“Understand that your cat is a whore and can’t help you.”
—Lorrie Moore, Self-Help
Start by purchasing ear plugs. They’ll be cheaper on Amazon, but go to a local pharmacy and buy a package of them. These will be good for you, versatile and small. If you pair them with big, around-the-ear headphones, nobody will see them, either. As an added bonus, they will give your music the effect of hearing it as if through a brick wall, as if outside a nightclub, which is somewhere you could actually be, if you didn’t have crippling social anxiety.
Stick to a regimented daily diet. Never deviate from it. Buy containers of Greek yogurt, bananas, whole grain pasta, Clif Bars. Begin each day by eating a container of Greek yogurt, a banana. Chug water. Skip lunch. For dinner, break open a couple of Clif Bars and have at it. If you’re feeling fancy, boil the pasta and add some olive oil and salt. Chug more water.
In class, tentatively hold your hand up and give a long-winded answer. Spend the next hour replaying what you said. The best way to go about this is to repeat your entire comment, word-for-word, under your breath. Did the professor smile, or look pleased with your contribution? Did the other students? Doodle something grotesque and morbid in the margins of your notebook. When the class ends, put headphones on before anybody can think of directing themselves towards you. Be the first one out the door, speedy and silent as a lubricated ball bearing.
Get into a sudden and irresponsibly absorbing relationship. Begin by talking online. Try to say “cool things.” Fail inevitably. Meet in oversized, drab sweatshirts on a pumpkin-spice afternoon. She will be smoking a cigarette, small puffs, like expected disappointment. Sit on a bench and make fun of pedestrians. Maybe she studies urban planning, and has a part-time job waiting tables. She might have several siblings that she is close with, or an estranged parent. She will have perfectly trimmed eyebrows. She will smile at your stories.
Play chess together—badly—at a board game cafe. Laugh when a passerby comments on how terrible each of you are at playing chess. At the counter, beat her in a sudden death match of rock-paper-scissors. Pay for both of the iced coffees. She will put more milk in hers than you put in yours. Ruminate on the implications of this for hours after she leaves. Make vague and jittery plans to see each other again. Later that night, cut your hair in front of your bathroom mirror. Get hair everywhere, massive clumps of it, matting the floor like dead grass thrown around by an ignominious infant. Wonder why you still haven’t bought a broom and dustpan. Clean up the hair by picking it up with damp toilet paper.
You’ll meet frequently in hazy evenings, sometimes in your apartment, sometimes in hers. (Also: when was the last time you cleaned that place? How many clothes on the ground are too many clothes on the ground? Did you wash the dishes? Have you even vacuumed it since you moved in? Get a grip and make some effort.) Drink, then line the empty beer cans on your radiator, neat and horizontal like a snake tugged taught by two toddlers. Say: “If you hate the cold, you really picked the wrong place to move to.” She’ll frown a bit and cinch her eyebrows up, astonished you would say something so devoid of insight, then stand wordlessly, walking to the mini-fridge for another Pabst. Gut-punch yourself, mentally, and make a hasty internal promise to read more Wall Street Journal.
“The day after I fell off a cliff I still turned up for work,” she’ll say, grinning and swinging a half-hearted punch towards your arm as you walk, your body weak and twitchy, running on the fumes of a recklessly high dose of pseudoephedrine. Reply, with sarcasm, “I’m so sorry I’m not as tough as you, Leila.” Arrive at the trendy, hipper-than-hip pop-up shop for locally made pins and patches. “I had this amazing poster print from that brand,” you remark, gesturing to one of the tables. “It had a woman getting dressed on it, and on the bottom it said, ‘How is it already 3 pm?’”
“What happened to it?” Leila will ask.
“Got damaged when I was moving. I wish it was here right now, I’d totally buy it again.”
She’ll lift her chin, slightly nodding a bit, her eyes inquisitive and focused as a vaccination needle.
