One cloudless Saturday morning, last February, I sat alone on a bench, in
Long Island City, waiting for the bus. The street felt artificially
still, like a stage set. I had forgotten to listen to my boyfriend tell
me where he was going—to the office, maybe? I was distracted by the book
I was reading: “The
Idiot
,” by
Elif Batuman, in
which the main character,
Selin,
is in her freshman year at Harvard and in love. It’s “an amazing sight,
someone you’re infatuated with trying to fish something out of a jeans
pocket,” Selin thinks at one point. And later: “It felt insane to make a
plan to do something after I was going to meet with Ivan—like making
plans for after my own death.”


In March, I was in Galveston, in a rental apartment. Outside, it was
bright and windy, and the ocean was the color of chocolate milk. The
balcony door I’d propped open kept slamming closed. I was in bed in the
middle of the day, reading “Too Much and Not the
Mood
,” a
collection of essays by Durga Chew-Bose. The women she loves, Chew-Bose
writes, “never fare well when they run into someone and are forced to
reenter the world by speaking in banalities.” They’re calibrated, like
her attention, toward intimacy. “Your hot friend on a balmy summer night
telling you about some good news in her life is—How do I put this
without sounding absurd? It’s barometric.”


In April, I walked past the Sunday crowd exiting the Creole service at
the church near my apartment, and then went looking for a passage in
Patricia
Lockwood
’s
memoir,
Priestdaddy.”
Lockwood, who grew up in Missouri and Ohio, describes her
elementary-school classmates as having “fragile walks and pink pinpoints
on their knees and knuckles like outrageous emeralds.” Thousands of tons
of nuclear waste had been scattered in the topsoil near Coldwater Creek.
“But we could be cured of anything, we knew,” Lockwood writes. To love
God is to be sure of it. To “believe with that kind of wholeheartedness,
I can describe only from a distance, as you might describe a city on
fire,” she goes on. “It felt: like the axis of the earth exited through
my feet. Like I had grown a steeple. Like getting stopped at the top of
a Ferris wheel, alone in my seat and exhilarated, one sandal hanging off
the tip of my toe.”


In May, I was writing a lot, feeling constantly uneasy, and the
fragments in Sarah Manguso’s “300
Arguments

made things simultaneously better and worse. “I don’t love writing; I
love having a problem I believe I might someday write my way out of,”
she writes. And directly above that fragment: “I can’t believe this is
happening
, I thought the first time we fucked, fourteen years ago, and
keep thinking. We married other people, had children. I still can’t
believe it. I might never believe it.”


In June, I had jury duty. In line for the courthouse metal detector, I
read Samantha Hunt’s short-story collection “The Dark
Dark
,”
in which one character, new to motherhood, is “coursing with secret
genes and hormones and proteins. My body made eyeballs and I have no
idea
how
.”
She locks her husband out of the house. Through a glass door, they stare
at each other. “That’s something,” she thinks, “to be seen by another
human, to be seen over all the years. That’s something, too. Love plus
time.”


In July, I sat in a bakery and read Jenny Zhang’s “Sour
Heart
,”
a book about family that’s also a book about how love and cruelty
combine
.
A young woman remembers her desperately devoted grandmother, who “had
only a third-grade education and was teaching herself characters so that
she could write a book about her grandchildren. ‘The world needs to know
about you two,’ she said.” The young woman recalls, “For a moment, I was
moved. But I knew if either of us had any chance of growing up into the
kind of people that other people in this world would want to know about,
we had to leave her behind.”


In August, I stayed up late to read
Afterglow,”
Eileen Myles’s memoir about her pit bull,
Rosie
,
who spent several years on her deathbed, and looked, by the end of this
physical decline, like a battered Teddy bear. My own dog is as big as I
am and will live forever; I made her sit next to me on the couch. “You
were always my boat,” Myles writes. “You brought me space and peace. I
put you in the middle of my life and you never steered me wrong.”


In September, on an Acela train, I read “Her Body and Other Parties,” a
collection of stories by Carmen Maria
Machado
.
In one, the narrator gets gastric-bypass surgery, and starts to feel,
while recovering, that something is haunting the house. Her three
sisters, who’ve all had the same procedure, tell her that what she’s
feeling is her joy, her inner beauty, her former shame set free to roam.
One day, the narrator goes down to the basement and finds “a body with
nothing it needs: no stomach or bones or mouth.” This flesh, the
narrator realizes, will never leave her: “By loving me when I did not
love her, by being abandoned by me, she has become immortal.”


In October, I read “The
Answers
,”
a novel by Catherine Lacey. The protagonist, Mary, is hired into a
“Girlfriend Experiment”: a harem of women who together comprise the
perfect girlfriend for a rich, unsatisfied actor. (There’s an Emotional
Girlfriend, an Anger Girlfriend, a Maternal Girlfriend.) One day, Mary
takes MDMA on the job. “Love is a compromise for only getting to be one
person
,” she tells the actor, each cell of her body thrumming.


In November, on a flight across the Atlantic, I read
Spineless,”
by Juli Berwald, a book about jellyfish—creatures that I had always
thought of as solitary, floating around in a private alien reverie. But
until we started dumping large quantities of trash into the sea, Berwald
writes, jellyfish were “entire ecosystems.” Creatures clung to them the
way that they now cling to nets and garbage. Jellyfish let tiny
amphipods lay eggs in their interiors, let baby lobsters hitch rides on
their translucent glowing bells.


In December, on a recommendation from a new friend, I picked up a
yellowed copy of “Love
Story
,”
Ruth McKenney’s
memoir from 1950. In the first sentence, McKenney announces that she
married her husband twelve days after they met. “I had a vague, nervous
feeling that I had gone out of my mind, though I did not care,” she
adds. By page 281, their idyllic marriage has turned “lumpy and
irascible.” McKenney writes, “We supposed—and even said, bitterly—the
bloom was off our love, forever. But a tree can blossom more than once.”


After the holidays, I got incredibly sick of talking to people, and
decided to reread Claire Messud’s “The Emperor’s
Children
.”
In the novel, Danielle is desperate to spend a night with Murray, her
best friend’s father, with whom she’s been conducting a clandestine
affair. She visits Murray’s country house, watches his daughter and wife
make pies and talk about the weather, and feels electrified by the
sensation that “something was about to happen. Because how could it not?
So much emotion was pent up in her that surely it must—like telepathy,
like ghosts—move furniture, people, events.” She pauses outside Murray’s
bedroom, and tries to tempt him while he’s manning the grill. “Later, by
herself, she sat at the table and watched the fireflies flicker across
the lawn in the dusk, and breathed the damp blue air,” Messud writes.
“Murray, fetching the grill tongs to be washed, paused a moment behind
her in the dark, and placed his hand full on her crown like a warm cap.”

In January, I met a friend at a bar and learned that she had just reread
the book, too. It was the third or fourth time for both of us, and yet
we’d both looked up the same new word at the end of this chapter: “He
said nothing, and was gone; but it was all she had wanted; benison.”

“Benison,” my friend said. “What a perfect word!”

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