Mouse

mouse

Here are some things that remind me of death:

  • Amicable interactions among strangers in the subway
  • Recreational group texts
  • Office supplies bought in bulk 

How long can this possibly last? I always think, stiff with worry. These strangers should have run out of things to say to each other. These friendships should have frayed by now. Someone should have said the wrong thing. These pens should have been snatched up by those goblins who roam offices for stray writing implements.

How long can this possibly last? The correct answer is always until we die. Maybe it won’t last that long, but I can’t help but imagine it doing so. This thing, this good thing, this plentiful thing, could last all the way up until someone gets hit by a bus or a train, or has a heart attack or a stroke. Until my parents discover, in the wake of my untimely death, two untouched pens in the pen cup on my desk, just standing there, facing each other with the rigidity and opacity of a relationship gone bad.

Things that seem to go on and on remind me that nothing does.

*

I had never thought of that long stretch of my life before the mouse climbed out of the steam pipe hole for a 30-inch jaunt into my living room as mouse-free, particularly. At the time, it didn’t occur to me to define my life in those terms. It was the appearance of the mouse that prompted me to retrofit my memory of those years with that designation. Only now do I recognize how good I had it.

It took me three days after the mouse’s appearance to settle back into my apartment, to recognize myself in the mirror, to see my home as home, my life as life. That Sunday, I felt comfortable enough to cook again in my now hermetically sealed kitchen. The super had come and stuffed all the crevices with steel wool and sticky traps, so pasta with parsnips and bacon, it was. I felt safe enough to put on some music, to do the “One Dance” cha-cha as I fried up the bacon.

I don’t want to overstate any of this. I don’t want to be extravagant in setting the scene, but let’s just say I was swinging and swaying across the kitchen floor, belting a chorus that didn’t need belting, giggling to myself, funny memories bubbling up inside, daydreaming of being amazing. I was back.

I flipped the bacon and went into the pantry for a paper towel to drain the grease. There I discovered, utterly unmistakable on the plain white roll, something much worse than a mouse: mouse droppings. Just the sort of mouse droppings everyone on Facebook had warned me about. Just the sort that signify not mouse but infinite, unknowable mice.

I strained to remember if I had used the paper towels since the mouse walked in three days earlier. If I hadn’t, the droppings could have been old, suggesting a longer standing mouse problem. But, on the plus side, it wouldn’t rule out the success of all the scrubbing and sealing. If I had used the paper towels, and I was pretty sure I had, then the mouse had been back, revealing the scrubbing and sealing—and any future scrubbing and sealing—to be futile.

I did the only sensible thing: I threw out the roll, turned off the gas, slid the frying pan and all of its contents into the fridge, ran out, and resolved not to think of it again at least until I no longer had to resolve not to think of it again.

*

Freshman year of college (snowman print pajama pants, Anglophone novels, buttered pasta and pie), everything lasted forever. I was with One then (board games, bus rides, boxed wine). We were to last forever. It wasn’t a desperate belief, or even a naïve or romantic one. In fact, it wasn’t a belief at all. It was too immersive to be recognizable as a belief. We didn’t speak of it, per se, but our future together was the cool undercurrent of everyday conversation.

When he dumped me eight years later (phone call, fifteen minutes, deposits forfeited, a couch in dispute), I plunged, or was plunged, into a new awareness of the precarity of things. I had never thought of that long stretch of my life with One as finite, as even a long stretch of my life. It was just life. I never thought I’d one day enumerate the Toms I loved. Now I’m always expecting things to end, maybe quietly wanting things to end. Maybe wanting to end good things with my own two hands before death does it for me.

But back to the mouse.

Sticky traps are the stuff of nightmares. If a sticky trap does its job, it half-kills the mouse. The mouse will half-die by suffocation or starvation if you leave it long enough, which inevitably you will because no one taught you how to deal with a half-dead mouse on a sticky trap. (I know. Perhaps now, while temperatures are running high, I should avoid using the second person, even in its generic form.)

A sticky trap is nothing more than a square of card stock coated with adhesive. It has a picture of bananas on it because, I have to assume, the glue is infused with some sort of banana essence meant to lure the mouse to its half-death. (I’d like to think, in much the same way I like to think of Trump supporters as horrible rather than stupid, it’s not because the manufacturers actually think the picture of bananas will lure the mouse.) Anyway, I was too uneasy about the traps to get close enough to read the print and know for sure.

For weeks, when I came home, I’d open the front door just a bit, insert my head into the wedge of space, and check the traps. They were empty every time, but they forced me to consider what I’d do if they weren’t. I couldn’t make up my mind. I could try to set it free. I’d heard that, to release its claws from the adhesive, you have to douse it in oil. Otherwise, I’d have to kill it. I’d have to wrap it in two garbage bags, layered one inside the other, counter-couchant so their openings didn’t coincide, and kill it by blunt force with a rolling pin. OK, I suppose I did make up my mind: I would be the predator. But that didn’t make the task any less horrifying.

