Music: Fleet Foxes: Helplessness Blues (2011)
It’s something about the eyes and the intensity of contact. Not windows, but indexes. Of neurons, serotonin . . . dopamine. A missing clutch, as Laura would say.
Some weeks ago I walked into the front office at school and this kid, barely eighteen, maybe, this kid tells me his film just got into some sort of festival, but he can’t go because he’s heading for the valley.
“Yeah man,” he says. “you know, prison.”
“Well, good for you!” I toss in a fake laugh so he knows that I’m kidding, grab my documents from the main printer, and head back to my office just around the corner. I was thinking about class and Foucault (and how I enjoyed reading Foucault, although folks don’t tend to think so) and was in the mode of rush—mean, mean stride—so it didn’t occur to me something was amiss. He smelled of days-old sweat.
But he was wearing shoes.
I realized that not all of my notes printed, and so I tried again. When I entered the office there he was again, asking something of one of the office staff. I thought to myself this was one of their son’s friends. Tall (-ish) and lanky, wearing jeans and a green t-shirt, tight tight t-shirt, cropped hair, the smell of days-old sweat.
The smell of days-old sweat. Everyone has her thing; this is not one of mine. I remember thinking that, and I don’t have a good sense of smell.
I have to interrupt his conversation with the office staff to get my (hopefully complete) document, freshly printed beyond them; the only way was through. She catches my glace and her eyes widen larger than seems humanly possible, eyebrows are arched toward the “trouble” furrow in her brow, and then I realized the issue.
“Hey, are you are professor here?” the kid asks. He’s oddly charming. More odd than charming.
“Sometimes,” I said, in full knowledge I was rescuing my front-office colleague from an uncomfortable something. What was that something, exactly? “Mostly I just pretend.”
“How do you swing sexually?” he asks abruptly. And there it is: the eyes. I looked there. I looked there and I normally do not with strangers, in general, except to signal serious intent to know. But I had to look. I had to—that sweat smell of laundry, but with a body in it. His eyes were big, but not as wide as those of my worried colleagues (the other office executive glanced over too, no blinking), but his were still wider than normal. Green. A dark, forest green trending toward brown; the globes twitch nervously when the iris is clearly locked. Uncomfortably locked. The eyes almost appear to spin, like pinwheels, flashback to Jungle Book, but I don’t trust. Eyes like a hypnogogic with such a pressure or focus or intensity or whatever that I can imagine he is often successful in getting those of us who are not “on the same level” to engage him. My first thought is that he is stoned.
“I’m sorry, I think I misheard your question.”
“Can I come talk to you in your office?” He looks friendly and desperate. Days-old sweat. No, he’s not stoned. He is lost in the matrix. I’ve seen the look before, sadly in eyes of, um, in the eyes of “exotic dancers.” But he doesn’t want money. It’s love. And the more you think about it, money is love for some people. Hell, it’s apparently “speech” for the Supremes (Aune’s affectionate term for the justices of the Supreme Court)
“I’m sorry buddy”—he did look friendly—“but I’m actually on my way to class.”
I looked up further up and to the left, an escape from those wild, deep green lasers, and there is my chair, white wisps of hair almost to his shoulders, deceptively tall (he’s much taller than one tends to remember), bewhiskered and saying in his peculiar, un-rejoined drawl: “Can I help you?”
I was late for class. I reasoned my chair has it under control, and as much as I wanted to see this little drama unfold, I tend to cleave to my responsibilities first, like a boy scout. (I am an Eagle Scout, and I do try to do a good turn daily).
Later that day, my colleague emailed to report the “crazy kid” had two warrants for his arrest and was apprehended in the hallway. He was then found again in the adjoining building the next day, and arrested again for trespassing.
“Poor kid,” as said to her when I was in the office again later that week. “I hope he gets help; there’s a charmer underneath that haze.”
“Er, I don’t know,” she says, rolling her eyes.
