The Right Word
by LUCY MORRIS
Ellen says we’re taking an extended vacation from New York.
We’re on vacation with our books and our beds and our furniture. We’re on vacation with renewable yearlong leases and nails in the walls and energy bills and stocked pantries. We’re on vacation with Hawkeyes tank tops and New Pi Co-Op sweatshirts and the coveted t-shirts they sell at Wal-Mart that say, “What Happens In Iowa City Stays In Iowa City.” Any time in a bookstore will tell you this isn’t true at all, but it’s a sentiment I can’t help but admire even if, for the first time in a while, I’m not doing anything I feel compelled to hide.
Most days, it is just me and my unrelenting body, which wakes me up earlier than it ever did before, and refuses to be overridden by any of the old sedatives: whiskey, Xanax, late night talks. I get out of bed and make a cup of tea and sit down at my desk. What I’m working on is very boring, even to me, but the beauty of what happens here, the equation that delights me daily in its simple formulation, is this: there is nothing more interesting happening at this hour anywhere in Iowa City, so I might as well stay where I am, in my oversized t-shirt and last night’s unravelling bun, typing until I can’t.
The desk where I work in these hours is situated between two walls of windows. When I sit here, cross-ventilated tunes float in from the sorority houses nearby: “Tonight’s! The night! Phi Beta Pi!” drifts in from Washington Street, while the girls on College Street sing, “Build Me Up Buttercup” in a complicated canon. I don’t mind it, not in the way I sometimes used to mind the slow squeal of the M8 bus, the clatter of sidewalk café cutlery.
I idle my time in new and different ways here. I used to spend half of every Saturday roaming Union Square, comparing bunches of greens at six or seven farm stands, searching for the most colorful carrots or the right kind of apple. I would spend evenings drinking gin at bars, or consuming wine and pasta at someone’s house, and I’d wake up a sort of paralyzed the next day that was a little bit hung-over, a little bit something bigger, a kind of paralysis born of too much pleasure: how could I possibly top the day that had preceded the one at hand?
It’s a quieter hedonism here, time spent chatting New York when I should be revising, reading the books I like instead of the ones I’m supposed to, cooking elaborate meals precisely to my own taste, doing translation work rather than tending to homework. As for writing, that open secret of a thing I’m here to do, despite all the days it feels utterly unbearable, it is its own kind of hedonism for me. But, I think, that was never not true.
There are no bodegas here, so I make my own breakfast sandwiches. I also kill my own bugs, page absentmindedly through my own phone book, and scream FUCK at myself when I reach for the pot without mitts. I portion leftovers into Tupperware for lunch, pack Luna Bars to eat on class breaks, lug my groceries up the hill. I sweep meticulously while I talk to my mother on the phone; dust absentmindedly while I check in with my dad. They call often because this is my first time living all alone. There’s the one toothbrush in the bathroom, the one half-gallon of milk in the fridge, the one person responsible for turning the deadlock, shutting off the lights, setting the alarm.
I leave my shoes in the bathroom, let the trash linger a day longer than it should. I congratulate myself on not throwing clothes all over the floor, as if that serves as some real accomplishment. I sleep with the fan on, its sound of artificial bustle lulling me from wakefulness. Ellen says the sound of the bugs outside at night make her think she’s at some country oasis. They make me think I’m about to get murdered. “Iowa City is very safe,” my landlord assures me.
I’m in Iowa but what I didn’t say is that when I first got here I thought I might be in love with someone far away.
It was a surprise to me as much as to anybody. I hadn’t said that phrase in a few years, not since I began to sense the futility of those kinds of declarations in the face of real, manifested love: the nights you stay up touching a person’s forehead while they panic and veer, peering at the back of their heads through hospital curtains as they watch their parent fade away, riding through the Badlands with them in a car full of arguments to which there are no solutions except for that there you are and deep down there’s no one with whom you’d rather be fighting. The things you might think to say in moments of excitement are nothing next to what can’t be said in moments of grief, of anger, of fear. Those three famous syllables hold very little. They are, in their compactness, too small to contain the half of it.
