Lilacs, 1996-?

(In honor of Spring Cleaning: Seven Days. Seven Dresses. This is Day Five. Day Four is here)

Just after midnight, Istood with my three best friends (and the charming Brooklynite dating one of them) at the edge of the ugly oval fountain, in the center square of my otherwise lovely hometown. It was a starry night, warm and mild. The streets were almost silent, though it was the first Saturday in June: high tourist season in a resort community But in middle of the 1990s, downtown was still so deserted on a weekend that our voices echoed against the building and filled the empty spaces with tinny boasts.

We’d all had too much to drink,  and teetered around in uncomfortable heels and slick-soled dress shoes. We talked too loud, trying to sound tougher and cooler than our tuxes and party dresses implied. I hoped we might appear sophisticated, like we’d been at a some where glamorous and dissolut  instead of at my Mom’s wedding.

All weddings are surreal. That’s doubly true if you’re a member of the wedding party. Parent weddings are next level, because you never really expect you’ll have to go to one while everyone is still alive.  Even though Mom and my new stepfather had been dating for years. Even though he was a wonderful person who adored her and said he loved me and my sister.  It was still  Mom’s wedding. And the man she married was Not Dad. And  wasn’t it weird that I was almost same age at that moment as Mom was when she married for the first time?

I figured this would be messy. I’d wanted to avert the possible, public humiliation of sobbing at the altar, not so much because I missed Dad, but because it signaled the end of the old fantasy of a messy, Bohemian nuclear family built on easels and old typewriters and stacks of New Yorkers and the dreamy looks my still young parents shared when they talked about Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald as if they were an aspirational couple-which is a big fucking red flag right there, buddy. And sure, I recognized that things back then were not-great and sometimes maybe a little dysfunctional  and the fantasy really was just a fantasy but it was my childhood we’re talking about here and it was a hell of a childhood, not like my other friends’,and  in so many of the best ways, and was that getting canceled out too? And what if this permanently changed my relationship with Mom  who was my best friend? What if she Stepford Wived into a totally different person once she moved across town? And what if my stepfather was not as cool as he seemed and didn’t actually like me at all he’d just been pretending  and what if he hurt Mom  or my sister and what if? what if? what if? How would I achieve a modicum of stability in this avalanche of a life turned upside down?

I’d invited the  three people who formed the core of my teenaged life, who’d felt as important as family, yet knew me outside of family in the ways that family could not They would take care of me. But things were weird with them now too.  Two of them—Ivy League and Indie Rock—were exes. One of them, Punk Roommate, maybe hated me at little, and for good reason.  All three were changing at nearly light speed, on an almost cellular level that would have been impossible for me to  emulate, even if  it were a thing I was sure I wanted I mean, aren’t we supposed to be authentic? Don’t we mock posers? Why is it suddenly okay to act like someone else entirely?

I wasn’t completely immune to the lure of transformation. I loved Ovid. But I suspected, have always suspected, that on some unshakeable level,  you are who you are and that is, in part, where you’re from in all it scenic byways and grotesque deviations. Life may allow you to add to the picture, maybe even elaborately enough to obscure it, but you can’t subtract.

That’s so old-fashioned, Ivy League had told me earlier that day, as Brooklyn strummed Big Star songs on his guitar between us, when I tried to explain, because I was struggling with the casual way she’d started to edit and refashion our shared  past. You’re such a misplaced modernist, she said. Don’t you know that “real” is just another construct and that there’s no such thing as authenticity?

 I did. I’d spent four semesters hounding Ivy League for copies of her Ivy League syllabi for fear that I might miss reading something. And I could have waded into that debate to remind Ivy League that my closest friendships disintegrating in real time for what seemed to be the most bullshit of bullshit reasons was not a question for post-modern theory.  But it was already two o’clock. I was expected back at the hotel to dress in the bridal suite with Mom and my sister. I left my friends on the veranda at Ivy League’s mother’s house, the breeze off the lake rattling the rhododendron leaves in near-rhythm with the guitar. I worried that, without me as buffer, the three of them would sever their remaining ties and vamoose before the wedding. Did they ever really like each other?  I wondered, driving downtown. Did they ever really like me?

By midnight, alcohol had obscured whatever grievances. Spirits were high. I horrified  everyone by shuffling off through a chorus of Ew to a pee in one of a battalion of Porta-Johns at the edge of the square. At least one of the others had her feet in the fountain. I don’t know why you’re judging me. I can absolutely guarantee that there is human feces in that fountain, I said, even though I couldn’t.

 As I opened the door, I thought, I really wore the wrong dress for this.

#

The dress was a floor-length, lavender chiffon number, flecked with rhinestones, made for me by the same seamstresses at the same local fabric shop, who had been making dresses for me since  Aunt Laura’s wedding in 1979. Mom let us pick our own bridesmaid dresses. I took them a picture of Uma Thurman’s Prada dress ripped out of magazine. I said, size 14,more rhinestones. I hadn’t worn lavender since the fifth grade. I thought it might make me feel light and dreamy, that it might counteract the lumpiness, the waxy, unintentionally Goth pallor of a girl that barely saw daylight, whose current hair color was somewhere between Johnny Rotten and gaping wound.

Various people tried to sort me out pre-wedding, torturing my hair into bouncy curls and  slathering on several applications of make-up thick as mortar because I fell into several poorly-timed crying jags. The tectonic shifts in my family and social lives had laid bare all of my personal fault lines. And as Mom liked to say, all of your dragons were up.

My dragons were legion. I was broke and unemployed. I was lonely and depressed. I had basically not gone to class[1] in almost two semesters. I’d received a letter informing me of my Academic Suspension, which was administrative for you’ve failed out of school, but we’re not a discriminating enough to forbid you from coming back. I’d endured the judgement of a university higher-up, who’d opined, some people aren’t cut out for higher education. I worried that meant I was actually an idiot, which was embarrassing, given how much of my identity was constructed around being clever. I was terrified of having to move home, especially into the unknown of my mother’s new life. I didn’t know what I was doing. I didn’t know what I would do.

Nana came in to straighten me  because I was upsetting my mother, who just trying to get married for Heaven’s sake. She took me downstairs to the lobby bar for a stiff Vodka tonic and hissed at the terrified bartender when he asked for my ID. She told me she loved me  but I had to ixnay on the uncontrollable furious weeping.  I was being selfish and juvenile and that being a woman in the world means keeping yourself together so you can keep everyone else in line, even when they make you mad, even when they disappoint you, even when they break your heart. Because they will. And then things will be wonderful again. That’s life. I know you can be strong enough to put on a brave face and get through it.

It was a good speech, a bit reminiscent of the one Mom always recounted  having heard on her first wedding day. She’d had been dressing in the back of Nana’s house, suffering nervous jitters, when Dad’s grandmother, a real force of Nature, stalked past the rest of the family and informed Mom that Fields Women never cry. This was categorically, even hilariously, untrue[2], but it sounded tough as shit and evidently served much the same effect as Nana’s pep talk.

The wedding took place at my high school chapel, a small Art Deco riff on Gothic architecture that glowed pink in the afternoon light. It was weird being there. I’d never expected to miss high school once I left and saw it as embarrassingly sad that I did. Only losers did that. Only people that had squandered all their promise at seventeen.. In the chaplain’s office, while my new stepfather’s secretary adjusted my mother’s make-up and handed us our bouquets, I remembered I once stowed a choir folder behind the bookshelf after a performance. It was still there.

Mom had madrigals sung at her wedding. The group performing them included my high school drama teacher, my 10th grade English teacher, and my middle school piano teacher. They would be singing two pieces I’d sung with my high school choir. As they lined up in the vestibule, I chatted briefly with my drama teacher and my piano teacher. No, I hadn’t auditioned for any plays. No, I didn’t play the piano anymore. They looked sad. Saying it made me feel sad. I couldn’t remember why I’d stopped exactly They filed up to the choir loft. I wished I were going with them; I still knew every note.

A snapshot confirms I was at the ceremony. I look like a perfect brat of a teenager at the crossroads of boredom and rage. Mine was the face of a person trying not to appear uncool to her friends now visible in the back of the nave. Mine was the face of Fields Women never cry.

 #

 The reception had concluded by the time we wobbled back to the hotel. I sent my friends upstairs to the room we would all share and staggered back down the spiral stairs to the event space, where my beautiful, beaming mother was enjoying a nightcap with her new husband and her own longtime best friend as the band broke down. Someone handed me my gloves—long, over the elbow, torch-singer style. They’d been found between the cushions the corner booth table where I’d spent the night at a comfortable remove from the family. The fingers were sticky, almost black, and it took me a moment to remember I’d forgotten to remove them before availing myself of the chocolate strawberries on the buffet line.

Upstairs, I found my friends in the hotel room. They’d  acquired another bottle of champagne from God knows where.  There were two queen-sized beds. One would be occupied by Ivy League and Brooklyn; the other by me, Punk Roommate, and Indie Rock. We’re all drunk enough it won’t matter.

