I don’t know about the rest of you, but the other night my allergies went into some hideous form of overdrive. I started sniffling around six. I began to cough as the clock moved to seven. And I was certain a litter of freshly hatched kittens had taken shelter underneath my dining room table at approximately eight. I did what any wheezing person might do in such a situation: I quickly swallowed three Benadryl and it was probably only 8:45 when I felt the floor underneath me slide to an angle I would have probably been able to compute had I ever gone to Math class and I carefully walked up the stairs to bed. Just as my eyes closed in a medicated haze, the thought came to me – and it was fully formed and just interesting enough that I grabbed my phone and typed it into the Notes app that I use constantly to record writing ideas or words I really like or to remind myself to pick up green apples next time I’m near a supermarket. Then I promptly fell into a bumpy and hazy sleep filled with the kind of ravenous dreams a psychiatrist should earn a fortune for analyzing.
When I woke up, my allergies were gone. I almost couldn’t remember getting into bed the night before in the first place. I have a pretty specific morning routine and I followed it to the letter that day. I carried my dog downstairs (she’s still not so adept at steps) and I set up her breakfast and made myself a cup of coffee and then took my mug to my couch to sit and relax for ten minutes before I headed into the shower and the day was officially on for good. During those ten minutes, I usually check my email and the weather for the day and I review my calendar. But when I turned on my phone that morning, I saw that I hadn’t closed out the Notes app and there it was, all in lowercase: the yere of living slefishly. I started at it for a few seconds, genuinely not remembering having typed it, having zero idea what it meant. And then it came to me like a dream I could recall in Technicolor: The Year of Living Selfishly. It had seemed a very good idea the night before while my head swirled with over-the-counter medication and I couldn’t help but realize that I liked it also in the light of the drug-fee early morning as well.
That should be my next book, I said to myself. I will adopt a fully selfish lifestyle for one year and I will chronicle my experiences. The whole concept actually made quite a bit of sense to me and I started to feel that anxiety-fueled anticipatory chill that I’ve learned to recognize as the way my physiology reacts to intellectual excitement.
As the day wore on, though, I started to feel a little bit confused. What exactly does it mean to live selfishly? Is it putting myself before everyone else at all times? How can such a thing even work when I’m a teacher and my students need me? How would it impact my relationship with family members? When it came to men, would it mean that I would not have to give head for a full 365 days? Could I even recognize myself if I lived whatever it meant to exist in a selfish world of my very own willful creation?
There are many times – sadly, most times – when questions excite me even more than answers because questions become challenges that don’t hurt nearly as much in the moment as squats do. But these questions were different. These questions, I realized, would disrupt every aspect of the self that I have grown to cultivate and they could shift the ground out from under me in such a way that it might be impossible to ever regain my footing. Worse than a seismic form of feng shui, taking on this challenge to live selfishly would impact other people that I care about, people who blessedly live lives that never include ponderings about changing every aspect of who they are as individuals just so they can maybe have something interesting to write about. I will never be those people – but that doesn’t mean that I don’t wish that I could be.
In the easy moments, being selfish could simply be defined as not answering the phone if I don’t feel like talking, not having to listen to what I know by now are choruses of complaints and fears that have taken shelter in the souls of the people I’ve grown accustomed to comforting, choruses so repetitive that I could sing along if I had any rhythm. I can choose not to entertain these same old conversations that we both know by heart, ones that are now only altered in just how emphatic the delivery and the response is on any given day. Living a life of selfish leisure means I can wake up in the morning and snuggle deeper under the covers that I wrap around me, even in the dead of summer, and tell myself that I don’t need to go anywhere, not if I don’t really want to. I can go get a manicure or get a haircut and not engage in the pitter-patter of polite banter that often exhausts me more than I ever let on. I can be one of those people who sits there with an open magazine propped on my lap, my eyes never gazing up to look into the face of the person I’m paying, an empty smile of ingrained politeness never touching even the corners of my lips. Think of the time you’ll save, the energy you can conserve by not engaging in the barren social conventions you never once actually agreed to follow, a hoarse voice whispers in the back of my head, and I cannot deny that I nodded my head slightly in agreement at the suggestion made by a piece of myself that has gotten pretty fucking tired of doing what’s right.
If I lived that sort of life, I could yammer away about former men to current men without ever caring about noticing the sharp intake of breath I can see when they quickly attempt to look nonplussed by a line of conversation that has just given them an unwelcome jolt. I’ve been in that situation; I have had to instantly rearrange my features so my cheeks or my blinking eyes do not give away that I am actually reacting to the rudeness laid at my feet like a wrapped bag of dogshit that hasn’t even been tied with a sloppy bow. I could do that to someone else and see if the reaction mirrors the ones I’ve felt move from my heart to my stomach in three seconds or less. Living selfishly could mean that I would never have to text people back, not ever. I could sit on my couch and take long walks through the heavy sunshine without even concerning myself with the notion that I might have just broken something important inside of someone else, for now or for good.
I could tell family that I’m busy and inform friends that I’m bored. I would never have to laugh if something wasn’t actually the least bit funny. I could shrug while I looked at myself in the mirror really early in the morning and know that my job in life is not to be there for someone if I just don’t feel like it. I could warp another human being from the inside out without feeling a goddamn thing and then I could make myself a protein shake and get on with my day.
The concept of living selfishly – which I was so impressed by as a theory and as a title – ended up confusing me so completely that I brought it up to one of my closest friends only a day after mulling it over and over in my mind.
“What do you think of this?” I asked her, and then I explained it as much as I could, even as it was still so convoluted in my head that, if you sketched it, it would look like one of those mazes I used to like to play with when I was little and I was sick in bed, a pencil lightly tracing my way out of the swirly center to the freedom at the start.
“You’ll never be able to pull it off,” she replied instantly, simply – and I knew just then that she was absolutely right.
Nell Kalter teaches Film and Media at a school in New York. She is the author of the books THAT YEAR and STUDENT, both available on amazon.com in paperback and for your Kindle.