When I was small I used to lie across the makeshift mattress that was my mother’s lap. She would thread my hair with her fingers and if I pressed my eyes shut I could hear her singing. Other times I woke to the shudder of the subway, the screech of the wheels hitting the tracks, the rubber of the doors opening and closing. Subways were dangerous, the doors used to cut your arm off — once my mother traveled from Grand Street to Dekalb frantically waving her hand, trying to loosen it from the jaws that were the doors, or so she told me. Back then the subway lights always flickered and blew out and we’d spend whole stretches of moments in darkness. From boys carting boomboxes on their smooth shoulders to men hocking double-A batteries to bible-thumpers preaching about the end of days, the subway might have been unclean, unsafe, but it was simple. It was a means to get from point A to point B, and although I always woke, eyes filled with sleep, cold, I held dear those evenings I traveled the trains with my mother. Knowing we’d slip up those stairs, bury ourselves under a mountain of blankets and watch “Taxi” or “Hill Street Blues” until the television turned to snow. We were poor back then, but those evenings felt rich because we had everything we ever wanted, everything we ever needed. Or at least I did.
Fast forward to the year that my mother abandoned us for a man who promised her Disneyland. My mother had never been on a plane, never felt the lift of a great machine carrying her over clouds. One day she arrived in a blue car, carted off all of her records and polyester dresses, and fled her to her new life. I suppose it’s hard to compete with all that grandeur. All that fiction.
In college, the boys and I watched Wall Street one too many times. By then I’d interned at Merrill Lynch, Smith Barney and several boutique banks. And while the boys feared the Mike Milken fate, I was awe-struck. Wondered how a man like that made so much money. But there was an afternoon when I slouched my way to the campus literary magazine with a story I had typed up. I was always writing my way to and from my mother, and weeks later the editor found me on the lawn, uprooting grass with my hands, and he said, I didn’t think you were capable of writing this. I laughed, asked him why. You’re a finance major, he replied, confused. You can’t make money writing stories about your first hurt. No one pays a premium for open wounds. The story was published and I told no one.
A few months later I received an offer from the Chase Global Bank program, and I told everyone.
Fast forward to a woman making all of this money and shoving her pain into exquisite boxes. Miu Miu, Lanvin, Prada, Balenciaga Disneyland has become a pair of expensive shoes and I kept buying, kept swiping until I was numb. Apparently those who have open wounds pay a premium for bandaids. It’s easy to get caught up in consumption, to rove shelves and windows and covet the bejeweled shoes and glinting bracelets your eyes see. But it’s harder to rid yourself of the things that bind you and seek comfort in the fact that what you love, what you need, are the relationships that bring you closer to yourself. All the rest is decoration, a window-dressing of our finery.
There comes a day when the pain goes away and I think about subways. If I close my eyes I can see the trains as they once were, the patina of the green seats and the station signs printed in large type. One afternoon I rode a line all the way to the end because it felt good to. I tell no one. I’m an only child, I keep secrets. Finally, there comes a time when I’ve become overwhelmed by all the glinting things; their quiet dust accumulation has become deafening. So I fill bags with old books I’ll never read, clothes I’ll never wear, shoes that are entirely too painful, and I give it, donate it, sell it, trash it.
Contemplate burning it, but I’m not as dramatic as I once was.
I’ve pared down to that which I truly love, that which I truly need, and it feels good to not be burdened by the things that promised happiness but never delivered. To have ten beautiful sweaters instead of thirty. To invest in weekend bags that will carry the stories of a three-week European sojourn and plates that will serve my friends meals they commit to memory. To trace the spines of the books I’ve read that keep saving my life each time I encounter them. To watch with glee as I give suits to a friend who really needs them. And I wish I knew that editor’s name because I would track him down and tell him that although no one’s placing a premium on open wounds, writing stories delivers you from yourself back to yourself.