Fall On Me

Nostalgia / Personal History

About six days ago, the nighttime temperature dropped, the humidity resolved itself, and the leaves on the maple over my deck trended scarlet. Fall, it would seem, timed its arrival to actually hit on the autumnal equinox—a rare state of affairs here in the North Carolina Piedmont, where it’s not regular sweater weather until sometime after Halloween. People rejoiced. Scarves were unearthed. Jackets unpacked. Some clamored for pumpkin spice. Others made fun of people clamoring for pumpkin spice. I pulled out a pair of boots for the first time since April and found the prospect of reintegrating them into my wardrobe bittersweet. On one hand, I love those boots (and boots in general). On the other hand, au revoir warm, lulling breezes and those long rosy summer dusks that fade out so slowly they might as well last for weeks. Those are the best.

I tell people I’ve never been much of a fall person. That’s not entirely accurate. Truer to say that fall lost most of its charm around the time when it ceased to revolve around buying school supplies.  I can still close my eyes and summon the sweetish, plasticky scent of the kitten-fronted Trapper Keepers I coveted in elementary school. I remember running my fingers along the stacks at the dime store, begging my mother, insisting that organization my papers in any system outside the trademarked trapped and kept would doom me to a lifetime of failure and ignominy (she held out on me for years, and by the time I finally got one, the cool kids had moved on hand stickered binders and vintage composition books).

For me, actual school—nasty, brutish, and interminable– never lived up to its colorful pencil boxed promise until I was well past novelty Sanrio erasers.  But I think there’s still an ingrained anticipation built into the season. Like, it’s been two decades since I’ve been on any kind of academic calendar, but I still kind of believe the real start of the New Year begins somewhere between August 15 and September, depending on snow days or school district. Thus the moment for me to change my life comes not in the hungover anticlimax of New Year’s Day but around the time the first cool wind of the season disturbs the short hairs on the nape of my neck. That’s when I get that first nostalgic whiff of actual autumn, which, for me, smells more like musty wool and cigarettes than cloves and cinnamon, and I think, hmm, maybe I should try to read Proust again.

It’s appropriate that Fall 2021 hit me at about 8pm this past Saturday, twenty minutes into a Covid-friendly front yard screening of “Dead Poets Society,” a film defined as much by its pervasive and poetic fall-ness as it is by its actual position on poetry. If you’ve missed it, it tells of a repressive traditional boarding school in 1959 that hires a charismatic young teacher, (played by Robin Williams at the peak of his manic, yet sensitive English teacher phase). This teacher opens his students hearts and minds through the power of literature. They reject the rigid bounds of their masculine mid-century milieu to explore artistic and romantic passions (with limited success). There are feelings aplenty, as well as inexplicable indoor bagpipes, corporal punishment, gorgeous sweaters and ominous, synth-soundtracked duffel coats, a climactic tragedy, and an absolutely intoxicating“New England” (technically Delaware) landscape that should probably be scheduled as a controlled substance. Never has boarding school looked so beautiful, nor rich white boys so sympathetic. And as a bonus, it’s a fine, comparatively restrained Robin Williams performance that feels impossibly poignant following his own tragic demise in 2014.

“Dead Poets Society” is a film so braided into my personal history, adolescent edition, that any objective discussion of its actual failures and merits is almost certainly impossible for me. It was a huge factor in determining the middle third of my teenage years, the places where I thought I wanted to go, the things I thought I wanted to try, the sensitive, the sensitive, floppy-haired boys I wanted to date, the sensitive floppy-haired boys I wanted to be. I hold it in esteem. I hold it responsible. I honestly have no idea how my early teenaged life would have played out if I hadn’t seen it at 13 ½ years old.

I wasn’t alone in any of these things. There were, in those days at least, a lot of us. The micro-generation old enough to see both “Say Anything” and “Dead Poets” in the theater (or slightly later on VHS) and young enough to find their young male protagonists wholly plausible models of what high school boys might be like. You might find us sneaking out of slumber parties to read poetry aloud in someone’s moonlit front yard, discussing which of the film’s afore-mentioned sensitive, floppy haired Dead Poets was our favorite (mine was Neil) as we failed the President’s Physical Fitness test for the umpteenth consecutive year. You might see us eyeing sweater vests and tweed skirts at the mall, as if owning such items would confer some charmingly androgynous, bookish, WASPy glamour onto our pudgy, acned, middlebrow, middle class, Middle American selves (see also: The Secret History not long after). Even a few years later at heavily body-pierced Peak Irony, when we’d cringe at having ever liked something so unabashedly sincere, there was always some otherwise apex-tier punk rock kid around who would get drunk and go on about how “Dead Poets” had saved their life.

It was an embarrassing confession then, years before it occurred to anyone that maybe fawning over extravagant white privilege was perhaps the greater sin than being a cornball with a Carpe Diem branded dorm-door whiteboard. Rewartching “Dead Poets Society” in 2021 really put the awkward and poorly-aged in high relief. Individually they are small complaints (although Nuwanda and the delivery of that Vachel Lindsay “Congo” poem? Not a great look). A friend a few years north of the critical Dead Poets demographic at Saturday’s screening took particular umbrage at the very idea that the floppy-haired, entitled sons of the old money elite needed any additional to express themselves without reservation (the word “ejaculation” might have been used). Because isn’t that what they are empowered do already?

His was a fair criticism, even if it, like all fair criticisms of beloved, if somewhat challenging nostalgic totems put me on the defensive. I gave some half-hearted spiel about queer subtext and the laudable aim of directing young men toward, like, art and feelings instead of, like, banking, war and country clubs. It sounded like bullshit because it was a dodge. Because the thing I loved so much about “Dead Poets Society, the thing that I felt defensive about was that I still found it comforting. Because I still remember the way I found its color palette, its scenery–so evocative you could almost smell the damp leaves and woodsmoke and floor polish in the classroom—its lovely, overachieving, sensitive boys (who could be all mine without me having to compete with any rogue Diane Courts), and the kind, intuitive Robin Williams performance that was honestly everything I ever wanted my father or my teacher or any older male authority figure, really, to be with me. I wanted to slip right into that world, wholly imaginary and problematic as it was and is and hover on the edge of a perfect, brisk October morning, noisy with dumb poems and the clamor of passing geese.

And I did, too, for a minute. I spent three years in a world, slightly more diverse and significantly more coed than the school in “Dead Poet’s Society,” but close enough in character that I personally attest to what those wood floors smelled like and how it felt to play sports on fields that looked like matte paintings. I even had my own Mr Keating or two, though neither particularly inclined toward Whitman-esque self-regard. The boys were suitably floppy haired, but generally more caustic, a result, perhaps, of less Keats and more Fugazi (the most representative floppy-haired, sensitive prep school boy of my age cohort is/was probably Beto O’Rourke—make of that what you will), and like most real-life human beings, somewhat less enamored of adolescent me than my “Dead Poets”-inspired fantasy life would have allowed.

There’s a lot of that experience I treasured, both in the moment and in retrospect, though like the movie that inspired me to go, my high school experience summons a little cringe and a lot of awkward, especially over the last few years when its own pristine autumnal façade has been sullied by allegations of abuse. I never donated to my school’s annual fund, but I did encourage parents to send their kids there. I did write, and talk, repeatedly about how much it meant to me, in that moment, at that time, and try to figure out whether it launched me into something better and brighter or doomed me to being perennially disappointed by the fact that real life is seldom so picturesque.  

To be honest, I don’t know how to talk about all of that now, so I mostly try not to. Which is hard. I’ve built a fair chunk of identity and personal narrative foundation on my “Dead Poets Society” years. Strategically stripping context away from my past feels about as bogus as it does ineffective. But it’s also probably true I would have bought school supplies. I would have crushed on the same number of boys that didn’t notice. I would have dreamed myself into movies and felt the same way about New Order’s “Temptation” if I’d first danced to it in a place without so many ties and so much baggage. The leaves would have changed and I might have found somewhere more accommodating and less restrictive than the place I thought I needed to be.

Plague Diary: August 24, 2021

Plague Diaries

My mother calls them chihuahuas. The incidental problems jumping and nipping at your heels. They’re not big enough to take you down, but they can be annoying, and it doesn’t take many to trip you up and force you to fall. She’ll lament—the chihuahuas—at the end of a long day, exhausted. She’ll fix a martini to mute the yapping, and hope maybe, by the next day, they’ll have run after a new target and cleared the lawn so she can clean up the mess and put in whatever safeguards to keep them from coming back.

Mom’s also a detail person. “A virgo,” she tells me, even though I find astrology slightly less reliable than I do closing my eyes and flipping through the Complete Works of Oscar Wilde when I’m looking for answers (I will admit to doing this). But if it matters to you, I’m a picses. I’m also a big picture person. I don’t usually notice the baseboards are dirty, but I can reliably bring myself to tears looking at pictures of outer space or imagining what it must be like to see elephants in the wild. Also, I like chihuahuas.  One of my favorite dogs in the world is a chihuahua, a dreamy fluffy black and white creature, who looks like a sled dog for gnomes and behaves like an exceedingly polite social butterfly.

It might be a function of getting older. It might be a function of getting older and becoming more like my mother (on a recent visit to the Wildean oracle, I did get “All women become like their mothers”).  It also might be a function of just, like, losing my ability to function after how many months are we again? Seventeen? I don’t remember. I stopped marking days on the wall because it made me feel morbid, and I own just enough Cure records that don’t need any extra excuse to feel morbid.

The creeping dread is back though, along with the worry sirens. I didn’t have enough of a reprieve to even catch my breath before people are talking about the Greek alphabet and how we’re going to have to spend the rest of our everloving lives keeping six feet apart outside, masked, uphill, in the snow, or whatever. Hello darkness my old friend. I’ve come to talk with you agai—oh, yes I did hear about Afghanistan. Thanks.   

