Andrew Palmer: Homage

A series of conversations about breaking stuff.

“I really don’t want to talk about this.”

“Fine. Okay,” said Kate. This was just last night. Long silence for a phone conversation, maybe ten seconds, maybe even fifteen or twenty. Not twenty. But long. Maybe fifteen.

“But,” he said, “we’re gonna talk about it anyway, aren’t we,” and he started talking about how they’d had this conversation like twelve times already and while he didn’t think another one would be necessary after they kissed and made up after the last one like a month ago right after he finished gluing the shower curtain ring back together, it seems it is, more for her than for him but he’s not trying to be contentious.

“Well you are.”

“What?”

“Being contentious, without even trying, you’re a . . . a real pro.”

“At being contentious? At breaking stuff?”

“Okay, Alex, Alex, you can stop now, I get it. Okay? I get it. We’ve had this conversation before and we don’t need to have it again, so let’s not.”

“It just seemed like you’d forgotten all the salient points from our last conversation, so I was—”

“I remember your points, okay, and fine, ‘salient,’ whatever, I don’t need to hear them again. You can stay at my apartment, but no more than two nights though, okay?—you leave the morning after the concert.”

“That’s all I’m asking for.”

“Okay,” she said, “. . . . okay.”

“What.”

“Okay, I’m just gonna come out and say this, just to add one more element to the breaking things conversation, but we’re not going to argue about it, okay?”

“I stopped thinking about it two minutes ago.”

“Okay, I just wanted to say this, just so it’s out there. You think my argument doesn’t have any logic behind it, but I think the reason you’ve broken so much of my stuff and none of your own—which, by the way, I doubt is true—is that you’re more careful about things when you’re in your own apartment than when you’re in other people’s apartments or houses or . . . workplaces.”

“Okay, I agreed not to argue, so I’m just gonna say that’s bullshit and hang up the phone. And thank you for allowing me to stay with you for two nights.”

“You’re welcome.”

“Okay.”

“Good night Alex.”

“Good night Kathryn, see you soon.”

As soon as he hung up the phone, or right after he shook his jowls—or his cheeks, he’s too young to have jowls, probably never will: he relaxed his cheeks and shook his head back and forth—and tussled his hair to get his mind off the conversation and onto other things, something he often does after talking with Kate, anyway so right after that he started thinking about this whole breaking stuff argument, how’d it ever reach this level of recurrence, to the point that it sometimes seems like it’s really threatening to ruin his friendship or whatever it is now with her? He really should have thanked her for allowing him to stay with her for two nights—or should’ve said “three nights” to get a laugh from her—now berates himself for pretending he did. Berates, reprimands, scolds, whatever. Reproaches. So say what you really said: “Okay, I agreed not to argue, so I’m just gonna say that’s bullshit and hang up the phone”—something like that, anyway—and then, he’s almost sure, it was just last night, “Good night Alex,” “Good night Kathryn”—”Kathryn” because he’d recently started calling her Kathryn on the phone instead of Kate because he knew it made her laugh or pretend to or at least smile. But there was no “thank you for allowing.” Also there was some overlap between his “so I was” and her “I remember,” but he didn’t know how to convey that on the page or didn’t care at the time—but he got the gist of the conversation so on to an earlier one, about nine months ago.

More of a monologue than a conversation, or a diatribe, his: “Fuck you!” more vehemently than he’d said it in the past few years, as far as he can or could (he thinks) remember. “Fuck you for even insinuating that I come over here to break your shit on purpose!” then, “I don’t want to be here right now,” then, “Shit, shit, shit!” then, “I come over here to cook you dinner, probably the best dinner you’re going to”—or “gonna”—”eat the entire month and you’re seriously scolding me for possibly breaking a tiny plastic piece of your fire detector?” then, “Coincidence, Kate. Three things in two months, that’s a coincidence, and you treat it like it’s some kind of character flaw. Like I can’t help breaking your priceless things, two chairs and a fire detector, Jesus,” then, “Next time I come you’ll accuse me of breaking something before I take my fucking shoes off, no, no next time!” He couldn’t and can’t remember being or acting this angry and loud to someone other than himself since . . . he doesn’t know when. He was in her kitchen, small and narrow with a small round table at the end, next to a window. Sat down at the table. “Do what you want with the salmon, I’m eating Cheerios, I bought them anyway. May I have some milk?” She’d walked into the living room, probably sat down on the couch. Probably crying or about to. “May I have some of your milk, please, Kate?” No answer. “Kate! Fuck this, I’m going home,” and he did.

