In twenty-four absurd, lyrical, and louche episodes, “Iris Smyles” weaves a modern odyssey of trying to find one’s home in the world amid the pitfalls and insidious traps of adult life. A wickedly funny picaresque touching on quantum physics, the Donner Party, arctic exploration, Greek mythology, Rocky I, II, V, IV, VI, and III respectively, and literary immortality, Dating Tips for the Unemployed is a wistful if wry ode to that awkward age—between birth and death—when you think you know what you want but aren’t quite sure what you’re doing.
|Publisher:||Houghton Mifflin Harcourt|
|Product dimensions:||5.31(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.88(d)|
About the Author
IRIS SMYLES's stories and essays have appeared in the Atlantic, the New York Times, BOMB, the New York Observer, Best American Travel Writing 2015, and other publications. Her first novel, Iris Has Free Time, was published in 2013. She lives in New York and Greece. Visit her at www.IrisSmyles.com.
Read an Excerpt
It takes a lot of nerve to have nothing at your age.
— ELAINE MAY, Ishtar
ON THE AIRPLANE, I sat next to a sixty-two-year-old Greek American woman named Kiki who got married at thirty-seven. She told me so within five minutes of my sitting down, before adding that it's not too late for me either. By the time I got up ten hours later, I knew all there was to know about the struggles of Kiki's son in AP Physics, his engineering degree from Cooper Union, the car accident four years ago that rendered Kiki unable to wear stilettos, how Kiki met her husband at church, how he scuba dives like her, about her father's shipping company where she worked before marrying, and recent renovations Kiki oversaw to her house in Astoria. I told her my name when she asked upon landing. I said, "It was nice talking to you, too."
The drive from Athens airport to the bus station took an hour. I took a taxi and the young driver helped me with my bags. Tired from the last ten hours of talking, I pretended I couldn't speak Greek, hoping this would exempt me from polite conversation. "Is okay. I speak English very good." He told me the islands were very nice, have I been? That if I wasn't married, I shouldn't worry; this summer, here in Greece, I might meet the love of my life. "You are a kind girl, I can tell," he said. "My business is peoples; I know." After being riddled as to why Greece is better than America — "I love the quiet," I answered — we arrived at the station, where he proceeded to overcharge me ten euro. And because I didn't want to talk anymore, I gave it to him.
My parents picked me up five hours later from a connecting bus station in Volos. Eager to make conversation, they said, "How was your trip?" I told them about the bathroom attendant at the bus stop, a little old lady with a tip jar on a folding chair outside the door, dispensing wads of single-ply toilet paper from a lone roll. "No cologne." I told them about the porcelain footprints inside the stall, the elegant hole in the ground over which I squatted. "It got me thinking; I should have my toilet removed back home. Go minimal, modern, make a statement."
"How long will you stay?" some friends of my parents asked over the roar of the boat's engine the next day. A small party of us was motoring to the island of Skopelos.
"I'm here for the month of August," I yelled back.
Tired from my trip, I was at first excited by the roar of the engine, anticipating a few hours' lull in conversation.
"She doesn't talk much, your daughter!" our host yelled to my father.
"She doesn't talk much, your daughter?"
"What?" my dad yelled back.
Then they put the radio on, turning the volume high enough for it to be heard over the engine. Then they raised their voices so they could be heard over the radio. They talked about the view, about the sea and the sky. "It's so relaxing," they yelled in agreement.
Back at the house, every room is filled with guests — aunts and uncles and cousins and friends. In the afternoon, after lunch, I slip off to my room for a nap. Drowsy from the midday heat, I shut my eyes and listen. Eventually the voices fall away. I dream of a long conversation, but when I wake, remember none of what was said.
In the early evening, I step onto the front patio and find Dimitra, my cousin's four-year-old daughter, dancing before an audience of our family. They clap and laugh as she wiggles from side to side. They call her "i micrí," which means "the little one." It's what they used to call me. My mother stops clapping and says she doesn't like my dress. "What's wrong with it?" I ask, looking down.
"It looks old."
