Skip to main content
Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

Schadenfreude, A Love Story

Me, the Germans, and 20 Years of Attempted Transformations, Unfortunate Miscommunications, and Humiliating Situations That Only They Have Words For

Rebecca Schuman

Flatiron Books

MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK


1.


Jugendsünde


 


n. teenage folly, from youth and sin.


ex. Among the most egregious of her Jugendsünden was the intellectual gravitas she granted to Pinky and the Brain.


Dylan Gellner wasn’t German. He was a nonpracticing half-Jew from Oregon, just like me. But all of this is still largely his fault, or rather my fault for falling in love with him.


The first time I ever heard of Dylan Gellner was at the beginning of senior year, when he became a household name at South Eugene High School for getting a 1450 on his SATs. I realize that doesn’t sound like much nowadays, when a 1450 is what you get for spelling your own name with just one typo. But in 1993, it was the best board score at my twelve-hundred-student public school—the best, in fact, I had ever heard of in real life. Certainly much better than mine.


I had already taken the test twice, the first attempt resulting in an underwhelming 1160. My parents—who met in 1965 on their Stanford junior year abroad in Italy and married shortly before beginning joint Ph.D.s in English at the University of Chicago—had many opinions and much advice. “The only thing the SAT predicts is the aptitude of parents to force their kids to spend lunchtime doing practice tests,” said Sharon Schuman, Ph.D., the night before my first ignominious showing. “My SATs weren’t great, and I turned out fine. I got a Ph.D.!” She went back to grading her hundredth freshman paper of the night.


“It’s like studying for a urine test!” added David Schuman, Ph.D., J.D., as he dug into his usual postdinner snack of Crispix cereal dipped in I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter! My dad’s own Ph.D. had been supplemented by a law degree after the English-professor employment crisis propelled him to law school just before I started kindergarten. Of course, he’d then snuck back into academia as a law professor, so he had never done anything exciting like defending murderers or helping teenagers divorce their parents.


“Just go to bed early, and do your best,” he counseled. “I mean, look at Grandpa. He never even took the SAT, and he played football at the University of Michigan with Gerald Ford!”


“That’s because it was 1933, Dad.”


“Yes, back when they had active discrimination policies against Jews. So did Stanford when I went there, by the way. Quotas. Good night!”


The Schumans’ laid-back attitude, it turns out, was borne not of their generation’s antiauthoritarian progressivism so much as by the secret assumption that their daughter, who could talk at six months and read her alphabet at a year, was so preternaturally intelligent that she would make a 1500 and be admitted to the elite university of her choice without studying or trying. But they learned in short order that you should never underestimate the mediocrity of your own child—a mediocrity that brought about a universal change in the Schumans’ conception of both my abilities and my future, and their idea of what constituted both parental involvement and a worthy extracurricular activity.


“You,” proclaimed my dad some scant handful of weeks after the urine test/Grandpa conversation, thudding an onerous-looking tome in front of me on the table, “are going to SAT prep class.” (I was still, mercifully, allowed to eat lunch.)


Late nights in the school newspaper office were hastily supplanted by practice tests under the semiwatchful eye of a very bored tutor at a storefront private school in downtown Eugene, which at the time consisted of a handful of record and outdoor-supply shops; my old gymnastics academy; a public library that largely served as a daytime napping station for the less-fortunate; and, of course, every drug dealer and rapist in the greater Willamette Valley. Downtown’s flagship establishment, right around the corner from my new tutoring digs, was a boutique of “imports” that was the only place in town you could get Chuck Taylors in all the colors, but which did most of its business renting porn and selling bongs. The Aerie Academy, where the Schumans laid down substantial dollars to shame their oldest child back into the realm of the exceptional, was sandwiched between a thrift store run by the Junior League, which specialized in mismatched china and shoulder pads, and a place that hosted hacky-sack competitions. Obviously these were the ideal environs to develop some academic rigor at last.


After seven diligent months of drill questions and vocabulary building, the fruits of my labor resulted in a modest 100-point jump in my verbal score. “Oh look,” I said to my mother after ripping open the dread carbon-paper missive from the College Board after yet more months of agonized waiting. “Slightly less mediocre mediocrity.” And this was what I could accomplish with a focus I had never before applied to academics, and would not again until my first year of graduate school. So, to my parents’ shock and my resignation, it was averageness that constituted (to bastardize Ludwig Wittgenstein) the limits of my language, and thus also of my college application pool. Would I be following my parents to Stanford, creating a Schuman legacy? I would not. I contented myself with the fact that my hard-fought improved score made me seem smart enough.


Until, early on in senior year, I realized that among the sea of thirty-nine other college-credit aspirants in my AP Civics class was the infamous Dylan Gellner. “When you apply to colleges, your real competition is the people from your high school,” my guidance counselor had said. And there, three rows back from me, was Dylan Gellner with his damn 1450. On the first try, obviously. (Possibly as a sophomore.) I might as well start that correspondence degree in TV and VCR repair already.


The second thing I learned about Dylan Gellner was that he, who as a junior took all of his math and science classes with seniors, had dated Margaret O’Grady, who was a year older than we were and now went to Princeton.


“Sounds like a match made in dork heaven,” I said to my friend Samantha one rainy afternoon in late September, left again to my own devices now that SAT purgatory was over and my parents had given up. Samantha was busy sifting through brochures for colleges that were now out of my league. “I bet they whispered sweet fractals into each other’s ears,” I said. As Samantha took careful note of Stanford’s on-campus housing policy, I surreptitiously flipped through the yearbook to get a better look at Dylan Gellner—staring during AP Civics would have been (a) rude, (b) obvious, and (c) somewhat impossible, as he normally sat a few rows behind me with his preppy ski-team friends.


“Whoa,” I said to an indulgent Samantha, after I finally found his junior-year mug shot (she hadn’t expected Dylan Gellner’s 1450 and dating history to be worthy of an entire afternoon’s discussion). “He looks like he just got home from his bar mitzvah, and like his mom lays out his clothes in the morning while he reads Dostoevsky for fun, or whatever.” What I conveniently left out was my recognition of Dylan Gellner’s rather arresting eyes: large, obstinate, and startlingly deep ebony. Amid the blank (often stoned) gazes of our classmates, Dylan Gellner’s peepers betrayed a serious something that my teenage self did not yet understand but could not stop thinking about.


