personal

nothing personal

When I was a teenager, my grandmother bought me a gift that pretty neatly summarizes the whole family’s attitude towards my literary aspirations: a sweatshirt printed to read careful, or you’ll end up in my novel.”  The late 2000s were, sartorially speaking, bonanza years both for those of us who would rather not make eye contact while speaking and for those tasked with buying our Christmas presents. It was a simpler time.

Here, context might be useful. Czeslaw Milosz wrote that “when a writer is born into a family, the family is finished,” which I still think would make a pretty biting tank top. But for whatever reason, my grandmother, like my parents and the rest of my relatives, seemed (and seems) to find the idea of my authorship delightful, even as she acknowledged that I could probably ruin somebody’s day. In fact, I think I was being tacitly encouraged to do exactly that. “Careful, or you’ll end up in my novel” is the kind of thing one says from one’s perch over three fingers of whiskey at the end of the bar, heavy-lidded and mysterious, itching for a fight. “Careful, or you’ll end up in my novel” is the last sentence in the transcript of the divorce hearing before a fistfight breaks out. “Careful, or you’ll end up in my novel” is the thesis statement of someone who did not come to play, someone who told the Uber drive to drive around the block a few times while they go pick up this Pulitzer. As sentences go, it’s both the cigarette and the ashtray and the perfect-O smoke ring besides. Imagine if your grandmother gave you brass knuckles. Maybe she did. I don’t know your grandmother; she isn’t in my novel yet.

What I love about this article of clothing, of course, is not only that it’s a literal threat but that it’s written on a sweatshirt, second only to pajamas in terms of outfit choices inappropriate to wear to a murder, and that it was given to me, a former Sunday school teacher with several kinds of anxiety. This is not to say that I love the sweatshirt ironically. Far from. If anything, I spend more time torturing myself into new ethical pretzels regarding my responsibilities toward the people I write about than I spend actually writing about them, or writing in general; it’s a heavy thing, to end up in someone else’s story. Perhaps I should have mentioned that Milosz was a poet, and of course you’re going to be screwed with a poet in the family. But then, I’m a fiction writer, and here I am telling you the truth.

The first time I workshopped a story about a character who bore any real similarity to me, I was a junior in college. I’m being careful, of course, not to say that I never wrote such stories, because I have been writing myself into things since I learned to read. In middle school, I chronicled the adventures of a shy, near-sighted girl who went to Hogwarts. In junior high, I chronicled the adventures of a shy, near-sighted girl who knew where the noses went when you kissed. Around eighth grade, I branched out and wrote a series of poems about girls who had rich interior lives and interesting problems, as well as, most likely, heavy-duty astigmatism. But these pieces were different; they were aspirational, not characters so much as lenses, a way of scripting out the person I wanted to be. These many not-Ninas were smart and kind and always ready for clever banter with their equally clever friends. For years, I couldn’t write a plot longer than two pages because I wanted everyone in my stories to have a nice time, which meant no real conflict.

And when I learned to draft out conflict in high school, my writing no longer featured Ninas at all. It seemed childish to put myself and my life into something that other people were supposed to care about; it seemed like that was a good way to ensure that no one would care at all. Anyhow, the pain and joy I felt were private and excruciating, sometimes shameful, too muddy to make a story from without opening up half a dozen other stories besides. If it seems obvious that I left myself a pretty bloodless pile of material to work with, let’s just agree that you were younger once, too.

So: junior year. In this workshop, as with every workshop I took at Pitt, my classmates and I wrote each other feedback letters. These were to be printed out in duplicate, one copy for the author and one for the professor. (I still have all of mine somewhere.) For my first story of the semester, one of my classmates, a muscular, imposing man ten or fifteen years my senior who spoke about as often as the average chair, wrote some very kind praise for my imagery and dialogue before honing in on his major critique: the main character and how strongly he disliked her. She was kind of pathetic, he said. Whiny and self-absorbed. It was hard to care about her much at all.

I didn’t take this too personally. I’d been, at this point, to a decent amount of therapy. Besides, this was magical realist fiction in which small domestic goods fall out of the sky onto a local homecoming parade. It was sort of beside the point if you liked the heroine, a shy, anxious girl who is trying to erase herself from her own story. In that character, at least, I was finally writing what I knew.

A week or two later, it was his turn. He liked noir, and where his first story had featured a heist, here was a femme fatale: a young, beautiful mail-order bride who arrives in this country and bleeds her older American husband for everything he’s worth before ultimately disappearing with some other lover, probably to go do donuts in the parking lot of hell. The husband, the hero of the story, is a broken wreck by the time everything is over. I no longer remember whether it’s he or the narrator, who’s relating this whole sorry saga to a third party at a bar, who refers to her as a bitch.

I do remember her name, because her name was Nina.

To the best of my knowledge, I’ve never been a mail-order bride. There are many stories to tell about me, even some you could tell a friend at the bar and a few I’d rather you didn’t tell my mother, but none end like this one. It wasn’t about me at all. And even so, when the workshop began an uncomfortable silence fell, and it persisted until a different classmate raised his hand and said, “I’m sorry, I couldn’t help but think of our Nina the whole time.” We all laughed a little nervously. The author, avoiding my gaze, did not respond.

For the rest of the semester he neither spoke to nor looked at me, and I followed suit. And for a long time afterward, when I caught myself reflected in a window, or saw myself in the background of a photo on Facebook, or heard my own voice echoed back on an iffy phone connection, I thought, in the sincere and ludicrous way I thought everything then, Is that how he sees me? Is that at all what I’m like?

It’s a heavy thing, to end up in someone else’s story.

The movie adaptation of Harriet the Spy came out in 1996, when I was five and Michelle Trachtenberg, who plays the eponymous Harriet, was ten. Did I see it? Are you seriously asking?

In both the adaptation and the original novel, Harriet’s notebook is eventually discovered by her classmates, about whom she has written notes equally prolific and unkind. For a decent chunk of the plot, she is alone in her angry, confused grief. Her friends, understandably, no longer trust her. The grown-ups, unsure how to handle a little girl who bites, aren’t much help at all. As a kid, I found this completely unbearable and watched from between my fingers. Even now, thinking about the betrayal of sweet Sport makes my heart squeeze up.

But there is a moral center here: Harriet’s nurse, Ole Golly, who returns towards the denouement to provide the sort of restorative wisdom that adults are capable of in stories for children, if not always in the real world. It’s very good advice:

Naturally, you put down the truth in your notebooks. What would be the point if you didn’t? And naturally these notebooks should not be read by anyone else, but if they are, then Harriet, you are going to have to do two things, and you don’t like either one of them:

1) You have to apologize.
2) You have to lie.

