Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Night sky

You will invite me to something on New Year’s Eve. Something that you and your fiancĂ© are attending, or a party you are having. You know me from work, or maybe you’re a friend of a friend, someone I know through Facebook who saw my status update about having no plans. It will be a charitable gesture on your part. Because as you know, I’m single. But not the liberated, independent, self-assured, happy-with-my-life, “You go, girl!” kind of single. I’m the other kind. The self-help-book-buying kind who reads Cosmo for guidance on topics like "9 Moves No Other Girl Has Dared To Try On Him In Bed!"

I also have social-anxiety disorder (self-diagnosed; I never got around to getting a prescription for life-of-the-party pills) and lately I have flat-out bombed when trying to meet people in the usual, real-world ways -- the hip city bars, the salsa class, the singles kayaking trip. (How does everyone else find somebody? How’d I miss that memo?) I tried Match.com, their free 30-day deal. And another match-making site. It didn’t work out, and I don’t want to talk about it.

But I think of how life is like that commercial with the glass tank full of ping-pong balls whizzing around in it; each ball has a number, and a lady pulls a few of them out and lines them up to display the winning numbers. It’s for some kind of lottery or something. I’m not trying to make the obvious “luck” analogy. But I think the world might be like how it is inside that glass tank: people swirl around and madly collide, and go spinning away from one another. It's better than a bunch of lonely ping-pong balls in separate glass tanks.

So after I accept your invite (it’s the only one I’ll get), I will start thinking that maybe on New Year's Eve I will collide with someone, and that maybe it will be just what I need. And if not, I guess I could do worse than getting blitzed in a glittery outfit with Kanye West bursting my eardrums, swapping spit with a stranger at midnight. After all, the alternative is sparkling apple cider with my teetotaler parents, watching the ball drop on TV in the family room, Dick Clark’s Rockin’ New Year’s Eve, and then my folks rousing themselves up slowly from recliners at 12:01 and saying, “Welp, time to hit the ol’ hay!” I mean, they’ll probably be wearing Snuggies and everything.

I will spend much of the evening getting ready at my apartment, where I live without even so much as a cat. I will have gone to the local mega-mall, into Forever 21 or someplace like that where you can get a dress for $19.99 because it was made in a Third World sweatshop. I’ll tell myself that I still have the body for the clothing, 10 years past the age limit implied by that godforsaken brand name, even though, OK, young men at cash registers always call me “ma’am” and I hate it every time.

At the store, I will have hunted for something short and clingy, something that shimmers for NYE. I will be the lovechild of a stripper and a disco ball. The plan is simply to get drunk and dance, to get very drunk and dance a lot. I will think that somehow this will fill the empty pit in me, although past experience has tried to tell me that a night like that only digs the pit deeper.

It’s going to be another one of these, is it? Another night like this, another story like this?

I will have taken an armful of sparkle-spangled skankwear back into one of the store's cramped and fluorescent-lit dressing rooms, with the door that allows shoppers to see you from the knees down, because the door is absurdly short and high, like those swinging doors in a Wild West saloon.

I will try on this and that, ho hum—and then one of the dresses will slip over my body and fit me like my destiny.

My reflection will be ridiculous, because there I’ll stand in the subatomic-sized glitter dress and socks, and I need to shave, and my jeans and sneakers are in a pile on a small bench nearby, a tomboy cocoon from which I have metamorphosed. I will overlook the incongruity of the socks with the dress, and the hospital-waiting-room lighting, and the sandpaper stubble of my winter-pale legs.

I will behold this $19.99 raspberry-colored (like a Prince song!), Lycra-blend dress with the paillettes sewn on by the little bleeding hands of sweatshop children. The dress will make itself apparent to me as the apotheosis of sartorial sublimity, as the… my 98th-percentile-verbal-SAT-score vocabulary is insufficient; there are no words for how good this is. God Himself and all the archangels in the highest ranks of the celestial pantheon -- they all want to look down from Heaven and see me wearing this dress on New Year's Eve.

I will put it on my Visa debit card, and I will later learn that this small charge caused me to incur a $35 overdraft fee. I will decide that it was worth it. I mean, hello, God and his archangels.

