The Brooklyn Rail

MAR 2011

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MAR 2011 Issue

Character and Fitness: Chapters 5 and 6

Character and Fitness is a semi-autobiographical novel about an unemployed social justice lawyer and his nurse girlfriend living in a shitty apartment complex behind a strip mall in suburban Philadelphia, the birthplace of our democracy. The novel explores the alienation and estrangement that working class, thinking people feel in America. The characters inhabiting this novel are trying to make their lives about something more than simply making money, which makes them strangers in a strange land. Tune in every month for another installment.


 “There’s nothing going on out there. Nothing at all.”

“You’re just being negative,” she says.

“I’m not just being negative,” I say. “It’s just that everything is dead.”

“But look who’s coming over tonight?” she says. “Proof of something happening out there.”

 I take a long drink of my whiskey. “It’s not enough. The window’s closed. There’s going to be alien archaeologists down here in 500 years, going through all my stuff.”

“Oh, lucky them” she says. “Maybe they’ll find your underwear.”

“They’d be lucky to find my underwear!”

“Bring that whiskey over here,” she says. “You’re going to make a good old man someday.”

I walk the bottle over to the kitchen and top her off. Short black skirt with those long legs leading down to bare feet and red-painted toenails. Easy access, hot sexuality, but can’t let it get to me. I have to stay strong. If not for me, then for all the pessimistic children out there. “I wish it were different,” I say, going back over to the dining table. “But the outlook is bleak.”

“I’m going to agree with you,” she says. “Part because yes, the outlook is bleak, but mostly because it’s going to be entertaining for me to watch you try and out-negative yourself.”

 “I didn’t get another job today and resent my life.”

“And so what else?”

 “I haven’t had a good slice of watermelon in five years. Something’s wrong with the watermelon. They’re all bitter now.”


 “And so excuse me,” I say. “For perhaps being resentful at the fact that I’ve been forced to live my life in the dying embers of a dying world. A world in which…” and finally have to start laughing at myself. “I can’t even find a stupid ass job.”

“Gawd, you’re moodier than a chick, Neal,” she says chomping on a piece of whiskey ice. “I don’t want to be one of those couples where every conversation isn’t about what it’s about, but some kind of emotional frustration.”

“Okay, I’m bummed about those rejections.”

“So am I,” she says. “For you and for me because I have to deal with you.”

“Didn’t you get the memo about being quietly supportive?”

“It’s a party night and you’re being a drag.”

“Okay, but what if that’s my honest opinion?”


“That the picture is bleak and there’s nothing going on out there.”

“Nope,” she says, sipping her whiskey. “I think that there’s actually momentum for something new to get born.”

“That’s an oddly abstract way to put it…”


Momentum? What’s that?”

“What about your stupid football?”

“What about my stupid football?”            

She steps out of the kitchen with the whiskey in her hand, those red toenails and long legs killing me. “Uh, right on, dude,” she says in that dumb male voice. “We got the mo…Kick the field goal, go in with the mo…Get a couple first downs, get the mo back.”

“You know, just for the record, Rachel, I really don’t sound like that.”

“Okay, whatever,” she says, going back into the kitchen. “But people affect people, okay? One person does something, and the next person does something, and then there’s something going on…”

“Or not.”

 “That’s true,” she says. “Could be positive, could be negative. It’s like, say, for example, you could have this amazingly cool woman getting ready for a little party, but then this totally negative boyfriend killing the mood.”

“Try not to speak in abstractions,” I say. “They’re hard for me to follow.”

“You’re right, sorry,” she says, “You’re the DJ, Neal. You help make the mood.”

“But what if there is no mood?”

“There’s always a mood.”

“Alright, so what if the mood is like, uh…corporations and money?”
            “Then change the music.”

“What do you want to hear?”

“Play some Dead Kennedys,” she says.

I get up and go through our collection. We had a friend burn all of his old punk rock vinyl onto CD’s for us. He used to spin records at a bar on the Lower East Side on Sundays, but then the bar went A-list and they told him not to come back. I put on the Dead Kennedys: Holiday in Cambodia.

