A Nervous Laugher

I have become a nervous laugher. I told N that she should meet with my student intern, that I would normally want a three-way meeting, but I didn't think I could schedule it because--lower my voice, move in closer, laugh a little--I'm having a mastectomy Feb. 28. I hate nervous laughter. It seems so fake. It seems to be covering up. It seems to be negating what you're saying. I don't want to be a nervous laugher. When I was talking to X a couple of years ago about her mastectomy she was all barky nervous laughter. It put me off. But I am doing it. I'm getting a part of my body cut off, ha-ha. If the cancer has spread I could die, ha-ha. I know that laughter is close to crying, I know that people's faces can take on similar expressions laughing and crying, I know that people say: I didn't know whether to laugh or cry, and: We laughed till we cried. Do people ever cry till they laugh? We laugh nervously. The Frenchman in the famous Liberation of Paris photo--or is it a newsreel? He looks like he's laughing but he's crying. Or vice versa. Or is it a newsreel of the German invasion? Crying at weddings because you're so happy. That doesn' t make sense. People cry at weddings because they're sad or touched. Because they'd getting older. Because the bride and groom are leaving, separating from the groups they came from. Sometimes we laugh in recognition: Hey I d0 that too. But why does that make us laugh? When you do a book reading before a big crowd, the nervousness and anticipation of the crowd makes a little shudder run around the room, and everybody laughs so readily. It's easy to make a happy, willing crowd laugh. They want to laugh. They need it, to let off steam, from their waiting, their wanting. The nervousness of all being together, chairs set up in rows, side by side. All the raggedy breathing. Maybe it's the potential danger of the crowd that makes us nervous. Note the side exits. Leave bags at your seats and walk silently and calmly... A retort to the calm. We are animals that need to make noise. Hush hush.

The Auschwitz smile. I gave that name to a certain type of survivor smile--a frozen smile that has nothing to do with and all to do with what the survivor is relating. A smile to keep out the horribleness of it all. A smile that keeps some of the past at bay. That keeps the past from rising and twisting and striking again and again, as the voice of the survivor is telling the story once again. First we had this then we didn't and we had no food and we had typhus and they rounded us up... The death and the dirt. The unnecessary loss. There was no reason for the loss. A madness to it all. A madness that made no sense but cut a swath of terror.

Madness, craziness. The mad are laughing crazily. At nothing. At you. At me. Voices that aren't there.

When I was in love with R my junior year abroad we planned to meet in Rouen, the place where Joan of Arc had been burned at the stake. His train was late. I kept waiting and waiting at the station, face looking up and searching every time a new crowd of passengers came off the trains. I remember one man, frozen in my mind maybe because he looked like that Frenchman at Liberation--he was standing in the middle of the depot and at first it looked like he was pissing but it was a bottle of wine that had broken and he was holding it before him and it was flowing out and he was crying, his face cortorting as if he were crying.... Years later when I described it to someone, he said, Sounds like he was drunk. And he probably was. And in my mind I remember that moment going on and on, the wine flowing and flowing, all around him, making a mess, and I was waiting forever for R to arrive, and when he did he said to me in our little hotel room on the rue du Cygne, I feel like you expected me to come here and say I love you, and I demurred of course, saying, Oh no, not at all, but it was true. And he said, You're not fun like you were in the summer, and that was true. I felt like that man despairing in the middle of the depot with his wine flooding out of his control. I was depressed and didn't know what I was doing in France. And I was in France because I was depressed at school and didn't know what I was doing there. There should be a way you could freeze yourself for a year or two when you're 20 and then you could jump up and know what you wanted do with your life, so grateful for the warm blood flowing in your veins. In the car listening to the radio the other day L cried because the mascot from his undergraduate school is being forcibly retired. He knows that Chief Illiniwek is racist but he was a symbol for the four best years of L's life. He loved going to all the games. He loves hearing the fight song. He was part of some student fan organization that sat as a group in the stands and held up colored paper in a pattern. My college life was more like the one described in my new favorite book, Cancer Made Me a Shallower Person. Author & artist Miriam Engelberg depicts herself in college: "I can't wait for finals to be over next week! Then I'll be able to enjoy life again." One week later: "Hooray! We're done. I feel great! What a relief." Two weeks later: "What the point of anything? We all die in the end anyway."

There is always the void.

Let's laugh to cover it up.

Uh oh, fell into the man hole. Our laughter wasn't thick enough to cover it.

When I was in grad school I interviewed for an internship at a Major Newspaper and thought it went well. When I'd been working at the paper for a while, one of the editors who'd interviewed me happened to say, That was a terrible job interview. We hired you despite the interview, we hired you because of your writing. And I'd thought the interview had gone well--because I'd laughed. And I pretended to him that I'd recognized how bad the interview was. But I'd had no clue.

I was looking for Engelberg on the web today and I found out that she died on Oct. 17, 2006. I'd wanted to write to her.