STL

my new streetSo I’m here now. I’m in St. Louis.

I’ve been here for a month and a half, I think. I’m probably supposed to have updated my license plates and drivers’ license and stuff by now, but I haven’t yet. I’m tired.

Even if you’re familiar with it as a place to visit, living in a new city is exhausting. You have to constantly remind yourself that you live there now. The other day my aunt asked me if I had my DSLR camera with me so she could get some pictures of the family. “I don’t have it with me,” I said, forgetting that I did have it with me, just a few blocks away in my new apartment.

My dad keeps asking me when I’m leaving town. “I live here now, Dad,” I say, and he smiles and shakes his head as if to say, right, I should remember that by now. Me too, Dad.

The grocery stores are different. I got used to good tortillas and good tortilla chips and my favorite brands and the Austin plastic bag ban. Everyone in line in front of me and behind me in St. Louis has their items put into what looks like a thousand separate plastic bags. When I give my fabric bags to the grocery bagger, he gives me a strange look like, “what are these?”

OH, NOTHING, I’M JUST HELPING TO KEEP THE GREAT PACIFIC GARBAGE PATCH FROM GETTING BIGGER, I want to yell. But I don’t. It’s not his fault.

The radio talks about NASCAR. The guys on Tinder (I’m not ready to date, but I looked) are all pictured holding dead fish or automatic weapons. I can’t do the thing I did in Austin where I talk to new people and can safely assume they’re as politically liberal as I am.

This part is good, in theory. In Austin I got tired of the homogeneity. If you stayed out of the far-flung suburbs in Austin, you would pretty much see the same types of people everywhere you went. In St. Louis it’s different. I went to the zoo last weekend with my dad and sister and nephew (the latter two were here visiting us), and the mix of people there reminded me of Houston a little bit. I hadn’t realized how much I missed that.

I keep thinking about jobs I had in the Houston area in my teens and twenties—waitress, grocery cashier, that sort of thing. The people in those jobs were all very diverse—politically, ethnically, age- and politics- and education-wise. I’d always liked that feeling of being part of a weird crew of people from various backgrounds who respected and loved each other despite their differences. Maybe I’ll find that here. It’s less unlikely than it was in Austin anyway, with my remote job and the city’s lack of diversity.

(I don’t mean I want to have diverse friends as tokens or anything; I just mean that knowing more people who aren’t like me is good for my perspective. And my snobbery.)

But it won’t happen right away, because like I said, I’m tired. The last few months in Austin, packing, feeling displaced, not having a real home, and saying goodbye to my friends and family and habits and things I was used to, really took it out of me. Since I’ve been here, I exercise in the mornings, work during the day, and then in the evenings I lie in bed with my dog and my knitting and whatever I’m watching on Netflix, and then I fall asleep. It’s about all I can muster.

When I do meet new people I ask them about the local laws and customs. Is it okay that my new landlord didn’t have me fill out a form with what’s wrong with my apartment before I moved in so I don’t get charged for those things when I move out? That’s what they do in Texas. Can you really drink in the park here without getting a ticket? Does everyone refer to Anheuser-Busch as AB or do some people call it InBev? I hadn’t realized how many strange assumptions I had until I moved away from Texas for the first time in my life.

My new aerial studio is different, too. I took a private lesson with a trapeze instructor so he could see what level class I should take, and every skill I know has a different name here. He asked me if I knew how to do 4 and I said, 4 of what? It turns out “4” here is called “candlestick” at home, and I knew how to do it, but I still felt awkward. I took nearly all my classes in Austin with the same instructor, and having someone different feels wrong. My new trapeze classes start on Tuesday, and I’m already nervous.

(I’m the most nervous because I’ve never had a male instructor before. I won’t be able to make jokes about how hard a straddle is for me due to my giant boobs! If I cry in front of a male instructor it’ll be awkward and I won’t want to explain it! What if I develop a huge dumb crush on the poor guy, as is my tendency these days? Then I won’t want to sweat or look gross in front of him, and it’s hard to learn trapeze properly without sweating or looking gross.)

