His Exquisite and Existential Madness
The other afternoon was one of those warm fall days where the sun is so bright that it hurts, and there doesn’t seem to be much point in doing anything other than walking around the neighborhood, smiling at people and petting dogs and almost buying books and eating a slice of pizza at three different pizza parlors. So that was what I did.
There were moments where I felt incredibly jubilant to be afforded this weekday luxury, but when I realized that it came at the expense having a real job and flowing income, I became a bit depressed at my lack of importance in the world. I’m an adjunct lecturer at a city-run university, as well as a “writing specialist” (fancy terminology for tutor) at another university, and so my employers are faceless entities that don’t know I exist. But once I got down on myself, I remembered that I enjoyed A) not having to work much and B) my level of anonymity. If I were famous, as I had sort of wished to be when I was a child (which was when I reasoned I could do as good a job as JT on Step by Step and spent many hours contemplating why my parents didn’t preemptively schlep me to Hollywood to let me demonstrate my talents), I would probably be incapable of being in public without secretly hoping someone would recognize me, thereby allowing me the (absurd) pleasure of telling myself that fame hadn’t changed me while simultaneously knowing that it had, and had for the better. Or something. All this proves is that I’m an idiot, and that yesterday I was really, really bored.
I guess it was around noon when I began to just hate everything. I was on Fifth Avenue, directly in the middle of Park Slope, near the bank, contemplating whether to withdraw sixty dollars via the “quick cash” function and wishing I had worn shorts; I can’t stand denim in the warmth, but, unfortunately, I’m a chronic bad outfit chooser—that is, when it’s cold, I’ll wear nothing but a sweatshirt, and the next day I’ll make up for the gaffe by wearing a sweater and wool coat, even if it turns out to be warm—and my legs were sweaty and irritating me. Despite having just finished my third slice of pizza in an hour, I was hungry. I have friends, but there was no one to call to hang out with—all were at work.
A garbage truck rolled by, its siding rattling in the most loud and obnoxious way, and almost trapped a cyclist between it and a parked car. In an instant I saw death, but I don’t think the driver or the cyclist even noticed. A woman pushing her fat child in a stroller hit a bump, and the child fell face forward onto the sidewalk; I jumped at the opportunity for drama, though I was not sure what kind; it occurs to me now that I just wanted to be able to tell a sad and useless story about a child having gone to the hospital; in short, I wanted something—anything—to happen. But the fat child placed its hands on the pavement to help himself stand, the mother wedged him into the stroller and fastened him in, brushed dirt off his coat, and they kept walking, and I was frustrated, almost as if I had been wronged. And then it hit me: This is my life? Misery, misery—misery! What was the point?
I was about to reach into my coat pocket for my wallet, when a guy tapped me on the shoulder. “Excuse me,” he said, “but is this yours?”
I turned around and said, “No,” for no other reason than I’m the kind of person whose instinct is denial. And obviously it was an absurd response, because the guy was holding my wallet.
He narrowed his eyes, clearly confused, so I said, “Yeah, of course!” so as to erase the bizarre No I’d just said and make me seem normal. But I think this further confused him. He said, “You left it at Pino’s?”
“I know.” I said this as if I were out of breath. I wasn’t, but then again, suddenly I was—suddenly my heart was racing like I’d just sprinted down the street. “Hey,” I said, “do you mind if we change positions. The sun is at that annoying angle where it’s coming directly between my eyebrows and the tops of my sunglasses.”
“Okay,” he said, and we rotated until he was facing the street and I was facing the sushi restaurant on the ground floor of the four-story apartment buildings, whose spires now blocked out the sun.
“Much better! Makes me think of swimming in the ocean, in the middle, not near the shore, to have the sun like that on you. So I really appreciate it. Ah!” and I took deep, noisy breaths.
“Sure,” he said, “nothing to it.” He was about my age, and looked rather similar to me, I thought.
“And you’re a good guy,” I said, “to do all this for me. Really!”
“Don’t worry, it’s nothing at all.”
“No, you see,” I said, facing him again, “it’s so typical, in this day and age, and for those of our generation, I might add regretfully, to downplay common acts of kindness and courtesy. Or anyway, that’s how I see it. So, to me, no good deed goes unnoticed!”
“Well,” he said, glancing up and down the street, “I’m honored for having satisfied your good-natured temperament.”
