Authors: Miranda July
Tags: #Essays, #Interviews, #PennySaver, #Film
Copyright © 2011 Miranda July
Photographs on page 209 by Aaron Beckum.
Typographic direction by Project Projects.
The interviews and sequences within have been edited for length, coherence, and clarity.
All rights reserved, including right of reproduction in whole or in part, in any form.
McSweeney’s and colophon are registered trademarks of McSweeney’s, a privately held company with wildly fluctuating resources.
FOR JOE AND CAROLYN PUTTERLIK
I slept at my boyfriend’s house every night for the first two years we dated, but I didn’t move a single piece of my clothing, a single sock or pair of underwear, over to his place. Which meant I would wear the same clothes for many days, until I found a moment to go back to my squalid little cave, a few blocks away. After I changed into clean clothes I’d walk around in a trance, mesmerized by this time capsule of my life before him. Everything was just as I’d left it. Certain lotions and shampoos had separated into waxy layers, but in the bathroom drawer there were still the extra-extra-large condoms from the previous boyfriend, with whom intercourse had been painful. I had thrown away some foods, but the nonperishables, the great northern beans and the cinnamon and the rice, all waited for the day when I would remember who I really was, a woman alone, and come home and soak some beans. When I finally put my clothes in black plastic bags and drove them over to his house, it was with a sort of daredevil spirit — the same way I had cut off all my hair in high school, or dropped out of college. It was impetuous, sure to end in disaster, but fuck it.
I’ve now lived in the boyfriend’s house for four years (not including the two years I lived there without my clothes), and we’re married, so I’ve come to think of it as my house. Almost. I still pay rent on the little cave and almost everything I own is still there, just as it was. I only threw out the extra-extra-large condoms last month, after trying hard to think of a scenario in which I could safely give them to a large-penised homeless person. I kept the house because the rent is cheap and I write there; it’s become my office. And the great northern beans, the cinnamon, and the rice keep the light on for me, should anything go horribly wrong, or should I come to my senses and reclaim my position as the most alone person who ever existed.
This story takes place in 2009, right after our wedding. I was writing a screenplay in the little house. I wrote it at the kitchen table, or in my old bed with its thrift-store sheets. Or, as anyone who has tried to write anything recently knows, these are the places where I set the stage for writing but instead looked things up online. Some of this could be justified because one of the characters in my screenplay was also trying to make something, a dance, but instead of dancing she looked up dances on YouTube. So, in a way, this procrastination was research. As if I didn’t already know how it felt: like watching myself drift out to sea, too captivated by the waves to call for help. I was jealous of older writers who had gotten more of a toehold on their discipline before the web came. I had gotten to write only one script and one book before this happened.
The funny thing about my procrastination was that I was almost done with the screenplay. I was like a person who had fought dragons and lost limbs and crawled through swamps and now, finally, the castle was visible. I could see tiny children waving flags on the balcony; all I had to do was walk across a field to get to them. But all of a sudden I was very, very sleepy. And the children couldn’t believe their eyes as I folded down to my knees and fell to the ground face-first, with my eyes open. Motionless, I watched ants hurry in and out of a hole and I knew that standing up again would be a thousand times harder than the dragon or the swamp and so I did not even try. I just clicked on one thing after another after another.
The movie was about a couple, Sophie and Jason, who are planning to adopt a very old, sick stray cat named Paw Paw. Like a newborn baby, the cat will need around-the-clock care, but for the rest of his life, and he might die in six months or it might take five years. Despite their good intentions, Sophie and Jason are terrified of their looming loss of freedom. So with just one month left before the adoption, they rid their lives of distractions — quitting their jobs and disconnecting the internet — and focus on their dreams. Sophie wants to choreograph a dance, and Jason volunteers for an environmental group, selling trees door-to-door. As the month slips away, Sophie becomes increasingly, humiliatingly paralyzed. In a moment of desperation, she has an affair with a stranger — Marshall, a square, fifty-year-old man who lives in the San Fernando Valley. In his suburban world she doesn’t have to be herself; as long as she stays there, she’ll never have to try (and fail) again. When Sophie leaves him, Jason stops time. He’s stuck at 3:14 a.m. with only the moon to talk to. The rest of the movie is about how they find their souls and come home.
Perhaps because I did not feel very confident when I was writing it, and because I had just gotten married, the movie was turning out to be about faith, mostly about the nightmare of not having it. It was terrifyingly easy to imagine a woman who fails herself, but Jason’s storyline confounded me. I couldn’t figure out his scenes. I knew that in the end of the movie he would realize he was selling trees not because he thought it would help anything — he actually felt it was much too late for that — but because he loved this place, Earth. It was an act of devotion. A little like writing or loving someone — it doesn’t always feel worthwhile, but not giving up somehow creates unexpected meaning over time.
So I knew the beginning and the end — I just had to dream up a convincing middle, the part when Jason’s soliciting brings him in contact with strangers, perhaps even inside their homes, where he has a series of interesting or hilarious or transformative conversations. It was actually easy to write these dialogues; I had sixty different drafts with sixty different tree-selling scenarios, and every single one had seemed truly inspired. Each time, I was convinced I had found the missing piece that completed the story, hilariously, transformatively. Each time, I had chuckled ruefully to myself as I proudly emailed the script to people I respected, thinking, Phew, sometimes it takes a while, but if you just have faith and keep trying, the right thing will come. And each of those emails had been followed by emails written a day, or sometimes even just an hour, later — “Subject: Don’t read the draft I just sent you!! New one coming soon!!”
