Flying scud (play) – See a man about a dog – Flying Squid?
Any idea what that means? I sure as hell don’t have a clue, and I wrote it. Some time in 2010; I was living in Chicago, but that doesn’t help. My best guess is it’s something that flittered through my mind in one of those half-waking moments at 3 in the morning. Or maybe I was drunk. Or, worse, sober.
More than a decade on, I think it’s safe to say that nothing will ever come of that tossed off attempt at (anti-)clever wordplay; just word salad. Some six cities and even more apartments later; at least a dozen different jobs and a few dozen different writing gigs since; roughly three completed novels and 500 blog posts on, it’s safe to say I’m never going to figure out what the fuck Flying Squid was supposed to mean.
Folders of Nothing
That one not-quite-a-sentence is the only thing in a Word file I found in a folder titled “One Week” (a subfolder in my “My Writing” folder); in that folder there’s a “One Week” file that contains 2,000 words about a guy named Scott working at a bookstore. Maybe it was going to be a short story, more likely it was the sputtering start of a novel that never went anywhere. More than a few of my discarded stories and novels involved guys working at a bookstore, something I’m intimately familiar with. They say, “Write what you know;” but, god, that shit’s boring. I like writing what I don’t know.
Which is why this “My Writing” folder houses a platoon of half-considered attempts at novels and short stories that died before they even had the chance to become ponderous nonsense.
There’s “Bosworth,” from 2011 and 2012 (my time in Seattle), which, at 4,500 words (and an outline) was one of my more drawn out abortions. It was my attempt at some sort of Bukowski pastiche, a novel about an acerbic drunk who befriends a total square and is a non-stop fount of biting one-liners. Turns out, I was not a non-stop fount.
There’s something from 2007 (I was in Costa Mesa) entitled “Ellis Island and the Gay Messiah,” which isn’t even 500 words, but I love the title (admittedly, it’s stolen from a Rufus Wainwright song).
There’s something called “Sanctum,” which is probably the most fully realized of my long-dead novel attempts, including six different character descriptions. That was also in Seattle, though the idea began years before that; I made an attempt at starting it up again the next year while I was living in New Orleans, to no avail. Maybe I’ll get back to that one day.
There’s even my half-assed attempt at a TV show pilot, simply called Sojourner, about an atheist woman who gets in a relationship with a Christian man. That one, which has its own soundtrack, started while I was in Brooklyn, but I quickly realized TV writing isn’t for me.
Those are a just a few of the writing projects I’ve begun and abandoned, and that doesn’t even include the short stories and character sketches that didn’t make it past a few paragraphs (the less said about the poems the better).
Even with that graveyard of novel ideas, I still have two new ideas I’m developing and two novels I’ve completed writing since the beginning of the COVID-19 lockdowns. One of those, I recently realized while looking through old files, I initially thought up back in 2010, but didn’t start writing as a novel until 2014 when I was freshly arrived in Brooklyn. And then, of course, there’s Yahweh’s Children, the one novel I’ve finished and self-published (oh, excuse me, I’m supposed to call it “indie published” now).
Around the time I got sick of editing, re-editing, and re-re-editing Yahweh’s Children, and finally just threw it up online, I told myself I would never write another novel again. But, goddamn it, the words keep coming and if I don’t write them down, they keep me up at night. A girl named Effie stole many a night’s sleep from me until I wrote her story.
Will either of the two novels I’ve finished writing in the last two years ever see the light of day? I don’t know. If not, they’d join the first three novels I wrote between the ages of 18 and 23 that will all but certainly never be read. But I hated those novels and I mostly like these ones; I’d sure like to see them find an audience one day. They’re good, if I do say so myself, and, frankly, if I do say so myself, that’s saying something because I loathe most everything I write.
And then there are those two other novel ideas – one a relatively new, Vonnegut-inspired satire, the other an old story inspired by my youth in the church that comes back to me every few years – that I suppose I’ll eventually feel obligated to start writing. I have long given up on the fantasy of being a world-renowned novelist (I know too much about the industry to believe that), but I still find a weird pleasure in the process. Masochistic, of course.
In the meantime, I’ll keep churning out nonsense here and elsewhere, because as aware as I am that this is just screaming into the void, I can’t stop. I’d never get any sleep again if I did.
