Betsy Shebang - Column for 3/19

Chapters 3, 4, and 5

"I'm thinking of becoming an alcoholic." I was pretty sure Mel didn’t hear me. We were playing Scrabble in the burrito place with the dangerous railing. It was her turn. I sucked more chicken stuff out of my burrito.

"What would that accomplish?" she said, staring at the board.

"I dunno. It would give me something to write about."

She put down a word, like "cholera" or something, which I'm pretty sure is a proper noun. "Why do you stay at your job?" she asked.

"They need me there. It's nice to have one realm of my life where I'm not a complete fuckup. It gives me a sense of purpose." I put down some word on the board, I don't remember what. I wasn't writing them down.

"Well, I hate to burst your bubble," she said, "but if they're laying everybody off, they don't need you."

"I get free xeroxing too. That's important to a writer."

"You said you haven't written anything in months."

"I still like to be able to copy stuff."

"Stuff you haven't written."

"What's your point?"

She sat up and looked serious, like she was actually mad. "My point is, you said you were going to leave a year ago. You said you were going to leave two years ago. Now, you're still there, and you hate it, and they don't need you, and you're not writing, so it's not like you're getting your weight in free xeroxing every month, and it's not like you're an undercover journalist writing a satirical novel about the world of shitty jobs. Because even if you were, you should be asking yourself why it's taking you so long to learn whatever it is you have to learn there before you go write your novel about shitty jobs while you're working somewhere where you're treated better."

"Uh-huh."

Somehow she interpreted my response as permission to continue. "See, there's a stairwell at my office that people use to leave the building. You can't use it to go between floors, because the doors are locked from the other side. So, a long time ago, somebody dropped a paper cup with a little bit of coffee in it in the stairwell, on the flat part, between floors, and it made this stain where it spilled. But this was in the corner, where nobody walks. And because it’s between floors, none of the offices are in charge of cleaning it up. So that paper cup has sat there for months.”

"What's your point?"

"My point is, you're that paper cup. Nothing is ever going to change as long as you stay where you are. And nobody else is ever going to change it for you. You need to do it yourself. You need to decide what you want to be different, and then you need to make it different."

"Uh huh."

"I'm saying this because I love you, okay? I don't want you to waste your life complaining about things you're not willing to do anything about. It's depressing to watch."

"Thanks. Let's change the subject." She wanted to keep going, like a skidding truck. Finally, she nodded.

"It's your turn, you know."

"I'm thinking," I said. "Can we do acronyms?"

"No. So what do you want to change the subject to?"

"How's your sex life?"

“Why do you always want to know about my sex life?”

I smiled. ”Isn’t that what friends talk about? I just want to know how things are going. ‘How’s your sex life’ is a figure of speech.”

She sat back again, looking more relaxed. She even smiled, sortof flirtatiously. "Things are great, when I'm in Sacramento."

"So, tell me this: how do you know when you're in love?"

"You want a real answer to that?"

"That’s why I asked." I hate it when people are afraid of incisive conversation.

"You know the baseball scale?"

"What do you mean?"

"First base is kissing, second base is petting above the waist,"

"Yeah."

"...third base is below the waist, home run is intercourse."

"Yeah."

"Well, in my experience, love is when the game ends and you still want to play catch."

"And that's the whole thing?"

"No, that's the short version. It's still you turn, y'know."

"I had a really good word but your last move ruined it. So, can you be in love with more than one person at a time?"

I was just babbling, thinking about the game. She stared into space for a few seconds. "You mean can you do it, or can you get away with it?"

"Is it possible?"

"Anything's possible."

"Are you in love with Ben?"

"Oh yeah."

"Do you think you could be in love with somebody else at the same time?"

"Who do you have in mind?"

"I'm just curious."

"I've tried juggling before. Something always gets dropped. And too often it's me. So are there two women you've got your eye on?"

"No."

"Anybody you've got your eye on?"

"Nah, nobody."

"So why haven't you called Salina?"

"'Cause when you introduced us she thought I was an idiot."

"Why do you say that?"

"'Cause all I could say to her was "cool" and "that sucks". Three hours together, that's all I could say. It was torture. I spent the whole time trying not to stare at her breasts."

She was thinking again. I appreciate that about her. "Did you succeed?"

"In what?"

"In not staring at her breasts."

I took a deep breath. "What if I say no?"

“If you say no I’ll understand why you don’t have a girlfriend.”

"Look, first of all, your friend Salina has…” I swung my lower jaw back and forth, as if to separate the exact right word from the list of almost-right words - “Fabulous breasts, okay? She’s really attractive, and her…figure, is part of that. Now, I know that it would be a good idea for me to figure out a way to direct my attention anywhere but at her fabulous breasts. And most of the time, I’m very good about that, you know. I’m not a complete sociopath. Until I spend three hours with somebody, and she’s got this really distracting feature, and, for whatever reason, we have nothing to say to one another. Even then, I try to not freak people out, but I still wind up looking like an idiot.” By that point I was leaning toward Mel, nodding my head maniacally. I sat up straight again, looked around and took another bite of my burrito.

