Skip to content


May 3, 2011

I made the decision to leave Cambridge the day after graduation, and I intended on sticking to it. Whatever my Israeli grandmother’s complaints, I wouldn’t linger there any longer than necessary. It didn’t seem like so long ago that I’d arrived at Harvard for the first time in the back seat of my mother’s car. I could still remember the freckle-faced girl who’d handed me a packet of papers and given my stepfather parking directions. I recalled that she was ugly.

Of course, Safta was disappointed when I told her that I wanted to leave town so quickly. She reminded me that she’d come all the way from Israel for my graduation and wanted to spend a few days in Boston “to see the sights.” Knowing that by “sights” she secretly meant “outlet stores,” I assured her that there wasn’t much to see, and repeated that I wanted to leave, and soon. But why, she asked? “I just want to go home,” was my only answer. In fact, I was eager to leave the country entirely, and couldn’t wait until an ocean and a continent and a sea were between me and Cambridge.

Although I have a strong memory, the sequence of hellos and goodbyes and unsavory dinner parties and even more unsavory honors which characterized that final weekend still converge in an incomprehensible streak in my mind to this day. My father’s inability to attend the graduation because he’d lost his job, arguments with my mother about my future, the boredom of packing, my grandmother’s arrival—all the tedious overture to the drawn-out opening chords of my adulthood. But there is one sequence of notes that I will always remember clearly, like a familiar song heard on the radio before static overtakes it.

His call came around 5:00. We agreed that we’d meet for dinner in two hours. In fact, we were supposed to meet for dinner the night before, but his call hadn’t come then. He was on the road with his new girlfriend and said he’d forgotten. As it turned out, I didn’t end up eating much with him that night. I remember that I brought home a big bag of leftovers for my grandmother. When she thanked me for ordering her a meal, I laughed under my breath. She didn’t realize that it was my untouched dinner she was holding. If she did, she would have forced it down my throat with the same jolly insistence that characterizes Jewish kitchens the world over.

At 7:45 or so, there was a knock on my door. Greetings are complicated matters in America. I was too self-conscious to embrace him and didn’t know what to do. Shake his hand? That was too formal, and almost horrifyingly impersonal besides. Not doing anything seemed like play-acting, though. I knew that if it were up to him, we would have done nothing but mutter “hey.” Unsure of what to do, I shuffled energetically in place like a fool and ushered him into the room. His eyes scanned the empty space. He asked me what I wanted to do. His voice was casual and flat. As always, I noted that he avoided eye contact with me when he spoke and tilted his head to the left when in thought. I answered his question by echoing it. For his part, he’d planned on getting something to eat and hanging out in the room, like old times; but, he said, he couldn’t stay too long, because his girlfriend was expecting him. I laughed and told him that he didn’t need to worry, because both the room and the old times no longer existed. To illustrate the point, I showed him the dusty space where my television had once been. Only my bed with its sheets still pulled over it was any indication that the room had once been inhabited. He surveyed the scene with a wry expression on his face that became more wry still when I showed him into the second bedroom.

He was surprised, I think, to find it so clean. (My grandmother had spent two days overhauling it and expressed doubt that anyone had ever lived in it. I had to laugh when she said that it was clear that it was boy’s room, because a woman wouldn’t tolerate the mess). At any rate, when Safta saw him, she smiled and shook his hand. Then, she fumbled in her purse for her camera to take a picture of us. It was the same old camera she’d had since the late eighties. We stood awkwardly next to each other. She rolled her eyes and told us to put our arms on each other’s shoulders. We did. Then, she took two pictures, and I later discovered that they both turned out badly. As we left the room, she told me in Hebrew, the next time you see each other, you’ll probably both be married and grown. She also warned me not to drink too much.

On the way to the Thai restaurant that was across the street, we passed the convenience store where we’d once habitually gone to pick up food in the middle of the night. That was already a long time ago. Still, the familiar sight of the stout Pakistani man hunched over at the cash register made me smile, if only briefly. We walked into the restaurant and ordered our meals. My birthday was coming up in two days, and I wondered if he remembered and would offer to pay for the meal. I didn’t touch my beef fried rice, and I gave him my egg rolls. We split the bill.

We couldn’t think of a place to hide and smoke–my grandmother was in the room. Finally, we walked to the river and maneuvered our way through an enormous field of goose shit until we reached a solitary bench on the bank. He said that the ground was unusually muddy, but I said that he knew as well as I did in what our shoes were now covered. We both laughed. Then, we smoked, and watched in silence for a while as shadows walked across the nearby footbridge in pairs. Why had we never thought of doing this before, I asked. The outdoors was so pleasant, and the sound of the river so relaxing. Then, we simultaneously cried “it would have been too cold!” His eyes widened in mock dread. He would never get used to the weather of the East Coast. Again, we both laughed.

