Joe Schactman, courtesy of Lilly Dancyger

My childhood started in New York City and then ping-ponged back and forth across the country until my mother and I finally came back to the East Village the summer before I started high school. As soon as my Converse touched the sun-scorched sidewalk, I grew deep, stubborn roots. New York was home; it was where I had learned to walk on the cracked sidewalks, and where all of my earliest memories were formed. In the first few years of my life, my heartbeat and breath had aligned themselves to the rhythm of New York so that nowhere else ever felt right.

When we moved back, I felt like I was finally returning, as if from a long war. But I also felt like I was starting over, with no friends, no routines, nothing familiar or grounding. Both were true. I was in the strange position of coming home to somewhere unfamiliar.

That first summer, my mother and I stayed in the back room of my godmother Hannah’s vintage store on Ludlow Street, sharing a loft bed high above her racks of inventory. At night, we slept next to each other, sweaty in the July heat, breathing in the smells of old fabric. During the day, my mother tried to find work and an apartment, and I walked around the old-and-new neighborhood, trying to make up for seven years of absence. I traced and retraced routes between the three nearest subway stations, the park, the river, the corner stores and diners. I memorized subway lines and my coffee order, fast-forwarding familiarity. I sat on the same bench in Tompkins Square Park every day until it felt like mine. Pacing the neighborhood, scenting it like a cat, I felt equal parts a vast, quenching relief and an aching, hollow sadness. I was home, but even at home I floated around the edges, slightly removed.

Because of the way youth stretches time, I felt like my father’s death two years earlier had been long enough ago that I wasn’t allowed to let it be a central part of my life anymore. It had been two whole grades ago, two cross-country moves ago, starting-to-wear-a-bra ago. Another life. It was something horrible that had happened in my childhood, but I was fourteen now and it was time to grow up and move on.

When I look back now, it’s clear that two years is nothing, a flash, in the scope of life-altering, world-shattering grief. I hadn’t even started to pick up the pieces yet, I’d just grown accustomed to living in fragments. But I didn’t know that then, so I didn’t understand why I still heard a constant, low ringing in my ears, why I’d never quite gotten my appetite back, why everywhere I was, even finally back home in New York, life looked like a movie playing in a dark room.

Memories of my father were everywhere. I lived in Buffalo when he died, where he’d visited just once, for a weekend. Then we moved to Fort Ord, blank and empty and unlike anywhere I could imagine my father. This was the first time since his death that I’d lived in a place where I remembered him. I walked into Tompkins and I could see him so clearly, sitting on a bench in the playground with a book, looking up after each page and squinting into the sun to make sure I was still there. I went to our favorite Polish diner and ordered fried potato pierogis with sour cream and apple sauce, and half expected his chicken schnitzel dinner with kasha and mushroom gravy to arrive at the table too. I went to the Met and stood in front of Madame X, the Sargent painting he had sent me multiple postcards of and pleaded with me to draw my version of for him, and let the tears roll down my cheeks without wiping them away, tourists giving me a wide berth.

He was everywhere here, but he wasn’t. My return to the home we’d shared, a return home that should have also been a return to him, made his absence more immediate and tangible than ever. I was so relieved to be back, but I also felt a gnawing guilt for making new memories here without him.

* * *

When school started, I was too full of the excitement and dread of my bittersweet homecoming, the fascination and melancholy of finding my new place in the old neighborhood, to sit in drab classrooms all day and then go home and do busywork assignments for hours.

I was part of the second class ever at Bard High School Early College, an accelerated program where students finish high school requirements in the first two years and then start college classes, graduating high school with an Associate’s Degree. It was a good idea in theory, but finishing high school in two years required a massive amount of homework, which I couldn’t be bothered to do. I had just discovered ABC No Rio, the punk-art community center around the corner from our new apartment, and I wanted to spend all of my time there—taking silk screening classes during the day and thrashing my body around at shows at night; drinking forties in the back garden and making out with strangers who were way too old for me, telling them I was sixteen. I was making friends with the weirdos in Tompkins, and I couldn’t wait all day long to go sit in the dirty grass and plug myself into the culture I’d been deprived of for so long. There were still streets in the neighborhood I hadn’t walked down since we got back, old favorite foods I hadn’t eaten, music venues and galleries and indie theaters I hadn’t explored. I felt like I’d just woken up from a coma, and had years’ worth of life to make up for.

