I spent the first half of 2013 crying in public, all the time. I would cry waiting for the subway. I would cry on the subway. I would cry in Dunkin’ Donuts. I would cry sitting on a curb while people stepped around me. My strength came in tiny, infrequent bursts. Mostly, I felt collapsible and would brace myself against buildings or lampposts when I could not stand up on my own. My heart was so broken that laughing was a physical impossibility. Then, in July, I went to Vilnius, Lithuania, for two weeks. I studied poetry in the morning and took photographs in the afternoon. Somehow, miraculously, the sourness I had carried everywhere inside me was being replaced—bit by bit—with curiosity, wonder, and amusement. I saw jokes all around me. So much was funny again.
Before Vilnius, all I saw was my own pain. I fixated on it, I described it endlessly, I winced from its sharpness. I even came to rely on it. Everything else was blurry. Now I was in a city that had its own history of misery and trauma, much of it willfully and scarily erased. Before World War II, Vilnius was home to a thriving Jewish community that comprised close to half the city’s population. After the war, nearly 90 percent of the Jews living in Vilnius had been murdered. Some of the people in my poetry program had Jewish-Lithuanian roots. I wondered if the city triggered blood-memories of those years of terror and starvation and brutality. Others—or maybe just me—came as total, ignorant dipshits, delighted to be outsiders, gawkers, voyeurs to a city marvelous and strange enough to make us forget the baggage we’d brought with us.
Pain invites narrative as much as it rejects it. I needed so badly to get away from words. I had abused them during my period of heartbreak—I had so much to say, but saying it no longer gave me relief.
For a few days, I couldn’t figure out how to use the auto-timer on my camera. Then Gregory discovered it by accident.
I used to think I was in love with someone who would tell me, “I just want you to feel seen.” “I do feel seen,” I always responded. But what I should have said was: “You don’t need to worry about that.”
There was this blue bathroom in the shopping mall where I developed my film. Everyone called it the “heroin bathroom.” Supposedly, the blue lighting made it difficult for junkies to find their veins. In my mind, I called it the “heroine bathroom.” I had met so many of them in Vilnius—Eileen Myles, Ariana Reines, Jami Attenberg, Rebecca Wolff. These blue heroines—and their adventures, their appetites, their greed, their nobility—were my teachers. When Eileen Myles showed up to the Baltic Pride march with a fistful of daisies and raised them in the direction of homophobic protesters, it was revelatory: You hate, but I love.
To get to the independent Republic of Užupis, a neighborhood in Vilnius that has historically been a haven for artists, you have to cross a bridge. I hung out there often. They have their own constitution, which has been translated into eight languages. I liked lines eight and nine of the constitution the most: Everyone has the right to be undistinguished and unknown. Everyone has the right to idle.
Andrew, my photography teacher, took us on a field trip to his favorite spot in Vilnius. We had to sneak around the back of a high school and then cut through the wooded hill behind it. We climbed and climbed until we emerged at the top, where there was a little turret structure with a staircase inside that led to the top. It was a great spot to drink beer and look out at the city. When I was in college, I thought turret and Tourette were spelled the same. One time, in an email to my friend Tony, I wrote, “I have turrets!”
I would go back to the high school, and the little turret on a hill, by myself all the time. It felt so good to be alone.
I wandered everywhere; pushed at doors to see where else I could go.
Sometimes I still hid, out of habit, even though I was in a city where, to my surprise and genuine confusion, men did not harass women much on the street. It became a challenge for me. I joked about tweaking my nipples before leaving the house and not wearing a bra until someone paid attention.
I ate so many potato pancakes smothered in sour cream that I split my pants.
After 10 days of not searching, I finally saw another Asian person in Vilnius.
My friends Christie Ann and Sara and I were invited to read our poems on the radio. We were pretty stoked. When we got to the state-owned Lithuania National Radio and Television headquarters, we all screamed about how perfectly stuck in time the décor and furniture were. I read poems about “twats” and “curly pubes” and wondered how they would be translated. I have a tendency to joke about my obscenities because that makes it easier somehow, but what am I really trying to say, and why don’t I just say it?
When I was a child, I overheard an adult say to another, “You’ve really crossed the line,” and I remember thinking: Isn’t that a good thing?
One afternoon, I bought a pack of chicken hearts. I ate them with relish and filled the apartment with the smell of hearts. It was so pungent, my roommate had to leave. “It’s too much,” she said. A few years ago, when I was living in France, I took a walk along the Rhône River with my friend Claire, and a flock of ducks came toward us. “Let me eat your hearts! Let me have them!” Claire cried out. “Easy there,” I said.
My days and nights in Vilnius felt like a dream. I watched it even as I lived it. Then again, nothing feels real when you are away from home. I always have to remind myself that what might be magical for me is someone else’s reality—sometimes a reality they can’t wait to escape. That’s what makes travel so fraught, so unfair. I had escaped the nightmare of my life to come here. I was really lucky.
I forgot to look for my veins under that blue heroine light. I bought 3D butterfly stickers from the supermarket downstairs and wore them on my face. All my life, I have wanted to be seen. I equated being alone with being free. Bell hooks said, “All my life I have wanted to be free.” I know it’s so simple—but once she named it, I could not forget it. ♦