Madrid is being gentrified. That isn’t news. It’s been happening in many of the city center’s most popular neighborhoods – Malasaña, Lavapiés, La Latina – for years. It’s also a process that has been rippling through most of Europe’s capital cities for quite some time now. If anything, Madrid has been a bit slow to the trend, considering it’s still far more affordable overall than most other European capitals.
Every couple months, though, a new article appears to bemoan the gentrification occurring in my barrio: Puerta del Angel. This phenomenon is such a focus of breathless conversation that the barrio even has a nickname: Bruclin, as in, Brooklyn, the trendy neighborhood on the other side of the river from the main part of the city (and the OG gentrification model).
This week, it’s 20 Minutos decrying Puerta del Angel’s gentrification (a new enough concept that the Spanish word for it is simply gentrificación), with the headline lamenting that living alone in PDA is nearly inviable. A once working-class barrio has become just another expensive, trendy neighborhood.
Living in Puerta del Angel, Madrid
I moved to Puerta del Angel with my pareja, Helen, over three years ago when she bought a flat between the two main metro stops of the barrio. We had a couple friends that already lived here before us, and since then a few more have either bought or rented places here. Even in the relatively short time we’ve lived in the barrio, there have been changes aplenty. Overall, though, no one would mistake the still mostly working-class, family-filled PDA for Malasaña (or Brooklyn’s Williamsburg).
Probably the most visible change is the transformation of the Mercado Tirso del Molina, a century-old local indoor market that has gotten the full Madrid Redux treatment. Still a place to buy fresh produce and meat, most of the stalls in the market are now stylishly unsophisticated restaurants. There’s a pizza spot, a taco spot, a vegan spot, and, yes, even a few Spanish restaurants (if you’re craving paella).
The transformation of the market started well before we arrived, but the last few years has definitely seen an acceleration, in part because of the pandemic. When being indoors became a risk, the city gave special permission to businesses that didn’t have terrace seating to create spaces in the street. With one of the calles running alongside the market now pedestrianized, the area is one of the main gathering places in the barrio (getting a weekend seat on the terrace is nearly impossible).
The mercado’s growth has spurred other development. A slightly overpriced café opened up across the street a few months ago, and a new restaurant (by the same owners as the café) opened on the opposite side of the market a couple weeks ago. Those same owners also opened a decent pizza place a bit west of the market. And then there have been a host of other bars, cafés, and restaurants popping up throughout the barrio.
When we first moved here three and a half years ago, we struggled to find open bars after 10 pm on a weeknight. Now, there’s an abundance of them, especially along Paseo de Extremadura, the main thoroughfare that runs west from the Manzanares River and serves as the northern border of the barrio (on the other side of the paseo is Casa de Campo and Lago, one of Madrid’s best parks and outdoor dining areas).
All in all, a great barrio to live in.
The Ills of Gentrification
So, yes, there is every sign that Madrid’s Puerta del Angel is gentrifying. As I’ve written about before, I find the conversation around gentrification confounding. Far too often, it seems to be a way to complain about certain people moving into a neighborhood (often white people complaining about other white people). I get it, hipsters (or whatever the term is now) are annoying. But people need to live somewhere. Does moving to a cheaper neighborhood because you can better afford the rent mean you’re a gentrifier?
An article in El Confidencial last year seemed to blame guys “with beards and skinny jeans” for the gentrification, which is just totally backwards. It’s one thing to find a home in a barrio. It’s quite another to intentionally buy up property for the purpose of jacking up the price and reselling it. And here enters the villains of Puerta del Angel.
I appreciate that 20 Minutos pointed to the true cause of gentrification: the real estate companies that vacuum up every available structure, causing rents to skyrocket and pricing out both residents and local businesses. It’s happening all over the world right now. In Puerta del Angel, that malevolent force has taken the form of a management company called Madlyn (to be fair, El Confidencial also mentioned Madlyn; both articles said they contacted Madlyn for comment to no avail).
Madlyn is buying up barrio property left and right, converting former bars and eateries into cookie cutter apartments and coworking spaces (and Madlyn offices). Simultaneously, real estate offices have been popping up like mushrooms over the last couple years (I suspect they’re all a front for one conglomerate), taking over vacated fruit shops and clothing stores. Property is big business in the barrio. They’d argue they’re just filling a need, but every time I see a new estate agent office, I get thirsty for a Molotov Cocktail.
