The Crush

I.

It’s one of those nights where I’m in charge of my friend’s phone. We’re waiting for the guy she likes to text her back, and I’ve taken her phone away to keep her from checking it every 15 seconds. Every time it vibrates, she dives behind the nearest piece of furniture. I summarize his messages for her and take dictation when she finally feels well enough to respond. “A big part of having a crush,” she tells me, “is feeling like you’re about to die all the time”.

II.

I wish he would tell me to shut up. We’re sitting close enough to touch, or at least we would be if I could stay still for one fucking second. I’m squirmy and squirrely and nervously chattering about nothing in particular. I’m desperately hoping that he finds my nervous babbling endearing. I’m increasingly worried that he doesn’t. I wish I could read the answer in his expression, but we’re facing the same direction and there is not a force on earth strong enough to make me turn my head to look at him. If I look at him, we might make eye contact. If we make eye contact, I might die. On the upside, if I die, I might finally stop talking.

I wish he would tell me to shut up, though if he did I would probably yell at him for being rude. I wish I could shut up, though I’m worried that if I ever stop talking about inane bullshit we might actually have to talk about something real. If I stop chattering, we might have to talk about how I feel like I’ll die if he doesn’t kiss me, though I also worry I might die if he does. I hope he thinks I’m being cute. I hope he tells me to shut up. I’m worried he might never kiss me. I’m worried he might. I wish someone would say something to fill the silence. Then I remember that there is no silence and I’m still talking.

III.

He and I have this unspoken agreement where he drives me around when I need to escape campus and in exchange I buy him cigarettes. I’m not sure who’s getting the better deal. Gas near school is wildly expensive, but so are cigarettes. One time when I asked him if I could have one, he told me that smoking is a filthy habit and I should never pick it up. “You’re too pretty to smoke,” he says. I’m not sure if it’s sweet or sexist. I decide not to think about it too much.

Sometimes we go to a shitty Chinese restaurant and order plate after plate of scallion pancakes until we feel bloated and oily and sick. We split the bill. Sometimes we sit on the hood of his car in the gym parking lot and marvel at what incredible fucking cliches we are. We talk about how recognizing yourself as a cliche is just a second level of cliche. Sometimes I lie on the couch in his dorm room like the patient in a New Yorker cartoon about a psychiatrist. I complain about my parents and about exaggerated crushes on other guys I don’t actually like that much. Afterwards, I worry that everything I’ve said is a turnoff. I worry he thinks I’m crazy. I’m worried he thinks I don’t like him. I’m worried he knows I do.

IV.

When I finally stop talking, I can’t start again. He is worried by my sudden uncharacteristic silence and asks if I’m okay. I don’t tell him that I feel the overwhelming need to hide behind the couch or under a table. I don’t say anything. I don’t move. For once, I stay still.

My First Name Ain’t Baby: ‘Hey Baby’ and Street Harassment

I heart NY. I really, truly do. However, when I leave to return to school in late August, I know I’ll breathe a sigh of relief. No more constant hot urine smell in the subways. No more swimming upstream against massive crowds heading in the opposite direction. And most importantly, no more constant sexual harassment on the street.

I doubt that street harassment is more of a problem in New York City than any other highly populated urban area where a lot of people walk. It’s just that this summer in New York is the first time that I’ve spent a significant amount of time walking by myself in such an area. I’ve certainly been catcalled, propositioned, and even groped on the street before, but never in such a constant, unceasing manner. In the time I’ve spent in the city, there has not been a single day when I haven’t been sexually harassed in a public place on at least two separate occasions. I’ve also witnessed dozens of other women being publicly sexually harassed.

It doesn’t matter what we wear. I’ve seen creeps yell at women wearing booty shorts, baggy pants, tank tops, and sweatshirts. I’ve seen a Hasidic Jewish woman who was covered in loose garments from throat to wrist to ankle be called “sexy mama”. She was pushing a stroller with a baby in it.

