Wednesday, July 25, 2012

It's not you and it's not me...

Dear France,

We both knew this was coming, no matter how much we liked to pretend otherwise, but I guess I will be the one to say it.  It’s not you.  It’s not me either.  It’s just time.  You and I are both such hopeless romantics; we liked to pretend that love is always enough.  And, trust me, I really wish it was. 

You understand me in a way no one else ever has and when I’m with you I am my very best self.  And I love you for that.  And I love you for the little things too, like how you don’t mind if I order a pichet of wine at lunch or if I want to eat olives and cheese for dinner or if I like to take my top off when I’m hiking.  And I love how you would always sit with me by the sea.  (Remember the first night we drank champagne together?)  And I love how you always encouraged me to be in the moment, whether it was closing my eyes and just giving into a feeling or ordering some rose and violet flavored gelato because you know it was my favorite.

You should know that I cried when I left you, not just because I was sad to leave, but because I was worried that I would never be as happy or hopeful or alive as I was with you.  And I still worry that almost every day but I don’t think that is a good enough reason for us to try to make this long distance thing work. 

The truth is that love is not always enough.  Timing might not be everything but it is unfortunately something very important.  Remember, we talked about this?  There are different kinds of love and probably a few different people that could be right for each of us.  In the end it comes down to timing. And time was never on our side.  We started a love affair with a deadline, an end date, already arbitrarily set in stone.  But maybe that’s what made the time we did have together so wonderful? 

I know Shakespeare wasn’t French and I know Romeo and Juliet were Italian but it seems it would be a rather French thing to do if I were to quote them in order to make a point.  So let me make a point.  Remember how Romeo said that thing to Juliet about how partings are such sweet sorrow that he would like to say goodnight until it be ‘morrow?  Well, our parting was the sweetest sorrow of my life thus far.  And, really, it’s like we were saying goodbye from the very first moment that we realized that we had something special together, practically from the very beginning.  The love and loss were entwined and inevitable and I think each made the other all the sweeter, all the sadder. 

I used to tell you that I was nostalgic for the present, remember?  But you didn’t understand.  Language barriers and whatnot…  What I meant was that even though we were together in the moment, I was already missing it – missing you.  I was preemptively mourning the loss of how I still was.
And I was so happy.  I really was.  And I really loved you, just like I said I did.  And I still like to hope that maybe someday we will get a second chance to be together.  But for now there are other places that I need to be so we have to breakup because I need to be free to go to these places – these new relationships – wholeheartedly.  Right now you’re still holding a bit of my heart and I love you but I need it back.

I know it’s ironic.  I fought so hard against even giving you my heart in the first place.  When we first met I didn’t even like you very much.  I said you were too simple.  And what I meant was that it would be too easy for me to love you and I preferred a challenge.  My first love was Chicago, after all.  That city is one big case of Seasonal Mood Disorder.  It’s all hot and cold, black and white, hipsters and gangsters, rock and rap...  Loving Chicago was always a fight and I wanted to win, but that kind of love beat me down so I ran to you.  And I was right.  Loving you was so easy.  You understood my habit of being perpetually late and you appreciated my sense of adventure.  But it was deeper than that, more innate…  It was like I knew you before I even met you and then when I met you I recognized a part of myself in you. 

If the timing was different I would call us soul mates, but since the timing is what it is – and in our case it’s past – I will say that you and I are kindred souls.  And I will say that though I am breaking up with you, and though we will both move on and see other people, my soul will always understand yours.  And I hope that even if the next time I see you, I am older -- with a face and heart both a bit changed and hardened by time – I hope your soul will still recognize mine.


Saturday, July 14, 2012

My Favorite Place

It was a December night in Chicago and I was a little drunk and more than a little miserable when the men started to play a song.  I let my hair fall over my eyes and peeked at them from between the strands as they plucked the chords of their guitars.  They were all warm eyes, dark hair, and smiles.  I was sitting backwards on a metal folding chair, trying to keep my drunken knees from knocking into the guitar that was being played to my right or the bass being played to my left. 
Earlier that day I had finished my last class as an undergraduate fiction writing student by reading aloud to my classmates a nonfiction story I had written about why I hadn’t been home in a very long time.  Now I was in the apartment of one of those classmates, listening to his band play while two other new friends I had made from class stood behind me. 

