Haywood, 1990-91

Family History / Houses / Nostalgia / Personal History

(This is the third part of a series, part two is here)

It was a big deal when the condos were finished. The building was one of the first fully-renovated, maybe the first fully-renovated residential building downtown. In those days, downtown was a millimeter removed from ghost town, and probably still read that way to most people, save my mother, who’d spent the last five years running a non-profit to convince people otherwise. When she’d moved into her first office, in the bottom floor of a mostly-unoccupied art deco office building, I would sit in the conference room in front of the big old store windows and watch trash blow down the street like tumbleweeds and rats the size of poodles wander up out of a formerly enclosed interior alley under the buildings that the first construction in a half a century had unearthed. God knew what lurked down there. Spiders. Rodents. The ghost of the mean old man that once owned the Toy Store on College Avenue, but hated all children.

Mom would say, “We’re going to revitalize downtown and bring it back.” And I would think, Pshaw! Can’t wait to get out of this dump.  As if there would ever be more places to shop than the bookshop, the hippie store, and the joint across from her office where they sold top hats, lingerie and flamboyant party masks, as if every day required a fresh ensemble for a “Rocky Horror” screening.[1]

The condos completed around the same time that they finished the construction on the cobblestone street. Then the hotel on the corner opened for business. We all oohed and ahed because the street looked gorgeous, even though most of the retail space was empty. The hotel added an attached atrium, which looked like the 1980s version of heaven—all pink marble and skylights and glass elevators and pink-neon-festooned frozen yogurt stand that stocked New York Seltzer.

Mom moved her office onto the third floor of the atrium beside the condos. Her friends started buying condos in the building next door. We all understood the it to be very chic and truly urbane.

When  Dad moved out of the house and into a second floor unit in the condo building, my sister and I were prepped for the place to be swanky, but mostly it was gray. Gray carpet. Gray walls. Gray bathrooms. High gray ceilings. Track light that produced a kind of sad hazy gray light. There was a patio in the back of dad’s unit, with gray and brick walls 8-feet high to discourage trespassers, which gave the outdoor space a real (gray) prison yard ambience.

The first few months at Dad’s new place were a real strange time for everybody. The three of us—my eight year old sister, father and fourteen year old me—had to figure out how to operate in a Mom-less vacuum on weekends. It was hard to tell who was supposed to be doing what. The first weekend we stayed over, Dad looked at me expectantly in the kitchen and asked what we’d be having for dinner. I think I looked back at him in some combination of confusion and mortal terror before our respective stunned silences devolved into a screaming match. My father accused me of being a spoiled brat and I’m pretty sure I told him he was a sexist and that I’m not Mom, damnit. I didn’t even get in trouble for swearing.

Because this argument started recurring, I did my best not to spend much time at the apartment on paternal custodial weekends. Weekdays, I’d crawl over the parking garage wall and hang out in the atrium beneath Mom’s office, eating breadsticks and nachos at the café by the yogurt place with a 9th grader we all called Dino, who also had a parent working nearby. Dino had been to Russia. That made him, in those hazy, barely post-Cold War days, cool and kind of subversive, especially for girls like me who’d recently started to go all a-tingle if someone so much as said the word Bolshevik in my presence. I had bit of a baby crush and after we’d finish our homework, I’d wander upstairs and lounge around Mom’s office smitten until she made me go back to Dad’s. Then I’d usually go hang out at the cathedral or the library until somebody told me I had to leave and return to the gray and my unhappy sister and my unhappy father still sitting in the same chair in the back room, writing in his journal, listening to Paul Simon and “The Fabulous Baker Boys” soundtrack on repeat  

The early dad weekends all fade together, a blur of spats and snapshots. A fair-won goldfish that jumped all the way out of the salad bowl my sister kept him in. A refrigerator continually full of half-eaten deli food.  A sick day I spent watching Mtv and eating a whole roll of Pillsbury cinnamon rolls that so troubled my parents (already ashamed and horrified of my weight), I ended up in therapy for it. I eat to feel the emptiness inside, I told them at the time, even though it was bullshit, but better than telling the truth–I’m hungry and bored and fourteen and there’s nothing else to eat here but mustard and brandy—and being accused of having no self-respect.  I woke up every now and then to find homeless men asleep against the grate outside the bedroom window. I’d tap the glass and chase them off before my sister saw. They were harmless, but I knew the men would freak her out. For fun, my sister and I spent hours, playing old classical records on 45 and 78 speeds on Dad’s stereo, dashing around the doughnut -shaped space in the center of the apartment, until we collapsed exhausted or Dad told us to quiet down.

Some Sundays, we’d trot down to the hippie church on the newly renovated cobblestoned street. The minister was a jazz musician. We’d jam out to a funky Nicene creed and participate in sermons on closure where we’d do things like, mold clay and sing “Let it Go” to the tune of “Let It Be” as the psychiatrist father of the most popular boy in my class accompanied us on bongos. Afterward, I hung around for youth group. This consisted of a bagel brunch at a café up the block with several other kids (half of whom also had divorced fathers living in the same gray condos) and my favorite middle school English teacher. We discussed existentialism and camping and “Flatliners.” Sometimes we’d plan field trips to see a Irish folk singers with nice sweaters and crushworthy cheekbones. I don’t remember ever talking about Jesus or prayer, but it was definitely in that youth group that I learned about both  My Bloody Valentine and Patti Smith. So I suppose that counts as ample consideration of the sublime.

I turned fifteen in that apartment. I had some friends over from my class, though to call them friends was a stretch. I don’t think most of them even knew me particularly well. I tried to pick cool, but not too popular, kids, the ones that might be impressed with the downtown apartment, but might not remember that I’d been a pariah eighteen months previous. No one was impressed. It was gray. It was February and thus also gray outside. We watched “Tales from the Crypt” and stood around awkwardly by Dad’s stereo because no one else was as into the “Fascination Street” remix as I was. Several of the kids walked the edge of the ice-topped high wall on the patio. I panicked, internally, at their recklessness, but tried to play it cool. A couple kids went out to smoke in the parking lot. Most of them called their parents and left early. I started to think that Dad’s maybe you should consider boarding school next year wasn’t the craziest idea I’d ever heard.

***

It was just after that fateful birthday party that I went to the bathroom one Saturday night at the apartment  and reached the end of my late blooming. I knew what was happening. I’d read “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret” when I was  in the second grade, several years before most of my close girlfriends reached their first big adolescent milestone. My mother had always been upfront about sexual education.  She didn’t mince words. She told me that it wouldn’t be a big deal. Then she told me not to hold my breath. “We tend to run late, as a family,” she said.

I went through a few years of feeling awkward about it, wearing a training bra I didn’t need, stocking my backpack with supplies I never used. Sometime around thirteen, I stopped doing even that. My friends had all started and assumed that I as well. I didn’t correct them.  I stopped wearing the training bra I didn’t need and wondered if it were possible that it might just never happen. Maybe I’m not entirely female. Maybe I’ll never come of age. Maybe I’m part-boy. Maybe I can live here comfortably on the border of nothing in particular forever. It didn’t sound so bad to me, maybe even kind of a relief.

So it was not exactly surprising when it finally happened, but a little disappointing and terribly, terribly inconvenient. I’d long since stopped carrying fake supplies. I sat in the bathroom for a while, trying to figure out if I could make it out door of the apartment without anyone noticing the blood (probably), but I didn’t have any money and I was still a bit unclear about the mechanics. Even though I was fifteen, a freshman in high school, this was new, and I had no idea how messy it could be. Like, could I make it across the street without looking like I’d come through a massacre? Would I bleed on everything? My mother was hundreds of miles away. My close friends could not yet drive and were across town.  And I knew, for a fact, my father could not handle what was happening to me. I hollered for my nine-year old sister.

My sister was about halfway through her fourteenth rewatch of “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” and gave me a blistering gaze when I told her what I wanted. To wit: “Go get some money from Dad. Go across the street to the pharmacy. Buy maxi pads. Ask the people behind the counter if you need help.”

She didn’t like the pharmacy across the street. It smelled like cabbage and old Cheetos and was constantly full of old people who shuffled in from one of the many grand  hotels-turned-senior- housing like pale ghosts in wooly cardigans. The only thing good about the pharmacy about it was its whole wall of hair extensions and weaves behind the counter. That was fascinating. Also they had cokes in green bottles. Did I want a coke?

“Just the pads,” I said. “And please don’t tell Dad. Please don’t tell Dad.”

She sighed and told me to wait. A moment later, I heard the front door close. I sat back on the toilet and started counting the bathroom tiles. Five minutes passed. Ten. Twenty. At thirty, I worried my sister had been kidnapped. At thirty-five minutes, I swallowed my pride and started calling for my father. He didn’t come. So I swaddled my bottom half in roughly a whole roll of toilet paper and waddled out into the hall, jeans around ankles. Nobody was home. I was halfway to the phone, when I heard the front door open and scrambled back to the bathroom.

“We went to K-Mart. The Pharmacy was closed.”  And my sister handed me a large brown paper bag containing what must have been the entire Feminine Hygiene aisle. It was a bewildering amount of products. I unloaded something like twenty boxes into the space below the sink. One I opened, utilized, and escaped.

I slunk back to the gray bedroom, hoping my father would forget I as there. I heard him call my name. I shot daggers at my sister.

She shrugged. “I had to tell him what the money was for.”

When I entered his bedroom, he sat in the chair against the far wall, Iron John propped open on one knee, his journal on the other. He was playing Cannonball Adderley playing “Autumn Leaves” on a boom box.

He looked up at me with something like terror, as he said, in excruciating sincerity, “Congratulations on becoming a real woman, bud. Quite the milestone. Want to hear a poem?”

I didn’t.

Reader: I died. I died, like a thousand times. I wished I could melt into the gray carpet and disappear into the walls. I flushed scarlet.

Dad, also flushed scarlet (genetics!),  thankfully decided against poetry,  and  satisfied he’d done his duty, turned back to his book with all due haste. I took that as my cue. I shut his bedroom door, and behind me I could hear “Autumn Leaves” swell to heavy metal volume. I took Mom’s emergency contact number and probably 5 dollars of Dad’s quarters and fled over the wall of the parking garage to the pay phone in the empty atrium.

Mom’s friend answered and I demanded to speak to her. When I told her the story, she laughed, because it was objectively funny. Then she asked if I was okay (mostly), if I had any questions (no), and proceeded to tell me all about night clubs and record shops in Chicago until I settled down, because Mom knew me better than most people. “Tell me again about the piano on the bar,” I said. “Tell me again about records. Tell me about the guy that looked like Elvis Costello.”

I slunk back to the apartment, somewhat calmed, and stretched out across the bed in my dark, gray bedroom, wondering if this were the end of all things or the beginning. Would I start wanting babies? Would I finally get boobs? Was everything going to change now?

No.

Yes, but a mixed blessing.

Of course, and there’s not a thing you can do about it.

