jolie laide

jolie laide

I started this when I lived in Brooklyn and struggled for grace in a city that grants moments of beauty and ugliness breathtakingly close to one another. Now I live in a place where things are a different kind of ugly and the beauty is pedestrian. I struggle with that.


May 30, 2017

Oh my fucking god I'm back. And Brooklyn is beautiful and ragged and tender and I feel so lucky. It's spring, the light is clear, the sidewalks are rain washed and I can't walk two blocks without taking pictures. I know I had to go but I'm so grateful I got to come back and bring my treasure with me. In the afternoon sun on the front stoop, everything, everything seems possible.


I came back to New York to give thanks to those who taught me how to live in this city of memories, how to navigate in a landscape of loss and change. That was supposed to be my joy and it would have been enough by itself. Except I took a long walk through my old streets and fell into the beautiful both familiar and new.

The methadone clinic is still there but now also the third horseman of the gentrification apocalypse, a sushi bar. Two guys on the corner are going to war over a beer at 9AM on a Saturday while the morning runners all head towards or from the park. Peppermint balls from the bodega are up to ten cents a piece now, to compete with the store that sells charcuterie and fancy cheese. Across from the post office there's a bar that you could leave without something unpleasant lodged between your ribs.

It still feels like home. It must still be home.


When the sun is higher in the sky, the yard I am working in will smell like old dog shit. I know this well before the eventuality and I am ready for it. I am doing volunteer work at a house that had been abandoned, a catastrophe of faulty decision-making. The neighbors, or at least the neighborhood dogs, have added to the insult.

When I left my husband this morning, he was sitting up in bed with a large cup of coffee, and a fleet of freckles on his arms. He is thinking about poetry. After my day of uncovering ossified logs of excreta, hauling broken concrete and pulling up weeds he will have become even more Irish. He will have had enough to drink to make him talk about poetry, exclaim his love for me abundantly, and sing without care to old songs on the radio.

When I go to work tomorrow, I will have no way to talk about this. With my dog shit and soggy husband I have drawn a circle around what I would call a lovely weekend. I have no way to translate that weekend, except here.


Your ex-boyfriend has sent you an e-vite. It's for his comedy troupe. They are doing musical improv in some basement theater near NYU.

In the time it takes for the bus to cross the bridge, the last red tongue of the sun has slipped below the lip of the horizon. Out the opposite side windows the bay is grey and flat, a backdrop for the nodding middle-aged men snoozing their way home.

Your friends send you out of the bar to the snack shack to bring back a fleet of three dollar hot plate tacos. The punk rock girl behind the counter is so alluring, maybe because you are drunk and maybe because she controls access to the toaster oven. I so want to go back to the parts of my life that I loved, but I know it will not be the same. Different man, different taco.


He is reading on the couch with his feet up. I am reading on a chair with a bowl of soup balanced on my knee. I seem to have landed at the house at the end of my commute and completely missed my home. I don't have much to give, but I would like to give something. I offer to darn the holes in his socks with the noodles from my soup. He declines.


If you live in Haiti now you can shit your life out in a matter of hours. On the radio, an international relief doctor says this could be avoided simply. People just need to be cleaner, you know, the ones who have been living forgotten in tent cities for nearly a year now.

I normally go dormant on Saturdays, except for the ones where I am still working. And I am still working over the man who came to see me yesterday, unhappy about prior treatment. His story is far away behind his eyes but I can read it still. I would not have wanted to be left alone with him, not without seeing his VA files first.

A gap in the rain today allows me a trip to the grocery store. The parking lot is filled with napping carts and I navigate into a space between them. This store is down at the heels, nearly empty, as always. The lighting is harsh, the wheels are rusty, but I never feel judged here, never feel impatient. Also, the raspberries are three for one again this week.


The phone rings, a little too late at night for politesse. And so the next day, I am driving north through this impossible, beautiful landscape, welcoming another soul to the Hotel California. There is something about this bluest of skies, this edge of a great continent, this air so sere you are no longer conscience of breathing, that unloosens people. I brought enough food for a few days, enough money for a few days, but I can't do much more than that.

Today the plants outside are making another small offering. The strawberries are coming out like debutantes, one at a time, dazzling and new. The runners are only a year old, so they are giving what they can. I am grateful for that, and for this hillside mooring in this strange place.


I have been married for 15 months and there have been no funerals. There is a moment in every day when I am grateful for this, usually with my arm over his chest, feeling sleep pull him down in uneven jerks. Going 40 years without feeling love will lie on your bones like that.

I often find myself looking into the face of someone who has made the same mistakes as me, but has been made to pay for every single one. I hope they can feel me, behind my work-appropriate cardigan, my neat fingernails, my suburban lady car. I have built bridges over my steep ravines, but still those dark and slippery banks remain.


