Tuesday, September 16, 2014

On Love and Faith, On the Subway

I was wearing knee high black leather high heeled boots that I had bought on Madison Avenue for an unreasonable amount of money last December, when I spent Christmas drinking alone.  I stared at them in order to avoid eye contact with a woman who was hobbling up and down the subway car.  I could see her feet—she was wearing dirty lime green Crocs and even dirtier yellow socks with big holes in the heels.  Her sweatpants hung in ripped, fraying strands around her ankles.  I instantly felt stupid for being all dressed up--wearing a black silk dress with lace sleeves, my lips painted pink.  I wasn’t going anywhere special, just out to drink at a dive bar in the East Village.  Since moving to New York, I either feel incredibly silly for putting effort into my appearance while there’s people begging for food and spare change all around me or else I feel ashamed for not trying harder when I see women in nicely pressed blouses and pencil skirts and pretty patent flats. 

The woman’s feet were nearing mine.  I squinted my eyes closed as if I was in pain.  She was singing.  “Love lifted me up.  Love lifted me up.”  Her voice was crackly.  She was carrying two large black trash bags.  “Love lifted me up.”  I wondered if she had ever been in love.  I wondered if she had ever laid her head down on someone’s chest at night in bed, slept with her legs entwined with another’s, smiled in her sleep at the feel of the warmth beside her body under the covers.  I wondered if when a person doesn’t have a home or a job or enough to eat, if they still long for something like being loved.  Probably.  Good love is like a bowl of warm, creamy mashed potatoes—it fills you up and warms your soul. 

I was wearing the same outfit that I had worn on a first date seven months ago.

“Love lifted me up.  One more time.”  She yawned.  “Love lifted me up.”

All day I had been in a good mood, feeling pleasantly secure in my relationship and my new job and nurturing a renewed sense of purpose in my writing.  I squinted my eyes shut again.  I was mad at this woman—maybe for reminding me that it is always possible to loose what you think you can keep.
She was walking the subway car once again, this time stopping in front of each rider. “May love lift you too, sister,” she said to me.  I stared at the stains on her socks.  At least she wasn’t going on about God.  So many people plague the subways with fiery talk of one god and hell or another.    

I thought about God on my walk from the subway to the bar.  If someone asked me right now, if I believe in God, I’d say, “I believe that the past happened.”  I believe that I was home in Wisconsin three years ago, driving down the highway with my brother singing “Hallelujah” and the air-conditioning in the car was broken so we had rolled down the windows to let the dusty air whip our wet skin and it smelled like gasoline and cornfields and sun warmed blacktop and hay.  And I loved it all in some way that would haunt me for years because you’re not supposed to love the place that taught you how to wear a scar like a tattoo smile.  But you do because it’s beautiful—like how a former boyfriend once told me I looked pretty when I cried, mascara rolling rivers down my cheeks.  And I don’t know about forgiveness or absolution but I know what it feels like to be in hell, drinking in the company of your memories, unable to love anyone because the first people who were supposed to love you also hurt you.  And I’ve learned that you have to let go of the hurt you’ve been hanging onto in order to grab hold of some happiness.

And I let it go.  And I’m happy.  I don’t know if love lifts a person up.  I think you lift yourself up and maybe sometimes you get lucky and there’s someone standing next to you holding your hand.  These days I’m lucky.

In the past seven months, I went through four different jobs, I had a first date and a second and eventually lost count, I graduated my MFA program, I lost some friends and made some new ones, and life changed.  And that’s what I believe in.  Things change for the better and for the worse and just for the hell of it and you get through it not because you fall in love or fall into some good luck; you get through it because time pushes ever forward and you must too.  And sometime maybe you will be standing in a crowded bar and you will see a dear familiar face across the room and everything will feel warm and beautiful and right.  And you can hold that happy feeling in your heart for a while because you let the rest of it go. 

Thursday, September 11, 2014

For the Hope of It

We had just returned from Europe.  It was January in Sacramento, California so most days were warm enough to barely require a light jean jacket.  And the nights were dappled with the hanging lights of outdoor patios at local restaurants and the liquor infused laughter of patrons.  You had moved into your new apartment and I hadn’t yet moved back to Chicago.  On a Sunday we rented a car and drove to San Francisco.  For the past two years, San Francisco had been our place.  We revisited it whenever we could and when we couldn’t be there, we would be building it up in our heads.   Even through our travels in Europe, San Francisco had remained the promise land. 
I’ve never allowed myself to say it—to say that I wonder if maybe some alternative to my current life still exists in California.  Maybe there is a me that stayed, that didn’t get on that plane out of Sacramento, flying into Chicago just in time for a February blizzard.  Maybe nothing that followed happened to that other me in California.  Maybe in California I am still the girl carrying a painting of Prague and a heart heavy with hopes, up the escalator, into the airport, into the sunshine sky, on and on forever.  Maybe in California the martinis didn’t happen, rape didn’t happen, New York and all these damned disappointments and the scar on my ankle didn’t happen.  Maybe I never got my heartbroken.  Maybe in California I rented an apartment and hung the painting on the wall and lived happily enough—ever after.  Maybe I moved to San Francisco.  

