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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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keep me warm

Last summer, when I wasn’t busy applying to jobs or having mild crises of identity, I taught myself to crochet. It is good to have a hobby that isn’t unemployment or anxiety. Besides, I was already a natural at those, and life is all about challenges.

To be fair, I didn’t really start from the beginning. Some evening in the endless summer of my childhood, when I was maybe eight and freshly myopic and still afraid of most dogs, my aunt showed me how to do the chain stitch. (Side note: in my memory, it was always summer in the 1990s, or else Christmas. Every foggy morning or spring evening has been rounded up or down accordingly. I cannot explain this.) Being an only child in a small family meant that staying the night at a relative’s house was among the chief pleasures of this earth. If you are young and excitable, as I was and still am, everyone who impresses you is a minor celebrity, and no one impressed me more than my own blood; I had made a lifelong study of them.

And so Beth showed me how to turn the hook, how to hold the yarn, and I was in business. I loved it. So satisfying to make something out of nothing, to make a snake that…well, went on forever because I either never got the hang of turning or was too intimidated to try. I could only do the chain stitch. If you wanted an ineffective scarf, I was your girl; maybe bespoke equipment for the world’s gentlest tug-of-war. How you got from a fistful of chains to a blanket was a mystery, and one I did not feel equipped to investigate.

After a while, my fascination ran its course, and I went back to making the other dozen crafts I loved: hand-drawn clothes for paper dolls, little dioramas folded and taped out of scratch paper, scraps of cloth unevenly embroidered. My parents have kept all of these things, done with more enthusiasm than skill, and sometimes we pull them out when I am home. (Like I said: only child.) At some point my projects seemed childish and I stopped. At some point or another, a lot of things have seemed childish and I stopped, though now I so often wish I hadn’t. Not because I would have been a master dioramist by now, but because I miss that girl, the one who made tiny bookshelves and chairs out of extra spelling worksheets.

In 2016, I hadn’t drawn a paper doll for years, but I had just woken up from the last school night of my entire life, and my hands felt empty. After twenty years in school, I was cut loose to wander the apartment in my pajamas at 11 am and try to figure out who I was going to be. There’s only so much YouTube and boxed wine. There are only so many ways you can stall. I missed New York and my boyfriend as much as I loved Pittsburgh and my friends, and at some point I was going to choose which place was next; at some point, I was going to need to admit that I had already chosen.

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My best friend knits. A lot of my friends do, actually, but Karen is one of the people I talk to most: multiple times a day, every day, though she’s in Chicago and I’m here. Some kinds of conversation are a sacrament, I think – the kind you can pick back up without preamble, as though whatever time has elapsed passed without mattering. Ours is one of those.

Last year, before the summer began, she and her boyfriend visited me at my old apartment in Pittsburgh, and we all went to a yarn store so I could buy needles and something soft and pretty. I was still a student, desperate to keep learning. On the couch, she showed me the knit stitch over and over until I got it, sort of, then forgot it, then got it, then mangled it, then tore everything out and started again. Her boyfriend sat nearby with a crochet hook and a project of his own. It was quiet. (Side note: in my memory it was always quiet that spring, like we were all holding our breaths, but really, it was only me.)

But after they went back to Chicago, I couldn’t make my hands move right anymore. The yarn kept falling slack and my stitches got looser and wilder, and I tore them out, and I tore them out, until there weren’t any left to undo. By graduation, I’d forgotten how to cast on, and that was the end of it, because you can’t stitch into a row that doesn’t exist.

Once upon a time I had known how to make foundations; once upon a time, that was the only thing I’d known. I laced up my sneakers and walked back to the yarn store alone. Four miles round trip, but it wasn’t like I had class to rest up for anymore. And I bought a set of hooks that looked like the ones I’d used almost twenty years before, though memory is tricky and a lot of things that look familiar aren’t – though I will tell you that when I got back to my apartment and relearned the one stitch I’d ever known, it felt like coming home.

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Here is a short list of places I have crocheted:

The New York Public Library, most days on my break from work. Bryant Park when it’s nice. Greeley Square, where I once lost a hook. My office once when it was raining and I was the last person there. My couch, obviously. My bed, obviously. The L train but not the 6, because I only ride it for three stops. My parents’ couch, where my dad sat next to me for hours on end and watched me, sipping coffee, telling me I was patient, and I guess I am. The floor of the bedroom I grew up in, working as fast as I could to finish a scarf for my mother. My dad’s car, whenever he drove me to Michaels last summer because I was home and we wanted to do something, anything, together; because I adore my parents but I was going to leave anyway.

Here is a short list of things I have crocheted:

Five scarves, one for me and four for people I love. Two cats. One bunny. Five pussyhats. Over half of an afghan, though stay tuned. Most of a shawl – remind me to pick up more yarn. Three cactuses. An indeterminate number of tiny octopuses. One deformed semi-rectangle that I am keeping as a reminder that I am allowed to be bad at things, maybe even very bad.

Here is a story: for my birthday, Griffin took me to a yarn store in the Village that we stumbled upon last year and that he’d quietly remembered for, what, eight or nine months, because I had loved it and had refused to buy anything. Did I say it was too expensive? Did I say I wasn’t good enough for yarn that nice? Those both sound like things I would tell him. He told me I had to pick out at least five skeins; he knew me, he said, and he knew I would choose two and say that was enough, that that was all I needed.

In my memory, it was sunny when he said this. In my memory, it is always sunny when I’m with him, even on the days I know it rained, even when it’s night. A person who knows you and loves you and is gentle with you, who can persuade you to be gentle with yourself – that’s sunshine.

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In a month, I will have lived in Brooklyn for a year. This feels impossible, but it’s true. My life is happening, and I’m in it.

From here to work is eight miles, if you drive. From here to my last apartment in Pittsburgh, three hundred and seventy-two. From here to the house I grew up in, four hundred and one, though I pretend every day that it’s less.

I think – but am not sure – that if you tore out every stitch I’ve ever made and laid that yarn along the highways, you would make it to one of these places. I just don’t know which one.

How did I hold a needle, back when I sewed? How did I draw a paper ballgown? How did I make those dioramas, those many imaginary rooms, carried carefully from school to the dining room table, where I would explain each piece: a tiny coffee table for tiny books I hadn’t yet written, a bed the size of my thumb, a little rug to warm even smaller feet? Why did I spend so much time on my obsessions, and when did I stop?

A few months ago I taught one of my friends to crochet, and she watched my hands so carefully, the way I watched Karen’s once. Some kinds of silence are a sacrament, I think. Ours was. And then she went home and taught herself more, the names of stitches, the different weights of yarn, the feeling of doing something a thousand times and then a thousand times more. Not perfectly but patiently. Maybe that is a sacrament too.

It turns out I’m still a student. It turns out that I will never know everything, just enough, and just barely. It turns out it isn’t that hard to turn a fistful of chains into a blanket, actually. This girl in 1999 ought to know that. But it’s okay; she’s going to find out.

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gone sour

As an elementary-schooler, I had difficulty putting consonants together. I was solid on R, reliable with S, did not stutter, but the complex sounds of the language – ch, th, and so on – eluded me. Maybe this wouldn’t have been a problem if my own last name didn’t begin with a whispered shhShah-bahk. But I didn’t talk much anyway: it’s a wonder anyone noticed.

So I went to speech therapy, along with the other kids who couldn’t quite pronounce what they needed to say. I don’t really remember much of it: it was held in a small, warm room where I got to read aloud, my favorite thing, feeling my way through the words I sped through in my head. There were take-home worksheets of vocabulary to practice, accompanied with helpful line art: catcher with attending leather glove, swingset with chains slack, chair with no one in it. At my baba’s house, I said slowpoke and an uncle feigned insult. Or maybe he really was insulted. I was eager to explain that this was homework, not a thing I’d meant about him. I was that kind of kid: eager.

