Do you know what she really wanted? She wanted to be a collaborator with destiny. Of course no one collaborates with destiny; destiny, if we really know what we want, sometimes collaborates with us.
—Carolyn Heilbrun/Amanda Cross, Death in A Tenured Position
What I mean to say is I am writing an elegy for my twenties. I want to tell you how it felt to live them.
I will confess—yes, that word—them to you quite deliberately, and I will tell you that I have lived them like an endless conversation, like a depth charge, like a rapprochement or discord with the self, like the way you dance alone with your roommate in her bedroom or yours, like one big sensory buffet, like whole-body-shaking laughter and notebooks, notebooks, notebooks.
In my twenties I write a lot and am living all the time and thinking about living.
I want you to know that I was joyful, even when I wasn’t, because I was always in love.
I was in love in New York and in love in San Francisco and in love in Minneapolis and in love in almost every major city in Massachusetts and in love with every year, every age, twenty, twenty-three, twenty-seven, in love with books and films, in love with running away and returning, in love with girlfriends and boyfriends, in love with highways and subways, in love with everyone’s brains and bodies and wild ideas, in love with dancing in bars, with slinging in bars, in love with everything burgeoning, everything carnal, everything meaningful.
Stay gold, Ponyboy. In love with when you’re still too young to know you can’t. In love with a time before you know everything counts.
Because memory is what we forget. It is possible to forget the facts, and harder the feelings of a particular moment of transformation: arriving in New York. Holding my first book in my hands. Or the smaller miracles: the first bialy from the bakery at dawn. Reading Anna Karenina for the first time, truly not knowing the train was coming. Maybe perspective will make it harder, not easier, to idealize. Who knows. For now, I am writing a mythology of a decade of myself.
Not to idealize, but to memorialize. Something passing: here I record the Doppler effect of my twenties.
To recognize. I recognize myself in bricolage, in collage. Memory itself is a bricolage.
I mean to say: I lived it. I am here. You cannot erase me. My language no myth. I used everything I had.
I mean to say: I became a writer.
Aristotle, Poetics: Recognition, as in fact the term indicates, is a change from ignorance to knowledge, disclosing either a close relationship or enmity, on the part of people marked out for good or bad fortune.
I want to write to you clearly and directly, because right now I love you in that way I am still capable of loving, arms and legs cast open-heartedly around you, because there is still possibility before us.
I wanted to be the author of my own destiny, of my own chaos: I wanted to self-activate: I did not want to live my life half-asleep.
My body was activated in my twenties. How I hurled it through my early adulthood with hedonistic abandon, gorging myself on its various capacities to intoxicate and be intoxicated. How all of its history comes and stands beside me, a ghost-Laura, the patchwork of it indiscriminating of who’s comfortable with it: my family, my friends, my husband, myself. There is so much that pains, that humiliates, but I have never been one who yearns to forget. I am, if anything, one who works constantly, compulsively, to remember.
What my body did. How it felt to do it.
My mind was activated in my twenties. How I exercised it in the university, in the barroom beerlight conversations, in letters, in the reaching-out to others. How Rae and I read poetry and drank wine on a Friday night and I thought to myself this is exactly what I hoped college would be like. How I learned that my mind’s hope could be its own wresting. How I read, how I became enormous through reading. How I wrote, how I became conscious through writing. This, too, is the ghost-Laura, the one who stands here beside me. To remember.
Is it too obvious to say I chose to be the subject?
I knew this already, at twenty, that I had to be the subject of my own becoming. That I could make certain concessions to sex but not my authority. In my twenties I learned to be a woman. I carried the objects of being a woman in a green purse, in a black purse, in canvas totes and zebra stripes: two tampons tucked inside in a satchel of pens, a tiny vial of Chanel No. 5, a lipstick or two with a nug in the top, the notebook, the Nalgene, a novel or two, iPod, headphones, extra sweater, postage stamps and bobby pins and credit cards and library cards. I pack the bag every day and check it compulsively—did I forget something? Like a heavy sack of security objects, this freight of being a woman.
