Two Cautionary Tales

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  • My landlord had informed me it was time to hit the road, jack. I might’ve missed his email completely, except there was a PDF attached. “Termination of Lease,” he’d named the file helpfully.

    Don’t get me wrong, I really was the perfect tenant: my monthly thousand-dollar rent check was automated, I paid all my utilities on time and, as for noisiness, I never made so much as a peep. That last one was especially easy, because I also had not set foot in my apartment in a year – in a literal year, almost exactly.

    I guess I’d forgotten all about the Chicago apartment I was supposedly living in.

    In the course of said year, I’d actually become a landlord, too – not by choice – and I guess I’d forgotten all about the Chicago apartment I was supposedly living in. I’d also forgotten to renew all the different types of house insurance, pay all the right kinds of taxes, follow up on my mother’s medical bills, and sell the farm. And I’m not saying “sell the farm” idiomatically; I’m talking about a farm.

    I’ve been a churchmouse city-dweller all my adult life – the most expensive thing I’ve ever owned, or even been responsible for, is my kitchen trash can – and now here I was, still stuck on trying to learn how to mow my new lawn and feed my mother’s dog.

    ———

    In retrospect, I think sometime during this past year – perhaps during the first six months, stranded in a strange small town in a house, alone, or perhaps sometime during the next five months stranded in L.A., which is where I’d wrecked my car, which happened the day after the TV producer had unceremoniously dumped me anytime between the Grand Canyon and his front door, where the “front door” had been the clincher but the “Grand Canyon” part was definitely in there, so now I was feeling pretty alone in L.A., too, really wondering why I’d ever left the house a week ago, which turned into this sustained, five-month lament, “why did I ever leave the house,” during which all my mail went lost in the mail three times, until finally Ted came to L.A. to pick me up, and it turns out that here in the San Francisco Bay Area mail-people actually deliver mail – I think at some point during that “lost year,” I’d completely forgotten how to, you know, “communicate” with people “effectively.”

    ———

    So that was the year I spent not living in my rented apartment in Chicago, and my landlord, tired of my absenteeism, had given me my walking papers. He set the date for the first week of September, and now he was texting pretty persistently to see whether I were yet in the process of moving out.

    I wasn’t. Oh, I was in Chicago, all right. I was busy showing off Ted to my best friend and her husband, and to all the rest of Chicago, and to Cara, who was actually in France, not Chicago, but she has a laptop and I have a smartphone.

    At some point during dinner my best friend leaned across the table, became very serious with her face drawn, and she whispered: “Have you seen Gary.”

    I had, in fact! I had seen Gary! He had passed me on the street wordlessly, eyes fixed dead ahead. I believe the youngsters call this a “blank.”

    Ah, yes, that’s right: I had been blanked by Gary. That was when I’d last seen Gary, when he was busy blanking me.

    Also, I could not believe my best friend knew about Gary. How did she know? Had I been the one who told her? I looked at her husband. He looked over at the wall. I visibly began panicking. Oh, my God, maybe everyone knew about Gary.

    “I don’t think he wants to see me,” I said to her tersely. She frowned and nodded very slowly and sat back in her chair.

    ———

    I loved Gary. He was the friend I was proudest of, made sure to introduce people to. He’s been middle-aged as long as I’ve known him, which is about seven years. He’s a type of journalist, a phenomenal writer. His Wikipedia page points out he’s an artist, too; sometimes his work appears in the window and on the walls of Chicago’s best bookstore. He lives in this nest of an apartment a few storeys above my favorite street, and for a guy who doesn’t cook, it is unbelievable how many of his bookshelves are committed to books about food – French and Greek, mostly. Depending on your intellectual pursuits, you might know his byline. He wrote an essay in one of the glossiest books on my coffee table. Sometimes we’d stand shivering in the drizzle or snow, stamping around while we talked about I can’t even remember what, I enjoyed being with Gary so much.

    Like most things I manage to ruin, I ruined my friendship with Gary – which in a way seems inevitable, given the eleven contiguous months of free time I’d busily not been enjoying, sitting there at my bulky Alienware laptop, at a total loss and stranded. I think, when it finally happened, I was experiencing some type of poignant, self-pitying grief about being a twice-orphaned child, and this grief was now folding in and unifying and congealing with the grief I felt about Chicago and all the people in it I loved, which included Gary.

