When I was in junior high school, my broke single mom got her first decent paycheck and took my sister and me on a trip to a small, sparsely populated, tremendously beautiful island in the Caribbean.
All local transport there had to be secured through a man named Scooter Dave. Scooter Dave looked like Captain Ron’s tartar-sauce stained rap sheet. I remember him telling us some suspect origin story about fleeing a dull corporate job for the island life, but he was almost certainly fleeing something more sinister. He lived in an actual beach shack and each night could be seen at our hotel bar. There, he spun raunchy yarns for uneasily entertained guests while palming a miniature snifter of rum as though it were a small, shapely breast.
We were traveling with one of my mother’s divorced coworkers and her two picky-eater kids. Scooter Dave rented the six of us a manual transmission brown Vanagon with troubling stains and no seatbelts. My mom asked him for dinner recommendations one night, and he directed us to a restaurant just north of the earth’s core. We arrived after four hours of complete darkness to find what looked like a Pentecostal church basement after a particularly jazzy hurricane: folding tables set with plastic silverware below tinsel moons and stars. I don’t think there was a door, but there was a band comprised of two 700-year-old men who played Neil Diamond covers on a standing Casio keyboard and a carpenter’s saw. My mother’s coworker and her kids were horrified; my sister and mother and I left with hand-written recipes. It was one of the best dinners of my life, even without the life-affirming qualities of my mother’s stick shift night driving.
Dave had successfully left the path of job-marriage-children convention to live his truth, which was apparently deep inside a Jimmy Buffet song.
The next day, the coworker complained to Scooter Dave that the restaurant had been “remote and shabby.” Scooter Dave basically told her to shove her opinions up her ass. Then he fired up a Cuban cigar with a Bob Marley Zippo.
“I liked it, Scooter Dave,” I whispered.
“I’ll bet you did, sister,” he winked.
I like to think he saw something in me, some sort of pilgrim soul, but he was probably just looped on rum. Either way, I’ve stayed a little obsessed with him.
At the time, the internet was but a speaking tube in the Victorian mansion of collective culture. So, to me, Dave seemed like the logical outcome of radical self-isolation. He was alone, he was happy, he was barefoot; he was broke but he had no responsibilities short of making sure his fleet of assorted vehicles sort of ran.
Perhaps, I thought, he had left behind a board seat at Epson, or — more realistically — a voluminous child support bill. Either way, he had successfully left the path of job-marriage-children convention to live his truth, which was apparently deep inside a Jimmy Buffet song.
Sure, it’s possible that Scooter Dave got lonely. Maybe he occasionally found himself lying on his mattress of coconut hulls, wishing that he had one arm draped around a robust, gently snoozing tourist. It’s possible that he was not entirely happy and spent much time fiddling with his puka shells and wondering if he wasn’t just a prize piece of shit who should have stayed in Pacoima and made a real go at being a dad.
Whenever I read books set in a time before mass connectivity and collaborative law enforcement, I’m stunned by how easy it once was to disappear.
For sinister purposes, certainly, but also just in terms of leaving your family or your life behind if you wanted to. Changing your name or running away to Mexico in an Airstream was predicated on the fact that this essentially made you unreachable to the things you were fleeing: jobs, spouses, taxes, suffocating burgs.
Now, you can basically be found anywhere, and choosing not to have social media or a cellphone only render you at the very least a little obnoxious — and at the worst, anecdotal and suspiciously antisocial.
Yet, it is also easier than ever to self-isolate. It has become oddly modish to stay indoors and congratulate oneself for doing so. It seems at some point we all decided we hated parties. Isn’t it best to stay supine with a snack?
The dark Andy Rooney recesses of me remember when the fashionable and fetishized way to deal with one’s disenchantment with humanity was to go to coffee shops and talk for hours on end. (Hopefully with Ethan Hawke? Maybe none of this ever happened.) Now, the zenith of pleasure for most of my friends seems to be avoiding others while wearing loose pants. I’m not saying one is a better diversion than the other, but one certainly necessitates more interaction.
Even pre-internet, some part of me always knew that if I were Scooter Dave, I wouldn’t be paddling one of those standing kayaks at dawn before sipping cold Red Stripes over hot jerk with my new friends, The Locals. I would probably be indoors, reading “Modern Love” and emailing my friends, “Did you see the latest fucking ‘Modern Love’?”
That said, I am 33 and unmarried. I go back and forth on whether I want to be. To the sustained dismay of my therapist, I have generally eschewed all kinds of dating because it combines my least favorite parts of social interaction: strangers and being willfully sexually interesting. I have complained lustily of digital convenience that allows you to be extremely comfortable while totally lonely. She has told me time and again that meeting new people and sharing little chunks of food off of a piece of marble with them is supposed to be fun. I look at her like she just grew six heads.
You do not understand the phrase “heartbreak” until yours feels like a Starlight peppermint that someone strapping has stepped on in sturdy boots.