This week I had to admit to a hole in my soul. I don't mind so much as I'm surprised by it. It woke me early every morning, fighting a rising sense of dread.

Also, this week the boy seems to have discovered art. I have been giving impromptu lecture-discussions every morning about whatever he has pulled out of a stack of art history books. It's completely exciting to exercise an old body of knowledge, to suddenly become relevant. It's also surprisingly exhausting.

Someone I know at a distance has spiraled all the way down to homelessness. That this person is my age, and has children too, makes it completely terrifying. It seems like something medication would help a lot, and would also be something that this person has self-mythologized beyond grasping.

I'd like to be more lyrical about everything. I'd like to stitch pieces together to make something beautiful. I think I'll start by making felt out of dryer lint, or making a skirt out of plastic bananas. That would be a start.


We wake up to a Saturday with no espresso, so we go to the chain coffee joint by the highway. People here aren't better looking than anywhere else, they just seem unaware of their ugliness. The toddler ensconced in an enormous baby buggy and ignored. The lady who has taken all her style cues from Ali McGraw of 40 years ago walks out with three or four pastries and two coffees and by the way she waits, plucking at the clothes that hang from her bones, it looks like impending scarf-and-barf. Only one guy, wide as a door and shambling, seems to be at all comfortable.

I spent a bit of time yesterday remembering the lace of scars that used to cover my skin and the hatred and fear that put them there. They are all healed and gone now, and you would never know unless I told you. It's been a good ten years and I am grateful for the distance.

The lettuces and the herbs are growing nicely. There is even one strawberry reddening in its pot on the deck. This morning gave cool air and a lone woodpecker. I have one day to get ready for what the next five will bring and that will have to be enough.


Sunday Secret: I knew he was faking it. One time, I noticed that the condom lying in the trash looked--empty. So I checked it, and every time after.


It has taken us two days to make a set of keys that will unlock the mailbox that has the important documents in it in front of a house 34 miles away. Someone has a wife that requires legal notification, but she's somewhere in a barely developing country, and hasn't been seen for years. A set of numbers has damning consequences for a series of people and they all should have known better but they couldn't help themselves.

I am sitting at my computer looking at the San Mateo County Housing Department when all the hairs stand up on my arms. It's a primal response, not to the website, but the delayed response to what happened earlier. There was no time to feel the horror when the man with black hooks in his ceiling came into the office, he was posturing his demand for attention, and I met him in a room with observation windows for safety. The chip on his shoulder was as big as the bag of legal documents and "evidence" that I did not allow him to show me. He wanted a fight but he didn't get one.

That made me need to take a walk. And when I got back I took a call from a lost soul who had perfected the art of not getting what she wants. Native americans don't use central heating so why should she have to have her house kept up to building codes and she looks white but her grandmother is full blood. Her husband was a black panther and they used their house as a community resource and halfway house for drug addicts, one son was killed and another one DJs anti-violence parties and maybe you'd like to use him sometime. Her daughter has had her child taken away and her godson wants to come up from Fresno to live with them and he has two babies, a two year old and a one year old, but the roof on her house is just tarp in some places and no-one knows how to contact Extreme House Makeover. Who is she talking to again? She has short term memory loss.

I have a lot more than that. And much more day ahead of me. I'm sorry, I have to go.


It's been a long trip and as soon as she sees me her eyes well up. I hug her, feel her brittle hair, smell the cigarette smoke on her skin. I've got good news for her, but it's the kind of news that will start her on another journey and it's scary and overwhelming.

She tells me her father was a taxi driver in the city for 40 years. He said if they ever got lost, they should head downhill. They would hit water soon enough, and if they couldn't find their way home from there, they deserved to stay lost. I know she has done a lot of hard things in her life, things with no endpoint, things with no clear reward, trying to deserve better than being lost.

What I am about to ask her to do will be the easiest hard thing of her life. But she won't know that until it is over and I get to hug her again.


I am sitting in her living room on a low sprung couch. I've only met her once or twice and in any other social setting I would not know much about her. But I have read the files, ten years of them. They are thin on details and not well written, but I can see the thumbprints all over them. Of a man who does what he wants to, of a man who likes to dominate women, a bully, a user, a potential for violence like a thundercloud sweeping toward you.

I shift in my seat. In the cramped space between the coffee table and the couch edge I have to lean backwards to re-cross my legs. When I do, I am looking at the ceiling, at the hook there. It's not one of those little white hooks you use to hold the swag for a chandelier. It is substantial, black, iron. It is sunk deep into a beam, it is meant to hold weight. My mind is clouded with what that could be for and trying not to think of what it could be for. I feel cold.

