Posted on November 23, 2015
Millie (Credit: Lauren Naefe)
Girl, please. Everyone remembered Felicia, that black girl who jumped out of a window. Lived with her mother and that hustle man Marlon in the projects. Homegirl was half black, technically, although you’d never know it because she had the kind of face that belonged on milk cartons. But that hair, shit gave you whiplash with the double take. White girls don’t have rough hair, all thick and tangled. Like wires. White girls don’t have it like we do.
I remember because I was there, said Sakima digging through a bag of cheese doodles. Back then fifty cents got you a proper meal—a bag of chips and a grape juicy juice. Onion rings and plantains cost you extra but we didn’t play around with that shit because stupid. Back then we flashed our bus passes or hopped the turnstiles on the R train to scrounge uptown for quarters. You’d be surprised how many people left change in the payphone, and we slid our fingers in, and it was just like being in a box of Cracker Jacks only we didn’t get those treats until Christmas, and then you had to go and share your shit because you were Christian (whatever that means) even though you fell asleep in church when you went and woke to your mom slapping you in the face for being insubordinate. Where did you get that word, you snapped back. Doing crossword puzzles? That type of smart mouthing got you a backhand slap and no dinner. Everyone in the house was scheming, perfecting their eye-roll. Everyone hissed: you did this to yourself.
You was there, ‘Kima? Bugging. I was with Millie trying to sell this Walkman we found at Sunset. The plan was hot dogs and a pretzel but then we ran into Thomas and Judy and they were like, let’s listen to some tapes, and we ended up in their apartment dancing to Taylor Dayne. When we left it was dark out and we knew we were going to catch the beats for certain. But there was Felicia, waving at us. Like she knew we were coming. Like we were supposed to be there all along. And we waved back because we’re not anti-social. Her moms would sometimes sneak us hot muffins when the Greek wasn’t looking so Felicia at least deserved a wassup. So we gave it, and then we saw her knees on the ledge, and she was waving but not to us, not to nobody, and then we started to wonder what was up. We thought maybe we should go over and ring her bell—but then no. Then she fell or jumped out, I don’t know, and then her body was on the ground and her neck broke and you wouldn’t believe the blood and I remember that night because nobody caught the beats. Everyone got a free pass, because what business did that white girl have breaking out? (She half white, stupid! Bitch, whatever.) We remember Felicia and the books she carried around with her in that blue backpack. We remember how her mom dressed her up like a baby, but she wasn’t a baby. She was ten and why did she jump out of a window?
You think Marlon was her father? Shit, girl. He’s everybody’s father. What do it even matter? He wasn’t behind her, pushing her out. He was out, hustling for the pipe. The only reason she made the news was because oh the tragedy of a white girl in the projects. Half white, she was half white. Yeah, but you know white people—they don’t know the difference. You heard what happened to her mom, right? Came home from work and found her daughter, eyes wide, on the sidewalk. The police didn’t even cover her proper, they just stood around her, taking pictures, writing things down, and yelling at us to stay back. Stay back? We live in that building. Anyway. Her mother took all the books out of her backpack and off the shelves and tore out the pages. Crumbled them up and shoved them in her mouth so we couldn’t hear her scream. Come to think of it, we never saw her mother cry. She just went back to waiting tables, writing things down, and yelling at us to stay away from the fucking muffins.
How old was you? Hmm…ten, eleven, I think. But that wasn’t the first body we saw—it was one of the few we remember. Because she white? Nah, it was nothing like that. Sakima laughed. She turned away from the midday sun because it hurt her eyes. She thought about the shades in her backpack if they would be useful, and then she decided against it because shades weren’t appropriate for the conversation. This kind of talk required eyes. Maybe I remember because that’s the age when we started losing people, Sakima said. Or maybe it was how she looked. How she look? Happy.
The girls from the neighborhood (Credit: Lauren Naefe)
I talked to her once, said Millie, playing cat’s cradle with Luz. Luz wore red lipstick and was used to always winning. But Millie kept on playing because the idea of a single victory, something she could shout up and down the block and then some, kept her going. Even if a victory was an impossibility, even though Millie was the kind of girl who would be there when a girl they sort of knew fell out of a window but couldn’t tell the story about it, she kept playing. Look at Sakima, acting all philosophical. As if she knew Felicia. As if she knew what was going on in that girl’s head. As if we didn’t all know that she copied Felicia’s poems and passed them off as her own. Millie didn’t know much, but she knew this: we don’t know anything about the people we do and do not know.
¿Qué dijiste, Millie? Millie shook her head. She didn’t remember, but she did, but how could she tell her girls about the time when Felicia pointed to one of the books she carried, one with two white girls on the cover wearing soft sweaters and pearl earrings, and wondered aloud if she could jump in. Millie didn’t understand. Jump in as in fight, as in dive in the pool? White girls were always saying crazy shit. No, Felicia said. Would it ever be possible for us to go in and stay there, in their world, their life? In a life where their greatest fear would be losing the money they would never lose because happy ending.
Right then Luz fell on her back, eyes wide, mouth open so you can see the molars and crooked teeth, and said, was this what she looked like?
Disrespecting bitch, this ain’t the Land of Make Believe. She looked like someone would look if they fell out of a four-story window. Everyone had bars on their windows now. Unless you lived in the basement because who cares, you didn’t have windows to fall out of.
Cálmate. Next year Luz had a baby because she wanted someone to love her, and a year later the baby crawled out of its crib, hungry, and broke its neck when it landed on the floor. Luz was at a house party in Brownsville for a few hours and ended up in Jersey at some brother’s house, a rock hustler who told her she was the kind of woman made for making babies. She came home a day later to find her brother smoking in the living watching MTV on the hot box and he said, it’s weird your baby’s mad quiet. Did you leave it with titi? No, she did not. In juvenile detention, she told her sister to take the dead baby’s clothes for the new one she was carrying. What if it’s a boy? Luz shrugged her shoulders because who cares until they can walk anyway? Everyone filed in, shaking their heads. You could’ve been somebody if you hadn’t fucked up your permanent record. But now, right now, Luz lay on the grass, playing Felicia. Playing dead.
She told me she read all those books because she thought she could get in them, Millie said. That’s what she said. She lived for the possibility of not being here and when she found the possible, impossible, she wrote her own happy ending. What does that even mean, Millie? Millie pulled on her sweatshirt and held her elbows in, close. The fabric had started to wear, but Millie liked this, the feeling of skin under cotton—like feet under sheets. Protected, safe. There was the math test she didn’t study for and the personal essay she couldn’t write because how do you explain what it felt like when your mom stopped looking for work—I’m stupid, why bother, and guess what, you belong to me so you’re stupid too—when she waited in line the first and fifteenth of every month, and how those two days would be the happiest her family would ever know. Millie wore Sakima’s old shoes and read the poems her best friend stole from a dead girl, passing them off as her own.
What happened to Marlon? Stupid question. What do you think happens to a young brother selling rock? He got cut, in the neck, but check it—he didn’t die from the knife. He drowned in his own blood. That’s what you get when you go fucking with Dominicans from The Bronx. Never get high on your own supply, we chorused.
Felicia was a white girl who could pass, said some random who just rolled up. I never knew her, but I lived in her building. I never talked to her, but I saw her play jump rope with herself a couple of times, so we definitely met. She asked me to play once. She held out her rope. But I said nah, I have somewhere to be, and she looked down at the ground like she was studying it, and said, no problem, and went back to jumping rope behind the gate. I felt bad about that because I didn’t have any place to be—I just didn’t want to be seen with some white girl playing rope. Know what I mean?
We nodded in our own way.
