Monday, December 16, 2013


The building at 439 Argyle St. had reached that awkward age before it could be called historic, when it was still simply run down.  The building and its neighbors formed an urban forest that families of tenants migrated through like birds. Sometimes these tenants fit together well and shared their walls without too much fuss.  But when they didn’t match – when the senior citizens got tired of smelling marijuana in the laundry room or the young professionals played their music so loud the writers couldn’t find their words – someone would eventually migrate to another building and make space for the next hopeful renter.

The new girl in apartment 3C rented the space “as is.”  She had just broken up with her boyfriend.  (Or maybe he had broken up with her?  Although she made the final proclamation, it seemed his tendency to share both his bed and his body with virtual strangers was an aggressively non-verbal way of saying “I think we should see other people.”)  In the end, it didn’t matter who euthanized the relationship.  The apartment was his, and that meant she needed a place to land.

And so, even though 3C’s brightly painted walls had not yet been covered with the requisite “apartment white,” she signed the lease, shook the hand, and thought, “It’s colorful and it has character.  I can make this work.”

But shortly after the furniture was arranged and the boxes unpacked, it became painfully clear to the woman that the red kitchen walls clashed with her curtains and her couch didn’t look great against the blue in the den.  None of her prints or posters worked on the green accent wall, and the bedroom was such an unusual shade of brown that she fell into sleep every night with the subtle (but very real) fear that she was being buried alive.

Despite her initial confidence that she could deal with a few minor color clashes, the woman soon realized that she needed the fresh start that comes with a blank canvass of white walls.  Thanks to her lying, cheating, bastard of a boyfriend, the past few months had been entirely too colorful.  She needed a clean backdrop against which she could re-arrange her life.

Excited at the prospect of “doing for herself,” the woman went alone to the hardware store to find a neutral palate for her walls.  There, under bright and dishonest fluorescent lights, she thumbed through the dizzying collection of white, off white, eggshell, bone, cloud, cream, and frost-colored paint chips. 

She had no idea starting over could come in such a wide array of almost-colors.

The next day, after moving her furniture, taping the baseboards, and covering the floor, the woman rolled clean white paint over the apartment’s too-colorful past, replacing red, blue, and green with calm, white neutrality.  The woman worked through the night, painting each room into something that resembled the inside of an egg.

Finally, when every hint of color was gone, she scooted each piece of furniture back to its proper place, always careful not to scuff her clean, white walls.
The problem started in her bedroom, as her problems often did.  While getting ready for work one morning, the woman looked up and noticed a patch of brown on the wall just above her dresser.  It seemed impossible that after an entire week of dressing and undressing in the small cloud-colored room she would only just now notice the unpainted brown square.  Puzzled, the woman made a mental note to “touch up” the spot when she got home from work.

That evening, when she walked into the kitchen with her arms full of groceries, she was surprised to find a similar problem in the kitchen.  Her white kitchen walls were turning pink – which clashed with the curtains even worse than the red had.  Further inspection also revealed a rash of green on the former accent wall and a line of blue bleeding through the white corners of the den.

“How odd,” the woman thought.  “I suppose I should have used primer.”

The woman spent the next weekend re-moving the furniture, re-taping the baseboards, re-covering the floor, and re-painting the apartment with three coats of a non-color called “Clean Cotton.”  Afterward, as she removed the masking tape, the woman carefully inspected her work to make sure she hadn’t missed any spots or patches.  Satisfied that her home was now thoroughly whitewashed, the woman cleaned her brushes and treated herself to a hard-earned beer.

Four days later, the color was back.  This time, instead of slowly creeping across the walls like sweat through a shirt, the color simply appeared.  When the woman went to bed, the walls were white.  The next morning, the white was gone.  She awoke in a brown bedroom, ate breakfast in a red kitchen, and watched the morning news in a startlingly blue den.  The woman rode to work that day in frustrated – and stunned – silence.

The next weekend, the woman invited several of her friends to her apartment for a “painting party.”  Her friends were gracious and hardworking people who were apparently willing to overlook the fact that painting and partying never actually happen in the same space.  Together the friends spread three coats of “Fresh Snow” on the stubborn walls.  But by the time they had ordered a pizza and drunk a few of the requisite painting party beers, “Fresh Snow” was already melting to reveal the red, blue, green, and brown walls beneath.

Having spent a small fortune on paint and brushes, the woman finally tapped into her vacation fund and hired a team of professional painters.  Two overweight Italian men spent most of the next Tuesday afternoon attacking the walls with several gallons of acrylic-based “Mother’s Milk.”  When the painters finished, the woman sighed and told them not to bother moving the furniture back against the walls.  She could already see the color creeping back through.

It seemed her walls didn’t want to be white.
Exhausted, the woman finally did what she should have done months ago - she called her mother.

“I hope you realize that every time you paint those walls, you’re making your apartment a few gallons smaller,” her mother said. “And besides… why do you want a white apartment?  My wedding dress was white, and so was your grandmother’s, and it was a lie both times.”

Her sister was equally as helpful.

“Is it so horrible if the walls don’t perfectly match your over-coordinated life?  You might be looking for something fresh and new, but that apartment’s not fresh and new. It’s been lived in, just like you have. Don’t you think it’s a little arrogant to walk into that old place and expect it to start over?”

And her best boy friend:

“Can you blame them?  After all, blank pages aren’t terribly interesting until you write on them.  I’d be pissed, too, if somebody came along and tried to erase all my interesting.”