 I changed out of my dress, leaving it a dusky puddle on the tile, and hollered to inform the others that there was both a jacuzzi and a tv in the bathroom. I changed into a bathing suit in the shower stall. Ivy league filled the tub and turned on the jets. It wasn’t really big enough for everyone.  Because it was Saturday night in the mid-90s, we turned on “120 minutes” and passed the Champagne bottle around the steamy bathroom like germs weren’t even a real thing. Brooklyn discussed Afghan Whigs  with great ardor because they were in-studio. Punk Rock roommate made fun of him for it. They aired a video for a Girls Against Boys song and we had an earnest conversation about whether they had sold out. We smoked in the bathroom, even though it was a non-smoking room. For a minute, it felt like we were all in high school again

I was spinning when I crawled into bed. At twenty years old, I’d spent most of my college years a designated driver and could count on one hand the number of times I’d been truly drunk. Because I was the biggest person in my bed, I tried to take up as little space as possible, so I clung to the edge of the mattress, with one leg balanced against the wall. Beside me, Punk Roommate and Indie Rock settled. Across the room I heard hear Ivy League and Brooklyn kissing. Indie Rock tried to kiss Punk Roommate. She spurred his advance. He tried again. She threatened violence. The kissing noises increased in volume. Indie Rock kicked me by accident, and I felt hot and nauseated and claustrophobic. I went to the bathroom and splashed water on my face like they did in movies. When I came back out, there was no room for me in the bed. I took the room key and went out into the hallway. I was afraid of knocking on anyone else’s door—my sister, my grandmother, certainly my mother– so I settled onto a love seat by the elevators, and felt as luxuriously sorry for myself, adrift, alone, with family and friends seemingly out of reach, as only utterly self-involved  twenty-year-old can. I slept fitfully until a hotel employee woke me around 5 to say that I couldn’t sleep there.

He followed me back to the room, to make sure I had a working key and a right to be there. I bolted to the door behind him and went back to sleep on the floor by the windows.

#

I said goodbye to my friends after breakfast. I saw them all again, but never all together. I drove back to our apartment with Punk Roommate.  She and I both would both enroll in summer classes to restore our standing. She would drop out and move  to Atlanta. I stayed on, and in the most oddball sort of way, found my way back to my way. Things got  better. Things got worse. And better and worse and wonderful all over again. That’s life.

When Mom moved into her new house, she threw out my childhood collection of paper dolls and my stack of “Sassy” back issues, but she  kept  the lavender dress. She even had it dry-cleaned to remove the chocolate, the grimy fountain, the Porta-Potty, the downtown streets, of the ash from cigarettes, and what felt like the end of everything but was actually the countless new beginnings to new stories that wouldn’t all belong to me and maybe never did.

Most of those stories will tell you that that night was amazing. That my mother looked like a princess. That my stepfather looked like the luckiest man in the world. That everyone had a wonderful time. And that my mother and my new stepfather were in in the kind of love that lasts decades, through thick and thin, and has.

Thankfully, most of those stories will remember me as a marginal character. A girl on the sidelines drinking champagne until her head hurt in a sparkly lavender dress.  Most of those stories will see me as a supporting character in a gorgeous chapter, a kid, the daughter of the bride, with own her life just barely begun, with her own story yet to be written.

And those stories, impossibly, marvelously,  . . . those stories were not wrong.

In fact, they’re usually the ones I remember.

 

____________________

[1] Save this ambiguously named 19th century Brit Lit class that surprisingly (and to my utter delight) ended up being a semester-long seminar on Oscar Wilde.

[2] A short list (verified) of things Fields women cry at: paintings, injustice, cathedrals, poems, stories good jokes, Aretha Franklin, disappointment good whiskey, frustration, sunsets, good food, soul music, r&b, gospel choirs, opera, Broadway musicals, television commercials, Renaissance motets, Judy Garland,ripe peaches, the Atlantic Ocean, the Pacific Ocean, Otis Redding, the Mediterranean, furry animals, nice sweaters, cheese,  mustard, heartbreak, bad movies, good movies, bad TV, Italy, excellent curry, Christmas presents, the moon, the stars, excellent wine, morning light, massages, the Chrysler Building, funerals, cocktail parties, bars, shows, restaurants, Central Park, Paris, San Francisco in the fog, pretty boats, the Alps, “Christmastime is Here”—Vince Guaraldi, Disney movies, fireworks, waterfalls, Bill Evans, Nina Simone, thinking about how much we love people, “Queer Eye.”

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Big Peach, 1990-1996

(In Honor of Spring Cleaning: Seven Days. Seven Dresses. This is Day Four. Day Three is here)

In the old days at Belk department store in the Asheville Mall, they had an all-Evening and Wedding gown department. It was oval-shaped the department, blocked off from the rest of the store with artificial, faux marbled columns and draped curtains. In the center, there was a tufted velour pouf under a chandelier, and a glass table strewn with issues of Modern Bride. Further back an enormous three way mirror and one of those raised platforms so ladies could try on things with wide skirts and trains.

I didn’t care much for weddings (always the most boring conclusion of an otherwise interesting story), but as a lifelong devotee of sequins, crinolines, chiffon, taffeta and tulle, the Belk formalwear department was basically my version of heaven. I’d find every possible reason to end up there, usually slipping away from wherever my mother was to partake of its myriad delights. I’d look at every gown, running my hands all over the shiny material, then I’d look at the gowns in the magazines, and stand on the platform in front of the mirror, imagining myself wearing one of the sparkling sequined gowns, performing to a vast audience of adoring fans as if I were Diana Ross. The saleswomen were both understanding and highly circumspect. I’d always attempt to try on dresses. They’d always tell me no. Sulking, I’d wait until their backs were turned and slide in through the racks of dresses, just to feel the fabric against my cheeks, nap under the diaphanous hems,  and wait for older girls to come out and model on the platform.  It took getting busted about a dozen times before I finally stopped

You’d think when I finally had a real reason to shop there, to actually try on gowns, it would feel like a some sort of glittery apotheosis. And that might have been true had it been for an event other than the 8th Grade Formal and had I thought for even a moment I might be able to find a half-fashionable dress that would. I was a rather  fat thirteen-year-old. My complete failure to achieve anything close to puberty meant my curves were in all the wrong places. I told the saleswoman I was after something kind of like Grace Kelly in “To Catch a Thief.” She rolled her eyes and brought out the paltry selection of dresses that were appropriate for a flat-chested, size 14 fourteen year old and would, at my mother’s request, not break the bank. Pretty much all of them looked like something you’d wear to a mixer with your sister wives, but taffeta. The only differentiating factor was the location of the ubiquitous giant bow. When I tried on the one with the black velvet top and the peach taffeta skirt (giant bow located directly over the butt), my mother and the saleswoman cooed. It was very flattering, they told me. It makes you look very skinny, said my mother. And really cheats a bustline, said the saleswoman.  I gave a wistful glance to the feathers and sequins and realized truly and for all time that no one would ever mistake me for Diana Ross.

Disappointing.

 After she rung us up, the saleswoman handed me the garment bag and smiled at my mother. This is such a good dress, she said. I’ve basically sold out of these this week. Which was the exact moment I realized there would be at least five identical copies of the same dress at the 8th Grade Cotillion worn by at least five of my classmates that looked better in it than I did.

Life is fucking full of disappointments.

 

$

Just before the Christmas holidays of my seventh grade year, Mom told  I’d been invited to attend cotillion classes on Thursday evenings in the gym of my former elementary school. I expressed complete shock at this. For one thing, I was approaching the very nadir of my social life. It had been weeks since I’d been invited to anything. Also, it was 1988. I would probably never need to know the foxtrot unless I lost my soul or went into espionage work or both. I had a nagging suspicion that cotillion classes would be one more hour in a room full of people that hated me. But Mom, overtired from a sixty-hour work week, just kind of shrugged and was like, I think there’s a dance at the end of it. You’ll be sad if you don’t go to the dance. And the next thing I knew, I was being dropped off in front of my Elementary School.

My fellow students were a motley bunch. I don’t know how the list of participants was divined or which precise cadre or parents and/or dance enthusiasts  figured out the invite list. I can tell you that we were, with very few exceptions, middle to upper middle class white people stymied at the most awkward point of hugely awkward adolescence. The girls, by and large, looked approximately twenty-five and were maybe evil. The boys were dirty, violent shitbags with bad haircuts, standing, on average, several inches shorter than their female peers.

Our instructor had an absurd Russian name (we were pretty sure she made it up) and an accent that ran a regular commuter line between Stage French and Queens. We called her Madame. She was a birdlike woman of indeterminate old age who styled her silver hair in a Marcel wave and wore desert-plate sized large tarnished brass pendants, which made her look way more like Flavor Flav, than she probably intended.  She kept time with a metal tipped cane and considered The Hustle both distastefully modern and yet absolutely necessary. Sometimes she waxed nostalgic about dancing at the Rainbow Room. Sometimes she alluded to having been married to an actual aristocrat. Her cultural signifiers were stubbornly and hilariously dated.

At the beginning of each class, we were divided into two groups—Gentlemen on the left. Ladies on the right–and forced to draw names from a shabby top hat, thereby preventing anyone from being a wallflower (willingly or not) and keeping the passionately encoupled Music Biz and Preacher’s Daughter from rounding third base mid-mambo. Though three years away from arriving at my full adult height, I was reasonably tall by seventh grade standards, which virtually guaranteed that I would always draw some surly, sticky-fingered partner who called me lard-ass in the hallway but stood roughly eye-level with my non-existent tits, while Madame implored me to follow his lead. But how am I supposed to follow when he obviously doesn’t know where the hell he’s going? And she would thump her cane and tell us to Ladies, imagine you’re a princess and  he looks like Liberace! And she’d do a little shaky pirouette, lost in nostalgia for a time when all ballrooms had bubble machines and the she didn’t have to issue time-outs every time Mall Bangs tried to knee The Fist in the groin and told him to  Suck a dick, Fartface.

