Home Movies

I spent most of my childhood under the impression that my immediate family was, if not quite desperately poor, then just steps away from abject destitution  Even though, we had a nice house, in an ostensibly nice neighborhood, with plenty of food and clothes and toys and vacations. Even though my parents were both employed and reasonably well-paid. Even though, all the grandparents (six, at the time, via remarriages) were all comfortable and reasonably generous with their gifts. The party line at home was that we had no money at all. We were barely getting by. My parents carped about bills and worried about the future. My mother would suggest that we might one day not have enough money to eat. My father told me I should probably get used to the idea of one day living under an overpass.

The most pervasive worry seemed to be my mother’s concern that that any day my father might quit his full-time job as Creative Director at an advertising agency, move us all into a shack on Wrightsville Beach, and write a novel, while we dug starvation rations of periwinkles and crabs out of the tidal pools. To prepare for what I believed to be an inevitability, I spent my youth reading about precipitous declines in family fortunes. I all but memorized the section of A Little Princess, in which Sara Crewe was trundled off into the garret and forced to wear last season’s black dresses and socialize with rodents. Honestly, I thought Mom’s scenario didn’t sound so bad. I liked the beach and seafood and lord, I was born ready to not live in the mountains.  I wondered would I be able to swim in the ocean every day? And could we also have, like, flounder or would it just be crabs and periwinkles? what would the shack be like?

Mom would give me some long look and say, the kind of shack that doesn’t stay up during hurricane season. And then where will be? Probably the poor house

I was unclear on the Poor House, too. Was that also near Wilmington? Would it be like the Work House in “Oliver!” Would I have to wear brown in the poor house? There was a lot of brown happening in “Oliver!”  I didn’t really care for brown clothes. If Dad finished his novel, would we then be able to leave the Poor House? And if it was successful maybe move to a cool, cosmopolitan city that had, like, an Orange Julius and a Benetton at the mall.

But even if Dad didn’t quit his job[1] and make us live in a shack, evidence of my impoverished lifestyle was everywhere I turned.  Our house was old and though my mother and grandmother did in their power to indoctrinate me into the cult of fragile 18th  century furniture, heritage beds you absolutely cannot jump on ever, and antique Japanese porcelain I fretted endlessly about breaking, all I could see was that our house lacked a rec room with a ping pong table. We  also didn’t have a trampoline or any Big Wheels. We didn’t go on family trips to theme parks or to Chuck E. Cheese. We didn’t have a minivan. Or a basketball hoop. Mom never bought Cheese Balls or Pudding Pops. It took years of begging to get a swing set. And we didn’t have a video camera at all

No video camera meant that no one could record my piano recital, or play performance  or middle school slumber party lip synch contests, which meant we could never rewind to see if Susan flubbed the second verse of “You Be Illin.[2] It meant that within the largely white and upper middle class cohort of kids tracked through the honors program at my otherwise largely black and lower middle class middle school, I would forever be operating at a disadvantage because I was never able to film a skit for a school project the way the other kids did.

This last part was worse. It hardly seemed fair that the Triple Threats (rich, smart, athletic) easily aced projects while I struggled to get a B+ just because their parents would film their earnest reenactment of “The Diary of Anne Frank” in the downstairs rec-room or direct their pyrotechnics enhanced demonstration of the Big Bang Theory on the Asheville Country Club Golf Course.

I would try to explain to Mom. In order to do well on this book report, you need to pick up four or five of my closest friends, drive us to a scenic location, costume us in period appropriate costumes, film it and then probably take us to Boston Pizza for dinner before you drop all of my friends off

My mother looked at me as if I were delusional. Didn’t I know she had to work, then sit at a city council meeting, and follow that up with a dinner part for a visiting Scandinavian urban planner. And what does a video camera have to do with a book report? This was a stupid question. You couldn’t do a clever skit about “To Kill a Mockingbird” without film and you couldn’t film it without a video camera. It was no use for her to try and belabor the point by suggesting I do something so outré as WRITE a book report. For the love of God, I was in the Gifted Classes. A simple paper would never pass muster, not when the Triple Threats were collaborating with Duke students they met at a summer program to clone Boo Radley using a chemistry set, some Sea Monkey eggs, and a shortwave kit they brought home from Space Camp. My seventh grade English teacher already didn’t like me, and as she liked to remind me, I was never going to get into college, let alone Harvard, if I didn’t step up my game. And my game required, at minimum, a video camera. ANY video camera. Even one that only took Betamax tapes like the Murphys had.

Mom would listen, patiently, give me a long slow look and suggest that I talk to Dad. Which meant I’d end up wandering through his creative department on the weekend sans camera, seeking out the tools to elevate my poster board projects and dumb haikus, (in the pre-computerized days of the advertising industry, this mostly meant magic markers and a potentially brain-damaging fog of Spray-Mount). I’d come out  with maybe a B+

And it wasn’t just school. I worried about the future. I worried we will have nothing to prove our existence to future generations if there is no video of my 11th birthday party at Pizza Hut, but the parents would point out (correctly) that we had an embarrassment of snapshots. Dad was an enthusiastic and talented amateur photographer, even if his go-to photo of me always captured me from all the worst angles, slumped and highly-double chinned, staring moodily off into the great beyond, probably wondering why Wrightsville Beach? Why not Topsail? Why not Emerald Isle?

Of course, the shack thing never happened. Neither did the video camera. However, there two times in which my mother drove up to Videoland and rented a camera for the evening and I had a sliver of filmed childhood.

The first of these was a  full-album’s length sing-along and dance revue to the “Dirty Dancing” soundtrack. I was eleven; my sister was six. I imagined myself in possession of Broadway-level vocal chops and jaw-dropping dance moves, ala “Fame” and “Flashdance.” I’d also recently come into possession of a head-to-toe Esprit ensemble of lavender jersey in various patterns (polka dots, stripes, etc.), which I thought made me look like a real talent. My sister had coincidentally developed a deep-seated love of denim mini-skirts, sheer knee-high stockings, and plastic bangle bracelets. She availed herself of roughly half the contents of a blue eyeshadow contact, found in the depths of mom’s dressing table, and tied a bandana at garter height on her thigh.

As farce, the “Dirty Dancing” revue was an unqualified success. What my careful choreography lacked in technique and physical prowess, it more than made up for in extensive, mishandled props and gratuitous (if unintentional) flashes of my underwear . My sister positioned herself about two feet away from the camera. She swayed and gyrated and slunk about living room like an alcoholic stripper, occasionally thwacking herself in the head with her own hand in the heat of passion. Between my panties and her sexy dance, the end result is both hilarious, and slightly uncomfortable. Caddy Compson meets Dolores Haze meets “Dance Fever” with dance moves cribbed from “Jane Fonda’s New Workout.”

At the time, however, I thought it was a miserable failure, spoiled by my sister’s relentless camera hogging and my horror at how fat I looked on camera. We hid it away in a drawer with movies we taped off HBO but would never watch again (“White Nights?”). I rediscovered it about fifteen years ago, after my sister revealed it had been popular favorite in her college dorm room. She’d secreted it away in her early adolescence, fearing it would disappear into a junk drawer and subsequently become junk. I have it now, stored in a filing cabinet. Because I think I’m the only member of the family to still own a VHS player (albeit collecting dust in a closet).

What’s particularly funny is that “Dirty Dancing” is not even our favorite home video. That would be the second, and the only time my plea for a filmed school project ever hit the mark. I don’t know why I chose to deliver a lecture on Einstein’s theory of relativity fake-crying in a terrible German accent, wearing a head scarf and a nightgown, with a pillow underneath to simulate pregnancy, but I did. I might have had something to do with the fact that I was trying to show off by giving a nod to Brecht, a nod, I might add, lost entirely on my eighth grade General Science teacher. (I think you can do better, Alison. You’re a bright student, but you don’t go the distance. I mean look at that video the Triple Threats brought of their combined family trip to the particle accelerator and the two dozed, red velvet electron cupcakes they brought to share with the class. That’s the kind of quality work I expect from a student in the Gifted Program. B-)[3]

Afterwards there was still plenty of battery left and room on the tape, so my Dad filmed my little sister, then eight, as she tried to hawk the baby bunnies her pet rabbits would not actually end up having. She was the consummate saleswoman, still over-accessorized and blue eyeshadowed, and wearing a Meet Me at the Mall t-shirt, just so you’d know it was still 1989. Afterwards, my father talked to the dog for a while from behind the camera, in a kind of congenial drawling monologue hey girl, hey buddy, hey are you my buddy, yeah, you’re my buddy my sister and I can (and will) recite verbatim

The last half-hour is made up of a walk down to the lake in my childhood neighborhood. My mother forgot the camera was on, so all our progress is recorded in nausea-inducing detail, as well as a scene when my sister ran into the meadow past the boathouse  on the edge of Beaver Lake, and then, reported to the camera: “I’m Sara, and I love to run” while my mother and I quibbled gently over dinner plans. I wanted tacos. Mom wanted spaghetti.

My sister and I watched that video obsessively after the fact, maybe because it funny, but maybe also because it was shot about a month before my parents announced their divorce, about two months before my father moved out of the house, about three months before my grandfather died, and about a year and half before we moved out of that house, and set in motion a series of events I couldn’t have possible predicted as I walked back from Beaver Lake and turned up my nose at the suggestion of pasta for dinner. I don’t know what happened to that tape. Somehow it fell through the cracks. It disappeared.

My family acted well in front of a camera because it was rare for us to have one. Sometimes I still wish we had a few more films.  Other people can reminisce with sound and pictures. They can sit back and watch their hyperactive holiday mornings and senile grandmothers on holiday. My friends can’t imagine my parents being married, or our house on Westwood Road. I still lack the language to give them a solid picture of what it was like there  on the good nights, with the four of us together, when my parents still seemed to be totally in love with each other, even if they were complaining about money or envisioning romantic penury on the North Carolina coast in the service of the novel that never did get written.

It was only ever an illusion, and I know that. But it was a really good one.

