Tuesday, May 15, 2012

The End

This is my final post, and I really think I have said pretty much everything that I wanted to say, so I guess I will keep this brief.

Thank you to everyone who actually read my blog. I had way more readers than I ever anticipated (one post had over 250 page views!!) and I am thoroughly shocked and flattered that people found my random Twilight musings interesting enough to not only read, but to keep reading.

I have had so many people come up to me in the last few months, many of whom I hadn't spoken to since orientation week, saying that they read my Twilight blog, and almost everybody has had a different opinion about it. Some think it's a ridiculous idea (truly "Brown" in its intent), some think it's hilarious (also "Brown," but possibly said with a smile and not a grimace). Still others share my genuine interest in the subject, and many of the conversations I had with these people inspired some of my posts.

Also surprising is that many people have actually agreed with me on my opinions about the Twilight series. Almost all of my friends who are pro-Twilight admit that it is not good literature, and almost all of my friends who are anti-Twilight admit (perhaps slightly less grudgingly now than they would have a few months ago) that they enjoyed reading it.

If nothing else, by blogging this semester, I learned that the best time to post things to Facebook that you actually want to be read is around 11:00 PM, because that's when the most people are online. I learned that if I want people to read what I write, I need a catchy picture and title if they are going to be drawn in (don't judge a book by its cover, my foot!).

I think through all of this I have gained quite a bit of respect for Stephenie Meyer's writing abilities. It is a hard thing to do to create such strong emotions from people, positive or negative. No matter what, Twilight has become a part of our culture and everyone, Twi-hard or otherwise, has an opinion about it. So I guess what I'm trying to say is that if I have one take-away from this project, it's that I should maintain a general awareness of why I enjoy what I enjoy. Whether I'm reading literature or pulp, if I get pleasure out of it, I should try to figure out why I get pleasure. Especially if I ever hope to emulate it.

I guess that's it! Have a good summer, everybody! I look forward to reading a lot this summer, and if the mood so strikes me, maybe I'll start another blog!

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Point, Counterpoint

This is my penultimate post, so I am going to do something a little bit different before my wrap-up post on Monday. In every post so far I have chosen one channel from which people may derive pleasure from Twilight and argued as to why it should be considered a Pleasure with a capital P.

But today I want to play devil's advocate and counter some of the arguments I have made. Today I am going to argue against Twilight as a real Pleasure.

Humans have a few animalistic, primitive needs, among which are the desires for sex and companionship, food and nourishment, sleep and relaxation. While no one would deny the pleasure that humans get from satisfying these desires (having sex, eating a cheeseburger, taking a nap), no one would consider the vehicles with which we satisfy these desires as art forms.

Humans are more evolved than other animals. We have the unique capacity to create and appreciate art. The desire for higher entertainment is one which demonstrates no clear evolutionary advantage. An Lamarckian oversimplification: We get pleasure from eating because we need the energy we get from food to care for our young, we get pleasure from sleep because our bodies need time to rebuild themselves, and we get pleasure from sex because we need to reproduce. But why then do we get pleasure from art?

Numerous hypotheses have been put forth: art can emulate life; art can foster relationships between people; art is a status symbol representing a surplus of time and/or money. Perhaps some of these are true, perhaps all of them are true. But the point remains that we are the only species that can appreciate art, and not the only one that can appreciate food, sex, and rest.

So a book that simulates the pleasure we get from food, sex, and rest (Although I suppose food is not really relevant to Twilight) is merely preying on our animalistic senses of pleasure. But a Pleasure is something that appeals to something beyond those animalistic urges.

James Joyce gives us Pleasure because we enjoy the challenge of unraveling a complicated narrative with a complicated plot and complicated characters. Romeo And Juliet gives us Pleasure because we enjoy the intricacies of the dialogue and the interwoven story lines. Pride And Prejudice gives us Pleasure because we enjoy reading the elaborate descriptions. And in all of these there is heavy symbolism, something which we enjoy parsing and interpreting.

But Twilight provides a fantasy, a relatable teenage drama, a simulated relationship, a relaxing break from stress, a ecstasy-like addiction. None of these pleasures appeal to anything other than our primitive desires for food, sex, and rest. And this means that these are the types of things that any animal could theoretically enjoy (if we could teach them to read, of course).

But Pleasure is something that is unique to humans. It's a higher, evolved, sophisticated pleasure. One that transcends logical, evolutionary justification (or at least obvious justification). And in the genre of Pleasure, Twilight falls flat.

Monday, May 7, 2012

"Different Strokes"

I want to post a reaction to a comment that was made on Thursday about simplicity being necessary for relaxation. In the commenter's experience, he would rather challenge his brain (not put it to sleep) when unwinding from a hard day.

I started to think about the different things that I actually do to relax (not just in theory, like I wrote about in my last post), and I think in many ways I agree with the comment. On my list of things I do to relax are crossword puzzles (making and solving), playing games with friends (Catan, pool, go), playing video games (O Ocarina Of Time, how I must beat you...), and, of course, reading and writing.

In theory, I want to watch crappy television and read romance novels, but when it comes down to it, that's not what I do with my limited spare time. I, and I think many people, like to challenge their brains for relaxation in addition to giving it a rest.

But I think the two are not mutually exclusive. If I spent the entire day writing/editing a story or paper, I am going to relax with a crossword puzzle and not a blog post. If I spent the entire day solving crosswords at a competition, I am going to want to relax with a book or a game of Catan and not a puzzle. And if I spent the entire day sitting unshowered in my bed watching Friends, I'm going to want to do something productive and mind-bending at night, giving me a "break" from my couch potato day.

What I crave when I am trying to relax is a difference and unrelatedness from my day, not necessarily just simplicity.

But I think that Twilight can fit into that category easily. At the very least, I probably did not spend my day fighting off evil vampires, so Twilight could be a nice break from whatever I did do. And if I did spend my day thinking really hard, the simplicity of Twilight would be a really nice break, not just because it's simple, but because the simplicity is different.