“But life’s such a drag,” I said as if he hadn’t spoken a word, “and what better way to celebrate the fabric of life than to, in our modern world, communicate with strangers, so long as they’re perfectly reasonable people. Here, let me offer you a token of my goodwill and . . . and . . . what do you way?”
“Well, sir, grateful I am for this most unusual favor, I doubt any of it is necessary . . .”
“No reason to call me sir—in fact, refrain from it from the start! Now, you see,” I went on in an oratorical tone, “before you surprised me with your gentle act of decency, better than any man or woman has known since the days of Moses and those tablets, I was having the most critical of moments. No, I had not come home to discover my lover in bed with another man. No, I had not lost my savings in a financial scandal. Nor had I experienced the death of my mother. Instead, crazy as it may seem to you, I was having what I may term, correctly or incorrectly, an existential crisis. Some may call it a metaphysical crisis, but I prefer to call it an existential crisis, partly because I find the word less clunky and partly because it is the accurate term, as the root of my crisis, which was a crisis of being, was nothing at all. Sure, there are reasons—there must always be reasons—but what’s most important is that I was dealing purely with a matter of existence. And at the moment you tapped me on the shoulder, I had determined that my place in this world was of no consequence to anyone or anything. Are you aware of this feeling? Maybe you are, and good for you if that is the case! But it is dark and dreadfully eternal, if I may say so, for one sole reason: it is an absurd feeling, one with no basis in reality, and in no way does it suggest anything close to real suffering. In that sense, then, it is a selfish and degrading feeling, for the realization that you care about the nothingness in yourself more than what makes up the world is mean. Do you hear me? It is mean, mean!”
During my diatribe, I had been spitting a bit and inching closer and closer to the guy, and at this point I was so close that I clapped his shoulders with my arms and jostled him, but only in a friendly way.
“So you see what I am saying, thee who has saved me from despair? You must allow a payback of the most personal nature!”
He freed himself from my grasp and crossed his arms. “I’ve done my deed, and I will not allow myself to be humiliated in such a manner. All your rhetoric . . . is this a quid pro quo world we live in? To you, I see that it is. But to someone like myself, I will take no part in it. Now, please, let me be. I’ve done my part, and that’s that. Your actions, whatever they may be, and who knows to what you’re referring, as you haven’t mentioned one concrete detail—these actions are not welcome. I will not allow you to make a mockery of my simple deed.”
The defiance with which he spoke was enough to force my retreat, and so we stood there staring at each other, now far enough apart that we could not reach one another, but close enough that no person could walk between us. It was hard to tell what he was thinking, but I was in deep thought. Some schoolchildren passed around us, giggling and pushing one another.
“You know,” I said when they had passed, “it was out of the graciousness of your character that you, a complete stranger, saved me from a certain procedural bureaucratic nightmare, as they say. Just imagine, the hang up with the credit card companies! Hours and hours—wasted! I must concede that I am wrong to impose my retributive beliefs upon you, no matter how sophisticated I fancy them.”
“Thank you,” he said. “I am glad we are seeing eye-to-eye, as ironic as it may be.”
“And now that I am the clearly the one who is at fault, let me express my regret for expressing my personal matters to you with such excessive theatrics.”
“And I take your apology with no judgment,” and he nodded his head.
I nodded back, and was ready to carry on with my day with newfound spirit. I said, “And for that I am grateful. But before we part our ways, perhaps never to cross paths again, allow me one final question.”
“Most certainly,” he bowed. “You have earned that right, and I will comply with this request.”
“Pino’s is on Seventh Avenue, near Second Street, is it not?”
“And we are on Fifth Avenue, are we not?”
The guy glanced to the corner. “I knew that we were, but in order to provide you with the most truthful answer, I have confirmed it with the street sign. Indeed, we are on Fifth Avenue and First Street.”
I smiled. “And so what is of interest to me at this moment is why you neglected to hand me my wallet until now. Why, it seems that you were keen to follow me for quite some time.”
I expected the guy to be taken aback, and in the few seconds that his countenance remained stoic, I figured this was the case. But then he matched my smile and said, “That is interesting, and there is a perfectly reasonable explanation behind this development. Simply put, it is that I had to be sure.”
“Be sure of what?” I said.
“That you are part of the team.”
“Hah! I am part of nothing. I am my own person, I am myself, I am no one but me!” I tried to say this with confidence, but my exaggerations made me sound weak, and that was when the guy took another step toward me, and I stumbled to the sidewalk and into a position where the sun nearly blinded me.
