The last time I was unemployed in Washington, DC, I had a girlfriend as well – Ariel. But things were so different for me back then. I was 30 years old. Ariel was getting ready to head back to grad school in International Development at Columbia University. I decided I wanted to go back to school, too.
I’d been having dreams back then I’d relapsed and gotten drunk during my senior year of college. In my dreams, I’d never finished school, which hadn’t actually happened. But dreams were very influential on me in those bygone days. I took it as a sign from the universe. My education was incomplete. I’d been looking into grad programs in DC even before I’d gotten laid off from my job. My GRE scores were still good from when I’d taken them after my first breakdown. Back then, I simply wanted out of Richmond again. When I didn’t get into any of the creative writing programs I’d applied to, I became extremely discouraged. This time, I was thinking about creative writing again, but I was open to other possibilities as well.
The theory of evolution didn’t make much sense to me anymore. I’d bought a book by the paleontologist Richard Leakey about it, but that didn’t help. His mother was part of the team that had discovered Lucy, the oldest primate humanity yet knew about, and his theories of our ancestry were intriguing. Coupling his research with other things I was thinking about in those days, I wondered a lot about what he had to say concerning primate size discrepancies and their effects on societal gender roles.
According to Mr. Leakey, when a male primate is approximately twice the size of the female, such as in a baboon tribe, the society organizes around a strong alpha male who banishes the other males from his harem. The smaller males who leave their tribes attempt to form cohesive family units of their own. These smaller baboons try their utmost to pull attractive females away from neighboring tribes, and the successful seductions of other alpha males’ mates keeps the gene pool differentiated. During psychosis, that’s how I’d always assumed human society had organized itself.
However, when the female primate is approximately two thirds the size of the male, such as in chimpanzees, the society organizes around a band of brothers. These genetically related males trade their sisters between tribes in order to keep their families’ gene pools fresh. Humans have a size differential more akin to chimpanzees. So I wondered… If you were to institutionalize this “band of brothers,” if the males of a primate species were self-aware enough to realize that by trading their sisters they could increase the size and strength of their brotherhood, thus increasing their familial power’s scope, then you might wind up with something approximating the contemporary patriarchy. Despite what I was then reading in Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble, another book I’d chosen to tackle at that moment, that made me wonder how deep into primordial, human psychology contemporary gender roles actually dwelt. Maybe there were as many relationships to sexuality as there were people on this planet, but maybe there was also something biological about what we were all railing against. Truth be told, there’s nothing unnatural about this world.
I was walking dogs back then to pull in some extra cash, and after finishing my canine strolls through Mount Pleasant every single day, I went down to The National Museum of Natural History. I’d started at the first exhibit on the first floor and was slowly working my way up reading every single placard on every single item. I studied the theoretical formation of our solar system, the foundations of our geology, the intricacies of vegetable and animal biology and the subtleties of our sociological structures. It took me nearly a week to complete the entire museum, but nothing helped me make any more sense out of our contemporary explanations for biological life than anything else. I was so confused.
Darwin had missed something in his theory. Evolution itself necessitated an intelligence governing it. Everybody else disagreed with me. They reminded me Darwin’s theory went along the lines that life simply strove for survival, and therefore, the most positively adaptable organism would triumph. That being would then adapt to conditions allowing its lineage to be passed on to its offspring. Nothing other than environmental conditions caused the offspring to evolve. There was no reason governing these variations. There were only the many vicissitudes of survival. But why survive? The mere notion of survival itself constituted a type of drive, and a drive implied an intention, a sort of intelligence. There was no reason for survival as opposed to annihilation. Why would this dead universe even bother choosing to survive? It’s not that I thought Darwin was wrong. I simply thought he’d overlooked something, and we were trapped in a simplified view of the subject.
Maybe I was looking at life from the wrong angle.
One night, I woke up early in the morning from one of those dreams you know means something, but you can’t figure out what that could possibly be. Outside, the sun was just starting to rise. Purple light glowed throughout the District. I walked from my then basement apartment on Lamont Street in Mount Pleasant down to The Diner in Adams-Morgan. I bought a fresh pack of cigarettes along the way, and I chain-smoked until the moment I entered that restaurant. I was trying to quit smoking even all the way back then.
Over a cup of coffee with bacon and eggs, I contemplated all the jobs I’d been applying to – marketing, advertising, journalism – all across the country, and I realized I didn’t want any of them. I didn’t want to work. Instead, I pictured myself a student discussing with contemporaries and peers philosophy like Deleuze and Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus. Not too many people read philosophy for fun. That was when I decided I’d only apply for jobs I wasn’t qualified for simply to satisfy the requirements to continue collecting unemployment. If I was careful, I could string out what I was pulling in until right around when the school year started again. I’d missed most of the application deadlines, but I knew about this Asian Classics program out in Santa Fe that had rolling admissions. And the program itself was only a year long. I could do that, take a year, live somewhere I’d never been before, read a ton of books I’d never been exposed to before and then go study whatever I wanted – philosophy, creative writing, anything. I pictured myself strolling around some academic enclave, writing poetry and stories in my spare time and living a pleasantly crazy life.
Maybe that’s exactly what happened. I’m not really sure.
Ariel and I eventually said our goodbyes after visiting her parents’ home in Connecticut. It was the first time I’d ever met them. She was getting ready to head down to an apartment she’d already rented for herself on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. I was to fly out to Southern California, to pick up that car that eventually took me all the way back across the country. Her father rented a black limousine to drive me out to the airport. Ariel came with me. She was going to catch the subway up from LaGuardia to her new home.
The whole ride down, we didn’t say a word. Ariel held onto my hand and leaned into my shoulder. I stared out my window at the green countryside rolling past. The driver kept trying to start up some conversation, but it was obvious neither of his passengers had anything worthwhile to say. We were lost in our own reflective musings. As we pulled into the outskirts of the city and continued on our way through Queens, the world began moving too fast to keep up with any longer.
In the airport’s offloading zone, amid the robotic announcements resonating overhead, Ariel held onto me. Setting my bags to the side, I promised myself I wouldn’t cry. As the tears streamed down her cheeks, though, I wiped them away. I said, “Don’t be scared. We’ll see each other again,” which we did. But things were so amazingly different by then…
I’d composed a poem for her I gave her on a handwritten piece of lined paper. I’d written it in my head one evening as I’d strolled down Connecticut Avenue, recalling a misunderstanding she and I had had once upon a time. It was an apology. Nobody had ever written a poem for her before she told me. Maybe she still has it. Maybe she doesn’t. She’s getting married soon I just discovered on Facebook. I’m happy for her. It wasn’t until I finally sat down on my seat in the plane, when I looked out the window at the dismal runway, I remembered all those times I’d said goodbye to my father, all those years ago, all the way across the country… I started to cry. For the first time in years about how love never remains.