hello, home

There was a time when I believed that home was simply a place where my mail was forwarded, and the only thing I loved about a house was leaving it. It’s depressing when you think about it–the feeling of not belonging to any one place, of closing a door and still not feeling relief, safe. I used to take pictures of the front doors of my apartment buildings and I’d rattle off a seemingly endless list of addresses. Sometimes I’d confuse the zip codes. Other times I strained to remember what the insides looked like. Did we have carpet? Was there a window in my room? What was the view? In some spaces, I didn’t have a bedroom door, while in others, I didn’t have a bedroom at all. And although I knew being rootless and uncommitted to a zip code was odd, the discomfort I experienced, the feeling of being displaced, is what felt normal. What kept me going was hope, the possibility that this new place could be a home. That I could erase all that had come before.

Yesterday, I asked my leasing agent: Are there trust-funders in this building? People who haven’t worked for what they have?

For most of my twenties, I moved. I lived in Riverdale, the Upper West Side, Little Italy, Battery Park, Chelsea, and two apartments in Park Slope. I shared a one-bedroom apartment with an actor turned psychologist and lived briefly with a man whom I once thought I’d marry. One of my movers was drunk and missing two fingers from his left hand and another broke my bed in four places. A move of 20 blocks in Brooklyn cost me nearly a thousand dollars, to which I responded, are you fucking kidding me? 

Rarely do I host housewarming parties because my homes have always felt so cold, where the possibility of warmth existed if they were torched and burned to the ground.

In earnest, I tried to make a home. I committed to a building in Park Slope for the better part of five years. In this building, I rented an apartment with a spacious deck I rarely used and endured a winter where I wore a coat indoors and used space heaters because the boiler kept breaking. Through all of this, I joked that you’d have to carry me out in a body bag I’d never leave. Who knew I’d swallow my words when a kind doctor swathed my Sophie in two towels and carried her lifeless body down three flights of stairs. The emptiness I felt in what I thought was my home was palpable. I felt the specter of her death and how I contributed to it in every room. I wrapped myself in blankets one night in August and slept on my deck with a bottle of wine because I couldn’t bear the insides. That winter I moved to another apartment one flight down with a new cat and the hope of a new life.

But…I felt unease, a disquiet that loomed larger than the space I’d been occupying. I grew irritated on the subway. I felt smothered in midtown. My home of 39 years had increasingly become a stranger. I no longer felt New York was home. But…keep moving.

It took another mammoth loss to make me realize I wanted something demonstrably different and new. Although I knew it was false comfort, I became tethered to the idea of a new place as a salve–much like what I believed in my childhood. It took moving across the country and away from my comfortable discomfort for me to wake up. The silence was deafening. The noise and maelstrom of New York were no longer a convenient distraction. And after 39 years of perpetual velocity, I collapsed in that quiet. I dealt with old losses and new. I confronted aspects of my character that made me wince. I took a lot of my life offline, reclaiming it. I did the daily work that was sometimes hard and more often rewarding.

I live in a place where I once contemplated taking my own life. I live in a place where my furniture took nearly two months to arrive. I live in a place where I never felt rooted. Ever since I moved in I felt in the betweens. It took me 40 years to realize that I have to be at home with myself before I stretch outward.

But I wanted to move, still. My apartment is highway robbery and it’s not conducive to a home office environment (I sometimes work for seven hours straight and typing on my couch is becoming a problem). Also, there’s too much memory. I wanted a place that reflected where I’m at in my life, not a constant reminder of that which I’ve endured. So I started looking at apartments. I toured a building where it became apparent that someone was shooting an adult film (the Yelp reviews confirmed this). I visited another where it felt I’d have to send out proof of life photos I was so far from life.

Then I found my home in an area of which I’m not familiar–Hancock Park. I looked at four apartments, and while the property was GORGEOUS and perfect, I felt meh about the spaces I’d seen. But before I left, my leasing agent became aware of an available space he hadn’t shown me. We rode the elevator to the top floor and we walked into the space that next month will be my new home.

I fell in love. The apartment is perfect for a true home office. It’s at the corner end of the building so it’s extremely quiet (a necessity for me since I’ve lived in buildings where people mistook an apartment complex for a drug-fueled rave). There are spaces I can use as a defacto office or lounge, and the location was walking distance (1/4 mile) to supermarkets, drug stores, dry cleaners and all the necessities.

I went through a lot this year, more than I wanted to bear. This wasn’t what I expected from turning 40. This wasn’t what I expected when I moved to Los Angeles. But for the first time in a long time, I feel at home with myself, flaws and all. Someone asked me recently what being on anti-depressants was like, and I said, it’s the difference between waking up and thinking this is all too much to waking up and thinking, okay, this is tough but it’s manageable. It’s the difference between succumbing and conquering. Most importantly, it’s the difference between hopelessness and hope, the feeling that your body is no longer a home you want to torch and burn to the ground.

People use the phrase of wanting to match their insides to their outsides, and I understand this now to an extent. I look at myself and that new space and realize both need work, but at least we’re starting from common, hopeful ground.

I am a country of wants

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When I am nine (or maybe ten), a teacher in my school is reprimanded for showing Nazi camp films. If you ask me now, I can’t recall if she showed them to the entire class or only to me, but I can still see a pyre of bodies, skin barely draped over skeleton, the black and white of a television screen creating a filter, a sort of dissonance between me and the horrors flashed across the screen. At the time I didn’t understand what I was seeing — the unimaginable, conceived by a man who sought to extinguish an entire race of people. But in that moment I’m a child bearing witness to bodies that resemble the kind I’ve seen overdosed in parks and alongside dumpster bins in the backs of supermarkets. You compare that which you see to that which you know because in childhood there exists no context — the bodies in the film seem like the bodies on the street, only there are more of them. So much more. Years later I’ll come to understand that atrocity isn’t a game of rock-paper-scissors.

My teacher clasps a silver bracelet adorned with seashells around my wrist, and although I now consider her behavior unsettling, back then it felt good to be wanted. It felt good to be loved. I tell this story to one of my friends who has an infant daughter, and the way she arranges her face in response gives me pause. She can’t imagine her daughter being exposed to a body writhing and releasing under the elevated subway near the park. She can’t fathom having to explain the brutal and systematic annihilation of a people to a small child. My friend is less disturbed by my teacher’s behavior than my reaction to it. I shrug. When you witness death as often as I have, you become immune to its horror. Death’s like a house, you tell her, where all the lights flicker and flare out.

In high school, I learn that the teacher died of a heart attack, and she died alone.

2.

My high school principal orders me to see a therapist, weekly — a deal we come to after I get into some minor (okay, not so minor) trouble — and I think, I must be crazy now. Nobody I know is in therapy and if they are they wouldn’t dare talk about it. At the intake session, my mother does most of the talking about how she’s ashamed of having to be here, how this session inconveniences her, and with what money is she supposed to pay this therapist? And by the way, she doesn’t believe in therapy because people who can’t solve their problems are weak. Gus sits mute, shielding his eyes, while I shuffle uncomfortably in my seat. I’ve grown used to these rants but rarely do they play out publicly, and here we are, my mother paying $50 for an hour where she talks about herself and me wondering when the session will end. My mother storms out and I know she’s sitting in the car, smoking a cigarette down to the filter and then she’ll smoke another until she’s gone through the pack. In a small voice, the therapist asks me how I feel. How do I feel? Angry, I say. I’m angry. She asks me why, and I think, not why, who. I’m so angry with her. I gesture to the door as if it’s the woman in the car.

A few months later, I graduate high school and my deal with the principal is over. My therapist is concerned and wants me to stay on for the summer, possibly through the fall. I laugh at the possibility of therapy being something I’m not forced into. Besides, I’m going to college in the Bronx, practically a whole other country away from my mother. Trains and subway lines lay between us. I’m practically cured, I say. More importantly, I’m free.

