Authors: Steve Martin
was writing, I barely looked up at Zandy, since I’d realized what a foolish
enterprise this was anyway. There is no pleasure in staking out a woman and
eyeing her endlessly. I get no more joy from looking at a Monet for twenty
minutes than I do after five. A glimpse of Zandy was all that was necessary,
and perhaps I used her as an excuse to get out of the house. I signed this
second essay using a pseudonym—Lenny Burns—and dropped it in the bin. I bought
some foam earplugs (not that I needed them, but at two dollars a dozen, they
were too cheap to pass up) and went home.
My ceiling is not
conducive to counting. Its texture is created by pulling the trowel flatly away
from the wet plaster, leaving a rippled surface, as though a baker had come in
and spread around vanilla icing with a spatula. Counting prefers symmetry of
some kind, though at my level of sophistication I can get around most
obstacles. The least interesting ceiling for me now is one that is practically
counted out already: squared-off acoustical tiles with regular punctures that
simply require a little multiplication on my part. Each tile has sixty-four
sound-absorbing holes times the easily calculated number of tiles in the
irregular ceiling—no tiles, no quadrants, no recurring punctures—takes a little
thought on my part to slice up, count, and quantify. Like an ocean, its surface
is irregular, but also like an ocean it’s easy to imagine an unbroken plane
just below the surface of the undulating waves. Once I can imagine an unbroken
plane, the bisecting and trisecting of my fairly square ceiling becomes much
easier. Triangles, rectangles, and interlocking parallelograms are all
superimposed over the ceiling, and in my mind they meld into the birthday-cake
frosting of the plaster.
problem with counting is that anything, any plane, any object, can be divided
infinitely, like the distance covered by Zeno’s tortoise heading for the finish
line. So it’s a problem knowing when to stop. If I’ve divided my ceiling into
sixty-four sections (sometimes irregular sections just to annoy myself), I
wonder whether to halve it again and again and again. But that’s not all. The
sections must be sliced up in three-dimensional space, too, so the numbers
become unmanageable very quickly. But that’s the thing about a brain: Plenty of
room for large numbers.
gotten some disbelieving stares when I’ve tried to explain this little habit of
mine to, say, a bus seatmate. I’ve watched a guy adjust his posture, or get up
and move back several rows, even if it meant he now sat next to someone else
who was clearly on the verge of some other kind of insanity. You should know,
however, that my habit of counting began early—I can’t remember if I was a teen
or bubbling under at age twelve. My mother was driving up Lone Star Avenue and
I was in the backseat. A gasoline truck pulled up next to us at a stoplight and
I became fixated on its giant tires. I noticed that even though the tires were
round, they still had four points: north, south, east, and west. And when the
light changed and the truck started rolling, the north, south, east, and west
points of the tire remained constant, that the tire essentially rolled right
through them. This gave me immeasurable satisfaction. When the next truck came
by, I watched the tires rotate while its polar quadrants remained fixed. Soon,
this tendency became a habit, then a compulsion. Eventually the habit
compounded and not only tires, but vases, plates, lawns, and living rooms were
dissected and strung with imaginary grids.
remember only one incident of this habit prior to my teen years. Eight years
old, I sat with my parents in our darkened living room watching TV. My father
muttered something to me, and my response was slow. Perhaps intentionally slow.
I replied disinterestedly, “Huh?” with hardly enough breath to make it
audible. My father’s fist uppercut the underside of his dinner tray, sending it
flying, and he rose and turned toward me, whipping his belt from his waist. My
mind froze him in action and I saw, like ice cracking, a bifurcating line run
from his head to his feet. Next, a horizontal line split him at midpoint, then
the rest of the lines appeared, dividing him into eighths, sixteenths,
thirty-seconds, and so on. I don’t remember what happened next.
