I am leaning back in my seat in the auditorium in the liberal arts
building, listening to my friend Brad give his PhD defense talk. It is
an hour long, and almost everyone from the biology department is here to
listen to it. He worked on gene flow in mountain lions. He is a genius.
After the talk, he answers questions from the audience. A professor
raises his hand and asks, "Well, what did you find out about mountain
lions that disperse but donít cause any gene flow?"
This is professor-speak for "What about the mountain lions who leave
their homes and travel for miles searching for that one special mountain
lion, but they donít find that one lion, or they get rejected, or beat
up by other mountain lions, so they end up not getting to mate and have
baby mountain lions and they have to go back home having not carried
their genes on because they are losers?"
My friend Brad replies, "You mean frustrated dispersal?" Yes, there
is a term for this, and it is frustrated dispersal. I turn and look at
my friend Jana who is slumped down in the orange cloth-covered seat next
"Fucking story of my life," she mutters, shaking her head.
Brad starts talking again, but I am not listening.
Dan and I sit at a bar drinking beer. It is one of those very well
lit bars where people donít smoke. I remember reading books that had
fern bars in them. This
place is like a fern bar without the ferns. There are two televisions
over the bar, one with the weather channel playing and one with ESPN
extreme sports. On the weather channel, pictures of tornadoes flash. And
then pictures of a woman, the kind of picture where the woman was with
other people, but they have taken those people out of the picture and
just close upped on this womanís face because she is dead. The next
camera shot is of a policeman, and then more tornado pictures.
Later on, when Dan and I are making out, I pull back and realize
there is blood all over him because my nose is bleeding. Suddenly I feel
hyperbolically and overly-dramatically alone.
I donít think that a mountain lion has ever crept through the snow
and peered into a smoky bar while looking for dinner and said to itself,
"Now that is the saddest case of frustrated dispersal I have ever seen,"
as he watches a pick-up line fall flat or some really bad dancing. And I
canít say that I feel like some mighty mountain lion running through the
trees at night, or sitting on a red cliff watching deer pass by below. I
am not regal in my loneliness. If anything, I am alternately bored with
it and entertained by it. I track my loneliness like a lab experiment. I
canít make it out to be a huge burden or something romantically
translucent: I am not in a room in the tropics with mosquito netting
over my bed or in Russia looking at some old dusty framed picture. I am
just here, white, pale, grub-like, often sitting in my car in traffic
and staring out at the pink sunsets hitting the mountain in my town.
Let me get back to this whole Dan thing. He is the latest embodiment
of my frustrated dispersal. But I have an even better name for what I
have been doing lately, and I explain it to my friends as "subsistence
dating." Subsistence dating is like subsistence agriculture. Letís say
prime, relationship-oriented men are eggplants or something that takes
even longer to grow, like grapes or pears. I date things that are
not-so-prime and grow easily in poor soil: cabbage, zucchinis, tomatoes.
A lot of them are frost damaged and vitamin deficient. There are
advantages to this kind of dating, but the major disadvantage is that it
can lead to emotional scurvy.
I am in a restaurant talking to a friend. She asks me if I am dating.
I say not really and she says, "Arenít you lonely?"
"Well, no. But I do sort of see this guy every once in a while." She
nods at my answer.
Subsistence dating is shameful in a way, because what is the point in
dating people if it isnít going anywhere? I feel like I am an
anthropologist when I go out with Dan. He talks about things I donít
know much about: racing mountain bikes, fixing motorcycles, photography,
Los Angeles. He drinks a lot, which makes me nervous and he has very
blue eyes that are sort of mesmerizing, especially when he is talking
about picking cholla cactus out of his leg after taking a header during
a 24 hour mountain bike ride. He has also introduced me to some new
vocabulary words. For instance "sick" in a complimentary way as in "She
is a sick snowboarder," meaning she is an excellent snowboarder.
Also, the word "twat," (a word I have spent my whole life avoiding) as
in "Stop twatting around," meaning to stop messing around.
