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Entries in lucy morris (18)

Wednesday
Nov282012

In Which All That's Left Is The Text

Shining Off You

by LUCY MORRIS

Dear C,

I write you this time from the upper deck of a red and blue bus zipping through the Midwest. I write you, computer balanced on my knees, from cramped window seat quarters. I write you with a sore throat, runny nose, carpal tunnel, humbly, in the tradition that I always have: to see if in explaining things to you, I may incidentally end up explaining things to myself.

A funny thing has been happening to me out there in Iowa, where I boarded this bus, and I don’t know how to explain it to you except to say that it’s started to seem like nothing matters besides the thing I’m there to do. I have a funny sensation of everything else slipping away, the margins of what my life used to contain growing ever smaller, sliding off the page, until all that’s left is the text. I stay busy, of course: I jog up Summit Street past what qualifies as mansions there, feet padding out some order to the day, and I drink tea downtown with my computer for companionship, maybe knock on Ellen’s door and sit with her a while. But I now spend so much time inside my own head that when it comes time to go out at night, I find myself loathe to leave it.

image by Angelika Sher

I am so detached from a reality beyond the page that I have even stopped appearing in my own dreams, am a mere spectator of scenes filled with strangers.  I close my eyes each night, ready to watch the movie that appears on my subconscious’ screen. There are too many characters and they speak too fast, like an Altman film, but I can’t look away.

If this sounds nihilistic and disturbing, I don’t mean for it to: it is, in its own way, superbly liberating to no longer feel beholden to the rules of real life, to no longer imagine that you exist on a plane inhabited by anyone else you know, and I wonder if this is what you feel, so many thousands of miles away in Nepal, in a physical landscape so unlike my own. I would be lying if I didn’t say this entire experience is lonely. I would also be lying if I didn’t say it is utterly transformative.

love,

L

image by angelika sher

Dear C,

Back in school means back home for the holidays, which makes me think of those years we used to talk with phones pressed to cheeks in twin beds in childhood bedrooms halfway across the country. I miss phone-line sympathy for our gorging on potatoes, on pie, on the indulgences of being the youngest. I miss you like I’ve never missed anyone else, wildly, and yet it’s been so long that it’s now just a part of me, this missing manifested: it’s in my hands when I type, in the time zone computations I do in my head, in the hair I cut myself like you taught me to, wetting the comb, pulling the hair taut, closing the scissors carefully. I start stories about you with, “My best friend, in Beijing…”

I told some of those stories to Ryan when he visited a couple weeks ago. We went to George’s and he asked what kind of wine they had. “Red and white,” said the waitress, “But I wouldn’t recommend either.” I laughed for about ten minutes and realized it’d been a long time since I’d laughed at all, since those muscles in my face and shoulders had stretched in that particular direction. Later we went home and slept together. I find sex with him, as with all old boyfriends, to be comforting in the way I find the opening bars of an old song to be comforting, or the 978 start of an ISBN. You know roughly how it’s going to go from there. You also have some basic understanding of how it’s all going to end.

I used to think sex was only interesting to me with the potential of possibility, which meant it needed to seem not inconceivable that I could date the person I was sleeping with. But at some point it also started to mean that sex was not interesting to me with people I was dating — because the very fact of us already being together also represented in some way the absence of possibility.

This worries and intrigues me. It’s the type of thing you’d be better at explaining: you have for a long time been better at interpreting me than I am myself. When I miss looking you in the eyes part of what I miss is seeing by proxy how you see me. But it’s also missing how you see the world at large, which is the gift of a friend as close as you: a second shot at how to see, which is in itself a second shot at how to be.

love,

L

image by angelika sher

 Dear C,

Do you remember that first winter after college when we went to that open bar party, and for banh mi afterward, and then for expensive ice cream? I hadn’t been that intoxicated in so long, both on wine and the whims of a city, taking the train downtown to satisfy a particular craving and, hands still sticky from the sandwiches, running across the street to catch the ice cream truck. I lived with a boyfriend then, which is why I hadn’t been going out so much and got drunk so easily; when I got home he read me poems while I cold-sweated and waited to puke. I never did puke and I broke up with him just a few months later.

I didn’t know then that breakups meant committing yourself to a certain kind of history, that they signified at the very least the elimination of one particular trajectory. I’m keeping my options open was a thing I used to say to you a lot that spring, and you rolled your eyes. I thought then that it was because you disapproved, but I can see now that it was because you already understood the fundamental impossibility of actually doing that, that you comprehended the inevitability of shutting some doors.

I imagine myself now, still with that boyfriend, but he is the abstraction in the equation, only the life I would have had with him remains clear to me. Having not chosen that life or any of the three or four that presented themselves to me afterward, I sit on my bed some cold Iowan Saturdays and allow myself to feel a minor grief for those paths unchosen, the alternate lives left unlived. I feel that for a while and then I get up, roast some squash, put on my boots, go over to Ellen’s to chat and cheer up.

