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.”
Emily H. taught me that the definition of petite is just anyone under 5’4” and that a prenup is “the most romantic gift a person can give you.” Sarah taught me “stand up or shut up” and “don’t make it easy for ‘em,” which were pretty much our guiding principles for all of 2011 and 2012, although with how much success I can’t really say. Michelle taught me not to use the term “criminal” and about Old Bay seasoning on popcorn. Catherine taught me about Old Spice deodorant and that pride is useless, beets are the food of kings, and not to drink water in the middle of exercising. Cait taught me about stud finders and birth control. Abby taught me to name your savings account “Dreams” and about Eileen Myles. Jeanne taught me about whiskey on the rocks, putting a fried egg on top of salad, and to believe you deserve whatever it is you want, which only sounds trite because I have not yet mastered this sufficiently enough to say it with greater nuance. Emily G. taught me about lipstick and tenants’ rights. Will taught me how to cut a pineapple and Jacob taught me how to remove an avocado pit, although the first lesson I’ve now forgotten and the second I’ve since learned is actually quite dangerous. Adrienne taught me to get mad. Durga taught me about “fantastic imbalance,” which is something I think of daily. Helen taught me to write cover letters, roller skate, and “not to buy into the delusion” but also to believe that “it’s not as inconceivable as you think.” Beatrice taught me how to say “equal” in Polish and Max taught me to say “fuck” in Russian. Trevor taught me it’s easier to write rap verses and letters and other truths in a foreign language. Elliott taught me that the ginger on a sushi plate is supposed to be a palate cleanser and when to use “lay” vs “lie.” Amy taught me the “emotional intelligence” distinction and how to run intervals. Beth taught me, a long time ago, about “Call Your Girlfriend” and that the Cheesecake Factory at the Grove is a great place to drink wine in Los Angeles. Willy taught me that “eating well is the best revenge” and that alcoholics are appealing because they represent the eschewing of responsibility. Jen taught me to make kohlrabi chips and how to clean a litter box and that there is an age at which it’s unseemly to be mad at your parents anymore. Olivia taught me to do burpees and make that raw oat breakfast and to mandate one day of rest per week. Fred taught me the rule about no texting on the dance floor and also how to change a tire, and I only remember one of these things now, but it’s served me remarkably well.
The fall I remember best and try to forget most is the one when I was experiencing simultaneously the two greatest romances of my life. I can say this with some certainty, because I believe “great romances” is a concept that loses meaning after you have more than, say, three of them, as well as after age twenty-five in general. The important things to know about the year I’m speaking of is that it was the year I met Catherine (romance #1), the year my “signature style” consisted of a side ponytail and Air Jordans, and the year I worked for a poetry organization in the East Village, a job that mostly meant carrying boxes of unwanted galleys to sell at The Strand, where they would often be rejected again, and then carrying them back to the office. I listened to Bruce Springsteen a lot then, and Robyn, and I ate scallion pancakes for dinner alongside some kind of bullshit green juice intended to compensate for the deep-fried portion of the meal, but which cost so much that I then had to forego breakfast the next day. This system of shifting the numbers from column to column, of keeping a mental ledger, of compensating and atoning, not just with money and food but with affection and assertiveness and good planning, was the main structure of my life at this point, and for several years that followed.
The other two interns were neighborhood kids whose parents had long been affiliated with the institution and who had deposited them to work there as part of some vague alternative schooling arrangement. I no longer remember their names but I do recall that they did more interesting drugs and more often, and dispensed more dubious advice and more frequently, than I ever did, despite the fact that I was older than them and therefore entitled to more interesting drugs and bad advice. One night I was ambivalent about going to Brooklyn to see the guy I had just started dating (romance #2) and the seventeen-year-old boy intern hawking chapbooks next to me said, with the kind of authority that on boys of that age is thrilling if you are also a teenager and laughable if you are not, “You should never do anything you don’t want to do.” I went to Brooklyn anyway and stayed three and a half years in that house. This all happened about seven years ago now but there are memories from early childhood that seem less remote than this one. I don’t remember that ponytailed self very well at all; what remains of her is a pair of worn Air Jordans in the closet, a predilection, even now, for misinterpreting ambivalence as “Yes,” for mistaking a dim yellow light for one that’s gleaming green.
