So, I’ve had a post half-ready to go for more than two weeks now. I don’t suffer from writer’s block; can’t even say I have its cousin, blog block. (I’ve written several posts in my head, in addition to the one on paper.) I could tell you that other writing commitments have legitimately kept me “too busy”; family demands too. But these are excuses. So let me tell you what that languishing post was about.
Each year near the anniversary of my father’s death (quite annoyingly taking place on July 4th, the symbolism not lost on me, or, I’m pretty sure, on him), I get swallowed up. Swallowed up in several ways, but most particularly, and most succinctly, in silence. A cloak falls over my metaphorical bird-cage, and I can’t speak. In part, I’m afraid I will be too maudlin, or, the flip side, too irreverent. I lose trust in my reactions and my perspective, my compass thrown off. Doesn’t this happen near the Bermuda Triangle? I remember being fascinated by this as a child—the mystical void; the rational world at a loss to explain loss (grief) and its reasons. I’m still attracted to such things—attempting to explain, what is hardly explicable. Certainly the subject of suicide falls into this box. Or, I want to say: this void.
But when I began this post I wasn’t planning to dwell on the subject of silence—I’ll save that for another time—but instead its cousin, the desire to be seen. Which is really the desire not to be invisible. A gentleman by the name of Tarzan got me thinking about this. Let me explain.
I often prefer to work in public spaces. I have my favorites. Sometimes, said spaces fill up with distractions, but most often my focus improves in the company of background activity. When distractions do interfere, I try to find them redeeming. Writing is isolating; to be reminded of the lives of others is a blessing. I really didn’t need this blessing this morning. But then in came Tarzan.
Tarzan often frequents the neighborhoods around Union Square, a hub of activity. The area has been much gentrified in the last two decades; yet still it invites a diverse population. Tarzan is among the more stand-out citizens of the area. Tarzan is big: not just tall, which he is, but broad of shoulder and chest, his musculature enlarged, as you would expect from his name. Huge biceps, pecs like a movie superhero, chest bared to the world, much as though his shirt simply could not contain him. Some weeks I see Tarzan almost every day; some weeks not at all. I have not spoken to him. In all honesty, the thought has inspired the New Yorker’s equivalent of fear: bravado. The assured gait and I’m-too-busy expression, combined with the common sense to avoid the sort of proximity that might produce a need for either party to interact.
Lately, Tarzan has been visiting, with greater frequency, my coffee shop, my second home. I like this second home because it bustles, yet often remains calm; people come and go, and I can stay; I feel anonymous, despite being known. There is frequently an unusual array of visitors, most of them equally, if not more, comfortable in this setting that manages to be simultaneously bourgeois and urban. I have arrived at the view that a methadone clinic must also be nearby, and several groups of regulars are here because of this. Needless to say, our lives are quite different. But I like that here we are, all sitting at the same communal table. It is humbling. And a reminder of the humanity, the struggles and the normalcy, of those we would consider different from ourselves.
Tarzan is pretty easily the most standout of all of us, perhaps seconded by his saucy, take-no-prisoners, hyper-buff girlfriend, who comes in to read. Yes, she usually has a book with her. Yes, of course, I’ve looked, when I can, what it might be. Thick, hardcover, sometimes laminated as from a library, on several occasions something steamier than my usual fair: romance or erotica. But I digress.
On this morning, Tarzan asked to use someone’s phone. I barely heard the request and (see New Yorker above) stared more intently at my computer which was at that point operating as though powered by molasses. The saucy woman across from me, a regular who usually speaks too loudly but was fairly quiet today and who does not like even the slightest appearance of being talked down to or given any sh-t, said something. Apparently, Tarzan does not usually speak to her—read, deign to speak to her—so she sure as (ahem) was not going to lend him her phone. But his girlfriend does talk to her, she proclaims. The girlfriend had left in a huff, followed briefly by Tarzan. They could be seen earlier arguing on the street; not the first time. Tarzan re-entered and the girlfriend did not. A blonde man came in. Looked like a typical laptop user. But I did not stare; always best. Tarzan asked the man to call his phone for him; he wanted to find out where it was. The man said, “Sure, Tarzan.” I gaped. (Invisibly.) All this time I had no name for Tarzan. He was just the big-crazy-huge-muscled-half-shirtless-man you sometimes see around Union Square. Yeah, the one who looks like the incredible hulk; more hair, gentler eyes, not green. Tarzan did not kill the blonde man. They continued to speak; the man told him the phone call went to voicemail. The man called him Tarzan again. (Again, invisible mouth agape over at my end of the table, intent on my laptop; also not talking to the sassy, maybe methadone-dependent woman across from me.) He is truly called Tarzan! Little work transpired after this point. (Remember, my computer was slow as molasses….)
Tarzan left, off to look for his phone. The girlfriend returned. The blonde man reported his exchange with Tarzan to the girlfriend. Two new pieces of information emerged. The blonde man is homeless right now. (Oh! And, yeah, he knows Tarzan somehow. Fellow citizens of the street; well, sort of. Just wait.) And the girlfriend is not the girlfriend. Tarzan is her husband.
