That’s what I should have said.
I didn’t, though.
The French have a saying: “Pourquoi avez-vous pris la peine de traduire cela?” I have no idea what that means, but they have another saying, “Esprit de l’escalier.” which translates to “Spirit of the stairway.” It’s the feeling of finding the perfect, witty remark but only after the opportunity has passed.
For a hypothetical example, say It was around noon on a wet and chilly day in 2012. Sometime after Call Me Maybe topped the charts and sometime before the world ended. Early March, perhaps. You were trying to impress a cute girl in your speech class with a string of pithy words, but under the pressure you crack, instead firing off some dumb remark. Later, as you walked down the stairs, it hits you. You come up with the perfect combination of vowels and consonants. Alas, the moment is now gone.
That’s the spirit of the stairway.
I had just come back to my apartment from my morning block of classes, to eat and make sure my cabbie hat was perfectly askew.
Just shy of twenty-one, I was in the midst of a metamorphosis, the cocoon of which was my first ironic t-shirt and a blazer I started wearing to house parties, where I’d spend a weird amount of time talking about Allen Ginsberg.
The catalyst for this self-reinvention had come, as it often does, in the form of a break-up.
A few months earlier, I had found myself on the business end of a “We should talk” text.
Her and I sat down on a park bench somewhere on campus, with a space between us that was infinite and insurmountable. The entropy of romance, I suppose. I yelled and she cried. I cried and she yelled. Students and faculty shuffled by, most of them glancing at us through the sides of their eyes. I felt the snow on the bench melting beneath my ass and seeping into my jeans.
When there was nothing left to say, we left to go update our Facebooks to “Single,” though it turned out we were about as bad at breaking-up as we had been at dating. Both too afraid to bring the guillotine down for a clean sever, the thread of flesh that still joined us was months of late-night, impromptu fucks, usually happening when our drinking cycles fell into sync. Always in her dorm, beneath a Target canvas print of the Eiffel Tower, or at my apartment, where the displayed craft beer bottles trembled every time the bed shook.
That’s what had happened the night before. I was out at some dive that didn’t I.D., drinking a whiskey I didn’t like. “This argyle sweater must make me look so cool.” I thought to myself all argyle sweater-ly.
Just then, my phone vibrated.
I don’t remember exactly what the text I got from her said but it had enough typos that I understood the connotation, so I closed my tab and made my way to her place.
The next morning, I woke up later than I needed but earlier than she did, cautiously slipping out from beneath one of her legs as not to wake her. I looked around her dorm through halos of light being refracted from the make-up and face oils smeared on my glasses.
I went to the bathroom to find some aspirin, which I did. Shoving three or four in my mouth, I bent over to wash them down with water from the faucet, but half way down something caught my eye.
In the cup by her sink, there was a second toothbrush. Blue with bristles bent and worn in every direction. On top of her toilet’s tank, there was a used stick of men’s deodorant. I swallowed the aspirin dry, then swiftly and aggressively pulled back her shower curtain, as if I was going to find the guy standing there.
“Old Spice.” I thought to myself. “What a douchebag. I bet his breath smells like Monster and he fucks like pumping a keg. Probably doesn’t even own a cabbie hat.”
The dorm felt grey and so did I. I left without saying goodbye.
In looking back and writing this, I finally understand people who don’t leave their homes in the face of hurricanes. Winds ripping trees from the dirt, FEMA helicopters roaring overhead, all while you struggle to swim one-handed because the other is busy typing “U up?” Drowning is an agent of comfort and comfort is just fear dressed in sweatpants.
Back in my apartment, after those morning classes, there was an empty hour before my last class of the day. A speech 101 course I had been putting off since enrollment. I was waiting on the oven timer for half a bag of fish sticks and decided to make a drink, reaching for a top shelf bottle. In this context, “top shelf” is a relative term and refers to a bottle of Evan Williams that was being stored right above three warm cans of Hamm’s left over from a party the weekend before.
Around the same time that ex and I had stopped kissing while having sex, I started reading Bukowski, Hemingway, and all the other titans of literature who inspired generations of hacks to think they had to get whiskey drunk in order to write, of which you could have counted me amongst the flock. I wasn’t taking any writing classes, but I had recently written a short story. It was supposed to be a neo-noir adaption of Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, the main plot taking place at CERN laboratories, and the other being mirrored in an alternate dimension. What it actually was, was awful.
