all-day dining at the homesick restaurant

(With gratitude and apologies to the inimitable Anne Tyler.)

I was in Palo Alto this past week for work. Now that I live in Europe, my once- or twice-yearly visits to the California office are a jet-lagged flurry of hugging people I thought had been fired long ago.

(To be fair, they obviously think the same of me, if the question “So… what are you working on these days?” is anything to go by. Translation: “I used to regularly catch sight of you grinding your teeth in the corner of one high-stress, high-value event or another and now you just pop up and like a Slack message every couple of weeks or so. How did you get that gig and is your team hiring?”)

This time, everyone was asking me how I find London, and because I am pathologically candid I kept repeating that I was homesick (instead of the correct answer to a polite conversational question, i.e., “fine”).

Most of my California coworkers have known me since I started my job in that office nearly eight years ago — yeah, I sprouted a gray hair just saying that — which means that they’ve known me for most of my peripatetic adulthood. So more than one of them asked me: “Homesick for where?”

I didn’t have a proper answer. It’s not that I miss Las Vegas, where I grew up; it’s not that I’m jonesing to dodge rats and hot garbage on the sidewalks of New York, where I most recently lived. It’s that if I catch either city, or any city, from the right angle, I feel a twinge of nostalgia.

Case in point: I had watched “The Goldfinch” on the flight to SFO, even though the critics had, to a man, called it awful (it was). I liked the book in no small part because now, when I tell people I grew up in Vegas, they ask me if I’ve read it instead of asking me if my parents were blackjack dealers. Then I tell them I had a friend who’d snapped up a foreclosed house on the city’s raw edge and that it was as weird as it sounded for a cookie-cutter stucco neighborhood to bump up against alien desert. (Then they ask me if the friend was a blackjack dealer.)

The Vegas section of “The Goldfinch” opens with a drone shot panning a neighborhood of foreclosed-on cookie-cutter stucco houses bumping up against desert, all of them painted that kind of sad-sack neutered shade of terra cotta that doesn’t exist outside of the American Southwest, and I felt such a surge of homesickness that I thought about parachuting out over Nevada.

I’m not homesick for a place. I’m homesick for the ugly beigey-pink of every house in Las Vegas built after 1996. I’m homesick for the blast of cold air when your train finally arrives at the platform during a New York summer. (I’m homesick for air conditioning.) I’m homesick for American accents and American “aw, shucks”-ness. And American benzos. I’m homesick for waiting for my friends to show up at the bar even though I know better than to arrive earlier than ten minutes late.

I’m homesick for the familiar, I guess. I’ve started to latch onto the oddest things as symbols of what makes me feel at home; note the aforementioned rats and hot garbage and also that I get a little kick out of how CNN is always playing at the hotel gym.

I can blame it on a decade of hopping from one city to another, but like everyone else in the world who’s been deluged by other people’s lives since the invention of social media I’m just casting about for what I know. When I catch sight of something I recognize in the endless scroll of novelty, I want to grab it. I kid myself that it would be less exhausting to be somewhere I know like the back of my hand, as if I didn’t spend my final six months in Las Vegas sleepless underneath the “Moulin Rouge” poster I hung above my bed when I was thirteen (nothing captured the spirit of my teenage angst like a French prostitute dying of tuberculosis), wallowing in my inability to do something with my life. I am less homesick, perhaps, and more basking in a delusion of returning to New York, where all the pieces will fall into place or be ferried there by rats that emerge from the hot garbage to do my bidding. I’m peripatetic because I’ve had the means to search widely for meaning and now I wonder if I’m looking for an excuse to retrace my steps, as if I left my calling in the elevator of the building where I lived in 2013.

All of this is a very long answer to the question of how I’m finding London. I should also have mentioned that I like the pies and how frequently the Tube runs.

P.S. The critics were right. “The Goldfinch” is a very bad movie. I just can’t take Ansel Elgort seriously as an adult, for one, due to his apparently having stopped aging at sixteen, and I was personally offended by the part where all of Theo’s classmates in Las Vegas were brainless capitalists. Also, in Las Vegas in the two-thousands, we took “Government,” not “Civics,” and thus the plot didn’t hold any water. (It would have, if not for that detail.)

try the grey stuff; it’s delicious

I lived with four of my best friends when we were seniors in college. Our chore strategy was that we lived in filth until someone got fed up and rage-cleaned, and then they got to passive-aggressively sulk everyone else for the rest of the week as a reward. Once we decided to clean up the kitchen together, which was great until one of us (not me) opened one of the drawers in the refrigerator to find that the celery one of us (me) had left in there weeks — months? — ago had turned black and liquified. Science, right?!

I think about that every time I find celery in one of the drawers in my refrigerator, which happens days — weeks? (months?!) — after every time I buy celery, because there are no recipes that call for more than a couple stalks of celery, and no grocery stores that sell celery by the stalk. It’s a scam.

I always think, oh, yeah, I’ll eat some celery with peanut butter, finish it off, but honestly, that feels like the kind of weird snack I would have passed off as a treat when I was anorexic, practically high off the fat in the peanut butter while I zealously picked celery strings out of my teeth. In the objectionable corners of the Internet where teenagers trade tips on how to starve yourself, celery is one of those vaunted foods that’s fabled to have net-zero calories because it’s so hard to eat. (Nota bene: These forums are not hotbeds of scientific insight.)

Anyway, there’s celery in my fridge that I need to attend to, but a few days ago I gave my fiancé and myself both food poisoning, and the experience of scraping the offending lentil curry into the garbage disposal a mere day after having spent several hours vomiting it and my stomach lining up was so traumatic that I’m not sure I can open the fridge again yet. Or maybe ever. (Who has two thumbs and is washing the spinach twice next time?! Not this guy, because I’m only ordering takeout for the rest of time!)

Much like emerging from the fog of migraine to discover that you still have arms and feet, there’s something refreshing about the end of a bout of food poisoning. Except when you, say, eat a bunch of grapes in your office kitchen and it’s all you can do to not double over in front of a bunch of hairy boy-children talking about, I don’t know, databases, because the gremlin that’s still living in your stomach does not want grapes, it only wants buttered toast.

