Not Even Past

Family History / Nostalgia

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’m pretty sure he’s scared.

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

The Feels

COVID / Personal History / Women

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

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

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

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

I told them I didn’t feel them.

He tried again. “This is sensitive spot.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

COVID / Music / Personal History / Plague Diaries / Women

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

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

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

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

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

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

__________

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

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

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

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

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

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

_______________

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Deals With God

Music / Nostalgia / Personal History / Women

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then, I heard the dude’s voice. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yet.

I

_____________________________

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

In Medias Res

Dresses / Personal History / Women

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

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

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

 Oh well. Whatever. Nevermind.

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

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

Seriously, how could anyone?

And yet.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tomorrow, who knows?

Maybe I’ll hit up the Wiccans.

Pulp

Accidents / Fiction / Nostalgia / Uncategorized / Women

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

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

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

__________________

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 “I could have a cigarette,” she says.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Is that fucked up?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

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

 “Do these actually help?” I ask.

He shrugs.

“I have better things,” says Juliet.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You have somebody you can call?”

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

 “Why?” I ask.

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

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

 “I’m very sorry,” says Ducks.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

&&

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Is that a metaphor?”

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

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

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

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

“Tonight?’ I asked.

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

“What about you?”

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

“No,” I said.

“Anything else I should know?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 “I thought you’d left,” I said.

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

 “It’s nice,” I said.

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

“But probably warmer,” I said.

 He grinned. “Probably.”

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

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

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

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

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

&&

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

“Hello there, beautiful,” he says.

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

“You’re close enough,” says the cop.

 “What happened?” I ask.

 “A crazy person attacked me and Quinn.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Ma’am?”

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

&&

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

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

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

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

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

&&

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

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

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

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

I glance at her bag.

 “Ready for something real?” she asks.

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

 “What do you have?”

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

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

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

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

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

 I do not know the answer to this question.

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

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

 “Seriously?”

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

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

 I touch her arm. “I’m sorry.”

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

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

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

Because nothing about this is normal.

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

 I slow until he catches up.

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

 “A few.”

“Brave the cold with me?”

“Should we leave?”

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

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

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

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

 “Two and some change” I said

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s not all he’s good at,” I say.

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

 That wasn’t the answer I was looking for.

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

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

 “What would you do? If you were me?”

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

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

“Take it as a compliment.”    

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

“For a car,” he says.

“I couldn’t,” I say.

“Honey, it’s Gabriel’s money.”

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

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

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

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

 “What if I’m stuck?” I say.

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

&&

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

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

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

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

 He frowns. “Is that a word?”

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

The doctor glances at the wall.

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

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

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

He blanches.

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

“I’m not judging you,” he says.

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

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

“I meant no offense,” said the doctor

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

&&

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

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

“Rikers?” I ask the policeman.

He shrugs.

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah, maybe,” I say.

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

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

“I love you, Caroline,” he says.

I swallow. I love him too.

“Goodnight, Gabriel,” I say.

I think, I’m sorry. I’m leaving.  

I leave.  

&&

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

 He refilled my teacup with whiskey and took my hand.

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

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

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

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

“You won’t think I’m a coward?”

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

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

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

“Especially if it’s me.”

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

“I promise,” I said.

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

© Alison Fields, 2022

Conference Notes

Uncategorized

It’s a Tuesday. A beautiful, sunny, slightly pollen-fogged spring morning in the North Carolina piedmont. I am in a Grand Ballroom in a Convention Center with more unmasked people than I have been in a room with since my last pre-plague rock show. There’s a retired college professor on stage giving a mostly bleak economic forecast and a brief lesson about the history of almost wars between Russia and the US since World War II to a room full of professionals who would perhaps rather hear about hotel room occupancy rates or most effective marketing strategies on TikTok.

I don’t mind stroll down 20th Century History lane, because I’m infinitely more comfortable talking about the Cold War than I am about influencers or hashtags, and because it pulls me out of the current mire of morning meditations on topics ranging from I probably shouldn’t have eaten those fried pickles at the cocktail mingle last night to Is it fundamentally selfish to be disappointed by life? to I know it’s shallow but ‘networking’ sure would be easier if all these people were wearing band t-shirts. Because I can only break the ice by complimenting a stranger’s tasteful blonde highlights so many times.