Part of me wonders what would have happened if I’d stayed on. Who imagines the years stretching ahead of them, a childhood blanket unfurling under their feet leading the way back to a dark country that’s familiar (this reminds me of…) yet unnavigable? Instead, you think about being infinite. All you see is possibility and your desire to be smothered by it.

3.

You go to $5 drink-ups. You pound fifty-cent drafts. Zima is a big deal because it’s in a bottle and when you’re flush you ask for it infused with grenadine. Wine is a bottle of Boone’s Country you carry back from the bodega on Fordham Road — one that doesn’t card, one that doesn’t care to as long as you pay cash — and drink until the room goes black. You wiggle into too-tight jeans and leave the dorm during the winter wearing a thin long-sleeved shirt, but you’re warm from the pre-game, from the bottle of Absolut mixed with the Minute Maid you stole from the cafeteria. All your stories start with: that time when I was drunk…and even after you graduate you still tell those stories while your friends have moved away and tell new ones.

Every room in the dorm has a whiteboard the size of a notebook, a place where we’d leave notes for friends because there are no cell phones and we type our papers on Word processors. One night, my best friend at the time gets into a drunken argument with her boyfriend and leaves me stranded in Manhattan. I’m not sure how I get home but I remember my roommate shaking me awake in the morning, saying, holy shit, what did you write on her door? I cocoon myself with my comforter and see what I scrawled two doors down. A single line repeated in timid script: How could you leave me?

I attempt therapy again during my junior year in college. I wear the floral babydoll dresses everyone wears, layered over a tight white shirt. Possibly paired with a choker, but this isn’t 90210, this is me sitting in an old man’s office where he tells me about my drinking problem. I’m furious. I just met you, I say, and storm out because if I time it just right…if I change my clothes and pick up a slice in the caf, I could make it to $1 well drinks. I could feel the warmth of the first four drinks swathing me like soft blankets.

I never stop to think that if you replace my drink with a cigarette, I would be my mother shaking her knee in the car, thinking, you don’t know me. You don’t know me at all.

4.

My friend picks me up at a Metro North station Connecticut in her beat-up Saab. The road closes to clean and quiet as we make our way into a nearby town, and this is the kind of place where you don’t have cell reception. A genteel town cloaked in fireflies and deciduous trees, and I joke about getting murdered in the house in which I’m staying and the fact that it would take months before anyone would find me. My friend shakes her head and says, matter-of-factly, no, the maid would probably find you.

It’s summer and I’m spending the weekdays holed up in the guesthouse of what would be considered a compound. We drive over a wooden bridge and a maid materializes explaining that the sensors alerted her of our arrival. Before us is a mansion, and its presence frightens me more than any horror movie. We make our way to the guesthouse and my friend asks me about the woman who has generously lent me use of her summer home so I could finish my first book. You didn’t tell me she was old money rich, she says, to which I respond, how was I supposed to know? Everyone in New York carries a Prada bag.

The guesthouse is spare, outfitted in leather couches and chairs and the decor is nautical, masculine. The rooms smell of oak and the upstairs bathroom is the size of my first apartment. I run up and down the stairs a few times for the feel of it, because I’ve never lived in a home divided by two floors. The guesthouse is next to a pool, pool house and tennis court, and I spend most of my days reading by still water and nights watching Godard films. There’s no cable or internet, only an ocean of black night and quiet, and even though I’m in awe of a life that is moneyed, cultured and educated (I’ve never heard of Godard until that summer), the home feels cold, alienating and severe.

My friend, whose family owns the home, visits me for a weekend and she’s writing her own book about growing up wealthy and being shipped off to a conversion cult camp for the affluent — military school meets EST cult, but the way she describes it is like the Manson Family minus the murders. After dinner, she invites me into what I’ve called “The Big House”. I refuse. How do I explain that the guesthouse exceeds my limits, that the mansion would be too much? She shrugs and we turn in for the night.

Come morning, there is only what can be described as a typhoon. My friend’s mother has arrived along with her case of wine for the weekend. She drinks Sancerre, and I meet her in the kitchen of The Big House, watching her as she goes about her day holding an always-full glass. It’s not even eight in the morning, and my friend will tell me later that this is how she always remembers her mother — elegant, holding a glass. I feel strange in the house, as if at any moment I would be found out for some unspeakable crime I’d committed or electrocuted for touching the finery. I tell my friend I’m on a heater with this book and I’ll be in the guesthouse working through the weekend. My friend nods and I notice within a half hour her mother slurs her words.

When they leave on Sunday, I come out from my hiding place. I can finally breathe.

5.

I don’t know why I’m talking about this, I tell my psychiatrist this week. I tell him about a sticker collection I kept when I was small. I’d fill books with scratch & sniff, Lisa Frank and Mrs. Grossman, and they were a bright, glaring mess. It was the book made by a child who doesn’t understand order but desires only that which is beautiful. Then I tell him about the trips my mother would take with and without me to create books of her own. The arrangement of her pages was painstakingly precise, filled with negative space while mine was a crowded house, beer spilling onto the floor. Hers was always bigger, more, and soon I stopped collecting altogether and moved on to lanyard and friendship bracelets, a hobby she took up too.

I don’t know why I’m telling you this, I repeat.

I come home the summer before my sophomore year in college and I go through my things to see what can be kept and discarded. My friend comes by because we have plans for wine coolers at Jones Beach, and she sees the sticker books — mother’s and mine — spread out on the floor. While paging through the books, confusion washes her face.

Later, in the car, my friend starts to speak and reconsiders. That was weird, she says. Really weird.

We don’t talk about it again.

I don’t know why I told you all of this, I say to my psychiatrist before our time is up.

6.

My first image of a writer is Jack Nicholson in The Shining. A drunk burdened by history. I see the film in a theater when I am five and my first impression is: there’s so much red.

7.

Are you worried about being vulnerable, about how hard it will be to let someone in, my psychiatrist asks. Is this a hypothetical or real life? Are we talking about friendships or lovers? He says, real life. Both, either or. I oscillate between I think about it all the time and I try not to think about it at all.

8.

In 2013, I travel to Biarritz in the off-season and it rains most days and is cold on others. I spend most of my time staring at the barnacles that blanket all the rocks on the beach. A lone surfer comes in with the tide and come nightfall I run back to the small inn on the beach and I write a story that, in two year’s time would turn into a novel, about a woman who moves to California after her mother dies of cancer. True, the main character is Ted Bundy with a whisk, and sure, there’s a serial killer that may or not may the main character (or it could her 3o-year-old step-brother who talks to his imaginary friend, Lionel, as in Lionel Barrymore, the actor and also the name of a lighter their mother carried with her until her death), but it’s about a journey out west. The book is about familial loss.

9.

Last year your mother dies of cancer and it’s complicated. Her daughter makes it her mission to remind you of your duty because you are rotten, mythically evil. You’re quiet through all of this because this girl, this stranger, is your mother’s daughter, and she is still, for all intents and purposes, a child. She only knows the world her mother created for her, as you once knew the one she fictioned for you. All you wanted to do is say goodbye on your own terms, but no one allows you your grief — they only remind you of your duty, of everything you always and continuously have to give. Remember, your role in your mother’s death is not about grieving. It’s not about closure or quiet or last words exchanged between two complicated women, your role in all of this is to take care of a stranger, the do-over child, who’s the same age as you were when you left home. And you look at the list of people who harass you on her behalf, and you think she has multitudes. She has a version of your mother you would never know.