I’ve said before that you can really feel yourself changing in a place like this, during these quiet Iowa nights, becoming more malleable, adjusting, even expanding. But lately I have noticed, too, other parts of myself, other tendencies, fossilizing, calcifying into something immoveable. I used to be so scared of my own habits, of remaining a certain way, in a certain place, with a certain person. The irony, of course, was that that fear was itself paralyzing; it was maybe the most effective measure at preventing the transformation I so desired. It’s why I can’t throw away those crappy Nikes, why I didn’t cut off that ponytail until last month, why I stayed in that Brooklyn house for three and a half years. The medium I’ve chosen to spend years working in is one that centers on memory, and this is no coincidence either––if one tendency has characterized my life so far, it is a reluctance to let go.
Fall has arrived, sort of, at least temporarily. It’s sock-necessitating,
thick sweatshirted, heavy-blanketed fall, a season I like and dread and stubbornly try to refuse granting any significance. It’s the season of letting go, which is why for me it is characterized not by sweaters or hot tea or anything sentimental like that, but instead by an abstract but also palpable sense of bruised-heartedness. I remember a subway ride during that fall I already spoke of, or maybe it was a nearly identical fall a few years later, watching a man, sort of weathered, raise a bible near to his face to read it more closely, and how sad I inexplicably felt in witnessing that gesture, how much I wanted to close my eyes and sink into the grimy floor of the R.
I wasn’t yet old enough then to make sense of this sadness, which I felt ashamed of because it seemed condescending. I was very young and that necessary scrim separating myself from the world was not yet developed so I did not know that the sadness I felt was not concern or pity for the man but a dissatisfaction with how I was turning out, with who I seemed to feel myself becoming. I still often am uncertain of what I want but on the occasions that I do know, it is easier to see now how to get it. This is the only lesson I can think of at this hour, late and dark, with the cicadas outside chirping, which is just a charitable way of saying whining. I’m someone who is prone to nostalgia for my past selves, but I want to note that I do not miss the ponytailed person on the train that I once was, although for a very, an embarrassingly long time I thought she was in possession of something I could no longer hold onto if I wanted to keep going, and when I thought of her it was not without envy as to her obliviousness, her utter ignorance of the forgetting that is required to sustain any motion.
It has been hot in Iowa, a heat I had forgotten could exist after a summer in the temperate north, and until today my air conditioning unit was AWOL. Now it’s finally been installed and after my landlord put it in he drew down the shades, which I always leave open, and with the low artificial light and the hum of the AC hard at work, there is a feeling of timelessness in my apartment, a feeling that things have always been the same in here and never will not be.
But in fact, things are not the same. After a year of residence here, I finally framed photos for the walls, hung hooks in the hallway, organized the abundance of winter wear that this place requires. If I stay in this apartment for another year, it will be the longest I’ve lived in one place in eight years, a piece of trivia I am glad has come to me only just now, and not any earlier, say while I was hammering nails into the wall, because the fact of it might have compelled me to throw down my tools altogether.
But things are good here. I got blazingly drunk the other night and walked hooked-arm home up College with a friend, around the packs of roving undergrads. My vision was blurry and I kept tripping and it was the first time I’d been truly scared in months. As is not atypical, I am someone whose anxieties come awake in the dark, which meant that for the time I was in White Night-ed St. Petersburg there was a whole slew of anxieties that I never had to confront. To feel those familiar fears again the other night made me feel exhilarated. I’ve always said that those who never see darkness can never fully appreciate light and this is a metaphor, but also, it turns out, it is not just that.
I’ve been operating at a higher frequency lately, some better version of myself that cannot possibly endure––it’s a vestige of a new school year, those idle autumn hopes––but I’m enjoying it while it does. My anxiety dreams have been mundane, regarding missed alarm clocks and the like, which I take to be a good sign. When I left here in May my dreams were about my teeth shattering inside my mouth, about opening my lips and being unable to speak at mortal moments, about phone lines going dead. I assumed these dreams of voicelessness pertained to someone who had recently stopped speaking to me, but now their source seems much clearer: when you spend all your time reading and writing, possessing the right words becomes paramount. Failure to find those words when you need them––well, in the context of all these stacks of books, what fear could outsize that?
In waking reality, away from the page, I don’t believe that words mean very much: there are too many moments, every day, where words just can’t suffice. Recently, I’ve stopped remembering what I’ve said when I drink a lot, a common but dangerous condition it would be best to prevent, but avoidance of which I keep putting off because I find it so interesting. I often have thought I’m entirely powered by memory, that nostalgia is the reason I rarely require caffeine, that it is some recollection––painful or pleasant––that punts me out of bed and into each day. These late nights lit up by the Hamm’s Beer sign above the bar represent a kind of vacuum: I can engage in that ever present quest to find the right words––that is what conversation is––but am freed from the memory of the effort to do so. My words, so long as they remain kind, are weightless, they drift away into the ether, and I go back to my newly anointed home and tuck myself in. In daytime, words reassume a different character, they once again become my currency, and my job. But I can see some difference now between these types of words, between types of truths that a year ago I confess I could not.
