The Woman I Could've Been

by JessieAnne D'Amico


I'll be the first to admit I didn’t spend much time as a New Yorker. Actually, I take that back because I’m sure there are plenty of stone-faced, power-walking, extra-hot-quad-soy-latte drinking Manhattanites who would go to blows with me over illegitimately adopting the sacred title. Regardless, it didn't take me long to realize that while New York took in a bright-eyed, overly-jaded vision of myself like a good-intentioned foster parent, it wasn’t meant to last. The decision to leave was made thirty-eight days exactly into my first lease. It took me a little longer to realize that all of the excuses I gave for leaving — traffic, rent, weather, the mouse who’d taken to a hole behind my stove, they were all band-aids. Leaving the city meant leaving behind a facade I had created and, in the process, molded myself to fit. I didn’t realize how desperate I was to escape a life I had willed for myself until I watched it crumble. I’m still not sure if that life actually eroded over time or if it shattered as I locked the deadbolt to a cold studio apartment on the fifteenth floor for the last time.

My diary entry dated three days after my tenth birthday details “We talked about college today. One day I will go to Duke College in North Carolina and major in Fashion so I can work at Vogue. Then when I’m old enough, I can go to Law School so I can be the First Woman President.” I can’t tell you at what age I first caught CNN or Sex and the City over my mother’s shoulder but I’m pretty sure the girl who wrote that entry saw her future self as a cross between Hillary Clinton and Carrie Bradshaw. As I grew up so did this mirage. In retrospect, I regret living my teenage years for the future. Any semblance of youth was beneath me because, hey, I had much bigger and better thing waiting. I had a life in New York City waiting. I had a pair of Manolo's waiting to walk me through Lincoln Tunnel and into everything I was meant for. Keg party? No thanks, I’m sure a Cosmopolitan is more my taste (I’ve since found it’s not, and that no one drinks Cosmos anymore). More than what I wanted to have, I knew who I wanted to be. Confident and cool, standing so strictly you’d easily mistake her for 5’11 instead of stretching to reach 5’8. Sleek and graceful, bounding across sidewalk storm grates in five inch heels without breaking stride, hair bouncing in rhythm. Independent and mysterious, men watched her from across the room only to be gazed over. Every characteristic of this woman seemed so distantly tangible, and they all rode on the coattails of a city greater than the woman herself. The more I developed that protagonist of a life I couldn’t quite grasp, the more I realized her intricacies and nuances as what they really were — my own pitfalls. Running from the town I’d long sworn off meant running from a girl who’s everything that dream woman isn’t. Clumsier than a toddler learning to walk, self-conscious of every move I made, and most importantly, independent to a fault. My teenage years were spent swearing off anything that looked or felt like emotional attachment, even friends and family members got pushed away as I fell more and more in love with a city that promised the life I wanted to lead.

Less than a month after I turned nineteen, my mother and best friend helped me fill a moving truck and waved as I pulled away from a driveway holding layers of childhood chalk drawings, scraped elbows, Saturday morning games of horse, and the person I thought I’d be leaving behind. I spent my first night alone sitting at the one window of my apartment trying to absorb every trace of life below. I can remember each scene. Midnight: an bus empties it’s contents to a corner bodega. Two a.m: a twenty-four hour delivery boy swings his bike wide around a group of teenagers cackling on the sidewalk. Four a.m. the train howls from a subway grate at the corner. I can’t remember, however, when the pit in my stomach formed. I know it was that first night, something I’d never felt before, not like that. The feeling ached all the way through my chest, unforgiving. “How could you be lonely here?” I’d retorted to every fleeting thought that pulled me home, to my simple friends content with a night spent listening to waves beat the sand, to a grocery store filled with people who recognize me as my mother’s daughter.

