Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Love Like Bukowski

The smell of the room groped at my clothes, my hair, my bare legs and arms, running invisible fingers along my neck and collarbone.  The smell was everywhere and I was inside it – inside last night’s weed and stale sex and dried sweat.  I sat at the head of the bed, hugging my knees to my chest while he lit up at the foot of the bed.  I made a nervous joke about what a wonderful rock’n’roll cliché it was to wake up, still wearing last night’s clothes, to see him smoking a joint while a Strokes song played.   

“It’s not a joint, it’s a one-hitter,” he told me as he took a drag.  “A joint is rolled with paper.”

I looked at the cigarette-like thing he held between his middle and index fingers.  That was a one-hitter.  I wondered if this was too.

He handed me a book from the table at the end of the bed.  Love is a Dog from Hell by Charles Buckowski.  I was familiar with Bukowski’s work and I knew this particular man liked him but there was something about that moment that was throwing me off.  I could not tell if I felt like I had temporarily stumbled into a life meant for some other woman who was very, very different from a woman like me or if – finally – I had happened upon a real-life moment that mirrored my heart of hearts.   

He watched me as I stared at the page he had opened the Bukowski book to.  I was trying to see what he was trying to show me but all I could see was how I had thought of him while I had been in France and how a moment like this was precisely what I had envisioned but now that I had it, I couldn’t tell if it was the beginning or the end.  I think he thought I didn’t like the book because he took it from my hands and instead showed me a poem he had been writing as potential lyrics for a new song.  He asked what I thought.  I couldn’t think.  The moment was far too close to my heart, too far away from any rational, critical thought.

He put on a song and lay back on the bed, motioning for me to lay beside him.  I moved my body towards his and rested my head on his chest.  The song played.  And then another song played.  And then another.   

Months earlier we had lay in bed together one January afternoon for just an hour or two, just talking and sharing the softest of kisses.  He had asked me if he had still had his mustache when I first met him. I had told him that he did and he had commented that he wouldn’t have thought a girl like me would be attracted to a guy with a mustache.  I had said nothing in the moment but I had thought about this comment on several occasions long after the moment had passed.  As I saw it, I was precisely the kind of girl who would be attracted to a musician with a mustache and I was stunned that he couldn’t see that.  Even if I no longer dressed the part, I was still a rebel with too many causes; I was still a black nail polish, blue ink poet.  I had wondered if this was his way of saying something similar to what a classmate had told me when I was seventeen, “Molly, you’re too smart for a boyfriend.”  I suppose there is always something that people have trouble seeing past.

Nonetheless, the night before – the night of which this was now the morning after – I had liked the look of my shirt falling to the floor and the way my purse was holding a Ziploc bag that had formerly contained weed and now contained a mix CD made just for me.  And I had liked the way, the night before that, I had stood in the cavernous, deserted upstairs of a rock’n’roll bar, alone in the very back room with my back to the door.  I had liked the way he had come up behind me and wrapped his arms around me.  I had liked the way my hands had touched the bare skin of his forearm and the way my lips had laid a kiss halfway between his wrist and elbow.  And I had turned my body around into his full-bodied embrace and pressed my head against his chest while his hands lightly cupped the sides of my head.  And after what seemed like a long moment that could never have been long enough I had looked up into his face.  He had looked back at me.  And I had liked the way our lips met in the middle of the shrinking space between our bodies.

In my life I am often impulsive but always in control.  With him I was neither.  I was unthinking, only feeling and moving and experiencing.  I was outside of my head but closer to myself than I was most days or with most people.  I liked that.  And I thought that maybe that was what truly great kisses were like – taking over your body and melting who you are and who you’ve been into who the other person is and who they’ve been.  And if that is what truly good kisses are like, then I love them.

I had told him in a phone-call minutes before my flight to Paris that I thought I could love him and he had said he thought he could love me too – but that he didn’t know.  And we had never spoken about it again.   

After a couple more songs we got up from the bed.  I put on my big, dark sunglasses to hide last night’s smeared eyeliner and he walked me to the train station.  I remember glancing at him as we walked down the street.  I loved his thick, dark curly hair and the way he looked in the skinny jeans he was wearing even though it was one of the hottest days of the summer.  And I felt a new emotion that I had never before experienced when walking beside a man: pride.   

We said goodbye at the train station.  He said would he see me soon.  I peered at him over the rim of my sunglasses and then we were both gone.  That was June and this is September.  That was it.  But I wouldn’t call it a one-hitter.   

In August I sent him a postcard.  I quoted a Bukowski poem from the book he had once showed me: I loved you in the way a man loves a woman he only writes to, never touches.  Then I added, keep in touch.

Friday, September 14, 2012


Recently someone clicked a link to this blog and became my 2,000th reader this year.  For some reason the difference between 1,999 and 2,000 seems significant.  Everything adds up but sometimes one person makes a big difference – that is the point I want to try to make here.

