Mane Ingredient

Family History / Houses / Nostalgia / Personal History

Long ago, in a galaxy far away, when I was about three years old, Nana, my favorite grandmother, brought a load of furniture to Asheville in her big red Antique van (a favorite childhood conveyance of mine, what with the back stacked with furniture blankets, the promise of being able to explore a fancy house while the adults haggled, and the general Carter/Reagan era obliviousness for the need for seatbelts allowing me to roll around and practice somersaults on said blankets while Nana was speeding up and down Interstate 81). She was likely headed to an antique show downtown at the civic center, sponsored by an organization I spent my childhood mishearing as the Be Dust Club, and had the van mostly packed with high and low boys, Windsor chairs, and a lot of porcelain I was not allowed to touch yet. She’d also brought me a present. A chest of drawers, dating from an unspecified, yet breeches-forward historical era somewhere, my brain registered, between dinosaurs and airplanes.

The chest of drawers was pretty unremarkable by three-year old standards. Brown box. Three drawers. Stumpy legs. The best part were the drawer pulls, which were imprinted with lion’s heads. I took this to be a direct nod to “The Wizard of Oz,” my near-singular obsession at the time. But I was chest was very special. Very old. I would have to take very good care of. Such good care, that it the chest would not go in my bedroom, but in the dining room of the old house on Westwood, which was where all the nicest things in the house went. I found this to be a little disconcerting. I was a kid. If it’s my present, shouldn’t I be able to have it.

“You’ll have it one day,” I was promised. “When you’re old enough to appreciate it. When you’re old enough to take care of it. When you’re a grown-up.”

Mom kept linens in the chest. Sometimes old photo albums. I liked the mystery of the drawers. Lace edged napkins. Brightly colored table clothes. A box of rose shaped birthday candle holders stored on a blue velvet pillow. Napkin rings like bangle bracelets. I was gently, and sometimes more forcefully, discouraged from going through the drawers, a favorite activity.  I wasn’t to mess up the things inside. I wasn’t to pull too hard at the drawers. My drawers. The chest was fragile. So I talked to the lions. I named them. Clockwise from top: Lionel, Franklin, Roy, Dennis, Victor, and Tangerine. Tangerine was my favorite.  When I was older, I’d come in the door by the chest from elementary school, and I’d try to give Tangerine a good pet. He often seemed lonely and kind of chilly. I worried that Franklin was mean to him.

When I went got my first apartment, in college, I didn’t expect that the chest would be forthcoming. That was the kind of shithole where it became necessary to post rules about where cut hair should go, what could and not be done with common kitchen implement, and why the bathroom and the fire escape were not built for the same functions. Four or five addresses later and about sixteen years later, I started bugging my mother about the chest. I might have even bugged Nana to bug my mother about the chest. I was in reasonably stable housing situation. I didn’t have a roommate any more. My friends didn’t leave hair dye prints on the bathroom tile and would sometime even ask if I had coasters. No one had Sharpie-d a wall in at least a decade.  And besides, how was Tangerine holding up? Could I be confident he wasn’t lonely? Mom hedged. She didn’t have a new chest to put in my chest’s place. And besides, I didn’t have that much room in my house. Where would I put it?  I’d find a place, I thought.

Last week, my parents came into town in advance of my birthday, the back of my stepfather’s Jeep stuffed with furniture blankets. It wasn’t quite as much fun or space to somersault as the the Red Antique van, but they were able to squeeze in the chest, which had been languishing in a storage room since mid-pandemic. We got the chest into the dining room, where it fit neatly against the inside wall.

All six lions, still brassy and accounted for.  Tangerine, for his part, looks happy to be home.  I’ll do my best to look out for him now that I’m finally a grown-up.

Sleep, Perchance to Sleep

In Brief / Personal History / Women

I am not sleeping well.

I don’t mean for this to sound grandiose. While there are plenty of things happening in the world to keep me up at night contemplating, this is not, as my mother would put it, a wrestling with angels scenario. It is merely that I put my head on the pillow, turn out the light  and experience what I can only describe as a 5-7 hours of the least restful sleep imaginable. And I say this as a person who once literally fell asleep at a metal show.

It’s not conventional insomnia. I can fall asleep. I usually do, but it’s that my new dream life is kind of like walking from train car to anxious train car  and in between I wake either sweating in some Satan’s Own yoga pose, heart racing, suddenly, irrationally convinced that the rain storm will definitely shatter the skylight in my bathroom and the house will flood and the floors will collapse and BLACK MOLD and I cannot possibly afford to refinance this bastard again with these interest rates, no way, buddy, no how. And then I manage to contort myself into another different position, go back to sleep, have an elaborate stress dream about not being able to find a bathroom at one of those multiple band reunion concerts (this one with both Styx and Pearl Jam) in a Mexican-themed casino food court because it’s the only way I can get a ride home because my car has been towed and I wake up again freezing and some upside down position concerned that the slight discomfort in my lower abdomen means I have cancer that probably came from a mole that I still haven’t made an appointment to get checked out and it’s definitely spread and hold up, my car is in the driveway because the garage door is broken and what if I left the windows open. It’s lightning out and 4am, but should I go check? Would a good person go check? Am I bad person?  I just put another pair of shiny gold sneakers on my credit card. That feels like a bad person move. Squunch up under blankets. Drift off fitfully Have a weird stress dream about actor Michael Sheen trying to train me to be alumberjack, because it’s the only job I can get, but in Welsh. Wake up sweating. Rinse. Repeat. Until I finally wake up, exhausted, but weirdly relieved that I don’t have to try and find this relaxing again for another 16-18 hours.

This has been going on for  about ten days straight now. You want to ask about my caffeine habits, go ahead. I’ve tried cutting it out. I’ve tried cutting it back. Ditto alcohol. Ditto eating after certain hours. Ditto screens. Ditto reading upsetting or uncomfortable things before bed. Ditto breathing exercises. Ditto meditation (I am really, hilariously bad at meditation). I get plenty of exercise. I eat pretty well. Melatonin seems to make it worse and anti-anxiety drugs give me enormously unpleasant hangovers. I keep thinking the problem is structural. Like maybe if I had better pillows or a new mattress. What are even good pillows? And why are they suddenly more expensive than those gold sneakers I put on my credit card? The latter anyway is a lot of money to spend on a hedge, and my current mattress is barely five years old.

I tried talking about my mother about this and her advice was extremely depressing. The truth is you’re probably not going to sleep well for the rest of your life. Really? That doesn’t seem fair. This came on so suddenly. I used to be a person that could easily drop off. I couldn’t wait to dream. Now, I dread bedtime. Dread it. Dread it even more than I did when I was a kid and worried by sleeping I might miss something cool.

““You don’t need to worry about it. It’s nothing serious” said my mother. “It’s probably just your hormones.”

I’m at the age of reverse puberty, as a biological woman. Much like actual puberty It’s an age which no one, having lived through it once, is keen to revisit.  Both are predictably unpredictable, embarrassing, unflattering, and defined by a particular kind of Trouble with a Capitol T that rhymes with E and that stands for Hormones. The first time around the hormones give you all kinds of wild, electric feelings that make you do stupid shit like write a lengthy short story about a barely fictionalized version of yourself and the  boy you have a crush on and give it to him in public because you think it will make him love you. The second time the hormones give you all kinds of wild, electric feelings that make think you’re having a nervous breakdown or dying of a terminal illness (both at the same time) or stress dream about actor Michael Sheen yelling at you in Welsh, or fake dream subconscious Welsh, because you don’t actually know any Welsh and seriously, why Michael Sheen? I haven’t seen anything with him in it recently.


I’m not tired right now, but I’m cranky. I’m cranky because I would like to sleep tonight. I would like to fall into pillows and stay put and not sweat and maybe, just for once, not remember exactly what I dreamed.


Accidents / Personal History / Uncategorized / Women

On Thursday, January 12, 2023, I’m officially going to the hospital, separating from my reproductive system,  and making the “Yeah, I don’t think I’m doing the motherhood” subtext text. If you’re the kind of person that measures a woman’s worth by the bun in the oven, or one of those dudes who loves to talk about how it’s evolutionary psychology that makes you like 22 year old girls with long shiny barrel curled hair because fertility, I’ve ceased to be relevant as a human being to you, if I ever ways (doubtful). If you’re anyone else, this probably doesn’t, or even shouldn’t, make any impression at all. Mine is a routine procedure and eventually all AFAB people must bid adieu to their reproductive function, whether by hook, crook, illness,  menopause or elective surgery. I have opted for the latter.

The cause is not cancer or gender identity or chronic, debilitating illness but something like convenience and pain management. Mine is a minimally invasive procedure ( I love that phrase–minimally invasive and how it sounds like a euphemism for US Cold War-era foreign policy). It will, with a constellation of delicate incisions remove most of my derelict babymaking gadgetry in order to dispense with the uncomfortable, unpredictable potato-sized tumors that have filled and then refilled the unused space after the last enormously painful, expensive and inconvenient procedure that promised to get rid of them came up short.

This is sort of the nuclear option as far as these things go. I didn’t want to end up here. Believe me. I hate hospitals.  Surgery is no one’s idea of a good time. I dread the rest and healing. I don’t do couch naps or daytime pajamas well. I thought about waiting it out. They tell me nature will eventually rid me of this problem. But nature is unpredictable.  No one has the slightest idea when I might hit menopause. Could be next week. Could be next year. Could be ten years from now. Seems like the kind of thing medical science might have progressed to figure out. But women’s health, in particular women’s health pertaining to Not Looking Younger and Hotter for Longer or Not Having Babies still gets short shrift when it comes to where medical science wants to exert its energy. After all, there’s nothing sexy or even useful about crones, unless you’re trying to use their dubious advice to try and murder your way to the Scottish throne. And who isn’t, honestly?

From a political perspective, my timing is on point. Why bother having reproductive machinery at a time when a whole half of the country (or at least a whole half of its representative government) believes I should be barred from making any decisions about it? My state—southern, swing, purple—is maybe one worst case election shy of being subsumed into Dixie Gilead (a hoop skirt does suit a scarlet gown). I’m old enough and single enough that I probably wouldn’t have to worry about that regardless. But, selfishly, it will be nice to know there’s one less uterus in the world  to worry about.

You know what else won’t be my problem anymore? Crimson tide. Shark week. Aunt Rosie. British army inspection. Communists in the gazebo. Painters in the stairway. The red scare. It feels a little too tidy to say that it would be nice to redirect my monthly tithe toward the women’s division of Procter & Gamble toward, like, taking down the patriarchy. Solid odds it will go toward party dresses and booze. Do I apologize for this? Do I feel guilty?

I don’t know how to feel.

Surgery’s been in the works now since roughly May of 2022. A long time. I had my first consult with my surgical team—smart, widely recommended, genuinely nice and comforting people, all the way back in August. At the time I was coming off the back side of a particularly flavor of hypochondriacal anxiety that made my chest hurt because my chest hurt and that made my chest hurt which WebMD tells you is always probably a heart attack. Always. Probably. Except when it’s not. The surgeon was the nicest, most patient doctor I’d talked to in months, probably because she wasn’t annoyed with me asking repeatedly if she was sure I wasn’t dying. Like, I mean, right now. And if so, would you judge my life as a mostly or complete failure.

We did not  talk about any of that. We talked about incisions. We talked about anesthesia and pain killers. We talked about how long I would have to wait to lift things (8 weeks) or have sex (four months). We talked about what pieces I wanted to keep and which ones I wanted gone for sure. I circled a date on a calendar and wondered, given the last few years, what the state of the my life, what the state of the world would be like when I got there. Who could say? January 12. 2023.

Then I didn’t think about it. At all.

I mean.  Why would I? People tend toward elective surgery because they want an upgrade or a restoration. They want to change something about themselves or their lives. They want to become Version 2.0, or maybe they want to try and get back to 1.0. A version of self that conforms that looks like the picture in their head. A version that feels like person they know they are. A version without the pain. A version with all the freedom pain and worry and illness has stolen. And even though it doesn’t exactly feel that way, it’s why I’m doing it doing this, right? One less thing to worry about. One less ache to feel. One less unnecessary pang. One more part I’m not using.

