Luck is not my chosen method of absolving; explanation is—and maybe this is because our household has always operated according to the idea that the person with the loudest voice has the most power. This is a rather more capitalist idea than a Marxist one, but all politics aside, it has left me wanting so badly to be heard that I have more or less made it my job to be so.
Even later on, when I want to abandon my obsessive, single-minded quest for financial or career success, I find it nearly impossible to take stock of myself other than through my labor. My relationships, the expanding scope of my knowledge, my health, and general joy are never yardsticks in the way of hours put in, deadlines met, money made. Despite my best efforts, and also my oft-voiced politics, this remains the secret, fundamental truth at my center: Who I am is what I sell.
I wrote about being raised by Marxists and ending up in Russia over at The Morning News
When you live in a place in the way that I live in Iowa––enthusiastically but sort of insincerely, because your ID and your accent are from elsewhere, and your accountant says you don’t need to officially change your residency if you’re just a student––you might know when a storm comes, but you won’t know the damage it does. You don’t read the local newspaper, so there’s no way to know that the county declared emergency after one particular storm, and the part of the river that has swelled over its banks is a long walk away for someone without a car, so it’s days before you’re driven by the submerged picnic benches, the washed-out baseball diamond.
We drove down the highway to the bigger city, but not the biggest city, to see a baseball game. The Cedar Rapid Kernels were playing Wisconsin and I said, absentmindedly, my principles accidentally showing and not at all to be cute, “Which team should I vote for?” Sweet corn was just a dollar that night, hot and wrapped in foil, you got charcoal on your palms and the silky inner fibers fell and stuck to the canvas of your shoes when you ate it. The jumbotron man zoomed in on two of us, smiling wide with our pale cobs of corn in hand, an advertisement for the state where we live-but-don’t-live. In the pixelated photo someone snapped of our faces looming on the screen, I’m wearing pigtails and a baseball cap and I wouldn’t recognize myself if I hadn’t been there. On the car ride home we made fun of the songs, but we liked them, too, the way you like any song that comes on a car radio in summer when the mood or light or company happens to be right.
A few weeks ago and a few blocks up, lightning hit a transformer in the middle of the afternoon and the street went blue-green, all sparks and light. When the post-storm glow sets in around sunset, your eyes have to adjust every minute. Look down at your phone to read a text and you’ll miss the pink slide down the color scale toward gray––I was going to say the change is imperceptible, but actually it is not, it just is so brisk, so constant instead that the effect is the same as that. I keep running into people talking on the phone through their headphone mic while they walk, like they need their hands free to take in these sherbert skies, or maybe just to take photos of them.
Lounging on the bench outside my house at dusk, waiting for friends to come get me, I noted the kind of stillness you see only in the opening shots of certain long, emotionally fraught, excessively symbolic movies––no movement but the faint rustle of trees in the wind, no cars or people in sight. This Midwestern humidity is invasive and stultifying, makes you sense that anything could happen, but also persuades you that ultimately nothing will. It is not a weather condition in which to cut your curly hair, but of course I do that anyway. It is not a temperamental condition in which to trust anything you feel, but when have I let that stop me?
"Take me to the corn," I said. Out in the country, I spotted a frog clinging to the window, hanging on at high speed. We pulled over and a local newspaper that I’ve never read was used to transport the tiny thing over to the safety of the grass. I ate my Dairy Mart ice cream in the passenger seat, AC on full blast but not at all conscious of my increasing coldness. I swear we entered an underpass in the sun and emerged from it into rain, hydroplaning but the highway ahead still a refuge from the otherwise inescapable Sundayness of it all. I write this now like each detail was perfectly crafted for reiteration, but the dumb songs of open roads were not playing in my ears then, nor were my eyes really on the corn, nor was I thinking at the time about what a line that was, "Take me to the corn," how it evoked a David Foster Wallace line from years ago that went: "Kiss me where it smells, she said, so I took her to Allston." I’ve actually been to Allston since I first heard that sentence, and I have to say I like Iowa a lot better.
Before I even got out of bed, my death drive was acting up. Em listed, by way of consolation, the ways in which hers was too: she stayed in bed instead of dealing with a banking problem, she didn’t brush her teeth, she biked to work without a helmet. I got up, remembered to brush my teeth only because she’d mentioned it, and took myself to swim.
There is a sign at the leisure pool that says: “No long breath holding,” and there’s a drawing of a disembodied, genderless head below squiggle-lined water.
Historically, I’ve struggled with anything I didn’t understand the mechanics of or rationale behind––riding a bike, monogamy––but I can’t really comprehend the weightlessness of water, or how it’s possible to have your mouth open under there and not drown, and I still do it daily anyhow.
