(This one was hard to write, even harder to publish. I found it in the 2013 archives–aka my journal–back from when I was traveling around Croatia and Italy like a madwoman. This particular vignette was written when I was living in Split, Croatia.)
My eyes burned, watered. Mostly from the semen, partly from the shock.
Norman, Croatian Man and Proprietor of Ejaculate, was alarmed by my alarm.
“No warning?” I asked, miffed, blindly feeling around the bedside table for tissues.
“Well fuck that.”
Norman rolled over and hoisted himself out of bed. He zipped on his baby blue flannel onesie. I had to watch him tie his brown, shoulder length hair into a ponytail. “I know this isn’t sexy,” he said. “But it is very comfortable.” He motioned me to the kitchen and warmed up some meat and beans, a hearty Dalmatian recipe his mother made him growing up. I declined.
We sat alongside the kitchen counter, in his apartment in the outskirts of Split. I watched him eat his beans with total commitment. Some landed on his oversized child’s night garment. Before I’d moved to Croatia, if I had closed my eyes and envisioned a Croatian man, I’d have seen Norman: buff, rustic, burly, chiseled, strange — though his name would have been Stipe, or Bojan. Norman was named Norman, he told me, because “his parents were eccentrics.”
He wanted to talk about past relationships. (We’d exhausted Game of Thrones.) He asked me about my longest. His was six. Years. Mine was two. Months.
“You’ve never been in love?”
“No,” I said. I could have used a bowl of beans, right then, to diffuse the sadness, however dull: of being asked this by others and by myself, perpetually.
“Well, no offense, but there must be a reason for that.” He sopped up the juices with some stale bread.
I know, I know: I’ve never been in love. And no one, to my knowledge, has ever loved me, barring my family, a few friends, and my dog (when I’m holding the can opener).
And here was Norman, saying things I knew, getting meat juice on everything, even his careful ponytail.
I had never been more repulsed by a man. Yet this repulsive man had the power to make me acutely aware, more than ever before, of the fact that I’d never been in love: not because Norman had asked me, buffoon-like, but because here I was, sitting next to buffoon-like Norman, watching him eat beans, my eyes still red from an unexpected semen blast.
I excused myself to the bathroom and flushed my face with water. Flushed my face until I was certain he was done eating. I returned to the kitchen to offer a cordial goodbye; he was asleep on the couch.
I walked the two miles home, along the Adriatic, to the small apartment I was renting by the water. The lack of love puts you in places you might ordinarily never find yourself. And this, perhaps, is a blessing, this freedom to roam and experience and, as I did that night, bury myself in pebbles, feet in the chilly water, where I slept until sunrise.
The other one, the one called Borges, is the one things happen to. I walk through the streets of Buenos Aires and stop for a moment, perhaps mechanically now, to look at the arch of an entrance hall and the grillwork on the gate; I know of Borges from the mail and see his name on a list of professors or in a biographical dictionary. I like hourglasses, maps, eighteenth-century typography, the taste of coffee and the prose of Stevenson; he shares these preferences, but in a vain way that turns them into the attributes of an actor. It would be an exaggeration to say that ours is a hostile relationship; I live, let myself go on living, so that Borges may contrive his literature, and this literature justifies me. It is no effort for me to confess that he has achieved some valid pages, but those pages cannot save me, perhaps because what is good belongs to no one, not even to him, but rather to the language and to tradition. Besides, I am destined to perish, definitively, and only some instant of myself can survive in him. Little by little, I am giving over everything to him, though I am quite aware of his perverse custom of falsifying and magnifying things.
Spinoza knew that all things long to persist in their being; the stone eternally wants to be a stone and the tiger a tiger. I shall remain in Borges, not in myself (if it is true that I am someone), but I recognize myself less in his books than in many others or in the laborious strumming of a guitar. Years ago I tried to free myself from him and went from the mythologies of the suburbs to the games with time and infinity, but those games belong to Borges now and I shall have to imagine other things. Thus my life is a flight and I lose everything and everything belongs to oblivion, or to him.
I do not know which of us has written this page.
The Maker, 1960.
When I’m not drinking Bud Light Lime-A-Ritas and/or wearing a Croatian sailor cap, I’m typically writing. Of late, I’ve been writing articles and article-like lists for the website Bustle (which now has an audience of 11 million, yowza!)
Here are some important journalism things I’ve written in the past few months, all of which has kept me from blogging diligently on Snax and Sex.
A year ago today, to the hour, I was on a farm in the Benevento region of Italy, reading Zadie Smith, tucked snuggly under the covers to shield me from the ruthless, buzzing zanzare. I was warm, but there was a breeze, a pleasant dryness. And there was the wonderful simplicity of only needing protection from mosquitoes.
