“I never really liked him,” she mused aloud as we walked on. “I always thought he was gross and kind of an idiot.” She laughed her mean laugh, “I just liked that he loved me.” I laughed a mean laugh too because I knew what she meant and that was what made us both mean: we knew what it was to hate the person who says “I love you.” And if you hate the person who loves you, you can be damn sure that sooner or later you’ll start hating yourself. And that makes you mean.
Tuesday, April 22, 2014
New York began for me on Sunday, the nineteenth of August, when I was not quite twenty-two years old. As my plane began its descent into LaGuardia I looked out my window for views of a glittering skyline or the Statue of Liberty. Instead I saw muddy brown waters and brown buildings, gray roads and a sad, gray sky. When my plane had left Chicago that morning I had watched the skyline tower and shine in the hazy silver morning mist, keeping my eyes on the city until the very last skyscraper was out of sight, as if I was taking a last look at an old love.
When my taxi driver took me over a bridge on my way from LaGuardia to the New York City apartment I would be sharing with two roommates who I hadn’t met yet, I asked him the name of the bridge. And when he said it was the Triborough I smiled and made a note to write about how I had rode over the same bridge that my favorite writer, Joan Didion, had rode over when she first came to New York. But for the most part, on that first Sunday, New York was not even a place to me but a sad, gray, misremembered dream. I wandered from my William Street apartment to Fulton Street, which was lined with open-air shops and vendors. I looked at it as if from a distance even as excited tourists bumped up against me.
I walked on Fulton for a while until I reached the South Street Sea Port, a place of cobblestones and life-size pirate ships, acrobats and storefronts that looked like London. And as crowds merged and swirled around me I felt lost and alone even though I knew exactly where I was. That was the thing about being in New York – it didn’t feel like mine, nor did it initially feel like a place that I could be. It felt like it belonged to the tourists of the world and to the artists and the Wall Street brokers and the kind of people who lived in high rises or brownstones.
For the first couple days I moved about New York not in youthful or touristy awe but in the practiced irritation of someone who has lived and worked and loved in a city, someone who has run to catch a train and missed it and showed up late for drinks with a friend and been overly bothered by the inconvenience of the whole thing because it had been raining all day and the wind had blown their umbrella inside out. But then, on my fourth night in the city, I met a man outside a bar when the friend I was with asked him for a cigarette. And I had thought to myself that he was talking in a real New York accent. It turned out he was from Boston; I was just too new to New York to hear the difference.
That night was a wine and whiskey dream -- dark but bleeding brightness. My friend and I took a taxi with this man and his friend back to their apartment because they said they had a roof deck and we wanted to see the city from the sky and we were still young enough to believe in people. As the taxi carried us uptown, they were talking and the window was rolled down so I stuck my head out, so I could feel the air and the city. The wind rushed summer cool and dirty against my cheeks and I could see the dark shapes of buildings and the blurred red, green and orange lights of bodegas and bars and traffic. And then I was their roof looking out at the East River and down towards the Upper East Side and everything was still but sill all wine and whiskey, still darkness with light bleeding in. The city was sprawling out before me, like the possibilities I swore I no longer believed in.
He handed me a Corona and I quoted for him from my favorite movie, Annie Hall, because he said it was also his favorite movie. And when I had finished quoting Woody Allen paraphrasing Groucho Marx saying, “I wouldn’t want to belong to any club that would have someone like me as a member,” he smiled, stepped a little closer, and said, “That was good but here’s how it really goes.”
And soon that’s what I was telling myself. Here’s how it really goes. New York had to be the real start I had been waiting for.
Saturday, April 19, 2014
I was crying in a public restroom because I miss sitting at my mother’s kitchen table. But really it was not about what I missed but what I could someday miss. Love is a hard thing. Like truth and growing up and the way we learn to let go even after we fell for the pain as our knuckles turned red from griping too tightly. And I could have cried forever because nothing is forever. And I thought about how being alone is easier because when you have no one you have no one to lose. I get homesick when I’m happy because at least at home I know what I have and what I have to lose.
Saturday, April 12, 2014
Tuesday, April 8, 2014
I spend most days lately sitting in my room, trying to finish my thesis, which is the start of a memoir that spans three generations of women in my family. I write about how they loved and how they couldn’t, how they were loved and how they weren’t. There is trauma, dysfunction, abuse, and that vague word: complications. I tell my thesis advisor and anyone else who will listen that I’m trying to show people that love is sometimes things we don’t want to admit it to be. Love is all about what you are capable of. Think, what are you capable of at your best? What are you capable of at your worst?
