Saturday, September 19, 2009


San Francisco was supposed to be just like New York, except on the West Coast and always foggy, so when I got there I was kind of confused because where were the tall buildings? Plus, it was hot and sunny and dry -- I hated the sun, would cross the street just to get out of its glare. Sometimes I even carried a parasol. Laurie had arrived earlier so she’d found us an apartment and we were surprised because people had told us that it would be so expensive we’d have to share a room, like New York again, but actually we each had our own room for $300.

I met Laurie at the ice cream social, the ice cream social at the school where we both went to escape, except it wasn’t what we were trying to escape to and that’s how we ended up in San Francisco. Growing up, school was always the answer, the way to get out of school I mean the way to get away. And at first it felt like that, I remember I had this incredible feeling like finally I could be someone, I mean myself. I’d gone to the same school from second grade to 12th and when you go somewhere like that there are always people that see you exactly like you were in second grade, those 10 years don’t matter there’s still that kid with his own reading group he was so far ahead, that kid who traded stickers with the girls at recess, that kid with glasses who wanted to be friends with the teachers because other kids were too scary, teacher’s pet faggot sissy nerd. Sure, by this point you’re reading Sartre and thinking about freedom, going out to clubs with the girls instead of trading stickers, and talking back to all the teachers because you know what you didn’t used to know, you know you’ve outgrown them.

Sure, you’re encouraging people, other kids, not to think about any of that, not to think about them. They could mean parents or teachers or other kids or anyone telling you to die, inside or outside it was the same thing. But the truth is that the first time you really knew that you could have an impact was maybe when you got to school, even though it wasn’t away in the way you thought it would be it was still away. Maybe even at the ice cream social, where you met Laurie and thought: she’s crazy, I like her. You were definitely not eating ice cream, but it was right by your dorm. You were wearing a Lollapalooza t-shirt, the first Lollapalooza so people still thought it was cool. This was Brown University, where Amy Carter went and you remember in fourth grade when her parents, the President and his wife, sent her to public school in DC, the public school right down the street from your private school, she was in junior high when you were in elementary and people talked about Amy Carter going to Hardy, this is what people talked about in DC, certain parts of DC. Later, at Brown University, Amy Carter got arrested, she got arrested for protesting something.

Was that one of the things that made me think Brown was an activist school? Soon I would get arrested for protesting -- that’s funny, I said earlier that that protest for universal health care was the first time, but no no it was in a historic building at Brown University. But this was before, before that arrest and I’d just arrived at Brown where at first I felt like people could see me. Laurie had grown up in a small town in northern Maine, just across from the Canadian border, a town where people spoke French almost as much as English, a paper mill town or right near the paper mill and her mother was on welfare and now she was at this school with so much privilege it was hard for her to leave her room. Her room was on frat row, and even though there weren’t really frats at Brown there were frats on frat row. I would come over and pick Laurie up to go to the dining hall and then the library, where sometimes we’d stay so late we’d get locked in, we did this on purpose to study more but mostly we ended up talking about everything that wasn’t anything we were studying and we thought that was funny, funny that we got locked in, locked in the smokers’ lounge where everyone was watching everyone except now there was just us.

I’d grown up in a school where there were Senators’ kids and no one really cared, a Rothschild and a DuPont and more lawyers and doctors and bureaucrats than you could count, this was normal. This was the school for guilty liberals, so the people everyone called rich weren’t really the people with the most money, those were the ones who always asked if they could borrow a few dollars for some food at recess. They never paid you back. But at Brown, so many people came from boarding school and that was a different world of articulating privilege and then there were the international students, my roommate was the son of a German industrialist, he was 21 and had dreads and he didn’t like living in the dorms so his parents bought him a house, a huge old mansion really, so close it was practically on campus, and then I had two beds in my dorm room so Laurie stayed over a lot, it was lucky that I was in the environmental studies dorm, in the morning I would make her coffee, we were practically roommates. But wait -- roommates don’t make coffee for each other, do they?

I don’t think anyone ever asked if we were sleeping together, because now it was okay, okay that we weren’t sleeping together. No, people must have asked, but it didn’t matter in the way it used to. We’d always been queer, but now it was acknowledged in a different way, a way that meant we could acknowledge it, this was important, a way to dream. I wish I could say that my relationship with Laurie started differently than those with my high school friends who were girls, friendships that started when someone had a crush on me and I wanted to make it more, more meant something else, but the truth is that Laurie had a crush on me and we talked about it, talked about sleeping together -- we were both queer, but queer meant you could still sleep together, everyone’s bisexual was still the way to talk, everyone’s potentially bisexual but soon it became clear that the potential in that direction on my part would probably stay potential.

