This summer, when the streets were still quiet and the coffee shops empty, before the sea of school colors on football game Saturdays and the resurfaced problems of living somewhere where there seems to be no privacy at all, I was working on a theory about loneliness. It went something like this: that loneliness is either, like boredom, a failure of imagination or else just as normal as winters when you’re always a little bit hungry or summers when you’re always a little bit low on funds. The theory was that seeing people make a preoccupation out of avoiding loneliness at whatever cost, because it’s seen as something unusual or wrong or taboo, was at best frustrating, at worst demoralizing. I was not lonely this summer––I would never say that I have been, though, except maybe occasionally in the company of others––which made this both an interesting, useful, and absurd time to be thinking about this. Or maybe not, because another theory I had was about a failure to interrogate the things that make us happy as much as the things that make us sad.
I also worked on a theory about the word “heartbreak,” the way that this designation so often goes unquestioned, like you’re supposed to understand that because of whatever configuration of people, that because you used to share a bed or had a lot of conversations at one time, this is all that needs to be said. I worked on a theory about mistaking time spent for intimacy or sincerity for seriousness or maybe it was just the opposite. I worked on these and other theories––lying in bed at night, during late night talks on the marble benches outside my house, or while holding painful plank pose until I couldn’t anymore––because I thought that if I could present my ideas to others coherently, maybe I would feel less alone in them, since ideas are probably the only capacity in which I ever feel alone. But mostly what I have found, on both sides of the equation, is that it almost never works that way. I also worked on these theories because I had a lot of time, which is a preposterous problem, a summer problem, in a way an Iowa problem.
Now it’s that peculiar time of year when the weather has not caught up to the reality of it, to the sunny, humid hours I’m supposed to send doing specific things at specific times in specific, usually windowless places. I’m the kind of person who is sometimes called “self-motivated,” a description I’ve never really understood the exact meaning of, although if it is about an inner propulsion motivated by a kind of terror of being unoccupied, I guess it makes sense, but in any case, summer was a time to spend with no motivations except ones of my own devising, and so the external directives of fall always take me by surprise: it is, I think, a good thing that this was probably my last first week of school forever.
I don’t mean to sound sharp, although I also don’t really mind if I do: I will say that outside last night, the sky turned its Iowa early fall nighttime blue, although it’s really an anywhere early fall nighttime blue, this is just where I am and what I can see, and I walked with the relief of the end of a long but not necessarily fruitful day through the buzzing twilight to meet a friend for a drink. I’m not used to looking up while I walk again, to there being any company moving through these streets. The bar is always brighter than I remember and a lot louder, which is just as well, because some nights you need to scream a little over the music at the people you love. The main way I’ve always known to love is to fight––I don’t have imaginary conversations in my head, I have arguments; I’ve rarely learned a thing in relation to other people, only in opposition––and so a strained, urgent voice feels more like intimacy to me than anything else. The things I say quietly or tenderly never seem as believable, not to me, not to the people listening, at least if they know me well, which is maybe why the ones I get along with best are also part-time letter writers, people who generally although not always type things out to figure them out.
boils I get
a cup of tea.
read all the
works of Proust.
It was summer
I was there
so was he. I
I would like
to be used for
my death. Not
only my body
will be compost
but the thoughts
I left during
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.
1/29 Next »