Thursday, August 19, 2021

Friends from College

Image is "Two men contemplating the moon," Caspar David Friedrich. Public domain.
Both names changed. Thanks to Agnes Enkhtamir for inspiration on the public epistolary format!


Dear Ricardo,

Your name isn’t Ricardo. This is the name you picked out when I had your face in the palm of my hand, the glass of my phone. You said, Maybe you should write a blog post, it’ll be therapeutic for you. Maybe so. The truth is I haven’t written a post in ages because I am not sure of what I believe, or at least less sure than 7 years ago around the time the two of us met, and much much less sure than 11 years ago, when I gave the speech that comes up when you Google my name. I think you know what you believe. In college once, junior or senior year, we ate dinner at Musashi — the little Japanese joint near my old place on Haste. I asked you where you saw yourself living after we graduated. You said you’d like to go back to Seattle, and you’re there now, although I’m not sure it’s making you happy.

You said you don’t like drifting. You make at least 3.5x as much as my grad stipend and you haven’t taken vacation in 18 months because you’re up for promotion review, while I’ve quit my job and gone on road trips and moved across the country for a summer of bacchanals, dive bars at last call, stumbling Brooklyn blocks home blurry with my contacts out after sleeping in other people’s homes. I joke a lot about doing things “for the narrative,” but I’ve realized it’s actually very hard to make a story cohere out of disparate events propelled by no internal logic. I’m used to telling stories that follow an arc: exposition, inciting incident, rising action, climax, denouement. I don’t know what the arc of this summer was or what the next few years will be. I could drift if I wanted; technically I have no attachments but school. You’re a landlord with a townhouse by the zoo and a mortgage now.

I don’t know if you find it disquieting to be addressed quasi-publicly. Secretly, like I said to you on the phone, I think you like it. I can be an inconstant friend sometimes. This summer when I was in the passenger seat of your silver car, you said things are different in a friendship after an 8-month silence. Especially when we used to grab lunch every week. (Remember bowls of poke, bowls of ramen, Super Duper burgers.) I’d like to think that I make some of it up with my words, even if they’re poor substitutes for a long hug, a shared laugh, sitting on a wooden pier at the edge of Greenlake watching the mallards iridescent in the sun. We’re such different people, Ricardo. You stay the course; I barely know how to get home.

Do you remember how in school you let me come over for dinner. I would barely help while you adeptly put chopped vegetables into the plastic trays you saved for prep dishes, mixed corn starch and water into a white slurry in a glass jar. I went grocery shopping yesterday and felt so unmoored. How do you know what to cook and when to cook it and how do you make yourself do it instead of microwaving a Hot Pocket. For my life to work, I’ll have to think a little more like you. I’ll make real food, maybe, instead of subsisting on $5 lattes and toast. I’ll do the things that need to be done. I’ll finally fill out the direct deposit and payroll deduction paperwork the university wanted me to do days ago.

In the blue folder from my department where I keep all my important documents, like my vaccination card and my glasses prescription, I have a bunch of photographs from California. Do you know, I have that one of us from your company’s holiday party photo booth where I threw on a feather boa and we leaned against each other smoking fake cigarettes. Our faces are red and shiny and split open with laughter. A rare precious moment when we wanted the same things, when we had everything we wanted.



Dear Ella,

When you told me that most of my stories and essays are for, about, men in my life, that it made you frustrated or insecure about your own position or both, I felt awful. I was on a train or at least I think I was. You asked me, Do you feel more unadulterated around men? and I never quite answered that question.

My friend H. who you’ve met feels disloyal writing about people close to her, says it feels like using people. Fiction or poem or essay, I write almost only about the people close to me. Or maybe it’s not about closeness exactly. There are some people I trust less than you but write about more, simply because they’re on my mind with the inescapability of an occupying force. With them I have frisson — from the French for “a shiver or a thrill.”

Speaking of a shiver, not the good kind: on the way to the coffeeshop where I’m writing you this, a man rolled down his car window at a stoplight and said, “I saw you yesterday! Man, beautiful!” As I often do reflexively in these situations, I laughed mildly and said, Thank you. Then I felt embarrassed, wondered if anyone else on the avenue had seen this exchange. A high school friend I loved a little for her brassiness, the un-apology of her desire, once told me that she liked it when men catcalled and whistled at her on the street, that it made her feel sexy and empowered. I think the men who do this are exerting power over space and over me. Some would say they're also reifying my gender. There’s this passage from the novel Detransition, Baby, in which Reese is the trans woman protagonist:

“…the slap was a form of pageantry. Beneath it lay Reese’s own sense of womanhood…Reese wanted…to get hit in a way that would affirm, once and for all, what she wanted to feel about her womanhood: her delicacy, her helplessness…Reese spent a lifetime observing cis women confirm their genders through male violence. Watch any movie on the Lifetime channel. Go to any schoolyard. Or just watch your local heterosexuals drinking in a bar. Hear women define themselves through pain, or rage against the assumption that they do, which still places pain front and center…The quiet dignity of saying ow anytime a man gets a little rough—asserting that you are a woman and thus delicate and capable of sustaining harm…She didn’t make the rules of womanhood; like any other girl, she had inherited them…So yeah…Hit Reese. Show her what it means to be a lady.”

