The Rock Is Not a Rock

Sunday, January 15, 2023

I live in a one-bedroom apartment at the end of the 2/5, near Brooklyn College, on the outskirts of a neighborhood full of grand Victorian homes. Because I live within a certain radius of the college, I am considered a community member and allowed, for a small fee, an ID. I like to wander the campus, a project of the Works Progress Administration. I check out books from the library and swim in the pool. I sit on the steps of the science building, where I am never mistaken for a student. I moved here when I was young because I wanted to make films. Now you can make films from anywhere, but this is where I live.

I can see the college bell tower from my living room window, though the view in the summer is obscured by trees. One particularly tall tree, taller than our six-story building, shakes in the wind like someone dancing with too much arm. It is a dawn redwood. I watch it from my desk and imagine a storm in which it crashes down on our roof. I live on the fourth floor, so I don’t need to worry about the roof in any immediate sense. I rent this apartment from a woman who owns it, so I don’t need to worry about the roof in any long-term sense, either. But I do worry about the roof, because the building needs a new one.

“You feel for buildings the way most people feel for other people,” an old friend once observed. He was an Italian graduate student with a stress problem. He didn’t study film.

I understand what he meant. When I say old friend, I mean former, as in, no longer in my life.

Last week, I attended a party thrown by an organization where I applied for and did not receive a grant. The person who got the grant, whose film is now in theaters, was being celebrated. I don’t know how I made the invite list, but the party was at a restaurant where I like the tacos al pastor, so I went.

Servers offered trays with paper cups of esquites and wooden spoons. I took four, feeling it was my due since I had been passed over for the money. The award was for “mid-career filmmakers who have yet to break through” and I hesitated to even apply. Am I mid-career? Have I finished enough projects to warrant the title? 

I was working on the corn kernel stuck between a back molar and my gums when a young man sidled up to me and said, “Big fan.”

At first I thought he was referring to the large industrial fan that the restaurant had set up near the entrance to cool the space, which was essentially a warehouse with an open garage.

But he went on. “It’s obvious you didn’t go to film school.”

“Oh?” I said.

“I wrote about one of your scripts for a class I took on outsider art. The script is a mess, but then, on screen, it works.”

You can picture him. He is energized by his own words, he is oblivious.

“That’s instinct,” he tells me. “You’ve got it.”

I take another margarita from a passing tray.

“All these mistakes you make,” he goes on. “Simple things that most people learn year one. But somehow it works.”


“Are you one of the judges?”

I laugh.

Perhaps I have bypassed the middle without realizing it. Perhaps I am late-career and still “have yet to break through.” You’re not one for a big entrance, my ex observed back when we first met. It’s like you’ve been there all along.

My films don’t make money. For that, I do freelance video editing under the name Fine Video, LLC. The online reviews of my video work are mixed. One disgruntled bride said I made her look sad at her own wedding. “It feels like something important is missing,” an anonymous commenter wrote. But some people like my style. I have one regular client, the philanthropist wife of a hedge fund manager. Every Monday, we do all her social media posts for the week. I don’t need a crew because we shoot on a phone, so it’s just me and her and the rest of her hired help in her spacious loft in Dumbo. We mostly film in the kitchen, because she posts a lot about food. She is hoping to produce a cookbook. There is a chef there who makes the food, all based on recipes from Brazil, where the philanthropist is from. There is the philanthropist’s assistant, who buzzes around asking questions about schedules. There are various women constantly cleaning. There is a lanky, curly-haired college student everyone calls “the intern.” His name is Simon.

Periodically, the philanthropist disappears into one of her bedrooms to change. The videos are supposed to look like they were shot on different days, so she puts her hair up, lets it down, messes it. Sometimes she emerges dressed to go out, heels and all. More often she looks like she just did or is about to do some sort of gentle exercise.

“You make me seem like a human being,” the philanthropist once said about my editing work.

“You are a human being,” I said.

I have a habit of becoming friends with couples.

Take Gerhard and Jeannette, who live on the first floor of my building. Gerhard is older, a physician who moved here from Germany in the Eighties and would have retired by now were it not for their daughter choosing the only college that gave her nothing in scholarships. Jeannette is younger than me, and I have gathered over the years that they would not have married had she not become pregnant at twenty-one and had Gerhard not believed strongly in personal responsibility and been so staunchly antichoice. He has become more liberal over the years, it seems, but back then, she tells me, he was very conservative.

And so they married, and so they had a baby named Alma, and so they moved into the first floor of my building and began keeping their door open so that their young daughter could play in the hallway. In those years, they treated the building lobby like an extension of their living room. Jeannette would shrug at people getting off the elevator or coming in from the cold and say, “Apartment life.” But we all lived apartment lives and generally kept them contained.

