I go to visit Jon on the A. It’s a straight shot but I’m late. I sit in one of the two-seat sections, between a door and the front of the train. I am reading Jon’s story on my phone. Occasionally, a text drops down, obscuring the top of the PDF. The messages are all from the same person. I will be meeting this person for dinner later this evening. We’ll be having sex after we have dinner. All this is certain. The person texting me is my closest friend. Jon is just a professional friend and I’m going to see him for work. I am his editor. I should have read his story earlier. I’m at the point where I’m so exhausted this spring I haven’t even bothered to dress in an appealing way. It’s so unseasonably cold and I know Jon wants to sit outside. I’m wearing a long black wool coat and bright blue running sneakers. The sneakers have orange treads. I am carrying the smallest bag I can get away with, which has a metal chain and leather strap, but not the kind you’re thinking of. It takes too much energy to describe the look I’m going for, but it has to do with trying to look like I do not care, which, in this rather unique instance, is even slightly true. I do not care much, although my heart is racing, and somehow I want everyone to know.
I live at the bottom of the ocean. I am capable of quick motion but do not warm. I cause my eyes to grasp each of Jon’s words. I live among the bristlemouths, the viperfish, the anglerfish, the cookiecutter sharks, the eelpouts. I don’t know why Jon and I can’t just have this conversation over the phone.
The A train is moving as efficiently as one could wish, but I know that I am going to be late. Across from me are two teenage girls who are rapidly becoming the heroes of this trip. They are tough and impeccably dressed. One of them causes a Fidget Spinner to spin. They are talking about alcohol. They do some work on their phones then conscientiously put the phones away. They focus on one another; the one girl, the taller, the prettier one, manipulates a black and gold Fidget Spinner. I swoon for them. I imagine they will move to Los Angeles at some point because there is nowhere in New York for them to live now. They cannot go to Prospect Heights with its Ivy-educated transplants, and they can’t stay home with their parents in Inwood. They can’t live in Bushwick – they might sublet there a few months but it won’t last – and they can’t join a Ridgewood commune. Chinatown is too expensive. Williamsburg overrun by Europeans. For these reasons, there is nowhere to go and they must become Angelinas. One of them will make a lot of money. One will have kids. They are placid and gorgeous and discussing how they will obtain what sounds like gin. It’s so innocent and here they are criticizing someone but it’s fair, I tell you. It is very fair. I can tell.
I move my eyes back onto Jon’s story. A text drops down. ‘Do you want to just meet there,’ my friend wants to know. Then my friend sends a link to something on Twitter. I will read these messages in situ later. I absolutely will not click on the Twitter link, I tell myself, as I click through to an image of a tiny black cat whose highly visible pink tongue extends from its all but invisible mouth. I try to think of what I will say in response to this vision. I often write, in response to such links from my friend, ‘It doesn’t like that,’ by which I indicate that the animal doesn’t want to be photographed and thereby rendered semi-humanoid as well as the punch line of somebody’s not particularly excellent joke. I also mean that the animal doesn’t like being conveyed to me as a Twitter link. The animal would ideally like to appear to me as its IRL self, corporeal and gleaming, speaking its own strange language. And what I therefore also mean is, much as the animal desires physical proximity to me, so does my friend. He cannot hide his desire, not with all the Twitter links in the world. I’m teasing, of course, when I send my set phrase, but at the same time I am not teasing, not at all. ‘It doesn’t like that,’ I type. Is there part of me that wants to shout, to yell uncontrollably, YOU CANNOT HIDE? Yes, there must be. Because, in fact, you cannot hide. Not from me. I’ll tell you that right now. I’m a very good reader. Although I seldom mention this to anyone I know.
I live at the bottom of the ocean and Jon wants to play tennis. It’s why I have to travel so far. I mean, Jon doesn’t actually want me to play tennis, but he wants me to meet him at the tennis center at the top of Manhattan where he takes his daughter for her tennis lessons and he wants to tell me, while I am there, that he would like me to play tennis with him.
Clearly, this means something.
