Category Archives: In My Life

Yes Us Can

On October 30th, 2008, I got dropped off at my parking lot gate at around 12:30 in the morning.  As I fiddled with my keys, I could hear shouts and whoops whizzing through the air.  I put my keys back in my purse and took myself for a walk. 

South Street was abuzz with activity–not the aggressive, wanton debauchery of its Friday and Saturday nights, but a joyful, flushed-face conviviality truly proving the city to be worthy of its Brotherly Love epithet.  Walking west to Broad Street, I high-fived nearly every person walking the other way.  Their red baseball caps were bathed in a warm amber glow from the streetlights.  A girl smilingly offered me a beer from her jacket pocket.  Their attitudes were infectious, and I felt a huge grin spread across my face. 

The evening chill kissed my skin as I thought about how, in hard times, we find heroes in the most unlikely of figures–unlikely, because although they are undeniably talented, their acts of “heroism” didn’t exactly save anyone: Babe Ruth.  Lucky Lindy.  Shirley Temple.  Philadelphia, a city sodden with the downtrodden, had found its heroes in a group of athletes. 

I had felt a similar electricity in the air a few weeks earlier, when I’d attended an Obama rally in North Philly.  And because the atmosphere between the two events was so similar, and because the election was less than a week away, I mused to myself that when I would look back on this night they would be inextricably linked in my mind.  At that moment, there was no doubt in my mind that change was going to come.  With that amount of goodwill in the air, how could it not?

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Looking Backwards

I asked Stoph how his move to New York went.  “It’s fine,” he responded.  “I mean, I always knew I would eventually end up here, so it doesn’t feel weird.”

I do not have the same kind of focused direction, but I understand the feeling,  I think I’ve always known I would end up in a city, and here I am.  I think when I look back on my twenties, I won’t remember the floundering feelings of being lost and aimless, but rather the nights out: tripping down the asphalt, our laughs and shouts bouncing off the dark, silent rowhomes and storefronts; my face smeared with makeup and sweat; my nostrils and wilted hair laced with smoke; the silk of my top stained with cocktail spills; the sickly sweet aftertaste of fermented grain in my mouth and my feet blistered raw from dancing; my ears throbbing from hip hop and electro and my eyes dry and tired. 

But what I will remember most are the cab rides home.  Sometimes I’m with friends and we’re talking much too loudly and being far too obnoxious.  Sometimes I’m with a boy and we’re being obnoxious in a different way.  But the best times are when I’m alone, with the windows open and the swift cool wind sweeping back my hair as I rest my tired head against the sticky vinyl sea. 

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Memory #10: Cornfields

The farmlands are alternately emerald green and saffron yellow; patchwork squares that glisten in unadulterated sunlight. The morning sun: a buttery white disc afloat in a sea of clean cornflower blue. When we drive past, the squares shoot by and seem to blend together. Green, yellow, green, yellow. Every now and then, a clump of healthy trees, a wooden farmhouse, a billboard emblazoned with Bible verses.

The rock star sits in the seat in front of me. He has toured in Japan. His very presence seems to speak to me of black jeans, electric guitars, cigarettes, booze. Hours later by the campfire, after my clothes and hair have dried, he will say to me, “Cool jeans,” and my heart will skip a beat. For now, it is hard for me to picture such a character on a canoe in the river. I am silent, in the back, watching flatlands as they pass, content to study the back of his head, the nuances of his voice as he converses easily with the other people in the car.

“Look at that house,” he says, pointing at a neat construction of blue- and white-painted wood, tiny in the distance. A long white gravel ribbon cuts its way from the black of the highway to the fluffy golden swath of cornfield. “That’s what I’d like.”

“What?”

“A house like that. That’d be great…get a wife, move to the country, live on a farm. Just get away from it all, you know? That’s what I need, man.”