“What do you care?” asked Samantha, twisting her perfectly straight cocoa-brown hair into a quick bun and dipping a pita into some tzatziki. “You have a boyfriend. A nice one.” This was true. His name was Travis; he was a head taller than me and perpetually shiny (but I say that in a sort of affectionate way). He had a disconcerting habit of sticking his butt out about three feet when he hugged anyone, and he was indeed very nice. He was a hip-hop superfan and computer enthusiast who got in early decision to MIT. What I was too classy to tell Samantha was that Travis’s primary usefulness to me (and mine to him) was for the drawn-out but eventually successful dispatching of virginity. Still, she was right. I had a boyfriend, and I was busy with all sorts of shit, such as being captain of my noncompetitive jazz dance squad, working as managing editor of the school paper, and applying to liberal arts colleges that, like me, were too iconoclastic to care much about such conformist trifles as SAT scores. I promptly resumed ignoring Dylan Gellner and his 1450 and his weird, penetrating stare. Until he stole my seat in AP Civics.


Advanced Placement Civics, with Mr. Rasmussen, was widely known in South Eugene High School as the easiest of all the APs (if not the easiest of all classes, period).


“I am seven months away from my pension,” Rasmussen would remind us fairly regularly, with the subtext being that he no longer gave a single flying fuck about whether or not we actually understood what “social cleavage” was, or whether we got high in the parking lot before class and giggled about “cleavage” for fifty-five minutes. All you had to do to ensure an A in AP Civics was bring Mr. Rasmussen a cup of coffee now and then. Sure, technically there was no food or beverage allowed in the halls or classrooms of South Eugene High School. And yet, if one wanted to get out of even AP Civics’s most basic “discussion” of American government and jurisprudence, one could get a sort of Rasmussenian papal dispensation to go off-campus and get a giant cup of Joe, to be shuttled brazenly through the proctored halls (“It’s for Rasmussen!”) and directly into the classroom, where college-bound twelfth-graders would be finishing a ten-minute “silent period of contemplation” (i.e., naptime). If you wanted to go ahead and take the AP exam at the end of the year for fun, you had Mr. Rasmussen’s sincere blessing, but if you thought anything that transpired in that room in the preceding nine months would earn you college credit, you were gravely mistaken.


Unsurprisingly, there were no assigned seats in AP Civics. (“Sit wherever you please. Don’t even come to class if you don’t want to; don’t do me any favors.”) Still, as has been true through the ages and will be for time immemorial, in the first week or so of school, students claim “their seats” and remain more or less tethered to them for as long as the class is in session. (It’s like it’s their blankie, a security object that protects them from the cliques and the multiple-choice tests and the permanent processed-meat smell of the hallway.) So you can imagine my outrage when one day I tromped into AP Civics wearing my finest outfit (a Guatemalan-print vest, polar-fleece sweatpants, and Tevas), only to find Dylan Gellner’s keister parked in my seat. Thus the first words I ever spoke to the first person with whom I ever fell in love were “Hey, that’s my seat,” and the first word he spoke back to me was “Tough.” As he said it, he smiled a little, and those odd eyes of his flashed at me, and I had the means, motive, and opportunity to give him a good staredown in person for the first time ever. Dylan Gellner had matured considerably since his junior-year picture, and now, to my annoyance, possessed a chiseled jaw and five o’clock shadow that matched his shock of endlessly thick, jet-black hair, which in turn matched those goddamned eyes.


Hmmm. Mr. 1450 was cute—and it appeared, in a sort of fifth-grade kind of way, flirting with me. Being now in possession of a real-live sexually active relationship, I was an undisputed expert in courtship rituals, and the correct response in this delicate situation was to turn on one heel, huff to the other side of the room, and refuse to speak to or acknowledge Dylan Gellner again—until radical politics turned everything tits-up, as it has been known to do.


It was mid-February, and, according to Mr. Rasmussen, the perfect time for the students of AP Civics to learn how Our Democracy worked. And what better and more accurate way to do this than immediately bifurcate the class down acrimonious party lines? Two-thirds of us were gazing out the windows—placed just above student-head-level so that we could see outside only if we craned our necks—at the blue sky, anathema for Oregon that time of year. Ah, to be anywhere but a twelfth-grade civics classroom; to be sitting at the outdoor tables of a coffee shop, nursing the same small cup for four hours as we read the personals in the free Eugene Weekly. (“Solipsist seeks solipsist for rubdowns, astral projection, light anal play. No fatties.”)


My friend Lisa—Travis’s friend, actually (the girlfriend of Travis’s friend, technically), who was far better-looking and more popular than I was, with supple muscular legs, pillowy lips, and what I would later learn to term “bedroom eyes”—had just passed me a note, proclaiming her desire to spend the weekend watching Monty Python movies and smoking weed.


“Rebecca,” said Rasmussen, midway through a halfhearted sentence about the correct process for ratifying a party platform. “Is that a note? Jesus tap-dancing Christ.”


“I’m sorry, Mr. Rasmussen,” I said. “We were just comparing the difference between simple anarchy and anarcho-syndicalist communes.” (Technically not completely false.) I shoved the note in my pocket. I thought I heard an impatient snort from the back of the classroom, somewhere near Dylan-Gellner-o’clock. “I’m sorry,” I said again.


Rasmussen put both his hands on my desk and leaned down so that I could smell how recently he’d enjoyed his last cup of coffee (not very; possibly the source of his sour mood). “Rebecca?” he said. “I don’t care.” He returned to the front of the room and picked up a stack of Scantron forms.


“Here,” he said to the whole class. “Fill out these questionnaires about your political beliefs. I don’t care if you’re honest or not. Just do it.” This clearly had the added benefit of cutting into about thirty more minutes of teaching time, during which Rasmussen would be able to daydream about cigars.


“What are these for?” asked Jacob, who sat next to me. He was a smart-ass I’d befriended in trig sophomore year when he antagonized our teacher so cleverly that half the class got notes sent home about our behavior problems. (“Rebecca herself doesn’t have a problem,” Mrs. Kuroda had clarified to an aghast David and Sharon Schuman. “But she’s encouraging the bad kids.”)


“Just fill it out, Jacob,” said Rasmussen. There were twenty-four questions, and all of them had to be answered with either full agreement or full disagreement. There was no political gray area in AP Civics, just as there was no gray area about anyone’s desire to do actual work in AP Civics.