Getting dressed in the morning is a constant fight to find a balance between trying not to let these guys have power over me by changing what I wear and trying to practice harm reduction. I can wear the miniskirt that makes me feel so cute and confident, but I’d also better wear bike shorts under it because it’s too easy to slip a hand up on a crowded train. I can wear my hair up even though pony tails are easy to grab hold of, but I need to wear flat shoes that won’t make it hard to run away. I can listen to music on my headphones, but I need to keep the volume low so I can still hear anyone coming up behind me.

Of course most of the street harassment I’ve encountered has been verbal rather than physical, but lone women can never be too careful. Even within the verbal harassment, a minority of it is too graphic and disgusting to recount here. Most of the time it amounts to some creep yelling “sexy legs” or “you need a man?” or my personal least favorite, “hey baby”.

I’ve struggled to explain why I find “hey baby” so much more objectionable and insulting than many of the other much more explicit and degrading comments I’ve received. What it really comes down to is that “hey baby” has no specific goal. When some predatory dude on the street yells, “nice tits” his desired reaction is for me to come over and offer to let him feel them. When he yells, “let me be your boyfriend tonight” his goal is for me to tell him that that would be great and offer him my phone number or some sexual favor or both. When he yells, “hey baby” there is no desired reaction.

The big deal isn’t the words themselves, it’s the underlying message. There’s no point to a guy yelling, “Hey sexy baby” at me out of the passenger window of a car as it speeds past. Even if I was into creepy misogynists and wanted to give him my number, I couldn’t. The car didn’t even slow down. But that’s okay, because he wasn’t actually hitting on me. The point wasn’t to proposition me or chat me up. The only point was to remind me, and all women, that our bodies are his to stare at, assess, comment on, even touch. “Hey sexy baby” is the first part of a sentence that finishes, “this is your daily message from the patriarchy, reminding you that your body is public property”. This so-called “minor” sexual harassment is the tax you pay for daring to exist as a woman in public.

“Hey baby” is the cashier who touches your hand just a little too long and winks as he hands you your change. “Hey baby” is the guy who sits just the tiniest bit too close on the subway when there are plenty of empty seats available. “Hey baby” is the guy in the coffee shop who just keeps trying to start a conversation even while you’re giving one-word answers and pointedly staring at your book or phone. “Hey baby” is too subtle to complain about. If you try, guys will say that it’s not a big deal or you’re just flattering yourself or that they wish a hot chick would say “hey baby” to them. What they don’t realize is that this is second “hey baby” today. Yesterday that guy at the bar trailed his fingers down your spine, and when you looked at him he gave you a thumbs up and a smile communicating his approval of your body and existence. Two days before, you caught a guy at work unapologetically staring at your cleavage. Last week on the bus, a guy just kept pressing his crotch against your ass, and though the bus really was packed, it seemed unnecessary and malicious.

Even the most “minor” street harassment is a tile in your mental mosaic of fear and distrust and vulnerability. Piece by piece, it builds into a picture of some larger violence always lingering on the edge of your thoughts. I’m by no means comparing a guy yelling, “hey, sexy baby” to sexual assault, but the culture that makes this man feel entitled to comment on your body, on your existing in public as a woman, is the same one that makes men feel entitled to sex, and makes some feel entitled to take it by force. “Hey baby” is a symptom of the disease of rape culture.

I do heart NY. I just wish it would leave me the hell alone.

 

Title from ‘Nasty’ by Janet Jackson

 

One-Trick Pony

“I suppose at one time in my life I might have had any number of stories, but now there is no other. This is the only story I will ever be able to tell.” – Donna Tartt, The Secret History

Thinking about my sister Tamar feels like touching that gap in your gums right after you lose a tooth. It’s unsettling and foreign and too soft and it tastes like blood. Still, I can’t stop myself from probing at it. Today, on what would have been her 22nd birthday, I find myself feeling that strange bloody softness even more than usual.

I don’t really remember what I used to write about before Tamar died. I do know that she’s all I’ve been able to write about since then. Sometimes this really worries me. How long until people get sick of reading about my feelings about my dead sister? What if they move on long before I’m able to? I worry I’ll be left wandering the tumbleweed-filled ghost town of my memories long after everyone else has moved away.