“Now you’re doing something,” she yells out. “So you been to school for a year or two and know you’ve seen it all… Hey, Neal, take Zola out to pee before Nancy gets here.”

”You got it, baby.”

I slug down the rest of my whiskey, grab Zola’s leash and head out the door. It’s so much more fun playing at being dark and negative than it is actually being dark and negative. The real stuff gets old, wears you down. Alienation and depression are cool and sexy and all that, but in the end they just ain’t all that they’re cracked up to be. We go down the concrete steps together…Outside of the one time that Rachel and I made out on them after an argument, I haven’t had the best associations with these steps. They’ve either meant that I was going to Target, or to sit in Starbucks to stare at cars, or to get the catalogues out of the mailbox, or to take a cigarette break next to the dumpster after a morning of staring at the computer. But now the stairs don’t seem so bad. They just seem like stairs, that’s all. Their integrity remains intact. We meander across the parking lot over to the little doggy whiz area by the fence. I let her off the leash so she can sniff around. It’s past twilight, dark now, the glow of televisions emanating from the apartments all around. I pull out a cigarette, light it and sort of drift along with the smoke, feeling good about our little party tonight, happy that we’ve put something together, insisted on staying Boho in the land of speed bumps. I bend over to pick up Zola’s poop, feeling good about using a bio-degradable bag, when I see something that nearly takes my breathe away.

A boy, about 12 years old, sitting alone on the curb, head in his hands, staring down at the asphalt.

My father went to prison when I was about 12. He died six years ago. I was alone in the apartment the day he got sentenced. The phone call came and it was his voice on the other end saying that they had hit him with six years. I would have to make it without a father now, figure it out on my own. My mom was at work, waitressing at the Ramada Inn. I’m not sure why, but felt an intense need to get outside. I walked about quarter mile down from the apartment complex we were living in—a lot like the one I’m living in now—and sat on the curb. I was there for maybe four hours. Sometimes crying, sometimes thinking about my life. I don’t know…I don’t think there are any real words for those moments. Shattered isolation, maybe, where you feel cast out from everything.

There are images of ourselves that we carry around, and that image of that 12-year old boy sitting alone on that curb is mine. At first, that image of myself made me angrier than anything else. Made me want to lash out at the world. But as I got older, our relationship changed and I made him something like a promise. A promise to him that I would fight against the things that happened to him. And over time, the image of that boy got mixed up with the images of a lot of other people, so that now when I think of him, I don’t even see me anymore, but sort of everyone. And I think that boy wanted me to see things that way. It took me a long time to figure it out, but that’s what he was always trying to tell me: that we’ve all had to walk alone outside and go sit on the curb.

            I drop my cigarette, grind it into the asphalt, then put Zola back on her leash and start walking over. I know that we’re supposed to leave kids alone these days, but I don’t care. This whole gig can’t always be about fear. He startles when we get to him, leaning way back like Zola might bite him. “Don’t worry, she’s nice.”

            He’s wearing a big blue Giants jersey, the expensive official version. I can hear yelling from inside the apartment behind him, but someone bought him a present once.

“You a Giants fan?”

He studies me suspiciously.

“I played quarterback for the New York Giants three years ago.”

“For real?”

“Nah, but I was a running back in high school…Freshman year played running back and corner. You play? You look running backish.”

He doesn’t say anything, but sort of sneers. I can see him trying to be tough—sad part being that he’s already pretty good at it.

“Yeah, anyway,” I say. “I don’t even like the Giants that much. They don’t have any heart.”

“They got heart.”

“I’m a Steelers fan. That’s a team that plays with heart.”

“Giants got heart.”

“Yeah, I don’t know, maybe.” The way the shadows cut across his face is ghost-like, eyes hidden away in the dark. I remember something my boss once said to me about our clients being sentenced to prison before they were born. “Zola here’s a Saints’ fan, she’s from New Orleans. Super Bowl Champs.”

He scoffs. Everything is stupid.

 “She’s cool, you want to pet her?”


“Yeah, a lot of kids are scared of dogs.”

“I ain’t scared of dogs.”

“Yeah, there’s this little girl who lives in the apartment over there…Real little girl. Won’t even pet her.”