The major reason I moved here, to help my parents, is going fine so far. I live a block and a half from them, and it’s great to be able to walk over there on a whim to help my mother change a light bulb or fix the printer, or hang out with my dad while she runs an errand, or help them make dinner.

It rains differently here. There’s no lightning or thunder or hail or high winds like in Texas. I walk outside and find that it’s been raining softly for hours without my even noticing.

you wasted life, why wouldn’t you waste death

I am trying to quit smoking again.

I’ve been a smoker off and on (mostly on) since I was 17. One summer evening when we were really bored, my best friend S taught me to smoke. And by “taught me to smoke,” I mean she literally instructed me. She bought us a pack of cigarettes (she was a grade ahead of me so she’d already turned 18), and we parked on a dead-end street in her neighborhood and sat on the hood of her mom’s car while she handed me cigarette after cigarette. She lit the first one for me and told me to just hold it to see how it felt. She lit the second one and told me to allow a little smoke to get in my mouth, but not inhale it. She lit the third one and told me to inhale the smallest amount of smoke I possibly could. We went on from there and by the end, S had taught me how to smoke, and I never even coughed once.

The last time I saw S, 8 years ago, she told me how bad she felt for having taught me to smoke, but I’ve never held her responsible. I did it willingly. Hell, I probably asked her to teach me. That summer, S had a job at a water park in Houston, and she’d made a lot of new friends. I was jealous of the time she spent with them, they really intimidated me, and I was already so insecure that I was desperate for anything that might make me seem like I fit in. S would take me to these parties where everyone was drunk or high, and I’d stand there smoking my cigarette, watching one of S’s friends hold another girl’s hair back as she threw up into the swimming pool.

I started out just smoking at these parties or when I was with S, but then I made some other friends who smoked, and we smoked whenever we hung out in the evenings or on weekends. My senior year of high school I fell in with the theater crowd, and again I’d chain-smoke at parties while my acquaintances got drunk or did drugs or whatever. Cigarettes were my way of feeling like I was “cool” at parties without having to drink or whatever else. Drunk or high people from my high school didn’t usually let people walk around vice-free without comment, either, so smoking was my way of keeping them from pressuring me.

One of many photos of me where I'm clearly smoking but I've photoshopped the cigarette out.

One of many photos of me where I’m clearly smoking but I’ve photoshopped the cigarette out. (RIP green glasses)

I spent my freshman year at UT living in a dorm where you could smoke in your room (I KNOW, I’M SO OLD), and my friends across the hall both smoked, so cigarettes turned from a party habit into an everyday habit. After the smoking dorms at UT there was waiting tables, where everyone smoked, and then there was being an English major and hanging out with a bunch of writers who smoked, and my identity as a smoker was cemented.

I’ve always attributed a sort of romance to smoking. I did confine my smoking time to parties at first, but the majority of my smoking time in high school was spent with friends in little poorly-lit corners of parks in our neighborhood at night. We’d stop at the Circle K for cigarettes and sodas, and sit in the park for hours, smoking and talking about boys or our friends or what we thought college would be like. There was a newer subdivision next to mine that had a few little man-made lakes in it, and one of those lakes had a dock with a gazebo at the end of it. My two closest friends and I would spend hours in that gazebo, talking and laughing, singing whatever new radio hit we were obsessed with, and smoking.

Then there’s standing outside in the snow at night sharing a cigarette with your boyfriend. There’s you and a friend driving down the highway, smoking, singing an angry Ani DiFranco song at the top of your lungs. There’s going camping with friends and two of you waking up earlier than everyone else, sitting by the river as the sun comes up, each of you with your first cigarette of the day. There’s lighting a cigarette in your apartment building’s hallway and then running outside to stand in the wind as a cold front comes in and leaves whip around you.

There’s sitting on your patio with a glass of wine and a cigarette and your laptop, writing.

This is the first personal thing I’ve written in years without a half-full ashtray next to me. It’s weird and I don’t like it. I haven’t had a cigarette since 1:00 yesterday afternoon.

