A collection of short pieces written by Rumpus readers pertaining to the subject of “Misery Loves Company.”
Edited by Susan Clements.
* * *
A year ago last week she walks into my life and all over me. In a few short, hot hours I’m on my back and her whole story pours all over me; up and down my neck, across my pelvis and into my heart, my soul, my brainstem like I’m a lizard.
We connect. I’m in her arms, she’s in mine, and I feel our hearts are one; reaching, open, bleeding, red, together.
Her story rips me open and draws me into her life like I never lived a moment since that time my mom beat me to within an inch of my life. I hurt so much I feel her hurt like it’s my own. I make it my own. I made it that as soon as I heard it from the most compassionate lips on the face of my planet. God, we fall in love and I feel good about myself for the first time in years as the spring flows into summer and she explodes with built up venom from all that has happened and all that I cannot do for her and all that I can’t do for myself.
I house-sit in the country and plan the time to myself but can’t stand the thought of not being together and having a chance at close, naked abandon and we sleep separate and grow tense and drink lots of good beer and Irish whiskey.
“You move in with me and I’ll move on and you can take care of my stuff until I’m ready for it. I only need two weeks of solid work and I’ll be on my way.” Okay, sure. I could stay here.
Four months later we fly out West for two weeks and the whole scene turns south as soon as we get there and I go plant my face in the sidewalk—I look like a friggin’ raccoon and feel worse when she wonders aloud about making love to say goodbye—she’s decided to stay and I come home alone. I get some time on my own. I learn I can feel anger, that I’m bad at being practical and can’t figure out how to meet my needs.
The steep hills and sea breezes take their toll and she returns. We agree we’re not going to set up a company to market any of this.
* * *
As the plane hits a patch of turbulence, I feel a bit of hope. I don’t want the plane to crash, but if I am ever going to die in a plane crash, now would be a good time. If we were at least to take a nosedive, I wouldn’t be the only person on board crying, which I have been doing since the breakup yesterday. The tears stopped on the way to the airport because my ride packed a one-hitter and I can be sad or stoned but not sad and stoned, but the high wore off and I cried over Sbarro pizza in the Sea-Tac food court. Right then, it felt like the only thing worse that Sbarro pizza was crying over Sbarro pizza, and never making it to my final destination, back to the house I had planned on packing up and moving west until Amaya told me not to, sounded just fine.
No one seems disturbed by the turbulence. The only one who comments is the boy beside me, Andrew. My dislike of Andrew began when he opened a bag of Doritos, which reminded me of Amaya. I’ve never seen Amaya eat Doritos but she has a deep and unironic love of Taco Bell, and Doritos and Taco Bell are basically the same thing. I hear Andrew say, “Mommy, why is that man crying?,” and I know he’s talking about me. On my last trip to see Amaya, a man bumped into me in the security line, turned around, and said, “Oh, I’m sorry, ma’am,” before doing a double-take: “Whoops! I mean, sir.” This usually amuses me, but right now, as Andrew’s mom looks over, his mistake brings more attention to my swollen eyes and I hope he’s the first to go when the plane crashes.
Last night, I felt like if Amaya had cried then I could have stopped, but she didn’t. Second to go will be the man reading GQ across the aisle. I’m sure he’s perfectly nice and I like his scarf, but Bruce WIllis is on the cover of his magazine and Amaya has the first lines of Die Hard tattooed on her shoulder. “I guess you don’t like flying?,” the tattoo reads. No, I don’t, nor anything but the image of her beautiful, tear-stained face when she gets the news about this flight, downed somewhere over Chicago, with, I hope, no survivors.
— Katie Herzog
* * *
Man. It’s just a word, one we learn early like cat or hat, or boy, which can be confusing to our young selves as we try to work out how it’s the same but also different. Man: only three letters, simple shapes and the meaning we give to them. My meaning is probably different than yours. My example of the word was something that wasn’t there, a definition based on absence. A man is the empty space where something could be but is not, maybe once was. The man, the myth, literally.