Look, I have a beard. My pant legs are pretty narrow. I write for a living. I am a white dude who speaks English in a Spanish-speaking country. I am everything that signifies gentrification. But as with most things, by the time the outward signs of gentrification are apparent, the underlying causes are already deeply entrenched.
These articles about the gentrificaciónde Puerta del Angel always include an interview with a local who has lived in the neighborhood all their life and is weary of the changes. Understandably, of course, but change is inevitable. People relocating is inevitable. I’d hate to live in a world where that wasn’t an option (10 Cities is, above all else, a celebration of relocation).
And you know what? Gentrification may, in fact, be inevitable. I don’t really know.
What I do know is, Puerta del Angel is a charming barrio, both because of the recently opened, trend-hopping bars and restaurants, and for the older establishments serving 2€ beers and wines and pouring whiskey like it’s water. A relatively newer establishment like Quinta del Sordo can exist next to the neighborhood locals and the old man hangouts. We make an effort to patronize both.
And, in 10 years, I’ll lament that all the good bars I used to love have been replaced by hipster lounges that play the music too loud. Can’t wait.
Today, I spoke to an Iraqi man about the lasting effects of the American intervention in his home country. A half hour before meeting him, I spoke with a Catholic priest from Brazil who was studying “Canon Law”. Every week, I spend hours talking with people from South Korea, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and other nations.
Madrid is an international hub, but these interactions are all happening online from the semi-comfort of my office. Sitting in the fifth “bedroom” of my flat near Ventas, I speak via my laptop’s camera to people from all over the world while hints of sunlight slice through the wooden slats of the blinds behind me.
As an effort to augment my income, I signed up with an online English teaching website when I first landed in Spain. Now, using it a few hours every day, it has actually become my main source of income in any given month.
There are at least a dozen websites like the one I use – Cambly – where teachers can help students learn English (or another language) from their living room. Some are built for more structured lesson plans where each session is essentially no different than a literal classroom, while others are better suited to causal conversation where students can practice speaking and listening in a no-pressure environment.
Cambly is the latter, though I have certainly had plenty of opportunities to brush up on my Phrasal Verbs and Past Perfect verb tenses. Usually, when I get a call, it’s someone who needs to improve their spoken English for school or their career.
I start with a few basic questions (“What’s your name?” “Where are you from?” “Why are you learning English?”) and allow the conversation to develop from there. Sometimes this leads to weekly discussions with regulars about art, politics, and traveling, and other times I spend five to fifteen minutes pulling teeth out of a reticent partner. And then there are the kids just looking to mess with a foreign teacher. Not every call is a winner.
There are higher paying teaching gigs, certainly ones that provide more stability, and I’ve had my share of frustrations in the six months I’ve been on the site, but I also wouldn’t be paying my bills without it (so much as I am paying my bills…). If my career ambition were to be be a teacher, this gig wouldn’t fulfill that dream, but as a means of traveling to different cultures on a budget, it’s oddly effective.
When not offering gentile critique of my partner’s English, I’m helping people with their writing (like the Buddhist nun in South Korea who needed help with a US Visa application) or listening while someone practices a speech or school lesson they have to give. One woman was a tour guide who gave me a virtual tour of her Korean town so she could practice for a group that would be there the next day.
Then there are the times I’m just there to provide an ear for a broken heart. I vividly remember the Japanese boy the day after Christmas who called because his girlfriend had broken up with him and he just wanted to talk to someone.
I think almost every day of the Saudi woman who had walked in on her husband’s act of infidelity and, eight months later, was still utterly broken up about it. As she wept, she told me she couldn’t forgive the betrayal (no matter how much her friends and family told her to), but she also couldn’t leave. She had no recourse, no clear path forward. And all I could do was listen.
Of course, I could have worked on Cambly in America. I have one regular student I tutor here in Madrid and a couple other inconsistent or potential teaching gigs, but most of my work is done remote and there’s no specific reason I had to be in Madrid. There’s no specific reason I had to be anywhere, and that’s the beauty of this arrangement. I can be anywhere, and thus I can go everywhere. Theoretically. (Still waiting on that call for the Mars shuttle.)