I liked my new friends.  I liked that they carried dark, heavy secrets like me.  I liked doing shots with them and dancing with them.  And I liked being there with them, experiencing the feeling of the music.

I liked it all much better than I liked the professor I was dating or the sex he was having with me or the other friends I was having too many martinis with, and certainly more than the now-gay ex-boyfriend that I had been dating for the past three years.

And then I loved it.

The men were only a couple lines into “Mr. Postman” when my drunken heart smiled and remembered my younger brother. They were like him and by being there with them I was like myself in a way I hadn’t been in years. 

My brother, like me, is deep, dark eyed, and a little out of place in the world.  When I was young and he was even younger and the summer days were devoid of everything but heat and music and secondhand smoke, I would play my favorite song – “Do You Believe in Magic” by the Lovin’ Spoonful – on our mother’s CD player and he and I would dance all afternoon.  As we got a little older we discovered rock’n’roll and punk rock and that the blond hair that we both grew too long was good for head-banging. 

When I think of being a happy child I am thinking of those times.  I am thinking of how my brother and I were wild and wishful children, playing tennis racket guitars and singing into wooden spoon microphones and dancing on our mother’s kitchen floor.  And then, when the day was done, returning to our separate bedrooms, each of us to write secret songs in our notebooks.

I grew up to be a writer.  He grew up to play songs.

In my classmate’s apartment, sitting between him and his bass-playing friend, holding a coffee cup of red wine in my lap, I thought of the last time I had seen my brother.  It had been a year and a half ago – before I had moved to England, before I had moved back to Chicago, and after I had already been living in Chicago for two years.  His band had won the local talent contest in our Wisconsin hometown and part of their prize had been to open for the headlining act at the town fair.  They performed on a small stage between the livestock tent and the tractor show tent.  I sat in the front row and I could not have been more proud.

The next night, the night before I left for England, my brother and I stayed up late, dancing and singing to all of our old favorite songs.  My then-boyfriend sat watching. He didn’t get it the way we did and my brother and I knew it. He didn’t feel like those songs alone could save him – or even like he had ever needed them to.

Sitting with my new friends, listening to my classmate’s band play, knowing what I knew of their secrets and seeing them smile at the songs, I wondered if they got it.

I looked over at the black leather, chains, and spikes figure of one of my new friends.  She was tossing her hair from side to side, a pretty pink smile brightening her whole face. She clasped her hands to her heart as if the men, the music, and the moment were touching something inside of her that she had lost touch with long ago.  She got it.

I was in a bad place in my life then – getting drunk and sleeping over at my professor-boyfriend’s apartment just so I didn’t have to sleep with myself and the memories of my now-gay-ex-boyfriend and, even worse, the reasons I never went home.  But at that moment, seated between the sounds of the song, with my new friends, I had a feeling that I was in the right place.  And for the moment I felt better.

Not wanting the moment or the feeling to end, I spent the next three days half drunk, half hungover, lost and found inside the songs, surrounded by new and newer friends, dancing like it was just me and my little brother on our mother’s kitchen floor.  I knew I needed to move forward and I would; I would move to France.  But at the moment I liked how time and I could move in place, twisting and turning each other in a sultry, cyclical dance of youth-without-consequences. 

A month and a half later I moved to France and I found myself happier than I had ever even thought it was possible to be.  I found more new, good-for-me friends.  I found myself enjoying my own company and the way I remained true to myself in the company of others.  I found myself jumping into a parade while confetti fell and stuck to my hair like neon colored stardust.  I found myself dancing the polka in Munich, dancing on the beach and in my bedroom, dancing with my friends and by myself.

I also found a new boyfriend.  Before our first date he asked me what my favorite song was.  I told him “New Slang” by The Shins.  On our date he told me he had listened to it but that he didn’t get it.  I told him I liked the song for the feeling and he told me he still didn’t get it.