All the statements were either somewhat conservative (“I believe in limited government”) or downright reactionary (“I believe there should be no restriction on firearms whatsoever”), and every time you agreed with one, you got a point. If you scored 12 or above, you moved to the right side of the classroom, toward the hall, where the AP Civics Republicans would nominate a candidate and mount a mock election campaign. Under 12 and you went leftward toward the windows, where you and your fellow AP Civics Democrats would presumably copy the Bill Clinton agenda verbatim and attempt to rerun on it. (Everyone in our class was an exact replica of his parents’ politics, except without the added gravitas of having lived through the Nixon administration.) As Violet and Alyssa, the two beautiful and popular students Rasmussen “entrusted” with his “grading” so as not to have to rouse himself, returned from the Scantron machine in the teachers’ lounge (and, coincidentally, a quick pit stop at a coffee shop ten blocks away), they motioned me over.


“What?” I asked. They pointed to my Scantron.


“You got a zero, Rebecca.”


I was such a knee-jerk baby liberal that I was the first person in the history of Mr. Rasmussen’s class ever to score 100 percent left-wing answers. And, it turned out, I was in some interesting company.


“And check it out,” said Violet, violating every paragraph of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. “Dylan got a three.”


When it came time to split up, Rasmussen read off the names of everyone else in the class, until only Dylan Gellner and me were left.


“What about us, Mr. Rasmussen?”


“You two? You’re so far toward the window that you’re out on the lawn.”


With the rest of the class laughing at us, Dylan Gellner and I had no choice but to make eye contact for the second time in our lives—and this time, he nodded approvingly.


“Who,” he said to the other lefties, “wants to split off from the Democrats and be Socialists? Besides you, obviously, Rebecca.”


“Dammit, Dylan, that is not the point of this exercise.”


“Mr. Rasmussen, I respectfully disagree. We are to draft a political platform based on our actual beliefs, correct?”


“Allegedly, yes.”


I cleared my throat. “Yeah,” I said. “Just because it didn’t work out for Ross Perot doesn’t make us beholden to the two-party system! Now who’s with us?”


“Forget that,” said my friend Tamia, who worked with me on the newspaper and was one of the very few black students in extremely white South Eugene High. “I don’t want to pay fifty-two percent of my money in taxes.”


“But we’d get so much stuff for it, Mia!” I said. “Much more than we could buy with our own paychecks. Better roads, better schools—what are there, forty kids in this class? I mean—”


“Save it for the debate, Schuman,” said Rasmussen.


“Really?”


“Yes, fine, you two pains in my neck win. Do your socialism. Just get to work.”


Jacob defected immediately—far better chances for smart-assery in a rogue party—as did Violet, Alyssa, and Lisa (there was no socialism section in our textbook and no Internet yet, which meant an assignment with no reading).


“So,” said Dylan Gellner, as we yanked a set of desks free from the false binary of the left-right continuum. “I assume you want to be president, Rebecca?”


“Are you shitting me?” I asked. “I can’t take that kind of pressure. Jacob should do it. He’s got charisma.”


“Fine,” said Dylan Gellner. “You be vice president. I’ll run the campaign. Just don’t fuck it up, like you fucked up your essay on Heart of Darkness.”


I raised my eyebrows. “How do you know about my essay on Heart of Darkness? You’re not in AP Lit sixth period.”


“Yeah, but Bumstead put it on the overhead in third, too.”


“Those are anonymous!” I said.


“I recognized your voice.”


Mr. Bumstead had actually put my essay on the overhead as a good example, but I had other things to worry about, namely: What did Dylan Gellner mean he recognized my voice?


Dylan Gellner shrugged. “I read a couple of your newspaper columns.”


I had recently sent an unsolicited set of clippings from the high-school paper to the features editor of the local daily, auditioning myself to be their “first-ever voice of a local high-schooler, talking about our issues from our perspective!” They’d bought the spiel, largely because they realized they could get away with paying a child fifteen dollars per submission—and as a result, my chubby little visage was briefly on the side of newspaper boxes, and I made the morning announcements, and so for like a week, before everyone realized that (a) high-school kids don’t read the paper and (b) ripping off Dave Barry does not “current issues from a high-schooler’s unique perspective!” make, I was high-school famous.


“Your Valentine’s Day piece was pretty good,” said Dylan Gellner, as I realized I’d been staring at him while my mind adjusted to the fact that I was on his radar. “But mostly because you made a ‘Heart-Shaped Box’ reference.”


“I what?”


“‘Heart-Shaped Box.’ The song. Nirvana.”


“I don’t know it.” I made a mental note to pick up In Utero, which I had been boycotting because Nirvana had (a) completely sold out, and (b) had the nerve to cancel a show for which I had tickets the year before.


“Ahem,” said Jacob, who, like everyone else at the table, was still present and at least somewhat interested in our socialist revolution. “Do we or do we not need to come up with a plan to beat the Democrats? They’ve already got a speech drafted out, and it calls us ‘moochers’ and ‘looters.’”


We went back to our campaign, which, largely due to our successful derailment of the original assignment, won in a landslide. And, more important, Dylan Gellner and I now possessed a tacit understanding that we would work together during all future civics projects, the next of which would bring about two watershed events: Dylan Gellner would come to my house, and Franz Kafka would enter my life.


All right, technically, Kafka would reenter my life. My first exposure to the German language’s most famous writer had been during the fall of sophomore year in 1991: on a pitch-black rainy Sunday afternoon, I’d slid The Metamorphosis off my parents’ bookshelf and read it in one sitting. My initial reaction to the first few moments of Kafka’s most famous story was shocked disbelief that Gregor Samsa, hapless star (hard to call someone a protagonist when he mostly just sits there being disgusting), worries primarily that he’ll be late for work. He has an exoskeleton and a bunch of terrifying little legs, but all he can think is, “What an exhausting career I’ve chosen!” Why was Gregor going on about his stupid job, I wondered, when the only appropriate reaction in this particular moment would be this and this exclusively: HOLY SHIT, I’M A GIANT FUCKING BUG? My own jobs at the time were commandeering children’s birthday parties at the gymnastics academy and being in the tenth grade—and, had I woken up with even the slightest fantastical disfigurement (really one substantial pimple would have done it) I would have forgotten immediately about school, work, everything. I’m hideous! I would have said. I give up!


I just kept waiting for Gregor to break down in horror—so I kept on reading, but to my frustration, such an emotional release never happens, not once in the entire story. Another thing that had perturbed me was that it takes Kafka about fourteen pages to get Gregor to reveal his new body to his family and boss. I’d found myself simultaneously infuriated and spellbound at the methodical, unemotional pace of this narration, its wackadoodle subject matter almost an afterthought, the horror with which the family reacts to Gregor’s appearance when he finally does get his door open and steps out into the living room rendered with the emotional fervor of a shopping list.


