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The Problem at Hand

by Alan Rossi

He told her she should do what she wanted to do, and if she wanted to do this then that’s what he thought she should do. She should do what she wanted to do, he told her. And maybe it’d be good. But that was the thing, he told her. Ultimately, if she went because that’s what she felt she was supposed to do, or because she thought it’d make an interesting article or essay or chapter of her life, ultimately it wouldn’t help. And also, she couldn’t depend on him for this decision. Don’t do it for him or for anyone else or for her work because she thought she was supposed to. They stood quietly for a moment, on her balcony, sharing a cigarette. The city beyond her condo was blinking on and off, all that space between them and it, the city looming and geometrical and lighted against the snow-sky horizon, like a tableau of technology taking over biological life. She said that what she really wanted to know, what would help her make this decision, was whether he wanted her to go, to do this. It would be life changing. A whole new life. A clean life. She said she wanted to know what he wanted. She could postpone her job; she could postpone the journalism; she couldn’t postpone them, him and her. So she said that she needed to know what he wanted because there was no way for her to know clearly and finally what she wanted unless she knew what he wanted. She was depending on him here for some advice, some insight on her situation. He told her to look, that if she really felt she must go then go but that there was no way he was going to tell her to go or not go, even though he preferred that she stay. He wasn’t going to make her lean one way or the other, or make this decision for her, because that would be manipulative. She quickly said she didn’t want him to make the decision. She was perfectly capable of making the decision. She said she was aware of the failed person on substances who pulls herself up by her bootstraps cliché. She was aware of the idea that if she went and did this that it would constitute a meaningful marker not just in her life, but as part of the narrative of her life, which was also part of her career as a journalist, and yes, she was fully of aware of this trap, and she wouldn’t go because it could somehow make a neat little narrative, the reformed columnist, the journalist reborn. She was aware that her parents believed she should go, and she wouldn’t go because of them. She was aware of the pitfalls here. She just wanted to know what he wanted, for her, to which he replied that he wasn’t going to manipulate the situation like he manipulated so many situations. He wasn’t going to manipulate her into doing or believing what he wanted her to do or believe. She told him that he didn’t manipulate situations, not all of them. She was smoking a long smoke from her cigarette. She blew the smoke out toward the cityscape, lights blinking and defining the outlines of buildings. The smoke she blew out obscured the buildings and lights, then dispersed. It was very cold. There was a line of clouds moving from behind the city in a kind of beautifully slow lurch. He reminded her that she herself had told him he manipulated situations. He reminded her that she herself had told him that he often manipulated her, that he often found complicated yet subtle ways of showing her how he believed she should raise Jacob, that he often found complicated yet subtle ways of making her feel bad about not cleaning the bathroom, or not mopping the floors, or not vacuuming the dust bunnies left by the cat, not disciplining Jacob correctly, not saving enough money. Etc, he said. He told her he was very aware of his tendency to manipulate. She told him that he didn’t manipulate all situations. You only manipulate situations you feel you have no control over, she said. He laughed and said through the laugh that he felt he had no control over any situation. Let’s stop talking about manipulation and just tell me what you want me to do, she said. Rehab or not? Go or not? Did he feel she had a dependency or not? Just at least tell me what you feel about it, she said to him, smoking her cigarette. I won’t see it as manipulative, she said. Or, she said, she would understand that what he was trying to do was either trying to help her and be unmanipulative or only think of himself and be manipulative. But that’s the problem, he said. He said the problem was very obvious, see. Ultimately, if he told her to go, she would think he was not being manipulative. She would think that he had some deep concern for her. At the same time, he said, this would probably make her upset and angry because she would then know that he believed she had a serious dependency problem. A dependency so bad that it needed professional treatment. So, though she would understand, he explained, that he was thinking of her and not himself, she would also believe he was judging her and that he thought she really had a serious problem. So you don’t think I have a serious problem? she said. I’m not saying that, he said. I’m not saying that at all. Though it sort of is what you’re saying, she said. What I’m saying is what my problem is, he said. You have the question of whether you have a problem or not, but see I’ve got the actual problem of what to say, he said. If I told you to go it could be a manipulation of myself, for instance. If I said you should go, for instance, it’d allow me to believe that, yes, I can view this clearly, I can easily say: you have a dependency problem, he said. And the even bigger problem, even moreso than maybe the seeming problem at hand, he said, was that if he thought she should go, then maybe he should be thinking he should go as well. Maybe he also had a dependency problem, too. She told him to just stop for a minute here, just stop. Because she wanted to say that this was what she didn’t like. She didn’t like that he took the problem at hand, which was her problem, her dependency, and turned it into something about himself. It was fine if he wanted to discuss his problems with her later, but right now they were discussing her problem, her different dependencies, on