Advice For Young People (from an Older Person)

(In honor of both wedding and graduation season, here’s a piece I wrote some years back when I myself was a younger person that I came across a few days ago. It is not, exactly, non-fiction)

  1. The high heels will fuck up your feet. I’m won’t tell you to never wear them. I am saying be reasonable and only wear them when can afford to pay for a car.

 

  1. The cheap flip-flops you’ll basically live in if you happen to go to college or graduate school in a warm place where people aren’t freaked out by flip-flops? They will also fuck up your feet. And should you have occasion to learn this in major metropolitan area, you will undoubtedly also that cities are disgusting and your feet will turn black, like coal black, and you will have to spend several hours on the side of your disgusted friend’s bathtub trying to essentially scrape off what will feel like a truly pre-modern level of filth from your horrifying feet while he tries to call around and find someone who can lend you a pair of closed toe shoes so you can go somewhere and buy a pair of close toed shoes because what kind of animal wears sandals on a rainy July in New York.

 

  1. When you’re desperately broke, try to avoid putting groceries on your credit card.

 

  1. Pay off the smallest credit card first. Don’t make such large payments that you’re forced to go back into debt on the same credit card.

 

  1. You’re thinking: why even get a credit card? I mean, wouldn’t living debt free be the smart thing? Yeah, sure I guess. But odds are good that you’re already in or about to be in a lifetime of debt from college alone and unless you’re a criminal or a techie (or both) you’re probably not making good enough money to float through life in cash and at the very least you’ll need the credit card to pay for your friends’ stupid weddings.

 

  1. Your friends’ stupid weddings are probably going to set you back about $200-300 per. Unless they have a destination wedding, at which point the sky is the fucking limit, but (at least theoretically) you’re under zero obligation to go. If you’re in the wedding party you’re looking at around $800 minimum and that’s only if she’s not a complete dick and picks inexpensive bridesmaids dresses and affordable hair/makeup and/or doesn’t demand a destination bachelorette party. You’re not rich enough to have friends that demand destination bachelorette parties. Note: this will not stop your friends from demanding destination bachelorette parties.

 

  1. Seriously, how did your friend become the sort of person to demand a destination bachelorette party? Remember how she spent all of college bumming your cigarettes and studying Marxism and playing up her whole gritty working-class roots persona? Like every time she talked about her hometown or her family, it was like a Springsteen song come to life. Or it would have been if she’d ever learned how to drive a car instead of bumming rides off of you all the time. I mean, until she was almost thirty years old she was a glorified intern at this anarchist artspace in Brooklyn. She made ramen in a coffeepot. So, like, what the hell is up with this I expect all of you to go in on three days in Ibiza at an overpriced hotel full of airbrushed Eastern European models and their questionable DJ boyfriends? What happened to Solidarity, comrade, because I’ve never paid that much for a hotel in my entire goddamn life.

 

  1. Counterpoint: your friend that studies Marxism and works at an anarchist art gallery still manages to pay rent in Brooklyn on an occasional barista job is absolutely the sort of person who will demand a destination bachelorette party. Because someone else is paying her rent and it’s probably her rich parents and you should have known that freshman year of college when you described the bathroom at that seedy punk rock club as literally shitty and she rolled her eyes and said, fear of feces is, like, so bourgeoise. The revolution will not be sanitized.

 

  1. She will name her first child Djuna or Flannery. You will spend a lot of time on Facebook looking at impeccably art-directed photos of her family vacation to some otherwise un-touristed island paradise. You will be both envious and disgusted at how much she spent on those shoes. And you know exactly how much that was because you saw them last week at Nordstrom and when you weren’t chortling at the price you were halfway wishing you had the sort of life, to say nothing of budget, that would accommodate that kind of superfluous luxury. I mean that leather is so soft. It would feel like a dream.  

 

  1. You are so bourgeoise. Or rather, you’re aspirational bourgeoise, Champagne tastes, $15 dollars in savings. Even though, you’re solidly north of thirty-five and your mother still reminds you that you don’t have a trust fund like that isn’t clear. If you’d had a trust fund, you would have moved to New York with your friend and paid rent on an apartment in Brooklyn despite having no job save a magazine internship and the occasional barista shift. Maybe you’d be sunning on some secret Thai beach now with a doctor/poet husband and your adorable moppet with the twee name.  Eugenie?  Wilberforce? What sort of asshole names their kid Wilberforce?

 

  1. Nobody’s forcing you to have kids and I wouldn’t if I were you, but if you must, you should give your kid a boring, normal name like Jim or Cathy. Because either Jim or Cathy could probably beat the pants off of Wilberforce at mini-golf or the kind of amiable, slightly fatalistic underachievement that has doomed people like us to debt, worry, and barely concealed, red-hot burning class resentment when it dawns on you that Wilberforce is four and already knows more languages than you. He’s studying Mandarin and French. We’re going to start him on Russian soon because his father and I think he needs a Slavic language. Your friend mentions this when you meet her for dinner. She’s come to town because her husband is at a Epidemiology conference and she thought she might just pop down for a spa day and some patronizing flattery at local restaurants, so authentic, your Southern culture, even though she’s originally from Macon, Georgia. You bring a picture book for her kid, a book you loved when you were four. She scoffs at it. That’s so sweet, but honestly Wilberforce has just started Proust. I’m sure we could find a local charity to donate this to. That’s when she mentions the Russian and how they’re teaching him to play mandolin. Then you order. “You’re so lucky you can still eat gluten,” she says, “and lactose. It must be so liberating to not be worried about your health” and orders an entrée composed entirely of lettuce foam and condescension.

 

 

  1. Your friend will complain about the bottle of white wine she chose. “It’s just not good. I can’t believe a supposedly decent restaurant would serve something like this. Maybe I’ve been in New York too long. I mean I hate to be that kind of person, but I guess I am that kind of person.” She gives a cutesy #sorrynotsorry grin and shrugs so you can see how toned her arms are under her perfectly rumpled linen blouse. “But please, if you can stomach it, help yourself. I’m certainly not going to drink it.”

 

  1. Seriously? Help yourself. You’ll need fortification while she drones on about her household renovation, the problems their having with the contractor, the difficult of finding environmentally friendly subway tile with the right sort of creamy luster to the finish for their kitchen expansion. Creamy Luster. Heh. That would make a good band name. She used to make that sort of joke all the time. Remember when the two of you made loads of fake band merch out of men’s undershirts and sharpies and iron-on letters. Sometimes if the name was a really good name, you might pull out a guitar and play barre chords badly and die laughing at your own dumb lyrics. That was fun. Remember? She half-way smiles, “I don’t think so. And I am serious about the luster. If I’m going to pay that much for tile, it really needs to be perfect. I expect to be happy.

 

  1. You won’t know if anyone is happy. You won’t even know if you’re happy most of the time. You’ll read somewhere that happiness is a thing you remember and that sounds about right. You remember happiness at the oddest moments, in the oddest ways. When you and your friend and your other friends were all twenty-three and broke and living in a house without air-conditioning and drinking too much cheap vodka and cheap wine and cheap beer and sitting up talking until 4am until your tongue was exhausted and your throat sore and your voice a crackling rasp from too much smoke and argument. You will think you were happy then, in a sort of tingly, nervous, brink of anything, edge of everything kind of way. You will tell your friend this and she will tuck a long strand of shiny honey blonde hair Her natural color? She did used to dye it all the time. How is it possible you knew everything about each other and you maybe never knew her natural hair color? behind her ear. “I was miserable then,” she says. “That whole time. College. The time after. When we were friends then? I was miserable. It was literally the worst part of my life.”

 

  1. You will realize you don’t know when people are miserable.

 

  1. “No offense,” your friend will say

 

  1. You will not take offense.

 

  1. “No offense. But I realized one day that I deserved to be happy. And I could never be happy living like you do. Are you happy here? Don’t you know that you deserve to be happy?”

 

  1. You’ve seen it mentioned on the cover of magazines in doctors offices and paperback self-help books. You’ve heard it said by lots of men and women with and nice hair and athleisure. You’re cool, in theory, with happy being just desserts, but you have questions like, does everybody deserve happiness? Just you and me and maybe Wilberforce and his pals from Russian Mandolin Proust class? That’s the kind of conversation you used to have with your friend, back in the days when she swore she’d been miserable. But she was funny then. God, she was funny. And you were funny too, maybe. You’re maybe still funny. You’re also not that unhappy. Certainly not as unhappy as she assumes you are. Things could be better, but they’re not so bad that you can’t enjoy the wine and find creamy luster funny. The waiter comes by and asks if the two of you want dessert. Your friend screws up her face, as if offended to be asked.

 

  1. Never apologize for ordering dessert. Two spoons, optional. But you know, even after everything, she’ll probably have a bite. She’ll tell you she’s missed you. You’ll tell her you’ve missed her too.