    ———

    No, you’re right. None of that seems like a very good reason to make a novelty “Gary E-books” account on Twitter, I mean, if you’re going to put it that way.

    Which is what I’d done. Rather than pestering Gary outright, as a normal, capable person ought, I had instead taken to Twitter, for a single day, as “Gary E-books,” which is just like Horse_ebooks except that I had a much better knack for joining conversations unannounced. I made funny, unsolicited remarks to people using actual snippets of Gary’s prose.

    You’re right, “missing Gary” is not a very good reason to make a novelty account with his name and his face and his words all over it.

    Professor Ian Bogost has an E-books – just the day before, I had somehow scored an E-books impostor of my own, and now I knew I’d really finally made it for sure as an author – so now Gary had an E-books, because I missed Gary.

    No, no. You’re right, “missing Gary” is not a very good reason to make a novelty account with his name and his face and his words all over it, if you’re going to put it that way.

    And apparently Gary would put it that way, and probably even had put it that way, because now my best friend was staring at me soundlessly across this candlelit table, disbelieving, because how could I.

    How could I.

    ———

    To my credit: for one entire, prodigious day, I was not aware how upset Gary was.

    The following day, however, Gary E-books had been flagged by a Twitter user as spam. And when I asked a mutual friend of ours whether she thought Gary himself had flagged me – me! – as spam!, her reaction was approximately OH MY GOD YOU IDIOT HOW COULD YOU DO THAT HE IS COMPLETELY FREAKED OUT AND HE WASN’T SURE IT WAS YOU BUT OF COURSE IT WAS YOU OH MY GOD WHAT IS THE MATTER WITH YOU, because this conversation happened in a Gchat window, where punctuation gets very loosey-goosey.

    This was when I first began to suspect Gary was not a fan of Gary E-books.

    An unbroken person might have chosen this moment to shutter the E-books account, to ‘fess up to Gary, to apologize like her life depended on it, to reassure him she would take care of the problem immediately, and to either hope or beg, in the guise of a carefully-worded letter, that she and Gary could still be friends.

    While I was doing all that in a parallel dimension, my Evil Twin just sat here instead, staring into the Alienware’s unmirrored pane, baffled and hurt and apologetic.

    And here I don’t mean “apologetic” like “and then I apologized.” That is the opposite of what I mean. Actually, the word I’m probably looking for is “aposiopetic.” I was baffled and hurt and aposiopetic.

    Gary E-books went silent, too, and months passed that way.

    ———

    Before I left Chicago for good, I did get to see Gary again.

    He was sitting at the counter of a bar I’ve been visiting for ten years, which is the same number of years I’ve been able to drink legally. I had a drink in front of me now, and when I saw him, he kind of nodded at me.

    I waited until I had my second drink in front of me, and then I waited until it was half-gone, as if it were a sand-timer made of booze. Gary was still unwavering, immovable enough that I began to think it might be okay if I inched toward him and said something.

    I don’t remember what I said exactly, except for the very first thing, which was, “I am so, so sorry.”

    Gary shook his head no, and he put up his hand, no. And I know what blurted out of me next, vaguely, which was that I didn’t mean to hurt him, to upset or frighten him, that I loved his writing, that I got such a kick out of having my own E-books that I carelessly thought he would get a kick, too, but it was so invasive and somehow so insulting and disrespectful, yes, I understood that now. And I kept hearing my voice crack, so I talked faster, and sometimes Gary shook his head slightly, and sometimes he nodded slightly, indicating, in turns, please stop and you may leave now.

    I needed to wrap this up. I told him that I was so, so sorry, and I was only in Chicago to empty my apartment, and that I was going to miss him. And that was a stupid thing to say, wasn’t it, since I had already missed him all year long.

    Finally I nodded back, once, I’ll go.

    I returned to my half-drank drink lower-than-low, and I was going to cry soon, I knew, because of the way my face started to make pinpricks from the inside. I tried to hold my focus on anything in front of me but I suddenly needed to wipe my nose a lot, and then I realized oh my God, I have got to get out of here, and I cried across the street.

    I felt horror and selfishness and unyielding loss.

    The next morning the movers arrived, and the morning after that, I got into a taxi with my suitcase and my cable box. We stopped at a Comcast Customer Service Center on the way to O’Hare.

    ———

    And everything I’ve told you here is true – except, of course, I have never had a friend named Gary. My friend had a different name.

