Don't get your hopes up. Get your hopes up. Don't want it to be more than it is; don't think too much about what it is; research it and find out as much as you can.
Maybe it's just a store, maybe it's just the gift shop you exit through, maybe it's a carefully crafted and curated mockery of capitalism. Maybe that's enough. Is it overpriced? Don't think about that. There's a store in San Francisco that sells pirate gear, there's a store in New York that sells superhero stuff, this is a store that sells pareidolia peppers and that's the same thing, except what goes on behind the curtain is different. Well, it's not a curtain. For you it's a gardening section; for your sister it was strangely melted soda in a refrigerator door, and behind that an office full of clues. You forgot to ask your son and your parents where they came through. Later you went out through the refrigerator and up through a t-shirt display that reminded you of a story (or possibly a thing that happened?) of hiding behind a clothes rack. Probably it was something you read in a book. You climbed the stairs and emerged through a file cabinet and started again.
There's a story that starts in the produce department of a man whose daughter is sending messages from a cornfield except it's not his daughter, it's a manifestation of his wishes. The story continues (after the gardening department) as an older woman (your age) meeting a younger woman in something that looks like a music video or actually more like a Jodorowsky film. There are no words. You want to watch it all, but it is very long and you feel like you'll never see everything if you look at anything too long.
Once you spent 30 of your 120 Scottish minutes very happily puttering about in empty rooms on the wrong floor, wondering vaguely where everyone had gone, enjoying yourself very much but kind of missing the point. No regrets because you had another 120 minutes later and however you spend your time you usually have a good time except when you don't, and this was a good time. This feels like that. A vagueness, a sense that there's more that you should be doing but an overall contentment with what you have. There was a pharmacy with herbs in jars there, and you stole a piece of candy.
There are projections. There's a teenager's bedroom with pictures of cute boys on the wall and through the wall a passageway with a rope you use to climb up the rocks. There's a hut with herbs in it and this also reminds you of that wrong floor. There's a factory worker with a flashlight who tells you there's a knock knock joke with seven parts. Well that happened later. There's a room with a strobe light that takes your picture and you remember one of the last times you saw John and there was a strobe light, you were throwing water and watching the droplets caught in the air although of course they fell to the ground in puddles and you slid and danced in them. You stay alone in the room, disconnected with memory for a minute, and a woman comes in and dances and it feels like someone's reading your mind but of course everything is coincidence. Later you think she may have worried about you. Later you think you should have danced. There's a room where you can make music by interrupting light.
There are places where you can converse with a program and you type questions but you know they're the wrong questions. Someone before you has written FARTS FARTS FARTS and that is also the wrong question but worse. There are more and more people and it's stressful. There's hand sanitizer dispensers at every doorway and you put your hand under all of them, rubbing your hands together like a hopeful minion as you move from room to room. A henchman. A particular kind of supervillain.
There are letters to read and you read them with the same mild anxiety that you watch the films, with the pleasure of enjoying a particular medium and the concern that you're maybe supposed to be doing something more interactive. It seems like there's a story being told and you can get the point just by paying attention to the right text, the right visual images. It's possible you're missing the point. This seems like a pretty solid metaphor for how you live.
You run into your sister, who is on a quest to find someone who is missing. Your son is on a quest to find out how to be part of a corporation, or maybe destroy a corporation. This also seems like a metaphor. You meet your parents in the bar because you agreed to do so, but it is not enough and you leave again. They also have missed the part about interaction. A man handed your father a clue and your father handed it back. The amount that you are overthinking this is impressive. There is so much to think about though.
Once a woman tore out a chunk of her hair and threw it at your feet and you couldn't speak. Once a woman held your hands and made you pour poison down her throat, and her eyes rolled back in her head and still you felt like you couldn't speak. Once a man touched your cheek and went through a doorway with someone else because you didn't know to push for what you wanted. People speak here, and this is somehow more disturbing. You still don't know how to get what you want, or what you want, and whether that's more than what you have. You leave when you can't take any more.
Back at the bar, you drink gin and chew on acmella oleracea and it is numb and wonderful, you feel numb and wonderful, stunned beyond sensation. Four hours of beauty and creativity, beyond what you had expected, and now you can admit that you expected a lot. What more could you want? When you walk outside, it is like walking out of a matinee, the shock of the sunshine, except more so: the sun is hotter than it has ever been, and brighter, and still the shadows of what you wanted and what you got cling to you, days later.
