It’s Not Home Until Somebody Hates You:
A “How Did I Get Here Again?” Essay
We weren’t arguing when the phone call came. We’d argued before it, but by the time the phone began ringing, we were on the bed.
She liked being on top, facing away from me. She liked the control it gave her, and she liked how I could bring my arms around and touch her. I liked it, too, the way her long hair fell on my chest when she arched her back; the way the muscles in her arms tensed as she pushed her hands further down into the mattress.
The phone rang, and I looked up but didn’t say anything. I could see the both of us in the mirror on the wall.
Afterward, we lay on top of the covers, and I waited until it seemed like it’d be OK to get up and walk into the other room. I knew who had called: a friend who wasn’t a friend yet, offering me a job at a new magazine. The answer didn’t require thought.
I’d move to New York City in two weeks, and the girl loved me enough to pretend to be happy.
It was quiet in the car on the way back to her house. “If I’d known it could end so quickly,” she said, “I wouldn’t have worried so much about the stupid little things.”
“We’ll make it work,” I said.
“It’s not going to be the same,” she said. “It’s not going to work.”
“Of course it can work,” I said. “Don’t be so negative.”
“Don’t get mad,” she said. “You’re the one who’s leaving.”
We went back and forth like that for the rest of the ride, until we got there, and then it was all tears and apologies and promises.
For the first eight months I lived in New York, I returned home every weekend to have sex, argue, and then have more sex.
On those weekends, we never managed to be direct. Rather, a conversation that began Why didn’t you try my soup? would, over the course of the night, slough off the unnecessary words and become why didn’t you try?
She worked in two languages: one of sighs and silences and antagonistic comments, and the other of warm praise, so subtle and pure that I still believe some of the things she said. The balance of the two provided the ebb and flow necessary to keep the relationship going as long as it did.
But by the time it endedÑreally endedÑthere’d been so many threats and insults and ultimatums that exhaustion created a stalemate. We were like boxers in the 13th round, still conscious but unable to raise our arms. One of the last times we were together, I fell asleep while we were talking.
My trips home every weekend left me little time to make friends, so when I started to stay in Manhattan, there wasn’t much to do other than wander the streets.
All those strangers doing their stranger things; it was like paging through a library of yearbooks from schools I never attended. Nothing could make you feel more insignificant. And at the end of the day, I’d return to a room big enough to hold four cubicles and wonder how long things could be like this.
Across the hall lived a couple whose hobbies seemed to be eating Chinese food and having loud sex. Thursday nights at 11:00 p.m., they were like clockwork. Sometimes, when she got really vocal, I’d stand in the hall with other tenants, marveling. The guys in 2 J thought it was funny. The woman in 2 G thought it was disrespectful. I dismissed it as a parlor trickÑfleeting. They’d have their problems soon enough, and then things would quiet down.
A few weeks later, I heard the couple fighting — just as loud if not louder than when they made love. I listened. It was a monster of a fight, a full-out slugfest about all the big ones: respect, jobs, money, parents. The noise engulfed me. I went out into the hall and sat on the floor next to their apartment.
I sat there for twenty minutes, pretending to be on my cell phone, then their door swung open and the girl stormed out, shouting and cursing and crying. She slammed the door shut and stood there for a moment, staring up at the florescent lights and struggling to catch her breath with a series of abrupt snorts, like the kind a child makes when trying to tell a parent what happened. She saw me and said, “What the fuck are you looking at?”
“Excuse me,” I said. “I’m talking to someone.” Then I returned the silent phone to my ear and said, “Sorry, some crazy neighbor was giving me shit.”
The girl made her way to the center of the hallway and waited for the elevator.
Around that time, I’d read somewhere that the secret to getting someone to think they love you is to occupy their thoughts. As the girl stabbed at the elevator button, I thought about how this fight was all she’d think about for days. And I don’t blame her if she did; it was all I thought about for days.
After that first fight, more followed, not just in my building but all through the city. I saw a man grab a bouquet of flowers away from a girl and throw them under a passing taxi. I saw a girl in a bright pink overcoat tell a guy she’d slept with his brother. They were everywhere. I’d turn a corner and walk into a big glowing quarrel. The energy would hit me like the warm air that passed up from the subway, and I’d feel jealous. I’d think, There’s more to their lives than there is to mine.
Was this new? Were these fights always there, and I’d never seen them? Had I blocked them out somehow? I didn’t know, but now that my eyes were open, I took every opportunity to watchÑeven when it meant hearing only one side of the argument.
