I have been out all morning. Making my way to Retiro Park. Buying bandages for my feet, an additional converter for my electronics, my first pair of Spanish shoes — Picolinos. Eating gelato. Tracing steps a friend of mine shared via Google maps.
I turn on to Don Ramon de la Cruz, the street where I have been staying. It is 4 p.m. Decidedly quiet. The locals are finishing lunch at outdoor cafes. Grates are pulled down over the entrances of at least half of the shops. Siesta.
I have not quite made this tradition my own. And yet. The universe provides me with a few moments at home…to wash my feet, change my shoes — my Italian leather sandals continuing to rub against my big toes — and put a little sustenance in my body — lamb’s lettuce, a soft boiled egg, goat cheese, fresh figs, a coffee from my moka pot (one of the few “creature comforts” I packed. D rightly insisted I do so).
I will leave again shortly — this time to meet a friend of a friend who I have been introduced to through Facebook, another American, raised in the Midwest, transplanted to California and then Madrid. I am excited to meet her, to explore another neighborhood. And to relish in a few culturally imposed moments of stillness, quiet and rest.
A couple of weeks ago, a friend of mine posed a question on Facebook, asking what she should do with her many years of journals in the course of a move.
I’d been wondering the same thing as I am moving to Madrid later this summer. My plan is to board the plane on July 28 with a one-way ticket, a one-year visa and two suitcases — but no journals.
“Burn them,” my friend Scotty wrote in response to the original question, the answer not intended for me. And yet, it was, as I intuitively knew he was right.
I had been an avid journal-er in my 20s — tucking into bed each night with a notebook and pen and chronicling the events of the day. Sometimes in prose. Occasionally poetry. Lush, detailed descriptions of the sex I was having. Barely decipherable drunken scrawls, desperate and self-pitying.
I carried them with me for nearly 20 years — from Detroit to San Francisco to Oakland. To Chicago to Seattle and back to Chicago — about a dozen of them, most of them with hard covers.
I stopped journaling not long after my then boyfriend (now ex-husband) moved into my apartment — choosing to tuck in with him rather than a stack of pages and my most intimate thoughts.
I returned to the practice 15 years later, switching the time to first thing out of bed — Morning Pages, as suggested in the book, “The Artist’s Way.”
When I moved back to Chicago in 2012, following my divorce, I began reading my old words — the ones I had carried with me for so long. Juicy bits about the photographer who kept a studio above the restaurant where I worked. The aspiring rabbinical student. The actor.
The much, much older man from Detroit who suggested I meet him in Vail — “just as friends.” The lawyer and part-time musician. The doctor I met on a press trip in Germany.
I had forgotten.
It was fun at first, feeling like a voyeur, remembering who I had once been — until I considered contacting one of those men, at which time a friend suggested I take a break from my reading. And I did.
Meanwhile, I continued filling soft-covered notebooks with Morning Pages, stacking them one on top of the other on a shelf in my bedroom closet — until a few weeks ago, when I placed them in a box along with my marriage license and a copy of our wedding ceremony and drove them to Michigan, to the home of my friend Paul, the sometimes reluctant shaman.
That evening, at Paul’s suggestion, I tore off the covers from my notebooks and ripped pages from their metal spirals. I threw a glossy journal into the wood-burning stove that heats the entire house and watched the resin-covered cardboard catch, shrivel and glow. I tossed in several more, until the oven was filled with ash. Then Paul played John Lennon’s “Starting Over” and we danced, laughing.
In the morning I brought the remaining notebooks, wedding ceremony and marriage license outside to a fire pit Paul had dug. He said a few words, inviting in the spirits, and I again began the process of burning my words — stopping occasionally to read a random page out loud before throwing the notebook into the flames — until the pit was overcome with ashes like the stove the night before.
Nearly two hours later, I wasn’t done. Paul suggested I leave the remaining notebooks with him, promising to burn them at his next sweat lodge. I agreed, and asked that we end the day’by burning my marriage license.
Several people had suggested I might need it one day, but I couldn’t imagine any reason to hold on to it. So I offered a few words of thanks to my ex and once again set him free — something I had done following the completion of our civil divorce, and again following our Jewish divorce.
The legal document crackled and hissed, engulfed in yellow and blue flames.
Since then, my ex and I have had precious little contact. And the relationship that had begun just prior to my trip to Michigan has blossomed.
