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Books for The Seaside, 2019

The most peak beach read moment of my life came in 1999. I sat third in line of chaise lounges—Nana, Mom, Me, My Sister–beside the larger cabana pool at the Lowcountry beach resort we’d been going to every summer since time immemorial. All four of us were sun drunk. Three of us were at least tipsy from cabana cocktails. Nana, Mom and my sister, glistening with Hawaiian Tropic, a trio of golden-tanned nereids in black swimsuits and designer sunglasses. I was lobster pink, slathered in 50+, and cowering under long sleeved shirts and towels like I was going out for a part in a skid row “Lawrence of Arabia” because genetics are cruel.

Nana wasn’t much of a reader. Her preferred tomes were, generally, pricing guides for antique Japanese porcelain and the Horchow catalog. That year, however, she’d packed a paperback copy of the Starr Report amidst her Breton tees and linen shorts. Nana was a vocal critic of the Clinton administration, a fact that surprised no one, given that her personal politics ran slightly to the right of Divine Right Monarchy. I supposed she thought the book would be a place to bolster her already outspoken arguments. All of us knew better than to ask. We had a sort of gentleman’s agreement with regards to politics on family vacations, the central conceit of which was 1) Don’t Bring it Up  and 2) When Nana does—and she will– try to change the subject as quickly as possible.

In that moment by the pool, I was lost in a dream of Conquest-era Mexico, wading through a particularly muddy chapter of Terra Nostra, and I could tell Nana was on the verge of saying a thing.  My sister had helpfully put on headphones and had blocked her face with her UNC summer reading. Mom, reading an epistolary novel about Empress Josephine, was unfortunately sitting next to Nana, so the most easily available when Nana finally sighed dramatically and tapped her Virginia Slim impatiently against the resort-branded ashtray.

She said Moms name about three times. Mom didn’t immediately respond. She might have been engrossed in her book, but Nana was persistent. When she knew she had Mom’s attention, she shoved the Starr Report toward Mom and tapped a fingernail against the page.

“Honey, would you mind telling me what this is?”

There was a long pause. I listened to the splashing of swimmers in the pool, the ice clinking at the bar, the wheels on a cater tray bound for some unknown beachside fete. Were the playing the Cardigans at the tiki bar?  And yet the pause stretched, long enough for me to realize, with dawning horror that whatever text had stymied my then seventy-three-year-old grandmother was probably not a legal term.

“Anybody want another round?” I asked.

Nana waved me off, looked expectantly at my mother. Mom gave me a pleading look and told me to add the drinks to her tab.

As I walked away down the boardwalk toward the bar, I could hear Mom in a tone of voice I recognized, in the halting, careful words I remember, saying, “Well, mother, when and a woman love each other very, very much . . .”

And I made a mental note to order Mom a double.

**

Two things I like: Sitting on, in, or near enough to the sea that I can sense it. Reading books.

My inner pirate captain is a bit of a librarian. And my inner librarian is only ever a breath away from raising the sails and lighting out for ports unknown.  Both know that nothing improves the reading of a novel like a salty breeze and sand on the toes, even if said salt and sand are sticky murder on a paperback.  I suppose there are people that go to the beach without a book. Those people are perverse. What do they do instead, exactly? I mean, how much bocce can a human play?

This time of year  people come to me asking for beach books because I read more than is probably healthy. I think I do okay with recommendations. The better I know you, the closer I’ll get to the mark. But critical to the whole endeavor is what you mean by Beach Book. Some people define “beach book” as a slightly better class of airport book—something breezy, either plot-heavy, funny or both, not too serious, not too academic. Some people see the Beach Book as literal a beach book—a book set on or near a beach. [1] Sometimes those two categories overlap and that’s awesome, but you have to be very, very careful there or you summon Nicholas Sparks,[2] the literary equivalent of the dude that brings a Filet -O-Fish to a Lowcountry Boil.

For today, I’m mostly going with the second category. Books about beaches, sea, sand, and coastal destination that I believe would be good to read whilst sitting on the beach of your choosing. I’ll try to go broad as possible here.Also, not every Beach Book will be strictly defined as “beach book,” so if that’s the kind of thing you’re looking for, Tana French’s The Witch Elm will be out in paperback in the US on July 30 (and it’s great).

Let’s start close to home. Many of us end up at the beach on family vacations, always awkward, which Colson Whitehead’s sly, autobiographical Sag Harbor pretty much nails. Questions of love and class sometimes arise especially if there’s marriage on the horizon as is the case in Dorothy West’s The Wedding. In Jill McCorkle’s Ferris Beach, friendships (and friendships with possibility) blossom around the various impediments of small town prejudice and adolescence.

Coastal living offers full-time residents unusual career paths in resorts, theme parks and tourist traps, like the alligator wrestling park in Southwest Florida that provides the setting for Karen Russell’s Bigtree dynasty to work out their differences in Swamplandia or the eponymous, possibly haunted North Carolina theme park of Stephen King’s slim Joyland. Resort hotels, as well, occupy the seaside, sometimes, as is the case with JG Farrell’s extraordinary Troubles offering a darkly humorous critique on colonialism, in its zany, cat-infested, slightly Gothic walls. And if you’d prefer imagining your mysterious terrorist with 80s hair, there’s also High Dive.

Of course, there may be more violence going on in popular vacation spots than meets the eye, if, say, you got to know some of the locals in Jamaica in Marlon James’ epic  A Brief History of Seven Killings or the brave women of Trujillo’s Dominican Republic in Julia Alvarez’s In the Time of the Butterflies. But remember you’re a tourist, which means you need to avoid doing basically anything that a Paul Bowles protagonist would in the presence of sand.  And try not too involved in local politics, lest you end up like one of the jaded bureaucrats in either of Bob Shachochis  dense, dark meditations on international conflict set in hot places Swimming Into the Volcano or  The Woman Who Lost Her Soul. Those both follow in the footsteps of Graham Greene, whose Our Man in Havana, is sort of ground-zero for this kind of thing. Also, it’s worth mentioning that much of Joan Didion’s (in my opinion) chronically overlooked fiction, specifically in The Last Thing He Wanted and Democracy falls into this zone, with a refreshingly female persective. (I love a literary spy novel, guys).  Robert Stone’s A Flag for Sunrise considers these scenarios from a slightly less scrupulous perspective, if you’re curious what the pirates are up to these days.

Speaking of, lord isn’t Richard Hughes’ deft, surprising (based on a true story!) High Wind in Jamaica, with its pint-sized pirate ship mutineers just about the best thing ever? Kids are insane and can go very, very dark, just ask the beleaguered schoolteacher at the heart of suburban, post climate-crisis, dystopian Florida in Donald Antrim’s Elect Mr. Robinson for a Better World. Things tend to get weird in Florida, as in Lauren Groff’s marvelous short story collection, Florida, and really, really weird in Jeff VanDerMeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy.

Since antiquity, we’ve always known the sea is home to monsters. Sometimes literary monsters have their own unique perspective on events, such as in Madeline Miller’s wonderful, magical Circe.  Men—Hemingway, Melville— famously love to go after them, even if they do meet bitter ends. Sometimes, as is the case in Michael Crummey’s Galore, they even unexpectedly come back.  It’s sometimes true that those who spend their lives conjuring monsters may themselves have some monstrous ideas. Certainly that was the case with HP Lovecraft, and Paul La Farge’s The Night Ocean is a great novel that tries to make sense of some of that. On the other hand, sometimes monsters end up being something quite unexpected, as in Sarah Perry’s gorgeous historical novel about science, faith and love, The Essex Serpent. Rarely do they end up being a wholly and completely hilarious as they do in Mat Johnson’s Pym

Of course, it’s never the destination when it comes to sea voyages, as much as the journey, whether it’s a thrilling evocation of friendship as in Patrick O’ Brien’s Aubrey-Maturin novels, the horrors of the slave trade in Charles R. Johnson’s Middle Passage, or some combination of the two in Barry Unsworth’s Sacred Hunger.

Seaside journeys also offer people an opportunity to meditate on their various troubles, sometimes philosophically, as is the case in all of Rachel Cusk’s Faye Trilogy, or John Banville’s grieving narrator in The Sea, or basically the whole of Woolf’s To The Lighthouse. Dealing with romantic disappointment might provoke an escape the seaside, even if it happens that your ex is already there, as is the case in Iris Murdoch’s The Sea, The Sea. But escaping the real world, in general, has long had its appeals, whether you’re following a passion for surfing, as in William Finnegan’s Barbarian Days, or drug-fueled late 1960s conspiracy theory in Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice.

It’s also possible you might be forced escape the seaside yourself. There’s usually a price to that. Just ask the Little Mermaid, or better Antoinette in Jean Rhys’ dreamy Jane Eyre “prequel” Wide Sargasso Sea. You might have to abandon a best friend, as in Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels or get out before the law catches up with you if you’re Tom Ripley.

Finally, if you’re the sort of person that demands a dense history to while away  your days with your toes in the sand, might I recommend David Abulafia’s The Great Sea, a survey of the Mediterranean from antiquity to present. It’s well-written, informative and a wider lens view of one of the world’s most fascinating places than your fourth reread of Tender is the Night or that copy of Beautiful Ruins your friend from book club loaned you, though, indeed, both of those are peak beach reads.

Don’t forget your sunscreen.  

Happy reading. I’ll come back with more next year, if I’m not eaten by a whale.


[1] Sometimes people even want to know, specifically, what I read/will be reading at the beach.  That’s a gamble, because it’s basically just my To Read stack and  there be monsters.  Case in point:  I spent the vast majority of a week at the beach some years back with Britain in Revolution,  Austin Woolrych’s comprehensive doorstopper sized history of the English Civil War.  The book was excellent, and I was engrossed, though this sort of thing is almost certainly not for everybody, as mother will attest, having endured  a mini-lecture about the Long Parliament at the cabana bar after she innocently asked, “What is your book about?”