Got over it, as always, both apologized, he for yelling and cursing and she for implying that he broke her stuff on purpose. He didn’t break anything for the next two months, then she moved to St. Paul, came back to Madison for a friend’s wedding and stayed with him, he didn’t break anything, neither did she—before she came, on the phone, jokily: “You can stay here, but one rule, Kate: No breaking stuff”—and they got along great, agreed things hadn’t been this nice between them since the summer after they broke up for good, more than two years ago. Bliss, when they were together, as friends, the two years since the breakup, not bliss, but real happiness, which was rare for him during that period, and then, this was what, a month and a half ago, he went to St. Paul to visit some friends, including Kate, stayed with her, broke a shower curtain ring—was reaching for his towel and trying to steady himself in the tub by holding onto the shower curtain. She wasn’t home at the time. He put the broken ring, a boutique plastic one, on her coffee table, left for an art museum. Came back and she was there and as soon as she opened the door for him: “Can you explain this?”

“I don’t believe this is happening.”

“You did it again!”

“I—Kate I can’t believe you’re doing this.”

“Alex, you break stuff! You stay in my apartment and you break my stuff!” She’s wide-eyed. Incredulous. Says, “Three chairs, a fire detector—not to mention that fire you set in my oven—and now”— some overlap here, he started probably somewhere around her “set”—”I’m going for a walk,” and he did. To the hardware store three blocks away. Two and a half, maybe even two depending on how you count. Dialogue obviously imperfect, same with the salmon and Cheerios monologue nine months ago, but that should go without saying and will from now on. He thought as he walked about how he’d yelled at her about seven and a half months ago (though at the time he probably didn’t think about exactly how long ago it was) and how calm he’d stayed this time in comparison. Something close to self-congratulation, not even seething now, just calm, happy—not happy, necessarily, but calm and satisfied—on his way to the hardware store, where he’d buy some superglue to repair the shower curtain ring, Kate wouldn’t be so upset when he got back, he’d fix the ring, they’d have a levelheaded conversation, he’d make a joke about how this probably has to happen every few months in order for their dysfunctional relationship to continue to function (though he really thought there was no way she’d have the gall to bring it up in the future after this really quite mature gesture of friendship, unless as a joke, like making “breaking stuff” into a euphemism for something, as he and his roommates had made “checking stuff” into a euphemism for masturbation sophomore year in college, which he guesses is why the word sophomoric means what it does—not “why it means” that but semantic evidence, something) and they’d go back to being friends, which is more or less what happened. No way she’d have the balls to bring it up again.