Paul closed the ceremony by bringing me inside, where we sat in meditation. Then he sang and he drummed, smudged me with sage and handed me a rubber nose in a small plastic container — the kind from a bubble-gum machine that contains a prize, a ring or tattoos — and assured me if I continue to listen to my heart and to my spirit, I will always “nose” what is right for me.
Like knowing when to let go of my stories and how to do it. With fire, with friendship, and with God.
I’ve had the same Weight Watchers “Before” photo for nearly 12 years.
It is of me and my ex-husband, drinking wine at an outdoor cafe in the Fifth Arrondissement in Paris — the day after my 31st birthday.
My friend Nora calls it the perfect before photo, pointing to the visible roll at my belly, the buttons straining at my pre-reduction breasts, gaping fabric, and my somewhat distorted face.
I share this photograph with new Weight Watchers members as a way of creating rapport and earning credibility — as if to say “I’ve been there…I know” and also, “this is possible” without uttering a word.
Some gasp. Others laugh uncomfortably. A few offer up kind words like, “You were still cute.” Occasionally I am asked, somewhat rhetorically, “This is you?” to which I reply “the other is my ex husband,” and sometimes add, “it is his ‘before’ photograph too.”
Last week I heard something different, something I hadn’t heard before — twice, from two different people.
“Are you still with him?”
I was taken aback. It seemed out of context, but also surprising, as for so many years, so many of the members knew him — or at least of him.
He was the one pushing the basket at Trader Joes. The bike racer turned massage therapist turned doctor who helped guide this girl who failed gym class into a reluctant athlete who dabbles in bike centuries and triathalons. The one who asked if I earned more activity points in the winter, as I surely burned more calories trying to keep warm. The reason I left California and then Chicago — choosing to flank him on his journey from medical school to residency to doctor.
But I rarely, if ever, mention him in Weight Watchers meetings anymore.
Thursday, after my lunchtime meetings closed, I shared the twice-asked, seemingly unusual question — “are you still with him?” — with my colleagues and added, “I think I need a new ‘before’ picture.”
It feels like more than a gentle nudge from the universe telling me to “move on” — to find another 35-pounds-heavier reminder of who I used to be, because offering up a photograph of the two of us more than half a dozen times each week is no longer serving me.
And so I wonder what else I might be doing that doesn’t contribute to my “moving on.”
There isn’t much of our past surrounding me — I left most of it with him in Seattle. A cooking pot, French coffee press and a three-season sleeping bag. My Italian road bike, a pair of snowshoes and a lithograph by an African artist called “Masks of the Healer #2.” It hangs over my dining room table, a sort of talisman watching me as I write.
I also removed him from my feed on Facebook after being “greeted” by a photograph of him, his girlfriend and his new cats on Christmas Day. It wasn’t the image of him and another woman that bothered me so much (I’d seen photographs of the two of them before.) It was the juxtaposition of him in his new life, wearing his old bathrobe — a plaid flannel, L.L Bean — that got to me.
And yet, I was still typing part of his name and social security number several times each week — using the combination as a secondary password. So yesterday at work, I changed it to something more me-centric.
But finding the right before picture is more challenging. We were together for 15 years, so he is in many of my photographs. (My mother’s too. She cut him out of the one on top of her bureau.) Also, I didn’t keep many photographs of me 35 pounds ago. I had ceased to be that woman.
And I’ve ceased to be that married one as well.
There are other befores. And there will be other afters.
I haven’t heard from my ex in more than a week. This isn’t unusual, except I have reached out to him twice during this time — once to ask for medical advice (I forget he is not my doctor), a second time to ask if he might talk with a friend of mine about the later-in-life path to medical school — and that is unusual.
Except for when it isn’t.
We recently saw one other for the first time since I moved out of the house we shared in Seattle and returned to Chicago, more than two and a half years.
I cried when I saw his blue polar fleece stocking cap — the one that makes him look like a tall Smurf– bobbing above the crowd as he got off the train, across from our favorite Lebanese restaurant. Again when we embraced. And again when, looking up for the menu, I inquired “The usual?” to which he replied, laughing, “That is what I was going to say.”
And so it was over chicken schwarma, hummus and fattoush that he admitted that the times he hadn’t called me back — there weren’t many — he simply, emotionally, could not.
