What I Did the Summer After I Graduated

I dropped out of college when I turned nineteen, which was a good idea at the time and a good idea in retrospect, a pretty fantastic idea. For ten years when I applied for jobs where a college degree mattered I wrote that I had one and no one ever questioned it. I think once I said I had graduated from Harvard. There are lies that are terrible and lies that are fine and I feel fine about the lies that are fine and so should you. Ten years later I thought I wanted to get a doctorate at Columbia, for reasons that are currently a mystery to me, and so I finished my bachelor's in a desultory manner, with honors but without giving a lot of fucks. As the kids say.

The summer after I graduated was the summer I burned all my bridges. It was the summer before I moved to New York and what I did was kick all my roommates out of my house and cry a lot and drink too much and sell everything I owned except for the cat and my typewriter and ten boxes of books. Already that summer I understood that I was leaving behind a life that I would never return to. The people I lived with I had known for years, some of them since I was a teenager. After that summer they stopped speaking to me, not just the people I had lived with but nearly everyone I had known and grown up with and become a person with on that coast, and whose fault it was--well, I don't know. Mine probably. I think they are all happy, they have houses of their own now and babies and dogs and life partners and gardens. I saw a few of them at a potluck a couple of years ago, when I went back to the west coast for a visit, and it was awkward and I thought more than once about leaving the potluck with one of the potluck hostess's twenty-year-old friends I had just met, but I didn't. "I would love to show you my record collection," the twenty-year-old actually said, which still makes me laugh. I ate my potato salad and when my old housemates asked me how I liked New York I said "I like it a lot," and then they changed the subject, and I thought about how shitty a person I must be to hate all of them for being happy when what we had wanted was to be extraordinary. I drank a pint of someone else's whiskey in the hostess's bathroom and played the piano, badly, with the twenty-year-old, and everyone was relieved when I left.

Some of us are very selfish people and sometimes this is a lesson we learn a little too late, after we have already trainwrecked other people's lives and hopes and hearts, or in this case their houses. We had some good times in that house, the four of us, before everything went to shit. We had some epic dinner parties and we stayed up on the front porch as bikers rode past us all through the summer night until one by one the stars slid into dawn. We made bread and watched all the good seasons of the Simpsons and fell in love and told each other about it. They threw me a party for my twenty-seventh birthday that was the best birthday party I've ever been to, so great a party that I had to lock myself in my room in the middle of it to cry because I didn't understand how I had come to deserve that many people who loved me that much. We put on shadow-puppet shows--the best one was one I wrote, I won't be modest, about the French revolution; the cat in the puppet show cried out "Le meow! Le meow!" before it was beheaded, and for weeks afterward all our friends repeated it to one another, le meow, le meow. I don't miss that house but sometimes I miss that life, which was infinitely less complicated and often a lot more fun than the life I have now. A kid's life, an enviable life. Bike rides and popsicles and beers by the river and in the winter someone was always making soup and we'd put on our rain gear after dinner and pedal through the downpour to basement shows and dance parties, everybody's sodden wool layers steaming in the corner while we sweated out our ghosts in the circle of each other.

But ambition is like a poison and a gift tangled together and it makes you leave and leave and leave again, leave places, leave people, leave your whole life. Ambition and something else that I don't know how to name but it's what I share my house with, the house of my body, ambition and something that is ruthless and cruel and says only, ever, Is that a good story, and if the answer is no it says Move on. The best we can hope for is to be good enough to justify how brutal we are. The summer after I graduated I had no idea what I was in for or what I had started, no idea where that move would take me, no idea that I would come out the other end transformed. Not a butterfly but a vulture or maybe on my better days a bird of prey. When you are a woman or a girl or female no one says to you Look, artists who are great take without asking and take and take and do not apologize because when you are a woman or a girl or female the only thing you are supposed to take is a lot of other people's shit. No one says to you Be sure you are strong enough to take and not apologize and keep going when the taking leaves you nothing to go back to. Be sure you are strong enough to steal and live alone with what you've chosen to make yours.

That summer I left everything. I left the people I had been friends with since I was nineteen and I left the big white house with the sunporch and my piano and a backyard that grew thick with lilac and wild raspberries, a garage with my own printing press in it and the cabinets of type I'd spent the last five years collecting. I left the light-up globe the first person I fell in love with gave me, and my accordion and the oak dining room table that had been my parents'. I left bonfires on the beach and biking out the Willamette valley and sleeping under the stars. Left the time my friend's friend's band and all their roadies and their friends and lovers camped out in our backyard and spent the next morning writing us songs and making us breakfast as a thank-you. I left picking strawberries off the vine and driving every other weekend to the ocean, left lazy late nights drinking beer in the park that overlooks the train yard, wondering if anyone I knew was down there trying to hop a ride east. Left the time me and Jimbo rode to St. John's long after the sun had set and walked out on the railroad bridge, climbed down to the pilings with a fifth of bourbon and looked out over the night-dark river, and overhead the trains rumbled past one after the other, marking the hours until the bottle was gone.

I left all the things I thought I could be to be the one thing I wanted. And when I got here I kept leaving, keep leaving, and what would I write about, anyway, if I ever knew what it was like to be one person, to love one person, to stand in a single place and say At last here I am, I am home.