However, all of the things I do with my spare time that I listed above are in some ways very simple. They are all small, consequence-free, contained problems. Whether or not I finish a crossword puzzle has little impact on the quality of the rest of my life. If I win a game of Catan I'll be proud for like an hour, but I'll probably forget that I won within the week.

So the things that I do to relax, while they are mentally challenging, are simple in that they are separate from my life.

Twilight is absolutely separate from life. First of all, it's a book. It's made up. It's a story. What happens to Bella has no real bearing on what happens to the reader, even if the reader has projected herself into her. At the end of the book, the reader's life is exactly the same as it was before she started.

But some books hit too close to home. Sometimes it's hard to get through a book that points out flaws in the reader's character, or problems in the reader's relationships. When we read The Marriage Plot in class, a few of my classmates found the book hard to read because the codependent relationship between Leonard and Madeleine was too familiar.

Twilight has a hard time hitting too close to home in a bad way. The relationship between Bella and Edward, while many find it codependent and irritating, is not portrayed in a bad light. Their love is described as pure and innocent and perfect, not diseased and unhealthy. The love triangle between Jacob, Bella, and Edward (as well as the, like, a hundred randos that are in love with Bella) are not really portrayed as problems, but as awesome things that serve to vicariously inflate the reader's ego.

And at the very least, a reader's "We're just like Romeo and Juliet" relationship does not involve vampires, so no matter what, Twilight is at least that much different from normal life.

This separation from real life gives the reader a consequence-free, contained experience, which is truly what we all crave when we need a break.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

"Easy As Sunday Morning"

Once again, I'm in the middle of crazy finals time (so close, yet, so far...) so this will be another brief post. I want to talk today about the pleasure of easy reading.

After a long day of finals, papers, projects, a six-hour grading meeting, and a fifty-person-long line at my office hours, nothing gives me more pleasure than sitting in my bed and relaxing. Everybody has different ways of relaxing: some watch movies, some read books, some go fishing, some play video games, some knit weird cyclops things:

But one thing that is constant across the board is that people crave simplicity when they're stressed. If I want to watch a movie after a 15-hour day, I'm not going to watch A Fellini flick, I'm going to watch Legally Blonde or Monsters, Inc., or The Hangover. I'm going to watch something fun and lighthearted and simple. Something that will let me turn my brain off after a long day of being on overdrive.

There is an extreme amount of pleasure that is gained from turning our brains off. It's a way of allowing our bodies to recover. Easy reading gives us much of the pleasure of relaxation while at the same time entertaining us and making us feel at least somewhat intellectual (after all, we are reading).

The simplicity of Twilight comes in a few forms. First, the sentences themselves are simple. We do not need to work very hard to understand what is happening. There is none of the Shakespearean intricacies of the dialogue; it's flirty and we get it. There is no complicated sentence structure; we do not have to read sentences multiple times to understand what they're saying. And the plot is linear and straight-forward; we don't need to draw out a character map or a timeline as we would in a book like A Visit From The Goon Squad or a movie like Primer.

The second source of the simplicity comes in the predictability of it all. With the exception of the initial surprise (if the ending hadn't been spoiled for you) of Edward being a vampire, you know what is going to happen. The love triangle doesn't really create any tension because we know Bella and Edward will end up together.

The reading experience is stress-free because we don't have to worry about the ending. We know what is going to happen, so it's easy for us to believe it as we read.

But is relaxation a "real" pleasure?

Among our core desires as human beings, we have the desire for sleep. We enjoy it because we need it. Our body needs time to recover and process what happened during our day.

In fact, many people (teenagers especially, which is interesting, considering who primarily likes Twilight) enjoy sleep so much that they will spend upwards of twelve hours a day doing it! Some people get so much pleasure from sleep that they will do it to the detriment of socializing and even eating.

Easy reading mimics the pleasure of sleep by allowing our bodies and our brains to relax, while still providing us with the more sophisticated pleasures of plot and narrative and escapism that we get from reading a more complicated book.

Monday, April 30, 2012

"Feels Like The First Time"

I have a final tomorrow, so this post will be pretty short. I want to talk today about the first time that I read Twilight.

For starters, I almost didn't read it. The movie was about to come out and about half the population was talking about the books as though they were the next Harry Potter and the other half were talking about them as if they were written by Satan. Being a super-awesome-and-super-popular-and-super-literary high school student, I was in the IHATETWILIGHTONPRINCIPLE camp with the rest of the internet.

But there came a point where I started to feel guilty about hating the book on principle. It wasn't really fair of me to hate a book that I hadn't even read. Maybe it would be good. What did I know?

But my super-awesome-and-super-popular-and-super-literary high school self had trouble just sitting down and reading the book. There was something about being the sort of person who would read Twilight that rubbed me the wrong way. What if people saw me reading it? What if they thought that I was a Twihard?? MY REPUTATION WOULD BE RUINED!!

Luckily I found a loophole. I was going to read it ironically.

One of my friends had a special copy of Twilight. It had been passed around his family, each member making notes in the margins, commenting on both Stephenie Meyer's words and also each other's. Some of my favorite comments were "Every time Edward Cullen winks, imagine a hundred-year-old man winking" and the dozen or so "Is Bella incapable of walking without appearing drunk" and "This paragraph doesn't make any sense" and of course, "Didn't we learn 100 pages ago that this is impossible?"

When I read the book through I enjoyed reading the annotations just as much (possibly even more) than I enjoyed reading the book itself, and I had a crap-ton of fun adding in my own comments.

This raises two points that I think are interesting. The first is that reading can be a social experience. You can start a book club, find reviews online, or just drop quotes in conversation and see who picks up on the reference. So it goes, amirite? Even if you read a book that you are not in love with, reading a book with friends provides significant pleasure.