That Madame was so inclined toward reverie cancelled out the threat of the thumping cane. She might yell every now and then or threaten to call our parents if we didn’t stop disrupting the phonograph. But we all found ways to tune out the infinite replays of “Pennsylvania 6-5000” in order to maintain constant vigilance against boys trying to snap your bra strap (an activity they found never less than hilarious). Several of the boys took Madame’s laissez-faire attitude toward bathroom breaks to slip out for a smoke in the bushes on the kindergarten playground. And it wasn’t long before their pioneering influence left the gym mostly empty of the male-identified for increasingly long periods of time. And while this was, in some ways, a reprieve, shitty boys being shitty was the only reason why the girls of Cotillion weren’t being shitty to each other. In real life, at school, outside that gym, we did not speak.  I might stand beside the Most Popular Girl on Thursday nights, commiserating over our bad partners, and gossiping in the bathroom about how Mall Bangs found condoms in some mother’s purse at The Fist’s Bar Mitzvah, I could be assured of her wrath if I dared  eye contact in pre-Algebra on Friday morning.

The last day of class came without ceremony. The promised dance, we were told, would be held the spring of the following year. An Eighth Grade Formal!  Madame looked overjoyed. The rest of us looked dubious. Who knew if we’d even survive until eighth grade, let alone want to dance about it.

$

Invitations to the 8th Grade Formal were distributed in much the same mysterious  fashion as those for cotillion class. Though still just a splinter of my 450-person-ish eighth grade class, the cabal had opted to invite a larger portion of the student body to the dance, which essentially meant the handful of our classmates that were tracked into Honors Classes who were not middle-upper middle class mostly white kids from the north side of town were added to the guest list. Also, there was a football player, which surprised me because I didn’t know they had a football team at the Junior High School.

I’m sure this counted as diversity.

Mom curled my hair and helped me with my make up. I wore control top hose and a girdle  under the dress, and high-heeled shoes, that I could not dance in.

I wondered on the way over if the other kids would be at a disadvantage, seeing as how they hadn’t suffered the instruction of Madame the previous spring. I mean, do they know a swing step? But when Mom dropped me off under the, I could already hear “Love Shack” playing inside and realized this was not that kind of party at all.

$

The 8th Grade Formal was held at the least restrictive country club in town in those days, which is to say, the one that didn’t limit access by means of race or religious preference. It was also, coincidentally, the one my parents (and most of the parents of my cotillion classmates) belonged to, during the not-yet-divorced, dual-income, pre-downsized salad days of my youth. I put this in the Assets column, because I knew plenty of places I could hide should Eighth Grade formal turn into the kind of unrestrained, Gates-of-Hell-thrown-open-bloodbath I suspected it would.

I ran into Ivy League at the coat check. I couldn’t figure out what she was doing there, because she was in seventh grade and technically not supposed to be there. But Ivy League was precocious in all things. I was thrilled to see her, because that meant I had at least one confirmed friend there. That changed everything.  She directed me to the bathroom, which was one of those vast Ladies Lounge set-ups, where there was, like, a whole living room with sofas and easy chairs adjacent to the stalls. It was full of girls, at least three of whom wearing my dress, including Mall Bangs, who’d been whisked off to Catholic School for reasons too weird to discuss[1]. Of course she wanted to discuss them, and held court for a while, as the rest of us hovered at the edges, applying lip gloss and AquaNet instead of facing the perils of the actual dance floor. All of us looked ridiculous anyway, save perhaps The Countess, who looked like a movie star, but we weren’t friends then, and wouldn’t be for an impossible two more years.

Eventually, Ivy League and I made it to the dance floor, which had been enlivened after everyone had bored of hiding from each other. We danced both the  Electric Slide and the New Electric Slide (twice). Both of them we learned in gym class. We also danced The Limbo, which we learned at the Roller Rink. We danced the Foxtrot zero times.

The DJ was an off-duty actual radio DJ, so he talked too much. About three-quarters of the way through, he announced a dance contest with a real prize, a cassette single of Warrant’s “Cherry Pie.” Ivy League and this kid Tito won. They were actually great. Neither of them liked Warrant. I’m pretty sure they ended up giving the cassingle away.

$

Mom came to get me at 10 because I called and told her I was bored. I was bored. It was a few years before I learned that dances were always boring, just an excuse to get dressed up, make the scene, and then travel on to the real party elsewhere.

As to the dress, it was a relic within months. The eighties ended authoritatively and with them went the puff sleeves, the drop waists, the yards of taffeta and giant bows. A couple years later, Mom would ask if I wanted to wear it to another event and I remember feeling a wave of disgust, a I wouldn’t be caught dead in that trash.

 It sold for a couple dollars at a yard sale, when my mother remarried and moved out of our house into their house, in Spring of 1996.

 

 

______________________________

[1] They weren’t.

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The Holy Grail, 1995-?

(In Honor of Spring Cleaning: Seven Days. Seven Dresses. This is Day Three. Day Two is here

The Salvation Army store on Williamson Road, in Roanoke Virginia, was barely more than a shanty (one whole portion was walled in with corrugated plastic and the red dirt floor puddled when it rained )but it was a mecca for Dior-style party dresses. I imagined there must have been a whole mess of elderly ladies that downsized out of their historic homes into retirement homes or simply died with walk-closets full or New Look gowns.

The more extraordinary part was that one of those women was my size, an unheard-of development. Fancy vintage dresses were for lithe minxes with delicate waists, not flabby, ponderous elephants like nineteen-year-old me. But even among the debutantes of 1948, there must have been a few heavy bottomed geese no amount of genteel starvation and corsetry could transform into delicate swans. And one of them had donated what looked like her whole wardrobe in a single day.

I bought them all. Probably ten dresses total, perhaps as many as fifteen. It set me back about 25 bucks, which sounds like nothing, but it was a not-insignificant chunk of my Freshman Year allowance at the time.

“I thought we were here to find the Holy Grail,” asked Cardigan, when I dropped the stack on the counter.

“I did,” I said, and showed him a battered old brass vase, chalice shaped, with 25¢ scrawled on the bottom. I had found the Holy Grail, though, and it was a 1940-ish silk crepe dress the color of a blue-green sea on a cloudy morning, delicately beaded, that fell to the floor and fluttered gracefully around my ankles as if I were Ginger Rogers.

Texas sighed and held up her own dented goblet. “What about mine?”

“You definitely found something magical,” I said, but I wasn’t talking about her cup.

 

#

She met Cardigan on the internet.

In 1995, that still sounded pretty close to science-fiction.

Most of us had never seen the internet. We didn’t know how it worked. Women’s College offered ethernet to dorm rooms, but it cost extra, and you had to buy cables. It was a big enough deal that I had an actual computer (most of the girls on my hall had word processors, if anything) with a full-color monitor and an inkjet printer that I lied about being broken so the girls on the hall wouldn’t bankrupt me via ink cartridges. Most of the girls on my hall still had word processors. I had a campus email address, but I wasn’t entirely sure why I needed it. I honestly still think most people would prefer to just write a letter, I remember telling my high school best friend, with all the tragic confidence of the last buggy-whip manufacturer in Dearborn, Michigan. Why would I need internet?

My roommate had a fancy new Mac, with the cables connected, and after a time (of course) we all started using it to check our email, and then later, on the advice of some friend of a friend, we ended up in this early chat room called Foothills, which was basically a blinking cursor on a white screen and occasional perplexing mood statements like a brook babbles over the hill,  where we started spending hours after class, talking to legions of faceless people with too-clever-by-half user names.  I can’t remember what we talked about, but I know we talked about it for hours, each taking turns.

Cardigan was a regular on Foothills. His user name suggested he might be into the same flavor of punk rock as we were. And at the beginning, we talked to him almost exclusively about music, ‘zines and the finer points of MaximumRocknRoll columns. He was nice and funny. After classes, we’d hurry back to my roommate’s computer to see if he’d logged on. Texas worked in the library, so could chat with him during her shift. I’d sit at roommate’s desk or the computer lab and join the conversation.

At some point, the character of the conversation between Texas and Cardigan changed. She knew where he went to school. She knew his real name. She knew what his voice sounded like, because their conversations left the virtual realm and moved to the phone. I felt left out, he was both of our friends, but I could read the writing on the dorm room white board.

Back in January, in some escalating double-dog dare of an overcaffeinated conversation, Texas had sworn she’d shave her head if I wore my senior year prom dress to class. It didn’t seem exactly like a fair trade, I mean, it’s women’s college and when have I ever worried about being overdressed? But I think Texas was looking for an excuse that was neither as weighted with all the dumb gravitas people assign to dramatic haircuts nor as prosaic as I was bored. I don’t think the first draft of this conversation occurred online, but certainly the follow up did, which is how Cardigan got involved.

A plan coalesced. Cardigan would visit. Texas would shave her head. We’d all hang out. The two of them would hang out and see if they could make explicit the implicit flirtation in the spaces between keystrokes. I was skeptical. They’d never exchanged pictures.  He could be a serial killer. He could be a monster. He could be anything. What if you don’t like him? She didn’t seem worried. We’d meet him at the gas station that sold Elvis lamps off Interstate 81. If he was nice, he could follow us back to campus. If he was crazy? Well, I guess we could send him home and call the police?

