by Brenna Hughes Neghaiwi
Listen, I hate the Internet. Listen, I don’t hate the Internet but it eats me up like a groaty sack of potato chips, swallows my time and leaves me feeling penniless and dull. Like I don’t know how to fill my time. Like I watch too much TV.
Something registers as logically but not materially funny. Everybody else laughs.
Spending too much time on the Internet must be like watching a whole bunch of pornography. In life some other agent becomes active and then you’ve got to react. You can’t just consume yourself as agent and reagent, consume someone else in their midst. I wonder if I were watching my family on television if I would laugh. Who would play me? I would be the dullard with the scowl. A counterbalance, or someone who gets edited out of the script. I would be replaced by a glistening and smarter self. Someone with life prospects or at least a more hilarious slovenliness. But I am the one that was bequeathed, and so my parents try to primp me up and offer explanations for my laggard ways: it’s a phase, or, many young people in their late twenties struggle with meaninglessness and disarray. I am your modern-day Kafka or Perec, which is to say: my job is very dull. I just googled “famous woman with boring office job” to see if I could even out that statement. I see that I cannot.
Like me, my employer makes the most of second-rate items, heavy discounts on the overstock of long discontinued lines.
But I do have an ambition, and her name is Celeste.
When I moved in in April, the hallways were plastered with construction paper, and Celeste was hauling wooden beams in and out of the space, lugging various floor polishing machines and industrial power tools I could not enumerate. She had opened an interior design firm in the ground floor office shortly before I arrived. One time, as it had just started being summer, she was leaning out the window, smoking a cigarette with an acquaintance, when I passed by on the street. I hadn’t even noticed them, but there she was laughing, waving brightly, recognizing me. The next day as I arrived home she was heading out of the office, and invited me in for a look. They had stripped off the ugly linoleum flooring and buffed the underlying parquet. You couldn’t recognize the space from the moribund travel agency that occupied it before. She gave me a design book to borrow, and I took it as an invitation to stop by more often. Each of the next three times I rang, though, it was only ever Rudolf who came to the door.
Now, I am placing my best bet on lemon curd tart, deposited with a note to stop by for wine Friday evening. This hasn’t worked with previous interests, but I have since perfected my olive oil crust.
I imagine totally unrealistic scenarios in my head: I come home one evening, disheveled in the most attractive possible haberdash way, and there she is, crumpled outside my apartment door, all the way up on the fourth floor. “Take me in,” she begs. “Or it will be the greatest mistake of our lives.”
I imagine her social calendar filled to the brim with new gallery openings and literary soirées, the kind of hush-hush events that get written up on Page Six or the inside of Vogue’s back cover, or more likely the blog of some certain Review, the rest of us clicking through the unaffected sparkle of humans predisposed to a life of glamour and scintillating wit. I imagine, though, that in reality she cooks lentils and regularly visits the dentist and probably pays her insurance bills on time.
My curiosity has taken me to the far corners of social media, and with horror I note that I have accidentally just liked every single one of her pictures by over-tapping as I swipe through.
A more shamed person would bowl over in mortification.
But me, I have been slapped by a dental hygienist so morally affronted by my lack of dignity and poise in a routine cleaning exam, I have let the loudest and meanest of them rip in front of an entire high school class, and also in the backseat of my first boyfriend’s grandfather’s Porsche. More recently, I’ve had the door slammed on flirtatious cookies, and often exit the house in such a sorry state that the racist who lives above a garage yelled at me to go away. She thought I was a junkie seeking to endanger her squalorly possessions. So: not a great deal of pride or expectation on the day-to-day operations.