Mel stared at me and asked "Are you done yet?”

“I think so.”

“Okay, Toby…I think what you need to do is…pretend you're driving. Okay? You know there’s pretty scenery; but you have to keep your eyes on the road."

“Actually, I’ve heard that expert drivers will say that your eyes should be fixed on the place where you want the car to wind up.”

“Yeah. Expert drivers also get paid to roll through embankments and land upside down in ravines.”

“That’s true.”

It took me a while to realize she was changing the subject. “So, for what it's worth, I've been telling Salina more about you.”

“Did you tell her how I look like John Cusack when I've had a good night's sleep?”

“I've never seen you after a good night's sleep. Anyway, she says she wants to go out with you again.”

I was astonished. “Mel. Thank you.”

“Okay. Remember, eyes on the road.”

“I'll do my best.”



Salina and I had already had one awkward evening together, so I knew whatever movie we saw would have to break the ice if we were ever going to be able to have the kind of relaxed adult conversation-about-relationships I hoped we’d be capable of. I originally suggested we see Luis Bunuel's classic "Belle De Jour", which is about a wealthy housewife who becomes a prostitute because her life lacks adventure. I'd seen it before, and thought it was stupid, but it's one of those movies that every single critic in history has raved about and I figured it would probably strike the desired balance between vulgar and sophisticated. I dunno…if I avoided taking dates to movies just because I thought I wouldn't like the film, I'd go on very few dates, and they'd all be to David Lynch films about criminals who hit each other during sex. Mel had told me just to be myself, and I was determined to do so.

Anyway, Salina wanted to see a documentary, so we arranged to meet in front of the theater before the show started.


When I go to a movie, I have to be sitting dead center, one-third of the way from the front. Sometimes it takes me a few minutes to be sure I'm in the right row. I try to be polite about it, or at least low-key. Salina seemed okay with it. She kept following me when I changed seats a few times, moving to the new seat beside me. "I kinda need to be sitting in the center," I said.

"Mmm-hmm" she said. She was getting annoyed. I leaned to my left and tried to experience the view from the seat next to mine without getting up.

"Are you gonna need surveying equipment?" she asked. At least she was being funny about it.

"Do you think we could move up...two rows?"

"Sure," she said. Cool.


It was kindof a thought-provoking movie, so after it ended we walked in a kind or weird silence back to my car, which was parked on a nearby hill. She'd taken the bus to get to the theater, so I said I'd give her a ride home, or wherever we went next. I unlocked the doors, we got in and I released the parking brake as she fastened her seat belt. I was glad to see her putting on her seat belt without being asked. I even wear mine when I'm parked.

The car rolled forward and I turned on the headlights. She looked at me, eyeing my hands and face. "Don't you want to turn the engine on before you start moving?"

I smiled. "Yeah, see, the starter needs replacing. Sometimes I need to get it rolling down a hill and compression-start it. It's also called pump-starting."

I slipped the car into second gear, turned the key, released the clutch and the engine jolted to life about halfway down the hill. It’s always hard to remember what order to do those things. I kinda enjoy the challenge. It’s one of those little rituals that brings me closer to the hidden mechanisms of life. I’ve noticed that the more intentionally absurd my behavior gets, the less unintentionally absurd my life is. That’s why I’m afraid of conventional behavior, to tell you the truth. I think about this stuff pretty often.

"Have you considered getting a new starter?" she asked.

"Yeah. I've got a new one. It's in the back." I gestured toward the trunk area behind the back seat, which I hadn't had time to neaten. This was not going well.

"Have you considered installing it in place of the broken one?" she asked. I forget what I said after that. I think I asked what she thought of the movie.

My car does work, so a minute later we were moving through traffic. She didn't say much about the film. "Is that your car that smells like that?" she asked. I couldn't tell if she was being rough on me, or trying to give me a chance to explain.

"The car ahead of us is burning oil."

“Oh,” she said, shuffling through her purse. "So, do you think it’s okay if I smoke?"

"Sure. It doesn’t bother me."

"I mean, is your car going to blow up if I light a match?"

"No. I burn incense in here sometimes."

"You do?"

"Yeah. In the winter, the carpets get wet, and..."

“Oh.”

“Kinda smells bad.”

"Mm-hmm."

The good news is that we both stayed in the car when I parked, like she'd gotten used to it. She even kept her seat belt on, which I saw as a good omen. I turned the headlights off.

"So why'd you leave San Diego?" I asked.

"I really don't want to talk about that."

"Oh. So...do you have a middle name?"

"No."

"You don't?"

“I'm one of those people with no middle names. That means I get to explain that to everybody who asks.”

“Sorry,” I lamented. This was not going well.

“It's okay. So…is Toby short for something?”

“Toby determined at a later date.”

“Mm hmm.”

I smiled. "That joke killed when I was in third grade."

"Uh huh."

"Mel told me you were a biochemist."

"Yep."

"So what does that involve doing?"

“I give cancer to laboratory rats.”

“Oh. Do you like it?”

“I’m getting used to it.”

“Mmm.”