Why is it always your job to care for broken people? Can no one dress their own wounds? Must you always hold the bandages? Always you were reaching. Always you woke in the night and learned how to change the bandages in the places that were hard to reach. When, you think, will there be peace from all those who want you to tender, to save? When, you wonder, will someone grip your shoulder and say, don’t worry. I got this for you.

A month after she dies, you decide to move to California.

10.

I’ve spent my entire life fearing all the things that could possibly kill me. I panic on planes. I don’t drink, smoke or take drugs because that’s like flashing a Vacancy sign to the afterlife. Sometimes I bolt up from where I’m sitting and think: I’m going to die. I will no longer be here. Over the years, I’ve created a set of breathing exercises in preparation for the kind of terror that blows in like a hurricane, devastating everything in its wake. I’ve spent my life being aware of time, and here I am, a warm day in February, wanting nothing more than permanent sleep. My college best friend calls me from work, terrified over something I posted online and subsequently deleted. I bite my lip so hard it bleeds when I tell her I’m fine, just fine, and she sees right through me and begs me to get help. At first I don’t do it for me, I do it because the pain I would cause the people I love is entirely too much to bear.

I see my psychiatrist that week and tell him about wants. A room filled withso much red.

11.

Five months later, you watch a movie where the main character says, I want to be the girl playing the tambourine.

12.

I read a study that reveals that sociopaths have the capacity to feel empathy, they just choose not to. The author writes: “We believe that empathy is achoice that we make whether to extend ourselves to others. The “limits” to our empathy are merely apparent, and can change, sometimes drastically, depending on what we want to feel.”

I show this to my psychiatrist. I shake my phone at him. She had a fucking choice, I say.

13.

Are you afraid of letting someone all the way in?

I think about the teacher, the films, the shells, The Shining, the barnacles on the rocks, all that black, white and red, and I say that I don’t want to die, or die alone, or bear the weight of my history of darkness. No, I say. I want someone to come join me here. To crawl all the way in.

I am a country of wants. I want new stories.

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finally!

fucking finally

You better believe I’ve posted a picture of a pineapple perched on top of an ocean rock. It’s been that kind of week.

The past six months have been nothing short of horrible, and I finally feel as if I’m climbing out from under the rubble. When I moved to Los Angeles, I had no idea that I’d have to confront all of my losses, which had been slowly mounting. I hadn’t realized that I was approaching the middle of my life and I needed a change, a new course of direction. Instead, I spent the past year myopic, driven toward a single goal: leave New York, and it hadn’t occurred to me that I’d arrive here and have to sit with my losses spread out in front me, alone, confused, in complete quiet. It’s kind of like sitting naked in a room surrounded by mirrors and you’re forced to confront your most raw, unattractive, and frightened self. And you look at the person rising up in front you and the one behind and beside you, and for the first time you look around and haven’t a clue as to what to do.

And then depression. And then the realization that some friendships can’t survive geography. And then the fear that I will always, in some way, define myself in the context of my mother.

Last week a friend warned me about what I choose to share online. He came from a kind and concerned place and said that some hands are worth holding close simply for the reason that people don’t know how to handle discomfort. They don’t want the burden of one’s sadness. And I considered what my friend said and told him that while it appears that I share a great deal online, I don’t. I’m surgical about what I share and do so because if words have the propensity to make someone feel less alone, then I’ll keep writing them until all the pens run out. I don’t care if people don’t like me or what I say, rather I care more about people who’ve been forced to suffer privately or feel the stigma that accompanies addiction or mental illness. Over the past six months, I’ve been a voyeur in other people’s lives–reading blog posts documenting their constant struggle or scrolling through their photos as they try to survive their day without screaming into pillows. I drew comfort from this because it reminded me that there are others. And while this is captain obvious, you’d be surprised how swiftly and often we forget. How we believe that our pain is an anomaly, that our suffering is singular and acute.

One night last month I wrote a post that I subsequently deleted–one where I shared that I no longer feared death, and wouldn’t it be easier if I took my own life? I then went to bed, oblivious to the panic I’d created amongst my closest friends, and I woke the next morning to a slew of messages. My oldest friend called me from work and I could hear the pain in her voice and the difficulty she had in assembling her words. Listening to her, I tried to arrange my face in the shape of fine but the shape wouldn’t take and my voice shook, and I promised to return to therapy because I loved her and it killed me that I was hurting her. When I hung up I wanted the love I had for her to eventually become a love I would reserve for myself.

Whenever you think life doesn’t get better, it does. Eventually. I can’t go on, I’ll go on.

Last night I spent an evening with old and new friends and I was comforted by how freely we spoke about politics, mental illness, familial anguish and discord, and addiction. There was no shame, only laughter between people who had gone through war and sometimes knew they’d have to dress their wounds. We are the bandages that we wrap around our hurt selves. We are our urgent care.

Then I thought about my friend who told me to play my cards close and now I shake my head. No. Fuck no. If someone reads what I write here and judges me for being human, for trying to take my life back and live it–that’s not someone whom I want to know. I’m finally, slowly (snail’s pace, people) getting back on track. I’m in the contract phase for a new project, with a list of good leads coming in. I’m hosting my first dinner party next week for old and new friends in Los Angeles. I’m volunteering at Kitty Bungalow, helping feral kittens get adopted. I’m reading and writing. I’m more present for my new friends, and I’m doing everything I can to help those who are struggling since I’ve been humbled by those (strangers and close friends) who’ve extended me their heart, compassion, and care.

And when have I ever played a straight hand? I’ve got a lot of work to do, but I feel good. I have hope.

If your words have the capacity to shake someone, to comfort someone, use them. Keep writing, keep talking, keep texting, keep caring because we all walk quietly through this world bearing varying degrees of struggle. Why not be empathetic? Why not pause and care and not immediately judge or dismiss? Why not say: What can I do? How can I help?

Because I’ve been there. Or simply, because I care.

 

what the market will bear: the long game of female friendships

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Hedge Fund (n): a limited partnership of investors that uses high-risk methods, such as investing with borrowed money, in hopes of realizing large capital gains.

How much risk are you willing to bear? Are you able to lay your hand on the table fully aware of the gamble you’re taking, cognizant of the fact that it is possible to leave with less than with what you started? Are you willing to engage in arbitrage — exploit your opponents when they’re at their weakest? Will your investors provide shelter through the most ferocious of storms, or will they find safe harbor, taking comfort in their abandonment while bearing witness to your public ruin? Are you comfortable in identifying that which is worthless and using that “junk” to yield financial gain? Can you build a life trading security? Can you weather what the market will bear? Are you comfortable calculating your worth based on what you’ve acquired and own? Will your partners stand beside you until the inevitable end?

When I was in college I became enamored with finance and its gameplay. The idea that a whole industry was devoted to partnership and risk appealed to me because the fundamental elements of finance reflected innate behaviors in human nature. We “short” friendships; we invest in that which is profitable and we fervently need to believe that we will come up solvent and prosperous in the end. We tether ourselves to the notion that if we make sound investments and take calculated risks, we’ll enjoy the inevitable returns. However, what happens when the market takes a fall that you hadn’t expected? What happens when your partner doesn’t hold up their end of the deal (think pyramid schemes, sociopathic traders and hedge fund charlatans), and you’re left in shambles, forced out of retirement or struggling to make ends meet? What happens when you play your boldest hand to then lose everything?

What happens when you arrive in the middle of your life with so much less than what you started with?