You’d think I’d want to kill the mouse. You’d think that, by killing it, I’d be reinstating the halcyon mouse-free days of my first thirty-three years of life. If the mouse signifies the end of good things, then its death should signify the end of such endings and the maintenance of good things.

But I wasn’t living with a mouse. I was living with the idea of a mouse. It’s the idea that a mouse could be anywhere, at any moment. And, while a mouse can die, the idea of a mouse cannot. It can’t even half-die, pitiful, gasping on a sticky trap. It can’t even whole-die from the blunt force of a rolling pin.

I prefer my tormenters concrete, real. That way, I can know for sure that they’re not me, that they’re other. And that way, I can destroy them. But I live with the idea of a mouse. It’s an idea that’s forced my heart to grow big—big enough to make room for chaos and endings. I live with the idea of a mouse, so I threw the traps away.

Mouse

mousepartone

© 2016 Caitlin Rain Rainy Day Drawings

Nestled in the armpit of my couch, pillow on my lap, laptop on the pillow, a stack of books beside me, I spotted the mouse across the room. I watched as it climbed up out of the steam pipe hole in the floor and walked—not scurried, walked—toward my bookcase. It was brownish gray and furry with beady little eyes and whiskers and a long thin tail… It was, you know, about the size of a mouse. It took a moment for the sight to set in, but eventually I screamed a classic sort of scream, and the mouse turned around—OK fine, it seemed to say—and walked back into the hole. I gathered my belongings.

Out in the hallway, I called my parents who were driving across Kansas. You’re a real New Yorker now was their take on the situation. They took turns explaining how I could go about killing it, should it reappear. My mother’s method was horrifying in a straightforward way; the horror of my dad’s was subtler yet also deeper and longer lasting. They didn’t offer much besides these methods. They wanted me to claim the New York cred that inheres in cohabitating with a mouse. Or just don’t think about it, my mom advised. With that, she found some excuse in the vast and undifferentiated Kansas landscape to end the conversation and hung up.

Halfway to the drugstore, I remembered all the calls I’ve made to my parents in moments of crisis: the approach of a hurricane, the end of an engagement, the diagnosis of cancer. All the calls I’ve made and the way my mother would mobilize me to action. I remembered how she made Zach and Ashley take me to the psych clinic at UT after One dumped me. Ashley sat with me in the waiting room, hour after hour, watching old men pace and rant and battle the nurses and themselves. When they finally called me in, the doctor diagnosed me as having just been dumped and sent me on my way. Apparently, it’s only in my family that having been dumped is considered a condition worthy of immediate medical attention.

And apparently, according to my mom’s taxonomy of crises, having a mouse doesn’t warrant such immediate action. Her laid-back response was of no use, so I made Jay meet me at my place and sit there while I tried to make my home home again. I had bought new trash cans with lids and a real vacuum. I stuffed the steam pipe hole with steel wool and peppermint oil-soaked dryer sheets. I scoured the dishes—for real this time—scratching off crusted food with my fingernails and abrading the nonstick surfaces my mom raised me to respect.

When I was ready to let Jay leave, I double-checked with him that all was right in my home. “So you think the mouse is gone, then? You think it won’t come back?”

“No, I literally never said anything like that. I’m sure it will come back,” Jay responded, nullifying the whole point of his visit. “OK, good luck, buddy.”

With Jay gone, I felt vulnerable roaming barefoot through my apartment, my toes exposed to little mouse teeth and little mouse claws. So I put on my leopard print ankle boots. I reasoned that, because they’re boots, they’d make my feet seem huge to little mouse eyes and, because they’re leopard print, they’d make my feet seem scary to a little mouse mind. Then my legs felt naked in pajama shorts, so I pulled on a pair of sweatpants. I thrust one booted foot then the other through the narrow pant legs, tripping across the living room floor on my right foot and then back the other way on my left. Suddenly, my arms felt cold, so I put on a sweatshirt. And a bathrobe too. It was just good safety sense.

Sufficiently armored, I crept toward the bedroom, panning the apartment with the flashlight on my phone. Knowing that mice, as monsters, hang out under beds, I thought it’d be best to keep my toes away. So I backed up to take a running start and dived toward the bed from the hallway, making it only halfway and clambering the rest of the way into the precarious safety of my covers.

I sat straight up, comforter draped across the front of my shoulders, my phone as my flashlight, still panning, boots still on. It wasn’t that I was afraid that the mouse would nibble on my flesh while I was asleep. I was afraid to catch him in the act, to wake up and find him perched on my forearm, enjoying a late-night snack. Seeking assurance that this scenario was improbable, I googled “do mice…” and up came “…crawl on sleeping people.” I took comfort in the popularity of the search. After all, disabusing people of their irrational fears is what the internet does best, I figured, desperate. That comfort was soon subverted as I scrolled through result after result detailing just this nightmare scenario. I clicked on each, hoping to find just one that described why it wouldn’t be in the mouse’s interest to nibble at my flesh while I slept.