For months I spent Saturdays as I thought Meg Ryan as a Nora Ephron character would— picking flowers from corner carts, slinking around man made parks with a book tucked under my arm, always trying to remember that being held by rows and rows of concrete buildings couldn’t actually suffocate me...right? I spent nights in bars filled with people who all seemed to exist as individual planets, revolving independently instead of coexisting in space we were lucky enough to share. I went on dates that weren’t rooted in authenticity but instead could’ve been drawn out as identical plot lines. I came to not just look forward to genuine connection, but long for it. I felt myself becoming desensitized. The night I caught myself breezing past a woman holding a child in her lap, both asleep in a nest of ragged blankets, slumped into the corner of a Duance Reade, I stopped in my own tracks. How could I have ever looked forward to being so jaded I didn’t feel aching empathy at a scene that should’ve been so affecting? A numbness rooted in complacency had set in, and with that realization came one that the vision of a woman I thought I would become was not the woman I wanted to be. I don’t know, looking back, how I looked forward to being cold and jaded and numb. Maybe that’s what I thought it’d take to hold my own in the city, maybe that’s what it does take, maybe that’s why I couldn’t. But the striking remorse that comes with realizing you’re starting to become someone you don’t like is enough to make you realize it’s time for a change. Looking back, I saw things every day that should’ve struck emotion. Hilarious scenes like fully-dressed clowns boarding the subway, heartbreaking ones like a mother and child begging for their next meal, inspiring acts of activism like Black Lives Matter rallies risking everything to demand justice — and I felt nothing for all of it. All of that, it’s just commonplace. I was supposed to be a New Yorker, after all, not to care about anything, mind my own business, keep my head down.

I remember reading an article in The Atlantic about Goodbye to All That: Writers on Loving and Leaving New York before I’d left for the city and scoffing. I’d brushed off their brazen disregard and abandon of the place that had given them everything. Turns out I’d come to have the same realization they all did: a city, simple steel and concrete, can’t “chew you up and spit you out” like so many warn. It’s toll is something more intangible. A dull throb. A lingering tinge. It grinds until one day you don’t realize why you’re taking the abuse.

New York granted me something an answer to something I would’ve always wondered: if it held the key to a prophecy I’d dreamed for myself. The city ended up giving me a greater answer: that the vision I’d alway held for myself was not the way I wanted to end up. I don’t want to be numb. I want to feel too much, feel sadness for people I don’t know, feel minuscule as I stand at the foot of the ocean, feel the inexplicable joy of driving too fast in the middle of the night down an empty beach road. Being cool, jaded, confident — none of it holds a candle to the emotional high that comes with really conceptualizing that you share a unique connection with every other person you encounter. From the gas station cashier to the people who raised you. I’m sure I would’ve figured that out along the way, no matter where I was, but New York stood as a symbol of too many self-inflicted expectations.

Sometimes I still wonder where I’d be if I’d chased an image of myself as a briefcase- wielding woman in a perfectly ironed pantsuit, climbing a ladder with no end. Then I remember the things I’ve experienced that mean more than any city art show opening, or sample sale, or trendy restaurant reservation. I’ve found myself smiling for no reason as I walk my block filled with kids’ laughing from backyard trails, I’ve held a friend heaving with tears in my lap as he told his mom goodbye too soon, I’ve stood tall with pride among 800,000 people and held the hands of strangers as they inspire me to keep marching for what we believe in. I hold all of these typically overlooked encounters as a reminder that there’s nothing more grounding that humanity. People have told me I would’ve learned to be happy in the city had I stayed. I’m sure I would’ve. But I’m glad I wasn’t willing to let time take it’s toll and find out. 


Beginning, Middle

by JessieAnne D'Amico


The sound caught her off guard — a sharp chime broke from the wedding china —

bringing her out of a daze. The ivory plates had been caught by a gold band she’d grown tired of acknowledging. It’s edges were tarnished with age and promises long abandoned. A tender smile fell on Charlie’s face as she took one of the plates down from its shelf. She let her fingertips break the dust and graze over the plate’s edges as she closed her eyes, thinking back to the day they seemed so bright and full of what was to come, yet to be dulled by time.

Eleven years before, Charlie had seen the kitchen of her new home for the first time. Her laugh had reverberated through the window-lined living room and blended with Grant’s own cackle as he toted her feet-first through the front door’s archway, through to the kitchen, onto the countertop where he’d sat her on the barren countertop and hopped up beside her.

