MANUFACTURED PLEASURES (IN 72 ACTS)
I am making an experiment, or performing an exercise.
I am trying to find out why I feel the way I do now.
It’s 3:27 on a Wednesday afternoon. It’s been dark all day, walking through the West Village that looks like London in the dark, dull afternoon.
7:45 with full service
On the F
I’ve mistaken a lady
Winking at me for a lady
Who is simply trying to pop
Her contact back into place
The subway advertisements during the month of January include a blacked-out poster advertising the movie Rings which will open on February 3. The poster shows a figure bowing, a benediction or something more sinister, the jet-black hair overtaking the face & most of the body. The gray hands hang, lifeless, without motion. The white letters to the right, unseen by the figure, their head down & draped, lineate & break as more trains pull into the station, as more trains depart:
Which you could say about anything in 2017, & probably, much earlier. Probably you could say that about any moment in this life.
We like the way an animal looks at us because it’s the way we’d like to be looked at by everyone else. Unprejudiced, nonjudgmental, sympathetic, concerned only with how we feel, beneath our mask, the facial exterior & what our eyes say; what we make our eyes say when we’re afraid to show ourselves, & for others to see us with their own eyes. What others think when they see us vs.
what an animal thinks. No—how an animal feels in that moment of recognition between beast & human: brethren, or distant cousin. An animal looks at us with the purest gaze because it does not have to think about the gaze; automatic & uncanny recognition of the other as one would see the self. The self as other.
(I’ve been staring at an image of a panting black & tan German Shepherd, smiling, baring teeth, but also smiling with their eyes (a pro, I think), their face plastered on the MTA advertisement that says, in big white letters NEW YORKERS KEEP NEW YORK SAFE & in smaller black type along the speckled gray walls: Si ves algo di algo.)
I see something. I always seem to
Have the feeling I need to
Say something about what it is
I’ve seen or sensed
The German Shepherd’s name is Bishop K9. I wonder if he likes the name he was given or if he would like to be called something else. If he would have liked to be something else.
When I was a child, my mother put a lot of attention into making sure I was dressed properly before we left the house, for church or school, or anywhere we’d see other people in the suburban North Jersey town where we’d just moved. “You look like a ragamuffin!” she’d exclaim, throwing up her arms & scowling at me as I stood near my closet. “You look like a refugee!”
A refugee was the worst class you could come from; the worst class you could be in: No one, from nowhere.
“A refugee,” she would repeat.
Maybe it was her way of forgetting about her past, or else transferring her humiliation & degradation & whatever else she must have experienced when she migrated to America onto her son. Or maybe she was just too proud. Too proud & too American & too proud to be an American—finally—& why would her son dress like a child of two immigrants?
Much later, & not too long ago, I overheard someone I used to love talking on the phone with one of her friends, describing my awful fashion sense, my total lack of awareness about my appearance; how I appear. Because his parents are immigrants, she mouthed into the phone.
Of course they are, I thought, from my seat on the couch, watching the fuzz of someone else’s life, someone else’s story.
I am out to dinner with a friend on the edge of Chinatown, where we are waiting forty-five minutes to eat Greek food. (Forty-six.) L was born in Massachusetts but her parents came by way of Hong Kong. She mentions Chinese New Year as a waiter swoops under my arm to trash some spanakopita, or what I guess was spanakopita, at some point. What’s your animal? What’s my animal? I think aloud, repeating her question but asking myself, as if the answer lies, hidden in the recesses of memory, instead of the Internet, which directs me deeper into the web, revealing the year of the Ox. “I’m an Ox,” I tell her, reading off the screen (forty-seven), as another waiter nearly trashes my carafe of rosé. He looks at me; I shake my head. He rushes off & I take another sip. I make a face; I’m not sure what kind.
In David Lynch’s Twin Peaks, a show that aired in 1990 though I’m watching it now, dreams become important to the unfolding plot, the slowly unraveling mystery of a small-town murder. Despite the North Western scenery, there aren’t many animals in Twin Peaks, or at least I don’t see any through three episodes.
