Take Me Back

Photo by Gregoire Alessandrini, 1994

I just finished reading a real jewel of a novel called Going Down by Jennifer Belle. It was published in 1996 and well received at the time. In it, a young woman named Bennington Bloom is studying acting at NYU when she decides she wants to make a break from her unreliable parents and support herself, so she takes a job as a call girl. She’s my favorite kind of narrator—observant, no-bullshit, and very funny. When she describes sex with her clients you feel her innocence and her jadedness; it all comes through at once, which seems so real. She’s good company in bad times.

It just so happens that this week I was sorting though a box of letters and keepsakes in my office closet when I came across the NYU i.d. that was issued to me in 1997, the summer I spent living in the dorms with my best friend from high school and two of her friends. My friend was studying filmmaking and the other two were acting students at Tisch, just like Bennington. Same time, same place. In the i.d. picture, my jawline is smooth and my skin looks plump and perfect.

The New York references in Belle’s novel have been bringing up memories that are so old and dusty, I didn’t even know they were still in there. The ten million Ray’s pizza places (Ray’s Famous, Ray’s Original, Famous Original Ray’s…), the skaters almost bowling me over in Washington Square Park, drinking coffee at the Angelika. Drinking coffee at the movies instead of a soda made me feel so grown up. It still does.

In the book, Bennington’s friend says something about Lucille Ball, and I can see myself in the bathroom of our dorm room while my roommate who was a model tweezes my eyebrows and advises me never to tweeze them all the way down or shave them off, or else I’d look like an alien, like Lucille Ball did when she got older. When she finished my eyebrows and turned me around to the mirror so I could see them I started to cry because I’d thought she could make me look as beautiful as she was, but I still looked like me. I told her this and somehow it hurt her feelings.

Before I moved up to New York for the summer, I got a job at a magazine that was supposedly my whole reason for being there. But I quit it after a just few weeks, from a pay phone, because the woman I reported to was so rude and snotty. I went back home and told my roommates—I’d been on my way to the subway that morning when I realized I just couldn’t stand it anymore—and one of them told me to fax my resume to her mother at her advertising firm. Her mother was terrifying and impressive, a force of nature—it really was her firm, as in she owned the business and had an office in midtown Manhattan with 50 people working for her—and she liked my resume, and consequently me. Everyone at that job was so nice to me. I made friends with another girl there and we spent most of our time using stupid voices on the phone and making instant hot chocolate by adding only the tiniest bit of water, then eating the crunchy chocolate stew by the spoonful.

That summer was emotionally stressful and annoying in the way that living with friends in college more or less always was, but it was also magical in the way that New York pretty much always is. Our dorm building was on Union Square, right next to a beloved breakfast spot that was confusingly named The Coffee Shop Restaurant. One morning there was a grease fire in their kitchen and we were all awakened at about 6:30 by the alarms. The smoke filled our rooms. Before we ran out the door I pulled on a pair of soft purple jeans that I wore all the time back then, even in the summer, but my friends kept their pajamas and robes on. (“You’re not afraid to be private in public,” Bennington’s acting teacher says to her, approvingly.) It was only the second week of my new job, the advertising one, and I hated to be late but I had no choice since we were stuck outside for a long while waiting for the firemen to say it was safe to go back in.

The following morning I got to work on time and walked into the little kitchenette for some coffee. A few of my coworkers were standing around looking at the New York Post and smiling.

“She’s arrived!” one of them said fondly when she saw me. She showed me the paper, which had a half-page picture of me and my friends standing on the sidewalk with a big headline about the fire the morning before. There I was, in those jeans I thought were so cool, smoking a cigarette at seven in the morning, next to my best friend who was wearing her old man pajamas—button-down top and matching pants—that once were seen only in privacy of our dorm room. I remember feeling so relieved that I had proof about the fire and wasn’t just lying because I was running late. My coworker gave me her copy of the paper and I kept the clipping for years, but I don’t seem to have it anymore.

All my life I have experienced feelings of nostalgia blossoming inside my body several times a day. The feeling can be triggered by the smallest things—the smell of laundry detergent coming from someone’s house, the way the light hits my living room floor. Sometimes, often, it’s not even nostalgia for anything I can remember, but a deep pang of longing for something that’s just out of my reach—some time or place that I could get to, or way that I could feel, if only I could figure out what it was. Other languages have better words for this feeling: saudade in Portuguese, kaiho in Finnish, hireath in Welsh. It seems to be a common experience all over the world to feel a formless sort of loss over something you can only half remember.

