Early Decision

I’m not now nor have I ever been a rich person. But I’ve spent enough of my life rich person adjacent to know that the whole College Admissions scam is only surprising in that someone actually got busted for it. The whole story is hilarious–almost hilarious enough that we forget about the still-acceptable legacies, the “here’s this new wing for the library” beneficiaries, or (more modestly) the kids (and I knew many of them) whose parents would shell out thousands and thousands to pay for expensive extracurriculars and high school internships, purchase plane tickets for international service work, or hire tutors to push almost-perfect SAT scores to perfect SAT scores, so already smart, rich kids can secure academic scholarships (for the prestige, not because they need the money). Sometimes this self-corrects (I knew plenty of legacies that failed out of competitive universities after a semester or two), but it usually doesn’t.

If you know me in real life, you may have detected a chip on my shoulder roughly the same size and shape of the absence of an elite college on my resume. I’m trying to get over it. Really I am. I can’t tell if the situation is made better or worse by the fact that I live in a college town, surrounded by smart people with degrees from the kind of schools that either wouldn’t let me in or give the financial aid necessary to attend. I like that they think I’m smart enough to hang, even though I lack their credentials. I still hate it when people ask me where I went to school when do people stop asking where I went to school?, because it’s a journey, and nine times out of ten, I have to deal with their reactions when I answer. These tend range from pity to Really? Sometimes, I swear I can see their reappraisals of my character or intelligence play out in real time across their faces.

My mother would tell me, and most certainly has, that all of this is just my own insecurity. “No one cares,” she says. “The only thing that matters is that you graduated.” But the market value of my BA is far, far less than it ended up costing everyone. I feel hugely guilty about that.  I’ve yet to have a job that, strictly speaking, required it. I made some dear friends along the way, but I didn’t make any critical connections in the professional or academic world that helped on the job market. If anything, my high school experience, as a financial aid kid at a moderately competitive boarding school, has been marginally more useful. And that’s grading on a real curve.

The school you go to is more than status symbol. It’s opportunities and connections. It’s access. It’s a pretty good way to size up who you’re actually competing against—whether they’re really smart and talented or really fucking rich and lucky or all of the above.  Plenty of smart people that went to great schools end up working the same shitty jobs at the same shitty wages as the rest of us. Sometimes by choice, sometimes by circumstance. It’s unlikely that I would have ended up hugely successful even if I had gone to Harvard (which was, to be absolutely 100% clear, never in the cards for me). I never wanted to be a world leader or a titan of industry. I wasn’t interested in making great scientific breakthroughs or inventing whole new ways to live. I always just wanted to be a writer and write for a living. Which I am (sort of)  and do (technically). Might I have sold a novel or gotten a job at the New Yorker had I come out the kind of tiny, weird liberal arts college in the Northeast I dreamt of at eighteen? Maybe. It’s equally possible, though, that I would have  just gotten way more into cocaine and performance art on my way to a job in the advertising industry virtually indistinguishable from the one I have now. I don’t know. Neither do you. And now my bra strap is totally showing and my accent is slipping and you can see exactly many shades I blush when I have to talk to you about college. Sorry about that. I’ll buy the next round and hope you don’t remember how petty I look when I’m feeling sorry for myself.

I made plenty of mistakes in school. I sweated so many nights away worried about not being good enough. That kid that got admitted instead of me? Maybe she didn’t. Maybe she never had to, because it never mattered if she was good enough, or even good at all.  The system was rigged from the start. The system has always been rigged. I knew it then, even then, especially then, as I applied for college among rich people, but I didn’t really know it, not until long after the acceptance letters were sent. So while I read about the admission scandal, I do laugh and gloat with the rest of you, but it’s with resignation, with fury, and something that feels almost like relief, but much, much uglier.

 

 

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Passers-by

The first thing I saw out my bedroom window was the car—black with a long nose and curved where most cars were squared, so shiny it reflected the rosy summer dusk. I was eleven, not the kind of kid interested in cars, but that car was something else. I skittered down the stairs in my nightgown, through the cocktail party melee and haze of their cigarette smoke, out the front door, across the green lawn. The car was parked beside Mom’s fat white peonies. I stepped closer to inspect the tiny shiny silver woman perched on the hood, her wings spread as if she was about to take flight.

“She’s the spirit of ecstasy,” said an old man, in a tweed cap and a white silk scarf, with a silver tipped cane. He stepped around the car and smiled. “You can touch her if you like.”

I told him I loved his car. He said he did too. She was a 1961 Rolls Royce Silver Cloud. He opened opened the door to show me the interior. It smelled like leather and pipe tobacco and the wooden dashboard gleamed. The steering wheel was on the left side, which seemed wrong, but he assured me that was only a matter of perspective

He pointed at the RR stamped into the logo. “I’m also RR. And this nice lady standing behind you is my wife. She’s also an RR.”

I told him I was an AF and that the suspicious looking woman standing on the front porch was KF, my mother, and she’d probably force me to bed before even had a chance to get to know each other.

RR raised his eyebrow and twirled his cane like Fred Astaire. “Oh, well, we can probably do something about that.”

That’s how I got to stay up drinking Shirley Temples and talking to RR about typical fifth grade stuff—how I loved Benetton, European Royalty, 20th century American Architecture, and how I was planning to become the youngest editor-in-chief of The New York Times.

RR found this to be a perfectly reasonable. He might still know a few people at the Times. He definitely knew some folks at The Tribune and the Sun-Times, if I wanted to hone my skills in the Windy City. He’d been an Ad Man at Leo Burnett, part of the team that created the Pillsbury Dough Boy. “But honestly I’d rather be remembered as the man with the largest collection of books about Leonard DaVinci east of the Mississippi.”

Mom finally nudged me off to bed when she caught me nodding off just before midnight, but not before RR wrote down my address and told me to keep an eye on the mail.

**

The first things that came were a series of elaborate certificates and pronouncements  from dignitaries ranging mayor of Flat Rock (where RR had become perhaps the second most notorious Chicago transplant) to President Reagan (another RR), all formally naming RR (henceforth known as “Uncle Bob”) honorary uncle to me and my sister. I had my doubts that  Justice O’Connor or the Secretary General of the UN had actually taken the time to write me, but I’m pretty sure that letter from Tip O’Neill was for real.

Next came books. Leatherbound tomes about British Royal dynasties, coffee-table books about Art Nouveau and Art Deco, Strunk & White, “Tales from the Algonquin Round Table.”

I sent talky letters about how miserable I was being a child because I never got to go to decadent parties and how the girls were mean to me at the pool.  Then I sent him poems about cats and New York City, my two favorite things. He responded long, annotated critiques of my poetry with book recommendations, silly puns, and a wall-sized architectural map of Manhattan.

Sometime in the fall, he invited  out to the house for the first time. Uncle Bob took me out to the garage to visit the car, and while there took me on a guided tour of his department store shopping bag collection that he had strung from clotheslines like pennants. If he yanked on the string by the kitchen door he could make them dance. I was delighted. I told him I wanted to start my own shopping bag collection. He told me that was sensible hobby and let me pick half a dozen of his own to start. He followed me around his garage like a wine connoisseur, “Oh, that’s an Excellent Choice. Saks Fifth Avenue, Christmas 1963. A very good year!”

In between letters, he continued to have us out to his house every now and then, usually with other families. He liked to prod the children into antiquated games—he was particularly fond of the egg toss, for all its humiliating potential. He had a mercurial streak. Sometimes he wasn’t very nice. I went out once for a holiday party with my parents and he hardly spoke to me the whole time I was there, except to say that he’d decided he wanted at least half the books he’d given me back and hoped I hadn’t ruined them. Two weeks later, he wrote back and said he was kidding about the books.

I suspected my relationship with Uncle Bob had a timeline. I was getting older. His letters were shorter.  I had tumbled headfirst into ugly adolescence. People had stopped referring to me as either cute or precocious. And Uncle Bob himself was leaning hard into retirement. “I think he’s becoming more eccentric,” my mother said. That wasn’t comforting  “Eccentric” in the south is a big tent of a euphemism, including everything from “wears white after labor day to homicidal maniac.”

In the summer of my thirteenth year, I wrote from sailing camp about feeling horribly alone and scorned by my cooler, more sophisticated bunkmates, he sent a note back telling me that at least I wasn’t in the Bastille and a box containing a three volume history of the French Revolution and about twenty six packages of TWA roasted peanuts. I spent the next three weeks immersed in salty, waterlogged pages about the  Committee of Public Safety. It was not what I wanted, exactly, but perhaps what I needed. It’s hard to feel bad about being the only girl in your cabin without boobs when Danton is about to be executed.

When I got back home, Uncle Bob summoned us to this house for a picnic. He reserved most of a local park. He’d bought food and gifts and games for a whole bunch of honorary nieces and nephews. When it came time to leave, his wife loaded up the wicker baskets and coolers full of sodas and wine. He counted us off—five total and told the parents that the kids would ride in the Rolls Royce with him. We were thrilled. I’d spent countless hours exploring the car, but I’d never ridden in it. Bob slid in and directed all of the small children to the capacious back set. I was oldest, so I was got the passenger seat.

He told the parents to follow him and went zipping off down the road. Once on the highway,  he pulled over onto the shoulder and instructed me to slide the wheel. I balked. I’d never driven a car before–let alone a Rolls Royce. Uncle Bob reminded me that I’d been sailing camp and that cars were probably much easier to drive than boats. I couldn’t argue with him.

