Monday, October 31, 2005

Mother love

I've been in sort of a hole lately, not returning phone calls, staying home to read at night (after reading and writing all day), and some of it has to do with the, ahem, quickie engagement but mostly, it's about me. I am embarrassed to have spent so long in such a volatile relationship because it's been exhausting for my friends and family to hear about. On and off and on and off and I decided last week that I needed, more than anything, to spend some time with my family. My flight to St. Louis was scheduled to leave LaGuardia at ten in the morning and at six-fifteen, Robert showed up at the apartment. So we went for pumpkin spice coffee at Kudo Beans and he told me that he's more certain of us than ever and that he is planning to look for a place to buy in New York and then move here. I listened to him and spilled coffee down my sweater and I said, "I'm not angry at you but I'm not ready to do that with you."
He said, "I love you. I'm sure of it."
I said, "But that wasn't enough two weeks ago...why should it be enough now?"
We hailed a taxi, I went to St. Louis and spent the weekend with my family, wondering, "Who is my real family?" Is it my parents and sister, and orbital aunts and cousins and grandparents, or is it the people I choose -- my friends and my love? Which one of those sides is more constant? With which one am I more myself?

At the St. Louis airport, I got off the plane and found that I'd gotten my period. When I called Meg and asked her bring me a tampon, she said No, she didn't have time. When I asked her if we could go out for a salad, she said Couldn't I just get myself food at the airport? By the time I saw her, I had worked myself up into a storm-cloud mood, I felt so jilted, and then, I spotted her blonde hair and it just went away. We don't have anything in common anymore, other than our childhoods (which, I know, is no small thing) and our ski-jump noses, but being with her feels like talking with a fun-house mirror version of myself. So much of it is familiar that I start to make assumptions and then, as soon as I think I know her, I realize again how wrong I am.

She teaches at an elementary school called Jefferson, surrounded by government-subsidized housing, and she and the other volunteer teachers were the only white people in the building. An Italian girl told me that people are always asking if she and Meg are sisters and when I was there, little kids ran up to me and said, "You related to Miss Meg?" Imagine this Halloween party. Imagine 400 kids in a darkened haunted house/gymnasium, screaming at each other, "I'm gonna kick your ass!" And add parents to the mix, women and men in their twenties and thirties and forties, and some of them, too, screaming, "I'm gonna kick your ass!" Now turn on the radio and a lot of strobe lights.

Meg loves it. She loves what she does, loves St. Louis, loves her apartment and roommate, her church and friends. I am happy for her in that regard (what more could you want for your sister?) but also worry for her. In some ways, I love her the way I will love my own daughter and in others, I know, she is my mother. We worry for each other. I want her to have a boyfriend, to date a man who knows himself and who will care for her and protect her and tell her she is beautiful. I worry that she has never really dated. She probably worries that I have dated too much, have now become too embroiled in this relationship with Robert. It makes her uncomfortable to hear about Shannon. She is reading a book entitled Real Sex: The Truth About Chastity, and plans to remain a virgin until she is married. I have not been a virgin since I was sixteen and when I get dressed up, I love a low-cut dress and high heels. Meg prefers baggy clothes and tennis shoes. Our mother suggested this weekend, after I bought a Sponge Bath Betty nurse's costume for Halloween, that perhaps we have divided things up too well. In so many ways, I am bad and Meg is, well...Meg is very, very good.

We spent Saturday night in a hotel suite with our parents, playing "2 Truths and a Lie" and guessing which was the lie. My mother's truth: when she was a girl, she spent 6 weeks every year sharing a bed with her visiting grandmother and they read Nancy Drew books together. My father's truth: as a boy, he owned a black widow spider. Meg's truth: she fell down one step and broke her leg in two places. We drank a bottle of Shiraz and ate in the hotel room after a trip to the grocery store: smoked salmon with whole black peppercorns, black olives, fresh shrimp, steamed brocolli with parmesan cheese, Neal's Yard cheddar cheese, goat's cheese and crackers, and later, fruit salad and a Honeycrisp apple. It's strange to say but the best part of the whole weekend was waking up to hear Meg's steady breathing, still asleep three feet away from me.

I left on Sunday morning, came home and found that Robert had filled the apartment with flowers. We went for a walk and stopped at Angelica's Herbs to buy a half-pound of tea because I think I'm getting a cold. We saw the movie Shopgirl (which I loved) and ate dinner at Angelica's Kitchen, steamed vegetables and kukicha twig tea. At home, we got into bed at eight-fifteen and held onto each other for ten hours straight.

At the end of Shopgirl, Steve Martin's character says, "Funny how you can miss a woman you kept a distance the whole time you were together so that when she was gone, you would not miss her." He is, like, thirty years older than Claire Danes, and when we talked about the movie, Robert said, "It's not fair to do that to her. He's elderly and she has her whole life in front of her."

I said, "Yes, but when I think about it, it's not fair to myself to spend years in a long-distance relationship, either. We make choices that sometimes aren't ideal but...who can account for feelings? Life goes on, no matter how you choose to live it."

My mother's favorite question, about anything, is, "If you had it to do over again, would you do it differently?" -- I hate this question. I think it's impossible to answer honestly because you are always a different person than you were before you lived it. If I could go back and talk to myself two-and-a-half years ago, I'd like to think I would have gone for Robert anyway, despite everything. If I could go back and talk to myself as a little girl, with a littler sister, I'd tell myself to be less of a bully and more of a friend. "Don't bite your sister!" I'd say. "Let her play with your toys. Share your clothes and your friends and access to the treehouse."

The worst that could happen, I think, would be for your family, chosen or blood-related, to be strangers to you. Isn't it better to be riled up or put out or interrupted or crazy with mother love than to be in the company of someone who makes you feel like you're alone? That's what I'm unsure about with Robert. I love him, I love him, but sometimes I have been in his company and just felt so lonely. I don't feel that way now but how do you know it won't come back?