In the third episode, titled “Zen, or the Skill to Catch a Killer,” Donna Hayward & her folks are having breakfast at the Double R Diner when Audrey Horne walks in. Despite never popping a quarter into the jukebox, Angelo Badalamenti’s “Audrey’s Dance” comes on, as though “Audrey’s Dance” is Audrey’s theme song. After some small talk with Donna, Audrey loses herself in the moment, looking simultaneously languid & whimsical, saying, softly, “God I love this music … isn’t it too dreamy?” dancing & swaying in solo in the diner as everyone, including the viewers, look on, puncturing a narrative wall I often like to climb through in my own stories. I wonder if Audrey knows that no one else can hear the music, or whether it even matters. I’ve always wanted a soundtrack for every moment of my everyday life. I think Audrey does too.
Oxes are strong & robust; they can enjoy a fairly healthy & long life, fulfilled lives, & little illness.
A day later, or two days later, or a day or two later, it’s still London in New York. Dismal, dark, foreboding. God knows the Inauguration is near, because God knows everything.
Tomorrow, it’s supposed to be the sunniest day all week. The fact that the sun will actually be visible is reason enough to celebrate. More than four hundred thousand people will march in New York City, from the United Nations along 42nd Street toward Fifth Avenue to Trump Tower.
Several million more will march across the country. The world will march on. Continue marching. Indefinitely or definitely. Until the world ends. Unless we’ll march right through it, & into another life.
I worry all the time about what tune we will march to.
Because of hard work with a stubborn personality, they often spend too much time in their work, rarely allowing themselves enough time to relax, & tend to forget meals, which make them have intestinal problems.
The small, personal ad for
Powerful Master In Love
Has been jammed in between placeholders for other ads since 2009, & probably earlier. I know because I wrote about the miniature placard, the black & white eye encapsulated in the pyramid, the generous offering of “One free question by phone” in another novel, something I’d begun when I first thought about enrolling in grad school. Reading your writing can be a way out of exile, or a form of time travel. Very often, riding the subway, too, can take you places in your life you forgot about or would have liked to relive. You could sit like this forever, from stop to stop & move through life as if it were a tour. If you see something, say something. I could sit like this forever.
When I was ten or eleven or twelve, our red Doberman got startled, during a bad dream, at the exact moment I leaned in to give her a kiss. Terrified, Amy clawed my face, splitting my left cheek in half & opening up a crevice between my eyebrows, just to the right of my left eye.
I don’t think I’ve ever felt sorry for myself, but I think I came close when I began to look in the mirror & really see what looked back at me; my face & all its disfigurement.
I figured no one would ever look at me with anything but a look of disgust. Twenty-years later I sometimes still think that.
I remember a moment of deep anger & resent directed at Amy, but as soon as I saw her face, her startled eyes & all the care in the world within each of them, I forgave her. It was harder to forgive myself for ever being angry with her; for ever blaming her for anything.
I wonder if I’ll ever be as vulnerable with another human as I can be with certain animals. I wonder if I’ll ever be vulnerable again.
I am looking at an advertisement for a MoMA retrospective as I write this. Francis Picabia, on view through March 19. It’s a swirl of black, the makings of a face with imprints of red lips all over or inside the black façade, as though on the flesh or beneath the skin. On the bottom of the advertisement, also written in black, a quote from Picabia.
“I am a beautiful monster.”
An act is one of the principal divisions of a theatrical work, such as a play or an opera, but also the doing of a thing, i.e. a deed; or: the process of doing something, like an action.
Susan Sontag thought, writing in her notebook in an entry dated April 7, 1980, that the space of pleasure is now institutionalized. “New, spectacular, artificial spaces,” she writes, “highly capitalized: day at the races, soccer game, picnic, boating party, bicycling in country.”
An act can also be a display of affected behavior, such as pretense. A formal record of something done or transacted, often capitalized. Or: a state of real existence rather than a possibility.
A recent review of a recent book I wrote started with a quote I must have said, or written once, but I don’t remember when or in what story, what day of my life. The review begins, “I fictionalized the real in order to make it feel more real to me.”
What feels real to me today? I ask myself; I am asking myself. What ever feels real to me?
I’ve thought a lot about how I manufacture pleasure.
Certain selfies, a song in my ears played on repeat, curating a mood, always saying yes, the idea of what my life has become or what it ever was before, the stories I read or watch & see myself in, the rare times I masturbate—I still try to save all of myself for my partner—the face I put on, in public, when I think no one can tell, the gazes or gestures I make on camera, when I know this is being recorded, or transported somewhere else, what I do when I tell myself that This will never be enough; never, not ever & keep doing it in service of something I don’t think I’ll ever know for sure, maybe just something to bow down to. The work. Servitude.