There was a time when I myself was a daughter who took tennis lessons, and I’ve apprised Jon of this fact. Therefore Jon is trying, in some sense, to match up our respective familial situations. He’s thinking, you did that and I do this – therefore perhaps it’s a good idea for us to meet in the middle of this piece of coincidence, so we can both try to figure out if there’s any useful information in it. In other words, Jon thinks we have stuff in common. And since we work together and since Jon writes a lot of memoir, he’s multitasking. He’s doing research for a new piece – probably a whole book about tennis – at the same time as he is revising something he wrote three years ago.
He also doesn’t seem to mind that I’m forty minutes late.
‘You’re here!’ he cries.
We’re both surprised. I’m used to meeting him in the usual places where editors meet their writers. I encounter him over email, at parties, in fancy bars. I salute him in passing on social media. We’re privy to some of the same artisanal gossip mills.
But here we are beneath fluorescent lights in a reception area straight out of 1980-something. I have, suddenly, a memory of what it was like to be a child in the 1980s, when I was the small charge of upwardly mobile parents. What’s really strange is that this setting causes me to recall what it was like to be innocent – at least, for a second I think it does.
Jon, meanwhile, wants to know if I’d like to see the courts.
‘Sure,’ I tell him. I express some vague concern about being an unauthorized visitor, treading on hallowed athletic ground, but he brushes it off. ‘I did wear sneakers . . . ,’ I volunteer, as if this was clever of me.
‘Did you read the story?’ Jon asks. He’s leading me into the bubble. The sounds of tennis – pops and little cries – are apparent.
‘Yes,’ I both lie and do not lie. ‘It’s looking good,’ I say, which is a guess more than anything.
Jon doesn’t reply. He nods toward the court where his lanky daughter is demolishing a boy who looks to be a year or two older than she is.
At a pause in play, the daughter seeks Jon out. Her face is radiant. She waves enthusiastically.
‘I have some beer,’ Jon offers. ‘Let’s go outside.’ He is laughing and waving back at his daughter at the same time as he says this. The pairing is incongruous and therefore extremely impressive.
Jon, I think, has a full life.
Jon goes into a duffle he’s stashed in the bleachers and pulls out a pair of bottles. ‘OK,’ he says, laughing again. He’s leading me back out. ‘They’re warm.’
I have to rush to keep up with Jon. He’s more than twenty years my senior, but he does seem to have some kind of incredible physical advantage.
Or I mean, Open parenthesis. Or, Speak now, memory. I mean, I have to pause for a moment here because I want to tell you something about myself before we get to the matter of Jon and his prose and what we say to each other once we’re outside the tennis bubble. I’m somewhat repressed – or, ‘reserved’, as my friend Andrew once put it – and it does take a certain amount of energy to exit the gravitational field of the present. All I seem to be able to come up with at the moment isn’t even a memory but rather a story I once read in an extremely famous book, but if we pretend that it’s a story I myself made up, a story somehow about me, then we’ll get somewhere, I hope. By which I mean, to the bottom of the ocean. Where, as mentioned, I happen to live.
Here is the story: Imagine that you have died (weird), and after your death you awake into what is apparently another world. You aren’t sure if or how this world is connected to the world you inhabited while you were alive, but you are pretty sure that you can’t return to the place you lived while you were living by simply walking around. Meanwhile, it turns out that you are no longer a body. You’re a soul. You find yourself on a shoreline made of clean, gray ash. There is water sitting hazily in a great expanse before you. You can barely hear anything.
You realize that you are not the only soul here. There are countless other souls hovering in this place, gazing out across the water.
Then you realize that there are lives here, too. Not just souls. You’re not going to be stuck here. All along the shoreline sit countless lives in the bank of clean ash. You’re not a life, you’re a soul, but you can see them, the lives, and you know something about what they are. It’s difficult to describe how the lives look, but maybe it’s enough to say they look like sticks of different sizes, cut from saplings, though there are no trees anywhere around.
You begin to examine the different lives. There are so many. The soul must choose. It has to live eventually, but it does not have to live a life it does not select. And so the soul searches, and it lands.
As this ancient story purports to show, everyone has, at some level, chosen the life they live. The story also claims – leaving out the reincarnation bit, which I care less about – that none of us could avoid choosing. And this is what I want you to understand, regarding me: I’m trying to figure out what to do in a scenario in which I have no choice but, at some bare minimum, to keep on existing.