Friday, October 28, 2005

"You are my Fifth Avenue"

I went up to school today, for a workshop led by Mary Karr -- whose presence made me slip into a repressed Southern accent and aspire to use bad language -- and I learned some things. She said, "Voice -- a narrator's -- is made up of these: diction, syntax and tone." She said, "The whole point of memoir-writing is to reflect." She said, "Write from the beginning." She said, "I think, all the time, I am thinking about the reader. What does the reader know? What does the reader need to know?"
She said, "The part of yourself that you are most ashamed of will do whatever it can to keep you from writing the truth."

Afterwards, I checked out a book she'd mentioned called Remembering Satan, about police officers is Olympia, Washington who, after their daughters accused them, admitted to having molested them. Confessed in detail to ordeals involving disrobing and rape and accidental pregnancy and arranging abortions. But the truth is that none of it had ever happened. So, the question is, why did these men confess?

And from the library, I stepped outside into the cold and answered my vibrating phone, heard Robert's voice and all of a sudden, I wasn't okay with all this pretending-to-be-so-cool-and-compassionate anymore. I felt angry and betrayed. I felt, "How could you do this?"

Robert is on a plane now, coming to New York, and he will arrive at this apartment just as I am leaving for St. Louis to visit my sister. I'm happy I won't be here this weekend because I don't trust myself not to sleep with him, not to fall back into these happy patterns, and the truth is that I'm not ready to do that yet. I just went out with Suzie, down the block to Supper, for glasses of red wine and Postal Service and Tori Amos playing on the speakers, and I said, "In our lives, we are going to fall in love with other people."

When I think about not being with Robert, I feel something drop out from beneath my feet, I am so afraid of not loving him with everything I have. But when I think about being with him now -- when I think about putting on that sad ring -- there is a voice in my head that says, "Sarah? Sarah. You can do better than this."

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

morning glory

Last night I dreamed I was a prostitute, earning $2,000 for a full weekend. There was a party, two guys and three women other than me, and the six of us were riding on top of a hired car to a restaurant when one of the women turned to me and said, "We can't afford to pay for this car. Can you pitch in?"
I said, "No. It's not my job. You're not my friends."
Everyone ignored me through the dinner and at the end of the weekend, the guys only gave me $500.

Somehow, later in the dream, I was reunited with Robert and he asked me again to marry him. When I said yes, he suggested that we crawl up the aisle on our hands and knees "like two little babies."

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

the Ramble

Last Friday, my father and I walked from 2nd Street and Avenue A up to 106th and Broadway. I'd wanted to go the Whitney, which is one of my favorite museums because (I probably shouldn't admit this) I think it is the perfect size. We floated through the Edward Hopper room down the stairs, away from the permanent collection, to an exhibit of an artist who did earth works. Videos showed him dragging an island down the Hudson River and swirling huge tracts of snow into...swirls that look, from above, like something that is too perfect to let out of the house.

When we left, we walked across Central Park, through the Ramble, and my father talked about his involvement with Greenways and Walk-Bike Nashville and how, at one of their recent Small Group meetings on Sunday nights, the topic was sharing. The question was, "What are you doing to save the world?" And it clicked for there, on the bridge above the mossy pond in the Park -- I realized, again, that part of living is living not only in my own experience.

It is storming rain here, blowing wind so hard I hold my breath waiting for a tree to fall over. I cried when my dad left, despite the fact that there were moments when it was hard to share my space and thoughts. The best part was Saturday, another night so rainy, and we'd gone to the Greenmarket at Union Square and we cooked a feast and I lit tiny candles and we talked about books and then we talked about our family. I've decided to go to St. Louis this weekend to visit my sister for the first time -- and my parents will be there, my father is going to run in some kind of race -- and I think that part of the fallout of all this (broken) engagement drama is this: It reminds me who my family is. It reminds me not to take them for granted, these three people who really do put up with me and offer this stretchy unconditional love.

It is no small thing.

This morning, I woke up at six to proofread Shannon's poetry thesis because she is dyslexic and all of her misspellings are something that I find both incredibly endearing and also so hard not to want to fix. She wrote me an email with an attachment and it said, "That kind of bad sownding one about you? dont worry, after I rote it you got me off. rittious."
It is a poem about sex between two women who keep score. In different ways, I still do that, not in bed but with this idea I have that things should be even. Effort should always be reciprocated. I want to be less like that. I want to be the way my parents are with me, the way my sister is with everyone she meets -- I want to give my time and myself to the people I love and have faith that everything that's lost or gone unnoticed isn't for nothing.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

the bright-light side

In the past week, I have re-read Married: A Fine Predicament, by Anne Roiphe (one week ago, before I had any idea of my own leering tangle); and The Boys of My Youth, by Jo Ann Beard, and this book is the reason I ever applied to Sarah Lawrence's nonfiction program -- I spent this early morning in bed with her essay about her childhood best friend and, twenty years later, their divorces. I have read a novel called Ask Me Anything, by Francesca Delbanco (with a protagonist described in a blurb as "a cross between Holly Golightly and Elizabeth Wurzel"); I have read The Dream-Hunters of Corsica, by Dorothy Carrington, about people -- mazzeri -- who kill animals at night, in their dreams, then look into the animals' faces and recognize, in each one, the face of someone they know. That person will die within the next year. It sounds spooky and impossible to believe as real but it was actually a wonderful book to read on a long (and long-delayed and long-overdue) transatlantic flight.

Good things about going through a period of (un)romantic tumult:
1. You get to drink America's No. 1 root beer in your pajamas and read New York magazine without feeling guilty about not writing your thesis.
2. If you're hungry, you can eat Jell-O without your boyfriend making fun of you by saying, "You're not fooling me. Even I know that making Jell-O isn't the same thing as actually cooking."
3. Your attempt to give up caffeine is given a kick-start by your inability to get dressed and walk down the street. No, that's not true. I totally wouldn't mind putting on pants as long as I didn't have to take off Robert's T-shirt. Oops! Scratch that. I just spilled some raspberry Jell-O down the front.
4. Your close friends are wonderful listeners. Probably they'd get annoyed if this dragged on for too long but right now, if you need them, they are here.

Ummm, I think that's it.

