And what a week it was.
Monday-Saturday was spent in Orange City, Florida, with my grandparents and uncle. As I wrote in my last blog, this was only my 2nd vacation this century, so I was suuuuuper looking forward to it. And it was just what the doctor ordered (after years with no health care, I finally have some, so these days I can afford the doctor’s orders. This is a pleasant change from my non-health care days, when my only options were after-hours clinics who charged $100 to take my temperature or ERs who charged $400 a pop. Without health care, you end up having to approach your health like the Mountain Climber game on The Price Is Right: you don’t want to see a doctor too early in your illness, ‘cuz then they’ll say “It’s a virus; rest and drink fluids,” and you don’t want to wait too long, ‘cuz then it’s something serious and you end up in the ER paying $400 plus additional expenses.
I learned this in 2008 when I had a bacterial lung infection. For weeks, no one could diagnose it at the clinic. They just kept saying “It’s viral. Drink fluids.” Next thing I knew, I’m missing my cousin’s wedding day because I’m in the hospital with tubes in every natural orifice and a few artificial ones, being told I had pneumonia after losing 30 pounds in a month. Good times…
Anyway: Florida was a DREAM. After a winter on Long Island that’s rivaled the worst of upstate New York, 80 degrees and sunshine every day was mwah! Hell, even when it rained, it was perfect. There’s something ineffably divine about living life in shorts and a T-shirt.
When I arrived in Florida, the first thing my family did was take me to Lelo’s. Lelo’s is a Puerto Rican food joint known on the island as Martin’s, and it’s so good it should be illegal. Where I live now there are pretty much no Caribbean people or businesses. The only Hispanics are Guatemalans and Ecuadorians and Mexicans. Lovely people, for sure. But they ain’t Boricuas. And their food ain’t the same, either.
For $5-$6 at Lelo’s, you get 3-4 days worth of rice, beans, pernil (if you don’t know, look it up), mofongo, platanos, yucca…it’s ridiculous. I was sticking to my diet when the trip began, so my Monday order lasted till Wednesday. By the end of the trip—diet be damned! I polished a whole order off in one shot.
My vacation was not nearly as free and clear as I’d hoped. As I’d heard from other professors and learned firsthand for myself, when you teach, spring break is not a break from work. It’s more work than usual. See, the easiest, most enjoyable part of the job are the hours you spend in the classroom, teaching, or the times you meet with students in your office hours. The most arduous, difficult part of the gig is grading and marking essays. And I had 80 essays to grade. So I didn’t exactly enjoy a week of unfettered free time. Even now, when I close my eyes, I still see “Alison” and “Marjane” and “allusion” and “Guardians of the Revolution” and “substantiate” and “the period goes inside the quotes, not outside” and “be specific.”
While visiting my family, I was able to begin a project I’ve been thinking about for a few years now. I interviewed my grandparents about growing up in Puerto Rico in the 30s and 40s, and what it was like when they moved to NYC and first got married. I learned so much I didn’t know. Usually when I think about my “family” I don’t go back more than 2 generations: I think of my parents and grandparents. But the more I learn about the past, and where they came from, and what they lived through…I imagine learning more and more about your ancestry is like traveling abroad. By expanding your awareness of the scale of the world around you and realizing your own smallness and specificity, you come to realize more than ever that you are a part of that scale, indistinguishable, impossible to distinguish or to lose sight of.
Long story short: I make a lot more sense to myself the more I learn about my larger family history. In a lot of ways, the past few generations seem like the exceptions, rather than the rule.
Near the end of the week, we went to the beach.
Ahh, the beach. Chinese take-out restaurants, comic book shops, Tori Amos concerts, and the beach…these are the happiest places on Earth to me. When I’m at the beach, I feel nirvana. My mind and my soul go perfectly still. Perfectly silent. I want nothing. I need nothing. I am nothing. Cosmically speaking, there is no greater sense of the prodigal son returning home than returning to the sea, the predecessor to the blood-and-fang life on land we’ve known so long we’ve mistaken it for natural. Stand in the ocean and let the waves wash over you for hours. Then try to tell me anything about two-legged creatures, traffic jams, or fast-food is natural.
