What cracks had he left in their hearts? Did they love less now and settle for less in return, as they held onto parts of themselves they did not want to give and lose again? Or–and he wished this–did they love more fully because they had survived pain, so no longer feared it? ― Andre Dubus, Dancing After Hours
There was a moment last week when I looked away from my reflection in the mirror and wondered if I should get Botox. Me, an anti-botulism crusader, getting garbage injected into my face? Suffice it to say, it was a low moment and one that passed as swiftly as it arrived.
I stroke a child’s hair. The blondness of it, the fineness of it, the mess of it, disturbs me, and I ask myself as I’ve asked myself countless times before, do I want this? Would it be possible to go at it alone? The child’s head is small, fragile in my hands, and I tacitly acknowledge that this isn’t what I want. I can’t imagine a life other than my own taking shelter inside this body. And I think about the time when I lost Sophie, when my grief was as large as an ocean, and everyone not understanding the depth of my loss and how I nearly drowned from the undertow. They said, I’m so sorry for your loss in the same breath as asking me for a favor. Can I connect them with someone in my network? Could they pick my brain with their scalpel and surgical tools? Imagine if you lost your seven-year-old child? Imagine if your child died in your hands? Their last breath lumbering out as you wondered whether you had been kind, whether you had done everything that there was to do. You think this is why you can’t have children because you’d find ways to kill them. You can’t remember a time when you were a child, when your job wasn’t to parent, to mother, to carry a woman down six flights of stairs to an awaiting taxi, to recite the address of Maimonides Hospital because you knew it by heart, because you made this trip countless times before. You completed the forms because your mother’s hands couldn’t stop shaking and watched The Late Show on the television that hung overhead while people bled, slept and moaned in the waiting room. You wondered if they’d ever get around to painting the walls. You wondered how long this time. Could she do this for you? Would she? You calculated the time from now until you’d have to carry her again, and as an adult you’d read about The Ouroboros and wondered if this myth was simply a retelling of your childhood with a serpent thrown in for good measure. Replace the snake with a child and you’ll see what happens when a child is forced to an extreme–to feed itself, care for itself, endure itself, waste itself, consume itself in order to inch through another day.
No, no children for me.
Let’s talk about a cat who was breathing and a cat who stopped breathing, and how you now exist in the silences after that loss? You now exist in the space after the body has been wrapped like a little package and delivered to an incinerator. Your father, not your real one, once tells you that when he dies he wants to be burned. None of this below the ground business with worms in his eyes. Spread me out in the water, he urges, and you nod and take note of a time when you’ll have to endure another burning. Let me ask you this: wouldn’t you take me by the neck–just so that I can feel what it’s like to watch a final rise and fall of a small chest–if I mapped out an appropriate timetable for your grief? I spend time and money on weddings and baby showers I’ve no interest in attending, and not one of these people helped shoulder my grief or sent a card or a gift when a new cat, my child, entered my home.
When you get older, you start to see people as they really are and this sometimes breaks your heart.
Parsnips, beets, zucchini, kale, greens, cabbage, carrots–I write these words down in the middle of a day that rains to remind myself of what I’ve eaten because I tend to forget things if they aren’t written down. But I never forget cat food, toys or vet visits. I tell myself that this time with Felix I’ll be good. I won’t slip. I’ll do everything I can to avoid a sky burial. I’ll do everything I can to not sit in another hospital where I have to deliberate my options, where I have to sign here, here and also, there.
Can I pause and tell you that having lost Sophie still breaks my fucking heart? Makes me cry on cue even now, even after all this time?
Occasionally someone will inquire, with a mixture of fear and curiosity, whether I want children. I’ve still got time, they think. I respond that I wasn’t built for bearing. I’ve already raised a child who gave birth to another child, a half-sister, and I never received a card or a word of thanks for sacrificing my childhood for her adulthood. Funny how time sorts things.
In December it rains constantly and I fear that I’ve become the kind of writer who’s good at blog posts and corporate narratives and little else. I worry that what I’ll leave behind is a book about The Ouroboros that was my life, a story I can’t even read without wincing. A story, I realize now, I wrote too young. Had I written that story now, it would have been a landscape painted grey, solemn and quiet. I would’ve been careful with my words; I would’ve laid down a blanket over my rage.
You had a friend once and she drank as much as you did and then some. She wrote beautiful, dark stories–the kind you always wish you could write, stories published in The New Yorker and then by Knopf. The stories are delicate and breakable, and this puts you to thinking that you’re only able to write about people who do the breaking, people who are broken. You can never write about that space between the two–not yet broken but not whole, complete–when the characters are simple, tragic and beautiful.
But when you were both drunk, going one for one until you both saw black, you don’t think about the stories you could or could not write. You’re the story and you’re tragic and simple and perhaps beautiful, but you’ll never know this. You’ll only realize it when someone else writes about it, and you read a story with a hint of nostalgia, the this person sounds familiar, until you realize that person is you and you’re a character in a story rather than a real person who didn’t have a beautiful life. This is your life. You’re some drunk girl in someone else’s story. They didn’t even get your lines right. And then it occurs to you that the someone who wrote this story was you and you wish that the story hadn’t been written in the first place. But that’s your book, your story, and you deal with it.