After our workshop yesterday, I stood in the parking lot talking to a woman in my class named Theresa, who works as a florist. Her favorites are garden-grown roses but she told me the meanings of all kinds of flowers and colors (red is for passion, white for purity, pink for romance or chaste affection, yellow for friendship). I said, "I just read about a woman who received a huge vase of orange Gerbera daisies. Isn't that fabulous?" And Theresa said, "Erm, no, because orange doesn't mean anything. People try to make it mean something...but it doesn't. It's the same deal with purple." Then she told me about the kinds of poison that people used to send each other and that rosemary means remembrance. I told her about Robert and she said, "Oh, god. It's not my place to tell you what to do should break up with him." In my head, I said, "No, Theresa, you don't understand. Robert and I are going to get a puppy!"

Today I am meeting with my thesis advisor, going to the gym, and teaching a yoga lesson. Tomorrow my father is coming to visit for the weekend and while I woke up feeling panicked about not being able to be alone and lie prostrate, crying, on my isotonic mattress pad for forty-eight hours, I'm now really looking forward to seeing him. Every year on Valentine's Day, my father sends me tulips.

"Stop the madness"

Yesterday, not thirty seconds after I spotted Manhattan out the airplane window, my head started to pound and by the time I got home an hour later, it hurt so badly all I could do was drop my bags and take three Tylenol P.M. and go to bed. And get up ten minutes later to throw up. And then go back to bed, verrry carefully trying not to shake my head, and sleep for thirteen hours.

What I am realizing:
1. The way a person chooses to live isn't separate from who that person is. It means nothing to say that I love Robert but hate this situation because the way he treats me, the way he acts, isn't external. That's part of who he is.
2. People do what they want, consciously or subconsciously. I don't even know quite what that applies to but it seems like a big deal to me (or, at least, it did when I had a migraine). None of us are simply creatures of circumstance and fate. We do what we want.
3. Robert and I might break up. I'm saying it out loud for the first time.
4. I still love him more than anyone. I still can't imagine not living with him, not spending Christmas with him, not looking forward to hearing his voice everyday.
5. This sadness that I think we both feel isn't something that can be solved with words.

I told him today that I don't want us to talk for a few days, or see each other for awhile. I just don't have anything else to say. If he doesn't love me enough to marry me, why should I believe him when he says he's certain he wants us to spend the rest of our lives together? Why should I trust that he wouldn't wake up one day, five years from now when we have a crying baby, and say, "This doesn't feel right to me"? I have to keep reminding myself of these things because the truth is that I miss him horribly. I miss him, I love him, I'm still convinced, in so many ways, that he is perfect, that we are perfect for each other.

I just don't see how feeling so bad could possibly be good for me.

Monday, October 17, 2005

An eleven-hour engagement

It happened like this.

Robert came home from work on Friday night at eight o'clock and we went to the gym down the street. Standing next to each other on eliptical machines, I listened to my headphones and didn't speak to him and after twenty minutes, I walked across the room to stretch out on the floormats. He followed me after a little while and sat down next to me and apologized for being late, explaining that he'd had a horrible few days in the markets, losing money.
I said, "I'm not angry at you, Robert. I just don't know what I'm doing here. Maybe this is very naive of me but I believe that when you have an out-of-town guest, no matter where that person is coming from, you are obligated to make them feel welcome. I'm here for four days. We see each other one week out of every month."
He said, "I need to do better. I will."
"But you've said that before," I said. "Last Friday night, one week ago, you told me you would call at a certain time, and you didn't, and I had to call you hours later. And you apologized and told me that I deserved better. And two weeks before that, you kept me waiting on a street corner for forty minutes on Friday night. I am always waiting for you."
"Do you think that would be different if we were engaged and married?"
"Yes!" I said. "At the very least, if we were married, I hope we'd be living on the same continent and I wouldn't be visiting you and feeling like I was in a one-down position. I wouldn't have traveled across the Atlantic for the weekend and been disappointed by the fact that you had to work. Right now, our relationship is determined by how the markets are doing. And I can't even talk about this to my friends anymore. It's the same story, over and over."

We came home and showered, changed clothes, and took a taxi to Nobu, where we stood at the bar and I said, "You don't make me happy anymore. I feel that you treat me like a dog."
"No," he said. "A dog?"
"The only difference is that if I were a dog, I'd have to go to the bathroom on the floor."
Over dinner at the sushi bar, the conversation didn't improve, not in an attitudinal sense. I felt checked out, distanced from him, from this, and I realized that I'd been lying when I told him I wasn't angry. I was, at it turned out, more than a little embittered. But I didn't cry and at the time, that seemed like something to be proud of. I had grown so weary of crying over this man.

We took a bath at home and I started to cry. "I feel like a failure," I said.
"No, don't," he said. "This is not your fault."
"But I can't make you love me any more than you do," I said. "And this just isn't enough for me."
I looked at his naked body in the water. He pulled me towards him and I pressed my nose against his shoulder and smelled his skin.

In bed, I turned off the light and Robert snuggled up next to me, kissing my neck, kissing my face.
"Do you love me?" he said.
"Of course I do," I said. "You know I do."
"How much?"
"I love you more than anyone in the world," I said. "Do you love me?"
"How much?" I asked him in turn.
"This much," he said. And in the dark, he handed me a tiny box.
"Oh my god. Robert, are you serious?" I sat up and opened it to find the most perfect ring I've ever seen. I flipped on the lamp.
Robert reached out and flipped it off. He now lay motionless with his head turned away from me.
"Do you like it? Does it fit?" he asked.
"Yes, it's beautiful," I said. "Robert?"
"Will you ask me?" I said.
"Robert?" I said again.
"Will you marry me?" he said softly.
I said yes. I asked him when he had bought it and he said, weeks ago, the beginning of September. I said I was overwhelmed and surprised and suddenly full of hope. He kissed my mouth then and we made love and I hugged him to me, on top of me, and looked at my ring in the dark, disbelieving, and told myself that everything was going to be fine now.
Afterwards, I said I wanted to call my parents. "No," he said. "Why don't we wait until the morning?"
"Are you happy?" I asked. "How do you feel?"
"I'm shocked," he said. "I'm paralyzed and terrified."
And we went to sleep.

