On the road to perfection it’s wisest to stop a few steps short of the finish line. I’ll illustrate by way of a story I once read in a French women’s magazine. The magazine posed the following question to unfaithful husbands: “Under what circumstances did you first betray your wife?” I’ll tell it in my own words because I can’t lay my hands on the original.
I am—a certain gentleman confided—the owner of a rather prosperous antique store. My wife is distinguished by great beauty; she tends her looks and accents them expertly. Her clothing is tasteful and appropriate. She instills proper morals in the children... Thanks to her, everything runs smoothly at home. Everything has its place, which gleams with cleanliness. The home-cooked meals are delicious, calorically balanced, aesthetically presented, and punctual. My wife moreover is prudent and tactful, and thus lands on her feet in any situation. My friends think I’ve found the ideal spouse.
And I shared their opinion—up until the day when a certain girl walked into my shop. She wasn’t particularly pretty or attractive, and was dressed in cut-rate, unbecoming rags. Her jacket was missing a button and she had dirty sneakers on her feet. She shyly asked the price of a necklace in the window. It wasn’t expensive, but it was too much for her. She was about to leave when suddenly, with a careless gesture, she bumped into a stand holding a costly Chinese vase.
The vase shattered into pieces. She looked in horror first at me and then at the shards—then plunked down on the floor and started bawling like a child. I was dumbstruck, but various thoughts kept drifting through my mind. For example, that my wife has never bumped into anything. That I’d never seen her cry. That even were she to burst into tears, she’d certainly never do it on the floor. And her tears would be crystal clear, since she used only the mascara manufactured by the famous firm of X. . . . Overcome with emotion, I knelt beside the girl, embraced her, and wiped the streaks of black tears away with my impeccably white handkerchief. . . . And that’s how it all began, the straying antiquarian sighed in his final sentence.
I don’t care. It’s still the first lie I tell myself in the morning, and often the last as I climb into bed. These days, I wear no make-up and I like saying that out loud; I take some kind of pride in the purple circles under my eyes. But the truth is that I do care, and meanwhile, I’m sneaking sidelong glances in the mirror. I am confined by my body as much as anyone else, and I’m trying desperately not to try, but a guilty part of me is still obsessed. I celebrate my womanhood as much as I struggle with it, but in any case, my womanhood extends beyond my intellectual convictions. Sometimes, I do like the empowerment of pulling on my sweatpants and leaving my hair limp. Other times, I think that beauty really is worth endless pain.
These are things that I would never say out loud. I like my mask of intellect and carelessness; it’s less messy than make-up, and more consistent with the woman I was taught to be.
I hear that at the Great Schools of Art, they say “make” rather than “take” a photograph. This confers originality on the maker, I suppose, and defines the craft as creative rather than documentary, as more art than as scrapbooking. They eschew the work of Ansel Adams, which I am told is kitschy, or cliché. I disagree, and his picture of Grand Teton sits atop my dresser, proudly on display. But for the most part, the photos I myself have taken are nowhere to be seen. Some I hang up in lieu of posters, because I’m scared of dipping into the poster bin and coming up with that same Bob Marley poster that you have. But the vast majority never see the light of day.
Nevertheless, I’ve taken more pictures than ever this year, including many self-portraits, aka “selfies” (I left my camera’s memory card in the computer lab once, and when I came back to look for it several days later, the attendant identified me as the owner without my saying a word).
I started taking them as jokes to send back to my friends, but I keep taking them because to my eyes, I look different in each and every one. I wish for a definitive portrait. I want someone to shoot me, print me out and hand me to me, telling me, “This is so you.” I want a portrait that captures the way I actually look, no better or worse, and shows my essence so unequivocally that a nickname can be inferred from it. Then I want to take that nickname, go find a wife with the same one, and settle into a little house with a kitchen drawer full of well chosen take-out menus, a fridge full of lemonade, a basement teeming with kiddy sports gear, and walls covered with flattering portraits of me and my family looking absolutely like ourselves and feeling definitively so, too. I’ve always wanted the superpower to x-ray people for nonphysical characteristics: I’d scan someone top to bottom, and my contraption would detect their every idiosyncrasy, bias and bend, all the little bits of influence and fear that they’ve incurred, and render a summary report with uncanny accuracy and elegance on a transparent slide the size of a poster-board. Then I’d hold up mine right on top and see where we overlap and where we don’t, and I’d be that much closer to definitive.
High and Dry
In high school, you made a list in your notes app of all the people who’ve ever made you cry. You also made a list of all the people you ever thought about fucking. The overlap between the two lists is concerning. You quit competitive sports after tenth grade. You say you like camping, but that’s a lie. You also say you’re proud of the person you’re becoming; this is also a lie.
Jigsaw Falling Into Place
For a while you thought you wanted to major in Environmental Studies in college. You ended up majoring in Economics, because you realize you don’t actually have morals. You didn’t cry when your childhood dog died. You have unspecified intimacy problems.
Everything in Its Right Place
You think you are the SHIT. I mean, everything you do is in its right place. It doesn’t matter that your dad never told you he was proud of you. That college level math class you’re taking totally compensates for the fact that you’ve never felt good enough. You really like camping. Academia is overrated.
You probably majored in philosophy in college. You had a questionable upbringing, but nothing traumatic enough occurred to excuse the fact that deep down, you’re not sure if women are equal to men. Oh, and you are a woman.
Please, go fuck yourself.
Fake Plastic Trees
Your situation is bad. I mean, really bad. You also listen to A Tribe Called Quest. You like Kurt Vonnegut a little too much.