And the @#$%ing chihuahuas. They’re out in packs. There’s the work stuff. There’s the house stuff. There’s the social stuff. There’s the life stuff. I can’t seem to get anything fixed. Sometimes because it takes forever (my bed, after six weeks out, has held me for two nights). Sometimes because I don’t know even who to call. Sometimes because I’m doing it all wrong. Sometimes because I don’t know what I want to be doing or how I want to be doing it, and I suspect, at the end of the day it doesn’t even matter. My mom wondered why I hadn’t gotten around to fixing the garage door, the front door. Did I ever send back the vaccum she sent me some months ago as a gift?

No. Because I don’t know who to call and I don’t have the money. Because I don’t know what to say is wrong. Because I suspect I’ll inconvenience someone and they won’t fix it and I won’t have the energy or wherewithal to fight with them about it. Because I don’t have the energy and wherewithal to fight with anyone right now. And every now and then, something finally goes a little bit right for a minute, then it breaks worse than it was broken before

Today’s example: I bought this exercise bike. Like, you know. The very thing I always swore I’d never do.  I did it so I could cancel my gym membership in the middle of a pandemic that now feels endless, and we’re had these 105 heat index days and meetings keep happening in the early morning, and I gotta get some exercise somehow to stay sane. So I pull out the credit card and lob off another shot into debt and it gets delivers. It takes me forever to get the bike together and it was super heavy, but I did it myself, because I am a functional adult human being and I think I can put a bike together. And it was great—like surprisingly great– for ten, eleven days.

Then among the many chihuahuas of today, it broke. It broke in a way that I don’t know how to fix. I don’t know if I can fix it. I also don’t know how to return an 80 pound bike that I bought online, or if I can return an 80 pound bike that I bought online or if the reason why it broke was because I didn’t assemble it correctly in the first place. And the terrible, no good, very bad voice in the back of my head is all “it broke because you’re a fatso, fatso” and I find myself in the middle of the day when I have so much to do, so many better things I could be doing, reasonably healthy and privileged and all that shit,  unmoored by nothing, sitting in my house crying over a broken exercise bike pedal like a complete child, because all the nothings just pile up overtime, until I’m in some Collyer Brothers mansion of chihuahuas that feel like a drowning risk, at best.

Cue sad trumpet.

Maybe that’s the better word for the chihuahuas. The sad trumpets. The whomp-whomps. The scenes half-played for laughs because they’re so trivial.

I get that I’m not alone. Life is mostly struggle, but I think it’s safe to say that it’s exceptionally hard right now for most of us. Each little thing takes so much out of you. And that’s before you have worry about how to argue with the guy you need to fix your chihuahua/sad trumpet situation about the proper way to wear his mask (the A/C guy who came to fix that last week when it went out—honestly more of a terrier situation during a historic heat wave—could not be bothered to pull it over his nose) and whether he’ll be a dick about it. And that’s way before the big dogs start snarling and wolves start howling. ‘

I’ve always been pretty good at ambling through Big Chaos. I freak out at the beginning, but eventually I find my pace and keep on keeping on with the notion that at some point the chaos subsides, and I can have a chance to catch my breath.

Maybe I’ll figure out how to fix something in my life.

Maybe I’ll actually get one thing done today.

Maybe the dogs will disperse and the sad trumpet will get kinda jazzy.

Maybe, just around the next bend, the road will smooth out and the clouds will part.

Please get vaccinated.

Postscript: I heard the news about Charlie Watts while writing this. I am a (mostly) unabashed Rolling Stones fan. What a complete bummer. R.I.P.

Plague Diary: August 4, 2021

COVID / Plague Diaries

That was nice, right?

In the fifteen weeks since second vaccination, still wearing masks inside, but like, kinda, sorta, almost living my best life, crossing state lines, hugging people, eating out, going to the bar all willy nilly without a care in the world. Well, pretending to not have a care in the world because throughout I was still reading the news as soon as I woke up every morning, and still looking at vaccine counts and case counts and holy moly, Delta Variant would have made such a good album title/drag name/punk rock moniker/ sci-fi novel/ Obscure Mississippi travel blog/“Designing Women” fanzine if this bullshit hadn’t happened, right?

So I knew. I mean, I knew. But you’ve really got to squeeze those lemons bone dry to enjoy a decent lemonade before our collective summer break ends because a surging virus and a large unvaccinated population will force you back into unofficial Safe at Home because they’ll continue on maskless, unvaccinated until they get infected and maybe in process summon up some new increasingly vaccine-resistant variant [Epsilon? Zeta? Throw in a couple of polo shirts and Rubbermaid tub of fruit punch and grain alcohol and we’re perilously close to the worst fraternity party in history) and SHOULD I START HOARDING GIN AND JIGSAW PUZZLES AND WAITING FOR THE END OF THE WORLD AGAIN?

Maybe. I don’t know. You probably don’t either. Because odds are if you’re reading this, you’re as flummoxed as I am. It seems like all anyone can talk about is how everybody knows someone with Covid now, including all your infected and vaccinated friends who have never broken the rules or questioned the science or dined inside  (Bless me, Fauci, for I have sinned, it’s been five months since my last PCR test), and yet the vaccine is working, or working enough, or working the way it should and we’re overreacting or the media is overreacting or. .

Like, I’m going to return to the willfully unvaccinated–the freedom fanboys, the injection averse, the opportunistic death cultists for a sec. Is the plan that we all follow the rules and hide out and just wait for them to what? Figure it out? I mean, I guess self-preservation is the name of the game at this point—I don’t want Covid and I really, really don’t want Long Covid– but I’m also not sure that waiting until every single one of them gets sick enough for a cinematic change of heart and we can wag our collective fingers and say “I told you so” is the best strategy out of this pandemic?

Is that the strategy?

Is there a strategy?

I trust the science and acknowledge that science is a process, and that sometimes, even, especially when it’s extremely inconvenient, that process is long, complex and demands both patience and humility. That’s a beautiful idea, and I believe it. But, for real, how do you translate that for a vaccinated and understandably anxious vaccinated friend who just wants to know whether it’s still safe to go inside her vaccinated aging mother’s house? Should she wear a mask? Should her mother? Should they both be tested?

“Should I go ahead and risk it now in case things get so much worse that I won’t be able to for another year?”

I didn’t have an answer, but I moved my hair appointment up a few weeks just in case.

In other news, I did not go to Lollapalooza, which feels like the most ludicrous thing to do at the most  ludicrous time ever, and I’m not just saying that because the only think scarier than nearly 400,000 people showing up in Chicago for a concert in the hottest month of the year during a plague is nearly 400,000 people showing up in Chicago for a concert featuring Limp Bizkit in the hottest month of the year during a plague. But I’m not as young as I used to be, and standing outside under the blistering sun for hours watching bands play is not, as they say, my jam.

Twenty-five years ago, at my last Lollapalooza, I stood on the sun-parched grass of Walnut Creek Amphitheater having been chased out of the shade by tear-gas-wielding security guards following an unlikely Green Day-led takeover of the mostly empty covered seats. I listened to Nick Cave sing about darkness in the hottest part of the day—in a hazy, probably dehydrated stretch that would include Tribe Called Quest and the Breeders—and wondered if there were a more unpleasant way to see this many bands I liked.

Nostalgia!

I have a bunch of tickets to club shows this fall. I can’t decide if it’s stubbornly hopeful or just willfully naïve that I’m still talking about them like I’m going.

For now, though, I ordered an exercise bike and started looking at jigsaw puzzles.

Just in case.

Picture today is me trying to deflate an inflatable flamingo a couple weeks ago when things were still slightly less bleak.

Be safe. Please get vaccinated.

Plague Diary: July 20, 2021

Uncategorized

Last night, I got distracted reading the news because it was terrible and instead started thinking about that weird period of time in the 90s when it seemed like Aerosmith was the biggest band in the world, but I had never met a single person of any age/musical taste who would have identified Aerosmith as their favorite band or even, like, Top Five favorite band. I’m sure they exist, obviously they exist in great numbers but just . . . never met one.

In honor of that silent majority, whoever/wherever they are, I put the first Aerosmith record on the turntable. I listened to “Dream On,” which is a song that I legitimately like, in part because it reminds me of a friend from New Hampshire, who loved power ballads maybe even more than she loved The Fall, but we spent hours in the very early 00s driving around listening to the two back to back, and sort of enjoying the bumpy transition between.

New Hampshire was/is also a karaoke fan, if not always particularly avid karaoke performer. I was/am a bit of a showboat, so I always found an excuse to sign up for a song or two. In those days, we mostly went to Bub O’Malley’s, on Rosemary, where we’d flit up and down the two flights of stairs from Hell (bar, not metaphor, on the basement level), like drunk Dantes, to hang out with our friends in the underworld for liquid courage before getting summoned backup to Disappointing Paradise to mangle Chicago’s “Hard for Me To Say I’m Sorry.”

Peter Cetera has quite the impressive vocal range. I do not.

It was weird for me to even try to something so bold. Back then, I was still in recovery from the nineties and its co-morbid crises of “selling out” and authenticity. I’d spent many years attempting to define myself by what kind of music I didn’t like. And though I’d begun to dip my toe in the pool of, if not what the kids called Poptimism, then at least the idea that I didn’t have to couch an affection for anything purely catchy as “guilty pleasure,” I was still pretty self-conscious about my karaoke choices. I didn’t want to appear undignified in front of a bunch of strangers, even though the whole point of karaoke is basically appearing undignified in a room full of strangers. So, I kept my repertoire to 3-4 songs, all of which I knew I could defend if they challenged on aesthetic/philosophical grounds (never happened, but my argument about how I rationalized singing classic Tammy Wynette songs as a “let’s burn down the patriarchy”-style feminist would have been a real barn burner).

Anyway.

Most of those karaoke nights have a bit of a wobble about the edges, probably because all of us were several states deep south of sober before we even staggered up to the bar, and also because that was fifteen, sixteen, years ago, in the complicated going-out shirt years of the second Bush administration. I hadn’t quite stepped over into thirty. My power ballad/ Fall loving friend hadn’t moved back to New England yet (and then moved back here again). We were all broke, directionless, single and shameless about buying cigarettes and single cans of $1.50 PBR with silver change fished out from between sofa cushions. No one had a child or a practical graduate degree or a career. I remember in those days having a friend and coworker ask me how my shift had been at the record store one night. Over the clamor of the jukebox, the murmur of the crowd, I swore I heard “We are all veterans of the sordid night.” And remember thinking “maudlin, but not without appeal.” And we all laughed at my mishearing, and they all laughed at pleasantries turned to pretentious pastiche, and we, we veterans or the sordid night, ordered another round and dialed up Royal Trux, or whatever, on the jukebox.