My counting habit
continued into college, where its real import, purpose, and power were
revealed to me. The class assignments seemed trifling, but the irresistible
counting work seemed vital not only to my well-being but to the world’s. I
added textbook page numbers together, divided them by the total page numbers,
and using my own formulas, redistributed them more appropriately. Page 262 of
could become a more natural page 118, and I would razor-cut
the leaves from their binding and rearrange them to suit my calculations. I
had to read them in their new order, too, which made study difficult, and then
finally, as I added new rules and limitations to my study habits, impossible.
Eventually my quirks were picked up by various professors and savvy teaching
assistants, and they, essentially, “sent me to the nurse.” After a few days of
testing, I was urged out of school. I then went to Hewlett-Packard, where I
landed a job as a business communiqué encoder.
time, when I was working at Hewlett-Packard, I tried medication, but it made me
uneasy. It was as though the drug were keeping me from the true purpose of each
day, which was to count loci and accommodate variables. I slowly took myself
off the pills and eventually I left my encoding job. Or maybe it left me. When
the chemicals let go of my mind, I could no longer allow myself to create a
code when I knew all along that its ultimate end was to be decoded. But that’s
what the job was, and I couldn’t get the bosses to see it my way. Finally, the
government began providing me with free services and one of them was Clarissa.
the shrink-in-training clinked three times on my door with her Coke can. The
knock of someone whose hands are full. The door opened on its own, and I
remembered not hearing it latch when I entered earlier with my small sack of
earplugs. Clarissa, balancing a cell phone, briefcase, sweater (pointless in
today’s weather), Palm Pilot, soda can, and wrapped baby gift (she hadn’t
wanted to leave it in the car), closed the door and made a purse-induced
leathery squeak as she crossed the room. I liked her outfit: a maroon skirt
topped by a white blouse with a stiffly starched front piece that was vaguely
heart-shaped, giving her the appearance of an Armani-clad nurse. (Oh yes, I
keep up with the fashions. I noted how close her outfit was to my own favourite:
light cotton pants with a finely pressed white dress shirt. No problem, as I
love to iron. Once I ironed a pillow almost perfectly flat.) “Hi,” she said,
and “Hi,” I said back. “Oh,” she said, “sorry I’m late.” Of course she wasn’t.
She just assumed she was late because the traffic had been murder. “Are you
having a good week?” she asked.
having a good week, though I couldn’t really tell her why. At least, not
without her thinking I was obsessed with women. I didn’t tell her about my
three encounters with Elizabeth, or about eyeballing Zandy at the pharmacy. So
I lied and said… well, I don’t remember what I said. But I do remember a
particular moment when, after I’d asked her how she was, she paused that extra
second before she said the perfunctory “fine.” She wasn’t fine, and I could
tell. I could tell because my mind has the ability to break down moments the
way it can break down ceiling tiles. I can cut a moment into quarters, then
eighths, then et cetera, and I am able to analyze whether one bit of behaviour
truly follows another, which it seldom does when a person is disturbed or
influenced by a hidden psychic flow.
couldn’t make out what was troubling Clarissa because she’s adept at being
sunny. I’m going to tell you one of the joys of being Clarissa’s “patient.”
While she is analyzing me, I am analyzing her.
makes it fun is that we’re both completely unskilled at it. Our conversation
that day went like this:
you find a parking space okay?” I asked.
they’ve been hard to find because of the beach-y weather.
you go out this week?” she asked.
walks and a few trips to the Rite Aid.”
were fine with it?” she said.
The rules are so easy to follow. Don’t you think?”
not sure what your rules are.”
bet more people have rules like mine than you think.” I asked, “What are your
rules?” (I wondered if she’d fall for this.)
stick to you,” she said.
