For the months I lived in the City, I worked in a small restaurant called Little Macedonia. The neighborhood had dirty brick buildings with little markets on street level, markets without splashes of flowers for sale out their front doors or exotic tropical fruits and vegetables lined up in crates along the sidewalk outside.
Little Macedonia served tavche gravche and sarma, and like nearly every little restaurant, cappuccino and alcohol, but Sonja and Branko’s place offered the added attraction of Turkish coffee served in little cups with saucers or, if you were special, in Sonja’s grandmother’s tiny china cups.
Macedonians in their mid-thirties, they had grown up in Skopjme. First Sonja had come to America, having met and married, without being able to speak English, what she thought to be an American businessman, only to discover when they returned to Manhattan that he was really a white, trust-funded Rastafarian who promptly grew his hair, stopped combing it, and dumped her after she refused to wear skirts and refrain from meat. They did stay married long enough for her to get a green card. Afterwards, with her sponsorship, Branko, her childhood playmate, son of her mother’s best friend, left the Macedonian army and came to America.
Sonja and Branko fought as only two who love each other like brother and sister can: dirty, with insults, name-calling, the dragging up of each other’s past in front of customers and employees. My first day, Branko instructed me not to call Sonja by what he called her ‘Christian’ name, but instead to call her ‘Butch’.
“She’s more aggressive than any man,” he said, the ends of a bandanna he had wrapped around his head flopping as he –whap! whap! whap!– tenderized a piece of beef. “She catches them, wraps them up, and devours them like a spider.” Whap! Whap! Whap!
“You prch,” Sonja had said to him, and then to me, “Don’t listen to him; he’s just a goat, he just likes the kind of womens he can boss.” Turning to the customers in the restaurant, who were all listening, unsurprised, who perhaps had heard the story before, she said, “But Vesna! Vesna got away from him!” She waved her arms in the air and yelled at Branko, who was ignoring her. “Vesna got away from him because he treat her like shit! And you know what? He cried like a baby!” She finished gesturing and turned to someone who had just walked in.
“Would you like a menu?” she asked sweetly.
The man had shrugged. “Well I didn’t come in here for the company,” he said and unfolded a newspaper.
“Give him water and a menu,” she told me, disappearing into the back. All had gone back to whatever they were doing before the fight, and the man ordered a Brankoburger, sliced sausage with sautéed green peppers and onions in a hard roll.
People liked to work with me because I did more than my share. Since arriving in New York, I hadn’t been able to stand still. When I wasn’t wiping tables, delivering lettuce-less sandwiches of stacked meat, or reorganizing the cooler, I found myself entertaining because of my accent and the fact that I was a good listener.
I told a good hill tale too, about the corpse candles, the tomb of General Solomon Lowe, the great mine disaster of 1914, in which nearly every family in Reunion, Ohio, lost a man. I respun legends I had heard since my childhood, but I rarely told my own stories. I didn’t have any yet. In fact, I was even still a virgin, the last one in New York from what I could tell.
In the early evening, when people who have been working hard, with not a moment to think about themselves or their lives, when they pause to imagine what awaits them beyond the dusk, in that moment when the self of the day stops and turns toward the self of the night, there is always an image toward which they feel joy, indifference, or dread.
Those who want to be in the place that their thoughts direct them hurry home. The indifferent ones sniff the wind. The ones with hearts full of dread linger, looking desperately for a distraction, anything to keep the momentum going, prevent the vacuum from descending.
Right before dusk, a city feels deserted, as if taking in one long, sweeping breath that will exhale and become the night. Every evening, we inside Little Macedonia felt the moment like a sigh. Sometimes Sonja spoke, or one of the customers who had nowhere better to go. Perhaps the mailman talked, or someone who’d just stepped in to buy a newspaper. It might have been Frank, the other cook besides Branko, or Hymen, the nearly-blind cab driver. Someone always needed to break the silence.
On days when Connie talked, she always brought up Paolo. Connie was the other waitress, forty-one years old. After many experiments with her hair in an effort to regain her substance after Paolo left her, she had come to prefer the color black, the texture kinky. She wore black clothes and eyeliner as a uniform. Unlike most of the people in Little Macedonia, she had just one story.
