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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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personal

great again

Dear future self,

 

Please remember that for a long time, a small eternity, you could not write.

 
 
You could not write even though you kept trying, hitting backspace, trying again. The words never added up. They crumbled like sand. Somewhere was a sentence that would explain the way you’d been sleeping, half-awake for late-breaking bad news, coiled like a spring held down for a long, long time. That sentence escaped you, and meanwhile you looked at the ceiling in the darkness, your eyes blurry without your glasses – but anyway, there was nothing to see.

 

You could not write except in Facebook statuses and notes to yourself. Directives: pick up your laundry, buy tomatoes, call your mother. You used to write in the second person in college because you had no idea what you were doing and giving instructions felt like role-playing as God. It had helped when you didn’t know what you were doing. Well, at this particular moment, no one seemed to know what they were doing. Happy new year.

 

Please remember that the morning after the election, you took the quietest train ride of your New York life thus far. The sky was gray and spitting rain, and below ground no one spoke, barely breathed, just looked at the floor and the feet of strangers.

 

At your desk, fourteen stories up from the sidewalk in Midtown, you sat and stared at your phone. So much to do, so much of the morning left. Everything urgent; you, so tired your skin ached. You stayed up on election night to watch the returns and then kept staying up because you could bear neither to see them nor to look away. At one, you went to bed, and at two your boyfriend came in to tell you it was over. Had he been crying? Had you? Earlier in the evening you looked in the mirror to see mascara smeared along one cheekbone from burying your face in the pillow, again and again and again. In the moment before you came fully awake, there in the dark bedroom, whatever he was saying did not yet make sense, and you wanted to say tell me something good.

 

At your desk that morning, you sent texts to your friends: I love you, I love you, I love you. And they texted back: I love you, I love you, I love you. One wrote I’m so sorry, like we’d all died and were sending our mutual condolences from different parts of the void. It felt like that. It really felt like that.

 

***

 

Dear future self, please remember how it felt to wake to a world that was changed each time you looked. This was not a trick of the light. This was an inauguration, this an executive order, and this a press conference; this a tweet replying to a tweet replying to a tweet. Eight years is enough time to get comfortable, to think that the old angry past is dead. What did Faulkner say? The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past. 

 

And you, raised on history books, unaware that history could still happen in January 2017. Like the factory only made so much and America ran out at some point in your childhood. Like the textbooks ended because there was nothing more to say.

 

And you, feeling homesick for your own private West Virginia, the one you’d believed in. What a cliche: white girl moves from Appalachian stronghold to the land of the coastal elites, New York for God’s sake, and has some complicated feelings. Brooklyn is full of girls like you. But on election night, you watched your state light up red as soon as the polls closed, and you wanted a sandwich board that said I’m Not From Here, that said But I Don’t Know How To Go Home.

 

So many thinkpieces about West Virginia in the aftermath. They were all variations on the thinkpiece you’d been reading your whole life: what the hell is up with this state? But that wasn’t a question you were interested in: you wanted the photos. Here a house with vinyl siding set along a half-dirt road. Here a close-up of someone’s coal-stained hands. Here a faded hoodie, a crooked tooth, a sign with the president-elect’s name stuck into the yard around a trailer. Total poverty porn. But it still felt good to look at something so familiar. This was your home, remember: you knew it better than some Vanity Fair journalist ever could. Unless you didn’t. And maybe you didn’t.

 

While you were off at college conjugating verbs in Russian and making mix tapes for pretty girls, one long string of dominoes kept falling. Maybe you can see it now, in the future. Maybe you have made a study of the critical moments. You grew up, got braver, did laundry, called your mom. That’s a life. And all that time, the country grew up, got angrier, tried to tell you what was coming. Just because you didn’t see it doesn’t mean it wasn’t there to see.

 

 

***

 

Dear future self, I don’t know how this ends. I read the news and don’t read the news, I march when I can and sit very still when I can’t. A week and a half ago this was a different place, or at least we were pretending it was.

 

Dear future self, tell me something good. Tell me that my friends are safe. Tell me that we didn’t do the worst we could, not yet, at least not this time. Tell me that I am really from the place I thought I was from: a flawed country made up of people who were trying their best.

 

Dear future self, I hope you can write. I’m trying, but it’s hard when you don’t trust words anymore. They don’t mean what they should. Like alternative facts. Like make America great again.

 

There is a fear I haven’t shaken for months now, a fear that the meaning is going to leak out of the world until nothing matters: not fury or love or literature or law, not the names of places or people, not me. I am afraid that none of my words matter. I am afraid that I cannot change anything. But I think maybe I can.

 

I can’t write but I am going to keep writing. I can’t sit still, so I’ll march. I can’t sleep, so stay up with me, tell me a story, tell me how we got here and where we’re going.

 

Dear future self, I am writing to you because I don’t know what else to do. Second person, right? Role-playing as God. And, like God, I believe in you. You are the person I need. I am walking towards you as fast as I can.

 

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