Apartment 53

Apartment 53 was my first apartment in NYC where I lived on my own, and thus, where I really think of my life as a Manhattan woman beginning. I've always been fascinated by NYC apartments. Giant buildings filled with people, each with their own story. Windows everywhere. And I always wonder: what's behind them? What do people see when they look in from the outside? What is the real story of the person who lives behind that glass? This is my blog. A real story from a Manhattan apartment.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Dependence Day

I have always needed my independence - even as a child. My mother tells the story of my first day of kindergarten when she bought me a dress that had a little doll that was attached by a string to the front pocket. She thought this was a good idea so that if I were lonely or scared on my first day of school that I would at least have the doll since I didn't know anyone. She waited with me at the bus stop and as that yellow minivan ready to cart me off to my future pulled up to our driveway, the doors opened and I just ran up to it, scrambled up the stairs without even looking back and yelled "BYE MOM!!!" To this day, 26 years later, my mother says she wished she'd bought the doll for herself because clearly I was not going to need it and she had a big, giant lump in her throat. It was the first time she realized that her baby didn’t always need her Mommy.

My time alone was never lonely, and it was usually quite productive and happy. When I was ten, my mom was busy working so I sewed my own name labels in to my camp clothes the night before I left home for two months. When I was in the sixth grade, and my mother was still single and at home with the flu, I called her from the school’s payphone to find out how she was feeling, because that’s what she did when I was home sick from school. She was so ill she could barely speak, so I took my babysitting money and stopped at the Burger King in walking distance to our condo and bought my poor, sick mother a giant whopper and fries. I meant it in the most loving of ways, I swear.

I have always enjoyed doing things on my own. In school I was considered “popular,” (except for the fifth grade, but that’s another story for another time,) but I was always content to be alone. Sure, I went to parties and drove my drunk friends around and kissed boys (most of whom were, incidentally, not very good kissers,) but there was always a sense of relief when I reached my bedroom and could just be by myself. Some of it, of course, is the writer in me. I would fill up pages and pages of journals with the most dramatic adolescent drivel you can imagine. But, I needed my alone time to do it. I actually needed to be alone with my thoughts. Literally.

As I got older, I grew more independent. The sidelines at my soccer games were filled with the parents of my teammates but my parents were rarely there (it wasn’t because they didn’t love me, they both had full-time jobs.) But I didn’t really mind. Soccer was my thing – I didn’t play defense so my dad could high-five me after we’d won a game. If I was in a school play or had a singing performance, my parents couldn’t always make it, and they’d leave it to me to find a way to get to and from different events when they weren’t available to chauffeur me around. They knew I was independent enough to figure it out.

And figure it out, I did. After graduating a semester early from college, I worked two jobs (one for the resume, one for the bills,) and moved to Manhattan with a promising career and a heart full of hope. Ten years later I’ve been knocked down by this dear city here and there, but I’m better because of it: wiser, more grounded, and certainly more independent. But at some point I must be forced to ask myself: when can my independence turn in to loneliness?

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not your average recluse. I have lots of friends, enjoy nights on the town several times a week, talk avidly on the phone, email constantly… But there is something peaceful and comforting about coming home to my own apartment where I don’t have to answer the phone if I’m tired after a long day; where I can literally hide from the energy of this city that has chewed me up and spit me out my fair share of times; where I know that I have a place always, even if I’m the only person happy to see me. And if even I’m not happy to see me, at least there’s no one else under those covers that I can pull over my head till it’s time to start again.

Sometimes, I will admit, I have trouble asking for help. “I can do it myself,” I’ll say. But I know I can’t. I can’t hang my blinds or move heavy furniture or carry heavy groceries all alone. I’m not stupid, I’m stubborn. Sometimes so stubborn that I’ll let my independence get in the way of getting what I really need, and what a loved one is really offering. But what happens if I need them and then one day they’re not there anymore? Then what?