When I was eighteen years old, in my second semester at Loyola University, where I was diligently trying to be an international studies major, I would write short personal essays and post them on Facebook.  I knew several of my friends read them and I figured that a couple other Facebook acquaintances might be reading them as well.  Writing these little essays was almost always the most fulfilling part of my week and almost always occurred when I was supposed to be doing something that was practical and that I found miserable – like studying the philosophy of logic.  
In January of that school year I wrote and posted an essay about how I felt like most of life was about waiting – waiting for class to end, waiting for the work day to be over, waiting for the right time to say the right thing, waiting to be free to truly live.  At that point I was daily looking ahead at the direction my life seemed to be headed in and seeing nothing but days and years through which I would have to patiently wait until I arrived at some vague and distant point in the future when I could start being happy.  And what I mean is that I wanted to write but it didn’t seem like a practical thing to do with my life so I was waiting to do what made me happy and was instead doing what made socially acceptable sense.

It turned out that one of my professors was one the Facebook acquaintances reading my essays.  I found this out when I received a message from him in response to the essay I had written about waiting.  He advised me to live for myself, not for society.  And while that was good advice that I think most people learn to be true on their own in time, it was an offhanded closing remark he made that changed everything.  He wrote, “If you ever stop writing, you’ll be doing yourself and all who read you a disservice.  Really.”
That was the first time that someone made me feel like my writing mattered.  And that is important because if I believe that something matters I will pursue it with all my heart.  And so I did.  I left Loyola and started studying writing.  And for the first time in my life I was no longer waiting for happiness to begin; I was living it every day.  Three years later I am in New York City getting my MFA in Creative Writing.  And while it may have taken a lot of work and the support of various people along the way, I can tell you that that one Facebook message from my professor made a difference.  One person can change everything.

There is a writing exercise that I often do which involves making a list entitled “Things I’ve Been Told.”  The things that appear on this list are an example of how everything adds up but one person can make all the difference – one person can change everything.   

A high school classmate once told me, “Molly, you’re too smart for a boyfriend.”
My first boyfriend once told me, “Sex with you didn’t mean anything.  It could have been anyone.”
My most recent ex-boyfriend told me he broke up with me because sex with me was “too emotionally loaded” because he felt “too much pressure, considering [my] history.”  The history he was referring to was that I had been raped.

These things add up in the worst way.  Such people take a toll. 

Then one night I found myself in bed with someone new.  He was kissing my shoulder and then he was kissing my lips and then when I opened my eyes and saw him looking back into mine, smiling, I had to fight back tears.  Suddenly, as his gaze held mine, I was realizing that this was the first time I’d ever seen someone look me in the eyes during sex. 

Things add up and I wish now that I could take back the choices I made to have sex with the men that I did.  I wish I didn’t remember the way they told me to keep my eyes closed or the way I would open my eyes and see them looking at anything but my face.  And it is not even that I thought I didn’t deserve any better.  It’s just that I didn’t think anyone better existed.  Now I know better. 

I have a habit of telling people about a line from an essay I was assigned to read in my very first nonfiction writing workshop I took three years ago.  I can’t now remember what the essay was called or who wrote it but I can never forget that the line made the claim that people fall in love at the moment when their life is terrorized with possibilities.  The idea was that people don’t like choices and falling in love enables them to believe that love and the life they lead when they’re in it is not a choice but is simply inevitable.  People don’t want to believe in “the many;” they want to believe in “the one.”

I don’t know why I always make a point of telling people about this essay.  I don’t even particularly agree with what it says.  The most recent time I told someone about this essay was this past Monday.  The discussion of the essay led to a discussion on whether or not either of us believed in “the one.”  Neither of us did.  I said that I think that each person in the world probably has five or ten people who could be equally right for them, that in the end it is just a matter of timing.  He replied that he thought there was probably 500,000 people in the world who could be right for any one person, that it’s just a matter of how many of them one can meet and when. 

Now that I’ve written this blog entry I realize that I no longer agree with I said just this past Monday – and maybe I didn’t even really agree with it then.  Mark Twain wrote that “Truth is stranger than fiction because fiction is obliged to stick to the possibilities.”  Maybe the strange truth is that there is one right person out of all the possibilities. 

Each of our lives is an ever-expanding collection of people and experiences, all adding up to make us who we are, but sometimes it only takes one person to change everything – or even just change one very important thing.  One person to tell us we matter.  One person to look at us and see us for us for who we really are and not look away.  Out of all the possible people one can meet in the world, I think I am lucky to have met a couple good ones.  And as one person out of all the many people in world, I feel lucky to have people read the writing I post on this blog more than 2,000 times this year.  And even if there really are 500,000 right people for me in the world, I think the point is that I would be wonderfully lucky to meet just one. 

