Congratulations Samantha Proctor and Lily Davidson, winners of Grub Street‘s writing contest for high school students. Timothy Taranto, author of Ars Botanica (one of our staff’s all-time favorite memoirs), judged.
Sneak Peek of “The Boy Who Drew Halos” by Samantha Proctor
When I met her, it was dawn. Her chickens had come out, and the light that traversed over her fragrant driveway, where the sleepless bring life to the tortured, sprinkled like rose petals over the glint of her forehead. It is said that time is the expanse, a limitless blanket that seems to shroud any other concept in nature. The lightning, the seas, the birds all bow to His song. How lucky I am to exist in the same second of universe as the dry knuckles that lead me through the front gate of a home where spirit thrives.
Sneak Peek of “Saturated Introspection” by Lily Davison
Dark or light wash, it made no difference. Each of us wore denim like it was a second skin. My parents bought me my first pair of jeans when I was three; stretchy overalls with flowers on the front. It was my rite of passage. Don’t eat wild blueberries that you’ve found in the woods without making sure they’re wild blueberries. My lips were royally stained and buzzing with nerves, and my throat was raw and screaming. Beauty and poison go hand in hand I suppose.
To read more, you’ll have to wait for the print issue of Grub Street‘s release on May 8. Samantha and Lily’s full pieces will be available online after the print issue becomes available.
Sometimes I’m shopping online, which is something I love to do, shop online, as every store is a new puzzle to solve, like, which clothes would I buy if I shopped here, and sometimes I end up buying the clothes, so I guess you could say it’s very meta and works on a few levels, and I stumble across something that I didn’t know I needed, like, say, a black bardot crop top, and it’s like suddenly I’m meeting the lord Jesus Christ or found the path to Enlightenment because I feel, out of nowhere, absolutely convinced that this is the one clothing item I have always been missing, like since infancy or conception, and that having this thing, wearing it but really just the owning it, the possessing it, will finally Change My Life in the ways I’ve been waiting for it to change, and it’s like I enter a fugue, I short circuit, I hit “purchase” and there I am, sort of shocked, addled, kind of post-coital, like exhausted but satisfied but not totally satisfied, and if I’ve ordered, say, a pair of bright pink palazzo pants that I know will need tailoring and I know I will never tend to, I feel itchy, and blue, and a little dumb, maybe, or sexless and vast like the last woman on Earth, and I start wondering after creepy stuff, like regarding my personality and whether I am worthy of love despite all the raisins in my bed, and I open another website and hope I don’t get struck by a thunderbolt of object fancy but sometimes I do, sometimes it happens, I hit “purchase” and the cycle repeats itself, and has been, really, repeating itself for some years, you should see my dresser, the drawers don’t close, they’re all overstuffed with shit, with pink and sateen fabrics that I don’t wear or know what to do with, that I drape around my hips like a hand, like a gift, and I know, at least at home in the mirror, alone among my things, objects too precious for this city with its leers and grime and violence and dripping virulent ugly, that I am beautiful, a Chaos void spotlit in pink, singing my body’s sweeping arias.
Sam Regal is a playwright, poet, performer, and recent transplant from Brooklyn to Athens, Georgia. Her translation of Yao Feng’s One Love Only Until Death was published in 2017 by Vagabond Press, and her poetry has appeared in or is forthcoming from Sum, The Wild World, NoD Magazine, Lucent Dreaming, and elsewhere. A former resident at TENT within the Yiddish Book Center, Sam was awarded the Colie Hoffman Prize in Poetry in 2017. She earned her M.F.A. from Hunter College and now studies within the Creative Writing Ph.D. Program at the University of Georgia.
With everything going on in the U.S., I just want to say that maybe it’s time we put our phones down for longer. Maybe it’s time we see the ones we love more often instead of texting them. Maybe it’s time we enjoy life for every second we have here instead of wasting it unthinkingly and carelessly. Let’s be genuine. Let’s be strong for the ones who are weak. Let’s be the voices that these kids deserve. Notice that the things going on in your life are temporary, so drive a little slower, use more caution, hold the door for others, and look up and smile when you walk around. Don’t get so mad when something goes wrong, remind yourself that someone always has it worse, refrain from using negative words, and forgive easier now so you can love harder later. Everything will always be okay. Get your head out of your devices and live this life with raw emotion and joy. Stop saying offensive words like “retard” because we can easily make the difference that others want to see, as they are capable of making the difference we want to see. We are born to adapt and with that comes the ability to make others feel more comfortable. Ask people how they are, because this is important. Do at least three selfless things a day. We must work together to make this world safe and bring peace. And on my last note, our generation has this tendency to say things like “fml” and “kms” often and nonchalantly. We need to understand that this life is the longest thing we will ever experience. Don’t wish for it to end; don’t joke about it. Don’t fail to recognize how precious every second is and how lucky you are to be exactly where you are at any given time. Know that you are breathing, have shelter, and are loved. So forget the cliché “life is short.” Your life is long. So breathe, relax, inhale and exhale, take things one at a time, and, most importantly, slow down. Make sure you are happy and continue to live, not just merely exist.
