Behind the Scenes of a Regular Sugar Reader

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When I was G-chatting with a friend a year and a half ago, he put a link into the little white box. “Please tell me you read this,” he said. The link was to Sugar’s column “The Baby Bird.” I hadn’t read it. So I read it—and I reacted. I had never read Sugar’s column on The Rumpus before. “I’m scared,” I typed, into the G-chat box. “I’m crying,” I told him. “Why,” he asked, “because it’s so heavy? So true?”

Yes.

Sugar writes words that I would like tattooed on my tongue. That I want stitched onto my childhood quilt since I can’t actually stitch my heart up with them. Words that make tears roll down my face during Savasana in yoga. That make me sleep more soundly. That keep me up late at night, restless, wishing I had painkillers to snort up my nose to put my pain at arm’s length. She writes the sentences that I sometimes say aloud, surprising even myself, while I hike in upstate New York. In September, Sugar mentioned me in the interview she did with Colleen Wainwright, and she said something very touching about me. This is my thank you note to her.

Your Jesus is my mother is someone else’s turtle, Sugar says, in her column “The God of Doing it Anyway.” My friend Skye used to say she wanted the words “Joyful Girl” tattooed on her lower hip. When I asked her why, her answer was simple: “To remind me to be a joyful girl,” she said. Now—Your Jesus is my mother is someone else’s turtle is a sentence not only about writing, but about life, about the grand scheme. Tomato, tomato, potato, potato. Your Jesus is my mother is someone else’s turtle. It’s the best rebuttal—the best c’est la vie, the best way to say let’s agree to disagree. It’s the best way to come to terms with something. It relaxes me. Did Sugar laugh when she wrote that? Was she amused? That sentence tickles me to the end of the ocean. It’s the best way to keep going. The best way to remember to get on with the damn thing.

I should break here to give some background. I can be fanatical. I am a verbatim rememberer. I am obsessed with other people’s words. As a kid, I read every single word in my mother’s journal and, as an adult, I fell in love with a man who is a writer and read his journals too. I remembered all of their sentences and from there carried them with me. I liked journals because they cut to the truth. Reading Sugar’s column is like reading all of the best parts of a dark and smart and loving writer who journals and always strikes some kind of golden truth.

On the third of last October, 2010, I reread the “Write Like A Motherfucker” column and, after it blew my mind, I emailed it to the lover mentioned above. We’ll call him T. I told T that this piece of writing was what I returned to when I needed a reminder to keep going.

A few days later, he wrote back:

That article is amazing. That’s exactly how I feel. I also felt like Sugar when she said that she got to the point where not writing a book at all was worse than writing a shitty one.

On the last day of March, I wrote T an email with the subject line of “Good Shit” and in the email I pasted the column “We Are All Savages Inside.”

He responded on the first of April:

MOTHERFUCKER! YEAH! Holy shit, I want to meet Sugar. I’m buying a mug and now I’m going to write my ass off. Thank you for sending me these things. I never get even the slightest bit of joy when you get rejections. Maybe a slim sliver of relief. Because when your stuff gets accepted it reminds me that I’m not working hard enough and I’m a lazy fuck so it makes me uncomfortable to have to get off my ass and write. And maybe a little jealous at first but I truly think like Sugar and feel what she says.

Was there ever a point for you when this anonymous Sugar thing really started to bother you? A point where you found yourself feeling helpless because Sugar was helping you—to get on with life, to write like a motherfucker, to work out your issues before you even knew you had them—every Thursday afternoon? That’s what happened to me last fall into winter. Every Thursday when Sugar’s column went live—it was like my computer exploded. Twitter, Facebook, everywhere, the column, the column, the column, the column. Who the hell was this person? And how in the hell did she learn to write like that? I pestered my friend Sam:

Me: Who’s Sugar?
S: I don’t know.
Me: Well who do you think it is?
S: I don’t know, Chloe.
Me: But who do you think it is?
S: Why do you care if something is secretive?

I don’t know why I cared. I just know I cared.