I actually started making notes of things I wanted to write about which is the saddest way to write I know. And yet here we are. I'm leaving for the US next week and I probably won't write what I want to write before then and past experience shows I'll collect a whole basket of new things to write about after. Going off my notes and the top of my head, let's do a little brain dump for 30 minutes. Break in the ol typity fingers.
I want to write about "fear of missing out" or "FOMO" and how I don't have it and how I wonder whether that makes life easier or harder. I want to write about the levels of discomfort I will endure before I realize I am uncomfortable and launch myself at apparently insane speeds towards comfort. How that has to do with FOMO and not. I am afraid of being forgotten or unwanted but that's different. I'm not afraid there's a better party somewhere than the one I'm at.
I've been thinking a little about my arrogance but I'm not sure it's arrogance.
I took a personality test that was interesting in that it was presented like a Likert scale but instead of opposites it was like "On a scale from 0 to 5, would you rather be alone (0) or eat ice cream (5)?" I gotta say the results seemed pretty accurate for me and in a real way, not a horoscope-y way.
There's a thing you do where you answer increasingly personal questions and stare deeply into the other person's eyes and then you're supposed to be in love; I first heard of this 5 years ago and despite my enthusiasm and curiosity nobody's wanted to do it with me which I guess is one way to keep from falling in love, to not even try. I try not to take it personally. Sometimes I take it personally.
What else? I had an idea for a short story that I really liked (the idea) and then I overthought it and overthought it until it was a rough thing I had sanded to fineness and then into nothingness. I have dreams that people are telling me what they really think of it and they don't like it. And I have to keep going back to the idea of it, how much I liked that rough wood.
I asked for some things from one client and I got them so easily that it felt like maybe I should have asked for more (even while I am very happy to have gotten what I asked for; that moment of wondering whether that was the right thing to ask). I asked for some other things from a different client and was ignored and that made me pretty unhappy or if we're being honest angry. I'm glad I am self-employed and can now go forward deciding to work with the people who give me what I want and not with the people who don't, but I wish we could all just agree to do things my way all the time since I'd be happier and so would most of the people who deserve to be.
What's funny is that if you know what I'm talking about you know I'm being completely honest and that I'm also completely right. This is what I mean about the arrogance. I know it comes off like that but it's really not. I know truth is often subjective. I believe there's multiple true ways to look at a blackbird.
I probably spend two hours a week thinking about people I don't know at all and wondering why they behave in ways I don't understand. I spend more than that thinking about people I do know but that seems reasonable. I think that I will never cure cancer or do anything particularly remarkable so figuring out why people do things and trying to fill the part of the world I inhabit with a little more understanding seems like a "leave only footprints" way to be, I mean it doesn't seem like a waste of time. But the people I don't know at all, there's no justification.
Although I love people physically, their bodies and how they move, the curves and angles, the way they smell, I cannot imagine loving someone separate from their mind; I can barely imagine feeling a connection to someone's body without their thoughts being there somehow. It's interesting to me that this is cultural, learned. It feels beyond logic; it feels like instinct.
Good poems. Art painted from joy. Art painted from darkness, reaching towards joy. Days with no or few clouds when it's warm enough to sit on the ground. The perfect drinkable temperature of coffee. How it feels when I remember to take care of my body. Marking things off "to do" lists. Making "to do" lists. The kindness of strangers. There are some people who are so incredibly unreasonably kind to me and I don't thank them enough but when I'm dark and sad and have to count reasons to live they're on my list. That's probably enough for now.
I have probably mentioned that I love my job. I do! I like working from home, I like being my own boss, I like having a schedule that waxes and wanes. For a while I wanted to focus more on medical editing and stop doing academic editing altogether, and I wrote to I think every teaching hospital in Europe and got exactly two responses and that made me sad. But then I started doing some more academic editing that I enjoyed and I am grateful for the variety. Like, I am really interested in neurology and Alzheimer's disease and almost anything involving parts of the brain that sound funny, but I also like getting to do the history of puppetry in Central Europe.
I also really like doing voice work -- dubbing and audiobooks. I remember a time when I did not love the sound of my own voice but uh I got over it. It does not sound as good as it does in my head so you'll never get to hear it as beautifully as I do, but I no longer recoil in horror when I hear a recording of myself. I sound pretty good.