This quirky bookstore in Northern Baltimore is a bookworm’s dream, hosting dim nooks of floor to ceiling books, an impressive collection of vinyl records, and, most notably, a mouse pad with a blown up photo of Nicolas Cage’s face sitting on a shelf next to the register. Normal’s is one of the only places in the city that back stocks periodicals, so you can stock up on old issues of lit and art mags after browsing the adjacent local artists and writers section.
Atomic Books – Hampden
On Falls Road, just off of the charming 36th street that constitutes the main drag of Hampden, lies Atomic Books. This local favorite stocks new books and cultural tchotchkes alongside an extensive comic and zine collection. Crack a fresh spine and enjoy a cup of coffee at the cafe through the back.
The Ivy Bookstore – Mt. Washington
This book store does a lot to contribute to Baltimore’s literary culture, hosting frequent readings from authors and acting as a collaborator with Artifact Coffee to curate Bird in Hand, another entry on this list. The Ivy’s pretty storefront promises what’s delivered inside: a comfortable browsing experience, a vast array of titles, and friendly staff to guide you to the right book.
The Book Escape – Fed Hill
The Book Escape has all the nooks and crannies necessary for book hunting and the low prices on used titles to make the search feel like a victory. Some of my favorite tomes from my personal collection found their way into my hands from the shelves of this store. I’ve spent many Saturday afternoons lounging in an armchair tucked away in a corner of The Book Escape, flipping yellowed pages and reading handwritten inscriptions (“with love”) on inside covers.
Bird in Hand – Charles Village
This bookstore and cafe is settled right next to the bustling area of Johns Hopkins’ University, an impressive college with a busy literary scene. This small shop is the perfect place to scrawl in a Moleskine or tap away at a Macbook to the scent of roasted coffee and the tinkling sound of spoon against ceramic, and it hosts an impressive lineup of writers reading from their published works.
Bluebird – Hampden
This swanky bar just off of Hampden’s 36th street serves fancy (and delicious) cocktails outlined in “chapters” on their menu. Stacked books and reading lamps line the long tables, and the ambience plus the liquor equals a reading room you won’t want to leave. Check it out on Sunday or Monday for all day happy hour.
The Book Thing – Waverly
A weekend wonder that seems too good to be true, Baltimore’s generous The Book Thing is a bookstore that’s only open two days a week – and all the books are free. Nestled right behind Normal’s Book & Records, The Book Thing offers free used titles to anyone who stops in, as long as they get there between 9 and 5 on Saturday or Sunday.
Barnes and Noble – Inner Harbor
No, this isn’t a cool indie
bookstore with readings or local titles, but the book giant’s location on
Baltimore’s Inner Harbor boasts beautiful architecture, two floors of browsing,
and a Starbucks upstairs with outdoor seating and views of the harbor below.
A small independent bookstore opened in the Fells Point neighborhood of Baltimore in March of 2018. Greedy Reads sits at the corner of Aliceanna and Ann Street, two blocks from the water. Narrow red and blue stained glass windows run the two exterior walls and cast shadows across the beaten hardwood floor. Wide windows are filled with books facing the street, and a wrought-iron gate swings wide to welcome you inside.
The owner and sole operator, Julia Fleischaker, is a Maryland native. After working in New York City in the publishing industry for 20 years, she wanted to come home. But it wasn’t until she walked past the space on Aliceanna Street that she knew she was going to open a bookstore. It was the perfect space. As Fleischaker points out, “the beautifully weathered floors, the stunning stained glass, the huge windows…sometimes I stop and look around and still can’t believe I landed in such an amazing space.”
The space is spectacular. Walking in feels like arriving at a picnic with friends you didn’t know you had; so many stories that you want to catch up on, so many voices you need to hear. It’s warm, welcoming, and cozy. Somehow it’s both small and expansive. The floor is weathered, worn but not broken, giving you the delightful feeling of all those who must have walked here before you – a sense of community and shared experience.