Some weeks ago I was on a second date that didn’t lead to a third one. Cute. But that stare was unnerving; dark brown eyes. They didn’t twitch like the “crazy kid,” they just seemed inappropriately lingering. Not that there are hard-and-fast rules or anything, but three seconds of contact is usually enough to make it clear you intend to flirt. If it’s four seconds, you both better be buzzed or something, because we’re in the American Creep-out zone. Five seconds is enough to concern. He was a five-seconder, maybe longer. It was disconcerting until he diagnosed himself as an “Aspie.” I had to Google the term later, and once I did I felt a softness for him after the online education. But it was too late.
In the Fargo airport they finally called for “all rows,” so I got to . . . stand in line. Lines from the north and south were forming, and so, like merging on the highway in Minnesota on-ramps, I thought it would be polite to alternate people from each side. When it was my turn, however, I broke the emergent norm and let the elderly lady across from me go first. “Thank you so much,” she said in a higher-than-expected but still gravely voice. She was a tall, thin woman who had died her long hair an orangey-blonde, which she had sort-of wrapped up like a used towel on top with hair bands. She acted strangely, almost as if she was drunk. I don’t think she was drunk, but she definitely had some issues with balance.
Given the turbulence that greeted us on the way to the ceiling, I should have been drunk.
She was dressed strangely. I reasoned she was in her late sixties, because of her face and taste in bauble-like silver jewelry (her wedding ring—if it was that—was monstrous and flashy, like a Ring Pop, except it looked like a cave formation). She had poured herself into very tight blue jeans—her legs were like long pencils wrapped tightly in faded blue—and was wearing the kind of shirt a late night musician would wear, with rhinestones and flash. Her face was excessively wrinkled and leathery (a former smoker, probably). She had two, overstuffed, yellow-ish canvas bags with Native American art on the sides (a buffalo, some recognizable Sioux-style designs), and as I followed her down the ramp connector little bits of paper kept falling out of the bags, receipts, an itinerary, gum wrappers. I picked them up with the intention of giving them to her when we got on the plane (I forgot to). Instead of heading toward the plane at the end of the connector the she turned right, where the oversized carry-ons were collected.
“Wrong way lady,” screamed a guy in a fluorescent vest with ear muffs on. “The plane is over there,” he said, pointing to an empty and welcoming cabin door, a much better alternative to the 15 foot plummet that waited on the other side.
“Oh,” she said, and hobbled onto the plane. As she navigated this newfound complexity I noticed a black stick jutting out on the side of the plane. “DO NOT WALK,” read a sticker of above the stick. “Heated Probe.” I wondered what that thing was, and even considered asking. But I was interrupted by the continued dramas of Elder Orphan Annie. As she entered the silver pill she dropped her ticket and seat assignment, which a steward fetched and returned to her. “You’re in 5B,” said the steward, pointing to the exact seat about five feet in front of her. I was not pleased. This was a puddle-jumper, and I was in 5A.
She stopped to stow one of her two bags in the “overhead compartment,” the contents miraculously not tumbling out as I—and now everyone in eyeshot–had expected. To my dismay, she planted herself in my seat and started to make a phone call.
“I’m sorry M’am, you’re in my seat. You have the window,” I said. She gave a cheerful laugh. “Well,” she said, still laughing for breathing, “a girl can try, can’t she?” She moved over to her seat. Her eyes searched rapidly for contact. I give them some. They were blue. Pale blue, like the song, but I didn’t want to linger.
“You bet!” I said. “But I’m a big boy and you’ll be more comfortable if I’m right here, where I can ooze out into the aisle.” She moved over, jerkily hoisting her jangle over the armrest without touching those long legs on the floor.
“Do you fly a lot?” she asked as I settled in.
“Yeah, unfortunately. About five or ten times a year. Two years ago I think I had like thirteen trips in one year. It’s exhausting.”
“Well, I had a limo and sold it. I used to drive everywhere. So now I have to fly. I told her, ‘I’m flyin’ now.’ I’m a great grandmother. Can you believe it?”