With Dimitra, conversation is easy. When she stops dancing, she sits next to me and I ask, "What color is the sky?" She says, "Blue." I ask, "What does the rooster say?" "Koo-koorikoo," she sings. "And the dog?" "Ghav, ghav," because Greek dogs bark in Greek. Then she, Mamoù (her stuffed monkey), and I sit for coffee. Mamoù drinks too much too fast and becomes sick. I tell him I understand; sometimes I drink too much coffee, too. The micrí reprimands him, and I jump to his defense. I say, "Give the monkey a break, i micrí! He's had a long day."
In the kitchen my aunt flips on the radio, and the voices of a Greek talk show waft out. Dimitra jumps up and begins dancing to an argument about the Greek economy — Dimitra can dance to anything. Eager for some silence, I head down to the beach and stare out to sea. The wind is loud. The trees, too. The leaves rustle furiously as if urgently relating an opinion; everyone's got something to say.
I take my bike into town after and am stopped by a flock of sheep occupying the narrow path that leads to the village. I stand and wait for them to pass.
When they see me, all the sheep behh; they disapprove of my outfit — I should have worn the green dress. "Sometimes, Iris, it's like you don't even want to get married," the sheep say. Then the sheepdog emerges from the crowd, a big shot barking orders.
An old mustachioed shepherd watches silently in the distance. Single? Eventually they pass and the road is clear again. The sheep clink off with their ears marked for slaughter.
"You don't have forever," the last sheep tells me, before he turns away.
I shrug. "Neither do you. You're gonna die, you know," I say. "And your jacket's old-fashioned."
I spin through the olive groves and the wind fills my hair. How old am I?
I pull my bike across the gravel path an hour later and find my parents on the porch with their feet up. I join them. Dimitra sits beside me and asks why my feet are so large.
"To match my nose."
My mother complains that I'm antisocial, that I should make more of an effort to see my friends in town, to talk with them, or else "they might stop talking to you, too. You don't want to become a hermit," she warns. She says, "Why don't you go out tonight?" the same way she used to say, "Must you go out every night?"
The road to and from our house is less a road than a narrow dirt trail cut out from some trees, which leads to a clearing by the beach where our house rests. The "road" passes olive groves, orchards of plum, pear, and quince, and farms with chickens and roosters and their guards — more asshole dogs. After an evening at a café in town talking with friends, the sky is black and littered with stars like empty soda cans and the embers of discarded cigarettes.
I drive back in a gold 1982 diesel Mercedes we call "the Tank," which my parents shipped here ten years ago. It is the car with which I learned to drive, the car I took to and from high school in Long Island, the car in which I had sex with my first serious boyfriend. The Tank rolls slowly through the trees, pushing rogue branches out of the way with its nose. A few horses grazing near the "road" see headlights and approach. They, too, want to talk.
I roll down the window. The one that looks like Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman sticks her head in. She thinks I'm lonely. She asks, "You lookin' for a good time?" She wants to be taken up to my penthouse. "I don't have a penthouse," I tell her. She wants to be saved. "I don't have a penthouse, and even if I did, what do I want with some hooker horse?" I honk a few times to usher her out of the way, but she's stubborn and thinks I'm honking compliments. I nudge my way past and see her in the rearview mirror, watching me leave. She'd look better with less makeup. Someone should tell her.
My dad likes to listen to opera in the morning, but my mom never lets him because she thinks Turandot sounds like yelling, which makes her jealous; she prefers to be the one raising her voice. It's not that she's angry, but that everyone in my family alternates between two volumes — yell and scream. I'm the black sheep because I alternate between whimper and cry. As a result, no one understands me. They yell, "What?" I whimper, "I didn't say anything." They scream, "What?" I sniffle, "May I have an aspirin?" "Turn down that racket!" my mom yells at my dad, losing her patience with "Nessun Dorma."
Yesterday my dad insisted on hearing his songs and so, together, mischievously, we barred the door to the front terrace where normally my mother and aunt sit together to peel vegetables and gossip about the people they know — those who are not married and not getting any younger, those who are getting fat, those who've failed again to earn college degrees, and those who they suspect might be gossiping about them, too.