This may be one of those times.
At first, I didn’t think too much of it when I didn’t hear back from him. It was Valentine’s Day weekend. I thought, perhaps, he might be out of town with his girlfriend. A thought followed by strong intuition — “He’s moving in with her.” I said the words out loud, as usual, to no one in particular. “He doesn’t want to tell me.”
Later that day, I saw an MLS listing for a bungalow on his Facebook page, forwarded by his girlfriend.
When I reached out to him a second time, a week later, and again did not hear back, I was fairly certain of my inner knowing. And much to my surprise, I felt rattled and sad.
Not so much because he may or may not be buying a house with his girlfriend. (I still do not know for certain, nor is it really any of my business.) But because, in that moment, I realized I had been holding on to an unspoken agreement we never made. Something like, “We may be divorced but you and I are in this together. Forever.”
I was shocked. I had no idea.
I have often referred to mine as the “lucky divorce.” (Which sounds like it should come with soup, egg roll and an almond cookie.)
For a long time we were one another’s “In Case of Emergency” person. We left passwords unchanged, and nursed each other’s broken hearts in post-divorce attempts at romance.
I never had to hunt down my spousal support. I knew the money would be in my account on the 15th of the month, the same way I knew he would always be there. Until he wasn’t.
Perhaps my divorce wasn’t so “lucky” after all, as it seems more than possible that this underlying, unspoken (not even to myself) agreement may have kept me from truly seeking out another partnership, or at the very least, being open to one.
I shared all of this with my friend Robin. She replied, “He’s not your husband anymore.”
Not exactly news. And yet, on some deep, gut, primal level — it was. And I finally “got it.” So perhaps I can finally let go of it.
It reminds me of when I returned to an old boyfriend, many years after we had broken up, to make amends for where I had been wrong in that relationship.
“You wanted a partner, I wanted a parent,” I said. (Not surprisingly, he was 17 years my senior.) Tears streamed down his face as the words slipped past my lips. He hugged me hard, harder than he ever had in the time we were together.
“Why are you crying,” I asked.
“Because I am.”
I understood. I saw the truth. I saw what he knew all along. Finally. It was as if I had slipped back through the rabbit hole and we were living in the same reality, more than 15 years after the end of our brief relationship.
I used to use the Birchwood Kitchen as my office away from my office.
It was at the center of where I often found myself when I was neither at home nor at work. For the cost of an iced tea (and sometimes not even that, as I was a “regular” and often received drinks and desserts “on the house”) I had a place where I could check my emails, do some writing, take meetings or just stop and sit in between where I was and where I was going.
Sometimes the Art Institute feels like that too. Like today — Artist Date 96.
I’m sitting in the member lounge drinking puerh ginger tea and checking Facebook on my phone. Behind me, a couple is telling the bartender their story. It appears they met online — he is from London — and they are meeting now for the first time. Perhaps not now exactly — but this day, this week, this visit. It sounds crazy and exciting. I wonder how it will all turn out. I wonder if the bartender wonders, or if she is even listening.
My ex-husband used to love to come here because it made him feel just a little bit like a big shot. Flashing his card and drinking free coffee. And hey, who doesn’t like to feel just a little bit like a big shot every once in a while.
I suppose in some small way, that is what membership is about. A reward for faithfulness and patronage. Be it a free beverage, a bag with a logo, discounts or a place to stop in between here and there. And when done well, evokes a sense of identity and belonging. “One of us.”
It whispers to my unrealized teenage dream of attending art school, which at the time, I thought was the only way to be an artist. (I was wrong.)
I am reminded of this as I make my way downstairs to the Edith Stein: Master Weaver exhibit.
The exhibit is small, and there is just one other person in the gallery viewing the work. (There are two Art Institute employees here also — one of them, in my opinion, talking too loudly.)
It doesn’t move me in quite the way I had hoped. I imagined my internal seven-year-old, the one who made potholders on a plastic loom with loopers, awakened, inspired to create. Instead, I am completely enchanted by this 90-something-year-old woman.
Trained in sculpture, she turned her attention to textiles when she was in her 60s. A video loops over and again, showing her working in the studio — clad in heavy sneakers, mixing dye in a pot on top of the stove and immersing wool yarn into it as if it was pasta.
