My ambition these days is to want nothing outside myself.
I used to have a poet boyfriend who would say things like this and, in between dumpster diving and boxcar hopping, write poems about being unemployed or sticking what little money he did have under the bark of trees. This infuriated me. Why couldn’t he just be normal, with a normal job and a normal income and normal ambitions? But I get him now and wonder: What would it be like to live life without the constant desire for something more?
Sometimes I fantasize about shaving off my long hair and retiring to the hermitage in the valley behind my parents’ house. I imagine how serene and cleansing it would be to live in a room with a handmade desk and a bed covered by a quilt and sunlight filtered through stained glass.
When I told my parents about my ascetic wishes, my mother replied, “You don’t need to shave your head. That wouldn’t look very pretty.”
“That’s the whole point,” I said. I told her how I wanted to give up my vanity, cut through all the superficiality, get back to what’s real. I told her I thought it would be amazing to live in some ashram in India for a while, but maybe I’d settle for the hermitage instead. I could write all day, then come up to the house for dinner.
She thought about this for a moment, then said, “Well, I think that’s all fine, but you still don’t need to cut off your hair.”
It’s hard to pinpoint the exact moment when my wanting became a problem. Sometimes I think it was at seventeen, when I was a Mennonite girl from a dead-end dirt lane, determined to leave for the Big City, for college, for a career and money and high-heeled shoes and shorn hair, and to have absolutely nothing more to do with the hilltop Mennonites. Other times I think it began later, after I got Cs in chemistry and dropped out of the pre-med program, sometime during the short-skirts-and-dirty-bars era. Usually, though, I think the wanting problem began the summer before my senior year in college, with the nice Jewish boy from Orange County, the shining boy wearing his ironed shirt and smelling of new-car leather and salt and skin. It began with the boy. I fell in love.
But then I couldn’t stop it, couldn’t stop the falling or pleading or fighting or loving or wanting — especially wanting — all of him, even if things between us were tortured and wrong, even if getting what I wanted meant giving up everything I had, quitting school and my job, quitting friends and food, quitting my family, quitting getting out of bed. I wanted a shady bedroom where I could stay with him forever. Instead I found myself pale and weak, crouched in a corner. I wanted for him never to leave me, please, I’ll be different and better, I’ll be who you want me to be, don’t leave, I hate you, I love you, and please please please don’t leave, and then we both flew across the country to fix ourselves in pastel-colored treatment centers, we were addicted to each other, they told us, and I wanted to make myself better, I wanted to be perfect for him, but I couldn’t, and I wasn’t, and then he broke up with me, and I was left there in the burning desert, having wanted my way into poverty in every sense of the word.
I had been raised not to want, not to whine for the scrubbed white bathtub when my aunts insisted we all wash our hair in a basin. Some Mennonite practicality dictated that our long hair would clog the bathtub drain, so instead we adjourned to a damp basement room with a large, rusted drain at its middle. There, my aunts removed their head coverings and pulled out pins and dismantled their twists of dark hair, which bounced in long coils down their backs and caught the light like corn silk. They transformed from middle-aged Mennonite women to barefoot girls as their brown hair fell down their backs and fanned out around their faces. It turned black as they poured cupfuls of water over it, shampooed, rinsed, and conditioned. When they were done, they wrapped off-white towels around their heads like bandages.
Liz, Leona, Clara — none of them had married. Liz kept house for pay. Leona worked at a day care, Clara at the meat locker. A battery-operated AM/FM radio on the kitchen counter played contemporary Christian hits next to a blue thermos of coffee from which they filled their white cups. They smiled and joked in their gentle way. From time to time they had male “friends” who took them to dinner or called them on the beige wall phone.
Clara eventually married at fifty-eight, Leona at sixty-seven. Liz, the matriarch, remains single, a shining woman with hair the color of snow. Lately she’s started asking me questions at Thanksgiving, after she’s had too much coffee: Am I interested in having babies someday, and might I have any “special friends”? She tells me about the men who proposed to her years ago, and I ask why she said no.
“Well, I was scared,” she says, as if this should be evident. She wraps her warm hand around my forearm. “I was so young. What did I know then?”
No matter how many times I try to write about my wanting, the story never makes sense the way I want it to. Already I feel I’ve failed to mention important parts, like this:
That college boyfriend once sent me a postcard, even though I lived just across town. The postcard had a photo of a Japanese tidal wave on it. I taped it to the wall by my bed, and on those nights when I couldn’t be with him, I stared at it. Later, in the dark days of our relationship, I began to dream I was standing on a pebbled beach beneath marbled skies. In the distance a black wave approached, moving steadily toward me. It was so big. It rolled and thundered. It was coming, and I couldn’t move. I couldn’t get away.