 

  1. You’ll mean it.

 

 

 

 

Standard

Your People

My Virginia great-grandmother (maternal) made heavenly biscuits. They were flaky as pastry, rich with butter. They hit your tongue with a tang of salt and buttermilk and felt like a warm feather bed on a cold winter morning. Hymns might have been written about those biscuits and lost souls recovered. Granny’s biscuits were the culinary equivalent of a hug and a rescue, but better because you could put gravy on them. As a child, I sat at the Formica-topped table in the time traveler’s kitchen of Granny’s white frame farmhouse, and reached across the table past platters of fried chicken, bowls of potatoes, beans, corn and some succulent concoction of sweet home-canned tomatoes, cured pork and spaghetti noodles that Granny called “hot dish” for another biscuit.

Mom and Nana would move the plate and bat my hand away. You’ll get fat if you have another. Granny would reach over to the still-warm top of the old metal stove and hand me another biscuit straight from the pan, eyes warm, a tacit understanding shared across the seven decades separating us, one that said, these biscuits are my gift to you, of course you should have them.

~~

My Mississippi great-grandmother (paternal), had this magical  bed. A great four-poster thing, hung with gathered handmade lace canopies, draped in pale, soft linens delicately embroidered, stacked with feather pillows, and situated in the center of her Wedgwood blue bedroom like a some glorious tall-masted yacht to the land of Nod. When I came to visit, still a little girl, I told her, your bed is most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. Mamaw asked if I’d like to sleep in it, just for tonight, and I told her it would be dreamy, but the bed was too tall. My parents eyed the arrangement.  They didn’t think I could summit its Himalayan heights. She produced a set of stairs, perfectly sized for tiny girl feet, as if to say, got you covered, as if to say, don’t be afraid of the climb, air’s better up here anyway.

~~

 Nana says Granny always made extra biscuits. Not just for her hungry progeny, of whom there were many. But for the farm workers that came to help her husband harvest the tobacco crop, and the tenant farmers that came for a season and occupied the old farmhouse down the road, or the children of the tenant farmers that drifted town to town and ran barefoot through the red dirt fields, the family and neighbors, the parishioners at Methodist church down the hill, the lonesome and hungry that straggled up the highway in Franklin County in the darkest years of the Depression. She was a folk ballad, then, a sad country song, a young woman with five children and a crippled husband, who lost his brother and unbent spine to coal mine collapse. They were forced back east to eke a living out of the red clay of family lands in a Piedmont county best known for moonshine, in the foothills of the Blue Ridge. She was new to the grassy expanse bound by rural highways and the machinations of cash poor landowners stubbornly hanging on to unprofitable family land. Granny had come up in town, in a boarding house for railroad men, the only daughter of its proprietress, and thus keenly aware of not just the rules governing hospitality, but the way a full belly could revive a weary traveler. And perhaps she identified with them– the men on the road, the families that came in to harvest. There was an Italian migrant worker, whose wife befriended my grandmother during the worst of the depression years, as she struggled with children and in-laws and her husband with the broken back. From the Italian woman, perhaps came the hot dish, various desserts with a certain Old-World richness and delicacy. And I imagine those two women busying about the farmhouse the kitchen, trading their respective homesick flavors and secrets for the miraculous production of infinite baked goods from meagre scraps of flour and fat.

~~

Mamaw came to Mississippi from teacher’s college and married a man almost twice her age. He was handsome, comparatively rich in a place where middle class would have looked like unimaginable luxury. They had four children together in a tall brick house with ceiling high enough to accommodate the four-poster beds. He minded the cotton farm. She and the children spent summers and flood seasons at her parents’ inn in the North Carolina mountains, where she learned the rules governing hospitality and how a good meal and few nights’ respite might soothe an anxious and weary soul.

When her husband died, in the middle of the Depression, Mamaw found herself alone in the tall brick house in the center of the remote, green expanse of rural community perennially teetering on brink. I imagine her in the house, alone sitting up at night on her high-masted bed, a new captain blown off course, trying to find bearings on a worried sea of Delta green. She wasn’t a farmer or a businesswoman, but a young widow with four young children. She might have left, and who could have blamed her, settled the debts with the property and started over. But she didn’t. Like any good teacher, she learned, and what she learned she shared. No one can thrive in a community that is starving. So she learned the business of the farm and then learned how to turn it into more than just agricultural labor. She’d start cottage industries. She’d employ her neighbors. She’d feed her community. They’d produce something more than just sweat and raw material. They could learn skills that could travel beyond the fields.

Unsurprisingly, for a woman with magical beds, the most successful was the one that made blankets and bed linens.

~~

My mother studied classics in college. When I was a child, she would sit on my bed and read the myths to me. I loved them.  I knew them better (still do) than I do stories from the Bible. The gods were tricky, petty. They didn’t make it easy on people. They dressed as beggars and knocked on doors. They came down hard on hubris, but maybe even harder on inhospitality. You don’t deny the weary traveler her biscuit, her blanket, her place, even if it’s only for a time, as a member of your community.

Like most idea that come appended to the word Southern, the famed hospitality of my ancestral region is a tricky business. There’s a particular kind of hypocrisy to a person who’d absolutely feed a neighbor at a time of duress but deny them their basic civil (or even human) rights. Neither of my great-grandmothers were free of prejudice, and almost certainly in small (Granny) and perhaps large (Mamaw) ways perpetuated it. They were white women in the rural Jim Crow South. They were raised to believe you take care of your people, at a time when your people was understood to comprise an exceedingly narrow class of human being. That my great-grandmothers chose to defy these standards and share when it would have been acceptable, even encouraged, to hoard what they had and put walls between themselves and their communities was smart, brave, and, like, you know, pretty fucking cool. Sometimes I suspect it’s because they were, in their own ways, outsiders themselves. They hadn’t come from the land they became the stewards of. And perhaps, they both stood on respective front porches, hundreds of miles away from each other, bewildered by worry, by grief, by challenges they never imagined they’d have to face, by themselves, or at all, and realized that sharing what you have means that you’d don’t have to go it alone.

~~

On Wednesday, July 7, 1948, a columnist named Paul Flowers at the Memphis Commercial Appeal covered one of Mamaw’s annual fish fries. And as she had, every year, Mamaw pulled out picnic tables under the pecan trees, and invited several hundred, workers, strangers, family and friends to dine on her front lawn. Almost all of them had been there with her through the Depression. Writes Flowers:

There came a hard times a few years ago, and with it a scarcity of jobs. So Mrs. Fields opened up a bedspread factory, and provided materials, and showed folks, many of them old ones, how to make bedspreads, so that even many of the men were tufting spreads. Then she sold those pieces of handicraft and there was money for all that wanted to work.

No wonder there’s a reciprocal feeling of loyalty and friendliness. Where else will a woman, a grandmother at that, spend days preparing the best food money can buy, spreading it on long tables, and bidding workers and neighbors to come and make merry? Who else but Mrs. Fields would have thought to send trucks all over the place, to bring in all who wanted to come? Especially for old folks and mothers with tiny babies and small children (Flowers, Paul. “Greenhouse.” Memphis Commercial Appeal, 7 July 1948).

 

Mr. Flowers doesn’t come right out and say that Mamaw was the white lady in the Big House and the vast majority of her party’s attendees were black.  But he alludes to it, and it complicates the picture. Flowers even seems to struggle with it, both celebrating the event and acknowledging a long-shadow of paternalism.  I can’t deny any of that. As a student of history, I can’t tell this story in a way that makes that part go away.

But I suspect Mamaw threw community-wide parties every year because she loved parties and she loved her friends and neighbors and workers, because they had helped her, and because no one survives in a vacuum. We depend on each other, perhaps more than we want to admit, almost certainly more than we know.

~~

My biscuits are good, not the good-enough-to-inspire-poetry good like Granny’s, but they’re a work in progress. I’m a messy cook and I have a small kitchen, so I have to really love you to make them. Because you know, my biscuits are my gift to you, and I always make loads of extras because you never know what weary traveler might arrive at the door

“The Fields family,” wrote Paul Flowers, about Mamaw, “carries on a long tradition, a tradition of justice and friendliness, and most of all, care for those who need care.”

It’s not bad as mission statements go. I think I do an okay job, not good-enough-to-inspire-newspaper-columns good, but I’m a work in progress. My beds aren’t nearly as pretty as Mamaw’s, but there are always fresh linens in the guest room and a foot stool if you need help climbing up.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Standard

Summertime Uniform, 2002-Present

(In honor of Spring Cleaning: Seven Days. Seven Dresses. This is Day Seven. Day Six is here)

One night in late July, Art Night came home with the magazine rack. It was a huge metal contraption with two vertical shelves and a trough above constructed to fit the sort of hearty ceramic ashtrays one imagines that Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton probably lobbed at each other nightly around 1968.

