The problem with New York is there’s far too much of it, its abundance of spectacle such that no one need ever experience silence, or boredom, or anything which creates the vacuum two people might otherwise fill with themselves. And while this level of protection from interpersonal exposure can be useful to the boring and the terrible (read: me), its flip side is that it applies to everyone, that without focused effort it’s difficult to ever really know the people with whom you’ll share your time.
I’d been ‘seeing’ this girl in the most literal sense: at shows, at bars, enough that we decided to pool our knowledge of upcoming events, to see if maybe we should coordinate our appearances. We knew we enjoyed similar images and sounds, and this felt meaningful — something we’d shout into ears at venues banking on the broad accessibility of our chosen aesthetic.
“I love this band,” she’d say.
“Yeah, me too.”
She was pretty, definitely, but more important was the book she kept in her bag. A girl with a book is innately attractive; men understand that if she can tolerate the act of reading for the sake of pleasure, she’ll likely put up with all manner of nonsense for the sake of a relationship. I was smitten.
“You know Godard?”
“Yeah,” I’d say.
“I love him. Feel like he’s totes underrated. And Karina’s so pretty.”
Sometimes we’d be in a line or at a table and we’d get to talking, and mostly that was okay, but sometimes she’d talk and I’d feel embarrassed for her. I think that’s normal, though; we all say stupid things, sometimes I go so far as to write them in places where hundreds might see, and so just the thought of calling her out put me in a pretty flagrant Pot vs. Kettle scenario. It was easier to ignore it, and we were busy enough to make that work.
So things go smoothly for a few more weeks, until one night she appears at my apartment in full makeup — still dressed for some trendy club where I’d never pass the door — and she looks distraught. She’d been at the bar with some friends when a guy approached and started running a Pick Up Artist (PUA) routine on them. For those who aren’t familiar: PUAs are groups of guys who get together and ‘study’ women as if they were anthropomorphized safes guarding vaginas that might be freely accessed if only the correct codewords could be deciphered. PUAs script and rehearse entire conversations, committing to memory flow-charts of fictional stories that the women they approach can trigger with their responses, a bit like a Goosebumps Choose Your Own Adventure novel but a thousand times creepier. The whole process was detailed a few years back in a book by Neil Strauss called The Game.
So anyway, she’s at the bar and this guy starts in:
“Hey, hey guys real quick, I’ve got to get back to my friends but, hey, maybe you can help us settle something, alright, so, here’s the thing, who lies more: men or women?” And so because she is a Book Girl, and because she’s read The Game, she recognizes what is happening and politely responds that she is out with friends, and they don’t get to see each other very often, and so they’re really not looking to meet anyone new tonight, sorry.
But the PUA is undeterred.
“Cool, cool, see my boy there says that men lie more but women lie better, you know what I mean? You know what I mean, right? How women lie better?” The script indicates this is what must be said when a girl in the ‘target set’ is unresponsive to the initial question. The PUA knows this. So does the Book Girl. She tells him she’s very sorry, but she’s read The Game and would really prefer to just talk to her friends.
The PUA is stunned; though the book has been out for years, and he’s likely used the line even longer, it seems there’s nothing in the script for getting called out like that. Forced to improvise, what he comes up with is, “[expletive] you, you fat b-tch, I wasn’t into you, anyway.”
Though unscripted, it’s a trick every asshole guy knows: if you want to hurt a girl, you call her fat. She might be rail thin — it’s often more effective that way — but something happens in a girl’s brain when you call her fat. Something rearranges her world so that some part of her, against all logic, just believes it. Doesn’t matter that the guy is clearly only saying it to hurt her. Doesn’t matter that nobody in the world agrees. It’s the ‘small penis’ barb played in reverse: whatever the status of a woman’s body, there is always some imagined ideal she could be closer to.
So rather than going out as planned, I spent the next day lounging on the couch beside a girl who wants only to update her Tumblr with images of teenage fashion models, to grumble about how ‘everything would fit better,’ to resist any invitation to rejoin me in the real world. She says she doesn’t feel like moving. That her brain is wearing sweatpants.
It’s immensely frustrating. If there were an actual problem, I could maybe provide some form of instrumental support. I could be proactive about it. And if she’d been called out on something tangible, well, I could do my best to provide emotional support, you know? Try to cheer her up a bit.
But the girl is freaking underweight. It’s quantifiable. The situation is like someone off the street accusing you of having too many fingers — momentarily jarring, of course, but then you’d look down and realize everything’s just fine. How does she not realize this? What is the Ideal Guy Response here?
At some point in the evening I get her to close the laptop and watch a movie with me. She picks one in which a famously thin blonde actress plays a ghost. I tell her it looks boring, but she insists it’s really good, and so I turn on the Blu-ray and get to making some popcorn. I feel a guilty thrill making enough for the both of us, knowing I’m going to have to eat it all. Going to have to. I’m so noble.
But then it turns out she was lying: the movie is actually incredibly dull. Characters stare at each other for minutes at a time. There are bad child actors. I mean, it’s a mess. And though it’s doing its job of taking her mind off things (she seems absolutely enthralled), I’m becoming bored. I’m bored and I’m silent and it feels awkward and terrible and so I just start talking, filling the void with quips about the action onscreen, and she keeps shushing me, telling me to pay attention because I’m missing important parts, and at one point the skinny blond ghost has sex with another ghost — they have ghostsex — and so I look over and I say, “I hope they used protection,” and she rolls her eyes and I put my hand on her shoulder, “I’d hate for her to have to get an aboooooooooooortion.”
She glares at me.
“Because she’s a ghost.”
