Call me Jean. People say it’s an ambiguous name, but I say screw ’em. Let guys named Gene worry about that. My parents expect me to bring the laughs. I’m the youngest daughter, the smart, funny one in the family. Well, my two sisters are smart in the way that gets high-paying jobs, rich handsome husbands, and makes them act really annoying. The cruel intelligence that comes laser-focused and can destroy anything organic, eccentric, or artistic.
Anyway, when I come home from an exhausting day of two non-credit elective classes—instead of pursuing a Masters Degree—the fam all gathers for dinner. I live at my parents’ apartment, though deep in my twenties (so deep that I’m nearly twenty-ten). It’s simple economics. Old people have old money that works to buy houses and rent apartments while younger people have cryptocurrency that rarely works for anything necessary, but sounds amazing and trendy. We have the followers, the viral content, the clicks, the “likes,” and someday, if we ever learn how to monetize that shit, watch out, we’ll rule the dying husk of this planet.
My sisters come home for dinners too, because it turns out rich handsome husbands aren’t much fun and don’t care about their partners’ thoughts. They gab endlessly to their wealth managers, plan solo business trips to Europe, and, same as their wives, order age-defying facial creams. Neither sister learned to cook, so eating Mom’s food is a treat. My culinary skills extend to spaghetti, grilled cheese, and breakfast at any hour. They call me a “bachelor chick.” Sure, I wear a black Ramones T-shirt, blue jeans, and Buddy Holly glasses, but I also have a flower in my messy hair and Doc Martens on my feet, because I’m ready to kick your ass then cry, and write poetry about it later to post on social media.
I’m fixated on the past century I was barely alive for. Can’t relate to most art or films or music from our current era. I yearn for the classic depression of the 1980s I missed, when there seemed to be a chance for Earth. It was the time of a safer, more positive despair, when you didn’t have to explain loving The Smiths despite Morrissey’s latest opinions. When the future, the nineties, held even louder, more depressing music from Smashing Pumpkins and Nirvana to look forward to. Prince and Bowie were still alive and we didn’t have to pretend Brittney Spears was some misunderstood artistic genius imprisoned by douche-canoe family members.
Usually when I arrive—late—for dinner, I go right into my rap, making fun of politicians and celebrities, then I criticize the latest horrors of urban life in Manhattan. Tonight is different. Everyone is quiet and expectant—clearly waiting for me. No sign of my mother, and some weird-ass, gravy-drenched meatloaf is set at the center of the table like a giant mutated space turd. So I sit down with Charlotte and Heather, a random fortyish dude, and my father.
“Hey Dad, where’s Mom and the real food?” No one laughs at my jest. It feels grim.
“She won’t be joining us…” He looks grieved. Or aggrieved. “She was hurt yesterday when you said her breasts were inedible.”
“Wait, what?” I say. “First off, I was kidding about an old photo of you guys in bathing suits on the beach, but I said they were incredible or indelible. That’s a compliment. I wish I had inherited unforgettable—”
“A mother nurtures her children, breastfeeds them as babies.” He stares at the table and the steaming mound of charred meatloaf. “For her to hear ‘inedible,’ the implication being that she is not a feeder, not a provider, was deeply troubling. Traumatizing.”
“But I didn’t say that,” I try, but Dad ignores my protest. “Her bazongas were amazing.”
“That slang term is a mammary slur,” the stranger tells me.
“And why would you even mention that Mom’s boobs were incredible?” Char adds. “It’s just wrong on so many levels.”
“Your mother has gone back to her nightly Freudian deep tissue therapy to work through this.” Dad coughs and nods at the odd, serious man nearby.
“Isn’t deep tissue a type of massage?” I try to dissipate the tension.
“It’s a fusion technique,” Heather says, all authoritative. “Dr. Goldfarb records her thoughts and analyzes them, while Olaf works the muscles and nerves that have become stressed by mental trauma.”
I need to change the subject. “Who’s our guest tonight?” I rudely point.
“Gunther Hazblat,” Dad says. “Because your jokes and general comments are ironic, sarcastic, cutting, and dark, we felt it necessary to hire a consultant. He can screen your outbursts and deem whether they are indeed funny, rather than insensitive or soul-destroying.”
I’m privately flattered that anything I could say would actually destroy someone’s soul. “So, Gunt is like a sensitivity listener?”
