My Friend in St. Louis
When I was 17 I made friends with a 40-something dude on Myspace who invited me to start writing for his political blog. He enjoyed some of the short informal essays I’d posted to my own profile, and we were in several of the same Myspace groups, including an atheist/rationalist group of some kind. I can’t remember the name of it.
So I started writing for his blog. I crafted each piece very carefully, because I wanted to impress all the other writers that contributed. One was a professional sci-fi author. Another was a chemical engineer. Another was a parent and teacher from the man’s community. And then there was a young woman with flowing brown hair who wrote poetry. And a mousy young woman who wrote about tech. And mousy young me.
My blog posts got positive attention. I spent a lot of time in the comment sections, interacting with the other writers and the blog’s devoted readers. I had a few conference calls with the man who ran the blog and the chemical engineer. I’d sit in the parking lot of Giant Eagle grocery, on my tiny cell phone, in my mom’s car, chatting with them for an hour or two about the Bush administration. It was mostly pretty cool.
The man told me my writing was punchy, yet precise. He compared me to other writers he admired. He seemed certain I was destined for something great. I saved all his compliments in a word document, where I’d also pasted encouraging notes from English teachers and debate judges. I was about to go away to Ohio State and become an intellectual. It seemed like a world of ideas and discourse was unfurling before me, effortlessly.
I turned 18 and went to college. He invited me to go with him to a conference about journalism in the digital age. I almost did. My mom told me to lie to my grandparents about it, to not let them no. At the last moment, I decided not to go. It was too scary.
I kept writing. The summer when I started working on his blog, I would spend an hour or two drafting a piece in longhand on a legal pad while sitting on my mom’s porch. Then I’d re-read it and carefully transcribe it in Word, looking up references and links to add. Then I’d pour over it and fixing any phrase I found too informal, and restructured my arguments so they flowed and progressed better. I wrote several posts a week, and stressed out over each of them.
By the end of my first year of college, I was writing less frequently and more carelessly. I had other things to care about. Then I stopped doing it altogether. I was too wrapped up in my relationship, and too busy with school, work, grad school applications. The internet was changing. Everyone was on social media instead of distinct blogs. I read a lot of Digg and things like that.
I moved to Chicago. The man with the blog came to visit. We met downtown and he gave me a really slow gentle hug, like an old hippie. We walked through the park and he took photos of the skyline. He told me about sex problems he was having with his wife. I felt uncomfortable. I was 21. He and his wife hadn’t had sex in years and he was living in a separate room of the house, “like a monk”. He strained to say nice things about her — he settled on mentioning that she cooked their children very healthy food — but then went back to bemoaning his situation.
I gave him advice. He was 50 by then. I was 21. I told him some regurgitated Dan Savage-inspired crap about how in some cases cheating is not the worst thing a person can do. That if he was going crazy, he should tell his wife that it wasn’t a tenable situation. That he needed to be allowed to be nonmonogamous in his non-sexual marriage, or he’d need to break up.
He kept talking about how hard it was. How he wasn’t even picky. He would be with anyone about his age who wasn’t obese, he said. He was a very thin man and used to write lots of journal articles about his struggles with ice cream and his dieting philosophy. I let the comment slide at the time. I think the misogyny of it bothered me more, then, than the fat phobia, which was a personal failing on my part. He was just looking for a woman to fill a gap in his life and she needed to fit certain parameters of acceptability and that was that. He did mention she had to be halfway smart, though.
I kept a substantial physical distance from him the whole night. It was the same thing I did with my dissertation adviser, who once yelled at me over it: “I’m not going to bite you!” These men were my dead dad’s age and they were just as invasive, unwittingly, obliviously; so much so they’d be mad if you made them realize it. Maybe the man with the blog wasn’t like that, I don’t know. He was gentle, but I was still scared.
He invited me to his hotel room to see the view. I felt awful walking through the lobby with him, I could feel people’s eyes on us. I wondered what everyone thought. I am sure he didn’t think a thing of it. We got in the elevator alone. There was a TV playing CNN in the elevator. He and I traded some words about conspicuous consumption. His hotel room was on the top floor.
He urged me to go in before him. He told me to go to the window to see the view. He locked the door behind me. He turned the lights out. I was consumed with dread. All these years and this was how it was going to happen.
And nothing happened. He stood far away from me, by the door, and said “Look at that view. Don’t you think I’m a king in a castle? Or at least a prince?” and I stammered out a few awkward words about uh, yeah, look at that. And he turned the lights on. On his bed was a spread of manila folders. A court case he wanted to show me about. He was a lawyer and he fought exploitative cash advance places in St.Louis. He showed me a few court documents and I pretended to be impressed with all the good he’d done.
Sometime later he divorced his wife and started seeing a thin, blonde woman his age who loved to travel and smile for photographs. I’m sure she loves sharing hotel rooms with him and seeing the world. He stopped messaging me at some point. His daughter goes to a school in my town but he never wants to meet up when he comes by to visit. Probably because I rebuffed him so many times, and so dishonestly, every time after that. I always was too busy to see him. Just as I was always too busy to write for the blog.
He told me, on that visit, that there was nobody in the world who knew him as well as I did. I felt like I barely knew him at all. I’d read his blog. I knew how he felt about politics and that he preferred the term “human animals” to “human beings” and that he cut his hair with a Flow-bee, but I didn’t know him. And even then I thought asking a 21-year-old for live advice at age 50 was fucked up and sad.
The older I get the more aware of that I am. I look at 21-year-old’s now and I have to remind myself not to infantilize them too much, not to over-correct for the “respect” he tried to show me. I barely ask anyone for life advice. I hope I never make someone so uncomfortable. And if I do, I hope I at least realize it.