There’s a strong, OK Boomer-ish urge to remember these as the good times, because nostalgia renders youthful precarity romantic in the rearview. Nights of wild abandon fueled by the notion (however misguided) of having all the time in the world and nothing to lose make better fodder for poetry than, say, the travails of refinancing your suburban home or helping aging parents navigate retirement options. But honestly, though I miss those nights in some ways I don’t miss the silence of the yawning, sloppy, low-rise, Woo-ing void of a college town’s last call that served as a rebuke whenever I wondered what the fuck I should be doing with my life.* I don’t miss the classified ads. I don’t even miss the PBR.

I do miss Hell (bar not metaphor). And I miss the karaoke nights.

A couple summer’s back, in the not-exactly calm before the plague, I went one night to a Fleetwood Mac themed karaoke event and realized that Stevie Nicks’ “Edge of Seventeen” is a workout even without a lace shawl to whip around like a witchy matador. I had just enough fun doing it that I evidently took the stage a couple months later when I was out of town. I say evidently because I do not remember exactly. The wobble of the Bub’s nights having long since resolved into the uncomfortable, headachy Huh? that accompanies drinking too much (though far less than the old days) and staying up too late (though far earlier than the old days) as a middle aged person. I seem to have a video on my iPhone of me singing a Cranberries song I do not particularly like to my best friend at a bar in Brooklyn. I seem to have a text from her indicating that said video should never see the light of day. I seem to have a tinge of regret and a sense of my own mortality. I seem to have a mortgage and a regular paycheck. Not exactly the stuff of poetry, but I’ve already outlived several of my favorite poets, so I guess there’s that.

The downstairs powder room of my suburban house has pretty sick acoustics. I took my phone down last night, after “Dream On,” and called up the karaoke version on YouTube. I dimmed the lights, poured a glass of wine, turned away from the mirror and sang like I had nothing in the world better to do than appear undignified in a room full of strangers.

Picture is of last night’s record pile by the turntable.

As of this writing, 174, 815, 404 people have recovered from Covid-19. Please get vaccinated.

*I still don’t know, ps

Chompers

Personal History

I don’t remember how old I was when someone first told me I had a weird mouth. Maybe three or four. My dentist, at the time had habit of filling the awkward, sometimes painful silences with aggressive UNC sports boosterism. I was neither Tarheel born, nor particularly Tarheel bred, and when I died I hoped I would be less Tarheel dead and  more “suite at Cannes, at twilight, surrounded by doting admirers.”  So the dentist and I didn’t have much to say to each other.

He directed most of his advice toward my mother, poking and prodding at my still baby teeth. “Look at this gap,” he said about my front teeth. “It’s a big one. Also, Alison has an unusual mouth. Once her adult teeth come in, she’s going to have way too many teeth.”

I glanced up at the mirror by the light and tried to figure out what they were talking about and found myself both panicked and fascinated by the fact that I might sprout multiple rows of hideous, razor sharp monster teeth. I was a child enamored of Roald Dahl’s The Enormous Crocodile. I wondered, was I part crocodile? Would I also end up with claws, scales, a long swishy tale, secret plans and clever trick? None of my friends seemed to have been told they had too many teeth. As they lost theirs and collected quarters from the tooth fairy, cheerily anticipating adult teeth, I wiggled my mine and wondered how long before I went sprouted some sixty more canines.

When I tried to talk to my mother about this, she’d pat me on the arm, “Don’t worry. You just don’t have enough space. You have a delicate features and very small mouth.

This was literally the last time in history anyone would ever accuse me of the latter.

Mom seemed untrustworthy. I thought it was possible she was a beast herself, who just wore human skin to make me feel more comfortable until I molted into a dragon or whatever. I went to the library and researched reptiles until I was quite sure I couldn’t go suddenly cold-blooded, but somehow I stumbled into a history of freak shows and became convinced that I was becoming a monster, and if I expressed any misgivings about it, the universe would punish me for being vain by transforming me into something even more hideous and forcing me to spend the rest of my life as a pariah.  And yes, Greek mythology does a real number on an imaginative kid with a guilt complex.

The dentist worked out a scenario to start pulling my permanent teeth as they came in, starting when I was about eight years old in order to make room in my mouth for the others. Most of the pulled teeth were molars and the experience of their removal was . . . not without discomfort. I was too young for pain killers, and though the Novocain helped, I usually came out with terrible headaches, a bruised lip and that weird dull, sometimes electric pain of an empty gum. I’d nurse a consolatory chocolate milkshake and the bring home the bloody-stained extracted teeth as souvenirs. I kept them—eight total—in a heart shaped satin box on my night stand. The tooth fairy brought me five-dollar bills, and at least one time, after tooth number seven, she took me to the toy store and let me pick out whatever I wanted (I went with a then-coveted pink Care Bear).

I didn’t look like a crocodile, just a little girl with swollen cheeks and a buck-toothed smile with a gap everyone told me was unfortunate. “Braces will take care of that,” said Nana. And so, I crossed the office park parking lot from dentist to orthodontist at eleven so another obsessive Carolina fan in a white smock could take impressions of my teeth so they could be correctly imprisoned.

As a slightly north of middle-class kid whose peer group was mostly comprised of other slightly north of middle-class kids in the 1980s, I had come to recognize orthodonture as a destiny inevitable as puberty, divorced parents, a liberal arts education at a four-year university, and a sincere appreciation for both the Paul Simon discography and (eventually) the films of Wes Anderson. Thus, I didn’t mind being fitted with braces because it meant I fit in, even if they did tear at the inside of my lips and ache after tightening. I beamed with the rest of the metal mouths, all rotting food particles and slimy rubber bands. We did all look pretty monstrous in those years, I suppose. All transformation is a kind of body horror, even the sort of that ostensibly makes us more attractive, or at least more socially acceptable-by-current-standard of beauty. David Cronenberg could really knock it out of the park if he ever decided to make something about preteens in headgear.

I didn’t get the class implications of the teeth thing, yet, which was pretty funny given that I grew up in Appalachia. I watched people blacken teeth at Halloween to go as caricatured White Trash or Tramps or Trailer Trash without much thought to the fact that the people they were mocking were our literal neighbors. People made jokes about British people and their bad teeth, which I both hadn’t noticed and understood to be commentary on how much better America was at everything. Can’t you tell how much we love freedom by our straight blinding white smiles?

But it was Nana’s enthusiasm for the orthodontic experiment that really drove the point home. A daughter of a coal miner, she’d achieved a lot of material comfort in her life, but always rued the insult of her imperfect teeth. I knew Nana’s  mouth well and I can tell you honestly that I didn’t notice anything weird about it, maybe because I myself am a person with a weird mouth who has never quite been able to figure out why people think it is so weird (you know how some people just don’t notice when you cut your hair unless you, like, dye it green or shave it into a mohawk? Well, something has to be pretty goddamn radical for me to notice your teeth).

Nana was absolutely ironclad in her insistence that I would have perfect teeth. Those braces would come off and I would have a kind of smile that opened doors. Nobody would ever mistake my mouth for being low class. My teeth would be elite, my grin to the manor born.

When, after a couple years, the braces came off, the gap had disappeared. I remember sitting in my mother’s car, boxed retainer in my hand, running a tongue over freshly aligned (though still slightly too large) front teeth. Mom was thrilled. She couldn’t stop telling me how wonderful I looked. I kept checking myself out the in the rearview. I didn’t look like a crocodile at all. Otherwise, I couldn’t really figure out what the big deal was.

I can’t remember how many retainers I lost. I can remember that they were hard to keep in my mouth. I forgot them pretty regularly. Even in the spans of weeks or months I didn’t, I started to notice things shifting. By the time I started my freshman year of high school, the front teeth had started to express themselves in the only way they knew how. At my late-blooming, full-on puberty some 8-12 months later, the teeth had resettled in their previous abodes.  And I had the gappy, buck toothed grin that my mother lamented, and my grandmother raged about. There was a lot of blame thrown around—at the dentist for pulling all those teeth (“now she has too much space in her mouth!”), at me for being an irresponsible retainer user and wasting my parents’ hard-earned attempts to give me a perfect mouth (not unjustifiable), at my weird mouth for failing to fall in line.  But no one forced me back to the orthodontist. My mother sent me to a new dentist, a kind, gentle man, who filled all the cavities (7) the braces had caused and never talked about sports but told lyrical tales about Kilimanjaro and the quality of light over the African savanna as he drilled into my molars.  

I just couldn’t make myself care about the teeth.  As a young woman, I believed my monstrosity to reside elsewhere. I was fat, oily, with greasy, flat mousy hair and moles, a  stuttering, pig-nosed, no-necked, pock-marked wretch whose obvious best course through life was to distract everyone with statement earrings, self-deprecating humor and a really good record collection. The teeth were so low on my priority list as to be irrelevant. When it came up among family—as it sometimes did—I just ignored them.

^^^

In the summer of 2006, following an explosive end to a half-assed infatuation with a heavily tattooed, radicalized, ex-Jesus Freak, conspiracy theorizing line cook/poet, I started worrying about my teeth again. I’d had a wisdom tooth abscess the year before, because I’d been putting off having them extracted for, like, a decade in part because I’d had so many teeth removed as a child, I couldn’t really see the point of taking any more out. A tooth abscess is Hell pain. Like, overwhelming fade to black pain. And, in what feels like a weirdly cosmic nod to my childhood dentist, this abscess occurred about twenty minutes after the UNC men’s basketball team won the NCAA tournament in 2005 and I was observing the subsequent mayhem on Franklin Street in Chapel Hill.

Go Heels.

Fear of the pain returning nagged at me, especially because I did not have a dentist to speak of or the means to pay for one. And the conspiracy theorist harped on my teeth when he rejected me. Something like—“The girls I like have beautiful hair and great bodies and perfect teeth”—and it struck me for maybe the first time in my life that, despite what Chaucer would have you believe, the gap wasn’t doing me any favors with men.  