Remember that party her mom had in her house when she was dating Neysa’s man, Keith? Everyone remembered that. We didn’t because we were maybe 5 or 6, but our parents still talk about it. It wasn’t that Felicia’s mom ignored her because what parent didn’t. We were forever being told to shut up, go to your room, go outside, don’t bother me, and don’t you have something to do? Don’t your teachers give you homework? You want to end up in this shithole like me? Since you got a smart mouth you asked, is that a hypothetical? Lesson: you’re never too old to catch the beats. Anyway. Maybe Felicia didn’t get the memo on account of her being so young and all, but she kept taking sips of Barcardi from everyone’s cups and there she go—a little girl holding a bottle of Brut, drinking out of it, like she on the stoop. She was drunk and pretty and funny and she was five and it was sad because no one told her what we were only here because having children was something women did. You weren’t something your family paid attention to or loved. And that was the hurt—everyone in the room knew this except for the child who didn’t. That’s the kind of shit you shake your head to because it damn near breaks your heart.
What you girls got going on for tonight? Nothing much. The usual—chill.
Later that night while Sakima slept Millie opened her binder and removed all of Felicia’s poems. Millie read them and felt a kind of sadness that she would spend her life forgetting. In magic marker, Millie wrote Felicia’s name over and over like she was at the blackboard getting punished. Sakima woke to find Millie out on the fire escape smoking a loosie she got at the store for ten cents. Kicking pigeons in Sakima’s old shoes. What you doing out here in the cold? You didn’t write those poems, Millie said. You need to stop telling everyone you did. It’s not right. Millie was crying—her face was a mess of tears, and Sakima didn’t know what to say to her best girl she known since they were little. Their mothers said they crawled to one another. Millie fell over because Millie, but she crawled under Sakima and Sakima liked to think about that especially now when Millie looked at her like she was a prison from which she sought her escape.
Luz came home and pressed her head up against the bars of her window thinking that Felicia was smart. Felicia had an open window to jump out of while Luz had the possibility that she might be pregnant. That her period was the one thing she actually missed. Maybe if she asked the girls and they all got the change together she could buy one of those tests from the pharmacy so she could freak for real. She cried, and after her mother ripped the hair out of her head for not taking out the garbage, she looked around their apartment and then at her tiny stomach that would inevitably bloom. Her house was a prison and her stomach…well that was freedom.
After a while, everyone forgot because there’s always another Felicia. A little girl named Shareen who was thrown down a flight of stairs because her mom was high and thought that was the logical thing to do. Shareen was five with pink barrettes in her hair and people could hold onto a tragedy that wasn’t of one’s own making. The possibility of Shareen made headlines. Nobody remembered Felicia’s mother, the woman who still worked at that diner, who wore those white nursing shoes, pad in hand, asking in a voice that had flattened with age and the sadness that only loss could bring, can I take your order?
Two posts in one day, crazy? Here’s another taste from the new book. Enjoy! –FS
Posted on November 10, 2015
Nobody told Marlon that he would grow up hustling rock. He was thirty years old when he died, but he had the face of a boy fresh out of the crib leaping onto the playground. Kicking sand out of sandboxes and twisting the iron chains that held up tire swings. Yet underneath his skin you’d find scales webbing from his hands to the small of his back and cartons of cigarettes smoked down to the filter. Meaning, he came out of the womb all Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? even though he was far from the aging actress whose star had managed to darken an already black sky. You know how the story ends and how it wasn’t supposed to be what it was, but if you’re game and have the time lean in for a listen. Because nobody did suffering like Marlon—he reached for the dark far more than he stood in the sun.
Marlon was the miracle child, a stone that held its weight. Eve was set to have her tubes tied because what did she need with another girl in the family when she already birthed three of them? Children were a chorus of puckered mouths clamoring for the teat. Smacking their lips with that wet sound they make. The years had cradled her in sorrow. Kids she knew hopped off roofs and fell out of windows. The junk-sick lay, arms outstretched, their eyes and the tips of their fingers jaundiced. And although the police finally arrived three hours later from the time you called them, they still managed to toss lit matches into burning buildings. There they go covering the bodies with soiled sheets because they ran out of tarp, but you could still see a row of toes, a patch of unblemished skin peeking out. Cancer and tumors emerged as the new breath-robbers because who could afford to go to the hospital and wait the night it took you to see a doctor who would only tell you that the swarm advanced, your body was a contagion of growths, and here are a few things left for you to consider. Have you thought about your final days? We thought about the dolls we used to have and how we hid coins, marbles and baby teeth in the trap doors that were their insides. Flip open our flap of fabric and there goes death multiplying. Did we think about our last days? Sure we did. Hand me my smokes, do my hair good, dress me in my Sunday best, and leave me out with the rest of the trash because no way can we scrape together the bills needed for a funeral. Slow-sing over the heap of us, will you? Sing me Nina Simone, as loud as you can.
People laughed during episodes of Good Times that played on televisions suspended from the ceiling, although we knew that times were far from good. Somewhere, in the distance a phone rang. The forecast called for thundersnow. A woman studied a piece of paper, a form she was supposed to complete. I can’t read. We have these forms in Spanish, the receptionist said with a kindness that made the woman who held her frayed purse close grip it tighter. The woman shook her head and stared at the floor. Come here, mamí, the receptionist said. Let me read it to you.
What kind of lie are you living, said Eve’s friend when she learned that Eve was pregnant again. There you go thinking that another kid will increase your monthly check. Eve was carrying a boy and the father was who knows because it was 1974 and there was a party every night, and Eve sang the Chi-Lites on volume ten to all the boys in the room even though she didn’t have a movie star voice. Instead, Eve had the kind of body you wanted to wind around bed sheets. Eve swore this was the last one and what she was going to do—kill the boy in her body? Girl, please. Pause your nonsense. Marlon wasn’t about a paycheck; he’s going to be good to his mama. He’s going to be the one man who stays.
The night Marlon was born Eve threw her 8-tracks out the car window on the way to the hospital. Eve drove with one hand at the wheel, breaking lights. Her water broke twelve weeks early and she knew this couldn’t be good. Her body hurt like Riker’s, and Eve wondered if this what happened when you were a mother to a child making a prison break from the womb. In the emergency room Eve sprawled across two plastic chairs and pushed out a small mess of a child that weighed three pounds while the girls behind the desk were snapping their fingers to Rose Royce, and will you bitches get out here because there’s blood on the floor, blood everywhere, this black boy is fucking blue, and will someone call a doctor? Will someone cut the cord?
Marlon was a black boy gone blue, but he kept on breathing. Two months later Eve brought him home and the girls rubbed the sleep out of their eyes and wondered how five pounds of hostility could cause so much ruin. Behind his back, the girls called Marlon the leftover child because he was what remained when your mother got passed around one too many times. Even Eve knew that her child would be like all the other men in her life, a body that slept on top of sheets, never between them. One foot poised at the edge of the bed, ready to run. Six months in the womb, and already the boy was making a break for it—Eve had all the evidence she needed.
Notice how no one’s claiming him, said one daughter whose father came by once a month with Starburst and coloring books. Someone beat him hard with the ugly stick, the other two laughed while Marlon crawled around the linoleum. They kept the shades drawn; they lived a house where the light couldn’t get in. The girls sidestepped his groping hands while Eve worked the night shift. Rarely was he kissed. Rarely was he held.
Bitch, what did I tell you about touching me, said Marlon riding a girl called Lenny. He was thirteen and spent his days bussing to a magnet school in Park Slope and hitting up any girl who had grass on the field come evening. Marlon preferred girls who looked like “before” photos because they were grateful for the crumbs while the “afters” were throwing attitude in every direction. Marlon pushed Lenny off the bed to work on his exponents. Why did everyone need to get physical? You can at least help me with my homework, she grumbled pulling on her clothes. Peering over his shoulder, Marlon laughed. Are you wearing Care Bear underwear? Shit. You need to take your ass back to remedial because the only way you’re going to learn math is by lying on the bed issuing numbers to the homeboys outside the door. Now go on and get the fuck out of my house.
