I don’t feel like myself so I empty the trash in the bedroom and then I put on my favorite dress. It’s just a plain, cheap black dress from Old Navy and the zipper is kind of screwed up and it shows my bra, but it’s still my favorite because it’s simple and comfortable. The skirt kind of swirls when I turn.
I don’t feel like myself so I play my old iPod. It has all the songs I listened to in college and high school. Songs from mixes from old friends and ex-boyfriends and former selves.
I feel like I want someone to say kind things to me. I feel like I want to eat a lot of hummus and drink a lot of cold white wine. I feel like my hair needs to be washed. My shin is messed up where I fell over the weekend on the trail at Lake George.
Ben’s baking vegetables in the oven and the place smells warm and oniony. I’m humming along with a song I danced to seven years ago, at a concert in Canada. I’m trying to remember what it feels like to not constantly tear myself down. I’m trying and coming up empty, empty, empty.
Ben and I mop the floor, using the bathtub for a bucket. We fill it a few inches high, stirring in the Murphy Oil Soap. I play Billy Joel on the portable speaker and my heart aches, a deep nostalgic ache. The nostalgia is for my childhood, Billy Joel playing over my dad’s big old speakers, Mom shooing us out of the piney-clean kitchen, and also a sort of nostalgia in advance for this life we have right now - these are the days to hold onto, ‘cause we won’t although we’ll want to - as I imagine myself in the next phase of my life, whatever that will be, trying to remember this time.
I don’t want to forget this, Ben and me, slow dancing, teasing, the way I run my hands over his freshly trimmed beard and tell him it’s the perfect length, don’t grow another centimeter, stay like this, like this. I nap on top of the duvet, comforted knowing he’s nearby in the living room, cheering aloud over a soccer game, while here in the bedroom, soft piano music plinks out a lullaby like rain on a lake.
Next weekend we are going on a short hiking and camping trip with my dad. I already have the packing list. I can’t wait to show him how the woods unfurls itself for you as you climb deep into its belly, how at the end of a long day it swaddles you in quiet. We will make a fire, the 3 of us, and cook hotdogs and crack jokes. I have never invited another boy into my life like this. Growing up, hiking trips were almost a sacred thing between my dad and me. But there was no part of me that hesitated in inviting Ben. No need for pause at all.
I love him. I want to show him everything that means something to me.
I feel like a failure and a fraud when I don’t have the answers.
Who am I to teach? To lecture, to manage, to give advice? Just a twenty-something baby with bad posture and a too-tight blouse. A coworker calls me “sweetheart” and I’m ashamed at what a relief it is to be talked down to again.
I was a bossy little kid. That version of me would know how to fake it. She had confidence down to the end of her ponytail. Then suddenly I was twelve - too tall for my age, with big, unhideable breasts. I had forgotten how to talk back.
I don’t remember ever being the pretty sixteen, leggy in cutoff shorts and a mischievous smile. Instead I remember getting my period in ballet class the blood blooming between my thighs on my pale pink tights. I remember the way my tank top would ride up accidentally and expose my smooth, white stomach, and how a boy in school told me to “cover up” and I did, cheeks flaming.
In high school I made study guides, typed up and memorizable. In college, I begged friends to teach me how to flirt, but found that it was a disappointingly uncopyable thing. At every stage of life, I find myself graceless and flailing.
I still feel like that twelve and sixteen and twenty year old girl. Stoop-shouldered and shy, pink-cheeked and exposed, struggling and posturing and taking notes. These days there are no textbooks to run my highlighter across, no wizened, silver-haired professors who can open their mouths and expound for two hours at a time. Now there is only a big world of unpleasable people and the same old bathroom stalls in which to escape.
Turns out it’s laryngitis. I’ve been coughing for 12 days now. Coughed so hard I threw up. My muscles ache.
Ben drops off the laundry, changes the sheets, and makes tortellini sausage soup and I eat the leftovers for breakfast, greasy-haired and pantsless on the dirty couch. This place is a mess and I’m a mess - bruised and bug-bitten and dusty.