___________________

[1] He didn’t

[2] She totally did.

[3] Obvious hyperbole. But barely.

Standard

Washed Up

The winter of 2010 had been a dawdling, long-haired mope that rippled through oversized scarves and rattled the chains of the playground swings, where I spent the morning of my thirty-fourth listening to terrible love songs and letting cold, bright, blustery February elevate my shitty malaise into something that felt heroic. I was, I thought, a failure, a particularly lonely failure, remarkable only in how unremarkable my plight was. I tried to fix it with long runs and whiskey, which I’d taken to drinking to keep me from wanting to smoke cigarettes, which I’d quit some four months previous, which I’d managed with the chemical assistance of anti-depressants, which my doctor kept refilling because this wasn’t my first rodeo.

The depression I felt I didn’t even want to dignify by calling it depression. On paper, I wasn’t even in a particularly bad place, just a place I couldn’t afford without a roommate. Mine—my favorite, my best friend—had decamped to Brooklyn the summer previous. We’d lived together for almost seven years. Nearly of which on a tree-lined, dead end street, one block from our favorite bar, two from the nightclub, half a mile from the record store, a mile from the university. Our best friends lived across the street. We spent nights under shade trees, talking until midnight, throwing extravagant parties. The house was an eternal drop-by, an endlessly fascinating conversation about everything and nothing in particular.

College towns are, by nature, transient places. It had maybe, sort of, occurred to me that my roommate and my friends might be merely passing through as well, and that their  paths would only briefly converge in the 200 block of Maple Avenue. But it took them actually leaving for me to get it, and another three solid seasons afterwards for me to figure out that they weren’t coming back.

I had  gone to visit my old roommate in New York on a snowy weekend. We’d trundled around Brooklyn, damp with weather. She was living in a place in Greenpoint, kind of a dump, but with one of those rooftop views that can cause you to confuse real estate with poetry, even when you haven’t been stung to tears by the cold wind off the East River and laid bare by a couple hours of immoderate Irish whiskey consumption at a bar full of Williamsburg douchebags. She tried to explain that what we were looking at was the fantasy and the tenement the reality, but lord, if it didn’t feel romantic as fuck.   This was my best friend’s life now and she was living it and even though it was irrational, it didn’t seem fair because seriously wasn’t I the one who was always supposed to end up in New York?

It wasn’t her fault I was bitter and lonely and broke, but I was.

By early May, I was dead broke, sleepless, writer’s blocked, and plagued with a nervous stomach, which I decided to blame on meds. I tossed the pills in the bathroom drawer with the extra Band-Aids. I fretted over my credit card bills. I stared at thousands upon thousands of words of unfinished[1] projects, projects I knew had clear and precise endings, but instead rewrote the beginning of a love story about New York or maybe to New York about sixty-eight times. No matter how many times I wrote it, it was still cliché and I was still in a house in North Carolina, unsure if, like, I actually wanted to move to New York.  I couldn’t figure whether even thinking about the possibility was proactive or self-destructive. Was it possible for a thing to be both?

A friend’s former roommate called, out of the blue, one afternoon while I was counting quarters and trying to shake the pall of fourth day leftover curry and impending financial ruin. She needed a place to live and followed a hunch that I be desperate enough to consider letting her rent my spare room. I said sure. We negotiated a deal. She’d move in a few days shy of the first of June.

When I told my mother I’d found a roommate, she rejoiced, convinced an occupied second bedroom would alleviate, if not all, then most of my problems. New roommate was a working artist and a good one. Mom thought my proximity to someone else doing creative work might inspire me to pick a file on the hard drive and just finish it, damnit.[2] She also thought I should come with her to Pensacola for four or five days the next week. My stepfather had recently started working on a project down there. We’d have hotel rooms—nice ones—right on the beach, overlooking the Gulf. Why not come down?

At the time, we were about  four weeks out from the Deepwater Horizon explosion. I knew the state of things. I’d struggled to reconcile the vastness of it, and had tried to remain as blinkered as possible, given the fact that the last time a Gulf disaster had made nightly news I’d nearly lost my damn mind.[3]  Given my tenuous emotional state, I wasn’t sure I was ready to literally wade into Actual Environmental Catastrophe. Does that make me sound weak?

Mom told me I was being dramatic. Things were fine. She’d called the hotel. It’s not the end of the world, just a vacation. We can even go over to New Orleans if you like. You haven’t been there since the hurricane, have you? No. I hadn’t.  It wasn’t her fault I was bitter and lonely and broke, but I was.

I woke up crying. I was at once relieved and horrified, because I couldn’t stop. My mother called and found me incapable of an answer about Florida because I was sobbing so hard. She thought maybe I should come home anyway because what the hell was wrong with me? I thought she was maybe right, because I’d been googling “brain tumor” and “uncontrollable weeping” (but not Wellbutrin-withdrawal) before she called. I packed a bag with all-purpose summer things—swimsuits, novels, unflattering sundresses, cheap sunglasses—and cried all the way to my mother’s house. At midnight, still crying, I decided to go to Florida.

***

Notes from the Gulf, Saturday, June 5, 2010

“All of the seafood is from the Gulf,” said the bartender, who was either a young-looking forty-five or a hard living thirty and obviously tired of being asked the same questions. “It’s snapper season. Shrimp is good as ever. Still not oil-based.”

I studied the bumper sticker over the bar–Pensacola. A Drinking Village with a Fishing Problem.

Federal waters are closed here. So long as you keep your fishing boat less than twelve miles out from the coast, you can still fish, but that limits all deep-sea fishing (and has cancelled an annual deep-sea fishing tournament that our bartender tonight assured me has not been cancelled in forty years). This means trouble for guys looking for a bigger haul and certainly introduces some short-term complications for those looking to eat local seafood. As of four o’clock today (before the nasty, flooding thunderstorm I drove into this afternoon), the first large oil slick was about three miles off Pensacola Beach. There are booms (not enough) protecting the wetlands on the inland side. The fisherman, put simply, are pretty much screwed.

Of course, there’s another side to this. I overheard the bartender talking about his cousin to a couple of local customers. The cousin has worked piloting deep-sea fishing trips for tourists. Now, with that job effectively over for the summer, the cousin has taken contract work with BP. “They pay up to $1500 a day,” said the bartender, “which is a shitload of money for my cousin. “Apparently this scenario works out for BP, as guys like the cousin are prohibited from talking to the press, and unlikely to even talk to their neighbors as “there are folks around here who’d just as soon put a bullet in anyone that works for BP.” In the meantime, a bunch of small-time fisherman and small boat captains make more money in a week than they’re likely to make in a couple of months. The bartender grinned. “We call them oillionaires.”

***

Pensacola is a lot weirder than a town immediately adjacent to a giant naval base would suggest. Save few high-rises and Spanish street names, it didn’t feel much like Florida. It felt quite a bit more like Alabama, which I could see from my stepfather’s suite at the Pensacola Beach Hilton.  Downtown is late afternoon porch nap of a place, charming even, especially perhaps, in its overgrown gardens and storm stripped stucco walls in the way that so many Southern towns are, so long as you don’t stray too far or think too hard about it.

To get to the Beach, I drove out through a rainstorm across a new bridge parallel to an old one that had been carved into a sinister ellipsis by Hurricane Ivan six years before and left to decompose in Escambia Bay like a monument to any human that rebuilds near storm-haunted waters ever since. I paid a dollar at a toll booth and saw a giant blinking marquee telling me Do Not Pick Up Tar Balls.

Jimmy Buffett got to town the same night I did. He joined then-governor Charlie Crist at a press conference at the Grand Opening of the new Margaritaville Resort Hotel. Together, they informed the public that the beach was open despite oil sludge and the fact that the entire strip smelled like an Exxon, or more accurately, a BP station. I got the giggles in the hotel lobby, which was equally packed with drawling tourists and members of the international media posting live from the shiny blue bar, because what the fuck was I doing there?

In the suite, I had my own room and my own balcony. I could look out at the gulf and see sharks and sting rays swimming in the water, round the legs of swimmers. I read a strange, dreamy novel about upstate New York. I watched the first ever episode of “Game of Thrones” on hotel HBO. I sat at the bar in the lobby, pretending to be a journalist, writing Dispatches from the Gulf for mostly disinterested audience of Facebook friends.

It was the second day, sitting at the lobby bar drinking gin and tonics with the Associated Press that I realized I’d stopped crying.

***

Notes From The Gulf, Sunday, June 6, 2010

The desk clerk at the Pensacola Beach Hilton has a lot to deal with right now. There are news crews editing footage at the lobby bar and journalists hunkered over laptops. There are several weddings—both past cancellation date. There are visiting dignitaries. There are drunken frat boys. There are next week’s guests calling every five minutes or so to get an honest opinion on the beach condition.

“I tell them it’s a beautiful day outside,” says the desk clerk. “I tell them the beach is full of people. And they all think I’m lying.”

She’s not. The sky is cloudless blue. The sand still soft and pale as powdered sugar. The Gulf is clean and aquamarine. Hundreds of people have crowded onto the quarter mile stretch from the Casino Beach boardwalk to the far side of the Hilton. They’re surfing and sunning and plenty are swimming in the breaking waves. No one’s really paying much attention to the half-hazmat suited guys in protective booties, scraping pea-sized tarballs out of the seaweed that washed ashore in last night’s thunderstorm. No one’s paying much mind to the 30×30 foot square caution taped off and bearing the footprint of a not-quite-cleaned up oily mess. No one’s exactly noticed their oil stained extremities, and if they have, no one really seems to care (they probably won’t until they try to wash it off). But mostly, no one’s talking about the smell.

I’d tell you it’s sort of like a service station in August, but that doesn’t quite do it justice. Because it’s a smell that you can’t really get to go away. Even when you’re inside it permeates. Even when you’re two bays off the beach and walking through downtown Pensacola, you can smell it. To ignore that odor and all of its unmistakable implications (as most of my fellow beach goers are/have been doing) is a truly epic feat of fairy-dusted, calorie-free bacon level denial.