Marlon rode the bus to Bed Sty to hang with Eric, who was putting together the money to make a record. Marlon amused Eric because of the way he could do complicated math in his head. You threw numbers at the young brother and he gave you an answer on the exhale, and Eric thought some kid speed-balling multiplication tables in the chorus might make a rhyme worth repeating. Why Marlon wanted to mess around with the corner boys mystified Eric, but he never mentioned it and always slipped Marlon a twenty just for stopping by. Eric knew it took two trains and a bus for Marlon to stand on the corner shuffling his feet and eating Dipsy Doodles while all the base heads on the block lifted their shirts for a piece of the rock, thinking their skin was going to help the cause. You’re going to catch the fade, the boys hollered back, shielding their eyes with their hands because they all knew the story of Medusa and they didn’t want to turn to stone. One day Eric leaned in and said, I heard about your mom, and Marlon shrugged his shoulders because, so what, he hardly knew the woman. You don’t miss what you don’t have, even when the woman’s body whittled down to a mess of scraggly limbs and bone and flashing going out of business signs. You don’t love what you don’t know, even when the lesions told the story of a woman who’d been passed around one time too many. When Eve died no one rented the apartment she lived in, even after the super bleached the place and repainted the walls because no one wanted to live in the same place where a disease you couldn’t cure had festered and bred.
When Eve’s body was laid into a casket, Marlon ate stolen hog dogs in the park, crying his own quiet, miracle baby tears. That summer there was no shade, only sun, and it was gold and blinding. That summer Marlon slept naked on a bed stripped of sheets because even the fabric hurt. Cotton threatened his skin. Everyone was watching reruns of Good Times, talking about when times were good. Girls were discussing their tag names—Coco, Sugar, or Queen Lethal—because no one wanted to sit in their skin.
The year Eve died we found out our pastor got the sickness too and was on his knees praying for forgiveness. The Lord ain’t got time for that bullshit, said everyone on the block, passing around cups of Folgers from Ginny’s pot. Some cowboys from the Bronx shot Eric at point-blank range because everyone was having greed for dinner. Nobody made a record that year. The corner boys filed into Eric’s house for potato salad and pork cutlets, and Marlon was so tense he couldn’t speak except to whisper the times table in front of Eric’s high school graduation photo taped to his mom’s fridge.
Marlon was a black boy born blue, but he kept on breathing.
The black and white television cast the room in blue and Marlon leaned over the edge of the bed to where Felicia watched a late night movie about a man who killed a woman and got away with it, and said, I could be your daddy if you want me to. Felicia stared at the television screen, unblinking when she said, that’s not what I’m looking for. She was eight and he could tell she appreciated the sentiment. You’re a little young to be watching a movie about girls getting killed. Felicia shrugged her shoulders, smiled and pointed to the screen covered in snow. What’s on there is no different than what’s out there. They sat alone in the dark like a Hopper painting, and Marlon had to agree. You had to give it to the girl—she had a point. Marlon heard her mother spray the perfume that smelled like real flowers instead of the fake ones everyone had in their homes, and Felicia said in a small voice, how long are you going to stay, Marlon—longer than the rest? I don’t know, he said. Maybe I’ll hang a while.
Earlier that day: you remember my boy, Eric? Oh, you don’t? But you know your son, right? Little T? Here’s a picture I took of him—I like to think of this as the before because the after snap you don’t want to see. It’ll be one the coroner takes once they fish your boy out of the river. I wish you were there to watch Little T beg for his life, but don’t worry, I made you a tape and I’m going to play it for you twice. Marlon lived for the unexpected plot twist.
Marlon’s home became a revolving door of need. You’re crazy for selling crack where you rest at, said his boy Jamal. There was his eldest sister who was already burning a hole through the door after cashing her check. Maria was angling for a family discount, and if that didn’t work they could negotiate a friendlier rate. Put your clothes back on, Marlon said, shutting his eyes. Maria wrapped a blanket around her and cried playground tears at the kitchen table. They’re coming for me because my baby girl died in her sleep. I can hear them, she said, knocking on the wall. They’re in here, in the walls, listening. We have to be quiet; you have to give me a little taste so they go away. So I can to sleep. Remember mama and how she used to sing us to sleep? Marlon shrugged his shoulders because the only songs he remembered where the ones she sang on the other side of his wall, never in his room.
Marlon held his sister’s trembling hand over a bowl of spaghetti. Maria begged for darkness and unmolested sleep. Felicia turned nine and from the other room she said: just give her what she wants. Maria passed out on the couch. Marlon held his head in his hands while Felicia drew tears under Maria’s eyes with a ballpoint pen. In a year’s time, Felicia will lie in a morgue with a hangtag tied around her wrist and Maria will lie unconscious, a price tag swinging from her bedpost like a pendulum. But now, right now, Felicia was crying the tears she drew on Maria’s face. Sometimes your sadness scares me, Marlon said. Sometimes it scares me too.
Sad wasn’t a good enough word for what Felicia was—Marlon would sooner or later learn this.
Marlon didn’t like pools because they reminded him of oversized coffins. But he liked to swim so he took a pretty girl named Luz to Brighton Beach. Luz was the kind of girl you got when you were big enough to sell rock on consignment. What was she going to do in Brighton? There were no fun house mirrors, cyclones, and Nathan’s Famous—at Brighton Russian grandmas, overcharging for the air you breathed, surrounded you. Marlon and Luz split a knish when Marlon asked if she ever considered that a single haircut could ruin a whole doll’s life? When he was small his sister passed down a life-sized doll called Big Michelle whose eyes had fallen out. He carried Big Michelle everywhere until some B-boys hanging out behind the A&P knocked out his front teeth because boys don’t play with dolls and you should happy we’re teaching you a lesson. Marlon dragged Big Michelle along the pavement and when he got home he set fire to her hair and cut where the flames didn’t go.
When you’re small your mother tells you to be careful when you cross the street. Look both ways. But sometimes your mother isn’t there or she looks away when you cross or doesn’t say anything at all. Boys who broke out from the womb were bound to find their way, right?
You’re creeping me out, Luz said while perfecting her hair flip. Tell me about Felicia. I heard you were the one who found her body. I heard they found pieces of her skull in the alleyway. Marlon punched Luz in the middle of the street, and everyone looked the other way. When she got home she told everyone who would listen about what Marlon did, and then she called a brother in the Bronx and told him a story about a boy named Little T. A month later neighbors reported a smell and the police found Marlon in the bathtub with a knife in his head.
Marlon was a black boy born blue, and one day he stopped breathing. The police found a notebook he kept, and inside was a torn piece of paper and the words: you stayed longer than most. Know that you did the best you could do. –Felicia
*It’s been challenging to write in this space over the past month because I’ve become so absorbed in this story collection. Right now I’ve 140 pages of stories about women in and out of peril, tentatively titled, Women in Salt. The stories span decades, class and racial boundaries, and it’s been a joy to move in and out of voices. I’m living off meager savings, but I believe in this project so much that I’m commissioning custom illustrations and photography to take these pieces to another level–for you to feel something deeper about what’s written on the page. Right now I’m using images from Unsplash.com as place-holders but I’ve got exciting plans for this. I’ve published a complementary story, “Broke Land”, on Medium and There Was No Shade, Only Sun. And while most might think this endeavor to be silly or not financially sound (because story collection), I’m enjoying this. I’m enjoying this regardless if people read it, regardless if it’s published in book form. I hope you enjoy these stories as much as I love writing them. If you love this, why not share it with someone else? –FS
Posted on October 23, 2015
For a man can lose neither the past nor the future; for how can one take from him that which is not his? So remember these two points: first, that each thing is of like form from everlasting and comes round again in its cycle, and that it signifies not whether a man shall look upon the same things for a hundred years or two hundred, or for an infinity of time; second, that the longest lived and the shortest lived man, when they come to die, lose one and the same thing…As for life, it is a battle and a sojourning in a strange land; but the fame that comes after is oblivion. –Marcus Aurelius
I’ve had the most extraordinary few days in Seattle. I spent time with old friends and bought a tower of new books written by new-to-me authors. I wore bulky sweaters; I feasted on sandwiches that had both bacon and prosciutto, and I cuddled with all the animals. Yet…I feel really sad. And old.