My hair has gotten thicker since leaving California. Sexy, someone purrs to me from down the bar and I shoot them a look like don’t waste your breath, like, I wouldn’t even know what to do with you. When I wear my hair down it falls like a shawl around my shoulders and men smile, flashing teeth and a semantic change I’m not ready for. I maintain my definition; I hold tight to that emptiness. My mother, with straw-like hair so fine it blows around her head indoors, has been envious since I was younger, said you don’t get this from me as she brushed it down my back, taught herself how to French braid with it, rested a hand absentmindedly on my head the way parents do, one of those things they do that comforts without trying, the kind of thing you miss when you get too old, too tall, too proud to let them do it anymore. Thick hair and long eyelashes, a mean streak, these pieces and how many others of this mythical man continue to surface in me whether I can recognize him there or not. My mother tells me these things help her remember him. She wanted a child to let her hold on to the husband she knew she would one day leave.
Most days, spitefully, I hope I make her miss him more.
— Josiane Curtis
* * *
“You should go out more. You’re in New York City. Live it up!”
Okay. Here’s what it’s like in the city:
After a long shift the waitress only wants to get home but she’s hounded by a pack of bros in starchy button down shirts with too much gel in their hair, too much Red Bull in their veins, and too much pent-up testosterone because they were rejected by party girls pretending to be women, walking barefoot with their clunky heels hanging off their fingers, the blackened soles of their feet in stark contrast to the their neon tube dresses that are two sizes too small, who love to berate Middle Eastern deli owners and hurl bottles at cabs because there’s nothing Daddy can’t fix, and the skinny Asian boy on the curb cradles his sick buddy’s head, his own feet firmly planted in a puddle of puke, trying to ignore the homophobic (or is it racist?) laughter (he can’t tell) of passersby as the Indian girl on the corner tries to convince her drunken best friend, who’s not really drunk but just terribly frustrated at the world, to get out of the middle of the road where a speeding BMW driven by a man-child from the suburbs wearing a flat brim cap sideways is blowing every stop sign and heading for the old woman who doesn’t care, whose sole concern is to forage through the garbage for more cans and bottles to add to the mountain of recyclables in her handcart, which is next to the shivering homeless man wrapped in newspapers and lying on a flattened cardboard box, while tipsy underage NYU kids stumble out of a dollar pizza joint next to his bare feet, thinking they’re in the ‘hood because they’d exchanged pleasantries with a group of black teens from The Bronx, and now they wonder where to mark their territory next because if you go to school in New York, the whole city is your campus.
Here’s the deal:
The loneliest place in the world is Saturday night on the dance floor of a club you didn’t want to go to, filled with people you’d avoided in daylight, and you’re all lost but don’t know it, and you’re all dreaming but can’t believe it, and everyone’s drowning in the stench of sweat, vomit, mouthwash, urine, alcohol, and bleach.
— Kevin Fong
* * *
I recently inherited by default my dead father-in-law’s iPhone 5, which he had bought just a few months before the colon cancer spread rapidly to his liver and lungs, turned him into a sagging bag of yellow skin on knobby bones, and finally made breathing too difficult to continue. He was 57.
My new iPhone 5 is exciting; I won’t deny it. My partner Lara and I had been sharing an old iPhone for years, occasionally getting a pay-as-you-go phone (or “burner”) if I had to fly to a conference. I was used to using our old iPhone mainly for calling people; Lara texted friends and had her email account set up on the old device.
Now I’m suddenly doing email, Twitter, and texting on this new super-fast phone. It’s a thrill! But I’m also more than a little alarmed at how quickly it has become an extra appendage—my MacBook Air sits dormant for days on end. Just this instant as I was typing, I blipped out and grabbed for the iPhone 5, as if it was going to tell me something that I couldn’t access right in front of my eyes already.