“Look” she’d instructed, giddy with a joy she’d carried like virtue. “Can you see it?” She picked up his hand to guide it towards the living the room and moved it as she continued, “My grandma’s yellow armchair in that corner, the wicker rocker we found in Berkeley in the other? Oh, the perfect buttoned-sofa I’ve been dreaming of in the middle. It’s perfect.” Her direction turned now into the kitchen, “We’ll keep a shelf stocked with wine bottles... we’ll pretend they’re the finest of Italy instead of the finest of the ten dollar shelf.” Grant would grin and close his eyes as she spoke. Listen for her smile. He could hear it crack as she talked about their future, when she described scenes of their life waiting to be played out. “I won’t even be mad,” she promised with a chuckle, “when our stinky old mutt comes blazing across the hardwood and three sets of little feet covered in mud trample behind him. My mom always got so mad about that. But I won’t. I’m gonna follow right behind them, slipping and sliding in their muddy tracks.” Later that night, Grant had watched his soon-to-be wife fall asleep with a faint grin on her face, surely hoping to dream of all those memories they had yet to make.

Eleven years had come and gone. Still standing under the china cabinet, she continued tracing the plate’s delicate lines. They had moved into the house six months to the day before their wedding date, only to marry in Charlie’s parents’ backyard two months later, after they’d been told her dad wouldn’t make it six months. Maybe that was the beginning of the end — the shift at which things didn’t go as planned anymore.

For years they spent hours laughing at each other’s childhood photo albums, stealing favorites from each other’s boxes of records, drunkenly falling asleep on each other’s couches. Charlie would try not to laugh as she whined Neil Young’s chorus of Harvest Moon as off-pitch as possible, picking at Grant’s tendency to leave it on repeat as he fell asleep. They’d banter through uncontrollable laughter, debating everything from the most embarrassing middle name they could grant their future child to what the worst movie of all time is. That may be what she missed the most, the little bickering fights. Even the bigger ones. They had infamous fights, Charlie’s mom had always said it was a good thing, that it just meant they loved each other too much. When they first moved in Grant surprised Charlie with a bookshelf the size of their bedroom wall. She was so excited when it appeared on the doorstep that she insisted they put it together that very night. Four hours in they had come to blows, Ikea parts flying across the room and screwdrivers flinging around like they carried the power of concession. In a tearful fit of frustration she’d flown out the front door and thrown herself onto the front porch step. Grant waited no more than two minutes before appearing behind her, encompassing her in his broad shoulders and running his fingers through her delicate hair. She laughed through remaining tears before he picked her up and carried his wife back through the door, both of them teasing as their lack of handy-man qualities and emotional outburst. Their fights had been as passionate as their love. Had been.

Charlie drifted from memory for a moment as her husband’s footsteps announced themselves upstairs. Five ‘till noon. The footsteps hit the floor beside the bed. Drug apathetically from sleep to the bathroom. A shower started, then stopped immediately. They made their way towards, down the staircase. Charlie watched as Grant rounded the corner past the kitchen. She took him in as he sloughed by. His hairline ran uneven and uncombed, his hands worn from the sun and age, his shoulders no longer stood proud enough to embrace her but drooped forward. He passed in silence before passing through the back door to god knows where. Charlie thought about the person she’d fallen in love with — he’d been proud and commanding bustling with life. Time had taken it’s toll on Charlie too. Her auburn hair had fallen flat, it didn’t bounce with her step or swing as she turned her head. The smile lines that accented every photo and every memory of her younger self had sunken into dark lines framing her face. Her frame no longer demanded attention but stood meek and unassuming.

Charlie turned her attention back to the china as the sound of Grant’s engine roared and dissipated. Pulling over a chair, she climbed to see the rest of the long-abandoned cabinet. She took careful attention to dust every plate, every fragile silver spoon. It was hard to pinpoint when things had changed, how things had changed. Their house that was to be filled with the beat of little feet had instead stayed silent. Maybe the beginning of the end was the day three years into marriage that Grant had held her head in his lap, catching her tears in the waiting room of another fertility doctor, the last fertility doctor. Charlie pulled down two crystal champagne flutes with a date engraved in their bases and held one between her fingers. Maybe the beginning of the end was something more prolonged. Maybe the end manifested itself as she covered the garage with tarps and canvases to spend hours throwing everything into painting, or as Grant traded their once-perfect four walls for a barstool between four dimmer, dingier walls across town.

