Thursday, January 28, 2010

3) 4th of July party

First, there was Iowa. In my life so far, I’m talking about. After Iowa, finally, there was college in Northern New York state, in “the foothills of the Adirondacks”, in the mountains, in the snow. It was New York, yes, but a village in the middle of nowhere where the closest city was Ottawa, Canada, still an hour away. So I did a semester in London. Then I did a semester in Copenhagen. Later I graduated, suma cum laude, and now I am here. I am this tall girl with bad hair, not blonde for the first time in my life (too expensive to keep up in the city); I am even taller now thanks to high heels. Now this is me, in Brooklyn, walking down the sidewalks pock-marked with black dots of scum.

I am going to a 4th of July party. I carry a bowl of cold tuna noodle casserole in a large Tupperware dish between my outstretched arms. It looks a little silly with the high heels, but the bowl is good, useful; it has its own lid. I got it from the PR people who send things to my boss at the magazine. I have acquired many things this way - cutting boards and pie tins, candles, cookie cutters, blankets and picture frames. I own household items; I own furniture these days. I tally up the things that I possess as I walk down Third Avenue.

A friend is having a party on her rooftop, only a few blocks away from my house. There will be a lot of people I know there from the publishing program. There will be people who got jobs in publishing and people who didn’t. Some of these people I like; some of them I scorn openly. I wait at a light and watch the cars drive by this dismal stretch of Brooklyn, passing nothing more exciting than a Taco Bell drive-through and a bodega. But it’s funny to me. Life is funny. Is that what my acquaintances will think when I tell them my plan tonight? Will they think that I am funny? I know it’s happening for sure now so I might as well tell everyone that I’m moving to Thailand.

I sit at a glass-topped table, an extra-large glass of red wine in front of me and I look around at all the people, laughing and chatting and dancing to 80’s music and I think: This is my body, given for you. This is my blood, shed for you and for all people. Do this for the rememberence of me. Why these words of Jesus Christ occur to me now I don’t know; what could be farther from the Emmanuel Lutheran Church ceremonies of my youth than where I am now? I look around Christy’s 4th of July party at all the people I sort of know, all these New Yorkers who, I’ve discovered, are no different from me, who don’t have anything any more figured out than I do. I guzzle my wine and I think that maybe they have it even less figured out than I do. So what if random Biblical quotations pop into my head every now and then, and I can’t shake this feeling that everything is floating away from me. I still have it more together than these people, who don’t even seem to have noticed the way things slip and fall away, despite all the books that they"ve read.

I’ve been at the party a couple of hours now. I’ve eaten, caught up with friends, and had a few glasses of wine, but I have yet to tell anyone about Thailand. I just sit and watch everyone talking and laughing together, and I take long, warm drinks from the heavy glass. Now that the time has come to tell it, I don’t know what to say. How do I explain it? “The truth is, I was doing yoga and my head opened up.” “What?” they will ask, and should I continue? “It opened up, as though there were an incision all around the crown of my head and then the top of my head tipped open and sunlight poured in. Sunlight, clouds, and salty sea spray. And even as I smelled bread baking below my yoga studio, and heard cars honking on Park Avenue, even as I was in the moment fully, I knew that I had to leave.”

If what I want is to look sane it probably won’t help me to say that, will it? I drink from my cup and drum my fingers on the table. Fern, my roommate, is drunk already and going home, even before the fireworks start. A good girl, that Fern. Never any puke in the bathroom with that one. She hugs me goodbye and leaves with her boyfriend. No doubt they will be long asleep by the time I return. I drink, talk occasionally. The sun sets. Christy puts her special dance mix on the stereo, the one she’s been working on all week, and, accordingly, people dance. I don’t move from my chair except to go down to Christy’s studio and smoke some weed with her and two drunk girls I’ve never met. Back up on the roof, I bum a cigarette.

A young man I knows comes over and sits down next to me. Eric is short, skinny, Jewish, a humorous and intelligent boy but obviously not attractive for reasons just elaborated (short and skinny, I mean). At least, he never was attractive. However now that he’s sitting next to me I suddenly recall Christy mentioning Eric’s new job at the New York Times. I don’t know where he worked before; somewhere nowhere. Now he’s here beside me wearing a suit. “Having a good time?” he asks. “How’s Park Slope treating you? I’m thinking about moving further in. Now that I’m in the Grey Lady’s pockets,” he says, and laughs. Maybe at another time I would hear his laugh as hollow, fake and self-conscious, which it is, but I don’t.