Years later, that friend who writes The New Yorker stories will accept your Facebook invitation for friendship even though you were once friends, but this relationship is different, safe, relegated to computer screens instead of bars and men flickering the lights shouting last call. You don’t dare see one another because you can’t bear to be with someone who reminds you that you were the kind of person you want to forget. Remember that time when we were supposed to go to that reading in that famous bar downtown? We met for a bite close to the bar and we ended up splitting two bottles of wine. We left our food cold. Remember when we walked into the bar and it was quiet and we giggled and guffawed and spoke in octaves? Remember when your best friend at the time practically pressed her hand over your mouth because that famous writer was reading, the room was attentive, silent, and couldn’t you see that? No, not really. We left and talked about how the famous writer’s stories weren’t as good as they used to be.
When she accepts your invitation for friendship you’re both sober. She’s on the verge of marriage. You’re not. She’s on the verge of publishing her collection of stories with Knopf. You’re not. Even though her work is good, really good, you wonder this: why didn’t this happen to me? The marriage, the stories, the Knopf, all of it.
When you get older, you sometimes wonder whether this is your life. All of it. You realize it’s nearly impossible to reconcile the woman you used to be and her wants with the person you are with her needs. You selfishly wonder if what you have, who you are, is ever enough.
I read a lot of lists. Apparently it’s the vogue thing to do to compile lists of things you’ve learned in your 20s once you turn 30. As if a number has the propensity to shift your life beyond measure. As if a number has that much power. I try not to be an asshole about it and realize that people need lists to sort out where they are in their lives–they need a demarcation of then and now and what’s happened in the space in between. Their lists are binary in nature, and I can’t argue this too much because I wrote a book that colored in the lines, a story that worshipped at the altar of black and white, and it’s not until I’ve had a few more years did I realize that there’s all this grey I’d been missing. That the delineations are no longer finite. There is no cutoff of what I’ve learned from 30 to 39, rather there’s what I’ve learned from being a kid until now. I need the kid to stay in the picture to understand the adult typing this now.
The lessons in these lists people write, share and nod along with, are no longer definitive and finite, instead they become somewhat obtuse: the loses are palpable; the relationships richer and smaller; the love is deeper and beautiful and dark and all of that; the hellos and goodbyes aren’t what they used to be; the work isn’t what we thought it would be, and sometimes we can’t define what it is that we want but we know exactly what it is that we don’t want; we’re urgent about the things we never considered and calmer about the things that used to make us rage; sometimes we listen to songs we used to love because they temporarily take us back to a place (remember that place!), and then we don’t listen to those songs for long stretches of time because they remind of us of that same place (remember that place…); we scan the updates and holiday cards from people we know or who we’ve come to know and realize that the people we once knew are so different they’re nearly unrecognizable while others continue to surprise us.
Twenty years ago I sat in a cold dorm room and played REM, Pearl Jam and Nirvana. I wore flannels over tight black shirts, and baseball hats. I’d only just started drinking and I liked it. A lot. Maybe too much, but not yet, not yet, give it a decade in time. My mother waitressed in a diner and she was what I came home to for the holidays. I considered iceberg lettuce a vegetable. I ate a lot of pasta. I told everyone who would listen that I wanted to be an investment banker like Gordon Gekko without the prison record. I read American Psycho for the first time and said, I want to write books like that. My best friend and I wandered into the cafeteria drunk during the day while everyone was sober and watching and curious and we didn’t care. We wore flannels and baseball hats and talked about the guys who were in crew. We stirred white spaghetti around on our plates. We dumped the trays on the floor. We didn’t pick them up. I started to create a life that I found in a J.Crew catalog. I left Brooklyn behind. I came home drunk one night and scrawled in black marker on a metal door a note to a girl who left me in a bar in the city. I wrote over and over, how could you leave? I wrote a story that I secretly submitted to the college literary journal and the editor stopped me on the way to the cafeteria and asked me if I’d written this. He had my story folded in his hands. He said, I know you. You take finance classes. The story was about my mother. The magazine was called Ampersand, I think. I wrote it, every word, is it any good? It’s good. He held the paper tight in his hands and shook it, as if the words on the page could possibly explain to him the space between the girl who wanted to be a banker and drank five dollars worth of fifty-cent drafts and the girl who had no idea how to be a woman. He looked at me and then down at the paper trying to reconcile the two, and I remember saying, they’re both me. Back then I didn’t know what I was saying but I do now.
But what do I know? I know more about some things and less about others. I know what it’s like to live a life without anesthesia, without plotting from one drink to the next and I try to share that with others who privately struggle. I know what it’s like to fall in love with your body at 38 and wish you’d had that affection at 24. I know what it’s like to be risky in your life and your writing and how it sometimes hurts to see the words you put down on the page. Yet, there’s so much I don’t know. I don’t know what it’s like to love someone beyond measure. I don’t know if what I’m doing is good enough or just good for right now. I’m not as fluent in Spanish as I used to be. I still play oldsongs but stop them midway. I write blog posts like these that are complete in some ways and incomplete in others.
Maybe this is what I’ve learned: once I think I have the answers, I start asking new questions.