I sit on the bench in the center of the room, watching the short film several times. It is both soothing and inspiring. I want to be like her. Still working, still passionate, respected, at the top of her game.
I want to be like her when I am in my 90s. I want to be like her now.
A month has passed since I returned home from my solo sojourn to Italy. It feels like forever ago.
Life comes on — quickly, strong, demanding — and I struggle to hold on to the peace and freedom I felt abroad. The joy in getting lost, not knowing the answer — or sometimes even the question, in being alone. My face looks pinched — the wrinkle between my eyebrows, smoothed by Umbria, has returned.
The decisions I made, the desires of my heart — to live overseas, to publish a book (or more to the point, to be published) — begin to slip into the category of “all talk.”
I recently read that most people would prefer to fail by not trying than fail by trying. I get it. I understand. I wish I didn’t.
And so I find myself at Pizzeria Sera on a Tuesday night listening to six women tell stories about how and where and when they found confidence — hoping to be inspired, or at the very least, to borrow some — Artist Date 94. The monthly event, called About Women, is the brainchild of my friend Nikki Nigl. A force of confidence, not to mention nature, in her own right.
The mere decision to be here bolstered mine some, helping move me forward in the hours before arriving.
Sitting at the computer, doing nothing but waiting for something to happen, I mutter, “Do something. Anything.”
I write an email and send it off. (Two somethings. Write — one. Send — two.) A few lines to the sister of a friend of a friend who just returned from Spain, where she taught English for several years. I ask if she might meet me for coffee and share her experiences — how she got there, what it was like.
I tell myself it is something. It is enough and move on with my day — meeting with my rabbi a final time before he leaves our congregation. We talk about his departure, my desires, and deciphering the will and whim of the universe. Especially when it seems to only speak in whispers.
It feels like a game of telephone and I constantly wonder if I’m hearing it right.
Until I get to the parking lot, into my car and check Facebook.
“Anyone want a job in Portugal NOW?”
The post describes an academic coach position at a school outside of Lisbon. Scrolling down, I am tagged. “Lesley Pearl, could it be you?”
My heart swells, leaps. Not because I believe I will get the job and move to Portugal (although I might), but because the universe seems to be speaking loudly, clearly — the message undeniable,”Yes, Lesley, it is possible.”
Settled at home, I write a response. It begins, “Yes.” (Three somethings.) Shortly thereafter, I am Skype-ing with a teacher at the school in Portugal, the one who extended the possibility, dangled the carrot — gathering more information. (Four.)
Turns out I’m right on course, so say an advertising executive, a scientist, a minister, a mud wrestler, a mother and a writer — this month’s About Women storytellers. While the details differ, at the core of each woman’s parable is fear — and the decision to do “it” anyway. Ask for a raise. Leave a job. Leave a husband. Take an improv class. Ride a roller-coaster. Pet a dog. Live as an outsider.
Each took action when the pain of inaction became too great. Was no longer an option. Or when “the worst that could happen” seemed less scary than living with “what if” and “I coulda.” And their confidence blossomed.
“Stop focusing on the heart-pounding, vomit-inducing, brick-shitting aspect of everything and start focusing on the payoff,” Kira Elliot — a personal trainer, mud wrestler and Mary Kay Sales Director — says from the stage. “Pretend until the point of no return…then reap the rewards.”
Post Script. Three days after the event, I send a resume and cover letter to the school in Lisbon. I am amazed to see the resistance in myself. Fear masquerading as logic and practicality. It feels “heart-pounding, vomit-inducing and brick-shitting.” I fazê-lo de qualquer maneira. (That’s Portuguese for “I do it anyway.”)
I’ve been waiting nearly six months for this. Not this exactly. But something like it.
Not waiting exactly. I stopped doing that, having expectations, a long time ago. But those close to me assured me I would hear something – some sort of word or gesture or acknowledgment – someday.
Tuesday is someday.
I am leaving dinner with my girlfriends at the Birchwood Kitchen. Lindsey and I are considering going to Martyrs to hear an Afro-Caribbean band. Our friend Toast has put us on the guest list.
I look down at my phone. There’s a Facebook message. It is from Mr. 700 Miles.
My heart stops.
Mr. 700 Miles. The first man who ever walked out of my life without a word. (Strangely, I have had this experience twice now. I’m certain there is some sort of lesson in here I haven’t yet mastered.)