I do not understand him at the time. I cannot think of anything I’d want less. I am in high school and scrambling to grow up. On weekends we trek into the city and giggle our way through the thrift stores and fetish shops around Belmont and Clark; at nighttime we drive aimlessly around the thick black woods of Barrington and take midnight repasts at Denny’s and IHOP; on Friday nights we go to suburban teen clubs, clad in skimpy polyester and adorned with glitter, and dance to pounding music with young Marines in training–all out of the searing desire for something more exciting, more glamorous, more independent, more grown-up. Every day I feel myself reaching for something indescribable. I can’t help but feel that somewhere in the world is a more memorable way of life that I am missing out on.

To me, the rock star encompasses everything I want at sixteen: the cachet of urbane coolness and the lifestyle of an international troubadour. In my head, I see the rock star navigating his way through a swirling world painted entirely in gritty blacks, grays, silvers, and neons. Why would anyone want to exchange that for a static life colorized in Crayola?

But I am just sixteen. I have yet to feel the heartache of being utterly alone in a metropolis of millions. I have yet to know the soul-crushing weight of starting each gray day before dawn and returning home each day feeling ten years older. I have not yet learned to yearn for sunlit air, wide plains, breathtaking vistas. I have not yet grown to appreciate certain qualities. Stability. Security. Simplicity. Serenity.

***********************************

In time, I will know. In time, the fetish shops around Belmont and Clark will be replaced with fast food franchises; the gutter punks will wander off to some other soon-to-be-gentrified enclave. In time, the woods of the Northwest suburbs will gradually ebb, making way for McMansion developments with generic, bucolic names and status SUVs. In time, Club X will be shut down, and stretchy black pants and body glitter will fall out of fashion. In time, I will find myself halfway across the country, on a schoolbus at an age way past the normal schoolbus-riding age, sitting across from ____________ from Indiana. He looks too young and too sheltered to be moving to the gritty city to teach foulmouthed children. Like me.

We sit across from each other on the bus home from summer school. The grotty vinyl of the seats sticks to my legs; my face is coated with a fine film of oil and sweat; wisps of hair are glued to the edges of my face, neck, and scalp. The windows of the bus are open, letting in the oppressive humidity of a mid-Atlantic summer and all the offensive smells and sounds that come with it. But the look on ___________’s face tells that he is miles away. He leans his head against the seat in front of him in a way that is effeminate and boyish all at once. “I miss the cornfields,” he says to me.

It’s all he says, but between two Midwestern transplants, it’s all he needs to say. And in time, I will miss them too. I will realize that my mind keeps coming back to them at the strangest times. And by that time, _______________ will have already left the city.

Memory #10: “That Guy, He’s No Good”

In line at the ATM by my college apartment, en route to an evening of carousing with my fellow cast members. My friends are eager to begin drinking. It is February, and therefore a crisply cold night in Champaign. It is also a Thursday night and we are celebrating the end of a long week of rehearsals once again by going to the White Horse–or, as it is more affectionately known, the White Ho, or Ho, for short. I grab my money, turn, and bump into the person behind me.

I automatically deliver an apology and head on my way–my friends are impatiently waiting–but the person calls out. “Hey, I know you.”

I stop. In the darkness, I can see he is cute, so being the shallow coed I am I opt to give him some of my time. Friends be damned. “Really? Have we met?”

“You don’t remember me,” he slurs.

I look closer, and upon a second inspection I see that he is one of the strain of farmboy-cute men that populate the campus. Baggy jeans and jacket, sneakers, closely-cropped hair. But there is a piece missing from this puzzle, a piece that would complete a familiar picture. I start to shake my head.

He laughs grimly, without breaking so much as a smile. “Guess you don’t remember. Ouch.”

A baseball cap. He usually wore a baseball cap. “No, wait, I do! We had class together last year!” I exclaim, pleased that I figured it out. “Comp Lit.” Out of the corner of my eye, I can see my friends silhouetted in the lamplight, pacing restlessly.