I think about how the one thing I really miss, living in the city, is outdoor alone-space. A quiet backyard to sit in by myself. There are parks, of course, and gardens, but parks and gardens mean walking, mean people, mean facing the world. I want a place that is private and fenced where I can stretch my limbs. I want a pool where I can float on my back. I want a hammock and a wedge of sunshine that I don’t have to share. A patio with a padded lounge chair.
Last night I cried about Robin Williams. I don’t want to think about his sad smile, the laugh lines around his eyes. I just want to drink this codeine and sleep. I just want more rest than I’m allowed to take.
I want days and days of it.
Just walked 2 miles of Atlantic City boardwalk - not including the mileage covered while getting lost in a giant casino complex for a while - in a pair of $23 platform cork wedges from Forever21.
Also, I think I have bronchitis.
Feeling proud and capable for sending my hoarse self back to the hotel, for not stumbling even once as I wound my way through the throngs of drunks and gamblers. For keeping my wits about me, as my mom would say.
The night is warm and bright and neon. My heels are all pins and needles. This city smells like cigarettes, fried food, and beer. It’s not unlike a frat house or a state fair. It’s a strange city in which to be sick, with its larger than life buildings flashing drink specials in lettering taller than I am. Everyone has come here to spend too much or drink too much. Revel is the name of our hotel and also a command, so I tuck myself into bed, pull up the fluffy white comforter, and I do. I revel.
We were like two people shouting at each other from across a very long apartment with the air conditioner running, calling what, WHAT again and again. Two people playing pictionary with a curtain between them, growing more and more agitated, marker screeching across paper, drawings more and more emphatic, guesses more and more obscure and desperate. A bicycle! A lawnmower! A broken ferris wheel made of ice cream cones!
It was maybe the first time I thought, Jesus Christ who IS this person? Who is this person sharing my bed and brushing his teeth beside me at the tiny little bathroom sink, knocking heads when we lean down to spit at the same time? Who is this person whose pockets I reach into and empty without asking when I lay my head in his lap at the end of a long day? Whose boxers I put away in the drawer. Who puts his hands in my soapy hair in the shower. What if we don’t know each other at all? And I admit, I was terrified. Shocked, really. I saw our future like a big, intricate building, like a very large high school, with metal locker after locker stretching out in every direction. And in every locker another disconcerting riddle. Another misunderstanding. Another benefit of the doubt. And I could feel the look on my face, a mix of horror and doubt and also sudden, terrible, absolute clarity about how impossible it is to ever know someone else, really.
And that is how I celebrated the fourth and fifth of July, in two arguments, that twined around each other like vines twisting around a mailbox, tangling as they compete to reach the top. Arguments about two very different things that in the end, were about the same thing, because every argument now is about my god my god what if we’re all wrong for each other what are we doing I’m getting older what if we forget how to be in love what if you break my heart and I have to forgive you what if I’m jealous and you’re loud and I’m spitting toothpaste into the sink alone? What if we say things we’ll regret and then we mean them after all?
Outside the fireworks exploded and I thought for the millionth time how holidays are always disappointing, even when they’re just about hot dogs and jello shots. It’s the expectation of that big bright fullness that makes me want to take a nap or pick a fight with someone. I always cry on birthdays. I’ve hid in the bedroom on Christmas. It’s possible I’m just not good with structured celebration, or the accepted calendar for joy.
So we continued to gesticulate wildly, rolling our eyes with our entire bodies, an exaggerated pantomime of exasperation. Because that’s what it means to love someone down to their softest and most inconvenient parts. You explain yourself and you make incomprehensible analogies and you try, again and again, to be heard down the long long hall of the apartment, over the sound of the running A/C and the exploding fireworks and other people’s ideas of what your love is supposed to look like. You try again and again to tell each other what you mean.
And in straining to make sense of each other, you conclude - with both disillusionment and marvelous relief - that you may never get your point across. You may never pour his words into a paper cup and drink them. He may never unravel the sweater of thought you’ve so painstakingly knit for him. But, goddamn it, you’ll try until you’re both worn out, and in the morning you’ll wake up with your legs tangled up in this other, unknowable person’s legs. And you’ll get back to the meticulous, tiresome, wonderful work of braiding and unbraiding your lives together.