A man I grew up with but didn’t really know. He lives about 700 miles from Chicago – ergo the name.
He was going through a divorce when we reconnected on Facebook. I was on the other side of mine. Our stories were remarkably similar. Very quickly, an intimacy blossomed between us – first in status updates. Then in private messages, telephone calls and Skype dates.
I was smitten. I felt like I’d always known him. And at the same time, like I’d been waiting my whole life to meet him.
And then one day he was gone. No call. No text. No Facebook message.
I reached out to him a single time – about five days after missing our Skype date – and left him a message telling him it was clear he couldn’t “do this.” That I had no desire to convince him otherwise. And that I was sad. Sad we weren’t “doing this.” But more than that, sad he couldn’t tell me.
I reminded him we were friends. That we had always been friends. I told him I wasn’t angry, and implored him to contact me. To tell me what was going on for him.
Two hours later, when I hadn’t heard from him, I knew that I wouldn’t.
And then, Tuesday…”Hey.”
I looked up from my phone, leaned into Lindsey and said, “Let’s go hear music and dance.” My reaction surprised me.
Once upon a time I would have freaked out. I would have burst into tears. Or worse, burst into drama.
Once upon a time I would have dashed home (no mind that I had other plans) and called or messaged him and waited for his reply. Or if I did go out, I would check my phone all night. Or at the very least, I would talk about it, about him, and nothing else – all night.
That’s not what happened.
Instead, I sent a text to a mentor and friend who knows every intimate detail of the story of Mr. 700 Miles. I let her know I had received his message. That I was going to hear music with Lindsey. And planned to do nothing until morning.
And Lindsey and I did talk about it, about him – some. And we talked about other things too.
She marveled at my calm. I felt empowered.
“I’ve been ‘waiting’ six months. He can wait a night. Let him squirm.”
These are not my words. But there they were.
And then we danced. At times, we were the only ones on the floor. I felt confident and sexy. I wondered if the bass player was single. I did not check my phone a single time.
Around 10:30, we left.
When I arrived home, I went to his Facebook page. Some wise, intuitive part of me guided me there. His status read, “I was hacked please don’t open messages.” (No punctuation.)
My heart sank a little. Not because I wanted him “back.” Not because I still wanted to “do this.” Because I thought I might get an answer. A courtesy. Because I thought my friends might be right.
Because I thought he might prove to be closer to the man I thought he was, instead of the frightened boy he turned out to be. Because I missed my friend.
But in that sinking, I recognized a victory. A miracle, really. My response, or lack thereof. And it was all mine, regardless of who reached out to me, Mr. 700 Miles or his Hacker. I acted different. I was different. I didn’t try to be. I just was.
I didn’t just feel empowered, I was empowered. I didn’t just feel confident and sexy, I was confident and sexy.
The last time I saw Patsy was at my wedding – nearly 13 years ago. She officiated, combining Jewish, Hindu, Native American and British elements into a ceremony that spoke to both of our hearts and sensibilities.
I spoke to her yesterday for the first time in more years that I can count – not quite 13, but far too long.
We talked about Mickey – her mom – who had just died and what that felt like for her. About meeting in Israel on a press trip nearly 20 years ago. And so much of what had happened in the in between. Things we caught in passing, in pithy Facebook posts and the occasional email.
She had no real sense of what had happened between my ex and me. Or even that I had (happily) given up the fight with alcohol nearly seven years ago.
And because she had not been with me for every step, every man, every tear and nuance of the journey – she saw the story, my story, far differently than me. Her reflections were, in a word, a revelation.
She had recently asked me in an email if there was “someone special” in my life.
It was the question I have come to expect. To brace myself for. To both love and despise – as it can feel both hopeful and humiliating, depending on the day, my mood and the current state of my heart.
I told her that I did not. That it hurt my heart to write that.
I told her about the suggestion that I not date for a year after my divorce. How that was pretty easy as no one was really asking. (Which is not exactly true. More to the point would be, no one I was interested in was asking.) And how that year had come and gone.
I told her I had met some extraordinary men, experienced some wonderful emotional intimacy and some wonderful romance. But none had been truly available for one reason or another.
I told her I am online, like every other schlub, although it is not how I imagine meeting someone. And to keep me and my big, juicy, open heart in her thoughts and manifestations.
