As Is

M.H. Johnson

There’s a scene in this movie The President’s Analyst that shows James Coburn and some actress, I forget who, sitting in a ’70s avant-garde movie theatre—i.e., somebody’s basement with a bunch of folding chairs. We see the audience huddled together, basking in their hipness as the Super 8 flickers on a bedsheet on the wall in front of them. Suddenly we hear their groans of disgust and revulsion. One by one they get up and leave—all except James Coburn and Mystery Actress. These two remain seated, and she, giggling violently, says to him, “Look! Look what he has in his hand!” and he says, “You’re right! I don’t believe it! Look!” He laughs wide enough for us to see his dental work. We never see what they see. The long-haired hippy dude with the potbelly whose whole “scene” this is glares at the two of them and shuts off the projector. James Coburn and the woman leave and have sex.

This is us, in my fantasy. I’m not sure which one of us is James Coburn, but it’s definitely us. In that moment of shared hilarity, I imagine we’ll grasp the absurdity of existence and know we’re the only two who do. It’s the way we’d discover our grand passion, which I want to believe we’re fondling the edges of now, obscured by voicemail and email and the lugubrious nature of the twenty-first century. Yet I worry it’s too late. Perhaps that kind of primal recognition has to happen immediately to happen at all.

(She’s twenty-four. Her dark hair is very short with a henna rinse. She wears narrow, pointed green granny glasses. A picture of the cat she left back home when she moved to the city sits on her dusty, cluttered bedside table in her tiny studio apartment. She works in an office at a low-level copyediting position for a huge publishing firm. Her favorite boots are not really cowboy boots, she insists, they just look a bit like that. There’s a dark coat she likes herself in—a billowing, shapeless black trench coat. She likes to let it flap open when she walks. Her name is Laura, but she introduces herself as Lanny, which was her dad’s nickname for her.)

Some days I am insane with yearning and find myself rereading your emails, playing back in my head that thing you once said about my eyes, my “unblinking brown eyes”; then I panic, wondering when I’ll see you again (send/receive; send/receive; send/receive), and fire off a ridiculous email about the cosmic significance of some old movie you’ve never seen, and I know you think I’m weird, and I know I’m actually delaying the moment when we’ll be the only two people in the theater laughing.

Then you email me back, and it’s about Iraq or your mother, and how you didn’t “get” my last email at all, and I just say Thank God, and think about adjusting my medication (ha, ha) and we go on, maybe another week, maybe a month.

I try not to think about the taste of that soft place at the base of your neck and the way your skin smells of licorice when your pulse hammers through your veins. I made you feel that way once. I know I can again.

(He has translucent eyelashes and blunt, powerful fingers. He’d like to lose about fifteen pounds. He’s a computer programmer for an investment banking firm. He works constantly. Two other guys who are with the same firm live with him in an apartment stacked with empty pizza boxes, which he complains about, but never cleans up. He wears turtlenecks under plaid shirts in the winter. In his closet are three pairs of jeans and one pair of dress slacks, just in case. He met her waiting in line for coffee and a bagel at an overcrowded deli on a rainy Tuesday. They get lunch together sometimes. They are both careful not to call each other “boyfriend” or “girlfriend.” His name is Matt. He calls her Laura, which she likes.)

That time we went to your friend Casey’s and that redhead came up to you and said, “Hi,” I wasn’t sure what sort of a “hi” that was and I tried not to obsess about it, but I have to admit it ruined my evening as I imagined it as a longer greeting spelled out with her tongue the length of your body (with tongue it’s really not “hi” at all but “hll,” which sounds like something a Tibetan Sherpa might say in greeting) and even though I rationalized that you didn’t know me at the time of the first “hi” or “hll,” whichever it was, and neither of us knows any Tibetans or Sherpas (who are actually all related—a family, a tribe—not merely a type of burden-bearing peasant), I was not comforted by these thoughts and right up to the moment Casey spilled the gigantic chartreuse Apple Martini down my shirt, the redhead and her tongue on your body were all I could think of that night.

(He was in love with Laura for three days in March.)

When you talk about your work, you rub your thumb and forefinger together, and your voice gets hard and bright. I want to be your work then, to earn that desperate focus, to live in the sphere of things that give your body its own thoughtless rhythm.

(She is mystified as to why they have never had sex, even though her apartment gives them privacy. They almost had sex that night after they’d had cheap Italian and too much Chianti. He stopped it, said he wasn’t ready. There is a long-time ex-girlfriend who used to come up to the city on weekends. Matt says they have broken up. The girl still emails and calls sometimes. Matt says they are now “just friends.” Laura thinks he’s still in love with the girl. On the dark nights, like tonight, when she has only her imagination for company, Laura forces that idea to the surface.)

How does it happen. How does one person ever stay with another. With you I tell myself to believe it won’t happen, to pretend I’m watching us both from a distance. Pretend I like my life, as is. Feigned indifference will bring you to me, I tell myself. As though you were a cat.

All this despite your deviant political views and how you always eat audibly. Your classic emotional mutedness, your passive-aggressive way of dealing with me, your ridiculous compulsion to collect matchbooks. You can’t curse or tell a joke, and your hair isn’t even a real color. All this.

The smallest gesture could cure me of you. That, or five full days without interruption. But that’s not true. Neither one would be enough. We are mismatched, just off, by a few passes of the metronome, and although we both feel the pull at the end of the beat: we know it won’t ever happen. Admitting that feels like a life sentence.

(Matt hasn’t returned the voicemail from three days ago, or her email from Sunday. He hasn’t been to the deli in eleven days.)

Tomorrow I’ll start fresh. Tomorrow I’ll start looking for a new job and throw out the dead geranium that’s been sitting on the windowsill since Easter. I’ll feel the wind in my sails. I will be responsible for my own happiness. You may come or go, as you please. I will find comfort in my own rough stride down the street. I will revel in the space between my shoulder blades, the dizziness I feel when I stand up too soon. I’ll get a cat, in secret. I’ll take up a musical instrument. Unplug my television. Learn to like tofu.

(The redhead at the party never had slept with Matt. Laura never noticed that she was actually more interested in her than Matt.)

I think you’d like The President’s Analyst. It has your sort of quirky paranoia. The more sessions he has with the Prez, the more freaked the analyst becomes. We see him leaving the oval office wild-eyed, brandishing an umbrella. Everyone is chasing him because he’s been intimate with the biggest id in the free world. The actual conspiratorius maximus is The Phone Company, or TPC, which wants to implant devices in our brains for phone calls, then charge us for their use. It’s supposed to be a farce. Our Analyst is rescued by an American Black and a White Russian. But I’ll stop now. I don’t want to spoil it for you. You might rent it someday.

 

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