I was in an Uber Pool (I guess they’re not called that anymore) with some stranger, both of us going to Brooklyn from Manhattan. Our driver crossed the Williamsburg Bridge, took the first exit, and then followed its loop all the way back onto the bridge, going in the opposite direction, reentering Manhattan. I wasn’t paying attention. My co-rider looked up, at the skyline that was supposed to be behind us, and said something. “Are we going the wrong way?” Our driver laughed. Yes, he had made a wrong turn.
This was a very time-consuming “wrong turn.” We had to go all the way back over the bridge, then get off somewhere in the Lower East Side and find a way back onto Delancey, which isn’t simple, since U-turns aren’t possible, there are so many one-way streets, and there’s always traffic. My co-rider wasn’t done asking our driver questions. What was he doing, instead of watching for the exit? He laughed again and pointed to a phone that was mounted to the left-hand side of his windshield, away from the GPS, which was mid-dash.
“What is that, a gossip website?” she asked. I looked at the small screen (phones were smaller then), making out a pink-and-purple layout; tiny photos of celebrities; text moving upward, ticker-like, in another language, maybe Korean; hearts and sparkles and whatever animating everything. It would be impossible to make out one headline, much less read these articles, and drive, I thought, and I guess that was being proven. Our driver was still smiling, pointing as if we could see the miniaturized information, as if we could read the foreign text and recognize the faces.
I knew from his wordless gestures that something huge had just happened to one of these celebrities, and he was too excited by this event to care about anything else. I was not as mad about the tardiness the detour had caused as I was about the indifference toward it, the way this guy was so elated by some gossip, or, more likely, the way in which he had received such gossip—in the middle of one of those maneuvers that make his job obnoxious, like taking the first exit off a bridge—that he could forget about the exit, about us.
It was a moment that resonated with me more than it had to because it felt like the beginning of some next phase. Already, I was disappointed by a lot. When I was in college, professors would talk about “cocktail parties,” as in “something overheard at” one, and I imagined that once I was done with my academic duties, I could apply all the theories and metaphors I’d learned to conversations, creating a context of higher education that would carry me through networks and nightlife and dependent relationships.
But then I was at cocktail parties, and there was never not some playacting aspect to them. Here we are, at a thing that was meant for people who had more to offer, when people could offer more. We’re worth only what we can promise later, now, I am told, in so many ways. It’s all potential, anticipating some later engagement. The real action happens on the highway, in cars heading home to outer boroughs, during a recap of everything that was missed while we were being handed champagne flutes—and come on, champagne flutes? It’s all a joke, isn’t it, that we’re even here?
In my therapist’s office, I try to stay on topic, but of course it comes down to this, to the crossroads of writer’s block. I’m not even a writer, I whine; I just went to school for it for six years, tutored, taught classes, took writing jobs, edited others, published, and then, you know.
Is it something you’re feeling about yourself, or about the world? she asks, I think, although I’m not really listening. I’m looking at the Dunkin’ cup I’m holding, which is marked with red-and-green lettering for Christmas. The exact hues—holly berry and evergreen needle—represent two of the only plants that keep their color in winter, in a certain part of the world (this part). I point to the cup. “This was a choice,” I say to my therapist, who knows I am hijacking, making the session into a presentation, so I stop myself. I never even say the word Christmas anymore, by force of habit, but those colors aren’t meant for some other holiday.
Everything can’t be so weighted, or else the words all sit too heavily on the page, each sentence a sign, a headline, a quote. “You can’t use quotation marks when your subject is thinking,” an old boyfriend once said to me. “That just looks like an echo.” Because the way letters look does affect the way we read them, obviously, and that goes beyond typefaces, colors, the religions those typefaces and colors reference, the contexts in which the words are read. We can think punctuation, like a set of double quotation marks, is simply too much like the comic strip code for quivering or resonating: short, concentric, semicircular dashes on each side of someone or something. (Thought, in a comic strip, is in a cartoon cloud, and it is connected to its thinker by a dotted line instead of a speech bubble’s pointed tail.)
What do greeting cards say on the inside these days? They still exist, at least in the Duane Reade across the street, but I never open them up. In another era, it was always a joke about aging, about needing a stud, about getting uncontrollably drunk because it’s your day to, about how this card is all you’re getting, not a prostitute as pretty as the one pictured on it. Now, maybe they are all blank, although I doubt that, because writing is everywhere, all the time, filling up the bubbles that are tethered to our brains.
I’m addicted to reading gossip, too, especially when it gets close to my life, threatening to destroy it. I pictured that Uber driver steering me, this stranger, and himself right into oncoming traffic and never breaking his smile, already having escaped into this little world I couldn’t translate. He could have been reading a set of codes simply for the pleasure of decoding. Sparkle, heart: newness, love, nothing more than that, like the words season’s greetings or a cold red and a colder green on the outside of a steaming coffee cup. “Sometimes,” reads the inside of a card about friendship or something, “it’s all you need.”
Natasha Stagg is a writer, brand consultant, and editor. She has published two books with Semiotext(e): Surveys and Sleeveless. She lives and works in New York City.
A version of this previously unpublished essay will appear in Artless: Stories 2019–2023, which will be published by Semiotext(e) in October.