Speaking of grapes, and anorexia snacks, I was tickled to read the New York Times’s latest militant screed about sugar. Among the gems were instructions to avoid grapes and bananas, and to replace your morning orange juice with — wait for it! — ice water, but with an orange slice in it. Also, at one point I think they suggested that instead of eating a bowl of oatmeal, you could “savor a whole orange”? It was unclear to me what you should do if you don’t like oranges. Could a person gain the same keen sense of dissatisfaction with their very existence by replacing their morning apple juice with a glass of ice water with a slice of apple in it?

The lady at the New York Times who hates grapes and oatmeal and orange juice would definitely have been one of those ladies who eyeballed me in my building elevator and asked me what I was doing to stay so svelte. Nothing burns calories like berating yourself for not climbing up thirteen flights of stairs, ladies!

All of this is to say that part of me wants to see how long I can let that celery sit in the refrigerator drawer until someone else deals with it, but part of me recognizes that having given my only cohabitant food poisoning recently, I should probably do him a solid and throw that celery out myself if I still want him to marry me.

P.S. I was about to hit Publish when my fiancé walked in and started taking out the trash, and I said “Hey, could you take that celery out of the fridge, too?” I AM THE MASTER OF MY FATE; I AM THE CAPTAIN OF MY SOUL!

roaring twenties

Ten years is a long time. Given that, it’s really shocking I made it through my twenties without being offered cocaine even once. Granted, I was invited to join several book clubs, and that’s a little more my speed (no pun intended) anyway, but still. Unless I crank (no pun intended) up my nightclub attendance in the three days left before I turn thirty, it seems that that ship has sailed. Pick up a coke habit in your thirties and the next thing you know Jay McInerney is writing your life story. Thanks, but no thanks.

I thought of this in reflecting on all that I accomplished in my twenties. The only things that came to mind were debauchery. Not because I’m especially wild — I wasn’t kidding about the book clubs — but because that’s what I thought my twenties were for. Landed a coveted job? Visited the world’s great cities? Contributed regularly to a retirement account? Sure, but what about the time I walked into the house I grew up in at eight in the morning and puked in the kitchen sink? It was the summer after I graduated from college; I was 22 and sleeping in my childhood bedroom in Las Vegas. I woke up every morning to the Moulin Rouge poster I bought in Paris when I was sixteen looming over me. The teenagers next door had a garage band that only knew “Seven Nation Army” and “Smoke on the Water.” They practiced every afternoon.

It was 2011. I had a degree in English and a part-time job selling shoes and sometimes I’d be invited to the Strip or to one of the old casinos downtown where the other patrons mostly looked like if they didn’t have skin cancer yet it was only because they hadn’t checked. We’d play penny slots and tip dollars on the watered-down vodka sodas the cocktail waitresses brought us and eventually we’d end up in the hotel suite someone’s friend’s friend had been comped or, once, in the living room in one of those chi-chi apartment lofts downtown. It was furnished in bachelor-chic with a record player and a cherry-red metal bookshelf or whatever you buy when you don’t actually like books but there were still meth deals going on in the street outside, so we slept on the couch until the sun rose and it was safe to creep to our cars.

I woke with cotton in my mouth and couldn’t stop myself staring at the man standing outside the parking garage where I’d left my Honda who looked uncannily like Santa Claus, had Santa Claus stopped off in Walter White’s trailer on his way back to the North Pole. Then I drove home and threw up in the kitchen sink before I spent eleven hours at the shoe store where I worked getting my fingers trampled by three-year-olds in tap shoes.

A year later I was making a salary and sipping champagne — okay, it was probably Prosecco, but the point is that it wasn’t Arbor Mist, and I wasn’t chugging — at the company holiday party. Sometimes I feel like I cut myself off too early. I loved being 22 and playing at being wild. I was bookish, had always been bookish, and I wanted not to be. I wanted to be carefree. I wanted to be fun. I wanted someone to offer me cocaine! (I have no real interest in doing cocaine. Last year I drank two cups of Swedish coffee before boarding a plane and I spent the whole flight wondering if I should call for the defibrillator. I just wanted someone to look at me and know that I was fun.)

I think I spent my twenties just as I should have: trying on the costumes of people I thought it might be fun to be. Most weren’t. Being thin meant I was moody and my hair fell out and I couldn’t drink at parties. Dating older men meant being criticized for my immaturity. (If I relate only one pearl of wisdom to my younger sisters, let it be that when your 33-year-old boyfriend tries to shame you, a 24-year-old, for being childish, instead of apologizing, consider suggesting that he not date someone nine years his junior. Honestly!) Auditioning for musicals meant… auditioning for musicals. That one lasted for about ten minutes before I realized that while the normal job hunt might be just as much an affront to my dignity, at least I only had to do it once. Going out drinking meant vomiting in the kitchen sink; going out dancing meant getting other people’s sweat in my hair.

I thought it might be fun to be thin and glamorous and to exist on champagne and air and to sleep in the afternoons and dance in the evenings, or maybe to be gritty and hustling, showing up in the casting room and building out my “book,” living in Astoria and hauling down to the Bell House on the G train (and thin. Every fantasy life I live out begins with being thin).

It turns out what I actually want is to sleep eight hours a night, preferably nine. Pretty much above all else. And what that requires is working a nine-to-five that pays enough to fund the occasional cab home from the Bell House because Lord help me if I’m going to lose out on sleep because I waited thirty minutes for the G train. It requires eating enough that I don’t wake up in the middle of the night with my heart beating out of my chest, which in turn requires that I can live without thigh gap. It requires reading quietly in the evenings, not dancing, and drinking tea, not booze. (It turns out that I was born to be bookish.)

I think I did enough this decade to be okay with this. I crammed a lot in. Mostly just scrolling through Twitter, yeah, but also, I rear-ended a cab driver, walked out on a Tinder date who chain-smoked three cigarettes in my face, played Val in “A Chorus Line,” visited New Zealand, saw the original cast of Hamilton, voted for a woman for president, partied at the Bellagio with Australian tourists, climbed an Alp, got harassed on Twitter, got harassed on the street, sort of learned to cook, rode a bicycle through a hailstorm, and did I mention I saw the original cast of Hamilton? I kept busy.

I don’t regret much. I regret rear-ending that cab driver (it was his second accident that week!). I regret not trying to clean the limescale off my shower floor before the week before we moved out. Sometimes I wish I’d pressed on with trying to be an actress. Mostly I’m excited for everything else I’m yet to do. Can you believe I’ve never visited the Grand Canyon? That I don’t know how to use Microsoft Excel? The list of books I haven’t read alone is enough to keep me occupied until I die, may that be far enough into the future that I don’t ascend to heaven without having read Mrs. Dalloway.