But as pleasing as social reading can be, social complaining is even more pleasurable. I have bonded with so many people about how much I hate that girl in class who asks too many questions, or how much I hate seafood, or how much I hate it when people use "dice" as the singular. Complaining about a book can be even more fun than reading it!

Thursday, April 26, 2012

"Your Love, Your Love, Your Love... Is My Drug"

I have never done the drug ecstasy, but from what I hear, it makes you very, very, very happy:

I guess that's why they call it ecstasy.

But once the high of ecstasy wears off, many users report feeling extreme depression. Some people think that there is some absolute, chemical cause of depression when you come down from a high, but I think that the depression is simply due to the contrast between ecstasy and reality. Reality once provided significant happiness, but it is no longer enough when compared to the high of ecstasy.

Even though I have never actually done ecstasy, I understand the extremely low low that follows an incredibly high high. Almost every summer of my life has felt like this in some way. I go somewhere where I make new friends, and then once the week or month or summer is over, the high wears off and I'm left with dull, depressing normalcy. The same thing happened when I graduated high school, and I assume it will happen again when I graduate college.

Another time this depression happens is when I finish a book or television series that I love. Whenever I watch the show Friends from start to finish, I just want to start it all over again after I watch the finale. The same thing happens whenever I reread the Harry Potter series or the His Dark Materials series. Once it's done I either want to start again from the beginning, or lie and bed and cry because it's over.

Books are my ecstasy. I am in another world that is magical and beautiful and once it is gone, the real world just can't measure up anymore.

One thing that I have heard from many people when asked how they feel about the Twilight series is that they liked the first book but they got progressively worse as the series continued. When I asked why they kept reading if they no longer enjoyed it, they all said the same thing: they needed to finish because they started.

Why do people feel this way? I have seen a few dozen episodes of Law & Order but I don't feel the need watch the series all the way through. I quit watching Heroes after the first season, and I didn't even finish reading the first Eragon book, much less the entire series, because I didn't like it.

And I think a lot of people agree with me about this, including some people who felt like they had to finish Twilight. So why does Twilight inspire this reaction more than other book or television series? Why do people feel the need to read Twilight to completion?

In Janice Radway's Reading The Romance, Radway interviews a group of women romance readers in a town that she calls Smithton. There were a lot of really interesting things in this book, many of which have inspired blog posts, but one specific fact that I found really interesting was that many of the Smithton readers read romances in one sitting. They will set aside a three-hour time block to read and will not stop until the book is over.

The reason that Radway sites for why this is, is that while someone is reading a romance novel, that person is the main character. They are actually living the romance as they are reading it, and they cannot stop reading before they know what happens to them. Stopping while reading a romance is like ending a relationship without closure. Do you end up with the hunky, charming male lead? You don't know until you finish reading the book.

I mentioned in an early post about the fact that Bella is a vessel for readers to project themselves into. While a reader is reading Twilight, she is Bella. So it makes sense that a reader would need to finish the series, if not to know what happens to Bella, then to know what happens to the reader.

Another thing that tends to follow the pattern of the drug ecstasy (high highs, followed by very low lows) is love and sex. Normal is great before you are in love, and then love and sex introduce new highs, and then once it is over (either post-orgasm or post-relationship) normal is unbearable. If you don't believe me, ask Ke$ha:

Twilight is about a relationship. As previously mentioned, that relationship can feel incredibly real. I recommend doing a YouTube search for "I love Edward Cullen" and a Google Image search for "crazy Twilight fans." The results are amusing.

People will stay in even bad relationships to prevent the depression that follows a breakup. Perhaps people continue reading Twilight to protect themselves from the same sort of depression. 

I guess what I'm saying is that Twilight can be an addiction. But does this make the pleasure "real"?

No one would consider the pleasure that a heroin addict feels when he shoots up a "real" pleasure. It overloads the pleasure centers in the brain and tricks it into feeling good. But people can be addicted to a lot of things. There are food addictions, sex addictions, video game addictions... I once went through a phase where I watched the movie Grease on repeat. I went through another phase where I would only listen to the Rent soundtrack. Some kids will refuse to wear anything but pajamas, or princess costumes, or the color yellow, or a particular headband; I would call these addictions. 

But no one would deny the pleasure that one gets from food or sex or entertainment. These addictive pleasures are as real as it gets because they appeals to our primitive desires for sustenance, mates, and fun. Maybe the addiction is only "real" if the thing we are addicted to is "real." 

If love and sex can be a sort of drug, and since Twilight is a book that mimics the feeling of being in love, it too can be an addiction. I mentioned in a previous post that the pleasure we get from love and sex is as "real" as pleasure can be. So if love and sex is a "real" pleasure, and addictions are only "real" pleasures if the thing we are addicted to is "real," then the addiction to Twilight is a "real" pleasure.

Boom. Logic. QED. 

Monday, April 23, 2012

The Lost Chapter

In my last post I discussed fanfiction, both the pleasures of reading it and the pleasures of writing it. Well, for one of my classes I am writing a fanfiction-y chapter of a book called A Visit From The Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan:

This, coincidentally, is the book that was assigned for today's Please, Please Me class (the class that I am writing this blog for). So, I figured I would post my chapter here. I know this isn't about Twilight but I have had a crazy few weeks and this story has been taking up a bunch of my time.

The book A Visit From The Goon Squad is a novel that is made up of a bunch of short stories, each from the perspective of a different character at a different point in time, that all tie together when taken as a whole. Even though the book is a novel, many of the chapters have been published in The New Yorker as stand-alone stories. While I highly recommend reading the entire book, in order to understand my chapter, one must only read this New Yorker story entitled Found Objects. It is the first chapter of the book and my story will make much more sense if you read it. Read the linked story first (or the whole book, really. More things will make sense if you read it all, although only the first chapter is necessary... although I guess not even that is really necessary...) and then read the story that I have posted below. I'm finding this hard to explain for some reason. It will make sense when you read it I guess. Anyway, here it is!

