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Brittany Newell
Brittany Newell, kind of alone with Britney Spears, happily sharing a silence

How I learned to share silence

In the first in a new series of creative writing submissions, Brittany Newell explores how her coming-of-age in a nudist dormitory taught her to chill the fuck out

Brittany’s been bad. She is a drag queen and a rat. She comes from California and was born in 1994, amidst soft cyber sounds. Her debut novel, OOLA, will be published by The Borough Press (HarperCollins) in the UK and by Henry Holt in the US and Canada, both in 2017. She is working on a new novel about asexuality and CCTV.  

I walked in my college graduation ceremony on June 12, 2016. I was the last of my childhood friends to finish with school—the curse of the quarter system. It was a typically paradisiac day in Palo Alto, hot and still with a lurid blue sky. Everything felt fake: the professors in their Hogwarts gowns, my diploma in Papyrus font, the influx of strangers claiming to be the parents and siblings of my suddenly-bashful friends. Stanford’s green-lawned microcosm was invaded that morning, by the smiley and/or tippy reminders of our lives before and after college—there in the bleachers sat proof, in a rarely-used pantsuit, that we’d once Googled how to know if you’re gay, that we’d once sewn straightedge patches onto our purposefully-torn jeans (I did), that we’d once been less than the glistering wholes, barely contained by our white folding-chairs, allegedly facing the dawn of Real Life. No, Grandma slyly announced: we’d once been blanks with light-up shoes. Our fabulosity was recent news.

Since that Twilight Zone Sunday, I’ve been hardcore reflecting (what else is one to do when suddenly home again, staring at the glow-in-the-dark stars you placed on the ceiling a decade earlier?). I turned 22 on June 18 and waited for the lightning bolt of understanding. Instead, I got a sunburn and a pair of Costco sneakers (so subtle, Mom remarks, showing off her matching pair). I know that I’ve changed over these four jam-packed years, acquired bad habits, good memories, and political awareness that would stun my younger self, she who lines up the plastic stars just so; but how to put it into words? I’m no believer in The Best Years of Your Life credo, that fratty, slightly crazed conviction that college is the peak of fun and all else a mindless Facebook scroll through happy memories. College or no, I would have grown up; frankly, I probably would have had a more badass time had I not been shackled to school, exacerbating scoliosis with a backpack full of rented books. But as it stands, my school’s preposterously sheltered campus is where I’ve lived for four long years, getting intermittently tan and antsy, and by proxy where I learned more who I was and what I valued.

“I’m no believer in The Best Years of Your Life credo, that fratty, slightly crazed conviction that college is the peak of fun and all else a mindless Facebook scroll through happy memories”

Specific details pummel me: meeting my best friend at an LGBTQ mixer for incoming frosh, where we ate Trader Joe cookies and exchanged phone numbers with barely-concealed need (a FRIEND!!); a summer grant that led me to Berlin; drugs done, things written, people kissed; a long-awaited diagnosis for the stomach pains that haunted me since childhood and made me the go-to pizza party pooper. But these are mere tidbits, relevant to me alone, foam atop the sea-changes I’m struggling to name and that I’ve seen in nearly all my peers. While the world at large seems loonier, I recognise new chillness, a bittersweet poise, in the friends I once freaked out to “Cyclone” and semi-inhaled cigarettes with. We seem to sit more snugly in our skin, however different it may be. If I had to boil down the biggest changes in my life from age 18 (drifting through September with Animal House-­cum-arthouse dreams of kinky English majors) to 22, here’s how I might phrase it: I’ve learned how to sit with others.

Four years ago, I would never have described myself as chill. I couldn’t chill to save myself. The prospect of “kicking it” filled me with dread: what exactly did this abstraction entail, and when would it be over? I lived in fear of awkward silences, unable to take them as anything other than evidence of my social ineptitude. I drafted conversation topics in my head before meeting up with friends, and always had an excuse ready if I felt the need to leave. I was terrified of office hours, because I felt too uncomfortable to be alone with a professor. The instant I felt the mood shift at a party, I headed for the door. I blamed shyness for my inability to hang; I now think the issue was too strict an idea of how things should play out. As a wannabe rebel at age 17, I taped this Guy DeBord quote to my bedroom wall: Boredom is always counterrevolutionary. I needed to be seen as busy, purposeful, forever on point; I couldn’t bear the transition period.

For my junior and senior years of college, I lived in a co-op called Synergy, known to most kids on campus as that nudist house on the hill. Over the course of my time there, amidst the stink and bliss of fifty other students (most of them, I’ll admit, semi-clothed), I slowly came to let my guard down. Eventually I realized that the ability to sit quietly with somebody else, to expose yourself in a moment of boredom, as the body winds down and the hours stretch out, is the true mark of intimacy. It was a process so gradual I can only recognize it in retrospect: that eventually I stopped hiding out in my room, only able to relax if no one was watching. The more I got to know my body, and the different ways it moved through space, the more willing I was to let others see it, crunched between a prof’s stack of books, or, more likely, in a post-dinner slump. Perhaps Synergy’s clothing optional policy had something to do with it; chillness is a form of nudity, in that banter and activity eventually slip off—whoopsie!—to reveal a body as uncertain as the person’s beside you, and a heart just as questioning. To sit with others is to realize how equally up-in-the-air we all are. It is to open oneself to the infamous flow. This, or the vast quantities of weed smoked by slow-talking neighbours, led me to appreciate the grace of unfilled space.

“The instant I felt the mood shift at a party, I headed for the door. I blamed shyness for my inability to hang; I now think the issue was too strict an idea of how things should play out”

Perhaps the ability to sit with others is most prized in the moments, or hours, leading to sex: when one aspires to be the last gal standing (or sitting, or sprawling) in close quarters with her crush, to get to the point where there is nothing else in the room but two bodies. Was there ever sex without preceding silence? One has to be patient, and stubborn, to reach this showdown, when chatter dies, when pretense deflates, when desire is in the open: for all the flutter of one’s heart, one must be chill enough to show it. Stripping is a transition period.

Anne Carson talks about leaving space for God in her writing; my agnostic/Valley Girl spin would be that I’ve learned how to leave space for whatever. I don’t mean this flippantly. As a big-dreaming 18-year-old, desperate for life to feel lifelike, I couldn’t handle so vague a promise. My days felt numbered; everything needed to be picturesque, Snappable, with a but-gusting caption (THIS is the moment I fall in love, THIS is the Night to Remember). Ironically, four years older, I feel surrounded by time. The dream need not reside on the horizon, but rather, can be pulled into the present; one can inhabit it, like a hot tub, if only one knows how to sit with others (this is not the drugs speaking, or at least, I don’t think). As far I’m concerned, boredom, or a room full of people facing each other without the immediate need to speak, is the earliest stage of any revolution. The right words will come, as will the actions, if one leaves space for them. Perhaps this comfort with time, this go-with-the-flowiness, will change as my lifestyle becomes more fixed. But for now, to be able to sit on Synergy’s porch, or in some nondescript dining hall smelling always of ketchup, as the world freaks out and our bodies invisibly wither and we talk about nothing really at all, is proof, to me, of how I’ve grown.

And there’s more where that came from.