***

Eventually the owner of the apartment decided to sell Dad’s unit as a condo. I think we were all a little relieved when he decided not to buy it. I’d miss the incredible freedom of wandering through old empty Asheville, largely unsupervised. I wouldn’t miss the apartment at all.

Some five and a half years later, my mother and sister would temporarily return to Haywood. My stepfather, another divorced dad, then lived in the building. He moved in to the unit directly above my father’s, barely a couple of years after my dad vacated. And the summer after Mom remarried, she and my sister lived with him there while a new house was being built.

My stepdad’s apartment was warmer, more beige than gray, much less sad, and by then downtown Asheville was on its way to becoming an something more like a city—though still a shadow of what it’s since become.

When I came home to visit, I’d walk past Dad’s old door and remember the arguments and the long, boring days. I’d think about being stuck in the bathroom because I worried that leaving a red streak on so much gray was the worst thing I could imagine.

Those were the days.


[1] To be fair, I adored  that store.

Westwood, 1976-1991

Family History / Houses / Nostalgia

(This is the second part of a series. Part One is here.)

The house on Westwood was two stories tall, a pale stucco colonial, built around 1920. It had thirteen rooms, almost all tiny, and a densely flowered yard, also tiny, overlooking a manmade lake.

But to describe my childhood home the way I truly want to describe it, you can’t rely on realism. It exists in a kind of magic space, a liminal, half imaginary realm, with a floor plan that defies physics, on a map that doesn’t exist, populated by legions of invisible creatures, outfitted with secret passageways, portals to the extraterrestrial dimensions, time machines, and a family of rain-negative blobs that lived on the roof named The Deedles. When I dream about it, as I still do, all the time, it feels natural, comfortable to return, but it’s always an otherworldly experience. Like one wrong step could find me stuck under a fairy hill or teleported to Mars via the passage behind the overgrown lilac tree in the backyard. Maybe because I dreamed so much in that house as a child, dreams I remember, and even my dreams had dreams. There was something about the landscape—we had an epic view, a lake below a cresting wave of three tall mountains—and the neighborhood, verdant, full of secret hiding places, eccentric neighbors, similarly imaginative kids, and parents of the generation that didn’t care if you got on their lawn or didn’t come home until nightfall. I don’t believe in God or ghosts or astrology, but to date, I’d be willing to accept that goblins and fauns existed in the periphery around Westwood Road.

What I really want to talk about though is not the amount of flowering shrubs in the yard (secret garden-ish) or the way I wrote secret notes for posterity between the leaves on the abstract strawberry wallpaper in my bedroom (increasingly dark and salacious) or even the absolute perfection of my father’s study, which with tall shelves of books and records , seemed, for a while, like it might contain all the arcane secrets of the universe (fans of jazz, soul, psychology and modernist novels might argue that it did). What I really want to talk about is The Basement.

To start off, basement access was just off the kitchen, not down a traditional flight of stairs, but through the downstairs powder room. Sitting on the toilet, a person would stare down into the gaping black maw of the underworld accessible by rickety wooden staircase, at the bottom of which was an ancient freezer that turned a preternatural blue in the shadows. At some point, someone had outfitted the top of the stairs with an even more rickety louvered door, fabricated out of some heinous 1970s riff on artificial basket-woven woodgrain, from which a thousand knot eyes blinked out of the plastic like a Sears catalog Argus. I didn’t like the door being closed because I’d rather see what was lurking beyond than be forced to imagine it, so I kept the louvered door open, and turned on the flickering, dim basement light. Mom had hung a framed antique print of Mary, Queen of Scots prior to execution, just above the toilet paper, which added to the morbid ambiance. I silently consulted to the late queen while doing my business, hoping she might inspire courage, if not protect me from whatever monsters lurked beneath, until I could wash my hands and GTFO.

My childhood basement was the scariest place I’d ever seen and I spent more of my childhood than most tromping around abandoned buildings, old theatres, family cemeteries, haunted outbuildings, grand old mansions in various states of disrepair, derelict old hotels, and the dark, unvisited corners of a few actual castles. I think I was a pretty brave kid, but we all have our limits. And the basement was basically the worst of all worlds. Dank, fetid, partially unfinished, with a perennial damp concrete floor. There were shelves of ancients jars and bottles half-lit by its one filthy window over and equally ominous worktable, still fitted with rusted tools, all left by some former occupant. There were weird nooks and crannies. A half completed bathroom, unusable, a back door that led to a terrifying vestibule that smelled like death, and then up a mildewed staircase to the darkest edge of the backyard. There were secret holes in the plaster, through which family cats (and god knows what else) could find access in and out. And there was the coal room.

Just thinking about it gives me the shivers. It was in the furthest back corner. A brick cell, windowless, walls still black ancient coal dust, old iron tools in the corner and rusted bed spring propped against the wall like a torture device.. Almost every worst nightmare I ever had ended there. I sleepwalked as a small child, and as I grew older, became convinced that I might one day wander down and wake up there. I couldn’t imagine anything worse.

Because the washer and dryer were located in the basement, I early on developed a real hatred of doing laundry (persists to this day). I found that it was difficult to be helpful when I was petrified. The basement was also a bit of neighborhood killjoy. With few exceptions, no one, not even the boys who were older than I, would risk going down there, even though it was replete with hiding places. I couldn’t escape the sense of doom, the fucking coal room watching me all the time with its vacant stare and breathing in the distance a death rattly air.

To be fair, our basement wasn’t the only creepy basement on the street, which was full of old houses with secret underneaths. And it definitely wasn’t the strangest. That honor went the next door neighbors, an elderly couple from The Netherlands, who filled their ersatz antebellum mansion with windmills and built a kind of grotto in the basement with mirrors on the ceiling. It was definitely weird, and it was one of those things that got weirder as the neighborhood kids got older and started trying to work out what those mirrors were for, exactly. We spent a fair amount of time trying fi to sneak in and see before the house was sold, when I was about eleven, to a famous child psychologist, who added a vintage pinball machine to the basement and let me housesit while he and the family went to a Jungian conference in Switzerland. For a few glorious days, I was the coolest person I knew. I invited everybody—pretty much the whole school bus– over to play, check out the grotto and the mirrored ceilings and hypothesize about kinks and fetishes in the way that only naïve eleven-year-olds with too much access to HBO and their father’s uncensored libraries can. Ultimately, I was fired from the housesitting job—my first—not just because I let any interested kid wander through the psychologist’s house, but because I forgot to water the orchids and they all died. The real tragedy was that I was never again allowed to play with the pinball machine.

But I decided, coming out of the experience, that perhaps I had misjudged my own basement.  That maybe I might wring an emotion other than pure terror out of the place. I tried to start hanging out down there. It was pretty inhospitable, but I discovered intriguing new things. Like old theatre scenery in the coal room and old Halloween costumes I figured had been thrown away. I found where the cat had been getting into the house at night (and could sneak up the stairs and crawl into my bed ( I never minded, though my mother objected). I found all of my Christmas presents for several years running and got so excited about them I could barely sleep for three Decembers. I found that, no matter how ferociously I begged, it was unlikely my parents would consider outfitting the coal room with a vintage pinball machine.

After my parents split, we lost the house. Dad wanted his cut. Mom couldn’t come with the funds to buy him out. Nana, always a hard sell on anything you actually want, cited the myriad dangers of staying on in an old home full of old wiring, old plumbing, old windows, “and that basement!” Losing that house was like losing a limb or parent. Leaving it, and all that entailed, was more traumatic than watching my father move out.

My mother and sister grieved it more than I did, I think, because I was fifteen and total hung up on all the shit that comes with being fifteen. In the new house, I’d have a larger bedroom. I was closer to my friends. I could walk places, actual cool places. I could have a room that didn’t look like it belonged to a little girl.

A few days  before we left the house, I thought I might exorcise some demons and waited until everyone else had gone to sleep. I slipped down stairs, through the kitchen, past the blank spot on the wall where Mary Queen of Scots, now packed, had hung. I turned on the basement light and walked down the stairs, past the old work table, the shelves, now empty of creepy bottles, past the furnace and into the coal room. I stood there in my nightgown and sneakers on the blackened gravel floor and dared the spirits to come after me. It was cold. It was dark. And I could hear the floors creaking above and the branches dragging their fingers against the walls in the spring gale outside. I didn’t hear voices. I didn’t hear monsters. I wasn’t chased out by ghosts. Somehow that fact made me  unaccountably sad. That it was just me in a now empty room in a house I’d lived in for almost fifteen years, a house I felt like I’d only recently gotten to know, a house, I realized with sudden and terrible certainty, I’d never see the inside of again.

The next family would change the wallpaper with my scribbles. They’d tear down the bookshelves. They’d expand the kitchen over the patio. They’d cut down the lilac tree. They’d repaint all the walls. They would turn my imaginary kingdom into something I didn’t know. A modest house, half-renovated on a not-so-large budget, would become a less modest house. The street I grew up on, full of school teachers, small-time lawyers, professors and restaurant owners would become a street full of actual rich people, who tore down or  built on to the other modest homes and turned them all into houses that cost a half a million, a million, and the neighborhood, in total, would become a place locally synonymous with wealth. They’d probably all redo the basements. They’d probably all have pinball machines down there.

I said goodnight to the coal room and climbed up two stories to my bed. Mom stirred and asked if I was okay. I said I’d gone for water.

The day we moved out, I wasn’t there. I’d gone to a Latin Club event in Chapel Hill.  When I came home, it was to a new house. It felt different. It smelled different even with all our old things, it was like the other one had barely existed at all. I started to unpack and found ample space for my extra books in the basement. It wasn’t bad down there. Partially above ground. Lots of windows. Lots of light. No coal room. No nightmares. Barring a few spider crickets, nothing but empty space and the faintest whiff of possibility. Nothing to be afraid of.

For moment, just a moment, I felt fearless.

Sutherlin, 1976

Family History / Houses / Nostalgia

The house on Sutherlin was a duplex.

My parents had moved there from a small brick rancher, further out of town on Virginia side, up in a neighborhood that wound up the side of a low ridge, from which my mother had a nearly unimpeded view of the starry night sky. She would stand at the window, contemplating the Big Dipper and the vastness of space. And it was there she decided she’d be happier with more of a buffer between herself and whatever lurked in the cosmos if my father were going to work so many late nights at the local paper.

They were both a bit disoriented in those days, recently returned from three years of living in Europe to find themselves in both my father’s borderline feudal hometown and in the middle of the 1970s. My paternal grandmother, a WASP socialite and collector of novelty cocktail napkins, tried to lift their spirits by inviting them to parties. And in Bristol, there was almost always a party. Alas, there weren’t enough gin and tonics in all of Southwest Virginia to drown out the ennui they’d smuggled back from the Old World. But at least, they could move closer into town, and even though it was a duplex, it was in the nice neighborhood—the only neighborhood anyone lives—not counting a couple of outliers in Tennessee and the big houses up the road in Abingdon.

