The Perils of Ennui
I suppose the lesson is to never declare your life boring.
That’s exactly what I had done a week ago. A friend suggested I could write a memoir about my experience with unemployment. It’s not like I don’t have the time to work on a book, she said.
“But being unemployed is the least exciting thing that’s ever happened to me,” I replied. “Think about it: The major events of the last three weeks are 1) the public library changed its hours, 2) my trash smelled really bad, and 3) I’ve been considering cutting some bangs. I go to bed at nine. It’s not earth-shattering stuff. Who would want to read about it?” And then I uttered the fateful words: “My life is just too boring.”
And as though those words struck a celestial gong, their reverberations echoed through the days to come. I had been stewing in ennui for weeks and then, without warning, I was shaking an unconscious stranger in the middle of the night.
Here’s how it came to be.
First, Genius and I decided it was probably best if we stopped seeing each other, since the long-distance thing wasn’t working. While I was picking up the soggy-tissue-and-chocolate-ice-cream wreckage from that disaster, puberty hit Daughter like a hormonal tidal wave. Before our household had a chance to dry out, I was offered some temporary, part-time work that helped bolster my diminishing bank account, but left me drained at the end of the day.
So when a good friend, whom I’ll call The Sass, suggested we get out of town for the evening on a warm Saturday, I practically leapt into her car. Daughter was staying over with some friends. The Sass and I headed north on the interstate without much of a plan besides leaving the city.
We ended up in Hallowell, 20 minutes from the town where I grew up. As a kid, I knew Hallowell as the place where all the gay men lived. This impression was formed partly because it was well-known that the owners of Slates restaurant were gay, and partly because of the plethora of antique shops that lined the narrow streets. I was both fascinated and horrified by the thought of a town populated by gay men. A common joke from my childhood demonstrates the dominant thinking of my peer group: “What do you do if you drop your wallet in Hallowell? Kick it all the way to Gardiner!” (Homophobic teenagers think bending over in the presence of gay men is an invitation to anal rape.)
Visiting Hallowell felt like paying a visit to my pre-coming-out self. The town hasn’t changed much in the decade I’ve been away. I could almost see that teenager with the big hair and heavy-metal t-shirt peering into the window of Slates with curiosity and fear, watching the pedestrians and trying to see my future self in them.
To complete the Central Maine Gay Tour, The Sass and I drove over to PJ’s — a gay bar in neighboring Augusta. PJ’s is a dank little dive on the shady end of Water Street, in a neighborhood that never recovered from the departure of the textile industry.
“Is it safe to walk here?” The Sass asked me. It didn’t look it. The fog-dampened brick-and-stone buildings loomed in the murk between widely spaced street lamps, and the tall rows of windows above us were dark. The sidewalks were deserted, but a bright orange sign beckoned us, so we braved the street and scampered in.
This place, too, brought back my adolescent self. After I came out, in high school, I would drive past this bar with a car-full of giggling peers, searching the stone doorway for a glimpse of Real Live Gays. In those days, there was no bright orange sign to guide in out-of-towners and newbies, so for many years I only knew the general location of the bar, and I had never been inside.
At 9 p.m. on a Saturday night, the shabby, spacious rooms were all but deserted. A few women played pool in one corner, and a wooden dance floor reflected spinning, colored lights into the empty space. The Sass and I took our beers out onto the patio and then played the longest game of pool in the history of humankind. We met some dykes from New York City who were visiting family, and talked with the owner of the bar — a straight, married man who opened the place 28 years ago. He said sometimes the place was really busy, but few people from the area come in. Maybe they, like teenage me, just drive by and thrill at the very existence of a gay bar.
More patrons trickled in over the next couple hours, but not enough to fill the three large rooms. We headed back to Portland around 11.
Walking home from a nightcap at a neighborhood bar, I was tired but satisfied, the week’s angst gone — spending time with my teenage self was, apparently, therapeutic. I figured the evening was over, and looked forward to my quiet house and wide, cool bed.
A block from my place, I saw a parked car with its interior lights on. Striding past, I bent down to look inside, then froze. There was a woman in the driver’s seat. She was slumped against the door, her neck at an awkward angle. I hesitated for a minute, then knocked on the passenger-side window. She didn’t move. I crossed to the driver’s side and knocked again, and then again, louder and harder. I could see she was breathing, but she didn’t seem to hear the loud pounding next to her ear. Her car keys dangled from her limp right hand.
The street was deserted and The Sass wasn’t answering her phone. I was alone. I leaned against the car and thought hard. I didn’t want to meddle. As far as I’m concerned, it’s great if people sleep in their cars after a night of heavy drinking instead of driving home. But I was also worried about her. She was really out, sitting in her unlocked car in the middle of the city, in the middle of the night. I thought about how awful I’d feel if something happened to her — alcohol poisoning, or if she woke up a little and decided to drive, or something worse — and I could have prevented it, but didn’t. She seemed really young, judging by her trendy haircut and clothes.
I opened the door.
She was completely unconscious. Her tangled hair obscured her face. I have an impression of blurred lipstick and sweaty bangs, but I couldn’t see her features. The car smelled strongly of her perfume, but not of alcohol.
I shook her shoulders and her head lolled. “Ma’am? Can I help you get home?” I asked her. “Do you live around here?”
She fell over onto the passenger seat. I called the police.
The officers, with their big flashlights and brusque hands, managed to wake her, and I went home. But I couldn’t stop thinking about this woman, wondering if she was OK, if she made it home or had to go to the hospital. I called the police station a few days later, and was informed the situation had been “cleared” that night, which means she was probably just taken home.
Since that weekend, I have been careful not to overvalue my free time. It’s a constant effort to see my days as half-full, rather than half-empty, but it’s worth it not to have a repeat of that particular lesson from the universe. I swear, I’ll take the ennui any day.
Jen Hodsdon’s column appears more-or-less monthly.