They really weren’t my type of people, for this reason and others, but Hurricane Sandy brought us together. As news grew more alarming and the skies began to darken, Jeannette and Alma, who was a preteen at the time, came up and knocked on my door. They were concerned about being on the ground floor. They wanted to know if they could shelter with me for a while. Jeannette called Gerhard and told him to join us, and he did. I opened a bottle of wine and jokingly offered some to Alma. “Just a splash,” Gerhard said. So I poured her just a splash.

We did not watch the news. We decided it was better to learn what had happened when it was over. Rain lashed the windows. We played Monopoly, a dusty box I dragged out from under my bed. Gerhard took an interest in my work and spoke to me wistfully about his favorite films, obscure German arthouse stuff. Jeannette made a good banker and was strategic with her placement of houses and hotels.

After the storm, which flooded the building’s basement and boiler room and left us without heat for the first part of the winter, we began holding game nights. Usually, I went down to their apartment, which was full of artifacts from Gerhard’s travels (pre-Jeannette) and exercise equipment (post-Jeannette). Jeannette, at the time, was getting her certification to teach Pilates and had bought a massive—and obscenely expensive, Gerhard informed me—contraption that consisted of a table and many straps and pulleys. It was called a reformer. One could lie on the reformer and have their body stretched and contorted in all different directions. It was good for the spine, Jeannette told me, but it looked like a torture device. “I don’t want to be reformed,” I said. Eventually she sold it and became a devout follower of a school of movement called the Alexander Technique, which requires no equipment. Now, her students come to her apartment, and she charges one hundred dollars an hour to teach them how to stand up straight.

Alma got older and began hanging out with her own friends and finally left for a school that was not only expensive but on the other side of the country, and that cemented our threesome. Gerhard, Jeanette, and I order in and play games every Friday night. They seem to like each other more now that their child is gone, or perhaps they are finally getting to know each other.

In recent years around this time I have begun to feel a sense of dread, which I attribute to both the shortening days and the approach of my building’s annual shareholders meeting. The building is a cooperative, and once a year the joint owners come together for an update from the board of directors followed by a discussion of any important building matters. From what Jeannette tells me, it’s essentially a two-hour-long airing of grievances. Gerhard does not attend.

As a renter, I am not invited to the annual meeting, but it is very much on my radar because a small but vocal contingent of my neighbors has been petitioning the board to evict me and a handful of other renters. Technically, shareholders in the building are only allowed to sublet their units for two years at a time, but the rule went unenforced until a few years ago, when this group began to put up a fuss. Shareholders, they pointed out, have an interest in the ratio of owners to renters living in the building; when the percentage of renters is too high, the banks begin to take notice. New buyers have a harder time getting mortgage loans, which means shareholders have a harder time selling. The entire system is built upon the notion that renters are inherently unstable.

I have lived here for twenty-one years. At first, Jeannette and Gerhard assured me that my longevity would keep me safe. “It’s nearly impossible to evict someone in New York,” said Jeannette, but then it happened to another renter who had been here for three decades. The group laid out their case at the shareholders meeting and presented to the board dozens of signatures they’d gathered via the building listserv.

According to Jeannette, the case against the renter was flimsy—something about him being a hoarder and his hoarding being a fire hazard—but one of the board members had a personal vendetta against the shareholder from whom he rented. There is no real oversight process, and the board members are volunteers with no legal training. 

I begged Gerhard and Jeannette to run for the board. Gerhard refused. Jeannette did run and lost to a woman who campaigned on a promise to secure from the city a public trash can on our block. That was three years ago and there is still no trash can, but that woman has held onto her seat.

I love my apartment. The floors are the original herringbone parquet. They were in bad shape when I moved in, but I paid to have them restored. “For a rental?” my ex said. I didn’t have the money at the time, but I’ve never regretted it.

The building was built in 1927. It’s a large building with simple Art Deco touches. No one to impress back then, just families to house, an influx of immigrants from Ireland, Italy, Eastern Europe, surprising the wealthy families who lived in the big houses, surprising them all the way to Long Island. Then, over time, people made their way from Haiti, Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, bought up the abandoned houses, made them homes again. This neighborhood is layer upon layer, and that’s why I love it. Property values have increased significantly since I moved here, but my landlord hasn’t seemed to notice. If I lose this apartment, I will have to leave the neighborhood altogether.