With my dead man’s iPhone 5, I fire off airport koans on Twitter like it’s nobody’s business. I’ve got the one-line-email reply down pat. I scan miniature PDFs like a Predator drone reading the heat signatures of human bodies at 10,000 feet.
In class the other day, I held up the iPhone 5 and pantomimed various habits and functions as a way to illustrate Donna Haraway’s now classic theory of the Cyborg, in accelerated form in 2013.
This spring we’ve also been in the process of getting our little boy to sleep in his own bed, which means that one of us often spends the night alone while the other soothes him while he whimpers. There aren’t any doors in our tiny shotgun home, so everyone has to be quiet no matter who is doing the soothing.
Lately, when it’s me alone at night, I find myself on my back, arm bent and glowing iPhone 5 in hand, scrolling through my Twitter home feed, or replying to truant students with head wounds, or reading about the latest Boeing Dreamliner debacles . . . swiping my thumb along my dead father-in-law’s iPhone 5 touchscreen, touching where he touched, bonding with him, almost.
— Christopher Schaberg
* * *
My roommates let you into the apartment Sunday night in the desolate Western Massachusetts winter. You were wandering around, bored, with energy to burn. You always had energy to burn. I was lying in bed with the covers pulled up, half in the dark. I might’ve been waking from a nap, and you felt comfortable enough to come into the room. You wanted to tell me about your latest embarrassment from the weekend. I wasn’t interested, but you didn’t care.
You asked if you could smoke in the doorway from my room to the porch, and I said fine. I’m depressed, I said. And you laughed. It made it seem like it was ridiculous. I was always depressed and our friends thought that made no sense. It was sort of a joke, I guess. How often could someone be depressed?
After an exchange (Why are you depressed? I don’t know. There must be some reason.), you were happy and surprised at this state of meaningless sadness, and there was no reason to continue questioning. You coaxed me to get in my car and drive you somewhere. You still wanted to talk about your night out, and how you had ruined yourself with some guy. It seemed to be a role you enjoyed playing over and over. You didn’t care that I wanted to drive the car off the bridge into the river.
We didn’t discuss where we were going. We were going nowhere, and that meant King Street’s abandoned strip mall, chain restaurants and liquor stores, near the Stop & Shop. The most nowhere place there was McDonald’s. You immediately found this hilarious. In your mind, it was not a reasonable place for us to be. Neither of us had been to one since high school.
Inside, you repeated that you couldn’t believe we were there. It was so pathetic. I didn’t care much. No one was there. I didn’t know why we were there. But we ate, and you told me about something you’d said or done that made you completely undesirable. I don’t remember at all what it was. It was a rehashing of the same old story.
After I dropped you off, I went to bed. I woke up and vomited at four in the morning. Days later, you were still talking about how sad it was we went to McDonald’s.
— Joe Sullivan
* * *
I’m not sure what they fight about, but she always sounds right.
Their voices rise and fall through the duplex wall, the windows, the sometimes-open door. Walls that permit every annoying techno track and worn out re-run somehow manage to filter their conversations; their words flat and shapeless.
I don’t hear facts, events, or well-made points. I hear in tones. Vibrations of meaning.
A whale song.
I hear her, if he can’t.
She says it’s like he watches her lips move through a pane of glass, uncomprehending, and fears he secretly prefers it that way.
She tells him she needs his help to stave off the loneliness, to survive in fact, and says it feels shitty to be at the end of someone’s grace.
At least I think that’s what she says.
He speaks too but the words bounce low and un-convicted, moving on without consequence. She tells him so.
She’s grown tired of being excluded while he doles out the things she loves like parade candy, plentiful and sad.
She says, “See me.” She says, “Respond.”
Sometimes, she just says “Please.”
In those nights, most of all, I lean closer into the open window, signaling back.