I’m being too flippant here. I know that. I apologize. Surgery is not just a glow-up. The desire to endure less pain or worry is not a selfish one.  And then there are the altruists. My dad needs a kidney, pretty much ASAP. There are a boatload of reasons I’m not a good match, which no reserve of guilt, no matter how large, can mitigate. Someone out there may, out of the kindness of their heart, come through for him, undergo surgery, and willingly endure all the indecision, the anxiety, the fear, the ambivalence. Or maybe the importance of the mission diminishes the rest. You become bigger than yourself, or at least, big enough to ignore your own neuroses and do the thing, because at some time along the path, it stops being about you.

This, what I’m doing, is all about me. Maybe that’s why I’m so bored with it.

The week before Christmas, my best friend and I drove out to meet my surgeon in person. She answered some questions, performed a biopsy–“People have described this pain as both the worst pain they’ve ever experienced in their life or not a big deal at all. My suspicion is, for you, it will fall somewhere in between” (It did)—and told me what brand of liquid soap I needed to wash myself with before surgery (Dial).  I felt okay when I left the appointment that day, even I did feel a little like the surgery was an overreaction. Was my circumstance so grave to require this? What pain is enough pain to be unendurable? Certainly mine wasn’t. Isn’t it some flavor of stolen valor or, as my family would say, “drama” to insist on complicated, expensive, surgical treatment for something that is actually, probabaly NBD?

Can you tell I’m wavering? I’m wavering. Is it possible to feel like you don’t deserve a thing at the same time that you feel like you don’t want a thing at the same time that you feel like if you don’t take the thing on offer you’re a coward or just a lazy, hedonistic flibbertigibbet who’d rather suffer long term than sacrifice the inconvience of recuperation.  I mean, I’ll be honest with you: Relaxing makes me nervous. I do not like sitting still. When things get calm and quiet, when you are at rest, that’s when the monsters come out.  

Last week, stricken by my first cold in three years (not Covid, evidently, but still shitty and thanks for playing) that blew up my plans for my first New Year’s Eve in three years and threatened to derail this whole process, I dawdled around the internet, looking for additional information about my new, post-surgical life. The National Health Service (UK) suggested that some shocking percentage of patients feel depressed afterwards because they “no longer feel like a real woman. ” I sat on that one for a while. The most surprising part for me is not so much the “real woman” but the “no longer,” because I’m still trying to work out exactly what a real woman feels like.  Cellulite? Velvet? A late spring rain storm? A nice beach trip? That waxy, palepink tip on an OG black-labeled Chapstick? A salty dress on a ship in a storm?  A Jameson on the rocks and could you make that a double, because lord, it’s been a day?  I’m 46 years old, still pointed toward the pink side of the dial and I cannot possibly tell you what it a real woman feels like. It seems like a lot of Goddess imagery and earth toned connotations to lay on someone that’s only ever really had time for the fuschia sequined version of femininity. Which is to say, I don’t need to oven to work to have a fabulous time in the kitchen.  So why does it even matter? I should be overjoyed. I can keep all the tulle, and never have to worry about pretending to love playing house again.

It’s age though, isn’t it? Isn’t that the thing? It’s the closing doors, even the doors you were never going to go through. I’ve been watching “Fleischman is in Trouble” (it’s pretty great, peak X-ennial midlife crisis bait) while I’ve been getting over this cold and grieving my stupid, wonderful cat (my stupid, wonderful cat died on New Year’s Morning. Did I mention? Did you know? It was peaceful, and he’s one less 10+ pound thing I won’t have to worry about lifting by accident after surgery, but I miss him). There’s something weirdly cathartic about watching famous people give voice to your interior monologue, to hear Lizzy Caplan lament the lost possibilities, the possibilities she didn’t even want, the ones she wasn’t even fully aware she had.

I never wanted kids. And my two little sisters did a fine job of turning out a couple of nephews this fall, who I have every intention of spoiling shamefully. This is not about that. It’s that in my heart, I still feel like I’m seventeen, still standing out in the rain waiting to find an unlocked window, some crack in the façade that I might be able to slip through and finally enter into the world, the richness, the beauty, the opportunity, the magic, the heartbreak, the romance, the vastness of it all. In my head, though, I’m almost forty-seven, and I know that this is the life, this is my only life–this waiting, this trying, this standing at the metaphorical glass and imagining that the people on the other side are living a real, truly live adventure, free from whatever sadness, frustration, disappointment, and yeah, just flat-out effing boredom I feel at the limitations of myself and my circumstance.

When I asked the surgeon about the physical and emotional side effects of menopause, we talked about all the big stuff and all the gross stuff and all the stuff you’re embarrassed to ask your mother. But there were the questions I was too embarrassed to ask. Like, will I still get butterflies when someone with pretty eyes smiles at me and says something unexpectedly tender and clever all at once? And will I feel that flicker of promise when the sun sets and  stars start to come out? Will things continue to feel weird and sexy and funny and exciting and breathless and gorgeous and complicated and really fucking ridiculous? Is there any point in hoping for better than “not worse” when imagining my future? Am I a baby for even wanting that? (I am a giant baby).

There are things I know, rationally, will not be impacted by surgery. This is not about where or how my uterus is going. It is very definitively about where and how I think I might be.  And honestly, I don’t love the view from here.

A bit ago, the nurse called back to confirm that the surgery is taking place, that whatever rattling remnant of a cough is no reason to postpone the operation, and unless I’m actively, definitively sick, they’ll see me and I’m my Dial-ed body on Thursday.

I’m okay, by the way, ramble to the contrary. Pet dies, you get sick, people ask. I’m okay in all the ways a person can be okay. I’m comfortable enough. I know how I lucky I am. I’m sensible. Ish. The corridors just get narrow sometimes. And I’ll get through it, and I’ll be fine, and you can all remind me how silly I was being, how petty. What a flibbertigibbet, tis Alison. What a way to begin a new year.

PS: If you’re local and want to lift a bag of groceries or roll out a trashcan for me between now and the middle of March, give me a holler.

Bird is the Word


Geneva is 12 years old. At 12pm on the 12 day of the 12th month. It is approximately 12 degrees outside, and probably 62 in the house. The thermostat says otherwise, but it is an old house with stingy insulation and a whistling flue in the stone fireplace. She can’t be faulted for lingering between sofa and blanket; it’s warm there. She can’t be faulted for watching hours of a Super 70s Series Holiday Marathon. Her whole day will be a festival of feathered hair and polyester flares. Nostalgia overload. She feels the past in her bones–all burnt sienna macrame and avocado linoleum, an aproned housekeeper in a haze of indoor cigarettes smoke—even if it’s not her past. Geneva, after all, was born in 1989.

It’s the nostalgia then for the act of watching the past. After the babysitter quit, she spends  afternoons on her parent’s sofa, teal chenille, sun faded, dog-haired, her greasy fingers coating the pillows in a layer of salty-snack topsoil. She watches hours of syndicated television and dozes herself back to 1972 on another Pleasant Valley Sunday.  Her mother thinks  it was weird, funny, but weird.

“I watched this when I was your age,” she  says, home from work, blocking the Brady façade with her oversized handbag, a hand on a hip. “I thought it was pretty dumb then.”

Her father thinks it is borderline dangerous.

“Other kids don’t do this kind of thing. They don’t subsume themselves in the past. They experience new things. They push the envelope,” he says, as if he thinks she can’t hear him the kitchen. She can always hear them in the kitchen

“I don’t know, Dan. The other kids her are into Star Wars and hobbits and shit. They get pretty obsessive too.”

“But that’s space,” he says. “That’s grand mythology. Hero’s journey. Archetypal Joseph Campbell stuff. Geneva’s failing math because she’s writing love poems about Danny Bonaduce.”

It hadn’t been a love poem. Not exactly. And she hasn’t failed math. Yet.  But in April, she gets sent to a therapist after refusing to leave the house in clothing that post-dated the series finale of “The Partridge Family” (March 23, 1974), and languishing for three more days on the sofa.

Geneva doesn’t have much to say to Dr. Loftus. Only that 1973 seemed like an objectively better and less complicated time to be alive and be twelve  years old than 2001. The doctor sighs and says something about Vietnam and Watergate. How it’s always hard to be twelve years old. But honestly the doctor seems to agree. “Music has never been as good. Rolling Stones. Allmans. Midnight Train to Georgia. Kid, you have no idea how good we had it. And I don’t mind telling you, we were pretty groovy in those days. You know, I wore platform shoes and a pony tail my whole first year of graduate school? Boy howdy. The coeds loved those. 73, man. 73 was a hell of a year.”

He looks wistful, afternoon sun milking up the lenses of his glasses. And they sit, for a long beat, as she stares at Dr Loftus’ plentiful silver ear hairs and tries to imagine what he might have looked like in velvet bellbottoms. Then a motorcycle howls down the divided highway outside. He shakes off his nostalgia and tells her he is sure that 2002 will also be a hell of a year if she’ll just give it a chance.

It sounds like bullshit.

Because it is bullshit.

She sits in the waiting room and listens to him tell her mother something about 9/11 and the challenges of being a child in this terrible and frightening time. Geneva thinks about going back in the office and reminding them that she spent sixth grade trying to figure out whether she was in love with Marcia Brady or just wanted to be her and that had been months before the Twin Towers fell and they hadn’t been able to get her mother on the phone for six hours in DC. Geneva isn’t worried about terrorists, but she sometimes thinks that she is lost in the wrong time,  that no time machine does or will ever exist to deliver her to the right one, and she could very well spend the rest of her life grieving, trying to make someone, anyone, understand how she feels and still be deemed crazy.

Or sent to a wilderness program that will force a break-up between herself and the television, separate her from the past.  The hope is that she’ll refocus, learn to live in the present, and glom back onto 2002.  The reality is  that she spends three weeks in the Pacific Northwest shivering in the rain, eating cold, wormy macaroni and trudging through mud in fabrics that had not  been invented in 1974. On the bonus, she meets Perry, whose spiky black hair and spikier black eyeliner belie a much wider cultural knowledge and musical interest. The pair become fast friends and sit beneath the trees at night, breaking curfew to describe episodes and music videos in precise detail, as if they could conjure footage against the cloudy sky. By the time Geneva returned home, she’s been primed for Bolan, for Bowie, for Iggy, for painting stars on her cheeks with body glitter, and organizing music-based field trips to see Perry, who, conveniently lives in Manassas, only three suburbs away.

She spends most of eight grade failing to figure out whether she is in love with Perry or just wants to be her. Geneva’s hair gets shorter and spikier and blacker. She steps cautiously beyond 1974, to 75, 76, to 77. Her father seems altogether less concerned.

“I figure one of these you’ll get to Springsteen,” he says. “I’d love to share that with a kid. The Boss, you know. How great is the Boss?”

Her mother figures that ship has sailed, and tries not to pay much attention to the bluster, the studded belts, the boots Geneva wears inside the house, befouling the new white Berber wall to wall. At least she is passing math. At least she has moved away from the television, even if it’s just a twelve feet and one room away to the computer.

“Newer technology,” says her father. “She’s thinking about the future.”

She isn’t, but she knows it will be impossible to explain to her father. She is lost in the wrong time. No time machine can deliver her to the right one, but at least Perry exists, and for now they are best friends and can be lost together. 

Geneva magic markers  a Punk’s Not Dead tattoo on her forearm and her mother groans about the mess.

“You’ll ruin the placemat with that ink,” she says

“The good news is nobody will give her a real one of those until she’s eighteen,” says her father.

“I wouldn’t swear on that,” says her mother. “But that good news is that she’ll hopefully grown out of wanting it.”

Geneva doesn’t think she will, but why argue. It is almost Christmas. It is cold out. She has proper excuse to keep wearing long sleeves. It will be months before her mother even notices the stick and poke partridge Perry’s friend in Manassas had already tattooed on her bicep.  