And maybe I would give it all back.  The past four years.  France.  New York.  New loves.  My MFA.  Everything.  I would give it all back just to feel the hope of someday having it again.  

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

This Is How You Love Her

Pay attention.  She will remember that time you gave money to a subway performer.  She will remember the way your finger moved up and down her back the first time you saw her naked.  She will remember when you remember.  She will remember when you forget.

Don’t be callous when homeless people make her sad, even though she passes them on the street every day.  She is sensitive, you must be too.  Don’t say that it’s their fault.  Hold her hand tighter.  She knows what it is to barely have enough, make her feel like she is your everything.  She knows what it is to have to fight for what she needs. She is tough.  You must be too. 

Listen when she tells you a story.  Hear the story behind the story.  Pay attention.  If you don’t, she will say, “You never listen!”  And she will remember every goddamned time she says this and out of all the things you will forget, you will remember it too.  And you will both grow to hate it.  Don’t. 

Listen when she is silent.  Listen for what she isn’t saying.  Pay attention.  Know her well enough to know why.  Why she is crying.  Why she is quiet.  Why she wants to drink after work on a Tuesday.  Let her know you too.  She wants to.  And isn’t that what you wanted when you first saw her, anyways?  For a girl like that to want to know someone like you?  You still remember the gold buttons on the blazer she was wearing the first time you saw her.  And you didn’t even think you had a chance in hell.  And weren’t you excited and proud when she asked you out?  And those boots she wore on your first date—the way those things hugged her legs all the way to her knees…  See, you do pay attention.

Take her side.  Because she sleeps beside you.  Because she would fight for you even if you were wrong. 

Let her know she’s beautiful.  You love tucking into the curves of her body.  You love cradling her hips against yours.  Shit, you love her.

Let her wear your clothes.  Okay, so you’d rather see her wear the dress that hugs her breasts in a way you sometimes dream of doing when you’re walking down the street together, but just know that she wants to wear your shirt because she feels sexiest when she’s with you and she wants you all over her, all the time.  Fuck that dress.  The shirt is yours.  She is yours.  And she wants to be. 

Remember, there is nothing in life that you can keep without working to hold onto it.  Treat her like she is at least as important as anything you’ve ever wanted.  And mean it.  This is how you love her.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

At least as important as anything you have ever wanted.

 “Come at me as if I were worth your life - the life we make together. Take me like a turtle whose shell must be cracked, whose heart is ice, who needs your heat. Love me like a warrior, sweat up to your earlobes and all your hope between your teeth. Love me so I know I am at least as important as anything you have ever wanted.” 

I think maybe one of the biggest detriments to any sort of success—whether it is a successful relationship or a successful career—is low self-esteem.  I also think “self-esteem” is a loose term for how one feels about oneself, how much one values oneself.  I think a better term might be self-respect.  But then again maybe not, because what does self-respect have to do with waking up in the morning and looking down at your hips and thighs and then over at your sleeping partner and not wondering if they’d love you more if you were thinner?  What does self-respect have to do with avoiding mirrors throughout the day because you hate seeing the acne scars on your cheeks when they aren’t concealed beneath makeup?  Maybe self-respecting women know better than to reduce themselves to their looks but I for one do it anyways.  And how can I not? 