Unsuccessful, I turned again to Jay. I texted him to share the results of my search. He wrote back: “You are the predator. To them, you are a giant who takes huge, thundering steps with a booming voice, and they are a four-inch-long critter that can barely be heard even at the quietest of times.”

I read and reread Jay’s text, breathing in its logic, but also scanning the room, holding still, creating the quietest of times, listening for a squeak. That was when an idea slipped in: maybe I would never see the mouse again. Maybe all of this—the boots, the flashlight, the covers, the google search, the journaling, the call to my parents, the late-night vigilance—maybe it’s all insanity. Maybe this hell is one of my own design, made in my own image, brought about and bounded only by my own imagination. This idea slipped in quietly, the way a mouse slips into an apartment one day when you’re not paying attention. And then, also like a mouse, it slipped right out.

I sat there. Sitting there is what I do in moments of crisis. I sat there in bed that night, waiting for the mouse to reappear, just like I sat there in the waiting room of the psych clinic with Ashley. In the clinic, I sat among things that didn’t move: chairs, magazines, plants. I was one of those things, just as I was that night in my bedroom, sitting among stacks of books and racks of clothes, the clock, the lamp, the metal cow figurine I stole from my parents.

Years earlier, I sat there in front of the TV at Zach and Ashley’s, watching a hurricane approach the city I loved and abandoned. Years later, I sat there in the radiology center, among old women who held their eyes on me, eyes full of pity and calm. All those times I sat there, feeling like I was both falling and stuck at the same time, a kind of emotional motion sickness, as if my inner ear had evolved to tell me I was moving while my eyes told me I was still.

I sat there thinking of Jay. Jay, who I used to think of as my ex-boyfriend, whose face, whose name in my inbox were once shorthand for my inability to control anything, is now my friend Jay. And he’s texting me to say how threatening I am to a mouse, how powerful, how impervious I am to its mischief.

I couldn’t get myself to turn the lights out that night. But I drew the covers up over my head and breathed. I held still and tried to fall asleep, whispering to myself, “I am the predator. I am the predator. I am the predator.”

VIPs

vips

© 2016 Caitlin Rain Rainy Day Drawings

I arrived at the hotel just after 10 pm. The lobby was brimming with 20-somethings in branded t-shirts tucked into pencil skirts, probably. They wore nametags slipped into nametag holders attached to lanyards, probably. They were probably putting away, by that point, their second glass of pinot grigio. Four-thousand of my closest work friends, these people were.

At the entrance, I rooted around in my bag for sunglasses or a hat or a stick-on mustache. Sunglasses would do. I ducked down, pushed through the revolving door with my forearm and swept through the lobby and up to the front desk in one continuous motion.

I didn’t claim victory until later, when I reached room 418 having said hello to no one.

The next day, I met four friends for lunch in the banquet hall. The tables were draped in white polyester and erected at their centers were cards designating which teachers were meant to sit where. There were tables for English teachers, for math teachers, for elementary teachers, and so on. There was no such designation for us, a bunch of over-the-hill-at-32 hangers-on who show up at these things for nominal speaking fees and free food and drink.

We found a table on the periphery intended for school psychologists. Cole plucked the card from its stand, turned it inside out, scribbled “VIP,” and replaced it. It was a brilliant, economical move, we all thought. Those three letters announced our rightful status and, more importantly, guaranteed our safety from the hordes of strangers and, worse, professional acquaintances who might otherwise want to join us. We’re the kind of introverts who don’t mind addressing an audience of 500 but do very much mind making small talk with strangers while sawing into herb-crusted chicken breasts and getting smacked in the face by the hunks of ice lodged in the goblets of tap water they serve.

Our self-designated VIP status reflected some salient features of my personality, I thought: misanthropy, self-importance, and introversion. Looking at this list of salient features now, I can’t help but wonder if it isn’t a bit redundant.

*

I’ve always felt that claims about personality—whether in the form of internet quiz results, drunken late-night ramblings, or the manager of TGI Fridays telling me I’m not cut out for the food service industry—were just a notch realer than horoscopes. Recently, Jay told me that even psychology research suggests that contextual factors dwarf the influence of any stable set of traits we might call personality. Still, I do nothing if not trot around the city proclaiming my introversion, sidling up to people having a terrible time at parties and finding a way to ask if they, like me, self-identify as introverts. What could be so appealing about the introvert designation that I’m willing to embrace these essentialist ways of thinking just to claim it as my own?