Otherwise you are going to lose a friend. Little lies that make people feel better are not bad, like thanking someone for a meal they made even if you hated it, or telling a sick person they look better when they don’t, or someone with a hideous new hat that it’s lovely. Remember that writing is to put love in the world, not to use against your friends. But to yourself you must always tell the truth.

It’s just that this, here, is my notebook, and I’m photocopying it to share with the class. What counts as the truth? Is it better to leave the difficult things unsaid, if they aren’t only about me? And if so, am I writing myself into another bloodless corner?

Ultimately, Harriet becomes the editor of the student paper. She learns how to tell stories without hurting people. I admire that. I have no idea how she does it.

The same semester my classmate wrote about another Nina, I was dating a fellow fiction major. Early on, when it became clear that we were going to see each other again and then again and then again, he told me, “We shouldn’t read each other’s stories,” and we shook hands on it. (Truly, is there anything more romantic than a handshake?)

I appreciated this for multiple reasons, not least of which was the relief that he would not read my fiction looking for traces of himself. At the same time, though, it was kind of lonely, because I – twenty, fidgety and silly and a little traumatized – wanted to know that I meant enough to show up in what he thought about, even if sideways, even if obliquely. Enough for there to be a red-haired girl in a crowd. Enough for there to be a line of dialogue I recognized as my own. I dreamed of mattering so much that to leave me unspoken would be ridiculous. When we broke up before his graduation that spring, I understood what we’d spared each other from.

After the end of things, I invited him to hear me read poetry at a campus arts event and he came. It was an act of generosity for which I’m still grateful, because I – now nearly twenty-one, fidgety and sad and always laughing a little too hard – was no longer someone he was even sort of obligated to. We were (and are) friendly, but “friendly” doesn’t have to mean giving up your Friday night.

I read a piece I’d written for my autobiography class, all about blood, which I realize sounds much more goth than it actually was. The professor had told us to list things we kept writing about, details we repeated over and over, no matter how granular or specific. One of these would be the point of departure for a piece worth some percentage of our final grade, and go. I miss college a lot sometimes.

Poetry didn’t count under the no-reading rule, though who knew if the rule still applied? Even so, though I’d chosen this piece with some care, there was a line in the piece about my ex, and I remembered this as I got to it. Did I ever tell you how my bruises started appearing out of nowhere in college: under my toenails, over my collarbone, inside my ankle like a tattoo. When I walked home from having my heart broken for the second time, I could feel the blood pooling against my ribs, purple and yellow and gray.

I could leave it out. But it was part of the piece. But he was right there. But if I wrote something, shouldn’t I be brave enough to read it? I held the paper in my shaking hands and kept reading, word after word after word, until the sentence was over, and then the piece itself was over, and I could not unsay anything anymore.

He clapped, I remember. And told me it was good, an act of generosity for which I’m still grateful. And then I spent seven years wondering why I’d been afraid to remind someone that they had hurt me.

For what it’s worth, that line is inaccurate twice over. First, of course, I am conflating pain with a bruise, with internal bleeding, the sort of thing I did a lot in the name of creative license but which would not fly in, for example, the ER. Second, I left out an entire (metaphorical) heartbreak; technically, I’d been crushed three times, not two. But I was not ready to write about that yet, nor would I be for a long time. In some ways, I’m still not.

Let me stop being precious, just this once. When I was twenty going on twenty-one, I severed one of my dearest friendships because I was afraid to tell my friend that he had hurt me. When I finally did draft something, during the Kavanaugh hearings last fall, I called it assault and I left out every single identifying detail: not just who my friend was, but what he had done.

Whose story is that? I still don’t know. It didn’t feel like mine, and it also felt like it was mine alone. We haven’t spoken in eight years, though, when I was twenty-two, a different friend told him the story on my behalf: he kept emailing to ask why I wasn’t talking to him anymore and I didn’t think I could handle explaining. I still missed him. I still miss him. I still refer to him, sometimes, as my friend.

Several times in my life a listener has critiqued my narrative in some fundamentally wounding way. The classmate who wrote me into his femme fatale fiction found it impossible to care about the character I’d created, and it stung. What stung worse was the feedback I got from my friend (my ex-friend? my friend emeritus?), because it came down to this: he didn’t believe me.

Not that I was lying – maybe just exaggerating. Maybe just confused. Maybe we should just remember that I was emotional and young. It had been long enough now that my memories might have coalesced into one false thing instead of many spikier, more difficult truths. Nature abhors a vacuum, and the mind abhors a story with no moral.

1) You have to apologize.
2) You have to lie.

My reluctance to write about other people has meant that lately I am reluctant to write. My reluctance to write about other people has meant that lately I am reluctant to write about myself. Which makes sense; I will be a different person someday, in addition to the many selves I have already been, and I feel tenderly towards the latter and want desperately to impress the former. It’s possible. I’ve been several people I admire, in addition to several I do not.

But not writing my own story means, I know now, leaving myself to the mercy of other people’s narration. We are storytelling animals, meaning-making machines. Mostly the stories people tell about me are good ones, the kind you don’t have to tell in a bar as a cautionary tale. If I am actually much more inconsistent than you were told, maybe you won’t even notice.

And sometimes the stories are bad: that I am overemotional, unstable, fragile, naive. The best I can do is live as decisively as possible in the opposite direction; you cannot tell someone that their interpretation of you is wrong. Funnily enough, I learned that in workshop.

A little while ago I went to dig something out of my wardrobe and found another gift from my grandmother: a sweatshirt that says “PROTAGONIST” across the front. I think I’ve only worn it a few times, since it’s white and I am the kind of person who sleeps with a Tide To Go pen clutched in one shaking fist, but it’s traveled to every closet I’ve had since high school because I love it so much.

There is nothing worth saying that is empty of other people. Even telling you about myself has meant telling you about who I knew and when. Stories don’t always have morals, but they need audiences: audiences of many, audiences of one, audiences of yourself and yourself alone.

To yourself you must always tell the truth, a wise adult once told a little girl in a story that wasn’t real but was real enough to stay with me my whole life.

Here’s what I know: the novel in me is unfinished, and whenever anyone touches it it changes. And this is good, to have the handprints of the world on the things you love. Anyone might end up in it now.

I am taking creative license. I am telling you my blood is purple, that I’m tough as nails, that what you have heard is true. When you read about a crowd, look to the back for a glimpse of red hair and imagine it’s me.

Anything could happen now.

I am still writing.

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personal

noli me tangere

A story is never told the same way twice. So much depends on who’s listening; just as much depends on whether the story is happy or sad, on whether its subject rewards brevity or embroidery, on whether the point was actually to explain anything at all. Injury stories are especially good test sites for these principles, since they’re never told without the intention of eliciting some reaction, whether pity or not. The aim can also be humor. The aim can really be both.

