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 is probably a stretch for a lot of us. My own family is the center of nothing.
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. Only in January am I 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 here in VA and 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 said “me too” knowing well the wit would bite harder than any bitterness. I had no idea how to be a woman in a city or a small town or when I was alone and 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. 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, pitying them for embarrassment. The writer who enjoyed deep tremors of bliss in feeding all those specters of maleness. While so many others riff on the theme of just how bad it can get & neither resonates with me. What I want with gender principally doesn’t exist because t here’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 thought that’s the meaning of family, it’s just another stupid social contract I never agreed to. 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, it’s just like when I think about the woman thing.