I’ve attributed to introversion everything from my tolerance for repetition (songs, TV shows) to my sense of grandiosity to my bad grades (high school) to my good grades (college) to my love of sitting down to my lack of Saturday night plans to my meticulous planning to my hunch that I’d be good at the drums to my tendency to hold forth to my tendency to say nothing to my lack of any sense of direction to my powers of observation to my absentmindedness. There are plenty of think pieces and TED talks (and more than a few internet quizzes) that explain how introverts are not necessarily shy and don’t necessarily have social anxiety, so I won’t bother laying out the evidence here. I’ll just say that we introverts are oriented inward.

If we can’t find the exit in the Bed Bath & Beyond, for example, it’s not that we’d prefer moving in to the Bed Bath & Beyond to asking someone for help. It’s just that we’d consider moving in to the Bed Bath & Beyond before it would occur to us to ask for help. It’s also that we very well might envision the life we would make for ourselves in the Bed Bath & Beyond, imagining how we’d make a pillow fort to live in, complete with an air mattress, a lamp, a mini-fridge, and a George Forman grill—and an alarm clock so we could wake up in time each morning to disassemble it. (OK, I’m almost done: We might also imagine how, like Natalie Portman in that one movie, we’d keep a log of what we owe Bed Bath & Beyond and find a way to compensate them for whatever we used.)

*

In contrast, most of my exes—notably, Jay and Two—are oriented outward. They’re classic extroverts. They make as many friends and enemies walking from the 1 train home as I’ve made in my entire life. On the plus side, these totally inexplicable investments in people they don’t know usually lasted long enough for me to quietly steal their wallet.

These extroverts can’t stomach doing just one thing. They always want more and more. If you watch a movie with Jay, he’ll pause it in the middle of a scene to show you a related YouTube video and then pause the YouTube video to tell you a related story.

Meanwhile, Two couldn’t simply eat at a restaurant. He needed a garrulous Sardinian bartender and a wall full of liquor to quiz him about. That’s why he insisted on eating at the bar. I always assumed that he needed more and more to distract himself from the sinking feeling that everything is nothing and that, no matter how many handmade shoes one buys or how many pisco sours one drinks, we’ll all wind up dead one day anyway.

I don’t know. Do I call myself an introvert because it gives me license to act weird and quiet when I feel like it, because apparently it gives me license to be whatever I claim to be?

It could be that. Or it could be what we five learned that day in the hotel banquet hall: that absent any other suitable category, we are the people who invent one of our own. Then again, maybe that’s just the misanthropy and self-importance—the introversion—talking.

Then again…

 

The Last Dinosaur Sweater, Part One

When I was a kid, I always had to be right. I mean, literally. In our family, being right was one’s ticket to enter the conversation, to be part of the group. My brothers were always right. Even the story of how Zach thought the lobsters at the grocery store were meant to be pets was about how he’s always right, minus that one instance. The story was told to throw his otherwise infinite rightness into relief.

I wasn’t often right. Instead of rightness, I offered a mostly positive attitude, occasional melodrama, and off-brand peppermint patties as birthday presents (especially wrong, I was told). I wasn’t right in thinking that the people in the TV could see us or that all of the planets, gaseous or not, a bazillion miles from the sun or not, were inhabited. And Santa Claus—I wasn’t right about that, but, oh, how I tried to be.

*

Once, Rachel and I were sitting around discussing our respective wild days of yesteryear—hers spent in Michigan and mine in New York. We were seven.

“You won’t believe this, but, one Christmas in New York, it actually snowed,” I said.

“It snowed pretty much every Christmas in Michigan,” she said.

“No, it didn’t. A white Christmas is really unusual. That’s what my mom said.”

“Maybe in New York, but it was really common in Michigan.”

I didn’t want to have to do this, but, at that point, I told Rachel that, when we were living in New York, my mom and I woke up every Christmas morning, turned on the national weather report, and recorded the snowfall in both New York and Michigan. It was our tradition. We did this in 1985, 1986, 1987, and 1988, and, if she’d just excuse me for a minute, I’d go into my closet and retrieve the records.

Rachel excused me for many minutes. When I reemerged, I produced the unimpeachable records of New York’s and Michigan’s Christmas snowfall.

She was too nice to say anything, but I sensed she was on to me. I didn’t want it to be obvious that I was worried, so I waited a couple of hours before asking, as if just to make conversation, “Do you think I’ve ever lied to you?”

“Yeah,” she said. “Like, earlier today when you went into the closet and wrote all that stuff about the snow.”

I had to admit to the lie because it was too funny not to. I didn’t judge myself too harshly. As far as I was concerned, my greatest obstacle in life was persistent wrongness, and creative falsification was as suitable a substitute as any for rightness.

*

I was never as achingly wrong as I was about my plans for the future. By ninth grade, it was decided: Rachel and I would take on high school together, separate for college, and reunite in a New York City suburb, where we’d raise our kids down the street from each other.

When she called me one Friday night and told me she was moving to Phoenix, I couldn’t bear my wrongness. I just moved on ahead with the plan and corrected for the new information.