— Paige Ryan
* * *
Marseille doesn’t treat you kind when it rains. The train from Aix was late getting in and I had to scramble to find a hotel. It was a dump, a throwback, with high ceilings and a dingy bathroom at the end of the hall. Just a place to sleep, I told myself. I’m used to peeling paint and noisy walls. I dumped my bags and went out. A friend had suggested a place in the Old Port. I ordered a carafe of wine and omelette with tuna. I noticed two chicks at the bar, good-looking ones, tawny and svelte. I was feeling bold and started to chat them up. I watched them steal glances at one another. I was amusing, a dancing bear. But my French wasn’t good enough or I wasn’t good looking enough to reel either of them in. They told me they owned a boutique, designer knock-offs. The more they talked about the shop, the more agitated they became. Business was good but someone was tapping the till. They started to bicker, using me as the sounding board for accusations. I told them to cool it. Let’s smoke the peace pipe. Fuck you, they said, and left. By now I was pleasantly tight and staggered out into the humid gloom. I shambled through a maze of narrow streets, checking the map that grew more and more soggy as I consulted it. I found a Vietnamese hole in the wall. I ordered noodles and a beer. I tried to eat with chopsticks and made a spectacle of myself, dropping them and having to crack a new set. I was just managing to compose myself when someone hissed in my ear, “Bon appetit, dummy.” I watched the guy walk out the door, laughing with his mate. I paid up and made my way back to the hotel. I sat in the faded lobby and watched soccer highlights with the night manager who chain-smoked in top gear.
“How long are you staying?”
“I’m taking the train to San Remo tomorrow,” I said. “I have an uncle there.”
“I hope you get better weather.”
“I need it.”
I went upstairs to bed and listened to the night sluice through those remorseless gutters that spirit you away from the precipice of sleep.
— Stirling Noh
* * *
Dinner tonight is canned soup. I ask Josh what it is, and he says it’s home-cooked. I would call bullshit, but my head is ready to burst—my migraine is just awful, and I can still feel the vibrations of a thousand kindergartners’ screams in my ears. I look at Josh and say, “Thanks.” I eat the soup begrudgingly.
Mozart’s fifth symphony plays. Mom is calling. I answer, “Hello,” and ask how her day went; I tell her that I’m too busy to talk. She says she is proud of me, which is a scheme—I am convinced—for her to guilt trip me into applying to business school. But I am twenty-six and hell-bent on never doing another thing she tells me.
Mom doesn’t like Josh, but she tries not to say much about it; she’s still holding out hope that he’ll propose. I try to tell her that it’s not like that, but she doesn’t understand.
Josh isn’t a big fan of Mom’s either now that he knows she picked my name from a name book. When we met, my name was one of the reasons he imagined that he could fall in love with me. We were at a gas station. He was buying beer and I was buying Twizzlers; I looked like the kind of person who might have had a can opener or a lighter, or preferably both, handy, so he said “Hi.” I told him my name and he told me he wished we had met at a beach or a library, where true romances begin, but now it doesn’t matter. Now we just live together, and he makes soup from the fucking can, and I sit with the vibrations of screaming kindergartners in my ear. One day, when Josh leaves the apartment, it will just be me, the jars of Nutella, coconut rum, and the ringing. It won’t be a bad life, but it’s not the one I’m after.
The other day, I passed a photographer in the park, and she asked me to be part of her project: women in private settings. I think I might just invite her over—to my empire—to watch me dip my spoon into the Nutella jar and eat it on my bed. She’ll take a picture of me while I’m still with Josh while he’s still with me; I’ll always remember that, even if he’s not in the picture. Every now and then, I’ll look at it and smile even if the buzzing doesn’t go away.
— Serena Candelaria
* * *
“Can I get anyone another drink?”
“Another round for everyone! Come on, people! Time to celebrate!”
Celebrate. We’re always celebrating something—holidays, birthdays, engagements, babies, new jobs, new houses. I can’t remember who or what we’re celebrating tonight. I’ll just wait until everyone starts congratulating someone.
