the weight of somber fashion
When I was in fifth grade, a girl named Lynda told our entire middle
school art class that I was boring as hell, because when she invited
me to her 10th birthday party, I didn't feel like playing games
that involved cardboard donkeys or making fun of a boy named P.T.,
who'd peed his pants the week before.
Instead, I sat in Lynda's little sister's room and watched a tank
full of speckled frogs bump around their pond-replicate world, snapping
at brown, oblivious crickets. It was all very entertaining -- more
fun than the party -- and so I stayed with my fingers pressed against
the glass until my mom picked me up at 6 o'clock.
The next day, when Lynda made her critical announcement to the
class, everyone was working on huge collages that looked like crude
representations of domesticity. The whole class was stuck between
pasty pieces of construction paper and catalog clippings of animals
and dishwashers. They looked at me as if I were drastically different
from all of them. A few girls lifted their paint-smeared chins or
raised their barely visible eyebrows. Some pressed their faces closer
to their pet-dog-and-kitchen-appliance projects and refused to meet
my guilty eye.
At that moment I did feel incredibly dull and boring.
In middle school, Lynda was popular and her idea of fun had everything
to do with being loud and active and social. She liked slumber parties
where she and 10 other girls would sneak over to a certain high
school boy's house, deface his mailbox and put notes on his windowsill
because they thought he looked like some guy on prime-time TV.
When she got older, Lynda still had slumber parties. Only by then
they were called get-togethers, and her two older brothers would
turn up the radio and buy all of her friends drugs and Jack Daniels
in huge brown bottles. This kind of thing often led to a few people
removing their clothing and running around the neighborhood like
renegade circus animals. As a result of these adventures, however,
Lynda was considered to be a very exciting person; here was a girl
who knew how to have a good time.
I have heard of other kinds of so-called fun: barbecues and group
beach trips, disorganized treks to malls, bars and nightclubs. What
all these things have in common is they seem to involve an overabundance
of bantering and cavorting people who are nearly always too loud,
too rowdy and often too intoxicated.
Nonetheless, it was made clear to me, by Lynda for example, that
these are the kinds of things that exciting people like to do and
they are considered great fun. I am generally not a loud person
and the presence of too many people hanging around makes me cranky
or nervous. Or both.
My idea of a good time usually involves solitary activities.
My ideal Friday night: I am lying all over my unfurnished living
room floor, sucking on hard candies, the Arts section of last Sunday's
New York Times spread before me like a well-used map. During these
evenings, I have a habit of amusing myself with the time-bomb sounds
of the couple occupying the apartment below me. One is a cello player
in a rock band, the other a thin stripe of a woman who I've seen
near the mailbox, shredding manila envelopes or coupon books into
the garbage dumpster.
When they argue, they're vehement cats, arch-backed and cunning.
But they make up like graceful lines of handwriting. I have already
become familiar with their low growls and lilting inflections. I
like to imagine them lean and impulsive, muscles tightening into
hard knots at their jaws and shoulders. I make a game of guessing
their positions on the floor plan (the rooms of our apartments are
arranged exactly the same). It often seems to me that the cello
player, whose voice is as low as his instrument, begins in the kitchen
and instigates something concerning the slow and filthy coffeemaker,
or that the cat hasn't yet been fed. The thin woman begins to shout
high-pitched sparks from the bathroom.
"That goddamn girl from the radio station called today,"
she might say. "I'm not answering the phone around here anymore."
All of this -- clanking of dishes, domestic shuffling, voices like
traffic -- is choreographed entertainment and I'm often inclined
to spend my entire Friday night eavesdropping on the whole show
while painting canvases or shelling crab at my kitchen counter.
But there are expectations when you're talking about fun, especially
for holidays and Friday nights.
"What are you doing for New Year's?" people will ask,
and it's a competition to come up with something better and more
interesting than their seafood hors d'oeuvres, sexually explicit
board games and 30s-themed patio parties. I have been known to lie.
"A group of friends and I are renting the roof of the Four
Seasons Hotel," I might say. "We're taking bottles of
scotch and industrial folk music up to the swimming pool."
Their eyes would inevitably light up and their edges would smooth.
For once I'd feel terribly interesting.
Likewise, there is something troublesome about the question: "What
do you do for fun?"
Nothing makes you realize what an unexceptional person you are
quite like stumbling and pausing over that inquiry, trying to think
of a way to avoid revealing that you'd rather spend any Saturday
afternoon looking at shocking photos of emergency room drama in
medical journals at the library.
I distinctly remember the time I went out for a night of other
people's fun in my attempt to be what I thought was the true definition
of exciting. It was a Friday. I had been working for an insurance
company, handling thick health and benefits files and talking to
irritable clients about their 401K plans. After a 40-hour week,
my coworker-friend Jane and I usually went to a place called The
Oasis, where we would drink green bottles of beer and eat limp french
fries out of red baskets. Often we mused over how odd it was that
the secretary's strange boyfriend always dropped off head-sized
Fed Ex packages for her at the reception desk every Thursday. Sometimes
we would see a movie at the dank-smelling 50s-style cineplex on
6th Street. This, I thought, was great fun.
But on this particular day, Jane insisted that I hadn't experienced
real fun until I accompanied her and two of her glitzed and
bejeweled friends to a nightclub. I hemmed and hawed but didn't
outright refuse; some part of me was wondering if, during all this
time, I'd really been missing out on something that would make my
relaxing solitary moments seem like dull lighting. I was gingerly
persuaded into black boots and a thin black dress so that the four
of us looked like pairs of absurdly skinny legs carrying the weight
of somber fashion. I felt exposed and slightly stupid.
