Is This Allowed?
by KARA VANDERBIJL
I am civilized. My feelings are not.
- Jeanette Winterson
I have planted a nice garden here. Tracing over the past two years, my writing has visibly improved. This is good. I get emotional thinking about it. I nearly gave up writing. You know? It’s easy to be confused. Introspection can be just as dense as the lack thereof.
I have only been happy in short bursts, some of them terribly short. It is my fault. I inherited resignation, the tendency to blame outside of myself. The pendulum swings back to extreme guilt, self-deprecation. I have allowed happiness to become digital, or at least, sublimated. As if thinking correctly could make you happy. As if wrapping emotions into layers of text and subtext could produce joy.
I don’t think that happiness is the goal of a life. At least, it’s not the goal of my life. I don’t believe that unhappiness means necessary doom. But in long stretches it is indicative of a lack of gratitude. I am certainly disconnected, not only from what is most important but also from myself. From others. I’ve divorced parts of myself that need tending. I need to touch and feel and smell and smile. I need to be touched. I need to feel very small and allow myself to slowly be built up.
Because everybody keeps telling me I have so much time I don’t want to waste a second of it. I want to laugh and laugh some more and admit that I’m wrong. Is this allowed? Is it really any more complicated than this?
Everybody loses something. Keys. Bus passes. A comb.
I don’t lose things. Circling around a board game, I nominate myself the dice-thrower of one team or another. I throw some good pairs, some mediocre, three great. I can’t be blamed for the outcome. It is a game of weight, of fate.
Lost: receipts, bookmarks, socks.
Soon after moving to France, I had my mother dye my hair auburn. I did not want to blend in. When I didn’t know the right words to formulate my thoughts, I kept quiet. I did not want to stick out.
A mitten. A penny. Phone reception.
Cheap sweaters disintegrate in the dryer. Misguided intentions, spooning rent money into my mouth, living month to month. I can’t even afford what I need, how can I give? This is a lean time, but give out of weakness. Fold the two dollars bills in your wallet, stuff them into a frozen cup on the sidewalk.
Wallet. Passport. Country.
Thirteen years ago today my family moved into another language, took up residence with the irregular verbs. Humans don’t conjugate easily. I wasn’t happy with my handwriting, and so I rewrote my lessons over and over again. I learned the verbs by accident. None of us live there anymore.
A slim, crinkled roll of paper towels fell into the kitchen sink when I tried to put it back in its proper spot and I looked at it and said, “Fuck you,” without thinking, because if I had been thinking in that moment I would have realized what a terribly ridiculous thing it is to a. insult a roll of paper towels, especially when they’re more absorbent than the leading brand and b. to do this so vehemently, as if the rogue paper towels had killed my family before my eyes.
Later, I was baking with a very hot oven (Wikipedia tells me that anything between 450-500 degrees Fahrenheit classifies as a very hot oven.) As it popped and clicked its way to that infernal temperature I worried that the expansion of gas was going to blow the door open or that it was simply going to spontaneously combust, which I imagine is altogether within its range of capabilities. The oven beeps so faintly when it is done preheating, as if to belie the roar of the ignitor and the dull orange flame I can just see when I open the door to peek inside. I cannot let my guard down with this appliance. I have often dreamed of sacrificing small odds and ends in its favor, building a shrine, much like the employees of a hair salon in Los Angeles I once frequented, who offered up bowls of rice and day-old donuts to a particularly moody blow dryer.
Here begins the smaller subplot with the smoke detector. This is one I do not intend to flesh out any more than strictly necessary. Two minutes before the raisin buns were done baking, it came shrilly to life. The next thing I remember, its parts were exposed and I was holding two 9-V batteries in a floured hand. What if there is a fire in the next two minutes and I don’t even know about it? What if when I put the batteries back in, it resumes beeping and doesn’t stop, ever? What will I tell my landlord? Why doesn’t this have a mute button?
I consumed several buns to fortify myself and left the windows open. I replaced the alarm’s batteries and mask; it cried out once, and I shook my finger at it. “Now you behave,” I said.
At the front door of my building, the button next to my apartment number is the only one illuminated. It is a beacon in the night, drawing drunks from the bar kitty-corner to my door like moths to a flame. Punctuate the night with the doorbell ringing. 2 o’clock, the first wave of sloshing bellies spill into cabs, catch the last train south. 3 o’clock, raucous laughter, ring. 4 o’clock, the stragglers shuffle by, think they are somewhere that they are not. At 5 a.m. the first bus passes by on my street, its automated voice more faithful than any alarm: “It’s morning.”
I live alone but I have not been lonely, although perhaps my voice has tended towards disuse. This home and the street speak to me daily; I’m just too young yet to talk back.
With a dream, my feelings change. I feel soft as clay when I wake up, like a child. I am not afraid of all the things that I could be: good, better, worse. The only thing that frightens me is no longer being able to change, no longer being able to study the interminable facets of any given person or situation.
It’s you that I choose to study. I’m a poor student, but even when I’m baffled, I pull these books to my lap. I leave a finger between the pages when my thoughts fly elsewhere.
I can’t imagine a single right answer. In the early morning, I often hear arguments out on the street. Often it’s between two men, a father and son, or two friends who have had too much to drink. The yelling wakes me up and I’m frightened. From the outside, my apartment doesn’t seem secure, but when I’m inside it feels like a fortress. I’m not sure which perception is closer to reality.
Almost nothing is as I expected. It’s better. As I open myself up to possibility, my ideals, these ghostly dreams, disappear for something more painful, more instructive, more creative. I am being chiseled down to the beautiful bits.
Photographs by the author.
"That Baby" - Grouper (mp3)
"Early November" - Grouper (mp3)