Leslie Jamison was first published in APS3, and is a graduate of the Iowa Writer's Workshop. Her piece, "Sublime, Revised," can be found in APS13. This post is part of The 75th Project, a series of essays by graduates of the Iowa Writers' Workshop, which is celebrating its 75th anniversary this year.
During my second year at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, I lived at 715 Iowa Ave., Iowa City, Iowa. In case my friends on the coasts didn’t get it, my address had to say it three times: I’m in the middle. Another workshop writer probably lives in that apartment now—a third-floor nest with peeling linoleum and rattling windows—because workshop apartments tend to be passed down this way, writer-to-writer, acquiring thick skins of dust, layers of heartache and epiphany and drunken stupor and all the other mythologies that are supposed to play out at the Workshop and, as it turns out, actually do. My apartment was also dusty because I never cleaned it.
It was a flawed and beautiful creature, Apt #7. I sensed it was the kind of place a very old person might die in. The windows were perfectly positioned to admit no cross-breeze during the summer. The carpet was nubbly and seemed to hold secrets. One time I found my face quite close to it—I was in the middle of a fit of dramatic weeping, doing a kind of prayer bow—and I actually paused my crying to sneeze. I didn’t own a vacuum.
My oven dial had no numbers, which meant that every baking project was also an exercise in circular geometry and guesstimation: 325 is right about there! I became an expert in banana cream pies, which required no baking at all. I had a black pleather futon and a Chinese-style comforter that I’d gotten from a large Midwestern department store. It was jade green and pumpkin orange, made of some eerie synthetic raw silk, and it had Mandarin buttons down the middle like a woman’s dress.
I loved that fucking apartment. It was the first and only place I’ve ever lived alone. I loved that I could see a creek from my windows. (Well, one of them, and you had to kind of press yourself against the wall to be at the right angle to see it.) I loved that the creek had ducks. I wrote everyone I knew: I have ducks, as if they were mine, and in the winter when the creek had frozen solid, I wondered, as if I were the first to wonder, where did they go?
I didn’t have a table, so I made a reading nook from the section of my kitchen meant to hold one. The walls of my reading nook were covered with personalized rejection letters from magazines, (I’d only gotten a few of these, and they were trophies), and photographs—one I was especially proud of, that showed me and a girlfriend in the pages of a San Francisco society magazine. I was learning irony!
Because I didn’t have a table, I ate from plates perched on my lap—or else, if I had company, “Moroccan style” on my sinister and secret-holding carpet.
I loved that I had a fire escape and I often smoked on it. I got my heart broken and I brought out my boombox and blasted Tom Petty (“Don’t Come Around Here No More”) and smoked, sometimes at seven in the morning. I really did that.
One time my friend got her heart broken and I saw the guy who’d broken it walking along Iowa Ave. I saw him check over his shoulder and then pause to pick his nose. He thought no one was looking. But I was looking. I was looking from my fire escape. I called my friend and told her. That was a good fire-escape moment, one of my favorites.
It was a terrible apartment for entertaining but I entertained anyway. Friends came to stay with me from Michigan and Los Angeles and New York and I was proud to show them Iowa City—like it was something I’d written myself, a particularly good short story, this thick mess of creative people and cheap booze. They were impressed we had PBR everywhere—every bar!—because you couldn’t get it everywhere in Brooklyn. And here in Iowa, they practically paid you to drink it. I was proud to have a place of my own and a life of my own that wasn’t happening in New York—where everyone else’s life was happening, it seemed—and proud to live where the air felt humid with possibility, and there were fireflies, and more readings than days in the week.
Every season brought new adventures. In spring, I got a little houseplant, and at the same time my friend got me a little houseplant, and so I decided to throw a little party about it. My party was a disaster. I had the idea everything was going to be green. One of my plants, a weeping ficus, hung over the other one, a little fern, and I’d named them both after Andrew Marvell’s poem, “The Garden”: Annihilating all that’s made / to a green thought, in a green shade The big plant was Marvell, the little one The Annihilator.
So my party would be green. This meant lime Jell-O shots, pistachio cookies with food coloring, celery and spinach-hummus, and someone else’s pot. I made my Jell-O shots in the morning and couldn’t open my liter of vodka because I’d gotten the cheapest kind and the bottle was messed-up, so I had to run to the corner store as fast as I could—my Jell-O was cooling by the minute!—and beg someone for vodka at eight in the morning. I need the cheapest you’ve got! I said. I need it now.
I got my Jell-O shots made, but the party was still a bust. One friend had spent the last night in jail for a drunk driving arrest, and was understandably teary; another friend smoked too much pot and ended up fainting on my kitchen floor. It was too hot. Nothing worked liked I’d planned. Nobody was as amused by the name “The Annihilator” as I’d thought they’d be.
I wasn’t good at taking care of myself then, myself or my weeping ficus, which withered to a crisp in the heat of July. I understood my life as an unfolding drama, my apartment one of its sets, and Iowa did nothing but direct: men, different men, tears, Famous Authors drinking wine from plastic cups, some of the best girlfriends of my life.
I started seeing a therapist after a bad break-up, the only plausible alternative to carpet weeping, and he had a Nigerian accent that made it hard to understand some of his similes. Love is like a toaster, he told me once. It comes and destroys everything. I thought, No, love is Tom Petty on a boombox. I imagined the burnt bread heels of my toasted heart.
Turns out he meant twister, not toaster, and then there actually was one, a few weeks later—a real tornado that turned the sky green and flipped the whole roof off a sorority house. It raged down Iowa Ave, tore branches from trees and flipped cars into their trunks; it tossed the shed from my backyard into the creek. I kept my fingers crossed for the ducks. My ducks. This was Iowa, a pathetic fallacy writ large: you spoke of love and its metaphors came alive; they spun the air all around you. You spoke of home and suddenly had one, the stage set on which you slept and woke—and actually dreamed, and actually lived.