I came to Seattle to see Sarah Hepola read. Reading her book put my heart on pause because I felt as if she had described my life-long love affair with booze. Like Sarah, I thought it was perfectly normal to pre-game (economics!), drink hard and fast (I can keep up with the boys!), and lose time (because everyone has blackouts when they drink, right?) Drinking was fun until it was no longer fun and by then you’re finding excuses to remain in a committed abusive relationship rather than make plans for escape. I’ve spent nine years sober with one really bad two-month relapse, and not drinking has been the best gift I’ve given to myself. And although it doesn’t do me any good to think about regrets, to talk about what I’ve lost, I can’t help but feel as if I lost so much time, and I’m now racing to fill the gaps the drink edged away. I have to write because there were so many years I didn’t write. I have to create, produce. I have to…I have to…
And then I sit in a chair, by myself, before Sarah’s reading and a woman next to me makes small talk. She’s new to Seattle, new to books, and talks about all the people she needs to meet, all the people who are good to know. I nod and don’t say much, only that I live in Los Angeles and I was moved by Sarah’s story of addiction and recovery. The woman smiles and it occurs to me that she’s young, nearly half my age, and I spend most of the evening talking to friends, enjoying readings and parties, but all the while thinking–you are not young.
You’ve lost so much time.
Trust me, I know all of the antecedents. All the ways in which I could respond to those words: you’ve lost so much time. While others are frightened of aging, so much so they’ll slather cream on their faces and inject botulism in their body, I don’t mind my age–I only regret the time I lost. All the years I simply do not remember. All the mistakes I’ve made, people I’ve hurt, words and time I can’t get back.
Yesterday, I spent most of the day in my friend’s co-working space, working on a new story. I met a recent transplant from New York, and as it turns out we both worked at HarperCollins and we know many of the same people in book publishing. We talked about the business of books, but mostly books, rattling off authors we haven’t read and the many we’ve yet to read. Our refrain: There’s not enough time! In that room of three, I felt the most at home. I felt like when I was 24, right before I started the Columbia program, and I read books for the simple pleasure of enjoying them. I didn’t read them to social climb, to know the sometimes unseemly details behind the books–I read books because I felt less alone. So for a brief moment I tried to forget the fifteen years that span not knowing and knowing and it felt good to be suspended, trapped, in a kind of guileless wonder.
And while I spent an evening with really lovely people, heard a host of talented writers read–I felt…small. And alone. I listened to a young spoken word poet and I envied his fresh face and verve. His was a world filled with so much possibility, while I felt like the old woman in the back smoking a cigarette, coughing that deep guttural cough, telling the kids there’s no Santa Claus. No fairy comes down and swoops under your pillow. It’s your mother exchanging your teeth for spare change. New doesn’t exist anymore, and if it does it’s hard to find. New is what you need to create for yourself not what you so casually encounter. Because, by now, people have their opinions of me and my work, and much of that is hard to change or undo and depending on the person I don’t have the energy to do the work. To say, yeah, this was me ten years ago but I’m not that person now. I’m this person, who writes these things, and lives this life. And even though I met extraordinary people, part of me just wanted to crawl home and under the covers, clutching my pile of books.
And this image, my want for it, made me so fucking sad.
I read an article last week, about a man who died alone. A whole life reduced to mystery. I read the piece, heartbroken, and the first thing I said after was, ha, that’ll probably be me. There will exist a time when everything I write here will be erased, my small books will be out of print, the stories I write which few people read will be replaced by some other social network, and I will have no children because I’ve made a conscious decision to not have children. Because you don’t have children because you’re frightened that your life didn’t have meaning or won’t be remembered and passed on. You have children because you want to shepherd a new life into the world and hold their hand along the way.
My friends in their 50s and 60s still call me a kid even though I’m in the nascent stages of talking about purpose. Even though I lament about what I lost and how little time I have left to do what I need to do.
Do I wish I could be that young spoken word poet who has the privilege of having the world unfurl in front of him anew? You better fucking believe it. Do I wish I could have done so much over? Yes. Do I know the antecedent story of all! the! things! you! can! do! now! Yes, yes, yes. Of course. But it doesn’t make this sadness, this loss, any easier to bear.
I stayed up late last night curled up next to my friend’s cat (below–isn’t he ADORB) and felt a kind of peace.
And yes, I realize this post is self-absorbed, emo, and kind of sad, but that’s how I feel right now. Sad.
Posted on September 6, 2015
I’m buying a few peach tops–I thought I should warn you, I text one of my closest friends. This is huge because I mostly wear black and blue, the color of bruises. I’m grateful for technology since it has a way of bringing people whom I love, people who are thousands of miles away, into my home. Even though much of my professional life revolves around digital marketing, I’ve shied away from the tools. Rarely do I Skype or Facetime–I’m old school: I like to see you in front of my face or behind a chat screen. But living in Los Angeles has made that tricky. I can no longer board a subway into Manhattan. I can no longer ride the elevator up. I can no longer collapse onto my friend’s couch and sigh, you don’t even know the fucking day I had. You take that for granted–the small space you occupy with the ones you love. This week I thought about my friends’ homes, how they’ve arranged their furniture, the pictures they’ve placed in frames, the perfume they wear. I think about their hair and how they’ve curled it, or piled it in a bun, or I can’t even be bothered, you know what I mean? I play back the last month of goodbyes–all the tight hugs and faces buried into hair–and I hurt.
It’s been hard coming to this space because I don’t know what to say. I’ve lived a month without furniture and my neck aches from sleeping on an air mattress. A small part of me likes the sparseness of my home and I dread cutting up 49 boxes when my furniture finally arrives this week. Part of me wants to keep the books and toss the rest. It’s hard because I’m shocked by how much I don’t miss New York, but I ache for my father (who, as of late, has been sending me pictures from when we were young), my friends. I’m adjusting to the fact that I can’t find my favorite seltzer in stores, the water tastes tinny, and sometimes girls walk around in bikinis even though we live by the beach but are not on the beach, and I guess it’s cool but it takes getting used to. I’m growing accustomed to making small talk that is less perfunctory and more genuine. I go on a slew of first friend dates, which gives me mild terror (what if I’m too weird? what if they don’t like me?), but I know I have to do this. This is part of the work. This is part of letting people in. This is what it means to build a tribe.
In the midst of all of this, I’ve started a consuming month-long work project, which happened to land the day I received my book contract. So there’s me moving from marketing to murderers over a course of a weekend. At least I’ve a cute, furry editor. Personal pizzas the size of two palms (why is all the yummy food made in miniature?!) can be an effective salve–especially on a day when you have to do So. Much. Work. and your attention gets diverted by some fat-shaming Youtuber, who forgot the laws of basic human decency: don’t humiliate people (marginalized or otherwise) for sport. One can be funny without having to kick someone in the face a few hundred times (also: watch this because we’re all human and let’s try to remember that) /digression
Whenever I feel in the middle of things, I come back to the mat. I’ve been practicing yoga on and off for over thirteen years. I’ve practiced hung over, high, depressed, heartbroken, jubilant, excited, proud and strong. I started practicing when I was an alcoholic trying to get over a coke problem. I continued practicing when I fell in love and brought the man I loved on the mat and our love became the distance between our two bodies. I continued the first few weeks of sobriety when it felt as if the volume on everything got turned all the way up and everything hurt. I continued through love, loss and everything in between. I’ve done hatha, kundalini, vinyasa, ashtanga, anusara (when it wasn’t a dirty word), and Iyengar. I practiced when I was a negative integer and when I was forty pounds overweight, body riddled with burning hives. I fell in love with a practice that acknowledged and celebrated everything that anatomically wrong with me (my uneven arms, which render some poses impossible, while others require the use of a block to balance me out).
The only way to get around pain is to go through it. You have to breathe through discomfort, the dark spaces.
When I first landed in Santa Monica, I walked around with a map on my phone. If I could get a sense of coordinates, if I could the work the angles, I wouldn’t feel so unsettled. But more than that, I wanted to practice. It’d been months since I’ve been on the mat because I’d become obsessed with spinning and the megaformer in the last few months I lived in New York. So I had to accept that I needed to be patient–my body wasn’t going to immediately assume all of its former shapes.
