If you must cry in public

Here’s how I know I’m about to cry in public: I touch my bottom lip with my right index finger. It’s an automatic motion, and I’ve noticed that it only happens when my body is about to teeter over the line between fighting the tears and letting them flow, the last futile gesture of resistance. Shh, my finger tells my mouth. Shh, it’s all right – don’t cry. My mouth ignores it.

Here are all the places I’ve cried this week: the obvious ones like on the train, in my cubicle, in my bed on a particularly gray morning; the less obvious ones like on West 16th Street on the way to meet a friend at a bar, in the doorway of an 8th-Avenue apartment complex after running out of that bar when she – there’s always a she, italics – showed up there. In my first-ever cycling class on the stationary bike. At an acoustic show. On the bus to D.C. In Strand. In the hokey movie theater where tourists watch a 15-minute film on the foundation of the U.S. Congress. At the Lincoln Memorial.

On 8th Avenue in particular I drew stares, strangers looking back in confusion at the sound of a muffled sob in the darkness. They searched for the source and focused on me, my forehead pressed into the building like it might soak me up. One of them walked over.

“Are you okay?” she asked.

No, I was not. Yes, I would be, eventually. See? I was still together enough to be rational. The foresight reassured her.

“By the way,” she said before retreating, gesturing to my cheek, “You have an eyelash.” Dear reader, I let her retreat before I lost it again.

Here’s what crying is like to me: sneezing. I can feel it build, and I know once it’s done I’ll feel lighter. Still, I put it off with Kate Bush’s “Wuthering Heights” and my mind-numbing Twitter feed and by calling my mom to talk en route. But no matter how much you squint at the sun (does that make you sneeze or stave it off? I forget), it happens, eventually.

Here’s what I have to fix it: wadded coffee-shop napkins, Visine, friends, time.

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If you must cry in public

Scabs

I picked a hole in my forehead last night: leaned into the mirror and pinched my skin between index fingernails until something came out, sebum at first, then the red blossom of blood. First one pore, then two, then three spilled its contents, leaving a triangle pattern just above my left eyebrow that I knew would scab. And I almost moved onto another spot before catching my own eyes in the mirror and saying firmly, “stop.”

It’s the only thing that works. And mostly, I listen.

I backed away from the mirror. Swabbed the blood away with a cotton ball. But my heart was still pounding, my head still felt like a balloon about to burst.

***

My therapist explained my anxiety like this:

Your brain is hardwired to perceive everything as a threat because it’s safer – because then, when something happens, it’s braced for it. But that causes overall anxiety because you’re always waiting for something bad to happen. That’s when things like your catastrophic thinking happen – your mind has to create terrible thoughts just in case something goes wrong.”

She’s walked me through this before, but last session I asked to record because I kept forgetting. At the end of the tape, you can hear me ask, “But why?”

It cuts off before she answers, but apparently my doomsday predictions happen thanks to a combination of two things: genetic predisposition and lived experience. The first part makes sense – my mother couldn’t sleep at night unless my sister and I were safely under her roof. The second is more difficult to explain because nothing truly bad has ever happened to me. All five of my grandparents are still alive. My parents are divorced, but doting. My sister is lively and successful. I’m lively and successful. We grew up in suburbia, for fuck’s sake. Anxiety belongs to others – mine is foolish, groundless, absurd. And yet.

***

I remember being very young, six or seven at most, and convincing myself that my mother would die in a plane crash. (I almost couldn’t type that sentence because, well, what if it’s still true – an aside I have to make because, if I don’t, I’m certain it will be.) She was on a trip somewhere. And I don’t know how a six-year-old child even knew about plane crashes, but there she was in my mind’s eye spiraling downward. I remember curling up in hysterics, half convinced the vision was real, terrified I’d never see her again.

