Wax and Wane

Customer: You have the worst selection of metal vinyl I’ve ever seen. Not a single Italian metal band from the last eight years.

Me: Sorry.

Customer: It’s like you don’t want me to shop here. Is that it? Don’t smile. I’m not joking.

Me: Thanks for coming in!

When I was in high school, I knew one girl who worked at a record store.  She was exactly my age, in my class at school and fond of brightly colored hand-knit sweaters you might wear to sip acid-laced hot cocoa at Jerry Garcia’s ski chalet. None of us could ever quite figure out how she got hired, a seeming Herculean feat to be sure. But she was a genuinely kind and friendly person—an uncommon combination for a hippie in my hometown, a place where the mean girls were Grateful Dead fans. I didn’t begrudge her the job, even if I stared wistfully at her working the register, wondering what in hell I’d ever have to do to deserve it.

Me: I can give you __ in credit.

Customer: That’s ridiculous! I paid more for it than that when I bought it new.

Me: Right, but now it’s used.

Customer: But the guy that sold it to me said it was collectible. It’s a special edition. He said it would be worth a bunch of money in the future.

Me: When did you buy this record?

Customer: Last month.

Sean hired me to work at CD Alley in late 2002, a few weeks before Christmas. I was twenty-six years old and I’d been entirely unemployed since September when my repeated infractions at my mostly pointless museum job got me canned. The museum director asked if I wanted to know why he was firing me. I told him I could think of about eleven excellent reasons but if it was cool with him, he could just mail me my last paycheck.

I sulked about the dismissal. I didn’t have another job, save the occasional crumb of paying freelance work.  I’d applied for literally hundreds of jobs since arriving in Chapel Hill in June. I couldn’t get temp work. I couldn’t get an interview. I couldn’t even get the ice cream parlor to call back.  I kept getting advice about networking. I kept  mulling over graduate school. I kept buying groceries with quarters.

I’d quit writing record reviews a few months previous for a bunch of reasons (1).  I knew a fair piece about music— not nearly as much as I let on—mostly because I’d spent much of the eight years previous aggressively studying it, often at the detriment of my bank account and my academic career. And I found myself babbling about all of this one night at the register while Sean rang up a used Delgados CD. At some point he looked up from the inventory notebook and asked, very kindly:

“Alison, do you want a job?”

I think I might have pinched myself. I know I tried very hard to not look like a crazy person.

“Yeah,” I said, in my best deadpan. “I guess that would be cool.”

Customer: My dad is old and not very hip. Will he like this? (Holds up Eagles CD)

Me: Absolutely.

The first time I ever went into a CD Alley was in 1996, in Wilmington. I was in town with my roommate, in order to see a band play the kind of goofy, earnest, anthemic punk rock  I swore I’d absolutely never grow out of loving (and then promptly did). I had a wallet full of birthday money I really should have used to pay the gas bill. Instead, I blew it on a stack of cds and 45s.

“Do you realize you buy something at every single record store you go to ?” asked my roommate.

She clearly meant this as some sort of Gotcha! though I could not, for the life of me figure out why. My roommate worked at a record store and rarely brought home new records. What is wrong with you? I wanted to ask. How do you not want to hear everything? How are you so sure that this record won’t be the best thing you’ve never heard? Don’t you know that some songs are better than eating dinner?

My new records smelled like  warm vinyl, dusty cardboard and old paper, scents I found to be both comforting and aspirational.  I ignored my roommate’s scowl and hugged them to my chest when we left the store.

Customer: I’m disappointed that I couldn’t find any collectible records in the 98cent bin. It was just old records, lots of them in poor condition.

Me: It’s a 98cent bin. The collectible stuff is up here.

Customer: Yeah, but it’s not 98 cents.

My Dad was a jazz snob, whose tastes expanded out to encompass a fair amount of soul, funk & r&b. He liked to tell a story about being a kid, visiting a record store in Greenwich Village and digging through the titles—Miles, Monk, Mingus—and feeling the breathless wooze of an incipient spiritual awakening. He kept shelves of LPS in the house ,many scratched and warped and battered  from having been lugged to college and Europe and back to a collection of addresses in Virginia, Tennessee and North Carolina. As I child I could identify the record from the pops of the needle, the exact moment when ‘Round Midnight needed a tap to stop repeating the ‘til after sundown, ‘til after sundown, ‘til after sundown, ‘til after . . .

My mother’s tastes were more catholic. Her musical awakening occurred in the verse between dancing to beach music and buying folk records in high school. She played the guitar and, for a time in college, fancied herself a singer-songwriter and even attracted the attention of a Richmond radio DJ for a gauzy, long-haired minute or two in 1968.  She liked jazz, but also soul and blues and Willie Nelson and Elvis Costello. Mom was a full-time artist during my childhood and she would play Nina Simone covering Bob Dylan while she painted and I would break–crayons–just like a little girl.

The family stereo lived in the sunroom, which faced west and glowed a perfect late 1970s tawny gold at sundown. My dad taught me how to work the turntable when I was about three. I could pull up a tiny me-sized ladder back chair beside the receiver, plug in the giant headphones and puzzle over the yet incomprehensible liner notes while listening to my favorite records (“Mary Poppins,” the “Camelot” soundtrack, “Masterpieces of the Ballet” and various disco 45s courtesy of a seriously funky  Easter Bunny). I remember feeling sublimely happy there in the shimmery haze of twilight, clutching a literal security blanket, listening to the pop scratch pop presaging the first thrilling note.

Customer: I don’t see many women working in places like this. Are you married to the owner or something?

I was the only woman on staff when I was hired. And except for a few months in about 2005, I would be be only woman on staff for next thirteen years. Dusty little record stores and their regular clientele, skew male(2). I knew this going into it, and I’d long been a gatecrasher at boys’ clubs, so it didn’t bother me.  My coworkers were, to a person, nice, funny, smart, respectful guys. I liked them all. Even when they played The Fall every shift for a year. Even when they turned up Lee Perry on Saturday afternoons so loud that I felt the bassline in my fillings. Even when they fell asleep on lunch break and forgot to come back. Even when they went through long sulky spells and short furious ones.  Even when they didn’t deal with the creeping horror of the bathroom for like four years (3).   Some of my co-workers became my close friends. Some of my co-workers are my best friends.

