One week after Buzz and Heather broke up, she dragged her mattress into her living room. She moved aside the coffee table and put the mattress in front of the TV. Just a few weeks before, Buzz had done the same in his apartment so that he could stay up late and watch movies on his used tube TV. One night, he’d arranged Heather naked in different positions on the mattress to take pictures of her. Heather had secretly felt like Rose from Titanic, but knew that if she said it out loud, Buzz would dump her. Heather both liked and disliked the feeling. She’d felt subversive allowing herself to be objectified and observed so closely. She also felt like a cheeseball thinking of herself as Rose and not as an obscure gamine at the Chelsea Hotel circa 1973.
After the breakup, Heather moved her mattress to feel closer to Buzz, to sleep in the same position he was sleeping in. But she also moved it to be closer to the television and further away from the bottomlessness of her hysterics. She was crying all the time, and she knew the sadness was disproportionate to the romance. She cried in the bathroom stall at work, in traffic on the way home. In the evenings, she sat on her porch and watched the sun set at the far end of Augusta Avenue, crying into a jam jar full of whiskey, proud of the tableau she had created.
The time had come to cauterise the wound. Heather made up her bed on the floor, sat down with her cat, whose name was Fuzz, and turned on the television. Last time she had had her heart broken, she and the cat had watched the entire run of Star Trek: The Next Generation. She looked at the cat now. What would it be this time?
Sometime in the last decade I began watching TV again. At first, the shows came on DVDs through the mail. Then they came through the languid Internet of the late-naughts. Now, they come full and robust and easy; streaming is the word we use, and it’s apt in its grotesque sexuality. Television, movies and clips of all kinds pour into my apartment. The dam is broken. The water isn’t just streaming; it’s flooding.
TV in my childhood stunk of torpor and laziness. It was something to be regulated and managed. Too much TV would make you into a zombie, would ensure that you were boring, doughy and pale. My best friend didn’t have cable. She wandered in the woods and learned how to make rubber stamps and play the piano. She talked about television haughtily. She was pure and virtuous. She was better.
In college, there was only one person I knew who owned a television. I went to her house once a year to watch the Oscars. We used antennas with tinfoil on the ends to get a signal. The Internet was too slow to watch videos on a computer. Instead, my friends and I rode tandem bicycles on tree-lined streets. We read about history on front porches. We made art and listened to avant-garde music.
After college, the allure of television became strong. I found a job and a serious relationship. Adulthood was exhausting. Nothing sounded better at the end of a ten-hour day than a drink and an episode of something. Or a few drinks and a few episodes. Contemporary long-term adult romantic relationships seemed to be built around watching prestige television. And breakups were cured through marathons of nostalgic, trashy favourites.
Our lives are bloated with means of limiting our own growth and pleasure. I’ve never understood why it is so hard to choose aliveness, why exercise can feel like a punishment and a vacation like a burden. In Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Freud says we are all in a conflict between Eros and Thanatos, between a drive towards pleasure and creation and a drive towards destruction and death, between our desire to be engaged and our desire to be deadened.
My apartment is littered with dirty coffee cups and undusted tchotchkes. I have a list of things to do, neatly written on a yellow legal pad, but I am lying in bed, cocooned in my comforter, watching television. The shades are drawn and the computer screen flickers. Maybe it would be justifiable if I were watching Transparent or Breaking Bad, but my hours fill with the seventh season of Seinfeld, an eighth viewing of Sex and the City, an episode of Say Yes to the Dress.
These shows are familiar. They remind me of parts of myself I have long turned away from: an afternoon spent in a dirty wedding parlour helping a cousin choose between different crinolines, evenings in high school on my best friend’s couch watching Carrie Bradshaw cavort through a fictitious New York.
Curled up on my bed, I don’t just watch one episode; I watch five. I don’t just watch a series once; I watch it over and over again. The gluttonous hours of wasted time are a comfort, and also a source of deep shame. My muscles atrophy and my brain turns to mush. The edifying things I could be doing haunt me in my unwashed hair and used take-out containers. I lie on my bed, deadened and comforted, nostalgic and guilty. I can’t stop watching.