“Oh, yes,” he said, nodding, “I know. In your wallet I saw your card.”
“It’s untrue,” I stammered, shielding the sun with my arm. “It proves nothing.”
“You are correct in that regard—but that is why I had to see where you were going . . . to see if you were going to Ozzie’s—”
“I was not going to Ozzie’s,” I interrupted, “I was going to the bank.”
“Oh, to the bank without your wallet, isn’t that logical!”
“You have no proof, none at all!”
He stepped forward and wagged his finger in my face, speaking spitefully now, with heated breath.
“You knew exactly what you were doing, of course you did. You were going to a stakeout at Ozzie’s, just like you have been all week at this time, and you were going to sit in the corner and comb The Lilac for clues as to Bobbins’s past, Bobbins’s whereabouts . . . Bobbins’s sheer and utter existence!”
“How dare you treat me with indignity!” I roared. “This is nothing but vile and baseless rumormongering!”
“What’s vile and baseless,” he hissed, “is the way you treat Bobbins, like he’s a toy to be wound up, tossed about, and discarded at will. You and your gang, your secret organization, children, all of you! And you know what you’re going to do? You’re going to drive him out of town. Park Slope’s most famous author—flees on account of some kids. All your talk about existence . . . with your selfish initiatives and your empty morals . . . And what you don’t know is that you must be careful . . . because . . . because he’s on to you!”
“These are lies, filthy lies!”
But the guy kept on hissing, softer and softer, “He’s onto you, he’s onto you, he’s onto you . . .”
My cellphone, vibrating in my jeans pocket, was what woke me up. The name, digitized and glowing, was what sparked my attention. Masha. When had I even given her my number?
“I wasn’t going to call you,” she said, “but I thought you might want to hear this.”
“Where are you?”
She sounded distracted. “Uptown.”
“It’s not exactly pleasant.”
“Nothing about Bobbins is pleasant. He ruined my childhood, he ruined college, and now he’s ruining my dreams.” I said this with a light laugh. I meant it as a joke, but only a half-joke.
“Well, whatever. He’s ruined all of us at one time or another. So listen. I just talked to Dave. We have to get together next week. Can you meet then?”
“I’m still on Canal Street,” I lied, “but I’ll try to get there as quickly as possible.”
“Okay. But what does that have to do with anything? We’re meeting next week. Are you even listening to me?”
“No, I know. I’ll see you then. Next week.”
We hung up, and I scooted up on the couch. My heart was still beating rather quickly, and I had accidentally drawn a bunch of curvy lines on my notepad. I had also lost my place inThe Lilac. This is what happens when you doze off in a coffee shop.
After a few minutes of blinking moisture into my eyes and running my tongue around the inside of my mouth—I’d been passed out for about twenty minutes, but it felt much longer—I went to the other room to buy a raspberry muffin, my typical Ozzie’s choice.
I told this to the cashier/barista guy and peered behind the counter. “Actually,” I said, “are you making sandwiches? Or, like, egg-and-cheese?”
“Sorry, dude, usually we would be, but we’re shutting down the studio early tonight. Actually, we’re closing in about a half-hour, and then we won’t open ‘til December. Standard renovating bullshit, you know.”
Right, right, I nodded, and reached for my phone to call back Masha and tell her we wouldn’t be able to meet here. But if I did that, she’d want to know how I knew it was closing, and I didn’t want to admit that I was already there, that, over the last two weeks, I’d discovered my notebook from “Mimes and Mystics,” had started rereading Bobbins’s stories, particularly The Lilac, his most existential work, and then had been, before I knew it, leaving work an hour early to stakeout Ozzie’s. To tell that would have been to admit that maybe, when it came to Bobbins, I wasn’t who they thought I was—and to admit that, maybe, on account of this writer, my personal life was deteriorating.
“You still want the muffin?” the guy said.
“Can I get the muffin anyway?”
“Uh, yeah, that’s what I’m saying. $1.95.”
I put my hand back in my jeans pocket, but my wallet wasn’t there. Crap, I thought, don’t tell me . . . and I took a step back toward the other room, when I nearly ran into a guy.
“This yours?” he said.
“Okay. Well, uh, I saw it fall out of your pocket.” He was about open it, when I snatched it.
“Yeah, of course it’s mine!”
“Right,” he said, “of course it is,” and he winked and walked away.