A City On His Map

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“What would leave you satisfied? Not happy. Satisfied. Happiness is asking too much.”

Joseph sat beside me at the bar, looking directly into my eyes, in his way — which is, and always has been, disarming. His beard was longer and waxier than the last time I’d seen him, but his soft, blue eyes remained the same — forgiving. He understands me.

Since I moved to Albany, I’ve missed him. Sometimes, I am sure he is the only person in the world with whom I can be completely honest. I sip my club soda and take a long moment to process his question. I’ve devoted the last nine months to seeking out my own happiness, and so, to dismiss that, disregard it, and consider only what’s sufficient — not ideal — is a murky state of contemplation.

We sit together, two authors, in the glow of the bar’s TV screens and twinkling Christmas lights, while groups of co-workers from the surrounding office buildings file in, slipping eagerly into the empty bar seats beside us and order each other shots of tequila to kick off the long, holiday weekend. Though this is a popular time of year for reflection, with Joseph I need no special season, he has always allowed me ample space to unpack myself beside him. We are non-traditional in every way, and this, is perhaps the thing I love most about us. But, it is that balance of convention and its polar opposite that keeps us level, only sporadically, on our cosmic see-saw.

This year, as I’ve transitioned from place to place and job to job, I have felt little pieces of myself slip in and out of my own orbit. I am a messy Universe. And, I haven’t made out the big picture just yet. Gravity hasn’t yet locked my planets into place. And, I think, that is the kind of story that Joseph loves most. But, it’s never been my entire story. As I searched for his answer, dipping my straw in and out of  my soda’s rising bubbles, my honesty felt somehow difficult to locate, even to lay it before him, someone who has never judged me. We have sat together at many a bar. Walked together across the better part of Brooklyn. Stared out from the Brooklyn Heights Promenade at the New York City lights. Stood, faces pressed against each other, in a heavy, Summer rain. And, spent hours telling each other stories — in words spoken, on paper, in texts, in jokes, through music, and in epic GIF storyboards. He can make me laugh and cry in the same sentence. And, in the short time I have known him, he has never failed to answer me truthfully. So, I knew, I owed him the most honest answer I could find inside myself, and, I also knew he would wait for it, whatever it was, patiently.

“I think I’d be satisfied with being really loved. Taken care of, in a place that feels like home. — If I can ever find that place.” Even honesty can sound incredibly sad and cliché when you open your mouth to speak it. I looked to Joseph’s face for his reaction. A reaction to a complicated story, distilled down to something almost too simple. His features remained, as ever, soft and kind. He knows me, and my story, in a way that I’m not sure even I understand. And, as a storyteller himself, he sees the trap in mine, the same one I have been writing over and over again for years, where I am the heroine that never needs to be cared for — because her super power is that she’ll always take care of herself.

But, sitting beside Joseph, a person who has been a strange and beautiful mirror for my heart, I feel a kind of dishonesty in the story I’ve been telling. Because, when I break it down, my story is not a collection of observations, but rather, another means of self-preservation. I’ve taken care of myself, not because it’s what I wanted, but, because I’ve been living in such a way that it has become dangerous to be anything other than independent. When you’ve been burned so many times, it will teach you to stand back from the flames. But, there will always be a part of me that seeks out the heat.

“It isn’t wrong to want that, it’s completely natural.” He said deftly, tipping back his whiskey and water, as if he’d known my answer all along. Maybe because he too has avoided the heat. But, he manages that problem by skipping town. For him, staying in the same place too long is its own kind of pyre. Love, is built into the cities where he resides and the people who move with him, beside him, in all of them. It has always appeared to me, that, for him, love is a place he will always be seeking — an eternal and romantic quest — though, he would never label it as such. I frequently find myself in envy of his journey and, more than that, his ability to easily let go of the things which I have so desperately struggled to hold fast.

Sitting beside a person who understands you completely and cares for you profoundly, it can feel indecent admitting that you want someone to see you, to care — to love you. It doesn’t feel natural. It feels like asking too much. Needy and impossible. And, after walking through the entirety of this year, I see how my pursuit of happiness has often confused itself with my own never-ending quest to be self-sufficient. Admitting that I want, and have always wanted, someone else to seal up the leaky holes in my little boat, is one of the hardest things I will ever do. It feels like asking for Divine intervention. Something that Joseph will elegantly argue — does not exist.

