Going Dark

I went to a private high school, the kind with an annual fund and a glossy alumni magazine produced largely as a tool to stump for the Annual Fund. In the back of each issue, there were class notes, brief write-ups about what people were up to in the days before Google and Social Media made them redundant. I read these with relish because I was a connoisseur of gossip and schadenfreude. And in the Spring 1999 issue amid the largely banal news of my classmates’ careers and marriages, I came across my own name, emboldened. Alison Fields, it said, Class of 1994. Alison has recently graduated with Honors with a degree in English and Creative Writing. Her one-act play, “April” won a national competition and was produced at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC. She is currently finishing her first novel and living New York City, where she is pursuing a career in Publishing.

Wow, I thought. That Alison Fields has a really amazing life. Then I paused and thought What complete fucking horseshit. Then I pinched myself and closed my eyes hard, willing the fiction to fuse with the reality. I opened them and saw, over a dining room table strewn with overflowing ashtrays and FINAL NOTICE bills, the skyline of Greensboro, North Carolina, which absolutely no one would mistake for Manhattan.

I called my Mom. Do I live in New York? Did I produce a play at Kennedy Center? Is it possible you said something to someone connected to my high school? She said she might have said something. You did win an award. You will finally be graduating and you have mentioned working in publishing. I’m sure it was just a misunderstanding. A misunderstanding that had presented me on record as having my best life, a much better life than I had or deserved. A life my mother, at that point, believed was within the realm of immediately possibility for me. It was humiliating. It was heartbreaking

You’ll think back on this and think it’s hilarious Mom said.

And I said, Ha.

I was in the honeymoon suite of a Baltimore Marriott, where I had agreed to spend one night of my spring break with a socially awkward, death-obsessed poet who’d never known anyone who died and happened to be one of my best friends at the time.  After a tedious, sub-marginal hotel restaurant dinner with one of her friends, a fifty-year old, gun-collecting, survivalist fiction writer and his twenty-year old, non-English speaking mail order bride, the poet drank a heroic amount of vodka, donned a purple wig and tried to seduce me by lip-synching to Stevie Nicks’ “Edge of Seventeen.”  I hated awkward conversations more than anything so I hated saying You’re not really my type and I’m pretty sure I’m mostly heterosexual.  She didn’t take it well. There were tears and recriminations. I was obliged to take my things and sleep under the protective arch of the coffee table as she bellowed at me about my personal space issues from the bedroom. Eventually she passed out. I couldn’t. I hadn’t slept in a year. Mostly because I was failing out of my second senior year at a shitty state university because I hadn’t really been to class in about two years, because I’d enrolled but never dropped any classes because I hated awkward conversations.  I was broke, fat, single, unemployed, in debt, stuck in a town I hated, in a home state I’d never really managed to escape from. I was a chronic underachiever, a failure an embarrassment to any that had ever had any faith in me. It hadn’t helped to spend a weekend in Washington, among old friends who’d lived up to their potential with adult wardrobes and impressive jobs and the sort of apartments I couldn’t figure out how they paid for.  They all asked what are you up to? I mean, school, but technically wasn’t going to school. I write, I’d say. About what? And I’d want to say Well last week I wrote the first act of a play about ending up in literal Hell and trying to stay positive about it and then I wrote some shit in my journal about how much I suck and then I realized it was five am so I drove to Krispy Kreme and bought doughnuts which I ate and then wrote about how bad I felt about eating the doughnuts and how I deserve to be unhappy because I’ve never lived up to my potential. I was supposed to be a smart person doing great things but my days consisted of cigarettes and junk food and piles of self-consciously difficult novels I’d read while I tried to ignore creditor phone calls and keep from spending the money I didn’t have. I watched television. I wept watching weekly episodes of “Dawson’s Creek”—the WB was the only channel I got on television—because its characters seemed so young, so full of hope, with so much life before them, with so few regrets. Unlike me, I was hardened. I was old. I was staring down the incontrovertible truth that I had ruined my life for no good reason. I had nothing left to look forward to but disillusionment, decrepitude, death and maybe debtor’s prison, which I wasn’t sure was actually still a thing or not. I had just turned twenty-three years old.

