Never Has She Ever

1. She never listened to her father’s absence of breath.
2. She never said No when it really mattered.
3. She never said Yes when it didn’t.
4. She never watched her mother cry in the mornings.
5. She never learned how to prevent everyone else’s pain.
6. She never learned how to prevent her own.
7. She never dove in headfirst knowing what was waiting on the other side.
8. She never clarified the terms of her contract.
9. She never bothered to create legally binding contracts for her clients.
10. She never paid her taxes without someone else’s help.
11. She never corrected her own grammar if she thought she could get away with it.
12. She never became a ballerina.
13. Or an actress.
14. Or a dishwasher.
15. She never stopped loving anyone.
16. She never liked someone in the same way as they liked her because she believed that it was a human impossibility to like and be equally liked in return.
17. She never learned how to hate.
18. She never learned how to avoid jealousy.
19. Or envy (which is different).
20. Or schadenfreude.
21. Or guilt.
22. She never learned how to horseback ride.
23. She never took a step off a twenty-five story high building.
24. She never shot herself full of things she wished she could, even for the story.
25. She never felt entirely sure.

Gold-Ringed Syringe

“Put it in me already,” Nell says through the strap in her teeth. I tease her, waving it slowly in front of her, the beautiful gold needle that has a ring to one side for one’s thumb, to keep it steady, a ring which is almost an exact replica of those surrounding our fingers.

“We’re celebrating today, remember?” I say. She nods vigorously, her veins popping out, her head pulling back to pull the pure leather belt around her upper arm even tighter. I’m worried she’ll end up cutting off her bloodstream entirely. “Calm down.” It’s a command, not a request, and she lets the strap loosen just enough. “Good. Good girl.”

She moans, and her eyes are brimming with tears, which she learned to bring on artificially in some acting class in college, but it convinces me and I finally put the needle to her vein, slip it under the skin and draw back, see the blood, no air bubbles, and push back, plunging all the way down, all the way into her. She lets the strap loose, or it falls out of her mouth, and her eyes roll up to the ceiling and she smiles lazily before even that amount of work is too much for muscles and her face goes slack. I pick her up – I’m taller and stronger than her, always have been, they call me the butch, even though they don’t know what a top she is in the bedroom – and lay her down on the couch.

I watch her, ignoring her occasional mumbles about things we need to remember to do, or things she wants me to do to her now. She’s not gone to the world, not entirely, but she is in the land of cotton wool lightness and lying down keeps her safe. Plenty of people walk around like this, but Nell and I have never understood how it’s possible.

My phone buzzes on the coffee table and I pick it up. It’s one of my clients. I automatically begin to pace.

“Hello, Tonya, how are you?”

She tells me how she is and begins to ask about her portfolio, about what I’ve done with her investments this week. She’s not seeing the rise she wants to see.
“Tonya, darling, don’t you trust me? I would never steer you wrong. I can tell you that the two new companies are going places, you just need to wait until the end of the week, you’ll see – they have something new up their sleeve is my guess because they’ve been throwing a lot of hints out there.”

She continues to complain and I sit back down on the coffee table and only listen with half an ear. I watch Nell, smiling again sometimes, her eyes opening and closing slowly, an air bubble popping through her lips and making her simulate a giggle though no sound comes out. I reassure Tonya, finally, and tell her I’ll call her on Friday. I need to stop giving clients my cell number, I remind myself, but they need it, unfortunately. I’m extraordinary at what I do – otherwise how could Nell and I afford this place, this syringe, the clean as fuck dope – and people who make money off of me are paying commissions up the wazoo so I better be available to wipe their ass if need be.

There is only one day I don’t answer the phone, and that’s the day when Nell does it to me. We take turns, once a week her, once a week me. We’re careful. We love it. We still go to meetings, and fake our way through chip after chip. Every one we get we bore a hole into and string it on this long ribbon that we hang on our balcony. It rattles, our personal version of wind chimes.
We like the meetings, the validation, the friends we’ve made, the comradery. And we feel fine.

Once a week for each of us. That’s it. That’s nothing. And it doesn’t count because we monitor one another. We’ll never hit bottom again. Bottom wasn’t fun, and we’re both happy to be here, up top. Nell’s massage business is booming and I’m back on Wall Street like nothing ever happened. So what if I met Nell at rehab. So what if you’re not supposed to date there, or in your first year after. It’s okay. We both talk to our sponsors about it. You don’t run away from the love of your life when you encounter her, no matter where you both are.

Nell raises her head a few hours later. I’m curled up at the other end of the couch with a book, playing with the syringe between my fingers. I’ve always had restless hands. “More?” she asks. I smile, and go and get the rest of the kit. What’s one more time in one day? Still nothing.