I haven’t made any special plans for my thirties. Keep on keeping on, I guess. Every so often I look up and marvel that I’m still working for the company that hired me when I was 22. Taking that job sent me spinning off my axis. I had always cringed at the idea of a desk job; I got lucky with one that has sent me to the corners of the Earth and taught me to be curious and skeptical. I thought I’d be itinerant for longer than I was and I feel faintly jealous of my friends who still are, but there’s more than one way to be itinerant. I expect to spend my thirties as I spent the back half of my twenties: as impetuously and spontaneously as a hyper-anxious stick-in-the-mud can manage. I’ll move again. I’ll travel more. I’ll forget to text my friends that I’m visiting from overseas until I show up and beg them to cancel their plans that evening so we can have dinner. I might start using eye cream, but it’s probably going to be another limescale-in-the-shower situation. I’ll read more books and maybe I’ll write one. I’ll get better at cooking, and I have this vague idea that I’m going to learn to play the piano. Who knows? I have plenty of time.

thirty, hurty, and dying

In two months I’ll turn thirty. On Instagram, my friends are celebrating their own thirtieths with oversized 3-0 balloons and bachelorette-style nights out with sashes, recording lash-batting, foot-popping Boomerangs, with cute hashtags to boot. Meanwhile, I’ve got one foot in the grave and the other in an ergonomic clog.

That’s an exaggeration. I haven’t bought clogs yet. Speaking frankly, though, there are six things very wrong with my life*:

  1. I haven’t been able to move my back properly since January.
  2. I regularly pull a muscle in my butt by walking wrong.
  3. I get a migraine if I so much as look at a third beer.
  4. I get heartburn when I eat anything but raw vegetables…
  5. …but when I eat raw vegetables my jaw gets stuck shut.
  6. There is a Grand Canyon-sized wrinkle in the middle of my forehead.

 

It’s enough to make a girl go full Gwyneth Paltrow. I scoffed for a long time at the concept of wellness, but you only have to stumble through so many days with a low-grade migraine before you’re ready to stuff precious stones wherever GOOP tells you to.

I jest. (Kind of. Has anyone tried the jade egg thing? Because seriously, Excedrin Migraine isn’t doing a thing for me anymore.) But thirty is weird. We decided recently to extend our stint in Europe and I keep catching myself thinking that by the time we return, we’ll have missed all the fun, as if when everyone has turned thirty-three they’ll have retreated into the suburbs with their babies, never to be seen again. Or that I only have so many glasses of wine left to drink before the migraines fully take over, or that my back is going to grow stiffer and stiffer until they have to carry me out of economy class on a stretcher.

Work doesn’t help. My colleagues who haven’t yet attended their five-year college reunions are always tagging me in Slack channels and Quip documents, channels so ephemeral that they might as well be sky-writing. “If you want me to do something for you,” I want to say, “you need to carve it for me on a stone tablet and hang it around the neck of a carrier pigeon.” But no, I just apologize for the delay, busy week, I have to do thirty minutes of yoga every night if I want to get out of bed the next morning and it’s really eating into the time I would otherwise spend learning how to organize my Quip notifications.

Once, the only time I worried about what my hair looked like was in the morning before I left the house, or when I caught sight of myself in the rearview mirror. (Or when passing a building with reflective windows. Or when I had an especially large spoon. Or any reflective surface at all. Whatever.) Now I spend half my day in meetings saying things like “Not really in sync” or “Can we just table that for now?” or “Can we just table that for now until we’re more in sync?” And although you’d think I couldn’t look myself in the eye when I sound like such a raging douchebag, all I can do in a videoconference is stare at my little self-view in the corner and either admire my dewy visage or gawk in horror at how the gash-like wrinkle in my forehead is increasingly resembling a Harry Potter scar. During particularly contentious meetings, or when someone with a computer science degree starts to correct my grammar, I can literally watch it deepen.

I’m facing down the barrel of living in this body for the rest of my life. When I was nineteen and soft all I needed was a McDonald’s hash brown to buck me up after a night of drinking or twenty minutes with an ice pack to get me back at the barre, pulled muscle and all. I was preoccupied by the immediate concerns of the body: I needed a haircut. I needed to learn to apply foundation properly. My belly didn’t look like the bellies in Women’s Health. My calves were sore. My quads were sore. My clothes were hopeless. Things that I thought, dwelled on, and then immediately forgot; things that resolved themselves or that I resolved myself to. This wrinkle down my forehead? It’s not resolving.

As a dancer I bounced back from one injury after another. A summer of physical therapy here, a Nutcracker season with my shins sheathed in Ace bandages there; it was always traumatic for a day or two (as if a case of shin splints were the only thing that could keep me from a career in ballet) but a month later I’d have forgotten entirely. Now? Stick me in a hotel with a bad mattress for three days and three months later, I still can’t crack my back without a twinge to remind me that the Swiss don’t know how to build a bed properly. I used to think warming up before working out was just for those sad people who can’t touch their toes. That was before I spent eight weeks in physical therapy doing butt lifts! (“Glute bridges.” I’m sorry, Doctor Mike.)

I’ve long awaited the day when I could look back at the body I’ve fought against for so long and think of how grateful I should have been for its agility, its resilience, its lack of Moses-having-parted-the-Red-Sea-down-the-middle-of-my-forehead, blah blah, etc., etc. That day hasn’t come. I have some time yet.

That’s what terrifies me the most. “The rest of my life” is an awfully long time to live with knees that twinge when you jog, with an esophagus that will let you know when you’ve eaten one French fry too many, with blood vessels that slacken and send the alcohol straight to my brain to slosh around and throb for days on end. It’s an awfully long time to live regardless, in a world that’s getting steadily worse or at least whose worseness is getting steadily louder. I can’t say the phrase “self-care” aloud without cringing at myself but I can understand it. I do yoga; I drink tea; I take vitamins.