This was kindergarten and first grade, my introduction to academics, like a tiny debutante. I loved school the way I’d loved looking at maps long before their letters made sense to me. These things were proof of the enormous world. I wanted all of it.

But I was shy. But I was anxious. I don’t know which came first anymore. I have always been self-conscious, prone to debilitating worry, though it was college before I understood that not everyone felt like throwing up before tests they’d studied for. As a little girl, I was both things simultaneously, afraid of people even as I longed for them, tongue-tied and hiding behind a sofa if something suddenly made noise. Catlike, maybe, though most of the cats I’ve known have the extravagant confidence of creatures who only fear death, not humiliation. I was skittish. I didn’t talk much, anyway.

I graduated from speech therapy in 1997, able to pronounce anything you threw at me but afraid I might still slip up. When my teachers asked for volunteers to read aloud, I thrust my hand up and closed my eyes, feeling a little sick. This was my favorite thing. And often I was chosen, because I was that kind of kid, not quite a teacher’s pet but a little too nerdy and sincere to be quite anything else. Mostly I said the words right. Mostly I felt such relief afterward, such disappointment it was over, even as I pretended not to feel the cold, wet armpits of my shirts.

From almost twenty years away, my childhood seems gentle and indistinct. I can’t really remember the intricacies of my playground alliances, of the few sworn enemies I had, and the fights – if you could even call them that – that we had by the slides. I never hit anyone, never even swung, because I could argue. Everyone loves a pedantic girl, right? Weird and competent kids have their own kind of power.

There was one accusation, though, that I was powerless against. It came from classmates and their parents alike, sometimes presented to me directly, sometimes relayed telephone-style. It had to do with the way I carried myself those years that I was learning to shape the language in my mouth, those years I was afraid of embarrassing myself and certain that I would, the way I hung back and stayed quiet and avoided eye contact so no one would realize how very strange and uncool I was. Self-deprecation plays very differently than you intend sometimes. It went like this: “My mom says you’re spoiled.”

Or, variation on a theme, “You think you’re better than everybody.”

Or, as the father of some friends once put it while we were alone together on the family porch and I stared at my knees: “You aren’t too good to talk to me.”

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a portrait of the (very concerned) artist on the first day of kindergarten, 1996

I still have trouble with certain letters, especially if I talk too fast. And I almost always talk too fast, in part because at nearly 26 I’m still a little shy about you listening to me speak. It’s the classic chicken and egg scenario, if the chicken were something just shy of a speech impediment and the egg were an anxiety disorder. You know: the usual configuration.

(And I do talk too fast, am infamous for it, had to repeat myself endlessly and more slowly until I moved to New York, where everyone is apparently rushed for time or just as eager and anxious as I am. This is my other great self-consciousness. Oh, the misery of not being understood when it took you so much to speak in the first place.)

What’s accent and what’s a trick of my own tongue? I drop the first R in particularly, sometimes in yesterday, always in alternative. (The first months of this administration have been hell in part because I cannot get this one down. Altuhnative, altuhnative, altuhnative.) Sometimes it all comes out at once, not so much a mumble as a crash landing. I do enunciate, sometimes too much, and I tend towards the four-syllable words I’ve loved since I first soldiered through them as a child. In recent years, I have made peace with this, with the fact that I don’t really sound like anyone but myself, though maybe I’m growing into it. A professor told me recently that I’d seemed a little uncanny when we first met, when I was twenty. “The vocabulary?” I said. “The vocabulary,” he said.

I didn’t talk much, anyway, and then I did.

It’s been years since someone called me spoiled for being so quiet. That’s the sort of thing that stops sounding like a good argument once you’re both over eighteen and your household’s parenting style is no longer quite as relevant. That’s the sort of thing that is less cutting when the person you’re talking to is funny, and I – shy, anxious child – learned to be funny. Sometimes I wonder if humor isn’t just a response to fear. Sometimes I wonder if everything isn’t just a response to fear.

Still, I’m myself, and I remember how it stung to be on the playground, the porch, the room where the mothers waited during ballet practice, the bedroom of one friend or another, and to feel like maybe it was true. Maybe, like milk, I was spoiled: unremarkable until I’d gone sour, despite my best intentions.

There’s a way you are meant to engage with the world if you are a little girl, or a full-sized girl, or a woman. There’s a humility that is expected of you, a friendliness whose absence is punished. Lately I don’t give it so much mind, but even on particularly sunny days, when I am telling a story that someone has asked to hear, I wonder: am I talking too much? (Hand up, eyes closed, stomach clenched. This is my favorite thing.)

Pronounce these words for me: spoiled, exhausting, self-absorbed. Say bitch – you’re old enough now. Now say them again. Now say them again.

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a portrait of the artist looking profound, circa 2004

The other day I went for bagels with my boyfriend at the place around the corner, which we visit most weekends because they know us by now. It feels nice to be recognized in a city as big as this one. It’s named for our neighborhood in Brooklyn, Bushwick, even though it’s technically a block over the border into Ridgewood, Queens. Neighborhoods are fuzzy. Boroughs definitely are not.

We ate our bagels in relative silence, me slower than him as always, and we split an almond croissant that tasted like sugar and perfect autumn days. And I sipped my coffee and tried to say this thing that’s been bothering me for as long as I can remember. I thought, I feel like I take up so much space. I said, “I feel like I talk too much.”

He said, “You don’t talk enough.”

I looked at him then, this person with warm brown eyes and, just then, a couple of crumbs in his beard, who has spent more time listening to me than most people besides my parents, who was looking back at me. I was all my different selves at once: the one learning to pronounce her own name and the one afraid to speak in case she stumbled through it, the one who didn’t think she was better than anyone, the one who didn’t talk much anyway. And this self, whoever I will later know her as, the one who is trying and trying and trying.

We learned to pronounce consonant clusters in speech: ch, th, and so on. I said, “Thank you.”

Pronounce these words for me: chastened, grateful. Say older. Say good enough.

That’s good enough. That’s good enough.

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witches of the subway

It’s impossible to spend more than thirty seconds in New York without seeing an ad. This is especially true on the trains. I’ve passed the time in many stations by staring across the tracks at a celebrity, or a perfectly photographed orange, or foot-tall letters that spell out a brand name I don’t know. For a brief and brutal period in September, posters for Kevin Can Wait were everywhere, Kevin James meeting my eyes as I waited (and waited) for the L.

Mostly the ads get defaced after a while. Sometimes an anonymous New Yorker will scrawl their tag or draw something phallic, like it’s any other flat surface, but my favorite improvements are the ones that interact with the image at hand. In my beloved Halsey station, there was recently an ad up reading Your Video Could Be Great, under which someone added But You Weak, and I laughed every time I saw it.

Lately there’s another, very literal style of defacement. It’s done by peeling away part of the poster on top, maybe with an X-Acto knife, and letting the old layers show through. Usually this is done to the eyes or mouth of some famous stranger printed larger than life, and it’s unsettling if you’re not expecting it – a particularly spooky collage. The face seems wounded, blinded, and the eyes aren’t empty but full of something you can’t see all of. A concert from last summer, maybe. A kind of soda. Good things whose time has gone.

I feel like that sometimes: like there are things in me that everyone else can see, that I never will. Like all of a sudden it’s gotten very, very dark.

So I suppose it’s just as well I didn’t dress up for Halloween this year. The farther we get into fall each year, the more I find myself haunted. It’s like that sometimes when the seasons change. It’s like that all the time if your brain is sitting in the wrong kind of soup, a chemical wash I inherited from generations of other sad girls, family that’s familiar to me in only this one way. I think of depression as a cat that doesn’t quite love me; it ignores me most of the time, and I frighten it off, and we track each other around the apartment until at last it curls up against me to keep me warm. Is it strange to think of an illness like that, as a companion? But then, what else is it?