But then, last night, gall, balls, so after he hung up the phone and did the relaxed cheek shake and thought about the conversation and earlier ones for awhile—maybe five minutes—he decided he’d write an email. One to end this ridiculous back-and-forth—though really it’s always Kate who brings it up (but she’d counter with But it’s always you who breaks stuff). He has all of his emails automatically saved when he sends them so this is verbatim unless he trips up as he transcribes it, but he’ll type carefully: “Date: Sun, 18 Apr 2006 23:30:37 -0800 (PST) / From: “Alex Keeler” <alexkeeler@ifp.com> / Subject: breaking stuff / To: “Kate Bergen” <bergen_partylikeits 18_99@hotmail.com> / Need to get this off my chest. Re: breaking stuff: there’s simply no reasonable case to be made against me. We can both agree that I don’t come to your apartment with the intention of breaking something. You suggested that I’m less careful because I’m not in my own apartment. This is false. Evidence: a month in Will’s parents’ apartment, in which nothing was broken, two and a half months plus another week at Monique and Benoit’s apartment—nothing broken, several days in Alex G’s parents’ apartment—nothing broken, several days in Rex’s two NYC apartments—nothing, and Annie and Aaron’s Brooklyn apt.—nothing again, several nights in Sara’s Minneapolis apt.—nothing, and a week in Sara’s SF apt.—nothing broken, and four nights in Krista’s apt.—nothing, and a few days in Alex Sandoz’ apt.—nothing, nothing, Kathryn. Those are cases within the past three years, two of them with other Alexes, and they don’t include the dozens of non-overnight non-Alex visits to such apartments as Steph’s, Nicole’s, Bryan and Kat’s, Will’s, Rex and Scott’s, Manny’s, Mike J’s, V’s, V’s boyfriend’s, my cousin Beth’s, my cousin Matt’s, and Sue Z Q’s. / Your only remaining argument, one you’ve at least hinted at, would be that I’m more careless only at YOUR apartment(s), or that I somehow subconsciously don’t care about your stuff. Well, that would be simply wrong: insofar as I think about stuff, I don’t care any more or less about yours than I do my own, or anyone else’s. I respect your property, and I even allow that your stuff is somewhat nicer than much of my stuff and many of my other friends’ stuff, a sentiment I think I’ve expressed to you in approving terms. / There have four incidents (correct me if I’m wrong): 1) January or February ‘05, Madison, broken chair; 2) April or May, Madison, burnt chair; 3) May or June, Madison, fire detector; 4) February ‘06, St. Paul, shower curtain ring. All of these items I’ve either paid for, offered to pay for, or fixed. For all of them I have been yelled at. Before these incidents, we knew and hung out with each other—and even for a period declared our mutual love—for about three years: during those three years, would you characterize me as someone prone to breaking stuff, mine or others’? / Coincidence, Kathryn. Weird coincidence. / We’re never to speak of this again. / Kathryn, / Alex.” Sees now he left out a “been,” third paragraph, first sentence, and doublechecks to make sure the error’s in the email and not just the transcription—it is—but doesn’t think that had much effect on the rhetorical impact of the email. Something like that would bother him if he saw it in an email he got, but not Kate, he’s pretty sure. Very sure. He forgot to mention that he’d not only started calling her Kathryn more often but that they’d both started using Kathryn as both a salutation and a goodbye—like Aloha or Shalom—and the joke was fresh enough and goofy enough that he was sure it’d make her laugh or at least smile and the email would be taken in the right spirit, which was serious but not too and over the top but in a funny way. He was right, Kate sent an email earlier today saying basically Okay, you’re right, no more talk about breaking stuff funny boy, and that should have ended it—he means all thoughts on both sides about breaking stuff—but then he started thinking and writing about the whole thing, and—why didn’t he remember this before? (hits himself on the side of the head with his palm)—there’s that essay about breaking stuff he wrote a few years ago. Four and a half. (He should mention he burnt the chair with a hot frying pan—salmon, for her, another fine meal ruined by her yelling at him, or, to be fair, by him being a little careless and then her yelling at him. No need to mention the inside jokes with some of the names in the email, not important.) He fishes up the essay from his files, thinks it might give him some ideas about things to add to what otherwise is just a pretty mundane account of a series of fairly minor arguments between exes, with a bit of contextualizing for the reader’s sake. It’s called “On Throwing Things.” It’s long, so best to summarize and quote. It starts out by saying he just got a phone call from someone who told him he’s going to have to work more than he’d planned in the next week. He (in the essay) hangs up the phone, feels angry, feels like throwing something, doesn’t, pours himself a glass of wine, feels like throwing it across the room, doesn’t, then ruminates on throwing things. Essay He’s thrown things in the past—a bat at a friend, a chessboard at his brother, pens, pencils, notebooks. Essay He thinks again about throwing the glass of wine across the room, “the wine spilling onto [his] floor and then kitchen table tablecloth, the glass rotating like a satellite in 2001: A Space Odyssey, then crashing against the wall, spitting centrifugal shards.” Essay He thinks about a story by a writer named Stephen Dixon in which the narrator (why not just say Dixon, since that’s who it certainly seems to be? to paraphrase his four-and-a-half-year younger self) imagines punching through a window out of anger for not winning a literary award. EH “thinks about the supreme prudence of a person who converts his destructive impulses into fodder for creative endeavor—how [he] would like to be such a person! [He] took a sip of wine and set it down on an end table. There would be no throwing tonight.” But then EH thinks about how in some of the throwing-things cases there was a long period of deliberation and hesitation between the initial anger and the act of throwing, and how in these cases it still felt orgasmic—he uses that word—to throw whatever he threw. The essay ends—best to just quote the end: “You may think that these kinds of tedious-deliberation-spawned throwing incidents might not afford the same gush of satisfaction as more spontaneous hurls. Not so: anger and frustration can take a long time to dissipate. It is almost never too late to throw something. Which means it is not too late for me to throw my glass of wine. [He]”—but why not drop the third- for first-person substitutions?—“I am sitting on my loveseat. There is a quarter-full glass of cheap Shiraz-Cabernet sitting on an end table to my left. My heart is beating very fast! I pick up the glass of wine. I throw it against the wall”—with a paragraph break between “something” and “Which.”

