Maybe it’s true: Sometimes, while trying to get what you want, you end up getting what you need instead. More often, though, it seems like what you end up getting is something that you’ve just stopped wanting, which makes it seem like there is some wish-fulfilling entity operating in the world — but operating badly, operating on a delay. Or maybe you’re always being given the same thing, and sometimes you want it and sometimes you don’t. Where need enters into all of this is less certain; being able to differentiate between want and need has never been my strongest suit.
I was at this party full of people I mostly didn’t know. In a black-walled, red-lit basement, short girls with short brown hair and black sweaters looked up at paunchy men whose haircuts tried to say ‘I’m not forty quite yet!’ It was a book party for someone’s cool-seeming book about how karaoke had “saved his life,” so there was a karaoke band there. On the stage, a beat-up three ring binder contained paper sheets of lyrics to all the songs the band could play, protected from rock’n’roll fluids by plastic sheaths. There were a little over a hundred songs, which I guess is impressive, but I didn’t like any of them: they were “heavy metal” songs by theatrically macho artists like Van Halen and Black Sabbath. So it was mostly boys who sang. A couple of girls picked suggestive songs by Pat Benatar and Joan Jett, but their weak voices stripped the songs of their original articulate butchness and replaced it with boring coy sexual invitation: “fire awaaay.” The band’s signature tactic, which seemed to be a time-tested safety measure, was to play as loudly as possible, muffling the amateur lead singer’s voice with a blanket of feedback and overmiked drums. People cheered for their friends regardless of the quality of their performances. They probably would not have cheered for me. In spite of all this I still wanted to get up onstage and sing.
I was having an internal debate about whether to attempt ‘Cherry Bomb’ or ‘Running with the Devil’ when my friend whose idea it had been to come to the party motioned for me to move closer so that she could shout in my ear. “Do you want to split a cab home?” I looked at my watch. It was 10:30 and I was supposed to be up the next morning at 6:30. I was wearing a watch; I had recently started wearing a watch. It occurred to me that in three years I would be thirty. I nodded and we left, and in the cab on the way home we talked about real estate.
That night I dreamed of myself onstage, engaging in elaborate patter with the audience then blowing them away with my note-perfect impersonation of David Lee Roth. At four I woke up, sweaty and confused, blood racing. Raffles, sensing my wakefulness, became convinced that it was morning and began his morning ritual of swatting me in the face until I got up and fed him. When I got back in bed I couldn’t get back to sleep. The adrenalin from my dream performance was still coursing through my body and the words of the song were still reverberating in my brain: I live my life like there’s no tomorrow. I remembered a night like this after I’d starred in a seventh grade performance of My Fair Lady, when I’d dreamed all night of different ways the play could have gone wrong, lines of my dialogue thudding and tumbling through my mind until they bleared together into manic faux-Cockney nonsense. White winter sunlight was piercing my bedroom as I finally fell asleep.
I woke up at 8, when my appointment in Manhattan, the one I’d gone home early to make it to on time, was supposed to begin. The song was still stuck in my head.
The next day some morning errand took me to SoHo. It had snowed all night the night before but then it had gotten 10 degrees warmer and now it was going to rain all day, steady drizzle splashing down into the grey sludge underfoot. I took the weather’s advice and started feeling a little pensive and melancholy, and in this mood I walked up a street I usually avoid, where I used to work in an open-plan office in a ground-floor storefront. Now it’s an underwear boutique. About half the time I worked there I was happy to be sitting in a big room that anyone could just stroll into, lined up with my laptop along big long tables with twenty other people and their laptops all day. The other half of the time I would have preferred to work from an impenetrable bunker in an alternate dimension, but I still came into work and pretended not to be going crazy for as long as I possibly could.
One of my small consolations during this time had been breakfast from the ‘Wichcraft branch in the ground floor of the Equinox gym a block away from the office. I would think, I will just get to the office and write one post and then I can have some oatmeal. If I could get through this part of the day – the getting out of bed, the fraught commute during which I would feel, at every moment, the conscious effort required to keep all the particles of my body stuck to one another – and get to the point of wanting and deserving the oatmeal, everything would usually be okay.