Art Night parked it on the porch with some fanfare and refused to tell us how much she paid for it. She was clearly very proud. For our parts, we were pretty excited too, as it combined two of our favorite things—smoking and print media—into a fantastic looking accessory that looked as if it could also be used to both spear and bludgeon the opposing side, should we have to make a run for the barricades.

“You’ve really outdone yourself,” I told her, with absolute sincerity. Even Cranberries agreed, and Cranberries was generally more critical of the kind of shit Art Night brought home—heavy plaster of Paris columns, a leopard-print bench, plastic furniture covered with super-glued army men, a quilted, ruffled red satin coverlet ala Poconos honeymoon suite, a, a mini-trampoline, a novelty “Bagel Barn,” an actual event tent. The magazine rack was useful, aspirational even. We stuffed it full of old New Yorkers and music magazine. Local weeklies. Classified sections still bearing the ballpoint glyphs of my futile job search. We smoked enough cigarettes to fill at least one of the ashtrays.

“You’ve got to go to this store where I bought it,” said Art Night. “That place is amazing.”

I told Art Night I didn’t have any money. I’d just tilted my debit card buying a PBR at the bar and bought a frozen burrito with quarters, which I was pretty sure should have humiliated me. I was twenty-six, after all. I lived slightly dilapidated, half-airconditioned ramble of a rental house with a rotating cast of roommates and adjacents. I could neither find a real job nor support myself with sporadic freelance jobs and record reviews for $10/per and free promos. From any reasonable perspective, my life was a mess.

Outside in the world, my peers were getting married, finishing law school, sliding into their first job with a 401(k) and a clear path to management. In that house, though, we were all broke and marginally employed. We reveled in our collective purposeless and penury, even as we suspected each other of having it easier being thus less entitled to performative angst. All of us telegraphed a certain style of misery, a depressive, slackass fatalism, that in retrospect felt like the last gasp of a particularly Gen-X attitude (though at least one of my roommates was a millennial) that still looked askance at selling out and could, after a hit or a couple of beers, drum up a moral argument for its own lack of industry.

But the thing is: I loved it.

I’d walk through the house on the way on the way to the porch, through a collage of mismatched furniture, a tumbling disaster of bodies and cigarette ashes and spilled coffee grounds and records and empty wine bottles and beer cans. It looked like it housed undergrads (it did) or a comfortable squat for middle class-raised packrats (we were). All the apartments I’d lived in, even when I was myself an undergrad, always had a particular look to them, a certain organization of things and colors I felt obliged to curate, an image I’d felt necessary to project. The new house refused to cooperate; it could not be controlled, no matter how many paintings I hung or records I alphabetized.  I lost myself in its cavernous, needless hallways and weird closets. I submitted to its chaos. It felt a little like liberation. It definitely felt like a clean slate.

I’d been slowly crawling my way out a depression for years, but it was in that house that I remember waking up in the hot, hazy Piedmont sunshine a few days after I moved in, thinking, it’s possible I’m not sad anymore 

&&

 

The original plan was that I live with Art Night, who’d been living in Chapel Hill with Flat Tax’s little sister. Flat Tax had been in a long-term, mostly long-distance relationship with Cranberries since they were in high school.[1] Cranberries and Flat Tax had been surfing the vicissitudes of young love and long distance, separated by most of the Eastern Seaboard. At the time we decided to live together, they were broken up. But the kind of broken up that meant Flat Tax left New England and also moved to Chapel Hill around the same time I did, into a house literally two doors down from ours.  He said he was there to start a band. Art Night and I knew he was there because of Cranberries.

I was still in Asheville the day  Cranberries and Art Night found the house. They both called, passing the phone back and forth, as they tried to describe the interior. I remember nodding along like I knew what they were talking about, though all I was able to parse was enormous kitchen, nice porch, seriously comic amount of linoleum. “It’s an extremely weird floor plan. And the house has a lot of wood paneling. It’s a little bit ugly, but also kind of awesome?” said Cranberries. “And the back half is huge, but it doesn’t have heat or air-conditioning. Price is right, though.”

I balanced the phone on my ear and tried to imagine it. I couldn’t. I could, however, see tendrils of ivy actually breaching the bedroom window of my current apartment and through the window, the side of the mountain where I’d lived during high school. I thought, if I don’t get out of here now, this place will suffocate me.

That night, I went out with Asheville friends. I told them I was moving. To New York? To San Francisco? To Seattle or Portland? To Austin? To Chicago? I know guy who knows a guy who knows Ira Glass. I told them I was moving to a college town across the state, barely fifty miles from the city where I’d completely lost the plot three years before, in with two younger roommates, at least one of whom was still an undergrad, into a semi-air-conditioned house with some kind of hilarious linoleum situation that I couldn’t explain.

“You’re absolutely going to regret that decision,” one of them, a recent Asheville transplant. “I mean, whatever cool Chapel Hill was wore off years ago. That place is totally over. You’re better off staying here. At least here is beautiful. At least here is healing. You know, here is the kind of place that speaks to people’s soul. Don’t you feel it?”

I thought, I don’t care where I go so long as I don’t have to live among credulous assholes talking about how my overrated hometown speaks to their soul.

 I said, “Technically, the house is in Carrboro.”

 

&&&

 

We moved in on a hot day at the beginning of a long, hot summer. A few weeks later, my friend the Divorcee followed me down from Asheville and took the unoccupied back bedroom beside mine. Art Night and Cranberries were dubious, but I vouched for her and she settled in for a few months to rebound from her first marriage with leather pants and musically-inclined gentleman callers. She was a little older than I was and knew people. She was the kind of girl who got invited to parties and always had people offering to buy her drinks. When I was with Divorcee, I never had to pay for my drinks either. It was a practical sort of hedonism and more fun than I felt comfortable admitting, which is why I encouraged my roommates to tolerate the strangers in the back of the house, and try not to freak if, say, some coked-up, half-dressed  touring mess of spiky hair and Black Flag tattoos wandered in at at 4am, helped himself to Art Night’s frozen pizza without asking and made long distance calls on the house phone.

Sometimes Divorcee would take a night off from her beaux and give us all haircuts, because she was eager and we mostly couldn’t afford them otherwise. We’d sit on the three-legged stool that typically held the coffeepot in the center of the kitchen and she’d experiment with bangs and bobs while we listened (and mostly complained) about the playlist at college radio station (What kind of sadist plays ten minutes of Frog noises, followed by Annette Funicello?). I always told Divorcee she could do whatever she wanted to my hair, because I felt safely removed from both my sad hometown self and the disaster of college and maybe if I cut my hair short enough it would clear out the cobwebs and dismiss the lingering shadows of the preceding eight years.  Or as Flat Tax said, when he came over one night to buzz his head over our kitchen trash can, “It’s funny how every haircut feels like a clean sheet of paper.”

I liked that. I wrote it into one, then two stories I knew I would never finish.

 

&&&

 

The thing about being overeducated and underemployed and twenty-six is that you have time. You have lots of time, time enough to invent projects to fill the spaces between words and cigarettes and the next song on the radio in the brutally hot stillness of an unventilated addition of a house in Chapel Hill in July. I did that. A lot. Gas was cheap, so I spent a lot of time driving around in air-conditioning . I went to the libraries—the university library, the public library. I went to all the used book shops and all the used record shops. I wandered through thrift stores. I sat on porches. I snuck into apartment complex pools. I read Tristram Shandy. I wrote a couple chapters about a fake cowboy, a dead bull and a peach orchard.

I finally cobbled together enough spare change to go to the store where Art Night bought the magazine holder. It was a pollen-colored cottage across the street from the Duke Surplus Store stocked with not-yet-completely overpriced vintage goods. I admired the furniture. Then I found the dress on a rack in the room with the clothes. It was black and orange with a square neck and a full skirt made of motel room polyester, but it was, as my mother would say, extremely flattering. It also cost $13, which was at least $5, maybe $10, out of my price range. I carried it around the store, debating whether it was worth it. Finally the proprietor said she’d give it to me for eleven. “Sold,” I said, and counted out bills. I was sure it would fall apart before the end of the summer.

&&&

 

In late July, I finally got a job working at the gift shop of a local historical museum where no one bought anything because no one ever came to the museum. The job paid 8$/hr and I worked barely 20 hours a week. I sat behind a glass display case working crosswords and reading Lawrence Durrell novels, sometimes knocking the dust around a glass case full of vintage Tarheel basketball jerseys with a pink feather duster.

I drove to work every morning past empty sorority houses, down streets so lush with summer green they might have been liquid, listening to mix CD half full of songs by local bands that sounded, to me, uncannily like my life in the place itself.

