ERIC A BUCKLEY

ALTERNATIVE SUMMER 

I was standing crosswise, surfing the nasty get-the-job-done NYC metro, sharing the floor with massing and un-massing thousands unlucky enough to experience the indignity of being one of those thousands. Thousands of pairs of shoes and feet leaving no mark but scuff marks, tracking grime into each other’s consciousness. Tax and Finance won’t make it clean, quiet and high tech, like it could be. I had a friend who lives in the Chelsea projects who never rode the subway because his attitude was that the world owed him and that he was too good for it, though he never had any of his own money and smelled un-showered. He only took taxies, which my mom portrayed as a guilt-ridden luxury when I was little in the 1980s, and it was raining, and men and women were dressed in grey trench coats, and the taxis were boxy Chevys and MTA blue super hard plastic busses would come hissing, creaking and swaying down the lane like drunken train cars on their gassed up shocks.   

Under my leisure uniform I was wearing the same naked body in which I woke this morning.  Past the apex of youth you wake up stinking from decay, with desiccated eyes, needing water; test your nether regions and you smell like a grown up monkey, a parent—it’s disturbing, you need to pass cold water from the fridge into your mouth and hot water from the shower over your body. To turn into a shivery wet rat. To transform back into a human being when you dry off.

I never went to work that summer, or performed any tasks I didn’t want to, ever again, until the idea of work was like a recurring nightmare that I had put behind me using psychotherapy. This is the other me; the better me: good things happened to this me, because he's that kind of person.  You can be your better version if you let yourself. You can choose to be one of the favored. On the subway everyone thinks they are special, and that they deserve to be riding in a limousine, and someday they will be if the joints of the universe stay set and keep motoring away toward righteousness.  

The first morning of alternative summer I went to my office, purged my personal file, and said goodbye. Drool fell from my co-workers’ open mouths as I strode out the front door for the last time.  

When I got downtown, I headed straight to my partner’s spot and explained to him about my alternative summer. I said how none of this was really happening; how we were inside a little fantasy I was having while I was actually on the subway train to work, in a hypnogogic state between gut-wrenching stress and fatigue-inducing IBS. I described getting off the train at my stop; a horde of other wage slaves climbing Sisyphean subway steps; what it’s like to realize you’re climbing while facing a lady’s backside that isn’t sexy to you the way a lady’s backside should be, especially while it’s in motion to propel a being like it was specifically designed for. Then that mindfulness winter cold hits you with when you reach street level, waiting for a traffic light to change as stovepipes pass one of the steam system’s orange-swirled chimneys, wearing my insipid winter coat over my business suit wrinkled with last week, wishing I could fret about my dry cleaner’s failure but really fretting about my professional failures—maybe a Monday morning. I was completely honest with my partner. He said: “Just go with it.” So I asked him to plan our night. He said: “This is exciting, Buckley. We don’t have to wait!” Then he proceeded to remind me how, with or without a plan, “everything that you want is standing in reserve for you.”  

I decided to test out myself whether I could apply my partner’s teachings, on the streets, alone.  Could I do it my way, without my partner stepping in front of me to shake hands with people he knows; or, when he doesn’t know them, announcing “hey girls” deadpan at a venue where everyone thinks they are neat simply for being there, or direct me “now we’re going to do such and so,” and smashing down his credit card and I’m nodding in confusion; or smashing a perpetrator in the head with his trademark double jab, right cross, duck just to see, and then another right, and standing back as they crumple to the floor with his peanut gallery materializing and somebody’s calling “ohhhhhhh”; or calling out his address to new friends as he expurgates, turns on his heals, and I rush after him, mobilizing, mumbling questions. I once, tried to explain. I said to him: “you respond to an arbitrary situation like it was naturally absolute.” He goes: “whatever Buck.”  