You know you’re in a tough place when history, even bleak, late 20th century history, feels like a reprieve. I’m pretty sure that’s how people end up in Cults or Conservative Politics (or both), and I have 100% the wrong wardrobe for that kind of heel turn. I had a therapist once tell me that Depression lives in the past backward and Anxiety frets over the future. “Try and stay in the present. Count to five. Remember that right now you are fine.”

Fine.

Right now.

Right now, the professor tells us, things wouldn’t look too, too bad were it not for the elephant in the room. An elephant none of us can yet fully quantify or qualify, but it could theoretically have start World War III and/or maybe throw a tantrum, hit a button and obliterate the planet. I’m paraphrasing. The economist doesn’t say “obliterate the planet.” That’s my line. I look around the room to see if anyone else is thinking it, but their make-up is too good, or their game faces too studied. Is it depression or anxiety to reconsider your Reagan-era plans for Living It Up In the Face of Mutually Assured Destruction and reflect on the changes? Like, I’m less sure I’ll be at the mall and I know I won’t be throwing myself at Kevin from Corn Dog 7, because both Kevin and Corn Dog 7 are long gone. But I might need to revive the playlist debate and try to figure out whether I want to go out plaintive, brazen, or down to party.

How’s that 80s nostalgia working out for you these days, babe?

But we’re living in the present. Take a breath. Don’t think about the elephants. Even though there are enough rhetorical elephants milling around the metaphorical room these days to launch a safari outfit. Consider your surroundings. The polyester convention center table cloths. The individual flower arrangements. The way the professor touches his glasses.  I look at my blouse. That’s a spot on my blouse. It’s a nice blouse, but maybe I look like a weirdo. Like a not cool weirdo. Like, is this blouse doing anything flattering for me? Do I look like a billowing sail stretched with wind and two years of unhealthy pandemic eating habits? Maybe. Am I just an old washed up whale, light years from sexy and dangerous? Have I ever looked sexy and dangerous, like, in my whole life? Don’t answer that question. I do have a good haircut, I think. Am I the only woman at this conference with short hair? Maybe. Maybe I can tousle my hair in a way that is sort of rakishly handsome? Is there a feminine equivalent of rakishly handsome? Do I need there to be? Don’t we live in a bold new age in which I can be both glamorous and feminine and rakishly handsome at the same? I should be bolder. I should be braver. I should look like I’m paying attention.

I think about a picture in the New York Times of a woman in the back of a military vehicle in Kyiv a few days after the invasion, while I was in my hometown for my birthday. The woman . She was wearing a puffy coat that looked like my puffy coat and winter boots that looked like my winter boots and crying while she held a machine gun. And maybe it’s because she looked to be around my age and she had my jacket and I cannot imagine a single scenario in which I would be handling a machine gun and not sobbing like a baby that I couldn’t get the picture out of my head. All weekend.  All week. All month. While I had cocktails and narwhal shaped birthday cookies and read by a fire at a spa in the mountains because I thought I was stressed. While I read the news and rehashed arguments and tried to figure out if it was foolish to keep doing the normal things or absolutely necessary. I thought about that woman. I think about that woman. I hope she’s alive.

These are historic times, the professor says. He’s not wrong. Maybe that’s why it’s so hard to stay in the present. A couple decades back, during Baby’s First Existential Crisis, when I was young without qualifier and inclined to view big H-History as a way to shore up my bleakest takes on the human condition, I figured it would be clever as hell to tattoo “History is a nightmare from which I’m trying to awake” on my arm. Fortunately I ran out of money before I doomed myself to that particular Hallelujah chorus of Cringe. Good for my arm. Better for my dignity.

I didn’t really get it then(and not just because I was, at the time, still working my way through the source material). I didn’t get that history was a thing you lived through–that it was present and future as well as past—because I was sheltered and naïve enough to think (and sometime lament) that history wasn’t thing that could happen to me.  

If there’s anything I have learned in the twenty-three odd calamitous years since, the thing I missed in all those books, is that history isn’t the elephant, it’s the room. We always forget we’re in it and we’re lucky when we can. So we’re always surprised when reminded where we are and how fragile and ephemeral those pockets of peace, how flimsy our status quo, how overwhelming and clamorous and difficult our world is. 