Now, I’m under the covers, too, though under very different circumstances.
Two weeks ago, I installed AC in my room, after an unreasonably long delay, and now I am freezing, the way I like it. I’d initially thought I was going to be a champion (/martyr, in true Catholic form) and sweat it out; if I survived last summer in Italy without AC, I thought, I can survive this one. Plus, the idea of buying and installing an AC seemed so incredibly daunting; I’d have to schlep myself to Target, choose a thing (so many choices, things), buy it (the most daunting part), schlep it to my apartment, figure out how it works, etc. It seemed like an unreasonable undertaking, especially for someone who still struggles to do the basics, like tie her shoelaces or brush her hair.
The process of acquiring an AC actually felt so daunting that I re-joined Tinder — which I’d sworn off months earlier for being a massive waste of time — with the express goal of “befriending” a guy who had AC and who might let me sleep on his floor or elsewhere, in the coolness of his bed chambers.
I kept my profile sweet and simple: “looking for someone who has AC.”
The next day, I felt dirty about it, so I also added “and someone who respects sandwiches as the greatest genre of food.” I didn’t want my Tinder exchanges to be, well, so exchange-of-services-y, and this profile addition broadened the scope of why I was feasibly on the app. Maybe I was just looking for a sandwich connection, someone whose sandwich tastes vibed with mine.
I received an enormous amount of messages, from an array of young gentleman who were truly concerned for my well-being. I mean, you do always hear about people dying in the summer because of the heat. It was only June and the heat, still bearable, was making me do crazy things. I’d wake up, sweating, and fetch ice cubes to drop on my naked body. I’d sway in front of the fan. Then, I’d frantically swipe through Tinder, acquiring matches/potential AC owners, as though I had reached a breaking point, even though the real breaking point would be to just be an adult human and go buy a fucking AC.
Guys would message me things like, “I have central air, lol, you probably hear that a lot,” and, “I have my AC on now, it is soooo cold in my room, but you probably hear that a lot, haha” and, “I actually don’t have AC, so I guess this won’t work out, but I do have a huge amount of respect for sandwiches.”
I hadn’t quite decided what my deal was. How far out of my way I would go to avoid doing a pretty straightforward thing? Bear in mind that this is a classic Maria maneuver. Example: I violently tear through cereal boxes (and am never able to properly close them again), while if I’d just opened it where the kind people at Kellogg’s had indicated, my Lucky Charms would stay fresh forever.
During those feverish June nights, I’d ask myself: Would I actually get involved with someone simply for his AC? Was this really about AC? Maybe I can survive the summer without AC. What happened in my childhood that made me this dramatic?
June was hot, sort of. Not like it was hot in Italy last summer. It was a special New York brand of hot that makes you feel like you’re suffocating in a Costco bag that someone peed in. A hot with smells and grime and perspiration.
I met up with a few guys from Tinder, guys with whom I was able to maintain actual conversation. I guess that means I did, in fact, have some standards (and maybe desires), even for a guy I was presumably only using for his in-room cooling unit.
Two weeks ago I quit Tinder, this time for good (…is what I say now.) I decided to replace the app with Chekhov’s short stories; every time the urge to Tinder comes over me, I pick up a book, or a piece of trash from the floor of my disgusting room. I’m trying to re-invigorate my downtime and re-invest my mental and emotional resources back into myself, my mind, my space. I haven’t blogged in a while, but I’ve been reading more than ever. I journal. I make a point of taking out the trash when the time comes, of putting laundry in the laundry bag, of only eating Thai food in bed on special occasions.
Right now, I’m blissfully chilled. Because guess what — two weeks ago, I decided to be an adult human. I bought myself an AC, at long last. It was a schlep, but I fucking did it.
Hi friends / but actually just my family: I hope you are all very well. I am about to embark on a very exciting project that is centered around a very exciting pastime: sitting. Not convinced sitting is so great? Check out my most recent musings on sitting, and why it is worth your thought, consideration, love, and butt.
Sitting is sacred. Sitting is beautiful. Sitting is so simple, so seemingly obvious that we fail to appreciate or even recognize it on a day-to-day basis. In America, we associate sitting with waste, laziness, and poor health. Businesspeople invest in stand-up desks, or worse, treadmill desks. Health scientists publish studies on the ill effects of too much sitting. Michelle Obama and other very bright, well-intentioned public figures encourage us to move, upright and often. This is very reasonable; Americans sit too much. The fundamental problem, though, isn’t the act of sitting; it’s that we aren’t sitting properly.