Last weekend, driving back from the middle of nowhere Massachusetts, I became convinced that the person behind the wheel would steer us into a lake. She’d been driving without incident for years, but we passed a body of water on the left, and I could see the wheel slipping through her fingers, plunging us into it with only a few seconds to react. I’d recently watched an online video about how to survive in a sinking car – had come across it on the Facebook page of some innocuous Washington Post-like source – so I knew what I’d do: scream at her to roll down her window just before we hit the water, while jamming my finger onto my own control. We’d swim out as the car hit the lake, losing all our belongings but still – remarkably – alive.

Failing that, I’d grab one of our Swell water bottles and ram it with all my strength into the top corner of my passenger-side window. She’d do the same on the driver’s side, the windows would shatter, and, well, same story. I spun this narrative out in my head for minutes, tweaking it in places until it was a parallel reality. When I finally snapped out of it and told the driver where my mind had gone, we both laughed.

***

In a recent essay, Katie Heany interviewed Andrea Petersen, the author of On Edge: A Journey Through Anxiety. “When [my anxiety] is really at its height, I call it an isolation chamber,” Petersen told her. “The worry and the visions of catastrophe and the unending monologue of doom can really block out the experience of being with another person.”

At times this rings true, but more often my anxiety is focused on the other person – on what they’re saying or doing that might subtly betray that they don’t really want to be here, don’t really want to be spending time with me. It’s an isolation chamber of a different sort, because voicing these thoughts would mean asking for constant reassurance that they’re not true. And who wants to have to reassure a crying child that her mother is not plunging toward the ocean along with thousands of pounds of fiery jet debris? Who wants to take seriously the possibility of driving into an icy lake, and to seriously convince the passenger it won’t happen? Who wants to tell a lover or a friend that they do like hanging out with her and Jesus fucking Christ will you please stop asking?

Heany’s anxiety, she says, manifests in the weird, frantic way she clutches her hands together. Mine comes out in the soothing, ritual reassurance of ridding my face of imagined dirt, and the tiny scabs on my forehead and cheeks that I dutifully hide with concealer.

Scabs

Sarah

“Hi Sarah, this is Claire. Is now still a good time to talk?”

This story is not about that Sarah – it’s about the other Sarah. Well, really it’s about two other Sarah’s. I guess that’s a good place to start: the first thing you have to understand about Sarah is that there’s two of her.

They’re very different, as people go. One is a pale brunette with long wavy hair and dark eyes. She has a nose shaped like the curly part of a snail shell, and I’ve never met her, although we attended the same school at the same time. The other Sarah is pale too, with a round face and light eyes and short dyed-blonde hair that’s always tucked behind her ears, out of the way. The first Sarah is straight; the second Sarah is not. The first Sarah is dating my ex-boyfriend, and the second Sarah is dating my ex-girlfriend.

***

It’s hard to remember when I became aware of either Sarah, but I know one came first and then the other, like an echo. The first one, the gay one, I learned of last summer, when the girl I was quickly falling for mentioned that she was dating her, too. “This girl” was her first label, usually followed by some complaint. “This girl is introducing me to all her friends.” “This girl is moving a little too fast.” Eventually, she grew a name.

“I broke things off with that girl – with Sarah,” she told me on my fire escape one night. We were sitting side by side, our Dr. Marten boots pressed up against the grille. It was a weeknight, very late. We’d been on several dates, and at the time I think we both anticipated going on more, a string of perfect dates stretching out indefinitely. After she told me about Sarah, we stood up and made out there in the dark, above everything.

Then, I think it was weeks later, although it could’ve been just a couple of days, I met that girl. Sarah was different than I’d imagined her: more boyish, less pretty, more fun. I sang karaoke duets with her to bury my pulsing panic, which built as she and the girl I felt feelings for — feelings, fuck — disappeared to the bar together over and over again. We finally paid and left and I turned around to catch the girl’s eye but she wasn’t there so I raced back into the bar and found her standing in an alcove with Sarah, one arm propped against the doorframe, their faces just inches apart.

