What The Adults Are Talking About
by Nick Jaina
Since I was young I've wanted to know about the dark places. I've wanted to know what the adults are talking about. I'd walk outside of my parents' house late on warm nights and lie down in our street. It wasn't exactly rural, but we didn't have streetlights or sidewalks, so the nights felt human. I would press my face into the asphalt that was still warm from that day's sun and think about how every street in the United States ultimately connects with every other, like little streams connecting to the sea. If they didn't all connect they'd have no utility. I'd dream of driving along those roads, playing music at little run-down clubs in towns where the trees shush in the wind. It's amazing how the idea of bad gigs used to seem romantic.
But what are the adults talking about? I still don't really know. Even if you make your way into a certain group of adults, there is always another group just over there having more intriguing conversations. What are they saying? They smoke European cigarettes and they are tall and lean. They sometimes look over at me while they're talking. What does that mean?
When I was a kid I used to listen in on the conversations of my parents' friends at their dinner parties. Adult conversation to a child might as well be a foreign language. Adults are always talking about something boring and serious. Always so serious. They never talk about playing with toys or anything fun.
Those aren't the adults I want to talk to. I want to talk to the ones on the edge of the fold. The ones who cast their eyes downward, lean back in wooden chairs, who have worked to find the meaning of their name and always get questioned for it. "Why do you always do that? Why can't you just be normal?"
Two French girls have been staying in this guest house in Medellin. As a heterosexual man I'm supposed to see two French girls and automatically think, "Heh-HEH. Two French girls. Nice." Like just because menage a trois is a French phrase, that means something for me?
But still there is a certain energy you get from the opposite sex, even if it's completely harmless and non-sexual, that you wouldn't get from, say, German men. The French girls were sitting on hammocks one night painting their nails. I asked them if they would paint my two pinkie fingers red. They did and giggled as they did it. "Beautiful. Colorful. You," they said in un-accented English, mocking those cosmetic commercials. "Because I'm worth it," I said back.
I had been looking for a Spanish tutor. I met Luis at the arepa window near the bus station. I was coming back from playing music in the park and I had a guitar slung over my shoulder. After I ordered an arepa in Spanish he asked me in English where I was from and I was initially diappointed to know that in speaking two words of Spanish it was obvious that I didn't know the language. He told me that if I needed help with anything while in town I should let him know. I told him that I was trying to learn Spanish. He said to come back the next day and he could help.
He seemed well-intentioned on the first meeting, but when I came back it was of course more complicated. I felt more of a neediness from him. Generally that means either sex or money. He told me he had lived in New York for years and he had been addicted to heroin. He said he'd been clean for three months now, but he wasn't allowed to go back to the U.S. because he had gotten caught trying to smuggle drugs into the States. They took his U.S. citizenship papers and were holding them for seven years. He thought he could give them back after that, but he wasn't sure.
He also said he was gay. I was instantly in that strange spot of trying to casually but clearly assert my heterosexuality. Luis asked if I was married or had a girlfriend. How do you say that you haven't had a girlfriend in a long time but that you definitely like sex with women without that sounding weird and defensive? "I like women. I like women," I said, and even I started to question whether that was true.
He was a nice guy but I just didn't want to feel like he wanted something that I couldn't possibly give him.
A week later another of my roommates had a birthday party in the guest house. He invited all his friends over, who turned out to all be German bodybuidlers. I tried socializing for a bit but was finding no common ground. One of them looked over at me and smiled.
"What is your name again?"
"And why do you have red little fingers?"
I looked down at my hands. "Oh yeah."
I thought about Luis and addiction. It has taken me a long time to realize that although I'm not addicted to anything illegal I am still a junkie. Addiction comes from being terrified of that loneliness of being by yourself in the universe and what lengths you will go to not feel that loneliness. You can numb it and bury it in so many different ways. Some of those methods are encouraged and some of them are discouraged, but they are all still addictions. If you want a really direct and honest way to kill the loneliness you can inject drugs into your body intravenously. It's more honest because it displays the vulnerability it takes to say that you can't take the world and you need to feel it less. My drug has been love. Not even a good kind of love, but a vast misconception of what love should be. I was always afraid that I didn't deserve it and so I tried to cheat my way into it. I would become attached to a person that I adored and I wouldn't let go even if they weren't interested in being with me that way, believing I could get something out of it just by being around them. It's the equivalent of Han Solo in Return of the Jedi tapping a Storm Trooper on the shoulder and running the other way so he can sneak into the base. Cheap, ineffective, and utterly beneath him. Plus I certainly didn't have any Ewoks to back me up.