These are things I believe I have taught myself to do in your absence, as if each minor bit of progress is a tangible object to show you when I see you next. I regret that my letters read so selfishly, that our distance is now so great that to recall anecdotes from our shared past seems anachronistic. All I can offer is the simple fact that you are present in each of these lines, that you have been the intended audience for every word, for every action, for all of it.

I’m on my way back to Iowa now, the bus I’m on weaving its way through actual cornfields. I never imagined myself here, would never have allowed the thought to cross my mind.  I wonder if your adaptability to place, which I so lack, comes from your superior imagination, from the things you let yourself conceive of that I avoid at all costs. I wonder, too, if this can be learned — like the roux you taught me to make or the darkroom you once showed me how to use — and if, with enough practice, I might one day be able to do the same: to close my eyes and picture the things I want, and to open my eyes and, in not so very long, find them there.

love,

L

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 moving to Iowa.

Images by Angelika Sher.


Monday
Sep242012

In Which We Remove Ourselves To Iowa

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.

"You Get What You Give" - New Radicals (mp3)

"Maybe You've Been Brainwashed Too" - New Radicals (mp3)

Wednesday
Sep122012

In Which While You Were Sleeping I Was Turning The Dials

The Kingdom

by LUCY MORRIS 

1

If it began when I think it did, it’s the March I am sixteen and he’s the guy who writes his number down for me with a red crayon he happens to have in his pocket. There’ll be a thing downtown later on that night, he says, some poetry and some beer, if you’re into that. He walks me toward home with a limp and an inhaler he stole from a friend, alternating puffs on a cigarette and puffs of Albuterol. The air bears the anxious humidity of pending spring, but the wind tangles with his hair and takes snipes at his extremities. But my hair is matted against my temples and underneath my black pea coat I feel sweaty and nauseous, vaguely feverish in a way that is new to me, in a way I do not yet understand will be a recurring sensation, that this is what the physical manifestation of new possibilities feels like.

There’s early evening traffic on Oakland Avenue, minivans pointing toward Newberry Street and Lake Drive, those avenues of mansions, and old Acuras and Caddies with rims, with turn signals pointing in the direction of the Locust Street Bridge, where we are headed. It’s a relief after the density of exhaust fumes and the pervasive impatience of rush hour, the cars speed up but we hold back: he has an odd limp, which I realize only later is affected, though I never figure out why.  

It’s hard to say, at this point in time, what it is we want from each other, and it is this unresolved quality of our relationship that’s compelling to me, that spits us out onto these city streets together a few times a year even after I no longer live here, sometimes in July’s humidity, sweat rolling down our faces; sometimes on the black ice of Wisconsin winters.

It is the Midwest, two-thousand-and-something, in the dying beer town where I’ve grown up. While we walk, we survey the city’s paper factories and churches of endless denominations, scurry and slide up and down muddy hills with grass traction just about in sync, stubbornly put our faces to the wind and to put our hands in our coat pockets, with no question of what comes when we loop back to North Avenue and part ways. Here, I always walk slower, trying to delay the parting until next time, not knowing how to make things continue and also knowing that our time has expired, that he will go to work and drink on his breaks, that I will go home and read on my porch.

2

He calls at eleven one night during a summer when I’m home working retail. He asks me to meet him at the bus stop on Locust and Humboldt. I peg my jeans and put on a sweatshirt and I shrug, why not. It’s a straight ten minute walk down the Boulevard, but there have been a lot of muggings this summer and I usually won’t do this alone when it’s dark, but, I am finding in the fast-paced way of young adulthood, that there are exceptions to most rules, it’s just hard to know what they are until they present themselves. He has a bottle of whiskey in his back pocket, a six-pack of Schlitz in hand, and not enough money for a bus ticket. He swears he know where we’re going. The bus charges with the late night freedom of speed down through the Third Ward, blocks of deserted loft spaces stacked upon ground floor galleries and antique shops catering to the rich and the quirky: the stuffed owl in a gilded cage and absurd cast iron sculptures depicting hearts cracked down the middle.

We get off at an empty looking building; he makes a call with my phone. A man with a silkscreen rendering of Jeffrey Dahmer’s mug shot on his wall invites us in and asks me: “Are you a good one?” I cannot begin to answer this question. I am handed a beer.

We are seated in mammoth armchairs; I’m so high my feet don’t touch the ground. The crease of his forehead becomes more pronounced as he drinks and he becomes meaner; I become quieter with every sip, toes tracing invisible points in the air in front of me. The bus stopped running at one and I do not know how to get out of here so we accept rides from a guy who’s tripping and end up across town on Center Street at the home of a guy who in three weeks time will be dead from liver failure. A man is smacking his girlfriend while she moans and everyone is rolling joints.

I wish he would walk me home, so that we can gain some kind of equilibrium to the steady rhythm of our steps, that we could brush shoulders and apologize. We could climb the hill on North Avenue that contains the city’s water supply and looking across the horizon, he might instruct me not to look straight down and in hearing that, I would be moved to do so and I would waver, just briefly, and look back up.