substances and even, she admitted, on him, too. He had them, too, though, he said. He had his own dependencies, and they were tied up in her dependencies. His problems were part of her problems. She stood there, pulling another cigarette from the pack and said she wasn’t sure she liked his tone. The city was blinking, a central mass of light and no-sound on the horizon. He cocked his head and said, My tone? My tone? That tone, she said, pointing. Right there. Okay, he said, nodding. I get it. That’s better, she said. It was very cold and the clouds that had seemed to be moving from behind the city were now beyond it and closer. The sky had that orangish dark quality that winter skies have when the winter sky is lighted by a nearby city. She said that he was thinking about it all too much and that if he stopped for just a second and just answered honestly that that would be all she wanted from him. All she wanted from him was only openness and honesty, an open and honest opinion of what he wanted her to do. The first few flakes began to fall. The air did that strange thing where when it begins to snow it actually seems to get warmer. She tried to catch a snowflake on her palm, still holding her cigarette. Then she tried to blow smoke at some snowflakes and make them melt in midair. He told her that this was the last thing he was going to say. He felt it gathering up in him. He felt himself letting it go out of him, like a surfacing scuba diver, some great pressure released. All he could say was that she had to go for herself and not because of her career arc as a potentially recovered journalist/columnist or because her parents thought she should go or because of anything he thought. He was gesturing with his hands, slashing things in the air. And he thought that, really, part of the problem here was that he felt she wanted to have a problem so that she could have something to improve. That was really it. He grabbed at the air with both hands, as if holding some invisible ball. He felt she wanted to have a problem, all her own. So she had to create and make some problem, not a serious problem, not a life-threatening problem, but still a problem nonetheless, so that she could feel like she had something to improve and was therefore doing something with her life. Not because of her career or parents or him, he said, gesturing like cutting things away, but so that she could feel unique, so she could feel special to herself. This problem is so that you can feel you have some control and significance, he said. He watched her. She was almost finished with the cigarette, and he stepped toward the sliding glass door, thinking it was over. The city was reflected dimly in the glass of the door, just the alien lights and sketch of buildings. So you think that I want to have a problem so that I can feel like I’m a good person? she said. A good, special person for addressing the problem? she said. Not that exactly, he said, stepping back from the door. But yeah. And, she said, so what you think is that my having this problem gives me the impression that I’m a good person, fighting the good fight, and that by having the problem and going to rehab, I’ll be being a good person. He saw she was angry now and replied by saying he didn’t say that exactly, but sort of, and she said, then, what she wanted to know, since what this was all about was, apparently, was her feeling good about herself, her making up a problem so that she could feel good about herself, then did that mean that his problems were more real than hers? Did that mean that because his problems weren’t about his feeling good, that, in reality, his problem was that he lived with someone who believed she had a problem and this was the actual problem at hand here. Was that what he was saying here? He shook his head, but she was going again. She told him that maybe what his problem was was not that he was manipulative, but that he constantly thought everything was about him. That her leaving to do this was somehow about him? Maybe that was it? What did he think about that? Really, she wanted to know. What did he think about that? That maybe she wasn’t his problem, and him answering her question wasn’t his problem, and him being afraid he was going to be manipulative wasn’t his problem. That his problem was very simple. Maybe he was just the same as his characterization of her. Maybe his problem was he believed everything was about himself, in order to make him feel special and unique? Surely that was a new, a daunting problem for him to have, didn’t he think? He stood by her on the balcony and said, No, that’s not what I was saying. That’s what I am saying, she said. He took a cigarette from the pack and told her to hold on, to let him think, because that’s not what he was wanting to convey, he was wanting to convey something about his problem so that she could understand her own, too. He lit the cigarette while she smoked hers, shaking her head. The flakes were falling thicker, making the distant cityscape appear immovable against the movement of the falling snow. Each of them viewed the movement against the stillness, aching for one or the other, projecting outward away from each other to some other place, through the snow, toward the city, and like a disembodied consciousness drifting away, looking back and viewing themselves, the receding building, their voiceless bodies on the balcony, their bodies becoming smaller, then impossible to see, buildings surrounding their building, then their building gone, just a section of the city being snowed on, the vastness of technology swallowing all lives, and farther away, the city itself becoming a small gridded fire among other small gridded fires, until those lights became mere points on an orb, the vastness of human life suddenly turned off like switch, the orb itself blue then a faint arced shadow against black, then gone, back into the primordial black hum of a once-alien voice.


Alan Rossi's stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Granta, The Atlantic, New England Review, The Missouri Review, and elsewhere. Winner of a Pushcart Prize, he lives in South Carolina. (2/2017)

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