One morning I bought a weekday copy of The New York Times. They’ve become so thin on Mondays. They’re nearly skeletal on Tuesday, and then a little bulk appears mid-week. I’m not a purist, nor am I interested in nostalgia. I don’t buy these copies because I like the feel of paper. Reading the stories in sequential order allows me the pleasure of relinquishment. That’s it: one story must follow the next. More and more I seek out denied choice. More and more I like to be told what to do.
It was a Thursday paper, fattened by a style section. I bought it from a drug store down the street from my apartment. It wasn’t my only purchase. I walked down an aisle where rows of chips and flavoured pretzel segments were interrupted briefly by a few shelves of stationery. I bought the two highlighters left in a dusty box on the shelf – one red highlighter and one yellow. Since I had the morning free, I walked to the nearby Europan Café, sat at a table with a copper top, and began marking up the newspaper. I highlighted in red the words and phrases I didn’t know. I highlighted in yellow the words and phrases I recognized and had read before and thought I understood but, if pressed, could not define. ‘Qualitative easing’ glowed red. ‘Interest rates’ glowed yellow. By the time I finished, the newspaper was alive with colour: if paper editions were dying, which seemed to be the case, I had rouged this particular corpse. Eventually, after just over an hour, I turned all the pages back to the beginning. The photo on the cover showed a ruined hospital room in Kunduz, Afghanistan. It was not a particularly good reproduction; the photo would look cleaner online. The smudge of print gave it the look of a painting. Sunlight poured through a circular hole in the exposed brick wall of the ruined hospital. The floor was littered with loose brick and twisted metal, and in the corner the bomb had stripped paint and left it in curls. Everything was ruined, still and unsalvageable. In the shadows to the left sat a chair, upright, and facing what must have been a window. The news story inside was full of accusation. The photo was calm. ‘I know nothing,’ I wrote at the top of the newspaper with the black pen. Around me in the Europan Café sat a few older men, some looking at newspapers of their own, copies of the Post and Daily News. One wrote notes in a cramped hand on a white cue card. There was dandruff on his collar. Hot sauce speckled what was left of the scrambled eggs on his Styrofoam plate.
I had a thought: I have finally unmasked myself. I have at last rejected the notion that I grasp even the basics of life, of society, or the laws of the natural world, the workings of business, or even the grammar of my native language. With the black pen I wrote a small ‘1’ in the top corner of the paper. I put down the pen and turned my hand to examine my fingers.
Recently I’ve noticed a burning feeling at the tips of the pointer and middle fingers on my right hand. The pad of my pointer finger often stings. The pain comes from pulling my finger across the screen of my phone. When I feel this sensation, I press my thumbnail into the pad of my pointer finger until it abates. At first I thought I had rubbed down my finger pads from too much phone use, and obscured my fingerprints, smoothed out their ridges. Soon my fingerprints would be gone, I thought, or at least the topography would be changed, and I might be changed fundamentally, and then perhaps the pain would spread down my arm, and then on to my chest. Sometimes I pulled my finger across the dark screen of my phone and looked at the line left behind. I made patterns of the grease. We all move smoothly across life with our received knowledge. We’re rarely confronted, rarely brought to account, asked to define. Most people demonstrate instead the tendency to proclaim they know. They argue points they suspect might be flimsy or plain wrong, and they do so in a pained and swelling tone of voice. Not everyone. Now I’m speaking about myself and the first ever entry in this project, the definition of a word that wasn’t in the Thursday newspaper but had come up over the course of the previous evening: laconic. I know it has a Greek origin. Now I know. It’s a word Susan wisely and confidently defined the other night. Across from her, I stuck with my own definition, so that I was forced, as we stood in her apartment on Grand St, in the heat of that bedroom, to pretend my definition was correct.
Susan teaches five year-olds. I used to think this meant she spent her time repeating what she already knew. In fact the job gives her coherence and mastery over so many subjects, and the repetition means she must convey ideas in the clearest way possible. This repetition often transfers to her personal life, which can be maddening, as it was when she was standing there, wearing her Old Navy trousers and a blue H&M cardigan she favours for class. I later searched out both pieces online, on my phone, scrolling with that painful finger, in an attempt to pin down what she actually wore, rather than loosely remembering her in that room. When we arrive at disagreements, her presentation of knowledge makes me feel like a five year old. I look for ways to disagree. In the moment of conflict I also – and this is difficult to admit – silently belittle her because of her room, and because she’d decided recently to prominently display on the wall near her bed a caricature she had done of herself one evening on Canal Street.
