dana cass

the anti-lifestyle blog

textually transmitted diseases

When is the appropriate time to make your confessions to a potential partner? During the first date? The second? Before or after you admit that you’ve never seen “Jurassic Park?” Should you let them find out when they add you on Facebook? Should you just put it in your Tinder bio and get it out of the way? Do you have a moral responsibility to tell them before you’ve made an emotional commitment?

“I like you—”

“—I like you, too!”

“—but… I have—”

“It’s fine! I got diagnosed with HPV once too.”

“…”

“…”

“I was going to say, I have a blog.”

“Oh.”

My blog turned into a “thing”—as in, something that people beyond just my mom read and react to—around the first time that I offended a significant other by having one. Actually, I think the offense was a function of my blog becoming a thing. When it was my little hobby, where I wrote mostly for the sake of the navel I was gazing it, it was a non-issue. When I decided to deal with getting dumped in a hotel room in Palo Alto (Palo Alto! I’m over everything but that) by writing a little paean to the fact that I hadn’t yet jumped off my 13th-floor balcony, it was mostly because I didn’t want to call all of my friends individually and tell them that I needed somebody to bring me a box of Kleenex and some horse tranquilizers.

It was only when that little paean got featured on WordPress that it occurred to me that I wasn’t just sending out a holiday newsletter to my friends and third cousins. In short order, I had a couple thousand people subscribing to my little paeans—which, I think, could all be summarized as celebrations of how I haven’t jumped off a balcony—and one very put-out email from the subject of that first essay who pointed out perhaps rightly that, in asking me to drinks one summer evening and throughout all that followed, he had not signed up to be a guest on Oprah.

I have thought often since then about where the boundaries lie between what’s mine and what’s fair for me to talk about and what secrets belong to the people who shape me. I didn’t write that essay to spite him; in fact, I wrote it and rewrote it several times to reorient it around me, but there was only so much I could do. (You know, aside from not writing it at all. Which obviously wasn’t an option, because there aren’t nearly enough think pieces about breakups on the Internet and it was my civic duty to contribute.)

“Please don’t write a blog post about how happy you are to be single,” my last boyfriend said to me when I broke up with him. I wanted to say I can’t believe you’d think that I would but I was in no position to be the offended one, so I said I wouldn’t, and I didn’t. I can’t say I didn’t want to write after we broke up—not precisely that, because “happy” isn’t the right word, but Lord knows I can’t undergo anything resembling a seismic shift without milking it for all its worth—but I didn’t because there was no way to do it in a way where the meanness didn’t outweigh the artistic merit or the catharsis or the attention.

When I was a teenager, one of my favorite authors was Augusten Burroughs, who wrote—writes—incisive memoirs that are mostly about the terrible people who have turned him into who he is. He released a new book recently. I preordered it while I was inhaling the last of a container of hummus at two in the morning a few months ago, then forgot about it until it arrived (and sparked a moral quandary about whether a gay white male author counted as not quite a white male author because I’m swearing off books by white male authors this year. Spoiler alert: I decided it was worth it.)

I felt a little nauseous reading his latest book, hundreds of pages of gory detail about the collapse of his first marriage and how it led to his second. All I could think about was how could anyone stand to read this about themselves, especially the jilted first husband but even the second. I felt a little betrayed on their behalf, and in turn I felt a little sick finally acknowledging that while I don’t have a book deal and readings at the Union Square Barnes & Noble, the Internet is still a public space, and with the great power of speaking to an audience comes the great responsibility of not trying to make everybody in your life agree to be Scott Disick.

I am a different person now than I was when I was a seventeen-year-old reading Running With Scissors. Mostly, it’s because I don’t have to go to AP Calculus at seven in the morning anymore, so I’m a lot better adjusted, but I also understand now what it is for someone to really change the course of your life. Certainly, when I was a teenager, I had been saddened and irritated and humiliated by everyone from my mom to my algebra teacher to the guy who played the candelabra in our high school production of Beauty and the Beast.

At my performing arts high school, we made a lot of self-indulgent art that was mostly about each other. There were a lot of dance solos to “Hands Down” and monologues performed with more eye contact than was really necessary, and God help the poor suckers who had to sit through the Senior Choreography showcase, where every senior dancer got to express their innermost feelings through a piece choreographed on a bunch of freshmen who were practically drooling at the chance to roll around on the floor to From Autumn to Ashes wearing ripped-up black tights. It was all thinly veiled enough that you didn’t need to know someone too well to know just who the target of that impassioned rendition of “Your Eyes” was.

As an adult, though, I am trying to write intentionally about myself and only myself. This is partly because I am the most interesting woman in the world, obviously, and partly because I recognize that other people are my commodity to trade for “likes” on the Internet. I write about the people that drift into and then quickly back out of my life like the one-dimensional characters that they were for me and I try to treat the people who were three full and destructive dimensions just the same.

It’s only through gritted teeth and a couple of drafts of this thing that I’m willing to admit this, but the email I received after that first blog post made me realize a couple of salient facts about being a writer in the self-publishing age:

  1. I am not a professional writer. I am just another schmuck on the Internet writing tell-alls because the only thing more satisfying than keeping a diary is keeping a diary that talks back to you. I’m going to abandon this metaphor before I have to start talking about Horcruxes, but here’s the thing: it’s really, really hard to resist temptation when you know that you’re going to get a bunch of pats on the back and clicks and likes if you do it. This is the truth that I have to confront every time I’m tempted to air another pile of dirty laundry about the terrible date I went on with the guy who kept talking about how he hated Uber or to recount the day-to-day adventures of being a recovering anorexic. (Synopsis: I wake up! I feel mildly anxious about my breakfast! I go about my day! I feel mildly anxious about my lunch! Etc., etc., rinse, repeat.)
  2. That’s not art. It’s not even that interesting, really, to read a bunch of first-draft vitriol that is funny and interesting when you’re telling it to your coworkers over Friday night beers but overplayed and mean-spirited when you’re using it as a mechanism to get attention online. And fundamentally, I know that, and I felt a little sick when I got that email from my ex-boyfriend because as much as I didn’t want to feel bad for him for feeling exposed and embarrassed, I did.
  3. When a person becomes part of your history—especially when you’re a person who thinks relationships are like having a tapeworm—you can’t really abstract them away. And if you treat the people you date like they signed up to be the subject of a New Yorker profile, you’re going to alienate them. They’re going to think they need to ask you not to write about them after you dump them. They’re going to think you’re the kind of person who likes likes better than.. being liked. (I’m done. I’m sorry. I’m firing myself.)

But where is the line? What makes a meaningful contribution to the zeitgeist? When is it worth inciting pain or discomfort in somebody that you liked or loved or at the very least swiped right on for the sake of entertaining your audience? How should I balance my desire to write with my desire to be not totally undateable? Why won’t anybody watch me perform a heartfelt contemporary dance solo to “How to Save a Life”? Is it a sign of my weak moral fiber that I’m more concerned about how being a blogger affects my dating prospects than I am about, like, not being a completely awful person? Should I change my last name to Kardashian?

I’ll know the answers to these questions one day. In the meantime, I’m going to go work on my entirely fictional novel about a young liberal arts college graduate wasting her English degree on a minimum-wage retail job in suburban Las Vegas. Twist: she’s not a ballet dancer! (I told you it was fiction.)

all the old familiar places

We moved from one house to another, not even two miles away, when I was twelve. On the last night in the old house, I wrote a letter that I’ve since misplaced to remind myself of who I had been when I lived in that house. (I’m not sure how I drew up quite as much sentiment as I did, since I was twelve, but I’ve taken myself as seriously as I do now for as long as I can remember so you can bet it was heartfelt. I likely used the words “heartbreak” and “disappointment” as intentionally as I do in this blog. It was hard out there for a four-foot-tall nerd with poor social skills and Coke-bottle glasses.)

My hypothesis was that as soon as we moved into that new house I was going to become a new person, the way I did for a couple weeks every summer when I went to visit my grandma and became, oddly, docile and mostly quiet. It was as if the simple act of flying to Pasco was enough to make me forget that I was a championship whiner, but only until I got home and slept a night in my own bed and woke up the next morning as cranky as I’d ever been. I knew that a letter was no amulet, and that I couldn’t move to a new house and be the same person that I was the day before, but I wanted to remember as best I could.

Place is evocative. When I leave a place, I envision myself leaving behind something like a husk; when I return, it’s as if I step back into that husk involuntarily.

I’m a writer who works less with imagination than with memory. The question that runs through all of my work is who was I then? The answer is elusive. It’s easy to recall a generic description—that ugly shirt you had in two colors that you wore to every party sophomore year, and the Regina Spektor album that you were always listening to on the way to those parties, and how excited you were when S___ from American Literature finally asked you out—but it’s harder to conjure the sense of what it was like to live at the center of the constellation of all of those things.

To step back into a place that you’ve left behind—that’s the closest you can get to slipping back into that husk. Sleeping in your childhood home after you’ve grown up and moved away. Drinking at the bar where you went on your first post-college first date—your first first date, let’s be honest—five years later, only now you drink beer instead of vodka sodas and you know how to leave before the second drink with a little bit of dignity.