I’m still working my way through the yoga studios in Santa Monica; I’ve enrolled in ClassPass for a month so I can scour the Westside with little risk. I’m still trying to find my studio, my energy, my tribe, and that’s hard. Some studios are great but they’re not so focused on alignment. Other studios aren’t my vibe, reminding me of gyms. I’m about to hit up some spots in Venice next week, but I found one place that surprised me.
If you asked me a year ago if I’d roll up to a hot yoga class I would’ve countered, are you high? I’d often (and erroneously) confuse hot yoga with the cult of Bikram, and all the unseemly, and downright disturbing, associations. However, the reviews of Sweat Yoga were formidable, and I signed up for a class, downed a gallon of water, didn’t eat for two hours before class (okay, that was really hard), and hoped for the best. I already planned to lay my mat next to the door in the event I needed to run.
Luckily, I did not die. I even went back for seconds.
What you notice about Sweat when you enter the studio is the energy. The front desk staff are genuinely helpful and effusive (I practiced at a few other studios this week where people didn’t even look up from the computer screen as they handed me a clipboard with a waiver). The space is drenched in light and smells of lavender. The bathrooms are impeccable and stocked with organic products. More importantly, the teachers are the real deal. I recommend coming early to class so you can meet the instructor, share your yoga history and any injuries, and get used to the heat. It took me a good ten minutes to adjust to the 102 temp in the room, but then it felt like a normal packed yoga class in New York. However, in the few classes I’ve taken at Sweat, the classes aren’t packed and there’s a fair amount of space between mats. Over the course of an hour, the teachers take you through a series of poses, focusing both on alignment and the need for everyone to go at your own pace. Modifications are routinely given to dial up and down poses, and for the first few classes I had to come down and rest just to get adjusted to the heat. I also loved the music and how it’s used as a vehicle for those who want to explore the depths of their practice.
Based on some of the reviews I can see how the structure of the class might not be for everyone–especially for newbies or those who want a rigorous, coordinated flow. Will Sweat be my main jam? Probably not. However, it’s a nice respite for those like me who are Type A and sometimes need a break. The space is a sweet juxtaposition to the more formalized yoga classes I crave, and while it may seem minor to you, taking this class was HUGE for me because I’m slowly doing things that are far out of my comfort zone.
It’s okay if I meet new people and we don’t hit it off. Odds are, we will. It’s okay if I walk into a studio and I don’t like the vibe (at least I tried it). It’s okay to miss my friends (we’ll always have Facetime). And it’s perfectly fine to fall in love with Los Angeles, even if I was born in New York.
Posted on June 14, 2015
There was a time when, if you wanted to see someone, you had to pick up a phone, write a letter, or ring a bell. That was the time, I say and my father nods in tacit agreement. We laugh because this is what happens when you arrive at the middle of your life–you look back on the life you never appreciated while you were living it, and you recast it in sepia. You become a revisionist, a tawdry romantic. You forever remember your life as simple, even when it was everything but, even when your days amounted to you taking cover from ferocious storms that passed swiftly. When victory meant climbing out from under gravel and rock, in-tact. Still, you’re tender with your memories because that which you once considered life-altering–the manufactured dramas, the heart that swelled and broke, the incalculable losses–no longer bears the weight you once ascribed. Their intensity diminishes with time, for the fact that have lived. What you once considered large becomes diminutive simply because these are days you’ve endured.
You think Natalie Merchant was right, these are days you remember.
Over lunch I tell a friend that I’m in the betweens. I feel the years, all of them, but I don’t. When you’re young, you consider 40 old (ask any child and they’re certain to make allusions to your imminent mummification), but a certain calm accompanies this perception because all that you don’t know will be resolved by the years. The empty will be made whole, you’re certain of it. Until you reach the middle of your life and realize that resolutions are only met with more questions. The simple becomes a cipher and you spend your days saddled with riddles.
I take a meal with a woman in her 20s who’s astonished over the fact that I still have questions, that I haven’t “figured it all out” when it comes to my career. How do I explain that in the same breath I have it all figured out but I’m not close to figuring it out? That I’m able to reconcile what matters to me but that knowledge doesn’t magically reveal what’s next. It took time to unload all the weight I’d been carrying–the weight of my generation and the expectations of meeting markers by specific age thresholds (married by 30, 2.5 children, house, career, the whole nine) and realizing that I didn’t want what had been prescribed for me–and how do I explain that I’ve merely traded in one bag for another, and the contents of each are demonstrably different?
So I looked up this Santa Monica on the Google, and you’ll be happy to know that there is a Starbucks and a Coffee Bean, my father says, satisfied. I worry that he’ll be worried. Somehow I won’t feel right about leaving if he doesn’t give me his blessing, even if I’m too old for it, even if I don’t technically need it. But I’ve come to realize that his assurance is something I need, and I laugh when he measures the weight of this decision by the proximity of coffee shops. (He doesn’t, really. My pop, like me, needs a non-threatening opener, something that won’t ripple the waters, as it were. We need to take it slow–there’s no other way.)
The coffee, I understand, is my dad’s way in.
What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water. Only
There is shadow under this red rock,
(Come in under the shadow of this red rock),
And I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.
From T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland”
We spend two hours in a car in front of the water, and I tell my pop I’m frightened. I’ll have to re-learn how to drive (so, you’ll learn); I’ll have to consider work (aren’t you already worried about that here? How is it any different there?); there will be times I will fly into New York and not have a home to go home to (home is in your heart, you know this, not where you lay your head down to rest). He says, of course you’re afraid.
In Spain, there are barnacles that are as expensive as caviar. This isn’t the sort of fish that’s affixed to rocks and certain ships, rather these crustaceans can only be found out in the deep, in the rolicking seas, and the princely sum we pay is insurance for the man who risks his life to harvest what we eat. I describe the way barnacles feed, their spindly legs and unhealthy attachments. We’re by the water now, and he inquires about the barnacles. Where are they? I point to rotten wood and the barnacles the blanket the surface.
What I don’t say is that I’ve been attaching myself to that which has only sustained. I’m taking what I can get.
My pop and I discuss probability, how he’ll likely board a plane to visit me in California than navigate a car to Brooklyn. Last night I walk along a street where I’ve walked over 25 ago, and I think about the girl then and the woman now and I’m trying to reconcile the two (a shadow behind you, a shadow rising up to greet you).
But it’s hard because the woman who grew up in Brooklyn is so foreign to the woman leaving it, and I can’t explain the sadness I feel being in between, over, under, around, beyond, the two.
This is what happens when you reach the middle of your life. You fold the terrific photographs of you from a former life, that young face washed in sepia, into a box. You preserve it. You care for it. You sometimes open the box and pore through its contents. You hold up your former self to the light. You practice nostalgia like sermon, like song. Then you realize that there are boxes left to fill. You realize that you are halfway toward the end of your life and you desire color. You need shadows under red rocks. You need new questions. You need new photographs. You need the life beyond the photo. You need to hold the still-beating heart in your hands. You need to breathe.
Update: I just listened to Isabel Allende’s talk on living passionately, regardless of age, and it was so fitting for this post and wholly illuminating.
Posted on June 5, 2015
Years ago, a friend of mine, a lawyer working on a stop-and-frisk case, talked to me about privilege. He could be someone who walks the city streets carrying drugs, yet he’d never be stopped, never be given more than a passing glance, because he’s an attractive white male who doesn’t look the part. Doesn’t fit the profile. On paper he’s the poster boy of privilege–Swarthmore undergrad, Harvard Law, and skin as pale as parchment–until he holds his husband’s hand. Until they publicly embrace. Then he’s a fag, a homo, a queer, and it’s as if all the privilege he was able to enjoy before he touched another man’s hand vanished. On that day my friend reminded me to check my privilege and check it often. And while I have to endure the indignities that come with being a woman in America, I have to remember that I’m, by all appearances, a white, educated woman (even if I’m genetically nearly half black and Spanish), and I’m able to navigate spaces where many are denied trespass.
