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Goodbye, Columbus

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 PERSONAL ESSAYS

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Sex with drunks, in general,
is
not good sex. When you’re with drunks, you drink like they do, and it’s just so
much sugar
— I think that’s what inspires the physical activities you
haven’t engaged in since middle school, like finding out how many cartwheels
you can do in a row. And then you’re tired. By the time you finally make it to
bed, you’re satisfied just to be able to accomplish the act at all.

   Sex in Columbus, Ohio, is sex with drunks. I learned this in
1998, when I visited. And
yet,
for
once
in my life, daily existence was about something other than sex. Columbus is couches
on
porches.
Doing shots for breakfast in a basement bar, then emerging blinking to play softball
in the soft sunshine. Skinned knees. Dirty shins. Washing them off in a stranger’s
sink, and suddenly — how did that happen? — it’s dark out. Back at
Larry’s bar, Jerry looks up from video poker to say, "Go on, go ahead without
me." He pushes his keys in my direction and I clutch them, trying to remember
not to drop them. I make a plan to put Blue Oyster Cult on his record player
when I get to his house. But first I must lie on damp grass with the spins, watching
how it makes the stars twirl.

   I was chasing Jerry, but I fell in love with his town.

   I loved how people made music, drank, philosophized, had sex,
fell in love and out, without thinking about the end result, without structuring
anything, without contextualizing. Columbus was the perfect opposite of New York,
the
other city I kept going to. Columbus was warm. Columbus was a concrete,
lighted, grassy version of Jerry, who would sit at Larry’s for hours,
writing maybe ten words on a peeled-off label, thinking about honor.

   Jerry and I were blowing the last advance money for our ill-conceived
mainstream debuts — a book for
me, an album for him. Neither of them went anywhere at all. We had both
been told by newspapers and magazines that we were
geniuses
and icons, and we believed them. Then they found somebody else.

   There’s no freedom like the one of being washed up, passed
by. I decided to quit writing and switch to music. Why not? I went to Columbus
to record an album. Jerry had decided to become a writer. Frankly, he was no
better at writing than I was at singing. But because we’d just spent ten years
completely dedicated to what we were good at, and failed, we welcomed the disorientation
of doing what we had no business doing.

   Columbus was in the same position. Throughout the ’90s, Columbus
was poised to be the next big thing, or so the papers kept saying — and
it kept poising until it finally realized it never
would be.
Everyone I met there came to the studio to play
on my album. I kept getting dragged away to a number of things I chalked up to "research" or "material." I
remember walking along the top of a wall and somehow not falling off, with a
group
of people that grew by two or three every time we passed a bar. Our destination
was karaoke. There, I dueted over and over with a guy I nicknamed Ohio until
the karaoke master banned us from the little stage. So we ran into the
bathroom and traded shirts, thinking the master wouldn’t recognize us. It didn’t
work.

   "You two are soul mates," Jerry enthused. He could
afford to pass me off: already, we were the kind of together which meant you
never touch each other, but are constantly aware of where the other’s body
is. Besides,
everyone traded. Jenny Mae’s cute surfer husband and I made out. Jenny Mae made
out with the floor. Her boss, a Haitian cross-dresser, made out with the air,
his fingers crawling up his own backbones. I accidentally broke someone’s thumb,
landing on it when I jumped off a table. His name was Dyke Supreme. He was
a forty-seven-year-old, long-haired AC/DC fan with his top teeth missing. I don’t know
what his thumb was doing on the floor.

   The next day, Dyke Supreme showed up at the studio with his thumb all done up, to record "Jenny Mae’s Poltergeist Hump Dance" with me.


I was watching Jerry’s nicely shaped lips talk to everyone but me. Suddenly he
remembered something, jerked up and we hauled ass across town. It was late
and
kind of
scary out, but I knew that something special was going
to happen at our destination. We got there and "there" was only an
all-night
diner,
and
the only thing that happened was that Jerry nervously tore his napkin to a million
pieces with his fork. That was enough for me. The promise was on his skin. Skin
he covered with clothes at all times so no one would see it. Everyone would want
it if they saw it. He fended them all off with insults and bad behavior. But
he couldn’t shake me, a sorry alley dog hanging off his

I know this is a teenagery
thing to say, but it was suicide sex, every time.

coat sleeve by totally determined teeth.

   He drank
cup after cup of coffee so I’d fall asleep first and he wouldn’t have to
have
sex with me. Only at 3 a.m., when I accepted that
I was never going to sleep with him again, did Jerry take me in his shaky arms
and take me home. He lived to prove people wrong.

   Despite our sloppiness, sex with Jerry felt precious, like
a
very old home movie that might break forever at any second. It had the taste
of sadness to it, and a terrible, unexplained urgency. I know this is a teenagery
thing to say, but it was suicide sex, every time.


In an argument about Nietzsche with a twenty-year-old philosophy major, I proved
my point by biting his thumb until it bled. In spite of my suspicion that he
could be a white supremacist (by way of a strange, roundabout, intellectualized
anti-intellectualism) and the fact that he had a girlfriend and was
kind
of squat, I went home with him. I truly was beyond good and wasted.

   Philosophy was a physical thing in Columbus. I fought
with strangers every night. No one cared what you did or who you were — but
what you believed, that was worth biting someone over.