About six months ago I was terribly ill. I suffered for days before admitting that I needed help, and that was only because I passed out cold on my apartment floor – alone. I called 9-1-1 and the medics came and took me outside to the waiting ambulance. The driver, who carried me from my apartment to the vehicle, wore a silver belt buckle with a skull and crossbones. He had a shaved head, a few tattoos and very kind eyes. He kept asking me if I was always this pale. Yes, I’m very pale. No, you’re extremely pale, he told me. You don’t have any color in your lips. All I could do was give him a half-grin, as though he’d just made a joke and I got it, but I was too weak to give him a good solid laugh. So I just stared at his buckle and focused on it hard wondering where he’d gotten it and who’d made it. Who was this silversmith designing these angry looking belt buckles for EMTs with such warm hands and strong arms? I wondered this so that I wouldn’t faint again.

I was in the emergency room alone. I had my cell phone but I felt guilty calling anyone before I knew if there was something really wrong. Plus, my chest really hurt and I was having a hard time breathing, and therefore a hard time talking. I dug through my purse and somehow found my insurance card, and told the attending physician – in half breaths – what hurt, what had happened, how I was feeling. Could I please get some juice or something? I was really thirsty. No, you can’t drink anything. How about some water? Or some (gasp,) ice chips, please? No. And he left. And as I was lying on a crappy, rubber mattress all by myself, about to die and in excruciating pain, I called my mother. I called her because I needed her help. And I didn’t have anyone else to call who would care as much, even though I knew I’d worry her. I called her and gasped in to the phone the name of the hospital and the street it was on. And instead of telling her I could handle it on my own when she told me she was coming in to the city, I just said “ok” and hung up smiling as much as my condition would allow. Because for the first time, in a very long time, no matter how independent I was, I really did need my Mommy.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Confessions of a Compulsive Quitter

I really have only one memory of one of the last times I was on stage: the applause. I know that there were months of rehearsal that lead to that point. Training with vocal coaches to perfect the cockney accent; days with a Broadway (yes, Broadway!) choreographer to hone those ale-house jigs; and hours spent blocking scenes, memorizing lines, and painting sets. But, oh that applause. All of that agonizing preparation pales when I think of that giant curtsey, those bright lights, and those ecstatic cheers from the faceless silhouettes in the audience. It is a moment I’ve frozen vividly and embellished for sure. There are times I’ll return to that moment confident that I received a standing ovation – sometimes even an encore, and most definitely a “bravo!” from someone in the audience (not related to me.) It is a moment that I cherish passionately – one that was defining and pivotal in my life. I was an actress. And I would make it my life’s mission to remain just that and come out on top.

That was over fifteen years ago. I never made it to Broadway, exactly, (my last office is on the corner of 42nd and the-place-I always-dreamed-of-but-never-had-the-guts-to-pursue.) With the exception of drunken karaoke I think I’ve sang six – maybe seven – times in public since the curtain fell on my adolescence. I could give you a slew of excuses: the theater program in my high school sucked (though one of my former classmates did go on to win a Tony Award.) My parents didn’t support my career (they didn’t, really, but just wanted to me to go to college and have a back-up plan.) I worked several hours a week when I was in college and didn’t have time to concentrate on theater (which is true, but the Gap tended to be flexible when it came to schedules for its university student employees.) Bottom line is I gave up something I loved with no good excuse. And that makes me wonder: does it mean I loved it less than I think I did? Or, worse, was I so afraid of failing at it that I never even tried? Cliché, perhaps, but possible. Even likely. Or am I just one of those people? Bad with follow-through. Head in the clouds. Loses interest easily. You know: a quitter.

Performing isn’t the only thing I’ve quit. My mother will be happy to tell you about all of the money she spent on ballet, jazz, tennis, figure skating, cello, piano, violin, and guitar lessons when I was younger. (Sorry Mom, am I forgetting anything?) My hobby, it seemed, was finding new hobbies. When I grew tired with one, I started another. My sister, on the other hand, five years younger, who had a mother, now five years wiser, had to suffer through cello lessons, and cello lessons alone for nine straight years. My mother agreed to let her quit at age eighteen if she so chose. On her eighteenth birthday, before the girl even had a chance to run out and register to vote, I believe she snapped the bow straight over her knee at the dinner table – just for dramatic effect. It makes me wonder: who’s better off? Me, who spent years dabbling in this and that, never quite focusing on one thing and now regretting having given up all of them? Or her, who spent nine years of her life devoted (I use the term loosely,) to one, beautiful instrument she’ll never touch again prohibiting her from trying something new? It’s funny, really. Two such different experiences and yet we’re both a couple of quitters. Maybe it’s in the genes.