From the upstairs of the house, they could see the back of my grandparent’s home catty-cornered on the opposite hill. Things were nuts up there. My great-grandmother had passed away, leaving a literal estate’s worth of fancy things to be sold or gifted at whim. The grandparents were splitting up, an event decades in the making, which made it a more-brutal-than-usual divorce.

My mother was pregnant with a child she and my father called Tom, short for Thomas Butler Fields, which sounded like a great name for a poet or a lawyer, or maybe both. My parents decorated Tom’s room with a Peter Rabbit motif, which they rationalized could be gender-neutral in a pinch, though neither seemed to have the slightest notion that the child might be a girl. I was, though. A girl. The only one born in the hospital in Bristol, Tennessee the day before Leap Year. And I ended up with a name that sounded less like it should be wearing a tweed waistcoat and more like a bungled translation of Champs Elysees.[1]

 My mother brought me home to the Peter Rabbit room and rocked me to sleep in the chair by the window, from which she watched the neighbors’ cocktail parties, the bitter end of my grandparents’ marriage, the well-heeled parishioners at the Presbyterian Church on the corner, as they gathered after the service to make plans for lunch at the Country Club. Mom wrote in her journal when I was sleeping and described the scene as sweet poison, some concoction that could be ingested satisfactorily for years before inevitable doom.

When my father announced that his newly minted job with my grandfather’s advertising agency had gone a couple of months without a paycheck, my mother took it in stride. There were not a lot of jobs in the Tri-Cities for a man of my father’s particular qualifications, so he took one over the mountain in Asheville.

My mother stayed behind in the house on Sutherlin to pack. Dad called at night from the grand old inn turned half-rotted residential hotel, where I would one day take ballet classes. He looked at real estate in Asheville. He was sure they’d find a good house.

Mom cried the day they left Sutherlin Street, not out of nostalgia or fear of the future, but because she felt like she’d dodged a bullet no more sweet poison. And as she crossed over the top of Sam’s Gap, from Tennessee to North Carolina, I believe she was confident that she’d spared me as well.

I don’t remember any of this. I was seven months old, when we left Bristol. These aren’t my memories, just my version of someone else’s.

I do, however, remember the house. Shortly after we moved to Asheville, my recently-divorced and briskly-remarried grandfather moved in.  I know the layout of the duplex. Where the counters were in the kitchen. The light—or lack thereof—on the stairs. By then the house smelled like my grandfather, which is to say like cigarettes, whiskey, old books, and limes. Sweet poison of another kind, but no less deadly.   I used to wander the halls trying to jog infant memories, but I never felt any sense of home there.

Grandjay moved out years before he passed away, first to an apartment up the hill and then to DeFuniak Springs, Florida, where he’d have cards printed up identifying himself as Pope of. The last time I was in Bristol, several years ago, for a work event at the Birthplace of Country Music, I drove the few blocks out of town and observed the duplex– still very much the same, in a neighborhood still very much the same. It wasn’t a bad place. Maybe not even as bad as I remembered it. Still, I took a second to quietly thank my parents from afar for getting over the mountain and getting me the fuck out of there.  


[1] That’s fine, but if we’re nitpicking, I would have preferred Alexandra. Alexandra Fields is the sort of name that fits a Jazz Age heiress or maybe a drawing room sleuth (perhaps both). I believe I could have solved the crime and probably looked good in a rope of pearls and cloche hat while doing so.

A Ghost Story

Uncategorized

The hotel was gabled stone building, fitted with a conical turret and Gothic Revival windows. We found it on a narrow curving highway, just under the south side of a high truss bridge we crossed accidentally several times because the combination of left-side driving and roundabouts are like kryptonite for my father.

The weather was bleak, even for the Scottish Highlands. We trundled in, dripping, over the threadbare floral carpet. The walls were high, papered over the chair rail in an overgrown baroque garden pattern against a visceral red, and hung with tiny framed prints of Renaissance portraits entirely of pale, terrified looking children.

Dad leaned in, “This place looks like a seedy French cathouse,” he said.

I boggled. French cathouse? Who says that?

The desk clerk appeared. He was young and reasonably attractive, which would have already been suspicious enough if he hadn’t welcomed us in a voice eerily similar to The Count from “Sesame Street.” I expected him to raise a lavender hand and announce Two! Two American Tourists! Ah-Ha-Ha-Ha-Ha. Instead, he gave us one room key attached to a bedazzled Victorian murder weapon and and cautioned us about not getting lost upstairs.

“The halls are long and winding. People have a funny habit of getting lost up there.” He raised a pointy eyebrow. “Also don’t forget to check out our gift shop.”

He pointed at a glass-fronted, heavily-carved china cabinet behind us, which was not full of spiders, eyeballs and vials of blood, but hotel-branded mugs and several elderly packages of Walker’s shortbread.

Dad thanked him. We went up the stairs, each step creaking in several tones at once, like a choir of souls squealing in anguish. We passed under an oil painting of an sneering albino child with protruberant eyes and a Elizabethan ruff.

“Scale of one to Get The Fuck Out, how haunted do you think this hotel is?” I asked Dad.

“At least Jack Nicholson wasn’t running the front desk,” said Dad.

“That’s because Dracula was running the front desk,” I said.

Dad walked past a warped, smaller-than-average door marked FIRE EXIT, padlocked, with scratch marks and gray fingerprints all along the edge. The floor beneath was blackened with ash and smoke damage. We wound down half a dozen, increasingly narrow, increasingly dark corridors  to arrive at our room at the dead end beside another ominously marked FIRE EXIT, which opened onto a rainy metal landing with no obvious way down.

I turned on the light switch. Nothing happened. The room was large-ish and peculiarly furnished, two beds, heavy, oversized furniture, ancient lamps that teetered in a phantom breeze.

I went in the bathroom to stare down the clawfoot tub. I turned on the faucet. It sputtered once, but did not issue streams of plasma. “Good news,” I said. “I think I can maybe take a bubble bath later without the blood of the innocent being involved.”

“Cool.” Dad nodded, then noted, reasonably, “But keep in mind, it is still daylight.”

***

This was Dad’s and my second trip to the Scottish Highlands, and coincidentally, our second stay in a cautionary tale. Last time around, the bed & breakfast was externally charming, a little stone cottage with ample gardens, run by a polite elderly woman who sounded like a cashmere cardigan might if it decided to invite you up for tea. But beneath the starched doilies beat a dark and wicked heart. The rooms were cinderblock cells two iron camp beds and a high window that wouldn’t open. Our bathroom was controlled by a bipolar water heater, whose two temperatures were respectively Glacier and Interior of Volcano. Showering required toggling between the two in a mostly futile attempt to rinse in the few seconds of transition between the extremes. This resulted in a fair amount of shouting and jumping around. Throughout the nights, we endured the sound of Dolores’ furious adult son banging down the hallway, threatening to kill people over his cell phone. We’d arrive traumatized to breakfast—a stale toast and weak tea affair, served over a Muzak version of “Rule Brittania” at nightclub volume in a room packed with a probably four-dozen matched sets of terrier figurines. In the corner, Dolores smiled beatifically, stirring her tea in time the music as all  her hollow-eyed, terrified prisoners considered whatever horror she had cooked up next.

We survived Dolores, but the experience had left us as wary of gingerbread cottages as Hansel & Gretel after a camping weekend. On the plus, Dad was more open to staying at actual hotels, vetted by multiple sources, and not just offhandedly recommended by  Dad’s ex-girlfriend’s sister who went to Scotland in 1987 for a Wiccan jazz festival. We tipped into luxury. In fact,we’d  come to the haunted hotel by the loch from Gleneagles, a five-star resort, where Dad fulfilled a lifelong dream of golf while I’d sat around various hotel pools and bars, surrounded by monsters of less supernatural provenance—gym rat hedge fund managers, jowly Trumpists and Brexiteers, and obliterated bleach-blonde Trophy wives that projectile vomited brunch bellinis all over an impossibly posh pink powder room while yours truly stood, horrified, at the sink (that really happened). I’d been both relieved and disappointed when we decamped for less swanky environs, eager to venture away from manicured golf courses and well-tended garden paths, and set forth on the road to wilder landscapes and less apocalyptic breakfast room chatter.   

***

The bar was empty at 6:30pm, which felt like an ominous note on a rainy Friday evening in the Scottish Highlands, but good for us, as we were able to secure a table beside a roaring fire to watch the sympathetic fallacy blow in over the loch.

The bartender, a pale young woman with an extravagant amount of black eyeliner asked if we would like to make dinner reservations.

I looked around the empty pub, the vacant dining hall, and asked, “Do we need them?”

She nodded and poured me a Guinness. I was pretty sure I hadn’t even ordered yet, but, “On the bonus, our vampire bartender not only reads minds, but respects my taste,” I said to Dad.

Dad looked out over the water. From his side of the table, I imagined he could make out the close edge of the bridge, but, everything else—the far side of the loch, the road up into Glencoe, the lights of the village—were disappearing behind a great wall of obliterating fog.

I posted something witty about the hotel being haunted on Instagram. A friend wrote back: 

Oh Snap! That place is totally haunted. It gave me such bad nightmares I couldn’t sleep. Good luck!

Great, I thought. That’s not at all going to keep me awake tonight.

“We’re 100% going to get eaten by demons tonight” I asked.

“Don’t be such a worrywart” said Dad, as an audible groan registered from the fireplace. “I haven’t even seen Jeremy yet.”

“Jeremy?”

“You know, the guy” he said, making a stabbing gesture.

“Jason?” I asked. “From Friday the 13th?”

“No.”

“Jack Nicholson in The Shining?”

Dad shook his head.

“Jack the Ripper?”

“No, bud, you know, Jeremy with the mother and the shower.”

“Norman Bates?”

“Exactly what I said,” said Dad, looking up as the vampire waitress appeared with two bowls of soup.

“For a snack,” she said.

“This looks terrific,” said Dad.

I watched him have a couple bites. When he didn’t die, I tucked in, thinking, Jeremy?

***

When I was about eight years old, I spent a season convinced that the dark space of wall across from my bedroom door was a gateway to an underworld carnival (“Scarborough Fair,” in point of fact, which I misheard as the place “where the dead live and die”) that opened after midnight and let pass a wicked cadre of spectral evildoers intent on dragging me back to hell. As an easily distractible, mostly secular child, with psychology-obsessed, spiritual, but not religious parents child I had no real concept of hell, save what my friends told me. And my neighbor Seaneen said that hell was pretty much just like an amusement park for torture. “They have a merry-go-round that peels your skin off,” she said. “It’s in the Bible. You’re probably going there, by the way.”

Even at eight, I knew this strained credibility. I didn’t even believe in Santa Claus, for Christ Sake.  A teleporting death carnival based loosely on a Simon & Garfunkel song? I could already hear my mother’s exhausted sigh, her Alison, seriously.  But what sounds ridiculous in the light of day can be very convincing when the bathroom door shadows the wall just so on the dodgy side of the wee hours. And all the superstitious woo-woo that, no doubt, comprised 80-90% of my genetic profile had instilled in me a rock-solid believe that if I told anyone what I was afraid of that it would come to pass, so I kept quiet and sat rigid, eyes wide open staring at the wall until dawn.

