Thursday, 24 February 2011

VII. Edges, Interstices, and Inside New York

This will quite probably be the most difficult chapter I've had to write thus far. Because it is a reflection not only on past events, but on distant past events—events that happened over half a year ago. Events that fundamentally contribute to who I am now. So it might be quite intense, and quite personal. But the distance is why I am finally ready to discuss these things without the danger of exaggerating them beyond proportion. And the distance itself is of two types: temporal and spatial. Besides the time that has elapsed, I am now over 3,000 miles away, in a magical place that hasn't been any less magical than it was when I first stepped off the bus in October. Now I can properly assess what has happened, and what the consequences are.

To begin at the beginning, I need to backtrack to last January, or to be more accurate last November. I'm not sure exactly when, because there hadn't been a beginning. Not exactly. He had been there all along, and so had I, but we hadn't truly known each other until we did. It is difficult to explain, but that is how these things are. There had been an e-mail, though. A long one. And a beautiful response. We spoke the same language, and at the same time we were learning a new one together. I began to rediscover myself, to reinterpret myself, to redefine myself.

It was so pure. And it was romantic, the most romantic relationship I've ever had, by virtue of the fact that it was pure. I hadn't thought such a thing was possible: a more-than-friendship friendship that was intimate, but the complete opposite of friendship with benefits.

And it never really ended. But it did. But it didn't. That was what made it so painful. He wanted it to end, but I resisted, and then I wanted it to end, but he was already gone. And I need closure for things, definitive closure, in person closure. There was never the opportunity, though, because he didn't want to (or, perhaps, was unable to) confront me. He sent me elusive texts, postponing our meeting for a later date, until I finally woke up. I finally realised that the dream was over.

So I wrote him a letter. It had to be a letter—e-mail is too dangerous, texting is too casual and inordinately short, face-to-face conversation was impossible. I left it on my desk before leaving for the Met opera to see La Traviata (it was my first time, and to my surprise I actually quite enjoyed it). And he wrote back, a short notice. I hadn't expected him to, and when I saw what he had written I laughed. I actually would have preferred to receive no response. He said that things had indeed changed, that his perception of me had changed—for someone who was almost 20 I acted much younger. But that was precisely why I had written him a letter in the first place—because he had just turned 20 (exactly six days before my birthday), and didn't nearly live up to his age. Perhaps in the end we did speak the same language after all.

Words. I care so much—too much—about them. I remember them, over and over again. Physical actions I can easily forget, or excuse as merely circumstantial mistakes. Shit happens to all of us. But the words—they stay forever, especially if written down. That is why they are so dangerous. That is why they are the greatest risk. And that is why our relationship had been so pure—it was constructed entirely from words, from thoughts, from emotions.

I invested everything. I had so much feeling, more than I'd felt for a long, long time, and I gave it all away. I gave him my heart, in the fullest sense. And then he completely let me go; he just lost interest. Yes, there had been a reason, a terrible misunderstanding, and it had partly been my fault. But I thought we had fixed things, and that our connection was stronger than ever given the intensity of what had happened. He promised that we would have a semester of contentment. Ironically enough, it was—but just that. Contentment is infinitudes away from happiness.

Regardless, I knew from the beginning that it was just a dream. That it would end, as all dreams must (even for Descartes). And as I noted in my last chapter, there is something to be said for first impressions. I hadn't liked the way he looked at (through?) me one time; I cannot quite explain it. But I am a risk-taker, and a dreamer. I had to do it. How could I have known how great the risk would be? And even if I had known, how could I have helped it? I am a big believer in happenstance, in seizing the moment. And to this day he was the only person I ever truly fell in love with (or, rather, the only real and living person).

But no matter. I have recovered, finally. And I am a better—a newer—person for it; it felt almost like going through purgatory. But the greater purgatory was what happened to me over the summer. It was spectacularly ill-timed, or perhaps maliciously well-timed. I had already lost myself, in the fullest sense, and I had to give myself away again—but this time for a book, a collective miracle, rather than a person. Inside New York.