Anyway: last month I fractured my left elbow because I slipped on a curb while carrying a box of La Croix in one arm and a two-liter of Diet Dr. Pepper in the other. The box burst open, though the cans were fine, and the two-liter was shaken badly but recovered after a few hours in the refrigerator. Meanwhile, I scraped both knees, one of which was bruised purple for two full weeks, plus the knuckles of one hand. Meanwhile, I went on to have half a dozen x-rays and be seen by multiple medical professionals, including, most recently, a very nice orthopedist who told me that I was now healed enough that I need only wear my sling in places where I might get pushed or jostled, like the subway. This is (was?) a stable fracture, the kind of thing that heals itself; I only really had to protect myself against my own discomfort.

And listen, I know what you’re thinking, so here’s the answer: the La Croix was peach-pear, and it was worth it.

*

Maybe I’ll start over. My sixth grade spelling teacher hated the word “like.” Only a little of her classroom remains in my memory now: I remember blue walls and high ceilings, heavy windows that we propped open in the winter when the radiators ran hot, chalk boards ghosted with last period’s half-erased words. I remember that she was tall and platinum blonde, that I admired her in the vaguely frightened way I admired all adults who took me seriously. But mostly, I remember her pacing between our tables, interrupting us when we slipped up and saying, with no little sharpness, “Like, like, like. Don’t say like.”

By then – which is to say, 2002 and 2003 – there was a veritable like epidemic going around our school. At the time I thought it was, like, unique to us, though when have West Virginia sixth-graders ever been the vanguard of pop culture? Later I would learn that the colloquial “like” turns up as far back as a 1928 issue of the New Yorker, but Wikipedia hadn’t been invented yet and I had to go off my gut. It was just as well that Mrs. D taught spelling and not language arts. Our grammar was not her primary concern, though she was, you understand, concerned.

Whenever we got each week’s vocabulary list, we’d go over each word, pronouncing them in turn and providing usage examples and definitions when called upon. This always brought me quiet, uncool joy. Inevitably, one classmate or another would offer up the forbidden syllable: “It’s, like, a kind of boat,” or “She was, like, totally ecstatic,” or something equally harmless. And Mrs. D would spit fire for a moment, but then we would move on, eyebrows singed but intact.

So the day I got my own dressing-down was a betrayal: I’d thought of a simile I was proud of, but only got as far as it was like before she cut me off. I don’t remember what it was, or what it like, exactly. Only that it was like something else, the way everything is like something else, though my knees as I stared at them were just my knees. I think I gave a different example then, desperate to prove that I really did know what this word meant, though what I’d wanted to say was better. And then we moved on.

The sting died quickly and I got over it. Just kidding! It’s 2019, and I’m still telling this story. But really, the whole thing is funny to me now. I wasn’t a teacher’s pet, but I was always too eager and uncanny not to be a teacher’s something, which is to say: injury stories can be about your pride too, too. I was effectively swept up in a grammatical sting operation, and all because I’d wanted to say that the clouds were like cotton or something. This is, like, a metaphor.

*

Maybe I love injury stories because they’re the best way I know of talking about pain.  Maybe I love injury stories because the pain I am most familiar with is not easy to describe, except in metaphor, and so rarely makes a story at all.

My therapist is always careful not to let me see what he’s writing in that legal pad of his, but I entertain myself by imagining that he’s keeping a tally of my references-per-session. I’m not his only client, and surely I’m not his only jittery, overread trivia fountain of a client, but maybe I’m the one who reaches for props the most.

“It’s like that line from the poem, how does it go?” I’ll say. Or, “It’s like that scene in that episode of Mad Men season one, except I’m both Sally Draper and the plastic dry-cleaning bag.” Mostly I am trying to be funny. I’m uncomfortable being serious without trying to be funny, and we are there to be at least a little serious.

The day I first came in with my arm in the sling, he asked me how I was doing and I laughed – real laughter, too, nothing sardonic or sad. I’d spilled coffee in my purse that morning: coffee that Griffin had lovingly made for me to bring to work, and the purse that he’d bought me for my birthday last year. The whole thing was a disaster I couldn’t fix fast enough because I was on the train by the time I noticed and my one good arm was occupied. “Oh, terrible,” I said. “But I’m always fine when everything goes wrong. I’m like the eye of the hurricane.”

“Why do you think that is?” he said, which I should’ve seen coming, since I pay him to ask me difficult questions. I shrugged with one shoulder. I’d taken a lot of ibuprofen and my purse was almost dry; we were already almost to the part where I could make this into (only?) a funny story.

*

I meant to tell him that, somehow, I made it almost a full month before someone pushed my bad arm on the subway. They were in a hurry, and I was in the way. And it’s a stable fracture, I reminded myself, gritting my teeth. It hurts but the hurt does not signify anything new.

It’s like that line from the poem, you know? Noli me tangere – some of the only Latin I’ve ever known. Touch me not. A friend put the last lines of Thomas Wyatt’s “Whoso List to Hunt” in her AIM profile once, back in the dark days of AIM profiles, and I didn’t read the full poem until much later, afraid that I wouldn’t like it as much as I liked its ending:

‘Noli me tangere, for Caesar’s I am,
And wild for to hold, though I seem tame.’

In high school, this was tied with my other favorite poem ending, from Sylvia Plath’s “Lady Lazarus”:

Out of the ash
I rise with my red hair
And I eat men like air.

And how could I have liked anything as much as those endings, even the poems they grew from? I wanted to be wild. I wanted to be a creature rising from the fire. I wanted to be so sure, so tough, that I would never have to explain how I felt again. Not in the physical sense; how I felt on the subway platform, holding my wounded arm in its sling like a baby (like, like, like), was easy.  The other kind of feeling. The kind my elbow has been a good distraction from.

*

Maybe I’ll start over. For real this time. Here’s the thing: I haven’t written for months. Not about myself, anyway. And not for lack of trying.

But I don’t know how to begin writing about the last few months without writing about crying snotty, messy tears in my therapist’s office as I asked for the test, whatever it’s called, the one that would finally tell me how crazy I am. Most of the time I am trying to be funny. Mostly I can’t be serious without trying to be funny. Instead I let my own plea hang in the air between us because there was nothing funny to say. I looked at my knees instead – my knees that still look only like knees.

“Okay,” he said, very gently, after a small eternity. Probably all of five seconds, during which I’d reconsidered my entire life, aged infinitely and badly, turned into dust, and blown away across the indifferent ocean. “We can do that.”

I don’t know what I looked like then, and I’m glad I don’t. Probably like – like, like, like – someone had finally let me into the building on a cold night when I’d forgotten my keys. Your own gratitude can be embarrassing to witness.

