The Iowa Condition
Sarah Isis Damsky, 2014
It was the summer of 2013, and everything smelled as thick as the air felt.
The porch had been stained with the paint I’d curse as if it was my absentee father; describe me, I’d say to it, on nights I lost my faith in words and seemed to recover it only in portraiture. But paint had failed me, as I knew it would, because I am not precise in my vision. I can’t imagine the way something will look like when it’s complete, and so in creating something visual, I would reach the peek of my youthful angst. I would spray and pluck and squirt and push only to find the finished product reminiscent of my own failings, my own disastrous mess. It was like looking in the mirror of, “You do nothing for me,” and since I had no direction in my fingers, I had no direction in my desire for creation.
My computer seemed to stare at me from the corner I’d left it in to rot two weeks prior, daring me to pick it up. But I wouldn’t. It was the summer I believed that sex was the mindset, and I saw more sex in the unsaid than anything, even the act of sex itself. I told myself, you love him anyway, and, cheer up, dear, at least you have your sense of style.
The restaurant I worked at didn’t have a real manager and had just started an “all you can eat” buffet. I would stand, overseeing our clientele, disgusted with their endless appetites, their “one more please-es,” their seemingly gaping innards and therefore hollow selves. As an employee, I received a discount on meals and sometimes received free ones while on the job, but in the two months I worked there, I took advantage of this offer only twice.
I shopped on eBay for vintage nightgowns. I wanted the world to see what was underneath my clothing so I could remind them even that still wasn’t me. Remember, world, I am justly angry. I paced on my porch and stained the soles of my feet with the paint I’d scraped off my own canvases, just so I could wash it off in my shower, walls dripping with stubborn, relentless black-mold, and laugh as it ran down the drain with strands of my roommates’ hair and my almond-scented body-wash.
There’s a place that Iowa City’s restless youth sometimes run to when it’s warm enough and downtown seems too small and you want the opportunity to smoke a joint while swimming in dirty water that stings the eyes and breeds more bacteria than uncooked meat, and we call it, “The Res.” It’s the Coralville Reservoir, and while it has a water capacity of 461,200 acres, it seems packed away, in the middle of nowhere, hiding. I’ve watched my reflection grow older in that murky water. I’ve watched the reflections of my friends grow older, too.
We’ve been a core group for a while now. Typically referring to ourselves in conversation as, “the friend group,” we’ve transformed from a witch-type cult to a sexually charged pack to a disjointed, scattered semi-cluster. Whereas before, we’d throw our shoeless feet over the arm of a couch, high off cocaine, and slur, “let’s make out” to our best friend, who had a girlfriend or boyfriend you knew wouldn’t care because it was all free love and no threats whatsoever. Now, we sit next to each other on couches, wasted; the potential is there, but we’re disjointed now, and so we recreate the old by refusing to acknowledge that the new is different. The people have remained the same, mostly, or at least their faces still trigger similar feelings they did two years ago, but there’s an undercurrent of annoyance now, a slight awareness of the others’ increasing and impending obsolescence. We’re facing a potential reality we never thought we would: the possibility of our name-brand camaraderie going out of style, a fresh headline that reads, “our innovative make of love will soon be discontinued.” The honeymoon stage is over, and with the acceptance of that as fact comes the realization that it truly ended a long time ago.
But we’re here, some of us jailed by our collegiate standing and others, contracts. We’re trapped, in a way, in a town that seems to hold no other opportunities for us other than graduation, or the right job with the necessary salary to save up the right amount of money to move to the right city with another right job. We breed discomfort and therefore a permeating anxiety, and while we can ignore it while staring out at the expanse of the Coralville Lake, we remember, shortly thereafter, that the lake, like us, is still stuck, stagnant in this never-state of endless cornfields and an abusive police force; a never-state that is also, in some ways, the epicenter of all things unattainable. Get in a car. Drive three to six hours in any direction. You’re guaranteed to hit at least one exciting city, an exciting city that becomes a temporary respite from your trapped-up, small-town life until you remember, over a martini that costs $6 more than it would at even the fanciest bar in your city of residence, that you have to return to “real life.”