“Does it occur to you that the sound of people laughing sounds suspiciously like monkeys screaming?” I asked suddenly.

“I’ve never really thought about it,” he said, “but I guess it’s true.”

“It seems to me,” I continued, “that laughter must have come about early in human evolution… you know, really early, from the calls of primates—it must be one of the earliest and most basic forms of communication. It’s a throwback to the development of social communication itself.”

“That’s an interesting point,” he said, after a pause. “I don’t really find myself laughing at anything when I’m by myself. At least, not out loud.”

“That makes sense. People laugh to establish a sense of belonging between themselves and other people—to establish themselves as members of a group.”

“Interesting,” he said.

“I wonder how laughter evolved. Maybe it started from…from a process of social ostracism. I mean, any group establishes its identity by pointing out what it’s not—what behaviors it will and won’t tolerate, who is and who isn’t included in it… When people laugh, they affirm their membership in a community by admitting that they have the same set of insecurities—that they scorn the same things. We laugh at unpleasant truths, or at least at the realities we’d rather hide with hypocrisies. Laughter belittles the source of tension and empowers us.”

“Hmm,” he said. I felt stupid for a moment and wondered if he’d been listening. But then, he said,

“I bet what you said is also a reason why humor is so trapped in time and space. When I see shows from the 1950s or old movies, I honestly don’t think that they’re funny at all.”

“Neither do I. Who really laughs at pies being thrown in people’s faces and stuff like that? It’s because the social context of what made them funny has changed. Today’s society isn’t necessarily defined by the same set of insecurities that defined older societies.”

“But we hear the same tragic stories in great literature over and over again with honest pleasure…. We take meaning from them no matter how old they are, because some basic underlying insecurities don’t change.”

“Things like births and deaths and money coming and going.”

“Right. But a joke is different somehow, even though it also speaks to underlying insecurities.”

“It’s true,” I said, “We can only hear a joke once. It points out a very specific source of social tension, and by inviting people to laugh at it, it sort of… diffuses the tension. But when it harps on a subject, it gives it too much weight and the joke is lost. Once the insecurity becomes broadcast and demeaned by the joke, it becomes a taboo.”

“It’s interesting to think about why people laugh at the things they do.”

“Do you think,” I asked, “that different cultures are sort of caught up in specific forms of humor? For example, that Jewish humor is unusually self-conscious? As a group, the Jews were defined as outsiders—maybe by drawing on things about themselves that made them different and laughing about them, they indirectly empowered themselves.”

“I’m not sure about that,” he said.

“Well, anyway,” I said, “it’s an interesting thought. Communication in general is fascinating to think about—I mean, the things we do and don’t say. Have you noticed that everyone in the world seems to have a different sort of strategy when it comes to it? You need to be a mind reader to really communicate effectively.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, what’s language but a set of metaphors, right? Objectively, it’s nothing but a collection of sounds. But we were taught that the sounds signify something–that the sound tay-bel is a table, for example. But really, our metaphorical understandings can’t all be the same, can they?”

“No, I guess not. They’re connected to different sorts of experiences, different past realities.”

“Exactly. So, when you think about it, communication—effective communication—involves real talent. It involves being able to read another person’s understanding of metaphors. It’s almost a form of mind reading. And not everyone is so great at it. A lot of people just stick to certain communicative strategies and don’t have much to say beyond them.”

“It’s true,” he agreed with a smile. “Take Porus, for example. His strategy is just…”

“Just to blindly contradict whatever anyone tells him!” we said in unison. “It’s true,” I said. “He communicates through contradiction. And some people communicate in the most self-serving sorts of ways. Everything they say is basically about massaging each other’s egos. Like Aemilia and Scipio. What an annoying couple. They have nothing to talk about but the cultural roles that they play—the liberal boyfriend, the blindly supportive fiancé, what they expect of each other…”

“It’s easier for them that way,” he said.

“But I wonder if they can even fool themselves effectively.”

There was a pause. Then, I said,

“What do you think the relationship between art and cultural values is? Do you think that group identity…”

I stopped talking when I noticed that he was looking away. I wondered if he was bored by our conversation.

“Did you want to catch a movie or something?” I said.

“No,” he said immediately. “Let’s not waste time in a movie, let’s talk. Let’s go to a Starbucks.”