Next year, Joseph is moving to Spain. And, part of me wants to disappear with him. To cross continents. To get lost with him, walking through musty museums, our footsteps lost in the hum of foreign tongues. To wander through old, unpaved, and narrow streets together. To experience freedom over contentment — freedom from contentment. To stand beside him, taking pictures of a Universe that is so, incredibly far away from my own. To discover the world outside me, before committing to dive into the immeasurable depths within me. But, part of me knows how dishonest that would be — to myself.

He didn’t try to comfort me in a conventional way as he watched the tears well in my eyes, but, in his indescribable way, his manner alone, quiet and steady, he became my comfort. Reliable and steadfast, I know I can always sit beside Joseph in silence while he speaks volumes. For someone who has spent his last decade traveling, in constant motion, there is no one else I know who can sit so, perfectly still and look at you as if you were the only city on his map.

On the corner of Joralemon and Court Streets, I held Joseph close to me, a force of gravity, even if only in that moment. A planet that, though unruly, will always remain a gem in my galaxy. “Come visit me in Albany soon.” — “‘Kay,” he says. “I will.”  — And, I believed him.

Love is strange and, often, appears in unexpected places. But, sometimes, it can, and will, appear in the one place where you expect it to be. And so, we must go there. In the New Year, and in every year — we must go to that place. For me — Within. For Joseph — Spain. And, as time spirals on, we’ll continue sealing up our leaky boats, alone, until someone shows up to help us with the work, and perhaps, one day, to stay. Someone who will see us, care for us, really love us, before sailing away to some new Universe. — A place that feels like home. — If we can ever find that place.

 

 

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Going Postal: Christmas Edition

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Before pulling into the parking lot of Dennis’ Seven Dees Garden Center on Powell Boulevard, I stopped at the liquor store and got a big bottle of Jim Beam White Label.

It was a Tuesday. I was going to put up my Christmas tree. And, Goddammit, I was going to be drunk.

I threw the bottle, in it’s slim, brown, paper bag onto the passenger seat and drove down the road blasting a Nat King Cole Christmas album with the windows down. It was cold and my windshield was dirty. The Winter sun glinted in my eyes and I pulled down the sun visor as I turned off the road and into Dennis’ lot where three Mexican men were tying a tree to the top of a forest green Subaru.

Inside, twinkling lights were strung up under a white, plastic canopy that housed flocked, white Christmas trees, lined up by size, in tidy rows, as far as the eye could see. Red, glass ornaments reflected the glare of silver tinsel. Life-size Santas stood guard in every doorway. And, the woman who stood at the cashier’s counter wore a green sweater laced with cheap, golden threads and had glittery silver snowflakes dangling from her ear lobes. “Can you tell me where the Fraser firs are?” She looked up at me smiling her big, toothy, smoker’s smile, “How tall, hun?” She croaked. Unsure how to answer, I considered inquiring what height she thought might fill the loveless void my living room had become.

“I don’t know. Six feet?” I asked her, not really concerned with height, only with getting something to convince myself that the holiday season of 2011 was not, in fact, the fifth ring of hell. “Carlos!” she shouted across the store, “Can you take this little lady over to the Frasers? — Go over there with Carlos hun. He’ll help you.”

Carlos stood behind me while I pushed my way through branches and needles in an aisle at the far end of the lot. “You like that one? I can open it for you, so you can see it,” he said stepping forward. “That’s ok. I’ll take it. It’s fine.” He looked at me as if he understood why I was there — a look that acknowledged both my indifference and his pity for me. “Ok. No problem. Which car is yours?” He picked up the tree before I could answer. “Black Honda Civic. The one with the busted tail light.” He nodded, leading me down the aisle and back under the heated canopy. “Ok. You pay inside.” I handed him my car keys and walked back to the cashier with the white ticket Carlos had ripped from the top of the tree and handed to me.

I paid Sissy Snowflake sixty-five bucks for the tree and another twenty for my impulse buy: A big, red, light-globe that sat on the edge of her counter. “Happy Holidays, Hun,” she said handing me my change.