It's therefore kind of sad for me that the last month has been frustrating. I assume part of it is COVID burnout. It's also that usually I just work and do what's asked of me and take joy in finding typos and fixing them, and in finding more significant mistakes and fixing them, and in taking a sentence and massaging it into a thing of beauty, and in snipping off the fat, and in reading something incredibly difficult and then reading it again and understanding it. I like doing what I do so much that I don't need praise, so when I do get it, it's like: ahhhh, nice. But the project I've been working on for the last month, in addition to being full of grammar/ spelling/ syntax/ style errors, which is fine, that's what they pay me for... it just seems pointless. And sometimes that happens; sometimes the work I do feels like the author wasn't interested at all. It's hard, but I get through it; work isn't fun all the time. But this is nearing 400 pages and the amount of nnnnnaaargggh is taking me to dark places in terms of questioning my own self worth, why I accept things I don't want, can I do this for seven more years, etc etc.
More humorously, I was asked to do the voice over for an ad that the client wanted to sound "like Galadriel in the Lord of the Rings" movie. Which seemed odd, as it was an ad for a tech thing, but you know people can be weird so ok. So I did that, and then the client was like "Ooh, that's lovely, but it sounds too much like a fairy tale. Can you do it like that, but less so?" and we went a few rounds before we landed on a crisp, businesslike voice that was about the furthest from Galadriel as whatever the other end of Cate Blanchett's spectrum is, but without the Australian accent. This would have been frustrating except that the engineer mixing the tape was more perplexed than I was so it was merely funny and in the end I got paid which is the happy ending for all work stories, isn't it.
We've passed the anniversary of the first lockdown, but since we had the "eye of the pandemic" (like the eye of the storm, not like the eye of Sauron) all summer here I can't really say it's been a year of my life sucked away or anything. I'm working hard now so that if there's a chance to travel safely I can jump at it with no regrets. I might maybe take a weekend off soon though, cause nobody loves me when I'm whining, especially not when I actually have it pretty good. I know.
The smell hit Emily through her mask, before she even walked through the sliding glass door and into the living room. Chanel No5 and urine. “Mixing memory and desire,” she thought to herself, remembering a poem she’d learned in college, and suppressed a laugh. She shifted Bella up a bit higher on her hip. Bella was awake now, and her sweet toddler weight was almost too heavy, but at least she wasn’t wriggling, and carrying her was much better than putting her down in this sad home.
Marianne came around the corner from another room, carrying a bag of what seemed to be clothes, her mask firmly above her nose for once. The older woman’s eyes twinkled with a combination of laughter and steely determination, the magical mix that made her both an excellent realtor and an incredible mentor. “This one, my god!” exclaimed Marianne. “Hoarding doesn’t even begin to… well, wait until you see the upstairs!”
Emily had started helping Marianne eight months ago, just before the pandemic, as a little escape from her housewife life. Just part time, while Bella went to preschool. Still, in those hours Emily felt like an adult, a career woman, more than just a mother and wife. She wanted to have a second child soon, so that Bella wouldn’t be lonely, and then she hoped that when both kids were in school full time, she could be a realtor, too. That was the plan. Then the pandemic hit and the preschools closed, which meant no childcare at all for Bella, and even though Jack was home all the time now, he was working and he couldn’t juggle that and Bella, even for a few hours. Fortunately, Marianne understood, and Emily could usually bring Bella with her. It didn’t feel to Emily like the independent career woman she wanted to be, but it paid, and Marianne was so grateful for the help. The market was booming now, especially here in Tahoe. The pandemic meant that people were willing to pay top dollar or a hideaway home, away from the city, and it also meant that a lot of homes owned by Bay Areas folks who had bought summer homes here when they retired in the booming 90s were, to be blunt, vacated suddenly or about to be vacated.
Emily’s eyes adjusted to the relative gloom and she looked around properly. Rugs on top of carpets. A mantle sagging with knickknacks. Three coffee makers on the kitchen counter. Hoarders. She’d seen a good number of them now. People who initially filled their second homes with all the odds and ends they couldn’t use but couldn’t bear to get rid of. Then when the second home became the primary one, the clutter quickly became overwhelming. The people took up less and less space, became smaller and smaller while their collections of objects expanded until the house was filled with bric-a-brac, boxes of things ordered and never even opened, file cabinets bursting with outdated paperwork, receipts, correspondence. Then they died, leaving behind a dusty mess of chaos that their children (if they had any) didn’t want, and the clean up was often left up to the realtors. Marianne specialized in these sales. Her straightforward common sense was part of what made her great at this kind of thing. Emily felt overwhelmed by disorder, and she was regularly overwhelmed; being around Marianne made her feel like there was a future for her where she could handle anything with a good pair of rubber gloves and brusque practicality.
