I have not waited tables in more than 20 years. Until today.
As expected, not a lot has changed. Waiting tables remains a satisfying exercise in short-term relationships, being sassy and being shiny. Except orders go in via computer now as opposed to directly on the rail.
And my body has something to say about it.
After six-plus hours on the floor, I hurt in all the places I expected to. And some I didn’t.
My shins ache. And although I haven’t eaten in hours, I’m not hungry.
In about 18 hours I leave for Tennessee to visit my mother. I haven’t packed.
And yet, I am flying down Lincoln Avenue in a red and white polka-dot skirt, Fly London Wedges and bubble-gum pink lipstick. My bike lights are on. My heart is full. I feel happy.
Art trumps fatigue. Friendship trumps fatigue. Commitment trumps fatigue.
And so I land here, in a seat at the Steppenwolf Theatre. Artist Date 4.2 (or 120, depending on how you count).
It is the student showcase – the culmination of 10 weeks of classes at the School of the Steppenwolf Theatre. My friend Tom, one of the students, mentioned this a week or so ago. I penciled it in my book and assured him I’d be there.
Tom has built me a dining room table. Installed my air-conditioner. And is also a fan, dare I say devotee, of Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way.
I was never not going to be here.
Even though I thought about it. Even though my shins had other ideas.
One-hundred twenty Artist Dates under my belt and I’m still shocked how every single one shifts me. That the commitment in my calendar means something. My commitment to my blog. To myself. And in this instance, my friend.
That every time I begin, I feel delighted. Joyous. Like my heart might burst. No matter how or what I was feeling 20 minutes earlier.
That it really takes so little to make me happy … other than me treating me. Leaving behind the shoulds and have-tos for a little while.
Like when my aunt whisked me away on a few hours shopping excursion during a lull in the weekend of my brother’s Bar Mitzvah celebration. She thought perhaps a certain 10-year-old with a Dorothy Hamill wedge might enjoy one-on-one attention, and some fancy new duds for middle school – which she had gift-wrapped after we picked them out.
Going on an Artist Date is like that. Like being Aunt Ellie to my 10-year-old self.
Except I’m 46. My shins hurt. And I’ve grown up enough to have space and attention for the person on stage.
I didn’t for my brother. I was only 10.
But I do for Tom.
When the lights go up and the entire ensemble takes a bow, I jump to my feet along with half of the audience. Clapping wildly. Tears streaming down my face.
There’s a wonderful scene in the second to last episode of Sex and the City — where the camera zooms in and in slow motion Aleksandr Petrofsky lets go of Carrie Bradshaw’s hand, the one he had asked her for a few hours earlier in a moment of anxiety and doubt.
“Promise me you will not let go,” a nervous Petrofsky says, fiddling with his cufflinks as he dresses for his art show opening.
Carrie nods, forgoing the party held in her honor — perhaps the first and only experience of and for herself in the City of Light.
Upon entering the gallery, Petrofsky’s fear is quickly assuaged by applause. Forgetting his words, he releases Carrie’s hand, ultimately releasing her.
I am telling this story to the man lying next to me on the futon.
We are making out like teenagers. Except that I never did this when I was a teenager. It is sweet. Tender. New. My whole body is humming.
I feel his weight on top of me and suddenly feel small, pressed down, vulnerable. My body is no longer humming. In fact, I am slipping out of it. “He will move soon and do something else,” I think. “It is fine.”
But it is not fine.
There is nothing aggressive or threatening about this gesture. He is not too heavy on top of me. In fact, I crave his nearness, and yet I am triggered by it.
I don’t know why. I don’t really care. I only know that I desperately want to return to the place where my body hums.
And I intuitively know the only way back is through — through my mouth, my voice, my truth.
I ask him to move. Kindly. Gently. Assuring him he has done nothing wrong, because he hasn’t. Assuring him that this is “my stuff.”
He rolls on to his side, kisses my forehead and strokes my cheek, and asks me what I need from him.
“Nothing,” I say. And it is true. I have exactly what I need. I have myself.
And in this seemingly insignificant moment I see the hundreds of times I have told myself everything was “fine” when it was not — saying nothing. Enduring, hoping, praying something would change, but not recognizing my role in changing it. In sex. In love. In work. In friendship. In family.