And maybe denial isn’t so bad. I mean, if the alternative finds you crying in the surf like the fifty-some year-old blond woman in a pink batik dress, who drew a crowd while scrubbing tar off her grandson’s knees. Or if the alternative finds (collective) you fleeing the gulf coast in abject terror for fear of contamination and taking all of your friends with you. Or if the alternative has you jumping to all kinds of nutty conclusions about why it’s happening (the Wrath of God/Mother Nature,/Greenpeace pipe bomb/ Obama-led plot to kick start his Marxist-Fascist-Totalitarian Muslim Regime/ Republican ploy to destroy the world) and to whom (the Gulf is full of sinners and hedonists who deserve it because they don’t love god/ the Gulf is full of bigots and bible beaters who deserve it because they vote against their interests).

There are thousands of people down here whose depend on these tiny, unsustainable spits of sand and surf that will play natural boom to the invaluable bays, wetlands and tributaries on the inland side of these barrier islands. However many more days tourists can convince themselves there’s nothing really wrong are days the local population can get paid. And I’m sure it’s stressful—the curious dance of the service industry in a tourism-based economy made even more absurd by the fact that they’re working on the outer edge of a disaster.

The conference rooms of the Hilton are packed with BP led seminars for new employees on the subject of cleaning white sand and coral, skimming oil off the water surface and (maybe) misleading the press.

Speaking of which, those guys that work for the AP certainly do have snazzy matching anoraks. If you happened to share an elevator with them today, you probably learned that AT&T has been mostly out (occasionally in) on Pensacola Beach all day today, preventing all of us from fully utilizing our iPhones.”

***

My stepfather took us on a tour of the town. We had dinner with a local socialite in one of the most beautiful houses I’ve ever seen. It sat way out on a toe-shaped peninsula in the middle of a bayou. She tells hurricane stories, showing how far the water came up by putting a hand to the knee of her white silk trousers, then the seat of the sofa, then over the wainscoting, up the wall. The priceless antiques and art and artifacts the live oat branches and cypress limbs barely missed when they stormed the parlor.  I nod along, fascinated by extravagance at unsustainable places the way only someone who has grown up in the mountains can be. In Xanadu, did Kubla Khan and all.

I didn’t mention any of this, of course. We also avoided talking about the oil spill, because rich white people in the Deep South are generally a nothing but the weather and health unless they signal otherwise.

I sat by the pool during the day. I shuffled through muscle-d dudes with military haircuts and tribal tattoos to order frozen drinks from the tiki bar at the boardwalk. The drinks came out of neon boxes, refilled up top from pre-mixed bags of milky pastels and jugs of Bacardi. I avoided the blue raspberry bushwhacker and the Dixie Peach daquiri in favor of the pina colada, which was at least a color that existed in nature. One day, sitting at the bar, looking at the distant shimmer of oil on water, I saw a plane fly over, dragging a banner that read VOTE GOP: DRILL, BABY, DRILL!

 I thought, you could not make this shit up. I thought so, gleefully we self-destruct. I did not think all of that would seem quaint by comparison just a few years down the line.

***

Notes from the Gulf, Monday, June 8, 2010”

Gene Valentino, Escambia County Commissioner, headed up a televised press conference this evening on the Pensacola ABC-affiliate today regarding the oil spill. He offered assurances that the county would do everything in its power to ensure that high-paying BP clean-up jobs came first to local workers and that they would only utilize county funds to pay for spill related issues until the BP settlement funds appear. “The beach is still open. Tell everyone you know. Our local businesses depend on it,” he said, and then added that that the county had yet to determine whether it was safe for anyone to swim in the Gulf.

Everything changes on a day-to-day basis. Sunday night, the stench of oil was so strong I could barely sit on balcony seventeen stories over the water. And then the wind changed. The oil sheen drifted from a half a mile to a mile back out into open sea. And then it went west, to Destin. The cameras, the reporters, the sense of imminent doom went with it. On Monday, there was nothing. Hardly a tarball. Just kids building sandcastles. If you could ignore the big, white, clam shell-hinged hazardous waste containers lining the beach like robot cabanas, it’s almost like there was no oil spill at all.

“The oil spill didn’t just blow away,” said Valentino. “The winds could create a yo-yo effect, moving the sheens from place to place.” In other words, we’re not out of the woods. The deep, thick sludgy oil is still sitting out there in the Gulf, menacing out past the horizon line, thirty miles from land. There’s no such thing as being out of the woods when you’re dealing with a catastrophe of this magnitude. Not when questions like where we can dock the vessels being used for clean-up where their oil-slicked hulls will not further contaminate the water have no long-term answer.”

***

Mom and I take my car to New Orleans on a sunny June morning, with the heat making mirage pools shimmer off Interstate 10. I sit in the passenger seat and try not to be worried because it’s five years after the storm, and things are going to be fine, right?

 I have a family connection to New Orleans. Several of my relatives–including my favorite great-aunt—lived there for decades, some portion of which in a house on Royal Street. My first trip there, years before, had been revelatory. It was a place I hadn’t expected to love,[4] let alone love with such immediate full-throated intensity. But I did love it. And weeks afterward I still dreamed in filigreed wrought iron and found myself perversely driven to Proustian reflection by terrible smells—sun warmed trash and old salty rot and stale alcohol—because they’d remind me of wandering through the French Quarter in the morning, stopping in secondhand shops with my Dad’s old girlfriend to browse vintage Mardi Gras ballgowns and voodoo paraphernalia.

I’d never been to NOLA with Mom. She went with my stepfather, a Louisiana native with a French surname. Hers was the New Orleans of Commanders Palace and the carousel bar at the Monteleone. So, we ate lunch at a nice restaurant. We stopped in art galleries and fancy boutiques. We drank gin when the sky opened up and turned Jackson Square into steamy glass. It was hot, hot enough that even the tourists were in short order. We didn’t wander far. At vampire themed gift shop, I got a note from my new roommate, telling her that her first rent check was going to bounce but no worries, I’ll fix it. I stared at a wall of fanged rubber duckies and thought, is this the moment when everything falls apart?

 It wasn’t.

We bought a bag of beignets for later. The ladies at Café Du Monde suggested we take a Styrofoam bowl of powdered sugar for the road, so we could sugar the beignets when we heated them up.

New Orleans was as New Orleans is. I drove us home and zoned out while Mom talked. I was relieved that I still loved it. It was comforting to know I hadn’t completely lost myself and that the city wasn’t totally lost to me. I wondered if I should move there. I wondered if I should move anywhere. I wondered at how it was that I’d become so resistant to change. That wasn’t supposed to be who I was at all. I was supposed to be adaptable, adventurous, a mossless stone. And yet . . .

I spent my last night in Pensacola, sitting on the balcony, long after my mother and stepfather had gone to bed, dunking gently reheated beignets into a bowl of sugar and staring out at the oil-slicked gulf. It wasn’t anyone’s fault that I was bitter and lonely and broke, but I was.

At night, though, it didn’t’ feel so much like disaster. And I didn’t feel so much like a disaster. I felt like I could put up a sail and, with the curious breeze or a double dog dare, let the wind and water carry me away to some place that wasn’t falling apart because of its own complacency, that didn’t need to be stripped and rebuilt and made whole again.

I didn’t, of course. Instead, I arose the scrape the tar from my feet and begin the long, slow business of making my life bearable again.

_______________

[1] Still unfinished.

[2] That wasn’t how things worked for me, not exactly, but you can’t really explain about process, mostly because whenever someone talks about process, they’re 99% full of shit.

[3] Katrina really fucked me up but good, y’all.

[4] My favorite places usually end up being the ones I don’t expect to love. The ones I imagine I’ll adore usually come out a little gray in the wash. The most famous example of this is how I thought I’d become a Paris devotee (I didn’t) and figured all of Italy would be overrated (it’s really, really not).  There are exceptions to this rule. New York City is exactly as billed. So is San Francisco, or at least, the part of San Francisco that’s yet not entirely composed of entitled nerd bajillionaires.

Standard

Plaid Tidings

Dear Boy I Briefly Had A Crush On In High School:

Tonight around 6:15 pm, EDT, your old flannel shirt from 1993 passed out of the world of attire and into the scrap pile, when it will soon be dismembered and used for things like dusting and maybe polishing the silver.  The shirt was (I’m guessing here) somewhere between 26-30 years old. Maybe older. I have no idea whether it came new to you, or as another hand-me-down. You might remember, if you remember you had this shirt at all. It was 1993, after all. The world was awash in plaid flannel shirts. Even I had several, and I was the kind of girl that at the very apex of grunge was all I’m looking for a prom dress that says “Versailles, 1780.”

I ended up with your plaid shirt because we were in a play together. Shakespeare. I loaned my old summer camp foot locker as prop and after the run, when we struck down the stage, I took it home and put it back into my mother’s basement and didn’t think about it until sometime (maybe a year) later, when I was looking for a place to hide an ashtray and a pack of cigarettes (which I wasn’t supposed to be smoking) in the basement (where I wasn’t supposed to be smoking) and landed on the trunk. When I opened it, I found several things: a school t-shirt commemorating Girls’ Sports Day 1992 (with the classic It’s weird what slides by the censors at prep school slogan: Stick ‘Em, Spike ‘Em, That’s the Way We Like ‘Em!), a campus book store copy of Tess of the D’Ubrervilles with testicles and an erect penis drawn on the title page, a plastic sword used by one of our classmates, and your shirt.

I thought about giving your shirt back. I didn’t have any sentimental attachment to it. My crush on you had ended almost as soon as it began. You were kind of weird, and not in some sexy, dangerous way, but in that “let’s get naked and talk about our feelings and I’ll tell you about these vegan self-help books I’ve been reading” sort of way. To be clear, I was also weird, and also not in a sexy, dangerous way, but more in a “OMG I can’t wait to go to college where I hope to date a sexy communist and start an loud, all-girl garage band that sings entirely about how all men in Modernist novels are terrible” kind of way. We weren’t the right fit. And that was fine. But I kept your shirt, even though it was a bleh gray-brown plaid and kind of ugly, because you didn’t go to my school anymore and it was trouble to get it back to you.  It was soft and I figured it would be good for pajamas.

