Last week, I walked downtown in my pristine little suburb, north of New York City. It was a pretty straightforward mission. Get dog biscuits, iced coffee, shampoo. I followed the main road, which slopes down into a valley and the entrance to a state park. There are trees everywhere. Gardening is an obsession. Every available plot of dirt is filled with black-eyed susans, hydrangeas, gardenias, roses, and jonquils. Everything is so well-groomed, so perfect. This little stretch of road that leads to the downtown and the train station actually is perfect, and I hate it. It’s the place I landed when my life blew up. I didn’t choose it. And I see all of this – the flowers, the greenery, the trees and even a limitless expanse of pale blue sky, and a few white clouds – through a bubble, or a bell jar. I’m a visitor, a stranger, a cowboy. I’m just passing through. Don’t get too used to seeing me around here. Because I’m a New Yorker, from Brooklyn to be exact, and as soon as I get my shit together I’m going back.
I moved to New York City from Miami in 1989, and survived a failed marriage and the death of my mother. I got a Master’s Degree from NYU, produced my work on NPR and Off-Broadway, and landed a teaching job. I loved my apartment in the Heights, and I loved my community. After fifteen years, there was nothing I wanted to change. I belonged. And I felt that belonging deep in the pit of my stomach, and in my soul. But, about two years ago, everything changed – blew up – seemingly overnight: suddenly there were tour buses, tourists, the Barclay Center on Atlantic Avenue, a waterfront park that attracted millions of people. Rents skyrocketed, and then my younger brother died. Two months later, my landlord said, I’m not renewing your lease. He planned a gut renovation. I had to go. I lost my home, my city and my brother. A colleague, who was buying time until he could sell his condo in Westchester, offered me temporary refuge. So here I am, in exile.
The downtown here has always reminded me of East Hampton when it was still a small beach town: elegant, almost sterile, and very pricey. Usually deserted. Outside the florist’s, the sidewalk is always carpeted in red rose petals. In the jewelry store; tiny delicate diamonds, strung on platinum chains. The boutique with silk peasant blouses, paired with imported Italian sandals, and rope bracelets of leather and 14 karat gold. A deli that sells baked chickens for $16.00, and coleslaw made with jicama, $8.00 for a quarter pound. Also on sale, pink Himalayan salt and dark chocolate from France. The women on the street favor designer sportswear, tiny gold earrings, and neon colored sneakers.
This is not Brooklyn, and it’s not Atlantic Avenue. It’s always a struggle on this street; I always feel so out of place. I always feel so visible. I try to get out of there as fast as possible. I picked up everything at the drugstore, as usual, but then – as if guided by a laser – I walked into the upscale makeup store, and announced, “I need a lipstick.” I remembered that after my mother died, and I was trying to put that life back together, I decided that the simplest, easiest way to begin was to buy a lipstick. The perfect lipstick. I spent an hour with an aesthetician until I finally found a shade of pink that is the color of my mouth, only better. Smoother, richer. And then I really went overboard and bought a bronzer to match. It was so reckless, but so necessary. I honestly can’t get over how good I look.
I also started to keep a very precise diary of everything I did, every day. No editorializing, no explanations, no back-story, no analytics, no digressions, just the facts: How exactly do I spend my days in exile? Maybe it would help me see myself again. I definitely thought it would help me to stop focusing on the past, to stop focusing on what I lost. And maybe, maybe, that would propel me into the future. A future where I might finally have a real home again. It’s been one year and two months since I’ve been home.
Yes, I have an apartment; my colleague’s condo. There are marble counters in the kitchen, an archway, custom blinds, polished hardwood floors, tall ceilings with windows to match, so much light! But it’s temporary. I’m camping out here. It’s a hotel room. I occupy as little space as possible. I only live in one of the rooms. I don’t want it to be time consuming or complicated or heartbreaking when I leave. There are boxes at the door; there are boxes in the foyer. I have a mandala, printed on handmade paper, pinned to the bare wall. Nothing else.
As it turns out, keeping this very precise diary has been illuminating. For example, I’m always more productive than I think I am. I might forget that I mopped the floors, took out the garbage, did a load of laundry, even though I didn’t finish the freelance job. I see that yoga and mediation is my religion. I have a solid morning practice. I also track meds, mood, and diet. And today, I saw myself, very clearly, unpacking my navy suitcase in my new home. The walls are white, the space is neutral. It waits for me to transform it. It invites the transformation. The bookshelf, the rug on the floor, a slate blue couch, white sheers, an apricot bathroom, and candles.
My large blue dinner plates are out of the boxes, and in the kitchen cabinet. My archives of manuscripts, photographs, jewelry and perfume bottles are stored away in a closet again. I spread out, and live in every single room. The winter cactus is back in the bedroom, and it is in bloom. I’m not in exile anymore. When I realize this, I give thanks to the perfect shade of pink, which is the color of my mouth, only better. Because sometimes all it takes is one small step in a different direction.
I’ve seen the bell curve for grief. It begins with shock, descends down into denial, anger, disorganization. Yes, yes, and yes. On the way back up there is depression, “re-entry trouble,” but also new patterns, new strengths. If only the trajectory was that smooth, and pure. But, it’s not; it’s more like a rat’s nest. One day, I’m organized, hopeful, and researching new places to live, and the next day, I’m back in bed again, angry and afraid. But this time, I have the diary, and I see the pattern, the rhythm of my days.
Against all odds, I’ve created a structure for my life, though it’s far from ideal. And the lipstick? Well, it’s very simple. I like who I see in the mirror now. I’m easier on her. More compassionate. Sometimes, I’ll do the smallest thing for myself, like make a cup of coffee the night before, and put it in the fridge. I wake to a cold cup of strong coffee. Brewed exactly the way I like it. And it makes me happy. It does make a difference. The very, very small things we do for ourselves— they add up. I wish I’d known this six months ago. But I don’t think it would’ve mattered.
Because back then I was waiting for a miracle. I was waiting for someone or something to fix everything that broke. I couldn’t have done it– I had too much else to do. I had a life to mourn, I had the past on my back, I had to make money, I had to grieve, and I had to survive. I had to crawl in bed, and pull the covers up because I’d lost my home. It was too much. I needed a miracle; otherwise I wasn’t going to make it. Except that I did. I did make it. And it starts very small; going left instead of right, shopping for a lipstick, brewing a cup of coffee, mopping the floor. Getting out of bed for 20 sun salutations. This is what will lead me out of exile. All praise to the perfect shade of pink, which is the color of my mouth, only better.
Lillian Ann Slugocki has been nominated for Best of the Web, a Pushcart Prize, and winner of the Gigantic Sequins prize for fiction. She’s been published by Seal Press, Cleis Press, Heinemann Press, Spuyten Duyvil Press, as well as Bloom/The Millions, Salon, Beatrice, The The Daily Beast, The Nervous Breakdown, Hypertext Magazine, Blue Fifth Review, The Doctor T.J. Eckleburg Review, The Manifest-Station, The Forge Literary Magazine, The Daily Beast, BUST Magazine, and Angels Flight * literary west. Her latest book, How to Travel with Your Demons, is published by Spuyten Duyvil Press, 2015. She founded BEDLAM: New Work by Women Writers, a reading series @KGB Bar, The Red Room. Let’s connect on Twitter.