I get teary with the realization that I have never advocated for myself in this way before. I tell him this and the Carrie-Petrofsky story.
“I feel like I have held on to my own hand,” I say.
A few nights later we are again lying on the futon, under the front window that faces a church.
I am wearing decidedly less clothing than I was the previous time we were together. I feel myself slipping out of my body again.
“I want my pants back on,” I blurt out.
“Too fast?” He asks. “Too fast,” I reply.
“Yes, for me too,” he says, helping me slip back into my skinny corduroys. Zipping them, I almost immediately slip back into my body — reveling in all of the sensations created by my new partner.
I think of all of the times I have had sex when I didn’t want to. Because I thought I should. Because I thought it was expected. Because I had wanted it but changed my mind and didn’t really believe I was allowed to, that I could. Turns out — I can.
“I held on to my own hand again,” I tell him, grinning.
He smiles back, his hands tracing the seams of my corduroy jeans, kissing me like the teenager I never was.
The first time when I left Seattle — my therapist gave me a copy of the poem “Love After Love” by Derek Walcott.
The time will come
when, with elation
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror,
and each will smile at the other’s welcome.
and say, sit here. Eat
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back you heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you
all your life, whom you have ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letter from the bookshelf,
the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on you life.
The second time was a few months later, when my friend Sarah sent me a text, a photograph of a page in a book and a couple of highlighted lines — I do not remember the exact language, something about “holding on to the jewel that is myself” and “no more compromises.”
Both sounded like a bunch of pretty words and glib proclamations — neither which I could relate to.
My heart was broken. I was broken. Being alone was the worst thing I could imagine, as I was sure it was an indicator of what my future looked like.
I wanted to dress my wounds with the skin of another, healing from the outside in — although I didn’t realize it at the time.
And yet, I put the Walcott poem up on my refrigerator, next to a portion of the poem “Dreams of Desire” by Oriah House…
I want to know if you can be alone
and if you truly like the company you keep
in the empty moments.
…and next to a tiny square of paper that had fallen from one of my journals. It was old — leftover from my single days in my 20s in Detroit. I do not know the source.
Most of us approach things exactly the wrong way around. First we want someone else to make us feel secure by lavishing us with affection and approval. But what you find out is that you are the source of love. When you have done the right inner work, you find that those black holes, those persistent needs and demands have been covering up the source of love, the boundless ocean of love within you.
It seems a higher part of me deeply understood the power of words and of seeing the same words day after day, and it believed in the ability of words to burrow into my subconscious and change me.
And so I find myself aching to be alone and responding with what Twyla Tharp calls “the creative habit” — the Artist Date, number 107.
It is unplanned.
I see posters for the show “Archibald Motley: Jazz Age Modernist” on my way into work and decide to go. I mention this, throwing in the words “Artist Date,” to my colleague Nancy.
“Oh that’s right…you have a date tonight,” she says, not quite hearing or grasping what I have said.
It is true, I do have a date tonight — the first in many, many months. But first I have a date with myself, I explain.
I bound up the stairs of the Chicago Cultural Center as if to meet a lover. Instead, I meet myself along with the paintings that have called me here.
They are vibrant, sensual, humorous — each telling a story that can only be told by one who has lived it.
Gazing in silence, the chatter of my mind clears. I can hear my breath, my heart. I can feel the cool of lush trees and grass and even a man’s suit — painted an Easter green in “Sunday in the Park.” I can feel the heat of pink bodies — all breasts and asses, high heels and cigarettes (Delightful!) in “Between Acts.”
I can feel my own body soften and fill with a sense of contentedness that comes with giving myself what I need most — in this moment it is time, attention, quiet, a sense of normalcy.
Perhaps this is why I take an Artist Date today — before a more traditional one– so that I might fill myself with these things and not mistakenly ask another to, so that I might have a chance to greet myself at my own door and feast.
I feel like somebody’s cranky grandmother, but I can’t help myself.
This is my religion. The dancers and choreographers, my gods. And it requires my complete attention.