Two months later I told him that I was worried about my younger brother.  My brother had written to me saying that he was worried that something was wrong with him because he didn’t feel as happy as everyone around him seemed.  He felt alone in crowds, inherently different and discontent.  And all he wanted was to be normal.  I had written him back saying that he just hadn’t found the right people or the right place yet.  I told my boyfriend how sad my brother’s sadness made me, how I wanted to be there to help him and to make him happy.  I told him how even though I had been almost everywhere I had ever dreamed of going, all I ever thought about was why I had left home and how I had left my brother behind.  My boyfriend didn’t say anything.  So I put my headphones on and listened to “New Slang.”  He didn’t get it.

A month later my plane from Paris landed in Chicago.  My mother picked me up at the airport and I went home to Wisconsin – home for the summer for the first time in four years.  I felt grown up and youthful, happy and hopeful.  I found my brother to be a bored, malcontent, misfit toy stuck on a metaphorical high school playground of football players and FFA members.  So since I couldn’t take him to France, I took him to the next best place.  On a whim of good-intentioned spontaneity I got in my brother’s car and together we drove to Chicago, to a place where I was sure that I could prove to him that I was right – that there was nothing wrong with him, that all he needed was to find the right place with the right people and then he too would feel right.

In Chicago, in my friend’s apartment, his band played and a party raged and my brother and I twisted and shouted to Beatles’ songs.  My friends greeted my brother as warmly and as enthusiastically as they greeted me.  And not only was I happy to see them again, but I was happy to be introducing my two favorite parts of my life to one another.  In the midst of the crowd my brother and I whispered secrets.  And when the songs blasting through the speakers were the same songs that he and I used to dance and sing along to when we were younger, I smiled at him and hoped I had proven my point.

There in my friend’s apartment, time and I resumed our old sultry, cyclical dance – both of us moving in place.  It was as if time itself had been waiting for me all those months I had been in France.  I had changed because I had needed to, but though the season had changed, the moment felt as good as ever and I felt better than ever.  And so the night hours bled rock’n’roll and blended into morning and the music played on and on – because it was good and fun and because we all knew what it was like to need a song like a Band-Aid.

I smiled as I looked around the room.  My friends, my brother and I were wild and wishful grown-up children dancing on the kitchen floor, singing along to our favorite songs.  And I was realizing that, of all the places I had been in the world, this was my favorite place to be.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

The Twist in My Story

When it gets too quiet inside the house and too loud inside my head, I go to the local – the only – coffee shop in town. I pack my notebook and my book into my purse and I walk the cracked, weed-eroded pavement from my mother’s house to the Main Street establishment.  This is the kind of town where I can walk the five blocks from the house to the coffee shop and not pass a single person on the side walk or see a single car on the street. 

I order an iced latte and then I sit by myself in the very back corner.  I read.  I write.  I watch people.  I listen to the harsh, nasal tones of the Southwestern Wisconsin accent.  I never find anything of interest in the conversations I am overhearing.  My interest is in one person talking to another.  My interest is in what I want but cannot have. 

This is the third week in a row of what will eventually be nine weeks in which I will have had no one to interact with but my mother and brother and I wonder if I am driving them crazy or if that is just where I am going.  I no longer know anyone in this town.  All the places I have lived and known friends are now out of reach in one way or another.  I have grown to appreciate my transient nature – my ability to move and to change, my restless happiness – but this fact of being the intrepid outsider, or of being what I’ve been so often told is “different” and “special,” I do not like at all.

This is the point at which I question and resent my life choices.  I have been many places and made some truly good friends along the way but I have very rarely gone back and those friendships get stretched a little thin as I ask them to expand to reach out to in one country or another, this city or that state.  And I have never been very good at making the kind of casual friendships that others seem to acquire so effortlessly – the kind of friendships that fill the space and time between one meaningful interaction and the next.  (Of course, now you can see why.  As every casual friend I’ve ever attempted to have has inevitably said to me right before I decided that I didn’t like them anymore: I think too much.  At least for most people.)