My test for myself is sort of like when the main character puts himself in a dojo to practice dream Kung-fu after getting enlightened, which brings on the character Morpheus in ‘The Matrix’. I remember in the movie when it says the main character needs to practice fighting. Ok. A couple of minutes in I nudged my friend’s shoulder; I whispered: “Oh my God, it’s like we always tried to figure out how to represent a link between Kung-fu fighting and Western philosophy… they have it.” Young guys across America were swatting and nudging and turning to each other in the Cineplex in that moment when they forgot about girls and their own existences of dressing and acting cool and were transported back to their prepubescent days of ninjas and marital arts. This hero must practice fighting because he woke up from the fake world and stopped believing in its rules as a result of which he can do awesome moves none of us can do so long as we believe. While unrealistic moves in Kung-fu movies used to read as stupid magic or low production values, in The Matrix they were a manifestation of the hero’s Nietzschian enlightenment that all of us could achieve as we shifted around in our carpeted lazy chairs grabbing at our giant waxy cups of diet coke, gobbling treats, and planning to hit the dojo.

So, from that summer situation—bright light, foot punishing asphalt, hot helmet of hair wet with sweat at its frontispiece, and gentle traffic backdrop in my ears, I searched out and found a training objective—an open bar. There within, waiting for me like a friendly character in a quest-oriented video game, was a bartender, polishing glasses or brass banisters with a rag or the bottom of his apron. He did not snap to attention, but continued with his chores. It signaled he possessed a talent for hospitality, which he would share with me using repartee and alcohol. In alternative summer I have the receiving gift. Those capable of giving and receiving jolly pleasure recognize each other instantly.  

Inside the bar, light blasting from windows picked up molecules of dust in the atmosphere, like a neutron bomb’s irradiation. I moved to a barstool. The bartender looked up at me: “Can I help you, sir?” I started to order something but he ignored me, pouring a glass from a plastic water bottle, which he had placed before me on his counter with a crack. We heard ice cubes ratting in there too. “You don’t need alcohol; it dumbs you down.” That’s what he said to me. I took a sip of his water, or whatever it was, and thanked him for his information, my words appearing in a text box at the top of the screen. “Ah”, he said. “That’s better already.” 

There was a girl who happened to be there alongside the bar. She was alone for some reason that usually doesn’t happen in real life. At first, when I noticed her, she was concentrating on her electronic device. She was way out on the bar’s horizon, several stools away from me. I thought she would leave now. But she was still here, talking to the bartender. A character on duty, he kept his stony face. But I heard her jokes. Since she was one of only three people in the room it was useless to go on ignoring her. Then something happened and I was next to her. She was wearing a ribbed, brushed cotton tank top with a bra strap sticking out here or there; nearby it; I felt I could feel her underarm sweat.  “Am I perverse, or just, you know: a red blooded American male?” I importuned the bartender, without looking at the girl.  He ignored me, and no text box appeared. There was something about the girl that I found attractive. It may have been her beautiful face and body. Maybe if I were built differently she would have been big into sports too. Still I hadn’t even brushed alongside her, let alone touched her under her skinny arms and shoulders. I wanted to do that—grab her under her arms and see what the hot day had done to her perfect animal self. I felt a gust of air when she whipped her hair from my side.  

After a while, the girl and I were both realizing it was time to go and we looked at each other. She said: “you know that first time with someone new and that time-to-go-look?” Are you kidding me. Of course! I was thinking about it. People live their whole lives together wishing they could repeat that one look at each other where you see eyes you already know but which are new.  

In alternative summer, between two winter Monday morning subway stops, underneath Midtown, you slumping there from having eaten too much Seroquel last night, and from habit-forming repetition of your life-errors, you eye-scanning fellow workers who are suffering from the same miseries as you, while avoiding eye contact with them, leaning against a pair of subway doors that you just got commanded by one of MTA’s disembodied voices to stand clear of, there in the decrepitude of a smashed and ruined life, there, underground, with limited cellular reception, you can do what you want to, repeat and explore your best parts of your life, with no time limit. The game engine is “open” not left-to-right scrolling. It recognizes you in the saddened crowd of survivors, knows you don’t deserve to be there (without saying anyone else does), and offers you the control pad to your own existence. It tells you earth is big, spins big from within, makes winter, cannot help it. That, as engineers discover, is how it was set up to work, billions of years ago. But see how the game engine’s creator fashioned you after his own image. For example, in the freezing cold of winter your body is closer to the grave and father from the star, yet your imagination sharpens.   