It feels like blasphemy as I type the words, but it is true. The stirring between my legs. It rises up my spine like Kundalini energy uncoiling, to my heart – which leaps, and spreads as a flush across my chest and face. What is usually reserved for sexual liaison – either alone or with a partner – comes to me in dance. Really good dance.
Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater is really good dance.
This is my seventh time seeing the company, which may sound like a lot –until compared to Sheila, who I met during the pre-performance cocktail reception. She and her husband have seen Ailey every year since the company’s inception in 1958. It is, perhaps, their religion too.
The first time I saw Ailey I was 24. I watched, rapt. My former lover — the sexiest man I had ever known – at my side. We spent a month together. Twenty-nine days more than I expected. This was our only “real date.”
The second time I saw Ailey I was in the middle of an alcoholic relapse, although I didn’t know it at the time. Following yet another month-long stint without drinking, an effort to prove myself “not alcoholic,” I conveniently forgot all the reasons I had put down the drink and picked it up again that night.
I saw the company three more times. Each of them sober. In Chicago. Once, with my then-husband, the other two with girlfriends.
This is my first time seeing Ailey alone – Artist Date 65.
It feels significant.
Significant because I have treated myself to good seats. Dress Circle. Row AA.
I have learned I cannot watch dance from the cheap seats – looking down on it from up above. I have to see it straight on. As I do most things.
I’ve admittedly been spoiled. Much like the first time I flew overseas, when the German Consulate paid for my Business Class ticket on Lufthansa. It is hard to go back.
It is the same with men.
Significant because there is a cocktail reception before the show and I don’t drink, have a wing man, or a purpose for mingling other than “just because.”
Ever fiber in my body says arrive late, skip the schmooze and head straight for my seat. But I resist. I have been taught courage is not a lack of fear. It is feeling it and moving forward anyway. I am strangely curious to see what will happen.
I meet a gaggle of girls in their 30s. They have never seen Ailey.
We talk about their work. City politics. Chicago neighborhoods.
We talk about my Artist Date. My blog. Boys.
I meet the “since-1958 Ailey fans,” and their daughter – a dancer.
I navigate the plush stairs and the too-small type on my ticket on my way to my seat. My dance instructor calls out my name. We embrace and all at once, Chicago feels like a town. My sense of connectedness expands.
The theatre darkens. The dancers emerge.
“Night Creature.” From 1974. I have seen it before. Like “Revelations,” Ailey’s signature piece that closes every show. I remember the polka-dot light patterns on the floor.
It is both familiar and fresh. I feel the leap in my heart. And a knot in my stomach.
The women to my left are whispering – non-stop.
I pray for patience. For tolerance. I pray they will stop. Useless. I turn and put my finger to my lips. “Shhh.” It is quiet.
At intermission, I feel a hand on my shoulder. It is one of the women I “shhh-d.” She offers apologies, which I quickly and easily accept.
“Do you dance?” she asks.
I tell her I do. She says that she used to, and everything melts between us. We are connected. We are the same.
Until she tells me about her dance history.
Although not a dance major, she danced seven days a week as an undergraduate student at Washington University, filling her free hours with courses in ballet, modern, and jazz. I reflect on my four years at Michigan State University – smoking pot and drinking with the big boys.
I do not feel like a dancer.
My five-plus years in West African dance classes – beginning at the age of 39 – feel small in comparison. Amateurish. Perhaps they are.
I ask her to take a picture with me for my blog. “Two dancers,” she announces, as if reading my mind.
I choose to believe her. To allow my status to be independent of her experience. Of Sheila’s.
I’ve been having a hard time getting myself out on weekly Artist Dates. Ever since I hit that “magic” one-year mark.
Maybe it’s because, as suggested, I didn’t date for a year after my divorce became final. The passing of 52 Artist Dates meant that that year had passed. And perhaps on some subconscious level I thought it was time to date others instead of myself.
Even though nothing, absolutely nothing, has changed in my romantic life. Even though I don’t even have a crush. And for perhaps the first time in my life, the world still feels full of possibilities. That is a big change in my romantic life.
Or maybe it’s because maintenance is hard. Of anything. Eating well, moving my body and maintaining a healthy weight. Staying sober. Meditating. Artist Dates.