I read helplessly as Gregor Samsa’s condition deteriorated, and watched just as helplessly as his family gave up on him, and, finally, I held my breath as he let himself die. Die! How was this possible? The story was narrated from Gregor’s perspective, for Christ’s sake—he wasn’t supposed to die. But I’d never met Kafka before, and I didn’t realize that authors are allowed to be completely inconsistent in their perspective. Yes, that little book frustrated the shit out of me, but I couldn’t get it out of my head for weeks. I had also assumed it was the only thing of import Kafka ever wrote, and promptly moved on to other interests, such as wondering exactly which of my cutoff jeans looked best layered over just which of my pairs of long underwear. This dearth of intellectual curiosity occurred despite the minor fact that at least four of Kafka’s other books were sitting on my parents’ bookshelf right next to The Metamorphosis—one of which would two years later catch Dylan Gellner’s eye during an AP Civics study party, extra light on the studying.


We’d moved on from derailing assignments about Our Democracy to derailing an assignment that purported to explicate Our Judicial System: a mock trial, in which once again Dylan Gellner was the intellectual ringleader and charismatic Jacob our star witness. However, our fake case—a breaking-and-entering—had a dizzying array of other, mostly irrelevant witnesses, and the only way to make sense of it was to call in a ringer, one Professor Dr. David Schuman, Ph.D., J.D., despite his marked lack of litigation experience. Several of my classmates came over to the house—including, of course, Dylan Gellner; I mean, he was the group leader, so he had to. It’s not like I invented the study session just to get him in my house, because that would be ridiculous and desperate. But there he was: forest-green polo shirt that somehow made his eyes look blacker. Hair as thick as ever, that smelled of Earl Grey tea. (So maybe I hugged Dylan Gellner hello, all right? I mean, he was my friend. Travis wasn’t in AP Civics, so, like, there was no reason for him to be there.)


Dylan Gellner gravitated immediately to my parents’ stuffed floor-to-ceiling bookshelves and nodded after noticing the healthy representation of what he informed me were his two favorite authors: Hermann Hesse (of whom I had never heard) and Kafka.


“This,” he said casually, taking out a yellowing hardcover of The Trial, “is my favorite book.”


“Oh,” I said, “I know Kafka. I really liked The Metamorphosis.”


“Pfft,” said Dylan Gellner. “Beginner Kafka.”


“Duly noted.”


“This is my other favorite author,” he said, pulling off a copy of Steppenwolf. “Hermann Hesse.” He pronounced it Hess, without the last e, despite being in AP German. “So what’s your favorite book?”


If I was going to impress Dylan Gellner with my love of the literary, I was going to have to think of a favorite book that was not on the AP Literature syllabus (my standard answer before had always been The Metamorphosis). I settled on the one I was currently reading, The Cider House Rules, having always been a particular fan of how sexually instructive John Irving was, and also approving heartily of the book’s prochoice message. An odd trade, yes, but Dylan Gellner agreed: I’d read “real” Kafka; he’d read Irving.


“We can compare notes,” he said.


Dylan Gellner burned through The Cider House Rules, unimpressed, in a day; I chipped away at The Trial for two weeks. I was gripped at first—I mean, Josef K., a man taken from his bed and arrested, seemingly for no reason! By two guys who are definitely not cops! And then sent to work for the day, like nothing was really amiss! And then he gets summoned to his first hearing, and instead of being in a proper courtroom, it’s in this squalid tenement building full of detritus and grime and way too many residents! And then, when he finally finds the courtroom (by accident), they’ve been expecting him, and the place is packed to the rafters—literally, guys are stuffed into this tiny balcony and have brought cushions to place between their heads and the ceiling—and in the anteroom the “law books” are actually full of amateur porn, and shit just keeps getting weirder.


The problem was that between the interrogation-in-a-filthy-flophouse scene and the climax—where K. gets summoned to a cathedral and a priest tells him his case is doomed—there are some pretty interminable chapters about a lawyer who won’t allow himself to be fired and a painter who specializes in heavy-handed symbolism. (The painter has depicted the Goddesses of Justice, Victory, and the Hunt as one being. Yes, I get it, we all get it, the poor schmuck never had a chance.)


Now, if you know to read Kafka as a bone-dry humorist, those chapters are actually the best part of the book, but if you don’t yet, because you are a seventeen-year-old whose primary interests are writing knockoff Dave Barry columns and watching Reality Bites, it is possible they might come across as a little bit boring. But this is something you might not be particularly eager to tell Dylan Gellner.


“So,” said Dylan Gellner as he slid into a seat across from me in the library during our free period. “Did you finish The Trial yet? It’s taking you forever.”


“It’s a hard book! The Lawyer-Manufacturer-Whatever chapter was … well, a little boring.”


“I didn’t think it was boring. I thought it was gripping the whole way through.”


“Well, I liked the ‘before the Law’ thing,” I said, referring to the cathedral scene (and thus telling the actual truth).


What I didn’t know at the time was that “Before the Law” is also a stand-alone story, a parable really, a form for which Kafka is famous. Technically, it’s a parable that has no answer or moral, for which Kafka is most famous of all. All I knew at the time was that the story seemed profoundly unfair. A man shows up from “the country” to get access to some mysterious Law. But “before the Law stands a Doorkeeper”—specifically, a scraggly-bearded, mean-ass jerk, who just keeps telling the man he can’t go through. But the worst part is that it’s not like the Doorkeeper says, You can’t go through ever; go home. No; he just keeps saying, “It’s possible, but not now.” For years. Until the guy dies.


“I especially liked this part,” I said to Dylan Gellner, and then I read aloud:


Given that the door to the law stands open, as always, and the doorkeeper stands beside it, the man bends over a bit to see through it, to the inside. As the doorkeeper notices this he laughs, and says: “If it tempts you so much, go ahead and try to get in, despite my prohibition. Know this, though: I’m powerful. And I’m only the lowest of the doorkeepers. But from room to room stand doorkeepers, each more powerful than the last. Just one glimpse of the third and I can’t even handle it myself.”


“That’s a very good part,” agreed Dylan Gellner.


“But then the man from the country just keeps waiting there, like, bribing the Doorkeeper with all of his shit, just waiting year after year, even though it’s completely obvious that he’s never going to get in. I mean, like, why doesn’t he just go home?”


“Well,” said Dylan Gellner, “sometimes people want the impossible precisely because it’s impossible.” He cocked his head a little to the right and held eye contact.


“Yeah, well, it’s pretty rough when the man from the country is about to die and he asks the Doorkeeper, ‘Why hasn’t anyone else come and tried to get in here?’ and the Doorkeeper is like: ‘THIS DOOR WAS JUST FOR YOU. NOW I’M GOING TO SHUT IT.’”