At one point in the water, I let my mind wander to thoughts I didn’t need to be having. Unpleasant thoughts. Things I know I should have let go by now, but haven’t. How unerringly we find the paths that unmake us, Mike Carey wrote. Thankfully, the ocean knows better. Right as I started getting really hung up and annoyed, a giant wave came along, lifted me completely off my feet, flipped me head over heels, and threw me under. I scraped up my knee pretty good. But I was grateful for the lesson. I did not waste any more time that week worrying.
I took in my grandparents’ flowers and garden. I ate much flan. I checked out their neighbor Gladys’s garden, which would put the Babylonian Hanging Gardens to shame. I dreamed every night: long series of dreams, obvious and abstruse, episodic subconscious hypotheses. My ears and my tongue tasted a steady supply of Spanish for the first time in years. I ate good Singapore chow mei fun. I saw an unbelievable number of beautiful women (I don’t know what it is, but Florida girls seem way easier to approach than New York ladies. I asked a friend who lived there for years about this and he concurred. There’s something about Florida girls…the usual safeguards just don’t seem to exist). I spent more time inside McDonald’s than I have in my entire life, though I ate nothing there; I needed wifi access, because I now cover basketball for 2 websites and needed to talk with my editors. I did not see any snakes. I’d hoped to. Thought I did, once. It was just a garden hose.
The train ride back to NY was not as exciting as the ride down, since I rode in a sleeper car on the way down and rode coach on the way back. It’s hard to say which was better. The privacy of the sleeper car is a beautiful thing, as was having meals included for free. But sleeping in the sleeper car was like spending the night on concrete. My back was a mess after that. In coach, at least my back didn’t hurt…but you (or I, anyway) can’t sleep on a train in coach. You put your seat back like 3 inches, and that’s it. And I can’t sleep on my back: I always rotate from one side to the other, and that wasn’t happening in coach. If I turned to the right, I kept getting people whisking by, mere millimeters from my face, on their way up and down the aisle; if I turned to the left, my butt ended up touching the butt of the dude next to me. We were neither of us what you’d call petite. After a few hours, I realized touching was not only unavoidable, but it was undeniably (and oddly) waaaay the hell more comfortable. Our odd symmetry allowed us to use each other as body pillows. Still…I didn’t sleep. I rested. I wasn’t worried, though. I still had essays to grade, and I’d been screwed by the train saying it had wifi when it didn’t. But I was due to get home around midnight on Sunday. I’d sleep then and spend all day Monday grading. And the universe heard my plan.
And she laughed……..
The first night I was in Florida, around midnight, my landlord texted me. She knew I was out-of-town, so I wasn’t expecting to hear from her. And I certainly wasn’t expecting the text I received:
Were you home today? Did you let anyone into your apartment?
I freaked. The crazy downstairs neighbors were “supposed” to be gone by now (as they’ve “supposed” to have been gone for 6 weeks). I imagined all the worst possibilities. Someone broke into my apartment. Someone stole my footbath. Someone used my yoga mat and didn’t wipe it down afterward. Someone said nasty things to my cacti. Someone something’d.
She told me the guy downstairs had stolen the girl’s car and split. She flipped out and wanted him arrested. The cops said they couldn’t do anything (we’ll revisit this theme later). So, pissed about the car and pissed she’s being evicted, she re-opened a hole in the wall that had been fixed a few weeks ago and poured bucket after bucket of water into it, causing a leak in the bathroom ceiling of the nice girl on the first floor.
This crazy girl, whose name is Christen (that’s almost too ironic to bear), is the type of sad soul who makes of her life a shithole, who spreads misery and ugliness all around her, and then, when the piper calls and it’s time for her to go down, will scratch and claw and try and tear down the rest of the world with her. She’s what you call a crab.
So I thought this girl may have burned down the house, or pooped in my apartment and written nasty shit in literal shit on my walls, or whatever.
Thankfully, it turned out the landlord was just making sure I hadn’t been home so she could prove without a doubt that the excess water had come from Christen’s apartment. But as I headed home Sunday night, exhausted from 24 sleepless hours on a train, I hoped the dude was still gone and hoped she had left, too.
I pulled in the driveway to find both their cars there. When I entered my apartment, they were out on their patio, smoking. I walked into my place at 11:30. By midnight, they’d started fighting. I’ve written about their fights before. But this…this was a fight.
