Who’re You Calling A Nihilist?

Before I bought the Audi – but after I bought the Subaru – I made plans for Jessica and I to go to dinner with Lindsay and Nita, a couple in their early-fifties with whom I’d become quite close.  Jessica hadn’t been in Portland more than a week and I tried to introduce her to my friends as fast as possible, in an attempt to help her feel at home.  Secretly, my biggest fear was that her transition would be rocky, that she’d get discouraged, and immediately head back to New York.  I could already tell she was traumatized.  Two-dozen cardboard boxes, filled with her things, arrived that afternoon, reminding her of everything she’d left behind.

When we got to the Indian restaurant Lindsay and Nita were seated, empty wine glasses and picked-over appetizer plates strewn about the table in front of them.

“Hi.” I said, confused.  Lindsay, a kind-looking man, who could pass as a fifty-something Leonard Cohen, smiled a tight, lean smile.

“We were meeting at 7:30, right?” I said, pointing at my watch.

“6:30,” Lindsay said, slowly twirling his spoon.

“Really?” I said, “I could have sworn we said 7:30.”

Lindsay and Nita wore twin masks of disappointment, a silent totem whose significance I couldn’t fail to miss.  I’m almost never late to anything.  It’s one of my best characteristics.  I see punctuality as a sign of respect, not just to the other person, or party, but to myself – this guy.

“I am so sorry,” I said, as if conferring mass.  Jessica and I quickly sat down.

“Do you guys feel like staying here?” I asked.  “If you’d like to go…”

“We’re starving!” Nita shouted, in her yawning southern drawl, “Let’s eat!”

I met Lindsay and Nita several years ago after a poetry reading.  Lindsay overheard me, outside, talking to some guy about Bard College.  My school.  He cut in to say he went to Bard in the seventies and had been student body president when current, and long-time president, Leon Botstein, was originally hired.

Oh, so you’re the asshole, I thought but didn’t say.  Besides our mutual alma mater and shared taste for Heidegger we both enjoyed tracking the financial sector – he as a one-time commodities trader and me as a nervous hobby.

We ordered appetizers, entrees, drinks.  Lindsey and I sat on one side, Nita and Jessica on the other.  You could say it was a gender-segregated table.  I kept apologizing for being late, so much so that it became embarrassing and maybe even a little uncomfortable.  I wanted to make them feel bad for being mad at me for being so late.  I didn’t consciously do it.  I just did it.

“Anyway,” I said, “what’s going on with you guys?”

“Oh, you know,” Nita said, “Same old, same old.  Kat came out of the closet and Paul’s still a spoiled brat,” referring to her prized fourteen year old daughter and slightly-less-prized seventeen year old son.   I smiled.  I always liked her alcoholic-grade bluntness.

“Kat came out of the closet?” I asked, gamely taking the bait.

“Yeah, she and her best friend, Tanya, decided that they’re going to be girlfriends.”  Nita couldn’t have been more proud.

“How do you feel about that?”

“Oh we think it’s just great,” she said, her eyes all lit up like starfire.  “But Tanya’s afraid to tell her parents.  She thinks they’re gonna crack-up, you know?  So we let ‘em spend all their time together at our house.  You should see ‘em all snuggled up on the couch, beneath a big ‘ol pile of blankets.  It’s so cute!”

No one at the table moved as if we’d all been thrown under silent house arrest.

“Kat’s really super happy since she came out as a lesbian,” Nita went on, stressing the word lesbian as if it were a badge she’d earned from completing some essential contemporary task.

“How old is she, thirteen?” I said.

“Almost fourteen,” Lindsay said.

“She’s pretty sure she’s a lesbian?” I said.  “I mean, she’s just thirteen, right?  I mean, that stuff’s pretty fluid for teenage girls.”  My arms were flapping around in front of me like a kite gone haywire.

“Oh, she’s totally sure,” Nita said.  “I told her: You’re so smart to avoid men.”  And here she scrunched up her nose like a rabbit, throwing her little rabbit face all around.  Jessica looked like she wanted to get up and sprint away from the table.   Nita dropped her head back and let out a naughty, deep-chested cackle.

I’d already destabilized our dinner date by being a full hour late and now with this aggressive show of alcohol-fueled animal spirits, anything was possible.

“Women are so-o much easier, don’t you think?” Nita said as she turned to Jessica.  But Jessica, still in shock from her new life – in a new city, with a new boyfriend, dining with her new friends – was caught totally off guard.  Jessica cocked her head, smiled, and looked to me for rescue.

“Woman are better than men, right?” I said.  Everyone laughed.  Nita threw her arm around Jessica.

“Oh, po-or thing!” she shouted, “You’re in the middle of this hu-uge move.  You must be to-otally exhausted!”

“Oh, I am,” Jessica said, her voice a tiny little shadow.