Rocks are Solid but the Heart Goes Squish [FICTION]

Hush, my mother tells me. I have been through this and we were lucky to have loved so deeply. But why, Mama, if you loved so deeply, I ask, did it happen? She shrugs. It happens, she says. It is complicated, she says. So why, I ask, cannot I be complicated? Because, she says, no one will like you in the end.

Hush, my best friend, dressed in two guises, tells me. Don’t breathe a word, for you will surely be injured. By rocks and spitballs, stomping cloven hooves and razor sharp nails. But, I say, my skin has been pierced, my heart is hard, my limbs are strong and my mind is sound. Is it, my best friend, dressed in two guises, asks? Is it sound? It is sound enough. My best friend, dressed in two guises, shakes her head and sighs.

Hush, my therapist tells me. Dial down your honesty. Nothing good will come of it. It will serve to hurt you and the others. It will cause a break and a fall; a heart pounding resuscitation may be needed. Why, I say, can I not be honest when honesty is the most challenging communication possible? With honesty, I remind my therapist, life is so much more interesting, especially as others do not practice it fully yet and may not ever. My therapist reminds me that my honesty has killed me before and I remind my therapist that it has also brought me back to life. I am like a curious cat that way, coming back satisfied, licking my chops from the bloody heart of a pigeon caught outside. Remorse and regret come later, like any human killer.

Hush, my married friend tells me. And I think, what if her husband was the one, what if she were the one too, what if their life was what I wanted and could not get? She would understand, she more than anyone, but she would not accept. Few would. Hush, she tells me. Write it out, the frustration and fear. Write out the rocks and do not throw them at your heart. You think it is solid, she says, but it is not. It goes squish when you hold it.

Hush, goes my heart. Hush all the voices other than mine, she says. Hush them all and speak out. Silence is worse than sticks and stones. Ask Alice innocent questions, ask why and how and wherefore art thou. Ask and buckle the answers tight around your waist and squeeze, until you cannot digest and cannot breathe, until your internal organs go squish like me, like your heart, an organ without voice or reason. Listen to my practical pumps of blood, my heart tells me. I have four rooms. You have filled two and one is brimming. You can stand to lose one chamber to a game of Russian Roulette.

Go Away

A chalky man walks around Dora’s brain. He’s hard to pin down, never stops long enough for her to get a good look. She knows he is a man, vaguely, or believes he is, because of the effect he has on her. He makes her squirm, not with pleasure, but with discomfort, as so many others have done before.

But the chalk man, unlike the others, doesn’t berate her. He doesn’t mutilate her. He doesn’t corrode her veins and swatches of her skin with verbal acid. His silence is far more terrifying. It is a waiting silence, a tense and pent-up silence, the kind of silence that you can pull like a piece of chewed up gum, pull and pull and pull until it snaps back and sticks to both fingers and is impossible to get off.

Dora walks through her life with this chalk man threatening her. His blurry outline haunts her when she works at the wood shop, overseeing the new people’s handling of saw and sander. He doesn’t distract her – Dora is not to be distracted – but she is as aware of him as of the cyst on her thigh that scrapes every time she walks. He is a physicality that she can put aside, that she can work with, but that she cannot erase with a hot compress.

One day, the chalk man walks through the doors of her workshop and looks around. Looks for her. Frozen, she stands next to a cabinet she has been decorating with delicate carvings, and sees him see her. She feels him come closer. She hears his voice inside her mind and ears both.

“Hi,” he says. “Long time no see.”

She wants to say I love you. She wants to say come back. She wants to say take me. She wants to say you hurt me. She wants to say, and touch, and forgive, and relive; she wants to drink beer in Munich and wine in Madrid; she wants to buy a house and decorate it with her furniture, and she wants him to carry her heavy things inside, to carry her inside too; she wants to erase his erasure of her.

“Go away,” she says. The live chalk man turns, a look of true disappointment blooming around his mouth and crow’s-feet eyes, but the chalk man in her head solidifies and keeps walking in circles.

It will take another year for the chalk man to blur again, to become unknown again, to restore Dora’s ability to keep her hands steady enough to work again. When the chalk man is blurry, he is safer. Not safe, never safe, but safer.

Interview with Israeli-American Writer, Ilana Masad

slightlyignorant:

I was interviewed by the generous and thorough Geosi Gyasi, and it’s extremely interesting to read my own answers again.

