O., on the trip we took recently to the casino in Riverside, Iowa, and other things too.
Permanence is a mixed blessing. Once the annoyance passed, I was left with a feeling of dread. What if everything you wanted came true? A hit single, coolers full of champagne, ruby necklaces, hearty pats on your back—but in repayment you had to sing that hit song for the rest of your life at every casino across America.
VG: Yes, I do. But it came with a price. And the price, of course, was to feel separated from men. Not closer to them. Not hating them, just separated. To realize that we were all growing up with antagonistic cultures. The culture inside me was not the culture inside him, and the one inside him didn’t wish me well. We did not wish each other well. We were all instrumental to one another.
The great miracle of my life so far is that there have been two people, not blood relatives, who have loved me enough to drive me across America.
In Missouri, people at the rest stops were still wearing Iowa gear. I haven’t left Iowa enough lately to remember that I wear my Hawkeye apparel two ways: with halfhearted irony (here in Iowa, because I’m not an Iowa fan really, I just like to fit in at the gym), and with genuine longing (I wore the pink tank all over Russia last summer and it reminded me of the first spring runs outside, of my humid bathroom where I peeled it off pre-shower).
At the rest stop, a woman came to up to us with someone else’s purse. “She left it behind,” the woman said, frazzled. “Here, you’re my witnesses, I’m just looking for her ID, I’m not stealing anything.” Helen eyed her suspiciously––not suspicious that she’d steal, but that she was the type of person who needed strangers to affirm her innocence. I loved Helen every moment of this trip, but especially that one.
We decided to make a last minute detour to Little Rock. This decision was made to help us work on each of our individual issues: her, spontaneity; me, a fear of disappointing people, because I had planned to meet an old friend for dinner in Memphis.
In the car we listened to “The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother” on CD, just to hate it but then we didn’t, and to Paul Simon and Bruce Springsteen, and when it was late at night, raining hard, and the windshield wipers weren’t working we listened to Tracy Chapman. It’s fair to say that listening to “Fast Car” with someone I love driving through America has been a dream of mine for years. I felt the excitement of a wish fulfilled deep in my bones, but only because I don’t drive, and my only job was to sing along and keep pressing buttons randomly until the windshield cleared.
At the house in Arkansas, there were chickens in the backyard. I slept in a green room that will be a baby’s room when it’s born in a few weeks. Windows wrapped around two walls and it was raining. There was no lamp to read by or place to plug in my depleted phone by my bed, so I did something I haven’t done in a very long time, which is feel myself fall asleep consciously, slowly, with water tapping on the panes, not with my cheek resting on an open book, or a phone charger cord wrapped around my wrist, attention torn indecisively between waking and sleep.
I met Helen’s parents. Her Dad and I both speak Russian. I said something clumsy but true about Helen being like family to me, and how it’s nice to get to meet her actual family. I said that because how do you say, I can tell without looking when a text will be from Helen, or, if the door in a room full of people opens behind me, I can sense without looking that she’s the person who’s just walked in. We drank tea and her dad got out the family Pushkin.
In New Orleans on the first night I didn’t pay for anything I drank. A waiter who resembled a famous actor took us upstairs to an abandoned building above the bar, where there were holes in the floor and everything was untouched. The fixtures were the same as they’d been a century ago. The bathtub was full of dust and debris. The ceilings were high. The bathroom looked out on a convent. Every time I go to New Orleans I find it hard to believe I don’t live there. I loved New York but I always understood why other people might not; I can’t think at all of why you wouldn’t love New Orleans. The space above the restaurant used to be a brothel, the waiter said.
"Everything has a birth," a doula told me in Louisiana.
Somewhere in Mississippi I told Helen that I don’t think about the past as much or in the way that I used to. There was a period a year ago when I thought I was experiencing anhedonia because no matter how hard I tried to call up things that had once made me sad, I didn’t feel sad. I was something worse than sad for a while, but it wasn’t anhedonia because I hadn’t stopped feeling joy altogether, I still laughed and cooked and put songs I liked on the jukebox at the bar. Maybe I couldn’t experience sadness as I once had only because the things that used to evoke it no longer did. Strange that the only way to test the saturation of how I experienced things then was to draw on bad things that had happened, that the happy moments weren’t considered a barometer at all.
As I always say after something like that, nothing truly bad has really happened to me, and that is the other big miracle of my life so far (knock on wood). It’s almost dark now, I’m on the train home. Helen’s in the observation car but I stayed in my seat, reading a good book, worrying about how I will write mine.