And so here I am, as I so often am.  The outsider and the writer.  I don’t know which came first, myself as a writer or myself as an outsider, but I know that each feeds and antagonizes the other.  As the outsider, I am left with nothing to do but observe and analyze others and myself.  As a writer, I know how to make something worthwhile out of this mere means of passing the time.  I can reflect. I can order past events in such a way as to make them into a story or an essay or a means of making a point.  I can write about moments in which I was not invariably alone in rooms and crowds alike.  I can tell a reader a pretty story about finding myself in love or in London or swimming in the sea.  I can tell a story about how the lights of London’s Soho neighborhood smiled at me and how I had smiled because the man standing next to me looked as happy as I felt.  And I can leave it at that.  I can leave the reader, myself, and the story inside the beautiful moment and I can write it as if none of us ever left it, as if that moment still means to me now what I thought it meant then, as if life is always hyperbolically lovely. 

I can do that.  I have done that.  I do that because, as someone who is so often an outsider, I know the importance of being inside. 

And so, I write as I live.  I throw myself wholeheartedly into any life-affirming, potentially beautiful, hopefully unusual, moment that comes my way.  I strip off all of my clothes and I jump into the sea and I convince my friends to do the same because there is a castle on the shore and wine still on our lips.  And if I love you, I say it, because it’s so rare to be able to mean it that when it truly happens it deserves to be said, not because saying it will necessarily change anything but because it’s true.

For the most part, I think that most of life is nothing more than several long and lonely periods of stasis.  But it is not most of life that is either worthwhile to write about or interesting to hear tell of.  It is the moments and the people that pull me into them until I can no longer think, until I can only feel and move; those are the moments and the people who break the stasis – even if sometimes it breaks my heart.  Those are the moments and the people that matter most.  They are what I write about.  As a writer and an outsider, I know how special it is to find someone who lets me in and thereby lets me out of my head.  They are my favorite part of a story: the twist. 

And now, for a twist, let me break from my habit of writing as if all of life is hyperbolically lovely and let me say that the two different men that I have loved in London were gay and cheating on me, respectively.  In the end it wasn’t pretty.  Let me say that I have met many men who have been initially intrigued by the way I enter a room in a composed frenzy, flip my hair, fly here and there, and talk about syntax the way some girls talk about US Weekly.  They all say, “You’re special. You’re different.  I’ve never met anyone like you.”  And the ones that I’ve gone to the trouble of dating inevitably all say, “You’re too intense.  I just want someone more normal.”  That is ugly irony and nothing makes it pretty, no matter how many lovely moments elapsed between the beginning and the truth. 

Now, sitting here alone in the coffee shop, an outsider looking in on my own life, I wonder if maybe some of those moments that I like to write about were just that: hyperbolically lovely, not entirely real.  And what I want now – what I have in fact wanted for some time – is something real.  I want more of the moments that I have never written about but in which I have felt most at ease – moments of great kisses, humorously bad sex, and good music; moments in which I never felt worried that this particular man who also told me, “I’ve never met anyone like you,” would ever come to say, “You’re too intense.” 

When my friends and I swam naked in the sea we talked about the kind of moments we wanted.  They said they wanted the kind of moment strewn with rose petals and candles; I told them I wanted a moment in a dark corner of a rock’n’roll bar.  And when they said what they wanted in a man, I responded by saying that I wanted someone who would want to lay beside me and experience the feeling of a song. 

And here is the twist: since then I have gotten exactly what I wanted and now I want more of it.  What I want is not exactly a relationship, not exactly a friendship, not exactly a fling.  What I want is a way of being – a way of being myself outside my head.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

