When you’re lost and up for anything, it becomes down at the heels to decide what you want. I’m thirty-one and in the process of getting my PhD. I meet Arti at a reading thrown by MFA students at a bar on South Street. Though I happen to be in the process of wooing someone else, Arti is insistent. She’s Bangladeshi, with long, luxuriant black hair, darkish complexion, and large breasts. After mysteriously landing at my table, she clutches my hand under the table. There is so much insistence in her grasp, I receive the impression that Arti has been secretly coveting me for some time. But when we return to my place, everything goes amiss. Arti is a beleaguered Muslim trying to fit in at an American university; a nascent novelist who writes brilliant pieces that nevertheless do not cohere; and a miserable human being who relishes her misery. As we writhe around, it occurs to me that I have become the male version of a slut. They have a name for this at Temple: man-whore. I am someone who will take whatever a willing woman will give me. I can be taken by force, stealth, or subtlety. I have no boundaries. The only element that redeems me from the condition of a thirty-something Peter Pan is that the ladies, like Arti, come to me. Arti twists, and turns, and writhes; now she is throwing a fit about having broken one of her laws. My role is to assist her in finding the right pitch and key for her fugues. I fecklessly hope that this, unlike all the other encounters, will turn into a relationship. But it soon becomes apparent that Arti’s rages are as boundless as my fecklessness. When Arti cuts, she doesn’t mess around; we’ll probably never speak again. I’m left with the soul-hollowness of one who repeats mistakes.
There has never been, in all of this, a moment of being totally lost, derelict. I have always been able to locate myself somewhere. When I meet Zeld on the R6, I immediately sense the electricity of some kind of intercourse between us. What I want most is revenge on Trish for having slept outside the relationship. Zeld is tall, brown-haired but freckled, a sort-of-into the arts type. She likes to show up in hippie dresses, get down to business fast, and then leave. I don’t feel lost about this; I need to get revenge, Zeld is available; but this is my most derelict moment as a lover. There is nothing between Zeld and I, no redemptive seams holding the construct together. Our sex happens to make a point to someone else, because Trish and I are not only competitive, we would kill to get an edge on each other. The deep loneliness we escape via competitive gains never gets resolved; the empty spaces in us never organically fill. When Zeld dances out of my life, I forget that she ever danced in. The games begin with Trish again, and with renewed intensity. I win by thrusting, she wins by yielding; and our souls experience prolonged periods of sustained ugliness. In love, reversals occur that take years to decode. In public, Trish and I move into high spectacle mode— there are parties, brawls, ménages, late nights. I never think what the punishment for this will be— that having navigated to a home that turns out to be no home, I lose consonance with knowing what a home is, and how I can help to build one.
Trish and I are both buffoons; when we see Trish’s family we are often stoned. One Christmas I spend with Trish’s family, I am asked to bring my guitar. I do, and the whole family sings along to old Beatles songs. Trish’s sisters are as attractive as she is; Trish plays the usual competitive games sisters play. Usually, the mood isn’t all that festive. Trish’s parents want what most traditional WASP families want for their daughters; to have her marry into money, so that she might be off their hands. As I realize this quite consciously, and know that in this family’s eyes I’m no less a failure and a flush than their daughter is, it’s interesting to feel a sense of almost-acceptance at these dinners. That my roots are unclean tilts things even more formidably against me; but I enjoy the education I’m receiving nonetheless. I learn, for the first time, the absurdity of middle-class, church-going, white-bread America— folks that vote Republican as a matter of course, elevate themselves by considering their brand of normalcy the only Godly one, and don’t need to rationalize the way that Catholics and Jews do, because they have no guilt or shame to begin with.
I learn from Trish the rules of intoxication. As you lift off, you leave behind everything in your consciousness that is tinged towards the mundane. Normal space/time dimensions need not apply; everything happens in a realm of perfected imbalance, expected surprise. Trish has lived with drug dealers; has spent years in circumstances extreme enough that ingesting hard chemicals becomes like brushing one’s teeth. Trish does, in fact, find states of intoxication cleaner than sobriety. A sober mind dwells on hard facts; hard facts for Trish have no endurance. Trish wants every lover to be Lord Byron; every night to contain and perpetuate Greek-level dramas; and to be a heroine in such a world grants a crown of flame, of radiance, that Trish covets. But dramas demand conflicts; I learn that Trish will rock the boat for no other reason than this. There’s always a solution sweet; but Trish enjoys the solution less than the problem. She wants to see me riled; there’s always an impressive array of red flags at her disposal. When she does her seven-veiled dances, she can use her various highs to create a palpable ethereality. I never have any choice (once the drama has been set in motion) but to resolve the tension with a push into her, and a denouement involving another bowl, drink, pill. Consummate sensuality can have no reasonable end; it has to be pushed to its limits to be really tasted. This equation threatens to overtake my existence. They are a distraction from a shrewish reality— that the greatest escapists invariably have the most onerous obstacles and daunting responsibilities to escape from.