I always thought a kind of permanence awaited me in the future: I’d grow up, find my niche, and settle down. The questions of my youth would dissolve into a mature understanding of how the world works. But now I am a twenty-one-year-old woman fresh out of college with hazy goals of foreign travel and falling in love. A fear is roiling in me that I will never find peace and certainty.
I have been told that the secret to happiness is to live as if you were going to die tomorrow, but this is obviously impractical. If I truly lived my life this way, I wouldn’t churn out job applications so I can earn money and financial independence. I’d stop washing the dishes, doing the laundry, and making plans, and instead drink all day and live from one spontaneous moment to another.
I am trying to be patient. I wait, hoping that fulfilling work will find its way to me through the muck of daily existence. I have been waiting for years, and now I have a college degree in creative writing and eleven thousand dollars of student-loan debt and no job. I am waiting for a companion whom I will love and who will love me and know how to touch my body and will stay up until three o’clock in the morning with me, talking about books or watching cartoons.
I’ve met this guy who might have all the answers I am searching for. He tells me that the present moment is all we have.
“There is no next,” he says in the basement of his parents’ house, both of us half naked, him on top of me. Shortly after I graduated from college and moved into my father’s home, the guy with all the answers returned from a seven-month backpacking trip along the West Coast. We met in a bar after a friend and I attended the open mic that the guy with all the answers hosts at a local bookstore. My friend left our table to get another beer, leaving me to sip my Stella in silence and wait for the alcohol to calm my socially anxious mind, and that’s when the guy approached me and asked, “Do you play any musical instruments?” A week later he kissed me after I made brownies for him, and again when I was leaving his house, and again when I returned to his front door to ask him to move his friend’s car, which was parked behind mine, blocking me in.
“There’s only the present, over and over again,” he says. “There’s only now, now, now, now.” He dropped out of college after one semester and traveled off and on for three years — during which he lived on the streets and became involved in the Occupy movement. He is now planning to return to the West Coast to finish his undergraduate studies.
The guy with all the answers has traveled to Spain, Malaysia, Japan. He survived cancer in high school and has the scars to prove it, and he swears his hair was much softer before chemo. He speaks fluent Spanish. He cooks chicken korma for me. He likes it when I bite him, hard. Entranced, I tell myself to live in the moment, to let go of expectations, to focus only on the fact that right now this beautiful man in front of me wants me and compliments me sweetly.
Maybe to find happiness I need to alter my state of mind. I bought a beer for the first time at a supermarket in Paris just before turning twenty-one, on my first and only journey abroad. I told myself I would drink the way the French do — not to get drunk but to enjoy the flavors and the communion with others at a meal. But since I returned from France last summer, my drinking has slowly evolved into something else: I drink when I am alone. I drink while I write. I drink merlot from Walmart because it’s a cheap, fast way to get drunk, and when I’m drunk, everything makes sense.
In the morning, with a sober mind and a headache, I remember how I understood everything the night before, but now I don’t.
The guy with all the answers tells me I’m special, that he’s never before felt this close to anyone this soon. I fall for him, fast. I want to make love to him every night. I want to follow him to the other side of the country. I’ve known him two weeks.
The first time I smoked marijuana, during my second year of college, I didn’t get high immediately, and my throat burned. I drank glass after glass of milk until the pain stopped. I reclined on my friend’s couch, thinking, This is stupid. Finally it hit me, and I couldn’t stop laughing. Then my notion of the structure of time changed. I saw how time exists in blocks, how the past is merely a smaller block inside the larger block of the present. Nothing ever ends. It just shrinks.
I drive south for the weekend to visit my aunt. At the age of thirty-eight she had her first and only child, a son. I haven’t visited her in years. My cousin, who is now four years old, is afraid of me and clings to his mother’s leg when I arrive.
“Where’s your husband?” I ask, after I’ve been at the house for almost three hours and have yet to see any sign of him.