I left.

She said goodbye to Sarah and followed. “What’s wrong?” she asked. I could barely hear her over the sound of blood rushing in my ears. “I don’t know,” I said. “I think I’m jealous.”

From then on, I don’t think I was ever un-jealous, even when she asked me to be her girlfriend at a fancy dinner in a fancy jacket with fancy roses and a card; even when she kissed me on the subway; even when she told me how good I was for her, how much she admired me, I’d close my eyes and see her in the door frame, leaning into Sarah. “We never even had sex,” she’d assure me. “And when we kissed she had these, like, saliva ropes…gross, right?” It was gross, but it didn’t help. I wonder about that sometimes: did she get over the saliva ropes?

***

I learned about the other one through the subtle clues my ex-boyfriend left on social media: a scenic photo he’d tagged her in, a trip they’d taken together, and finally, a picture of her peering into the white light of a window with the caption, “Sarah.” After that the photos came thicker: a picture of her with his best friend’s toddler, photos of them together on weekends, on birthdays, on weekdays.

It wasn’t jealousy, exactly. Instead, I felt like the girl in The Lovely Bones who dies but stays in limbo, watching her loved ones move on. The hole was filled, the transition complete. I was finally superfluous as he’d been for me for months, years maybe. But a thing that’s unnecessary can still be missed. And I do, sometimes. But this Sarah I’m glad for.

***

I know what you’re thinking, but we didn’t break up over my jealousy — I buried that too deep for her to notice, most of the time. When it did surface, I’d get the same saliva-rope reassurance while she pulled farther and farther away down a tunnel of her own self-reflection. Her texts arrived hours apart, and then days. She stopped kissing me in public, or holding my hand. We went out for brunch with my mother, and she paid, joylessly.

It was the tunnel that finally drove us apart, she at one end and me at another. She’d been doing “a lot of thinking” and realized she couldn’t give me what I needed, wanted, deserved. After all, she’d broken up with her former girlfriend just weeks before we met — we’d moved too quickly. She didn’t mention Sarah.

***

Sometimes, I imagine myself in a room with the Sarah’s. We’re getting coffee together with a kind of conspiratorial intimacy. We sit down, and we talk about the people who’ve left their imprints on us (me) and who are still leaving them (her, and her). And they ask me for advice. I’m the wise one in this scenario, nothing like my raw and stupid self. So I listen to them, and I smooth their feathers. “He just does that sometimes,” I tell one Sarah. And to the other, “Here’s how to pull her back when she’s far away.” And I know that, if they weren’t both Sarah – if the universe hadn’t been quite as heavy-handed with its symbolism— I wouldn’t bother.

Far away in Texas, Sarah’s voice comes through the phone. “Sure,” she says. “Now is fine.”

Sarah

Subway, pt. 471

It’s January, and everyone looks lumpy and strange in their winter coats. I fell in love on the train tonight for the fourth time this week. January looked perfect on her and she had the type of hands that I can’t stop staring at: the knuckly sinewy type that you can practically feel just by looking. I laughed at my book and looked up to see if she’d noticed, and she hadn’t, she was listening to music with her eyes closed. When you fall in train love no one opens their mouths, which is good because I talk kind of crooked and she might’ve said something dumb. Instead I watched her hands and fell more in love and we got off at the same stop but she was faster, up the stairs and out of sight. “I love you,” I screamed at the back of her beanie, in my head.

Subway, pt. 471

The Lonely Writer’s Club: 3

ICYMI: I joined my first-ever writer’s group, which we dubbed — somewhat unoriginally — the lonely writer’s club. We meet every other week, so every two weeks I’ll post my free-writes from the group on here.

This week’s prompt was simply, after the election: What now?

