How I failed my way into a good life
I was living in my absurd little studio apartment in Madison, Wisconsin. It was furnished with a single bed, a little round table and a cheap dresser. It looked like a hotel — a cheap, Midwestern hotel. But I loved it. It was the first time in my life I had my own room, much less my own apartment. I’d shared a bedroom with my older sister my whole life, except for the one year when she went off to college ahead of me. She’s just 13 months older than I.
I remember the day I moved in. A guy that was in the group of people I sort of hung around with had a car and he helped me. We packed all my stuff from the house I’d been sharing with my sister and two other girls and drove the five blocks over to my new place. It had a little parking lot in front and he pulled in.
Before we brought anything in we went upstairs to open the door. I was on the third floor — the top floor — in the corner apartment. The windows faced east and there was a tree right outside. I’d read an excerpt from Proust once where as a child he goes to see his beloved grandmother after having been away from her and is shocked and horrified by the sight of her and her usual surroundings. He describes the violent colors of the wallpaper in her habitual room, all things that had once been such a source of comfort and peace to him. It was simply the time away that had caused this perception, and I had the same reaction when I walked into the apartment I’d chosen and had so dreamed of.
“It’s horrible,” I cried, feeling in a flash that all my hopes and dreams for the future had been dashed and that the world was sincerely coming to an end.
“What don’t you like?” the guy said. He was one of the universe’s truly nice guys and he liked me as a girlfriend, I knew, though I didn’t return his sentiments.
We narrowed it down to this hotel end table and soft chair and ditched them into the building’s basement storage. I kept the bed, the round table and the dresser. The room was both austere and cozy.
So there I was, living by myself at last. At first I ran over to my sister’s and her boyfriend’s every half-second because I couldn’t get used to being alone. But as soon as I did I loved it. And that same fall I got kicked out of university — a semester of academic dismissal for bad grades, which, by the way, conveniently corresponded to how much more kush I’d started smoking that autumn.
So I got a fulltime job at a little fashion shoe store on State Street. Other people my age were graduating around this time and turning to careers. I wasn’t one of them. One part of me felt like a loser. Another part of me was ecstatic with relief. I was independent and it seemed that was all I’d ever wanted to be in my life.
And the more unhinged I became in my academic life the more I reveled in my newfound solitude. I got back into school and promptly got kicked out again. I’d changed majors all over the board and was generally without a center and I smoked way too much weed. I started writing angsty poems at my little round table and one day I painted these large, hot pink trees on my wall, taller than I, with bright yellow leaves. When winter rolled around I came home from work and pulled the jungle-pattern curtains that my mom had made on the window closed before it even got officially dark out. I drank beer and smoked kush and danced to my prodigious collection of records and tapes.
I must have known I was going down and I started dabbling in fine dining, by myself. I’d take my minimum-wage-plus-commission and go to a restaurant called Second Story, one of the finest restaurants on State Street in Madison. It had a black-and-white checked floor, was French, and true to its name was on the second floor of a building. I sat at a table by the window.
I went on weeknights, and maybe on the early side — the place was always almost empty. Perhaps needless to say I was totally high. I’d order up a little meal and drink wine and have dessert afterward, along with a Drambuie. My dad had taught me how to enjoy Drambuie after dinner, and although I knew he’d be appalled by my current behavior — which I clearly kept to myself — I couldn’t help but think part of him would be a little proud, too.
The people at the restaurant were incredibly polite to me. I always left a huge tip. And I could tell even then they were amused and sort of wondered about me. I was a cute person. I knew it. I looked young even for my age and I was a little punk in style. I tripped home happily after those meals, which to me were the equivalent of a jaunt to Paris, and back up to the solitude of my room. I was immersed in a world of books at that time, interrupted only by my job, reading Dostoyevsky, Sartre, Camus, Gorky, Rilke, and all those writers who had that edgy, existential flair.
It didn’t last. It couldn’t have. I got fired from my job at the shoe store and then fired from my job at a clothing store. I got kicked out of school for good. My rationality took further leave as more alcohol and marijuana moved in, and I got quite dark. But I toasted myself for one last meal at Second Story before packing the whole affair in and heading back to my parents’ house in Milwaukee to recoup some time and sanity.
Once they got over their disgust mixed with serious concern for me, it was like being in rehab. It was just me, my mom and my dad. We sat at the dinner table every night and talked about the events of the day. I got a job in a dress shop way over in the conservative part of the city. It was a huge trek on the bus and I knew I was paying for what I’d done. I had zero social life, except when my mom and dad would occasionally take me to a play or a movie. I pretended to be put out at first but the truth was I was happy and after awhile I didn’t even hide it. Everything was very soft and very simple.
I started with one college class and then another and eventually I got my B.A. It took until I was 28. But I got some time to think and that was really the essential thing for me. For all the world I was glad I got derailed the way I had. I was glad then and I still am now. I didn’t realize it then but my greatest terror was getting trapped in a life that wasn’t supposed to be mine. I felt this kind of emergency about my fate and getting it right. A line from a Bob Dylan song ran through my head all the time: “I had so much left to do, I had so little time to fail.” So I failed but I saved myself by failing. I bought time. Sometimes all you need is a little time.
I finished school with a major in English and I even got a quick Master’s degree to make up for how long it took me to get my B.A. Then I went and taught in Japan for two years and afterward I moved out to NYC. Later on I had a son, pretty much on my own, which is a whole other story. There are definitely other other stories.