“Do you ever think the reason you’ve eschewed the traditional path is because you believe it has made your parents unhappy?” G said. Her mouth curved gently as I sat back against the smooth plastic seat. The plastic was comfortable against my bare legs, and the air felt cool after the hot murk of the platform.
“I hadn’t,' I said.
We were underground, on the NYC subway, our yearly summer trip together: this time to MOMA, Chinatown, seeing her family. Our subway car was nearly empty, swaying gently as darkness-light-darkness rushed in, disappeared through the windows, and silence welled up in me as I considered.
We’d been talking about goodness, freedom, obligation. Paths, hers and mine.
I’d said that I no longer consider myself to be a good person, which G protested, but it has been a relief, in a way, for me to know this. Helping me to forgive the mistakes of others in my past. Another fallen mask, slipped now to the floor.
Although I have been occasionally surprised at myself, at what I am capable of- I also feel more human, more accepting of everyone around me. More trusting, even, as now I’ve felt it as it happens- the adjustments that occur within you as you break your own rules. This too, is not evil.
There is no evil.
“I mean, what constitutes a good person anyway?” G said earlier, when we were milling around, still at the apartment, getting ready. Smoothing on sunscreen, eating berries, guzzling water.
I went into the bedroom to fuss with my bag. Honesty? “Selflessness,” I said.
“But nobody is utterly selfless, that’s impossible.”
“My parents are, though,” I said.
And isn’t it funny. As an artist, an outsider, you see all these shades of grey, and yet my parents still exist for me in black and white.
Even as the world continues to batter at them, they remain giving and brave.
My father, a solo family practitioner- the ever dwindling payments from the insurance companies, his patients increasingly filing for bankruptcy- yet he continues to accept firewood and cookies as payment. Young girls coming in for pregnancy tests, parents bringing in a troubled son: he writes it off. My father is jaded about big business, but never about people.
My mother, a teacher, mother of six, gives away everything she has. Her time and attention and love, always for others, never for herself.
They are giving trees.
And they are being ground to pieces in the machinery.
So to me, kindness and selflessness have come to seem unwise, to be in you at your peril, because my parents.
Which is yes, perhaps why I no longer feel pressure to be ‘good,’ why I’ve felt this strange relief to be ‘bad' after all. I’m not a serial killer, no, but sharp-elbowed, long-clawed, territorial, yes. Dishonest, manipulative. Not these things exclusively, but they are items in my cart.
G and I get to our stop and wander onto the platform, heading towards the stairs, and we pass a slightly bent, elderly woman with a fragile face. She was impeccable, wearing a lovely red and white print dress and ballet slippers; heading past us, her gaze glassed off in the way of New Yorkers. We smiled over at her, and then at each other when she’d gone, each of us thinking: “o I want to be like that- someday-!”
She didn't need our smiles. That was best of all. The way she walked, you imagined she was self-sufficient, out to please or impress no one.
New York: life in a city so big you constantly understood you were inconsequential, and so might as well heartily pursue your own private, irrelevant interests.
We climbed the stairs into the morning, into the shouting and buzz of Chinatown. Behind us, echoes from a man playing his mono-chord, and the sound of it became part of the heavy sunlight as we fitted into the crowd. Later I saw the old woman again, walking slower this time, smaller now for the scale around us. Her bags still empty.
“Maybe the real feminism would be maybe giving ourselves permission to be assholes, the way men have always done. That’s what it means to become a man, right? You become a fucking asshole. Maybe you come of age with the first shitty thing you do.”
Nura laughed. “That’s it, man, you’re on it.”
“But I dunno- maybe we’re being childish, not expecting enough of ourselves? Because maybe we should try to live up to our best self-”
“Maybe your best self is an asshole,” Nura said. “Free as a fuckin’ bird, man. What if that?”
“Do dudes even have these conversations?” I wondered, taking her arm, and we went back inside, hungry suddenly, and ate all the banana bread.
We were sitting on the counter, red-eyed and still giggling, when Cat finally came downstairs, still puffy with sleep.
“Hey baby, you remember that time you ate all the food on the camping trip?” I said as my husband opened the fridge, leaned into its cool air.
“Nng, yeah,” he said. “Then I vomited it all up, too.”
“Hah, well, I just realized that being with me is your penance,” I said.
“Did you guys eat all the fucking banana bread?!”
Pauline West's first novel, EVENING’S LAND, is winner of the Helene Wurlitzer Foundation Award and recipient of the Carol Marie Smith Memorial Scholarship for the NOEPE Center of Literary Arts.
Pauline West's books on Goodreads
Candlemoth: A Holy City Romance
ratings: 27 (avg rating 4.04)
ratings: 24 (avg rating 3.46)
Candlemoth Volume 2: How To Spend It
ratings: 10 (avg rating 4.40)
Candlemoth Book 3: A Twist of Fate
ratings: 6 (avg rating 4.17)
Stalker: A Gothic Thriller
ratings: 4 (avg rating 4.25)