“Keep it if you want it, sell it if someone else wants it, or trash it,” was Marianne’s mantra. They’d spent whole days at properties, just loading up the back of Marianne’s SUV. The things to keep or sell they drove to Marianne’s garage, and she sold them on eBay. But most things honestly weren’t good enough to sell. Most of the time, they just drove to the dump and back, until they had achieved some semblance of a normal looking place, and then they’d start with the open house on Saturdays, blast all the rooms with lemon-scented room freshener in the morning to take away the sad stale air, and then take more loads to the dump or to Marianne’s at the end of every day until the house sold. At least, that’s how they did it before the pandemic. Now they had to take lots of photos of every room, post everything online, let people in by appointment only, condition “as is”, serious buyers only please.
“Wait until you see the upstairs,” Marianne repeated, piling pillows on a broken chair in the living room. “It’s… something. We’re going to need a lot of photos. Here, you’ll have to go around the outside, the upstairs door locks automatically on the inside.” She held out the key ring to Emily, who grabbed it with her right hand, in which she was also holding Bella’s potty. Potty training, what a pain. She had succeeded in getting Bella out of diapers, which was a substantial savings for their young family, but she hadn’t yet weaned her off the little plastic potty. Bella was too easily afraid. She could be so quiet and serious, very much an old soul, but when she was frightened she was so tiny, a fragile creature, and Emily couldn’t bear to push her. Thus, Emily carried the little plastic potty everywhere, in case Bella needed it.
And she and Jack would have another, go through this again. The diapers, the accidents, the tears. But Emily had been an only child and she didn’t want that for Bella. Being the center of attention when her parents were around was fun, and she joked that it was great that she never had to share, but Emily knew she would gladly have traded every single toy she owned to have one friend to talk to. More than a friend: a brother or a sister. When she was little, she had imaginary friends, or so her parents told her. They weren’t imaginary for Emily; they were the only conversations she had some days when her parents would go to work and leave her, telling her she was such a big girl. She had those friends, and then. Well, then one day, she didn’t have those friends anymore. Emily remembered… well, this wasn’t the best time to think about those things, now that she was all grown up.
Emily’s parents were dead now, and there was nobody to share her memories with, nobody to confirm how things had or had not happened. She’d made some friends since she and Jack had moved to California, but now with the pandemic, Emily’s friendship circle had dwindled and vanished. Marianne was the closest thing to a friend Emily had, and she was Emily’s boss. Jack was sweet, but he was so stressed right now, it seemed wrong to complain about being lonely. Emily knew Bella needed a little brother or sister, close to her own age.
Emily walked around to the other side of the house with Bella, past a pile of old tires, and went up the stairs. She expected to see more mess, boxes, a couch with too many cushions. The usual. She opened the door and stepped back, surprised to find it fully occupied. She was about to issue apologies and make a hasty and awkward retreat before she realized that the dozen women standing in the room were not real. Well, they were real… just not real people. They were all mannequins. Elegantly dressed, realistically posed mannequins. Even Bella could tell this was something unusual.
“Mommy!” breathed Bella, as Emily lowered the girl to the teal carpet, which seemed fairly clean compared to the one downstairs. “Mommy, such BIG BARBIES!”
Emily walked into the room as if in a trance. Glittering sequins on ballgowns caught the light through the windows and the shadows as Emily passed by them. It was like walking into a party. No: It was like walking into a window display for a store selling ballgowns. Colorful dresses. High heeled shoes. Make-up. Painted nails. Jewelry. Wigs. All posed around the room, which was decorated with religious icons, richly overstuffed furniture, ornate gold mirrors, and glass pumpkins. Pumpkins?
Right, to business. Photos. Where to start? Start with this: Who has a dozen fully dressed mannequins in the living room, ready for a dinner party? Emily knew that with most hoarders there was a profound loneliness at the base of it. People who had lost family, friends, their jobs; people who had made a bad decision and lost something they loved then became unable to make decisions about letting anything go – first, things with obvious value, and then later, unable to let go of anything at all. When Emily’s mother died, Emily had stood in her kitchen holding the plain white melamine sugar bowl, thinking that was all she needed. And then, her mother’s favorite coffee mug, with the picture of a unicorn and the chipped handle. Her mother’s pillowcase, still smelling faintly like her. Emily knew it could be hard to let go. Whoever had owned this house, according to the downstairs, had been unable to let go of furniture, car parts, broken electronics, sleeping bags, piles of newspapers. Typical hoarding. But the upstairs told a story of a different kind of loneliness. This was a person who, in the apparent absence of friends, had created a world in which he was surrounded by lively, unique individuals. Did he imagine they were real? Did he act out scenarios, witty cocktail chatter, dancing?