In the morning, we made love again but there was the same disconnected feeling. I knew that he wasn't happy, not in the way that I was, and his lack of joy weighed on me. I felt that if he wasn't happy, there was nothing to celebrate -- but I kept trying to put on a good face. "I'm so honored," I said. He looked, in the moment, like he would rather be anywhere else in the world. "What made you do this?" I asked.
"I knew it was important to you," he said. "It was time."
"Do you feel ready?"
He shook his head. "I don't know if I'll ever feel ready."
We went for a walk in Regent's Park, sitting on a bench with his arm around my shoulders and my hand on his leg, both of us looking at this new ring on my finger.
"Do you want to call your sister and Simon?" I asked.
"Not yet," he said. "Let's just keep it between us for awhile."
"It doesn't seem real, does it?"
"No," he said. "I can't believe I did it. It hasn't really hit me."

We walked to the cheese store and bought some goat's cheese and some brebis, like the sheep's cheese we ate on Corsica last summer. The total came to just over nine pounds and, outside, Robert said, "It's not cheap, is it?"

We went to the grocery store and bought eggs and hummus, a jar of olives, a green pepper, one liter of semi-skimmed milk, fresh coriander, spinach, cherry tomatoes, thin-sliced ham, smoked Alaskan salmon, raspberries, apricot yogurt, and a copy of the weekend Financial Times. At home in the kitchen, Robert cooked scrambled eggs and I set the table.
"Do you want to celebrate?" I said. "I want to tell everyone. I want to drink champagne and make toasts and celebrate."
He took a bottle of sparkling wine from the refrigerator and opened it, poured two glasses. He looked horribly upset.
"This ring," I said, "means that at some point in the recent weeks, you were sure about wanting to marry me."
Before we sat down, I made the toast. "I know you are afraid," I said. "But I love you. I love you so much and I know that we are going to have a wonderful life together."
Halfway finished eating our eggs, we put down our forks and looked at each other.
He said, "This doesn't feel right to me. It's not you but I haven't done this for the right reasons. I don't want to do this."
I went to the bedroom and wept with my face in my hands and then splashed water on my face. I slipped the ring off and put it back in its box, came back to the table and set it down before him.
"Getting engaged," I said, "should make you feel elated. It should -- and one day it will -- make you feel like the luckiest man in the world. It wasn't designed to induce paralytic terror."
"I know," he said. "I'm so sorry."

It was such a funny thing, you know, because I had wanted it so badly for so long. And then when I got it, the ring felt like a very empty gesture and I didn't want it anymore. Like a shiny piece of fruit that turns out to be rotten.

And Robert makes the best scrambled eggs in the world. I remembered how he'd come to Tennessee in March, to meet my parents, and we had cooked breakfast on Sunday. He'd made these eggs and it is such a small thing but I felt so proud of him that weekend, I remember feeling blessed by his humor, his stories, his deep affection and love. The thought of eating his eggs now, eating anything, made me feel sick.

I asked him to change my plane ticket. I said I wanted to go back to New York. I went into the next room and started packing. He stood there in the doorway, unmoving, and then came to where I stood and said, "I can't do this. I don't want you to leave. I can't lose you."
We went outside for a walk, strolled through the Egyptian wing of the British Museum, and then turned back towards home.
"You know," he said, "I feel so relieved. I felt like I was acting out of a tremendous feeling of pressure and that just felt wrong. But the only thing I'm sure of is that I want us to spend the rest of our lives together."
I started to cry again. I wiped my nose on a torn-up piece of toilet paper in my pocket.
I said, "You don't know what you want."

At home, I went into the bedroom with the phone and called a friend in New York, who didn't answer. I could not imagine telling my parents. I felt exhausted. I wanted to leave. I couldn't think of when I had last had a sip of water.
Robert came into the bedroom. "I'm ready now," he said. "Let's go get the ring sized to fit you. I want you to be my wife."
"Please," I said, "please don't say that right now. I don't want to talk about it anymore."

I asked him again to call British Airways and he did so this time and then told me that we would have to buy a new ticket, the old one could not be changed.
"Don't worry," I said. "I'll stay until Tuesday."
In that moment, I chose not to cause inconvenience. I wanted to stop this drama and this pain but I felt relieved not to be leaving him. I still loved him. I still do.

We spent the rest of the weekend talking, mostly about this. We went to the park again, we met his sister and her small children at a playground and talked about Marcos' eardrum. We ate lamb sandwiches at the farmer's market. We read aloud to each other, we watched The Graduate and The Motorcycle Diaries, and last night we ate fresh lobster and stopped, on the way home from the gym, to sit outside and have a glass of red wine. We have shared a bowl of edamame and gone to Starbucks, twice, to sit across from each other and read the newspaper while I have a tall Kenya coffee and he has hot chocolate with no whip. I have felt particularly tired for two days, as if, at any given moment, I might just lie down on the floor. This morning, I got out of bed at eight forty-five and at ten, we cooked eggs. I set the table again, I cut slices of lemon for our water.

Everything has changed, in a way, but everything else is very much the same. I don't know at all what I want anymore.

Saturday, October 15, 2005

What do you call this feeling?

Robert proposed last night. I said yes, fell asleep wearing a beautiful ring, and woke up feeling elated. And then, at breakfast, he told me that he can't do it. It didn't feel right.

I am profoundly sad.

Friday, October 14, 2005


It's been dark for more than an hour. I got a lot of reading and writing done today and I was out, walking around in Westminster and to Regent's Park, which I love, although it's (surprise!) very gloomy outside. I'm still alone. Robert's been at work since this morning and I could steal a pair of his socks and walk to the gym but I want to wait for him and then go together. Last night, he came home and I said I wanted to go out and have a glass of wine and some cheese, which is not what he would have chosen to do -- he's very into "dining" and dinners with courses. We ended up at a little Italian place called Caffe Caldesi, eating cheese and meat and sharing seared tuna and vegetables, drinking Chianti and talking about his work and my writing and his phone rang a few times and he took the calls, stepped outside. He's having a hard week. I sat there by myself for twenty minutes at one point, pretending to read a pamphlet on cooking classes, thinking that I should have brought a book. When three French men at a nearby table started talking to me and invited me to join them, Robert looked inside and saw and then came back.
We went home and got into bed and while we were making love for the second time in as many hours, he said, "I think we could really work."
"Don't we already?" I said.
"No," he said, "I mean together, sharing a life -- a dog, a home, children."
It was weird, I thought, his timing, considering that we've been together for two-and-a-half years and he said it as if it had just occurred to him for the first time.