The Lost Chapter

            Elaine hadn’t slept through the night in almost twenty years. In the beginning she could never be sure if she had ever truly woken up, the only clues being the faint memory of climbing out of her bed and using the toilet, and the moist hand towel lying rumpled next to her sink.
             She remembered the first time she woke up completely. It was when she was pregnant with Aden and somewhere, probably miles away, she heard the faint whine of an ambulance. Elaine remembered jerking herself awake, entirely convinced that she had crushed Aden in her sleep and the ambulance was meant for him. It wasn’t until she heard Patrick’s light snoring next to her that she realized the absurdity of her dream, but for some reason the panic that she felt on that night never truly left her.
            Perhaps it had something to do with becoming a mother. Once Aden was born every creaky pipe was suddenly his cry, every dripping sink was him falling out of his crib, and every twig scratching the window was the heavy footstep of a child-snatcher. And even when Aden grew up and no longer needed his mother to worry for him, Elaine still managed to find things to worry about. Aden had a habit of staying up late and listening to loud music that sounded like death, and in the middle of a REM cycle, Elaine was certain that it was. And Patrick’s snoring was surely sleep apnea, as Patrick had put on the baby weight that Elaine had managed to take off in the years since Aden’s birth. Elaine found herself waking up three times a night simply to check that Aden’s music was just music her husband’s snoring was just snoring.
Even now that Aden had moved out and Elaine hadn’t shared a bed with Patrick for nearly three years, she found herself waking up every night to the silence she had always feared, only to remember that the house was silent for a reason.
Since Patrick moved out, the number of hours of sleep Elaine got per night had reached an all-time low. She would wake up five or six times a night and every time she did, she would spend up to an hour lying on her back trying not to picture Patrick and his new anthropology professor of a girlfriend having sex in the professor’s office. Patrick and Elaine used to have office sex before they were married, but even in the category of office sex the professor had Elaine beat because surely Elaine’s tiny, cluttered, windowless Minnesota office was nothing compared to the professor’s bright, spacious, New York City office.
But of course, once Elaine tried not to picture her ex-husband having sex with his wispy new girlfriend, she couldn’t think of anything but. And sometimes, when the noise of their grunting and panting got to be too much to bear, Elaine would flick on light that sat on her nightstand and walk across the carpet to Patrick’s old stereo. Patrick had bought himself a swanky new one when the divorce was finalized, leaving Elaine with the dusty old one that had a busted left speaker and a cracked volume dial. Elaine once felt a surge of sadness whenever she looked at the stereo, but the sadness had been replaced by a stirring of pleasure ever since she started her ritual, which went like this:
She would start by putting a Conduits CD into Patrick’s stereo and pressing play. Then, Elaine would sit on Patrick’s side of the bed and use his old pillow to masturbate until she felt both physically and emotionally exhausted. A Conduits song had been playing on the radio the first time she and Patrick had sex and it always made her smile to think that she was defiling herself where he once slept, while listening to the same song on the same stereo from their first time. It was like using Patrick’s own weapon against him.
Elaine liked to imagine him feeling something, a faint pressure in his chest perhaps, when she performed the ritual. And the best part about it was that after completing the ritual she almost always slept straight through until morning.
            This small act of defiance, when she chose to do it, was the highlight of Elaine’s day. When she realized this, she felt sadder than she had ever felt before and cried into Patrick’s pillow until it was wet to the touch, and then she kept crying out of anger at having let herself cry so much. Right before she fell asleep she resolved to do something about her fucked-up life once and for all.