Sorry about your daddy issues. At least your emotionally suffocating mom was always there!
Exit Music (For A Film)
Your parents separated, but never got a legal divorce. Sometimes you still had family dinners, which was confusing. You grew up hating your body. Stand-up paddle boarding. “What she doesn’t know won’t hurt her” is something you live by. You seriously thought about majoring in physics. Come to think of it, you’re not sure if they were ever legally married at all.
A lot of unspoken family tensions. Your parents have always annoyed the living shit out of you, and at this point, you’re not sure how many siblings you really have. You tell people you’re two inches taller than you actually are. How many times have you seen your parents fight? Sure you “play” the guitar. You’ve thought about painting your nails just to hide that you don’t necessarily respect all women.
I’ve been having more apples. And I’ve switched to European time. 8 P.M. feels like the beginning of the last four hours of the day now. I can get better sleep.
Can you get out?
What is the ancient Egyptian god--that’s ancient Egypt--that had the head of a jackal?
You know this already? Ha. Well, yes.
Okay. How many U.S. presidents have died in office?
Who was the first president to be born a United States citizen? United States now, you know, you’ve got to first be born in the United States.
God, you read all this stuff? All right, next question. How many billionaires are there in the world? Billionaires.
Put your mask on.
You all can follow me right this way.
There’s a seat about two rows behind me, quivering against the train like a snare roll without a rhythm or those wind-up teeth toys every country store stocks, religiously. It creaks, creaks with every quiver, too. It shouldn’t annoy me, but it reminds me of the five- or six-year-old who would vocalize his mouth movements while eating. Out the window, a seagull takes a shit into the air and it disappears over reed viced in a frozen marsh.
Like a gustatory version of MTV’s “Cribs,” r/FridgeDetective lets you creep the interiors of various users’ refrigerators and extrapolate assumptions about their lives, whereabouts, and income levels. Some users posit hyper-specific theories about the folks behind the fridges, while others argue about the nutritional value of eggs. The posts vary, but it’s the extremes that elicit the most inspired projections. In response to a fridge packed exclusively with plastic water bottles, one user wrote, “You’re 42 years old. Female. You live in the Pacific Northwest. Near Grangeville Idaho, but you work across the border in Oregon. ... You read Chaucer, but hate it.”
Everyday, I pass by the multiple shops on Cypress Street. Being one of the busiest roads in the town, there aren't many parking spots, not exactly the ideal situation for businesses. Each year, one of the six or so shops located on the strip will close down, only to be replaced by a business that tries its hardest, but follows the same path as the predecessor, inevitably it closes down. It is common on Cypress Street to see workers tearing down the interior and scraping decals off the windows of a newly closed business. Amongst the rapid change of scenery though, there is a shop that has stood firm since the early 1900’s. New Paris Bakery, owned by Rula, is a timeless asset to the Brookline community. I can recall many memories of dinner get-togethers at the houses of family friends, a box of New Paris Bakery’s chocolate eclairs was a routine dessert.
Being inside the Bakery is like a time machine. It features a checkered tiled floor, vintage cash register and old-fashioned pastries. There is even a black and white framed picture of the bakery during the 1940’s. In it, you can see classic cars and a few people walking down the street wearing traditional American clothes from that time period. It all made it feel like you were 50 years or so in the past.
I hadn’t thought about the Bakery for a while until a few days ago, when my mother came home from work with a box of Rula’s pastries. I then decided I would pay Rula a visit, and come prepared with a few questions. Rula didn’t remember me at first, but when I told her my name she gave me a big hug and a free chocolate eclair. I asked her how the bakery came to be, and how she ended up working there. She explained that her grandfather, Constantine, was a Greek immigrant who initially opened the bakery in February of 1915 at 407-Boylston street in Boston. Eventually, they moved it to where it is today, Cypress street, Brookline. As a matter of fact, Rula recalled that Constantine used to own my house before it was sold to a family, who would then resell it to my mother and father a decade later. Everyday, Constantine took a break from work and strolled to his house to siesta. This was comically fascinating to me because I, too, take short naps, only I do them when I get home from school. Perhaps me and Constantine shared more in common than just living in the same house. Rula went on to disclose how she married Jimmy, who was a painter. They both felt a deep desire to own a business and in the end, they purchased the bakery from Constantine 34 years ago. They inherited Constantine’s recipes, which she still uses to this day.
It was during this conversation that I became aware of the importance of small family businesses like Rula’s. All over greater Boston, shops like Tatte Bakery have been popping up left and right. Tatte is a respectable bakery, though pricey, it has some quality desserts to offer. The issue with shops like Tatte though, is that neighborhoods start becoming identical to each other. New Paris Bakery is one of the shops that preserves the individuality of Brookline. The pastries are made by historic, family recipes that have their own unique touch. Rula owns the bakery in which she works, whereas I'm sure the owner of Tatte does not make a physical appearance in her bakeries. Since Rula takes the bus to and from the bakery everyday, spends hours crafting the same foodstuffs that will fill the shelves, her products are altogether more personal and high-quality than chain bakeries. I have shared many nurturing moments with Rula. Like helping her bake at the back of her store when I was 8, eating the cakes she would make for me on my birthday. Moments like these are important, they are what help make up my quilt of childhood memories. I’m sure other kids from Brookline can say the same, I know for a fact that I am not the only one who grew up eating pastries from Rula. If New Paris Bakery never existed, replaced by a big chain bakery business, then I would never have been able to live those memories. A small piece of my love towards Brookline would be scrapped.