Later, I was telling him about the John Galliano show in Paris this week, how he hadn't used only supermodels but a whole array of people, including elderly red-headed identical twins. In her review of it in the Times, Cathy Horyn wrote that a man next to her had asked afterwards what she thought of the "monsters" and that she thought nothing ill of it. What she did see as unforgivable, however, was the fact that in all of the Milan shows, she barely saw a single Asian or black model on the runways.
Robert said, "We're so white, we should go to Milan and be models."
"What?" I said and motioned around his partially furnished apartment. "And give up all this?"

I can't understand working eighty hours a week and not feeling like you have a home. I can't understand his not being sure about wanting us to live together and create one. If he's unsure, I think, then what am I doing here? What, exactly, am I waiting for?

connecting the dots

I take back what I said about Nabokov, about having felt that Liz Phair's lyrics -- and even, at one point, a bumper sticker I saw that read What If The Hokey-Pokey Really Is What It's All About? -- have more resonance and relevance than his writing. This week I had a revelation about my writing, all writing, while I was sitting in my literature class discussing his memoir, Speak, Memory. In it, I think, he tells us that the way in which we examine a novel, looking for themes and metaphors, is also the way in which we should examine our lives. A life does not just happen haphazardly; you must look at it in order for themes and patterns to emerge, and for it to be rich and wonderful. That we cannot just live it but must also remember it and that one of the methods of redeeming our short lives is by making art. ART. (I capitalize the word to further differentiate its meaning from that of most entertainment, like, say, reality television and all the glossy voyeuristic magazines that I love.)
"I witness with pleasure the supreme achievement of memory, which is the masterly use it makes of innate harmonies when gathering to its fold the suspended and wandering tonalities of the past."

In writing my thesis, I have been working on a collection of essays based upon events of my life between the ages of 16 and 24, more or less what I refer to as "lost years". They include accounts of having worked as a grocery store sacker when I was in high school, being on the beach in Thailand during last year's tsunami, an affair I had with my employer in Costa Rica, and a could-have-turned-into-something-so-much-more-horrible flirtation over a four-year period with the father of my best childhood friend. The writing, throughout much of it, is funny and sad and sharp, all the things, I'd like to think, that draw me to books in the Oxfam used bookstore downstairs. When people ask me what I write, I tell them that I want to write the sort of thing that hold people's attention on a crowded bus. I had a teacher last year tell me that in my writing, I am a ditzier Carole Lombard, I am all foot-in-mouth clumsy elbows and embarrassing disasters. As recently as two days ago, I told my current workshop teacher that these are all stories about the repercussions of not having any real direction.

"That's not enough," she said. "You need to look for over-arching themes and ask yourself about how these stories, if these stories, are really part of one larger collection."

One thing that Nabokov accomplishes repeatedly is taking two things that would appear to have nothing in common and connecting them. Towards the beginning of Speak, Memory, he recounts an event from his childhood in which a friend of his father's laid out matches in a straight line, end to end, and said, "This is like the sea in calm weather." Then the man rearranged them so that they formed zig-zag shapes and said, "This is a stormy sea." And then the two of them were interrupted by someone who, Nabokov later discovered, informed the man, the Supreme Commander of the Russian Army, that his presence was needed elsewhere. Years later, Nabokov's father was approached while crossing a bridge in St. Petersburg by a bearded man in tattered clothing who requested a match for his cigarette. His father recognized the fallen general.
I summarize this passage because it captures so profoundly the purpose of following themes instead of mere chronology. The brilliance of this writing is not the events themselves but his focusing on the matches. At the end of this long paragraph, Nabokov writes, "The following of thematic designs should be...the true purpose of autobiography."

I love blogs for the opposite reason, the same reason that people are transfixed by The Real World and soap operas, and I buy Hello! magazine -- there is no prospection or much retrospection (excepting sidebars about the women Tom Cruise was formerly married to). They capture life unfolding in the present and, as such, they don't require much more than a finger to flip the pages or press buttons on the remote control.

Sometimes, when we don't have the attention span or energy to really focus, fluff feels like enough. But, here is my revelation -- there's a reason people don't usually eat ice cream for dinner. It fills you up, yes, and (especially carrot cake flavor) is delicious, but afterwards, it doesn't feel as good as a real dinner. Too much chick lit makes you sick.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Did I really say coffee is a...miracle?

I'm in London, sitting four floors up from Marylebone High Street, realizing that this is the first day in more than two months in which I haven't had a single cup of coffee. What I wrote yesterday -- about coffee being a liquid miracle -- those are the words of an addict. It's not cute anymore, the way I wake up and think about coffee, the way I get a headache in the afternoon if I've skipped it in the morning. I'm staging an intervention for myself, right here, and I might as well try to kick the every day habit while I'm away from New York, where Kudo Beans' Pumpkin Spice blend isn't calling my name when I walk down First Avenue.

Nineteen days ago, I gave up sugar, wheat, fruit, juice, and more than three glasses of wine a week. It started as a two-week test but I'm still doing it and I don't have any cravings anymore (I don't think I have as much energy either but I'm writing that off as due to my now skyrocketing cholesterol. Yea, eggs!) and I figure if I could get over the sugar hump (which, for me, hit every 24 hours at about 4 in the afternoon) then I can get through the no-coffee headaches.

Plus, I'm alone here, which I hadn't mentioned because I don't know how I feel about it. I got to Robert's apartment from Heathrow at eleven o'clock this morning and he was gone. I found a note from him and when I called, he admitted that he'd just gotten to the office and would be there until six-thirty or seven. I want to be the understanding partner who remembers what it's like to have real professional obligations but I'd be lying if I said I'm not the tiniest bit blue not to have found him here this morning, waiting to say hello, thanks for coming to England to see me. Is that awfully selfish?

I mention the food thing because normally, napped, showered, dressed, made-up, and waiting for Robert, I would be either eating chocolate or drinking fresh orange juice and Campari or spooning rhubarb yogurt out of, ahem, two or three containers. None of those things ever feels good because they've nothing to do with hunger or thirst. I talk more than I wish I did about how tired I am of waiting for him to change.