I read an article in the New Yorker recently that attempted to quantify the proportion of people that hear voices in their head. It was a weird article, because it first described someone hearing a voice and then went on to describe just the regular thinking we all do. Only after rereading an anecdote of the author’s wife—who would only rarely dialogue in her mind, for example to remind herself ‘change your password today’—did I realize the article meant to say all these other people don’t even think at all through a voice in their head. This seemed impossible to me, because how else can you think? Then I tried to remember moments when I wasn’t dialoguing with myself, which amounted to trying to remember when I wasn’t thinking. Then I tried to think without dialoguing and dialogued to myself that I was trying not to dialogue. Then I dialogued to myself that this wouldn’t work. I suppose there are moments when I’m in a task, maybe solving an accounting problem…although then don’t I articulate the numbers, the procedures, too?
I imagined all these other people, just doing stuff—not reflecting—with their brains. These were the real mental performers, the executives. Then I read on that the author of a study linked hearing voices to writing, and then relatedly linked mood disorders to creativity, which at once doomed and validated me, because my heavy mental narration and occasional facial performance of mental scenarios must mean that I really am a creative, not the numb cretin I sometimes fear myself to be.
On the bus today I achieved it. I was observing the 80’s detailing and comical insouciance of a younger passenger at the older woman who sat down across from her in the four-seater booth, taking away her extra legroom. It was like a long, pleasant lull in a conversation. Then I noticed I was doing it, with a kind of marvel, and, to try and continue doing it even after I’d made this articulable finding, I started saying to myself, “Hmm.” “Hmm.” Well now I know I am capable of not internally monologuing for maybe at least thirty seconds at a time.
I’ve started writing a story about someone who tries to gain the respect and adoration of a personally unknown literary idol through the establishment of a pen pal-ship, predicated first upon the creation of gripping life events. I got off to a rolling start in media res:
I fantasize a lot about becoming one of those people who write letters to their idols. In my mind, I am one of those people, and usually after establishing a witty and forthright correspondence, my idols become my best friends, or highly consummate lovers. We are each, in turn, a mentor to each other. Which is funny because, even though I can imagine being really clever and charming, I can’t fill in the outlines of what those traits would actually be. It must be, like in dreams, that I possess some deep intuition of what makes for gripping discourse, I am just totally at a loss as to how to summon it.
It wasn’t everything, but it was a start—and I wrote that in the story, too: it wasn’t everything, but it was a start. It was the start to an endeavor. And then my lunch break was over and I had only eaten three bites of my cucumber sandwich and the yoghurt sauce had spilled on my keyboard, too. It’s not that I would be getting a whole lot more done over the course of the afternoon. But the first principle of a great work ethic is you can’t be getting other things done that aren’t your work. Productivity, after lunch, must be a zero-sum game.
Where does this all leave me? I am going to ask Judie Stein for advice.
I have a natural tendency towards expiation, but I am learning the social grace of withholding some unnecessarily inflammatory things. For example: I lost the keys to the office and I do not wish to replace them. For example: it was I who spilled the compost overflow outside your door, and I did not have time to clean it up. For example: of course I am sitting here, achieving nothing. But I will be polite enough to transcribe my musings on my own smart phone, and not on the office desktop. I am selecting my communications thoughtfully so as not to create ill feeling in my community. I am selecting my communications so as to maintain gainful employment and rental contract.
Who is the intended audience? I thought that question was really rich, but it’s true, the intended audience does exist: I know this because when I think of my second cousins reading this, I cringe. Once in a blue moon I send them a Hallmark card, and my soul would die should it fall into the hands of Celeste. It is kind of like my face today: okay for my mom to see, terrible as aspirational snapshot.
Anyway, the best stories are self-centered in what they achieve (what is man? what is love? wherefore art I?) but it’s almost necessary in order to navel gaze to first construct a seamlessly consistent outer world, generally populated with consistent, realistic or imaginable others. There must be some kind of action, involving others, and what better means of unworthy narrative fodder than a party gone awry? And, so, I continue:
Frieda from the vegan restaurant arrived on the dot at 7:45pm. She greeted me with the wonder befitting a very large banquet, or impressive crowd.
By 8:50pm we had made our way each through one and a half glasses of resin-free wine, and Frieda gracefully steered the transition over to twig tea. It was around this time that she broke out the knitting needles.