One night when Cranberries was at work. Flat Tax came by to see if I wanted dinner. I wore the new dress and we rode uptown to the punk rock pizza place on the empty college strip. He’d recently become enamored of Marxism, perhaps because he could not find a job, even with his endless charisma and Ivy League degree. We talked about dialectics and guitar pedals. He carped bout his life. “It used to be that I tried to look shabby. It was a thing I cultivated. Now I think maybe I am shabby.” He touched the frayed ends of his shirt cuff and stared forlornly at the table.

I thought I had been shabby for a while, years perhaps, and I found myself untroubled by the revelation. I wanted to say to Flat Tax, remember how you came down here to make art or something? That’s not a decision you make if  you’re worried about being shabby.    

“I thought this was going to fun, this part of my life,” he said. “ I mean, are you having fun?”

I stared at him. Yes. I wanted to say. Yes, I am having fun. I am having more fun than I’ve had in years. I sing in the morning, for Christ sake. I grin like an idiot. I dance to “In A Big Country” in the front  yard at one-am with all my roommates after an unholy amount of cheap wine. Doesn’t the happiness just waft off of me at this point?

 He looked so troubled, though, and I wasn’t sure I could explain, so I just shrugged.

 

&&&

 

That house felt sometimes like a terminal, a pass through. I’d always liked train stations, so I didn’t mind.

Even in that first summer. The Divorcee lasted ten weeks in the back bedroom. She left and mostly took the gentleman callers with her, through for a while they’d still show up at 4am and tap at my window, wondering if she were there. Do you have her number? Could I borrow $20? Will you give me a ride?

I wouldn’t.

Art Night moved into the room in the back and painted visceral red. She went through a religious art phase, then a communist art phrase, and somewhere in there completed a thesis on Romantic Poetry.  Houseguests came and went. Flat Tax and Cranberries acted more, then less, then more like the couple they were. I lost my job at the museum. I started working at the record store. A best friend from one of my old lives moved into the other bedroom for a spell while she tried to work out her own version of Next.

I  suspected it wouldn’t last–the lightness, the lazy chaos, the endless nights–and of course it didn’t, not exactly. People can only survive so long on off-brand macaroni and the kind of art projects you dream up when you never want them to be finished.  But you don’t always know when your foundations are being laid, especially in a place so stubbornly impermanent. You might live with the person who becomes your best friend. You  might create a family. You might realize the first, best version of yourself is the broke one with weird bangs, puttering around a screened in porch, while she sings to herself on an impossibly humid August morning.  You might even buy a dress for $11 that will still be your favorite summer dress seventeen years later.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] With a few exceptions, we’d all attended the same high school, though not at the same time. Explaining how we knew each other complicated enough (Cranberries was my childhood best friend’s ex-boyrfiend’s ex-best friend’s girlfriend, for example) to require a chart that I used to keep on a clipboard nailed to the kitchen wall.

Standard

Hot Pink, 1987-1990

(In honor of Spring Cleaning: Seven Days. Seven Dresses. This is Day Six. Day Five is here)

 

My favorite movie as a kid was “The Wizard of Oz.” I don’t know when it became my favorite movie. I simply came into consciousness so strongly identifying with Dorothy Gale that I insisted on a wardrobe of blue gingham pinafores and settings at the dinner table for the Scarecrow, Lion, and Tin Man (and occasionally a few munchkins). I sat in my upstairs bedroom and looked high above the chimney tops and sang “Somewhere of the Rainbow,” as if I might summon a storm to carry me away. And when my mother told how the mountains mostly kept out things like hurricanes and tornados as if to soothe me, I would think, so basically you’re telling me I can never get to Oz? That’s bullshit. Except I didn’t say bullshit, because I was four.

I knew there  were better and easier ways to get to Oz. You could fly, for example. You could drive if necessary. Were I not confined to the barbaric wilderness of my hometown, I might even be able to take the train like a civilized person. Getting to Oz wasn’t as tricky as people imagined. It was getting Oz to let you stay there that was tough.

Indulgent adults would shake their heads at me, not sure whether they should gently correct tale or play along. “Where do you think Oz is?” they’d ask.

And I’d say, “New York City,” like it was the most obvious thing in the world.

***

My earliest memories date from the last call of the 1970s, an era in which New York was reportedly a dark, trash-strewn wasteland stalked by criminals and forsaken by all but its most steadfast defenders and stubborn resident lunatics. But my own private New York was some combination of Tin Pan Alley lyrics, the indifferent, half-feral luxury of “Eloise,” and the shabby, yet fundamentally good-natured world of “Sesame Street” and “The Wiz.” New York seemed like the kind of place where a girl could scandalize a fancy grandma at high tea, perform two matinees amid a sea of needle-shaped buildings with castles on top, take a turn under a disco ball or two, and then return home to a crowded, congenial tenement  next door to a giant, neurotic pigeon and a sentient trash-heap that liked to sing songs about imaginary friends. It sounded, in a word, heavenly.

My father had clients in New York; my parents often traveled there. I’d watch them leave with anguish. Take me with you. Don’t you know even my dreams are architectural? These vast cityscapes with spired skyscrapers and gargoyles, art deco arches and domes. My hometown was defined entirely by its relationship to Gilded Age New York, a scenic corner of Appalachia colonized by Robber Barons and built in their image by the same architects and artists that designed some of Manhattan’s greatest monuments to ego. Was it any wonder it felt as if I were already halfway there?

My friends all talked about DisneyWorld. I could not give a shit about DisneyWorld. I wanted to see Central Park at dusk. I wanted to walk down Broadway. I wanted to stand at Grand Central Station and watch the world on their way to their way. I wanted to Take the A Train. I wanted to linger on the sidewalks where the neon signs are pretty and let my little town blues melt away. Ideally forever.

My parents said, One day, I promise, when you’re old enough.

I knew I was born old enough. I went to fancy church with Dad on Easter Sunday and asked God to deliver me from my drab provincial existence send me to New York, ideally in technicolor. I repeated this when I visited friends’ churches and temples in the event that God didn’t actually listen to Episcopalians. I wished on stars. I talked to ancestors. I crawled into my closet in my childhood bedroom and scratched out in in the inch-wide plaster hollow between doorframe and wall, PLEASE LET MET GO TO NEW YORK. PLEASE LET ME GO TO NEW YORK. PLEASE LET ME GO TO NEW YORK over and over again in red ink.

  ***

A few days after my eleventh birthday, my mother crept up to my door after she tucked my sister in and gave the series of winks an hand signals I knew to mean, your father and I have something to discuss with you downstairs that is too mature for your sister to handle, so try to get downstairs without waking her. My stomach sank. I tried to figure out which of my parents had been diagnosed cancer or filed for divorce or lost their job or was secretly on the run from the mob. It was possible an elderly relative had died. I hoped it wasn’t one that I liked.

 I shuffled down the stairs on the verge of tears and wound my way through the dim downstairs to the den at the back of the house, where my parents looked confusingly chipper. So probably not a brain tumor. I might have even asked who died, and they told me to sit. This is not bad news. They had a present for me, one they couldn’t give me at the party. And she pulled a plane ticket from the cushion behind her and put it in my hand.

Passenger: Alison Fields

Destination: New York, New York

 Reader: I cried.

***

Here’s what I remember from that first trip:

We skipped the Statue of Liberty and headed straight for the Algonquin, where I petted the lobby cat and drank a Shirley Temple while my parents had a scotch and fought about whether  Mom’s new dress was sublime(her) or ridiculous (him). I tea-ed at the Plaza. I got stuck in an elevator on the 13th floor even, which was terrifying in the moment, but made the getting out wholly exhilarating. I watched the ice skaters at Rockefeller center and took a carriage ride in the park. I went to Broadway, to a terrible musical and walked way in front of my parents who walked much too slow, and totally freaked out Mom, because I was skipping euphorically past the pimps and prostitutes and peep shows of Old Times Square, oblivious to what was going on around me because TIMES SQUARE. I went to the Met and communed with the mummies. I observed the ornate skyline alone Central Park West. Mom wore high heels. Dad refused to hail a cab. I ate escargot. I went to FAO Schwartz, even though I thought I was too old for toys. We rode downtown with a driver in mirrored glasses who took us past the Chelsea Hotel and tried to tell a story about  about a magical lobster in broken English.  I stood in the center of Grand Central Station, breathless, while something like half of the known world walked by on their way to their way. New York exceeded even my most elaborate New York dreams in its very New Yorkness. I don’t know that I have ever been so satisfied.

***

Mom’s favorite thing to visit in New York is  fancy department stores. On that first trip, we went to several of them. She bought me a dress at Bloomingdale’s. It was a hot pink, teal-flecked, drop-waisted jersey thing, sleeveless with a polo color, meant to be worn under a matching sweatshirt. The whole ensemble was hideous in a very particular, dark-heart-of-1987 way that, like mall bangs and multiple pairs of contrasting slouch socks, should never be revived.