Listen, Sarah: any change that happens is going to be your doing. By comparison, coffee seems like the easiest thing in the world to give up.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

wet dog damn day

It hasn't stopped raining since I got my car washed. This morning, driving to Westchester, my windshield wipers were flipping on high speed and I still couldn't see anything because it was pouring so hard and it was foggy and half the cars on the road didn't have their headlights on. There were several looong bottlenecks in which cars had to go single-file through water that was three feet deep. Which meant that lots of cars couldn't even move because they would have been sunk, so they pulled off to the nonexistent side of the BQE. When it should have been my turn to drive through, this huge NY State CORRECTIONAL FACILITY bus came up behind me and pushed me into the deepest part of the water and my heart started pounding. The radio was still on, Z100 and the early morning deejays were talking about whether or not redheads are smarter or stupider than blondes, and I wanted to call someone to talk me through this.
I thought, "I cannot call my parents because I don't want them to worry. I cannot call Suzie because she's in an interview; Phoebe might still be sleeping; my sister is already at work. I cannot call Robert because I don't want to hear him tell me that it's a bad time for him."
And then I thought, "I cannot call anyone because I cannot look away from the road."
And then the car in front of me hydro-planed and spun around and hit the truck in front of it.

An hour and a half later, my coffee tasted like a miracle in a paper cup.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

I'm in love with Alphabet City

Dios mio. I am sorry to report that the wall on 2nd Street and Avenue A that had been covered with the words You've been Shampoozled has been painted over. I'd gotten attached to that sign; I felt that it really spoke to me. In a way, somehow, that Nabokov, bless his heart, just never quite will. Now, the wall is solid white except for black spray-painted words that read Reserved TatS CRU.

I stood on the sidewalk, my arms full of laundry and dry-cleaning that had been dropped off weeks and weeks ago, and stared up at the wall, disbelieving. A man with a spotted dog on a leash walked by and I said, "It's gone. The sign is gone." Both he and his dog looked at me to see if I was serious and then the man said, "It's alright, baby. Go for a hike and by the time you get back, I'll be ready."

Someone remind me, please, when I'm fifty and I have a whole house and garden and goat and acres of green, how it's possible for strangers to bring each other joy in crowded places.

straight girl soaps up

"And I asked Henry, my bartender friend
if I should bother dating unfamous men
And Henry said, 'You're lucky to even know me.
You're lucky to be alive.'"

Isn't that brilliant? In the middle of a carwash, flipping through my tired books of CDs, I rediscovered Liz Phair and fell in love again. Of course, it started to rain ten minutes after I drove out of the lot -- and not sprinkle, mind you, but real "the Rapture is coming" buckets -- and normally I would have felt oddly discouraged about having driven to Brooklyn and paid for my car to be covered in water beforehand but I totally didn't mind. I felt, in fact, like I was on a date with an old girlfriend. Oh, Liz!

Speaking of old girlfriends, I have done something very, very, very bad and I don't know how to un-do it. (Which is such a lie, by the way, because I know exactly what I need to do and am just going to pretend that I need advice because I'm embarrassed and don't want to own up to it.)

My ex-girlfriend, Shannon, used to introduce me as "Straight Girl" and her best friend, Ursula, always had this small fake smile on her face when she saw me and once I even overheard her saying to Shannon, "I've just never seen you with a woman who acts so straight." The truth is that I was head over heels in love with Shannon and had been since we met in 1999 (I'll save you from the poetry I wrote); the truth is also that I'd only ever been with guys before Shannon (except for my high school girlfriend, Sarah, who doesn't count, I think, because we met at an all-girls high school and the choice for object of my affection was between a Coach Springer and Sarah. Coach Springer eliminated himself by saying things to me like, "I can tell that the wheels in your head spin around a lot" and generally doing gross things like encouraging his volleyball team to practice is binkini bottoms. By comparison, Sarah looked like an Adonis, one who just happened to be wearing a kilt and penny loafers.) Outside of the relationship that Shannon and I had when we were alone, I felt overwhelmed by insecurities about not being "gay enough" and wanting to prove it.

Shannon and I dated on and off for more than a year and towards the end of that year, I met Robert, who, at the time, seemed like a nice guy who was irrlevent because he lived on a different continent. So, when I assumed that nothing would come of spending time with him, I described him to Shannon as, um, a woman. Named Ro. And I thought, "Maybe if she and her friends know that I date other women, they'll start introducing me by my real name."

Fast-forward two-and-a-half years. Shannon and I are still good friends, although she's moved to Connecticut and we see each once every few months, at best. I am still with Robert and have told Shannon that I have a boyfriend but I've never mentioned his name.

Shannon: So, how's...your boyfriend?
Sarah: Oh, great. He is doing really well, we're happy, I'm going to visit him next week in the city where he lives.

I should come clean with her.

Saturday, October 08, 2005

"funny but alarming"

I just finished reading the book Pledged: The Secret Life of Sororities, by Alexandra Robbins, described by The New Republic as "fascinating and eye-opening; it's a car crash you can't take your eyes off of..." Basically, blessed with the ability to pass for a nineteen-year-old, the author went undercover for a school year at an unnamed university and followed four sophomores around while they all got wasted (pre-gaming with thermoses of Absolut and Sprite), two of them got raped, one of them had an affair with Professor Stone, and various others did things like have sex on the lawn/floor of a bar/in the backseat and steal other girls' sundresses and thongs.

It reminded me of high school. Not the sex on the lawn but the cattiness that ensues when lots of girls (women? definitely not the group who call themselves womyn) form bonds and a social life that actually has less to do with each other than it does with a preoccupation to get a boyfriend. And a husband.