For anyone looking to make a little extra income or dealing with unwanted downtime, I’d recommend teaching online. Cambly is just one of the options, but it’s as good as any, and hey, if you follow this linkand say I (Joseph NY) recommended you, we both get a bonus. You know, hint hint, or whatever.
I’ve got to go now, I’m about to do another hour of online teaching. Who knows who I’ll meet next?
I’ve done unconventional things in my life. Generally dumb, maybe a few clever choices, but mostly, just odd. For instance, have I ever mentioned that time I moved to ten different cities over ten years? Oh, I have?
Well, in the midst of those ten years, I tried something else that many of you might not know about, especially if you only started reading this site in the last few years.
As my sixth year – Nashville, Tennessee – passed the halfway mark, I wanted to try something to shake-up the proceedings of a project that had started to have predictable beats. That far into the project, I was locked in to completing the whole endeavor, or die trying (sounds dramatic, but honestly, there were more than a few months where my next meal wasn’t guaranteed).
So, in order to liven things up and keep myself from getting too bored, I introduced a new gambit. I opted to put the power in readers’ hands: They voted on my next city.
I was prudent enough to know that giving the internet unrestricted options would wind up with me being sent to Bedford, Wyoming or some other desolate ink dot, so I gave voters options: Austin, TX; Denver, CO; Portland, OR; and Seattle, WA.
I didn’t have a lot of readers in those days (some things never change), so there wasn’t a deluge of votes, but there were enough to make it interesting. The voting lasted about two months, and though Seattle and Portland pulled ahead initially, it wound up being neck and neck, with Denver, Austin, and Denver duking it out for first place (Portland, to my surprise, fell far behind and was never much of a contender after the first couple weeks).
In the end, as I’m sure you can deduce, Seattle won the vote, beating out Denver by one vote. Fortuitous that it did, as well, because my year in Seattle was one of the best of the entire project and the city remains among my favorites in all of the US. Conceivably, it’s possible I would have come to love Denver or Austin or Portland just as much; we’ll never know.
All these years later, I can admit, letting internet strangers vote on my next home does seem a bit out there, even more than 10×10. It was a period in my life where I had no preconceptions or directions for what would come next so I figured I’d let the winds decide.
I feel like I’m at a similar place in my life, now.
A couple weeks ago, I was sitting at one of Madrid’s many spectacular cafés with three friends and I asked them that cliché question that everybody hates, but which I think is worth contemplating from time to time: What would your ideal life look like?
It’s something I keep asking myself because I’m not entirely certainly. In part, that’s because, as I age and pursue certain avenues, other pathways that I had previously contemplated are closing to me. Some people will say that you can still be anything you want at any age, citing some septuagenarian grandmother who went back to college or a celebrity who didn’t became famous until their 50s. Those people are morons. Don’t feed them.
Life is finite and if I had only one dream, it’s true, I could dedicate myself to it and in time I might achieve some level of success. But I don’t have one dream, I have many. Just like I don’t have one home, or one passion. I want to master every art form, I want to live in every city, I want to taste every whiskey.
I want to live on every continent. Yeah, Antarctica, too. And then I want to fly to Mars.
When I answered my own question with my friends, I said that I didn’t care so much what I did for work so long as it allowed me to keep traveling. I wish I could be a renowned author (never going to happen) or a world-famous photographer (probably not going to happen), but those pursuits aren’t likely to change the course of my life.
I’ve gotten to an age where it would be damn near impossible to go back to the US and work my way up in a traditional career. That bridge is, if not burnt, then covered in gasoline and being occupied by a bunch of smokers.
I’m not sure any of it matters. I’ve never made much money in my life, always just skirting by. But skirt by I have, and I’m now living in my thirteenth city on my second continent. Somehow, I’m still going. So, I guess I’ll keep going until I can’t. That’s pretty much the point of life, verdad?
I don’t know where I’m going next, or when, but there are more destinations ahead, of that I’m confident. So, just for fun, as a bit of non-binding but informative polling, I’m putting the question to my readers again: For my next continent, where should I move?