I’ve quit smoking once before. Throughout most of my twenties, I told myself that I would stop smoking when I turned thirty. In March 2008, two months before my 30th birthday, I came down with a terrible flu-like illness that left me weak and lifeless and uninterested in smoking. A week later, once I was well again, I decided to continue not smoking. Since I’d already gotten over the nicotine withdrawals, it shouldn’t be terribly difficult to just go ahead and quit, right?

It was difficult, but not terrible. I kept half a pack of cigarettes in my glove compartment just in case, and somehow knowing they were there calmed me, made it easier not to smoke. I started listening to NPR on my commute instead of music, just to change up my routine. When I went out to bars I brought knitting with me to keep my hands busy. Things were okay.

I’d stopped smoking for three months when I went through the breakup of a bad relationship I’d had no business being in in the first place. The stress and general horribleness of the whole thing broke me, and I thought, fuck it, why bother with this quitting? I bought a pack of cigarettes on my way to a friend’s wedding in Fort Worth, and I’ve been smoking ever since.

Until yesterday.

I don’t think I really smoked that much. Maybe half a pack on a normal day? More when I went out or was stressed or traveling or it was nice out or I was doing yardwork or woodworking projects?

I liked smoking.

But I started to feel dirty inside. And I don’t mean literally, though I wouldn’t want to look at any pictures of my lungs at this point. I mean figuratively dirty, like there was something wrong with me. As I get older, fewer and fewer of my friends are smokers—they quit for health reasons or because they’re going to be parents or because dude, they’re not in fucking college anymore—and sneaking off to have a cigarette by myself lacked the aforementioned romance. When I met new people I tried not to tell them I smoked unless I had to, for fear of being judged.

And trapeze. When I do trapeze routines, I get tired and winded before everyone else. When I go to strength training class in the mornings, I have to take more breaks than anyone else. Sometimes my instructor sniffs the air near me and says, “Did you SMOKE TODAY?” Which is annoying, but also kind of adorable (I’m a smoker! Why wouldn’t I have smoked today?). Anyway, if I want to be able to do actual trapeze performance routines, I can’t also be a smoker.

Everything I hear about quitting smoking says that your life should be otherwise stable when you quit, so that quitting is the only stressful thing going on in your life. That obviously isn’t true for me right now, as I’ve got a breakup and a move to another state and my dad’s health problems to contend with.

But first of all, I got the quitting feeling (you former smokers will know about the quitting feeling), and it’s always easier to quit when I have the quitting feeling, so I’m going to do what the feeling says. Second of all, why the hell not add one more change to my already evolving life? If I can move to St. Louis and start my life there without smoking as part of my identity, more’s the better.

But holy hell is that 14-hour drive to StL going to be boring without any cigarettes.

what counts as being alone

I was talking to a friend awhile back about the concept of being alone. I’ve lived with two different boyfriends over the past ten years, and I never felt like I could be alone if one of them was in the house with me.

“Wait, even if you’re not in the same room as them?” my friend said.

“Nope,” I said. “Not even then. I can be alone if they’re asleep in another room, but then when they wake up I’m not alone again.”

I like to be alone. In fact, I need to spend a decent amount of time alone in order to function. I’ve never really looked into why this is, and it doesn’t much matter, because I’ve always been this way.

I have fond memories of the weeks-long Christmas breaks we had in high school. With no place to be every morning, I’d start staying up later and waking up later, and eventually I’d be up until 4 or 5 in the morning. My parents and sister would go to bed between 10 and midnight, and after they were asleep the house was mine for the night. I loved it. I never did anything I’d get in trouble for like leave the house or take the car somewhere without asking. Mostly I stayed in my room listening to music and reading. It was the knowing that everyone else was asleep that was important.

But why would anyone want to be alone? Try it for a moment. Lock yourself in another room, one entirely without the presence of other people, other voices. Disconnect your internet, turn off your phone. Allow yourself, for just a few minutes, to let the poses fall away. The angles. Let your public persona, so exhausting to maintain, disappear.

Breathe. There is your throat. There is the fly, buzzing in the ceiling corner. There is, also, something else: the silence. A silent room has its own timbre, its own weight. Breathe again; keep breathing. Allow life, with its heaviness, its dust, to slip away, unimpeded.