I don’t feel free. Moreover, I feel kind of scared.
I think, by the way, returning to sports, that the way my father dealt with this problem was to play tennis. Because, to be clear, having chosen to be male does not exempt one from the difficulties! I know I’m getting ahead of myself and it’s just a conjecture, but let me keep going: I think that my father decided to teach himself tennis for a bunch of different reasons, in part to obscure his working-class origins and in part to have virtuous reasons to exit the house. But these are probably only the reasons he was conscious of. Much as, if the story about souls recounted here is plausible, if not actually true – and there are aspects of everything we do that we have not chosen for ourselves, not in so many words, even as we have chosen them – then my father’s choice of tennis as one of his main physical and creative outlets in life came at a cost. It was a form of leisure for him but, given his broader cosmological setup, did not mean that he was either free or having fun.
I don’t know much about the cosmos, but I know enough to avoid the game of tennis.
Jon and I are sitting together outside the bubble. There’s a bench here, plus gravel. Below us, near the water, reeds and cattails grow. Jon has already freaked me out by insisting on going inside to the reception desk to ask for a bottle opener, an act I find brazen in the extreme, given that what we’re doing out here with our beers is almost certainly illegal.
Jon keeps laughing at me, but about some things he is deadly earnest. ‘So what did you think of the story?’ he persists. At this moment both of us happen to be staring at a giant blue word, columbia painted on a cliff. I realize that Jon plays his tennis here because he is an alumnus.
‘It’s good,’ I say. ‘I really like it.’
‘Right,’ Jon says, ‘but do you think it needs a little more, a little less? I think you were correct about the androids needing to go. I haven’t really done enough research on that. I got too excited when I saw that Times article.’
I try to reassure Jon that although I suggested cutting the android part, it was still pretty good. I tell him that maybe he should devote a whole story to androids.
‘A whole story on androids? I don’t know about that.’ Jon takes a sip from his beer. He clears his throat, and I can tell he is about to say something he considers important. ‘I really like writing about androids but more as a way to think about people, you know? I don’t care about the immortal soul but, you know, some of my readers do.’
Jon is laughing again.
‘Sure,’ I start to say. I’m about to explain to Jon that this was not what I meant, but he interrupts me:
‘It just wouldn’t work. I never want to have a story that’s about one thing.’
‘But you’re so good at description!’ I exclaim. I’m trying to say that I think Jon can write about whatever he wants. There’s a lot he can get away with.
‘Thank you. But I’m never going to write about androids. They have to be a side issue. You know, there was something else that seems relevant, I’m just trying to remember. Oh, yeah.’
And Jon tells me the following story:
When Jon was in grad school, he spent a lot of time observing people. He wasn’t a bad student, exactly, but he was studying literature and one of the things he knew about literature was that he himself could write it, and this fact troubled his relationship to scholarship, as such. Literature, as everyone knows, is a massive info leak, while scholarship mostly purports to reveal helpful stuff people really ought to know, and all Jon wanted to do while he was obtaining his degree was to give away destabilizing secrets regarding academia. This desire made it difficult to concentrate, among other difficulties. Jon got very interested in sociology, as well as cybernetics. He liked vaguely paranoid theories based on the schematization of the social sphere. He enjoyed thinking about what computing had to do with anything, partly perversely, because in spite of Apple’s bombastic presence on the home electronics scene since that 1984 Super Bowl commercial, few people in the humanities were bothering to think about what effect their word-processing and emailing was having on their knowledge. Jon, by contrast, was brilliant and somewhat young.
But these, as Jon might say, are side issues. They’re just here to give us some sense of what Jon was like. In fact, he was pretty similar then to the person he is now, except that he was unmarried and did not have a daughter.
Also Jon had to take classes for a few years, and because of this he came into contact with other students. Among these people was a certain young woman, who is the person of interest as far as Jon’s story is concerned.
This young woman had a problem. It was a problem that interested Jon, given his social-scientific explorations, because it both was and was not her problem. The young woman’s problem was that she was not recognizable. It wasn’t, for example, that she was invisible or that she shrank from human contact – far from it. In Jon’s account, she was more than reasonably attractive, always simply and elegantly dressed. She had a nice face, nice hair. She spoke with an amount of self-assurance that was neither excessive nor too puny. No, the young woman was perfectly visible and in no particular way repulsive, but nevertheless this did not prevent her from being largely unrecognizable in the eyes of others.