*

The test is actually a whole battery of tests, spread out over multiple appointments. A few were familiar from Intro to Psych and from counseling intake in college. This, of course, made me certain that I was going to cheat somehow, that I’d game the system into telling me something kind and therefore untrue. Later, the doctor would tell me that the tests are designed to account for distortion in either direction: people lying about being good, or people convinced that they were bad. I still find that remarkable.

There was a semi-structured interview. There was word association. There were sentences he started that I had to finish. There was, once, a laptop cued up to a multiple-choice survey that was either three hundred or five hundred questions long; after a certain point, the numbers blur together. There were sheets to fill out in ballpoint pen. There were questions I could see the gist of and questions I absolutely could not, each of them getting at the untellable story of a certain kind of pain.

Between insurance hiccups and the holiday season, it was a few months before I got the report. And then, all of a sudden, there it was: an appointment on my calendar, a seven-page PDF about myself to look over first. I read it slowly before I walked to the doctor’s office, delaying the ending as long as I could, doubling back to make sure I understood. Then I read it again. I wrapped myself in my own arms, both of them still unbroken for another couple weeks.

The ending of the report isn’t poetry, though I’ve kept it humming my head the way I collected Plath and Wyatt once. What mattered more, then and now, was that the words described me. I was wild to hold. I was rising from the ash. I met the criteria for obsessive-compulsive disorder, and here, the doctor was saying across the table, was what we were going to do.

*

Pronounce OCD. Define it. Please provide an example without using the word like, because everything is like something else and right now you are trying to be specific. Please provide an example without invoking physical pain or past accident. Please provide an example without getting cute.

We understand that something definitive, like an x-ray, would be helpful. We understand that perceptual ambiguity is sort of the whole problem. It’s, like, pretty unfair. In the meantime, maybe metaphor is a consolation prize.

*

Right now, I am sitting on my couch, drinking a can of La Croix. Lime, specifically. It comes from the same grocery trip as my poor, much-battered peach-pear, but my best friend was holding that box and so it wasn’t hurt at all. I realize now, I forgot to tell you: I wasn’t alone.

Injury stories are never told without the intention of eliciting a reaction, and I am telling you a story, singular, which is to say: I am realizing that I’m not alone.

Story, singular, meaning my elbow. Story, singular, because my brain is not yet (and may never be) a story I can tell – though I’m sending postcards, and I hope this one reaches you. It’s just that there’s no good way to tell a story you’re still inside of and will always be inside of, especially not here, at the beginning, when I am just beginning to figure out what I’m going to do.

My elbow is mostly healed now. I stopped wearing the sling two days ago, and the ibuprofen has sunk to the coffee-stained bottom of my purse. Even that stain has faded a little. Time passes. The slippery curb and I have reached, if not an understanding, then an uneasy truce. And my bruises have faded, and my arm extends the whole way, and I only resent people the normal amount when they push me on the subway. Don’t touch me, I think, every single time. Like that line from the poem. You know?

Let this count as starting over. For real this time. Let my tricky brain and I reach, if not an understanding, then an uneasy truce, and let me find a way to say what this is like. If not now, then someday. If not someday, then still, let me try.

This is, I know, no kind of an ending. But this is the new year, and I am trying to read the rest of the poem first.

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notes for a muscle the size of your fist

During orientation week of my freshman year at Pitt – which was, in general, a haze of pastel pamphlets and earnest ice-breakers – the College of Arts & Sciences’ future Class of 2013 was herded up Cardiac Hill into the Petersen Events Center for some family bonding. (There was a lot of piling into arenas and cheering, that first week. At one assembly we sang the theme song to “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” while a representative of the administration slowly put on a cardigan and sneakers. Your alma mater could never.)

Before our A&S rally could get underway in the basketball court, there were a few kinks to work out. Aren’t there always? Above, the Jumbotron scrolled through fun facts and pictures of famous alumni to keep all 3,600 of us entertained. The only tidbit I remember now was the one that seemed most out of place: women are worse at spatial reasoning than men, but playing eight or more hours of video games can begin to close the gap. [Citation needed.]

I did not yet call myself a feminist, but I still found this hilariously tone-deaf. My high school graduation present to myself had been a Wii, and already some new friends from the dorm and I had duked it out over Mario Kart. I won a lot of the time; I’d spent most of the summer practicing. Did this mean I was ahead of the curve? At which point would I fully attain Man Vision?

But now, nearly a decade later, I find the diagnosis more ridiculous than its proposed cure. Worse at spatial reasoning, honestly. Worse how? I always know where my body is in relation to the bodies of men. I always solve for x, where x is the possibility of having to escape. That kind of geometry is my native language. That kind of geometry saves and destroys you.

This is the only thing I remember about that assembly now. Welcome, class of 2013.

***

The last week or so I’ve felt like my heart is being clenched in somebody’s hand. It took a while to identify the sensation as panic. For days, I thought I might be dying. I made it into a joke, the way I make all my private fears into jokes. Whenever I breathed, I felt that fist in my chest flexing and closing. If my heart had knuckles, they’d be white. If my heart had knuckles, maybe I’d throw a punch once in a while.

***

I don’t want to write a sexual assault essay.

I don’t want to write a Sexual Assault Essay™.

I don’t want to make a painful episode of my life into a story with a moral and a poignant closing line, though what else is there to make of it?

I don’t want to detail some grand epiphany, because there has been no epiphany, and I don’t want to let all of my pain out, because my pain has not been useful thus far, and I don’t even want to say that I’m angry, because my anger is a secret I am keeping from everyone, including myself.

***

This morning I made a list of websites to avoid from 10 am until whenever. Can a hearing like this ever really end? Aren’t we still arguing over Anita Hill? Aren’t we still deciding if Leda kissed the swan back?

No Twitter. No Facebook. No news sites. No comments, ever. No emails from political causes I donated to one night while sleepless and heartsick and trying my best to figure out how quickly interest accumulates on the past. Very quickly, I’ve decided; so quickly I don’t think I’ll ever touch the principal now.

Most of all, I am avoiding any place where I might see the men who have spent the last few weeks so earnestly trying to argue that the real victim here is not the woman testifying. I am avoiding seeing the woman testifying. Not because I don’t want to hear what she has to say, but because I already know.

***

Solve for x, where x is the possibility of having to escape, when you are in a moving vehicle driven by a stranger.

Solve for x, where x is the possibility of having to escape, when you are in a moving vehicle driven by a friend.

Solve for x, where x is the possibility of having to escape, when you are in an unfamiliar room.

Solve for x, where x is the possibility of having to escape, when you are in your own room.