    Because Gary is a very private person, a gentle and patient and soft-spoken person, and a real good friend to me, in his strange way, and I knew better! My friend who was never named Gary would have hated that E-books shit!

    Have you ever heard that adage, something like, “The best presents you can give your loved ones are the things you would want for yourself”? Have you ever heard anything so narcissistic?

    Worse, it doesn’t even make any sense, or else firefighter dads would give young children axes on their birthdays, and it’s like, come on, you wouldn’t give a six-year old an axe. Come on.

    ———

    I’ve been reading Dave Eggers’s novel The Circle and, at that book’s rare best, it is a sociopathic primer on how to ruin your friends’ sense of privacy and safety, using social tools like Twitter.

    Objectively, I’d say I’m pretty good at not ruining those things – at being sensitive about “privacy,” at not live-tweeting where people are sitting at that moment, at not “checking” people “in” to Yelp – because, try as Facebook does to convince us otherwise, the average Joe is not a “public figure.” But I get careless, like anyone.

    Unfortunately, I seem to extend the courtesy of “privacy” only as far as I expect others to extend it to me. I frequently forget those boundaries differ from person to person.

    ———

    I’m not wise. Sometimes I think I’m getting better, but if I am, the sea changes in my favor are very, very slight.

    When I was 19, I was editor of my residential college’s literary magazine. During the quarterly call for submissions, I received an unusually crass, puerile, three-paragraph writing exercise titled “Ryan Howard Taft: A Life.” It had been sent from Ryan’s email address, but as I skimmed it I knew it had been hurriedly composed and emailed by Ryan’s roommate.

    I knew Ryan hadn’t written it, had not emailed it himself. Frankly the email was kind of disgusting. Ryan would never.

    Ryan was aspirational: he was well-liked and educated, and mostly nice, and articulate, a real prep school kid, all fine traits in a teenager who would like to eventually be a senator. His roommate was more of a young Hemingway sort, kind of irresponsible and chronically depressed, and a very good writer, even when he wasn’t trying. Ryan and his roommate were best friends.

    I knew Ryan hadn’t written it, had not emailed it himself. Frankly the email was kind of disgusting. Ryan would never.

    I included it on the back page anyway, misattribution and all.

    Ryan approached me in the hall, the magazine in one hand. He was smiling, this terrifying quirky askance serial-killer smile. His eyes were wild.

    “Not funny,” I guessed.

    “No!” he said, his eyes and smile both becoming even wider. “No! It’s not funny!”

    And then he said – and Ryan was very tall, and he had to stoop to say this to me eye-to-eye – “I thought you were my friend!” And he was absolutely not smiling when he said this.

    I remember this feeling like a suckerpunch, which is really crappy of me. Even with twelve years’ distance I can still only imagine how this felt to me, not to Ryan.

    I collected every copy of the magazine. I didn’t have the money to reprint it, although that would have been the right thing to do. Instead, I blacked the passage out of every magazine by hand. I remember feeling very sheepish.

    Then I emailed the residential college’s listserv. I apologized, and I took full responsibility for this incredibly hurtful thing, but I probably also used cover-my-ass weasel words like “error in judgment” and “allowed this to happen.” If I could go back in time, I would strangle myself.

    I received one email in reply – a private email from a professor, a fellow of the college – commending me on my dutiful “handling” of the “situation.” That was nice, but it wasn’t good enough. That was when I actually felt ill.

    What still alarms me, looking back, is how little malice either I or Ryan’s roommate intended. We were only pigtail-pulling, but in that hamfisted, brute-force way 19-year olds do it.

    The shittiest thing is, I don’t think anyone remembers this happening.

    Except Ryan. Ryan would remember this.

    ———

    “Intent isn’t magic,” a friend sighed after I’d told her about Gary. I agreed unhappily.

    If there is anything I have learned – and this is true now more than ever, now that we exist in an era where certain things can’t be blotted from the back page of a Xerox, where indiscretions are permanently archived – if there is anything I have ever learned, it’s that we don’t get to choose how people react to things after we’ve done them.

    The best we can do is anticipate how people will feel before we do them.

    And that’s frightening – it should be frightening – because it means “do unto others” isn’t good enough.

    ———

    Jenn Frank is on Twitter @Jennatar. Her full review of Dave Eggers’s The Circle is forthcoming.

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