“It’s just like the Justin Bieber song!”
“Wait, what song?”
“Wait, I need to find the lyrics.”
I was lying on my back in the sun of a Culver City backyard, describing to A over the phone the neuroses I’d stirred up in the days prior—days spent at AWP, the giant, annual writers conference that Minneapolis hosted last year and for which, last week, I (along with 14,000 other poets and writers) sojourned to LA.
One reason I’ve been on a deliberate hiatus from dating is because of the way it tends to provoke tornado-force anxieties and emotions–things that would be a major (if not undesired) distraction from the intense self-work with which I’m now engrossed.
This hiatus goes most smoothly when I am home: in the quiet company of some poems and plants, a girlfriend or two, snacks and Spotify and a Manhattan or wine.
Things complicate when I leave the house.
Outside, more dynamic variables emerge. And at this particular conference, such variables included an overwhelming incidence of intellects, hormones, feelings and alcohol such that it would have been hard for the most resilient, rooted of creatures to avoid a poor choice or two. (As one friend put it, “AWP is all about bad decisions.”)
Still, I might have made bad decisions (too many books at the bookfair! a lackluster panel!) with consequences more emotionally benign.
Also, after four consecutive nights of very slim sleep (sharing a hotel room with three beloved girlfriends is dreamy, but not conducive to a whole lot of rest), I felt roughly as though I were being continuously struck by a truck.
Which brings me back to the Culver City backyard, where I was lucky to find a welcoming batch of longtime family friends from Brooklyn–along with their shaggy-eared pup, Biscuit, who quickly and blessedly sensed my tender-heartedness and swiftly replied with an aggressive course of licking and snuggles.
And, to my emergency phone call with A–who responded, for the first time in the history of our friendship, with Justin Bieber lyrics.
“How do you not know this song?”
I rolled an arm over my forehead. “I don’t know how to answer that.”
“Oh here it is, I found them.” She got through a few verses of his (apparently quite popular!) ditty (if I’m going to sound ancient I may as well sound ancient) What Do You Mean, before declaring that she felt “ridiculous” and that I should just look it up.
The gist, lest, like me, you are not up on Bieber’s latest, is this: women are confusing.
A thought of it because I had been describing my own behavior–in relation (in the days/weeks prior) to both men and my mother, as, in a word, confused.
Apparently, (thanks, Justin!) I’m not alone.
A central set piece of AWP is the hotel bar: once the masses pass through some daily parade of panels, readings, and the florescent vortex of the giant Bookfair, a good number gather in the Hilton/Marriott/Radisson lobby to drink, preen, network and gawk.
The Marriott in downtown LA is adjacent to the Staples Center, which resulted in a late-night scene featuring a mix of poets and Laker/Knight fans equal parts amusing and bizarre.
For the first few nights, in addition to whatever crew of grad school friends and Minneapolis writers were around, I felt rooted in that chaotic mix by the happy company of a well-known poet with whom I struck up an unexpected friendship at last year’s AWP. (You guys are kind of like Winnie the Pooh and Piglet, N whispered to me as we sat together in the back of a panel on Intuition vs. Intention; I giggled, then hesitated, turned to her. Wait, am I Piglet? She tilted her head in a sympathetic nod. Yeah, she said. I think so.)
But by Saturday night, he had left–as had N. My other roommates went to bed early. I linked up with a Minneapolis friend, then lost her in the shuffle.
I found myself alone.
I felt adrift–a sensation that surfaced as panic. Was I not attractive or important or accomplished enough to be significant? What would people think, seeing me by myself?
I beelined to the bathroom. Redid my lipstick and hair. Stared in the mirror. Eavesdropped on a conversation about battling body odor during twelve hour stretches in the convention center. Breathed. Remembered that most people are concerned, primarily, with themselves.
I went back out into the lobby, where i found a seat at a near empty table and talked to a series of two poets from the Pacific Northwest–one who looked as though he’d stepped out of an accounting office, and another from a Portlandia episode. I went to the bar to get a drink, which led to behaving confusingly toward someone I’d (likely) confused earlier in the Conference, which led to feeling more confused myself, and (inordinately) irritated. I found some friends on a couch and joined them.
“You’re staring in to the middle distance,” one observed. “And looking kind of sad.”
She was right. I went to bed.
On Monday, it was overcast and cool in Minneapolis. I wandered around Powderhorn in a daze: I’d taken a redeye and barely slept at all before having to teach. I didn’t have anything to do that night, but didn’t want to go to sleep before dark, and couldn’t focus enough to read or write.
I tried calling a few friends; none answered. Thought about calling my parents. Remembered I didn’t want to. Texted with a couple pals about meeting up, but schedules didn’t align.
I crossed the bridge over I-35 and looked down at the steady streams of traffic and felt an echo of the Marriott lobby on Saturday night–the sensation of being adrift, unsteady, acutely alone.
I decided on a destination: the co-op (I was starving) and brought a salad to the coffee shop, where, I’d figured out, a friend was working. Another friend stopped by on her way home for a quick update on my trip.
“I’ve never seen you look so tired,” she said, and demanded that I immediately sleep.
By Tuesday, I felt a lot like the bookshelf I recently bought at a Salvation Army that, despite looking pretty together in the store, once in the parking lot, collapsed entirely.
I fell onto my therapist’s couch like that particleboard on the asphalt as I began to narrate the encounters still stirring me, the sensation of feeling adrift that kept echoing.
“I don’t think you’re drifting,” she said. “I think you’re rooted in yourself.”
I told her about my guilt for sending conflicting messages to my mother, and to men.
“Of course you are,” she said. “You’re conflicted.”
“Right,” I said.
It’s cliche to remark the gulf between what we want and what we need. But that gulf is rooted in a very deep truth.
Rationally, I know what I need: to disconnect from certain relationships, and abstain from (emotional, romantic) intimacy.
But, emotionally, I am a person. And as a person, I desire (emotional, romantic) intimacy. Due to the issues I’m trying to sort through, though, I am prone to desire the wrong kind.
Knowing what we need, unfortunately, does not–immediately, and maybe not ever–alter what we desire.
Put another way (by my therapist to whom I should probably outsource my blog/all future writing): You can’t control who you’re attracted to.
This is, in a word, confusing.
And can feel, in moments, like a bummer. But in others, even in this last week when I have felt buried under layers of emotion like I haven’t in a while, it can feel–oddly–empowering.
I may feel conflicted, but at least I’m aware that I do. And, at least, I’m working toward uncovering some deeper place that can hold those conflicts with less neuroses, and a little more calm.