Every morning I wake up and start tracing the choices of myself and my female relatives, looking for our intentions and following our paths through to our outcomes. Why am I here in New York? What happened to me? To them? To us? What was I running from and why didn’t they run?
I think about what we become. I think about being a little girl, in love with the way the southwestern Wisconsin countryside sloped and curved along the two lane highway and gavel country roads, the way the sunset was pink and purple and orange and limitless over the cornfields in the summer. The horizon seemed endless in the Wisconsin countryside and I grew up feeling boundless. I think about the women I loved who were bound to things too close to home. I think of the chains the world gives us and the ones we earn for ourselves. I think of how maybe I am lying when I say I felt boundless, because I have traveled quite a lot – from San Francisco to Istanbul -- and I have always felt tied to that place and those people and our secrets. The heaviest chains are the ones we carry with us, not the ones that hold us back.
I think of the way I was loved and the way I wasn’t. The ways I’ve loved and the ways I haven’t. I think of my childhood, my family. I think of my ex-boyfriends and all the different things I meant when I said, “I love you.” I meant, I love the way you love me. I meant, I love the idea of you. I meant, I’d love for you to make me feel better. And once, maybe once, I meant, I know you and I love you. And I think of how sex can be like a transaction, an exchange or a ruthless taking of power. I think about being held and caressed. I think about being pinned down and bruised. I think about outcomes. I think of the Upper Eastside Irish bartender, after hours, saying “I want to throw you over this bar and fuck you.” I think of how I walked away. I think of the married man in the Lower Eastside bathroom. I think about what we become. I think about the boy in my bed who said, “See, sex doesn’t have to mean anything,” and the way I turned out the lights and frowned at the dark.
But don’t get me wrong, this is not about making bad choices. This is about being alive. What do you call your choices?
I see my life still mostly in boxes, even after over a year in a half in New York. I see my favorite books on a shelf – the only piece of furniture I have bought so far. I think of how happy I finally am, how for the first time in my life I don’t feel like I’m looking for something to make me better. I made me better. And now because I am not looking for anything, maybe I will find love. I think of how much I was crying a year ago, how I woke up every morning and my heart ached with the pain of missing my family, my old friends, and with the acute worry that love was not what I had cracked it up to be. I wanted to be loved at least as much as I loved my favorite books. I wanted someone to know me by heart the way I knew my favorite Joan Didion essays. The want is important. What I became is the story. Words like girlfriend, drunk, unfaithful, broken hearted, easy, used, alone. And finally: better.
Sometimes I find myself at brunch with a man who’s conversation I enjoy or at dinner with a friend and I look at the gleaming floors of the restaurant, the well dressed patrons, the cocktail I’m drinking, and the smooth ambiance of being young in New York and I think of the cracked linoleum floors of restaurants in my hometown; I think of my mother’s kitchen table, cluttered and sticky. I think of what we become. I find myself in bars on the Lower Eastside, listening to people debating the contemporary relevance of Hemingway and idealizing Bukowski’s drinking problem and as I take another long gulp from my cocktail I hear myself telling my friends that where you live and what you read does not make you better than anyone else. I think I hear myself growing up. I see those friends walking away and I find myself walking alone along the streets of my Upper Eastside neighborhood, remembering the way dead pine needles filled the cracks in sidewalk outside my mother’s house in Wisconsin and how I used to walk home from school, telling myself stories about how I would move to New York and make up for where I was from. I think of outcomes.
My mother doesn’t like being written about. I doubt my ex-boyfriends or the rest of my family care for it either. I think of Joan Didon: Writers are always selling somebody out. But this is not about the price of things. I think of James Baldwin: People pay for what they do, and still more for they have allowed themselves to become. And they pay for it simply by the lives they lead. Maybe it is about the price of things. But I am talking about what I have paid for and what it’s worth and perhaps what I’m worth. I think about outcomes and I tell my mother that I come off worse than her in my writing. I worry that anyone who has read my stories, who sees me drinking in a bar, thinks to themselves: I know why she’s drinking; she’s damaged. And I think I am, but I don’t mind. Do I? I think about outcomes.
I came to New York from a small Midwestern town and I fell in love with the first man I met who reminded me of the city sky at night: a blank slate, starless. But I could never be a blank slate and in the end, I want a love that reminds me to look for the stars.