There was no logic but illogic. I stared out over the Chesapeake Bay from across the carpet and remembered that one of my best friends lived in Baltimore. He wasn’t speaking to me anymore, maybe  because he thought I was insane, probably because I was desperate and needy and chronically no fun. Maybe I was all of those things. Losing my mind would certainly explain my circumstances I wondered if could convince anyone else that I had.  I used to be a pretty good actor, I thought, I’ve read Hamlet a bunch of times. I was from a southern family and had grown up in the South. Madness was common as dirt down here.  And the poet knew a thing or two about insanity. She’d once told me she’d attempted suicide at least a hundred times. I thought that sounded excessive, but she told me I was too literal. You should learn to think like a poet. Or a lunatic. I wasn’t much of a poet, but I thought I could do lunacy. It wasn’t very dignified, but neither was the life I was living at the time.

The craziest thing about you is that you think you’re sane, said the poet, the next morning at breakfast when I gave her the bare outline of my plan. I didn’t think I was sane, but I knew I was to blame for every single awful thing that was wrong with my life.  I wanted forgiveness. I wanted redemption and atonement. I wanted the sort of supernatural white-out that people went to religion looking for, but I didn’t believe in God and I certainly didn’t believe the universe had any spare grace for a soul-sucking, venal, waste of space like myself. I should be cast out of society, punished, forced to suffer because I had ruined everything good. I was the enemy of good things. I was little better than a parasite.  I feel sorry for you, said the poet. I felt sorry for myself too, but that didn’t mean anything.

So, be honest, I said, what should I say to convince my parents that I’m dangerously depressed?

The poet just rolled her eyes and said, well, you could certainly start with everything you just told me.

 

Truth: I’d been miserable for days that felt like weeks and week that felt like years and year that felt like centuries. When I felt arch and literary, I joked and called it a general malaise, because I thought ironic distance would inoculate me against an actual diagnosis of clinical depression, which I was quite sure I didn’t have, because I hadn’t wasted away into some fashionable waif. If anything, I was fatter than ever. And besides, I wasn’t writing brave and heartbreaking things. I was, in fact, breaking no hearts except the poet’s (and at the end of the day she had a live-in boyfriend) and probably my mother’s once she put together how much tuition money I’d squandered.  I hadn’t dyed my hair black or started draping myself in black lace or peppering my vocabulary with words like disconsolate and oblivion. I hadn’t developed an addition to anything except maybe Camel lights and Cook Out onion rings and making mixtapes for my vastly more successful peers. I’d seen films and read memoirs. I listened to all varieties of sad songs. I knew what depression looked like. It was beautiful and fragile, with a tangle of hair and a haunted grace, like a Pre-Raphaelite Ophelia. And that looked nothing at all like me.

I went to a theater festival in Richmond where my play was being produced. It was an honor, but I didn’t care. I spent hundreds of dollars on extravagantly sad records and spent the rest of my day sitting in the courtyard at the Edgar Allen Poe museum (where they have free cookies, fyi) reading the Artaud Anthology. I contemplated madness and darkness and embarrassing ends. I wandered around the scenic, somewhat shabby streets of the old Confederate capitol, thinking I was in a fine place for lost causes.  I was a lost cause. Perhaps the best thing I could do for everyone I loved would be to get lost.

Every puddle of streetlight felt like a place to audition my new crazy. Every telephone boot a likely confessional. I could call my mother. I could say This isn’t working. I’m failing. I’ve failed. I need to come home. I’m afraid of staying. I’m afraid of myself. I was afraid she wouldn’t believe me. I was afraid she would believe me.