And so on New Year's Eve, several hours before the *big fun event*, I will first prepare my body, make it worthy of shimmying into The Dress. I will shower with a special bath gel and matching loofah spongie from Bath & Body Works. The gel will be in the scent of some exotic-to-Americans fruit, such as pomegranate. The name of the product will be maudlin and alliterative: Pomegranate Passion or Pomegranate Promises or somesuch. Like if a soap opera were a fruit. There will be a matching lotion, too, and it will have all come in a shrink-wrapped gift basket on Christmas from the aunt I am the least close to.

Do you really think we care about all these details? What relevance does it have to our lives, those of us whose lives are not like this? Those of us who have moved on from the Freudian “nightclub” stage if we were ever in it in the first place, those of us who now care about real things like our careers and our homes and our families?

So there I am, having showered and shaved all of those places that I customarily shave when I’m feeling sassy.

Now I'm painting my nails some trendy, edgy shade--gunmetal blue, let's say; or a blood-red from Urban Decay that's saucily titled "Cutter.” I’ll take a lot of time to arrange my hair in some sort of "special occasion" shape. Oh, let's go with "effortless updo." With little tendrils spilling down around my neck in a manner that's meant to call attention to this more vulnerable area of an animal's body, meant to cause men to think that by exposing this part of myself, I’m letting them in, they’re privileged, make them want both to protect me and to ravage me--I saw a thing about it on the Discovery Channel. I will use a mental picture of [actress/singer/model]'s hairdo at the [Oscars/Cannes/Ice Capades/whatever] as my guide. Because yes, I have such images taking space in my brain.

You go to the gym and there are screens everywhere with flawless actresses on them, in the shows, even in the commercials, and you want to resist it, the compulsion to look more like them, but you want to be loved. And looking like that might make you loved.

Next comes make-up. I must decide who I will be for tonight. I'll tell myself it'll just be a brighter, sparklier, snazzier version of myself, but really I will be my more tarted-up and Halloweenish twin. I will inevitably overdo it, especially the "smoky" eye make-up. Instead of smoldering, I will wind up looking like an emo clown panda bear.

"Red lipstick is for girls who make things happen! Red lipstick is for rebels and vixens! Red lipstick is for girls who lead, not follow!” I will cake on the crimson pigment that bleeds onto my teeth each time I fake a smile.

On the treadmill at the gym, under all those screens with the pretty actresses on them, you listen to a song by Mission of Burma called “That’s When I Reach For My Revolver.” It helps you take it. You’re not violent or crazy, but the song helps you take life; music helps, dancing helps. There will be dancing at the party tonight, and you're hoping it will help you transcend.

There are all the little dumb things that you want to transcend. At Christmas supper at your granny’s house, your racist Uncle Charlie had held someone’s new baby. Uncle Charlie wants a grandchild, wants one of his grown sons to have him a grandchild. Uncle Charlie had held up the baby to one of his grown sons, and the baby was blonde and blue-eyed enough to tickle Hitler, and Uncle Charlie had said, “I want one in this color.” You had bitten your tongue hard, to keep peace in the family, as you always do.

There’s more. The former love of your life just e-mailed you to say that he and his new wife are expecting a baby. So now you have this new thing, this new tic when you see a pregnant woman at the mall or pass the baby-clothes section in a department store or see a diaper commercial, when you had held your cousin's baby on your lap. That stuff was always irrelevant to you; you felt sorry for the friends your age who had children and weren't free to, say, go trek in Kyrgyzstan or dance till sunrise with mysterious strangers. Their lives were all planned out, and yours was open. Now it hits you, what it means to have a family and what it means to not have one. You don't want to be alone, but it's more than that. You sense that there's a kind of love you have always wanted that you're missing out on.

At 10 p.m., I'm all ready! I've got on The Dress, and the effortless updo that took two hours and 10 minutes of anguish and swearing to create, and the ghoul eyes and the hooker lipstick. I'm wearing shoes that should be X-Rated, that are meant to make men think of sex, and to think that I'm good at it, that I must know things, because I knew enough to choose these scandalous shoes, had the audacity to wear them out, so what else would I have the audacity to do?