Walking down the street, it was as if we were caught up in a sense of fun and timelessness again that I’d almost forgotten about since he’d found our third roommate. When we got to the Starbucks, I realized it was the first time that I’d ever set foot in one. I’d always found the idea of them amusing, though—a mass produced version of a bohemian café was a sort of vulgar paradox. When we sat down and a man in a “Che T-shirt” walked past our table; we shared a knowing smile. We’d seen “The Motorcycle Diaries” together and laughed about how ironic it was that Che, a man who ostensibly stood against everything middle class, should have essentially become an article of bourgeoisie entertainment in his own right.

“The people here are a spectacle,” he said. “I wonder what they’d think about our conversations.”

“I don’t care,” I said. “I mean, I’m not sure. Anyway, I was saying, I mean… I was thinking that art is socially constructed. What we do and don’t find beautiful is mostly determined by cultural norms. In the old days, people used to admire paintings and sculptures that were realistic—it was as if the artist were a Pygmalion figure, and his skill was associated with how much life he could breath into his subjects… how godlike he could be.”

“But the invention of the photograph changed that.”

“It did,” I said, “photography made the visual arts lose the social principles that gave them definition. They lost what made them beautiful. And then, when everything suddenly became equally valid as “art,” there was nothing left to define it but hype. I could say the same thing about certain kinds of modern literature: self-indulgent streams of consciousness flowing like stinking rivulets into a sewer.”

“It’s funny,” he said, “that some people think they seem so important and sophisticated when they talk about art, when really a lot of what they’re rehashing is very clichéd and has nothing to do with the actual purpose of the artist.”

“Artists don’t really convey ideas anymore. They can’t—there’s no common language these days, no academic standards.” I smiled before speaking again. “You know, I love these conversations. I mean, I love the honesty. It’s always interesting to squint past appearances and think about what’s really going on.”

He turned his eyes to the half eaten cookie in front of him on the table.

“Visual arts,” he said, “have gone downhill. But you know, people have tried to do the same thing with music, to make it lose all form and definition, and it hasn’t worked so well. Some experimental music sounds just terrible.”

“More like noise than music.”

“Right. I think that thanks to evolution, people are sort of preconditioned to be open to a lot of different visual stimuli, so standards in visual art could degrade more than art involving unpleasant sounds. People will never accept atonal noise, but are cognitively indifferent to geometric shapes.”

“But what about old fashioned foreign music?” I asked. “Some of it sounds just terrible.”

“I guess what you said about some types of music is true,” he said. “Maybe it really is just cultural norms that determine what we like and don’t like. That, and what we’re used to. With enough hype, maybe even scratching blackboards or screaming would sound beautiful. In fact, look at rock and roll. A lot of it actually is screaming.”

“But I think you had a point,” I said diplomatically. “Maybe the degree to which art can be an open subject depends on the senses to which it appeals. For example, take the art of food. I couldn’t give you poison and expect you to love it. Even though taste in food is culturally defined, it has some set standards that can’t really be contradicted.”

“Yeah,” he said. “Foreign foods use different spices and recipes, but none of them tastes so rancid that they’re just impossible to eat. They use basic building blocks: sour tastes, fatty tastes, greasy tastes, sweet tastes…”

“Right,” I said. “So, standards in the art of food preparation can’t degrade very much before people start rejecting the recipes. It’s probably the same thing with music—once it loses basic qualities like, say, rhythm, it becomes unbearable. The visual arts are just a little bit more open.”

“So,” he said, “art is socially defined to the degree to which society can manipulate basic human nature.”

“I think so,” I said. “In fact, I’ll even go a step further. I think that we can define society itself as a set of artistic canons. What we do and don’t do, what we like and don’t like, what we eat and don’t eat…what we find beautiful, and what we don’t, those are the building blocks of culture. In a sense, society is a collection of arts…a collection of the social clichés and scripted scenarios that determine how people act and give direction to the impulses that they have.”

That seemed to be a satisfactory conclusion to the discussion, so we got up and left the Starbucks.

In the old days, we would have gone back to the room and smoked and watched television for a while before veering off into another topic. But when we got outside, we realized that there was no room to go back to and stood awkwardly in the street. At length, I said,

“You probably have to get back to your girlfriend.”

“Yeah,” he said distantly. “I said I wouldn’t be gone too long.” And then, quickly, “but maybe it’s better this way, you know? It sort of leaves us wanting more.”

“Well,” I said, “how about we share one more smoke, for old time’s sake?”

