Breaking the Waves

water affair

The Affair has relied heavily on drowning and ocean metaphors since its pilot in 2014. Its moody opening credit footage of crashing water fit the rustic landscape of Montauk and set the mood to think about the capricious and overwhelming nature of lust and love. In its four seasons, almost every character has cheated or imploded their relationships in some way, but When Fiona Apple sang “there’s only one thing I can do and that’s be the wave that I am/and then sink back into the ocean” I always had the sense that those lines, or maybe the song in general, were about Alison. Alison who starts the story defined by a literal drowning – the death of her toddler son. A woman who is afraid of the ocean, but is treated as a siren by most of the men in her life. I started watching The Affair to pass time, and because I’m drawn to stories and discussions of infidelity. I wasn’t expecting to be so moved or feel so seen by a character, but Alison has come to be very special to me.

**spoilers for the latest season of The Affair**

I just finished the fourth and latest season and while it expanded far beyond the actions of its original affair and into overly soapy territory, I couldn’t look away. Even at its worst the disastrous orbit of these characters – the “main” couple but also betrayed spouses, children, and new relationships – was bleakly addictive. Most importantly for me, Alison remained the emotional heart of the story. Her extreme choices and darkest turns never felt contrived and campy so much as tragic. No main character hated themselves more or tried harder to have a purpose; to be understood, loved, and chosen. As you may have seen in entertainment headlines lately, Ruth Wilson has left the cast. In the show, this meant the fourth season climaxed in Alison’s death. She never got to rewrite her narrative as she wanted. Her story, in her own words at least, is now over, but I imagine she’ll be on my mind for a long time.

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The Clocks Don’t Sync Up

Next month I’ll be 27. This isn’t a number I’m too thrilled about. Plenty of older people rush to call me young if I verbalize my discomfort, but not as many as in past years. It’s too close to 30 to have many excuses anymore, but I feel like I only stopped being a child in the last, oh, two or three years. It wasn’t marriage, divorce, or physical aging that finally caused the break. It was a slow realization, the remolding and hardening of a series of decisions – not all of them bad but all of them difficult and messy – that I had set into motion on my own. I played with real narrative weight in my own life long enough that the distance between my emotional reality and the ability to go home again became too great. The grief of losing touch with the pre-adult me and the comfort it brought is a brutal amputation. I see other people my age (and much older for that matter) shambling through the same mourning process. The world is bad and we all know it. My generation grew into something far more bleak and doomed than we were ever prepared for. It’s not a world that my friends and I want to be in most days, and the thought of bringning anything else into it seems irresponsible at best and cruel at worst. My body doesn’t care about this at all.

I’ve spent most of my life treating childlessness as a foregone conclusion; an internal imperative so strong that pregnant women and mothers seemed fundamentally apart from whatever I am on a source level. They have different boundaries, as if the lines around them were pleasantly fuzzy. And there’s me, so hardwired to be self-contained within the limits of my own body. I’m sharp; a set unit you would never think to add to or subtract from. If I try to imagine myself pregnant, or with small children, my brain short circuits like the blue screen of death. The mythology of motherhood as a sacred and primordial mystery, the deepest source of feminine power, is not something I’m interested in contributing to. Really, it’s only strange inasmuch as any experience we find ourselves utterly locked off from is.

And yet, after over 26 years of bullheaded confidence, something is wavering. I pass couples with young children in Prospect Park and I try to project onto them, but not because I want it. A snapshot moment of a happy family is of course not the whole picture. Those couples fight and get too tired to fuck and those children throw tantrums. It’s still a slice of something I’ll never know. These moments didn’t use to register as anything, but now seeing parents with a stroller feels like peeking in people’s windows at night. TV plot lines about couples strained over whether to have kids make me sad now, but not because I want it. “We’re pregnant,” announced my brother’s friends at Easter brunch, and I looked away and excused myself. I started crying in the bathroom, but not because I want it. I’ve become consumed by what not wanting it means.

I do not want kids for the reasons that we’ve mostly agreed are bad reasons. There’s no legacy I care about passing on, my parents are fine enough that I don’t have a compulsion to fix their mistakes, and I know it’s selfish to create people in hope that they’ll take care of you when you’re old or sick. So what are the right reasons? No, I really want to know. Those happy kids in Prospect Park will probably grow up and mourn the loss of their childhoods in a world that’s even more unforgiving than mine. Even if the future looked better, it’s hard to imagine inflicting womanhood on another person. Are those mothers who express relief at only having sons, who say “boys are just easier,” actually relieved that they don’t have to pass on that particular millstone? It seems like there may not be a reason right enough to justify the risk anymore. And yet.

Maybe it’s that I’m almost 27 and some chemicals in my brain are nudging me to consider things because they’re attuned to rhythms and deadlines unparsable by my rational mind. My body doesn’t care about the doomsday clock any more than the world cares about me. But maybe it’s that I’m so sad and so bad at handling grief that I fantasize about experiencing hope and innocence vicariously; a fairy tale witch lying in wait to leech a sense of security and optimism from another generation. Do people want to have children because the only way to re-experience the veil of real safety and open-endedness is to draw it over someone else’s eyes?