I’ve already lied at least twice. I know exactly the whereabouts of the quote that opens the review of my recent book; I can often be so vulnerable with anyone. Another way of saying this is: I am manufacturing a certain form of pleasure.
Public zoos formed in cities at the moment which saw the disappearance of animals from daily life. Maybe public zoos formed because of this disappearance. Maybe this manufactured emergence of animals contributed to the disappearance of animals in the real world. Maybe when you manufacture pleasure, it doesn’t just replace real pleasure; maybe it erases it.
Seventy-two is the average number of heartbeats per minute for a resting adult, & the percentage of water of which the human body is composed. Seventy-two is the number of languages spoken at the Tower of Babylon, described in most versions of the Bible, as well as the number of names of God, according to Kabbalah.
Seventy-two is also the number of hours in three days, which is the duration of the time in present action in what it is you’re reading; what it is I’m reading. I began writing this three days ago.
Can you suppress a feeling, or just a behavior? Formula for removing the feeling: Act it out in an exaggerated form, like a play, or a pose. A performance. The sorrow or frustration one feels then is far more therapeutic, because it becomes memorable, something to remember instead of something only to be felt.
As I exit Herald Square, I see a German Shepherd on the leash of a police officer & I wonder if the German Shepherd is K9 Bishop. Or if it’s K9 Bishop’s stand-in.
I wonder if K9 Bishop’s stand-in (whatever their name is) gets any percentage of the royalties on the MTA ad that features K9 Bishop, or whether anyone gets any royalties because probably, by lending their likeness to an ad about subway safety, they are performing a public service. Still, I wonder about all the other German Shepherds, inside & outside the subways in major cities & rural towns. Public parks, zoos. Being a stand-in is hard. Sometimes standing in for someone else is the hardest job of all.
(Five minutes late to this dentist appointment but I paused on the staircase leading above ground to write that line.)
I would be late for everything in this life if it meant a line at the end of it; if it meant rendering my consciousness in a single line.
Throughout Season 1 of Twin Peaks, donuts are often displayed, on counters in offices, or out on park tables in the woods, arranged in a line, stacked up, one on top of one, based on their type or likeness. Some people think classification is the first sign of assimilation; the absorption of the individual into a public collective, a loss of identity, or the substitute of one for another.
Zoos became popular partly because they brought prestige to country’s capitals. The Jardin des Plantes was founded in 1793, the London Zoo in 1828, the Berlin Zoo sixteen years later. Like so many other public institutions, the zoo was just another conduit for imperialism or capitalism, or both, under the guise of furthering knowledge & civic enlightenment.
I wonder who thought it was a good idea to study the natural life of animals in unnatural conditions.
I live in Apartment 5D.
D, I repeat. As in dog.
Everywhere, animals disappear; they keep disappearing.
The last question on the new patient form I’ve filled out asks me, Do you like your smile?
I held onto these lines for so long. Through eighteen different movements of my mouth as the dentist, Anita, performed my X-rays, as Justin Bieber played consecutively on the radio, as Donald Trump, somewhere else, but not very far from me, was preparing to be sworn in as our forty-fifth president.
There’ll be no improvement in the love lives of Oxes in 2017. Your passion for love will cool as you put more effort into your career.
“How many careers do you have?” L asked me, sometime earlier, maybe at dinner. Or before dinner. While we continued to wait for dinner at the Greek restaurant in Chinatown.
“What animal are you?” I asked, instead of answering her question.
“A horse,” she replied, as we each eyed plates of charred octopus cut into short pieces, molluscan nubs drizzled with olive oil & lemon, sweating on the oval plate, unless that was my lips wet with expectation.
“I have a problem saying no,” I tell L. This has always been the case. A refusal to say no; a desire to please others; to bow down for it. Manufacture pleasure.
“I think it’s a first-generation American thing,” L says, as our hands find each other’s at the center of the table we’ve just been seated at.
The suction tube that hangs from my mouth during my thirty-five minute cleaning is a raspy, gasping vacuum, a sound somewhere between a suck & a swirl, & I think that vacuum is the future, but also the past, a big empty suck of air, a swirling blank void.
