There’s nothing like a first, right? A first kiss, a first love, a first play production.
A famous and fancy playwright took me aside on the opening night of my first off-Broadway play. He told me, “Feel this moment. There is nothing as thrilling as your first professional production. Every other premiere will just feel like one more. This is the most exciting time of your career.”
He was right. Of course, I didn’t know it then. I couldn’t.
Perhaps no other blog post I will ever be as exciting as this one is for me to write. Probably I won’t know it until I’ve been at this for years
Writing a blog feels somewhat like keeping a journal that you intentionally leave lying out, hoping a friend/lover/roommate will read it. To see you in your vulnerability. Your grappling. And to somehow know you better for it.
Note: I did read my first college roommate’s diary. I’m confessing this not because I am especially proud of my actions (it’s clearly not my most shining moment). But, in undeniable ways, this act of transgression saved my behind during first year of college. To contextualize (read: justify myself) a bit, at age seventeen, I was the only person I knew who wrote a diary. No one in my family did. It was the first time I ever got a chance to read anyone’s diary but my own. Whatever the reason, the temptation to read the book no one else is allowed to read proved too much for me.
My first college roommate was a prom queen. I was not. My immigrant family didn’t allow me go to the prom with an attractive American boy who asked me. As one aunt patiently explained to me, the prom was a weird American ritual that I did not understand, a sort of mini-marriage that lasted for a night, where parents dressed up their children all-fancy and send them in limos as a way of socially sanctioning the act of sex between them. Until now, I wonder what would have happened if I defied my family, snuck out, found a way to go. What kind of person would I have become if I rebelled in that way, instead of doing as I was told while sitting home to write plays about people braver than myself?
The Prom Queen and I lived with a block of six other girls. They didn’t talk to me when she was around. Literally, they would halt mid-conversation with me if she walked into the common room. I had attended an all-girls high school. I knew what that meant. They could be my friend or hers, and I was clearly not the possessor of more social power. But, my roommate was no bully. She was actually pretty great. We enjoyed the same books. She was a woman of color. I admired and liked her. But, I knew she hated me and I had no clue how to make her stop hating me. Until I read her diary.
Everything I had said to her, she took the wrong way. We were pimply teenagers. She mentioned to me she started Retin-A. I had started it in high school. It made my whole face peel off. For a month, my face was scaly. Red. Wrong. I was trying to compliment her (remember: I liked her). So, I looked at her skin closely and said, “Oh, it’s not working how it worked on my face when I started it.” I meant to express, “How great your skin is! You didn’t have this horrible reaction that I did to the same medicine.” She wrote in her diary that I told her Retin-A didn’t “work”, and I was gloating that she still had pimples when I no longer did.
She had a boyfriend back home. The Prom King, of course. She was continually telling stories about how much he said he missed her. I wanted to compliment her, to make her feel good about her obvious desirability, to connect.
So, I blurted out, “Wow! Your boyfriend seems really jealous! How do even deal with that?”
I meant to say, “God, it must be wonderful to have a guy so hung up on you. Wish I had a boyfriend back home, and knew what is was like to be deeply missed by someone who wasn’t my family.”
In my roommate’s diary, I learned how she thought I was always putting her boyfriend down for being abnormal or something when I, like, didn’t even know him.
In short, I saw there is a big difference between what I was trying to express and how I was heard.
I also learned that, once someone pegs you as hostile, they also cannot hear nuance. They can’t sense the distinction between awkwardness and aggression. They see your attempts to get closer to them as a way of you trying to better position yourself to attack.
After reading in detail how off-putting I had come off, I was determined to make things right. I’m sure I marched up to her and announced, “Your skin looks perfect now! Perfect! Wow! And, by the way, Gary sounds so cool and is supercute!”
I’m sure I made it absolutely obvious I had read her diary.
How am I sure? Because the next night she wrote in her diary that I was suddenly coming across as a much nicer person to her.
Within a week, we became friends. We had dinner almost every night together, a ritual we fell into. She had eating issues. She later told me that being my roommate helped her through that struggle. I don’t remember how. We never talked about it. I think the act of simply eating often with a girl like me, who enjoyed laughing over a meal and didn’t yet get the memo that I was supposed to be neurotic about my weight (that would come later), is what made that intangible change in my fair Prom Queen’s relationship with food. Staying at UC Berkeley wasn’t for me for a lot of reasons that had nothing to do with UC Berkeley, a college campus I’ll always especially love (maybe because it’s another first). I transferred out as a junior, gave California the middle finger, and moved to the East Coast, where I lived for most of my adult life. My first college roommate is the only person from that time that I am actively in contact with to this day. Maybe we would have been friends if I hadn’t read her diary. But, then again, maybe not. Probably not.
It was only much later that I realized that my roommate wrote in her diary every night in front of me, logging detailed conversations of how I had bruised her feelings. She then placed the diary on her nightstand, where is stayed all day. Was she asking to be read? Aren’t we all?
I figure this blog/journal/confessional will be mostly about the creative process, the art of politics, and the politics of art-making in America. I have thoughts about the election, but I’ll elect to write about it when I can process what in the world is happening in this country. And, more importantly, what is not. Join me every Friday.