Eventually, Mom broke down my reserves and got me to admit to the whole portal to the undead thing. We had a good long metaphysical discussion in the mall parking lot, in which clarified the following:

  1. “Hell is a place that is perhaps a metaphor where some people believe that bad people go after they die. But as I said, probably a metaphor. Do you know what a metaphor is?”
  • “Ghosts are not real. They are way people channel their fears, anxieties, lack of closure, grief, etc. They are real only if you want to believe they are real, otherwise they’re just a trick of light and a lot of useless psychological baggage.”

Mom’s case was compelling. It neatly dovetailed with my long-held suspicion that, among other things, Seaneen was completely full of shit. Hell probably wasn’t real. Ghosts almost certainly weren’t real. And though Mom certainly didn’t intend it, my faith was foundationally eroded in fairies, witches, demons, Jesus Christ, unicorns, werewolves, God, Satan, and astrology, as well. It was a hell of a day. I set forth on the path to godless, blasphemous heathen armed with some bitchin’ new literary terms. And I’m pretty I got a hairbow and an Esprit sweatshirt to boot.

All of this is to say, I don’t believe in ghosts, at least outside of the whole post-colonial, Southern ghost-haunted landscape as metaphor for the history we cannot escape definition of ghosts. But having spent an adolescence drunk on  dumb vampire novels and black eyeliner, I like to hedge my bets. I maintain a veritable pantheon on her mantle despite long-held certainty that the atheists, though boring as all get out, are probably right. I frequently mistake rocks for phantom towers and dead trees for ancient amphibious gods when I go for a run in the park. Sometimes I go to desert for a wedding and end up talking to poems. And it’s been a rough couple of years.  I’ve been sick a lot. I was not in top form—physically, emotionally, financially—when I landed in Scotland. On the train between Edinburgh and Stirling I’d picked up a chest cold, that left me, three days later, hacking through the highlands like a tubercular chain-smoker. Things I could typically brush off with a smile and a quip felt threatening. And everybody knows, the person who dies first in a horror movie is usually the guy that says, “I don’t believe in ghosts.”

 I didn’t want to be that guy.

***

After dinner, the vampire bartender poured me a whisky, intuiting my preference for peat. I spent some time in the empty downstairs parlor, trying to discern prophetic warnings in the sounds of the walls settling around me. We’d spent part of the afternoon enduring the fierce weather in Glencoe and I reflected on its mythic scope and brutal history. It was the guests, not the hosts, who’d famously been the murderers in this neck of the woods. I wasn’t sure whether the ghosts present were inclined toward any massacre-related karmic reprisals. I didn’t think so, but assured the chattering fire that I wasn’t related to any Campbells, just in case.

I found Dad upstairs on the sofa, watching a late period “Die Hard” sequel and eating a box of shortbread he’d stolen from Gleneagles.  I announced that I’d be taking a bubble bath.

“If I’m not out in an hour, call an exorcist,” I said.

He gave me the thumbs up. I stoppered the tub. The complimentary bubble path purported to be “Purple Water”-scented, which sounded like either a bad translation of something innocuous or the sort of thing you’d find at a Superfund site. Whatever the case, it smelled like a place you’d buy incense and Lisa Frank unicorn stickers in 1986. So, nostalgia.

I took a deep breath and stepped in. The floor groaned theatrically. I thought, this would be a hilarious way to bite the farm. With my head propped against the ceramic, I could feel a tremor that seemed to grow more insistent and take on the character of language if I moved any part of my body. It took me about five minutes of sitting frozen in terror before I worked out that it was the sound of the overflow drain. But by that point the pull flush on the toilet was swinging in an invisible breeze and the light over the sink was flickering, so I figured I should cut my losses before I accidentally summoned Cthulhu or something.

I crawled into my bed and turned out the light,  as Bruce Willis hollered from the front of the room. I tossed and turned. I had headphones, but couldn’t settle with the strobing tv light. After an hour, I rose and found Dad sitting straight up on the sofa, but snoring. I turned off the movie and crawled back into bed.

In the silence, the shadows grew. A silvery light shivered down  from the window above my bed, catching the angular ridge of the witch-hatted mountains just to the southeast. I closed my eyes. I heard my own ragged breath. Then I heard the steps and the scratching. A long step. A handful of frantic scratches. A long step. A scuttle of frantic scratches. I sat up carefully, I must be imagining this, but from beneath the crack of the door, I saw an unmistakable shadow. I thought about those ominous scratches on the outside of FIRE DOOR. And I knew those scratches were coming for me.   

I considered calling out to Dad, but I didn’t want to draw attention. I didn’t want to make any sound. I didn’t want to open the door. I reached over and grabbed the hotel phone and found that it was not connected to anything. Scratch. Scratch.  I made joking plans to ask the ghost about underwear and birth control. Scratch Scratch. I made desperate plans throw things. Scratch Scratch. I made cowardly plans to hide under the blankets. And then, as quickly as it had begin. The shadow moved away. The scratching ceased. The ghost had moved on.

And somehow, despite it all, I finally fell asleep.

***

I woke at dawn, showered quickly and left Dad in the room when I went down for tea. Outside was dreamy pink, a landscape so exquisite it bordered on trite—Maxfield Parrish meets The Hudson River School. I stepped out into the morning. It was cold and wet, the fog rolling down down the ridges. My cold was worse, but I didn’t care, because some things are beautiful enough to make you forget all the bad stuff. I walked across the road to watch a rainbow resolve over the loch until I started to feel the wet ground through my boots.

I told dad I’d wait for him for breakfast, so I went in the parlor, poured some tea and sat in front of the fire. As I sat, I heard a family noise. A step. Scratch Scratch. I froze. Certainly this sort of thing wouldn’t happen in daylight? Not with the inn stirring and the smell of coffee and bacon and woodfire in the air. Scratch. Scratch. I looked toward the door and saw Dracula from the front desk staring in at me. He opened the door and in came the spectre, a small black and white cat with extravagant whiskers. He plodded over the carpet, sat politely at my feet, and without encouragement, jumped from the rug onto sofa beside me.

“That’s Julio,” said Dracula. “He likes the fire in the morning. Do you mind?”

I did not. Julio was quite friendly, very soft. “He’s adorable, I said, because he was.

“He’s a good hotel cat. He has the run of the place.” Dracula smiled, a warm, extremely human smile. “Would you like some more tea?”

I shook my head. He shut the door. Julio nuzzled my hand.

I thought, you, you were outside the door last night.

I said, “Sorry I didn’t let you in.”

He purred. Which I took to mean, No worries. I had a total blast freaking out the tour group ladies in 112.

***

Dad and I spent the day wandering the glen. Theoretically together, but experienced individually. That’s how our trips are. We share details over dinner later of places the other never saw, me half-listening to the synopsis of his golf game, or the exhibit he studied over for hours. Himself visibly drifting off during my breathless recounting of  all twelve miles of history and architecture I managed between curries and cocktails. Most of my travel pictures of dad are of him sitting across the table in pubs and restaurants, distracted, sometimes bemused.  His pictures of me are captured from behind, a semi-recognizable blur another quarter of a mile up the side of a heathered glen, or a faceless, rumpled traveler on a rainy sidewalk caught at her least forgiving angle.

We returned the the inn that night, again exhausted and soaked with rain. I let the bartender pick an ale for me and returned the parlor to find Julio waiting by the fire.

My sister called from the US.

“I dreamed about you last night,” she said. “I dreamed you got engaged to someone whose last name was Quinn and didn’t even tell me until you decided the hold the wedding in that haunted hotel you’re staying in. Crazy thing is, in the dream, the hotel wasn’t that scary.”

I reached over to stroke Julio and heard a family with children come laughing down the stairs. Dracula poked his head in the glass door to give me a wave and confirm that he’d gone ahead and made us a dinner reservation in the dining room.

“The hotel is not really scary at all,” I said. “In fact, I’m starting to find it sort of whimsical.”

I saw Dad coming down the stairs. I gave Diego a last pet and headed for the lobby. I hardly noticed that the lights flickered and the gaze of the portrait over the fire seemed follow me out into the hall. I barely even heard a whisper, soft as cat paws, saying something that was almost, not quite, but maybe my name when the door closed behind me.

The State I Am In

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It begins at the end of August 2019, the week before Labor Day. I have returned bedraggled, overstuffed, feeling old and tired after the second of the three music festivals I committed myself to this summer. So grossed out by my own indulgence, I make a spreadsheet labeled ATONEMENT, which I will use to get my life in order, tracking exercise, food, money, all the things that seem to be spiraling out of control, and it must be my fault. It simply must.

Two days of vigorous exercise and healthy eating in, I experience a twinge in my lower back, a twinge that feels like a fever ache, but that sometimes blossoms into something literally breathtaking. I have pinched a nerve, I think. The new exercise regime, perhaps. I’m sleeping crooked, rocked by anxious dreaming because of all of my sorry habits, my misspent days.  I take Advil. I try stretches. On Friday night, I have a friend over. We drink fancy gin and tonics on the porch, the pain subsides with alcohol, but flares up again with sobriety. I go for a long walk the next morning, which improves things, and I go to a party that after, that involves the screening of a movie, pizza and a small slice of chocolate cake. I partake but can’t sit still without it hurting. I keep standing to stretch.

My friends drive me home. I arrive at my house around 7pm and promptly fall asleep, which is weird for a night owl like me. I rouse at nine. Groggy, on a whim, I take my temperature. It’s high. Because I am still incapable of so many things, I call my mother. “Should I go to the hospital?”She says yes. I ask my friend and new neighbor across the street to drive me. She kindly obliges and waits for me in the waiting room until midnight. I send her home. I am in a sick bay in the Emergency Room alone amid the wailing, coughing, vomiting and arguing. They do a CT Scan at 5. I will not get a diagnosis until eight am.

They tell me I have diverticulitis, thought I have almost none of the symptoms. I flinch at the name, because it’s a thing I associate with older people. Am I an older person? Mom tells me not to worry. She’s had it. My grandparents have had it. Her friends have had it. They all had it in their sixties. Does this mean I am an older person?

The admit me and hook me to an IV. I reject a passel of drugs they have prescribed but the nurses tell me I don’t need—blood thinners, pain killers, laxatives, some plastic contraption that I’m supposed to periodically blow on—because I feel okay. By end of day, in fact,  I feel fine. Aggressively fine.  I expect to be discharged. They switch me to pills but keep me another twenty-four hours. I pace the halls of the now empty ward  in sneakers and gym clothes on Labor Day. No one can figure out why I’m still there. The nursing staff tells me the doctors are crazy. The residents—they’re all residents, a dozen different—can never remember which patient I am–Are you the diabetic? Are you here for Lyme? Pancreatitis, right?—let alone give me a reason why. The nurse lets me shower downstairs because there’s no shower in the acute ward and I’m not even remotely acute anymore. I spend some time hanging out in the courtyard at Starbucks with a pass glued to my shirt indicating that I am allowed to be there. The sun feels like freedom. My mother and I try to make the best between worry and rage. My friend, a nurse, comes to visit, says, “Holiday weekend. Teaching hospital.” Like it’s a tagline for a horror film.