That was twenty-four years ago. I don’t know why it lasted as long as it did. I don’t have much else from high school, save the a couple prom dresses (including the Versailles one), yearbooks, a few pictures, a box of letters and a bunch of really hilarious journals, in which you figure prominently for a couple of months junior year but then resolve into ham-fisted, 11th grade erotica about a gorgeous, furious leather-jackety type that was very clearly not you and a bewilderingly precise recounting of the meaningless l bullshit C and I  talked about when we drove the abandoned warehouse circuit (years before it gentrified) in her dad’s SUV, smoking Virginia Slim Lights we stole from my Mom and listening to that one Cocteau Twins song on over and over again.

I last wore the shirt in January, while I had the flu. I ordered cake and pineapple from Whole Foods and slipped money under the door, so I wouldn’t be a public health disaster. I watched Harry Potter movies,[1] even though I am too old, I was too old, when they came out. At some point I reached up to scratch the back of my neck and my finger snagged the collar, at which point the collar just sort of disintegrated. I had a thought that I might try to fix it, but seriously, that’s probably not going to happen and, like, the shirt is almost thirty years old and falling apart.

R.I.P. Shirt

You were a good shirt. Even if you were bleh gray-brown. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

=

[1] As boarding school movies go, they’re not too bad. If you take away the actual magic, they’re certainly no less credible than, say, “Dead Poets Society,” a movie that paints schools like ours as a kind of soul-crushing rich kid suicide machine, and yet 100% convinced us that we should be attending boarding school.

Standard

Character Work

My dad moved out of the house on January 1, 1990. He’d packed up numerous cartons of books and records and stacks of  old New Yorkers from the shelves built specifically to house them  and left his study, my favorite room in the house, mostly vacant. I’d largely accepted my parents’ separation and forthcoming divorce. I wasn’t Haley Mills. I had neither a twin nor a plan to get them back together. I don’t remember exactly how I managed his departure, except that the first night he was gone, really gone,  I lay in bed, reading Anne Rice novels and listening to The Beatles on my Walkman, thinking my mother’s claims that nothing would change, everything would be the same and we’d be all right had a fine whiff of bullshit about them.

About ten days after Dad moved out, my maternal grandfather, Poppy, an otherwise healthy, recently-retired, sixty-seven year old, had the first of several, sudden back-to-back strokes that left him unconscious in some liminal state that none of us had the words or will to describe.  My mother left us with my father and rushed to Virginia, packed for a morbidly indefinite stay.  My sister and I found ourselves immersed in paternal custody with a lot of takeout, now whats and dreadful anticipation of each fraught telephone call from Mom.

I loved Poppy. He was patient, wise, kind, selfless, impossibly generous, almost saintly at times. I didn’t know exactly we’d get on without him, or more specifically, how my mother and grandmother would get on without him. Even over long distance, I could hear mom’s fear and bewilderment, the vanguard of the vast and looming grief that I was as terrified of, maybe more terrified of, as I was of actually losing my grandfather. I had no idea what to do with it. The thought of having to address it directly, to comfort my mother, to make her feel safe, secure, understood . . . that was some advanced level shit. I was thirteen. I was barely passing Algebra.

When the funeral came, as it did, my grandmother opted for an open casket which sort of freaked everyone out. I went with my father. We sat several rows back  I could make out Poppy’s profile from my seat. I tried not to stare, but I kept trying to work out how that body, that small, pale human body, could contain so great a soul. I said something about it to my distraught grandmother. It didn’t go well. Years later, long after I’d forgotten the exchange, she told me it took her years to forgive me for what I said that day. I was a child, discombobulated, in a January graveyard. I didn’t know what else to say. You should have known better, she told me.

 You’re pretty bad at funerals, my mother said afterwards, which I thought was a funny thing to say to a person. I thought I did okay. I cried, but not too hard. I laughed, but only when no one could hear me. I never said, I saw my first dead body. And it was the body of a man I loved. I never said. I don’t want to be good a funerals.

 ii.

Dad’s apartment was on the second story of a recently renovated building in downtown Asheville full of other divorced parents and distracted weekend children. In the weeks following Poppy’s funeral, when my mother was back and forth to Virginia, the custodial schedule felt dreamlike. I spent a lot of time wandering then-empty downtown Asheville. I might have stumbled into the sort of trouble  that would have made me cooler in high school. But like most red-blooded American teenagers, I was really into Latin and Architecture and Renaissance politics, so I spent a lot of time at the Basilica, where I pined after rosaries as jewelry, accidentally stole candles[1]  and visited with the priest, a good-natured, quiet man, who perhaps recognized that even pious adolescents don’t spend whole Saturdays alone wandering around a drafty church if they’re even remotely happy. I’m sure I needed answers to a lot of the Big Metaphysical Questions life had served up over the last few months, but mostly we talked about the Grand Central Station Oyster Bar and why my nascent atheism would be a real barrier to entry if I ever wanted to convert to Catholicism.[2]

One Saturday, Dad took my sister on one of those guilt-fueled, divorced parent shopping benders. When she returned, flush with toys, new stereo equipment and a pair of hamsters, Dad handed me a blank check to take to the Public Library and pay my king’s ransom in overdue fees. I filled it out at the circulation desk under the twitching eye of the upstairs librarian, who basically told me that if it ever happened again, she’d make sure I went to prison or the firing squad or both.[3] On the way out the door, I caught a passing glance at a yellow flyer that read AUDITIONS TODAY: YOUTH THEATRE COMPANY SEEKS YOUNG ACTORS.  Finally, I thought, a reason not to find God.

I hadn’t curled my hair or put on lip gloss or prepared a song from “Les Miserables” that was hopelessly out of my vocal range and life experience. But I needn’t have worried,  I made the company in about thirty seconds. I was flattered and impressed. I didn’t even have to act. They could just see the talent emanating right off of me.  The director said she’d see me at orientation the next week at the theatre Your new home away from home!

Afterwards, I stood on the sidewalk across from Dad’s apartment building, January sleet silvering down on me and glanced up at the basilica. I thought That poor priest is going to have to find someone else to talk to.

My mother took me to the information session. Unlike my father, who’d met news of my professional theatre career with a Great job, bud  and a nod back to the golf game, Mom found the whole turning your kids into professional actors pitch to be suspicious, at best. I couldn’t figure out what her problem was. I mean, sure, the audition process was unconventional. The theatre, in name only, was a filthy warehouse filled with giant spiders and dingy whitewashed brick, with ancient wooden plant floors so bowed and worn you could pass notes through the cracks to the cellar. The next production was an Irish play, you know, for St Paddy’s that had yet to be written seven weeks out from opening. My fellow young thespians were mostly the home-schooled children of hippie parents and a handful of tough girls with skinhead boyfriends,  lipstick the color of bruises, and pack-a-day smoking habits at thirteen. My closest peer was coincidentally the daughter of my father’s divorce attorney. I couldn’t exactly figure out what she was doing there either, but I was glad she was around.  Driving me down the then-derelict alley to rehearsal past pissing winos , my mother found the scene mildly upsetting. I thought it was Bohemian, you know, kind of punk rock. Though I would never have said the latter aloud for because tough girls would punched me in the arm and called me a poser.

I think it’s possible the owners of this company are running a con, Mom would say.  I would tell her I was sure I was not being conned. I mean, they hadn’t asked me for a dime. And she was like, yeah, well, they’re charging me several thousand dimes for you to be involved in all this. I felt kind of guilty about that, but I also knew that because of the weirdness of the time she probably wouldn’t say no.

iii.

Afternoons at the theatre company started after school. From Dad’s house, it was a quick walk through the echoing emptiness of old Asheville. I felt tough on the streets by myself. My mother had hand-me-downed a long black and white tweed coat that, pre-10th grade growth spurt, hung to my ankles. I thought I looked romantic and edgy. The wind would whistle up between the buildings on  the steep hill of Walnut street, as I walked down, the back of the coat would trail out behind me like a cape. I’d clunk down the alleyway, through broken bottles and cigarette butts and try not to make eye contact with people.

Rehearsals, though we had no play to rehearse, consisted of a lot of tongue twisters and pantomine. Sometimes we would sit in a circle and report on what new plays we’d read each week. I brought in Eugene O’Nell and Shakespeare, trying to win over the director. She was unimpressed. After script study, we were handed off brooms, mops, sponges and various chemicals and sent to scrub. The director told us it would build character, as she sat at a table  by the front door, smoking cigarettes and Miss Hannigan-ing he way through improv games to enliven our mold removal. Various infractions could score extra chores. Most of these fell under the aegis of “Failing To Pay for Things” like a company-branded notebook, new company t-shirt, a second company t-shirt to wear when the first was dirty, a “professional” head shot shot by our director, a “professional” resume edited by our director.  After a few weeks of steady work, the upstairs of the theatre started to seem less like a place where you could catch cholera so she sent us to the crypt-like cellar–dank pit, accessed by a trapdoor–and instructed us to sweep out the giant beetles and haints and shards of Mad Dog 2020 bottles so we could build out a new dressing room and costume shop.

The tough girls figured out how to unlock the back door of the cellar and stood out in the alley smoking and talking about getting fake IDs to get tattoos. Over time, most of the rest of us did started going outside too. The director send us down with paint and we’d just leave the cans at the bottom of the stairs, confident she’d never come down after us. Sometimes we’d send someone off through the warren of alleys to Lexington Park to buy snacks or meet friends. Sometimes we’d just stand out the cold, a shivery archipelago of adolescent angst.