I spent most of my thirties making a documentary about a communal society of female weavers in northern Vermont. I followed one woman through their stages of initiation. A new weaver seeks admission, like a postulant seeking acceptance from an order of nuns, and must begin as an apprentice, even if she has been weaving her whole life. They make their art collaboratively, so she must learn their ways.

Once she has studied under one of the master weavers and has demonstrated a thorough understanding of their craft, she is admitted as a weaver and gains a vote in the political system of the community. Until then, she must perform the drudge work—the cleaning, the cooking, the snow removal—and has no vote or voice. The apprenticeship takes as long as it takes, and approval is entirely up to the discretion of the master weaver to whom one has been assigned. Most of these women spend several years as apprentices, and some grow tired of waiting and leave the commune. I discovered during my interviews that some master weavers have an acceptance rate of zero. What they are looking for is not only a certain technique or level of skill but also, I observed, a particular philosophy or spiritual attitude.

The woman whose apprenticeship I followed was in that role for seven years. She was eighteen when I began filming her, a local girl for whom college was not an option. Her family ties were not strong. She was full of hope and excitement at the idea of being among other women.

I drove up there every few months. At first I stayed in a nearby motel, but after several trips the women decided that I could stay on their farm. They taught me how to shear a sheep. They put me to work, which I didn’t mind. It gave me the experience of being an apprentice. I stayed for six weeks every summer.

I thought my subject’s story would end with acceptance, a joyful ceremony and an earnest celebration of community and art. But she grew sober, and then bitter. Left outside the inner circle, she withered.

I made one visit to her after she left the commune, but I didn’t include any of the footage in my final cut because she asked me not to. She didn’t want the women to find out that she had married a man, had had a baby, no longer wove at all, the final defeat.

“My therapist has been encouraging me to be gentle with my past self,” Jeannette says.

“Like who you were in past lives?” I am surprised that her therapy has taken a metaphysical turn. Jeannette sees her therapist twice a week and frequently quotes from their sessions. I can picture this woman. She is younger than Jeannette but more put together. She owns her practice and only takes self-pay patients, mostly middle-aged white women.

“No, like the self I was twenty years ago, or ten years ago. Or like child me. You should try therapy.”

“Nina doesn’t need therapy,” Gerhard says from the kitchen. “She’s already happy.”

Jeannette is annoyed by the way he butts into conversations in order to undermine her. Therapy has helped her recognize this as a pattern. “Sometimes happiness on the surface hides a whole lot of repressed emotions,” she calls over her shoulder. “And anyway,” she says, turning back to me, “there’s more to life than being happy, as any parent can tell you.”

This idea underpins my relationship with Jeannette, at least from her perspective: that the two of us experience different levels of life because she is a mother, and that her experience is inherently higher or better or more important than mine. She has all but said it.

I was, briefly, pregnant, once. I ended it, like I ended the relationship from which it sprang. A series of sporadic dates, a loose collection of cells swimming in an ocean of hormones. I felt like shit for weeks afterward. The whole thing was a shock: I don’t even normally sleep with men, aside from my ex.

This is information I keep from Jeannette, who is theoretically for a woman’s right to choose but who has said things like, “I could never make that choice myself.”

“If you have children,” she used to say when we first met. “You’ll understand what it means to be sleep-deprived.” “You’ll feel a new kind of love.” “You’ll experience a different connection to the community.” She has stopped saying these things because now I am old, too old in her mind for children.

After we broke up, my ex fell in love with a movie star. They actually met at a party we attended together, though I believe my ex when he says that nothing happened until later. The movie star is one of those who is known more for her striking looks than for her acting abilities, although her acting is not bad. She is in the kind of romantic comedies that still advertise via television commercials, and sometimes she surprises me out of nowhere. On the inside of an abandoned tabloid lying face up in the street. On the TV hanging above the boarding area in the airport. Plastered across the side of a city bus.

It is strange for me to see them together, which sometimes I do because she is the kind of movie star the paparazzi go to when they can’t get anything really juicy. Her life seems quiet. She lives with my ex in a modest house in Los Angeles, the city to which I refused to move. They have a dog. They eat lunch at outdoor cafes. Every so often, there are pictures of her baby bump but no baby ever arrives. I check occasionally, because I know he wants kids, or at least he did back then, and she is almost forty now. 

My ex is never named. The names of screenwriters are not important in this kind of media. He is usually referred to as her boyfriend. Recently I saw one video clip where they called him her long-term partner. I guess it has been a long time.