It was also around that time that an English friend listened to me tell how I was  perennially misread in Europe as an English-speaking European instead of an American. I’d been mistook in Britain proper, even after people had even heard me speak. These were the W. years, when everyone was wearing Canadian flags on their backpacks. I took it as a kind of compliment that I appeared so more sophisticated than my fellow Americans. But after advising that being mistaken for Irish wasn’t always exactly a compliment in England, my friend said, “You know, it could also just be your teeth.  Most Americans seem to have perfect teeth, at least the Americans that visit Europe. Most people probably just don’t see Americans traveling with teeth like yours.”

I started looking at the mirror again. I started looking at my teeth. They were slightly yellowed from a decade plus of smoking cigarettes and heavy coffee consumption. The front teeth were the same from childhood, gappy, bucked, one slightly chipped at the bottom following an incidental collision with a beer bottle after a raucous show.

I remember thinking how my grandmother had never stopped offering to pay for me to get my teeth fixed. She made her life goal, above and beyond anything else. I remember thinking, I don’t have a dentist. I remember thinking, hey, two birds, one stone.

My mother knew a cosmetic dentist in my hometown. I’d met her—the dentist—once at a fundraiser, when she’d swanned into the smoking lounge in an extravagant Alexander McQueen ballgown under a men’s tuxedo jacket.  She sat beside me and bummed a light. When talked about art parties and gin cocktails. Before she flicked away back to the dance floor, she told me, “You know, I love your diastema. If I were your dentist, I would never fix it.”

That was the first time I’d ever heard the word, or at least registered the word. Diastema sounded like a poetic term or a lesser Olympian. Better than gap, anyway. I liked the fancy dentist too, and not just because I’d never been that close to an Alexander McQueen ballgown in person. I told Mom to book the appointment.

The dentist’s office was preposterously fancy. The hygienists were black blouses and skinny black paints. I had my teeth cleaned while laying on a massage table with thousand thread-count sheets while “To Catch a Thief” played on the wall over my head. Afterwards, I was offered espresso or champagne while the dentist and I reviewed my x-rays and discussed a treatment plan.

What she offered was radical, even borderline Cronenbergian. She would crown, like, twenty of my teeth, possibly entirely replace a few. They were all in really bad shape, she assured me. So she would drill them down to crocodile points, fit them with shiny white toppers, and needed to switch out a couple for implants, we could. The cost of this endeavor was, to put it mildly, substantial. At the time it was somewhere around a mid-level car, a year of law school, or a credible down payment on a more than decent house. I could have used any of those things, and when we approached Nana with the estimate, I did ask,  “I’m feeling conflicted, really conflicted, about the fact that we’re not using this for something important, like paying off my debt or buying a house.”

But Nana just shook her head. The teeth were all-important. “Just imagine how beautiful you’ll be when you smile with that new mouth.”

Even the dentist said something similar. “You’ll have so much confidence. It will genuinely change your face. It will make you so much more.”

I relented to initial molds. The dentist gave me a clear retainer to wear when I slept. Every night when I pulled it out of the box, it felt like rebuke to my junior high self.

The last appointment before the drilling was supposed to start, I sprawled on the fancy sheets in the dentist office and watched “Edward Scissorhands” on the screen above me during a cleaning. In the conference room afterwards, I sat with the dentist and listened to her outline the process in grotesque detail. I swallowed back my anxiety, my fear of the intervening monstrosity on the way to promised beauty. I tried to Good Riddance my familiar gappy smile. And then the dentist let slip—oh by way—that even after all was said and done, after all the money and all the drilling, I’d probably still be in a retainer—maybe some kind of permanent brace- for the rest of my life. Also new teeth would be more fragile, and they’d probably have to be replaced as I got older. Black lines might appear between the gums and the crowns. I’d have to devote myself to their care.

And I dunno. I looked down into my espresso and just kind of lost it. Like really lost it. I was crying and mad and yelling about how it is that anything that anything requiring so much pain and money and effort so it could appear “normal”  could be anything but horribly abnormal. The dentist tried to console me; she was unconvincing. She seemed to know she was unconvincing. I reminded her of how when first met at that party she told me if I were her patient, she’d never fix the diastema. She gave me a long silence and shrug. She told me to sleep on it.

My mother called Nana for me. Told her I was trying to make all the dental procedures work with my calendar to buy me some time. I spent much of it staring at myself in the mirror, trying to figure out the degree to which I was not only looking a gift horse in the mouth, but choking it to death with my bare hands.

Two days later, my dentist disappeared. She left town. Her practice closed. The high thread-count sheets, the salon-like hygienists, the espresso machine and the patients waiting on fancy new smiles were all left in the lurch. There’s more to that story to tell, but it’s both sad and not mine, and the only relevant detail to this one is that she wasn’t coming back. My extravagant treatment plan was permanently tabled. And I was forced to admit that the universe or whatever does even the most ill-fated skeptics a solid every now and again

At about thirty-five years old, I went to see a new dentist, a congenial, easygoing young dude, who didn’t talk about UNC sports or Tanzania or Paris Fashion week. When I told him I had the worst, weirdest, ugliest mouth he’d ever seen and all of my teeth were bad, he pulled up my x-rays and shook his head. He said my teeth were totally healthy. No cavities. No cracks. No abscesses. He could refer me to an orthodontist if that was something I really wanted, but honestly, things looked fine. “And if you’ll sit tight for five minutes, I’d be happy to buff out that chip on your front tooth.”

I told him I got the chip from a beer bottle while he geared up, so I didn’t tear up at the notion that I was fine. Fine. My mouth was fine.

I called my mother on the way home and told her. She sounded relieved as well. Whatever disappointment at the idea I would never have perfect teeth had more or less been balanced by the  fiasco with the fancy dentist.

Nana was a harder sell. Or rather, Nana wasn’t a sell at all. She never stopped asking me to fix my teeth. Up until the last year of her life she kept offering, promising, telling me how much more beautiful I would look. I felt a little guilty at letting her down, but over time it got easier to let the tooth talk settle back into the scenery. I stopped thinking about it as much, except every now and then I would meet a new friend or see a celebrity with gapped teeth and feel a twinge of affection, a touch of kinship.

Sometimes I like to imagine that I’m keeping weird teeth alive. That somehow we’ve collectively forgotten that teeth, like eyebrows or noses or ears or whatever, can be interesting and idiosyncratic. That difference in a smile might also be attractive or aesthetically pleasing. But I also have privilege to think that way and even still: I don’t kid myself.

Even if I don’t notice them most of the time, I suppose my teeth make the wrong impression on plenty of people. I might have been happier or more loved or more successful if they were straight and white and had no gap between them at all. Farfetched? Sure. At least as farfetched  as the idea any part of any living thing could be perfect by some external measure, that perfection in and of itself is a finite process to be decided by someone else, then bought and paid for and guaranteed. That kind of perfection, the unimaginative, immutable, by definition ordinary, requires stasis, which is never possible when life itself is constant change. Things are only perfect in the moment. And in this moment, right now, when I smile I think it looks as close as this old crocodile is ever going to get to perfect.

Plague Diary: June 15, 2021

Plague Diaries / Uncategorized

It is a known fact that I am not very good at ending things. I stay at jobs for way too long and habits for longer. My tendency is to forgive, but hounded by memory, I rarely forget. I can get sentimentally attached to almost any object if I think about it for a moment or two. And on the narrative front, I have written many stories, plays and otherwise; every single one of them basically ends at an open door, metaphorically speaking.  To date, I have one story—exactly one—that has a solid, immutable, unambiguous resolution and I still haven’t finished it yet. There are a lot of reasons why ranging from the emotional/aesthetic (I’m not sure if I’ve totally nailed a couple of the characters) to the practical (it’s a murder story, based in my hometown, and I know what happens when one dares to tread on the fragile egos up in Vanderbilt Patchouli Holler).

I mention this because I’ve started writing this particular Plague Diary, which is not so much an End-of-Plague Diary but certainly a Locally-Postive-Change-In-Plague Diary if not a guaranteed Actually-This-Plague-is-Ending Diary, about nine or ten times, probably owing to the fact that my enthusiasm for starting things  is comparatively endless. I won’t take you all the way through the rejected first paragraphs, but my favorite was probably:  

“I frequently feel condescended to by writers of dystopias. Most of them feel like I’m getting a lecture by an humorless adult who liked philosophy and is very good imagining architecture, but just can’t do empathy. Like you can just tell me why you became disillusioned by communism, George Orwell. I’ll listen. I don’t need you to do a puppet show with talking pigs and rat hats.

Thing about boots. Tina Turner.“

I’m not sure where I was going with the dystopia thing. But I suspect the “Thing about boots. Tina Turner” bit was a note to myself about where I wanted to pass through on my rhetorical frozen daiquiri-drunk lazy river to making a point. So let’s get this out of the way, upfront:

 1) Over 14+ months of quarantine, I never once made a loaf of bread or learned a new crafty skill, but I did buy three pairs of  boots (two sparkly) and five pairs of “fashion” sneakers (plus four pairs of running shoes), also mostly metallic of sparkly and

2) in all the dark months of mostly solitude, panic, reflection and endless Internetting, I never could nail down (no pun) the bathroom mechanics of Tina Turner’s “Thunderdome” chain mail dress Best guess: maybe the water shortages in the Mad Max Universe meant that people were so dehydrated they just peed less? Still the risk of rusty metal chafing private parts is the kind of thing that keeps a girl up a night, and if you’re wondering, it did. Because finding yourself deep in the fall surge around the election, trying not to think about Our Current Hellscape, while also trying not to think about whether your tingly foot means you have liver disease, while also not trying to think about the fact that you’re alone and wasting your life, while trying not to think about the fact that you’re a failure, while trying not to think about your grief for your late grandmother, while trying not to think about the fact that if you ever have to sell your house, you probably will have to move to a different state because of this real estate market, while trying not to think about the fact that you are officially, absolutely no question about it middle-aged, means you go down lots of rabbit holes trying to find a different thing to think about, and sometimes when you’re even failed by the pirate epic you’ve been writing mostly in your head for twenty years, you end up in the back of the mental storage unit trying to figure out how you still remember all the words to all the songs in the talent show episode of H.R. Puffnstuf or whether you’d have been a healthier person if you’d been able to admit, unironically, that yes, you did kind of wanted to slow dance to “More than Words” when you were sixteen or the whole deal with peeing in chain mail.