A table by the door is stacked with paperbacks. A small A-frame bookshelf houses a colorful collection of feminist and children’s books. An aisle is formed by two tables and the benches that fit neatly beside them. There, the larger books are displayed, the ones that will eventually find their way to coffee tables, sparking conversations. One wall is lined with built-in bookshelves housing fiction, memoirs, cookbooks, signed books, comics, and a sorted offering of others. The other wall has children’s books and a small selection of literary-related gifts.
Large windows let in the light and offer a view of the neighborhood. It’s an ideal escape from the snow or the rain. It’s a place to browse books, become taken in by their worlds, and forget about whatever the weather is outside. And if you visit on the right day, a labrador-greyhound mix may just come over to greet you. That would be Audie, the friendly and lovable store dog who eagerly accepts any affection she’s offered.
The bookstore is personal; it has a voice and a personality. The selection of books is not determined by a computer but by Fleischaker and the recommendations of the community. It’s hands-on, heartfelt, and purposeful. As she says, “It’s my hope that anyone who lives in or around Baltimore can come into the store and find a welcoming environment and a book that speaks to them.” She makes a point to offer a diverse collection, highlighting authors of color and female writers.
It’s a small store, but enough books are there for you to find, on each trip, at least one new one that you didn’t know you wanted to read. Last year’s bestseller was Michelle Obama’s Becoming, and other top reads included Paul Beatty’s The Sellout and Charles Yu’s How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe. Handwritten “Why I’m Greedy About This Book” tags offer recommendations and give a sense of who the community is and what they’re reading.
Fleischaker loves the books, but she also loves the community she gets to share that passion with: “I’ve gotten to know so many of my customers, and honestly, most days it feels like friends just dropping in to visit.”
It’s a place of beauty: the words in the books, the people who frequent the shop, the light that filters through the stained glass windows and falls upon the paperbacks. Stop by to give Audie some love, join the book club or hear an author talk, and find the next book you’re greedy to read.
By discussing our mutual hurt we could ground ourselves in a
shared reality. Through our conversation something might solidify.
As a solid, it could be located and placed elsewhere.
I didn’t think it through.
I’d had the experience of telling a friend. Someone who’d been
through similar shit, also lived to tell the tale. We had a feeling
about each other, before either of us said a thing. It would happen
this way, again and again, with other people I would come to know.
But the first time I told her, I felt sucked out, 2-D, hysterically on
the verge of hyperventilating, hallucinating, as we stood outside
the bar. I was back to feeling unreal in my own body.
I don’t discount this telling’s necessity.
It was a quest to know, thus doomed to come at a cost.
The box with Pandora’s warning. I kept paying for more.
I wanted to meet someone who had also seen his face. Heard him
speak. Could recite back the twisted things he’d said and done — I had
no doubt he was a repeat offender, and relied on rehearsed technique.
I found one victim I could talk to — not part of the family tree.
A single woman, young, like me.
She took on a life in my mind. I would imagine meeting her
in a café. Small talk, small flurry of female compliments,
then down to business. I would lean forward, and with trembling
righteousness, speak the words: He raped me.
She would pause — then shift in her chair as she steadied
her attack. She’d smirk, get angry, then laugh in
my face. He raped me, too… And I liked it…
Get over it, she added, her face turning to stone.
It wasn’t such a big deal.
It was similar to what happened when I had to
imagine for therapeutic purposes my present-day
self going back in time to comfort and advise the
teenage self. The younger self would always win, would
praise him, and together they would laugh as he threw me
down the stairs, against the wall. My teenage self was
full of mirth. Cruel and bubbly when she said take it.
This violence I imagined came from within
came from the him in me and also came from me.
In Real Life — I never met her. Chatted on the Internet
in a twenty-minute burst that scared us both
that we would come to regret. Scared of him, scared of each
other, scared of repercussions for sort of speaking aloud.
It was clear we lived under the same gag order.
“I just want to stay completely out of this, out of his life.”
“I had the most bizarre dreams last night. Yes, seems it’s best
to let sleeping dogs lie.”
“Stay safe and warm.”
Sure — go ahead and ask. But not every question has an answer you will like.
If you know too much, you will lose your mind.
Clare Needham is the author of the novella Bad Books, published by Ploughshares Solos in 2015. Her work has appeared in New York Tyrant, Catapult, Bodega Magazine, Fiction Attic Press, and Armchair/Shotgun. She has been a resident at Yaddo, the MacDowell Colony, the Vermont Studio Center, and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts.
to commit murder, slice a dog in half, reassure its trembling
fur, its anxious eyes that I will do it clean, by running a
sharp knife fast along its length. Though each time I trembled
with the dog, said do not be afraid
for us both.