It’s easier to look at aging as a matter of the body. The body is not ephemeral. The body endures. Its component parts can live on after death; even scientists with scalpels will leave behind something that needs to be incinerated; even ashes need to be scattered. Last week I read a New Yorker article about a paleontologist shaving away silt in North Dakota to discover fish, frozen in amber with its jaws — gills — outstretched, gasping madly, at the moment it and the dinosaurs died:

“The block told the story of the impact in microcosm. ‘It was a very bad day,’ DePalma said. ‘Look at these two fish.’ He showed me where the sturgeon’s scutes—the sharp, bony plates on its back—had been forced into the body of the paddlefish. One fish was impaled on the other. The mouth of the paddlefish was agape, and jammed into its gill rakers were microtektites—sucked in by the fish as it tried to breathe. DePalma said, ‘This fish was likely alive for some time after being caught in the wave, long enough to gasp frenzied mouthfuls of water in a vain attempt to survive.’”

The body endures. That fish probably didn’t anticipate serving as the key to understanding the extinction of the dinosaurs. (That fish probably didn’t anticipate.) I don’t expect my body to be my legacy. I dream of writing novels so popular that the diaries I’ll have released upon my death will be my legacy. The idea that something so crude as my body could be the only thing I leave behind disturbs. But approaching thirty, all that will reliably survive me are my organs, and those only if I start remembering to swap my contact lenses out more often.

The thing about thirty is that I’m not sure whether to be horrified at how much time I’ve wasted or at how much I have yet to endure. For the first three decades of my life it was enough to live. I had only to wake up every day and stagger through it. Now I have to take vitamins and contribute to my 401k; now I have to plug away at the long-suffering draft of my novel. There is only so much time left, and I might spend all of it trying out anti-TMJ facial massage techniques from YouTube.

The noble thing, now that my youth is finally starting to fleet, would be to abandon the burderns of the body and turn fully to the mind. Now is the time to give up SoulCycle and the vain attempts to be a forty-year-old with six-pack abs — yes, this is exactly like how that one time I had shin splints sidelined my whole ballet career — and spend my time writing instead. The cretaceous fish is proof positive that the body will take care of itself. My oeuvre will not. Of course, in putting off trying to think of a conclusion to this piece, I opened the New Yorker and the third sentence I read was this: “I think anyone who spends his life working to become eligible for literary immortality is a fool.”

This was Harold Brodkey, who I had never heard of before but who apparently spent his entire career publishing things that weren’t the book he won his first contract for in 1964. 24 years later he told New York magazine that he “[writes] like someone who intends to be posthumously discovered,” which is a good way to punt worrying about your legacy, if you ask me. I intend to be posthumously discovered; I intend to donate my estate; I intend to be buried in a carbon-neutral fashion; I intend to stagger through the rest of my days assuming my dreams will play out once I’m no longer around to get in their way. Until then, I’ll put on sunscreen every morning and Aquafor at night. I’ll take magnesium and a Tums with my wine. I’ll do my glute bridges before I jog. I’ll endure.

 

*If you caught that reference, I’ll buy you a drink.

queen of the road

Ten minutes into my first solo trip as a licensed driver, I got stuck in a parking lot. I had chosen a spot in the corner that was open only because everyone else knew better than to try it, a fact I discovered when I started to back out and realized that there were cars where mine needed to be. I hyperventilated for a couple minutes and then executed a sort of fifteen-point turn while the other suburbanites who needed to visit the Wells Fargo before it closed at five honked at me. The wind, needless to say, was not in my hair.

It was a rude but ultimately apt introduction to the reality of driving. Parking would prove to be my Achilles’ heel. My ‘98 Honda Accord, a hand-me-down from my father, bore the scars of my unusually bad depth perception. The scrape on my driver’s-side door is from the basement garage in my apartment building in Arlington, Virginia, where I lived — along with an army of GW postgrads in salmon shorts — for two years. I retired from driving shortly after I scraped my car against one of the dozens of poles that, I swear to God, popped up in the garage like Whack-a-Mole. You’d be backing your car out, certain of clearance on every side, when BAM! There goes your paint job.

One of the rites of passage at my urban high school was to sneak off campus for lunch. It was the height of glamour to throw out your Port of Subs wrapper as ostentatiously as possible in front of the suckers on the quad eating a peanut butter sandwich that had been flattened under a history textbook since six A.M. I was, as a rule, one of the suckers, except the one time that I let myself be convinced to drive three of us down Charleston and through the drive-thru at Los Tacos, where my classmate splayed herself across my lap to order for us in Spanish. It was seamless — and the tacos were delicious — until we arrived back at campus and realized the fly in the ointment, which was that the only place to surreptitiously re-park your car midday was on the street at the far edge of campus.

I had passed my driving test only because I was the last candidate of the day and my examiner couldn’t be bothered to get out and check my parallel parking job. To be fair, parallel parking isn’t a skill you really need in Las Vegas, land of the warehouse-sized parking lots, unless you’re trying to pull off basically the only bad thing you’ve done in your high school career without side-swiping the choir teacher’s Honda in the process. We finally resorted to a sort of combination airport tarmac/life coach situation where one of my classmates got out and guided me into a spot while the other one sat in the passenger seat and talked me through it. It was only the woeful underfunding of Clark County School District — and its attendant lack of security around our campus — that saved us. But some twelve years later, I still haven’t successfully parallel parked a car.

And of course there was the gouge on the bumper, from a few years after high school ended, when I drove clear to the other side of town because my high school crush invited me over. I was twenty-one, and I knew better, but seventeen-year-old me couldn’t let the opportunity slide. We played a round of Scrabble and fooled around for a while and then I got in my car and made a U-turn that crossed into the path of an automatic gate’s sensor and then there was a terrible scraping noise and there went my bumper. All at once I realized how many mistakes I’d just made, and I whacked my hands on the steering wheel wondering: What kind of automatic gate opens inward? How sad of a sad sack do you have to be to go running clear across town just to prove, years on, that you could have made it with that guy from sixth period chemistry? Why, but why, did we play Scrabble?

I drove all the way from Henderson feeling like an utter fool, back to my parents’ house in Summerlin, where I made up a story about a shopping cart that went astray and swore that I’d take the whole episode to the grave. Since then, that high school crush has unfriended me on Facebook, had a baby, and gotten married — in that order — so the gouge on my bumper will have to do. (I resold the car to a friend who, had I consulted her, would surely have raised one eyebrow high enough that I’d have thought better, hung the keys back up, and stayed home alone on my couch. But then how would seventeen-year-old me have made her peace?)  