I spent three years in Nashville at an all-girls school (8th to 10th grade) and the weirdest phenomenon I observed was how easily girls would sell out their alleged friends by saying horrible things about them as soon as they'd left a room. At the time, it was so much more appealing for me to do "bad" and "rebellious" things like run around with my uniform shirt untucked and have Bronco squats (smoking cigarettes in the student parking lot between the SUVs) and crack coconuts on the sidewalk in front of the library with Kristina during lunch. Because I was funny, because I was the actress, because teachers liked my poetry and I did well enough on tests to make the Honor Roll, I had lots of friends and was pretty disengaged from all the social bullshit. But if I hadn't had any confidence to do my own thing, if I had actually wanted to fit in with these girls (imagine hundreds of Reese Witherspoons, who did go there, three years older than I), I think I would have been pretty...miserable. The most popular girls from my class ended up getting M.R.S. degrees at the University of Georgia/Bama/Tennessee/Missississippi and are now married, living in Nashville again. If they're working at all, it's for their fathers' real esate office/law firm and, across the board, they have their own memberships to the Belle Meade Country Club and will, inevitably, send their children to the same schools they attended.

Last night, Robert and I had another fight (about the fact that he had said he would call at a certain time and then never did...and I accused him of treating me "carelessly" and he said that the real problem is that everything is going to be pressurized between us until I have a ring on my finger. But no, I said, not everything is a marriage referendum; this really is just about doing what you said you were going to do) and while we were talking, I was writing baby names on scrap paper:
Ava Julianne Elizabeth
Ava Elizabeth Julianne
Ava Julianne
Noa Isabelle
bulldog named Norris

And finally I said, "I want to be free to see other people. I'm tired of waiting for you. I don't think it should be this hard."
I was thinking about Alpha Sigma Alphas on Spring Break in Negril, Jamaica, drinking from "ten to ten." Did they mean starting at ten o'clock at night or in the morning?
Robert said, "I don't think dumping me is going to solve anything."
I thought, Probably starting in the morning. No self-respecting sorority girl would sleep off a hangover in bed during prime tanning hours.
I said, "Robert, there's nothing else I can do. No one said anything about breaking up; what I'm saying is that I don't feel like I can count on you to do small things."
He was quiet.
"Rob?" I said.
"I'm here," he answered. "And I always get the big things right."
I played three games of tic-tac-toe by myself and I won two of them. The last one was a tie.
"I love you," he said.
"I love you, too," I said.
"I know you do. I know you love me."

Friday, October 07, 2005

I'm dropping the acid

My favorite part of the Times' Book Review section on Sunday was written in response to a blog-turned-book, Julie and Julia, by Julie Powell, who spent a year cooking Ms. Child's French recipes in her cramped New York kitchen. David Kamp's review veered into a tangent that made me laugh outloud, in touching upon the "troublesome trend among young memoirists, who seem to think that repeated references to their poor hygiene and the squalidness of their surroundings give texture and depth to their work. No, no, no! Being subjected over and over again to images of your piled-up dirty dishes and backed-up plumbing (bodily and otherwise) only makes me want to put down your book. Stop it!"

Having now admitted that fulltime writers describing their dirty habitats is overdone and in general just a very icky thing to read about, I have to confess that I'm sitting at my kitchen table waiting for my neighbor to arrive with "the big guns." Fingers crossed that those guns include boric acid because the battle we're up against is bugs and I don't know what else to do about them. There's not an army of them, and they aren't even roaches, but everyday I see three or four of them -- I flip on the lights in the kitchen and I see a few tiny bugs (somewhere between the size of No. 2 pencil erasers and my pinky nail) scurry around. They have a special penchant for hanging out in the silverware drawer and frankly, I'm getting weary of rewashing my silver spoons and soup ladle.

My next-door neighbor, Mike, a guy whose appearance is screaming to be caught on film and titled "This is the East Village", usually keeps to himself, strumming his electric guitar behind closed doors or running down the stairs in Converse sneakers and a rumpled tie with a messenger bag slung over his shoulder on his way to work at an "indie magazine." Yesterday morning, we walked outside together and I asked him if he ever sees any bugs in his apartment...? And he looked at me over the rims of his plastic black sunglasses and said, "No one told you?"

"Told me what?" I said. He shook his head. "It's the guy below us. He's lived here forever and he's stuck in his ways and one of those ways...involves carrying things in off the street all the time."

"What kind of things?" I asked.

"Oh," Mike said, "you know, I saw him hauling a wooden rocking horse upstairs last week. Sometimes it's just wet cardboard boxes and stuff like flat tires."

Flat tires? What would someone do with a flat tire in his apartment? I guess you could sit on one side of your living room and roll it back and forth with someone. But if it's flat, how would it roll? Unless you patched the hole and inflated it. Or you could put a piece of wood on top and use it exceedingly low table. But does this man sound like the type to have fondue parties on the floor? Does he sit on the rocking horse and...rock?

I'm sorry, especially so soon, to be one of those people describing her "squalidness" but I'm holding out hope for the boric acid. And then we'll never mention this again.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

top searches on

Looking forward to naif alcoholism

Last night I dreamed that Robert and I were at a party and I was talking to his friend Kasper's girlfriend of six months, Sharine, when I noticed that she was wearing an engagement ring. She saw me looking at it and blushed, then took it off and hid it in her napkin. "Are you and Kasper engaged?" I asked but she didn't answer. So I walked across the room to where Kasper and Robert stood and I asked Kasper the same question. His whole face lit up in a huge grin and he started laughing. "Yes," he said. He called Sharine over and she slipped the ring back on her finger and we all stood there, smiling at one another, until I pulled Robert off to the side and he said, "Sarah, I know you're upset about this. And listen, to make it up to you, from now on I'm going to pay for your dry-cleaning."

But before anyone tells me what an insultingly obvious dream that was, let me tell you that, at my friend Suzie's suggestion, I did the astrological chart for our relationship at, a totally free endeavor that resulted in "the stars" reporting that one of us is mentally ill. I don't even have to ruminate too much before taking a stab as to which one is more likely to fall into that category. What I would be far more interested in learning is the answer to this question: When did horoscopes stop using words like "perfect," "sparkling," and "joyful" and start predicting "sexual power struggles" and "naif alcoholism"? Breaking up with someone because you've received bad news from a psychic computer program...that actually does sound insane...but now that we've been diagnosed as "doomed," maybe it calls for a wine-soaked tug-of-sheets during which we bark and throw tarot cards at each other.

On a positive note, that dream does remind me to pick up my dry-cleaning.