I have a friend who is quick to tell off any man on the street that shouts or whistles at her as she walks by.  My friend shares stories of such encounters while picking at a plate of steamed vegetables and worrying that she shouldn’t be eating so much.  And I completely understand.  I don’t want strange men on the street to reduce me to my looks but even though I reduce myself to my looks all the time.  And I honestly believe that it’s necessary because I find that people are nicer to me if I have gone through the effort to blow-dry my hair and put on makeup.  It’s easier to ask my co-workers for help around the office.  Baristas are friendlier.  Strangers hold the subway doors for me.  And I have a pervasive sense that if I want to say something intelligent, I better look good while doing it in order to soften the blow it might have to whomever I am speaking.  Of course, the reverse is also true.  If I put in an effort to wear a nice dress to work, braid my hair and put on lipstick, more men will whistle and shout at me as I walk to the subway.
I don’t own a TV and I don’t buy women’s magazines, so I rarely encounter the kind of ads and media propaganda that gender studies courses talk about in which women are portrayed as airbrushed objects and I am left to feel inferior.  However, I do work in Midtown Manhattan.  I wake up every morning, throw on my clothes, tie my wet hair in a bun, and ride the subway red-faced and without makeup.  When I get off the train at 59th street, the first thing I see is Bloomingdales.  Then I see beautiful women in high heels that don’t seem to be cutting into their feet the way mine are, women who managed to line their eyes and blow dry their hair, women who wear dresses that look similar to the ones the Bloomingdales mannequins are sporting.  I go out on the weekends and I see women in stilettos and tiny dresses while I’m wearing beat-up old sandals and shorts and sometimes I wonder if I should try harder, while other times I pride myself on knowing that self-respect means not feeling like you have to try so hard.  And I wouldn’t really feel sexy anyways if I dressed up like that because I can’t walk in heels like those and I don’t like the feeling of being two inches away from flashing my vagina on the sidewalk if I wear a short dress. 

I have a red dress that remains hanging in my closet most of the year, except for the couple days when I need to feel invincible.  The dress is nothing fancy, just a simple cotton wrap-dress that knee-length and form fitting.  It feels daring to wear red.  Sexy, maybe, but mostly bold.  As if when I put it on I’m daring the world to look at me and deny me some sense of power.  Of course, I know it’s silly to feel empowered by a dress, but is it any sillier than business men who wear suits as a symbol of their power and success?  When I wear my red dress, I do not question my attractiveness.  The dress is magic.  It hugs all the right curves while smoothing over the wrong ones.  And perhaps, most of all, when I wear it I feel relieved of some sort of worry or guilt over not being appealing enough.  Free from worry and guilt, I feel happier.  
I once had a boyfriend who frequently praised my body and the constant praise made me feel empowered—as if I had the right to ask for sex or withhold it, to say what I wanted and receive it.  And it made me feel confident that no matter how late he was out or how infrequently he texted me back, he was not going to stray.  Of course, he praised my brain too but no man ever asks to have sex in a position that accentuates a woman’s brain.  Men don’t watch porn of women reading from their graduate thesis. 

The trouble is that it is impossible to trust that the person you love values you the way they say they do, if you don’t value yourself.  If you look in the mirror and see someone who could be better, then you are bound to hear your partner’s proclamations of fidelity as lies because why wouldn’t he want something better?  Even you want to be better.  And when you feel like this, every woman is a threat.  Every unanswered text is a warning sign of the implosion you believe is coming.

I could analyze why I suffer from low self-esteem.  I could tell you that it is possible to go through things like abuse and rape and see yourself as ruined, as inherently less valuable than other people.  I could tell you that after being raped, I am constantly conscious of being a person inside a body.  I could tell you that I don’t see love as being some sort of fated thing.  I think it’s largely a choice we make.  And so sometimes I look at the world and wonder why someone would pick me.  And I know I’m not supposed to say that.

But what I don’t know is how to fix it.  I like who I am, I just wonder if maybe anyone who chooses to be with me is making a bad choice because I wouldn’t choose to be with myself.  I live with myself.  I know the bad deal that anyone else would be getting with me.  Not only do I see my acne scars, fresh and purple after a shower, but I see the potato chips I eat in bed when I’m stressed.  And I hear all my damn stories every time I sit down the write.  I hear my writer’s voice talking about abuse and rape and loss and I wonder if I would choose to be with someone like me.  I don’t have a choice.  I am stuck in my own body.  No one else is stuck with me.  They can leave.  And the truth is that I don’t think there’s any amount of beautiful I could be that would change that. 

And so here I am.  I am surprised every time someone is there for me—for a birthday or a bad day.  And I am confused every morning when I wake up to find the body sleeping next to me in bed isn’t gone yet.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Like a Sore Thumb

Maybe love means being someone’s accident.  Maybe love is something you trip over and fall into, scrape your knee against, stub your toe on.  You don’t mean to fall into it but it happens—you’re clumsy like that.  Or maybe love is like the weeds that spring up between the cracks in the pavement.  Maybe it grows in between broken things.  Maybe you’d have to be crazy or religious to call love something that is meant to be.  Because then you’d have to believe that everything from car accidents to plane crashes to that scar on your elbow from the time you fell off your bike are all meant to be.  But maybe it’s better to be crazy or to pray to god, otherwise you have to believe that you have some control over it all, that you could walk more carefully, that you could be more mindful of where you’re going, lest you end up tripping over that weed that grows stubbornly in between the broken pavement and getting hurt. 

