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On July 4th, we went to meet Matt and Kaye on the Lower East Side and sweated around looking for a restaurant and ended up at the Greek place across the street from Matt’s apartment. We ordered half the menu at the restaurant, hungry and heat-struck and frazzled, and couldn’t finish it, and brought most of it home in heavy bags. I don’t think it’s possible to be so happy that I wouldn’t be jealous of friends who are in the first few months of love. Later they both posted videos on Instagram of people setting off fireworks on the street below the fire escape, a small rocketing line up to the sky and then a bright boom, over and over again, something that seems like it could kill you, and doesn’t. That was always my dream of this city, watching it from a fire escape, in it and not in it, like the inconsequential angels stuck in cloudy edges of paintings, above the grasping human action. My dad described that version of New York from when he first lived here, a place viewed from the fire escape five floors up from the street, a place that felt like when people in movies smoke cigarettes, a place where it was always the hottest day of the year.
The joke about New York is that it’s not actually in America, that it leans aggressively off the edge of the continent, an island doing its best to float away. And yet everybody throws a party for Fourth of July, the whole city smelling like crusty smoke from fireworks and from grills, the night dissolving into low booms and the smell of sparks against wet pavement. Maybe we’re all just celebrating a day off, planted in the middle of the week like a flag. Maybe we aren’t so different from anywhere else. At night, the streets smell like sulfur and the cats scurry and hide under the bed. I think for a minute that the fireworks are the final unsurprising crisis, the end of the world, but I think that about everything lately, a car backfiring, a door slamming a block away. Right at the edge of it there’s always relief, glad to at least be done waiting.
Independence is a shitty thing to celebrate, even if America weren’t a giant sinking plague ship. I’ve spent a lot of time, like a lot of people, trying to figure how to do love, how to get it right, whatever it is, living up close with other people, being wanted, being loved, the negotiation of a human condition that asks to somehow square desire and comfort together into the same small boxed equation. Almost uniformly, these conversations come back to independence. To be loved, one must be self-sufficient, whole in oneself, needless. Neediness is something anyone can smell coming off of you like the stink of unwashed clothes; love is guaranteed only by not needing love, maybe by not even wanting it, by turning and walking fast in the other direction.
These same ideas are the ones that say that the last thing anyone wants is to be obligated. Obligation is the great looming monster, the death of both desire and love, a way to make people hate you by needing them. Obligation, this line of thinking says, bricks up the windows of love’s house, turning it into a trap, suffocating anything that lives inside. People should be with you because they want to be with you, show up because they want to show up, be kind because they want to be kind; everything should be done because it’s spontaneous and joyful, because no one asked for it, because no one needs it, as though the whole long line-strung story of a relationship from one impulse to another could be the feeling of cutting class and going to the beach on a beautiful day. If we could require nothing from one another, then we could all exist as pure desire.
The idea that you should need nothing from anyone, that it’s actually doing people a favor to be as absent as possible from them, that even when in a relationship people should have separate lives, separate needs, separate means of fulfilling those needs, at face value makes sense. No one wants to be one more thing on a list of errands; no one feels romantic about a reminder that you have to take the trash down to the curb. Grabbing onto this line of thinking like the stretched-out rope from a life preserver, I used to believe that if I was cruel to and distant from people, they were most likely to love me. I assumed that the greatest form of self-actualization and self-love was being accountable to no one and asking no one to be accountable to me. There was a time when I truly believed that keeping myself walled off from needing anything was lovable or even possible. It maybe isn’t even necessary to say that this time was probably the neediest and least lovable I have ever been in my life. But I believed it was independence, as shining and grand as a flag in the smoke-flavored air on a holiday.
Obligation is unpretty. It’s neither fun nor glamorous, it’s an everyday, banal emotion, going to the grocery store and cleaning the toilet bowl and doing the dishes, the repetitive, often slightly gross, decidedly un-wondrous register of living. It is also the single thing that binds us to other people, the grace that makes us mean more than our own small pointless interior storms. If societies are worth anything, are in any way worth praising or working to uphold, it is obligation that makes them worthy of effort. One of the few arguments left for the state is that in its ideal form, a state is a larger net of obligation, an ever-expanding reminder to care about people, to look beyond the door of one’s own room.
Really, the idea of love without obligation is kind of just another word for being a dick. Wanting everything to work in the register of desire rather than duty is an inherently childish idea. But more and more it seems that this is what we mean we say that we as a country are celebrating independence. America loves the word freedom, splashed across stores and banners and cars and advertisements, gun expos at the side of the road between nowhere and nowhere, and old-money opinion columns justifying in polite grammar everyday cruelties and horrors. It is worth celebrating the freedom of those who have been denied autonomy, but America has little if any claim on that noble side of the term. When we celebrate our independence, when we name our country’s birthday independence day, it refers to a country whose ideal has always been bigness, whose siren offering is that of enough space to never have to be close enough to anyone, free from sympathy, free from guilt for one’s part in someone else’s misfortune. America defines itself by the same paper-thin, bragging philosophy of someone trying to convince you that their refusal to acknowledge that you’ve slept together or to be nice to you in public is because love isn’t about obligation. The only best of ourselves is our obligation to one another; being free of these ties provides the wide open space that this country worships, but in those spaces it shrivels us down to pointless specks in an uncaring landscape.
New York, for all its well-worn jokes and pretensions, is much America as anywhere. The skyscrapers of the wealthy stand in for wide open fields. Here, if you can afford it, you can live in a rooted glass spaceship so far enough off the ground that you never have to notice that you owe anyone anything. You can float in an uncaring cloud city, with everything you need delivered to the door, a transactional life broken up into clean and independent pieces.
For those of us unable to afford that version of New York, summer here is hell. I had sweated through my dress on that Wednesday before I even got to the restaurant. I went and laid down on the tile floor of a public bathroom in a different restaurant on the way there. My skin left a wet print on the floor. I stepped outside and everything stank of garbage. Obligation feels like this, a hot day before the trash collectors come; love feels like that a lot of the time, too. If I am glad that I cannot afford the clean skyscraper version of the city in which nothing is ugly from far enough away, it is because not being able to do so plunges me into the dirty-handedness of obligation. If I spend too much time romanticizing the dirt and the stink and the horror and the exhaustion here, one reason of many is that at least these things, crawling along the filthy sidewalks, are a reminder that nobody makes it alone, that we all encroach on one another. The ground floor of New York on a hot day is an argument on a street corner, of the kind of conversation you have to just have until it’s done. It’s getting up at an inopportune hour and traveling across two subway lines to go find a friend in a crisis and maybe just sit near them. I didn’t want to go out that day. As soon as I was downtown I kept saying I should have stayed home, and then late in the afternoon, after too much food and hours of bad jokes and overly confessional conversation, I was glad, in the manner of being glad after a hard workout, that I had left the house, done the thing, mined through something unpleasant for the spaces of collision with others.
Thomas and I went home before the fire escape and the fireworks. We had emails to send; we had to work the next day. We comforted the cats when they ran under the bed, when they turned into small, shaking balls at all the booms outside. The next day there was the same list of things that had to be done, small graces and details, mistakes and apologies, threads to tie to one another. Most of the map of experience, of love, of things we’ll later toss in the air and coat with glitter and run through filters to make into grand stories about how much we’ve felt and how good we were, are a plodding list of one thing and then another that we didn’t really want to do, a long scroll of actions when we would have preferred to sit on the couch and do nothing. This crowded, itching, bound-up smallness makes meaning out of our lives, elevates us beyond the childish register of want and have, out of the long cruelty of independence.