No man is an island and if a man claims he is an island, I don’t trust him.
A few evenings ago, I found myself sitting in one of two chairs in D’s apartment, which he shares with a quiet roommate.
“I’ve got a guest,” D called out as he unlocked the door, and faintly through some closed door down the hall, I heard a submissive, accented “Okay,” as though D often had “guests” over and his housemate was used to being confined in his room, lest he walk in on some illicit romp unfolding or undressing in the living room. D’s room is the living room and his small, darkly dressed twin bed is curtained off from the kitchen, which ran alongside one wall, outfitted with the smallest stove I had ever seen. The apartment was dark and probably unswept, judging by the debris beneath the kitchen counter. I thought about my white socks and hoped they would stay that way by the time I left.
On the wall by the door was a electronic keyboard and before it, a broken TV which D uses as a piano bench. “We have limited resources here,” he said dryly. An Edward Gorey poster hung above the keyboard and for a split second I was impressed because I adore Gorey and thought maybe it meant that D and I had more in common than the two classes we had together. But I’ve learned to not jump to conclusions. We were stopping by for ice cream before heading out again to a cafe on Telegraph with a piano and a steady stream of homeless patrons, who would mysteriously produced small wads of cash to buy cappuccinos and lattes and settle down at too-close tables with books and highlighters – even the bums feel they must live up to standards of Berkeley pretension. D played “open mike” at the cafe on Thursday evenings and this particular Thursday I had invited myself along. We shared a Hitchcock Seminar for which films were screened weekly on Thursday evenings – after this week’s screening, I had walked with him out and to his apartment.
“Would you like some ice cream?” he said.
I never say no to ice cream. This is how I found myself in one of two chairs, watching D as he scooped Ben and Jerry’s Americone Dream into a glass decorated with card suits (a gift from his poker playing days, no doubt). The glass was nearly full.
“That’s enough,” I said, “I don’t want to get fat.”
He laughed but rather than hand me the glass, he turned his back to me, blocking the ice cream from view, “I’m not done. One final touch and you’re going to love me.” I was afraid that he would drench the ice cream in that awful Hershey’s chocolate sauce and began to protest when he produced the glass and handed me a spoon. A single Oreo cookie stood prominently at the top of the ice cream, beaming at me. A sweet little flirt. Hey, I thought, this guy ain’t half bad.
Settling into the chair with glass and spoon in hand, I studied him. Physically, an excellent specimen of man – tall, dark and handsome with long eyelashes, strong musical hands and broad shoulders. Mentally, carrying a heavy load of “daddy issues,” and this even before I ever spoke to him. You learn, after a while that God is fair. The pretty blonde with the long legs and expensive wardrobe who also happens to be top of the class? No such thing as perfection, honey, – her parents are divorced or her brother’s died or her dad’s gone to jail for selling marijuana at his mistress’s house in Palmdale. Same for D – he dresses well, is articulate, wants to go to law school and contrary to many self proclaimed musicians I’ve met, is actually quite talented on the piano, having written a few of his own songs which sounded, for a group with specific tastes, worth purchasing. He can seemingly be friends with anyone and by anyone, I mean any girl, myself included, but this is what gives way to his most damning imperfection: why should a straight man surround himself with girls just because he can? Doesn’t a man need some sort of brotherhood to keep himself right?
It goes back to a conversation I had with Mina, a girl I met while studying abroad in Mexico. We bonded over our strange relationship with food, both having been binge eaters at some point, though she took it to the other extreme and was anorexic for years, once paring herself down to eighty pounds.
“I saw a counselor,” Mina told me one night, “and she helped me with my food issues but also with relationships.”
I asked her what she meant.
“I used to be one of those girls,” Mona said, “I used to think that I just couldn’t be friends with other girls because girls are bitchy and drama and like, can’t be trusted.
“But the counselor told me something that just changed my whole opinion. She said that girls who didn’t trust other girls actually just didn’t trust themselves. Hating on your gender is hating yourself in disguise.” Mona paused as she watched the information sink into me. “I didn’t want to hate myself anymore. I mean, it took a while, but I started eating again and I learned that girls are the best friends a girl could have. So now I have great relationships with other girls-” she smiled at me – “and I’m glad I learned that, or else I’d be missing out.”
Back to D, who had sat down in the other chair and was browsing through some music to put on.
“Who are your best friends, D?” I asked, biting into the Oreo.
“I don’t have best friends.”
“Okay, then who are your good friends?”
He tapped his fingers on a phantom piano, nodding along to a song he put on the computer, dodging the question.
“People come and go,” he said, “I have people that care about me and people that I care about.”
I wanted to give him an award for vaguest answer ever, but I pressed on. “You must have friends you value over others,” I said, “People from your childhood, a cousin, a housemate?” I looked at the hallway, thinking that D and his housemate had seemed quite chummy, but D gave no indication that he considered the housemate more than just a housemate.