Real life is the 30-pack of PBR you can easily wheel out of a Wal-Mart without paying because apathy is contagious, even amongst storeowners. Real life is the house-party clothing constructed from less fabric than a single pair of women’s panties. Real life is the coffee shop you go to every day to rid yourself of your own, natural scent and replace it with the stench of the masses; cigarette smoke and 12 different brands of perfume, day-old pizza and stale beer. Real life is the haze of the, “do it all over again,” with the rare potential of something new.
But I have failed to be wholly honest. In order for one to fall out of love, one must first fall into it, and in the summer of 2012, I did. It was a time that now, even two years later, I still have the utmost difficulty describing, because it was a time that I felt more than I thought and dreamed more than I felt. Trying to remember anything exact feels like submerging my now self into a pool full of thick, honey liquor; the memories are tainted with the bitter taste of cheap gin and rickety vision that is only created by persistent drug-use. There are days that seem easier to remember, days I woke up to learn the boy who was not my boyfriend that I’d recently slept with had woken up in jail, days when I wrote love letters instead of texts, days when I imagined I’d grow old only to wake up to the same faces I did every Saturday morning of 2012’s December.
There is the day I shaved my head, in October of 2012, the same day I bought “American History X” on DVD, and I remember persisting, as I told people the story, “I am Jewish and so therefore you must know there is no correlation.” There is the day I wrote down, in my notebook, “Singing Under the Rainbow,” because my boyfriend and I had just broken up and that had been our song. There is the night I cried on the staircase because I’d eaten too many mushrooms and I felt closer to insanity than I ever had before. And there is the night I showered with two of my roommates and two of my other friends, and we made out in the hot water, and I thought, “This is a crowd that I can be a more distinct, honest me around.”
As Christmas drew closer and two of my three roommates drove homewards for Winter Break vacation, I brought my friend’s amplifier down into the basement along with a blow-up mattress and a light-bulb I’d colored with a blue Sharpie. It seemed I had people in that basement every night that winter. I didn’t know what it felt like to be alone. One morning, I woke up and rid myself of the previous night’s clothing, only to find two boys asleep on the floor at the foot of my bed. I curled into them, still naked, and allowed my bones to creak against my bedroom floor, because they felt so, so much warmer than I was.
“I heard, last night, that she broke a chair we’d put in the backyard so people could smoke out there,” I said. It was 9 a.m. and too bright and I’d just gotten back from Casey’s where I bought myself pizza rolls and a V8. “She’s crazy,” my friend said. “Crazy. She just gets so angry. Like, what the fuck? I’ve seen the way the two of them can fight. It’s terrifying. I’ve been pissed before but I’ve never broken a window or a chair or like, punched someone.” I opened my journal, and wrote: “My knees smell like the way I remember the ocean to have smelled, but it’s been two years so I don’t know if that’s even real.” “Yeah,” I said. “Well, that chair was pretty fucked up, anyway.”
The words I most frequently hear in association with my hometown are “beautiful” and “pretentious,” but I never saw it as either of those things until I moved to Iowa. I couldn’t consider it beautiful, or pretentious, because how could I when I had never tasted the scenery or personality of any other place? To me, Santa Barbara will always be what it is; I wasn’t aware of what it isn’t or what it was until I knew what it was like to be rid of it. It’s 2014, and my roommate is giving me a stick & poke tattoo in our living room as we listen to the album, “Tender Buttons,” and I chug whiskey because even though I feel numb already I would very much like to stay that way. I realize, now, that “the group” had become, metaphorically, my hometown. Now that I am rid of it, I have become aware of what it isn’t and what it was. It isn’t ideal, and it was magic.