The steering wheel was more sensitive than I’d suspected, but generally, I thought I handled myself and the car pretty well. I only almost drove off the road or into oncoming traffic seventeen or eighteen times. Uncle Bob just grinned and laughed. My mother reports watching Bob’s car with mounting horror as it swerved left to right across the narrow, winding highway. She wondered aloud how many Bloody Marys Uncle Bob had consumed before getting behind the wheel and whether it was, in fact, irresponsible to let him convey the children to the park. I think it was my dad that finally pointed out that Bob was in the passenger seat—you know, right hand steering wheel—and that I, AF, was driving the car.

I was giddy when we arrived at the park. I hopped out of the car, feeling as if I could accomplish anything. The parents started unloading the food, the games and the gifts and just as we were about to sit down to eat, Bob announced that he and his wife would be leaving. He said he was tired and didn’t want to deal with any of us. He demanded the children give back their gifts.. Some of the little kids were crying. I was surprised, but you know, honey, Uncle Bob is getting increasingly eccentric.

My parents took us for cheeseburgers in Hendersonville and tried make us feel better about the ruined day. But I got in the car headed back to Asheville, sad about my lost friend. “Uncle Bob will be back,” said my mother. “You know how he is.” I did. That’s I wasn’t surprised when I didn’t hear from him again. I got a card when I graduated from high school with an illustration of the lion from the Art Insitute of Chicago on the front. It was signed, simply, “Congratuations, RR.”

I figured I’d never see him again.

***

After I crashed and burned in my early 20s, Uncle Bob asked my mother to come in and lecture a group on Southern Women. He had volunteered to teach a class on “Life Below the Mason-Dixon” for his fellow relocated yankees at the local College for Seniors. He was older, close to ninety, and even more ornery.

I remember being deeply irritated that day, hurt that he’d asked me, because I never talked to him about the south, except for how much I didn’t like it I hated being referred to as a Southern Woman and all the fiddle-dee-dee-isms that entailed. I never wanted anything but out. And yet, at I was still in the south,  back living in Asheville. I hadn’t studied the Jacobins at the Sorbonne. I hadn’t become the youngest editor of The New York Times. I hadn’t ever even lived in New York.

After the lecture, I asked Bob about the car. He said he hadn’t taken her out in the while. I thanked him for being a friend all those years ago. I told him how I liked to tell people that  the first time I ever drove a car was the last time I’d ever drive a Rolls Royce.

I didn’t think he’d heard me and or that he hadn’t paid attention, so I gathered my coat and started to walk out the door.

“Last is an awfully final word, AF,” he said. “I’d suggest a more ambiguous ending.”

I don’t remember for sure whether he smiled. I’m pretty sure I didn’t even look back. But I’m going to tell you that he did.

 

 

 

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In The Canyons

My first little sister got married in September of 2017. It was a a prolonged rosy gold twilight at a Lowcountry beach resort and a masterclass in production. Every piece of the event was at peak photogenic, but even without the scrapbook, the whole wedding weekend lingered in the collective memory like a slightly salty confection in Maxfield Parrish colors, something close enough to perfect that it would probably pass the blindfold taste test.

Second Little Sister spent First Little Sister’s wedding at a slump. Maybe it was that Second Little Sister was the only one of the three of us without a theater background and a well-documented crinoline fetish. Probably it was that weddings are the kinds of things people give a fuck about and Second Little Sister famously has few fucks to give. I don’t mean this to sound critical. Second Little Sister is not some snarling punk on a mission of destruction. She is in fact, so exceedingly chill that she once spent a whole Christmas Eve day napping in my mother’s flowerbed because the Elaborate Production of Holiday! occurring inside Mom’s house was harshing her mellow and hey, the sun was out.

And then Second Little Sister got engaged. She’d been with the same guy for nine years. They’d bought a house together. “We’re doing this for tax reasons,” they said, but it would be a wedding not just an elopement. The announcement came days after First Little Sister started posted wedding photos to social media. Sisters, I thought.

I was the oldest by a distance. I didn’t  grow up anticipating whatever befell the next sibling would soon come to me. I felt protective of both of them, even if I did prickle with occasional resentment in the rearview, like the proverbial codger carping about uphill, both ways, in the snow. When I was your age I was an unmarried renter making a few bucks above minimum wage at the record store and shaking coins out of thrift store couch cushions for beer and taco money. A wedding? Jeez. When I was your age I couldn’t even figure out how to get my wisdom teeth pulled.

DAY ONE

I am an unmarried renter, traveling to Utah with my mother, stepfather and my ninety-four year old step-grandmother, for Second Little Sister’s wedding. It is the end of October, cold and dark and 4:30am in my hometown, to which I have repaired, because beggars don’t get to choose their place or time of departure or means of conveyance.

The last time I flew into Nevada was to attend my one of my best friend’s weddings in Reno fifteen years ago. I spent the whole time trying to figure out if I shouldn’t catch a ride to California and stay. In those days, I still operated under a faint, if persistent notion that I must cross the continent and try to manifest some destiny for myself else risk becoming a cautionary tale. San Francisco had always seemed like the sort of place people like me ended up passing through on whatever instructive peregrinations were required of aspiring young American Bohemians. Even then, though, I suspected my internal compass was fixed stubbornly eastward. This made sense. I come from people that crossed the Atlantic several centuries ago and all stayed within a couple of hundred miles of a ship back to Europe, in case things get too weird here. The most enterprising among us, a great grandfather on my mother’s side, tried to break the mold twice. First by attempting to cross the country first on a bicycle in the last decade of the 19th century. He rode from Floyd, Virginia with his best friend, both on some one-generation-removed-from-a -penny-farthing contraption and made it all the way across the Mississippi  to St. Louis, before he was felled by pneumonia and had to be shipped home. Then again, a decade later, he and his young wife headed out to start a new life in Oregon. They built a home. They planted crops. The rainy green peaks ringing the Willamette Valley were just similar enough to home, I imagine my great-grandfather believing, he could almost, almost pretend they were, like his own immigrant ancestors had squinted at the Blue Ridge Plateau and conjured their native Baden-Wurtemberg. But the West is most disorienting at the moments it seems most familiar. Over time, the differences appeared more stark. My great-grandfather and his wife made it three years before, they packed up their household and their first child and came home to Floyd.

I never made for Gold Country. Maybe because I couldn’t figure out why anyone would willingly choose to be a pioneer. I found Westerns violent and ugly. I was continually disappointed that Laura Ingalls didn’t run off with a charming peddler or a bunch of carnies and end up some place with theatres, bookshops and bluestockings. Maybe, like my great-grandfather, I worried I wouldn’t be able to stomach it, that I would fail at a three-thousand mile remove and my ignominious return would be all the more obvious for it. Better to stay close to port of entry, in case things get too weird, in case I stop being able to pretend it’s familiar.

**

It’s brilliantly clear, warm, and dry in Las Vegas. I take in the baked landscape, the strip, the distant range of chocolate brown mountains. I get a nosebleed. It will last for the rest of the trip.

We cross into Arizona and wind through monster-faced cliffs. I hum “Peer Gynt” and wait for one of the mountains to sass back. I read a dumb historical romance when I was a kid in which one of the protagonists spent her days contemplating the craggy peaks of the Himalayas and imaging them impossible palaces. I grew up in a place where the mountains always looked like napping giants, covered in soft blankets of varying seasonal hues. For the first time, in the back seat, in Arizona, taking in the natural architecture, I understand how you might mistake a sunny crag for Shangri-la.

In Utah, my stepdad rented a house in a resort community across the highway from the state park where Second Little Sister will be married. The sun catches the side of the canyon at dusk and turns the canyon walls a nearly Ringwald-ian pink. I try to tell Mom how I associate that landscape with crime—tv shows about drug deals, movies about outlaws, books about massacres—but she’s caught up in the Georgia O’Keefe of it all.

DAY 2-3

It’s a staggeringly beautiful day, clear and bright. I go for a run down a bike path across the highway from the rental, in half-pursuit of a white bellied peregrine falcon, who soars over me and nearly sparkles when the sun hits her pewter colored wing. I discuss matters with the horses I pass. I take pictures of a large rock formation about halfway down the hill toward St. George. I see a lizard and wonder if he ever feels unfairly victimized ,given the town’s namesake.

Littlest Sister plans to tie the knot atop a petrified sand dune called The Big Galoot. We drive over to determine whether Stepgran can climb it and do a little sightseeing. I walk out over a web of ephemeral creekbeds, through rattling sage and ancient blackened lava beds and ignore the fact that my mother is hollering at me, as if I were a child. I feel like a child. I hang out on this giant rock, contemplating the indifferent sand, stone, and, if I’m reading park signage correctly, a wide variety of improbably fluffy bats. I stare at the opposite canyon wall and try to ignore the distant, tinny voice of my mother as she pleads with me to don’t go to far, don’t go somewhere dangerous. I think, I am forty-two years old. And this is my life. A wind knocks through the canyon, rattling the branches of leafless desert branches and small spikes of cactus. The desert says, Fat spinster. I say, Do Better. It says, Failure. Loser. Coward. I say, There you go. Now we’re getting somewhere.