After a couple days, she’ll send a curious message asking if you’re in your apartment. Buzz her in. She will enter wearing a wide, shit-eating grin, hoisting an oversized, flat brown paper bag under one arm, closing the door with the other, swinging to face you. “I’ve got something for you,” she’ll say.
“I knew it,” you reply.
Take the print out and position it on your nightstand. The woman looks as you remember her, stooping down to draw up and button her pants, the cursive text at the bottom in an inviting and warm, soupy font.
Say, “I have something for you, too.”
Place the burgeoning money tree plant in her hands.
“You’d have to try really hard to kill this kind, it doesn’t even need that much sunlight,” you say, referencing the mopey, wilted, half-dead monstrosity decaying by her bedroom window.
“I hate us,” says Leila, with a loud laugh and earnest resolve. “This is too much cheese. We can’t do this again.”
“Too cheesy,” you respond, in agreement. “Too many cheese puffs.”
Sit at the window and eat delicious, grease-filled, triple-bypass A&W burgers together. “My best friend Camille is in town today,” she’ll say, licking ketchup from her index finger. “Do you want to meet her?”
“If she wants to meet me,” you say.
“I’ll send her a text. Samantha might be there, too.”
Walk with them, the four of you clumped like hush puppies in a takeout container. (How the hell do four people comfortably walk together on a sidewalk?) Go to a modern art museum and loudly belittle the photographs. In one corner, there’s an actual deer—seriously—dead and stuffed, lying on its side. Dramatically bend down and sprawl on the floor next to it, then stand and grin. Feel a little mischievous. Wonder what Leila is thinking.
Walk together down to the river that flows through the city. The afternoon will still be warm, amber and colourized as stock footage. Walk along the river. Walk along the canal. Keep walking, all the way to a popular outdoor market. Discuss tattoos, bad horror movies, that musky odour you’re all smelling, Justin Trudeau. Camille makes good, bad puns, smiles invitingly, seems to not hate you? Samantha does most of the talking, and you try to chime in with anything witty, an around-the-clock joke monkey. Realize you’re probably making an ass out of yourself. Keep trying, regardless.
Near the end of the day, mutually decide to eat at Thai Express, despite its slipshod quality, questionable flavours, and generally dysphoric atmosphere. Order and pay, then sit with them at a table, surrounded by large flat screen televisions playing racy, vibrant music videos on a loop. “I’m really not hungry,” says Camille, while sipping from a bottle of Canada Dry. “I’ve eaten a lot today already.”
“Like those rancid pancakes?” you ask, while hoping your face looks more bemused than constipated.
“I mean, it tasted fine,” Camille says. “It was like using buttermilk instead of just milk.”
“See?” Leila says, raising a fist in mock display of brutish aggression. “I know how to make good pancakes.” Flinch away from her hand and laugh.
“You never know you want Thai Express until you walk past one, then later in the day somehow come to the realization that you really, really want Thai Express,” says Samantha. Laugh and nod in agreement, then gnaw at a piece of chicken. Gesticulate wildly at Leila to join you in your steady consumption. While she masticates on a particularly large and ungainly broccoli stump, ask for her chopsticks, then wield a pair in each hand, giggling uncontrollably while attempting to transfer rice from plate-to-mouth in an unending flow, each pair of chopsticks either in motion to pick up more rice, or deposit it in your mouth, a grade-A mechanical operation.
“Holy shit,” says Camille. “Look at Leila, she’s, like, crying.”
“It’s not what he’s doing, it’s how his laugh sounds,” Leila will say, in between cackles that resemble uppercase letters. Glance at Camille and smile weakly.
A week of rain is right around the corner! Prepare via buying coffee beans and wine. Your younger sister will ask about your “new friend” on Facebook Messenger. “What’s she like? Are you treating her well?” she’ll say. “What does she study? Is it serious? I can’t believe she’s still talking to you after a few weeks.”