I think about this a lot, especially when I re-read old stories I’ve written where I talk about my hair as a “betrayal”, rather than a piece of my makeup worthy of pride and love. I think about this when I email friends listings of expensive apartments in Los Angeles of which I’m able to afford. Yes, I work hard for everything I have, but I have to remind myself, constantly, that it’s easier for me because for the whole of my adult life I’ve played the part of a white, Ivy-educated woman. I have to remember this when WOC speak cogently and brilliantly on the dangers of whitewashed feminism. And isn’t it tragic that we need a comic, albeit an eloquent one, to remind us of all that we take for granted–all the ways we need to make the world better for those who are unable to occupy our seats of privilege.
Over the past year I’ve been reading scores of articles that invite you to change your life. In this rarified life the word “impossible” is verboten because if they’ve achieved the unthinkable you can too. It’s smart marketing, really, the way in which these stories sell you on an idea, an alternative life you could be living if only you’d make the leap. If only you’d sell your possessions and hop on a plane. But that’s what marketing does–sells you something that’s actually not the thing you’re really buying.
What they’re selling, unbeknownst to them, is their privilege. Privilege has become the unspeakable, the ultimate taboo, because no one wants to hear that their journey to break ranks, regardless of how difficult it seemed to be, comes at lower cost than if someone else attempted the leap. No one wants to feel the guilt that comes with being born into a certain race or economic advantage because perhaps they think it reduces the brave choices they’ve made. It doesn’t, really, but the blindness that the currency built into these choices is a kind that can’t be bought by others, is dangerous.
You may weep into your yoghurt when you read this, but not everyone can wake up one morning, quit their job (and life), and travel the world. Not everyone can drape their tawny body on a beach or sit perched in front of a laptop in Phuket. If that were the case, everyone would do it. We don’t exist in binary states, and those major leaps can’t be copied by all but perhaps they’ll cause a ripple in someone’s life. Maybe those dramatic changes will inspire small, meaningful choices in others.
Two years ago I contemplated a move to Europe (I know, line forms to the left). In retrospect, this was the dumbest idea in which I’ve ever conceived, but back then I was unsettled, unhappy, and I was grasping for something big that could fill the emptiness I’d been feeling. Yet, so many people told me to just do it! I’ll figure it out! Don’t think! At first I was exuberant–why not just put the cat on a plane with a passport? And then I woke to the reality: I’ve six-figure student loan debt that has to be paid or the corporations that hold my debt will sic the dogs on me, and I’ve no doubt they’ve global bloodhounds in their arsenal. I’d no savings. The only language I knew was Spanish and Spain’s tanking economy was out of the question. I had no partner with whom to share my expenses and fears, and I owned a pet that would require nearly six months of paperwork and anxiety attacks to transport to another country. While I wanted to pursue this fantasy, real life logistical questions and concerns put me on pause, yet the whole of social media was intent on admonishing me for thinking logically. Apparently logic erodes delusional thinking.
All this empty talk reminded me of a piece Mark Manson wrote on the steaming pile of bullshit that is The Secret. He writes,
Other studies show that people who engage in “self-affirmations” and are then presented with information that threatens their affirmation (even healthy criticism or feedback) actually engage in more faulty reasoning than people who don’t use self-affirmations.10 In fact, people who indulge in delusional positive thinking ironically become downright angry when someone tries to contradict their wall of airy-fairy thoughts. The truth about their situation just becomes that much more painful to them.
Delusional positive thinking ironically generates greater closed-mindedness in people. They must always be vigilant and block out potentially negative feedback or criticism of their beliefs, even if that negative feedback is life-or-death important to their health and well-being.
I don’t have the privilege of parents who could finance my adventures or give me shelter should I falter from pursuing them. I don’t have the privilege of a debt-free existence because how was I going to scrounge up the $40K/year that was the cost of my Columbia education? Do I regret graduate school? Do I regret that I’ll likely pay loans until I’m steeped in earth? Sometimes. But what am I going to do other than deal with the hand I’ve dealt myself and take responsibility for my choices.
But still. These articles, for a time, made me feel guilty. Made me feel as if my life were lacking, that I wasn’t brave enough to make the choices these women had made. Honestly, that was my own shit. That was me realizing that I’m not these other people living their lives with the privileges they have. I’m me. This is my life. And while I can’t teach snorkeling in Borneo, I can make the leaps that feel right for me. The leaps that my privilege + my hard work can afford.
I guess what I’m trying to say is this: don’t let these stories make you feel small. Don’t let my story make you feel small. You are the author of your own story. Write it. Live it. Share it with others. Try to help others with their story if you see them struggling, or if they don’t have the equipment or the means like you do.
Or at least acknowledge and feel grateful for what you have.
Posted on May 15, 2015
Usually I make it a point not to see people on Thursdays because this day is devoted to being free of people–I need time alone, in unadulterated quiet. I can’t function otherwise. However, I acquiesced to meet old colleague whom I admire and hadn’t seen in years. What he probably doesn’t know is how I remember him. He was one of the first who interviewed me for a job that I once loved and slowly, over time, began to hate, and much of the interview centered around The Shining. I realize it’s odd to talk about a movie so horrific so comfortably, but we laughed over the twins, dissected Kubrick, and I revealed a predilection for horror movies.
People who are frightened of flying are often put in mock planes so that they could overcome their fear by confronting it, by breathing through it. One is never comforted by statistics because we always think that our flight could be that one in a million. We ignore silence so wholly and completely because our heart wonders how is it possible that a giant machine can be suspended in midair? We think ours will be an inevitable ruin, a tumbling and fall, and no amount of comparing plane crashes to car accidents will help. But if you put us on a plane and make us go through it, again and again, the hope is that we’ll find a way to cope with maths, probability. We’re never really cured, but we can sometimes go on planes without believing we’ll die. I like to think of this as being at the end of our private ocean–a life spent on the shoreline and then we’re propelled to take out a boat and move it as far as it will go until we’re at the edge. We never go over the edge but we know it exists, we’ve seen it, and we take comfort that we’re closer to it than a life lived on dry land.
This is probably why horror and darkness comfort me. They are my edge of the ocean.
So in that small space of time spent with a stranger who will become a coworker and now a friend, how could he know that on that particular day I started to work through why it is that I’m able to sit so comfortably still in the dark.
Yesterday we spend a few hours in a restaurant that serves good eggs and has a tree planted in the middle of the dining area. We talk about a lot of things–work created and owned on our own terms, the place where we used to work, and more importantly, what’s next.
I told him about my decision to move to Santa Monica, how I didn’t want advice (please don’t, please don’t). When he asked about Santa Monica I told him it was about being in the midpoint between the familiar and the foreign, and he wondered aloud if I was prolonging that which I desired for the sake of being comfortable. Was I losing time by settling in a place that in my heart I suspect won’t be home. So why not risk it and plant roots to prove my gut right or wrong, to know that I made a choice without regret, that certainty will invariably reveal itself.
Why not go to the edge of the ocean instead of paddling halfway?
He said all of this without judgment, without talking about the pros and cons of north vs. south (I’m sure you’ve already worked that out), but he suggested I make a choice based on time and gut and heart–the rest will sort itself out. And then I came across a typewriter on my way to the bathroom in this restaurant, reminding me of my presence in prose.
I left exhilarated, confused, feeling as if I walked in a metronome and walked out oscillating wildly. I have so much to think about in the coming months, so much to consider.
Then I came home and fell into a world of work and watching The Fall. I felt sick because the character so closely resembles Kate in my novel and I realize that I’m not quite done with examining the masks people wear in my work. I’m still paddling–not quite at my edge yet.
A small note: For the next few months I won’t have comments activated on this space. It’s not out of disrespect, but more from a place of self-preservation, and a need to filter out distractions as much as possible. There will come a time when I’ll reopen them, I promise.