When I leave I go up a quiet side street. I like this neighborhood, it reminds me of Brooklyn. 100 year old houses and lots of street life. With that you get some sketch, and why wouldn't you. The local "Japanese" joint only has sushi from Tuesday til Friday and the corner bar opens at 10AM for beer and sausages, but people still walk places and there is good coffee and good burritos and plenty of good, hardworking people.

I want to keep liking this area of the city. I hope that is what remains tomorrow.


"Never cut a line you can untie," he tells me, stabbing his watery drink with a straw. That's the piece of longshoreman's wisdom he has for me. We have washed up in a dingy bar on the concrete shores of I-80. I talk too much, that's not unusual.

I stopped at a filling station to get gas before work. The pump top TV is blaring some kind of commercial, but the screen is blank, a reflective black eye. I can see myself in it--Hollywood-sized sunglasses, designer jeans, cashmere sweater, leaning against the silver foreign car. I don't want to believe what I look like.

After three weeks of rain it finally seems like spring. That's a season that passes here in a hot minute. If you aren't nimble about taking the chill wet and clench out of your shoulders it will have peeled out of the parking lot and headed for Oregon, leaving you with ten more months to contemplate brown flanked hills.

Edith Wharton's "Ethan Frome" and Kobo Abe's "The Woman in the Dunes" used to be important to me, and I am reminded that it could be time to circle back again.


I'm sorry. You were expecting me to come home, and what you got was a ghost.

Trauma is a virus. And when we went to the crash site, it was spreading. People were trying to make sense of what they had seen, the horror they had witnessed and they kept repeating their stories, spreading it further and further.

An airplane crashed into an electrical tower and then smashed into the earth. We were there because we had eight families in the area, we wanted to see if there was any assistance we could provide. My colleagues probably thought the best thing they could do was listen, but I watched them get infected with the trauma until it was all I could do to get them out of there.

They will all do better with professional counseling, all of them. I will not talk about what I saw and what I heard because you do not deserve this illness, not even for a short amount of time.


There is a damp spot on your shoulder. There is an overdraft on your checking account. She is standing in the loading dock smoking a cigarette and watching herself in a pocket mirror. A homeless guy is digging in the garbage for a cup to piss into. Buses are pulling out of the lot at 8th and Folsom, charging downtown in a roaring herd.

I'm pretty sure that this doesn't mean that much. We eat the doughnut and long for the hole.


A bead of water rolls down the silver steel sink, drops to the black lip of the Insinkerator, and then out of sight. The refrigerator's exhaust fans kicks on. Coffee is cooling in the glass in my hands and I am working both ends of a conversation that has happened before and I suspect nothing very good will come from it.

In 15 minutes I will be at the bus stop at the bottom of the hill. A woman waiting there is wearing rubber boots that come up to her knees. She must be expecting something I don't know about.


And just like that it's spring. It's stopped raining, the air is clear. One side of the block smells like wild onions, the other of fluffy vanilla narcissus. The neighbors have let their clover go wild and it's a tangle of acid green and furled flowers. One cherry tree can't wait to get on with it and it has blossomed already.

The boy wants to tell me about the oldest survivor of the Crimean War, a tortoise the British took into battle as a mascot. We had an entire evening's adventure around a doorknob. I think it left me more invigorated then did him, but perhaps he knows more now about the secret lives of things we touch every day but do not notice.

I think the faucet is next, and the woodland strawberries.


I'm not sure who to thank for this.

We have a house for you. It's been completely renovated, everything is new. Twenty feet from the front door is the highway. Twenty feet from the back is the railroad tracks. This is where you will raise your children.

The cancer is gone. The months of radiation are over. The surgeries are over too, and you can live your life now. Both of your breasts are gone, flesh and muscle pared away all the way down to your ribcage.

You established your life in this country, started a family, a successful business. Now you can send for your mother, finally give her peace and comfort. A visit to the doctor says your father gave her a case of syphilis before he died over twenty years ago. Now you won't have much time with her at all.


It's been raining for days and I can't get warm. I can't help but think about all the relationships that have ended in the workshop, me working the saw, him with stupid hands. A late night email from a man who thought I was unkind but now perhaps kind enough to give him what he wants. Someone who wants advice on antique doors but does not want to wander my neighborhood to find them.

Mostly, I'd rather be me than anyone else I know. But not tonight.


We are sitting in the senior director's office and I can tell my young colleague is trying not to cry. She pulls her hair across her face, but I can see her ears starting to redden.

My day started with good news from a family I have been trying to guide, but soon enough my ears will be reddening too.

I work late and get off the bus in the dark. I am behind some kid with hipster hair and skinny jeans. He is wearing a black hoodie that says "Hell's KItchen NYC" on the back. I want to do something vicious to him.