 I needn’t have worried.

He turned out to be a cute nineteen-old-boy from a place I’d never heard of in Northeastern PA. He had the kind of shy smile that could melt a heart at ten paces, but his expression  when he set eyes on Texas in the parking lot on the interstate? It was luminescent. It was full-on wonder. Because she may have been charming onscreen, but, in person, Texas was real deal beautiful, the kind of beautiful that entranced people, the kind that regularly caused perfect strangers to stop on the street and ask if her she knew how much she looked like a particular supermodel of the era (she did, thanks, and that’s so nice of you to mention).

After hugs and introductions, after we bought some more cigarettes and gave him instructions on getting back to campus, I spent some time, hours, days, weeks afterward trying to figure how different that scene would have played if it had been me to get out of the car and not Texas.  If he would have felt the same, if he would have tried to hide his disappointment, if he would have found some excuse to creep off back to Pennsylvania—whoops! Turns out my grandma died, but you seem like a real sweet person and it was sure nice to meet you. Maybe we’ll run into each other again on the internet someday. I doubted he’d be mean to my face. Wasn’t his style. Cardigan wore cardigans for christsake, even if he did wear them over Clash shirts.

There was no need to think too hard on it, though because Cardigan was suddenly, totally, completely smitten with Texas. And Texas was my best friend. And there wasn’t a goddamn thing I could do about the fact that I suddenly, totally, completely smitten with Cardigan

#

In the interest of time, let’s spoil the ending:

This is not a story about a love triangle. At least not one in which I’m a player. I never told Cardigan I had a crush on him. He maybe sussed it out, but never acknowledged it. I wasn’t interested in betraying Texas and I couldn’t have competed with her even if I had. High school had taught me a lot of things, and among them, that the road to Hell is paved with the myriad tiny horrors and humiliations of trying to love someone who doesn’t love you back.

I didn’t try to break them up. In fact, I spent the rest of the semester cheerleading their relationship for the simple reason that I liked having Cardigan around and I thought if they broke up, I’d never see him again. I tried to graft all of my infatuation onto a local guy (another redhead) who I kinda liked (who also, as it turned out, was very, very much not interested) and would hold forth for hours talking about all my feelings that weren’t for him at all, but for a boy I couldn’t ever really talk about. Whatever pinch of resentment I felt drifted away over time, as did the guilt I felt for feeling it, as did Cardigan and Texas’s relationship, as did my crush on Cardigan, as did Cardigan himself, who would eventually become another faded entry in my Big Book of Unrequited Love.

For now, we return to the Salvation Army checkout line, to my stack of dresses, to our Let’s go to Thrift Stores and look for the Holy Grail scavenger hunt we were using to fill the afternoon hours before Texas got her iconic haircut (she had the bone structure for it) and Cardigan fell hard.

“What are you going to do with that?” asked Cardigan.

I held up the cup. “Well, if the whole immortal life thing doesn’t play out, it would probably make a decent ashtray” (It did).

“No,” said Cardigan. “The dress. What are you going to do with the dress?”

The saleswoman, with a Franklin County accent and church lady hair, paused in her calculations and gave us a scowl. She held up the blue green dress and the sunlight caught in the glass beads.

I would marvel that it fit me, that held up, even as the beads loosened and silk faded to almost pink with sweat and I required additional underwear to make it look as flattering as it had when I was nineteen. I wore it to shows. I wore it to parties. I wore it plays. I hung it on the wall as decoration. I wore it to one ill-timed arts gala in the gut-churning middle of the 2000 election recount. I wore it for my birthday. I might have worn it for yours. It outlasted Cardigan and college and the vicissitudes of my friendship with Texas in its stormy patches. And yet it lives. I can’t bear to get rid of it. Even though it’s in terrible shape now and it smells funny and I haven’t worn it in years.

I mean, you don’t just throw away the Holy Grail. Come the fuck on.

“I’m going to wear it,” I said. “Obviously.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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LBD, 2000-2014

(In Honor of Spring Cleaning: Seven Days. Seven Dresses. This is Day Two. Day One is here)

What a fabulous dress for a dinner party. Mom gushed when I came out of the dressing room. It was both flattering and modest, black eyelet, which felt like a fascinating contradiction. I felt a little like Jackie O in it, and I had never felt like Jackie O in my natural born life. I hemmed and hawed. It was cheap but still out of my price range and the kind of dress that would look good with pearls. I wasn’t sure I wanted to be the kind of girl who wore a dress that would look good in pearls. I went to hand it back to the saleswoman. Mom took it out of my hands and announced that she was buying it for me. It’s timeless and elegant. No argument.

Here’s the thing: most of the time, you don’t buy a funeral dress knowing that it will be your funeral dress.

GrandJay died a few months later.  He made it to not-quite-eighty, an impressive age for a man of extravagant appetites that unsurprisingly felled him. His actual death occurred on the Florida panhandle, in a town with a name—Defuniak Springs—that sounded like it came out of the Southern Novel in golf shirts that was my paternal grandfather personified.  His memorial, however, would occur, five-hundred-odd miles away in Bristol, Virginia, where he’d spent a large portion of his adult life.

Mom and I drove over the mountain from Asheville, despite the fact that she and Dad had been divorced for years and crossed the state line from Tennessee about a block from the Episcopal Church. Inside the crowd was already milling with refreshments in the fellowship hall. Dad was there with his new girlfriend. My grandfather’s larger-than-life siblings had all come up from points Deep South and leant the background noise a pervasive Delta drawl. Mom was not the only divorced person in attendance. My Aunt Molly’s ex-husband was there. I hung out with them and one of my favorite cousins until we were called into the church proper.

Like most funerals on my father’s side of the family, GrandJay’s wasn’t a particularly morbid affair. There was no coffin (he’d been cremated), so we were spared the last bewildering gazes at a waxy corpse in heavy make-up.  The lay reader who directed the service was my father’s high school best friend, a man about whom I’d heard many scandalous tales, and mostly what I remember was my father, smiling faintly, as he read GrandJay’s letters home from World War II aloud to the audience. My grandfather had always been both a marvelous writer and a legend in his own mind. The young man in those letters, the barrel chested young pilot with the rakish grin and the wild eyebrows, who consciously aped Fitzgerald and Hemingway, in his descriptions of Northern Africa, of Italy, of barely post-war France, who believed he was both a daring hero and a fledgling literary genius? That was my grandfather at his best. If there is a such thing as a tragic flaw it is that GrandJay never recovered from being that young man, and so, it seemed fitting it was that young man we commemorated.

I sat up front with my Dad, the oldest child of the oldest child of man (himself the oldest child) who had died. I didn’t see my grandmother, Betsy, a woman who had hardly shared the same room as my grandfather since their divorce a quarter-century previous, come in the back and hover behind the back row where my mother, my ex-uncle and the rest of the divorced had repaired.  My mother says Betsy slipped in just after the service began and exited, a wisp of black and tasteful gold, through the heavy red doors of the church, before the rest followed the priest out to inter GrandJay’s cremated remains in a PO Box-shaped cubby beside his second wife, my step-grandmother, in the church garden.

After the service, we retired to my aunt’s house for canapes and reminiscences, and the mood shifted solidly to cocktail party. I toured pictures strewn across tabletops and over the glossy black of a grand piano, of both handsome young and weathered old Grandfather, while my favorite of his siblings, Aunt Sis, sighed theatrically and made hilariously gruesome predictions about both the family (at large) and the City of New Orleans, where she’d spent most of her life. My cousin and I stole a bottle of wine and barely evaded a winking former congressman who tried to convince us of his (non-existent) resemblance to Sean Connery on our way off the back porch and onto the golf course. There, we sat in the foggy autumn rough, just shy of a pussy-willowed water hazard, to smoke cigarettes and share the bottle, until we’d exchanged the most bizarre and humiliating chapters of our lives since last year and I could hear my mother and my great aunt wondering where I’d got off to in the way that meant, best get back before we come after you.

 The dry cleaner was able to get the grass stains off the skirt.

Years passed.I’d pass the dress by and pause when thinking about a dress for an interview, or a cocktail party, but once a dress becomes a funeral dress, it stays a funeral dress.

My Step-Grandfather Jack was 91, also a former pilot and a native of the Deep South (he hailed from Baton Rouge), but otherwise had nothing in common with GrandJay. His funeral, in 2013, was a sweet, congenial affair at a Methodist church in my hometown populated by my stepfather’s extensive sweet, congenial family. I drove to town the day of, barely making the event. I’d had to stop on the way at a box park in Greensboro to buy a cheap pair of conservative black pumps, because I’d drunkenly left my only other pair beside a wedding dance floor in Tennessee the week before. The whole ride home I thought I ought that sounded like the chorus of a country song..

The dress was old by then. I worried I’d be out of style, which felt like the wrong thing to worry about at a funeral. Gather ye fashion trends while ye may, I guess. My mind wandered during the service. Due to deaths and remarriages, I’d had nine grandparents total over the course of my life, though not all at the same time. With my step-grandfather’s death, I was down to three, all grandmothers. I tugged at the waist of the dress—it was fitted, still flattering, but not comfortable, and ominously wondered if  I’d still fit into it next time I needed it.