My response to the election of Donald Trump has been to dress gayer. And while the question, “What does it mean to ‘look gay?’” has many contentious answers, mine is a snapback. Combat boots. Baggy leather pants and aggressive jackets. No makeup, rap music, and a ‘don’t fuck with me’ face. I snarl at every white man on the subway, wondering if he’s the asshole who decided my basic human rights are less important than economic policy.

I continued this philosophy on Saturday night. And, sitting on the subway to 8th Avenue with my headphones in, I felt a man tap me on the shoulder. He was sitting right next to me, and while I fumbled to pause Rae Sremmurd and remove an earbud, he leaned in close, waiting. My whole body tense, one hand inching toward the pepper spray on the key ring in my right pocket, I addressed him.

“Yes?”

“Do you know how to get to 59th Street?”

I wasn’t sold—we were on a Manhattan-bound L train going nowhere near 59th Street. And why, out of everyone on the train next to and across from him, did he ask me? Every synapse in my brain lit up like I was being held at gunpoint. Adrenaline coursed through my veins and pounded in my ears. I’d spent my week writing about hate crimes committed against black, Hispanic, and gay people by those who felt Trump’s win meant they could act with impunity. I was more than a little paranoid.

“You’ll have to transfer to the A/C/E,” I answered, a steely edge to my voice.

“Oh, okay. Which stop do I get off at?”

“The last one.”

I replaced the earbud. He wasn’t a particularly menacing man—his sweatpants and parka were clean, as were his shoes and fingernails. He’d stuffed a fuzzy beanie in his back pocket to reveal a fresh haircut. And I was used to men addressing me — asking for directions or tossing out an unsolicited, “I like your haircut” — without considering that I’m small, I’m female, and I’m traveling solo.

But I was wearing the hat and the pants and the jacket. And we were living in Trump’s America.

 

The Lonely Writer’s Club: 3

The Lonely Writer’s Club: 2

ICYMI: last month I joined my first-ever writer’s group, which we dubbed — somewhat unoriginally — the lonely writer’s club. We meet every other week, so every two weeks I’ll post my free-writes from the group on here.

This week’s snippet isn’t from a prompt; it’s the story of something that happened to me that I’d been itching to write about all week. 

***

When I walked into the bathroom last Monday morning, I half-saw something flutter past my right cheek and land, with all the delicacy of a falling leaf, on the counter next to the sink bowl. It wasn’t a falling leaf, though. It was black and crumpled. It looked like a clump of dirty cobweb wound together into the shape of a lima bean. I had no idea where it had come from, but it seemed out of place against the marble. As I bent in to look closer, it began to move.

The chrysalis or sac or cocoon or whatever it was twitched, and out of it fell dozens of tiny worms. As I watched they wriggled forth like so many intestines, directionless and blind. They were about the length and width of the white crescent on my pinky fingernail and translucent, with pinpricks of darker pigment where the head should’ve been. They spread out, filling one corner of the counter, looking for dirt but finding only hard resistance. The sac sat still. My stomach turned, as though the skin of a corpse had been peeled back before my eyes to reveal a swarm of maggots underneath. A deep sense of dread washed over me. I didn’t know what was happening, but I wanted it to stop.

I’m used to killing bugs in our apartment. I’ve smushed spiders, stepped on centipedes, flattened roaches with my shoe, and even killed a bed bug I found crawling on my comforter, squeezing its flat shape between my fingers until it burst in a bubble of blood. (There’s still a stain on my sheets). The cat takes care of the horse flies. But the worms were different. I stood watching them, transfixed, not sure what to do.

The whole thing seemed so much like a dream that it took me a few minutes to come to the logical conclusion: I couldn’t let the worms grow to reach their final form in my bathroom. They had to die.

So I killed them. By that time they’d spread out across the countertop, so it was tough to find them all. But I pulled a tissue from the box on the back of the toilet and went after each of them, smashing them into the marble until the twitching stopped.

I wiped up the stains and threw the tissue in the trash. The pod I flicked into the sink and washed down the drain. Maybe I should’ve saved it. As soon as it had disappeared, the scene slipped from reality into fuzzy dream sequence — I became less and less convinced that what I’d seen and done had been real.