He nods, still unsmiling. “Ahhh, now you remember.” His voice is slightly nasal and dry in tone.

“Really, you remember me?” I cock my head to the side, amused. I try to think of what kind of fascination I could have possibly held for someone so apparently clean-cut and wholesome.

“Let’s GO,” I hear my friends call from the corner, a testy edge in their voices.

I bid an apologetic farewell to–“What’s your name?” I ask, already turning to leave.

“_______,” he says.

“Well, bye _______! See you around.”

“Bye Anna.” I turn, nonplussed. The merest steely glint of mischief in his eyes. “See, I remembered your name, too.”

As my friends and I turn the corner, one of them asks, “Who was that?”

“Someone from one of my classes,” I say. “He remembered my name.”

“Um, that’s creepy,” one of them says.

“Yeah, I guess it is,” I say, my mind already somewhere else.

*************

Celebrating K____’s birthday at Murphy’s toward the end of my junior year. In a few days all the seniors will graduate, and with them will go my friend and roommate S____, sitting across the beer-soaked table from me, and A___, and J__–and just as notably, M____, who has just shown up. He is slight and boyishly-framed for a 22-year-old, but full of James Dean swagger. He has a Chicago accent, a name that would have been more suitable for an Irish mobster, and a seemingly endless wardrobe of carelessly worn white t-shirts. He has cat-eyes of an indeterminate marine color and actor-perfect features. No one could smoke a cigarette quite like him; I could have watched him kill his lungs all day long.

With M____ by my side, I have the glow of a middle-aged man wearing a trophy wife on his arm. He is far too pretty for me and I’m not so sure why he finds me so intriguing. But he keeps calling, and I keep answering, and it doesn’t really occur to me to not answer. Conversation does not come easily to the two of us, and he mixes my drinks a little too strong. He has interwoven himself comfortably among my thickly knit circle of friends, however, and amid the shrieks and squeals of rowdy sodden laughter from our tables, I lock eyes with a familiar face to the side of the room. I wave a weak hello to the eyes underneath the perennial baseball cap.

At the moment, M______ put the finishing moves his beer rather quickly. “You need to catch up,” he smirks, as he excuses himself to the bathroom.

He has barely been gone a minute before a body slides it way into the recently vacated space on the varnished wooden bench. “Hey,” he says in a tone not expecting any kind of response.

“Hi there,” I respond a bit incredulously. Out of the corner of my eye, I see my friends continue in their revelry, not paying the slightest bit of attention.

“So, who’s the guy,” he says intensely, jerking his head in the direction of the bathrooms.

“M____?”

“Yeah, who is he? Boyfriend?”

“No,” I respond, nonplussed. “Just a friend.” A lie/not-lie. I eye the bathroom nervously. What would happen in M____ came back and saw ______ in his seat? Moreover, did it matter? Why did I care?

“Uh huh,” he says, seeing right through me. “Well, I’ll tell you what, Anna,” he says, locking my eyes with his. He has all the desperation of someone who believes they will never see a person again. “I just wanted to let you know that I think you’re beautiful.”

“Uh….okay.” My eyes dart anxiously around the table. “Thanks.”

“And that guy? That guy, he’s–he’s no good.”

I am a bit miffed. “Um, okay.”

An awkward pause. “Well, that’s all I wanted to say,” he finishes gruffly, and stands up to leave. “Have a good night.”

“Night.” I watch him leave–baggy jeans and jacket, sneakers, baseball cap, closely-cropped hair, stony face.

He leaves, and with perfect timing, M____ comes sauntering through the bathroom doors and sidles right back in. He refills my beer which wasn’t in need of a refill. He fixes his cat eyes on me. “Hey.”

“What’s up?”

“Let’s try to get out of here soon.”

I want to say that I’d rather stay with my friends, that I won’t have too much time with them before they leave me for the real world. But he lights up a cigarette and takes a long, slow, luxurious drag, as if he had all the time in the world.