I think sometimes about the husks I leave strewn around the many places I visit where I’ll never return: that there was a time when I was a person who sat on her boyfriend’s kitchen countertop in an apartment in San Francisco, legs danging and wine glass in hand, and that there was a time before that when I was seventeen and I was the same person, only the countertop I sat on was in a dressing room in the backstage of a theater and it was very special to be one of the elite dancers who got their own patch of mirror and countertop, not like the underclassmen upstairs who had to share.

I got dumped in Palo Alto a couple of years ago. Of all the places to have my heart broken, Palo Alto was particularly cruel—it’s sunny and everyone is blonde and wears Adidas slides and works like four hours a day, for one thing, and for another, I have to visit some four or five times a year. And for all that I’ve grown and healed and moved on, I can’t help but feel a little raw and disoriented, like the second I step onto University Avenue I remember what it was like to be thrown so harshly off of my equilibrium. (Or maybe I’m just disoriented because it’s February and everyone is wearing shorts, and Palo Alto is full of humanoid freaks who don’t cry on the street like New Yorkers.)

It’s kind of joyful, though, to step back every once in a while to a husk that I’m thankful to have discarded. I remember that constellation viscerally—the sunshine on my back and the sound of chatter around me in the company cafeteria, how the sensation of disappointment settled in my eyelids and my gut—and it’s a great relief to know that that’s not my life anymore, that that’s never going to be my life again, that certainly I’ll have my heart broken again but that it will feel different and look different and smell different. (And I’ll get to say “Well, I feel like shit, but this isn’t nearly as bad as the time I got dumped in Palo Alto and everyone was smiling and drinking boba and wearing shorts and I wanted to punch them all in the face.”)

I finished A God in Ruins last night on a plane and while I’m not sold on Kate Atkinson’s prose or even her plots, there’s no denying that when it comes to structure and conceit she is a master. It’s a book about memory and perspective and she uses a trope where the protagonist, toward the end of his life—but not the end of the novel, which is told out of sequence—goes on a “farewell tour” of the places that figured prominently in his life. It’s a stroke that is of greater genius than it sounds. What better way to describe how a person has grown and changed—or not—than to juxtapose who they were at a moment in a place with how they recall themselves in that moment decades later?

It’s easy to recast memories in a light that better flatters the narrative you’ve crafted for yourself. I’ve caught myself more than once writing an anecdote that didn’t happen in the way I first recalled it: there was a story about being coached to insert a tampon for the first time through the bathroom door at ballet camp, and I wrote it down and a few minutes later remembered that that wasn’t my story, it was my roommate’s. I tried to write a few paragraphs ago that I had been to brunch at the restaurant where I’d cried into a cocktail napkin during my sister’s rehearsal dinner the night before her wedding, then remembered that it was the restaurant where we’d gone to drinks the night before the night before her wedding, which doesn’t flow nearly as well. I remembered these stories in a way that suited me.

Like I said before, place is evocative; being there jars my memory in a way that the simple act of remembering can’t. It’s not that I remember the details more clearly—I could sit at the same patio table where I sat for three hours on my first date with my first serious boyfriend and I still couldn’t conjure up what shoes I was wearing—but I remember the sensation. I used the word “constellation” earlier but perhaps I should say “confluence” instead: to be, physically, somewhere where something happened is to get as close as I can to reliving the experience of being that person in that moment, replicating the sensations that form a memory and retelling the story to fill in the gaps.

But as delicious as it is to step into and back out of a skin that I’m grateful to have shed, it’s even more delicious to know that the nature of my life—spent, so far, in constant motion, in moving trucks and on planes—means that most of my memories are ephemeral. My childhood home is sold and so is the one where we lived after that. My apartments have been relet to strangers, my furniture donated to charity, my high school repainted. I couldn’t go home again if I wanted to and so I have the freedom to paint my memories whatever color I want to; they’re lost to time, and no letter or essay or novel can conjure anything more than a husk.

I think perhaps that’s best. I tell people I write to make other people feel less alone in the world but I think that the old Joan Didion quote, the opening line of “The White Album,” is truer: “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” I write to mold my memories into the shape I need them to take so that I can live with them. To return to Palo Alto and remember how powerless I was on that day in August is to warp the shape of the story I wrote that forklifted me from that hole. I avoid DC because I don’t want to remember what it was like to be thin and weak and sick; I gallivant around the East Village because I want to recapture what it was to be 22, when nothing was nearly as big a deal as everything seems to be now. But what I like best is to leave footprints in new places that I’ll never see again—an apartment in southwestern France, a coffee shop on New Zealand’s North Island—and to file them away using whatever system I like. I was ambitious here. I was artistic there. I was listening to Simon and Garfunkel and it made me feel wistful. I made eye contact with a stranger and all sorts of this could have happened if I hadn’t looked back at my book. I write in my journal like I wrote myself that letter, so that I might remember who I was in that moment, so I can better understand what it means to be me now because of who I was then—there.

eyes on the prize

I had just a few simple dreams when I was a child: to meet the Spice Girls, to buy an entire wardrobe from the Limited Too, and to will myself into having perfect vision so I could cast off my Coke-bottle glasses once and for all.

24927_1235810258463_7807145_n

Did you know they make miniature cellos for tiny people who set their sights on being popular and accidentally end up playing the cello instead?

Yeah, that didn’t work out too well for me.

I wasn’t done setting goals, though. I was going to be a cheerleader, and play Brigitta in the spring musical, and seriously if I just thought hard enough I could dream those braces right off of my teeth.

1924118_1105184992913_103949_n

I wouldn’t have let me be a cheerleader either.

Nope.

I am a poor judge of my own abilities. Today I call it imposter syndrome, because I know logically that I’m not actually terrible at my job, but when I was a kid I was downright delusional. I was as certain that I’d be a cheerleader as I was that I could wake up one day with 20/20 vision, maybe because I didn’t understand how cheerleaders got there. “By dint of hard work” wasn’t the kind of thing I was willing to consider. I was sure that it was effortless and so I grew up lazy, waiting for the elusive triple pirouette to grace me with its presence during ballet class while the other girls practiced their 32 fouettes in the corner until the janitor was sweeping the floor around them as the studio closed.

Things came easy to me when I was a child. I was a champion rote memorizer. I wandered around the house muttering my times tables under my breath so I could walk into school the next day, take a giant gulp of air, and exhale the entire thing faster than anyone else, from “onetimesoneisone” to “twelvetimestwelveisahundredandfortyfour” with my eyes bugging out the whole time from behind those Coke-bottle glasses. I was the queen of state capitals Jeopardy (“Harrisburg!” “Dover!” “Pierre!”).

It was only when rote memorization began to fail me as a tool that I began to fail myself. I tried my mightiest to write out a plan to become popular: my elementary school journals are filled with lists where I impel myself to “be cooler” and then bemoan the lack of tactical guidance on how to be cool. “Stop picking your nose in front of people” was the only advice I could really muster and that wasn’t happening anytime soon. (If we’re being honest, it still hasn’t. Thank God I sit behind a Thunderbolt monitor all day.)

Absent instructions to follow, surrounded by people who had it all figured out, I began to supplant goals with wishes. It was half laziness and half growing up brunette and bespectacled and comically uncoordinated with a bunch of blonde soccer players. Everything seemed so hopelessly out of reach—and it was, really, since I wasn’t about to wake up blonde—that it didn’t occur to me to find something more realistic to set my sights on.

Eventually, I grew up a little, took a ballet class, realized that I could do more pirouettes if I did situps while I watched “The OC,” that I could ditch the glasses if I could learn to stick my finger in my eyeball, that I could get A’s if I studied for my chemistry tests (or if I was nice to J_____ and he let me copy off his paper). It was like next-level times tables and it worked until I discovered that sometimes there are things called extenuating circumstances that get between you and your goals. You can practice as hard as you want but if the girl who would grow up to play Sandy in Grease Live! walks into the audition after you, it doesn’t matter how many pirouettes you just did, everyone has already forgotten that you exist. (This happened. 2005 was a rough year for everyone at the Las Vegas Academy of Performing Arts who had previously had self-esteem.)

I decided shortly thereafter that setting goals, per se, was just setting myself up to wallow. If something doesn’t happen and you’ve classed it as a “goal,” you experience not only the disappointment of losing out on being Brigitta or a cheerleader or first place in state capitals Jeopardy but the meta-level disappointment of failing yourself. So I reverted to my childhood practice of wishing. “I want to be in the ballet piece next year,” I said to myself, but like hell I was going to set a goal to be in the ballet piece next year, because I had no control over whether a bunch of skinny freshmen were going to show up at dance company auditions and tombe-coupe-jete circles around me. (Spoiler alert: they did, and they all got to wear pink sparkly tutus while I shuddered around the stage in, literally, a bonnet.)

It was a good way to get through the first painful years of young adulthood. Setting goals is especially hard when you don’t know what you want out of life: I didn’t want to go to law school or med school or teach in China or backpack Europe. And when I eventually tripped into a career—because my sister went to a party thirteen years ago where she met a kid who, ten years later, moved my resume to the top of a pile—it occurred to me to be grateful that I hadn’t set some kind of goal for myself. I’ve never been one for planning, anyway; serendipity and luck and privilege are more fun. Doing it for the stories is more fun. These are my excuses, but the fact is that these are the things I worry about:

  1. Failing.
  2. Failing while people are watching.
  3. People watching me.
  4. Plane crashes. (This would be #1 were it not for the fact that I only worry about it when I’m on planes, which occurs less frequently than when people are watching me.)