I’ve had this discussion with a lot of my couple friends. “Can you be alone if your boyfriend/girlfriend/wife/husband/partner is at home?” I ask them. They always say yes. Sometimes I think I’ll eventually meet the person I can be with and be alone at the same time, but other times I assume it’s impossible.

A few weeks ago I was at the MoMA in New York with two friends, and each of us were kind of going through the rooms at our own pace. My friends stopped to watch a video, and since I’d already seen it, I continued on into the next room. I sat down on a bench in front of Les Demoiselles d’Avignon and realized that I felt like I was alone. I pulled out my notebook and wrote this:

what counts as being alone what counts as being alone

These are the alone rules, and they match up with this part of the quote above: “Let your public persona, so exhausting to maintain, disappear.”

When I first got Maude, I was living alone in Houston. During our first few days together, I felt like I couldn’t be alone with her there. A dog can’t go out for coffee so you can have some alone time, so I was afraid that owning a dog meant that I’d never be by myself again. But that feeling went away very quickly and was replaced with the feeling that I didn’t know what I’d done without Maude for so long.

This is my hope for my eventual future relationship with a male human.

But is my “public persona,” as the quote says, really that much of a front? I wouldn’t have thought so, since who I am in front of people feels the same to me as who I am when I’m alone. But it’s sort of how the rules stack up, isn’t it? That I find it exhausting to be the me that other people see? Which of the mes is real? If it’s the alone me, does that mean I’ve never been real with anyone, ever?

I work from home now, so outside of seeing friends or family, my human interactions are limited to my time at the aerial studio and my time on the internet. Generally this is enough for me, but lately I’ve felt desperate for someone to talk to. In the evenings I find myself visiting Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram, Facebook, etc. ad nauseam. Has someone replied to my tweet? Sent me an email? Liked one of my photos?

This doesn’t bode well for my sanity, but it’s what is happening now. Sometimes people do reply to my tweets or like my photos or send me emails, and it helps, but it isn’t really enough. I want someone to talk to me.

I have a text file saved on my desktop with ideas for blog posts. It’s a fairly long file, filled with thoughts I might get to sometime, or thoughts I never will. The line of text at the very top of the file, the oldest line, says this:

a word that means lonely for talking about important things

Underneath that is some slapdash research I did for the post, mostly in the form of links to articles about untranslatable words from other cultures that I dug up in the hope that I could find my sentiment in a foreign language. The nonexistent word I feel like I’d use the most is just that: a word that means lonely for talking about important things.

I don’t know any other way to describe it, nor could I define “important things” without making an epic list that could be taken the wrong way. And I don’t mean “important things” like talking about them would have to be serious all the time. I guess I just mean that the way I get close to people, friends or family or otherwise, is in having open, honest conversation about the way we really feel about things. Without that, I get lonely.

The two states that make me feel the most fulfilled are being alone and talking about important things.

I haven’t worked out a way to balance both, especially in the context of a relationship. During the San Francisco part of my road trip, I was feeling super lonely, and I told a friend that while I enjoyed spending as much time alone as I was, I wanted there to be someone I could call. If I hiked up to the top of a hill by myself, and stood there looking at the view, I’d want to be able to pull out my phone, call that person and say, “I’m on top of a hill and you won’t believe how beautiful it is here.”

“You can call me,” he said. And I did, but it turned into a dumb mess and now I haven’t talked to that guy in years.

Because who is that person you can call? It’s a fairly romantic call to make, which implies some sort of relationship, and people in a relationship don’t normally quit their jobs and spend two months driving around the country by themselves. I can have someone to call, or I can have looking at the beautiful view by myself, but having both is a long shot.

For this reason I am worried about the initial months of my move to St. Louis. With no local friends to talk to, without a Person To Call, what will I do?

What would compel a person to do this, to run into the desert and wander, unabashed, until either her soul was scrubbed clean or she died? To love, sometimes, is to peel back the skin, and watch the bone bleach white beneath the sun.

(I don’t often want advice on the things I write about here, and I don’t want you to tell me you think I should join clubs in St. Louis or whatever, because I plan to. But I would like to hear about your experiences balancing relationships with loner-dom if you feel like you might have some insight. Thanks.)