Graduate school, it seems, is an interesting setting in which to observe such a problem play out. The reason for this is that graduate school, particularly in the humanities, is where people go to learn how to introduce themselves. This is perhaps the main skill taught to students of the humanities. The lesson was long and particularly difficult for the young woman who was not recognizable, because she was constantly having to reintroduce herself everywhere she went. For Jon it became a kind of private running joke, although one he did not dare to share with the woman herself. Whenever they were in class together, he would wait for the inevitable moment at which the professor would squint or point and ask, ‘And who are you?’ only to be reminded that the student in question had already been known to him or her for multiple weeks, months, and even years.
Somehow, the reminding did not serve to reinforce memory regarding the unrecognizable student. It was as if she suffered from a detachable aphasia, an amnesia she herself did not possess. It interested Jon for, as he put it, two main reasons: One, this was a psychosocial malady affecting a single organism that seemed to have come into being outside that organism’s body (and truly it was difficult to say if the problem originated with the woman or with others). Two, this was a malady to which Jon seemed, among all his peers and overlords, to be the sole person who was immune.
Jon could recognize the woman.
It was surprising and even semi-miraculous.
At first Jon could barely believe it.
Months went by, maybe a full semester, and at last Jon got up the courage to speak to the woman, with whom, if this is not already obvious, he had managed to fall deeply in love. It was not at all a difficult thing to speak to her. They went out together to a late lunch of desserts and talked a long time.
It was also surprisingly easy to avoid the ‘recognition issue’. There was a nearly otherworldly quality to the woman, in that she herself seemed completely unaware that most other people never had any idea who she was. She lived, oblivious to the problem, and she was even happy.
Jon courted her carefully. In spite of their mutual penury, they went out to many meals with desserts and talked many long talks. Jon believed that he had discovered a previously unknown plane of existence. His studies took on new meaning.
But when summer came again, the woman departed for the West Coast. This was years before the tech bubble burst, a fact that dates Jon a bit, and it seemed like someone had made the woman an offer she couldn’t refuse.
Jon wanted to go with her, but the woman wasn’t interested. She said something incomprehensible – to Jon, at least – about how her decision had to do with wanting to live a different sort of life. She told Jon that he knew her too well.
‘You should write that down,’ I tell Jon, when he is done.
‘Maybe I will.’ He barely pauses, ‘When do you think the current story is going to come out?’
‘Soon,’ I say. I mention that there are two other editors who are reading it, who are perhaps a little less attentive to Jon than I am. I tell Jon I’ll bug them, and that he should bug them, too.
‘OK,’ Jon says. Then, ‘Don’t you have any questions?’
‘About the story.’
‘Oh,’ I say. ‘I thought the whole point of this meeting was to come to a consensus about that.’
‘No,’ says Jon. ‘I mean the story I just told you.’ He finishes his beer. ‘Don’t you have any questions about that?’
I have to think for a minute. I’m fighting to be polite. I say, ‘Well, do you know what happened to her?’
‘So you assume the story is true.’
‘I don’t know if that matters,’ Jon says. ‘But yeah. I’ve been looking for her on Facebook. My sense is she’s been rather successful.’
‘Oh,’ I say.
‘She was kind of a writer. Maybe half a writer? I don’t know. The one really strange thing about her, aside from the unrecognizability thing, of course, was how much she liked puns. If I’d been thinking about it more clearly I could have seen the end coming.’
‘The lowest form of humor,’ I say, skirting Jon’s reference to pain.
‘Obviously I couldn’t take the joke.’
It’s beginning to get dark and I find myself staring extra hard at the Columbia insignia on the cliff across from us. It stays clear and distinct, even as everything else around us dims to a blue mush. For a while, both Jon and I stop making an effort to speak.
Then Jon says, ‘You know there’s a reason I’m telling you this story.’
‘There always is.’ I mean it in a nice way.