“I can’t believe she’s still talking to me either,” you respond, while slurping from a bowl of almost incognizably spicy ramen, your brow perceptibly and conspicuously sweating huge and unregulated capsaicin beads, the steam from the broth rising and fogging your glasses. “This one time she fell off a cliff,” you tell her. Switch windows back to your paper on Paradise Lost and wait for your doorbell to ring.
When midterm season rolls around, walk from your apartment to Second Cup and buy a medium hot chocolate. Create utter pandemonium when you try to place a lid on the concoction, causing a Mount Vesuvius eruption of whipped cream that shoots out and up from the mouth opening and floods the countertop in sweet, sticky foam. You never were very good at pre-empting disaster. Avoid employee eye contact and sheepishly grab handfuls of brown napkins to hurriedly remedy your mistake, then dart to her apartment. You’ll hand her the drink, and she’ll sit you down, placing both hands on your shoulders, arms extended like a new driver. “I don’t like it when people do things for me,” she explains, staring at the center of your pupils. “I really don’t.”
Nod in agreement, and use a stock phrase for, “I feel the same way, honestly.”
“Then stop doing it.”
“Ever?” you ask.
She’ll take a step back, her face returning to something less intense, her arms crossed in front of her. “The people I’ve been with are either too attentive, or completely ignore me for days,” she says, “but either way, I start hating them.”
Stare at her and say nothing.
“I don’t want that to happen to you,” she says.
“There’s no way I’m too attentive.”
She’ll smirk now, and maybe guffaw. “You’re totally too attentive.”
“Okay, okay, I get it, I get it.”
“Do you?” she’ll ask.
At home, take out a sticky note, and make a list of all the objective reasons why this relationship is a terrible, delinquent, idiotic, self-destructive, shit idea:
-She just moved here; wants to expand social circle, not fixate on one person
-You’re graduating this year., plans for next = ?
-She “isn’t good at commitment”
-Too smart for you
Take the note and stash it somewhere unmemorable and insignificant.
Receive a message one afternoon that contains information along lines of Leila “having some thoughts” about “all of this” and “needing time to process” them. Respond affirmatively. Remember that you’ve been mentally preparing for this since you met her. Continue working on your paper, reread Knausgaard. Edit your short story collection and try not to permanently eradicate the document from your laptop hard drive. Make soup.
Your friend Karen will stop by in a day or two, hauling wine and asking you to put on classical piano music. “Have you heard the new Lucas Debargue?” you’ll ask, moving to turn on your speakers. “Schubert and Szymanowski. It’s incredible, my favourite Schubert 784 ever, I think.” Sit across from each other on your linoleum floor and sip from small, stained mugs that feature blank-faced cartoon cats on their sides— quirky!
“How do you feel about her?” Karen will ask, ever selfless and benevolent.
“Differently than anyone else,” you’ll respond, too stupid to think of anything more specific or better-worded.
“Has she contacted you yet?”
“No, but it’s only been, like, two days,” you’ll say. “That’s not that long at all.”
“And how are you feeling otherwise?”
Shrug and take another sip from your wine. Offer more to Karen. She’ll nod, you’ll pour.
“I mean,” you’ll continue, “she said she’s not in any position to get into an involved relationship.”
“But you’re still going to try anyways?”
“You know me.”
Karen sighs a bit and gives you a look.
“Can we do something drastic?” You’ll ask. “I need to do something dramatic, let off steam, you know? Do you have anything you need to smash?”
Collect a vase, a plate, a broken plastic container. Hurl them off the balcony, each one a little harder than the one before. As you throw the last object, it lands with a splintering smack between the front fender of a parked car, and the back bumper of another. “Whoa,” you’ll say, and look at Karen. Run down the stairs and out the front of your apartment. Check that neither car was damaged. Say: “That could have been bad,” when you get back inside.
Spend too long in the grocery store choosing between two brands of peanut butter. Explain to yourself that these sorts of decisions take time, that they’re important and personal contemplations that are never easy to understand—am I a crunchy peanut butter man, or a smooth peanut butter man? Smile a little and change the song you’re listening to, to something sadder. Remember when you lay supine, alongside each other, exchanging music suggestions, on her mattress. Remember bickering over certain artists. After paying, change the song to one that she frequently sang. Think of how she sounded when she once sang it while walking home.