That’s when I’ll slip in my one kind remark. I don’t know why I continually subject myself to these outings. The people at this table tell me that it’s good for me. They say it’s better to be with others than to be alone. They say I should surround myself with happy people.
Then I tell them that their happiness is torture to me. I explain that others’ joy is my agony. They say, “Curmudgeon!” They say, “Grouch!” They say, “Pessimist!”
Who ordered the Ignorance Martini?
So I sit here observing ecstasy. Some tell jokes. Some take pictures. Some make toasts. I simply watch. Crowded loneliness.
Another gin and toxic, please.
I need a moment away from this jubilation. I step outside and exhale. I sense cigarette smoke sneaking up behind me. I turn to find another outcast sitting on a patio chair. Her right hand loosely holds a cigarette; her left hand rubs her forehead. I wonder what she is ‘celebrating’ tonight.
I look for too long; she feels my presence. I tip my head in acknowledgment. She places her cigarette between her lips and extends a fresh one towards me. I don’t smoke, but I accept her silent offer. I light up and lean against a light post.
And we smoke. We don’t look at each other. We don’t say a word. We just smoke. Soothing misery. Delightful melancholy.
I hear the patio chair scrape the concrete behind me. She quietly walks a few feet in front of me and stops with her back turned. She drops her cigarette and calmly smothers it. Without turning she says, “I’m heading across the street for a drink. Join if you’d like. Unless you’re cool alone.”
She starts walking. I crush the cigarette against the light post.
I’ll have what she’s having.
— Ryan Fox
* * *
they adore each other
walking up a dirt road, side by side. so much space between their skin.
a minute ticks.
sobs rack his body. his arched spine: a weeping.
deep breaths to swallow it, but the burial is refused. he is undone.
all she can do is touch him. her arm hooks into his as though trying to catch him.
the birth of a root. the tilled soil from which emptiness springs. the grasping search, an innate appetite to grow, pushing up the lid of the sky.
the door slams them in, a quiet cradle of dusty metal.
he turns the key and music pours out, suddenly exposed.
they are enveloped.
opera. an aria, fully alive. oxygen.
out the window she glimpses the gathering of trees, curved and bent, posing while they wait for spring.
season after season the trees wrap themselves around each other.
even the grass, its slender tips, pale as straw, surge towards the scavenged branches until they connect, a tenuous embrace.
the company they keep.
she wove herself into their shelter that morning, to see the strange red blooms, the bursts of color that deer leap for in winter. an innate appetite to grow.
without oxygen, blood stays blue.
an unsung aria from a radio station at the end of the dial.
— Melanie Rademaker
* * *
The gate outside the apartment door rattles open, then I hear its cold iron echo as it closes again. I hope it’s someone I know. Someone coming to see me without warning. But it isn’t.
Only the neighbors who moved into the unit behind me a few weeks ago. I’m starting to suspect them. Of what? I don’t know. Being a couple? One is a match-sized woman with long golden hair. She wears pant suits to work and tiny thoughtful glasses on her face. The other is a man who talks loudly when he comes home from bars late on Saturdays. I’m starting to suspect them because I heard the hollow thump, thump of sex one night. Also, they have a dog. A rat-like thing with a pink collar that they walk with a pink leash.
I leave the shades of my front window open during the day and watch them come and go. I haven’t spoken to either one of them. Even the day the woman knocked on my door because she had locked herself out of the walkway that leads back to their unit. She asked to be let in by pointing and nodding. I knew what she meant even though she was talking to somebody else on the phone and never said a word to me, of please, thank you, or hello. Only pointed. And I walked around back to let her in.
I’ve no idea who they are. But I’ve become resentful of their residence and resentful of the quarters I hear them drop into the laundry machine on Sunday afternoons. I scoff at the surfboard that waits for the ocean outside their door. I fear they work for a startup.
In San Francisco, uttering the word gentrification feels like an execution. One must be careful of who they accuse of doing the deed.