The conversation went on,
with both of us parrying and thrusting. I urged myself to never get well
because that would be the end of Clarissa’s visits… wouldn’t it? Though she
would probably have to stop one day when she graduates or when her course— meaning
me—is over. One of us is getting screwed: Either she’s a professional and I
should be paying her, or she’s an intern and I’m a guinea pig.
something exciting happened. Her cell phone rang. It was exciting because what
crossed her face ranged wildly on the map of human emotion. And oh, did I
divide that moment up into millionths:
decided to ignore it.
decided to answer it.
decided to ignore it.
decided to check caller-id.
looked at the phone display.
turned off the phone and continued speaking.
moment before turning off the phone broke down further into sub moments:
worried that it might be a specific person.
that it was.
turned off the phone with an angry snap.
this sub moment broke down into even more sub sub moments:
shot through her like a lightning strike.
Clarissa had an ex she was still connected to. I said, “Clarissa, you’re a
desirable girl; just sit quietly and you will resurrect.” But wait, I didn’t
say it. I only thought it.
I stayed in my apartment
for the next three days. A couple of times Philipa stopped by hoping for more
joy juice. I was starting to feel like a pusher and regretted giving her the Mickeys
in the first place. But I eased the guilt by reminding myself that the drugs
were legal or, in the case of Quaaludes, had at one time been legal. I gave her
the plain Jane concoctions of apple and banana, though I wrestled with just
telling her the truth and letting her get the drugs herself. But I didn’t,
because I still enjoyed her stopping by, because I liked her—or is it that I
liked her dog? “Here, Tiger.” When Philipa walked up or down the stairway, so
did her dog, and I could hear his four paws ticking and clicking behind her.
She’d talk to him as if he were a person, a person who could talk back. Often
when she said “Here, Tiger,” I would say to myself “No,
hoping doggy ESP would draw him toward my door, because I liked to look into
his cartoon face. Tiger was a perfectly assembled mutt, possessing a vocabulary
of two dozen words. He had a heart of gold and was keenly alert. He had a
variety of quirky mannerisms that could charm a room, such as sleeping on his
back while one active hind leg pedalled an invisible bicycle. But his crowning
feature was his exceedingly dumb Bozo face, a kind of triangle with eyes, which
meant his every act of intelligence was greeted with cheers and praise because
one didn’t expect such a dimwit to be able to retrieve, and then sort, a bone,
a tennis ball, and a rubber dinosaur on verbal commands only. Philipa demonstrated
his talent on the lawn one day last summer when she made Tiger go up to
apartment 9 and bring down all his belongings and place them in a rubber ring. Philipa’s
boyfriend, Brian, stood by on the sidelines drinking a Red Bull while shouting “Dawg,
dawg!” And I bet he was also secretly using the dog as a spell-checker.
view from my window was quite static that weekend. Unfortunately the Sunday
crossword was a snap (probably to atone for last Sunday’s puzzle, which
would have stumped the Sphinx), and I finished it in forty-five minutes,
including the cryptic, with no mistakes and no erasures. This disrupted my time
budget. A couple of cars slowed in front of Elizabeth’s realty sign, indicating
that she might be showing up later in the week. But the weather was cool and
there were no bicyclists, few joggers, no families pouring out of their SUVs
and hauling the entire inventory of the Hammacher Schlemmer beach catalogue
down to the ocean, so I had no tableaux to write captions for. This slowness
made every hour seem like two, which made my idle time problem even worse. I
vacuumed, scrubbed the bathroom, cleaned the kitchen. Ironed, ironed, ironed.
What did I iron? My shirt, shirt, shirt. At one point I was so bored I
reattached my cable to the TV and watched eight minutes of a Santa Monica city
government hearing on mall pavement.
was evening. For a while everything was the same, except now it was dark. Then
I heard Brian come down the stairs, presumably in a huff. His walk was an
exaggerated stomp meant to send angry messages like African drums. Every
footstep boasted “I don’t need her.” No doubt later, in the sports bar, other
like-minded guys would agree that Brian was not pussy-whipped, affirmed by the
fact that Brian was in the bar watching a game and not outside Philipa’s
apartment sailing paper airplanes through her window with I LOVE YOU written on