The Principle of Autonomy

It seemed that every spot in the grass would dirty the backside of Jim’s jeans, but he had been wearing them for a week, so it didn’t matter to him that much. He got comfortable and began to strum out one of his songs on his guitar, glancing around to see if anyone was impressed. He had not seen Jane on his initial survey of the park, but he thought it more compelling to lure her in with his music than to just find her.

Jane rode up behind him on her bike and, after dismounting, let it fall to the ground gracelessly. She was wearing a silly silver dress and her prescription aviators. She took a seat in the grass, not even looking for a good spot.

“Hey,” she said.

“I started without you. Hope you don’t mind.”

Jane laughed and then rolled onto her side, assuming a pose like a Playboy model. “I had the worst day,” she said.

“You and me both.”

“How’d your doctor’s appointment go?”

Jim snorted. “What a fuckin’ waste of time. She charged me $150 to tell me to man up.”

“What’d you go for?”

“I haven’t been sleeping well. I was hoping to get my hands on some sort of sleep aid, but she wanted me to try all this naturalistic bullshit, as if I haven’t tried it all before. I was like, ‘Bitch, I’ve been dealing with this shit since I was thirteen. You think that I haven’t tried sleep hygiene or exercise, or whatever else?’ I almost walked out.”

Jane laughed. “I don’t deal with doctors anymore,” she said. “I used to take birth control, but ever since I heard about how they were dumping the waste into the ocean, I stopped.”

Jim nodded, pretending he was familiar with the big pharmaceutical companies’ slights against the environment .

“Do you mind if we don’t bother doing this today,” he said, patting his guitar. “I’m not really feeling it.”

“Sure,” she said, getting to her feet.

“Do you wanna come check out my new dorm?”

“Okay,” she said, and Jim threw his guitar over his back and secured it with the strap.

As they walked along the sidewalk Jim stepped out to cross the street without looking to see if any cars were coming. Jane followed with her bike, but looked before crossing.

“I like how you don’t even bother to see if there’s cars coming,” she said.

“I hope they’ll hit me,” he said, attempting to look into her eyes, but seeing only his reflection in her aviators. “I figure that if I don’t get injured too badly, I’ll get a bunch of money and get to carry on with a regular life.”

Later, they had pizza for dinner and stopped for beer on the way back to Jane’s house. Jane lived in an old two story house with three other people. Jim had first been there three days earlier when he had met Jane for the first time. She stayed in a small room with a window that looked out onto the street. It would have been a nice window to have, but instead of sitting at eye level, it sat nearly on the floor because of the way the house was designed.

They sat on her mattress on the floor, each holding a beer, and Jane played them sad music from her laptop.

“This is my whole junior year of college,” she told Jim, who was just starting his first year, hoping to make it in the music program. “I would come back from school and just sit in my room and wallow.”

“Wallowing is one of my favorite things,” said Jim. As Jane selected song after song, Jim examined her. He admired her boyish hands, her dirty feet, her unremarkable hair, and all of the other inches of her body, and in his mind he deemed her perfectly imperfect. He was feeling drunk and loving the music. He knew this was where he wanted to be. He looked over at Jane and saw that she had fallen asleep against the wall.

“Oh, for fuck’s sake. Did you fall asleep on me?” he said. After he finished his beer, he knew that it was time to go. He stumbled down her unfamiliar stairs, and out of her unfamiliar house. In his drunken malaise, he tripped over every crack in the sidewalk on the way back to his dorm.

***

Jim’s cousin Mike passed the pipe to his right, and then poured some whiskey into his glass while trying to keep the smoke deep inside his lungs. Mike sputtered and then coughed and Jim stopped breathing momentarily so the smoke could dissipate. The poker game had reached a lull while one of the guys left the shop to fetch his wife from the bar. It had been two days since Jim had seen Jane in the park, but they had been in touch.

“So, I really like this girl I’ve been hanging out with,” Jim said. He had been hoping the subject would come up organically, but it hadn’t.

“So what you’re sayin’ is, she’s got some tig ol’ bitties?” Jim’s old man said, toothlessly laughing with the rest of the table.

Jim took a drag off of the bottle of whiskey and then chased it back with some Diet Coke. “She does,” he said, “but that isn’t what I’m saying. She’s got a great personality. I’m just not really sure what she wants out of me yet. I’ve got a pretty decent personality, if I do say so myself. What more could she want?”