Yesterday's workshop included an essay by a first-year student, a girl I will heretofore refer to as PH, short for her self-proclaimed description, as in, "I am a total pothead, man" and "I had a high-assed head." Her essay was centered around marts, like 7-11, and she covered everything, from what they sell to who works at them to her encounters with the people behind the counter. The writing was sharp and funny enough to qualify as addictive, which is why, in class, I didn't quite know how to articulate my point.

In addition to offering praise for all the things that worked so well, I thought it would be worth mentioning that some of her piece -- details about shoplifting, living with a coke dealer, waking up in the afternoon and going straight back to bed to get high -- made me uncomfortable. Yes, yes, I realize maybe they're supposed to, maybe we should all congratulate her for such "disarming honesty" -- but my reaction was underscored by the fact that her story was not really about the past; mostly, it was about her life now. And (this really is the mother in me) it made me feel sorry for her.

I didn't say all of that -- just left it at the discomfort -- and PH rolled her eyes and said, "Yeah, um, that's, like, whatever. The whole story?"

Ruth, a woman in her seventies, chimed in with me and said, "When I got to the pot, I thought, 'This is porn! I don't want this in my house. But I kept reading...and the writing is very good.'"

After class, Sara came up to me outside and said, "You were right to point that out because I think several of us felt it. But, also, you're not her ideal reader."

And I know that she is right. The truth is that I would fit in better at meetings of Oprah's Book Club than I do in workshops of confessional pieces about self-destruction. Does that make me mature or, more likely, just not cool enough for my school? Shall we drink to that?

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

sad things and a boy

Sad things:
1. Britney Spears is auctioning off an old "white stone bra" to raise money for the Mississippi Hurricane Recovery Fund.
2. The middle fingernail on my left hand is falling off (after being crushed in a metal door last June although that's not the sad part. The sad part is not having a nail.)
3. I am still writing my Proust paper, like squeezing blood from a rock. At this rate, I should just call it that -- Still Write with Proust.
4. My friend Eric is moving to Thailand in a few weeks, for an indefinite period of time, both to help build wooden fishing boats and to drift around Asia and "meet a lot of people who also don't know what they're doing with their lives." I'm happy that he is going to have an adventure; what disturbs me is that last week, when he told me he was leaving, I started to cry. I don't know why.
Eric and I were the friends who became more than friends but never really talked about it. Three and a half years ago, we were emailing each other from our respective offices at least a dozen times a day, talking on the phone all the time, eating dinner together two or three times a week, and, eventually, sleeping in each other's beds.

I don't even need to tell this part of the story because don't you know it already? These things always feel like they're precariously balanced between "best friendship/real love" and "oh my god, this is NOT going to end well."

And, it didn't end well. One night, after drinking three lychee martinis and taking a taxi to Eric's apartment, I said, "If you don't want me to fall in love with you, you need to tell me." He didn't say anything, just stood up and put on his blue jeans and asked me to leave, and when I refused, he slept on top of the covers with his back to me while I looked up at the ceiling, wanting to talk to Eric-my-best-friend about Eric-the-asshole.
I left the next morning, back to work in the same clothes I'd worn the day before, and a month later, I met Robert. (In between, I met Matthew at the Community Bookstore in Park Slope, and thought it was fate -- fate! -- that we were both writers who happened to take the same -- the same! -- anti-depressant. But that's another story.) As far as Eric went, we didn't talk for a few months and then, we started emailing again and seeing each other occasionally but nothing more. No more "magical" nights on the roof, no more hand-holding, no more kisses or "I need to see you" messages or signed-with-love letters.

But Eric told me he is leaving New York and I started to cry and he said, "Are you crying?" What he meant was, "Are you crying about me? Awesome." Like my sadness was an ego stroke and he wanted to revel in it. He asked me to dinner.

I went to Brooklyn on Sunday night and met him outside. First we walked to the water and there was a huge fireworks display for no reason ("Third quarter profit earnings for Goldman Sachs?" he said and I said, "Maybe it's for Rosh Hashanah, two days early?" Eric shook his head. "No, no," he said, "I'm Jewish and I know. We don't celebrate with fireworks. We celebrate with food. Do you know what kugel is?")

Back at his apartment, on the roof, he tried to kiss me.
What I should have said is, "No, you know I have a boyfriend."
What I actually said was, "No, I can't. I'm sad that you're leaving."

Why did I do that? Why am I still trying to make him feel good instead of just saying the truth? The truth: Eric, I have always known we will never be together in a real way. I never want to kiss you again. Go wherever you want. Enjoy your life.

Sunday, October 02, 2005

white rabbit

At some point in the last decade, I was told that, for the sake of good luck, on the first day of every new month, the first thing I should say is "white rabbit." Where did I get this idea? I have no idea. It sounds so ridiculous that this is the first time I can even remember admitting it to someone. The real ridiculous part of it, of course, is that I actually do it. Yesterday morning found me in the kitchen wiping sleep out of my eyes and, before answering the phone to say hello, muttering, "White rabbit, white rabbit."

More than that, it seems like the first day of every month was basically designed to remind you of how little your life has changed since the last one. So much has happened, but nothing has changed. At least, for me, in this ostensibly "romantic" relationship with Robert, the first of a new month offers a reason for me to reflect upon the fact that another 30 days have passed and we still live in different countries with no plans to change that. In short, it provides the perfect occasion for me to beat the romance out of said relationship.
Conversation (always) unfolds like this:
Sarah: I can't even conceive of how I've spent two and a half years like this.
Robert: I know. You are desperate to get engaged.
Sarah: No, no, it's not even that. It's just this feeling of waiting, endlessly. Endlessly! Where is the end?
Robert: I wish I were there this weekend.
Sarah: Why aren't you?
Robert: I'm going to (choose a country on the other side of the Atlantic) tomorrow.
Sarah: Do you want us to be together? What is the plan?
Robert: (silence)

Oh god, it's horrible, isn't it? These go-nowhere throw-downs, I don't know why I bother, we've had the same conversation so many times. I feel like a crazy puppet, playing a role that I'm no longer in control of. I'm spending the day writing a paper on Proust and Paul De Man and the role of reading in Swann's Way. "In truth, each reader is, when he reads, the actual reader of himself."