But that was then.

Two days. Two weeks. Two months ago, back before I’d been to the bar or been to a restaurant or ran my hand over dresses on a rack that was not in my closet. That was before I drank outside, then inside, then inside without my mask on. That was before That was before I hugged my father. That was before I hugged pretty much anyone that would let me.  

On each one of these occasions, I’ve expected to get a little emotional but the slings and arrows of outrageous hormones have defied prediction. So, like, I didn’t even get misty when I let my dad in the house for the first time in a year, but Sunday night, at the movies, I got pretty choked up when I realized the  bartender at the fancy movie theater was still working at the bar. “I’ve really missed seeing you,” I said, when he handed me my beer. He just kind of stared at me like he was trying to figure out whether I was insane or hitting on him or both.

We took our seats, my friend and I, about halfway up a half-filled house, clinking pint glasses in a pre-lights out selfie. The last social thing I did before I locked up last March was to see a movie at the same theater with the same friend. “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” was a beautiful, affecting  movie, but when I think back on it now, I mostly remember being afraid to touch the armrests of the seat and making mordant conversation with another woman about whether thirty seconds of handwashing was really enough. “Maybe forty-five? Maybe a whole minute?”

The lights dimmed.

“I forgot above previews,” I said. “I love previews.”

And we began. And we begin.

I’m not very good at ending things. I’m not sure we should be ending things. I couldn’t stop fiddling with my mask.Did I need to replace it immediately after taking a sip? Did I need to be wearing it at all? Was I courting disaster by even drinking in a movie theater? Was I a reckless sociopath l for even going to see a movie?

As the film started, my friend was like, “This feels like things are getting back to normal. But it’s not normal, right? There are variants. There is India. What is even happening in India? Is everything still terrible there?”

I said something vague. I’m only reading the newspaper once, maybe twice a day, down from thirty, maybe thirty times. There’s something comforting in the fact that I don’t know and also undeniably privileged and also terrifying. I think I’m supposed to be enjoying myself, but my brain is still sending out little anxiety alerts, sometimes about Covid, sometimes about the doodly feeling in my stomach, sometimes about the economy. “I’m not concerned about the 2022 election yet,” I tell friends, but of course I am. People forged new relationships during Covid, and I ended up in a mutually dissatisfying, codependent long-term hookup with a collection of worries as messy as a disastrous roommate and emotionally exhausting as a bad boyfriend.  

Worry Collection and I spent fourteen months doom-scrolling and producing a variety of elaborate psychological shadow puppet theater that the gaps between jigsaw puzzles, Netflix series and Zoom meetings. Now it’s time to move on, but we can’t quite let go. Which is probably why, seven days ago, at the maybe end of this pandemic, I found myself wandering the woods behind my house at dusk trying to tire out Worry Collection, who’d spend the day telling me I was probably dying of pancreatic cancer and would definitely end up living spending my golden years living under an overpass with a three-legged dog named Randy (not a metaphor). As I watching a blue heron (Ambrose) pose beside Bolin Creek in the gloaming, I thought, “this is probably the end of me. I should just prepare to dwindle and fade” like I were a sad European man in a rumpled suit drunk on 100-proof Criterion Collection

And that is an objectively absurd and maybe even hilarious kind of thought, when you’re looking at HOT VAX SUMMER head-on and you have a closet full of irresponsible, but honestly life-affirming fashion purchases you’ve made over the months of lockdown and there are beach trips coming and you’ll almost certainly be back in NYC soon and, fuck it, it’s time to activate those dating apps, let’s cast out the net, let’s make eyes at the bar. Should I go blonde? Should I start dating women? Should I start a band at forty five? Do I dare eat a peach? I mean, they’re in season and I AM STILL ALIVE AND AM NOT GETTING ANY FUCKING YOUNGER.

But it can be hard to safely activate the part of your brain that allows for risk and relaxation when you’ve spent the last year plus bombarded the thought that a routine trip to the grocery store could kill you and you might kill your best friend if she doesn’t sit far enough away. One wrong move and you could be a disease vector, a local extinction level event, who might inadvertently decimate the whole community because your mask slips at the gas station, because you let a plumber in to fix the faucet. And now you’re out in the world, watching people watching you futz with your mask in the theater because you have zero idea about what actually constitutes best practices at this point in the game. There’s a kid two rows up and even though you’re vaccinated, if you somehow passed it on to him, would you be a murderer? And what about the variants and the breakthrough cases? Can you still get Long Covid with two Moderna shots?

I don’t know. Maybe you’ve decided not to worry about it. I’m envious. I’m dreaming of indifference.  Not because I want to be irresponsible or a bad citizen, but because I’m not a natural agoraphobe. I was already a bit worn before Covid, and I’m not sure this year hasn’t frayed some edges that cannot be stitched back.

I want to be done with this story. May we? Will we? Are we?

We’ve made it this far. Is it time, once again, to begin?

Picture today is at Peel Gallery, in Carrboro, which is one of the very greatest things that has happened during the last year.

As of this writing, 161,615, 602 people have recovered from Covid-19. Globally, 459,688,374 people have been received at least one vaccine dose.

Admissions

Music / Personal History

In the beginning, I was not Generation X.  I thought perhaps I wanted to be, because they all seemed to have seen The Replacements play live, but my birthdate but me outside the range agreed upon by the authorities on the topic—journalists, Canadian novelist Douglas Coupland, advertising executives, Billy Idol.

Time Magazine and Coupland put the Gen X cut-off birthdate at around 1972. Of the two, I  suspected Coupland was more credible, even if his novel, Generation X was printed in a weirdly oversized, impossible-to-shelve paperback format with a a cover screaming hey, edgy young person, this book is a lamestain-free zone for cool cats only. It was one of those obvious zeitgeist-y things that I knew I wanted to read so I could have an opinion about it. Still, I waited to buy a copy until I was sure no one would see me with it, so shameless was the cover art.

I finally bought the book in Charlotte, on a day when I had to spend ten hours stuck at SouthPark Mall (long story) with exactly $34 and a pack of Camel Lights. I read the whole thing on park bench between Sears and the parking lot, periodically getting up and doing a purposeful lap around the mezzanine level so the Security Guards wouldn’t harass me.

I admit to being surprised by the content. Once you got past the vintage typography, the slang glossary in the margins and the coffeeshop bathroom stall chapter titles (e.g. Adventure Without Risk Is Disneyland), the book was about a bunch of comfortable, underemployed thirty-ish yuppies languishing in the California desert through a very low-stakes quarter/third- life crisis. They weren’t particularly relatable, but far too milquetoast to be enjoyable terrible. They were the kind of people you imagined might wear khakis by choice and do the sniff thing with supermarket wine. The kind of people who would go to a bar and get excited about live music without being at all interested in the music itself. The kind of people who might ruffle your self-consciously disheveled hair and tell you you’ll grow out of it before waxing poetic about how much better it was when they were kids.

You know, like, parents.

Using that as evidence, it seemed reasonable that I wasn’t part of that cohort, no matter my  feelings about shoegaze and Sub Pop records. Only problem was that Time Magazine suggested that the Gen X follow-up– Generation Y – didn’t start 1977 or 78.

I puzzled over this for days. I wondered if it was possible that I just didn’t belong to any generation. Was I just a born free agent or somehow evidence of a cosmic anomaly? I decided to derail a Gulliver’s Travel’s discussion and ask my English class about it, as we were all roughly the same age. “Is it possible that the mid-seventies no longer exist in this dimension? That they just disappeared into a wormhole or something or I maybe come in from some other timeline.”

Physics dude, who’d recently graduated to School Crush following a legendary Grunge Hamlet performance, didn’t have an answer, though he did suggest that it might be a drug thing. Didn’t everyone do a lot of drugs in the mid-1970s? Or maybe a collective trauma thing. “I mean, like, Nixon and Vietnam. When was the fall of Saigon? 1975?” he asked, though he definitely knew. We’d all made 5s on our US History AP the year before. “Maybe they just took a few years off. Forgot things happened. That would explain Reagan. But like, has anyone ever heard anyone talk about Gerald Ford? It’s like he didn’t happen.”

These kinds of conversations were common to AP English 4 that year. We were all of us seniors, mostly charged with doing well on standardized tests, getting into college and completing the year-long, school-required senior projects that were like mini-theses for overachievers. Our teacher, a particular favorite, was inclined to let the twelve of us explore the text in whatever way we saw fit. Hence, the unit on John Milton’s Paradise Lost covered (among other things) masturbation (girls do it too), whether “Push, Push in the Bush” deserved a place in the Disco Pantheon (obviously), and if being hot for Miltonian Satan was morally equivalent to being attracted to Nazi Ralph Fiennes in “Schindler’s List” (complicated).

“Gerald Ford was hardly memorable enough to be Swiftian,” said the teacher, in a half-hearted attempt to make our digression relevant. “Chevy Chase playing Gerald Ford, however . . .”

I’d hoped to steer conversation back toward the fact that our age cohort had been collectively forgotten, but the kid from the Bahamas seized the moment to discuss Betty Ford and somehow the rest of the hour was lost to a debate about which President (FDR) and which first Lady (Jackie Kennedy) we had the hardest time imagining in the bathroom.

Still puzzling it out, I decided to write about Generation X and generation x in my college essay. My advisor gave me the side eye when I told him. “You sure you don’t want to write about what you learned doing a service project or a mission trip or something.” I told him that the only service program I’d effectively carried out was corralling a bunch of theatre kids and choir nerds to carol for old people at nursing homes. As it turned out, they were less enthusiastic about the renaissance motets and selections from “Les Misérables,” and my fellow students seemed a teense aggrieved about singing “White Christmas.” It was not an abject failure, but if I learned anything from the experience it wasthat sixteen-year-old actors are pretty confident in their future success and cranky 90-year-olds have nothing to lose by telling them they’re destined to fail, “so stop pouting and sing the Bing Crosby again!”