            “When was the last time you performed your ritual?” Lawrence asked Elaine during one of her biweekly therapy sessions.
            Elaine took a sip from the glass of water that sat on the apothecary table, the centerpiece of Lawrence’s office. “Three nights ago,” she responded, fiddling with the coaster so that the little picture of The Empire State Building, which was rotated slightly in relation to the coaster, lay as parallel as possible to the edge of the table.
            “Can you think of anything that happened earlier that day that would have caused you to feel like you needed it?” Lawrence asked.
            Elaine shifted her position on the couch. Of course she knew what had happened that day, but it was so trivial in hindsight that she felt silly confessing it to Lawrence. Patrick had tagged the professor in his Facebook status. There wasn’t anything grotesque about it. There were no smiley faces, no little animated hearts, he didn’t even refer to her by a pet name. To be honest, she didn’t even remember what it said. She just remembered it was small and meaningless, something that she would have once taken for granted, a token of affection between a man and a woman, that now belonged to somebody else. “I don’t remember,” Elaine replied to Lawrence.
            She had lied to Lawrence so often that she had perfected the art. The trick was to avoid looking directly into his eyes, as one would an eclipse. Instead, Elaine forced herself to focus on the reflection of the room in his large, circular glasses. If she did this she could convince herself that he had asked her an entirely different question. “What did you eat for breakfast on the morning of August 3rd, 1981?” or “What is the square root of three-thousand fifty-two?” And if she failed to avoid eye contact she would have to answer honestly, something she could hardly even do when she was alone in her room.
            Sometimes it felt like Lawrence could tell when she was lying and when she was telling the truth, but he never said anything. He just sat at an angle in his arm chair, one leg crossing the other, and scratched his reflective scalp with chewed-up Bic pen.
            “When was the last time you spoke to Aden?” Lawrence asked Elaine after “mm-hm-ing” to himself three times and then nodding curtly.
            “Last Thursday,” Elaine responded.
            “And what did you talk about?”
            Elaine sighed and tousled her frizzy brown hair. Staring at her reflection in Lawrence’s glasses had made her acutely aware of the fact that she had reached the point in her life when she should really start dying her roots. “We talked about spring break. What his plans were.”
            Lawrence scribbled something on a pad of paper and “mm-hm-ed” again. “And what were his plans?” Lawrence asked without looking up.
            “Well, he is thinking about going to Daytona with his new girlfriend. Beth something.”
            “Aden has a girlfriend?” Lawrence said, looking up at Elaine.
            “I guess so,” Elaine said taking another sip of water.
            “How do you feel about Aden being in a relationship?” Lawrence asked.
            Elaine took a deep breath into her stomach, like she had learned to do during a yoga class that she took once, then let it out through her teeth. “Not good,” she laughed slightly, surprised at her own honesty. She waited for Lawrence to say something else, and when she realized that he wasn’t going to, she continued talking. “Not good at all. It makes me jealous. God, can you believe that? I’m jealous of my teenage son!”
            Lawrence stopped writing and looked at Elaine. When he spoke again he used the voice that Elaine always thought sounded like he was speaking to a child. Like he was trying to explain an obvious concept that, because Elaine was so stubborn and stupid, she was simply not understanding. “Elaine,” he said. “Are you just jealous of Aden or are you jealous of Beth as well?” Lawrence asked.
            Elaine turned to Lawrence and this time stared directly into his eyes. “Are you asking me if I want to fuck my son?”
            Lawrence smiled at Elaine revealing large, graying teeth. “I was not,” His smile broadened. “Do you want to fuck your son?”
            “Of course I don’t!” Elaine yelled, leaning backwards into the couch and crossing her arms over her chest.
            “Okay,” Lawrence shrugged. “I believe you.”
“Good!” Elaine yelled.
“Why did you get so angry just now?” Lawrence asked calmly. His teeth seemed to be growing larger the more Elaine stared at them.
            “Because that’s disgusting!” Elaine said, her voice growing shrill.
            “Okay,” Lawrence said calmly, leaning back into his chair and interlocking his fingers. “What about Aden makes you jealous? Not Beth, Aden.”
            Elaine was still fuming. “I don’t know,” she said, exasperatedly, and looked at the clock on the wall. Were there seriously still twenty minutes remaining in her hour?
            “Any ideas?”
            “Because he has plans,” Elaine said finally. “There is somewhere that he wants to be, someone that he wants to be with.”
            “Who do you want to be with?”
            “I don’t know,” Elaine said. “Patrick, I guess. Aden, of course.”
            “What about Dolly?”
            Elaine thought for a moment before saying, “Yes, I would like to be with Dolly. Before she went crazy, of course.”
            “When was the last time you spoke with your sister?”
Elaine relaxed a bit now that the subject had changed. “Oh, not for a while. Months, I suppose. It’s been hard to reach Dolly since she got out of jail. And when I call, sometimes that Stepford daughter of hers answers and at some point I just stopped calling.”
            Lawrence laughed a little. “Maybe you should call her again. Or even go visit her. Maybe you need a vacation.”
            “I can’t do that,” Elaine said.
            “Why not?” asked Lawrence.
            “Because of—because of him,” Elaine said, her eyes scanning the spines of the books in Lawrence’s office. She often wondered if he had read all the books on the shelves. Something about Lawrence’s tired shoulders and sallow cheeks told her that he had.
            “Because of who?”
            “Oh you know,” Elaine threw her hands into the air and then dropped them on the couch with a loud thump. “Because of Patrick! And the professor! They’re there!”
            “Elaine, please refer to her by her real name. Please call her Mindy. Nicknames are for cowards and you are not a coward.” Elaine shuddered. Mindy was such an awful name. The name of a person who would dot her i’s with little hearts and, underline the Mind with the y.
            “Mindy, Elaine said with a scowl, “lives there. And if I were to see her then I would probably kill myself.” Elaine looked at Lawrence to see how he took this last comment, and then quickly added “Or her,” when Lawrence raised his bushy eyebrows and threatened to open his mouth to once again reveal his overly-large teeth. “Probably her,” Elaine added also, just to be safe.
            “Elaine, New York City is enormous.” There it was again. That voice. She knew New York City was large. Duh, she thought to herself. “Millions of people live there,” Lawrence continued. “The odds of you running into Patrick and Mindy are infinitesimal.”
Elaine made a face into Lawrence’s glasses, which Lawrence either didn’t see or chose to ignore. “I think you should go,” he said. “Visit Dolly and Lulu. I think it could be really good for you to get out of your house, get out of this town, and visit the people you love. The people that love you.”
As much as Elaine hated the idea because it was Lawrence’s, by the time she got home and her irritation towards her therapist had worn off, she was convinced that it was actually a great idea. She called her sister that night. Luckily, Dolly herself picked up and Elaine managed to avoid a robotic conversation with Lulu.
“Laney, we’d love for you to come visit!” Dolly said when Elaine told her the idea. And to Elaine’s surprise, her older sister’s enthusiasm seemed genuine for once. Since she got out of jail Dolly really did seem different. Maybe even better.
It worked out perfectly that Dolly’s current client was going somewhere (she seemed to tiptoe around any details about who it was and where he was going) during the week of Aden’s spring break. Lulu had school during the day, which would allow Dolly and Elaine time to catch up and see the city. By the end of her conversation with Dolly, Elaine was positively looking forward to her trip to New York.
That night, Elaine only woke up once when she thought she heard the front door open. But it was just a cricket chirping outside. She fell back asleep almost immediately.

            “Dolly!” Elaine cried when she saw Dolly’s Toyota pull up in front of the airport. Lulu was, of course, riding shotgun with her back perfectly straight and her blonde hair framing her nine-year-old face in a way that made her look almost as old as her mother.
            “Laney!” Dolly called out and hopped out of the driver’s seat to wrap her arms around her sister before gesturing to Elaine to get into the back seat of the car. Typical Dolly, letting her nine-year-old ride in the front while Elaine toughed it out in the back.
            “It’s so good to see you, Dolly! It’s been so long!” gushed Elaine. “And you,” she said turning to Lulu, “you look just like your mother did at your age!” Elaine had to stop herself from saying “at age twenty.”
            Lulu smiled her regal smile and said “Thank you auntie Elaine. It’s nice to see you too.”
            “Have you eaten, Laney?” asked Dolly. “I was thinking we could go to Delmonico’s for dinner.” Lulu opened her mouth to protest. “There are always veggie options, dear,” Dolly soothed. Lulu shut her mouth.
            “That sounds fantastic,” Elaine responded. “I’m famished!”