The evening of the 4th of July wears on and I talk to Eric through the haze of drugs, laughing here and there, feeling myself sparkle with laughter. My body hums at low volume in the humid night air. I turn my cheek to catch a breeze. One by one, fireworks begin to burst on the horizon all around. Manhattan glitters across the river. Eric takes my hand and leads me downstairs to find another bottle of wine. He can’t open it so I carry it around, flashing and sparkling at everyone until someone with more sober hands than ours opens it for us. We take it back up to the roof, sit out far on a ledge and watch the sky erupt. Eric flirts and flatters, his small hand resting protectively on my bare knee. I feel fine about it all now. I feel hilarious. I tell him about Thailand. Maybe I explain, maybe he does not ask for explanation. My head is so open now that everything has gone; the sun has come in but everything else has gone. Where did it go? Where did I go? Who is this girl, this drunk girl on the roof with this small boy in a suit? I am just as I’ve always been. I am completely new.

We are walking in the sprinkling rain back down Third Avenue, me and Eric. I am wearing my Tupperware bowl on top of my head. I rinsed it out in Christy’s kitchen and now it is my umbrella. Apparently Eric is coming home with me. I don’t know why Eric is coming home with me but I am happy. I am walking and singing and dancing in the rain with a Tupperware bowl on my head and I am moving to Thailand. I am moving to Bangkok! In less than a month I will be gone.

When I wake up the room is still dark and the sheets are damp. No. But yes, Eric is still here. He is getting out of bed. He has to go to work? Why does he have to go to work? I remember him saying something about having to work very early. It is a weekday; it is 5 am. Eric does not kiss me goodbye. He says goodbye. Perhaps he smiles; it is dark. He is still drunk and is going to work at the New York Times. I pass out again and when I wake up there’s nothing to do but face the fact that it was me who wet the sheets. Maybe Eric didn’t notice. How could he not have noticed.

Eric never calls and I’m glad. Of course I’m embarrassed about what happened – what could be worse? It isn’t the first time – but that’s not why I’m fine with him never calling. I’m fine with it because I’m not interested. I’m not interested in him and I’m not interested in anyone. I am not interested in this city or this country or what I am here or what is going on here. I am interested only in myself. I am interested only in Emily, in what’s wrong with her, and how I can fix it.

Monday, January 25, 2010

2) Change/No Change

At home in Brooklyn I sit alone on a miniature velvet couch that belongs to my roommate. Cell phone in hand, I look around the room, which is full of my things. There is the ugly old green chair I paid too much for at a second-hand shop in Williamsburg. There is my massive portrait of a Spanish girl with a guitar that I got for $10 at a New Jersey street fair. Here is my basic TV, left to me by my last roommate. My bare feet rest on the IKEA coffee table my current roommate and I bought together. On the table are a green glass pipe and a small clear jar half full of equally green herbs. These are some of the things I own.

I sit in my home, in my living room, trying to place myself, to figure out where I am. I struggle with the concept of my own life, the creation of it, how I did it, am doing it - owning things, keeping a job, picking health insurance, contributing to a 401k plan. I have understood that I possess these things. I have known it, have thought about it, but not quite in the way I am thinking about it right now because the man on the phone said, “I love you boss, you company. We get show here on special channel, buy magazine in English bookstore. Why you leave big magazine?” He was in Thailand, an extremely foreign country, but his question sounded familiar, prophetic.

“It’s time for a change. I want to travel and teach and your company sounds perfect; I love children.”

The man on the phone said, “Great! That’s all I need to know.”

We had only talked for ten minutes but it sounded as though I had already got the job. He said he’d have Thitiwat, his assistant, email me with specifics. He didn’t say but I knew, I know, that I got the job. I’m not surprised; so far in my life I have always gotten the job. Things have come easily; much has been granted. So now I sit here in my apartment in Brooklyn, knowing that tomorrow or the next day someone will email and offer me a job teaching English to children in Bangkok, Thailand. And I will take it.

Immediately my mind moves to problems. What will I do with all my things?
I can’t send them “home”, to my mom in Iowa. What’s the use of having furniture in Iowa? Sending it to my dad in North Dakota makes even less sense.

I’m pretty sure I won’t want to come back, but just in case I do I must hold on to my little apartment. I must maintain all the independence I’ve garnered here. My apartment has a humble but pleasant yard, and you can walk to Prospect Park from here. The subway is only a block away and there’s a grocery store on the corner. I will find a sub-letter. Fern won’t mind. Fern doesn’t mind anything.