“Ahhhhhh,” Lindsay cooed.

I thought about my loft, now filled with Jessica’s nearly two-dozen cardboard boxes.  I wondered how she was feeling.  I didn’t understand why she seemed more anxious than excited by all the newness.  Isn’t newness, and the possibility of rebirth, the thing that we all finally hope for?  Like eternal beauty or infinite bliss?  But I’ve since began to wonder.  Maybe the possibility of starting over is really just our freedom to throw it all away, and thus to destroy ourselves, or our values, our one and only chance at the good life?

I don’t remember how we got on the topic but Nita started talking about technology and progress.  She started saying how everything is changing for the better, how much luckier we are to be alive now than the people in the 16th century or even in the 1960’s.  She was on one of her verbal rolls where it just seemed like all the words in the English language, including a lot of the new ones (and even some of the ones that hadn’t made it in yet) were just singing out of her, through her, in one continuous vibration, like a primordial linguistic melody.  She had a couple of drinks in her too, which helped.  But alcohol, like it does for so many of us, inflected her words with a kind of Fuck you timbre, setting up, what in hindsight was perhaps a totally avoidable confrontation.

“You really think everything’s getting better all the time?” I asked.  I couldn’t help it.  Maybe I was still reverse-angry at them for me being an hour late.

“Ye-es!” she shouted, her blank eyes emptying out darkness.

“You seriously believe,” I said, also drunk, “that we are, right now, at this very moment, in this restaurant, sitting at the pinnacle of all human achievement, for all time?”

“There are clear advances in quality of life that we enjoy today,” Lindsay said.  He sounded much too calm and blandly optimistic like one of those morning show anchors.  I turned to him.  Jessica sat motionless.

“Women’s Rights, Birth Control, the Internet,” he ticked off each point on one of his fingers.  To counter-act his reason, I reached into my pants pocket and produced a brand new iPhone.  Lindsay’s eyes widened.  He held out his hand to touch it, as if it were an elixir or an idol.

“How do you like it?” he said, his voice low and small.

“I just got it today,” I shrugged.

I put the iPhone in his hand.  He gazed into it deeply, as if looking into a mirror or an abyss.

“Here we are,” I said, “It’s 2008 and I have the Alexandrian Library in the palm of my hand.”

I re-took the iPhone and held it up beside my face for emphasis.  “This didn’t exist a year ago and it definitely didn’t exist five hundred years ago.  But does it mean we’re better off because we have instant access to more information than has ever been available in the history of the world?”


“I don’t think so,” I shook my head, “I really don’t.”

“So you don’t think change is possible?” Nita said, leaning forward across the table.

“Sure, change is possible.  Things are changing all the time.  But I’m talking about the big questions: Where do we come from?  Where are we?  What happens when we die? With all our new technologies, advances, and discoveries we’re still in no better position now than we ever were to come up with answers.”

Lindsay puckered his lips and lowered his eyes, looking like he felt really sorry for me.  Jessica was slumped in the booth, probably wondering if moving to Portland was such a good idea.

“You’re a nihilist!” Nita shot.  I looked at her across the table.  “You.  Are.  A nihilist,” she repeated.

“I am not a nihilist,” I winced.

“Yes, you are.”

“That’s ridiculous.”

“You are totally a nihilist!”

“Well, wait a minute,” I said, “What’s your definition of a nihilist?”

We held one another’s gaze across the table, her mouth forming a little empty black hole.

“Well, uhm, uh, a nihilist is….”  She couldn’t think of an answer.

“That’s not fair,” Lindsay said, “you can’t put her on the spot like that.”

“She accused me of being a Nihilist!” I said, “I think I have the right to put her on the spot.”

“Well, according to Nietzsche,” Nita said, “a nihilist is someone who doesn’t believe in anything, someone who has no beliefs.”

I shifted heavily in my chair.  “You honestly think that I don’t believe in anything?” I said, “That’s insulting!”

“Well, you don’t believe in change.  You don’t believe in progress.  What do you believe in?”

“How is it even possible not to believe in anything?” I said, “Everyone is a believer.  It’s basic human nature to construct stories, to invent, to believe.”

I looked over at Lindsay.  He was slowly shaking his head.  “I just didn’t know you thought like that,” he said.

The whole thing happened so fast.  Jessica slunk further into the booth until she’d practically evaporated from my life, even though she’d just arrived, boxes and all.  There was something final at that table.  A message had been delivered, a curse either placed or lifted.  The waitress brought the bill and I quickly threw down my credit card.

“Let me get this,” I said, in a desperate attempt to atone for what had been a disastrous evening, and, at the same time, kind of a reverse fuck you to Nita for calling me a nihilist.

We walked outside, the four of us.  We took turns hugging in the cool summer night air.

“Where are you parked?” I said.

“Over there,” Lindsay said, and we walked our separate way.

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