When you give yourself up to something so utterly that you become consumed by it, you die in a certain sense. I am not joking. I did die a certain death this summer: that of stagnation. It was living in New York, it was sitting in (for all intense and purposes) a basement from seven to ten hours a day, five days a week, eyes glued to my laptop screen, staring at jumbled up words that usually had to be completely reconstructed. I began to question everything about myself, all of my most fundamental convictions. I began to "undefine" myself, if you will. Case in point: I had always loved e-mails, and thought of it as my medium (the validation of which was Spectator Books, but that will be the subject of another chapter entirely). I grew sick of it; it took me an agonizing amount of time to type even the simplest message. Everything I said seemed stale, like a repetition, but without variation. I doubted myself; at times I even hated myself. I was so frustrated, and the rut didn't seem to be getting any shallower. I lost a tremendous amount of confidence at the exact moment when I should have had it, when I had the perfect opportunity to make the most use of it. Everyone on staff—the other editors and the writers and the photographers—were so friendly and willing to do whatever I asked of them and beyond. Columbia's Center for Career Education staff were very helpful as well—and provided free, essentially unlimited coffee and tea that tasted like candy, as well as occasional sugary delights—as were the Bartending Agency and Translation Agency managers (between which our office was sandwiched). It truly was an incandescent job, and I knew it was the job I was meant to have the summer before I left New York for an entire year. I needed to be fully immersed, to be Inside Inside New York, living and breathing and becoming it, before I could want to leave it.

But it didn't go at all according to plan: I didn't change, even after I had familiarised myself with the staff members and the general editing procedure. I was still stuck, utterly devoid of motivation to do anything. Outside of the office I could only think about looming deadlines and how far we were from meeting them (so in a sense I did truly live my job), and how I myself was slowing down the entire procedure by not submitting content on time or editing fast enough. On multiple occasions I would just lie down and not move, not think (or try not to). I couldn't even read—apart from my Oxford assignments, I only trudged through three novels the entire summer, and didn't absorb much of any of them. Every day felt the same, and it only grew worse as our deadlines drew closer and closer and I could no longer be in denial about the whole situation.

And I could not get away. My temporary escape was actually New Jersey, as I went home every weekend I could so that other people could take care of me. I even went on a Vermont retreat with Columbia's Bhakti Club, during which I picked blueberries the size of quarters, hiked up mountains, meditated both to silence and to music, and ate myself into an orgy. There was no cellphone reception in the cabin we stayed in, which was exactly the way I wanted it—I had to be cut off from all forms of communication. And these moments of escape worked, but they were only moments. I was gone, gone, hopelessly gone; I was drained, in the deepest sense. I kept blaming the insufferable heat (it shot up to above 100 degrees Fahrenheit in early July and our apartment had no AC), as well as the fact that I never really had a chance to "crash" after finals, but these were just excuses. The situation was only exacerbated by my denial, until I thought that I would never really resurface. At one point I did not think I was a writer anymore, or had ever been one. I could not even look forward to Oxford; I had an essay assigned for one of my tutorials and four entire months to do it, but I did not manage to even begin before my departure. It seemed as if the book would never end: I even worked when I was on my family vacation in Tennessee, staying up until odd hours in the morning, because we had not met our early August content deadline.

I know I am repeating myself, and that this probably does sound exaggerated beyond all meaning, but I swear it is true. There is no other way for me to convey the depth of how I felt. It was one of the most frightening periods of my entire life. And it had its physical toll too: I missed my period for almost four entire months (it came back literally the day I finished everything I could possibly do for the book). The week before I left for Oxford, I met up with one of my closest friends from secondary school, a friend who understands me more than I understand myself sometimes. We hadn't seen each other for months, and she almost didn't recognise me. "You look different," she said. "I can't quite explain why." But after a few moments she could: "You look older, somehow. Aged."

She was right. I had aged; I was tired and weary beyond belief. I couldn't really feel anything. I wasn't happy, and I wasn't sad either. I had had moments of this before, of course—who doesn't?—but never to this extent, and for this long. At many points I almost gave up.

Almost, yet not quite. Despite how unbearable it all was, I knew that it would end eventually, and that Oxford was a future reality. And it did. It just took forever and three quarters. It
finally ended, and the miracle is now a tangible product and it is beautiful, 515 full-colour pages with a spanking white cover. At first I wasn't quite convinced that it was right, but after seeing it on the physical book I know it is perfect, for three reasons: it a) is not at all overwhelming, b) really stands out on the shelf, and, most importantly of all, c) invites readers to make New York their own. A blank canvas, shall we say. Because the book truly is not complete—it is only the beginning, as Al and I declare in our introduction. Only the beginning, like so much else.