‘Wichcraft oatmeal is so good: chewy and creamy at the same time, and there’s a bunch of salty-sweet mixed nuts and dried fruit and optional cinnamon-sugar-butter goo (which I usually forgo in favor of honey) on top of it. I hadn’t had any in a few years, and now I was in the neighborhood with some time to kill and I was hungry.
In the Equinox they were playing ‘Hot Legs,’ I guess to motivate people to work out harder in the hopes of eventually becoming as hot-legged as the subject of the song. I used to have a little relationship with the people who worked at this ‘Wichcraft but that particular batch of college students were long since gone. Probably they were like me in college and they had a different job every semester, forever quitting just before getting fired.
“What can I get for you ma’am,” the unfamiliar cashier said in robot-voice. I became conscious simultaneously of my dripping weird raincoat that looks like stitched-together trashbags and also of an incipient nervous stomachache near the top of my stomach. I was still going to order the oatmeal anyway but I was beginning to realize that I wasn’t going to enjoy it. “Oatmeal.” “With everything?” The pain in my stomach distracted me from telling her about the honey. “Yeah,” I said, and then she spat out a price and I paid it and put the change in her tip jar, using a method I’ve perfected of dropping the coins very slowly so they don’t make an insulting clink. I stood there pretending to check my text messages until the oatmeal was ready and then I sat at a little counter with three tall uncomfortable stools, where clearly no one is actually supposed to sit, and ate it as quickly as possible.
This next part is hard to explain. It was like, the entire time I sat there on that stool (in my wet raincoat, in my wool hat dripping), I could feel the girls there – the ones who work in the Equinox boutique for buying a $80 sports bra if you’ve forgotten yours, and the icy ‘wichcraft cashier — paying attention to me. I could feel them being made uncomfortable by my presence – how dare I sit at that counter which is clearly for ornamental purposes, and what was I even doing in SoHo, dripping and not in a glamorous last scene of Breakfast at Tiffany’s way, either? The girls’ glossy, dry hauteur prickled out of their skins and pricked me. Instead of being annoyed, which would have been normal, I felt like they were right. I felt like I was taking up a huge amount of space in the Equinox lobby at the little ornamental stool where clearly no one is supposed to sit, an amount of space that had nothing to do with my physical body. The odd overdramatic fraughtness of just being in this place that had been reassuring to me in the past felt so strange, and I wanted to be alone with that feeling. But now these random bored salesgirls were watching my every move. I choked down the oatmeal in ten bites and left.
People talk about how great it is that you can feel anonymous and alone in a crowd here in NYC but it has never felt like that to me, and I’m not proposing that this is because I’m so cute and special. Ok, it’s not purely coincidental or wholly unrelated to the way I look, but I’ve experienced this about people other than myself, not all of whom are young women: some people just radiate ‘look at me’ waves all the time, whether they want to or not. And other people can be wearing a day-glo spandex bodysuit and still not be as compelling as the person next to them who for whatever reason has this notice-me forcefield emanating from their body.
I realize that I’m basically being a hippie and talking about vibes here. Sorry or whatever. What I’m trying to say is that I have this thing, and half the time the attention feels like a warm bath and the other half of the time I’d like to be invisible.
On Saturday I organized a group of my most shameless friends to go with me to my favorite private-room karaoke place. When I first started to do karaoke I did the standards too – hit me baby, like a prayer, like a virgin. Now I mostly like to do songs that will allow me to be as theatrically crazy as possible, and I mean theatrically in the sense of ‘high school musical,’ (though not actually in the sense of High School Musical). “Tears are running … running down your breast,” I growl-shrieked. “And although, I know that he is bliiiind, still I say, there’s a way for us.” “I want to be the girl with the most cake.” I didn’t sing the song that is the title of this post but really I was singing it all the time, really I am singing it all the time – sometimes, I guess, whether I want to be or not. Give it to me.