A General  Theory of Relativity

by Jannie Wolff


For Jörn, without whom I would have never gone on the journey.





We had to go to see Larry first. I got directions at 11 am when I was still drunk and starting in on the bourbon I’d left on the table the night before. Just over the Manhattan bridge, “Thoity-thoid and thoid,” Karl said as we pulled the U-haul out of the rental parking lot. He was trying to be funny, but I hurt too much to laugh.


We were going to Ikea. That should tell you something. In this world, people either like Ikea or don’t. I’m in the don’t group. Nothing personal, I just don’t like shopping areas in general. Seems sort of unnatural and yet innate – a walled-in version of the old bazaar with fluorescent lighting and little carts to bring you around. I prefer the one-to-one contact of the village. If you really look you can still find it in this city. But Karl was in a hurry – he’s German and very efficient. First stop Larry, next stop Ikea, then back home to set up the apartment, then dinner. Karl had just moved into an apartment in my building. When I moved here it took me a month to make it livable. But Karl’s not like me. How someone could take a month to buy furniture is beyond his realm of reason. One good day was all he needed. A good clear day, a rental truck and the help of his friend Thomas, and his apartment would be furnished.


The one minor glitch to Karl’s plan was that neither he nor his friend Thomas had a license to drive in the United States. They could drive, but they couldn’t rent the truck. So I did, but I can’t drive. I’ve had a driver’s license since I was 16, but my parents never let me drive and then I moved here. You don’t need a car in New York – that is, unless some German guys you know need to go to Ikea for cash and carry.


So, first Larry, then Ikea. A little dinner, maybe some drinks or something, then bed and J&R Music World tomorrow. Today if possible, but tomorrow if Ikea took too long. The first stop was Larry because he’s my pot dealer, and boy did I need weed. My heart was broken and I was hoping it was possible to drink and smoke myself to death. Love does that to me sometimes, and after all these years I’m still standing so maybe it really is good therapy. Ikea I could have done without, but it was all part of a master plan.


So off to Ikea we went. Me squashed in the front seat of the cab of a U-haul, smack in the center of two big German guys, one who I barely knew, the other I’d met that morning. I don’t fit into that space in a car well, you know, where that divider is? I’ve got really long legs that aren’t very limber and there I was with my knees up to my neck and my feet resting on two six packs of beer. The Germans planned ahead. They bought sandwiches and beer for our road trip. That was something I needed, too. Food, what a concept during a cri de coeur. Somehow I managed to get a sandwich down. God bless deli sandwiches and the German guys for buying them.


Oh, I forgot to mention, my father had just died. The week before. That kind of put a slant on things. Then I saw this guy I really loved making out with a woman in a bar. Not just any bar either. My bar, the place where I’d gone the minute I heard the news that my father was dead. My local, where they patch me up and send me comforted into a comfortless world. A week after my father died the son-of-a-bitch I was in love with picked my bar to pick up a bar fly. But then again that’s where I met him, so I shouldn’t have been surprised. I just wish he hadn’t done it in front of me, but I guess he was trying to prove a point.


Anyway, my father’s dead, my lover’s an asshole, and I’m driving around blowing joints and drinking beers with two comparative strangers in a U-haul rented under my name. The weird thing was, it somehow felt like exactly what I should have been doing. I mean, not on an average day, but under the circumstances and all. The Germans kept lapsing into German, forgetting I couldn’t understand, but somehow the sound of the incomprehensible words was soothing. Even when we got to Ikea, that glowing eyesore on the highway where the air is permanently gray with smog, even there while I pushed an oversized shopping cart through a sea of suburban families out to clean up on a Sunday shopping spree, I felt an odd kind of peace. The Germans were picking out beds and pots and pans and dishes and candles and lamps with an amazing alacrity, discussing the pros and cons of each item like an old married couple. I manned the cart as they piled it high and held up bedspreads for each other’s approval. “You’ve gone somewhere else,” Karl said, startling me. He was right. The glare of the fluorescent lights and the constant murmur of conversation and children crying had sent me into a trance. “We go now,” he smiled, “everything is perfect.”


By the time we got back to the city it was too late for J&R Music World. They were still open but we needed to get the truck back or else get charged for another day. Besides, I was exhausted and Karl relented. “We have dinner,” he said, peering at my wan face, “J&R tomorrow, Ja?” “Ja,” I answered gratefully, and we both smiled. “Now who’s the old married couple?” his buddy Thomas said. “You guys take the cake,” I answered. “Take the cake, ah yes, how does it mean?” Karl asked. “You’re funny how you are together. Thomas seems to know exactly what you like.” “Thomas and I have known each other all our lives,” Karl said.