Carlos saw the bottle of Jim Beam poking out from the brown bag on the passenger seat. “You throwing a Christmas party?” He asked, smiling, as he tied the twine taunt around the roof of my car. “Yeah,” I said, “something like that,” handing him a ten dollar tip.

Back home, I pulled into our driveway which, now, was just my driveway. I looked at the tree strapped to the roof like a dead body and did everything I could to stop myself from breaking all the car’s windows. I held my bottle of bourbon, like the baby Jesus himself, and left the tree atop the Honda. — First things first.

In the kitchen, I didn’t even bother to pull down a glass. I opened the bottle, letting the click of the breaking, plastic seal sound the coming of my lord and savior: Jim Beam. I drank from the bottle in gulps. It burned the back of my throat and sent a shiver up my back that started in my stomach. I hadn’t eaten a proper meal in weeks, and, the warm liquid sloshed in my empty stomach like an angry sea. I felt my cheeks flush red and, after a minute, I could breathe again.

I put on Frank Sinatra’s “Christmas Songs By Sinatra” and sat on the arm of the couch with my open bottle and my green, Rubbermaid Christmas bin at my feet. Inside the bin were smaller boxes of ornaments my mother had packed up for us before we moved, a tree skirt, old lights, stockings, and a Glade cinnamon-apple scented candle that we hadn’t finished burning the year before. I dug out the plush snowman with a hook at his feet and placed him on the fireplace mantle and hung my cat’s Christmas stocking. She sat watching me from her window perch in the sun, nonplussed.

When I was drunk enough, I decided to get the tree. Carlos had already put it in the stand, so, I just had to cut the twine and get the thing from the driveway, through the garage, and into the living room. It seemed easy enough, but when I got out to the car, the tree seemed bigger than when I had poked at it’s branches on the lot. I stood there for moment with my scissors, trying to figure out the best way to maneuver the sappy beast into the house. And, as I walked around the side of the car, snipping at the twine on the back, passenger side, the mailman turned the corner.

I’d seen him many times before. He’d always waved to me as he wheeled by during the Summer, while I sat on the back porch smoking cigarettes and drinking PBR. He was a fit, older guy with salt and pepper hair in a tight, military cut. Tall and lean, he walked quickly, and that day the dusty blue of his Postal Service uniform contrasted his red cheeks in the cold. He watched me fumble as he counted out my neighbor’s holiday cards and placed them in her slot. I struggled, sliding the tree off the driver’s side, almost falling. The plastic stand hit the asphalt, hard. It didn’t break, but, it startled me. “Godfuckingdamnit,” I spat out in frustration under my bourbon breath.

“Need a hand there?” The mailman asked in a warm, kind voice, as I dragged the stand over the gravel toward the garage. “No. That’s ok.” I said, tripping over the cement lip where the garage met the driveway. “Jesus. Fuck.”

“Here.” He said, walking toward me. “Let me help you there. You really need two people to do that job.”

“I’ve got it! Jesus.” I shouted. The sound of my voice reverberated off the walls of the garage and out onto Cora Drive, hitting the street like a piece of metal. “I’ve fucking got it.”

“Alright lady. Fine.” He said, putting his hands up, conceding. “Just trying to help you. Jeez.” He walked back to his cart at my neighbor’s front door and wheeled it up to his little truck around the other side of the circle. And, I stood at the garage door, wondering who I’d become.

***          ***          ***

Later that night, after the sun had gone, the apartment was dark, save for the lights on the tree. After the mailman left, I’d struggled for another ten minutes, but managed to get the tree up the single step and into the living room where it sat, undecorated, while I wept between swigs of bourbon.

As my Sinatra album repeated for the fifth time, I strung up the lights. I hung my favorite childhood ornaments. And, as tears streamed from the corners of my eyes, I pulled out the little angel my mother had wrapped for me, specially, in paper towels, and placed her at the top. — She looked down on me softly as I sunk to the floor where I grabbed at the blue carpet beside my now near-empty bottle. Even in that, the saddest and most desperate of moments, my tree was absolutely beautiful. — A light in my darkest season.