Lately, I find myself drawing correlations between playing the market and the ways in which we cleave to, and disconnect from, people. I find myself frustrated in friendship investments that consistently yield disappointing returns, friends who haven’t performed, risks that don’t fall in my favor.When it comes to relationships, I’ve placed equal, if not more, weight on my female friendships, echoing Rebecca Traister’s sentiment:

For many women, friends are our primary partners through life; they are the ones who move us into new homes, out of bad relationships, through births and illnesses. Even for women who do marry, this is true at the beginning of our adult lives, and at the end — after divorce or the death of a spouse. — “What Women Find in Friends They May Not Get From Love”

In my twenties, I was thick in the business of accumulation — I wanted to know all of the people, all of the time. I had no strategy; I just wanted the masses. Most of my college friends left New York so I found myself cozying up to coworkers, neighbors, and fellow graduate students. I operated a high-volume business, ushering in a revolving door of female friends and acquaintances while trying to figure out my identity as an independent adult woman. I figured that I’d winnow down over time; I thought I would slowly build my tribe. I didn’t count on feeling depleted and stretched too thin as a result of investing in too many people instead of creating a thoughtful portfolio. I ended up with a phonebook filled with people who were willing to uncork the champagne when times were flush but couldn’t be counted on during the moments when I wallowed my way down a bottle of red wine. I woke at 30 feeling as if I knew a lot of people but didn’t really know anyone.

At the same time, something else shifted — we grew up. Everyone was getting married and busied themselves in the business of procreation. Suddenly, we couldn’t roll into work hungover because we couldn’t hide in our cubicles. We had accountability and responsibility. Our devices multiplied while our attention dwindled. We were everywhere but not present. Friend dates turned into CIA logistical operations with multiple calendars being juggled and people prioritized. No longer was I a player in the open market — I had to go private. I was forced to be surgical and strategic in focusing on the quality of my friendships and how/to whom I would allocate my time, which seemed to be dwindling with the passing of each day.

There is no time, became everyone’s anthem, always.

In my 30s, I was myopic when it came to female friendships. I devoted myself wholly to a small group of women who were brilliant, funny, ambitious, and kind. Most were married, few were single, and I tacitly accepted the fact that casual connections gave way to scheduled friend time.People became comfortable announcing that they could see me because their significant other had other plans for the evening, i.e. you’re my backup plan since my husband isn’t available. I accepted that the word “I” would be replaced with the word “we”, and that affinities, hobbies, and passions became a collective, coupled sport. I accepted that the only people with whom I could talk about being single were other single friends because most of my married friends had developed amnesia about what it was like to be uncoupled. I accepted, with chagrin, the emergence of the “single girl dinner” as a cute trope when it’s my everyday reality. I accepted that I’d been deprioritized — that I was the hobby, “fun-time” for my coupled friends. Briallen Hopper eloquently writes:

“Because single women often put friendship at the center of our lives, it can be hard for us to be friends with people who see friendship as peripheral, as many partnered people do. A close friend once told me that her priorities were her kid, her partner, her work, her friends, in that order, like suits in a deck of cards. In her life, a kid thing would always trump a partner thing; a work thing would always trump a friend thing. This was the best way she knew of trying to impose some order on life’s complexity, but to me it seemed like a terribly reductive way to think about human relationships — plus, it was no fun to know that I would always be the lowest priority in her life. Our friendship didn’t last.” — “Relying on a Friendship in World Made for Couples”

I accepted that I’d see some of my close friends less and less because they opted to befriend other mothers — complements to the lives and the struggles they endured, others who “understood” where they were at a specific time in their lives. Still, I invested heavily. I nurtured a married friend through her bought with depression and her desire to divorce the man she’d just married. I took the late-night calls and the last-minute lunches from friends who needed me. I was the wall that would never crumble; I was the friend everyone could count on.

Until I could count on no one. This became the moment when it registered that my decade-long fund — replete with the strategy and risks I was willing to bear — was underperforming.

This year is the worst I’ve ever known. I’m enduring immeasurable loss and intense sadness. My financial security remains uncertain, at best. And the people I believed I could count on became demonstrably silent. They were “busy”. They didn’t know “how to handle it”. They swooped in for a series of caring texts to then disappear for months at a time. Even when I made it clear that I didn’t need a therapist, that my expectations were minimal, the years I spent being patient and devoted haven’t been reciprocated. Everyone is quick to “like” my minor triumphs and “heart” my Instagram photos — passive interaction has become the default setting, the status quo. When I announced to one of my closest friends I was moving to Los Angeles, she ceased all communication. We’d been friends for nearly a decade and suddenly I was speaking to a ghost. I sent pleas via email, text and post and silence. When I sent an email to another close friend pleading for work because I was frightened of losing my apartment and defaulting on my loans, two weeks later I received the equivalent of a form letter response. I never expected to be saved or delivered a kingdom. I never anticipated that my friends would swoop in and solve my life because I’m an adult and that responsibility rests solely on my shoulders, but it would’ve been nice to have my friends shoulder me through the dark places I once carried them through. It would’ve been comforting to feel that the risks I so assiduously born would have been shared by others — even for a little while. It would have been wonderful to feel less alone.

Here I was, spending a decade avoiding risk, leveraging my heart in my portfolio, and laying all of my cards on the table only to come out empty. Only to feel that my years of investing wasn’t worth it at all. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe those years spent being a good friend without expecting anything in return to find I never received anything in return was a hand folded, a return I should’ve accepted. Maybe laying my heart on the table wasn’t the wisest hand I could’ve played, but I can’t help but think that I spent my adult life constructing the safest portfolio to discover that not everyone lingers for the long game, that as you grow older your world becomes too small for anyone to fit. And who expected this when you believed that friendship was the one partnership that didn’t need regulating? That those moments spent in the dark with the friends you loved would be forgotten, discarded, left for a savored, sweet memory? I spent years studying derivatives, all of the ways in which one could mitigate risk, and here I was, at 40, and completely alone. Bankrupt. A slew of bad investments lay before me.

When does it happen? How does one regard the love between two friends as a garment worth shedding? How do you tell someone that you love them but that love has been deprioritized? How do you handle learning that you’re a junk bond? A short-term investment folded for the long family game? How do you gracefully accept that no one will follow you gallantly into the dark when you were happy to serve as everyone’s usher?

I thought I was wise. I spent a decade building a tribe to find that tribe never existed. What happens then? What happens when you’re 40 and alone and all of your friends are toasting their own lives, shouldering their own sorrows? What becomes of you then? How do you move on?

What happens when you wake one morning and find the market shifting below your feet? How do you rebuild after the market you spent your life investing in collapses?

Photo Credit: Helen Sotiriadis

where did the girls go? (on female friendships)

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Photo Credit: Jovana Rikalo

First, there was Paula in second grade, picture books and games of hide and seek. Then came Cindy, who waged a constant, violent war with her mother for leaving her father; Jennifer, the most popular girl in grade school, who would end up in five years time stalking Madonna in front of her apartment in Manhattan, addicted to crack cocaine; Judy, who cut class, danced to Taylor Dane, smoked loosies, and once choked herself until she passed out. There was Sarah, who was twelve but could pass for sixteen, bumping “The Low End Theory” on a subway platform in Queens. We were two girls desperate for fiction; we dreamed of having a different family, so eager we were to annihilate our past riddled with bounced checks, dead mice in closets, and dollar-store sweaters. Sarah and I left the ramshackle homes in which we lived, our masks firmly affixed on our faces. There was Z, my freshman year partner in crime, who took me to a bar in Manhattan—a single, cramped room fashioned after a zoo. Once, I remember walking into her room as she compulsively brushed her hair, nude, and I turned away, embarrassed by her body, the shape of it, how she was blithely unaware of the fact that her shades weren’t drawn, her door wasn’t closed and the danger that occupied the spaces in between the two. Then there was Elizabeth Katherine and Katherine Elizabeth—two beautiful, affluent blonds with whom I shared a familial intimacy, and someone joked: Are you starting a doll collection?