“Yep,” said Dylan Gellner.


I’d only skimmed the pages between the Doorkeeper parable and the end, when the two random guys come grab K. (Note: these are not the random guys that arrested him; that would make too much sense; those guys do, however, show up toward the middle of the book, in a supply closet at K.’s bank, getting whipped by a court-appointed flogger.) The guys drag K. into the requisite dark alley and knife him in the gut, and his last words are “Like a dog!” But those aren’t Kafka’s last words in the story—these are: “as if the shame of it would outlive him.” That part I definitely got. That part I remembered.


But what I’d skipped over—possibly the most important part of the whole book, a part that not even Dylan Gellner saw fit to explicate—was the part where the Priest and K. spend like fourteen pages arguing over what “Before the Law” is really about, like a couple of goatee-sporting poseurs in a graduate seminar. K. thinks the Doorkeeper lied to the man by giving him hope that he could maybe be let in, that he deceived the man by creating a door just for him and then not letting him through it; the Priest insists that the door was created for the sole purpose of keeping that particular man out (and for telling him “maybe” for all those years, which was definitely a dick move). And then the Priest says: “Understanding something and misunderstanding the same thing are not mutually exclusive.”


I wish I’d comprehended that line that first time through The Trial. It might have led to some better life choices. But on that day in the library, my reverence for “Before the Law” was exhausted and all I could offer was deflection.


“Hey, did you like Reality Bites?” I asked, given that it was the fully unironic blueprint for my envisioned postcollegiate existence. (Except in my version, Winona Ryder pushes her goddamned hair out of her face and sucks it up at her job so she doesn’t get fired, because even at seventeen I was a hopeless square.)


“It was all right.”


“I liked when Ben Stiller was like, ‘I’m a nonpracticing Jew,’ and Winona was like, ‘Well I’m a nonpracticing virgin.’ And I was like—wow, I’m both of those things!” (Did you catch that, Dylan Gellner? I’ve had sex.)


“So? So am I,” said Dylan Gellner, which as far as I was concerned was about as close to a direct proposition as a socially maladapted eighteen-year-old genius could muster. Once I realized that somebody else had had sex with Dylan Gellner—no doubt the worldly older nerd, Margaret O’Grady—his 1450 translated directly in my mind, as SAT scores so often do, into virility.


Dylan Gellner had now officially progressed from disembodied formidable mind to actual human body that I might or might not have wanted smashed up against mine. And so we joined the generations of epic literary romances that preceded us, and began exchanging stories we wrote and critiquing them via that cherished school of literary theory known as “passing notes between classes.” I soon learned that Franz Kafka romanced numerous women through letters—and, later still, when I read his guarded missives to Felice Bauer and his substantially more passionate correspondence with Milena Jesenská, I realized why. Every word of Kafka’s correspondence oozes two things simultaneously: the confession that the recipient alone was now in direct connection with an impossibly pensive, enigmatic soul with unplumbable depths; and, of course, longing. Shit-tons of longing.


After two or three notes from Dylan Gellner—in which, for example, he revealed that he was “essentially born when [he] read [Hermann Hesse’s] Steppenwolf,” or he contemplated the thin divide between insanity and genius, the latter best exemplified in culture by both Mrs. Dalloway’s Septimus and Pinky from the cartoon Pinky and the Brain—it seemed I was, to my delight and not insubstantial arousal, the chosen recipient of Dylan Gellner’s rare-to-impossible decision to open up his unplumbable depths. After about a week of this, and bearing the nearly impossible weight of sexual tension, I found myself simultaneously infatuated with Dylan Gellner and Franz Kafka—Kafka the person, I mean, the guy who wrote thousands of pages of deep, pained, lonely diaries and love letters, not merely the author of The Metamorphosis. I should also probably mention that I found Franz Kafka a somewhat arresting-looking young man, in possession of a shock of thick, wavy black hair and two massive dark eyes that shone like ebony marbles. There was, as Wittgenstein might say, a slight family resemblance. All right, fine, Dylan Gellner was the spitting goddamned image of a young Kafka, and he had to have known it (I assume part of getting a 1450 on the SAT involves being observant).


Kafka wrote in one of his many letters that “a book should be the ax for the frozen sea within us.” And Dylan Gellner, simply by taking an intellectual interest in me and treating me like an equal—someone worth debating, and challenging, and pushing past her heretofore very comfortable limits—had already axed my frozen sea to bits. Now I was primed to return the favor. But time, it seemed, was running out. “Life is astoundingly short,” cautioned Kafka in his parable “The Next Village” (which Dylan Gellner quoted in a note passed off between classes). “Now in my memory everything is so pushed together that I cannot imagine why a man would want to take a journey to the next village, without the fear that—aside from accidents—the span of a normal, healthy life is far from adequate for such a ride.” Despite my lackluster verbal skills, I was making an A in AP Lit at this point, so I was pretty sure I understood the subtext here.


Only problem was, there were two primary obstacles in the way of everlasting love with Dylan Gellner. The first was Travis, you know, my boyfriend, who had become as interested in smoking weed as he had become uninterested in talking about books. (I guess once you’ve gotten into MIT, you have no worthy intellectual challenges left; I wouldn’t know.) One night, the two of us had been lolling on my Stanford-bound friend Samantha’s couch. I began expounding upon my latest assignment for AP Lit, The Birth of Tragedy, the first Nietzsche I’d ever read and now officially the most interesting and important book in the universe. I’d gotten about two minutes into a breathless (and, likely, incorrect) exegesis of the Apollonian realm before Travis cut me off: “I really,” he exhaled, “don’t want to talk about school right now.”


I excused myself to go stare at my pupils in the bathroom, and wished that Dylan Gellner was there at this no-parents-home Christmas-break pot party, instead of reading Hegel by himself in his bedroom, or hurtling down mountains preppily with his ski buddies, or whatever Dylan Gellner did in his recreational time. Dylan Gellner would have some things to say about the Apollonian realm. Dylan Gellner would understand what a tremendous insult it was to describe talking about Nietzsche as talking about school.


So, back at school, I started inviting Dylan Gellner to hang out with my friends. And that is how Travis and I found ourselves giving Dylan Gellner a ride home one evening before dinner (I’d offered on Travis’s behalf; I didn’t have my own car).


“Do you guys want to come in and hang out for a bit?” asked Dylan Gellner.


“Uh,” said Travis, at the same time I said, “Definitely.”