The man corrects me. “I am the humor whisperer.”
“Call it whatever you want,” Dad says to me, “but Gunther will accompany you in public, and at all family occasions—like dinner.”
“You said we before. Is that the royal we?”
Dad half-smiles. “I hoisted the idea up the spinnaker, mapped the course, but your older sisters were onboard too.”
It irks me when people inject nautical terms into a family dispute. “And if I refuse to be chaperoned by Gunthy here?”
“Young lady, you’re twenty-nine but live here rent-free with meals included, and I pay one of your credit card bills…” He pauses. Hardball. “Do we need to eject cargo before sailing through stormy waters, or remain in safe harbor?”
Suddenly Dad ‘s the philosopher captain, the skipper of a doom ship. Specifically, my doom. “Okay, okay, but just for a few weeks. Having an older dude around me in public will scare away potential suitors.”
Dad scowls. “What?”
“What the hell?” Heather’s face curdles.
“Beaus… Single men.”
“You’re straight?” Charlotte asks.
“She’s a confirmed bachelorette,” Heather adds. “A female incel.”
My sisters laugh at length and with deep snark, as if no man was ever interested in me. Why just today an elderly dude with a questionable relationship to soap fondled my leg on the crowded subway. Perhaps they are right, up to a point, but I’m a late-blooming flower just entering the prime of Miss Jean Me.
I try to break the gloom hanging over dinner. “So let me share stories of my day to entertain you, as I am wont to do.”
Gunther turns toward me, nostrils flared, eyes half-closed in concentration. He has sort of a Peaky Blinders hairstyle: buzz-cut up to the ears, then longer and floppy atop. But Gunth was no Cillian Murphy. More an Easter Island stone-face. Severe. Implacable.
“I saw this man and woman crossing Sixth Avenue—”
“Please,” Gunther interrupts, “can you keep it gender neutral?”
“Okay, this couple was walking across—”
“Wait. Couple implies a carnal bond. That is insulting to platonic friends, close family members, and—”
“Two humans were in the middle of the street, okay?”
Gunther tenses, nose twitching. “Humans belong to the human race. Can we leave race out of this anecdote?”
“Wow, do you have like a German sense of humor?”
He sighs. “I am half-Swiss and that snipe is a generalization.”
“Have you ever laughed at anything, Gunther?”
“Yes.” He stands, beaming in triumph. “My father told me something two years ago that I just realized yesterday was quite droll.”
“And you pissed your pants laughing?”
“No, never,” he replies. “I allowed a single ha! to escape my throat.” Gunther nods with self-satisfaction and sits down.
Damn, I have my work cut out for me.
Gunther accompanies me as I go out the next morning for coffee. It’s one of those mid-December Climate Change days in Manhattan. 65 degrees.
“You are ordering a bagel?” he says. “You aren’t Jewish. That’s culinary appropriation.”
“Yes, and I eat pizza and am not Italian. I love Chinese food and I’m not Asian or Jewish.”
“It’s a stereotype that all Jews love Chinese food.”
“You must be fun at parties.”
“I have never been invited to a gathering, nor would I attend. Alcohol causes people to say things that can be used against them at a later date.”
“Just like Twitter.”
“Your father has not paid me enough to examine and cleanse your social media feeds.”
“Yay for Dad!”
So we grab a table outside West Village Cafe, where coffee is $6 and a croissant is $8. Gunther lets me eat one after I explain my vague French ancestry. An oddly familiar guy walks by and stares at us.
“Hey, how’s it going?” I ask. “Jeff, no Jess, right?”
“Jeb,” he says. “I thought we were done.”
“Oh yeah, we made-out after I had horse radish and you ate eggplant…” I think for a moment. “Call me some time. It can only get better.”
“Yeah,” he smiles, “no,” then keeps moving.
“You cannot date him,” Gunther says. “He wore a Picasso T-Shirt.”
“You know how Picasso treated women.”
“So what artists are okay, Miro?”
“Juan Miro drew phallic imagery in many of his paintings, but never a vagina. We can therefore theorize he hated women. So, no.”
“What about Modigliani? I love his stuff.”
“He painted naked women, his oppressed girlfriend, under the male gaze.”
“But I like the male gaze on me,” I say. “I mean if I was gay, I’d like the female gaze. Doesn’t really matter though. I just want someone gazing at me.”
