In defense of vices

“You need a vice,” my friend told me. “And working out doesn’t count.”

I was on the bus, where I pretty much always am. Even when I lived in L.A., I took public transit; just me and the migrant workers. I learned some Spanish and read Jack Halberstam and Tolstoy. Not at the same time, unfortunately. (Wouldn’t it be great if Count Alexei Kirillovich Vronsky was all, “Agriculture,” and suddenly Halberstam saunters through and says, “Alex, can I call you Alex? We must validate different kinds of concepts and move to different archives, and take seriously what Foucault calls subjugated knowledge. Rather then just saying that subjugated knowledge is knowledge that has been suppressed, and that we must dig deep to find it—we need to understand subjugated knowledge as a form of thinking that has been suppressed, ¿Qué ves?” But enough about my sex fantasies.)

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In Chicago, I’m not the only English speaker on the bus, which means I have to be careful what I say into my cellphone.

“How about sex?” This is me being careful.

“You need another person for that, which is part of your problem,” my friend said.

“Who says I have a problem?”

“You just told me—and I’m quoting—’My brain wakes up before I do. It’s like some horrible fear-machine no, like a kid pulling at my skirts; I wish I could have myself cryogenically frozen, just for a week, just to catch a break from the constant nattering.’”

“What do you have, a photographic memory or something? Go memorize the phonebook.”

“Mmm, dated.”

“Go memorize the internet.”

“Better. But what about you?”

“Maybe I should start smoking pot.”

“I’m pretty sure that’s ironic.”

“Be really sure, because last time we argued about irony and I was on the bus, the driver had to ask me to get off. You know, because of the shouting.”

“You start smoking pot just after breaking up with a pothead? If that’s not ironic, what is?”

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“A black fly in your chardonnay?”

“Too VH1 Pop-Up Video.”

“Talk about dated.”

“The point is, you need an activity that stops you from thinking, helps you relax. Maybe you should drink.”

People are always suggesting I drink or smoke pot. Well-meaning people. Friends who legitimately empathize about the cyclone of words forever sweeping my mind. Or maybe they just want me to stop texting them at two in the morning to ask if there’s a difference between loving someone and being in love or do they ever think that maybe people shouldn’t be allowed to fly, because to cross the US in mere hours when it took our ancestors months disrupts the human brain, or did they know the universe is rushing away from itself and at some point the whole thing will break apart, in which case, why the fuck do we all care so much about Duck Dynasty?

Part of the problem may be that I have no hobbies. I’ve found a way to monetize everything I do for fun. Except finger banging. Alone, the closest I get to just hanging out is when I listen to podcasts while I’m synthesizing press releases for one of my three trillion jobs (Be a writer, they said.). Watching television makes me feel guilty. I cannot walk anywhere slowly, even places I don’t want to go. My showers are scheduled: shaving my legs should should take no more then three minutes, and when I shampoo, I like to multi-task by remembering embarrassing things I said in junior high. Even when I hang out with friends, it’s not like we’re knitting or going dancing or home brewing beer. We’re talking. We’re analyzing. We’re processing. My life, theirs, Khloe Kardashian’s. My downtime exhausts me.

“What do you do to decompress?” I ask my friend.

“Red wine,” she says.

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Sometimes I wish I drank. Just like sometimes I wish I believed in God. I’m certain both proclivities provide the same genre of relief. Each involves ritual. Each lifts you from your mundane day-to-day. Pot-smoking might be even more beneficial, but I worry that instead of doing like my ex did and coming up with a genius solution to world hunger (xerox donuts), I’d take the paranoid route. I’m already fairly certain everyone is whispering about me. I can only imagine how weed might exacerbate my fears.

Interestingly, I’ve tended to date addicts. And by “interestingly,” of course I mean “self-destructively,” and by “tended” I mean four out of five exes. Sometimes I worry my history speaks to some serious personality flaw, and maybe it does. Sometimes I think it’s simply an odds game—the fact is, most people turn to some substance to relax or escape the confines of their minds. Is this more of an issue in the queer community? Maybe. Though lesbians are less likely to meet in bars now then in earlier times, you know, like during the Bronze Age (“Excuse me, is this seat taken?” “Why no, it isn’t.” “Lucky for me. What are you drinking out of your Barbotine cup?” “Whiskey.” “Grand. Can I light your cigarette or offer you some alloyed tin?”) It’s arguable that the stresses related to simply existing as a queer woman in the world are greater than those with which straight women grapple. But who wants to get into a game of Victim oneupmanship? Certainly not me. Frankly, I don’t have the energy, what with my racing thoughts, low wages and hacking cough, which are, I’m willing to bet, much worse than yours.

“Red wine makes my anus feel loose,” I tell my friend. And just like that, the back of the bus clears. “I think running should count.”

“Not the way you do it.”

She’s right. Somehow four miles a day became seven. That’s on top of the dance classes that used to be fun, the yoga which renders me aching for days and spinning which I loved until I got certified to teach and now I can’t take a class without judging the instructor for contraindicated movements or for referring to Revolutions Per Minute as RPMS. (If you don’t understand, I’m not explaining. Nor can we be friends. Because, grammar.) Is a set schedule a vice? What about chewing too much gum, so much that the left side of my jaw is swollen all the time. What about shop lifting or stepping on ants? I did both when I was a kid. I also made lists of every word I’d ever heard Lily Tomlin say—I’m not sure why. It made sense at the time.

“Today at Starbucks when I asked for a refill with a new teabag, mint, the barista said, ‘No steamed soy this time?’ And I said ‘No, only for green tea,’ and he said, ‘You’ve got a system.’ And I said, ‘For everything.’”

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“Maybe your systems are your vice,” my friend says. “Hey, is that irony?”

“I think it’s just unfortunate. You sure it can’t be sex?”

“You need something you can do alone, that lulls you, that distracts you, that helps you unplug.”

“How about texting?” I gaze through the dirty bus window.

“You can’t do that alone.”

“But I feel alone when I do it. I feel like I’m not doing anything real. Like I’m playing hangman with the voices in my head.”

“How very Son of Sam.”

“Better than Jeffery Dahmer, which side note: Can you believe he’s referenced in that Katy Perry song?”

“I’ve never been prouder to be from Milwaukee. What’s the line again?”

“Eat your heart out/like Jeffery Dahmer.”

“Eating. That’s another way I relax. Carbs and cheese.”

Eating might be my vice if I let it. So might shopping. But eating to silence racing thoughts would make me feel unhealthy, out of control. And shopping costs money which I don’t have. (See above re: writer.) But both seem more feasible than alcohol or God. Not eating is another possibility. I’ve tried that one before. I’d like to avoid it if possible though; what’s romantic at 17, at 30-something seems only broken. I wish I liked solitaire. I wish I watched TV or played video games or cared what a play action pass was. I wish I was less careful, less regimented less intent on self-control.

“Maybe vice is the wrong word. Or maybe words are my vice.”

Outside the window, the streets are wet, winter-spare.

“Hello?” I glance at my phone. The call has dropped. In my contacts, I select my friend’s name. Finger poised over the phone icon, I pause. I’m five minutes from my stop. Maybe I can close my eyes for just five minutes. Maybe I can concentrate on breathing. Maybe just for five minutes I can let go of the words which both sustain and entrap me. They’ll still be there when I arrive.

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