            Dinner passed with hardly a hitch. Elaine asked Lulu about her school and her friends and Lulu responded with her token poise and grace. Elaine couldn’t help noticing the way Dolly beamed in approval whenever Lulu spoke. Elaine wondered tangentially if she had ever looked that way when Aden spoke.
            It wasn’t until they returned to the house and Dolly showed Elaine her pull-out couch of a bed and shooed Lulu off to her room (it was a school night for her, after all) that Elaine and Dolly sat down at the kitchen table and truly talked.
            “So really, Laney, why are you here? I have hardly spoken to you in months and suddenly you’re in New York! I mean, I’m not complaining or anything, but as your sister I’m worried about you.”
            So says the woman who just got out of prison, Elaine thought to herself. “I’m fine,” Elaine said. “I just—I needed a break. You know, from the emptiness. Now that Aden and Patrick are gone I just couldn’t handle the quiet for another second, you know?” Elaine didn’t mention the fact that it was Lawrence’s idea in the first place. She didn’t mention Lawrence at all, in fact. She wasn’t sure how Dolly would handle the idea of Elaine seeing a therapist.
            Dolly nodded and reached out her hand to grab Elaine’s wrist. “Well you’re always welcome here,” she said, moving her thumb up and down across Elaine’s skin like a windshield wiper.
            Elaine felt her throat close slightly at this gesture of affection from her sister. She couldn’t remember the last time Dolly had been so loving. Perhaps something about her really had changed since prison.
            “How are you holding up?” Dolly asked, keeping her hand on Elaine’s wrist.
            “All right, I suppose,” said Elaine. “Like I said, it’s been hard. I didn’t want him to go, you know. It was his decision.” Dolly nodded sympathetically. “Oh and Aden has a new girlfriend. Beth something.”
            Dolly and Elaine continued to chat until Lulu came out and complained (without really complaining) that the noise from their conversation was affecting her beauty rest, at which point Dolly pulled down some clean towels from the top shelf of a closet for Elaine and crept into her own room to go to sleep.
            The sounds of the city proved to be even worse for Elaine’s sleep troubles than her quiet house in Minnesota. The ambulances that, back in Minnesota, Elaine assumed were meant for someone she loved, sped by every half hour. There were shouts on the streets until four in the morning and she could hear car horns that seemed to increase in volume as the hours crept by.
            When she woke up (if you can call it waking up if she never really fell asleep) Elaine was starting to regret the idea of coming to New York.