Originally posted on Geosi Reads:

Photo: Ilana Masad Photo: Ilana Masad

Brief Biography:

Ilana Masad is an Israeli-American writer living in NYC. She is an agent’s assistant by day, a writer for McSweeney’s, Bustle, and The Jewish Currents by night, and a freelance editor, transcriber, and proofreader in whatever those hours in between are. Her work has been published in The New Yorker’s Daily Shouts, Printer’s Row, Tin House’s Open Bar, Four Chambers Press, The Rumpus, The Toast, Hypertext, and more. She is the founder of TheOtherStories.org, a podcast for new, emerging, and struggling writers.

Geosi Gyasi: You’re a writer, Editor and Imaginator. Could you tell us what you actually do as an Imaginator?

Ilana Masad: Into every generation an imaginator is born: one girl in all the world, a chosen one. She alone will wield the strength and skill to fight the muses, inspiration, and the forces of blank pages; to stop the spread of writer’s block…

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Karl Ove Knausgaard Lit My Cigarette

And I feel terrible about it.

Context is essential: I was at the 92nd Street Y on Friday night when he was doing a reading and an interview alongside Rivka Galchen. Her reading was first, and I loved it. She was smart, and funny, and seemed so down to earth. She was shy of the crowd, or at least came off that way, knowing as she did that it was, for the most part, not there not to see her, but to see the famous Knausgaard of the My Struggle saga (the fourth book of which just came out).

I am reading the first My Struggle volume at the moment, because my significant other (SO) loves Karl Ove and his writing with a passion he otherwise reserves for techno music and me. We sat in prime seats, row F and to the side. When Karl Ove and Rivka sat down for their interview, the former was facing us.

His reading had been magical. Hearing the names and the pacing read in his voice, with the correct accent, felt so much more natural to me than reading the book itself, the style of which I’m struggling (no pun intended) with. His adherence to detail is beautiful at times, but at others make me feel lost in a landscape so unfamiliar to me, but in a mind so intensely familiar to me. I do not presume to be as smart or sensitive as Karl Ove. But the way he talked about writing that night, the way he talked about it being a coping mechanism, a way to avoid the shame of life – it resonated. I write for many reasons, but one of them is escapism.

When the reading and the interview were over, it was only 9:15 or so. The line of people waiting to get their books signed was backed up almost all the way into the auditorium so we found an alternate route out, one that was underused and perhaps not totally kosher, though there were no signs telling us we couldn’t be there. I told my SO, I bet he’s smoking a cigarette before the signing. Let’s go around the corner and see.

And indeed, there he was. He is incredibly good looking, white hair and beard, kind eyes, a tall and fit figure, dressed in skinny jeans and a blazer and brown boots. He belonged in Brooklyn. In Portland, OR. In Hollywood. Not at this side entrance in New York. But at the same time he looked entirely natural, smoking his cigarette and talking to Rivka and the head of 92Y.

I legitimately couldn’t find my lighter as I took out a cigarette and rummaged through my bag for one. We approached, getting closer and closer. Should I do it, I asked my SO, should I ask him for a light? And he said Yeah, that’d be so cool.

So I did. I asked Karl Ove Knausgaard for a light. I said, Excuse me, I’m so sorry, do you happen to have a light? I interrupted their conversation in order to get his attention, as I would do with anyone else I saw smoking when I was in need of a light. I’ve been interrupted before for the same reasons. Smokers are pretty much seen as the scum of the earth these days, so we tend to be nice to one another.

Karl Ove took out a yellow mini-Bic lighter, gave me a pained smile and lit my cigarette, cupping his hands around its tip. I held my own up reflexively, to block the wind, but stopped myself from touching him. Behind me, my SO claims to have been smiling like a goof. I should’ve stopped at that, pretended I wasn’t at the event, that I didn’t know who he was.

But I have a penchant for honesty even when it gets me into trouble so as I took the first drag of my cigarette and thanked him, I looked at the other two and said, And thank you, all of you. It was something like that. Thank you for tonight, maybe, with a gesture towards the 92Y building. My SO and I walked down the block a bit, so I could smoke and while keeping them in sight.

After me, other people passed by and interrupted the conversation between the three people who’d been on stage that evening. I couldn’t hear what they said, or how the stage-presence reacted, but I was already regretting my own, similar, actions.

I had cheapened the experience. I had made Karl Ove look me in the eye, light my cigarette, and interact with me when he had no reason to do so other than politeness. I want to think he’s forgotten about it. I want to think that if he hasn’t, he doesn’t think of me as unbearably rude, but as, perhaps, ballsy or charming. Or as a fellow smoker who can’t find her lighter.

