(un)Substantiated Vices

Last week’s essay sent me into such a state of emotional upheaval that I am a little afraid to sit down and write another. Something came over me in the last one, where I had been thinking too much about my life. About what is, and what I want, and where I’m dissatisfied. And I came up with the answer you see there.  But the next day, after I published it, I was beyond sad. I was in a place I haven’t been in a long time. Tears without end. It wasn’t the same depression it has been before, because now I have different tools. I have ways of working with that sinking, sucking feeling, and ways of asking for help, and ways of watching the thoughts instead of engaging them. It was over in a day, and in no small part thanks to my friends.  That much I certainly was right about in last week’s piece. What I was wrong about was that I can let go of my need for love, and my wish for a partner.  I may never get that wish, but that’s not the point. The wanting is part of me. It belongs to me. It is playing an important role somehow, and it can’t just be cut out because I feel done with the waiting. I had to accept that.  And as I did, everything started to lift up again, like watered leaves.  Wanting something and not getting it might have magical properties I’ve never thought of, maybe. But cutting myself off from my need for love, from my desire for partnership, that sets me sailing off onto the rough seas.

So, I was afraid to write here again. But the first feeling of fear means the adventure has begun, not that it’s time to turn back, right? I’m sitting down with my timer set for an hour and am ready to see what flows.

I am digging into another meaty book, even though the Physics of Now is still on the go. I’m reading Stamped From the Beginning, the definitive history of racist ideas in America. The first chapter, on the Puritans and Cotton Mather is chilling. Ibram Kendi makes the point with a surgeon’s slice: racism is an outcropping of salacious greed and cold intention. Its other social, religious and political reasonings come to prop up and propel the monetary value of innumerable enslaved Black bodies. The writing is exquisite. The sentences, the construction, the plot, the characters are wrought by a master, but the compassion, the ubiquitous though almost invisible humour, and the political daggers are those of a rouser, an instigator.

I also saw Get Out two nights ago. For the first twenty four hours after I saw it I felt ill. Then I had a brutally violent nightmare (it’s been a rough week), and woke into a world I couldn’t help but deeply mistrust. But, like Stamped, I’m now glad I experienced it. It’s the artistry again, on one hand. Peele has made a work of horror that elevates the genre (not that I’m a fan in general) but to use horror as a genre to highlight and bring into relief the surreality and monstrousness of the white supremacist world we live in is so apt and inspired. But more than the artistry, I’m glad I saw it for the reality check. It can be easy to forget the world, for me. To create little routines and relationships that allow me to feel overly comfortable. Get Out rips that bandaid OFF. I can’t recommend it, especially not if you’ve experienced the long cold fingernails of hate against your body, this brings it all back, it did for me.  I can’t recommend it, but I’m glad I saw it. My first thought was that it was made to wake white folks up to the reality of white supremacy, and that it would fail in tht project, because I don’t believe a dominant power can ever see itself systemically (without personally investing in the loss of that power). But after talking with my friend Jarrett I see more that it was a reminder and a warning and a satire made for Black folks and by (a long) extension everyone who is subjugated by white supremacy. Which understanding actually helped the film to sit a little more comfortably in my body. I felt less violated when I felt my subjectivity was part of the consideration of the making.

And, I’m reading Teju Cole’s Known and Strange Things. As they do, these three are all working together in my consciousness, and asking me together what it is I want to write tonight.  Known and Strange has an article in it, about maybe a fifth of the way through, which is an interview Teju (can I call you that? You’re so real-seeming. And I love your Instagram) that asks, what is the  distinction between non-fiction and fiction?

I was sitting with Erin at Omma the other day, right after seeing Get Out, and just before a poetry reading down the street from us here in Montreal, (not a good one, mostly young white men making fun of language with language). Erin and I were having a Korean pancake and wine, and I was telling her about the interview in Known and Strange, and suddenly I realized I could flip into fiction right here in these essays. What would stop me? When? How? Who is my antagonist? Am I the hero, or am I the narrator? Where is the plot? My brother’s first question would be: Is it high concept? Or is the point that this is all already fiction, that memoir, in retelling, is a story like any other? I imagine a slow change, where maybe around essay twenty five, the world begins to shift like sand under tide. By the end you have left my memories and ramblings and you are fully in a novel. Maybe I will do it.  But I don’t know how or when.  For now, there is a memory that is tapping on my shoulder:

Tonight I had a blind date, an internet date, someone I met on Ok Cupid. I had uninstalled the app about a year ago, for at least the fifth time. I find the whole exercise of internet dating so out of scale with the actual possibility of meeting anyone. The tiny nuanced moment that it takes to meet that little spark. It’s more like a matchmaker gone rogue. It doesn’t have the lucid methodicity of the matchmaker or the holy euphoric of falling in love. You are responsible, instead, of fielding the flood of everyone and anyone coming through this gilded portal that you are also charged with shaping and representing.  It’s too much. It’s way too much. It’s like trying to save the world. Or trying to swim across the ocean. But it doesn’t even have the righteous, spurring flame of either of those. It’s just there to feed on hope and despair, and it doesn’t care which.

