My Life As An Underachiever
1. By the time I received a bachelor of fine arts in creative writing from a school without grades or physical classes, you were completing a second master’s degree in theoretical logic. At the third best place in the world for doing that, you said. I understand theoretical logic as being like math but with words. Thank you for taking time from your grown up job to attend my graduation ceremony with the other adult learners. We had fun, I think. Yes, you had far too much wine, and got sick in the rental car, but it was my fault for not arranging to stay on campus. And you remained with S and C (E, really, C being a regional contrivance) while I spoke with the program director about recommendation letters. You said later that S called you stupidhead or something while I was away. But she also had too much wine, likely D’s fault, since he’d brought a case to campus with him and was handing the stuff out all week. You disliked D and S (disingenuous, you said), and were indifferent to C until she cornered me in the basement of the music building, at which point you complimented my penis in front of a group of strangers, which I think was your way of telling C that she would never have it. I didn’t mind the attention, and when it ended, we went back to New York.
2. In New York, you have a grown up job (as I said), of which we are both very proud. You manage a library at night, and supervise graduate students. I work for a nonprofit in a bad neighborhood. A nonprofit is not a grown up job. I sit at a desk. I watch the clock in the bottom of a computer screen, and take two hour long breaks each day. During the first, I buy bad coffee from a nice Korean family, and read on the piazza outside Long Island University. The second, I take a long walk to a bourgeois chocolatier with better coffee. If the weather is bad, I wait for someone to abdicate their seat, but if the weather is nice, I sit in the doorway of the Brooklyn Zen Center and read. I don’t do very much work, even if there is work to do. When I’m given a task by a supervisor, I convince myself they’re joking, or speaking to someone else. Shortly, I don’t want to become better at anything I do during my workday. This feels like a sort of surrender. Because of your studies, you see this behavior as virtuous. You said, a goat should be the best goat it can be.
3. I think you thought that S, D, and C didn’t respect you. I thought S and D found you intimidating, and C wanted to disrespect you, but didn’t know how. I didn’t tell you that when C had thrown her leg over my legs as she leaned on a couch in the basement of the music building, and stood astride them, she said something about how you wore the same sweater three days in a row on campus. And I said it was new, and you liked it, that was why. It wasn’t the answer C wanted. But what should I have said? Yes, C. My wife is surely unkempt. But when C said earlier that I wasn’t responding to her the way men normally respond, I decided to make a mid-evening project of disappointing her. If I was going to bring anyone home with us, I’d have preferred A, who you met in Fort Greene park over the summer, and didn’t like (boring, as you said). She had a habit of touching my hips from behind, as if to direct me. I couldn’t figure this out, but I liked it. But I hadn’t called her for several months even though we only lived ten minutes apart, so there was little chance of drawing her away from the gathering in the music building. Inevitably, she twirled in the light of a campfire while a fellow student wheezed along on an accordion, also inevitable. I sat watching beside Z the geologist, making a pig of myself. You found someone to tease on the porch, a white man named E who thought he was a racist. She knows how pretty she is, said Z. I hate that about her. Yes, I do, I agreed, mishearing her.
4. My bachelor of fine arts was the culmination of seven years of work avoidance. In New York, a learning disability kept me out of city schools. You remember this: I couldn’t pass the entrance examination in mathematics, and wasn’t allowed to matriculate. Rather than learning anything new, I floundered, took classes that I thought might be useful if was ever allowed to matriculate, and worked as a concierge in a storefront around the corner from 95 Christopher Street, the building where Harlan Ellison was arrested for carrying a prop pistol. My father arranged to have me tested, and got me diagnosed with a case of the stupids, hoping that this might return me to the college track. Meanwhile, I found a list of Dyscalculia symptoms, which is like dyslexia, but with numbers instead of words. One of these struck me as eerie: problems differentiating between left and right. Unless I’m concentrating on using them correctly, I use left and right interchangeably in conversation. You know better than to rely on me for directions, but what about the strangers who mistake me for helpful on the street? This was a fairly dark period. Rather than feeling as if I’d fallen into hell, I sensed purgatory springing up around me.