Of course, I have my own quirks. I’m not exactly a princess. I once quipped to a friend that I felt like the Annie Potts character in “Pretty in Pink” hired on to work at the store in “High Fidelity.” That was fine. I’d settle for thirtysomething woman in vintage dresses doling out wry commentary about youth and nostalgia and relationships over old soul and new wave, while my customers compared  catalog numbers on limited edition garage rock records and Top Five-d Prog Rock songs. Someone needed to know the protocols lest an unrequited Otis Redding lipsync look inevitable.

I listened to almost everything and liked more than I didn’t. I developed niche interests. Some were surprising. I got far enough away from my hometown to finally like reggae, for one thing. Also, it turns out on cold gray winter afternoons, I sometimes like mournful Kentucky fiddles or minimalist techno or  self-consciously weird British folk, despite finding peasant blouses ridiculous. Even when men wear them.

Customer: Mom, look! A record store! This is so cool! I’ve never seen one of these in real life.

My dad used to have his creative department over for concepting sessions on weeknights. They’d drink beer and eat shrimp and listening to records on the den floor. I’d creep downstairs to join them until someone noticed I was supposed to be in bed. Most of Dad’s department were in their twenties– scarcely more than kids at the time. I was maybe seven. When Christmas came my favorite among them would usually bring me a present. Sometimes this was a gift certificate to the record store a couple miles up up the road. I had to wait for one of my parents to take me, because my elderly babysitters viewed the record shop  as borderline at best and its employees unsavory freaks of dubious intentions. I loved it for all the same reasons. I loved the bins of records and the scarred wooden floor and the way it made me feel uncomfortable and excited at the same time, like I might round a shelf and discover a whole other universe  behind “Beauty and the Beat.”

The day my little sister was born, I spent a lot of time worrying about my mother and whether the addition of a sibling might make my parents love me less. Nana, my grandmother, stayed with me all day and she told me we could do whatever I wanted and she’d buy me whatever I wanted. The only things I could think of were a chocolate milkshake and a trip to the record store. Nana, to her endless credit, obliged on both.

Me: (To Customer) You know we have a used copy of that.

Customer: Why would I want it used?

Me: It’s cheaper.

Customer: Um, I’m totally not poor.

CD Alley rested in the center of a shabby brick block of buildings festooned with peeling paint and sickly wrought iron swirls.  To our immediate left was a headshop, to our right was the communist bookshop (since moved). Above us was an environmental non-profit and an apartment leased by a local bartender, who subleased out his front room to local bands looking for a practice space (4). Notoriously, our block of also contained University Massage, an impossibly seedy handjob joint run by thugs and mysteriously immune to the changing climate of our liberal college town. Sometimes their patrons would come in looking  for information. I directed them into the massage parlor entrance (around the back of the building) with a look I hoped would convey both I am a sex positive feminist who believes you are free to do whatever consensual thing you’re doing upstairs and Seriously? Gross.  I met a few of the women that worked there. They would hang out smoking cigarettes  in the parking lot and, on several occasions, shut down their own patrons if they harassed me on the way to my car.

The rent was cheap and it stayed cheap despite our half of Franklin Street getting cleaner and fancier and and more friendly to chain restaurants. The gentrifying influence didn’t really affect our building, probably because it flooded all the time. Rain would waterfall over the lip of the  parking lot,  overflow into the fetid below-street-level alley in the back, then seep under our backdoor and fill the store. I would stand behind the counter  and watch the expanding pool shimmer  under the florescent lights and think this would be almost cool to watch  if I didn’t have to deal with it  and then I would think I cannot believe that guy in the back is still going through the “Used Metal” bin. His feet must be soaked. Until we elevated everything three or four inches off the ground, we lost inventory at every summer shower. We kept rainboots and old shoes in the back room. I learned that “Oh wow, a flood” is the most common people say about a flood. It’s annoying, but not as annoying as thirty runs with a ShopVac or the needling  chill of standing in several fresh inches of February downpour for several hours.

I don’t remember when the air-conditioner broke (2007ish?). Chapel Hill is hot in the summer, in that thick, soupy, green way makes southerners talk slow.. Our store window faced west and the front half off things started broiling as soon as we hit the pm. July was purgatorial, August infernal. I’d go through my closet trying to pick the least amount of clothes I could wear while staying decent. I donated my best fan from home and we’d keep it running on high, behind the counter. The skirts of my summer dresses would balloon out around me and the only part of me to cool would be the back of my calves. Sometimes I watched a customer stand too quickly, their t-shirts drenched in sweat, and I would think shit, he’s going to pass out. Sometimes I stood too fast and felt the room rock and roll but not with the rock and roll and I’d think shit, I’m going to pass out. I have about thirty-six playlists specially formulated for August at the store. They include a bunch of my favorite songs. All of them are sultry; a few are even steamy.

Customer: Are you hiring?

Me: Sorry

Customer: You assholes are never hiring.

We were never hiring. The standard protocol involved giving a customer the option of filling out an application, asking such questions as “What are your top five favorite bands?” and in an lovably throwback sort of way “Do you read ‘zines?” The bottom drawer of the filing cabinet is full of these. I don’t think anyone ever got hired off the strength of an application.

I wrote five pages, single-spaced even though I’d already been offered the job. For the record (no pun intended), I still can’t believe I got hired. I still think it’s the coolest thing in the world that I get to work in a record store. I’m a grown-up person and my friends are talking about private schools and IRAs and I’m like dude, check out these awesome promos! Do you believe people  just send them to us?

In general, I love the customers. Even the weirdos.

(We’re all weirdos)

Customer: We’re looking for a part-time receptionist. Maybe $10 an hour. It might be a way for you to get your foot in the door if you ever want a real professional job.

Me: Thanks, but I actually have a regular job that’s not here. I’m a copywriter and …

Customer: You really do have another job? Because this would be a great opportunity for you. I mean, it might not be as “cool” as this job, but it must be really hard to support yourself on what you make at the record store, what, a few hours a week?

Me: You’re right. It would be impossible.

Customer: You seem like a smart girl. I’ll put in a good word for you with HR.

Me: (sigh)

Mostly I wrote for other people. Mostly I sat at my computer at home in gym clothes, suffering conference calls and bickering with cursors. Both Ryan and Sean tolerated my eccentric hours, my travel schedule, my perennial lateness, my habit of leaving piles of old books and magazines in my wake.