Less than a year later, Betsy, that elegant wisp of a grandmother in black and gold, passed away in a retirement home in Tennessee. She was a few weeks shy of ninety-one.

I rode back over the mountain from Asheville with Dad, this time to a cemetery on the Tennessee side of the Bristol, a couple of miles from where her ex-husbands had occurred the year before. There would only be a graveside service, so we killed time driving past historical landmarks from Betsy’s past. The house that had belonged to her grandmother and grandfather. The house just up the same hill, where she’d grown up, on what was once a rolling expanse of acres, since crowded by tract mansions. The cemetery was just across a divided highway from that house. We met the rest of my aunts and cousins there. They’d all been together. We had not. I couldn’t figure out if that was by Dad’s choice or theirs. My ex-uncle had once again come along. I gave him a hug and reconvened with my cousin, since removed to Silicon Valley, where she’d found considerable success. Otherwise, I felt strangely awkward for reasons I could not understand.

Perhaps because Betsy herself had herself been prickly. She was charming and beautiful, a consummate socialite. She was enormously funny, but often at someone’s expense.  I said this about her at the time: “My grandmother had a wicked sense of humor, unparalleled style and a kind of half-glamorous, half-cheeky nonchalance that served her well in all sorts of adventures (whether in Hong Kong or over a particularly heated round of gossip and bourre on the veranda). She was a loyal friend and an often-hilarious dinner guest. Being around Betsy always felt like getting the rare invite to one of the best parties around.” Put another way: being around Betsy didn’t always feel being around your grandmother. In all the good and bad that it entailed.

We convened under one of those green plastic graveside tents because the weather was pigeon gray and the rain needled. She was put to rest in an elaborate coffin, piled with white flowers, but her service was impersonal and performed by the Brylcreem-ed funeral director, while we politely sniffled and mostly avoided eye contact. After five minutes, the whole thing was over. For a woman so inclined toward grand to-dos, Betsy would have found her funeral a real non-event

She was to be buried in her family plot, picked by her own parents (Mam and Daddy Joe) years before after her brother Joe had died in World War II. They had been so undone by Joe’s death that they bought space visible from their own house on the opposite hill and commissioned a large marble angel from Italy to stand at his grave, so they could always look out and see his final resting place.  After each of their deaths, Daddy Joe and Mam (respectively) were laid to rest beside him, and it was probably about that time that the divided highway started to develop.  Shopping centers and gas stations and fast food joints filled the corridor between the two hills. The cemetery started showing its age. The White Angel became a target for vandals. First they cut off the wings, then the arms, then the head, until surviving members of the family (my grandmother, her brother’s son) removed the rest of the statue, leaving only a scuffed base showing the ghostly shadow of dismembered seraph feet.

I stood beside that base and watched men in jumpsuits being the rough, inelegant work of returning my grandmother to earth. There was no one left in the house across the way to look out at her grave. The cemetery was maybe a couple of miles from the Motor Speedway. Nascar and my grandmother—my entire Bristol family, really, and to be very clear, I was born in Bristol– seemed to exist in two different, completely closed universes. I tried to imagine what her gravesite would sound like on race day. Like the gates of Hell had come screaming open and unleashed the machines. I wondered who would visit her grave. I felt enormously sad.  The family all walked to their cars. My aunt gave me an ancient Ferragamo shoe box, these are for you from Betsy, she said. And they all went on about their ways.

Dad and I drove out of town. I sat in the passenger seat and opened the box. It contained four tumblers, two candlesticks, and what appeared to be four sterling silver, monogrammed sporks. I think I started laughing then. I think I laughed all the way to lunch, just the two of us, at a café in Jonesborough, across the street from the place I’d left my black shoes beside a dance floor the year before.

Dad complimented me on the dress.

I told him I’d decided never to wear it again. Three is enough, I said. It’s either officially cursed or officially free of its curse. But I’m not inclined to find out which. He clearly had no idea not what I was talking about but had the good sense not to ask for elaboration.

I wanted to throw it away, because I am the most superstitious variety of atheist, but it was still a nice dress, elegant, flattering, and in surprisingly good condition after fourteen years, so I donated it on the way out of my hometown.

Maybe you found it in the thrift store.

My sympathies.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Standard

Plaid Romance, 1995-1997

In Honor of Spring Cleaning: Seven Days. Seven Dresses. (Probably) Seven Bad Puns. 

It was a cotton-blend shirt dress, roughly forty years old, in a brown tartan print with a hint of antifreeze blue woven through the plaid. The bodice was unflatteringly long-waisted and missing two of the five covered buttons that otherwise gaped over my breasts. The skirt fanned out into uneven box pleats at the hips. Worn to shine in patches and reeking of mothballs, it looked like something that had been fished out of a garbage bin moments before it was enlisted as oil rag. I found it buried in the back of a vintage store, past the racks of delicate,  fairy princess party dresses made for delicate, tiny-waisted fairy princesses, and not fat nineteen-year-old punk rockers determined to take a level in ugly. When I asked the proprietor what he wanted for it, he gave me a shrug, I dunno. A dollar seem reasonable?

At the time, I was hanging out with the safety-pinned gas station jacket enthusiast set. Like me, they were mostly white kids with fucked-up hair. They were pretty sure the American experiment was over, that any day The People would swarm the streets to demand a radical restructuring of society.  There was a lot of talk about the coming revolution; all I was ever able to suss out was that it would definitely involve bicycles, a bunch of bands I liked, and probably a vegan cookout. Until then, the most important thing we could do was keep making flyers and not sell out to a major label.

I thought I might refashion myself as a radical leftist. I was (and still am) attracted to angry with people with a barbed sense of humor. The type of person inclined to go apoplectic when human beings treat other human beings like less than. I figured the far left was as good a place as any to make friends and find lovers. I read the books. I tried to sort out the factions, such as they were, in the college district of a New South city with a complicated racial history and a (still) deeply segregated population. I scrawled Emma Goldman quotations on my book bag in black marker. I tried to get into Crass.

I went to an anti-death penalty protest. I didn’t make any new friends. Most of my fellow protesters were vehemently Pro-Life in all contexts, a fact I only discovered after complaining loudly to the women around me about the terrible anti-abortion protesters that showed up every Saturday to picket the clinic across the street from my apartment. I was met with cold stares and the glint of candlelight reflected off crosses. Turns out the modern nun wears tailored cardigans and slacks and/or a nice pencil skirt. No veil. Who knew? Reader: I have never felt so Protestant.

I had already registered as a Democrat, but I signed up for the Communist Party when I found an ad in the back of a zine.  Are you now or have you ever been? Duh. Dashiell Hammett and Lillian Hellman were one of my favorite celebrity couples. I sent a form and $5; they sent me a lapel pin and a list of regional meetings. The closest one took place in an afterhours classroom on campus. There, I found a room of four people quietly writing postcards to Zapatistas, while a forty-something dude leered at the girls and tried to lead the group in a Woody Guthrie sing-along. It didn’t really feel like my scene, so I cracked a joke about Stalin and skedaddled out of there as fast as my lug-soled Mary Janes would take me.

Punk Rock Roommate didn’t ask where I’d been.She was student of both the Russian Language and Revolution(in general) as a historical subject, but had little use for political pieties. I met her for dinner (free, vegetarian, hosted by the Hari Krishnas at the campus interfaith house). We sat on the porch swing while and discussed bankrupt ideologies, how you could never trust a man with both a bald head and a ponytail and how maybe the reason we didn’t hate the Clintons entirely was that they reminded me of our parents, who we couldn’t really bring ourselves to hate. One of the Krishna dudes interrupted us to say that the meals were only free so long as we gave a donation. Punk Rock roommate gave him about four word-perfect definitions of the word “free,” and then suggested he fuck off. And that’s how we got banned from free Krishna dinners.

We went to a noisy, smelly house show to see a bunch of noisy, smelly punk rock bands. Between sets, we sat on a derelict upholstered sofa that had been left to rot on the front porch through all four seasons of Piedmont humidity. We smoked cigarettes among skinny white boys arguing points of ideological purity seemingly indistinguishable from music taste.  An abandoned old school with shattered palladian windows loomed on a hill over us surrounded by long-rusted chain link. Periodically, I would imagine I saw shadows inside. I suspected they were benign.

I was mostly unhappy in those days—no one who wears that much brown by choice can possibly be emotionally stable–but I liked the house shows and the zines and that romantic end of the world feeling.

The dress exhausted itself in late 1997, I drove home from a Jesus Lizard show at Cat’s Cradle and the fabric disintegrated at the seams when I took the dress off. For a time, I had a few of the buttons saved in an old Band-Aid box, but eventually it too was lost to time.

 

Standard

Queen Bee

I was still wearing sweat pants under a dress coat when I got to The Countess’s house. I hadn’t changed since I got home from school and I’d run out of the door and down the street on converse high-tops, purple, inscribed with Smiths lyrics, boys’ initials, and that Oscar Wilde quote about the gutter and stars. January needled my lungs and numbed my fingers. I must have looked horrible, all greasy-haired and sniffling when I barged into her kitchen. She looked like a vision—all white and gold– a coronation Queen Elizabeth I in leggings and oversized sweaters and a Christmas-themed apron. She was slicing a pecan pie. Her specialty. I said, I’m having the worst day of my life. I wish I were dead. Which, because I was sixteen, was both gospel truth and complete hyperbole at the same time.