I made my choice concoction of the time, which was a reheated mug of that morning’s coffee, three generous shots of the Evan Williams, and a spoonful of coconut oil. It was basically a Four Loko for people who say shit like “Actually, that’s coincidence, not irony.” It tasted like tweed jackets and self-published poetry. I shoved some fish sticks in my face, helped them down my throat with a pull from that bottle, and grabbed my coffee to start the walk to class.
The Sun hid behind a curtain of wispy clouds and the air bit with Winter’s death throes. I headed down the gravel trail by my apartment, the wet path sticking and cracking beneath my boots. I made my way past the concrete and glass protrusions of Grant Towers, across Annie Glidden rd, extinguished half a cigarette on the rim of a metal trash bin, and entered DuSable Hall by taking the stairs two at a time, stumbling but regaining my balance at the top. When I strolled through the open door of my classroom, the coffee was gone and I had a wiry confidence available only in drunken youth.
My professor looked more or less like what the back of a porn shop smells like. He had the exact horseshoe hairline you’re picturing right now. He didn’t smell like that though. Instead, he always smelled vaguely of casserole, and I’m not certain that’s any better. He began class with a heavy, defeated sigh that was apropos of nothing, then separated us into six groups of more or less equal size.
“The next speech, will be a group project.” he mumbled. “Each group will be assigned a continent,” he said through his nose, while writing our assigned continents on the white board “And each member will choose one topic about that continent to cover, for five minutes each.” He opened his mouth to say something else, then instead scrunched his face and waddled back to his desk. My group was assigned Asia.
There were six members of this breakfast club: myself, a timid girl named Krissy, three members of the same frat who all looked like walking lacrosse sticks, both in stature and beer boofing vibe (I can’t remember any of their names, so we’ll just call them each Blaine), and then Miranda.
Miranda slid her slender frame into the seat next to me. One of her hands fidgeted with a felt tipped pen, the other brushed curly, black hair behind one ear. I looked at her creamy, wheat colored skin and imagined her leaving a toothbrush and deodorant at my apartment. Sexy, artsy deodorant. Like Tom’s of Maine or something. “I suppose we should get through this project, before packing night bags.” I thought to myself.
“So what topics do you guys want to do?” asked Blaine.
“I want to do Asian booze,” said Blaine.
“Damn it, Blaine. That’s what I was going to do. I guess I’ll do Asian sports,” said Blaine, pulling up a YouTube video of Joe Rogan explaining kung fu.
“Wait, no. I want to do sports,” retorted Blaine.
“Alright, Blaine and Blaine,” said Blaine “both of you need to settle down. Blaine, you do booze. Blaine, you do sports. And I, Blaine, will do geishas.”
“What’s a geisha?” asked Blaine.
“It’s like a slut that doesn’t cop an attitude,” replied Blaine.
“Nice,” said Blaine. All three nodded in agreement.
Right before Blaine was about to show us a video of a pledge doing something biological with a bottle of hot sauce, Miranda put a hand on his phone and gently lowered it to his desk.
“I think Krissy had something to say,” she said.
“I’m going to do the history of Asia,” declared Krissy, with the authority of a panhandling mouse.
Briefly, let’s skip ahead in our story to the day of the speech, then circle back around.
The day came, and Krissy was the first of us to give her presentation. She had a daunting task ahead of her, considering she elected to do the history of where civilization began.
I have forgotten my banking PIN, relative’s birthdays, hell even my own birthday, but I will never forget how Krissy began her oral history of the Asian continent.
“T-t-th,” she stammered, “The Vietnam War began in 1965.”
I raised an eyebrow and looked up from my notes. Krissy then proceeded to go on a three minute rant about the Vietnam Wat, that was both disorienting and highly inaccurate. Lots of sentences that began with prepositions and ended with quotes from We Were Soldiers. She then shifted gears and spent the final two minutes of her speech talking about, I shit you not, The September 11th terrorist attacks. At five minutes on the dot, she stuck her landing with “As you can see, Asia has a very interesting history. Thank you.” Then took her seat, folding her hands onto her ankle-length denim skirt.
To this day, I have no idea if that speech was the meandering ramble of a madwoman, or the greatest Kaufman homage the world has ever seen. The only thing I do know, is I will never witness anything that funny again in my lifetime.