Instead I now find the dog in two pieces
split in half but still alive, and it is my task
to glue her back. I take my time, I do it
almost perfect. The dog is healed, is whole, yet
I haven’t aligned her right, one back leg
is too high; she limps slightly, moves
— haltingly —
Clare Needham is the author of the novella Bad Books, published by Ploughshares Solos in 2015. Her work has appeared in New York Tyrant, Catapult, Bodega Magazine, Fiction Attic Press, and Armchair/Shotgun. She has been a resident at Yaddo, the MacDowell Colony, the Vermont Studio Center, and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts.
When I read about the one girl who studies orangutans
suddenly my passion for apes knows no cage-like containment.
Another young woman travels widely in the summer
and there I am zip-lining alongside her above Cozumel’s white sands.
When they hate black licorice, I swear to ne’er eat it again.
They all like Mad Men– seriously, they all like Mad Men–
and so I don my best clenched Draper jaw, click and upload accordingly.
It’s all a perfectly amiable way in which to pass the day,
sifting through a sea of smiling beauties, sailing witty inquiry boats.
But if I’m being honest, I miss you-
-r better moments, your silent laugh, body shaking in soundless guffaws,
or those nights you spelled letter-by-letter words on my chalkboard back.
And your hand in mine, which deserves its own line.
Strange, to sit here with infinity at my fingertips, wondering
how I got it so wrong – that what I thought a spark was actually a wildfire.
Josh Lefkowitz received an Avery Hopwood Award for Poetry at the University of Michigan. His poems have been published in Washington Square Review, Contrary, Electric Literature, Court Green, Shooter Literary Magazine (UK) and Southword Journal (Ireland), among many other places.
One morning he asked me to show him “the whole thing,” meaning all of the things I did to get ready in the morning: the makeup and blow-drying, how I stood and perfected a curved wing of eyeliner. This was during the short period of time when we were together. This was during the even shorter period of time when it was good and he left a rose on the toilet tank for me. “Do you ever leave the house without your makeup?” he asked. “Not really,” I said. “Try,” he suggested.
I was 23 when we met. He was 25 but seemed older and wiser than I could ever imagine being. It was hot for the entire duration of our relationship. That’s all it was: one summer. We were wet with sweat when we went to buy milk at the corner. “When I walk with you,” he said, “I notice that men look at me because we’re walking together.” I smiled, but his face told me that he hadn’t intended this as a compliment. “So is that what it’s like to be a girl?” he asked me. “To have everyone look at you so closely—is that why you spend so much time getting ready?”
So I showed him “the whole thing”. I was wet and in a towel when I began. I felt exposed, but that was nice and intimate. He sat on the edge of the bathtub and watched my face while I focused on the mirror. I felt his gaze. A literal “male gaze,” we joked. When I was clean and finished, I asked him what he thought and he looked at me. My hair had been blown out straight and then curled again with a phallus. My lashes were black and I had stained my cheeks pink. “Well, you look like a pretty girl,” he said. “And you looked like a pretty girl before all that too. So what is it for?” It was 10 am on a Saturday. I was hungover. I wasn’t prepared to answer such a philosophical question. Where should I begin?
Maybe it began in my pre-teen years. I was unpopular with boys and also just unpopular in general. I was a romantic; I read every Jane Austen novel and began to speak with an affected British accent. I used the words “fortnight” and “shan’t.” As I sat and read on the school bus, I imagined that I would inevitably blossom into a thoughtful beauty; this period of alienation would only make me more desirable to some future man.
On the weekends, I indulged in screen adaptations of Austen novels, standing an inch away from the television screen and fast-forwarding to the scenes when love was ever so chastely consummated with a proposal and a country stroll. Ever the Anglophile, I read George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion. I understood the play as a tragic love story. I wished that Eliza would come back at the end.
My first grooming ritual came about at this time. I would put my hair into a low bun at the back of my head and curl the hair around my face into delicate tendrils a la Jennifer Ehle playing Elizabeth Bennett in Pride and Prejudice. I bought a straw bonnet. No surprise that boys did not care for this look. Nor did the girls. “You look like a Hasidic man with your side locks,” one classmate said. But at that point in my dreamy adolescence, I wasn’t dressing for boys or men. I was dressing in accordance with a fan-girl fantasy. Dressing for men—that came later.
When I told him about this time in my life, he seemed to understand how lonely I had felt. “Pain makes us more interesting,” he lied. Didn’t he know that I wouldn’t have been there, in his reassuring arms, if I hadn’t at some point conformed to a more conventional aesthetic? “Girls who are only pretty are not interesting,” he said.