And this: He would be talking to me, telling me something about how messed up my life was, how messed up I was, telling me how much he loved me, how he was the only person in the entire world who really loved me, and I would simply fall asleep. No drifting off. No counting sheep. I was there one minute, and then I was gone.
What did I really want? Why did I stay with him? I don’t know. I don’t know.
And then there’s this: For a year — during the months in which I was with the boy, and then in treatment, and then not with the boy — the image I could not escape, the image I drew on paper over and over again, was of a world covered in hard gray asphalt all the way to the horizon. The sun was setting, and a girl stood there, three tiny cracks at her feet with some scraggly weeds growing out of them. Whenever I drew this, I felt panicked, but I couldn’t stop drawing it.
When I went to treatment, they diagnosed me with “love addiction.” At the time, those words were two points of perfect sense in a nonsensical world, but now they make me wince and mumble. “Love addiction.”
The therapists told me my wanting problems were rooted in my DNA, my neural pathways, the gaps between my synapses, and that the solution to my problems was not pills nor electroshock nor even a brisk slap of common sense. Over and over they said the solution was a spiritual one. For a decade I have been trying to understand this, honestly, but most days it just sounds like touchy-feely hoo-ha. Addiction? Spirituality? Really? I want help, but I don’t want homeopathy or therapeutic exercises involving baking brownies, doing macramé, or painting inspirational words on rocks. I do not want to bang on a pillow and scream at everything I hate. I am not interested in hyperventilating until I sob or in looking for God in a tree. I know this because I’ve tried it all.
I’ve also eaten Twizzlers, leafed through piles of celebrity-gossip magazines, smoked cigarettes, obsessed about my weight, spent hours doing my hair, performed Internet searches for ex-boyfriends, roamed the mall, turned my skin a carotene orange with the alien light of tanning beds, and given in over and over again to my lust for beautiful, broken men, men my friends refer to as “just assholes, Rachel. It’s not a mystery. They’re assholes.”
And yet the question remains: If I know so much, if I can understand chemicals and neurons and stupidity, why am I still doing this?
I’ve dated the same guy over and over in a dozen different iterations: That coffee-shop guy who wrote bad stories based on his dreams and who could not spend the night in my bed because it was “too hot” and he felt like he was suffocating. That drunk guy who promised to take me on his yacht if I flew across the country to see him, but when I got there, he locked himself in his bedroom for the weekend and drank and drank and drank. That guy who slept with me and then afterward said, “It’s your world. I’m just passing through.” That guy who painted houses and told uncomfortably dirty jokes and who, long after I stopped dating him, threw himself in front of a car and broke both his legs and became homeless. That boy I wanted to marry when I was twenty. That guy.
And now I’m turning thirty and have, again, begun dating that guy, this time named Jack. Honestly I tried not to. I did. When I brushed by him at a crowded party, I purposefully didn’t make eye contact. And a couple of weeks later, when he strode into another party like a big cat, sniffing the air, I promptly left. He was tall and bearded, and there were rumors about him: strippers and gambling, an ego, full of himself.
Whenever I saw him, he was all lit up like Vegas, white lights outlining his frame, a neon red arrow pointing directly at his head. The closer I got, the more my internal warning system blared, Danger! Lights and bells and a puff of smoke from some circuit that had shorted out. Flashing colors. Bouncing, twirling, whirling things. A sudden handful of silver coins.
It begins the way it always begins, so simply: it looks like fun.
On the first date Jack tells me point-blank that he is a mess, that he always screws things up with girls, that he hurts people, and that he has a “complicated” relationship with an ex-girlfriend whom he will be going to see in New York the next morning. He chain-smokes. He gambles. He goes to strip clubs. He says, “I just want you to know that there are a lot of girls, and I’d rather you hear this from me than from someone else.”
And how do I respond to all this? Great. Let’s date.
I call my friend Megan and tell her I have no good reason to be dating this man, that it’s a bad idea, that I’m just going to hang out with him instead — you know, for fun — and not get involved, that I’ll still date other people, that it’s really not a big deal, this Jack guy, because I know what I’m walking into. My eyes are open, wide open. I know what I’m doing. I’m thirty, for God’s sake. It’ll be fine, fine, fine.
I want to make different choices. I do. I want to develop a capacity to change. I want to be like the Zen meditator who took part in a scientific experiment on insights — those aha moments when a solution to a problem suddenly becomes clear. In order to solve the verbal puzzles presented to him, the meditator had to access his intuition, which meant he had to let go of reason by unfocusing his thinking, the way you unfocus your gaze to see the hidden image in a 3-D poster. The meditator was a very focused person, though. Problem after problem came and went, and he couldn’t solve them — until suddenly he began getting every puzzle correct, one after the other.