How do you take pictures to sell a place like this? Emily knew by now that the best place to start was the kitchen or the bathroom. Marianne had taught her “Clean kitchens bring home the bacon” – in fact, a clean kitchen could mean a three percent change in the price of a house. Emily found a garbage bag and a spray bottle of cleaner under the sink and started wiping down the counters. She expected them to be crusted with that distinct dusty grease so common in older houses, but they were fairly clean. There wasn’t even a lot of clutter to throw away in the room. She wiped the counters and the fronts of the cabinets in the kitchen, and then shifted to the living room. First, started moving things off the floor, to make the room look more spacious. She used Marianne’s trick of designating a “landing room” and starting moving things into there. She moved a pile of blankets. Pillows. A lamp without a lampshade. Some of the mannequins. Then Emily realized she’d left her camera in the car. “Stay here,” she instructed Bella, who was playing with absorbed contentment with the buckles on one of the mannequin’s high heeled shoes. “Mommy will be right back.”
Emily dashed down the inner stairs, annoyed at her forgetfulness. She went out to the car to retrieve the camera bag. It wasn’t a bad neighborhood, but she still felt the relief, familiar from her years of living as a poor student, to get to the car and find the windows unbroken, her valuable camera still in its bag on the seat. She went back into the house through the open sliding door, calling as she went up the stairs “Bella, can you open the door for mommy?”
“Mommy, I have to pee and I can’t reach my potty!” Emily rushed to the door, but Bella hadn’t opened it. On the one hand, Marianne was tolerant, and to be fair the house already smelled like urine. Still, if Bella made a mess…. “It’s okay, Mommy I can go here!” Emily raced back down the stairs, ran out through the sliding door and up the outer stairs, banging the door against the wall as flung it open. Emily’s heart sank. The potty was on a chair, not on the floor where she’d meant to leave it. No wonder Bella couldn’t reach it.
“Tell Mommy where you went,” said Emily.
“I peed in the big girl potty!” replied Bella proudly, pointing at the bathroom. Emily frowned. Bella had always been afraid before. But the evidence was in the toilet. Emily turned back to Bella, who was now holding the hand of the mannequin in the purple dress, which was posed as if seated on an overstuffed lounge chair. “The pretty lady told me to,” said Bella, looking up at the face of the mannequin, its painted blue eyes, the slight dent on its nose, the angular cheekbones framed by hair that had been carefully styled to appear artfully windblown. The dress was slit to mid-thigh, an off-the-shoulder glittery design, more appropriate for a figure skater than a potty trainer.
Emily looked at Bella, at the mannequin, around the room. A memory came back to her, unbidden and unwanted, and the room around her started to shimmer with the forgotten and suddenly familiar combination of fear and excitement. “A shudder ran through me and I stopped, intent on the extraordinary thing that was happening to me.” Another thing she’d read in college. How had she forgotten; how could she forget? “Such a marvelous imagination,” her mother had said. Emily did not want to say this to Bella. But she did not know what else to say.
In the course of my life I've had a number of people tell me that I should improve my appearance. This ranges from people I was dating telling me that I'd be attractive if I'd lose a little weight to complete strangers approaching me on the street to ask me why I don't wear makeup when I'd be so very pretty with just a little effort (sometimes I was wearing makeup at the time, but that's not the point). I've had friends offer to take me shopping so I could get some advice. Sometimes I think: well what's wrong with me? Am I so hideous you can't date me, or is it more probable that if I were hotter I would be dating someone hotter than you? Is my actual bare skin interfering with your ability to get through your day somehow? Are my clothes so unbearably unflattering that you can't be seen with me in public?
Usually I think those people are kind, are only trying to help, believe in and value beauty to a degree I do not and because they find me so close to their idea of what physical attractiveness is, they want to help me be as pretty on the outside as I am on the inside (and I must be pretty on the inside, I guess, because I get waaaay fewer unsolicited offers on ways to improve my personality).