Grief and sisterhood are both fecund topics, themes that plenty of writers have spent their entire careers exploring. There’s no logical reason why I can’t do the same. Still, some part of me is scared that no one will care.

I guess this is a reflection of my fear that people will stop caring about Tamar, that they’ll forget her. There are so many people who don’t know and will never know that Tamar existed, that she was my sister, that I loved her, that I miss her. Constantly writing about her is my way of remembering and of reminding. 

Thinking about Tamar will always feel like some part of me is missing, but writing about her washes the taste of blood away and replaces it with the bittersweet taste of memories.

Ambien

“In my dreams of this city I am always lost” ― Margaret Atwood, Cat’s Eye

“The trick in that town was getting through a night at all without stalling in the sludge of your own thoughts.” ― Mary Karr, Cherry

I can’t sleep in Minnesota. Sunrise in the Land of 10,000 Lakes usually finds me bleary and burning-eyed, tossing and turning on the living room couch. I eventually pass out at 7AM or so, waking up in the late afternoon to repeat the process. I always have a certain amount of trouble getting to sleep, but it’s definitely worst here. Only in Minnesota am I completely nocturnal.

I don’t think it’s this state so much as this house, which is too haunted with the ghosts of other nights I couldn’t get to sleep. As a kid I shared a bedroom with my sister Tamar, who seemed to pass out the moment my mom flipped the light switch. With the lights off and her asleep, I couldn’t read the hands of the clock. I had to sneak into my parents’ room as they slept to read their glowing digital clock. Careful not to wake Tamar, I would try to kill as any minutes as possible in between checking the time. I can check the clock after I count to 1,000. I can check the clock after I think of an animal that starts with every letter of the alphabet. I can check the clock after doing 100 jumping jacks in the hallway. Time seemed to pass so slowly that I was surprised I didn’t look physically older in the morning. 

In high school I fell asleep on couches in the library, in my seat at the Harkness table, on the cot in the nurse’s lounge. Everyone assumed that I was just slept more than anyone else, but in reality, the only time I slept was at school. Nights at home found me wide awake, trying every free bed and couch in the house, failing to fall asleep in any of them. I know that many people can’t sleep because they’re worrying or anxious, but I think that I worry because I can’t sleep. When you’re the only one awake at 4AM in a dark, silent house, there’s nothing you can do except examine all of your perceived personal failures in excruciating detail. It’s hard to relax when I can’t stop thinking, Maybe this is it. Maybe this is the time I never get to sleep again. There’s no such thing as a good or kind or productive thought when you’re awake before the birds.

Being back in Minnesota is hard. There’s nothing left for me here. Tamar is gone forever. Her desk is still covered in her high school debate trophies, but there are also stacks of programs left over from her memorial service. There’s a new guest bed in her room. I haven’t tried sleeping there. After I sort of dropped out of high school, I largely lost contact with all of my friends. I have nothing to do here but drift through the house trying and failing to sleep.

Even sleeping pills don’t work the way they should in Minnesota. Normally I take (prescription) Ambien, do some weird shit on social media that I won’t remember in the morning (like follow every boy I had a crush on in elementary school and haven’t seen since then on Instagram), and fall into a deep, drugged, Snow White sleep. In the morning I wake up with 23 new Tinder matches when I hadn’t even had a Tinder the night before, but at least I’m finally well-rested. Here I get trapped in some amber layer between awake and dreaming. I am writhing in a sea of warm milk. My mattress is rocking gently, a boat in a lake just before a storm. I’m underwater, looking at the world through a periscope. When it wears off a few hours later, I find that I’ve friended every single other Liat Kaplan on Facebook but haven’t actually slept. 

Tonight is my last night in Minnesota. In the morning, I leave for 3 months for my summer internship in New York.

The city that never sleeps.

 

You Are My Secrets On The Front Page Every Week

I can’t keep a secret to save my life. More accurately, I can’t keep my own secrets. People say that being an open book is a good thing, but I’m not so sure. My spine is so creased that I can’t even stay closed. My front cover was torn off years ago.