I can work myself into a panic about nearly everything—squirrels, the prospect of my Kindle running out of battery on a long subway ride, how I’m going to fit an umbrella in the tiny purse I wanted to carry next time we go to the Bell House given that Weather.com is forecasting rain ten days from now—and when I let myself think about the kinds of goals that are as dependent on circumstance as they are on persistence, I am overcome.

How could I possibly vow to publish a novel by the time I’m thirty when sending a query letter is as much a moonshot as auditioning for the non-Equity tour of “The King and I?” How could I do something as audacious as tentatively plan to buy an apartment in five years when I could get fired from my job at any moment? How dare I imagine that I might one day direct a company’s marketing department when the bottom is about to fall out of the entire tech industry anyway? I am terrified to say that I want any of these things because, frankly, I’m terrified that people might laugh at me when they don’t pan out.

In my head, there is a tiny studio audience observing my every move, judging me as harshly when I try to shovel half a salad into my mouth in one bite as when I say I’m going to stop flaking on social invitations. (This studio audience was thrilled when I decided that I was going to lose ten pounds and then, again, when the first eating disorder therapist I saw told me I wasn’t “that far gone” and so I decided to find out what “that far gone” meant. I should replace them with Oprah’s studio audience. Oprah fans would sit me down with the latest Barbara Kingsolver and tell me to quit trying so hard to make a point.)

I’m afraid to take risks because I’m afraid of what this studio audience will do to me when I fall short. I set myself small, digestible goals and I pursue them slavishly and I am disproportionately upset when I fail at them. I decided this year not to read white male authors, and then I accidentally borrowed a book from the resident of the sixth-floor walkup where I found myself unexpectedly a couple months ago late on a Friday night—okay, so it’s hard to find yourself unexpectedly in a sixth-floor walkup, but you get what I’m saying—and now I have this Tom Wolfe book sitting on my nightstand that I can’t read but I don’t borrow a book and then not read it so I can’t not read it and at this point, I might as well just pencil in a deadline for my first publication date on my calendar four years from now and one more a week later to dig my own grave. (The studio audience roars.)

There aren’t many things that I want to do while I’m alive; when people ask, I say “Have fun.” I’m not sold on marriage and children terrify me. I’d like to see more of the world, but I’ve got no checklist of countries to visit. I will never run a marathon or dance on Broadway. I don’t have many flags to plant—fear or not, I would rather amble along, mostly aimlessly, living according to circumstance. But as much as I like serendipity, I think that if I die without having published a novel or purchased a home I will not feel finished.

And that means that I have to use the dirty word and set a couple of goals for myself, goals that I might not accomplish by thirty because I might contract writer’s block or get fired or move again or lose a hand to a squirrel attack or get murdered on the subway. I have to set some ground rules for my studio audience: they’re allowed to heckle me when I spill coffee on my boob the day I’m wearing a white shirt, but they can’t give me shit when I drop eighty bucks on another black sweater instead of putting it in my savings account.

Studio audience, are you listening? The APPLAUSE sign is flashing. Put away that bucket of tomatoes and make yourselves useful.

a deluxe apartment in the sky

After college, I landed in an apartment that my father once, memorably, called “a warehouse for twentysomethings.” Warehouse is generous: it was a converted four-bedroom with a single, decrepit bathroom and no air conditioner. I found my room on Craigslist shortly after arriving in New York where I discovered quickly and to my chagrin that, at the beginning of 2012, there were no jobs to be found for a shiftless 22-year-old with an English degree and that I was living dangerously beyond my means. (“Beyond my means” meant, in this case, one of two bedrooms in an apartment where the heat and hot water worked on occasion and mice eventually drove out the lessee only a few months after I abandoned here. That’s New York, I’m told.)

My three roommates were an actor, a costume designer, and a girl whose claims of being an attorney I deem spurious based on her living in an apartment where the only dishware was four IKEA bowls we shared between the four of us. The actor, whose name was on the lease, played the same lick from the same Bright Eyes song day in and day out for the four months I spent there. The kitchen was a stove, a sink, and a sliver of counter, and I lived mostly on hummus and pita and two-dollar frozen meals from Trader Joe’s that I ate in my bedroom.

I had a boyfriend for a few of those months—no, not a boyfriend; “We’re dating, but we’re not… boyfriend and girlfriend,” that kind of noise I found glamorous when I was 22—who lived alone in an apartment that felt like a palace. There was an air conditioner and very clean sheets and a sofa, which were all things that I probably could have had if I had tried a little harder but seemed, then, out of my reach.

Much was out of my reach then: a job, personal space, cleanliness. A bathroom shared by four people will never be clean. (No place is clean when you can opt out of owning your mess. The year before I lived with my four best friends in what was essentially a double-wide on the outskirts of our college campus. We cleaned out our refrigerator one afternoon and I decided that there was really no point to claiming the celery that had turned to—I’m sorry, but it’s true—black sludge in the back of the crisper. After all, C______ had already picked it up, and would it really have shifted the karmic balance of the universe far enough to justify both of us touching it?)

I wanted space most of all. I find it impossible to feel comfortable when I know that another person is present, even if they’re rooms away; there’s something about someone else breathing my air that disturbs my equilibrium. (I want to know at all times that I can go to the bathroom pantsless. More to the point, I want at all times to be pantsless.) During those months that I lived in New York with three roommates and four bowls and no air conditioner, I grew claustrophobic. New York suffocated me. I squeezed into the middle seat on the R train, waited for my roommate to finish showering, stole the covers in my boyfriend’s bed.

I grew desperate for space. I moved to California and rattled around in a one-bedroom apartment that I couldn’t find enough furniture to fill. I practiced pirouettes on the hardwood floor. Pantless. I moved again to Virginia, where I lived in a thirteenth-floor apartment with plush carpet and a balcony that felt like everything I dreamed of when I was 22 and sleeping on a mattress that I’m fairly sure was made of cardboard. I could sleep in my spacious bedroom and invite a guest to sleep in my spacious living room and if I timed my trip to the Jack-and-Jill bathroom right, I still didn’t have to wear pants. I had a party and invited 20 people and everyone had somewhere to sit.

I loved that apartment. I had a boyfriend then who was abjectly horrified by how much I liked living in a building that he described variously as soulless or utterly lacking in character, but I was too enamored with the carpet and the windows and the central air conditioning to care that every one of the hundreds of apartments in the building looked like mine. It was space and it was mine and I could wash my sheets every week (“could,” which is different than “did,” because all the space in the world couldn’t turn me into someone I’m not, which is a hygienic person).

That apartment swallowed me, ultimately. I spent so many hours alone in that apartment during my monthslong nadir, as my body wasted away and the proportion of human to space shifted troublingly in the favor of space. I lay on the carpet sometimes when I didn’t have the energy or the wherewithal to do anything else and it was soft on my face and I didn’t get hookworm, which I certainly would have if I had pressed my face up against the floor in my apartment where I lived with three strangers or in my college house where the celery shape-shifted in the back of the fridge.

It occurred to me then that it was when I had the least space to myself that I occupied the world in the most satisfying way. I spent the bare minimum of hours in my room in Queens, alighting only to sleep and shower and swap out the book I carried in my purse. I spent the rest of the time rattling around the city on subway cars making eye contact with strangers, drinking cheap margaritas at Blockheads, crying in the Frank Lloyd Wright room at the Met, getting lost in Brooklyn, begging someone to give me a job so I could move into an apartment where I could walk around barefoot without catching diphtheria.

I moved into a studio last year in Queens, a few minutes away from where I lived in 2012. I pass the old apartment when I go see my therapist and once I saw my guitar-playing roommate through the window at a Starbucks on Broadway. I ride two trains to the office because it felt to me like if I moved any closer, I’d risk being discovered and summarily ejected. Queens felt safe.

I took away from 2012 that Manhattan isn’t a place for girls like me who grew up on cul-de-sacs in the Southwestern suburbs. We can’t pretend away our instinct that a home is only a home if it’s got a backyard. It’s like in “Goodbye to All That” where Joan Didion writes that nobody from the East can “appreciate entirely what New York, the idea of New York, means to those of us who came out of the West and the South.” New York was, for me, something of a metonym for adulthood in general, and that disastrous first month in Chelsea set a bizarre tone for me, like I was trying to attend a party that I hadn’t been invited to.

I wondered if that was what went so wrong in Virginia, too, if with my carpet and my balcony and my elevator I had tried to live beyond my means again, and the universe had said No, you can’t have your cake and eat it too, you can either live in an apartment where you have to listen to somebody practicing a musical instrument or you can be heartbroken and miserable. Pick one. “To think of ‘living’ there was to reduce the miraculous to the mundane; one does not ‘live’ at Xanadu,” wrote Joan Didion of New York, and I extrapolate this to mean, in general, alone, self-sufficient, in an apartment where one can walk to work and fit one’s belongings in a closet without having to store a few pairs of shoes in the oven.