But tossing the word, like tar and feathers, onto somebody else is a way to distance myself from the fact that I too am doing the deed.
Calling someone out for gentrifying is like pinning my fart on them. I came to San Francisco for some kind of original experience, to fulfill some kind of personal dream. The people that move into my building came here for the same reason.
Yet I hate them for it. So I hate myself. But I don’t dare leave.
— Chris Carson
* * *
I have a tattoo that I lie about. I tell people it’s a Raymond Carver quote. It’s not. I wrote it. I wrote it on myself.
The day I met the man who used to be the love of my life, the tattoo was a few hours old. I sat down in a seat next to him and winced. Told him I had just gotten a tattoo on my ribcage. He asked of what, I told the Raymond Carver lie. He loved Raymond Carver and this became the first thing we talked about, which means our first conversation was based on a lie.
It doesn’t even sound like Raymond Carver. Such a stupid lie.
I had just gone through a break-up. My best friend had just gone through a break-up. We flew back and forth between Boston and DC and took long, salty walks and drank too much coffee. We asked what happened how did this happen what went wrong and then went to sleep. We woke up and asked it again. We asked it over lunch. Paninis. Diet Cokes.
Her boyfriend left her to move to China. Mine left me for the woman he’s about to marry. I still don’t know if these are satisfying reasons or terrible ones.
Elizabeth and I made up a language. Things would make us ache—couples, songs, fathers with babies—and we would send each other text messages with just a word: daggers.
I was blubbering and oily and teary and drunk on Two-Buck Chuck. Elizabeth was less drunk and oily but just as teary, blubbering.
There is healing in the broken land. That’s what the tattoo says.
This is the time when I have been the least alone. The least alone and the most broken. When we went on walks I wanted to hold her hand, but we’re grown-ups and that’s not the kind of person Elizabeth is. The kind that would hold hands.
I wish I could go back to this year and tell her, I love you more than anything, more than all the things.
I made her a lot of mixtapes. I got a tattoo. This was my hand holding hers.
— Jenna Clark Embrey
* * *
My father calls to tell me his arm hurts but what he wants me to hear is, he might have a heart attack. Maybe today, possibly tomorrow. It’s the end of January. His words follow in shallow breaths.
“Must have slept on it wrong,” he says.
I lean on my kitchen counter, listening. Soon his breathing improves and the conversation goes back and forth for an hour, stretching out across the distance of years, encompassing my brother, my mother, terrorism, the old co-op—how he’ll never leave, no matter what the half-Italian, half-Jewish director of the board says—and the merits of the 1986 Mets.
These phone calls come day or night, frequently in the last few months. Sometimes it’s morning and I’ve just woken up. Most of the time it’s evening and I imagine my father, three hours ahead on the East Coast, sitting at the dining table, smoking, a glass of bourbon at his side. My mother would never have let this sort of thing happen. She would have told him he was getting senile, that calling his son at one o’clock in the morning to talk about the past was crazy. Then again, if she were around he wouldn’t call. But two Januarys ago we drove out to the cemetery near JFK airport and put her body into the ground and this is what we’re left with. When he speaks, it’s in a new tone of voice. Listen, he seems to say. This is important.
In the background, I can hear his screeching big-band tapes of Count Basie and Jimmy Lunceford. I ask him if the neighbors ever complain.
“It’s wonderful,” he says. “You hear that?”
“Hear what, Pop?”
“The band leader counting time on the record.”
I listen closer but can’t make out anything through the blast of the horn section, across thousands of miles, and tell him so.
“It’s there,” he says. “I promise you.”
With the familiar territory covered, he says his arm is feeling better and we start negotiating goodbyes. This process goes on so long that I get angry with him because it’s late and I have to get up early for work. He doesn’t remind me it’s much later where he is. When we hang up, the silence in my apartment feels like a living thing. But I tell myself it must be that way for everyone, everywhere sometimes.
— Alex Peterson
Rumpus original art by Christina Weidman.