And yet I allowed myself to consider that maybe I could be in love with someone. This seemed unlikely, but so, of course, was the very fact of being here. Anything is possible somewhere new. For a while, at least, all bets were off. Why not Iowa? Why not love?
As with any questions you hope to remain rhetorical, the answers eventually made themselves known.
I think of time differently now that it is in such abundance. It used to be units; now it’s a landscape. There are hills, peaks, valleys. It’s lavish and freeing and completely cruel.
I whittle away afternoon hours downtown at Prairie Lights, where I sit in the upstairs café translating for extra money. Translation is just as much a feat of words as everything else I do, but it allows me to access a different part of my mind, the part where the stakes are low and it’s just for money. I miss things being just for and about the money: everyone acts like there’s an impurity to that, but lately it seems simpler. I want more than ever what is quantifiable. I am interested in what exists on a scale outside of the one inside my head.
For just this reason, everyone I know here runs. We jog around Hickory Hill Park in tees advertising our undergrad institutions, trying to give ourselves an activity by which to judge the day that is not just writing, miles and minutes instead of a word count or one of the many other less objective ways of adding up what you have done: the good sentences, the structural failures, the rotten, unsalvageable mediocrity of the okays and in-betweens.
At night I walk over to Ellen’s house, through the alley and around the white clapboard bend of her house to sit with her on the front porch. All I have with me are my keys, phone, and a mug. I used to believe that the only possible manifestation of physical freedom was a 24-hour public transit system, but it turns out my feet are more reliable than the L train. We watch the rain from Ellen’s porch swing, talk about dying trees, talk about books we’ve read, talk about friends who are far away. You have to talk about them so you don’t lose them, but you have to talk about them, too, so that you don’t get submerged alone in your memories of them.
Those friends write me e-mails from New York saying, “You’re not missing anything.” What I miss is the people writing these emails, but they can’t know their own absences; we are all doomed to inhabit our bodies until we don’t, and until then we can say, “I miss you too,” but we can’t know what it is like, precisely, to be missed. One friend can’t possibly know the way I miss watching her chop onions while we’re cooking dinner, sliding the knife inward with the assurance of an expert; another can’t know how much I wish to hear her immensely endearing, “It’s me!” when she rings my buzzer. I thought it’d be the big things, the buildings and noise and neverending list of things to do, but instead I miss most the quiet details, for instance catching the occasional blue-skied swath of Broadway on a clear, sunny day, the kind that could take you by surprise in spite of yourself.
This isn’t to say Iowa is without its charms. You can, for example, go to a bar and order a cheese sandwich with everything, which really just means a cheeseburger, hold the burger.
And there are moments of what Ellen calls Iowa euphoria. These occur when you find something as good as or better than you could find in New York. I find Iowa euphoria in the triple-dipped caramel apples at the farmer’s market, at night when there’s a bite in the air and I careen home from the bar with limitless energy, scrambling up the hill on Governor Street. At those times, stumbling up deserted Iowa Avenue, the joy is amplified, seems to bounce in waves off the frat houses and come right back at you in greater force. In those moments of euphoria I think, This is it, this is really what it’s all about. I know enough not to ruin things by asking myself what “it” actually is.
A question I do allow myself to ask is how long this pleasant sense of impermanence can be maintained, how long the thrills of the Midwestern safari will endure before they come to seem normal: the “POP HERE” recycling bin label you have to read twice, the jarring “WHITEY’S ICE CREAM” sign, the throngs of undergrads unanimously clad in yellow Iowa gear as if under contract. I think often of what might happen when this is over — the age I will be, where I will go, who will be waiting — but I do not think about what will happen in the years between, the unavoidable changes that will take place, the ones within me and without, the ones in my head and on the page. Here, in Iowa, the central pleasure lies in how easy it is to take one day at a time, to not think too hard about what comes next. The days, even as they grow shorter, are long; they pass quickly.
Lucy Morris is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Iowa City. She tumbls here. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here. She last wrote in these pages about turning the dials.
Photographs by Jim Dow.
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