I signed a lease on a studio in the West Village two weeks ago. I feel like Eliza Dolittle at the Ascot Races, like at any moment all of the trappings of this job and this paycheck and this bizarre set of circumstances where people take me seriously are going to fall away and I’ll have to skulk back to Queens, to a room that overlooks a grocery store, to two trains that are both, invariably, delayed. But the apartment has two windows and, mysteriously, a skylight in the bathroom, and I’ve been promised that if I let the exterminator in once a month then the cockroaches won’t bother me. If they do, I’ll buy some Raid, maybe, and I won’t take it as a sign that I’m living beyond my means.

“I had hoped the apartment would go to you,” the previous tenant wrote me in an email last week. He lived there for ten years and I can’t imagine that the place was ever less immaculate than it was on the day he showed me around. He filled the closet with books instead of clothes, a collection that spilled out onto the floor next to a couch that doesn’t face a television. It reminded me a little of the apartment where my ex-boyfriend lived in Haight-Ashbury, spotless but for the piles of books littered in every corner. I wondered what the tenant saw in me that made him think that I’m the kind of girl who should live in a studio apartment in the West Village, but nobody’s told me before that they thought I belonged where I was.

I think perhaps now I’m confident enough to make my own decisions about where I belong, to reject notions like a building having insufficient character to deserve my presence or my presence being unworthy of a city. I don’t need too much space to fill to feel like I’ve successfully carved out a corner in the world. (And I’m responsible for my own rotten celery.)

ain’t nothin’ but a number

When I was seventeen, the sleepy-eyed 26-year-old sound engineer who taped a microphone cord to the back of my neck every night before I went onstage as Peggy in 42nd Street fell hard for me. “I shouldn’t be telling you this,” he’d start, his thumbs pressing the tape into the back of my neck for far longer than he needed to, “but—you’re beautiful.” I’d giggle and look away, not sure what to do, unused to being told I was beautiful and uncomfortable that it was coming from someone older than my sister. (That’s always been my barrier. Are they older than my sister? Then they’re old. Sorry, sissy.)

The night before we opened, he was gone. I think it had more to do with him showing up strung out every night than with him preying on the underaged star, but I was left with the keen sense that I was swimming in deeper waters than I could handle. I was seventeen and a young seventeen at that, and I had read enough Cosmopolitan to be terrified by the prospect of… well… you know.

Time passed, and to my great relief, I discovered that Cosmo had exaggerated the number of alternate purposes I would find for my scrunchies in the real world. (Tangentially, I sometimes wonder what would happen if women were as pushy about the ideas they read in Cosmo (http://jezebel.com/5919206/cosmos-44-most-ridiculous-sex-tips) as men are about porn. Would our nation’s emergency rooms suddenly be filled with men suffering from unspeakable chafing injuries?)

(When I was 21, conversely, I fell hard for the sleepy-eyed eighteen-year-old sound engineer who taped a microphone cord to the back of my neck every night before I went onstage as Nadine in The Wild Party. It started as a means to check a certain box off my senior year bucket list, but before I even had a chance to remind myself that I was a wild and unfettered senior and not a cradle-robber, I was smitten. Time and geography eventually separated us and now when I stalk him on Facebook I sort of feel like his older sister, which is something Freudian that I don’t want to think about too much.)

I am so aware at every moment of how old and how young I am, of the precise spot I occupy on the space-time continuum. It’s a spot that seems to shift depending on who’s looking at me. “You’re so young,” my coworkers say to me every once in a while when I make a reference to being born in 1989 or admit that I’ve only seen “Saved by the Bell” in syndication.

But that doesn’t happen as often as it used to a few years, during my first year at the company when I was 23. Now I gleefully join in teasing the new generation of 23-year-olds—I work at a software company where there is always a new batch of 23-year-olds, wunderkinds who write software code that solves the most existential problems of CEOs on the Fortune 500, then wake up the next morning to realize that they left their laptop at the bar. “Infants,” I tell them, “you’re all infants,” mostly because they are infants but also because I need to say something to make me stop worrying about the fact that I am no longer a wunderkind myself. (Mostly, though, I take great pleasure in being just older enough that I seem wise without being totally irrelevant yet.)

I feel lately like I’ve been in an extended renegotiation process with my feelings about my age. I had just turned 24 two and a half years ago when I started dating a 33-year-old, which made me feel more special and precocious than anything, even more than working at a company where people regularly marveled at my youth. “I thought you were older,” he said at first, which felt like bullshit given that we’d known each other for a year and that I look so young that, as an adult, I have not once but twice been asked by TSA agents if I’m under twelve. (If you’re under twelve, you don’t have to go through the backscatter X-ray. If a TSA agent thinks you’re under twelve, even though you’re carrying a branded corporate laptop bag and you have a fully grown set of adult breasts, he will actually turn off the machine and ask you your age.)

My next boyfriend was 36. I guess you could call it my older man phase, though I think the second relationship was something of an attempt to make up for the first one, which ended disastrously when it became apparent that I was actually 24 and that even smart 24-year-olds who don’t like brunch are still basically children. That breakup left me reeling. I had just turned 25 and I was watching the new generation of infant geniuses take up the wunderkind mantle at work and my ex-boyfriend had just written me a screed informing me that our breakup was my fault for being immature. (“Imagine one’s girlfriend, nine years one’s junior,” it began, as though I had performed some kind of Catfish-style bait-and-switch instead of just being a pretty girl of ambiguous age with a deceptively robust vocabulary.) So I found a new thirtysomething to prove that I was still special, and then I realized that I’m actually 26 and that even smart 26-year-olds who don’t like brunch are just barely not children and not remotely qualified to get married or have them.

I am dealing now with the repercussions of my older man phase and, at the same time, with the first stirrings of the notion that I’m no longer the freshest thing on the shelf. It was so disorienting to be introduced to my older boyfriends’ family and friends and to sense that they were wondering quietly—or not so quietly, in some cases—what role I was supposed to be playing. I recall a dinner with that first boyfriend’s college roommate and his wife where I was suddenly, keenly aware of how young I was compared to all of them, that two nights later I would be taking Fireball shots at the bar for my friend’s 25th birthday, that I didn’t use eye cream.

(As an aside, last summer I went on a series of terrible dates with men—let’s call them boys—closer to my age. One of them texted me five minutes before our second date to tell me that he hadn’t left his office yet; another smoked three cigarettes in my face and told me that he thought Uber was evil. They had roommates and plans to go to grad school in a couple years, maybe, and I felt old all over again, with my wristwatch and my career and my burgeoning awareness that occasionally, I understand where fiscal conservatives are coming from. It was a mindful attempt to not date people who are older than me just because they also don’t like brunch that taught me that perhaps I should just not date anybody because everyone is terrible in their own unique way.)

I rely so much on my age to tell me what I mean at a given moment. I am younger than you, I am precious or irritating; I am older than you, I’m worldly or maybe I’m pathetic. At 26, fast approaching my late twenties, it occurs to me that from now until many years from now my age will be mostly irrelevant. There are only a few things you can do after 25 or so to be impressive beyond your years and since I’m not about to found a company or publish something literary, I’m pretty sure I’m about to embark on several years of being decidedly average for my age. In ten years or so it will become weird that I’m not married; in fifteen, that I’m not a parent. (And then eventually I think I’ll become one of the kind of old lady who people describe as a “firecracker,” whacking manspreaders on the subway with my cane. Or maybe I’ll just get a cane now and start whacking manspreaders with it.)

Much of growing older makes me sad. The notion of putting away childish things: that I no longer find the joy I once did in novels written for teenagers, that I can’t make the time to perform in community theatre musicals. That I’m never quite as joyful as I was as a child or even as a teenager, that I’ll never be as excited as I was on the first date I ever went on, when I was fifteen (and he, of course, was seventeen). And I’m not naive enough to think that I am anything approaching old, no matter how often I tell my 23-year-old coworkers that they make me feel like a grandmother. I am well aware of how much is left in the world for me to discover.

But for most of my life I’ve built my identity on being little, precocious, special, and that’s really the childish thing that I’m putting away. When I was seven the principal of my elementary school pulled me out of class and made me read out loud from a novel to some visiting official from the school district. I felt validated—whatever that means to a seven-year-old with giant glasses and no friends—in the same way that seventeen years later, I felt validated because an older man that I thought was sophisticated told me that he loved me. It’s been kind of disturbing to realize that such a pillar of my identity is so perishable.

And at the same time it’s invigorating, to realize that my Finnish ancestors all lived until they were about a hundred and ten so I’m only a quarter of the way done, and I have three-quarters of a life left to remake myself into something that doesn’t rely on other people perceiving me in a certain way for me to feel validated or like there’s a reason for me to be here. Like, hey, I’m a person in my own right, and I’m special because I’m special, not because I know more words than the other kids or because I don’t watch Keeping up with the Kardashians. That means that I have to supply another reason why I’m special, of course, which is scary, but it also imbues me with a sense of purpose. Every time I write another chapter of my novel (once every twelve weeks or so, which doesn’t bode well for ever finishing), or get a thank-you email from a coworker, I feel a little closer to finding who I am irrespective of my age and what I am or am not doing with it. I feel more confident that I am doing it right by being alone. I feel wise, almost.

dana got run over by a reindeer

This holiday season, I fell into a funk, captured for posterity in a series of journal entries where I asked myself some variation of “what’s wrong with me?”