And yet.

It is a Tuesday. A beautiful sunny, slightly pollen-fogged spring morning in the North Carolina piedmont. I am in the Grand Ballroom at a convention center with more unmasked people than I have been in a room with since my last pre-plague rock show. There’s a retired college professor at a lectern on stage giving a mostly bleak economic forecast, but he’s going to try and end on a up note. He reminds us that nothing is carved in stone. Not the state of the economy or the state of the world or the state of my perhaps rakishly handsome haircut. The future, as the philosopher once said, is unwritten. And totally fucking terrifying.

But enough about anxiety.

Breath. Count to Five. Scribble notes. Clap.

Right now, I’m fine.

Plague Diary, January 28, 2022

COVID / Plague Diaries

My heart broke about seventeen days ago. 

It didn’t go the way I thought.

There was no swelling of plaintive strings, no tearful goodbye at a foggy morning train station, no devastating letter, no desolating moment of quiet desperation. I simply turned out a light, settled into a pillow, and instead of falling asleep, I worried, and fretted, and somehow conjured out of the darkness an occasional, random absence where once was a heartbeat. I tossed and turned. I did breathing exercises. I worried I was having a heart attack. I worried about having to go to the hospital during an Omicron wave if I was having a heart attack. I worried about whether the EMT’s would have break down my front door, or whether the cat would get out, if I had to call 911. I worried my insurance wouldn’t cover the ambulance ride. I worried that I would die. I worried even more that I wouldn’t die but would be forced to live a miserably circumscribed lfe. I listened to my heart beat. Beat. Beat. Beat. Beat. Beat. Beat. A whoosh like going over a roller coast. A thud I felt more than heard.

I slept fitfully that night, in between and around the bends, maybe an hour and a half total. I had a doctor’s appointment the next day. I googled Congestive Heart Failure after the doctor told me I was healthy. I went for a long walk. The more my heart rate went up with exercise, the less I noticed it the missing beats. “A good sign!” said the doctor. But it felt crappy. I went to bed, I didn’t sleep. Rinse. Repeat.

I won’t take you through the rest of this. The only thing more boring than writing about health anxiety is reading about health anxiety (although there are some hilarious bits out there in Hypochondriac Google. My favorite was the one that stated feelings of impending doom could also be symptoms of a heart attack, which means we should all have a cardiologist on speed dial in the Year of Our Lord 2022, I guess). Short version: two more doctor visits, an EKG and a bunch of lab work suggesting that whatever is happening to me (TBD sometime next week when I mail in a dental floss dispenser-shaped monitor button that I’ve worn taped to my chest since last Wednesday, with instructions to PUSH THE BUTTON whenever something weird happens) is that it’s probably not immediately life threatening . But, you know, it feels weird and it’s not getting better. Though I’m sleeping again, the phantom heartbeat is really messing with my days now. I’ve been advised to try breathing exercises, to relax, to find an activity to take my mind off things, to meditate, to sit quietly. But it’s while I’m sitting quietly that all monsters who steal my heartbeats are most ravenous. It’s while I’m sitting quietly, counting my breaths that I feel the most disconnected and the least like a human being.

I was going to turn this into a kind of joke, wait until the final report, no matter how benign or grim, so I could tell you guys that the last two years have officially broken my heart. But I don’t think I need a specialist to tell me what is so manifestly obvious. Maybe non-broken hearted people drive around for hours at a time just to pretend the heated seat in a car is another human body and that they’re actually going somewhere when it is not sensible or advisible or responsible to go anywhere at all. Maybe non-broken hearted people get so upset about a book banning in Tennessee they do 45 minutes of rage tears in an empty parking lot they drove to just to sit in an empty parking lot. Maybe non-broken-hearted people also feel hopeless about the state of the world right now ( is any sane person not battling hopelessness right now?) but it probably doesn’t catch in their throat and flutter around their chest like a whole battalion of deranged moths against a single bright paper lantern.