As far as mission trips, I’d never been on one. I was a heathen. The whole endeavor sounded both blatantly imperialist and soul-crushingly boring. I’d probably heard a half-dozen of my fellow classmates (all white people) stand in front of the student body for a ten-minute talk required of them to graduate, and drone on about how singing U2 songs with their youth group while getting hair braids in Haiti had endowed them with the courage and resilience they’d need to survive Rush Week at Dartmouth. I figured whoever handled the slush pile at the Ivy-caliber Admissions Offices had read thousands of them. It sounded like pure torture.

Why not make those sad sacks’ days less miserable. So I skipped any transparent attempts to come off like a better person and kicked off by writing about reading Coupland novel at a mall in Charlotte and trying to avoid getting hassled by security guards. I talked about both my aversion to flannel (hot, doesn’t pair well with skirts, seems more needlessly complicated than just putting on a sweater), despite otherwise having a fondness for tartan, and how most of what constituted “Grunge” was dull as a mudpuddle. I threw in a section about how “Pump Up the Volume” was in every way more relevant and meaningful than “Singles,” and concluded with a bit about on how weird it was that David Silver, no one’s favorite “Beverly Hills, 90210” character, was the only teenager on television introduced as being specifically my age. I asked the Admissions Officers to consider how that made me feel: unwanted, unloved, adrift in a world that couldn’t even be bothered to make empty generalizations about me because of my birth year.

Clearly, this point impressed the Admissions officers, because four out of six wrote back to offer me a place, which made me feel validated. “See? No one wants to be David Silver,” I said to my father, as I triumphantly waved an acceptance letter. He looked confused, then slightly nervous, then said something about it being a real honor that I got in even though, by the way, funny story, there was zero cash on hand for tuition.

I probably responded with some kind of sarcastic comment. Sarcasm was a thing that  Generation X was supposed to be good at, and by then the National Media had banished Coupland’s melancholy thirty-year-olds back to Baby Boom and all of us in mid-late 1970s were officially invited to try out an OK Soda and sit with the cool older kids.

That was in early April of 1994. A few weeks later, Kurt Cobain died. I heard about it when I was at a hotel in Baltimore with my family, part way through the sad, follow-up college trip, in which we toured the only two schools that had offered a scholarship as well as an acceptance, neither of which I wanted to go to. The Kurt news hit me weird, maybe because I was teetering on the edge of some a personal sadness I had no idea how to qualify. I remember running down to the bank of payphones in the lobby to collect call my friend Ivy League, because I didn’t have a phone card and she was a big Nirvana fan, or more accurate a big Kurt fan. She was a mess, didn’t even flinch at accepting the charges. I listened to her grieve and wondered what all of this meant about the space of time I inhabited. I owned all the Nirvana records and liked them, but it was 1994, a pinnacle year for suspicion of anything popular. Was it appropriate for me to be upset about a rock star death? Was it acceptable for me to be upset about that rock star death? And, totally selfishly, what did the end of the Nirvana era mean for my me and my friends—a bunch of otherwise nerdy teenagers with extremely niche musical interests and thrift-shopping habits, who’d spent much of the last academic year being mistaken for cool because we already owned old man cardigans.

I spent an evening eating shellfish with my mother, twelve-year old sister, and future stepfather, trying to explain who Courtney Love was, and why she was taking up airtime. It was frustrating and disappointing, but not as frustrating and disappointing as my future looked. At least I’d long since known that , despite my parents being reasonably hip, I would be incapable of convincing them that the things I liked were, in any sense, worthy of their attention unless they hit in the narrow heart of our shared experience . I didn’t think I could distill the noise about one of the biggest bands in the world into a compelling narrative, and ideally one that didn’t just end up being another gateway for my stepdad to discuss Santana, let alone explain why it even mattered to me. But I also didn’t think I would do anything by yelling about my own life being a total crock of shit, except for souring everyone else’s crab legs experience. So I ended up getting weirdly emotional about Cobain, wiping tears away with a butter-soaked napkin as a I hopelessly contemplated the moon rise over the Chesapeake Bay.

It’s not at all accurate to say that the greater Cultural Relevance of Generation X dissipated at that moment exactly. There were still more original recipe Lollapaloozas to come. “Alternative” as catchall genre was not yet the sole province of ball-capped suburban white dudes in wallet chain-bedecked khaki cargo shorts. Dave Matthews Band fans were still easily avoidable. Biggie and Tupac were still alive. No one had been to a party where the host just played the “Pulp Fiction” sound track over and over and over again yet. I’ll take 1994. Even the absurd and shitty parts—”Natural Born Killers,” the OJ White Bronco chase, Madonna’s “I’ll Remember,” big pants. Even Hootie. Something did, however, change for me, and in that way that the personal informs your view of culture, there’s a twinge that comes in around 1995 that has expanded into some kind of doom vortex by 98 or 99. Which, to be fair, also describes the trajectory of my life in those same years.

I spent the last few months of quarantine building this  ginormous self-indulgent (and frankly ginormous) 90s playlist, and I can’t deny the fact that things start to get ugly, like really ugly, around 97/98s. I’ve forced to confront some hard truths about myself: like, I might have been a healthier person in 1999  if I’d just straight up admitted to liking Britney Spears more than, say, Don Caballero.

By then though, people had long since stopped talking about Generation X. The used bookstores were no longer buying back Coupland novels and the thrift stores once again full of old man cardigans and discarded flannels.  The advertisers and media commentariat had turned their attention to Millennials—my little sister and her cohort–who maybe have been more doomed than we were but also younger, more ambitious and memorable. I was, to paraphrase  one of Douglas Coupland’s stupid chapter titles, no longer a target market.

This was, as are so many things in life, both a relief and a peculiar disappointment.

(Picture: Dorm closet, 1994)

The Last Chapter

Personal History

Twenty-five years ago this month my roommate and I received word from the Academic Advising office at our non-flagship state university that we’d both been placed on Academic Probation. They cited our poor showings over the last two semesters and poor showings they were indeed. Having enrolled full-time, we’d each managed to complete exactly two classes (both ones we shared—an art history survey on Renaissance and Baroque painting and a symposium on Oscar Wilde and the Aesthetics and Decadents of late 19th and fin-de-siecle England—we’d made As in both). The rest we’d dropped out of without formally dropping out, or,  in at least one notable exception, never attended at all. Our continued presences at the university would only be tolerated if we agreed to attend summer classes and maintain a B-average.

We laughed at that. We were not, as we saw it, B-average people. To the world, we may have been miserable, broke sack of shit bums and procrastinators that reeked of cigarette smoke and sweaty punk rock shows. Amongst ourselves, we were misunderstood geniuses on the brink of great intellectual or artistic success, paragons of taste, and on the increasingly rare days that we liked each other, the closest of friends.

This misapprehension rightly doomed us. And I can’t even blame it on pure folie à deux.  I knew that I was behaving like a lazy asshole. If there was ever a person that deserved failure for reasons of pure obnoxious self-regard and willfully squandered potential, it was yours truly. At the end of the semester, we broke the news to our horrified parents and enrolled in summer school.

Two weeks later,  my roommate and I went for a ride around the scuzzy edge of  Greensboro’s downtown and listened to droning electronic music and fantasizing about occupying condemned victorian mansions. My roommate let slide that a friend of a friend had offered hers a job selling phone cards at the Olympics. She would be leaving town ASAP. She hoped that wouldn’t be too much of a problem. It was a problem,  not insurmountable, but in my surprise and surprising hurt, I got snippy; we had one of our all-too-common arguments. I couldn’t bring myself to beg her to stay, because I was pretty sure if I did she’d never come back. So I may have reminded her that the only reason I’d even applied to this shit college was to live with her. She said something painful but entirely accurate about my self-respect. I asked if she even liked me anymore. And when she didn’t answer, I told her I thought she was wasting her life by going to Atlanta.  Then she said I was wasting my life period, and all signs indicated that I would continue to do the same. “You always talk about writing a novel,” she said. “I bet you a hundred bucks you never finish one.”

Two days later, she fucked off to Atlanta and left me living, for the first time in my life, entirely by myself. Eventually, all of us learn learn that life moves on and you can’t expect it to save a place for you, even if you are actually running to catch up. I most certainly wasn’t. At twenty and a few months with a couple shoeboxes of old letters and childhood knick-knacks liberated from the rubbish heap, I’d trudged through the predictable afterschool special disorientation of my my mother remarrying and the selling of the last house that could ever be described (even generously) as a childhood home and landed at a point when the only space for me in my hometown was on the living room sofa in my new stepfather’s condo, where my mother and sister had repaired while they waited for their new house to be built. I felt unmoored, adrift on a dead calm in the middle of the ocean with a broken mast and no tools

I took two classes that first summer session. One was Earth Science, a soft touch remedial course that allowed athletes and artsy types to fulfill a Science Requirement by coloring the tundra pink on a xeroxed map while a sweet-faced, baby-voiced professor asked us to raise our hands if we thought rocks were pretty. Why yes, Kevin! I think geodes are super neat too!

My other class was an Early American lit survey. It was taught by an aging, sardonic hippie named Jim who looked like a thinner Jerry Garcia and thought too much of Melville for my taste.  I didn’t know then that Jim was the head of the Creative Writing program at the college. He most certainly didn’t know that the Creative Writing program was what I told people I’d come to the college for, because for reasons lost to time, I hadn’t even enrolled in a single workshop.

I had been writing. In those days I could write like I was on fire. Youth, perhaps, but also cigarettes and coffee. I regularly lost computer keyboards to nicotine sludge and spilled, scorched Café Bustelo. None of what I wrote in those days was good. Most twenty-year-olds write bullshit, and there is no twenty-year-old bullshit more bullshitty than twenty-year-old bullshit with literary pretensions. I had a stack of stories about lonely young women, more attractive than I, with excellent taste in music and the kind of unflappable cool that made them seem fashionably wry even in their heartbreak (and they were always heartbroken).