Not Even Past

Family History / Nostalgia

My paternal grandfather was what people in the South call “a character.” The man himself would have likely agreed with this appraisal, though he would have added “of great moral character, poetic disposition and indisputable noble destiny” to the end of it. He was a legend in his own mind, a bullshit artist par excellence, whose skill at wholesale fabrication suggests that some distant relation may have not only kissed the Blarney Stone but attempted to swallow it whole. From my grandfather, I believe I inherited a love of storytelling, of tales intricately rendered, with larger than life personages facing extraordinary circumstances with stunning heroism, dazzling aplomb, and (because he was from Mississippi) at least one dangerous secret in a stately home fallen into disrepair under the creeping shadows of the Delta in late summer (the man never told a story—at least to me–set in cold weather). It is from my grandfather that I learned that the wildest stories are probably the truest and that a “true” story does not have to be factual to be painfully honest on an emotional level.

My grandfather wore a bunch of hats in his life. He spent some time in the newspaper business, some in advertising and a lot chasing some big idea or another. He was an excellent writer. He wrote long letters in this elaborate 19th century script (with an accompanying 19th century vocabulary) but never spelled my first name correctly. He piloted fighter planes in World War II and chased William Faulkner around the Kentucky Derby hoping for an interview (he didn’t get it). He never became the next William Faulkner or the next F. Scott Fitzgerald or the next Thomas Wolfe. Probably because he was too busy emulating their drinking habits to match their creative output. Possibly because being a writer felt too passive for a man who always believed himself to be the hero of the piece.

Some pretty dark and ugly things can churn to the surface when people talk about my grandfather. He was born and raised an affluent white man in a context in which it would have been a nearly unimaginable triumph if he hadn’t been some flavor of bigot. And then you know, the drinking, the failures, the increasing disconnect from reality, the fact that the post-war years did a very good job indoctrinating an (in retrospect) highly traumatized generation (by the Great Depression, by War, etc) of young people that the best way to deal with all that was to bottle it up, never speak of it again, buy a house with a white picket fence and start having children and what could possibly go wrong? We’re the kind of family that can make jokes about having a DSM volume all to ourselves. And you know, narcissists gonna narcissist. My grandfather was a smart man, but rarely self-aware enough to be entirely in on the joke. He wasn’t famous for his apologies.

He did, however, have his moments. He famously crossed out his former jobs on out-of-date business cards and just wrote HIMSELF under his name. Just before he died, twenty-one odd years ago, he wrote the occasional column for a local newspaper in the Florida panhandle. He had cards printed up which listed his title as “Pope of Defuniak Springs” which is so hilariously perfect that it makes me think my grandfather knew more about himself than he let on, or that we let on that he let on, the preservation of myth being a thing that gets passed down through the generations and all.

He died twenty one years ago. His funeral was mostly a lot of letter reading, his letters being the best evidence of the man he almost was and might have been, both as a writer and as a human being. When you do words for a living, it’s pretty easy to look good on a page. The nasty bits and boils don’t show through the white spaces.  Anyone can appear confident if they just use the right verbs. I thought about this, as I sat in the pew, listening to my dad read my grandfather’s eloquent and moving description of his first moments of flight over the Mediterranean Sea. From behind me, I heard the shuffle of footsteps, the heavy carved door of the Episcopal Church scraping the stone floor. I didn’t turn to see, but someone told me later it had been my grandmother. She’d divorced my grandfather the year I was born and spent most of her life going out of her way to avoid ever seeing him again (a challenge in a small town in Virginia). I don’t think wanted anyone to know she’d shown up at his funeral—certainly not his brothers and sister—but when you’ve been married to someone for nearly three decades, you pay your respects, even if your marriage is full of disappointment, especially if your marriage is full of disappointment. The man on the page. The man in the flesh. The continent’s worth of distance separating the two, so great that even my grandfather’s most epic and godlike conception of self could not span it.

When I was a kid my grandfather used  to roll around in this enormous brown Buick, fitted with an 8-track player–even after they stopped making cars with 8—track players—so he could play his two favorite albums Nancy Wilson’s “Yesterday’s Love Songs/Today’s Blues” and the Original Broadway Soundtrack of “Camelot.” Kennedy era classics (or almost, the record store pedant in me has must confirm that the Nancy Wilson record came out just after JFK was assassinated), which also feels on point, even if I doubt very seriously my grandfather voted for Kennedy. It seems of a time, an era in which men like my grandfather could believe they were gods, even with all evidence pointing to the contrary. And decades later, as he’d slalom down curvy mountain roads, smelling of whiskey and limes, wondering what the king was doing tonight in unison with Richard Burton, between drags of cigarette, it would occur to me (as I slid helplessly around the backseat) that he maybe he was singing about himself.

My grandfather didn’t have much when he died. Big dreams are expensive, after all. You fail. You fail better. Maybe you end up Samuel Beckett. But with the right amount of bourbon and self-delusion, you’ll probably just end up broke, possibly surrounded by people joking about donating your liver to science, and maybe doomed to an afterlife of your children and children’s children, at best, equivocating your legacy.

I get songs from the “Camelot” soundtrack stuck in my head all the time, out of nowhere. I don’t know if this counts as an actual haunting, but in the middle of the night sometimes, when I can’t sleep, when I think about the person I am and the person I want to be and the gulf that separates the messiest part of myself from my best, most reliable stories, out of nowhere, with full flourish of orchestra I’ll find myself wondering what the king is doing tonight.

I’m pretty sure he’s scared.

(Photo of my grandfather, circa late 1940s, either sneezing or emoting. Both seem appropriate)

The Feels

COVID / Personal History / Women

About a million years ago, the soft-spoken brother of one of my best friends in the world was completing his training to be an acupuncturist, and asked if I would be interested in doing an intake session with him. My friend’s brother was a funny, weird, kind guy. I believe it’s important to do things for the funny, weird, kind people in your life, because we are mostly able to survive the world because of them. And we should never take them for granted.

I was acupuncture novice. Having spent much of my life hearing all kinds of dubious claims about all kinds of non-Western, non-mainstream health/medicine, my bullshit detector was fully activated. I drove up to his makeshift office—at that time in a room of his home on the Madison County side of Sam’s Gap, spitting distance from the Tennessee line. Like any reasonable person who was born in East Tennessee, I viewed this as a portentous, if not actively dangerous location (you never know what could start an actual blood feud /send a vigilante mob after a circus elephant/mistake your sullen teenaged silence at as encouragement to start playing a @#$*ing banjo).  Even more concerning, my friend’s brother, a Massachusetts native, saw nothing in his immediate surroundings to be alarmed about, which is basically horror film shorthand for I volunteer as tribute.

I tried to put my misgivings aside. I drank some tea, sat down in a chair, and answered a bunch of questions about physical and emotional maladies, while my friend’s brother nodded thoughtfully and took notes. He asked if I had any questions about acupuncture. I was still pretty deep in a period in which I thought being an asshole was more admirable that appearing credulous, so I asked about peer-reviewed journal articles and whether acupuncture was akin to voodoo. “Like, do you have to believe it for it to work?”

My friend’s brother offered up that there are a lot of things in life that you have to believe in to make work, and that acupuncture was hardly outer rim, as far as non-Western medicine was concerned. I lay down on a table. He stuck some needles in me, and asked how made me feel.

I told them I didn’t feel them.

He tried again. “This is sensitive spot.”

I felt nothing. Again. And nothing. And nothing. I made “A Chorus Line” joke. Nothing. I felt nothing. “Weird,” he said. He made a few notes. We ended the session and rejoined my friend in the kitchen, where we drank tea (gunpowder) and discussed whether “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou” was as good as we thought at the time (mixed opinions).

I drove back down the mountain in a drizzly fog, listening to a particularly sad, shambling indie rock song that was for the duration of the trip up and back down the mountain a fleeting favorite. I thought about the business of not being able to feel things and whether there was something wrong with me as a person. I’d spent a solid portion of my young life trying to laugh off painful things, because blustery post-bullied teenage logic dictates that as soon as people know your vulnerability they’ll definitely try to use it against you. Then, somehow that calcified and I went through several years as an extremely depressed college student mostly unable to cry, which is an extremely unsettling, constipated feeling. I don’t recommend it. Somehow, I grew out of it, shattered the seal, and by the time I went to see my friend’s brother I could get misty at things again. I could tell people that weren’t my parents or my therapists that I felt sad as hell when I felt sad as hell.  I could acknowledge feeling a thing without immediately making fun of myself. Still, I worried. What if I was feeling wrong or not enough? What if I was just numb cold-blooded husk existing in a world full of emotional or sensory experience that would remain forever lost to me? I know this sounds hilarious in retrospect, given that the intervening years have transformed me into an the kind of person that goes full-on sobbing snot goblin at any number of things, from objectively terrible television commercials to like, a very good raw oyster.

The feels talk is relevant to me because I’ve been thinking a lot about grief lately. We’re living in a particularly grief-soaked era, for sure. I don’t think any of us have really dealt with that. Probably because there’s only so much a human person can do in a day, between jobs and exercise and families and streaming services and sleep. Asking a person to face all that has been lost over the last few years and sit with it thoughtfully? Well, that’s a lot to ask. Especially given the fact that I still need to make an appointment with the dermatologist and paint the powder room( maybe not in that order).   I mean, I haven’t even listened to that Radiohead side project situation that came out a few months back yet (solid odds I’ll think it’s overrated).

Grief isn’t a thing you can put off forever, though. And that’s a thing I’m picking up now about being in my 40s, a decade defined by grief, even if you’re lucky enough to get through it without losing people or jobs or relationships or internal organs or parts your identity that you deeply love. Because what is middle age but seeing all the things you are not and have not and probably will not and trying to make peace with all that’s left. This isn’t as dramatic as it sounds. It’s normal and human. The metaphorical plate is still full of delicious food, maybe even fancier, more satisfying food, but the portions are getting smaller. Eventually, you’re told/you hope, you’ll realize you’re not as hungry, but as a casualty of a bajillion failed diets in every possible flavor, I’m here to tell you that never happens fast enough (if at all).

In the meantime, there’s all the ghosts of your multiverse that need exorcizing. The choices made. The lives not led. The shit that just did not work out for whatever reason. Those things linger. I’m not inclined to give that stuff too much air (there are a million bad movies and worse books about it). But I do sit up at night in bed, sweating at 3am, in another exciting round of “Is this peri-menopause or am I dying?” trying to work out whether I’m actually sad that I didn’t have enough fun in my twenties or whether falling in love, if I ever do again, will feel the same flavor of heady and electric and dangerous and breathless as it did when I still thought falling in love was a thing that could happened whenever I put on lipstick and stepped out into the world. Most of the things I’m losing are things I didn’t need. The doors closing go to empty rooms and dusty hallways. But I’m a collector, by nature, and I have a hard time not noticing the space on the shelf.

(What metaphor are on now? Six? Seven?)

A few years back, I was partial to telling people that “Happiness is a things you remember.” That sounded sage at the time, and a convenient hedge to get around the fact that great experiences don’t always live up to expectation when you’re in the moment. I’m sorry if I told you that. It’s bullshit. Or at least it’s bullshit for me. Because I think happiness is the things you look forward to. It the essence of the anticipation. It is 5am on Christmas morning. It is the moment when you realize that, yes, holy shit, yes, they are going to kiss you.  It is the final question on the final exam of your final year. It is being so excited for your trip that you can’t sleep on the plane across the ocean. It is the unopened letter in the mailbox.  It is the final moments of planning and stressing and working for whatever when you realize it just might be coming together. Like, for real this time.

These things, or some probably more mature facsimile, I (know? suspect? guess?) will continue to occur. I get that. I will find happiness in the sincere hope that that they will. People keep trying to make me feel better by reminding me to feel gratitude, which I do. They tell stories of people who have suffered incalculable unimaginable loss and still find ways to keep on learning Spanish or doing macrame or planning a speaking engagement in Hungary. That is so awesome. And I get what a terrible brat I sound like when all I want to talk about is how much I miss looking forward to the idea of a thing that never ended up working out.