One afternoon we sat on his living room floor, each of us wearing one of his button-down shirts (“I like you in a big shirt,” he had said), and he read to me from his favorite novel, Herzog:
Herzog came in and sat on the edge of the tub, watching…she (Ramona) did not look at him while making her preparations…she began to apply her cosmetics— the bottles and powders filled the shelves above the toilet. Whatever she did, it was with unhesitating speed and efficiency, headlong, but with the confidence of an expert.
I blushed while he read. I was so absorbed in the romance of him reading to me, I couldn’t focus on the words. But later I read them alone and was disappointed to find that I could not identify with Ramona, who was confident when it came to presentation and seduction. When Ramona washes and dresses in front of the mirror, she stares straight ahead with unhesitating speed. Meanwhile I had paused and looked back at him often. I needed to be admired.
We first met while I was in graduate school in Michigan, in the depths of Midwest winter, at a synagogue in downtown Detroit. Urban farmers and social justice activists resurrected a small congregation there. They were white kids from the suburbs of Detroit who moved back to the same city their grandparents fled in the 1960’s. My own grandparents immigrated to Detroit from the Displaced Persons camps in Germany after the war. I was raised in New York but I believed that my family had left some karmic footprint in Detroit. I was sure there was some cosmic reason I had returned. So when I met him I was feeling ripe for romance.
Outside the synagogue, the pavement was covered with shards of ice and glass. Inside, the heating system was broken and we shivered in our coats. Through the windows, I could make out the lights of a strip club across the street. But as I remember it now, the light inside was golden yellow. The color of his shirt was called “orchid smoke,” because, as he later told me, a poet writes the names of the colors for J.Crew.
We didn’t really speak that night but we held hands in a circle when the activists said the blessing over wine. Maybe we said hello but that was all until months later when I saw him again at a barbecue in Ann Arbor. He was standing by the vodka-soaked watermelon, wearing brown corduroy pants, a Garfield the Cat pin whimsically fastened to his tweed blazer. He had curly, wild hair. Another woman pointed to him and said, “Something about him, right?”
He was not my usual type. He was not dressed for Wall Street or a football game. But I blushed when he turned around and smiled. I mean there was something about him. Something soulful maybe?
I was drunk when we went home together. So drunk that I fell in the backyard mud and forgot the name of the street where I lived. Still, I remember it clearly. I pulled my tampon out without him noticing and threw it down the side of my bed. This sex was not the fantasy of love I harbored as an adolescent girl but it was better. It was dark. The light from the street in my bedroom window outlined the shape of his head. I woke up the next morning with my eye makeup smudged and my wet, mud-caked jeans on the floor. “You’re cute in the sun,” he said. After he left, I vomited on the floor, next to the dry tampon.
Some people get deep under your skin. I still remember the thrill of returning to my room the following evening to find my phone, glowing and buzzing like a bird on my nightstand: “Fuck” He wrote, “I am still thinking about you.”
“Why ‘fuck’?” I asked.
He sent me stanzas from a poem by Etheridge Knight: “And I/must admit that the sea in you/ has sung/ to the sea/in me.” It moved me. No one had ever sent me poetry before.
I was in awe of what I perceived as an adult lifestyle. At his apartment, he made me espresso, which I did not yet drink. “You’ll need it in the real world,” he said. He toasted sourdough bread and sliced cucumbers and cheddar. He handed me the latest issue of the New Yorker and we sat and read and ate like adults. Before this moment, I had thought I was in the real world. “Graduate school is not the real world,” he said as I marveled at the perfect, round, green slices of cucumbers lined up on a cutting board.
He knew that I lived with five other graduate students in their early twenties—all girls. Weekend nights, we played Top 40 garbage on iPod speakers and took shots of something cheap. Someone always cried when we went out. But now I was far away from that childish, philistine life. Alone with him in the morning, he would go searching through his record collection for the perfect song. When he found it, the song felt part of the soundtrack to our own Woody Allen movie, the ones with bookshelves on the Upper West Side and Mia Farrow in muted, sophisticated clothes.
We took a walk to feed his friend’s parrot. He said this friend was a semi-famous novelist named Jonathan something, I forget the last name. “They’re all named Jonathan,” I said and to my endless delight, he laughed. When the parrot had been fed, he asked if I wanted to go see a film about Gerhard Richter. I began to cry. I can’t say why, but it felt intensely intimate to me to experience culture with someone I had slept with. A therapist might say that I felt “validated.” I used to lie awake next to men while they slept, wondering how it was possible for them to be so close yet know so little about me. Nothing but Coors in their fridge and The Great Gatsby on their bookshelf. But when I was with him, I felt like a grown up woman for the first time.