This isn’t the same as being unhappy. It’s not at all like being unhappy. Let me qualify myself; let me tell you that, somehow, I ended up as one of the world’s great optimists, almost painfully earnest, just a shade this side of twee. (“You,” my boyfriend says, “are whimsical.”) And even now that the light is getting shorter and I have to bundle sweaters over sweaters in the gray mornings, all of this – this life, this city – seems so impossible and wonderful that I, foolish, eager, must write about it.

In past years I did dress up, you know. My Halloween costumes have always been pretty nakedly aspirational. For proof, there’s my early-90s run as, first, a ballerina; then, a princess; then, a “ballerina princess.” As a middle schooler, I braided my hair to be Anne of Green Gables and was bemused when the neighbors couldn’t place me. She was my hero at the time. She was awkward and lovable, and I was awkward, and I wanted to be lovable too.

Then I became a teenager and got self-conscious and didn’t participate – minus the one party I went to in 2004 dressed as myself and claiming to be a sociopath. “You can never tell,” I told everyone spookily. Partway through the evening, a boy my age introduced himself and offered to get me a can of soda. (Let me parse that: a boy introduced himself and offered to get me a soda. We were thirteen, and this was probably the closest I’ll ever come to a stranger sending me a drink from the end of the bar.) So I sat on the porch waiting for him to return, overwhelmed with excitement, heart hammering too hard to make my costume convincing. A little sociopath who felt everything at once.

This year, Halloween was on a Monday, which made the commute home especially surreal. I rode the 6 downtown with witches and cats and a man whose face was painted like a skull, with tiny girls dressed in butterfly wings. At Union Square I walked down one long hallway next to a dominatrix who may actually have been a dominatrix. She was tiny, a flash of skin and leather, and she held her whip in her left hand. A real whip, maybe; but isn’t anything a real whip if it hurts?

My sole concession to the holiday this year was a trip to Rite-Aid while Griffin and I were briefly pretending we might go out. He’d had to go into work at lunchtime, and when he called long after sunset to say that at last he was coming home, I said I’d go buy us some supplies. Just in case.  And so I prowled the seasonal aisle, examining every last thing that was left.

There wasn’t much, not on October 29. Everyone else had planned better. I ended up at the register with a witch’s hat, some vampire fangs, face paint in lurid shades of white, black, and red. A bag of fun-sized chocolates, not for sharing but for hoarding, and a box of Frankenstein Peeps: I only recently realized that my Jewish boyfriend has had no reason to eat much Easter candy, and Peeps are an important part of my life philosophy. The man who rang me up was familiar the way anyone you see day after day becomes familiar. So many people whose names I’ve never learned but whose faces I’ve learned by heart: each an inoculation against loneliness. The witch hat went into the bag and I swiped my card and then I was out on the sidewalk again, the night unusually warm against my cheek.

(I’m generally in that particular store to buy Magic Erasers and Dr. Pepper and the other mundane treats of adulthood. Last week I bought a scented candle because I wanted to see what being the kind of person who buys scented candles feels like. If you’re wondering, I felt exactly like myself. If you’re wondering, most of the time I feel exactly like myself.)

Back at the apartment, I made pasta and we ate it sitting side by side at the kitchen table, plus boxed wine in cheap glasses, plus the Milky Ways and Snickers we pulled out of the bag in handfuls. The idea of dressing up and going out again seemed like something nice other people might do, so we didn’t, and instead we set up camp on the couch. It was cozy there, with blankets and my crocheting bag and the Wii singing Super Mario Galaxy songs. The witch hat still in its bag, the fangs harmless in their plastic.

I’m so tempted to give in to my basest AP English impulses and say something about what it means that I didn’t make a costume this year, what it means that Halloween is and has always been about disguises, a sort of layman’s drag night. I’m so tempted to say this is my mask as I pull it off and reveal who I really am. But if I’m wearing a mask at all, it’s the same thing as my face, and nothing dazzles about that boring truth.

A few weeks ago, raw-nerved, half-empty and half-sorrowful, I curled into my boyfriend’s chest and cried for reasons that didn’t interest me even then. He stroked my hair until I’d finished wrecking my third Kleenex.

I said, “This is so boring. I am so, so tired of this.” This meaning emptiness. This meaning sorrow.

“It’s okay,” he said. “It’s okay.”

And an hour later – I don’t even remember what we were doing an hour later because all these happinesses blur together, and I was happy. Was happy even as I was weeping into his sweater. Am happy often, nearly always, despite the little black cat that trails me around like a familiar.

I will put the witch hat away until next year and try again, and we’ll see if the face paint keeps. I still haven’t ever been a witch. Maybe I’d be good at it. My costumes, remember, have always been aspirational.

This morning I walked along the Halsey platform before the L came, hunting out my favorite of those posters with the collaged eyes and mouths. But it’s gone now; they’re all gone now, most of them. In another week or two, maybe their replacements will be more interesting, but right now all of the ads are crisp and new and ungraffitied. When I look into the photos’ eyes, I don’t see anything but eyes. And I feel like that sometimes: like maybe I’m nothing spooky or unsettling, not a woman-shaped bomb at all, just a woman waiting for the train.

This is my face. It’s the only one I’ve got. I think it is going to do.

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cicada season

I’m not much for nostalgia, but the last month of grad school I started missing the life I was still living. Maybe it’s because all I really knew was how to be a student. In 1996 I first hung my sweater on a hook in the kindergarten cubby, and twenty years later I handed in my master’s thesis. The MFA is a terminal degree, and so unless I change fields or go for a creative PhD, I am finished with all of it. Strange feeling.

And I do mean that I literally handed my thesis in, this half-a-novel I’d picked at and torn up and rewritten and rewritten again. At Pitt you must still make a physical copy and submit it to the department before you’re permitted to graduate. I paid to have it printed and bound at Kinko’s, and I hugged it against my chest all the way down Forbes Avenue. Writing is so lonely sometimes, can feel so insubstantial, that to have one hundred and fifty pages of my own work in my arms was overwhelming. This thing was my weird little baby, and I was responsible for it. (The Little Prince: “You are responsible forever for what you have tamed.” Then again, I don’t claim to have tamed anything yet.)

The Cathedral of Learning was pumped full of cold air in response to the tentative April heat. On the fifth floor, I gave the man in the English office my coil-bound book and the signed committee form. We stood there for a  moment. He said, “Feels like there should be more, huh?” I said, “Sure does.” Then I walked outside to buy myself a milkshake at Rita’s.

I didn’t know what was supposed to come next, and a milkshake seemed as likely as anything.

Nostalgia is a pretty natural response to anticlimax. Anticlimax isn’t the same thing as disappointment; at least, I wasn’t disappointed. It’s more like the following: here I am, having done this thing I always wanted to do, an adult at last. But I am still the same person I was all those days I was just dreaming. 

So what else can you do but feel that all those days must have meant something more? That your dreaming was the entire point? All at once, this surge of affection for the seven years I’d spent as a student at Pitt, for the endless cheap pizza and late nights, the quiet hours bent over one book or another, the places that had worked their way into my own personal history. The gazebo in Schenley Park: I once cried there. The bus stop outside the Carnegie Public Library: I had juggled so many armfuls of plastic-bound books there. The quiet stretch of Dithridge past Bayard Street: I had lived there, walked to and from class there, watched the purple starless sky there.

The end of history illusion is the belief that you are done changing. My fifteen-year-old self embarrasses me more than my twenty-five-year-old self, but at some point in the future I won’t recognize either of them as me. I don’t know what I don’t know, much less what I’ll learn and forget and celebrate and mourn and say, and it’s easier to think that I could predict these things, I really could, if I just gave some thought to it.