Heather and Buzz met in June, at a backyard barbecue behind a Chicago three-flat apartment. It was a party hosted by their mutual friends and their downstairs neighbour who worked in the Animal Behaviour department at the University of Chicago. Heather arrived hot and sticky on a bicycle. She had helmet hair and wore bike shorts under her sundress. Buzz was staying with their friend Adam, having fled a love triangle in New York. He was six-and-a-half-feet tall and slightly bald. He had a strange accent – Brooklyn meets California meets Mid-Atlantic – that was all elongated vowels and tinny timbre.
Their first conversation was a disagreement. Buzz had gone to high school with an actor/producer/writer – those slashes were au courant – who was called ‘the voice of her generation’. She had recently begun to date a nerdy musician who wrote chart-topping pop songs. Buzz believed his classmate could do better, that she deserved someone who made more sophisticated art. Heather liked the pop and thought the celebrity couple seemed happy enough. Heather was jealous that Buzz had gone to high school with someone so famous; the closest brush with fame her school enjoyed was the brother of an Abercrombie & Fitch model.
They had drinks a few days after the party – casual beers in a dark bar near her house. A week later, on her thirtieth birthday, she taught him how to swan dive into the dirty waters of Lake Michigan. He resisted because he didn’t want to look foolish in front of the gaggle of teenagers listening to Hot Jams and jumping off the pier. That baffled Heather; the teenagers were certainly not interested in a couple of crusty old hipsters jumping in the lake. When the teens finally moved on, Buzz dived in.
There was a thunderstorm that night, and Heather was afraid that no one would come to her party. Buzz came first, then the other guests filed into the Ping-Pong-themed bar, soaked through. Someone asked her to do a party trick, and she recited the US presidents in order. Buzz corrected her when she misplaced Chester Arthur. Heather found it utterly charming. At four in the morning, sloppy drunk in front of a jazz club downtown, he grabbed her face and kissed her. A stranger filmed it on his phone and hooted at them. He texted the video to Buzz as Heather grabbed a cab. Buzz kept the video on his phone for a while, but eventually lost it, like he loses everything.
I used to work at a small museum for a woman who believed stories were oppressive. She had studied critical theory with Frederic Jameson and had written her dissertation on Adorno. Once, when she mentioned those names casually at a meeting, I nodded in recognition, jotted them in my notebook, and frantically looked them up when I returned to my desk. My boss wore four-inch heels and lacy mini-skirts. She spouted feminist theory and was ferociously smart.
I came to my job as a curator with an earnest belief in the power of narrative. I had worked in public radio and had been trained in the Aristotelian narrative arc of This American Life and the transcendent power of The Moth. I had heard the TED Talks and read the essays about the power of stories to engender empathy and cross all barriers of difference. Humans were storytellers, and stories tied us together. I had drunk the Kool-Aid of NPR, but I was never very good at turning people’s lives into clean narratives. I interviewed fishermen on boats and public school teachers on a smoke break, but my characters’ lives never seemed to unfold in the straight lines that editors hoped they would. Where is the tension? What was the turning point? I could never sort it out. These lives felt a lot like mine – murky, muddled and without rising action or denouement.
Reading more on Adorno, I learned that he spent time in Los Angeles during his exile. During World War II, he lived in what Thomas Mann called ‘German California’. Scholars and artists who had fled Nazi Germany were put under house arrest by the American government. In the fifties, Adorno came back to the US on a fellowship. He lived in an apartment in Santa Monica and wrote about newspaper horoscopes and television. He watched some of the most popular shows on TV – Dragnet, Lassie and I Love Lucy.
In my mind, those shows are hokey and lovable, but Adorno found them nefarious. He saw twentieth-century television as a way dulled masses could find comfort in a chaotic world, soothed by stories that wrapped up neatly. Lassie rescues the boy, Ricky helps Lucy out of a jam, Joe Friday gets the crook. Simple narratives perpetuate the illusion that conflict will always be resolved in the same way, that characters must follow their predestined fate. There is no room left for utopias or romanticism, no room for any longing for the unusual and new.