Completely blotto, I held myself up at the kitchen counter and pulled out a notepad and a pen from the junk drawer and wrote a note to the mailman. I stumbled to the front door and clipped it to my mailbox outside.

THANKS FOR TRYING TO HELP ME WITH THE TREE. I’M SORRY. IT REALLY WAS A TWO PERSON JOB. BUT, IT’S BEEN A CRAP YEAR, AND I REALLY NEEDED TO DO IT MYSELF.

HAPPY HOLIDAYS.

SARAH

Tripping Across A Lonely Planet

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The first time we tripped on magic mushrooms, we sprinkled them on top of Stoffer’s french bread pizza.

I stood with Colleen* and  Anna at the forest-green island counter in my tiny, East Village studio apartment where the three of us looked down curiously at the plate Anna pulled from my microwave, hot cheese and mushrooms, still bubbling.

“Is this supposed to taste like shit?” Colleen asked, her jaw moving sharply as she chewed in uncomfortable, contorted movements.

“I think so,” Anna said, washing back her first bite with a bottle of cheap, Belgian-style beer. “Maybe we should have made tea with them instead.”

We were all so young, each of us twenty-two or twenty-three. All of us beautiful, rebellious, and lost. Recent NYU graduates with squeaky-clean slates and deep, unfulfilled desires to feel and experience everything. All our dreams were far too large to fit with us in that tiny kitchen. Dreams that, on that particular day, I don’t think any of us knew how we’d move toward. And so, we told ourselves until we found the way, we would just live.

In those days, living meant smoking bongs in the afternoon, writing music on our guitars, and drinking Gatorade in the place of solid meals. Naive, open, and misguided as we all were that afternoon, we still laughed in my tiny apartment with the girlish wisdom of sages. I think about us now and I feel truly  happy to have been the girls we were back then, and, for the women we had no idea we would become.

Even now, I envy our lack of knowing. How our lives, then, so intricately connected, would soon be divided by a decade and the span of an entire country. In the more than ten years since I’ve seen or spoken to those girls, I have aged thirty, maybe more. I have lost more than I thought I’d ever be capable of losing. I have seen and felt great beauty and love that, then, I had no idea could ever be available to me. But, on that Wednesday, in my tiny kitchen, we started alone, with nothing — just each other and our dreams of adventure. — And, of course, our Stoffer’s french bread pizza, topped with psychedelic mushrooms.

*           *          *

It took awhile for the walls to move.

I sat on the huge, red couch my mother bought me, sinking into the soft, doughy seat. Colleen and Anna sat cross-legged on the hard-wood floor. We sipped our beer and waited. Colleen and I chain-smoked Camel Lights, flicking our ashes into a near-empty beer can that already sat in a halo of ash from the night before. The Summer humidity hung in the air and our smoke hung there with it, like a canopy above us.

I was taken off guard when I felt myself shift. Weightless and free, I didn’t even notice that I had stopped worrying about my mounting fear of entering adulthood without any real idea of who I was. But, fear somehow slipped away. And, with each moment that passed, I felt that I had somehow discovered something deeper. — Deep in the moment. Deep in the city. Deep in my own wild and unpredictable heart. — And then, the walls started moving.

At first, spacial shifts occurred slowly and subtly, like water lapping softly on a shore, and then, more forcefully, in bigger, more violent waves. And, before long, I saw Jesus’ face appear on my white wall, like a silhouette pressed into a white sheet. He pressed through the very same wall I had stared at, pure and undecorated, for two years while writing my papers and reading my tomes on Irish history. “Jesus is here.” I whispered to the girls, who were still seated on the floor. And, when he disappeared, I stared for a long time at the spot where he had been, wishing he would come back.

“I miss Pete,” Colleen said, rolling onto her stomach, holding her cigarette in her left hand. “I miss Pete too,” Anna echoed. — Both of their boyfriends at the time were named Pete.

Then, Anna started to cry. Both girls wanted their respective Pete more than any drug induced experience they were having. And, in a surreal and sentimental moment, they embraced on my floor, both acknowledging that, in their altered state, they had somehow managed to fly on the same wavelength. And then, they both reached simultaneously for their phones.