That comment hurt me then for reasons that are different now. I went from a quiet, soft-spoken child who clung to another chosen girl like a blanket whose pattern would rub off all too quickly from the intensity of my possessiveness to wanting multitudes.

A teacher pulled me aside once and said, it’s not healthy to have just one friend. In response I thought, who cares about health when there was the promise of love and consistent companionship? I didn’t realize then that I used the words “best” and “only” interchangeably. I wasn’t able to disentangle my obsession with these singular friends from my tragic awareness that I will always pursue someone’s affection, always be on the precipice of loss. This is perhaps why I safeguarded them and the fiction I was intent on living so obsessively because I knew, invariably, the friendships would come to their crashing conclusion. I think of Judy and her sitting on the carpeted steps of her duplex apartment, pressing her hands against her throat and my urgent desire to flee, to run. When you hold onto something so tightly, it always escapes but never quite resumes its former shape.

Then there was S, and soon after the realization that it was unhealthy to excise parts of myself, hoping that the graft of affection would take.

I met S in a writing program in Russia. She wore strappy sandals that scraped along the sidewalk as she walked, the buckles had come undone, and the way she chewed gum unnerved me. I remember her being volcanic; she moved swiftly from one train of thought to another, speaking in Tourettic spurts about nerve endings, poetry, white nights, and neurology. Her voice made me think of jazz with all the disjointed rhythms and erupting syncopations, and in the brief walk from our class to our dorm, she exhausted me. I remember sitting in my room, in silence, thinking, what just happened?

For the rest of our time in Russia, I’d hear stories about the strange girl who lived in an apartment off-campus. The girl who got arrested in The Summer Gardens for scaling the gates after hours and being invited out for vodka after she and her friends bribed the officers with 300 rubles. I saw her at parties and we exchanged pleasantries, but mostly I watched her weave in and out of rooms; she was in a constant state of unraveling and I was in awe of her. Compared to my shackled life, she seemed free. This was at a time when I thought I had a great love, and before I left for Russia he had convinced me to try to stop drinking. It would be my first of many failed attempts, but I wanted him and the promise of a life he offered. While I roamed the Nevsky Prospekt in a virtual straightjacket, S was ready for flight.

When we came home, S and I casually met up over drinks with the other New Yorkers who were in the program. We exchanged stories about our teachers, our work, and memories of the Museum of Oddities–an experience that elicited a collective shudder. S and I coupled off, and we spoke about our history of broken people and our mutual drug addictions. We talked a lot about our parents (she wrestled with a cruel father and I a sociopathic, narcissistic mother). How do I explain now that we were strong, educated, outspoken women, yet we were frightened, fragile, undone? Looking back at our friendship, it occurs to me that we desperately clung to each other to make ourselves whole, and it’s only after our fissure that I suspect we both realized the unhealthy nature of our mutually agreed-upon attachment.

For years, the world was reduced to us. We spent every day together, dissected the food we ate and books we read. The men in our lives were periphery, because who could understand Felicia and S other than Felicia and S? I remember a mutual friend approaching me with trepidation. She wondered aloud if perhaps S and I were too close because it was possible to be close to the point of suffocation, where one suffers at the expense of another. I shook my head, impossible, and my friend receded, folded into quiet.

Over seven years, we endured love, breakups, trips to Los Angeles and Taiwan. I finally got sober and stayed sober. I never had a sister, and we loved as viciously as we fought. Our rows were violent storms that resembled undertow. Screaming matches in the street followed by long periods of uncomfortable silence. Maybe she was the first to notice cracks in the fault? Because when I took a new job at a then-cool agency, our friendship became two wires detangling. I became consumed with work, and she with a new boyfriend, who would eventually become her husband. Our once excited conversations became a string of rehashed memories of the friendship we used to have. We had very little in common except for our history and I think we both knew it but didn’t dare say it out loud.

It’s easy to end a friendship over an action or a series of betrayals, but it’s heartbreaking to end because of a drift, of a friendship that ran its course. How, and to what standard, do you measure a friendship that once throbbed yet now slumbers, becomes a house where all the lights flicker and inevitably burn out? One day I was supposed to be S’s maid of honor in her wedding and the next she stopped returning my calls. It was as if we never existed, and I was devastated that she excised me so neatly and completely. I saw photographs of her nuptials on Facebook and I wept for days. I unfriended her—seven years ended with a click of a mouse. Our history wiped clean.

I spent the next decade avoiding my habit of putting a single person on the top shelf. It’s taken me that long to open the door and let everyone else in, and more importantly, to make myself whole instead of being a barnacle–cleaving life and energy away from others. But in that time, I noticed a gradual shift in how we form bonds with others and maintain them. I grew up before the Internet, before a time when people broke plans or evaded tough talks through text. A time when you had to physically show up in your friendships and do the work. With the advent of technology, many relationships have devolved into a scrolling, passive affair where people don’t need to call or write because they’ve been keeping up with you via social media.

Most of my friends are married, have children, or have moved across the globe. Where we once had days to laze, we now spend time organizing and obsessing over time–to whom we allocate it, how to maximize it, where to spend it.I’m at the age when coordinating a lunch is the equivalent of a CIA operative. There are multiple texts, chats, calendar consultations because now we have to consider children, work, AA meetings, therapy, after-work engagements, and all the other weight we carry as the years advance. We architect connections based on the lives we have now and self-segregate accordingly. A few friends, new mothers, tell me they now spend their time with other mothers because of a real bond, a new sense of understanding they now share, and how could I fault them this, a Darwinian need to surround themselves with people who will ensure their survival. And we’re all getting older–our world no longer feels infinite, scattered. Now it’s purposeful and focused, and I’m starting to think of growing older as achieving a certain kind of quiet. We once measured our worth in direct correlation to our personal velocity, of how fast and far we managed to hurtle ourselves to as many shores as we could navigate. We achieved all that our parents had designed for us, we made all the friends and lost them and gathered new ones along the way, and then what? What then?

Growing up involves opening outward. We search out new experiences, wider social connections, and ways of putting our stamp on the world. When people reach the latter half of adult hood, however, their priorities change markedly. Most reduce the amount of time and effort they spend pursuing achievement and social networks…They focus on being rather than doing and on the present more than the future…If we shift as we age toward appreciating everyday pleasures and relationships rather than toward achieving, having, and getting, and if we find this more fulfilling, then why do we take so long to do it? Why do we wait until we’re old? The common viw was that these lessons are hard to learn. Living is a kind of skill. The calm and wisdom of old age are achieved over time.From Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal

We scroll through Facebook photo albums, filtered Instagram images and blog posts comforted by the fact that this passive consumption is an adequate and worthy substitute for dinners when our phones are safely out of reach. Studies tell us that we discard people as easily as objects. I’ve endured one of the worst years I’ve known and people with whom I thought were close think it’s sufficient that they know of my representation of sadness as opposed to witnessing it first-hand. People accept that they have the whole story of someone’s life because they read a tweet or status update. While social media has been invaluable in the way that it allows you to connect with people, true friendships require one to still physically show up. Technology isn’t a replacement for a meaningful connection it should be a vehicle to further it. It used to be that if you wanted to contact someone, you had to phone them, write them or show up at the doorstep. Technology should create more doors, not replace existing ones. Friends who show up Facetime, text, Skype, message, visit, phone, write–they’re not satisfied with the Cliff Note’s version of your life.

True friends remain long after last call, when the lights have gone out and you’re forced to stumble home. They toast your success and walk alongside you in that dark, and they call, text, or message the next day and ask, are you okay?