We nodded hello to the elder Gellners, a tenured economics professor at the university and an artist, before traipsing down the stairs to Dylan Gellner’s basement-level room—which somehow still had enough windows to catch the final extinguishing of the early-spring Oregon light, a feature of many vertiginous Eugene houses built onto the sides of steep hills, where the street entrance is actually the top floor.


“What are these?” I asked, reaching to pick up some suspicious-looking obelisks that stood in formation under a Homer Simpson poster.


“Those are polished rocks,” he said, snatching one away from me, “and some of them are fragile.”


“All right, then what are these?”


“These are my Eastern philosophy books. This is the I Ching, and it comes with a bunch of bamboo sticks, and you do a meditation ritual with it.”


“Wow,” I said. “That sounds fascinating. Can I try?”


“No.”


Travis sat on Dylan Gellner’s twin bed and stared out the window. He had, at this point in our epic eight-month relationship, both run out of interesting things to say to me and lost interest in the things I had to say to him (which, in his defense, were mostly about either Nietzsche or my college applications), but like any seventeen-year-old high-school boy he still recognized and honored that green-eyed demon. As we left Dylan Gellner’s house, I remarked with a forced casual tone, “Boy, Dylan’s weird.”


“Nah, I don’t think so,” shrugged Travis—not because of Dylan Gellner’s lack-of-weirdness (because he was weird), but because he no longer wanted to talk about Dylan Gellner at all.


But I’d already made up my mind. That night, I composed a fervent epistle full of Blues Traveler lyrics and drug references, and the next day at school, I pulled Travis aside during lunch and asked him to take a walk with me so that we could talk. He tried not to look too excited.


“I think,” I said, as I handed him the note, “that we should break up.”


“Oh, thank God,” he said. “I’ve been wanting to for weeks, but after you didn’t get into Brown Early Decision I figured you were too fragile to handle it.”


“Oh, I can handle it.”


We hugged and broke the news to our mutual friends, and then to our parents, who were all markedly more upset than we were. “I really liked Travis,” said Sharon to Travis’s mom, Phyllis, when they had a serendipitous run-in at Sundance, the health-food store down the street. “I miss Rebecca,” said Phyllis, a middle-school sex education teacher who was a little bit too supportive about the circumstances surrounding her son’s entry into manhood. (“I know you and Rebecca are planning to have sex while I’m out of town, so here is a variety pack of condoms. Don’t use my bed!”) I, meanwhile, had played up my heartbreak as high as the scale could possibly go, for the sole purpose of engineering Dylan Gellner as tear-stained confidant, an excuse for numerous earnest hand-pats and drawn-out hugs where I could again breathe in the intoxicating tea-scent of his hair and clothes.


There was only one problem left: Lisa, she of the pillowy lips and bedroom eyes, the Jolene to my Dolly Parton, except I didn’t have any boobs. For she had broken up with Travis’s friend Horacio, a Portuguese immigrant who was the undisputed Jim Morrison of South Eugene High. As a result, Lisa carried about her an aura of desirability I could never even begin to affect. Plus, she was much prettier than me, if I didn’t mention. So not only was the school’s most famous romance kaput, one of its certified finest girls was now a free agent.


And she’d been there the whole time: through the entire AP Civics Socialist Coup; every day in the library during free period—crossing and uncrossing those godforsaken gams—during all the literary “discussions” that always devolved into bullshitting about when Mr. Rasmussen was actually going to crack. She’d been there, right next to me, and she was into Dylan Gellner, too. I, despite being (according to me) Dylan Gellner’s long-lost intellectual soul mate, was way outgunned. There was no time to even pretend to be sad about Travis anymore. “The Next Village”! Life is astoundingly short! Go!


I made my move, need it even be said, in a note—the epistolary masterpiece of my short life, composed in the library while I was wearing my new certified-best outfit: black crushed-velvet leggings and a massive olive-green T-shirt printed with an ankh, with the neck cut out.


“I have intense feelings for you,” I confessed, “more intense than I have ever had for anyone, least of all Travis, whose relationship with me was unofficially over long before we broke up.” I knew Lisa liked him, I continued—but did she really like who he really was, or did she simply appreciate his attention, after losing Horacio’s? Did she read his stories? Was she willing to enter into a place, as per Steppenwolf (which I had now of course read, highlighted, and annotated), meant “for madmen only”? I was. Before I could think better of it, I unloaded my confession unto Dylan Gellner’s unsuspecting mitts, and then sat through a tortured session of AP Lit and half a tortured free period, in which I read the same incomprehensible page of Lucky Jim over and over again and wondered why it was supposed to be funny.


Finally, a shadow fell across my cubicle, along with a faint whiff of Earl Grey. I scarcely had time to wonder if a person’s ears could actually explode from the sound of the blood rushing in them before Dylan Gellner solemnly placed a neatly folded response onto the corner of the table. His face was inscrutable, and he walked away before I could start to read.


Here was the deal. Dylan Gellner vowed to cease all flirtation with Lisa, having been only briefly led astray by such shallow qualities as beauty, charm, niceness, humor, and general human appeal. However, he also declared it “much too soon” to embark upon any sort of nonplatonic relationship with another girl, whom he pointedly didn’t mention by name, who was sensitive and intelligent, but who needed “time without a boyfriend—not without friends.” I read that noble dismissal as a full-throated endorsement of our obvious destiny. To this day I don’t know how Dylan Gellner actually felt about me—but I do know that despite his highly cultivated sense of self-discipline (he woke up every morning two hours before school to read and do math for his own enrichment), he was also an eighteen-year-old boy. The spirit might resist, but the flesh would relent. I just had to time it right.


“Yes,” I agreed after I tracked him down in the cafeteria. “You’re right. Too soon. I’m sorry. Friends?”


“Friends.”


But look, friends can hang out after school—especially in a group, where one friend is decidedly colder to another friend he had only recently been flirting with and decidedly warmer to a third friend, for no reason at all. And friends can drive each other home from hanging out. I mean, friends do that all the time.


At six fifteen in the evening, two and a half days after I stomped into mock-trial practice awash in crocodile tears for the demise of my union with Travis, Dylan Gellner pulled up in front of my parents’ house and killed the engine of his gray 1985 Saab, in which I sat in the passenger seat. He removed the glasses he wore only to drive and placed them, folded, onto the dashboard. I was thinking: Life is astoundingly short, motherfuckers! I was also thinking that you don’t take your glasses off not to kiss someone.


“So,” I said. “Rebecca is duly confused about what to do.” We’d developed an inside joke over the last thirty-six hours. And yes, it was the most obnoxious affectation possible: a semi-ironic use of the third person when talking about ourselves.


