Tag: ahh the mysteries of the universe
I’ve always been drawn to the things we’re not supposed to talk about. I remember the night when, toward the end of writing A Homemade Life, I got into bed, switched off the light, and suddenly was hit with a very bad idea, an almost electric impulse to write about my father’s death. I wanted to take it out of my head and put it somewhere else: the color of his skin, the strange percussion of his breath, the nurse calling up the stairs in the middle of the night. I wasn’t writing a book about my dad, and I wasn’t writing a book about death; I was writing a food memoir, tra la la, with fifty recipes and a cheery seafoam-green cover. But I got up the next morning and wrote the scene, because I couldn’t figure out how to avoid it. I felt the same way when I started to write Delancey, realizing that I couldn’t tell our story, or not in any way that felt complete, without exploring us from our most unflattering angles – and particularly me, as I bumbled and flailed, learning to trust and love someone whose dreams are much grander and riskier than my own. I felt the same draw again after June was born, when I was diagnosed with postpartum depression. If anything, I wish I’d written more about that, been less afraid. I was afraid.
I read The Argonauts last month, and Maggie Nelson puts it best:
Most of my writing usually feels to me like a bad idea, which makes it hard for me to know which ideas feel bad because they have merit, and which ones feel bad because they don’t. Often I watch myself gravitating toward the bad idea, as if the final girl in a horror movie (…). But somewhere along the line, from my heroes, whose souls were forged in fires infinitely hotter than mine, I gained an outsized faith in articulation itself as its own form of protection.
One night this past September, I was sitting in the bathroom with June (“Mommy, I have to go potty, and I need company”), and she asked, out of the ether, the way four-year-olds do, what happens when we die. I panicked a little and tried to hide it. I thought hard. I don’t know exactly, I said. Maybe anything we want can happen? We won’t have our bodies anymore, so we could do whatever we want: maybe fly like birds, or maybe swim like fish. “I want to be a fish!” June said. “I’ll be a pink fish. And you be a pink fish. And Daddy will be a purple fish, and we’ll all swim around together.” I sat on the wooden step stool that my second cousin gave us when June was born, with her name and birthdate spelled out in puzzle letters, my eyes full to the brim, not sure if I was happy or sad or some third thing. I want her always to think of her family with easy love and confidence, the way she does now.
Brandon and I separated over the summer. I live in the house that we bought almost six years ago, not far from Delancey, and he lives in an apartment near Dino’s. June calls our homes “the Delancey house” and “Dino’s house.” She lives with each of us for half of each week. Our lives have a lot of overlap: Brandon and I work together, text every day, and see each other many days of the week. We meet up for soup dumplings at Din Tai Fung most weekends. When June is with Brandon, he texts me funny things she says, and when she’s with me, I do the same. We hug when we see each other. We spent Thanksgiving together in New Jersey, with Brandon’s family and extended family around the long table, and when it came my turn to say what I was thankful for, I mostly cried into June’s hair. The shape of our family has changed, gotten weirder and more complicated and harder to define, but we are still a family. We’re just a family that doesn’t live in one house anymore, and that, sometime in 2017, won’t be married anymore.
Sometimes I see pictures of married couples, especially married couples with children, and I feel heavy. I don’t have particularly eloquent words for it – just loss, grief. It feels like a death. I never imagined June as a child of divorced parents. Sometimes it feels like we failed, like there’s something everyone else knows that we don’t, something everyone else is doing right. But then, other times, it doesn’t feel that way at all. We never stopped loving each other. Our marriage never failed. We never broke it. In some ways, it feels like we’ve actually had a huge success, like we’re actually succeeding right now – just in a way I didn’t predict, and a way that’s hard to explain.
About a year and a half ago, in June of 2015, I experienced something that I didn’t know could happen in adulthood. I found that my sexual orientation had changed. I wasn’t straight anymore. If you’d told me two years ago that this could happen to a person – that “sexual fluidity” was a thing, that the search term “late-blooming lesbian” is a real gold mine in Google – I would have nodded politely and privately, internally, rolled my eyes. Ha, riiiiight. Explain it however you want. Clearly she was closeted, and now she’s just coming out. I might have added, THAT’s one midlife crisis I’ve never heard of before. I’ve caught myself doing exactly that, thinking exactly that, when I’ve heard about people who’ve lived for years in the straight world – friends-of-friends, celebrities, strangers – coming out as gay, lesbian, or queer.