I shimmy down the side of the rocks, past hikers and climbers actually dressed for it who take one look at me like, are you bouldering in shiny gold Vans and statement earrings? I give them the side-eye and ascend even further up the side of the giant red hill where my sister plans to marry. I try to make like I’m not panting by the time I clear the top and recline over the ridged surface.

I find Stepgran on the way down. She’s perched on a lower ledge, canyon wind ruffling her white hair. She tells me she sees faces in the rocks and she’s right this time because I see them too.

“They have to move the wedding site,” says my mother. “We’ll never get everyone to the top of this hill without a disaster.”

I reach down to knock some of the red dust off of my legs and find the rocks have shredded the back of my pants like run pantyhose from knees to upper thighs. Black jeans are not great for red rocks. No matter what Bono may have you believe.

**

In town, Stepgran goes for sensible shoes at a store in the outlet mall. I replace my ripped pants at a with a pair of heavy, uncomfortable Levis, which feels exactly like the sort of thing a put-upon city slicker would do.

We head back to the canyon for the rehearsal. The vast majority of the wedding party is either 27 and outdoorsy or 60+ and retired. Second Little Sister leads the rehearsal in board shorts and sports bra, yellow mud clinging to her legs and the top of her wooly socks. We file up the side of the hill, careful of nettle-like cacti and possible snake holes. Her fiancé tries to organize things. He’s a twin and a redhead, but temperamentally neither. I stare at his boots because they’re beautiful brown leather. I had a professor who advised me that you could tell a lot about a person by their shoes and that I would do well to keep that in mind when picking a mate. I thought, neither for first nor last time, Second Little Sister is no dummy.

I sit on the rock rehearsing Beach Boys songs accompanied by a soft-spoken black-haired guitarist and friend of the bride and groom from back east, who comes with a comprehensive repertoire of Irish drinking songs and the complexion to match. He shields his forehead against the sun and notes that he burns easily. I take a swig of illicit beer and head off another nosebleed at the pass, temporarily grateful that there is perhaps one other person here as constitutionally ill-equipped for the desert as I am.

The rehearsal dinner is held in the private dining room at resort clubhouse, a terraced joint on the edge of a unnaturally green golf course surrounded on all sides by Martian red desert. I stand out on the patio, watching the sun set over the canyon, drinking gin and trying not to feel weird about the fact that I’ve been seated with the grown-ups. I go to the bathroom and read articles on the internet.

Mom comes out to find me. We sit for a while in a ghoulishly arrayed, empty bar. The resort  staff has decorated the clubhouse for Halloween. A white chiffon wedding gown grimed with convincing dirt, blood stains and rubber intestines, hangs over us. “I’m tired of weddings,” I say.

Mom clearly thinks I’m worried about being single. I worry she’s going to give me a pep talk about finding a man. She doesn’t.

“You’re being too hard on yourself,” she says. Maybe this is true, but I feel lapped by everyone several times over. I am a disaster. I am broke. I am lonely. I am old enough to have prom babies with PhDs and I’m still not saving any money and wearing thrift shop dresses. The notion that I am weird or arty or at work on some grand project is frankly belied by my actual output. I have accomplished nothing. I am nothing.

I think, I really am having a midlife crisis. I think, I really am having a midlife crisis in a desert. Could I be a bigger cliché? The desert whispers back, Come out under this red rock. And I’m like, why? so you can show me fear in a handful of dust? I know how that poem ends.

**

Our rental house has a back patio connected to a bunch of other back patios across a field of liver-covered gravel. We discover a roadrunner living out there. My mother loves him. She calls him Bob. She tries to lure him with promises of crumbs while I search the skies for the falcons.

Curtain call for wedding pictures is a couple of hours before the ceremony. Second Little Sister has gone with a Hawaiian theme, which allows bride and groom to get married in jeans and His and Hers Hawaiian shirts. I look precisely like a palm-printed beach cabana in size and shape, a no-necked, middle-aged monster with a bloody nose and cellulite thighs. I am the only fat person amid the lithe young bodies. I feel tender and bitter about it all at once. I can’t decide if they’re being haughty or I’m being awkward so I drift away and I take pictures. The Canyon walls. The Carolina blue sky. A little girl standing on a park picnic table performing to an invisible audience in a gold and black Batgirl tutu.

At wedding o’clock, I sit by the guitarist again. We sing Wouldn’t it be nice if we were older as what passes for the wedding party ascends over the rise. Second Little Sister’s stepfather performs the ceremony, a breezy secular thing. They recite their vows, things like, “be my partner in mischief.” Second Little Sister has her hair down. It’s long and shiny, like dark gold silk. Her husband is still wearing the good boots. I think, good for them they’re so good together. I think, if I got bitten by a rattlesnake, how long before I died? The desert groans, long enough for you to ruin your sister’s wedding like an asshole. I blink on my way out, hopeful that no one sees me give the finger to a pile of rocks.

The wedding party takes their time getting down to the reception site. I call my best friend in New York from a picnic table overlooking a rusted camper.

She seems surprised to hear from me. “Aren’t you, like, literally at the wedding?”

I tell her yes, “But it’s weird, I feel so weird, have I told you how weird all this makes me feel? I’m like the Lone Ranger here.” I start laughing because the setting sun makes the canyon looks like a matte painting Silver might heigh-ho off into.

The sun slips starts to slip behind the canyon before the young people reappear. We fix plates and give speeches. I sit with the bride and groom, the groom’s brothers, the bride’s other step-siblings. I read something I wrote on my iPhone in the back of the minivan. I tell second little sister that she’s a hero of mine because she seems capable of being wholly, unapologetically herself. I mean every word. Second Little Sister would never find herself alone, tipsy atop a picnic table at someone else’s wedding talking to the desert because she’s not sure she can be honest with anyone else.

The dance party starts. I talk to friends of the bride and groom about how I used to be a music writer at a publication they’ve heard of, and realize that was so long ago now that they were still in elementary school when I worked there. I have a couple more drinks. I dance badly. At some point, I feel a wave of drunkenness pass over me with such force that I find my mother and tell her I want to go home. She sees  I’m staggering and helps me to van. I stumble down the path. I drop my phone into the unrelieved darkness of the canyon. I drop my phone. When I lean to pick it up, I pitch forward and land face first on the gravel. I taste blood. No surprise. My nose has been bleeding since I landed. I believe I have knocked out a tooth. I think, at least with a missing front teeth, my grandmother will stop insisting I correct the gap between them.

I hear both worry and embarrassment in my mother’s voice, this “Get up, Alison. Get up”. I am a caricature of a drunk. “I didn’t drink that much,” I say. This is true, but irrelevant. Because I drank enough to act like a caricature of a drunk. Get up, Alison. Get up. I haul myself into the minivan. Blood runs down my face. I swear I can smell the shame wafting of my mother. I think that if my life were a movie, this would be the moment that I’d end up in rehab. Which hardly seems fair. I imagine a life measured by support groups and self-denial. Will I have to find Jesus? Will I have to start smoking again? And because I am still drunk, everything feels inevitable.

At the rental house, my stepfather’s sister comes downstairs. She clucks over me as Mom dabs at my busted face with a wet towel and an icepack. Stepfather’s sister is a conservative lady, a church-goer. I can’t imagine what she’s thinking because I’m too busy asking Mom if I’m more like Bradley Cooper in “A Star is Born” or James Mason in “A Star is Born.” Mom wisely does not answer but helps me up the stairs to bed. I fall asleep.

I wake up at 3am, sober-ish and headachy. I take some Advil before I look at my face. It’s swollen. There are scabs on my cheek and on my eye lid, a jagged, Harry Potter-ish cut on my forehead, mostly hidden by my bangs. My face looks a bit worse for the wear, but it could be worse. The last two times I wiped out trail running left a glossy crescent of an incipient black eye. I’ve had plenty of experience getting the side-eye from curious passersby, no doubt thinking I’d been victimized, because I’m a woman, and no one ever thinks the woman is into boxing or bar fights. I suppose this time would be no different, except that everyone will have saw me fall and seen me drunk and God, was I that drunk? I’ve never been that drunk. I didn’t even think I could get that drunk. I briefly consider running away. Can you run away at forty-two? Then I think perhaps I should kill myself. Then I think, what if by killing myself in Utah I get stuck in Utah for all eternity with all the other people stuck in Utah for all eternity. Eternity this far inland. With Mormons. What if everyone in the afterlife is an outdoorsy polygamist except me?

DAY FOUR

I’ve been awake for a while trying to suss out whether I should go downstairs when my mother knocks and comes in to see how I’m doing. “I’m fine. Embarrassed, but fine.” I mention that I do not know how what happened the night before happened. “I swear I didn’t drink that much.”

Mom nods.  She wonders if I noticed how heavily the bartender was pouring. I told her I felt like I’d been dosed. She assures me no one saw what happened. She promises that no one is trying to trundle me off to rehab. She tells me to get dressed for breakfast back in the canyon. I shower. I pat my battered face dry which manages to look both better and worse than it did at last appraisal. I apply stage-make-up level pancake to cover the carnage.

Wedding breakfast takes place in the same campground as the reception. Everyone looks tired but happy by light of day. Shockingly, no one saw me fall. I return to the rental house and the pool, which is completely empty but me and the imaginary 18th century nobleman whose memoirs I’m reading.