I was falling apart. Just weeks after having reached the anticlimactic denouement of 10 Cities/10 Years, I’d sunk into a depression as toxic as the poisoned well from my year in New Orleans.
I felt an overwhelming emptiness. A decade of my life had been dedicated to this one purpose, and now I had nothing. Nothing to show for my efforts, nothing to look forward to, no sense of myself. I was just another broken branch thrown into the bonfire of Brooklyn, turning to ash.
There were acerbating factors, as well. Suddenly broke, I started two new office jobs on top of my bartending gig, working six to seven soul-crushing days a week. Wanting nothing but to curl up in my darkened bedroom, I’d come home to an apartment bustling with an unrelenting rotation of new roommates and temporary guests that stripped me of any sense of solitude. Making matters worse, one of those guests was a girl I had briefly dated; relations had soured between us and her presence was a constant source of anxiety.
Even once I did pass through the gauntlet of the living room, I’d step into my bedroom and onto a drenched throw rug: my room repeatedly flooded from rain water that poured in through the shoddily spackled walls. Peace of mind was always on tomorrow’s to do list.
One Saturday night, having bartended until two in the morning, I returned home but couldn’t bear being inside my apartment where the paper thin walls ensured I was never truly alone. I poured myself a glass of whiskey and ascended to the roof.
Usually, I would have the black space to myself, but that night, three of my neighbors were upstairs sitting around candlelight and listening to music off of one of their phones. Providing the bare minimum of social interaction to be part of the group, I sat and listened.
While the guys chatted about topics I couldn’t pretend to care about, a song began that immediately grabbed my attention, the first mournful strum of a minor chord ricocheting through me like a scream in a cavern.
“Coxcomb Red” by Songs: Ohia is heavy, a love song haunted by death, or maybe more accurately, a funeral dirge pierced through with aching love. “Every kiss is a goodbye,” the singer confesses, then repeats more insistently. It’s a mournful ballad, a heartbroken and brittle cry, and in that moment, it pierced through me like a religious revelation.
I couldn’t get the song out of my head. The chorus repeated inside me – “Your hair is coxcomb red, your eyes are viper black” – like it was some sort of incantation, a summoning to a lost spirit.
In a trance, I bid goodnight to the neighbors and immediately went online to track down the song and its album, The Lioness. I spent a few days hoping to find a CD in local record shops – for some reason, I felt compelled to own a physical copy of the album – but when the search didn’t pay off, I downloaded the album and spent the next month listening to it almost exclusively.
Laid low by depression, the music of the late Jason Molina wrapped around me and kept me warm, kept me sane; kept me alive.
I’m recounting this now because over the weekend I had the good fortune to see Songs: Molina – A Memorial Electric Co. at the Littlefield here in Brooklyn. If that name is a bit cumbersome, it’s because it pays tribute to a complex and troubled artist. The concert, in honor of Jason Molina, was performed by a group of his former bandmates, tourmates, and friends.
Molina was the driving force behind Songs: Ohia and Magnolia Electric Co., among other musical acts. He was a prolific songwriter and an omnivorous consumer of genres, shaping them around his singular voice and lyricism. By the time I discovered “Coxcomb Red” on that September night in 2015, Molina had been dead for over two years, the result of alcohol abuse and addiction. He had been 39.
I wasn’t entirely unaware of Molina’s work before his death. I had a passing familiarity with Magnolia Electric Co., mostly as a name I read in headlines on Pitchfork or saw listed on compilations. There are so many artists, it’s hard to know where to start, especially when it seems like it’s just another white guy indie band. Perhaps for many, that’s all the collective output of Molina will ever be, but once I discovered it, it became a salve.
Molina put out a prodigious amount of music under his various names, whether as a solo artist or with a band. I’ve spent the nearly two years since I first encountered Songs: Ohia listening to as much of Molina’s music as possible, and yet, at the memorial concert, there were still a handful of songs I had never heard, and talk of recordings I’ve never tracked down.
Standing in that audience with people who had loved Molina’s music and hearing stories about the man from people who had known him in life, I was moved near to tears. I, like I imagine many people, had found his music in an incredibly bleak time in my life, so I came prepared for a somber affair, and while at times there were moments of solemnity, the show was more often a celebration, a recognition of both the man and the friendships that he had helped bring together.