From the glass-walled lobby of the gym, in the middle of a thunder storm that the university alert informed me was “severe,” I ate my lunch and checked my email and watched the sky turn green, then pitch black, then get lost behind a slate of pouring gray rain. Across the street, a sign detached itself from somewhere and blew through the Kum & Go parking lot. The cranes towering over town––above the Sheraton and the Hotel Vetro and the new condo that’s now the tallest building in the city––spun spectacularly in the wind. I told myself they are built to withstand that, the way bridges are made to sway.
The moment when you begin to minimize parts of your own past: someone you slept next to nightly for years becomes “my college boyfriend,” or someone who made it impossible to sleep at night for a brief but overwhelming period becomes, “a guy I used to see.” At least once a week, I remember Vasily Grossman’s line about the impossibility of tearing something out of your heart. I think to myself now: you’d be surprised. But the other part of that passage is: “You can’t erase the imprint of years,” and that seems more accurate than ever.
Em video-chatted me minutes after I became alone in my apartment to announce that our “attachment style” is anxious because we cried a lot as children. This seems bleak and true, and as is the case with most diagnoses, a mix of relief and doom.
All of my women, writing from Brooklyn or Brazil or their apartments just across town, want to know if they should be anxious about the lack of anxiety in their relationships. I have in my head Ellen Willis’ dictum, “maximum pleasure, minimum anxiety,” but all these years of Russia-related reading have me skeptical that general principles are ever achievable.
I made Erick come meet me at the coffee shop to counsel me through the latest writing crisis, the kind of externally minor crisis I have the dumb fortune to consider personally major. He said to write this book I have to figure out who I am––”WHO AM I?” I wrote in my notebook as we talked––which is like when my brother told me that in order to learn to drive I had to get over my fear of death. I never did learn to drive, but I think a lot lately about the Muriel Spark line about writing a first novel being like falling in love but better, which in this moment also seems more like a principle than a reality, but on better days, when the preoccupation during my lap swim is with chapters and Russian words and not what it’s like to enjoy waking up next to someone for the first time in ages, it can sort of come to feel like both.
At a bar on Broome last week, Jeanne and I saw a man have a heart attack. He began to convulse, and in slow motion, as his companions wailed in a way that would have been cinematic if it hadn’t been heartbreaking, he began to fall to the ground. Jeanne, who has a long history of knowing just what to do when I start to panic, threw cash on the bar, took me by the hand and led me out into the lingering daylight. We went somewhere else and drank seltzer and tried not to talk about it. We went and ate three orders of dumplings and bought a bottle of wine to take back to my apartment. We talked about writing and love and grandmothers and bullshit. The sky looked dramatic and we kept blaming everything on mercury in retrograde, which is what people who don’t believe in god like to do, but it’s just life, you know? We walked away from the worst day of someone’s life and went out into the sun, one of the longest days of the year, to make the most of our own.
I walked around Red Hook all day with Jen, browsed the Ikea excess, found it all irresistible, and had a really good picnic dinner on a living room floor in Crown Heights with the kinds of women friends who never say anything that isn’t truth. I went to see a show at Brooklyn Bowl, it was music I’d listened to a lot in Russia last summer and it felt good to be there alone on a Sunday night listening again. I had lunch with my dad at the place by Grand Central we always go to, and he told me as he always does that people who are going to leave New York do it by 34. I had a picnic in the park while a band played, a band I had tickets to see four years ago almost to the day but blew off because there was some dumb boy to see instead and I was twenty-two so that seemed like a good reason, even though it nagged at me a little when I heard them on the radio later that summer. I took a walk with Bob, my companion from Russia last summer. I went to my college reunion for a minute, which I barely remember now, but Sarah put her head on mine on the Metro North home and I felt a great warmth for all these people I’ve known for nine years, even when we fought, even when we got mad, even when we couldn’t stand each other but also couldn’t stand to be apart, and then I felt a little, pleasantly silly for this nostalgia, this very college-era narrative of love entwined with dislike.
I wrote home that it used to be when I went places in New York, they felt like little landmarks––a bodega where I bought beer for a bad party, a bar where I broke up with a boyfriend––but now when I pass those places I don’t think of the bad party or the boyfriend, I think of how I was, and how young I was, when I was last there. I wrote that Iowa is where I became an adult but that New York is where I became me, and all my recent resistance to identifying with this place disappears in the face of that fact. I wrote that the money/power/access/wealth part of New York has never been of interest to me––how I roll my eyes at those people who mention city-specific proper nouns in the outside world like everyone everywhere knows and cares about some restaurant or socialite––it’s instead the possibility of New York that interests me. That you could find yourself at a secret socialist supper club in an old Polish diner, or on the roof of someone’s boss’ apartment with beers, even if in fact most of life here is working and worrying and waiting for the subway. I wrote, too, that I always get panicky on the longest day of the year, never know how to spend and make the most of it, and how this year I went to the Rockaways to see Amy and Olivia, and ended up staying to make strange coconut water drinks and a huge dinner to eat outside, and it felt terribly right to be in New York with my Iowa friends as the sun set behind us with what always feels to me a profound finality.