My dad's not antisocial like me, but every now and then he requires some peace and quiet. He achieves this by turning the volume up high, so high that the sound of his stereo drowns out all others. Like that, all dogs, all insects, all birds, all sea, and all wind, any and all conversations are swallowed by the rush of music.
Yesterday my dad turned the volume up on Tosca, and we sat side by side with our feet up, looking out to sea. For a few minutes, we said nothing.
The lonely voice of the jilted Maria Callas (divorced and then ditched — "a kind girl, such a shame") whirled around us, drowning out the voices of the rest of the family, who, relegated to the back terrace, continued their conversations in convivial screams. From their Greek staccato and sotto voce sighs, I could almost make out their measure, their firm agreement, this time about me: now that I've completed my second master's degree, what I really ought to do is find a man and get married. And quickly, too, before I gain any more weight, before I get too old, before people start to talk.CHAPTER 2
If at first you don't succeed, failure may be your style.
— QUENTIN CRISP, The Naked Civil Servant
DATING TIPS FOR THE UNEMPLOYED AND UNSUCCESSFUL
YOU ARE UNEMPLOYED, at best very unsuccessful. Yet you go to parties. Parties where you meet people who ask, "So what do you do?"
You live with your parents. You share a one-bedroom with three roommates. You consider ramen a food group. You update your Facebook profile daily.
Your job has no title. You work within a department. You're an unpaid intern. You're assistant to the intern.
You stop people on the street and ask them if they like comedy, then push ticket packages to the "best comedy club in New York!" You stop them and say, "Excuse me, may I ask you a question about your hair?" You hand out free soap samples; nobody wants your soap samples.
You don't read the newspaper; it's expensive and the news is never good. Instead, you pick up the free alternative weekly. You skip straight to the comics and read without laughing. You could do better, you think. That is, if you drew. You blame your parents for not recognizing and encouraging your artistic potential early on. You remember when you were ten, you'd sketched some pretty realistic-looking horses. You skip to your horoscope: "Inside you is an untapped power source, Pisces. Tomorrow, Libra, a great opportunity will present itself. Be prepared, Gemini, the rest of your life is about to begin. Leo, stop living in the past, the future is right in front of you!" You throw the paper away before you get home and forgive your parents for not buying you pastels — they did their best.
You call your mom, and she asks you about the weather. You lie and say it's colder than it is. You want to say something interesting. "We've a wintry mix today, Mom." When she says, "You sound depressed," you say you got a flu shot yesterday, just as she instructed, that it might have infected you. You feel so tired all the time lately. "Wear a hat," she says.
"I'm wearing one right now, Mom!"
"Hold on, I'm going to put your father on."
"Drink plenty of liquids," he says. "And cheer up!" he commands, before hanging up.
You take a job answering phones in a husky voice. It was funny at first, and all your girlfriends had a good laugh. You told them, "I'm going to learn what men want and then share it ALL with you!" After your first day, you met them for cocktails and they asked you what you found out. "Men want sex," you said, too demoralized to go into detail. The reality wasn't nearly as funny as the idea. "They never call in to talk about art or politics," you joked. But no one laughed, something about your tone. You lie and tell your parents you're a cold caller for the Ballet at Lincoln Center. You tell them all your friends are jealous because they let you work from home; you say, "A commission is even better than a salary, Mom!"
You log on to Facebook and update "favorite movies." You take out Rocky. Put it back in. Then take it out. Then you add Rocky I, II, V, IV, VI, and III in that order. "Rocky IV gets priority and could switch places with V, though V is actually a superior film, as IV has a sociohistorical significance and represents in many ways the apotheosis of the Cold War experience in America," you've been known to say on first dates. "You will lose," you once said in an Ivan Drago accent, to a guy just before he kissed you, before he didn't call you back.
You log on to Facebook and scroll down your ex's wall.