Each serves me, makes me feel better, be better in the world. It would seem I would only want to perpetuate these patterns. But somehow it doesn’t work that way.
My brain is a liar. It tells me “I’ve got this.” Which, when it does, is the exact moment I need to redouble my efforts. And I need other people to do that. To remind me that my brain is, in fact, a liar. And of what actions I can take anyway.
It’s why I work for Weight Watchers. Surround myself with sober individuals. And probably why I only meditate in the morning but not the evening, even though Vedic meditation is a twice-daily practice. I’ve been doing it alone ever since I left California in 2007.
The Artist Date is a solo process. No one would know, or probably care, if I did or did not engage in it. Except me. By stating my intention and blogging about it, I invite others in, and I stay in the action of it. Action that always makes me feel better.
So I was grateful when I saw a Facebook post from my friend Lori late Friday night, asking if anyone was available to be background talent for a music video she was filming the following day. Without thinking, I said “yes” – Artist Date 55.
“Who knows?” I thought. “Perhaps I will meet Mr. Right…”
By morning I wasn’t so sure about that. When I opened Lori’s email with details for the shoot, I found myself feeling incredibly resistant. So much so, I told her I may have spoken too soon.
I shared my “dilemma” with a friend who reflected back to me that I am a woman who does what she says. And so I did.
But when I arrived, the first words out of my mouth were, “Do you have enough people? Because if you do…” Yes, she said, adding, “If you have somewhere to be, go…”
But I didn’t.
Knowing that, something shifted. And I decided to stay.
I took a seat on an empty bench where the Windy City Rollers practice and watched the girls go around and around in circles, fading in and out of the fog of the smoke machine – the set for the music video, for a song written by one of the skaters, Xoe.
I joined about a dozen extras as a Windy City Rollers fans. Our job was to rush the red team after winning the bout. To jump up and down and high-five the skaters, and each other. Simple enough…even for a non-sports fan like myself. But first, we waited.
I watched the big cameras zooming in and out. Xoe’s stunt double — dressed like a guardian angel with wings, a wand and a sequined dress — “saving her” from herself, and knocking out a couple of the Rollers in the process. I looked at the snack table and thought it could use a makeover. That I would replace some of the donuts, Oreos and chips with fresh fruit and vegetables, hummus and low-fat cheese. But nobody asked me.
A woman I know just a little, but like quite a bit, showed up and she and I talked like old friends for the better part of the afternoon – telling stories about boys, our bodies and travel.
I noticed the high concentration of men on the set – lots of tattoos and wool hats. But I didn’t “recognize” my mate.
The day ended with a whack upside the head. Literally. It was an accident.
During a “pretend” fight scene,I leaned into the fist of a wisp of a girl standing next to me. She apologized profusely. I laughed. It somehow seemed right. Like I had definitely “connected.”
This morning, I put my hand to my forehead. It was sore. A little tender spot reminding me of how much I fight myself. And of how I can save myself – no wand or wings required.
The night before I left Seattle, I asked if I might take them with me. The thin cotton ones, navy, with a drawstring. Somewhere there is a matching top. Somewhere.
I turned my ex on to men’s pajamas years ago, as I had been turned on by the man I dated before him. Mornings I would pad around his house in Berkeley, wearing his pjs while he made us French-press coffee. I liked to wear his overalls too.
He often remarked that I should get my own – of both. That year for Hanukkah, I bought him a pair of silk pajamas. Inside the card I wrote, “A room of one’s own. Pajamas of one’s own. I promise I won’t touch these.” Then I opened his gift to me – my own pair of overalls.
We laughed. A sort-of modern twist on O. Henry’s Christmas tale, The Gift of the Magi. Except neither of us had to give something away something we loved, to give something to someone we loved.
I stopped wearing men’s pj bottoms some time ago and had taken to wearing short, boy-short underwear and a wife beater – which was fine when it was just the two of us. But I was about to go on the road, traveling with my divorce buddy – a man – and staying with friends along the way. And when I arrived in Chicago, I would be living with a male friend of mine, temporarily.
Modesty, not something I usually subscribe to, grabbed hold of me, and I asked my ex if I could take his bottoms.
He looked at me sorts of sideways and said yes.
