The Folded Clock: A Diary - by Heidi Julavits

Since I am suddenly ten years older than I was, it seems, one year ago, I decided to keep a diary. Like many people I kept a diary when I was young. Starting at age eight I wrote in this diary every day, and every day I began my entry with “Today I.” Today I went to school. Today I went to Andrea’s house. Today I played in the cemetery. Today I did nothing.

Crushes thrive in small spaces. Humans must be programmed to respond positively when faced with a small sampling of other humans in, say, caves. You’re stuck in a cave with three other people—all mankind, presumably, was hidden away in such tiny groups during the winters until the thaw—and so, in order for the species to thrive, you must biologically be compelled to fuck at least one person in your cave, despite the fact that, when surrounded by a plenitude of Neanderthals at the Neanderthal summer barbecue, none of them struck your fancy. Without the element of choice, and in conjunction with captivity, you find love, or at least you find lust.

I often compliment people on items of clothing they’re wearing because those items look great on them, not because I think they would look great on me. I compliment a woman on her ring when I can sense that she is proud of or excited to be wearing it. I want her to know that her positive feelings about herself are effectively communicated to me through the object transmitter she’s put on her body.

Conversations with strangers are so touching and intimate these days. Maybe it’s simply that any conversation with a stranger, since such conversations are more and more rare, represents something you almost didn’t do. I almost didn’t call you about toy stethoscopes. Every item I’ve ever bought online represents a conversation with a stranger I didn’t have. It’s only when the system fails that you talk to people. Or exchange heated e-mails.

The eBay seller and I talked about how difficult it was to solicit people’s sympathies over the long term. I admitted that I’m one of those people who harden in the face of other people’s incurable pain. I start to blame them for failing to get better. Not to defend myself, I told the eBay seller, but I probably needed for my own sake to believe that I might be to blame for any of my future sicknesses; if I ever became sick, I could find comfort knowing that I was the crux of the problem and thus also the cure. I could just stop being who I was and get better.

I have become a location buff, possibly because I have a really good sense of direction. My interests and desires can be mapped, or mapped back. In parks, when people veer from the established paths and cut new ones through the grass, these are called “desire lines.” Many people have the same desire when it comes to walking, which implies that we all want to get to the same place, and more quickly. Recently I desired to surround myself with the color cerulean. Six months later so did everyone else. Why did I crave cerulean just before everyone else craved cerulean? I try to crave colors and paths that other people do not crave. Right now, because I recently saw a ’60s French movie in which the lead actress is wearing a union suit, I am craving a union suit. I am certain that come next winter, everyone will be wearing union suits. Will I get credit for wanting them first? Why do I need credit for my desire? It’s ridiculous. But I do.

I am not by nature a manifesto writer, in that I do not want to hurt people’s feelings or make anyone feel left out. I once wrote a manifesto, in which I tried so hard to be unbiased and fair. I suspect now that if I’d been rabidly biased and wickedly unfair, I’d have been better heard.

As is frequently my response when a person reaches out to me, and this reaching out deeply touches me, and even honors me, I do not reciprocate. I never responded to Durga. Whatever connection she sought, I did not allow it.

I enjoy a misogynist so long as they have a wicked sense of humor and know, on some level, that they’re pigs. This is why I enjoy Philip Roth but not Saul Bellow or James Salter. I recall a time in my midtwenties dating career when a suitor, typically around the third date, would give me a James Salter book. Salter articulated these suitors’ internal lives (or their fantasy of their internal lives) without their needing to. Inside, they saw themselves as earnestly arty fighter pilots with souls too deep for any girl to plumb. Salter was their intimacy shortcut. They could hand me a Salter book—supposedly a “gift”—and say without saying, This is me. I might someday say stuff like “Women fall in love when they get to know you. Men are just the opposite. When they finally know you they’re ready to leave.” I appreciated the overture; it prompted me to be expedient in breaking off with these men. Salter helped me see so clearly the unendurable life these men and I would have together, not ever laughing about totally unfunny things.

Certain recent encounters with very rich friends (people who were rich from birth) have confirmed: we are, on a basic psychological level, different people, and these differences can rankle me morally. My moral rankle, however, is complicated. It’s disingenuous. It’s a form of self-loathing. Because for many years, I wished more than anything that I had been born rich. My family was middle-class and rich by the standards of many, including my friends. But I knew my family could be much, much richer. As an eight-year-old my fantasy was concrete, modest, and thus not beyond the realm of possibility, except that it completely was. I knew, even as a kid, that a belief in one’s ceaseless entitlement could not be acquired later in life. Even if I managed to become rich, I would always be faking entitlement. Whatever. I was happy to fake it.

At a certain point, however, wealth—not money but lots of money—started to represent, ironically, the inverse of possibility. It seemed oppressive; it changed people’s circuitry. Soon I would be dating a broke PhD student with a disregard for money so entrenched that he would spend a semester living rent-free in a tent pitched on the concrete floor of a friend’s garage. I learned to be a different person through him, and maybe I accomplished this on my own, but it doesn’t, even at a remove of a few decades, feel that way. I needed guidance. I was still at that point where a boyfriend was an opportunity to try out different identities, not just an opportunity to have sex and be loved. As my male friend in graduate school once said, “Men want a relationship, but women expect a world.” I don’t think, in other words, that my expectations were atypical, or that I was atypically using men as a means to better, or simply alter, because my goals had changed, my circumstances. According to this friend, I was behaving like every other woman he knew. I’ve never considered whether or not I provided the men I dated a new identity to try out. What would it have been? I was blonde and clever and fun, but I can’t imagine that I changed a man’s world as they often changed, or promised to change, mine.