I don’t think I’ve ever had a crush that just about everyone in a 5 mile radius didn’t know about. I frequently tell people the story of my most embarrassing moment before I even tell them my name. I can’t keep anything secret, I can’t ever be mysterious.

It’s a fundamental aspect of my personality. I prefer everything out in the open: secrets, wounds, bones. It goes well beyond the point where honesty turns from admirable to overbearing and weird. I’ve ripped my seams open so many times that they’re too frayed to stitch back together.

One time when I was snorkeling I gashed the bottom of my foot open on a sharp piece of coral. They patched me up on the boat, and said I was okay to go back in. Now that I think back on it, I’m not sure the company was licensed in first aid or snorkel instruction. I was nervous to go back in the ocean, scared the salt water would sting in my already-painful cut, but it didn’t hurt at all. Because I had cut it underwater, the water had rushed in before the blood could even rush out. I’d already felt the sting I was dreading, I just hadn’t been able to tell it apart from the initial pain of the cut.

That’s sort of the way I treat emotional pain too. No one can ever hurt me as much as I can hurt myself. I’m forever pouring salt in my wounds before anyone else gets the chance to do it. When your wounds are never covered, they never putrefy, but they never fully heal either. They scar.

It has its ups and downs. I know that I’m funny because there’s nothing I’m not willing to talk about, nothing I won’t make fun of myself for. I’m not scared of making myself look bad because I already know I do. On the other hand, it scares people. I come off as a bit reckless, slightly unhinged. Unfiltered, unrefined, unstable. Blunt is  really just the polite word for rude and bitchy. Sometimes I scare away potential friends or guys I like because I just can’t keep anything to myself.

I try and convince myself that I wouldn’t want to spend time with the sort of people who are put off by my constant oversharing anyway, but I never really believe it. Wouldn’t it be nice if I could be a bit mysterious? Wouldn’t it be great if I had even the slightest knack for subtlety?

Maybe I should just accept that I’ll never be like that. It’s just not who I am. No matter how many New Years resolutions I make, how many times I bite my tongue or let someone else bite it for me, I’ll never be a mystery. I’ll always be an open book. I can only hope people like what they read.

Title from Like A Friend by Pulp

I’ve Written Pages Upon Pages Trying To Rid You From My Bones

Having an idea feels like having the flu, if slightly less unpleasant. My mind feels full and congested – I can’t think of anything else. It’s like having a song stuck in my head, but instead of music it’s just paragraph after paragraph after paragraph dancing in my skull. I can’t eat, I can’t sleep, my stomach feels too light for my body. It’s a systemic infection, and the only relief is to write it out.

If inspiration is the flu, writing is throwing up. The process is strictly unpleasant, but the sense of relief, of purity, it provides is worth it. I write urgently, purgingly. There is no peace in the actual writing, just me retching my ideas into a notebook at 4am so I can finally sleep. The relief comes after, with my head clear and the page full. Only then can I brush the taste out of my mouth and move on.

I’ve heard people talk about nurturing ideas, letting them gestate and grow inside you, but I’ve never been able to keep anything in. I think my ideas are too violent for that, or my mind too inhospitable. With pen in hand or fingers on keys, I drag my words, bloody and screaming, out into the world.

My writer’s block isn’t having nothing to write about, it’s needing to write so badly that the words block up my head, block out the ability to do anything else. Sometimes I dread these spells. They’re so violent, so all-consuming, so visceral. They leave me exhausted and feeling like I’ve just undergone an exorcism.

A week or so after the exhaustion fades, I start to worry. Have I lost my ability to write? Will it ever come back? I long to feel the sickness, I look for it everywhere. I crave it. When it returns, I reach for a notebook, ready to vomit, to purge, to write. I’ll feel better soon.

Title is from The Engine Driver by The Decemberists

New Year’s Resolutions/Happy Birthday

By the calendar, I’m 7 days late writing my New Year’s resolutions, but I guess I measure my years differently now. My years start today, on January 7th, now. Today is the one year anniversary of my older sister Tamar’s death. She died from injuries sustained in a car crash in Bolivia, where she was traveling with friends after spending a semester abroad in Ecuador. She was 20 years, 6 months, 1 week, and 6 days old.