I can’t get used to saying Iowa when people ask where I’m visiting from. The waiter figured out about the writing and said something nice. I haven’t gotten that kind of validation from strangers in a long time, mainly because I live in a small town and rarely seem to interact with strangers anymore, but there was a time when it seemed like pretty much all my validation came from strangers.
I heard two people tell their birth stories, one father and one mother, although they were both married to other people. I was struck by the calm of the long labor, that you just putter about, watch a movie, do some work until the baby makes its arrival.
It’s been a long time since I went anywhere new. Last time I did was the first time I went to New Orleans, two years ago, I had just been very sick and sort of bruised in the heart and now I don’t remember what either of those things feels like (knock on wood). This time I just read and drank satsuma juice and walked. A guy at a breakfast place had turquoise contacts and called me baby five times during our short interaction. Texted Olivia about him and she said, “Kindred spirits!”
Yazoo’s Stars is the name of the gas station we just passed in Mississippi, and there were lots of cars there. They keep announcing dinner seatings on the train: “This is the 7:45 seating, and as always, ladies and gentlemen, wait to be seated by a uniformed member.”
Helen’s dad said I shouldn’t go to Russia this summer, that it’s not a good time, which lots of people have been telling me but I’d been ignoring it up until he said it. I took a walk one afternoon along Esplanade and decided I can’t go, not for geopolitical reasons but because I can’t really afford it, and because when I thought of the alternative, I didn’t feel despondent. An Iowa summer will be like the summers I grew up with, loud bugs, wet flat air, the feeling of mild but pervasive, mutual insanity. Olivia said it will be a central summer to our existence, an important one when we look back. Helen will be there for most of it. I’ve lived on College Street longer than I’ve lived anywhere since I left home. When I get home in a few hours I will take a shower and wash the sheets, dust what doesn’t even need dusting.
Anichkov Bridge, where the Fontanka meets Nevsky, is arguably the heart of the city, or at least the heart of my experience of it, halfway between the two apartments I stay in. All those evenings I crossed the water there with music so loud in my ears it started to seem like the pedestrians of St. Petersburg were walking in sync to the same album. I remember vibrating with a feeling I mistook for rage, because I had never felt so full of anything before except when I was angry. I came back and forgot about those nights alone near the Neva, because––this is always the problem, and it’s a good one to have––I just was busy with other things.
I’ve never experienced late nights like I have in Iowa, but because I sleep so well here I have to make a concerted effort to stay awake for them, so I can feel the past and future stretch out all around me unimpeded. Contrary to the belief of my friends who’ve never visited, I don’t live out in the cornfields––they’re all covered in snow now anyway––I live in a building that used to be a frat house, and sometime in the last six months I’ve become the kind of person who dusts regularly, sweeps the floor, keeps a roll of quarters with the laundry detergent instead of digging haphazardly through a change jar, stocks extra lightbulbs in the cabinet rather than fumbling around a dark house when they inevitably all burn out at once, as they did just last week.
It’s the hour now when the daily confrontation with the Word doc has ended, when my eyes can’t comprehend another page but my brain isn’t ready to sleep, and I am acutely aware now that these are halcyon days in the making. These late Iowa nights used to feel like isolation of the worst kind, the whirring of the computer fan the only sound of life, but now I don’t even remember the rationale for proclaiming, as I used to, that New York is a city without loneliness when here, everyone I love is less than two blocks away. The capacity for change is something people in my circles have always aspired to, and talked about valuing, but until lately it remained for me an abstract concept, like a fifty year marriage, or running a marathon, or a tattoo you always thought about getting but never actually did.
Lately, it feels like everybody I know has been reading the same book. Amy got it first, after the author was in town, and then I bought it impulsively but I didn’t have time to read it so I left it on Helen’s porch with a note once when she was having a bad day, and she read it quickly and put it back on the porch with a note for me when I was having a bad day. I thought many times this fall that the most blissful moments in my current life are these back porch book drop-offs, the back alley exchanges of translations, this world––unsustainable, impractical, probably foolishly devised––in which it is understood that these are the transactions that matter: let me give you my understanding of the world, in book form, if you give me back the same.
I’m home at my mom’s house for a stretch right now, a choice I made instead of going to New York, because I knew I wouldn’t be able to write what needed to be written if I was there, in a city that subsumes the identities of most of the writers in it, in a way that is fine and often fruitful, but not what I’m after right now. I’ve been doing Russia work, and so a place where the bed is hard and the in-season vegetable is cabbage and the contents of my nose freeze outside is as good a place as any to do it. I work in the day, and I read and I run, and then at night, after dinner, I have to make a choice of whether or not I go sleep somewhere else, with someone else, instead of alone on this small futon where I can’t turn over without banging a limb against the wall.