I left Richmond when I found myself contemplating the depth of the James and surprised one of my best friends elsewhere in Virginia with a two-day visit. I thought about saying something’s really wrong with me. I didn’t.  I worried I wouldn’t have to. I mostly sat quietly on her sofa drinking airport bottles of gin and wondering whether she could could tell I was lying.  I wish I didn’t have to leave I said when I left and I meant it.  I drove home over the rolling green hills of Southwest Virginia, writing my lines, running lines, saying them aloud to myself while I cried to every pop song on the radio.

Back in Greensboro, I went to the bar down the street from my apartment with this guy I knew from writing class.  I told him I was planning to go crazy and asked if he thought I should maybe knock a few off the bucket list on my way out. Shave my head? Get tattoos? Try heroin?  I hear heroin is very literary, I said. And you’ll never believe this, but I’m quite a bit more sheltered that I appear. He told me he would believe it and he thought I should probably just stick with whiskey and stay away from sharp objects. He bought me a few shots. I played David Bowie’s “Five Years” on the jukebox—five years is how long I’ve been miserable — and embarrassed him by crying. Even though it’s weird that just about the only time I cry these days is to music or dumb television shows. He told me he thought everyone was entitled a fuck-up or two. Even a big one. And I was like, are they? And he said my mother would probably forgive me. And I was like, should she?  And he told me he wasn’t a psychiatrist or anything but he thought I was actually pretty profoundly depressed. Like for real. And I asked if he wanted to have sex with me, a pass at least as awkward as the one my poet friend had made at me. His refusal was drenched with pity and revulsion. I wasn’t even attracted to him, but the  rejection hit me so hard, for second I thought I couldn’t breathe

I walked the two blocks back to my apartment, clanged up the fire escape and stood in my kitchen drinking water straight from the tap. I’d hung my fake Alumni magazine write up on the refrigerator to wait for it to become hilarious. I considered a revision. Alison Fields, it said, Class of 1994. Alison will not graduate this spring. Tomorrow pack up the clutter in her dirty apartment that smells like stale smoke and failure. In six weeks, she will move back to her home town and into her mother’s house, where will live while she pays off her debts, a little at a time, over the next year.  Eventually she will finish her degree, without honors, from yet another undistinguished university. Her friends and family will mostly forgive her. She will not move to New York, but to Chapel Hill, where she will work at a record store and pursue a career in forgiving herself. On good days, she will succeed.

 I turned off the sink.

I picked up the phone.

I made it so.

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The Social Season

I told this story at the Moth StorySlam in Asheville in late April of 2017. If you would rather listen than read, the performed version is here: 

 

When I told my friends at women’s college I’d been invited to be presented, the only girl on my hall that understood what I was talking about was my impromptu hairdresser. She was the scion of a very wealthy and powerful family whose parents insisted she forg beauty school for college and then marry a literal prince or something. I let her dye my hair and she, in turn, gave me two critical pieces of advice about being a debutante: 1) you should have a battle strategy for your ballgown long before you end up in a bathroom stall 2) no matter the circumstance you will always get upstaged by a Kennedy.

Of course there were unlikely to be Kennedys at my hometown debutante soiree. I figured most of the invite list to be white girls I’d been to pre-school with. Every year about half of the invitees declined because the whole concept was archaic, insulting, flagrantly -ist and very, very expensive. And were it not for the generous and stubborn financial contributions of my daughter-of-a coal miner, self-made Grandmother, who saw my inclusion in the ranks of hoop-skirted elect as some personal apotheosis, it would have been legit no dice for me.  And even with Nana’s investment, my mother told me you don’t have to do it. Really, it would be okay if you backed out.