***

Before I moved into the dorm for orientation week of my freshman year at Pitt, I got an email telling me to complete an online module called Alcohol-Wise. If you’d paid attention at all during high school health class, it was a breeze – I think I finished in twenty minutes. Maybe it helped that I’d never been to a party in high school. Maybe it helped that none of my friends went to high school parties either. There was nothing to get defensive about, just a lot of math problems. One beer equals how much wine? When is a mixed drink fully metabolized by the body?

Essay: which drugs can be slipped into a drink, and what are their effects on the body? How can you avoid having a drug slipped into your drink? What are your safety strategies? Do you know the number of the campus police?

Bonus question, unassigned: how can you avoid slipping a drug into someone’s drink? What are your accountability strategies? Do you know how to face what you have done?

***

What’s funny is that it doesn’t actually matter what is done to you if you’re sufficiently afraid. For some reason elected officials never understand that. As if the only thing you have to lose is your honor. As if your autonomy does not enter the equation.

What’s funny is that nothing happened. What’s funny is that “nothing” happened. What’s funny is that nothing “happened.”

What’s funny is that, later in college, the friend who kissed me when I did not want to be kissed and held me when I did not want to be held was someone I’d played Mario Kart with many times. So hypothetically we should have been on similar levels, in terms of spatial reasoning, and yet no matter how many times I ran the numbers he was still so, so close.

What’s funny is that I was sober and he was drunk. Come on, that’s funny. That’s actually kind of hilarious.

***

Yesterday I walked to the New York Public Library on my break and sat at the base of a statue outside until a strange man came up and started talking to me, and so I went into the building and sat on a smooth marble bench until a strange man came up and started talking to me, and I feel so guilty for looking at men like I am a deer and they are headlights, but surely they’re used to it by now.

The second man just wanted to know if the library had wifi. I told him it did and showed him how to log on, and then he told me about how he and his wife had come all the way from Australia to see the city. Where was I from? Did I want to see some pictures of kangaroos? And I did, actually. And they really were pictures of kangaroos, not of anything else. We have so much to be grateful for.

***

A few days ago I went to therapy and held forth, as I have done many times and will presumably do many more times, on how much I hate the idea that everything happens for a reason. For one thing, I’m Orthodox, and we’re all about the irreducible mystery of faith, not about God-as-parlor-magician. For another thing, I resent the idea that suffering is necessary. I would not be diminished if I had, at a few key moments of my life, been luckier.

What I think is that things happen. And you try, for the rest of your life, to make something useful from them. Not the reason why they happened but the way you mean to carry on.

Solve for x, where x is the distance between our bodies.

Solve for x, where x is the circumference of my heart.

Solve for x, where x is the amount of time this is going to take.

Please share your answers. I really need to know.

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miss united states

To no one’s surprise but mine, it turns out I grind my teeth. The dentist – small, terrifyingly Slavic – delivered this news very casually, and then told me to think about whitening. (Free with Invisalign, she said. Which would help with the grinding. And those incisors won’t straighten themselves.)

Since I don’t make, you know, Invisalign money, I ended up at Duane Reade instead, crouched on the floor of the dental care aisle to look at mouth guards. There’s quite a variety. Some you heat – via microwave or boiling water – before molding them to your teeth. Some you eyeball and hope for the best. I opted for the latter, since I couldn’t bear any further responsibility while still coping with how crooked and yellow my whole dental situation apparently is. One thing at a time.

And miraculously, my one-size-fits-most choice actually fit most. So I began using it every night since, trying to teach myself how to relax my jaw. There’s a little booklet that came with the mouth guard that says “LIPS TOGETHER, TEETH APART” like some kind of Zen koan, and sometimes I catch myself thinking that phrase while I’m waiting for the train or walking to lunch or counting stitches in one of the blankets I’m making. Lips together, teeth apart. If I forget to put it in, or if I spit it out in the night, I wake the next morning with my jaw aching the way it always used to. It’s just that, before, I was used to it.

After about three months, the mouth guard developed a crack down one side, and I went back to Duane Reade for a replacement, which lasted another two months before splintering while I slept last week. It seems wasteful to throw them out but useless to keep them, so for now both little plastic cases are next to my bed. I even kept the shard I woke to find wrapped inside my tongue like a pearl. In case what? In case I figure out how to put it back together?

For round three, I have relented and gotten one of the models you have to heat and mold. Maybe this one will last through the summer; that would be nice, because drugstore mouth guards aren’t exactly expensive but neither are they cheap. Maybe this one will finally condition my jaw to unclench. I’m twenty-seven years old and nothing has worked so far, but I haven’t been trying long enough to say I’ve failed.

And besides, there is a part of me that thinks this particular physical quirk was inevitable. Is even appropriate. My mouth, I imagine telling someone – a biographer, an interested stranger, a potted plant – has always been the strongest part of me. Then I click my crooked yellow teeth shut and smile like a crocodile.

In 2018, even small talk has an edge to it. The news is the weather now, omnipresent and fickle, mostly bad. In New York, the president is a shadow slipping around a corner, a college friend you can’t plausibly deny knowing. His name turns up on newspapers and the gaudy fronts of buildings and protest signs at demonstrations I can hear from the turnstiles underground.

When I was a kid, I had a whole plan mapped out for the rest of my life. A sample of the to-do list: meet the love of my life, get engaged, get married, have beautiful, myopic children, win a Pulitzer, turn 30. I think that at this point I was supposed to be on my first book tour, if not my second. Adulthood is one great plateau to a child, or at least the child I was. At a certain moment you become Grown-Up and all the ages blur together, 27 and 37 and 67, like Sims who haven’t yet retired. But it turns out that you have to live your adult life one year per year, same as ever. That a decade still takes a decade, and it may not reveal the secrets you are so certain you’ve been owed.

And that there aren’t any grown-ups, especially now. And that the Pulitzer committee is subjective. And that, here in the future, I have ground my teeth so hard for so long that the molars are slick canyons. Are cartoons of teeth. As if I needed one more thing to worry about.

There’s a point at which the news is so bad that your own problems, no matter how interesting and troubling they might be to your mother, cease to hold any weight but the most shameful in your own mind. I know perfectly well that multiple kinds of pain can coexist, and that the sorry state of the world doesn’t negate what I’m feeling or vice versa – but last weekend twenty-five thousand New Yorkers marched for children in detention centers and the weekend before that I watched ACLU employees come down Fifth Avenue in the Pride parade, holding banners of the lawsuits they’d filed against the administration. It’s enough to make you feel like maybe you were making a fuss over nothing. Like you’re fixed now, or else never needed fixing.

What does a dark cloud matter. Or a racing pulse. Or a need to check your maybe-broken teeth against your tongue, your hands for invisible disease, your body for all those cancers you’ve surely been developing. What does it matter if you are spiky and worried and certain of your own futility. Isn’t that all of us now? Isn’t that everyone who has the luxury of inventing their own problems?