One of our early conversations was about Berlin. He told me that he had studied abroad there. I told him about a trip I took to visit my friend and how much I liked drinking cheap beers on the street, and leaving bars with the smell of second-hand smoke encased in my winter coat.
“Yeah, yeah” he said, excited. “Everything is more relaxed there. Even the women.”
“Yeah,” I said, wanting to agree with him even when I didn’t know what he was talking about. “What do you mean?” I asked.
“They’re just more chill,” he said. “They’re not always dressing up.”
“None of them?” I asked.
“My ex didn’t,” He said. I felt this in my stomach. “Oh sorry,” he said, “I didn’t mean to talk about other women.”
We were in different cities one night and I got ready for bed. I took my makeup off with cotton pads and Vaseline and I waited for him to call. The lights were out by the time he did. “You should be sleeping,” he said. He told me he was walking home from a jazz performance, in a good mood and making lots of quick jokes, “I can’t wait to have you in my arms,” he said, “—I mean not literally inside of my arms.”
“Would you send me a picture?” he asked. “Just something small.” I didn’t want to get up but I said, “Ok.” I’m sure it would’ve been fine to say no but I went to the bathroom mirror and examined my face. I looked tired so I sent a shot of my body from just the lower lip down. “Very sexy,” He wrote back, “but can I see your face?”
I’m pretty sure I groaned out loud but another part of me just wanted to please. I took out my makeup bag and applied just enough concealer and blush to look fresh.
“You look beautiful,” He said. When I went to sleep I could not help but feel like we had both lied.
The next night, the issue of suitable photos resurfaced. We were both tipsy, walking home from our respective evenings at bars. “Can I see you?” he asked over the phone. “Can you send me something sexy?” I walked home quickly and went straight to my bedroom where I took off my shirt and posed. I had done this kind of posing before, twisting myself into the shape of a Maxim magazine girl of the month. My lips were just slightly open, my eyes narrowed and vacant. Other men I had dated had loved this kind of replica. They were much simpler men, I thought. But that night I sent the picture and got no response. “Too much?” I texted. He did not reply. “Hey—did you get my picture?” I wrote again. Still nothing. I waited up another hour, drinking water and trying to read but I couldn’t stop turning over my phone, which I had strategically placed face down. At 3 am, I went to bed and all throughout the night I dreamed he had returned my text. At 7, I finally heard the low buzz I had ached for. “Sorry!” he wrote. “I fell asleep.” “No problem!” I wrote back, though my head ached with fatigue.
Weeks later he told me that the picture had made him uncomfortable. “You’re very sexy,” he said. “But….” he searched for words, “you don’t have to try so hard.” “Try so hard?” I repeated. I was hurt but I felt that he was right. I always thought that he knew better than I did.
“I’m not into that Victoria’s Secret look”, he explained. “You know, that boobs pushed-up artificiality. I just wanted to see you.” He said he liked the “moles and wrinkles and scars.” Ok, I thought, I’ll just be natural. I’ll be “me.” All I had to do to be “me” was undo all the things I had learned about how to be sexy—arched-back poses and placating sex sounds—and then I would truly be sexy.
I first learned what “sexy” meant in the age of Kate Upton and Scarlett Johansson, the age of blonde twins in Super Bowl halftime commercials. I applied a peroxide spray to turn my hair blonder. I bought a lacy bra and underwear with birthday money. And I transformed myself into the kind of conventionally pretty white American woman with round boobs that I thought men wanted—I mean the men who weren’t him.
When I was fifteen, I once sat next to a boy who played on the basketball team and walked with a cocky swagger. “You’ve got potential,” he said, tracing his finger down my arm in English class. To be hotter, I think he meant.
I thought this was what it felt like to fit in. I loved how it felt to have boys look at me and find reason to touch me. I felt powerful.
But the power of beauty is conditional. In dying my hair and wearing a better bra I was not taking down the patriarchy but finding a way to survive it. The male attention set in motion a pervasive, perpetual fear that attractiveness would one day be taken away from me. If I slipped up—if I wore the wrong thing or got the wrong haircut, or if I god forbid gained weight, I would suddenly become ancillary and invisible again. I had been made visible by the grace of society and I wanted to stay visible.