Charlie’s phone picked up a voicemail that her mother had passed at the same moment she’d screamed for Grant from the floor of their bedroom closet. They’d spent four months on the brink of parenthood, finally, and now she laid cramped on the floor in her own blood. The next day Charlie and Grant stopped sleeping in the same bed. She’d left her husband to keep their room, abandoning it for anything cold and unfamiliar — the floor of her garage studio when she couldn’t bear to leave her escape, her late mother’s own bed when all she needed was the smell of being buried in her mother’s chest to cry. Nights away turned to weekend trips out of town that turned to weeks and months away. She drove for hours and days looking for something to make her feel again. After a year of running, Charlie had come home to a husband she didn’t recognize. She hadn’t called, he’d offered the same. That was five years ago and they hadn’t exchanged more than a common glance since.

This beige plateau had recently been replaced by a dull throb in Charlie’s chest. She was getting restless for anything more than what her life looked like. She longed for the days of flying screwdrivers and drunken nights spilling wine on new carpets. She wished for a blowout. She wished for something jarring and emotional and violent. But it never came. The couple had never so much as discussed divorce or separating. They had instead gone numb, silently content not to long for more than they’d found in each other. There had been no tears, there had been no lawyers or separation of assets, no dramatics. Charlie thought about leaving once in a while. Quietly starting a new life, but for what?

She finished dusting the last piece of china as Grant’s engine grumbled louder to a halt outside the back door. Charlie ran her worn fingertip once more over the first plate she’d grabbed and held it to it’s rightful place as her husband’s footsteps climbed the stairs outside. As the door creaked with age she gasped and her hand did the same, disobeying her mind and letting the plate slip to a violent shatter on the hardwood to land at her feet in malevolent shards. Grant stepped through the threshold and with a muddy boot kicked a single piece out of his path, echoed by his footsteps back upstairs. 


A Few Rhymes I Can't Master

by JessieAnne D'Amico


Maybe a hair on the pillow

I wonder if I’m made up of
every bed I’ve slept.
If every ceiling fan my eyes have traced,
every floor the balls of my feet have met
have left their mark on me
and I have on them.
If as I pass back through the threshold
I leave something of myself
and take something with me.
Maybe in every
four-poster, platform, mattress on the floor
of every
cabin, condo, midtown apartment,
that once in a while,
their new inhabitants stop to think of me —
be it concrete or abstract.
What have I left
every time I slink out from under a sleeping arm

just to gather my things
and let streetlights lead me home.
What did I carry back
from the cold Manhattan studio
four grey walls, one window
that held me for months
just to spit me back out?
Does the dawn glare shine as brightly
into the windows of my mother’s bedroom without her voice crooning hymns
as I squeeze my tiny, icy feet between hers?
Do the waves crash
to the same rhythm every night
as when I’d crack a first floor window and
cry my naive heartbreak their beat?
Isn’t the door creaking louder
every time I find myself between the same sheets that I always run for when the night gets too quiet and I know exactly where to lay my head.
I wonder if I’d recognize the fragments I’ve left or the trace of a woman who rose from herself.
I wonder how much more I have to shed.