“Oh, I get it,” she says. “I just don’t think that’s something you should joke about…” Her face is dead serious now, which catches me off-guard, and already my liberal guilt is making me feel terrible for having been so insensitive. She’s right, of course, joking about abortion doesn’t make you edgy or cool, all it does is prove that you’re–
“…the spirit world, and all that.”
“Sorry?” I say. It’s equal parts apology and request for clarification.
“Spirits. They aren’t something to joke about.”
Is this actually happening? No, it can’t be. She’s probably being ironic. She doesn’t look ironic. Maybe she’s just really good at being ironic? She lives in Bushwick; gotta figure most people in Bushwick lean closer to Irony than Legitimate Belief in Spirits, right? Yeah, that makes sense. I’m just gonna laugh. I’m gonna laugh and we’ll see where we’re at from there.
“I don’t know why you’re laughing.”
Nope. That definitely made it worse. She looks legitimately upset now. At least she’s not thinking about last night. She’s moved from an irrational belief in being overweight to an irrational belief in the undead. Not certain that’s a step up. Do I engage with this? Could just ignore it. But then what if we get married? Do I have to fake a belief in ghosts for the remainder of our relationship? How has this never come up? Hey, I really enjoyed that Ken Burns documentary and, speaking of documentaries, The Sixth Sense.
“So, just to clarify,” I say as evenly as possible. “You believe in ghosts.”
She crosses her arms.
“I believe in the spirit world, yes.”
“Because I’ve had experiences where it’s the only explanation.”
Oh my god, I think, we’re about to have a fight about ghosts. And we do. She tells the horrifyingly detailed story of how one time when she was sleeping she woke up and an incubus was lying on her and she couldn’t breathe and it was real — she could look around — and it was the scariest moment of her entire life and she tried to push the incubus demon off but couldn’t because her arms couldn’t move and she must have repressed the rest of that memory because the next thing she knew she was waking up and it was daytime.
“That’s… babe, that’s sleep paralysis,” I say. “It’s an established thing. Like, even ghost hunters recognize that it’s just a—”
“Are you seriously victim-blaming me right now, because—”
“You’re seriously accusing me of victim-blaming?”
“—that’s also only one experience.”
“There have been other times,” she says, “if you’re gonna be an asshole about it, where I had friends around as witnesses.”
“What, like you were playing on a Ouija board?”
“It was an authentic séance.”
And as she tells story after story — a séance table levitating in Houdini-esque fashion — it becomes apparent that this isn’t some idiosyncrasy that she recognizes is silly but maintains in a quaint, old-fashioned sort of way. This isn’t rooting for the Mets. This is a Core Belief, something she expects us to share, something which causes her to go on the defensive — no, the offensive — when I appear to disagree with her. After explaining how dead loved ones will sometimes possess fireflies and attempt to communicate with her in Morse code, she asks again, “How can you not believe in spirits?”
“I don’t know, babe,” I say, grinding my palm into my eyes. “Maybe because they don’t exist. Because thousands of years of civilization haven’t been able to find a shred of evidence for their existence. I mean, I want to believe, I really do. I would be totally psyched to see a ghost, because that would confirm there’s something magic or supernatural in the world, that maybe when you die you don’t just disappear forever, you know? But that hasn’t happened. And it’s not going to. Because Ghosts. Aren’t. Real.”
“Don’t say that.”
“No, I mean even if you’re going to believe that,” she warns. “Don’t say it out loud. It creates a negative energy which attracts spirits…”
“Babe, I am not attracting spirits. There are no spirits. Look,” I stand and raise my hands into the air and shout into the ceiling, “Attention all spirit-ghost-demon things! I give you permission to manifest, right now, and prove me wrong! This is me summoning you!”
“Stop that,” she says.
“Any ghost, whatsoever! Especially you, the one listening, who I think is a big time pussy, and totally won’t do crap about it, and who probably died in a totally embarrassing way that I bet I’d find hilarious!”
“Stop what? Nothing is happening!”
“That you can see.”
“Yeah, that’s normally how I can tell if anything is happening. By observation.”
“You’re going to end up haunted,” she says, shaking her head. “You won’t be laughing then.”
I tell her a haunting might be nice, that I might enjoy having someone to come home to. That I’d had that situation before and, anxiety over gender roles aside, it was nice coming home and having someone working on dinner already, or lounging on the couch, or just getting on with their life in a space which was shared, and lived in, and decorated with compromise. I tell her I’d probably enjoy having a long-term live-in partner, spectral or not, and she scoffs at me.
“Well, I can assure you it wouldn’t be a friendly thing.”
“A haunting is dangerous. It’s a good way to get killed.”
“What, my ghost is going to kill me? Why would it do that?”
“Because you’re disturbing its peace.”
“And it’s going to kill me over that?”
“It’s happened before.”
It has absolutely not happened before but for some reason I don’t say that. For some reason I’m buying into her logic and saying things like, “Well presumably if it killed me I’d turn into a ghost, and I imagine that’d be a much bigger inconvenience for the thing, being stuck haunting a room with the guy it just killed—”
“That’s not how it works.”
“That seems like an extremely awkward way to pass an eternity.”
“Not everybody becomes a ghost, you prick. Only people who aren’t at peace become ghosts — people who feel they have unfinished business.”
“What, so white supremacists and Nazis all turn into ghosts?”
“Anyone with unfinished business.”
“So what you’re saying, what you literally believe, is that as long as I’m stuck on Season Four of The Wire, I can live forever as a spirit.”
“You’re such an idiot,” she says.
“Me, and every activist, and anyone who died hoping Firefly would get back on the air, we’re all basically immortal?”
“I think you should go.”
“Yeah, I think we’re done here,” I say. I put on my coat. “I hope my apartment’s not haunted when I get back!”
“You know, I actually don’t think it will be. I think probably you’ll just be alone — for a very, very long time.”
No arguments there.