It was “my story.” The one I tell myself. The one I tell here.
Yesterday, she helped me tell the next chapter. It had a decidedly different feel.
I told her about the “romantic friendship” with my spiritual-traveling twin. About the man nearly 13 years my junior, who has been dancing around me (and me, him) for some months, and our breakfast date that morning. And about a similar dance I have been doing with a man who looks a lot like Daniel Day Lewis – my ex’s doppelganger.
I told her about the friend who continues to tell me, “I’m still interested.” How my feelings remain platonic. And that I have no desire to try to “make them” otherwise.
And I told her about a new man – the chef – who I actually did meet online. We’ve had just a few dates, and my feelings feel “right sized.” He is easy to talk to and I have fun spending time with him. I find him attractive and I like how he kisses.
“I think you are very genuine,” he blurted across the table a few nights ago. I like that too. Because it is kind and observant, but mostly because it is true.
Patsy replied, “You ARE dating a lot of men right now. You are having fun. You just haven’t settled on one.”
It was true. It IS true. It sounds different from “I am still not in a relationship,” even though the actual details are the same. And it feels different.
She added that in the nearly 20 years she has known me, that I have always had men in my orbit. Always. That I have always been attractive to men. Always.
This was news. I had not seen it that way.
Seems I have spent the past 30-plus years mostly noticing the time in between. The times of breakup and/or longing. And believing that everyone else was constantly in relationship – meaningful relationship – and wondering why I was not.
She reminded me of the other chef. The one I dated before my ex-husband.
And I recalled the hotel bartender in Israel who suggested I show him the pictures in my room. When I replied, “I think you’ve seen all the pictures in all of these rooms,” he asked if I was a lesbian. Earlier he had asked if I was “an alcoholist,” as I turned down a drink. Close enough.
I chose an evening with my new press-trip friends (among them, Patsy) over an overseas fling, and a good story to be certain. I chose to be the lesbian alcoholist.
And in that recalling, I saw myself as Patsy saw me. (And likely, many others.) Attractive. Discerning. At choice. I have always been at choice…in relationships. And now, in how tell my story.
Big Kahuna Yard Sale. The Chicago Mosaic School. Viva Vintage Clothing.
I am walking down Ravenswood Avenue, following the elevated Metra rail tracks. A pathway I have taken hundreds of times. Except that I usually don’t go south of Montrose. I haven’t had a reason to. And I usually walk on the east side only.
Artist Date 82.
Earlier tonight I ditched my plans to attend an end of Ramadan feast for Muslims and Jews. I am tired and overwhelmed and this small gesture seems like a big step towards self-care.
It is not easy as I am of the variety who fears missing out on something fantastic. Of the variety more comfortable going and doing than sitting and being. Even though I have maintained a meditation practice for more than 12 years. Even though I make my living, in part, doing massage – the stillest work I can imagine.
I like an Artist Date rich with stimulation – music, prayer, food, potential tumult. Like an end of Ramadan feast.
But today I choose to fill myself in the quietest, stillest way I know how. Doing one of the only two things that made any sense to me during my divorce and for months after. I am walking. (Writing being the other.) Walking somewhere familiar. (Ravenswood between Lawrence and Montrose.) And then somewhere new. (Ravenswood between Montrose and Irving Park.)
It seems like such innocuous newness. Hardly worth mentioning. And yet, I see all sorts of things for the first time.
A Latin restaurant. A pilates studio. Ballroom dancing lessons.
A beer-tasting room. Several artist studios. AVEC painted on a building. And again on a bridge.
I take photographs of the tags and send them to a friend along with a text that reads, “Um…how do you pronounce that?!”— referencing the hotel concierge who suggested he and his date have dinner at (emphasis on hard A)vec.
He texts back “Aye-Veck!” and “Aw, Heck” and continues on and on in French. I get about two-thirds of it, then confess I know just enough French to order pastry and ask for directions without embarrassing myself in Paris. (I may or may not understand the response, depending on the speed of the speaker.)
We go back and forth like this for a bit and I realize I am very much AVEC. I am very much WITH my friend. Which is lovely and fun. I adore him and we laugh a lot. But this is not why I am here, wandering Ravenswood Avenue, alone.
I think about the rules I created early on for my Artist Dates: Do not do anything I wouldn’t do on a “real” date. Answer a telephone call or text. Listen to music. Check Facebook on my phone.