At 10 p.m., we all squeezed through the narrow door of the Upstairs
Lounge, where we were met by a large, squared man who red-inked
our hands and took our long coats. There were people all around,
moving like pretty sea life with bare, tattooed shoulders and severe
geometrical haircuts. They smelled of leather and alcohol. Jane's
long fingers wrapped like a bracelet around my wrist and she maneuvered
me through groups of people converged like loud continents, exporting
crude exclamations and toothy open mouths.
At one point I bumped into the bare elbow of a smug-looking man,
causing him to lose the light of his smoldering cigarette. He glared
at me like a fashionable dragon. It was dark, but triangles of artificial
light flickered as people shuffled and looked grim and happy all
The girls tried to get me to dance, but I couldn't organize my
limbs into anything that looked graceful or smooth despite zealous
effort. Jane instructed me by saying something like, "do this"
or "like a fish," but the music and the voices were so
loud that everything merged into one ambitious roar and I couldn't
pick out anything recognizable. Finally, though still smiling, I
gave up, decided to order a cocktail and sat down on a huge vinyl
couch positioned on the outskirts of the dance floor. From there
I could still see Jane and the girls making their mysterious twisting
movements like wiry reptiles.
After awhile, a man so glossy and gray he looked metallic sat next
to me with his leather thigh too close to my hand. What I couldn't
take my eyes off of, though, was the silver hoop that swelled his
lower lip like a kind of blistering infection. He lifted a shot
to his lips and the ring ticked against the glass. I checked my
watch and drank my cocktail in attempt to look disinterested and
irritated. I wished that his leg didn't keep bumping my knee. Then
he came very close to my face and spoke.
"You look like the actress from that movie about the junkie
girl who tried to be a successful rock star like her sister,"
he said, "only you have a different shaped mouth and you don't
look like you're having any fun."
I didn't know what actress he was talking about, so I wasn't sure
if I should ignore him and be secretly flattered or ignore him and
wish for the audacity to stab his invasive kneecap with my cocktail
pick. Despite my inattention, he continued to tell me that he sold
speed and LSD, and if I needed anything at all I should just ask.
"I'm trying to earn the money to open a fitness center downtown
in the industrial district," he added. His voice sounded like
Jello, the way it wobbled with intoxication.
"No, thanks," I told him, not making eye contact.
And then he put his hand on my left thigh -- dangerously close
to my crotch. My entire upper leg practically disappeared under
his palm. He breathed in my ear like an exhausted dog, wondering
if he could buy me another drink. I tightened my mouth and finally
turned to his well-chiseled face.
"I gotta go," I said, pushing his hand off my leg.
He furrowed his brow and acted like he didn't understand what I'd
just said. I shoved my unfinished drink into his offensive hand
and stood up quickly to walk away. I didn't even remember to glance
behind me to check if I'd dropped my keys or some money onto the
After bumping into several hips and elbows, I found the girls still
twisting on the dance floor. I told them I needed to go home because
I'd just been struck with a lurid headache. They smiled sympathetically
and didn't try to make me stay. I drove home, grumbling all the
way over the time I'd lost when I could have been taking an excessively
long and hot bath while reading a magazine.
I was grateful when I finally spilled through my front door and
into my living room. I turned on the television and threw off my
dress. There was a documentary on channel 5 about teen-aged prostitutes
in L.A. I was disappointed to have missed the first 20 minutes while
I'd been pretending to have a good time at the nightclub. My cat
wrapped himself around my ankle.
I decided that I wouldn't have missed a thing if I hadn't gone
to the Upstairs Lounge.
There's a girl named Jean with sardonic eyes who lives two levels
above my apartment -- ever since the time she asked to borrow my
blowdryer, we've exchanged smiles, hellos and an occasional word.
Jean seems to have the admirable quality of not lying about her
social life. I saw her in the elevator not so long ago, pulling
candy wrappers out of her pocket and dropping them onto the floor.
Another girl on the elevator who had a wide, amusing mouth said,
"Jean, do you want to go to that concert tonight?"
Jean shifted a piece of gum in her mouth and briefly glanced at
the ceiling. "No, thanks. I think I'm staying home tonight."
"What will you do?" asked the girl with silly, wide eyes.
"Nothing, I guess," Jean said with a knowing grin. It
was Friday. I know that Jean usually goes to the darkroom on Friday.
Once, with tentative excitement, she showed me glossy prints of
homeless people's faces.
The girl on the elevator pulled a lingering thread off her T-shirt
and offered a small smile that might have been sympathy. I had it
in mind to say something ridiculous like, "I do nothing, too."
But I didn't say anything at all.
Thinking of all this now, I can remember something my mom said
to me when I told her that I thought the girl who worked at the
T. Street grocery store was pretty.
"Well, you know," she said, "one person's Renoir
is another person's kindergarten art project."
She was at the kitchen table drawing a picture of a pineapple at
the time, and I was probably around 15 years old. So everything
she said was snorted at, smirked at or generally ignored. The statement
makes perfect sense now, and I think fun is subjective in the same
Recently, a guy I know who works in a copy shop asked me what I
was doing for my upcoming vacation. I expect that he thought I'd
say something about drinking like a maniac in New Orleans or flaunting
myself in a two-piece bathing suit on a Cancun beach.
"I'm just gonna hang around town," I said, not hesitating.
"I have this new eggplant casserole recipe and a stack of garage-sale
books I need to read."
He turned stiffly so that I couldn't see his face as he stuffed
a few pages into the tray of a fax machine. The back of his thin
T-shirt read, "I'd Rather Be In Hell's Canyon," in ridiculously
"That," he said, "sounds like fun."