Jon is not listening. He says, ‘It’s a circumstantial reason. It’s because of tennis. I was in the bookstore the other day, browsing for things about your tennis game, you know, as one does, and, I mean, it’s not a thing I would do, read a tennis book, but I was down there in Sports, and I swear, out of the corner of my eye, I thought I saw something called Bitter Tennis, which is a great title, right?’
‘A fantastic title,’ I say.
‘I know. But of course it was a misreading. But this was when, after all these years, I think I understood.’
I don’t say anything.
‘This was why she had to leave. Everyone was just taking things so psychotically literally!’ Jon chuckles. He tugs at the lobe of his right ear.
I say, ‘Is this a real person?’
‘Let’s go indoors,’ Jon tells me. ‘I have to check if the match is done.’
‘You remembered that,’ I say, as I attempt to hide my mostly empty beer bottle in the pocket of my coat. The bottle protrudes but not, I think, too alarmingly.
‘Remembered what?’ Jon is climbing the small hill of the patio.
For a second I’m confused and don’t know what to say. For a second I genuinely feel as if I don’t know or can’t remember what I’m referring to. The reception area before us is brightly lit, and through the large window I can perceive a huddle of youngish professional men who have arrived to play tennis together. A few of them are wearing white terrycloth headbands in an un-ironic way. They stand around the sofas, stretching, fiddling with racquet strings and expensive leather attachés.
But I recover. I sense a sort of infinite laugh rising in me, and instead of laughing I keep talking. I say, ‘The pun. Bitter Tennis. You remembered.’
‘Memory is funny, too,’ says Jon. ‘Here,’ he says, when we are indoors. ‘Give me your beer,’ and he throws the bottle away for me, indicating, unexpectedly, that he understands how uncomfortable I feel.
I have the impression that all the tennis players in the reception area are staring at us. I want to keep things brief. ‘It was nice talking,’ I tell Jon.
‘I’m just going to use the restroom.’
‘Do you feel like a quick game? I noticed that you’re wearing sneakers. I have extra rackets. We can find your size.’
‘I can’t,’ I say. ‘I have to meet someone for dinner.’
Jon laughs. He really seems to be in a great mood, in spite of the story. Or maybe it’s the story that’s making him happy, who knows. It clearly means something to him that I’ve come all the way up here.
‘I guess you’re going, then?’
‘Well, let me know about the story?’
I think he means the one that he’s already written, and I tell Jon that I will. Jon is a fantastic human. I feel less afraid of the wealthy tennis players and their irony deficiency and go to use the women’s restroom.
My phone, meanwhile, makes a noise. It’s my friend.
‘It does like that,’ he writes.
A gray thought bubble with an animated ellipsis indicates that he is, wherever he is, continuing to type.
I silence the phone and take my time urinating. I wash my hands and examine my hair. Everything about me seems reasonable. It’s spring and my freckles are coming out.
On the way to the subway, I look at my phone again. A new message has appeared.
‘It likes that very much,’ my friend confidently opines.
I switch the sound on but then turn the phone off. I feel weak but satisfied. It has been a good meeting.
I can remember there was – and this is a true story – one afternoon when, freshly returned from his habitual tennis game and having consumed half a beer, my father threatened to kill me. I was possibly twenty on the day in question and this time he was serious, though I suppose that hardly matters. I used to lock my door whenever I was alone in the house with him. Mentally, I’d call it dehydration. My mother would begin laughing wildly if I tried to recount these sorts of events. ‘Your father loves you,’ she liked to say, but she didn’t need to be out of earshot for my father to begin talking about which random women in the news it was he presently wanted to assault, whose voices were the most whiny, the most beset by vocal fry.
This is why I moved to the bottom of the ocean. I packed a suitcase long ago. You might think this is a sad thing, but I’ve come to enjoy the incoherent ministrations of the sub-photic beings of the hadal zone, their telescopic eyes and spiny or gelatinous skin. I like the suborder Ceratioidei. I have no idea what they’re saying when their fanged mouths move, but I can always use my phone if I get too hard up for fellowship.
The other nice thing about my current trench community is that it’s pretty dense. We are, speaking of puns, under a great deal of pressure, but here, and maybe only here, there’s no such thing as tennis.
Photograph of John McEnroe at the Rotterdam Open in 1979, © Rob Croes / Anefo / Nationaal Archief NL