[2] But we’re not going to talk about Nicholas Sparks today, but if that’s the kind of thing you’re into, at least go up one flight and try Pat Conroy instead. Both your mom and Barbra Streisand will back me up on this. And if you are in a beach rental anywhere south of Cape Cod or north of Miami, there is a near 100% chance that there’s already a copy of The Prince of Tides on the shelf with the Reader’s Digest Condensed and the Scrabble set missing all the Ws. Some of the characters and attitudes haven’t aged particularly well but it’s pretty entertaining, if for no other reason than almost everything that can happen in a book (so, Trigger Warning?) does happen at some point in The Prince of Tides.

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Last Gasp

A few weeks into the 21st century, I woke up one morning unable to breathe. Or rather, I could breathe, but not correctly, not easily. My chest felt strange. My pulse labored. The act of taking in air and expelling it did not come without effort. I thought it might pass. It didn’t. I went to the doctor. She prescribed me an antibiotic and an asthma drug. She sent me to the radiologist, where the ballroom dancing wife of my parents’ best friend took pictures of my lungs. “They look normal,” the doctor told me. Normal. “Do you have anxiety?” Who doesn’t? I breathed into stethoscopes. I exhaled into plastic conical breath measuring devices. “You have an impressive lung capacity,” said the nurse. “Have you ever sung opera?”

“Do you think it’s possible that I have cancer?” I’d ask Mom, late at night, while we smoked cigarettes on the steps of the garage.  She didn’t, though the irony was not lost. I tried to cut back, even thought about quitting, but not smoking made me think more about the breathing, which made me feel like I couldn’t breathe. I figured the worst thing about cancer, after the pain, would be not being able to smoke. Or maybe the worst thing about cancer would be knowing I caused it by smoking. One more thing on the tally of things I fucked up, I thought.

“Have you considered that it might be psychosomatic,” Mom would say. “If you’d go back to college, it would probably go away.”

This was the answer to all things, according to my mother, despite the fact that I couldn’t see what college had done for me save putting me in debt, giving  some real shape to suicidal ideation and making me long for a bunch of far-flung friends who were now understandably reticent to pick up my calls because I was a grumpy ghost haunting the corridors of my mother’s house and they had real, interesting lives. And after a while isn’t depression just a little bit self-indulgent. Like are you actually trying to feel better?  Maybe?  Possibly? “You just have to put yourself in a kick-ass mood and go out there and  fix it,” my mother would tell me, and relate, once again, the story of how she went on diet and leased a station wagon in 1986. I could not figure out why she kept telling that story to me. Maybe being a size 6 and leasing a 2000 Honda Accord will make me feel less weird about being alive? It wasn’t the craziest idea I’d heard. And besides, the longer I let her go about weight loss and car payments, the less time I’d have to spend explaining that I wasn’t sure I could even go back to college if I wanted to.

It was possible, I thought, that the breathing thing was psychosomatic. Being depressed was a lot like being stuck alone in a house with too much stuff in it. The stuff seemed to spontaneously generate by no action of my own, and whenever I tried to clear out a corner, I just blocked off another exit. My brain was like the Collyer Brothers mansion: unwieldy and dangerous, possibly lethal. There might have been cool shit once, but whatever it was had become so decayed, so damaged by circumstance that no one could say for sure whether it was worth saving at all.

ii.

I told Hollywood I was having trouble breathing and he quoted song lyrics at me. Appropriate. We’d met on a listserv for a sad punk rock band I’d once loved and barely listened to anymore. He thought I was a good writer; I thought he was funny and smart. We exchanged letters for a while. They were twee, self-conscious things. He wrote on an old typewriter, slightly less of an affectation in those days.  I wrote in block letters and illustrated in the margins pictures of a life that was close to, but not quite, mine. I lied just enough. I justified it because internet. I suspected he wouldn’t find the whole truth as charming as the one I put on paper.  I sent a written description of myself (reasonably accurate) and a drawing of my house (not the house I was living in). He sent polaroids of himself (cute), his apartment building in LA (u-shaped, hazy, palm-shaded). He might have been lying too, but when he finally started calling, his area code, at least, was right.

He made me describe the scene where I was to distract me from the breathing. I told him about the mountains, the glittering downtown lights, the cornices on the pleasingly shabby bungalow I shared with a roommate, my cloudy breath in the February chill, none of which I could see, by the way, because I was sitting on the top stair in my parents’ garage. “I almost feel like I’m there,” he said.  I tried to imagine him sitting beside me in the narrow space between the canoe and Mom’s car. I couldn’t.

He said he was moving to New York  soon. He’d been offered a network job. I said that sounded very impressive, because it did. “I’ve never lived on the East Coast,” he said. “I’ve never had a whole winter.” He planned to wear his grandfather’s overcoat, an old black wool thing, bought off a Lower East Side tailor in 1919, a few years before the grandfather went west. “Grandpa’s New York was a whole immigrant tenement thing. He did well in California. He thinks I’m crazy for going back.”

I thought he was crazy to think threadbare, eighty-year-old overcoat was the best choice for January in Brooklyn. I didn’t mention it. Him being in New York increased the small odds of us ever meeting in person. We couldn’t meet in person. If we did, I’d have to see the inevitable look on his face–the recognition, the disgust, the polite bank teller mask to cover the disappointment until he could get away—because I was quite sure I was nothing like he imagined.

“I read an article about Zadie Smith today,” he said. “I think you remind me of her.”

I was stunned. Had I said anything to suggest I was a glamorous, beautiful, prodigiously talented English novelist and not a fat, white southerner who dropped out of college and  lived with her mother in Appalachia. I really didn’t think so. And maybe he was just talking about writing, but  Christ, we can never meet in real life.

 iii.

Dad agreed to take little sister and her two friends from college to the beach for spring break. At the last minute, he asked if I wanted to go, you’ll have to sleep on the couch. I was used to sleeping on the couch; I was an oldest child with two demanding little sisters.

The warm, dense lowcountry air did wonders. I took long walks around the tidal flats on the back side of the island and spent evenings alone on a small veranda hanging over an alligator-filled lagoon. I spent days wandering around Charleston alone, spending money I couldn’t afford on records, chasing gold bugs in the wreckage of old military infrastructure out on Sullivan’s Island. It was a nice trip, if lonely. When I came home I believed myself cured.

Two days later, I woke again, gasping.

In the tubercular old days, people used to come to my hometown for its good air, the healing mountain environment to cure their ills and soothe their pains.

“What does it mean that I can’t breathe anywhere in this fucking town?” I asked.

Mom looked at me like she wanted to tell me to watch my language, but realizing that horse was way out of the stable, sent me back to the doctor for another round of inconclusive x-rays and antibiotics.

iv

My high school celebrated their centennial with a weekend of events in mid-April. I both did and didn’t want to go.  My senior year of high school had felt like wide-angle Cinemascope with me on the edge of Hudson River School scaled possibility. I thought, for a moment, that by returning I might conjure a bit of the old razzle-dazzle.

Dad, in a burst of unexpected generosity, bought my ticket (it was expensive) to the big gala. I found a noisy black taffeta ball skirt on a sale rack, and worried that I might be overdressed (I was), so wore it with an Archers of Loaf t-shirt and a glittery sweater. My friend Apollo, who would not be returning from the Ivy Leagues for the gala, charged his girlfriend and his little sister with transporting me to the event and keeping an eye should I find myself over-served at the open bar.  It was a purely chivalrous gesture, both sweet and patronizing, but I was genuinely grateful for the ride and the company.

When I walked into the  blue-blazered WASP wonderland under the circus tent on the back quad,  I realized that not only would none of my friends would be there, but that even most of the faculty I loved and cherished had long-since moved on. The only guy I knew even reasonably well got so wildly drunk early on that he was dismissed from the party and escorted off campus. I didn’t have anything in common with the rich, elderly alumni, who’d all graduated before the school went co-ed, so I sat with the teenagers, at the same dining hall tables, operating under the same rigid rules of tradition and etiquette I’d escaped when I graduated.  I received a series of dirty looks from the same Dean of Students that had once regularly sent me home for dress code violation because I laughed during the headmaster’s pompous introductions. She came over to my table finger raised, demerits at the ready, but could say nothing to tipsy, broke, underachieving, twenty-four-year-old me save “You should know better, Alison.”

I should have. I mean, what did I think would happen? I wasn’t sure school–not this one in particular, but school in general–hadn’t ruined my life.  I slipped out during the pitch for the annual fund and squished around the wet grass to the back of the arts building so I could smoke a cigarette on the loading dock, Sixth Form-style. I thought about trying the stage door, maybe seeing if the Steinway in the practice room was still in tune, but I worried indulging nostalgia would only make me feel worse about the what hadn’ts. I slushed back for another drink and was surprised to find people smoking openly behind the tent. I chatted with woman with a surprising Exene Cervenka vibe for a Boarding School Gala. She was the girlfriend of a new faculty member. She saw me as such a  kindred spirit (I was flattered)that it took her the better part of a vodka and three Parliaments to work out that I was, in fact, an alumna and not another just freaked out spouse

“You don’t seem at all like you went here,” she said. “No offense.”

I thought about telling her the school  had been different when I was there. Some confluence of weird kids, eccentric teachers, and administrative reshuffling meant the old boys and sports boosters didn’t notice that we were coloring outside the lines for a few years. I never knew what happened to that version of the school, but this place was not that place.  I puffed on a cigarette and ignored a current administrator croaked out a no smoking on campus. Inside the tent, I could hear an alumnus saluting a former faculty member I’d always known as a creep to the thunderous applause of several dozen good old boys.

It was also possible, I thought,  my version of the school, the one I remembered so fondly, never really existed at all. I felt a wave of the breathlessness and steadied myself. Don’t think about the breathing. Think about the music in the tent. Is that the Electric Slide? (It was)

“No offense taken,” I said to Exene. “I’m as surprised that I went here as you are.”

v.

