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Your escaped canary (Nancy James)

When I was in my mid-twenties I maintained a short-lived friendship with a former art teacher of mine named Nancy James. She was about 36, thin in a brittle way with an icy Nordic complexion and white blond hair. She had pale blue eyes that were often vacant and dreamy and hinted at a flimsy intellect and a rather flighty temperament. I once wrote a poem about her for my English class: “I see Nancy James everywhere. She is the lone yellow feather, in the cage, the sad remnant of your escaped canary.”

She was a real kook, which made her amusing to have around.

Nancy was one of those women who never actually ate food. Mostly because she was hyper-aware of her weight, which to her equaled her “health.” As long as she was skinny, she was, in her mind, healthy (attractive). So, naturally, in order to maintain some energy, she survived entirely on candy. Once, when we took a trip to Portland, she insisted that we stop at this famous Swiss chocolate shop where they flew in incredible truffles several times a week. I don’t exactly remember the story, but the chocolates were made by albino castratos in a mountain village only accessible by boat and then goat and therefore cost more per ounce than gold bullion. I bought one and shared it with my boyfriend and after we licked our lips, I felt sated by the luxurious richness of the black as night chocolate shell and the down pillowy-ness of the champagne filling. I couldn’t have eaten another bite. Okay, maybe just one. Nancy, on the other hand, bought a whole box and proceeded to polish them off in the time it took us to get to the freeway from downtown.

Later on in our friendship (which granted, only lasted a couple of months), I arrived to Nancy’s apartment to find her all wound up because she had scared herself off of nearly all beverages and was concerned how she was going to maintain her hydration. Nancy spent a lot of time on the internet and was obsessed with reading articles on health and food, the environment and the terrible ways in which we are all being poisoned by toxins in our food and in the environment. So, milk was out – hormones. And tap water – chemicals. And beer and wine – fattening. And juice – fattening and full of corn syrup and chemicals. And coffee – help! Teeth! And bottled water –well, clearly not regulated, so who the hell knows? And even if something was regulated – you can’t trust the government so technically it’s not regulated up to the standards of a health conscious, concerned consumer, like herself. So, what was a girl to do? Go thirsty, I guess.




Another time, my boyfriend and I helped Nancy retrieve a collection of personal belongings from a storage unit that she had kept in San Francisco for about 10 years. We got a big U-haul truck and helped her load garbage bag after garbage bag full of underwear and copies of school papers. 10 YEARS of storage fees at premium San Francisco prices for bags of old underwear and papers.

Like I said, she was a real kook.

We were having dinner. Well, my boyfriend and I were having dinner and Nancy James was there with us, nursing the closest thing to a non-toxic beverage she could find – San Pellegrino. She looked at us across the table and said, “You really are nice. I don’t really know that many nice people. And it must be nice to be two nice people, together.” And then she said the kookiest thing I ever heard her say, “I wish I was married. I don’t really care who I’m married to, I just wish I was married.”

My boyfriend and I talked about her statement later with wide-eyed amusement. Don’t you think you’d wish for a soul mate, someone to share your life with, to have a deep and abiding connection with someone, a partner, before you’d want to just “be married?” Someone you could raise children with, and make a home? And we pressed her with questions but she said she really didn’t care. At this point, at 36, she just wanted to be married. What a naïve and absurd thing to say, we thought. Only Nancy James would say something so ridiculous.

But that was me at 25. I was knee deep in probably the best relationship I would ever have. We were artists and students and broke, but we cohabitated and collaborated, on letterpress Christmas cards and what to make for dinner. And we co-parented a couple of ill behaved dogs and told each other everything and talked about how sorry we were for everyone else who wasn’t in a stable, loving relationship like we were.

And now there is me at 33. On the heels of yet another failed relationship. The prospect of dating in my future; a future I face with a heavy heart and a profound sense of dread. I don’t want to do it all again. The meeting, the dinners, the awkward moments, the losers. The pretending we’re charming. The pretending we care. The pretending that we like it, that we’re worth it. Pretending that we’re beautiful and clever. And I find myself thinking, just like Nancy James, that I wish I was married. And I don’t really care who I’m married to, I just wish I was married.