The philanthropist is morose. She has a tendency to fixate on tragedies and random acts of violence. Intentional acts of violence don’t seem to bother her as much. “Money was owed,” she says to explain away the murders committed by the leader of a drug ring whose trial is all over the news. But there has been in recent weeks a spate of knifings on the subway, and then last week, in her own neighborhood, a section of scaffolding collapsed and killed a man. This inevitably brings up the story of her great-uncle, who had a seizure while driving and killed a pedestrian. “That is the definition of tragedy,” the philanthropist says. “No one at fault, and an unhappy ending for everyone.”

She says this while forcefully reaming a lemon. Simon the intern seems fixated on the philanthropist’s upper arms. The philanthropist’s assistant tells him to go downstairs and help the chef with the grocery delivery.

This is why she has become a philanthropist, the philanthropist says. Because there is so much undeserved tragedy in the world, those who are able have a duty, an obrigação, to give undeserved gifts. It’s a matter of balance, she explains, adding another spent lemon half to the pile, a stack of little yellow hats.

It is the same with food, she says. Making and giving food is a way to counter the injustices of the world. “Write that down,” she says to Simon, but he is downstairs helping the chef, so I write it for her on the nearest notepad. FOOD = BALANCE. JUST/UNJUST.

Jeannette calls—she never calls—to tell me that her daughter Alma has been diagnosed with brain cancer at twenty-two. Gerhard is a physician, but not that kind of physician. Alma has seen two specialists, one in California, where she was preparing for her senior year of college, and one here. They flew her home last week in order to commandeer the situation. Gerhard blames the university health system for not catching it sooner. “They tell us it’s aggressive,” Jeannette says. “She felt fine in June.”

I ask if there is anything I can do, knowing there is not really.

“We’re going to spend some time with Alma tonight,” Jeannette says, because it is Friday, our game night. “Just the three of us, as a family.”

I tell her I understand. I call the local deli and order them soup, as if Alma has a cold that simply needs to be warmed and nourished.

One of the philanthropist’s posts goes viral. Six hundred thousand likes and counting. It’s a video of her hand dropping an egg into a pot of boiling water. The egg hits the bottom of the pot and cracks, and a ribbon of white albumen unspools into the water and hardens in the shape of a heart. The philanthropist’s nails are long and metallic gold. On her first finger is a large ring that glitters with dozens of inlaid jewels, emeralds and sapphires and diamonds. “Shit,” she said when the egg cracked, but I chose an audio track timed perfectly to the unspooling of the egg white. Stravinsky. Violins.

The philanthropist tells me I am a genius. Some people see the Virgin Mary in the spongy white heart. She responds to their comments, claiming that she has kept it, though I saw her throw it out with the water from the pot. She did not yet know that the video would be the video. She peeled the egg and ate it, but she did not eat the white that had come into contact with the water.

The philanthropist wants to capitalize on the momentum of the egg white video. She schedules an extra session. She drops more eggs into boiling water, but the results are ugly and messy, a pot of cloudy water with egg bits floating in it. She moves on to a pan of sizzling oil, dropping in julienned vegetables in a variety of colors. She brings out a griddle pan and makes corn cakes. She slices meat from a skewer with the largest knife she can find.

I spend days on post-production, trying to re-create the essence of the egg, but this new footage has no serendipity. Her followers like and comment, but nothing takes off. She loses some followers, people who were only here to be bewildered.

I take the bus out to Riis Beach early in the morning, before the crowds arrive. It is plover season, and the young plovers are learning to fly.

I stand before the bathhouse with its tacked-on beach pavilion. Of all the Brooklyn WPA projects, this one is my least favorite. The bathhouse was originally built in the Western Islamic and Byzantine styles, with Art Deco and Art Moderne elements added after the fact by Robert Moses because he disliked the arches and ornamental arabesques. It was the reconfiguration, just four years after the original structure was finished, that was funded by the WPA. Moses brought in roads, the Marine Parkway Bridge, and a huge parking lot, at the time the largest paved parking lot in the world.

The parking lot, at this early hour, is empty. I wander around the entry pavilion and stand beneath the remaining archways. I take photos of the marble columns, with their carvings like lace.

I walk out to the water. From the shoreline, I can see it, the building that existed before the hulking streamline structure was added. The more delicate brick with its intricate details. If I were to make a film about the buildings of New York, I would include these lines from a poem by Kenneth Koch: “When you come to something, stop to let it pass / So you can see what else is there.”

On the morning of the annual shareholders meeting, Jeannette asks me to go for a walk, which is not our custom. I meet her in the lobby. She is wearing athletic shorts and a sports bra with bright pink sneakers. Her long hair is pulled back, and she is already marching in place. I am dressed in my usual clothes for this time of day and year: linen pants with an elastic waistband that doesn’t pinch me while I sit, a cotton tee shirt, and orthopedic slide sandals. I did not understand that by “walk” she meant exercise.