It was a relief to give up driving shortly before I moved to New York. I wasn’t very good at it, and I found owning a car stressful. But I had never felt control like I did after I got my driver’s license. I think often about how as a teenager, with adulthood in plain sight, the mountains that surround the Las Vegas valley began to close in on me. Behind the wheel, I felt for the first time that I had the agency to escape them.

That sensation was never keener than when I sat in traffic on my way home from school. On days when I had too much to feel, I liked to take the surface streets home so I could wallow in the belly of the mountains and imagine what it would be like to drive beyond them. The Postal Service was on rotation in my CD player (“I want so badly to believe / That there is truth and love is real”) and for as long as I could sit in traffic I could sit alone with my feelings, with no one there to judge me or mock me or, God forbid, try to comfort me.

Learning to drive was the freest I’d felt — but it wasn’t the first I’d felt free. That came the summer I turned thirteen, the summer I spent palling around with a group of friends who I didn’t jibe with as well as I wanted to. I was still a mouthy little Poindexter who couldn’t keep it together when there was an opportunity to correct someone’s pronunciation or offer up a fact. None of us were cool but the others had figured out chill while I bumbled, stuck on desperate.

It was a humbling summer. But it was the summer that I began to understand what it was to create a life of my own. I ran out the door at ten and the day was mine, all mine, to buy candy with my allowance or spray myself with strawberry-scented glitter in the Bath and Body Works sample aisle or make a fool of myself in front of a boy. I was home again at eight, sure, but it was enough to glimpse what it would be like to live as I pleased.

It was a summer on wheels. The boys rode skateboards, and I was struck recently by a clear memory of me, on a bicycle, grinding up a hill that felt like a mountain, then sailing back down it like I was unstoppable. (A few years later — the years between thirteen and sixteen, which might as well be a lifetime — I was astonished to realize in my car that the “Great Hill” was barely a grade.)

I half wonder if I’ve conjured this memory. It seems impossible now that we could stand gripping our black rubber-coated handlebars under the August sun, like we didn’t need the skin on our palms. And I was hopelessly clumsy, and my body was just beginning to give way to the softness that I would quickly learn to hate. I can picture myself tripping after the other girls in my gang while they rode their Razor scooters up and down the sidewalks. I knew better than to let myself be seen on one of those. (Those colleagues at the software company where I work who are reading this may note that they have never seen me on one of our ubiquitous Razor scooters. To which I say: It’s enough to get you all to take me seriously once you find out I was an English major. We don’t need to complicate things with a head-over-feet-through-a-glass-conference-room-door situation.)  

I can’t imagine myself, at thirteen, on a bicycle. Nor do I have a photo or even much of a memory, but what I do remember is the hill, how daunting it was on two wheels, and then how simple it felt on four. At thirteen, when it was the indignity of begging a ride from my mother or a walk in the hundred-and-ten degree Vegas heat, my bicycle felt like a pair of wings. At sixteen, when the mountains that surrounded the Las Vegas Valley closed in on me like prison walls, the wheel beneath my hands felt like power.

Fast-forward to 2018 and the jarring experience of moving abroad. I felt impotent: Simple tasks like visiting the dentist or buying pants hangers became insurmountable obstacles, and so instead I sat on the couch and wondered if pants hangers would appear in my closet if I wished hard enough. I felt trapped, keenly aware that my residence permit was tied to a job that I vacillated between loving and resenting. I felt, frankly, like a teenager. The world was at my feet but my feet wouldn’t move… until I bought a bicycle.

Buying a bicycle in Copenhagen is like getting a driver’s license in high school. You imagine that you’ll hop on the seat and all the sudden you’ll be willowy and blonde and wearing a maxidress that will flow behind you like a wave while you somehow don’t flash your unglamorous bike shorts at the whole King’s Garden as you pass, and you’ll put flowers in your basket to carry home to your monochrome apartment that isn’t full of dead succulents. I thought, similarly, that once I drove to high school, I’d roll out of my car looking like the girls who flounced down the hall every morning with car keys in one hand and a Frappuccino in the other. I’d know how to tease my hair. I’d pull off smoky eyes. (I have never pulled off smoky eyes.)

So, predictably, there I was on the sidewalk outside the bicycle shop, paddling along like a penguin. The prospect of picking both feet up off the ground and pedaling myself voluntarily into the sea of svelte blondes racing by in their monochrome best was unthinkable. I was flashing back to 1996 and the cul-de-sac where my dad pleaded with me to let him take off the training wheels. To 2005 and the empty parking lot where my dad pleaded with me to pull out into the street. To 2012, the rack of Razor scooters lining the halls of my startup-style office, and the security camera whose operators could be sweet-talked into giving up screenshots of anyone who biffed in front of them.

But what I found when I finally willed myself into the bike lane was a revelation. No, I still can’t tie a scarf around my neck so it will flow behind me in the breeze without it looking like it’s there to keep my head in place, but I can get anywhere. You can reach the hippest places in Copenhagen by bus, sure, if you want to wait for one to show up and then bump along through traffic while the rest of the city sails past på cykel. Or you can climb on your bicycle and sail along with them. In minutes you’re out of the cloying, candy-colored tourist center, laying in the grass outside a converted warehouse with a glass of natural wine in hand, or pulling off your shoes to wade into the sea. I rode up and down the coast and underneath the planes landing at Amager. I clanked along the cobblestones until my teeth rattled. I weaved around tourists and flicked my bell like a truck driver laying on the horn on the highway. I felt that the world was my oyster again.

On wheels I feel like a cyborg. I am myself, but more capable. I can go where I could before but faster, on my own terms, on my own timeline. I am no longer standing shoulder to shoulder with every other twentysomething in Astoria on an N train that stopped halfway to Queensboro Plaza twenty minutes ago, or pondering the physics of air travel in a fiberglass tube that’s hurtling through the sky like a speedboat. I control my own destiny. I’m not carsick or airsick or cursing my mother for setting the cruise control two miles below the speed limit. I’m not stuck behind a tourist taking photos with their iPad. I’m not waiting, perpetually, until the icebergs melt and the mountains erode, for the G train.

At thirteen, at sixteen, and at 29 all I wanted was freedom. A vehicle is not a panacea. I got my driver’s license and I still couldn’t get myself out of a parking lot. I can’t ride my Danish bicycle to Williamsburg to meet my girlfriends for karaoke on Friday night. I could write a letter as lovelorn as this one to the subway, and I could live happily without owning a car again in my lifetime, but it’s the principle of the thing and what it gave me at sixteen when the world was closing in around me. Freedom, to me, is to know that I can get up and go. Wheels are what I need to do it.