I, however, felt like I had stepped into Alice’s wonderland. I didn’t miss or have any desire to call my boyfriend at all. — I wanted to call my Dad. I wanted to tell him that Lewis Carroll’s world was far better than anything we’d imagined while we waxed poetic on the subject of our shared love of Alice and her magical rabbithole. But, even in suspended reality, I knew it was ill advised to call my Father while tripping on mushrooms.

I left the girls on the floor, walked into my bathroom and shut the door. The pastel tips of my yellow terrycloth towels moved, writhing like tiny earthworms or soft ribbons of seaweed beneath gentle, ocean waves. The lines of my Martha Stewart K-Mart collection shower curtain blurred and tangled like jungle vines, dancing gracefully without having been moved at all. And, I sat alone on the cold floor and watched the black and white tiles slide in and out of box-like formations, a child’s puzzle in motion.

In a moment of unparalleled uncertainty, everything was beautiful. Every movement, simple and intricate. I believed in everything and nothing at all.

When I emerged from the bathroom, Colleen and Anna were still crying about Pete and Pete, both of whom, they’d been unable to reach. I stood over the girls, a giant Alice — the one who grows incredibly tall after she’s sipped from the bottle that reads Drink Me, — and I told them, “I’m going into the garden. Don’t leave this room.” They looked up, barely acknowledging me, lost in their Pete-less grief, and I turned on my heels, walking across my floor, which felt trampoline-like under my feet, bowing beneath my weight, to my apartment door.

In my building’s garden courtyard, the superintendent’s wife had planted wildflowers around the various benches that were placed throughout. Their petal’s perfume crept up into my nose and the sun warmed my skin and the sky opened up like an infinite, blue canvas. Clouds passed overhead, and I watched them, as they swirled in unusual shapes — I could no longer tell what was real and what was imagined. And then, a tiny purple bloom turned into a butterfly and batted away into the sunlight.

   *          *          *

Later, we all came to. We walked in slow motion to a sports pub on Second Avenue where we waited for Pete and Pete to arrive. Colleen and Anna had bonded without me that afternoon, and I sat sipping my Guinness at the long-lacquered, wooden bar feeling like my own lonely planet.

The world had ceased moving in strange, new ways and I had returned to a reality that felt uneven and unsure. I still remember how that glass of stout, with its beveled curve, felt like a handle I needed to hold in order to keep myself from floating away into the Universe. Even on a day when the only notable event was having taken psychedelic drugs, it was still the drink that held me fast, a dear friend on my lonely planet — a planet now filled with drunken men shouting at television screens.

It has always been a blessing and a curse to know more. To have seen all the things that shape us and disappoint us and hurt us. But, still, after all this time, all these years clean and sober, there is something beautiful in remembering that, no matter how far I’ve come, there are pieces of that lost girl, her solitary planet, still within me. I recognize her, curious at her kitchen counter, free in the courtyard sunlight, and lonely at the long-lacquered bar.

All the change that molded us contains, within it, those core parts of us that will never cease to be. The DNA chains that, no matter what we do, remain unbroken.

And, I sometimes when I stare up at the golden sun, flanked by a host of swirling clouds, I wonder if Colleen and Anna feel the exact, same way.

*All names have been changed to protect the innocent.

The Rotten Fruit

2ripeand1rootenapple I was taking big breaths. In through my nose. Out through my mouth.

That’s what you’re supposed to do when you feel like you’re going to lose it.

I don’t usually leave the house before having my coffee, but, on Sunday, I did.

I slipped into my sneakers, pulled my green sweatshirt over my head, and I walked out of the house into the cold. I stood in the center of  the overpass at the highway crossing and let the sound and smell engulf me. Moving air and gasoline. People, all flying forward at sixty-five miles an hour, and me, standing perfectly still. I allowed all the noise to surround me, humming as it rose up from underneath me. And, in that beautiful mess of movement and sound, I let my fingers feel cold and my ears feel numb. I melted. Into place. Into Albany. Into the fence that stops people who are about to lose it from leaping into the traffic below. And, every thought I had, just one more car on the thruway — I allowed a final chance to make its noise.