A couple of years ago I decided that my quitting days were behind me. That I was going to do what I could to reclaim what I had lost. So, I signed up for voice lessons with one of the most renowned instructors in Manhattan. So I sounded like shit in the shower, big deal. This guy was my ticket. He’d help me find my voice and in no time I’d be ready for the Great White Way. For over a year I met with Phil and I sang – no, I sang my ass off. First scales, then songs I chose (mostly show tunes – I love my show tunes.) I had a microphone, a piano accompaniment, and a duet when I needed one (Phil had a great voice.)

And you know what? I stunk. Really. In the beginning I told myself I needed more practice when that cacophony emerged from my pretty mouth, and that’s what Phil said too (for a $70 half hour anyone would have to agree.) But after a year, and thousands of dollars, and still thousands more hours away from ever being good enough to even audition at an open call, I quit again. But this time it wasn’t because I was bored or fascinated by something else. This time it was because I had the strength to admit that however much I wanted to be great, wishing wasn’t enough. That while quitting isn’t as glamorous as a dressing room with your very own star, sometimes it’s just what you need to do to be true to yourself. Maybe I would have been a great pianist, or gymnast or potter if I had just stuck with it, but I do know that what’s next on my list is to try to quit worrying about it.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Many Wrongs Don't Make it Wrong

In my youth, I was far more reckless with my heart than today. On a regular basis I took blind leaps of faith in to relationships with men who hadn’t earned my loyalty or admiration. Every single time it was a mistake. I don’t necessarily begrudge this list of undeserving, unmemorable boyfriends for what was really my own series of haphazard decisions. The truth is, I loved being in relationships. I was good at them. I loved having a strong man’s arms around me, a steady Saturday night date, someone to shop for on Valentine’s Day and someone to care for when they were sick. But they didn’t love me back and I missed the signals. No, I didn’t miss them, I ignored them. Without a second thought I forgave unreturned phone calls, cancelled plans, and broken promises. I made excuses for these inexcusable men-boys to my best friends, my concerned parents and worst of all: to myself.

As I got older and (I can’t believe I’ll actually say this,) benefited from more break ups under my belt, I changed. It wasn’t overnight and it isn’t always terribly obvious. I still love the idea of love, and I probably give men the benefit of the doubt far too early in relationships, and I still believe that love is out there waiting for me. I remain open to it, certain that it exists and that I deserve to find it. I remain wide open to it in that I refuse to allow any past experiences with Mr. Wrongs to wrong someone else. I might have baggage – we all do – but I’m careful to keep mine tucked neatly in the overhead compartment, only to be accessed when I’ve reached the right destination and I’m sure that no one in the cabin can be hurt by items that might have shifted during flight.

I guess what I find most amazing in this personal journey is how many people out there who don’t share my value for precautionary measures. They leave their bags wide open for all to see their personal affects, dirty laundry, and taboo items for relationship rides that will ultimately stall their own journeys and worse, delay their fellow passengers. Then there are others who keep their valises so tightly locked that even the most skilled in security are unable to access them. It makes me wonder what was so terrible, so traumatic, and so paralyzing that these people can actually live with depriving themselves of their inherent human right to love and be loved in return. I’m sure some of them were like the old me: betrayed too many times, trusting of too many sinners, and insincere about their own role that they played in their resulting unhappiness.

And so today, instead of finding in me the capacity for blind love, you’ll instead find the capacity for love that is warranted. You’ll see the ability to find love that is real and love that is nothing more and nothing less than the over-glorified, simple concept of just plain love. Because it is my basic human right to look for it, find it, nurture it and protect myself from it when it is just plain wrong.