I would tell you that I wore the dress until the dress wore out, but this is not true. Fashion, especially Juniors Department fashion, changes quickly and dramatically. So do adolescents. Twelve-year-old me wouldn’t have been caught dead in what eleven-year old me thought was awesome. And thirteen-year-old me? By then, she was on a whole other trip.  Still, I kept the dress until we moved. I imagined if I closed my eyes and sniffed hard enough I could still make out the trashy, expensive, polluted, overwhelming, opulent, grotesque, lonely, crowded, marvelous stink of Manhattan in the seams. And I would think, my future

***

So, I don’t live in New York.

I never have.

Childhood me would be so horrified, but she couldn’t have anticipated the false starts, the small failures, the ways life tends to curve in and around on itself and about half the time put you right back to where you thought you’d ever end up.

Sometimes I can’t decide if not going at twenty-five when everyone thought I should was the most cowardly thing I’ve ever done or the most practical.

I suspect I’m too old to go now.  Sometimes I flatter myself by thinking it’s still a practical thing or some righteous decision, like, it’s my moral duty to stay in the South and not be the Southerner they expect to be.  Sometimes I think it’s a romantic impediment, like I don’t want the City become ordinary and unexceptional, and perhaps if I lived there it would.  Most of the time I think I’m still a coward, because it’s comfortable here, and it wouldn’t be there, and I’m less poetic about failure than I used to be. And I’ve had enough unrequited love affairs to last two lifetimes.

New York is not the city it was when I was eleven, nor is it the city I imagined I’d live in throughout most of my young adult life.  It is, however, a place full of people and things I love and visit regularly enough that I pretend I’m not a tourist–sometimes even convincingly. I like to sit on the Brooklyn waterfront and stare at the towers across the East River, like I’m Dorothy seeing the Emerald City for the first time. And it never fails to lull me into reverie as assuredly as a field of magic poppies, even if it’s hot as hell or freezing cold and I’m surrounded by crowds and clamor, which is invariably the case. And I always think, this dumb, over-priced, over-hyped, messy, ugly, capricious, uncomfortable place that does not need or want me, that I am in no way rich enough to afford, this is probably my favorite place on earth.

Then, like Dorothy, I always seem to click my heels and come home.

And yet

Five days ago, drunk on overpriced cocktails, I sat in my best friend’s apartment in Brooklyn and she posed a hypothetical, if you had  plenty of money and you had to live in a place, and it was the only place you could live, where would it be?

I hemmed and hawed. I told her I wanted to think about it. I made arguments for all sorts of places on multiple continents. I knew better than to answer honestly, at least not with any desire. Who was I? Some rube?  But I didn’t really have to say anything. She knew me well enough to know that it is now, always, and ever New York City.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Standard

Lilacs, 1996-?

(In honor of Spring Cleaning: Seven Days. Seven Dresses. This is Day Five. Day Four is here)

Just after midnight, Istood with my three best friends (and the charming Brooklynite dating one of them) at the edge of the ugly oval fountain, in the center square of my otherwise lovely hometown. It was a starry night, warm and mild. The streets were almost silent, though it was the first Saturday in June: high tourist season in a resort community But in middle of the 1990s, downtown was still so deserted on a weekend that our voices echoed against the building and filled the empty spaces with tinny boasts.

We’d all had too much to drink,  and teetered around in uncomfortable heels and slick-soled dress shoes. We talked too loud, trying to sound tougher and cooler than our tuxes and party dresses implied. I hoped we might appear sophisticated, like we’d been at a some where glamorous and dissolut  instead of at my Mom’s wedding.

All weddings are surreal. That’s doubly true if you’re a member of the wedding party. Parent weddings are next level, because you never really expect you’ll have to go to one while everyone is still alive.  Even though Mom and my new stepfather had been dating for years. Even though he was a wonderful person who adored her and said he loved me and my sister.  It was still  Mom’s wedding. And the man she married was Not Dad. And  wasn’t it weird that I was almost same age at that moment as Mom was when she married for the first time?

I figured this would be messy. I’d wanted to avert the possible, public humiliation of sobbing at the altar, not so much because I missed Dad, but because it signaled the end of the old fantasy of a messy, Bohemian nuclear family built on easels and old typewriters and stacks of New Yorkers and the dreamy looks my still young parents shared when they talked about Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald as if they were an aspirational couple-which is a big fucking red flag right there, buddy. And sure, I recognized that things back then were not-great and sometimes maybe a little dysfunctional  and the fantasy really was just a fantasy but it was my childhood we’re talking about here and it was a hell of a childhood, not like my other friends’,and  in so many of the best ways, and was that getting canceled out too? And what if this permanently changed my relationship with Mom  who was my best friend? What if she Stepford Wived into a totally different person once she moved across town? And what if my stepfather was not as cool as he seemed and didn’t actually like me at all he’d just been pretending  and what if he hurt Mom  or my sister and what if? what if? what if? How would I achieve a modicum of stability in this avalanche of a life turned upside down?

I’d invited the  three people who formed the core of my teenaged life, who’d felt as important as family, yet knew me outside of family in the ways that family could not They would take care of me. But things were weird with them now too.  Two of them—Ivy League and Indie Rock—were exes. One of them, Punk Roommate, maybe hated me at little, and for good reason.  All three were changing at nearly light speed, on an almost cellular level that would have been impossible for me to  emulate, even if  it were a thing I was sure I wanted I mean, aren’t we supposed to be authentic? Don’t we mock posers? Why is it suddenly okay to act like someone else entirely?

I wasn’t completely immune to the lure of transformation. I loved Ovid. But I suspected, have always suspected, that on some unshakeable level,  you are who you are and that is, in part, where you’re from in all it scenic byways and grotesque deviations. Life may allow you to add to the picture, maybe even elaborately enough to obscure it, but you can’t subtract.

That’s so old-fashioned, Ivy League had told me earlier that day, as Brooklyn strummed Big Star songs on his guitar between us, when I tried to explain, because I was struggling with the casual way she’d started to edit and refashion our shared  past. You’re such a misplaced modernist, she said. Don’t you know that “real” is just another construct and that there’s no such thing as authenticity?

 I did. I’d spent four semesters hounding Ivy League for copies of her Ivy League syllabi for fear that I might miss reading something. And I could have waded into that debate to remind Ivy League that my closest friendships disintegrating in real time for what seemed to be the most bullshit of bullshit reasons was not a question for post-modern theory.  But it was already two o’clock. I was expected back at the hotel to dress in the bridal suite with Mom and my sister. I left my friends on the veranda at Ivy League’s mother’s house, the breeze off the lake rattling the rhododendron leaves in near-rhythm with the guitar. I worried that, without me as buffer, the three of them would sever their remaining ties and vamoose before the wedding. Did they ever really like each other?  I wondered, driving downtown. Did they ever really like me?

By midnight, alcohol had obscured whatever grievances. Spirits were high. I horrified  everyone by shuffling off through a chorus of Ew to a pee in one of a battalion of Porta-Johns at the edge of the square. At least one of the others had her feet in the fountain. I don’t know why you’re judging me. I can absolutely guarantee that there is human feces in that fountain, I said, even though I couldn’t.

 As I opened the door, I thought, I really wore the wrong dress for this.

#

The dress was a floor-length, lavender chiffon number, flecked with rhinestones, made for me by the same seamstresses at the same local fabric shop, who had been making dresses for me since  Aunt Laura’s wedding in 1979. Mom let us pick our own bridesmaid dresses. I took them a picture of Uma Thurman’s Prada dress ripped out of magazine. I said, size 14,more rhinestones. I hadn’t worn lavender since the fifth grade. I thought it might make me feel light and dreamy, that it might counteract the lumpiness, the waxy, unintentionally Goth pallor of a girl that barely saw daylight, whose current hair color was somewhere between Johnny Rotten and gaping wound.

Various people tried to sort me out pre-wedding, torturing my hair into bouncy curls and  slathering on several applications of make-up thick as mortar because I fell into several poorly-timed crying jags. The tectonic shifts in my family and social lives had laid bare all of my personal fault lines. And as Mom liked to say, all of your dragons were up.

My dragons were legion. I was broke and unemployed. I was lonely and depressed. I had basically not gone to class[1] in almost two semesters. I’d received a letter informing me of my Academic Suspension, which was administrative for you’ve failed out of school, but we’re not a discriminating enough to forbid you from coming back. I’d endured the judgement of a university higher-up, who’d opined, some people aren’t cut out for higher education. I worried that meant I was actually an idiot, which was embarrassing, given how much of my identity was constructed around being clever. I was terrified of having to move home, especially into the unknown of my mother’s new life. I didn’t know what I was doing. I didn’t know what I would do.