I have slept in them every night since. Loosely tied and rolled down twice at the waist so I don’t trip on them. They remind me of the pants my friend Tim’s roommate wore when he returned from Thailand, when he cranked the heat to 80 degrees and blasted the soundtrack to TheKing and I nonstop.
My mom attempted to buy me a new pair when I visited her in Tennessee in the spring. We picked some up at Target, just bottoms, but I didn’t like how they fit. Too much bunchy elastic at the waist. So she returned them for me. But we agreed I had to stop sleeping in my ex’s. My best girlfriend Julie and I had the same conversation when I stayed with her this summer.
I’m sure I would have had this conversation many times over if I had shared this with anyone else. But I didn’t. I was too ashamed. I knew it was kind of odd. Palpably and painfully so, pulling them on after sleeping with someone else.
Ten days ago, I threw them out. Crumpled them into the kitchen garbage bin, covering them with food scraps so I couldn’t pull them back out – fearful of a George Castanza-éclair-at-the-top-of-the-trash lapse.
A few days later I began sleeping for the first time in more than a year and a half. Really sleeping. Through the night, uninterrupted, for more than six hours. Waking up with the alarm, and longing for more.
Not long after I found myself crush-less, and for the first time in my life, not looking to conjure up a love interest.
I told a friend of mine I didn’t want to talk about the boy I slept with – the one with whom I pulled on the pajamas in question. The one who isn’t the one, but still takes up some residency in my head and in my heart from time to time. I told her that talking about him wasn’t helpful. In fact, it was painful. So I’d rather not do it.
And then I said no to being fixed up with a man who was recently divorced. I believe my exact words were, “Are you out of your mind?” I know the desperate crazy that is his life right now and I don’t want to be a part of it.
My words surprised me. But they felt like ridiculously good, albeit not-so-sexy, self-care too. Like sleeping. Like throwing away pajamas that belonged to my ex-husband.
I’ve returned to sleeping in the short, boy-shorts, but am on the lookout for a new pair of loose, drawstring bottoms. The kind that feel lived in, or have the potential to, and that are not flannel. Pajamas devoid of history. Pajamas of one’s own.
I thought that Passover was the last of the firsts…first holidays, birthdays, anniversaries without my ex-husband.
I was wrong.
I knew that July 4th was technically the last, but I didn’t think it would matter. It wasn’t of special significance to either of us.
And yet, here I am in my pajamas, feeling it. I’m sick. Sore throat. Heavy eyes. Headache. Exhausted. It came on fast and furious yesterday afternoon and by this morning had me down for the count. No beach and BBQ to distract me. I’m aware that yes, this holiday too, registers in the cycle of firsts.
Funny enough, we weren’t together for the 4th last year. I was on my way to Rwanda, with a group from my synagogue in Chicago. He was in Seattle, dating another woman. We were pretty transparent about these things. At times, painfully so.
But I was coming back to Seattle. To the home we still shared with our cats Maude and Nin. To “our life,” altered as it was.
It wasn’t until I left in August, arriving in Chicago the evening before Labor Day, when the cycle began.
Labor Day was a blur through tears. Then his birthday. Rosh Hashanah. Yom Kippur. Our wedding anniversary. And my birthday. In quick succession.
Our divorce was final on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year.
I didn’t have a dinner at my house as I usually do. I didn’t yet have a house.
Instead, when I received the dissolution of marriage papers in the mail a few days later, I gathered a few friends in support. We ate noodles together – never mentioning why we were there.
I broke the fast on Yom Kippur at a friend’s house. She let me know that once invited, I am always invited.
I don’t recall his birthday or mine. Or our anniversary. What I remember are the beautiful gifts he gave me for many years. A hand-carved wooden jewelry box. A hand-colored pearl and smoky quartz necklace I had been coveting. Things I mentioned in passing and had forgotten about, but that he made note of, and surprised me with.
Halloween passed without fanfare.
Then Thanksgiving hit hard. I was invited to the home of a friend of a friend. She also told me that once invited, always invited.
Thanksgiving was our “wandering” holiday, ever since we left California. Up until then we spent it with my old roommate Tim, who hosted it Martha Stewart-style, complete with printed menus.