So I return to the feeling things. Speaking as person who never could feel when I was supposed to, I’m kind of ornery at the idea that I’m not supposed to feel this collection of griefs now. Maybe we should all just take a minute and revel in it. Just go fucking full banshee. Moan and wail. Rend your clothing. Howl at the moon. Be irresponsibly sad for all the empty spaces on the shelf in daily life, in your memory palace, in your community, in your heart. It seems counterintuitive, but if I have to endure my forties in this world at this time, the least I can do is allow myself the luxury of being a baby about it every now and then. And if you’re in similar space, you have my permission to do so too. Maybe we need the catharsis before we can have the applause. Maybe we need the catharsis before we can even hear it at all.

Not-Entirely-Post-Plague Diary: June 23, 2022

COVID / Music / Personal History / Plague Diaries / Women

Back in the very early 2000s, when I’d first moved to Chapel Hill I went to a show at an adored, now-long- gone venue.  I can’t remember what band was playing, but I know that I ran into a guy from my writing workshop Nothing Fancy State University there. This felt remarkable at the time because, save one single, solitary exception, I did not keep in touch with a soul from NFSU, probably because my connection to campus was almost non-existent (at best, a memory of the turreted administration building looking lonely and Hopper-ish at twilight as I tried to appear lonely and Hopper-ish smoking a cigarette on the to the parking lot, at worst, an endless, skittery, nicotine-stained anxiety dream). The only classes I reliably attended there were workshops, and the only people I ever really hung out with outside of class were other writers in my workshops, and that guy at the show had been a good writer and kind of cute in a soft-spoken, scruffy, thrift store golf sweater way that could have easily turned into crush territory when I was twenty-one or so.

But when I saw him at the show, it took me a minute to recognize him out of context. We were maybe five years and forty-five miles from our class together but to me it felt like light years and several geological eras away in the distance. By the time I summoned up his name, the only thing I could think to ask him was what he was working on. He looked at me, confused, for a minute and was like, “Oh writing? Are you asking about writing? I mean, I don’t do that anymore.”

I remember not knowing how to respond. I probably just drifted away on a speedy “Cool catching uo, dude.” Because twenty-six year old me could not imagine how a person could just quit writing. I mean, what the hell? Assuming that not writing was a thing I might be 100% set on doing, I wasn’t even sure it was physically possible to stop. Even if you’re without laptop or a typewriter or a notebook, you’d still be making stuff up in your head all the time. You’d still just be trying to remember it all so you could jot it down the next time you get close to a pen, right? Right?

A few weeks back, a friend I hadn’t seen since well before Covid approached me when I was out, exchanged pleasantries, and told me how sorry she was I’d quit writing. This was news to me. And because I’m afflicted with neurotic bees for brains, I had to go through several swarms worth of worry, trying to riddle out whether she seemed disappointed or relieved, like maybe this was a gentle way the world was letting me know I should quit. And then I realized it had been a while, I’d written dribs and drabs, nothing like normal, nothing like productive, nothing like I’d ever considered healthy, non-asshole writing behavior

“I guess I’ve been really busy with work,” I said. It sounded reasonable because it was true. And I do write for work, but it’s not the same kind of writing so it doesn’t always really feeling like writing.

What I didn’t say to her  was that I wake up every morning with the same goal—to write—the same plan, and I’ve pretty much spent most of the last ten weeks doing anything but ( I mean, yesterday I made a Tik Tok video. It took me two hours and I immediately took it down, but I mention because when I say anything I mean truly anything) because I don’t have the focus, I don’t seem to have the will. I am distracted by anything, everything all of the time. I mean, like, I’ve color-coded the dresses in my closet. I’ve staged photoshoots of the color-coded dresses in my closet. I’ve wasted hours spreadsheeting places I’ve eaten breakfast in Manhattan and Brooklyn. I’ve doom-scrolled. I’ve doom-slid. I’ve doom-shuffled. I’ve cried over Instagram videos.  I’ve spent literally weeks—weeks—shopping for a plain white linen button down shirt, and hours talking myself out of buying it.  I have used filters on Hair Styling websites to try out all the hair colors of hair dye. I’ve made an appointment to tell my hairdresser I want to go plantinum blonde. I’ve canceled the appointment (I do actually want to go platinum blonde again. I have no idea why I have such a hard time expressing this. It’s not because I have misgivings. It’s also another procrastination thing). I have read way down into the embarrassingly deep back catalog of things I have written and not finished. I’ve procrastinated hard. Like, I’ve procrastinated so hard that it’s, like, a lifestyle now, man. And given the state of the world and my life and everything it would feel totally justified, I could feel totally justified, if I would convince myself that it’s what I wanted to be doing. But I’m pretty sure if it were, I wouldn’t feel so crappy about it all the time.  


 A lot of people, maybe even most people I know are having a hard time right now, and many of them for much more immediate and profound reasons than I am. Some of this is coincidental. Some of is probably a natural part of aging (most of my “young” friends are standing at the edge of 40 Welcome you to middle age, millennials). But a lot of this is the world right now.. Even if you’re off the grid, even if you’ve been subsisting on a media diet of kittens and morning beach yoga, the background noise is always there, like that Judy Garland Christmas song on a lonely winter night waiting to obliterate you over the PA while you pump gas or wander innocently down the pasta aisle at the supermarket.

It’s hard to complain about over-procrastination and lack of focus because it feels like a thing I should be able to fix. The same as the shopping too much, eating too much, drinking too much, lounging too much, talking too much, moping too much, too much, too much that has defined too much of my last two years. For a while, it seemed prudent to give myself a pass. Global catastrophe, yadda yadda. But if global catastrophe is going to be the permastate, it might be advisable to retain a modicum of self-control. Asteroid’s probably not going to hit tomorrow and all.

But last weekend, I drove home in a spectacular sunset in my often-spectacularly beautiful hometown, unsettled by the peace that came with realizing things aren’t getting better, or at least not getting better in any meaningful way anytime soon.

“My suspicion is that we’re going to look back on this moment and realize that it was a high point, and that we’re probably not getting back to this for at least ten years,” said a friend of mine, on an otherwise beautiful Monday evening three nights later, as we sat on the deck drinking beer under limbs gently unsettled by summer breeze. “I think we have a long hard road before things really turn around, and there’s no guarantee they will.”

She sounded resigned, but not hopeless. She’s not some conspiracy theorist or a radical idealogue. She’s a smart, well-educated person who has a bad feeling about this, which is more or less the same bad feeling that I’m feeling, that everyone else I know is feeling, that is making every single teensy, weird ass bullshit thing that happens feel like just another thing we’ve lost, maybe forever, on the way down to wherever it is we’re going.

This is some bleak shit. I know that. For all my (inappropriate) morbid jokes and lazy slides into fatalism and armchair catastrophizing, I am not really a cynic or a pessimist by nature;  I just played one in the 1990s (although I still think  your favorite band is overrated). It is as hard for me—maybe even harder—to swim around in these waters than it is for, say, my mother who likes to describe herself as a “bluebird person,” which is to say, would rather not go deep when quantifying or qualifying the pain of the world. Choosing to tune that shit out most of the time–hell, all the time—doesn’t feel like a terrible survival strategy .  The long view right now feels particularly miserly on the happy endings. And that’s probably the nicest thing I can say about it. I don’t begrudge anyone who chooses to spend their days in brighter rooms. Especially now.


About a year ago, I started telling everyone I was supposed to write a story about Courtney Love. To be clear, “supposed to” is kind of misleading. The only person that assigned me the task was myself. The only person holding me accountable was me. The only person who even wanted it written was me.

I got the idea listening to a podcast about songs that hadn’t actually gotten around to podcasting about  “Violet,” a song that still feels twice as heavens-ripped-open-and-roared-through cataclysmic now to me as it did through the tinny speakers of my jury-rigged car stereo back in fall of 1994. I figured the song was a good jumping off point for talking about grief, fame, hair bleaching techniques (a motif!), whether authorship matters as much as performance, Paula Fox’s Desperate Characters, Marlon Brando, and that some people have life stories too impossible to be anything but real. And, how sometimes refusing to quit can feel like the most furious and radical act. Screw anyone that thinks you will.

The day I started writing it, I got dragged online and wasted some time (days? Weeks?) feeling indignant about it. Did I deserve it? Maybe. Then, a couple weeks later a publication I wrote for twenty years ago exhumed an old review of mine to chide me for it. Did I deserve it? Probably. I was an idiot then. And all of that scorn might have put me in a better than usual headspace for writing about Courtney Love, a woman who spent much of her career illuminated by the flames of the stake she’s regularly accused of tying herself to. Sometimes it’s so exhausting to try and change the script that you might as well just play the part. You believe in witches, kid?  But did I put any of that to good use. No, I did not.  Did I put any of that to any use? No. See above.

When people ask me about why I’m not writing anymore, they’re not asking me about the Courtney Love piece, no matter how many times I’ve mentioned it over however many gin and tonics in the last twelve months.  But it’s became a thing for I’ve lingered on whenever I opened up my documents. I want to call it a symbol, but it was honestly more of an excuse. Last week the same podcast that had inspired me to write the Courtney Love bit in the first place got around to doing an episode on Courtney Love. They managed to make most of the salient points in a breezy hour long format. I felt, and you’ll forgive the irrational grandiosity of this, like I was off the hook.

I’ve spent some time thinking about what to write about and how to write about whatever I’m writing about now, in this place. And hereI’ve given you 2500 words or so on the topic, without even addressing the whether. Like should I even? I don’t have ae satisfying answer to that one either, and neither do you. Talking about the whether of writing feels inextricably bound up in the whether of living.. That sounds melodramatic, but like I said up top, I really don’t know how to stop. I really don’t know what else to do to fill my time that will feel satisfying unless I win the lottery and have the money and leisure to spend all of my hours throwing parties and traveling and arranging for people to travel to parties that I’ve travelled to throw.

Both of my little sisters are having their first children in a few months. It’s weird and sweet all at the same time. And on some level, I recognize that it’s on me to get out of my wallow and on with the program. It’s a shitty thing to hoist your bleak on people whose timeline still only moves in one direction. So I’m going to have to adjust or re-strategize. I’m going to have to find something to hold on to, even if it’s just the idea of my nephews hands when they cross the street whenever they get around to start walking. You tell yourself whatever story your need to keep from getting lost in the abyss, and maybe you end up writing it down because it feels like purpose and idle hands just order more dresses you don’t need off Instagram.

At least, no one will have to ask why you quit.

Deals With God

Music / Nostalgia / Personal History / Women

Some of my favorite songs ever I heard for the first time in my high school music room. This was pretty common at time. This was the early 90s. I lived in a town without a college radio station (even the pop/rock station had gone Full Country at the end of the 80s). Most of what I got, I got from magazines and MTV. Sometimes I’d overhear cool things at the coffee shop or over the PA at the store where they sold zebra print creepers, Manic Panic and incense , but in the pre-smart phone days finding out what was playing required talking to the older and infinitely cooler person behind the counter (it was usually The Cramps, by the way), a paralyzing prospect.  

In the  clamorous half hour or so between the dribbled-out end of lunch and the actual music-teacher-banging-a-chord- let’s get to this, folks beginning of chorus practice, nobody was minding the stereo system behind the piano. So if you got there early you could host a breathless Debaser dance party, teach exchange students the correct US pronunciation of Scenario, or watch a lot of people fail to act like they hated Tears for Fears.

Things were not always so upbeat, of course. Our high school chorus was stupid big (at peak there were about 100 of us, in a total student body of just under 200). And because we contained multitudes, the various tastes jockeying for a track on the stereo also included popular hits like Went to the Horde Tour And It Changed My Life, “I don’t feel comfortable with the way that couple is dancing to the Black Crowes in daylight,” and, my personal bete-noire Dude Who Always Plays Dan Fogelberg and Tries To Shush Everyone For The Whole Song.

My friend the Dryad was a semi-regular stereo wrangler. Her taste ran toward the kind of things you’d want to hex someone to in a peaceful forest glade at midnight, so it should surprise no one that she skedaddled out of lunch early in our Junior Year to cue up Running Up That Hill  and by the time I got there, she’d already ascended that road, that hill, and had at least partway scaled that building.

