16 March 2009

Why You Can't Go Home Again

Tonight I brought my composition class to a lecture because, well, I figured they haven't been to anything like it. And, I confess, I wanted attend out of my own curiosity: I've never before heard a lecture on the history of women in mathematics.

I couldn't help but to think of that "Are you really a trans woman?" test I took once. I knew it was stupid, as most tests are, and I knew that the test had as much a chance of telling me anything about myself as winning a poetry contest has of predicting whether or not I will be enshrined in the canon or become cannon fodder--or both, or neither.

According to that "Are you really a trans woman?" test, I pass with flying colors. One reason why is that I am indeed hopeless with math. Don't you just love stereotypes?

So let's see...No math, lousy at navigation, can't drive: I guess I have a lot in common with Minnie Mouse. I'll never have her voice, though--not that I want it. If I could sound something like Veronica Lake or June Allyson, both of whom had sexily deep voices, I'd be happy.

Anyway...back to the lecture. It was interesting, and I thought that because it was about gender and gender roles, it kinda sorta relates to what my students are reading: Cinderella, other fairy tales and writing about them. After all, how can you think of the Cinderella story without thinking about what different cultures expect from females and males?

I must say, though: I don't recall, in any of the Cinderella-type stories I've read, any mention that she has as little control over numbers as she does over the weather. Then again, who needs math or any other kind of knowledge when she has a fairy godmother?

But, anyway, at the lecture, I sat with a prof with whom I talked for the first time in a year or so. We used to talk and e-mail each other often, sometimes once or even twice a week. But, tonight was maybe the fourth or fifth time I've actually seen her since September. Yes, we have different schedules. But we did last year, too, and in the two years before that.

I know that I relied on her, perhaps in ways that I shouldn't have. She was one of the few colleagues there with whom I felt comfortable. More important, she always seemed to have really good advice about one thing and another.

Now I'll make a confession: I wanted to be her, or like her, when I grow up. She seemed to be everything I would ever wish to become: very intelligent, attractive and poised. At the time I first met her, I had been living as Justine for about a year and a half. In those days, I was thankful--and hoped it was a sign that I was indeed starting to fulfill my vision of myself--that someone like her would actually spend time talking to me.

I suppose I should be happier than I am that she actually asked me to sit with her at tonight's lecture, and wanted to talk with me. I know that she was going through a lot--a divorce, for one thing--and that perhaps she needed to be away from me. But in some way I wish that I hadn't talked with her tonight.

Probably the best thing Thomas Wolfe wrote was the title of his last book: You Can't Go Home Again. That has turned out to be so true for me, in a literal and metaphorical sense. About the only place in which I've lived and to which I could see myself returning is Paris. I have not returned to Park Slope; I've only gone to events that happened to be there. Ditto for Alphabet City and Washington Heights, and for the parts of New Jersey in which I spent my high school and college years. Occasionally I pass through Borough Park and Bensonhurst--the Brooklyn neighborhoods were my family lived until we moved to New Jersey when I was thirteen--but I can't really stop there for anything.

And so it is with friendships, or any other relationships. I should have learned that lesson with Elizabeth. She was once, and for a very long time, my best friend. Then we didn't see each other for more than ten years. During my first year of living as Justine, we had a reunion of sorts. And I even stayed with her in Istanbul when she was teaching there three years ago. About a year later, we had a falling-out and have not spoken to each other since. And I don't expect that we will be in touch again.

How did that happen? Two words: I changed. Two more words: She didn't. Ironically enough, the latter was the very reason why I tried to be friends with her again. I recalled the ways she was kind and helpful to me, and even hugged me out of a suicide attempt. I figured that if she could be that kind of a friend to me when I really had nothing going for me, she would appreciate the kindness and consideration of which I am now sometimes capable.

She was the kind of friend she was because I was a co-conspirator in misery. We both suffered, though for entirely different reasons, the sort of depression young people with intellectual or creative pretensions so often find fashionable. Both of us were--unconsciously, at that time--re-enacting our childhood traumas. I realized that she still was when we went to the Grand Bazaar and a few stores and cafes in that beautiful old city and even when we were having dinner together at her place. What's more, she told me what those traumas were, then denied them.

Now, I don't mean to equate her with the professor I was talking with tonight. The prof is much more self-aware, and isn't measuring her self-worth in her ability to attract men. I suspect that she also isn't dating the same kinds of abusive or simply dishonest men Elizabeth dated, and is probably still dating. It also seems that this prof wouldn't try to get picked up by other abusive men, as Elizabeth does, when she's dating them. Furthermore, if this prof saw me with an attractive man (say, Dominick), I don't think she'd be as competetive and angry with me as Elizabeth was when I got into a conversation with a cute guy in one of the cafes.

There is, however, one similarity between what I feel now about this professor, and how I came to see Elizabeth: They both befriended someone who was very different from what she would become. You might say that my changes from the time I met Elizabeth to the time I reunited with her are more fundamental than the ones I experienced during the time I've known the prof I'm mentioning. But changed I have, and now I'm not so sure that I can be friendly with this prof, even though it seems that she wants that.

And now I'm a bit upset that tonight's "reunion" happened: I feel even more alienated from the college, and the academic world, than I had before. Maybe it just means that it is indeed time for me to move on. The idea of going to some place new after my surgery seems more and more appealing. At least I could leave with good memories of my classes and students. And maybe I'll be teaching, or using those skills I've gained in the classroom in some other way. If I were teaching a class or workshop while I'm making my living as a writer, that would suit me just fine.

But whatever I do, I think it won't be at the college. After sitting with the prof I mentioned, I felt that there really is nothing there for me but my students: I've changed.

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