One of the wonders of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony is the scale of its magnitude. He’d written 8 symphonies prior, and at least 5 of them (1,3,4,5,7) would go down as legends. But Beethoven’s 9th is a powerhouse. There’s a chorus in it, for Christ’s sake! It’s like the boss at the end of a good video game. It takes everything that came before it and says, “You thought that was me trying? Nah, son. THIS is me trying.”
This fight had all the old classics: the raised voices. Objects thrown and broken. Her emasculating tone. His one-note profane retorts. The midpoint of their conflicts, when headphones no longer help because the fighting’s grown so physical my floor/their ceiling starts to shake. The shift of the action from their living room to their bedroom, which for some reason is always when she screams the loudest (which, sadly, is not the case when they’re copulating). The hoary, inevitable end of Act II, when one of them flips out about wanting to see the other’s phone or can’t find theirs and assumes the other has it. Really, I don’t know if these two would ever have fought in a pre-cell phone world—EVERY fucking fight becomes about their phones.
This fight had new stuff, too. After some physical violence, he started screaming like he was one of those spring lambs young Clarise Starling couldn’t save from the slaughter. I don’t know what she hit him with, but he was bleeding from the head, and losing his mind over it. I searched my soul and felt no sympathy for him. All I felt was a dismissiveness toward the kind of asshole who hits a woman over and over again and then has the narcissistic nerve to marvel at the sight of his own blood. Fuck you, downstairs narcissist.
The fight then carried out into the street. That, in and of itself, wasn’t novel. What was novel was that the street fight went on for an hour. Without pause. They were both screaming and cursing and fighting at the top of their lungs. I figured a neighbor or someone driving by would shame them into quitting, or would call the cops…but apparently the law of the streets applies not only to urban streets, but beach suburb streets, too: The first order of business is mind your own.
The fight began at midnight. It was now 5 in the morning. I’d had it. I was exhausted, I was now going on a 2nd consecutive night of no sleep, and I wasn’t going to just call the cops to break it up this time. I called and gave my name and told them I wanted to press charges. I got dressed and headed outside.
Then there was a sound I have never heard in my life and hope never to hear again. I’ve never attended an execution by guillotine. Never seen someone have their hand chopped off for stealing something. But what I heard is what I imagine one of those people would sound like, before (in the case of the guillotine) or after (in the case of the hand-chop) the violence. The man was screaming as if he’d had a limb hacked off. It was an awful, looping shriek; the sound of gender-conforming men screaming with high-pitched abandon, with no care for exposing themselves via vocal vulnerability, is hard to stomach. I opened the door and stepped outside, expecting to see him spurting blood like the Black Night from Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
I stepped outside to see them peeling away in her car. Thirty seconds later, the cops arrived. I told them I wanted to press charges.
“You can’t,” the officer said. “All you can do is ask the landlord to evict them.”
“What about disturbing the peace?”
“There’s nothing we can do. All you can do is try and have them evicted. OK?”
“You’re saying they can be out fighting in the street and that’s cool?”
“All you can do is ask your landlord to evict them. OK?”
(Kudos to this cop for using “OK” with the dickish nonchalance that’s usually only expressible through the F-word.)
So, after getting no sleep Saturday night on the train, I got no sleep Sunday night at home. Monday, the day I planned to grade all day, my brain was 100 leagues under the sea. The only mental energy I could muster was buying some groceries, not falling asleep while driving, and sitting on my couch all day trying to keep my core-of-a-dying-star-heavy eyelids from shutting. I didn’t want to fall asleep during the day because I had 2 classes and 40 student conferences Tuesday, and I was afraid I’d be screwed for that.
Fast forward to Wednesday: the train’s lack of wifi and the neighbors’ shithead solipsism left me in a bind. I’d had about 10 conferences that morning and still had 42 essays to grade and 36 conferences all slated for Thursday. I was borderline comatose after 2 nights of no sleep. But there was no way around it. I’d have to pull an all-nighter.
I haven’t pulled an all-nighter since…I don’t even know. As a student, I’d been aided by a variety of helpful aides that for various reasons are no longer legal or available to me. And I don’t like coffee because I can’t drink it without like 2 creams and 5 sugars, so after 2 or 3 cups I can actually hear my heart speeding toward its end.