I didn’t talk to Jim about writing in his class. I just wrote puns about Edgar Allen Poe in the margins of a Norton Anthology and went from campus to job interviews at weird smelling offices and sleazy chain restaurants. A man at a contractor’s office asked me what sort of underwear I planned to wear to the office, and surprised and naive, I answered “probably cheap and unflattering.” I didn’t get the job. Obviously a blessing. But I was still pissed because it paid $7.50/hour which felt like a fortune in Greensboro, NC in 1996.

I didn’t have any friends in Greensboro. I’d lived there for nearly an entire calendar year and could not think of a single person, other I could ask for coffee, not even a person I could call who might even recognize my name. So I came home at night and read Ulysses with the TV muted, the college radio station playing in the background and stuffed my face with 99cent bean burritos and boxed Macaroni and Cheese consumed direct from pot.

All of this is the kind of sad and embarrassing that makes me squirm in retrospect, but it’s the kind of sad embarrassing at the time that prompted me to start writing down a weird dream and end up a few months and about seven hundred pages later with the seemingly completed novel my roommate had predicted I’d never write.

The book itself was some more twenty-year old bullshit. At least two times too long and almost hilariously melodramatic. When I gave it to one of my remaining high school friends, she skimmed and said something like, “You’ve really got to start hanging out with some more emotionally stable people and thinking about a more meaningful future.”  Which I took as a back-handed compliment–look how edgy and transgressive she thinks I am . She meant that I needed help.

By then, my roommate was back from Atlanta, but our friendship was finished. I’m not sure I even told her I finished the book. Jim, by then my writing teacher, thought it would be instructive to send the book out. I did, and it was, of course, rejected, then rejected again, then rejected a few more times, but by then the credit card I used to buy printer cartridges and paper and send it off in the mail had tilted and I couldn’t even really afford to pay the credit card bills. So I quit sending it out and I started working on more projects. Rinse. Repeat. The uplifting self-help books about Art and Creativity and Story may discuss rejection (“Don’t give up! Keep putting yourself out there!”). What the uplifting self-help books about Art and Creativity and Story fail to note is that it costs money to submit things, and sometimes your bank account gives out before your will to succeed.

I rewrote that first book from scratch when I was thirty, on its ten-year anniversary. I don’t know why. Maybe because I was out of ideas. Probably because I have a problem letting things go. The eternal urge to tinker and improve is common to most creative people, I think, even/especially when grafted upon some seriously magical thinking. Like, if I could make that book work, I might not be able to rewrite my past, but it would at least make that past and all its attendant unhappiness feel worth it. And for the tiniest spark of a moment, it felt like it might actually work. But it didn’t. I quit sending it out. I started working on new projects. Rinse. Repeat.

I spent about fourteen months alone during Covid over the past year. I did not write a novel.  I’m well off the cigarettes for years and years. The  coffee after about 1pm just keeps me up all night in a dyspeptic, anxious, non-productive way. I no longer write like I’m on fire, unless it’s a work project and I’m under a deadline (and even then, hey, let’s see what’s happening on Twitter). I have stuff in the hopper, new ideas on deck, but it’s hard to summon up the energy to write them down, and even harder to imagine why someone else would be interested in a thing even I struggle to find the interest to do. Like, there’s a lot of noise in the world. A lot. Maybe the nicest thing I could do is to not contribute to the clamor and just shut the hell up for a while (she says after 1700 words).

Did I pull out the old book during lockdown? Oh yeah. Of course I did.

It had been about four years since I last read it through. The twenty-year-old bullshit turned thirty-year-old bullshit is now forty-five-year-old bullshit because even now, I have a file entitled “Old Book Fuck Around,” where I go on days when I feel unmoored to improve myself or find closure or save my soul through some kind of self-indulgent literary “Back to the Future”-ing.  

Years ago, back in the 90s, someone asked me what it would take for me to get a tattoo. I told her I’d probably do it when I finished my first novel. Two and a half decades later, I don’t have any tattoos (you’re welcome, Mom).  Maybe it’s because I can’t figure out what kind of tattoo I’d get. Maybe it’s because I’m not sure I’ve done anything worthy of permanent commemoration. Maybe it’s because there is always some ghost piece of me, still haunting that apartment in Greensboro, rewriting feverishly, and I know she’ll never be done.   

(Picture is of Elsewhere, which is definitely one of the coolest things in Greensboro. It post-dates my local residency by a few years)/

Eternal Flame

Music / Nostalgia / Personal History / Uncategorized

It was maybe the second dance of the eighth grade, early enough in the school year that I didn’t wear a coat, early enough in my career as a teenager that I hadn’t yet learned I could skip the dance. Mom dropped me off outside the gym l and I entered in through a chorus of nervous mothers squeeching out last minute instructions from minivan windows. Be careful. Don’t leave the school grounds. Be sure to call if you need me.

My particular junior high school was broadly considered to be the worst school in town. There were a lot of transparent reasons cited, but the truth was that it brought together a bunch of affluent, mostly white kids from the north side of town, a bunch of working class white kids from the west side of town, and a near majority of black kids from the center and south sides of the urban doughnut, so to speak. Parents were outwardly supportive but quietly concerned. And the integration of all of us played out like you’d expect at an Appalachian public school in the early 1990s. Which is to say, we didn’t really mix. The school kept us rigidly tracked by academic decree established so early it might as well have been Predestination. It was entirely possible to go through a whole class year in a school thronged with strangers without ever sitting beside someone you hadn’t gone to kindergarten with. And teenagers are masters of self-segregation on their own. Even the dance arranged itself by geography. The West Asheville kids in the bleachers on the far side of the gym. The North Asheville kids in a topsider-ed circle on the floor by the door. The Central South a moving column that divided the room between the two non-dancing groups of white adolescents seemingly oblivious to the other’s existence.

I found my place in the Northside corner, on the outer rim of the outer rim of popular North side kids. I glanced toward the dance floor with yearning. It was a dance.  Hadn’t we come dance? But all the nerdy girls that were still talking to me were transfixed by The Diplomat, a boy in our class in possession of the full arsenal of traditional North side popular traits—rich, smart, athletic, conventionally attractive, but he was uniquely regarded as nice. He always kept his distance—and convenient obliviousness—to the sniping and bullying of his expanded coterie, and eschewed long term relationships, making him a perfectly agreeable, acceptable crush for any girl in Honors Algebra.   

I tried to pay attention to conversation around me but the gym was loud and the music was infectious. 1989 was an exceptional year for hip-hop, thick with songs that were funny and sexy and furious and drunk with joy, and whoever the school hired to DJ was playing all the hits. I had a kind of out of body experience, coasting on beats while the kids around me stood around in tight rolled jeans and Duke sweatshirts like a pouty toadstools. I couldn’t figure out why we were standing stock still. What were we all waiting for?  

The  answer came soon enough when the DJ turned down the lights and turned up Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven.” The floor cleared, and west side descended the bleachers across the room mustered in the center of the gym with the northside kids—some sad confluence of white adolescence—and then paired into couples to sway along to Robert Plant.

Annoyed, I turned to one of the nerdy girls to ask why it was that white people were so determined to dance to this undanceable song, or why they’d even want to. Instead, I said: “I hate this song.”

I thought she might agree. She owned a B-52s shirt, after all,  but before she could respond, The Diplomat tapped her on the shoulder and asked her to dance. I found this both shocking and disappointing, but Algebra Class was thin, so she wasn’t monstrous in the the way I was. I skulked off to the sidelines.  I looked around at the silhouettes of the other remainder girls, wondered if I looked like them, staring mournfully at the dance floor, while a significant proportion of Asheville’s white adolescents attempted to bustle a hedgerow. Whatever that means.  I wondered if the other remainder girls expect something  more or different to happen at this dance? Did I?

I walked out into the gym lobby, now packed to capacity with dancers griping about whatever bullshit was being played inside. I missed being a little kid, when you could wander up to another little kid in the supermarket checkout and ask straight out if they wanted to be friends. I imagined myself doing that now, and blushed with mortification. I would die. I would die right here.

Around me, the crowd shifted. I heard the vice-principal clapping students back into the gym. I rode the wave back inside during what I believed to be the longest, wankiest guitar solo in history (I was wrong, sadly). The rest of the crowd started massing around the edges of the dance floor, heckling the slow dancers.

The DJ must have felt a riot was imminent because he cut “Stairway” off about three steps shy of the landing to what must be described as jubilant relief and played what I remember as “Bust a Move,” but I don’t think that’s possible chronologically speaking. Regardless, I started hopping around, in the intermediary zone, not quite in line with the dancers, but far enough away from the bleachers to, I thought, the kind of confident, devil-may-care energy that would differentiate me from the other remainder girls. I got a chorus of laughs when I attempted the Roger Rabbit, and took that as cue  to never dance again. So I went to the bathroom with the girl from Algebra and watched her fluff her spiral perm and reapply blueberry LipSmackers. She told me that The Diplomat was the only one for her. She was sure he would ask her out now. I felt torn. I was pretty sure The Diplomat was the only boy who had ever asked her to dance. Seemed like a pretty low bar, but what did I know? I’d never been asked to dance by a boy either.

A couple of  high-banged West Asheville girls produced a pack of cigarettes, and fearing Algebra Class would freak out or narc or both, I ushered her back into the gym, where she fluttered around The Diplomat, giggling and I stood aside until the next slowdance, when shockingly, unbelievably, I felt a tap on my shoulder.

When I turned, I saw the Diplomat. He gave me a line. “I’m dancing with all the coolest girls in the class,” he said, and I knew it was a line, because I wasn’t cool and neither was Algebra Class. But the song was “Eternal Flame” by the Bangles. And he was cute. And he was smart. And he smelled like laundry detergent and Flex shampoo. And no one had ever asked me to dance before. I followed him to the dance floor. He put his hand on my waist. I worried he might feel a fat roll, then my stomach sort of flipped, because he grinned and pulled me closer. I touched the woven sleeve of his polo. It was blue. Susannah Hoffs asked if she was only dreaming.  I totally forgot about the girl from Algebra class. I totally forgot that I didn’t really even like The Diplomat.

