Recently a friend asked me Do you ever wonder if you’re doing it right?
Ivan, on his deathbed, asks What if my whole life has been wrong? in Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich.
I had never read that story in high school or at NYU. Not until I went back to school, to community college in Santa Monica, in my late twenties and living with my mother and stepfather had I stumbled upon Tolstoy’s work. I hated the class. It was in some kind of weird basement at the Santa Monica Airport campus and I felt both smarter than everyone in the class and at the same time nothing more than a liar. A lying body in a pair of jeans sitting in a plastic chair. I had gone to NYU and I was older than the girl next to me in the ridiculous BEBE halter top but I couldn’t focus, I couldn’t keep up, I couldn’t even listen to what the teacher was saying. Was she even saying anything at all or were we just listening to planes fly overhead as we read overpriced textbooks?
I remember reading that line and sitting up in my bed. I am Russian. I should go there. I need to see Russia whispered in the middle of the night with the tattered story in my lap.
I underlined the passage so many times the paper ripped before I turned the light back out and stared at the ceiling wondering if I had done it all wrong. Of course I had. I was 28 years old and living with my mother and stepfather and I was a waitress and I couldn’t book a job as an actress and I was in a crappy relationship with a guy who didn’t even like me very much and I was taking a class in an airport. I was doing it wrong. I couldn’t sleep again because it was all so wrong and I knew it and Tolstoy knew it and everyone probably knew it.
Do I ever wonder if I am doing it right?
Yes. Yes, I do. Is this the life I was supposed to lead? sometimes wakes me up in the night but mostly I go right back to bed. The days are gone when I would get up out of bed and eat muffins in my sleep and wake up with wrappers and no understanding of how they got there. I am doing it wrong wrong wrong the only words possible upon waking and seeing muffin or candy wrappers and not remembering how they got there. Mostly those days are gone.
After my senior prom, we all went down the shore. It’s a tradition in South Jersey. After your senior prom, you drive down the shore and party and then sleep at one of your friends’ whose parents have a house down there. My boyfriend and I had gone down the shore with everyone and partied at someone’s house party until 4 o’clock in the morning. My friend Randy (who is still my dear friend to this day) also had a house down there and had invited us to stay over. He’d said for us to just walk on in, that he’d leave the front door open.
When we got there, there were less people than I would have imagined. Everyone needed a place to stay so I’d assumed there’d be bodies everywhere. There weren’t. We traipsed into the room that’d had the door cracked open (I couldn’t believe it was empty. He’d left us his own room. Score!)
We got into the water bed.
I didn’t remember Randy having a waterbed at his shore house but I had only been there once. At the time, I was severely anorexic and had no sex drive to speak of. After the prom however, I had gotten drunk. It was 5 o’clock in the morning and I was 18 and drunk in a waterbed.
After we had sex and I lay with my face stuck to the plastic of the waterbed, my boyfriend had gotten up to use the bathroom. He came back and shook me. Jen, this is NOT Randy’s house.
I had no idea whose house we were in.
I was naked.
I was 18 and naked and drunk.
Turns out we were in the house next to Randy’s. It was literally attached to Randy’s house. The people who lived there had left the front door open for their son, Anthony (the wrestler) who had been out clubbing with his friends. He’d never come home that night. But what if he had? What if he had walked in on two naked 18 year olds?
There were signs that night. There were plaques and photos on the wall that suggested that I was in the wrong house but I ignored them, or not so much ignored them, as I was drunk and wanted to see what I wanted to see. And what I wanted to see was This is for me! This is mine.
And for a few hours that night, on a hot and sticky waterbed, way after waterbeds went out of fashion, it was mine. It was my night and I ruled it. My post-prom makeup running down my face, for the first time in a year, I wanted my body to be touched and feel like a woman. I hadn’t had my period in over a year and I’d liked that. I liked feeling like nothing. Not a girl, not a boy, just a body. Who didn’t need sex or food. It was the first time in over a year that I’d let him get close to me. I wanted to dominate on this night. It didn’t take much. I was so thin that I only had to drink a little before I was wasted. I’d dragged my sleeping bag (why) into the house and thrown it on the floor before crawling into the waterbed that I knew subconsciously did not belong to my friend Randy.
20 years later and we laugh about it still. Randy and I. I think about that night and about how I stayed with that boyfriend a few more years and how I really tortured him. I hated myself and my body and didn’t want anyone near me but I didn’t want to let him go either. I would not have sex with him because I had no sex drive (you don’t when you don’t menstruate for 4 years) so I would apologetically ask him to masturbate instead.
Oh, but that night on the waterbed! I wasn’t afraid. I wasn’t apologetic. I was fierce and I didn’t care that I was in the wrong house or the wrong body.
That night only lasted a night though. He eventually broke up with me and I don’t blame him. We would have ended eventually anyway, sooner or later.
I think about that night a lot. How sometimes, you wake up in the wrong house but it was really the right house all along.
How sometimes you end up stuck for so many years and then you use that stuck-ness as fuel and you write about it in your underwear on Saturday nights when everyone else is out doing whatever it is they do on Saturday nights.
I don’t know if I am doing it right.
I don’t know if we can know truly until the doing is done.
I took a nap today and when I woke it had become dark. I was confused and didn’t know where I was. Was I in the wrong house?
I came out and saw my husband lying on the sofa asleep with a blanket on top of him and perhaps I could have thought Maybe I am in the wrong house. Maybe this isn’t who I am supposed to be with after all? Maybe this is all wrong.
But I didn’t. It was the first time in a long time I didn’t.
Jennifer Pastiloff is a writer living on an airplane and the founder of The Manifest-Station. She’s leading a retreat to Ojai, California in May of 2014, Labor Day and New Years 2015 (Italy and Costa Rica sold out.) All retreats are a combo of yoga/writing for all levels. She and bestselling author Emily Rapp will be leading another writing retreat to Vermont in October. Check out her site jenniferpastiloff.com for all retreat listings and workshops to attend one in a city near you. Next up is NYC in March followed by Dallas, Seattle and London.