I’ll always remember this, I thought, walking down Fifth Avenue with my milkshake in hand, but the truth is, I couldn’t tell you anymore what I was wearing.

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A couple weeks ago I found a daddy-long-legs in the bathtub before work. There wasn’t enough time to coax it out before I turned the shower on, and I’ve never been that good with crises anyway, so I apologized the entire time I was carrying it to the toilet, as I dumped it in and flushed. This is the cockeyed philosophy of my childhood. I am alive and I am afraid; you are alive, so you must be afraid, too.

And you know what, I still feel a little guilty. It was such a small thing, spindle-legged and harmless. Besides, I once made a promise not to kill things. I was five and had just run over a caterpillar on my bike to see what would happen, and what happened was that it burst onto the sidewalk, its insides a color and texture I was never supposed to see. Disgusting, but I didn’t cry out of disgust. It’s just that I understood, for the first time, that this moment could not be undone.

You cannot live any meaningful life without understanding that. You cannot live any meaningful life without mistakes, or so I want to believe. But the nostalgia then, at five, for the person I had just ceased to be: a tiny redheaded girl who would never, never, never.

Maybe that’s what nostalgia is, then: a way to miss the person you were. A particular kind of self-indulgence. A school yearbook that is only ever you. It’s been decades since I got glasses and grew taller and stopped seeing caterpillars anywhere at all, the way you stop seeing an entire specific world once you’re old enough. I knew the ecology of the backyard and the shadows of birds, how grass smelled when smashed into my knees, the weight of a rock in my pocket. More things I thought I’d always remember. When was the last time I held dirt in my own bare hands?

The daddy-long-legs was my billionth bug of the summer but the first (and only?) that I killed. Back home, in West Virginia, the seventeen-year cicadas crawled above ground for the first time since 1999. That was the year I was eight, a whole lifetime older than five. Eight, for me, was flyaway hair and the first twinges of an anxiety disorder, ballet lessons that I was never much good at, a little shyness about pronouncing the letter r. Eight was the cicadas, constant and buzzing, their heavy bodies falling improbably through the air. They had eyes big enough to look into. Their weight against my shins was unsettling.

The end of history illusion: the belief that I was incomplete at eight, am complete at twenty-five. And what will I say about this other cicada season one day? Twenty-five: still the flyaway hair, still the anxiety. This was the year I ate popcorn for dinner on the nights when I was tired or sad, the year I finished half a novel and have not known what to do with my hands ever since.

Whenever I was home – never often enough, never long enough – I watched the cicadas through my bedroom window. The remnants of your childhood are supposed to get smaller as you get older, aren’t they? And yet here were these little zeppelins, these thin-winged engines, and their eyes were still just as big.

One morning in June my parents and I went for a drive and, less than a block later, my father abruptly cut the car’s engine and leaped out into the street. “We had a stowaway,” he said a moment later, once he’d shaken the cicada free. He was buckling himself back into his seat as though nothing had happened. Ten seconds, maybe.

One of us said, “Imagine what that ride felt like to him.” Never mind our familial insistence on gendering any and all strange creatures; the question stands. One minute you’re near this bush you’ve known your whole life, and the next you’re trying to find your way back.

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I have great affection for things out of their context. I have great affection for things, period. If it can be vaguely humanized, I will feel tenderly towards it: a coil-bound manuscript held to my overheated chest, the tiny glasses of my childhood found in a drawer, a daddy-long-legs in the bathtub. In college, a friend once named my French fries as I was eating them because, as we both knew, I’d be unable to continue. (“Not Phyllis,” he said in mock horror. And then, seeing me hesitate: “Wait, you’re going to let her sacrifice go in vain?” I did not finish my plate.)

New York is good for misplaced things – finding them and being them. There was a deck of cards this week in the Halsey L stop, stacked neatly on the seat of the wooden bench where I wait for my train. There is the crochet hook I lost in Greeley Square. There is me and my tendency, when sad or anxious, to laugh.

Is this nostalgia, what I’m doing now? Does it matter? I will never be this old again, this person again. Everything is forgotten or else becomes a story. I hope I remember a lot. I hope I forget a lot, too, that I give up my stories for better ones as necessary. That I don’t ever decide I really am finally complete.

Here is the cockeyed philosophy of my childhood and adulthood: I am alive and afraid of so much, and you are alive, so you must be afraid of something too. Perhaps it sounds tenderer in my head. I mean it tenderly.

In seventeen years the cicadas will return to West Virginia and I will be forty-two. I’ve never considered being forty-two before, but it sounds nice. The manuscript I handed in will be something else, either finished or forgotten, old enough to go to college itself. The great-great-great-grandchildren of the spider I drowned would have their own great-great-great-grandchildren, a whole lineage of spiky shadows, out of context in someone else’s bathtub.

But that’s later. Now is now, the mistakes I am making, the things I am losing and finding, the mundane anxiety of being alive. This life is not a story yet. I could say that I’ll always remember that, but I didn’t come this far just to lie to you, did I?

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i hate to leave this beautiful place

A month ago this Friday, I woke up in my empty apartment and took one last shower in the place I’d spent two years calling home. My beloved roommate had already packed and gone, and the place was echoey without his furniture. In the U-Haul outside was everything I had decided to keep. So many boxes and so many words written on their sides: mostly the word I’d written was books.

A younger version of me had sworn never to do what I was doing, but I locked the front door anyway, got in the truck anyway, collected the friend who was riding with me and aimed north to the turnpike, then east for a long, long time. And hours after we’d slipped the county border, I thought about the city I was driving away from. That was the thing I’d sworn against, you know. I left Pittsburgh.

What do you call homesickness-yet-to-come? What do you call homesickness-long-endured? I felt both of them then. For seven years I’d lived in one apartment and then another in Pittsburgh, learned the twisting streets, covered the map with my body a single second at a time. You could make an afternoon tour of my sorrows and triumphs and all-time favorite lunches. Here’s the newsstand where someone I never met wrote signs of the advice I needed. Here’s the public library whose stacks I didn’t finish working through. Here’s the statue where I kissed someone, the dance floor where I kissed someone, the street corner where I kissed someone. The stoves I cooked on, the bathrooms I cried in, the rooms where my best friends became my best friends and my exes became exes.

That last morning in Pittsburgh, the air smelled like grass and hot bricks and the day that was coming, and it was going to be beautiful, but I didn’t stick around to see.

As much as I loved Pittsburgh, love Pittsburgh, will always love Pittsburgh, I would be lying if I said I felt any hesitation then about leaving it. See, homesickness does not preclude the possibility of multiple homes. If you’re lucky enough, you will love many places so much that you are always missing one of them, and so I exchanged one kind of longing for another.

It takes a long time to drive to Brooklyn. Google Maps claimed I could do it in six, but really it was more like eight and a half. There was traffic, because there’s always traffic, and we took a lunch break somewhere around Bedford, PA, where I bought a Nutella milkshake that took me the rest of the day to finish. A few times I held my breath as the truck scraped horribly against something, though afterwards I couldn’t find a single scratch.

My boyfriend and our roommate ordered a pizza and kept it warm for me while I drove to them, late and then later. My friend coached me turn-by-turn through Staten Island and over the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, told me I was doing a great job, helped me parallel park. These are the kindnesses you remember.

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In Pittsburgh I have been so many different people. They haunt me in a vague, friendly way. Someday, this person I am now will haunt the person I become, and I like thinking that she’ll know me, even if I never find any way to know her but the hard way.

I wasn’t foolish enough – or am perhaps too foolish – to believe that moving to New York would change me. Not because I don’t believe places have that power; I’m different for every single door I’ve walked through, every plane I’ve boarded. Rather, I have always resented the narrative that New York is the only place that matters, as if every other city were New York with training wheels. As if now I’m from somewhere. Listen: I have always been from somewhere.