   Remember when you first discovered that hypocrisy existed?
You
wanted to take on the world, cure it of dishonesty single-handedly, by force.
And then you got older, your interests shifted. You settled. That process seemed
to have passed Columbus by. I kept meeting thirty-, forty-, fifty-year-old men
who never outgrew the impractical, combative, unspecific yearning that accompanies
one’s first awareness that this world is not as it should be. It felt like I
was
having really important conversations, but maybe I was just soused. One night,
I decided
to use my little recorder as I moved from table to table. I’d never met Hafid
Boulabiz before, but right away he started like this:

   HAFID BOULABIZ: Let me ask you a question. Do you believe we live for the moment and it’s over, or do you believe in reincarnation?

   ME: Neither. I believe in the eternal moment — what’s
happening now always has and will be. Where are you from?

   HAFID: North Africa.

   ME: What brought you to Columbus?

   HAFID: Luck of the draw. I was the thirteenth child. My mother
was fifty years old when I was born. I was not planned. I was not supposed to
exist. It was forced upon me.

   ME: It’s not that forced. As soon as you were old enough
to realize you had existence, you were old enough to say "no thanks" and kill
yourself.

   HAFID: I didn’t want to kill myself. Why should I kill myself?
Why don’t I kill the people who brought harm to me, who imposed existence on
me when I did not want it?

   ME: It’s no harm to be alive! Look at you! You’re
bathed in this beautiful yellow light, and you have me, who serendipitously came
to you in the night!

   HAFID: Look at it this way—

   ME: No! You came from North Africa, and you’re here tonight
in this yellow light, and it’s perfect! Don’t tell me it’s not perfect!

One
time Jerry asked me to kill his mother. What a stupid thing to
say.

I feel sad now, when I read what we said. I think
I was a better person then. I was at the bottom of the barrel. There was nothing
I needed to preserve or protect in my life. I remember that perfect yellow light;
I remember having no reason to hurry away from it.


When I was in Columbus, I’d talk about moving there,
but
Jerry
and
I both knew I never would. I couldn’t live in a dying way. I couldn’t drink like
that. I just wanted, once in a while, someone who did.

   Jerry would talk sometimes about leaving Columbus, but we knew
he never could. He came to visit me in New Hampshire, and he did not fit. He
smoked. At the sushi place, he was too loud. The shush-shush of the waitress’
slippers sounded like a reproach. In my friends’ canoe, he couldn’t sit still.
He kept craning his neck to get a better view of the moon; he almost got us drowned.
He wanted to communicate something desperately, but he didn’t really know what.
My friends were irritated. One time Jerry asked me to kill his mother. What a
stupid thing to say. What a stupid thing to think. Jerry said every single thing
that came into his mind.


The $2,000 I put into my album went up the producer’s nose, and when it was time
to board my plane back to New Hampshire, all
he
gave me was a videotape
of
an
old
Japanese Godzilla. It’s really a great movie. Much better than the album
I recorded, I’m sure.

   When you feel alive, meaning you feel lucky, bad luck is
just as good as good luck.
I can’t explain it any better than that. It’s all just more pieces of life, and
there’s no stacking them in any particular order. There is only calm interest,
even in one’s own passion and sorrow and dwindling reserves.

   In the end, I decided that was the best $2,000
and six months of my life I ever spent.


That’s one way to look at it. Another way to describe it — how I acted
when I was there, and Jerry, and everyone — is: "really stupid." Really
dangerous. In Columbus, things seemed like a good idea at the time. Like driving
Jenny Mae’s
convertible even though I’d been up doing lines all night and I’d never driven
a stick shift before. I tore through Wendy’s drive-through the wrong way. I could
have killed someone. I have never approved of driving under the influence. I
don’t
approve of any of it: biting or breaking strangers’ thumbs; going to their
apartments, where they could murder you or give you crabs; alcoholism; smoking
a pack of Dorels an hour; cookouts with non-free-range meat; hogging the mic
at karaoke.

   When Jerry heard I was getting married, he called and told me not to do it. I said, "Why not?" He said, "Because the guy you’re about to marry doesn’t understand you." I said, "How do you know that?" He said, "Because anyone who really knew you would know you’re not the marrying kind." He was right, but I didn’t want him to be, so I felt insulted and said, "How do you know what kind I am?" He said, "You have the worst reputation I’ve ever heard of. Let’s not live up to it. Our reputation. Let’s go rent a little house down south, have an apple tree."

   What did that guy know about down south? What did he know about
apple trees? He couldn’t even take four days in a row of me on visits, and now
he’s talking about snatching me from the altar and keeping me? He could only
handle the idea because it was all symbols. In the same way every word was a
symbol at Larry’s bar, in the cool dark, hiding from the
afternoon. Everything in Columbus — in the Columbus I knew — was
shifting, illusory. Open, innocent, full of possibility. I fantasize about going
back,
but I know I never will. It’s for other people now.

   In the Jewish newsletter I get, the rabbi wrote last
week about eating an apple off an apple tree. He wrote that
as you approach the tree and smell its sweetness and reach for the most perfect
apple and anticipate the juice squirting, anticipate the taste — that,
he said, is the full experience of eating the apple. After that first bite, your
mind is already onto the next thing. I think Jerry understood that. I remember
us sitting side by side, not touching, a
thirty-two-ounce King between us, and him telling me to stop looking at him in
that waiting way. I think he was telling me to quit throwing my life away on
him throwing
his life away. But it wasn’t a waste. Columbus was the best waiting I ever did.
 

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©2004 Lisa Carver and Nerve.com
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Lisa Carver is the author of the books Dancing Queen, Rollerderby, The Lisa Diaries and Drugs Are Nice. She’s written for Hustler, Index, Icon, Feed, Newsday and Playboy, among others. She lives in New Hampshire.