I blame Christmas, when the answer to this question is obvious: I don’t have access to a baby or a purse dog or a mini-SUV that I can dress in antlers. It’s all I can do to decorate my apartment past the point of it looking like a prison cell, let alone put up a tree. Although I own an impressive wardrobe of sweaters, I look weird in knit hats. I’ve still never seen either Miracle on 34th Street or Die Hard.

In a nutshell—roasting over an open fire—Christmas is the time of year when being a normal, functional adult is both the most attractive and the most elusive.

For most of my life, I’ve unabashedly loved Christmas. Every year, I have a ritual first listening of Mariah Carey’s seminal Christmas classic “All I Want for Christmas is You.” Until I was probably way older than I should admit on the Internet, I used to close out Christmas whispering to myself in bed, “Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night.” I love Christmas so much that when I go to Christmas with my family, I magically transform into my eight-year-old self, and not in the cute way, either. In the “I want to sit on the couch and read Harry Potter! Don’t make me empty the dishwasher!” way.

As I grow older, the holidays serve as a progressively harsher reminder of all of the ways that I’ve failed at adulthood. For instance, eating: what was once a normal activity regulated by my brain stem and aided by my ready access to grocery stores that stock hundreds of different kinds of cereal is now an emotional undertaking that requires yoga breathing and me giving myself inspirational talks in the mirror. Fifteen years ago I was eleven and eating a Chocolate Orange and waffles and maybe part of my sister’s Chocolate Orange. Two years ago I was 24 and I stuck my finger down my throat after Thanksgiving leftovers. How do you reconcile that? What went wrong during those thirteen years? Is there any part of me that is, like Sandra Cisneros, still eleven, and if there is can I find it and cling to it and let it rocket me back into the past like the flux capacitor?

I want desperately to turn back the clock, to be eleven and twelve and thirteen and flop my body along the armchair that once sat in the corner of our living room and now sits in the corner of my studio apartment. I want to read the third Harry Potter for the first time like I did on Christmas in 2001 or so and I want it to be okay that I’m doing that instead of emptying the dishwasher.

In short, on Christmas, the troll inside me that usually only emerges when the N/Q is delayed or one of my coworkers tries to correct my grammar overcomes me.

My trollishness is exacerbated by the fact that everyone else seems to be having a great time. Especially now that everyone has an ugly baby to put in a Christmas onesie, while here I am fifth-wheeling with my family for the 26th year running except for that one awkward year when I brought home a Jewish vegetarian I had been dating for like five minutes and everyone kept offering him bacon. I mostly just want to lock myself in my room, write slam poetry in my journal, and listen to Mariah Carey’s Christmas album on repeat, and everyone keeps trying to get me to do things like play Settlers of Catan.

I find a happy medium in the corner with my Kindle, where I drink a beer and glare at everyone. It’s much like the Christmases of my youth, plus alcohol, which means that at some point I’ll stop pouting and start giggling, if we’re lucky, or antagonizing everybody, if we’re not. Then later in the evening—around 8:30, if we’re feeling wild and we stay up late—I retreat to my room and think about what a pill I’ve been for the past twelve hours and wonder if I’d be happier if I had a baby to dress up in a Christmas onesie.

This is the question I ask constantly during the holidays, when I look at Facebook and the family sitting in the row in front of me on my flight out of JFK and the Christmas cards with family photos on them: are you happy? Are you happier than me? Will I ever be as happy as you? How? How do you find happiness when you can’t be eleven anymore and stomp your foot and stamp out of the room and read in your bedroom while the rest of the world goes on around you? How did you grow up and why am I finding it so hard to?

I was happy on Christmas when I was eleven and all I needed to be happy was a Chocolate Orange and the new Harry Potter. I was happy on Christmas when I was nineteen and I was at home with my parents for the first time in five months. I was happy on Christmas when I was 24 and I was finally not the fifth wheel of the Cass family station wagon. I was happy last year, reading books for the first time since I gave up on the anorexia thing and talking with my grandmother for what turned out to be the last time before she passed away a month later.

This year, it felt like the weight of the past 26 years came crashing down on my shoulders: the knowledge that I am no longer eleven so I can’t act like a troll at family gatherings, that I’m bad at relationships and that means I might die alone with cats eating my face, that I’m a recovering anorexic and that means that I can’t eat a cinnamon roll without poking and prodding at my stomach for the next twelve hours.

The transition to adulthood is less of a precipice than an interminably long catwalk, where I’ve been perched for several years now, inching incrementally closer toward being a mature and selfless human and constantly, dramatically, flinging myself backward. It occurred to me this Christmas that the magic secret that everyone else seems to have discovered is something relating to not being a complete jackass all of the time. It’s contrary to my nature as a selfish troll (“spoiled brat,” as my ex-boyfriend once said, memorably) but seems like a necessary final step to getting my grown-up card.

I anticipate that once I make it through a holiday without dropping the F-bomb in public I will receive this card in the mail, followed shortly by my AARP card. Officially, my New Year’s resolution is to have more fun—because you don’t have a lot of fun when you’re too busy starving yourself to drink beers with your friends!—but I think perhaps it’s time for me to focus also on being less of a troll and more of a grown-up.

If I can spend less time Tweeting to the MTA when my train is delayed, less time grousing about the fact that I don’t have my own desk at work, less time making fun of my Facebook friends who hashtag their baby names (just kidding, I’m never going to stop doing that, your baby name hashtag is obnoxious), will I learn to love Christmas again? Is this the modern equivalent of the Grinch’s heart growing three sizes? Is this how you become an adult? Given the amount of tears I shed this holiday season over finally realizing that I don’t get to be eleven anymore, I’m willing to do a lot to find out.

So I guess my New Year’s resolutions are to have more fun and be less of a self-absorbed troll. The easiest path to achieving both of these outcomes seems to be to drink more and volunteer more and go to SoulCycle more often (although SoulCycle is arguably a bad way to not be a self-absorbed troll, since it’s basically paying three times as much as I used to make in an hour to listen to someone tell me that I’m a warrior because I can ride a bicycle that is LITERALLY GOING NOWHERE).

This is getting dangerously close to a schmaltzy NEW YEAR NEW YOU think piece, which is not at all what I intended, but halfway through it was starting to read like something Narcissus might write after a bad day standing in front of the mirror. I promise I won’t start blogging about chia seeds or gratitude, and I’m not going to steal a baby to put it in a Christmas onesie, and if you want to know the worst baby name hashtags on my Facebook feed, I have an opinion on the matter that I’m happy to share.

And frankly, I’ll probably still rage-Tweet at the MTA because COME ON I PAID A WHOPPING $2.75 FOR THIS RIDE CAN’T THE TRAIN MAGICALLY APPEAR THE SECOND I REACH THE PLATFORM? But other than that, I’m totally going to start acting like a grown-up soon. Otherwise I might not get any presents next year, and then I’ll really be mad.

up in the air

“You got Big Green?” my dad used to ask me every time I’d come home for a stretch—first those monthlong winter breaks in college, later a week’s vacation from the office. I’d nod yes, sheepishly, well aware that I didn’t need to bring a suitcase large enough to stash a body in for a weeklong vacation. (Especially given my utter lack of fashion sense. What was I packing, anyway?)

Big Green was a gift from my mother, handed down when I left for college: the largest in a set of pea-green suitcases with lovely quilted paneling that the designer surely chose without considering the indignity of baggage handling. I lugged Big Green back and forth from Las Vegas to Poughkeepsie for four years and when I started hopscotching around the world on business travel a few years later, it came along.

I flew many times before I left for college and was always quite indifferent to it. Flying was the way I got to Grandma’s house, or to Astro Camp, and sometimes I got stuck facing backwards in the lounge seats on Southwest but other than that it wasn’t much of an ordeal. I was going somewhere and I’d be back soon and in the meantime, I’d get to build a bottle rocket.

I packed Big Green for our first trip to Poughkeepsie with confidence. I was going to be the glamorous girl from the West Coast who took Vassar by storm. “Just don’t let me die in a plane crash before I lose my virginity,” I thought to myself as the plane rumbled over the Midwest, Big Green below me in cargo carrying my most precious earthly possessions (ballet slippers, my diary, and a bunch of low-cut tank tops I wouldn’t have dared wear out of the house until I left it).

I returned home several weeks later, unsure of who I was in the way that only an eighteen-year-old can be and wishing that I’d said, perhaps, “Don’t let me die in a plane crash before I get elected senator.” I made my grand entrance into college life with a resounding thump, sweating indelicately on strangers at parties and failing psychology quizzes and tripping all over myself in ballet class.

I trundled back home, Big Green in tow, feeling stupid, untalented, and sweaty. On the return flight, I stared out the window and cried noisily and probably a little more dramatically than was necessary.

Nobody noticed. I decided, then, that the airplane was the only place where I could be my true self. (It was hard, being eighteen.)

The act of travel was stressful. For one, the trek was one that I probably wouldn’t have signed up for if I’d realized what it entailed: a ride in an unmetered, cigar-smelling cab, an hour and a half on the Metro-North to Grand Central, a rattling bus from Grand Central to JFK, a flight to Philadelphia, and then at last to Las Vegas (never does the sound of slot machines sound as comforting as to the prodigal daughter returning home to McCarran Airport). There were always several flights of stairs to drag the suitcase up and down and a gate agent looking down their nose at my 51-pound suitcase (“Can you fit that hairdryer in your purse, miss?”).