Some mornings I would wake up, glimpse the caricature, and ask myself ‘Who would actually do that?’ Who would decorate their room that way, especially since the artist had Anglicized her, sleekened her, and removed everything that set her apart, the imperfections, the freckling, the mole on the edge of her chin, the mole on her top lip. Staring at it I felt like I could become enamoured with the wrong attributes. She had been amplified, which allowed me to look at her with an uncomplicated view. This must be the way, I thought, the divorced fathers look at her, especially the one who often lingered after class and asked stupid questions while his five year old pirouetted or clung to his leg.
The caricature was stuck to the wall at a level that made it impossible to ignore when sleeping on the right side of the bed, and it was signed with an aggressive F by someone named Fernando, though that does not sound like a Chinese or Albanian name. (The caricaturists I’ve spoken to on Canal St are all Chinese or Albanian.) Fernando could have been something he chose when he set up shop, down on Canal St, next to the fruit vendor and the man selling hot nuts, where he made her unreal, scrubbed her of the freckles and moles, embued her with a pleasant and complimentary corn-fed American uncomplication, left her with certainly no hint, as you would find if Susan sat for a real portraitist, of the furrows of confrontation that often appear on her forehead, and certainly nothing that hints her parents are Greek. The Susan of the caricature wouldn’t be able to speak out of those ballooned lips. The real Susan told lengthy stories – I spurred her on – of this divorced father of one of her students and the lengths he went to in order to discuss small details of his child’s progress, especially the story of when he noticed her at a bus stop, marched back along a stretch of roadway, in the rain, after parking his car, its hazard lights flashing, and walked into the bus shelter to say, while dripping wet, he wanted to ask about this daughter’s permission slip and what day, by the way, should it be submitted? I don’t know how much exaggeration goes into her stories, so I mostly sit and listen to the ones about men with a well-prepared expression of nonchalance, which is how I arranged my face after saying ‘Who is Fernando anyway?’ when I entered her bedroom last night and took off my coat and examined up close the caricature for the first time.
I should also say I would like to learn, along with the words and ideas highlighted in the newspaper, along with much else, laconic included, how to stop immediately appraising bedrooms and posters and bookshelves. Although I am not an art historian, and in fact know very little about art, I enter someone’s room and am immediately prepared to absorb visual clues, like someone who can scan an artwork and feel compelled to yell out fraud. I pass judgment. Not just on what is up on the wall, but how is it held there, if I can perceive in the light of the room those tell-tale lumps of blue tack. Also, if there are posters from exhibitions, I look to see when the exhibitions ran, and for some reason I feel a sort of pity if someone has a poster of an exhibition that is still ongoing. That’s what made me pause that night, after taking off my coat, to ask myself what was I doing again on Grand St. How long does an exhibition need to be over before it doesn’t bring about this poisonous response? It’s all part of the judgment that is eroding me from within, when I should focus on the welcoming attributes of the room, and in the case of Susan’s room, the immense bed. Even when I see the bed I’m reminded it is two single beds jammed together beneath the sheet and the lip between forms a small, uncomfortable canyon. Instead of telling her how good she looked in those Old Navy trousers, I said ‘Who is Fernando?’ Because his signature on the caricature had already caught my eye and this question immediately brought about another variation on her divorced father stories: that while walking down Canal Street she was approached by Fernando, who deserted his easel and plastic-wrapped caricatures of Angelina Jolie and Leonardo di Caprio and batted away her reservations by promising he would draw her for free. I somehow knew, during her retelling, he laid a hand on her arm, in a way that was so much more straightforward and appreciative than anything I’d done in years, a gesture that showed he wanted her, and he’d guided her back, convincing her with his action.