I’ve always hated identifying by career.  When you tell people you write, they expect to hear a list of titles, a catalog of publishing credits, a whole rack of magazines. Then you have to qualify—advertising, public relations, ghost writing, blurbs without credits . . .but you know I also write books no one reads and plays no one produces! Their eyes glaze over. I feel like a fraud. I am a fraud. It’s easier to be vague.

It’s  better being the girl at the record store. People know me there because I do a thing I like at a place I like that they also like.  There we can stand around talking about music  without boring other people. We can do trivia and gossip and opinions and fantasies and Holy fucking shit, that song is so good it nearly knocked the breath out of me even though we’re pushing forty(or forty-five or fifty) and so many of our friends stopped listening to new music in college. At the record store, I didn’t have to self-censor. I didn’t have to network. I didn’t have to feign enthusiasm. I could be a  girl in giant rhinestone earrings at the counter and I could count on having people come in who wanted to talk about Kendrick Lamar or The Kinks because it was a record store. I also knew the ones who might linger to discuss Thomas Pynchon or the 30 Years War or curry recipes because it was me they were talking to. I felt like I was part of a community. And I love my community.  And that was magical. That is magical.

Customer: (drops huge pile of records on the counter) I’m not going to buy any of these and I’m not going to put them back.

Me: (blank stare)

Customer: I mean, I thought it would be nice if I brought them to you. If you had a system of whatever. Thanks! (Leaves)

Things I remember: The time the Cool John Ferguson played blues in a santa hat by the counter and I got drunk during my shift. The time the second line materialized across the street and marched up and down the block. The time my cat wandered in as a stray and slept on the Pink Floyd section. The time Questlove came in and chatted and shopped for an hour on an otherwise slow weekday night. The time this  kid bought $700 worth of vinyl to decorate his apartment walls. The time I cried for two shifts straight and listened to Brian Eno for a month. The time the ceiling collapsed over the used CD tables. The time I couldn’t open the front door to leave. The time I couldn’t close the front door to lock it. The time I set off the alarm and the police came and bought Gram Parsons CDs. The time Broadcast came and moved their records to a different section because they objected to our categorization. The time the kid couldn’t stop telling the Arcade Fire how much they looked like the guys from the Arcade Fire. The time the two French kids and I had a mostly pantomimed conversation about  D’Angelo. The first time I ever heard this song. I mean, Damn.

Customer: I heard you guy were closing on Saturday.

Me: Nope. Normal hours.

Customer: I mean. Closing closing. Closing forever.

Me: Nope. I don’t know where you heard that but it’s not true.

Customer: Are you sure? I heard it was closing forever and everything until then was 70% off. I’ve heard it from several people that you’re closing forever on Saturday.

Me: Dude. I’m working here Saturday.

When Ryan  told me he was going to sell the store, I went through several anxious, aching weeks of trying to figure out whether I should buy it, whether I could buy it. But I’m a single lady without assets whose personal finance strategy involves a lot of magical thinking and looking at my bank balance through knitted fingers. I didn’t have enough of anything to risk everything and I’m not sure if I could have paid my rent even if I wasn’t an abject failure at running a business. I thought maybe if I were married? I thought maybe if I could share it with someone?  I thought maybe if I won the lottery. I thought definitely if I won the lottery.

A real buyer was found– the owner of several other local stores. He would change the name but wanted to keep the same vibe. When the story broke in the local press, it was reported that the staff would all stay on.   I wasn’t so sure I should. Or rather, I’m not sure I will.  I’ve been here for thirteen years and some change. It would be nice to not have to close on Saturday nights.

On the other hand, I’m not so good at change. I don’t want to leave it all behind–the music, the people, the keeping a list of what I’m listening to when people ask.  I am a sentimentalist, a past-dweller, an easy crier, a sappy Luddite who goes full teenager over the sound of scratched up plastic circle, a resident of 2016 who regularly wears inkspots on her fingers. A quiet night in the store, watching people stroll down the sidewalk through the puddles of lamplight and shadows of tree limbs, while the sound of something soulful or silly or sexy or furious swelled through the speakers and resolved into something sublime. The most perfect sound. I wish I could write something that would read so messy and human and gorgeous. That’s my happy place, on the edge of longing, just down the seedy alley, on the dark end of the street. Side One. Track One. Pop. Scratch.One. Two.Three. Four.

Thanks for coming in, y’all.

__________

(1) Including but not limited to: being expected to review mostly women because I was a woman, being expected to review friends’ bands despite a  conflict of interest, exhaustion at inventing meaningless qualifiers, frustration at only getting read when I wrote something negative, feeling like an asshole, a poser, a dilettante and mostly just wishing that music reviews could be more like book reviews (and sometimes vice versa).

(2) I have some (non-groundbreaking, hopelessly unoriginal) theories about this, which I’ve mostly cribbed from women who write more eloquently about the business and culture of music than I do. But that’s subject for different kind of story (maybe I’ll write it) or at least a good ramble if you catch me in the chatty space between cocktails.

(3) There’s not a way for me to discuss the bathroom without succumbing to overwrought, borderline Lovecraftian language. Some of you may simply be too fragile to hear to a precise accounting of our facilities. Otherwise hale and hearty adults have been driven mad at less. But let me just say this: I once let a filthy, train-hopping gutter punk use the toilet because she asked politely and seemed like a nice person (and I I used to be more flexible on the subject of customer use). I tried to warn her. She gave me a do you really think your bourgie, indie rock, college town, record store bathroom will shock me look. And I had no choice but to let her go.  When she emerged a little later, she was visibly paled. How long has the sink been stopped up like that? And, in God’s name,  why is it that color?!  I shrugged and told her the truth: no one knows and I’m personally quite sure I don’t want to.

(4) Did your band practice upstairs? All bands heard from directly below sound terrible in the same way, including yours and especially the time you played that 3.5 hour continuous bass solo right over my head. That should be illegal.

Standard

Romance

i.