When I was in love awhile back, I thought the scariest thing about it
was feeling claustrophobic and overwhelmed by the person I was with: the
way he lived, the habits he had. Or facing his anger at my own habits
(my old boyfriend used to become strangely infuriated whenever I would
pick things up at the grocery store, decide I didnít want them, and set
them down wherever instead of taking the time to put them back where
they belonged. After we broke up, this activity of mine increased
exponentially in a way that can only be described as vengeful). Now, I
realize that the clichť is true, you can be surrounded by people and
feel lonely. You can be alone and not feel lonely. You can stare into
someoneís face and feel lonely and loved at the same time.
I constantly have dreams about the aforementioned old boyfriend. They
are stress dreams where his mother is yelling at me, or I am trying to
call him but I canít remember his area code and I keep dialing all these
permutations of numbers into my phone to no avail. The other night I
dreamt that this old boyfriend and I were lying in bed, and I could feel
his breath behind me. But then the dream devolved and somehow I was in a
Lutheran church wearing a terrible over-laced second-hand wedding dress
and I didnít even know who I was getting married to, and there was a
choir of children singing and they were all wearing flying nun outfits
like miniature Sally Fieldses.
This past summer I went to a conference in Washington D.C. where my
friend Kate met up with me. Kate is a person who knows people,
which is great because you can go anywhere with her and have a place to
stay. While in D.C. she introduced me to Brian, a phenomenally tall,
skinny and pale friend of hers. I liked him immediately because as I was
sitting in a bar listening to some guy blather on about Goya, Brian came
up to me and whispered in my ear, "That guy is a blowhard." This was
before I found out Brian thought almost everyone was a blowhard. Brian
worked in a bookstore, and he was the typical indie bookstore snob you
run into in cities: he hated anything that was too popular and he
worshipped the esoteric (David Sedaris sucked. The Hours sucked.
John Ashbery rocked).
Brian was so skinny that when he was lying on his side in bed, his
shoulder blades stuck out strangely and looked like niches to set
statues of the Virgin Mary on. His paleness was not from him trying to
look hip (which he did try to do), it was because he had ulcerative
colitis and had nearly died from it. He still suffered from terrible
anemia, and he had huge white scars on his stomach from all of his past
surgeries. I donít know if this added to his appeal to me. I liked him
because he seemed like he lived half on this earth, and half somewhere
else because he had been so sick. And he was sarcastic as hell which I
Later in the summer I was back out in D.C. and I stayed with Brian.
It was absolutely and totally terrible. I met his friends, all four
billion of them. They were all smart and chic but most of them seemed to
have too much time on their hands. Growing up in a huge city makes you
so bored with everything. I thought that if his friends liked me,
Brian would also like me. I was so tired from trying to make
conversation and seem with it ("Oh, no, I havenít heard of that band.
Oh, no, I havenít read that book. What do I do? Apparently I travel
around and feel alienatedÖ") that I actually started crying in the
airport when I left from a strange mix of exhaustion and relief. While
Brian was at work, I found refuge riding the Metro and visiting the
Smithsonian Natural History Museum. When I looked at all of the bones of
bats, platypuses, anteaters, and tigers lovingly glued together and
hanging in their cases, I felt better. My favorite place was the insect
room where a huge case of live honey pot ants hung serenely from the top
of their dirt tunnels, with their amber abdomens swollen like raindrops.
After my failed D.C. Brian attempt, I escaped to Nova Scotia, Canada
with my parents and watched the lake in front of our cabin for a few
weeks. I was spoiled to have such a nice place to be melancholy. I
canoed and ate fish, I bought a huge bike at a garage sale and rode it
around and practiced my loon calls. I drank gin and tonics with my
parentsí friends as the sun set on the lake and we talked about how many
pike were in the lake and what wildflowers were blooming now.
Subsistence dating. Truth be told I originally thought it would be
easier than really dating. Or I thought it would tide me over, like a
pop tart before lunch. But so far I have been wrong.
My friend Amy told me about her neighbor who sleep walked. She could
see him from her window. He was a big man, and once in while, he
trundled out through his sliding glass door onto the back patio and laid
down there underneath the wind chimes. Then while he was lying on his
back, asleep, he would lift his arm up and slowly wave it back and forth
under the Boston winter sky. Amy told me that the other night she called
her boyfriend, a postdoc in some kind of scary division of physics at
Berkeley. He was lying in bed when she called and she asked, "What are
you thinking about?" "Chromodynamics," he said, which is the physics of
how colors work.