“Nah, fuck that,” said Mike, as everyone at the table laughed again. “Personality ain’t gonna get you nothin’.”

“That’s right,” said John, one of Jim’s poker buddies. “Lemme give you some advice here, Jim. If you’re confused about the situation, it’s best to just ask. When it comes about that time, just look her in the eye and say, ‘So, are we gonna fuck or what?’ That way, everybody is on the same page, and there’s no fuckin’ confusion about the situation.”

“That’d be all well and good if that’s all I wanted out of the situation. Believe it or not, I’m trying to foster a good relationship,” said Jim, already knowing that this conversation was going to spiral away from him. He knew that this discussion would only result in some sort of condescending lesson from his father, who was the last person that Jim wanted relationship advice from. He and Jim’s mother had divorced twenty years earlier when Jim was six months old. Now he had this strange desire to get back together with his mother, even though he was the one who left in the first place. Jim found it confusing and didn’t want any of the type of advice that his father would inevitably offer up.

“Jim, these girls don’t wanna get to know you for your personality, and they don’t wanna share their personality with you. They want somebody that’s gonna take care of shit and tell ’em what to do when their fuckin’ purse gets tipped upside down,” said Jim’s old man. “And while we’re on the subject, I don’t think you should get too concerned about just one girl. Over there at the university there’s a hundred little babes runnin’ around just waiting for you to get in their bed.”

“That’s right,” said Mike. “Fuck ’em all.”

“Fuck ’em all,” said John, nodding in agreement.

“Oh, for fuck’s sake,” said Jim, and he took another drag off of the bottle of whiskey, nearly puking before he could get the chaser up to his lips. “Can we just play some fuckin’ cards?” The guy who had left earlier had returned with his wife and retaken his place at the table, and Jim had no desire to continue the conversation.

“Sure,” said Jim’s old man, and he tried to pass the pipe to Jim so that he could shuffle the cards. Jim didn’t even try to take the pipe from him.

***

It was a day later, and Jim couldn’t sleep. There was too much to resolve. His mind was working on overtime, attempting to process his thoughts, but doing it poorly. He simply could not churn through so much information, and sleep at the same time. He knew that if he slept, he would feel better, but with his new dorm room came so much new anxiety that it was fruitless to try. He got up, put his shoes on, and descended the stairs of his building to go sit on the sidewalk outside. It was a hot August evening, and he thought to himself that this is what being in a pressure cooker must feel like.

He pulled his phone out and scrolled down to Jane’s name in his contact list. He examined it for a moment, and then his phone beeped, signifying that he had received a text.

“I think I’m catching what you have. I can’t sleep.” Jane’s words loomed before him, and Jim took them as a sign.

“I need to tell you something. Do you mind if I come over?” Jim’s hands trembled as he sent the reply, but he knew that he was doing something that needed to be done.

“I was hoping to catch up on sleep tonight, but I guess that’s out. Sure, come over.”

Jane met him outside of her house. “Hey, what’s up? Are you all right?” she said, and Jim nodded.

“Yeah, everything’s fine. I just feel like I’m gonna lose my mind if I don’t talk to you about this.”

They went upstairs to Jane’s room. Jim sat against the wall, and Jane perched on her bed.

“So what’s up?” she said.

Jim looked up into her eyes. Her hair was held back by a headband, and she appeared receptive to him.

“How do you feel about our current relationship?” he said. Maybe this approach could simplify things.

“I think you’re one of the sweetest and most interesting guys I’ve ever met, and I really enjoy hanging out with you. I really think we have a cool friendship, and I love making music with you.” She paused for a moment. “How do you feel about it?”

“Basically all of that, except for the fact that I have feelings for you.”

She laughed. “I knew it!” she said.

Jim wanted to share in her laughter, but he could not. “Sorry,” he said. “I know this is a little ridiculous after only six days.” They had met on a Saturday in the park six days previous. They had gotten together to play music after Jane replied to Jim’s post on Craigslist. He sang and played guitar on his own, but he had always thought that adding a female’s voice to the equation would be awesome. After the initial awkwardness of blindly meeting somebody, there were no issues. It was as though they had known each other all along, and Jim fell for her recklessly.

Jane recognized Jim’s reservation and said, “Look, I like you a lot. I really do. It’s not as if I haven’t thought about it. It’s just that I’ve sort of been hoping for this thing to get going with Mark.” Oh, right, Jim thought to himself. Mark. Forgot about that douche bag.