What I am saying is I’m only concerned with the present, what it is that is
Happening right now
If I was asked to write about the differences in technique between Ana, my dentist of twenty-five years, & Anita, the dentist who has just cleaned my teeth, who is right now cleaning my teeth, I would say that Anita is more firm, forceful, rigorous, diligent. Obtrusive.
This has something to do with manufactured pleasure, but what, I’m not sure yet.
Most people dread the dentist. I’ve always enjoyed being here, lying back on a chair, with my mouth open & the harsh yellow light above my head. I often wonder what my face looks like, in its various contortions, stretched wide & gagging, at the moment of ritual. Turn your head closer to me. & what the other must think.
What would you say if you could see my face right now, haphazardly unearthed & gurgling, my flickering eyes matching the flickering sharp yellow light?
Are you okay? Does this hurt? Do you need me to pause? I remain passive, motionless, silent.
What does this say about me? Except for that I don’t mind pain, enduring pain, so long as it’s in view of others.
So long as others can watch, I’ll endure anything.
Ana is more gentle, delicate, pleasant. A walk in the park, in my mouth.
My favorite photo of me as a child is one in which my brother & I are hugging Amy. Her red & black paws are sprawled out, barely touching the kitchen floor, because she’s just learned to use them. I am sprawled out, too, on my knees, in my sweatpants, smiling.
I like my smile.
My mother grew up on a farm, without electricity, near Warsaw. Her best friends were animals. “Horses,” she tells me, over the phone today, when I call to ask which were her favorite.
“I always loved horses.”
My father grew up in the city, in Santiago de Cuba, which is near the water, in Oriente. The only animals he saw were beneath the waves, or at the market, laid out on boxes of ice.
The bodies that began to disappear, & re-appear, a day or two days later, or never, at the onset of the revolution, were arranged on the dirt or in the water, half-submerged in sand & sea, just as carefully.
The point is to become a witness.
I had many nicknames throughout high school & college. The only one that stuck is Chris Pup. “Because I’m very pup-like,” I tell a friend, who is more than just a friend. “What does that mean?” she says, but I think she already knows.
I’d like to serve you, & be with you all my life.
My favorite emoji is not the brown & white spotted pup emoji, but the wolf. If I were a dog, I’d be a Doberman, I think, or something that resembles a wolf, but even more, the wolf emoji. Maybe what I’m saying is that I can be a pup sometimes, but just as often, I can be a wolf. I am instant everything, like the easy gratification of an emoji. I don’t know what determines my identity on any given day. Maybe it’s the air.
Maybe it’s who is moving through it with me.
In an earlier book, I’d written about my family as a “pack of communist wolves.” I’d said that we shared everything we ate & owned. I still think that’s true.
Oxes & horses don’t get along. It says it on every website I’ve browsed since becoming interested in the lives of oxes; the lives of oxes & our fortune, or misfortune. The things we should avoid, one of which is horses.
“Does that mean the animal too,” I ask L, a horse, from across the table, “or just the people born in the year of the animal?”
Since I was a child, my parents have always welcomed female dogs into our family. Curly, Amy, Lexie: all female dogs. Mom says Dad always wanted a daughter. She says he sees his daughter in each of our dogs’ faces, in each of their eyes & in their graceful, grateful paws, when one extends to meet our human hands.
A friend I haven’t seen in a while messages me on Facebook. He directs me, twice, in separate messages, to links that are inaccessible. The links are broken, I type back.
Another word I like to use is dead.
We ride to the UN in a black Volvo with a red & blue Diplomat license plate. I’ve got diplomatic immunity, I think, as we cross midtown & get closer to the water. But what am I immune from?
When I was growing up, my mother would schedule all of our dentist appointments in a row, so we could all get our teeth cleaned at the same time, or just about. Afterward, we’d compare tallies. Who did Ana say has the cleanest teeth? Who has the straightest teeth? Who wins? My mother always won.
My mother couldn’t afford to go to the dentist until she was an adult, a year or two before she married my father. My father couldn’t afford English lessons when he landed in Miami, so he & his sister learned English on the radio.