I was at work on Tuesday when Dad called. He’d recently started seeing a new someone, a friend of my Aunt’s. She lived just over the mountains in East Tennessee, but her son lived in Asheville and the son had a girlfriend, Jordan, that Dad thought I should meet.

“She says she wants to start a literary magazine. I remembered you’d said you wanted to start a literary magazine too.”

Had I? That sounded like something I’d throw out at peak founder. I had a lot of ideas I’d air when I thought people could literally seek me sinking beneath the waves, theatre company, publishing house, record store, activism.

 “Anyway,” he said. “I said you’d call her today. I think you’d be great friends. Do you want her number?”

I didn’t really.* I imagined Jordan as some delicate linen-trousered nature poet currently enamored of the same New Age creativity guru my dad was reading at the time.  I was sure she’d be nice. Might not have a sense of humor, though. In reality, Jordan was a tall, lanky girl with wide-set, bright blue eyes, and a dreamy, highly expressive way of talking that I believed, for about thirty seconds, to be an affectation until I realized it was just the way Jordan was. Jordan was from Nevada. Like me, she’d found herself degree-less and directionless in her mid-twenties. Unlike me, she’d arrived at that state following an extended Parisian foray. She had a line of Arabic tattooed on her upper arm (it meant different things depending on who was asking) and a boyfriend, a congenial, oblivious giant, she’d followed the three-thousand miles east to Asheville.

I adored her. I knew it immediately. Some friendships are like that. It’s a love at first sight thing that has nothing to do with the visuals (we were hours into our conversation before it dawned on me that Jordan was pretty, even objectively so), and everything to do with knowing you’ve met a person you can say anything to.

We exhausted ourselves on coffee and disclosure, our favorite writers, our mutual affection for Sonic Youth and Patti Smith. I drove her home to her apartment, an unairconditioned garret with slanted ceilings and door frames too low for her oversized boyfriend. We sat on her sofa, taking in the fleeting gasps of cold spring air from her open window, drinking lemon dieter tea bought she’d bought bulk from the discount grocery outlet, and listening to the same scratched Jacques Brel record on repeat. I tried to tell her about the breathing thing. She was completely sympathetic.

We went out to sit on the hallway stairs, our smoke hovering over us in the stale air. Someone from downstairs complained about us smoking in the building, but they were too lazy to come up and threaten us, so we ignored them, and lip-synched along to J’Arrive. I tried to exhale in time to the music. It seemed to help.

 “You know,” she said, “everyone I talk to seems to love this place. I know this is your hometown, but I don’t really like it here.”

“ I don’t either,” I said. “I never have. And I can’t tell you how nice it is to be able to say that aloud without someone making me feel bad.”

I think I cried driving home. I did so for several reasons:  because of the way the stars were glittering over the Parkway bridge, because “Horses” is such a good record, because I hadn’t realized how profoundly lonely I’d been until I wasn’t anymore

vi.

I want to tell you that the moment I met Jordan was the moment I started breathing normally again.

This is not true.

In the end, it turned out my parent’s still-new house hid secret reserves of sheet rock dust behind the walls and above the ceilings. My bedroom, a little one at the end of the upstairs hall hall  above the laundry room, was unnaturally dry and dark, a repository for what was left behind during the construction three years before. The bedroom vent was located in the ceiling my bed and it blew a fine dust down at me all night long. The reason I breathed easier the less time I spent at Mom’s house wasn’t psychosomatic at all. All the great theories, the myriad schools of psychological thought applied to what had been believed to be an imaginary affliction, were useless. It was a boring dust allergy, though it took another round of exams and well-meaning medical professionals wondering whether the whole thing couldn’t be sorted out if I’d get more exercise and they upped my antidepressant dosage   I could tell people were disappointed by my prosaic diagnosis. But I was sure it was Freudian. I bought some Claritin. I opened the windows. My stepfather cleaned out the vent and bought a cover to redirect the airflow. I stopped dreaming I was drowning every night.

It would take a while longer to convince myself I wasn’t.  It was a start, though.

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*Family-based matchmaking, platonic or otherwise, is a total crapshoot. Sure, it had been how I’d ended up meeting both Ivy League in the fifth grade and my best friend freshman year of college (thanks, Mom), but it had also been how I’d ended up on a blind date with a dishonorably discharged Marine, who was the song of my grandmother’s neighbor, Evelyn. That guy had spent the first ten minutes railing against minorities and trying to touch my boobs and the next hour guzzling Michelob Lite direct from pitcher and his shirt  so he could “make his tattoos dance” for an enthusiastic cadre of like-minded cretins in the O’Charley’s bar. When I called Nana to tell her I needed a ride home, she said “Evelyn has always said her grandson had a fragile constitution. She worries he might be too sensitive for this world, poor thing.” And I looked over at my swain, delirious and draped shirtless over a bar table like a beached whale, surrounded by, like, six Woo-ing Limp Bizkit fans, and could only think, that thing on his shoulder, is that a White Power tattoo?

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Do The Collapse

I took a spill on Saturday. I was in the greenway in my mother’s neighborhood, a couple of blocks from its so-called Town Center, a mixed-use artifice that is not, absolutely not, a mall, so don’t even think about calling it that.[1] I was distracted by cluster of rabbits, surprisingly docile, given their proximity to both a highway and the lunch crowd at PF Chang’s. I stumbled, skidded a bit over the trail and went down like I was sliding into third base, leaving a bit of my left side (palm, elbow and shin) on the asphalt as a souvenir. I popped up quickly, assured the joggers pointed toward me that I was fine, fine and continued on. One man, walking, said, Great fall. Nice Recovery. Then, I’m a doctor, as if I’d demanded credentials.

I thanked him. It’s weird to get complimented on falling down well, but it’s not the first time I’ve heard it. I’m the sort of person that falls down a lot. Everywhere. Anywhere. It doesn’t matter what kind of shoes I’m wearing, or how fast I’m going, or what I’m doing when it happens. I’ve fallen at all varieties of altitudes, seasons, and events. On two continents and in at least six countries. Among my favorites: down the grand staircase at the Boston MFA (inside), up the staircase at the Met (outside), down the stairs in a suite in Venice, outside Kilmainham Gaol (Dublin), outside Buckingham Palace, crossing the Seine, crossing the Thames, crossing the Arno, in the middle of Grand Central Station, on stage in “Blithe Spirit,” processing, robed, into chapel with the choir (high school),  and all the way down the front stairs at my mother’s annual formal Holiday Party when I was about twenty-three years old,

I don’t know why I fall down all the time. I suspect it has something to do with my depth perception (not great) or maybe the fact that I’m the kind of easily preoccupied, inclined toward daydream and  regularly accused[2] of “not having the common sense to come up out of the rain.”  I know I’ve been falling since I was a very small child (first major spill was through a glass top coffee table. No, I don’t remember it). I was late to both walking and riding a bicycle, a pariah in ballet class, and I never could do a cartwheel, even when I was five years old.  I’ve never been a real paragon of either flexibility of coordination, even before I got to be a tall-ish fat person afflicted with lots of non-aerodynamic curves. I was always fine in water. But as I am not a mermaid, I’m forced to make my clumsy, unintentionally slapstick way on dry land.

Regular falls have left my appendages a regular mass of scrapes, bruises, and various unsightly blemishes. A friend once told me I had scars like an athlete, which is almost hilarious, up to an including at least one traumatic brain injury. I’m used to people making all sorts of assumptions about my current and former hobbies. Cycling? Mountain Climbing? Boxing? Rugby? Base jumping? Just Sunday, a teenager at a coffeeshop asked my most recent injury—a large wound on the left shin, shaped a little like Illinois—came from skateboarding. I was hugely flattered. Imagine me on a skateboard! That’s so cool I’m almost intimidated by my imaginary self.

When I took up running (long distances, quite slowly), for real, about ten years ago, I got a perverse thrill out of the injuries derived from actually doing something, and not from the ordinary day-to-day of being a human being locked in a pitched struggle against gravity.  I could say, this knee injury comes from training for a half-marathon, instead of, I broke my toe reaching for the shampoo in the shower.

Years ago, one of my best friends wrote a piece about my propensity for spills. She, too, flattered my prowess at falling, and used it to illuminate a greater, metaphorical point about life. She credited me with having a style, some honed talent at the moment of plummet. And I’d like to tell you have I have a strategy for the descent. Relax. Go down easy. Aim for something soft. Car safety specialists advise trying to relax before you crash, because it’s the tension that causes the worst damage.  You know, let go. And if we’re being metaphorical about it, enjoy the ride and don’t worry too much about hitting the ground. My spiritual advisor suggests that there’s a nice view of the stars from the gutter. And I can back this up, sort of. I did once fall in a gutter (not a metaphor) in Austin, TX and coincidentally saw Ethan Hawke cross the street.

But as someone that falls often and repeatedly, let me assure you that you rarely have the luxury of choreographing the way you go down. In fact, half the time I try to take my own advice, I end up this avalanche of wind-milling arms, splayed legs and face first on the sidewalk, hoping like hell I haven’t broken an arm or knocked out a tooth. To be clear, I don’t fall gracefully. I fall like Chevy Chase doing Gerald Ford.

On the other hand, I do get up quickly as possible, smile, tell whoever saw me I’m fine.  Laugh at my own clumsiness. Thank them for their help if they offer, wipe off the dirty, make sure nothing is broken and keep calm and carry on until I’m out of sight or back at home or in a place where I can check to see what’s bleeding without grossing anyone out and wince and whine and sulk about the fact that of course I have no skin on my shin now hours before I was  going to wear my new dress to a fancy party and try to look, like, you know, pretty, which is to say, not visibly scabbed and bruised, but like I’m the sort of woman that can swan—not swan dive–into the room, with real poise. I get over it, because I don’t really have a choice, do I? I put on a face. As good as it’s going to get.  I wear my new dress, and wait patiently, graciously until the first time someone comes at me with  some clever riff on Good lord, what happened to you?

