|Helena Fitzgerald||Jun 28, 2017|
The summer after college I went to a party and met a dude who told me that recently he’d gone to Greece and, while staying on a remote island, noticed that there was a part of town where the buildings didn’t have windows on one side. The windowless sides of the buildings all faced a big hole in the ground, one of those dug-out blank spaces that appear in cities when something is midway through construction. But what distinguished this one was that no buildings looked at it; every wall purposely turned its face away. One night he got drunk and while walking home, he felt himself inexplicably drawn to the hole in the ground, the place from which all the buildings had closed themselves off. He stood at the edge, swaying in the breeze of his own nauseous body and felt an overwhelming urge to throw himself into the hole. He stood there transfixed, unable to pull himself away. Finally one of his friends called his name and it snapped him out of his reverie and he went home to sleep. He went back again the next night - the pull was stronger, he wanted to throw himself into the hole and could not possibly have explained why. The next day someone told him that the island was supposed to be where the sirens of old mythology had once lived, where their bones were buried. A few hours later, he decided to cut his stay short, and left.
This dude told me this story about the sirens to try to get me to sleep with him and I didn’t sleep with him and I’ve been using his story to explain my own sexuality to people ever since. I would say that this must suck for him except of course he has no idea that this is the case - how many of us have people like that, who have gone off into the world carrying puzzle pieces and anecdotes we thoughtlessly handed them, who have constructed themselves from our off-hand comments, from conversations over a few hours, our lives spinning at the vectors of brief and unsustainable interactions. Most of the people to whom you are truly important, on whom you truly had any real influence or impact, are people you don’t care about and whom you won't ever see again.
In the summer of 2012 I lived on Prospect Park West, down at the end of it where it stops being so rich, where the private front yards disappear and the grass gives up to sidewalk and the garbage cans lean visible smells against each other. I ruined my whole life that summer and no summer ever felt more like a summer than that one did. It still sings in echoes each time the weather comes back around, now, each year a reminder, each summer a cover song. I showed up at his house late at night, up the three floors of sweating green carpet in the hall, my tongue racing my heart up through my throat. Almost every night we stayed out until the page breaks at the edges of the day where the weather gets bearable, the places where the morning hoards the breezes and good responsible people aren’t yet awake. Every other week I took the green and gray bus out to the Hamptons to stay with a family whose kids I was tutoring; out there I borrowed a bike and rode around at the end of the day until it got dark, peering into other people’s summers, watching the green lawns turn blue, trying to get up close enough against lives utterly unlike my own that they might consume me, break me down into raw material, to the honest building blocks of rock-bottom self. I sat out in the backyard late at night after everyone had gone to bed, on the phone with this person who had set his life on fire for me, dreaming a future we could never have together. It’s been almost five years now since we spoke, my skin shedding and remaking itself, loading furniture and boxes of books into cars and driving over bridges and carefully composing text messages and paying bills and editing the document of a self until nothing remains of the original, until we are entirely new, unknown to one another, written out of consequence.
I don’t know that I’ve ever felt more beautiful than I did that summer in that sick love, in cut off shorts and long legs and sloppy little t shirts, unafraid of my own skin and so terrified of everything else that nothing could matter, living in a strange undressed room where the floors left splinters under my fingers, and how my roommates must have hated me and how I didn’t care, measuring out my value against how someone was willing to undo himself for me. All I cared about was the way doing that something wrong with someone else feels more like being truly alone with them than it ever does any other time. We all want to be secret, a secret country with a secret map, we all want the miracle of discovering that some random stranger walking around out in the streets and going to work and coming home and checking their phone has our key codes, can turn all the locks. We want to be made to feel at once unknowable and known. Mostly our bodies are boring, bounded, factual and finite, just bodies, moving from place to place, powering up and shutting down. And yet these meat sacks contain our capacity for the unspeakable, the infinite, the promise of greater wonder that arrives in the moment when we are not comprehensible to ourselves. The humidity comes around another year and reminds me that I have never yet wound this up with the desire for a good and whole existence, that I have never managed to weave this cleanly into the ongoing story. What happens when the way you want is about abasement but then you decide to pull your life into coherency, to turn and live in the light? What things do you leave behind that could only root and bloom in darkness?
I started having sex for the first time - in the way that mattered, in the way that changed the relative shape and weight of all the objects in the world with which I came in contact – the summer after high school. That summer I drove a hybrid car that had a high-tech touchscreen dashboard in place of a simple speedometer and gas gauge and one day, as a joke, the person I was dating reset all its readouts to the metric system while I wasn’t looking. I perpetually found myself going slower than every other car on the highway, while the numbers in front of me said I was going 90/hour. It took me days to realize what was happening because it simply made sense to me that my understanding of the world had turned so illogical, that this first drowning experience of desire had moved me so far out of step with the ordinary world where people drove cars and went to jobs and had conversations, that of course I could no longer gauge or control the speed of my car.