When the song ended, he pulled me close and whispered, “Thank you,” before walking away. I stood on the floor, while a not-yet-problematic Bobby Brown summoned the crowd back around me. And even though I knew I wasn’t real, even though I knew he’d just done the same thing to Algebra Class, for a second I thought I was maybe, actually cool. That The Diplomat hadn’t lied. That he’d wanted to dance with me. Maybe he even wanted to go out with me.

The girl from Algebra class was annoyed when I got back to the corner, but now I was the infatuated one. I drifted around him, laughed at his commentary, and  ignored the stink eyes of the actual popular girls. At the next slow dance, I tensed up, full of expectation, and peripherally saw Algebra Class do the same. But The Diplomat walked past us, further down the bleachers to the next of the Remainder Girls. He asked her to dance. I heard him say, “I’m dancing with all the coolest girls in the class.” I could almost feel the warmth of her blush from a distance. I felt sick.

He did it four more times that night. Each time with a different girl. Fat girls. Plain Girls. Girls with visible handicaps. Girls with bad skin. Girls that no one much liked. Pariah Girls. Invisible Girls. Girls that everyone felt sorry for.  All of us weird and unfortunate and grotesque. And him such a saint to condescend to treat like real humans for the length of a song.

The dance ended after the last slow song. He helped the girl with her crutches back to the bleachers and again, turned, without looking back and returned to his friends.

Outside we waited for rides between rainslicked breeze blocks. I watched my crowd dwindle and other kids, laughing, took off walking out of the parking lot I had been instructed not to leave. I could see The Diplomat from where I was standing, talking to a couple of popular girls, triple threat girls like him, rich, pretty, smart. They were flirting, buzzing around him, full of compliments.

“It’s so nice that you danced with those girls tonight,” one of them said. “They’re all so sad. I mean, they might not ever get asked to dance again. And you are, like, such a good person.”

“I mean, I think it’s important to be try and be decent to people,” he said, and I swear he saw me then. I swear he made eye contact with me. “Especially people who aren’t as lucky as we are.”

I probably should have yelled at him, but I was in the eighth grade, still making all the wrong decisions and feeling all the wrong feelings. I saw the shape of Mom’s headlights and stumbled toward the car, because I didn’t want to cry in public yet. I pulled at the door handle and hoisted myself into the station wagon.

She asked how the dance was .

I blinked. I thought about Susannah Hoffs. ” You’ll never guess who danced with me,” I said.

I saw her smile. I saw her thinking maybe that I was cool and pretty, that I was the kind of girl someone wanted to dance with.

“So you had a good time?”

I closed my eyes and reconfigured the plot, until the memory looked the way it was supposed to. “It was the best,” I said.

“Tell me everything,” she said.

I didn’t, but the version I told was so much better than the truth that I almost made myself believe it.

Summer Jams

Nostalgia / Personal History / Pirate Necessities

In early 1989, at pirate camp, I let a bossy, chain-smoking, fourteen-year-old liar from Atlanta cut my hair during a tornado. This seemed like a good idea at the time.

She was kind of mean and definitely full of shit, but she was the only one of the cool older girls in my cabin that didn’t talk to me like I was a child. She’d been hassling me for days about my look, and I, a noted soft-target for any promise of makeover was finally, like, Fine, then. Do something about it. After all, we were stuck inside during a storm. What else did we have to do.

We’d been evacuated off the sound about fifteen minutes before, just after our visibly stoned junior counselor maybe named after a liberal arts college, executed a perfect swan dive off the swimming platform between two blue-white crackles of lightning. She surfaced moments late and climbed up the barnacled ladder, flashing the awestruck onlookers a woozy peace sign.

“Tubular,” said one of the boys I had a crush on.

I thought it was a little reckless, but I was still young enough that I couldn’t apply the lessons of myth to real life. So hubris often looked like superpowers, especially when strutting past back to dry land with one boob almost completely liberated from a string bikini top, like an Amazon on spring break. The older camp staff were screaming at us to come in panicked from the shoreline, but Liberal Arts College simply had to gesture and we all followed.

In the nick of time too, because the wind kicked up when we came ashore, tossing around loose towels and surf boards. I narrowly avoided a tumbling catamaran in my path. I climbed the stairs of the weather-beaten two-story cabin I occupied with some thirty other girls. The counselors shut the storm shutters over the screens while we shrugged out of wet bathing suits and vied for showers. The wind had knocked out the power, but water was as warm and almost as salty as the body of water we’d just left. My skin stuck to my clothes–cutoffs stiff with salt, and an R.E.M t-shirt worn to near translucence, neither of which technically mine, but borrowed or bartered—and I remember the whole cabin listing and creaking with the wind, almost as if it were a ship itself.

“You know, if this thing gets intense, we’ll probably die in this cabin,” said Liberal Arts College. “Sorry if you’re still virgins.”

She fired up the boombox, which contained a mixtape her boyfriend (who was named after a city in Alabama) made for her. She played it obsessively, so I primed for the opening bars of “Dear God,” and tried to imagine what it would be like if we were about to die. I followed Atlanta to the rail-less enclosed stairs at the back of the cabin and she propped a flashlight between her knees.

“I think we should start by cutting the rest of this perm out,” said Atlanta. “Perms are over.”

I might have blanched at the first length of still-sopping hair that dropped down the landing at her first hack, but I settled into the rhythm of it, as the storm shuddered and Andy Partridge wrestled with faith from the speakers. An epic roll of thunder opened for track two, Cult of Personality. I mouthed the lyrics, like Mussolini or Kennedy, while Atlanta talked about her act for the forthcoming talent show. She claimed she was a celebrated freestyle dancer which was like a breakdancer, but with more serious moves and, like, cheer skills. One could only learn freestyle dancing on the streets, and she’d grown up hard on the mean streets of Buckhead.

I hadn’t spent much time in Atlanta, but I knew Buckhead was my Nana’s favorite neighborhood on account of the fancy malls. Seems like a weird place for dancing street gangs, but Atlanta was currently wielding sharp things pointing at my head, so I didn’t say anything.

She stopped to ask if I was into New Wave, which I figured was maybe because we’d moved onto track, Blue Monday, but she meant my hair. “It might be kind of New Wave, when I’m done,” she said. “But that’s going to be way cooler this fall than a grown-out spiral perm.

“Fine,” I said, and listened to the cool girls in my cabin sing along. If she’d promised there was hair of a chance that it might have made me interesting to them, I would have let Atlanta shave my head.

***

“I let someone cut my hair,” I told my mother, on the phone that night on the phone, in the camp office, overseen by the small cadre of actual camp adults. I didn’t mention the tornado, because my mother was afraid of them and would have freaked out

Mom didn’t seem worked up about the haircut. She asked me how it looked. I hadn’t exactly reached a solid conclusion yet. I gave it another looksee in the reflective panel on the pay phone, and told her it was kind of cute and close to a bob, without going into details, because the details were that I’d let a gossipy, fourteen year old fabulist from the mean streets of Buckhead pretty much do whatever she wanted and it looked like it.  

One of the other adult staffmembers, the one that forced me to call my mother when she saw my hair, took the phone from me and performed a thirty second tone poem of uh-huhs. When she hung up, she shrugged and released me to dinner. It was shrimp night. Shrimp night was always the best night at pirate camp.

After dinner, I wandered out past the knuckle ball tables where a saucer-eyed older camper with Jami Gertz hair shot fireballs at boys she thought were cute with a Bic and a can of Aqua Net. She laughed at me when I flinched. I sidestepped a group of boys by the water cooler, and headed to the water so I could feel what the breezy afterside of the storm felt like when it ruffled my hair.

I took the storm damaged pier a launch halfway down and planted myself two staira closer to the water with my feet in the warm briny Sound and my finger marking the pages in Stephen King’s It, which I’d borrowed from Atlanta. I tended to spend most camp nights on the halfway launch, back to the younger campers, digging up clams in the reedy patch behind me. Sometimes Irish Name, my oldest friend from home, came with me, and we faced the end of the pier together, watching spectral boats and barges float up the channel past, the top of the island and into the sea. Increasingly she didn’t, which was okay, because increasingly we had nothing in common to talk about except our increasingly unlikely friendship

Tonight, the pier end was occupied by a few counselors and older campers half-assedly trying to aright the fleet of small sailboats—mostly Sunfish and Flying Scots—that had capsized during the storm. Just beyond them, on the outer edge of the boathouse, the typical evening crowd of underage smokers had gathered for a post-dinner puff. The counselors ignored them, probably because they’d soon join them, as soon as they’d drained the fleet of kayaks. It seemed preposterous that I had gotten in trouble for a haircut, a camp activity so benign that it had been figured into “The Parent Trap,” while no one was making the smoking section call home. I watched them enviously, wishing I’d been invited to join, terrified I might be, because I had no idea if I wanted to do whatever they’d expect me to. I suspected I’d be met with the smirks of boys, the haughty bitch-faced pity of girls, or worse, they’d just ignore me, pretend that I wasn’t there.

The sky darkened, gold to pink to violet. Sunsets are usually spectacular after a storm.

I could hear the muffled bass of the music from the barn, where the camp hosted a “dance” every night nights they didn’t show old James Bond films or host Atlanta’s beloved Talent Show. They were playing Stairway to Heaven, which was a terrible song to dance to, but a popular favorite among white kids named after cities in Alabama or liberal arts colleges (and track seven on my counselor’s mixtape). Most of the camp only went to the dances as an excuse to hang out in the dark and try not to attract too much attention while they messed around with each other’s shorts and bra straps. Stand By Me would play later–—the camp dance playlist was as predictable as Liberal Arts College’s mixtape. I loved that song. It sounded like floating under the stars on navy blue sea. It sounded, I thought, like what it must feel like to be loved back. Eventually they’d play Violent Femmes or Beastie Boys and I’d skitter back over the splintery planks to shore so I could pogo around the for a song and half and hope people would be so disarmed by my new hair that they’d suddenly start talking to me, that they’d realize I was so much more than what I’d seemed, that I was the kind of girl who’d let a bossy liar cut her hair during a tornado.

Because, why not?