More stressful, though, was the knowledge of what lay ahead. At home, there were unspoken questions about my grades, my career plans, my love life. At school, there were my grades, my career plans, my love life. But on the plane, there were pretzels and free soda, and for twelve solid hours I could exist in a space where nobody would look at me or think about me or, if I was lucky, talk to me.

In Las Vegas, I was one girl; at Vassar, I was another. In between, I was an unoccupied vessel. Unoccupied but for pretzels and free soda and “Three Days in Guadalajara” in the United in-flight magazine.

It was blissful to be alone. To be a student at Vassar today—probably, to be a student anywhere today—is to be constantly scrutinized. I felt powerless to throw off the identity that had been assigned to me when I arrived in Poughkeepsie. (The contents of my suitcase, it seemed, were not enough to keep me me.) On the plane, nobody knew who I kissed last weekend or what play I didn’t get cast in. They didn’t ask me what I was planning to do with that English degree or what classes I’d take next year.

I began to wonder whether I could engineer a situation for myself like Tom Hanks in “The Terminal,” only with meal vouchers and a 24-hour Hudson News nearby. I envisioned myself aging into oblivion in one of the Adirondack chairs in the Philadelphia airport, eating peach rings and reading Entertainment Weekly with my earbuds in.

Reentry, of course, was never quite so unpleasant as I’d worry. In Las Vegas, my father would greet me with outstretched arms and a groan at the sight of my overstuffed suitcase. In Poughkeepsie, I’d drag Big Green up four flights of stairs to my dorm room and wake the next morning, arms sore, reacquainting myself with the radiator’s alien rattle.

(I convinced myself repeatedly over ten years that Big Green was smaller than it actually was. Once, memorably, I brought Big Green home with me from Poughkeepsie via Washington, D.C. for my sister’s graduation from law school, down four flights of stairs out of my dorm and down to more to the train in Poughkeepsie and up one at Penn Station and then, lost in the rabbit warren of Penn Station, up and down again, then, finally, to Union Station, where bless the good people of Washington, D.C., there are escalators.)

Big Green grew up with me as I moved to New York City for the first time, when I booked my one-way flight for New Year’s Eve as both a symbolic gesture and an excuse to avoid my second-least favorite holiday, and then again four months later when I absconded to California.

Today, I fly many times a year for work. Business travel is delicious in a whole new way: I fly from New York to San Francisco or Los Angeles, toting my laptop and feeling chic for about five minutes until I realize that nobody on the plane is peeing as often as I am. (This is true on the ground, as well, but it’s more obvious when you’re all waiting for the same closet in the same metal tube.)

I spend most of my time in the air flailing around with my neck pillow and my Kindle and my laptop and my several bottles of water—hence the peeing—and the blankets and pillows that United hands out, pointedly avoiding thinking about their provenance. (Are they washed between uses? Are they disposable? What’s better, getting Ebola from an airplane blanket or being single-handedly responsible for climate change?)

We talk at work about “protecting” our time. “Do you think you’ll be able to protect your winter break?” my manager asks me, like I’m the Olympic flame and time off is the guy sitting next to it looking bored at three in the morning. My favorite way to protect my time is to fly, where even if the plane does have WiFi I can say it was broken and spend a blissful six hours reading something trashy on my Kindle instead. (If anyone who pays me is reading this, don’t worry. I’m just protecting my time.)

I no longer feel that I’m flying back and forth between selves. Instead, I feel that I’ve strewn bits of identity around the world and through time: here, on a kitchen countertop in San Francisco where I sat, giggling, while my boyfriend fed slices of pear into my open mouth; there, in a café on rue de Gambetta in Toulouse where I watched two policemen in bulletproof vests trade air kisses. In a puddle-jumper over the Palouse where the woman next to me put her hand on mine to stop it shaking; on a Dreamliner over the Pacific where I curled up on the open seat next to mine and woke up with my head practically in the lap of the teenager two seats away.

I bought a new suitcase recently. Big Green was falling apart and besides, a business traveler like myself needs suitcases as chic as her image. (Note for posterity that on my new suitcase’s second trip, the TSA agent manning the body scanner dove in the machine to tell me that if I’m under twelve, I’m not allowed in there.)

I put Big Green out on the curb next to the trash cans and was struck by way more nostalgia than anyone should feel for a suitcase, like I had packed up all my past selves and sent them out to pasture instead of just a suitcase with a giant hole in the side. It’s only appropriate, since I’m no longer the kid coming home from college with an enormous suitcase and an inferiority complex. I’m letting go of my baggage (you see what I did there?!) and traveling lighter. I don’t need to pack myself anymore, I guess—I’ll decide who I am when I get there.

the empress’s new clothes

A red tank top emblazoned with the word DANCE in rainbow glitter. Baby-blue track pants from the Limited Too that snap up the side. Pastel yellow sneakers for skateboarders, doodled all over with ballpoint-pen stars and hearts and Avril Lavigne lyrics.

Beige corduroy bellbottoms. A tiered skirt that falls to mid-calf and soars when you spin. Birkenstocks. A camisole, worn under a long-sleeved henley, that rides up my belly until there’s a roll sitting just below my bra line that I can’t adjust without reaching up under my shirt in the middle of trigonometry in front of everyone. Low-rise jeans.

Jazz pants. Yoga pants. Leggings. Sweatpants rolled up to reveal the tights underneath so you know I’m a dancer. Last year’s dance company T-shirt with the neckline cut away like Flashdance. A hoodie under a puffy coat under a scarf under earmuffs. The Forever 21 version of a Herve Leger bandage dress… with flats. Under a puffy coat.

Fashion bewilders me. It always has. Why didn’t the Abercrombie jeans I begged my mom to buy when I was thirteen make me look as effortlessly perfect as the popular girls at Becker Middle School? Why did I think that beige corduroy bellbottoms were a reasonable alternative? Was I born without the color-matching chromosome? Why did I buy shoes for skateboarders? (Etnies. They were called Etnies, and in my defense, I was only copying everyone else, and they weren’t skateboarders either.)

These are the questions that haunt me.

“Haunt” is a strong word, really. I cared about fashion intermittently, when I’d notice that the girls two lunch tables over looked like Teen Vogue and I looked like Mallory from The Babysitters’ Club (you know, the tragic one. Who got sent to boarding school in the later books. Not that I read those, since they were released sometime after I graduated from high school, and obviously I was busy reading things like Proust and Infinite Jest).

I pick up on trends selectively and without context. Everyone was wearing tiered skirts that soared when we spun, but I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to wear with my tiered skirt, which was where the Birkenstocks came in. (I was deeply in touch with my inner artist at this point in my life. Me and my Birkenstocks were like Patti Smith and her Capezios.) I begged my mom for the pants from the Limited Too, but by the time I got the matching T-shirt, everyone else had started shopping at Abercrombie.

Or I dressed like the flat-assed girls with their boyish figures, oblivious to how poorly suited my hourglass figure was to, say, anything manufactured by Hollister. There was a point when the girls were wearing belts that they slung sort of uselessly around their hips without threading them through the loops of their skinny jeans. On my hourglass figure, the belt I slung around my hips made its way to my waist and hovered sort of awkwardly on top of my ass. I’d have been better off with a fanny pack or a tool belt.

I was never quite so unfashionable that I could wear it like a badge of pride: I’m too smart, too talented, too busy for something this frivolous. No, instead I packed my closet with an impressively incoherent wardrobe: ill-fitting steals from the sale rack, bright colors that matched nothing found in nature or Nordstrom, flimsy Forever 21 dresses that fell apart after one night in the college dance club. Sometimes I looked childish, sometimes I looked trashy; more often than not I just looked average.

I was okay with average. I knew it wasn’t my thing: there were girls at Vassar who were regular fashion plates, not just the rich girls in actual designer clothes but the thrift-shop hipsters who must have had closets bursting at the seams with patterned skirts and slouchy socks and grandpa sweaters and Coke-bottle glasses without lenses. Most of them, I noticed too, were thin; like the girls whose belts lay flat across their hips while mine rode up stubbornly to my waist, they were gifted in a way that I wasn’t.

Fashion is for skinny girls and runway models. The rest of us just need to keep our nipples covered up and our underwear clean and hope for the best. I just couldn’t be fashionable, I decided, so I gave up, stopped letting it bother me, bought clothes I liked in the fitting room and shrugged when they didn’t match anything else I owned. I focused on things I could control, like taking showers regularly and abiding by social norms. I drew my confidence from other sources: my wit, my intellect, my reliably good hair.

Then I got sick.

Anorexia isn’t fun, but—problematically—being skinny was a blast. I rented a Badgley Mischka dress for my company holiday party and I felt like a movie star or a fashion model or one of those flat-chested girls who could sling a belt around their hips without it getting stuck underneath their boobs.

It was the first time I’ve ever felt glamorous. It was also the first time that I’ve ever been unable to sit down and read a novel because I was starving my brain of the ability to focus, and the first time that I understood what cardiac arrest might feel like, and yada yada yada and so on until it occurred to me that I was engaging in something of a Faustian bargain that probably wasn’t worth it.

So I gave up. I put my sweatpants back on.