A year ago today I moved to Iowa. It was months before I knew what the Iowa beyond Iowa City looked like, because I spent the ride there determinedly asleep in the backseat with my feet on my backpack and my elbow resting on the lampshade beside me. Those first hot weeks felt hollow and overstimulating at once and I would never in a thousand years want to live them again, but I also know that for a person of my nature, who believes in the necessity of feeling occasionally unsettled, who believes it is sometimes prudent to fight every instinct begging you to just stay home, it is inevitable that I will.
What I know now is that the sign on the bridge over the Mississippi that welcomes you to Iowa has a giant cornhusk on it, and that the trees of Wisconsin give way to the barren farmland of Iowa and a little bit after that you see the lights of Dubuque ahead of you. I had never even heard of Dubuque before I moved to Iowa; nor had I lived alone before; nor had I lived in a city of less than half a million. That people can become accustomed to almost anything is no new observation, and a litany of new local references, the habit of turning out the light yourself, the fact of being unable to go to the grocery store without running into three or four people––these are no major adaptations, although they did feel like it at the time.
I recently got my first professional haircut in six years, my first haircut at all in four years. The only person I trusted to cut my hair was Catherine and when she moved away I simply stopped cutting it. This now strikes me as an oddly and deeply romantic gesture, but the truth is that I simply didn’t think about it. I moved my belongings to new apartments in garbage bags and milk crates, I took the B to Brighton Beach to work every day, I slept with different people and sometimes I thought it meant something and sometimes I knew it didn’t, I applied to grad school in a way I emphasized was casual but in fact took up the better part of seven months of spare time, I leased an apartment in a faraway state, I moved, and amid all these other changes it simply never occurred to me to cut my hair. But last week I woke up with a desire to cut it off so strong that I almost just did it myself. Stories of transformation via appearance are unsavory to me but when you engage in a ritual you’ve neglected for years, it is hard not to search for significance in it, especially if you are the type I can only (hesitantly) term romantic––what is romance if not, actually, the search for the grand within the mundane?
I noticed this summer that I seek significance in a different way than I once did. It was once personal and now it is more literary than anything else, strangely separate from my actual self; it’s about something like motifs now, not personal patterns. I used to believe there was a difference between me and what I wrote, that there was a fundamental divide between who I was on the page and who I was in person. It’s inevitable that one’s self-created narrator will be different from who they actually are, and this is a point I used to make stridently to people under the mistaken belief that they knew who I was because of some words I wrote. I guess I still believe that, it’s just that I’ve basically lost interest in the kind of person I am as separate from my writing self. That self still exists, I’d just rather not know very much about her. This type of divide is not so different from the one I had as a translator, between my Russian self and my American self, although potentially, if abstractly, this division seems more troubling.
A year and one night ago, right before I moved, I had dinner with someone, an occasion that was was unremarkable until it wasn’t, until it came to be emblematic of something else. At the time, it was just a salad, a seat at an outdoor table, one more in a six-week series of goodbyes. I was at the same restaurant the other night and afterwards could not sleep, kept trying to stare down the significance of that particular event. In workshop we sometimes talk about “meaning-making,” a phrase I despise, so crass and transparent and commodified in its acknowledgment of what writing actually is. But it’s true that meaning is made, it’s as manufactured as anything else there is. The meaning I have now chosen to make out of that night, that salad, the outdoor cafe, and most of all the person across from me, is simply that it was the last night of a part of my life that was over the minute I stood up and pushed my chair in to go home. Early the next morning I crammed myself into the backseat of that car and, with my eyes closed to the unforgivably bright Midwestern day, drove off into something brand new.
It was early November, after the Halloween party (I went as “The Red and the Black”) but before what would prove to be my worst Thanksgiving ever. One Thursday, Iowa was the most colorful I’d seen it and to celebrate I had a cider at the bookstore with H. and walked home up the hill of Washington Street just drunk enough that the leaves blurred into one orange-red-yellow mass and I couldn’t feel the weight of my grocery bag hanging off my arm, leaving a red mark. Last year, weight of all kinds was everything: for instance, the question of where to distribute the weight of your energies, to whom, and in what measures.