We Become Each Other's Stories

In December I finished my undergraduate degree in Fiction Writing – an ironic degree because I was always more interested in the truth.  In February I moved to France, where I spent my last semester of college studying the French language and – as all good travelers do – studying life.  From the second my flight from Chicago to Paris left the ground, I began a practice that had been both encouraged and required of me as a fiction writing student, but that I had never been particularly drawn to while in school.  I began keeping a journal.  Not the typical journal that details the day’s activities, but a writer’s compulsive collection of thoughts and moments and symbolic facts.  Facts like how I brought with me to France -- along with pictures of my friends, my brothers, and my favorite Chicago landmarks – the hospital bracelet from the day I had fainted on the train and been brought into the emergency room and been prepped for immediate surgery (just in case) and had found myself in a hospital gown and a Tiffany’s bracelet, alone at the bottom of every mistake I hadn’t known I was making.
            I also brought with me to France a copy of the nonfiction essay (memoir-in-training?) that I had written as an assignment for my very last writing class.  This particular copy had on it the notes made by one of my classmates.  One of his notes had struck me as especially relevant: The way you, the narrator, write about other people gives the reader a sense of who you are.
In France I suddenly found myself writing about everything and everyone.  The compulsion to make note of a thought, feeling, or memory would overtake me nearly every day – sometimes several times a day.  One day in Paris, at the Musée Rodin, I looked at Rodin’s sculptures and saw half-remembered flashes of them as they had appeared to me long ago in a book in my mother’s dining room.  And then I saw my mother as I had forgotten ever having had seen her at all.  I saw her as tall, blonde, and beautiful; speckled in clay, making sculptures in the otherwise deserted art studio while a four year old version of myself ran around spinning the pottery wheels and playing with scraps of clay that I had found on the floor.  Sitting by the fountain in the museum garden, I made a note of this while my travel companions photographed the sculptures.

            In France I found myself not just making notes about people, but telling them as stories too.  My best friend and I would sit together on a rough, cement ledge that ran along the road outside our college and she would smoke and we would trade stories of the barely-begun romances that neither of us knew how to let go of.  My story began like this: From the moment he walked into the classroom, I wanted him.  He looked bad – not like he was ugly, the opposite of ugly, but like he was trouble – and I loved it.  I always get the guys that look good – not attractive, just like they’re nice people – and they always turn out to be the wrong kind of trouble; the kind of trouble that mixes itself up with issues I have with my mother or with my father.  But him…  He would be a hot mess entirely of my own making.

Now that I am back from France and about to start graduate school – where I will be working to complete a book-length work of nonfiction – I have set myself the task of writing the roughest rough draft of that book-length work this summer.  So every day I sit surrounded by the journals I kept while in France, my old essays, receipts that I made notes on when I had forgotten my journal, pictures, train tickets, everything that holds a memory…  And I make lists.  I list the important moments that I need to write about – like when I was fourteen, in Wales, walking alone along the rocky coastline and feeling strong and free for the very first time.  But most importantly, I list the people, for – as I once lectured the man I dated while in France – people are the most important experience one can have.

Today I sat staring at these lists of people from my life: my brothers, my best friends, men I’ve kissed, all the women in my family, every man I’ve slept with, the one that got away.   In the lists I had broken them each down to a couple important scenes that would best demonstrate to a reader who I was – as a character – based on my interactions with these people.  But the fact was that on the pages of my notebook they had become more than people; they had become stories.  They were stories about how I should have known better, about how I was proud to be my Nana’s granddaughter, about how I’ve been hurt and how I’ve survived; stories about how I evolved.

One name on the list is that of the first boy I ever truly fell for.  Beside the name I made a note: I was sixteen, going on seventeen, when I learned the fascinating trick of love: it brings us out of ourselves. He will be the story about that lesson.  Five years after the summer in which he and I were a part of each other’s lives, he is now a story about a lesson well learned.

And that is the thing that I am trying to say – the thing that unnerves me and comforts me at the same time.  We become each other’s stories.  Family is the story we inherit, but everyone else…  They are the stories told to us, the stories we tell ourselves, the stories we retell until they are no longer a person at all but an anecdote demonstrating who we were and who we’ve become.

And when I look at my lists of names and scenes, or when I read the notes I’ve made in my journals, I wonder what story I might have become for someone.  I wonder if the stories are ever similar.  I wonder if I am someone’s story of growing beyond themselves, someone’s mistake, someone’s favorite missed opportunity. 

One of my favorite twists in my story is that, after four months in France and three months dating someone else, I found myself standing in the midst of one of my favorite versions of my life: rock’n’roll music and dancing and a summer night in Chicago.  After London and Munich, Paris and Salzburg, everywhere else and someone else; there I was being kissed by the man from the story about barely-begun romance.  And there the story was, beginning again. 

I know what that story tells about me.  I know what it says I really wanted and what it says I didn’t really want.  And I wonder what story I might tell about someone.