Eighty-two dates in, I’ve loosened up on the rules, perhaps even forgetting them – until now.
I stop texting and slip the phone in my pocket.
I am amazed how quickly, how easily I can be pulled from myself, from one moment into another, from what is right in front of me.
Forty-five minutes ago I took my ear buds out and paused Aretha Franklin on Pandora. The sound of the Queen of Soul distracted me from myself, so I put the music away. Now the words and this relationship distract me. I put them away too and return to myself.
I am nearly seven years sober and I am sitting in a bar by myself. On its face, this does not sound like a good thing. Except that it is a very good thing.
I’m at Story Club – a monthly “live literature” event where three featured performers tell true-life stories, and three audience members, invited up at random – their names pulled from a monkey carved out of a coconut, the words “Have Fun” scrawled onto the base – do the same. Artist Date 81.
My feet are slick with massage oil and slosh around in my orange peep-toe wedges. My head throbs, a reminder of the two cysts I had removed from my scalp just this morning.
I take a seat at a table up front, and immediately wonder if I should sit on a stool at the bar instead – where “singles” sit. Even though I have trouble seeing and hearing and engaging when I am that far from the stage.
I wonder if I should see if I can join another party of one at one of the banquettes against the wall.
I wonder if it is ok to take up this much space – me alone. It is a question that has haunted me my entire life.
I stay at the table, order a club soda with lime juice, pull out my reading glasses and dive into my book.
I am sitting at a bar alone with a club soda and a book.
At the table to my right, a gaggle of girls talk about San Francisco. About writing. And about a secret Facebook group of women writers – 26,000 strong.
I want to tell them I used to live in San Francisco. That I too have been wooed into the fold of these female wordsmiths. That they both excite and frighten me. And that I’m not even sure how I came to know them. But I say nothing.
My name is pulled from the coconut monkey – the first of the evening. I climb to the stage, take a breath and begin reading…”The waxy brown cotton of my lapa feels soft between my fingers. Like my body. Like my heart.”
My voice is sing-song-y and gentle. A heightened version of what I call my massage voice. It is sweet and loving, lilting and melodic. It tells you the things you wish your mother had told you. That you are human. That you are lovely. That you are good.
I hear my poetry professor Catherine Kaikowska reading her work – perched on top of a desk. Her legs crossed, Diet Coke in hand. Hair wild. “Deja-rendevous. Deja rende, rendezvous.” Hypnotic. I could swim in her voice.
But I would like to drown my own. I have fallen out of love with it. My voice. My story. Just this moment. I am bored with it. All of it.
I have not written about love and pain and loss. I have not written about sex. I have written about my connection to my body, to my spirit. It feels esoteric. Less familiar. Less sexy.
I have left out the juicy bits. The part about tearing off my lapa – my West African dance skirt – and jumping into a pond naked with my crush after the sweat lodge. The part about him plucking me out of the water – naked – when my strength failed me and I could not pull myself onto the high dock.
I have not written about any of it. I have not given him a clever moniker and chronicled the story of my heart. I have held it instead. Held my heart. Held my words. It feels unfamiliar. Untrue. It is the story I am used to telling.
But tonight, James and Carmen tell it instead.
James (AKA GPA – Greatest Poet Alive) who has committed to memory the story of Maria breaking his 5th-grade heart when she circled “no” in response to the query in his note – “Will you be my girlfriend? Yes? No?” Not even a maybe. Not even a spritz of Geoffrey Beene’s Grey Flannel to the paper could sway her.
Carmen who invites us into her bedroom and her psyche at the moment when her friend with benefits asked her to talk dirty to him in Spanish. Her words are funny and irreverent, honest and sad. She rolls her Rs and says things like, “Aye, Poppi.” She feels like a caricature.
They are storytellers.
I fear that I am not. That I am only a writer. At least right now.
Carmen – one of the gaggle of girls talking about San Francisco and the secret group of women writers – tells me otherwise. As does James, when we gather together after the final performance.
My story is lush, he says. That he closed his eyes while I read. Listened to my words. Let my voice paint the pictures for him.
He let my lilting, sing-song-y massage voice – the voice that tells you that you are human, that you are lovely, that you are good – my storyteller’s voice, tell him a new story.