On a Friday morning, my one self-designated day off of writing, I went and bought a cheap but impressive looking watch at the vintage store downtown. I have very little interest in fashion or aesthetics of any visual kind but I’d spent many evenings in class staring at my friends’ huge watches, which they wore because they are teachers, and becoming envious. This big gold thing was an early birthday present to myself and I wore it when R. came to visit that weekend and he told me it was radiant, which I took to be as great a compliment as if he had called me radiant. He called me some other things in the period that followed, nice things of the kind you find coming back to you at unexpected, heartrending moments––compliments are, in this way, worse than photographs, t-shirts, all other relics because they become part of your self-conception in a way no material thing can––and then when things were no longer good between us he never called me anything bad, he just stopped calling, which was the worst thing he could have done.
A lot of time has passed since then but also, it struck me today, not that much. Not-quite a year is not a long time at all, especially because as anyone who has ever moved knows, it takes at least one full year to adjust to a new place or status or surrounding. Silence is the hardest thing for me to adjust to, words having been my main currency for all of my life––how much pity I felt for people whose main currency was beauty, something they couldn’t control or mete out in the right doses to the right people––but I’ve gotten used to it before and will inevitably get used to it again. My brother once told me that the best way to win is just to find a new game and I guess that’s part of what Russia was, a new game, a refocusing of the energies entirely, although in another, comforting sense Russia, or Russian, is actually the game I’ve been playing longest.
I am at my mom’s house now, trying to do good. My mentor once told me I must be an anxiety-provoking daughter, which surprised me because my mother does a very good job of concealing any anxiety she has, a skill that I unfortunately did not inherit. It is true that I basically only call when I’m in tears, have been known to leave in the middle of the night without a note, have never brought home a boyfriend who did not have substance abuse problems and who, worst of all, would impolitely finish off the milk my mom planned to use for her morning tea. I have been as bad as my mother has been good and all those years of the kind of therapy in which your shrinks try to convince you otherwise, that your parents were the ones who did wrong by making you how you are––that has never proved persuasive to me the minute I sit down with my mom for tea.
My parents, divorced for twenty years, are still the two smartest people I know, in ways so similar I can understand why they were together for their entire twenties and thirties, and so dissimilar I also understand why they haven’t been for their forties and fifties. I am told that divorce is a kind of trauma, that it makes all of your relationships harder, but my friends with married parents have mostly done no better than I have (in many ways, my friends have been the ones who have taught me what love is and how to do it right, which strikes me as more useful and relevant than learning from the people who birthed you). That my parents are both now with other people more suited to them at this time in their lives seems to me the most beneficial lesson a parent could teach you about love: that it is normal, possible, terrific to have more than one of those in your life.
As for silence, they only see and speak to each other now when I graduate from something, and they don’t hate each other, they just have nothing to say. When I first observed this, I was devastated––how could you have three children and no topic of conversation?––and then I was empowered, because yes, yes, yes, with some people there is only a finite amount of interest you can have and when it runs out there is nothing you can do, and there is nothing to be gained from trying to fake or fight it. All of my romantic relationships so far that have ended did so either because we stopped having anything to say or we stopped wanting to have sex, which is just another form of having nothing to say. This has never made me sad because it’s just how it was and because there are many people in my life I have had five, ten, twenty year long conversations with. These people are known as friends and I’m told that, if you choose to get married at all, that’s the kind of person you should marry.
I just started running again after two and a half months off, partly due to travel and partly due to an ankle injury. I somehow thought I would be able to resume my old pace and distance immediately, this kind of delusion about one’s potential being necessary for both people who write and people who run, two groups I have in the last year realized overlap greatly. I’m also writing again for the first time in a few weeks and the first attempts have been as unsuccessful as the first runs, which is okay by me––you can get used to almost any failure if it happens to you enough. In work I consider this perseverance to be a blessing and in almost every other sense a curse, one I’ve been unlearning in spurts.
Anyway, on the dusty old treadmill in my mom’s basement yesterday I was running and aching and sweating, looking out this tiny window onto the sidewalk outside that’s been my jogging view on and off for over ten years, and I thought about how I want to go back to the bookstore and have another cider with H. as soon as possible and get this watch polished––is that a thing that is done to watches?––and tell my mom that she is the best person I know and not have her roll her eyes at me in response, as though I’m being sarcastic. This is long, too long, I’m not sure why I’m writing it––I’m not sure why I’ve ever written anything, though; I’ve never been a writer who felt divined for this in a way that precluded doing or being anything else––I am twenty-five and home at my mom’s house and nearby is R., whose silence has been my main adversary for months, taking on improbable proportions he can’t possibly have imagined or even hoped for, transforming into something tangible and material, the critic I confront when I sit down to write, the face I see looking at me when the running gets hard––there’s that, but then there’s also my mom sitting beside me reading a novella while I type and the number ten bus is huffing by and there is a Midwestern buzz to the air that makes me even miss Iowa. This is it, this is what there is, this is all of it, this is what I mean to say today.
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