We had dinner at a place around the corner. I had swordfish that put the beginnings of a new heart back into me, and of course by now we’d moved onto martinis so I was feeling no pain. The night was breezy but warm, so when we got home we went up to the roof, more beers of course, and a little vodka; we were smoking and laughing when we heard it. There had been some noise for a while, low muffled sounds that might have been someone talking loudly over music at a party, but when we heard a crash Karl looked over the edge of the roof and saw a solid sheet of glass falling to the sidewalk below.


Then we heard the screams. A guy who lived in a top floor apartment, the floor I live on, was losing it. I’d known him for years and he’d been like a brother to me until one day something deep inside him snapped and I couldn’t help him. I just didn’t know what to do. And now after months of sitting immobile on his couch he was erupting into a manic frenzy. He’d stopped paying rent and was being evicted, and I later found out he’d decided to trash the place. At the time it sounded like he was trying to kill himself so I ran downstairs to call 911. They were already on their way. I hadn’t been the first to call – my neighbor was creating quite a show. The falling glass Karl had seen had been merely one of many windows being demolished for all the block to see.


“You know this guy?” Karl asked when I hung up the phone. “I thought I did,” I said, and suddenly burst into uncontrollable sobbing. Father, lover, brother, neighbor. I was too wasted to know who I was crying for. The screams next door met the demons I’d tried to smother with liquor, and I stood in the middle of my living room floor with tears pouring down my face until Karl put his arms around me and I was safe.


We could hear the police in the hallway, but I didn’t care any more. I was sort of worried that my tears might stain Karl’s white shirt, but the material was so soft against my tired face that I could have slept there. I think I did for a moment, because when I came to Karl was holding me by the shoulders and looking at me straight. “Is it all right now?” he asked. We could hear voices in the hallway, but the screaming had stopped. The police were talking my neighbor down. Somehow they got him out of the apartment and he went willingly down to the precinct. I heard later that his uncle bailed him out and he jumped and went on a spree in Florida. There’s still a warrant out for his arrest. They say he stole a police car.


I looked at Karl. “I don’t think it will ever be all right again,” I said. “Come now,” he answered, “we have some sleep and it will all be better in the morning.” He let go of my shoulders and prepared to leave, Thomas rising to join him. “I won’t be able to sleep,” I said, petulant now because my security blanket was deserting me. “Of course you will,” Karl said, “you must.” “How can I?” I asked. I was really feeling sorry for myself. “Choose life,” Karl said, and kissed me on both cheeks in the German way. He looked into my eyes to make sure I understood him and said it again, “Choose life.” Thomas smiled at me and followed Karl out the door. “If it gets really bad you know where we are,” he said.


After they left I listened to the silence that had returned to the building. Maybe Karl was right. Maybe I’d wake up in the morning and it would all be better. But I knew that wasn’t true. For now, in this moment, there was peace and that would have to be enough. I thought about my father and I thought about my lover, I thought about the things that people choose, and don’t choose. I brushed my teeth for a long time and lay down to a dreamless sleep. When I woke up the sun was shining, and I decided to greet the day. g






Jannie Wolff is an actor and writer who lives in Manhattan. A graduate of Sarah Lawrence College, she spent her first year in New York working with the Circle Repertory Company (now Circle East) and became a member of that company’s LAB the following year.  Since then she has appeared in over 40 plays and independent films, and has had her work produced in Boston and New York. She often works on collaborative projects with artists from other media, producing evenings of new theater, music and art throughout downtown Manhattan. Her full length play, Coyote, was selected for the NYSSA/South Hampton College workshop in July, 2000; her short play, Conductors, was a finalist for the Actors Theatre of Louisville Year 2000 Heideman Award. In 2001 she was named a semi-finalist for the Chesterfield Writer’s Film Project. Her photographs and poetry are part of the September 11 Photo Project and were published as part of a collection from that exhibit in April of 2002; her work is also featured in the spring 2002 issue of the literary journal How2 as part of a section on women writers’ responses to September 11. In August of 2002, an ongoing collaboration with a photographer and interior designer resulted in “New York: Through My Friend’s Eye” at the Belmont Lounge, a show of poetry and photographs of people and places throughout Manhattan and the five boroughs. Two articles she wrote on home renovation were published in the March 2004 issue of New York Interiors Quarterly. An article about theater collaborations will be published in the next issue of OutLet, a Boston-based performance magazine. 

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