Sometimes we’d be called upstairs to do more improv exercises, stretches or what the director called “Broadway Dance,” which was not at all what that sounds like.  She brought in a dialect coach to help us hone our Irish accents for the yet-to-be written play. He ended up being the genial Irish-born father of one of our fellow cast-mates, who started every sentence with “Well, I’ve never done this before and I haven’t lived in Ireland in twenty years, but sure, why not, let’s give it a go.”

After about a month or so, we were greeted one afternoon with a  half hand-written script loosely based on Irish folklore and a couple of bland looking twenty-somethings, in fresh company t-shirts. They waved awkwardly. The stars of our play, said the Director.  We just kind of stared back, because we’d all thought maybe we’d be the stars of our play. She posted the rest of the cast list by the cellar. I’d be playing the elderly mother of the hero. I had five lines. Divorce lawyer’s daughter, cast as my elderly neighbor, had three. The tough girls were cast as witches. Everyone else was a fairy.

iv.

I could have quit. My mother would have supported it. But I didn’t so much quit as fade out of things. I was Not Pictured in yearbook group shots.  I was sick a lot. I always missed close enough to the max amount of absent days in the year that I’d usually get called in for at least one conference with an administrator. We would discuss my attendance. We would discuss the mediocre grades I’d settled into in every subject but English and Latin since 6th grade. We would discuss my test scores. The word “potential” and “underachiever” would be bandied about. They would threaten to remove me from the Gifted classes. They wouldn’t.

Despite sort of hating the company, going gave me a thing to do instead of sitting alone at Mom or Dad’s, snacking  and worrying about snacking too much and why it was that everyone else suddenly emerged from baby fat with a perfect bikini body and I looked like a greasy lard thumb with bad hair and ill-considered harem pants. I read a lot of books about Marie Antoinette, who I kind of identified with until one of the Tough Girls reminded me that I was not , in fact, the rich beautiful princess, but the blubbery peasant at the gate that would have been told to eat cake, but maybe a smaller helping, Cherie, you could certainly stand to lose a few pounds.

I celebrated my fourteenth birthday at the end of February to absolutely zero fanfare. Mom gave me a clock radio with a piece of cheese toast at breakfast. Dad forgot entirely until  I called him the next day, and he dropped off a New Yorker cartoon and a twenty dollar bill in the mailbox. I’d always ascribed some importance to age fourteen. Like I would feel like a real, honest-to-goodness teenager. My life would be a Molly Ringwald movie.

“At least, I’m not thirteen anymore” I told Divorce Lawyer’s daughter backstage, during rehearsal, “But, Jesus, Mary and Joseph, how am I to survive all the horrors of fourteen?”

“Hey,” she said. “Your Irish accent is actually getting pretty good.”

I blushed.

The bland twenty-something hero of the play saw us talking and told us to get back to work sanding the make-up table. I thought, fifteen, maybe fifteen will be something to write home about.

 v.

We were handed reams of flyers for the Irish Play and instructed to paper the town, if possible while wearing a Company t-shirt. We were told to  tell our parents to buy tickets, our teachers, our friends. Make sure they know how good this show is. I told each of my parents to buy  as many tickets as possible and not come. Mom bought two and sat in the front row. Dad bought four or five tickets and obliged me by not showing up to any of the performances.

The opening would be on St. Paddy’s, which fell on a Sunday that year. The director informed us we’d be promoting the show by participating in the local Parade, in full costume.

Divorce Lawyer’s daughter and I came in early to apply age make up and spray our hair white. We stuffed our “traditional” Irish folkloric apparel—hand me down flannel nightgowns paired with hippie skirts and psychedelic 1970s-era knitted afghans worn as shawls – with a white sale’s amount of throw pillows stuffed into the waistband because the director thought it would be hilarious if I were even fatter than I was. Most of the other girls were costumed as fairies, well-glittered and made up with lipstick and tulle. The one tough girl that showed up for the parade refused to wear costumes at all, and no one was brave enough to convince her otherwise.[4]

The weather on parade day was the most credibly Irish part of the event. We lined up between the Irish-American, Vietnam Veterans Harley Davidson Club of Western North Carolina and a bunch of Legalize Marijuana activists dressed as the Grim Reaper. The director instructed us to frolic and suggested we do the parade route barefoot for authenticity’s sake. The homeschooled kids hadn’t worn shoes to rehearsal ever so they went their black-soled merry way down Patton Avenue, but the rest of us gave her a look of such pure mutinous rage that she actually backed down without first threatening to make us clean the crawl space behind the boiler.

It’s hard to frolic in a cold wind and rain. I endured, perversely relieved that I looked like a garbage bag, because unlike the fairies, I was not getting heckled by the green-beer drunk onlookers.

The idea had been that crowds would join us in our frolic and follow us back to the theatre for the show. No one came, save our parents and some friends of the Director. We’d been promised three weekends of performances, but after opening night, the Director revised it to three performances. No one seemed to mind.

vi.

I faded out of rehearsals. I claimed illness. I claimed poverty. I’d only gone back to say goodbye to Divorce Lawyer’s daughter when the director pulled me aside and said. There’s an audition. They’re looking for girls like you. A TV movie.

I was dubious, by this point, of anything the director said and definitely still scared of the tough girls, but I hated junior high school and the audition would allow me to miss a day of it. I asked Mom. She hesitated but ultimately agreed. I curled my hair. I wore lip gloss. I practiced my tongue twisters. I rode down in a rented van on a Thursday, with the Director, the tough girls and a chain-smoking redhead with  frosted eye shadow and a shiny lavender suit who said she was my agent.

The casting call was held in an office park in midtown Atlanta. The waiting room was full of teenage girls that all looked a little like me.  A casting director came out and told us the movie was about a poor white girl befriending a nice black man in the Depression-era south. The poor white girl was the teenage lead of a popular sitcom. The nice black man was an Academy Award winner. We’d be reading  for the girl’s racist schoolmate. We’d be reading for the star’s schoolmate “an overweight, unattractive adolescent girl, “white trash” in looks and behavior with a thick southern accent. I stung a bit, and looked at the other girls. I looked at myself in the mirror. I told the red-haired agent I wasn’t even sure I still had a southern accent.  She was all, just wing it. You probably won’t get the part anyway.

 I thought, Acting. It’s just acting.  

I read a few more lines. They were sexually provocative and horribly racist. I tried to imagine myself saying them. I thought, I don’t want to do this. I said, “I’m not sure I want to do this.”

The agent, on her way out for another Capri, patted me on the knee. “You’ll be fine,” she said. “You probably won’t get the part anyway.”

But at the end of the day, after four or five cycles of reading,  it was only me and one of the tough girls left in the waiting room.

We’re probably going to want to see you both again, said the casting director.  We’ll be in touch.

 The director and the agent celebrated. I didn’t know what to think. I still wasn’t entirely sure it was real. I rode back on the van listening to “Revolver” on my Walkman, while the tough girls insulted each other. I kept rewinding  “I’m Only Sleeping,” the part at the bridge where the chorus yawns out and Paul McCartney comes in to duet at keeping an eye on the world going by my window. I rested my head against the van windows, shiny with spring rain, and  thought the harmony was transportative, the musical equivalent of a door in the back of the wardrobe. I imagined going back in time. To the 30s in the south. To the 60s in England. To my life, like, six months ago.

The next day, the Casting Director called to tell me they wanted me back in ten days for a screen test with the sitcom star. They wanted to talk to my mother. I handed her the phone and went up to my room to eavesdrop on the other line.

My mom was not a stage mother. She’d drop us off at the theater. She’d buy tickets for the show. She’d bring a bouquet of roses and lilies on opening night. That was as far as it went. There were no videotaped performances, no acting coaches, no “talents,” no tiaras, no tap-dancing. She had reservations about the movie. She didn’t much like the script. She hated the part. She didn’t think they would pay me enough money. She worried that the role might damage my reputation. That people might forever conflate the role with me. That I might end up a washed up child actor. That I might end up like Linda Blair.

I told her the script didn’t projectile vomit or demonic possession. And I wasn’t an idiot. A tv movie wasn’t going to be “The Exorcist.” But she kept mentioning it, even after we’d talk to an attorney, even after we’d met with the vice-principal at my junior high to clear my yet-theoretical absences. After I made her run lines with me at night. I knew she saw the  overweight, awkward pre-teenage girl, “white trash” in looks and behavior written at the top of the page. She heard her daughter affect a thick southern accent to spout off poorly scripted racial slurs. I said, if this works out I’m not going to be typecast forever as a fat racist. I hoped that was true.

The day of the screen test. Mom drove me to Atlanta. We signed in with the receptionist and sat in the same empty waiting room. The tough girl went first. She came out, grinning and flushed. They called me next. My mom squeezed my head and told me I was beautiful and to be yourself.  And I thought, But mom, I’m an actor. I’ll be whatever they want me to be.

 The sitcom actress smiled and shook my hand. I remember thinking, this is the most famous person I’ve ever met in my life.[5] We sat in two metal folding chairs in front of the camera. She asked if I was ready. I said I was. We did the scene. Then they changed the camera angles and did it again. They thanked me.

We waited.

When, the casting came out beaming at me, I let myself believe it was real, that I would be in a movie, that I would be a working actor, that I would be on tv and all the people who hated me in the eighth grade would see it and then I would be in other movies  and I could hang out with my new best friend Winona Ryder and date John Cusack and buy a house in LA or New York or maybe London and everything, everything little single solitary thing wrong with my life wouldn’t matter because I would be famous and famous fixes everything.

Then the casting director’s smile changed, slightly, up close. I knew it wasn’t me. It wouldn’t be me. She thanked me again for coming in. She wished me the best of luck.

I think I was a good actress. Maybe not the one they wanted. But good enough to smile placidly and congratulate the other girl. Good enough to leave the waiting room head held high not overweight, awkward pre-teenage girl, “white trash” in looks and behavior, but a motherfucking Amazon Queen.

I started crying in the car. Mom drove through five o’clock and pulled off at a fancy hotel in Buckhead. We went into the lobby. She ordered a drink for herself and a ginger ale for me. It wasn’t quite May, the hotel pool was open, but chilly for swimming. Mom and took off our shoes and sat on edge, bare feet suspended in cool, unnatural blue.