Maybe none of that matters because everybody is broken-hearted right now, whether or not their ticker  got a backbeat that can’t lose it or is taking extended free jazz drum solos at 3am. I don’t think there’s ever been a time in my life harder than right now. I don’t say that lightly. And I say that with full recognition of the fact that I am not living through war (yet) or famine or truly debilitating illness. I am warm and fed. I have a soft bed that hasn’t broken in at least two weeks. I have firewood and a pond view and a fat orange cat who only really hates me when I play the piano. I have seen friends(though, to be honest, only a few, only once in the last month-ish). I have internet access that theoretically allows me to do all the things that we do, as humans, to be humans (see performances, talk to people—and even see them, watch movies, take classes, shop, play games etc), and that should be enough. That should be enough.

But, like, it’s not, right? Not really. Not after two years. And I refuse to feel guilty about saying so. Sure, it could be worse. Sure, I know I’m doing the right thing. But it sucks. There’s a pane of glass and bunch of wires, to say nothing of miles, between me and the people I love, to say say nothing of the people I haven’t met. There’s that whole restless, uncanny valley effect that comes with having 99.9% of your human contact come through Zoom meetings. There’s the sameness of the days, when even the things I do to relieve the rote sameness of days have become rote. There is the fact that it snows every weekend, which prevents even the illusion of being able to do something different (buying a house in the burbs at the bottom of a big hill has it’s downsides, pun intended). I don’t think I’ve gone totally off the deep end, but my dreams feel 1000% more like real life right now than my waking hours. Because in my dreams, I am in crowds of people. I am sitting beside them. I am existing in a hubbub. I feel normal. I am unweighted by grief. I might even be surprised by novelty—a new street, a new friend, a new place in the world. I might do something unexpected. In my dreams I can explore freely and take comfort in tangible reminders that I exist in the world.  Then I wake up. And the heart does the thing.

So this is my sad state of affairs. What’s yours? Because odds are it’s maybe similar. Or worse. Or similar but different. Or different but worse. Maybe it’s the silence you crave because you can’t get away from your family. Maybe it’s the metaphorical desert island you crave because you’re still going into work every day and having to deal with customers or patients or whatever percentage of the population, who by choice, denial, recklessness, responsibility or necessity, still operates out in the world. Whatever the case, I’ve probably done a piss poor job asking you about it. The malaise makes it hard to reach out. On a bad day, we all need someone to check in, but what if we’re all having a bad day every day? That’s a lot to ask of a lot of people.

Traditionally, when catastrophe happens, we kind of come together, even if we come together just to hunker down. Because by simply being together, I think it makes it easier to process whatever awful shit is coming at us and the mess it leaves behind because it gives some sense of collective engagement and shared grief. The deli that puts out fresh coffee after the hurricane knocks the power out in the rest of town. The bar that’s bright and warm the day after a blizzard. The coffeeshop you go to on mornings of mass and scary crisis because you know other people will be there, even if none of them can figure out what to say. It also gives us actual, not virtual, not theoretical access to people that are not exactly like us. And those people sometimes offer the perspective we need to get out of our heads and un-mired from our particular variety of bullshit.

I’m not saying that the key to chasing away the blues in Pandemic Year Three is running out in the world all willy nilly. I may need variety in my life, but I’d rather it not come in the form of sickness or bigotry or people being assholes. On the other hand, I don’t think it’s an accident that we’re as divided as we’ve ever been after being told to guard our social circles and keep our distance for two solid years. It’s wise public health advice, but it’s no wonder we turn inward and let our brains start embroidering all our worst ideas. We get lethargic and indifferent. We turn fighty and afraid. We retreat further in, and after a while, it starts to feel inconvenient or impolite or unpleasant to engage, even though it’s the thing we need most.

This is the part where I would have some kind of pithy wrap-up if I were a social scientist or a self-help writer. I’m neither of those things. So I won’t. And I am sorry this is so bleak. I thought January 2021 was pretty much the nadir, but then there was still real hope that it might end, or at least mostly end. That we might have something like a real life again. That we might be able to think of a single thing to look forward to without have to emotionally prepare for it falling apart. Then it did, sort of, for a minute or two, and sometimes I think it’s worse now because we all thought, for a minute, that we might have a real honest-to-god reprieve.

I hope I might be able to learn how to coast from disappointment to catastrophe to fiasco to disappointment without losing my rhythm, without dropping the beats, and by so doing, be better comfort to the people I love and the people that just need to know there is someone else out there thinking about them and empathizing and wanting so desperately to say call them when they’re freaking at 3am and say:  

“So, look, it’s going to be okay. This, this mess of everything at the same time? It’s manageable. We will do our best to get through it because we have to have those dinner parties and music and joy and love on the other side. And we’re the ones who are going to make sure that happens.”