This choice used to be obvious to me, and it still is to the person who obligingly waits in his car outside while I pack my chapstick and cell phone charger on the nights when I say yes. But for some reason that act of packing the chapstick and charger fills me with dread now, the dread of unnecessary motion and complication. Still, sleeping there is like sleeping under the same roof as my whole immediate family, which I haven’t done in years, but which I remember feeling so safe it verged on invincible. I have in recent months or years rejected the desire to feel safe––safety couldn’t compare to what else was out there, could it?––so it is alarming to still find the feeling of safety a satisfying one, deeply satiating but in the way drugs are, like as good as it is in the moment you could still never possibly get enough of it. Living alone has been practically a religious experience for me so profoundly has my way of thinking changed since I took it up. But my enjoyment of various conditions or people over the years has often been accompanied by an adamant rejection of all alternatives. Sometimes I fear that this need to rule out other options means my premises and beliefs are shakier than they seem, if they cannot hold up on their own, outside the flattering light of comparison. I guess this is a long way of saying, how can you indulge the desire for that largely illusory feeling of safety without letting it subsume you?
"Fear of loneliness, I maintained, had been responsible for so many unholy bargains made by so many women that fighting the anxiety became something of a piece of politics for me." This might be my favorite passage in the book we’ve all been reading, although maybe that’s just because it’s a thought that’s on all of our minds right now, the page we earmark before we hand off the volume in alleys, leave it by the door, pour over it during dinner in our individual apartments which all happen to be located––this is the very best part––on the very same street.
When you walk alone late at night in the winter here, you feel like you’re on the moon. No one out for miles, just cratered snow along the sidewalks, bright eery astronaut light beaming out of Mercy Hospital. What am I saying here? It’s Saturday morning and I am suddenly halfway through my Iowa time and I am thinking about Amy Hempel, how the first summer I lived alone––by which I mean without a boyfriend because in fact I had three roommates, but given my psychology at the time they “didn’t count”––I rode the subway all over New York reading her. If I was on the train it meant I had somewhere to go, and if I had a book, it meant I had something to do, and for several years of my life this was the only kind of purposefulness I was in possession of. This is the shorter version of a longer story I am just starting to write. “Oh, when have I ever wanted anything just once in my life?” This was a central question of the things I was starting to think about writing then. I don’t wonder about that so much anymore, but credit where credit is due and all of that.
I’ve never lived somewhere where the wind is as forceful as it is here. It rattles the windows and works its way in through the cracks in doors and inside I am cooking dinner, turning the pages of books, growing older. I didn’t think I’d be spending my mid-twenties in Iowa––why would I?––but as it turns out, I am very glad I am. It used to feel like life wasn’t happening out here, like time had stopped and no one was falling in love or getting married or moving in; there were no new places to find out about or exciting new people to meet. This prospect, of time stopped, motion suspended, was first terrifying and then it was thrilling and finally it was proven untrue. Now I understand that there may be only two bars to go to and no one you haven’t met yet but the changes taking place here, or at least inside of me here, are much bigger than new love or marriage or moving boxes. Here on College Street, as ever, I’m pulling the bottom book out of precarious stacks, I’m swimming slow laps next to Olivia, I’m chopping onions and sleeping better than I think I ever have before and also, as of today––I say this for my own personal, obsessive, relentless record-keeping––I am twenty-six years old.
For somewhere between the last one and three years I’ve been a participant in something that resembles a relationship in every way except conviction. It wasn’t always like this; for the first one, probably two years, I felt more conviction for this person than I had ever felt for anyone before, or have since. But somewhere along the way I lost the conviction and now I do not know how to behave without it, so I do what most people do in this situation, when they love someone but no longer find they need them: I pick minor fights, take a disproportionally large stance about things that are very small, as if hoping the shared insignificance will suddenly dawn on us, make us laugh in some cinematic fit, and free us from the habit of loving each other. I once thought love was an easy habit to break, but, well, that sentence is too obvious even to finish.
Olivia and I were talking about how I can be more compassionate. Olivia says to think a good thought about someone whenever I have a bad one, but she said it, as she always does, in a way that sounded better and meant much more. I told her that empathy for me is all tied up in sadness. When people say, where does the sense of loss come from? the answer I want to give is, from being human, but what I mean by that is, probably, the heart. If I give in too often to empathy it will flow inevitably into sadness and so it is easier to be cruel than to be kind, or to be silent rather than speak. This is a position that you’d think someone well versed in the particular histories I am well versed in would not want to take, but it’s where I stand for now.