The woman hung up the phone.  She walked through her red kitchen and sat in her blue den.  She looked at the green across from her and wondered...  were the walls being stubborn, or were they right?

Before she moved into the apartment and filled it with her furniture, books, and baggage, its walls had already hosted dozens of birthday parties, book clubs, and movie nights.  They had seen the arguments and orgasms of every family that had lived there.  Who was she to erase the history that seasoned these walls – the stories that would seep through even if she tried her hardest to cover them?

And so, instead of asking the apartment to loose itself under her relentless paintbrush, the woman let herself be its next tenant.  She threw away several unopened gallons of “Cresting Cloud” and bought a new bedspread that looked great in her bedroom.  She also found four striped pillows for her couch and decided that it was fine for her curtains to clash with the kitchen’s red.  A little conflict made dinner more interesting.

The woman grew to love her colorful and complicated apartment.  She even told a few of her friends that she couldn’t imagine why she ever wanted it to be white.  “White walls are about as interesting as sleeping babies,” she said one night at the bar.  “Sure, they’re new and beautiful… but they don’t have any good stories.”

Not long after, the woman came home from work and found that her spare bedroom, where she did most of her reading, writing, and singing too loudly with the radio, had become the same pale yellow as her favorite spring sweater.  

And it always would be. 

And that made her very, very happy.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Stay Away

It’s not uncommon to see people – men and women – rehearsing on the subway. Young white women hold scripts in their laps, whispering lines as the train rocks them toward an audition. Young black men stand in front of subway doors, looking at their reflection in the glass, watching themselves rap, imagining that the voice in their headphones is actually their own.

The woman got on the Q train at Canal St., shuffled into a seat, and sat with her knees pressed tightly together. Around her, tourists crowded together in clumps, hot with vacation sweat and proud of themselves for buying big, counterfeit purses in Chinatown. Those who noticed the woman might have wondered what it was like to be her – an Asian woman in the almost-foreign country of New York City’s lower east side. Most of the tourists, however, either didn’t notice the woman or pressed her so tightly behind several hundred other vacation memories that they never thought of her again.

In her lap, the woman held a small spiral-bound notebook. It was the kind of notebook little girls fill with stickers and the meaningless scribbles they pretend are words. In the pages of the notebook the woman copied and recopied the strange new English letters, training her hand to remember the way they felt. On its pages she carefully drew the vowels and consonants, stitching them together into something like language. Over it she whispered the clumsy new words that felt big and sticky in her mouth. The notebbook was her private rehearsal space, where she practiced the sounds she couldn’t yet say and studied the words she didn’t yet understand.
The man looked down and saw the woman’s opened notebook. He wasn’t spying. He was just noticing. When it’s been a hard day and the commute is long and your arm is tired from holding the chrome bar above your head, it’s natural to let both your chin and gaze drop. On days like that, it’s easy to let yourself look down and scan someone else’s magazine… someone else’s crossword puzzle… someone else’s cleavage.

On those days, it’s easy to notice the notebook in the small Asian woman’s lap.

There, on the blue lined page, printed in too-neat letters, he couldn’t help but notice that the woman had written:

I won’t let you control me anymore
You’ve made my life a misery
Do not telephone me
Stay away

The woman’s lips moved slowly as she studied the words. Like a child trying to read the Sunday Times to her father, she furrowed her brow in concentration.

Won’t let you control me… Life a misery… Stay away

Obviously, these weren’t sentences the woman learned in a language guide. They weren’t the rote “practical English for non-native speakers” phrases that are recited in dingy community center classrooms.

“No,” the man thought, “someone helped her form these thoughts. Someone helped her craft this syntax, this story.”

As he scanned the lines on her page, the man felt (what?) for her. Sadness? Regret? Pity? After all, these were phrases a person shouldn’t have to rehearse in another person’s language. These were phrases that should slip easily off the tongue like fire, hot and rampant. Unchecked. Yet here the woman sat, silently mouthing the words. Studying.

Control… Misery… Stay away

But the man understood… or he thought he did.

Like most people, he was familiar with the ache of not just speaking words like these, but planning to speak them. Rehearsing them. Anticipating them. He knew what it was like to sit in stammering frustration as the right words lodge stubbornly in your chest.

Do not telephone me

He guessed that in a week, or a month (or maybe more?), the woman would finally feel confident enough to step off the train and say those lines to someone. But to who? Who was the person she had apparently lived with in love (and then frustration) for so long that she could no longer bear being not understood? Who was this man she couldn’t talk to – this person she had been intimate with, without being intimate? And how long could she ride the train with that notebook in her lap, waiting to tell him?

Stay away.

The man turned his head and pretended not to see.
At 8th St., the train slowed to a stop, as it always did. The bell sounded. The conductor’s voice announced the station and reminded passengers where they would stop next. People pushed and shoved as tourists tried to enter the train before commuters had a chance to leave.

The woman looked up from her notebook and saw her friend board the train. The friend stood in the doorway for a moment, scanning the car, apparently looking for the woman. When she saw the woman, the friend tilted her head sympathetically. The woman’s eyes filled with tears and closed, pressing heavy drops down her cheeks. When she opened them, the friend was standing in front of her, looking down with both concern and an anger that’s the truest sign of loyalty.

“甜美的花,我不明白。那个混蛋对你说了什么”, she asked. (Sweet Flower, I don’t understand. What did that jerk say to you?)

“我不知道 “ (I’m not sure) the woman replied, and handed her friend the notebook.