Once year we traveled to Chicago to be with Tim, when he lived here for about 10 months. We called it “the year Tim worked a lot.” We were in complete denial that he was gone.
Another time we shared breakfast with him and Steven, at IHOP. We were on our way to London, for our honeymoon – just after 9/11. The airport was spooky quiet.
We never had a Thanksgiving ritual in Chicago or Seattle. We were always invited somewhere, but it was never the same. The only constant was that we were together.
I celebrated my sober birthday in late November with a big soiree at my house. He was noticeably absent. Neither there to make pot after pot of coffee nor to help clean up. I texted my South Carolina crush late that night, when everyone was gone and the last dish was in the rack, feeling palpably and frighteningly alone. He had already gone to bed.
I was invited to spend Christmas Eve with some new friends. Christmas Day I found myself at the table where I had spent Thanksgiving. My ex and I spoke frequently over those 24 or so hours, remembering our Christmas Eve gatherings – a take-off on my cousin Wendy’s annual party on Christmas Day for Jews who have nothing to do. I would make a big pot of mushroom risotto. He would bake. Christmas Day we would go to a movie.
We were both pretty heartsick. Both of us broken-hearted by our forays into new romance. We found comfort talking with one another.
New Year’s Eve I spent at a party at my friend Sheila’s house. I didn’t make it until midnight.
The year before we were skiing at Steven’s Pass. My ex rented a house that backed up to a river. It had a loft bedroom, crazy fireplace and heated floors. We sang karaoke and did jigsaw puzzles. I brought the knitting needles, yarn and instruction manual he bought me for Hanukkah. I never used them.
We bickered on the trails. He was a cross-country skate skier. I was not. In our early years together I took a few lessons and got moderately better. But I never really got the hang of it. We incorporated wine tasting into our ski weekends, drinking before or after. Sometimes both. It worked. Until it didn’t. When I didn’t drink anymore.
That last trip, I spent a few hours in the “lodge,” – an anonymous room where one could purchase chili, cookies wrapped in plastic film and powdered cocoa while the television blared. I read Patti Smith’s Just Kids, while he skied hard, the way he liked to.
This year on Valentine’s Day, I unearthed our last cards to one another. They were sad. We knew that our marriage was ending but hadn’t yet said the words. I blogged about it.
By March it was over. He asked me for a divorce at the end of that month, just before Passover.
I invited a handful of friends for a Seder in Seattle. He joined us. It didn’t seem unusual at the time.
This year I celebrated twice. Once at my friend Mary Jo’s. A second time in my apartment, looking out at the Catholic church across the street. There were 12 of us. Some of the usual suspects, friends I had made over the years in Chicago, as well as some new guests. My Divorce Buddy, the one I used to spend hours on the phone with late into the evening, stayed to do dishes with me. It didn’t feel so lonely. Not until he asked me about one of my girlfriends.
Memorial Day I rode my bike to a BBQ and blogged about where I was the year before – with my friend Ernie, at the ocean, wringing my hands about making out with Mr. Thursday Night, worried it wouldn’t happen again. It didn’t.
June 19 was the anniversary of our first date. I know that because it’s my brother’s birthday.
July 4. An entire cycle completed. Unless you count the first time we had sex, which I recall only because it is my cousin David’s birthday and we had drinks with him in San Francisco at the Latin American Club that night. That will be later this month. I don’t *think* it will rattle me as I’ve never marked the occasion before, just been aware of it.
The sun is going down. It is noisy outside. I am reminded of when we lived in Humboldt Park. July 4 felt like a war zone.
I was invited to a BBQ tonight by a man I recently met. He’s easy to talk to – open and forthright about his divorce. He’s a good hugger. Nice looking. I don’t have any feelings about him. But I’d like to get to know him better.
I sent him a text telling him I won’t make it tonight.
I made myself kale salad, roasted squash and corn on the cob. I read, napped, wrote and napped some more. I walked a few blocks to Paciaugo for gelato – campfire banana, orange-chocolate-saffron and rose – came home and put my pajamas back on.
It all seems right somehow, spending the last of my first alone. Caring for myself. Readying myself for a whole new cycle of experiences.