As the week went on and I read the news coming out of Baton Rouge and then out of Minnesota, I became less and less convinced that what I was seeing and hearing was real. It was someone’s sick idea of a joke. CNN was running repeats. I’d inadvertently switched from the news to a dystopian film. Anything, except that it had happened again.

I thought back to the burst chrysalis in my bathroom and the deep sense of foreboding that had accompanied it. Maybe omens only exist because we connected unrelated events in our minds. But maybe we notice the connection for a reason.

The Lonely Writer’s Club: 2

The Lonely Writer’s Club: 1

This Sunday I joined my first-ever writer’s group. We met at a coffee shop in Williamsburg, dubbed ourselves the Lonely Writer’s Club (I know, I know — pause for a moment to allow your eyes to return to a forward-facing position), and opened with five minutes to free-write. These days I almost never free-write, so it was a lovely release to pull up a word doc and just type. We meet every other Sunday, so afterward — should I deem it presentable — I’ll post my free-write here.

This week’s prompt was: Imagine the people who will live in your apartment after you. My response was: poor souls.

***

At first, they’re happy. They see the high ceilings and kick the crown molding to make sure it holds and marvel at the counter space, the big kitchen, the morning light in their bedroom with a tree — a real tree — outside their window. That’s late August. By November they begin to notice things they hadn’t before: the way the far right kitchen corner crumbles in on itself, each time making a tinkling sound like breaking glass. They begin to feel the drafts around the shoddy windows, and the heat hisses through the pipes like a haunting.

The stove hasn’t been replaced in years, and when either front burner is ignited, it all but explodes. New fissures in the ceiling appear, snaking toward the center with almost imperceptible slowness. When spring comes in March, so do the centipedes, sneaking out from beneath the bathroom sink and skittering across the floor. They’re big — two inches long — with the exoskeletons of creatures extinct since the Pleistocene. They take ages to die when Jill squishes them, their legs twitching long after their tiny heads (or tails, she can never be certain) are smashed in.

Then, in April, Cass wakes up with a bite. It’s small at first, but as the day goes on it spreads, leaving a blotchy red rash across her left thigh. It itches. And Cass, the level-headed one, starts to crack. And the Bushwick apartment they were so proud of — where she and Jill had thrown parties and stacked books cooked elaborate dinners — begins to collapse inward.

The Lonely Writer’s Club: 1

Something That Happened on the L Train on a Monday

So here’s what happened: I was on the L train around 5:45 p.m. on a Monday with an enormous tote bag slung over one shoulder and my cat slung over the other. She was packed away in her carrier, which resembles a mesh-sided gym bag. She wasn’t happy, but she wasn’t drawing attention to herself, either.

Eve (the cat) and I were headed back from a friend’s apartment in Williamsburg, where we’d taken refuge while our own place was fumigated for bed bugs. Five hours earlier I’d scooped some of her litter into a plastic bag, bagged up her food bowl and a cup of kibble, packed a cardboard box to serve as a kitty bathroom, steam-treated her carrier, and wrestled her into it. She’d put up a fight, snagging my sweater and grabbing a nearby power cord with both front paws in a disturbingly human-like effort to keep from being caged.

In the end I won the fight, and we were off to the L train. When we arrived at the friend’s apartment, Eve immediately peed in the tub, clawed the couch, and did her best to remind the friend why — although she’d been tempted to — she’d never adopted a cat herself.

It had been a long, stressful day for both of us, and by the time we clambered back onto the L train we were both worn out. There was nowhere to sit, so I stood near the door: a defeated girl and her defeated cat.