You want the real story or the good story? I ask and tell them I stumbled on the running trail, or came down hard while saving the world from space pirates, or both, knowing that I’m only minutes, hours, days, from the next fall, the next tumble, the next calamity so there’s no use being afraid when it comes.

______________________

[1] It’s a mall.

[2] Often by the very same family members that believe in things like astrology and trickle-down economics, but whatever.

+

Nana at Twilight

I went to spend most of July with my grandmother when I was ten, which was great because this big fancy new mall (much bigger and fancier than the one in Asheville) had recently opened and They. Had. Everything there .

Nana took me out there a few days after July 4, and we spent almost the whole day shopping. I scored a small wardrobe a of layered peach and white summer outfits (totally on trend but made me look exactly like a fat Dreamsicle). Nana went to an expensive boutique, where they sold mostly bedazzled, heavily shoulder-padded silk bomber jackets and sweater coats and I think she bought five.  Afterwards we went to this black and chrome salon down by the multiplex (itself still a novelty) and had our hair done. Nana let me get a real perm which was A DREAM. On the way out of the mall, Nana and I both put on our sunglasses—her big round Jackie Os, my small dime-store knockoffs–and I thought we both looked very cool, so we had dinner just us girls at a new place with mozzarella sticks and spinach dip so you just knew it was sophisticated.

We drove home during the violet hour, the downtown lights starting to flicker on one side of the expressway and that giant neon star glowing at the top of Mill Mountain like a psychedelic fascinator.  Nana hardly ever let me open the car window, because she didn’t like the wind and worried it might upset the cautious way she ashed her cigarettes into a crystal ashtray and not out the window, like a tacky person. That night, though, she permitted it. And I pressed the button  and let the warm summer air unsettle my new curls, as I checked out my sunglass-ed reflection in the rearview.  Nana turned on the stereo, which was only ever Barbra Streisand’s Greatest Hits in those days unless it was Pavarotti, and it was right at my favorite song on the tape, the duet with Donna Summer.

“I find this song very aggressive,” said Nana, finger poised to fast forward to “Evergreen”

“I love it it. It reminds me of New York,” I said, even though I hadn’t yet been to New York.

She let it play. I pretended we were headed to a night club, the sort of place where women wore chiffon dresses and shiny silver sandals, the sort of place that, by 1986, didn’t really exist anymore.   A shimmer of pink went up on the hill, someone’s leftover fireworks, and the air smelled like jasmine and roses and Virginia Slims, but that was probably just Nana.

I remember telling Nana that it was my favorite time of day– that last purple gasp before nighttime and all of its promise of secret thrills. Nana wasn’t entirely convinced; she was more of a morning person. But it strikes me I always liked that time of day because it reminded me of being with her, one of my very first memories, in fact, of wandering through the shimmery, carnival wonderland of the old Myrtle Beach Pavilion on summer nights, her elegant ringed fingers knitted tightly through mine as I stared up in wonder at the gilded swings, the carousel, hotel towers like columns of stars on the very edge of the world before the great endless gray blue sea and all its endless possibilities, as if to keep me in check, for now.

She’d smile down at me, winking, a conspirator. Don’t we always have the best time together?

I’d nod. Yes. 

When we got back to the house, it was fully nighttime. We came in and found Poppy reading in his chair. He told us we looked beautiful. He brought in every single one of our many shopping bags without complaint.

He asked if we’d had a good time.

She winked at me

Of course we did.

We always do.

_________

Postscript(s): Nana’s under the weather on this particular shimmery, hot July evening, so she’s on the mind.

I should note that Nana is indirectly responsible for me getting to meet Donna Summer in person. She was everything, by the way. Almost as much of a goddess as Nana herself.

+

Greatest Hits

Sometime around the beginning of my eighth-grade year, the most popular girl in my class came to school in a tie-dyed Beatles t-shirt and Birkenstocks with her brand name soccer shorts. And suddenly, seemingly overnight, all the girls that had been crushing on George Michael started talking about Jerry Garcia all the time. It was 1989, but at Asheville Junior High School, anyway, the sixties had properly begun.

There were a lot of reasons for this sudden historical blip. It was the 20th anniversary of everything that happened in or around the summer of 1969: Woodstock, the Manson Murders, all our parents’ failing first marriages, the one time the ex-cop that did the Just Say No presentation in your public school district tried pot with his buddy Dave before an Iron Butterfly show but Dave got the acid-laced pot and he will spend the rest of his life in a padded cell believing he is a tall glass of cold orange juice. This is what happens when you do drugs, kids.  Also, we were all about thirteen, on the precipice actual full-fledged teenager-ness and all the sex, drugs and rock and roll that implied, which meant we were at least 80% focused on the possibility of achieving sex, drugs and rock and roll at all times. What decade better illustrated the beautiful and liberating promise of sex, drugs, and rock and roll better than the 1960s?[1] Certainly all the TV movies promised titillating nudity and freedom and much easier access to weed than any of us could work out at the time. And after so many years of popped collars, boat shoes, and tight-rolled jeans, it was as if adolescent America woke up one morning and collectively questioned whether it was ever, truly, hip to be square? Or was that just some lie our ex-hippie parents told us, so they’d feel better about voting for Reagan that one time? (It was)

In any case, the 60s thing was like an infection that roared through the school and left the cafeteria reeking of patchouli and Pink Floyd fans. The kids who’d actually grown up with weirdo commune parents and totally arbitrary dietary restrictions (a not-insignificant population in my hometown) started getting invited to parties and treated as sages.  There was were shocking  number of beads and Baja jackets. The boy who’d scandalized the cafeteria the year previous with his Dead Kennedys t-shirt showed up with round, wire-rimmed glasses the second week of eighth grade, and the girls in Social Studies were all ohmigod, John Lennon.

I’d cut my hair short over the summer to dispense with the remaining bits of spiral perm and quietly adopted a wardrobe of mostly black, following my crash course in New Wave via punk rock Nanny the spring before. I was definitely into fashion but not on trend, certainly any trend that involved crocheted vests and tie-dyed Duke University t-shirts (I mean, seriously). I still wanted to talk about New Order, or, in a pinch, Neneh Cherry or those new Madonna videos, because they were kind of awesome right? I mean, I’d just learned the word ‘transgressive’ and I was dying to  use it to discuss “Like a Prayer.”  And suddenly everybody was flashing peace signs and going on about hobbit-infested Led Zeppelin songs.

As far as the sixties went, I thought maybe I liked The Beatles, a musical opinion about as uncontroversial as I like beaches and fun. Unlike the rest of my generation, I hadn’t grown up on the Beatles. My parents were big music fans, but neither liked nor listened to much of what was traditionally understood (at least in those days) as “classic rock.” Nowhere in either of their record collections would you find a single Beatles LP.[2]  When pressed, they both said they liked “Rocky Raccoon” (kind of a deep cut, but okay) , and Nina Simone’s cover of “Here Comes The Sun,” which my mother played so much when I was toddler that she warped the track on the record.

I thought maybe I’d give The Beatles more of a a shot, because it seemed like something I should know about. So when the next occasion came that I was dropped off at the mall and left to wander with Irish Name through the oddly calming, peach soap scented teal excess of late 80s suburban retail, I slipped into  Record Town and  pulled out copies of The Beatles 1967-1970 and The Beatles 1962-1966 on cassette. I had enough money for one and recognized more songs off the former. “Maybe you should get the other one,” I said. “We can copy them and trade.”

Irish Name looked dubious. Irish Name always looked dubious. She pointed out that the buying a tape would mean she could not afford embroidery floss, and without embroidery floss, she could not make any more friendship bracelets. I looked at her arm. She had on about seventeen, plus a couple skeins worth of thread wrapped around several pieces of hair. I didn’t think she needed any more embroidery floss. “It’s for your own good,” I said.

“What if I don’t like The Beatles?” she asked.

I rolled my eyes and  said something like  “Seriously, Irish name? Everybody likes The fucking Beatles,” relishing  the f-bomb, even if it did come out with a bit of lisp through my braces

When I got home from the mall, I went up to my room, unwrapped the tape, and put on my headphones. I hit play and lay back the pillows, feeling the cross breeze between my two open bedroom windows, as those dreamy, muffled flutes kicked off “Strawberry Fields Forever.” There were abstract strawberries printed between the leaves and vines of the wallpaper. They looked extra red in the golden hour light. And I remember thinking, well this is just about perfect, right before I finally realized for the first time, why the man at the had the supermarket deli counter had sung Alison Fields Forever, when I walked past. Oh, cool. And before I even to the second track (“Penny Lane”) or even second verse, I tumbled head first into  my first real music obsession.

%%

Does everyone go through an intense Beatles phase?  It certainly seems that way.  The song, then maybe the Greatest Hits, then the individual records.  Maybe Sgt. Pepper first because it’s Sgt. Pepper and you expand out in either direction, getting to the White Album on a birthday or special occasion because it’s a double album and expensive.  Maybe you got to “Happiness in a Warm Gun” a little faster if you’re younger than I am came up with the internet. You also had Wikipedia to read up on the individual songs instead of checking out books in the library and combing through back issues of magazines. Maybe you Google-mapped Liverpool, street-viewed Penny Lane, followed Paul McCartney on Instagram, and saw all the pictures of all the eras without having to spend your babysitting money on  some overpriced scam of a fan rag in the magazine racks at B.Dalton But I don’t mean to uphill, both ways in the snow you. An obsession is an obsession, no matter what speed technology allowed it to be played at.