It wasn’t the first time I’d heard Kate Bush. I’d heard that song of hers during the saddest scene in the weirdest John Hughes movie. I’m pretty sure I saw the Running Up That Hill video on MTV and probably, at ten-ish registered it as part of trend of hilariously inscrutable interpretive modern dance videos that I was simply too young to understand. But that day in the music room was the first time I heard Kate Bush. I was the perfect age. It was the perfect moment. I was exactly the right flavor of over-dramatic, drug store red hair dye-addicted sixteen-year-old, who was dedicated to a personal style that matched puffy shirts with velvet blazers and purple high top Chucks, and still secretly imagined she might grow up to have a torrid love affair with a dangerous man in a stately home with dark secrets on a wild and unforgiving moor. And, as the Tik Tok generation discovered last week, hearing that song at the right moment can feel epic.

I couldn’t even wait for a dubbed copy. When I left school that afternoon, I drove to the bookshop downtown, on the hunch that “Hounds of Love” would bfit right in with their highly idiosyncratic inventory (mostly weird records by women, traditional Irish music, and albums by or featuring Bela Fleck). I was right. I shelled out the 12.99 or whatever for the cassette, and let it blare it from my passenger seat stereo. By the time I got home, I was a true believer.

We lived a little ways up a mountain around the corner from a giant resort hotel. First semester junior year, I’d still come home from school in the evenings and try to force myself into a run in the damp orange October twilight. I’d slide Kate into the Walkman and jog the hill, wishing I could will my fat legs into the sprint necessary to take flight in the way the music demanded. I imagined myself soaring out over the foggy golf course and over the city. I imagined myself becoming so fast and graceful that I could shed my unfortunate teenage skin and become some perfect fusion of the Waterhouse Lady of Shalott and, like, Heathers-era Winona Ryder floating around in the moonlight. So I could become something that looked not unlike Kate Bush herself.

One of those nights, just prior to Halloween, I’d made all the way through to Side B, alternating walking and running, and was up the hill from the house, maybe an hour past actual sunset, not far from the hotel, when Jig of Life fiddled into action in my left headphone. In case, you haven’t listened recently: If I were to say the phrase “Deranged Celtic Witch Party” and ask you to describe what that sounds like, my guess is you’d land somewhere near the Jig of Life cauldron  I wasn’t really a witch person at sixteen. Too much time spent around chipper Fleetwood Mac Wicca moms trying to push carob desserts on me had almost entirely negated the seductive appeal of the dark arts. But I liked the witchy vibe of that song in that moment.  And the wind was brisk and the sky was overcast and  bleeding purple at the margins, and I could swear I felt my thin, straight chin-length hair flow out behind me in some luscious pre-Raphaelite situation. I felt myself become silvery and Goddess-like, elusive and infinite

And then, I heard the dude’s voice. 

So there’s this part of Jig of Life where it goes from creepy jig-inspired pop song to actual creepy jig, kind of an Irish Suspiria territory, then the jig ends, repeats a line –“I put this moment here”–twice against silence and on the third iteration, she is answered by a dude  (her brother, Paddy, as it turns out), who then goes on to recite a poem against the backdrop of the fiddles backup singers doing an appropriately occult “Sha-na-na.”

But I wasn’t expecting the dude, or rather, I wasn’t expecting the way the dude’s voice would sound through my headphones. Because it sounded like it was coming from a place other than the music, from a place maybe deep inside of me, or perhaps direct from Hell, and in the moment, in the woodsy darkness down the hill from the hotel, my heart stopped and all I, a child raised in a liberal, secular household but nonetheless during the Satanic Panic years, could think was Oh holy shit, demons are talking to me.  And so distraught was I that I stumbled as I tried to remove the headphones to arrive at some conclusion about whether my entire understanding of the whole metaphysical fucking plane of existence had just been inalterably shattered.  I hit eject, I stumbled, then launched and landed almost face-first on the asphalt. As I was going down, I realized  too late that 1) the voice was part of the song and 2) solid odds I was about to break the Walkman.

This latter bit was truly devastating. More devastating than the scrapes on my palms and knees, deployed just in time to spare my pimply face. My fateful choice to the hit the eject button just prior to falling also meant that I’d lost sight of the cassette, so I was fumbling around on the side of the road, when I realized there was a light on me, and an actual, probably non-demonic human dude in a hotel branded van was asking me if I was okay.

“You were weaving all over the place jogging down that hill, and then you fell, “ he said. “I thought maybe you were drunk or sick.”

I was quite sober, crushingly sober, and so very abashed, that my graceful, bewitched flight down the hill had just looked like I was weaving around like a drunken idiot. I stood up and tried to pretend like nothing hurt and I was absolutely fine.

He asked if I was a guest and offered to give me a ride back to the Inn. I had a solid policy of not accepting rides from strange men in vans, even if they were hotel vans, so I said no. He puttered away. I found the tape in a puddle, so wet that I was afraid to play it, but seemingly otherwise unharmed.

The  Walkman survived the fall, even if it ended up being a little wonky on the Fast Forward. I still listened to Kate Bush, but I didn’t listen to Kate Bush while running as much and I certainly listened less to Side B of Hounds of Love. Not because I worried it would unsettle me again, but because it made me embarrassed to think about how easily I’d been unsettled.

Kate Bush, still one of my favorites, even now, is a solid gateway drug to next level weird, like, weirder than the Upside Down, weird, kids. From Kate Bush, my immediate path went something like Angela Carter to Patti Smith to PJ Harvey to Kathy Acker to being uncomfortably over-aware of  Cloudbusting samples in songs that got played at college parties. But I could have, just as easily, ended up way into astral projection, snake-centered burlesque performance art, or deep into a conspiracy theory about King Arthur being an alien prophet who will one day float out of the earth in Glastonbury and teleport all gingers to Vampire Merman Atlantis (seems reasonable).

As a point of interest, the same day I bought Hounds of Love, I also picked up a copy of the Cocteau Twins Blue Bell Knoll, which would also prove to be a pretty important record for me at the time, and, for better or worse, has not led to  injury.




f you’re interested, an accompanying playlist of everything referenced and alluded to (for better or worse), is here

In Medias Res

Dresses / Personal History / Women

There was a period during my youth in which having a midlife crisis seemed like a thing that all the dads were doing. Exact dates may vary, but you could probably chronologically soundtrack the era as starting with Steve Winwood’s Back in the High Life and ending with Santana’s Supernatural (or, if you prefer, roughly The Sportswriter to American Beauty) and really hitting its stride around 1989, the year that produced the both the Mazda Miata and Billy Joel’s We Didn’t Start The Fire. 

In those days, the phenomenon of the midlife crisis was so prevalent that we just accepted it as an inevitability of the male aging process. Like ear hair, bald spots, and shouting at you over dinner about fiscal responsibility. Like, at some point all men went from being young dudes at college seeing classic rock bands in 1969 to being normal dads to being creepy dudes making very weird fashion choices and embarrassing you by talking endlessly to your babysitter about those classic rock bands they saw in college in 1969. There was an enormous amount of filmed, audio, and print media on the subject. There was Iron John. There was Bill Clinton’s saxophone. There were Jimmy Buffet fans. There were stoned grown men in unbuttoned polos, riding around in golf carts at a mid-level beach resorts in the swampy twilight of a Lowcountry summer during the Bush Sr years, filling the damp air with the sound of a tinny boom box asking passing, mortified ninth graders in R.E.M t-shirts whether their love would still be strong, after the boys of summer have gone.

Clearly there were exceptions. The midlife crisis as popularly portrayed was a phenomenon concentrated among usually white, middle-class adjacent, mostly (though certainly not all) heterosexual men. And among practitioners, there were plenty of deviations. Some dads bought Harleys or took up crossbow hunting or high stakes poker or painful blues rock cover bands. Among my immediate sphere, there was a heavy tendency toward Wilderness Adventure—either Outward Bound or thru-hiking the AT— and new age spirituality, which oftentimes served as Single Let’s Mingle events for newly divorced fathers eager to meet a sandalwood-scented romantic partner named after an alcoholic beverage or a large body of water.  We, children of the zeitgeist, quietly compared our respective circumstances at the food court, tried to roll with it, channeling our own non-verbal, pre-hashtag version of OK Boomer into a lot of eye rolling and ironic distance I know Dad’s new socks and sandals, ponytailed faux yogi persona is kind of weird. But, like, did you hear that Stephanie’s new stepmother is technically younger than Stephanie’s oldest sister. I mean, is that even legal? It is? Really?

 Oh well. Whatever. Nevermind.

On the bonus, as teenaged girls, having a midlife crisis felt like a thing that would never happen to us, even if we reached the advanced age of oh my god, like, so old, like, forty, gross without perishing in some Plainsong-soundtracked exquisite tragedy with a guy that looked kind of like Christian Slater or maybe James Hurley. But even if we managed to evade the reaper for a few more decades, the whole concept seemed so inherently masculine, and specifically so suburban, lawn-having, over-tanned polo-shirt masculine, we would-be urban sophisticates believed we were safe.

After all, our mothers did not appear to have midlife crises. I mean, they might briefly invested in drinking wine and emotionally applauding the end of “Thelma and Louise” or maybe drop by a Wicca Welcome Book Club on “Fried Green Tomatoes” night (note: magic doesn’t have to be real for a well-deployed hex to feel empowering), but there was nothing of the wild, shameless abandon of their male peers and partners. Somebody had to  pay the bills and make sure we got to school. A forty year old dude that quits his banking job, cashes in his retirement, leaves his spouse, and runs off to Oaxaca/Grand Cayman/Long Boat Key  to spend nine months flirting with younger women and journaling about self-actualization, could be seen then, at least by other men (and, if the books were to be believed, a coterie of impressionable young women in creative writing programs) as an inspirational figure, bravely casting off the shackles of his soulless suburban existence and seizing freedom from the maws of a small-minded and uncaring capitalist machine. The forty year old woman who did the same was a cautionary tale, a lunatic, a criminal, whose behavior could be possibly explained by the tragedy of her never having become a mother. And if she was a mother? Well, god help her and maybe we should call the authorities. I mean, how could anyone woman be so selfish?

Seriously, how could anyone?

And yet.

I’m forty-effing-@#$ years old. We’re calling it midlife, but it’s probably only the middle if we’re looking at a “Holy Good Genes, Batman! You must  have a healthy savings account and be plenty optimistic about climate change” timeline.  (Nope). And to my nearly immeasurable chagrin, I’m pretty sure I’m having a midlife crisis. In fact, I’m pretty sure I’ve been having a midlife crises for at least, I dunno, three years now?

As a single lady with no kids, you might imagine I’d be flying high, cruising the Wayward Isles from my (literal or figurative) sailboat like a post-modern Stede Bonnet, free from expectation, spousal scorn, and the guilt of having allowed my thankfully non-existant children to “literally die of embarrassment.” But you know, Covid. Also, house payment. The security of a wholly fine life it feels stupid to ditch just because my pants turned antsy around the time strangers started nodding and saying something kind of patronizing about the change. There are the big questions I probably need to sort out about identity and desire and whether, if thing things you thought might make you are happy are wholly out of range, whether you can settle without resentment into something that is not unrewarding and mostly comfortable, even if it’s not what you’d choose.  But there’s also a war in the Ukraine, a global pandemic, and it feels pretty petty so invest a lot of time in the wallow. I mean,  I’m not dying or starving because I’m not so secretly pretty sad and a little bored with my life.

There’s no practical guidebook for women in midlife.  We may get hot flashes, hormonal shifts and sanctimonious lectures from other women how much of a shit we should or should not be giving about how we present ourselves. We probably get advice about diet, exercise, mindfulness, clutter, finances, how stressed we are for doing too much, how we should be doing more, how one glass of wine is more than enough, how we shouldn’t forget our screenings, our vitamins, our therapy, self-care, treat yourself, you be you,  but not too much, not all the time, and certainly not like that. HAVE YOU UPDATED YOUR GRATITUDE JOURNAL TODAY? WHAT KIND OF UNGRATEFUL A-HOLE DOESN’T UPDATE HER GRATITUDE JOURNAL?