But I was really just wanting to know what the adults were talking about. I knew that I needed to gain experiences so I could participate in the conversation, but if I wasn't in the conversation I wouldn't know what I needed to experience. Maybe they were whispering about sex, or about a certain kind of sex. A way of having sex or a position or something. Something I'd never tried because I didn't even know about it. Or they were talking about drugs, the drugs I'd never done or even been offered.
That desire just to belong is what creates so many addictions, when really there is nothing over there that isn't already over here. There isn't even such a place as over there.
I went back to see Luis and we talked in Spanish. He said I spoke well, which may or may not have been true. I just wanted to have an interaction with him where I didn't feel like he was wanting something from me. He asked what I was doing later and if I'd want to walk around. I told him I needed to write, which is always a convenient excuse that nobody can ever really call you on. I thanked him for his time and shook his hand and started to walk away. I felt okay about the interaction, but then he stopped me and said he had one more question. He asked if he could borrow some money. I felt trapped, but I wanted to thank him for his time. I gave him 20 pesos and in my mind I decided that I wouldn't expect him to pay me back and that he could just have it.
I thought about how women must come upon awkward situations like this all the time. You want to believe that people have genuine intentions, but it's hard to know when you're really safe. And you start to feel self-centered for even thinking that someone might be desiring you in an unwanted way.
Conversing with Luis in Spanish was truly helpful. I had learned a lot of words but I had trouble simply believing that I was able to speak Spanish. Sometimes you need someone just to talk slowly and give you confidence.
It's a confidence that everyone needs to start anything. Everyone has that same memory of learning to ride a bike and feeling like you could do it when your dad's hand was guiding you. Then suddenly you were pedaling and you looked back and saw that he wasn't holding on anymore.
Some days while I'm writing it feels like some strong confident hand is there to help me. Other times it feels like I'm Bruce Willis in Die Hard crawling over broken glass with bare feet. But I've realized that the wonderful or terrible feelings I have when I'm writing don't attach themselves permanently to the words when I read them back the next day. Whether I was exuberant or struggling, the words all seem to have the same general quality to them. Which tells me in the good times to not get so full of myself and it tells me in the bad times to just keep going, keep crawling through that glass, because it's getting me somewhere.
I don't know if I could ever ride my bike fast enough to escape that horrible voice, though. The real goal would be to kill the ego. Because the ego is like Jason or Chucky in that every time you think you've got it beat and you give a sigh of relief, wipe the dirt off your hands and turn to embrace a loved one, an icy vengeful hand bursts out of the ground and you know that there will be a sequel and you will be hunted again.
The problem in this particular horror story is of course the calls are coming from inside the house. The ego feels so indistinguishibly you that it's hard to know what to kill. And that's what leads so many people to kill every part of themselves just to escape that torturing voice in their heads. It's as effective as cancer treatments that wage war on all the cells in the body. Likewise, heroin is great at killing that horrible voice, but shit man, it kills so much else.
With my heroin-- which was not cooked poppy seeds in a syringe, but dreaming of impossible love-- I cleverly figured out a way to get the excitement and validation of a true connectionwithout having the actual obligation to put in the work to understand and support someone. And all the while I was fooling myself in thinking that I desperately longed for someone to really reciprocate my affections, but it was a trap. Anyone who would turn to face me and really be there was suddenly unattractive. The real quality I admired in a person was how artfully they ran away. Again, I always imagined them to be running away to have a secret conversation with those adults about sex and drugs, further plunging the needle in my body.
What is illuminating about learning a second language is that it's like running a new operating system on your computer. Problems that you always assumed were inherent with the software are now understood to be flaws with the hardware. If the ego can't express itself through cleverness and turns of phrases, what resources does it have? Anything that can be communicated without language is similarly without ego. When we were painting our nails and quoting lines from cosmetic commercials, we were communicating on a different level than if we had a philosophical conversaion. Likewise when we walked around a hill at the top of the city, and I did a little shuffle step as we descended the stairs, making them laugh. In those moments I picture the ego silently choking to death. All of those things don't require any language or advanced intellgence. The ego is sitting there thinking, why did I go to all the trouble becoming so awesome if this shit is effective?
The hallmarks of addiction are not public vulnerability but just that frightening need to quiet that critical voice in your head and the fear of sitting alone with yourself while the whole universe is out there having fun. But, as my friend Eric says, "All the best parties in the world are in Spanish." A universe of adults talking about adult things, deciding the fate of our future, reveling in the joys of the body, not thinking, not succumbing to those voices. It's an insane trap and one I want to be free from, but I don't want to do it through corner-cutting anymore. I want to sit by myself with that voice, even if it's like having dinner with a total asshole.
The night when Luis asked to borrow money I came home and Virginia, one of the French girls, was standing in the doorway of her bedroom talking to another housemate. I asked her if she had any nail polish remover. The red fingernails didn't seem funny anymore.