“Oh wow,” I said. “You don’t look a day over fabulous,” I said, stealing a line from Steven Tyler on American Idol from last week.
“Aren’t you sweet,” she said. “Thank you. I have to fly now though, I’m not really used to it.”
I didn’t quite understand what she meant by the limo, and nonverbals didn’t help. Was she a famous person and I didn’t know it? Surely not. I bet she used to drive a limo or something; she didn’t act “flashy” like people with money do—especially working class and poor folks who come into money later in life. I tended to my iPhone. There wasn’t any email to read or friends to “text,” but it was a place to put my eyes.
As we waited I touched this and that app, settling finally on Bedazzled. I mean “Bejeweled.” I dunno why I always think the game is “Bedazzled.” The woman rummaged through the remaining bag half under-the-seat, rummaging and rummaging with her elbow coming over into my zone repeatedly. The portly flight attendant with stylish glasses (the 50s are back, must be Mad Men) glared over. I saw in the what-ever-it-is haze zone of the periphery something plopped to the phone.
I mean plopped to the floor.
“I’m sorry, sir, I dropped my phone somewhere. Do you see it?”
I looked on the floor and it was directly under her right foot.
“It’s under your right foot. I’ll get it.”
I fetched the phone and thought of Matt Sorensen’s grandmother. On the way to Fargo I watched a couple of season-three episodes of Friday Night Lights. Matt Sorensen, the quarterback of the Panthers, had just filed court papers to become an “emancipated minor” so that he could legally become the guardian of his grandmother, who was suffering from dementia. Memory of watching that show was still fresh, and the likeness was there, in the seat next to me, but younger, and I thought about having to take care of this woman for the rest of her or my life. I handed her the phone and smiled.
“Thank you. You’re being so nice to me. I really appreciate that,” she said. I moved back to my game of Bejeweled, which is not as much fun with the sound turned off. No “ka-ching!” noises when you line up three or more jewels. My new companion had lots of bangles on, perhaps I could have asked her to shake her fists every time I scored? An internal joke, of course. Talking to her—Annie, I’ve decided—talking to Annie risked the vaginal ear and that penetrating life story. I’m not adverse to that; I often enjoy it. But not today. I’m not sure Annie would make any sense. Today I wanted to access my inner isolationist; faculty meeting tomorrow, then vetting, then letter writing, then class prep. It would be nice to be Bejeweled for a while. To get to level ten. I have not achieved level ten. I have advanced degrees, in the academy and in Freemasonry. But I cannot discern the inner-algorithm of Bejeweled’s tenth level.
We were instructed to turn off our gadgets, as the cabin door was closed. This was when Annie decided to make a phone call to “Hildie.” I couldn’t tell who Hildie was, but they were both concerned about a third woman who doesn’t call them back. And Annie complained of missing calls all the time, even when she was in the same room with the phone right next to her. I have this problem too. Even with the ring tone set on its highest setting and vibration set to “on,” I’m more likely to miss a call than answer one. I suppose I could carry my phone in my coat pocket, or in my breast pocket, but my mother told me “they say” not to do that. Cancer.
Annie talked to Hildie—loudly, and we were in row five, no first class—she talked to Hildie right through take off. The attendant was oblivious, but I think two rows fore and aft were not, as neighboring passengers were gazing. I could feel it. I wondered if I should tell Annie to hang-up. I started to think she had not been on a plane before. All signs pointed to “yes.” Thankfully, as the plane was still climbing, she told Hildie she loved her and hung up.
At cruising altitude, at that blissful “dong” that alerted our attendants we were almost free to move about the cabin, I donned my headphones, iTunes my way to the new Low album C’mon, and checked out and into the final pages of Charles Burns’ Black Hole.
Minutes pass, I see a cart coming, and Annie is now bespectacled in shades and hunched over in her lap, readying for sleep. Tray down, diet coke settled into its sticky grey, plastic depression, Annie goes deeper. She is hunched over, and with each breath she seems to sink deeper and deeper, swerving closer and closer, slumping, slumping. Then slump; her left shoulder and head are in my space. I see her roots. She is, in a phrase, sleeping on me.