“Oh, he had a head injury” is all my aunt replies. I can’t figure out if she’s serious or if this is some kind of euphemism. I elect not to ask any more questions.
Back home, my mother asks me if my aunt said anything about my uncle.
“She said he had a head injury.”
My mother explains that my uncle has had three DUIs in the past year. He embezzled from his employer. He’s been telling my aunt that he’s going to the gym when really he’s going to strip clubs and spending money he doesn’t have.
The guy with all the answers smokes pot almost daily and tells me about the times he’s done molly, DMT, cocaine — “everything except heroin,” he claims. He says he doesn’t “get” monogamy. He says love is just dopamine anyway, that there is no distinction between love and infatuation. He says he’s open to everything, no filters. This scares me.
Four years ago, not long after she delivered my cousin, my aunt was hospitalized for excruciating headaches and had emergency surgery for a brain aneurysm. I want to believe that this sort of event would have shocked my uncle out of autopilot; that instead of waking up and groaning about another day of work and the demands of fatherhood, my aunt’s husband would wake up every morning and say to her, “I am so glad you’re alive.”
So I listen to music. I seek out songs that capture the essence of what I’m feeling. Sometimes I find one that has what I am looking for, and I play it over and over again. I play it so loud my eardrums ache and the floor vibrates from the bass. My dance must end eventually, but when I’m dancing, I don’t think about it. Then the music stops, and I stand there, my heart thumping, my sweat drying, and in the noiseless void I feel the ending even more deeply than before.
The guy with all the answers picks me up from the airport when I return from a two-week trip to New York City. Valentine’s Day passed while I was away, so he has brought me a white rose and cupcakes from the bakery where he works.
“Do you trust yourself?” he asks me.
“Not really,” I respond. We are driving to a spot where we can watch the planes fly overhead, which I’ve never done before. We park at a recycling center behind the airport, and he convinces me to jump the fence onto airport property. I am afraid, but I do it anyway.
“You are so brave,” he whispers into my ear after I leap from the fence and into his arms.
Before any planes pass overhead, a security truck approaches and shines a floodlight on us. We run back to his car. Once we’re on the road, I beg him: “Please take me home and fuck me! Please!” He happily obliges.
I collect books in which the characters search for the same meaning and connection I look for in my own life. The books I brought home from college fill all the shelves in my father’s house, with the remainder stacked in the corners of my bedroom. Still I bring more home from the library and delve into their stories. Difficult questions are grappled with. Lessons are learned. But this is not life. Real life has no beginning and end. For books to imitate life, one must assume that after the final page comes more strife. After answers comes more doubt. Friends and lovers will fight. They will suffer. They will perish.
The guy with all the answers laughs dismissively when I tell him I got my first job interview, at the Outback Steakhouse. He says, “Text me, babe,” whenever we part, and I do, though it often takes him an entire day to reply to my messages. When I ask him about it, he says, “I like getting texts. I don’t like responding to them.”
We make plans to go hiking, but when the day comes, I can’t get in touch with him. I finally reach him long after the sun has set, and he tells me he is feeling melancholy because one of his other girls is mad at him. I want to tell him to go fuck himself. Instead I offer my sympathy.
I can’t stay mad at him. When he’s with me, he’s really with me. He looks me in the eye and isn’t constantly checking his phone for messages from other people. I tell him I can be shy and awkward and sometimes I lapse into silence, a trait I inherited from my father, who has Asperger’s. The guy with all the answers tells me that’s OK and that he likes me regardless.
I tell him about my past relationships. My first boyfriend, whom I met in college, wanted to date other girls in addition to me, but he never did, because I insisted we remain exclusive. We broke up after almost a year together. He paid me a surprise visit near the end of summer break, and when I saw him standing there on my doorstep, I knew my feelings for him had changed.
My second boyfriend had a wife, who knew about me. She encouraged our relationship as long as she remained his primary partner, but he told me he was tired of dealing with her panic attacks and wanted to leave her and start over with me. I told him I loved him, because I thought if I didn’t, he would leave me, which he did anyway.