            Once Lulu went off to school, Dolly showed Elaine around the city. The sisters went shopping on Fifth Avenue, which was something that Elaine had always dreamed about doing. But the reality of the experience fell short (doesn’t it always…) of Elaine’s expectations. In her fantasies, she had never imagined that she would feel so intimidated by the prices of the clothes in the windows, and by the glamour of the tall, slender women that passed by them on the street. Dolly seemed to fit in perfectly, despite her gray hair and short figure. Something about the severity of her expression screamed New York in a way that Elaine was certain hers did not. She felt like all eyes were on her. Everyone knew she wasn’t a native and they hated her for it.
            That night Elaine tossed and turned once more. She kept sitting up in bed and playing her favorite Conduits song on her old iPod mini in an attempt to simulate her ritual, but the song just made her horny and she felt like she couldn’t masturbate in her sister’s bed with her niece in the next room.
            On her fifth and penultimate night in New York she finally thought screw it and shoved her hand down her underwear. It was hard to finish without Patrick’s pillow (the thought of using one of Dolly’s made her sick) but she managed. And as soon as she was done she felt her eyelids instantly begin to droop and the noise of the New York City street became nothing more than a backdrop for the Conduits song that was still playing softly on her iPod.
            The next morning was a Saturday and for the first time Elaine was woken up by Dolly scrambling eggs in the kitchen instead of climbing out of bed, frustrated and exhausted, and cooking for herself.
            “You slept in this morning!” Dolly said to Elaine. Lulu was sitting at the table elegantly eating her scrambled eggs with a fork that seemed too large for her.
            “I guess I am finally used to the noise of the city,” Elaine said to her sister, sitting down and accepting the plate of food that Dolly offered.
            “Well it’s Saturday so Lulu doesn’t have to go to school. I thought we could spend the day at the library, maybe find some lunch nearby, since Lulu needs to pick up a book that she has on hold there for a report. What do you think?”
            Elaine nodded, having no idea where the library was, but at this point she was used to following Dolly’s lead around New York. Her sister had good taste. That was part of the reason she had once been so successful.
            As they were pulling up to the library, Elaine noticed a man with his arm around a woman walking through the revolving doors entering the library. She only saw the couple’s back, and yet something about them felt familiar. Was it someone she used to know?
But that was silly. The more she imagined the couple the more she was convinced that she had never seen him before in her life. The man was large and balding and the woman was tall and (it was hard to tell from the back) pregnant. Elaine racked her brain and couldn’t think of anyone she would know in New York City who would fit that description.
Elaine, Lulu, and Dolly left the car and walked out onto the sidewalk and into the library. Lulu ran ahead to search for the book for her project and Dolly led Elaine to some of the more interesting rooms in the old building.
As they were passing the map room Elaine once again saw the man who had been walking with his arm around the woman, but this time she could see his face. Elaine tripped over Dolly’s heel as she called out, “Patrick?”
The man looked towards Elaine and his expression fell. “Elaine,” he said with a brief nod.
Elaine turned her path away from Dolly’s and entered the room where Patrick was standing. “Patrick?” Elaine repeated. “Look at you! You look—“ how did he look? Well, truth be told he looked awful. His hair (what was left of it anyway) was completely gray and he must have gained over fifty pounds since he left Minnesota. But it was Patrick and she was Elaine, and so, Elaine could barely see any of those things. “You look fantastic!” she said, extending her arms to give him a hug. Patrick begrudgingly accepted it while darting his eyes around the room over her shoulders.
“Patrick?” said a voice from behind Elaine. Elaine spun around and saw a slim woman with a small bulge in her belly. She had long brown hair and intense eye-makeup and was wearing a red peacoat with a thick belt around the middle. “Patrick?” the woman repeated. “Who is this?”
Patrick scratched the back of his head. “Mindy, hi. Mindy, this is Elaine, Elaine, Mindy,” he said, extending his arm towards the women in turn as he said their names.
“Oh,” said Elaine, unable to tear her eyes away from Mindy’s belly.
“Nice to meet you,” said Mindy.
“Yeah,” said Elaine, then, catching herself, she said, "Nice to meet you too.” Then, after a beat, she stuck her hand out and Mindy grabbed it and shook it once before letting go.
Elaine tried to think of something to say, but kept getting distracted by Patrick’s eyes darting around the room, looking at everything but the two women standing in front of him. Mindy placed her right arm around Patrick’s back and rested her left hand lightly on her stomach. Her black shirt contrasted ever-so-intentionally with the glittering ring on the fourth finger of her left hand.
“Well, it was nice to see you again,” Patrick said before spinning around and guiding Mindy away. Elaine couldn’t help noticing that his steps felt a little too quick to be natural.
“Nice meeting you,” said Mindy over her shoulder as she followed Patrick to the back of the room.
“Yeah,” Elaine said to their backs before turning around to greet Dolly’s shocked expression.
“You all right?” Dolly said as she put her arm around Elaine’s waist and led her out of the room.
“I—I think so,” Elaine said, entirely unaware of the question that was asked or the answer she had given.
“Let’s go collect Lulu and head out.”
Lulu was found sitting at a computer on the third floor holding large book with a picture of a map on the cover in her lap. “It’s time to go, Lulu,” said Dolly, walking Lulu over to the counter to help her check out the book. Within minutes they were back on the streets of New York, pretending nothing had ever happened.
            Well, Dolly was, anyway. She was chatting about something that had happened to her last time she took the subway, but Elaine couldn’t shake off what had just happened. Her legs felt numb, her hands felt tingly, and she was having trouble swallowing. She found herself relying on the sound of Dolly’s chatter to guide her through the perilous streets of New York, and it wasn’t long before she felt certain that she would pass out.
            And once the feelings of shock had worn off she found herself clenching her fists and gnashing her teeth at the thought of Patrick and Mindy raising a child together. I mean, Patrick was almost forty-five! He couldn’t raise a baby! And the professor already had two of her own children to worry about. What did they think of the little accident?
            “I need to pee, Dolly,” Elaine said, interrupting her stream of chatter as they walked in front of the Lassimo Hotel. Elaine didn’t really need to pee but she did need to sit down a think somewhere, away from Dolly, away from the Stepford child, and away from the noise and smog of New York City.
            “All right. Lulu wanted to get a frappuccino anyway, so I’m going to take her over to the Starbucks across the street. Meet you there when you’re done?”
            Elaine practically choked at the idea of a nine-year-old drinking coffee, but she couldn’t help thinking that maybe a little bit of caffeine would loosen the kid up a bit. Elaine fluttered into the hotel lobby and figured her best bet to find a bathroom would be at the back of the adjoining restaurant. Once she found it, she pushed the bathroom door open and threw her purse down on the ledge of the sink before rushing into the handicapped stall, pulling down her pants, and sitting on the toilet.
            She hung her head in her hands and could feel herself beginning to cry. Then, fearing that someone may walk in and hear her sobs, she forced herself to pee to cover up the noise.
            When she finally regained her composure, she exited her stall and splashed some water on her face until she was certain that Dolly would not notice that she had been crying. Then she grabbed her purse and left the bathroom.
            “Excuse me, Miss?” said a voice.
Elaine spun around to see a tall blonde waiter in a black uniform. “Yes?”
“The bathroom is only for paying customers,” he said.
“I just needed it for a minute,” Elaine said.
“I’m sorry, ma’am,” said the waiter.
“So what do you want me to do, huh?” shouted Elaine. “Un-pee? Do you want me to give the toilet paper back?” Elaine felt a pang of guilt as she looked at the waiter’s shocked face. “Look, I’m sorry,” she said, her voice instantly calmer. “It’s been a long day. Here,” she said, fishing through her purse. “Give me an iced tea.” Elaine opened her purse and fished around for her green leather wallet. “Give me a second,” she said. “It’s in here somewhere.
“Look, ma’am,” said the waiter. “It’s no big deal. Really, don’t worry about it. I’m sorry I brought it up.”
“No, it’s fine. I’ll pay.” Elaine started taking things out of her purse and placing them on the table next to her. Elaine felt her stomach drop as her purse began to empty and she realized that her wallet was missing.
Was this some sort of sign? Was the entire city of New York telling her to go home? That she wasn’t meant to be here? That she wasn’t even fit to pee in the city where urine soaks the streets?
            She looked at the waiter apologetically. “I’m sorry, it was here a few minutes ago!” Elaine showed her empty purse to the waiter in an effort to convince him that she was telling the truth.
“It’s fine, ma’am. Seriously. You should talk to the concierge about that wallet. It may have gotten stolen. It is New York after all.”
            Elaine rushed out of the restaurant in a daze trying to figure out how much money she had been keeping in her wallet. It wasn’t too much, she realized. No more than $100. And she could call the card companies to let them know that her wallet had been stolen. But the real issue was her ID. How was she going to get on the plane tomorrow to get home?
Elaine rushed to the concierge’s desk. He was a bored-looking youth with hair that was somehow simultaneously spiky and greasy. “Sir? Sir! Please!” Elaine cried. “My wallet got stolen! At least I think it did. Can you do something? Call the police maybe? Please?”
            “Relax, ma’am,” said the concierge. Something about the way that he said this reminded her of Aden. “Sure, I’ll call the police. But I would go back and retrace your steps if I were you. You may have just lost it”
            “Thank you,” Elaine said, exhaling slightly. She turned around to search the lobby. Had there been anybody in the bathroom with her? She thought back and couldn’t remember anybody, but she also hadn’t been paying very close attention.
            “Wait!” Elaine said to the first woman she saw that exited the restaurant. She was a beautiful, slender woman with tan shoulders and a young-looking face and an even younger-looking man at her side. She felt a pang of jealousy when she looked at her. “You haven’t seen—I’m desperate.”
            The woman looked shocked, almost terrified, at Elaine’s intrusion. The woman grabbed the arm of the man and tried to steer him through the revolving doors at the front of the hotel. “Have we seen what?” asked the man, pulling against the woman.
            Elaine felt a pulse of affection towards the man, which made her hate the woman. Despite her current crisis, she couldn’t help thinking that as soon as these two beautiful people got back to one of their homes (probably hers judging by their relative ages) they would have sex. And this uncompassionate woman did not deserve the kindness of the man. “Someone stole my wallet,” Elaine said to the man. “My ID is gone, and I have to catch a plane tomorrow morning. I’m just desperate!”
            “Have you called the police?” the man asked.
            “The concierge said he would call. But I’m also wondering—could it have fallen out somewhere?” Elaine looked helplessly at the marble floor around their feet. She knew she was acting pathetic and she could feel the beautiful woman judging her. What must she be thinking? Was she noticing the gray streaks in Elaine’s hair? She had yet to get it colored like she kept promising herself she would.
            The man guided Elaine to the concierge’s desk and the woman trailed behind. “Is someone helping this person?” the man asked.
            “We’ve called the police,” said the concierge defensively.
            The man turned to Elaine. “Where did this happen?”
            “In the ladies’ room. I think,” said Elaine.
            “Who else was there?”
            “No one.”
            “It was empty?”
            “There might have been someone, but I didn’t see her.”
            The man then swung around to look at the woman. “You were just in the bathroom,” he said. “Did you see anyone?”
            “No,” said the woman a little too quickly. She was clutching her purse tightly to her chest and her eyes were wide and filled with something that looked remarkably like terror.
            The man turned to the concierge. “How come I’m asking the questions instead of you?” he said. “Someone just got robbed in your hotel. Don’t you have, like, security?” Elaine felt a surge of gratitude toward the man. If you asked her she would have said that, in that moment, she loved him.
The concierge adjusted his neck and said, “I’ve called security. I’ll call them again.”
            Two beefy security guards showed up within a few minutes and asked Elaine a series of questions about her wallet. Elaine answered them all honestly, forcing herself to look directly into their eyes, and when she was finished answering their questions she looked around to see that the woman had left.
            “Where did your date go?” Elaine asked the man.
            “She went to check out the bathroom,” the man replied. “You should go with her. Show her where you may have dropped it.”
            Elaine nodded and hurried back into the restaurant and towards the back where she pushed the door open and met the woman, catching her frantic eyes in the mirror. The woman was holding the wallet in her hand and then hesitated, as though thinking of something to say, before handing it to Elaine. Elaine just stared at the woman, mouth agape, and accepted the wallet.
            “I’m sorry,” said the woman. “It’s a problem I have.”
            Elaine opened the wallet and the relief she felt at having found the wallet almost made her forgive the woman.
            “Everything’s there, I swear,” she said. “I didn’t even open it. It’s this problem I have, but I’m getting help. I just—please don’t tell. I’m hanging on by a thread.”
            As soon as the woman said this Elaine’s thoughts flashed to Patrick and the professor—Mindy—and suddenly she understood. This was the woman’s ritual. Her small act of defiance that allowed her to exert a bit of power over her life. Elaine couldn’t hate this woman. What did Elaine know about the reasons she was a thief? Perhaps she too was left by her husband for an anthropology professor. Perhaps she too was seeing a therapist named Lawrence who had giant teeth and scratched his scalp raw with a chewed-up pen. It didn’t matter because really, the two women were just middle-aged losers trying to get by in New York City.
“Okay,” said Elaine looking down. “It’s between us.”
            “Thank you,” said the woman. “Thank you, thank you.”
Elaine suddenly felt eager to get away and was relieved when there was a knock at the door and a man’s voice said, “Any luck?”