He scoffs, but then slowly starts to reach out…I accidentally, as far as I can tell, let the leash go and before he can even get to her, Zola jumps up on him and licks him in the face. He smiles and laughs aloud, brightening up the parking lot. Lo and behold: there’s a 12-year-old boy in there. Who woulda thunk it? “Wow, she hardly ever likes anybody,” I say. “There must be something special about you.” I let Zola jump on him for a little more, then pull her back. “So hey, see right there where that tiny-ish girl all in black is walking up the stairs right now? We’re right in the apartment to the left…If you ever want to throw the football or anything, I’m always up for a game.”

He pulls back again, once more with suspicion.

“Oh, yeah, that’s right…It’s all video games with you guys now. You don’t even throw the football around anymore.”

“There ain’t even no place to play around here.”

“We can play right here in the parking lot.”

“They won’t let you.”

“There’s that basketball court across from Target…” and hear the local news broadcaster’s voice inside my head: and the pedophile lured him to the abandoned basketball court! “Tell your mom, dad, bring some pals, whatever, and we’ll get a game going.”

“It’s all busted up.”

“Maybe for basketball.”


 “Alright, then. Take care of yourself, okay?”


And what the purpose of that was, I have no idea. I’ve been told all my life about the warm and fuzzy feeling that we’re supposed to get from trying to help other people out, but the only thing that ever for sure gave me a warm and fuzzy feeling was a big fat whiskey. Accordingly, we run back up the stairs…

“And so I’m a cold heartless bitch because I won’t let them talk to me like that?” I hear Nancy say as I walk into the apartment.

“It means you got them running scared, girly,” Rachel says. “You’re for real. You’re actually out there doing something.”

“What are you two dames yackin’ about?” I say, going to pour myself a stiff drink.

            “Neal!” Nancy jumps up from her chair at the dining table and gives me a big hug. They’ve turned down the lights and lit candles, so that the apartment has a warm glow. There are olives on the table, a bottle of a red wine that Nancy brought and the woven place mats that Rachel picked up in Mexico. It’s a nice scene, and a more evolved man would appreciate it solely for its niceness, but the main thing for me is that there are two really hot chicks in my apartment.

            “This is one smart girl you brought over,” Rachel says.

            “Oh, yeah, I know…Super-smart,” I say.

“Rachel is incredible,” Nancy says, sitting back down at the table with her.

“Oh, yeah, I know…Super-incredible,” I say.

Rachel analyzes me for a second, bites her lip and smiles. It’s not that I was thinking ménage, but what am I supposed to do—pretend like the thought didn’t cross my mind? Yeah, I was thinking ménage. Who the hell wouldn’t? You see it right in front of your face and the picture springs to life, so to speak. I don’t know when we all signed our names in general support of the sexual thought police, but you won’t find my John Hancock on there. No way. Only bad things come from sexual dishonesty and repression. Besides that, I’m a Latino. We’re passionate, sensual people.

Rachel shakes her head at me like: You’re a bad boy, but keep up the good work. There is a deep trust between us. We love and respect each other. And the truly radical thing is that our relationship really is as simple as that.

“Play some music, Nealy boy.”

 “You got it, baby.”

I take my whiskey over to the CD player and start going through the collection. There’s always the tendency to see the music of your youth as the music, but it seems like punk was the last time that you could be sincere, angry, or sincerely angry without being made to feel like there was something wrong with you. As I pick through the CD’s, I eavesdrop on the conversation that goes like fine wine with the music that first spoke to my troubled young soul. I’ve always loved pissed-off women. The ones who don’t talk about clothes, men, or feel compelled to soften all the sharp edges of the world. They’re the most misunderstood creatures on two legs, not fitting in any one role and forever going against the grain. They’re harder than most men because they always have to fight for a place to stand, but softer than most women because they keep their hearts open to the bigger tragedies of our species. They never get to walk on the established path, but always have to keep hacking through the jungle, carving out a space for themselves every day. They are people who refuse to be taken down. And so when they come together, regardless of age or whatever differences, there’s a recognition between serious adventurers, two female warriors on the battlefield of life.