“All right,” I say.

Memory #9: “I Miss My Sisters”

Lying down in the doctor’s office for my physical.  The physician’s assistant is telling me about her Catholic school education.  “This was the sixties, and in those days the nuns wore really formal habits,” she says, the icy touch of the stethoscope on my chest.  “I used to try to look under the big white collars whenever one of the sisters walked past my desk.  I always wanted to know what was under there!”

“Were they very strict?”

“I can’t really remember…although I did run into trouble with them once, in high school.”  She chuckles.  “I remember we were learning about India, and how there were so many people were dying because there was so much poverty and not enough to go around.  I raised my hand and asked, ‘Wouldn’t this situation be solved if we could just send them birth control?'”  She chuckles again, the silvery chill of the stethoscope sliding over my skin.  “She was so angry!  But I honestly didn’t know I was saying anything bad.”

The examination room exists in a vacuum of sound, a serene white cube of purified air.  “My mother went to Catholic school her whole life, even college,” I say, staring at the blank ceiling.  I normally don’t talk this much to strangers.

“Really?  Which one?”

“Oh, she’s from the Philippines, so she went to a women’s college over there.”

“My sister went to Chestnut Hill.”

“I have some friends that went there for grad school.  They said it was a really pretty campus.”

“Oh, it is.”  She places her fingertips on my throat, under my chin.  Doctors always had cold, soothing hands.  “My sister went there.  It’s funny–my sister was such a straight arrow all through high school, and then she went off to Catholic college and became the biggest hippie ever!”  She gives a faraway laugh.  “Both my sisters did, actually.”

I wonder where such a woman would be, forty years later.  What did that generation look like today?  “What are they doing now?”

“They both passed a few years ago,” the smile audibly frozen in her voice.

“Oh–I’m sorry,” I say automatically. I am never good in these situations.

“Yes, they both had uterine cancer.  It was very sudden and unexpected.”  The easy canter of the conversation has come to an abrupt halt.  Cold hands on my stomach, on my clavicle.  We are both sorry our talk has made this unforeseen turn.

After a second that feels like an eternity, she says, “Yes, I miss my sisters.”  A long-ago sigh is interwoven in her voice, causing a barely perceptible tremble.  “We had a lot of fun together.”  She motions for me to sit up, and I do.

The examination room is cold, bright, absent of noise, like the inside of a refrigerator.

For the rest of my physical, the physician’s assistant does not meet my eyes.

Memory #8: The Dust Bowl

Listening to C________ read to me about global warming from her 8th grade project, an idiotic idea dreamed up by our administration as a pathetic attempt at academic rigor. All 8th graders were expected to write a 5-page paper on a topic chosen from an arbitrary, randomly-selected list, while also preparing a 10-min presentation with either a trifold or a PowerPoint presentation. Failure to complete said tasks would supposedly result in being detained in 8th grade–a laughably idle threat. That many of our students could barely speak English, navigate a computer program, or write a grammatically-correct sentence, never seemed to cross our administration’s mind.

The onus of seeing our students through the projects invariably fell upon us, their classroom teachers, who were already busy teaching our own subjects. And so the help we gave our students really only extended to those who possessed the motivation, discipline, and initiative to ask for help after school or during lunch or in homeroom. I had spent 2 hours after school teaching C________ , T_____, and J___ to create PowerPoint presentations. They were some of the only students from their class to bother to finish the project, and some of the only students in the school to bother trying most days of the year. I snuck pizza into the computer lab. It was my pitiful attempt at matching the image of the caring, selfless urban schoolteacher that so many of us had hoped to embody when we embarked on our journey two years ago.