The miracle could not have been possible without the support of any one of the members of the INY 2011 team. Yes, there were multiple blunders and miscommunications and too many shitshows to count, but we managed to pull through somehow. We just kept going, instead of dwelling on how far behind our goals we were. I am eternally grateful to everyone for sticking
through, despite all this, despite me and my insanity. For believing in me, despite my complete and utter incompetence at times. For being so unbelievably talented and able to function under such extreme pressure: all of the editors worked extra hours beyond their contract, no matter where they were—be it Israel, India, Ireland, or a farm in Wisconsin (the alliteration is purely coincidental).

And, of course, there were the funny moments in the office. We had such a lovely group dynamic; I didn't want there to be any sort of a hierarchy (except logistical when it came to editorial procedure). We worked together, with each other, not for each other. Everyone told ridiculous stories. We shared food, mangoes in particular, and preserved their remains. We went on lunch excursions that were only supposed to last half an hour but ended up being at least twice that amount of time. We indulged in our complimentary dining and nightlife reviews. My most memorable was at GILT restaurant at the New York Palace Hotel, and involved a ten-course meal with seven courses of wine, virtually the most expensive dinner I have ever had. I was even able to take a picture with the Michelin-star chef, Justin Bogle, afterwards.

Me and Justin Bogle

I also saw several off-Broadway shows for free: The 39 Steps, which is based upon a Hitchcock film, and STOMP, which completely revolutionised my conception of music and dance. I actually saw the latter twice, the second time because one of the dancers is the husband of my Academic Advising Dean at Columbia; we met up after the show and I got an autographed poster from the entire crew.

Me and Alan Asuncion

So it was ultimately the people who helped me pull through. And it wasn't just Inside New Yorkers: I had the best flatmates in the world, who cooked for me, coddled me, inveigled me into playing ridiculous video games (i.e., Fuzion Frenzy), shared movies and books with me, and made me feel so much at home (practically like a baby)—even when I didn't have the mental energy to respond to their efforts. There was also the random hipster from LA I met on the subway after going to Bushwick for a warehouse concert; he was starting a history degree at Teachers College, and wouldn't let me say no to lunch the next day (and many more meals after that, as well as evening excursions, one of which was to see The Big Lebowski under the glittering nighttime expanse of the Brooklyn Bridge). He also gave me music, lots of good alternative songs, and insisted on accompanying me at 7am to meditation sessions at the Bhakti Club flat every week. Things never quite ended with him either, but this time it was completely my fault. [I might never see him again, but there is a chance—albeit an infinitesimal one—that he will read this entry. Anything can happen, after all.] And my friend Zach, who was living at Columbia over the summer to work in his lab (where he was trying to create a molecule, something utterly inconceivable to my limited brain), and hung out with me on a number of occasions—the most memorable of which was when we went to see a comedy show and I danced like a chicken on the stage and almost won first place, but deliberately didn't. Bhakti Club people, who widened my mind with discussions over good food and interesting film clips every Wednesday evening, as well as hosted the aforementioned meditation sessions and the Vermont excursion. My dear friend Sruthi, many thousands of miles away in India attending law school, who sent me e-mails every day and let me vent to her, over and over again, in seemingly endless despair. My other dear friend Yun, who made me a playlist that I listened to over and over and over, and who just generally believed in me, even when I couldn't believe in myself. And, of course, my family, who welcomed me home with open arms every time and didn't bother me about my work, allowing me to hide from everything, if only for two days.

These are the people who kept me alive, just barely. These are the people who kept me sane. And I cannot thank them enough; this chapter doesn't even begin to convey my gratitude. I am an incredibly lucky girl. Incredibly incredibly lucky, and I marvel at this every single day. Every single minute.

Was it worth it? Yes and no. The question is impossible to answer. Like Berlin on New Year's Eve, I would have changed many things, many many things, if I had an opportunity to go back. But I don't, so there's no use thinking about it. What matters is that I learned so many important lessons, lessons that will stay with me all my life. I might make the same mistakes again, but what matters is that I will try harder and harder to avoid them. I am more conscious than ever of myself and my limitations, as well as my aspirations and desires. And that is something. That is definitely something.

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