Back to the story at hand.
Miranda said we would all need to pick a day to meet up to work out the group aspect of the project.
“Totally,” agreed, one of Blaine’s heads. “I’ll make a Facebook chat with all of us to coordinate.”
“Oh. I don’t have a Facebook,” replied Miranda.
This was my moment. My time to shine. My chance to show Miranda how funny I am, which would surely convince her to fuck me.
“What is this?” I asked, looking her in the eyes “The nineties?”
Real Oscar Wilde-esk quip, I know.
Miranda let out a polite snort through her nose and went back to talking.
It’s not a horrible joke. “Brevity is the soul of wit” and all that jazz. And, as far as random riffs go, that’s a pretty tight line. Not a lot you could trim off.
There was this interview Bob Dylan did when hitting the circuit for the release of John Wesley Harding (his best album, in case you were curious) in which he said the following:
There’s no line that you can stick your finger through. There’s no hole in any of the stanzas. There’s no blank filler. Each line has something.
I don’t remember what the hell I was trying to say by comparing my quarter in the bag quip to one of the greatest albums of the 20th century. Everything up until that last sentence was written in August, and I completely forgot about this draft until five minutes ago when I was searching my Google Drive to find a nacho recipe I saved.
Sorry for taking a sledgehammer to the fourth wall. If you want some better polished content, go pay the ten bucks a month to The New Yorker and check out whatever open-mic-grade horseshit Andy Borowitz is churning out these days. If you don’t want to fork out that cash, quit complaining and let me finish my damn story.
Anyway, like I was saying, “What is this…the nineties?”
“Oh no worries,” said Blaine, “let’s just get a group text going.”
Miranda apologetically groans and says “Sorry, I don’t text either. I could do a phone call though.”
Alright. Time for my redemption arch. The third act of my hero’s journey.
“You don’t text?” I said, setting myself up for the slam dunk joke. “What is this, the nineties?” I asked, with all the comedic timing of an Alzheimer’s patient. My mouth tasted like dirt and sidewalk gum, from the foot lodged squarely inside it.
Miranda turned her head and made eye contact with me. She looked confused. Like a dog that was just asked the fifth digit of Pi.
The best way I can describe the feeling that followed is not an orgasm. My muscles tensed, sweat dripped down my forehead, and I was struggling to chase down my breath and catch it. But instead of any blissful release I wanted to die.
Actually, that just sounds like most regular orgasms I’ve had.
That not an orgasm feeling has taken hold of my many times since, and I would eventually learn that it was an anxiety attack. I’ve since become fairly adept at surprising them with meditation (alcohol), and repeating a mantra (humming You May Be Right by Billy Joel. No idea why this helps). In that moment, however, I didn’t have any clue what was happening. With the anxiety ripping a hole in my chest, I just did the first thing I could think of.
I stared blankly, then said “I’m just kidding around.” I then winked and fired a finger gun at Miranda. “Anyway, I’m going to go use the restroom.” I got up from my chair and went to the bathroom, where I stayed for the final ten minutes of class, haunted by esprit de l’escalier.
“Okay.” That’s all I needed to say. Instead I conversed with a verbal finesse of glitch in the Matrix.
Miranda never left a toothbrush and deodorant at my apartment. I’m not even sure we ever made eye contact again.
A few years later, in an ironic twist of fate, I started performing stand-up comedy and have since established myself as a real hit or miss feature. I’ve bombed more times than I can remember, sometimes at the hand of an anxiety attack and sometimes at my own. So many of those awful shows keep me up at night. I toss and turn thinking about what I could have done differently before shifting all blame onto the audience for “not getting it.”
I’ve never lost sleep thinking about those thirty seconds talking to Miranda. In fact I never think back to it at all. Not because it wasn’t horrible and excruciating, but because I don’t think I’ve ever actually left that moment. I’ve lived in it for the past seven years. The veil of time has been pulled back and my past, present, and future all exist in that half minute of awkwardness, never allowing me to move forward.
A few weeks ago (after the half-cocked Bob Dylan analogy but before the nacho recipe search), I went on a Tinder date. We were making all the awkward fumbles through the waltz of getting to know each other.
“So what’s your favorite movie?” I asked.
She paused for a moment and scrunched her face a bit before answering. “It’s hard to pick just one” she said, “but probably Titanic.”
“Titanic? What is this….”