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Imitation Pearls

When I moved to Chicago for college, I had my first sight of the certain pristine calm that seemed to lay just behind the windows of high-end retail stores on Michigan Avenue.  It is the same calm that I now see behind the windows of Madison Avenue shops on the Upper East Side, where I live in New York—though my own rented room is several blocks east of such places and has about it a cluttered, distraught feeling to it, which is about as far from pristine calm as one can get.  Living in Chicago, I would walk past such stores on my way to class or to the dentist or just to pass the time on a Sunday afternoon.  Everything about them was sparse in a way that made a person like me, who grew up understanding a different sentiment of the word “sparse,” see such intentional sparseness as a luxury.  Everything was clean and the shops were quiet.  If silence is indeed golden, then these places were plated in it and they sparkled. 
When I left rural Wisconsin for Chicago, I was not looking to find beautiful things—at least not material ones.  I was looking for happiness.  I was looking to get away from certain things that had happened to me and I was hoping to avoid what I saw as the unhappy fate of my female relatives.  In pictures I had seen of the university I would attend, right along Lake Michigan, were cobbled stoned paths and concrete walls and in the beauty of it all I thought there would be happiness.  I thought that a place that looked practically foreign from where I was from would have everything I had never experienced at home—and by everything, all I really meant was happiness.  The trouble is that I had little to no idea of what happiness really meant or what it looked like. 
Where I am from, rural Wisconsin, is not beautiful the way Chicago along the lake is beautiful with fine brownstones just a block from waves that regularly reflect a smog-pink sunset.  Where I am from is not beautiful the way the mannequins and fine goods in the shop windows on Michigan or Madison Avenue are beautiful.  Where I am from is rundown and frazzled. Where I am from has always felt inherently dirty to me.  People in line at the gas station look unkempt even in the mornings when they may well be fresh from the shower.  Children always seem to be catching colds and coughing in the check-out lines at Wal-Mart and men always smell of sweat and cheap aftershave –what my father called his “smell’ums.”  And most of the year, the evening air is ripe with the smell of sun baked cow manure. 
At first, in Chicago, I would walk past those pristine shop windows the way I walked through the art museums I had visited in London—like a tourist content to gaze for a moment into someone else’s life, interested in the idea of how someone else lived but with no desire to change places.  But I was not a tourist.  I lived there.  I lived right among those shops and brownstones in Chicago, just as I now do in New York.  I was living my real life in a world that felt like a museum at best—a delusion, at worst.
My life didn’t feel like mine.  But it was also all I had.  I was receiving a good education on loan from the federal government.  And soon I had been befriended by a classmate who looked like she had walked right out of one of those store windows and had just happened to a take a seat in the empty desk next to me in our creative writing class.  The first thing she taught me was how to drink wine.  Then, after a bottle of Pinot Noir, she leaned towards me and took the strand of imitation pearls my mother had lent me between her fingers and said, “I know they’re fake because I can see the scratch.  If I wasn’t your friend I wouldn’t be nice about it.”  I looked down.  As a very young girl, I had always admired the necklace when it has hung in my mother’s jewelry box.  My friend proudly showed me her jewelry collection, displaying real pearls and pretty little things in Tiffany’s blue boxes.  Holding up one piece she noted that it had been given to her by a much older business man whom she had dated while she had been in boarding school.  She said he used to take her to dinner and order extra strong vodka tonics so she could share them with him when the waiter wasn’t looking. 
She taught me how to act like the mannequins in the store windows.  She gave me a pair of her grandmother’s pearl earrings.  She taught me how to talk to older men in bars—because they’ll always pay.  And I found new, clothes –classic sweaters and fine leather purses that I purchased on sale at local boutiques that the just beginning economic recession was forcing out of business.  My boyfriend gave me a necklace from Tiffany’s.  One Christmas, while I was home from college, I asked my mother for the box of vintage jewelry we had inherited from long dead relatives which we had never had any use for and had instead used to decorate our Christmas tree.  I wore our 1920’s costume jewelry Christmas ornaments on my ears when I returned to Chicago.
These things did not make me happy.  In Chicago, I was happiest leaving my apartment to walk alone along the lake, from where I could view the downtown skyline from a distance. 