“Don’t even get me started,” Rachel says. “Sex In The City makes me embarrassed to have a vagina…”

I come to a CD with compilation written on it. It could be a good move, so that I don’t have to keep getting up and changing the music. I want to ensconce with these two chicks, smoke some weed, throw in my two cents. I put it on and the apartment fills with the modern-day hipster equivalent of I Gave My Love A Cherry…Dreamy art school lyrics with wafting guitar chords coming together in an ironical play of fantastical meaninglessness, unless you’re so inside the inside that you can grasp the thrice-removed commentary on the little girls with penises in Henry Darger. Or maybe global warming and world hunger, I can’t really tell.

Ohmygawd, Neal,” says Rachel. “Please take this off.”

 “This is my new music,” I say, turning it up. “I’ve changed. I’ve mellowed out. You need to stop being so angry.”

“It’s the soundtrack of apathy,” she says.

“But I thought something was happening out there,” I say. “Momentum toward the birth of the new or whatever.”

“There are such things as bad detours,” she says.

“Like the one we’re on now,” I say.

She smiles to me sweetly, like I’m a dick.

Nancy leans over to her. “What do you mean, Rachel?” The young femme, older femme dynamic in full swing. “What do you mean by bad detour?”

“Oh, you know, the bullshit that ends up taking us nowhere,” she says, crossing her legs and starting a joint. “We would have been there marching with Martin Luther King if the Civil Rights movement wasn’t a pastiche of the Spanish Civil War, and so totally would have fought in the Spanish Civil War, if it weren’t a tired homoerotic remake on the French Communards, and oh for sure would have joined the Paris commune, if it weren’t a bourgeois commentary on the peasant revolts of Europe and will you please change the music now, Neal?”

“You’re just being negative,” I tell her.

“Are we really going to be that couple?”

            “Well, I’m evidently moody as a chick,” I say.

“Well, girly, when you get done with your period,” she says. “Can you please change this music?”

“Fine.” I go through the collection, pull out Black Flag’s Damaged and slap it on. Maddeningly, she nods her head to it, passes the joint to Nancy and with the whiskey dangling in her hand, mouths the words to Gimme Gimme Gimme in the most feminine carefree way so that it’s a like a reverse cooption of the pseudo-tough guy manhood that I was trying to thrust into the vibe. Standing here, like a loaded gun, waiting to go off


I throw the ball against the Target wall: Zola chases it down the dirt path, brings it back to Rachel. Rachel throws the ball against the Target wall: Zola chases it down the dirt path, brings it back to me. I throw the ball against the wall: Zola chases it down the path, brings it back to Rachel. I wipe the sweat off my forehead and look up at the sky a as a plastic bag from California Pizza Kitchen drifts by like a tumbleweed.

“This isn’t working for my hangover.”

“We’re not 24 anymore,” she says.

“Yeah, I know, baby,” I say, throwing the ball against the wall.

“Hey, Neal…What’s Legal Success?”


“Legal Success?”

“Oh, that’s right…It’s like a job listings thing…Why?”

“I don’t know,” she sighs. “I saw it on the credit card bill this morning…$185?”

I need to switch the credit cards to all on-line so that we don’t get the statement in the mail: not because I want to hide anything from her, but because I know it bums her out to deal with it. “I signed on for a free trial,” I say. “I guess it’s not so free anymore.”

“Do you want to keep it?” she asks, throwing the ball against the wall.

“No, not for $185,” I say. “It’s not that good.”

“Are you sure?”


I can see her thinking about asking me about another bill-related item, but then deciding that she would prefer not to. It is the way of our lives: a persistent low-grade preference not to think what we’re about to think, deal with what we’re about to deal with, or do what we’re about to do. Our lives don’t fit who we are.

“What else was on there?” I ask.

“I don’t know, something called Westlaw?”

“That’s so I can do legal research,” I say, throwing the ball against the wall. “In case any thing comes up, someone needs something…But we can get rid of it.”

“No, you should keep that then,” she says, “Something could come up.”

“No, it’s not happening, It’s not worth it.”

“But you need to be able to do your work.”

“Get rid of it. Fuck it.”