On the fifth of April, a package arrived for me. My dad walked in with a package and slowly said, “Who’s Stephen Elliott?” squinting at the California return address. This was an attempt at a joke because I spoke of Stephen Elliott often and was reading The Adderall Diaries at the time. I tore the package apart like an animal. My father always says that when I open things it looks like a squirrel snuck into the house and opened it with his teeth.

There was a Write Like A Motherfucker mug inside the package. Between the emails I’d exchanged with T on the first of April and the mug arriving on the fifth of April, I had turned twenty-five. The mug was not a birthday present. I know he didn’t send it for my birthday because I’ve known him for four years and he’s never known my birthday without my shoving it in his face and this truth always felt like a sucker punch. This was embarrassing because I wanted to tell people that the mug was a birthday present from my lover. They assumed it was. But it wasn’t. Those two true facts—the unknown birthday, and that he sent me a WLAMF mug, (from Tennessee, where he was living with his girlfriend that was not me) broke my heart and also reiterated exactly what kind of relationship we had. It was paradise. It was hell. My passionate lover who is also a writer sent me this mug and I will always have one and he will always have one and he sent it a few days after I turned twenty-five yet he doesn’t even know my goddamn birthday. How quickly a sentence can change so quickly from joy to pain, from love to hate.

How beautiful. How ugly. How little. How big. – Sugar in “The Ordinary Miraculous.”

Since there was no note or phone call, I couldn’t be certain that it was him. So I asked him. He wrote me:

Yes, the mug is from me, he said. That’s my message to you. Write like a motherfucker and I’ll do the same and we’ll meet in the middle. I’m unsure sometimes if I can write without you.

That night I stayed up reading Sugar columns. They were the only thing that fed me at the time—my desires, my sadness, my joy. They filled me up. I sent T back an email telling him I’d just read another about Sugar talking to her twenty-two-year-old self. I explained to him that when I read the sentence: Your book has a birthday. You don’t know what it is yet, I lost my shit.

I was sitting in my mother’s house at the wooden table my father built. I read that sentence and on the word “yet” I burst into tears. It hit a nerve. It was what I wanted. I wanted my book to have a birthday and I didn’t want to know what it was yet because the suspense, the excitement, the hard work, the mania of the whole thing was giving me something to wake up for. The unknowing, the ball of ambition in my chest, was popping my eyes open most mornings at seven a.m. And I am not saying Sugar is a witch or a psychic or anything but she has a good handle on reality. My book ended up having a birthday. Twenty-eight days later from reading that sentence, my book was accepted to be published.

Sometimes Sugar’s sentences get me into trouble. Sometimes I hold onto them too hard. Take them too literally. During one of T’s and my fights, (and there were many—we began raging in any form—email, text, phone—and in person? Just forget it.) We’d been raging for days—email became really bad for us and then I tipped it off by digging even deeper. Neither of us could refrain from responding to the other person no matter how nasty or loving the other person was being. We were having an open relationship but I was discovering that it was not as open as I’d originally thought. It was the last paragraph to the column called, “A Motorcycle with No One on It.” My email to him said this:

T,

Sugar confirms it. I am Z. Look what she says.

“My inbox is jammed with emails from people who are not so clear. They’re tortured by indecision and guilt and lust. They love X but want to fuck Z. It is the plight of almost every middle aged monogamous married person at one time or another. We all love X but want to fuck Z.

Z is so gleaming, so crystalline, so unlikely to bitch at you for neglecting to take out the recycling. Nobody has to haggle with Z. Z doesn’t wear a watch. Z is like a motorcycle with no one on it. Beautiful. Going nowhere.”

He responded immediately:

Jesus, Chloe, no one bitches at me to take out the recycling or anything else. But if you want to keep antagonizing me then you should know that I love you but that I love her, too.

Ow. Ouch. Okay.

