Lately, I’ve been falling into the comforting arms of a book I’ve loved before. Late at night when I can’t sleep, this novel has been my companion, alongside an ice cream sandwich and a fat cat on my lap. The book has a bit of everything…an underground library cloaked in secrecy, a man without a face, not one but TWO femme fatales–like fire and water, those two, dangerously close to destroying our lovelorn protagonist, Daniel. The part I like best is perhaps visiting Barcelona itself, cemented in a certain place and time, in the memories of people tainted by revolution. It’s probably all the Barcelona I’m going to get. The shadowy villas, rain, and sumptuous teas wrap around me like a warm hug and (almost) satisfy my need for adventure during a time when I’ve felt either the earth stood still or as humans we’ve systematically destroyed each other. Onto a happier note…
The first time Ethan has ever seen a baby beluga, who smiled at him. Mystic, CT, was a dream.
Your letter offering for today is below. Prepare to be transported to my faded memories of a place I once loved. Enjoy!
April 8th, 2021
It’s 3:38 in the morning and I was just reeling with memories of Pittsburgh. I don’t know where to start, so I suppose it’ll be in the middle of things…
I wound up in Pittsburgh because that’s where I got into graduate school, and I hadn’t thought to visit before arriving with no stuff. I had moved there with my partner from Omaha, who decided to buy a house and didn’t know I hadn’t planned on living there. I lived in Highland Park, in someone else’s house I was subleasing alongside a roommate I barely knew. The sublet—it was dingy and gross and sticky with the memory of dog. The bedroom I claimed was blood red, which I assumed would do horrible things for my dreams.
So, I spent most of my time in Morningside, in the lovely house I didn’t want to call my own, which had a backyard terrace looking over a cliff, characteristic of so many things in Pittsburgh—situated on the edge of things. I remember growing hydroponic tomatoes on the terrace and really did none of the work but loved picking them in late summer. I liked arriving on the first floor and playing with the puppies, sleeping on the floor of the second story when I wasn’t teaching or in class, and I lined my books up along the wall of the third floor, which felt like the top of a princess tower. I ate a lot of Malaysian food and avoided cleaning day in both spaces.
My roommate in Highland Park liked to sing, so it was always a cheery welcome. We ate pizza after every writing workshop our first year there, which is when we relived how much we hated everyone. There were lots of tears and laughter all at once.
I was so afraid to take the bus. I wasn’t a bigot and afraid of people who rode the bus, but I was afraid of not knowing when to swipe my card. On or off? I spent my first year (a cold, cold year) walking everywhere. It was about an hour’s walk from Highland Park to campus, but I’d do it happily to avoid the card swipe conundrum. During summer afternoons, I’d buy chocolate at the local corner store and take a shortcut through people’s backyards until I ended up in Morningside. The chocolate was usually melted by then, so I’d eat it on the terrace and pick tomatoes.
When it got too cold, I hibernated to Houston to work for NASA. This is where I lived my second life. I spent a long time hanging out with my old friend Jason, who introduced me to his mom, who also worked for NASA as a programmer. We had a bumpy start (I was “some kind of ethnic,” his mom proclaimed), but eventually we reached a happy truce and would get our nails done together in garish colors and secretly drive to the Galleria, leaving Jason behind so we could eat artisanal pop tarts. She’d drive me back to her house in League City and I’d pick lemons and persimmons off the trees his father had grown in the backyard. They reminded him of Lebanon, he said, and we’d leave them ripening along the fence before eating them, warmed by the afternoon sun. As I laid out there on the hammock eating my persimmons, Jason’s dad would make sheets and sheets of baklava and he’d bring me out the whole pan and a fork so I could eat it piping hot. Anytime Jason was off of his nursing shift I’d bounce to my fourth house, where I officially lived with a spacesuit engineer and her son. The spacesuit engineer and I would talk about postage stamps and foraging for mushrooms in France, where she grew up in the countryside.
Anyway, by the time I made it back to Pittsburgh, all of my tenuous relationships were abolished and I moved to a part of town called Friendship and rented a little artist’s loft for $580 a month (all bills paid!). Despite the name, there was nothing very friendly about it. The apartment was very, very hot. So, I finally decided to take the damn bus.
I didn’t have a lot of friends in grad school, so my students oftentimes became dear friends. As a writing teacher, I already felt like I knew them from the practice of reading their stories and secrets. One of my former students, Mark, would text me a location and we’d meet in the early evening, and he’d talk to me at length about why he liked Cortazar’s novels. The locations were usually at rooftop bars, and he’d wear his sweater with the arm patches and solemnly drink a glass of white wine while I ate my way through an appetizer menu. Eventually, we started hanging out at Spirit, a dingy bar that had okay pizza. I’d let him talk my ear off while I ate a mini pizza and warily eye a disco ball and people wearing questionable fluorescents. Mac Miller was there once. Those were the good times.
