For a long time I thought the term “nuclear family” had something to do with nuclear energy, a phrase of Atomic Age vintage, and Wikipedia says I’m not alone in this misunderstanding. The metaphor of molecular nuclei to describe family units has got to be a stretch for a lot of us. Nothing I’ve ever called “family” exists as/at the center of anything.
I’m writing this from my former bedroom at my parents’ house in upstate New York. Having not spent Thanksgiving or Christmas with my own nuclear family. It is January and I am home for the holidays.
Two summers ago I adopted a cat. She is the only other resident of my apartment in Virginia. Still it doesn’t feel like living alone. I have nonnuclear families in the mid-Atlantic region, really up and down the whole Eastern seaboard.
In 2015 I had two roommates in a walk-up apartment in a suburb of Hoboken New Jersey. To get to school in lower Manhattan every morning took two hours. First a mile walk to the Light Rail station, clocking in at about twenty minutes, then a wait — hanging out on the platform for God knows how long. The Light Rail could take up to forty minutes if you didn’t make the express. Then the PATH train which runs across state lines, which liked to get stuck halfway through its subterranean trans-Hudson crossing, a ritual reminder of infrastructure fragility and human mortality that I failed to adjust to and suffered greatly from.
My two roommates and I shared a bathroom and bedroom walls, which was fine by all of us. Probably I cleaned the most but I don’t recall doing so very often. None of us did much more than sleep and drink in that place. I was the only woman.
One day a few months into my New Jersey residence an ex told me someone told him They Hate New York Women to which I replied “me too” knowing well the wit would bite harder than any bitterness I disclosed. I had no idea how to be a woman in the big city, no idea where to look for guidance in that department except in caricatures of gender drawn a little differently in every neighborhood. I still don’t.
Despite the close quarters I shared with my roommates at the time, and the zillions of humans I bumped against on public transit, I felt isolated, and happily so. Moving alone across state borders twice a day or more, I recognized that my proximity to others could be as real or unreal as I wanted it to. I was young and female. I could observe others without threatening them and disarm male strangers with a cartoonishly blunt return of their gaze (wide, inviting eyes; lifted brows) or by clearly deliberate aversions with my face and figure.
Sometimes I think I should have more to say about gender. When I do the thoughts are meek. Sometimes I think that Women’s Writing is a set of uniquely ill-conceived criteria for a genre. Not a radical hypothesis. But it’s only with some notion of Women’s Writing that we can charge Men’s Writing with the crime of imposing clear lines between realism and everything else. God, damnit.
I think of all flowerings of gender troubles 2017 marked on our psychic social ticker-tape. I think of a gentle world where rape is only the unalloyed expression of desire because
those who restrain their desires do so because theirs is weak enough to be restrained.
— William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell
An observation straight out of a poet’s world, a world where wishes really do come true, the somewhere-over-the-rainbow where appetites have no natural kinship with shame. I think of Anaïs Nin who felt real compassion for men and their self-identified sexual deviances, who took pity on them for all their shame. The writer who enjoyed deep tremors of bliss in feeding hungry specters of maleness. While so many other writers iterate on the theme of just how bad it can get. And neither one resonates with me. What I want with gender, principally, doesn’t exist. There’s no parsimonious explanation for “woman.”
Feeling alien and out of my dimension in a global city, realizing too late that no one wants to become familiar with an extradimensional alien, an animal or an angel, but something coded human and proximal, that’s when I left New York.
And the infrastructure got to me too. I mean, it got to me. Freaked out doesn’t even begin to describe it. Visions of mass annihilation via subpar maintenance. It wasn’t enough to make me a shut-in. I just put up with it until I left.
Now I miss the isolation and threat. Something happens when you’re in the temporary state of new familiarity with a person (a lover or friend) or group (of friends or colleagues or neighbors); at some point you notices the sounds in your head dialed down, those voices whose harmonious registers and dissonances at one time lifted and lulled you alone, all the personal music. You cash in yours for theirs. Change for cold comfort.
And in my sourest Christmas reflections (I’m not a holiday person) I thought that’s the meaning of family: a series of realistic and grave compromises. And when gravity overrides mass we call it an implosion. However you call it, kin or nuclear, roommates or blood brothers or girlfriends or wives, I get uneasy whenever I think about this living-with thing, the family thing.