Sunday Stories: “My Twenties”


My Twenties
by Michael Juliani

The year I turned twenty, I shared a cramped off-campus apartment with three strangers on Jefferson Boulevard. L.A. experienced what was, at that time, its hottest recorded temperature: 118 degrees. Classes were cancelled. I tried smoking a cigarette on our balcony and nearly passed out. After graduation, I moved to New York, seeing snowfall for the first time at 23. On a pitch-black January night, a few of us snuck into the computer lab in Dodge Hall to drink and listen to music, and when we left after midnight a blizzard had encroached without warning. We threw plastic bottles of whiskey at each other, losing them in the snow. In New York, I felt temperatures hovering near zero. I woke up in a village called Rensselaerville, a family of deer prodding in the white yard, and felt the northeastern tranquility that I had only ever inferred from the work of poets in the Norton Anthology. The snow and fireplaces made me want to start a family. A stranger in a Park Slope bar on a Friday night said I looked like I must have two happy parents who sit behind desks all day. Before I could respond, she said her brother was a drug addict and wasn’t taking care of his kid. She was the first person in her family to go to college and to leave her post-industrial hometown in the Adirondacks. Now she worked behind a desk all day. When I was 26, my grandfather died. At the very moment that paramedics were trying to resuscitate him on a lawn outside Huntington Hospital, I was writing a poem that imagined him already dead. The last time I saw him, I took him for a short walk around the neighborhood, clutching him by the elbow like his caretaker had shown me. By then my grandfather expressed himself only by conveying emotion on his face. He tried to clean his eyeglasses with a pen. Earlier the same day my grandfather died, I talked on the phone with my friend X., who crops up in my life a couple of times a year. We have difficult sexual history, since she did things I asked her to stop doing, and for long stretches I feel that it’s better if we don’t talk. I told her I was reading Winter Journal by Paul Auster and that I wanted to remain optimistic about being single again. I’ve been single, more or less, ever since. I moved to Brooklyn from Manhattan a year after my grandfather died. It felt like more of what I wanted—residential vibes, distance from work. The old neighborhood uptown had emptied of what I had loved about it, as college towns tend to do. I endured a sleepless Saturday night with my bottom left molar throbbing. I walked the streets of Park Slope for hours, forward motion the only thing that kept the nerve from screaming. My dentist called me from his home in Connecticut at 2:30 a.m. First thing on Monday morning, while giving me a root canal, he said that in college he wrote poetry to impress girls. This is often what men say when they learn I’m a poet—that I must be doing it to impress girls. In the past ten years, I have written hundreds of poems that nobody will see. I passed much of that time with conflicted faith in my ability. During grad school, I learned that if I kept reading as deeply as possible, not only would I write more but the doubt would also creep away. Sometimes I fail to remember this. I watched C. flirt with famous poets. M.S. told her that he liked her purple lipstick and I said she could sleep with him if she wanted to. He died later that year. I walked the entirety of Park Slope, Red Hook, and Carroll Gardens in a two-week span I spent alone. At Shelsky’s Deli, the counter man threw his arms up when I ordered pastrami on rye, like I had been the tenth dumb fuck that day to make that mistake. “If you want pastrami you’ll have to wait for me to make ten other sandwiches first,” he said. “And we’re out of rye.” Their orders were backlogged because they closed early on St. Patrick’s Day and only later did I find it ironic that a Jewish deli closed early on St. Patrick’s Day. I turned thirty after a year that much of the world would like to forget. I spent it mostly alone in an apartment with gas and rainwater leaks and neighbors who played house music until early in the morning. When I hear the shower spout dripping in my new apartment, I flash back to the rain pouring through the light fixtures. I think I hear neighbors shouting song lyrics when it’s just the silence contorting itself. I’m living alone again, this time close to the harbor. I hear the ferry’s horn blowing when it approaches the docks, carrying passengers from Wall Street, Governor’s Island, and Far Rockaway. So many people ride the ferry in the summer, standing on the top deck, breathing the off-color stench of the river. I am still looking for someone to love. The Dodgers won the World Series. I imagine myself pitching again, the pine tar and resin, digging my cleat in the powdered mound. My grandfather served ice cream to Joe DiMaggio, who was nineteen years his senior. DiMaggio made love to Marilyn Monroe. Marilyn Monroe made love to John F. Kennedy. I like the JFK statue in Grand Army Plaza. Whenever I stand there, I imagine that my mother is standing there with me and I tell her they made this little statue in honor of JFK and it barely even looks like him. I say it and she laughs. This is how I know that I miss my mother. The other night, my date asked me why I was laughing about a scandal in the poetry world, where a poem someone wrote about his dog made people on Twitter angry, and I couldn’t explain why I found that so funny. “I’m sorry,” I said. “Maybe I’ve spent too much time alone.” Every year, for my birthday, I want three things: steak, several books, and lots of alcohol. I also want sex but sometimes finding it is more trouble than it’s worth. Or the thing I want is not exactly sex but a fantasy finally fulfilled. My ancestors’ name now means a strict lifestyle. I bought Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian Wars. My uncle has read a lot about Greek history, the ancient world a movie in his head. He said once, at a Thai restaurant in Chelsea, that every American should be terrified of China. He pulled several twenties from his wallet and told me to take my girlfriend to a concert. “You have to enjoy the city.” I was still with A. then and we were saying I love you every day. She put hot sauce on her eggs and we’d shower together on Saturday morning, claiming it would go faster if we split the time, but her roommates didn’t think so. At an expensive Belgian restaurant, a young man my age jerked off in the urinal next to me. I wasn’t sure that was what happened until I got back to our table and recounted it to A. She invited me to meet her parents at a Phillies game but we broke up before the season. I’ve always hated the National League East. An elderly friend of my dead great-uncle invited me to her penthouse for a cocktail. I learned that my most distant traceable ancestor was a slave. He worked on the docks of Istanbul but managed to free himself and return to his burned-down village, reestablishing the family line. I have a picture of my grandfather in the 1970s embracing two old Greek women dressed all in black with their heads covered. Whenever he spoke about them, his aunts, he cried. Otherwise he never cried. It’s sunny out most days now, finally. I go for walks by the river at sundown and feel that the city can never be fully known. Some people, like cab drivers, know more of it than I ever will. Sometimes I treat my life here like an investigation and eat in every pocket of every borough. Eventually, though, I prefer to stay home, wipe dust from the bookshelves, and daydream about people I hope to get close to. 


Michael Juliani is a poet, editor, and writer from Pasadena, California. His poetry manuscript, The World Is Not Astonished, was named a finalist for the 2021 Jake Adam York Prize (Copper Nickel/Milkweed Editions). His work has appeared or is forthcoming in outlets such as Bennington Review, Sixth Finch, Epiphany, NECK, Washington Square Review, the Los Angeles Times, and BOMB. He has an MFA in poetry from Columbia University and he lives in Los Angeles.

Follow Vol. 1 Brooklyn on TwitterFacebook, and sign up for our mailing list.