I blow up at a resident, who can’t find my file, but won’t disconnect me from IV, despite the fact that it’s only giving me saline fluids and I’ve been drinking water all day because I have nothing else to do. Mostly I just pee, which is exercise because the bathroom is at the other end of the ward. I tell her “I feel like the fucking Count of Monte Cristo.” She doesn’t know who that is.

My mother spends the night in the chair because she’s afraid the doctor’s will make some other seemingly arbitrary call overnight.  

I am released with advice that my own gastroenterologist (I was never allowed to see a gastroenterologist in the hospital) views as dubious. I look at my chart. They have entered a weight–they weighed me on the bed– that is at least forty pounds more than I weighed before I came in. It’s a small thing, but I am human and thus weak and vain. It feels cruel, arbitrary and irresponsible I view it as the final fuck you.

My dad texts. Asks if I’d like to go to Scotland in a few weeks. I start crying, even though I think there’s less than a 50% chance it will actually happen. Can’t bank on any possibility. Incidentally, I don’t have enough money in the bank.

I get back to my normal life. Back to exercise. Back to the ATONEMENT spreadsheet. I can’t drink on the antibiotics they gave me, so no worry there. I watch my diet. I start training for a hypothetical 10K, maybe a half marathon. I do sit-ups. I lift weights.

A hurricane comes through. I use that an excuse to skip the first night of the third music festival I’ve bought tickets for, but I head to Raleigh for the rest because I can’t figure out how to sell my armband. I walk around in the hot summer heat. I worry about twinges and pains because it seems like anything can happen to me. I’m terrified of going back to the hospital, what if they never let me out? I’m terrified they missed something, they misdiagnosed. I’ve always trusted doctors. I don’t trust those doctors.

Music festivals sober are weird, but I have a milkshake and slow dance with myself to Raphael Saadiq. I see Chvrches in a field full of exuberant young people and Cate Le Bon among a crowd of respectful, less young people. A guy wrapped in a Welsh flag heckles Gruff Rhys in Welsh. It’s whimsical.  I come out of the weekend okay. I take long walks.

On Monday, I see my OBGYN, who adds that things are growing inside my ovaries. Nothing to worry about. Yet. But might account for some of the discomfort. I have neither the time nor energy to worry. I don’t really need my ovaries. I don’t want children. I just want to put off menopause because I’ve heard it kills your sex drive and I like having one of those, even if it often leads to disappointment and heartbreak.

She puts me on drugs for the side effects caused by the antibiotics I am still taking. I am becoming familiar with the pharmacy techs. They know me by name.

My sister comes down to visit. She takes me to see Kacey Musgraves, where we are surrounded by a lot of shimmery girls in sequins and cowboy boots on a starry, July-hot mid-September night. About halfway through the show, I become convinced I am getting sick again. I press on my stomach to see if I can find sore spots. I can’t tell if I’m imagining them or not.

Dad calls to say he’s booked the hotel and the flights. We are actually going to Scotland in three weeks. This is fantastic news, though I’ve little time to prepare. I scramble for a decent raincoat, new shoes, fall clothes. It’s still almost 90 here.  I haven’t budgeted, my credit cards are still mostly maxed because ATONEMENT, and I’m leaving for New York City in four days on a previously booked trip. I love Scotland more than most places. I mean what are you going to do, not go? I take a deep breath. Inhale count of four. Exhale count of eight. “It’s how to keep yourself from freaking out,” my sister told me.

Three days after my last antibiotic, my system is cleared enough that I can drink again. I have a cocktail at book club and three days later fly to LaGuardia to see my best friend. I feel twinges all the way, little things feel wrong. Maybe they are. Maybe they aren’t.

I tell my friend, “I’ve been under the weather. We should take it easy.” She agrees. But we drink too much that first night, because the wine, the food, the cocktails, the twilights are better in New York. I wake up at 4am with a headache and the first wave of a hangover.

We spend the next day in slow motion. I feel woozy. We go to the movies. We meet friends for dinner. I get a manicure—black, because we’re seeing Nick Cave over the weekend—and a chair massage. Little things feel wrong. I tell myself  I’m overthinking. I’m anxious. I’m tired. I ate something wrong. I drank something wrong. I did something wrong.

Saturday, we go into the city, wander around Central Park on a summery September day. My back hurts again. I try to ignore it. We watch the German parade and visit an exquisite French bookstore. We cross the Park to the Upper West Side, eat cheese, drink wine, watch people richer and younger than us act like they run the world, which they probably do. I go to the bathroom to press on my stomach. Does it hurt? Does it only hurt because I’m pressing?

I tell myself I feel fine. Maybe I do. It’s a rosy dusk. We run into my neighbor, my friend, the one that drove me to the hospital, just across the fountain at Lincoln Center. We talk about the Upper West Side. I think about how, for a moment, a million years ago, I wished I would be good enough at any sort of performance to study at Julliard.

Nick Cave is great. We leave transfixed. We ride the train back to Brooklyn, and I feel weird, but not like, super weird, so we go for a nightcap at this dive bar around the corner from my best friend’s apartment. I press on my stomach under the bar and crap out halfway through my cocktail.

The next morning, I feel like death. Pale, shaky, nauseated. I didn’t drink enough to have this kind of hangover. A bug? Bad cheese? Has the diverticulitis come back? Has my colon ruptured? What is wrong with me? But I dress and we meet friends in a sauna-like coffeeshop by the train because we are headed to Rockaway. I can’t stomach food, can barely handle water, but we mosey over to the beach because the weather is perfect, hot but not too hot, breezy but not to breezy. Not a cloud in the sky. We stake out a spot. My best friend’s friend has brought a picnic, but I can’t eat any of it. I don’t want a drink. I don’t want a beer. I lie back on my towel and feel the sun. I stand in the surf. It’s chilly but bracing in a good way and the ocean always makes me feel better. Inhale count of four. Exhale count of eight

After a while the cops come through, two middle aged people in dark polyester, staggering through the sand in boots, ordering people out of the water. “They ocean is closed,” they tell us. “Closed until spring.”

Everyone ignores them. How can the ocean be closed? As soon as they walk on, children scurry back out into the waves.

We return to Brooklyn. The train runs low by the expanse of water and it makes me feel like I’m in “Spirited Away.” I think about that instead of the aches and pains.

Back at my friends, the waves of nausea come back. The back pain. The stomach ache. On the way to dinner, I tell her finally, “I am maybe having an anxiety attack about my health. I don’t know what’s wrong.” She is sweet about it. She asks if I want to go to urgent care. I say no. Halfway through dinner, though I cannot eat. We go home. I take to the sofa, sweating, in pain. I’ll just go to sleep. I’ll be better tomorrow.

I’m not, but it hardly matters. It’s my last day in New York. We have things to do. The pain my back is gasp worthy, but I manage to go shopping, utilizing a variety of semi-public restrooms in lower Manhattan. I legitimately feel like shit, but I insist on a walk to Orchard Street, because it’s my favorite street. On the way down, to distract myself, I tell my best friend a fictional story about New York  I’ve been telling myself since I was fourteen. It involves dance hall girls, mob bosses, Gilded Age architects, immigrants, artists, and a whole metropolis full of romantic cliché. She lets me and telling it makes me feel better. Which ends up being the model for the rest of the day. At 9pm, I say goodbye to the city on a rooftop beside Brooklyn Bridge, warm breeze on my face the boats  on the East River flickering below and the skyline glowing like a vertical galaxy.

My flight is, of course, delayed. I curl up in a chair at the end of Terminal B with a cup of weak tea and a journal, because I no longer have to pretend I feel okay in order to have fun. I call my mother like a child.  Inhale count of four. Exhale count of eight .I get home during rush hour. I cry at my car because no one can see me because I feel bad and I am scared by how bad I feel.

At my house is a poet friend of mine and his wife from New York. They are staying with me for three nights on a book tour. I have no ability to entertain and my house is a disaster. They say they don’t care, but I do, and it bothers me.

On the upside, my ATONEMENT chart looks great. I’ve barely eaten in three weeks, save one night in New York, I’ve been sober for a month. Sure I’ve spent a bunch of money and I may end up owing the hospital a mid-range car/reasonable down payment on a house, but in trying to get my mind off of things in New York, I walked about eight or nine miles a day. Doing great, I think. Maybe if I’m not dying I can get back to work on training for the hypothetical half-marathon.

My doctor sees me the next morning. “It’s maybe a bug,” I say. But he orders blood work and the indignity of a stool sample to be collected at the house with houseguests in residents and delivered back to his office before a hair appointment. I do not miss my hair appointment. Because much like the beach, Orchard Street, and the view of Manhattan at night from DUMBO, haircuts are one of my great pleasures. At 4pm, the doctor calls to say I have a bacterial infection I probably picked up in the hospital at the beginning of the month, allowed to colonize because the antibiotics I took wiped out anything that could fight it off.  I Google it. It says, “Frequently Recurrent.” It says, “Nightmare Infection.” It says “25% of patients never really get better.”

I go on another round of antibiotics. I tell the doctor. I think I’m going to Scotland next weekend. He says he thinks, he thinks, I’ll be okay.

I am less sure, but like, it’s not like I’m not going to go.

The next morning I go to the hospital for a follow-up with a few of the thirty-five distracted residents in the trauma ward. I see a cute Swiss resident, maybe thirty, that I’ve never seen before, and the attending.  She’s is pretty woman in scrubs, who spends the entire visit texting with a phone covered in a sparkly rhinestone case. I have never seen her before either. She tells me she thinks I should have colon surgery because I’m young and healthy and I might get sick again. “You wouldn’t want to be inconvenienced by antibiotics down the line.” The surgeon is smug, sure that I’ll agree. I ask if the surgery has risks. She reiterates that there are “kind of major risks, but as long as everything gets reattached right, you’ll probably be okay.” I tell her I’ll talk to my gastroenterologist. She says, “I mean. I get that this is super aggressive, elective surgery. I would never recommend it if  you weren’t otherwise healthy and young.  We can schedule you whenever. Probably end of the month even. You’ll only need a few months of recovery time, unless there are complications. “

Yeah but what about those complications?

I leave rattled, gobsmacked, terrified. I sit in the parking deck, trying to suss out what’s real and what’s crazy. I call my mother like a child. I cry. I come home, do a bunch of work and end up hosting an impromptu gathering with the poet, his wife and another couple. It’s fun and takes my mind off, even though I’m exhausted and the house is a mess and being a less than perfect hostess is the greatest of all sins.