But if you grow up as a certain kind of artsy kid, if you navigate the world by spelling your last name before saying it and naming only your home state because no one knows your hometown, then, sure, you romanticize New York. What a name: New York! Site of my dreams since I first stepped foot in it at age eight, biggest city I’d ever seen, land of one million taxis and setting of all the books I loved. Harriet the Spy and Eloise and Claudia Kincaid. All those girls I wanted to become.

And I did resent this city, I did, the way you resent anything that’s laid a claim to your soft underside. In uncharitable moments, when someone makes a joke about small, tragic, corn-fed places, I still do. I want to say: There’s so much country out there, so many places that aren’t boroughs, so many accents that have a home outside Times Square. By the time I was in grad school, I was still reading books set in Manhattan and Brooklyn, but they began to leave me hungry. You know how it is: sometimes you fall in love and stop falling, start missing how it felt when you had something to prove.

I hadn’t come here to live for the first time yet, of course. I hadn’t realized how much was left to prove. Like the joke-tellers, all I knew was what I’d read. All I knew was there were fifteen hundred novels by Brooklyn-based authors named Jonathan, each one with the same breathless flap copy, each one assuming I knew how the trains worked or how Queens was laid out. Which I did not. Had not had occasion to learn. It’s not that I was too ignorant or small-townish to know these things, though. You get tired of feeling stupid after a while, even if the thing making you feel stupid is only as smart as its writer, and its writer is only a writer.

Here’s another truth, though: despite my Appalachian loyalty, despite the hours and pages I’ve spent lauding West Virginia’s ferocity and grit, I left. I went away to college and never came back. Exchanged one kind of longing for another.

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The first morning after the move, I was not surprised to wake up and find myself in Brooklyn. No pleasant moment of dawning realization; my brain is too practical sometimes. Maybe it’s just that I visited Griffin so much over the last year and got familiar with the feel of the place. Maybe it’s that I had been waiting for this so long that the grand reveal was less ta-da! and more at last. That’s how it felt, anyway: at last.

New York will change me. I am changing all the time. I am perfecting my mean stare, my subway card swipe. It’s been a while since last summer, but it comes back to you.

In Pittsburgh I have been so many different people, and in New York I will be so many different people, and everywhere I go I leave some little part of myself.

Despite my mixed feelings about being a walking stereotype, I am now an MFA graduate who lives in Bushwick. I take the L into the city for my publishing job, which is on Madison Avenue, where the dogs are all smaller and richer than I am. I have opinions about how slowly the tourists are walking (too slowly) and how hot the subway is in summer (too hot) and what a jerk that driver was, did you see him? New Yorkers say asshole, but I’ll say jagoff. There’s some Pittsburghese I’m keeping.

There are some moments when I miss my other homes so much you’d think I never left a place before. Where are the lightning bugs and that hot-grass smell? Where are the birds whose names I never learned, whose songs I am lacking? Where are the people who know me?

And then there are moments – many, many more of them – when I look out the window by my desk at the Empire State Building, or listen to the ice cream trucks outside the apartment on some sweltering Brooklyn morning. There are moments when I walk back from the bodega with this person I love and neither of us says much, because we don’t have to, because it’s not like I’m leaving.

New York, Pittsburgh, West Virginia: you are the tree I carve my initials into, and you carve your initials into me.

Here are the lightning bugs after all. Here are the stairs to my home. Here are the people who know me.

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the areas of my expertise

To be honest, I turned twenty-five because it seemed like the thing to do. Twenty-five is a square number, as reliable and odd as I am, translatable into every unit. Quarters for the laundromat; a quarter past the hour; a quarter of the cake, left on the counter for you.

The day that I turned twenty-five, I flew to Los Angeles for a conference. I’d never been to Los Angeles before, or California, or even anywhere west of central Kansas. America is so huge that you have to take some of it on faith, so I took some of it on faith. And I had always figured that I was pretty well-traveled without it; after all, I’d done tourist stints in Russia, Ukraine, and France, had layovers in the airports of beautiful cities I still haven’t seen. The Frankfurt airport smells like sauerkraut and chocolate. The Vienna airport sells Vogue in six languages. These things are true but not significant.

And anyway, it turns out California is real. It turns out there really is that much America, enough to fill an endless afternoon. We flew against the time zones, which made my birthday twenty-seven hours long. I spent most of that day waiting for takeoff and landing, feeling the floor lifting beneath my feet and the empty air lifting beneath the floor. At the layover in Chicago, another city I’ve only seen the airport of, I bought a sandwich and wondered if I could say I’d been to Illinois or if it only counts if you touch the real ground. I decided I couldn’t. In the hall of fame of my experiences, there are so many asterisks.

On the flight from O’Hare to LAX, I had an aisle seat between two teachers who were bringing a fleet of high schoolers back from a trip to Beijing, and I befriended them. This happens a lot, maybe because I remind people of their daughters: youngish, careful, eager to please. And so we talked, these people whose names I heard once and who I’ll never see again, as their actual daughter napped in the row behind us. I couldn’t see much of the window from where I was sitting, so I missed Chicago slipping away, then the rest of the country slipping away too.

Which is a shame, because I like to watch the scenery change. Not because I’m a romantic but because I’m a skeptic, the person you least want to invite to your magic show, and unless I can see the plains turning into mountains, there’s still the possibility that I haven’t gone anywhere at all.

Red Queen to Alice: “Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!”

This feels like a metaphor, but I don’t know for what.

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I love fiction, breathe fiction, am about to get my master’s in fiction, and what I’ve learned is that epiphanies are overrated.

Intro classes are full of them, full of characters realizing or understanding or suddenly knowing. I would know; I’ve written those characters, those realizations. It’s seductive to think that this could be how it works. Life, for all its mess and cruelty, its spontaneous joy, must have a certain math to it, and maybe that math can be made legible. Under the skin of the skyscraper, the steel frame. Under your life, your real life. And it’s not that I don’t think clarity exists to us, that I don’t believe in befores and afters. I just think that most of the time we create them post hoc to justify the story we are telling about ourselves. I was always going to be this way. 

Even so, I thought I would feel different when I got off the plane. I was going to be the version of myself who had flown cross-country. I was going to be twenty-five.

But instead I found my luggage at LAX and then nearly cried when I realized I had no idea how to get to my hotel. See? I realized. And this meant I was still myself after all. I keep waiting to know what I’m doing and I keep not knowing what I’m doing. I dragged my suitcase along the sidewalk and called a Lyft, then canceled the Lyft when the little car on the screen hadn’t moved after ten minutes, then tried calling a Lyft again. On my third lap of the taxis, I did some math and wondered how much I’d be willing to pay to get where I was going, how much my pride was worth. Then I went back inside and pretended I was waiting for another suitcase. This was for the benefit of anyone watching, because it was lonelier to think that no one was watching. I talked to myself without moving my lips, as I’ve done since I was a child. When I was a child, I was myself, too.

I mean actual talking-to-myself, by the way. The kind that characters in intro class short stories do when the author needs you to know something. Like, “If I find the map, I’ll be able to find the treasure.” Or, “Brad hasn’t been the same since that canoeing accident.”

The two teachers had long since departed with their high schoolers in tow, with the memory of my name with them. They were the only people I even sort of knew at the airport. By the time I found the man who organized the Super Shuttle, I was tired and quiet and very, very young again. There were palm trees across the street and a sky so blue it was obscene, and my feet were on the real Los Angeles ground. Twenty minutes until my shuttle came, and I sat on the bench and, lips absolutely still, told myself what I have always told myself in times of high anxiety: stupid, stupid, you are so stupid, you are so, so stupid. 

The shuttle came, loaded up with fellow conference attendees. The driver told me to sit in the back, the very back, by the suitcases – a seat in a row by itself. Far enough away from the others that I couldn’t really talk to them, but close enough that I felt unfriendly because of it.