I bought some books a few months ago to help me further figure out how to be in the world when you have a brain like mine, but I haven’t touched them yet. That diagnosis isn’t actually for you, I have thought more than once, most recently on the train home today. You don’t suffer enough for that. Stop pretending you do. And in the corner of the train lurks some future version of myself, maybe the one with the Pulitzer, thinking, you sweet fool. I like to think she is gentle. That she keeps her lips together, teeth apart.

Wednesday is the Fourth of July and I don’t know how to celebrate. Is “celebrate” even the right word? When I saw my therapist last week, we both hesitated at the door as I stood to leave, struggling to figure out how to phrase our well-wishes. “Have an appropriate Fourth,” I said, finally. “You too,” he said.

The fireworks have been going off in Bushwick for days now, and each time I think it’s the end of the world.

Here is the truth. My jaw hurts from clenching it all night and then all day. The heat outside feels like a blanket over my mouth. I have developed a schedule for myself of when I am allowed to check the headlines, and even so I lose hours of the work week to the churning fear that this isn’t actually the worst it could get. This year I’ve learned to laugh without smiling. This year I’ve thought a lot about the college therapist who told me that chronic stress could lead you to develop an ulcer, and whether I have an ulcer, and if my ulcer could get an ulcer too.

But here is the truth, too: I am sitting in front of an air conditioner in an apartment stacked with books, with leftovers in the fridge and the person I love on the train home. And maybe this luck is a different version of the future I dreamed of, and maybe it’s okay to enjoy it. Feeling joy does not reduce the immensity of sorrow, but all that refusing to feel joy accomplishes is a reduction in the immensity of joy.

My mouth has always been the strongest part of me. There’s a David Foster Wallace line I think about a lot (everyone has a problematic fave, right?) and it goes like this: “Everything I’ve ever let go of has claw marks on it.”

Well. I bite. Lips together, teeth apart. The future isn’t what I imagined, but it’s coming, and I intend to swallow it whole.

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try not to breathe

One of my most vivid memories of elementary school is surviving the fire safety house. For a while I thought that this was a universal childhood experience, and then for a while I thought it was maybe just us, just this one district in West Virginia in the 90s. A lot of my adult life is like that: determining where on the no-one-to-everyone spectrum I’m landing.

The fire safety house was a trailer that could be towed from school to school, and inside was a little home built child-size: kitchen, bedroom, bathroom, all scaled to us in a way that nothing, at that point in our lives, was scaled to us. The blinds by the sink were the right proportion for the sink, which was the right proportion for the counters, which went up to our hips. The light bulbs in the hallways were low enough for us to change. Our feet touched the floor when we sat in the chairs, and the balcony upstairs – there was an upstairs! – was big enough for just a couple six-year-olds or absolutely no adults. I loved it: it was a dollhouse, perfect in the way no real houses are perfect, empty of mess and ready for us. And we had to learn how to escape it.

We would go in one class at a time and listen as a nice representative from the Marion Country Fire Department explained each room to us. It turned out that there were so many ways for things to catch fire. If we could see them all, we’d be okay. Everything was flammable: curtains, papers, wires inside walls, heating elements left exposed, our own beds, our own selves. Here was how smoke rose. Here was how heat mounted. Here was how, if we needed, to stop, drop, and roll – the three great commandments of my childhood. Put this towel along the bottom of the door. Don’t touch this doorknob. Don’t panic and breathe in too much, or panic and forget to breathe at all. Here was how you might die: from what got into your lungs, from what caught against your skin, from the house breaking itself apart onto you.

At some cue I never managed to catch, the little house would begin to fill with smoke. It didn’t smell like real smoke, like earth and spices and old things turning to ash. It was artificial in a way that always frightened me more than anything else we’d learned. But we’d just learned so much – we were going to make it! And we did, always, bursting out into the fresh morning air, shivering from excitement and feeling like small gods, like we’d tricked the universe into letting us live.

It turns out that a lot of schools have these. The original manufacturer even has a website with photos. I’ve spent minutes on minutes just now paging through photo after photo, trying to find the house I remember.

Frankly, I expected to be on fire so much more often as a child. (This was, after all, the same age at which I was very concerned about quicksand – another danger that hasn’t really panned out.) Why would they be so sure to teach us if it wasn’t going to be a recurring danger? For a while after each tour of the fire safety house, I would go home and eye each of my own lovely things with suspicion, imagining how they might betray me. I wanted to be alive so badly. I wanted it despite not really understanding what being dead meant. But the dangers of the world were knowable, learnable, and I would study them, and I would live forever.

And then, when I was I was eight years old, the after-school news showed me Columbine.

If standing in the little fire safety house was surreal, smelling that artificial smoke, then this was something beyond surreal. I took ballet lessons at the time and our recitals were held at local high schools with halls like the ones on TV, with cafeterias like the one on TV, with long sprawling lawns like the one on TV. The kids who were killed were so much older than me but even I could tell that they were kids. Braces and flyaways and closed eyes in the yearbook photos, the same Lifetouch background I’d had just a month before. Glasses and middle parts. Faces that were still halfway soft the way the faces of my friends were soft. But surely some things were so terrible that they could only happen once.

For a period of time, ending in the 1850s, such a thing as perfect security existed. We’d briefly invented unpickable locks. And I can’t imagine believing that if I turned a key I would truly be safe forever, but I know I did once, because as we walked back to class from the fire safety house I could not imagine anything really happening to us.

*

 In less than a week I’ll be twenty-seven, and in less than a month it will be the anniversary of the first school shooting I ever knew, and today millions of people marched in America. I wanted to march with them. I didn’t.

Instead, I sat on my couch and looked at photos of the signs in Washington, in New York, in the town next to my own hometown. I watched the speeches as they went online, and I read the signs, and I cried and then cried again.

Shortly after I started my job in 2016, we had a whole-building fire safety meeting. I work on the fourteenth of sixteen floors, so knowing the location of the stairs feels more important than it usually does. There were doughnuts and coffee. There were handouts. I, once and always the class pet, took a pen so I could write down notes.

After most of an hour, the speaker had exhausted most of what could be said about concrete stairwells and headcounts and said, “Now let’s talk about active shooters.”

And I wrote down active shooters like it was normal, because it’s normal.

This is what it means to have grown up in the world where Columbine was possible, where Columbine was not the last time, or even the first: I think about active shooters a lot. There are so many ways to die. I know that now. I’ve known that for most of my life. And so I always look for the closest exit in the classroom, the mall, the movie theater, the office, the way I was once taught to look for escape routes in a burning house. The only time I ever skipped class in college, it was because the classroom was small and narrow and a classmate I felt uneasy about sat right next to the door. It was fine; they were harmless. It’s usually fine. They’re usually harmless. But what if, what if, what if.