My train to Chicago was three hours late yesterday, and then my connecting bus to Iowa was running behind too, and there was someone meeting me at my house at nine so I had to hurry up the hill home. The sunset was spectacular, a vibrant lavender up above the big houses of College Street, and I stopped to take a photo, which is sort of a way of stopping time. To say it’s good to be home would be boring, but it also happens in this particular case to be true.
I asked Helen if the woman walking across the street from us waving her hands in our direction was someone we knew, but nope, it’s just gnat season, and she was trying to keep the bugs off in the ways that we all are, with Bug Soothe and closed windows and flailing arms to clear the air ahead. It’s never truly nice in Iowa, always some drastic temperature shift or unpleasant new life form preventing the kind of day where everyone takes photos of the sunset or flowers or says of the temperature, “This is perfect!” But this is the calmest place I’ve lived and if I talk about what it’s materially like here too much, the weather and the silence and all of that, that’s only because it is here in this cold and quiet that so much has happened. And it’s really because of all the changes that have taken place, not because of the cold or the quiet or even the calm, that this is also the sweetest place I’ve ever lived, and I’m only going away for a couple weeks but it somehow feels very sad now, the leaving of a place that you’ve forgotten wasn’t always home for a place that you thought always would be.
I stopped biting my nails six weeks after I moved here, breaking a twenty year habit. There have been other shifts, too, more in two years, I sometimes think, than in the previous twenty-four of them combined, but the one I’m most interested in today is what it’s like to be with someone who can only know the you that you are now, none of the hints or symbols or details that are revealed from years of knowing, from exposure to your real pasts, not just pasts recounted through the filter of narrative, what seems most true or fair in the moment that you say or don’t say it.
For instance, I could say, “I vowed four years ago not to cook a meal again for anyone I’m sleeping with,” but though this is true––the vow, not necessarily that I kept it––it is strange to say that without also saying something about the years I made quesadillas every Thursday night and how a few months after I stopped doing that I tried it again, same ingredients but different kitchen, and it went so terribly there were tears, some texts to China about not being able to go through with it, with any of it, again. This is an anecdote where the sheer volume of back story is tiring and also not terribly interesting, and that it seems that way now means it is no longer a story worth telling, no longer one it’s necessary to know about me, not important anymore at all.
I’m not the kind of person who sees moving as a way of starting over––in general I think more about ends than I do about beginnings––but in a way, that is exactly what moving turned out to be, although if transformation is what I had been hoping for, it likely would not have transpired. Bea is watering my plants while I’m gone, which means I actually have plants, which means I really live here. This is my basil and this is my bed and this is my town. These are my streets and these are my utility bills and these are the things I say to people who visit now: “I drink whiskey because it’s the same price as the beer here,” and “My rent has never been raised,” and “It’s nice to have someone visit, then I see the good things more clearly.”
I got a summer gym pass and a laminated card granting me unlimited towels, so I go swim every day at the university pool, or rather the small “leisure pool” next to the big one where competitions are held. As with bike riding and driving, swimming is something other people only seem to have had to learn once, but I’ve had to relearn all of these things again and again. I took a class in the spring, though, and I’m getting pretty good, and when I push off from the side of the pool it’s the most powerful I get to feel all day––”It really is like I’m a fish!” I told someone, dumbly, even though I don’t like fish, even though their nimbleness makes me nervous: I’ve never trusted anyone who moves fast.
Helen came over for dinner so I could use up everything in my fridge, and she stayed for hours in a way we usually don’t allow, when there is reading or grading or writing to do, and it felt like everything I must have hoped my time in Iowa would be, although in reality I think I only hoped it would go by fast. She sent me our old and early texts, which I’d lost. I told her my first dream just a couple weeks after meeting her––a workshop dream in which two people turned in essays about the co-op (workshop and the co-op being the two big institutions here, although I didn’t know that then). I made my first allusion to “an ill-advised ex” four days after that. In another early text, she reports on the revelation that our neighborhood is called College Hill, and I said “Makes sense!” It’s been close to two years that we’ve lived here now, and I don’t think we’ve ever called it that again, but we still refer to “our corner,” first mentioned just a couple days into knowing each other. That’s the corner where we still meet so often, and we still say “running late!” and “see you in five!” and “yay” and “xoxo,” although there are more x’s and o’s each time; each day you know a woman friend you get to love her more and more.