 

teenage dream

Every so often, I give up on pretending that I have sophisticated taste in music and turn on the kind of thing I used to wallow to in high school. It’s a sure ticket to the past, which has been especially welcome lately—nothing like escaping to the good old days when the president was just a war criminal and Chandler’s mom was still a punch line on Friends, am I right?!—and easier than ever now that everything’s on Spotify. (Just remember to turn off sharing, unless you’re proud that it’s 2017 and you’re still listening to Something Corporate. You shouldn’t be, in case that wasn’t obvious.)

So the other day, in between wondering if I should quit my job and counting the number of dystopian novels that I didn’t think to take as cautionary tales, it occurred to me to turn on Jason Mraz. While he’s arguably a better musician than most of his contemporaries on my high school playlists, it’s still difficult to justify the existence of a lyric like “it takes a crane to build a crane,” and let’s not even broach the subject of his newer albums. Like Alanis in the Jagged Little Pill era versus Alanis now, it would be for everybody’s benefit if he’d just get dumped already. Success in love does not a good singer-songwriter make.

To step back into my teenage shoes, though, is to set aside the issue of quality. More precisely, it’s to set aside nuance. On many counts, I was inarguably a better person when I was a teenager. For example, when I was seventeen, I submitted an essay proposing that Congress vote anonymously to authorize military actions overseas to “allow politicians greater freedom to vote the way they feel is correct rather than be pressured by the party line.” This is probably not even the most preposterous thing that I thought was practical when I was a teenager, but it’s the only one I still have in my Dropbox, so it’ll have to do. Later in this essay, I also suggest that the United States would be able to end the genocide in Darfur—it was 2007—“if only we were willing to commit the troops to do so.” (Those troops, of course, would be committed through anonymous vote. Like YikYak, but for war!)

“Better” probably isn’t the right word: I was, if anything, purer. I thought that Congress was made up of good people who were simply at the mercy of their uneducated constituents. I thought that “it takes a crane to build a crane” was a genius observation that had never been articulated better. (I sort of still do. Congress, on the other hand, is obviously a lost cause.) Today, I can argue myself in circles; where I once nearly stormed out of the classroom in a heated debate with my World Affairs teacher over the best way to end the practice of female genital mutilation, I now hear myself using the dreaded phrase “I see where you’re coming from.” And I don’t even follow it up with “…and it proves my hypothesis that you’re a goddamn sociopath who wouldn’t recognize nuance if it punched you in the face.”

I miss the comfort of certainty. Writing cringingly naive social studies essays, blasting something like “Coin-Operated Boy” on my way through the Del Taco drive-through… nowadays it takes me a solid thirty minutes to decide what to order from Seamless, and even then I only pick because I know that if I don’t have something more than stale pretzels in my apartment within the next 45 minutes, I will chew off my own arm. (This is also in part why I don’t cook. I cannot handle grocery stores. I would say it’s an eating disorder thing, but it’s the same reaction I have to the New York Public Library eBooks catalog.) I’m too aware at any given juncture that whatever route I take will inevitably be the wrong one. What I wouldn’t give to be seventeen again and know that I am, without question, right!

Now I’m all too aware of nuance, and it means that I’m incapable of going in anywhere with guns blazing. That’s not entirely true, as just about all of my coworkers and the senior leadership of my company can attest to, but that blaze flames out so quickly, the second I open my eyes and realize that there’s another perspective to be considered. My intractable stubbornness has given way to… waffling. I’ve been catching myself lately vacillating wildly between different positions depending on how well they’re being argued to me. Protests are useless! “But they’re the only way to get the public read onto a cause! Look at how the attorneys mobilized via social media to help out travelers being detained at JFK!” Okay, protests are great! “They’re political theatre!” Those pink hats are still ugly! Okay, I’m done now. That one is an incontrovertible fact.

I guess the tradeoff is that while I might no longer be bullheaded enough to get myself sent to the dean’s office rather than submit myself to standing during the Pledge of Allegiance, I’m also no longer dumb enough to, say, get myself sent to juvenile court with a summons for drinking underage (in full “seventies roller disco regalia.” With tube socks. After trying to hide under a car). Or leave a Burger King soft drink cup full of Dr. Pepper in my cupholder for hours in the Las Vegas sun and not expect the cup to give way, sending Dr. Pepper leaking… everywhere. Or forget to look behind me before I make a U-turn and send my car straight into the path of an automated gate, practically knocking my bumper off (Dad, if you’re reading this, that’s the genesis of that massive scrape on my back bumper. Not a shopping cart. Just in case you happened to have bought that airtight excuse).

That isn’t to say that I’m not still incompetent—have I mentioned yet on the blog the time last year that I managed to miss a transatlantic flight by a full 24 hours?—but that nothing seems as consequential as it did when I had no concept of nuance. The photos of me wearing tube socks haven’t yet sunk my political campaign. I cleaned up the Dr. Pepper. (And United didn’t charge me for that mishap, which is probably because I have already sold them my soul.) It got better, as they say.

But that, too, is why the music I listened to when I was sixteen doesn’t resonate the way it used to. Everything felt so final, or so urgent: I needed Jason Mraz strumming his stupid guitar and singing to me that “it takes a night to make it dawn,” because just as I was sure in my World Affairs essay that using “media infiltration” to “alert the citizens [of the Middle East… no, literally, the whole thing] that a freer world does, in fact, exist” would bring about peace, so, too, was I sure that getting a B on a trigonometry test was to live the rest of my life behind the cash register at Capezio. I live now in a constant state of awareness that everything evens out to… well, mediocrity, I guess, since that’s what you get when you can’t forget that the highs are as temporary as the lows.

It was nice the other day to walk down Seventh Avenue with my headphones on, listening to music that is only sort of good, remembering what it was like to be confident that everything I said was right and everything I knew was true. It’s not a state that I’d return to—for one thing, I’d take going toe-to-toe with my boss’s boss’s boss’s boss any day over my eminent social studies teachers, and Lord help me if I ever see a look on my mother’s face like the night I got caught drinking Smirnoff Ice in tube socks!—but it’s good to remember that I have, in the past, been capable of taking a position, of making a decision. And, for what it’s worth, of listening to a second-tier singer-songwriter because it makes me feel better about the world, without concerning myself with what the world might feel about me.