So—any insight or instruction here, vis-à-vis breaking Kate’s stuff? His essay deals with breaking stuff intentionally, while his recurring argument with Kate—which seems like it won’t recur after last night’s email and her response today, though there’s no telling with her and him—was about breaking stuff unintentionally (though Kate might say half-intentionally or subconsciously intentionally). But he’s broken stuff intentionally in the past. Thrown stuff. Besides the bat, chessboard, pens, pencils and notebooks, he’s thrown books, guitar picks, T-shirts, tennis rackets, crumpled up pieces of paper, an empty marjoram container—though most of that stuff didn’t break, except maybe a couple pencils and a book—The Ghost Writer, by Philip Roth—which tore and which he now regrets throwing. And he’s never actually thrown anything at someone, he just thought saying so would make for a more interesting essay. “So,” Kate might say, “just more evidence that your suppressed anger manifests itself in breaking my stuff.” “Okay, Anna Freud,” he’d say—”Anna” because Kate’s a woman. And he still gives no credence to her argument, even if it only applies to his breaking her stuff and no one else’s, since his relationship with her is fraught and often filled with unspoken or displaced annoyance, not to say anger, not to say malice, and much more so than his relationship with any of the people he mentioned in his email (Sara maybe excepted), so she may have brought up the breaking stuff stuff for any number of reasons, but then maybe he really does break stuff because he’s suppressing anger or something similar or even, still, admit it, lust—a point she could have made in her email response today but didn’t. Which means she’ll probably bring it up like a month from now (she’ll be wrong), as this argument, like so many others, not the least of which was the one about whether or not they should stay together when they were a couple—they broke up three times, four by her count, before the last one two and a half years ago—seems to be predictable. Periodic. Nothing he can do about it. (Temptation to do something literarily or linguistically interesting with “breaking stuff” and “breaking up” and maybe even “broken hearts.” Any possibility of that ruined by including this thought here.)

This is becoming more rant-like than he wanted it to be. He actually really likes Kate—and this was supposed to be a story about breaking stuff, all of the stuff he’s broken over the years and especially the last few months (and here he could have said “and also all of the women he’s broken up with” or “and also all of the times he and Kate broke up” if he hadn’t closed the door or gate on that narrative path with the above parenthetical). Bring it back to that. He breaks stuff, it’s true, and not just Kate’s. But more stuff than average? In the past month he’s broken a Bunsen burner and a wine glass (both at the same party, science-themed, and he was drunk and dancing, which is no excuse—but he certainly harbored no anger or bitterness against the host (that was for you, Kate), and . . . . . . that’s it. Except for maybe some toothpicks and matches, etc., which shouldn’t count, he’s pretty sure that’s it. Conclusion: no evidence of either breaking-stuff aggression or sheer clumsiness—and, though this isn’t the point, Kate has no case against him. And he’s actually still in love with her. And he wrote the “Throwing Things” essay a year ago, he just said it was four and a half years to distance himself from a piece he now dislikes. And he never threw The Ghost Writer, though there were times while he was reading it that he wanted to. And the reason he said “a writer named Stephen Dixon” was to hide or obfuscate the fact that he’s not only familiar with Dixon’s work but holds it in high regard or just “likes it,” and not only to hide that but also that he thought this whole story was and still is way too stylistically similar to a Dixon story he just read, and used and is still using too many of the same tricks Dixon uses in that story and a lot of his other fiction (and “tricks” is the word Dixon would use, has used in his stories)—long paragraphs, self-corrective sentences, dropping pronouns and articles from beginnings of sentences, other kinds of sentence fragments, self-directives, real or apparent evidence of searching for the right word, dramatically collapsing time, slipping into the conditional, leaving in or planting apparent errors and later correcting them, acknowledging the work as fiction—up to and including this trick of pushing himself or pretending to push himself to a higher level of honesty or transparency. And he changed all the names in the email to conceal their real identities. And Kate’s name isn’t Kate. And his name isn’t Alex. And Alex is me. And me isn’t he, and she isn’t she, and we aren’t we. And most but not all of the conversations with the character I call Kate really happened, though the dialogue only approximates reality, though I admitted that before. And, though I didn’t mention it in my essay, it took me about 45 minutes after I threw the glass to clean up the shards from the floor and wipe off the wine from the wall. And if Kate were to read this she’d call it more evidence for my vanity. And she’d be right. And that’s part of why I love her. And I believe in love. And this is getting too confessional—not confessional exactly but muddled—not muddled exactly but directionless. Muddled. In other words worthless. I chuck my laptop out the window. Not really, but now. Not really, I need it to email Kate about the possibility of staying three nights instead of two. And to suggest other things. And it’s never worth it to break stuff on purpose.



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