In the meantime, sorry I haven’t returned your text.

I promise I’ve read every word.

And I’m still here.

Photo today: Cute new sweater. Heart monitor thing.

Plague Diary: December 20, 2021

COVID / Plague Diaries

Early in our new dark age, when I still vacillated between making Chaucer Jokes and wondering if we’d have bloody food riots because of pandemic-related shortages at the supermarket, I wrote almost daily about what I was experiencing stuck alone in my house with a fat cat, a Zoom subscription and a couple handles of gin. Then as the seasons changed as did the frequency, what was once a daily mediation on anxiety, morality and the simultaneously lonely vastness and suffocating intimacy of being a person in the center of history drifted toward the more pressing, became a thing I punched out a couple days a week, in response to news headlines or panic attacks, then weeks, then months In August I posted something about a broken exercise bike. In the beginning, I wrote these because I couldn’t think of anything else to do than to write this stuff down. And then for a time, I stopped writing about it because what else was there truly to say other than, I look forward to the days the pandemic is over.

To be clear, I wasn’t being overly optimistic. I knew it would be a slog, but I did believe we were drifting toward that moment, slowly perhaps, maybe too slowly to be counted. So I recalibrated to I look forward to the days when will not feel compelled to write about this pandemic anymore. I even thought I’d maybe reached that moment, when I started a few of these in October and then exiled them to the “Permanently Stalled Out. Can Safely Self-Plagiarize From This File, Dude” folder.

And here we are. In the first act of the latest disaster spectacular from the same virus who brought you Long Covid and The Delta Variant. Are we calling it Omigeddon? Armecron? A few days ago, I saw someone had typed it as Omnicorn, and I didn’t hate it. Sounds like a robot unicorn or a biodiesel company or maybe one of those giant, wastebasket sized tins of different varieties of (and often already stale) flavored popcorn that someone would give your parents for the holidays and it wouldn’t be particularly good, but you’d eat it anyway, even though it was fattening and got stuck in your braces. I like that one. Feels seasonal.

On the -5 Day of Christmas, Covid brought to me a PCR Test in advance of going home. This is supposed to be a formality, one of those last minute just to be totally safe moves to bolster my confidence about seeing family and celebrating something like a normal holiday the latter half of this week. But it takes about one character of a headline for me to be sailing through squalls of anxiety about it, despite being double-vaxxed and boostered. Impending Disaster is the flavor of the season. I swear I can taste it my egg nog, or maybe I just overdid the nutmeg.

It’s not like this train hasn’t been screaming into the station for a few weeks. Because I’m too impolite or too much of a masochist to turn off Gray Lady DOOM alerts at family events, I first learned that Omicron was neither a robot nor shorthand for a disgraced fraternity sometime between cranberry sauce and macaroni and cheese at Thanksgiving. I supposed the soupcon of panic-induced stomach acid helped in the digestion of so many carbs.

I drove home sad and angry that we were heading back into match of Worst Case Scenario Bingo, and was made even sadder and angrier that I wasn’t even surprised about it. I called a friend on the way home and we discussed whether, if Omicron were as ominous as it seemed, anyone might try to reinstate lockdown measures, which seemed sane, but unlikely as it would send the gun nuts and conspiracy theorists once more to the breach.

“It annoys me that I wonder will this lead to civil war when think about the possibility of a enforcing a federal vaccine mandate,” I said to a friend.

“It annoys me that I now wonder will this lead to civil war every time I read anything on the internet. Black Friday sales. Marvel movie reviews. PTA meeting notes. NextDoor Posts. Taylor Swift tweets” said a friend. “But, you know, the times.”

The times.

I wish I could be so blasé about it, but you guys know I’m not. For the last six days, even before the Omicron cases started doubling and then doubling doubling doubling in the US, I have been at least halfway convinced I’ve been having a heart attack all the time. I know. Hilarious. The still barely-rational part of my brain knows that people don’t have heart attacks for six days straight, and that whatever twinge of chest pain only improves with exercise and feels entirely attached to my nervous gurgling stomach. This is a case for more Pepcid, less caffeine and cheese, and maybe a trip to the GI on the backside (no pun intended) of the holidays.