She told me she was sorry it hadn’t worked out, acting was a tough business, and  if it was something I really  cared about, this wouldn’t be my only chance. It just feels that way. She told me about in time in college, when she was writing folk songs and had been invited to Richmond to record a demo—do you know this story?— I did but I let her tell me anyway. Her father wouldn’t let her. He forbade it. So I didn’t go. And I’ve always wondered.

 I didn’t know why she didn’t defy him. I mean, Poppy was being unreasonable. Poppy, the kindest, gentlest, a real saint of a man. He was being mean, Mom. I mean, you should have gone anyway. You might have been famous.

 She might have. She might have cut a single and opened for Joni Mitchell. She might have recorded an album. She might have drunk mimosas with the ladies of the canyon and maybe written sad songs about love to the sound of the Pacific tide. She might not have finished college or met my father or had me or my sister. And I don’t regret any of those things.

 Even though, my parents were splitting up and my dad was living in an apartment downtown and everything felt like a muddle?

Even though. She said, even though.

We sat by the pool until we could see the rising moon reflected in the surface.

I told Mom it had been a sucky year.

She agreed. She apologized. I apologized for making her feel like she had to apologize. I told her I loved her. I told her that she was maybe my best friend.

The bartender came out to ask if we wanted to book a room for the night.

We said no, because I think both of us just wanted to go home, and for the first time in months, that felt like where we were really going.

_________

[1] I thought if you put a dime into the little black box you got to keep the candle. I’d empty dad’s change drawer and fill the pockets of my  coat with votives (later used for various experiments with Wicca). I was later embarrassed to learn I had unintentionally stolen several dozen or so prayer candles.  Mea culpa. But let’s be honest, I was already headed to hell anyway.

[2] At the time of my basilica loitering, we spent the odd Sunday at a new age church, close to Dad’s apartment, where the youth group discussed Existentialism over brunch and the average service consisted of working out stress with modeling clay while we sang Let it go in the chorus of “Let It Be” accompanied by my eighth grade crush’s psychiatrist father on bongos. This absolutely happened, by the way.

[3]It did. She didn’t

[4] At least one of the tough girls had quit the week before, following a knock-down, drag-out with the director in the alleyway behind the cellar. At some point one of them used the b word and the other used the c word and our bland, twenty-something leading man said something about “it was a wee bit of a donnybrook, begorrah” in his stupid Lucky Charms voice and almost got punched in the face. And as Tough Girl walked off cursing down the alley. The Director was like, you’ll regret your decision to leave, but I won’t have you back until you adjust that attitude. I don’t know if the Tough Girl ever did adjust her attitude , but the last time I saw her she was wearing leather pants and straddling an amp at a Guided by Voices show around the turn of the millennium. She didn’t look like she had any regrets about youth theatre.

[5] Arguably this wasn’t even true. I’d met George HW Bush, a couple years  before after he delivered an address at Warren Wilson College. Maybe it was because I wasn’t a Republican, maybe it was because George HW Bush didn’t seem like a famous person when he was president, but even then I was like, “He doesn’t count.”

Standard

Travel Pangs

At the lowest ebb of my early twenties, when I was wallowing, in danger of running irrevocably off the rails because I was not sure where I was going, what I was going to do when I got there, I went through an extended phase of reading novels about Mexico City. I liked the vast, thrilling, convoluted, messy stories about what seemed to be a vast, thrilling, convoluted, messy city, light years from the ugly, boring new south purgatory to which I’d sort of accidentally exiled myself. I was too miserable to sleep much in those days, but when I did I’d dream about smoggy thoroughfares and art nouveau artist-crammed warrens and Aztec ruins and street tacos and  Diego Rivera murals think, lord, if I’m going to be an exile, I might as well do it properly. I thought, I should really work on my Spanish.

 In my early forties, still wallowing, but now  in danger of clinging too narrowly to the rails because I know what I’m doing and where I’m going but no longer sure why, my best friend called and asked if I wanted to go with her to Mexico City, and get lost in that vast, thrilling, convoluted messy city with her tall Australian friend, who lives there.  And I was like finally and I bought a plane ticket.  I worked on my Spanish. I didn’t, on the advice of my mother, tell my grandmother. Because, she will definitely think you’ll be kidnapped by a cartel and forced to write communist poems high up in the mountains while eating well-intentioned, but mediocre tamales.  I thought that sounded pretty nice, actually. Not unlike my day job of working in advertising in Western North Carolina.

And I told myself the stomach pains I was having in the weeks leading up were stress-based indigestion, incidental travel worries. That I was worried about being worried about having digestive problems from eating street food in Mexico City. I bought two boxes of Pepto-Bismal. I drank week tea. I ignored the doubled-over middle of the night cramps.

Thirty-six hours prior to departure, I dreamed I was back in the ugly, new south sprawl city of my early twenties, trapped inside an shop full of vintage dresses, while outside the world was on fire. I was speared by the hand of a manicure and woke up in excruciating pain. I thought, that manicure sure has sharp fingers. I took a deep breath and thought, surely I am imagining this pain. I thought, surely this will pass. It did not. I dressed in the dark. I drove to the emergency room. It was 2:30 am.

The waiting room was deceptively dead. A triage nurse that looked and sounded weirdly like Wesley Snipes took my vitals. I sat on uncomfortable chairs between a drunk man, who seemed to just be hanging out there and joking with the nurses like a barroom regular and two college students who were reporting a fake concussion because a cat scan will totally get you out of a Bio exam tomorrow. I’d picked up a book off the night stand, a literary novel about terrorists. It didn’t really distract me from a stomach roiling with increased anxiety about what it meant for my Mexico trip if an alien burst out of my belly.

At five-thirty, a nurse came and wheeled me back through an emergency room crammed triple-parked beds. It felt like a war zone. The nurse said, Full Moon. I, overtired, still in pain, distracted, thought, they’re all werewolves? My curtained bay was between a woman that couldn’t stop throwing up and an elderly man that sounded like he was speaking from beyond the grave. The woman spoke Spanish between retching. I thought, deliriously, this will be good practice for Mexico. The man spoke a language no one could understand. They brought in every nurse they had to try out every language on file. At long last, before they got to Klingon or Elvish, the patient on the other side of him—another older woman—was like, He’s speaking Czech, you idiots.

 Doctors wheeled in an ultrasound. Results were inconclusive. Probably nothing, I thought. I hope I get out of here soon so I can catch up on sleep before I leave tomorrow. They thought I should get another, bigger ultrasound, so I was wheeled away again. I texted my Mom on the way back to the ER. I said, Don’t freak out but I’m in the hospital. It’s probably nothing. I’m still planning to go to Mexico tomorrow. I’ll probably be home in an hour. I got back to my bay. The vomiting lady had been moved, replaced by an older man who snored loudly and occasionally called out Joy To the World! in his sleep.

The nurse brought me a cup of water and then immediately took it away. She said, you’re probably going to have surgery today. I said, don’t be ridiculous, I have to go to Mexico tomorrow to see art and eat street tacos and see Diego Rivera murals and hopefully sort out this midlife crisis. And I’ve always been the kind of person to make fun of people having a midlife crisis. How embarrassing.

The surgical team rolled up. They were all gorgeous and young, with great hair. They told me I was going to have my gall bladder removed, immediately, as soon as they could clear an OR. We’re busy today. Full Moon. And I was like, I’m not a werewolf. And I am I going to Mexico tomorrow. They apologized for not being able to give me any pain killers, but they gave me a surgical gown. It was Carolina blue and had kind of an Aztec print. I called my best friend, then. I told her the situation. I said, I’m still going. I don’t care I’m still going. The tall Australian sent me a note saying he was sorry to hear I wasn’t coming to Mexico. I started crying. That lasted for about six hours. At some point, I think the Czech man tried to insult me or comfort me, but everything he said sounded like gravel falling off the edge of the world. It could have been a curse. I felt cursed.

By the time my mother arrived, it was early afternoon. I was furious and spent. She wondered if I was afraid of surgery, of going all the way under. I said, at least being all the way under means I don’t have to think any more. The anastesiologist came and gave me a “you probably won’t die, but  you might” speech and I joked about how I should have written down my passwords. As he wheeled me away, I was like, no, seriously, I think I wrote down some of my passwords, they’re in my desk, ask my friend, she’s a lawyer, but not really my lawyer. And then I was out. I woke up in excruciating pain, like that mannequin with the sharp fingers had conspired with the alien to engineer a subway system through my abdomen. They gave me Fentanyl. I thought, party drug of the apocalypse. Fields, out.

 I recovered quickly. Everybody acted friendly and solicitous, offered to do things, sent flowers, gave me the whole aren’t you glad this didn’t happen to you in Mexico?  Sure. I guess. But I’m sad I missed my trip. I’m super sad I lost the chance to use a trip as an excuse to not deal with this perpetual state of indecision and insecurity and the specter of regret, both past and possibly forthcoming, that seems to me to be condition of being an adult human being, now one organ down, in a vast, thrilling, convoluted,  messy world.

I’m still having a bit of a midlife crisis.  I don’t think I can fix it with a sportscar or an affair or a yoga. I won’t do anything rash. I like my life. And so I’ll probably do the smart thing and stay the course I’m on, because it’s a good and reasonable one. But, as I recover, as my interior parts stitch back together, I’m allowing myself the luxury of being unreasonable, as I imagine slipping away, losing myself in an unknown city I know only from novels. Maybe I’ll buy a new suitcase. Definitely I’ll keep working on my Spanish. Then, maybe Hindi. Maybe Czech.