I went to school just often enough to make friends to skip class with. I quickly bonded with Rakhel, a tiny Jewish Satanist who knew all the words to Leftöver Crack’s “Atheist Anthem,” and Raiona, who I met on the first day and liked immediately, which had never happened at any other school I’d ever attended. We staked out a corner of the schoolyard where we smoked cigarettes and sang Janis Joplin and the Ramones. We hung out in the park, where we met Haley and Jael, fuck-ups from another high school in the neighborhood, and then the five of us were inseparable. We held hands and sang songs walking across the bridge to go to house shows in Williamsburg, and traded the cheap silver rings we all wore tons of, so that we could all carry pieces of each other with us always. We drew each other’s portraits and read each other’s tarot cards and pierced each other’s ears and faces with safety pins. We told each other the secrets we’d each been carrying around, alone; I told them stories about my father. I’d found other kids who were smart and weird and loved to read but didn’t care about school, and I knew for sure that New York was where I should have been all along.

One day when I actually made an appearance in class, my science teacher, an evil toad of a woman, was droning on about speciation or cell structure or some other interesting topic that she managed to make tedious beyond belief. I was so bored I could barely hear what she was saying. The only thing I was fully aware of was how bright and inviting the sunny day outside looked. From my seat, I could see a sliver of the East River, the light bouncing off the water so brilliantly I almost forgot how murky and disgusting it was. In the distance, I heard the Mister Softee ice-cream truck song, and children laughing and screaming. The world outside was a caricature of exuberance, and the desire to just get up and walk out into it was so strong I could feel it pushing out of my chest and up my throat. I dug my nails into the already chipped and scribbled-on desk and tried to keep from screaming.

I was so absorbed in my desire to be elsewhere that I didn’t notice Ms. Gamper sidle up next to me until I smelled her notorious halitosis and heard her ask snidely if I was paying attention, pleased with herself for busting me. Whether or not she knew I was ignoring her was so far beyond my concern that the moment felt surreal. I looked up at her, then back out the window at East River Park where I knew the squatters from Avenue C were sitting in the sun drinking forties, where I could join them within five minutes if I left now, and answered honestly, “No, I’m not.”

I stood up, shoving my notebook full of doodles into my messenger bag next to my Discman and the pint of vodka I’d been saving for lunch, and walked out. Ms. Gamper called after me with some irrelevant threats about grades or detention, but I wasn’t listening. I walked down the empty third-floor hallway, ran down the three flights of caged-in stairs, and waved goodbye to the security guard with a smile on my way out the front door. The second I stepped outside, it was like a flying dream. When I fly in dreams I don’t soar; I take huge bounds, where each step propels me high into the air and yards forward before I float slowly back down and then bounce upward again with the next step. Walking out of high school felt like that—the buoyancy of freedom. I never went back, my high school career over after one semester of ninth grade.

I knew I wouldn’t be able to make it four whole years in that place, so I figured I might as well cut my losses early. And besides, my father had been a dropout, and he was the smartest person I’d ever known. He always explained proudly that he’d dropped out of college because “art school kills the artist,” that it was more important to learn to think for yourself than it was to meet arbitrary external requirements. He believed he was better off drawing things as he saw them rather than as they were taught, inventing his own techniques, learning about how materials behaved by experimenting with them rather than reading about them. I decided I would educate myself, like my father had. I had plenty of books to read, and there were art and dance classes I could take all over the city. My mother, exasperated, warned that she wasn’t going to pay for whatever “random bullshit” classes I wanted to take when I was supposed to be in school for free. But that was fine. I got a job waiting tables at the little restaurant on our block that served exclusively grilled cheese sandwiches (it was called The Grilled Cheese), the always-stoned owner charmed and amused by the fourteen-year-old with a nose piercing and a hangover who insisted she’d make a great waitress.

I’d been thinking about dropping out practically since school started, but that day in Ms. Gamper’s class, as I stared at the perfect sunny day outside, I realized there was nothing holding me back, really. There were rules I was “supposed to” follow, sure, but what would happen if I just… didn’t?

“I refuse to let my schooling get in the way of my education” became my mantra. I knew that most people read Mark Twain in high school, but I thought it was much more fitting that I first heard that quote from a drunk in the park. I held a firm conviction that the bars on the windows of Bard’s classrooms were a metaphor for the intellectual prison of the school system, designed to keep young minds from discovering any “real truths.” I had clearly inherited my father’s bravado and sense of intellectual superiority.

I’ve always wondered whether I would’ve dropped out if he had been alive. He’d been dead for almost three years by then, but if anyone had a prayer of convincing me to stay in school, it would have been him. Yes, he was a dropout, but he was also the son of a professor, and had some surprisingly traditional values for an iconoclastic artist. I’m sure he would have wanted me to stay in school. But if he had tried to guilt me into it like he was so good at doing, I could have reminded him that he was a dropout, too, quoted his own words back at him.

