The J. Peterman Company: Owner’s Manual No. 121 By John Peterman The J. Peterman Company, 74 pp., $0.00
Not long ago, I spent an afternoon in a sparsely populated cafe on the bank of the Seine with an older gentleman, an Ernest Hemingway-type in rolled-up sleeves. His chief claim to fame was that he’d successfully wooed Audrey and Marilyn in the 1960s, but while the glamor of his private life eclipsed his public travails, he’d been busying accomplishing more than his fair share of success in life—or should I say exactly his fair share; when you meet the man it becomes immediately clear that he runs on only a dash of luck generously greased by a certain European charm and personality—and today his résumé includes climbing Mount Everest wearing only a motorcycle jacket and adopting a coterie of displaced polar bears from southern Alaska, which he raised as his own children. We’d been talking for three hours before I realized I wasn’t in a weathered cafe off the Seine at all: I was in a small room in my own home—my bathroom—reading a J. Peterman catalog.
This column has a singular purpose: to talk to single women about navigating a world where they are their own savior.
I’ve fluctuated between dating a few men after the end of a fairly significant relationship. After sleeping with people who, I learned, were ultimately uninterested in me (and generally incapable of thinking of anything other than themselves) I realized I desperately needed to focus on me. All me. All the time. I had never done that. I was scared, as a lot of women often are, to explore what existed in the great abyss—me. I realized how much I relied on others telling me that I was pretty, so I began to depend, a surfeit amount, on other people’s opinions of myself in general, putting emphasis on their assumptions over mine.
After months of self hate and destruction, I knew I needed to learn how to be better. But self-love was this weird concept. I was aware of what it meant but had never interacted with it; I thought it too audacious a commitment. Then I began reading: Susan Sontag, Eartha Kitt, Ruth Asawa—all of these women who I admired, who had also battled with self-care. One of my favorite writers, Jean Rhys, was a raging alcoholic. I used them as examples to be and not be at the same time. I wanted to tap into whatever greatness I knew existed inside of me so I could be happy with myself. Self-love can mean whatever, to whoever.
People raised in East Coast cities often ask me what it was like growing up up in Idaho, a state they incorrectly perceive to be part of the Midwest and correctly perceive to be rural, fresh-smelling, and home to a populace as white as peeled potatoes. Sometimes I tell a story about the first week of seventh grade, when a middle school neo-Nazi student threw a chair at me. He was assigned to a seat across the table from where Ben and I sat in art class and slashed large graphite swastikas onto his drawing pad for our benefit. Ben, who was Jewish, and therefore the only other person in our class not descended from solid-limbed Rocky Mountain Protestant stock, was a friend of sorts; we rode the same bus. It was through Ben that I began eating lunch with a group of punks, and it was these punks who, upon learning of the art class assault, would arrange to beat up the Nazi in the soccer field after school.
The first ghost story I ever heard was from my mother. She described how once, while sleeping in an upstairs bedroom in her sister’s house, she woke to the feeling of twin icicles curling around her ankles. They were hands, but she didn’t see a body, exactly. More like an abstract interpretation of a body, female, crouched at the foot of the bed. It yanked once, hard, and she opened her pink teenaged mouth and screamed, causing it to let go and vanish. The details shift uneasily when she retells this story—sometimes there is a horrible, unseasonal rainstorm beating the roof, sometimes she is 15, or 17. But these two details remain the same: The bed belonged a dead woman and she never went into that portion of the house again.
There’s a lot of paranormal activity in my family. Whether it is more than most other families is hard to say, but we seem to have more than most. During holidays and family events, after the adults wander into the kitchen to drink coffee or head off to bed, us cousins gather in some remote part of the house and talk about the things that go bump in the night. These are our heirlooms, a series of signals and omens that help us make sense of each other and our shared family history, which is by turns strange, mysterious and murky. These stories open up a portal to the parts of life that don’t seem to make much sense but as still just as real as the rest of it. Over the years, I’ve come to realize that sometimes a ghost isn’t always a ghost. Sometimes, telling a ghost story is a way to talk about something else present in the air, taking up space beside you. It can also be a manifestation of intuition, or something you’ve known in your bones but haven’t yet been able to accept. But sometimes a ghost is exactly what it is—a seriously fucking scary spirit.