I have been working a lot lately, really working, and staying late, and focusing so hard and for so many hours that I give myself headaches clenching my jaw with concentration. Sometimes I do this thing where I sort of grind my teeth in tune to the beat of whatever song is repeating in my head without realizing it. It’s a bad habit, like sleepwalking or worrying too much. I do that, too. The worrying, not the sleepwalking. I lose my place in my book. My hands tingle. I have nightmares.
I didn’t run at all this week or last. I eat hungrily, big heaping portions from the lunch buffet at the restaurant beside my office - guacamole with homemade pita, slabs of salmon, piles of cold bean salad, turkey and bacon sandwiches, hummus, chicken chili soup, granola bars, rushing through my meals like I do my inbox, as if I must beat an invisible timer or else or else.
For dinner I drink margaritas with fresh lime and sometimes make toast.
I can’t seem to stop picking at myself - literally, physically, scratching at my bug bites - always so prone to bug bites - and other invisible places on my skin that beg to be touched, quieted. I find myself digging my nails over my scalp, tearing at the skin of my fingertips, gnawing absently at the insides of my mouth.
Do you ever feel like that? Like you might tear yourself to pieces as easily as you tear the label from a bottle of beer? Deep in conversation at the bar, I suddenly look up, bewildered to find that I have reduced myself to a handful of tattered paper.
Like, I guess maybe someday we’ll laugh about the time we were in our late twenties with savings accounts as empty as our fridge. We’ll laugh about this cracked tooth I have when I’ve already hit my dental insurance limit and how Ben keeps getting canker sores and googling home remedies, and I keep getting headaches every day, and now I have a fucking boil (a boil!) on my side and we’re convinced our bodies are breaking down prematurely from stress.
We’ll laugh about the fact that in the past year and a half in this apartment we’ve had ants, mice, bed bugs, fruit flies, a gas leak, a cracked kitchen ceiling, water coming through the bathroom ceiling into the light fixture, the CO2 detector going off in the middle of the night, no heat or hot water for days at a time in the winter, and now there’s something leaking out of our bathroom light switch (??).
We’ll laugh about how we furnished half of our apartment with things we found on the street, how I chastise Ben for swiping change from the teacup to pay for bagels, and he’ll chastise me for spending all my spare cash on books, so many books there isn’t even room in the bookshelves anymore. We’ll laugh about stale toast with nutella for dinner because we spent more than a week’s grocery money driving down to Virginia last weekend to surprise my sister for her 30th birthday.
Today my wallet zipper finally gave out, and there’s a tear in my purse lining that my keys and all my makeup keep falling through, and I know I need a haircut and the girls at work have been eyeing my un-manicured nails, my beat up suede flats from Target, and the runs in my tights.
Tonight Ben put on his gym shorts and the elastic is so worn out that they wouldn’t stay up unless he pulls the drawstring super tight and knots it, and I looked at him tying the knot, with the shorts all bunched up and still falling down, and he looked at me, and we started laughing and laughing and we couldn’t stop.
Drinking lemon drop moonshine mixed with peppermint lemonade and ice in my air conditioned bedroom, sprawled out on the bed with Ben, catching our breath, bare-legged and sweaty after a long, warm walk home from Cobble Hill.
I’m wearing my favorite black summer dress and the same silk blouse I wore two years ago when he first asked me to tell him what color his eyes were and we stared quietly at each other for 10 seconds. They are blue gray like the ocean in Cape Cod, where he has never been, but I’ll take him someday and tell him all about my childhood.
Yesterday we went to the Brooklyn museum where you can walk through reproductions of 18th century homes, peer into living rooms with velvet chairs and read about bedchambers and fashionable paint colors. We spent a long time looking at Judy Chicago’s work - all pastels and pussies, china plates and color wheels, curves and dreams and goddesses. Afterwards it rained and we went out for cocktails made delicately, carefully - his a dark auburn bourbon and sherry, mine a tingly serrano-infused honey syrup with pineapple rum.