Second Little Sister and Good Boots come by to say farewell on their way off. She strips off her clothes by the side of the pool and jumps in while her husband stands fully dressed beside more. “I hope I haven’t been too much of a Bridezilla,” he says. I tell him he hasn’t  Second Little Sister takes her time on the way out of the pool. She changes in the restroom and emerges with a fist full of sopping underwear and a shrug. “I didn’t really think this one out,” she says. “Oh well.”

The drive off in a caravan of trucks full of friends, dogs and bicycles to embark on a group honeymoon through several national parks. They are followed by Stepgran and Stepfather’s sister, bound for Seattle. I wave, relieved that it’s over, relieved that I have no more sisters who can get married, or at least, get married for the first time. Next will be children: nieces and nephews. I take my book and sit in the hot tub. When I return the marked page, I’m gratified that the Reign of Terror has finally begun in earnest.

DAY FIVE

My stepfather drives us out northeast from St George, through a ramshackle town called Hurricane. We wind up a mountain and emerge on this broad barren plateau guarded by witches hat peaks topped with elaborate rock formations that look exactly like castles in the south of France. . Mom observes that it looks a little like Argentina, in the Andes. I haven’t been to Argentina. I think it looks a little like Mordor.

It’s a dreamy ride out, dreamy in all that it entails: beautiful and terrifying. We pass from canyon to canyon, through vast monoliths, high bridges over chasms, gray brown wastelands surrounded by cliffs, end of nowhere convenience stores and Navajo women selling jewelry off card tables on the side of the road under impossible rock formations . We drive deeper into the vastness of Northern Arizona, with cliffs menacing high plains like stony tidal waves.

The landscape is so astonishingly out of perspective with the tiny humans and their shabby motels and gas stations, I consider the pure, outrageous oddity of anyone imagining they could just have it. The desert feel haunted by gods and monsters, who are stingy with food and water and barely tolerant of human awe. It feels like the most insane sort of hubris to even imagine that humans, especially humans from far away, could bend it to their will. I get pretty mad about western expansion a couple days and a few centuries too late.Then I get pretty mad about not being mad about it all the time because it’s easy on the East Coast because there’s almost nothing left to remind you, idiot. I mulled over it and looked out the window at smug looking rock formation. Oh great, I thought, the desert’s back with incisive commentary.

Then we pull through the gate at the South Rim of the Grand Canyon.

**

2018 has been a brutal year for anyone with a soul, I think. My catalog of small calamities and trivial disappointments is just that, no matter how epic that catalog may feel sometimes. I’ve struggled to talk about the despair because I don’t feel particularly entitled to it. People with grief greater than I can imagine, they carry on everyday. They put on their shoes, if they have them, in the morning and look forward to the next hour, to the next week, to the next year. They endure.

I have a my warm home and full cupboards, a wholly decent day job, a family I love. And yet, I struggle under cover of sadness and regret so thick that I’m pretty sure I’ll never need one of those weighted blankets people keep going on about. I know I should want to endure. I don’t always know why.

I stand in a bathroom line in behind a group of chatty Malay women in brightly colored, ingeniously visored hijabs. One of them turns to me, points at her face, and asks, in broken English, if I fell off the canyon. I reach up and realize the minimal make-up I applied earlier has long since evaporated and the unremitting wind at the rim has forced back my bangs into a kind of Adam Ant al fresco situation. I try to tell the woman that I fell, but at a different canyon, bu then a stall opens, she darts off and the woman behind me clucks as if to say, that’s what all the battered women say.

It’s a relief to hear other languages. The Grand Canyon feels a bit like a theme park. After five hours of contemplating the loneliness of the expanse, I’m almost giddy to be in a crowd. I follow a bunch of Italian teenagers down to the Historic Watchtower, where Mom reminds my stepfather of her crippling fear of heights. She can look at the Canyon so long as she stays five or six feet from the edge and doesn’t look down.

I’m not afraid of heights. The Grand Canyon itself, however,  freaks me out—the vastness, the absence like a wound, that high raspy wind. It’s two days from Halloween and even with a Times Square’s worth of Bucket Listers mulling around me, I am 100% convinced that this is the creepiest place I’ve ever been.

Mom made us a dinner reservation at the El Tovar which looks like a cross between the Overlook Hotel and a ride at Disneyworld. The menagerie of stuffed and mounted animal heads on the walls of the lobby do not start singing when I walk through the door. I find this nearly surprising. We go for cocktails as the sky pinks with dusk. I walk out, though the wind is bitterly cold and I am dressed for a milder season. By twilight the cavities and crevices soften and the fading sun flickers against the stone like filigree. Fine, you’re pretty. The canyon preens in full-on disco colors: fuschia, purple, electric lavender. It’s like, Remember when you used to want to write serious, important things? You can do better than pretty, Fields. Turn a goddamn phrase. But don’t have any more words or time to get hazed by beautiful scenery, so I retreat to dinner.

My stepfather reserved the last room left in the park, thus I am staying in the same room as my mother and stepfather. The last time I shared a room with two parents at once was 1987, when Mom and Biological Dad took me to New York. Like everything else about the Grand Canyon, sharing a room with parents is also weird and slightly unsettling.

I’m bone tired and surprise myself by falling asleep at nine. Sometime later, I wake to a cold breeze and realize the hotel door is open. Weighted with sleep, half-dreaming, I cannot rise to close it. I hear feet padding on the floor, the panting breath of a dog, as something furry and black noses past the night stand. The bed rattles when the dog jumps up beside me onto the mattress. He settles near my feet, warm against my legs, and begins to lick his paws. He is friendly and soft, but not mine, possibly wild and the door is still open to whatever else might be skulking about in the moonlight. I call out to my parents in the other bed. I worry that if I’m too loud, I might freak out the dog, so I keep calling, until I hear mom saying, “Wake up, Alison. You’re dreaming. You’re dreaming.”

I move my legs around to search for the dog, to prove Mom wrong. The door is shut and the room is warm. There is nothing around my legs save Clorox scented sheets. I go back to sleep

DAY 6 & 7

After days of grand western vistas, we check into the Bellagio, which looks exactly like an outlet mall crossed with a mega-church and is thronged with the sort of people I assume enjoy cruise ships. I walk through a crowded atrium scented with perfume piped through the vents to conceal the everywhere scent of cigarette smoke, French Fries, old booze, cheap cologne, and the tears and sweat of thousands of miserable people desperate to project that they are having the Best. Time. Ever.

We’re up on a club floor because someone believes we’re high rollers.  We’re not. My room has his-and-hers bathrooms and a spray of still wrapped condoms, strewn like flower petals, on the floor beside the bed. I look out the window at Caesar’s Palace, which seems to wink at me, like, maybe you’ll get lucky.

I’m not a lucky person. That’s why I don’t gamble. Also I’m broke, partially because I’m unlucky and also because I don’t gamble. The week before Second Little Sister’s wedding, one of my best friends observed that I should take more risks. I told her I took risks all the time. I eat too much. I drink too much. I live outside my means. I run alone in the forest. I walk home alone late at night. I am attracted to argumentative men with complicated politics. I enjoy doing things people tell me I cannot or should not. But those aren’t the risks my friend means and I know it. “Sometimes”, she said. “I think you play it safe and don’t change all of things that purportedly make you unhappy because you’re actually pretty comfortable being unchallenged and mildly dissatisfied.” I kind of thought she was being an asshole. I also kind of thought she was right.

I pull on tight black pants and yellow high heels and tell myself I look sexy and dangerous. I think maybe, maybe, I’ll get lured into some sordid adventure off the strip and end up drunk with some washed-up scoundrel with pretty eyes and no future in some seedy room that smells like whiskey and Maybe I’ll get a tattoo I’ll regret in the morning. If only I weren’t with my parents. If only I were the sort of person that could be attracted to a washed up scoundrel with pretty eyes even if he didn’t want to talk about books. I mean, how do you even flirt with someone if you can’t make dirty jokes about writers?

We shuffle through the crowds and the mall to the series of escalators and sidewalks the convey us over the ersatz forum in front of Caesar’s Palace and then onward to the crowded strip. It is neither sexy nor dangerous. There are many pairs of cargo shorts, overpriced cheeseburger joints, and oversized frozen cocktails in penis shaped to go cups, compounding the notion that, for most Americans, the pinnacle of transgression is Spring Break freshman year of college. I stand on the sidewalk watching the volcano go off in front of the Mirage, thinking that I’d prefer a sin city with a guilty conscience and dirt under its nails and maybe I should have moved to New Orleans after all?

We drink at a cocktail bar, draped off from the slot machines by translucent netting. I feel queasy halfway through dinner and my yellow shoes have rubbed blisters all over my feet. I hobble back to the hotel, too tired for adventures or night cap. My feet are bleeding by the time I get back to the room and my busted up face is clearly visible through the make-up. I go to bed sulking and wake up crying and shuffle out, still sulking, demanding space.

Liberated for the first time in days, the only place I can think to go is the bird sanctuary at the center of the Flamingo. I wander past a lot of unshaven middle aged men with open collars and gray skin and emerge in this center courtyard with blue-dyed water, actual flamingos, mandarin ducks and a mini-golf waterfall. It’s reasonably peaceful, humid, and as much green as I’ve seen in a week. I sit on a bench by a black swan and try to cry, but I’m all dried up, just puffy and woozy. I pass a couple of showgirls dressed in black and red feathers. One of them looks a little older than me and has one of those immensely kind faces. She catches me looking at her and asks if I need any help. I think about saying yes.