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

How many loved your moments of glad grace

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 now here’s a story:

When I drink a martini it’s because I like the way the glass feels against my lips.  When the martini glass sits on the bar in front of me I like to run my finger up and down its slender stem because this single movement makes my boredom feel beautiful.  And when I pull my small notebook out of my purse and start making notes in it while my friends maintain a light but steady flow of conversation between each other, it is because I am dramatically discontented in the present moment and concerned that most of life will be like this from here on out – mostly mundane. 

It was my fifth night of my new life in New York City.  My lips kissed the rim of my second French martini as I watched the bartender.  He was short and dark and not very good at his job.  He seemed happily average at all things and oddly confident that either one of my friends or myself would join him for some late night Mexican food once he finished his shift.  I would join him, but not because he interested me – only because anyone who had ever interested me was long gone and I felt that I was getting too old to keep passing up the chance to go out and see if someone I deemed boring upon first impression could pleasantly surprise me.

I was in what my friends had told me was a “trendy” jazz bar in the West Village and I was dressed in a little black dress and new patent leather heels and cascading vintage jewelry, all of which I had had no use for all summer.  Nevertheless, the night felt worse than a night of eight dollar wine bottles and iTunes dancing on kitchen floors in Chicago and small-town Wisconsin.  It was worse because no one else seemed to understand that it could be anything less than wonderful.  Somehow the sheer fact that it was a jazz bar in the West Village was supposed to be enough to ensure happiness.  At least with my family and with my best of friends, when I said that I was worried that this was as good as it gets, they would all nod in agreement because our hearts all beat upon the same artistically, temperamental, terror drum. 

Between saying “goodnight” to my friends and meeting up with the bartender I wandered the streets of the West Village.  It was late and they were empty but brightened by the glow that spilled forth from the windows of big brownstone houses and white brick apartments.  On a street corner, between a large pile of garbage and a sleeping homeless man, I texted my brother and one of the most interesting people I know.  I asked them each if they thought that most people were secretly as lonely and discontent as I was.  They each replied that they did.  And we all agreed that most people are just better at faking it than I am.

So I put on a smile and spent the early morning hours listening to the bartender tell me about himself.  He also told me what food to order and what beer to drink.  And I told myself that he would, at least, make a good story about my first week in New York. 

As it turns out, he doesn’t make a very good story.  The only good story here is that when I walked alone into my apartment that morning I was pleased to prove yet again that I am no longer the person I was ten months ago, fingering my martini glass and going home with a boyfriend I hated just to pass the time.  Now when I feel bored with life and everyone around me, I have the small comfort that I am not alone in this feeling.  And I have the even greater comfort of knowing that I did once find a place filled with people with whom I never felt bored or discontented -- with whom time was not a tedious thing but a delightfully graceless dance that we wove together through songs and smiles and stolen kisses upon a kitchen floor.

And so sometimes I am the kind of woman who orders a martini because she likes the way the glass feels as it receives her lips’ cool kiss.  But always, in my heart of hearts, I am the woman – the girl, the happiest – dancing on that kitchen floor. 

Remember how I wrote before that we become each other’s stories?  The bartender became just one more story that brings me back to my favorite one to tell.

*The title of this post is taken from a line in the W.B. Yeats poem, "When You Are Old."

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Hello to All That

New York began for me on Sunday, the nineteenth of August.  As my plane began its descent into LaGuardia airport 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 a one-time love – and I was.

I spent the duration of the flight writing about Chicago, crying quietly behind my dark sunglasses, and rereading my favorite Joan Didion essay, “Goodbye to All That.”  I had read “Goodbye to All That” almost every night this summer and on almost every flight I had taken during my travels around Europe this past spring.  The first time I read “Goodbye to All That” was a year and a half ago on an April afternoon in Chicago, as I sat at my favorite spot at the Diversey harbor and stared south at the downtown skyline while wind blew from the lake to my hair, tangling it more terribly than sex or swimming. 

That was the year – my twenty first, like Joan Didion’s twenty eighth – in which, like Joan Didion had done before me, “I was discovering that not all of the promises would be kept, that some things are in fact irrevocable and that it had counted after all, every evasion and every procrastination, every mistake, every word, all of it.”  Joan Didion learned that lesson in New York.  I learned it in Chicago.  Ever since that April day I had clung to that essay and to the idea of Joan Didion as proof that my experience of coming to a city – in my case, Chicago – and falling in love with it as deeply as I had ever been in love with a person was not entirely unusual and the tears I had cried when sitting at the harbor were not the only tears in the world to be shed over the betrayals of the hopeful-hearted promises of first love.  I grew to quote Joan Didion – all of her writing, not just “Goodbye to All That” – the way some people quote the Bible.  Slouching Towards Bethlehem, my favorite of her essay collections, even came with me to every country I traveled to. 