Nana came in to straighten me  because I was upsetting my mother, who just trying to get married for Heaven’s sake. She took me downstairs to the lobby bar for a stiff Vodka tonic and hissed at the terrified bartender when he asked for my ID. She told me she loved me  but I had to ixnay on the uncontrollable furious weeping.  I was being selfish and juvenile and that being a woman in the world means keeping yourself together so you can keep everyone else in line, even when they make you mad, even when they disappoint you, even when they break your heart. Because they will. And then things will be wonderful again. That’s life. I know you can be strong enough to put on a brave face and get through it.

It was a good speech, a bit reminiscent of the one Mom always recounted  having heard on her first wedding day. She’d had been dressing in the back of Nana’s house, suffering nervous jitters, when Dad’s grandmother, a real force of Nature, stalked past the rest of the family and informed Mom that Fields Women never cry. This was categorically, even hilariously, untrue[2], but it sounded tough as shit and evidently served much the same effect as Nana’s pep talk.

The wedding took place at my high school chapel, a small Art Deco riff on Gothic architecture that glowed pink in the afternoon light. It was weird being there. I’d never expected to miss high school once I left and saw it as embarrassingly sad that I did. Only losers did that. Only people that had squandered all their promise at seventeen.. In the chaplain’s office, while my new stepfather’s secretary adjusted my mother’s make-up and handed us our bouquets, I remembered I once stowed a choir folder behind the bookshelf after a performance. It was still there.

Mom had madrigals sung at her wedding. The group performing them included my high school drama teacher, my 10th grade English teacher, and my middle school piano teacher. They would be singing two pieces I’d sung with my high school choir. As they lined up in the vestibule, I chatted briefly with my drama teacher and my piano teacher. No, I hadn’t auditioned for any plays. No, I didn’t play the piano anymore. They looked sad. Saying it made me feel sad. I couldn’t remember why I’d stopped exactly They filed up to the choir loft. I wished I were going with them; I still knew every note.

A snapshot confirms I was at the ceremony. I look like a perfect brat of a teenager at the crossroads of boredom and rage. Mine was the face of a person trying not to appear uncool to her friends now visible in the back of the nave. Mine was the face of Fields Women never cry.

 #

 The reception had concluded by the time we wobbled back to the hotel. I sent my friends upstairs to the room we would all share and staggered back down the spiral stairs to the event space, where my beautiful, beaming mother was enjoying a nightcap with her new husband and her own longtime best friend as the band broke down. Someone handed me my gloves—long, over the elbow, torch-singer style. They’d been found between the cushions the corner booth table where I’d spent the night at a comfortable remove from the family. The fingers were sticky, almost black, and it took me a moment to remember I’d forgotten to remove them before availing myself of the chocolate strawberries on the buffet line.

Upstairs, I found my friends in the hotel room. They’d  acquired another bottle of champagne from God knows where.  There were two queen-sized beds. One would be occupied by Ivy League and Brooklyn; the other by me, Punk Roommate, and Indie Rock. We’re all drunk enough it won’t matter.

 I changed out of my dress, leaving it a dusky puddle on the tile, and hollered to inform the others that there was both a jacuzzi and a tv in the bathroom. I changed into a bathing suit in the shower stall. Ivy league filled the tub and turned on the jets. It wasn’t really big enough for everyone.  Because it was Saturday night in the mid-90s, we turned on “120 minutes” and passed the Champagne bottle around the steamy bathroom like germs weren’t even a real thing. Brooklyn discussed Afghan Whigs  with great ardor because they were in-studio. Punk Rock roommate made fun of him for it. They aired a video for a Girls Against Boys song and we had an earnest conversation about whether they had sold out. We smoked in the bathroom, even though it was a non-smoking room. For a minute, it felt like we were all in high school again

I was spinning when I crawled into bed. At twenty years old, I’d spent most of my college years a designated driver and could count on one hand the number of times I’d been truly drunk. Because I was the biggest person in my bed, I tried to take up as little space as possible, so I clung to the edge of the mattress, with one leg balanced against the wall. Beside me, Punk Roommate and Indie Rock settled. Across the room I heard hear Ivy League and Brooklyn kissing. Indie Rock tried to kiss Punk Roommate. She spurred his advance. He tried again. She threatened violence. The kissing noises increased in volume. Indie Rock kicked me by accident, and I felt hot and nauseated and claustrophobic. I went to the bathroom and splashed water on my face like they did in movies. When I came back out, there was no room for me in the bed. I took the room key and went out into the hallway. I was afraid of knocking on anyone else’s door—my sister, my grandmother, certainly my mother– so I settled onto a love seat by the elevators, and felt as luxuriously sorry for myself, adrift, alone, with family and friends seemingly out of reach, as only utterly self-involved  twenty-year-old can. I slept fitfully until a hotel employee woke me around 5 to say that I couldn’t sleep there.

He followed me back to the room, to make sure I had a working key and a right to be there. I bolted to the door behind him and went back to sleep on the floor by the windows.

#

I said goodbye to my friends after breakfast. I saw them all again, but never all together. I drove back to our apartment with Punk Roommate.  She and I both would both enroll in summer classes to restore our standing. She would drop out and move  to Atlanta. I stayed on, and in the most oddball sort of way, found my way back to my way. Things got  better. Things got worse. And better and worse and wonderful all over again. That’s life.

When Mom moved into her new house, she threw out my childhood collection of paper dolls and my stack of “Sassy” back issues, but she  kept  the lavender dress. She even had it dry-cleaned to remove the chocolate, the grimy fountain, the Porta-Potty, the downtown streets, of the ash from cigarettes, and what felt like the end of everything but was actually the countless new beginnings to new stories that wouldn’t all belong to me and maybe never did.

Most of those stories will tell you that that night was amazing. That my mother looked like a princess. That my stepfather looked like the luckiest man in the world. That everyone had a wonderful time. And that my mother and my new stepfather were in in the kind of love that lasts decades, through thick and thin, and has.

Thankfully, most of those stories will remember me as a marginal character. A girl on the sidelines drinking champagne until her head hurt in a sparkly lavender dress.  Most of those stories will see me as a supporting character in a gorgeous chapter, a kid, the daughter of the bride, with own her life just barely begun, with her own story yet to be written.

And those stories, impossibly, marvelously,  . . . those stories were not wrong.

In fact, they’re usually the ones I remember.

 

____________________

[1] Save this ambiguously named 19th century Brit Lit class that surprisingly (and to my utter delight) ended up being a semester-long seminar on Oscar Wilde.

[2] A short list (verified) of things Fields women cry at: paintings, injustice, cathedrals, poems, stories good jokes, Aretha Franklin, disappointment good whiskey, frustration, sunsets, good food, soul music, r&b, gospel choirs, opera, Broadway musicals, television commercials, Renaissance motets, Judy Garland,ripe peaches, the Atlantic Ocean, the Pacific Ocean, Otis Redding, the Mediterranean, furry animals, nice sweaters, cheese,  mustard, heartbreak, bad movies, good movies, bad TV, Italy, excellent curry, Christmas presents, the moon, the stars, excellent wine, morning light, massages, the Chrysler Building, funerals, cocktail parties, bars, shows, restaurants, Central Park, Paris, San Francisco in the fog, pretty boats, the Alps, “Christmastime is Here”—Vince Guaraldi, Disney movies, fireworks, waterfalls, Bill Evans, Nina Simone, thinking about how much we love people, “Queer Eye.”

Standard

Big Peach, 1990-1996

(In Honor of Spring Cleaning: Seven Days. Seven Dresses. This is Day Four. Day Three is here)

In the old days at Belk department store in the Asheville Mall, they had an all-Evening and Wedding gown department. It was oval-shaped the department, blocked off from the rest of the store with artificial, faux marbled columns and draped curtains. In the center, there was a tufted velour pouf under a chandelier, and a glass table strewn with issues of Modern Bride. Further back an enormous three way mirror and one of those raised platforms so ladies could try on things with wide skirts and trains.