I guess I should mention the first time I took the bus, a guy sat next to me in a long black trench coat and nothing underneath. I tried not to stereotype him as a weirdo, so I let him sit next to me, but when I got side-eye I got off the bus about fourteen stops too soon. As I squinted into the street to orient myself, another stranger ran past me and kicked me as hard as I’ve ever been kicked in my life—it almost knocked me down. After the good kick, I noticed I was in front of my former roommate’s new apartment. I asked her to come down and sit with me in this little city park which was really a scraggly patch of grass surrounded by Penn Avenue traffic, and I sobbed to her and told her I had to end my relationship with my partner in Morningside. But, my tomatoes, I said. She understood and said the good kick in the pants was probably for the best. So, I did what I had been dreading, and there it was: finally, I was truly adrift.
Eventually, I found another close friend, a former student at Pitt whose parents were once professional ice skaters in Moscow. I’d ask for stories. “We eat lots of tiny salads,” he’d explain to me with a shrug. “We never smile,” he’d say with a scowl. I got through another winter by watching Tarantino movies with him and eventually we went ice staking, and it was just as I had imagined it—he was a natural. He was a bodybuilder type and ate a lot of buckwheat and could make a perfect bowl of brown rice. Eventually, he went to law school to pursue his solemn dream to become a medical malpractice attorney, and I was left alone again. I decided to take a drawing class and took on another teaching job I was unqualified for that summer.
My art class was at eight am. By then, I had made a new old friend, and we had a summer filled with lots of charcoal sketches that were malapportioned and Wendy’s ghost pepper fries and Aiello’s pizza while pretending to write stories.
I started taking the bus downtown to visit this art museum above a bus station and enjoyed this film festival movie about Pittsburgh that taught me more about it (grunge, hype) than I had learned living there for three years. I exited the movie with fresh, free eyes.
Around this time, I met your dad. I had met him online and he invited me to visit his apartment in Wilkinsburg, the city of churches. I tried unsuccessfully to parallel park on the street while he looked at me from the front stoop. I finally parked around the corner too far away and he probably had assumed I had disappeared. I was wearing a lime green tank top with holes at the collar and shorts I had optimistically cut off in the hopes they were perceived as indie (like the movie) rather than sloppy (questionable). I had a rather free-spirited braid in my hair and my smile was genuine. I was carrying a little stack of books in my hands to share with him, only it wasn’t that little and it obscured my face.
As I saw him standing there, wearing a gray collared shirt, I felt as though I recognized him. I knew right away that he would be someone important. I had never felt slammed that hard with knowing someone at first glance. We talked for hours that first night, as sweat poured down his face because he didn’t have an air conditioner. I wanted immediately to reorganize his bookshelves and ask him a curious question about the rifle on the mantle offset by two sweet portraits of Persian cats. We split up a few weeks later after I voiced rather matter-of-factly that I wanted two kids and to get married before I turned thirty, not necessarily in any particular order, but the clock was ticking and oh, yes, he would have to move to Texas in six months. I was about 27.5. It was probably our second date. I don’t blame him for needing time to consider my proposal, as it was a lot of pressure, and one day I was crying in my office and my office mate told me about her divorce only she said she didn’t cry about it.
Your dad came around. Our stretch in Wilkinsburg was one of the happiest of my life. We’d eat at Nancy’s Diner every Sunday, where my favorite meal was a grilled cheese with apples on raisin toast. We’d explore Squirrel Hill on the weekends, and usually end up at a bakery or two where he’d order a Napoleon and I’d order something weird and gross but usually decadent and beautiful. We both liked to read and formed a book club together. Our first book was Woman in the Dunes by Kobe Abe. Bluets was our favorite, I think. We were so in love. We spent most of our money eating, but my mom always said to eat while you’re young. Among the places we loved: Pusadee’s Garden, Everyday Noodle, a good bibimbap place in Oakland, Five Points Bakery (extra points for the cemetery across the street), the lady who made mung bean cakes at the strip, Edgar’s Tacos…we both love food to this day.
At some point, we both quit our jobs and spent the summer collectively unemployed and the happiest we’d ever been. We took the train to Philly and loved it, and we also cleaned out a friend’s basement. When I left Pittsburgh, I wasn’t ready. I already missed the tree I’d stand inside in Oakland and listen to the world outside my hollow shell. The spinning of the carousel in front of the Cathedral of Learning. Sitting on a warm ledge at the Carnegie Library, which looked over the bones of dead things. The tiny furniture behind the display case at the Carnegie International. The rooftop at Phipps garden.
I was so hungry then. But mostly, I knew I would miss the pavement that held the memories of the lives I had lived, of the streets I had known, of the person I had been. I loved that beautiful, chaotic, dirty city. It meant something to me. I had looked to fill this void inside of me with interesting people whose friendships were fleeting, but what I should have done was center myself with stillness and know that there was much ahead. Still, every crack in the sidewalk I had known and missed opportunity and bitter breakup lead me to you, the absolute best thing I never thought would happen on my timeline (by the way, you were born two weeks before I turned thirty).
One day when you think I’m a boring mom I hope you’ll remember I was young once, and I love you with a greater life force than I loved everything else. Yet, I hope that one day we can walk those streets again.