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.”
You often yearn to understand people’s simplistic dismissal of racism, but you know all too well that skin color isn’t skin deep. It permeates into even the darkest corners of you, as if somehow it attaches to the oxygen you breathe. With each gasp for air you are filled with the very thing that left you breathless to begin with. Wandering and lurking in the shadows, there is no place to hide. You think you learned to leave your body and coach each movement and sound your limp figure makes from some place above, somewhere between the slightly offended looks and comments you weren’t supposed to hear. The ones that are said in conversation around round cherry-wood tables in the back corners of overpriced, dimly lit restaurants, and cause a stifled chuckle amongst the guests. The person who made the joke looks around cautiously because in his haste to regurgitate the punch-line he didn’t make sure to check who was around. To check if you were around. Perhaps, in hushed tones and mutual understanding as eyes locked, it is the excitement of your presence, your inability to do anything, that made the joke funny to begin with. For what could you have done?
You used to love puzzles as a kid, though somewhere along the way, configuring disassembled images of Mars or sunny gardens in the Italian countryside turned into scrupulously piecing together the lesser-known parts of the White Mind. You learned to hear the joke before it rolled off the tongues of mouths that don’t know the meaning of “No.” It’s off-putting quality lingering in your ear, tingling in the farthest part of your eardrum.
You think the difference between black and white, the reason why “not seeing color” won’t make your problems efface, is that you feel the floor under your feet. They do not.
When the clean-cut white man wearing a charcoal gray suit who smells slightly of expensive cigar smoke, and on his collar, the perfume of a young Parisian woman, walks in, he takes up space. Prancing from one side of the room to another, arms frolicking in the air like a wet dog trying to shake its coat dry. He speaks loudly. You feel your stomach-turning, imagining the feeling of hungry eyes devouring your body if you were to take up that much space, make that much noise. You fantasize about the feeling of weightlessness of walking without a border. A life not bound by an invisible fence or taut leash that grips your neck, ever so slightly tightening with each step forward. You imagine the blissful sensation of oblivion. Now deep in your fantasy, salivating, like a lion who has just laid eyes on a weak zebra, eager with anticipation; you crave to not know the exact pattern of the tile on the floor. You wish you did not have to analyze each crack and divet, making sure that you don’t take a wrong step in a wrong place in your wrong body. Though you try to stay in the lines, you feel like you are oozing out of your allotted space, like a spilled drink or overbearing boss who knows no boundaries.
Your nose feels wide, the base widening at an impossibly fast pace, engulfing the rest of your features. It feels as if your face is melting, contorting and morphing into some unrecognizable caricature. You feel the weight of your legs and the jiggle of your thighs and that part of your arm that hangs when you hold it out. You think of that bottle of maple syrup that would face you during Sunday brunch, Aunt Jemima’s exuberant smile staring back at you. Her huge lips and seemingly boneless nose that droops, disgusts you. You feel shame; like an uncomfortable burning sensation in your stomach, but you can’t help but feel repulsed by the possibility that they may draw parallels.
You approach the register and you correct your posture, silently reprimanding yourself for your casual outfit. You feel unclean as if you’ve just rolled out of bed and here you are, tainting this perfectly clean world. You smile and say thank you before the woman has even done anything to be thankful for. You contemplate your order unsure of the connotation each item holds. What does a sandwich say? You look up as you anxiously wait for your friend to decide what he’d like, seeing the slight disdain on the server's face as if somehow she’s angry with you for his indecisiveness. By the time you walk away you’ve said thank you five times and your cheeks are sore from forcing a smile you didn’t quite feel like sharing. You are happy because the “you’re welcome” after your last thank you seemed more genuine than the last.
It scares you that there is so little exaggeration in your mind. You wish that each thought, each analysis of your surroundings is somehow a made-up story you’ve fabricated in your head, but then again - you’ve mastered the art of creeping inside of the White Brain and watching the world through their eyes. Carefully unfolding each piece of their thought-process like an old treasure map you found in your grandparents attic when you were seven. You know exactly what’s behind each hollow glance and muffled whisper to their husband or wife or old friend who grew up on the same street as them and doesn’t care to know anything more than the small world they grew up in. A worldview contained to freshly paved suburban roads and neatly manicured lawns. A world in which you have no place.
You wish to feel angry at them for refusing to see you. For not wanting to learn or change or grow. For staying stagnant as the world moves around them. Instead you crave their praise. Desperate pleads for admiration (though you’d settle for acceptance) hidden behind exaggerated smiles and words too big to be used casually. When your eyes meet, but they never truly look into each other, you understand. You don’t blame them for their coldness because you are comfortable with the knowledge that you exist in a world of stifled aspirations and dreams that find their way into the breath that blows out birthday candles, that will never be actualized.
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.