That is the power of music, the magic of a song. On this blog which is ostensibly about traveling, there are nearly as many posts tagged “music” as there are “travel.” In my lowest times, I’ve always turned to musicians. They lift me up, console me, give me perspective, and often articulate my own emotions better than I can.
On at least one occasion, music has literally saved my life.
I’ve previously recounted my ill-fated college road trip to Seattle on this blog, so I won’t rehash the full story here. The relevant portion took place on the second night of the trip when, after having crossed into Wyoming, I was waylaid by a late season blizzard that sent my poor two-door Ford Escort flying off the road and into a snowy ditch. I spent two hours in a gulch before a tow truck pulled me out and I was able to cautiously drive my hatchback through the night until I found a rest stop.
Hoping the storm would keep the authorities otherwise occupied, I broke the rules of the rest stop and settled into my back seat to sleep through the night. I hadn’t packed for a blizzard (it was early spring and back home was already experiencing summer temperatures), so as I shivered in my back seat, I slid on any layer of clothing I could find and wrapped myself in a blanket that I always kept in the back. It wasn’t enough.
For two days, all I had consumed was half a box of granola bars and a few cans of warm Sprite. My body was sore and exhausted, I didn’t own a cellphone, and my emergency funds were already depleted after paying for the tow service. I was also acutely aware that no one knew where I was.
While my stomach growled, I was too tired to think straight, but too frazzled by my predicament to sleep. I closed my eyes and hoped unconsciousness would arrive, but my mind was racing, my heart beating unsteadily as I couldn’t shake the fear that I might have hopelessly driven myself into a whited-out no man’s land.
To calm my nerves, I slid on my headphones and used the last of my weathered, portable CD player’s battery life to listen to Sigur Rós’s untitled album (the cover stylized as an empty parenthetical). The eight-song suite of tranquil, atmospheric instrumentals paradoxically evoked images of a snow-covered tundra and the enveloping warmth of a sun-bleached day.
The album soothed me, like aural Prozac, my panicked mind now focused solely on the lilting and crescendoing themes. If I was to be buried in a mound of snow, at least I wouldn’t be alone. By Track 5, I had drifted into sleep.
To say that Sigur Rós saved my life is not to suggest I would have died without music. But, if I had not been able to sleep, if I had continued to try to forge through the intensifying blizzard while sleep-deprived and dangerously low on blood sugar, the next day’s bad decisions would have likely been even worse. I was lucky to get through that ordeal; I very easily could have been unlucky.
I turn to music for strength, whether I’m trying to get through a long work day or in the midst of an existential crisis. All art forms – literature, film, television, photography – offer some form of comfort against the ceaseless horrors of human existence, which is why art exists. Music just happens to be the most immediate form, a mainlined narcotic.
I do not abide people who call certain types of music “depressing.” That’s not how depression works. Depression isn’t just feeling sad or thinking about something unpleasant; it’s the deeply penetrating iteration of destructive, self-hating thoughts that cannot be reasoned or wished away. Depression has many triggers, but minor chords aren’t among them.
For those who have come to love the frequently subdued music of Jason Molina – though his oeuvre can span the spectrum from exultant to funereal – what resonates so deeply is the stark honesty and humanity he projected. He was an artist who could convey raw emotions more nakedly than almost anyone, which, admittedly, doesn’t always make for the easiest listening experience. It’s not supposed to.
I was lucky to find Songs: Ohia when I did. If one wonders how someone in the midst of a depressive episode could find appeasement in the bleakness of an album like The Lioness, it’s quite simple: when Molina was singing in my room, I didn’t feel alone. Isn’t that why we listen?
It’s been nearly two years since I reached the end of 10 Cities/10 Years. My first year in New York came to an end, and a second one started with little fanfare. I had girded myself for a come down period, but I wasn’t prepared for it to come so soon, or so brutally. Apparently, ten years of moving had trained my body to crave change and it didn’t react well to being deprived.
It was the deepest mental crash I’d experienced since New Orleans, triggering a complete emotional and physical exhaustion. My first year in Brooklyn had been exhilarating, but now everything curdled in my vision as I felt walls closing in. For the first time in my adult life, I didn’t have a goal. I needed purpose.