I remember learning, as a young kid, that my uncle Jerry was gay. As my family saw it and explained it to me, he was born that way. It’s who he was. These were the early days of the AIDS epidemic, “the gay plague,” as some brashly called it, and I remember debating with other kids in my conservative Oklahoma hometown, laboring to explain what I knew to be true: that gay people are born gay, the same way I was born with white skin and blue eyes. I thought then, and for a long time after, that each of us has some kind of essential self, a core or foundation, and that foundation is sturdy, dependable, unchangeable. There would be things that we could always count on, a sense of me that would be constant over a lifetime. Sexual orientation, of course, would be part of this. It is not a choice: no one chooses which genders they’re attracted to. But a year and a half ago – after 36 years of loving only men, and a decade of loving a particularly good one – something in me shifted without my permission, and it wouldn’t go back to the way it had been, no matter how hard I wished it would.
I could interrogate myself, park myself under fluorescent lights in a cinderblock room and go after myself like Vincent d’Onofrio in Law & Order. (No one can resist Vincent circa 2001, especially not me.) For most of last winter, I tried. For a good part of this past spring, I tried. I wound up with nothing but a quarantine-worthy case of hives, a month of spectacular anxiety, and my first-ever panic attack, which ultimately led to my coming out to my mother in a hospital emergency room at two o’clock in the morning, which I do not recommend. I wound up with nothing to show for it, except the realization that I haven’t always been, and won’t always be, the same me.
I’ve been slow on the uptake. My friend Konrad, who has known me since I was 22, says that my story has always been about self-discovery. “You’ve always been searching,” he says. “You thought you were finished, but you’re not.” I’m learning who I am, and I can’t stop.
I think the shift started, millimeter by millimeter, when June was born. Having a baby, having her, softened me. It broke me a little. It gave me first-hand knowledge of the fullness of joy and the emptiness of clinical depression. It made me appreciate my body, and femaleness, in a new way. It committed me to becoming the kind of person I want June to know and remember and be proud of. It committed me to being a person I want to parent her. It made me brave.
It also bound me to Brandon in a way that isn’t marriage, but something just as deep. There are many reasons, too many to name, why he has been my partner in life for almost a dozen years. Neither of us wants to toss that all away. He’s my best friend, and I’m his, and we’re willing to work hard so that we can always say that. I will tell him when his fly is unzipped, and he’ll be genuinely disgusted when I play Justin Bieber in the car. We will be parents together, and we’ll own restaurants together. We’ll share friends and colleagues, a wide community that has stunned and moved me with its unconditional support over the past seven months, since I began coming out.
Marriage is complicated. Not being married will be complicated. We’re choosing to keep what is good about us, us as an us – and to also have entirely new lives, other families, other loves. It’s horrible, and it’s nothing I would have chosen, and it’s also better than I could have ever imagined. I don’t know what word to call myself – gay, lesbian, bi, queer – and I don’t really care. I’ve known great love, and I feel lucky to still know it. I feel lucky to get to show it to June. I believe that Brandon and I will both know it again, with other people.
It’s terrifying to say this aloud. But not saying anything has made me feel disconnected from this place, and from this community. It started to feel like hiding, and I don’t want to hide, especially not from something that is so important to me. This site is a home I made before I knew Brandon, before June. It’s been the root of my community, both real and virtual, for more than twelve years. It’s been everything. It is everything.
Our friend David told me the other day that he’d recently reread the end of Delancey, and he suggested that I go take a look at it. “Just go look,” he said.
Brandon was 27 years old when we opened Delancey. I was thirty. I was married to him, but in a sense, I hardly knew him. I didn’t know that he had a head for business, or that he could lead people, or that, after going through the multi-year rigmarole of opening a restaurant, he would even still be interested in it. And I didn’t know that he would be right: that it would, in fact, realize everything that matters to us. I only learned that by letting him do it – “letting” in the very loosest interpretation, through clenched teeth and with a certain amount of screaming.
In return, I got to discover something in myself, albeit also with some screaming. I have never been good at change. But I thought somehow that, by throwing myself into Delancey, I could trick my system, beat change at its own game. I couldn’t. But Delancey did change me. I saw my own limits, walked right up to the edge and even over it once or twice, and I saw that I could be alright again. I could be more than alright: I could be happy. I learned that my life could reshape itself completely, and that, maybe if I stopped trying to fight it, or to hurriedly reshape myself before anything else did, I could instead let it slowly guide me, bend me, and bring me along. Brandon saw that before I did, I think; that’s why he helped get me out of the kitchen at Delancey. He let me go, so that I could let go.
We got to have a small victory in the end: a successful business. Of course, the story of that business is not finished. I don’t know what’s coming next, not really. But I hope that we can always do this: that I can let him go, that he can let me go, and that, wherever it takes us, we find the way back.