“We’ll talk every other night on the phone. We’ll alternate calling each other, and we’ll tell our parents that we’ll pay for the long distance. We’ll IM on the nights we don’t talk. And we’ll take turns visiting each other. I’ll come to Phoenix over Christmas break, and you can come to Dallas over spring break. We don’t really take the same classes anyway, so it won’t be a big deal. It’ll be like you just went to another school.”

There are moments when the fineness of Rachel’s wisdom demands respect, and this was one. She said, “Mia, we can’t just pretend like I’m not moving away.”

I wished there were some records I could retrieve from my closet. I wanted to tell her that Marty McFly had come to see me and written down everything that would happen between us. I wanted to tell her that pretending like she’s not moving away was exactly what we could and should do.

*

Eventually, I became an arbiter of rightness, a teacher. I put red x’s over wrong answers. I calculated the rightness of literally hundreds of tiny people. That wasn’t enough, so I became a teacher of teachers. I told teachers that they were right or wrong to tell students that they were right or wrong. I was the Meta-Rightness Grand Master, but I hardly thought of rightness, as such, at all.

My desire to do good work pushed my desire to be right to such a depth, over such a period of time, that, when whatever remained of it resurfaced, it was hard and smooth and shiny, something more like righteousness.

Then, on a family trip to Miami a few years ago, Zach told Ashley and me that he evaluates the accuracy of everything everyone says to him. “Everyone gets a new chance every time they talk to me. I don’t care about anything that happened before. If what you’re saying is accurate, I’ll listen to you. If not, I won’t.”

It was our night out, and this is how we spent it, walking down Ocean Drive through bands of hot and cold air. We talked. Each in turn, we accounted for ourselves.

At first, I maintained the absolute wrongness of Zach’s obsession with rightness. What kind of life is that, going around evaluating everyone’s accuracy? I don’t care about accuracy. I care about humor, generosity, soul.

Later that night, back in the hotel room, I sat on the edge of the bed next to my mom’s, silently running my feet over the sand on the warm tiled floor, waiting for her to fall back asleep. I thought about what Zach said and started remembering the peppermint patties, the people in the TV, the planets, Santa Claus, snowfall, all my grand plans–a childhood spent being wrong. I’d assumed that my desire to be right had long ago transformed into righteousness, into a desire to do what’s right. But I realized then that, more likely, I had managed to arrange a life in which I was always right, and, in that life, the desire itself lay dormant.

*

Over the next couple of years, I dated two men who had their own fraught relationship with rightness. (One of them stormed out of a family gathering because his mother served farm-raised salmon. I’m just saying.) When I shared my thoughts on big, important stuff and little, unimportant stuff, both would invariably tell me I was wrong. Farm-raised salmon guy did so rather cruelly and the other less so.

On a road trip, the less cruel man’s friend was telling us about the measures his high school took to prohibit school prayer.

“I’m impressed by your school’s commitment to the first amendment,” I said.

“No,” replied the less cruel man, “school prayer has nothing to do with the first amendment.”

Mind, the less cruel man is Canadian. Over the course of the ensuing argument, it was revealed that he didn’t even realize that the first amendment included freedom of religion. He didn’t relent. And I didn’t relent until I felt the heat and tears gathering behind my face.

I decided to spend the rest of the ride taking silent refuge in my rightness. How would I know anything about this? I only grew up in the Bible Belt with an atheist lawyer for a father. Why would school prayer ever come up at our dinner table? It’s not like I, like, actually know what’s in the first amendment or anything.

Back in the city, he took me to the Restoration Hardware by Madison Square Park (don’t ask me), and we had a little talk about the argument on the tufted Kensington sofa in taupe. I hated that sofa.

“I feel like you’ve been picking on me. You’re just tired of me, and so you’re picking on me,” I said.

“It’s not that,” he said. “I always evaluate fact claims.”

This account—“I always evaluate fact claims”—was a red flag I refused to see. If I recognized it, I’d also have to recognize his obsession with accuracy, with rightness. I’d have to recognize that he wasn’t the free-spirited artist I thought he was, and I couldn’t bear to be wrong about that.

When I got home that night, I looked up court cases. I called my dad, and we discussed how people on both sides of the school prayer argument invoke the first amendment. I watched the episode of The West Wing in which Toby soliloquizes on school prayer and freedom of religion. I was right. I was so, very, freaking, extremely right. But it didn’t make me feel any better. I felt embarrassed about the argument and pessimistic about the relationship. There was no comfort in being right, only distraction from the discomfort of needing to be right.   

*

The less cruel man and I broke up. When Rachel and I went to Spain last summer, I was still swimming back up to the surface. One morning, late in the trip, we were eating churros and discussing Morocco. Neither of us remembers what was said, but it went something like this:

“You know the guide book said that Morocco is X.”