On the way home I bought flowers - peonies and lilacs - heavy, deeply fragrant bunches of pink and purple. Today, I left 8 books in the little free library on my street. It’s more of a little wooden birdhouse for unwanted books than a library. On Friday I worked a black vanilla cream through my hair in the shower, rinsing it out under the warm water with slow, gentle hands. All of these things are calm and rich and good.
I feel drunk on this city. Drunk on gnocchetti di spinaci in a sage and butter sauce, drunk on the back alleys of Chinatown where you can buy live crab, jade jewelry, or a dollar bag full of warm mini pancakes. Drunk on perfume samples in the Lower East Side, expensive silk dresses in beautiful shop windows, mojitos garnished with bright sprigs of fresh mint, the big wide window on the 2nd floor of the Sunshine Cinema, vanilla cupcakes with thick, white frosting.
On Friday night we were caught in rainstorm on the way to dinner, laughing uncontrollably at our soaked selves under an awning in Soho, watching the cabs go by. I felt very much in love, with Ben and with New York, and very lucky that the 3 of us get along so famously.
Last night while chopping vegetables at the kitchen table, I told Ben that I had been thinking a lot about our relationship. He was behind me, mixing up something approximating tequila sunrises at the counter, and I heard him pause to listen carefully to what I was about to say.
I told him that out of any relationship in my life, romantic or otherwise, ours was the healthiest I had ever been in. It’s true, and it amazes me that it’s true.
When I say healthy what I mean is communicative, emotionally honest, mutually kind, and genuinely happy. I don’t mean that we are without differences, that we never argue or get annoyed with each other. We are both prone to bouts of anxiety, self-pity, and over-sensitivity. But we are also careful with each other. We are endlessly encouraging. We say thank you, and often. We high five after our runs and call ourselves a team. We make meals and make plans and stay up too late making each other laugh.
What I want to say is that I’m proud of us. I’m really proud of this thing we have been building and growing for the past two years. It has made me better - more patient, more confident, more calm. But mostly because it has made me really happy, and I think that’s worth celebrating.
Two years ago today, I made Ben the worst margaritas I’ve ever made and we kissed on a couch in the little town where we both grew up, although he lived in Arizona and I lived in Brooklyn. Two days later I said “I’ve decided you’re coming to visit me in New York.”
He said “I’m calling your bluff.”
Cotton is the traditional second anniversary gift, although I think that’s more for wedding anniversaries than for relationships. I like cotton though because it’s a word that also means “to get on well together,” “to prosper or succeed,” “to become fond of, begin to like,” “to approve of,” and “to come to a full understanding of.”
I couldn’t have said it better myself.
Someone, I can’t even remember who now, replied to my post about how discouraged and depressed I was over my running progress, or lack thereof. The reply was something along the lines of “Running is not for you! Try something else that doesn’t make you miserable!”
This was good, reasonable advice. It is also the line I have replayed angrily in my head on nearly every run since. In the uncomfortable quiet, I hear my own voice reply "I don’t CARE if it’s not for me. That’s the whole POINT of this. I am the one in control of this body and we are doing this thing because we hate it. We are learning to run in spite of ourselves."
And I’ve been thinking a lot about choosing to do the thing you least want to do. About the line between discipline and abuse. About not hating ourselves into a version of ourselves we can love. The only hint of pleasure in running for me is in running as a form of punishment, and the momentary sense of accomplishment from completing a painful and difficult task. But more than three months in and I am still doing it, increasing my duration in tiny increments each week, berating myself if I feel I’ve been too slow, or paused too often, or worse yet, unable to complete the task I’ve arbitrarily laid out for myself.
It seems to me that the problem is not the running or even my inexplicable commitment to running in spite of every clear indication that I was not cut out for such things. The problem is that I haven’t learned yet how to balance my commitment with my compassion. The runs have become a way to tame a disobedient self. Exercise as an exercise in emotional self-control.