And yet! I maintain unhealthy investment in multiple pets owned by people I barely know in my Instagram feed. Photos of friends’ significant others beaming on beaches above syrupy captions cause me feelings of latent larval envy, lying dormant in the indifferent mud of me only to hatch on holidays or in the aisles of Rite Aid after I’m ambushed by Chicago’s “Baby What a Big Surprise” playing on the sound system.
I am both compelled by the idea of companionship and repulsed by the idea of not being able to just be completely and totally inert and do whatever the hell I want while sliding pickle spears into my face like a cartoon sawmill.
If it is indeed a modern contrivance never to marry or be friends with the housewife next door, and instead to have thousands of internet friends, is it making us lousy and strange? Are we overly willing to trade Skittles and the ability to masturbate wherever and whenever for partnership and human connection? I think if you asked us, we would all say that we want real love, but we are essentially unmotivated to do the boring and hard and sad parts to get it.
The expected thing, then, is that love will pop out at us, like a dolphin breaching in a polluted urban estuary. While it's not terribly sympathetic to wait for happiness to come to you in your roomy pants, there is the appealing idea that it’s something that simply hasn’t happened yet, like the onset of a genetic disease. This is by far the most palatable and appealing narrative for the sort-of self-selected emotional margin-dweller. I was walking down the street and there she was!
Then, of course, is the matter of actually keeping a person in the unlikely event that one should land in our laps.
I “fell in love”-or-whatever-that-means a year or so ago, and it was like opening the front door to pick up the newspaper and getting slapped in the face with a frozen fish. It was so alarming and unexpected that I actively resisted it until I found myself driving down Gower Street and watching a huge flock of birds alight on a billboard for the film Horrible Bosses 2 and thinking, “Oh no.”
I’d been mostly convinced I had esophageal cancer, but it turned out to just be feelings. A coworker saw me staring cybernetically off into space and remarked, “Ew.”
I was constantly terrified. I lost 15 pounds and once had to leave his apartment because I was so overwhelmed by a deeply Eastern European feeling of pre-loss that I couldn’t stand to be in the same room with him, which I now find sort of silly and hilarious. The breakup was a pareidoliac nightmare, one of those things where you pretend you are fine because he seems fine and then, there you are re-reading a draft of a letter at 3 a.m., lips glossed with Grenache as you consider consulting an Etsy psychic. It was very difficult and it hurt very badly. You do not understand the phrase “heartbreak” until yours feels like a Starlight peppermint that someone strapping has stepped on in sturdy boots.
A few weeks after it ended, my mother was traveling for business and invited me to join her. We don’t really talk about my love life in my family; we just sort of shake our heads tensely at it, the way you might while driving past a tent city or a piece of particularly obscene graffiti.
But I think she knew I was pretty messed up about it, particularly because after a reasonable amount of time, I was still an EasyBake Oven that had been smooshed under the wheel of an aloof Econoline van.
We met up in Philadelphia, a town I’ve always loved because it feels like Cleveland reaching across a chapel ceiling to touch the finger of New York.
In the lobby of the hotel, my mother remarked with concerned approval on my new under-eye hollows and took me to an oyster bar. I announced my formal retirement from dating and she patted my hand and mused, “I think you should go out with a chef.” I wondered if this was something she really thought or if she’d just said it because we were sitting near a chalkboard of dining specials. I wondered about the feasibility of choosing someone by profession when my heart felt like a set of gory wind chimes made of bloody seagull bones.
I was wondering whether some people simply were meant to be completely alone, to be actual islands unto themselves.
I said, “Mom, do you remember Scooter Dave?”
She laughed and said, “Of course I remember Scooter Dave.” Then she narrowed her eyes and said, “Why, did he do something weird?”
I explained that no, I was just wondering whether some people simply were meant to be completely alone, to be actual islands unto themselves. She considered, then shrugged.
That was the actual end of the conversation. Mothers. Philly!
After we ate, we went back to her hotel room and ate minibar M&Ms and drank from miniature bottles of bourbon. She ordered Les Miserables on pay-per-view and then immediately fell asleep. I turned it off though it had cost 13 and a half dollars. Instead, I watched a woman on Antiques Road Show feign disappointment at the appraisal of her racially insensitive cookie jar. It is my opinion that there is little despair so impenetrable that it cannot be punctuated by an urge to yell at the TV.
Thankfully, it was a marathon. I devised a wildly entertaining game of holding a swallow of alcohol in the hollow of my tongue until it dissolved the shell of the candy, and then the chocolate, and finally the peanut. I would wait, patiently, for the magic wand cash register noise, and swallow contentedly each time a lady in indoor/outdoor sepia-toned eyeglass lenses lied, “Well, I can’t wait to tell my kids about this.” Wasn’t their pain like mine? The pain of taking something you’d long imbued with wishful worth, buckling it into the front seat of your car, and driving it to a convocation center only to discover that it was not as precious as you’d believed? These men and women, with their folded hands and carefully calibrated expressions of non-expectation, who had always wondered if that butter dish was the object of a wealthy hobbyist’s obsession, or if that delicate miniature bridge was real jade?
Except now, they didn’t even have the comfort of wonder. I could watch them for hours. There was enough bourbon and enough candy.
“This is fine,” I said to myself. “This is great.”