Your college internship comes up at Thanksgiving dinner. Your mother says, "Why don't you apply there, honey?" You can't tell her that you've dated everyone in the office, that you can't possibly go back now, what with Jed, Field, Gibb, and Markus all over the place. You're too pretty or too easy, have low self-esteem or a superiority complex — you're not sure what's wrong with you, why you did what you did. You dated Jed because he said you were beautiful. And then Markus had kissed you after you drank too much at the holiday party. Gibb you went out with because Jed dumped you, and then Field after Gibb because you could do whatever you wanted, because you were above caring anymore. You say, "I'd like to try something different, Mom. Maybe teaching." You tell her about the ads in the subway about making a difference.
You attend a birthday party. The host brings out Milton Bradley's Operation, and everyone cheers when she extracts the spleen. You fail to extract anything. Later you overhear someone ask her in the kitchen, "What do you do?" You watch out of the corner of your eye as she replies unselfconsciously, "I wait tables." Perhaps you, too, could wait tables, you think the next morning, as you stand still for thirty minutes, naked before an NYU drawing class, a class you took yourself a few years ago, before you graduated early. What was the rush?
You found your own T-shirt company. You are president and sole employee, and your apartment is filled with the unsold stock from the street fair where you ran into an ex and a former professor all in one day. They fingered your goods and neither of them bought anything. "I was in your class! I make them myself!" you said too quickly. Your ex said he liked the one that said SECOND BASE and was trying to gauge whether or not it would fit his new girlfriend. He got her on the phone to ask her size, but then she didn't want one after all, he explained, before winking at you and saying he had to go.
You get a job at a trendy restaurant you once went to on a date. You thought it would be fun to work at a place so chic. But your uniform is not chic and the wait staff, they correct you on your first day, must enter and exit through a special door in the rear. An older waiter who always gets the best tables, an actor who's worked there for twenty years, takes you under his wing, shows you tricks with the ice machine, and tells you not to worry, that you'll get used to it. You thank him with a mixture of gratitude and horror. You don't want to get used to it.
You type forty words per minute, you lie. You believe you can learn PowerPoint. On days between job interviews, you smoke pot and watch Jerry Springer, Judge Judy, Judge Joe Brown, Dr. Phil, Oprah, Tyra, because "it's so bad, it's good," you tell someone at a party. You call your parents to ask for more money. Your life, you think staring at Dr. Phil, is so good, it's bad.
You avoid your friends. The successful ones make you feel ashamed, and the unsuccessful ones avoid you, too, for fear that all together you give off too strong an odor of failure. You prefer the company of strangers, those middle-aged drunks at the bar around the corner from your apartment, about whom you've decided to write a novel. You have the title and the last line already. Nowhere Is a Place. "Because you can't leave nowhere unless nowhere is a place." It's about desolation and redemption at a bar around the corner from your narrator's apartment.
You check your email: nothing. But then, a message from your parents: "We just got email! How's the weather?"
You think of responding with a link to a weather website, but then worry it might destroy the delicate balance of your relationship with your parents. What would you talk about? "Mild with a chance of rain," you write back. You want to write something hopeful, some bit of good news, something they can feel proud of. You want to tell them that things are looking up, that they shouldn't worry. You type, "I got one of those new Sonicare toothbrushes you told me about. It's revolutionized the way I clean my teeth." You sign it "love" and press Send, unable to shake the feeling that your mom thinks you're a loser. And no, it shouldn't matter. But it does. It starts to.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Dating Tips for the Unemployed"
Copyright © 2016 Iris Smyles.
Excerpted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Dating Tips for the Unemployed and Unsuccessful,
Literature, Sex, Monopoly, Gin,
Enter the Wu-Tang,
Adventures with My Parents,
The Moon and the Stars,
Dispatches from My Apartment,
The Great Lawn,
Philip Has a Small Penis Blog.com,
The Family Politic,
The Friend Registry,
Lions and Wolves,
Donner, Party of Two,
My Real Estate Agent's Beard,
Taxonomy of Exes,
Large Hadron Collider,
About the Author,