I had never quite reached that goal, never had a moment in class when my students were all joyfully engaged in learning, never had students hug me and thank me and call me their favorite teacher. As a social studies teacher I had failed. I didn’t want them to memorize endless dates and names and create giant elaborate projects and papers and partake in carefully orchestrated mock trials and debates (not that I hadn’t attempted to do all those things). All I had wanted for my students was for them to sit up and take interest in the world around them, to become enraged with the direction in which our country was heading, to become young voices for their community. To make connections between then and now. To become as fascinated with humanity, its endless circular themes and little dramas being enacted and mirrored on bigger and bigger scales like the rings on an ancient oak tree. To wake up and realize that even the paltry freedoms they enjoyed as Americans were based on such a tenuous, fragile framework. But instead I floundered when it came to such simple tasks as getting my students to take enough interest in my class to even memorize state names. I was dogged by the scarlet letter of the Unsuccessful Teacher, convinced my more felicitous colleagues mocked me behind my back, dejected when I thought about all the people I was disappointing back home and humiliated when I thought about all the people I was proving right back home, and panicked when I thought about the hundreds of students whose futures were in my inept hands. The sting of shame ate at my heart relentlessly day after day.

“Miss, you look tired,” C________ said hesitantly when she caught me with my head drooping. It was hard to remember a time when I wasn’t always so tired.

In the May afternoon torpor of my stuffy classroom, C________ reads to me from her paper in a voice like cats gently pawing across a kitchen floor. She wants to be a scientist or a doctor. In careful, heavily accented English she tells me about places she has never seen in her life and may likely never see: icecaps melting and polar bears drowning, noxious fumes and disappeared ecosystems, sunken states and searing deserts. At the mention of the latter, she looks up from reading her paper. “Miss, that’s going to be just like the Dust Bowl!” she says in muted horror, eyebrows raised disapprovingly.

A brief thrill flutters in my heart and I am stunned. “That’s right!” And C________ continues reading.

My nose is stinging and I blink my eyes several times. I bend down and pretend to adjust something on my shoe so C________ can’t see me. How could I ever explain the effect her comment had just had on me? In a split second everything from the past two years flickered by in my head like flashing lights in a subway tunnel: the wonderful ideas that never went into action; the nights of two, three, four hours of sleep; the mute shock of Sunday evenings spent in denial on the couch; the failed relationships that had taken a backseat to teaching; the lost 15 pounds from hardly eating for two months; the hurtful graffiti; the profanities; the complaints; the gifts; the tears.

When I sit back up, C________ is reading the concluding paragraph of her middle school opus. And all of a sudden, I feel very tired.

Memory #7: “It’s Tuesday!”

Roaming the campus of the University of Illinois with some friends from high school, walking home from our friend’s dorm room at Bromley Hall.  It is just after midnight and I have class tomorrow at 10am, but I don’t care.  We are reveling in my newfound freedom and independence.  I am love with the idea that so many potential best friends my age were within mere inches of me, and loving even more the fact that on any given weekday night I can walk over and hang out till the early hours, huddled in their dorm room.  An apartment in the building across the street is clotted with undergrads; so crowded, in fact, they seem to be practically hanging off the balcony, plastic cups dangling from their fingers.  “Look,” my friend points with a mixture of glee and admiration for the carefree party animals that we, too, would so obviously soon become.  “They’re partying because it’s TUESDAY!”

The next morning I wake up for my English class.  My roommate left the radio on, and I hear something about a plane crashing into the WTC.  I am so removed from the cosmopolitan world of downtown Manhattan, cloistered in my big Midwestern state school in the middle of nowhere, that I shrug it off and go on off to class.   I have never been to New York; I don’t know anyone who lives there; and the most I know about it is gleaned from repeatedly watching episodes of Sex and the City on HBO.  My mind is on catching the 21 bus to the quad and discussing William Blake.

But in the English building, the atrium is strangely empty, a few stray students drifting hollowly through the echoing halls like ghosts.  In my class, only 3 people show up.

It is like a horror movie.

I spend the rest of the day, and that week, huddled in friends’ dorm rooms, but with shining, awed eyes glued in horror to CNN.