Summer is the time for this stuff, the people like opium dens, the sirens for whom we throw ourselves off the ship against the sharp rocks, down into the abyss below the place where the walls don’t have windows. It's a time for sweat and secrets, a time to admit nothing and get no work done. It’s a difficult time for ambition, for squaring oneself with the world, for pulling oneself up from one rung to the next, for the coherent self of calendars and events, titles and certainties. It’s a time when clothes aren’t quite clothes and time isn’t quite time. For a long string of summers I lived my life at the ceaseless pitch of a perpetual unsustainable crisis. I had a very horrible time and a very good time. Now that I don’t live that way anymore, summer never quite feels right. I can never quite make the facts of it, the weight and the swamp, line up their edges to fit. I cant match a life of maintaining boundaries and cooking dinner up to what it feels like when I step outside onto the stoop and the humidity wraps bony, greedy hands around my skin, presses me back together into myself, the air insisting that I admit my body to the world.
In the summer New York falls apart, admits its seams, its ghosts, its basic enormous unfeasibility. The cracks show; this is a place that doesn’t actually work, a place that is better in theory than in practice. It’s happening with the subways now; each week the disasters get worse, moving from inconvenience to real danger. Someone at a party once told me they’d been one of the people stuck in the subway in the 1977 blackout and what they remembered most vividly was how sweat condensed and eventually dripped off of the metal poles overheard like some hellish slow rainstorm. Summer is when we learn who we are when everything falls apart, when life resists being lived in a decent, efficient, organized way, when the lie that living in a city is a dignified or defensible choice begins to visibly break down. Our bodies are summer cities, too, poorly planned and badly maintained, at once aggressively proud of themselves and neglectfully unloved, subject to electrical failures, driven by irresponsibility and propaganda. This is why summer is about sex; because in summer we are always so much closer to a pile of rubble, so much less able to claim coherency. The longing with which the siren’s song guts us is the desire to find out what happens when we fall apart, what’s left when our body is an unlivable city, with the power shut off and the trains crashed in the station, with all the air conditioners in the world unable to save us.
If you live in a city long enough, especially if you start out there when you’re young and stupid and throwing yourself at every choice like the canvas was large enough that no amount of paint could ruin it, then eventually every street corner becomes a place where you made out with someone, a place where you hailed a cab, a place where you didn’t want to go home. I went out to Brooklyn, to the old neighborhood, for a friend’s event, and at Atlantic and Flatbush every emotion I’d ever felt rushed at me in a neat line. I talk about watching friends get older, about watching the city get richer and slicker and more dishonest, but that day I felt like I was what had gentrified, and not the world around me. When I was growing up, my parents told me stories of themselves and their bad old days because they couldn’t stand the potentials that they had left in their own past, because they couldn’t quite live with the fact that the story had continued to close up its choices one by one, making the path clearer and narrower around them. Perhaps none of us can live with this, perhaps no one ever really gets over the tragedy of progress, perhaps none of us quite forgive ourselves for getting better.
Every summer I did something grandly and wetly stupid with someone new, chasing people I thought I loved through stoops of buildings and in the passenger seat of cars, in the heaven of an air-conditioned room or in the long crosswalks by the big subway station where the light counts out the time left and you could stand in the middle of Atlantic Avenue and kiss with six lanes of cars all speeding toward you, a glittering constellation of potential death, waiting for the last moment to break apart and run toward the curb. Every summer I went looking for that same windowless room, for the thing in the soundless call coming up from in the abyss, for some humid sense of drowning. I did this until one summer my bad choices stuck and stayed and built a city on themselves - now people say look at what you found, look at this love you found in the world, and I want to tell them that I feel like a gambling addict who just happened to roll a lucky hand and turn in all her chips at the right moment, who walked away from the table and invested her winnings. Even the person I love in such a ceaselessly public way now, all the way up here in the light, started as the kind of choice you make in summer, when the light and the warm air stay out late and argue against rules and laws and calendars, when all clothes seem fictional, when everything is almost a hotel room. Four years later we stand half-dressed in the tiny windowless kitchen in the apartment we share, the room where the air conditioning can’t reach, and here our bodies are real to one another, the sticky heat refusing both myth and romance, language and explanation, I love you as dirty fingers, as a collection of smells. I love you as the horrorshow of your body, its grotesque promises, its worst unchosen loyalties, the way the heat makes me nauseous, and the hope of drowning that sings up out of the bottom of the abyss.
hi, friends. sorry it's been so long since the last one of these; I'm trying to be better about it. If you want to read more of my writing, I have new pieces up here, here, here, here, and here. Be warned a couple of those are about getting married. As ever, if you want to donate to/support/tip this tinyletter, you can do so here.