As so many things do, I was reminded of The Age of Innocence. In particular, I thought about the sum of May Welland, the character most invested in and protective of the status quo. ” …the world of her youth had fallen into pieces and rebuilt itself without her ever being conscious of the change. This hard bright blindness had kept her immediate horizon apparently unaltered…she had died thinking the world a good place, full of loving and harmonious households like her own… ” I have always focused on the other main characters, on Newland Archer and his crippling fear and obligation or Ellen Olenska and the price of her unconventionality. The mutant strain of longing for a family is the first thing that has made May truly click with me. There’s an allure in being so naive that you sail right by the painful severance from your pre-adult assumptions. How lucky to raise children in the glow of your own childhood.

I’ve always liked the word weltschmerz and I think my unpackagable sadness over having children is the essence of that feeling. The world of split-second fantasies and lives I’ll never lead isn’t a reality that actually exists. It’s not even that I want children. I want to think about whether or not I want them in a world where the odds wouldn’t be stacked against them from the start.

 

 

Not Pictured

Fire Escape

Yesterday was, as swarms of optimistically half-dressed people trying to find space at porch and rooftop bars can confirm, like real spring. It was a similar day two years ago that I moved into a 4th-floor walk up in Hoboken, New Jersey. The 2-bedroom with exposed brick and blessed with in-unit laundry was above a nail salon, down the block from a 24-hour diner, and across the street from the bus stop I would take every day to Manhattan. Some days I didn’t like it; didn’t like the fellow commuters in their 20s who seemed both younger and more put together, didn’t like the yuppie families who never moved their strollers out of the way on the sidewalk. Sometimes I just resented not living in the city, worried my co-workers were thinking less of me as the only non New York State resident or annoyed at myself for falling short of my dream of a cooler Lower East Side life. But it was home. I hesitated to call it that, especially when the relationship that made it home was destabilized, but it was. Though I haven’t lived there in any real way since November, I had to leave it for good yesterday.

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Ugly Thoughts about Beauty

Time and time again I’ve said and written that my obsession with skincare is a way of micromanaging my whole exterior life. A blemish or a wrinkle is a flaw, and if someone catches one flaw they might just pull the whole thing apart. I’m deeply afraid of aging because that, too, skews the calculations. The world is more forgiving of young women, and my brain is already something that comes with disclaimers. The more placid a surface I can create, the harder it is to pin down my actual age, the less people will be tempted to look behind the curtain. My corrosive personality takes up so much space that I don’t have room to make physical mistakes.

I’m not a Pretty Girl, because from a very young age you either are or aren’t one, and I was not. Being a Pretty Girl is really just lines of input from your mom, your friends’ moms, your socialization as a girl, and your various privileges that you receive and compute to form the right output. In a vacuum it may not always translate to beauty, but it affords a sense of security. My mom, a great beauty who countless people have fallen in love with, is also not a Pretty Girl. And neither of us can spin those loves into confidence or assurance that we’re lovable. It all just bounces off.

Like countless people who have had to live any amount of time presenting as female, my relationship to my appearance is made up of my actual connection to my own body and my awareness of others’ connection to it. This is how I can begrudgingly acknowledge that enough people find me beautiful even though I hate myself and sometimes look in the mirror and think everything is angrily and badly put together. Knowing you have the ability to be beautiful but not being able to reap any personal benefits from it is a unique pressure that you can’t talk about because people find it obnoxious. Anyway, it’s there, and sometimes I wonder if people who were never told they were any of the superlative adjectives feel more free to let their partners see them with bad skin, to eat a big meal in public, to just get dressed and walk outside.

A writer I like explained once that she relies on language as a way of preceding and apologizing for her body and the space she takes up. It works the opposite way for me. I’m such an awful, vain motherfucker because I feel like my face is the only true apology, the only consolation prize, that I can wedge between the world and someone who has surely already worn our her welcome.

Does Loving Lana Del Rey Mean I Can Forgive Myself?

lanaI have recently gotten very into Lana Del Rey – her decidedly not training montage material even dominates my running playlist. I’ve been aware of the siren with the 1,000 yard stare since she hit the scene in 2011 but avoided her, maybe unintentionally, for six years. As someone who runs in an unapologetically feminist circle, Lana Del Rey is not exactly on message. Outside of my bubble, Lana’s conceit is likewise out of tune with the zeitgeist. The current image of stars like Taylor Swift, Demi Lovato, and Ariana Grande generally espouse agency and confidence. Although their songs can deal with tumultuous relationships, the message that wins out is almost always self-love and self-care. Lana, on the other hand, is often subsuming herself in the shadow of a man. Her (very internally consistent) world of dangerous, negligent men, affairs, and sugar daddies isn’t something I aspire to. But here’s the thing – it still speaks to me and my life much more than dozens of girl power creeds. It may be bad feminism, but damn if it doesn’t resonate with me.

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