“Yeah,” he said, and he looked at the floor. “There’s always something, isn’t there?”

She laughed. “I guess so.” She paused, and Jim could feel her eyes on him. “Look, this is kind of a stretch, and I don’t want to get your hopes up or anything, but if things don’t work out with him, then it’s possible that I might be interested.”

Jim looked up at her and saw that she was serious. He chuckled to himself, and said, “Jesus, what a fucking joke.” But even as he said it, he felt as if he had no choice. He had placed all of his eggs in one basket once again, and he felt like he had no options.

“All right,” he said. “I guess I can live with that.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah. What the hell. Good luck with Mark and all, but I hope that you guys crash and burn.”

She chuckled at him and said, “He lives just up the street. You can go kick his ass if you want.”

He spoke seriously now. “Take me there.”

“No, no, never mind,” she said. She stood up suddenly and then sat down beside him, resting her head on his shoulder.

“Oh, for fuck’s sake,” he said. “You’re just making it worse.”

“Don’t go away, all right?” she said. “Just play this one by ear, okay?”

Jim was silent for a moment. “Okay,” he said. They sat like that for some time, until Jane’s breathing deepened and Jim realized that she had fallen asleep. He waggled his shoulder slightly and she stirred.

“I really admire your ability to do that,” he said. “I can’t fall asleep in a fucking bed, let alone on somebody’s shoulder.”

She looked at him with doey eyes, and he thought to himself, God, what have I gotten myself in to?

***

That weekend, Jim sipped Jagermeister on his buddy Dave’s couch. He was surprised at how easily the stuff went down. Jim thought about how he had sold the very bottle of Jagermeister that he was drinking to Dave’s girlfriend for thirty bucks a couple months ago. But now, he felt as though he should have kept the stuff, since it was pretty good. When he realized that he got to drink it now, and be thirty dollars richer, he laughed to himself, drunkenly.

“Jim?” called Dave from across the room. “How’re you feelin’ over there, buddy?”

“Awesome,” said Jim. “Also, like shit.”

Dave left his game of beer pong and went to sit on the coffee table in front of Jim. He took the bottle from Jim and said, “What’s goin’ on, man?”

“Nothin’, dude. How are you?” Jim closed his eyes and let his head fall back against the couch. The warm waves of drunkenness spilled over him.

“Why do you feel like shit, Jim?”

“Oh, I just wanna kill myself, that’s all. I wouldn’t worry about it too much.”

“What the fuck is wrong with you?”

“You remember that fuckin’ girl I was tellin’ you about?”

“Who, Jane?”

“Yessir, Jane’s the one.”

“What happened?”

“I told her how I felt, and she told me there was some other dude, so I guess you can say it went pretty good. I dunno.” Jim chuckled, and let his head fall onto his other shoulder.

“That sucks, dude. I’m sorry.”

“Yeah, it’s all right. I’ll get over it. Either that, or I’ll kill myself.”

Dave slapped Jim across the face.

“Don’t talk about that shit, Jim. Don’t even joke.”

“All right, all right, fuck’s sake. I just hate my life, that’s all.”

“You need to quit freaking out about this stuff so much”

“Yeah, you’re right.”

“I’m serious. You need to relax. You’re a great guy. Someday you’re gonna meet someone that you like just as well as this girl, and she’s gonna like you back and it’s gonna be great. Just chill out. It’s gonna happen whether you force it or not. It’s just a matter of time. Do you remember how you felt about Morgan and Kayla just a few years ago? You thought they were the ones, didn’t you? But it didn’t work out. It just didn’t happen because something wasn’t right about it. After a while, the feelings you had for them faded and you moved on to somebody else. You always get another shot; that’s the beauty of the whole thing.”

Jim nodded, eyes still closed. “Why do I keep fucking up?”

“You aren’t fucking up. Nobody’s fucking up. It just isn’t right with her. With somebody, someday, it will be right. You’ve got so many friends that care about you and want to have a good time with you. What do you need somebody else for?”

Later in the night, Dave gave Jim a cardboard box to puke in.

***

A week later, Jim sat outside of his cousin Mike’s house down in the Bitterroot. Jim had come down to his home to see his mother and his brothers, and had decided to pay his dear cousin a visit. Mike and his wife, Carrie, were sitting on the steps puffing on cigarettes. Jim sat on a lawn chair and gazed at the embankment next to Mike’s house. At the bottom was a mosquito-filled stream that flowed softly and provided a nice droning sound that reminded Jim of being out in the woods.