I can no longer concentrate on my reading. My new companion as, however unwittingly, cozyed up. I anticipated her arm reaching up to clutch my right shoulder. It was unnerving. I thought about norms of personal space and how they differed in different countries around the world. I looked behind me, to the passengers to my left. No one noticed the thin, elderly woman hunched and heaved to my side. I wondered if the attendant thought if she was my mother or grandmother; if someone had seen us, they would have thought we were together or friends or family. Sleep is a thing of intimacy and the lonely on airplanes.
I sat up more rigidly, in part for my own comfort, in part to see if she would wake up. I wanted my space back. She responded, awaking just a bit to move back into her seated zone.
This sleeperly intimacy continued for the entire flight. During those two hours, I alternated from annoyance to paternity to an intellectualization of the situation that veered toward romanticization. I had never had a stranger share her sleeping with me—on me. During the flight, I thought about what Michael Warner calls “stranger sociability.” And I have been reading Diane Davis’ book, Inessential Solidarity, which draws heavily from Levinas. Levinas theorized something he called, confusingly, “face.” I won’t go into the details, but these thinkers have been thinking through interpersonal intimacies, a primary relationality that comes before meaning and speech and representation. I think I was feeling what they were talking about, in a way, that this stranger was claiming a “non-appropriative relation,” or something like that, and that my annoyance was languaging getting in the way. Fragility became something like an affective theme for the flight. About half-way into the flight, Annie’s head was on my arm, and I could see how meticulously her hair was colored, that there was a root “touch up” recently, and I almost managed to wrestle through the annoyance of violation to acceptance. Almost. But I’m writing about, ain’t I?
Back to reading Black Hole, Annie practically nestled over there, in 5B, I realized the conundrum and the insight. The conundrum was that my script for feeling through it was just that, a script: either Annie was an annoyance and incapable of observing the tacit norms of travel culture, or she was a frail old woman whom I needed to embrace and take care of. A little or minor violence either way you feel it. The insight was the problem of the rule. I wanted to cut though it, to just be with this stranger and tell her it was going to be okay.
Or to get offa me.
Benjamin was right about how film made visible the unconscious optics of daily life. Writing with light may very well be the closet homologue to cognition, which may be why it has taken over our languaging of memory. Freud was determined to return the dream image to speech; rationality was at stake, in the way Kant fought with those damn Neoplatonists.
I remember watching Lost in Translation during a transatlantic flight from Berlin. I wept. And I didn’t let myself fall asleep, because I didn’t want my tendency to snore when I am exhausted to disturb the strangers around me, flying and suspended in all sorts of ways.
It was only a brief moment, but the sky was wicked blue, the kind of blue that activates a fierce lust for spring and green and dusting the house (finally) and outside adventures. And camping. Yes. I am going camping in just one week! And maybe some barbeque. Ok. Definitely barbeque. Then a cigar. Outside. With a bourbon spot. And a cigar. And live music. Live and free. And I had already had a bourbon, so the warm fuzz was descending, a sign of the first buzz in a while, the kind in which reminds you, “hey, this is nice. I like this.” The kind that makes you sit there for five hours and just fall in love with the ones you are with, because, you know, you can’t be . . . .
I thought maybe, perhaps, sitting there and happy and blue wild charging in the sky-blue periphery, I thought there was the hint of a gaze. Three seconds? I don’t know. It’s not in my gaze, it’s from no-where unless I shift to study it. But it’s not the kind you can return, or meet, or worse catch. I can’t return or meet or catch this gaze. There are rules. Rules man. I have rules. Rules are a problem, they have been my problem. But I know other people with rules, and they think similarly, and so my rules are not bad rules, but rules with company.
Still, it’s the kind of gaze you sense, because there are things you see but cannot, you know, represent. Like when you get hit in the back of the head with a shoe at an outdoor concert—you knew it was coming, but you only recognize you knew it was coming after it came. Tuche and automaton; rarely tuche: “Oh yeah, the shoe,” you say. “That Michael Jordon high top. I didn’t think they made those anymore, but this one was brand new. And it was meant to hit the back of my head.”