So now I was past faith. I was lying in the field staring at the ants. I was googling my own name as if the answer to my problem might be secretly encoded in a blog post about how annoying I was. I had never really understood alcohol before, which was something that had alienated me from most people, but now I came home from the little house each day and tried not to talk to my husband before I’d had a thimbleful of wine. I’d been vividly in touch with myself for thirty-five years and now I’d had enough. I discussed alcohol with people as if it were a new kind of tea I’d discovered at Whole Foods: “It tastes yucky but it lowers your anxiety,
it makes you easier to be around — you have to try it!” I also became sullenly domestic. I did the dishes, loudly. I cooked complicated meals, presenting them with resentful despair. Apparently this was all I was capable of now.
I tell you all this so you can understand why I looked forward to Tuesdays. Tuesday was the day the
booklet was delivered. It came hidden among the coupons and other junk mail. I read it while I ate lunch, and then, because I was in no hurry to get back to not writing, I usually kept reading it straight through to the real estate ads in the back. I carefully considered each item — not as a buyer, but as a curious citizen of Los Angeles. Each listing was like a very brief newspaper article. News flash: someone in LA is selling a jacket. The jacket is leather. It is also large and black. The person thinks it is worth ten dollars. But the person is not very confident about that price, and is willing to consider other, lower prices. I wanted to know more things about what this leather-jacket person thought, how they were getting through the days, what they hoped, what they feared — but none of that information was listed. What was listed was the person’s phone number.
On one hand was my fictional problem with Jason and the trees, and on the other hand was this telephone number. Which, normally, I would never have called. I certainly didn’t need a leather jacket. But on this particular day I really didn’t want to return to the computer. Not just to the script, but also the internet, its thrall. So I picked up the phone. The implied rule of the classifieds is you can call the phone number only to talk about the item for sale. But the other rule, always, is that this is a free country, and I was trying hard to feel my freedom. This might be my only chance to feel free all day.
In my paranoid world every storekeeper thinks I’m stealing, every man thinks I’m a prostitute or a lesbian, every woman thinks I’m a lesbian or arrogant, and every child and animal sees the real me and it is evil. So when I called I was careful to not be myself; I asked about the jacket in a voice borrowed from The Beav on
Leave It to Beaver
. I was hoping for the same kind of bemused tolerance that he received.
The person who answered was a man with a hushed voice. He wasn’t surprised by my call — of course he wasn’t, he had placed the ad.
“It’s still for sale. You can make an offer when you see it,” he said.
There was a pause. I sized up the giant space between the conversation we were having and the place I hoped to go. I leaped.
“Actually, I was wondering if, when I come over to look at the jacket, I could also interview you about your life and everything about you. Your hopes, your fears…”
My question was overtaken by the kind of silence that rings out like an alarm. I quickly added: “Of course, I would pay you for your time. Fifty dollars. It’ll take less than an hour.”
“Okay, great. What’s your name?”
It was wonderful to have this opportunity to leave my cave. I packed a bag with yogurt, apples, bottles of water, and a little tape recorder. It was the kind that used mini-tapes; I’d gotten it when I was twenty-six in order to listen to the tapes the director Wayne Wang sent me after he recorded our conversations about my sexual history as part of his research for a movie he was making. I had always thought of this as a rather creepy exercise that I’d participated in for the money and because I liked to talk about myself. But now, putting the tape recorder in my purse, I felt a little more sympathetic. Maybe Mr. Wang had just wanted to talk to someone he hadn’t made up. Maybe it was a casualty of the job.
I drove to Michael’s with a photographer, Brigitte, and my assistant, Alfred. Brigitte had met all my family and friends, but I hadn’t known her very long, or very well — she was our wedding photographer. Her photographic equipment legitimized this outing in my mind; maybe I was a journalist or a detective — who knew? Alfred was there to protect us from rape.
The address was a giant old apartment building on Hollywood Boulevard, the kind of place where starlets lived in the ’30s, but now it was the cheapest sort of flophouse. It’s not that my world smells so good — my house, the houses of my friends, Target, my car, the post office — it’s just that I know those smells. I tried to pretend this too was a familiar smell, the overly sweet note combined with something burning on a hotplate thirty years ago. I also tried to appreciate small blessings, like that when we pressed 3 on the elevator, it went up and opened on a floor with a corresponding number 3.
The door opened and there was Michael, a man in his late sixties, burly, broad-shouldered, a bulbous nose, a magenta blouse, boobs, pink lipstick. Before he opened the door completely he quietly stated that he was going through a gender transformation. That’s great, I said, and he asked us to please come in. It was a one-bedroom apartment, the kind where the living room is delineated from the kitchen area by a metal strip on the floor, joining the carpet and the linoleum. He showed us the large leather jacket and I felt a little starstruck: here it was, the real thing. I touched its leather and immediately got a head-rush. This sometimes happens when I’m faced with actualities — it’s like déjà vu, but instead of the sensation that this has happened before, I’m suffused with the awareness that this is happening for the first time, that all the other times were in my head.