The worse things got between us, the more I felt compelled to look perfect. My beauty ritual became more involved and finicky. I redid my eye makeup several times in one morning, looked in the mirror often, and changed outfits. I checked my reflection in store windows, which he hated. I second-guessed every choice I made, which he hated even more. I’d put on a feminine, floral dress and then worry that I looked too fussy and soft. I’d borrow one of his oversized shirts and then return it when I felt shapeless. “Stop changing,” he finally snapped. “You looked fine before.”
I began to pay attention to who texted or emailed him. Looking over his shoulder, I noticed emails from someone named “Pina” in his in-box. They said, “How are you? I don’t hear from you. Are you happy?” I knew that Pina must be the German woman he had dated, because it seemed to me that only a foreigner could pull off that line, “Are you happy?” The gravitas of the question highlighted my flightiness. “Are you happy?”
As it happened, I was the one who was not happy. When we were together, he seemed less affectionate than he had once been. He did not hold me in bed and I woke him and asked him to. I felt ashamed but I couldn’t help myself. “It’s too hot,” he said. “I’m claustrophobic.” Around this time, he stopped calling me to initiate plans, stopped grabbing my hand while we walked down the street. He was there but he wasn’t. I lost my grip on reality.
I longed for him in my whole body, in my stomach. I couldn’t eat. I’d make obsessive-compulsive bets with myself. While washing my hair with a yellow bottle of highlight amplifying shampoo, I’d think, OK, if I get out of the shower and it is 9:05 am, we will end up together. Whatever that meant. I dressed in the clothes I wore at the beginning of our relationship and returned to an earlier scent of deodorant. In this way, I thought I could summon him back.
One afternoon, to distract myself, I went to see a Woody Allen movie alone—something new, Europhilic, and badly reviewed. I watched Ellen Paige play a character who was supposed to exude sexuality without being conventionally hot. The women in Woody Allen’s movies were always accidentally hot—more beautiful for their undone hair and loose fitted linen clothes than if they had tried to be beautiful on purpose. So maybe this is it, I thought. This is what he wanted. Loose linen that somehow still accentuates the roundness of an ass. What if he wasn’t really liberating me from societal norms. What if his preference for a natural look was about him and his gaze and—I was suddenly angry.
I left the theater, it was pouring with rain and he still had not called. “I need to talk to you,” I texted. I walked around the city, soaking wet and thin from a week of eating little more than spoonfuls of peanut butter to keep myself alive. I was too distraught to enjoy my weight loss. Someone once told me that there is something especially beautiful about sad women but in that wet, hysterical moment the idea seemed ridiculous and cruel. “Call me, I am serious,” I texted, invigorated by anger and no longer self-conscious. “Of course,” he wrote back, “let’s talk when I get home.” Then the anger once again dissipated. Sorrow returned.
We broke up a few days later to nostalgic, yearning piano music on the record player. Some 10 am Rachmaninoff to prove our devotion to meaning and art. I came out of the bathroom in yet another outfit and I saw him lying on the grey couch with his hands over his face like I was actively tormenting him with my floundering insecurity.
He looked at me, dejected. “What do you want to do?” I asked. “You mean today?” he replied. “I mean you hardly call me anymore,” I said, beginning to cry. “You hardly touch me.” The music was unbearable. He held his arms out for me and I came over to the couch. I climbed over him like a child and settled into his fleetingly open arms. “Sorry, Shay,” he said. He cried too, as I later liked to remember.
“When we met,” he said, “I felt so excited.”
“We can end this,” I offered. I thought this brief moment of bravado would make him change his mind or restore my sense of agency. I cried mascara tears and he wiped them away.
After our break up, my sanity was decidedly not restored. While out with friends, I would find myself staring into space, recalling the nights we had spent together. I reconstructed the crumbling brick walls of his bedroom. His old grey couch, and the pale blue sheets he never changed. I thought of a night early on when he told me, “I want to fuck you on the floor”; how he pulled me down and kissed my face. He cushioned my head with his hands, and remembering this maudlin detail, and still sitting at the bar, I realized I was wet. And I was crying. This was a pathetic time.
I continued to send him emails, attempting friendship but transparently hoping for more. I checked his Facebook page as I checked the weather and the news. I wanted to know where he went, what music he listened to, and most of all who he met.
Eventually he reached out to tell me that he was moving to Berlin. I asked him if we could speak over the phone one last time, as if one of us was dying. While we spoke I circled the block several times. I spoke about myself cheerfully and manically. I said, “Yeah, yeah things are good. So enough about me! What made you decide to move?!” He told me that he was moving to Berlin to live with a woman.
“I don’t know if I ever mentioned her to you,” he said, “her name is Pina.”
“Of course you did,” I replied with thinly veiled bitterness.