I’ll put on some dressy new coat, maybe a fake-fur one, that isn't warm enough. As I stand on the curb waiting for my taxi, I'll long for my real coat, that ugly puffy one I've had since freshman year of college, that I wore in snowball fights on the quad, the one that I'd wear to Antarctica, the one that feels like a hug from my mom. I'd smoke, if I did that, because somehow that would seem right for the scene. But I don't smoke, so I'll shiver on the curb and exhale frost instead.

I will look at the moon.

Soon there will be a little life, and it will be part of him and part of her.

I will have skipped dinner, because that makes the alcohol more effective, duh.

The cab driver will arrive, and I will fish the slip of paper out of my tiny, crystal-studded party handbag, a stupid thing that’s barely big enough for a Tic Tac. I will recite the address to the driver, who will be foreign, and the whole way there I will feel bad about the silence, feel that a better person would be asking the driver about life in his homeland, about his journey to here and his life in this crazy new place, maybe even about his language and native cuisine, but not me, I just say the address and then sit back for the ride.

The scene of the *big fun event* will be a nightclub. Or maybe a party, a big party full of people I don't know and who I will assume are all somehow smarter, cooler, more cultured, more educated, more accomplished, more "with it," more everything and more, than I am. This perceived inferiority will lead me straight to the first bar I see and have me ordering something strong. My go-to drink for nerves has a coarse name and is something that only college girls at a frat party should order. But it does the trick, maybe better than a life-of-the-party pill would, with minimal to no barfing, and really, isn’t that more important than a drink that’s sophisticated?

I will sigh when I see the hot bartender girl being stingy with the vodka, pouring just the faintest nip into the glass. She will do this with a flourish, a twist of the wrist that she seems to have been born knowing how to do, holding the bottle way up high and not wasting a drop on the counter. (She must be good at sex, because she knows things; she knows how to do this, so what else does she know how to do?)

You do it to yourself, you know. You look at people but you don’t really see them. You think that everyone is so much better—that they all got the memo you missed—but you’re wrong. Some of them are just as insecure as you are. Some of them feel just as alone as you do. But that makes the story less dramatic, doesn’t it? You’re selfish, and you have to be the star of your own sad tale, a tale that wouldn’t seem sad at all if you were to think more about all the misery of the world, the real misery. The saddest thing about your life is that you think it’s sad.

I will down it fast and order another. I will just drink it right down as I'm standing there, my other hand waving a $10, a little crumpled greenish flag amid the throng of hands waving bills and credit cards. I will wonder why there are never, ever enough bartenders. They should have self-serve bars, like gas stations and those “U-Scan” aisles at the grocery store.

Only with my second drink in hand will I look for you and greet you. "Hey!” We will gingerly hug, a finicky little thing for show that we will each hope doesn’t mess up our hair or smudge our self-tanner. “Oh my god, look at you! You look so cute! Yep, already found the bar, as you can see. Oh, he is? Cool, I'll have to say hello. Awesome! Well, see ya around!”

You will move on to greet others you’ve invited. I will not know anyone else, although you will have thought I knew that one guy, you know that guy that always posts that stuff on your Facebook profile that guy? you know?

I will order another. I brought cash. Cash for the cab I always take when I plan to drink, and cash to eliminate all that time it takes to wait in the throng at the bar for the bartender to process my debit card, have me sign the receipt, blah blah blah. I'm prepared for such things. I’m like a Girl Scout of getting wasted. They should give me a sew-on badge. Ha. My thoughts are getting silly; this is a good sign.

I will walk a slow lap of the place, slinking up and down stairs with an unnecessary and exaggerated sway of my hips. I’ll be hoping guys are checking me out in my willing-sex-kitten get-up. After three drinks, I will still be too cowardly to look any of them in the eye, let alone talk to anyone. Instead, I will just try to walk like someone who is good at sex.

At some point, you realized you had something that guys wanted. Not all guys, but enough of them. The ones who didn’t care so much about a pretty face, or witty conversation, or a pie-baking Martha Stewart-Etsy type to take home to mom. The other guys, the ones at the clubs, or just random guys in surprising places—at a networking event your boss made you go to; in a Starbucks; walking along some downtown street at two o'clock in the morning after you've burst out of a club for 7-Eleven sober-up food. They wanted it.