She looks over at me…

“I didn’t mean it that way,” I say. “Hangover talking.”

 She keeps staring at me…

I can see the wheels turning, mind spinning, a slight clenching of the fists, tightening of the jaw and a determination that this moment is no longer acceptable as it stands. I know her thoughts. I can see it in her eyes: I will no longer spend one more second of my precious life talking about credit card bills while throwing a ball against the back wall of a fucking Target. This is not you. It is not me. It is not us. “Okay, so you stay poor, broke and sporadically unemployed,” she says. ”A dedicated fighter for all that’s good and soulful, but completely unrecognized and you never make any money, like Vincent Van Gogh…At the same time, all the people in law school who went just to get rich—absolutely get rich and live fabulous lives. They buy great apartments in Manhattan, get their own parking space, go shopping at Bloomies on the weekends and get awards from whoever gives you guys awards.”

             “But then after you die,” she says, throwing the ball against the wall. “All kinds of people start coming forward and telling stories…No, that’s not what happens, they find your little backpack with a diary in it talking about all the people that you helped—yeah—and then those people start coming forward and telling stories and it’s independently confirmed by some kind of ethnographer…Yeah, that’s it…You were like a wandering kung fighter for the disenfranchised and dispossessed, took on the system and stood up to The Man…You become an inspiration, a symbol of resistance in a dark time.”

“I see,” I say, throwing the ball against the wall.

“But now the other side,” she says. “You take the train up to New York in a couple weeks, right? You’re sitting in our old café in the Lower East Side, having your coffee, being cool and sexy, and some kids ask you to be in their film. It’s a short little thing, but you’ve always supported DIY culture so you do it. Plus, you don’t have to meet anybody for like another 30 minutes.”

“What are my plans for the day?”

“You’re going to go shopping for a sweater, then go to high tea at a fancy hotel.”

“I always wanted to go to a high tea!”

“I know, that’s why I said it….”

“Thanks for that one, sweet.”

“No problem, and so then like four months later, right, this famous director is up late at night doing coke with his assistant and sees their short little film on public access TV. He immediately recognizes Neal de la Vega as having the IT factor.”

“Cool,” I say. “I always wanted to have the IT factor.”

“And now get this, Nealy. He calls you up and begs you to come to Hollywood and be the star in his next movie.”

“Me, an overfed long haired leaping gnome, the star of a Hollywood movie?”

“Oh, I love that song. Spill the wine…duh duh duh…” and throws the ball against the wall. “Okay, now, the movie is this huge success so by this time next year, you’re like one of the most famous men in the world. And it’s not a totally soulless fame, either, but more like a Johnny Depp0type of thing. People think you’re intense. A cool guy who has it all. Money, fame, success, apartments in Paris, NYC, London…”

“Hey, real quick, would you ever have plastic surgery?” I throw the ball against the wall.

“Is money an object? Do I have money?”

“No. Yes. It’s not an object.”

“Oh, yeah, for sure. I’m going to have a face lift when I’m 50,” she says. “My mother had jowls. I can’t have jowls. No more interrupting...”

“Okay, but I have to tell you, the Paris New York London life is sounding pretty good.”

“But it’s a life lived for yourself,” she says. “Sure, you go to great parties, but when you die, that’s it. You might have entertained people, distracted them a little, but that’s all.” She throws the ball against the wall and Zola lets it bounce over her head so she can play more at chasing it. “You’re kind of like that ball for Zola.”


“So which is it?” she says. “A meaningful life of good work, or New York Paris London?”

“Can I ask a question?”


“In regard to the first scenario where I’m like a wandering Kung Fu social justice fighter who goes thoroughly unappreciated during life,” I say, throw the ball against the wall. “After I die, is it just that I’m famous? Or do I actually have a real impact on the human condition?”

“You’re asking me if you’re going to help save the world?”

“Yeah, pretty much.”

“Let’s take the former,” she says. “You inspire people, you’re cool, you’re hip, college kids have posters of you on their walls, but at the end of the day, you’re just a famous guy.”

“Okay, then I’ll be Johnny Depp.”