Our imaginations are limited to the utopias and dystopias that come to us through our televisions – and now our computer screens – where, even when the unexpected happens, conventional narratives dominate. Love ends in marriage, which ends in divorce, which allows for another love and another marriage. The surgeons on Grey’s Anatomy never spend so much time working that the other plot points of their lives can’t move forward at a breakneck pace. The celebrity guest-star on Law & Order is always the murderer. Familiarity is comfort, and it’s hard to imagine any other way for lives to unravel, even though every life in the real world is far more fraught and far less neat.
My boss objected to easy narratives intellectually and politically, but she loved watching them on TV anyway. She watched every episode of Scandal and knew all the names of Carrie Bradshaw’s boyfriends. She embraced that contradiction – she never even thought to feel guilty about her hours curled up in front of the television. As I brewed coffee in the morning at work, I would guiltily admit to watching the latest episode of Private Practice. Joyfully, she would ask if I thought Addison was ever going to get pregnant. Frederic Jameson said that ‘it is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism.’ Hollywood has long imagined the former, but never taken much interest in the latter. For all of my boss’ talk of narrative as oppression, and all of my believing her, there is another truth here, too: it is all but impossible to imagine the end of narrative.
Taste develops before a baby is even born as flavours pass through the mother’s blood and placenta. The most pungent tastes determine the baby’s earliest preferences. Mothers who eat lots of garlic or anise give birth to babies who seem to recognise the flavours. As newborns, they turn toward the familiar scent of the foods, which they associate with their mothers and the comforts of the womb.
For their first two years, babies expand their palates. They have an almost limitless desire to try new things without what scientists call a ‘disgust reflex’. They show no preference for bland foods. They eat the spicy, the strange, the bitter and the sour. It’s during these years that babies imbibe the flavours of their families, the daily tastes that will make up their diets for the rest of their childhoods.
This openness doesn’t last. At two, toddlers become wary of strange tastes and unusual sights on their plates. They differentiate between the disgusting and palatable, the familiar and the bizarre. Scientists think that this hypersensitivity is a built-in safety mechanism that prevents the newly independent and mobile toddler from eating a fistful of poisonous mushrooms. But it may also prevent them from ever trying broccoli. Taste is about familiarity. There are no objectively delicious or disgusting foods, just poisonous and healthy ones. Our bodies are designed to be wary of the bitter, thrilled by the sweet. Our brains seek the certain rewards of the known.
Heather and Buzz spent almost all of their first three weeks together in bed. Heather went to work. Buzz wrote movie reviews from her apartment. Sometimes they walked down the street for cheeseburgers. But the rest of the time, the two of them remained in her squeaky vintage bed. She had duct-taped an air conditioner into her window-sill and shimmed it up with a two-by-four she had found in the alley. The air outside the room was thick and heavy on their skin, but inside it was thin and crisp.
Heather had never felt so beautiful. Buzz told her that her cross-eye was sexy and that she had the best ass he’d ever seen. When she looked in the mirror and muttered that she should lose weight, he told her he could not imagine her a pound lighter. Previous lovers had told her that her eye ‘wasn’t that noticeable’, her ass ‘wasn’t that big’. But Buzz’s adoration was unqualified – the flaws she’d been trying to hide for her whole life were among his favourite things about her.
Buzz was tall and hairy and his body could envelop her. He could hold her down and hold her together and just hold her. The sex was good – attentive and sweet and rough – but it was the experience of being with him that was riveting. Being near him, Heather felt wildly present, forgetting that it was time to work or eat or feed the cat. He pulled her toward him, held her to him, could not seem to get enough of her. She’d never felt so witnessed in her body, so aware of herself as having a body, so fascinated by her own knees and thighs and hands.
Between bouts of sex and staring into each other’s faces, Buzz would choose a movie and they would watch it together. They watched films by Buñuel and Agnes Varda, but those were for Heather’s benefit. Buzz’s avant-garde family had fed him a steady diet of ‘important’ film and music since he’d been a child. He’d long ago exhausted the canon. Heather hated being the dunce, so she pretended that she had seen The 400 Blows and understood what was so great about W.R.: Mysteries of the Organism. Buzz could tell she was pretending, but he was smitten, so he let it slide.