When you go to a school like Brown, they always tell you not to get overwhelmed, not to get overwhelmed because you’re used to being the smartest person but now you’re surrounded by everyone who’s used to being the smartest person. I wasn’t overwhelmed at all, I mean there were smart people and there were clueless people, just like anywhere else. The difference was that it was actually okay to be smart, smart and creative and strange at the same time and that made me feel stronger, like finally I could express myself without so many walls.

I’m writing all this like it’s just something casual, but the truth is that for years I didn’t even want to say Brown, for fear that that’s what would make people think I was smart, it disgusted me, disgusted me when that’s how people would react. Even when I said I dropped out. I didn’t want to hide the class privilege, so I would just say some posh elitist school on the East Coast, and then if they said where, where, then they really looked silly. I also said: I didn’t learn anything there, except when I was protesting against the university, which was kind of true, but not quite true, and now I’m trying to tell you the rest. But then I wonder if I’m making all this up, because of after, after when it just felt traumatizing to even say the word, the word Brown. Even now, now when I’m talking to Hilary on the beach where we’re watching the sunset, and she asks if I went there for four years and already I feel terrible, terrible that I said anything, terrible that I ever went there at all and I guess that’s the other side, what happened later or maybe it was already happening it was all happening at the same time.

Laurie and I learned a lot from taking ecstasy that was actually acid, although I wouldn’t learn that part for years, Kayti had sent it to me, she called it Joy, ecstasy in tab form, and it was joy the way you could see the structure of things, the structure you were trying to escape. One time Laurie and I walked by one of those emergency fire alarm things and it fell over, just like that, no alarm. That was on mushrooms. We made up songs for the cars: don’t run us over, that’s bad, because then we would be dead, and that’s sad. Sad was one of the ways we connected, we could finally say it, finally say that we felt trapped, hopeless, every day was another opportunity to break down, and to break down the breaking down, and this didn’t necessarily feel hopeful but it felt, we felt, we were feeling.

Of course we felt trapped in different ways. Late at night on weekends, we would often end up at Dunkin Donuts, after whatever party ended and we were still high, we smoked a lot of pot it made us crazy and we loved that, we loved being crazy so late at night we’d end up at Dunkin Donuts. I was eating things I would never eat, never eat if I wasn’t high, maybe muffins more than donuts, maybe I would eat muffins when I wasn’t high too. And we would smoke pot in the back of Dunkin Donuts, do you see how everything was different? Sometimes we would pass out there, in the morning people would come looking for us, our friends.

If we left before morning, tripping over ourselves and I would start to feel disgusting, back in my body the way I usually felt out of my body. I mean I’d worked not to feel my body I didn’t want it, I didn’t want this body but then, then I was back in this body. I would hurl the donuts or muffins, mostly muffins into the street and I remember Laurie was stunned, stunned that I would throw something away like that, something you could eat. I don’t think she told me that then. Once, her mother sent her a rug, a woven Guatemalan rug in the style that was very popular at the time for fratboys who drank Cuervo and wore ponchos, it disgusted me but remember her mother was on welfare and she had sent that rug to Laurie, a gesture of care and I took one look at it and said: that’s tacky.

I might’ve even said: get rid of it. Or, if I didn’t say that, that’s what I meant. Laurie and I were becoming an item for all the disaffected kids on campus, the ones with dyed hair who studied semiotics, older students, they saw our confidence and came right up to befriend us, bring us to parties where only upper class students were invited. I mean upper class as in older. We were the new item, a prize traded for avant-garde cachet and I’d never experienced anything like that before, I mean I was never that kind of item and it made me feel grandiose and then dead. In a way it was my confidence, my confidence that finally someone could see me, and that’s what helped me to help Laurie to see that too, see that about herself, but then I also wanted her to get rid of a gift from her mother because it looked tacky.


rocko bulldagger said...

I love this non chronological memoir-ish thing you are doing lately.

mattilda bernstein sycamore said...

Rocko, thank you so much -- I feel like I'm on a roll of some sort, some kind of roll -- I think it'll become part of my next book, the one called The End of San Francisco...

Love --

Anonymous said...

Thank you.

I agree with Rocko.

I mean, you've always revealed so much about yourself in your work without revealing so much of yourself. Perhaps my fascination with it makes me a twisted voyeur. It's just that the more vulnerable you become, the more you open up, the more you strip down...

the more it sears the consciences of people like myself--hypocrites, poseurs, and cowards--and maybe your courage will shame us all--shame me, why the fuck am I speaking for other people-- into finally coming out for real.

mattilda bernstein sycamore said...

Darling, I certainly don't think you're a twisted voyeur at all!!!

Thank you for your sweetness and understanding and encouragement, I do feel vulnerable when I write a lot of this, and so then I realize yes yes this is what I must keep writing...

Love --