So when my taxi driver took me over a bridge on my way from LaGuardia to my New York City residence, 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 Joan Didion had rode over when she first came to New York.  And then, five days later, I had stood atop a subway grating on Lexington Avenue, feeling the hot, wet air climb up my bare legs from the cracks in the grate and noting the comingling scents of rotting garbage and Chanel perfume.  And I had been surprised to see that even in 2012 it was still possible to buy a peach from a street vendor as Didion had done in the sixties.  And I had thought of how she had written that it was during just such a moment that she knew she had “reached the mirage” – that she had made it.  And then I thought about how I did not feel that way.  I had felt that way in Chicago – and, to some extent, in London and Paris too – but New York was just another place to me. 

In particular, that first Sunday I arrived New York was not even a place but a sad, gray, misremembered embodiment of all other places I had been before.  I had wandered from my residence to a street lined with open-air shops and vendors.  Somehow, something I had read before informed me that this was the Fulton Street Market and I had looked at it as if from a distance even as excited tourists bumped up against me, for I was not seeing this market so much as I was seeing London’s Portobello and Camden markets. 

I walked on Fulton until I came to 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 and even though I knew that while I missed many of the places I had been, I had yet to find a place or a person in any of those places who truly fit me.

From there I did the only thing I could think to do – I put on the big, dark sunglasses that I had purchased the previous summer so that I could look like the picture of Joan Didon from the cover of Slouching Towards Bethlehem and I walked to the Tiffany’s I had passed on my taxi ride earlier that day.  That was the other 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 all of the writers and singers and movie characters who had existed there before me.  Joan Didion, Woody Allen, Truman Capote, and all the rest had lived and articulated New York so well that it seemed to me that my presence in it and my words on the subject were utterly unnecessary.  So I stood outside of Tiffany’s experiencing what Holly Golightly had called “the mean reds” because I was afraid of something so big that I didn’t even have the words with which to say what it was.

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 New York did begin to endear itself to me, though not in the way Chicago had.  With Chicago I had fallen head over heels in love at first sight.  I have loved the hot pavement of State Street in the summer and the lights of Michigan Avenue in the winter, and the route that the 146 express bus took down Lake Shore Drive.  I had loved Chicago the way I had loved a boy for the first time – not because this particular place was the right one for me, but because it was the first place to ever even come close.

With New York I sense myself slowing slipping into the kind of love that is real and grounded in common interests and understanding and that can thus withstand the tests of time.  This began on a Tuesday night in Brooklyn.  I had taken myself to see the latest Woody Allen film, To Rome With Love, and I had then wandered into a small bookstore.  The movie was everything I loved about a Woody Allen film and I had been glad to be able to enjoy it without the extraneous company of a lackluster date or a shallow but well-meaning friend.  And then, inside the bookstore, I found on the shelves every title and author that had carried me from my childhood home in Platteville, Wisconsin to that very moment.  And I stood talking with the man behind the register about his travels in Turkey and my travels in Turkey, his travels in Scotland and my travels in Scotland, and about why Reality Hunger by David Shields is a wonderful piece of literary criticism and why How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One by Stanley Fish is not.  And I had left the store feeling happy and at ease with who I was and – for the first time ever – where I was in the world. 

The following day was even better.  That evening I attended a reading at the McNally Jackson bookstore in SoHo and then I met up with a friend I had first met in France.  Together we found ourselves on a rooftop in Spanish Harlem drinking Coronas with men we had met outside a bar on the Upper East Side and to whom I was reciting Woody Allen’s opening monologue from my favorite movie, Annie Hall – a thing I have done on various occasions over the years to no particular effect on the people to whom I have recited it.  However, this time 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,” one of the men in front of me smiled, stepped a little closer, and said, “That was good but here’s how it really goes.”

And so it goes that a week later I sat at a small candlelit table at a tequila bar and tequeria on the Lower East Side with the man who could quote Annie Hall even better than I could.  And now I was quoting Joan Didion to him, saying, “We are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not. Otherwise they turn up unannounced and surprise us, come hammering on the mind's door at 4 a.m. of a bad night and demand to know who deserted them, who betrayed them, who is going to make amends. We forget all too soon the things we thought we could never forget. We forget the loves and the betrayals alike, forget what we whispered and what we screamed, forget who we were.” 

Four days later, in bed on a Sunday afternoon, I asked him what he had first noticed about me.  He replied that he had first noticed the passion in my eyes when I had quoted Annie Hall and then again when I had quoted Didion.  That is where my New York began: in a bookstore in Brooklyn and on a rooftop in Spanish Harlem and in bed on a Sunday.  In my New York I found not the possibility of being able to become somebody but a hope of being able to be precisely who I have always been.