“I guess I’m not going to hear from him again today,” she’d sigh at the end of each day, and smile apologetically. We were supposed to laugh at her joke then, but none thought her funny by that point. According to everyone, including Connie, she’d been saying the same line for over a year, ever since Paolo, a twenty-nine-year-old Italian from Brooklyn, told her he didn’t love her anymore.
At first she’d said it in disbelief, like she expected him any moment to walk through the door of the restaurant as he’d done every night at dusk for the three months he’d courted her. He’d seemed so dogged and smitten that the whole restaurant became involved in their affair, encouraging Connie to go for him. After they became lovers, when he strolled in, he stopped her at whatever she was doing and kissed her, greeting the room.
However, one day after a fight, which he had lost because he had been wrong, he just ceased coming. He didn’t return her calls, and when she went to find him, he wasn’t home. Gradually, with each evening he did not appear, as the months and months passed and one season turned into another without his return, her “I guess I’m not going to hear from him again today” became a restaurant joke. Every day at that hour Connie’s mood turned blue.
Usually she could hold her tongue, swallow that feeling she got when she thought about Paolo, the hugging, kissing, rolling around the floor before she’d got sad and serious, wanting to talk all the time. Her need to discuss her feelings, the state of their relationship, which after its blissful beginning was beginning to sour, her need to talk had eroded his love for her.
At dusk every day Connie was forced to realize again that Paolo’s courting and abandonment of her had, indeed, happened. She felt stunned, stuck, and used, guilty because he blamed the death of his lust on her, as if she had somehow undone herself. All of us had heard her story over and over. She clung to certain details of the affair like they were jetsam, replaying scenes over and over, spending and recharging herself.
“I just don’t understand what’s wrong with me,” she’d curse. “I can’t get over this.”
“I’m not ready for commitment,” he had admitted at the end, when she’d finally caught him at home. He wept because he “really hadn’t meant to hurt her.”
“Then why did he go to my brother about me!” Connie always wanted to know at that point, pale face twisted as if the breakup had been recent. “Why didn’t he just leave me alone in the first place!”
None of us ever had an answer. Sometimes a person who hadn’t heard the story would say, “Forget about him, he’s not worth it.” You might as well have just told Connie not to breathe. She might as well have been one of my teenage girl friends at home.
“I keep thinking he’s going to come back,” she’d confess. “I keep thinking that he’ll realize he still loves me.” She’d stand at the counter then, a dreamy look crossing her face.
“For God’s sake!” Sonja would remind her then. “You knew him only a few months! He didn’t love you! He didn’t even know you! He just wanted to fuck you! He would have told you anything you wanted to hear! ”
Connie never became angry; in fact, she usually agreed except for when the sun was setting, the evening drawing in its breath. She’d flash then for a moment on the little apartment where she was headed. Her thoughts would immediately turn to Paolo, the memory of his leaving her as if it were an involuntary vesper to her daily agony. Some days she would even cry a little while we politely ignored her.
But I had learned to be careful in the cooler at those times because she might catch me alone. I’d have to listen to her run over and over the details about a man she had known and slept with nearly every night for only two months, a year and a half before.
“He used to say ‘Isn’t she wonderful?’ to everyone we met,” she’d insist, standing between the door and me. “When I couldn’t be there, he’d sleep with my nightgown.”
Branko thought Connie a fool and thus took every opportunity to remind her that her loyalty was wasted. He’d stand in the doorway to the kitchen, cleaver in hand, half-diced lamb on the counter behind him, and remind her that she’d been working for them for over five years; he had a right to tell her this. Then he would lean forward on his toes and point to his temple with the tip of the cleaver, his face becoming wide and round, as if he were simple.
“Only a person with no brain,” he would say, crossing his eyes, “would throw away her time. He tricked you; he tricked all of us. Put him behind you.” When she became sad, Branko lectured Connie, a look of disdain on his dark, handsome face as he told her that she should just face reality and get on with her life. And she should probably read the Bible, that was one of her problems.