We’re supposed to responsible and practical and way too tired to go out and way over making new friends, contented, settled, far beyond the petty, privileged whining about how sad we are that we didn’t age into Tilda Swinton or whatever. We’re also supposed to be confident by now. We’re supposed to be out of fucks to give. We’re supposed to be good with where we are. It should be enough to be reasonably healthy and housed. It should be enough to have friends and family and decent insurance plan. It should be enough. And besides, anything can happen. You have the rest of your life ahead of you. You can still publish a novel. You can still sing with a band. You can still see elephants in the wild. You can still commit to bad tattoos, worse hairstyles, tumultuous relationships, useless degrees, demeaning jobs, overpriced tickets to see terrible bands play. You have decades. Have you considered a bucket list?

But, friends, it feels like exactly zero time—zero time—has passed between being a seventeen year old who believed herself on the threshold of an excellent life and the fat lady in her mid-forties still terrified she might miss out on something, because she’s absolutely, positively, 100% sure she has. I don’t feel like I’ve gained any arcane wisdom over the years, or aged into myself in a cloak of radical self-acceptance. I mean, as person who came up in the 1990s, I’m still trying to deactivate some decades-retrograde attitudes about how (or even whether) a person can even be successful or satisfied and not be some kind of sell-out.  And this is where I am, at long last, kind of, vaguely sort of sensitive to the dads of my youth and their desperate attempts to try again, to fail, and fail, if not better, then at least in a Hawaiian shirt doing all the shit they missed out on in the mid-1970s. Maybe dial the Steely Dan down a notch, but on some level, I feel you.

So what does all this look like for me? Well, right now I’m shopping my way through it. I’m not yet going broke on dresses and cardigans, another pair of sneakers that feels for a second like they might imbue me with superpowered cool, or at least the ability to walk miles fashionably, which is, if I’ve learned anything since age 17, a kind of superpower. I stand in my closet trying on still tagged outfits trying to work out whether I can summon some of the old swagger back if I just embrace the high-waisted boyfriend jean or a slip dress or a pair of platform-soled Doc Martens that look exactly like the ones I would have sold my soul for when I was seventeen.

It’s not enough. It won’t last forever, this business of trying to find a version of my life I like through looking at myself in a different outfit in the full length mirror. For now, though, it’s cheaper than a sports car, easier than falling in love, and probably smarter than rocking the boat at a time in my life, in this place, at a moment in time when everything, all over, feels so breathtakingly uncertain.  

Tomorrow, who knows?

Maybe I’ll hit up the Wiccans.


Accidents / Fiction / Nostalgia / Uncategorized / Women

I don’t post short stories here, but for completely stupid, Celebrity gossip reasons I’ve been thinking a little about love and violence and I was like, “hey, maybe people are tired of reading about the Oscars, and would prefer to read a much less controversial romantic melodrama about toxic masculinity that I wrote back in 2011 and which has nothing to do with the greater public discourse.” Admittedly unlikely as this may be, I put it up here, because, what the hell, probably not doing anything else with this one.

I have a notion that one of these days, I’ll have a different space to put stuff like this so it doesn’t bump up against essays and anecdotes or whatever else we’re calling what I put here these days. But until then, apologies.

Once again, this is fiction. Also, it is long.


The waiting room is an orchestra of ugly noises. Sniffs, snorts, smacks, coughs, the crackle of the intercom, the chirp of rubber shoes against the floor, the cries of the grateful and the grieving, the clicking  of Juliet’s fingernails against the tabloid page.

I stare at the clock over the nurse’s station, having already picked the lint from my coat and bitten the skin away from my nails. I tried reading. It didn’t take.

Juliet jabs a talon at a snapshot of a bottle blonde posing on a red carpet. “Alison never had those tits when I knew her.  As if that might salvage her dead career. What an unscrupulous whore.”

The old man two chairs down clucks and shakes his head. I’m not sure whether it’s the whore he finds objectionable or Juliet’s over-enthusiastic embrace of the word unscrupulous, which was perhaps introduced to her lexicon about a half hour ago by her Uncle Ducks’ Your brother is the most unscrupulous, most inappropriate, most inconvenient little fucker I’ve ever known—and which Juliet has used at least a dozen times since

She tosses the magazine into the chair beside her and gives a sigh worthy of its own dressing room.

 “Where are the fucking doctors in this fucking place?”

Juliet smells like perfume bottle broken on a barroom floor and is high on at least three different kinds of semi-legal drugs, but she looks like a Botticelli Venus. She’s never invisible; when I’m with her, I cannot disappear.  Nor can I keep myself from blushing and squirming and drowning in mute embarrassment at her volume.

 “I could have a cigarette,” she says.

I don’t offer. She’ll refuse it and hope I’ll bully her into it. To do anything, Juliet requires hazing. It’s what happens when you’re a fragile fucking flower raised in a thicket of thugs. She might have been speaking of her family, or the city of Los Angeles, from whence she recently relocated, or the entertainment industry in general. I never asked. She did, however, repeat the phrase thicket of thugs three or four more times before she caught on that I was laughing. “Don’t get too giggly. You’re dating the biggest thug I know.”

Her brother, Gabriel. This was and is still true. I look at the clock.

 “Did you hear what I said about the cigarette?”

I yank at the zipper on my bag and point to the open pack inside.

“Don’t you want someone to come with you?” she asks.

“I just smoked,” I say. “And technically I’ve quit.”

She sulks so hard her chair shudders petulantly. Juliet knows no emotion without physical manifestation. It’s a family trait, I guess, as evidenced by our presence here in the purgatory of a 3am ER, awaiting final word from the doctors trying to save the life of a loud-mouthed, half-time sommelier that earlier tonight provoked the biggest thug Juliet and I know to monstrous violence.  Gabriel is getting a cat scan. Even the hospital believes he must be brain damaged. After all, how could anyone be so reckless as to commit murder over a sidelong comment, a slip of the tongue, a slight of such borderline offensiveness that even Victorian church ladies wouldn’t waste a blush, a stupid word, a single syllable, a slut. And why was it so offensive? Because of its snide delivery? Because it was kind of true? Because it was directed at a drunk, married woman draped all over the man that shares my bed?

I won’t be drawing attention to that part of the story.  My dumb, reflexive loyalty to the possible murderer in Exam Room 2 overwhelms the insult of infidelity. I’m not outraged. I’m not even really hurt by it. I’m petty and superficial. I’m far more concerned about the possibility that I may be dating a killer than the fact of the killing itself. 

“But it’s not the violence itself that bothers me. There’s something appealingly atavistic about it. It’s that what provokes the violence is so . . . so trivial.”  This is what I said to Juliet, twelve weeks ago, the last time we found ourselves in a waiting room together.

That night she’d given me the same vacant stare that managed to convey both pity and contempt “What you’re saying is that you’d prefer a caveman with principles,” she said.

“Is that fucked up?” I asked.

“It’s only fucked up to ask. But if you’re asking me, nothing ruins sex and violence like morality.”   

It was a psychopath’s answer, but I didn’t say so. I was the one sleeping with a psychopath, after all.  Even then, I thought I might wring a drop or two of righteousness from the spray of spit and blood staining last week’s sidewalk or tonight’s barroom floor. I might make a reasonable case for one of those leading man qualities Gabriel believes he possesses. Honor and chivalry and loyalty instead of cruelty and ugliness and waste.

But Gabriel leaves waste everywhere he goes. His waste is insidious, toxic and impervious to conventional clean up. He’s like a human Superfund site.

“It’s a good thing Gabriel has plenty of money.” The man affectionately called Uncle Ducks says and steps back the waiting room. He is red-eyed and trembling; his fingers chalky from the large-sized bottle of antacids he’s been pulling from his overcoat pocket since arrival.  He has thrice been reprimanded by the nurse in charge for using his cell phone and twice come back inside cursing the winter and Gabriel for running afoul of the law at the darkest hour, on the coldest night of the darkest, coldest month of the year. He is not, to my knowledge, biologically related to either Juliet or her brother.

I groan, seasick with anxiety.  Ducks notes and pours a couple of antacid tablets into my hand.

 “Do these actually help?” I ask.

He shrugs.

“I have better things,” says Juliet.

Uncle Ducks moves Juliet’s bag to another chair and pats her hand. “Why don’t we save those for a more private venue, sweetheart.”

“We’re in a goddamn hospital, Arthur. Everybody is on drugs.”

I hear the rustle of magazines and pray for a competing emergency.

“Juliet, why don’t you do us a favor and pick up another pack of cigarettes. Maybe have one yourself before you come back in.” Ducks wags a twenty-dollar bill at her.

“I don’t appreciate being ordered around,” she says, but stands and leaves anyway.

He sits down beside me. I draw my knees together. The edge of Uncle Ducks’ camel overcoat brushes my hand.  I listen to the sound of two nurses chatting at the desk. I have a novel in my bag. I doubt I could make it through a page.

“You have somebody you can call?”

Uncle Ducks faces away from me. His voice is so distracted and soft, he has to repeat himself before I know he’s talking to me.

 “Why?” I ask.

 “Because Gabriel is going to get arrested regardless of whether or not that other kid pulls through. And I don’t know how much you know about Gabriel’s past—“

“This isn’t the first time I’ve been here.” I weight here so he’ll get that I mean more than this hospital. Though, in fact I have literally been to this emergency room not three months ago and sat in a different chair across the room alone and scowled and wrote epic imaginary break-up letters. But  Gabriel came shuffling out, knuckles bandaged, the left hand side of his face a swollen muddle of the visible spectrum, he apologized. And I fell into his arms and forgave him because I love him and I’m incredibly stupid and very weak.

 “I’m very sorry,” says Ducks.

“There’s still a chance it might come out okay, though,” I say. “I mean, you told Juliet—“

“It’s my impression that you’re a lot smarter than Juliet. “ He pats my hand. “Be a smart person.”

A doctor in scrubs enters the waiting room and nods at us.

“Gabriel’s in recovery,” he says. “You can see him if you want.”

Uncle Ducks sits up, fiddles with the cuff of his sweatshirt. “The other man that was brought in tonight. Justin Wallace?”

The doctor narrows his eyes. He’s attractive, I think, in a tidy, conscientious round-spectacled sort of way. A smart person would love a man like that instead of a man like Gabriel.

“We’ll let you know when we know.” The doctor points me to the door.

I hesitate, the tile weaving beneath my feet. I’m sure I should have had more coffee, or perhaps more liquor. I feel my knees buckle. A sense of airlessness. I wonder if Uncle Duck’s candy pills have been dosed with something antagonistic to gravity


Once upon a time when it was almost Christmas and wouldn’t stop snowing and I was new to the city, young, enfeebled by underemployment and the accompanying debt and depression. I spent my days in bed staring at the pigeon feather winter sky through a tenement window and my nights smoking cigarettes on the icy rooftop, considering the twinkling, distant fantasy of Manhattan from across the East River.  Wrapped in blankets, I imagined myself heir to whatever consumptive immigrant had once inhabited my apartment in the era of robber barons, bowler-hatted Bowery toughs, and unhappily betrothed heiresses in bustles and picture hats.  I set aside unpaid bills and unfinished cover letters in favor of imagining myself into a Gilded Age tableau, wherein my imminent poverty was picturesque and tragic, not at all like the expanding dull ache of the thing that kicked me awake in the early dawn and kept me as shivery and insecure as the cute, but woefully insufficient winter coat I bought on discount before I understood what cold actually felt like when you have to live in it.  

When I went out, it was mostly through the largesse of my roommate and her cadre of rich art school friends or the professionally employed friends of classmates from my far less glamorous southern state university. We met at dive bars, where they came to nurse cheap beers and muse about their own imaginary New Yorks of the 1950s, the 1970s, the 1990s. Everyone arrived, up from the south, from the Midwest, from somewhere else, knowing that if we’d just been here five decades, five years, five minutes ago, it would have been perfect. We’d always just missed the apogee, whenever it was, and the disappointment of now was on us for being too late.  But if were lucky, on the right night, in the right light, we might still catch a whiff of the good, bad old days and soak up the afterglow.