Elaine followed the man and the woman out of the hotel, thanking the woman again for finding her wallet. She laughed to herself as she realized that the man and the woman were probably still going to have sex that night despite what had just happened. She wondered whether or not the man realized that the woman was a thief. Maybe he did and loved her anyway. Maybe he would only find out after she stole something for him. Or maybe he would never find out. Elaine continued to laugh to herself as she went into the Starbucks across the street to catch Dolly and Lulu.
“What took you so long?” Dolly asked.
“Oh I just met a woman that I had a lot in common with,” Elaine said smiling to herself.
“See, not everyone in New York is as terrible as they seem in the movies.”
Elaine laughed in agreement and caught a look at her reflection in a mirror on the wall. Her roots were still as gray as ever, and she resolved once and for all to pick up some hair dye when she got back to Minnesota.
Then, over her shoulder, she saw the reflection of a woman. The woman looked young but exhaustion aged her face quite a bit. She was gripping her coffee cup as though it were the only thing that would get her through the rest of her day and staring blankly at the napkin dispenser on her table. In front of the woman was a half-solved New York Times crossword puzzle with a expensive-looking black fountain pen hooked on to the top of the puzzle. As Elaine watched in the mirror, the woman got up and went around the back of the Starbucks towards the bathrooms.
“You ready to go?” asked Dolly.
“Yes,” Elaine mumbled, still staring at the reflection of the pen.
Dolly and Lulu stood up and walked towards the door. Elaine followed them, hanging a few steps back. Then, before she could stop herself, she reached out and grabbed the pen and put it in her purse. It was time for a new ritual.