Last week I was chatting with Erin and some of her friends. I was told a story, the story I’m going to tell you here. And while I was telling it, I was swearing that I’d never do it again, that I’d given it up forever. For all the reasons above.

But, after seeing Get Out and the pancake and the poetry I wrote last week’s essay and you know how that went. I wrote it, and then the small part of me that eats and shits and would hate hate hate to die in any way, great or small, kicked in and my emotions erupted. By the next day I was weakened, and fragile. In that pooling sludge of resolve, I turned the app back on. I emailed the (quite nice) person I went out with tonight because he was on the top of the list and seemed decent. Then I read the second message (there were about a hundred and fifty of them) and uninstalled it again. Digging through a hundred and fifty “I lk yr smile” and “hey gorgeous, what are you doing tonight?” and “you seem nice” and the worst, “hi.” It’s like trying to find a needle made of ice in a haystack made of jello cubes.

A few years ago, maybe sometime in mid 2011, I was on eharmony. And I met a handsome, charming, intelligent South Indian man, let’s call him Victor. Victor was a lawyer. An investment banking lawyer. Not exactly my type.

Uh oh. I’m having that moment. Where I realize that the only people who are definitely going to read this are my parents. This is something I’ve often wondered. I printed off the 2013 New Inquiry volume on Love a little while ago and have been reading it in the bathroom. It contains an article where one sex writer interviews another one.  And I can’t help but wonder, how can you write about sex while your parents are alive? But maybe that’s just me? Is it the Indianness in me, or just the way I interpreted the way I was raised? I have never in any way talked about sex with either of my parents. So, how do I write about it here? When I interviewed Sayantani Dasgupta on her collection of essays, Fire Girl, I noticed she also carefully avoided writing about her sexual self.

So. Victor. (Sorry, dad.) I’m enjoying Victor. He’s funny and sharp.  We spend  a few hours a week on the phone.  But neither of us has much intention of traveling to see the other one. I’m in Vancouver, he’s in New York. We are so strange to each other, yet, also familiar. Known. We annoy each other often. I talk about Tarot, and participatory decision making and living in a community house and he talks about taking his kids’ to skateboarding classes, and the watch(es) he just bought, and his ex-wife. The depth of us is a chaotic mess, but the surface is easy. I wonder if maybe it’s because we share some cultural values as first generation Indians that make it easy to communicate, if not to understand each other.  After a few weeks it comes out that Victor isn’t any old banking lawyer. He is the senior counsel at a major investment conglomerate that was central to the economic crash based on the subprime mortgage disaster of 2008-9. He was one of the relatively small number of lawyers who said yes, these broken instruments are fine, go ahead, keep ballooning, houses are houses. Yes. Sign here. It’s will be fine. When I learned this I wrote Victor off. Too much.

However, Peggy (Charlie’s best friend and co-founder of PYE if you are one of my parents and have been reading all of these. Or my friend Vanessa. Hi Ness!) and I were in Maryland visiting our friends Marika and Larry. Peggy and Marika were being hilarious and looking though my eharmony account. When Peggy saw Victor she insisted that I make plans to go and see him while we were on the East Coast. I somehow forgot my resolution to consider him a heartless asshole, and went.

I took the train to New York. I dressed as sharply as I could considering what I’d packed for a weekend workshop on creativity with a group of very rootsy community radio folks. Borrowed a little jewellery form Marika’s daughters. Even wore some makeup. Got off the train at Grand Central Station and tried to figure out where the hell I was. No smartphone yet. Walked a few blocks totally overwhelmed by the tallness of New York, the vertiginous mirrored giants all around me. I felt shrunken. Diminished. Mom and dad lived here for a short while, I don’t know how. It’s too giant for Nadia-from-Saskatoon. I got to the bar where Victor had told me to meet him. Upscale. Suddenly my relatively neat clothes looked like I’d just been to the gym, and my carefully braided hair felt like it had been raked into place by my grandmother. I felt gawky and weird standing near the coat rack, thinking about leaving. Then he turned around. His dark skin and clear eyes and sharp jaw and that wonderful little hook of a nose and thick hair in a very cool kind of back-and-side wave that stood up without looking sprayed were just as I expected. But, there was something I couldn’t tell over the phone.  He was tiny. Maybe four or five inches shorter than I, and slim as bamboo.

We had a drink at the bar, then he wanted to go to his favorite restaurant, which was a Korean barbeque spot. We drank a lot. The food was divine, and his company was interesting if exhausting. All he wanted to do was test me. So, he would say, did you know I went to Harvard? Where did you go to school? The University of British Columbia. See! He would shout. I knew you were cool. You didn’t have to lie, even though your school was shit.  It was like that. Annoying. But oddly interesting. I’d never met anyone like this. Openly mean but utterly unthreatening. All the mean people I’d met before were scary. Victor was just…kinda nasty. I didn’t know what to think, but I was drunk enough not to be trying to hard to think. Though it wasn’t bothering Vic. Smart, he’s say. You’re smart as a lawyer but you don’t know anything. How do you do that?