We take off at Jeannette’s pace, and I do my best to keep up. She swings her arms and does most of the talking, because she is practiced at breathing while moving. Breath support, in fact, is a frequent topic of conversation for her, conversation in which I have nothing to say because I don’t fully understand what she means when she talks about engaging the lower abdominals.

We walk toward Ocean Parkway, where there is a bicycle path. Jeannette tells me about a restaurant that she and Gerhard went to years ago, “the best squid ink pasta of my life,” and I ask how many squid ink pastas she has had. She doesn’t answer but instead tells me that the place has been shut down over a tax evasion scheme, which she read about in this morning’s paper, which is why she thought of the pasta. Perhaps she could try to make it at home. She has never purchased squid ink.

Finally, as we are crossing Coney Island Avenue, she says that she will make it for Alma, who was not at that restaurant years ago, who was home with a babysitter. It was a date night, just Jeannette and Gerhard. “I wish we’d brought her,” she says, and begins to cry.

It is something, how she is able to cry and speed-walk while keeping her head up and her back perfectly straight and her shoulders relaxed and her arms swinging. The tears roll freely down her cheeks and mingle with the sweat on her chest, and if I didn’t know her, I wouldn’t know they were tears at all.

I am sweaty, too, and have developed a side stitch. “What did the doctors say?”

The houses have given way to car repair shops and takeout restaurants. The air quality in our immediate vicinity is poor, and Jeannette waits to answer until we have crossed Ocean Parkway and are again in a neighborhood, not our neighborhood and far enough from home for us to feel anonymous and almost alone.

“They want to try an experimental treatment,” she says.

“That’s good news, isn’t it?”

“It means they have no real options.”

Jeannette stops. It takes me a moment to realize, and I have to turn and walk back to the iron fence where her hand rests. I follow her gaze to the open upstairs window of a clapboard townhouse. Gauzy curtains, purple with white stars, hang still in the heat.

“I need to focus on what’s important,” she says.

“Of course,” I say. Now that we have stopped moving, the blood rushes to my hands, and my fingertips pound as if the skin will burst. I want to ask if tonight’s shareholders meeting falls under the category of “important,” if she will still advocate for me as promised, and after all, there is no shame in wondering. We are both bracing ourselves for grief. 

Before I can ask, she wipes her cheeks and straightens her ponytail and turns to face me, suddenly more formal. There is a clarity in the way she looks at me, as if she could tell what I was thinking. “If you don’t mind,” she says, “I think I will walk home by myself.”

Once, Jeannette told me that I push people away. It’s true that none of the people who were in my life ten years ago are still in it, unless you count my mother. People move, people get busy. Some of them took jobs that consumed them. Some of them voted for fascists. “But you look for reasons to cut people out,” she said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if you ended our relationship with no notice and no ceremony.”

I remember thinking how right she was, how one day I would decide I no longer wanted her in my life.

“I see,” I say. I always thought that it would be me who moved on, but now it is clear: Jeannette has already begun the process of setting me adrift.

She walks away in the direction of our building, faster than I have ever seen her move. And then she breaks into a run.

My friend the Italian graduate student, the one with the stress problem who didn’t study film, helped me move into this apartment. Together, we carried all my boxes up three flights of stairs because the elevator was broken that day. Though he complained the whole time, we ended the night eating pad Thai out of takeout containers while gazing out the window at the bell tower against the backdrop of a brilliant pink sunset, and he said, “I can see why you fell in love with this place.”

At the time, he was experiencing constant crises with his thesis advisor: the advisor didn’t answer emails, the advisor was always rushing my friend off the phone, the advisor went on a semester-long sabbatical and neglected to inform my friend. I was worried my friend would give himself an ulcer with the way he worked himself up, pacing around my living room, sighing and throwing open the curtains. One of those days, I sat him down on the rug and told him to close his eyes.

There’s this river, I told him. The Kishwaukee, but people call it the Kish. The water is calm and warm, and we’re floating on bright red inner tubes. You’re floating, I’m floating. Ismene’s floating, Rob’s floating.

Who’s Ismene? Who’s Rob?

Shh. On either side of the river are lush green sycamore trees. You lie back and skim the water with your fingers. The sun is strong and it makes you sleepy. We drift around a bend. To your right, there is a slab of smooth gray rock. But wait. The rock moves.

What kind of story is this?

The rock slides into the water. The rock is not a rock. The rock is a river otter.

My friend opened his eyes and took out his phone to redial his advisor. Not long after that, he left his program and moved back to Italy. I haven’t heard from him in years.

Sunday, January 15, 2023