I didn’t care much for weddings (always the most boring conclusion of an otherwise interesting story), but as a lifelong devotee of sequins, crinolines, chiffon, taffeta and tulle, the Belk formalwear department was basically my version of heaven. I’d find every possible reason to end up there, usually slipping away from wherever my mother was to partake of its myriad delights. I’d look at every gown, running my hands all over the shiny material, then I’d look at the gowns in the magazines, and stand on the platform in front of the mirror, imagining myself wearing one of the sparkling sequined gowns, performing to a vast audience of adoring fans as if I were Diana Ross. The saleswomen were both understanding and highly circumspect. I’d always attempt to try on dresses. They’d always tell me no. Sulking, I’d wait until their backs were turned and slide in through the racks of dresses, just to feel the fabric against my cheeks, nap under the diaphanous hems,  and wait for older girls to come out and model on the platform.  It took getting busted about a dozen times before I finally stopped

You’d think when I finally had a real reason to shop there, to actually try on gowns, it would feel like a some sort of glittery apotheosis. And that might have been true had it been for an event other than the 8th Grade Formal and had I thought for even a moment I might be able to find a half-fashionable dress that would. I was a rather  fat thirteen-year-old. My complete failure to achieve anything close to puberty meant my curves were in all the wrong places. I told the saleswoman I was after something kind of like Grace Kelly in “To Catch a Thief.” She rolled her eyes and brought out the paltry selection of dresses that were appropriate for a flat-chested, size 14 fourteen year old and would, at my mother’s request, not break the bank. Pretty much all of them looked like something you’d wear to a mixer with your sister wives, but taffeta. The only differentiating factor was the location of the ubiquitous giant bow. When I tried on the one with the black velvet top and the peach taffeta skirt (giant bow located directly over the butt), my mother and the saleswoman cooed. It was very flattering, they told me. It makes you look very skinny, said my mother. And really cheats a bustline, said the saleswoman.  I gave a wistful glance to the feathers and sequins and realized truly and for all time that no one would ever mistake me for Diana Ross.

Disappointing.

 After she rung us up, the saleswoman handed me the garment bag and smiled at my mother. This is such a good dress, she said. I’ve basically sold out of these this week. Which was the exact moment I realized there would be at least five identical copies of the same dress at the 8th Grade Cotillion worn by at least five of my classmates that looked better in it than I did.

Life is fucking full of disappointments.

 

$

Just before the Christmas holidays of my seventh grade year, Mom told  I’d been invited to attend cotillion classes on Thursday evenings in the gym of my former elementary school. I expressed complete shock at this. For one thing, I was approaching the very nadir of my social life. It had been weeks since I’d been invited to anything. Also, it was 1988. I would probably never need to know the foxtrot unless I lost my soul or went into espionage work or both. I had a nagging suspicion that cotillion classes would be one more hour in a room full of people that hated me. But Mom, overtired from a sixty-hour work week, just kind of shrugged and was like, I think there’s a dance at the end of it. You’ll be sad if you don’t go to the dance. And the next thing I knew, I was being dropped off in front of my Elementary School.

My fellow students were a motley bunch. I don’t know how the list of participants was divined or which precise cadre or parents and/or dance enthusiasts  figured out the invite list. I can tell you that we were, with very few exceptions, middle to upper middle class white people stymied at the most awkward point of hugely awkward adolescence. The girls, by and large, looked approximately twenty-five and were maybe evil. The boys were dirty, violent shitbags with bad haircuts, standing, on average, several inches shorter than their female peers.

Our instructor had an absurd Russian name (we were pretty sure she made it up) and an accent that ran a regular commuter line between Stage French and Queens. We called her Madame. She was a birdlike woman of indeterminate old age who styled her silver hair in a Marcel wave and wore desert-plate sized large tarnished brass pendants, which made her look way more like Flavor Flav, than she probably intended.  She kept time with a metal tipped cane and considered The Hustle both distastefully modern and yet absolutely necessary. Sometimes she waxed nostalgic about dancing at the Rainbow Room. Sometimes she alluded to having been married to an actual aristocrat. Her cultural signifiers were stubbornly and hilariously dated.

At the beginning of each class, we were divided into two groups—Gentlemen on the left. Ladies on the right–and forced to draw names from a shabby top hat, thereby preventing anyone from being a wallflower (willingly or not) and keeping the passionately encoupled Music Biz and Preacher’s Daughter from rounding third base mid-mambo. Though three years away from arriving at my full adult height, I was reasonably tall by seventh grade standards, which virtually guaranteed that I would always draw some surly, sticky-fingered partner who called me lard-ass in the hallway but stood roughly eye-level with my non-existent tits, while Madame implored me to follow his lead. But how am I supposed to follow when he obviously doesn’t know where the hell he’s going? And she would thump her cane and tell us to Ladies, imagine you’re a princess and  he looks like Liberace! And she’d do a little shaky pirouette, lost in nostalgia for a time when all ballrooms had bubble machines and the she didn’t have to issue time-outs every time Mall Bangs tried to knee The Fist in the groin and told him to  Suck a dick, Fartface.

That Madame was so inclined toward reverie cancelled out the threat of the thumping cane. She might yell every now and then or threaten to call our parents if we didn’t stop disrupting the phonograph. But we all found ways to tune out the infinite replays of “Pennsylvania 6-5000” in order to maintain constant vigilance against boys trying to snap your bra strap (an activity they found never less than hilarious). Several of the boys took Madame’s laissez-faire attitude toward bathroom breaks to slip out for a smoke in the bushes on the kindergarten playground. And it wasn’t long before their pioneering influence left the gym mostly empty of the male-identified for increasingly long periods of time. And while this was, in some ways, a reprieve, shitty boys being shitty was the only reason why the girls of Cotillion weren’t being shitty to each other. In real life, at school, outside that gym, we did not speak.  I might stand beside the Most Popular Girl on Thursday nights, commiserating over our bad partners, and gossiping in the bathroom about how Mall Bangs found condoms in some mother’s purse at The Fist’s Bar Mitzvah, I could be assured of her wrath if I dared  eye contact in pre-Algebra on Friday morning.

The last day of class came without ceremony. The promised dance, we were told, would be held the spring of the following year. An Eighth Grade Formal!  Madame looked overjoyed. The rest of us looked dubious. Who knew if we’d even survive until eighth grade, let alone want to dance about it.

$

Invitations to the 8th Grade Formal were distributed in much the same mysterious  fashion as those for cotillion class. Though still just a splinter of my 450-person-ish eighth grade class, the cabal had opted to invite a larger portion of the student body to the dance, which essentially meant the handful of our classmates that were tracked into Honors Classes who were not middle-upper middle class mostly white kids from the north side of town were added to the guest list. Also, there was a football player, which surprised me because I didn’t know they had a football team at the Junior High School.

I’m sure this counted as diversity.

Mom curled my hair and helped me with my make up. I wore control top hose and a girdle  under the dress, and high-heeled shoes, that I could not dance in.

I wondered on the way over if the other kids would be at a disadvantage, seeing as how they hadn’t suffered the instruction of Madame the previous spring. I mean, do they know a swing step? But when Mom dropped me off under the, I could already hear “Love Shack” playing inside and realized this was not that kind of party at all.

$

The 8th Grade Formal was held at the least restrictive country club in town in those days, which is to say, the one that didn’t limit access by means of race or religious preference. It was also, coincidentally, the one my parents (and most of the parents of my cotillion classmates) belonged to, during the not-yet-divorced, dual-income, pre-downsized salad days of my youth. I put this in the Assets column, because I knew plenty of places I could hide should Eighth Grade formal turn into the kind of unrestrained, Gates-of-Hell-thrown-open-bloodbath I suspected it would.

I ran into Ivy League at the coat check. I couldn’t figure out what she was doing there, because she was in seventh grade and technically not supposed to be there. But Ivy League was precocious in all things. I was thrilled to see her, because that meant I had at least one confirmed friend there. That changed everything.  She directed me to the bathroom, which was one of those vast Ladies Lounge set-ups, where there was, like, a whole living room with sofas and easy chairs adjacent to the stalls. It was full of girls, at least three of whom wearing my dress, including Mall Bangs, who’d been whisked off to Catholic School for reasons too weird to discuss[1]. Of course she wanted to discuss them, and held court for a while, as the rest of us hovered at the edges, applying lip gloss and AquaNet instead of facing the perils of the actual dance floor. All of us looked ridiculous anyway, save perhaps The Countess, who looked like a movie star, but we weren’t friends then, and wouldn’t be for an impossible two more years.

Eventually, Ivy League and I made it to the dance floor, which had been enlivened after everyone had bored of hiding from each other. We danced both the  Electric Slide and the New Electric Slide (twice). Both of them we learned in gym class. We also danced The Limbo, which we learned at the Roller Rink. We danced the Foxtrot zero times.

The DJ was an off-duty actual radio DJ, so he talked too much. About three-quarters of the way through, he announced a dance contest with a real prize, a cassette single of Warrant’s “Cherry Pie.” Ivy League and this kid Tito won. They were actually great. Neither of them liked Warrant. I’m pretty sure they ended up giving the cassingle away.

$

Mom came to get me at 10 because I called and told her I was bored. I was bored. It was a few years before I learned that dances were always boring, just an excuse to get dressed up, make the scene, and then travel on to the real party elsewhere.

