“How am I so confident?” She rubbed her lips, I think imagining another version of herself taking a cool film noir drag on a cigarette. “Am I? No, no I’m just good at not acting, uh, unconfident? Nervous. Whatever. I’m good at looking like, like I belong wherever I am. Looking like you belong is usually what decides whether or not you belong. I can feel lost and stupid and confused as long as I don’t act like it, as long as I pretend to be cool.”
“It’s mostly just a sense of… is there a word for like contempt but nice? Familiarity? There’s that saying, ‘familiarity breeds contempt’, but maybe familiarity is just a nice friendly toothless form of contempt. You know that self-help thing where uh, where you, when you’re talking, like, giving a speech or a presentation – and you imagine everyone there is naked? If you live for 20, 30, 40 years, and you pay any attention, everyone’s naked all the time. What I mean is everyone’s an idiot, I know I am and sorry but you are not an exception either, and knowing that it’s like: What have I got to prove to these idiots? It’s – the emperor has no clothes. And when I look out there everyone looks like a shitty little naked emperor. So I guess the trick is to act like an emperor even when you know you’re naked.”
She rubs her lips again. Steam puffs away with each breath and it doesn’t take much imagine for either of us to see it as a cool puff of smoke. Balancing good health and being cool is a rough gig.
“It’s like being a baby, like no object permanence. You know how, when you’re a baby, and something leaves your view – like peek-a-boo, like your mom just hid a toy or like your dad just walked out of the room for a moment – when you’re a baby, to you it’s like it just disappeared. Because you haven’t learned that when something leaves your sight, that doesn’t mean it’s gone. And then you grow up a little bit and you learn that the hidden toy is under the blanket and your dad’s just in the next room watching the game. And it’s fine, everything’s fine. And recently, what with one thing and another, I think I’ve been having to unlearn that.” She rubs her face. I don’t think she’s imagining looking cool now.
“It’s a curve – a pair of curves. One is how much we believe in object permanence, and one is how permanent objects are. The first curve, it goes up over the first few years of our lives, as we get used to being a baby, get used to being alive. The second curve – well that one goes all over the place, up and down like a roller coaster or a seismograph, and if we’re lucky we’re born with it pretty high, but as time passes it tends to trend… downwards. And as that happens the first curve also crawls down.”
“I don’t think we’re talking about what you asked about any more. But. I’ve gotten kind of used to the idea that whenever I look away from something it might not be there the next time I look, and I’ve gotten kind of used to the idea that when someone walks out of the room they might not ever walk back in.”
“I guess what I’m trying to say that what I have is a kind of relative confidence. It’s not that I’ve gained such faith in myself, but that I’ve – well I don’t want to say lost faith in everything else, but more like, uh, gained faith in everyone and everything being as shitty and unreliable and stupid and nonsensical as I am. So it’s fine – it’s fine as long as I act like it’s fine. And, I mean, other things are beautiful sometimes, right? Sunsets, art, love, truth, I dunno, you know the stuff. So maybe I’ve got that too, some of that raw elemental core of beauty, even if I can’t see it. I have to assume so. What are the odds I wouldn’t, if all of these stupid naked baby emperors around still manage to have moments of beauty and grace? So I just try to act like that version of me, the coolest baby, the greatest common denominator.”
“Anyway,” she says, fingers dangling over the railing, twitching slightly, “what else can I do?” as an unseen flake of ash falls down to the invisible street below.