In the end, though, I have too much freetime on my hands (how did this happen? Oh, right—a plane). I think my hope is getting ahead of me. I wish the gaze I sensed was real, and not just, you know, what I wished. I’m both glad and at the same time embarrassed to be writing and sharing this, because my wishing is so deeply cliché, I mean, down in it, pretty hate machine style, like in the movies or television shows when a sex-starved character attacks a boy she has been crushing on megabomb and tears off his clothes, and then the spectator realizes, with the magic of clever editing, it was just a fantasy and there she is in the hallway with those awful, should-be-banned institutional fluorescents and the jock mockingly says to her, “what’s up Heather Locklear?” and walks past her with a thoroughly undeserved arrogance.
I bet in five years we learn that fluorescent lights cause cancer. You just wager.
Not that my fancied gazer would be so cruel; thank god we’re no longer in high school (I have just read Black Hole on the flight in, and let me say it was just so very brilliant, capturing high school in a way I’ve yet seen done, so accurate of feeling but bizarre in story). Not that he or she (I can’t tell you this time) could even do that, with a sky that wicked blue and the vibe so fuzzed. But at some point there was a touch and wondering about its innocence I tossed a glance just to see, just to see if it was met and there it was and it was . . . one, two . . . three seconds. There. I did it. But how long was his/her stare before I met it and then chickened out? And what’s the difference, really, between that gaze I so desire and the one that that tells me of a different or perverted or syndrome-driven intensity altogether?
I suppose it is the difference between a stranger and a familiar.
And days-old sweat. And the lock and twitch.
I realize the importance of contact, but I’ve been noticing myself not making it—a lot. I don’t think I am a shy person, but there’s something very true about seeing-relations. I haven’t thought about Satrre’s riff on this in Being and Nothingness for years, but now that I have I remember even as a college senior Sartre’s rumination on “the look” really made an impact; I think for weeks after I just stared at people to see what they would do. I didn’t encounter Lacan’s versions until I was in graduate school, but Lacan is not so much concerned with “the eye,” but rather, the split between that thing and “the gaze”—not even the gaze of eye, right? But I’m talking about the eye, literally. The eye of another person. I rarely realize I am gazing, or have met one, until long after it’s over (or I don’t notice it at all). But lately I’ve been hypersensitive to gazes. I don’t know why, exactly, except meeting these strangers, even the ones I want for myself, you know, the ones I want to feed and bathe and take care of.
Possession and control can be a troublesome sort of violence. That’s the problem, on both sides. The problem of “giving in.”
William—Bill, whatever—it was really nothing. Really. And John, I’m only dancing.
“I haven’t been assigned a seat yet,” I said to the agent. She had a new hair cut, a black bob, and she knew she looked good. Ruby lipstick. Brown eyes. She looked at you normally, or at least in a way I am accustomed to. “Your hair is lovely.”
“Why thank you! Let me see, I’m not sure if I can assign seats yet.”
“I’m feeling very exit-rowy.” Big smile.
“Mr. Gunn, you’ve already been assigned a seat—11B.”
“Is that a window or an aisle?”
“That’s a window.”
“Err, could I possibly trouble you for an aisle seat?
“Yes you may!” She squinted at a screen I couldn’t see. “Yes, I have an aisle seat in an exit row. Will you be able to assist in opening the exit in the event of an emergency?”
“Yes m’am. Absolutely. I’m very thankful!”
“You are welcome, Mr. Gunn. Thanks for flying United.”
I decided, since I have all this room, I might actually use my laptop on the airplane. I have the biggest MacBook Pro Apple makes, and it’s unfortunately too big to open on most airplanes—let alone type. Yet, in 12C I can open my computer and type on it. The only thing missing, I suppose, is a Wi-Fi connection, but you know what they say about beggars: the other chooses you.