in my childhood home, fruity pebbles were an outlawed item, my mom convinced there must be cement in the mix, her fingertips raw from scrubbing multicolored remnants from the ceramic rims of white bowls
i am thinking about the way matter clings to its existence, the way everything bends itself to survive, about how maybe letting go is antithetical, somehow, to everything
i am thinking of the number of times my mom has had to scrub beneath hot water because i’ve been too careless to rinse things away
i am thinking of you and the way we’ll never have clean slates with one another, stagnant air and empty hours, those things that seemed bright, seemed sweet, scraping their way down my ribcage
That’s the thing about New York, she said, setting down her beer and shaking her head, the city spits you out three times before it lets you stay.
I nodded, accepting it immediately as truth. It was the summer of 2017, the muggy baton pass between late May and early June, and I was only visiting the city. A friend from college, then five years into his relationship with New York, had invited me to his Greenpoint apartment for dinner, where a mosaic of young people welcomed me in to exchange ideas and early-won bits of wisdom.
I was quiet, then, about the dream of moving to New York City, as though saying it out loud might somehow break it. Scare it away, just out of reach.
The city spits you out three times before it lets you stay, I thought to myself, grinning as the conversation turned to how many New York men use the word ‘deliverables’ when describing their jobs on first dates.
I think of my life in terms of semesters. I moved right to college after high school, then to graduate school, and then into a job whose first big hurdle was Fall move-in. It’s funny, sometimes, when people ask how long I’ve been in the city; I always catch myself before answering in semesters.
There is comfort to routine. Whenever my situation changes too much, I find myself willful in creating some new routine, a conductor glaring down a reluctant orchestra.
In March of this year, when I learned all our students would be moving home early, normalcy dissolved at my fingertips. Okay, I bargained with myself, we will get through this. I started each morning with a four-mile run, carving a path through the city, once-busy, now shuttered to silence.
Routine, normalcy, control. All of these were suddenly mirages, and I found myself wobbly on my feet. This is an excellent time to write, a friend suggested, and I exhausted at the thought.
How does one create in the midst of so much pretending?
I did my best to document what it was to survive this time. I mimicked my morning coffee in my own kitchen. I took photos of myself to remind myself that I’m real. I burst into tears listening to an upbeat dance song because I abruptly realized nobody I knew had seen my face in eight days.
In the Fall, some semblance of normalcy resumed. We had far fewer students than normal, but there was a move-in. The office was staffed sparsely, and plastic barriers were raised, but I had resumed leaving my apartment to ‘go to work.’
On the morning I learned I would be losing my job, after the floor stopped crumbling underfoot, after I steadied my hands, after I called my sister and stammered I lost my job before sobbing, I sat in the quiet and exhaled. I realized, then, that I’d been holding my breath for months, waiting for hard news.
I’m not good at saying goodbye before I’m ready. Each time, I am indignant, humiliated, furious, brokenhearted. So much of how I show up to my life revolves around the idea of writing these chapters well. Sometimes, I look at a paragraph and want to know just who the hell has the nerve to scribble like this.
I spend hours thinking of ways to turn the main character back on the path I imagined him walking.
Once, when a lover left, and I was sitting in fragments on the floor, I whispered to myself, you cannot write him back into your life. I wrote a Post-It note for my bedroom dresser: a person who wants to stay stays. But, months later, on a night run, my eyes broke like tired dams, and I stumbled into a cry on the sidewalk. Just come back, I stammered, fool me twice, fool me twice.
I fool myself with the notion that, when I leave a heartbreak, I do so having learned the lesson I needed. Now, I tell myself, I won’t have to fall apart that way anymore.
But here I am, in a year characterized by canceled plans and broken storylines, and I am again startled to find I’m not really at the helm.
When I close a chapter, I want that on my own terms. I want to walk the sidewalks I’ve been taking for granted, thank them for always guiding me home. I want to tuck love letters in the homes of everybody who’s kept me afloat, find just the words to impart, ensure no shred of meaning or sentiment is left beneath some unturned stone.
These past few weeks, I have wrestled myself, again and again, out of trying to right the story. Just let go, I whisper to my clenched fists, find gratitude for what was and get moving.
I don’t know that I believe New York City keeps any quotas for the times it will spit somebody out. I know it can seem monstrous and tall, cold and apathetic to whatever is devastating you. It can feel, to me, like the hardest place to find peace.
But there are times when the avenues and streets seem to line up just right, and I glance up and feel some kind of warming rightness. Remember when it was all just a dream, I remind myself, and now here you are, walking these sidewalks like you know them by name.
I’m letting go of the idea that there’s ever really a ‘right’ way forward. Over the past few weeks, I’ve held the pen in my fingertips, staring down the last paragraph with a furrowed brow, wondering where I want my story to go next. There’s probably joy and meaning and hope to be found in each of those ways forward; there is also always the strange grief of leaving the other paths unexplored.