Cell phones have made it possible for people to argue with their loved ones at any time and any place. It’s something you can pick up from half a block away: someone pacing back and forth on the corner, screaming through the satellites. I take out my street map and pretend to study it while admiring the spectacle out of the corner of my eye. The hand movements, the yelling, the pleading, only to spin and repeat it all in the next four steps in the opposite direction. Part soliloquy, part shadow boxing, it’s one of the main reasons I still carry my street map.
The highlight of my fight — watching phase came on a Sunday morning at the Au Bon Pain at the corner of 5th Avenue and 15th Street. A man sat two tables away from me and yelled into his phone: “You don’t want to deal with the drama. Of course you don’t. You’re incapable of dealing with anything serious. What? This is boring you? Talking about us bores you? This is so fucked up. You are so fucked up.”
I sat there with my notepad and recorded every word.
The man knew he couldn’t sustain his pace, so he backed off. His voice lowered, and he began a series of inquiries. I’d come to recognize this type of questioning — So that’s more important? You didn’t think about me when you did that? It’s like the Socratic method for all those who feel wronged.
With a second wind, he began again: “Well, I’ll never drink coffee that you made ever again. No, that’s not what this is about. It’s about how if you have a guest over, you’d go out of your way to make coffee. But if I ask, it’s always such a huge fucking process. NoÉNoÉNo, that’s not what I want. I want this moment to mean something.”
I thought we were in for another solid fifteen minutes, but then the selfish coffee monger must have said something that crossed the line. The man hung up his phone and threw it across the room in a way that made me wonder if he was left-handed or right-handed. His eyes were clear. His chest swelled and reduced with each breath. Never before had I seen someone so turned on.
The man had wanted this moment to mean something, and it was clear it had. Shit, it had meant something to me. For days, I told and retold the story of that argument. With every telling, it got better. I remembered new parts of it. People responded with stories of their own — fights they’ve seen and fights they’d been in. They were some of the best conversations I’d had since moving.
With the positive response, it crossed my mind that there could be more to this. Perhaps, I thought, I should invest in some long-range recording equipment. A cult following could form. People would trade for arguments the way hippies traded bootleg concert tapes: Oh, you have the one from the corner of Broadway and Broome from the spring of 2005? How’s the sound quality?
After a few weeks, though, I grew bored. Most fights, I learned, follow the same structure: there is a victim a nd an asshole. It’s the goal of the victim to change the asshole, which is usually done by trying to prove how shitty a person they are. In turn, it’s the goal of the asshole to change the victim by proving that either (1) the victim is overreacting; (2) the victim is guilty of the same, or an equally offensive, transgression; or (3) that they (the asshole) is actually a good person, which can be seen if the victim considers matters on a completely different set of criteria.
And the only thing that differentiates these arguments are (1) the individuals’ abilities to debate; and (2) their willingness to lie and say Yes, I will change.
Along with the boredom came anxiousness. I’ve never been good at just watching something. In 1984 when I first saw The Karate Kid, I went home and kicked and chopped at everything I came up against. Chairs, closet doors, vacuum cleaners, they all felt my wrath. This was no different. So one Saturday night, with nothing else to do, I decided to go out and get into the mix.
If you’ve never tried before, drawing a complete stranger into a heated conversation can be tough. The main obstacle for me was my nature. I’ve spent the majority of my life avoiding confrontation. I’d developed an acute sense of diplomacy, become adept at reading social cues and recognizing boundaries. And it’s hard to turn your back on all that conditioning, to break through those rules you’ve created for yourself.
The other challenge was a matter a finding the right balance in my antagonism. If you’re too weak, you’ll get ignored. (Anyone can be rude; there’s nothing really interesting about it.) But if you go too far, you end up with a drink in your face, or some guy who spits when he talks poking you in the chest — both of which can lead to good stories, but it wasn’t what I was looking for. I wanted to bring somebody in and keep them for a while. I wanted someone to become invested in the exchange and, in turn, reveal themselves with passion. In short, I wanted to have a shared experience.
On my first attempts, I was flying blind, but over time I came to realize the virtue in being unapologetic. To do it right, you have to say something so outlandish and devoid of sensitivity that the person is unable to develop a complete sense of anger — they feel too sorry you don’t know any better.
In some cases, people will smile — they’ll think you’re being ironic. For some sad reason, most people born between 1968 and 1988 have come to believe that irony and pretending not to care are cool things. Don’t let them off easy by smiling back. Sit there and let the discord sink in. If they take the bait, they’ll attempt to explain why you’re wrong. And then you’re off to the races.