The Countess wiped her hands on a tea towel. She pulled three bottles from her father’s liquor cabinet, and poured a generous slug of each in three different Wedgwood teacups Vodka. Whiskey. Tequila. Drink each one, really fast. Then put this on. She held up a tube of lipstick, blood red.

 I was a novice drinker, then, and the tequila—would there be worm bits in it? smelled highly suspect, but I cowgirled up and  took the shots. While my eyes watered and esophagus burned, she gestured again with the lipstick. It’s critical. I applied the lipstick by my reflection in the kitchen window. I thought it accentuated the gap between my front teeth and made the rest look yellow. I felt warm and woozy.

Better? She asked.

My reflection blurred into something inoffensive. I nodded. I was.

The Countess hollered at her little sister. If Dad comes home, tell him I forgot something at school. She put on her father’s barn jacket. I felt in my pocket for cigarettes and we went out to the car.  

*

The Countess was not really a Countess. She looked a painting or a Renaissance princess and aspired, above all, to beautiful things and perfect hospitality. We spent hours driving around fancy neighborhoods, imagining which houses we might live in and how we might entertain once we did. A garden party, I think, she’d say. With champagne cocktails and portrait hats. The men would wear seersucker suits and mascara. She’d smile, pleased with her own cleverness. She liked transgression so discreet as to require a double-take, Was it? Could it?  It would be years before I knew she stole that line about the seersucker and mascara from someone else.

In general, subtlety was not The Countess’s strong suit. She had big moods. She made bold statements. She climbed the stage at morning convocation in her preppy flats and white dresses—she  only disaffected teenage girl in the 90s that preferred white clothes—and report on church signs we passed on our smoking circuit.  According the Woodfin Baptist Church, only the wide awake Christian can sleep with Jesus. What do you all make of that? Then, after a beat, she’d  stride grandly off the stage as if she’d dropped a mic in front of the Nobel Committee.

*

 She drove too fast, squealing into the bend, shooting out onto the Avenue, where the speed limit was an impossible 25 mph for everyone but The Countess, who thought nothing of passing a slower car as if it were rush hour on the expressway. We listed off bullet points about each of the mansions on the right.  That’s the house where Emily lived. That’s where Susan lost her virginity. That’s the so and so’s dad had  sex party. Hand to God.   The strange stone art deco villa in the ivy? Owned by a socialite tarot card reader. The Countess lit another cigarette with the lazy dash lighter and when she opened the window, she flooded the avenue with music. She liked spirally songs with ethereal female vocals. Cocteau Twins.  Lush. A bunch of other bands we’d later call shoegaze, or shoegaze-adjacent. She also had a weakness for Enya, which was hilarious. From my bedroom, I could hear her approach to Orinoco Flow played at death metal volume up the narrow corridor of ranch houses that led to my house. We’d moved there after my parents divorce divested us of the big house by the lake.  My mother and sister hated it there. I understood that the smaller, shabbier house under the mountain felt like a step down, but I liked where it was. I could walk to the grand hotel around the corner or  downtown and when I said the name of my neighborhood, people imagined I meant one of those Gatsbyish summer cottages clinging to the curves of  Sunset Mountain. The ones Thomas Wolfe wrote about.

I didn’t correct them.

*

The Countess lived at the bottom of the hill in a stone and shingle cottage, scarcely grander than my house. The summer previous, I’d run down the hill during a soon-abandoned flirtation with jogging. She flagged me down in her front yard. She’d had mono, she said. She’d been desperately bored, horribly lonely. Had I heard from anyone? Was I still hung up on Poetic Bangs? Had I really gotten a car? Would I like a dinner? Could we sit in the smoking section because God she was dying for a cigarette.

We fell immediately into that intense I can tell you anything for hours at a time thing that can make you go all “Anne of Green Gables”  bosom friends after twenty minutes and a shared plate of nachos at the Mexican greasy spoon. I let her smoke in my car. Then I started smoking in my car because I drove her to a school. We pooled the gas money our parents gave us and used it to buy cigarettes, coffee and doughnuts, but only when the HOT DOUGHNUTS NOW sign was alit at the Krispy Kreme.  When the Countess pointed out that I wasn’t actually inhaling the smoke, I did and became an actual smoker with a preference for black coffee, because The Countess had, like, zero time to wait for me to  add cream and sugar.  After I totaled my car, she would come for me after hours in her Dad’s jeep and  stand outside my bedroom, banging on the window with a downed tree branch, until I dressed and joined her. Sometimes we’d walk up the grand hotel lobby to do our Latin homework. I’d imagine the entry to Aeneas’ underworld looking like the big stone fireplaces on each end of the lobby. The Countess would coerce a lonely, aging tourists to buy her vodka tonics at the bar. She never got busted[1]

*

I’d known The Countess since we were babies, but she spent part of her childhood in parochial school. When we were reunited in the fourth grade, she was unusually tall and seemed in all ways about two decades older than the rest of us. I went to her house for a play date. She gave me a cool appraisal at the door and announced that she’d recently come into some blazers, shoulder pads, and silk blouses so we’d be playing Divorced Businesswomen. Pretend I’m Cybil Shepherd. You can be Kathleen Turner or Diane Keaton or something. She handed me a wine glass full of Fresca and started complaining about her imaginary ex-husband, Mark.

Our friendship didn’t take then, probably because I kept trying to get our Divorced Businesswomen to fight wizards and dragons outside the swanky Upper East Side Apartments the Countess imagined they’d live in. The Countess would give me a withering gaze and explain that there were no dragons on the Upper East Side. This was accurate. Dragons are definitely more of an Upper West Side thing. But I hadn’t even been to New York City yet, so how was I to know?

*

I didn’t really feel the alcohol until my second cigarette. By then we were most of the way across town and The Countess had just Evel Knieveled her way over a curb  onto the Blue Ridge Parkway. I told her I felt lightheaded and she asked if I was going to puke. I said no. She turned up the Slowdive, a gift from some dude  she was seeing. He was older.Sometimes she said he was twenty-one. Sometimes she said he was twenty-six. She was so over men our age.

She rolled down the windows once we outran the city lights. The black shadows of pines lorded over us on either side of the road. It was cold. She tapped the console. I brought a flask, she said. But the cold i good for your skin. Fresh air prevents wrinkles. I rested my head against the door frame and looked up to see if I could make out the moon.

*

The Countess found academic endeavor a largely dull affair, though she was not, strictly speaking, a bad student. Our school was full of smart kids and rich kids, and a few rich, smart kids. Neither the Countess nor I were rich enough to slack off entirely, so on the multitude of days we called in sick together[2].  I helped her with her papers and she helped me lie to my mother. Her dad was rarely home and seemingly oblivious to the Countess’ agenda when he was. As time progressed, her house became a one-stop for whoever happened to be out and looking for a place to hang out unscrutinized, often with a crowd.  A wander into her living room on a Saturday night usually meant you’d run into a motley assortment of Day Students and a bunch of  kids from the public high school I’d naively  believed I’d never see again. The latter were mostly boys, and all, at best, indifferent to me, unless I had money to throw in for beer or pot, like, even five bucks would help.

Those boys would send their girlfriends home and come over to have a cold one before curfew. None of them dated The Countess. She’d obtained the sort of capital R Reputation prim mothers caution their daughters against somewhere around seventh grade.  I never questioned the stories I heard and the assumptions people made about her because everything about the Countess hinted of sophistication. She was the kind of sixteen-year-old that could mix a perfect martini from memory and apply lipstick without looking in the mirror. It stood to reason she was also a libertine. We’d been friends for about three hours when she told me her actual greatest sin had been hitting puberty a few years before the rest of us, and being a pretty girl who  genuinely liked hanging out with boys.  Her romantic experience, in those days anyway, was scarcely more controversial than my own.

And yet those boys, the same one that had gossiped about her in the halls, showed up at her house and lounged with cases of cheap Fake ID beer, while she held court with elaborate desserts she made from scratch, while they still ogled her every time she stood and still talked the same old shit about her every time they left her house.

Why do you tolerate it?  I’d ask.

You don’t really understand about men, she’d say and she’d be right. I didn’t really understand about men. I didn’t understand about a lot of things.  My failure to grasp the convoluted social protocols the Countess rigorously adhered to—even at sixteen she sent thank you notes, even when the party ended with her swinging, half-dressed, from a front porch column, lip-synching Madonna and drinking convenience store champagne straight from the bottle—seemed in danger of upending our careful equilibrium

*

The best Parkway overlook was the one two up from the river, far enough away from the city below that there wasn’t much traffic, close enough that could skedaddle back to civilization if the Parkway turned out, as my mother suggested, to be a hotbed of psycho killers trolling for victims. I took us there first in my car. Then she took us in her car. And once the second overlook became a popular make-out destination, she’d shine the headlights of her new car through our friends’ fog-covered windows, park ranger style, to see who she could startle in flagrante delicto.

 *

It occurred to me, at some after-dance party, during senior year that every after-dance party was at The Countess’ house, which, by then, we’d started calling the Sodom and Gomorrah House. This was because of the lack of parents. This was because the Countess always had plenty of alcohol and an inclination to experiment with cocktails. Have you ever had a Gin Rickey? Let’s try daiquiris! This was because the Countess never went to the dances herself.