That’s when I altered the title of “A Motorcycle with Nobody on It” to relate to my own situation, as we do, as humans. In my head, partly intentional and part confusion of memory, I changed “A Motorcycle with Nobody on It” to “That Motorcycle Is Not for You.” I said it to myself so often that I actually believed it was the true title. The reasoning for this? T owned a motorcycle. We called the motorcycle Nightbird. We fell off of it once in my driveway. I dropped the helmet once on the concrete on New York pavement and he screamed “Fuck.” I gave him the silent treatment on it once after an argument at dinner. He rode to me on the motorcycle the day I got back from a summer in Berlin. He rode to me when I moved away from New York City because I thought my head would explode. One night in his apartment when he tried on all of his motorcycle clothes for me we made love.

“Maybe it’s him!” I’d think, every single time I heard the vrooming of a motorcycle this past year, my heart more aflutter each time. I’d try really hard not to walk to the window but I’d usually walk to the window. In the bathroom doing my makeup. Putting my bra on in the mirror. Writing at my desk with headphones. That sound. He came for me! It could be him! Better finish putting on my mascara before he comes and whisks me away.

That motorcycle is not for you. I remind myself now when I hear a motorcycle. That motorcycle is not for you. It will never be for you. Once I even thought: It would have been for you by now.

I study Sugar sentences the way I do Didion, the way I do my mother’s, the way I do my lover’s, my brother’s. Your Jesus is my mother is someone else’s turtle. Your lover is my brother is someone elses’s Sugar. Your Gaitskill is my Sugar is someone else’s Fante.

I’m going to talk about yoga right now and I have to mention Zoë Ruiz who writes for The Rumpus because one night I found her essays and fell in love with her writing. She says this about yoga:

I started practicing yoga. During various poses, I would suddenly relive certain events. Sometimes I wouldn’t necessarily remember events but I’d feel some sort energy become unblocked and then I would start sobbing in class. I know how this sounds. I also know the body remembers what the mind forgets.

This is true. This is why in Savasana I usually begin to cry. This is why, my teacher explains to me, that I struggle in pigeon pose—the hip opener. I try to scramble out. “Breathe into it,” he says. “Our hips carry our emotions,” he says. “Transcend the pain,” he says, “Use your breath to control your mind.”

Sugar writes:

I have breathed in acceptance and breathed out love. Sometimes I’ve breathed in gratitude and out forgiveness. Sometimes I haven’t been able to muster anything beyond the breath itself, my mind forced blank with nothing but the will to be free of sorrow and rage.

“There’s a white light coming from the top of your head,” my teacher says. “We are all divine,” he says. “Give the pose as an offering,” he says.

My own father says that when he reads Sugar columns he notices a common thread, that sometimes Sugar calls the question writer out on. My father says that what the questions are really asking are,  “Is it okay to be myself? Do you give me permission?”

Be a warrior for love, Sugar answers, when asked to give advice to people in their twenties.

People like me.

I go to yoga class every Saturday morning. I stay strong in the Warrior One pose. Hands bright. I feel sweat drip down between my breasts. I open my arms into Warrior Two. Sometimes my teacher pulls my hands higher. I think of my lover who did not choose me. I think of how my heart is broken. I think of Sugar. I think of truth. I think of my mother. I think of the man that proofread my manuscript and then told me while sitting on a green bench that it is okay for things to be over while we ate bagels and drank beers. I inhale: Your Jesus is my mother is someone else’s turtle. I remind myself that it is okay to be a warrior for love. I exhale loudly, because I can.

I like to try to picture Sugar, writing sometimes. Once she said she lights a candle when she writes. Once she said the column she was writing was bringing her to her knees. Once she said she couldn’t sleep. I am not at that candle and knee point. I could be, I’m going—like she said in her interview—I am not even halfway to where I am going but I think I’ve got it in me to go.


Chloe Caldwell is the author of the essay collection Legs Get Led Astray (Future Tense Books). Her nonfiction can be found on The Nervous Breakdown, Freerange Nonfiction, Mr. Beller's Neighborhood, and The Rumpus. She lives in upstate New York. You can learn more at www.chloecaldwell.com. More from this author →