In my kitchen there’s a stand with dozens of pictures of Tamar. I don’t look at it much, but the other day one photo in particular caught my eye. Chubby, rosy-cheeked baby Tamar squirming in my mom’s lap, reaching for the candle on her very first birthday cake. It occurred to me that her death is now as old as the baby in that photo. It has birthdays too now. At one year old, her death would be able to walk on shaky baby legs, and babble contentedly, reaching for the bright flame of the candle. Her death is going to age just the way she did. One day it will be as old as she was, then older. I will run out of pictures to relate it to, just like she ran out of birthdays. Happy birthday.  Happy New Year.

So much has happened in a year. After she died, I didn’t shower for a few days, scared to wash her down the drain. Now, 6 haircuts, 2 tattoos, and 1 piercing later, I wonder if she would even recognize me. That’s ridiculous, though. Of course she would. No matter how much I change, I still look just like her. People tell me that all the time. When they look at me, they look as though they’ve seen a ghost. Sometimes, when I look in the mirror, it’s Tamar staring back at me. This morning, while I was crying, my new nose stud popped out, like my body was rejecting the changes I’ve made since she died. I forced it back in.

One of Tamar’s favorite songs was “Rivers and Roads” by The Head and the Heart. It contains the lyrics, “A year from now we’ll all be gone/All our friends will move away/And they’re goin’ to better places/But our friends will be gone away/Nothin’ is as it has been/And I miss your face like hell/And I guess it’s just as well/But I miss your face like hell”. I go to college in California now. I followed Tamar, but she’s not there anymore. If I’m honest with myself, I really chased her ghost there. Tamar would have graduated this spring. By this time next year, when her death turns two, most of her friends will be scattered. Gone away. 

I didn’t make New Year’s resolutions. I never really have, not in any organized way. The first time I was allowed to stay up until midnight on New Year’s Eve, I watched the countdown carefully, waiting to feel the newness of the next year wash over me. I checked the mirror, but I looked exactly the same. New Year’s holds no special importance to me, nor do New Year’s resolutions. I’ve never really understood the idea of tacking your personal change onto the changing of the calendar. My new years, January 7th to the next January 7th, make much more sense to me.

So this is the end of New Year One. It feels just like the very first day of this new system, which started the instant we hung up the phone after my dad called from the hospital in Bolivia to say she had died. It turns out it never gets any easier, you just gradually develop a tolerance for pain. It sounds different though. The house is quiet now. No keening animal sobs from my mother and little sister. No buzzing dialtone as I call friends, family, her college to give them the news. It looks the same, snowy and bright. I remember watching the sun come up on that first day, bewildered by the cars I saw passing. People were going about their business, living their lives, as if everything was the same, as if the world hadn’t ended.

In the months before Tamar died, the news was full of stories claiming that the ancient Mayans had predicted that the world would end on December 21, 2012. I hadn’t payed much attention. I didn’t believe in it. That morning, looking out the window, I knew that the Mayans were right. The world was ending. They just had the wrong date. The real end of the world, of my world, was January 7th.

Now, a year on, I know that the world didn’t end. It started over. A new calendar, a new system, a new chapter. My life is divided into before and after she died. But she died so young that the after will be much longer than the before. Everything looks the same, but it isn’t. I’m in the same bed, in the same room, in the same house, writing on the same computer. It’s just like that morning, except for my clothes bursting out of a suitcase on the floor. I don’t live here anymore. In a little over a week I’ll be going back out to California.

As for my resolutions for this new year in this new world, I want to be the person Tamar wanted me to be. She always thought I could do better. Try harder, write more, make better choices, take better care of myself. She always told me that if I wanted to be a writer, I had to start a blog. So this is for her. Everything for her. This is just another chapter of the eulogy I can’t stop writing.

This January 7th, everything is different. There has been one constant: grief. It’s inescapable, it lives where I live. It’s emptiness, clawing at nothing, grasping for ghosts. I miss your face like hell.

Happy New Year. Happy birthday. I love you so much.