Girl as Pearl

By: Jo Hylton


         An oyster makes a pearl when a piece of something lodges in its shell like a splinter. The oyster spits out its nacre, mother-of-pearl, to cover the thing, over and over until a ball of the milky stuff forms around the splinter. I read about this process at length. There are diagrams and drawings, arrows pointing to the mantle, the heart, the adductor muscle of an oyster. It occurred to me to look it up because I was thinking about the concept of pain-as-transformation, a concept that was being pushed on me from all directions, which I took up as a duty, and which was feeling increasingly stifling. I had just gone through the breakup of an over seven-year relationship, and instead of just sitting in the pain I convinced myself  I was supposed to become someone new. I tried it from the outside first, making a New Year’s resolution to wear lipstick more often, promising myself that I would finally wear my earrings. I burned things in my room and drew cards, psyching myself up for ordinary days. I spit nacre all over my splinter, willing it to turn into a beautiful thing. Lipstick, a layer. Earrings, another layer. Easing my discomfort with myself by spitting out layer after layer until I would, hopefully, no longer recognize myself.

            I ran around town doing things I hadn’t yet done, like leaving my number for a bartender after bonding over a mutual love of PF Flyers. I went to writing workshops that terrified me. I’d leave my house just to give something the chance to happen to me. Reading alone in bars, sitting in well-populated spots in the park, playing my first game of (it almost pains me to say it) Frisbee. I went alone to a dance night in the dead of winter, wore my white fur coat for the first time. I started wearing perfume for the first time. I would put it on before any event I hoped would be sacred, consciously adding an olfactory element to my future nostalgia, though it backfired and I ended up tying the smell too tightly to memory: it smells so much like Portland now that it feels wrong to wear it here. It smells like Aria’s birthday party, the day after Prince died, before she left for France. It smells like being in that tiny apartment with everyone I love most in the world, like a glass breaking on the floor and picking up the barefoot birthday girl, carrying her to safety across the kitchen. It smells like sitting on the stoop discussing celebrity deaths, like Matt saying, “Can I get the equivalent of a tattoo but it’s just a flower on me all the time,” like dancing in the dark to “Dancing in the Dark,” like holding hands across the table and everyone politely pretending I wasn’t crying.

            I was secretly expecting leaving Portland to add another layer, secretly hoping that life would be so utterly different I would have to be new. That kind of thing works for something as temporary and temporal as lipstick, but it’s a trick. A healthy one if you recognize its power as fleeting, but still a trick. I wasn’t running away when I left, there were solid reasons. Even so, I wasn’t expecting to find so much of myself here, preferring instead to believe that a new environment would render some of my old problems extinct. This is where pain-as-transformation begins to rub: when you start to believe in it too much. Transformation doesn’t always happen just because you will it to. Sometimes pain is just pain. It doesn’t have to lead somewhere new. You don’t have to puke shiny stuff all over a splinter to make it worth it. Spend some time with it and the splinter will be covered on its own.

            Things in Colorado are so still. Arid where Portland was fertile. The air gets stale in my room. The pictures on my wall curl. This place, the mountains up against the sky, the pinkness of the clouds at sunset, feels unknowable and mysterious. It doesn’t feel like home, but it doesn’t not either. Months pass and everything stays somewhere in the middle. A low buzz of “this isn’t really the place for you.” There is nowhere to wear lipstick to. There are people here who are like ships going down, masts lurching. They fall. Glasses spill. Our cups runneth over. I drive by the apartment that my ex and I used to share, our first, and I try to feel something. Nostalgia, or even sadness, or any kind of fondness. I feel nothing, which delights me. I spent so long in the wound that it’s a relief to have the girl who once lived there feel like a stranger. What I remember in that apartment feels like it never happened to me. Maybe the breakup was more transformative than I realized. Or maybe I pushed the pain aside for so long in my quest for transformation that my memories no longer feel as if they belong to me. Maybe I should count my blessings. Maybe this is a small manifestation of the clean slate I was looking for.

            I’m trying to give up willful transformation, opting instead to let the natural rhythm of it come to me. I don’t disavow the wound, nor do I worship it. I try to keep to myself, do my work. My old pastimes - flipping through a deck of cards, drinking beer every night, wandering the streets hoping for an experience - have disappeared. I’m just waiting, my breath still in anticipation. I sit around and look outside, hoping a groove will come to me. I practice greeting myself like a friend, someone who is approaching to say, “Nothing is wrong. I don’t know what we were afraid of.”

Jo Hylton is a writer who grew up in Texas, graduated high school in Colorado, and went to college in Oregon. Her favorite project is IMDbitch Fest, a podcast about movies that she co-hosts with her best friend. She is currently pursuing her MFA in Creative Writing at Sarah Lawrence College, where she can't stop writing about Nora Ephron, feelings, and her love of River Phoenix.