One Last Story
We barely spoke to each other as Ruth drove me back to my Bed-Stuy apartment. This would be her first time coming to my neighborhood with me. She wasn’t staying. We pulled up to my front door, parking briefly. I leaned over, kissed her goodnight, and then, before opening the door, paused.
“This is over, isn’t it?” I asked.
We met on a dating app.
A week after I moved to Brooklyn, I downloaded the Tinder app to my phone. A week later, I went on my first Tinder date. That woman cheerfully offered to give me a tour of Brooklyn. We walked around on a drizzly end-of-summer Saturday, had a few drinks, and exchanged the details of our lives. It was the prototypical first date.
Our second date was a concert. We had a pleasant but unspectacular time before kissing goodnight. Then she went out of town and when she returned, she texted me that it wasn’t a good time for a relationship (I later learned this was a common dating trick: use a trip out of town to ghost an unwanted date). I said I understood and moved on. I ignored the app for another year.
It was a couple months after Sophie left that I tried Tinder again. As it turns out, my life is great fodder for casual conversation – one Tinderalla called it “the perfect first date story,” and she had a point. If a conversation was stalling on a date, I could turn the subject to some city I had lived in and it would open up all new avenues.
Dates came in waves. Some weeks, I saw two or three different women, and other weeks all matches went ignored. There were numerous first dates, a smattering of second ones, and on a few occasions, I made it to a third. The fourth remained out of reach. It got to the point that getting past the third date seemed like a milestone.
I’m certainly not the first person to feel that dating apps essentially make a game of the whole endeavor. With each fleeting connection, as the fourth date grew more elusive, it started to reinforce that game mentality, with each date feeling like a level to be reached and beat. There was a goal to be achieved. But I kept dying at the same spot. Reset.
Though a lot could certainly happen in between a first and third date, I convinced myself that what I wanted – a lasting relationship, a reason to stay, a purpose for a life in Brooklyn – waited right on the other side.
Yeah I was losing, but I was having fun playing all the same. There were good conversations, making out, even a couple one-night stands. Some connections felt more substantial than others, and it was disappointing when they fizzled out. Trysts were a nice enough distraction, but I was, perhaps naively, hoping for more. I’d spent the previous decade ricocheting between wildly impractical love affairs and loneliness. I was ready to try a stable relationship. Didn’t I deserve one?
I decided to expand my pool of dates by downloading Bumble, an app practically identical to Tinder except that it requires women to start the conversation. It appealed to my shy nature and I appreciated that it gave women more control. I’ve seen enough Tinder Nightmare posts to feel bad for every women, ever. The connections on Bumble were, indeed, better. It was harder to get to the first date, but when I did, it didn’t feel like we were wasting each other’s time, even when it didn’t go anywhere.
I connected with Ruth on Bumble in June. For our first date, over drinks and appetizers, we talked literature and our different upbringings – she grew up in New York City and had lived there most of her life – and when the night was over, I walked her to her bus. Our second date was a sushi dinner in Brooklyn Heights. Afterwards, we walked along the Promenade and kissed in the glare of passing traffic.
Our third date took place at a Celebrate Brooklyn concert in Prospect Park. She arrived fifteen minutes late, and partially into the date, one of her friends joined us. This felt like a signal, the brush off, so I was surprised when she proffered an invitation to her Cobble Hill place following the concert. The next morning, we made tentative plans for a fourth date.
As that night approached, I anticipated a text saying she was sick or she had to work, any of a dozen excuses I’d been given by past connections. Instead, she arrived (late) for dinner. The date itself wasn’t particularly interesting – we saw a movie she didn’t enjoy and then returned to her place – but we had reached a fourth date. It felt momentous.
More dates followed, usually ending at her place. I met her friends and her parents, even attended her father’s poetry reading. She went out of town for a week around the 4th of July and when she returned she didn’t blow me off. She had me over on a particularly scorching Wednesday night and cooked us dinner. My friends, who hadn’t met Ruth, took to referring to her as my “girlfriend.”
The following Saturday, we returned to Prospect Park for another concert. She was late again. From the moment she arrived, I could sense her absence. I knew she had just received some upsetting family news so I chalked it up to that. Back at her place later that night, though, she turned to me and confessed in her matter-of-fact way, “I feel ambivalent about you.”