I tell the guy with all the answers that what’s happening in my aunt’s marriage terrifies me. I tell him that my parents divorced when I was seven; that my mother then married — and divorced — an alcoholic who lost his job and lied about it and who spent his evenings staring into the woods with a beer in his hand; that my father moved in with a new partner who not only spent my father’s money on an SUV and a pool and liposuction but forged checks in my father’s name; that even though both my parents’ current partners treat them decently, it’s hard for me not to believe that betrayals and lies are inevitable in relationships.
The guy with all the answers holds me and says he wants to bring brightness into my life. He assures me that I am beautiful and deserving of love. When he says this and then kisses me on the ear, there is nothing he can do that I won’t forgive.
Eventually he takes me hiking on a mountain that I have never visited, even though it is only twenty minutes from the town where I grew up. At the top I go to the edge and gaze at the scene below. I look back and see him smiling at me.
“Make it last,” he says. “You only get your first view once.”
We sit under some trees and eat lunch. I tell him I’ve been reading Albert Camus and thinking a lot about how unpredictable the future is, which frightens me.
“But that’s why life is so fun!” he responds. “You never know what’s going to happen. I think I’m addicted to not knowing how it’s all going to turn out.”
One night we have sex without a condom. He has a low sperm count because of chemo, and I have a hormonal disorder that makes me unlikely to get pregnant, and we’re both young and dumb and impulsive, so we risk it.
Later I whisper to him, “I’m going to want you to be my boyfriend exclusively, and you’re not going to want that.” We’ve talked about the “boyfriend” label. He keeps saying it’s too early. I know I shouldn’t try to force it, but my anxiety about our relationship grows daily.
“Maybe we should take it slow and be platonic for a while,” he says.
I want to discuss it further. I want him to promise me everything is going to be OK. But he’s asleep.
The next day I send him a text message, because I know he’s at work and won’t answer his phone, and, besides, I am afraid to say aloud what I know is for the best: “I don’t think we should spend time together anymore. We obviously want different things.”
His response: “All right. I was going to say we should be platonic, but it’s all good. Best of luck!”
I hate that he didn’t try to get me to stay. To him I must be just another now in the now, now, now that is always passing. What happened to my being special?
I hate that I want him to try to get me to stay. I’m still clinging to what is temporary.
I send a response: “Fuck, I miss you already. Also, when can I get my books back?”
Later that day I cry to my mother. I ask if she knows any pharmacies that stock Plan B, the morning-after pill. I tell her I can’t afford it, because I am an unemployed college graduate with eleven thousand dollars in student-loan debt. She gives me money to cover the cost of the pill. She tells me that she loves me more than I can ever know.
The guy with all the answers and I have a long talk. Again he says that we should be platonic. Even if he said what I want to hear from him — “I want you and only you” — I know it’s hopeless: in six months he’s driving to the West Coast, and he plans on staying there.
I spend the night on the futon in his parents’ basement while he sleeps on the twin bed on the other side of the room. In the morning he slides into my bed and puts his arms around me. He says we can be friends and still spoon.
Later he makes scrambled eggs for breakfast, and my heart is gripped by a sorrow for this moment, this now that will never be relived. I hug him and say, “I’m so sad. It’s like a weight on top of me.”
“These things pass,” he says.
“But I’ve felt it my whole life,” I tell him.
In his essay “The Myth of Sisyphus,” Albert Camus writes that “melancholy people have two reasons for being so: they don’t know or they hope.” By this he means that they are unaware of the limits of their human existence, or they hope that one day these limits will vanish and their lives will somehow improve. He calls this conflict between human desire and the reality of existence “the absurd.”
The guy with all the answers and I agree to be friends, until the next time we’re alone together and I’m sitting on top of him, stoned, saying, “I’m in love with you.” He says, “No, Lynn, we shouldn’t.”