“Poor child,” Gunther says, as we leave the cafe. “You seek exploitation.”
Crossing the street a turning cab nearly runs over my foot. I give the driver the finger and shout, “Motherfucker!”
“That is insulting to our maternal forbears.” Gunther frowns. “And could we desexualize your language?”
“Brother-trucker would be much less offensive.” He nods, agreeing with himself, and continues onward.
We pass by people selling stuff on blankets along Thompson Street and tables with art books and old magazines from my parents’ time, like Life and Esquire. “Look, they have VHS cassettes,” I say. “Dad still has a player. $2 for Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein. Do you have an issue with Mel Brooks?”
“It’s problematic,” he says, worry lines etched into his forehead.
I despise that term. It means I’m about to get a condescending diatribe from someone who thinks they’re more evolved than me.
“Those movies have something to offend everyone,” Gunther starts. “While you are laughing and indifferent, somewhere someone is crying, feeling both judged and shamed.”
“How do you know that? So you’re saying I can’t buy them? You want to erase him.”
“This is the dilemma.” He allows a deep breath. “Mel Brooks is over ninety-five, so it would be ageist for me to criticize him as a person. He is also in a minority of people that age, and is Jewish, a historically oppressed culture. So I must support him as a human being while I condemn his puerile and tasteless movies.”
“Wow, love the artist, hate the art. Sort of the opposite of Woody Allen.”
“It’s complicated,” Gunther replies. “A conversation needs to be held.”
More than I hate “problematic,” I loathe the contemporary usage of “conversation.” Tends to be a one-sided lecture where I am told how wrong it is to want to be happy or laugh or have my own opinion. I keep strolling south. “Maybe we’ll do that next week, not now, Gunt.”
“Please don’t call me that,” he says, trailing along. “It rhymes with a forbidden word.”
I see a middle-aged couple carrying wrapped gifts approach us on the sidewalk.
Gunther sings to them, “I’m dreaming of a white Christmas.” He smiles.
“What the hell?” the man says. “Go back to Idaho with that white power bullshit.”
“Nein, nein,” Gunther says in protest.
“Jesus,” the woman adds, “the Aryan Brotherhood literally speaks in German now?”
“I am German, not a Nazi,” he says. “I meant white snow, powder.”
“Stay the fuck away.” The pedestrian turns to his partner. “I think he’s looking for drugs.”
“That is so 1993,” she says, and they storm away disgusted.
“No good deed goes unpunished,” I tell Gunther.
“I will prove you wrong,” he replies. “All of you!” he shouts.
Someone hails a cab and tries to shoo a homeless person away from the car’s door so they can enter it.
I watch emotionless. It’s Manhattan after all.
“Are you not offended, outraged by this behavior?” Gunther asks.
“Should I be?”
“You are a millennial, yet you act like a traitor to your generation. Indifferent and uncaring about each and every injustice in the world.” He sighs. “You are also a woman, supposedly the sensitive gender.”
“Listen, Guntster,” I say. “Now you’re stereotyping me, oppressing me with societal expectations. Herding me into some type of age-related conformity.”
He looks stunned. “I – I…”
“I don’t define myself by my generation, my race, religious belief or disbelief, or by gender, where I live, how I vote. That’s for Twitter influencers, media shitheads, people like you who want to cause divisions based on minor differences.”
“But, but,” he sputters.
“We’re all humans and should be connected, not fenced-off in opposing teams and enemy camps.”
Gunther tears at his hair.
“Right here, as New Yorkers, we’re just trying to make it through the day,” I say. “If someone gets in my face on the street, whether a rich Fifth Avenue fuckhead or a deranged bum, I’m going to push through them.”
“Deranged?” His face shudders, lips trembling as beads of sweat form on his brow. “I have trespassed against myself, my beliefs.”
I ignore him to stare at my phone. Don’t want to pile-on to his pity party.
He suddenly rushes into 7th Avenue traffic with hands waving above his head.
I put in ear buds to listen to The Strokes, but still hear honking, screeches, sounds of impact, and eventual sirens. Tragic. I was just beginning to enjoy not liking that guy. What was his name? I’m too focused wondering if I can afford the $10 micro-slice of cheesecake on Bleeker Street Deli’s outdoor menu to remember.