I’ve been getting this feeling even more than usual lately. I think it has to do with the pandemic and the quarantine, the chaos surrounding it all, and people’s drastically different responses to the situation—the way these things have made me feel trapped at times, and wishing things could be different. When I feel like this, I’m sometimes guilty of wanting to climb back into the simpler times of my past, until I remember that life was never simple, never easy. It only ever seems that way because looking back, I know I survived it.

Bennington Bloom is a born-and-bred New Yorker, the real deal. Her stories of the city sparkle with the same kind of magic I found there: the small-world coincidences; the impossibly wonderful places that are only possible in New York, like the Russian Tea Room; that sort of stuff. And like every New Yorker I’ve ever met, Bennington knows who she is. She’s resilient and strong, even though her messed-up parents are a constant source of heartache and she makes mistakes and embarrasses herself left and right. Who doesn’t?

When it comes down to it, the spirit of that character might be the most nostalgic thing about the book for me. She brought back memories of a former self, the girl in the i.d. picture with an even stare and good bones, the person who quit crummy jobs and took no guff. I’m so grateful to be reminded that her spirit is alive in me, even though it’s taken a kicking over the years. That resilience is serving me well now, and it will serve me in whatever future I—we—end up being faced with.

Quarantine musings

My writing practice has always been there for me, whether I’ve needed to sort something out for myself, or tell the world something that needed telling, or just to keep myself company. It’s always been a place I could go. But in the terrifying early days of the pandemic I couldn’t write. Didn’t even know what I’d write about, since the things I’d been working on before seemed irrelevant and the thing that had made them irrelevant felt too big to look at.

I did, however, receive invitations to contribute to other people’s projects, and this was a kind of rope to hold onto as I pulled myself back up the mountain. One of those calls for submissions came in the form of a questionnaire called Quarantine Musings from some lovely people I briefly a few years ago at a small zine fest in Newark, Delaware. They do a zine called Red Tent, a collection of visual art and writing that the creators make during the time they’re menstruating, the idea being that this can be a time of increased, or maybe temporarily altered, creativity. When they described the zine to me I had a strong emotional response to the idea, so I created a visual poem about menopause looming on the horizon and submitted it to an issue that came out in 2019. This time around, I contributed answers to questions the zine’s editors posed about the pandemic. Anyone could respond to the questionnaire, not just people who menstruate.

The issue came out a few days ago and I thought I’d share it with you since it’s free to read and really beautiful looking. It’s called “Escape From Middle School Bedroom.” The editors have packed a lot into these 76 pages, and you can feel the love and care they put into the project. Below is a bit of what I wrote. If you’d like to read the full interview and enjoy the other contributors’ photography, collage art, mixtape song lists, and clever pop culture references, you can read it here.

  1. new routines you’ve created during this time

My partner Joe and I run a show space in our house where we host readings, art shows, and musicians, and these events have become an important part of our lives. Having to cancel and postpone them has been one of many personal losses we’ve experienced during this time. We decided to try doing shows online instead, and it has really helped. Once a week we do zine readings and every weekend we play noise music, live on our Instagram channels (@thelalatheory and @displacedsnail). Making music and talking to people online has been fun and healing, and it helps us stay connected to people in our small community.

2. old routines that you miss most

I most miss the day-to-day of being around other people: walking on the sidewalk here in my Philly neighborhood, riding the bus, being downtown for work or appointments, and picking out the clothes I’ll wear on a given day. I miss seeing and being seen by people, friends and strangers alike. It has also been painful for me to not be able to go out to shows and dance parties, which is a big part of my life.

4. stay-at-home makeup or fashion looks

Okay, so—I love wigs. I enjoy putting together costumes from thrift store clothes and cheap wigs, and will occasionally wear a wig out at night, but even though I’ve wanted to I’ve never worn one of my wigs on a normal day because I worry it will look too fake or weird. Now that I’m making these live videos a couple times a week I’ve embraced their fake weirdness and wear a different one every time. It’s felt powerful (and fun) to come up with a reason to dress up and, instead of worrying whether I look “good,” focus on looking interesting. 