Mine took about a year before I got to the point that I could authoritatively tell you my favorite Beatles record (Revolver) or happily bore perfect strangers with the stories about lyric puns and anecdotes about George Martin. It was at least a few months before I started dreaming up elaborate, embarrassing alternate histories in which a wildly talented, fantastically beautiful, impeccably Mod avatar of me became both a muse and a musical collaborator (in later versions, she would also have a thing with Bob Dylan before touring with Bowie, and then moving to New York to hang out with Warhol and Lou Reed and  whole crowd at Max’s Kansas City because of course, she would), because the worst thing about getting into music as a teenage girl is realizing how few interesting parts there are  for you in the story if you’re not interested in visualizing yourself as wife  or groupie, and the girls that are interesting usually end up getting blamed for ruining everything.

Irish Name tried to keep up for a while. She dutifully dubbed her tapes for me. She really liked “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da.” But she was a reasonably sane and normal human being, for whom music was something you sang along to on the way to school or played in your bedroom as ambient background noise. She didn’t need to know the precise mechanics of how “Day in the Life” worked. She wasn’t interested in every song that inspired “Norwegian Wood” and then every song it would go on to inspire (she wasn’t even interested in whether the lyrics were about arson or not). She didn’t need to borrow my copy of “The Lives of John Lennon,” and no, it wasn’t just because her youth pastor told her it was libel or sinful (or maybe both).  Even Ivy League, my friend most likely to follow deep into nerd territory, started glazing over when I did the whole but did you hear that? That sound? Wasn’t that the coolest thing you’ve ever heard? Want me to play it again? Should we start a band?

 It might have been Ivy League’s tacit reminder that I might be better off occasionally shifting back to what are you wearing to eighth grade formal that kept me in check. And to be clear, I wasn’t only about the Beatles, even then. I did theatre. I was way into Gothic novels. I was in love with John Cusack and River Phoenix. I might have addressed my diary to Hey Jude for a while (true), but I still copied Cure lyrics, and made field trip mix tapes with R.E.M., the Violent Femmes, the B-52s, and “Vogue.” I was learning how music worked, in  its mechanical sense, via weekly piano lessons that had only, in the last year, started to pay off with these beautiful, complicated pieces that made me feel like an actual musician and not just a wrist and fat fingers pounding out scales. I was starting to arrive at conclusions about what I liked, whether it was music or books or art or ideas. For the first time I could remember, it didn’t feel like I was just parroting the opinions of a person I wanted to be like, but establishing the foundations the person I thought I could be.

It’s weird the think of The Beatles catalog—this hugely popular, almost universally beloved pop cultural monolith—as tool to refine a  very personal notion of taste and identity. But because it’s The Beatles, nobody really pays attention when you dig around for your own thing. There’s always lot of other people in those stacks. And it doesn’t really matter if any of them agree that with you that “I’m Only Sleeping” is the secretly the best song on “Revolver.”

Being a music fan, once you strip away the conversations about gear and process and cultural import, is still a subjective, emotional thing. And when you’re a young woman listening to pop music, there’s always some part of you that is the “you” in the songs written by men, which is (or at least was) most of the songs, and often times picking a new favorite is like getting seduced by the best pick up line. At fourteen, I figured out that I kind of liked ones that came with a a little grit under the nails, a suggestion of danger, some  barely restrained anger, because, like, my baseline is always a little furious, even, maybe especially when I’m feeling flirty, so we’ll have that in common. I don’t mind if a clever song gets a little fresh every now and then, so long as it can turn a phrase (all definitions). And, if  you’re going to trot out a dumb platitude or make some hokey declaration in the chorus, you better come out strong and  make me believe you mean it. Because I listen to a lot of music, guys. I’ve heard it before and probably better. Like, Otis Redding better.

I spent a lot time trying to sort myself out  by trying to figure out who my favorite Beatle was.  It never went well. I wanted to say it was Paul.  His was the face I stared at most often on the poster—the only band poster, incidentally, on my bedroom wall. Paul was cute. He wrote cute songs. He seemed nice-ish, for a probably egomaniacal rock star. Elvis Costello liked him. The cool kids were always into George, because George honestly seemed like he never had to try very hard to be the coolest.  Being into Lennon was such a try-hard, rookie move, mostly predicated on the whole saintly, hippie Jesus thing that felt sort of post-Beatles and definitely post-assassination. I hated “Imagine” (and the accompanying video, which I hold at least partially responsible for the enduring popularity of white wall-to-wall carpet among Baby Boomers).  Also, he was abusive, neglectful, and mean. A not-great friend. A seriously bad boyfriend. But, my favorite Beatles songs[3] were mostly more on the Lennon side of the Lennon/McCartney partnership. And I  liked the smirky round-faced Lennon that was too clever by half in early interviews, the guy that introduced, then sang “Twist and Shout,” in a way that perhaps made the Queen Mum blush. Even then, at fourteen, I was beginning to realize my personal weakness for bastards probably meant that most of my favorite artists would end up being problematic men.  Why would my favorite Beatle be any different?

Just after spring break of my eighth-grade year, family friends in England sent me a Beatles t-shirt in a box postmarked from Liverpool, which I found thrilling.  I wore the shirt to school with red plaid miniskirt, footless tights, and a floppy felt hat I thought was a bit Dorothy Parker but was actually a lot “Blossom.” I felt like I was  communicating a solid, I can appreciate this music of the  60s without betraying my own carefully-curated, O% earth-tone aesthetic. I might have even pulled it off. The  popular girl, the one who’d kicked it all off with her own t-shirt the semester previous, even complimented mine between classes.

She told me that her parents were taking her to see Paul McCartney in Raleigh over the summer. She was thrilled. Paul  was her favorite Beatle. “Who’s yours?”

“Yoko,” I said, and from her expression, immediately realized this might be why I’m going to have a hard time making friends.

 %%

My parents were  slow to pick up on the intensity of the whole Beatles thing. That was partly on me– I always thought letting people in on the things you liked the most was a recipe for disappointment or disaster. So I was in high school by the time Mom started sticking Beatles-related tchotchkes in my Christmas stocking. By then, I didn’t listen to the Beatles all that much anymore. It wasn’t that I didn’t still like them–of course, I still liked them, I also still liked beaches and fun– but there was so much else, a whole musical universe expanding every time I turned on the radio or went to the record store or met a new friend or went to a show or read the reviews in the back of the magazines.  There was Glam and Punk and Disco and Hip-Hop. There were The Kinks. There was The Clash. There was David Bowie. There was Prince. There was Public Enemy.  There was My Bloody Valentine and The Pixies and PJ Harvey and Sonic Youth. There were some real solid daily benefits to being in boarding school with a bunch of fellow music-obsessives in the early 1990s.

At the end of my junior year of high school, I was walking down out of class one afternoon when my mother and future stepfather pulled up and staged an abduction. They drove me about thirty miles down the road before they told me where we were going. “To see Paul McCartney.” Mom and Stepdad beamed. “Aren’t you thrilled?”

I was. I would have been thrilled at any chance to skip part of the school day. And Paul McCartney. I mean, the Beatles had been the center of my world, absolutely foundational. Seeing Paul McCartney was amazing, important musical milestone, even if it was different than it would have been two years earlier, even if I did so at peak seventeen year old, ohmigod, I’m so embarrassed, PARENTS!

We had a great time at the show. Future stepdad was a fan, and sang along to every song, telling stories on the way to and from seeing the Stones and the Who, off hitchhiking from Raleigh to Seattle in the summer of 1968. Unlike my parents, he was was committed classic rock fan. I remember thinking, if I’d had you around during the junior school 60s redux years, I might have actually known who Neil Young was or sussed out the difference between Lyrnyd Skynrd and The Allman Brothers much earlier. Of course, then I might have skipped my own meandering path. I might have suffered through an embarrassing Doors phase. I might not have spent junior high school taking the long way through the Beatles discography on the way to whatever came next . . .maybe hip hop, maybe indie rock,  maybe working in a record shop, maybe writing a song.  

%%

 A couple of nights ago ,after a conversation about a movie I probably will not see, I had a hankering to pull out the old records. These days, that’s as easy as hitting a button on an app and boom– the whole discography, plus the singles and outtakes.  I don’t remember the last time I listened to Beatles albums in a concentrated way, but the experience feels a lot like returning to your old favorite vacation spot and forgetting how much cool shit you get to see along the way, with all the fine details crackling under the surface. I just listened “Lady Madonna,” a song I frankly find annoying, but Sunday Morning creeping like a nun? That’s kind of a killer line.  Next up is “Strawberry Fields Forever.” I think I might take it on the headphones and sit out on the deck at  summertime golden hour.  If I close my eyes at just the right moment, I might be able to fit in a little time travel before dinner.

___________________________________

[1] For starters, the 1970s.

[2] They did have a copy  of the first McCartney solo record, and bafflingly, a still shrink-wrapped copy “Double Fantasy,” that both claimed to have never seen before in their lives.

[3] Like you thought I wouldn’t list them. Come on. I didn’t spend fourteen years at a record store for nothing.

  1. A Day in the Life
  2. Happiness is a Warm Gun
  3. I Feel Fine
  4. I’m Only Sleeping
  5. Paperback Writer
  6. In My Life
  7. Tomorrow Never Knows
  8. Hard Day’s Night
  9. Norwegian Wood
  10. Twist and Shout
  11. Eleanor Rigby
  12. Baby, You’re A Rich Man
  13. And Your Bird Can Sing
  14. For No One
  15. This Boy
  16. Things We Said Today
  17. I’ve Just Seen A Face
  18. Dear Prudence
  19. Come Together
  20. Across the Universe
+

On Pride

I’m a cis woman and I’m heterosexual-ish. I have moments. I have slightly more than incidental tendencies, according to some one or another Kinsey scale test I took in college. There is Samira Wiley.  There was Katherine Hepburn in “Sylvia Scarlett” and a fair number of 21st century women  who look a little like Katherine Hepburn in “Sylvia Scarlett.” There is the  fantasy version of me that I do not and will not ever look like. She’s a lanky, androgynous gamine who looks good in both evening gowns and tailored suits with glam rock make-up and flirts devilishly with basically any and all that cross her path. What is the slightly more feminine version of rakishly handsome? Whatever that is, that’s what she is.