I walk home through Caesar’s Palace because I have a weakness for classical kitsch. My eighth grade Latin teacher—an ex-nun and inveterate gambler—rewarded good classwork with Caesar’s Palace souvenirs and library passes. I conjugate verbs through the casino and goggle at the Lisa Frank perma-twilight of the interior forum. I’m saddened by the lack of actual Latin souvenirs (seriously, not one single Vini, Vidi, Viva Las Vegas).

My mother and I go to the spa. My massage therapist is an Israeli grandma who clucks at my face and tells me she moved to the States to help her daughter out of a violent relationship. I try to explain what really happened—I dropped a phone in the dark in Utah—but she’s having none of it. She throws in a cooling face mask as a freebie and spends most of the massage giving me the ins and outs of the singles scene in Jerusalem where she thinks I will find a good husband without a dangerous temper. I think my love life is difficult enough without having to Tinder in a conflict zone. I give her a larger than average tip. She gives me a hug.

It is Halloween. I packed a black dress with a red crinoline and attached a congressional subpoena to my bodice with a small, enamel Lenin pin. “I’m blacklisted,” I tell the parents. “Don’t worry. Almost no one will get it.” Every now and then, I get a knowing glance and a thumbs up. I like those moments of recognition, the one of us nods that we congenital weirdos never stop looking for, even after we grow up and learn how to pass as normal.

Mom makes us bar and dinner reservations on the terrace overlooking the Bellagio fountains. She and my stepfather look very happy. Adults around me squeal in delight, like children to giant streams of water choreographed to the “Titanic” theme. It’s ridiculous, I think, as the lights die down and the surface stills. And the desert is all,  so is pretty much everything you humans get excited about. I’m weirdly relieved. Did you come back to tell me something insulting? Are we going to do more of “The Wasteland.” The desert sighs warm dry breath over my cheek. Your existential crisis will still be there in the morning. Why don’t you just chill out and enjoy the show? I snort. The desert says, Twenty bucks says the next one of these makes you cry.

Mom and turns her chair as the artificial fog rolls out by the lake. I listen to the first notes of Copland’s “Appalachian Spring,” a sentimental, crowd-pleaser that does, in fact, always make me cry.

I face away at the rail, to obscure my busted-up, tear-stained face, as the strings swell.. I saw the Martha Graham dance company do this ballet when I was a kid. It was sublime. Better than this then? I roll my eyes.

Still, I think I’m going to miss the desert. Oh, I’’m not going anywhere. You should come back out and visit once you get your shit together. I worry I’ll never get my shit together. Isn’t that the whole thing? That I’m a disaster.  What is it you said? A failure. A loser. A coward.

 I’m a landscape, says the desert. You’re a rational human being. Who do think is doing the talking here?

I sniff.

You still might get your shit together.

I’m not holding my breath, but maybe.

I lean my head back against the chair rail, away from the water, to the hazy pinkish night sky. You know what’s a real light show? The stars tonight. They’re perfect. You can’t see them, of course. Light pollution. But trust me when I tell you they’re there and they’re gorgeous.

I smile. I know.

I endure.

 

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Fake News

My last semester in college, I took a creative non-fiction workshop on Wednesday nights in a class of all women, taught by a woman scarcely older than I was at the time. There was some odd symmetry to it. I started college at a Women’s College. I finished in a classroom without men.

I had a hard time taking the class seriously. I joked a lot, which was at odds with my earnest classmates, all of whom younger than I and most afflicted with a taste for what was then called emo. They wrote stories about beautiful angular boyfriends that cried and how veganism made them beautiful angular girlfriends and the perfect beauty of a butterfly wing beating in tempo with an Ani DiFranco on a summer morning during an internship at an organic farm. I wrote stories about shoplifting bodice rippers from Lord’s Drug Store when I was nine (true) and how when I was twelve, I got fired from cat-sitting for the famous child psychiatrist next door by inviting all the boys in the neighborhood over to play with his extremely cool vintage collectible pinball machine (also true). I felt like a drunken elephant harrumphing around a china shop full of  exquisitely damaged porcelain figurines. This was not uncommon. Conventional femininity is a lot about being delicate and whenever I tried to perform it, I usually just ended up tripping over myself, tumbling down a grand staircase and destroying something priceless.

I had not, as they say on TV, come to make friends. I’d arrived at the conclusion of an endless, contentious and frequently abysmal college career. The writing class was literally my very last class. When I got around to submitting for the last workshop, I decided to write, in particular, about how college had been, about the lowest moment of my horrific undergraduate career.

At the time of the class, I vastly preferred writing fiction. I’d written a mostly awful gothic novel about homeless punk rock kids, family pressures, and Gilded Age ruins in eastern Pennsylvania. I’d won a literary award in college for a stream-of-consciousness short story I wrote about doing crystal meth at boarding school, which was hilariously cliché, and everyone believed was autobiographical. It wasn’t. I considered Creative Non-Fiction a euphemism for literate “truth” that blanched at first sight of a fact-checker and a cynical marketing ploy to sell mediocre autobiographical novels. I’d received plenty of criticism in the class thus far for my failure to delve deep into the endlessly gentle, endlessly suffering thing that a girl at my former college had tattooed on her arm after misunderstanding TS Eliot’s “Preludes” (or perhaps Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Cats”). They wanted misery and they wanted it to be beautiful and sexy. They refused to believe that anything as banal and petty as I ran away from home because my dad wouldn’t pay for boarding school could possibly be true. Which was both deeply weird and weirdly flattering.

So, the story I turned in was about 70% fiction. It took place in my actual old apartment. It described a bar I did go to. It mentioned songs that existed in the world—songs I liked, even. And I had certainly felt the way I described myself in the story–empty, lonely, impossibly depressed, deploying a lot of gallows humor to create (ironic?) distance between myself and crushing despair. The plot line, however, followed an entirely invented evening of various self-destructive behaviors and a boozy, low-lit sexual encounter with a flatteringly scruffy amalgamation of several dudes I knew, all dialed up to a solid 11.5 on the Nan Goldin-style beautifully/seedy meter. It made a better story than the reality of chastely contemplating suicide over a Cook-Out Tray in the Piedmont Triad. And if I were truly  not vulnerable and tragic and real enough for my professor or classmates, I would happily serve them up a whole pile of horseshit in their preferred scent profile.

I had plenty of practice making things up. I’d spent much of my young life lying through  my teeth. Sometimes this would start with something simple. A polite white lie. A bit of gilt on the lily. The sort of fanciful exaggeration my family–a rogue’s gallery of writers, politicians, peddlers, socialites, and bullshit artists of the first degree–might call  a melon ball.  An offhand anecdote, spurred by an attempt to enliven a conversation. A false admission so I might better fit in or seem cool. You can make a lot of friends nodding along about a neglectful punk rock boyfriend in California ,even if you’ve never had a neglectful boyfriend in California, even if you’ve never had a boyfriend at all, even if you’ve never been to California, and 99.9% of the time, no one asks follow-up questions, because most people, especially young people, are mostly just waiting for their turn to talk about themselves. Sometimes the tales transformed with time into things that required complicated infrastructure and timelines and character sheets. They were cinematic, evocative with scenes so richly imagined I could describe the scent of the air, the way the ground felt under my feet.

Eventually, I grew out of the lies and tired of the care and maintenance they required. Sometime around the bottom of the abyss, on a night very much like the night I’d fictionalized for non-fiction class, I realized I’d reached the limits of invention. I no longer took any pleasure from the ersatz versions of my life and I couldn’t get any of the old razzle-dazzle to work on my actual lived circumstances. Human beings are, after all, annoyingly unreceptive to authorial intent. I could neither imagine my way out of unhappiness nor make art out of  the boring, irrational, endless days of sitting up until five am listening to the same five songs waiting for a different final verse.

I stopped lying when I was depressed  because  I had to stop telling people I was cool and fine if I were going to make it.The whole time I’d assumed, eventually, they’d call me on my shit. They didn’t. People have their own shit. They don’t want to work out your inconsistencies or analyze your word choices. They generally prefer a good tale to boring truth, as evidenced by the whole world over the past few years, as evidenced by my creative non-fiction class.

If I’d had the slightest concern at being called out for making up my assignment, I needn’t have. My fake evening having fake sex with fake guy were the only parts of the story that rang true to my classmates. They lauded me for the brutal truth of my descriptions of the sexual encounter, the heartbreaking honesty of my richly-imagined conversations, my precise recounting of the laundry list of self-destructive behaviors I never actually partook in. Very brave, my professor said, if only the parts where you describe your state of mind were so honest. And then she went on to describe the actual true parts as too remote, too dry, too full of ironic distance. This doesn’t feel like something written by a person who has been depressed. You write about pain like a vapid hipster.

I think I just rolled my eyes and said something pretty close to exactly oh well, whatever, nevermind. She gave me a B in the class, the lowest grade I’d ever received in a writing workshop. I didn’t care. I graduated.  I believed—and perhaps still do– the only way I could write really honestly about anything, was to do so through fiction.