I got some black lemon tea and a pint of Ben & Jerry’s Peanut Butter Fudge Core (‘cuz someone said chocolate has caffeine). Because the universe laughs at our plans, this, of course, was the night my ex decided to contact me to let me know she has a new boyfriend (a fact that was painfully, then painlessly obvious for months); this briefly threatened to spiral into a larger clusterfuck of a conversation entirely, but it ended well enough, and since I trust everything unfolds as it must, I looked at it as the universe giving me a brief energy burst I wouldn’t have otherwise found.
I started grading at 2 p.m. Wednesday. I did not stop until 7:30 a.m. Thursday, at which time I felt like Lisa Simpson:
All-nighters are like vision quests: unpredictable in their specifics; guaranteed to change you and/or your worldview.
There is something transcendent about working that long, that intently, and then upon completion of the task, having to shower, dress, and go to work. Hearing birds chirping, the bizarre reciprocal of you waiting to greet the waking sun, instead of the other way around…these are strange times.
For a number of hours, being sleep-deprived invigorates. Your spacetime perceptions all feel enhanced. You’re enlightened, capable of enlightening everyone around you, if they’d only listen, but they won’t, because they belong to the tribe of The People Who Sleep, and sleep, as you now know, is the greatest fraud ever perpetrated on humanity. Such truths are hard-won and beyond the corrupted and pitiable souls who spend a third of their life unconscious. Only you, noble all-nighter, have the fortitude and wisdom to realize this.
I felt euphoric all day at work—but not, like, hyper. Not a caffeinated buzz. I felt a literally terrible energy within me. I felt connected with everyone and everything, but not in a top-down way…I felt like I’d slipped out of my narrow self and infiltrated the world horizontally, like I’d washed over it. I felt like Howard Beale in Network when he tries to explain his recently odd behavior on the air, one of the most beautiful scenes in cinema:
That’s how I felt around hour #36 awake.
This is how I felt at hour #40:
The shift is that fast. At the very end of my last conference of the day, my student asked me a perfectly reasonable question. I realized even though I’d been listening to her, I had absolutely no idea what we were talking about. I asked her to repeat the question, she did, and for about 15 seconds I was in the zone again; I was a fireworks display of insight and ideas and making connections, and then she asked a follow-up question, and I reached into my mind…and there was nothing. Nothing at all.
On the drive home I called my mother. My mother is loathe to talk to me if I’m driving. I realized how tired I must have been when I told her, “OK, Mom, I’m 5 minutes from home. I’ll call you later,” and she said, “Why don’t you stay on the phone with me till you’re safely there?”
I got home and laid down at about 8:30. This was not me choosing to go to sleep. This was, like that ocean wave that upended me in Florida, the universe taking literal hold of me and letting me know, “I’m taking the wheel now. Let go.”
So I did. I was out within minutes. You know that deep, deep state of sleep? It doesn’t even feel like sleep; it feels like you’re falling down a bottomless pit, and you’re fine with that, because you don’t have to do anything anymore but fall? That was me.
Around midnight, I was woken by the neighbors. For once, they weren’t fighting. They were fucking. I shot straight up in my couch, woken by Christen yelling, “Oh yeah! Fuck that pussy!” I could tell immediately (because you can hear a fly fart in this house, the walls are so thin) that this was not a sincere request on her part. She was done with the sex, he wasn’t, and so she was trying to talk him into landing the plane, as it were. So she repeated herself, over and over again. And I learned something about myself:
I was not angry. I felt no frustration. I was not entertained, nor titillated. I did not feel a spiritual connection to these people, did not nod knowingly at this latest testament to the endless circle of life. I was not jealous. I was not anything.
Stem cells are blank slates. They’re cells that can become anything. Undefined. Fascinating creatures, stem cells. That is what I was, in that moment beyond sleep or wakefulness. That was how I felt after all the energy had gone out of me and even the fumes of the self had evaporated. For the first time in my life, I had the purest reaction I have ever had. Just like nirvana at the beach, my reaction was a stem-cell reaction: capable of everything, yet containing nothing.
What a week.