Today I woke up with plenty of time to go to the march and thought about all the high places in Manhattan, about long-range rifles, about how much some people love their guns, and I was too afraid. What if. What if.

The speaker at our fire safety meeting told us that this kind of surveillance was good and useful. You should always know your surroundings. You should always know which furniture is movable, in case you need to barricade the door. Think about angles of ricochet. Think about what you could hide behind, what is dense enough to stop a bullet. Some bullets, at least. Think of what about you is soft and unprotected: your stomach, your face, your heart.

Some part of me wonders if there is a safety house for this, and if not, whether we should make one. The least we can be is honest to our children. Lead them all, one class at a time, into the little trailer where the rooms are laid out like the school they have just left. Show them how to play dead. Show them how many ways there are to fire.

On bad days I read surgeons’ reports of what an AR-15 does to a body and think about the nonzero chance that I, a person living in America, will be in the wrong place at the wrong time someday. That my face becomes one of many faces on the evening news for a day or two, until there are others, because there are always others. When I was a junior in college, a man who lived about a block from me took his guns to Western Psych and shot until the Pitt police shot him. I was home on spring break. I cried then too.

There’s a line I’ve never been able to shake in Denis Johnson’s “Car-Crash While Hitchhiking” about “a family from Marshalltown who head–onned and killed forever a man driving west out of Bethany, Missouri….

Killed forever, I imagine telling my little-kid self, the version of me who was alarmed by artificial smoke and worried about quicksand.

And what do I do, I imagine that little kid asking.

I don’t know, I would say. I am saying. I don’t know. I will teach you what I know about surviving. But it’s nothing you should ever have to learn.

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dancing on my own

At a certain point, you have to accept that you just aren’t going to be a prodigy. That’s easier said than done. But I have a fourteen-year-old pen pal; I’ve been staring this one down for months now.

It’s not that I never tried to be exceptional. In my tenderer years I hammered my way through scales on the piano, entered children’s writing contests, briefly attempted to train myself into ambidexterity. I was a spelling bee champion, for God’s sake! Honorable mention at Math Field Day! But none of this, absolutely none of this, changes the fact that if my pen pal wrote right now to ask what my most exciting recent accomplishment was, I would have to tell her the truth: that I helped my boyfriend assemble an IKEA TV stand, which we purchased based on its reasonable price and neutral, professional color scheme. No one who gets excited about a nice FJÄLLBO is young enough for a Guinness World Record anymore.

I won’t say much about my pen pal – my friend – here. As far as I know, she doesn’t yet use social media, and she should get to decide for herself who she is on the internet someday. It’s enough to say that our families go to church together back home, that she loves writing and reading, and that I am enormously fond of her, so last Pascha I gave her my email address. There’s almost never enough time to say all you want to say, but what I wanted to say in the church hall that day was I would love to keep in touch with you, and it barely took any time at all.

Ever since, S and I have sent book recommendations back and forth, compared notes on our adventures, written our way into knowing each other better. Sometimes a whole month goes by between messages, which is usually my  fault. A month is a long time: it’s one rent check, or two therapy appointments, or about fifty swipes on an MTA card. Or four phone calls home – more if I’m especially happy or especially sad. But a month is about how long I need to think of something interesting to say.

In my letters, I’m on my best behavior: no swearing, no stories about drinking or kissing. No existential dread. No bummers. Which is funny, because I don’t want her to feel like she has to be on her best behavior with me. Does that make any sense? It’s as though I don’t know exactly which fourteen she is yet. Some fourteens are older than others. And some twenty-sixes are younger.

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self-portrait circa 1997

The thing about writing to a fourteen-year-old, especially if your own experience of being fourteen was kind of traumatic, is that you end up feeling like you’re writing to yourself.

And I do remember being that age. Being that girl. I remember what it was like to have my first-ever boyfriend, my first-ever high school class – what it was like to know that every day I was alive was a new personal record. The Guinness Book of Adolescence, basically. No one had ever been this young, this old, this terrified before. No one had been me before in a way that was going to be useful, though I kept reading through the library stacks hoping to be proven wrong. What I remember is that everything felt like so much, and there was no way to feel it less. When my first-ever boyfriend gave me the first-ever Franz Ferdinand album for my fourteenth birthday (had anyone been fourteen before?), I put it on the stereo while my parents were still at work and danced, alone, awkward, giddy, through song after song after song.

But that’s why it’s hard to write to S sometimes. She’s herself, not a reference to anything else. That’s the other thing I remember about being fourteen. Adults were always looking at me and seeing themselves, talking to me as though I could give their younger selves whatever message they’d needed. Which I absolutely could not. After all, I was busy being the first-ever teenager, inventing love, inventing sorrow.

Recently, in the course of trying to fix a problem that I think I actually created, I messed up my email inbox. In short, I have two personal accounts, both on Gmail: one is nina.sabak, created when I was applying to college, and the other is two words I thought sounded nice together, created when I was thirteen. The former is forwarded to the latter, though it would have made more sense the other way around. And when I was rattling around in Settings, I hit something that made nina.sabak re-forward every email it’s ever gotten.

A week later, I’ve more or less clawed my way back to the surface. Twelve thousand emails is a lot of emails, even when most of them are alerts about sales that ended years ago. After deleting all the junk, the old news, the expired notifications, I am intimately familiar with my entire inbox. And that’s to say that I am intimately familiar, so far as such a thing is possible, with every self I wrote myself into being between 2008 and now. Ten years is a long time, you know. It’s the difference between applying to college and willingly assembling a FJÄLLBO with your boyfriend at 2 AM on a Saturday night.

I saved all of S’s emails from the purge, obviously. I saved all the emails that mattered and all of the emails that half-mattered, plus the emails that might matter again someday. Gracious replies from authors I loved; orientation details from my undergrad enrollment at Pitt; everything my mother has ever sent me.

If I’d actually written anything to my fourteen-year-old self, I would have saved it too. I like to think.

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self-portrait circa 2006

I’ll be twenty-seven next month, which is easily the most ludicrous thing that’s happened since I turned twenty-six. Each year I drift farther from the piano scales and spelling bee trophies and closer to becoming who I am next. I am not done growing up. I may never be.

One of these weeks S will write back to me to tell me what book she most recently loved. One of these weeks I’ll go request that book from the library so I can read it and tell her what I think, because that’s how this works: we both give a little, and we both take.

A funny thing happened while I was sifting through my mountains and mountains of duplicate emails. For once, I could see how whole years of my life fit together. On one page I found an email from that first-ever boyfriend titled “sorry,” and on the next page I found another. In the end I found more apologies than I wanted to count, more half-apologies, more angry parting shots. I found years’ worth of his words that still sting. On one page I found the first message one friend ever wrote me, and a few minutes later I found the last. I found my own letters to my mother from when I needed to tell her that I’d invented panic attacks and insomnia, from when I had my heart broken for the first time, then the second, then the third. I found alerts about sales that ended years ago. I found bus and train and plane tickets, Seamless orders, notes from myself exhorting myself to be kind.