Over the past year, I’ve made some very clear and definitive choices about my life and the friends who inhabit it. I will only surround myself with people who challenge and comfort me. Our relationships are symbiotic, reciprocal, and I never leave a dinner drained–I’m always invigorated. I always want to create, build, be. I will only take on projects with people whom I respect, people who have integrity and challenge me. I don’t create “content”, I tell stories, and I’ll never write simply for the sake of churning out something that “bolsters my brand”. I will only cleave to that which nurtures me. I used to love the words “best friend”, now I’ve stripped those words of their power, given them less weight, and in that way, my friendships no longer have unhealthy expectations. I consider Elizabeth Katherine one of my best friends possibly because she’s put up with my nonsense the longest with a kindness and compassion that borders on saintly. I consider Amber one of my best friends because, during one of the worst years of my life, she’s been a constant. She’s been one of the few people who doesn’t make me feel ashamed that I haven’t snapped out of my sadness.

Frankly, I don’t want piles of new friends nor do I want singular, suffocating ones–I’ve lived in the extremes and now I’m edging toward a healthy middle. I’m not at the place in my life where I need to hoard and accumulate rather it’s about a winnowing down. I want to spend my time nurturing existing relationships, rekindling old ones, and adding a few new faces to the mix. I want to focus on mentoring the extraordinary women who used to work for me. Now, I only seek to cultivate friendships with people where we both walk away inspired and excited. No longer do I expect a single person to complete me or fill a void.

I guess this is what happens when you grow older, perhaps Atul Gawande is right. Because all I want is to focus on what’s in my life, right now, and the circle of people who inhabit my strange world and make it brighter even on my darkest days. I no longer believe that one person can be my sun.

the ones you least expect: on friendship + the challenges geography brings

broadway lafayette

Over text the other day one of my closest friends tells me there was a time when I pushed her away and she took the hint and stayed away. I tell her I don’t recall this, although much of the years I spent working at an agency were a blur of anxiety and boundaries crossed. If you would’ve asked five years ago if this friend (Amber) would be one of my closest I would’ve dismissed you. Not because she wasn’t kind, smart or fun to be around–my friend is all these things–but because I never expected it. You have an idea of who’s going to be in your life and you’re often surprised. The first, for most, comes when you graduate high school and you realize most of your childhood ties you aren’t so binding. Then college, and the first few years of your adult life, and then marriage, children, geography–all of these things shift the ground beneath your feet and you find that you have to hold on to the grasp to stop yourself from slipping.

There was a time in my life (late 20s/early 30s) when I wasn’t a particularly kind person. I have a stockpile of reasons for this, none of which are particularly interesting, and cost me years and dollars in therapy to resolve. I remember the feeling of having dozens of numbers in your phone book but no one I could really call. So over the past decade I’ve resolved to be present, to listen–to be a better friend, the kind of friend I want to have. And this is not to say that this resolve comes unblemished because I’m human, fallible, blah, blah, blah, but when I left New York this year I felt as if I had a foundation. I collected a motley lot of strange, wonderful, brilliant people and we would endure the challenges that geography brings. We wouldn’t have the kind of passive friendships that only require a quick scroll and a read. Oh, I know how she’s doing; she posted that photo on Facebook! I don’t need to make an effort, do the work. No, I thought. We wouldn’t be this until we were this, and there’s that.

When I first moved to Los Angeles I met an east coast transplant who’s lived here for two years, but only until recently she felt comfortable calling L.A. an adopted home. I remember that first week when I was jubilant, high off the weather, physical space (no more crowded subways! no one booking one-way tickets to my sternum, etc), and vernacular, and my new friend shook her head and told me that I was in for a big awakening. After the new car smell wears off, you’ll start to see the people who are unencumbered by distance. And I’ll tell you, she said, it’s never who you think it’ll be.

It took me four months to realize she was right.

I’m seeing a psychiatrist, and while I won’t talk about the specific goings-on of my offline life, I will say that I’m working on dealing with loss. It only occurred to me that I suffered a lot of losses this year–most were good and necessary, others were surprising and heartbreaking–and I was too busy, too focused on my move out west, to deal with them. I would just consider the loss at the time, say, oh, this thing is happening, and move on. And then I moved here and things got quiet, really quiet, and the losses stockpiled and smothered. Individually, they could have been managed, but collectively they were the equivalent of an emotional monsoon. Think of it as if you’re running the longest marathon you can imagine and you only feel a portion of the pain while you’re in the thick of it, but after, the days after, whoa, you are bedridden.

Through all of this, it’s been interesting to see who’s remained on the sidelines, demonstrably silent, while others emerge, become omnipresent. And like my friend warned, it wasn’t who I expected. My friend Amber and I text nearly every day and Facetime a few times a week. Yesterday I asked her if supermarkets in New York had aisles of wine–I couldn’t remember–because every market in L.A. offers a sommelier on-demand. We talk about our days, but mostly I know she wants to check in, to see how I am, because she cares and she can take the dark bits with the good. My friend Liz, whom I’ve known for half my life, is an incredible mother, brilliant lawyer and devoted wife, but she still makes an effort to call me on her drive home, and now that she has an iPhone (finally!), we can iMessage with ease. When I was in college I never anticipated that Liz and I would be as close as are for as long as we have. We’ve endured distance, marriage, children, my multiple addictions and emotional instability and frenetic careers–but we still fall into that comfort we had when we were 19 and wearing flannels and bad baseball caps. Sometimes I miss how we were then–how we’d walk around campus in the dark and ride the train into the city, feverish over the night’s possibility, or studying for finals in our pajamas while watching 90210. But it’s also wonderful to witness how we’ve grown as women. In so many ways Liz and I are completely antithetical, but our friendship works and I never expected it would, but I’m grateful it has. Same with Amber. We were always friendly, always enjoying our banter, but it wasn’t until we took an interesting holiday together did we become close.

The past year I’ve seen cracks in the fault and efforts at repair. I’ve seen those whom I thought were essential in my life drift or disappear altogether. At the same time, I’ve seen new friends enter the frame, and although I’m trying to reconcile the losses, I can’t help but feel privileged for the slow and mounting gains.

I love the saying “play it as it lays”, and I’m trying to be present for all the change. I’m trying to accept that geography plays a powerful role in who’s in your life and who isn’t, and this isn’t about anger, it’s frankly about reality. And although it’s challenging for me to make new friends I’m trying. And that’s all I can do for now–the work.

climbing back to the wonder

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Image Credit: Michela Ravasio

Eighty! I can hardly believe it. I often feel that life is about to begin, only to realize it is almost over. —Oliver Sacks

I confide to my therapist that I’m missing the wonder. I tell him how I recently re-read many of Oliver Sacks essays before he died and I was in awe of his beauty, grace, and how, even as his mortality jutted up against him, he regarded life with so much wonder. I felt the hurt in this, the fact that I’d lost something that someone twice my age held in his hands even as he lay dying. It occurred to me yesterday that this thing I’m going through might not be depression, it might be me wading through a continual, staggering loss. For much of my life, the words love and loss were the flipside of the same coin–one didn’t exist without the other. I considered love and loss conjoined, and for a long time I wondered what was the point of loving something or someone if you invariably lost them. Over the past year, I’ve lost what I thought was a dear friend, an estranged parent, geography and the familiarity it brings. I’m in a new place that is dry and warm and rich with vocabulary. I thought the gains in leaving New York would surmount the losses, but I hadn’t considered the losses that had accumulated over time and my inability to deal with them. Through all of this the only thing I’ve been able to do is write. My therapist asks me if the work I do, this marketing, gives me the same kind of purpose and wonder that Oliver Sacks enjoyed and I laughed and said no, this work allows me to live in a nice place in Santa Monica. When the going is good I have the freedom to work with exceptional people on my own terms. When the going is not so good, I have anxiety attacks about paying my therapist, student loan debt, and rent. But the risk is one worth taking because it allows me to do that which gives me pleasure–write stories. Fiction has given me the emotional distance that non-fiction lacks because the former only demands that I deliver Truth while the latter bears the weight of Truth and truth. Writing has always given me freedom–I’m able to go the places I can’t go in real life while I’m in this body and people have a set of expectations or perceptions when they hear my first and last name.