Then Susan described the drizzle, how it had just stopped, leaving a shine on the subway grating, and how Fernando had produced an Empire State tea towel, which he used to wipe off and dry the moistened camp stool. It pained me to think Susan would lower herself to that stool and into the ranks of unthinking tourists who became part of this lesser bit of the city’s tourism and it pained me more to know how she enjoyed it based on the retelling, and Susan, who was well-versed in deepening a narrative, answered me immediately when I stepped towards the caricature, coat in hand and asked if Fernando had drawn his phone number as well. She said no, someone else asked me for my number as I was sitting there and I said Hmmmm and she said He had me sitting there for a long time, people were walking around me, the rain had lifted, you know how crowds get around the subway exit right after the rain especially down there. I said I can see it took Fernando a long time, what with the crosshatching, though I have no idea what crosshatching is and in hindsight it’s obvious cross-hatching was not a technique Fernando employed. He had lengthened Susan’s neck and widened her eyes, plumped her lips, and if I had known what his technique was, or how to describe it, I would have commented before Susan said: He saw what he wanted to see and I asked Who, Fernando? And she said Yes and I repeated the word Fernando, in a Spanish accent, this time quieter, still with my coat in my hand, still gripped in my hand, because I could never find the proper place to put it down in her room.
Next to the caricature Susan had photos of herself tacked directly to her wall with the kind of bluetack that would leave a permanent mark when she someday moved out and I hoped, for her sake, transferred the photos of her with her friends, with her grandparents, with some nieces and a nephew, to frames. I decided that’s what I wanted to discuss in the moment, taking care of the photos, not whether she had given out her number while perched on a campstool on Canal Street, or all the details left absent from her stories, which tended toward the temperature of the air and the sparkle of the night, but said little of Fernando’s final strokes and this other person, the eye contact, and the bustle of Canal and Broadway, all of this, the whole scene lit – I was keen to point out – from the cheap glow of the lights of the massage parlours along the street. It wasn’t a classy part of town. I wanted to say that someday she should really get a few frames, she should frame her pictures, frame her photos. I wanted to tell her the exhibition posters would age. She shouldn’t put up posters of shows that were still happening in New York. There was something tacky about it. Let them ripen and age. But there was no real way to introduce this subject into what I then realized was a considerable silence.
When I said bluetack, just the word bluetack, Susan was already sat across the room in the dim light. Behind her I could see an array of birthday cards arranged on her desk. Is this the part of the evening when you become laconic, she asked. I said, What, lazy? And she said: I don’t think it means lazy.
At the coffee shop, with my highlighter, I looked down and my weekday newspaper had blossomed into something colourful; the world’s news made into happiness. I looked at it and saw phrases highlighted like ‘parliamentary democracy’, ‘diesel’ and, written in the margins in my own hand but highlighted nevertheless, the word ‘crosshatching’, which I will, in the coming days, learn with such an accuracy I’ll be able to spot examples as I walk through Canal Street and I know already from walking through this afternoon there is a great variety of technique on display, even on the bottom rung of the scale, even on the evenings when Fernando is not there, because he wasn’t, according to one of the other artists, who happened to be from Macedonia, a country of two million, I now know, a country with a GDP of 10.17 billion USD.
What do you think the definition is? This used to be the simple question we asked each other. Maybe define it? I remember Susan asking me once. This must have been months ago, and I don’t remember the particular word I defined for her, but I remember the energy I put into some obviously false but entertaining definition, a giant minute-long curlicue that fell behind into the afternoon in this very room, which didn’t seem to announce itself so garishly back then. We reached some sort of plateau of trust, before I decided, one day, to correct her.
I don’t remember the particular word. No, I do. It was definitely, and I mentioned it because she’d spelled it, on a short, handwritten note, with an ‘a’ to make ‘definately’. ‘I’ll be here,’ it said. ‘Definately.’ Once you’ve corrected someone, it’s hard to forget that dimming in their eyes.
I finally put down my coat. Susan’s new phone was perched on her desk. I liked her old, smashed up phone with a touchscreen so spiderwebbed with cracks she needed to negotiate each request, no matter how simple, from that giant complicated web of family and friends, always messaging, phoning her, until she responded with a tentative staccato, unsure if the words would knit together on the broken screen. Her new phone had a very wide screen, and in the dimly lit room she made a few swipes and arrived at her dictionary application. I knew nothing, I realized, about the fabric of the curtains behind her and am determined to now find out how they glow with the light of the streetlamp, how they diffuse the streetlamp glow. Is it nylon? She was in silhouette. How do silhouettes form? What are the mechanics of the silhouette? One of the artists was making silhouettes, cutting them out, on Canal when I trudged through that day, a different kind of silhouette altogether.
Laconic, Susan said, reading from her phone. Adjective. Using few words; expressing much in few words; concise. A laconic reply.
Fine, I said back to her and her silhouette. Great.