By midday, the next day I am finally without houseguests. I decide to take a walk. Five miles. I make it three and call my mother. She’s like, “Are you crazy? You have a serious bacterial infection.” I told her walking usually made me feel better, and hey, I’m not running. I go home and fret because everything hurts again. I eat chicken broth and crackers. I get on the scale. I’ve lost 18 pounds in a month.

That night, exhausted, I try on my skinny pants. They fit. I think, super effective diet. I think, totally not recommended.  I look at myself naked in the bathroom mirror to see if I can tell I’m skinnier. I can’t. But my lower abdomen is polka-dotted in greenish/purple circles the same size a finger prints. I realize they are finger prints, from all the times I’ve pushed there to see if I feel pain.

I consider, not for the first time, that I am losing my mind.

Thus begins a run of crazy dreams. I toss and turn at night with a ferociously anxious stomach. I dream about murders, suicides, dead loved ones, missed flights, job loss, bankruptcy. In one dream, I try heroin. In other dream, I try heroin with my fourth-grade teacher while sit on trash bags full of unpaid bills. I think, not even subtle.  In one dream, I miss a train and end up at a Nazi rally in my hometown square.

Inhale count of four. Exhale count of eight.

I google side effects of the drug. I abuse the patient portal at my doctor’s office. People try to assure me it’s normal. I believe them but don’t believe them. I thought it was normal before. How do I know?

I update ATONEMENT. Toast. Chicken soup . Tea. Like if I put in enough entries, I may not be healthy, but at least it won’t entirely be my fault. I’m working on it. I’m trying to be better.

My mom comes for a night on the way back from taking care of my 93-year-old grandmother. She takes me to the mall to suss out how bad I feel, because that’s the way my family operates. She thinks I’m better. I think I’m a wreck. She asks, “Do you think you should postpone the trip? I think your father could postpone the trip.”

I tell her no, because it’s a good thing and I need a good thing. I’m afraid postponement means never. I’m afraid postponement means I get something worse, something more horrifying, more debilitating. I think about the doctor. You’re young and healthy. I’m never going be as young as I am now again. What if I’m not as healthy?  I tell mom, “I’m going.”

I have the doctor call me in  another round of antibiotic, just in case it recurs. I consider finding religion, but which one? I still kind of lean toward the Greeks. That’s Hermes, right? You pray to Hermes for a cure? I always liked Hermes. He seemed like less of a dick than the rest of them.

So this is where it stands. I leave the country in 48 hours. I’m excited. I’m a wreck. I’m afraid. I’m hopeful. I want to feel better. I want to feel better for long enough to enjoy something for a few days. I want. I want. I want. I sound like such an asshole. I’ve lost friends this year. I’ve lost friends this month. I’m traveling. I’m writing. I’m not dying. I’m not starving.  I know, I know  it could be worse.

I write for a living. I’m in advertising. I know what I could say or should say. I know all the aphorisms and slogans and positive self-talk. I could convince you in a minute that I’ve learned something special from all this, that I’m on the road to recognizing the beauty of life, the need for acceptance and forgiveness. I can write that horseshit in my sleep. Sometimes I can even make myself believe it.

But I started packing this morning, and realized I wasn’t going to take my laptop, not because I won’t want to write, but because if I do, I’ll end up working. I’ll end up staring down at ATONEMENT, wondering what formula I have to arrive at before I believe all that’s happened to me isn’t just desserts, and everything happening to me right now isn’t just the bill coming due for all of my follies, mistakes, misapprehensions and misspent youth. This has got to be my fault. I mean, it just has to be.

I’m not a believer, but I am superstitious, of superstitious stock. I worry writing this down now dooms the story to not really being over. I worry this story won’t end. Or at least, won’t end well. Should I share these thoughts? Isn’t it better if I just tell you I’m fine?

And yeah, I know exactly how crazy that sounds.

It doesn’t mean make it feel any less true.

For those interested, trips with Dad are generally hilarious. Those looking for laughs or wondering whether I’ll make it through ten days abroad without experiencing the UK health care system first hand, I’ll be updating on Instagram with a lighter touch than this, if you want to follow along.

Into the Woods

Personal History

The thing about the required three-day camping trip was that I knew it was coming. We’d been informed at admission to boarding school that one day, quite without notice, the spiteful gods of sodden sleeping bags would demand their tribute, and no foul weather, no cunningly worded doctor’s note, no comprehensive catalog of outdoors-related psychic trauma would save you.

I’d been dreading the trip since matriculation and found reminders of its incipient horror everywhere, from the mysteriously popular mountaineering program to the second verse of the school hymn, which informed us weekly that a young rugged-mountains dwelling Jesus Christ didst walk through wooded places, range down valleys and sleep in open spaces. That all sounded a bit hinky to me, though less weird than the hymn’s repeated plea to do thou baptize us with God’s fire, which always came off threathening, like how the Spanish Inquisition might prepare ‘smores.

My name came up for a camping trip in February, about a week after I’d tumbled down the stairs and given myself a concussion, a bruised ego, and a broken heart. I went to the trip-leader–who also happened to be my English Teacher at the time- and pointed at my battered face like, haven’t I suffered enough? And he was like, “Make sure you pack for warmth because it’s going to be cold up there.”

The night before we left, we gathered in the Mountaineering Room, so the English Teacher could inventory the contents of my backpack. The intent was to make sure I hadn’t packed the alcohol, cigarettes, drugs, condoms or anything else remotely fun.  I hadn’t, so I was surprised when he started unpacking the three books and one cocktail dress I’d neatly packed beneath the toilet paper. What sort of English Teacher quibbles with books? And he sneered at the dress.  

“I told you to pack rain pants,” he said.

I didn’t know what rain pants were, exactly, and said so.

 He scowled and handed me an ancient pair of olive drab rubber trousers  and matching slicker from what appeared to be a locker full of surplus gear from the trenches at Verdun. Said pants took up roughly half of my enormous backpack and smelled exactly like a locker room in a bog.  A few of the other students snickered. English Teacher grinned, maliciously. He had a lot of fans on campus. They found him to be charismatic, inspirational, and in the words of a small coterie of my starry-eyed classmates, “totally fucking hot.” I thought he was a smug, self-satisfied eye-roll at best. I was pretty sure he knew it and that had a whole lot to do with why we hadn’t hit it off since Day One.

“Bring your hiking boots tomorrow and dress for conditions. It’s going to be cold and rainy. Very brisk and character-building!”

“I really hate that bastard,” I told another friend on the trip.

“Seriously?” she asked. “He’s so manly. I have, like, such a crush.”


It’s probably safe to admit that I’m not really an outdoorsy person. Or rather, I like the outdoors, but not enough to embrace cargo pockets. I like going for walks or short runs in forests I can easily get out of, maybe  wandering around with a novel, a dry rose, and a picnic basket with baguette and cheese, especially if there is a nearby swimming hole and the weather for it.  I admire mountaineers and rock climbers—I love reading books about them– but at a safe distance, with zero personal responsibility for getting anyone, including myself, safely back to ground level.  

I was raised in a mixed family, outdoors-wise. Mom didn’t own sneakers until Jane Fonda’s Workout and tended to describe any night spent in a hotel without room service as being “kind of like camping.” Dad had long been a runner, a cyclist, a golfer, an enthusiastic athlete since childhood. And his enthusiasm for backcountry hikes, overnight trips to remote balds, single tracks and belay lines only deepened throughout my childhood. I spent hours force marched through trips with the two of them that often featured both picnics and arguments. Dad was very good at taking short cuts that were actually extended scenic tours, and running out of gas on, or near, the Blue Ridge Parkway. Fortunately, Mom had a radar-like ability to locate a historic inn and a resort village with nice gift shops. Things generally turned out all right, but often times only after several tense hours of are we in Virginia? How the hell did we end up in Virginia?  What did I say about buying gas? 

I didn’t much care for a hike unless it ended at a place where I could either visit a castle or get in the water.  The scenic vistas I could, honestly, give or take. “Look at the view!” Dad would say, whenever we’d arrive, exhausted and miserable, at the often-crowded payoff overlook. And I would be like, Wow. I’m so glad I just spent two hours sweating uphill with bugs so we could see the same mountains we literally see everywhere in our day to day life from a slightly different angle.

On some level, the outdoors were a cunningly-placed piece of polar fleece lodged in the gears of my parents’ already troubled marriage.  Especially after Mom ditched the artist smock for shoulder pads and took a job heading up a downtown redevelopment non-profit coincidental to my previously fashion-conscious corporate father chasing a midlife crisis with a few weeks at an Outward Bound program. He came back quoting John Muir and pairing socks with sandals. Every new camping utensil added to the household inventory felt like a gauntlet cast. Mom looked great and happier than I’d ever seen her. Did we know she’d been interviewed for a story about Local Businesswomen?  Dad sniffed at her new hair and new outfits and talked about how freezing alone in the wilderness with nothing but a journal and a handsome leather-bound collection of woodsy koans had really helped him work through whatever he was going through. His experience had been transformative. It stood to reason that if we could just read the right poem, or see the moon, waxing gibbous, somewhere over Table Rock, our lives would also change forever and for the better. A few weeks alone in the great outdoors would be just the thing to, say, invigorate his depressed klutz of an adolescent daughter who  spent most of her time trying to figure out how fast she could shed these little town blues get invited to a loft party in SoHo.  

“But I hate camping and I genuinely don’t believe  suffering makes you a better person,” I would say.

“But you’d learn so much about yourself,” he would respond. “Let me read this Frost poem to you again.”

Would I learn so much about myself? I doubted it. My Brownie troop leader, a terrifying blonde Valkyrie type, had tried to convince me of something similar years before after explaining there was no Girl Scout Badge for knowing the history of the  Algonquin Round Table or which members of the Stuart Dynasty were likely gay. “Why don’t you focus on survival skills?” she asked, then led the group in a rousing rendition of I’m Happy When I’m Hiking. At the penultimate verse, she slapped me across the back and send me sailing face first into the center of the grass. I’d dust off my skirt (never pants and never the uniform, I hated the uniform) and shuffle along behind the rest of the troop. As we MARCHED OFF INTO ADVENTURE  I’d fume silently, ego bruised, wishing I could be transported away to a world where I never had to pretend to like roasting marshmallows again.  


The camping trip left after lunch on Saturday. I wore several layers of sweaters over several layers of crushed velvet leggings, because I’d been starving myself to impress a boy with Poetic Bangs and didn’t own a pair of jeans that fit at the time. I also didn’t own hiking boots at all, which seemed normal and not a big deal, until I arrived at the school van and saw that everyone else on the trip did.

English Teacher looked at my shoes—purple Chuck Taylor’s. “Really?”

“I also have field hockey cleats,” I said. “But if you think it’s going to be a problem, I’m 100% fine just not going.”

He sighed and pointed me to the van.