“Jane came over last night,” Jim said.

“Is this that crazy bitch you were tellin’ me about?” Carrie said, speaking in her affected Texas accent.

“Yup.”

“So, what’d you guys do?” said Mike.

“She texted me at ten o’clock last night. She said something like, ‘Oh, Jim, I don’t want to be alone. Can I come over?’ and I was like, ‘That is acceptable.’ She was pretty hammered when she got there. We sat on my bed for a few minutes, and I came this close to making a move, but when I looked over at her she had fallen asleep on my shoulder. She does that a lot. So, I woke her up and I lay her out on my bed, and I got in too. There was just one problem: those fucking beds they have there are so ridiculously small, I had next to no wiggle room, and man it was all fuckin’ hot and shit. And my computer and my fridge were humming. I never realized how deafening those goddamn things are. And I had to get up every ten fuckin’ minutes to go take a piss. I mean we cuddled and stuff, which was pretty cool, but it was a pain in the ass.”

“You guys didn’t do anything?” said Carrie.

“We cuddled and it was awesome. What do you want from me?”

“You shoulda fucked her,” said Mike.

“Oh, for fuck’s sake. Here we go again,” said Jim. “That might be the way you operate, but I’m not into that shit. I’m more sensitive. The ladies love that stuff. They like hopeless romantics, not the fuckin’ assholes that wanna bed them. At least the girls that I like, anyway.”

“Is that so?” said Mike. “You know why they’re called hopeless romantics?”

“Yeah, yeah,” said Jim. “It ain’t as bad as that. It works well enough for me.”

“Does it? How many girls have you laid since you’ve been up there at school?”

“Doesn’t matter. I’m not interested in the quantity. It’s all about quality for me.”

Mike laughed. “Good luck with that. My advice is to get the easiest ones you can find. Worked out pretty well for me.”

Carrie turned on Mike. “Really?” she said. “Don’t listen to him, Jim. He’s a fuckin’ asshole. I thought this girl of yours, Jane, had a guy that she was with, anyway. How’d she end up over at your place?”

“Eh, guess things didn’t work out with him. Turns out he was an asshole, she says. Sometimes it’s the nice guys that finish in a prompt and timely manner.”

Jim looked up at the sky, and felt a rain drop hit him just above the eye. The seasons were turning and he knew that soon autumn would be on its way with all sorts of new colors. He wanted to feel happy and appreciate the beauty of the warm Montana afternoon, but his wants did not often shine through into reality.

***

Two days later, Jim sat on his bed, and he expected Jane to come and join him once she had finished putting the record on, but instead she took his chair. Things were a little tense. This was the first time that they had gotten together since Jane had told Jim that she simply wanted to be alone. They figured they would try to be friends, and see what happened. They were listening to some cheerily bleak New England singer that Jane had discovered on one of her many hunts through the bargain bin at the nearby record store. Jim expected to do some good wallowing with her that afternoon, and had already begun to think of songs that he wanted to play for her. They listened a while, with Jane offering commentary about the record, and about how it pertained to her life in general. “This section here reminds me of my dad…” and “This part with the harp is just so cool. I think she plays all the instruments herself…” Jim just sat and listened. He was content to be near her. When the record finished, she stood up and put it back in its sleeve and told him she had to go.

“What?” he said. “Why?”

“I’ve got a lot of errands to run.”

Jim did his best to put on a solemn face. “I was gonna play you some songs,” he said.

“Oh, don’t do this,” she said, laughing.

“Do what?”

“Don’t start moping just because I have to go.”

“I’m not moping. It’s all right. You can go.”

She stood looking at him for a moment, looking as though she wanted to say something.

“What? What’s the matter? Get the fuck out,” he said. She shook her head.

“You’re just so ridiculous sometimes. You’re just so invested in this thing, aren’t you? What makes me so special? I am not special.”

“You are, though, and you don’t see it. Just because the rest of the world sucks, doesn’t mean that I do. Just because everybody else has turned their backs on you, doesn’t mean that I will.”

“It isn’t that they’ve turned their backs on me, it’s that I’ve turned my back on them. You have to realize this. I don’t want to be with people. I don’t want to be with Mark, I don’t want to be with you; I just want to be perfectly happy on my own. You need to go out and live your life, and develop yourself, and stop caring about people so much. You’re just so young.

“You’re right. I need to move on.”