Actual me is 99% childbearing hips, and zero flirt game.  What’s the more feminine version of schlubby? Frumpy, perhaps? And actual me is mostly attracted to men, a wide variety of men. Even if, half the time, I couldn’t possibly tell you why. Even if, most of the time, those men find me befuddling if I’m doing anything other than discussing records, books, history or politics. Even though all the conventional trappings of heterosexual romance—marriage, babies, antiquated power dynamics, division of labor, uncomfortable underwear, Coldplay–are not things that have ever really appealed to me.

People—typically other straight people—have regularly made assumptions about who I am and what I’m into and who I like for most of my adult life. I don’t mind being read as queer (although it’s a touch awkward when it’s someone you love, lovingly encouraging you to come out of the closet, and you have to be like, actually, Dad . . .) As a woman, especially a woman among lots of straight men, sometimes it’s even a convenience. I do correct people, though. I do correct people, in general, not because I’ve taken offense, but so I don’t end up inadvertently appropriating some plotline that does not belong to me or giving advice that’s not mine to give.

 This past Friday, a pick-up truck slowed in the lane beside me as I was walking home from the salon. The driver honked and when he had my attention, the man in passenger seat rolled down his window and snarled, with real committed hatred, Fat Dyke, before zipping off down Rosemary Street.

It was a sunny summer afternoon. I had a fresh new haircut and a gorgeous pair of giant sunglasses, the color of pistachio gelato. I think I looked more than a little fabulous. Fat dyke is such old news of an insult, and has been lobbed at me so many times, in so many permutations, from so many people, since at least grade school that it’s almost weird when I don’t hear it for a while. But that day, it happened that I was standing between the rainbow-flagged streetlights in the center of town on the fiftieth anniversary of the Stonewall Riots.

And all I could think was how impossibly tragic, how unimaginative, how ugly and boring, that somebody, even thousands of somebodies can still think that gay (or some derivation of) is an aberration, an insult, a way to alienate people because of who they are or who they love. It would be pitiable were it not for the fact that the world is crowded with religious zealots, regressive bigots, and the legions of righteous assholes who still believe they do the lord’s work through violence and repression.

It really doesn’t seem like it should be so hard to exist in the world, to love who you love and be who you are, without qualification or apology, without fear or prejudice, without constant worry that any hard-won civil rights may be ripped away at a moment’s notice because those assholes in the truck are electing cleaned-up versions of themselves to write laws and appoint justices to the bench

I am not all interested in letting those guys have more of a say in our lives than a dumb comment out a passing truck window. And to be clear: I’m here for whatever, whenever, however long it takes to make that so. You can call me whatever you want. I  promise won’t take offense.  I’m sure I’ve heard it before.

Happy Pride, everybody.

+

Midsummer

The moth thudded against the window at 11:45. Ringer jumped, even though she knew it was coming. “Never fails to surprise me,” she said.

I looked up at the plate glass. The moth glowed milky green, its thorax furred, its eyes fiery orange. The dimensions were preposterous, nearly primeval. One of the Fairview boys slapped his fist against the glass and goggled. “That wing-ed fucker is as big as my hand.”

I dug around in my bag for silver change to cover six-times-refilled coffee. The moth’s arrival was clear sign I should go home. It’s getting late. I have work tomorrow. Some of the rest of them did too, but they were all teenagers. They worked fast food and mall retail. They were making minimum wage and kept their nametags pinned to jeans pockets and backpack straps so they wouldn’t forget them. The oldest among them had just turned twenty-one, or maybe he was still just twenty, with already silver-tinged beard scruff of a much older man.

I was twenty-four. I had an office job and an ugly Ann Taylor blazer draped over the fake woodgrain and orange vinyl. I told myself that the blazer made me feel like a grown-up, but I was living with and working for my mother, as I had for the entirety of the last tedious year, allowing a bit of my tiny paycheck to be withheld each period to pay back squandered college tuition a bit at a time and spending the rest on records and the therapist that refused to see me unless I paid him myself. He was expensive but managed to convince my hypochondriac parents that my grand lingering depression was just that. Perhaps a little malaise, a soupcon of ennui,  a touch of atrophied will, which sounded like a Shakespearean euphemism for impotence. It was not, he assured them, whatever remembered chapter from abnormal psych they’d recollected in between the awkward phone calls divorced people make when they’re trying to work out whether they’re daughter is a suicide risk or just being dramatic.

Both, if we’re being honest

I was still in work clothes because I hadn’t been home since 8:30 am because there’s only so much time an adult human being can spend at her mother’s house without feeling like an invalid. I stayed at the office late writing and abusing the office internet to download  New Zealand indie bands off Napster, but still it was only nine when I left and there were only so many hours you could spend making long distance calls and smoking cigarettes in your mother’s garage before being overwhelmed by the hopelessness of it all. The diner, though, glowed greasy yellow at Mom’s exit off the highway, its parking lot full of shitty, stickered teenager cars, and the interior smogged with griddle steam and cigarette smoke. 24/7. Even during hurricanes.

It felt appropriate to hang out with teenagers, because I felt like a teenager. I may have resembled an adult in costume and aspect, but my mother still sat up waiting for me to come home. I could not be grounded or punished, per se, but her late night would equal morning crankiness which could mean  reprisals for my workplace shortcomings, for my abdication of adult responsibility, for the hard-to-discuss way I eschewed networking and professional events in favor of hanging out with eighteen-year olds. How old are those kids at the Waffle House? Young. They were young. Young enough to mistake me for cool. Young enough to not catch the whiff of chronic fuck-up wafting off me like cheap cologne. Young enough to never look disappointed when it was only me that showed up like a Ghost of Bungled Adulthood Yet to Come.

Art Night watched my scrounging and gave me a solid, got you covered, which made me feel awful because she a was younger than I was. I collected my things and slipped out through the throng of bellowing boys in baggy shorts and seventeen-year-old girls, all vocal fry and sparkly butterfly clips, away to home, and my mother in her bathrobe, waiting in the leather chair, you know I can’t go to sleep until you’re home safely.

 She started turning out the lights as soon as I walked in the back door.

“Don’t forget we have a meeting in the morning,” she said.

ii

We had a meeting in the morning. New client. I took notes between doodles of ballgowns in a University-branded notebook I bought for the Latin American Literature class I never bothered to drop the spring previous. I half-listened in the meeting, writing  down meaningless fragments, in light of recent market trends, punchy corporate mission statement innovative means of communicating, our quarterly reports suggest, outside the box, seize a more tech-centered campaign like I was doing free verse on jargon night. Every now and then I raised my head and nodded, or cleaned my glasses thoughtfully and said something like, “how interesting” or “that sounds like an exciting challenge” which seemed like the sort of thing a professional adult would do.  In spite of all this, we still managed to get the account.

Afterwards I went to lunch with Geranium, an older woman who worked down the hall. We ate salads in name only and drank vats of iced tea at a restaurant that tried very hard to look like it wasn’t a buffet steakhouse six months ago. It almost succeeded. Geraniums and were co-authoring a bodice ripper about cowboys and cheerleaders in our spare time. It wasn’t going well. My attempts at genre always ended up being weird, digressive and kind of depressing. The last chapter I’d turned in was a bit of stream-of-consciousness about death and social class and the Alamo as symbol of the corrupt American mythos. Alison, darlin’, I thought you were supposed to be writing a sex scene? 

Still, the hypothetical book provided the pretext for us to hang out, which often translated  riding around her in her Suburban getting stoned and listening to her endless collection of 1970s era bubblegum pop. She never stopped trying to convert me– a committed blasphemer and solid rosé on the pinko scale–to John Birch conservatism and/or the evangelical church. I tolerated it, because I was in it for the wandering details of her biography, which began with some folkloric meeting of an itinerant Irish musician and a diner waitress in eastern Kentucky and comprised two continents and a cast of characters allegedly including Elvis Presley, Bobby Sands, Bob Geldof, Billy Graham and Bob Guccione Sr. I’d sit rapt, head against her passenger window, as she spun her tales. I couldn’t offer much in exchange. I believed my life story to be depressing or, worse, boring, and my opinions would only start fights. So I’d just tell her about my dreams.

I was at a party on a warm spring night and it smelled like grass and rain. There were bonfires and giant moths and people dancing and a bearded man with the kindest face asked me to walk with him down to the stream. We waded out into the cool water and he reached down and picked up the muddy, mossy stones in the current. “You think these are nothing special,” he said, as he washed them off, “but each one is a whole world.” And each stone glowed like a planet. It was beautiful I woke up crying.

 Geranium believed the young man in the dream might be Satan, and the dream was a clear sign he was trying to get my soul and possibly into my pants. “I went to a party very much like that at my grandmother’s farm in County Sligo. She was a powerful sorceress who practiced black magic, and on that night, Satan tried to seduce me. I remember Van Morrison was singing. But I am telling you: I ran as fast as I could back to Jesus.”

I had so many questions I wanted to ask. Ooh, a real witch? Like, corporeal Satan? Was he wearing leather pants? Like, corporeal Van Morrison? God, I hope he wasn’t wearing leather pants.  Was it like a psychedelic Yeats poem? Because that’s what I’m picturing. Is any of this real? Why do I never get invited to cool parties?

iii

“You should come to my birthday party,” said Ringer, when I looked up from my journal. I’d been trying to record Geranium’s most recent story about the challenges of trying to socialize as a teenaged lapsed Catholic-turned-evangelical-Christian after Satanic seduction in Troubles-benighted Belfast.

I probably blinked and noticed the moth was back on the glass, this time, beside Art Night’s head. I could see Apollo, Ringer’s brother, in the booth beyond, holding court with a group of younger boys, and his girlfriend, Cranberries. He’d been the reason I’d ended up coming to The Diner at all. We were friends, close friends even, by one of those needs-charts-to-explain social lineages. But we’d started to drift apart over the summer for reasons too stupid and boring to explain and I felt like I’d hardly spoken to him in months, which is how I ended up hanging out with his sister.