He nodded. We walked back to the bench and sat down, forgetting to laugh at the filthy path to it this time. The night was cold by then, and it was starting to get windy. There was nothing but blackness, and red embers floating in the dark before disappearing. That, and the sound of the river, insistent and hypnotic. But my every sense was alert: my eyes trying to make out shapes in the darkness, the dry taste in my mouth, the faint wet scent of the river in my nostrils, the sound of my heart reverberating against my chest, the rough texture of the bench. After a while, I caught my breath and ventured,

“What’s art but a canon of clichéd values that appeals to the senses? Every sense has an art associated with it.”

He humored my talkativeness.

“The visual arts for sight, food for taste… that’s true.”

“I wonder if we could come up with a canon of the five greatest arts,” I muttered. “A collection of those things that appeals to each of the senses…”

“No,” he said, “because some arts appeal to more than one sense. Even cooking combines taste, feeling, and smell, for example. But I think you’re right about the basic definition. They all appeal to sense combinations, and are all defined by social criteria that manipulate human taste.”

“What about the art of literature,” I said, “and… I guess the art of speaking in general? What sense does it appeal to?”


“Not really,” I said, and we both nodded. “No,” I said, “it’s as if human beings have developed a sense that goes beyond hearing. A sort of communicative sense. In fact, I’d almost call the communicative sense a sixth sense. Every social animal has it to some degree. In us, it’s only more developed. The communicative sense…”

“That’s really interesting,” he said. ” You should honestly write some of these things down.”

“I wish we could discuss it more,” I said.

“But we will,” he said. “And in the meantime, you’ll have a good time in Korea. Imagine, working in a steel factory…It’ll be like something out of Dickens, dude.”

“But without the romance and adventure and secret inheritance,” I said as we rose from the bench and walked to the bus stop. “But everything will be fine. This will be a good chance to travel, at least. It’ll be fun.”

“It’ll be fun,” he echoed.

“But it won’t be like this.” I didn’t say it in a sappy or melancholy sort of way. It was a deadly honest statement and it evoked no pathos.

We waited by the bus stop, and the bus didn’t come. His face was expressionless now. It was late, and he thought about calling a cab. But then, we saw it rolling toward us in the distance, and a sense of real regret washed over me.

“What is it with the early summer?” he asked as the bus pulled up to the stop. “Everywhere you look tonight, you see couples. Couples everywhere. Standing on the bridge because they think that the summer’s romantic, talking about clichéd things, telling themselves that they’re interesting.”

“Well, habibi,” I said, “at least that wasn’t us.”

After a moment of hesitation, I shook his hand.

“We’ll say goodbye like Victorian gentlemen,” I said. He smiled. I was glad that he smiled.

“I’ll see you some time next year,” he said, and boarded the bus. The doors closed. I nodded and stepped away from the curb. I’d see him again, but I knew that it wouldn’t be the same. It wouldn’t be the same, because we’d never be children again. I wondered if he knew that too, and if he did, whether or not he cared. And then, just as the bus pulled away, I saw his face as he moved to take his seat. It was the first time that I ever saw him frown.

I didn’t know what to do. I wasn’t ready to go back to my empty room. But the weather had other plans. It started to drizzle. Still, I walked along the river, and then onto the footbridge. All the couples had left it now. There was nothing but myself, and the distant flash of lightening—then, a baptism in rain. The truth can be just as contrived as fiction. I hunched over the railing and stared at the distant silhouette of Eliot House, no longer my home. I stood and stared, with nothing but the air for company. I remember feeling nothing but regret and exhaustion. My only thought was that it would be good to be home again. It would be good to see Julia again: my great-grandmother, widowed at forty, and now about to turn a hundred. Julia, the last link with the old days.

When I came back to my apartment, I was soaking wet.

“Back so soon?” asked my grandmother. “What happened? It looks like you jumped into the river.”

“I considered it,” I admitted. Then I went to bed, a lonely column in a field of ivy-infested ruins where once a city had been, or so an army of little plastic men had it, all neatly packed away in a stack of crates.


I turned back on a well trod path which once I wandered with my friends
And saw that while new pilgrims roamed, for me there were a thousand ends.
Some faces that I knew conversed, and I responded with a smile,
Reminiscences and ghosts to pass the hours for a while.
Yes, I remembered lofty peaks, those old haunts which I knew and climbed
When once my name was not unknown, and eloquence was something timed.
Ah readers who descend these peaks and turn back to retake the view,
Remember Lot’s wife’s sin and think, beneath the sun there’s nothing new,
Relive the past, reset the scene, gaze back and lie it’s no one’s fault,
Deceive yourself it’s Nature’s way, that every tie erodes to salt.

No comments yet

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: