Megan Stielstra reads an excerpt from “I Am Still Fighting With My Big and Small Fears,” from her new essay collection, The Wrong Way to Save Your Life, published in August by Harper Perennial. Recorded live in August 2017 at Women and Children First Books at the Uptown Underground in Chicago, with sound design by Miles Polaski and Mikhail Fiksel.
A lifetime or two ago, I lived with my friends Heather and Pete on Armitage Avenue, just west of Western. Our apartment was a unicorn so far as renting in Chicago: an enormous open loft, wallpapered with windows and cheap as hell. A hallway snaked back to two smaller rooms—one for me, one for Heather—and, behind those, what relators call the master bedroom: huge, with high ceilings and a skylight. This was Pete’s room. He paid double. He had a 9-5 job in an art studio with a salary and health insurance which to me seemed so grown-up and impossible, especially for an artist, but he did it. He made art and he made a living, and if he could, I could. At twenty-three I needed that belief like food and sex and shelter.
When he let me, I’d sit on the floor in his room while he painted, reading aloud from the novels I was studying and sometimes, if I felt brave, my own nervous starts at stories. I loved being there, part of it, the process, the mess, tubes and brushes and sketches and ashtrays overflowing so he’d ash in empty beer bottles or in mugs filled with days-old coffee or mugs filled with paint water or mugs filled with whiskey or wine. I don’t think we owned glassware. I don’t think we washed dishes. It made more sense to avoid the stacked piles in the kitchen sink and, instead, grab a mug off Pete’s floor and scrub the moldy coffee cream out in the bathtub. He didn’t have a bed, just a mattress on the floor, a cage for his iguana, and canvases: finished pieces; half-done stuff, still dripping; newly-stretched and ready to go. He painted bodies. He painted abstract. He painted me, circus-poster style, biting the head off a live chicken after I read him the scene from Geek Love where Aqua Boy preaches to the devoted: “If they love you then it must mean you’re all right. You poor baby. You just want to feel all right.”
“Read that part again,” he said, pointing at me with a paintbrush. He was muscle and sinew, arms full-sleeved with black geometric tattooes. He had a long, pointy goatee a decade before hipsters and what’s it called? Beard art. He wore a belligerent uniform of black jeans and no shirt, never a shirt. He must have owned some, at least for work, or our shitty Chicago winters. Band-logo stuff, probably; Slayer and Sabbath and Behold! The Living Corpse. I’m trying to see him; reaching down the line of my life; memory as portraiture, a still shot instead of a moving picture. He smelled like cigarettes. He built me bookshelves. He’d make both fists into devil horns, yell “METAL!” and stick his tongue down past his chin. He pointed at me with a paintbrush: “Poor baby. You just want to feel all right.”
For my birthday, he took me to the Art Institute. We were there for hours. He taught me to see. I hope that doesn’t sound pretentious. It was actually a gift. We went painting by painting; color, context, scale. I’d be ready to move on and he’d tell me to wait, look again, look closer. “What do you see?” he’d say. “How was it made?” “When was it made?” “What was happening in the world when it was made?” “How did what was happening influence what was being made?” “What are you going to make?” and “When are you going to start?”
“Now,” I’d say. “Today.”
Excerpted from “I Am Still Fighting With My Big and Small Fears” from The Wrong Way to Save Your Life by Megan Stielstra. Copyright © 2017 by Megan Stielstra, reprinted with permission of Harper Perennial.