My head feels clearer than it has in a long time, by far clearer. On the couch I cross my long white legs under me; they are pale against my short black skirt but in time they will be brown and leaner, even, than they are now. I know that because I know what I’m doing now; I have a plan.

I sit alone and smoke my pipe and laugh out loud at myself because nothing has changed at all, despite two years in the city and a fancy, big-girl job. I am still smoking herbs on the couch; I am still planning my escape, just like college Emily. Now again I need to get away, get the heck out of dodge, and now again the world is there, open to me, willing to accept me into its many folds. Now again I rush to it with grasping arms and wide eyes, looking for something, straining to see.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

1) Napping in New York

Cookies. All day long it’s fucking cookies. And when it isn’t cookies, when I get to switch modes and work on another project, it’s fucking wedding cakes. Can you believe that? I don’t care about wedding cakes. I’m as far away from getting married as I’ve ever been. Who would I marry? Not my boyfriend. Besides, there are far more interesting things to do than get married.

I lift my blue eyes from the grey computer screen, out towards the sky beyond the large window in front of my desk. It’s only a little piece of sky, a box of air between my wing of the building and the rest, a cut-out, a castle turret. The sky is bright outside my window, sweet blue, not grey, and my mouth drops open a bit as I stare out at it, my mind too numbed by tedious work to even formulate thoughts such as – why am I in this office on a beautiful day? Why am I stuffing binders with pictures of cookies? Why is there only one window in my apartment? Why doesn’t Vince love me like he should? I don’t want to marry him now, but maybe someday. I wouldn’t even want a cake. Maybe a whiskey bar…

“Emily,” my boss calls me from her little white cube of an office, a mere three feet behind my work station. “Your turn,” she says.

My turn for my review, and I’m grateful for it, for anything that gets me away from my job, out of my seat, taking part in something interesting to me, to me.

I am twenty-four and I work as an Assistant Editor at a magazine in Manhattan. It was and was not easy to get here. I had to work for it (though this, as it turns out, is not what I thought I was working for). I’ve always been an editor; first the high school newspaper then the college magazine. After I graduated I thought I should keep on editing so I went to the Summer Publishing Institute at NYU – publishing boot camp - and not long after that I got this, my first big magazine job. I like to write; that’s why I wanted to be in this field. It was supposed to be about thinking. It was supposed to be about making something. So why did I take a job here? At America’s premier “living” brand? Because they offered me money, more money than I’d been told to expect, to do it.

My cheap platform wedges squeak as I step across the hallway into the dim white box that is Andie’s office. Andie is young and pretty with a pointy little nose and dark black hair chopped short into a pixie cut. She wears a white button down shirt and I can see the slope of her pale breasts as she leans over black and white proofs on her desk. I like Andie. Even now that we’ve been transferred to the “books and special issues” department and our jobs have become boring and tedious, Andie is still sweet most of the time. Less than a year ago, me, Andie, and a couple of other editors all worked on the monthly magazine; then we had new content to write and edit every month. Now we spend many months on a cookbook, an eternity, it seems, on this cookie tome. Andie was happier at the magazine too, I can tell.

I twirl the ends of my black silk skirt in my fingers and sit down carefully on a cool metal chair. I wonder about Andie as I watch her clear things away on her desk, click “send” on a final email. Is this what she wants? There are countless options open to her, to me, to all of us. How does one make decisions in the face of all that? What do you base them on?

Andie stands and closes the door. The office is so small that our knees almost touch when she sits down facing me. Her “signature” salad from Cosi and her cup of coco from Pret sit half finished on her desk; my tummy rumbles as I gaze at them. I have a hummus, cheese, and red pepper sandwich in the staff fridge. I will eat it after this. Even though I make enough money to get by and to go out sometimes, even catch a Broadway show now and then, I still have to be careful. Like my mother always said - life is about making choices, and I’ll choose a concert over takeout lunch any day of the week. Still, that is a good salad… the coco at Pret though… a bit too bitter.

“Okay, so Emily,” Andie says. She holds one of the binders in her lap. It’s the fucking cookie binder that I’ve personally filled with dozens of pictures of cookies, all of which have been previously published by my company. My job is to go through our online databases, find every single picture of every single cookie we’ve ever taken, then cut, paste, print, and put them into plastic sleeves in a plastic binder. After that Andie and the other editors (then the head honchos above them) look at the pictures, pick the ones they like, and tell me how to reorder the binder. And then we all do it again. We’ve done it four times already for this project. The cookies are very nice to look at; that’s true. They are in fact the most beautiful, sensual pictures of cookies I’ve ever seen. And I hate them. I hate them so much. I’m choking on cookies and I feel like snapping my teeth, snarling, growling. I’m sure I’m losing my mind but when Andie looks up from the binder at me I smile.