She clarified that she wasn’t disinterested, just uncertain. She had strong feelings about me in opposite directions. I suppose she thought that would be reassuring. As best she could articulate, my best quality appeared to be that I was “nice.” Never a good sign.
We hashed out our feelings for maybe an hour and the next morning the tension had dissipated. We went to a neighborhood coffee shop to work next to each other. If felt like a couple thing to do. I’d started to relax when, as we walked back to her apartment, she stopped in the middle of the sidewalk and said, with a pitying smile, “I don’t want you to worry about how I feel.”
We didn’t talk again until Thursday night when I received an unexpected call from her. I’d spent the week bracing for her to end things, so I was shocked when she invited me to join her and a group of friends for a weekend trip upstate.
The weekend was almost perfect. There was swimming in a pond and climbing waterfalls. We cooked BBQ and drank, roasted s’mores and played games. Group conversations covered religion, politics, and art. The trip felt like a turning point; Ruth appeared to be giving me admission into her group of friends. It was somewhere to belong.
And yet, I could still sense it: Ruth’s ambivalence.
The next weekend, we went to see Louis CK perform (this was well before the accusations of misconduct were public). She picked me up, arriving early this time, and drove us to the show out in Forest Hills. On the way, I noticed her respond to a message on Bumble. Ruth’s distance was palpable – while waiting in line, I tried to hold her hand and she pulled away. We both laughed heartily through Louis’ typically brilliant set, even as he touched on the uncomfortably relevant topic of doomed relationships.
She took me home – she had an excuse for why I couldn’t come over that night – an interminable drive. Sitting mostly in silence, I spent the time working up the nerve to ask the question I knew would end our nascent relationship. After I asked her if it was over and she answered in the affirmative, we talked for another ten minutes, exchanging only a few words. While she didn’t feel strongly for me, she couldn’t bring herself to break up with me. I had to break up with myself.
“I don’t want you to be sad,” she said as I prepared to exit her car. I almost managed a grin. She had never had a say in that.
We’d only been seeing each other a month and a half.
I was, of course, sad after the break up, but not devastated. Even in the moment I could recognize that we had never really clicked as a couple, and that I had placed undue weight on the relationship because of that arbitrary fourth date milestone. I was rushing towards a fabricated resolution because I wanted there to be an endgame.
Ruth was a smart and funny woman, independent and focused. She had her failings, everyone does, but they were irrelevant. She was a reminder of the greatest gift that 10 Cities/10 Years had given me: a surplus of remarkable, strong women in my life. So many, in fact, that in these chapters, I’ve barely scratched the surface. There are so many more stories left untold.
I count myself incredibly lucky for all the women who have come into my life, some for only a matter of months (or days), others for years, and maybe even life. Their perspective has changed me for the better, their support sustained me, their creativity, grace, and beauty invigorated me when I had lost the will to continue. 10 Cities/10 Years was a journey from boyhood to manhood, and women were my guide.
A couple months after Ruth exited my life, my travel companion, Emily, and I took a trip to Spain together. I had a revelation. Upon returning to the States, I deleted Bumble. I resolved to forgo dating for the next year in order to save for a move abroad, a decision that was met with some skepticism by my friends. But if there’s one thing more enticing to me than love, it’s the road.
I thought that when I reached New York I would feel a sense of place, of purpose. I believed that the city would be a star of too great a gravity to escape, that I would finally find a home. And I do feel at home in Brooklyn, I do feel a sense of belonging. Maybe I could be happy and in love here. Why not?
But I haven’t reached the end of the road.
Now I get asked a lot, “What’s the plan?” How long will I be in Spain? What will I do after that? When will I come back? The answer, to all questions, is, I don’t know. There isn’t a plan this time; no goal, no purpose. I’m going because it’s where I want to be right now. That’s enough.
I’m not looking for a destination, anymore. It can find me if it wants to.
“Are you happy?” She asked me. This woman who had been the center of my world at one point had all but vanished from my life. We hadn’t spoken in years. She has a good life now, a happy one. The life she deserves. I may never be a part of it again.
I couldn’t answer her question. I’ve never been able to. The answer isn’t yes or no, it’s a treatise.
I’m alive. For however long as that’s still true, it’ll suffice.