“Stop agreeing with me! God, you’re so childish. You have no thoughts of your own.”

“I don’t…”

“Look, I don’t think we should see each other anymore.”

Jim was silent.

“I’d say it’s for the best,” she said. “Look, don’t come to my house, don’t come to my work. If you show up, depending on the drama of the situation, I will call the cops.”

Jim remained silent.

“You’re so obsessive. I feel like I can’t say anything that will disappoint you. I feel like you’re going to do something ridiculous all the time.”

“No,” he said. “As long as you’re telling me the truth, I won’t get upset.”

“Well, I guess I can tell you that I’ve been talking to somebody, then.”

“What do you mean?”

“Look, when I told you that I didn’t want to be with anyone, it was true. But then I met this guy, and we’ve been talking. We’re not dating or anything, but we’re…talking.”

***

“We decided it was best that we not see each other, anymore,” Jim said. It had been mere hours since she had departed from his dorm room. He now sat on the sidewalk outside of the bowling alley that he frequented.

“How do you feel about that?” Jim’s mother asked on the other end of the phone.

“It is what it is,” he said. “There’s nothing I can do about it. That’s the hardest part. It’s okay, though. She turned out to be a bitch, anyway.” Jim never swore when he was speaking to his mother, but he lacked the energy to care now.

“How so?”

“She told me that I was obsessive and that I need to grow up.”

“You’re perfect the way you are.”

“Thanks. I tend to agree.”

“Don’t worry about her. She just wasn’t the right one.”

“Yeah, that’s what Dave told me. It’s just, I really wanted her to be. She was really cool when she was cool.”

“Would you have rather she got with you and didn’t want to be with you?”

“No.” He sighed. “I wish that I could sleep and forget about all these things. I wish that I could just move on. I don’t want to end up not wanting to try at these things because they always go south for me. I don’t wanna become one of those poor old souls that never found love in their life.”

“You won’t be. If there’s one thing you will always have in your life, it is love.”

***

Jim’s old man was taking him to Wal-Mart. He rolled both of their windows down and smoked some weed. Jim stared out of the passenger seat window and examined the streets that he and Jane had walked along together just a few weeks ago. He still felt pain from the situation, but the door to that part of his life was closing, slowly but surely. He still could not sleep properly, but he felt as though he would soon.

“So, how are you doin’ then? You’re awfully quiet over there.”

“I’m feeling pretty good actually. I discovered something important the other day.”

“Oh, yeah? What’s that?”

“It’s called the Principle of Autonomy.”

Jim’s old man looked at him quizzically, so Jim elaborated. “Okay, so I’m taking this Intro to Ethics class, and right now we’re going over Kant. In Kantian ethics, there are three different principles: the Principle of Dignity, the Principle of Equality, and the Principle of Autonomy. In order to lead an ethical life, you have to find a good balance of these three principles. I realized that I’ve been spending my whole life worrying about the principles of Dignity and Equality and I have been neglecting the Principle of Autonomy. I guess what I’m saying is that I need to spend more time focusing on my own wants and needs. I need to stop being a fucking pussy and start doing my own thing. D’you know what I’m sayin’, Pops?

“Yeah, makes sense to me.” He stared ahead at the road for a moment and then said, “You know, when your mom and I first got together, I had never done my own laundry in my life. My mom did my laundry when I lived with her, and then when your mom and I moved in together, she did my laundry. When we finally split up, I had to start doing my own fuckin’ laundry, and guess what? I love it! I look forward to each and every Sunday when I get to roll down to the gas station and get ten bucks worth of quarters, and then go to the laundromat. That was the whole thing with my life when I was with your mom. I was in a codependent relationship, and I had never established my own independent life.”

Jim thought about this. He had never felt all that close to his old man. He had a different way of doing things in his life that Jim never really agreed with, but that was okay. As long as Jim could do his own thing, it didn’t bother him. Now, he saw that his old man had a bit of wisdom to offer on these things.

Jim laughed. “That’s funny,” he said. “I’m going through sorta the same thing you had to go through.”

“Everyone does it. Just a part of life.” Jim nodded and they left it at that.

Autumn leaves flew down around them as they drove on towards Wal-Mart, and Jim felt excited for these new colors that were sliding in to his life. Soon, winter would come with its lingering chill, but Jim knew that there was nothing that could quiet his excitable heart. This time, he thought, I will fall in love with myself.

(From March 2013)

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