It’s not that she couldn’t have. I’m sure she was invited. She was beautiful. She was popular. She was funny. She was fearless. She was magnificent.

*

That night, we were the only ones up there.  The Countess turned off the car. We sat in silence, puffing out curlicues of smoke.

“We could talk about your bad day,” she said “If you want to.”

*

There are stories about The Countess that beggar belief. Some of them are true. Most are the stuff of legend soon lost on the infinite palimpsest of local rumor. Those stories are not mine to tell. And at some point, the Countess herself stopped telling her stories, or, at least, telling them to me.

I would come home from college and hear conflicting reports. She was married to a British lord. She was a nanny for a family in Ohio. She’d moved to Hollywood. She’d opened a boutique in Georgia. All seemed equally plausible.

What I want to tell you is that I’d had best friends before The Countess, but The Countess was the first real best friend I ever really had.

*

Every time a high school reunion comes up, and they do every five years at schools that rely on alumni donations, there are a few names I always look for on the RSVP list. I tell myself, I’ll go if they do, even though, especially though, I know they won’t.

I know she won’t.

I still dream about The Countess. I think it’s because we never actually got to be thirty-something businesswomen, bitching about our exes, battling the dragons, drinking actual white wine, being real grown-ups.

In my dream, she is always hosting a dinner party in one of those old mansions we used to drive by. I’m so happy to see her. When I come in she’s wearing a variation on this green velvet party dress she used to wear at all sorts of non-party dress events—to the grocery store, around the house, to the punk rock coffeehouse downtown. That dress made her hair look like shiny copper. That dress made her look like an empress.

I told her that once.

She said, this old thing? It’s basically a rag.

*

 I didn’t really need to talk about my bad day. So we didn’t. We just sat and smoked and  watched the stars, for long enough that my cheeks went numb with cold, until I worried about homework, until I worried about my mother worried about me, until I could tell The Countess was bored.

You’ll be okay, she said, finally, before she turned the key.

I believed her.

.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] By contrast, I got busted repeatedly for trying to sneak upstairs in the hotel on a pilgrimage to the room where F. Scott Fitzgerald used to stay in the hotel, because at the point in my life, sixteen, early seventeen, I still believed in the totemic, transformative power of places. If I could touch this doorframe, that maybe he once touched, then maybe just maybe that would make me a better writer.

 

[2] “Did you know that you and [The Countess] have broken a school record for simultaneous absences? I just want you to keep that in mind given that you’re in the final stretch of your last semester“—Dean of Students, Senior Year.

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Sound Salvation

In the beginning, the Radio Club had a radio station. It was a closet shaped room at the bottom of the stone stairs that opened like the mouth of hell under the old wrestling room and led to a concrete landing. To the left was a cinderblock storage room, home to long-abandoned student art and occasional band practice from the students most likely to get expelled. To the right was the day room, a brick cave that perennially smelled like old sweat, smoke damage and teenage boys. Some of the pubescent male funk may have seeped through the mats upstairs during the curiously intimate rites of violent masculinity performed each wrestling season. The rest came from the Day Boys, who in those days still outnumbered us Day Girls by a small margin, and some untold number of boarding students whose use of the right-side sofa and nook behind for hands-on sexual education encouraged advance knocking and  loud I’m coming in, now, perverts.

It was rare to see people coming and going from the radio station, which leant the Radio Club a little additional glamour. The general consensus seemed to be that they only really existed as a yearbook photo and vehicle to DJ school dances the administration was too cheap to outsource.  Sometimes, during a free period, we might hear a bassline, or the mumble of a voice through the wall. This was the only evidence we ever had that the Radio Club was doing anything like radio. The station had a frequency number, but whenever we tried to access it, we heard only static. It’s a very small broadcast area. Just campus. Fair, but no matter where we put up an antenna—in the dorm common rooms, in the classroom building, at the top of the stone stairs, in the hallway immediately outside the radio station door, we could never get a signal. Like, are we sure the station is even connected? Like, maybe the administration turned off the signal years ago, probably once they realized it was easier than dodging faculty and FCC complaints every time some fourth-form edgelord tried to dedicate “Fuck Tha Police” to the Headmaster live on-air. It would be pretty crooked to pull the plug on free expression without ever telling the people doing the expressing that you had.  But those were exactly the kind of  Machiavellian shenanigans we expected of grown-ups (in general) and school administrators (specifically), which probably accounts for why that theory picked up such traction. The Day Boys were particularly fond of it. I’d see them swaggering past the Radio Station door, shaking their heads with pity, like, Poor bastards don’t even know they are just playing records and talking to themselves about music. Nobody’s listening.  I remember thinking, that sounds pretty dreamy. Maybe I should join the Radio Club.

 II

I’d known most of the Day Boys years before I started at Boarding School, because they lived in my neighborhood. A few straggled in from the rural counties that, unlike my own, actually looked and behaved like Appalachia. A few came from the local Catholic School. Most came from the same public schools I had, places without day rooms, where no one in their right mind would dream of leaving their backpack unattended or locker unlocked. I knew exactly what flavor of fuck-up they were long before the Dean of Students stood on a small dais in the middle of the Day Room, her hand trembling with wrath, as she pointed to the still smoking, ash-blackened remains of the sex couch and asked which one of them had set it on fire. “Have the self-respect to turn yourself in now or tell me who did, because I promise I will find out.”

The Day Boys took her tirade with almost Zen-like tolerance, without a single incriminating smirk. She exited threatening vengeance for the incinerated furniture. We knew it was an empty promise. I don’t know which Day Boy burned the sofa. It might have been the one that drove me to school every morning and never spoke to me. It might have been the one with the curls that every girl in the spring play went moon-eyed over. It might have been the one that just shrugged when the Dean left and said, “I mean, it smelled like cum and was infested with ants. It’s not like anyone in their right mind was gonna sit on it.” It might have been the one I’d known since I was ten, when he observed me feeling left out at his sister’s birthday party and challenged me to the first of several games of Battleship on a rainy fall afternoon. It didn’t matter. The Day Boys had coalesced into a collective. In some sense, they had all burned the sofa.

III

The Day Girls had little time for the Day Boys. The school boasted a wide variety of young men with a wide variety of exotic haircuts, accents, favorite bands, and passport colors. There seemed little reason to hang out with, say, the guy that used to kick your seat while reciting long passages of Eddie Murphy’s “Raw” in the back of your mom’s car on the way to sixth grade summer band, when there were, like, four other continents in the mix. I was into this boy with skinny arms and a curtain of bangs that I interpreted as somehow poetic. And by into, I mean, into. I mean, critical, irrational, embarrassing infatuation so intense that I’d shelved any reservations about him being a moralistic theatre kid who over-articulated every word and took everything very, very seriously, because he’d walked into the first day of a creative-writing extracurricular in Chuck Taylors and an old R.E.M shirt with guitar hands and a tattered volume of James Joyce shoved in his tattered jeans pocket, talking about words like other people talk about sex and said, as I fluttered and flushed and complimented his story, that you seem to have a hard time making eye contact with me which was weird kind of creepy but I was fifteen and when I looked at his eyes they were so blue and  Girl, let me just tell you.

When it hits like that—like a fucking anvil made of sparkles, butterflies, and pure hormones–you tend to forgive a lot, up to an including the fact that cool Work Tour t-shirt aside, Poetic Bangs had the musical taste of divorced Dad at a fern bar. So I listened Paul Simon and Dan Fogelberg, stayed late for Amnesty International, and sat transfixed as he sat on the theatre stairs strumming original acoustic ballads about deforestation and new age spiritualism, oblivious to the fact that there were at least four or five other girls hanging on his every stupid word, as infatuated as I.

Poetic Bangs wasn’t the boy I was supposed to like. I’d spent the year previous in public school cultivating a quiet, black ballpoint pen-doodled crush on this quiet, black-haired skateboarder that sat across from me in Civics class and writing stories in the margins of my notebook about decrepit big city dystopias full of quippy revolutionaries with punk rock haircuts. I didn’t think I’d be spending my sophomore year listening to Poetic Bangs’ favorite Billy Joel songs and trying to compose piano ballad that would express my undying devotion to him. The only thing more embarrassing than the intensity of my crush was the person I was becoming within said crush. I’d have these moments of clarity, fleeting though they were, and think, this? This is what I want?[1]

 Reader, it was.

 IV

Everybody was in the winter play that year, even a few of the Day Boys. I tried to do my homework in the green room and not hang desperately on Poetic Bangs’ every word. He liked to play improv games, which usually ended with him kissing a girl. Somehow that girl never ended up being me.  I mulled over it a lot. I bought more of his favorite records. I learned four chords on my mother’s old guitar and played them until my fingers blistered. I read the books he talked about. At that point, I still believed I could make a boy love me by imitation. I had yet to figure out that there was, perhaps, a crucial difference between wanting someone and wanting to be like someone. That realization came years and several unfortunate forays into hardcore and beat poetry away. At fifteen, though, I was too busy trying to cleave to his narrow tastes to stop and figure out my own.

We were in the green room sometime in January. Poetic Bangs had just slid onto the old orange sofa between me and another girl and just leaned over and kissed her hard, just to see what would happen. She blushed, clearly shocked, but didn’t slap him, which I innocently, jealously took to mean she’d liked it.