My dad and I make a lot of scenes in restaurants. It’s sort of our thing. He says something about writing that usually is not really about writing at all. I react with fury. He finds my reaction either funny or ridiculous and, instead of apologizing, goes full David Letterman deadpan until I simmer down or storm out the front door. There’s no particular rhyme or reason to these dinner explosions, though I’ll note that they have a higher than average probability of going down at Italian Restaurants. But that’s probably only because dad and I really like Italian food.

One of these scenes occurred sometime in the fall of 1999. We were in a chatty wine lull between Primi and Secondi Piatti and discussing process. I told Dad about a project I was working on, a project he’d read part of, and, after a bit, he stopped me and asked if he might make an observation.

“You know, buddy,” he said. “It would be really interesting if you ever decided to write something about people in love. It seems like your characters are never in love, not real love, anyway. It’s like they don’t know what it is or how to do it.” He shrugged. “Just something to think about.”

I was twenty-three at the time. I’d never been in love, at least not with anyone who loved me back. I was pretty sure he knew that. I swallowed. Then I emptied my wine glass. I could see he wanted to push on, but I slid my chair back and nodded toward the sidewalk. “I’m stepping out for a cigarette.”

“Go ahead,” he said, “but we’ll continue this conversation when you get back”

Like hell we will, I thought, and nearly cost a waiter his tray of sorbetto as I ran past him toward the door, desperate to escape

ii.

I am almost forty years old. I have still never been in love, at least not with someone who loved me back.

I like being single. I have friends and family. I have people I care about who care about me. I have a life undefined and unconstrained by romantic relationship. I used to worry being alone, but I’ve come to cherish my solitude and learned how to manage silence, which is never really silent. Not for long, anyway. I captain my own ship. I author my own story. I sprawl across the whole bed. I do not wash anyone else’s socks. I am fine, better than fine, with that.

Still, I’m not a nun. I’m not made of stone. I don’t lack desire. I’m plenty curious. I stare at myself in the mirror and wonder what it would be like to have someone look back at me with ardor, with tenderness. I’ve read a lot of novels and I think I’m pretty observant, but there are questions I don’t have an answer to. What does it really feel like to be in love, I mean, like, really in love? How do you know if someone loves you back? Does it make you feel beautiful? Does it make you feel confident? Does it make you feel secure? Can you get used to their bad table manners and weird taste in books if they love you enough? Do you ever really believe they love you enough? Do you ever quit worrying they’ll stop?

iii.

I think everything I write is a love story. In fact, I worry that I write so much about love, that it’s overwhelming and obsessive and delusional. I worry that in my writing people will see ignorance and unforgivable naiveté. They’ll peer through the spaces in the letters and see me on a Friday night alone on a sofa with a cat and a Netflix queue of BBC dramas about high-cheekboned WASPs doing something scandalous on a rainy moor. And they’ll know. And they’ll feel sorry for me. And they’ll be like, well, duh, have you seen her? That’s not the sort of person anyone could fall in love with.

 iv.

 When I was young, most men I liked did not like me like that. They respected me. They admired me. They thought of me like one of the guys, not like a woman, but more like a gay man. They found me almost attractive. They were  surprisingly close to feeling turned on. They considered me like a sibling, a sister, maybe . They thought they might want to date me if I would lose a little weight, if I had whiter teeth, if I  were more conventionally feminine. They’ve been embarrassed at my affection and ashamed at themselves. Never tell anyone this happened. This was a crazy mistake, right? How hilarious! I guess we can just blame this on the music. You’re a good sport, a real pal, a real first rate chum, Fields.

 Women my age freak out about getting older because they worry about not being noticed. They think it must be a fate worse than death to be invisible to men. And I want to be like You know what: I’m pretty sure it’s not the worst thing the world. You’ll survive. Most of the time you won’t care at all.

 v.

I could lose weight. I could bleach my teeth. I could learn how to apply make up. I could grow out my hair. I could smooth out the lumps and conceal the faults and pluck and shave and tweeze and peel away everything unsightly. I could wear what magazines advise will flatter my curves. I could talk less. I could smile more. I could flutter my eyelashes and toss my hair around and act coy. I could not argue. I could feign ignorance. I could pretend I need saving. I could pretend I need nothing. I could pretend that he’s everything. I could become desirable, or at least as desirable as a forty-year-old woman reasonably could pretend to be. If you’d just lose forty pounds, you’d find love. If you’d just take better care of yourself, the men would notice. If you’d just be more confident. If you’d just be more vulnerable. If you’d just hold back. If you’d just be yourself. If you’d just laugh. If you’d just cry. If you’d just ,just, just, just, just, just, just, just.

 But if that’s the way you make them love you, will they only ever love you when you’re like that? Is the memory of the maiden powerful enough to sustain love when she’s become the crone? At what point can you be step out of the lines and be flawed or fucked up or fat or frumpy or inconvenient? Does that void out love? Does that mean you no longer deserve it? Does that mean you never deserved it at all?

A friend of mine told me she was afraid her husband would leave her if she gained twenty pounds. A friend of mine told me she was afraid her boyfriend would leave her if he found out she used to be fat. A friend of mine told me she only had a few more years to find someone to fall in love with her before she became undesirable, ugly, unlovable, before it was too late for her.

She was twenty-six at the time

vi.

First there were Nerve personals. Then there was Match. Then there was OKCupid. Then I guess there’s Tinder, but I think I’m too old and swiping sounds like something that would get you arrested at Bloomingdales. Online dating, they said. That’s how you’ll find someone. I wrote witty, complicated personal ads for myself. People agreed they were pretty great: You’re not my type at all, but great profile! Wow, you’re such a great writer. I’d love to read more of your stuff. I sent guys stories. They offered flattering critiques of my style, but never wanted to meet for drinks. That was probably okay because when we did meet for drinks I could never be as fluent, as quick, as effortlessly clever as I was in a profile I’d spent a whole day writing or messages I edited sixteen times before replying. I would walk into the bar or into the coffeeshop and could see his disappointment at first glimpse. Sometimes we’d still have good conversations. One guy told me again how much he liked my profile. “You’re really such a great writer. In fact, that’s why I wanted to see you. I mean, you’re way too big for me and too old for me . . .” He was 46. “ . . . but I wondered if you would help me rewrite my profile, you know, to attract the kind of girls I want to attract. Pretty, young girls”

I drank a lot of  expensive Scotch on his tab and later cried about that date, because I thought he’d genuinely liked me. My mother said, You just have to keep putting yourself out there. You have to kiss a lot of frogs. I mean, when I was in college, I went out with a different boy every weekend. But I wasn’t in college. I was 37.

