As usual, it started out with questions.
“Where do you work? What do you do? Have you been on any trips lately?”
I was all for talking about myself, what I do, where I’ve been, where I’m going. But then it got personal.
“Are you renting? How much do you pay per month?”
Real estate is a touchy subject. But it’s one that anyone in any major city discusses. I used to feel guilty about renting a place, what with everyone and their mother owning property, but now with the subprime mortgage rates and the housing market crash, I feel smugly superior that I didn’t fall prey to the greed. Yes, I rent! Isn’t that great?
And then it got really personal.
“And are you still single?”
It was that one word that really got to me. Still Single. Still. As if I hadn’t accomplished anything in the last year. As if I hadn’t published articles, essays — been on NPR, for God’s sake! — influenced people with my writing. As if I hadn’t started teaching at a university, traveled around the world, lost 10 pounds, learned how to surf, counseled countless friends and family members through countless crises. It all had been erased to nothing — nothing! — with that one question: “Are you still single?”
OK, so what if it was my accountant who was doing the asking?
For the last six years I’ve been doing my taxes with this seemingly sweet older lady. She is tall, white-haired and stooped over, with blue eyes that might be described as kindly if you’ve never sat down with her for a tax interview. If you had, you might say her eyes were steely blue and her demeanor hawkish. The woman, God help her, will ferret out any and every possible deduction known to mankind. Especially if you’re an artist, which many of her clients are. Why, then every activity you do, from reading newspapers to traveling, to meeting with people to anything that might have a direct influence on your art is fair game.
(But, Mr. I.R.S., if you’re reading this, she and her firm are totally and completely legal. Case in point, many of my seemingly “social” interactions are part of my writing. Most of them are, since I write about myself.)
But deductions are not the point. The point is that when she asks me if I’m still single — she has to ask me, it’s part of her job — it chafes. It brings up a lot of issues for me. Am I still single? Am I in the same job as last year? The same house? The very same life? What have I done with the last 12 months of my life that we can tell the I.R.S.?
I imagine my accountant saying, “They’re going to audit you because everything in your life sounds suspiciously similar to last year and beyond!”
Mind you, she asks, “Are you still single?” in the same tone she asks, “Are you still driving a Volkswagen?” and “Are you still subscribing to The New York Times? And The New York Review of Books? (I let the latter lapse because it was just too dense, and there’s no one in L.A. bars to discuss it with.)
But as I answer, “Yes, still single. Same job. Same car, same house,” in my mind I picture others who file with her from year to year, making dozens of changes and updates to their files: Change of name (married), change of residence (bought a house), change of mortgage (paid in full), sale of stocks (to pay for house), number of dependents (one, two, three).
Look, it’s not necessarily any cheaper to file as a married person than as a single person.
But we’re not talking about money here (Mr. I.R.S., I definitely am talking about lots of money from you!). We’re talking more than financial accountability. We’re talking life accountability.
I know in Judaism we review our year on Rosh Hashanah, and we tally up our good deeds and bad deeds before Yom Kippur. For our superficial — or more worldly — deeds, we use the Gregorian New Year to make resolutions. On our birthdays, we take stock, using the number of years as a measuring stick.
But on all those occasions it’s possible to fudge a bit. To make things look better than they are (“OK, so I wasn’t such a bad Jew this year — even though this is my first time in synagogue, I did give tzedakah to every homeless person who asked …”). In the run-up to April 15, though, it’s hard to lie. (Actually, it’s criminal.) It’s all laid out there in front of you in stacks of paper that you’ve finally separated, organized, catalogued and filed.
Still writing. Still renting. Still driving a VW. And yes, still, ahem, single.
It’s all naked and exposed before my accountant. But that’s what frustrates me so. There is so much beyond those cut-and-dried numbers. There’s poetry behind the columns. “Romeo and Juliet” can’t be summed up as, “Both Capulet and Montague family have one less dependent this year.”
And neither can my life. I may not be married yet, but I’ve met dozens of wonderful people — men and women — this year. I’ve deepened my relationships to dozens I’ve already known, been to fabulous places and, most importantly, learned so many new life lessons: on how to love, how to be loved, whom to love, whom to leave and to whom to give a second chance.
And these things can’t be measured on paper. No matter who — my accountant, my parents, my relatives, my so-called friends — is asking.