My mother was so powerless to stop me that I barely remember her objecting. I know she did, but I didn’t register anything she said back then; she was a mute blur in my peripheral vision as the thrill of finally finding somewhere I belonged mixed with the still-buzzing thrum of grief, spinning into a kind of laugh-crying mania. Once in a while she tried to put her foot down and tell me I had to be home by a certain hour or I had to go to class or I couldn’t stay over at random people’s apartments without telling her where I was, or even the bare minimum demand that I still refused to comply with just because it was a demand: that I had to answer my cell phone when she called so she knew I was alive. She was inconsistent in her attempts at setting rules, and I knew she had nothing to back them up with, so I made a point of showing her that she had no power over me.

Once, my mother stood at the kitchen counter, which was actually a big piece of particle board laid flat on a pile of boxes of her sewing supplies that there was no space for in our one-room studio apartment, her hands shaking as she poured a bottle of Guinness into a glass. I was on my way out, and she asked where I was going. In the refrain of teenagers everywhere, I answered curtly, “Out.”

She sighed a big heaving sigh of a mother at the end of her patience, and said, more to her beer than to me, “If you don’t cut this shit out I’m not gonna have any choice but to send you to boarding school. Military school. Something.”

When I didn’t respond she finally looked up from her glass and met my gaze. I was standing at the door, my hand on the knob, staring her down, calling her bluff. Her shaking voice, and the fact that she’d faltered over boarding school or military school, made it abundantly clear this was an empty threat. She was grasping for a last card to force me to fall in line, but she had nothing. The longer we held eye contact, the more I felt myself hardening against her. I took her in: her hair dyed bright red now and cut to her chin, with bangs; the short denim skirt that she’d sewed herself out of an old pair of men’s jeans; a Motörhead shirt. She looked more like another teenager than like a teenager’s mother. There were tears welling up in her eyes, desperation on her face. She looked weak, and I despised her for it. When she broke and looked down, her complete powerlessness and cluelessness about how to handle me written all over her face, I laughed. There was a small, quiet part of me that felt bad, but I smothered it.

“Oh yeah?” I asked. “And how exactly do you plan to pay for that?”

She started crying, her frustration spilling out, her reserves tapped. And I gave her my best, practiced look of disdain, turning back on my way out the door to say, “Don’t wait up.”

After that, it was over. We both knew there was nothing she could do, and she stopped trying. Once in a while, when I was gone for days at a time, she’d ask, “Where the fuck were you?” and I’d just laugh and ask why the fuck she cared, and that would be that.

* * *

I was exuberant with the freedom I’d found, the friends I’d made, the neighborhood where I felt at home for the first time since the blurry memories of early childhood, but just under the surface was a depression that felt like panic. I felt everything, all at once. So I drank and got high so it made sense for me to laugh hysterically until tears ran down my cheeks and then sob until I was red in the face and choking. That turning point between laughter and tears was where I lived all the time, and inebriation was a convenient excuse to let it out.

I looked more or less how you might expect the delinquent child of East Village junkie artists to look: waist-length, stringy curls, dyed purple but faded and dingy; enough black eyeliner to be an extra in The Crow; teeny-tiny miniskirts I made out of scraps of fabric leftover from my mother’s sewing projects, cut precisely so they were long enough to cover my ass but not an inch longer; ripped-up fishnets and steel-toed boots. A cigarette always in my hand and a perpetual “the fuck you lookin’ at?” expression on my face. I weighed 95 pounds but was still formidable in a fight, all my rage and sadness exploding out of my tiny fists, heavy with silver rings. All the toughness of a fragile thing.

I spent my days running around the neighborhood, chugging Georgi vodka out of plastic water bottles and fantasizing about the apocalypse. My outlook revolved around the fact that I didn’t plan to live past my twenties, so it didn’t matter if the drugs I did were cut with all kinds of toxic shit, or if a fifteen-year-old girl really shouldn’t walk alone on Avenue D at three in the morning. I smoked cigarettes not in spite of the fact that they’d shorten my life, but hoping they would. I had daily conversations with a homeless guy in the park called Swill, and sometimes when I bought a pint of Wild Irish Rose (aka “bum wine”) for $2.40 with the obviously fake ID I’d chalked myself, I picked up an extra one for him and we drank them together out of brown paper bags while talking baby-talk to his dog, Jitters, and laughing about how fucked up the world was.