Thoughts. This past month, I wrote them. Spoke them. But mostly, I thought them. I’ve carried some of them around with me for what feels like centuries, luggage I’d never opened. Because I knew that, if I did,  I’d have to shove every unruly thought back into that damn suitcase. And, they’d never all fit back inside the way they had before. All my thoughts, old and overripe. — All rotting fruit.

I wrote the stories that had been permanent residents in my head, for years. And suddenly, they were all outside me. My bag of fruit, strewn across the highway. And, out of nowhere, came waves of forgiveness. Everywhere I looked, I had been forgiven. Crazier still, I was able to forgive. Finally. I forgave. — The people. The places. The circumstances. — All of us, redeemed. Drenched in blessed water, burst from my leaking pipes in some holy absolution.

When I woke up with a start Sunday morning, I felt them. — New thoughts. New weight. So, I walked out onto New Scotland Road and I stood on that overpass and dumped everything I had, the old and the new, my suitcase of rotting apples, onto the highway below.

Vibrating along with a thousand engines, I let the person I’ve pretended to be fall into the traffic below, with the rest of my trash. And then, I started walking.

I learned to walk in Portland, after my first, traumatic event in sobriety. Miles and miles. Every morning, before I went to work. Every night, when I got home. I walked, dragging my fruit-filled baggage around Reed College campus so many times, I swear to God, there are still grooves in the sidewalk from my worn out Brooks running sneakers. I walked because there was nowhere else to go, nothing else to be done. My therapist at the time told me to stop walking. Both my Achilles had severe tendonitis. She was worried about me. But, I kept on walking. — Because, I knew, medical advice be damned, that I had marathons to trot before I’d feel any better.

And, that’s just it. As the old adage goes: You gotta do what you gotta do.

Sometimes, you have to carry the rotten fruit. Walk with it. Walk to China and back. It’s only after you’ve dragged your bag behind you long enough that you truly know which stories will truly eat you alive. And then, you have to tell them. In your head first, and then, to everyone. You have to let go of the projects you were never meant to have. You have to be the crazy girl who changes her mind about everything ten thousand times before settling on the right thing, which will, inevitably, end up being wrong. You have to forgive. Don’t forget, because, the whole point is learning. But, forgive. Please. Forgive everyone. And then, forgive yourself.

Forgive yourself for being: Stupid. Selfish. In over your head. A punk. A liar. A child. A cheat. A recluse. A thief. And a fraud. — You have to remember that everyone on this planet is just as fucked as you are, and, you have to learn to like that about humanity.

You have to stand over the fucking highway and drop all of your rotten fruit over the edge, because none of it is going to save or serve you. Not one thought or person or memory is going to save you. It’s you who’s going to save you. Your story — however you tell it — is the thing that sets you free. It can be sad or funny or desperate. It can be humiliating or humbling or hammy. But, the thing it can’t be is: Silent. So, scream it. Your stories aren’t meant to be thoughts that bounce around like a pinballs between your ears. It has to be messy. Rotten fruit on the highway.

Sunday, I didn’t end up losing it. I started walking. New Scotland Road to Whitehall to Delaware Avenue. Mascara running. And then, I walked some more, to a coffee shop in Center Square, Albany.

I stood in line with my raccoon eyes, and got an Americano brewed from beans that, as it happened, were from a boutique, Oregon coffee roaster that I used to frequent when I lived in Portland. The barista thought I was cool because I’d heard of them. I fought the urge to tell him how decidedly uncool I am. But, I didn’t. Because, some thoughts — are trash. And trash doesn’t make good banter, but, it does make a good story.

This month, the ninth in my Year of Happiness, and the last in the year of 2016, is about the Stories. All the stories. My stories. Pent-up stories. Maudlin, sad stories. Trash stories. Every story that’s fit to print, and even better, those that are completely unfit. Because, when this year is over, I’m starting over again. And, likely, again after that. I need room. Room for new stories. All the room I can find.

So, if your going to lose it, start with the old thoughts, the old stories — all of them.

Start fresh. Empty your bags onto the highway.

And, when you’re left with the stories you can’t lift high enough to toss over the edge — tell them.

Start with the fruit.

Artwork: “Two Ripe and One Rotten Apple,”  Daniel Worth;

http://danielworthart.blogspot.com/2010/01/two-ripe-and-one-rotten-apple.html