However, if he rode Connie too hard, Sonja interceded, always by distracting him with his own past. She’d stop in front of whomever she was serving, or turn toward him, a check in one hand and the other poised to ring open the cash register. She’d lean at Branko over the counter and hiss, “And what about Kalina! You don’t eat or sleep for three months because of Kalina! Kalina the bitch!” Then she’d gesture to anyone who was listening, “The worst she treat him, the more he lay around for her like a dog!”
When Sonja brought up Kalina, they would immediately begin arguing in Macedonian, and Connie would be safe in her obsession. People were, for the most part, kind and loving toward her. Each had experienced at least one obsession of his own.
The Brass Ring
There is hardly a person alive who cannot look back at someone he thought he once loved as if his soul depended on it, only to see the relationship now as freakish or, at the very least, absurd. At the time the liaison ends, or when we are forced to finally admit that its beginning will never occur, we are struck at once breathless and reeling. We believe that without this person, the sun will never shine again.
Sometimes we get drunk; other times we get fat, we start sleeping with any substitute at all, or making phone calls in the night and hanging up when someone answers. Others of us are lucky enough to compartmentalize and put thoughts of the person aside completely, but only when we’re so busy we don’t have time to think.
Then one day we glance back and find that not only is it okay that the relationship didn’t work out, but it had been a ridiculous thought to begin with! We look out over the wave of the past and realize there’s no way in a dead rat’s ass that we would now even want to be with that object of our relentless desperation, and we examine ourselves in wonder, asking, “Did I really do that?” “Did I really want her?” “Did I have to think it was him I needed?” Because, of course, what we thought we wanted was never the person.
No. Otherwise, instead of shock, shame, embarrassment, or absolute disbelief, we would feel grief, we would be thankful, or we would feel nothing, nothing at all– the person would have disappeared from our memories, rarely to return until we were old and suddenly wanted to remember a name again, how we’d met. And then, of course, it would still not be the person we would be remembering, but perhaps the hair.
What was Connie wanting from Paolo? Who he was? Or what he said he wanted from her: stability, security, sex whenever he asked for it, even when the sex was just her letting him watch her naked body while she slept? She never saw Paolo at work; she never met his family, never saw how he acted with a waiter, whether or not he tipped a bartender or said Thanks for things. She had no idea how he treated animals, if he was in debt.
She had wanted the dream he wove for her late at night after making love, while they were smoking cigarettes and staring at the ceiling, her head on his shoulder; how they would save their money and go somewhere, how he’d love her even when her breasts were shriveled and her still-firm ass a memory, even when no one would believe in a million years that she had once been beautiful, and their granddaughter would ask her such things as, “Why are you so old?”
She loved the dream, not Paolo. If only she’d really looked at him, she would have decided very differently, but he had held out the dream. For weeks he had strolled into Little Macedonia and dangled that brass ring in from of all of them, as Connie and the rest of the folks in the restaurant circled and circled on the crazy carrousel, on their way to work, lunch or back from an appointment with the dentist.
Paolo had hung out that eternal brass ring for them all to see, and each had jumped at the prospect of someone’s really finding love. All had said, “Connie, grab that ring before it gets away,” and next time she got ’round, she caught it.
If she could see Paolo now, who would he be?
We all look back and lament, “How could I have thought I was in love with that!”
Even Branko laughed about it. “That Kalina,” he’d say at the end of the day, “You know, if I like a woman, it is a sure indication that she is a bitch.” And Sonja would agree.
“Butch,” he’d say to her reflectively, leaning back against the counter, his arms folded, legs crossed at the ankles, his face genuine in its disbelief. “Can you believe you thought you were in love with that narcotics agent, the one with the skinny shoulders and big head?”
Everyone laughed at the folly of it all, especially Sonja.
“I’ll be saying “Seventy-five and still single,'” she’d joke as a way of lightly ending her stories about a failed romance, but always the person from the past that she recalled for us in Little Macedonia was someone she now recognized as a man not to have loved, not to have cried over, not to have tortured herself with, stayed up all night and grieved for, not a man on whose account to stop eating, not someone to have taken away that new American smile she had porcelain-crowned into her face for what she called ‘tousands’ of dollars.