‘How often can I kiss you in front of your friends?’ he asked her on the way to a party. ‘So much. Always,’ she said, entranced by the smell of him. They both agreed that always was too often, and settled on every twenty minutes.
When I was 10, someone gave my mother a large tin of Pepperidge Farm cookies. They were chocolate chip shortbread, shaped like a cigars – long and fat and hollow. She put the tin on top of the refrigerator and let me have one cookie a day. I spent hours imagining those cookies in my mouth, anticipating the moment when I would get to eat one.
I loved to make cookies, and one sunny Saturday afternoon when my parents were out of the house I pulled out all the ingredients from the cupboards and started mixing them together. After I made the dough, I started eating it. For every cookie I put in the oven, I ate a chunk of raw dough.
Even though I was eating the cookie dough and baking the cookies, I wanted even more. I pulled a stool over to the refrigerator and stood on it to pull down the tin of cookies. I ate the cigar cookies and the cookie dough and the cookies I had baked until I ran to the bathroom and threw it all up.
‘I’ve always wanted to ask. How can lesbian sex be satisfying without a penis?’
I’m at a bar in New York sitting next to a man who is a minor celebrity. He is a theatre actor who plays small roles in big films. He is in his fifties and he is charming. I just saw him in a performance, and I’m now at the after-party with a friend who is friendly with the cast. The man’s wife sits one bar stool away.
I am two whiskeys in and a little high off the proximity to minor fame and New York theatre. I just moved to town a couple of months ago, and this moment feels like what New York is supposed to be. I know I should be offended by his question. I told him that I dated both men and women, and this was his response – heteronormative, ignorant, unimaginative. But I give him an older-and-slightly-famous-man pass and try to answer.
This isn’t the first time a man has drunkenly asked me a question like this, and at first I give him my pat reply. I tell him that female satisfaction can happen many ways. I try not to be too explicit, both because I don’t want to be gross and I don’t want to see him be turned on by the notion of lesbian sex.
‘But we evolved to like dicks,’ he says.
I think for a minute about what the difference actually is between sex with a woman and sex with a man. Then, more for myself than for him, I try to explain again.
‘Sex with a man is like watching a Hollywood film. You know how the story is going to develop, and you know how it is going to end. The beats of the film are usually right where you expect them to be. Sex with a woman is like a foreign film. There isn’t a clear plan, the narrative isn’t laid out from the beginning. You never quite know how it is going to happen or how it is going to end.’
My explanation isn’t quite true. Lesbian sex can be rote and predictable, and hetero sex can be strange and unexpected. Watching a Hollywood film in a cushy chair with a giant bag of buttery popcorn can be incredibly satisfying. Not knowing how things are going to end can be a nightmare. But I was proud of my construction, and the man was impressed. We both went back to our whiskeys.
‘The problem with people from the suburbs is that they always think there is somewhere else to go,’ Buzz told Heather. They were on his ratty chartreuse couch eating beans and rice. When he said it he was thinking about his ex-girlfriend, who was from Indiana, but Heather took it personally. ‘You all imagine that if you move to the city, things will be better. If you move abroad, things will be better. When you grow up in New York, you don’t live believing in the possibility of a better life. You’re either living that life or you aren’t.’
Buzz hated the suburbs, and he hated the general blob of people he imagined came from them. He often said to Heather that people like her ruined New York. It was cheap once, and dirty, and people could make good art there. But now, the influx of Midwesterners and suburbanites had ruined his Cassavetes fantasyland. Heather didn’t know who Cassavetes was, but she got the picture.
Buzz no longer let it slide that Heather knew next to nothing about film. And he was annoyed that she knew next to nothing about hip-hop, his other love. She was relatively conversant in indie rock and nineteenth-century novels, but these were not the things he liked to talk about. He also hated that she pretended to know things about film and hip-hop. It felt like she was faking an orgasm, Buzz thought, certain that every orgasm she had had with him was real.
To Heather, all that pretending felt like faking an orgasm, too, which she was also doing more and more often. Her friends kept telling her that she needed to be herself. ‘Why don’t you suggest a movie to watch?’ her best friend urged. The thought of it filled her with fear. It was ludicrous that she could expose anything she actually liked to the judgmental gaze of the boy she loved.