About halfway through the trip, Eve expressed both our moods by emitting a pitiable yowl, and two girls seated near the end of the bench turned to look at us. They were obviously sisters — I’d put their ages at roughly 10 and 7. They wore their hair in matching curly ponytails, and until a moment ago they’d been poring over a book I recognized from my own kid-hood: Dragonology. While the older sister read out loud, the younger sister drew on a notepad in her lap. When Eve meowed, both book and pad were forgotten as they giggled and cooed over the cat on the subway.

I smiled at them and they turned away, embarrassed. But a few minutes later I felt a tap on my right elbow. It was the older sister, and she strained upward to say, very quietly:

“My sister would like to know if you want to sit down.”

I blinked and had to repeat the words several times to myself before they made sense: “My sister would like to know if you want to sit down.” I stared, nonplussed, at the 10-year-old and the 7-year-old who’d offered me their seats amidst a train car packed with adults who hadn’t. They stared back. Finally, I said (truthfully) that they were very kind to offer but that I only had two stops to go. They nodded, and the younger girl handed me the drawing she’d been working on.

“For your cat,” she said, a little shy.

“Thank you so much,” I replied. “This is awesome.”

And it was; she’d drawn four different types of Pokémon lined up and labeled according to their abilities. I folded the page and put it in the pocket of Eve’s carrier. I was near tears, but the girls — oblivious — had gone back to their book. Two stops later, I got off the train.

Now the drawing is hanging on my fridge. I’ll live the rest of my life trying to deserve it.

Something That Happened on the L Train on a Monday

Hatikvah

Everyone else is already in the water, but I’m still on shore. I stand on a stretch of cool beach watching dozens of other people—some whom I know, some whom I don’t—writhe and splash and shout and struggle to come to terms with the fact that they don’t need to paddle to keep their heads above water.

It’s our third full day in Israel. That morning we’d hiked a mountain, toured an ancient fortress, descended the mountain (much to the dismay of my trembling inner thighs), and gorged ourselves on a buffet lunch as only those who’ve gone without breakfast can. Then we’d driven here, changed, and shuffled into the water. Well, everyone else had. I’d hung back, nervous.

“Come on,” Alex shouts, floating by on his back like an otter. Tanya has already waded in. I’ve lost track of Julia. My sister is in up to her neck. “Get in, Claire!” she hollers.

Fine.

When we were younger, 12 and 9, she was the one who dove into the deep end of our backyard pool while I took the stairs on the opposite side. I enter the Dead Sea in a similar fashion, mincing step after mincing step, wincing when my foot scrapes a salt rock, shuddering at the cold.

“Come on, Claire!” The call comes from Isaac this time—he bobs in front of me, hands held out in encouragement as though I’m a toddler in floaties. Slowly, painfully, I creep along the sea floor until the water rises to my navel.

***

When my sister, Eleanor, first asked me to come to Israel with her, I thought she was joking. Then, I thought she was insane. But she wore me down with the usual little-sister pleas of, “I really want you to be there,” and in the end the thought of her spending Christmas in Israel by herself (well, with a bunch of strangers) was too much for my older sister’s conscience to bear. I paid the deposit and reserved my spot on the trip.

Then, I panicked. I cried. I called my mom. I cried some more. I didn’t want to jet off to a foreign country—a war-torn one at that—over the holidays. I didn’t want to hang out with a bunch of horrible college-age kids for ten days without respite. I didn’t want to risk getting lost or stolen or having an awful time or my parents disowning me because I wasn’t home for Christmas. (They both encouraged me to go on the trip, but I had my suspicions.) There’s a tenacity to my doubts. They seep in like water and take root like seeds, each one sprouting in the space of a few seconds: The ultimate chain reaction.

But by that time it was too late. I’d promised Eleanor, I’d paid the fee, and my relatives had preemptively forgiven me. I was going. I packed The Fellowship of the Ring to distract me from my misery.

***

Isaac is talking about a brick. He’s telling us all about the time freshman year he got so drunk that he smashed a full handle, pulled a brick out of a wall, and woke up cuddling said brick in his regulation twin bed. Julia almost falls off her own bed, she’s laughing so hard.