I kept a profile active until a few months ago. I tried to make my virtual self as transparent as possible—full body pictures, no makeup, no bullshit—so no one would be disappointed by reality. I got a lot of atrociously misspelled comments about my boobs and one request to pose naked for a guy who was doing a performance art piece about obese women. I got threatening notes from 70 year old men, who believed that I’d age-discriminated against them in my profile. You’re ageist because you set your upper limit at 50. And I would click through to find, unsurprisingly that he’d set his upper limit at 35. I got called a bitch. I got called a fat bitch.

I deleted my account at Christmas. It felt like a gift.

 

vii.

Part of the problem is I don’t really know how to date. I haven’t done a lot of it. The guys I went out with most recently have all already been married and divorced. They own real estate and have lawyers and stories about their elaborate first weddings (never paying for that bullshit again!) and hoary conflicts with every single one of their always “crazy” ex-wives. They are looking for no-drama, no-fuss stepmother material. Ideally cool with signing a pre-nup. Maybe all right with having another kid. Definitely into pooling retirement savings. Do I have my own health insurance? Would I provide a notarized copy of the medical history? My credit score?

I am so far behind the curve on romance that I’m still looking for mixtapes and slowdances and someone to write song lyrics on the rubber toe of my sneakers. I want a prom date.  I want someone to go with me to see bands play. I want someone to drink coffee and do crosswords on the porch on Sunday mornings and sit around and watch dumb movies on rainy Saturday nights. I want to travel a lot and laugh hysterically and mess around and eat delicious food and mess around some more. I mean, it’s not that I’m against planning for the future. It’s not that I don’t want to be an adult but I still want to have fun in the present, man. Dig?

A friend of mine recently asked me what I was looking for in a long-term relationship. I told her I wanted a hilarious best friend that I could have travel and have sex with. She laughed and told me I was adorable and extremely naïve. I’m still don’t understand why.

 

viii.

I know I’m not alone.

I mean, I am alone, but not alone in my alone-ness. There are plenty of people out there in the world like me. None of us have spouses, or partners, or dates or even dating histories. We’re not all monstrous grotesques and miserable shrews hoarding cats in some dank smelly basement cloister. We don’t cry ourselves to sleep about it every night. We have jobs. We have friends. We have full and interesting lives. We may even look and act and behave just like you.

We don’t discuss our lack-of-love-life much because it’s embarrassing and because no matter what people say, you suspect they’re always trying to figure out what’s wrong with you that you’re still alone, that you’ve always been alone. We don’t talk about it because we don’t want to hear more Chin up, little camper, you’ll find your person! We don’t want to be set up on a dates with your cousin Ronnie, who is really sweet and kind of dumb, but he’s really sweet! We don’t want to hear how cousin Ronnie finally found the love of his life on eHarmony, have you tried it? We don’t talk about it because the only thing worse than someone saying I can’t believe you’re still single is trying to figure out why they’re not saying it.

xi.

Maybe my standards are too high. But I don’t want to settle, and I sure as shit don’t want you to settle for me. I’m good at being single. I like being single. I’d rather fly solo than be little more than some dude’s safeguard against accidentally choking on a frozen pizza when he’s old and alone in his farty apartment.

I don’t know if I’m a good catch. I’m probably not an easy catch. You have to be pretty smart to get my attention. Also kind and tender and forthright. Even if you’re not a total laff riot, it would certainly help if you can tolerate my sense of humor.   You have to give a shit. You have to be open-minded, willing to compromise and willing to accept me as I am.

It would be a real goddamn bonus if you think the way I am is absolutely brilliant and gorgeous and marvelous (though maybe not all the time or even at the same time).

I’m not great at reading romantic cues, so you’ll need to be pretty upfront and reasonably patient if I sit there staring at you in weird, slack-jawed, uncomprehending shock after you try to make a pass. Be advised that I don’t know what I’m doing. Be advised that I may need to be disarmed. Even though I argue, even though I quip, I have huge heart, a little worse for wear maybe, but still beating and healthy and, I believe, quite capable of exquisite passion and extravagant love.

x.

I’m almost forty years old and I’ve never been in love, at least not with someone who loved me back.

And yeah, Dad, sure. You were totally right about my stories. And sometimes I still hope that one day I’ll be able to write beautifully and honestly about affairs of the heart.

That kind of love might never happen for me. I’m cool with that. My life is full of riches and wonders and I’m grateful for it. There’s a whole world, worlds upon worlds and  worlds inside of worlds for me to explore, with or without a partner.  I’m pretty sure I can find something more to write about than just romance.

 

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Grown-Ups

I.

One September day, about a month into my sophomore year, my roommate became suddenly, terribly convinced that she was going to die. Her reasons for believing this were both very personal and totally illogical. She spent several weeks sitting in our otherwise airy apartment withthe blinds drawn, drinking cheap Chianti out of the bottle and wearing an ancient rusty red taffeta dressing gown I’d found in the bottom of a bin at a filthy Salvation Army in old money Virginia. It was festooned with dejected ruffles and printed with diseased-looking roses in grisly shades of red. black and jaundiced gold, which more or less matched her hair after a failed experiment in home bleaching required an iffy black dye job. The time we spent together mostly consisted of me listening to her make mixtapes as she imagined grimly humorous conversations between exes at her funeral.  Sometimes I would ride with her over to the closest cemetery. Hope Sandoval warbled about turning into dust through tinny Hyundai speakers. My roommate would park in the grass and wander between broken statuary and Gilded Age mausoleums. “Don’t you ever think about dying?” she’d ask.

“Sure,” I’d say. I suffered no illusions about my mortality. I would kind of just stand there looking at her, half-entranced, half-annoyed, as she posed dramatically by a broken cherub on a sunny, 80 degree late summer afternoon, framed by the undistinguished skyline of the shitty, third-tier New South city to which we’d reluctantly relocated. Death would certainly come to all of us. Such was the human condition. Unfortunately for the two of us, death would not come before the phone bill was due.