I read a New York Times article awhile back about happiness.
Psychologists have found that whatever you think will make you happy
will not make you as happy as you think it will. On the flip side,
whatever you think will truly make you miserable will not be as bad as
you think it will be. Strangely, though, they never mentioned that some
things will make you happier than you think they will. And conversely,
having a nosebleed on some random guy can make you sadder than it
Over New Yearís I went to Colorado with friends. It snowed like a
bitch the whole time we were there. One day, I put on snowshoes and
climbed the hill behind the house we were renting. The snow was sieving
down with the wind, and the flakes stuck to my eyelashes, blurring my
vision. The hill was steep and I had to force each step to make sure the
crampons of my snowshoes got purchase on the hill. I was by myself and I
pretended that I was an arctic explorer, traversing land that had never
been traveled through conditions that were barely survivable. "I am
amazing! I am an explorer! I am one with the elements!" I felt
euphoricóthe euphoria of being outside and alone, of feeling the
strength of my body as I climbed and paused and breathed the cold air
and then kept climbing. When I reached the top of the hill, I found a
picnic bench. I just convinced myself that aliens had put it there. I
was still an arctic explorer. I charged back down the hill, my steps
huge, a snow rooster tailing behind my strides. This is the kind of
dispersal I likeó I leave for somewhere and I come back with nothing
tangible, but am happier for it.
As I was driving to school the other day, I was next to a taxi with
two Amish girls in the backseat. I think they were Amishóthey were
wearing white hats that were flat on the top and perched on the back of
their heads, covering their hair. They kept turning and pointing at the
buildings they were driving past and talking to each other. I wondered
if their hats were made out of paper or heavily starched cloth. I
wondered how hard it was to keep the hats on or how difficult it was to
keep them that brilliant white. I began thinking about religion and how
I was never raised with it. My friends Andrea and Amy the other day were
talking: "I donít believe in God," said Amy. "Me neither," said Andrea,
"but I believe in something. I believe in my spirituality." Chances are,
this is not what the girls in the taxi were talking about as they
pointed out at the giant Barnes and Noble as they drove past it.
I heard on the radio that the number one way to stay in love is to be
deluded about your partnerís weaknesses and failings and for them to be
equally deluded about yours. I have told my friends this and it offends
some of them. I admit that I felt slightly offended when I first heard
it, but then I decided it wasnít as bad as it sounded. If I could ignore
the way someoneís jaw clicked when they ate, or the fact that they liked
their dog more than me, things might work out better. The other night at
my friend Amyís, we worked on craft projects. Amy worked on a card for
her boyfriend, Bala worked with watercolors, I practiced making origami
boxes. Eventually I painted a little and put down what I thought was the
equation for love (though Bala did not agree, and Amy agreed somewhat):
Where love (represented by L) is equal to the sum of the
possibilities of love matches between and among the sexes, multiplied by
the overworked and over clichťd heart, and then multiplied by the
natural log (I just put that in there to look smart) of d, which
is equal to delusion divided by k which is equal to kindness. Of
course I realize this still needs some work. Some of us want diamonds.
Some of us want spankings, and I donít have room for all of the
The other day skiing, my friend Andrea turned to me and said, "Donít
you ever just want to lie down in the snow? Itís so quiet. But Iím
afraid I would fall asleep." She wasnít saying this in a strange
suicidal way; she was saying it because sometimes everything is so loud
and crowded that the snow is a refuge. I pictured myself lying in the
snow, staring at the blue sky with my skis pointing straight up towards
the sun. I would have a moment of cold, clear sweet silence with no Dans
or Brians or nosebleeds, school or cars. Just snow and its sweet
Jessica Girard works in a genetics research
lab in Flagstaff, Arizona. She recently had an article published in the
June edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on
her master's project, which dealt with prairie dogs and plague. She is
now part of a project working on willow flycatchers, migratory birds who
summer in southern Arizona. She is unsure about their dating habits.