Bar Keepers Friend

“Are you done yet?” Ange shouts from the living room. They’re referring to the incessant scrubbing that sounds like shrieking sheets of corrugated tin rubbing together, which is not far from the truth: I’m massaging a stainless steel baking sheet with a rose-gold scouring pad, working in relentless circles and applying pressure roughly equivalent to half my body weight. They are playing a Battle Royale-style video game in which they try not to die while killing as many other players as possible. In intermittent moments, this requires total silence.

“No,” I say, but pause anyway.

In the quiet, I look down into the sink—the sink that, before starting in on the cookie sheets, I polished to an aggressive silvery shine. My hands are in there, rubbed raw into a pinkish pulp. There are scuffs on my fingernails where bits of the nail plate have chipped off in whiteish shreds. One of my cuticles is bleeding. I can’t quite remember the metal of the pad cutting into my flesh, and even as I watch the blood mix with water and suds, the pain takes a moment to register. It’s as though I blacked out, swept up in an all-consuming cleaning frenzy driven by the discovery of a new substance: Bar Keepers Friend.

I’m neurotically tidy as a rule—a friend once referred to my room as “Pinterest clean.” But I’ve never dabbled in anything as potent as this. Initially skeptical that Bar Keepers Friend could revive our grimy sink, I sprayed it on, scrubbed, and watched with wonder as what must have been years of stains dissolved. This was no Swiffer™ product, no puny off-brand Clorox wipe—both staples in our under-sink collection of cleaning supplies. No, this was something else entirely: a time machine. A way to erase the mistakes of the past. A second chance in a bottle.

I double down, obsessed with my newfound ability to alter history, to reverse it. From the sink I move on to a series of pots, each varnished with a layer of fired-on grit. I’d had them since moving to New York in 2014, and had mutely accepted that they would sink into decrepitude, eventually forcing me to donate them or, worse, to throw them out altogether. Then I dig out our well-used baking sheets, caked dark brown with residue from various roasted vegetables, baked goods, and frozen pizzas. I bear down, at long last comprehending a favorite phrase of my grandfather’s: elbow grease.

I scrub, metal screeches, my cuticle bleeds. I think of everything I’d like to spray with Bar Keepers Friend, the fumes of which I was now inhaling in what I was sure were carcinogenic quantities: the shitty relationships, the wasted summers and heartbreak, the career missteps, the ill-conceived arguments, the pair of perfectly tailored grey wool Céline trousers that I sold at Beacon’s closet two years ago. I scrub harder, forgetting why I started, forgetting even that these particular baking sheets are from the Dollar General down the street. I scrub until they shine, brand-new again, cheating the inevitable.

Bar Keepers Friend


We’re sitting in her parents’ car, which is parked in their driveway, which leads up to their perfect dollhouse in East Suburbia, New Jersey. I can’t understand how she sprung from this—the Crate and Barrel catalog with wood floors so clean they make my city sock feet feel guilty. But she did and the contrast, to my feverish mind, makes her even more interesting. We’re well provisioned for our weekend in the woods, but she remembers one more thing and runs in to get it, leaving the driver’s side door wide open.

The car matches the house: new, glossy, and far nicer than anything I’d expected to be driving around middle-of-nowhere Massachusetts. I pair my phone with the Bluetooth speaker system and play the song that I’ve decided is about her: a bubbly 80’s-style synth-heavy cotton-candy pop song called “Because I Love You.” I crank the volume until the neighbors can hear my heart gushing out into the street and train my eyes on the back door, waiting.


Last week, my first-ever acupuncturist described the process like this: most of us walk around all day with our muscles in a painful state of partial contraction. When an acupuncture needle is inserted at the point where certain muscles overlap, they instantly seize up around it, making the contraction complete. Twenty to 30 minutes later when the needle is removed, the muscle is finally able to fully release, and the pain disappears.