He called yesterday but I did not take the call.

He colored my dreams last night anyway, dreams where there was no sanctuary for me, a time where I lived no where and was not wanted by anyone.

Today he came into the office, his hands held together, like if he held his impending homelessness in front of him it would stay there. I took him into a conference room, sat next to him, touched his arm, and did what I could. Which I know is not enough.

On the bus ride home I could still smell all of the cigarettes he smoked to give him enough spine to talk to me. We pass a dead end street casually guarded by a man and a large fighting dog parked to discourage holiday shoppers and tourists from interfering in whatever business is being transacted down in the shadows of the winter twilight. In a garbage strewn service alley, someone is kneeling with their face to the wall. At the part of town where we dump our poor, the bus idles to stay on its schedule. We are waiting behind the drugstore while a sunburnt frayed specimen dances the edge off his meth fix.

I don't know how to make any of this matter as I am heading for home.


Commuting 12/29/09

Before he could take my measure, he rolled down the window and started screaming at me. 15 seconds prior, he had rolled his car into the crosswalk, blocking my way across the street as I walked to the morning bus stop. He didn’t like that I told him to move it, that I punctured his sense of self, that I caught him doing wrong.

He called me a little bitch. I’m 5 foot 8 inches tall. I’m 43 years old. My parents gave me a name that could not be diminutized so that no one could ever make me feel small. He did it again. You little bitch. He’s right about the bitch part, because a bitch catches you vulnerable and lets you know it. A bitch looks at your anger and laughs at you. A bitch isn’t scared of you and will look you straight in the face.

Also, a bitch has better things to do than to bother much with you at all. Today there is fog rolling under the bridge, the bare boat masts are rocking in the harbor, flags are half mast along the pier. On the city streets I smile up at the sky. Here, it’s laced with wires for the trams, birds are wheeling and scavenging, and beyond all that is the pale lemon disc of winter sun.


I Wanted to Say Yes

The doctor examining me asks if there has been a trauma to my eye. He is looking through my pupil, somewhere inside of my head. He sees damage. I'm not surprised.


The street light filters through long curtains, making the room blue and black. He takes off his clothes. There is a large tattoo covering his lower back. "Use me like a toy," he says. Even though that had been my intention, I no longer want to.


I have been thinking about how much I love the sound of the local woodpecker, working his way through the telephone pole up the hill.

I have been thinking about how hard this winter will be, waking up before dawn and without the spread of light from across the bay.

I have been thinking about one local idea of glamour, high heels with jeans and French manicures, like hooker-housewives from the 80's.

I have been thinking about my volunteer crew, how eagerly they tore in to their new case files, and how many of them left our last meeting with wet eyes.

I have been thinking about all the remains of past life, all the dormant art curled up in shreds of paper, as I edit down for the move to our next home.

I think a lot. I just don't write.


There is a guy in the park across the street. He is wearing a black sweatshirt and he is running towards us. He is firing a gun.

The people who were standing next to me have thrown themselves to the ground. The people in front of me are standing as they were, waiting for the community event to start. I have dropped into a crouch and scuttled to put a stack of metal folding chairs between me and the intent to kill.

This is not a dream.

At the event, I am showing a family the house that will be theirs. It is still mostly concrete and studs, and together we are imaging the living room, the bedrooms, the sweep of the famous skyline beyond what will be windows, the view of the park across the street. She can hardly believe it, she still wears 20 years of hard labor as her skin. She turns to me and her eyes are wet. She asks me:

Is this a dream?


I'm not done watching the sun go down from this particular spot in the world. But the man that owns the house is done, rolling up his family and his failures and heading back to Minnesota, and taking the lease with him.

On the car radio the woman says "I was acting as a bridge" and I come across the boy on his way home from school. He is walking up the hill, his hands full of wild onions.

Tomorrow, I will be married.


I've lost my guidepost. My commute is 100 miles every day, done only with an eye towards getting there. Halfway through the highway miles just over the left lane marker there has been a dead animal. I've been watching it stiffen and flatten through days of rain, just a brief moment just before a rise. But now it's gone, and I miss it.

On Monday she came into work looking like the time my cat got out and and slept all night under a car in a rain storm. On Tuesday her eyes were rimmed with red. She's young enough and far enough from home that any number of things could be going on. I noticed, but said nothing. On Friday she tells me she needs time off. The symptoms are worse, she needs tests, it could be a brain tumor.

It's spring migration here. Last week it was monarch butterflies, this week swallows. There are calla lilies in the yard and the neighbors down the hill have early roses, but I keep thinking about the woman who sat next to me at a bar last night, with a surgically altered nose, dyed hair, and hands that were older than her face.