I’m not stupid. I’m not stupid. I know that; I realize that, have realized that, over and over and over. It would be seductive to believe that it’ll stick one of these times. But I just told you that I’m not stupid.

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This time next month, I won’t be a student anymore. I’m graduating because it seems like the thing to do, and because I’ve run out of school to attend. Twenty years ago I was starting kindergarten and now I’m fiddling with my thesis and wondering what else I could possibly be good at.

Last week I met with most of my committee to hear their feedback on the pages I’d given them, on this little monster I’ve raised as my own. Like a baby, albeit one that I’m a bit apologetic for.

One of my flaws as a fiction writer – maybe the major one, though I am hardly an expert on my own flaws – is that things just do not happen. Everyone is nice, or at least not mean enough to be interesting. Trouble is implied and then abandoned. Not a single innkeeper’s daughter gets tied to the train tracks.

“Fiction is good for people who are afraid to start fights,” said my chair, which is good advice for both fiction and life. I am indeed afraid to start fights, even imaginary ones. I am afraid to ask the shuttle driver if I can ride in his shuttle, afraid that you might not like me, afraid that, after all this, I am not going to be enough.

I am twenty-five and have spent the first few weeks of this age constructing a list of things I’m good at. It’s the kind of activity you pursue when you’re graduating, I suppose. On my laptop I’ve got five different cover letters and an updated résumé, and when I step away for another glass of water I think of the skills that don’t belong.

The areas of my expertise: ironing clothes, steaming clothes, organizing clothes. Baking cookies (lemon ricotta, chocolate cayenne). Baking bread (cinnamon raisin, Italian herb, summer wheat). Cleaning a bathtub or a sink or a floor. Doing hospital corners on a bed and, bonus, folding fitted sheets. Reading while in a moving vehicle without getting carsick. Folding small birds out of origami paper. Thinking of metaphors and puns and titles for books I won’t write. Navigating my childhood home late at night with no illumination, just my own palm held out in the darkness to guide me back to bed. Befriending people on airplanes. Listening. Listening.

There is no companion list of things I’m bad at, in part because I’ve been writing that list my whole life, and why encourage myself? The primary entry should probably be not writing the list of things I’m bad at. The secondary entry could be not being quietly cruel to myself in public. Does it count as a skill if it’s a negative?

When I got to my hotel, one of my favorite people was waiting for me in the lobby – my roommate from last summer in New York. She wasn’t staying there, but she wanted to see me, and together we got the room keys and complimentary bottles of water and took the elevator up to the twelfth floor of a hotel fancier than seemed strictly necessary. We talked like people who hadn’t seen each other for months, which is true. We talked as I dragged my suitcase in and took off my jacket and my shoes and spreadeagled myself across the bed, suddenly aware that I was older than I’d ever been before. It was seven in Los Angeles and ten at home, wherever home was, and I had come all this way.

The world is so huge that you have to take some of it on faith, even the parts where you are very, very small.

“Let’s get dinner,” one of us said eventually, and I pulled myself back out of the bedspread. The hotel restaurant had mac and cheese, probably also had complicated drinks in complicated glasses, and I wanted that. It was my birthday, after all.

And that’s what we did, for the record. We went downstairs in our jeans and ordered an appetizer as our entree, and the waiter dropped the formal act almost immediately once he realized that we were tired and young. So what? We were.

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If I realize anything, understand anything, suddenly know anything, it’s this: That, one, I have always been myself and always will be. That, two, maybe that’s another thing I’m good at.

The conference was what I’d hoped for, by the way. I came back to Eastern Standard Time with a suitcase of books, three of which I’ve finished already. I hugged a lot of people, most of whom I knew. I befriended the man sitting next to me on the flight from Phoenix to Pittsburgh, perhaps because I reminded him of his daughters, and when we landed I found the bus into town without any trouble. I did talk to myself while waiting for my transfer in Oakland, but only because it was so cold that speaking made me a little warmer. (Most of what I said was profane, and all of it was about the weather. California had spoiled me.)

I would be lying if I said I haven’t called myself stupid since then, or almost cried since then, or actually cried since then. I would be lying if I said that I’m no longer afraid that I am not going to be enough. But your life is so huge that you have to take some of it on faith, so I am taking myself on faith.

I wonder if the people I sat next to on the plane remember me, the girl they talked to for a few hours on their way to or from the West Coast. I remember them. We keep each other alive that way.

I turned twenty-five because what else are you going to do? I turned twenty-five because I wanted to learn how to start fights, even imaginary ones. I turned twenty-five because I’m good at being alive, and really, really, isn’t that enough?

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little red tumbleweeds

For a brief but significant period, most of my important plans were made between the hours of midnight and six AM. I was often awake for at least half the night, those years that I was nineteen and then all the ages that come after that are really still nineteen: twenty, twenty-one, twenty-two, almost twenty-three.

So I remember where I was when I decided to grow out my hair again. I was at my desk, across the room from my bed, in the house I would later flee when I came to feel unwelcome. That was a post-midnight decision too. But that was later. The night in question was maybe a week before Halloween 2013, and I was up writing a film paper that I only half-understood, which feels like a metaphor for the entire year.

(How typically female to write about hair, and my relationship to hair, and my history with it. How typically female to say my relationship to hair. I would forgive you for thinking that. Sometimes I wonder if femininity isn’t just a construct invented by Gillette to sell more razors.)

I’d gotten my hair trimmed maybe a week before, and it looked good – it looked, at last, like I’d wanted it to this whole time. It takes a lot of trial and error to start resembling yourself. Before I switched to a salon, SuperCuts used to do the entire thing too short, razor on the sides sometimes, too G.I. Jane, and for a while before that it hadn’t been short enough. If I say “curly half-mullet,” you’ll understand, right?

But finally, over three years after I’d marched into a West Virginia mall with a photo of Carey Mulligan folded up in my purse, after I’d made the woman doing my appointment more and more nervous as she waited for me to say stop cutting and I kept not saying stop cutting, I’d figured it out. Of course I wanted to move on.

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a contemporaneous self-portrait with Lil Bub

Maybe this isn’t how I should start. Maybe I should start with the photo of Carey Mulligan, which I’d run off on my dad’s laserjet, a distant relative of the printer I’d used for my Elijah Wood poster years earlier. In 2010, the line between hipster fashion and queer fashion was getting blurrier and blurrier, and Carey had a pixie cut. I liked how it looked. Which isn’t to say that I didn’t also like the way she looked – that heart-shaped face, those big eyes.

I spent summer 2010 almost entirely in West Virginia, minus a family trip to Russia and a weekend in Pittsburgh. It was mostly just me and the place I was from, and I was going to do my reckoning with both. I was going to figure out, definitively, what I was – not who but what. Isn’t the human brain supposed to be the only thing to name itself?

My secret fear was, of course, that I was something other, something strange, the kind of girl whose level best was crooked. I thought Carey Mulligan was beautiful, Ellen Page was beautiful, Emma Watson was beautiful, but were they the kind of beautiful I wanted to be or the kind of beautiful I wanted?

The line of fashion got ambiguous. I got ambiguous.

Maybe this isn’t how I should start either. Maybe I should start earlier, much earlier, with the hair I used to have: long and red, so thick I got headaches when I had to wear it up for ballet recitals. It was sneaky red, the kind that looks brown under certain light, and my whole life as a child I was forever being approached by strangers who wanted to know if this was my real color, if this was really all mine. Sometimes my classmates braided it for me during recess. Sometimes I braided it myself, my arms twisted behind my back, neck craned toward the mirror.

When you are young, your job is to invent yourself. I used the tools at hand. I was my glasses, prescribed at age eight, and the stacks of books I read; I was my small, shy voice, always speaking a little too fast to catch the first time through; I was my name, with its unfamiliar phonics; I was my hair. It was long enough to hide behind. I hid.