Dylan Gellner put his hands on his knees and pressed them. “Dylan would like to kiss Rebecca, but it’s too soon.”


“Much too soon,” I said.


“I know.”


And then somehow Dylan Gellner’s face was in my face, or perhaps my face was in his. He tasted, unsurprisingly, like Earl Grey tea.


By the next day, a full seventy-two hours after the inauspicious conclusion of my relationship with Travis, Dylan Gellner and I were officially together. Lisa wasn’t talking to me (I had, after all, broken the unspoken pact between all teenage girls that once a boy is “claimed,” no true friend shall interfere), and Travis was, to my surprise, also not talking to me. He was over being with me, but not ready for me to be over being with him, a trait totally uncommon to mankind.


“Is there a fucking statute of limitations for mourning a relationship when the person you break up with refers to you as an impossible clinger he’s continued to date out of pity?” I spat at Samantha over the phone.


“I don’t know, Rebecca. How would you feel if Travis started dating, like, Lisa, yesterday?”


“That would never happen because Travis is best friends with Horacio.”


“Ugh, you know that’s not the point. What if he started dating me?”


“Ooh, do you like him? Why didn’t you tell me before?”


“You are being impossible right now.”


“Maybe, but do you know who doesn’t think I’m impossible? My new boyfriend Dylan Gellner, who said I was beautiful today. Or, you know, he passed me a note with a quote from an INXS song about a beautiful girl.”


“I’m hanging up now.”


Samantha’s disapproval didn’t register through my thick haze of don’t-give-a-fuck, because Dylan Gellner and I had just spent what I confidently deemed the most intellectually and emotionally significant afternoon of my life (possibly anyone’s life), sitting on top of his navy-blue plaid bedspread. It was our first time alone in his room since we had made out in his car, and to celebrate, he brought down his well-thumbed Schocken edition of Kafka’s The Complete Stories. He opened it wordlessly to the parable “Resolutions” and indicated that I should read it in its entirety, which I did:


To lift yourself out of a miserable mood should be easy, even if you have to do it by sheer strength of will. I rise from my armchair, run around the table, make my head and throat move, bring fire into my eyes, flex the muscles around them. Work against every feeling—greet A. heartily when he comes by, tolerate B. amiably in my room, force down everything said at C.’s in long draughts, despite the pain and effort it causes me.


But even then, with every mistake—and you can’t avoid them—the whole thing, easy and difficult alike, comes to a stop, and I must shrink back into my own circle again.


Thus the best advice is to take it all, to make yourself an inert mass, to feel as if you’ve been carried away, not to let yourself be lured into taking a single unnecessary step, to look at others with the gaze of an animal, to feel no peace—in short, to take whatever ghostly life remains in you and choke it back down with your own hand—that is, to enlarge the final peace of the grave and let nothing outside that remain.


A characteristic gesture in such a mood is the running of the little finger over the eyebrows.


What the fuck was this supposed to mean?


Interpretation A: Dylan Gellner was so brilliant and so pained, so trapped inside his own head, that he could not relate to a single other human being—how could he, when he scarcely felt human himself? Until, that is, yours fucking truly.


Interpretation B: Dylan Gellner was going to have some issues as a boyfriend.


But, as someone very wise (or at any rate very terrifying) once said, correctly understanding something and misunderstanding the same thing aren’t mutually exclusive. And anyway, who had time for minutiae when Dylan Gellner’s skin smelled like tea and sugar, and he had actual real hair on his chest, like a grown-up man?


“You remember Dylan Gellner, Mom.” I’d poked my head into her study later that night to interrupt her as she prepped a lecture.


“I do?”


“You know, the guy who got a 1450 on his SAT and admired your Hermann Hesse collection.”


“Oh, him.”


“Anyway, he’s my boyfriend now.”


“Great,” she said, not looking up from the copy of Frankenstein she was mauling with her bright green pen.


“I’m glad you’re happy for me, you know? Travis is so pissed. But, like, he didn’t care when we broke up! What does he want me to do, become a nun and make him a shrine?”


“Wait, what?” she asked. “I wasn’t paying attention.”


Things moved so fast that there wasn’t time to explain the particulars to my mom—not that I would have anyway. My parents and I kept our discussions of my burgeoning sexuality on a need-to-know basis, meaning they probably knew everything, but I needed them to pretend they didn’t. David Schuman, Ph.D., J.D., has a special gesture he makes, where he places both hands above his head in the shape of a sloped roof; the “hand house” is deployed during any discussions of tampons, cesarean sections, BDSM safe-word rules, and especially teen sexuality, which, as a teen, I would have rather impaled myself on one of my mom’s infernal green pens than discuss anyway. Sharon Schuman, Ph.D., meanwhile, was so palpably uncomfortable during any talk about My Changing Body during puberty that, simply so that I would not die of awkwardness, I shut her out around age thirteen and relied on the Eugene 4J School District’s comprehensive sex education curriculum to fill in the missing pieces. (This is probably why, at sixteen years old, I was still under the impression that the man finishes immediately upon entering the woman and then they wake up ten hours later wondering what happened, like in Top Gun.) Anyway, my parents had neither concern nor occasion to know how fast things were moving with Dylan Gellner. (I’d been taught about affirmative consent in sex ed, so I asked: “Do you want to have sex?” and although the answer was as curt as it had been to my request about the I Ching, it was in the affirmative.)


For a fleeting two months that I’m sure he quickly forgot thereafter, Dylan Gellner’s previous ambivalence about taking on a relationship with someone openly obsessed with him was eclipsed by the oxytocin high of intercourse. Thanks to the hormones that conquered his intellect and common sense, he was, for the better part of the spring of 1994, obsessed with me back. Poems were composed, full of heavy-handed symbolism: Dylan Gellner was an island; I was a bridge that led either to it or from it, I wasn’t sure (understanding and misunderstanding the same thing, etc.). Mix-tapes were mixed, bequeathed, and played until they warped: Nine Inch Nails’ “Something I Can Never Have”; Alice in Chains’ “Man in a Box,” Duran Duran’s “Come Undone,” Pearl Jam’s “Black.” Characteristically succinct sessions of coitus were followed by reverent viewings of Animaniacs.