3

It’s winter and he needs a job again: He’s worked at the corner store for too long; he’s growing sick of selling porn to methheads and beer to frat boys at Open Pantry. He left his waiter position at the Japanese restaurant on Prospect Ave, the sandwich shop environment was too oppressive, he got fired from the auto repair shop and he stole money from the movie theater he worked at. Lately, I have been far away, I have been occupied by the act of falling in love, and I do not have time to actively worry about him so I channel my concern into party-time anecdotes in which he call me lioness and everyone laughs at his odd walk. I feel vaguely guilt when I think of that now, striding alongside the limp, going from store to store collecting applications, toes numb in our shoes, noses pink from the cold.

The sidewalk lining the Humboldt Bridge is disguised by discolored snow, we trip a little here and there. We brave an unmarked intersection and turn right onto Water Street. Everything here used to be tanneries, now everywhere are condos. He tells me that in ten years they’ll all be empty and it will be an urban playground again, the land rightfully restored to graffiti artists and skaters and homeless dudes and bond fire pits. We slouch by the Technical College’s new glass-ensconced gym, by biker bars, by the new insurance building across from my old middle school on Walnut Street. A girl at the museum’s reception desk is smiling broadly at me, sheepishly; I think she must be wanting him but it turns out she was a friend of my brother and also slept with a boy I was once with. We wave goodbye and in the elevator he is the one who blushes.

He decides we should hit the hotel loop downtown: the Pfister, where the presidents stay; the Wyndham where my grandparents used to visit; the Crown Royale, the Marriot, the Motel 6 and the Howard Johnson’s. I have never before had occasion to step in these lobbies. I see it all, briefly, through his eyes: a blueprint world, a model waiting to be animated, a series of futures waiting to be conceived of. I generally see things instead as the set on which my life has played out, buildings mere markers of events, the many scenes of a couple decades’ worth of anecdotes – here I kissed a boy in the fiction aisles of a used bookstore; there I saw a movie alone for the first time.

In the lobby of the Holiday Inn, a peppy man tries to recruit him for the military. I am uneasy about his indiscriminating decisions, about the books he reads that convince him that anything he may decide to do has potential narrative value, and yet I adopt his stories like they’re my own, I co-opt his quirks and pass them off as products of my imagination. I worry when I hear, six or so months from now, that he may be taking the man up on that offer, that he plans to move to Santa Cruz and join the Navy, but I tell myself there is nothing I can do from a distance, and this is true, but what I do not bother reminding myself is that there is nothing I could do even if we were shoulder to shoulder, climbing the watchtower in Riverside Park.

4

We meet at the café this time, the one equidistant between our houses. It has decent iced tea and offensively bad local art on the walls, self-portraits of young women done in mirrors, unsubtle and oversaturated political collages. His plan to see the redwoods fell through. This summer, the last one I’ll be around at all, he is keeping in his freezer a cicada, immaculately preserved on a paper plate among the liquor.

I think about the bottles of gin he consumes and how maybe in five years, when he hits thirty or is robbed one more time of the few possessions he has, that the alcohol that seems to be preserving him will instead unwind him, easing the sidewise smile off his face and unfurling the charming, frightening crease of the forehead, and graying the blonde hair, at first imperceptibly then just around the temples, and then everywhere on his head and his soft hands with the hair on the knuckles I always forget exists.

The plated cicada he balances on his fingers is all awkward angles, its eyeballs miniscule glazed over globes. He’s entertaining a robin in his house. He feeds the bird grapes and in response it shits everywhere, in the empty beer bottles lining the windowsill and on the dirty floor and the couch where he passed out so drunk last night he pissed himself.

I have forgotten the bird’s name now, though it was something eccentric without being multisyllabic. It feels like a long time ago now, and many cities and streets have intervened, popping up between us to create a landscape of distance and letters and phantom sightings. A few years later, lying in bed across the world, I will think about him and I will try to explain him and the distance makes it easier:

We take walks together. He drinks beer from ten in the morning til three in the morning. I once wanted to know him very badly, more badly than I had wanted to know anyone then or even have since. At one restaurant we would go to he put dinners on his tab even though he overdrew constantly. There were days when he had zero dollars, just some cents on the floor of his bedroom. I never gave him money because he never asked and because it would have ruined everything. He drank whisky and water while I swirled my straw in a can of cranberry juice. In his living room, we break danced until his roommate asked us to read his poetry and we sobered; no two people on each other’s peripheries should enjoy each other this way and so much. Things became muddled when he lifted his hands above his head to remove his sweater, I saw his belly and it looked like a grown man’s belly and I called my brother to ask him to come take me home. There was a church across the street from the house he lived in then on Weil Street, I remember that. I remember the raincoat he wore the last time I saw him before things changed, and the shoes. He wore old man’s shoes when I first met him, beige, thick-soled, and when I left he was wearing child’s sneakers, brightly striped, and a yellow raincoat. He looked like Paddington the Bear with a cigarette in his paw. I never stopped worrying for him.

Lucy Morris is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Iowa City. She last wrote in these pages about Macdonald Hall. She tumbls here. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here.

"Everything's Gonna Be Undone" - Band of Horses (mp3)

"Slow Cruel Hands Of Time" - Band of Horses (mp3)