I keep thinking in summer catchphrases, like: it’s the Summer of Clogs or the Summer of the Sauna or the Summer of Russia Reading. But really it’s just summer, I’m supposed to be writing a book and reading “Middlemarch” along with my mom, I’m trying to eat less pasta just to challenge myself as a cook but I probably won’t, I’m getting on a bus imminently that will take me to a train in Chicago that will take me to New York, the first time I’ve been there in a year, I hope my basil survives, that I don’t forget to pay my bills, that the leisure pool is still mostly empty and the equipment desk where I get my towels still staffed by lanky, lethargic undergrads when I get back.
Is there a worse place to spend a summer than your head? Certainly, but there are also better places. This time last year, for instance, I was in a city that never got dark.
Savoring this brief season of bright green, between ice and drought, I cut each morning across the park on my way downtown and everything––the grass, the lilacs, even the remnants of last night’s barbecues––looks improbably full of longing. But then in the afternoon or evening, sometimes, on the exact same walk, things feel impossibly resistant to change, the potential––that’s what longing’s all about––suddenly extinguished. I told a friend that longing without object is the only productive longing, or at least the only longing I’m interested in. Longing with object is wheels spinning uselessly in the mud, but if you don’t know what you are after––if what you want could be literally anything––it’s like the road is clear for miles. But what do I know about this analogy? This was going to be the summer I learned to drive.
Last summer I left immediately, but now I’m here, carrying around the keys of other people who’ve vacated––I’m watering their plants, managing their subletters, trying to do things like Get Involved and Stay Busy. I signed up to be a simulated patient at the med school and went to a union meeting where a resolution to replace the office’s carpeting was on the table, so earnest and serious in its wording. I missed this type of environment, where sincerity is applied liberally, where people want to make even the smallest things better. The only things I want to be a part of are things I can believe in but can also laugh at, which is a rarer combination than you’d think.
I’ve had two out of town visitors in the last couple months and they both expressed surprise that on the twelve minute walk from my apartment to downtown, there aren’t any stop lights. I have forgotten that I once lived somewhere that wasn’t like this, or maybe it’s less that I’ve forgotten and more just that I have less and less occasion to remember. I spent last summer in big cities––one of five million, one of twenty––but I haven’t been to my old city of eight million in a year and despite my best intentions, my lack of interest in nostalgia for a place that is overly mythologized to begin with, that still seems to somehow be the only one that counts for me. Here, the population halves when school is not in session; I am one among just thirty-thousand right now, the smallest place I’ve ever lived, and therefore the biggest me I’ve ever been––when the overall numbers of a place wane, your own spot in it widens.
Recently, I thought I’d attained a kind of enlightenment that I’d been working toward for years, unconsciously and then, after I’d lived alone, more deliberately. Simply put, I decided to dispense with feeling responsible for any needs of any men. I don’t cook meals or laugh at their jokes or reassure them about the state of their lives when they bemoan them. These aren’t especially shitty men, they’re just human ones, and I don’t do this out of principled hostility, or at least not just out of that, but rather because in the last few years my empathy, which was once in abundance, has curdled into a kind of resentment: you have the whole world on your side, is how my thinking went, why do I have to be on it, too?
Last night, I couldn’t sleep and it was the first time in months that I noticed the cargo train honking its way through town, as it does every night. I’ve been so busy and preoccupied and then at night so tired that I stopped hearing it. Before bed, I had a few whiskeys and revisited a book about Russia that I first read seven years ago. A friend called at 2:30 in the morning, as I was struggling to fall asleep for the third time; she was having a similar night, a thousand miles away. I stayed on the phone while she found a cab and rode home and paid the driver and let herself into her apartment and got into bed. I remember the aloneness of getting myself home late at night but in that moment I also missed it, it seemed preferable to the nights in this small apartment, where for some reason––humidity, I guess––everything has been falling off the walls.
"Love you," me and my friend said at the end of our call, automatically, as we always do, and, "Talk to you tomorrow," and then I got up and turned on all the lights. It was 4 AM, and still dark but there was a single bird chirping somewhere outside, and I had forgotten that the only way to deal with insomnia and basically all other problems too is to just turn on the light and disarm it.
"All our problems aren’t caused by men—are they? The tone strikes me as frighteningly bitter, especially about sexual relationships. Either I’ve been remarkably lucky, or they’ve been unlucky…or maybe I let men who give me a hard time off the hook too easily.”
During my winter vacation I spent four weeks of long days trying and failing to write a feminist manifesto saying basically what it turns out Ellen Willis said better forty-five years ago; unsurprising, see here.
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