NB: My final argument in that World Affairs essay was that the U.S. should remove troops from the Middle East “because at this point, all that that is accomplishing is proving the theory that Americans are evil.” While this is unquestionably true, and I congratulate my younger self for having had the foresight to recognize that this would be an issue in the future, I recognize now that at least epistemologically, I was a little confused.

bathrooms of the great midwest

I have a small bladder. Perhaps it’s more proper to say that I am a small woman and then let you infer the rest, but I’ve never pretended to be proper, so let’s just be frontal about it and move on. I have to pee often enough that I’m a bad person to bring on your road trip but not so often that I should be taking medicines advertised with commercials showing women doing yoga to “I Can See Clearly Now.”

Regrettably, I’m also prissy as hell and don’t do well in situations where I have to expose my bare skin to grime. (Really, even being in sock feet in public gives me the creeps. I walk through the airport security line on my heels. All those years of ballet training were good for something, right?) Until college, this meant that I wouldn’t use a public restroom if my life depended on it. I could handle the bathroom at Macy’s, maybe, but not the bathroom in the food court; as a child, I’m not sure I ever used the bathroom on an airplane.

As I turn ever faster into my mother with each passing year, though, my shrinking bladder has forced me to accept the indignity of the unclean restroom. On top of that, I live in New York, where clean bathrooms are as rare as the G train at 3 AM on a Saturday. (One plans one’s days here around where one is going to use the bathroom. Wing it and you’ll be sure to find yourself full to bursting on a black-hole block with nothing but apartments, bodegas, and discount wig stores. I mean, I can’t even flush my own toilet without jiggling the handle for several seconds to get it to stop running.) By necessity, I’m brave now. I can pee in airplane bathrooms, even if it means confronting whatever’s left over after the screaming toddler and its parent emerge after a pitched battle that started fifteen minutes earlier when they entered with a diaper and, probably, dreams. I can pee in bathrooms that I assume would be caked in heroin if it were still the eighties. I can even pee in gas station bathrooms, a category I once thought I’d reserve for “not until I’ve already peed in whatever glass container is available in the vehicle.” But the satisfaction of bravery doesn’t mean I wouldn’t trade it all for, if not plush towels and Malin + Goetz bath products, a working electric hand dryer. Also, maybe peeing in a gas station doesn’t count as bravery, but you don’t need to kill my vibe here.

I traveled to Japan recently. Bear with me, I promise this is relevant, though I realize I’m like one sunset photo away from becoming fodder for /r/blogsnark. This post is actually about bathrooms, not about how dragging my overstuffed suitcase up and down fourteen staircases in Shinjuku Station during rush hour made me a better person. (It didn’t. It just made me sweaty, and anyway as soon as we realized that the stereotype about Japanese commuters folding themselves into crowded train cars during rush hour is actually just how people who live in Tokyo get to work, we bailed and took a cab. I’m weak.)

A lot of things about Japan are astonishing. I mean, this is a country where you can buy corn soup in a can from a vending machine. It’s a country with neither trash cans nor littering. (I still can’t figure out where all the trash goes. Do people just carry their empty corn soup cans in their gigantic backpacks until they get home?) But the most astonishing thing to me was not the variety of things you can put in a can, nor the fact that people don’t just throw their trash into the subway tracks for the rats to scrap over, but…

…wait for it…

…the bathrooms.

People keep asking me what my favorite place in Japan was and I keep throwing out random shrines that I may or may not have actually seen so I seem cultured, but actually it was the women’s bathroom at Yodoyobashi Station on the Midosuji Line in Osaka, which had powder counters for women to reapply their makeup that were nicer than most of the dressing rooms I used over the course of twelve years dancing ballet. I mean, in New York, I’m told there are bathrooms in the subway if you ask, but I would rather squat in a corner because there’s no way I’m going to willingly lock myself in a room that probably contains rat corpses or heroin syringes (at a minimum, a lot of used gum). Instead, I spend fifty cents on a banana at Starbucks so I can drip-dry in a bathroom that I suspect may never have been stocked with toilet paper in the first place. At more than one shrine, I ran out of the bathroom and told my boyfriend that he had to go check it out. I was approximately, but maybe not quite, this excited about the shrines themselves.

I still can’t believe not only how clean everything was but how clean everything stayed in spite of how densely populated all of the cities I visited were (and how overrun by tourists!). I guess the broader moral lesson to extrapolate from this one is how Japan is so orderly, and we rowdy Americans with our propensity for throwing trash on train tracks and national monuments should take a lesson away from them, but I’m not really interested in the practice of writing paeans to the moral lessons I extrapolate from travel. I’m mostly traveling just to figure out where the best of anything in the world is. Australia has the best coffee, Finland has the best side-eye, London has the best United Club, Japan has the best bathrooms.

According to the travel blogs I browse through when I’m trying to figure out where to drink in the countries I visit, I’m doing it wrong. I’m supposed to be learning how to slow down and live mindfully and do headstands on the beach and get lost in an unfamiliar neighborhood so I can serendipitously discover a coffee shop that also sells monocles and doubles as a portal to Narnia. Not use pocket wifi to find a coffee shop that’s well-rated on Foursquare, then use Google Maps to navigate to it. But I can’t handle the ambiguity that’s a prerequisite for serendipity, nor can I do headstands. I don’t find that planning inhibits the way I enjoy the world, either. In my travels, I guess I’ve tripped over a few life lessons (not least of which is that in an election year you should book a trip to a non-English-speaking country for the first Wednesday after November 1st in the event that your country should elect a candidate who owns a restaurant where they serve martinis with ice cubes).

But mostly I just come across what I, an American from a family without a strong non-American cultural identity, experience as curiosities. It’s curious to me that the nation of Japan can keep its bathrooms so clean, just as it’s curious to me that neither money nor love can buy you a giant cup of coffee that isn’t from Starbucks in London. It’s curious in a way that the New York City subway was curious to me a few years ago, as something unfamiliar that you’d take for granted if you grew up with it. I try hard to travel without classifying what I experience as good or bad or, God forbid, exotic. The world, I’m finding, is just a collection of things that you can or can’t ship from one side to the other. You can ship someone a box of New York bagels, but you can’t ship them the experience of ordering a bagel from someone who berates you for asking for it toasted.** And you could install a Japanese toilet for the use of the American public, theoretically, but I bet you we’d still shit on the ceiling.