“No, I think it said that Morocco is Y.”

“Rachel, no, it said that Morocco is X.”

“I think I remember that it said Morocco is Y.”

“You’re insane. How can you even think it said that?”

“Why…” Rachel said, and in that word the whole question was foretold. “Why do you always have to be right?”

I was right about the Morocco thing, but, as always, in all the ways that matter, Rachel was much more right. I was disappointed in myself. I thought the desire to be right had been purged from my mind. And maybe it had been, but, apparently, it was still in my muscle memory.

Long after Rachel and I made up, as we boarded a 9 PM flight out of Barcelona, I was still demanding an explanation from myself. Why am I like this? What does being right really do for me? I knew there was nothing in it, but I reckoned it gave me a sense–if only the most temporary sense–that I possess some knowledge and wisdom to which I have no real claim. Rachel was asleep as soon as we took our seats. As I struggled to cram my head and shoulder and elbow into sleeping formation, I made a mental note to remember the feeling the high of being right left behind.

*

Our family spent Christmas in New Mexico last year. We were back from dinner one night, and Zach and I walked up the driveway together.

“It’s so creepy to be out here in the country at night with the stars. Who knew they even existed?” I said extravagantly.

Right then, I remembered who I was talking to, recognized my mistake, and pulled myself in. I expected him to correct me. I expected him to say that there’s nothing creepy about being out in the country at night, that there’s nothing creepy about stars. They’re a natural phenomenon, I imagined he’d say. Just because we can’t usually see them doesn’t mean they don’t exist. Nature designed them to be there, and there they remain.

“Yeah,” he said. “It is pretty creepy when all you’ve ever known is the city.”

Even Zach learned to concede the limits of rightness. Even he learned that we can’t always see everything from where we stand. Damn him for his progress. I thought I’d always be able to define myself against him. I’d have my imagination, and he’d have his rightness. I guess I was wrong about him. Wrong, wrong, wrong.

 

Hair, Part Two

2009

As a functional minimalist, I like to commit. I commit to people, to jobs, to cities and neighborhoods, to underwear, to routines, and, of course, to hairstyles. Every time I commit to something, I eliminate a choice and so free my mind for worthier pursuits. Were Ross and Rachel really on a break? I’d bet you anything my thoughts on the matter are more nuanced than yours. Plus, my commitments define me, and there’s nothing that makes me happier than defining me. When I cut my hair short and dyed it red, I said, “Now, I’m one of the redheads. That’s who I am.” When I got bangs, I said, “Now, I’m one of those people with bangs. That’s who I am.” And so on.

So, it was especially strange when, in 2009, I decided to get what I call a Euro-mullet—a style that was, by design, temporary. Seven years earlier, in Italy, I’d taped a tiny photo of a model with a short and choppy pixie into my journal. I’d planned to commission Philip to replicate it upon my return to the states. But then Angiola made her comment and put me off the pixie altogether.

In the intervening seven years, I did a bob with bangs, a bob without bangs, a grown-out bob, and another bob with bangs. I let the bob with bangs grow to my shoulders. Then I decided to make a commitment: I was to get married. I wanted longish hair for the wedding—at that point, a year and a half away—but I didn’t want bangs. I also didn’t want to do the Margot Tenenbaum thing, clipping my grown-out bangs to the side with a barrette. I figured it was my last chance before the wedding to do something fun with my hair, so I rooted through my college journals (what fun!) until I found the tiny photo of the model with the short and choppy pixie. I’d get the cut and grow it out.

Olga, my new stylist, couldn’t be more excited to replicate it. She probably spent most of her days doing the long and layered look. I like to think I brought a dash of worldliness to that provincial Dallas salon. This is how it went: she’d take a snip, inspect the photo, smile at me in the mirror, and then look back at my fiancé to apologize to him for cutting off all my hair. (To his credit, and there wasn’t much to his credit, he loved it. When it came to him and my hair, it was always the weirder, the better.)

There was little precedent for this cut in the wider world, so I had to name it myself. I called it the “Euro-mullet” on account of its choppiness up front and the length in the back. There was no telling how it would grow out, but, for the first time, I was living in the moment and I loved it.

Euro-Mullet

2009-2010

The marriage was not to be, but I’d made the plan to cut my hair short and grow it out, and so I did. I was going through a dark period, so I thought I’d dye it dark as it grew out. I’m a very literal person.

Glossy Brown

I started to come out of it, as we all do, and I got to thinking about my natural hair color. I remembered that there’s such a blonde as dirty blonde, not the streaky yellow blonde of my classmates in Dallas, but a more natural blonde—like Scarlett Johansson’s in Iron Man Two.

So, rather gradually, I went blonde again. My colorist Ashley started by toning down the glossy dark brown. Then, she worked in a few face-framing highlights. And so it went for six months until one day, I went in for my usual, and I came out with hair the color of amber waves of grain. My mom denies it, but I suspect she slipped Ashley a twenty on her last visit and insinuated that I might be more likely to land a husband with the blondest blonde hair.