Seventeen years after my non-fiction creative writing workshop, I find myself writing a lot more creative non-fiction than fiction. Not just stories, but statuses and posts and blogs and tweets. Social media wasn’t a thing when I was in creative non-fiction workshop. I couldn’t have foreseen a world in which I’d feel obliged to curate a multimedia memoir installation all the time and every day in order to maintain a professional reputation and register my presence as A Person in The World. Facebook and Instagram and the rest offer truth in the most soft-focus, Colbertian sense. There’s certainly risk of a call-out—the internet gives those inclined all the tools they need for fact-checking—but who has the inclination or the time to call out everybody. A fellow memoirist recently told me, on the sly, as I was hemming and hawing over my lack of material for a theme-based submission call, that a good non-fiction piece really only needs to be about 70% true.

 I wasn’t shocked about that. I even couldn’t be depressed about it. A 70% true story in 2018 looks pretty good, right?[1] I wanted to look at him and say, the reason I stopped writing non-fiction for so long is that best-received story I wrote when I was young was only about 30% true and no one called me out on it. I didn’t. I was sure it wouldn’t have surprised him.

Truth rarely makes for satisfying narrative. We forget our epiphanies when we have them (sometimes because they’re dumb). Our intuition fails. Our will rarely rallies against distraction, let alone catastrophe. Suffering does not necessarily make us stronger. We’re undone by small tragedies far more often than we triumph over the large ones. We resist change. We don’t get rid of things, and when we do, we tend to pick, if not the wrong things, then the easiest to throw away. For many of us, life is an excruciating re-watch of a movie in which the protagonist continually makes all the wrong choices. And even as we yell passionately from the other side don’t open that door, don’t have that drink, don’t text that guy, don’t stay at that job, don’t let people treat you like that, she, or rather we go on, doing the stupid thing over and over again.

People like a snappy ending, a triumphant conclusion, a real sense you’ve overcome, you’ve survived, that you’re stronger, better, wiser.  I’m not always good at those.  I try to cleave to what happened, to what I remember, even if what happened was unsatisfying, banal, and without the requisite uplift. The best thing I can offer is silly, irrelevant anecdotes that end only with the promise that I’m still alive and as long as I am there will certainly be more of the same sort  silly, irrelevant anecdotes. They’re usually true, even if they’re rarely dramatic or beautiful.

Sometimes, in flashes, they’re  even a little bit honest.

 

 

[1] I mean, have you looked at Politifact recently?

 

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A Brief Word on Melon Balls

After college, my little sister planned events at a historic mansion in the state capitol. The house sat at the center of a lush city park in the center of a once-shabby, since-gentrified historic neighborhood blocks from the Governor’s Mansion, the capitol building itself, and the shiny, unmemorable skyscrapers familiar to any city with a banking presence and a hankering to call itself New South. Local preservation groups had, over the years, collected a village worth of historic buildings—an old chapel, a clapboard store front, a cottage that had been the birthplace of the second-worst American president named Andrew–and moved them onto the property

Sometimes I would drive out and meet my sister at event conclusion and walk around with her in the damp, green, while she turned off lights and checked the locks on centuries-old doors. My reward was usually a beer at a nearby pub, or an invite to a fundraising gala held on property, despite not having any funds or any way to raise them. I’d show up in a pink satin dress, drink out of a champagne fountain, and run around barefoot in the grass  when the event was upstaged by a thunderstorm, fetching umbrellas for rain-shy dowagers.

The house itself was a more modest version of what you imagine when I say southern mansion which is true of much aptly describes most of the antebellum architecture here in the Vale of Humility. It was also quite haunted, if you believed the stories. My sister ushered paranormalist video crews, of both huckster and credulous persuasions, around the mansion and listened as they recounted their otherworldly encounters.

The haunting came on an otherwise, innocent, sunny afternoon, at another white table-cloth and tiered pastry tray event. As my sister completed her last minute tasks in the parlor, she gave a look to the food the caterers had supplied. The brie room was temperature. The fruit plate, perfectly arranged. But then as she turned to walk away, a single melon ball rose from the plate and levitated across the room. My sister was gobsmacked, and fled the scene before the cursed fruit could find its final rest.

My sister’s best friend at the time was skeptical at the recounting. And after numerous queries, it emerged that the melon ball had perhaps not so much floated as rolled off the  tray, a likely victim of gravity and clumsy caterer handling. My sister’s friend gave her a hard time about it, and henceforth shorthanded that variety of good-story-serving hyperbole, common to our family as  A Melon Ball.

 

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A Thief’s Journal

To begin with, I didn’t steal The Shirt. I got it for Christmas from my Nana, which meant my mother bought it and signed Nana’s name to the card, because lord, shopping takes so much out of you and just go ahead and add that to my account, honey.

The Shirt itself was nothing to write home about. It was silver and velvet and fitted with one of those non-functional, Liliputian-scaled breast pockets that were a thing for about a minute and a half in 1994.  It came from the Gap because, again, 1994, and in those days none of us would have been caught dead in khakis but we’d tacitly agreed it was okay to shop there, because we were doing so ironically or post-ironically and our middle class mothers needed a place to buy Christmas gifts because they were worried we might catch something terrible, like lockjaw or poverty, from thrift-shopping.

I don’t know the exact count on how many people got The Shirt for Christmas that year, but I’m guessing it was a fair number of us, even among the admittedly miniscule student body at my women-only liberal arts college in Virginia. I didn’t think too hard on it, most because by February, I’d basically stopped wearing anything I didn’t pull out of a dollar box at the Salvation army, and so I was surprised when I opened my campus mailbox around Valentine’s Day and found a letter informing me, in police-report style terms that I had been accused of stealing a silver velvet t-shirt, size large, from the dorm laundry room by a girl on the first floor I knew only by her enthusiasm for tie-dyed Dartmouth t-shirts. She reported that I’d been seen wearing something similar “in what looked like several sizes too small and looking very guilty” around campus. I’d appeared to her suspicious, unreliable, weird. Not like the other girls.

That part was probably true. I was fat, as she’d so kindly pointed out. I had purple hair. I didn’t really hang out with my classmates.  I was in the process of trying to transfer. Not like the other girls was my mantra, my raison d’etre. The only thing I had in common with her at all was a silver t-shirt, owned by thousands of girls and probably a few gender-non-conforming dudes.

I figured I’d clear it up in a jiffy. After all, I hadn’t done it. I went to Dartmouth T-shirt’s dorm room. Her roommate opened the door and promptly shut in my face with a she doesn’t want to talk to you until Honor Court, thief. I called my mother. She was livid. She told me to go to the Dean’s Office, which I did. He told me he’d already heard from my mother, my grandmother and the manager of The Gap at the Asheville Mall. Receipts had been faxed. He said I was very lucky to have such a charming mother but none of it mattered because I would be judged by a jury of my peers. They would decide whether I appeared innocent or if I were guilty. They would determine how I should be punished, if I should be allowed to continue as a student at Women’s College or be expelled. “That’s how honor court works. Your friends and classmates decide”

I didn’t have many friends on campus. I said so.  He told me I should be more social, that it would be a shame to squander the opportunity to befriend so many bright young women. He smiled, in this greasy, invidious, limp mustache in a Confederate uniform way, as if to say, you brought this on yourself, weirdo. If you’d just go to an ice cream social like a nice southern girl and learn to ride a pony or something, none of of this would have ever happened to you

I’d never wanted to go to Women’s College. Everyone knew that. Probably even the Dean knew that. But I had no intention of getting expelled either. I’ve always been a solid You can’t fire me, I quit sort of person. I’d survived three years of high school with little more than a few demerits for dress code violation. If I was going down, it ought to be for open rebellion against an oppressive regime or actual commandeering-a-ship-on-the-high-seas piracy, or, like, maybe stealing the horses from my debutante classmates, selling them on the black market, and using the money to pay tuition at a college I actually wanted to attend.

My few campus friends came up with all sorts of interesting small acts of defiance. My downtown friends–mostly boys, and thus truly ambivalent about Women’s School as concept—were bolder. My favorite notion was that  I should find a Steve McQueen type to steal the Dean’s Beemer and maybe drive it into the Chancellor’s swimming pool.  I didn’t know any Steve McQueen types. I had a crush on a red-headed townie that liked weird funny novels. I was pretty sure he didn’t like me back though. Not in that way. Certainly in no way that would lend itself to futile and dangerous grand gestures

But they were all convinced I was innocent. I didn’t feel exactly innocent. I felt, actually, like I’d been busted with the right charge, but the wrong crime. Because I was a thief, just not a thief of silver velvet t-shirts. Instead, I took diner mugs and ashtrays, candles, hymnals, and unattended holy books, the Sunday Times that was still delivered weekly to the professor on sabbatical, dog-eared, mass market romance novels from beach houses and bed and breakfast bookshelves, gas station toilet paper, bank pens, motel towels, drinking glasses, motel ice buckets, Kleenex, dining hall hot sauce, three or four bottles of terrible Chardonnay from an alumni weekend fundraiser, a tray of cubed cheddar cheese and grapes from the same event, cigarette lighters, a semi-functional table lamp left on the  sidewalk outside the admissions office, a broken garden statue from the lawn beside the chapel, a fishbowl full of brightly colored condoms from the university infirmary and a globe sized half-shattered disco-ball left under the Donations sign at a local Goodwill after hours. And that’s to say nothing the stories I was encouraged to steal and weave into fiction in writing workshop. Or other people’s experiences which I pilfered and remade into my own in order to make myself seem less like the total loser nerd virgin that I was at age 18.