When I wasn’t rolling around on Dylan Gellner’s polyester-covered bed, or politely turning down his mom’s invitation to dinner as I scurried out through her kitchen with my shirt inside-out, I was getting serious with his literary doppelgänger. The Trial I was still lukewarm about, but through it, and “Before the Law” especially, I’d learned about Kafka’s scores of haunting, unforgettable parables—just the right length for someone like me, equal parts very serious intellectual and person with the attention span of the first two verses of “Gin and Juice.” I rushed through my AP Lit assignments so that I could savor as many of those parables as possible. I held my breath through “Bachelor’s Unhappiness,” which is about exactly what it sounds like, and ends with the allegedly comforting reminder from the nameless narrator that at least he still has a forehead to smack with his hand. I spent days in an existential funk about “The Bridge,” the story of a man who stretches himself across a ravine and then tries to turn around to see who has walked halfway across him and then jumped up and down on his back. (“A bridge to turn around!” the narrator chides himself, before falling down onto the jagged rocks below.) The aching loneliness, the questions with no answers—these little stories climbed into my deepest speechless heart (as Rilke would say) and gave it voice.


Someday, I promised myself, I was going to read all of those stories, plus everything else Kafka ever wrote, in the language he wrote in: German. I knew by that point that Kafka had lived his whole life in Prague, which I still thought of as in Czechoslovakia even though it was the newly formed Czech Republic—and I knew they spoke Czech in Prague, but Kafka wrote in German because of something to do with the Austro-Hungarian Empire. (I had skipped AP European History.)


“You know, I like other authors, too,” said Dylan Gellner on a glorious late-May afternoon we were spending inside watching Pinky and the Brain. I’d just brought up “The Bridge” again, but Dylan Gellner had moved on to Finnegans Wake, even though James Joyce was Irish and looked nothing like him, and thus held little interest for me. I crossed my arms and stared disconsolately out the window; obviously the subtext here was that if I had a wider array of literary interests, I probably wouldn’t have just gotten rejected from five out of the six elite liberal arts colleges to which I’d applied after Brown spurned me (the sixth having yet to respond). If only I’d read fucking Finnegans Wake of my own volition as a high-school student, I’d probably have gotten into precious CalTech, where Dylan Gellner was headed in the fall.


“I’m late for the newspaper,” I said, rising from his rec-room floor and making sure my jeans were zipped before I traipsed by his mother upstairs.


After graduation, Dylan Gellner—who, since we no longer had to see each other at school every day, had been steadfastly avoiding me under the guise of looking for a summer job—ghosted on a date to go windsurfing with his buddies, which of course is what preppy ski guys do in the summer. When at last I managed to catch him on the phone, he beckoned me over to his house, where for the first time he did not lead me downstairs to his room. Instead, he sat me on the living-room couch, took a deep breath, and said: “Look, we’re leaving for college at the end of the summer anyway, and it’s useless to bide time. I like you fine, but this just isn’t working for me anymore.”


I don’t know what I’d been expecting. We hadn’t had a decent conversation in weeks (well, two weeks; our whole relationship had lasted three months to the day). We’d never discussed a long-distance relationship in college, and I was, to be honest, intrigued by the potential angst-ridden Kafka fans that awaited at Vassar, a.k.a. College #6, the single institution of higher learning that had deigned to accept me into its class of 1998. But I’d pictured a summer of Sisyphus and sex-filled camping trips before a tearful, lovelorn, and mutual farewell sometime in mid-August. Dylan Gellner was still the only person who had ever really understood how I felt about reading and writing, about being different (considerably deeper and more profound, obviously) than my peers—who had actually felt the same way. I was under the impression that even if we stopped seeing each other, we’d always feel that way together, and never really stop loving each other. Instead, Dylan Gellner solemnly informed me that he’d be needing the rest of the summer to himself to practice differential geometry, and so I shouldn’t call him or talk to him (he would allow one farewell meeting in the park, but he’d call me). On the way home, I briefly considered swerving off his winding street into one of the adjacent ravines.


Getting dumped by Dylan Gellner was the literal worst thing that had literally ever happened to me and so there was no hiding it from David and Sharon Schuman. As I sat in the TV room, unable to tear myself away from Animaniacs—I knew Dylan Gellner would be watching it, too, and he wouldn’t be able to stop us from having one last shared experience—with tears splattering onto the lap of my stonewashed jean shorts, I saw my dad’s lithe Semitic form fill the doorway and then shuffle to the couch, where he sat down beside me.


“Hey, Bek,” he said. “I heard you and, um, Dylan? I heard you broke up.”


I sniffled.


“I remember when my girlfriend in college broke up with me.”


Sniffle.


“I got really drunk. God, I was such an asshole.” He patted me three quick times on the thigh and disappeared back into his study.


I moped through days of work at my summer job stuffing envelopes for one of my mom’s friend’s charities, and I moped through composing my final local-newspaper columns before leaving for college (each of which had taken an un-Barryesque melancholy turn and contained at least three veiled references to the demise of my relationship). I moped through every afternoon, sprawled on my back in the middle of my parents’ long carpeted hallway, staring balefully at the ceiling.


One day in mid-July, my mom leaned over me and asked: “If you could be anywhere, anywhere at all, where would you be?”


“Dead.”


“Oh, come on.”


“Okay, then, camping by myself.”


She bought me a brand-new tent and let me use the car for the weekend. I forgot my Therm-a-Rest pad; my stove leaked and I set a picnic table on fire; I tried to take a hike, but ended up walking down a highway alone under the blazing hot sun, and I got chauffeured back to my campsite by a mom in a minivan who assured me that God had a plan for me. (Her giving a ride to a teenage drifter that day probably counted as her Christian charity for all of 1994.)


The only person I wanted to hang out with in the festering cesspool of my heartbreak was Franz Kafka. And, unsurprisingly, he was an even worse influence than my dad. Case in point #1: I stopped eating, inspired by the title character in the short story “A Hunger Artist,” about a circus performer who sits in a cage and starves himself for sport in front of an audience. I was actually thin for the first time in my life—but, as with the Hunger Artist, it took no effort, so I didn’t care. If only the spectators knew that fasting was the easiest thing in the world, thinks the Hunger Artist, before departing a world that doesn’t appreciate him, only to be replaced after his death by a slavering young panther. The Hunger Artist’s problem, I realized, was not that—in his own unreliable words—he’d never found the food he liked. It was probably just that he’d been dumped.


Case in point #2: Aside from The Metamorphosis, Kafka is primarily known for the strange request he made of his friend Max Brod upon his demise, of tuberculosis, at age forty, that all of his unpublished writing be destroyed. (Brod famously disobeyed.) Not to be outdone, seventy years later almost to the day, I wrote a journal entry that contained only the sentence “Pain is the lasting part of love”—and then I put that journal in the family charcoal barbecue and set it on fire.


As if the shame of it would outlive me.


 


Copyright © 2017 by Rebecca Schuman