My fellow campers were drawn randomly from new students and upperclassmen who’d managed to avoid making the trip until now. By some dint of circumstance, roughly 80% of them were my fellow castmates in the winter play, a magical realist musical about witches, religious hypocrisy and sexual violence in Appalachia, which was just about as weird and borderline problematic as it sounds. Earlier in the year, the ancient, conservative drama teacher and the equally ancient, conservative headmaster had conspired to censor the script of the fall play (a light-hearted 1950s parlor comedy) of every word that had even a shadow of double-entendre. We all quietly thought it was unusual an administration that strongly objected to the word “balls” in any context would greenlight a production that featured an onstage gang rape in Act Three. Maybe because it’s folksy?  After all, my Appalachia taught me that any horror could be countenanced so long is it involved a banjo, a calico bonnet and the word heritage.

We spent much of the van ride up the cold, ugly gray drive up the mountains running lines in dialect and flirting with the male lead, a practical joker and horror film fan, who’d managed to accidentally stumble into being crush-worthy on account of his Byronic hair. We were deeply obnoxious in the way only true-blue theatre kids can be. The five or so other students did their dead level best ignore us, save an energetic rich kid from Taiwan, who’d managed to smuggle in a boatload of electronics, hair gel and cologne, all of which he viewed as essential to his plan of both scoring a girlfriend and warding off bears. He told us repeatedly how much he enjoyed Broadway and how excited he was for the show, “Will it be like ‘Phantom of the Opera?’” he asked.

“It will be like Hee-Haw but with more interpretive dancing,” I told him.

He looked puzzled. I guessed they didn’t have Hee Haw in Taipei.

We loaded out of the van behind a trout hatchery in the Pisgah National Forest. The weather conditions were marginal, at best, 45 degrees F, slowly deteriorating from Portland Drizzle to full-on West of Ireland. English Teacher signaled us toward a trail. “We’ll go a few miles up before we make camp,” he said, and tramped off with a blithe Happy When I’m Hiking spirit in marked contrast to the February gloom.

I sighed and knew I would have felt better if I’d brought the dress.


Here’s a secret: I actually kind of love the forest. Green is my favorite color and not just because most of its related words—lush, verdant, ripe, lavish, abundant, tender, flourishing, verdurous—are so delicious.  Some childhood overindulgence of fairy tale, folklore, and my old ballet teacher’s fondness for the Fairport Convention had long planted (no pun intended) in me a romantic notion of the woods. I liked the notion of hidden places, a world at the margins of things, under cover of darkness, just outside the bounds. Mystery. Pleasure. Rebellion. Danger. These are a few of my favorite things. I wanted nature to be a deep, dark secret, a place of wild adventure and hedonistic abandon, not, like, a strategy to achieve better health and clarity of purpose.  The woods were a place where the rules didn’t have to apply. I wanted outlaws and shapeshifters. Robin Hood and Tam Lin and whatever charismatic devils used to spook the Ancient Greeks and the New England Puritans. Sometimes I was sure I could even seem them—the satyrs and dryads, goblins and old Gods darting between the branches at the navy-blue hem of dusk, but only peripherally. Head on, they vanished. Head on, you were crazy, they were figments, and a nice morning hike might help you process your feelings, learn about responsibility, and burn some calories before bathing suit season.

I wasn’t really alone in this. That anything and everything could happen out there was a point well understood by the youth of Western North Carolina, if not our Thoreau-ified parents. They may have been going off for meditation workshops and Iron John– themed bongo retreats, but we all knew that the woods were essentially God’s gift to petty criminals.  The forest was  where you smoked whatever you were going to smoke and rounded third base with whomever you were going to round third base with and knew there was a reasonably good chance no one would find out about it unless you attracted the attention of a nearby ranger. Our overprotective mothers warned us about the woods. People get murdered and raped. And sure, there were criminals.  There were slasher movies. There were bears. There were muggers. There were assholes with neck tattoos that made meth or started forest fires (usually unintentionally) or were into things like bowhunting, white nationalism, fiscal responsibility, and trying to hit on you outside of a National Forest campground bathroom. There was always some dude you knew who swore they’d run across a Bigfoot or a satanic ritual or a domestic terrorist while getting wasted by a waterfall on the edge of the Smokies.  There was also a non-zero % chance of stumbling upon your Latin teacher making out with your classmate just over the overlook wall on the Blue Ridge Parkway. You rolled the dice. That was part of the deal.

Few of those risks were ever cited by adult camping aficionados. They seemed mostly concerned with constructing tents and burying excrement. For them, the outdoors were a copious set of things you could not do, places you could not go, things you could not touch, precise protocols you had to follow.  I was once reduced to tears by an adult horrified that I might pick a handful of Queen Anne’s Lace beside a trail to crown myself Titania-style as I shuffled down the path. Don’t you know, they said, as they shook me, that you are destroying the landscape. That you are ruining this beautiful place for people that actually know enough to be responsible. You should be ashamed of yourself.

I should, but I couldn’t be. I picked up the crown from where it had been flung to the ground and defiantly wore it home, thinking the whole time that  I never met a person quicker to suck the joy out of nature than an outdoorsy adult determined to make you appreciate the outdoors.


The first morning I woke on the trip sandwiched into a damp tent between my friends, Ivy League and the Dryad. I felt generally damp, and the root under my sleeping bag had left a gnarled-looking welt in the non-battered side of my face.  I made some noise over lukewarm oatmeal breakfast about how it might be advisable for me to take a medical pass and return to civilization. English Teacher would hear nothing of it. “We have a strenuous five-mile hike this morning,” he said. “It’s sure to make you feel better.”

It was pouring on Day 2. What I would call tropical conditions. Gales of wind and a soaking rain, like a late summer storm except it was maybe 40°F. I put on the mildewed slicker I’d also borrowed from the school ( I eschewed the rain pants on principle, though they were also too big) as we climbed through a labyrinth of laurel and rhododendron, up a series of steep, narrow, rocky trails turned waterfall in the downpour. My lack of hiking boots and general clumsiness already put me at the far back of the column. The Chuck Taylors and  40-pound pack combination left me well-nigh abandoned, flailing with Sisyphean repetition and repeatedly sliding helplessly back in the cold mud like I was reenacting the Kathleen Turner half of the mudslide scene from Romancing the Stone.  

English Teacher had no patience for my ineptitude and forged on with the rest of the group as I tried wipe mud from my eyes and thought maybe it would be better and easier if I just died from exposure there on the mountain, like a cursed child in a myth. English Teacher assigned his new wife, who’d come along on the trip, to spot me. She was young, less than a decade older than I was, and still settling into being a faculty wife at a boarding school. She was surprisingly nice to me, funny, patient and similarly bitter about the terrible weather. She didn’t chide me when I rounded a corner, rain stinging me in the face, and yelled, “I fucking hate this bullshit” into the foggy black and white void of the winter valley below and for several moments of the seeming hours-long hike, looked like she might agree with me.

We arrived at the campsite maybe forty-five minutes behind the rest of the classmates. The responsible, less theatre-y ones were setting up their tents. Dryad and Ivy League swarmed me as I walked into the clearing. They had a plan to run topless through the woods. “In praise of the Earth Goddess, and, to, you know, let off steam,” said the Dryad.

“We waited for you,” said Ivy League. “

I was sore, exhausted, covered in mud, soaked to the bone, and it’s possible the cloud obscuring our mountaintop campsite was now producing sleet. Running topless through the woods was a completely stupid idea, maybe an expulsion offense, and would serve no purpose but to make us colder and wetter. But at this point, it seemed very much like something English Teacher would hate us for doing, so Why not?

We made the universal signal for bathroom and headed round the bend. Taiwan was with us. “Gender equality,” said the Dryad. “And he has electric socks that ward off bears.”

Aren’t the bears hibernating? I disrobed under a laurel. I hung my sodden garments from the branches and stood, shivering, arms wrapped around my still new-ish boobs, in the snowy white void of the sleeting fog.

“Count of three,” said Ivy League.

One. Two. We ran down in other side of the mountain, arms outstretched, panting, laughing, hysterical with the cold. After two laps, we were spent. We returned to our clothes, dressed silently and walked back to the campsite, where our fellow campers had started running lines again.

As we rejoined the group, one of my fellow campers, wished for a cigarette, another, a native New Yorker, broke his monologue to state emphatically that this camping trip was the worst thing that ever happened to him. I waited for someone to accuse him of overreacting. No one did. I gave his arm a squeeze. I felt understood.

That night we ate boxed macaroni and cheese, al dente to the point of being indistinguishable from cheese-powdered gravel. English Teacher invited us to tell our favorite scary stories over cold hot chocolate. Leading Man started reciting the plotline of “The Shining,” but got distracted talking about his top five horror special effects. Occasional Hippie laid out what was likely to happen to all of us in nuclear winter. Token Evangelical discussed how none of us would survive The Rapture. I put my hand up to discuss how almost no one in our generation would ever be able to retire, when English Teacher cut us off. “Let’s turn in for the night,” he said. “Big day tomorrow.”

He and his wife shuffled off along with the responsible, non-theatre campers to their well-constructed tents around the campsite. The rest of us bunked in an oversized splintery lean-to of a camping shelter, recommended only by its actual roof and elevated plank floor. We slept eight of us head to head, girls surrounding the leading man, stroking his hair, continually trying to cop a cuddle. If it had been warmer, or Leading Man less admirably restrained, the scene inside the camping shelter could have probably gone in a different way. As it was, I imagined myself saying, stop trying to have an orgy, about seventeen times before I realized it would be unnecessary as most of the culprits had finally fallen asleep.

Outside there was high lonesome wind, raindrops, the sound of imagined beasts and goblins. I drifted off asleep with my hand outstretched and woke with a start when it ended up in someone’s hair (Taiwan’s). Sometime in the night, I stumbled over the prone bodies of my friends and went out with toilet paper to relive myself in the woods. I willed something to happen, dream-long style, there in the dark woods above the campsite.  If you want, I’ll tell you that I saw something—a spectral figure, a silvery stag. I’ll even throw in an epiphany, some recognition of the divine that shined through the fog and dropped some life-changing truths that forever altered the course of my life. I could write this story. It would be fiction. Because the only thing that happened was that I dropped the flashlight and had to root around, crab-style on the ground for both it and the toilet paper like I was doing an acrobatic slapstick bit. I fell twice. I spent some time wringing water out of the toilet paper and trying to get wet pine needles off my thighs. When I got back to the shelter, I accidentally stepped on Dryad’s hand.  I worried I might start my period while still in the woods until I finally fell asleep.


In the morning, we roused and wandered off to relieve ourselves in the cold gray dawn. It wasn’t raining, but the fog had thickened. We stood at the edge of the clearing and tried to squint through to see the distant mountains.  

“I’m pretty sure there’s a big rock over there,” said the Dryad. “I think I saw it yesterday.”