On a dirty slush of a winter weekend, three days before Christmas, I told my mother I wouldn’t be coming home for the holidays because I’d slept through my free ride south. This wasn’t entirely true. I didn’t want Florida suburbs to prove more comfortable than my squalid existence, and I was pretty sure they would. I didn’t want to explain my failure to my sisters. I worried if I left I would not be able to justify coming back, because not coming back would be reasonable. I still far too in thrall to romance to surrender to reason, which is probably why I wore my grandmother’s green satin dress into the city that afternoon. It was the color of moss with cinched waist and a gathered skirt, made for a garden party on a spring evening, not traversing Lower Manhattan in salt-ruined winter boots. I was taller than Nana, and the dress was almost too small, but I’d grown hungry enough to close the zipper, and felt perversely pleased with myself. I might be too broke to buy food but at least I was wasting into beauty.

I wandered alone through crowded sidewalks observing Christmas shoppers, people with purpose and income, as if they were a whole other species. I lingered long in the fading slant light of the Lower East Sider.  At nightfall, it turned too cold to ramble and I didn’t want to go home, so I stood shivering under fire escapes of a tenement on Orchard Street texting friends with numb fingers, begging for an excuse to stay out and a tacit promise that they’d pick up the tab. But they were too busy or I was too desperate and I found myself alone at a bar on that trafficked in a seedy past, but smelled like fresh paint and served sixteen dollar pints to day traders dressed like dockworkers in cashmere beanies.

When Gabriel blew in, flushed from fight, he parted the crowd with his staggering and bled all over my dress when he leaned over the bar to order a round of whiskeys. I didn’t know where the blood came from, his busted lip or his torn knuckles, but it dripped in an arc over the shining pleats of my skirt.  He reached across me for his glass and met my look of horror with a crooked smile.

He pointed the stains on my dress. “Is that mine?”

A trail of blood streaked the arm of his sweater. In his half-sneering, thin nosed, boyishness, he resembled all the rich rednecks at my hometown high school and reeked of cologne and entitlement.  

He motioned to the bartender and my glass.  “Improve the quality of whatever she’s drinking.” He dropped a sheaf of twenties on the bar. “That should take care of the dress. Get it cleaned or –“ He raised his eyebrows and added a hundred dollar bill to the top. “What the hell. Get yourself something nice. Merry Christmas. Happy Hanukkah.” He emptied his glass and signaled the bartender for a refill

I touched the bills, eyes stinging. “This dress belonged to my grandmother. She bought it in New York in 1947 for her trousseau. She gave it to me when I moved up here. This dress is an heirloom. It’s irreplaceable.”

 He stared at me for long enough that I was both attracted and repelled by the milky blue of his eyes, when he finally spoke, it was softer, and without the tough swagger of his introduction. “Huh. You know, my grandpa gave me his overcoat. Bought it from a tailor before he left the city for California.  Also in 1947. He hardly needed it there, so I brought it back. I still wear it sometimes.”

He reached into his pocket again. I held up my hand to object another round of bills. Even though I needed the money, it wasn’t about the money. But instead he produced a receipt, a pen and turned to write on the bar. The back of his hand was covered in scars, knuckles still bloody and raw. And I thought I’d never seen hands like that in my life. Hands like that could kill a person. Hands like that maybe already had.

He handed me the paper. There was a number. A name. Gabriel.

 “Call me if you get hungry,” he said.

“Is that a metaphor?”

He shrugged. A friend of his tugged at his arm, said something about police, and he slipped off into the crowd, out into the street.

When I got home that night, I copied the number on an index card and pinned it to my stained dress, which I hung from the window sash. I studied it from my bed, I wondered what the constellation of bloodstains might augur. I considered my grandmother, clucking at me from the afterlife, you should have never worn that dress to a bar. I napped away a hangover and I woke from a dream about him late in the afternoon and found my cupboards bare, prospects grim and recalled that his eyes were the color of Nana’s hydrangeas back home.

The number was for a restaurant. Not a metaphor. I felt foolish, almost hung up before I managed to ask for him. He answered the phone brusquely, over a clatter. I swallowed a desire to apologize and told him who I was. 

“That was fast,” he said and rattled off an address. “Come at ten.”

“Tonight?’ I asked.

“They’ll probably seat you at the bar, but that won’t be a problem. You’ll be dining alone.”

“What about you?”

“I’ll be cooking. Are you a vegetarian?”

“No,” I said.

“Anything else I should know?”

I swallowed and pulled he blanket over my empty stomach. “If I’m honest,  I haven’t had a decent meal in days. I’m fucking starving.”

“Glorious,” he said. “Wear the dress.”

I spent the night before the night before Christmas in Nana’s blood stained dress, drinking wines out of my price range, at a restaurant I could not possible afford, watching  dishes appear before me, each a delight, ending with a confection involving chocolate, thick and black as river silt. I was saddened because I could neither consume it all nor make it last. The restaurant was empty, by then, the tables stripped and the chairs empty, save waiters dawdling for a shift drink. The bartender poured me a glass of cognac and offered to call me a cab. “If it makes any difference,” he said. “The taxi is already paid for.”

“I’d like to give my compliments to the chef,” I said.

The bartender looked up from his books. “I’ll be sure he gets the message.”

I sat back, disappointed. Somewhere between courses I’d surrendered to the idea of the meal being some sort of extravagant foreplay. The salt and fat, the tang of sour and cloying sweet on my lips and tongue, the warm, heady wooze of alcohol,  my full belly straining against the satin of a ruined dress had left me flushed at the idea of being further undone by Gabriel’s ruined hands. I was stung by his seeming rejection. So I emptied my glass and departed before the bartender could call the car. I heard the restaurant door lock behind me.

Outside, a fine white snow sugared sidewalks only half melted from the last storm. I knotted my scarf once again round my neck and dug in my pocket for cigarettes and gloves, as a I rounded the corner, looking for respite from the wind.  I closed my eyes for dangerous second and heard steps.

When I opened them, I saw Gabriel on the sidewalk, a long dark overcoat over kitchen whites.

 “I thought you’d left,” I said.

He pinched the lapel of the coat. “I wanted to show you the coat.”

 “It’s nice,” I said.

 “Not as nice as your dress,” he said.

“But probably warmer,” I said.

 He grinned. “Probably.”

“I’ve never had a meal like that before.”

 “Least I could do. Considering.” A noisy crowd pushed between us on the sidewalk. I watched them clear the block.

He drew closer. I was aware, for the first time, that he dwarfed me. With one hand, he pushed back my coat to touch the spots on my skirt.

“Any chance you’re still hungry?” he asked, so close I could smell the wet wool of his coat.

I reached out to touch his cheek, but before I really had time to contemplate, he answered for me.


Twenty-eight stitches from cheek to hairline.  Right fist bound in the white gauze and plaster of an invalid’s boxing glove. He’s red-eyed and woozy from the drugs, the concussion. He flashes me the glassy-eyed broken kid smile of the willfully ignorant.

“Hello there, beautiful,” he says.

A middle-aged cop leans his chair against the wall to the side of the bed and fingermarks a page of Us Weekly. Gabriel hasn’t been arrested yet, but he will be. The delay is only a formality. The cop’s gaze lingers too long over my midsection and I feel self-conscious at my fleshy belly. I eat when I’m worried. I eat when I’m in love. I worry over a lover who brings home things to eat.  Gabriel pats the side of his bed.  I take about three steps into the room and the cop sighs.   

“You’re close enough,” says the cop.

 “What happened?” I ask.

 “A crazy person attacked me and Quinn.”

I sigh. I don’t know if this is the version edited for the cop or just the way Gabriel sees it.  I don’t know the rules for this. Two years we’ve been together, but I still don’t know how to have these conversations. I don’t come from people that have them. I don’t know whether the fact that may have killed a man with his bare hands will make him despair or swell with pride.  I worry he doesn’t know either.

He flexes his fingers. “Good thing I’m a southpaw,” he says, voice cracking.

I shake away sympathy pains in my own hand and see his eyes go glassy.  He would be warm beneath hospital blankets and I would fit right into him. I could rest my head against his chest and hear the familiar rhythm of his heartbeat.  He would kiss me with his monster’s tenderness and I would be furious that I liked it. Because I need to hate him a little, because I need to believe I’m not weak, I clear my throat and ask:

“So, how long have you been sleeping with Quinn?”

I get no answer save wide-eyed, wordless guilt before a second cop emerges from around the corner of the hall.


He doesn’t have to ask. I’ve already left the room, because I don’t want to hear him arrested.


When Gabriel tells of how we met, there are choirs of angels and stars glittering. The air crackles with electricity. There are tears to accompany his blood and sweat, quite possibly a swell of violins.  Gabriel takes the poetic read on pretty much any situation. It’s hard not to get caught up in it. I was, after all already emptying the sidewalks of littered oily slush and other people, and even now I edit the unsightly and inconvenient out of our origin story.

That night, though, he draped me in his grandfather’s overcoat and walked me through a city transformed, the edges rounded by snow and the peculiar dark magic of very early Christmas Eve.  We wandered into the East Village in the glimmer of traffic. I swore I heard churchbells when I gave in to his restless fingers. I figured it nothing more than a one-night stand, another chapter from my unwritten romance novel. In which our impoverished heroine accompanies the bruiser home to his tenement.

But the tenement turned out to be the nicest apartment I’d seen in New York, and the roughnecked chef the dissolute son of a famed studio executive and a failed actress.  Maybe if I’d been older, if it had not been a holiday, if I had not been alone and broke and hungry and bored and so stubbornly far from home, maybe if he’d been a worse lover, maybe he hadn’t been the only person I’d met in New York more committed to the fantasy than I, maybe I would have gone home.

As it was, I didn’t return to my apartment until New Year’s Day. Three weeks later, I moved in with him. By that time, I was very sure that ours was a hopeless, desperate, bound-for-misery love affair. I’d always thought I was too smart for that sort of thing, which probably made me more susceptible.

Youth might explain such folly, but I wasn’t that young. And Gabriel was thirty-odd years old with a teenager’s understanding of both love and physics. He never realized how things tended to slide toward entropy whenever he entered a room. I’m ashamed to admit I once found this appealing. He seemed the perfect antidote to a life lived split equally between stiff upper lips and affected disinterest. Gabriel could be a tyrant, a needling shit, and a one-man barbarian horde, but he bruised at a sidelong glance and loved like he’d lose me tomorrow.


I wash my hands in a restroom otherwise occupied by a sobbing woman. She’s about my age. I want to comfort her, but for all I know she might be here with Gabriel’s victim. So I offer a half-assed smile and concentrate on the shine of the porcelain sink until she shuffles out the door.

 Juliet enters, all voluminous scarves and skeletal fingers. She narrows her eyes and turns off the tap water.

“You’ve got to stop washing your hands, Lady Macbeth’ she says.

 Her blue eyes are quartersized and nearly inked over by pupil.

I glance at her bag.

 “Ready for something real?” she asks.

Nothing tonight feels real. Everything feels too real. But she’s talking about drugs.

 “What do you have?”

 She extracts a gold cosmetic bag full of pill bottles but stops shy of handing it off. “Maybe you should wait. Uncle Ducks thinks the lawyer might want to talk to you.”

  “I’m not sure what I’d say. I wasn’t there when it happened.”

“He knows. But they’re going to talk about what happens next. You know, jail, bail, trial, that sort of things. And you might want to be . . .”

“Sober? I don’t think so.” I reach for the bag.

She pulls back.  “Are you going to leave him?”

 I do not know the answer to this question.

“Because it would make sense. I mean, this is a lot to handle. I’m not even sure if I can handle it.  I’m sure you have thought about it.”

I hadn’t yet the focus to imagine leaving though it had an appealing, cowardly simplicity to it. Just leave. I could make neither heads nor tails of Juliet’s tone. It could have been a suggestion or an accusation. “Do you think I should?”