That first Saturday night, I walked the streets for hours. Every fifteen or twenty minutes, I’d walk into a bar, chicken out, and then leave. At 2:00 a.m., I stopped into a place two blocks from my apartment.
I sat at the bar and ordered a drink. Three chairs down sat a girl in a black tank top. Her shoulders and arms were covered with creatures you’d expect to see on a binder that belongs to a high-school Dungeons-and-Dragons fanatic, all detailed in dramatic shades of ink. I knew exactly what I’d say.
Nerves shook my body. “Hey,” I said. “Do you think it’s superficial if a guy were to not date a girl because she had a tattoo?”
She looked at me like I’d asked if I could urinate in front of her. She said, “I think that’s the stupidest fucking thing I’ve ever heard.”
I’d hit pay dirt.
“Are we talking about you?” she asked.
“No,” I said. “It’s a friend.”
“Yeah, right,” she said. “What’s the matter? Do you think it would interfere with your career path?”
Wow. She’d insulted me. (She’d said “career path” the way a person says something they’d put finger quotes around.) Sure, it was only a jab, but at least she’d gotten worked up enough to throw it. I never thought things would go so well. We’d started a collaboration of sorts.
It also felt good to get someone’s honest, unfiltered impression of me. Snobby? Genteel? A politician? White bread? If that’s the worst a girl with a burning phoenix ascending her arm could do, then I figured things would be OK.
We went back and forth for a while about the practicality of tattoos, and then I said, “Let me ask you this: If a guy had “George Bush Rules” tattooed on his neck, would you date him?”
“Somebody I’d date wouldn’t have a tattoo like that.”
“So you’re saying it’s a matter of taste?” I asked.
“Yeah,” she said.
“Well,” I said. “Aren’t tattoos in general a matter of taste? What’s the difference? Where do you draw the line?”
By some stroke of luck, I’d cornered her with logic.
“Look,” she said. If you get a tattoo advocating George Bush, you’re an asshole. And if you don’t date a girl because she has a tattoo, then you’re also an asshole.”
That felt like the end of the conversation. But she kept looking at me, waiting for something to happen next. When I look back at it, I’m sure we could have talked for longer, but I went blank.
“Thanks,” I said. “That’s all I needed to know.” I gave her a smile and she looked both annoyed and puzzled.
Our exchange lasted no longer than ten minutes. There was no screaming or hyperbolic hand gestures. To anyone else in the bar, it seemed as unremarkable as if I’d asked her the time. But I was charged up. My heart raced. The moment played and replayed in my head. And that’s when I got angry at not talking to her longer. Sure, she probably thought I was repulsive, but we’d disagreed, judged each other, been open. There was nothing left to be tentative about — only potential to go in a different direction. Who knows? Maybe we could have been friends. But I’d turned my back on it.
I knew I wouldn’t be able to get to sleep, so I went to two more bars and asked three more people (two guys and a girl, all tattooed) a similar variation of the question I’d asked the other girl. The responses ranged from “Go away” to “I hate you” to “You’ve had this debate before, haven’t you?”
It won’t come as a surprise when I tell you that no friends were made that night, or on similar nights that followed. When I told people the stories, they wondered about what kind of point I was trying to make. I can’t say there is a specific moral to be gleaned; that’s not my style. I’ve never sought lessons or answers to life, just moments that prove I’ve lived it.
What I can say is this: More than anything else, those nights served as an exercise to break through the gift wrapping of diplomacy (some would say clumsy sincerity) that had diluted my character for so long.
I needed that openness I’d shared with some — with the girl from home, especially — but not many. And while it was great that those friends knew who I could be, they weren’t enough. I needed to face a certain fear head on. I needed to be wrong, uncouth, unlikable. Once, I’d done that, and seen that life goes on, that there’s no reputation to uphold, I could allow myself to follow the strange instincts I usually kept to myself.
When I did, interactions became more fun, more improvisational — those are stories for another time.
Some people get through things by drinking. Some people need to talk to a professional. Others go on retreats and learn fancy breathing techniques. I found peace by walking into bars and getting people to hate me. Then I was free, and I could call New York City home.
Ben Cake graduated from Kenyon College in May of 2001, four months before the collapse of the twin towers and the American job market. Since then, he has read a lot of books, filled a lot of journals, and slept on a lot of floors. After spending a very good year in Doylestown, PA, working for The Bucks County Writer and other local publications, he moved to New York City, where he works as a copy editor and lives in the Lower East Side. All signs of life are welcome.