We owed $400. Millennials will wonder —How do you get a $400 phone bill? Were you guys, like, regularly calling Japan or what? We weren’t, but such was the state of things pre-unlimited calling, pre-calling plan, pre-10 cents a minute, prep- 25cents a minute. We’re talking about a landline  connected to pushbutton phone with an extra long curling cord that we kept on a rickety, band-stickered, secondhand  tv-tray in the hallway. I’d covered the receiver in checkerboard contact paper one night early on in our tenancy because I wanted to listen to The Specials and my yet-to-turn morbid roommate and her Subhumans-fan boyfriend were on a three day bender of obscure Canadian hardcore. She’d called him a lot–probably 75$ a lot, if you’re doing the math.

I certainly wasn’t. We’d given our first phone bill a sort of cursory looksee, then paled and slid it under a stack of newsprint magazines in the living room so a follow-up consult would both literally and figuratively get our hands dirty. It was a clever conceit that would prove disastrous, as we promptly forgot it was there and spent our bill money on important things like records, hair dye, cigarettes and takeout curry. When the next bill came, we were distressed to find it included the past-due first bill as well as a vexing late fee. I put it with the other phone bill, out of sight, out of mind, under the MaximumRockNRoll.

My roommate had taken the previous year off between high school and college. She’d rented an apartment and worked two different mall jobs in order to support herself and the criminal she’d been dating at the time. That gave her a slight advantage in worldliness.  I had not paid a bill before we moved into our apartment. I’d spent my freshman year at a Womens’ College, where, if you put off paying your phone bill for long enough, they’d just  bill it to your Dad. I didn’t really know what would happen if we didn’t pay the bill. I suspected the phone company might take punitive action. But what sort of action? Would they send out goons? Would they send the police? Would they send us to debtor’s prison? Do they still have debtor’s prisons?

“They’ll turn off the phone,” she said.

“Astonishing,” I said. It seemed so simple, yet so mericiless. “And will they let us turn it back on again?”

“If we pay the balance and a reconnect fee, probably.” She stood back to admire a couple of black and white Margaret Keane knock-offs she’d found a thrift store and hung on the wall over her bed. “When I die, I’ll make sure you get some of my stuff.”

I looked around her room. Morbidity had crept into the decor. Can you just become Goth? Is that a thing that can happen to people?  She didn’t have that much I wanted in the way of tangible objects, save a couple of 7”s and some Russian novels. It was her sharp-angled, seemingly impervious cool that I coveted. I tried to communicate that, in the least-poser way possible, hoping she might cue me into some ritual, some album, some ur-text to guarantee that I would emerge out the other side impossibly tough and edgy and completely out of fucks to give.

She either completely missed my point or understood me better than I understood myself. “You should read up on eastern religion,” she said, and pulled a paperback Bhagavad-Gita off the shelf. “Maybe start here.”

I tried to hide my disappointment–I’d hoped at least she might hand over something political, like “The Communist Manifesto” or a book with small print and  Revolution in the title– as she fetched the phone from the hallway. When I drifted off to sleep a couple hours later, trying to figure out what exactly Lord Krishna had to do with being more  punk rock, I could hear her through the wall, still talking on the phone.

The next day, the power was cut off.

II.

I took a job as a tea girl for an English furniture importer at the fall 1995 iteration of the International Home Furnishings Market in High Point. I didn’t apply for the job. It came to me because 1) the importer had a business relationship with my grandmother  2) one of the vendors[1] was family friend and 3) there were evidently no English girls with the necessary visas and travel time to do the job.  As it happened, I was a reasonable candidate. Not only had I a weirdly extensive knowledge about high-end British home furnishings of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries (Thanks, Nana!), I suffered an incurable case of hopeless Anglophilia, probably attributable te to both genetics and environment. It had plagued me throughout my childhood, a condition both consuming and isolating.  I would have just withered and died from embarrassment had anyone suggested I suffered from it, even as I obsessively familiarised (<—–see what I did there?) myself with parliamentary government and the  various regional dialects of the United Kingdom.  I could make a decent pot of tea and I had at least one Laura Ashley-ish floral frock left over my Desperate To Be Pre-Raphaelite,  Let’s Talk About Shakespeare and Aesthetics Some More high school days, which at the time already seemed like ancient history, but was really just  eighteen months previous.

The job was temporary and required a full half-mixtape commute, but you are in no position to turn down any job right now, Alison. My parents were wholly unsympathetic to my rapid descent into dire poverty. My mother believed I was asking for trouble living in an apartment two-and-a-half miles off campus near no other students or people my age.[2]  My father believed not having money would make me a better person,[3] or something to that effect. I believed I would soon have to use Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs as cribsheet for some seriously hard choices. At least two of us were probably onto something.

Whatever the case, I needed the money. The day of my first shift I’d come home between class and teatime to exchange my ripped fishnets for pastel florals and discovered that none of the lights were working. Puzzled, I scrubbed off eyeliner in the dim light of the bathroom and left a Yo, Something is definitely up with the power. Feelings? Thoughts? Inspirational Quotes? Heart, Moi taped to the wall over the phone. When I arrived home several hours later, brimming with hilarious tales of European Interior Decorators getting into fistfights with redneck locals over stolen hood ornaments.[4] I found the apartment pitch dark save a shard of yellow light from the cracked bathroom door. My roommate perched on the edge of the old porcelain tub, hair wrapped in plastic and stinking of ammonia. She fixed me with a hard, level gaze that would have silently communicated you owe me a hundred dollars for the power bill, you frivolous, irresponsible asshole even if she hadn’t said it. “I’m going to get a job tomorrow,” she said. “You should get one too. I don’t want to have to bail us out again.”

I thought about protesting. I have a job. I have a job that pays me $7.50 an hour. That is $3 more than minimum wage, comrade. But it was only ten days of three hour shifts behind an ersatz Victorian canopy bar. My sole responsibility consisted of setting out plates of snacks and watching the mostly American representatives of chain furniture stores try to figure out what to do with Devonshire cream–What the hell is this? Mayonnaise?–while the superficially gracious British staff snerked at them in the most subtle and devastating way possible. So calm. So cool.  I wished I could do that. I could spend a whole shift trying to stiffen my upper lip and raise one eyebrow in sublimely haughty, amused toleration but I’d still look like I’d been cruelly insulted by a spiteful kitten. It hardly seemed fair. And here I found myself standing in a dark hallway with my pockets full of day-old scones, turning myself in knots to keep from freaking out and telling my enviably taciturn roommate I think I’ve made a terrible mistake coming here. I think you hate me. Do you hate me? I kind of hate me. Do you want to drop out of school and move to New York? How about drop out of school and run away to California? I’m willing to make whatever sacrifices necessary because that life holds a glimmer of something that might be more worthwhile than whatever the fuck we’re doing here? What are we doing here?