Ironically, my friends at women’s college were far more brazen and adept at theft than I was. They could leave Thalhimer’s with a season’s worth of unpaid-for cashmere sweaters under their college logo-ed anorak and confidently stroll into a Virginia convenience store in broad daylight, clearly stuff two bottles of wine and a carton of cigarettes into their shirt and walk outside without as much as a second glance from the cashier. I lacked their audacity. I didn’t have their looks, their confidence or their resources to finagle my way out of getting actually, seriously busted. And sometimes I struggled the square the morality, like, you’re shoplifting five dollar earrings while wearing pearls, right? What gives? But I didn’t say anything, because what did I know? I was, after all, a lying total loser nerd virgin.  And shockingly, they still wanted to be my friend.

The day of my honor court trial my mother took off work and drove to Virginia. She came with my aunt and my grandmother. I put on my nice, non-dollar-box- clothes and brushed my hair. My friends sat around me in the dim of the Administration lobby after hours. We made small talk, bolstered by the occasional—everything will be fine. I watched the yellow plane of light shine under the conference room door and wondered if they’d started without me.

I want to say we sat there for hours, but in reality, it was maybe ten minutes before a few women, upperclassmen, emerged from the room. The dean followed and announced that my accusers had bailed on honor court and as such, the entire proceeding would be canceled and charges against me dropped.  He coughed awkward, gave a little oh, the capricious whims of silly women! shrug and hoped we weren’t terribly inconvenienced.

My mother was furious. My friends relieved. And I don’t know how I was. I stood there in the slant light of the dim lobby, watching those shiny haired girls wander off giggling down the stairs, clearly relieved at not having to sit through another lame honor court, thinking my peers, those girls count as my peers, thinking, they could have expelled me, thinking, is this karma for the cheese tray?

 “You don’t belong here,” said my mother, on the way out of the administration office. “As soon as this school year is over, I promise that you don’t have to come back.”

 I’d spent seven months in Virginia in a state of petulant, overgrown adolescent rage mostly built on disappointment that I could not, for reasons entirely beyond my control be where I wanted or who I wanted to be.  I talked shit about the school for stupid reasons. I catalogued all the reasons I thought I didn’t belong there without ever really believing I really didn’t belong there. And with that thought came the first earth-shifting, discombobulating tremor of what if I don’t belong anywhere at all?

The morning after the mistrial, I found a copy of “The Thief’s Journal” by Jean Genet outside my door

“I think maybe the universe is trying to send you a message,” said one of my friends, when I asked if she’d left it.

“That I should plan a heist?”

“That you should steal away from this place, before someone tries to say you did.”

Three weeks later, at the end of the semester, I left Women’s College for good.

And yeah, I took couple rolls of toilet paper for the road.

 

 

 

 

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Lake Monsters

I hadn’t cleared the Governor’s School Audition and my parents couldn’t afford a fancy performing arts program. I didn’t have a car. I couldn’t find a job walking distance from the house. And so, I accepted an exile to Virginia the summer before senior year, where instead of traditional teenage things, I loitered around the antique shop reading Faulkner novels, eating Twizzlers, and smoking right out in the open because Nana wanted someone to smoke with.  My social coterie consisted of elderly customers at the shop who wondered aloud if I knew how important it was to bring good gloves and my own silver to college. A silver pattern can say a lot about a girl’s moral character. Pick the wrong one and you could end up married to a horse man from Maryland and you know what that means. I didn’t, but I made sure to include it in the long letters I wrote to my friends like  that new Fugazi record is rad as fuck and Nana’s friend Eleanor is worried I’m going to end up with a centaur from Baltimore if I don’t wear gloves.  Sidenote: should I join the D.A.R. and write a ‘zine about it?  They sent postcards back recounting awkward hook-ups with skateboarding Mathletes and illicit “Unweeded Garden” themed weed parties with the “Hamlet” cast at Governor’s School and hey did you hear that Wonderland got a job at the mall record store back in Asheville? How do you figure she managed that?  I acted like I wasn’t jealous. I was jealous. Not just of Governor’s School and “Unweeded Garden” parties and Wonderland’s improbable record store job, but of the people I knew with dumb summer jobs back home, spending nights cruising around town, smoking at the Waffle House, figuring out elaborate new schemes to see bands play in Athens or Atlanta or Chapel Hill with or without parental consent.

I doubt Nana observed any unhappiness on my part, but my aunt and uncle were a generation closer to my age. They also might have  also been concerned I ‘d suffer permanent lung damage from hotboxing Virginia Slims Ultra Lights in an unventilated house (Nana believed fresh air caused disease and sunlight would damage her oriental rugs, or vice-versa). Or maybe they were worried I’d find myself betrothed to some grand dame’s grand-nephew Randolph Randolph Taliaferro IV–“Nabs” for short–who’d been expelled from Hampden-Sydney College for dueling with a crossbow.  Whatever the case, my Aunt suggested I come with them to the lake for a day of swimming, waterskiing and riding around on their friends’ boat. Their friends were fun, she promised. “And wouldn’t it be nice to get out of the house for a day?”

It would. I hadn’t spent much time outside in a bathing suit, despite it being a cool 90 in the shade and Nana’s house being a block from the neighborhood pool.  Nana was cautious around water, nervous even at the shallowest of shallow ends. She’d nearly drowned as a young woman, and also believed that wet hair would both give you pneumonia and other people the wrong impression . Only marginal characters had wet hair—criminals, trashy women, the sort of girls that end up shacked up with centaurs in Fell’s Point.

“Here’s the thing, though” said my aunt. “Maybe don’t tell Nana you’re getting in the lake.”

***

The lake didn’t used to be a lake.

In my part of the world, we don’t really have natural lakes. Not the kind you’re imagining anyway.  Those that do exist are easterly and tend to be indistinguishable from swamp. Th big freshwater bodies of water tend to be manmade.  Smith Mountain Lake, the lake my aunt and uncle would take me to, is a hydroelectric lake, stretching over part of three counties, created from the damming of the Roanoke and Blackwater Rivers in the early 1960s. The developer, Appalachian Power, began buying up land as early as the 1920s. The county was poor, then, had been poor, would continue to be poor, even outside the Depression years. The time was ripe to convince landowners to offload land, especially low-lying acres at the river’s edge. The dam broke ground until 1961. They started filling lake a couple years later, in September of 1963

Power lakes transformed the south.  New dams electrified rural communities and smoothed the topography by obliterating everything under the waterline. It’s hard for me to grieve for a thing I can’t imagine, but Nana knew the underneath of Smith Mountain Lake when it wasn’t underneath,  the  houses, churches, graveyards, a whole part of the world before they flooded it. Part of her family’s farm was under the water. Her people had owned  land  on both sides of the road in that that part of Franklin County, since some apocryphal 18th century ride as far as you can in a day and between the stakes is  yours grant. Then those people married the rest of her people. They planted tobacco. They built a big house. The bought slaves. The war came. Twin brothers, Saunie and Sammy, went off to fight. Great-great great Uncle Francis buried the silver in the tall grass down by the Blackwater River when he heard the Yankees were coming. They lost one of the twin brothers, the big house, the fortune, even the map to the silver. Everything save the land itself. This was understandable and justifiable. War is hell. Wrong side of history. Wrong side of morality. And these days, I’m not sure there was ever as much as they claimed.[1]. And by  the time, Nana entered the world, the farm was no longer profitable. Her own father had long-since decamped west into the mountains to find better and more reliable employment as a coal miner. He probably would have stayed at it too had a mine collapse not broken his back and sent him home to try and feed his growing family with tobacco farm left fallow in the years he collected a regular paycheck.

I don’t know whether my great-grandfather got any money for the land under the lake or whether his slightly-better-off cousins did. I suspect Nana associates that lake with loss, even if it is loss a thing she never really had. I remember when they flooded the valley, she’d say. And I have this image of her, still a young woman, her dark curls billowing in some cinematic big fan breeze, standing on the rise above the farmhouse, beside the rusting skeleton of the old Model T my great-grandfather called the jalopy, watching the valley beyond slowly disappear under the turgid confluence of two rivers, under a matte twilight.

I can’t recall exactly what portion of that scene Nana described, and what my imagination filled. But it absolutely didn’t play out like that in real life. For one thing, it took a long time—three years–to flood the valley. For another, even if Nana had been standing there on top (perhaps skirt hem, not hair, rippling in the wind because her hair was already permed, set, and shellacked into her queenly bubble by then), she wouldn’t have been able to see anything, save more farm, a dark scrim of trees, the parallel gash of tractor tires in red clay dead-ended at the edge of what an small-scale tobacco farmer, crippled from a mine accident, could hope to maintain at sixty years old.  There was no view of the lake. Had there been a lake view the land might have been worth something.

Nana described the  flooding of the valley and the loss of the landscape over dinner the night before I went with my Aunt and Uncle and implored me to  please don’t get in the lake, honey. There are things underneath. Promise me you won’t get in the lake. 