It occurs to me that although my third book is fiction, I’m able to work through my real losses. I feel like I have awe, purpose. Everything else is just noise.

I tell my therapist that I feel alone and lonely not from lack of friendship, but for my inability to let people in for a variety of reasons. I don’t want people to fix me–I’m the only person who can do that. I don’t want people to feel as if they have to when all they could have done is say I’m here if you need me. I don’t want people telling me they know me or what they would do if they were me. I don’t want the awkward silences or unbearable conversations that artfully dodge, the fear that I may break once touched. I don’t want people to use this vulnerability as a means of distancing themselves from me (some of my friends have and it’s heartbreaking to see). I don’t want people to not hire me because I find it really hard to fake being happy–it scares that being honest, being human can be used against me. It’s hard to navigate what people say they want versus what they can bear, all the while trying to work my way whole. The world feels at turns heavy and empty and I’m trying to make sense of it. One of my friends told me that it’s important that I be careful of the people I let into my heart while I get better. What’s been wonderful are the very few who get it and come by and take me for walks and we know what hovers and we keep on walking. We talk about everything and I don’t feel the need to manage their discomfort over the fact that I’m going through a dark time.

I’ve been vacillating about writing this for…I don’t know, a whole novel of reasons, but it occurred to me that much of my work and recovery have been occurring offline and if I’m able to share bits here that help others feel less alone than that’s meaningful. I have a lot of friends who are recovering addicts and it felt humbling that they came to me at the beginning of their recovery or in the midst of relapse because I don’t judge. I don’t admonish. I don’t try to fix or solve. I don’t do the thing that makes addicts squirm–why would you do this to yourself if you know it’s hurting you? Please shut up. The hardest word for me to stomach at the moment is context. When I was young and first recovered, I didn’t have the perspective of living a great life that didn’t involve alcohol so I never understood alcohol as a thief, how it has the ability to rub so much away. I have this knowledge now, which makes relapsing unbearable because I have context, perspective–I know what awe is and I choose (or don’t) to prolong it. Let me remain in the dark for a little longer. Please stop with the light–it blinds my eyes. This logic is illogical, and there was a moment when I said that feeling nothing and bearing context is better than enduring these losses. When you choose one dark place over another simply because one feels more familiar, navigatable.

It took me until today to understand the joke I played on myself. These two places are variations of loss, indistinguishable from one another, the only difference being one is managed under anesthesia and the other, without. I woke this morning with the desire to turn this ship around. You will get better. You will get work. You will get wonder. You will bear light again. You will detangle love from loss.

Until then there’s the work and I’m finally ready for it, which after a few months of this nonsense is a refreshing change of pace.

Fucking onward. Let’s do this. Kittens for everyone.

tell them stories

Death the Stock Photo
You can copy me, make a portrait as precise as an artist, but my shit will always remain mine, and yours will be yours. Ah, Lenu, what happens to us all, we’re like pipes when the water freezes, what a terrible thing a dissatisfied mind is. You remember what we did with my wedding picture? I want to continue on that path. The day will come when I reduce myself to a diagram. I’ll become a perforated tape and you won’t find me anymore. –From Elena Ferrante’s Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay

You’ll hear sort of a strange sound, the dentist tells me. He says not to worry (I worry), this is what you hear when metal breaks metal. We’re here to excavate, to break things in your mouth and put them back to together again. He shines a white light over my molars and this puts me to thinking of fireflies and I imagine a colony of them fluttering out of my mouth and out the window. This is where my mind goes when two faces are an inch from mine, and the only words exchanged are the names of the various tools entering and leaving my gaped mouth. The word suction is used a lot and I think about how much I loathe the mollusk. After, the dentist starts to talk about the strategy for my teeth because there’s so much decay. Part of the strategy centers around containment. We will drill and plunge metal into the open spaces in your mouth until your jaw shakes because once the decay hits the nerve, we’ve got a whole new strategy, a host of new words and technical procedures to deploy. While I work in marketing and often use words like “strategy” and “tactics,” for some reason, hearing them in the dentist’s office disturbs me.

Half of my face is numb, and beyond the costly nature of these procedures, I keep thinking that my mouth is an abattoir, which could either mean that I’m one who harbors the remains of things (there is constant death in this house. Do you smell it? Do you feel it rise up around you?) or one who’s about to face a series of endings (the house where we extinguish all the lights; last call! last call!).

Smoke came out of my mouth. And bits of metal. The numbness recedes and there is only this dull, persistent ache. The drugs don’t work, I don’t know why I keep taking them–habit, I guess. I nap, send emails, and laugh over the fact that nearly 30,000 people read a post that took me thirty minutes to write but I can’t sell a novel that took two years of my life because it’s too dark, too hard, and didn’t you know, kid, we’re in the business of easy. We’re in the business of from manuscript to bookshelf. We like our corners neat, characters that color in and around the lines.

No one likes sociopaths, characters that create new coloring books instead of dancing for show in the old ones. Readers are puppeteers, they need to pull all the strings and they want their redemption stories. They want to close their books or shut their screens knowing that the story they’ve just read came to its natural conclusion; we’re done with that dirty business now. We can set the story aside knowing that the world has been magically set to rights. Even when we know that people are far from neat–they are untidy, sometimes melancholy or shamelessly cruel–and endings are rarely, if ever, clean and natural.

May I point out something? You always use true and truthfully, when you speak and when you write. Or you say: unexpectedly. But when do people ever speak truthfully and when do things ever happen unexpectedly? You know better than I that it’s all a fraud and that one thing follows another and then another. I don’t do anything truthfully anymore, Lenu. And I’ve learned to pay attention to things. Only idiots believe that they happen unexpectedly. –Lila, in Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay

Two years ago I started a novel about broken children, a brother and sister come undone as a result of two generations of parents who weren’t adept at familial love. I wrote about a complicated relationship between a mother and daughter, one more artfully conceived that the one I portrayed in my non-fiction, because while time takes it all away it also gives you depth and perspective. At the opening of the novel, we learn that the mother dies of terminal cancer, and the daughter flees herself and her surroundings. There are many journeys west because everyone knows that the east has fallen to blight, it’s its own self-contained ruin.

How could I know that fiction would breed fact, and I would learn that my mother is indeed dying in the same space in time where I’ve planned a move out west? How could I have known that I’d write my way here? I will never say or write more than the two lines I’ve just written–I’m choosing to deal with this privately, but right now, right this moment I feel empty.

As the dentist is about to drill I say that I’m a compulsive flosser, and he tells me that there is a hole in my tooth and there are some things I can’t get to. Places that are hollow and empty. And now, I feel the weight of that emptiness, wondering if it’s possible to feel so the burden of loss yet feel nothing all at once? I often return to Joan Didion and her line, we tell stories in order to live, and I believe that, wholly, but what if we don’t yet know the shape of our own story. What if we wrote our way to one place and all we want to do is write our way to another? I wrote a novel I loved, completely, and now I can’t even bear to read it. My agent forwards me long emails from editors quoting lines from my book, talking about the “brilliance of the prose” and whatever, and all I could do is stand in the middle of the street, cold, and say that I want to write another book. Maybe I’ll go to Europe instead of out west. How do I tell him that I feel nothing?