Having traveled through Italy, from Bergamo to Palermo, I’ve found that my most treasured memories transpired as I sat: eating a luscious bowl of spaghetti alle vongole, discussing Berlusconi with an old man on a bench, sipping aperitivos perfectly alone in a café for hours. When we gather to sit together, we enter a special realm where sharing is the ruling principle. Seated, we share meals, memories, stories, beers, secrets, and cheese, really all of the best things. But when we sit alone, we experience something equally magical — the ability to deeply observe the beauty and complexity of our surroundings.
Italians know how to sit.
The literal translation of Dolce fare niente is “sweet doing nothing.” The phrase reads awkwardly in English, in part because we can be pretty squeamish about “doing nothing.” And when we are doing nothing — stalking ourselves on Instagram, toiling at the gym, deciding on the appropriate emoji for a particular text — we are numb. At best, we’re vaguely interested. At worst, we’re lonely, alienated by our screens, made anxious by our inability to set aside daily space to sit and inhale and experience peace, with others or alone.
Peace, however, is not always silent. There is a loud peace, a sort of hectic order to the narrow streets of Naples, for example, where old men and women sit for the vast majority of the day. It was sitting on benches and stoops in the piazzas of Naples when I first truly understood the meaning of the sacred tradition of dolce fare niente. I couldn’t have arrived at this understanding alone. Italy’s elders enlightened me: It was how they sat.
Parked on stoops or plastic chairs outside their homes, dolling out ‘ciaos’ to people passing by, the old people of Naples unequivocally run the streets. Typically, they assemble in packs. Visit any piazza in the Campania region and you’ll find clusters of them, on benches or stairs, playing cards and gossiping with the same friend groups they’ve had since grade school. These older folks, men and women, offered me an invaluable (and unsolicited) sitting education.
One afternoon, as I lugged groceries up the narrow street to my apartment, I noticed I had a spectator: a short, fleshy old woman named Maria, sitting outside her home on a pink beach chair.
Now I’d grown accustomed to being watched, particularly by people over 60, ever since I’d moved to Naples. From balconies, windows, and motorcycles, my retired neighbors would both watch and openly discuss me. Once, an old man in a pinstripe suit approached me at the bar. “I saw you buying groceries yesterday. Gatorade and cookies and chips. Why?”
This particular old woman, Maria, looked kind; her inspection of me was not malicious, but gentle, almost thoughtful. I sat down on the chair next to hers.
In a matter of minutes, she became an old friend. Maria was an eighty-three-year-old, born-and-raised napolitana, currently living with her youngest (and unmarried) grandson, Antonio, a wild-eyed, perpetually shirtless man in his early forties, who ran outside to offer me a beer the moment I sat down. I sipped my Peroni as Maria told me about her eight children, reminding me, again, that Antonio was not married. She’d periodically interrupt her anecdotes to grab my hand and insist I drink faster. “With this sun, the beer will get hot.”
The beer was still cold, and Antonio, still shirtless, clutched his stomach and stuck his head outside. “Quick, quick!”
The faux urgency rolled over me, as intended, and I sat with Maria, for hours. And Maria would continue sitting for hours after I left. All the while, there was noise. Screaming and vrooming and meowing and sizzling and taunting and singing. If you sit for long enough, the noise seeps in through your pores and becomes you. Your insides are Naples, and Naples’ insides are you.
Though reluctant to exaggerate, I’m very comfortable with the following declaration: there is no silence in Naples. Not in churches, not in alleys, and especially not at six in the morning, when garbage trucks make their rounds and dogs settle their scores. The first night I attempted sleep in my apartment, an array of noises wafted through my window: shrieking cats, shrieking vespas, a pack of middle-aged men singing “Summer of 69,” a family washing dishes, and at least four distinct heated arguments, all concerning food.
I stepped onto my tiny balcony, resisting the urge to scream “BASTA!” and throw clothespins at the sound offenders. Instead, I made an important decision: I chose to sit. Just as I had with my old friend Maria earlier in the day.
The streets are so narrow in the quartieri spagnoli that from my balcony, I could see into six different homes spanning three floors. Due of the ruthless Neapolitan heat, residents keep their windows and balconies open, so not only can you see other people’s business, you hear and smell it, too. (And on unlucky days, you step in it.)
You will find no notions of outside or inside. Here, the concept of privacy falls somewhere on the spectrum between nonexistent and joke. Napolitani bring their living rooms to the streets. They assemble tables and chairs outside of their homes, where they’ll sit amidst swarms of swerving Vespas and agitated children. When you walk through the cobblestone streets, you weave in and out of dogs, babies, chairs, motorcycles. When you sit in the cobblestone streets, you both see and are everything. Clothespins will fall on your head, from high, high above you. Strangers will offer you sfogliatelle. A dog will eat the sfogliatelle out of your hand.