“[T]he dramatic improvement of the Zen meditator,” says neuroscientist John Kounis in The New Yorker, “came from his paradoxical ability to focus on not being focused. . . . He had the cognitive control to let go. . . . He became an insight machine.”
My friend Megan calls this the “free-falling heart of surrender.” She throws her hands up in the air, leans back, and looks toward the sky. “You just have to let go,” she says, “and while you’re falling, you shout, I don’t knooooooooow!”
Do I really have to tell you how it goes with Jack?
But here are the surprising things: He enjoys baking, particularly cinnamon buns, which we make together on multiple occasions. He has this mutt whose belly he rubs while cooing, “You’re so strong and friendly. Yes, you are.” For a while he calls me every night, and I go over, and we sit in his living room, reading or playing with the puppy or doing some other boringly domestic thing, and then we get in bed, and he reads me a story until we’re tired, and then we just sleep beside each other. That’s it. In the morning he kisses me goodbye and says, “Be good.”
I try to tell myself this more than makes up for the random earrings scattered around his house, the hair bands the dog finds and chews, the fingernail polish in the medicine cabinet. That this makes up for the extended flat eye contact I get from pretty girls at parties, his oddly chipper observation that the room is full of glaring women tonight: “Man, oh, man, do they ever hate me!” That this makes up for the way his voice gets higher when he talks about his ex until he sounds like a five-year-old: “Don’t rag on her. None of this is her fault.”
One night, over dinner at some sushi place, I say to Jack, “I’m very optimistic, especially about men.”
And he says, “That’s what makes you the most beautiful girl in town.” Pause. Chew. “You’re built for pain.”
I shove more Crazy Tuna Roll into my mouth, but what I really want to do is jam the chopsticks up my nose. I want to lobotomize myself with these wooden sticks, sloppily and bloodily digging the stupid out of my brain.
I want him to like me.
When I was little, my grandma Yoder got breast cancer, had a mastectomy, and then decided against chemotherapy. While the hospice people moved a mechanical hospital bed into her room, my aunt Leona disappeared.
“Leona?” Liz called, as the men maneuvered a mattress through the kitchen.
“Leona?” Clara called, as she took my grandmother by the shoulders and moved her out of the way of the metal bed frame. I was nine and standing in the kitchen, watching the men in their dirty boots, my small grandmother growing smaller.
After all the commotion, after the bed had been moved and my grandmother arranged in its folds, Leona emerged at the top of the basement stairs with a towel wrapped around her head. She touched it with one hand.
“I had to wash my hair,” she said.
I was only a child, but I still understood clearly: Sadness is sometimes too big to stay in the middle of. Sometimes you have to go away and undo yourself. Sometimes all a person can do is baptize herself in an empty room.
Jack and I go for a walk after he tells me his ex-girlfriend might be pregnant with his baby, and she’s coming to visit and will be staying with him. In his bed.
Come on, Rachel, I say to myself. You knew this would happen. But still.
“What’s the problem?” he wants to know. “I told you from the beginning things were complicated.” We pause in front of Mercy Hospital. He lights a cigarette and squares his shoulders to mine and actually says, “Look, I can’t give you what you want,” as if he’s materialized from a therapeutic role-playing exercise.
“Don’t be sad,” he says. “I’m not even a catch.”
I think: People don’t actually say shit like this in real life. Only characters in short stories or romantic comedies talk this way. Also, Mercy Hospital is way too ironic a backdrop for this conversation.
Maybe I don’t really want a boyfriend. Maybe what I want is a dramatic approximation of real life.
We walk. I cry. He tries to crack jokes. I ignore them and say, “You asked me what my shit was, and this is my shit, right here: awkward walks with unavailable men.”
“Yeesh,” he says. “I’m glad I’m not you.”
You’d think I would move on. But instead I answer the phone when he calls me secretly from the grocery store during his un-ex-girlfriend’s visit. She’s not pregnant, he says, but she’s staying longer. I wish he’d stop talking. I finally leave him a message saying, “Please stop calling,” after which he calls and leaves me a message saying he couldn’t quite understand what I’d said.
I turn to books for help. I read about neuroplasticity — the ability of brain cells to change function — and the science of intuition. I read a manifesto about the importance of screwing up, a poem about freedom and falling hearts. I read about a remote Amazonian tribe’s linguistic construct of time and consider how I might make my own past cease to exist. I read that time isn’t real, nor is happiness.