But it’s weird how the Impending Disaster gets into your head, right? How googling Heart Failure at 3am after waking up from a bad dream for a middle of the night round of doom-scrolling (it’s back) doesn’t seem so crazy? How refusing to listen to the Charlie Brown Christmas record again until you know absolutely, 100% for sure that nothing’s upside down in your own little world and you are on the way celebrate holiday with your family doesn’t sound like childish superstition? How you don’t even want to think about the future anymore because the best case scenario is “it’s going to suck for a while, maybe suck a lot, for a long while, and then perhaps it will get better, perhaps for a short period of time?” How you’ve already started working on a New Year’s Resolution list consisting of simply, 1) Try to imagine this catastrophe is something you know you can get through” and 2) Start working on your sigma variant material soon-ish?

Christmas stories usually end on a up note. You know, choirs of angels, a bright star to guide them, a note from Santa Clause, Zuzu Bailey explaining the afterlife, Hans Gruber falling out of a skyscraper window. You know, joyful shit. I can’t promise that. I can give you only a little tinsel around a the big honking probably sucky unknown that is the coming days, weeks, and months. Also eggnog. Maybe a hot toddy if you stay for a nightcap.

So Merry Christmas. Happy Holidays. I hope we get where we’re going, wherever that is, with whatever joy we can wring out of this bullshit chapter of history. To quote the philosopher, let your heart be light. Or at the very least, try not to give yourself a heart attack by worrying about it.

In the meantime, I look forward to the days when will not feel compelled to write about this pandemic anymore.

Picture today is Walter, my cat, under the Christmas tree, where he believes he lives now.

My Year In Reading

Books / Lists

Books of 2021 (or 2021)ish

Matrix Lauren Groff

A historical novel set in the 12th century about Breton lais, sword-fighting nuns, the creation of a feminist utopia and borderline metaphysical lesbian romances that also features Eleanor of Aquitaine as bitch goddess from the ripe imagination of a contemporary American author who has mostly made her name writing about doomed romances in Florida and communes. One of my favorite surprises in just about forever.

Alls Well Mona Awad

In which a failed actress confronts chronic pain, medical bullshit, her own middle age, and actual witchcraft that sits in the perfect middle between campus novel and backstage novel. A deeply weird retelling of at least two Shakespeare plays. Darkly hilarious. Unexpectedly moving.

Everyone Knows Your Mother Is a Witch Rivka Galchen

I liked this book more than most people I know, so take this as you will  This is a surprisingly readable, literal witch hunt book featuring the fictionalized matter-of-fact mother of Johannes Kepler and a whole lot of gossipy townspeople in late Reformation/pre Thirty Years War era Germany. Maybe the best book I’ve read this year about the challenges of being an ally.

The Bass Rock Evie Wyld

A multi-generational not-quite Gothic that addresses women and ghosts and violence and community complicity, while also brushing right up against borderline Folk Horror (without actually going all the way). But that makes it sound like it’s less enjoyable to read than it is. This would make a killer (no pun intended) miniseries, if Olivia Colman/anyone at the BBC is paying attention, but you might as well read it beforehand in the event that they are.

A Girl Is A Body Of Water Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi

Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi is my favorite Ugandan novelist (and if you haven’t read her Kintu, a sprawling, glorious, furious fusion of African folklore, history and modern day politics, YOU ARE IN FOR A TREAT). A Girl Is A Body of Water is a more straightforward coming of age novel meets family saga the encompasses the tied together fates of an entire village and the nation of Uganda in the pre/during/post-Idi Amin era.

The Trees Percival Everett

It’s not a spoiler to say that premise of this book involves the mystery of whether the corpse of Emmett Till is murdering racists in modern day Mississippi. It’s also not a spoiler to say that this is initially rolled out as a farce. And there is brutal method to its madness. I think Percival Everett is one of the greatest writers working today, period, hands down. And I think this book is brilliant.

Hot Stew Fiona Mozley

I’m going to level with you: I think Brits are so much better at weird than we are. They’re better at weird country and definitely better at weird city, even in narrative works that are nominally “realistic fiction.” “Hot Stew” is A+ London Weird about whores, billionaires and borderline Dickensian street characters that manages to be probably the best thing I’ve read this year about gentrification. Also (not that we’re keeping track): contains a surprising spin on the old “Visit to the Underworld” genre.