I look at us the mirror. We both look like people dressed from the panic closet. I’m not sure what to say to her or to anybody. I’m well out of my depth here. I say as much.

Juliet’s not much of an actress, so I know her sad face is genuine.

 I touch her arm. “I’m sorry.”

“I figured you’d have a plan,” she said. “You seem like the type.”

I shake my head. I haven’t made a plan in years. Improvise long enough and improvisation itself becomes the plan. I exit the bathroom and walk past Uncle Ducks trying to negotiate with the policemen.

I try not to look at Gabriel, but I’m sure he sees me, so I give this sort of lame half-smile. He raises a hand, but he’s handcuffed to the bed, which strikes me as both pathetic and kind of hilarious. For a second, I consider telling him so. I even know his response. It would be an anecdote about Big Sur that always makes embarrasses me, and we’d start planning that trip to Northern California we’ve been planning since we met. You’ll never take the time off, I’d say. And he’d demur and I’d accuse him of making excuses to avoid California. Maybe because our whole deal is based on the fiction that we are New Yorkers and fictive New Yorkers at that.  Then he would remind me that I’ve only taken him to Florida once, because my family embarrasses me and you would make my family uncomfortable. And we’d make promises and joke and tease our way back into what passes for normalcy.

Because nothing about this is normal.

Ducks groans following a policeman’s cautionary “Sir,” and steps out behind me.

 I slow until he catches up.

“This is a damn farce,” he says, loudly enough to be overheard. “You have a cigarette?”

 “A few.”

“Brave the cold with me?”

“Should we leave?”

 He rubs the bridge of his nose. I see his wedding ring. In all our late night meetings, it had never once occurred to me that he was leaving a spouse in the bed. Of course, Gabriel had never mentioned that Ducks had a wife, had a life at all outside of fixing his mistakes. “Nothing critical will happen in the next ten minutes unless your boyfriend attempts some sort of ill-conceived jailbreak, which I hope to Christ he’s not dumb enough to try.” We step past an extended family hustling through the Emergency Room doors. I think I see Juliet reflected in the glass, but I do not turn to wave.

It’s bitterly cold outside. The wind blows a steady gust. Ducks struggles with my matches, but once lit, he turns. I follow. We clear four blocks before he says anything. My hands are frozen. We’re not far from Gabriel’s restaurant that I wonder whether that’s the destination, if Ducks hopes to find a couple of tipsy waiters still dawdling at the bar this time of night, happy to add a couple to the chef’s tab. It’s not unappealing. I could drink to remove the edge. Might take vats, but I feel up to the challenge.

I light another cigarette from a lit tip and inhale. “I should tell you that I don’t have a plan. I don’t know what I’m doing.”

“That’s fair. This is not the kind of thing a person really plans for. However . . .” He shrugs. “You’ve been with Gabriel for, what, three years?

 “Two and some change” I said

“Long enough know enough about him to know his weaknesses, his family, his past. “

“You’re saying I should have expected this.”

Ducks stubs his cigarette out and tosses the butt into a subway grate. “One always hopes for the best and prepares for the worst.”

 I shove my free hand deep in my pocket, trying to bring my fingers back to life. “What’s going to happen now?”

“Probably Gabriel will go to prison. For how long, I couldn’t say. It’ll be a slog, and Gabriel’s used up a lot of goodwill over the years. I’m not optimistic.”

I blink. There are ice crystals in the air. I try to remember that they are beautiful.

Ducks coughs. “When Gabriel’s father died, I swore I’d be there for the kids. I remember years ago when Gabriel was failing out of college and already familiar to the local police, I was the one that flew out to California and I told  him if college wasn’t working out, he didn’t have to finish. And he told me he hadn’t dropped out yet because he wanted to be a lawyer like me. A lawyer like me, for Chrissakes. He couldn’t even figure out why that was a bad idea.

“But he always liked cooking, even when he was a kid. So, I talked to him about culinary school, suggested he look into the restaurant business.  I set up him with his first job. Kitchens aren’t so picky about their cooks, so long as they work hard and I thought the hard work might take some of the fight out of him.” He chuckled. “I should have set him up as a boxer or a bodyguard. Maybe sent him to the military. You can’t deny that he has a gift for violence.”

“It’s not all he’s good at,” I say.

“No,” says Ducks, “but it does tend to overwhelm his better qualities.  And you’ll pardon me for saying , but I’m no longer sure that prison is the worst possible outcome here.”

 That wasn’t the answer I was looking for.

 “Not the answer you’re looking for?” He shrugs. “Sorry.”

I take a drag and a glance upward. New York is mostly terrible for perspective. Even the most scenic views are mostly comprised of hubris and trash. 

 “What would you do? If you were me?”

 “I don’t see you making prison visits,” he says

“Juliet said the same thing, more or less.”

“Take it as a compliment.”    

I feel my pace slacken as we approach the hospital. The creeping ache of anxiety has settled into my system. There are cabs outside the ER doors. I could take one of them, though it’s a luxury I probably can’t afford without Gabriel’s contribution to my quality of life. That’s a whole other problem. Ducks unsheathes his wallet and offers me money.

“For a car,” he says.

“I couldn’t,” I say.

“Honey, it’s Gabriel’s money.”

“It’s not just that,” I say. “I wouldn’t know where to go.”

Ducks gives a shrug with an audible component and we cross the street.

I could have expanded. I could have told this man, whose largest single occupation seems to be keeping my boyfriend and his family out of harm’s way, that Gabriel has spent the last two years providing the same service to me. Since that first January, when I gave my key to my inscrutable roommate and took three boxes and two suitcases to Gabriel’s apartment, I had not paid rent. I’d stopped looking for the kind of work that would pay a living wage. I’d grown accustomed to finding hundred dollar bills left in my coat pockets, in my cosmetic drawers, in the bottom of my bag.  I’d never believed myself equipped to be a kept woman. But I’m no good at struggle and it’s awfully easy to take what you’re given.

I blink and glance up briefly at the lights in the hospital.

 “What if I’m stuck?” I say.

.You’re not. When you want to move on, you will.” He pats my hand. “My guess is that it won’t to take you too long to work that out.”


I sit alone in a plastic chair at a small round table in the hospital cafeteria. In front of me is a napkin divided down the middle for a pro/con list I have not yet, nor will make. I imagine the tables around me all occupied by people drowning in grief, but in reality, the only person crying here is me, and not for my monstrous boyfriend or his victim or his victim’s family or the senseless tragedy of it all, though in my choking, sodden, shameful misery I can certainly conjure a pang on their behalf. Mostly, though, I’m crying for myself,  becauseI’m stupid and I should have never been here in the first place. I’m crying because I don’t want to deal with this. It’s not fair. I’m crying because I  feel guilty and sorry for myself and bonus guilty that sorry for myself is mostly what I feel.

The cute doctor from the waiting room fills a coffee mug and walks past my table. He nods. I bury my face further in my hands to muffle the sounds.

 “We have somebody you can talk to,” he says. “A grief counselor.”

 I look at him through my fingers. I’m sure he doesn’t remember who I am. “I’m not the bereaved. I’m the girlfriend of the . . .the bereaver?”

 He frowns. “Is that a word?”

It’s not, but I’m pretty sure I can’t say murderer yet. “I’ll be fine. It’s on me for dating him. It’s not like I didn’t know he was a psychopath.

The doctor glances at the wall.

“Jesus, I sound like a mob wife or something.” I thumb my cup against the table. “I’m not this kind of person. I’m not supposed to end up stuck in this situation. I mean, he’s a bully. And I don’t do anything. I didn’t do anything. And, I don’t even feel bad, I just accept it and pretend like it doesn’t affect me.”

The cute doctor swirled his coffee around and peers into his cup. I worry he might have read my fate in the grounds. “You know, if he’s ever hurt you, we have people that deal specifically with domestic violence . . .”

My first reaction is stunned silence, followed by laughter. It’s funny. It is really is. I only swallow the laugh when I notice the woman actually crying at the next table over. I look down at my hands—the chipped pink painted nails, the crescent moon shaped scar from a sixth grade curling iron accident, the blue shadow of yesterday’s ink spot on my middle finger, the complete lack of fighting wounds. My hands could not look more different than Gabriel’s. “Do I look like a victim?”

He blanches.

“Sorry. Don’t answer that,” I follow his eyes and figure he’s staring at a fading bruise on my forearm. It came from trying to negotiate a revolving door after too much wine at one of Juliet’s stupid readings. Gabriel hadn’t even been here, but there’s no way I could frame it without it sounding like an excuse.

“I’m not judging you,” he says.

I cough again and drink. The doctor has kind brown eyes and a sweet sober look about him. He wears flattering glasses and speaks in measured, England-inflected English. I wonder if he’s ever punched anyone in his life. I’m betting no.

“Gabriel never touched me. I mean, of course he touched me, but how I wanted.”

“I meant no offense,” said the doctor

I look at him, so clever and kind. He saves people’s lives, but something about the judgy set of his mouth makes me want to hit him. The doctor looks at his watch. I nod and watch him scurry away.


The long hallway flickers, a momentary surge in the florescent light. I smile at the policeman when I pass the door.

They have Gabriel dressed and standing up, head still bandaged, presumably to take him to the station, to jail.

“Rikers?” I ask the policeman.

He shrugs.

Gabriel’s eyes are as puffy as mine. His expression would appear childish on a nine year-old. And I kind of think that’s what he is, under all the swagger, and it makes me feel sorry for him and deeply frustrated and sort of like his mother.

“I’m sorry,” he says, as I pass. “I’m so sorry. I wish I could kiss you.”

I wish I could kiss him too, because I’m not sure I will again. And it would be nice to have one for the road. The cop to the right, sensing this, shakes his head.

I bite my lip and try not to feel. “I’m going to go now ,” I say. “I’ve got to take care of some things.”

He nods. “I don’t know what’s going on with all this, but I’ll see you tomorrow, maybe, hopefully, after they set bail.”

“Yeah, maybe,” I say.

One of the cops clears his throat. “Ma’am?”

Gabriel looks desolate in the light. I think he knows and worry for a moment that he might cry or call or and I step back, woozy.

“I love you, Caroline,” he says.

I swallow. I love him too.

“Goodnight, Gabriel,” I say.

I think, I’m sorry. I’m leaving.  

I leave.  


On his roof, in the snow, in the pre-dawn of Christmas Eve on that first night, warmed by coffee cups of whiskey and the blinding infatuation, I knotted my cold, mittened hands into fists and followed his amused directions as I swung at him. He bounced back and forth, like a boxer in a silent film and stepped back surprised when my fist made contact with his cheek. I couldn’t have hit very hard, but he was still tender from the night he ruined my dress. He rubbed his jaw and for a moment I worried he might swing back. That he might hit me. That he might hurt me. But he grinned and told me I had a good right hook. And it was the strangest thing, because I’d never felt so vulnerable before as I did in that moment. Any reasonable person would have been afraid. And yet, I wasn’t.

 He refilled my teacup with whiskey and took my hand.

“You think I have a future in the ring?” I asked.

“Totally,” he says. “You’ll knock them dead.”

I leaned into him and stared uptown at the scalloped hem of the Chrysler’s Building’s fancy dress.

“Piece of advice,” he said, stroking my hair. “ If anyone or anything ever comes at you that’s too big for you to handle, something that you know might fuck you up? Don’t stay there and try to fight it off. Just get the hell out. Run away.”

“You won’t think I’m a coward?”

“Self-preservation isn’t weakness.” He stood behind and wrapped his arms around me. “Promise me you won’t let yourself get hurt.”

I leaned back into him, under the rosy winter sky and banished all thoughts of fear and strangeness and insecurity.

“Even if its you that hurts me? I ask.

“Especially if it’s me.”

And even though, we barely knew each other.  I told myself I loved him. I told myself I belonged. I told myself I had nothing to fear.

“I promise,” I said.

And at the time, it didn’t even feel like a lie.

© Alison Fields, 2022