But let me be clear: I kind of wanted to do it. I mean, what better canvas for perfect fiasco than a small town debutante ball? What better place to combat stupid patriarchal bullshit like debutante balls that trotted out otherwise normal young women live prize livestock in white gloves and boned bodices? What better way to achieve not just unpopularity among the local swells, but honest-to-god infamy than by exposing the hypocrisy of the ruling class on a literal ballroom floor. I could make the scene of all scenes if I wanted to. For an unhappy teenager who’d been recently disappointed into proto-Marxism by the inequity of whole the college admission process, for real,  it was a consummation devoutly to be wished.

Over Christmas, my mother and I attended a orientation luncheon at a local country club we didn’t belong to in a neighborhood we couldn’t afford. I wore my closest approximation of a little black dress with Doc Martens. My mother was horrified by my  ensemble, but especially the purple hair, which I tried to explain to her had been dyed by an Actual Heiress of, like, Henry James novel stature, but she was having none of it. We sat in uncomfortable damask-upholstered school and listened as a jowly middle aged man told us about the troubling history of the debutante-ing organization, the dress code, the schedule of parties, the best way to find an escort and how long our gloves had to be for actual presentation night. Every time he said the phrase coming out, I thought how much nicer the world would be if anyone that came out to anyone as anything would get to have a week of parties with an open bar, fancy cheese plates and weird glove regulations.

After the lecture, I tried to mingle with my fellow debs around the buffet table. I asked what they were studying and they didn’t know yet, but were all seemingly dating a boy named Chad. They asked how I was and I told them how I thought the new Sonic Youth record was overrated, but could still maybe be a grower. I then told them to work out a battle strategy for their ballgowns before they got in the bathroom stall and that they should except that they’d be upstaged by a Kennedy. When I walked away, they weren’t catty or condescending like the mean girls in “Pretty in Pink,” just kind of perplexed, like, what the fuck is she doing here? 

I called my in-town best friend that night and asked him to be my escort. He accepted. We went to the late-lamented Vincent’s Ear, a coffeeshop in downtown Asheville, and smoked through at least a pack of cigarettes, plotting increasingly baroque plans of sabotage which started with unconventional ballroom footwear, progressed to incriminating dossiers of local tycoons and ended, more or less, with the climax of “Carrie,” but without the pig’s blood because I was a vegetarian. We were thrilled by the possibilities

The next day I went to my first appointment with a seamstress who would make my dress. She stuck me with pins and took my measurements. It is a shame the grand ball requires a white dress, she told me. White is just not flattering on bigger girls.

 A few weeks later. I went to start my twelve-year old hand me-down Volkswagen and some not-insignificant part of the engine clattered onto the asphalt beneath me. Repairs were impossible. My mother called my grandmother and prevailed upon her to invest in a used Honda Civic instead of vicarious social climbing.  And that was pretty much the end of it.  Nana never told me she was disappointed, but I always kind of thought she was.

Maybe because I was a wee smidge disappointed, not just because I’d missed my chance to foment class war among the catering staff, but because I never got to walk into a ballroom in an actual fucking ball gown and take a turn round the dance floor with my friend and pretend for a minute that I was in the middle of some Tolstoy novel or something.

A year later, one my high school friends accepted an invitation and was presented at the same affair. She invited me to come as a guest to one of the parties and I went alone, in my Doc Martens and nose ring and inappropriate little black dress and my mother was still horrified. My high school friend was an avowed feminist and a self-identified riot grrrl and I figured my friend would be plotting the same sort of fiasco I had the year before, but she was actually into it, absolutely in character, all post-modern Grace Kelly. I spent most of the night sitting outside the country club with her boyfriend, a chatty New Yorker who cloaked his own discombobulation in trying to figure out whether the country club had acquired their Persian rugs the same place in Queens his parents had bought theirs.

I knew, of course, I ‘d never been cut out for this kind of thing, but I wasn’t inclined to ruin it for my friend. I figured being an almost grown up woman is perfect fiasco enough without the unwieldy interventions of bitter friends in inappropriate dresses. So I grabbed a glass of champagne and came out into the rainy June night. The world outside smelled fresh. Like cut grass and roses and dangerous possibility.

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