I had never visited the lake. I hadn’t even seen it until a few years before when  I visited my great-grandmother at the farm for the last time before she died. I’d been so confused by talk of the lake—how big it was, how close it was, how heavily it bore on the family consciousness. I couldn’t even visualize it; my mother drove me down there on the way back to Nana’s. The lake was half a mile, maybe less, down the country road, past old barns and single wides and tidy ranch houses with plaster statuary, past the Methodist Church. The road dead ended at a boat ramp into a shiny green-black surface that reflected the overcast sky and the gabled roofline of massive lakeside A-frame on the hill across the cove. I remember thinking, I’ve been to New York. I’ve been to London. And yet, it takes this long for someone to show me this stupid lake just down from the farm.

***

My aunt and uncle waited in the driveway the morning we went to the lake, allowing me to slip out of the house before Nana had a chance to scoff at my purple high tops (then scrawled with boys’ names, song lyrics, and that  most cliché of Oscar Wilde quotes) or remind me that a heavier girl, such as myself, should avoid shorts, especially denim cut-offs, which, like eating while standing, smoking while walking, and wearing pretty much any shade of frosted lipstick, broadcast to the world that you were almost certainly a prostitute.

I’d spent the night dreaming of monumental drowned kingdoms, more Xanadu than Franklin County, inhabited by pale, barnacled wraiths, grasping at me as I tried to surface. I tried to shake off the chill by making eyes at my one-year-old cousin in the backseat beside me. He babbled happily, and I wigged my fingers over his golden head and tried, like a good witch in a fairy tale, to endow him with all the qualities I thought he’d need to be a success at life. Be crazy smart and funny. Be good at something cool, like skateboarding. Don’t be weird around girls. Don’t be mean to people. Have decent taste in music.[2]

My aunt and uncle’s friends’ place was in a leafy cove at the end of a gravel road. They’d bought the lot and marked their property with a fancy, multi-tiered boat dock, with diving platforms and boat storage and charcoal grill. The matching house, with multi-tiered porches would come sometime later. For now, we toted coolers and baby paraphernalia down the muddy hillside, the same carnal red as the earth under Granny’s farm, which I was really trying hard not to think about. My aunt noticed my hesitation, the way I stared down at the ground, and complimented my shoes. I’d love to wear shoes like that , but I’m too old, she said. I found that both perplexing and sad, but it took my mind off the drowned world.

We gathered on of the top deck, warm and new enough that you could smell the stain, spread out towels and let the July temperatures slowly work us toward the dark water beneath. It moved, but barely,  from the distant wakes of motorboats. Dragonflies hovered on the surface, alighting on my bare arm, already sunburned by the time I finished lunch.

The rest of the crowd splashed off the pier with inner tubes and pool noodles. I dangled my feet in the water. You should dive in, they said. I could jump in, maybe, if I worked myself up to it, but certainly not headfirst. What if my cheek grazes a headstone? What if I impale myself on the spire of an old church? What if something tried to pull me back in?

I didn’t say any of this. I knew how it would sound. And the only thing scarier than being afraid is other people knowing what you’re afraid of, because that means they know how to scare you, or worse, humiliate you. I wasn’t afraid of ghosts. I didn’t believe in ghosts, at least ghosts of  the literal, ethereal, hollow-eyed sense, but I was—I am– a southerner, and I knew for a fact that places have memory. And what sort of memory might find me under the surface?

I was hot, though. So, when my uncle told me to come in, the water feels great, I stripped off my shorts and leapt in. The water stung my thighs and as I plunged feet first. I felt the shocking chill under the sun warmed surface. I kept my eyes closed until I emerged. I laughed, gasping. “Feels great,” I said, because it did, and because it kept me from squealing when something bony stroked the water-treading sole of my foot.

***

I grew up on a lake. It didn’t used to be a lake either, but a bit of low-lying scrub around the edge of a creek, dammed in the 1920s to anchor a housing development, where it spent ten years as a popular swimming site before so many people drowned that the city shut down the beach and made swimming there illegal. People still did.  Swim, I mean. At night, as a child,  I’d sleep upstairs with the windows open and listen as police bullhorned Get out of the lake and tinny-voiced swimmers called back Come get us at on crickety summer nights. The water was foul and the bed so littered with trash and debris that illicit swimmers got caught in downed trees or on rusty car doors and died. I remember catching the school bus to elementary school on late August mornings at the bottom of the hill, riding past police vehicles, ambulances, and for hours, listening to the drone of a boat motor while they dragged the lake for whatever missing teenager had jumped in and never surfaced.

My mother loved living on the lake, but she was overprotective. She worried about me getting too near, getting in, walking the dam, hanging out on the rocks under the bridge at the spillway, where she believed dangerous men lurked in the crags and might steal me away.

We weren’t lake people. Like most people that live inland, we vacationed on the coast, at the edge of the continent, in less claustrophobic waters. Our one big lake trip had been  a trip arranged by my father’s company that found us at a muddy power lake, just down from the Great Smokey Mountains National Park, in a cluster of moldy, bug-infested guest houses my parents famously referred to as The Last Resort.  I was really young on that trip. What I mostly remember were giant furry spiders in the bathtub and the passel of shirtless men with droopy mustaches and Farrah Fawcett hair in the house next door who built bonfires and rebel-yelled into the night.

I never told anyone I was afraid of those men. I never told anyone that I worried they were the ones my mother believed would come grabbing at me under the bridge, that they might set everything on fire so I would have to take my chances with the lake.

***

When my aunt and uncle brought me home, I was sunburned and damp. Nana clucked at the cut-offs. You know what people will think if you wear shorts like that?  She asked if I had a good time. I said yes, because I had. The lake was beautiful, by the time we took the boat out, I’d almost forgotten the underneath. I’d fully surrendered to the simple pleasure of feeling the wind get handsy me as I sped over the water. We caught air on unexpected wakes.  I giggled like the dumb teenager I was. I didn’t look down.

Nana didn’t ask if I got in the water, though she certainly would have noticed that my hair was wet, like a marginal person or someone who’d crossed her fingers when I promised not to get in the lake. She chose to believe I hadn’t.  That’s her way, a stubborn insistence to stay buoyant, to keep from getting dragged beneath.

Whatever you have to do to stay above water, I guess.

***

Some years after my aunt and uncle took me to the lake, my mother would marry a man with a love of lakes and motor boats. We would start spending summers on various regional lakes that didn’t used to be lakes. My favorite was a remote gem of a power lake in the far southwestern corner of North Carolina, a few gasps from both the Georgia line and a fairy tale of an old-growth forest. I was dazzled by waterfalls that came tumbling down lush mountainsides at the terminus of each cove as I sat on the prow of my stepfather’s boat, letting Serge Gainsbourg and Brigitte Bardot soundtrack the violet hour through discman headphones. I thought might write a story, maybe even a long one, about a woman trying to suss out some dark secret sunk deep beneath the surface of the water of a remote power lake. I spent a summer at the library looking at old maps and plans for dams and historical photos of lakebed clearances, which were, it should be noted, clearances.

On some intellectual level, I guess I knew that the houses and towns and graveyards and churches had been moved before the water came, that stubborn landowners didn’t sit down for a last meal as some river water tidal wave smashed through the kitchen, that real life didn’t play out like the end of O Brother Where Art Thou, that Nana really and truly did not literally stand on a hill, silhouetted against the sunset as if god were her witness and she’d never be hungry again, and watch her family history disappear under the lake. But imagination is a tricky thing, almost as precarious as memory. Were there really white men with droopy mustaches that rebel-yelled throughout the night, while three-year-old me shivered in moth-clogged sheets in  their reflected firelight at The Last Resort? Probably not, as it happens. But I still dream about them.

***

There’s a term for when the lake achieves full lake-ness. Full pond. It sounds so innocuous, so gentle. As if a park bench and a willow tree materialize on a bank perhaps with some cattails, a lily pad and a mallard or two and you saunter down to the edge with a canvas hat and a fishing pole. I’ve gone full pond. Full pond doesn’t evoke elemental transformation. It doesn’t suggest irrevocable loss. Full pond describes a series of black and white photos of a clear-cut tract of land and a puddle slowly growing in the center. Nothing to be afraid of.

A few weeks ago, I read that UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change had predicted that temperatures were on are on track to rise a devastating 3 degrees Fahrenheit possibly over the next eleven years and almost certainly by 2040. And with that comes catastrophic storms, droughts, fire, famine, extinctions, heat waves and, of course, floods. Homes will be lost. Communities will disappear. Cities will be inundated. Entire counties could disappear from the map, lost under a rising sea, still not yet at full pond. The houses, churches, graveyards will be Miami, Venice, whole islands, most of Bangladesh . . .

I dreamed about the lake that night. I dreamed about the cove down the road from Granny’s farm, but it was dark, and teeming with men on flaming skiffs like Viking funeral barges. The water was rising. My ankles had already disappeared into the murky depths, and as my clothes filled, I turned my back to the lake and my eyes to the sky. I let myself fall with grim resignation, back onto the surface, into the depths. The hands beneath came out of the water, but instead of pulling me down, they lifted me to the surface, to still my thrashing, to keep me steady until I relaxed and just floated.

 

 

______________

[1] So many white southerners claim ownership of some improbable prelapsarian abundance before the war, it would seem that the antebellum south was entirely composed of white people living in baronial splendor  with their contented slaves. Suffice to say, this doesn’t exactly jibe with the historical record.

[2] I don’t want to brag, but this totally worked.

 

 

 

 

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