“Good old cookie book,” I say, clenching my thighs together under my skirt.

“Yes, it’s coming along,” Andie agrees. “But… Emily, this is an editorial job. I think maybe you are forgetting that. This is an editorial job.”

“Sure,” I say. “Yes, yes, I know it is.”

Andie sighs. I wonder when she gets time to go to the gym. She works here until 6 or 7 every night and then has to take the train all the way to Pelham, and she has two children under six. But she looks so good in her white denim capris, her shapely dark ankles poking out into pointy-toed flats, so she must get to the gym some time.

“I know you would like to do more writing,” Andie says. “I know you want to edit. I’m doing my best to get you the chance to do those things. You’ve already had some good opportunities. But you have to do a better job with the binders.”

“I know,” I say, and I do. I know Andie is only telling me this because it’s true. My binders suck, probably, and that makes other people’s jobs harder. I know I need to do better but I don’t know how, and I’m not sure why. I don’t want to work here. Ever since Vince and I broke up and he decided to leave the North East and I’ve had nothing but my job to turn to I have had no choice but to face the fact that I hate this job. Even the stress of talking about it right now in my review is giving me a headache. I don’t talk about it with anyone, not my mother or my sister or Vince. Only Jenna, my friend in the Art Department, she’s the only one I talk to about how much I hate my job.

“I know this is easy for you,” Andie says. I think she can see I’m having trouble listening. I’m afraid she can see insolence on my face, just like my high school teachers could when I thought their classes were below my intelligence (and they so often were). But Andie carries on boldly. I really do like Andie. “If you step it up with the binders,” she says, “I promise you’ll get more writing.”

I smile at her, trying to convey a regret and embarrassment that I don’t feel. “I know,” I say. “I’ll do better. Thank you.”

What else can I say? I’ve never been good at lying. I’d like to say a lot of things but of course I don’t. I’d like to ask Andie if she likes her job. Does she ever get to make any real decisions? Who makes the decisions? Is it the publisher? The board of directors? The art department? The focus groups? The founder? Do you think I should stay on here? I want to ask. Do you think I should I look for a job at a magazine I’m more interested in? Should I move back home to Iowa? Should I stick it out? I always think of going back to Iowa but of course there’s no way I could really do that. I hated it there even more than I hate my job now. Oh, poor, poor miserable me.

Andie smiles. She is very fetching, her wide red lips sliding over her white teeth, her big brown eyes looking at me. Her husband is an art director at a music magazine. Maybe she could introduce me to him sometime and I could get a job there… “So,” she says, “other than that everything is good. That’s the only box I marked. Was there anything else you wanted to talk about?”

I smile at Andie and shake my head. My earrings tinkle in my ears and make me think of heat, steel drums, the tropics, someplace steamy and wet. They are pretty, too, tiny wind chimes of silver and black, a gift from Vince. He brought them back from Africa when he went there without me. He went to Czeckoslovakia without me too. He went to Panama without me for six months and still I didn’t see it, didn’t understand our relationship. How come you get older only to start to understand how tragically young you are?

“No,” I say to Andie, “It’s all good here.”

“You’re free to go then.” I leave the office and walk down a couple of long white hallways to the kitchen. I take my homemade sandwich from the refrigerator and open it up, tinfoil crinkling on the white countertops. The maid comes in and refills the coffee pot. We smile at each other. I like the maid. I like the kitchen. What I hate is the subway, the angry people, how hot the city is in the summer, how cold it is in the winter. I hate the rats in the trashcans outside my house. I hate my tiny, windowless apartment and the retarded boy in the yard next door to mine who sings at the top of his lungs at 7 am every morning. I hate how angry I feel and how resigned everyone else seems. I hate that despite working forty hours a week I still can’t afford yoga class.

I bite into my sandwich, loving the soft wheat bread and the thick, creamy wedge of extra-sharp Cheddar. I love the snap of the red pepper in my teeth and the cool, spicy hummus on my tongue. I know that I have to do something. I need time for yoga, for being in the sunshine. I need time to sit and eat, time to watch and look. I need to write something, not cut and paste. The time has come. The high time has come.