I open Pema Chödrön’s When Things Fall Apart, a book I’ve been carrying with me from move to move for ten years but have never had the nerve to crack. The author, a Buddhist nun, tells me about the six types of loneliness. I don’t want to know about the six types. I don’t want loneliness to be my study, but nevertheless it is.
I sit cross-legged on a yellow pillow on the floor and close my eyes and try to focus on one breath after the next, on the steady work of living. I will meditate and control my mind and get better and not feel sad. I will sit on the thin yellow pillow for hours until I forget the outside world. I breathe and breathe and breathe until I can’t anymore, and when I open my eyes, only five minutes have passed, and there I am again, alone in my room.
There was a point, deep into the relationship that landed me in treatment for love addiction, when I wanted to die. This wasn’t one of those thoughts that had sometimes passed through my head in one of my more dramatic moments of despair. This was a whole night of staring through a dark doorway in my mind. Before that night, this door had been locked and painted shut, but one particular gray winter evening it swung wide on well-oiled hinges. I needed only to step through, and I would be gone forever. I stared through the doorway into the great nothingness. It was a long night.
This was the lowest and darkest place I had ever been — which should have been another clue that the relationship I was in and the love I felt were destructive. I’d reached a place where no worldly thing could have satisfied my yearning: not drugs or alcohol; not the boy I was in love with; not money or food or sex; not working out, watching TV, shopping, cleaning, sleeping, reading, or walking for miles and miles and miles. Nothing. This was the place where I knew I was alone, profoundly and eternally, forever and ever, amen.
The winter has already sunk into my bones. Jack has finally stopped calling. I live in a house with five people I don’t really know, one of those co-op situations that seem like a good idea until you move in. I wake up, make coffee, and then get back in bed because the heat is turned way down to save money, and my feet and hands have hardened into frigid stumps. I spend all my time in my bedroom, which is in the former dining room. The only thing separating me from the kitchen is a thin swinging door. From my bed I hear pots banging and ice being dispensed, someone humming at the sink, a sigh.
When I can no longer stand the cold and lack of privacy, I descend the steep basement stairs to the bathroom, lock the door, and turn the shower on as hot as it will go. I sit in the tub and let the water pound me while I sob. I wash my hair once or twice a day. After it dries, it curls up in perfect ringlets that smell like flowers and soap.
OK. All this about not wanting anything and shaving my head and sitting contentedly inside my loneliness is bullshit. I don’t want to give up my wanting in the manner of the ascetics and monks. I really like my hair. Loneliness does not seem spiritual or profound most of the time. It just seems lonely.
The loneliness is always the worst around ten at night, when I’m by myself in my bedroom. It’s too late to work, too early to go to sleep, so I start thinking about my past, my failures and missteps, decisions I could have made differently. I worry about the things I said or didn’t say, about the looks on people’s faces. I worry about what I’ll wear the next day. I calculate my total personal debt, adding up credit-card bills, student-loan balances, and money I’ve borrowed from my parents and siblings. I become convinced I have an ovarian tumor and research diseases of the reproductive parts at length on the Internet. I fear I’ve forgotten something important — a deadline or an appointment. I haven’t seen my cat in a couple of hours, and I wonder if he’s dead. I try to read but can’t focus, because I feel I should be writing. I try writing but am overcome by a nagging desire to start a load of laundry. I decide just to turn off the light and go to sleep.
But my mind doesn’t turn off so easily. I begin to catalog all the best moments from my many failed romances. I think about the way the brain surgeon led me through his house, making a point to show me the walk-in closet as big as my kitchen. “And this is where you would put your clothes,” he said, spreading his arms. I think about the tall poet cooking in my little cabin: fresh parsley, a ripped loaf of bread, garlic, spoons and bowls strewn all over, the kitchen window open to the pines. I think about the sandwiches and meatballs he made for me, the way he pulled the lavender ribbon from my hair that night on the couch in one long motion. I think about the lawyer walking toward me on Park Avenue in his wool overcoat, the way he smiled; the football player in the elevator, his hands resting on my hips. These are the sweet men I revisit late at night when I’m lonely and can’t sleep. I left them all. Why was that again?
Sometimes I think my wanting paired with my loneliness will drive me certifiably crazy. I wonder about the robustness of my mental health. Will I lose my mind someday? Might one day of languishing in bed turn into countless years? This fear of losing my mind often causes me to get up, take a shower, and walk down the street to the coffee shop, where I watch people being people and try to figure out how I can become one of them.
Thanksgiving comes and goes. Jack calls. He’s sick. The only thing that would make him feel better is if someone would give him a ride to the casino. I take him a grapefruit and a carton of orange juice instead, despite my logical side telling me all the while, Stop. Don’t. Turn around. My actions are no longer mysterious. They are just my own willful idiocy. I understand this. I understand that he does not love me. I still want him.