Everyone has something like a safety blanket. Mine was part of me. This is not to say that my body itself was safe, but I would forgive you for thinking that.

Nina0007

pensive ballerina

For a while, I collected last words. Why not? I have always been a collector. Richard Feynman apparently said, “This dying is boring.” Vladimir Nabokov said, “A certain butterfly is already on the wing.” Dominique Bouhours, a French grammarian after my own heart, is quoted as saying, “Je vais ou je vas mourir, l’un et l’autre se dit ou se disent.” (“I am about to – or I am going to – die: either expression is correct.”)

One of the last things my grandfather said to me was about my hair. The wording is lost to me now; I wasn’t quite fourteen, and we were in the ICU, and it’s easier to remember these details when your own grief hasn’t warped anything. In that ICU, patients could only have two visitors at a time, so my family took turns trading one spot while my grandma stayed put for the other. This turn, it was me. And Granddaddy gestured at me and turned to my grandmother and said – did he say it this way? – “Pretty hair.”

Even now, over eleven years later, when I can’t summon his voice to mind anymore and cannot swear to the words he used, I remember that. Pretty hair.

When he died soon after, I decided that I would never cut my hair again, that I wanted to keep forever the hair I’d had when he was here, that I wanted to be recognizable to him. And okay, I know. That isn’t how the body operates; it’s a regeneration machine, always healing and replacing and sloughing off. The skin you see today will be gone in a month, and so, properly speaking, you can’t ever touch something the same way twice. But still. I wanted to stay the same after he was gone.

This is why I cut off my hair, later. I wasn’t the same anymore. I wasn’t sure who I was, or what, only the reverse: who and what I wasn’t. Not the little ballerina or the jittery third-grader or the thirteen-year-old who had had such pretty hair. They were all in me, were all little prisms reflecting the long line of people I had been and would become, but I was no longer exactly any of them anymore.

When I left the mall, I could feel the wind on the back of my neck and I did not look like myself. Without my safety blanket, I was exposed. Imagine the giant arrow pointing down to Earth, with letters so big you could read them from the edge of the universe: YOU ARE HERE. 

What kind of girl was I? Not the right kind, I thought; not the pretty kind. I was not my hair anymore. Instead, my hair was what I wanted to be: spiky, defiant, loud. I gelled it down or up depending on my mood. I got a series of bad haircuts and then a longer series of good ones. I had to look at my own face every morning in the mirror, this face I had never really liked: square and wide and flat, the Slavic peasant cheekbones of my Slavic peasant ancestors.There it was, the whole thing, and I looked so hard until it became unfamiliar and then familiar again. All those strange and sleepless nights, the bitter mornings, all the plans I made for years and years – these things were not me, but here I was anyway.

At the time, I’ll confess, all I thought was, I miss being able to braid my hair. The rest of it came later. Let’s not imply that I’ve ever really known what I am doing.

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with an underdressed friend at the Mattress Factory

These days, I sleep more. These days, I have entirely new skin cells and a wide variety of headbands. These days, I’m not really feeling Carey Mulligan anymore, though I see she’s grown her hair out too.

Just this afternoon we had a new stove delivered to our apartment, and while the guys were here I looked around and saw all this hair that I need to sweep up. It’s hard to miss, especially in my bedroom, where the floor is painted black. Little red tumbleweeds everywhere, a doll’s version of the Wild West. So maybe I’m nostalgic for that pixie-cut girl, the one I wanted to be, because she never shed like this.

But I’m not her anymore. Not the little ballerina or the college freshman or the grad student who drank so much caffeine her brain hummed. I’m not even exactly the person I was when I started writing this, one sandwich and a stove ago.

I don’t really know what I’m doing. I do kind of know who I am. I do know that I resemble myself.

And you, I hope you’re doing okay out there. Someone ought to tell you that you’re going to be fine. Someone ought to tell you that you have pretty hair.

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please touch the art

One of my friends recently asked me, not in so many words, if I’d like to play hooky from my life. His vacation days at work expire if he doesn’t use them, which means he occasionally has to invent adventures. And so yesterday we met for brunch at the Squirrel Hill Pamela’s, stuffed ourselves food-drunk on potato hash and scrambled eggs, and made our way to the North Side. We were headed to the Mattress Factory, an installation gallery that is mentioned in every single round-up of Things To Do In Pittsburgh, which makes it even stranger that it took me seven years to go.

Around 10 on a Friday morning, your average diner can be pretty empty, especially if the weather is lousy. Around 2 on a Friday afternoon, your average gallery can be pretty empty, especially if the upper floors aren’t heated. Around 4:30 on any day, though, your average parkway is stop-and-go, so on the way back my friend and I got stuck in rush hour traffic on I-376. By then we’d spent most of the day with ourselves and the same handful of strangers, and it was confusing to have so much company, to be one in a whole stream of people heading to the same place.

Jeff put on WYEP and we listened to someone talk about Shuggie Otis, and I looked out the window and thought. I thought about all the work I hadn’t been doing all day, the words I hadn’t written, the pages I hadn’t revised, the many ways in which I was falling farther and farther behind this theoretical other Nina who has everything pulled together; and I thought about making tea and taking a nap; and I thought about how Other Nina wouldn’t be tired and would, instead, have finished her daily quota of five pages, might be standing at the kitchen window sharpening a paring knife, watching the snow come down, considering what to bake or broil.

How easily we become ordinary again. In the Mattress Factory, we’d felt like astronauts looking down at some beautiful new planet.

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Anne Lindberg, shift lens

In every genre I’ve ever touched, including this one, I am forever writing the same story about myself. The story is this: I was once naive and precocious, then wounded, now wise. If not wise, then verging on wisdom. Adulthood is always on the tip of my tongue. It’s a comforting story – comforting to keep myself at that distance, to assure everyone that there’s an arc to this, where this is equal to me. Comforting to find a moral.

And in every genre, but especially and always fiction, I am forever getting writing advice that is really advice about living. Let go of the edge of the pool and take some risks, one professor told me. What are you afraid of?

Weeks ago, my thesis chair met with me over coffee to discuss my manuscript draft. The project is only superficially autobiographical, but in workshop there’d been some confusion about how much of my adolescent protagonist was me. By December I’d spent a lot of time distancing myself from her. Still, some of the critique letters mixed up her name and mine, which is understandable. My chair didn’t see this as a problem. “Think of it as a compliment,” she said. “They want to believe it’s real.”

But at the coffee shop, we were discussing more practical problems: specifically the fact that my girl describes emotions but doesn’t feel them. It’s as though her life is perpetually on the tip of her tongue, as though she keeps herself at a distance, as though there’s something she’s afraid of. There are scenes where she explains the species of sorrow at hand, but if she’s sorrowful, God only knows.

When my chair pointed this out, I surprised us both by laughing. It’s not that she’d said anything funny. It’s that I had just realized the one way in which my protagonist really was me, in which I had written my own story for the millionth time, but this time, at last, I’d done it honestly.

I’m not actually a wise person. I am someone who makes stories where maybe there shouldn’t be any yet. I am someone who cannot abide a vacuum, and I am also the vacuum. Oh, that sounds terrible, but that isn’t how I meant it. Space is a vacuum, and it also contains all the light there ever was or will be. It’s not empty; it’s formless. So am I, against my better judgment.

What I mean is that there are two ways to create narrative. The first is after the fact, when you can see everything plainly, as a kind of accounting-for. The second is during, out of panic or need. It’s the difference between this happened and I was okay and this has to happen so I will be okay. It’s the reason I still, at almost twenty-five, can’t always describe how I feel, so busy am I at trying to figure out how I should be feeling. What am I doing? Does anybody know?