And I found the first email S sent me last year. And I found my reply. I think – I hope – it was adequate. What is it I should be telling her? What advice, if any, would do?

I already know what I’d tell myself because I’ve had my whole life to think it over, and because it’s the advice I still need to hear. Be gentle with yourself. Let the world in. Are spoilers permitted? There are so many shortcuts I’d take. It ends badly, I’d say to my kid self as we read the apologies and flinch, so get out now. Maybe I’d follow myself to school, dog my own reluctant footsteps, whisper you don’t have to do this alone. 

Over coffee, which one of us likes and one of us hasn’t yet learned to, I’d tell myself that it works out okay, at least so far. That I make it to the future. That I grow up and move away and learn to cook orzo in my kitchen in Brooklyn while my boyfriend lies across the couch and tells me jokes just to hear me laugh. That swearing and drinking and kissing are among life’s great pleasures, and that you can love your life even while you’re still learning how to love yourself. I would tell myself that there are more important things to be than exceptional. And my younger self would nod at all of this and take careful notes and believe none of it, because your own life is not something you can be told.

S doesn’t need advice from me. If anything, I’m the one who should be listening.

No one has ever been this young, this old, this terrified before, Nina. Not even you.

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i must not think bad thoughts

The bagel I broke my tooth on at work wasn’t even hard – that was the humiliating thing. For all I know, that particular lower canine just had had enough of being associated with me. When something like this happens, it’s hard not to take it personally.

In any case, I was totally unprepared to feel something familiar floating in the wrong place. I spat out the bite – my first of the morning – as delicately as I could. And there was half of my tooth: bloodless, inevitable. I hadn’t seen one of my teeth outside of my mouth since I was a kid. Six and twenty-six; I’m taller now, but it felt about the same.

It’s hard to concentrate when the geography of your mouth has changed. (It’s hard to concentrate in 2017, period.) I made an emergency appointment at the nearest dentist’s office, and within two hours I was lying back under lights and mirrors and a stranger’s gloved hands. I’d brought the half-tooth in a Ziploc bag, for reasons that now baffle me. Did I think they could put it back in? Did I think I was a jigsaw puzzle? Maybe I was worried that they’d need proof that I hadn’t always been like this, i.e. wrong-mouthed and imperceptibly broken.

When the emergency dentist took his fingers and his mirror out of my mouth, I swallowed and said, “Do you ever have dreams about your teeth falling out?” This is maybe not good small talk, but the day was already off the rails, and I was leaning into it. Besides, he was a very nice man who hadn’t judged me for bringing him half a tooth in a Ziploc bag.

Of course,” he said. “All the time.”

“Oh, thank God,” I said, and we both laughed.

Someone else did my filling a couple weeks later and then my check-up, so I haven’t seen my dentist friend since. But I think about that exchange a lot. Even dentists, I tell myself approximately one million times a day, have that fear. It’s okay. It’s okay. And I tongue my reconstructed tooth, which is subtly but definitely different-feeling from its predecessor, to make sure it’s still there. It always is, but I’m never convinced until I feel it. It always is, but every time I bite something, I’m sure I felt it breaking. I’d better check. I’d better check.

When my teeth fall out in my dreams, they all fall out, one by one and then in impossible handfuls. To be honest, I think that dreams are mostly the brain composting its leftovers. To be honest, I still look up dream meanings anyway, hoping one of them will explain myself to me. So far, no luck. And I am running out of places to store the things that come out of my mouth.

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I just read the newest John Green book because the reviews made it sound basically like a book about my brain and because my therapist just read it too. And really, what is therapy but a chance to form a book club that’s unusually difficult to tell your friends about?

The most frequently invoked image (no spoilers, it’s literally on the cover) is a spiral. The main character gets stuck in her thoughts frequently and at random, in loops that get smaller and smaller and smaller. The farther down, the harder to describe. The more wordless, the lonelier.

But at one point, she observes that spirals go the other way, too: endlessly moving outward, sweeping up everything. At my best, I’m like that. I can make connections between ideas faster than I can reason my way into them. The words appear and I take them. A friend once told me that I must live five seconds in the future, which remains both the best compliment I’ve ever received and my pitch for a terribly mundane Marvel superhero movie.

If I’m fast, I’m fast in both directions. Here I am, saying the right thing at your party. Here I am, checking my tooth for the fiftieth time, cracking my knuckles till they’re long past sore, returning again and again and again to the same thought, as if I ever really left it.

As a little girl, I had rituals. Of course, I’ve come to understand that little-girlhood is more or less comprised of rituals. Adulthood, ditto. But mine were different, urgent, inexplicable; I always felt that the entire world would go sideways if I didn’t do everything right. This door has to be closed twice. This faucet has to be checked and checked and checked again. This is the moment you have to touch something to prove that you’re real, and so is this one, and so is this one. I was, in other words, a small DSM-IV set loose to agonize itself into any number of beliefs and self-loathings, all of them intensely private and shameful.

The first inkling I had that I was not uniquely wrong and broken was in 2001, when I saw an episode of Invader Zim – one of the few I ever watched – called “Germs.” The plot, which I’ve somehow remembered for all these years, involves Zim donning a pair of germ-vision glasses. His fear, when it arrives, is all-consuming; he spends the remainder of the plot feverishly sterilizing and disinfecting everything he can, though the germs always come back. I think it was supposed to be funny. For me, at ten, it was very serious. How did you know that? I wanted to ask. I didn’t tell you. 

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I’ve eaten approximately a hundred and twenty bagels since I broke my tooth, and so far, none of them have sent me back to the dentist. I would relax, if relaxing were a thing I did. Who knows? I might still give it a shot.

I’ve had this mantra since I was a kid, sort of like an incantation to ward off bad thoughts, a command to myself to please just be normal for once. It’s shut up, but you have to say it over and over again. Shut up shut up shut up shut up shut up. (Or else what? Or else it doesn’t work?) Over the last few months, I’ve been trying to replace it. Over the last few months, I’ve been trying to explain myself to myself the way a friend would. There’s a first time for everything, I guess. This is the year I learn to be gentle with the little girl I still am.

For the record, I am trying out okay. I am getting used to the geography of my mouth with that word in it.

My tiny book club meets tomorrow, and there’s a lot to discuss. It’s not going to be the way it sometimes is, when the words just appear and I take them. So let it be messy. I am no longer collecting my proof in Ziploc bags. I will still exist without it.

I think. I hope. I’ll check.

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