5. Z the geologist and I spoke after you and I returned to New York. She was working at an automotive glass company somewhere in Ohio, and said that because she had an science degree from a school with narrative evaluations and no lab, she wasn’t bothering with graduate programs. She was dieting and picking out dresses because she wanted to look good at her ex- fiancé’s wedding in Arizona. I also spoke with E the racist. He worked at a coffee shop in Santa Cruz, but agreed to read a draft of a book I’d written about the inescapable weight of obligation, and inevitability of suffering. I contacted C to say I thought of her during a sexual harassment training held at the nonprofit. I was mandated to sit in a room and watch a video starring a man who looked like Mitt Romney. He called a man that looked like Chris O’Donnel a ‘sally’ until a woman who looked like Norah Jones intervened. An oral quiz of five rhetorical questions followed. I got one wrong. I’m not in touch with S or D, though they invited me to Thanksgiving dinner at D’s house in a different state, which is the same as not inviting me, I think. A wrote a play, and sent it to me. I skimmed it for references to me, but didn’t read it.
6. I think of myself as your pet saint. Gentle, benign, and useless. I shared this, and you agreed, adding that the truly good man does what he must to do what he must (my paraphrase). I said writing is like giving birth to the same retarded child over and over again. I said, but still, those are my kids, you know?
7. I had the feeling that C was secretly wealthy. I knew she lived on a sailboat in Key West. I sent another note requesting patronage, and she claimed the categorical poverty I’ve come to expect from liberal arts students. If she had anything, she was ashamed of it. I knew she reunited with a boyfriend from whom she was disunited during commencement. I could live this way: writing my stories from the crow’s nest whilst the two of them plied the bath warm water of the gulf beneath. D had also invited me to visit him in Vermont. He was a career waiter at a seasonal estate outside Burlington, and it was winter, so he had time to host. But I didn’t take advantage of the offer when it was extended, and he moved to Maryland to be close to S, who also encouraged a visit. But she lived in D.C., and had two children. They sounded fine, but children always remind me of the jocular person at a party where you don’t know anyone, who keeps asking in front of all the people you don’t know: WHY ARE YOU SO NERVOUS? or WHO INVITED YOU? or WHO INVITED THEM? S seemed to have money like C, but I assumed it was mostly alimony, thus unavailable to sponsor me. I don’t want to take food out of anyone’s mouth. I politely told D and S that I was a bad friend, and they silently agreed.
8. After commencement, I had dinner with the program director, and she offered me a job if I received a master’s degree. This seemed both generous and unfair. I don’t want an academic career bad enough to actually work for it, I thought, while chewing and discussing graduate programs. Meanwhile, in one of the dormitories, S called you stupidhead, while C stood nearby. I’m sorry I wasn’t there to act as a buffer, or explain to S that because of my learning disability, you did all the math between us, and that if anyone was a stupidhead it was probably me (or C).
9. I met N the term before I graduated, at a party, at the music building, at the campus without grades. We both lived in the same shabby area of Brooklyn. I said I would call her or something when we were back in the city, leading normal lives. N friend divorced me in October, after graduation. I bailed on a couple of appointments with her because they felt like appointments, and didn’t suggest anything to remunerate. I have your book, she said. I’d like my movie. I lent her a copy of Venus in Furs, and she lent me something that I didn’t watch because it had subtitles. I drop people, she said. When I feel like they aren’t capable of meaningful interaction, I don’t see them anymore. I don’t know what you expect, I thought. N was from Chicago. Maybe things were different there. She supported a boyfriend who refused to work in NYC. Before the friend divorce, she told me he was going to take a certification test of some kind. It will raise his pay rate by twenty dollars an hour, she said. But if he isn’t working now, I thought. Then taking the test will mean that he will earn twenty dollars an hour. It’s a start, she said. He’s twenty- seven years old, I thought. N saw A checking coats at a theater in Clinton Hill, and seemed to think this indicated a class difference between them.
10. You met N and M (her $20/hr. boyfriend) at a party I’d invited them to on Argyle Road, because I had the feeling they didn’t get out enough. It was a pleasant evening, I think, but both of them seemed long from land. M talked too loud, alienated the people around him, and told stories that made no sense, mostly about growing up on the southside of Chicago. I seen a nigga with his head just stuck through a fence, he said. I’m glad I have a reason to leave the house each day, I thought, watching him. N agreed with everything M said, but had no stories of her own. I tried to count the lies he told, I said to you after they left, and we were leaving. But there were so many. You’re not great with counting, you said. I think he thinks I’m pretty, anyway. I envy him, I said. No you don’t, you said. Yes I do, I thought.
Joshua Amses is a graduate of Goddard College. His first novel, Raven or Crow, was recently published by Fomite Press. He lives in Brooklyn.