My train was scheduled for four in the morning. I’d made the booking with Peggy and Marika, of course. We thought it was perfect. It meant I could stay late without having to find a place to stay.  After we were sufficiently drunk, he asked if I wanted to go back to his place. It was about one in the morning. I don’t know, I said.  Maybe we could go dancing or something? Come on, he said, why not? Why did you come all this way if it wasn’t for a little action? I’m clean, he said. I can show you the papers. And I don’t know anywhere to go dancing. That’s for kids. I shrugged. Why not indeed.

We took a cab back to his place. We kissed in the cab which I found horribly embarrassing. The driver looked straight ahead and said nothing.  I thought I could feel him squirming. Victor’s apartment was  small. The living room barely contained a big black leather couch with those divet-buttons all over it, very hard and slick, and just enough room for our short legs, and a huge flat screen up on the wall.  The kitchen was so small I could reach everything in it without bending my elbows. A tiny hall with a tiny bathroom, and in the very near distance, his bedroom.  There was nothing but the TV on the walls at all. There was a tall rack of CDs full of random things like Busta Rhymes’ Extinction Level Event, The Spider Man 2 soundtrack and Carrie Underwood’s All-American Girl. The only kitchen counter space was burdened with an imposing coffee machine. He said, I’ll make some coffee. Victor made strong espresso.  We drank it. He kissed me again. Then, suddenly, he shoved his hand down my shirt.  What was that, I asked, pulling away. It’s a hook up, kid, he said. What are you waiting for? We moved into the bedroom.

At first things seemed sort of normal. I found myself kind of enjoying this side of Victor. He was distant, but skilled in pleasure, and without our clothes on it seemed like the inflated status difference between us had lessened.

But then it got strange. We were lying on top of the navy duvet cover, sweating, about six inches apart from each other. He said, I don’t like you. I don’t like how much I like you. What do I like about you? I don’t know. Why do you do it like this?  He had a mystifying catch in his voice. Nobody does this, he said. Like what, I asked, looking at the ceiling. You’re acting like you’re in love.  I thought, no I’m not. I was in love with my ex, Hari.  I was in love with all my exes. I was in love with writers and musicians I appreciated. I was in love with ostriches and giraffes and arbutus trees. I was and had been in love.  This person Peggy had picked off eharmony I did not love. I didn’t even like. You don’t touch someone like that if you don’t love them he continued, and sniffed. You shouldn’t do it. I shook my head, Victor, I started to say, I should go, but he suddenly curled up in the bed, in a fetal position, facing away from me.  He started to speak like a child, like a baby.  I don’t know. He said, I’m not happy. Why aren’t I happy?  I wanted to say because you are a callous person who crashed the entire world economy on the backs of some of the poorest people in your country.  Hold me, he said. I really, really didn’t want to.  He was openly crying. I kind of patted him on his bony shoulder, and sort of rubbed it in a circle, as if I was polishing it. Finally, his outburst subsided. I quickly showered and dressed. Asked him to call me a cab.  When I got in the car I whacked my head.  Good, I thought, I won’t do that again.

When I got back to Marika’s Peggy and she wanted details, of course. But I didn’t have much to say.  I was done with Victor the banking lawyer. Back to my self-congratulatory activist-y poet types.  Back to home territory.

About nine or ten months later an email of his popped up in a gmail search I was doing, and I decided to write to him, just to ask how he was doing. I don’t know. Say hi. Sex makes a bond, no matter what you think of the person. It’s the bodies. They don’t forget each other.

Who is this, he texted without a question mark.

Nadia, I wrote. From Vancouver.

About thirty hours went by.

Nadia. I have been wanting to write to you. I’m sorry I didn’t recognize your name right away. I need to say thank you. That was a turning point for me. I saw what I needed to do to get right. I’m with someone now. We’re going to get married. I know you’ll find your person, too. You’re a good person. You really are.

And that was it.

As much as this story, for me, is a story about why internet dating makes no sense whatsoever and is really just a hoax by yet another industry (or maybe it’s all the entertainment industry) to feed on our precious life force, it also has this other side. Like all things, it is composed of itself and its opposite. Internet dating is also an opportunity to reach outside ourselves and thus to see our dark moons. Victor and I did exchange something unusual that evening. It was a moment of humanity. Just those few hours. But it changed something.

Maybe online dating, with its gruesome scope and unlikely odds, and horrible interfaces, and incredible time wasting sink holes, has another function. Maybe it can sometimes operate as a kind of psychic mirror, where you can meet people from the reaches of the galaxy furthest from your own, and there find your missing pieces.


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