I do not, as the saying goes, do needles, so they started slow: one in each ear, wrist, shoulder, and foot. With each insertion I felt a pinch, and then a pressure that gradually dissipated. But the muscles in my left shoulder put up a fight, bunching into a hard lump of subcutaneous taffy that stuck the needle for an instant before it pushed through. “Oh,” I said, looking at the acupuncturist, but they seemed pleased. “No no,” they told me, “that’s what we want.”


“Frankly, we don’t have the right to critique each others’ actions anymore,” she texted me almost a month after we broke up. As though our separation meant that what she did no longer had any impact on me, as though my actions no longer affected her. As though the fork in the road negated the conjoined miles that came before it. As though we’d cleaved each other off as cleanly as a rotating saw through a carcass. But bits of her remained: the way I sometimes slipped up and pronounced the word “little” as “leedle,” and worse, when I tacked a “boy” on at the end. When I read the word “me” substituted for “my,” her favorite dialectic joke. She never returned my favorite black T-shirt, which I remembered every time I wore its twin (two for $5 on Broadway and West 4th). And when I took the B38, I couldn’t pass her stop without my chest tightening. Then, of course, there was the music: whole albums that brought her back with distressing clarity, 50-odd songs she’d given me that I dumped onto their own playlist and banished to the bottom of my Spotify feed. Things I couldn’t touch for fear they’d burn. Half-tensed muscles refusing to unwind.


Wreckage becomes easier to examine with time, and this was no exception. (“There are no new ideas,” writes Audre Lorde. “There are only news ways of making them felt.”) So when Montaigne’s “Because I Love You” inexplicably lodged itself in my head the other week, I held it there to study my own reaction, to see if it was still hot. The chorus scrolling through my head had no effect, so I decided to play the song. It came through my laptop speaker as jaunty as ever, but something was different: the words. I’d never paid them much attention, choosing instead to focus on the besotted chorus. But even that, I soon discovered, was a horror show:

My parents feel that
this is a waste of time
I tell them go away
‘cause everything is just fine
My friends all feel that
I’m different around you
I tell them all that they are wrong
because I love you

As the song wound on, it got worse:

My parents feel that
this is a waste of time
I tell them we’re okay
I won’t admit that I am blind
My friends all feel that
I’m carrying us two
I tell them all that they are wrong
because I love you

It felt like a familiar pet had turned feral and snapped at my fingers. Those summer months tilted on their axis, re-framed.


I plunged the needle in: I went to a party where I knew for a fact she’d be, the same party where all those months ago we’d somehow morphed from fleeting Tinder fly-by’s into firm possibility. I saw her there standing in a corner, but it wasn’t her exactly—she looked different, tilted on her axis, re-framed. I walked past her and spent a few hours on the dance floor, my friends forming a human shield around me. But they needn’t have bothered. By the time I left, the pain was ebbing away.


The bartender

I push the heavy curtains aside to enter the bar but stop short upon taking in the scene: three, maybe four people in a space that could easily fit 100. I’d expected to blend into the crowd—East Village on a Saturday night is notorious for its lack of elbowroom. Instead, faced with the prospect of bouncing from bar to bathroom and back like a forlorn pinball, I do what anyone would: order a beer, climb to the second level (the venue boasts two bars, one on the ground floor and another up a flight of glass stairs) and speak to the first person I find.

“Is it cool if I’m up here?” I ask the guy hunched over a Styrofoam cup of coffee on a leopard-print settee.

“Yeah,” he says, “of course.”

“Long night ahead?” I ask—a nod at the coffee.

“Yeah, and a loooooong night last night.”

Some of his friends are visiting from California, he tells me, and he stayed up way too late—6 a.m.—worrying about one of them, who’d gotten too drunk and popped like a pimple, puking everywhere. He didn’t mind the mess, or even the back rubbing and sandwich-making that came after. He was just concerned for his friend’s well being. See, I’m one of the good guys.