Ringer invited me again and clarified that she was not just doing it because I was legally allowed to buy alcohol. Other people will bring beer, she said. They have fake IDs. I hadn’t thought of that. I asked if her parents would be there. They would, but you remember from New Years’. I did. It had felt like Neverland. I’d ended up ringing in the millennium with Art Night and Ringer and flat champagne and then crashing in a former servant’s quarters, then housing a futon mattress, a tattered poster of Jim Morrison’s grave, and a depressed, gray iguana. It was freezing cold in that room. I slept in my coat, my back to ominous tiny doors into the eaves, from which I swore I heard whispers all night. The next morning I crept down the back stairs early, after being shocked to overhear that the parents had been in the house all along.

 I didn’t know if it was appropriate for a twenty-four-year-old woman to attend an eighteen-year old’s birthday party . There might be legal implications. On the other hand, I couldn’t remember the last time I’d been invited to an actual party, not a thing my parents threw, or one of those events where you stand around in an ill-fitting, pastel Gap twinset and pretend to care bout a man a polo shirt prattling on about an article in Fast Company.

“Tell me you’ll come to the party,” says Ringer.

“Sure,” I said,”

iv.

Apollo and Ringer lived in a kind of a petite chateau of Gatsby-vintage, fitted with high gables, a round tower,  and capacious grounds, featuring both an overgrown, high-hedged rose garden and a swampy folly of a waterwheel. Their parents had bought it for a song back when my hometown was less fashionable. The house had been a bit of a fixer-upper. They’d mostly never gotten around to the  fixing , which gave the place a comfortably Gothic, what-if-Wes-Anderson-directed-a-Shirley-Jackson-adaptation feel.

My sister agreed to come along to the party. She was nineteen, home from college, and herself a regular at the diner. Our mother and stepfather were both out of town, so we were on our own. We could stay out all night and no one would wait up to. I’m not spending the night over there, she told me on the way over. You’re going to have to figure out some way to drive us home. I didn’t mind her saying it. Having a  harge made me feel responsible, more like a chaperone than a vampire.  

We arrived at the Chateau at about seven. I deposited beer in the refrigerator, filled a cup with ice and mixed a gin and tonic  from the contents of my bag, because I may have been at a teenage party, but I was not a savage and went outside to watch throngs of teenagers wandering up the  long driveway through the forest and into the shadows of the house.

Apollo set up to play music on a half-moon terrace with his new band—at that point, a second guitarist and bassist, both Diner denizens, selected for their knowledge of sun-struck California pop-punk. They hadn’t yet found a drummer. Apollo  plugged in and feedback screamed through the evening. He thanked us all for coming, adopted a shredding stance and silenced the crickets and treefrogs with his first riff.

They weren’t terrible, even in abbreviated debut. Apollo  was a talented musician. His new band kept up admirably. The audience bobbed their heads roughly in time with the absent backbeat, as if it were totally normal to hear a drum-less distorted wail of guitars at Happy Hour, al fresco, in Asheville’s fanciest neighborhood. The song concluded. Apollo checked the setlist and chugged right into track two.

I shouldn’t have been surprised by the cops showing up. Apollo’s neighborhood was a famous for opulent architectural anachronism, elaborate driveways, and a rigid social pecking order of boring rich white people rigorously maintained by keeping out pretty much everyone, including other  boring rich white people that were not boring, rich or white enough or in the right way. They also maintained their own local government and police force, the latter famous for pulling over any car that looked inexpensive upon the moment it crossed the  town line. I figured the dented pick-up trucks and punk rock stickered pieces of shit lining the verdant street at the bottom of Apollo’s driveway would have been enough to summon SWAT teams, and then came the power chords.

The cops flashed the lights once in the driveway. I worried  they’d arrest me for simply being there Exactly what does a person have to do to contribute to the delinquency of a minor? Bum them a cigarette? Buy a bottle of champagne?  Buy two bottles of champagne? Tell them there is no God?  I sort of shirked off to the side, so I was half-hidden behind two or three different boys named Brian.

Apollo, no longer roaring, stood mute at the mic as Ringer tried to explain. “It’s my birthday,” she said. “They were just playing me a song.”

“It was a very loud song,” said one of the cops. “You can’t really do that outside at night in, like, a neighborhood.”

I could see Apollo at the mic, chewing on the word night. It was 7:30 in June, which meant it looked, for all intents and purposes, like about 4 in the afternoon. I focused all my thoughts and hoped I might telepathically communicate don’t argue without having to leave my hiding place.

The other cop, nosier than his compatriot, took a long look at the teenagers in the driveway and surmised that we were obviously having a party. “Y’all underage? You got drugs? Alcohol?”

He asked it in such a casual way, I wondered if he just wanted a drink. Most of the crowd had frantically hidden their beer under ferns and behind decorative features in the tangle of garden, so that barely more than a cursory glance would reveal a veritable orchard of Pabst cans and cider bottles, sprouting through the ivy.

One of the cops looked in my direction and  of the Brians shifted to reveal me, in party dress, still holding my cocktail.

“She’s not underage,” said someone, from the crowd.

The cops regarded me with a long stare, as if trying to work out whether I was a parent or a family member or a staff member, a boozy old governess, perhaps. But before whatever questioning began, Apollo’s parents pulled into the driveway behind the cop car. The father what seems to be the problem, officer-ed the situation into some quiet sideline negotiation, while the mother told us they’d come as soon as they heard the band start playing.

“We could hear you boys all the way from the dining room of the country club,” she said. “A bit loud, but very energetic.”

I watched the cops back the car out of the driveway, following a handshake with Apollo’s dad. He gestured for his wife, as he strode toward the front door.

She smiled beatifically. I’d returned to my previous hiding place, but Apollo’s mom already had me in her sights. “Oh and Alison,” she said. “Lovely to see you. Please tell your mother I said hello.”

She went in the house, where she’d stay the rest of the night.

Then, strangely enough, the party started.

v.

At 2am, I stood in the powder room of the chateau, trying to work out which of the dozen or so tarnished silver butter knives left on the sink counter would most effectively open the knob-less, linenfold door. I thought about Geranium’s Irish party, maybe because I could hear a bad punk rock cover of Van Morrison coming in through the window. None of the kids had yet revealed themselves to be agents of Satan or show me magical stones that turned into planets, but I thought I might explore the rose garden in a bit, and maybe there I’d find something, a flower, a mythological creature, blooming beneath the sea of brambles.

Outside the bathroom, the foyer was empty save a couple of frogs, one small and green, one large and pimply brown, who’d hopped in through the open front door. They ribbited.  I gave them a salute.

I found Apollo by looking for his blonde hair, shining silver in the moonlight. He sat  by the garden hedge, a pale prince at the head of a chattering circle of spiky hair and camel lights. “There are frogs in your house,” I said.

“Yeah,” he said. “I know. They’re there all the time.”

I shrugged and sat down beside Cranberries, who’d told me several times throughout the night that she didn’t think I was cool. It stung a bit given that she was, like, an actual child. I tried to work up a froth about it, but that was impossible given that it was manifestly true. She sighed like oh, great, her again when I sat beside her.  Of all the kids at the party, including her boyfriend, she seemed to be the only one to register what an abject shambling disaster I was, that this is what failure looks like, no matter how many ironic t-shirts you put on to try and gussy it up. She turned her eyes on me, glasses reflecting the pink party light temporarily installed over the front door, and gave me a withering look, like, why are you still here, weird old lady?

 Excellent fucking question. I took a sip of flat Pabst, found that someone had ashed in it and spat it out into the grass. Cranberries laughed. I seethed, indignant. I remember thinking, God, what a callow little bitch. I can’t wait for her to go to college, so I never have to see her again, which was both hilarious in retrospect and probably the most thought I’d ever given to the woman who’d, end up being my very best friend.

She exited stage left with Apollo leaving me to watch as one after another guest fell, often in place, across the lawn, throughout the gardens. Depending on how you looked at them, they appeared peaceful as sleeping shepherds, Endymions in the moonlight, or casualties of some attempted siege of a stately home .

Just before dawn, Art Night and I made several rounds with trash bags and recycle bins between the bodies. We sat in two chairs, brightly colored  and child-scaled, at the top of the lawn, as the glittery night faded into morning.

“Do you think we should do something about them?” I asked, gesturing to the bodies. “They’re probably getting eaten alive by mosquitos.”

Art Night shrugged. “I’m pretty sure we can’t move them.”

I was pretty sure she was right.

My sister appeared below in the rosy light. She walked up the hill and asked if I would take her home.

We walked down the driveway to my car. “You see the moth?” my sister asked. “It was a big one, just like the one from The Diner. It lit on your car earlier. Under the streetlight. “

“The moth follows that crowd everywhere,” I said.

But I thought, for a moment, maybe the moth just following me, reminding me how late it was getting and  that it was long past time to move on.

I

+

Munich 2000

An elegant American woman walks into a famous biergarten flanked by her two daughters. The eldest, an overweight depressed twenty-four-year-old in a frayed gray wool sweater and a thrift-store jacket steps haltingly and gazes out over the arched vaults and the massive novelty beer steins clanked against the long tables emblazoned with the primitive scrawl of past patrons in time to the Oom-Pah band playing on a distant stage.

She might look studious to you, adjusting her unfashionable wire-rimmed glasses and scrambling to take notes in a battered black notebook, but give her half a chance and she’ll tell you she’s an indebted drop-out from a mediocre state university, who’s been living with her parents these last twelve months while her best friends are starting graduate school. The younger is a beautiful nineteen-year-old with long golden hair and four years of high school German. She takes one look at the international array of beer-drinking young men stretched out as far as the eye can see, fastens on her most confident smile and prances off to practice her feminine wiles on a table of broad-shouldered Australians.