5. new recipes you’ve attempted and/or conquered

One of my favorite recipes is for Mexican chocolate cookies, which have cayenne powder and cinnamon in them. They’re chocolatey and chewy and the tiny bit of added heat makes them special. Last week I tried a new recipe for a Mexican chocolate quick bread, but I had to improvise a bit because I didn’t have the ancho chile powder it called for and used cayenne instead. It came out WAY too hot for a sweet bread and was actually pretty terrible (though that didn’t stop us from eating it, ha). I made the same recipe a few days later without any hot spices and it came out delicious. (Recipe here)

6. your makeshift home office setups

I already had an office space at home because that’s where I do most of my work. My office is a small, cozy room that I have festooned with strings of lights, plants, my collection of shells from the beach, a radio, and lots of little pictures and post cards, a bit like a teenager’s bedroom. I try to keep the energy in there soft and safe but stimulating enough that I can stay excited about my work and get it finished. 

7. ways to accept/combat boredom

I find boredom to be a hard concept to define since for me it usually has a lot of feelings mixed up in it. The boredom that has come upon me during this isolation time seems to have to do with the psychological stress I’m feeling that makes it hard or even impossible to concentrate on any of the things I can do here at home, including things I usually enjoy. When all this started, I focused on doing what I could. Some days that has meant writing a text instead of a letter, or doing one hour of work when a whole day or even half a day felt impossible. Slowly my capacity to stay present has increased. 

8. book, movie, television show, music, game, or Instagram account recommendations

I love reading Conrad Benner’s Instagram posts (@streetsdept). He’s an artist and curator who runs Streets Department, a website that documents street art in Philly. I admire him because he grew up here and his love for the city and its people is evident in all he does. He consistently speaks truth to power while maintaining a positive attitude. Throughout this pandemic he has used his platform to talk about renters’ rights, opportunities for artists to earn money for their work, places where people can get free food, and so forth. He’s really cool.

I’ve also been super psyched to see that a couple of our favorite DJs here in town are putting their “parties” on Twitch. Last Saturday night Joe and I were feeling down and low-energy, but when we tuned into the livestream we got on our feet and danced!

9. exceptional or unusual interactions with friends/family/roommates/neighbors (positive or negative)

Tonight we ordered take-out from a pub in the neighborhood that we really love. They threw together a website for online ordering during quarantine and are doing curbside pick-up. Getting take-out could never replace sitting in that cozy place and listening to music while we eat or drink, but their food is great and we miss them. Today is Easter, and when we got back home and unpacked our food we saw that they’d put a big handful of foil-wrapped Easter chocolates inside a rubber glove and tossed that in with the stuff we’d ordered. The sweet gesture, together with the scary visual of the surgical gloves everyone’s been wearing, almost made me cry. 

There is a ladder.

I came to explore the wreck.
The words are purposes.
The words are maps.
I came to see the damage that was done
and the treasures that prevail.

“Diving Into the Wreck,” Adrienne Rich

I haven’t been able to write for two weeks now. Sometimes I’m afraid to leave my house, even for the things I’m craving, like exercise and fresh air. During this strange time I have also gone through whole cycles of worry: I worried at first that the things I care about, like the new job I was so excited to start next month, would be disrupted. When I realized there was no way they wouldn’t be disrupted, I accepted it, then was hit in the face with a wave of sadness because some things were more than disrupted: They were gone. The job I was about to begin doesn’t exist anymore. I have savings and another job, so I’ll be fine without it. But I felt sad to have to let it go.

I have other worries, too. One of the weirder effects this pandemic has had on me is an anxiety, painful in my body, that’s affixed itself to all the people in my life. For a week straight I woke up every morning thinking about a different person I know, realizing I didn’t know whether they were okay or not, if they felt lonely or scared. So I started checking in—we’ve all been checking in with each other, and that has been beautiful in its way. Feeling dislocated from individual friends and from communities and networks of people generally has truly disturbed me, much more than I would have expected. It feels good to know that we’re all thinking of each other now and refusing to lose contact. It seems like something we could build on.

Another unpleasant feeling inside me has been the fear that people’s small businesses will be crushed by the economic tidal wave over our heads. Locally, those businesses are my neighbors; I care about their owners and don’t want them to lose their work or their dream of owning their own place. I’m afraid of what I stand to lose, too. I feel needy. The time you spend in a coffee shop or bookstore or bar makes it a kind of home, and I need these homes, those places where I feel safe and welcome. I don’t want them to go away.