The girlfriend, I mean wife, who by the way is wearing black short-shorts, is quite buff herself, and whose breasts are busting out of her bustier; no I am not looking. So, the wife, she leans onto the table, the seat next to me, to talk to the sassy, maybe methadone-dependent, woman across from me. This woman has several friends with her now, also regulars. And I keep busy not listening. (I have work to do!) Fully aware that if I start getting engaged I will have even more difficulty appearing not rude when I stare at my computer screen—really, I do need to stare at that screen, though the reasons have blurred. So, they get to talking. Then the sassy woman asks the woman on my other side, at the table’s head, where’d your purse go? And, indeed, her red purse, very recently sitting on the table next to my over-stuffed folder, is gone. How the f–k did that happen? I am equally puzzled. The purseless woman is sure the sassy woman has taken it, out to make a point. Everyone looks around, wonders, starts to worry. I look around too, the invisible shield further opened. All of us truly puzzled; well, almost all. Purseless woman, not unkindly, tells sassy woman that she’ll rip her ponytail off if she has it. Everyone is still remarkably calm. I’ve seen most of them more riled up about apparently far lesser problems: a presumed affront by the manager, say, who has seemed to unwittingly become a participant in some archetypal scolding mother, rebellious son dynamic; where the son has done good, but the mother remains all-powerful. Here, I may be exaggerating, but that’s the subtext anyway. And, look, there’s really no room to exaggerate anywhere else in this account. (I love NY!) So, sassy woman calmly suggests to purseless woman that purseless woman’s friend came in before and took it. Was there money in it?! No. Just cigarettes. So purseless woman goes outside and, indeed, visible through our window is her friend holding the red purse.
Conversations continue. I email my babysitter. My screen barely moves. Tarzan’s wife explains why she’s worrying about Tarzan. I miss a few beats, but come to understand that Tarzan used to date so-and-so’s sister. This was seven or eight years ago, before the wife married Tarzan. Tarzan’s not-yet-wife had a fiance, equally buff; Tarzan was her last fling. Turns out they were more than that. He broke up with his girlfriend; more abruptly than seems to have been in character. Now, turns out this girlfriend o.d.’ed. Here, I’m not sure if this is a new event, new news, or old news and ancient history. Doesn’t really matter. Tarzan feels bad; feels like he somehow played a role in this. When I hear about someone’s overdose, my brain can’t help but go to the question of suicide. Depression and drugs are no stranger. Some easy examples: Amy Whinehouse; Whitney Houston; Marilyn Monroe. Ambiguity accompanies excessive drug use; ambiguity accompanies suicide. Addiction goes hand-in-hand with those drugs. Questions of suicidal behavior (para-suicide) trail behind. So, here I am, right there with Tarzan and his fears, thinking how bad he is feeling inside about playing a role in someone’s despair, lamenting, mourning, along with him, this feeling of loss. Wondering what if. Tarzan, poor Tarzan. Growing more humanized by the minute. Tarzan’s wife says how he’s like that, a sweetheart, worrying about people, not wanting to hurt them. This is the man who has borrowed the name of an ape-man, strong and frightening, the man who on the street in months past has seemed to carry a wild, unpredictable menace, in large part by his sheer size. And turns out he’s a puppy dog when it comes to those he might have wronged.
Of course, there’s more to it. Always, there’s more to it.
Why does he need to be so strong?
Hold that question. Now, back at the table, someone says how so-and-so (a different so-and-so) says Tarzan’s wife married Tarzan for his money. Yes, that’s right, his money. Let’s discuss. My tablemates don’t say this, but this is what happens. Yeah, that’s right! Tarzan’s wife laughs; she suggests, quite candidly, some other reasons she might have married him. And then she explains how she’s forty-years-old and she gets an allowance. The gall, I think, Tarzan gives her an allowance! Nope. Tarzan’s mother gives them an allowance. And they give her a grocery list; she buys the groceries. And so on. Yes, Tarzan, or his family, is rich, but he can’t touch the money. The silent participant, too obvious for Tarzan’s wife or sassy woman to need to articulate, is Drugs. Don’t know which ones. But, yes, it comes back, this is part of what made my body tense as Tarzan walked past; what led me, when possible, to change sidewalks. Not so much the muscles; but the awareness within the muscles, of hunger, of need, of intoxication, whether intoxicated or not. There is what we call, in rather different circumstances, muscle memory. The muscles, the body, the self: they remember. What they have had. What they want. What they fear. What they want to be. Shirt spread, muscles bulging: the force and mass of potential, trying to burst free. Of fear and need, trying to be strong. Tarzan is not a metaphor. He is real.
Ok, take a breath here.
I feel like I have revealed someone’s secrets. I will pretend you were at that communal table too. We all are. Doesn’t everyone need to be seen, just a little bit, somehow, somewhere? Who doesn’t want to feel strong?