I sat with Maria the next day, and then the next, and for weeks after that. I explored the city through stoops, lawn chairs, benches; I made my friends, and I sat with them, for hours, because the day is hot and long, and I had nowhere to be but everywhere.
Zadar is a small town on the Dalmatian coast of Croatia. It was in this town — on my back in a bed in a hostel — that I read the news that my college dean Leslie Woodard had passed away. I still have the notes I wrote in my journal that October evening: “No no no no no no no no no no no no no no no.”
Grief is many things: imprecision, confusion, belligerence, pain, depression. Grief is heavy. Grief is existential. Grief invites you to make dumb claims about what grief is and isn’t, always in retrospect, as you broach the daunting intellectual task of making your grief coherent. Why humans are programmed like this, I do not know. I do know this: grief undulates. It comes in waves of varying strength, from below and above, when you least expect it and when you do expect it. Grief is a friend who punches you when you hug him, and you are a friend who punches Grief when he hugs you. The timing is never right.
I’m personifying Grief here because it’s easy, and because I’m looking at the water bottle next to my bed, thinking about Leslie Woodard and how she is responsible for my graduation two years ago.
My junior year — just like my freshman, sophomore, and senior years — I was having problems of the emotional/mental variety. Dean Woodard, who was truly all-knowing and all-seeing in the way many people conceive of God, came to this conclusion even before I did, so she invited me in for a meeting. This was nothing new — us meeting, coming up with creative plans for getting me to graduation, for surviving unfathomable cruelty such as the math requirement. “It’s not going away,” she would tell me. “It’s always going to be there.”
As soon as I entered her office, I began to cry. I remember the remainder of our meeting as if it were a snow globe, the moment after it’s been shaken up. The falling snow, here, is some kind of metaphor…perhaps for my tears and anxiety? (I don’t know, I already told you Grief is imprecision). The point is: I was out of control frantic until I wasn’t, until it all had settled down. Dean Woodard had these wondrous problem-solving powers. She worked silently and fiercely, like the powers that slow down snow-globe snow until it rests peacefully at the bottom and reveals the beautiful scene for what it is.
For reasons I can’t understand, I wasn’t taking my medication, and this has to do with everything. If you’re not someone who takes medication on a daily basis for depression, anxiety, or any other mental illness, this is going to sound, well, mentally ill. How do you just stop taking your medication? How is it so hard to take pills you need to take?
I urge you to direct those questions to someone who isn’t me. I have such a minimal understanding of the forces at work that sometimes make small things, like tying my shoes or turning in a form or taking pretty essential pills, seem painful and impossible to me.
Dean Woodard always respected my problems, even when — especially when — I didn’t. Because let’s be honest: she could have very easily shipped me off to Yale Mental Health, or given me a pamphlet, or even scolded me. Her approach to my mental health and well-being was not only unique for a bureaucratic university setting, but it was unique for the planet.
“Why aren’t you taking your medication?” she asked me, pushing her candy bowl towards me.
“Oh, I don’t know, there are so many things. You have to get up, you have to get the water….”
“Get a six pack of water bottles and keep them by your bed.”
“I’m going to buy you a six pack of water bottles, and you’re going to keep them by your bed.”
The next day Dean Woodard handed me a six-pack of water bottles in the dining hall. “Here.” She looked me in the eye; her face managed to be both friendly and no-nonsense — I’ll never know how she pulled that off. I kept the water bottles by my bed, and for some silly but magnificent reason, this was exactly what I needed to take care of myself. I took my pills.
A year later, she screamed, “Maria Yagoda, FRENCCCCHHH” and I took my diploma, against quite a few odds.
Dean Woodard, I’m thinking of you now because it’s been two years since I graduated, and I still keep water bottles by my bed.
You taught me something so fundamental, which I’m going to call the Water Bottle Principle. Setting aside everything else you did for me — like believing in me as a writer and a student and a human when I made it exceedingly difficult — the most wonderful lesson you taught me is this: do the goddamn work. This is the Water Bottle Principle. Fucking sit down with your problems and do the goddamn hard work. You need stupid water bottles to take your stupid pills? Fucking get yourself some water bottles. And get water bottles for others who might need them, too.
So here I am, sitting down with my Grief. Talking to him, listening to him, letting him punch me in the gut, trying to give him a hug. Waiting for the snow to settle.