Posted on April 29, 2015
A few weeks ago my best friend’s nine-year-old daughter and I were playing. Our play consists of her sometimes weaving pink ribbons through my hair or me helping her assemble an imaginary set for a show she’s intent on producing (she’s creative, this one). That day, after I affixed one of the many glittery crowns she owned on her head, she asked, Are you ever going to have children, Felicia? I admired her moxie, the way in which she’s able to navigate terrain that one could consider a minefield. Adults exercise politeness and discretion in a way that can sometimes be numbing, and it was such an odd relief to hear a child ask something so plainly–just because I’m the only woman she knows who doesn’t have a child of her own. My best friend and I exchanged a look, and I replied, No, C. I don’t plan on having children. She appeared pensive, and after a few moments she nodded her head, said, okay, and we continued on with our play.
I did love, once. Yet it was love that was easily altered, one that had slowly come apart at the seams. But for a time we lived a terrific photograph, and spoke of glinting diamonds, me swanning about in a white dress and children winding around my calves. This life, while part of a defined plan I had for myself, felt distant, foreign–an uninhabited country for which I needed a visa and complicated paperwork for entry. I never took to the idea of being owned by someone else; I never considered changing my name. I never imagined myself in a white dress (I prefer blue), and I’ve never truly felt the maternal ache and tug as many of my dear friends who are mothers, describe. Back then I viewed marriage as less of a partnership and more of a prison, but I imagine that had much to do with the man in my life. Back then I slept on top sheets rather than between them, and I was forever poised for flight. Back then I didn’t want children because I was certain I wouldn’t be any good at it considering my history.
After a couple of years of playing house, this great love and I experienced a drift and while he went on to marry and have a family of his own, I never once thought I’d missed out on my chance, rather, I was relieved. I treasure my solitude, my freedom. I didn’t want to be harvested. Back then I had so much work ahead of me, work on my self, my character, that I knew I wouldn’t be much good to anyone else. I knew I had to make myself whole and complete before I gave even a sliver of myself to someone else.
“I believe I know the only cure, which is to make one’s center of life inside of one’s self.” —Edith Wharton
I came across Kate Bolick’s Spinster not from her widely-read Atlantic essay (I miss out on everything), but serendipitously through a Times book review. I nodded along with Bolick, and found her to be an “awakener” (a riff off Kate Chopin’s The Awakening), much like the ones she describes in her book. Over the past few years I’ve been so consumed with cultivating a good life, in living through the questions, in being a sponge when it comes to knowledge and culture, that I hadn’t stopped, not even for a moment, to consider the fact that I’m in my late 30s and am still not married. I’ve witnessed scores of my friends fall in love, marry, bear children, and I feel joy for them, rather than envy. And I’m also privy to the unseemly side of coupling–of people who talk about being incomplete without having a partner, people who feel like a failure because they haven’t fulfilled a role ascribed to them, and my heart breaks because no one person will ever complete you. It doesn’t work that way. You’ve got to come into the game, whole; you’ve got to hold your own cards, be willing to play your own hand.
It doesn’t make sense to come to the table with a few cards rather than a deck.
Nearly all my friends my age are married–most, happily so. Acquaintances congratulate engagements and pregnancy announcements with a welcome to the club message, as if these points in time gain you access to some sort of privileged society, which rings odd and exclusionary, at best. I don’t view marriage, or the decision to have children, as checks in a box or private clubs where one is finally granted trespass, rather I think of them as individual choices we make. We meet a great love and decide to marry, or not. We meet a great love and decide to have children, or not. We never meet a great love and the world as we know has yet to collapse. Or, perhaps, we don’t make love a vocation. Maybe we just live our best lives and play out the hand.
She was the only one of the lot of them who hadn’t gone off and got married. She had never wanted to assert herself like that, never needed to. —Maeve Brennan
It occurs to me that I’m not certain I’ll ever get married, and I’m okay with that. While I like the idea of a partner, a companion, someone with whom I’m besotted, somehow the vision of me in a dress surrounded by people applauding me down an aisle makes me cringe. The idea of me trading one man’s name for another feels false (I’ll keep Sullivan, thank you). And I’ve come to realize that I’m a better friend, sister, and lover because I choose not to have children.
All I want to do right now is create, to see everything that hasn’t been seen. To know what I don’t know. And if in that journey I meet someone, cool. However, if I don’t, that’s cool too.
Posted on April 11, 2015
Long is the way and hard, that out of Hell leads up to light. Even in the beginning, there is a moment we’re hurtled out of the dark and into the light. That first cry uttered, our bodies–a miniature version of ourselves, the smallest we’ll ever be–cave inward; we’re frightened because for so long we had enjoyed being swathed in the cool, calm dark and here we are, our eyes pressed shut because we’re being assaulted by the very thing which we’ll be taught the rest of our lives to cleave: the light. A tower of matches set aflame. In that small slice of time we’ll be blinded, frightened, and we’ll want to crawl our way back into the tomb from which we’ve come. Yet from those flames. No light, but rather darkness visible. This might be the only time when we invite the darkness in, welcome it with fragile arms.
“All the being and the doing, expansive, glittering, vocal, evaporated; and one shrunk, with a sense of solemnity, to being oneself, a wedge-shaped core of darkness, something invisible to others.” ― Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse (my absolute favorite of her novels!)
Everyone’s always telling me to look on the bright side. They say, don’t be sad! They speak in sing-song or emoji; they send me “cheery” photographs: a kitten hanging from a tree (hang in there!), a baby owl being groomed by its mother, a woman on a beach in sepia. Friends rhapsodize over the perception of liquid in a glass and how its meaning oscillates between optimism or pessimism, depending on how you view a situation. Often, they remind me of an auctioneer who hocks joy to the highest bidder. The auctioneer’s voice is a torrent and you’re drowning in the velocity of words, how quickly they flood out of his or her mouth; we never never consider the meaning of what is being said, we only know more, more. Joy, joy. Happy, happy. Every day I read articles lobbying for a happy life. Daily, I’m reminded of all the health benefits of a joyful life. My social media feeds and readers are cluttered with images of joy–toes scrunched under sand, a pristine glossy workspace complete with a monogrammed mug–you can even see the plume of heat from the coffee rising up. Everything rising, rising.
Everything that rises must converge, Flannery O’Connor wrote. I would also add, combust.
I knew a woman once. She was prideful, perhaps too much, of the fact that she’d never seen a “dark” movie, that she resolved to not absorb anything “gruesome” depicted on the news. Instead, she erected a prison of her own making, and in this prison there existed only glitter, hot pink, saccharine sweet pop music, and movies with happy endings. Can I tell you her life frightened me more than any horror movie? That I realize I sometimes live amongst people for whom their waking lives are consumed (consciously or unconsciously) with the relentless pursuit of the scorching light (from which our initial human instinct was to recoil) at the expense of the annihilation of any sort of sadness. Never did we consider the extremes of light–bodies burst aflame, and the fear and greed solely reserved for those who live in a perpetual fear of sadness.
People crave the pleasure of your happiness, not the burden of your sadness.
Don’t get me wrong–I’m not advocating for a life shrouded in darkness, rather I’m desperate for balance. At this moment, as I type this, I’ve so much happiness and joy in my life, and I know I wouldn’t have been able to feel all of this if I didn’t, for a time, settle into my own sadness. And settling, my friends, is different than a full-on immersion, a gasping for air underwater. All too often people I know want to instantly jolt me out of any dark moment. I say jolt because that’s what it feels like: a shock. I tell them that dumping happy emojis on my status update or sending me “happy” missives isn’t helping. That this sadness is temporary, a storm that will pass swiftly, and can’t you just chill the fuck out and ride it through? Your words aren’t a salve, they’re wounds. Wounds that remind me we’re desperate to cleave to only one emotion, joy, and to forsake anything that would grant even a modicum of discomfort.
But discomfort is part of life!
I think about the factors that sometimes contribute to my sadness: loss, failure, heartbreak, fear. For me, sadness is a quiet meditation, it’s the in-between place between two moments, and I’ve come through stronger, resilient, smarter, on the other side. Some periods of sadness last longer than others, and the only thing I’ve to worry about these moments is to not dwell on them for too long. To not become a martyr to my own heartbreak or failure. In these moments I don’t need people to erase a very necessary and base emotion. I don’t need people to rub it away, make me feel better–I need people to say, how can I help? How can I love? What do you need?