Today I come to you from Sitka, Alaska, where I’ve been since last Saturday, leading a writing workshop on memoir and place. I’m among the faculty for the first-ever Sitka Arts and Science Festival, a week of multi-disciplinary cross-pollination and collaboration dreamed up by the Sitka Fine Arts Camp and several local partners, with support from the National Endowment for the Arts. It’s been cool and misty almost every day, summer-in-Sitka-y. I didn’t bring enough clothing for this weather, even though, after fourteen years in the Pacific Northwest, I ought to know better. I’m re-wearing what I did bring. Today is day four for these leggings, day two for this sweatshirt. I’ve been wearing my cheap Uniqlo down vest, and it spits out tiny white…Read more
It seems lately that I’ve found a lot of good reasons to not cook – or, if I do cook, to not cook anything new or anything that requires more than a passing thought. I’m a big champion of scrambled eggs for dinner, as you likely know, and a seven-minute egg on anything that holds still, and I could eat Ed Fretwell Soup for an entire week of every month. I am currently in a very pleasant rut of all of the above, plus whatever-is-in-the-fridge-cut-up-and-dunked-in-vinaigrette and a decent amount of pizza from my own establishments, because what is the point of having restaurants if you can’t eat in them, right? Someday I will cook something new and write about it. But not today.…Read more
The three of us have that hanger-onner of a virus that’s going around. The past two nights, I’ve coughed myself to sleep in the basement guest room, and as anyone who’s ever coughed herself to sleep can tell you, it’s slow going. I use the time to think about pressing issues like how much I like the taste of original Ricola, or how it could be that Alice’s feet smell so exactly like buttered popcorn, or how much I prefer haunted, unsmiling, True Detective-era Matthew McConaughey over other Matthew McConaugheys, even with the long hair that makes him a ringer for my uncle. Or, if I’m really on my game, I use the time to write in my head. Two nights…Read more
Last night, it occurred to me that I had inadvertently neglected to write down something important: that June’s head smells like strawberry jam. I’ve thought about it for a long time, trying to make sure that was it, and now I’m certain: not strawberries, but strawberry jam. She smells like something I would like to eat on buttered toast. Now there’s a menu idea for Delancey. Brandon bought himself a record player as an early Father’s Day present, and he’s been buying old records left and right. The other day he came home with Cat Stevens’s Tea for the Tillerman. The next morning, before he woke up, June and I were hanging out, like we do every morning, and I turned on…Read more
My father wasn’t a writer, or not in the vocational sense, but he liked to play with words, and I grew up thinking of him as someone who wrote. He never made a big deal of it; writing was just something he did sometimes, a few quick lines on one of the index cards that he always kept in his shirt pocket. I haven’t seen a lot of his work – only a goofy poem he once jotted for me on a notepad from a medical conference he went to, and some haikus that we found in his bathroom drawer after he died. Many years ago, in a context that I now don’t remember, my mother told me that Burg…Read more
Ah. Okay. Where were we? Everything is happening at lightning speed. I have to get back to writing it down, or I’ll forget. One morning, you wake up and you’re 33 years old, with two dogs and a spouse and a refrigerator full of esoteric vermouths and amari, and the next morning, you wake up and you’re 34 years old, with two dogs, a spouse, and a 12-week-old child in a bouncy chair on the floor in front of the refrigerator. The other day at a doctor’s checkup, I actually told the nurse that I was 33, because I forgot that I’d had a birthday. 33, 34, same thing. In any case, I’m still a baby when I get a shot.…Read more
I am very happy to announce that June is here. I had my first contraction while sitting at the bar at Delancey last Friday evening, eating dinner with my mother, and went into early labor in the middle of the night. Twenty-nine hours later – after deafening my companions on the drive to the hospital; discovering that I wasn’t far enough along to be admitted; a few hours spent laboring on a bench on the nearby campus of Seattle University, scaring incoming freshmen into a lifetime of abstinence; and much care and encouragement from my saintly longtime doctor, the world’s finest doula, and a nurse named Wendy – our daughter June Elizabeth Alexander Pettit was born at 6:29 am on Sunday,…Read more
I’ve been out of town for the past week, helping with preparations for my cousin’s wedding in Oakland, and the whole time I was gone, I had the strangest feeling. It took me a long time to figure out what it was, because I’d never felt it before. Turns out, I missed writing. No offense to my cousin and her new husband. Those people know how to throw a party, the kind that blows out an amp and a subwoofer. But I missed writing. I missed writing! I know that probably seems like a perfectly normal thing to feel, given that writing is what I do. But the truth is, most of the time, I will do anything to avoid…Read more