Anyway I'm using this as an attempt to understand why people who write things don't think they need an editor. Because when I say "that needed an editor" I almost never mean that it was hideous beyond bearing, that I was unable to even look at the text, or that spelling is more important than your very important story. And I AM trying to help, and I believe in and value good writing to a degree that you clearly do not, and I find the text worth reading and it would be much better if it were pleasant to read.
HOWEVER. I do have to go out into the world. It's my choice to go out mostly the way I am -- maybe with extra kilos, maybe with less concealer than you'd like, maybe dressed as a stagehand. But ... like, no offense, but very few papers have to be written, very few stories are so compelling that they must be told in printed form. So if you feel that your idea, your story really must go into the world... why not put it into the world as beautiful on the page as it can be, as beautiful in print as it was in your head? Why not make your ideas as easy to enjoy for others as they were for you to have? Why not hire me or someone like me to help you? WHY.
I don't feel this way about casual writing generally so don't get all huffy. But if you're at the point where you've hired a graphic designer, a translator, a marketing specialist, please for the love of font, hire an editor.
I have never had fantastic luck with dentists, and it got worse when I moved here. I had a dentist in 1994 who, when drilling my tooth, hit a nerve and told me it shouldn't have been there and when I cried told me that Americans were babies. The dentist who (horrified) fixed that was great, then she left the practice. The next one I found was incredible, private practice and worth it; she emigrated with her husband. The person who took over her practice told me that a good way to lose weight was if you had to have your jaw wired shut and I should think about that. The dentist after her was clearly comparably better, because that was a pretty low bar, and also just a pleasant person.
But after about a decade of perfectly acceptable care, she got... sloppy? The nurse who had been with her since the beginning left a couple years ago, and it was a different one the next time, and the next time again. And I know that's a sign, but I just really couldn't bear to look for a dentist again. I got some fillings that didn't feel quite right, but I thought: maybe this is part of the aging process, that your teeth just start to fall apart. She fixed a cavity and when I told her I felt like the filling was too small, she drilled on the other side to make it match. And it did match, then, and I thought well maybe the previous tooth's filling had been too big? I can't see inside my mouth, and I don't have x-ray vision. I'm not a dentist; I have to trust she knows what she's doing. Before the first lockdown I had an appointment because I thought I needed a filling; I got there and told her my tooth felt really wrong, like the filling was loose in the hole, she refused to x-ray it and told me we'd get it next time because she was busy. It broke during lockdown.
So anyway I got a new dentist. They did an x-ray, which I obviously appreciated, and showed me that my last three fillings had not been exactly full, more like about halfway into the cavity. So those had to be pulled out and done again, plus I had a new cavity. In the last six months I have been to the new dentist I think six times and spent I don't even know how much on getting my teeth back to where they were three years ago. When I close my mouth, all my molars line up, my jaw sits comfortably without my having to jut it into place. And I remember that my teeth used to do that, but it had been such incremental shifts away from normal from that I hadn't noticed how far it had shifted (in fact, it was seeing myself talking on a zoom call when I realized how much my jaw was off).
Despite what you may have heard, if a frog is placed in a pan that is gradually heated until it reaches boiling, the frog will jump out at the point that the water becomes uncomfortably hot. I've been thinking about this a lot lately, the extent to which I adjust to situations. I don't want to be difficult, I don't want to be overly fussy, and I recognize that some things that matter to me don't matter to other people and sometimes we just need to get along with each other and with living. On the other hand, the point at which I jump out of the water, I turn around and stare at the pan, dumbfounded. The feeling that I have been experiencing is threefold: one, I did not realize that the problem I had was possible to fix or worthy of being fixed; two, how the hell did I think not being able to close my mouth on both sides was a thing I should adjust to? What took me so long? How long could I have been comfortable, if I'd just acknowledged even to myself that I was uncomfortable?; and three, I am so happy to be able to chew properly again. And so now: is this a thing I have learned about dentists, or can I perhaps I apply it to other things?
It's 8:15 pm, New Year's Eve. It sounds like a war outside already, all the fireworks. I admit that I've somewhat lost my taste for small fireworks in the last few years (I still like the huge ones overhead, though I feel sorry about the damage they cause, now that I know. I still like them, it's just not unmitigated joy). Still, I'm glad that people are celebrating, however it brings them happiness. Supposedly at 9 pm we should all be safe in our houses, breathing only the air of the people we already live with. We'll see.
Strange year, no? I had a glorious vacation in California in January, loved up on my family and friends, had adventures on planes, trains, and automobiles. I felt loved. Then I came home for about five minutes, turned around and went back to the other side of the US for my aunt's funeral. She was important to me in my childhood and it was nice to see her husband, sons, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, cousins, all gathered. I still have a peppermint lifesaver to remember her by, but my memories are solid anyway.