I think we can learn so much from pop music & pop culture. If we can think about pop outside of the milieu of pop. If you see what it says about us, & what the moment says, when our bubble explodes.
After you go through security at the UN, there’s a sign that reminds visitors
No Waiting In This Area
In certain countries, at certain moments, waiting is forbidden. Governments call this loitering & it’s a crime punishable, sometimes, with death. Sometimes I like waiting; waiting can sometimes be the best experience all day.
Sometimes all we can do is wait.
In a book I’m reading, a memoir called I Remember, originally published in 1970, Joe Brainard starts off every paragraph with the phrase, “I remember.” In the passage I’ve just read, he remembers a new Polaroid with a self-timer, an experience he describes as “having an outlandishly narcissistic photo fling with myself which soon got pretty boring.”
The song I’m listening to after I wrote this, as I am reading it back, editing it, revising, removing things & forgetting what it was I’d wanted to add, is called “Wet Dream” which includes the repeated chorus
I’m in love with myself
I’m in love with myself
I’m in love with myself
We walk through the narrow hallway that leads to the General Assembly where all the world’s superpowers come to discuss important matters.
“Do you have to apply to become a superpower,” I ask K, not sure if I’m joking or if I’m seriously asking. “Or do you just wake up one day & own it, & everyone else knows better than to have to ask?”
In the narrow hallway that leads to the General Assembly is a digital clock that keeps ticking, except it doesn’t measure time; the digital display shows how much money is being used on global military expenditures every day, up to the second. As I grab my phone for a photo, or to shoot a short video, the number rises from $2,366,236,766 to $2,367,567,914.
I decide on a video.
I think the gaze an animal gives you is more pure because they don’t give it to you with any expectation that you might return the gaze. They give you their gaze so you might see yourself, & see yourself better.
My face was cut open & stitched back together & am I the only one to ever notice the transition from the still to the moving image?
People began to pay a lot of money to put me in photos; literally arrest me between four borders or the borderless scroll of the Internet. Ten years ago, I thought they were joking with me; I thought they were playing a joke.
I am still waiting for the punch to hit.
It is easy to consider the fact that the sun will never come out again.
& then what?
Before you enter the General Assembly, right near the exit doors, are black letters on the white wall, a quote from Dag Hammarskjöld, the second UN Secretary-General.
The UN was not created to
take mankind to heaven, but
to save humanity from hell.
I’ve never been inside the UN before, & I don’t know when I’ll be back, so I decide to get lost. Near the lobby entrance, after you walk through security & a pavilion that leads to the Rose Garden is a rotating exhibit. Tonight, the exhibit is called Selling Nazism In A Democracy.
There’s a moment of surprise when I see Adolf Hitler’s black & white face & the rolling hills of a German countryside. There’s a moment of surprise when I see the dates on the plaque.
On my United Nations General Assembly Mission Guest pass, my first name is spelled without the last two letters & my photo is blurred out by white lines, like static on an old television. Under my name are the words, Escort Required.
I’ve always felt open to many career possibilities. I’ve never thought about being an escort, so it comforts me to know I am being escorted today; that I am required to be escorted, which is another way of saying that I am required to not be alone.
I am not smiling in the photo, or I am, but you can’t tell. I can’t see my own face. I am indistinguishable.
When our black Cocker Spaniel, Curly, was getting closer to death, she would often forget where she was, even if only for a moment away from my brother or I, who were then in charge of walking her. In a sense, leash-less, we were escorting her; we were her escorts around Oradell, the suburban town in North Jersey my parents had relocated our family to. Curly was fourteen & I was six or seven or eight, & I’d come home crying, with my brother, when Curly would run away. She wasn’t running away; she was getting lost. She was walking around the block & forgetting where she lived; where her home was. When Amy, our red Doberman, was getting closer to death, we couldn’t find her even when she was in the house. She would get lost; she would try to lose herself. We found her, sometimes, behind the white couches in our living room, somehow wedged in the small space between the couch & the wall. A red-brown body behind the mass of white. She’d look up when we called her name; when we extended our hands to shake her paw or pet the flesh under her chin, the spot she liked best to be touched. We kept finding her there. When we realized what she was doing, we knew it was time.
Amy was trying to be alone. She was trying to remove herself from the manufactured life of a pet & become whatever it was she would have been.
She was trying to die. & for a moment, live.