“I appreciate your honesty,” she says, throwing the ball against the wall. “Now take the latter and let’s say that the work you do, though unrecognized, has a real impact on human consciousness. People open their minds, have better sex, war stops, pot’s legalized, the environment is saved, Bikini Girls With Machine Guns becomes the national anthem and nurses finally get the respect that we deserve.”

“Okay, I’ll do it,” I say. “Now what that does it mean?”

“I’m not really sure,” she says, picking up the ball. “But it was a good one, don’t you think?”

“Totally, took my mind of my hangover.”
            We get to the apartment and I go in to the closet to check my email. I don’t want to look for jobs today, but I think I have to. It’s like you never escape it. When you have a job, then days off are actually days off. But when you don’t, it’s always right there. Every moment could be spent sending out another resume, and that resume could be the resume that finally puts your life back on track. I’m tired of not being free of this thing. I just want it over with…



“Can you bring me the toilet paper? There’s a roll in the kitchen.”

            “Yeah, yeah…” I go into the kitchen, grab a roll from on top of the fridge and take it into the bathroom.

            “Jesus, Rachel.”

            “Jesus was a nice Jewish boy!”

No matter how close you are, there are still some things that you don’t need to see…I start walking back to the closet, then stop to check out the credit card statement, which is lying in the middle of the table next to three empty bottles of wine, a pot pipe, pictures from the Mexico trip and an ashtray full of cigarette butts.

 “Hey, did you order something from Overstock?”

“What?” she yells from the bathroom.

“Overstock dot com…$95?”

“I bought boots.”


“They were on super sale!”

“Yeah, but...”


“Forget it.”



“You better say it!”

“No, I’m not going to say it,” I say. “But I think it’s pretty unfair…”

“What’s unfair?”

“That you’re giving me heat when you’re going on line and buying $95 boots!”

“I wasn’t giving you heat!”

“You’re out there grilling me about Legal Success, when you’re buying $95 boots.”

“I have nothing decent to wear when we go out!”

“When do we go out?”

“We have Nancy’s thing coming up…”

“Oh yeah,” I mumble. “That’s going to be a lot fun. Bunch of political bullshit.”


“Nothing,” I yell back. “It just brings up a lot of issues…”

“What issues?”

“I don’t want to talk about them.”


“I said I don’t want to talk about them.”

“You better tell me!”

“You’ve got a job, I don’t. The relationship is out of balance.”

“Are you on that again?”

“I said that I didn’t want to talk about it!”

“Then don’t talk about it!”

“Don’t tell me what to talk about it. You get to go off on the credit card and I don’t! It’s bullshit!”

“Whatever, Neal. Just get over it.”

“I’m fucking sick of you!”

“I’m fucking sick of you!”

            I throw the statement down on the table and go back into the closet. I’m sick of this shit. Tired of it. I pull up my inbox and there’s an email from the Civil Rights Guild. Great. Fantastic. Another rejection. If it was good news, they would have called. Whatever. Fuck it. Bring it on…

            ”RACHEL, COME HERE!”


            “COME HERE!”

            “I’M COMING!”

            I have to read it over again…I can’t believe it. They’ve invited me for an interview! I’ve got a real shot at this thing! I’m back in the game!

            “What is it?”

“The Civil Rights Guild wants me to come interview! Can you believe it?”

“Like THE Civil Rights Guild?”

“Yeah, at headquarters in DC…”

Ohmygawd, Neal,” she says, throwing her arms around me.

I show her the email and we read it aloud together, exorcising the demons of the last eight months. Everything feels different: the closet seems bigger, lighting less annoying, the whole of the apartment quaint and intimate, like a memory that we’re already looking back on. I feel like my old self again talking about the work they do: constitutional impact litigation, First Amendment, Fourteenth Amendment, and Equal Protection…I even make a lame joke about how I didn’t read Bruce Ackerman and Cass Sunstein for nothing. As she goes into the kitchen to put something together to celebrate, I write them back confirming the interview next Tuesday. I wasn’t even going to apply because I thought it was too competitive. I kept telling myself that it was a waste of time. But now here we are one interview away from the Civil Rights Guild in Washington DC. The work they do is incredible. I could easily spend the next 25-years there. And even if I only spent seven years there, it would still be enough to get me over the hump so that this would never happen to us again.