I spent the summer before I moved to New York, at home in rural Wisconsin.  For three months I never took my jewelry out of the suitcase I had packed it away in and I never wore the clothes my friend had taught me to wear.  I wore a single pair of sandals and a couple loose fitting dresses and shirts because that was what was appropriate for a place where the sidewalk was cracked and sometimes just gravel and dirt.  I walked barefoot on the hot cement at night with my mother, being careful not to step on the glass of broken beer bottles.  I stayed cool by forgoing a bra and sitting under a ceiling fan while drinking a can of Pepsi, my hair still wet and uncombed from the shower.  Of course, I was bored.  I could never have stayed there.  But the souvenirs I had collected from my tour of someone else’s life (My life? My friend’s life?  The mannequin’s life?) just didn’t call to me in quite the same way by the time I unpacked them when I reached New York. 
One thing I have noticed about Chicago in comparison to New York, is that Chicago feels possible.  In fact, for me it made dreams—anything, really—feel attainable.  Chicago is an aspirational, hardworking American’s city.  It is beautiful by the lake and as glimpsed through Michigan Avenue store windows.  But it is also real.  I never felt uncomfortable riding the “L,” jammed between a homeless person and someone carrying a Prada purse.  Both kinds of people exist in Chicago, but so does the social median—the middle class.  And no one, regardless of their class status, seems to be telling themselves fictitious tales about how they are great and how their whole life is going to be great because they are in the greatest city on earth.  Such tales are, of course, the staple of every New Yorker’s diet.  I may be guilty of romanticizing Chicago when I say that people there seem more apt to believe in the quality of their lives, not the mythical quality of where they live, but romanticizing New York is a far greater crime. 
People who move to New York, myself included once upon a time, seem to believe that just by being here, something wonderful will happen to them—they will get their dream job, fame, fortune, prestige, a certain kind of membership card that guarantees them admittance through the doors of all pristine, calm beautiful establishments.  That is not the case.  When I moved here, I was told repeatedly, “New York is all about who you know.”  I knew no one.  I moved here with two suitcases and an address of a place where I would be sharing a room with two other graduate students.  And for the most part I met people like me, people who knew no one.  Or else I met people who did know someone, but who were so far out of touch with the reality that those of us not from New York—or any East Coast city that is just a commuter train away—know too well to be any help. 
True, a lot of great things have happened to me in New York.  I’ve fallen in love once or twice.  I’ve made a good friend or two.  I’ve gotten my MFA.  I’ve also worked several mediocre jobs—each posing as something more aspirational.  I’ve felt let down by the city as I fell on my face, stumbling over myself as I tried to keep up, to make it, to---To be happy?  And I do credit those horrible jobs as teaching me the price of things I deem worth having.  And the thing is that I don’t think what I get out of New York it worth it. 
I am not the mannequin from those fine store windows.  My life is not pristine.  In New York, I am tired and frazzled and largely unhappy.  Sometimes I feel more like those sweaty, dirty people in the gas station line of my hometown, than I do like the people around me in New York.  And often, I forget that what I set out from that small town in search of was not something else that would make me feel ugly and wrong and hopeless.  I was looking for happiness.  And I don’t think it’s here.
I hate New York.  I hate working all day in an office cubicle from which I can’t even glimpse the outdoors.  And I hate that when I run outside to grab lunch everything is haphazard and dirty—except for the finely pressed suits of the men who stand in line beside me to buy overpriced salads.  I hate how people say New York has great bars and restaurants to offer, as if that’s a reason to live somewhere.  The truth is, the only reason I like going out is that I don’t like being in my tiny rented room.  And I don’t like feeling bored on a Sunday and therefore feeling compelled to drag myself to The Metropolitan museum for yet another time because it’s there, so I figure I should.  I don’t like the fact that I am going into my seventh year of feeling like a tourist in a life that doesn’t feel like mine but is still all I have.  I don’t want my life to be fake pearls.  But I also want it to be completely okay to wear fake pearls.  

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Things I've been told:

You’re too nice.  You intimidate people.  You need to smile more.  You’re too smart.  You look great now that you’ve lost weight.  Your height makes your intimidating.  You think too much.  You’re too smart for your own good.  You got raped because you’re too nice—you let people take advantage of you.  You got raped because you act like you’re better than people.  Smart girls don’t get raped.  Maybe you shouldn’t have been drinking.  What did you eat that day?  Nice girls don’t get raped.  Maybe you got raped because you looked so good in that blouse—purple is a such great color on you.  After you got raped, you walked around with this attitude like what had happened to you was more important than what was happening in other people’s lives—you were so moody at the bar the next week.  You are not a nice girl; you don’t deserve a nice guy.  You need to be careful how you talk in mixed company—it’s very suggestive.  You’re too shy.  Why don’t you try harder to meet people?  Why can’t you just be happy?  Just be yourself.