In the pictures I scoured for online, Pina is standing in a spacious Berlin living room: high ceilings, candlesticks and bikes mounted on her walls like pieces of incidental art. The room’s stripped-down beauty is fitting. Pina’s face is round and bare. Her hair looks naturally dried and cropped at the chin. She wears a man’s denim shirt. She isn’t thin. She isn’t beautiful. Not in any traditional sense. I mean she truly looks like she doesn’t give a shit about what you think.
When I told friends about her, I got mean: “She’s plain,” I said. They insisted that I was definitely cuter. But by then I knew that cuter meant nothing. “Cute” was bullshit. I didn’t want to be cute. I wanted to look casual and cool and a touch masculine like Pina. I wanted to look like I didn’t give a shit. But of course I did.
I remembered the little details about Pina that he had strewn throughout our conversations: she had dated women in the past and did something in the art world.
They had once gone to a club in Friedrichshain together, probably somewhere down a wide, wind-blown block where a line of tourists would be turned away for trying too hard. He tried to put his arms around her to dance. “Look around,” she said, annoyed. “Do you see any other men coming up behind women possessively like that?” When he first told me this story, I didn’t understand the lesson. Months later, I got it: the lesson was that she didn’t need him for validation. She didn’t want a man to keep her or change her. That’s why he was with her.
I knew that to be the kind of liberated woman he would love, I would have to stop wishing he would come back and love me. I loved him because he had shown me that I could reject society’s expectations for female beauty. But when he was gone, it was his expectations I needed to shake. Like a modern, leftist Henry Higgins, he had tried to groom me to be the un-groomed woman he wanted. But, I realized over time, he had failed. I was still wearing makeup and blow-drying my hair. I re-read Pygmalion and finally understood that it is not a love story; it’s the story of a woman who emancipates herself from a controlling man.
How should I emancipate myself? I wanted to feel good. So I bought my own bottles of wine and sliced my own cucumbers. I bought myself weed and stored it in a mason jar as I had seen him do. I took myself out to indie films and art exhibitions. It was a small revelation that culture existed without him showing it to me. I read poems. In those days I especially loved Marie Howe’s poem about grief: “…there are moments, walking, when I catch a glimpse of myself / in the window glass, / say, the window of the corner video store, and I’m gripped by a / cherishing so deep / for my own blowing hair, chapped face, and unbuttoned coat that I’m speechless…” The familiarity of my own reflection began to comfort me.
There was something masculine and entitled about enjoying life alone. I drank whiskey alone as he did. I bought his favorite candle, “Leather Mahogany.” I made espresso. I took all the parts of him I loved and made them mine. Why try to be the woman he would love when I could become him? A man who loved himself.
A few years later, we met again in Berlin. At a bar across the street from the apartment he shared with Pina, we drank two rounds of beers. I knew even before I walked into the candle-lit bar that despite whatever internal growth I had experienced, I would still feel something for him.
We sat at a small, round table and he ordered our beers in German. His hands, resting on the table, were still the ones I remembered cradling my head. I was so sick of my own nostalgia.
He talked about Pina, filling in more details I had wondered about: her mother was a young hippie of the post-war generation. That night she was working at an anarchist wine bar where guests paid only what they felt was fair. We talked about work; we talked about what we were reading. I was so disappointed with how mundane the conversation was. “I’m actually thinking of buying more high-end sheets,” he said. We were on our third beers when he finally asked me if I was seeing anyone. And I was, but admitting it felt like a small defeat. “I still compare everyone I date to you,” I blurted out. He blinked. He gently touched my arm. “We were never right for each other,” he said. “One day I think you’ll see it too.” His touch was something I had desired for so long. But in that moment it felt condescending. How disappointing, I thought. He still thinks he knows something better than I do.
He said he wanted a cigarette so we went to a convenience store and bought a pack. “You keep them,” he said after we had smoked one together. Then he hugged me too politely, and crossed the street to his apartment. I considered keeping the cigarettes as a memento and I did, but only for one more week. There was once a time when I had saved his chewed gum. After he had left I went back into the corner store, bought a beer, and drank it alone in the street.
Shayna Goodman‘s essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Salon, Lilith Magazine, and Jewish Currents, among other places. She received her MFA in Creative Writing from Hunter College, an MA in Judaic Studies, an MSW from the University of Michigan, and a BA from Sarah Lawrence College. Shayna received a fellowship in creative nonfiction from Tent: Creative Writing (2017). She teaches first-year writing at Hunter College. She was raised in Manhattan and currently lives in Brooklyn.