Nevertheless, like most of the people I have observed, she picked what amounted to the same person over and over even though she knew how our lovers use us as mirrors to reflect what they want to see about themselves. As soon as we flash back a clear picture, they dump us. They disappear from our looking glass like vampires before a mirror.
The Four Stages of Obsession
As far as I can tell, there are four stages to obsession: Excitement, Mania, Dread, and Depression. The Excitement Phase lasts only until you sleep with the object of your obsession, which immediately puts you into the next phase: Mania. It took all of two evenings and an afternoon to lose what I’d been trying to protect for what seemed, at eighteen, all of my life. His comment after it was over was, “Now you’re not in the dictionary anymore.” He’d lit up a cigarette then and stared at the ceiling, pleased with himself
“What do you mean?” I’d asked, the afternoon sunlight hitting the end of the bed, my hair all messed up as I took in the vision of my black clothes recklessly tossed onto the floor, crumpled and silly-looking now without my body inside them. He had turned his head toward me on the pillow and exhaled into my face, an act which thrilled me at the time.
“Under ‘virgin,'” he explained and drew on is cigarette again, leaving me to ponder whether having lost my previous classification were something desirable, and whether I would have a new one. Non-virgin? Slut? There didn’t seem to be anything between the two.
So I didn’t stay long in the Excitement Phase, except for a trip to the Guggenheim, a couple of cappuccinos, and some carrot cake, a walk through Washington Square. In retrospect, however, I realize that prolonging the first stage might have prevented movement into the second: once you take the time to get a good look, you usually will turn and run. ‘Checking someone out’ is what the Excitement Phase is supposed to be about.
When my roommates, Sara and Cam, found out I had had a few dates with E–, they were shocked.
“My God,” said Sara on the phone, the morning of the day I lost my place in the dictionary. “You picked the biggest asshole at the party.”
I’d said something really lame, like, “But I really think he cares about me.”
“Listen,” warned Sara, suddenly no nonsense. “This one’s just a salesman.”
And sell he did–how I had loved it! He trashed everyone, all the great thinkers of the world. Socrates was a bum! James Joyce was an idiot who didn’t know anything, and Shakespeare was just a dead poet.
The Manic Stage
I should have prolonged the Excitement Phase, milked it for a little more fun, because of the Manic part one remembers merely a rush of scenes that later, in the Dread and Depression Stages, he’ll replay over and over. No matter how long the Manic really lasts, whether weeks or months, it’s still too short. When you’re through, you have a feeling of missing time, of alien abduction, or you torture yourself with a series of ‘if only’s.’
What a thrill it was, really, to be in the Manic Stage of obsession for the winter holiday in New York City! What everyone dreams about, the stuff of Fred Astaire movies! For four days we walked everywhere, held hands constantly through the perfect snow, big dreamy flakes until at last, with no pressure at all, I gave it up.
Somewhere in there I worked, but he would never pick me up there. He didn’t like, he said, to ‘get close to a bunch of people he didn’t know.’ The commonness of my job appalled him, though he was always throwing Marx’s name around, because I wasn’t just playing at being a waitress while someone paid for my schooling.
He claimed that his main reason for not going was that no one there at Little Macedonia would have anything interesting to say.
“Discourse,” he would announce and get this serious look on his face, like he was about to say something profound, “is the stuff of life.”
Perhaps I have made him sound like too much of an ass, myself too much of a fool. After all, the reason I had sex was the oldest in the world: after two nights and a day, his spending a little bit of his parents’ money, bandying smatterings of his knowledge about coffee shops while I listened intently, with a rapt gaze, he told me he loved me. Then I existed: ping!: like that.
I walked around Manhattan that Christmas with the daze of the newly born, following him around like a gosling. In Little Macedonia, they recognized the signs.
“Oh my god,” said Sonja. “Get me the t’ermometer. This girl has the fever.” They claimed they could tell about me by the way I now dressed, not just black now but overtly sexy, more like someone else than myself.