But my attempts at being ballsy and charming have backfired on me too often. One I insulted without knowing she would read the comment in which I put her down – a put-down that was entirely made because of my mood that morning and poisonous envy. Another I’ve had a conversation with regarding vaginas and the things we put in them. Another is my mentor. Another I shook hands with in the lobby of a literary agency. Another, recently, is not so much a luminary as an inspiration, and I treat him with a reverence and admiration that I think he finds off-putting. I am convinced that the half dozen published and/or famed writers I’ve interacted with see me as a young, doe-eyed, desperate writer who only seeks fame. Most of them probably don’t remember me or care about me (other than my mentor, whom I know does).

But in this regard, I feel much like Knausgaard. Yes, I want my work out there. I need the validation that he needs; he called a friend and read him what he’d written every day during his writing-about-America column, just so the friend would tell him, Yes, this is good, I know you think it’s not, but keep going. I badly want to find an agent who believes in me and gives validation for my writing. But I also write to take away the shame, as Knausgaard said that night, the shame and guilt of every action I take.

So here is my confession. I am ashamed, Karl Ove, of treating you like a celebrity, a commodity for me to interact with for a moment and then boast about (as I immediately did on Twitter and Facebook). I am ashamed of not taking in your stage-bound words and holding them dearly to my heart and keeping my experience personal. I am ashamed of asking you for a light.

It doesn’t count for much, and this is an apology you will never read, Karl Ove Knausgaard, but I have the utmost respect for you as a writer and a human being – because every human being is worthy of respect and because of who you are. If you remember me, forgive me. If you have forgotten me, good. I will not forget. And I will probably not forgive myself.

Dad

Daddy Issues

When I was fifteen years old, my father found out he had Stage IV lung cancer. He’d been wheezing on our weekly walks to his mom’s place for a while and coughing more than usual, so we all knew something was wrong, just not how wrong it was about to get. He was sick, then very sick, then even sicker, until finally there was no other way to describe it: he was dying. And then he was dead. His illness jump-started my adulthood, and his death cemented it. There was no going back. I was an Adult, a Grownup, capital A, capital G.Dad

When I was fifteen years old, my father found out he had Stage IV lung cancer. He’d been wheezing on our weekly walks to his mom’s place for a while and coughing more than usual, so we all knew something was wrong, just not how wrong it was about to get. He was sick, then very sick, then even sicker, until finally there was no other way to describe it: he was dying. And then he was dead. His illness jump-started my adulthood, and his death cemented it. There was no going back. I was an Adult, a Grownup, capital A, capital G.

Fatherhood is an interesting societal role. We have so many ideas and assumptions about what a father should be, and these, of course, have changed over the centuries. According to the extremely nifty Online Etymology Dictionary, the Old English, fæder, means “he who begets a child, nearest male ancestor;” or “any lineal male ancestor; the Supreme Being.” By late Middle English, it meant “one who exercises parental care over another.” The word “dad” is actually much older and almost universal (in a variety of forms) because of the common syllables “da-da” that babies utter when learning to talk.

Fathers are not supreme beings. And many of them do not exercise parental care over another. I am not a historian, and I cannot tell you exactly when the modern Western idea of fatherhood was created, though I do know that Freud had a lot to do with it. What I do know is that the concept is still in flux. For many Americans, fathers don’t exist: they up and left, they’re in jail, they’re service-members who rarely see their families, they work long hours in corporate positons and leave their children with a stay-at-home-parent or hired help. Many mothers fit these same descriptions and indeed there is a rise in single father households, though three quarters of single-parent households are headed by single moms. We have this notion that mothers are automatically closer to their children because of the biological connection between womb and baby. This not only assumes a whole lot about what a woman is (not all women are able to give birth, not all women want to), but also throws light on why we seem to accept fathers as the more transitory beings. They’re the ones allowed to be gone, because their purely biological role ends after providing the little swimmer that fertilized the egg that made the baby.

I am lucky; I had a father in my life for sixteen years. I am unlucky; he never knew me as a grown woman. My sixteenth birthday was spent at his hospital bedside. He died a few months later. My father was the kind of guy who, had he survived to see my eighteenth birthday, would have offered me a joint to share with him. We would have gone out for beers. We would have had long walks on the beach in Israel and long Skype conversations once I’d gone to college and we’d talk about relationships I was in, and he’d tell me stories about his various exes, some lovely and interesting, some extremely manipulative (one threatened to commit suicide when he broke up with her). Instead, by my eighteenth birthday I was dating his best friend’s son and developing an eating disorder.