“I don’t believe in labels,” he said, tapping more vigorously on the phantom piano, “just as some people don’t believe in ‘girlfriends’ and ‘boyfriends’.”
“You don’t even have to use the label,” I said, “Good friends are good friends. Once you guys reach a certain level of understanding, just their name is sufficient to represent a strong relationship or a set of values.” I did not mean to sound like such a sociologist, but I sensed a disconnect in our cores – D refused to believe or acknowledge even, a type of relationship I felt defined who I was – I wanted to know why.
His palms fell flat onto his thighs, his shoulders slumped, and for a moment it seemed he would begin to speak earnestly – and he did, but briefly.
“People come and go,” he said, and he stood up to get a glass of water.
“Yeah, they do,” I said, “But friendships take effort.”
“Eh.” He leaned against the counter and studied something on the refrigerator, “People disappoint.” The song had stopped playing and his hands were still, folded and out of sight, but whatever he was thinking vibrated through the small kitchen and seemed deafening.
“What makes you say that?” I asked. But what I really wanted to say: come out with your daddy issues; let me know why you don’t trust men.
And finally he showed the tail that gave the horse away.
Ah. I raised my eyebrows, unsurprised.
“Some ten years ago. My mom’s remarried now.”
“Do you like her husband?”
“What about your father? Did he get remarried?”
He was quiet. Then he unfolded his arms and walked to a guitar that was hanging on the wall. He said quietly, as he began to strum, “I don’t know.”
And there it was: the absent father – his “Pops,” as he had so lovingly and falsely called the man in an earlier conversation – who left him on the brink of adolescence with no one but his mother and sister to guide him through manhood. I nodded, eating my Americone Dream, the Oreo long gone.
Granted, there was something cruel in my questioning; after all, D had given me a glass of premium ice cream garnished with America’s (and my) Favorite Cookie. But my interest in him had changed drastically since our first conversation at a bar some weeks ago, from romantic to psychological. Like the Edward Gorey poster, D’s outward interests – music, literature (an English major also), films (we met in a Hitchcock seminar) – promised plenty of shared interests and ideals; yet like the poster, he is thin- thin-skinned and despite his arduous efforts to seem multi-dimensional (imagingin himself the hot shot lawyer who also played a mean ragtime piano) he is shallow. He is in love with the past, with Hitchcock and ragtime and a certain, polished way of dressing, thinking these interests give him depth and not quite understanding that they run along the same superficial lines as the women and men who follow the fashions of today.
His face is finely structured, his eyes large and even doe-like but dim somehow, of unwarranted jading – the worst kind leads not to a better understanding of the world but to a more muddied picture. Windows to a soul that harbors the fatal flaws of unexplained aggression and that paradoxical pride, fueled by insecurity.
Later, when I was home I spoke about my conversation with D to my housemate Maria, with whom I became fast friends with upon moving in.
“Those people are interesting,” she said, “But honestly, if you’re twenty-something and you don’t have a good friend to your name, you’ve fucked up somehow.”
I agree. We were standing in the kitchen where we had most of our major discussions. Two girls who randomly came together in the same house for a single semester, but two girls with a strong understanding of the gender trust that allowed us to share and talk openly. I wondered if D ever had similar conversations with his housemate.
“You always meet a handful of those people in college,” Maria said, “The ones who come to reinvent themselves and never talk about their friends at home…and then one day you realize, it’s because they don’t have any friends at home. You can’t trust those people, not until they know who they really are. And even then, what if it’s just another stage?”
I replayed my conversations with D, searching for a sign of a home life – or a life before Berkeley, but there were none. And why? He’s an emotional nomad. A traveling salesman with a bag full of tricks. He flashes all the illusions of being close without actually being close: gave me ice cream, put his arm around me, but I live with my eyes open and see him offering the same, wordlessly, to other girls. We are all small patches -available where ever he may go- of a larger, female security blanket, stitched together by his mother, who stayed and is under constant threat of being blown away by angry memories of his father, who did not.
How do people like this change? How do they find peace with themselves by first learning to trust their own sex? I don’t know, but people do change, whether by counseling or some other realization of the self. We all have blanks, none of them as abysmal as we think they are, either self-inflicted or left behind by some asshole – and we work to fill them in with good things… I cannot think of a better phrase than that. Good things. I thought back to D’s apartment, fifteen or twenty minutes or so before we left for the Cafe.
I didn’t have anymore questions for him. The distance from where I sat was, I understood, the closest we would ever be. I concentrated on the ice cream.
He began to play the guitar in earnest with no music before him, just me in the chair with my ice cream and a cluttered desk upon which were spread half-read legal studies books and a smattering of returned papers. I don’t know the tune. I didn’t ask. I studied the books, the papers, the dirty, dim apartment while he strummed away, tapping his legs and nodding his head. His expression was one of pure concentration, his cheek and brow bones suddenly seemed more pronounced, his chin a little stronger and his eyes, brighter. He strummed. I sat, and it seemed he was no longer aware that I was there.