As I began to regain the weight, one block of cheese at a time, I grew desperate for a way to feel beautiful. My hair was growing back—and so were my boobs!—but I longed still for a new source of satisfaction. Even cheese was an insufficient drug to get me as high as being skinny did. What could I possibly do to get myself to tolerate, maybe even enjoy, looking in the mirror? How could I find happiness again?

Spoiler alert: I bought it.

My new wardrobe grew organically at first. I couldn’t stand the sight of my body, so I bought swoopy, drapey shirts in neutral colors and paired them with leggings and eventually, when I could stand the buttons jamming into my belly, jeans. I quit buying colors or patterns, anything that would garner too much attention. Everything was black, gray, brown, white, fade-into-the-scenery colors so unlike what I used to buy to beg the world to pay attention to me.

It turns out that limiting myself to four colors and a single aesthetic gave me what I’d been looking for all along: a foolproof wardrobe. Everything I own matches everything else. It’s all boring enough that I could wear the same thing two days in a row and nobody would look twice. I could be pregnant with twins or smuggling arms under my blouses and you’d never know, which wasn’t really a fashion goal but has proven quite useful when I’m feeling particularly self-conscious about the size of my stomach after I do something sinful like eat a burrito.

I feel mysterious in my new wardrobe. I feel grown up beyond belief. I am an adult woman with a closetful of clothes that all match! I look so much like a New Yorker that tourists are constantly stopping to ask me for directions! I feel—dare I say it, I who felt this only when I was starving myself into a state of near-oblivion—fashionable.

I’ve always loved to dress in costume. I grew up in dance and theatre in tutus and Cleopatra wigs and once, memorably, a “napkin” costume with a can-can skirt. I put up with the indignity of tie-dye velour unitards and long underwear meant to convey, abstractly, the notion of a “red-tailed hawk.” I own a suit jacket that I’ve worn twice in my life: once to a high school debate forum and once in a college production of Rent.

Being a recovering anorexic with a credit card is like being an actor let loose in the costume shop. I bought myself a new costume: goodbye movie star, hello… elementary school art teacher, or wallflower New Yorker, or whatever it is I am today, draped in layers of blouse and sweater and wrapped in leggings, whatever I can find that doesn’t remind me constantly that I gave up my chance to be a movie star or a girl who sits two lunch tables over.

I never quite believed that I was an Egyptian princess or a piece of tableware. I don’t quite believe who I am today, either; it still doesn’t come easily to me, and I can still only buy clothing in four colors. (And God help me when tunics go out of fashion.) I get a thrill every morning out of playing dress-up, though, a thrill I never quite knew before I got sick and a thrill that’s only grown sweeter since I’ve gotten better.

I wonder if this is what it’s like for Jennifer Lawrence or Tilda Swinton or the girls at the popular lunch table, if they wake up every morning and climb into a disguise to trick themselves into believing they’re something they aren’t quite yet. I expect it’s not, that like everything else in my life I’m faking it until it becomes habit, like writing technology proposals or being a good girlfriend or cleaning my toilet.

Hey, listen—I’ll fake it indefinitely if it means I never accidentally buy another Forever 21 dress that makes me look like a sparkly potato.

the summer of my discontent

Throughout the northern hemisphere, the school buses are gassing up. Twentysomethings are putting away their cutoff shorts and Indian headdresses until next year’s Coachella. Bartenders are replacing their summer shandies with pumpkin beer and the Gap is stocking their shelves with another season’s worth of infinity scarves that will last all of four months until your cat eats one and you leave the other on the subway. Summer—the calendar and the thermostat aside—is over.

And I, for one, am celebrating.

Have I turned into a parody of myself yet? I hate hugging and chocolate ice cream and puppies and cartoons. And I hate summer.

I write this from my un-air-conditioned corporate apartment in Palo Alto, where instead of enjoying the drama and suspense of this episode of “Flip or Flop,” I am sweating from behind my knees. What kind of sadist builds an apartment complex in a city where it reaches 100 degrees without air conditioning? The same kind of sadist who builds a subway system that for several months out of the year is better described as the ninth circle of hell. Chlorofluorocarbons be damned, I want my air chilled and the backs of my knees dry.

“But it’s summer,” everyone says. “It’s light until nine o’clock! There are music festivals to attend! You can brunch on the patio! Wear shorts! Tan!”

Here are a few more things I hate: sunlight. Crowds. Day-drinking. Clothing that isn’t a muumuu. Did I mention sunlight?

Summer is the season when I feel even less dignified and cool than usual. (I do crossword puzzles for fun and I recently sent several important people at work a document that said “asses” instead of “assess,” so this is an achievement. On the scale from Urkel to Angelina Jolie, I hover somewhere near Katy Perry at the beginning of the “Last Friday Night” video.)

Nothing ruins my day like breaking into a sweat on my way to the train. Here is what happens every single day in summer: I break into a sweat on my way to the train. For the first six minutes of my walk, I think to myself how great it is that I’m not going to sweat today. It’s pleasant out this early! And then a minute before I reach the staircase, a single bead of sweat starts to drip down my back. At this point, I begin to consider turning around and going home. Who needs a job, anyway? Who needs basic human contact? But I work in an office with free food, so I climb the stairs and make my way to the platform, where as I stand in the sun the sweat that was one a single bead becomes a flowing stream. If California could harness the sweat of a million New Yorkers waiting on the subway platform for a train with a mind of its own, there would be no drought. Which is important, given that we’re in a state where they don’t give you air conditioning even though it’s a hundred degrees outside.

On the bright side, sweat is the great equalizer. Everyone looks ridiculous during summer. The only person who wins is the guy on the train who gave up and brought a sweat rag with him. You judge him until you realize that his mascara isn’t running because his bangs are dripping into his eyeballs.

What really does it for me is that summer makes me feel like a big loser. I can trace this back to the summer of 2002, the year that my best friend found new best friends and I spent the whole summer chasing after them on my bicycle while they made up inside jokes without me. The feeling of sunlight on my back PTSDs me back to age thirteen and all the sudden I’m struck by the burning desire for summer to just end so I can go back to algebra and ballet class and a ten o’clock bedtime instead of staying up until all hours waiting for someone, anyone to look at my BuddyProfile on AIM even though I know they won’t because they’re all having a sleepover without me. You know what doesn’t happen when it’s not summer? Sleepovers on a Tuesday.

It’s slightly less dire these days, but I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that watching everyone go on weekend trips to the Hamptons and Outside Lands didn’t tug that “everyone is having a sleepover without me” heartstring. Never mind that the idea of a weekend trip in the Hamptons gives me a migraine or that the number of people going to Outside Lands is significantly higher than the number of people that I’m comfortable being in a single location with. Also, I get mosquito bites if I go near an open window. Spending more than ten minutes exposed to the air pretty much guarantees that I’ll wake up the next morning with my ankles swollen to twice their size. I have basically bought stock in Benadryl.

This is why I like winter. In winter, you’re supposed to spend the whole day indoors, curled up on your couch with your own personal pot of coffee and a pile of novels. Radiator doesn’t work? Put on another pair of socks! You can’t get naked on the subway, but you can dress like the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man. This also means that nobody can tell whether you have a beer belly or you’re just wearing a sweater made from the fur of several alpacas. Who needs a bikini body when you can just wear five layers? Winter is also a great time of year to set new fashion trends, like sub-pants. Pants under your pants. See again: you can’t sweat off a layer of your skin, but if you buy your jeans big enough, you can fit a whole extra pair of thermal leggings underneath them.

In winter, I feel free to let my curmudgeon flag fly. Nobody is trying to get me to wait three hours for mimosa brunch on the patio with every other twentysomething in the West Village. Nobody is trying to convince me that waterskiing is something that would end in a scenario other than me face down in the water with my dignity trailing somewhere far behind me. “Going out” means piling into someone’s apartment with enough Chinese takeout for a small army and watching Mean Girls for the eighteenth time. My favorite theatrical event, the Super Bowl halftime show, takes place during winter, and so does my favorite holiday, the day Jesus was born so I would still have an excuse to ask my mother to buy me new underwear.

Every year, no day is sweeter than the day when I can finally stash my sunscreen and dig out my scarf collection. My coffee cart man will no longer give me the side-eye when I ask for large-black-no-sugar-HOT-NOT-ICED. With boots instead of sandals, I no longer have to fear contracting hookworm on the subway! (Ebola remains a threat. I have been on the L train recently, after all.) I can snuggle into the arms of whatever is most willing to receive me, my couch or the latest stranger I picked up from the Internet.

Happy Labor Day, readers. Let’s go buy ourselves some long johns and spike our hot chocolate. It’s time to hibernate.

fievel goes east

“I’m getting cockles,” I say.

My dad looks at me like I just said I was ordering the insect protein. To his credit, he doesn’t recommend that maybe I ought to stick with the same buttered pasta I’ve been eating since I started in on solid foods fifteen years earlier. “Nice!” he says.

I’m sixteen and we’re in New York City, at an Italian restaurant in an English basement somewhere in Little Italy. The tables are covered in red checkered cloths and “Famous Blue Raincoat” is playing in the background. (“The last time I saw you, you looked so much older/your famous blue raincoat was torn at the shoulder…”)

I decided then that I had to move to New York.

I was born and raised in the desert. My family was never meant to stay in the Southwest for as long as we did. It was one of those modern accidents where you—as my father did—apply to a law school in a state you’ve never seen and all of the sudden it’s twenty years later and you live in Las Vegas with a wife and two kids and a swimming pool.

