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.