In the middle of an ordinary coffee shop laptop afternoon I remembered very vividly watching New York from the window of a bus as it swung out of midtown during evening rush hour in early spring probably five years ago. Well, I looked for meaning in this image, and I can confirm that there is none there. The bus, evening rush hour, early spring––it adds up to nothing whatsoever. Now I can understand how an image, particularly a New York-specific image, holds much less currency outside New York than it does for anyone inside, which is a useful lesson to learn, and that alone makes me glad I left: image in general matters much less than it used to, which frees up a lot of time. In that time, I’ve been writing about pasts much more distant and specific than a bus ride five years ago, and also about people I don’t know too well or even at all, and I imagine it’s something like what writing fiction is like: easier, not in the craft of it, which is certainly just as hard, but somewhere deeper. I’ve never had much investment in facts themselves, but I’ve been a slave to the how-it-happened of life, and of my life, for a long time. People asked me sometimes if it wasn’t hard to record my own recent past so closely like that, which I see now was not a question but actually a warning.
I began with the matter of conviction up above because I no longer have the conviction to write about the things I once did, which seems like a positive development but also an ending, and you know how I feel about those. Yesterday in class our teacher said, “What happens when you have your first child? What happens when your parents die?” These were questions not about what we will do then, but about how we will write then, and of course there is no way of knowing, but arming yourself for the inevitable change seems prudent, which I guess is why we all read so much. Often I don’t know what to write here anymore, in this public record of my early twenties. Me and Catherine started this at the kitchen table of the Crown Heights basement apartment I lived in when I was newly twenty-two. I’ll be twenty-six in a couple weeks now and I wouldn’t take back anything I’ve written here, or elsewhere, because its how-it-happenedness was all true––or not the how it happened, necessarily, but how it happened to me––and because of the histories in which I’m well versed, I do not take the privilege of keeping such a record lightly.
"Record" was once limited to its legal definition, something written down as evidence. "Evidence" itself comes from "obvious to the eye or mind." This etymology is of interest to me because I am still not so certain what this record is evidence of, although the search for the meaning of each bus, springtime, and rush hour has, I hope, been implicit––and in some cases explicit––in everything I have written.
It is a gray day in Iowa: for a year, this is how I’ve begun so many entries here and elsewhere, so many emails, so many essays. I used to live somewhere where external stimulation consisted of more than the weather––there were parties and drunken sidewalk scuffles and conversations to eavesdrop on––but now I live somewhere where stimulation comes from within, where your ideas are not derived from incidental surroundings but from your mind alone.
For a year, I think, I knew only how to do this through memory, by inhabiting a past that consisted of specific after-work runs I used to take around a park in Bay Ridge, or letters I surreptitiously wrote in class to boys whose faraway-ness was––although I didn’t understand this at the time––their primary appeal, distance being a fact that has always represented to me, unlike most people I know, a possibility rather than limitation. I intended to list more pasts right here, those big memories condensed neatly into a tiny clause (a walk alone across the east side in brisk winter, the crush of the 6 train during morning rush hour and me in last night’s clothes), which used to be the trademark of how I wrote and also how I thought, but it turns out that I would rather not. Since St. Petersburg I have avoided my personal past almost entirely, which has substantially changed not only how I write but also how I relate to other people, as well as all the smaller details of life, like the music I listen to and how I keep my apartment and even what I cook for dinner.
New York no longer feels like a phantom limb, and I don’t miss people with whom I used to share a bed, and even Russia feels abstract, as if it stopped being summer and I stopped knowing what it was like to be there. I used to find forgetting disconcerting but now I find it freeing, the gap between now (Iowa City, this yard sale armchair, the books piled up) and all those thens (the bar with the fries on First Avenue, that show one November when we didn’t even look at the band, the exhibit at the Met years ago that made me cry and ultimately, I think end up here in this now). What I mean to say here, poorly, is that forgetting is just another kind of distance, and therefore another kind of possibility. I have already lost the reason I was walking along the east side and can’t remember the clothes I was wearing on the 6 train and not bothering to recreate the scenes of my life has recently lost most of its interest to me, and this change constitutes, I think a radical transformation of the kind, someone told me yesterday, “happens between 25 and 35 and after which nothing is the same.”
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