In class, your professor will laugh when you say that reading Milton “keeps you up at night,” then again, when you bring up Satan’s “daddy issues.” Feel momentary joy that she seemed to glean some earnest happiness from your contributions today. Wonder if you should have brought an umbrella instead of just a raincoat. Walk home and eat a couple of Clif bars. Fall asleep on your mattress after forgetting to brush your teeth.
She’ll send you a message, unannounced and aloof, on any given Thursday night. It will say, “Hey, how are you?” Respond with carefully rehearsed poise: “Hanging in there by the skin of my teeth.” She’ll ask if she can “come over.” Agree, then sit at your desk and stare at your wall. Try not to feel anxious. Chug water.
Leila will enter wearing familiar clothes and a familiar scent. You’ll smile unconsciously, then sit on your mattress, while she’ll occupy the space on your nightstand. Stare at her for a bit, then ask if she’s been okay.
“I don’t know,” she’ll say, her head angled to one shoulder. “I think I had a mental breakdown the other day.”
Inquire for more information. Sit up and say, “Wait, what do you mean?”
“Like, I finished grocery shopping, and I was walking home, and all of a sudden, I felt really weak and dizzy, and had to sit down. I thought I was going to have a heart attack.”
“Are you okay now? Did it end quickly?”
“I mean, I was fine, but it was pouring out, so I got completely soaked, and so did my baguette.” She’ll laugh a bit, and so will you.
“And you?” she’ll ask.
“I’ve been better. I had a minor breakdown the other day, too. I threw things off my balcony with Karen.”
Leila gives a wayward and faltering exclamation. “What?”
“Yeah, I just needed to do something cathartic.”
“Why?” asks Leila.
“I don’t know. Life. The situation.” Attempt a grin.
Next: Leila will stand, then turn slightly, and say, with discernible trepidation, “See, this is exactly what I mean, I can’t be so responsible for someone else’s reactions like this.”
“Whoa,” you’ll say, grinning wider. “Whoa, pump those brakes.” You sound so clever. “The breakdown wasn’t entirely because of you.”
“Partially, but it was also just life, you know?”
“Life how?” she’ll ask.
“You know. Graduating. Not knowing exactly what I’m doing next year. Trying to figure that out. I have no idea what I’m going to do.”
Stand next to her and touch her arm.
“If you don’t want your actions to affect other people, you can always move to a hermitage,” you’ll say, laughing a little. She’ll laugh too, and retort, in a feigned shout:
“Your actions are always going to affect other people,” you’ll say.
“I know, I know,” she’ll respond, while reclining on the mattress, patting an adjacent section for you to join her.
“I don’t know what I’m doing either,” she’ll say, her eyebrows furrowed and sympathetic. “This is when I’m supposed to be figuring myself out, and I don’t know that yet.” She’ll pause, then continue, “I mean, I just bleached my hair, what am I even doing?”
Nod slightly. “I understand, I think,” you’ll say.
“So I can’t really, like, commit to a relationship right now,” Leila will say, as a half-conclusion. “I can’t offer you commitment or anything.”
“That’s okay,” you’ll say. “Just because something’s finite doesn’t make it bad.” Look at Leila.
“God, I can’t believe I left my wine at home,” she’ll say, smiling. “I guess I shouldn’t be drinking in my current mental state now, anyways.”
Say: “Me neither, but I’m going to anyways,” then stand and grab a beer from your fridge.
The next morning, offer her Greek yogurt, or a banana. She’ll decline both. Ask if she’d like a banana chopped into Greek yogurt instead. Laugh wildly when she mock-punches your side. Make plans to see a concert.
GEORGE WU TENG currently studies classical piano performance at McGill University’s Schulich School of Music. He is often crying.
Copyright © 2018 by George Wu Teng. All rights reserved.