I’m not sure any of us ever felt we belonged there. It’s little wonder, then, that I grew up hell-bent on leaving. The West is a wild and alien place that both swallows and rejects you. You can drive 45 minutes across town on wide-open six-lane freeways and still feel caged in by the tall and dark and impassable mountains. You can drive to the edge of town and look at the houses sitting at the foot of the mountains and wonder how long it would take for the sun to bore a hole through their roofs.

You can spend an entire day in Las Vegas where the only natural air you breathe is the air in the parking lot. It’s a city where if you’re not careful, Mother Nature will fry you to a crisp and the air conditioning will cryogenically freeze you and you might wake up one day with fake boobs and a Willy Wonka tan. I ate beige foods, listened to bland music; I didn’t like loud noises or bad smells and I steadfastly avoided anything that made me nervous. A suburban city where you don’t have to go outside was just the place for me to grow up without leaving any kind of a footprint on the universe.

We took a vacation to San Francisco when I was eleven or twelve—my first big city—and I was enthralled. For the next several months, I filled my notebooks with stories about seventh-graders who lived in apartments where you could hear someone playing steel drums down the block. They were all more popular, ballsier versions of myself who drew their sophistication and fearlessness from the cities where they lived. They rode to school on the streetcar, not in a minivan.

I wanted to be one of them. Four years later, eating a food that was not only not beige but came from the sea, listening to my dad’s weird growly gravelly music and enjoying it, I thought for the first time that perhaps I could.

Several twists, turns, and poorly advised moves later, here I am at last, 26 years old, living in Queens in a studio apartment with one window and an oven that I can’t turn on.

For a born-and-bred Southwestern, living in New York is like playing a really complicated video game. At every turn, there are cat-calling construction workers and terrible smells and water falling from mysterious places and your goal is to—well, you can’t avoid it, so your goal is to survive relatively unscathed. (To this end, I have considered wearing a poncho. Whatever liquid is falling onto my head from inside the C train can’t possibly be good for my health.)

On summer mornings, by the time I arrive on the train platform, a single bead of sweat is dripping continuously down my back. By the time the train arrives, the sweat begins to leak from my temples. My foundation will drip down my face until the air conditioning kicks on in my train car, several stops in, at which point I will freeze. This is familiar—in Las Vegas, you don’t see a movie in summer without your winter coat—but less familiar is the humidity. I understand now, for the first time, why the word “sweltering” was invented. Summer in the desert might be like living in a hairdryer, but summer in New York is like living in a sauna, only instead of lounging around naked you have to wear pants and walk faster than the person next to you.

The process of commuting really encapsulates the differences between the Southwest and the urban Northeast. Here is what a commute looks like in Las Vegas: Get in your car. Lock the doors. Turn in 94.1 and listen to “Mark and Mercedes in the Morning.” Drive for several minutes. Pass several shopping centers that are indistinguishable from one another. Pass Mr. Happy dancing on the corner of Sahara and Fort Apache. Pass a jackknifed semi truck on the opposite side of the freeway. Swear at the rubberneckers who are slowing down your side of the freeway. Rubberneck. Pass two more shopping centers before you arrive at your destination. At no point are you to interact with another human, save the rubberneckers at whom you swear from behind closed windows.

Here’s what a commute looks like in New York: Leave the office. Accidentally inhale while passing the bodega trash pile. Curse your poor breathing technique. Pass a grown man attaching his backpack to his Razor scooter so he can hold onto his hockey stick while he rides. Pass two models whose stomachs are as wide as your thigh. Avoid making eye contact with the aggressive woman who stands outside the Italian restaurant on 14th between 6th and 7th shoving menus at everyone who passes. Avoid stepping in vomit. Avoid stepping in dog shit. Contemplate stopping in to purchase an Insomnia Cookie ice cream sandwich. Contemplate stopping to purchase bao buns. Accidentally inhale while passing another bodega trash pile. Breathe through your mouth. Wonder whether the cab turning onto 5th is planning to run you over. Wonder whether the cyclist turning onto 5th is trying to get run over. Weave through the dancing Hare Krishnas and the chess players and the drum circle and descend into the fourth circle of hell, the Union Square subway station in the middle of August. Turn circles while you wait to generate your own personal breeze. Look down the tunnel for the telltale glowing lights of the train around the corner. Hallucinate that the lights of the train are around the corner. Board the train. Sit. Pull out your notepad and start scribbling because you are a writer and New York is an inspiration. Write furiously. Notice a shadow. Realize that a six-foot-tall woman who hasn’t showered in months is about to sit on you. Panic. Fly out of your seat and across the train along with the rest of your bench. Wonder what scene from Bright Lights, Big City you’re going to relive next.

I come home every day exhausted. It’s like living in a foreign country where you have learn again how to talk and walk. I know now to order my coffee black-no-sugar-in-a-bag and to cross unless the opposite light has already turned green. I can power through the Times Square subway station like Frogger and stand on my toes so I can clutch the bar on the roof of the train with the tips of my fingers. Realizing that I know which car to board at Broadway so I can get on the L before the hipsters run me over at Union Square was about as exciting as getting my driver’s license (and I didn’t even have to parallel park!).

It’s an uphill battle for a girl from Vegas who grew up with the In-n-Out drive-thru and a washer/dryer downstairs. For a city where you can order a bagel to your front door, New York is the place where convenience goes to die. To order something that will be delivered to your house requires that you either become a bazillionaire who lives in a doorman building or perform an act of coordination that involves working from home and not being in the shower at the one moment between the hours of 7 AM and 7 PM that UPS chooses to deliver your rug. Doing your laundry means spending half your Saturday sitting in plastic chairs outside the laundromat with all of the old ladies on your block waiting until their loads of two towels apiece are finished occupying the jumbo-sized dryer. It’s probably karmic retribution for whining about bringing my laundry downstairs when I was a kid. Now I have to schlep it across the street to a laundromat with no air conditioning and at least three dryers out of service on any given weekend.

I live in a shoebox with one window where until I asked my landlord to take it down, there was a big red EXIT sign above my front door. I store my clothing in the same room where I watch Jeopardy! and sleep and work and read the New York Times and break up with my boyfriends. In Las Vegas, we had a living room and a family room and a den. Here, I have a closet with a bed and a television. I like to think of it as cozy, but sometimes I wish I couldn’t smell my pad thai container rotting in the garbage while I’m trying to fall asleep. My friends just moved into a new place in Williamsburg with a gorgeous backyard that you can only access by climbing through the kitchen window. I know people who pay more than I do to live in sixth-floor walk-ups. Your standards are low in a city where it’s considered fiscally responsible to drop an entire paycheck on someone whose only responsibility is to find you an apartment that hasn’t been condemned.

Here’s another thing: you can’t get clean in New York. Las Vegas is spotless. Las Vegas is shiny and silent and there’s trash on one street in the city. Here, I’ve never felt so grateful to wash my hands as I do every time I get off the subway. I feel a layer of grime grow thick on my face over the course of the day and I come home and put on my seven-dollar Neutrogena face mask and it feels like a spa facial. I came home last week from a business trip to discover that if I leave my air conditioner off for a week during a heat wave, my toilet will grow mold. Sometimes I look at my legs after spending the day in a dress and they’re covered in weird black marks. I don’t like to think too hard about what they are. In Las Vegas, you can shellack your hair and paint on your face at eight in the morning and it will still be there at eight at night.

In spite of the grease and the grime, it strikes me often that I’m living the life I dreamed I would live the night my dad and I listened to Leonard Cohen on the East Side.

I felt trapped and terrified by the prospect of living out my life in Las Vegas. I felt like an impostor in a place that should belong to the Earth. I feel freer, somehow, in a place where my ability to get around depends on a big creaky train that runs on Scotch tape and bubblegum. I feel less claustrophobic in my little one-window shoebox than I did in the middle of a vast desert.

And I like how in New York you can go about your business and look at people but you don’t have to talk to them. It’s more my speed than Las Vegas, where God help you if you don’t carry on a ten-minute conversation with the woman working the register at the grocery store. (Let the record stand that when I was a woman in Las Vegas working the register at a store, I also trapped my customers in conversation before I would ring up their socks. You go long enough without seeing another face, you need to know everything that’s behind it.)

Really, New York is an introvert’s paradise. I can spend an entire day without having a conversation with anyone who isn’t the grocery store cashier or my hairdresser and I still feel like I’ve been exposed to most of humanity. I like the sensation of drowning in a sea of faces. It made me anxious, at home in Las Vegas, to go hours and hours without seeing another person.

I could have lived my life in comfortable isolation in Las Vegas. It was easy for me there to avoid what scares me, so I mostly stayed inside. I think if I had stayed inside much longer I would have rotted in my own house.

Here, I feel powerful, living on my own in the city where I ate shellfish for the first time. Maybe it’s just that the simplest things are such a monumental pain in the ass here that the act of doing laundry makes me feel triumphant. Maybe it’s that New York is a city that promises you the world for keeps instead of the world for a weekend. Maybe it’s just that I know definitively that at any given moment, there’s someone weirder than me right around the corner, tying their backpack to their scooter and getting ready to take on the world the only way they know how.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 4,499 other followers

%d bloggers like this: