MEMO TO D.C.

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TWO YEARS OUT: STARTING OVER WHEN YOU'VE REALLY JUST BEGUN
[posted 12.23.2004]

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I SIT AWKWARDLY IN the oral surgeon’s chair, gripping the armrests with both hands as he talks about nerves with the speed and timbre of the man who recites disclaimers at the end of car ads on the radio. “And this here,” he says, pointing to the X ray, to a white thread in my ghosted-out jaw, “is a very important nerve. If it is damaged during surgery, you may lose some or all feeling in some or all of your jaw for days, weeks, months or even years.” My adrenaline-wracked brain tries to process this possibility: A numb jaw. Would that be like permanent Novocain? Would I be unable to feed myself without spaghetti dribbling senselessly down the side of my chin? “The nurse will be in to give you the consent forms. Do you have any questions?”

Only one: “Do I really have to get them out?” Here he looks me in the eye. I notice that he is vaguely cross-eyed. And that he looks sort of like Elliott Gould in MASH. “No,” he says brusquely, pointing again at the X ray. “It’s your choice whether or not you get them out now. But it’s like a leaky roof. Do you want to get your roof fixed now, or do you want to wait until it rains? You will have to get them out someday.”

Having your wisdom teeth removed: a rite of passage, so they say. Sitting in the chair, waiting for the nurse to come in, I start having second thoughts. Why go through the pain, the inevitable bloody mess, the drugged-up, chipmunk-cheeked yogurt fest that this is bound to be? The surgeon’s words ring in my ears: I will have to get them out someday.

The nurse comes in to give me the forms. I mask my trepidation by signing my name with a devil-may-care flourish. Then she drops The Bomb: “Who will be picking you up?”

Something inside me caves, a terribly important I-beam, a truss that is supposed to hold the roof up. I almost start to cry on the spot.

“Um, I’m not sure who will be able to pick me up.”

I flash to the recently exed ex-boyfriend, whom I wouldn’t think of asking. I think of my friends in D.C., whom I’ve only known a year and haven’t yet stood the test of time. I think of my family, the people obligated by blood to come and pick you up no matter what: They are hundreds of miles away in my hometown of Buffalo, NY.

The nurse is all business, oblivious to my silent inner collapse. “Well, someone will have to be here when you wake up. Call us and let us know who it will be.”

And so begins the downward spiral. I walk out into the white-hot, Washington, D.C. August afternoon, dizzily bobbing in a vast sea of people and concrete.

- – - – -

I return to my office, and I have obviously been crying. My coworker Brooke asks me what’s wrong, so I explain. Scary surgery, no ride home, etc. “I’ll pick you up,” she says without hesitation. I am floored, don’t know what to say. Tyler walks by and sees me upset. I explain again. “I’ll pick you up,” he says, matter-of-fact. By this point I feel like I’m in a movie. Jason, the head of our small nonprofit organization, finds the three of us staring at each other, me still mopping up the corners of my eyes. I tell him what’s going on. “Oh. I’ll pick you up. I insist.”

I am stunned, and grateful, and more confused than ever. Clearly my feelings of drifting are not rooted in an unsupportive supporting cast. I begin to blame my mental state on the city itself: too buttoned-up, too touristy, too fake. I’ve tried explaining this to people — that D.C. is alienating for a girl who likes her cities to have funky corner coffee shops, dark and dive-y neighborhood bars and an abundance of creative, crafty artist-types with thick-rimmed glasses.

I think of my old college friends living in Chicago, near Northwestern University, where we went to school. My semiannual weekend visits with them are chock-full of these quirky, interesting, fun things. Chicago would surely make me whole. Surely I just need some atmosphere, man, to make the drifty feeling stop. Maybe if I lived in a city with deep roots, I would grow some too.D.C., you are growing in wrong. Everything appears fine, but under the surface, you are growing in sideways and impossible to keep clean.

On the day of the surgery, I arrive and sit calmly in the surgeon’s chair. I assume they will prep me before carting me off to the surgery room, but no — the surgery will happen right in the chair, Elliott Gould says, and it will commence immediately. After the IV prick for the anesthetic, the world goes melty, and I don’t remember anything until I wake up in a dream. My roommate Sarah has won the honor of picking me up. When I open my eyes, she is there to lift my woozy, groggy self out of the chair and guide me to a cab. I spend two days on the couch, chomping on gauze, brushing my fingers against my swollen cheeks, wondering how I could possibly feel so out of place despite having a whole roster of people who volunteered to fetch me post-surgery.

I live on the couch, sipping drinkable organic peach yogurt, and looking at the cemetery across the street. Threads of thoughts are deeply tangled: Stay or go; stay with the life I’ve built in the two years since college or go and look for something new.

A college friend aware of my dilemma emails me a quote from Charles DuBois: “The important thing is this: to be able at any moment to sacrifice what we are for what we could become.”

What does it mean to begin again at 24, just two years after graduation, itself a mandatory beginning?

A D.C. friend who recently hightailed it to Charlottesville, Virginia gives me her take: Yes, it’s a little like graduating all over again, she says. However “we can only regress but so much.”

- – - – -

My mother has just driven away, and I am waiting on an Amtrak platform in Buffalo, watching my breath make frozen curls in the October night. A fellow soon-to-be passenger approaches, her winter hat pulled over her eyebrows and her scarf covering all the rest. She tilts her head back to speak to me, because she’s much shorter than I am and her hat is so low. “I almost missed the train,” she says. “I almost slept right through.” She sucks in nervous puffs on her cigarette, and we bond over being single females taking an overnight train to Chicago.

- – - – -

Before getting my teeth yanked, I had started taking a class in improvisational theater — comedy that you create by making up scenes on the fly. I’d never done anything like it before and signed up on a whim, thinking something was missing from my daily life, so hey — maybe I just needed a hobby. Classes were held once a week in the South Nap Room of a local elementary school. About half of the 15-person class had actually just moved to D.C. and coincidentally, four were from Ohio. Only a few of these newcomers had jobs or even job prospects. How interesting, I thought. How daring and different — to move first and find a job second!

Learning improv itself was a way to crack open my white-knuckled grip on safety. Start a scene and the universe will support you, the improv mantra goes. It’s a little like those cartoon characters who walk off the edges of cliffs, but don’t fall until they look down and realize they’re walking on thin air. I decided to stop looking down.

- – - – -

I am curled up in the fetal position in my roomy Amtrak seat, looking out over fields of blonde grains (who knows what they are — but it feels Midwestern). We are stopped just outside of Chicago and the rail car is approximately 90 degrees inside; the heat is broken. Most people have clustered into the other, cooler cars, so I have silence and space in this sauna. We are waiting for a freight train to cross the tracks. We don’t know how long it will be. It’s been an hour and 20 minutes already. Our attendant walks up and down the aisles, shaking her head. We are so close.

The scruffy Canadian backpackers sitting behind me whine about the delays in their clipped Canadian accents. The narcoleptic smoker is still passed out cold.

- – - – -

My boss and I are having dinner at a classy restaurant near the White House, and I am trying to explain the wisdom teeth analogy. “Things are growing in wrong,” I tell him. “I need to pull them out.” Understandably confused, he tries to tell me all that I could accomplish if I stayed in my current job managing and designing programs for a small education nonprofit. Jason created the organization out of nothing seven years ago, and he wants to keep the team together. I look around the restaurant at the D.C.-ites, well-heeled men in their suits and women in their pointy-toed shoes. I am wearing a T-shirt, bright printed skirt and flip-flops. I tell him I want to be a writer instead, or maybe a teacher, and that I miss the laid-back, corner-bar feeling of the Chicago area. These reasons sound hollow even as I say them, but something rings true — I just can’t explain it any other way. “It would kill me to see you go,” he says finally, after beer and food have been consumed and he has played all the angles. “But you would have my blessing.”

Later that night, I call my mother. “Whatever would make you happy, honey,” she says. I call other friends, pleading my stay-or-go case both ways. No one advises me to stay. I berate myself for needing the approval of others in order to make major life decisions. Then I survey my two younger sisters.

- – - – -

Four days after surgery, I arrive at improv class with swollen cheeks and a new idea: I’m thinking about moving to Chicago, I tell everyone. They are buoyantly enthusiastic that I should go — walk out on the air and trust that it will hold me. And, it turns out, Chicago is the improv capital of the known universe.

- – - – -

How to dismantle your life in just one month:

1) Quit job.
2) Freak out and question your decision.
3) Start looking for jobs in Chicago. Do not apply. Convince self that “it’ll be easier once I’m there.”
5) Freak out.
6) Take advantage of your best college friend’s good graces, and make plans to stay with her until you find a job and an apartment.
7) Start to think that D.C. is a wonderful city full of cultural treasures and irreplaceably fabulous people, and wonder why you ever wanted to leave.
8) Start packing.
9) Drive most of your belongings home to Buffalo. Load the essentials into suitcases.
10) Take a cheap overnight train from Buffalo to Chicago.
11) Freak out.

- – - – -

I’m fidgeting in my seat on the train, going over and over all the threads of my decision to move, when I catch a glimpse of tranquil aqua-blue Lake Michigan through the window. Suddenly everything is better. Soon we are in sight of the city itself; I see the skyscrapers rising up beyond the industrial outskirts and know I could get there faster if I ran. If only I could just crack open one of the doors and start running alongside it, like the cowboys in the movies. My friend Amanda is picking me up at Union Station with her husband, and I call to give her the update.

“We’ll see you when you get here,” she says. They have been waiting for two hours now.

Adrenaline keeps me awake for about half an hour, but then I start to feel drugged from the overheated rail car and the lack of substantive sleep. The train stops again, and I drop in and out of a heavy-lidded nap.

After one last soul-crushing pause, we finally arrive at Union Station. My fellow passengers and I almost can’t believe our good fortune: Our Mayflower has docked at last.

The Canadian backpackers phone their ride and say, in their jaded tone but with a definite undercurrent of excitement, that their train has arrived. The narcoleptic smoker awakens with a start and heaves her suitcase from the overhead compartment.

I grab my backpack and step off the train into the dark, cool station.

- – - – -

Two months later, I am on the eve of moving from temporary digs into my very own one-bedroom apartment. I have an office-monkey job that I don’t hate, and I’m taking more improv classes. At least once a week, I wonder whether or not I made the right decision. But nearly every morning on the El ride downtown to work, I look out the window and see the bright blue sky sliding behind slouchy brown brick buildings, the sun glinting off the gutters. Or I sit in a window booth at Standee’s, the 24-hour diner down the street, where my friends and I watch a diverse and quirky crowd amble by on a regular Tuesday night. My D.C. memories are crystallizing into one package and, at the same time, getting fuzzy around the edges. I try to conjure up specific memories sometimes, just to see how it feels, the way my tongue still probes the holes where my wisdom teeth used to be. I realize now that Chicago cannot make a person whole, any more than D.C. can keep a person empty. But I think it helps to start that journey toward wholeness in a place that feels like home. And maybe, for now, I’ve got one.

- - - - -

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lindsay muscato now writes and improvises in chicago.