I know people often fail to find disgusting or shameful the revealing grime and sloth of their own lives. My friend with the apartment covered, quite impressively evenly, with a layer of dog fur, makes no excuses for her dog or for herself. My friend with the kitchen that stinks of compost from a filthy plastic bucket kept next to the stack of clean dishes. My friend with the long black hair (not her hair—whose hair is it?) cemented by dried toothpaste globs to the bathroom sink. These people are not apologetic. I am apologetic. They are not trying to cover up anything, as I am trying, quite literally, to cover up the daily evidence of our poor judgment, our pure exhaustion.

She often makes me anxious when I am with her. She has a hunger for adventure so extreme that my usual hunger for adventure becomes, due to reactionary prudence, squelched. If she suggests we do something, then I know it is my job to wonder, Why is this probably a very bad idea?

As often happens in situations when reality becomes terrifyingly stark, I avoid panic by allowing metaphor to take over. It’s not I am headed up a steep and slippery mountain road and I cannot turn around but my life is a novel written by an author who might want me to entertainingly die. My friend and I were no longer people in a car; we were characters in a plot. As characters in a plot, there was no escaping the fact that our story would have an ending. An outcome.

I do not think it unwise to view all children as future tattletales. Such a perspective forces you to better (and with greater care) behave, lest your conduct be chronicled later, and prove revealing in ways you did not intend.

Growing up, I slept in a room that faced west. From the age of four to the age of eighteen, I opened my eyes to the same message: something better was happening elsewhere. I had to seek out the sun (presuming there was one); otherwise I had to wait for it to come to me. All sorts of bogus long-term psychological effects could be generated from such regular conditioning. To awake to the west has, maybe, imprinted me with certain personality traits. I am always thinking: where I am is not as good as where I could be. I must, from the moment I open my eyes, be on the move. This sounds like an optimistic mind-set. It’s not. It’s neurotic. It’s crazy-making. Especially since I don’t particularly like the morning sun I feel so compelled to seek. Regardless, I only feel at home in places that face west.

Today I tried again to read the Goncourts. I know I said I’d definitively given up on them, but this is the beauty or the lameness of me—there’s no shortage of second chances. Every petty, embittered person should want to date me. Every petty, embittered person should write a book I hate because I’ll keep trying to read it.

Recently I read a piece by Julian Barnes about the painter Lucian Freud. Barnes writes, In one version of the philosophy of the self, we all operate at some point on a line between the twin poles of episodicism and narrativism. The distinction is existential not moral. Episodicists see and feel little connection between the different parts of their life, have a more fragmentary sense of life, and tend not to believe in the concept of free will. Narrativists feel and see constant connectivity, an enduring self, and acknowledge free will as the instrument which forges their self and their connectedness. Narrativists feel responsibility for their actions and guilt over their failures; episodicists think that one thing happens, and then another thing happens…. Narrativists tend to find episodicists selfish and irresponsible; while episodicists tend to find narrativists boring and bourgeois. These two approaches might typify our differences as people, this woman and I. She’s episodic, I’m narrative. I see connections everywhere. She’s a woman who has lived many fantastic yet disparate and self-canceling lives. She’s a rebooter, a category shape-shifter. I entered a track in my twenties and stayed on it and on it. She’s my occasional fantasy; I don’t know if I’m hers. But I suspect this is why our relationship is strained occasionally. We remind each other of who we aren’t. I am herself betrayed. She is myself betrayed.

Bookshelves of summerhouses are filled with dishy nonsense, I said. They indicate how a person understands time that is meant to be wasted.

He can weather a belief reversal—one based on science, granted—without doubting the soundness of his faith or his mind. I, however, am often insecure about what I believe. So, most of the time, is my husband. “Insecure” is maybe not the right word to describe us. We are avid second-guessers because, though we are both professors and thus must act as authorities in certain situations, we find certainty a turnoff. We love to take a conviction we might, for a moment, entertain, and then turn it on its head and make a joke about it. This joking is our form of the Socratic method. Our jokes are interrogations that help us to figure out what we care about, and where our faith, at the moment, lies.

Today I went drinking with a former student who asked me, “Are you proud of your hands?” I thought what a good question this was. As a professor, I am always struggling to ask good questions. How can a question be an invitation, not a test? Questions with answers make people scared. If you’re an up-rounder, 100 percent of possible responses to questions with answers are incorrect. The odds totally favor wrongness. Good questions can initiate a surprising wend toward an answer that is neither right nor wrong, but can be judged as strong or weak or honest or dishonest on the basis of the steps that brought the answerer there. It is a built thing. Sometimes what it builds is bullshit, but the bullshit can be so well-constructed that it has integrity, a pattern integrity. This can be worth admiring.

Islands make people competitive, maybe because the subconscious fear of shipwreck and survival permeates even the most casual outing. Who will lead the masses when the weather turns and the food runs out? Who will be sacrificed to feed the starving useful people, the ones who can fish and make fires and sing morale-building sea shanties? I often contemplate my odds of surviving a shipwreck and how to improve them. When I was breast-feeding, I nurtured a lot of shipwreck fantasies. What if I were shipwrecked with my baby and ten adults on an island with a large box of Clark Bars? Wouldn’t it be best if I ate the Clark Bars and breast-fed everyone on the island, because my body would transform the worthless sugar into valuable fat and protein? Wouldn’t that prove to be the wisest survival strategy, and wouldn’t that guarantee I’d never be killed for food?

Whenever I am trapped in a situation, I think of how this entrapment might qualify as work. I am so worried about ever wasting time that I cannot let any small amount of it escape without defining for it a use or a purpose or extracting from it a lasting lesson.

There was something so relaxed and easygoing about the artist. She seemed happy just having people around, even if she didn’t speak or interact with us much. Maybe she made friends this way, by fast-forwarding to the point where no one needed to perform, when not every second required that someone behave like a genius worth getting to know better.