So the girl and I gathered ourselves up from our seats. The bartender, who still had zero customers besides us, said to us: “you guys ok? You will make it home in one piece this afternoon?” He gave us a sign - a wink or a nod or some such approval of our union. Then he started to recede into the background. A professional in this hospitality industry, he wished for us to continue on our way: “time to take the party elsewhere,” he muttered as he disappeared from view.  

On the streets my hand and her hand came to each other as magnets, defeating any embarrassment either of us might have had over starting to hold a virtual stranger’s hand.  

We walked hand-in-hand, craving an environment where our dopamine bubble might be safe in dimness and in shade and air-conditioned quietude, where we could really hear each other—talking, or breathing, and look at each other in wonder at how it could be this good, what the Creator had wrought, and if He wants to tell us why other than to enjoy one another, by all means He should, we’re ready to listen and obey. But we hear nothing from him, and meanwhile we have this.

Meanwhile, we found ourselves on a corner between Tribeca and West SoHo, near Varick Street. People on foot, and cars swirled around us—a calmly pulsating shell of urban movement. I backed up while she pressed forward until I felt the concrete of a building façade though my t-shirt. Her face and breath got close to mine. “What are we doing?” she said.   

“Well some guy with an income might empathize with a girl who he met, and who liked him and everything, if she didn’t know about the income, due to flattery.” To show she’d made the right choice he might hire a car to whisk her to the presidential suite at the Ritz.

“Um, yeah” she said, sarcastically.  “However, under the circumstances of alternative summer there’s no need for empathy. Let’s just go to my apartment.”  

This city makes it so easy to get from a location you’re finished with, to one you want to start with.  In this way Manhattan resembles a dream such as alternative summer. You peer into oncoming traffic and lo, a taxi’s free lights stand out like value. “Cabs, there’s cabs” you say. The girl darts into the roadway, hails one, he swerves right to box you in, you clamber into a backseat together, and she says an address where she lives. Taxi driver goes and you don’t think about it. Instead you ask her: “Being that you’re from Texas, I must ask you: Is New York, New York your top number one favorite place?” “Yeah, it is.”  “That makes me happy.” “Why?”  

A few minutes later, you turn onto on a side street, the girl moves around because a change is coming, there’s a beep from the taxi’s payment system, and he applies the break. In all your years born and raised, living and working in Manhattan you could swear you’ve never noticed this particular block before. I mean, you must have traversed it at some point, but you don’t have a specific memory of it. You follow the girl into a tenement vestibule. Buzzers buzz, keys turn, metal and glass doors are shoved open with efficient, practiced motions, and you squeak like basketball players on dirty green and white tiles. Up several flights of stairs; another door is keyed, and whoosh, you are inside a certain apartment. An air conditioner was left on; it has been working hard for you. The girl’s bed is unmade, her room a mess, her kitchen impassable. You dive into her bed headfirst, breathe in, and wait for a new smell to hit you.

What started as my first training mission in alternative summer has now morphed into something else. I was 8 hours at her apartment. During this time, my brain and I observed numerous physical details, as we mapped it. Personally, I was being with the girl. Objectively, facts of her random apartment got placed there in my memory, because that’s how my brain (and yours) works. She said: “Do you think you’ll remember this place one day, when I’m long gone from here?  My lease is up in a month.” This is weird because, then, when you want to forget your age and remember, what you do is call up these details, which have nothing whatsoever to do with what you were feeling, and really weren’t on your mind either, while you were there, one time, however recalling them is the only chance you have of travelling through the wormhole to be in the experience again, for a millisecond.  

I want to be exploring alternative summer, kind of like when you’re a kid, bored, with your best friend, on his carpet in “the den”, unbothered all afternoon. In front of you is a sleepover. You and he are playing an early console video game of the quest sub-specie. Bored, restless you decide to wander through the rooms that you’ve already beaten, all the way back to the very first room of the game.  

The old rooms are just there. The game engine doesn’t bar you from them; however it doesn’t particularly want you to be in them. The “game engine” will automatically generate a perfunctory enemy in old rooms from time to time, which you can easily kill. You are playing with the game’s machinery.