I will say I will tell you everything but I will always be lying. There are so many things I will never tell you. I carry them around in a green purse, in a black purse.
I will tell you that I have loved to the point of becoming a wife but I will not, will never be wived. I kept a record so that I would never be the lovely wife of a famous artist. How I have loved them, though, those wives. The romantic terror of their legacies. I chose against it. My legacy my own.
I kept notebooks. Recently I transcribed about six years of them, just to read them, just to see what all those hours of laundromats and subways and park benches and bedtimes accrued into. My journal entries are largely transitory, my way of thinking about how to get from one place to another. I like the right map.
It’s like a K-hole, sitting there for hours reading yourself like that, reliving it all, realizing that it was better in places than you thought it was and worse in others, knowing in hindsight which friends and lovers you’d take with you and which would be left somewhere along the great highway of memory, marveling that you survived at all.
Memory is what you forget: the journals, as I read, add up to something repetitive and manic and horrifyingly partial. They are angry moments and indulgent wallowing, workings-out and yearnings, mere fragments of living.
Much is made over the way
Chet eats a hamburger.
What a funny summer it’s been. For the record, I have no idea who Chet is or how he eats a hamburger, I must have been drunk. I’ve actually been trying to drink more lately; I don’t really have a good reason why. Oh God—the seasons are changing again.
I write about relationships and I write about destroying myself and I write about wanting to be a writer. My journals are a story I tell myself, the version of the truth I’ve chosen at that automatic moment. When I read them I read a girl trying very hard at everything, exerting a furious kind of longing toward figuring out what sacrifice it will take to Be A Writer, really everything she mulls on in those in-between spaces circling around this ambition, I am willing to eat all the shit it takes to be taken seriously, but seriously, how much shit will it take.
I write, of course, in medias res of the becoming I excavate in these found texts, these fond texts, of my twenties; I write in anticipation of the departure of this time, in its dying light. I write because I find the sheer fact of growing older baffling in its scope. I am preoccupied with age and with aging, with the power I will exchange with myself and the world to progress from one decade to the next.
You may witness some confusion between how I regard becoming a woman and becoming a writer. Becoming is textual: I learned to become a woman because I learned to call myself one. To name myself.
Memory is text’s enzyme: memory catalyzes and is then consumed. Text is both an exercise and an annihilation of memory. Maybe I am killing my twenties in text. The hundreds, thousands of pages I have made in effigy to growing older. This is what I mean to say when I say I mean to write an elegy for my twenties: I kill them in my practice of words.
Go into the city. Find yourself in the thick of something.
I was in that thickness—still am, diminishingly—and now I can only feel so lucky to have had access to it. You have to know that I know I was lucky.
Pat and I are packing up our first apartment in San Francisco, in the Castro, to move to our new place in the Mission, the first address with no apartment number we’ve had since our parents’ houses. He’s cleaning out the top of the closet, handing things down to me: the unused winter clothes, the boxes still un-unpacked from our move from New York the year before, the general miscellany of out-of-reach shelves.
He turns to me with a stack of composition notebooks.
“Where do these go?” he asks benignly.
I scream. I jump up. I snatch them from him.
“What is wrong?” he asks, dumbfounded.
“It’s just—I mean—literally no other hands but mine have ever touched those,” I say, knowing I’m acting insane. “I’m sorry. It just really startled me—seeing them in your hands.”
He shakes his head and keeps packing up the closet.
Later, I try to explain to him why I panicked.
“I don’t really know how to explain it,” I say, “but in that moment, you were just—you were holding my heart in your hands.”
“I know,” he says, “I guess I just don’t really understand what it means to you.”
“I know,” I say. “It’s like—everyone else gets to decide what you mean to them, what you’re going to be to them. And I just have this compulsion to write my own story my own way, to make a record of it, to leave behind some evidence of who I am. Who I was. That feels sacred to me. And my journals—that’s where you get to write the truth of how you lived it. In a way that’s only yours. Only mine. That’s why I freaked out when I saw it in your hands.”
“I know,” he says.
