Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Signals

I’ve been thinking about signifiers of wealth and what they afford us. I’m going to a movie premier with celebrities tonight, for example, and so I put on my good jewelry. None of this jewelry belongs to me in the sense that all of it was given to me – my mother’s moonstone ring, my mother’s David Yurman bracelet, the gold chains and earrings Billy gave me as birthday gifts. I put them on and my limbs sparkle. I hold my hands in my lap on the subway and there are glints of gold.

My family has money and I do not, but growing up I shared it with them. I attended a ballroom dance academy, I think they also call it cotillion, where we wore velvet dresses and learned manners: how to move through a receiving line, how to accept a dance, how to dance (of course). We clomped around doing waltzes, foxtrots, cha-chas. Afterwards we spilled out of the building with our wool coats on and bundled into our parents’ cars, driven home through cold winter nights.

It was an outdated tradition even then – we never attended coming out parties and I’ve since seen waltzes only on tacky television dance competitions and a handful of stuffy weddings. No, the biggest lesson we learned at Mrs. Simpson’s Dance Academy was that class is a construct. You are taught to hold yourself with regard and to see the world as a system of exchanges, to learn to navigate those exchanges – nothing about that comes naturally. You are taught to give with the expectation of receiving, to receive with the expectation that things be given.

I straddle the line now. I sit on the deck of an unimaginably expensive yacht and accept a stranger’s fine wine in my glass, saying please and thank you with every interaction. I’ve been served but also done the serving, in high school and college with ketchup stains on my button-down and a sweaty ponytail. I probably made it weird for the server last night with my too-polite smile and my stiff shoulders. Thanks, sorry, thanks, sorry, is what I was really saying. Sorry for what? I can’t decide if guilt is condescension or a healthy reaction to arbitrary demarcations.

Afterwards we relaxed in a grand sitting room, the yacht bobbing up and down on the water and the Jersey skyline looming and disappearing with each swell. The staff introduced themselves and plopped down on the far couch, all together, all on the same couch. Billy and I shared the other couch, and Megan sat in her own chair. We watched Megan’s pilot episode and she hid her face under her wool scarf, laughing at the corniest scenes. Last night I wrote that they were all friends, Megan and the staff, but now that seems na├»ve. I keep thinking about her silk tunic and their cotton work shirts. It’s not a sign of worth, only an idiot would think that, but it’s a sign of difference.

The problem with being on unequal footing with people is that you can never really know what’s choice and what’s obligation. Servers are adept, after all, at pretending. I’m not saying that Megan’s not likeable or that they’re not fond of her, but I am saying that lines exist.

But people are people are people – children know this. Children are given books with titles like Everybody Poops to help them understand their bodies and their place in the world. I guess that’s the discomfort – we’re the same, we’re the same, we’re the same. Still, most jobs depend on being nice.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Yacht club

Tonight was one of those rare nights when New York unfurls itself and its pieces tumble down around you like confetti. So many pieces you just stand there and gape. Megan invited us to her grandfather's yacht, an epic ship that you have to take your shoes off to enter. We found it resting by itself in the waters outside Battery City, just itself, lolling confidently in the harbor. A staff member lowered a walkway for us and held a basket out for our shoes.

Billy and I gawked. We walked through the ship and gawked. There was a master bedroom with a whirlpool tub, there was marble and beautiful wood and antique globes. The rooms were not rooms but parlors, and when we reached the dining table on the top deck we were offered wine. It was a warm night with a chill sifting in on the wind, and we sat with our jackets zipped up looking at the statue of liberty. Be polite, I thought when the staff member offered me bread. Don't eat too fast, and for god's sake don't gulp your wine.

Megan joked with the woman like they were friends, and the woman joked back. I was being too formal but I couldn't help it.

Steak came out, filet mignon cooked rare with lobster on top, drizzled in rich gravy. Mashed potatoes and salad with prosciutto and brie and squash. We ate it all. Dessert came out, my wine glass was filled, maple ice cream with apple rhubarb pie and fresh blueberries. We posed for a picture afterwards in the mist of the hot tub and acted like we were accustomed to such finery.

Afterward we sat on couches with the ship's crew and watched Megan's pilot, the one that didn't get picked up. It was decent for its genre, a feel-good inspirational and aspirational CW drama, and everyone complimented her. The crew knew Megan and were surprisingly relaxed with her, and it struck me how comfortable she was with their unequal positions and how that comfort allowed them to be friends. They were all meeting her for drinks later.

I thought about Megan with her bright eyes and funny laugh, which is almost a bray, and I thought about her absolute confounding exuberance. She is someone who does not stay down. She is beautiful and rich and everything everyone who wants what she has loves to knock, but they miss the point that she also works harder than them. She tells the story of running into an old acquaintance, an aspiring actor, who said, "Your hair looks terrible." He said, "I heard your pilot didn't get picked up."

We went to Mercury Lounge and stood in the bar while a metal band thrashed around on stage. The lead singer wore a leather corset and whipped her long blond locks, roaring at the audience. She looked like someone who might love to eat burgers and milkshakes at 5am after a hard night partying, but maybe she was a sweet gentle soul who loves to help people. Who knows. The two aren't mutually exclusive, obviously. We met another actor friend of Megan's who wore a fedora and chewed on a toothpick, telling self-deprecating stories about his career. I don't understand actors but I want to believe in their intelligence, their sight which is not like mine, I just don't get it. Yet. Maybe.

We left Megan and walked to the subway, admiring the East Village apartment buildings with their old oval windows. On the way down the L train stairs I passed an old woman in a black cape who stopped me and said, "Please don't go to the end of the platform. The creatures are running around." She gave me a searching look and nodded, and I nodded back as if I understood. It satisfied her, which is all I think I could have given her. The creatures were not there, of course, but I wondered what she saw. Black shapes flitting around and whispering in high harsh tones.