Amber Waves of Grain

I moved back to New York a year later, and Kennedy at Aveda toned it down. It started looking like it did in the photos of me as a kid posing with my brothers for the Christmas card or crouching among the rocks on Block Island.

Block Island Christmas Card

And it grew and grew. I learned that gravity does its thing, which, for my hair, is a quite good thing. I learned that my hair is wavy. I’d always thought that the ends were just uncooperative, that they went every which way just because. Apparently, I’d been chopping it off mid-wave. So, in growing it out, I’d finally set the waves free.

Long Blonde 1

Long Blonde 2

2012

What’s a functional minimalist to do when she commits to long, blonde hair and then needs to reinvent herself in the aftermath of another break-up?

Bangs.

Bangs

2014

I loved the bangs. I really did. They made me automatically chic, except when they didn’t (people with bangs, you know what I mean). I even thought, for at least the fourth time, that maybe bangs were my destiny.

But by spring, I started to miss my face. My bangs boxed it in. So, as the days grew longer and the flowers began to bloom, I started braiding them back. Finally, not too long ago actually, they got long enough to merge with the rest of my hair, and I was back to being me.

A month ago, I headed down Columbus to Aveda for my usual. I thought nothing of the day. When I arrived, I meant to say, “My usual, please.” But instead I said, “Maybe I’ll be a brunette now.” History repeats itself, as you can see, and, in so doing, it teaches us that the only thing we can ever really count on is ourselves. It seems like the least functional minimalist thing to do, the least me thing to do, to change my mind on a whim, but there you have it. That’s what I did.

An hour later, I strolled back up Columbus, stopping to inspect the sausages at the farmer’s market. My long brown hair draped over my shoulders and the hood of my coat. I imagined how E! Online would caption the paparazzi shot of me: “Mia explores her darker side.”

Brown

When I went into work the next morning, I prepared myself for the kerfuffle I’d surely cause. I was certain my return to brunette would scandalize everyone. People would whisper, “What does it mean that she’s not blonde anymore?”

It won’t come as much of a shock to you that none of that happened. In fact, it took a couple of weeks for most people to notice. I can never learn this lesson enough: I occupy much less space in others’ minds than I think I do. My hair, even less.

*

I’ve been rummaging through old photos for a few weeks now. When I think back on my life in hair, I remember big moments: having it permed, getting it cut, dyeing it red. But most of the photos of me show the in-between-ness. There are stretches of time, years even, when my hair is not still one thing and not yet the next thing. In these photos, I look like Simba, halfway across the bridge.

There were times when I had to use ten bobby pins just to corral my choppy layers into a ponytail. There was a particularly unfortunate period when I thought a silk printed headband would solve all my problems (Rachel Fairbanks, I’m blaming you for this). I used it to deflect attention from the reality that my hair was everywhere and nowhere, much as (forgive me) we stay in bad relationships to deflect attention from similar realities.

I guess that’s how memory works. We look back and see these distinct moments in time, bright and frozen. But most of life is the awkward in-between: waiting, making plans, anticipating more.

Ten Sentences: Mirrors

Image

When I was a freshman in college, I gained twenty pounds. That in itself is not interesting, but stay with me. I didn’t realize I’d gained twenty pounds until the end of the school year, until maybe April. See, I’d bought one of those rectangular, stapled-together mirrors at Target the weekend we moved in. I’d propped it up against the wall. You know this kind of thing: it’s where, if you scoot the bottom of the mirror away from the wall, you change its angle and so the reflected image.

As I gained weight—pound by pound, bowl of buttered pasta by bowl of buttered pasta—I adjusted the mirror. Someone must have knocked this mirror out of place, I’d think, and I’d reposition it until I looked how I thought I looked. That’s how it came to be that I didn’t realize I’d gained twenty pounds until April.

I’m sure there are at least a thousand ways I still do this, adjust my perception to maintain some sense of the desired reality, but I’m too afraid to go looking for them.

Hair, Part One

Because I can’t even choose a pair of underwear without contemplating the meaning of life. Because I knead significance out of the nothings of the everyday—the sunny-side-of-the-street nothings, the Pad-Thai-for-dinner nothings, the little-girl-in-green-who’s-blowing-on-her-mother’s-coffee nothings.

What follows is the story of my life in nine hairstyles.

1996

I was 14, and I wanted hair like Winona Ryder’s in Reality Bites. It had come out two years earlier when I was in sixth grade. By eighth grade, my social relevance was waning, so the cut was probably just an attempt to recapture my glory days of stylish dissidence.