Then I came home, Czech Theater put on a play, and the next week the whole country locked down in response to the pandemic. It was ... I don't want to say "funny" but that's the word I have. I was so absolutely exhausted, like exhausted in my soul, and I needed a break. I didn't mean for the whole world to have a pandemic, I would have just stayed home quietly alone! I did not need existential dread for people in general while simultaneously being personally glad for the time out, and then the whiplash of guilt for that feeling.
People kept saying that Now We Have Learned and Now We Know and When This Is Over We Will Be Different. Will we? I think that some of us already knew that about half of the people around us, many in positions of power, are selfish and horrible. Let's say a third. Maybe some of us learned that another third already understand deeply and intrinsically what community means, the needs of the many are entwined with the needs of the one. I don't think I learned anything I hadn't learned four years ago. I'm glad if somebody did. When this is over, we will go back to how we were before, is what I think, though I'd be delighted to be wrong on that.
In the summer there was a moment where it seemed like this country had made it through by shutting down early and hard. I took a lovely vacation in Greece, where I ate my body weight in feta cheese and swam in the ocean and read and slept and laughed until my sides hurt.
Then we came back and schools reopened and we went back to something like normal and now we're shut down again. If I knew I had a week, a month, a year, it would be easier to just buckle in and sit, see where we go. I try to guess but nobody really knows.
What have I processed this year? I am afraid of being unwanted and of being useless. I've seen how I respond to situations where I feel that way and it's not how I want to be; I've seen it before but now maybe with greater clarity. It feels like I may eventually get to the point where I respond in a way that pleases me; I'm not there but it's a thing I can imagine. I think I've gotten better at accepting people where they are and arranging myself accordingly. I find it difficult to say what's changed when a lot of the things that were hard for me (social gatherings, for example) haven't been a presence, but I think I've gotten a little better at being in the moments I am in, whatever they are.
I worked a lot. I meditated more. I watched a ton of movies, which mostly made me happy. I slept more than usual but still not as much as I would like. I remember in my 20s if I could sleep I did, for hours, I would spend a day in bed drifting between books and thoughts and writing and dreams. I can't seem to do that anymore. Still, I slept more than usual. My cooking got a little better. Squire and I settled into a pretty pleasant roommate routine. I got better at standup and did ok with shifting to online. I adapted and performed a play with some friends. I increased contact with some people, regular phone calls or longer letters, knowing that we wouldn't see each other in person for who knows. I am sometimes profoundly lonely, but that was always true.
Anyway, it's 8:45. I'm going to go stand on the balcony and look at the moon. It's midnight somewhere. Happy New Year.
Today would have been your birthday. I don't want to say I think about you every day because that would be a lie. I didn't think about you every day when you were alive, though probably every week at least, because that's when we talked, when we were talking. I think about you in passing probably once or twice a month, and intensely (and with longing for the good parts of you, which I miss) maybe every other month now. Ten years.
I remember a lot. I remember good things. I realize that, as is my way, I shut a lot of sad things in a room that I try not to visit but I do try to remember that they're there. Not to make anybody better than they really were. Sometimes you were cruel, sometimes you came very close to hurting me. I usually didn't let you close enough to risk that, and there was a reason I held back, and I try to remember that. When you died I wasn't sure whether I had the right to mourn you, because we were never tangled and messy and I didn't know whether twenty years of visits and letters and phone calls was enough. I tried to talk myself out of my tears.
I've been thinking lately about pain and about how if we numb ourselves to it or remove it from our lives we feel considerably stronger, but it leaves us incredibly vulnerable to any pain that gets past those barriers. I think about the pain you were in, and your glorious anger, and how much I learned about pushing through pain from you. Only to watch you become someone who numbed yourself into a stupor from which you only sometimes emerged. You were hardly ever angry anymore, which was good in some ways, though it made you sloppy in other ways. You were much less alive. And then you were dead.
I mourn you at your most alive, man who made me laugh so hard it hurt. I mourn who you were when you became a person who couldn't keep up with me half the time, your once-quicksilver wit flashing out to remind me of what it was like to be in the presence of someone that sharp, then fading back into tarnish. I mourn who you might be now, the person I'll never know, who would have been one of the few who knew me then. What would you think of that? What would you think of this?