We admired the invisible landmark. English Teacher directed us to find something useful to do. Ivy League and I watched one of our classmates, a daughter of my parents’ friends, kneel at the stream to wash one of the macaroni pots. She had the most perfect hair—glossy, dark chestnut brown curls—and somehow managed to look glamorous in a bandana.  I felt a twinge of adolescent jealousy because I didn’t need to be told that I didn’t look glamorous.  I knew I looked like I felt, which was like hell, but wetter.


On campus, they dropped us out of the van by the mountaineering room. English Teacher asked if we’d enjoyed the trip. Truthfully, I told him it that everything about it had sucked and I would go to great lengths to make sure nothing like that ever happened to me again. He opened his mouth, like he was considering a demerit, but his wife gently put ha hand on his shoulder, like, let her go.

He nodded, lips tight, and watched me exit the van, headed for the showers in Dryad’s dorm, where I’d wait for my mother to get off of work and pick me up. English Teacher would give me a B+ in his class for the term. I never made Bs in English.

I always figured it was because I hated the camping.


Postscript:  Not including sleeping on floors, I’ve been camping once since the three-day. It was in a camper in a campground with a restroom, in August, by shores of a silvery lake in the far southwestern corner of North Carolina. I was with my non-outdoorsy mother and stepfather. We made a French dinner on a gas grill, drank a really nice bottle of Pinot Noir, and slept on clean linens. There was hot water in the bathroom and I did not have to shovel poop.  No one quoted Nietzsche or talked about personal responsibility. The whole deal was highly acceptable, nicer than many places I’ve stayed while traveling. Would camp thus again.

In an ironic twist, part of my adult day job is writing about outdoor adventure. Growing up on the carabiner of the Wilderness belt in Southern Appalachia gave me the language to wing it. I regularly find myself channeling all those adults that used to torment me in grade school as I extol the virtues of doing a lot of things I would honestly prefer not to.

It’s not all bullshit. I still love the forests. I manage to find myself there, most days, especially on summer days, when the leaves are out and it genuinely feels I’m swimming in all those adjectives– lush, verdant, ripe, lavish, abundant, tender, flourishing, verdurous.

The summer after the camping trip, just down the mountain from the shelter, I was out in the woods for the day with Dad and my sister, I waded out downstream from a swimming hole, and tucked through gangly branches, and literally stumbled upon a secret waterfall in a pink laurel filled ravine. It’s narrow stone terraces rose high and as a castle rampart and twice as delicate, all silver and green, between the shining waters and the late spring lichen in the deep woods. Even though it was June, the cold winter stirred a mist when it hit the bright sunlight; it wove through my legs like a gossamer hem. It was so beautiful I didn’t know what to do, so I sang to it.

I was tired when I got back to the swimming hole–back over the rise and up the river–where my father and sister had disturbed a blanket of fallen laurel pedals to float over the pale green limestone stones beneath the breathlessly cold water. I wanted to tell Dad that I’d found the door in the back of the wardrobe and gotten a whiff of something otherworldly. Like, is this the reason you love it out here so much?

“I found a secret waterfall,” I said. “Do you want to see it?”

Dad turned to face me, one eye on my little sister in the water.  “Seems kind of a ways down the river and we need to leave soon. Maybe instead of showing me, you should write about it.”

I guess I did.

The Ladies

Family History / Nostalgia / Personal History / Women

The first doll in the doll collection was a baby doll. A hideous oft-bodied thing with a hard-molded plastic head, about  the size and shape of a small sack of Irish potatoes. The doll’s official name was Baby Precious, which struck me as inordinately stupid. “I think Baby Precious is a such a sweet doll,” my mother would say. I thought Baby Precious looked like Marlon Brando stuffed with one of those embedded noisemakers that made it sound like a dejected sheep whenever you picked it up. “What is the point of a baby doll?” I would ask. “What do you do with a baby?”

My mother would smile, beatific. “Why, you take care of it, of course.”

“Taking care of” sounded like a chose, not a game, and thus wholly unfun. Besides, infant humans weren’t cute like small animals. Unlike puppies, they would not play. Unlike kittens, they were exceptionally loud and incapable of handling their own shit, an obvious design flaw. And unlike the infinitely more exciting elderly humans, they neither played nor drank gin and probably wouldn’t let fly some tantalizing piece of family gossip—Did you know your great grandmother once committed murder? I’m not surprised. She had a tacky powder room and a weakness for men from Louisiana, and you know that they are all criminals down there—before letting you win a whole ten dollars in nickel bets.

Nana divined early on that my interest in Baby Precious and her ilk was scant, at best, and changed her doll strategy. A collector herself, she had a notion she might instill some of her passion in me. But instead of Japanese Porcelain or Chippendale mirrors (a hard sell to even the most eccentric child), she would give me dolls, in particular Madame Alexander dolls, a brand of molded plastic costume dolls with shimmery, heavy lashed eyes and lustrous hair. They came in blue floral-sprigged boxes with a rosy pink interior, identifying paperwork ribboned round their wrists. Instead of small, fat, bald people in unflattering nightgowns, these new dolls were at least adolescents. (Mostly) young (mostly) women with crinolines and pinafores, stockings, bloomers, high-button shoes and velvet dancing slippers. They had taffeta evening dresses, tulle ballgowns, organdy day dresses, silk tartan wraps, fringed handbags and beaded reticules. Tiaras, broad-brimmed hats, lacy mob caps and the various geometric follies that constituted Renaissance millinery. They had auburn ringlets, glossy black braids, long blond hair, short honey bobs, and in the case one of men, a neatly trimmed moustache.

I wasn’t really supposed to play with the dolls. To retain their value, Nana instructed they must w stay in mint condition, with original boxes and literature: their hair unmussed, their accessories perfectly maintained. For a while, Mom tried to enforce this. She collected the blue boxes in a corner of our low-budget horror film of a basement and told me These dolls are valuable. You can’t play with them like your Barbies. But she also surreptitiously collected the tiny slippers in a plastic bag she kept with her fancy table linens so I wouldn’t lose them. Because she knew I couldn’t keep my hands off the dolls. I brushed their hair and talked to them. I admired every scrap of lace trim, each fold of gathered satin. I thought, it is cruel that I do not live in the era of portrait hats.

Nana, convinced that having the dolls out in the open would only tempt me to mess with them, bought me a tall, five-shelved cherry display cabinet that squatted on claw and ball feet in the corner of my bedroom. By that time, I had enough of a collection that most of the shelves were at least half-filled with dolls, sitting side by side, their legs outstretched beneath voluminous skirts. I didn’t like consigning them to their glass house, but I arranged them, so their heads were turned to each other and arms raised as if gesticulating in friendly conversation. Whenever I took them out, I tried to put them back in different combinations, so they would be able to meet new friends and get a different perspective. I had four boy dolls total; I tried to distribute them as widely as possible between the shelves to foster some diversity.

“Many of my friends are boys,” I would tell the lady dolls. “Don’t be mean to them just because they wear boring clothes. It’s not entirely their fault.”

I loved my dolls without reservation. Other kids had Star Wars Figures and My Little Ponies. They had Care Bears, Strawberry Shortcakes, Rainbow Brites, Cabbage Patch Kids. They had Legos, Barbies, and G.I. Joes. All the toy commercial nostalgia pieces from the apex of 1980s Saturday morning wish lists. I had a few of those things too, but they weren’t the same as the dolls. The dolls were resolutely unfashionable, a thing little girls in the 80s were not supposed to want, and as a result the dolls felt both retrograde and kind of subversive. At night, I went to sleep facing shelves of fantastically arrayed women in geographically and chronologically impossible combinations, seeming to discuss the news of the day with great with and enthusiasm.  

“Aren’t you ever afraid they come alive at night and do creepy things?” asked Andie, when she spent the night.

I was secretly sure they did not come alive at night, because the world is, in no way, that cool or magical. But I wished they would. I figured they’d discuss fashion politics and theatre, which were precisely the things I imagined sophisticated, grown-up ladies discussed all the time. I wanted to be a sophisticated grown-up lady more than anything when I was little. And the first part of being a sophisticated grown-up lady was calling bullshit when you heard it.

“Don’t be ridiculous, Andie,” I said. “They’re just dolls.”

It wasn’t just Andie, though. Somewhere along the line, the dolls went from being merely unfashionable to evidence of some grotesquely feminine Gothic Horror lurking in the attic. I don’t know if the world decided dolls were creepy and then Hollywood decided they were creepy or vice-versa. But by middle school, the consensus had it that dolls were the province of withered, lonely old crones, who may or may not be witches and probably murderers. Witches and murderers were okay, almost cool. But ugly, lonely and old? No worse fate if you were a woman.

I didn’t argue. I got that people were squicked out by dolls. Everyone had things that got under their skin and unsettled them. For me, it was natural disasters, tube socks, boredom, uniforms, and farms. Stacey thought my doll collection was scary; I thought that the Girl Scouts were probably fascists. But that’s the beauty of life. We’re all different!

Also, I was getting older. The bullshit of adolescence leaves little time for staging conversational vignettes between Alice (of “Wonderland” fame), Jo March, and Mary Queen of Scots. When we moved from my childhood home to the post-divorce house under the mountain, the doll case overwhelmed my bedroom. It moved to the living room, and there, left estranged until years later when it was marooned in the upstairs hall of my mother’s new house, and finally, removed to the far side of the smallest upstairs bedroom at my mother’s new house, half-blocked by the bed.

“Ew. Those things are so creepy,” a friend said, when we were visiting my mother’s house. “I don’t know how you can even sleep with them in the house.”

I remember thinking, they’re not creepy. I remember saying, “Your kid has realistic toy guns, right? How do you sleep with those in the house?”

We live in a world in which it’s perfectly normal for adult men to collect action figures and comic books. I’ve had a blind date, a man in his early forties, who asked earnestly if I was into Legos. Nostalgia for kid stuff is a huge industry, but most of that kid stuff, the stuff it’s okay to still like, is coded masculine. Things overtly and conventionally feminine are often viewed as, at best, superficial and, at worst, well, close your eyes and give me the first three adjectives that would pop into your head if I were to tell you that I have a doll collection in my house.

I don’t, by the way. My excuse for abandoning the doll collection at Mom’s for all these years is that I don’t have space. But that’s not really true. I would, in a minute, find space if Mom made good on sending me the piano, which is objectively bigger than the cabinet and its contents. Eventually, my parents will downsize, and I will have to do something about dolls. They didn’t end up being the valuable collectibles Nana once anticipated. The boxes are gone. Many of the dolls have been heavily played with and well loved, better suited for some kind of sentimental “Velveteen Rabbit”-style apotheosis than eBay.

I’ve never wanted children, but I have always fantasized by the notion of some other little girl seeing the doll collection, being transfixed by the same petticoats and ribbons, the fluffy skirts and portrait hats as I was. She wouldn’t think they were creepy. She’d see them, paused in the same animated, witty conversation they’ve been having since I was little.

I’d like to think she’d think they were fabulous.

Which, honestly, they are.