The Day Boys showed up in a clamor, and I was happy for the distraction, because it reminded me of all the noisy why not? days that preceded the dull myopia of unrequited love. They’d decided to test out the old stereo moldering away in the corner. They thought a few tunes might shake things up. None of us had the heart to mention that things were pretty well shook by the whole spontaneous kissing thing, and Poetic Bangs predictably told them they shouldn’t do it, that some of us—he pointed at me, I’m sure I glowed at his acknowledgement–were trying to study their lines and take practice seriously. The Day Boys had exactly zero time for Poetic Bangs and ignored him, experimenting with speaker wire and power cords,. Once the light came on, they shoved a cassette as Poetic Bangs sighed like a disappointed parent. You’re just going to get in trouble, said Poetic Bangs.

 The room filled with the opening chords of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” I’m pretty sure it’s the first time I’d heard the song; it was certainly the first time I registered it for what it was. It was catchy and crunchy, and I’d always had a weakness for minor chords played fast and loud. I looked over to check Poetic Bangs’ reaction, hoping he’d like it, so I could like it, but he scowled, this song makes fun of everything I care about. And the Day Boys just grinned, like, yeah, that’s what makes it so fucking great, and turned it up until my ears hurt and I could hear it in my teeth. They managed to get in about twenty seconds of joyously pogoing around the room before the Drama teacher screamed in and pulled the plug and threatened them all with detention.

V

In the high school movie version of events, I’d have walked away from Poetic Bangs because the Day Boys were more obviously more fun and definitely had better taste in music and one of them probably would have been played by John Cusack in a Clash t-shirt. I didn’t, because I was an idiot who didn’t know herself. Also, the Day Boys were jackasses. Not a Lloyd Dobler among them

At the school, all of the students were expected to give a small regular donation toward OxFam, to help the starving children. This was likely to instill some trace notion of social responsibility, which for the class of people typically associated with boarding school, would henceforth be framed as a tax-deductible charitable donation, ideally to the school’s own annual fund. But we weren’t all bound for philanthropist-level wealth, and the Day Boys took particular umbrage at being asked. They’d been on collection strike for several months when the Dean called another meeting in the Day Room to chide us for our collective failure to raise even a desultory fiver for the less fortunate. Every other dormitory, every other hall, every other group of students has a 100% participation rate, and you Day Students have barely donated anything. She brought Poetic Bangs with her, as a representative of the campus philanthropic community. He gave an earnest speech, reminding us of how fortunate we were, while children were starving. The Day Boys chuckled, self-satisfied, and saw Poetic Bangs make eye contact with the back of the Day Room door, upon which an installation of sorts had been erected, a collage of trash and speech bubbles parroting school demands for donations encircling the head a Baby Jesus-style illustration of a starving child like a halo. It was grotesque and offensive, like most of the things the Day Boys found hilarious, but in the split second he saw it, before he had the space to perform theatrical indignation, I watched Poetic Bangs suck on his cheeks to stifle a laugh. The dean, barely civil with inchoate rage, could not even fully process the back of the door. “I will find out who burned that sofa,” she said. “I will figure out who keeps stealing the clocks. And when I do, all of you will be sorry.”

Two days later, the last remaining sofa in the Day Room mysteriously caught fire.

VI

I found myself alone in the campus post office with the only girl I knew for sure was in the Radio Club. She was a senior from Washington, DC, which seemed very cool to me, and wore lipstick just barely far enough away from black to pass dress code. She sat on the table beside the mailboxes, legs dangling, thumbing through last month’s Spin. A blue-haired Kurt Cobain in a green shirt and sunglasses stared out at me from the cover. She saw me looking and asked if I liked them. I looked around to make sure Poetic Bangs wasn’t around and nodded. “You want it?” she asked. “I’ve already read this one.” I took it from her and said thanks, because I couldn’t quite find the words to ask her about the radio club and whether the station was real or hypothetically, how a person like me might join.

VII

The weekend before Valentine’s Day, the Radio Club hosted a dance in the Day Room. They moved the furniture away, slid the dais into the corner like a DJ booth, and played off a stereo on the old test proctor’s desk. The Day Boys stayed away. In fact there weren’t many Day Students there at all, because why return to school on a Saturday night? But I had come in a furry, fuchsia sweater, which I believed to be the prettiest thing I owned ,trying to find Poetic Bangs. I had some notion that night that something huge might happen. I interpreted it as he will realize he loves me. In actuality, it was I will slip and fall down the stairs, smashing my face up and getting a concussion in the process after realizing he doesn’t love me and never will.

Before all of that though, I stood at the edge of the crowd of dancers in the dark, sweaty day room, watching the flashes of colors in shirts and the dimmed dance lights at the DJ station reflect in the dark windows across the northern wall. I didn’t see any friends. I didn’t have a dance partner. But it wasn’t music that required one, and whatever Radio Club representative behind the table was playing “Temptation” by New Order, which had, in the days before Boarding School and Poetic Bangs, been one of my favorite songs precisely because it conjured some vague sense of the teenage life I thought I wanted to have. I wasn’t sure I was still allowed to like New Order, because it didn’t strum earnest chords on an acoustic guitar, nor did it snarl in fury and threaten to tear the room apart. Like most great pop songs, it bubbled up beneath me until I felt I rode weightless on crest of a wave that could carry me anywhere I wanted to go instead of careening toward inevitable disaster for long enough to dance badly in a dark room with mostly strangers singing Up, down, turn around Please don’t let me hit the ground as I half bounced breathlessly in place. Oh, you’ve got green eyes/Oh, you’ve got blue eyes/Oh, you’ve got grey eyes.

When the song ended, the  DJ put on one I would recognize the song week later, watching Teenage Fanclub play “SNL,” as “The Concept.” It would end up becoming one of my favorite songs for a while.[2] But at the time it was kind of a mood killer. The crowd cleared the dance floor, skulking off into the corner where the sex couch used to be. I remembered why I was there and turned to leave. I passed the girl from the Radio Club in the landing. The door to the station was open. I saw light, a table, some cords. She was balancing an orange milk crate full of CDS on her hip.

“Weird choice ,”she said of the song playing in the Day Room. “Don’t worry. I’m going to play something more dance-y. You should stick around.”

I think I told her I was going to get some fresh air. That sounded logical and she nodded. Even in February, it was swampy in the Day Room. I said I’d be back. I half-meant it. Poetic Bangs wasn’t big on school dances, but perhaps he’d consider it. Maybe somebody in the radio club had Thompson Twins or OMD or Peter Gabriel  or whatever song played in the movies when a crush had a happy ending.

I wish I’d stayed.

Coulda. Woulda.

Maybe Radio Club girl played Beastie Boys. Maybe she played The Cure

VIII

Sometime in the spring semester, the school drew up plans for a fancy new dining hall and student center to stand on the site of the old wrestling room, beside the arts building. They’d have to tear down the old building, including both the radio station and the Day Room. And thus, when we returned from Spring Break, not only was the Day Room inaccessible, it was gone.

Day Student lockers were moved to the first floor of the class room and over the next few semesters we were granted provisional use of various underutilized classrooms, and briefly the faculty lounge, before it was decided we didn’t need a Day Room at all. At each of these announcements, I swore I saw a flicker of triumph in the Dean’s eye. She’d bested the Day Boys, moving them inch-by-inch closer to her own office, until they had no place to hide. By the time I was a senior, we had no place at all save a classroom hall full of messy lockers

The Radio Club existed, in theory, through the end of the year. When the school hired a local band to play the prom and they blew the power on half of campus, with the first notes of their first song (a cover of Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “Under the Bridge”), members of the radio club were dispatched to try and salvage the situation. And we hundred odd teenagers in uncomfortable formalwear sat in the murmuring in the darkness until they were able to find enough batteries for a boom box. They gave it their best with Prince and De La Soul but the stereo sounded impossibly small and tinny under the gothic arches of the dining hall without an amp behind it.

I went to prom by myself that year in baby pink damask Jessica McClintock, which was maybe the last time I ever wore that color of pink. I sat with a couple of friends in the dark and tried to make out Poetic Bangs and his date across the room. We didn’t have much to say to each other. I still pined for him. I couldn’t help it. A few weeks, when he graduated, I wrote him a shitty, passive aggressive note. He responded by sending me a letter basically telling me that he hoped we never saw each other again. We did actually see each other again, but it was such a brief nothing of an encounter that I imagine it never happened.

I got over him.

I found new crushes, new heartbreaks, and whole vast universe of songs to soundtrack them all. I never did join the Radio Club though. When I came back Junior Year, it, like the Day Room, had disappeared, as if it had never existed at all.

 

_____________

[1] A couple of years later, I was so caught up in embarrassment over my crush, the way my crush played out, and the person I had a crush on, I could barely bring myself to talk about it. We turned in journals for English class, ostensibly to provide commentary on reading, but my teacher senior year was this salty, brilliant woman who was old enough to be my grandmother, but I loved her. I wrote about everything in my journal. She gave plenty of advice and book recommendations in the margins. When I finally wrote this long, incredibly tortured entry about the crush, its aftermath, and how humiliated the whole thing made me feel even years later, she responded simply, “Poetic Bangs could have been anyone’s Heathcliff. Don’t be so hard on yourself.”

[2] Enough so that twenty-seven years later, I would stand in a crowded ballroom in a renovated mill, singing along as the band played it for a whole room of middle-aged people drunk on shared nostalgia almost as heady as a New Order song when you’re not quite sixteen.

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