She, Tanya, Isaac, and I are sitting in our cottage-like room in a kibbutz in Gonen, just north of the Sea of Galilee. We’re about to attend Shabbat services—Isaac wears a button-down, and the rest of us are in dresses. It’s the first time I’ve looked marginally presentable all trip. We’re biding the time before dinner telling stories that should be way too personal to share with people we’ve known only five days. Somehow, though, they’re not.

By the time Isaac finishes I’m in hysterics, tears free-flowing down my face. I feel a dull, unfamiliar ache in my stomach: My abdominal muscles are on fire.

Then Tanya starts in with a similar story, and I convulse all over again. Soon it’s my turn, and I gasp my way through my own tale. I try to remember the last time I laughed this hard. I can’t.

***

“The Western Wall feels like cold soap,” I write in my journal on December 29. “Touching it is like touching time. The currents coursing through it also run through human fingers; we can jump right in without breaking the connection.”

I’m not sure if the jolt in my fingers when I touch the wall is real or imagined, but as soon as it happens everything else melts away. My surroundings blur out like fogged-up glasses until the wall and I stand there, alone, holding each other up. I trace a dozen of the thousands of tiny bits of paper shoved into its cracks, each one representing someone else’s blind hope. I press my cheek up against it. Without warning, I begin to cry.

I walk backward away from the wall (no turning your back on God in his country) still crying, and that’s when Eleanor finds me. I lean into her shoulder and she envelops me in arms and long red hair, some of which lands in my mouth. When I stop crying, we walk backward the rest of the way holding hands.

***

Elad and I race each other up the stairs of our hotel in Jerusalem. We don’t know it at the time, but there are only seven floors—we stop at the sixth, winded. We climb slowly the rest of the way and laugh when it’s only one flight. It’s freezing out on the roof; I cinch the hood of my thin sweatshirt tight around my ears. In front of us stretches New Jerusalem, modern and boxy. Old Jerusalem lies behind. I turn and look at it. “That’s what I thought it would look like,” I say Elad laughs.

He’s always laughing. He laughs at my horrible Hebrew accent and at my funny way of describing things. He also laughs when he tells me about the time his father visited Jerusalem. Orthodox men there hand out strings of red thread in exchange for a few Shekel. If you pay them, they tie a string around your wrist—a blessing of sorts. Elad tells me that when he was drafted in the army (a commander in charge of his own unit), his father came to Jerusalem to pray. “He got one,” Elad says, gesturing to the men handing out strings. “He still wears it. When your son goes to the army, you do everything.”

He tells me that his friend died in front of him. He tells me that he doesn’t care what happens between Israel and Palestine, who controls which pieces of the country, as long as the fighting stops. He tells me about the time an explosion in the field lodged a piece of shrapnel in his right thigh. He tells me about calling his mom, who was frantic, from the hospital. He tells me he’s killed someone, and then asks me if he’s still a good person.

“Of course,” I say, and I believe it.

He says that a shadow hangs over Israel—there’s a feeling among the people who live there that something big is about to happen. He thinks it will happen soon.

***

The water is up to my chest and I’m still creeping along the seafloor, afraid to trust it with my weight. My friends churn around me, beckoning, backstroking farther out, then swimming back to where I still stand in the relative shallows. “Lift up your feet,” Isaac says. “Just lean back.”

I can’t lean back. All around me is proof I’ll be fine if I do, but I doubt my own eyes.

“I’m scared!”

“You’ll be fine,” Isaac says. “Trust me.”

I can’t, I can’t, I can’t.

“Okay.” I inhale sharply and lift my eyes to the surrounding mountains. I remove my feet from the seafloor a single toe at a time. My legs feel weightless; they rise up to meet the water’s surface like helium balloons.

They were right—I’m floating.