“I'm gonna get into psychopharmacology.”

“Uh huh. So do you sometimes find yourself sympathizing with the rats?”

“Well, rats will eat hair care products and human beings won't, so I can maintain an emotional distance.” She smiled.

“So how long did you live in San Diego?” I asked, encouraged.

She took a breath and something changed in her face. “Could we not talk about that?”

“Yeah. Sorry.”

“I just feel like I'm being interrogated.”

“I'm sorry.”

“Okay.”

I was out of ideas. “Actually, I've gotta get up early in the morning, so –“

“Yeah, so do I.” She unbuckled her seatbelt.

“I'll let you out.”

“No, I can let myself out.”

“No, that door doesn't work from the inside.”




Mel was still up when I drove past her house, so I quietly knocked. I know it’s rude to drop in like that, but I love the intimacy of late-night visits. They’re the adult equivalent of building a fort in the living room out of blankets and sofa cushions. I sat on her floor leaning against the door frame while Mel played with the cat on her bed.

“God, it was awful,” I said. “She was... emotionally inaccessible.”

Mel shook her head. “You're going to say that every time I set you up with someone.”

“What I need is somebody who's enthusiastic about life. And isn't afraid to share it with me. Passion is what life's all about. Most people can't deal with it.”

She wasn’t listening to me. She said “So why do you attract so many emotionally inaccessible women?”

“I don't attract them. You set me up with them. If I attracted them, there wouldn't be a problem.”

“Uh-huh.”

“I mean, I really do like it when you set me up with people. It's like getting a Christmas present and I don't know what it is. You know - it's really exciting. But...I'm sorry. It’s like it always turns out to be socks.” I tried to laugh tactfully.

“I'm delighted to hear you feel that way about my friends.”

“You know what I mean.”

“I thought it would work with you and Salina.”

“Salina just...sorry. I just think she needs to deal with her emotions differently.”

“Look, your problem was not that she was ‘emotionally inaccessible’. Your problem was that you agreed on the second date to see a documentary on female genital mutilation.”

“I thought it would inspire a meaningful conversation.”

“Second dates are not for meaningful conversation. Second dates are for reinforcing her belief that you’re not a rapist. Meaningful conversation requires intimacy. You build it up over time.”

“How much time?”

“Several dates.”

“Well, she picked the movie. If I’d said no, I would have looked like I couldn’t sympathize with…women’s issues.”

“You could have said you weren’t in the mood that night. You’re allowed to say that.”

I shrugged and shook my head. Didn’t know what to say. Probably looked like I had a brain injury. “I didn’t think of that. I just didn't want her to think I was a typical guy.”

“Toby, I love you and I want you to be happy. I wish that was enough.”

I hate it when she says she loves me. It’s never a compliment. She says it a lot.

“I need to leave. I need to not be here anymore.” I didn’t know what I was saying. I probably didn’t mean it. I didn’t want to figure it out for sure.

“You need to move?”

“I don’t even know why I’m living here anymore. I mean…yeah, there’s you, I’m sorry…but…”

“It's okay. You're depressed.”

“I’m not depressed. I’m too pro-active to be depressed. This is a controlled suicidal mania.”

“So what are you going to do about it? Mister Pro-active?” I knew I’d regret saying that.

“I don’t know.”

“Are you gonna be okay for another week?”

“I don't know.”

“Promise me you’re going to be okay…” I hate it when she says that. She kept saying it. “Toby, Promise me...”

“I’ll be fine.”

She kinda stared at me for a while, then spoke again. “So what do you really want?”

I wanted to give her a real answer. I searched for a real answer. “I really want to fuck my housemate Peggy.”

She nodded, like I’d given the wrong real answer. “Everyone wants to fuck your housemate Peggy.”

“You asked what I wanted.”

“Well, do you want to fuck her, or date her?”

“Let's assume they're related.”

She sighed, like she was about to tell me she loved me again. “Have you told her how you feel about her?”

“I’ve made it very obvious.”

“But have you told her? In English? English is a very good language. You should consider using it to communicate once in a while. C’mon, you’re a writer.”

“I haven’t really been a writer for some time.”

“Well, maybe if you wrote something it would make you feel more focused. Can you be a screenwriter in Seattle?”

“Well, you can be a screenwriter anywhere. Do you think I should be in Hollywood?”

“I don't know. You're the expert. Where did you live when you sold the script for that TV show?”

“Well, I was in Pelham, but I had a friend who worked for the production company in Los Angeles.”

“So where's your friend now?”

“Uh…she joined a cult. Last I heard, she was living in a biosphere.”

“I thought cults were passe.”

“Oh, there’ll always be cults. I think they’re like…fast food. You don’t think you’re susceptible, you know, you’ve grown past that kinda thing, and then one day you find yourself starving, in a hurry, at the airport.”

Mel stood up. “Well, I don’t know what to tell you, Toby.” It was late. Time to break down the fort. I gave Mel a hug goodnight and drove home, feeling manic, thinking about how hungry I was.



Copyright 2002 Betsy Shebang

Columns by Betsy Shebang