You became sexually active later than most girls—another missed memo—and after that your walk had changed, your demeanor had changed, your brainwaves had probably changed, and you had started to dance at places where other people were dancing (after years of sitting out so many wedding receptions, standing still at concerts). After you learned you could do it, you thought that dancing was mostly just simulated sex, but more than that—a sort of consummation with the universe, as Shirley MacLaine as that sounds.

It’s not mere skankiness, the trying to walk like someone who’s good at sex. It’s your path to love, your only path you know of.

After the fifth or sixth slow lap, I will start to feel awkward. I will pretend I’m trying to find the bathroom. Or perhaps looking for a friend. I will hold my glass in one hand and the stupid Lilliputian purse in the other, my faux-wildcat coat draped over a forearm. I will catch a glimpse of myself in a reflective surface and think that I look less sexy than I'd hoped during all that strutting around—my tummy pooching out from the tight dress and the padded bra unconvincing, my make-up aging me, sad shadows under my eyes.

I will order another.

Someday there might be someone.

And finally, like a revelation—the drinks kick in.

I find what appears to be the cool-people room, maybe in a basement or on the rooftop with space heaters. There's a DJ, and he's playing supremely danceable stuff -- newer crowd-pleasing electronic music and sexy hip-hop -- and people are dancing, praise Jesus, they're dancing!

And now I am, too. The club, or the apartment or the house, or the whatever, is all warm throbbing red light, and I'm part of it, rubbery and loose. Why was I so nervous before? I don't know, but now I'm free. I love everybody right now, all these strangers, and I'm showing it. My from-a-distance, simulated-sex dance gestures are showing it.

I put down my gnat-sized purse and somehow have the wherewithal to chuck the wildcat coat over it so it stands slightly less of a chance of getting stolen. I take my drink with me out into the very center of the people dancing, because I'm brave, I'm a girl who wears red lipstick! I'm a leader, not a follower! So I dance alone while everyone else is couples. I even dance when the DJ tells folks where to get their glasses of complimentary champagne for the midnight toast. I laugh when I see this, that I'm dancing alone, and then I go all dorky and try to sing that ‘80s song that goes "A-dancin' a-with my-se-elf, oh-oh-oh-ow." I'm out of breath, I'm laughing so much! I am an ephemeral spark of life in the vast expanse of time and space, and I am making it count!

A friend! This guy comes up and wants to get me another drink. "Whhhhyyy certainly, sir!" I laugh, and then I drape myself around him and we move to the bar as if we’re one jellyfish. He is my new best friend I love him so much. "Screwdriverohfuckitjustgivemethevodka! Ha ha ha ha!"

The guy laughs, but politely; he's sober. "What?" Maybe he’s a nice guy, but I’ve met him like this; he’s seen me in this state, so forget it. And maybe he’s not nice, and who cares tonight.

"Um, vodka?" I say like a thirsty person begging for water in a foreign country. "Just some vodka? Is that, like, allowed?"

Another! I let him pay—how gallant of him! He’s my knight in shining armor! I try to shout this into his ear but the music’s too loud. I mime sword-fighting, and he laughs and looks confused.

I'm spinning, the party or the club, the planet is spinning, but I'm not alone, this random dude is twirling me around and laughing and saying, "Don't throw up!" and I imagine throwing up as he's spinning me, sort of like a throw-up sprinkler, and that image is so funny that I outright collapse onto the dancefloor. Ha ha ha oh my god!

"Sweetie, you can't just sit there." I'm trying to walk in these stupid sex shoes but they were not exactly made for staying vertical for long if you know what I mean.

Someday there might be someone.

What happens next, and where, and with whom, you won't want to know about, and I couldn't really remember the details even if you did want to know. I guess I will count the guy in my overall tally. You know, my magic number or whatever. There are indications the next morning that yes, I should add him. An ache is the main thing. I will wake up on your couch; you felt bad, having been the one who invited me. You had put a glass of sober-up water on an end table for me. You had apologized to everyone at the end of the night; you'd had no idea.

It's not your fault. How could you have known?

I mean, that one time, two years ago -- geez, I don't count that as a suicide attempt; it was more just a cry for help. I simply overdid it, knowing the consequences. I only wanted to not think or feel for a little while; I didn’t want to die. How could you possibly know about that?