The only days I didn’t start drinking first thing were the days I took ballet classes at the Third Street Music School or Joffrey. I strained against structure everywhere else, but in the studio, I found it calming. I tied my badly-dyed hair back in a bun and wiped off my eyeliner, wore the same plain pink tights as everyone else, and almost blended in. For 90 minutes at a time, as sweat shone on my skin and my muscles stretched and strengthened, my breath filled my ribcage rather than fluttering shallow in my throat. My mind stopped racing, emptied of everything other than the hypnotizing “one two three four, one two three four” rhythm and the feeling of the rubber-mat floor under my feet. After class, I’d rush out to the park to quench my dancer’s thirst with malt liquor. When I got my first pair of pointe shoes, I broke them in by practicing a barre routine at the East River, holding onto the fence that prevented us from falling into the murky water when we drank beside it, scraping the pink satin along the concrete.

And, true to my plans to educate myself better than Bard could, I read, a lot. I gave myself assigned reading lists that I took very seriously, starting with classics like The Master and Margarita and East of Eden. I read history books, focusing specifically on New York City counterculture, and got really into French existentialists. Camus’ ideas about absurdity fit perfectly into my justifications for not taking life seriously—why would I go to school if nothing really matters? Eventually I branched out into whatever interesting paperbacks I found for cheap from the street vendors on Avenue A.

I picked up a used copy of Volume I of Anaïs Nin’s diaries from my favorite vendor for $4, and fell in love. In a journal from that time, I wrote, “Anaïs Nin’s writing has shown me the possibilities of writing about one’s own life as artistic expression.” After reading her diaries, I started carrying a notebook with me constantly. My favorite places to write were on a covered stoop while it was raining, or an empty subway car in the middle of the night when I wasn’t actually on my way anywhere. I wrote some terrible, dark poetry about wanting to die and feeling dead, but mostly I wrote about the desire to write—lots of iterations of “I feel like there’s something important I have to express but I’m not even sure what it is, let alone how to put it into words.”

And I wrote about my father. I wrote about how I was terrified that someday I would forget the little details: the sound of his voice, the way the skin around his eyes crinkled when he smiled, his smell, the goofy face he made when he knew he was being funny. I wrote about how much I missed him and how I still couldn’t comprehend the fact that I would never, ever see him again—not even when I needed him most. Not even when I was grown up and had children of my own, his grandchildren, who would never get to hear him read a Grimm’s fairytale or learn from him how to use watercolors with a light, decisive hand so they don’t get muddy. Once it was all on the page, I still missed him just as much, but I felt a little less like I was choking.

I looked for any way I could find to stay connected to my father, and the most tangible way I could think of was to read his books. I had a stack of them on my shelf, and I read them like they could open a door to a conversation with him. I imagined him handing them to me, one at a time, with an enthusiastic recommendation and a wink, like when I was little.

He had a habit of using bus transfers as bookmarks, little clues that told me that, for example, on Tuesday, October 8, 1996, he was reading Chapter 11 of The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony, Roberto Calasso’s retelling of Greek mythology. Knowing exact dates made a kind of internal time travel feel more possible, as I pictured my father on a fall Tuesday, reading about Odysseus while riding an SF MUNI bus. A moment both humble and mythic, and so perfectly him.

He wrote cryptic notes in the margins, which I read even more closely than the books themselves. Next to a passage about how the mythic hero needs the monster “for his very existence, because his power will be protected by and indeed must be snatched from the monster,” my father wrote “poet + poem.”

I knew he had a great respect for poets, and sometimes discussed his sculptures as an attempt at poetry, but reading that note I wondered why he thought of poets there instead of sculptors like himself. I made a mental note to read more poetry, pulling the Rilke and Dickinson out of the pile of my father’s books for later. I imagined him riding the bus, his shoulders hunched in his leather jacket, taking a mechanical pencil out of his breast pocket to make a note about how the artist doesn’t exist without art any more than the hero exists without a monster to slay. I wanted to feel that way about something, and wondered if someday writing might be my monster.

Excerpted from Negative Space, forthcoming May 1, 2021, from Santa Fe Writer’s Project. © 2021 by Lilly Dancyger.

Lilly Dancyger

Lilly Dancyger is a contributing editor at Catapult, and assistant editor at Barrelhouse Books. She’s the editor of Burn It Down, a critically acclaimed anthology of essays on women’s anger from Seal Press, named one of the “most recommended books of the season” by Literary Hub; she is also the author of Negative Space, a reported and illustrated memoir selected by Carmen Maria Machado as a winner of the 2019 Santa Fe Writers Project Literary Awards, forthcoming in 2021. Dancyger’s writing has been published by Longreads, The Washington Post, Glamour, Playboy, Rolling Stone, and more. She lives in New York City.

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