As to the dress, it was a relic within months. The eighties ended authoritatively and with them went the puff sleeves, the drop waists, the yards of taffeta and giant bows. A couple years later, Mom would ask if I wanted to wear it to another event and I remember feeling a wave of disgust, a I wouldn’t be caught dead in that trash.

 It sold for a couple dollars at a yard sale, when my mother remarried and moved out of our house into their house, in Spring of 1996.

 

 

______________________________

[1] They weren’t.

Standard

The Holy Grail, 1995-?

(In Honor of Spring Cleaning: Seven Days. Seven Dresses. This is Day Three. Day Two is here

The Salvation Army store on Williamson Road, in Roanoke Virginia, was barely more than a shanty (one whole portion was walled in with corrugated plastic and the red dirt floor puddled when it rained )but it was a mecca for Dior-style party dresses. I imagined there must have been a whole mess of elderly ladies that downsized out of their historic homes into retirement homes or simply died with walk-closets full or New Look gowns.

The more extraordinary part was that one of those women was my size, an unheard-of development. Fancy vintage dresses were for lithe minxes with delicate waists, not flabby, ponderous elephants like nineteen-year-old me. But even among the debutantes of 1948, there must have been a few heavy bottomed geese no amount of genteel starvation and corsetry could transform into delicate swans. And one of them had donated what looked like her whole wardrobe in a single day.

I bought them all. Probably ten dresses total, perhaps as many as fifteen. It set me back about 25 bucks, which sounds like nothing, but it was a not-insignificant chunk of my Freshman Year allowance at the time.

“I thought we were here to find the Holy Grail,” asked Cardigan, when I dropped the stack on the counter.

“I did,” I said, and showed him a battered old brass vase, chalice shaped, with 25¢ scrawled on the bottom. I had found the Holy Grail, though, and it was a 1940-ish silk crepe dress the color of a blue-green sea on a cloudy morning, delicately beaded, that fell to the floor and fluttered gracefully around my ankles as if I were Ginger Rogers.

Texas sighed and held up her own dented goblet. “What about mine?”

“You definitely found something magical,” I said, but I wasn’t talking about her cup.

 

#

She met Cardigan on the internet.

In 1995, that still sounded pretty close to science-fiction.

Most of us had never seen the internet. We didn’t know how it worked. Women’s College offered ethernet to dorm rooms, but it cost extra, and you had to buy cables. It was a big enough deal that I had an actual computer (most of the girls on my hall had word processors, if anything) with a full-color monitor and an inkjet printer that I lied about being broken so the girls on the hall wouldn’t bankrupt me via ink cartridges. Most of the girls on my hall still had word processors. I had a campus email address, but I wasn’t entirely sure why I needed it. I honestly still think most people would prefer to just write a letter, I remember telling my high school best friend, with all the tragic confidence of the last buggy-whip manufacturer in Dearborn, Michigan. Why would I need internet?

My roommate had a fancy new Mac, with the cables connected, and after a time (of course) we all started using it to check our email, and then later, on the advice of some friend of a friend, we ended up in this early chat room called Foothills, which was basically a blinking cursor on a white screen and occasional perplexing mood statements like a brook babbles over the hill,  where we started spending hours after class, talking to legions of faceless people with too-clever-by-half user names.  I can’t remember what we talked about, but I know we talked about it for hours, each taking turns.

Cardigan was a regular on Foothills. His user name suggested he might be into the same flavor of punk rock as we were. And at the beginning, we talked to him almost exclusively about music, ‘zines and the finer points of MaximumRocknRoll columns. He was nice and funny. After classes, we’d hurry back to my roommate’s computer to see if he’d logged on. Texas worked in the library, so could chat with him during her shift. I’d sit at roommate’s desk or the computer lab and join the conversation.

At some point, the character of the conversation between Texas and Cardigan changed. She knew where he went to school. She knew his real name. She knew what his voice sounded like, because their conversations left the virtual realm and moved to the phone. I felt left out, he was both of our friends, but I could read the writing on the dorm room white board.

Back in January, in some escalating double-dog dare of an overcaffeinated conversation, Texas had sworn she’d shave her head if I wore my senior year prom dress to class. It didn’t seem exactly like a fair trade, I mean, it’s women’s college and when have I ever worried about being overdressed? But I think Texas was looking for an excuse that was neither as weighted with all the dumb gravitas people assign to dramatic haircuts nor as prosaic as I was bored. I don’t think the first draft of this conversation occurred online, but certainly the follow up did, which is how Cardigan got involved.

A plan coalesced. Cardigan would visit. Texas would shave her head. We’d all hang out. The two of them would hang out and see if they could make explicit the implicit flirtation in the spaces between keystrokes. I was skeptical. They’d never exchanged pictures.  He could be a serial killer. He could be a monster. He could be anything. What if you don’t like him? She didn’t seem worried. We’d meet him at the gas station that sold Elvis lamps off Interstate 81. If he was nice, he could follow us back to campus. If he was crazy? Well, I guess we could send him home and call the police?

 I needn’t have worried.

He turned out to be a cute nineteen-old-boy from a place I’d never heard of in Northeastern PA. He had the kind of shy smile that could melt a heart at ten paces, but his expression  when he set eyes on Texas in the parking lot on the interstate? It was luminescent. It was full-on wonder. Because she may have been charming onscreen, but, in person, Texas was real deal beautiful, the kind of beautiful that entranced people, the kind that regularly caused perfect strangers to stop on the street and ask if her she knew how much she looked like a particular supermodel of the era (she did, thanks, and that’s so nice of you to mention).

After hugs and introductions, after we bought some more cigarettes and gave him instructions on getting back to campus, I spent some time, hours, days, weeks afterward trying to figure how different that scene would have played if it had been me to get out of the car and not Texas.  If he would have felt the same, if he would have tried to hide his disappointment, if he would have found some excuse to creep off back to Pennsylvania—whoops! Turns out my grandma died, but you seem like a real sweet person and it was sure nice to meet you. Maybe we’ll run into each other again on the internet someday. I doubted he’d be mean to my face. Wasn’t his style. Cardigan wore cardigans for christsake, even if he did wear them over Clash shirts.

There was no need to think too hard on it, though because Cardigan was suddenly, totally, completely smitten with Texas. And Texas was my best friend. And there wasn’t a goddamn thing I could do about the fact that I suddenly, totally, completely smitten with Cardigan

#

In the interest of time, let’s spoil the ending:

This is not a story about a love triangle. At least not one in which I’m a player. I never told Cardigan I had a crush on him. He maybe sussed it out, but never acknowledged it. I wasn’t interested in betraying Texas and I couldn’t have competed with her even if I had. High school had taught me a lot of things, and among them, that the road to Hell is paved with the myriad tiny horrors and humiliations of trying to love someone who doesn’t love you back.

I didn’t try to break them up. In fact, I spent the rest of the semester cheerleading their relationship for the simple reason that I liked having Cardigan around and I thought if they broke up, I’d never see him again. I tried to graft all of my infatuation onto a local guy (another redhead) who I kinda liked (who also, as it turned out, was very, very much not interested) and would hold forth for hours talking about all my feelings that weren’t for him at all, but for a boy I couldn’t ever really talk about. Whatever pinch of resentment I felt drifted away over time, as did the guilt I felt for feeling it, as did Cardigan and Texas’s relationship, as did my crush on Cardigan, as did Cardigan himself, who would eventually become another faded entry in my Big Book of Unrequited Love.

For now, we return to the Salvation Army checkout line, to my stack of dresses, to our Let’s go to Thrift Stores and look for the Holy Grail scavenger hunt we were using to fill the afternoon hours before Texas got her iconic haircut (she had the bone structure for it) and Cardigan fell hard.

“What are you going to do with that?” asked Cardigan.

I held up the cup. “Well, if the whole immortal life thing doesn’t play out, it would probably make a decent ashtray” (It did).

“No,” said Cardigan. “The dress. What are you going to do with the dress?”

The saleswoman, with a Franklin County accent and church lady hair, paused in her calculations and gave us a scowl. She held up the blue green dress and the sunlight caught in the glass beads.

I would marvel that it fit me, that held up, even as the beads loosened and silk faded to almost pink with sweat and I required additional underwear to make it look as flattering as it had when I was nineteen. I wore it to shows. I wore it to parties. I wore it plays. I hung it on the wall as decoration. I wore it to one ill-timed arts gala in the gut-churning middle of the 2000 election recount. I wore it for my birthday. I might have worn it for yours. It outlasted Cardigan and college and the vicissitudes of my friendship with Texas in its stormy patches. And yet it lives. I can’t bear to get rid of it. Even though it’s in terrible shape now and it smells funny and I haven’t worn it in years.

I mean, you don’t just throw away the Holy Grail. Come the fuck on.

“I’m going to wear it,” I said. “Obviously.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Standard