice sped through lesson after lesson that we never got to, and we absorbed none of it. Where is. Colors. Numbers over 60, my god. This made the flibberdigibbet actually exclaim, “OH, YOU FRENCH PEOPLE,” which I loved. And soon class was over, and still we didn’t speak French. Still, I can’t pronounce my R’s. He told us numbers aren’t so important, you can always write them down, or point to your watch, which seemed like both a quaint anachronism and a very ineffective way of communicating. When class was over we all said thank you, in English, and shuffled out.