* I have not yet actually read Kitchens of the Great Midwest. Forgive me.

** Apparently Murray’s will now toast your bagels. At sixteen, learning that one does not ask for a toasted bagel was a formative experience. I regret that this valuable lesson won’t be passed on to future sullen teenagers who need a good smack in the face with their cream cheese, which is, of course, all teenagers.

freshman disorientation

Nothing prepared me for the first time that I tried to walk from one building on Vassar’s campus to another alone. It was before smartphones or even the proper signage that the fire department recently forced the college to install. I was hell-bent on finding my own way, no way was I going to ask anyone for directions, never mind that I was so obviously a tourist that I might as well have been wearing a fanny pack. (I was, after all, wearing a lanyard. At the time, it felt sophisticated. I was eighteen! A college woman! I drank vodka! Out of Nalgenes, and it was raspberry-flavored, but still.)

I don’t remember how I managed to get from the lawn outside Josselyn House to Main Building. I assume it involved a map, although that’s one of several details from my first months in college that I’ve excised from my memory on the basis that I was way too cool to do something as lame as look at a map while wearing a lanyard. Similarly, I never threw up in public, and that series of photos that keeps cropping up in this week’s “On This Day” where I am wearing what looks like the entire Old Navy clearance rack in at least one size too small is obviously Photoshopped.

What I do remember is that that was when I realized that from that moment on, it was up to me—for the first time in my life—to figure out what to do next. Driving was like this too, to a degree; nobody puts 20,000 miles on a car in Las Vegas without finding themselves on the wrong Durango (am I right, Las Vegans?). But that was only ever temporary. I’d pull over and study my MapQuest printout, maybe cry a little bit, but I was always on my way home eventually.

And the next morning, even if I ignored my alarm, my mother would be there to drag me out of bed and to school, where I went to the classes that I had selected from a diverse menu that offered things like A.P. English, Honors English, and English where they’re going to assign To Kill a Mockingbird for the fourth year in a row in the valiant hope that someone will read it and encourage the rest of the future valets of America not to vote for Trump. I would eat crackers with peanut butter for lunch and I would do my calculus homework. I would date the boy who sat next to me in biology class, and then we would break up and I would write poetry about his Converse sneakers, and then I would date his friend, and then I would date his other friend, and then I would have run through all of the straight men who weren’t being assigned To Kill a Mockingbird for the fourth time in a row. It had all been laid out for me.

So there I was, eighteen years old, realizing that not only did I need to figure out which of the seventeen sidewalks in front of me led to the building where I could sign up to audition for a cappella (I got rejected) but I also needed to downselect from approximately one billion classes to five and figure out which of the oodles of straight boys who lived on my hallway was the right one to stick my skintight Old Navy tank top-clad chest at. My map, needless to say, did not provide me with the information that I needed to choose wisely. (Particularly for that red herring of a last question, whose obvious answer is “don’t shit where you eat,” or more properly, “don’t shit where you all use the same gender-neutral bathroom.”)

But it was thrilling. I was kept on a short leash as a kid. I went to college 3,000 miles away to sever that leash as completely as I could. I was free for the first time to chart my own path not just across the maze of sidewalks—seriously, did Vassar design the residential quad intentionally to fuck with freshmen’s heads or is that some kind of midcentury landscape architectural feature that I missed out because I never took Art History 105-106?—but to draw, from among thousands of possibilities, what my future looked like. I had done what I’d been told to do up until then, smart kid, take A.P. English and don’t go to parties and don’t, God forbid, try to pursue a career as something that doesn’t involve a steady paycheck.

I was free, now, at last, to take my map and my lanyard and find out who I was supposed to be. (Naturally, the first answers I found to that question were things like “a person who sleeps through 9 A.M. Italian” and “someone who gained the freshman fifteen because she ate grilled cheese for every meal.”)

The sensation was powerful. I’ve spent my adult life chasing it back down.

I moved every year for the first four years and then finally I stopped, and then I started traveling for work last year. Trying to order a coffee in Fitzrovia in London was the closest I’ve felt to being an eighteen-year-old with a lanyard around her neck and the world at her feet, so I kept going. A hundred thousand miles later, I suspect that that might be the last time I get to feel that way. After London and Wellington and Toulouse and Sydney and Melbourne I know now that there are a lot of things that are possible, like the world’s best grilled cheese sandwich or that you can be a person whose commute is riding a ferry past the Sydney Opera House every morning.

But I also know that possibilities are not unlimited. By the end of my fourth year at Vassar, I could have crossed that maze of sidewalks with my eyes closed, and I had lost any illusions that just leaving Las Vegas would turn me into someone worldly. The forehead in the Global Entry kiosk photo is the same forehead that left Newark five or ten or fifteen days prior. (As an aside, someone should let Customs and Border Patrol know that they should have considered the full of range of adult heights when they were ordering those kiosks. Maybe if they ever review my file and realize that it’s just a gallery of pictures of the top of my head, they’ll put in for replacements.) I have changed more walking six blocks down Second Avenue, the length of time it takes to get in an argument that puts the wheels in motion for disaster five months later, than I have flying 15,000 miles around the world.

It’s not the setting that transforms me, in short. What in retrospect turn out to be the precipices off which I’ve fallen into new states of being are less exciting than the ones I would imagine them to be. It wasn’t the guy I “met cute” at a bar in a snowstorm whose medicine cabinet now holds a shelf of my things; it was the one I’d known for a year prior. Going to college 3,000 miles away didn’t turn me into the person I suspected I might be; auditioning for the spring musical there did. The world has always been at my feet, regardless of where those feet are situated. (And I still can’t find my way without a map, although at least now I can at least pretend that I’m texting while walking instead of bumbling around like Clark Griswold.)

In June, I went to my five-year reunion. Crossing campus was disorienting—it wasn’t quite like riding a bike, not after five years that I’ve spent learning to navigate so many different cities. My mind only has so much room, and most of it is filled with things like the names of every member of the Kardashian family. I felt a little frisson of remembering what it was like to be younger, to have illusions of what the world was going to be like now that I got to decide whether or not I woke up for class and what I wanted to be when I grew up.

I got lost more than once that weekend. I guess that a place that I once knew like the back of my hand can still surprise me.

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.