Buzz had seen something in her that she had always known was there and identified it out loud: Heather was boring, she was suburban, and she had bad taste. He never said it just like that, but they had an understanding. He was New York, New York and she was East Lansing, Michigan. He was deep-cut Antonioni and she was Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman.
Like a lot of kids, I was a picky eater. I wouldn’t eat fish or olives or mushrooms. When my father cooked fish for dinner, I swallowed it down like pills. I put a chunk of food in my mouth and then gulped it down with water. I wouldn’t let the substance touch my tongue.
One summer, my oldest friend and I went on a road trip to Myrtle Beach. Without doing any research, we drove thirteen hours to a place we imagined would look like a Beach Boys song, but turned out to look like a shopping mall. On the way down, we needed to make good time so we didn’t lose our reservation at our campsite. We drove straight through for hours as our bladders filled and our snacks dwindled. We grew more and more hungry, and we pushed each other to wait for just one more exit.
In the middle of the afternoon, famished, we pulled into a Piggly Wiggly in Kentucky, and my friend went in for food. She got turkey, white bread, cheese, and mustard. She made us sandwiches on the hood of the car. I told her to leave the mustard off mine. ‘Just try it,’ she urged. ‘I think you’ll like it. I bet you haven’t had any since we were kids.’ I let her slather on the cheap yellow mustard, sceptical but curious. We leaned against the bumper and ate our turkey sandwiches in the hot sun. I still think it was the most delicious thing I’ve ever tasted.
Heather believed that Buzz only liked what she called ‘fancy movies’ in order to spite everyone who didn’t, especially her. He talked about seventies cinema constantly – the more obscure the better. His own films were always in the planning stages, never able to get off the ground because they couldn’t be as good as the best movies Buzz had ever seen. For the entire winter, Buzz was planning a series on Latin American cinema for a local theatre, and the couple watched movies about Mormons in Mexico and shipbuilders in Patagonia.
After the films were over, Buzz would ask Heather what she thought. She felt like she was being asked to spell a difficult word at the blackboard. ‘I liked the acting,’ she mumbled, even though it was so boring she had counted the tiles on the floor fifteen times. Wrong answer. Buzz sailed off into a judgmental, knowing soliloquy about the ways it was important and the ways it was derivative. It didn’t seem like he took that much pleasure in the movie, it seemed like he only took pleasure in knowing about it.
The day before they broke up, when they were at brunch with friends, Heather told a story about a time she met a famous person. ‘I liked it when you told that story,’ Buzz said afterwards. ‘I wish you could act like that more often.’ Heather wasn’t sure whether he meant that he wished she could perform cosmopolitanism, or only that she could be confident and at ease.
The night they actually broke up, Buzz’s backyard was full of their friends, drinking in the slight thaw of the early spring. Heather and Buzz went up to his apartment and she yelled at him for the first and last time in their relationship. She said that she wished he could deal with any part of her that was actually who she was. She told him he was a narcissist who just wanted to date a female version of himself. Then he broke up with her. He said he didn’t think she fitted into the life he was going to have when he returned to New York. She ran out of the house – too drunk to drive – and walked home. The crying started then. It would last for weeks. She found out later that he followed her the whole way, a few blocks behind, to make sure she got home safely.
Alcohol functions as an anesthetic, a numbing agent that dulls strong feelings. In his essay on John Berryman, ‘Alcohol and Poetry’, Lewis Hyde says that ‘an anesthetic is a poet-killer […] The word means without aesthetic, that is, without the ability to sense creatively.’ Hyde argues that our aesthetic capacity is as necessary as food. When we kill off our ability to feel and create and be moved, we begin to starve. So many things anesthetise us – television, alcohol, food – but what wakes us up?
I often want to believe that if I take away the deadening force, I will wake up. If I can discipline myself to stop drinking, stop watching bad TV, my life will transform. But this kind of aliveness takes considerable effort. I make rules about how much of anything I am allowed, like my parents did for me as a child. Only half an hour of TV per day, I tell myself. Only two drinks on a Friday night. I must organise myself; I must give myself guidelines and charts that will prod me into the life I say I want.