I never saw Reality Bites, but I’d heard about it. I’d heard about it around the time I’d first heard about rock stars overdosing and, thanks to “Mr. Wendel,” injustice. I feared that actually seeing the movie would complete my loss of innocence. See, middle school was to me what the 60s were to the country. Either shit was getting real or I was just becoming aware that shit had always been real.

I had the soundtrack—and eventually the haircut—and that was enough for me. For hours, I’d toggle between “My Sharona” and “Spin the Bottle,” and, even when my parents weren’t home, I’d turn the volume way low when it got to the part “She’s such a sucker, he don’t want to fuck her.”

For what it’s worth, this is how it wound up looking:

Hair_MS

1999

By 1999, I’d fallen into a crowd of “artists” and “poets” who smoked clove cigarettes and wrote poems called “(iM)perFEcTion.” Actually, it wasn’t much of a crowd. It was just the one other girl. The rest of her crowd hated my guts.

Like most girls in Dallas, I’d become blonde by a million highlights. I’d cut my hair like Gwyneth Paltrow in Sliding Doors and realized for the first time that getting my hair cut like Gwyneth Paltrow doesn’t actually make me Gwyneth Paltrow.

It took a year to grow it back out. I wanted a more natural, earthy look to go with my new freewheeling lifestyle, so I had it dyed brown and permed.

Hair_HS

I’m not sure if you can make it out in this blurry photo, but I look a bit under the weather here. Not to worry. That day, I powdered my face and darkened the circles under my eyes. I thought it would be edgy to look sick, not like “heroin-chic” sick, but like I had the flu. 

2000

The day before I left for college, I went to see Phillip, at whose hands all of the above and much of the below happened. I went in for my regular, but, as we know, sometimes a cognitive blip changes the direction of your life forever. I meant to say, “Let’s just do the same thing,” but I actually said, “Let’s make it red and choppy and short like an anime character.”

It was a big hit on orientation weekend, but, by October, it looked like a tuft of Brillo. Then, for years, I was absolutely at sea. I dyed my own hair and parts of the bathroom floor of 106 Robinson with Clairol semi-permanent in Rich Chestnut. I cut my own bangs, too, super short like Ally McBeal’s at the time.

Hair_College

2002

The day before I left for my semester in Italy, Phillip gave me my first proper pixie cut. Somehow, it felt both transgressive and like the predictable endpoint of the Brillo phase. It had been an undifferentiated mass, and Phillip, in one of his finer performances, coifed it into something vaguely Kirsten Dunst-y.

A couple of months later, over risotto di zucca and more than a bit of vino, my host mother Angiola told me that she knew I was from Texas by my hair. I flinched and proceeded to question everything I knew about the world.  This was the first of a few times I remember Angiola putting down her fork to use both hands for emphasis and barking: “Mia! Non e un questione di opinione! E un fatto!” I’d thought the fatto was that my pixie cut was the fullest expression of my Italian-ness. I gave the soft chunk of zucca a good chew, and Angiola, who couldn’t be hard for long, changed the subject.

Hair_Pixie

2003

Thank goodness for Le Divorce. When I saw the movie poster, I knew Kate Hudson’s bangs were the one. I was back in the states, and my Texas pixie had grown into another undifferentiated mass. In July, Phillip cut it blunt. I bought a flatiron, not a Chi, but one of the more expensive drugstore models. I used it, with some effort, to create two perfect sheets of hair: one in the front that fell nearly to my eyelashes and another that encircled my head.

My boyfriend and I went to New York that summer and stayed with his brother who was staying with their great-aunt in Sheepshead Bay. It was early August, and my thighs stuck to the B train’s seats despite some pretty aggressive air conditioning. I brought two homemade t-shirts to wear: one that said “Planet Mia” and another that said “Hug Me, I’m ½ Italian.” I brought the green seaweed necklace from Paris. Needless to say, I was ready. The first morning, I woke up half an hour ahead of the rest to iron my hair. It was finally time to execute my New York look.

I strode out of the row house that morning, flanked by my boyfriend and his brother, who were cracking themselves up impersonating Andrew Dice Clay. I couldn’t be bothered: my two sheets of hair were flapping in the breeze.

But it didn’t take long for the humidity to get the better of my style. I can’t find it, but I know somewhere there’s a photo of me at Rockefeller Center in my seaweed necklace and Planet Mia shirt. It was taken later that day. My hair’s all curled up and the sunlight catches a halo of frizz around it. I look so defeated, which is exactly how you’re not supposed to look when wearing a homemade Planet [Your Name] shirt.

This was the next day, when I wised up and bought some rubber bands at Duane Reade:

Hair_Bangs

I don’t know why it took me so long, but, on that trip, I finally learned what we all must learn: humidity, cheap dye, laziness, the passage of time, your natural hair texture, and not actually being Gwyneth Paltrow all figure more prominently into your look than your very best daydreams and most earnest intentions.

Coming up next: the euro-mullet, a timid return to blonde, getting bangs again for the first time, and a bold return to brunette