Because if you only entomb yourself in one extreme (light conversation, happy music, joyful books, happy endings, sweet songs), your inevitable fall will feel bottomless, infinite. Nothing is visible in this kind of darkness because you’d spent your whole life artfully dodging it. It’s shape and form are so unfamiliar, the first taste of it makes you wretch–all of it is worse than you ever imagined. Had you allow for it, even in minor degrees, you’d allow yourself to settle in this place, breathe through it because you always know there’s another side.
There’s magic in the oscillation, in movement from light to dark and back again. A body pulsing between the two. A heart surviving the two. A life enduring and having real joy because of the two.
Posted on March 1, 2015
I don’t say there isn’t much work to do, for there is. And some tracks lead to excruciating darkness, where a person can tumble from the sky on a clear September morning. Yet is the world not whole? Is it not beautiful? For now, let’s consider well-being a choice, something you can try on and wear. When we put on the hat and coat of well-being we incline towards joy without special occasion. –Jean-Pierre Weill’s The Well of Being (via)
The past week I’ve been thinking about living with immediacy. Even writing the word immediacy puts me to thinking of some of its negative connotations, the sense of urgency or the feeling that one might rush through our waking life. However, after watching Atul Gawande’s extraordinary PBS documentary (an adaptation of his book, Being Mortal), I’m reminded of this: we may never have as much time as we think, so why not live life as fully and richly as we possibly can? Instead of sleeping through our waking days or collecting five (It’s Friday!) in anticipation of the remaining two (Oh no, it’s Sunday!), why not treat every moment as one worth savoring, one worth living.
As you know I’ve been struggling with some pretty heady questions, and I’ve accepted that I’m temporarily living in the in-betweens, a home painted grey, with air thick and weighted by clouds, and it’s sometimes hard to see what’s in front of you. There are roads ahead, cartographers have made the appropriate measurements and maps, and your life has become a game of maths, a calculation of probability and weighted risk. Probably the most valuable lesson I’ve learned from being an addict is this: you don’t erase pain by numbing your way around it, rather you have to rip off the bandaids, one by one, and breathe through it. True, you’ll spend some part of your life dressing and re-dressing your wounds but the drug to which you’re tethered to only delays the inevitable.
At some point the bandaids will have to be removed. It’s just a matter of how much time you’re willing to squander to the point where you’re ready to start ripping. Yesterday, I came across this quote from Elliot Roberts while reading an oral history of Laurel Canyon in the 60s and 70s:
The scene broke up because you became adults. We were all in our early 20s when there was that scene—all kids in their early 20s have a scene. All of a sudden you have a girlfriend or you’re getting married. By 30, 35, the scene is gone. You have families, kids, jobs. You buy a house. You want to get guitar lessons for your kid and a Bar Mitzvah. When you’re 20, it’s O.K. for eight people to crash in a living room, six on a floor. At 35 you’re not crashing anymore—your back hurts.
Reading Roberts’ words didn’t feel somber or nostalgic, it felt honest. At one point you have to accept what your life has become. Last night I spent hours with a couple from California and I told them stories from my 20s, a drug-induced time where California was simply a place where you got good coke and you could sleep while someone drove. Some of the stories are a bit colorful and wild and for people who have known me for less than a week they can see the sharp contrast of the woman I spoke of then and the woman telling them stories now. I tell them stories about a time and a woman I don’t miss because I’m so infatuated with the life I have now.
At one point the husband, in response to my talking about my moving dilemma, says, Five seconds. Don’t think. If you could move to any state now, where would it be? No, really. Don’t think. I laugh and say, California. If you asked me this question a year ago I would’ve laughed, I would’ve made some allusion to Biggie and Tupac and how born and raised New Yorkers don’t just move to the least coast. But then I realize that California is not Los Angeles or San Francisco, two cities that aren’t my vibe, that it’s a whole landscape of beauty and warmth–a place worth exploring.
I tell them, however, that I’m not ready for California just yet. What does your gut tell you? Are you listening to it? Genevieve asks. I tell her that I want to spend a month in Portugal or a Spanish-speaking country, but the…cat, I say. Felix, I say. I realize I’m speaking to two cat-lovers, a couple who bought a cat hammock for their lovely home in Santa Barbara, and both of them say, quite plainly, that a month isn’t a long time in the grand scheme of my life. If Felix can come, great. However, if he could stay with my father or a trusted friend, it wouldn’t be the end of the world. I would return.
Because do I want to live with regret? I’ve already chosen not to have children because I’m not built for it; I don’t want roadblocks. I need personal freedom. I need myself whole. And I feel part of the journey this year, part of the story I want to tell, is this: the leaving and the return.
We organize our circumstances into stories, stories we pick up along the way and carry with us. Stories that declare, I’m lacking. Why me? stories. I’m alone, stories. What will I amount to? stories. Stories about who we should be. Or think we are. They are interior maps whose familiar roads we travel. Over and over. Yet when we apprehend these maps, these stories, these patterns … we awaken and rise, as it were, to a new perspective, to new possibilities. –Jean-Pierre Weill
We’ll see. Here’s me inching out of the house, making my last payments, packing my bags. Closer.
Posted on February 5, 2015
I don’t know how to tell my father I’m leaving. Up until this week I didn’t know how to tell myself. But wait, let me back up.
The week was a blur of meetings, minor politicking and emails left unanswered. I met my friend and mentor for Korean, and we talk about the things we always talk about: we trade updates on our respective careers and people we used to work with and know. This person took this job at this place, did you hear? This person landed here and she seems really happy, last we spoke. We talk about heady things–data and marketing attribution models–and the personal. He tells me about his novia and plans to move out west. He asks about this trip I’m taking, the one he’s been reading about on Facebook. It’s a normal, perfunctory conversation, the kind of which I’ve grown accustomed. I have the speech prepared where I talk about the three states, my jubilation, and how nothing pleases me more than living in a town with a population of 6,000. Our food arrives and we tuck in, and he jokes about the fact that I like my beef well done. Shoe leather, we laugh.
My mentor is a kind of father, but not completely, yet enough where I let my guard down as I’m a watchman when it comes to my heart.
We pass vegetables between our plates and I talk about snow boots. How I’ve ignored the need to purchase them. How I’ve lasted the previous winter without them. And then, this week, I broke down and bought a pair and already I feel regret. Why, he asks. Boots are pragmatic, something I need, and I’ve always been the practical kind. Because this is my last year in New York, I say, flippantly. He pauses, allows the words to settle because he’s ahead of me. What I’ve said doesn’t register on my face just yet. I’m still moving food about my plate, talking about kimchi and kale. And then it happens–the words catch up and linger. Something in me seizes, quietly, and he says that I’ll always need boots because he knows I’ll temporarily return. How could I not return to the place I’ve called home? I think about Odysseus, nymphs, and an awaiting shore, but I don’t tell him any of this because it’s kind of strange to be bringing up the Greeks over barbequed beef–you know what I mean?
I want to tell him that this conversations reminds me of the one we had two years prior. I was in his office, head in my hands, talking about fear. He’d asked me if I was happy. Are you happy? I said, no. I already knew I had to resign from a job that had slowly begun to kill me; I had to stop working for a man I didn’t respect or trust. I had to stop becoming the woman I never wanted to be–bitter, stressed, angry, someone who practiced moral relativism like breathing. But what if I quit? What then? This life isn’t the one I want, but I know it. I can navigate it with eyes open. And if my friend (then colleague) hadn’t made me imagine what was on the other side of fear, I wouldn’t be writing this post. So I think about that conversation and how we don’t need to have it again, and that’s the silence that passes between us–the tacit understanding that this decision is familiar, and all I need to do is see out onto the horizon.
You’ll visit, he says. I nod. I’ll visit. What if I don’t secure freelance work? I’ll visit. What if I’m lonely? I’ll visit. What if I lose my apartment? I’ll visit. You know you’re giving up your apartment for good, right? What if New York is it? I’ll visit.
Now to only tell my father I’ll visit.