 She calls me into the living room. I turn off the computer, get up and go in. An act that I’ve done thousands of times, but that feels lighter now, like I can leave the job search behind and just be where I am for a few moments. She’s cleaned off the table and replaced the mess from last night’s party with two coffees in our nice cups and a plate of Rugelach cookies that her grandmother mailed to us. Her hair is a little neater than it was before and she’s taken off her shoes.

“I’m proud of you, baby.”

“That means everything to me, Rachel,” I say, sitting down. “It’s for us, you know that, right?”

 “I know it is,” she says. “I know that’s why you’ve tried so hard.”

“I just want us to have a good life.”

“I know,” she says, sitting down. “I just need you to know that I love you no matter what happens…This just proves how close you are to getting something great. If not this, something else will come along. And if not, fine.”

“But I should still try really hard for this job?”

“You better work your ass off, lawyer boy.”

Wet sip our coffees, eat our cookies and allow ourselves to dream about nice things. A cool apartment in a cool neighborhood. A real park where we can take Zola for walks and throw her the ball. A good gym that we could join together and get back in shape. A ceramics studio, Spanish classes, a decent kitchen where she could cook again and furniture that we could call our own. Good adult things. Quiet things. Things that people don’t really advertise about themselves, but that at certain moments can be sweeter than the deepest conversation that any philosopher ever had. We talk about things like whether it’s better to buy a couch on-line and have it delivered or rent a truck and go to a used shop…There are good deals for new couches, but sometimes you can find these great old vintage ones at Salvation Army…And it’s more fun to rent a truck…We could make a whole day of it…And the critical issue of dinner parties and how we have to buy new cups…If we’re going to do Mexican, then we might want glasses for margaritasIf we’re going to do wine, then we’ll need new glasses for wine…And from there we move into what I’m going to wear to the interview and how I absolutely must get a new shirt and tie…Nordstrom’s RackWe’ll take the bus on Monday...I’m thinking a blue tie, yeah, definitely a blue tie, maybe a pattern this time…And it’s wonderful because it’s normal. And hopeful. And mature. And adult. And not the adult that comes from just getting older, but the adult that comes from doing battle with yourself.

“And so I almost forgot, Daniel bought a new car…”

 Fuck, right when I was starting to feeling strong and free.

She smiles, puts her hand on my shoulder and says, “Hey, it’ll give you guys a chance to hang out…”

The last thing I want to do in DC is see her brother. He’s a millionaire and I’m a loser, which is one thing, but outside of the usual recriminations there are other resentments at work here. He used to be in a band in high school. Rachel told me that he would hang out in his room writing poetic lyrics and listening to Pink Floyd, really wounded stuff, but then traded his heroes for ghosts and became a real estate developer. The upshot is that he doesn’t like me, which is fine. I don’t mind being not liked. If he were at least a Reagan-type hedonist, then we could go out for cocktails on Capital Hill, get drunk and argue about regulation. But he’s shut down and whether or not he knows it—and he knows it—really rude to me. It ruins any chances for fun on this trip, but if it means that Rachel will have a car to drive to work instead of having to take the bus, then it’s not even a question.

“Forward me his email,” I say. “I’ll take care of it.”

“You want to hear something funny?” she asks, breaking off a piece of candy and popping it in her mouth.


“It’s been parked in front of his house for three months. He didn’t even think of lending it to me, until my Bubbe gave him shit for it…”

            “That was when the left was the left?”


We went to her cousin’s Bar Mitzvah’s a couple years ago where her tiny 85-year old grandmother held curt from the end of the table. She sat there scolding the young kids for only caring about cell phones and those new music things ya stick in yer ears. Back in my times in New Yawk, she said. We used to stand up for things. We used stand up for the dignity and respect of all peoples. Not just for the Jews, but everybody. Back in my time in New Yawk, that’s when people stood for something. Back in my time in New York, THAT WAS WHEN THE LEFT WAS THE LEFT.


The Brooklyn Rail

MAR 2011

All Issues