At 10pm the doorbell rang. We both jumped up and I very swiftly popped on some jazz for mood. Leaning out of the entryway, we observed three university students, panting and slurring, approach from four flights below.
“Shit!” the first one said, observing the balloon-filled apartment as he arrived at the door. Without greeting, all three of them turned back. After that we decided to call it a night.
Feeling at the core alone and remorseful, I climbed into bed in my flannel pajamas and covered myself up to my nose. I could not write Judie Stein about the episode or detail any insights I had gleaned on the human condition. I picked up the twenty-three rows of soon-to-be tea cozy, knitted two further stitches, and put it down. Frieda had promised to teach me how to cast off at our next gathering, but I was not so sure I desired to meet again. Now, even the vegan restaurant was ruined for me, so desperate would be my need to avoid her at all costs. I went to sleep no longer certain of my deservingness of Judie Stein’s correspondence, and certain only that I was a failing specimen indeed.
From the new fake account I’ve set up to ‘follow’ Celeste, I see she is working on a pavilion for a design festival in Stockholm. She has 8,968 followers, and each of the 790 accounts she follows is exemplary of what you’d call the Instagram life. I can nearly say this with some authority, because I’ve looked through at least 200 of them. Hers, most of all, though. Last week, she was at a movie premiere, resplendent as ever in a black backless gown. Here, she is leaning against a wall, laughing, one of her long legs angled under jeans shorts and a loose flannel shirt.
People say funny or cute things on Instagram all the time. But I am not that funny or cute.
When people write “#mood”, what does it mean? I mean, I do get that we all have moods, but why point it out? These are the failings I am #grappling with.
I’m wearing these leggings I got at a discount because they were sewn with two butts. They smell old like mothball and while I wish I could stand by the statement, I cannot, because by now both butts are stretched: I do not feel pretty cute.
Today, I could post a work bathroom selfie, or this picture of me trying on a floppy-brimmed hat, but I wouldn’t caption it with what I just wrote down, as detailed above.
My dad is in town, and together we pass by a cigar shop postered with a yachting image, emblazoned in the lower right-hand corner with the hashtag #lifebeautifullyspent. I take a photo for posterity. I would like to share the joke with him, but it isn’t the right fit. He enjoys a cigar, but the Internet is not his domain. He does not get the irony. He does not get the lack of spaces between words. We eat truffle linguine served with Chianti instead.
On my walk home, I find a human who actually deploys the hashtag online, holding up half-smoked fatties in varying natural scenes. Then I find at least two others, using it in much a similar way. I learn #cigarselfie is a thing.
Every single one of those posts makes me infinitely sad.
But come to think of it, maybe I am the one who is sad. Isn’t it a pity to de-sanctify someone else’s bliss?
When I get home, I start rewriting the party scene. It reads something like a bastardized niçoise salad, sans vegetable and verve, which is to say: canned tuna and mayonnaise.
I didn’t really get anywhere with the story. It was the plot points that undid me. I couldn’t even make a failed party come alive. I didn’t know what to say, I didn’t know what to make some unimpressed frat boys grunt. I didn’t know all the worst CDs, or the best moment for the lady from the vegan restaurant to break out her knitting needles for comic relief. I didn’t know how to cry into full-body pajamas.
Naturally the endeavor fails—this was inherent already in the setup—but the process should yield something richer than the outset. The narrator should learn something from wooing Judie Stein. It didn’t. I couldn’t. My life is a puddle, and I am the swirl of petrol refuse hovering in its midst.
Who knows what lies in the realm of possibility? Celeste hasn’t come by, but perhaps she still will. I buy a mini urban beehive and set it up on the roof. With this, my humble, unauthorized offering, I am helping salvage the earth. This is bigger than me. This is something I could post.
Brenna Hughes Neghaiwi is a writer and reporter based in Zurich, Switzerland. Her creative work has previously appeared in places such as The Paris Review Daily, Readux and Berfrois.
Image source: Carlos Muza/Unsplash