Tomorrow I'll go with Megan to the Sex and the City 2 cast event, where all the cast members will watch the movie and then mingle. I'll put on my cocktail dress and think about how fat I am in comparison to the other women, which is cliche and banal and all sorts of boring things, but true nonetheless. I'll see celebrities and wonder what on earth I'm doing there, how I ended up at a place like that. It'll be an experience. That's the thing - it will be an experience.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Nuts, bolts

Three days back in New York and I feel weepy, the sky is falling. It’s raining steadily and I know the hammock in my backyard must be waterlogged, the plants are stewing.

My world is small and I keep it that way. I pace the narrow rooms in my apartment and glance at the plants outside, see how they’re doing. The Japanese maple has new leaves, the irises are wilting. I talk to the cats. Sometimes this is sweet and sometimes it feels like insanity. What am I really doing?

I should thank Stephen Elliot because every time I read his emails I want to write. I read his emails and I do away with commas.

Oh it’s dark, it’s so dark outside. The printer is jammed and IT complains. Soup for lunch, seven dollars.

Friday, May 14, 2010

On feeling

Stephen Elliott writes about missing someone, a girl he used to love, so intensely it feels like a hand around his throat. I know what he means but I haven’t felt like that in a long time.

I’ve been thinking about feelings and how my approach to them recently borders on caution. I’m careful with my feelings. I like to intellectualize them and keep myself at a remove from them. ‘There they are,’ I think. Or, ‘If I were in a different place or time I might mourn that.’

Partly this is because my feelings lead to destructive behavior. When I pine and obsess I also destroy, and my new thing is building, moving along. Moving forward. But what does that mean? I worry it’s a life less lived.

There are men I used to love but loving them ended in silence. We disappeared from each other. Should I think about Ed with his stutter and big hands? I actually just shrugged. I’m not sure.

Ed was from southern Virginia, a small town outside Roanoke, and his voice had a sweet twang. He works in the dirt and loves astronomy.

Andrew wanted to be mod and had an affected way of holding a cigarette. He wore wire-framed glasses and drove a hatchback Hyundai. Once when we were in his parents’ kitchen I told him I liked his smell, so he ran upstairs and doused himself with more cologne. It was way too much, a noxious fog, but we kissed passionately. I was 17.

Andrew was easy to write about; Ed was not.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Also

I’ve been doing this thing recently where I try not to feel things too deeply. I try to keep a little distance between the thought that pains me and my thoughts about that thought, and I try to keep cool, because that always ends up being the truth anyway. I always end up thinking that things are not so bad. So I’m being less dramatic.

For the first time in a long time I feel glad to be alive. I like being outside and touching things with my hands. That sounds dirty. I’m talking about cooking, and planting, and walking the dog. Doing some stretches.

I’m up on the 29th floor and I’m sounding boring. I know that. There are men suspended outside my window, eight feet from me, scraping the grout out of the windows’ edges. Eight feet away, 29 floors up. They’re chatting and shrugging like it’s no big deal. They’re just at work.

What will happen to me? I wonder if I’ll ever write anything. I mean anything real that people read. I don’t really care, I mean I don’t feel so invested in that, but I’d like to not work in an office after all this is over.

Things could be worse. Do you know that? It’s something that we get to go home and make dinner. There is red wine, all the red wine in the world. We have conversations and friendships. It’s almost too much to handle, all the basic decency that exists.

Nada, says one of the guys outside the window. I swear it’s like they’re on a street corner, not dangling above the world.

Virginia

I’ve been sitting on the 29th floor of an office building in Rosslyn, Virginia for three days, and it’s starting to make me sad. You can see the city from here, chalky grey monuments and courthouses, as well as the Virginia tree canopy. Everything is lush and verdant out there and the floors in here echo when you step on them. When I walk to the kitchen I pad softly, because I don’t like the noise. People look up with disinterest from their screens.

My mom has staples in her leg and her knee is swollen like a side of pork. Her leg looks inhuman, like dressed meat. I thought it would be worse, but last night I helped her pull on her compression socks without wincing.

I take care of her dog every day, a black puppy that wiggles and snorts and gnaws on my boots. I praise her when she poops and then I pick up the poop. I leave notes in the morning to this effect, detailing her processes. I sign them “XO.”

What should I buy for dinner? That’s what I think about. I drive my mom’s black Mercedes down the GW Parkway every morning and listen to satellite radio. The stations are called things like “Coffee House,” “Lithium” and “BPM.” This is not my life.

A teenager at Giant followed me to my car two days ago, claiming she needed to retrieve my cart when I was done loading groceries. At my open trunk she paused, shy: “Can I ask you a personal question?” She wanted to know where I’d gotten my nosed pierced. We talked for a couple minutes about options in the area and I told her to always use hollow needles for cartilage piercings, never guns, and she looked startled. I was telling her things she didn’t know. “Have a good day,” she said afterwards, pushing my cart away, and I felt happy and strange.

“Lithium” plays things like Smashing Pumpkins and Foo Fighters. They make jokes about Unplugged.

I feel old here, oh I feel old. My nephew expounds on the dive bar he frequents and tells me to call him up if I’m bored. He’s stoned and I’m not – I don’t get stoned anymore – and I feel old. What would we talk about? He has experiences with the world that are not mine.

Tonight I might treat my mom to something special and pick up sushi for dinner. I might have a go at some yoga before I settle into my wine. I’ve got that book on Rwanda but I’m not making progress. I’m worried it will give me nightmares if I read it before bed.

Three more days and counting, hello Virginia.