Niedecker ordered her husband to burn all her journals; Hughes did away with some of Plath’s. Can you imagine how a legacy can be so manipulable by chance? Not chance but arbitrariness. Does it matter who reads them when you’re dead?
It matters. Whether anyone reads them or never reads them, it matters.
Didion writes, “How it felt to me: that is getting closer to the truth about a notebook.” It also approaches the truth of comprehending one’s twenties, the decade of voluptuous feeling.
How it felt to me: I am coming home from a night badly spent uptown, hungover and sluttish on the 2 train going downtown at 7:30 am, last night’s eyeliner in dark half-moons, surrounded by suits on their way to another desk day of gainful employment, searching for a place to sit down, put my head between my legs. I realize around 14th St that I am going to vomit and scheme to get off at the next stop. Between 14th St and Chambers St. the train stops inexplicably, the way trains do on TV, at exactly that moment.
I realize I am faced with two choices in the imminence of my puke: I can spew all over this dense forest of suits, packed 50 deep in the car so close to Wall St., or I can make an attempt to contain my puke in my empty Nalgene bottle. I opt for the Nalgene. As subtly as possible, I unscrew the top, put my head between my legs, and barf into the Nalgene, miraculously containing the liquid. As subtly as possible, I hold the bottle below my knees. I feel myself being stared at. I try to be invisible. This is not a talent of mine.
Gently, a hand picks up my hand and places a thumb on my wrist. A soothing voice trickles in to my ear, lilting I am a nurse. This is your pressure point. When I press it, you will not feel nauseated. Here is a pencil. Put it behind your ear. It will activate your other pressure point. Close your eyes. The voice carries me home. She lets me keep the pencil. A simple rescue.
How it felt to me: it is the 4th of July and Vickie and Rae and Meera and me have no plans in particular. We stroll along the promenade in Brooklyn Heights and Vickie recites the Bill of Rights while gazing at the Statue of Liberty. One of us, I think it was Vickie but I can’t remember entirely, reports that there’s some sort of free party happening around the corner from the Jewish Hospital. We go there and it’s awkward at first, like the first hour of a wedding reception before everybody’s drunk. Vickie tells us she’s going to mingle and darts off to flirt with guys. We get drunk on the roof; everything in New York happens on the roof. The music downstairs gets louder and we join in it, dancing, slowly at first, self-consciously. The music gets louder still. We dance harder and harder until we are in a state of ecstasy, the condition of standing outside oneself, outside our bodies, uninhibited, private and public both, dancing as hard as we’ve ever danced, until we collapse. Happy birthday, America.
How it felt to me: it’s my last night of bartending. I am surrounded by the patrons of my twenties. My three best girlfriends appear in the doorframe, candlelit. They present me with a cake. On the top, in red frosting, it reads “CUNT!” My best friends bought me a cunt cake for the cunt I was. How I loved them for it.
How it felt to me: there is a garden, because people have gardens in San Francisco, and I call it The Garden of The Lotus-Eaters, a place where you come to breathe the racket of the camellias and the grass, a place named for somewhere never left but which you know you will eventually leave. A few fellow travelers gather here, burning rice-paper money, rice-paper cars, rice-paper dragons. We are sending them off to our traveler just departed.
How it felt to me: at a reading, a beautiful poet friend reads a poem with I line I wrote in it. As she talks she cites me, calling me “the poet Laura Goode.” I realize, with a start, that she has addressed me. That I am the poet Laura Goode.
What is destiny? Destiny is what awaits us. Destiny is our due, our lot. Destiny is grander than future, more powerful than aspiration, something like fate, but somehow even more fateful.
My twenties: in which I inherited my destiny, without ever fully knowing what it would be.
My twenties: in which I danced until I was beside myself, outside myself.
My twenties: in which I let myself believe that other people could change me, could make me, and in which they did.
My twenties: which I lived like an incantation, like a mantra, like a jewel-box of seeing, living, thinking, feeling.
O, twenties: your shadow and ghost, your legend and myth.
My twenties: in which I became a writer.
Twenties, recede. You, come closer. I will tell you everything.
Rumpus original art by Paige Russell.