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Chiharu Shiota, Trace of Memory (detail)

The thing I like most about installation art is that, in every actually meaningful way, it defies description. Yes, I could tell you about walking through Yayoi Kusama’s mirrored rooms, but so what? You aren’t there, watching yourself move on all the walls at once, catching the angles of your face that previously only belonged to the people who love you. You aren’t there, sitting in the dark of James Turrell’s Pleiades, waiting for your eyes to adjust. Have they adjusted? Has it always been this dark, here in the void? And is the dim light real, or is it just your own lonely brain searching for something to see?

The other thing I like most is that it demands to be touched. If not with your hands, with your eyes. If not with your hands, with your whole body, just by being that close. You could keep yourself at a distance, but then why’d you come?

And the other other thing I like most is that, if you’re me, you eventually find yourself standing in front of some strange object and thinking, What should I be doing? Am I doing this right? 

Art is for asking questions. Usually the questions are open-ended. But I am nearly twenty-five and all of my questions have become very literal lately. What should I be doing after I graduate? And how do you get oil stains out of denim? And is my own intuition worth trusting? And does my insurance cover this? And what if I ruin everything? And what would be the polite thing to say? And what if I cannot see my mistakes until I’ve made them?

The answer, I know but do not believe, is that it works out. It just does. That, or you die, but I haven’t died yet.

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Bill Smith, spherodendron

All those dazzling things yesterday, and instead I’ve been thinking about Eadweard Muybridge’s horse since I woke up this morning. You know it even if you don’t think you do – it’s that set of images, a long strip of moments in time and a horse caught in each one, running. Any one frame is a portrait, but all of them together are a movie.

I feel like that horse sometimes, caught between this place and the next one. I am still this version of myself and so have no idea what I’m running towards, what I will have learned. But every moment before this one cues up so beautifully. Surprising and inevitable, as Flannery O’Connor would say.

As a child I was obsessed with what I might look like when grown up. The answer, of course, is that I look like myself. But that’s only obvious in retrospect. You can look at my adult face and see that little girl, those same green eyes, that same sharp chin; it’s easy, after the fact, to find proof. In 1996, though, my future was an idea I hadn’t finished having yet.

In 2016, my future is an idea I haven’t finished having yet.

Perhaps I will learn to tell a different story about myself. In that story, perhaps I am still naive and precocious, even as I am wounded, even as I am wise. Perhaps all of those things are happening simultaneously. Maybe I don’t need to be a museum curator, just an archaeologist.

I want to tell stories I don’t know the ending of, and I want to resist writing the ending.

The theoretical other Nina knows all of this, of course, but the thing is, she’s only theoretical. I’m the one who’s actually here, who has the privilege of screwing up and trying again. Her pages are better than mine, her knives are sharper than mine, ever iteration of her body is more beautiful than mine, but don’t you know mine is real?

I said I’d played hooky from my life yesterday, which isn’t quite right. I think I was present for it in a way I usually am not. Even in the traffic. Even in the unheated Mattress Factory. The thing I like most about the world is that it demands to be touched: if not with your hands, then with your eyes, or with your body, by being there. That’s all I wanted to say. I’m saying I’m going to try being there.

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the last time it was ever 2015

As far as I can remember, I’ve spent every New Year’s Eve of my life with my parents. We’ve been apart on birthdays and Fourth of Julys, have rescheduled Mother’s and Father’s Day, were in different states on Halloween. The last time we celebrated Russian Christmas together was 2012. But New Year’s Eve, we’re always together, and it’s always only just us.

Of course there are parties. I’ve been invited. My friends go to other cities and countries, plan adventures, stay out till morning. My friends see a real ball drop, not the one on TV. My friends dress up and drink champagne. And I stay here, at the end of the dining room table that’s been mine since I could feed myself, watching the pixelated future live from New York. If we remember, my parents and I get a little glass of wine apiece and toast to our good luck at midnight, and then we’re in bed by a quarter past.

I don’t mean to imply that this isn’t an important night for me, that I don’t care about doing it right. I do. This is how.

When I was little, I had a kind of faith in befores-and-afters that quite simply is not possible to maintain when you’re older. The day before my birthday was spine-crunchingly exciting. The day before school was freighted with importance. And especially the night the year changed, my God, the night you could stay up to watch the entire calendar flip over, to feel your own self be subtly transformed – it was a magical thing. I held my breath in one year and exhaled in the other. And then I brushed my teeth for the first time that year, put on my nightgown for the first time that year, went to bed for the first time that year. The whole next day: first breakfast, first book, first sorrow and joy.

That kind of faith is only possible when you believe that the world is what changes you, that you don’t change yourself. I was sure that when I turned twelve I would be different solely because of my twelve-ness, that when we reached the year 2003 we would be 2003-type people. It was a weirdly Calvinist worldview. But most of all, I believed very much that new years were like fresh snow, beautiful and untouched, and that the way I marked them would mean everything.

(Needless to say, Y2K was legitimately thrilling and terrifying for me, because my natural philosophy was that the world could and would change like that. At midnight on New Year’s? Well, when else?)

I grew out of this, sort of. For one thing, my family is Orthodox and celebrates Christmas on the old calendar, and as I got older we started applying that logic to anything we liked: Orthodox Mother’s Day, Orthodox birthdays, even – jokingly – Orthodox Fourth of July. If the days were flexible, they could not also be inherently significant. I was credulous but not stupid.

Instead, I decided, you must be the sum of what you’ve done, each action a baby step towards whoever you were going to be, with no take-backs. Before my very first kiss, at age fifteen, I thought: remember this. you will never be a person who’s never been kissed again. The refrain of every first thing: Remember this, because you will never again be a person who doesn’t know what it’s like. A pause before the rollercoaster, the date, the mouthful of squid.

This perspective is truer, if not exactly right. It would take me a while longer to realize that my doing something was what made me different than I had been before, that it’s different when something is done to you. Your life is not based so much on the branching paths as on what, exactly, you said yes to. I would never again be a person who had never been kissed, but I was still a person who’d never leaned in first.

In my own admittedly limited experience, your first love is self-definition. I needed ways to describe myself. So: a girl who was seven and then eight and then nine. A girl who was alive in 2003. Facts like that. And then: a girl who had flown on a plane. A girl who had lit a sparkler and watched it burn. As if you could look at me and know.

But, see, I don’t think it’s so simple anymore. If I’m different in 2016, it’s a difference that doesn’t begin at 12:01. My life has never really been that neatly mappable. How do I put this? You have never actually gone to bed one age and woken up another. You become thirteen every day that you’re twelve, but only on one particular day do you start paying attention.

Whoever I will be this year is someone I already am – some self who’s been digging her way out since before I ever noticed.

Which isn’t to say that I don’t still believe in midnights and calendars and the magic of becoming. Only a wholly rational person wouldn’t believe, and I have never claimed to be that. On the contrary. I make paper chains. I have countdowns. I celebrate anniversaries and half-birthdays, and these days are flexible, but they are significant.

And I will stay up until midnight to see the ball drop in Times Square, the way I have every year since I can remember, because this is my ritual. A life needs rituals.

If I didn’t turn on the television at 11:55, the year would still change, but I want to believe for those few minutes that it changes because I am watching.

In 2016, I will graduate with my MFA and then who knows. In 2016, I will eat squid and ride rollercoasters and turn 25. In 2016, I’ll read books that aren’t written yet and lean in first for the kiss.

And tomorrow morning, I’ll have the first breakfast of the year, read the first book, make the first lunch. My bed has never yet been slept in during 2016. My nails have never been painted. The first thing I’ll bake is still before me.

I am allowing myself to believe in clean slates. Perhaps that isn’t realistic. But that’s why I believe.

Remember this: you will never again be the person you are at this exact second. This isn’t meant to make you nostalgic for all the selves you were. Much the opposite. Shed that skin. Walk in the snow. See who you’re going to become.

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