Days later, with some alcohol flowing through us, we are nestled on his couch and watching cartoons when I kiss him on the cheek, then say, “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have done that.” He says, “You know how it is, Lynn.” But then I’m straddling him and saying, “You know you want me. It would be fun.” And he says, with a sad look, “It would be, but you don’t like me in a fun way. I can’t do that to you.”
Minutes pass. Then he’s on top of me, kissing me, and I say, “We’ve been drinking.” He says, “You’re so cute. I can’t help it,” and soon our clothes are discarded haphazardly. Then he says, “This doesn’t mean what you think it does.”
Before I leave, he says, “I’m worried I took advantage of you. I know you’re vulnerable. Don’t think this is something it’s not.” And I say, “I’ll try.”
Later in the week I bring banana bread to him while he’s working at the bakery. I tell myself I didn’t bake it for him, but really I did. He has a hickey on his neck that I didn’t give him. I feel sick to my stomach. I know I should leave, but instead I hang around the bakery until his shift ends. Once we’re outside, I start crying, and he hugs me and says he has to go; he hates to leave me like this, but there’s this rave, and someone’s waiting for him there. He walks away and doesn’t look back.
Just three months ago I was feeling absolutely terrified of finishing my last semester of college. Despite my near-constant anxiety and shyness, I had found good friends, a safe life. I didn’t want anything new.
After graduation I got together with a friend at a cafe. I had been there a dozen times before, but as usual when I go out, I felt nervous and a little ill. I couldn’t relax until my friend arrived and hugged me.
Inside, we ordered dessert and took a seat, and she gave me a present she had made for me, an artwork on brown paper rolled up and tied with a red ribbon. I unfurled it and gazed at the painting of a girl walking along a path that loops out of view behind a mountain.
Below the picture it read:
Faith and doubt both are needed — not as antagonists, but working side by side to take us around the unknown curve.
— Lillian Smith
My friend pointed to the girl and said, “Look, there’s Lynn, rounding the corner into the unknown.”
I hugged her and cried in the crowded cafe.
The guy with all the answers tells me he once got kicked out of an Asian buffet for standing by the sushi bar, high and reading Kurt Vonnegut and eating each piece of sushi as it was put out. He also says he waits years between reading Vonnegut novels “because he’s dead, and I have to make this stuff last my whole life.”
I prefer to read as much Vonnegut as I can, as quickly as I can. I would hate to go blind or die before I finish it all.
Kurt Vonnegut uses the phrase “and so on” in his novel Breakfast of Champions to acknowledge that literature lies. The book ends, but life goes on. More challenges are in store. More heartache, too.
When my aunt and four-year-old cousin come for a visit at my mother’s house, I hold my cousin and tickle him and watch with a smile as he plays with my mother’s dog, a Jack Russell terrier named Sissy. A week later my mother shows me a letter, transcribed by my aunt, that my cousin sent to the dog after the visit: “I love you, Sissy. You’re gonna miss me.”
Two days before I went to New York, the guy with all the answers and I took his dog to the park to celebrate her first birthday. He had adopted her and taken her with him on a backpacking trip through Yellowstone. This is the first time I have been jealous of a dog.
At the park we ate ice cream. He smoked a pipe packed with sage and catnip and put a birthday hat on the dog and tossed a stick for her and conversed effortlessly with other dog owners. I stayed by his side, silent.
“I wish I loved something as much as that dog loves sticks,” he said as the dog fetched the stick for the umpteenth time. When he tired of tossing the stick, he threw it over the dog-park fence. The dog ran to the fence and hovered, trying to find some way to get to the other side.
“Look, she knows something went over there, but she doesn’t remember what.” As he said this, the dog wandered away from the fence, then glanced back. She did this a few times, then raced over to us. “And then she forgets it was ever there. I wish I could live in the moment like that.”
This struck me as overwhelmingly sad.
Is the secret to happiness to stop remembering? It seems wrong to forget. Please, world that I cannot comprehend, send me confusion and storms and destruction, let me cope and heal and let go, but please, please, don’t ever let me forget.