Or that my ancestors were found drunk in ditches in Appalachia, sometimes moonshine -- go ahead and sing "Dueling Banjos," yeah I know -- but mostly just dirt-cheap wine? (Were their faces turned up to the stars or burrowed into the ground as they lay drunk in the ditches? I care about such things, probably too much, and I know you’d think it was corny if I told you.) You couldn’t have known about all that—what, were you supposed to ask for my medical record and my family tree?

And last year with the men and the emptiness, the crying jags after and the awkwardness of them not holding me during the crying jags because we were still virtually strangers, even after that?

Someday you will look up.

You will look up at the sky and see the solitary moon, but also stars, and blinking lights of planes, and debris from space colliding with the atmosphere in brilliant fiery streaks, and whole galaxies beyond yourself.


Friday, May 11, 2012

How it will go

You'll land and take a day or two. It'll take a while to unpack, catch up on sleep, check work e-mail. You'll remember that you promised we'd talk after you got back. You'll send me a text message. It will say: "Gimme a call on my work num." I'll feel sad that it contains no term of endearment, not even a "Hey, you," which, for a while, in my need to find tenderness in your communications, I'd told myself was a sort of inverted term of endearment, an intense holding-back of emotion that revealed something positive hidden in its neutrality.
When I see your text message, I'll feel a spike of something, adrenaline or cortisol. I'll take a deep breath. I'll have a feeling that something somehow monumental is about to happen, because I always do. I'll punch in your number because I remember all 10 of the digits without trying to.
The phone will ring once, twice at most. You'll be standing by for the call because you'll want to get this done.
I'll know right away how this will go. In your voice I'll hear irritation, obligation, the dismal thud of being back to "real life," the reaping of what you have sown.
I'll try to sound mature, and at some point I'll make the joke I thought of the other day, about how I've done so much thinking and grown so much and gained so much perspective that "it's like I've been hanging out with the Dalai Lama!" This is something that might have made you laugh if I'd just thought of it, but it will come out pre-cooked and re-warmed. You will laugh to be polite.
I'll ask you to tell me about Thailand. You'll begin your travelogue, one you've already given to a few other people. "Did you know that in Thailand they blah blah blah? I had no idea that in Thailand they blah blah blah. Crazy. And in Thailand, they eat blah blah blah."
You won't mention her right away, but you'll say "our" and "we."
You probably won't mention her name, but you might, because you feel it's time, it's been long enough.
There'll come a point when you'll ask about how my life has been. You'll ask this perfunctorily.
And no matter what has happened in my life, it will feel small.

As I go about my day, I see the pictures.
The first to appear in your online album were generic: postcard images of golden temples like exotic gingerbread houses.
There was one of an Indian wedding, the groom astride a decorated elephant.
Then came one of you in khaki swim trunks lying in a shallow turquoise-tiled pool on the rooftop of the Hilton in Bangkok. The pose was so you: mock-relaxed but image-conscious, sucking in your gut, eyes shaded by tinted lenses, sunburned face to the sky. I looked at your iconic profile, your thin unyielding lips, all hard lines, a statue heartless as stone.
The next photo was of her. It was the first time I'd seen her. She was wearing a bikini and had painted her toenails tomato-red. I imagined her painting them, letting them dry, excited about seeing you. I noticed that she'd done what I do--painted her toenails but not her fingernails, and I wondered if she's like me in other ways.
A picture of her on the beach in Phuket, lovingly photographed beneath a sunset with colors more gorgeous than anything I have ever seen. She is tucking a strand of windswept blond hair behind one ear and laughing. You have never taken a picture of me.
Finally, a shot of the two of you, in front of limpid aqua water, both of you looking so serious, so worldly. "We have seen things you will never see. We are living bigger than you ever will."

In my life here, I do things. I go to work. I read chapters of a good book during lunch. I go to a jazz club on a Thursday night with a guy from work and stay out late even though I have to be at work at 7 a.m. on Friday. I drive along the parkway by the river, and the moon is so enormous and clear that I pull over, I get out, I sit on a big rock, and I look up at it, trying not to pollute the moment with too much thought.
I go out after work with co-workers, I drink too much, I use a streetlamp as a stripper pole, I go home with my co-worker, I have sex with my co-worker.
I do things, and they feel so small.