When I get there, he’s smoking in the front yard. He’s wearing sweat pants and has tired eyes.
“It’s been a rough day,” he says, and I know he’s referring to some problem or another with his ex-girlfriend, who I knew deep down was his real girlfriend all along. “You probably don’t want to hear about it.”
“You’re right,” I say, and again I wonder why I am here on his front lawn, my hands full of groceries to help make him feel better.
“Thanks,” he says as he takes the grapefruit, and then he chuckles at the orange juice. “You can keep that.”
And for the first time I see how much naked pleasure he takes in being able to reject me.
And then I get it. After years and years of dating This Guy, a whole decade of men like him, I get what he’s been saying all along: he can’t give me what I want. If I keep asking for it, this pattern never ends. It just keeps repeating, a story of ruined love, of obsession and heartbreak and passion and regret and horrible loneliness and longing. It just keeps going on and on.
So I get in my car and drive away. And that’s the end.
Seriously, you guys.
I try talking to an older woman, a married woman, a woman with kids and grandkids, a woman who is always in possession of freshly baked bread. I want her to give me the solution to my Jack problem, the remedy for all my wanting and desperation, the answers to my unanswerable questions: Why do I want him? Why can’t I stop? What should I do?
She sips her tea and bats the air with her hand. “Oh, he’s sexy and exciting. Of course you want to be with him. It’s no riddle. Don’t worry about it.”
And then I remember a time, after one of those long nights of dark wanting, when an early-morning flash of clarity appeared out of the exhaustion and sadness and yearning, a single clear moment that faded fast: There is no problem. It hovered there in the darkness of my mind, iridescent. Its wings buzzed. There has never been a problem. And then it flew away, and I drifted to sleep, dreamt, woke up, and forgot I’d ever had any dreams.
How can I explain this? There is no problem, and there is no solution. There is only a need for remembering. There is a need for tattoos and banners and notes to myself written in permanent black ink.
One summer morning when I was five, I walked into my grandmother’s bedroom unannounced. She was sitting in her spindle-back chair, looking out the window at the cornfields. She had just taken down her hair.
Her hair. My God. You could write a whole bible about that hair. It was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen: my Mennonite grandmother’s pearl-white hair hanging down her back, unspooled and luminescent, long like a girl’s, with the fire of the sun in it.
Before she saw me, I stood there for a moment inside a thin skin of knowing and mystery, inside something I could not comprehend other than to think, Pretty, other than to think, I want. Oh, her silver-white hair. That beauty could be both so old and so innocent, so pure and so pulsing, so urgent it made me want to touch, to look, to feel, and then to run away and hide. That beauty was her hair and the sun and the cornfields but also the bed and her body, her skin and lips. That beauty was my grandmother then, but also my grandmother before, on the day she’d given birth; at her wedding; as a small girl. That beauty would die. That beauty began to slip away the moment she turned and looked at me.
I walk to the coffee shop through the Iowa City cold, the kind of weather in which my scarf freezes to my mouth in twenty seconds flat. A homeless guy on the corner holds a sign I don’t read as I pass, and I almost start to cry. At the coffee shop I order two hot chocolates with whipped cream, one for me and one for the homeless man. I worry whether he likes hot chocolate, whether he will drink it. Doesn’t everyone like hot chocolate? The question seems both tragic and beautiful. I look around to see if anyone else is noticing the moment I’m having. Guys in puffy coats and girls on cellphones look at me longer than I’m comfortable with, probably because I’m making meaningful, extended eye contact with each of them.
I take the two hot chocolates, slurp the whipped cream from the top of mine, and, as I cross the street, practice in my head what I will say to the man on the corner: Here, or, I got you something, or, Hey, do you want this?
When I reach him, I see frost in his beard.
“I was wondering if you might like a hot chocolate,” I say, extending the cup, which he balances in his dirty, gloved palm.
“Everyone always gets me coffee,” he says. “I don’t even like coffee!”
“Warm and sweet,” I mumble, not knowing what else to say as I look at his crooked glasses and fallen face. His cardboard sign dangles from one hand.
“Warm and sweet,” he echoes.
I turn and walk away, on the verge of tears. For one block the world is completely broken and completely perfect, and I wonder what has happened to me. Why am I buying a homeless man hot chocolate? This isn’t the sort of thing I do. Everything is bright and cold and excruciating and gorgeous. I stop and squeeze my eyes shut. It’s too much, the world rushing in through the cracks. How do people handle this? How do people walk around happy?