Hands shaking, I am writing again. I’ve decided to build something new, to expand myself, to grow and fill a new space. My body is a plant repotted, roots acquainting tentatively with new soil, leaves shuddering in relief as they, again, discover there is light.
somewhere some hundred miles ago, i set our pages down on the concrete, found a rock with edges no more jagged than my own, and set the damn stories down, no more wringing meaning from my being and finding the water again stained with you
getting better was training my hands not to ball themselves into fists, clearing the drawers of photo strips and small notes with my name in your handwriting, making room for the echo of your absence to tucker itself out, giving my time only to plants that bear fruit
but, tonight, i have the extra hour, and my hands are busy putting the polaroids in order, funny the way the life cycles of trees help us keep our bearings in the gentle continuity of time
when i loved you, flowers bloomed through my aching sternum, ivy stretching its way up your brick edifice and resolving to pull down walls through devotion, driving for hours beneath the darkest skies just to kiss you good morning, writing poetry in your language so you might be willing to read it
and, when you loved me, you startled at what it was to be seen, not just watched, but seen, in honest light, the way your throat caught when i told you the third thing you needed to know, and for the moment, we knew
on the margins of a morning newspaper dated some five years ago, i wrote you goodbye, and time has yellowed everything, softened jagged edges down to nothing, i can hold the stories again, lift us up and set you onto the shelf, sunflower petals pressed into the old, hard page
what is there to do on a day like today, when the sky hangs heavy in my tired palms, when the knot in my sternum wrings all my words out, dull puddles on the air-conditioned tile
grief and gratitude make confusing roommates, cohabitating in something not like war, not like harmony, i am an acoustic strum in an empty house, front door racketing on rusty hinges
remember, as children, how we fought to best one another at holding our breath, who could have known we were training for the art of scraping hope free from the hardship, mining meaning from the hollow ground
and, maybe, if i just write, let the thoughts flow freely from my wanting fingertips, it will be something like poetry, will rinse through the faucet rusted over by weeks, months of trying to grow hope from the concrete, pouring until the water flows clear, will you see it as poetry, when i hold it in my hands, will it feel heavy like truth, or drip from my thirsting palms?
maybe i need to stop writing these lessons down on loose leaf pages around me, every old injury repurposed into some lesson for the long journey after, could i have learned all the wrong things from all those scrapes on the pavement, is it possibly time to let my cautions go skittering, admit to myself that holding my breath and keeping my hopes on a leash has never once kept me safe from aching?
sometimes, when i tell you it’s going to be all right in the end, or a little bravery is all you need to break through, or you don’t have a single thing to fear about a truth you hold in your shaking palms, i wonder if you know i’m saying it as much for myself, throwing hopeful ideas against the wall and seeing what sticks
and it’s true, we have survived every thunderstorm, gritted our teeth and outlasted the will of even the most infinite nights, to find ourselves here, our limbs lined with scars and stories alike, disappointment a relentless villain but pisspoor murderer, and i will swear that we are never easier to love than when we are baring our brokenness
has it dawned on you, too, that i’ve got no idea what song you hum to yourself as you get yourself ready in the mornings, study your face in the mirror, pull into sleeves those arms i used to think of as home?
three days ago, i tried to sketch the floor plan of the house where i grew up, my throat in a tangle as i fought to remember the color of the kitchen tile
i read that our bones replace themselves every ten years, time washing like the tide against the names i meant to etch forever, you were never here
and still i go on writing you letters, hoping you have let go of your loneliest notions, hum a song in your honor on my walk to the coffee shop, trace your name with my fingertips to see if they remember the way.
i am at odds with my body,
another wobbly walk home,
fresh blood stinging against
the open air, i am a
somatic wound shivering
in the wind
and how do i finish my poetry
on a night like this, what
is my voice but another
wailing failure to sing hope
through these closing walls, my
throat a vinyl scratched
and skipping, stammering this will be, this will be fi, this
will b, be fine, this will, this
in the shower, i survey my
wounds and realize i wish
i didn’t have so much experience
bandaging them on my
i fall the same way
every time, even the
people i have just begun
to know shake their heads, again?, and i don’t know
what to tell them, except
i learned to sprint on
shaky ankles, and no
pavement’s made a
strong enough case for
slowing down just yet
this heart is so stubborn,
blood glistening through
the flesh freshly broken,
loving nothing more,
nothing, than the kind of
love that demands
over the jagged slap
of broken ground
If I’m honest, The Perks of Being a Wallflower sat on my shelf for years before I finally decided it was time to read it. The film arrived in 2012 and moved me profoundly, and I knew I’d need a little distance before delving into the book.
This summer, on an evening I decided to venture out to a picnic table on campus and read, I took Perks with me. I’m glad that I did.
this hoodie has a history,
i wanted to tell him
as i dropped it in
his waiting palms
stolen from my sister
on the morning of the
some old boyfriend’s, but suddenly,
she must’ve known, mine
green stain from the
night my friends and i
tried painting my room,
my first lover and i
whispering i love you
at bedtime, smiling
grad school uniform,
late-night drinks and
those wild, short months,
one last adolescence
given, for months, to somebody
who never intended to
stay, who slipped out of
my life like he owed
no explanation, but
who took the time to
fold it, hide it gently
on the closet floor
before he left,
found and held close
that fragile morning
for once, i
held onto my histories,
let a hoodie be, for the moment,
a hoodie, warm against
the artificial air