“Is this what love does to people?” Branko asked me one day when I showed up in another tight black outfit. “The guy’s a creep if he lets you out in public like that. Besides looking like a prostitute, you are going to freeze.”
When one is manic, one doesn’t listen; neither does one feel the cold. I thought them all wrong and only myself right. Only myself and him.
Connie tried to warn me as well.
“It’s just like cocaine,” she said. “The higher up you go, the further you have to fall. You should listen to me; I know.” But I thought I knew better.
In total, my first love affair lasted less than two weeks. I found out later that a month was about as long as it ever got with him. I used to know precisely how many days our affair lasted; like Connie, I used to be able to recite the litany of our contacts and torture myself with the details once the ‘affair’ was over.
For fourteen days, three or so in Excitement and then several in Manic, we walked around, held hands every where we went, kissed in public, and made love whenever we were near a bed. His roommate was gone for the holidays, and we had their apartment to ourselves, as if I lived there with him. We never slept and were always a little drunk.
Then one morning as I was throwing on clothes to go to work, I disagreed with him about something. The jig was up. He rolled over and refused to answer me when I left for work.
The third stage of Obsession, Dread, starts with a feeling in your solar plexus, a cold anxiousness that sits as heavily on your chest as a cat in your worst suffocation nightmare. There’s no waking. You carry the dread with you everywhere because in your heart of hearts, you know the affair is over.
As I sat there in Little Macedonia, after less than two weeks of what at the time I presumed to be bliss, I knew I was tied to the telephone, that I would barely eat or sleep and merely drag myself through the motions of working and living until I heard from him again. As I forced myself to wait on tables, I felt a tremendous sympathy for Connie and regretted begrudging her those moments in the cooler when she talked about Paolo.
The most I could do at home that night was lie on the couch and fall asleep for a few hours, sleeping fitfully, waking with night sweats. Sara and Cam tiptoed around me from what had become their shared bedroom.
Every morning for days I went to E–‘s apartment before work. Each evening when I was through, I’d stop by again. Sometimes I’d go at night, before I went to bed, around midnight. He was never home.
Neither did he frequent his usual spots. When I asked his friends where he was, they would flick an eye at each other knowingly but say they had no idea.
I stopped eating and sleeping. I took up pacing as my recreation. When I wasn’t waiting on someone, I wore a track from one end of Little Macedonia to the other, back and forth like a duck in a shooting gallery, reliving everything he and I had ever done together, my brow creased with effort. Folks in Little Macedonia exchanged looks, every one extra nice to me, in an embarrassed way.
Finally, I caught him at home. True to the rest of the cliché, he was with another woman, an ex-girlfriend that he had complained bitterly about to me in some cafe. Now she wore the smirk of the successful repossession man, and she made sure to let me see that she was naked under his bathrobe.
And so Dread turned into Depression.
The Depression Stage begins when all the fears in the Dread Stage are realized. Yes, he has left you. Indeed, she never loved you. Everything he promised is a lie. Yes, you are too old, your ass is too big, the color of your hair drab, your nose too long. Yes, you still have to drag yourself through the day with everybody knowing; you have to find a reason to pull that comb through your hair. In the Dread Stage things are dying; in the Depression Stage, everything is dead. You become Connie in the cooler, boring everyone, torturing yourself with your memory of the details. You become me and go back home.
A Treatment for Obsession
If I could see Connie now, all of them from Little Macedonia, I could tell them how to treat Obsession when it is confused with love. You have to stop watching television and going to movies, I would say, give up listening to the radio or any other music with words, cease glancing through magazines and checking out the ads, stay away from most novels, ignore billboards.
You must change your topics of conversation, develop hobbies that have nothing to do with the outside world. You must cut yourselves off entirely from popular culture by having no friends and living in a box with no doors or windows.
But one day, perhaps only when your hormones have faded and you can finally think and see at the same time, when so much track has been laid down behind you that the past seems like a dream, some day, even though that person once hurt you terribly, you’ll no longer feel the pain and, even better, you won’t care. When the sun goes down, and dusk exhales like a sigh becoming the night, you won’t be anxious. You’ll make your way home gratefully, joyously, even though you’ll be there alone.