From my perch on a bar stool a couple feet away, I notice that he looks a lot like the best friend of the girl who drove me off a cliff this summer and then moved on. He tells me he’s Mexican, but has recently spent some time in Argentina, in Buenos Aires mostly, with a side trip to Mendoza. He compliments my leather jacket, and I tell him something a friend recently pointed out: that I am exceptionally good at going to a thrift store and spotting the perfect leather jacket for someone who has bemoaned a leather-jacket-shaped hole in their life. I show them the jacket, they try it on, it’s perfect, and they buy it, indirectly memorializing me in the process—my record is 3 for 3.

“Maybe you can find one for me next,” he jokes, fetching his brown suede jacket from behind the bar and shrugging it on to show me his size. He’s showing off. He’s taller than that girl’s best friend, come to think of it, and slightly more debonair, hair slicked to an oily shine.

In case it isn’t obvious, he’s the bartender. The conversation turns to the venue—“it’s really cool,” I say, because it is—and he lets me in on a secret: there’s yet another bar, on a third floor hidden from view. “Come on,” he says, “it’s dead in here. I’ll give you a tour.” He slings the invitation like a brush-off, like he isn’t trying to silo me, to flatter me, to impress, like he doesn’t care whether I agree or equivocate. But I know he does because a minute later he robs me of the choice altogether, starting down the stairs and looking back, expectant: “We have to go outside and around.” I haven’t had the chance to slip in a benign joke about how I’m “so gay, dude” (“Didn’t you notice the short hair? Ha-ha!”) or how I’m seeing someone, or how I’m so glad to have found such an interesting friend to chat with until the show starts. I have not had time to gauge his reaction to said joke, to watch what the flash of his eyes gives away, to perform the sort of mental jiu jitsu that always falls to the more vulnerable party and that, in public a space, ensures our survival. For a beat, I panic. But more people are beginning to file in, I have my pepper-spray keychain, I have gotten so, so much better at saying “no.” I follow.

He takes me out through the curtains again, and then up a side staircase I hadn’t noticed that’s cut off halfway by a metal gate. He presses a buzzer once, twice. The gate swings open. Another set of stairs and we reach another door and I’m glad I’m in front because I push it open it myself, forestalling his chance to do so for me. Did you catch that? The space is incredible: a loft with 20-foot ceilings and furniture straight off the set of Inherent Vice and floor-to-ceiling posters that look like Renoir painted a Lichtenstein. He leaves me to circle the place and walks up to the massive bar, chatting up his co-worker, comforting me with his overt steps away. But a few minutes later he asks me if I want a shot. I say sure, tequila. My unease returns as he pulls down a bottle from the top shelf.

On the way back, he tells me yet another secret: while he lived in Argentina (for three months, he says, the same duration as my own short residence there), he dealt drugs. Again, a throwaway delivery, again a covert attempt to impress, to shock this time, to thrill. I don’t know how to respond, so I laugh. “No way.” He bows his head in mock shame. “I’m not proud . . . everyone’s gotta live.”


After an encore, the two-person band walks offstage to whoops and cheers. They’d gone on late to give the place time to fill up, which it eventually had, albeit with people who were clearly devoted fans. They’d danced, I’d swayed, slightly removed like I imagined was befitting of a concert loner. Now I’m dithering, trying to decide whether to stick around or to begin the trek back to Brooklyn.

Trek, I decide before casting my glance upward, dreading the inevitable goodbye to the bartender, who might then steer the conversation in a variety of uncomfortable directions: a dodged kiss, a request for my number, a pointed, “I hope I’ll see you again.” He’s blocked from view by a line of people who have finally ascended to order drinks, and I realize with a jolt that that means he can’t see me either—I am invisible. I’m free. I owe him nothing. A little parcel of joy explodes inside my chest, and I turn and walk through the curtains without a backward glance.

The bartender

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.

If you must cry in public


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.



“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.”


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: 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

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


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.


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.