Ten years. I'll always love you. I'll always be angry that you're gone.
ARRIVING 17:45 RJ TRAIN TO BRNO, said his text. LOVE YOU.
“When your train comes in, I’ll be standing on the platform,” I texted back. I didn’t want to sound overly eager, but I felt like a part of me was missing when he was gone. It was the first time we’d been apart for more than a few hours since March. Not like we were obsessive! Just that right after I’d moved in, there’d been the lockdown and we’d both started working from home. Our home. The way we slid into such a comfortable rhythm seemed like some kind of sign. When we had a conflict, we would briefly retreat to our corners of the cozy apartment. After a few hours he somehow always knew exactly what to say. I’d relax, the tension melting from me as I folded myself back into his arms. “We fit like two hands,” he’d say, and we did.
That August morning he’d left early for Prague for an important meeting. I wanted to go with him but he said he’d be back in time for a romantic dinner. “Just the two of us,” he’d said, which was funny because it had been just the two of us for months. I’d been in touch with my friends of course, but mostly by text. And some of them had seemed to evaporate after the first month – replying to my messages only sporadically, or not at all. Well, who needed them? Somehow things with Joe... we had a little world. Insular, warm, secure. Just the two of us.
I wanted to clean the apartment before he came home, a surprise for him. I hated housework and Joe found it relaxing, so I really hadn’t cleaned much at all since we moved in together. Plus he was kind of fussy about how things got done, and any time I tried to do much beyond loading the dishwasher, he would take the broom or the sponge from my hands. I appreciated finally living with a guy who liked to clean, and he kept things a lot tidier than I would. Still, I wanted to pull my weight! As soon as he was out the door, I stripped the bed and put the sheets in the wash, opened all the windows for some fresh air, and started on the bathroom. By noon I had moved to the kitchen. Blasting Missy Elliot’s most recent album, which I hadn’t listened to yet properly, and thinking about dancing with my friends, I felt a pang of longing for them, but it wasn’t like being lonely. I’d been lonely, and this was just… nostalgia. I didn’t need them, not now that I had Joe.
I stopped for lunch, a quick sandwich that I ate over the sink, the hum of the dishwasher just below me, now on the rinse cycle. Hang up the last laundry load, I said to myself, making a mental checklist. Put clean sheets on the bed. Then empty the dishwasher. Then it will be time to go to the station and get Joe.
The hot summer sun was the best clothes dryer, the crisp smell of sunshine on cotton, but it was clear the sheets wouldn’t be dry in time for me to make the bed before I went to the station. I knew there were two sets of sheets, but Joe had always made the bed and I wasn’t sure where they were. I started opening drawers, surprised at how well I knew my way around the apartment, how much it felt like mine. Previous boyfriends I’d lived with had cleared out a drawer or given me a few bent hangers. Joe had immediately made me feel like I belonged with him, in our castle, together. I just didn’t know where the sheets were!
Finally I found a box under the bed. Aha! A bright pattern I recognized from our trip to IKEA in February, when we were just starting to sleep together, before he’d asked me to move in. As I pulled them from the box and shook out the folds, the smell of lavender drifted through the air. And then something fell onto the floor, something that had been hidden in the folds. Setting the sheets on the bed, I knelt down to find what I’d dropped. A cell phone! How… my old cell phone. I held it in my hands, completely confused. It was certainly my phone; the spiderweb crack across the screen from when I’d dropped it last year was as familiar as the lines on my hand. But I’d lost that phone on New Year’s, eight months ago. I remember still how oddly disconnected I felt the whole day, waiting for the restaurants to open on the 2nd so I could ask if I’d left it there; standing in the long line at the store to buy a new phone with my new tech-savvy maybe-boyfriend Joe helping me re-install all my accounts and make sure that everything was secure. Why was my old phone under the bed? Why was it fully charged? And why was it still logged into my old accounts?
I sat on the floor with my back against the bed, my mind reeling. It was 4 o’clock. I couldn’t think. Had he been reading the messages I’d been sending my friends for the last eight months? What if we didn’t get along at all, and he was just… constructing himself based on private thoughts I’d expressed elsewhere?
When your train comes in, I started to text. When your train comes in… what? Where could I go? I found a blue IKEA bag in a drawer in the kitchen, tore open the wardrobe and started to shove my clothes into it, but there was too much. I looked helplessly around the room. My perfumes lined up on the dresser top. My favorite coffee mug in the dishwasher, waiting to be put back in the cupboard. My life already entangled with his.