HOW SHOULD A PERSON BE?
by Sheila Heti
How should a person be?
For years and years I asked it of everyone I met. I was always watching to see what they were going to do in any situation, so I could do it too. I was always listening to their answers, so if I liked them, I could make them my answers too. I noticed the way people dressed, the way they treated their lovers—in everyone, there was something to envy. You can admire anyone for being themselves. It’s hard not to, when everyone’s so good at it. But when you think of them all together like that, how can you choose? How can you say, I’d rather be responsible like Misha than irresponsible like Margaux. Responsibility looks so good on Misha, and irresponsibility looks so good on Margaux. How could I know which would look best on me?
I admired all the great personalities down through the ages, like Andy Warhol and Oscar Wilde. They seemed to be so perfectly themselves in every way. I didn’t think, Those are great souls, but I did think, Those are some great personalities for our age. Charles Darwin, Albert Einstein — they did things, but they were things.
I know that personality is just an invention of the news media. I know that character exists from the outside alone. I know that inside the body there’s just temperature. So how do you build your soul? At a certain point, I know, you have to forget about your soul and just do the work you’re required to do. To go on and on about your soul is to miss the whole point of life. I could say that with more certainty if I knew the whole point of life. To worry too much about Oscar Wilde and Andy Warhol is just a lot of vanity.
How should a person be? I sometimes wonder about it, and I can’t help answering like this: a celebrity. But for all that I love celebrities, I would never move somewhere that celebrities actually exist. My hope is to live a simple life, in a simple place, where there’s only one example of everything.
By a simple life, I mean a life of undying fame that I don’t have to participate in. I don’t want anything to change, except to be as famous as one can be, but without that changing anything. Everyone would know in their hearts that I am the most famous person alive—but not talk about it too much. And for no one to be too interested in taking my picture, for they’d all carry around in their heads an image of me that was unchanging, startling, and magnetic. No one has to know what I think, for I don’t really think anything at all, and no one has to know the details of my life, for there are no good details to know.
It is the quality of fame one is after here, without any of its qualities.
In an hour Margaux’s going to come over and we’re going to have our usual conversation. Before I was twenty-five, I never had any friends, but the friends I have now interest me non-stop. Margaux complements me in interesting ways. She paints my picture and I record what she is saying. We do whatever we can to make the other one feel famous.
In this way, I should be satisfied with being famous to three or four of my friends. And yet it’s an illusion. They like me for who I am, and I would rather be liked for who I appear to be, and for who I appear to be, to be who I am.
We are all specks of dirt, all on this earth at the same time. I look at all the people who are alive today and think, These are my contemporaries. These are my fucking contemporaries! We live in an age of some really great blow-job artists. Every era has its art form. The nineteenth century, I can tell, was tops for the novel.
I just do what I can not to gag too much. I know boyfriends get really excited when they can touch the soft flesh at the back of your throat. At these times, I just try to breathe through my nose and not throw up on their cock. I did vomit a little the other day, but I kept right on sucking. Soon, the vomit was gone, and then my boyfriend pulled me up to kiss me.
Aside from blow jobs, though, I’m through with being the perfect girlfriend, just through with it. Then if he’s sore with me, let him dump my ass. That will just give me more time to be a genius.
One good thing about being a woman is we haven’t too many examples yet of what a genius looks like. It could be me. There is no ideal model for how my mind should be. For men, it’s pretty clear. That’s the reason you see them trying to talk themselves up all the time. I laugh when they won’t say what they mean so the academies will study them forever. I’m thinking of you, Mark Z., and you, Christian B. You just keep peddling your phony-baloney genius crap, while I’m up giving blow jobs in heaven.
My ancestors took what they had, which was nothing, and left their routine as slaves in Egypt to follow Moses into the desert in search of the promised land. For forty years they rested where they could, against the dunes that had been built up by the winds. Waking the next morning, they took the flour from their sacks and moistened it with their spit and beat together a smooth dough, then set off again, stooped, across the sand, the dough spread across their backs. It mingled with the salt of their sweat and hardened in the sun, and this is what they had for lunch. Some people spread the dough flat, and that dough became matzo. Others rolled tubes and fastened the ends, and those people ate bagels.
For so many years I have written soul like this: sould. I make no other consistent typo. A girl I met in France once said, Cheer up! Maybe it doesn’t actually mean you’ve sold your soul — I was staring unhappily into my beer — but rather that you never had a soul to sell.
We were having Indian food. The man next to us was an Englishman and he brightened up. He said, It is so nice to hear English being spoken here! I haven’t heard any English in weeks. We tried not to smile, for smiling only encourages men to bore you and waste your time.
I thought about what that girl had said for a week. I was determined to start the task I had long been putting off, having for too long imagined it would take care of itself in the course of things, without my paying attention to it, all the while knowing in my heart that I was avoiding it, trying to patch myself together with my admiration for the traits I saw so clearly in everyone else. I said to myself sternly, It’s time to stop asking questions of other people. It is time to just go in a cocoon and spin your soul. But when I got back to the city, I neglected this plan in favour of hanging out with my friends every night of the week, just as I had been doing before I’d left for the Continent.
The girl who gave me her condolences was in her mid-thirties, an American in Paris named Jen. She was a friend of a friend and had, in a friendly way, accepted my request to be put up for the nights I would be there. Her job was doing focus groups for large corporations, including the United States Army, who wanted help with its recruitment advertising. She had some ethical qualms about this but was more concerned with her boyfriend, who had suddenly started ignoring her. This was the central preoccupation of her life when I arrived because it was the more emotional.
There are certain people who do not feel like they were raised by wolves, and these are the ones who make the world tick. These are the ones who keep everything functioning so the rest of us can worry about what kind of person we should be. I have read all the books and I know what they say: You — but better in every way. And yet there are so many ways of being better, and these ways can contradict one another!
Yesterday Margaux told me a story that her mother often tells about when she was a baby. It took Margaux a long time to talk, and everyone thought she was a little dumb. Margaux’s mother had a friend who was a bit messed up, and really into self-help books and all sorts of self-improvement tapes. One day, she had been telling Margaux’s mother about a technique in which, whatever problem you came across in your life, you were just supposed to throw up your hands and say, Who cares? That night, as Margaux’s parents and her slightly older sister were sitting around the dinner table and Margaux was in her high chair, her sister spilled her milk and the glass broke all across the table. Her mother started yelling and her sister started crying. Then, from over in the high chair, they heard little Margaux going, Who cares?
I’m sorry, but I’m really glad she’s my best friend. If I had known, when I was a baby, that in America there was a baby who was throwing up her hands and saying, first words out of her mouth, Who cares? and that one day she’d be my best friend, I would have relaxed for the next twenty-three years, not a single care in the world.
Prologue from How Should a Person Be? (Henry Holt)