Generations

I’ve been told that — “years ago”

— my eyes looked from my mother’s face. I used to wonder what this meant
that I needed to see what hers had seen, why

as I am, one day ye shall be

But now I am, and I see it all, and my hope is that —

one day

— my eyes will look from my daughter’s face. I hope she sees the women before her

through a sea of picket signs

protecting her and shattered glass from above. I hope she sees young love

through wide-brimmed glasses

a well of tears when it comes crumbling down.
I hope she sees life through eyes she will realize have lived before

dive headfirst to be shaken
by water more powerful than she can fathom discounted wisdom, only to be rediscovered

I hope closes those eyes and that she feels everything, she catches everything there is to feel
with arms wide — for the good and the bad
and everything in between

I hope one day she knows those eyes are worthy to pass on

and how much they carry.
At every reminder, every faint memory, every memory transcending a generation

I hope my eyes shine the way my mother’s do I hope they’re strong enough to glisten again

from a wide-eyed, freckled stained face


Women I Know

I don’t remember the first time I was told
a myth of women and their strength.
But
I remember the day my mother gave a human being life and laid her between my small arms

in a silent promise that the world was ours to take. I remember the first time that I found out my being a woman was something to be fought for.
I remember every time I’ve been reminded —

I pick up a friend by bruised wrists and wipe blood from her cracked lip I see the glare in a man’s eye warning me to run

I felt my knuckle make contact with the jaw connected to a hand around my neck
I don’t know the first time I was told
a myth of women and their strength.

But
I know they’ve never met this woman 


A Story I Tried Not to Write

by JessieAnne D'Amico


Disclaimer: I wrote this three years post-this relationship but still based it on a piece I wrote right after we went separate ways. There are hints of over-zealous self realization and leftover angst.

The first man I ever loved collected bad habits the same way my Grandmother collected China: over a lifetime, obsessively, and never to be let go. Just like my Grandmother’s China, I came to handle him delicately, careful not to make the wrong move and watch him shatter into a thousand jagged pieces at my feet. I tried not to tell this story again. I’ve told it before; I’ve screamed it from rooftops five hundred miles away, cried it into a first, second, third bottle of wine, whispered it into the ear of lovers who followed.

Eleven years my senior, he seemed to have it all figured out. He’d experienced life a way that my strict barely-eighteen-year upbringing hadn’t allowed. I’d go into a trance for hours as he narrated his life through records and the stories they held: Blues for Allah sounded like the acid trip that “changed his life,” Eat a Peach was made to be played through the speakers of his parents’ ’88 Wagon that carried three seventeen-year-old boys to Boston the weekend they stole it to get to a Red Sox game, The Beatles White Album playing from the kitchen meant he didn’t have to hide when his dad came home from work that night. He was intriguing and mysterious and had mastered manipulation with such expertise I’d mistaken it for a keen emotional intelligence. In my eyes it seemed he could do no wrong, but when he inevitably did, he knew exactly how to fix it. I found myself lying to everyone around me, I knew someone would be there to point out what I didn’t want to hear.

He didn’t believe in institutions like the stock market, but the CEO of Marlboro owes him a thank-you note. He smoked so much that I could hug my mother and with no context, her brow furrowed and she’d ask me if I “had a nice day with ‘him.’” Some nights as he fiddled with a lighter in the pocket of his chef pants he’d warn me to “never start smoking, it’s disgusting.” I’d roll my eyes in the dark and timidly warn him to stop treating me like a child. He’d smile with a glisten in his eye that challenged the stars. Now, sometimes as I solicit barflies for a cigarette to fuel a drunken habit I picked up from one bad role model or another, I can almost catch a whiff of the Marlboro Reds that accented his wardrobe. Last time I spoke to him, months ago, he’d quite smoking “a while ago.” He also mentioned something about having his Red Sox tattoo removed. The latter news shook me to the core for some reason. His tattoos were an integral part of who he was as I remembered him. They had stories intersecting with those told by records – a Red Sox tattoo from that trip to Boston, the Wu-Tang symbol square in the middle of his shoulder blades (this was probably my mother’s “favorite” when I told her of his many tattoos), a connect-the-dots figure of a thumbs up, and maybe the worst, the Piggly Wiggly pig usually hidden by t-shirts (actually, this was probably mother’s “favorite”). When I describe my naïve mistake, I usually begin characterizing him by the sketches that don his body.