When I was small I had a teacher, Dr. Wasserman, who read all the stories I wrote on sheets of loose-leaf paper and urged me to read them aloud. Tell them stories. Make them listen. Everything they want to hear. Give them animal, mineral, wood, brick and lye. Here is my life. You own it all, it’s yours. And the days climb over one another, clobbering and competing, and memory is ephemeral, fleeting. You remember how a certain wine tasted or how it felt when he laid his chin on your shoulder and left it there. You remember a day spent with a dear friend and two forks diving into a single plate. And you fight hard to keep these images in the frame because soon they’ll be eclipsed by things you don’t want to see, voices you don’t want to hear, words you don’t want to read. How did you keep the light in the picture?

All my friends want to meet for coffee or dinner and want me to tell them my story of moving out west or whatever it is I plan to do. All these editors, who won’t bid on the dark, write they can’t wait for new stories from me, all! that! light!

I don’t know where I’ll go. I’m writing my way around myself, talking in circles, about what will instead of what is. Because right now things are messy, untidy, and dark and people squirm around in that. There is an expiration date for how much disquiet one could write, or this is this expectation that we can exchange grief: here is my sad story and now I’ll hear yours because it’s fair that way. So I give them and everyone what they want to hear, speaking in exclamation points, and use this space, and private spaces, for myself. To tell the stories that are really happening. Stories that are incomplete, of a life not foretold.

I do know this. I’m in the business of leaving, and although I have no idea how I will sort out all the logistics, part of me can’t wait to board a plane to who knows where to do who knows what. I’ll tell those stories then, when they happen. When I’m ready.

Photo Credit: Death to the Stock Photo.

on turning 39 next week, on loss, love and all of it

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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.

our last day 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?

motherOccasionally 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.

at the zoo barTwenty 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.

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what happened to the years, all of them?

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What happened to the years? All of them? You go to sleep one evening at 29 and wake, restless, a decade later. You wonder about time, how you managed to lose it as if it were some loose change that escaped through a hole in your pocket. When you were 29 you prayed to a god you now no longer believe in. You drank red wine until the curtain call, until the room, and everyone in it, faded to black. You never noticed the barnacles but now they’re everywhere. You had a great love once. You remember that one trip to Utah and the red wool hat you wore–a hat, a piece of fabric that you now find difficult to throw away–and how the two of you were this terrific photograph until the film got developed and you drank to drown out the sound of the other’s voice. Right now, as I type this, I can’t recall where I’ve kept the red hat or whether I still have it. Did I throw it out last year when I was thick in the business of minimalism?

I’ll look later.

Now you wonder about that kind of love, whether it’s possible. A love so great it threatens to complete. And we read our love stories and wonder what came first: the real or the fiction. Talk instead of a love that sustains. But first let me tell you story, about a man who held a woman’s quaking hands and promised her that there would be no ocean he would not swim through. He traced the lines of her palms with his fingers, which put her heart on pause, and told her he would follow her into the dark because he knew she had built a home, a life, there. He promised her new homes, new lives, and she was 29 and believed this. She wanted to believe in the maths not the history. In a few months time, they would abandon their love because they were selfish people (they admitted this truth, albeit in voices that crept above a whisper). He chose a false sun and she chose the real dark, and they stood in their respective corners, safe.

At 38, I wrote a whole book about love. Through a cast of characters I tried to find the ones who would climb into the heart of someone else’s darkness, and it turns out that I couldn’t reconcile the maths and I was writing textbook history. That’s not really true, though. I made the mentally ill the brave. A baker, who hears voices and plays the role of marionette with her play puppets, is ultimately the one who bears sacrifice. She is the one who loves but it’s not the love the peanut-crunching masses like. I used to read those fairy tales and love stories when I was small and I didn’t believe them then. And if I couldn’t believe when I was one of the innocent, how can you expect me to believe now?

Last year, a friend drove me around in her car. I was broken, exhausted, hungover. Rarely, if ever, do I ask anyone for help, but that morning I called her and said I needed her. That I was breaking, broken, the pieces are all over the damn house–can you come over with a broom and sweep me up? She came and we got in her car and she drove around Brooklyn, and it reminded me of when I was a teenager and my pop would drive us around Long Island whenever my mother decided to go to the crazies. We didn’t have any specific location in mind, we just drove until the gas ran out. I told my friend this. And then we got to talking about love, and she heard me for a time, going on about how love was always a mopping down, a sweeping up, and in a small voice she told me that I was wrong. That love actually wasn’t hard. Everything after it was. Love isn’t the same thing as loss, she said, to which I was responded that I didn’t know of any other way. Because I always lost the people I loved. I could tell she wanted to be delicate with her words because I was fragile, in a state of disrepair (basement flooded, wood rotting, bulbs sizzling in the dark, and the like), so she spoke about the inevitability of loss, how people come in and out of our lives, and that’s simply life, rather than the byproduct of love. I’d gotten the equations all mixed up because I cleaved to the history.

I read sincere blog posts written by women on the verge of turning 30. They write about being “old,” “not feeling their age,” “how things change,” and I wonder if we ever really feel our years. Do we wake up one day and think, I feel 38 today! Why do we ascribe so much weight to two digits, because they’ll inevitably bend and fold from our summations, our constant leaning? When I was 29 I was an alcoholic who couldn’t bear the weight of that label. So I kept drinking. When I was 29 I was in love with someone who was incapable of love. When I was 29 I was writing a book about my mother that at 38 I wish I could have rewritten. When I was 29 I had no idea what I wanted from the rest of my life but I know it wasn’t this. Looking around, I said back then, let it not be this.

At 38, on the verge of 39 (!!!), all I can say is that I know more but I’m hopelessly nostalgic and somewhat romantic (where did this come from? The chart shows no history of the romantics), and when I read this bit from Meghan Daum’s The Unspeakable, I found myself nodding along,

Now that I’m almost never the youngest person in any room I realize what I miss most about those times is the very thing that drove me so mad back when I was living in them. What I miss is the feeling that nothing has started yet, that the future towers over the past, that the present is merely a planning phase for the gleaming architecture that will make up the skyline of the rest of my life. But what I forget is the loneliness of all that. If everything is ahead nothing is behind. You have no ballast. You have no tailwinds either. You hardly know what to do because you’ve hardly done anything. I guess this is why wisdom is the consolation prize of aging. It’s supposed to give us better things to do than stand around and watch in disbelief as the past casts long shadows over the future.

She continues to write what I think–that knowing more isn’t the true prize for having endured the years. Often we’ll stand in between our former and present selves and watch as the chasm between the two widens. We can’t bear the loss of time, the years, all of it, because the very thought of it puts our hearts on pause just as the anticipation for what was to come quickens it. So our heart beats for what will and what was, but all the while I wonder am I beating for what is.

I try to think of this in simple terms. At 29, I was too frightened of the world alcoholic and couldn’t imagine a world without wine in it. At 38, I miss being 29 but no longer feel the weight of the sum of those fears because alcoholic is one of the hundreds of words that compose me. I am not defined by one noun. As you can see there’s a lot that occupies the space between those 9 years and 11 months, but what I think about, right now, at 38, is that I’ve quietly helped dozens of friends who struggle with alcohol and drug addiction. I’m able to be present for them and share not wisdom, but experience. I don’t give them knowledge, but rather compassion and empathy. At 29, I hated my mother. At 38 I wish I could go back and paint a canvas of a life that has the perspective that comes from deciphering the grey from all the black, however, right now I’m sometimes sad that I don’t have what others take for granted even if my life is richer, saner and healthier without her in it.

Next month I turn 39, and while I don’t feel 39, I don’t fears the years either. Instead, I want my heart to quicken again. I want it to suddenly pause and stop. Not just for love, but for life, for the here and the now. I want the what was, what will be to be what is. Imagine a heart beating so fast it threatens to complete.

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