Summerwater Sarah Moss. An unsettling cloudy, damp mood of a novel set at a remote Scottish vacation hub that operates as both as a collage of finely honed character studies and a surprisingly incisive view into how otherness is determined within a community.

Harlem Shuffle Colson Whitehead. For anyone who’d forgotten that a Colson Whitehead novel (always brilliant, riveting, often-award winning etc)  could also be, like, a pretty fun hang, this spin on a mid-century, not-quite-noir-ish heist/crime novel will be a happy surprise.

Flyaway Kathleen Jennings. Have you ever been like “hey, what if Angela Carter moved to Australia and wrote a gothic horror novella about body horror and families and a small town at the edge of the bush?” You’ll like this, then,

The Saddest Words: William Faulkner’s Civil War Michael Gorra. Not everyone feels as strongly about Faulkner as I do. Especially now. That’s fine. But if you’re so inclined, this is one of the best pieces of Faulkner criticism I’ve read in years, as well as being a timely investigation of the US Civil War in the public imagination. And I say this as someon largely allergic to reading books about the Civil War.

St X Alexis Schaitkin. A literal and figurative beach book, this page-turner about young woman’s murder and her sister’s attempts to make sense of it feels particularly meaningful in this era of True Crime-obsessives and the often-problematic narratives they weave.

The Committed Viet Thanh Nguyen.  This is a Paris-set sequel to The Sympathizer, which you should have already read by now. Spies, expats, immigrants, and an entire criminal underworld populate a story about what it’s like to have spent a life in service to state and ideology and have survived to see the other side with all of its challenges.

Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty, Patrick Radden Keefe. As well as being the man behind the only podcast about German Hair Metal, the Berlin Wall and the CIA you ever need to listen to , Keefe is quickly becoming my new go-to in unmissable narrative journalism/non-fiction tomes. This one, which addresses the rise of the Sackler Family, their oversized footprint on the medical marketing and opioid industries (and the New York Art World), as well as the unfolding of opioid epidemic they created is a broad, highly readable, infuriating tragedy turned catastrophe.

My Year Abroad Chang-Rae Lee. This novel vacillates between  over-the-top picaresque about a naïve student and his relationship with his successful “international businessman” mentor (it’s best not to ruin the surprise, of there are many) and a unusually poignant fugitive family narrative. I like this book better and better the further I get away from it.

The Cold Millions Jess Walter. It’s either an organized crime novel about lumber barons and radical union politics in early 20th century Spokane or a radical union novel about organized crime in early 20th century Spokane. Either way, it’s a cinematic barn-burner of a yarn. Note: do not read when trying to get warm.   

BOOKS I STILL DON’T KNOW HOW I FEEL ABOUT

Crossroads Jonathan Franzen. Let’s get this out of the way. Crossroads is the best book Jonathan Franzen has published since The Corrections. Is it a solid read? Yes. Did I finish it in a day? Yes. Did I, at various points, think– “Is this were I wholly come back around on the Old Franzenator?”  Sure. Was I ever able to forget its essentially Franzen-ness and surrender wholly to the project? No. Am I 100% sure I think you should give it a go? Not at all.

Harrow Joy Williams. It’s possible to be one of my favorite authors and write a book thick with things I enjoy and still leave me profoundly lukewarm. Also, we live in a dystopian wasteland. I don’t need to imagine any new ones.

Beautiful World, Where Are You Sally Rooney. The best parts of this book are the emails and the orgasms. Whether you find them convincing and/or satisfying is your call. I think I’m going to really enjoy whatever Sally Rooney writes in about twenty years. In the meantime, we can all having a good time arguing about the end of the this book.

No One is Talking About This Patricia Lockwood. I adore Patricia Lockwood. I think the front half of this book is a (very witty, engaging) troll and the back half is an absolute joke. It’s still one of the best written things I’ve read this year. But do I kind of hate it? Yes, I kind of hate it.

Note: 1) There are plenty of books I have not read this year, including a few that have won the big prizes. 2) I also read a lot of great books not published particularly recently. I did not include these because chronology. 3) I might change my mind. It happens.