I didn’t say that. Instead I handed her the twenty-one dollars in cash I had on me and upended my bag to count out another four in silver change. I added a plastic baggie of leftover Digestives I’d liberated from the tearoom kitchen and attempted a weak smile. “I’ll get another job. I swear.”

She stood and gave me a weary sigh as dismissal. I wondered if I should return her copy of the Bhagavad-Gita, but I heard Nick Cave crooning from the living room and knew she was busy planning her funeral again.

 III.

We both got jobs

My roommate cut class the next day and returned after lunch with a an unimpeachably cool, nearly-impossible-to-get job at a record store. “How do you just go get a job in a record store?”

“I dunno.” She shrugged and lit a cigarette. “You know. They just gave it to me.”

I sat beside her on the fire escape in gobsmacked awe until she asked how I got my job. “What are you doing again? Like, babysitting?”

The blonde suburban mother who hired me preferred the term nanny, as had my own mother. As if just calling the college student you pay to drive your overachieving progeny to all of their extracurriculars a “nanny” would magically imbue her with some Mary Poppinsity and an encyclopedic knowledge of both the Ivy League admission process and Emily Post. I found the listing in one of those Giant Binders in the campus Career Services. It was, if I’m honest, the tenth job I applied for (after a rogue’s gallery of depressing retail and no-dignity food service) and I wouldn’t have applied for it at all, but for the fact that the kids were 10 and 13, well past the age of needing any sort of “care.”

The mother herself said the same thing in the interview. They’d go to their rooms and do their homework when they weren’t at soccer or whatever. She didn’t imagine it would be too difficult. I agreed. She was an evangelical Christian and a republican, who lived in an ugly McMansion and worried that her daughter was going to hell because she was growing boobs. She didn’t like  the color of my hair or the fact that I wouldn’t tell her what church I went to. But she she offered me the job, probably because I was white and had an easily pronounceable last name and a diploma from a prep school and didn’t really look like an anarchist or a drug addict (despite my best efforts). Also (and unlike her ungrateful ex-housekeeper Gloria)  because I agreed not to demand extra gas money on top of the flat weekly fee she’d pay under the table.

“It’s a job,” I said. Because it was. I’d resigned myself to it as soon as I realized that neither the coffee shop nor the frozen yogurt place were likely to call me back.

“Nannying,” she said. “So lame.”

The way she said it felt like she was talking about me. I was lame. If I were really cool, I would definitely be doing something gritty and dangerous, probably involving manual labor and traditionally gendered male. Or else I would be able to get a cool  job at the record store or at Kinkos or that place where they sold raver pants and Manic Panic. Nannying was so bourgeoise.  One of the first steps in rebellion, my roommate had told me earlier in the fall, is to rebel against your social class.  I had taken that that to heart and tried to join to Communist Party. And let me tell you, that was easier said than done in the Piedmont Triad in 1995. I sent off for newsletters and badges and tried to work dialectics into ordinary conversation with the people on the front porch at house shows or the woman at the Quik Mart who sold me cigarettes. My roommate had been thoroughly unimpressed

She leaned back in her perch on the metal railing and sent a shower of smoldering ash into the parking lot. The robe fluttered out behind her like a cape. If I sat like that, I’d be afraid of falling. She looked too poised to be truly reckless, although given the recent conversation, I decided to crack wise about potential suicide just in case.

“Throw myself off a fire escape?” She laughed. “Please. Credit me with more imagination than that.”

IV

The tearoom was closed on Sundays. I slept until noon and waded through a flood of clothes and books and half written journals to make coffee. My roommate had already been up for a couple of hours–maybe she hadn’t been asleep at all She sat on a tall stool in front of the stereo, her thin, pale legs swinging, as she made another mix-tape.

“This one really reflects the darkness of my soul,” she said, joking but not joking. I sat for a while, smoking and writing in a notebook, listening to her relentless, furious, angular songs. I wanted to be like the music, all fierce angles and hard edges. I wanted to make people uncomfortable, not in a desperate and eager sort of way, but in an inciting riots kind of way.  I wrote a list of adjectives I wished would describe my personality and realized at least half were synonyms for skinny. How on Earth could I be edgy if I was entirely made out of curves? That is a good question, I thought. I underlined it twice in my journal. Sometimes I just wish I were a boy, I wrote, then crossed out boy and wrote man. I felt revulsion and increasing horror-Ew. Seriously? — at having even thought it and blacked it out.

After a while, my roommate got frustrated with the tape making and stormed off to her room. I took that as a sign that I should be working on something important and tapped out two more pages in my terrible  work-in progress.  The sun started to blind me through the windows on either side of the desk and I realized it was late, almost time to dig through the cabinet for whatever off-brand, boxed pasta meal our trendy vegetarianism and reduced financial circumstances would allow for dinner. I hadn’t heard a peep from my roommate’s room for something like hours. As I was trying to think of a good excuse to barge in– hiya, pal, just making sure you’re not dead–she burst through the bathroom door, wearing a stained old t-shirt and ancient blue pajama pants. “So I just did this,” she said.

For a moment I thought she meant taking off the dressing gown, because she had. That signified something. An embrace of life? A less fraught understanding of her own mortality? Whatever. It seemed worth celebrating. I didn’t have enough money left for anything fancy, but I might be able to scrounge some change for samosas and we could take a long, scenic smoking drive down past the abandoned mansions on the street where the murders happened. Fun. She cleared her throat and pointed at her bottom lip, which had a safety pin through it. I blinked.

“Wow,” I said. “Did that hurt?”

“Of course,” she said.

I bit my own lip. Yes, it would hurt.

“Any particular reason?” I asked.

“Bored,” she said. “Wanted to feel something.”

I marveled at that. I was damn near overwhelmed by feelings all the time. It was exhausting.  Not feeling things? That seemed like a pretty sweet deal. So tough. No wonder they hired her at the record store.  I sighed, trying to appear as indifferent as possible. “Are you worried about infection?