I have also developed a strange discomfort around fathers in general. Not regarding strangers, mind you. Dads on the subway with their teenage kids, dads in grocery stores humoring their children’s wish for sugary cereal, dads taking campus tours with their college-bound kids – all of these warm my heart, make me miss my father, make me believe in daddyhood. It is my friends’ fathers, my acquaintances’ dads, and older men who are my mentors and friends (and who have children), around whom I feel uncomfortable. Not because of anything they do – this is an important point that I want to stress. These men have not been inappropriate with me. The fear, the discomfort, lies in myself: am I being inappropriate with them? The thought process goes something like this:

Do they think I’m flirting? Do they see me as a sexual being, as an adult, a grownup with experience? Are my breasts too exposed? Are my pants too tight? Am I appropriately asexual when I talk to them? Do they fantasize about younger women? Wait, no, don’t go there. But wait, do, because what if they do something? How would I handle it? Would I tell my friend/significant other that something weird happened? Would I ignore it? What if it’s that teacher I’ve always had a crush on because of his intellect? Would I want him to cheat on his wife? Wouldn’t I feel terrible? Can he even see his students that way? Why am I thinking this? What’s wrong with me?

Gross Dad

I am not unique in this. I have talked to other women around my age and they feel similar discomfort. Maybe this is the equivalent of the way teenage boys fall in lust with their friend’s mothers or their female teachers or their parents’ friends. Do teenage boys actually do this? I don’t know. I’m basing this knowledge off of movies like The Graduate and Superbad and television shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer (and many, many others).

Unfortunately, I think that my own neuroses about fathers has less to do with my dad being very much dead, and much more to do with the way older men are portrayed in pop culture, literature, and psychology. According to Freud, of course, I was and am in love with my father and because he died, I now seek to find him elsewhere. Except that I haven’t dated older men. I haven’t had random sex with older men. (I sometimes wish I had, but mostly just for the resulting story.)

Fathers are sexual beings, of course. The very nature of fatherhood traditionally involves the act of sex. But there is supposed to be, at least according to Western social mores, a detachment between father and daughter. That’s one of the reasons Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov, is so shocking and upsetting. Not only does Humbert Humbert truly believe that Lolita loves him and that she is the instigator in their relationship, but he also marries her mother, becoming an even more screwed up version of a father figure. A more recent and equally disturbing example of this kind of story is American Beauty, the film starring Kevin Spacey as a father who falls in love (or lust? Open to interpretation, I suppose) with his daughter’s friend. Another example is our fascination with incestuous father-daughter relationships, as exemplified by Precious, the film based on the novel Push by author Sapphire. In the film Eve’s Bayou, the character playing a philandering father begins to ardently kiss his older daughter, to their mutual horror. We find this fascinating, taboo and exciting even while regarding it as somehow filthy and degrading.

Older men in general are often seen as sexual in pop culture. For one thing, leading men in Hollywood are allowed to be much older than leading women. May/December romances are common in movies and television shows because men look dashing in their grays and women look best when their breasts are still perky and they don’t have wrinkles. While women in Hollywood are fighting this, and there are some “token” older women who continue to get roles (Vanessa Redgrave, Dame Judy Dench, and several other typecast actresses who always seem to play the annoying mother to someone or other). But older men continue to flaunt their sexuality well into their later years, a la Woody Allen, who even as he aged, continued to pair himself off with younger actresses. Hugh Grant keeps getting paired with younger actresses as well.

May December

The music and literary scenes are similar: Paul McCartney still has a huge following, so did Lou Reed. Jonathan Franzen may be hated by some but is also beloved by many, and John Irving as well. Similarly with Stephen King. Their author photos tend to be much larger than, say, Hillary Mantel’s or P. D. James’s.

Older men are simply more appealing than older women. That is what society has taught us. The question then becomes, how do young women like myself learn to feel comfortable around them – and fathers in particular – without changing our behaviors and becoming meek little girls?

The only solution I have found so far is to ignore the discomfort. It is usually not the older man or father’s fault (unless, of course, he IS making any sexual comments or staring) but rather the larger role the patriarchal notions have been embedded in me. I call my friends’ fathers by their first names and we chat like old friends, and even when I wear a tank top with a lowish neckline (which is basically all I ever wear because I am a sweater and t-shirts don’t work for me) I try to remember that my body in itself is not an invitation to sexuality. I am friends with several older men and try to remember that not all men have a one track mind and that my fear is part of the same power that the patriarchal society has on me and that I am lucky enough to be able to put aside that fear when I choose to.

And I do. Am I more open to danger? Possibly. But I refuse to live in a world in which I have to be scared of every father or older man I know, in which I cannot relate to people as people rather than as their genders. It takes a great deal of effort, but I make it work.

Thank you to everyone at Beacon who supported and funded this article.

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