He drank anything he could get his hands on. Actually, he seemed to have strict convictions against being sober, a trait which at eighteen didn’t seem like so much of a red flag but an intriguing facet of adult life. I still shutter a particular horror at the red Aristocrat bottle. When you go head-to-head with a fifth of vodka a day, it’s gotta be cheap. The first night he invited me over I was caught off guard being asked what I wanted from the liquor store. Never having strayed from my parent’s liquor cabinet, I panicked and said gin before realizing my grave mistake and pouring gin and tonics down the sink all night when he wasn’t watching. It took months spending time with my friends his age before I realized that his drinking was something far beyond the standard. His alcoholism ruled our relationship. I would later learn an overwhelming factor was also a blooming opioid addiction, but as far as I knew, Aristocrat called the shots.

I made sure to wake to every three-a.m. phone call, slipping out of my mother’s basement door to find him outside the bar, or a mile from his house, always drowning just deeply enough in booze to hold my face in his worn hands and tell me exactly what I needed to hear. The thought of missing those calls petrified me, I could’ve spent every waking second with him, but I knew to take what I could get. In retrospect, I wonder to what degree any of our intimacy was real as opposed to alcohol fueled quests for an escape from his real life. He was the only part of my “real life” I didn’t want to escape. I would cancel plans, lie to my parents’ faces for the first time in my life, lend him money I couldn’t afford to lend, all for any glimpse of a mutual feeling. When I got my fix of affirmation or affection — a whispered “you know I love you” before bed, catching him smile as he watched me talk, kissing my forehead when I’d start to get upset about one thing or another, it was always enough to hold me over until I caught that side of him again.

The day I left to make my dreams come true, he was beside me. He captained the moving truck into New York and spent those first three hot, humid September nights with me on a mattress on the floor of my first apartment. With our distance it became overwhelmingly clear that not only would it not work out, but that he’d moved on months before. We came to blows after my accusation that hit too close to home. I swore I’d never fall into him again, but despite a girlfriend we talked for a few months a year after I’d moved home. I felt myself crawling back as for months I’d fight sleep at night to make sure I didn’t miss a stray message. That fizzled out as quickly as it’d come back to fruition.

Every once in a while, I pull up to a stoplight next to his car and feel every muscle in my body tense as I fight not to glance at him, or someone mentions his name at the bar and my jaw clenches, fighting the knot twisting in my stomach. New Year’s Eve I opened Facebook to a photo of him and the sweet-faced teacher who’d followed me. His grin was as genuine as I remembered, but the glisten in his eye matched the ring shining from the teacher’s hand. I tried to feel something, anything, but nothing stuck. I tried to scream, I tried to force a tear. I dropped my phone and bolted out of the back door of the bar where years before he’d taught me how to play pool, where he’d grabbed me by my waist in the corner, where he’d held my hair in the parking lot on more than one occasion before I developed a taste for tequila. It all flooded back as I gasped for January air that pierced my lungs. Walking the two blocks home I finally felt something, numb -- emotionally and physically -- so I decided our was no longer mine to tell.

A journal entry dated three days after we started seeing each other simply contains a quote I read of an author detailing her relationship with an older man: "What I learned in our months together was this: I had power. The power of youth, of independence, of being a woman at the beginning of something with nowhere to go but up...he taught me that I was young (but not too young anymore) and desirable, and that these two things were a potent combination-a kind of currency that was mine to wield." I didn’t know when I wrote that three days in that I would reread the words three years later and thank him of all people for granting me the same gift. I thank him for making me feel like I was a woman at the beginning of something. I thank him for feeling comfortable with my sexual independence, for learning to remember I have something to gain from relationships not just give, for teaching me for the first time that I was powerful. There’s also a sick sense of power in realizing that I had more to gain from him than he’ll know. When his name comes up I’m satisfied in knowing that I have a life he’ll never know the intricacies of, even when he can see it from afar thanks to social media. I’m glad I don’t recognize the girl who was in a relationship with him, but I’m also glad that she wouldn’t recognize me. There’s something pure about the naive lens through which I experienced falling in love with him that I’d wish for everyone to experience. 


Feminism

by JessieAnne D'Amico


The following passage is from an e-mail sent earlier this year after I found myself obscenely dissatisfied with the excuse of a "feminism" unit we were studying.  I decided to enlighten her on better ways to handle the unit.

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