But all that work is such a drag. It makes enjoying life a project, like cleaning the garage or taking packages to the post office. Must the protestant work ethic be applied to everything? Even if in the end the charts and checklists make me skinny or cool or happy, in the moment they just aren’t any fun.
In theory, looking at art is fun. It is the kind of thing that has the capacity to wake me up from the mild anaesthetics that permeate my life. But when I go to the Whitney with a writer friend to look at a show of mid-century abstract paintings, she tells me for the duration of the subway ride downtown how much she hates going to museums. She doesn’t understand art, she says, and she won’t get it. I wonder why we are going at all if she hates it so much, but she insists that this is a show we ought to see.
We walk up to each painting and gaze at giant blocks of colour. ‘I just don’t get it!’ she laments, over and over again. She seems surprised despite her subway premonitions. ‘What is it supposed to mean? Without words, it says nothing to me.’
‘But, do you like it?’ I ask her.
‘I don’t think it matters if I like it,’ my friend says.
In art and literature classes, we are told not to report back on whether or not we like the texts in question. Professors scoff at the student who says, ‘I really liked this book.’ Liking is of no consequence. It doesn’t matter if you were bored, or if you were moved, or if you could relate to the main character. What matters is where this work fits into the canon; how the writer is doing the work she is doing; whether theory can be thoughtfully applied. What matters is that you’ve worked hard to understand it.
But ‘liking’ is the first metric I apply to art. I’m afraid I’m a philistine that way. I looked at the paintings in the Whitney, and I liked them. They were weirdly sad and sexy. The fact that they didn’t immediately conjure words and ideas, the fact that they served no practical purpose, made them all the more appealing.
After Heather and Buzz broke up, Heather begged him to explain why he couldn’t be with her any more. She called him on the phone, drunk, and tried to get him to say out loud that he thought she was unbearably trite. He wouldn’t do it. Eventually, she stopped embarrassing herself in that particular way. A few months later, he started dating a twenty-five-year-old film nerd with a better ass than Heather’s, and Heather stopped talking to him.
Two years later, Buzz and Heather both live in New York. She sees now that his New York life isn’t so exotic or bohemian. It’s very similar to hers. They live in too-small apartments in different boroughs. They get slices late at night at their respective pizza places and know which sushi restaurants in their neighbourhoods do a good deal. Buzz has a roommate who sleeps on his couch. Heather gave her cat away when she left Chicago – her New York apartment is too small for two lives. They rarely talk to each other.
The third act of a story is supposed to set its characters off in a new direction. It is supposed to resolve the tensions set up in acts one and two. What could resolve the tensions here? Heather could come to see that Buzz was incapable of loving her after seeing how thoroughly Buzz had been hurt by his ex. They could become close friends who talk to each other about relationships over plates of noodles in Chinatown. Or, she could realise the way that she was complicit in her own downfall, reenacting a victim narrative that had been the story of most of her relationships in her twenties. Heather could leave Buzz in her past, triumphantly powerful in a new self-knowledge. Or, Heather could see the story as a comedy, a youthful misadventure and a hilarious misstep taken just before falling madly in love with a much more perfect partner.
Here is one thing that has actually happened since Heather moved to New York: Heather and Buzz watched a movie together. The film, Dillinger is Dead, is difficult and strange. It is an Italian movie made in 1969 by Marco Ferrari. There is no real plot, only a series of scenes. A man finds a gun in his house and spends most of the rest of the movie cleaning it between carrying out his other domestic tasks. He cooks spaghetti. He tucks his wife into bed, and then his mistress. He watches home movies. At the end, for seemingly no reason at all, the man shoots his wife. He puts on a loincloth and dons her gold jewellery and becomes a chef on a yacht.
Heather made jokes and asked questions as they watched the movie. Buzz wished she would be quiet and Heather could sense his annoyance. By now, she knew better than to care about what Buzz thought, but she still felt tempted to prove to him that she was what he wanted her to be. Sitting on the couch next to each other, she wished he would put his arm around her, but she knew it was for the best when he didn’t.