Other people have asked me “why don’t you try something else?” and the answer comes so rapidly, I must have always known it was there: because this is the thing I cannot do, and that is not acceptable to me.
On Saturday morning I got up early and did my run down 4th avenue to 10th street and back. While I ran, I listened to the playlist I made for Lily’s visit on shuffle. The run started with We Are Young by Fun. which is a very good song to make you feel youthful and strong and get your blood pumping, especially because I associate it with the person I was three years ago. If you could see me now! I told my younger self in my head as I made my way down the sunny sidewalk in my sky blue sneakers. You aren’t fast, but you are resolute.
After my run, I paced the apartment, fluffing the sofa pillows and straightening up the vanity before Lily arrived. I shot a disapproving frown at the peach carnations going brown in the vase by the window, as if they should know better. I put strawberries on the little wooden tray my mom brought back from her honeymoon in Italy and sticky almonds in a little white dish and set them out on the kitchen table, because traveling makes people hungry, and I felt like I needed something to indicate welcome. A few minutes later, I thought of the mice, and put the tray and the dish in the fridge. I waited impatiently on the couch until finally the buzzer sounded and I rushed out the door to meet Lily at the stairs, carrying less luggage than she used to for an afternoon visit when she lived in Bed Stuy.
I was pleased to see that, with the exception of our matching short hair cuts, six months hadn’t really changed us. We aren’t all grown up yet, which means it’s still perfectly acceptable to order vodka redbulls at night, eat 3 slices of pizza for breakfast the next morning, and then go out for ice cream in candy-coated sugar cones when the ice cream parlor opens at noon. It’s still alright for me to spend the money I should be spending on a new black cardigan for work on stacks of used books. It’s acceptable that neither of us really knows how to use eyeshadow and it’s acceptable to go to sleep without washing it off first. It’s alright for me to confess my silliest, most materialistic fears about my future while walking through Prospect Park, and to make fun of very rich young men on Soho street corners, and to order nothing but sides off the brunch menu to ensure I get exactly what I want.
I think that’s the thing that is most wonderful to see reflected in each other. We are both inching closer and closer to knowing what it is we want and how to go about getting it without guilt or embarrassment. We are seeing other people more clearly and ourselves more kindly, and our personalities are still shifting, slowly and ever so slightly closer to the wise women we always wanted to be. We are wary where we lack experience, contemplative where we lack education, and shrewd where we lack sophistication. And more than wise, we are tender, which we always have been, which we haven’t lost yet, and won’t lose ever, because now we recognize its value. We honor our tenderness, we cultivate and encourage it. We look out for it in others. I feel myself gravitating toward tenderness in all forms these days. I think it must be the hiding place for all joy.
Everyone, everyone please read Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House and then the even better We Have Always Lived in the Castle as soon as you can possibly get your hands on them. They’re both short and dark and so good. They are rich dark chocolates of books, and just as pleasant to savor, and I need everyone to read them right away so that we can all talk about how good it is to be pleasantly, dreamily chilled by a really deliciously spooky story, and a really marvelously captivating female main character.
I am wearing perfume that smells like licorice and oranges. I rarely wear this one; I mostly bought it because I liked the bottle - square with an old-fashioned orange label. When I wear it I feel like a busy secretary in the 1960s. The sort of young woman who would wear gloves with little buttons up the sides when going out in the springtime, stockings with seams up the back, sensible, low-heeled leather pumps in pristine condition.
I am wearing a dress that is too short. All of my dresses are too short and I can never figure out if I buy them this way - judgment blurred by the dark dressing room and the allure of new things - or if they’re shrinking in the wash. Every time I get up to go to the copy room, I tug at the hem and feel my tights slide down below my hips, uncomfortably.
I like Mondays because on Mondays I make my To Do List for the week and I hang it on my cubicle wall. I remove all the folders with past dates and file them in my filing drawer, and I make a little pile beside my keyboard of folders of work for the next day or two. I delete emails from the weekend that don’t need responses, and methodically make my way through the ones that do, working from the bottom to the top, so no one has to wait too long. Then I go through the shared inbox and change the star color beside the emails I have to answer to green. Green means Caroline, means go, means spring. Green means the grass on the other side, which I try not to think about because my new thing is not comparing myself to anyone else, and that includes any other possible life I could be living right now.