There’s an independent bookstore near where I live in Philadelphia called the Spiral Bookcase that I really love. It’s such a special place—all small bookstores are, I think, but this one is especially dear to me for a few reasons. First, they sell both new and used books, which has always felt correct to me. Why should the two be separated when most readers need both the old and the new, the popular and the just-plain-weird? Second, a sweet cat lives in this store. If you sit in a chair she’ll jump on your lap, or climb on your knees when you crouch down to look at things. Third, the shop is magic. Its main room has fiction and nonfiction books on a variety of subjects, and off of that is a smaller room of occult books. They’re about witchcraft, theology, philosophy, and metaphysics, and the atmosphere in there is delicious. A small collection of healing gemstones, tarot decks, and candles are tucked in and around the magic books, being magical. I always leave the shop feeling softer, walking lighter, and sparking with ideas.

Last week the store’s owner announced on social media that she was working to get more books and other items listed on its website. I was excited when I made my order. They offered delivery by mail and curbside pickup, and I chose the second one thinking it would be a nice reason to leave the house. J drove me over there this afternoon, just a minute or two in the car on a major road with very little traffic. A bus pulled over in front of us and a few people wearing surgical masks got off at a quiet bus depot that is usually a literal mess of human liveliness, people smoking and laughing and pushing as they wait for their rides.

J parked the car and stayed in it while I walked up to the pretty storefront. Following the protocol they’d emailed me I knocked, then stood six feet back from the doorway on the sidewalk. The sweet-faced young employee who answered the door looked like she’d been having the same tense two weeks as I had, but when I said I was there to pick up “an Adrienne Rich book and a witchy kids’ book” she smiled. She went back inside to get them and I was alone for a moment on the street. When she returned she had my books in a bag that was marked with my name, which touched me in a funny way. My name was also written on the bag of muffins I bought yesterday from the coffee shop around the corner, another business I dearly want to stick around. In pink, in a person’s hand, on brown paper: Katie.

I have these two books at home with me now and I catch myself mining them for meaning, the meaning I’ve been having a harder time holding onto recently. All around my house, at any given time, I have several stacks of books in various stages of being read—they sit on the floor, teetering a foot or two high, like prehistoric cairns. I’ve been trying to shake some meaning out of those books but their pockets are empty. Maybe these two will be the ones that do it for me.

The Adrienne Rich book is Diving Into the Wreck because of course it is. Of course that’s the book. Diving into the wreck is what I’ve been doing for months now in therapy, pulling up things that have been buried for a long time and letting them see the light of day, turning them in my hand so I can see them from all angles. Some of them disintegrate when they finally hit the air. I need these poems now; I’ll need them tomorrow too.

The witchy kids’ book is called Bony-Legs, and I bought it for a dollar because it’s about Baba Yaga and because it was published in 1982, when I was a little kid myself. The illustrations, scary but cute and crawling with detail, are by Dirk Zimmer, whose wonderful imagery still dances across my early memory. Watchful eyeballs, grinning skulls, vines twisting into shapes. I don’t think I ever had this book, but my school library might have. Looking at the pictures stirs something very old in me, something not uncomplicated but basically good. They make me feel alive.

Baba Yaga is a figure from Slavic folklore. She’s a witch, a mean one, who lives in a house that stands on chicken legs. There are lots of stories about her. In this one she is called by her nickname, Bony-Legs, and she tries to cook and eat a sweet young girl who comes to her door looking to borrow a needle and thread. But before she meets Bony-Legs, the girl shares her food with the witch’s neglected cat and dog and greases the squeaky, old gate (“Poor gate!” she says) with the butter from her sandwich. Because she was kind to them, the cat and dog—as well as the silent gate—help her trick the witch and get away. The story is a lesson about being kind, but it’s also about living in a place where magic is ordinary, expected. The cat gives the girl a mirror and tells her to throw it away when she’s in trouble. The dog gives her a comb and the same instructions. As the witch chases her, the girl throws the mirror behind her. It turns into a lake, but Bony-Legs finds a way to cross it. When the witch gets close again the girl throws the comb on the ground, which grows from the dirt until it’s as tall as three trees. It forms a barricade that Bony-Legs can’t get through, and the little girl runs home, safe. Not only that, but we’re told at the end that she never saw old Bony-Legs again.

We don’t question the logic of fairy tales when we read them. We know that in these worlds, witches can live in enchanted forests and cats and dogs can talk. These are the worlds of childhood and deep sleep and old fears, and they’re real, as real as a book you can hold in your hand. The stories don’t all have happy endings, but in them, anything is possible.

Drawing by Dirk Zimmer