And so on.
“I’ve been writing about you,” I tell the guy with all the answers.
“Oh, yeah? What about me?”
“I’ll let you see it eventually. I don’t use your real name.”
“What do you call me? No one’s ever written anything about me before — at least, not that I am aware of.”
As much as he emphasized the lack of inherent meaning in human existence, Vonnegut was far from a pessimist. In his collection of essays A Man without a Country, he writes, “I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, ‘If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.’ ”
Camus goes on to argue that the solution to the absurd is to live fully in the present, exhausting every opportunity presented to us in our finite lives: “The point is to live.”
After two weeks with no contact, the guy with all the answers and I go for a walk. I do not understand why he wants so many girlfriends. I think there are three, but he has never told me the exact number. Then again, I’ve never asked, because I don’t really want to know.
I would have stayed away from him for longer than two weeks, but he has my copy of Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, one of my most cherished books, and I want it back.
We stroll around his neighborhood smoking Marlboros, his dog at our side. I enjoy smoking with other people like this. It makes me feel closer to them.
I tell him that I am afraid to be alone.
“But you’re always alone,” he says. “Even when you’re in a relationship, you’re alone.”
I begin sobbing, and he puts his arm around me. I want him to love me and heal me and stay with me; instead he is saying what I have known all along: that the secret to thriving in an ever-changing world cannot be found outside myself. If I can’t keep myself company, I will never stop floundering.
Even though I’ve said it before, even though I am not sure I mean it anymore, I tell him I want to be with him.
“I know,” he says. “But that’s not in the cards for us.”
I tell him I don’t know how to be his friend without wanting more.
“You can cut me out, if that’s what’s best for you,” he says. “You can make my life better by being in it, but you’re not going to make me less happy by leaving.”
We decide to spend some time apart.
Home again, I open Letters to a Young Poet to one of my favorite passages:
You are so young, . . . and I want to beg you, as much as I can, dear sir, to be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given to you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.
I haven’t spoken to the guy with all the answers in more than a week when I attend a Zen meditation group. I sit cross-legged, facing the wall. I try to relax and follow the leader’s instruction to quiet my internal dialogue. I picture a hawk swooping down and snatching every thought from my mind.
After we meditate, there is a discussion on Zen practice. Then we recite: “Desires are inexhaustible. I vow to extinguish them.”
On my drive home the world seems more vivid and alive. I find myself grinning and feeling free from my usual anxiety. I know this will fade. I know my desires will come slinking back. But in this moment I think, If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.
It doesn’t take long for the wanting to come back. I want to be financially independent from my parents. I want my own apartment. I want a job that fulfills me and that I can be proud of. I am struggling to express who I am and what I have to offer on a one-page résumé. Everything I write feels like a lie.
I meditate for twenty minutes. With a clearer mind I browse through my father’s books and pick up Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, by Douglas Hofstadter. I flip through its pages and discover a chapter about Zen.
“In general,” Hofstadter writes, “the Zen attitude is that words and truth are incompatible, or at least that no words can capture truth.”
I’ve started praying again, after a seven-year lapse. I’m not sure to whom I pray, and I ask not for what I desire, but for guidance and the courage to listen and accept.
Six weeks go by. I lose an earring in my car, and, while searching for it, I find his wallet under the passenger seat. It takes me a while to process the smiling face staring at me from his driver’s license.
I think, I can’t not call him. I think, Maybe it’s a good time to talk to him, anyway. I landed a job at the public library, where I’ve wanted to work ever since I graduated. I signed a lease for my first apartment. I kissed someone who didn’t have all the answers. He told me that he wanted to spend as much time with me as possible, and then he changed his mind. And changed his mind again. And again. For a while I try to avoid my fears by clinging; he tries to escape his own by running away.
I call the guy with all the answers. “Guess what I found. . . . No. Your wallet. It’s been in my car for two months! . . . Yeah, I’m doing OK. I’m almost finished writing about you.”