Between baking classes and tapas tastings, I found it – the Groupon that would take my e-coupon virginity. ‘Gotham Writers’ One-Day Intensive Workshop – $49.’
“It’s like… $100 cheaper than usual. Should I do it?” I asked my then-boss.
“Yeah, mama. Why not?”
If you‘d told us then that I would quit my marketing job months later after three years of loyal servitude, we would’ve laughed in unison – a nervous, chuckling church bell of a laugh, a hollow sounding thing.
I’d taken classes before. Free open houses. You’d show up for an hour-long class and review narrative voice, you’d write a paragraph or two, and then they’d send you home with your professor’s email address and a pamphlet of course offerings. They would follow up with you two days later like a schoolboy checking in after a first date, coaxing you into something more long term – and for a price, of course. I couldn’t see myself committing to classes back then, though. My job was unpredictable and I felt overwhelmed by the simplest of obligations; returning phone calls and taking out the trash.
But a One-Day Intensive? I could commit to that. I purchased the deal, called it a late birthday present or an early Christmas gift, and scheduled a Personal Essay class a few months down the road. My boss applauded my pursuing a hobby; my boyfriend confessed that he’d flirted with the idea of enrolling me in classes as a gift. I appreciated the support from the two of them – but more so, I appreciated that this was something I’d decided to do for myself. I counted the days (there were many) and felt excited for the first time in a long time.
The holidays shuffled by and took with them the comfortable din I’d become accustomed to, the background noise replaced with a telling silence. Things began to change – some of them, irreversibly so. The less serious, but more immediate change was the one my relationship succumbed to. It had gone from something living and breathing to a dead thing, one that would conjure up a twitch every now and then. Finally, the last rogue nerve gave up; there were no more surprise jolts. It was over, and it felt much colder than the mild winter suggested.
The days peeled back, revealing little bits of the months ahead. There were mornings I couldn’t face without small white pills and nights that I discovered how very weak I could be. And in between, there was work – not a refuge from my mess of a personal life like I’d hoped. Work was relentlessly painful – the combined effect of grinding teeth and a perpetually agitated Funny Bone. In good times and bad, the relationship had blinded me, allowed my job to strip away my resolve without my knowing. I woke up one day and discovered I was miserable.
The class came on a Saturday in March. I awoke wearing all of my clothes from the night before – this had become normal, comfortable. It was a ritual of sorts – this kind of desperate drinking that found me face down in a sea of pillows come morning; jeans on and clenching my winter coat like there was still a warm body in it. I reached out for a glass of stagnant water, one of many that littered my bedside table. My throat was full of sandpaper. I wanted to stay in bed all day, that was what my weekends had become, but the workshop was the only thing I’d looked forward to in months and I couldn’t stand myself if I spent one more day alone with an idle mind.
I arrived at Xavier High School, iced coffee in one hand and bottled water in the other. It felt like the first day of college – the hangover, the registration desk, the not knowing what I was looking for. I sat in a classroom that housed adolescent boys during the week and watched the women file in. Woman after woman after woman. By the time the classroom had filled, there were about sixteen women of varying ages occupying a half-moon of desks.
Our professor, who bore a disarming resemblance to Tina Fey, launched into a monologue about her name. At the end of it, she announced that our first exercise would be writing a quick narrative about our own names. Then we’d read them aloud. I felt betrayed by her immediately. Don’t you know the inside of my throat is coated with dry air? That I’m dehydrated? Don’t you know we write so we don’t have to talk?
We jotted down stories about our names. When it came my turn to read, my voice crackled like a dud firework. I remember thinking, “Why did I give up cigarettes if I’m still going to sound like this?” I complained about the perceived masculinity of a girl’s name ending in ‘e,’ and how I despised my middle name as a child. Hope is a word and not a name, I wrote, one that sounds prettier in Greek (Elpida) or Spanish (Esperanza). I felt stupid writing this, and worse reading it aloud, but I didn’t feel alone.
Next, we wrote about our pet peeves. Each woman defined herself; using their husband as a point of reference more frequently than not. “I hate the way my husband clanks and clangs the dishes when he’s putting them in the dishwasher,” the hefty woman with the deep laugh wrote. “I got my husband a tissue the other day as though I was the one who needed it – without any thought – as though his nose were my own,” the other hefty woman (this one with a nasally voice) read. That’s not even a pet peeve, I thought. Another woman wrote that she hated the way she had to defend herself constantly because she’d never been married. I wrote about how my boss seemed to be perpetually exhausted from all of the vacations she masked as work trips. “Must be hard,” I wrote.
There wasn’t any room for that, though. We were going to write about men. We were going to devolve into a therapy session. We’d hear one woman’s story of how she’d gotten pregnant out of wedlock during the ‘60s, the father of the baby shipped off to Vietnam with not so much as a goodbye. We’d hear the nasally tissue lady talk about how her love for her husband was crippling (not that she was complaining) and the deep laugh lady playfully chastise her husband for not performing chores to her liking as she laid about the house, directing him. We’d hear the woman who never married defend and denounce her decision in the same breath.
One woman wrote about how her father could only acknowledge her son’s birthday as The Day He Had A Heart Attack (X) Years Ago, how it angered her that he would define that day not by new life, but by near death. While that woman read, I looked to her right. Her daughter sat by her side, a teenager who was far younger than the rest of us. I found myself staring at her often that day. During one of the exercises, her mother wrote a detailed account of what it’s like to be a mom. She described with unmitigated pride the pleasure she finds in watching her daughter grow up. I found similar joy watching her daughter – as her mother threw heaps of praise onto her small frame; she didn’t blush or buckle in shame the way I would’ve at that age. She didn’t wiggle away from her mother’s grasp and she didn’t seem embarrassed. She seemed grateful.
After a few hours, we’d found a rhythm – one woman would write something, and the rest would psychoanalyze it. I was mentally exhausted by the time our last exercise rolled around. Our professor asked us to write whatever we wanted, so I wrote about stealing over 100 Young Adult novels from the Brooklyn Public Library when I was ten, about how I’d finally been caught by my mother after a year of petty theft. “Where was your father when you were caught?” one of the women asked. “Away on business. I begged my mother not to tell him – he still doesn’t know!” I laughed. “Do you think you were acting out because your father was away?” another said. The older women clucked their tongues and nodded along, “Ooh, mmhmm.”
I’d told this story millions of times and not once, not once in fifteen years had anyone suggested that I’d been stealing books because my dad had been away on business one time. The thought had never crossed my mind. “No,” I said, “I don’t think so.” I felt resentful. Do we have to sum up every experience by what a man did or didn’t do? Is this what it’s like to grow older? All I wanted in that moment was to hear from the quiet teenager in the corner, the one who hadn’t been tainted, the one who seemed wiser than all of these women combined.
And I did. When it was her turn, she read her essay out like a song, voice light and steady like a ticklish bird. “My essay is about overcoming my fear of heights,” she said. She went on to describe the day she climbed an enormous tree, the pit in her stomach, the knowing that she’d climbed too high to turn back. She described jumping and falling back down to the earth, the weightlessness, the fear washed away by the river that broke her fall. She jumped three more times after that.
The girl sat across the room, unaware of her profound simplicity. I looked down at my notebook, the crumpled words I’d committed to paper, and wished desperately to turn the page.