Standard

Ireland

I recently sent off for one of those DNA reports. It was on sale and I wanted to make absolutely sure that I wasn’t some magical foundling or infant switched at birth my parents had taken home and claimed as their own.[1] The results were, I’m sorry to say, unsurprising, and more or less lined up precisely with what we already knew. To wit:  I am a white person, descended from white people, the vast majority of whom came from the British Isles (the rest were French and German). Of that number, approximately 20% were Irish. I’d figured as much. I knew the surnames. In Ireland, I’d received some unsolicited commentary about how I “had the look of Cork about ye,” which didn’t sound entirely like a compliment. I felt (and still feel) fiercely ambivalent about Ireland, like it tapped into some combination of This place is lovely and magical and I need to get right the fuck out of here before I end up trying the lotus.  If I were the sort of person who believed in that whole “places speaking to you/historical memory/ancestral resonances” bullshit, I might give the pot another couple of stirs, but I’m not and I don’t, so leave it.

I mention this, of course, because today is St Patrick’s Day and St. Patrick’s Day is an abomination. I need you to know that I don’t say this because I hate Ireland or Irish People or the color green (in fact, my favorite color) or quasi-mythological, beatified snake charmers or whatever portion of myself[2] may be distantly rooted in the auld sod. I hate St Paddy’s because it is a drinking holiday in the US and while all drinking holidays in the US are uniquely awful (see also: the Fourth of July, Cinco De Mayo, New Year’s Eve), St Paddy’s is the one that tends to produce the most toxic combination of drunk bros with tribal tattoos, tin whistles, and old men reeking of green beer and cabbage farts that take “I’m going to pinch you if you’re not wearing green” to mean “I can put my finger pretty much anywhere I want because Erin Go Bragh.”

This year, St. Paddy’s falls on a Saturday, which means it will be a waking nightmare out there. The only way around it is to stay out of it. So pour yourself a stout, put on your favorite “traditional” Irish record (My Bloody Valentine is perennial favorite round these parts, but Thin Lizzy also works pretty well), pull a book from the shelf  and let Ireland dazzle you with her unsurpassed skill at just turning a damn phrase.

These lists are always overstuffed with the classics. And that’s fine. Today would be a great day to finally maybe give Ulysses a go (thought, strictly speaking, that novel has its own holiday, and it’s generally lovely). It’s a lot funnier than you’ve been led to believe and is less intimidating if you take it one chapter at a time, maybe with friends, maybe with beer, ideally with both.

Wilde is always a charmer. And his effortlessly elegant wit certainly helps nullify the horrors of whatever thick-necked, cargo shorted rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouches toward your local bar to order Irish Car Bombs accompanied by House of Pain (apologies to W. B. Yeats).

But in the event you want to step off the beaten track (or maybe visit a bookstore. Book stores are a fantastic place to spend St. Paddy’s Day. If you happen to be in Ireland, try out Charlie Byrne’s in Galway, which is maybe my favorite book store, like, in the world), here are a few of my recommendations for making the holiday a reading holiday:

 

The Third Policeman—Flann O’Brien. It’s always a toss-up between this one and At Swim, Two Birds. And the truth is, you can hardly go wrong with O’Brien. They’re all brilliant and weird and hilarious. The Third Policemen, though, is a clever philosophical argument bound up in a surrealist, dystopian farce that’s kind of about bicycle theft. And if that doesn’t entice you, I can report that I truly laughed out loud regularly throughout this book, even, especially at moments when it edged toward melancholy.

Skippy Dies—Paul Murray. As a one-time student of boarding school, I find most boarding school novels to be awful. This one was a rare, surprising gift. Murray is a great writer (and he does a really deft job with teenagers). Funny, sad, and probably the most compulsively readable novel I’ve ever read whose title gives the plot away on the front cover.

Days Without End—Sebastian Barry. I wrote about this book on my Best of 2017 list. I still haven’t stopped talking about it or recommending it. Perhaps even more appropriately for St. Paddy’s, this is a book about an Irish immigrant and his singular experience throughout the US during the middle of the 19th century. It’s also on my short list of Favorite Westerns.

A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing—Eimear McBride. Full warning: this is a difficult book that deals with a very tough coming of age and Eimear McBride writes in a dreamy, stream-of-consciousness style that might turn off those wary of unconventional sentence structure. It’s worth it if you stick with it, though. McBride does a thing all her own. Hers is a voice I’m always eager to hear more of.

Troubles—JG Farrell. Technically, JG Farrell was an Englishman of Irish extraction, but this extremely funny, brutal satire concerns itself with the failing fortunes of an English family in Ireland on the eve of Irish Independence. It’s also maybe my all-time favorite extended metaphor for colonialism. If I’ve ever talked to you about books, I’ve probably tried to get you to read it.  You should read it.

City of Bohane—Kevin Barry. If you’re after a dystopia (and still not convinced we’re not already in one), Barry’s post-apocalyptic urban Ireland is a good one to get under your skin and freak you out with its imagery (eerie as hell) and its language (gorgeous). I liked it better than his follow-up (also pretty good), which fictionalizes John Lennon and sends him exploring the West Coast of Ireland.

The Untouchable—John Banville. In general, you’re either on board with Banville’s morally compromised, dirty old men and their classical allusions or not. The Untouchable is a bit different, though, in that it’s a spy novel, specifically focused on young men at Cambridge University who ended up spying for Russian, during and after WWII. Banville’s protagonist is a fascinating character, who’s playing a part, within a part, within a part. And I’ll wholly admit to loving this book. Reads pretty fast too.

Vivid Faces: The Revolutionary Generation in Ireland 1890-1923—RF Foster. I’d be remiss without a piece of non-fiction. This is a big book that covers the decades leading up to the Easter Rising and afterwards to Independence and the formation of Irish Republic’s government. It’s a fascinating take on the collision of art and politics and the things that tend to get sold out (women’s rights, for one) when your creation of a revolutionary national identity requires the cooperation of a population steeped in traditional religion.

Oh and if you’re absolutely determined to venture out into the crowds, consider going to bed with this recent gem from the New Yorker. I’ve been haunted by it for months because what lord, a beautiful bit of writing.

Slainte and happy reading.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

So, I like Ireland. I generally like Irish people. Green is, in fact, my favorite color. And though I’m not terribly keen on traditional Celtic music, I do like it a bit better than bluegrass, (faint-praise-be-damned as that may be). There were plenty of Irish people in my family tree, a fact now confirmed by a DNA report, a sense of fierce, As many of you may know, St. Patrick’s Day is an abomination. St Patricks’ Day is the worst holiday. The. Worst. Holiday. Please understand: I don’t say that because I hate Ireland or Irish People or the color green (in fact, my favorite color) or quasi-mythological, beatified snake charmers.  It’s just that people in the US cannot handle a drinking holiday just don’t care for most drinking holidays, or to be precise, I don’t care for drinking holidays in the US. It’s not entirely the fault of the Irish that St. Paddy’s Day has become synonymous with hordes of wildly shit-faced

[1] To be clear, I am absolutely, incontrovertibly my parents’ child, as anyone who has met my parents for even a fraction of a second will confirm. I have known this ever since I was able to look at my face and their faces side by side in a mirror, but while they may have endowed me with my good looks and a truly epic catalog of seemingly congenital eccentricities, they did not endow me with a  great fortune or any supernatural powers. And look: a girl’s got to dream.

 

[2] I devote all of my historical shame, horror and self-loathing to the fact that I’m a Southerner.

Standard

Plus

i.

When I was five years old, my mother and my grandmother used to ply me with treats because I was all eyes and skinny legs, chronically underweight. They supposed I drank too much (juice and water, charges of hitting the gin too hard were a few decades yet to come). They supposed I ate too little. They doctor supposed I would stay small into adulthood, despite coming from (mostly) tall people. I doubt she’ll hit 5’4. My little sister (who came roaring out into the world like a queen and was thus (partly) named after The Queen) was projected to be a giant. The pediatrician poked at her chubby knees and said, She could be six feet tall. Six feet wasn’t all that rare for women in my family. My mother (herself barely an inch shy of) just nodded and said something to me about the charms of being petite, a fairy princess.  

 I had the youthful confidence of being a pretty child. People told me so all the time. My mother was an artist. She painted portraits of other people, other children. She used to study my face and tell me it was uncannily symmetrical, very beautiful. I would stare at myself in the mirror and summon an imaginary friend from my reflection. I called her Zaka. She was pretty, even if her hair didn’t curl the way I wanted and truly, if it were as short as my mother regularly threatened to cut it, she might look exactly like a boy. Zaka would clearly, obviously, stay pretty, in much the same way she was, because pretty was most important. I felt relieved to have her. I knew, no matter what, that she would stay loyal and constant, that she would never betray me, that she would always have my best interests at heart.

I still have a symmetrical-ish face, I suppose, marred as it may be by moles and wrinkles and the ever-lengthening list of age-related imperfections. I lost half an eyebrow about six years ago, thanks to an over-enthusiastic waxing job at a cheapo mini-mall nail salon. I still have one pointy ear and the same inconstant shade of green eyes I’ve long suspected to be my most reliably good feature.  I can still the barest traces of Zaka if I squint through time and disappointment and, mostly, fat. But what I mostly see is Fat. Because I am Fat and Fat is me and it was always thus since Zaka slipped away without rhyme or reason one day around fourth grade and never returned. I never even got to say goodbye. I never got to ask why. I just turned on the light one day, one morning before school and instead of Zaka’s knowing, confident grace, I saw Fat. Slunking, slumping, skulking, sloppy Fat, who eschewed eye contact and changed her clothes in the dark. I despised her. I felt sorry for her. I hated everything she was. I wished she would go away and find some other poor soul to attach herself to, because couldn’t she see that I was better than that. That I wasn’t like her. That I was pretty, uncannily symmetrical, very beautiful. And she would only ever drag me down. The more I ignored her, the harder she chased after me. She seemed quite gratified by my scorn, like, she was some kind of masochist. And after all was said and done, she hung around. She hung around longer than anyone else. Absolutely loyal. Firmly steadfast. After thirty-odd years, it would seem I couldn’t lose her if I tried.

ii.