I have a key lime yogurt and a sugar free redbull for breakfast. A tart, faux-citrusy meal that makes me feel comforted and alert. I dislike to be bothered by bathroom breaks during the day, but when I absolutely have to go, I prefer to take my time. After washing my hands, I leave them under the warm running water for a minute to two while I clear my mind. Sometimes I moisten a paper towel and run it over my hair to keep the fine pieces in places. Then I pull up my tights, working from the ankles, shimmying the fabric up over my knees, to my thighs, and pulling the waistband up high, where it will stay for approximately the next 3 minutes before sliding down again.
It’s quiet for a Monday. Everyone else must still be getting themselves in order, writing out their own To Do lists over coffee, stunned into a lazier pace by the sudden sunshine and warmer weather. As the caffeine wears off, I feel myself slowing down, too. The letter icon blinks steadily on the phone to alert my coworker to a waiting voicemail, insistent but not urgent. That is the mood of the day as afternoon rolls around. Plodding and constant, but without the usual high-strung buzz.
On Saturday I bought a lavender sachet from the farmer’s market and put it in my purse like a real elegant old lady. Yesterday I bought 8 books for $45 at HousingWorks. On the subway ride home, I pulled them out of their plastic bag one by one, and read the first paragraph of each. I love first paragraphs, and first sentences especially. I like to think of the author sitting down to a blank screen and typing out that first sentence, like pulling apart a pair of curtains over a window that looks out over the story. I can’t imagine how other people decide to begin a novel. I hate the idea of the first line being dropped in after the fact. I prefer to think that the line is just there, waiting to be written, without great difficulty or forethought. That comes later, I think. The first sentence simply exists, outside of time and intention. It is born with the writer, secreted like tears, falling out of them with its own unstoppable catharsis.
It looked like the opening credits to a feel-good movie.
Blue sky splashed like liquid dishsoap above us, the Statue of Liberty beaming in the distance, and the entire Manhattan skyline spread out ahead, like a glittering mirage. Ben and I ran through Brooklyn Bridge park, darting between people - a mother blowing bubbles while her toddler grabbed at them, a man flying a great big green kite, little girls in matching yellow Easter dresses. My iPod playing “Walking on Broken Glass” by Annie Lennox. My little green mesh shorts riding a bit too high.
Every time I run I am still disappointed that it is still this hard. Breathing is hard. Being aware of my body is hard. Moving limb after limb after limb is hard. Still, I was buoyant. Not weightless, but buoyed up by the sunshine and the long walk here and the stretch of soccer field jutting out into the East River, green as Easter grass.
Today is the anniversary of Ben’s father’s death, so I wanted to get us out of the house and into the cold, bright day. After our run, we collapsed onto a bench on the promenade, trading sips from the water bottle, while I stripped a layer of clothing, feeling accomplished, feeling reverent to this long process. Feeling the pink in my cheeks. Sweaty and ugly and happy.
On the walk home we stopped at a little Italian restaurant for lunch. Inside it was cool and dark. The waitress was this wide-eyed wonder with a big thick brown braid and I fell a little bit in love with her while she listed off the specials for five minutes straight. I asked her if she was the owner because she seemed so deeply committed to the place and she said “no, I just like food!” and looked flattered.
We ordered drinks and split a pizza with prosciutto, red peppers, baked gorgonzola, and caramelized garlic. It was exceptional, even for New York. My white wine was very sweet, the way I like it.
On the walk home, I photographed brownstones and tulips and Ben and I kept throwing our arms around each other very tightly and stopping at restaurant windows to look at menus and note their names. I picked out furniture for our imaginary apartment - midcentury modern - and stopped to greet dogs on the street.
I don’t go to church anymore, but I’m not faithless. In fact, I’ve never felt so close to the meaning of Easter as I did on that long walk home. So back to life. So renewed.