Her expression was ruthless, practically mythological. Like another ten seconds and I would have been forever transformed into a frowsy marble bust.

“You know,” she said, slowly. “ I would have paid someone to do it. But that costs money. And I spent all of my money on the power bill.”

Noted.

I waited until she was gone to walk over to my mirror. I dunked a safety pin in a bottle of rubbing alcohol and tested the sharp end against my right nostril. I looked at my unkempt purple hair, my fat belly, my ill-fitting thrift store pants and Am I really dumb enough to do this? I  made a perfect score on the verbal section of the SAT.  I’ve read Ulysses and I mostly understood it. I know just enough psychology to be boring at a party and this is just about the stupidest thing I could ever do for the stupidest reasons and if I really want a nose ring, I can be grown-up about it and pay someone to do it maybe after I pay my roommate back for the rest of the power bill and then I’ll

I screamed.

Or I would have screamed if I weren’t biting my f t-shirt. I stared at myself in the mirror, half-amazed, half-horrified. Please God, please don’t let my nose fall off, it is one of my only decent features. I wiped away residual tears and swaggered into my roommate’s room. She looked up from her book as I entered.

“I did this,” I said, pointing at my nose and the safety pin through it.

She rolled her eyes. “Whatever.”

V.

I had to take my nose ring out for both of my jobs the next day. This was not recommended by professionals, but if my nose was going to become diseased and fall off, it would do so with or  without professional advice.

My mother drove to town to meet my grandmother for furniture market. She stayed in a hotel just down the street and took me out to dinner at a restaurant with actual, non-plastic cutlery.  She asked me about school, which I hated and wasn’t going to and my apartment, which I loved but couldn’t afford and my friends, who were, save my roommate, all seemingly content and happy in other area codes. I don’t remember what I exactly I told her, but it wasn’t the truth.  I would have died before I said:  It’s possible that I’m profoundly depressed. I think this place is making me worse. So, let’s cut our losses with minimal fanfare. I’ll move home and we can reassess college next semester. That sound reasonable?

Sometime in the early morning, the people at Bellsouth were like, “Oh, right! Chekhov’s phone bill!” and turned off our service. My mother came by on her way out of town to suss out why we weren’t answering her calls and found a short stack of ink smudged documents on the coffee table and my roommate and I bickering over who called Brooklyn on August 29th for 17 minutes (I still contend it was her).

Mom took stock of the situation, probably died a little on the inside at the sight of our filthy apartment, our terrible hair, our collective, palpable misery that had mixed with the permanent haze of cigarette smoke and coalesced into what my then-journal would have described as a fetid miasma of fatal ennui or something to that effect. She offered to spot me some cash.

Our bailout was conditional upon our compulsory attendance at the lengthy, emphatic lecture on immaturity and  personal responsibility she would deliver over the next ninety minutes or so. I believe it concluded with a rousing call to “Get your shit together” and then took me to the bank so my roommate and I could drive to the seedy Western Union/Payday Lending joint  that also served as a utility payment one-stop. I thought to myself, Look at all these sad people. I‘m sure I will never need to come here again. Hoo boy,  I’ve definitely learned my lesson.

I was, of course wrong.

VI.

On my last day in the tearoom, Donna Summer dropped by with a fleet of interior decorators and the English Furniture Importer himself. They hummed around her, all frantic smiles and ingratiating chatter. She was amiable and quiet. She smiled at me when I poured her tea, thanked me for the scones and seemed like a genuinely nice lady.

I got a bonus when I left . It was maybe $70 bucks, but for me, at the time, it felt like a fortune. I filled up my tank, bought a pack of cigarettes and took off driving. Who knew where I would stop? I made Durham by nightfall and then headed North on I-85. I did mileage math in my head. I could be in DC by 11. New York by 4 or 5 if the traffic held up. I’d never driven in New York. I’d never parked a car in New York. I shuddered and realized I was still wearing my floral dress. That was unacceptable. I turned the car around at the Virginia line and drove back to Greensboro.

My roommate was watching a vampire film  when  I came in under the dining room arch. “The fuck have you been?”

“Took a drive.” I slid onto the disgusting loveseat. The pages of the phone bill were still strewn across the table. I should really pick those up, but I didn’t.

I risked a glimpse at my roommate. She was eating macaroni and cheese out of a black coffee mug and wearing jeans, not the robe.  When we’d moved in together, I thought she was my best friend, maybe the best of best friends I’d ever had.  I wanted to be with her to be like her. I thought together we could change the world or make great art or at least make ourselves happy.  She’d sent me this letter (one of many) the year before when I was marooned in Virginia. “I have no idea why we still live in the South. We are too fabulous, too brilliant for it and it’s complete bullshit. Let’s renew our spirituality walking down filthy New York sidewalks soaking in this glorious paradox of life. Let’s blind all the fuckers with our sheer magnificence.” This hadn’t panned out. It wouldn’t pan out at all, actually, but I still swooned for her in this  “Anne of Green Gables” bosom friend sort of way, because she had written that to me and she could write that to me. I loved her, even then, even though I knew she didn’t love me, even though she would be repulsed if I said it and maybe horrified if she knew.

“I’m really sorry about the power bill,” I said.

She tapped the coffee table with the toe of her boot.  “I think the phone bill makes us even”–and went back to the fangs.

After a minute, I turned again. “If things have been weird or bad, I just wanted to say, I’m sorry.”

She looked at me. Her eyes were a pale silvery blue, but in the dim living room, they looked darker and full of something I desperately wanted to believe would accept and forgive me. She shook her head. She seemed disappointed. “You’re always sorry, you know that?”

I did. And I really was.

)

 

[1] He would report years later, in an embarrassing anecdote told to great general amusement at a fancy hotel in Brighton, that I showed up on that first day with a hangover, in Dr. Martens and leather jacket, with wild purple hair and giant sunglasses. That’s probably mostly true.  My hair was sort of purple and I probably did wear boots under my pastel floral gowns (they were both more comfortable and more respectable than my brokedown mary janes). And I did love that leather jacket.  But I rarely drank in those days (I was nineteen, with no ID, no older friends and no money).

[2] She was right

[3] He was wrong

[4] True!

 

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