The American woman is set upon by two middle-aged German businessmen who set about ordering rounds of drinks for all three women, despite the growing scowl on the eldest daughter’s face, initiated in part by the incessant Ein Zwei G’suffa-ing. The eldest daughter notes the myriad displays of beery testosterone surrounding her little sister (now half a beer hall away) and thinks it’s not at all surprising that this place was a launching pad for the Nazi Party. Which would be hard enough to ignore even if she weren’t surrounded by legions of shouting, fist-pumping white boys, all wearing the same polo shirt and Patagonia jacket, regardless of their nation of origin.

“Doesn’t this place freak you out just a little bit?” she asks,

Her mother turns and looks perplexed. “Why would it?”

The grinning German businessmen, seated on each side of her mother, give the daughter a couple of smarmy smiles. Smiles that seem to say go ahead, say it. Say Hitler. Make your mother and sister have a lousy time. Make them feel guilty for passing the Dachau exit on the highway without so much as a word. Make yourself feel better, self-righteous American. It’s not like we haven’t heard it all before. But the daughter just shrugs. “Guess I’m just feeling a little claustrophobic is all,” she says in a massive room of hive-shaped vaults.

Her mother pats her hand. “Why don’t you step outside for a moment? Get some fresh air.” The grabs her bag and obliges. The mother turns back to the businessmen and asks all about their new vacation homes in Florida.

 

##

 

The three women have been in Germany for five days. They landed in Frankfurt and drove to Heidelberg, where they spent two nights in a charming, if threadbare hotel overlooking the elaborate old bridge spanning the Neckar River. They traveled south to Bad Wimpfen, though Stuttgart and into Bavaria. Along the way, they meandered through Heilbronn, where the woman’s husband (and the girl’s father) had been based for several years in the early 70’s, when the most failsafe means of avoiding Vietnam was enlisting for a stint in Germany.  They visited the village of Affaltrach, where their mother and father had rented the upstairs of a red-roofed cottage over an elderly painter and his wife. And they had driven down the road to take tea with an old woman who remembered their mother as a smiling twenty-one-year old girl on a bicycle eager to make friends with a few phrases of broken German.

So far, the eldest daughter has liked Heidelberg the best for its gingerbread side streets and dollhouse architecture. Something about the history. The Winter Queen. That beautiful wreck of the castle, still clinging to the side of the hill above town like a lazy snaggle-toothed beast evoked some remembered dream landscape, both lovely and unnerving. She took about three rolls of film at the castle.  She has a thing about decay, especially decay on a grand scale. And she’s been obsessing over abandoned factories and burnt old old houses for close to a decade. “I love any town than can turn something half burnt and demolished into a picturesque tourist attraction,” she says, and snaps another picture of a pile of rubble. Her mother rolls her eyes, likely thinking that her eldest daughter is still a little bit crazy, if less crazy than she was a year ago. The daughter poses for a photograph on a high step, surrounded by pockmarked stone faces, missing noses and ears. She considers whether their real-life models, several centuries back, had ever looked so bad in life.  Or if they’d managed to die young and pretty, leaving their scars to their memorials, like some post-mortem Dorian Gray.

The eldest daughter drinks a lot during the days in Heidelberg, she huddles over the bar at the ubiquitous Irish pub, just around the corner from their hotel (next door to a head shop called Head Shop and a sex shop called Sex Shophow sad that the people responsible for “schadenfreude” must be so literal with English-speaking tourists around–and makes eyes at the angular English bartender, whose double masters in German and Economics strike the girl as somewhat amusing. “Does that mean you’re a Marxist?” she asked him early one afternoon while her mother and sister shopped at a boutique down the block. “No, it just means I’m unemployable,” he said. “Better to serve pints to American tourists in a lovely town than go broke trying to pay for an ugly flat in Leeds.” A fair point. He wiped down the bar and the daughter resisted the urge to tell him he had very nice hands and thoughtful eyes and that she would be available later on that evening to debate economic theory with or without clothes if he were so inclined.

She visited a record store and felt completely at ease for the first time since she stepped off the plane in Frankfurt, painfully aware that her lack of modern languages branded her a typical, unsophisticated American. Whenever she  finds herself away from home, she goes looking for record stores. Safe havens. Asylums for the perennially awkward, their slightly dusty vinyl smell as comforting as a security blanket. The girl and boy behind the counter were  helpful. The daughter buys a Kraftwerk record, and the daughter admits that it’s probably a cliché.

“But better than buying a beer stein or a cuckoo clock,” she said.

The male cashier laughed and asked the daughter if she intended to buy Serge Gainsbourg records in France.

“Maybe,” said the daughter.

(She did).

##

 

It’s that I’m seeing the wrong things, thinks the eldest daughter as she stands in the square outside the famous beer hall, chain-smoking cigarettes and listening to a jazz trio across the street play “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” Germany is castles, forests, mountain peaks. It is Beethoven, Goethe, the Brothers Grimm.  And yet, she still sees spectral Nazis haunting the nooks and crannies between the glockenspiel and the gothic spires

It’s not that she is sore at Germany as a whole. The daughter went to an American high school with a not-insignificant German contingent. She spent hours with them, out of context, discussing fashion and pop music and the frustrating administrative encroachments that are the hallmark of boarding school life. She smoked pot with a girl from Stuttgart. She got teary and sentimental when the girl from Berlin told of watching the wall come down and meeting a whole city full of neighbors for the first time in her life. It’s that she doesn’t quite know how to feel about Germany. There’s some cognitive dissonance to walking around towns that look as if they were the pop-up illustrations from a child’s picture book and thinking Gestapo.  Of course, fairy tales themselves are the sugar filigree constructed around dark matter. The witch’s candy cottage. The wolf in grandmother’s bonnet. The magic that requires the life of a child as payment.

It’s not that she blames anyone. She can’t. She is a white American protestant of reasonable means, whose own family spent the war years flying planes and dancing to Glenn Miller. And she is also a Southerner, a lifelong resident of place with its own intolerable past and heir to a history she’s can’t defend. There is no polite way to ask the two young German girls in front of the cafe, her age or a little younger, what their strategy is for dealing with what their grandparents could have, may have, probably did sixty years ago. Not even if she were to preface it with an if it makes you feel any better, I’m only asking because I come from white people in the Deep South and my grandparents have all been some flavor of bigot. Not even if she were to say I’m well aware that that the past is the past and it’s human nature to move on, but I’ve been pretty fucked up and guilty and miserable for much of my life and when I feel super crazy I think maybe the problem is geographical or historical or some combination.  The daughter dampens her cigarette butt in the water spilling out of an ornamental gutter and lets the girls pass without comment. She returns to the clamorous interior and proceeds to drink half a pitcher of beer.

 

##

 

“Do you think this place is weird?” the eldest daughter had asked the English bartender, on her third (and last) trip to the Irish pub. Her mother and sister had, by that point joined her, and sat in the corner, listing their days activities on a sheet ripped from the eldest daughter’s journal.  “I think it’s pretty fucking weird that there are Irish pubs in Singapore,” said the Bartender. “An Irish pub in Germany doesn’t seem nearly as strange.”

“Not the bar,” said the eldest daughter. “This place. This town.” She cycled through about two hundred arguments and at least that many qualifiers—all vague. “You know.”

The bartender shrugged. “I think Dubai is pretty weird. Also, parts of Wales. I found Las Vegas very strange.  If anything, this place strikes me as alarmingly normal.”

 

##

 

From across the room, over the sound of amplified accordion and a synthesizer, the eldest daughter hears a peal of her sister’s laughter. Her head is barely visible through the crowd as she tosses back another glass of Riesling.

“I think your little sister is overserved,” says her mother, as the two German businessmen signal the waitress for another round.

The eldest daughter blinks at the pages of her journal, words all scrawled together in a chickenscratch script that she’s almost relieved she won’t be able to read later.

Later she’ll try to explain everything to her bewildered mother in the hotel lobby while the younger upstairs drunk dials internationally and composes an epic twelve-page letter demanding a big fat cupcake, which is not a euphemism. Tomorrow, the three women will drive into the Alps, and the eldest daughter will be so awed by the  grandeur that she’ll forget to feel unsettled and ambivalent, instead she’ll run out into fields of yellow wild-flowers to gape at the snow-covered peaks rising like a giant’s crenellated walls over impossibly green, serene valleys and wonder if anything so beautiful can actually be real. The younger daughter, afflicted by a whale of a  hangover, will barely register the scenery.

 For now, she feels her mother’s hand on her arm. A sympathetic look.  A non-verbal you okay? Any response she gives will sound like the alcohol talking and it probably will be. The last few days have been long and tiring. She’s spent too much money. She hasn’t slept enough. A wolfish man in Marienplatz called her a fat whore, which she knows because somehow fat and whore  are two of the only German words she knows. She’s woozy and emotional, which might have something to do with the heroic amount of white asparagus she’s eaten in the last few days, and maybe has something to do with the fact that the only book she brought with her was “Gravity’s Rainbow” and is certainly related to the  alcohol she’s put back since deplaning. German beer is, in fact, pretty good. And they sell Gin & Tonics in vending machines. At rest areas along the Autobahn.  There’s no open container law, though she’s heard from two unrelated sources that the punishment for drunk driving in Germany is diagnosis of insanity. Seems reasonable.

Her mother cackles at an anecdote told in half-German, half-English. The little sister winds  back to the table and gulps down a remaining glass of wine. She is heckled from across the room. She does not seem to notice.

The older daughter taps her pen against the notebook, tries to come up with the precise word for what she’s feeling. There’s almost certainly a German one, but she’s way too embarrassed to ask.

 

 

+

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.
+

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.

+

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 Ringer. Ringer’s brother Apollo had been in a long-term, mostly long-distance relationship with Cranberries since they were in high school.[1] Cranberries and Apollo 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 Apollo 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. Apollo 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 Apollo, 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.

+

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.