Hatikvah

Ten Things

“This time of year most of us are busy feeling like shit because a whole year is almost over,” the great Delia Cai wrote on our group wall. “We’re supposed to plan exactly how much better we’ll be the next 365 days, which seems to discount all the amazing things we accomplished in the past 12 months.”

This was back in December when, indeed, I was feeling like garbage for exactly the reasons she’d proffered. Sure, I’d accomplished some of my goals, but others still seemed distant. A whole year had gone by, and I still wasn’t editor in chief of the New Yorker or something. What had I been doing for 12 months? But, because she is a magical form of fairy godmother, here was Delia giving me a chance for redemption:

“The prompt is: List 10 things from this year that you’re proud of. There have to be at least 10 because you guys are impressive no matter what you say.”

Three of those things are NSFW, but here are seven things I did in 2015 that I’m proud of. (And if you’re feeling similarly dejected about your achievements this past year, I recommend writing to this prompt; you’ll impress yourself with your own greatness.)

I kept my cat alive. I own a tiny, furry creature that depends completely upon me for survival. If I don’t come home, she doesn’t eat. If she gets sick, I take her to the vet and subsequently shove little tiny pills down her little tiny throat. There’s no safety net; I’m solely responsible for her happiness and her well-being.

I figured out what networking is. My dad (a businessman) used to nag me about networking. He’d tell me to play the system—to spin things in my favor as much as possible. I’d push back: “What’s wrong with just submitting an application and letting it go? That’s what everyone else does; I’m just following the rules.” But I wasn’t—I was making things harder for myself. I’ve come to understand that networking isn’t leeching off other people or being manipulative; it’s asking for small favors and connections and always always offering something in return.

I accepted my own face. For so long I carried around a false image of myself that most closely resembled Twiggy. Then, when I glimpsed myself in some reflective surface like a spoon or a dark window, I’d be profoundly disappointed. This year I took a hard look at my actual face: big nose, thin lips, big eyes, butt chin. I came to terms with what I actually look like, so much so that I also chopped all my hair off. This is my final form. If you don’t like it, leave.

I wrote a lot, and I wrote long. This year I wrote two 3,000-word features, one for Vulture and one for Slate. Both were about pop culture, both took months of reporting and re-structuring, and both were widely shared. I’m proud of that kind of work. I’m also proud of the sheer number of stories I’ve produced this year—not just few-paragraph write-ups but actual worthwhile pieces with analysis and insight.

I went to Israel. One day in mid-November I got a text from my sister that read, “Come to Israel with me!” My immediate response was, “That sounds like a terrible idea.” “It’s free,” she replied, which swayed me a little, but I still though it was too dangerous and too last-minute, not to mention I’d be hanging out with a bunch of college kids for 10 days in a foreign country. But she called and begged and I paid the deposit and boarded the plane. The “bunch of college kids” (albeit the older ones) ended up being some of my closest friends. I fell almost as much in love with Israel as I am with New York. I saw dozens of Israeli cities and landmarks, slept in a tent, rode a camel, floated Buddha-style in the Dead Sea, climbed some mountains, drank cheap wine, and did not sleep. I miss it already. (More to come on the trip itself.) Going was completely out of character for me and also one of the best things I’ve ever done.

I cooked. These past few months were some of the busiest of my life, which made it difficult to resist buying lunch every day or eating out all the time. Nevertheless I can honestly say that I consistently brought lunch to work and dinner to my night classes. I’m not saying I cooked a wide variety of things (my repertoire consists of things like lentil soup, chili, hard-boiled eggs, banana bread, a few casseroles, and spinach salad), but I did cook consistently and consume my creations, however inadvisable.

I finished graduate school. With good grades even, although let’s face it: no one cares about your grades in grad school. I also realized that I’ve been working full-time this semester while taking two of the most difficult courses of my graduate career (yes, there are only two, but they’re both four hours long). I’m proud of myself for dragging my exhausted, battered corpse over the finish line.

 

Ten Things