When the man in the car made his remark to me I messaged my sister, who then told me about a man who had harassed her in a racially and sexually derogatory way on the subway. Sometimes I think that’s what womanhood is — sitting in a room and talking about what’s been done to us. The Netflix show Sex Education makes a heartwarming episode of this: after one character suffers an assault on the bus, other girls rally around her. The woman who rejects the notion of having suffered harm because of her gender, or who has little to say about it, is stepping out on a kind of sacred bond, an outstretched hand.

I value the hand, I really do, but its grip can also be viselike. In groups of women sharing mundane horrors, I sometimes feel like an ass considering the luck of my own life. I haven’t suffered terribly. My periods are bearable and infrequent. My worst sexual encounter ‘rape-adjacent’ (Brodsky’s paper on nonconsensual condom removal). I don’t talk about wanting to lose weight, nor think it too often. My relationship to my body is never obsessive or dysphoric, more that of an affectionate if occasionally deadbeat roommate — we share space, do the metaphorical dishes more or less on time. And then there’s this: men have approached me on the street, even in the middle of the night, and I haven’t always felt scared. Brooklyn at 2 AM on the Fourth of July (well, I guess the 5th), a jovial Park Slope man named Maxwell got out of his still-running SUV to tell me I looked like a fashion model, asked what I studied, gave me his number. I felt — what, bemused? Entertained? Can I say this to you? Or does this scene make me look like a gross Ayn Rand-esque character, a woman so invested in shedding the image of fragility that I ignore the reality of my own peril? When you wanted someone to escort you from the Downtown Berkeley station up to Northside, I had the passing thought that I would make the same walk at all hours of the night alone. Last Thursday night I paced outside the Delancey-Essex subway station in lower Manhattan at 3 in the morning, past alleys rank with urine and men sleeping rough under the awnings of fast food restaurants closed for the night. I was watchful but not anxious. There were enough eyes on the street. Am I breaking the rules, Ella?

In a park at night in Beijing the summer of 2017, some girlfriends and I were sitting when a man on a hoverboard approached us and spoke insistently to us in mixed Chinese and English, wanting to know our names, where we were from, if we would add him on WeChat and help him practice his English. My default then was to assume others wouldn’t want to talk to a strange man, especially one who seemed so pushy. The other girls weren’t doing anything to put an end to the situation, so I thought they might be scared or tongue-tied. I was blunt and terse in my responses, eventually admonishing that it wasn’t polite to approach us in a park so late at night. When he left, one of the other girls almost burst into tears. Why were you so rude, she said, that made me really uncomfortable.

I realized it had been audacious and wrong-headed for me to try and protect anyone but myself. I had no way of knowing what they really wanted. (What would you have wanted?) Maybe I didn’t even know what I did.

Probably I could have gone either way. Either way because I’m often unsure of how people should treat each other, aside from agreeing with the greatest-hit commandments. You locate and defend your own boundaries with conviction; message our group chats with questions about the best terminology to use for a heritage month, the difference of one letter; and post announcements on your Instagram stories about activist causes, what to know and where to donate. You’re always trying to do the Most Right Thing; I’m not sure that it exists. I think I like living in the moral grout, the sticky space between the bricks, being labile and forgiving and forgiven.

Maybe why I haven’t written about you like this before, even though you’re often on my mind, is because you’ve never felt dangerous or elemental to me, like the pull of gravity or a riptide. My feelings about you are complicated in a different way. I was riding in the back of a friend’s car a month ago; my friend’s friend, a curly-haired recent grad with a geographically inexplicable surfer’s drawl, lit a joint in the passenger seat. One of the other women in the backseat looked at him and opened her red-lipped mouth to declare amusedly, “You’re such a boy!” You’re such a boy! that condescension and delight. My feelings about you are complicated by the worry I might be a better friend to you if I were less of a boy: less scatological, less argumentative, less drawn to feral traipsing in the middle of the night. These things shouldn’t be the domain of any gender of course. Just as I think one of the moments I felt closest to you happened just because of who you are, your deep warmth and capacity for love: when I got out of the shower that day in May you were staying with us and my worn white towel had fallen to my waist and I was blasting, outlandishly, the J.Lo and Pitbull song “On the Floor.” From London to Af-reeeeeka. I’d thought it would rouse me from my feelings but there I was still sobbing uncontrollably about the impending dissolution of my life. You came and gathered me up in your arms and didn’t let me go until we were both quaking with laughter. Maybe that’s the most unadulterated I’ve ever been.



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