The thing about Fat is she’s easy to blame. And depending on my mood, I blame a lot—A Lot—on Fat. My lack of confidence, my solitude, my professional failures, my personal failures, my personality failures, my failure failures. She takes it because she’s round and cushiony and hard to break. She lands soft and giggles out some self-deprecating commentary and waddles along her way, inured to the stares and the that’s what happens when you don’t take care of yourself.

Is it possible there are other reasons why I am not an endlessly beloved, swaggering bastion of poise and perfect achievement? I am—this junk drawer of words perhaps notwithstanding—a rational, reasonable human being. Plenty of people who have been side-eyed out of a boutique that doesn’t carry their size or reminded they are technically obese by a medical professional have found fulfillment and fame and happiness and copious amounts of passionate lovemaking with a partner that simply adores them despite their stretchmarks. Am I also socially awkward and kind of elitist and inclined toward existential despair? Do I procrastinate?  Do I talk to much?  Yes. Am I lazy? Do I lack will-power? Is Fat the manifestation of all the ways in which I am flawed or are my flaws the reason for Fat? How much of my life is determined by the expanse of hips—comically oversized like the boned and fluffed architecture under a Rococo court dress? How much am I letting this or that chin (or all in concert) steer my course through life?

Fat has a weakness for conspiracy theory. She feels bad for buying into it (because she feels bad about everything) but she still keeps me up with second guesses. Here’s one:  do I have friends in spite of Fat or because of her? In high school, in college, I’d find myself surrounded by whisper thin, pretty girls and think I might shine in a bit in their collective shimmer. But Fat would whisper, you make them look good—even better, even thinner–by contrast. They like you because you’re not a threat. Because compared to you, they always win. She wasn’t alone. My grandmother once told me, point blank, that I’d be far better off making friends with bigger girls, so when we were all out together I wouldn’t look so . . . so . . . disproportionate.

Nana wasn’t wrong. Fat did look disproportionate. When I saw her in pictures with my friends, she appeared to be a different scale of thing, maybe a different species altogether. Every piece of me was bigger—from features to fingers to feet. I growth-spurted into tall-ish late, sometimes during sophomore year of high school, as if to underline just how wrong my childhood pediatrician had been. But Fat didn’t stretch out into lean angles and elbows, just reconfigured, and settled into new, uncomfortable curves that didn’t make me look like a glamorous woman so much as a prematurely middle-aged frump.

 

iii.

 

You’re asking yourself, Has she lost her mind? (Maybe) You’re wondering, Why doesn’t she just do something about it? Like eat less and exercise. (I’ve tried and failed and failed again and failed better and failed so well that I’m in pretty good shape, no matter what Fat would have you believe). You might even be thinking, You’re not Fat. And hey, there’s always someone around telling Fat she isn’t. That person is usually not fat. That person is usually normal-sized, often the variety of normal size that spends two weeks in the gym trying to work off a burrito lunch because they live in fear that three extra pounds is a slippery slope. Other fat people generally refrain from such commentary because they know the fuck better. Specifically, they know that while fat is the kind of elastic-waisted, billowy pejorative that can be applied to just about any person with an extra ounce of body fat, Fat has its own zip code and it’s never going to be the right side of town. And though Fat comprises considerable diversity in size and shape, she tends to recognize herself even as she obsessively compares. Am I the fattest person in the room? Is she as fat as I am? Is she fatter? It’s terrible, embarrassing, wrong that she does it, but I doubt she’s alone. And at least it’s not as bad as the moments when Fat is the only fat person in the room, or in on the block, or like, in the actual zipcode.

I know, by the way. The grass is always greener. Thin people are nodding. And let me crystal clear about this: I don’t think I know a woman, no matter her size or shape, without a body image issue. It’s the only metoo bigger than #metoo.  You came blame fashion designers and fast food and the diet-industrial complex and the patriarchy (it’s probably the patriarchy).[1]

Pretty, thin girls worry they’re valued only for their looks. Fat worries she’s judged for her lack thereof. It’s not enough to be simply unattractive. Beauty has a moral component. Fat is unhealthy, irresponsible, lazy, self-indulgent, hedonistic, needy, a visible sinner, deceitful, leeching off society. Most other transgressive self-destructive behaviors can look a little romantic in the right light. Consider the sordid glamor of movies about, say, heroin addicts. But gluttony is the least sexy of the Seven Deadly. No one writes great swaggering rock songs about going on a pasta bender. There’s no famously edgy poetry about being too fat for an armchair. I’ve yet to see a fashion magazine advertise a new look as being “carb chic.”

Fat assumes people won’t smile back. Fat is surprised when people don’t recoil. You figure out what makes you interesting. You work on your shtick. You do funny—people tolerate Fat when she’s funny. You do easy to please. You don’t freak out. You don’t get too serious—people can’t take Fat seriously. I mean, please. You try not to judge people the way you think you’re being judged.  You know first-hand, that people are so, so much more than how they look. You find that you know little things, like, how it’s always safer to compliment a pair of earrings of a shirt or a haircut or a tattoo than it is to tell someone they look thin or they have beautiful skin, because that tattoo is a choice about how a person wants you to see them as opposed to whatever perfect storm of genetics and lifestyle and health and a whole College of Social Sciences worth of circumstances well out of their control gave them the underlying hardware.

Some of my friends are freaking out about their age these days. They’re worried about incipient middle age making them invisible and undesirable. Fat finds this hilarious. She doesn’t know what it is to be visible, to be desirable, to walk into a room and have people gaze in admiration. She wants to tell them, you know there’s more to you, right? She wants to say, it’s not so bad, really, when you can’t fall back on looks. You get used to it. After all, you can be left alone. After all, it could be worse.

 I get the fear, though. We’re taught not to judge books by covers from earliest fairy tales on. We strive not to. But we still live in a world defined by racism and sexism. We still fear things that are different from us.  We find them unsettling, useless, disgusting. And we still have to live in that world. Society requires we interact with those things, even when we don’t believe those things, even when they say we are those things.

You may be angry at the fact that I’m not preaching radical self-acceptance and reclaiming Fat as something strong and powerful and beautiful. Something to be loved, not hated. I wish I could do that. I’ve been trying to learn how. It’s maybe harder than anything else that I’ve ever tried to do, including, say, eating less and exercise. As noted above, Fat makes a great scapegoat. She literally eats the job right up, sometimes with an extra serving of whatever current dietary wisdom says is bad for us. By blaming Fat, I can avoid having to burrow in too deep with the other deficiencies. They’re all there. A real rogues’ gallery, another story down, drinking whisky and playing a hand or two with my future and my financials, waiting for their 4am curtain call on a sleepless night, after Fat has finally punched out and gone for some shut-eye.

iv.

 It may surprise you to know that I forget about Fat. I can go hours, even days, without giving her so much as a thought. I spend a lot of my life inside my own head, unreflected by mirrors or unflattering Facebook photos, and in there I’m anything. A shapeshifter, a chimaera, an endlessly glorious, slightly androgynous being suffused with the power of infinite transformation. Or at the very least: a dead ringer for Cate Blanchett.

I can strip myself bare (not always literally) and interact with the world on a purely sensual level. All body and no body at once. I am the first spring sun glancing across my face when I wander up the street for coffee. I am the smell of rain and salt from the bow of a boat on one of those summer afternoons that make you feel like you could fly over the tempest and across the bay. I am the sound of the wind rattling the oak limbs and the autumn roses and the breeze curling its fingers round to brush the short hairs on the nape of my neck. Or Orion over the backyard on a cold, clear, winter night winking at me like I’m the only girl left in the room.  I am wine that tastes like a dry sunset over a lazy sea. Cheese that tastes like a nap at Versailles. Berries that taste like skinny dipping in the dead of summer with the friends your mother didn’t entirely approve of. Shellfish like briny abandon. Warm, crusty bread, fresh from the bakery, that tastes like a kitchen full of wisdom.  I could go on with the food. Obviously, you think.  And at risk of sounding cliché, I don’t thing Fat has hung around this long because I ‘m a bad cook. She feels guilt–so much guilt–about it. But we really are both hedonists.

In those moments when I forget what I am and become only what I feel, I have a sense of anything being possible. I am free from the girl in the mirror. Any of the girls in the mirror. I can just be purely myself. Honestly, I don’t even know what that looks like. Only that it doesn’t matter because it feels right. To me. To anybody else. But mostly to me.

v.

Sometimes I wish I could see Zaka again.  I have words for her. Not all pleasant. Also, I would like to introduce you to her. I want you to know that I was not always this.  And I know you can’t see her, but she still lurks in the peripheral, in the flattering selfie, a silhouette of missed opportunity, a flittering shadow of what may have been, now reduced to a footnote to what is certainly a hefty (natch), annotated biography of Fat—my partner, my nemesis, myself.

As a child, I read myth the way other kids read fairy tales and Bible stories. I was fascinated by transformation, even when it became grotesque. I thought it possible I might become a tree, a spider, a swan or a God. For a time, I believed perhaps my own unwelcome transformation was a result of this, that the universe had misread my interest as latent desire and fashioned for me a monster suit that I could not remove so I could better understand how those stories ended. How did Niobe fare once she became a waterfall?

I’m just American enough to still believe in spontaneous, fantastic transformation, but in a measured, sidelong kind of way. Knowing what I am and being okay with it is more rational, more preferable to endless expectation of Salvation via Powerball, the eclipsing success gleaned off a single TED talk, a Rom Com of a love affair, the dreamy reflection of myself as Beauty, Realized.

I suspect the solution to Fat is to no try and force her away or into something she cannot be, but to try and make her more comfortable. I can maybe stop trying to stuff her into pants that don’t fit and let her exist in a corner of the world where she’s not just a thing to be pitied and jeered at and loathed in my bathroom mirror but something that could be, just maybe, if not beautiful, never beautiful, at least worthy of my eye-contact, of basic respect, of the simple, affectionate regard of a sustained second glance.

[1] To be clear: there are plenty of men and non-binary people with body image issues and eating disorders too. That’s also probably because of the patriarchy.

Standard