Nobody knows where they’re going, so everyone has decided to stay still. It’s a ritual of sorts when weather goes south in Southern California. The city becomes a small town, headlights muted and streets too slick for even the smoothest movers and shakers. I don’t quite understand it, but I respect it and I stay still, at home, too. I think about feelings and I take a bath. I recognize that I have chosen to take a bath on an evening devoted to staying dry. I take a break to rationalize spending twenty three dollars on spicy noodles, delivered by someone much braver than I in this weather.
I was brave once, too.
It was I who carved a six-inch slot into my icy car windows and sped through a snowy midwest beach town to make it to senior study hall in time. It was I who did it all over again to get a slice of off-campus pizza at lunch.
Perhaps brave isn’t the right word, but it’s a word worth exploring. It really boils down to foolishness most of the time. I did things that could’ve killed me because I didn’t think I’d ever die. Perhaps I’m just more diligent with my dice rolling now — but still foolish in new ways. I drain the tub by kicking an antique knob. I spend the money on the spicy noodles. I wait and quietly account for other acts of bravery/foolishness I’ve narrowly navigated:
The time I used a fork to retrieve a collapsed Toaster Strudel.
The time I tried to tape my muffler back on.
The years I spent thinking “make end’s meat” was a phrase.
That last one isn’t brave. It’s just foolish.
The most foolish thing I’ve ever done could be brave under the right circumstances. It was, and still is, to write — not because the act itself is anything short of concrete magic, but because I had no business stumbling into starting. I started writing for the worst possible reason:
I wanted to impress a mediocre boyfriend.
In my case, he was much older and our town was tiny and that’s enough of a reason to do anything when you’re seventeen. He worked in my high school and wanted to be a writer so badly that it was contagious. In the middle of some frozen midwest field trip, he told me I could be a writer, too, because I was so smart and strange and clever and, well, I don’t want to keep gushing, but yeah, you’re definitely not like other girls.
That’s the phrase men use when they want to light you on fire.
Not like other girls.
It worked until it didn’t, picked up and slowed down while I was still a student, late night phone calls and strange little drafts of poems I’d scribbled on the floor of my bedroom. He gave me tapes with sweet and sloppy liner notes and complained about our age gap when I didn’t want to listen to The Lemonheads. It ended without much warning, years later. He met someone else who also happened to not be like other girls. He said we didn’t have to hate each other and then he asked me if I thought she was pretty. She was.
There’s a spectacular brand of self-hatred that comes with being dumped when you’re young for someone more beautiful. You start noticing how much prettier you’d be if you were thinner, smaller. If your voice was lower, if your sneakers were cleaner. You think about being inadequate in a small town, how that means you’re virtually nothing in a city or a state. It goes on like that until you drive yourself crazy and you look for new ways to be anybody but yourself in your own life. I made a list of all of the things I could be better at because I wasn’t lovely enough or old enough or enough enough to be enough. I started writing because, by default, I had to be creative enough, in ways in which he found worthwhile, even if he wasn’t around to witness them. I thought about how quickly I could get good, what kind of lift that would require. It was the antithesis of brave/foolish. It was spectacularly stupid.
The initial writing was not great as one might imagine. But I was sure it was good because it was honest, which is something remarkable when you’re twenty and sad. It was all mixed metaphors and blurred edges. It was painfully serious and every line weighed one hundred pounds and it was never mine, even when it was. I wrote so much of it that I ran out of things to say. I started over with other stuff that was lighter, softer and easier — not because I had grown — but because I needed a way to hit my class-required word count until my next inspiration for *real work* arrived. Summer came and went. The girl who was pretty became a wife. I tried to find words for the feeling but came up short. I wrote about the dog I gave away as a kid instead.
People love dogs, even the kind you give away. Workshop came alive and my classmates opened up about their own fits of foolishness and my professor admitted that he was named after a dog and everything went spectacularly awry after that. The writing needed the same amount of work as the other stuff, but it was night and day in terms of engagement. Nobody cared if it was good or bad, and I stopped caring, too, for the moment, which led to other moments with other pieces, in class and at home. The entire goal shifted from needing to be heard to wanting to hear others speak to things they finally felt they could speak to. I couldn’t believe I wasted so much time caring about nothing when there was so much to build and not so selfishly care about — but also deeply care about. Again, profoundly important foolishness.
At a certain point, I was fully committed to a career in making people feel less alone about caring too much or not at all. I made a portfolio and went to graduate school and spent forty hours a week with imposter syndrome in exchange for small doses of workshop candor where I could be foolish with my own insecurities and lure others into doing the same. The syndrome wore off. The stuff felt and sounded real. That energy evolved into my first collection, which evolved into a formal thesis, which evolved into a manuscript and a book deal and a hold-in-your-hands paperback dream supreme.
I breeze through these details, not because they aren’t meaningful, but because they are all tied to a single decision made out of a desperate attempt to be worthy — of something, of someone. I think about the beginning of all of this often, especially over the last few years of standing up and reading my words and sharing my screens and signing my name. I think about all of the desperate things I’ve wanted to be and the things I’ve been, how foolish I was back at the start, and the sublime possibility that maybe the same foolishness evolved into the foolishness that keeps people like me writing and rewriting and submitting in a world that doesn’t really care about short stories. Maybe it is kind of brave.
Whatever it is, I’m glad to have been and still be, in the center of a city full of people like me. It’s a joy to be hungry for something, no matter how foolish it is. It’s a joy to make things that make people feel brave and make life a little less daunting. It’s a joy get totally and completely lost and sit still in small spaces made for coming clean, to start from the starting as you wait for someone else to arrive.
It’s raining in Los Angeles and nobody knows where they’re going.