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.)

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.